BAG OF NAILS by Peter Nolan Smith

Throughout the 70s Nickie Barnes strongarmed for a Harlem heroin empire under the protection of the Lucchese crime syndicate. His godfather ‘Crazy Joe’ Gallo helped Barnes create ‘the Council’ to run the trade north of 125th Street and Barnes earned the nickname ‘Mr. Untouchable’ for his skill at beating charges and evading arrests. Neither the DEA nor rival gangs could touch him and President Carter ordered his AG to bring down the drug kingpin.

The black-suited Feds were too square to catch Mr. Untouchable in a compromising situation, however a blonde-haired NYPD officer with a dirty reputation ensnared the gangster in a dope deal.

Facing multi-life sentences Nicky Barnes served his time like a man, until he discovered that a council member was seeing his old lady and his ‘friends’ were siphoning off his investments. He then dropped a dime on a multitude of his associates as well as his girlfriend. Rudy Giuliani rewarded his snitching with a reduced stretch of 35 years, which was better than serving time forever.

The NYPD cop instrumental to the bust was given his gold shield and Bobby Z was destined for great things.

In the autumn of 1979 a sniper on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 10th Street had shot two people. One of them was dead. A cop had been wounded attempting to batter down the door of the barricaded apartment. The 9th precinct cordoned off two blocks and the precinct captain called for back-up.

I watched the confrontation from the back of the St. Mark’s Church. It was a warm day for October and none of us had anything better to do than provide a target to a crazed sniper.

Help arrived in a black unmarked Chevy.

A tall blonde man in a dark suit got out of the passenger side. He was the mirror image of Clint Eastwood, if the movie star had rattlesnake blood running in his veins.

The white-shirted commanders greeted him with firm handshakes. The captain put his arm around the newcomer’s shoulder and then pointed to the sniper’s perch.

The tall man pulled out a .38 to check the cylinder and snapped it back into firing position.

As he walked away, I asked an officer whom I knew from the restaurant next to the precinct on 5th Street, “Who was that?”

“Bobby Z.” The uniformed cop spoke the name with fearful reverence.

I had heard the rumors and followed Bobby Z from a distance. He didn’t show a badge to cross the police line. The cops knew who he was.

Standing at the 2nd Avenue Deli the renegade pushed back his blonde hair like he was going on a date.

Twice he looked at his reflection in the deli’s windows walking to the rear of the apartment tenement, then climbed the fire escape with the agility of an escaped ape.

Within seconds he was in the building.

A minute later two shots rang out from the sniper’s apartment. A rifle flew from the window. It shattered on the street and Bobby Z waved his hand to signal that he had completed his mission. His audience applauded his swift work.

Back on the street several officers patted his back, as he headed toward 1st Avenue. His glare toward the civilians warned them that they had never seen him and the newspapers never reported the incident.

Someone that cold has enemies and a year later Bobby Z raided a Harlem apartment and shot dead several innocent people. One of them was a grandmother in a wheelchair.

The detective protested to his superiors that his informant had given the wrong address.

The media suggested that the killings were an execution.

No one believed a rogue cop and only his previous heroics saved him from prison.

Bobby’s pension couldn’t cover his debts, but the NYPD took care of their own and Bobby Z was unofficially employed by various precincts to enforce payments from dealers, gambling halls, brothels, and after-hours clubs as well as persuading wrong-thinking cops to maintain the blue wall of silence. At the bar next to the 9th Precinct his name was spoken with a feared hush, as if he were a ghost, but he was no phantom.

In the autumn of 1981 the Continental on West 25th Street was the best after-hours club in the city. I was working the door with Benji, a massive Jamaican brawler fighter, whose arms were scarred from Trenchtown machete wars.

I thought I was a hard guy just standing close to him. At worst I could take a punch.

The Continental opened an hour before the closing legit clubs. Scottie from the Ritz operated the bar. The registers sucked money like crooked slot machines. By 4am the converted garage was packed with those people not willing to release their hold on the night. Entry cost $10 and drinks in a plastic cup were $5. We paid no taxes. Customers bribed me with cocaine and money. I was rich every night and broke by the next afternoon.

