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Morty Martinez is known in the industry of estate liquidation as a "feeler." If you were to look him up in the Brooklyn yellow pages, he would be listed under "home content removal," but his real job is looking for stashes of cash crammed into tin cans that have been left out of wills, kept out of banks, and hidden away for decades by the frugal elderly suspicious of ATMs and the IRS. When Morty hits upon the biggest score of his life, over $800,000.00, he knows that news travels fast and he must operate quickly and carefully to safeguard his booty, his life and his destiny as patrician of a seaside Mexican village. But what he doesn't know is that there are others after the same buried treasure, including the recently paroled prison assassin Danny Kessel.
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BRIAN WIPRUD is the author of four books in the Garson Carson/Nicholas Palihnic series, and one mafia novel, SLEEP WITH THE FISHES.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One A squad of day laborers lifted the sofa. There on the wooden floor—where the couch had been—were thirty-two tight ones. An invasion of little cylindrical money robots that lived under the sofa. I’m sure, Father Gomez, you are asking, “Yes, but what is a tight one? And why were thirty-two of them under the couch?” I will tell you. A tight one is a short can—usually a Planters nut tin—with a roll of cash squeezed “tightly” into it. Some would have you believe that such a can of money is called a tight one because it sort of resembles . . . well, an asshole. It is what they call a play on words. This may sound unusual, to find a tight one under a couch, much less thirty-two tight ones. Not so. Old people believe a sofa is somehow more secure than Citibank. They do this because they do not trust banks, because many of them remember the Great Depression, a time before ATMs and credit cards, a time when cold hard green cash was king, and so it is that these old people hoard cash. A nut can is a little taller than the bills are wide, but low enough to fit under most of the cheap-ass couches you’re liable to find in one of these places. This is not to say they don’t hide money other places. I have found old people’s money built into drapery valances. I have found cash in hollow Bibles. I have found cash in mattresses, taped under dressers, built into the underside of Barcaloungers, and in a wall cavity behind a bathroom medicine cabinet. You have to be clever to find a geezer’s money, and you have to have a feeling, or sense, that the money is there in the house. Like people who find water in the ground with sticks, certain people have a talent for finding cash. I am one of them. It is in the blood of my ancestors. Within the industry of estate liquidation, I am called a “feeler.” It is not because I have a feeling about money being in a house. The name suggests that we feel up the furniture looking for hidden money. It does not surprise me you have not heard of feelers, unless maybe a parent died with a house full of crap that needed to go away. Nothing of obvious value, usually, just a kitchen full of dented saucepans, scratched glassware, soiled mattresses, a sagging sofa, and perhaps a curio cabinet choked with Lillian Vernon trinkets. It all goes to the dump, and it is feelers that are hired to load the junk into a container and haul it away. In the Brooklyn yellow pages, you would not find me under feelers but under home content removal, if I was actually listed. Dedicated feelers don’t advertise. Work comes to us mostly by referrals from estate lawyers, funeral homes, movers, real estate agents, what have you. I hire the day workers, arrange for the Dumpster, salvage and sell what I can, and make it go fast. When called for a job, I take a look at the house, walk through and try to imagine where the money is, or if there are any antiques that could bring some money. The clients, relatives of the deceased, have removed anything they think is valuable from the house—that they know of, anyway. Sometimes I am not sole sourced, and the client is taking bids from different feelers. In those cases, I have to have a very keen sense about what loot the house might contain to make a good bid on the work. And a keen sense about possible tight ones, of course. If it looks likely that there may be some return on the furniture, and I get the feeling the place might have hidden treasure, I might even barter our labor, clean the place for free. No matter what, I have the client sign the complete release of all contents to me. All signed and legal. I explain to the client that this is to ensure that they have removed everything they want and that I am free to dump the whole lot. What this means to me is that any valuables I find, I get, even thirty-two tight ones. At this particular house on Vanderhoosen Drive, I wasted no time in directing my day laborers to the greasy floral- print, sagging, stinking, crumb-laden couch and motioning them to lift it. What did I hope to find? One or two, maybe four or five, tight ones. Perhaps none at all. But thirty-two? There wasn’t room for many more under there. I about shit myself. Especially since I narrowly beat out other feelers for the work. Including a feeler they call Pete the Prick. After I won the job and he didn’t, he shouted to me across the bar at Oscar’s Grille: “Good luck finding any tight ones