This may have been a catastrophically unwise decision. If so, it will dramatically affect the rest of my life, which, in all likelihood, will not exceed sixty seconds.
Frank Ryan had his arm extended pointing the barrel of a gun at me. He wasn't ready to shoot me yet.
"Go on. Take the gun and shoot Mickey."
I twirled a finger. "You know, customarily a gun is handed over with the barrel pointed away from the recipient."
"Just take it and let's get this done."
"I'm afraid I have to decline on principle. I'm sure I've mentioned it's against my philosophy to commit any more crimes than absolutely necessary."
"Yeah, well, Mickey needs killing and I'd feel a lot more comfortable if you'd prove you're not a cop."
I would have expected Mickey to be leaving the building about now, but Frank's two humorless associates were holding their own weapons.
I was unlikely to get off two shots before one of them shot me from less than six feet away.
"Don't be stupid," I said.
I'll grant that's not the customary form of address to a career criminal in charge of myriad underlings. But I had some dynamite, follow-up material.
"I know the movies love that if-you-make-a-mistake-I'll-kill-you crap, Frank, but you're too smart for that. How could you ever get anyone to work for you?
"Just imagine the job posting: 'If you ever make a mistake or if things just go wrong, I'll kill you. Low-wage, high-risk opportunity.'
"You think they're going to be lining up at the door for that?
"I've got to assume this is just a test anyway and I'm hurt that you feel the need for confirmation. Do I act even remotely like any undercover cop you've ever met? No. I stand out.
"I shave every day. I don't have a record and there aren't any cons to vouch for me because I stay under the radar.
"Did you ever meet an undercover cop who didn't have some phony background including prison time? No.
"Did you ever meet one who didn't at least have some low-level bad guy to vouch for him? No.
"Did you ever meet anyone at all who refused to commit minor crimes he thought were unnecessary? No, you haven't.
"How many undercover cops have you met who don't drink? None?
"There may be some cops with my redoubtable language skills, but I'll bet you never catch one using them.
"And to top it off I use a name guaranteed to arouse your curiosity: John Smith. Really, Frank, it's like I'm wearing a red shirt with a target and my hair dyed pink to say, 'Look at me!' What would you do if one of your guys did that?"
He laughed. "You mean if I didn't have him killed?"
"I'd probably have him killed."
"The Department brass wouldn't be too thrilled about a cop like that either."
I might be dead soon, but at least I hadn't shown any weakness. Show weakness and you lose your credibility on the street.
Frank stood there for a while. His face gave no indication which way he was leaning.
"Do you want us to shoot him, Mr. Ryan," said the smarter of the two guns. Maybe he was the dumber one; it was too close to call.
"Not today, boys," said Frank. He put his gun away and started to laugh. His think tank followed his example.
Frank headed to the office and we followed. He sat behind the desk and put his feet up. The rest of us took seats.
"I've yet to figure out what you are, lad, but for sure you're not a cop. I think you're a lunatic, but that's your problem," said Frank.
"I'm a movie critic, Frank. Honestly, when I see that kind of scene in a movie, I'm thinking: if I were one of his crew I'd better put a bullet into his head before I make a mistake."
Frank laughed. "I think you are a movie critic. Anyway, let's get down to business.
"You've shown some decent planning skills so far, but it's been pretty small stuff, John. We got a very big score coming up. We're going to grab a truckload of legal narcotics. I've a man on the inside tipped me off when they're being shipped. Unfortunately, I don't have any of the drivers tied up, so we've got to come up with a plan."
"What's the inside guy's name, Frank? I need it for my report."
He gave me a sharp look then started to shake his head. "You are some kind of smartass."
"Some kind," I said. "So how long do we have to come up with something? When are we doing this? I don't mean to seem pushy. But if you include me because of my planning skills, give me a chance to use them."
Frank hesitated. "Wednesday a week. And if the cops get involved, I know where it came from."
"You're gonna make me paranoid, Frank. Too much looking over my shoulder I could become a lunatic."
He laughed heartily.
"Do we know who's driving? Maybe I can learn enough about him to get him to work with us."
