Abe checked the big clock in a wire cage high on the wall. "We will be in fifteen minutes." The two close friends shared the same accent, a mix of Yiddish and Brooklyn, and lived in the same neighborhood, the same way as their parents and grandparents had in a village in Eastern Europe.
Max smiled. Spring made 1925 Brooklyn a much nicer place than winter. Gone was the brutal cold and piles of snow that, thanks to contributions by horses pulling wagons, garbage cans and the exhaust and dripped oil from cars and trucks, hadn't stayed white. It wasn't warm yet, but temperatures had risen. Whatever the season, G & G smelled like a kosher delicatessen, the air filled with the aroma of pastrami, corned beef and pickles.
"I heard a racket from the kitchen," Abe said. "Mrs. G is working."
One of the swinging doors to the kitchen opened, revealing only the wrinkled, liver-spotted hand and arm of Mrs. G, the widow of Moishe Ginsberg, one of the two men who started Brooklyn's oldest deli. Her hearing, memory and grasp of time were not what they once were, but her kitchen skills were undiminished.
"Max," Mrs. G said in a loud voice, "drink your milk before you leave for school. You don't want to be short like your father, do you? Your uncle is late again. Wonderful man, but always late."
"You think she's getting worse?" Abe asked. "She seems addled. I'm no doctor..."
"Maybe, but this deli is her life. She can run the kitchen as long as she likes. At seventy-six, who knows how much life she has left."
Abe nodded and returned to work slicing two kinds of smoked salmon, belly lox and Nova Scotia. Other employees were setting up tables and preparing for the breakfast service.
At 6:59am all activity in the deli stopped and everyone, as part of the routine, watched the clock count the last minute before opening. G & G never opened early and never opened late. At precisely 7:00am, Max walked to the front of the deli, turned on the outside lights and unlocked the door. The deli was open for business.
Customers filed in. By 7:15am the deli was bustling. Few customers bothered with a menu. They ordered "my usual". Max, Abe and the others knew their customers, regulars from the neighborhood.
The man who ran into the deli that morning was not a regular. No one recognized him. He wore a brown business suit and a fedora. His eyes darted around the deli, looking for something or someone. Without his fedora, he was nearly bald, with only a horseshoe shaped remnant of prematurely gray hair in the back of his head.
The man came up to the counter. He stared at Max and then at the empty booth in the back of the deli.
"What can I get you?" Max asked.
"I don't know," the man said, his accent French. He kept looking back at the booth and then shifting his stare to the front door of the deli.
"Breakfast menu's on the wall," Max said, pointing at the menu printed in chalk on the wall behind him.
The man stared at the booth again.
"You expecting other people? You can have that booth in the back. It's only reserved at lunchtime."
Each weekday at lunch, six notorious mob thugs, sellers of mayhem and murder services to the highest bidder, sat in that booth. No one else ever had lunch there and no one but Max ever waited on Anthony "Big Tony" Massari, Harry "The Hunk" Novitch, Johnny "The Fish" Carpinelli, Benny "Two Times" Reznik, Moe "Numbers" Levinstein or Marco "No Neck" Cavilleri. In Brooklyn the six were known as "The Boys." No one, not even the mob bosses they worked for, dared cross them.
The man didn't answer Max. He kept looking at the front door and the booth.
"For here or to go?" Max finally asked.
"What? Oh, bagel platter. Plain bagel and schmear, nova, tomato and red onion. Make sure it's nova. I don't want the salty taste. And coffee, black."
Max tried asking again, "That for here?"
"Oui. Uh, yes."
Max smiled. "Sit anywhere. It'll be right up." He tried to make conversation. "Nice spring, right?"
The man looked shocked. "How did you..." He paused, fearing Max might not be talking about weather.
"Before you know it," Max said, "you'll really be feeling the heat."
"What?" The man was on the verge of panic. Max looked at the man, trying to make sense of his odd reaction to small talk.
"Then we'll talk about summer heat and we can't wait for fall," Max said.
