Peaches Pocotillo never got to kill anyone anymore. All those years he’d spent perfecting his craft had led to bigger and better things, which in this case meant a mid-level leadership position in the Native Mob, overseeing tribal gang consolidation and farming operations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, even into Nebraska. He had Native Gangster Disciples reporting to him, Native Vice Lords, Native Crips, Native Bloods, Peaches the one guy everyone listened to, the one guy who could get everyone to the table, the one guy who you didn’t want to cross, because, man, he used to kill people for nothing, son.
That reputation got him in the room. Still had to make the sale. But he was good at that, too.
So he was the guy they’d send to sit down with some Native Crip shot caller to explain, patiently, why co-opting the iconography of a Los Angeles gang that would kill him on sight was bad business. It put everyone in jeopardy. So, sure, call yourself a Crip while you’re out tending the dirt fields in Nebraska. But you come to Minneapolis, Green Bay, or Chicago? You either called yourself Native Mob or you called yourself dead. Then he’d paint a more optimistic picture: See all this reservation farmland? See all those beets? See all that kale? Shit no one likes to eat. Imagine it green with marijuana. Don’t worry, we got the recipe. Don’t worry, we’ll front you the cost of machinery. Don’t worry, we got the protection. Don’t worry, we got distribution.
That advice? That’s fifty thousand dollars. Big bills are fine. By tomorrow. Next day? It’s seventy-five. End of the week? Don’t worry, we’ll give your mom something to help her with the bills.
Now, three in the morning, crossing over the Blackburn Point Bridge from Osprey, Florida, onto Casey Key, sitting in the passenger seat of a rented Ford Taurus—big trunk but it handled like a rhino, American cars absolute crap these days—Peaches could see his middle management career coming to an end. His own thing on the horizon. He was forty-five years old. The time for waiting was over.
His nephew Mike, who he liked but didn’t think was exception- ally bright, pulled up in front of the Pirate’s Cove Apartments and cut the engine. The Pirate’s Cove consisted of six low-slung white bungalows surrounded by stumpy palm trees and beds of hibiscus that had begun to grow wild, climbing up toward the blue Bermuda shutters that were pushed out, letting in the gulf breeze. It had been hot and humid all day. Mike’s Midwest blood was not suited to this Florida bullshit, even this late in the year, but Peaches liked it, particularly now that it was in the sixties and the air finally thin enough to breathe.
“Uncle,” Mike said, “this place is nice.”
It was. Or, well, the land was. The Pirate’s Cove was a dump but it was surrounded on either side by mansions—only a few hundred yards east of the Gulf of Mexico, a few hundred yards west of the Intracoastal Waterway. Prime real estate. Worth maybe a million, a million and a half. Even more if the bungalows were torn down. Peaches knew about real estate, had made it his specialty, had his broker’s license, was happy to sift through public records, knock on doors, talk about gentrification, talk about curb appeal, talk about market value, talk about how, for his tribe the Chuyalla, real estate was the ticket to prosperity. That if they wanted to move real weight, they had to take their casino profits and roll that into durable investments, which sometimes meant buying up land that had once been theirs in the first place.
Lately, though, he’d been all about buying up commercial space, medical buildings, but especially any empty plots next to phone company switching stations, particularly in shitty little towns, Peaches thinking ahead, seeing how the Internet was changing business. Phone companies were going to need that space. Build server farms. Data was a more durable crop than weed, but that wasn’t something Peaches was confident his soldiers could cultivate. So he knew something about how to improve investments and he knew no one had bothered to update these bungalows since 1953, which is when Ronnie Cupertine’s father, Tom “Dandy Tommy” Cupertine, bought the land in the first place.
Almost fifty years later, the Pirate’s Cove was in the name of an LLC and was operated by a property management company in Chicago. In all that time, though, the property had never been sold. Peaches stumbled on it while searching the records for every bit of residential property in the Cupertine family name, going all the way back to the early 1900s, looking for plausible safe houses for the Family, as far away from Chicago as possible. The Pirate’s Cove had been quit-claimed thirteen times up through the 1980s, but since then, nothing. It took Peaches about three months to plow through microfiche and old deeds and records, since he had to do it all by hand, couldn’t get some file clerk on the Family payroll interested in what he was looking for, not that anyone in Osprey looked particularly mobbed up.
Next, Peaches rented a house up the block from the Pirate’s Cove and spent a month walking up and down the beach, making friends. Started wearing linen, started to take to it, actually. Bought tortoiseshell glasses. Played the part. Sat out on the beach in front of the Pirate’s Cove a couple nights a week, chatted up the tenants coming in and out, found out Terrance worked the line at Casey Key Fish House, also dealt a little coke, neighbors showing up on Friday nights in their Audis and BMWs, Peaches picking up a few lines, too, for Halloween. It was crap. Baking soda and Adderall. The kind of shit that would get you killed in the real world. Out here, they were just happy for the bump. Sandi and Lisa, they were Jet Ski instructors at the Gulf Resort and Spa. Rob was the bartender at the Beachcomber, nice place if you liked tiki bars. Pasqual was teaching at a private school in Sarasota, just lucked into a spot on the water. Becca and Tony were servers at the Charthouse. Frank and Doreen, they were the on-site managers. Married couple. Super nice, everyone said so.