"We got guns to get him to work with us," said the one I had considered smarter. The only thing that made me cling to that opinion was that I had heard the other one speak at length about I have no clue what.
I decided to make an effort with him.
"You want to buy a car, do you go to the bank and fill out some papers to get a loan, or do you bring in your gun and rob them?"
He thought about it much too long. "I get the loan," he answered.
"I don't get in no trouble. Besides, I can pay it off."
"So if I can figure out a way to get this driver let us have the load, do you still think it's a smarter option to stop him with guns blazing?"
"Don't bother with him. He doesn't understand the business," said Frank. "Sometimes we have guys inside and sometimes we don't.
"We know what's being shipped. We know when it's being shipped. We even know who's taking it. We just don't have any relationship with him. And, at this point, it would take too long to cultivate him for this job."
He started to talk about the possibilities for where we could stop the driver. I wasn't sure how smart he was, but he knew the hijacking business from many years of experience.
We kicked ideas around for an hour.
"Planning sure is thirsty work," said Mickey.
"That's a fine idea, lad," said Frank.
"Good thing I didn't kill him," I said.
"Give it a rest, my boy," said Frank. But he said it with a smile.
It's part of the culture to bust each others' stones. You learn that on the streets.
I'd never been on the streets, but I pay attention.
"Can I have a word with you in private?" I asked.
"I suppose. I don't like to keep much from my boys," said Frank.
That had to be disingenuous. "Those two are very fine plow horses, but I wouldn't want them steering the plow."
"I've known them for a long time. They are very good muscle and they are quite skilled at handing their part of the operation. They aren't often refused."
"I respect their skill and your relationship with them, Frank."
"While you I've known only a short time."
"I hope it's clear I know how to operate a plow."
"Aye, but where will you be steering it?"
"Around the big rocks," I said. "Why don't you give me the driver's name? I'll see what I can find out." It was the first direct request I had made since we met.
"That's a dangerous game, my boy. If he recognizes you when we stop him, it could lead back to us. And you've said quite often you don't want to stir up any more trouble than absolutely necessary."
I took a sip of my Diet Coke. Frank threw down a shot of Irish whiskey.
"I won't so much as bump into him, Frank, unless I'm absolutely certain I can wrap him up."
"Let me think about it."
I slapped him on the back lightly and headed for the bar. "Fair enough."
I spied an empty table in the corner, wandered over and sat down. I am naturally shy around people I don't know and, despite the time I had spent here over the last few months, didn't know many of the patrons.
I had overheard things they said or being said about them so I had a sense of who they were. But I had built no personal relationships.
My shyness had worked for me in this situation. People don't warm up very easily to someone inserting himself into their conversations.
I met a few of the women when I asked them to dance. I like to dance and I like women, perhaps a little too much for my own good. My inability to resist them led to two divorces by the time I was twenty-seven.
My introduction to Frank Ryan and his crew had been provided by a loyal patron of The Shillelagh who supported it by drinking far more than was prudent.
The man grew loud and obnoxious. He was already imposing before he started to drink.
The bartender was having little success handling him. None of the patrons offered to help because he had injured several men during prior bouts of inebriation. I didn't know that when I got up to help.
I don't relish the spotlight, but when the guy started manhandling his date, I was unable to control my impulses.
He was unimpressed when I tried to establish rapport by telling him I knew he didn't want to hurt her. His unusually well-reasoned response was, "Well now I can hurt you instead."
He had nine inches and ninety pounds on me. There were gasps when he threw his first, and only, punch at me.
I did what any respectable black belt judoka would do. I ducked under the punch grabbing his right sleeve with my left hand and his shirt with my right, turned my back to him, pressed my hip against him, bent at the waist enhancing his forward motion and shot my right leg back against the inside of his left thigh launching him into the air; a very flamboyant uchi mata.
His body peaked at seven feet. Unfortunately for him, there was no mat to cushion him and, having no judo experience, he didn't know how to break his fall. Tables rattled as his back crashed into the floor.
It knocked the wind out of him. The paramedics later told us the concussion was the reason he did not move.
On the plus side, he behaved much better after that.
