Bushwick Brooklyn in the 1970s is a cesspool of drugs, violence, and depravity. Every aspect of life in the blighted neighborhood has been contaminated by the Mafia. Butchie Bucciogrosso is an Italian cop who detests the Mob. A survivor of the streets, he returns from Vietnam only to find Bushwick in ruin. His partner, Fast Eddie Curran, had to kill his way out of Belfast. The only cops with the courage to take on the Mob, they become a deadly nuisance trying to win back their streets. Only the Mafia, their own dirty Police Department, and a corrupt federal government stand in their way. With themselves and their loved one squarely in the crosshairs, can they destroy the Mob's criminal empire before they are killed? Can they outwit a crooked Department of Justice before they are framed and imprisoned? The clock is ticking with Bushwick's survival in the balance. A reckoning in Brooklyn is the new historical crime thriller from Detective Michael O'Keefe, the author of the breakout novel, Shot to Pieces.
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July 12, 1979 Bushwick
Butchie found the numbness washing over him perplexing. He had relished this moment for years — expecting to be elated celebrating his triumph over a hated enemy. Instead, he felt nothing — save the brief instant of exhilaration when the opportunity lay before him. Now that the deed was done, he was left with was a tired ambivalence, and a wave of nausea. He chalked-up the urge to vomit as an artifact of the rich coppery taste from all the blood — mixed with the acrid smoke from the expended gunpowder hanging in the air. A malevolent cloud, it lingered on Butchie's tongue, and in the back of his throat, invading his nostrils and staying there like a vagrant accusation. He chose to ignore the slight tremors in his hands and aching in his joints. Surely, they weren't anything like regret.
There were three dead men on the ground, scattered about the rear courtyard, which served as an extra dining room for the small, Italian eatery on Knickerbocker Avenue. Butchie knew all of them. Two were associates of the hated Carmine Lilo Gigante, the head of the Bonanno Crime Family. The third man, at Butchie's feet, was the Don himself. Butchie didn't know who killed the associates, and frankly didn't care. They were criminal scumbags who deserved every bullet — in this case shotgun blasts. But he knew who killed Lilo. He understood he would have to look that murderer in the face when he shaved every morning. He was surprised when the realization didn't seem to bother him, struggling right now to feel something ... anything.
As he stood over Gigante, he could feel the residue of Lilo's fear-sweat on the fingertips of his right hand. He wiped them absently on the leg of his uniform duty trousers, considering what he had just done; killing the last living witness to a mob rub-out with his bare hands. It certainly didn't sort well with the vow he took when he was sworn in as a police officer almost a dozen years before. To protect life and property; but he had come to realize some lives deserved more protection than others, and some lives deserved none at all. Gigante needed killing. So Butchie rationalized his murder as a community service, or at least a lesser sin. Besides, he reasoned, the mob boss was already dying when he and Walton came into the courtyard. Lilo wouldn't have identified his shooters even if he had survived. So, the final squeeze was of little consequence to anyone, save Butchie's conscience, which was surprisingly untroubled.
Surveying the shot-up remains of the mobster he had just dispatched, Butchie saw Lilo had been struck twice by the shotgun; once in the lower abdomen, and a glancing blow to the right side of his face. But, he mused, glancing is a relative term with shotguns. Like hand grenades, it's hard to miss, and they do fearsome damage just the same when you do. It had torn up the right side of Lilo's face and took the eye. Butchie knew both wounds would have ultimately killed the thug, irrespective of even a herculean effort to save him.
If by some miracle Lilo made it to the hospital, he would have been brought to the Old German Hospital on Wyckoff Avenue. It was well-known in Brooklyn there were only hacks, quacks, and witchdoctors at that particular temple of medical malpractice.
So, Gigante was a dead man, with or without Butchie's help. It was not a matter of necessity, but principle which prompted his hand. He had predicted, even promised he would be the one to usher Lilo out of this world. Now he had. He wasn't sure what he expected to feel, but it hadn't been nothing. He had just rid the world of the vilest man he had ever encountered, in a short life chock-full of wicked men. He thought he might derive some satisfaction from the act — even an epiphany of sorts. Instead, there was only the maddening numbness.
The closest he came to an emotion was enjoying the fear in Lilo's eyes at the moment the Don recognized him. The last spasms and final futile kicks, as the helpless mobster died with Butchie's hand clamped like a vise around his throat should have elicited some sort of satisfaction. But all he felt after was a nagging sense of hopelessness, and the urge to puke. He had slain a monster, but Butchie suspected there would be more monsters to fill the void left by Lilo's murder, and they might be far worse.
Strangely, Gigante's broken eyeglasses remained propped — however askew — on his mangled head. Butchie thought the only thing missing from the picture was the little Cuban cigar Lilo always had sticking out of his sneering maw. He had looked for it, but it was nowhere to be found. He spotted it's substitute earlier when his partner for the day, Ernie Walton, returned to the courtyard from the street with an anisette cheroot sticking out of his fat face.
