DILL WE MEET AGAIN
By Jim Norman
“So Max, did you listen to the World Series? Hell of a comeback by the Pirates,” Harry Novitch, known in mob circles as “Harry The Hunk” because of his movie star good looks said.
“Nah, he don’t care,” Anthony “Big Tony” Massari answered for Max, who was busy serving lunch to the six mobsters, known as “The Boys,” who were luncheon regulars at the Ginsburg and Gold Delicatessen. Despite his nickname, Massari looked like a jockey and had a voice that sounded like someone had punched him in the throat. “If it ain’t the Yanks, the Giants or the Robins, he don’t care. You gotta stick with your own, right Max?”
Max Kalb silently nodded. He was concentrating on placing all the plates that ran up an arm that seemed too short. The G & G Delicatessen was jammed on this late October day.
“At least Brooklyn got its own baseball team, even if the Robins stunk up the joint,” Johnny Carpinelli said.
“They was better den duh Yanks. Without Ruth, they ain’t nothing,” Benny Reznick, who looked like the basketball player he never was but sounded like the Eastern European immigrant he was, said. “Duh Giants finished second. They shudda played Washington.”
Big Tony hollered to Abe Siegel, another G & G counterman. “Hey, Abe, you bet on the series?”
Abe Siegel nodded slowly and looked forlorn. “How could the Senators lose after they was ahead three to one? I ask you.”
“Could be someone wanted Washington to lose just that way, could be,” Moe Levinstein, always thinking about gambling, said. “A bet on the Pirates woulda got ya a big payoff, big payoff. Somebody set it up. Set it up.”
No one paid attention to Moe’s habit of repeating phrases as he spoke, even though it didn’t fit a man with a fascination with numbers and fixed sporting events. What really didn’t fit was that all six of these men were killers for hire, employed by the big mob bosses when they didn’t want their own people to carry out a difficult or dangerous hit.
“Forget that,” Harry The Hunk said to Moe. “It’s too late for Abe and Max don’t care.”
“Enjoy,” Max said. “Anybody need anything else?”
No answer meant they all had their regular lunches, drinks and supply of kosher dill pickles and sour tomatoes. Max went back to his station to work on other orders, like the large, daily takeout order from the nearby police precinct.
Abe Siegel’s workstation was next to Max’s. Max was not only Abe’s employer, but also his close friend. When Abe thought his accountant-son, Irving had been kidnapped or killed by the mob to prevent him from testifying in court, Max was there to deal with both Abe and his six regular “killer for hire” customers.
The two men worked fast and coordinated like a veteran two-man basketball team. The daily order from the police included the G & G specialties, especially the stacked corned beef and pastrami sandwiches. The cops might all be Irish, but they loved Jewish deli food.
“So what do you think of Irving getting engaged, Max?” Abe said.
“Mazel tov. Congratulations, it’s wonderful, Abe.”
“Wonderful is an understatement. She’s a doctor, a doctor, Max. I wanted Irving to be a doctor, but from science he didn’t know. Numbers, that’s what he cared about, so we made him an accountant. Did I ever tell you about his wonderful grades in college . . .”
Max interrupted the story of Irving Siegel’s college career that he’d heard many times before. “You and your family deserve the nachas.”
“I’ve never felt such joy. So what about you, Max? Why can’t you find a nice girl and settle down and start making kinder? You’re not a kid anymore.”
“What’s my rush? I’m only thirty-two. It’s only 1925. I’ll tell you what; when God sends me my basherte, I’ll get married. How’s that?”
“Now he’s waiting for God to send him a message. Maybe God will say, ‘Max, I’ll send you your basherte. You send up a half-dozen lean pastrami sandwiches on rye with mustard. Your famous kosher pickles, don’t forget. You’ll get your destiny and I’ll get heartburn.’”
Max glanced over at the deli’s front door and saw a young cop approaching, a broad Irish smile on his face.
“Officer Seamus MacSweeney, how might you be this glorious day?” Max asked in a terrible imitation of an Irish accent.
“You’ll never pass for an Irishman, Max. You don’t sound like one, you don’t look like one, and you don’t act like one. Grow about a foot, make your hair red, serve cabbage with your corned beef, become a cop and learn to speak by living in County Cork for a spell.”
“You win. I’ll stick to my kosher recipes and Brooklyn accent. We’re almost ready with your order. Abe is finishing it up now,” Max said.
“Abe, I heard your son got engaged. Congratulations, sir. Did you boys notice the smile on me face when I came in today?”
“I was slicing and missed it,” Abe said. “How come?”
“I’ll bet he got promoted,” Max said. “No, wait. They hired a new cop and he won’t have to pick up lunch anymore.”
