New York, 1952. From the shadowy docks of Athens, Greece, to the elegance of a Fifth Avenue penthouse, to the neon glare of Coney Island, art smuggler Cantor Gold must track down an ancient artifact, elude thugs and killers, protect a beautiful woman who caters to Cantor’s deepest desires, and confront the honky-tonk past which formed her. Memories, murder, passion, and the terrible longing for her stolen love tangle in Cantor’s soul, threatening to tear her apart.
I find a parking spot in front of Sig’s building on Fortieth Street, a classy black brick Art Deco office tower crowned with Gothic-style gilt work, and where Sig maintains a penthouse residence. The building is across the street from Bryant Park and the main branch of the New York Public Library, the famous one with the two lions out front facing Fifth Avenue. I’m sure Sig’s enjoyed a stroll through the park. Not sure he’s ever been in the library.
Inside his building, the black marble lobby is filling up with nine-to-fivers shivering after their walk from the subway down the block. Businessmen in wool overcoats and gray fedoras, women in colorful coats, some in the new princess style pinched at the waist, walk briskly to the elevators. I like the princess style. I like any style that accentuates a woman’s body.
I don’t join the crowd at the bank of public elevators. I keep walking to the end of the row, to the private elevator to Sig’s penthouse, guarded by a thug the nine-to-fivers pointedly ignore. They know who lives in the penthouse. Their fear of the crime boss upstairs is greater than their thrill at occasionally being in the presence of the most powerful man in New York when they see him walking through the lobby. Maybe the businessmen tip their hats when they pass him, maybe the women give him a polite smile. None of them know he doesn’t give a damn.
I don’t know the thug guarding the private elevator, but then again, I haven’t been to see Sig in quite a while. So the galoot doesn’t know me, either. He eyes me up and down. It takes him a minute to figure me, then looks at me like he’s examining me for germs. “What’s your business here?”
“Tell Sig that Cantor Gold wants to see him.”
I have to wait while the lobby galoot calls on the intercom beside the elevator and gives the upstairs galoot my message, and that galoot in turn gives the message to Sig’s personal galoot. I use the time to enjoy the lovely sight of an especially pretty office girl reading the front page of her newspaper while she waits for an elevator. But as much as I’d like to linger along her angelic face, have a little fun imagining what’s under her coat, my attention’s diverted when she opens the paper and I can see the whole front page. I’m grabbed by a particular story—down below all the headlines about President Truman and the Red Scare, the shoot-’em-up in Korea, and the never ending bedlam of city politics—printed way down at the bottom of the page, like a cockroach that slipped under the door: judge acquits guzik.
So Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, the Chicago Mob’s payoff man, a confidante of Capone during Al’s heyday, beat another rap. It was Guzik who peeled off the bills that went into the palms of Chicago’s cops and politicians, a job which earned him the Greasy Thumb moniker. I met the guy a coupla times on his trips here after Al bit the dust back in ’47, and gangster power coalesced in New York.
The pretty office girl catches me smiling, which makes her cringe, and she turns away. That might hurt my feelings except I’m not smiling at her. Nope, I’m smiling because my chances of not being killed today by Sig Loreale just went up. He’ll be in a good mood.
Or in as good a mood as a killer can be. By the time the elevator reaches the penthouse floor, I’m asking myself whether coming here was such a hot idea after all. Probing Sig for his secrets is a dangerous play, whether he’s in a good mood or not.
But there’s no turning back. Sig wouldn’t let me, anyway. He knows I’m here and he’ll want to know why. I’d never make it out of the building.
One of his galoots greets me at the apartment door, tells me Sig is waiting for me in his den. “Through the livin’ room and to the left. And I gotta hold your piece.” The guy has all the charm of a shark chewing a leg.
I’m not crazy about handing over my gun, but Sig demands all visitors check any hardware at the door. He likes his guests defenseless. Resistance would only get me a fist in the gut, and frankly I’m just not in the mood. I give the galoot my gun and walk in.
