The chameleon is stealthy, mysterious, sneaky, and crafty, but never shy or undecided. As a creature closely watched by predators and prey alike, it grows first uncomfortable, then suspicious, but after constant observation, proceeds beyond alarmed paranoia to ingenious subterfuge. The creature adapts to ceaseless scrutiny by concealing itself through camouflage, misdirection, and disguise, hiding its movement, sound, and even odor.
The living thing that is organized crime, under the unceasing gaze of law enforcement, evolved principals, characteristics, and behaviors that carefully concealed their nefarious activities from the prying eyes and ears of the police. In a court of law, a lynchpin of successful prosecutions is the words of witnesses or even the accused himself to reveal his true motives and nature. A smoking gun might contain no fingerprints, but if a few drinks at the pub loosens the murderer’s tongue to the point that he brags of his homicidal acts, these words can connect the killer with the weapon beyond reasonable doubt. When the confessions of the guilty slip free in private moments, the trick of recorded sound can spirit them away and whisper them into the ears of jurors, who can then do nothing else but convict.
The inhabitants of the underworld learned to cloak their communications in a guise of misdirection, a sort of gangster patois, a cadence of accent perfectly clear to the initiated, but leaving the auditory eavesdroppers with a sensation that the true gist was always just barely beyond their grasp. Indeed, even if they could navigate the verbal maze, or even the treasonous revelations of a turncoat, the intentional ambiguity would befuddled even the most wise and dedicated tribunal. Their simple system of covert communications is easily mastered by the foot soldiers of the mob, and used routinely for daily discussions, including chatting over a meal, shooting the breeze, or musing with friends over a hand of poker.
The air was thick with cigar smoke and the smells of garlic and oregano as the players faced each other over fans of Bicycle cards. The Snake was peering down at the flop on the table while scratching his nose, while Sal threw a couple of chips on the table and grunted out, “I’ll raise ya.”
Carbinieri winced slightly, pushed a couple chips into the middle and said “Call.” Snake glanced over at Sal, and saw him with his cards hovering just below his chin, which was the signal to call. To Snake’s left sat Drywall Joey, who ran a home remodeling and contracting business, and Lasagna Mike, who needed two chairs to hold his morbidly obese bulk. Carbinieri was in the classic fish sandwich position, with a shark to either side of him, where they could steer him through a series of wins and losses that would leave him empty-pocketed. Drywall and Lasagna were in on the scam too, but serving only as filler to round out the game and follow instructions. They would play along until the fish was landed and picked clean, at which point they would shuffle him out the door, and split the money they cheated him out of. This was traditionally followed by a real game of poker with the remaining players. They would use only the money they won, meaning each player would see only potential upside. This simple arrangement helped keep the bad blood that often comes from gambling losses and unpaid debts to a minimum. Drywall and Lasagna also called, reading the surreptitious instructions of Sal. They were still in the setup phase, building Carbinieri’s confidence and learning his tells, so when the cards were laid on the table, Carbinieri chortled as he realized his pair of jacks was a winning hand, and he clumsily pulled the pot into the haphazard pile of chips in front of him.
“Adriana, grab a fresh round of drinks.” Ordered Sal. “The Don needs to celebrate his win.”
“Bring me one of The Chef’s meatball sandwiches, too.” added Snake.
“Are you kidding me?” asked Adrianna, pointing at the stack of empty plates next to Snake, that previously held a small pizza, veal parmesan, and an antipasto. “You’re gonna pop!
“I got a powerful hunger,” retorted Snake, “and I need to feed the beast, so get me some meatballs. You should know where the Chef keeps his meatballs,” Snake added with a wink, “you must have seen them in the walk-in fridge.” Adrianna scowled at Snake and stomped out of the room.
Snake collected the cards, shuffled them absentmindedly. “Hold ‘em, nothing wild.” He announced, and began shooting the two pocket cards for each player around the table with quick flicks of the wrist, to rest in piles in front of each gambler.
“Yo Snake, you need to start winning.” Announced Drywall. Lasagna snorted in agreement, and Drywall continued “You need some coin so you can invest in some wardrobe improvements.” This quip resulted in a series of snickers around the table. The players had been ribbing Snake about his disheveled appearance throughout the game. His T-shirt and shorts combination, decorated with the jetsam of his voracious consumption, was out of place with the neatly suited figures around him.
“Yeah, and a medical plan,” interjected Drywall, pointing at the scabbed gash on his forehead.
“Joey, how’s the business?” inquired Snake. “You heard any stories about a guy that got walled up in his own house?”
