Man in Fedora and Raincoat

“Johnny Stone: Printed in Blood. Chapter 4” by Dean Goldberg

(In the previous chapter, Johnny and his ex-girlfriend, Antonia, (Toni) find out that Vinnie Santelli, a childhood friend to both, had been brutally killed in his print shop)


When we walked out of City Morgue on the Winthrop Avenue entrance, it had begun to rain; a sporadic, chilly drizzle, the kind of rain that finds your skin however you’re dressed and instantly convinces you how messy and cold life can really be. I hailed a cab, which came sliding in, rather than rolling in, and came to a stop a little too close for my comfort. I opened the door for Toni and bent down.

“I’m going to see Vinnie’s mom. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Be careful.”
“Of the old Lady?”

She reached out and touched my hand.

“Just keep away from the waterfront, Johnny.”

I managed to talk over my heart which was beating a loud love drumbeat.

“No worries, kid.”

I gave the cabbie the directions and watched the cab disappear down the block. I pulled my collar up and walked to the subway. The cab dropped me off a few blocks away from Vinnie’s house on Cranbury Street in Brooklyn Heights. The streets were pretty empty, not a surprise since the street life in the Heights shut down by 9pm until mid-summer, when the “lesser people” would hang out on their stoops, or even sleep on the fire escape if it got too hot. The Heights had the reputation of being a more “proper” neighborhood than the rest of Brooklyn. Lots of writers, artists, homos and white-haired ladies. But the rents were still cheap and all bets were off when it came to the houses that hugged the waterfront. The Santelli’s clapboard house was as close as anyone wanted to live that wasn’t up to no good. I climbed up the old wooden stairs and rang the doorbell. Mrs. Santelli, a small woman, somewhere in her sixties, looked through the curtains.

“It’s Johnny Stone, Mrs. Santelli.”

I heard the locks turn, one after another. There were three.

“You can never be too careful Johnny,” Vinnie had told me one evening as we were

coming into the house a little late and a little drunk.

“Mom!  Johnny Stone is here, come say hello.” He leaned toward me conspiratorially and said, “Ma can’t hear for shit anymore.”

The gray-haired woman had a faced lined with a history that led all the way back to the little town in Italy where she helped her grandmother in the garden pulling weeds and tending fat red tomatoes until she was six years old taken away to another land at Ellis Island.

She opened the door, her hard bony hands that had cooked a million meals over a lifetime and cleaned as many floors pulled me in. But this night she was dressed in black.

“Johnny,” she fell into my arms, “My boy is dead. My good boy. Why Johnny? Why?”

I kept her in my arms, but I couldn’t come up with an answer that didn’t sound trite.

I looked around, surprised that she was alone.

“I told everyone to leave. I told them I wanted to go to bed.” She said, and pointed to the living room as if just seeing the furniture. “They’ll be back tomorrow.” She pulled away and looked me up and down.

“You want a drink, Johnny? Coffee? Some Anisette?”

“Nah,” I said, “I just wanted to see if you needed anything.” I gestured to the living room, “But I would like to talk to you for a few minutes, if you’re up for it.”

She walked me to the couch. The plastic coverlet made a squeak when she sat down.

“Sure Johnny, sure.”

I sat down next to her and put my hand over hers.

“Vinnie was a good friend and a good person,” I said. “One of the best.”

Her face was wet, she wiped it with her handkerchief.  “Why Johnny? Why was he killed? He was always such a good boy. He never made trouble for anybody.”

“That’s what I’m going to find out Mrs. Santelli,” I said.

I spoke very softly, “Did Johnny have any new friends? Anyone new he brought to the house or was on the phone with a lot?”

She stopped to think.

“No. He had his poker friends over last week, but beside that he was busy at work.”

“Busier than usual?”

“Oh yeah, some nights he didn’t get home until after midnight. He told me he had a new client he was trying to impress by getting the booklet done fast.”

“So besides that, nothing unusual?”

“No, no.” She hesitated.

“What?” I asked.

She shook her head,

“Well one time Vinnie was on the phone, I was in the kitchen cooking my eggplant parmigiana—it was Vinnie’s favorite, and his voice sounded strange. I mean I wasn’t really eavesdropping, but I could tell something was not right, and when I came out of the kitchen to get a hand towel, he turned away from me and said into the phone with a low voice,

‘I’ve got to go, got to go—don’t worry so much, and keep your mouth shut.’”

“Are you sure that’s what he said?”

She pulled her hand from mine and swiped some imaginary crumbs off her dress,

“Vinnie thinks,” she stopped for a second and leaned in a little closer, A crooked half smile found its place on her face.

“Vinnie thought I was hard of hearing. But it wasn’t true. Maybe I thought it wasn’t such a bad idea if he thought I was half deaf.”