The man finally seemed to realize Max was only talking about the weather. Max's obsessive curiosity was piqued. That curiosity had gotten him into trouble more than once before.
The man selected a table for two, positioned so he could watch The Boys' booth.
"What was that all about?" Abe asked Max.
"Well, if you ask me..."
"No one asked you."
Abe ignored Max's comment.
"Could be he's a German spy and thinks you're on to him," Abe said.
"He doesn't look German; he sounds French and looks like an accountant."
"Hey," Abe said, "my son is an accountant, certified."
"I know, I know."
Max quickly assembled the bagel platter, poured coffee and brought it to the man's table. On the way back, he pushed open the double-hinged door to the kitchen.
"Mrs. G, We need some more nova out here."
He let go of the door and it swung back towards him. Simultaneously, the other door opened, revealing Mrs. G's hand and wrist.
"Lox, schmox. Always the nova. Listen, if Marie Antoinette worked here, she'd say, 'Let them eat lox.' In my day..."
"Got it," Max said, humoring the old woman, who disappeared back into the kitchen. Max watched the door swing back and forth, wondering how many of her marbles Mrs. G still had.
Max was behind the counter when a woman came in and went directly to the table occupied by the nervous man. Her arrival startled the man, making him spill some of his coffee.
Abe looked at the woman, too. Like the man, she appeared to be in her mid-thirties. She was strikingly beautiful, unusually tall and dressed in black, down to a cloche hat with a low, wide brim that hid part of her face.
"Something for you?" Abe asked, beating Max to the table.
"Coffee, black," the woman answered.
"Stéphanie," the man asked, "are you sure he's coming?"
"He'll be here," she answered. "Why don't you tell me where you -"
"Non. I can't," the man said.
"Look, Anton is dead. I need someone. Maybe you and I should..." she whispered, a suggestive smile replacing words.
The phone on the wall behind the cash register rang so loudly it interrupted the couple's conversation. Max wiped his hands on his apron. He picked up the receiver from the side of the box put it to his ear, and leaned into the microphone.
"Deli," he said. "This is Max."
Max paused to listen to the caller.
"Yes. He's here." After a pause, Max said, "I'll tell him."
Max replaced the receiver on the switch hook and went back to the man's table. The man was standing, about to leave.
"Your friend is running late," Max said to the woman.
The man looked at the woman. "Friend?"
"The phone call," Max said, pointing at the bagel platter. "Want it to go?"
The man hadn't touched his food.
"No time," the man said to Max. Then, he turned to the woman. "I'm leaving, Stéphanie."
"Non," the woman said still seated, "you know why."
The shopkeeper's bell at the door rang. Max and the man turned to see Marco "No Neck" Cavilleri walking towards them.
"Marco," Max said. "I've never seen you come for breakfast before.
Marco ignored Max. Of all of The Boys, Marco looked the part of the thug. He wasn't tall, but he was wide, thickly muscled and seemed not to have a neck. He was dressed like a lawyer, which he certainly wasn't. Neither his high-pitched voice nor his clothes, which strained to accommodate his body, fit. His mob nickname, "No Neck," fit well.
"Let's go," Marco said, speaking only to the man. "She stays."
"It'll just be a minute, Marco. I'm gonna bag his food," Max said.
"I'm not hungry," the man said.
Marco grabbed the man's arm and started walking the man toward the door. He stopped at the cash register and threw down some bills.
"See you at lunch?" Max asked.
Marco didn't answer and left the deli, holding the man's arm in a tight grip.
The deli was packed for lunch. Every table was taken, except that one booth in the back. No one ever asked to sit there. All of Brooklyn knew it belonged to The Boys.
As was often the case, the two leaders, Anthony "Big Tony" Massari, misnamed because of his jockey's stature, and Harry "The Hunk" Novitch, tall and blessed with movie star good looks, arrived before the others. Within minutes, Johnny "The Fish" Carpinelli, who looked like the Sicilian he was; Benny "Two Times" Reznik, well over six feet tall with an acne-scarred face; and Moe "Numbers" Levinstein, with red hair and black round rim glasses joined them. It was another ten minutes before Marco "No Neck" Cavilleri showed. Being last to arrive, he'd get the lunch tab. It was part of The Boys' arrangement.