“Yeah, I heard that story,” mused Joey. “I heard that a guy built a house for him, but then he didn’t come through on final payment.”
“What a deadbeat chump!” observed Sal.
Lasagna let out a grunt of agreement.
“Yeah, a real loser,” continued Drywall, “So the guy that built his house, I heard he tied him up, took him down to the basement, and drywalled him in.”
The group let out a few chuckles in appreciation.
“But didn’t you hear the rest of the story?” prodded Snake.
“Oh yeah, I heard that all right,” elaborated Drywall. “You see, his wife gets home later, and can’t find her husband. Then she’s hearing strange noises in the house, so she calls the police. The cops are searching around the house, hearing these noises but not finding anyone. Then all of the sudden, the guy bursts out of the wall, like the Kool-Aid man!” Drywall thrust his arms out in pantomime of someone bursting through an obstacle. “He’s all covered in plaster and looks like some kind of crazed zombie, and the cops are so surprised to see something exploding through the drywall, the pull out their pistols and Blam! Blam! Blam!.”
The gathering erupted into a bout of hilarious laughter amidst calls of “Served ‘em right.” And “The poor sap,” punctuated by Lasagna’s grunts and snorts.
After a moment or two the gamblers collected themselves and focused on the game again.
“Hey Snake,” asked Sal, “Didn’t you used to know a guy living the easy life, a guy who used to walk around dressed like a made man, not a care in the world.”
“Yeah, I knew a guy like that.” Responded Snake.
“People say he made his mark upstate somewhere, really pulled in a big one, then retired.” continued Sal.
Snake glanced at his cards for a moment, then back at Sal, “Yeah, I heard he did pull in a big one, really made a contribution to some charitable causes, and that lead to some big things for him.”
“Real young guy too,” mused Sal, “not even out of college yet. You think he’s set for life now?”
“I heard he was on easy street for a good 10 years, but he’s not exactly set for life,” responded Snake. “In fact, he might be going back into business. You might want to look him up.”
As Snake threw the flop out onto the board, Carbinieri held his cards down to the table, lifted them to look, then put them back down to the table again. It was a classic “I can’t believe my eyes” tell, and both Sal and Snake immediately knew he was holding a good hand.
Just then Adrianna shuffled in, staggering under the weight of several heavy plates of food.
“We’re in the middle of a hand, just put it over there,” ordered Sal, pointing his elbow at a table behind Carbinieri. After Adriana unburdened herself, she turned toward the gamblers and wearily asked “Anything else?”
“Yeah, maybe,” muttered Sal, and seeing that Carbinieri had his nose buried deep in his cards, looked at Adrianna and jerked his chin towards the fish. Adriana peered over Carbinieri’s shoulder, and made a “K” with her thumb and two fingers, and another “K”.
Sal glanced at his cards, then waved them towards himself in a sweeping motion, meaning he was ready for the coup de grace that would clean out their prey.
“You think it’s too early to fill up on seafood?” Snake asked Sal significantly.
“Nah, it’s never too early when I’m hungry.” argued Sal.
“Mmm hmmm,” chimed in Lasagna Mike.
“Yeah, I’m starting to feel hungry too.” Drywall piled on.
And so it had been decided that now was the time to gut the fish.
Carbinieri looked up from his cards somewhat dazedly, and wondered, “What, are we eating again now?”
“Nah, after the hand.” Insisted Sal.
Carbinieri led off with a large bet, with each player in turn raising the stakes in response to a signal from Sal. When the bet came around to Sal, he hemmed and hawed, scratched his head a few times, and finally called. Snake rolled over the turn card and Carbinieri lifted his cards and put them down again three times in succession.
“You know when a guy is down on his luck, he can always reach out to friends.” Offered Sal. “I know a guy who likes to help out with giving guys odd jobs and such.”
Snake ignored Sal’s prompting and looked at his cards.
Carbinieri pushed about half of his remaining chips into the pot, and the other players called per Sal’s instruction. Sal rubbed the back of his head and stared at his cards for a few seconds with a worried expression
“You know anyone that might be looking for odd jobs?” Prodded Sal.
“I don’t really know any guys like that,” Snake retorted, “but I do know a guy setting up a new business, he could probably use some help.”
Sal looked at Snake with both eyebrows raised, momentarily losing track of the game. “What kind of business?” Sal asked interestedly.
“Something in finance.” Snake hinted.
“Ah, it takes a lot of capital, and a load of muscle for that kind of business.” Sal said with disappointment. “The clientele is always broke or on vacation when the bills come due. Besides, that market’s already been cornered.”
