The Racketsby Thomas Kelly
Jimmy Dolan should have known better than to shove Frankie Keefe. Keefe may be scum—a corrupt teamster president who’s looking forward to crushing Jimmy’s father in the next union election—but Jimmy is the mayor&rsquo/b>
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Fired from the mayor’s office, a political flack ends up in his old neighborhood, with a newly dangerous mission
Jimmy Dolan should have known better than to shove Frankie Keefe. Keefe may be scum—a corrupt teamster president who’s looking forward to crushing Jimmy’s father in the next union election—but Jimmy is the mayor’s right hand man, and kowtowing to scum is his job. After hearing one too many cracks about his father, Jimmy shoves the union boss onto the floor, in full view of some of the city’s most powerful people. In a flash, Jimmy’s career is finished. He returns to Inwood, in the wilds of north Manhattan, to pick up the pieces. But when his father is murdered, Jimmy takes up the old man’s campaign against Frankie Keefe. It may be suicide, but he’s got nothing else to lose. After years in City Hall, Jimmy Dolan is about to learn how ugly New York politics can get.
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By Thomas Kelly
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2001 Thomas Kelly
All rights reserved.
Days like this Jimmy Dolan figured he had the best job in the world. He stood on the side porch of Gracie Mansion and watched as the sun began to rise behind Hell Gate Bridge. The waters of the East and Harlem rivers met in a turbulent swirl imbued with the soft, encroaching light of dawn. A seagull wheeled overhead, then dove for prey in the wake of a police boat. He checked his watch, then sipped his steaming coffee. The liquid warmed him, and absentmindedly he picked a piece of lint off the front of his navy blue suit jacket. Election year in the Apple and he was right in the mix.
Inside the mansion, the kitchen staff was busy preparing breakfast for the civic leaders who would soon be descending on the Mayor's home. Another early-bird shmooze fest. Jimmy pulled a guest list from his inside pocket and saw that Frankie Keefe was among the expected. Politics. He wanted to laugh. It was bad enough he had made the party switch to work for a Republican mayor, and in doing so had sickened his father, but now he was expected to smile at a face he'd rather scald with his coffee. He'd ignore Keefe as much as was possible. No sense letting his father's feud ruin his day.
He glanced through the window. The Mayor was perusing the morning papers and the day's briefing memos. The breakfast was their first event; the last would end with them dragging their tired asses into a black-tie gala at the Waldorf-Astoria sometime around midnight. In between they would ricochet across the city glad-handing, paying homage, debating, and cajoling the craziest array of constituencies on the planet Earth—Koreans, Jews, investment bankers, public employees at a retirement function, a Sikh taxi association, assemblies of the insanely wealthy and the tragically destitute—all while running a city bureaucracy. There was nothing like a mayoral election. He had already worked them all, up to and including the presidential, but nowhere was politicking as intense and relentless as in New York City. There was no escape. You were on the street and the entire city was in your face. Everybody wanted something from you.
As Director of Advance it was Jimmy's job to make sure that, whatever happened each day, the Mayor was not embarrassed. He was to organize, coordinate, troubleshoot, deflect the nuts that turned up, appease the aggrieved, and handle the press, who were always hungry for a fuckup that would make page one. He loved the pace, the action, being out there, thinking on his feet. He loved even the possibility of disaster. The Mayor was not known for his patience.
Jimmy strode over to the sentry booth that looked onto East End Avenue. Chris Williams, of the Mayor's security detail, sat in the high-backed chair with one foot on the counter and leafed through the Post. Jimmy pulled the side door open. "Hey, Chris. How's it going?"
The officer looked up and shrugged. His eyes were swollen and tired from working a double shift, his uniform in need of an iron. "What can I tell you? Another hour I'll need toothpicks to keep my eyes open. You still got a line on Rangers tickets?"
Jimmy nodded and picked up the updated guest list for the morning's event. He scanned it quickly: bankers, elected officials, businessmen, labor leaders, lawyers, lobbyists, real estate tycoons. About half the list would have appeared on the previous mayor's watch. Now there were fewer clergy, fewer activists, less melanin, in short less voice for those on the city's margins and more leverage for those who needed it least. He dropped the list. "Looks like we're running a soup kitchen for millionaires today, Willie."
"Yeah, well, the rich get ... you know."
"Democracy at work."
