Clean Money


By Jim Cort



I was sitting on a stool at Dewey's nursing a beer when Booger came in and ordered a round for the house.

Booger's this goofy black guy that hangs around. He washes dishes at the Italian Grotto sometimes, and he collects soda cans and beer cans and sells them at the scrap yard. He's a tall guy, over six feet, and skinny as a stick. He always wears these red high-top sneakers and red and white striped socks — clown socks, really — and a red baseball cap.

A lot of people think he's a tweaker, but he's not. If Booger ever tried to light up a crack pipe, he'd set himself on fire. He's just slow, that's all. Everybody knows him and nobody bothers him.

So Booger came in and sat down next to me. "Hiya, Eddie, what's up?"

"Not much, Booger, you?"

Booger said,"Yuh, not much," and smiled. This was like his ritual. This was how he always said hello. He turned to Dewey. "Hiya, Dewey, what's up?"

"Hey, Booger," said Dewey," Listen, I got no cans for you today."

Booger stared at him blankly. "Hiya, Dewey," he said again, "what's up?"

Dewey sighed. "Not much, Booger," he said, "you?"

"Yuh, not much," Booger said, and smiled his goofy smile.

"Like I say, Booger, I got no cans for you today."

"That's okay. You can get me a cream soda." He pulled a bill out of his pocket and laid it on the bar.

Something about the bill caught my eye. I leaned over to get a better look. "Booger," I said," that's a hundred dollar bill."

Booger smiled. "That's okay. I got plenty." He pulled out a wad of bills you could use for a doorstop. "Know what?" he said, "You can get a cream soda for everybody."

I looked a Dewey and Dewey looked at me.

Normally, if someone flashes a roll, it's not good manners to ask him where he got it. Could be it was somewhere he'd rather not talk about. You never stir up trouble by minding your own business.

But this was Booger. Recycling cans just don't pay that well. Sometimes you got to protect guys from themselves.

I looked around to make sure nobody else had seen. "Hey, Booger," I said, "whyn't you put that roll away."

He said, "Sure thing, Eddie," and stuffed it back in his pocket.

I got him his cream soda and brought him to one of the tables in the back, away from everybody else. "So, Booger," I said, "that's a lot of cash. Where'd you get it?"

Booger smiled. "I got it with this," and he pulls a Saturday Night Special out of his pants.

I grabbed his hand and shoved it down again. "Jeez, Booger, put that thing away. You didn't shoot nobody, did you?"

He smiled again and leaned forward real confidential. "Naw. I ain't got no bullets." And he chuckled like it was a big joke.

It took a while to get the whole story. Booger had found the piece in a dumpster when he was looking for cans. It must have been hot and someone wanted to unload it in a hurry. Booger is slow, but he knew what it was, and he knew what it was for. He got the idea he should use it.

He'd been standing on the corner of Alvin and Rose, wondering how to use the gun, when a dark blue Crown Victoria pulled up and a big white guy got out and walked into the bodega.

"It was a real nice car," Booger told me, "real shiny. I was thinking I wish I had a shiny car like that. And then I thought, I got a gun. I can get this car."

And that's what he did. The guy came out of the bodega smoking a cigarette and Booger stuck him up with the gun. He made him hand over the keys and drove away in it.

Later on when he was going through the Crown Vic looking for stuff he could sell (It didn't occur to him he could sell the Vic itself) he came across a black suitcase in the trunk. The suitcase was full of cash.

"Where's this suitcase now?" I asked him.

"It's at my place," he said, "It's back at my place. You wanna come see?"

I told him I did, and the two of us left Dewey's and headed over there.

Booger lived in a single room over the hardware store on Clement and Rose. It was even smaller than my place. It looked a lot smaller because of all the stuff in it. There were bags and bags of chocolate chip cookies and potato chips and candy bars. I saw stacks of comic books, three TVs, none of which was hooked up, a mound of red baseball caps, at least a dozen shoeboxes that were filled, I was sure, with red high-tops. And toys- — half a dozen Gameboys, GI Joe dolls, Hot Wheels cars, coloring books and boxes and boxes of crayons.