I wasn’t surprised. Vinnie’s mom held him pretty tight to her apron strings—and the way she cooked that Eggplant parmigiana, maybe it wasn’t such a bad place to be.

“You know Vinnie was seeing a girl?”

Now, that did surprise me. Vinnie was a very shy guy. He’d had one girlfriend in High School, Catherine Marino, that he was head over heels for. They’d gone steady the until senior year and then all of a sudden, she was gone. Out of school. A couple of weeks after she left, I got up the courage to ask him about it.

“She dumped me, what can I say, Johnny?”

“But I thought you guys were about to get engaged?”

Vinnie turned red-faced. I wasn’t sure if it was anger or embarrassment. Probably a bit of both.

“Me too, Johnny. Me too.”

A little while later the rumor was that Catherine had gotten pregnant, and apparently not with Vinnie.  But that was years ago and up until his mother’s newsflash he was pretty much flying solo. Toni and I tried to set him up at least a half dozen times, but he would just shrug and say he “didn’t have the time,” or something about taking care of his mom. Only once, when he’d had a little too much Anisette he confided,

“I just couldn’t stand the hurt again, Johnny.”

I stashed the memory and asked, “Who was she? How long had he been seeing her?”

The old lady shook her head.

“I met her about three months ago. I don’t know how long Vinnie kept it a secret.” Her face was wet again and she wiped her tears.

“She was a nice girl, Johnny. She had a good job in some publishing house.”

She looked at me, “and she liked my Vinnie, I could tell.”

The idea of Vinnie finally finding a girl and then ending up in the morgue took the breath out of me. “What is her name? Does she know Vinnie’s dead?”

“Yes, I called her right away. She came over. Just left a half hour ago. She wanted to stay with me but I told her to go home. She’s a local girl, from Canarsie. Her name is Rachel Feldman.”
Another surprise. “A Jewish girl?”

She was holding her hands together now, in a grip so tight her knuckles were turning white. “Yeah, a Jewish girl,” she smiled at me for the first time, “You think I care? My boy found a girl who adored him. My Vinnie!” She unclasped and waved one hand dismissively, “this was a nice girl, Johnny. A nice girl for my Vinnie.”

The old woman collapsed into herself; deflated, defeated, grief-stricken.

“You go home now Johnny. I’m gonna rest.”

I stood up. “Okay, Mrs. Santelli, but if you need anything, anything, you call me, okay?

She nodded, “You got my number?” I asked.

“Sure Johnny. Remember you wrote it down for me and taped it to the desk by the phone.”

“Yeah. I remember,”

I picked up my hat. She got up and walked me to the door.  “If you remember anything else, you call me, okay?” I said.

“Sure Johnny,” I opened the door. She suddenly put her hand up, “Wait a second               I just remembered something.”

She walked over to the desk and picked up a torn piece of paper.

“I found this yesterday on the floor in Vinnie’s room and brought it down to the phone.     Just in case he was looking for it. I meant to show it to you. I showed it to Rachel tonight,            but she said she didn’t recognize the phone number or the initials.

She handed me the paper. I read the phone number out loud OR 9 6241and then the initials, DM. I didn’t recognize the number but I recognized those initials, and a coldness made the hair stand up in back of my neck.

“Good night, Mrs. Santelli,” I said and closed the door. I heard the three locks click into place and then I practically fell down the stairs to the sidewalk.

I stopped to light a Lucky Strike. First one all night. I took a long drag and tried to calm myself. It was then that I saw the black Cadillac sedan parked across the street. The driver’s window rolled down. I stepped to the curb.

“That you Johnny?” asked the driver. He wore a hat and overcoat that obscured his face.

“Yeah,” I said, “Who’s asking?”

The driver threw his cigarette butt into the street.

“You visiting the old lady?”

I didn’t answer.

“Well, that’s real good of you, Johnny. But now that visits done, you’re done, right?”

“Done with what?” I was getting riled by this thug, but self-preservation, easily reduced my anger.

“Just stay out of it, Johnny. We wouldn’t want you to end up in some kind of

difficult situation, that you might not be able to get out of…without some broken bones    or something.”

“Are you threatening me?”

The driver put the car into first gear, with a loud clank, “Just given out some free advice Johnny. Just some free advice.”

Then he stepped on the gas. As the car passed a streetlamp, I could see there was someone in the back seat. He rolled his window down an inch and tapped an ash from his cigar. I knew a few of the waterfront “boys” that smoked cigars—and each one of them was worse than the other. The rain had stopped and the temperature had gone up a few degrees, enough to spread a layer of fog through the Brooklyn streets. But my road was crystal clear and knew I was walking straight into trouble. Dead body in the river kind of trouble.