A black Cadillac sedan pulled smoothly to the mouth of the driveway. The driver emerged slowly, straightening as he stood. He was close to six and a half feet tall. Pete Cronin, an ex-Fed whose career, Jimmy knew, had been destroyed by shady associations, booze, and one very sketchy shooting that left a drug lord splattered on a Bronx street corner. He wore a black-and-purple warm-up suit and carried the keys in his hand, twirling them on his finger. He walked slowly around the rear of the car, his alert eyes belying his casual saunter. Cronin appeared to study everything, as if he were assessing its threat potential—a lone female jogger dressed in shorts and a tee shirt despite the March chill, a pair of moneyed dog-walkers bickering along the sidewalk, a sanitation truck rolling to a halt half a block away and disgorging its crew with a screech of air brakes. He looked directly at Jimmy and smirked with recognition. Jimmy felt a jolt of unease. Cronin, with his bulk, his violent history, and his dead eyes, was a very scary guy.
Cronin opened the rear door of the Cadillac for the man who employed him after the government had dropped him. Jimmy watched Frankie Keefe, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 383, step out. He stood, in shirtsleeves, wearing a dark tie and suspenders. There was a crispness to his attire and his manner. His very presence seemed to slap the air before him. His black hair was slicked back and he sported a deep tan acquired poolside in Miami. Cronin ducked into the car and retrieved Keefe's suit jacket, holding it up, playing the ass-kissing valet.
Jimmy felt his teeth clench. Over the course of his reign as president of the local, Keefe had quite literally taken food off the Dolan dinner table. And now Jimmy's father was running against Keefe again. It was as futile the third time as the first. But his father was not the go-along-to-get- along type. Everything about Keefe, from his two-thousand-dollar suits to his larcenous ways to his slippery backslapping demeanor made his father more determined to defeat him. Keefe, however, was firmly entrenched and not above using violence to hold on to what he had. This worried Jimmy.
Jimmy turned back toward the mansion.
"Yeah, Chris, I can get you two for Friday's game. Bruins are in town. You want 'em?"
"Sure, yeah, great. I'm off Friday. I'll bring the wife, make up for all the OT, family crap I been missing."
Jimmy checked his watch. "Those guys are early. Tell them breakfast is served at seven. They bitch and moan, tell them there's a diner on Eighty-sixth. Two-fifty for the special, sausage and eggs. Think it even comes with a short OJ."
Officer Williams looked up with mild surprise. They were not usually that strict with VIPs. Jimmy rapped his knuckles on the counter. Williams nodded. "You got it, Jimbo." The two guys in the Caddy were not giving him Rangers tickets.
Jimmy stepped out of the security booth and strode quickly into the mansion. He checked his watch and looked over the schedule. He made a few phone calls to make sure his staff were on top of things. In the public bathroom downstairs he splashed some water in his face. He felt a little embarrassment over leaving Keefe to cool his heels. It was a stupid move, unprofessional. He combed his hair and considered his face. More and more as he got older he was told he favored his father. He'd be thirty a week after the election, and while he and his father certainly had the same dark Irish hair and eyes, Jimmy always felt closer to his mother's side in all other ways, especially temperament. He doubted he'd wage the same fight as his father against Keefe. It wasn't that he didn't agree with his dad; he did, absolutely. He just did not have his father's dogged idealism. Working in politics had cured him of that. He was pragmatic. It was what enabled him to suffer some of the Mayor's more rabid true believers. He'd put his time in till November, then it was off to the private sector and some real money. Adios politics.
He passed the security room. Two cops in suits sat and idly watched the closed-circuit televisions. All was quiet. The schedule would be tight. He traced the arc of the day's events in his mind. The drones in scheduling seemed to have no idea of actual travel time around the city. Jimmy might have to reschedule one of the evening events. Should he piss off the Korean Merchants Association or the conservative Democratic club in South Brooklyn? To hell with the club. They hadn't delivered anything besides complaints since the days before Ebbets Field was wrecked. Still the symbolism was worthwhile, Democratic endorsement of the Republican candidate. Plus the Mayor liked to wear that Brooklyn Dodgers cap on TV. He'd make a decision before lunch. That would be adequate time for a soothing phone call.