"I said, "Booger, you been spending some of this money, haven't you?"

He nodded, pleased with himself, "Yuh, I got some stuff."

"Where's the suitcase?"

It was under his bed. It wasn't a suitcase; it was a black Samsonite briefcase. Inside were bundles of bills, hundreds, fifties, tens and twenties. The case was still mostly full; Booger's spending spree hadn't put much of a dent in it. Booger started playing with the GI Joes and I counted the money.

"Booger, do you know how much money is in here?"

"A whole lot. Maybe a hundred bucks."

"There's sixty-seven thousand dollars. Booger, you can't keep this."

Booger nodded. "Yuh, OK. How come?"

When my Dad was young, it was the Irish mob that ran things. You played ball, minded your own business, and you were OK. They'd take care of you. My Dad brought home a lot of stuff that had fallen off the back of a truck.

As time went on, the Irish faded out and the Italians moved in. But the rules were the same:you didn't mess with them, they didn't mess with you. I figured: big white guy, Crown Vic, plain black briefcase full of cash. Booger had carjacked a bagman, and I was pretty sure I knew whose.

"This money belongs to some really bad guys, Booger. Guys that would hurt you if they knew you had it."

Booger grinned and pulled the pistol out of his pants. "I ain't a-scared. I got my gun."

"Put that damn thing away. These guys got guns, too, except they got bullets. You gotta give the money back, Booger. You gotta give the car back, too. I'll help you."

Booger nodded his head and looked around the room. "Do I have to give all my stuff back?"

"No," I said, "you can keep that."

* * *

Booger showed me where the Crown Vic was and gave me the keys. I tried to get him to give me the gun too, but that was just one thing too many. He was like a little kid with his last lollipop, he wouldn't let it go. I couldn't budge him, and I was afraid if I kept trying he'd want the money back again, or the car. Finally I said, "All right, keep the gun, but keep it out of sight. Don't point it at nobody."

The next morning I drove the Crown Vic with the briefcase next to me downtown to meet Nick Scarpa. Me and Nick grew up together. We cut the same classes in high school; we shoplifted at the same stores. He was a bright kid and he went far. By the time he was fifteen he was running numbers money for his Uncle Carlo. Then he had a piece of the numbers action himself. Nicky had a good head for business, and pretty soon he was telling other guys what to do. He was no older than me and there were rumors he was already a made guy.

Nick worked out of the Road King Trucking building. I parked the Crown Vic in the back parking lot, took the briefcase, and went inside. One of the grease monkeys showed me where the office was. I climbed the metal stairs and knocked at the door. Somebody inside said something I couldn't understand and I opened the door and stepped into a small room with another door at the far end. A guy who looked like he escaped from a zoo was sitting on a folding chair by a cheap metal desk. There was a racing form laying on the desk.

The guy said, "Yeah?"

"I'm here to see Nick Scarpa," I said.

"You gotta 'pointment?"

"No, I don't, but he'll want to see me. Tell him it's Eddie Tinker."

"I don't care if you're Mickey freakin' Mouse. You gotta have a 'pointment. Now, get lost."

"Yeah, yeah," I told him, "Eddie Tinker. Tell him I brought the Crown Vic back."

The big guy looked at me sideways, like a dog does when you get him confused. Then he got up, walked over to the far door, knocked, and opened it. He stuck his head in and said something. Somebody inside said something, and the big guy pulled his head out and turned to me. "C'mere," he said.

I stepped over and he said, "I gotta pat you down." His hands were as hard as wooden mallets and he was none too gentle about the frisk, but he finally finished and pushed the door open.

"G'wan," he said.

I went in.