The last time I was in this living room was a night in March of ’49. Crammed among the fine furnishings, English landscape paintings on the walls, and various antiquities here and there—a number of them supplied by me for hefty sums of Sig’s cash—were bushels of flowers for a wedding that was abruptly cancelled: Opal died that night, her wedding night. Sig took his revenge the next morning, soothed his broken heart with murder. I was there. I saw the woman Sig blamed for Opal’s death fall at my feet, a bullet in her skull. I saw Sig and his gunman drive away.
But before he drove away, Sig made a promise, the same promise he made again a year and a half ago when I handed over a Dürer watercolor that should’ve gone to a dead client’s heirs, or at least a museum. It was his promise to look into what happened to Sophie, a promise he hasn’t kept. Sig prides himself on his word, so either he really has no information, or his fabled square dealing is just that: a fable, a storyline to calm unsuspecting marks before he cleans them out, runs them outta town, or kills them.
If it turns out Sig sees me as one of the marks, or even just a pest, then Mom’s right; he’ll kill me. Maybe not today, but when a moment comes up that suits him.
Bringing these thoughts into a meeting with Sig is a bad idea. Worrying over my own demise will blunt my energy, and any encounter with Sig Loreale requires operating at full spark. A deep breath and a swallow are the only weapons I have to squelch my dangerous thoughts. They do the trick, because they have to.
I knock on the door of the den.
“Come in, Cantor,” comes through the door in Sig’s terrifyingly quiet, scratchy voice, like claws scraping the wood, and each word slow and precise, nothing sloppy, the same scalpel-sharp way Sig does business. Sig’s cultivated his manner of speech and his method of business to obliterate the messy, immigrant Coney Island background we both came from. I wonder, if I look hard enough, if I’ll see any of the same honky-tonk remnants in Sig that still lurk inside me. I doubt it. Sig’s too disciplined, his soul too cold to cozy up to any nostalgia, a soul grown only colder since Opal’s death.
He’s at his desk, a large burled maple affair in a burled maple paneled room that’s as much about power as taste, though the taste, I think, isn’t entirely Sig’s. Like the elegantly furnished living room, the den appears to be the work of the dearly departed Opal, whose mother, Mom Sheinbaum, bred Opal to marry into the American dream. Mom sent her to all the right schools to acquire the culture and taste that come with them, rid Opal of the salami taint of the Lower East Side. To Mom’s disappointment, Sig Loreale, the up-from-the-gutter crime lord and killer, was the beneficiary of all that culture, instead of the square-jawed, blue-eyed American dreamboat Mom wanted for her precious Opal.
Sig, in shirtsleeves, a half-finished cup of coffee on the desk, is reading a newspaper when I come in. What for other people would be an otherwise benign activity is, in Sig’s hands, a tableau of his ruthlessly efficient control of life: his, and while I’m here, mine. His white shirt, crisp in the light from the windows and the glass-paned door to the terrace, doesn’t have a single wrinkle, and wouldn’t dare. The gray-and-white houndstooth pattern of his tie is precisely aligned with the knot. The pinstripes on his charcoal suit-vest, fully buttoned, are in military straight lines. And though the cigar smoke curling around his face softens his jowly cheeks and the baggy pouches under his eyes, the smoke can’t hide the predatory menace in those eyes, despite his smile. It’s not a big smile, just a small sneer of satisfaction as he reads the same article about Greasy Thumb Guzik beating the rap that the pretty office girl read downstairs; only the office girl has no connection to Guzik or the judge who dismissed the charges against him. Sig, no doubt, does. Sig, no doubt, owns both Guzik and the judge. The judge, having done what he was told to do, will continue to live his plush, well-paid-for life for the foreseeable future. Jake Guzik will owe Sig his freedom. Both men will keep their mouths shut about anything they know regarding what goes on in the underworld. And Sig, to my relief, is in his ice-cold version of a good mood.