Big Tony smiled at Marco as the big man squeezed into the booth.
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Marco began in his young girl-sounding voice. "I get the tab. You know, I was taking care of-" He stopped in mid-sentence when Max approached. "That thing."
"Usual today?" Max asked.
Six heads nodded.
"Say, Marco, what was up with that man?" Max asked.
"What man?" Marco said.
Max gave Marco a look of disbelief.
"Oh, him. He needed a ride to Jersey. It's okay," Marco said, after a pause.
Max looked at The Boys, who seemed to be paying no attention. Max tried again.
"But it sounded like -" Max began.
"Max, it's okay. Don't worry about it," Big Tony interrupted in his odd voice that sounded like he'd been punched in the throat.
Big Tony was telling Max to stop asking questions. Max understood, but sometimes curiosity defeated his good sense. This was one of those times.
Max pressed on. "Who is he? Never seen him in here before."
"Just a guy," Harry The Hunk said.
"He needed to go to Jersey? I got a cousin lives in Jersey," Max said.
"Where in Jersey?" Johnny Carpinelli asked, trying to distract Max.
"Union City?" Benny Two Times asked, clearing his throat twice, as he always did, before he spoke. "They made Union City by putting Union Hill and West Hoboken together. Two dumps don't make one nice place, am I right?"
"No, just Union." Max said.
"What's your cousin's name?" Harry The Hunk asked.
"The pharmacist," Moe Levinstein said.
"You know him?"
"No," Moe said.
Max was puzzled, and then realized The Boys had no intention of saying more. He returned to his station to work on The Boys' order, thinking that the gossip in his family about Sam Kalb being "connected" might just be true.
"You remember this morning, that guy?" Max asked Abe, who was busy putting together his lunch orders.
"Ordered a bagel platter and then left without eating and didn't want it to go," Max said.
"A guy walks into a deli and orders a bagel and schmear," Abe began. "Sounds like you're starting a joke." Abe started laughing.
"A woman was with him, but he left without her."
"So, there are times I'd like to leave without my wife," Abe said, still laughing.
"He left with Marco," Max said.
Abe stopped laughing.
"I've got a feeling..." Max said.
"Oy vey, one of your feelings," Abe said. "Smells like trouble you should stay out of. Like spoiled fish. For God's sake, use your yiddisher kop. The Boys. Marco."
"I'm not getting involved. A little curious, you know."
"Oh, I know."
"Any idea where Marco was going with him?"
"How should I know? You're the snoop. Me, I mind my own business."
Mrs. G's hand pushed open the kitchen door.
"Abie, come get this corned beef. You wanted it. It's heavy and my arthritis..."
"Be right there, Mrs. G," Abe said.
"Secaucus. They went to Secaucus," Mrs. G said, the din of clanging plates and conversation masking her loud voice.
"How do you know?" Max asked.
"No Neck guy says to the man, 'I know how to get to Secaucus, stunad'. Oooh, that one is mean. I was out there getting a smoke."
Max admonished the old woman. "Smoking is bad for you. Didn't your husband die from smoking?"
"Don't you talk bad about my Moishe. He was a mensch, a wonderful man. You know the expression 'Children should be seen and not heard?' When you're older you'll understand."
Max wanted to ask her more, but Mrs. G had lost touch with the present.
Max brought The Boys their lunch. Most of them ordered the deli's famous pastrami sandwiches, except Johnny Carpinelli who got hot dogs and Harry Novitch, with his sensitive stomach, ate pickled herring.
Talking at the booth stopped when Max arrived. The Hunk was reading a newspaper and the others sat in silence. Max looked at them but got no reaction.
"Abe is doing your drinks. You guys want sour tomatoes?" Max asked.
"Tomatoes, sure," Marco said.
Max went to pick up the mix of cream sodas, coffee and egg cream. As he got to Abe's workstation, he turned to look at the booth. The Boys were talking in hushed tones, so no one could overhear. Harry The Hunk kept reading his newspaper.