The office was wood-paneled, with a leather couch against one wall and a large wooden desk by the neighboring wall. Behind the desk was a large window and you could see the garage floor and the trucks moving around. On the desk was a black pen set, a phone with a lot of buttons, and a computer. Behind the desk sat Nicky Scarpa.

He got up and crossed the room toward me with his hand held out. "Eddie Tinker. How long has it been?"

We shook hands. "About a hundred years. How you been keeping?"

Nick was dressed in a tailored blue suit that must have gone for six hundred easy. He had a white shirt with French cuffs and gold cuff links, and a maroon silk tie with a gold tie clasp. "Can't complain," he said, "you?"

"Yeah, well, keeping busy, you know. Looking around."

"That's fine. Come, have a seat."

He pointed me to an armchair in front of the desk. When I sat down I noticed the seat was lower than his chair.

"Now," he said, "what's this about a Crown Vic?"

I dropped the keys on his desk. "I brought it back." I held up the briefcase. "I brought this back, too."

Nick stared at the briefcase, and then at me. "You're the one jacked Carmine? He said it was a black guy."

"Yeah, it was. He's a friend of mine. I'm taking care of this for him. He didn't know what he was doing, Nicky. I'm just trying to avoid trouble."

"What do you care, it's not your trouble."

"Trouble has a way of spreading around once it starts. I'm just doing this for him."

"What's his name?" said Nick.

"Come on, Nicky, you don't need to know that. This guy, he's not right in the head. That guy Carmine. I bet he noticed it. Ask him if there wasn't something funny about the guy that jacked him."

"Carmine's no longer with us,"said Nick. "There was some concern about his job performance, and he took early retirement."

"Jeez, Nicky."

Nick took the briefcase and opened it. "All the money's here?"

"Yeah, well, about that, like I say this guy, he didn't know what he was doing. He spent some of the money."

Nick started to look less friendly. "How much?"

"I don't know. There's sixty-seven large in there now."

Nick punched some keys on his computer and stared at the screen. "Started out with seventy thousand," he said.

Three thousand dollars' worth of toys and cookies. Jeez.

Nick closed the briefcase. "So when am I getting the rest?"

"What?"

"This is not my money, Eddie. I'm responsible for it, but it's not mine. You're three thousand short. When do I get it?"

I was starting to remember how much I had disliked Nicky in high school. "Nicky," I told him, "I ain't got that kind of money. I was thinking, me and you going way back like we do..."

"Listen, Eddie. I like you. You're a right guy coming in like this. But business is business. I got obligations; I got quotas. You see how it is, right?"

I saw how it was, all right. We both sat there for a minute or two, saying nothing, then he said, "I tell you what, we'll work something out. I'll kick in the three grand, and we'll treat it like a loan. And since you're an old friend, I'll hold the vig down to twenty percent a week."

I wanted to spit in his eye. I said, "Thanks, Nicky."

"I'm happy to do it, Eddie, for old time's sake." He hit some more keys on the computer. "Let's see...three thousand...It's Monday today, so that's a new week...twenty percent...That's thirty-six hundred dollars."

Sooner or later, you have to pay for every good deed.

* * *

I hate to be rushed. In my line of work you got to take your time. You got to look after every detail, 'cause the one you miss is the one that's gonna land you in stir.

But Nick Scarpa had put a deadline on me. I had seven days to come up with the money, or the vig would slap another 700 bucks on it. The vig will eat you alive. I seen guys lose everything — the house, the car, their families, sometimes their health — because of a loan that seemed small at the time. I couldn't let that happen to me.

I had to pull a job. I had to score a lot of cash. I didn't have time to fence something. It had to be cash right off the bat. So it couldn't be a residence. I needed someplace that kept money overnight, some kind of business. I spent the rest of Monday and most of Tuesday trying to line something up, but it was no dice. I was sitting in the Elite Diner over a cup of coffee and a donut, beating my brains out trying to think of something, when Booger showed up and sat down in the booth across from me.