“Not even close,” Office MacSweeney said. “But I’ll give you a good hint. Abe’s son and I have something in common.”
“You’re engaged,” Abe said, almost shouting.
“Ah, now, not quite. You see Annabelle and I grew up in the same town. Our families were pretty close and they used to joke about their kids getting married one day. Well, I told one cousin here that I couldn’t find a good Irish girl to marry, and she told another cousin back home, and things kept going until I got a note from Annabelle. One thing became another and now she’s on her way here with her mom and sister, and unless we don’t have that spark anymore, we’ll be getting married.”
“That’s a great story. What was that spark?” Max asked.
“Oh, that. It’s the feeling that a particular girl is the one you want to be with forever, that you were meant to be with, you know,” MacSweeney said.
“Your basherte,” Abe said.
“Never mind Abe,” Max said. “He’s got marriage on the mind.”
“Here you go, Seamus,” Abe said, finishing his careful packing of the cops’ order. “If you and Irving get married, maybe it’ll get Max thinking marriage.”
Seamus MacSweeney smiled and picked up the large, white wax paper bag. The Boys were silent until the young cop left the deli.
“Max,” Big Tony half-whispered and gestured to Max to come to their booth.
Max hustled over to the booth concerned that something was wrong.
“We need more sour tomatoes,” Harry said, pointing to the dish Marco Cavilleri held up.
“And more kosher dill pickles,” Marco said, holding the other dish. “Nobody makes ‘em like G & G. I mean it. Nobody. Where’d you get the recipe?”
“From my bubbe, my grandmother. Did you wait until MacSweeney left to ask for pickles and tomatoes?” Max asked.
“Sure. We don’t say nothing when a cop is in the joint,” Big Tony said, pronouncing “joint” as “jernt.”
Max nodded, took the dishes and went into the kitchen to find the kosher dill pickles and sour tomatoes.
The door to the deli flew open and slammed so hard against the frame that the glass in the door and the storefront flexed and rattled almost to the point of breaking. A beautiful, petite Chinese woman, with long, straight black hair, wearing a light yellow cheongsam dress, looked around the deli and then slammed the door shut. Her eyes were wide with fear.
“They want to kill me,” she said. The way she said it sounded like an announcement.
No one in the deli responded, unless you count the six men in a back booth reaching for the guns in their shoulder holsters.
Big Tony looked the woman up and down and then turned to Harry Novitch. Harry shook his head and then Big Tony gestured to the other hoodlums to relax.
Max returned from the kitchen to an unusual quiet at G & G. There were no voices in conversation or argument, no sound of plates clanking and none of the normal lunchtime deli noise.
“What ,” Max began, still holding the kosher dill pickles and sour tomatoes. Looking around, he saw people looking at him, and then he noticed the woman.
“Max, do you work here?” she asked.
Max blinked and a flood of nearly forgotten moments engulfed his mind. “Yan Ling, it’s been so long.”
The delicatessen lunchtime sounds slowly returned. Max walked over to Yan Ling, tears in his eyes.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” Yan Ling said.
“Did you come looking for me? I don’t understand, but I’m so happy to see you,” Max said.
“You forget us, Max,” Marco Cavilleri said, pointing at the dishes Max still held. “Sour tomatoes; dill pickles.”
Max smiled at Yan Ling, who nodded in return. Max, almost in a trance, walked over to The Boys’ booth and put the sour tomatoes next to Johnny Carpinelli, who hated sour tomatoes and the pickles next to Harry Novitch, who got heartburn from almost everything.
In a moment, Max was next to Yan Ling again.
“We have so much to catch up on, but I can’t right now,” Yan Ling said.
“But you’re here, Ling,” Max said, using her given name.
“They want to kill me.”
Max looked quickly over at the booth where the six mob guys were engrossed in their lunches. “Who?”
“The Tong sent assassins. I fled Chinatown and came to Brooklyn. I did not think they would follow me.”
“They followed you here, to the deli?”
“You don’t understand, dear Max. You’re still naïve, aren’t you. The Fujin Songsi knows only one way to settle disagreements. They kill you and never get caught. That’s Chinatown.”
“I’ll call the police. I know them.
“No police. It wouldn’t do any good. Besides, when they learn about my business, the police won’t protect me,” Ling said.
“What business?” Max asked.
“Shush. Not so loud,” Ling said, whispering into Max’s ear so closely that her lips brushed his ear, giving him chills. “Numbers.”
“You play the criminal lottery?”
“No. I run a competing numbers game. Better odds. The Fujin Gongsi doesn’t like it.”