* * *
The Bushwick section of Brooklyn in the summer of 1979 was the epitome of urban decay. The once working-class Irish, German, and Italian enclave had descended into a teeming, heroin-infested slum. The Irish and the Germans had long since fled, moving to parts east. Most of the Italians were gone also. What was left were the newly arrived Puerto Ricans, and those not affluent enough to move. The neighborhood had become a crime-ridden drug supermarket. People were killing each other over ten-dollar bags of white powder.
By the time Butchie had hit puberty, the migration was in full swing. Joey Butchie Bucciogrosso had been raised in a railroad flat on Troutman Street. He had watched the character of the neighborhood change over the years. Unlike many of his fellow Italians, Butchie held no resentment for the Spanish influx taking place with the arrival of the Puerto Ricans. If anything, he felt they lent the community a cultural diversity it sorely needed. Other than the language, the new-comers weren't all that different from the Italians, some of whom also refused to speak English. It was no barrier anyway. Butchie's fluency in Italian soon allowed him to speak Spanish as well. A matter of saturation and familiarity; between school, home, and running the streets of Brooklyn, by the time he was thirteen, he could read, write and speak in all three languages.
With respect to changing his culture, Butchie was ready for almost anything different. The three generations of his parents' families — all crammed into the apartment house on Troutman Street, yammering away in Italian, complaining about the state of the neighborhood and how they missed the old country was wearing on his last nerve. He was also tired of eating tomato sauce every Sunday. Mostly though, he was exhausted with the eternal argument over whether it was sauce or gravy, waged like a holy war between his two grandmothers — one of whom was from Sicily, and the other from Naples. When he was fourteen and had the temerity to finally voice his opinion on the matter, he infuriated both Nonnas, and incurred a punch in the face from his father.
"Why don't we just call it that red shit we eat every Sunday," he asked wearily.
After the beating, Butchie was never again included in that particular discussion. They never again had it in his presence either, which suited Butchie just fine. When one of the tribe asked for someone to pass the sauce or gravy, depending upon their affiliation, one or both of his grandmothers would regard him with a wounded look, but that would be the extent of it.
Butchie made friends easily with his new neighbors. They had the same interests boys have everywhere. The Puerto Rican kids liked sports. They liked to fight, and they developed the same neighborhood pride the Italians had always had for Bushwick. Adding this to the food and music, there wasn't much about his Puerto Rican friends he didn't like. They seemed to have the work ethic and proud sense of self-reliance as the Italians, possessing the ingrained respect for family, living in the cramped multi-generational arrangements with which Butchie had grown accustomed. They attended the same church, cramming the pews at Saint Brigid's in their Sunday best. They struggled right beside their Italian classmates in school, endeavoring to overcome the challenge of English as a second language. They shopped in the same stores. They worked the same low-paying jobs, struggling to feed their families, singularly devoted to trying to provide something just a little better for their children — just like the Italians.
Butchie's natural curiosity and guileless openness to the new and unfamiliar was regarded at first with a measure of suspicion by his new neighbors. When they figured out his curiosity was genuine, and he truly wished to foster a friendship with them, the Puerto Ricans were happy to have him. If anything, Butchie got more static from his Italian friends, some of whom became former friends before long. These were the sons of the old-guard Italians who bitterly resented the ethnic change. They hated the Puerto Ricans, because they were following the worst ethno-centric instincts of their parents.
Coincidently, heroin arrived in Bushwick around the same time as the Puerto Ricans. Because of this, many of the old geeps blamed them for the scourge, which was ironic. No ethnic group ever suffered more from the importation of heroin than the Puerto Rican emigres of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. They suffered bitterly because of the misfortune of arriving in New York's shrinking economy at a time when the streets were about to be saturated with dope. What began as a seemingly inexpensive chemical escape from the drudgery of their poverty, ended up destroying millions of lives. Entire generations in New York would be lost to this wasteland of addiction.
The irony wasn't lost on Butchie. He knew the biggest mouths blaming the Puerto Ricans for the drug problem belonged to the sons of the Mafiosi who were responsible and benefitting from it. They were the equivalent of shopkeepers blaming their customers for buying poison from them. This contentious environment in Bushwick, coupled with Butchie's uncertain position within it, created the opportunity which spawned his boxing career.
* * *
In 1964, Butchie was thirteen. Walking on Suydam Street toward Knickerbocker Avenue, he saw his friend, Armando Molina, being surrounded and hassled by four of Butchie's former Italian compatriots. They were from the crew of teen thugs who ran on Jefferson Street and Knickerbocker Avenue. All Italian, they were the sons of the Mustache Petes who were running the criminal business in the neighborhood for Joe Bonanno. Everyone started referring to them collectively as The Farm Team. Their ascension to the ranks of the Bonanno Crime Family was just assumed. They were the kind of guys who entered every confrontation wanting to make sure you knew who they were, and who they knew. In a neighborhood where everybody knew everyone else, it was a stupid question.
But it wasn't posed for gathering information. It was a tacit threat, and usually an effective one. Not this day.
"Hey, Mousey," Butchie called out to Massimino Basaluco. "Why don't you stop pressing on my friend? Give him a little room to breathe."
"Fuck you, Butchie!" said Carmine Donofrio.