What they didn't know was that Max Kalb could read lips, a skill taught him by his deaf Uncle Asher, the haberdasher. He had to see lips to read them. The Boys were talking, but Max could only pick up snippets as heads turned during conversation.
"...Newspaper," Moe said.
"Jersey's a swamp. I hate...," Benny said.
"...Marsh," Johnny said.
"...Safe now..." Marco said.
"...Eternity..." Harry said and then laughed.
"...Deal... him and that..." Big Tony said, his tone serious enough to stop the laughter in its tracks.
Big Tony noticed that Max hadn't returned with their drinks.
"Hey, Max. Where doze drinks? Somebody on strike here?" Big Tony said, laughing along with five other gangsters who thought Big Tony was hilarious.
The deli was almost empty by 2:00pm Tables had to be bussed and cleaned, and it was the busiest time of the day for the dishwasher. Max, despite being the boss, helped out. He handled The Boys' booth personally. He picked up the newspaper that Harry left behind and put it under his arm on the way to the trash, then stopped and looked at the paper.
What was Harry The Hunk reading? Those guys don't care about the news; they make the news, the bad news anyway.
There it was, below the fold on the second page:
Body Found in Secaucus Marsh
The body of an unidentified man was found floating in the marsh next to the Abel I. Smith Burial Ground. Secaucus police have no leads or suspects, but say the man was killed by strangulation with a thin wire. Mob involvement is suspected."
Max dropped the newspaper on the floor and stared at nothing.
"You dropped this," Abe said, handing the newspaper back to Max. "You want I should trash it?"
"I think... I think..."
"What do you think?" Abe asked.
Max handed the newspaper back to Abe, who looked at the article.
"Oy gevalt," Abe said. "You think, you think...?"
"From right here they took him," Max said.
"So, what can you do?" Abe asked.
Max started taking his apron off.
"You're not -" Abe said.
Max's Model T encountered little traffic as it traveled Secaucus Road. Ahead, he saw the city's highest point, the rock formation aptly named Snake Hill and signs providing directions to the Mental Disease Hospital.
I must be meshugeh. Who but a crazy person would come to New Jersey to investigate a mob murder that's none of his business?
The road divided the Abel I. Smith Burial Ground into two sections: The Garden, with burial plots and Eternity, with crypts and mausoleums. Max parked off the road and walked east toward the marsh and Eternity. He had no idea what he was looking for. The air was filled with the unmistakable scent of the pig farms for which Secaucus was famous. His eyes closed and his face twisted in an attempt to escape the unpleasant odor.
Most of the graves bore the name of Smith family members. One bore the name of Jack Jackson, the slave who refused freedom to stay with the Smith family. Among the graves were several vestibule mausoleums containing wall and floor crypts.
Cemeteries gave Max the creeps. They were the last places he wanted to visit. It was that way ever since Max attended his first funeral at age five. He walked carefully, not wanting to step on any graves. Max wanted to leave, get in his car and drive back to Brooklyn. Then, one structure caught his eye.
In an area overgrown with high weeds stood a large, classic mausoleum, with Greek columns and an ornate metal door. Above the door, on the lintel were carved letters proclaiming "Smith - Eternity In Heaven." He was about to leave until he heard something that sounded like a person moaning. He shook his head, dismissing the sound. Then, he heard it again, louder. It was coming from inside the mausoleum.
Fear gripped Max. In situations involving danger, a person makes a "fight or flight" decision. He couldn't decide or act until curiosity overcame fear. Max turned and walked back toward the mausoleum. At the door, he slowly extended his arm until his hand was only inches from the door handle.
It must be locked, so I'll try it, it won't open and then I'll get out of here and mind my own business.
Max pushed the door, expecting it to be solidly locked, but the door moved, opening partway. He stuck his head in and saw crypts on each side of the building and one flush with the granite floor.
The sound was clear now. Max realized it wasn't a person moaning; it was a radio changing stations. Max pushed the door fully open and reluctantly entered.