"Hiya, Eddie, what's up?"

He still had that stupid pistol stuck in his pants, but I didn't feel like arguing with him. "Not much, Booger, you?"

Booger said,"Yuh, not much," and smiled. He sat there in silence, and I was lost in my own thoughts. Pretty soon he said, "I like donuts."

"You can have this one, Booger," I told him, and pushed the plate over.

"Gee, thanks, Eddie." He took a big bite and got powdered sugar all over his chin. He ate quietly for a while, and then said, "Mr. Fratelli likes donuts. Over at the 'talian Grotto, he likes donuts."

"Yeah, OK."

"Yuh, I get him coffee and donuts at closing time. Eats the donuts when he's counting the money. Sometimes he gimme a piece. I like chocklit the best."

Something stirred in the back of my head. "Booger, what money?"

"He don't get chocklit all the time, only sometimes."

"Booger, listen to me: what money is Mr. Fratelli counting?"

"Yuh, he counts the money, y'know, from the people. He makes little piles."

The day's receipts, it had to be. "Booger, what does he do with this money?"

"He makes little piles." Booger stuffed the rest of the donut in his mouth.

"Yeah, I know, little piles. When he's all done, what happens to the piles of money?"

"Put 'em inna safe," said Booger, his mouth full.

"Booger, where is this safe?"

"Could I have another donut?"

It took a long time. The safe was in the office in the back of the restaurant. It wasn't in the wall. It was big and black and stood on the floor. Fratelli counted up the day's receipts and locked them in the safe every night. Fridays he took the money to the bank.

I took out my cell phone and showed Booger how to take a picture with it. After about five times he seemed to understand. I asked him to go into the office and take a picture of the safe for me.

* * *

The back door of the Italian Grotto opened up on a wide alley. There was a surveillance camera on the wall covering the door. I couldn't see any sign of an alarm. I had Booger meet me at the end of the alley the next day and got my cell phone back. He had taken five pictures of his shoes from various angles, and three pictures of the safe.

I can pick any lock ever made, but I'm no good with safes. I needed a specialist, so I headed to Dewey's. I ordered a beer and slid a fifty dollar bill across the bar. "I'm looking for a box man," I said.

Dewey took the bill and didn't give me any change

"I was thinking Firpo," I told him.

"Firpo got sent up."

"How about Jaglitz?"

"He's in Cleveland, probably till the end of next week. Can you wait that long?"

"No," I said, "It's gotta be right away."

Neither one of us spoke for a minute, and then Dewey said, "How about Bert Cobb?"

"I thought he was dead."

"Naw, he ain't dead. He's kinda retired now, but he put the word out he could use some cash."

"I don't know, Dewey. Bert Cobb, how old is he now?"

"Cobby always was the best. You know that, Eddie."

"Yeah, but he still got it?"

"Why don't you talk to him and find out. You want me to set it up?"

So the next day I met Bert Cobb on a bench in Jefferson Park. He was small and stooped over with a fringe of grey hair around his bald head. He wore big eyeglasses with black plastic frames, and he had a way of leaning in on you whenever you spoke that made me nervous. He had a paper bag of bird seed and fed the pigeons. I hate pigeons.

"Listen, Sonny Jim," he said, "I been cracking keysters since you was in diapers. You come to the right guy."

"I just wanna make sure you can do this particular safe," I told him.

"Don't matter. I done 'em all."

"Just take a look." I showed him the picture on my cell phone.

"Hessler 350," he said. "One and a half inch door, three number combination. Two different relockers, so you can't really drill it. Pretty good safe. You could drop it out a third story window and it'll stay locked. They stopped making them in 1998."

"Can you crack it?" I said.

"Sure." He tossed some more seed to the birds.

"Will you need any gear?"

"Nah. The best way to do it is old school. I'll just tickle her till she opens."