Everyone wanted a piece of the action and the local precinct was insisting on a bigger cut from the door.

Arthur the owner thought that $500/night too was generous a donation and stiffed the bagman.

Crooked cops have their own value system and I was nervous about how they would right this situation in their favor.

The next night an unmarked car rolled down the deserted block. I nudged Benji.


“Not really.” The only time on-duty cops cruised the street was to get their pay.

“What we going to do?” A velvet rope offered little protection against a warrant.

We were running an illegal club.

“Nothing.” It was always a good strategy without knowing the threat.

Benji read the scene with criminal vision. This Chevy had only one man behind the wheel.

We’re fucked, man.” Benji’s 300 pounds on a 6-2 frame intimidated most white people into crossing the street, especially since he was strapping a 45.

The car double-parked behind a limousine and the driver got out of the car without shutting off the engine.

“Fucked how?”

“It’s Bobby Z. This white boy tougher than a bag of nails.” Benji muttered under his breath, as if the ex-cop could read lips.

“Watch the car,” he said to Benji. “I don’t want no one stealing it.”

“You got it.” Benji knew when to play good citizen.

“Where’s the owner?” Bobby asked me, surveying the street without seeing any threat.

“He’s inside.” I was in no position to lie.

“Show me.”

I opened the ropes and went inside the crowded club. Several men spotted Bobby Z and looked for a rear exit. He wasn’t looking for them

“Let me guess.” Bobby Z scanned the room and then said, “The guy in the black suit at the end of the bar.”

“That’s him.” I lifted my hand to warn Arthur.

“Don’t be smart.” It was the only warning I would get from him.

“Yes, sir. I showed him the way.

“I won’t be long.” Bobby Z went to the bar and slapped Arthur once. My streetwise boss fell to the floor in a slump.

“500 a night.” Bobby Z helped Arthur to his feet. “You got that? I’ll be here every night to make sure I get it too”

“Yes.” It was the only right answer.

The extra $500 came from allowing less desirable customers into the club for $20 each. 25 people might not seem many, but these entries proved to be trouble time and time again. Benji and I handled each intruders with force.

Bobby Z watched our heavy work from the bar with amusement. All he had to do was tell the trouble-makers to leave. None of them would have had the balls to question his demands.

“Sorry, but I’m not here.”

Bobby Z had a past, present, and future which he couldn’t outrun, but he had misread the shitstorm coming our way.

The International was hot. The FBI were investigating police corruption. Arthur wore the wire for Internal Affairs. Our partners were Russian counterfeiters. The leader was going out with my ex-girlfriend. I was still in love with her. Benji thought I was a fool and so did Bobby Z.

“You.” Bobby Z motioned for me to come over to him.

“What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong? Are you blind?”

“No.” I knew what he was talking about. My sister worked for the Justice Department. She had called to warsn me that my name had been mentioned in an ongoing investigation on Viktor Malenski. He was best friends with the Russian counterfeiter.

“You should get out of here before it’s too late to leave.”

“What about you?” I was planning on leaving for Paris. A magazine wanted me to help them open a nightclub.

“Tonight’s my last night. It should be yours too. One more thing. That girl is never coming back to you.


The truth didn’t sound any better coming from a bag of nails.

I gave my notice.

Arthur shrugged like I should have gone long before that.

I left for Paris within the week. I had a job at a nightclub in Les Halles called Les Bains-Douches. It was another version of the Continental only legal. The French are good at being bad.

Over the next few months I heard about the International from Scottie. Viktor Malenski’s corpse was found outside the club and the FBI raided the premises a day after New Year’s Eve. The Special Investigations Unit arrested two bagman for the cops. Bobby Z wasn’t one of them. He learned his lesson about how to keep his distance from trouble, but thirty precinct cops were dismissed without charges. No one was saying who killed Viktor.

I stayed in France for five years.

By 1990 I was out of nightclubs.

My friend, Richie Boy, hired me to work at his diamond exchange.

Part security, part schlepper.

