Monday, December 7, 2015

My Crime Fiction: 'The Big Move'

The below short story originally appeared in The Orchard Press Online Mystery Magazine in 2009: 

The Big Move

 By Paul Davis

Dominic Fortino was forced to serve out many after school detentions in the school’s small library.

Fortino was ordered to detention again on this particular day due to his attempt to push Mr. Pidot’s desk out of a second story classroom window.

Jonathan Pidot was a pompous, dumpy young man of 28 with an oversized head, wispy light hair, and huge ears that turned bright red when he became angry or frustrated. His cartoon character looks and high-pitch squeak of a voice made him the perfect foil for teenage class clowns.

He was the most hated teacher in Thomas Junior High School in South Philadelphia during the mid-1960s.

Pidot spent much of the day complaining about the excessive heat coming off the radiators in his classroom. Although it was 30 degrees outside, it was close to 90 degrees in the classroom. Pidot threw open the classroom’s oversize windows to let in the cold air, but it didn’t help much. The students were hot, but many of them were glad that the biology test scheduled for that day was postponed due to the heat and Pidot’s fit over the heat.

At one point Pidot told the class that he was going to confront the custodian and walked out of the classroom. Fortino and a few other students jumped out of their seats, picked up Pidot’s desk and attempted to push it out the window.

Although the open window was wide, the old, wooden desk jammed in the widow frame, with half of the desk and two legs dangling over the Johnson Street pavement. The more they tried to push the desk through the window, the more it wedged firmly into the frame.

Someone called out that Pidot was coming and the students rushed back to their seats. Fortino ignored the warning as he was determined to push the desk out of the window with his brute force.

“What are you doing? Are you insane?” Pidot screamed in disbelief as he entered the classroom.

Pidot was not amused by the prank, but the students’ laughter was heard throughout the school. Pidot’s large ears were flaming red as he shrieked insults at Fortino.

Fortino sat down in his seat calmly. He was impassive throughout Pidot’s verbal assault, as he was twice Pidot’s size, and he feared no one. “Big Dom,” as Fortino was known, was a teenager, but he looked like a forty-year-old man. Make that a large, tough, and rugged 40-year-old.

Winded from screaming at Fortino, Pidot threw up his hands in disgust and stormed out the classroom. He charged down the hall and bounced down the stairs to the vice principal’s office on the first floor of the school.

Later in the vice principal’s office Fortino told her that he never intended to push Pidot’s desk out of the window. It was just a joke. The vice principal was not amused. She placed Fortino on suspension and ordered him to return to school in a week’s time with his parents.

Pidot was not satisfied with the punishment and he insisted that Fortino also serve detention. Pidot was big on detention. The vice principal agreed and instructed Fortino to report to detention after classes.

At detention that afternoon in the library Pidot ordered Fortino to read something — anything. A book was out of the question, so Fortino picked up a magazine and glanced at the photos simply to placate Pidot, who sat nearby grading papers and muttering.

The “desk in the window” stunt became a huge joke throughout the school. Even the custodian, who had to dislodge the desk from the window frame, laughed about it. Like the students, the custodian hated Pidot.

The stunt so irritated Pidot that with the vice principal’s permission he formed a teacher’s committee with the goal of identifying and removing the school’s 12 most disruptive students.

Of course, Fortino was one of the designed “12 Most Wanted.” 

I was another.

I was a class clown and I used to crack jokes and offer sarcastic asides during class. I always received a good laugh when I would mimic Pidot’s catch phrase, “Is this a joke?” Pidot would often utter this phrase when students did not meet his so-called high standards of learning.

Other students picked up on my impression and when Pidot walked through the halls one would always hear several students in falsetto voices say “Is this a joke?” This infuriated Pidot and he knew I was the originator.

I was an idea man as well. I pulled my own stupid stunts, but I also conceived of pranks and mischief that Fortino and others went on to commit on my suggestion. In fact, I must now admit that it was I who suggested we push Pidot’s desk out the window. I hated Pidot and the feeling was mutual.

Pidot and his committee came up with the "Pidot Plan," which called for teachers to watch the designated 12 Most Wanted, catch us, one-by-one, in the act, and then transfer us to Daniel Boone, which was a special disciplinary school for young hoodlums.

Pidot told his fellow teachers that Fortino, for example, was not only disruptive; he was incapable of learning. One teacher on the committee, Mr. Rockland, disagreed.

