BAG OF NAILS by Peter Nolan Smith

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

The Feds were too square to catch Mr. Untouchable in a compromising situation, however a NYPD officer with a dirty reputation ensnared the gangster in a dope deal gone bad. Facing multi-life sentences of Life Nicky Barnes did his time like a man, until he discovered that a council member was seeing his old lady and his investments were being sapped by his friends. He dimed over 150 of his associates as well as his girlfriend. Rudy Giuliani reward his snitching with a reduced stretch of 35 years.

The NYPD cop instrumental to the bust was given his gold shield. Johnny Z was destined for great things, however the years of undercover had a tax to pay. One night he raided a Harlem apartment and shot dead several innocent people. One of them a grandmother. Johnny Z said that his informant had given the wrong address. Other people suggested that the killings were an execution. His previous heroics and numerous line of duty injuries saved him from prison. His punishment was a summary dismissal. Retirement with a pension.

The NYPD take care of their own and Johnny Z was employed by different precincts to enforce payments from dealers, gambling halls, brothels, and after-hours clubs. The killer also insured that wrong-thinking cops maintain the blue wall of silence. His name was spoken by the cops of the 9th Precinct as if he were a ghost, but he was no phantom.

A sniper on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 10th Street had shot two people. One dead. A cop had been wounded in a badly-planned to batter down the door of the barricaded apartment. The 9th precinct had the area cordoned off for two blocks. I was watching the confrontation from the back of the St. Mark’s Church. The precinct captain had called for back-up. Help came in a black unmarked Chevy.

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

The nearby officers 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. He checked the cylinder and nodded to the captain. As he walked away, I asked an officer that I knew from the restaurant next to the precinct on 5th Street, “Who was that?”

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

I followed Bobby Z from a distance. He pushed back his blonde hair like he was going on a date. Twice he looked at his reflection in the store windows, as he circled the block to approach the sniper’s building from the rear. He didn’t have to show a badge to get through the police line. The cops knew his face. Johnny Z walked like he had weights on his ankles,but climbed the side of building to reach the fire escape leading to the roof 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. A half-minute went by and Bobby Z emerged from the building. Several officers patted his back, as he headed toward 1st Avenue. His glare toward the civilians warned them that they had never seen him. The newspapers never reported the incident. Johnny Z had returned to the ghosts.

Not for long.

The International was an after-hours club on West 25th Street and the river. The hottest place in town the winter of 1981. I was working the door with Benji, a massive Jamaican. His arms were scarred from machete wars in Trenchtown. He was a seasoned street-fighter bag of nails and I thought I was a hard guy just standing close to him. At worst I could take a punch.

The International opened an one hour before the legit clubs’ closing time. Scottie from the Ritz was operating the bar. Full-tilt. The registers sucked money like slot machines. By 4am the converted garage was packed with those people not willing to release their hold on the night. $10 entry. $5 drinks. No taxes. Customers bribed me with cocaine and money. I was rich every night and broke by the 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 $500/night was generous. Crooked cops have their own value system and I was nervous about how they would right the situation in their favor.

An unmarked car rolled down the deserted block. I nudged Benji. He recognized the ride.

“Police.” The only time on-duty cops cruised the street was to get their pay. This was unofficial.

“What we going to do?” A velvet rope offered little protection. I had been arrested the previous year for running the door at another after-hours club on 14th Street. The judge had let me off with a warning. He had seen me playing basketball on West 4th Street. A second arrest would warrant a harsher verdict.

“This isn’t official.” Benji read the scene with criminal vision. This Chevy was it. Only one man behind the wheel. The face belonged to Johnny Z. Tougher than a bag of mails.

“Damn.” Benji muttered under his breath, as if the ex-cop could read lips. Benji’s 300 pounds on a 6-2 frame intimidated most white people into crossing the street. He was carrying a gun. None of that mattered to Bobby Z. He got out of the car. The engine left running.

“Where’s the owner?” Bobby asked, surveying the street. We were no threat.

We opened the ropes and pointed to Arthur. We weren’t getting busted up for a yid. Johnny Z goes over and slaps Arthur. He fell to the floor.

“One K a night.” Johnny 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. Johnny Z watched from the bar with amusement. All he had to do was tell the trouble-makers to leave. None of them would have questioned his command.

Johnny Z was bad news. His mission were mired in violence. A Past, present, and future that he couldn’t outrun. He was the most dangerous man in New York. The ex-cop had little sense of self-preservation. He was above the law, but Johnny Z 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. It was time to go. I left before Paris before one of the Russians were shot. ViKtor Malenski’s corpse signaled the end of the International. The police raided the premises a day after New Year’s Eve. The Special Investigations Unit arrested two bagman for the cops. Johnny Z wasn’t one of them. 30 precinct cops were dismissed without charges. No one knew who killed Viktor.

I was happy to be in France and stayed five years.

By 1990 I was out of nightclubs. A friend, Richie Boy, hired me to work at his diamond exchange. Part security, part schlepper. Sleeping regular hours was a treat, but the money wasn’t close to what I coined at the International,so when Arthur’s partner,Scottie, offered a job at his 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. The Milk Bar opened in January of 1995. Its success was overnight. 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 his calling card. He was looking to get into films. Everyone in LA was doing the same. Even me.

Bernard had a tendency to disappear inside the club. He was a pussy hound. 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. Neither was I. We were in LA for easy pickings and so was our past.

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

“Let me guess.”I didn’t have to turn my head. “It’s Johnny Z.”

“In the flesh.”

“Damn.” The Beverly Hills PD were notoriously clean. They only accepted bribes from their friends. I turned around hoping Johnny Z was a mirage. He was more a thick cloud. 300 pounds and not muscular like Benji.

“What you looking at?” His voice had not lost the menace.

“I know you.” His gut was soft. He walked with a limp. Johnny Z was out of shape.

“From where?” He asked with nervous apprehension. Two well-dressed men were nearing the entrance. They looked like move producers. Their waxy skin youthful after a thousand rejuvenation procedures.

“You busted Nicky Barnes.” That was the legend.

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

“No.” Nicky barnes was out of my league.

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

“Damn.” The name of that infamous club jolted his memory. The ex-cop rubbed his lips,as he said, “I’m looking for work in films. 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. Johnny Z might be over the hill, but he had friends. Here and in New York.

“Yes.” he hissed the word as an agreement to whatever we asked of him later.

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

“I make good for you.” Johnny Z breathed easy. He ushered in his friends. They tipped the bartenders with largesse. When he left, Johnny Z duked me a c-note. I wished him good luck and I’ve read that he’s had a good career out in Hollywood. Neither Scottie nor I collected out favor.

Maybe one day.

If I live long enough.

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