I have eliminated a lot of rats in my career and let me tell you something: I am not talking about tiny rodents here, fella.
I am talking about the snitches; the canaries; the blabbermouths. Those gutless animals who would rather squeal on their best friends than take their lumps like real men, and do their time honorably. Out of all the men I have clipped, I have only felt a pang of remorse over one fellow. Please, allow me to explain. The summer was 1985. And because of that damned RICO statute, the stool pigeons were coming out of the woodwork left and right. It was in July that I’d received a telephone call from a friend of mine who had worked in the DA’s office. We’ll call that friend, Larry.
“I have some very important news for you, James,” Larry had told me over the telephone late one Saturday night. His voice was huffing and puffing. I could tell by the way he was panting that he had just received some extremely vital information about something. But I had no idea what, or who it was about, until Larry finally blurted out, “A soldier in your family, Frank Bernstein, has been working as a government informant.”
Frank Bernstein — AKA, Frankie Ties; nicknamed so, because of his affinity for loud, expensive ties. He had been almost like a father figure to me. When I was first starting out, he had shown me how to strong-arm. He’d shown me how to settle disputes with petty associates and rival families. And he’d even taken me out on my very first hit. It was unthinkable that this wonderful man, this beautiful person I’d known for so long was going to rat me and the rest of the family out.
Sad to say, my one-time mentor and best friend, Frank Bernstein, would have to be dealt with.
A week later, I gave him a call.
“You won’t believe it, Frankie,” I said into the phone, all excited-sounding that day. “But Joey and I just scored some grade-A designer women’s jeans. That’s right,” I repeated into the receiver. Frank could hardly contain his excitement. He hadn’t been involved in a major score all week. And this was precisely the type of score the old man had been waiting for. Minimal work. “Joey’s son just sprained his knee so Joe has just hurried home. But I need some help unloading and unpacking the truck,” I said. “Drop by right now and help me out, and I’ll pay you five grand.”
Frank made his way into the Ace of Spades social club twenty five minutes later. As he entered, I was hunched over the Gilligan’s Island pinball machine, playing it. The guys in the crew had loved this humongous piece of deafening machinery. Frank was the best at it. He would always laugh at me for losing so quickly. Today was no exception. My judgment was a little off, and I missed the balls with the paddle. The balls dropped underneath the bottom holes and the Skipper’s hostile voice had angrily shouted at me, “Little buddy!”
“Ha, ha. I keep telling you, James. You will never get the hang of this game. You never listen to me.” Frank shook his head sadly, and then he slapped me on the back lightly, affectionately. I had decided it was time to lay out the bait. “Yeah,” I said, chewing my gum mundanely, as I always did. “But I bet you can’t get as far as I did. All the way to level 15.”
Frank smiled, and then he strutted over toward the pinball machine, and then he shoved his finely manicured fingers inside his glistening, sharkskin pants pockets and extracted the quarter. Then, he shoved the quarter inside the machine.
Say what you will about Frank Bernstein. He was a dirty rat bastard. That much was indisputable. But frigging-A, that man was the best damned pinball player I’d ever witnessed. Had he not been an inducted member of our thing, he’d have made an impressive pinball hustler. He did not press those buttons frantically like the rest of us did. Instead, the shrewd old character just waited for the ball to drop right where he needed it to drop and then, like his hands had suddenly come to life from a jolt of unexpected electricity, he would rap those buttons. Quickly, resolutely. That, my friends, was Frank Bernstein. Totally cool. Totally confident.
Frank was really getting into the game now. He was finally beginning to lose some of his cool, cocksure composure. That’s when I knew I had to do it. I had to whack my best friend. He was so worked up, I noticed sweat dripping down the old man’s forehead as he yelled, “Passed level 15, James. Passed 15. Told you. Told you.” I immediately grabbed the snub-nosed thirty eight pistol stashed underneath my belt between the slacks I was wearing. And then I placed the gun at the back of Frank’s beautiful, immaculately combed gray hair. An inch closer, and the pistol barrel would have been touching the man’s head.
Frank Bernstein was tossed violently against the pinball machine, like some sort of lifeless dummy. And then he tumbled backwards, onto the hard, cement floor. I knelt down beside the body and I felt for a pulse. No twinkle. No feeble indication of life. And so I walked leisurely over toward the payphone in the club, jammed a quarter into it, and then I made a call to a few select guys from our crew — all with the same message. “It’s over with. Bring the weights, the Duct tape, and the chainsaw.”
Later that night, I was awakened by another late-night telephone call. This time, again, from my buddy in the DA’s office, Larry.
“Yeah, what is it, Larry?” I said into the receiver, grumpily. “Can’t you ever learn to call at a decent hour?”
Larry was apologetic. And he was panting again. “James,” he said. “I have to tell you something. Remember what I told you last week about your buddy, Frank Bernstein?”
“Yeah,” I replied groggily, still half asleep. “I sure do,” smirking to myself, thinking of the way we’d disposed of that ungodly little rat, just a few hours earlier.
“Forget about it,” Larry continued. “It was nothing but one gigantic mix-up at the office. We were mistaken. Frank Bernstein is clean as a whistle. He never planned on ratting you or anybody else from the family out. It just was one huge blunder on my part. And I’m sorry for any confusion or problems that might have resulted from it, James.”
“Come again?” I said. Now feeling much, much more awake.
“Please disregard my previous information about Frank Bernstein, James. He was not a rat.”
That, dear reader, was the moment in my life I’d felt my first pang of remorse.