The guests seemed to arrive en masse. They were freshly shaved and coiffed, dressed in business suits, and full of good cheer. They moved through the room with purpose, descended on the buffet, filling their plates, sipping coffee, shaking hands, and greeting each other like relatives at a family picnic. A waft of cologne settled over the room. Jimmy pegged the average age at fifty, almost exclusively white, and heavily male, Jimmy shadowed the Mayor as he moved about the room visiting tables. He was quick to step in and jot down a name, accept a business card, attend to the details as the Mayor moved on. Those who did not get the Mayor's ear latched on to Jimmy and the other staff members. Jimmy guided a photographer around, nodding to signal him when to shoot. Get him. And him. The pictures would adorn walls well before election day.
Occasionally, Jimmy'd look up and catch Keefe staring at him from across the room. Jimmy would just turn away and focus on someone else. A chubby assemblywoman from Queens, her hot coffee breath in his face, pleaded for a job for her nephew. The woman was fighting the Mayor over his choice for Schools Chancellor. Yet here she was, lipstick staining her teeth, wearing a too tight skirt, looking for a payoff. Jimmy nodded, did his best to act interested. While he loved the action and the mechanics of his work, he hated this crass mooching that accompanied it. He wanted to say, Get lost. Instead he smiled and said, "We'll see what we can do."
"The kid's my flesh and blood, Jimmy."
"Oh, right, I forgot, your nephew." The high school dropout with two felony arrests, he wanted to add. "Police Commissioner okay?"
"Ha, ha. The Mayor needs my district."
"He's aware of that."
Jimmy maneuvered past her and came upon a group of men in a semicircle listening to his uncle, Pius Dolan, who held a cup of coffee in one hand and gestured with the other. Punchy, as he'd been known since childhood, was large in stature and presence, his full face crowned by a bushel of white hair. His wild eyebrows projected away from his face like awnings for his blue eyes. Punchy had been to a thousand of these breakfasts, a guest of several mayors. He always showed with checks and a smile and supported both parties and all candidates. His wealth flowed from several, sources, some murkier than others.
But Jimmy had barely known him as he was growing up. His father and Punchy did not get along, although Jimmy never really heard why. But since he started working in politics he had spent more time with his uncle. Punchy had served as a major fund-raiser on some of the campaigns Jimmy had worked on. His uncle always treated him well and seemed intent on moving beyond the feud with his oldest brother.
"So then the guy says, Dolan, why don't we arrange a conference call and we can sort this whole mess out. So I put my arm around the guy, he stiffens up, he don't like no one touching him, and I says, you know what your problem is, Councilman, you think you can nickel-and-dime your way into this race—well, you want to play with the big boys, you got to ante up!"
The group pulled their affluent heads back and bellowed laughter. Punchy spotted him and waved to him. "Jimmy, hey, kid. Get in here. You all know Jimmy Dolan, best advance man in town. Not just 'cause he's my nephew." Although Jimmy knew the assembled, Punchy introduced him all around as if he were meeting them for the first time. Everyone acknowledged him with great, vacant smiles. Punchy spun him away from the crowd and whispered in his ear. "You gonna come work for me after the election." It was offered as a statement and not a question.
"If I'm lucky."
Punchy shook hands with a passing congressman. "Looking good." Jimmy felt his uncle lean on his shoulder. "Call me today. I got a contract for you."
Jimmy nodded, all the while keeping his eye on the Mayor. Punchy swung away to focus his glow on someone else and Jimmy made a mental note to call him from the field. He liked dealing with the old-school types like Punchy—men and women who understood the value of contracts, the reciprocal nature of politics, the practical worth of the give-and-take. Compromise, the American way. He was curious to see what his uncle needed.
Jimmy knifed through the crowd to catch up with the Mayor. He watched the boss work the room. The man was a natural, and possessed of charm that, unfortunately for his higher political aspirations, eluded the camera altogether. He came across pale and stiff on film. One of his nicknames among the staff was Dead Man. Walking. The Mayor turned away from two bankers and was cornered by an upset county leader—upset, Jimmy guessed, about the solid waste management plant the Mayor had forced on his home district. The Mayor put his hand to his chin, head tilted downward, his eyes fixed on the man before him. He affected concern this way for nearly a minute. Jimmy moved closer. The Mayor began to pull his head away; the county leader leaned closer, rising on the balls of his Cole-Haans, the Mayor backed into a corner.