The police were skeptical that I had handled him so easily, but the patrons were unanimous that the altercation had lasted less than three seconds from the first movement of his fist to his collision with the floor.
The conclusion of the officer in charge was that they should bring me into the station and "sort this all out."
"What are you charging me with?" I asked. I was polite and respectful.
"You can start with resisting if you give me any more trouble."
"You have to arrest me for something before I can resist."
"Don't worry, smart guy. We'll come up with something."
My control of my temper wasn't any better than my self control in a wide range of areas.
"Then you can add resisting false arrest."
They wouldn't do anything in front of this many witnesses. They would wait until I was in the patrol car or at the station.
My hands were yanked behind my back with unnecessary force and cuffed. I had the good fortune to be white. They might rough me up a bit, but if I were black I probably would have been tuned up pretty good.
The desk sergeant asked, "What do we have here?"
"Ag assault; he took out a guy in a bar fight. Guy was taken to the hospital on a stretcher."
They had cuffed me, but they hadn't gagged me.
"Don't forget to tell him the guy was six four and two hundred fifty pounds if he was an ounce. And he threw the only punch."
The leader shoved me. "Shut up. Nobody's askin' you."
The instant the look came on the Sergeant's face I understood he agreed with me: these guys shouldn't be on the force or, at the least, not in his District.
"Let's not get sued," he said. The "again" was silent.
They took me back to print me. That had me somewhat concerned. Despite the disorganized and incomplete state of fingerprint information, they might trip over mine.
If they didn't, they would lose interest years before they would find a match if they diligently pursued me.
I objected to being printed. I said they needed a reason, like a crime, to print someone. They laughed and told me to shut up.
That worked out well. Somebody reported I was a pain in the ass. I don't know which side of the law it came from. It enhanced my street credibility.
It was with great reluctance the police finally released me. I returned to The Shillelagh. Frank came over and introduced himself. "Very impressive, young man. Frank Ryan. Pleased to meet you." He held out his hand.
I shook it. "John Smith."
He looked skeptical, but didn't question it.
"How did you learn to do that thing?"
I told him I learned in college. We had to take some physical education courses and judo looked like fun. I made the college team which allowed me to practice with our heavyweights. This guy had been laughably easy compared to them. They were strong, sober and knew what they were doing.
"I don't know how you managed not to beat him senseless after you tossed him. I wouldn't have been able to control myself," Frank said.
"I make it a policy not to commit any more crimes than absolutely necessary."
"Is that what you learned in college?" he asked.
"No. I was a biochemistry major."
"And what does biochemistry major do?"
"He learns the chemistry of living things. He learns the theory and how to work in the lab. It's a lot of fun, but not all that useful without an advanced degree."
He got the implication. "So what do you do without the advanced degree, John Smith?"
"This and that. I keep busy."
My response might seem evasive, but in street parlance it said I was a criminal.
"I hear there are openings for people with your background."
I smiled. "I wouldn't turn down honest work."
"Nice to meet you, lad. Stop in here anytime you want to chat with a friendly voice."
"I'll do that Frank."
After Frank left the table people wandered over to express their admiration and satisfaction that somebody had finally handled the bully.
His date was especially grateful. I politely declined her offer to see her home. A reputation for stirring up unnecessary trouble would not serve me well.
I continued to frequent The Shillelagh.
Usually, when I saw Frank, I would wander over at some point to greet him and spend a few minutes of small talk. Then I would retreat to my isolated table.
Often a woman out for adventure would come to my table with her wing woman. There were times I left with one of them, though never both unless it was clear I was just seeing them home.
A few weeks after the incident, Frank came in and waved me over to his table.
"Can I offer you a drink, lad?"
"Sure, Frank. I'll have a Diet Coke."
"Are you sure you want to risk something that dangerous?"
"Do you have any idea what they put in this stuff?" I asked.
Frank summoned Mickey to the table with a movement of his head.
"Mick, would you be so kind as to get Johnny a Diet Coke?"
"Sure." Boss was silent, but I could feel it.
He returned with my drink and one for Frank.
I had an impulse to be polite, but just nodded my head.