Ronald Rockland was a short fireplug of a man with short-cropped gray hair. He was a tough, no-nonsense history teacher. We all thought he was a cool guy, and no one would have dared to push his desk out of a window.

Rockland, who encouraged my dream of becoming a writer, along with my English teacher, Mrs. Brancato, must have felt there was some hope for me, as he took me aside and warned me about the Pidot Plan. He advised me to stay out of trouble.

I continued to pull stunts, of course, but I was careful not to get caught. Although I had in turn warned my fellow 12 Most Wanted about the Pidot Plan, Fortino and nine other guys would eventually be kicked out of school and shipped off to Daniel Boone. 

Of the 12 Most Wanted, only Mike Rossini, who, amazingly, was a straight-A-student, and me, a class clown, minor hoodlum and marginal student, went on to graduate Thomas Junior High School.

I loved my three years at Thomas, even if I didn’t learn much there. I had a lot of fun goofing off throughout school, which is probably why I’m not a millionaire doctor living in Gladwyne today.

And Pidot, I recently discovered, was wrong about Fortino. He was capable of learning.

That afternoon in the school’s library Fortino sat and looked at magazine photos of a luxury high-rise apartment in Center City Philadelphia. He stared at the photos of a wealthy couple’s splendid furniture, electronic equipment and art. He was impressed.

Fortino was so impressed that he vowed to one day steal it all.

Along with Fortino and most of our South Philly street corner gang, I dropped out of high school in the late 1960s. I enlisted in the Navy when I was 17 in 1970 and I sailed off to Southeast Asia on an aircraft carrier. Fortino was sent up the river the same year. 

Fortino spent most of his late teens and early twenties incarcerated, and he later became a member of the local mob.

I had not seen “Big Dom” Fortino in many years so I was somewhat taken aback when I was contacted by his lawyer. Fortino was sitting in a federal cell waiting to testify against his fellow criminals. He told his lawyer that he wanted to offer me an exclusive interview before he entered the Witness Protection Program and left Philadelphia.

According to the lawyer, Fortino read my column in the local paper. Well, I suppose he may have glanced at my column photo, but knowing that he was not big on reading, I doubted that he actually read my column.

I met with Fortino in the Federal Detention Center, located across the street from the Federal Courthouse in Philadelphia. Big Dom had grown even bigger since our last meeting. He was now a massive, muscular guy, wide as a truck, and he had a face that only a hatchet could love. Fortino stood up and welcomed me with a rib-breaking hug and a couple of hard slapping thuds on the back.

We sat down on chairs facing each other across a table. I set out my notebook, pen and tape recorder on the table, and Fortino launched straight away into his story.

Fortino was a member of a rough crew that worked out of John Doe’s Bar & Grill in South Philadelphia. He had a reputation as a capable burglar and a vicious and effective strong-arm guy. He and his crew hit stores and warehouses at night. Fortino’s mob captain, Joseph “Joe Darts,” Argentieri, ran a major bookmaking and loan sharking operation out of John Doe’s. Fortino, with his killer-reputation and killer-looks, collected gambling and loan shark debts for Argentieri.

When a doorman for a Center City high-rise apartment building fell behind in his gambling debts, Fortino recalled his school days and saw an opportunity to fulfill his dream of looting a high-rise, luxury apartment. 

The doorman, Bill Canfield, was a lean, hawk-faced, 50-year-old. He was a fast-talking, ingratiating, compulsive, degenerate gambler. To clear some of his dept and remain healthy, Canfield agreed to assist Fortino.

Canfield identified the richest tenant in the building as John Joyce, a 62-year-old real estate developer. Joyce was a balding, tall, thin, almost frail man, who wore large glasses on his pinched face. He lived alone in his vast apartment, and Canfield told Fortino that Joyce entered the lobby early every Sunday morning after spending Saturday night at a girlfriend’s home.

When Joyce walked into the lobby that one Sunday morning Fortino walked up to him and rammed the four-inch barrel of a .357 Smith & Weston revolver in his side. He forced Joyce into the elevator and they rode up to his apartment. With the gun barrel laid up against Joyce’s temple, Fortino had Joyce unlock the door and disable the alarm system once they were inside. Fortino called down and had his crew come up to the apartment. The four-man crew, dressed as moving men, carried dollies, hand trucks and other moving equipment.