"This is none of your business, Spic-lover. So, stay out of it," warned Angelo Mercante.
"My business is what I decide it is," Butchie said. "Right now, I got nothing better to do. So, let's do this."
At that, Roman Sciula, as big and menacing a fourteen-year-old as ever there was, awakened from the dream-state of muted stupidity in which he always seemed to be.
"We can take care of the spic when we get done with this meddling fuck here. It's time he learns who runs this street," Roman decreed.
As big as he was, his young hoodlum friends weren't inclined to argue. As the four of them advanced on Butchie, they left Armando with an avenue of escape.
"Run!" Butchie commanded.
Armando hesitated. He wanted to stay and fight. Butchie was having none of it. He knew Armando couldn't fight and would only prove a distraction and an imposition. He made himself clear on the point.
"Get the fuck out of here, Armando! I got this."
Armando finally got the hint and ran off as instructed. Big Roman Sciula menacingly approached Butchie.
"The only thing you got, Bucciogrosso, is a beating coming your way. I'll tell your mother she can find you at Kraut Town," Sciula said, referring to The Old German Hospital around the corner.
"I guess we'll see about that," Butchie said, sounding curious about the matter himself.
Roman started landing thunderous blows down on the sides of Butchie's head, who made no real effort to duck or counter the punches. What he did was lean into them, as if he were trying to get the punishment over with. He had learned to do this over the years catching frequent beatings at home. While it wasn't Butchie's intention, it had the effect of robbing some of the incredible impact from Sciula's brick-fisted hay-makers. It also slightly changed the point of impact. Roman expected to be connecting with the softer areas of Butchie's face. When he kept landing his fists on the very hard surface of Butchie's skull, Roman's hands started to hurt — a lot. So, each successive punch was delivered with a little less enthusiasm than the previous one. It only helped incrementally.
While Roman Sciula was hammering Butchie like a veal cutlet, the other three thugs took advantage of the distraction to move in and start landing potshots of their own. Butchie would receive each attack, mounting no form of defense whatsoever. He would merely back up a step or two and brace himself for the next assault. Finally, with his back against the brick of the building on Suydam Street, he had nowhere else to go. He absorbed Roman's last two punches. Reaching down as if he were trying to pick something from under the heel of his shoe, Butchie propelled himself up and forward, delivering a vicious, round-house right. The punch connected squarely with Roman's jaw, but narrowly missed the mandible nerve. It didn't put his lights out, only waffling the big boy.
Butchie continued his attack, leaping up into the arms of the stunned Roman. Instinctively, Sciula started squeezing Butchie in a bear-hug, trying to crush the air out of his lungs. With Roman's hands so occupied, Butchie reached up and grabbed him by the ears. He brought the crown of his head down three times as hard as he could on Roman's face.
The first strike shattered Sciula's nose and rendered him unconscious. The next two shots broke most of his teeth, and left his mouth looking like a bag full of bloody chiclets. Roman Sciula was out of this fight. The big loser, he was the one who would have to be collected by his mother at Kraut Town.
With their Goliath lying face down in the gutter, the other three goons were less than enthusiastic about getting close enough to Butchie to share Roman's fate. Their attacks lacked coordination, making their greater numbers count for little. Butchie was able to focus on each of his attackers, one at a time. This was bad news for them.
The beginning of the end started with Butchie taking two head shots from Massimino Basaluco. This allowed him to get close enough to deliver a left hook to Basaluco's ribs, in quick combination with a right cross to the jaw. The last shot found the mandible nerve like they were long lost cousins. As Massimino was hitting the floor, Angelo Mercante rushed Butchie, running into an overhand right. The contact was so pure, Butchie half expected to hear it accompanied by a carnival bell. Mercante's eyes rolled up in his head as he fell to the floor in slow motion, like a sack of falling flour.
Butchie focused on Carmine The Mouth Donofrio. The loudest and most obnoxious of The Farm Team, he was the guy who made all of the noise and started all of the fights. But other than being a facilitator of violence, he brought nothing to the table in the way of fighting skills. When Butchie waved his adversary on, The Mouth remembered he needed to be somewhere else. Exhausted at this point, Butchie could only watch as Donofrio ran down Knickerbocker Avenue toward Jefferson Street. Carmine was all asses and elbows as his image receded into the fading afternoon sunlight.
Butchie was surveying the damage to himself in his reflection in the window of the smoke shop there on the corner. He was bleeding from the cuts above his eyes. The skin had split where Roman had hit him. Butchie could see he was bleeding from his ears and nose as well. His mouth had become a river of blood, leaving him choking on the salty, coppery tasting effluence pooling there. Even through the buzz of the adrenaline rush he was experiencing, Butchie's body began to ache all over. His victory — unexpected and spectacular — was starting to feel pyrrhic in nature. When he saw Patrolman Mick the Quick Doheny approaching from across Knickerbocker Avenue, Butchie thought it started to taste like a shit sandwich.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Reckoning in Brooklyn"
Copyright © 2019 Michael O'Keefe.
Excerpted by permission of Michael O'Keefe.
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