“And they followed you to Brownsville, to my deli?”
“Yes. You and your customers are not safe while I am here.”
Max glanced over at The Boys, wondering if he should alert them, ask for their help or pretend nothing was wrong.
“I will hide someplace here. They will ask for me by a different name,” Ling said.
Max was stunned at hearing the name the two of them used for Ling when she and Max were much more than friends. When Max pronounced the name, it came out sounding like “One Jew.” It was the name she wanted when she became an actress. It was a joke between them she couldn’t be a Chinese actress with a Jewish name. But their families would not approve of such a marriage, and after high school they went their very separate ways.
“In the kitchen. Hide in the storage room, behind the shelves,” Max said, pointing to the double-hinged doors that led to the kitchen.”
When the doors stopped swinging, two Chinese men, one huge, the other average in size and build, calmly entered the G & G deli. They were dressed in black business suits, starched white shirts and black ties. After quickly looking around, they approached the counter.
“Sit anywhere. I’ll be with you in a minute,” Max said.
“We’re not here for food. We look for Wan Zhu,” the smaller man said, his tone even darker than his black eyes.
“There are plenty of Jews in here, some Italians, too—“
“Shut up. Say where we find Wan Zhu and no one get hurt,” the big man said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. We don’t have any Chinese customers today,” Max said.
“She stole from us,” the smaller man said.
“She? I thought you were looking for a man. I’m not so good with Chinese names,” Max said.
While this interchange between Max and the Tong men was taking place across the counter, Big Tony moved in behind the Tong thugs. Before he could draw his gun, the big man spun around, grabbed Big Tony, who was about half the man’s size and put a gun to his head.
“Is this man a good customer?” the smaller Tong man asked.
Max was surprised at the question, but managed to answer.
“Yes, he and his friends are regulars,” Max said slowly, but loud enough for everyone in the deli to hear. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt, alright.”
“Then you will give us the girl. If not, we kill everyone here and get her anyway,” the smaller man said.
To make his point, he pulled a Thompson Submachine gun from under his coat and waved it back and forth, stopping at the booth where five of The Boys sat with pistols out.
“We should kill them all anyway,” the big man said. “Fujin Songsi will be rewarded by the bosses in New York and New Jersey.”
A woman screamed until having a Tommy Gun pointed in her direction silenced her, except for the sobs that followed.
“We’re all going to die,” a man’s voice said to no one in particular.
Big Tony struggled, but the big man held him without much effort. After kicking back, Big Tony was rewarded with the butt of the pistol slammed against his temple. That took the fight out of Big Tony as he went to the floor on one knee.
Harry Novitch stood and walked into the aisle next to the booth. His hands were raised.
“You’re making the biggest mistake of your lives. You know who we are. You kill us, others will take revenge. Do you really want the men who employ us after you? The other Tongs won’t care. They’ll pick up the pieces after you Fujin Songsi are all dead,” Harry The Hunk said, his voice calm.
“We fear no one,” the smaller Tong man said. He turned to his huge partner. “Line them up on that wall, all six. Then, one chance to give us the girl. If no, we kill them and then the customers until we get the girl.”
The big man pushed Tony Massari up against a windowless wall. The smaller man gestured to the other five hoods to join him.
“Keep hands where I can see them or you all die right now,” the smaller man said. “Leave guns on table.”
The six hoods were lined up, their shoulder holsters empty. The Thompson was pointed at them.
“Wan Zhu, you come now with us and they all live,” the smaller Tong man said.
“No, Wan Zhu? Not just six criminals like you and us. Your deli man will join them,” the smaller man said, gesturing to the big Tong man.
Max was pushed against the wall, next to Benny Reznik, who towered over the much smaller deli counterman.
“At count of ten, they die, your friend with them, Wan Zhu,” the Tong man said and started to count in Mandarin Chinese. “Yī, èr, sān—”
When he got to three, the double doors to the kitchen opened and Yan Ling walked into the deli.
“I will go with you,” she said. “Spare them all. You have no quarrel with them.”
“No, Ling. Don’t do it. They’ll kill you. Now that I’ve seen you again, I know that I’ve always loved you, waited for you,” Max said.
All six of The Boys looked at Max.
“I love you, Max. That is why I cannot let them kill you,” Ling said.
As though they were watching a tennis match, The Boys looked over at Ling.
Ling turned to the Tong men and told them in Chinese that she would go with them. The two men fastened Ling’s wrists behind her back with brass handcuffs hinged between the two cuffs. Max carefully snuck behind the counter and picked up a bowl filled with congealed chicken fat, known as schmaltz.
“Stay there until we leave,” the smaller Tong man said to The Boys.