Frank and Doreen, they didn’t get any mail.
Frank and Doreen, they didn’t have any friends. No kids. Not even a cat.
Frank and Doreen, they didn’t talk too much, had Chicago accents so thick it was like sitting in the bleachers at Wrigley.
“Two minutes,” Peaches said. “Three at the most.”
Mike rolled down his window. Sniffed. “It’s so wet out here, Uncle, I’m gonna have to double up.”
Back in the day, Peaches worked alone. But this was a two-man job, and Mike had shown himself to be pretty good with accelerants. He didn’t know why Mike needed to sniff to figure out the wetness in the air, but whatever. Everyone had their moves.
“Do what you need to do.” Peaches reached into the backseat, unzipped his travel bag, took out a steel-headed drilling hammer. He didn’t have any guns with him, because he’d be tempted to use them, and this wasn’t the type of neighborhood where people would sleep through a gunshot.
Frank Fishmann had been a driving a truck for Kochel Farms for twenty-five years, so his back was fucked up, his knees were shit, his night vision was half gone. He was fifty-five, about thirty pounds overweight, and he hadn’t been bright enough to decline the job of hustling the Rain Man out of town in the back of his refrigerated meat truck. Well, Peaches considered, maybe that wasn’t exactly true. He probably didn’t have a choice. Frank was bright enough not to come forward to the FBI with information on where he’d dumped Sal Cupertine, even though that information was worth a $500,000 reward. Instead, he’d spent the last two years hiding out on Ronnie Cupertine’s dime. The one guy still alive, other than Ronnie, who knew where Sal Cupertine might be living was spending his days on the edge of the continent, ocean view. Probably the best years of his life.
Mike popped the trunk, came out with three gas cans, headed into the darkness. He’d set the fires on their way out, if Peaches thought they needed the cover, or in case things got messy. Peaches walked over to Frank and Doreen’s bungalow, the one closest to the street, the stench of gasoline already starting to waft toward him, pounded on the door, waited, pounded again. A light came on.
If Doreen answered, that would be too bad.
A shadow crossed the peephole. Peaches raised his left hand and waved, gave a faint smile. “It’s me,” Peaches said. “So sorry to bother you in the middle of the night.” Whoever was on the other side of the peephole took another few seconds, probably contemplating the risk. If this were Chicago, a bullet would already be through the peephole and out the back of their head. “So sorry,” Peaches said again. “Frank? Is that you? It’s me. Mr. Taylor.” That’s what Frank knew him as. The neighbor up the way. A real nice guy.
The porch light came on and Frank opened the door, stepped onto his small front porch, closed the door behind him. Had on a pair of pajama bottoms, no shirt. A tattoo of an eagle on his chest. That was unexpected. “What’s going on, Mr. Taylor?” he began to say, honest concern in his voice, but before he could get it all out, Peaches hit him flush on the right temple with the hammer, caving in the side of his head with a single blow. Maybe breaking his neck, too, judging by the way Frank went to the ground, his body kinked into an S.
Peaches hit him three more times, regardless, stopping only when he saw brain matter.
Frank Fishmann’s whole life ended in three seconds. Maybe fewer. That’s all it took, if you knew what you were doing.
Mike appeared out of the shadows and they picked up Frank, carried him to the Taurus, dropped him in the trunk, closed it. Looked around.
Peaches checked his watch. Three minutes, start to finish. Almost exactly.
“All right,” he said, more to himself, really. “All right.” He could still do it. He wasn’t just about the business. That was good to know.
“We good?” Mike asked.
They’d left a fair amount of blood and hair and viscera on the porch, but once Doreen realized Frank was gone, what was she gonna do? She was a felon, at this point, even if she wasn’t before. She could call Ronnie, but Peaches didn’t imagine she knew his number. Or his name. Probably had no idea of anything, if Frank was any kind of decent. She couldn’t go back to Chicago, that was for sure. Best thing for her, really, was to pretend nothing happened. Live her life. Hose off the porch.
“What’s the word, Uncle?” Peaches loved Mike. He did. Twenty-two. His little sister’s kid. But still. This is why Peaches usually preferred to work alone. If he didn’t
want to worry about Mike flipping on him one day, Mike had to have his own crime tonight, something bigger than an accessory beef, which the government didn’t mind turning their heads on. So Mike had to have it worse. Burn half a dozen people to death while they slept? You didn’t plead down on that charge, no matter what you gave up.
“Light it up,” Peaches said.