in that shack, asshole spic motherfucker!” You see how Pete got his unfortunate name? From his unfortunate disposition. How much was there in those cans? I could not know. If it were all Georges, Lincs, and Hams (ones, fives, and tens), nothing to write home about. Jacks? Now we’re talking. If the cans were loaded with Grants or Bens . . . there could be a million or more squeezed into those peanut tins. Routine procedure, no matter how many tins there are, is to make them vanish. You don’t want the client to stumble in and see all that cash because they may balk and try to back out of the contract, call lawyers, the police. It gets ugly. Also, as a general rule, you want to limit the number of people who see you carrying large sums of mazuma, especially anybody from the government. You didn’t imagine that this was declared income, did you? So I grabbed a black construction bag from the pile of supplies, opened it, and motioned for the laborers to throw the cans inside. My foreman, Speedy, directed them in Spanish. Even though I am part Spanish and grew up in a Hispanic neighborhood, I speak Spanish poorly. So Gonzales speaks for me, in a variety of different South and Central American dialects. He also listens to what the workers are saying to make sure there’s no stealing on their part. I thumbed a wad of bills in one of the cans—twenties and fifties—and handed it to Speedy, for him to distribute to the workers at the end of the day, and to take his cut of whatever is inside. I share the wealth a little when I find loot. Good karma, they say, and worth every penny. Besides, you have to pay something in the hopes that the laborers will keep their mouths shut, at least for a little while. I took the bag down the cracked brick steps along the overgrown lawn to my car. It was an old beater, a white Camaro with rusty patches and MARTINEZ HOUSE CLEANING printed on the doors in black stick-on letters that were almost completely straight. It was parked behind the truck-sized Dumpster. With the bag in the passenger seat, I drove carefully home to my apartment. You don’t want to get pulled over with a lot of cash. The cops can smell money. Whether they want some, or just to break your balls, you know they’re going to ask questions. Yes, the money was legally mine. But I would just as soon not have the police involved in anything I do. Most people are this way, I think. I mentioned the Brooklyn yellow pages before because Brooklyn is where I lived and had always lived. Nobody has any control over where they grow up, and East Brooklyn is not too bad. The neighborhood is bordered on the east by Rockaway Bay, the west by a slanting parkway, the north by a canal, and the south by a shopping center. There is a boulevard and an avenue that cross, and each is commercial. The avenue is shopping centers and one-story brick businesses like car washes, diners, auto repair, and convenience stores. The boulevard is more village-like with two-to four-story brick buildings in a variety of styles and colors. The first floors are commercial, and the upper floors are residential, so it is where people who live in East Brooklyn go to shop for daily life. Side streets are tree-lined, with runs of unremarkable brick two-and three-story buildings set just far enough apart to park an unremarkable car. Midblock, there are often alleys, which are very old and historical with names of the original settlers. Yes, our neighborhood goes way back, but the past has been paved over and all that is left are the street names. These alleys cut through blocks at slants for two or three blocks and then stop. They tell me these alleys sometimes slant because it is how cows and pigs used to move with the contour of the land. I cannot tell you if this is true. Contours of the land are now roads and buildings. In fact, I drove through an alley on my way home and parked on the street near the front of my four- story redbrick building. Bag over my shoulder, I keyed my way into the foyer and almost didn’t check my mail. You would think with a bag bulging with tight ones over my shoulder, I would let the mail wait, but I had been expecting an important envelope. And there it was! Crammed into the little box was a big white envelope from Genealogy Consultants LLC. This was turning into quite a day. I climbed the steps to my apartment in what seemed only a few strides. I live on the fourth floor of a postwar redbrick twelve-unit building on the avenue. My apartment is nothing special. Just a place to lay my bones at night after a run to the dump. In fact, it’s so plain, I once walked into my neighbor’s place while he was taking a shower and watched the first period of a basketball game before I realized the remote had the mute button in the wrong place. I just don’t care about where I live— now. I have my dreams, though, my destiny. I’ve been saving the tight ones. Just not under the sofa. Two hours after arriving home I was looking at eight hundred thousand and forty dollars in mostly Grants in stacks of ten thousand—ten rows by eight—on my living room floor. (I put the extra forty in my pocket—everybody likes a round number.) They had been curled so long that I needed eighty weights to hold them flat. I don’t keep that many weights around my place; nobody expects to ?nd that many tight ones. So I used anything I could put my hands on. My collection of Spanish history books, shoes, boots, a flashlight—my shelves and cupboards