With swift and quiet efficiency, the four experienced men moved every stick of furniture and household item out of the apartment. They moved the load into the freight elevator and then out into a large moving truck that was parked in the back of the building. If anyone happened to see the crew at work, they would assume that a tenant was moving out of the building.

Joyce sat still in a dinning room chair, too frightened to speak or move, as the crew moved all of his belongings out the door.

“A rich guy like you should eat more,” Fortino said as he lifted Joyce from the chair with ease. The chair was the last stick of furniture in the apartment, and Fortino handed it to one of his crew. The large apartment was now empty save for Joyce and Fortino.

Joyce was forced to take the elevator down to the garage with Fortino at his side, and they drove off in Joyce’s Lincoln Town Car, one of three cars that he had parked in the garage. They drove off towards North Philadelphia, while the moving truck drove off in the opposite direction towards a wholesale candy warehouse in South Philly.

Fortino swung the car to the curb near a subway stop on Broad Street. Fortino was stealing the car as well, so he told Joyce to get out and take the subway home.

“Call the cops when you get home and say you was robbed,” Fortino said as he pushed Joyce out of the car. “Say you found the place cleaned out when you got there. Got me?”

Joyce nodded in agreement.

“Hey, you’ll collect big-time on the insurance,” Fortino said with a grin. “Go rob those guys.”

Then Fortino abruptly turned cold and menacing and yanked Joyce back into the car. “But if you ever tell the cops about me or my guys, you’ll end up fuckin’ dead. Ya got me?”

Joyce again nodded in agreement and Fortino shoved him out into the street and drove off.

Joyce initially followed Fortino’s instructions, but as this was a bold crime, the detectives were persistent in their questioning. Joyce finally broke down and told the detectives the true story. But Joyce, still fearing retribution from the mad, giant criminal, claimed he could not identify any of the crooks, even though Fortino’s photo was one of the mug shots laid before him.

A University of Penn graduate student who believed his superior intellect would ensure that he made a killing on sports betting — but didn’t — was coerced into working for Fortino. Alec Pines, called “Smart Alec” by the crooks, was a grubby-looking nerd who appeared out of place among the rough-hewn, but better dressed hoodlums. Fortino wanted Pines to report to the candy warehouse so he could identify and place a value on the art, antique furniture and any other items of special value.

This was a big score for Fortino. “Joe Darts” Argentieri, a slim, dapper, silver-haired man of 60, was proud and happy as Pines added up the estimated value of the score.

Argentieri and Fortino discussed “moving” – the criminal term for the profitable disposal of stolen items — the contents of the lavish apartment. Argentieri said he knew some people in New Jersey who would be very interested in the haul.

“This is a big fuckin’ score,” Argentieri told Fortino. “You’ll get a lotta respect for this work, I gotta tell ya, and you're gonna make us a lotta fuckin’ money.”

This would have been a perfect score had not one of Fortino’s crew been arrested by the FBI. The FBI pinched Steven Fritts for federal drug charges unrelated to the apartment job. With a growing family and a growing drug-habit, Fritts feared doing hard time in prison.

So he gave up Big Dom.

He told the FBI about the apartment job and the location of the warehouse. The FBI and the Philadelphia Police raided the warehouse. They also hit John Doe’s and arrested Fortino and his crew.

Despite his record as a poor student, Fortino did the math. As he was in his late 50s, he knew he might die in prison.

So he gave up Joe Darts.

Fortino was a gold mine of information concerning the local mob, and he confessed to aiding Argentieri in the murder of two rivals five years prior. He offered to tell the FBI and the Philly detectives where the bodies — or to be precise, the body parts — were buried. The Assistant U.S. Attorney was very happy with Fortino, and she arranged a very good deal for him.

So there we were in the Federal Detention Center. Fortino told me that his wife and young son were already out of state, safe in the Witness Protection Program. He said he would join them when he finished his testimony.

Fortino said that he was thankful that before the FBI went out and arrested Argentieri, the FBI agents escorted Fortino to his home, where he, his wife and his brother-in-law loaded up a truck with all of their household belongings for the trip out of state.

“Nobody suspected a thing. We were in and out in two hours,” Fortino said proudly. “After all, I know how to fuckin’ move furniture.”

© 2009 By Paul Davis  

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