TWO DAYS LATER, back in Chicago, Peaches went through an OG in the Gangster 2-6—the Mexican gang the Family used to move drugs—to make the meeting happen. Lonzo Guijarro middled her- oin and meth out to the hinterlands, so he and Peaches had done a few deals over the last couple years. Fair prices, no drama, Peaches able to get some good shit for the tribes, Lonzo getting credit for opening up a new market, everyone square.
Even with that shared past, Peaches still had to deliver ten Gs in a Trader Joe’s shopping bag to Lonzo that morning, the two of them meeting at the Diner Grill in Lakeview, where Lonzo liked to eat breakfast. Peaches set the bag between them on the counter like it was filled with organic bananas and locally sourced honey.
“This is nonrefundable,” Lonzo told him. He didn’t even bother to look inside or count the money. “If the boss doesn’t like the way you walk or thinks you got bad breath or some shit, that’s not my problem. You cool with that?”
“I’m not a complainer, Lonzo,” Peaches said. “Mr. Cupertine doesn’t take to me, that’s fine. We don’t need to be friends. You and me, we don’t need to be friends either.”
Lonzo shifted on his stool. The Diner Grill was an old railroad dining car, so it was just twelve stools up against a Formica counter, one guy working the grill, another guy taking orders, both dressed in white shirts, white soda jerk hats, everyone overhearing every- one, if anyone bothered to listen. “All’s I’m saying,” Lonzo said, “is that the boss is keeping it low. You feel me?”
Peaches couldn’t say he blamed him. Ronnie had spent the better part of the last year trying to unfuck himself after the Chicago Tribune detailed widespread corruption within the Chicago FBI’s Organized Crime Task Force, eventually tying Sal Cupertine’s murder of three undercover FBI agents and a CI at the Parker House to a series of gangland and jailhouse killings of Family and Gangster 2-6 soldiers and associates, and then what appeared to be some modicum of complicity with the FBI, suggesting that a network of high-level snitches were working both sides of the aisle, culminating in the faked death of Sal Cupertine. The Family had Sal shipped out of town in a refrigerated meat truck—the one driven by Frank Fishmann—and then dumped a couple of their soldiers’ bodies in the Poyter Landfill, along with Sal’s ID, and everyone played nice, acted like Sal Cupertine was dead, case closed. It all fell apart courtesy of a tip from a former FBI agent named Jeff Hopper, who conveniently disappeared, too, until his severed head showed up in a Dumpster in Chicago a few weeks after the first stories hit.
Peaches read about it just like the rest of the city did, except he saw a crack opening. So when the DOJ ended up cleaning house locally, putting on some show trials down in Springfield, then rousting half of the Family on a variety of charges, hollowing out the organization of the real earners, low-level guys copping to every crime they could, Peaches made note. The middle management was loyal, willing to save their boss from prison, probably for a little something when they got out. Do a couple years in Stateville or Joliet, come out, get a bar or a restaurant in Elmhurst? Easy. But it also meant Ronnie Cupertine was going to have a vacuum in the middle of his organization.
Because in the end, the feds never did find Sal Cupertine, and they never did find the last person to see him alive, either, so they had dick on Ronnie Cupertine himself.
Lonzo pointed out the window. “That your guy in the Lincoln?” Mike was idling in a blue zone out front. “My nephew.” “That’s a five-hundred-dollar ticket, parking there,” Lonzo said. “He has a handicapped placard,” Peaches said. It was impossible
to park in Chicago, and Peaches wasn’t going to be one of those ass- holes who got shot walking to his car in some dark parking structure. Handicapped parking was always well lit, always close to the door.
Lonzo raised his eyebrows. “No shit? I’ll have to look into that.” He reached into the Trader Joe’s bag, came out with two twenties, dropped them on his plate, then pointed out the diner’s window. “Get what you need from your car and then tell your guy you’re rid- ing with me. He can go park somewhere, read a book or something. Leave the space for someone with a real problem.”
“That’s not how I work,” Peaches said. “Wasn’t a request,” Lonzo said. Lonzo wasn’t a guy who got off making threats. Peaches looked down the counter. There were two uniformed cops sitting at the far end, staring straight ahead, drinking coffee, eating toast. An old lady, oxygen tank at her feet. A black guy sitting with a white girl,,eating off each other’s plate. Two older men in suits, sipping coffee, reading the paper, not a fistfight between them.
When he looked back at the cops, they were both staring at him with notably blank expressions.
Okay. “Expensive help,” Peaches said. Lonzo downed the rest of his coffee, slid off his stool. “You in it now for real.”
TOD GOLDBERG is the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen books, including the novels Gangster Nation (Counterpoint), The House of Secrets (Grand Central), which he co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Brad Meltzer, Gangsterland (Counterpoint), a finalist for the Hammett Prize, Living Dead Girl (Soho Press), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Fake Liar Cheat (Pocket Books/MTV), and the popular Burn Notice series. Goldberg holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Literature from Bennington College and directs the Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside.
Adapted from Gangster Nation, by Tod Goldberg, Copyright © 2017 by Tod Goldberg. With the permission of the publisher, Counterpoint.