“Nah, not that kind of finance.” Snake corrected him. “This is more in the line of assisting an established local business with services that will have a big impact on their bottom line.” Snake said tantalizingly.
“If you know any guys that might be interested, you should talk to them.” Snake continued.
“You in or out?” demanded Carbinieri, starting to look a little worried himself. Sal called. Now the pot was brimming with most of the chips on the table, a most tempting bit of bait.
As Snake turned up the river, Carbinieri began fanning his cards up and down almost non-stop. Carbinieri shoved the rest of his chips into the middle and glanced quickly around at the rest of the players.
“Too rich for my blood” said Snake, folding his hand in response to Sal’s signal.
“Aw, me too.” Said Drywall.
Lasagna Mike let out a low moan of mock dismay and tossed his cards to the table.
“Yeah, this guy I know, he’s got something really big planned, something you can take to the bank.”
Sal gawked at Snake, and almost dropped his cards.
Beads of sweat began to form on Carbinieri’s brow, as he nervously looked from his cards to Sal and back to his cards again. After a moment of unresponsiveness on Sal’s part, he pleaded “C’mon Sal, you in or out?”
“Gimme a minute, I’m thinking.” Sal resisted. “Just how big is this pot?” Sal asked Snake.
“What, you wanna count it in the middle of the hand?” asked Carbinieri in confusion.
Snake peered at Sal over his cards, “It’s a big pot, maybe bigger than we’ve ever had.”
Sal probed further, “Bigger than the big hand that college boy you know, the one he won?”
Carbinieri looked from Sal to Snake and back again, but they were locked into a stare-down, and neither noticed him.
“Yeah, a big pot, so maybe you should just fold?” pleaded Carbinieri.
“Bigger,” confirmed Snake with a confident bark. “Big enough for that college boy, and all his friends, to retire on.”
Snake looked directly into Sal’s eyes and asked, “Are you in?”
Sal stood riveted in Snake’s gaze. Snake could almost see the parade of scenarios and possibilities marching across his face as he considered the risks and rewards. But in the end the reliable bond of friendship and the uncanny reputation of his interlocutor stacked the balance of weights and measures swaying in his brain in one inexorable direction.
“Oh yeah, I am all in.” Declared Sal, pushing his pile of chips to the middle with conviction, a confident smile turning his mouth up into a grin.
Carbinieri turned his cards over apprehensively, showing the pair of kings that everyone at the table knew he was holding. The board held another king, a pair of deuces, a 9 and a 3. Carbinieri exclaimed jubilantly, “Read ‘em and weep boys, full house, kings over twos. The Don is back in town!”
As Carbinieri stretched his arms out over the pile of chips, Sal chortled, “Slow down there Tuna!” He casually turned over one of his hole cards, revealing a deuce. “Maybe I gotta full house too.”
Carbinieri was momentarily crestfallen, then perked up and explained “Kings over twos beats twos over kings, I still win!” And reached his arms greedily back toward the pot.
“But!” Shouted Sal, halting Carbinieri’s arms in mid air, “maybe I don’t got a full house.”
“What, how, wha?” stammered Carbinieri. “Of course you got a full house, I can see it right there, three twos and a pair of kings.”
“Maybe,” continued Sal, pausing for effect, “What I actually got, is four,” he drawled as he slowly began turning over his last card, “of” he continued slowly flipping the card, “a” he teased, the card almost completely turned over now, “kind.” He finished triumphantly, revealing the fourth deuce.
Carbinieri exhaled in a deflating sigh, and pushed himself back from the table dejectedly.
“Well, that does it for me,” Snake announced. “I can’t compete with that pot.”
“Yeah, gotta be on the job at first light,” agreed drywall.
Lasagna Mike sighed and put on his coat and hat.
“Well, tell me more about that drywall guy.” Protested Carbinieri.
“It’s getting late and Adriana wants to finish up and get home.” Explained Sal, handing Carbinieri his hat.
“We can talk more about my construction business pals next time,” Added Drywall.
“C’mon, I’ll stroll to the door with you,” chimed in Adrianna, taking his arm and molding her curves into the side of Carbinieri’s amorphous frame.
Under this enticing persuasion, Carbinieri gave up all resistance and let himself be led away. Halfway to the door he suddenly jerked his head back around, and called out “Same time next week?”
“Yeah, same time,” replied Sal. “Don’t worry,” added Sal encouragingly, “You’re luck’s gonna change, I mean, you can’t lose every time.”
After Carbinieri was out the door, the goombahs took off their hats and coats, divided up the money that was formerly entrusted to Carbinieri’s hands by the taxpayers of Philadelphia, and began to play in earnest.
By Stirling Edgewood