They didn’t notice that Max was no longer standing with Harry, Tony and the others.
The Boys looked to Big Tony for instructions. He almost imperceptibly shook his head, telling them not to do anything.
“When you leave Chinatown, you take chances,” Big Tony said in his odd voice. Brownsville don’t exactly have Pell Street or Doyers. This deli ain’t the Nam Wah Tea Parlor. Maybe you made a little mistake, got lost or something?”
“Maybe we take over Brooklyn, too. Nobody so tough here,” the Tong man said.
Harry The Hunk restrained Johnny Carpinelli, who’d taken a half step in the direction of the Tong thugs. The Tong men had weapons at the ready and the one they called Wan Zhu in their control. The bigger Tong man saw Harry and Johnny and laughed in a voice that sounded more like a little girl than a Tong thug.
What the Tong men failed to notice was Max tossing little balls of schmaltz on the floor. The schmaltz made virtually no sound as it hit the floor, but it did make a mess. The other countermen and the customers remained frozen like snowmen in a blizzard.
“You want Brooklyn, you come try,” Harry The Hunk said. “Before it’s over, Chinatown will be famous for pastrami and pasta and you’ll be speaking Italian and Yiddish.”
The Tong men ignored the taunt.
“Let’s get her back to Leader Cheng,” the smaller Tong man said.
The big Tong man grabbed Ling by the elbow. She winced in pain, but a push started her toward the deli’s door.
“Move,” the big Tong man said.
Ling struggled but had no chance against his strength. She tried to turn around, without success. Her foot went out from under her when she took her next step and she fell forward. The two Tong men grabbed her, but their balance was lost as their feet slipped on the schmaltz. Ling and her two captors landed in a pile on the floor. The big man’s pistol and the smaller man’s Tommy Gun flew out of their hands.
They struggled to get their feet under them, but the combination of the leather soles of their shoes and the schmaltz on the floor created something like a chicken fat ice skating rink.
When the two men sat up, they saw six guns, pulled from ankle holsters in the confusion, pointed at them.
“What was that about you taking over Brooklyn?” Big Tony said, a big smile on his face.
“Be careful,” Max said. “You don’t want to slip.”
“We know our schmaltz,” Harry The Hunk said, enjoying the moment of triumph.
“Gimme the handcuff key,” Benny Reznik demanded. He towered over the men still on the floor. “Now would be good.”
The big Tong man reached into his pocket and took out the brass key. Benny held up the key while Marco Cavilleri and Moe Levinstein got Ling to her feet. They moved carefully on the slick floor.
“Take her cuffs off, Benny,” Max said, coming around from behind the counter.
Benny moved Ling away from the Tong men and opened the handcuffs. Max and Ling wanted to run to each other, but knew better than to sprint on schmaltz. It didn’t matter, because one rushed step put both of them on the floor. They didn’t care. They held each other and the time and distance that had separated them for years disappeared.
“I guess I’ve fallen for you again,” Max said.
“Head over heels,” Ling said. “Me, too.”
Harry Novitch came over to them and slowly got down to talk to the couple still on the floor.
“Ling, we should talk about going into business together, you know, numbers in Chinatown. We could help with certain problems you might have,” Harry said.
“The only business I want to talk about is with Max. He and I have unfinished business,” Ling said.
“And we won’t need a matchmaker,” Max said.
“Neither will those two,” Harry said, gesturing at the two Tong men. Harry nodded and five hoods escorted the Tong men out of the deli, destination and final resting place unknown.
Max and Ling kissed like they were alone on a park bench.
“You taste like chopped liver,” Ling said.
“You remembered,” Max said, unable to restrain his delight.
“Who’s gonna clean up the schmaltz, Max?” Abe Siegel asked. “What a mess.”
“Guess,” said Max. “I’m busy.
Indeed he was.
Jim Norman is a member of Mystery Writers of America and has served as a judge for the Edgar Allan Poe Awards. His first short story, Everybody’s Looking For Jose, won an MWA competition. Among his short stories is the Chandler Dunn detective series that includes Fatal Finale, Murder Most Likely and The Case of the Tattooed Redhead. The screenplay version of “Tattooed Redhead” recently won best screenplay at the Nevada Film Festival. Jim’s novels include Not A Pretty Picture, The Milton Chronicles and Corey’s Hand.During his summer escapes from Florida, he teaches short story, novel and screenplay writing courses at the University of North Carolina Asheville College for Seniors. His Twitter ramblings can be found at: @WriteNowJim.
Omdb! printed the first Max Kalb story, “The Pickled Herring” in April, 2015.
Copyright © 2016 Jim Norman. 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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