Philip had no warning before they arrived on that late Thursday evening. He'd been arranging books on the top of his bookshelf when a loud rap sounded at his door. He hurried down, hoping the erratic beat of his heart was because of the exertion of climbing the ladder, and not the cold fear sending icy chills chasing down his back. He was surprised to see not only two, but four men. This time Benny Berkowitz arrived and led the group into the bookstore.
"Lock the door, Lansing, " Benny ordered. "We're having a meeting in your office."
Benny maneuvered himself behind Philip's desk, leaned back and propped his feet on the desk. Cigar smoke clouded the air.
"Youse guys," he waved his cigar like a magic wand in Philip's direction and grinned when Philip cringed at his illiterate choice of words. "Sammy wants the money. Tonight."
The men shifted uneasily in their seats. Sammy Gavota was the boss, the legitimate Don of the mob. No one dared ask how he'd apportion the millions stacked in Lansing's safe, but if the past were any indication of the future, Sammy would lightly dismiss any unspoken inquiries and proffer nothing more than their customary fees.
Benny remained jovial. He was Sammy's chief assistant and though the others would be swindled out of a fair share, Sammy would treat him right.
He seemed in no hurry to open the safe, almost taunting the men, like a presenter at the Academy Awards fingering an envelope before announcing the winner.
"This has been a risky job." Benny cast an approving glance toward Philip. "We have Lansing here to thank for the safety of our money." He emphasized the word our and watched Philip flinch. Benny tried to laugh, but a sudden cough threatened to choke him. The men sat forward on their chairs, hesitant to offer help. They'd tried that before during his frequent hacking and he'd waved them away with a grimace of sour exasperation.
"Youse guys, go where you want." Benny's cigar circled the air. "Do what you will with your share. I'm getting out of this miserable weather and heading for Las Vegas. In a couple years I'll multiply my millions, maybe even build a casino or two." Benny,who obviously had been drinking heavily, continued to boast of his lavish future in Las Vegas. His men sat tight-lipped.
Finally, Jake, the oldest member of the gang, spoke irritably. "Yeah, yeah, Benny, we're happy for you, but let's open the safe and get to Sammy's. I want to know how much we got in there." He cast a furtive look at Philip. "Our accountant here knows, and he's been kinda keeping it secret."
"Not from me," Benny scowled at Jake. "I know to the penny what we got stashed in that safe."
Philip flushed. He's bluffing, he thought. He'd left the cash delivering to his men who, if truth were known, could scarcely count. Goose bumps rashed out on his arms. Had Benny been waiting until this final night to settle accounts with him? Would he instruct his men to take him for a one-way ride? Philip wilted under the stare of Benny's watchful, gleaming eyes. Jake continued to stare at him, a look of suspicion clouding his face.
"Yeah, Benny, let's get this over with." This from Aaron, a dead ringer for Andy Garcia.
Benny heaved to his feet and staggered toward the wall safe singing raucously off-key, "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean."
This play on words brought heady, excited laughter as projected dreams of riches pervaded each man's fantasies.
Benny was almost to the wall safe when his face froze into stillness. All heads turned toward the banging at the door. The elation in the room collapsed into trepidation as five police officers held guns leveled at them. In a brief moment, their years of scheming were shattered.
One shouted. "Everyone! Stand! Hands over your heads!"
Philip looked wildly around. How could he protest that he wasn't part of this gang. He mentally prepared his defense as he took deep breaths to quiet the thundering in his chest.
"What is this?" Benny half-turned toward an officer.
"What is this?" The officer mimicked, then grinned. "We've been watching you and your boys, Berkowitz. I'd say what this is, is that you're going down. And, in my ways of seeing things, there is no road back."
"You got nothing on us. Nothing!" Benny shrieked.
The officer roughly pulled the cigar from Benny's mouth and crushed it under his foot. "Yeah? We'll see about that. Hands behind your back." He signaled to his subordinates to handcuff the men.
Philip turned slightly as he placed his hands at the base of his back. From the corner of the room an officer read their Miranda Rights. As the cold metal snapped into place around his wrists, Philip turned his head to hide his tears. How could this be? How could he, Philip Lansing, respected author, guest of innumerable talk shows, a trusted businessman, find himself handcuffed?
In minutes, the six men were handcuffed. Desperately, they looked at Benny.
"Not to worry," he coughed, his breath coming in quick, whining gasps. "They got nothing on us."
"It's just a matter of time," one of the officers said, "before we move from busting Berkowitz here to getting the top gun, Mr. Gavota himself. Huh, Benny?"