Mickey didn't need to be told to leave us alone.
"Are you keeping busy, my boy?"
"Pretty much. But I like to make time to mingle with these nice people."
"I have a job you might be able to help me with, lad."
"I don't know if it fits in with your biochemistry background. I have some medicine I need tested to make sure it's the real thing. Is that something you learned in your lab work?"
"Probably. Most medicines are made from living things: plants, bark, even bugs. Aspirin comes from bark. Morphine comes from poppies. Without it, think of the suffering our boys in uniform would experience. It's a wonderful industry."
Frank smiled and nodded. "Well, of course, I don't have any morphine. That would be illegal. You need a prescription."
"From time to time I have the opportunity to get some medicine to help ease the suffering of the poor folks in our community. But I need to be sure it's something that will ease their pain. Would you have any experience with that kind of testing?"
"As a matter of fact, I do, depending on what kind of pain reliever you're looking for." "Come in the back with me. We can discuss this a little more."
A subtle head movement told Mickey to accompany us.
Frank led us into an office. I couldn't hear any noise from the bar.
"You're new to us, lad. I'm sure you'll understand my asking Mickey to make sure you don't have any listening devices on you."
I shrugged. "I expected nothing less. I won't work for anyone too careless to check. I wouldn't want to wind up in jail if anyone found some reason to look at our little discussion as somehow being in violation of the law."
Mickey patted me down without getting too intrusive. That would come in the future when Frank wanted to show me he had the power to do it. He nodded. They were men of few words.
"I'm going to be purchasing a quantity of this medicine soon. Of course, I need to be sure I get what I'm paying for," said Frank.
"I've got a little test kit. This being your first time with us, I'm sure you'll understand if I ask you to bring one of your own to make me more comfortable with how you handle yourself?"
I made a face.
"Is that a problem for you, lad?"
"Am I on Candid Camera?"
His brow furrowed. "I don't understand your meaning."
"That's what they do on TV and in the movies. You take a knife. You make a cut in the plastic bag, it's got to be plastic so the viewers can see the color.
"You dip in a finger and taste it. Then you say something like, 'Good stuff.'
"Finally, you take out a little bit on the knife, drop it into a beaker, put on the cork and shake it. Then you show your complete mastery of organic chemistry by saying, 'Ah, what a lovely shade of puce. This is one hundred and three percent pure.'
"That's not how it works. You have to take a sample back to a lab. And you want to collect small samples from various parts of the shipment to make sure the vendor didn't try to fool you by adding other crap where you're not looking.
"If that isn't how you want me to do it, you might just as well send me to the movies as take me with you."
"You're not exactly a shrinking violet, my boy."
"If you want to engage my services to confirm you're purchasing unadulterated pharmaceuticals, I want to do an honest job for you.
"You need to know the quality of the merchandise. If it's one-hundred-percent pure, you're going to want to dilute it or you'll kill off your customers. If it's ten-percent pure, you'll want to have a serious talk with your supplier."
Frank thought a while, then said, "Mickey, would you leave us alone for a bit?"
Despite the phrasing, it wasn't a question.
"You concern me, my boy. When somebody new tries too hard to join my organization or when he suggests radical changes, he's usually a cop. I've got lads who've been with me much longer than I've known you and I still keep an eye out for them being cops."
I shrugged. "I can take the work or leave it. But, if I take it, I insist on two things: I try to ensure neither I nor anybody I'm working with gets arrested. They could give me up in a deal. And I do the kind of work that prevents you from coming back later dissatisfied with me.
"You came to me with the job. I'd like to make the money, but I can live without it. I like you, Frank. I don't want to do anything to cause you trouble. We can call this off now before I know anything that could be a problem. We can work together in the future or not. I'll still like you."
That brought a hearty laugh.
"I like you too, lad. Let's do some business."
Frank was reluctant to tell me in advance when the meeting would take place, but I convinced him it was imprudent for me to set up a lab that would be available for a spur-of-the-moment call.
I also got an advance to pay for the chemicals and equipment.
Frank's supplier was reluctant to let me leave with any of the shipment, but Frank wouldn't do the deal without my testing it.