were bare by the time I was done. Hands on my hips, I surveyed the money with the amazed wonder of a conquistador before an Incan treasure. I glanced at the white envelope from Genealogy Consultants LLC on the table next to the front door. I hadn’t opened it, but I didn’t need to now. What lay before me was proof positive. The blood of Spanish explorers burned in my chest. Could the name Cortés or Pizarro be in the white envelope? I am not an idiot. I know, I hunt money in old houses, and do not conquer foreign lands for treasure, but the compulsion to look, to look every day, it must be the same as dropping anchor at an uncharted land. Where had this wondrous pile of greenbacks come from? Is it possible old Mr. Trux had hoarded so much? Had he stolen it? Of course, there was no way to tell where it all came from originally, so I stopped asking myself this ridiculous question. The important thing was to get it to a safe place where nobody could take it away. I knew I couldn’t keep it on my floor, but I needed to flatten out the bills, you know? Got to store it flat. So I went to the closet and found a suitcase, an old thing I never use because I never go anywhere. It was cloth and plastic and had a blue-and-green plaid design on the side like it was Scottish, probably because it was cheap like a Scotsman. I had not used it since my honeymoon. Marta was long gone, and good riddance, so being rid of this reminder of her was a good thing, too. One by one I pushed the stacks of bills in, and though they kept curling, the weight of the money itself started to hold the rest down. When I finally zipped it closed, the suitcase was bulging like a pregnant bagpiper, and it was heavy, perhaps twenty or thirty pounds. So I ask you—where would you put a large sum of cash like that? Everywhere you turn, you imagine what could go wrong. There wasn’t much time, either. How long before word trickled through the day laborers and got around? The closet? What if the house burns down? What if my place is robbed? The car? What if I have an accident? What if some junkie pries open the trunk? I don’t have an office; I work out of my car. I don’t have a basement, or an attic. A safe deposit box isn’t big enough. I snapped my fingers: self-storage. There’s a place off the boulevard. I looked out my front window to make sure there was nothing suspicious on the street, and then looked out my peephole. I opened the door a crack. I looked both ways. Hey, you can’t be too careful. I wouldn’t put it past Pete to send some guys around to take it away. With the Genealogy Consultants LLC envelope under my arm, I left and locked the apartment, the floor still covered with most of my belongings. I took my time down the four flights of stairs, looking over the banister, listening. When I made it to the ground floor, I was almost to the building foyer. “Where you going?” The voice—like that of a chain-smoking three-hundred-pound toad—was behind me. I recognized it and felt the hair on my arms stand up. It was the voice no person wants to hear when you have a lot of cash, or usually any other time. It is the voice of one of Brooklyn’s most reviled inhabitants, one without a soul, conscience, or scruples. Nobody likes them; most fear them. Turning slowly, I heard the sandals flip-flop toward me. I be held those black, untrusting eyes, the scowl, the brown gnashing teeth of . . . my landlord. “Going on a trip, Morty?” It was like he knew something, like he suspected, like he could smell the cash, the greedy man-beast. I tried not to show fear, standing taller, and as I did so, so did he. I am taller than he, six foot, and he was too fat to go to his toes, so I was looking down on him when I smiled my big white teeth, like the smile I make for the girls. I gestured to the bag with a wave of my hand and said, “Ah. Because I have a suitcase, you think I am traveling?” This landlord, he only squints and says nothing, as though what I had said was stupid. I continued. “Shirts. I am taking shirts to the cleaner.” “In a suitcase?” he snarled. “But of course, and why not, yes? This way they don’t get as wrinkled.” “But they’re going to press the shirts anyway, yes?” “If they are less wrinkled, my cleaner charges me less.”
Now the landlord monster toad is looking more curious. “What cleaner you take them to?” “What cleaner?” “Chinks down the block?” If I say yes, he will check. Why does he care? Why would he do this? Because he is a landlord, and they live to snoop. “Nnnno. I take them to . . . New Jersey.” Even he wouldn’t go all the way to New Jersey to check on a cleaner to see if I was charged less for shirts that were wrinkled less. His eyes went wide. “Well, that would explain it.” For many Brooklynites, New Jersey is the object of suspicion and general disdain, like it was one large insane asylum. It doesn’t help that the state is host to towns with names like Weehawken and Hoboken and Piscataway—could they be towns where elves live? Anyway, as a rule of thumb, anybody who lived outside of Brooklyn, much less New York City, was clearly out of their mind and capable of anything, even charging to clean shirts by how many wrinkles they have. “You go all the way to . . . why d’you go all the way . . .” “My girlfriend—she lives there.” “What the hell is wrong with you, Morty? We got girls here in Brooklyn you can fuck. Lotta spic girls, too. You don’t need ...
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