Jimmy saw Sergeant Gleason push away from the near wall, finger his earpiece, and move toward the Mayor. Gleason glanced at Jimmy, who nodded, and held up a hand, to say, I'll get this one. Jimmy stood at the Mayor's side. "Your Honor." Jimmy held up his watch and tapped it solemnly. "The funeral," he said it with delicacy. The Mayor told the county leader, "Jimmy will call by the end of the week. We'll see what we can do." The Mayor took the chance and escaped.
The county leader tugged at Jimmy's sleeve. "Who died?"
Jimmy said, "It's a family thing. Not to worry."
"Oh." The county leader shook his head, as if not convinced, but said, "My sympathies."
Jimmy knew the man would find out about the lie. Jimmy would have to smooth the guy's hurt feelings and convince him to take 200 truckloads of garbage a day.
The crowd started to thin, but many of the guests seemed in no hurry to leave. Jimmy saw the Mayor motion to him. "Funeral?"
"It was the only way to get rid of the guy." Jimmy was more interested in results than in making everyone happy.
"I guess you're right."
Jimmy handed the Mayor the schedule. The Mayor looked past him and his face broke into a wide smile. Jimmy turned as Frankie Keefe walked up and shook the Mayor's hand. Then they embraced and patted each other's backs heartily, like old friends who'd happened upon each other in a foreign city. "Your Honor. You're looking good. Let me tell you something, it's early yet, but me and all the members are behind you one thousand percent, a hundred thousand. You make that other crowd look like a bunch of trash." Keefe turned to Jimmy as if he had just noticed him. "Oh, hey, what we got here? This is the kid whose old man is running against me, again."
The Mayor turned to Jimmy. "Union democracy at work. Nice to see it."
"Yeah, the two of us are in the same boat, way I see it. You and me, Your Honor. Easy elections against nobody candidates."
Jimmy returned Keefe's fake smile. "Good luck." He turned to the Mayor. "I'll see you in Brooklyn."
"Luck ain't got squat to do with it," Keefe said.
Jimmy could not help himself. "Yeah, and in your case neither does merit."
The Mayor pulled back, looked to Jimmy, then back to Keefe, his face forming a question. Jimmy felt the air go all hot around them, the commotion of the gathering fade to a blur. His face flushed and he watched as Keefe's entire carriage tightened and his eyes went dark and hard.
Keefe bared his canines and shook his head. "Just like your old man, huh, a wisecrack remark for everything."
Jimmy tried to lower his voice, but failed. "Least he hasn't ended up like your uncle, dead in prison for stealing from his members."
The Mayor looked at his feet, then sucked breath through his teeth. "Well, that's what an election is for." Keefe and Jimmy ignored him, locked on each other.
Keefe reached up and, before Jimmy could move, pinched his cheek sharply between two fingers. Jimmy stiffened, yelped, then instinctively went to pull away and break Keefe's grip. He pushed, hitting Keefe high on the shoulders. The teamster stumbled backward, tripped over a chair, and fell, his arms grabbing the air like a man going off a ledge. Everyone in attendance stopped speaking, their faces slack with disbelief. The room converged around them as Keefe rose, brushing his slacks as if he had fallen on a job site and not on the Mayor's polished hardwood. Still cameras and video clicked and whirred. Keefe looked about, his surprise draining away to rage.
Excerpted from The Rackets by Thomas Kelly. Copyright © 2001 Thomas Kelly. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Thomas Kelly (b. 1960) is the author of three novels set in New York City. Born in New York, Kelly spent ten years as a construction worker and sandhog—working in the subway tunnels beneath the city—before attending Fordham University and Harvard University, where he received a master’s degree in public administration. Kelly parlayed his experience in union politics into a job as an advance man for the campaign of New York City mayor David Dinkins, an experience which would form the basis for some of his fiction. Kelly began writing in the mid-1990s, and published his debut, Payback, in 1997. A gritty look at the overlap between construction and the Mafia, it was critically acclaimed and adapted to film by David Mamet. Kelly’s other works are The Rackets (2001), which was inspired by Kelly’s experience working for City Hall, and Empire Rising (2005), a historical novel about the construction of the Empire State Building.
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Icefall? U here?
A good book to read. Looks at blue-collar, Irish workers in NY. Unions and mobs are an old theme, but thoroughly enjoyable in this fresh, well-written novel.