Sleeping regular hours were a treat, although the money wasn’t close to what I coined at the Continental, so when Scottie offered a job at his new club in Beverly Hills, I accepted without reservation.
A free place to stay, good money, drugs, beautiful women, palm trees, the Pacific Ocean, and a chance to meet a film producer for my stories sounded like a dream come true.

The Milk Bar opened in January of 1995. Its New Yorkishness guaranteed an overnight success.
I met Prince, the husband of the Pakistani president, Mickey Rourke, and a good number of plenty drug dealers. My cocaine use was minute to minute. Our bouncer, Big Bernard, was a skyscraper of a Haitian.

His big smile was a calling card to get into films. Everyone in LA was after the same thing.

Fame and fortune.

Bernard was a pussy hound and he had a tendency to disappear inside the club.
Scottie would come out to watch my back. Beverly Hills was rich and soft, but gangbangers cruised the night looking for ripe targets and we were flush with cash. Scottie was no gunman and neither was I.
We were in LA for easy pickings and so was our past.

One night we were talking about old time at the door, when I saw Scotty’s eyes widened in disbelief.

“Damn.” Scottie’s mild expletive echoed Benji’s ‘damn’ from over a decade ago.

I didn’t have to turn my head. Scottie’s voice said everything.

“It’s Bobby Z, right?”

“In the flesh.”

“Damn.” I turned around expecting a snake , but the ex-cop was tipping 300 pounds and walked with a limp, which could mean many things, but most of all that I could outrun him if necessary.

“What you looking at?” While his blonde hair was retreating from his forehead, his voice had not lost the menace

“Nothing. I wasn’t saying anything until I had to say something.

“I know you.” The ragged face came from drinking for more than his health. The pummeled knuckles were the souvenirs of forgotten beatings. He was no pussy cat.

“That might be right.” I stayed out of his arm’s reach, for even fat men can be dangerous in the wrong situation.

“From where?” he asked with nervous apprehension looking over his shoulder. He suit shined from too many ironings.

Two well-dressed men were nearing the entrance. They looked like move producers with extraordinarily young skin from a thousand rejuvenation procedures.

“You busted Nicky Barnes,” I said the legend.

“I was only small part of the operation.” Bobby Z was uncomfortable that his past had tracked him down. Drug dealers had long memories. “Did you know Nicky?”

“No.” Nicky Barnes was before my time.

“Think 1981.”

“We had the Continental in New York.” Scottie had never liked how Bobby Z had sucker-punched his best friend.

“That was a long time ago.” The name of that infamous club jolted his memory.

“Not that long ago.”

“A lifetime ago.” The heavy ex-cop licked his lips, as he said, “I’m looking for work in films as a cop expert. No one out here knows about that shit. They think I’m a decorated cop. I am too, but if they were to find out other things, I’d be screwed.”

“So you’re asking a favor?” Scottie was fishing for an edge. Bobby Z might be over the hill, but he had friends here and in New York.

“Yes,” he hissed in agreement to whatever we asked of him later.

“Then come on in. Your friends too. Free of charge.”

“I’ll make good for you.” Bobby Z ushered in his friends. Both were known in film circles. They tipped the bartenders with largesse. When he left alone, Bobby Z duked me a c-note.

“Can I ask you a question?” I wanted to know if he had seen Nickie Barnes again, however Mr. Untouchable was in the Witness Protection Program. He could be anywhere.


“You told me to leave before the Feds raided the Continental.”


“That warning saved me a lot of trouble. Why you do that?”

“I did that?”

“Yes, you did.”

“Sorry, I don’t remember you at all.”

“I suppose that’s a good thing.”

“Yeah, I guess it is.” It wasn’t easy being as hard as Bobby Z, for even nails get rusty and I wished him good luck. Scottie and I never saw him again.

Over the years I’ve read that he’s got a good career as a consultant out in Hollywood, but he has never called to collect my debt and I was better off for his ignoring me, because no matter how out of shape Bobby Z got, it’s always best not to owe anything to a bag of nails.

They have sharp ends.

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