His mind raced. It can't be a dybbuk or golem. Monsters and ghosts don't exist, and if they did, they wouldn't be listening to a radio.
Max got down on his hands and knees and put his ear to the crypt lid on the floor. He heard the radio broadcast clearly.
"This is WNYC radio. Our next program will be a lecture by distinguished world traveler and former Colonel in the British Army, James Churchward, on his search for the lost continent of Mu, the motherland of man."
"Not that charlatan again," a male voice said.
What is this? A final resting place with a radio?
The radio clicked off. Silence. Against his better judgment, Max slid his hands, palms up, under the lid of the crypt. The lid opened easily on hinges. Max could see a hint of light below. Against the side of the opening closest to Max was a ladder. Decision time. Descend or get out.
He'd come this far, so Max, as quietly as he could, mounted the ladder and started to descend. When he was halfway down, he heard a voice.
"That you?" the voice asked. "I told you I've got the goods. Let me go. We still have a deal."
Max recognized the voice and accent. It was the man escorted out of the deli by Marco Cavilleri. Max continued climbing down.
"Hey, you're not Lou."
"No, I'm not."
"You're the deli guy," the man said.
"Max Kalb. Who are you?" Max asked.
"Gerard Beaudry. Do you work for him, too?"
"Dante Gambardello. He wants his cut from the job. Art museum heist in Montreal. Big score. We got some priceless paintings. Anton, my partner, took off. I got caught. Went to prison, but not before I hid the art. Nobody else knows where and they'll never find it. Gambardello was supposed to fence the stuff and we'd split down the middle. You can escape from prison, but not from the New Jersey mob."
"The stolen paintings are here, in Jersey?" Max asked.
"I'm not saying. If he kills me, like he killed Anton, nobody'll ever find the stuff. Why are you following me? You won't find them."
"I'm not following you or looking for paintings. Seemed strange the way Marco took you out of the deli, so I came to Secaucus to see what's going on."
"Curiosity," Max said.
"You're out of your mind. Don't you know who you're dealing with?"
"No, I meant Lou."
"Who's Lou? What is this place?"
"Lou Santelli. Gambardello's muscle. He kills people for fun or when Gambardello asks. He killed Anton and dumped him in the marsh. If you stick around, you'll get whacked. I talk, I'm dead now. I don't talk, I'm dead later. Get out of here while you can. They made it a place to make people disappear for a while or forever." The man held up a length of chain fastened to a locked cuff around his ankle. "I'd go with you, but I'm kind of tied up."
"Is Marco working for Gambardello?"
"No. Anton's wife, Stéphanie, you saw her, hired Marco to protect us. He didn't get there in time to save Anton. Marco took me to a safe house in Union City. Lou must've been watching, because he grabbed me when Marco left.
Max started up the ladder.
"I'll come back with help," Max said.
"No cops," Gerard said. "I'm in enough trouble."
"No cops, Max said. "I have an idea. Be right back. I've got something."
"Better be a gun."
Max climbed up the ladder as fast as he could and ran to his car. He pulled an eyeglass case-sized pouch from under the seat and ran back to the mausoleum. He climbed down the ladder and approached Gerard, unzipping the small case.
"What's that?" Gerard asked.
"Lock picking tools. Haven't done this in a while, but my friend Abe's father was a locksmith. I learned. Handy when you forget your keys."
It took Max a couple of minutes to pick the lock - a couple of minutes too long. While Max was working on the lock, a man who made Marco look small descended the ladder holding a flashlight in one hand and a .38 caliber Colt Police Positive revolver with a six-inch barrel in the other. Two more people followed Lou and disappeared into the shadows.
Lou's flashlight beam blinded Max and Gerard. "Looks I got here just in time," Lou said. "We was about to have ourselves a prison break." Lou turned off the flashlight, pointed the gun at Max and stared at him with empty, black eyes.
"Stéphanie, what are you doing here?" Gerard asked when his eyes adjusted to the dim light. "Who is..."
A figure stepped out of the shadows.