"I'm in kind of a jam here. I can't really offer you a cut. I'll give you a flat thousand when the job is done."

He shook his head. "I did a jewelry store in Newark in 1968. My cut was twenty thousand. Cracked a bank vault in Omaha in '75. Made fifty thousand on that one. Got so I wouldn't even touch a job if my cut was less than ten grand." He gave me a long, sad look. "A thousand bucks'll be just fine," he said, and scattered some more seed.

* * *

The job was on for Thursday night. I borrowed a car and picked up Cobb outside Dewey's at one AM and we drove over to the Grotto. I parked the car down the street and we got out and walked. I had a black canvas bag with my gear in it and a black plastic trash bag for the money. Cobb kept complaining about the cold.

We went down the alley until we could see the door. It was set back around a short corner. I could see the camera, too, but it couldn't see us. I reached into the canvas bag and took out a paint ball gun. I leaned around the corner and started shooting. It took me about four shots till I got the aim right, and then I covered the camera lens with yellow splotches.

Once the camera was out of commission, it only took me a couple minutes to pick the lock. We passed into a dark, narrow hallway and waited for our eyes to adjust. I used a flashlight to spot a second camera up on the wall and took care of it with the paint ball gun.

The office was at the end of the hall. I picked that lock and we were in. The safe was a big black box against the far wall. Cobb went over and started in.

"I'll try the try-outs first," he said. He took a scrap of paper from his pocket and started twisting the dial. "Safes come from the factory with a try-out combination, "he explained. "You're supposed to reset it after you buy the safe, but a lot of people never do. Makes my job easier."

But the try-outs didn't work. Cobb turned the scrap of paper over and took out the stub of a pencil. He leaned over and pressed his ear against the safe door and twisted the dial slowly. His eyes were closed and he looked like he was in a trance. Every now and then he'd look up and write some numbers on the paper.

This went on for a real long time; it seemed like hours. A couple times I said, "C'mon, Cobby, what's the hold up?" but he just shushed me and kept on working. His face in the flashlight beam was shiny with sweat. He was working hard, and the expression on his face told me it wasn't going well. I began to think I'd made a really bad mistake.

I checked my watch. We'd already been there forty-five minutes, and the safe was still shut tight. Cobb kept scratching out numbers on the paper and writing new ones. Seventy-five minutes. I was starting to feel sick to my stomach. I was just about to call it quits at the ninety minute mark, when Cobb said, "Done," and swung the safe door open. He sat down in the desk chair, breathing hard, like he'd been loading concrete blocks.

Inside the safe were stacks of bills — little piles like Booger said. I guessed somewhere around five or six thousand. I quick shoved it into the trash bag, and we closed the safe. We wiped down the safe and the doors and anything else we might have touched, and went out the back door into the alley.

Cobb lagged behind me as we walked down the alley. Before we got to the end I heard him call my name. I turned and he was standing there with a small automatic in his hand, pointing it at me.

"Gimme the bag, Sonny Jim."

"Cobby, what the hell is this?" I dropped the canvas bag and the trash bag at my feet.

"Don't make this hard," he said. "Just gimme the money."

"I can't do it, Cobby. I told you I'm in a jam. I promised you the thousand."

"I knocked over the hotel safe at the Glades Riviera in Miami in '82. Cleared 35 large in fifteen minutes. I was the best; nobody could touch me. And you think you can buy me off for a lousy grand." He had this wild, desperate look in his eyes. I began to believe he really might shoot me.

"It's what you agreed to. I played it straight with you right down the line." Gun or no gun, I was getting steamed.

"Look at me," he said in a choking voice. "I'm seventy-two years old. There's no retirement plan in my line of work. Did you see how long it took me to crack that box? My hearing's going. I'm starting to get the arthur-itis in my hands. Pretty soon I ain't gonna be no good for nothing. I need that money. Just hand it over and you won't get hurt."