Benny glared at the officer. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Sure you do, Benny. Sure you do. Sammy keeps a low profile, I know. And I also know you're going to pretend loyalty to him. But guess what, Benny? Sammy's not going to protect you. He'll let you fry alone. So you may as well talk to us downtown."
"Yep!" one of the officers grunted. "We'll have Gavota soon, and we'll put him away for good."
With a burning chest and in a cold sweat, Philip watched the policemen ransack his office. He exhaled a relieved sigh when they discovered a steel box with several thousand dollar bills bundled in his desk. A cunning precaution he'd planned should such an occasion arise. He silently applauded his correct conclusion that they would presume this was the mob's current cash on hand and look no further. The officer tipped his hat to Philip and stuffed the cash into a briefcase. They never asked or looked for his hidden safe. In spite of these ugly circumstances Philip thanked his good fortune that Benny and his men had misplaced their faith in him. As far as he knew and he'd better be right they hadn't kept an accurate count of their stash. They couldn't know, at least for now, that he'd swindled and transferred a large portion of their drug funds out of the country.
The policemen shoved the men toward the door and herded them into a van. As it rumbled through city traffic, a nauseating bile almost choked Philip. How could he be jostling in a police wagon with lowlife dangerous criminals? How would he explain this to Althea and Jenny? How would his publisher react? Would his agent refuse to represent him? Philip had always prided himself on possessing self-reliance and confidence in his glib ability to talk his way out of tight circumstances. Now he shivered. Of course, he'd known there were risks when he'd first agreed, though under threat, to Benny's proposition. But it seemed at
the time that he'd had no other option than to go along with him to protect his wife and daughter. A line he'd heard somewhere flashed though Philip's mind, "That which I feared has come upon me." Who said that? When? Was he also in critical circumstances? Did he also have no hope of extricating himself? He made a mental note to look for that bit of prose in "Poetry of the Ages," a rare classic he'd purchased in a used bookstore.
He drew his groping thoughts back to the present. There was one bright spot in this miserable predicament: The million he'd deposited in Zurich. Of course it was foolish to think of the police as his saviour, but they had intervened at the right moment, if there was a right moment for such things. However, since in their eyes, he was a member of the Berkowitz mob, he may suffer their same fate. No, that wasn't possible.
Philip twisted in his seat and stared out the small van window. Traffic was gridlocked as usual. How he loved the fast track of this city, the exhilaration, the simple pleasure of strolling down elegant Michigan Boulevard. His pride of owning a business close to the prominent thoroughfare fed his self-esteem, his dignity.
Perhaps, he thought, he could convince the judge of the truth. The mob had threatened that harm would come to his wife and daughter if he didn't cooperate.
Later that night as he sat in a sparse jail cell, Philip refused to conceive of spending years, perhaps the rest of his life in this deplorable place. He'd have to tell Althea and Jenny the truth, sooner rather than later. He sank into a miserable depression.
Weariness forced him to sleep. Nightmares jolted him awake. He was engulfed in shame for the disgrace he'd brought down on his wife and daughter. Thank God her parents weren't alive to remind him of their opposition to their marriage.
Now his only hope of restoration was to deny wrongdoing, and insist he'd been blackmailed, forced to comply with the Berkowitz gang.
Althea came to visit that night, her beautiful face clouded with sadness, her deep blue eyes misty with recently shed tears.
"How could you, Philip?" she whispered. "how could you allow yourself to become involved with those criminals?"
"It isn't like you think, Althea." Trying to explain his involvement seemed impossible but he must try to make her understand. "I was forced to cooperate with them. They threatened harm to you and Jenny."
Her eyes filled and she laid her hand on his arm. "Darling, I'm sorry I scolded you. Now I understand why you've been so distant recently. There seemed no way I could get through to you. Oh, my dear, it must have been awful for you. Please forgive me."
"Forgive you?" Philip's voice broke. "I need forgiveness, Althea. And I ask you for it. I never thought I'd subject you to such humiliation."
"Philip, I do forgive you, but it's God's forgiveness you need. Ask Him and I promise you, He will readily forgive."
Philip heard her words. but his thoughts had flown thousands of miles across the ocean to a steel box safely deposited in a Zurich bank. The key to his future lay in a manila envelope in his safe at home. After Althea left and the iron bars clanged behind her, he stretched out on his cot and mentally groped for a solution.
Yes, now he knew. He would give the envelope to Jenny for safekeeping. And someday the key would open the door to a new life, a new beginning.
Or so he thought.
Chapter 5 || Table of Contents