"Anton," Gerard said, shocked and confused. "You're not... I thought Lou killed you. Who was that in the marsh?"
"Another creep who tried to stiff Mr. Gambardello. Never mind about him," Lou said. "We want the art collection you stole from us."
"I didn't steal from you. Hid it so the cops wouldn't get it before I went to prison. Never told them anything," Gerard said.
"You held out on your partners, Gerard. You tried have it all to yourself. Now, we get it all and you get nothing," Anton said.
"Or you die," Stéphanie said.
"Who do you work for?" Lou demanded. "I won't ask again."
"Me?" asked Max. "I, I own a deli in Brooklyn, so I work for myself."
"A funny guy we got here. Let's see if you're laughing with a couple slugs in your head."
Max figured eternity was in his immediate future. He couldn't hold back a thought. Who gets murdered in a cemetery? He's got a gun and all I have are lock-picking tools. Gottenyu, what now, God?
An instant later, it came to him. Max swung the chain he was still holding and hit Lou flush in the family jewels.
Lou screamed and dropped the gun and flashlight. He curled into the fetal position to protect himself and uttered something unintelligible through his pain. Stéphanie lunged to pick up the gun, but Max slammed a lock pick into the back of her hand. Stéphanie howled, grabbing her hand.
Anton charged Gerard. Max picked up the ankle cuff and clocked Anton on the back of the head. He was unconscious before he hit the crypt floor.
"Go," Max said. "My car isn't far."
Max and Gerard hurried up the ladder. They should've closed the crypt and put something heavy on it, but getting away was their priority.
Lou, semi-recovered, burst out of the mausoleum. He fired a shot in the air and screamed "Stop or die." The two men stopped.
"Back here," Lou said, not yet able to stand up straight, his voice full of pain. "Youze two are dead. Plenty of room in that mausoleum."
Lou moved his gun back and forth between Max and Gerard, his index finger starting to squeeze the trigger. "Eeny, meeny, miny -"
Before Lou could say "Moe", he fell face first to the ground. Standing with a big smile on his face and holding a leather-covered sap was No Neck Cavilleri.
"I guess Marco don't rhyme. Do I look any-ting like Numbers Levinstein? Yuz okay?"
"Oui, fine." Gerard said.
"Thank you," Max said.
Marco just nodded.
"I'll drive Gerard back in my car," Max said.
"No. You take that," Marco said, gesturing with his chin.
Not far away was a combination ambulance and hearse, complete with a landau curve on the side. "In that?"
"Yeah," Marco said in his high-pitched voice. "Yours needs a little work."
"But -" Max began, but Marco cut him off with a look.
"I'll get it back to you, after," Marco said.
Max wanted to know "after what," but knew better than to ask about it or the fate of Lou, Stéphanie and Anton.
Driving back to Brooklyn in the black ambulance/hearse with Gerard, Max said little; Gerard said less. There was no mention of stolen art.
Max wondered where he should park the ambulance/hearse. Not in front of the deli. Better the delivery alley.
Things were back to normal the next day. Breakfast was breakfast. The Boys were in their booth at lunch and ordered the usual. Max waited for Marco or one of the others to say something, but they didn't.
Max was preparing The Boys' order when the kitchen door opened and Mrs. G yelled, "So you went to Secaucus. Pig farms and a nice cemetery. That's all there is to the place. Stinks. You know, that city and the cemetery are a lot alike. People are dying to visit, but can't wait to leave. You get it? It's a joke."
Max didn't laugh.
"Vat you kids know from jokes," Mrs. G said. "I hope you bathed good. You can't so easy get that pig smell off."
The door to the kitchen swung back and forth before coming to a stop.
Max arranged the plates of food up his arm and served The Boys in one trip.
"That your car in the back alley, Max?" Marco asked. "Looks like you got it washed real good."
Marco whispered in Big Tony's ear.
Max nodded. The Model T was back and the ambulance/hearse would be gone.
"Hey, Max," Big Tony said, pretending to sniff, "youze should stay away from pork. It ain't kosher."