I reached down toward the bag. Just as I was touching it, my hand went into the canvas bag instead and I yanked out the paint ball gun. I squeezed off as many shots as I could as fast as I could.

Cobb fell back, yellow paint all over his face and glasses. Before he could recover, I was on top of him. I slugged him with the gun and he went down. I wanted to bash his skull in.

I put the gun in my pocket and left Cobb where he lay. I got the car, and drove it down the alley and loaded him into it. Then I threw the two bags in the trunk, pulling out a thousand from the trash bag before I did. Cobb was coming around by the time I drove back to Dewey's. I stuffed the thousand in his pocket and kicked him out of the car. As I drove away I saw him in the rear-view mirror, smeared with paint, just standing there like a lost dog. It was three-thirty and I was dead tired. I drove home and went to bed. I threw his gun in the river on the way.

* * *

Ten o'clock the next morning I was sitting in Nick Scarpa's office with a paper bag full of cash. He finished counting it and said, "Very impressive, Eddie. I'm glad all my customers aren't as prompt as you."

"So we're quits now, right. You ain't gonna come after me or this other guy?"

"Nobody's going to come after you, Eddie. But there is one more thing."

"Aw, Jeez, Nicky —"

"Take it easy. Let me explain." He walked around and sat on the corner of the desk, like a teacher explaining something to a not-so-bright student. His voice was real quiet. "This whole incident, it's kinda like a black eye for us. A lot of people were upset over it. Some people I deal with won't be satisfied with just getting the money back. See, there's some people say maybe you were in on it with the black guy, and then you got cold feet."

"Nicky," I said, "I never —"

Nick held up his hands. "Hey, I don't think so. I think you're a right guy. You came in here to help a friend. I admire that. But, like I say, some people don't see it that way. They want an example made. I gotta do business with these people, see?"

I was getting that sick feeling again.

"That's all this is," Nick said. "It's just business. Nothing personal."

The door behind me opened and the gorilla from the outer office stepped in with another guy just as big following.

Nick said, "I think you've met Lupo, and this is Val. Don't do anything stupid, Eddie."

Lupo yanked me out of my chair like I was a rag doll and held my arms. Val hit me in the stomach with a fist like a cinder block. I thought he had broken me in half. Nick kept sitting on the corner of his desk with no expression on his face.

Those boys knew their stuff. They gave me a first-class working over. They stayed away from my face, but by the time they were through, everything below the shoulders hurt like hell. As I lay in a heap on the floor, I heard Nick say, "Put him in a cab."

The cabbie woke me up when we got to Fourth Street. It took me a minute to realize where I was, and a few more minutes to move very slowly out of the cab. The cab drove away and I leaned against a brick wall for a while to try to get my breathing right. It felt like I had a cracked rib. When I felt a little better I started walking down Fourth toward my place on Bloom.

I noticed a couple of cop cars and the morgue wagon down by the Elite Diner. Normally, when I see a cop I go the other way, but I hurt too much to take any detours. As I got closer I saw they had the yellow tape stretched across the mouth of the alley next to the Elite. A small crowd was gathered by the tape. Curiosity got the best of me and I paused there and looked down the alley. There were five or six cops swarming around, and the guys from the morgue wagon carrying a stretcher. I could just make out a figure slumped against the wall midway down the alley. I could see his shoes, red high-top sneakers, and red and white striped clown socks.

A young cop came walking out of the alley with an older cop beside him. "The guy looked a little funny," the young cop said, "so I called to him to stop. He turned around and pointed this gun at me. I had to shoot, right?"

The old cop said, "Of course you did. You couldn't know the gun was empty."

"That's the damnest thing," said the young cop. He shook his head.

They walked past me. I stood there a while and then moved away and headed toward home. There was nothing else to do.


JIM CORT first introduced omdb! readers to Eddie Tinker in September, 2011 in a story called, "Tinker."


Copyright 2012 Jim Cort. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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