The below short story originally appeared in American Crime Magazine:
By Paul Davis
I was sitting in a booth at the Penrose Diner in South Philadelphia waiting for a friend to join me for lunch.
I was drinking a cup of the diner's good coffee and looking out the window to see if my friend had arrived when I received a text on my phone that he could not make it.
Not wanting to hog a booth by myself, I started to pick up my coffee and move to the counter when someone said my name. I looked up and saw Fred Byrne.
“Paul, you eating alone? Can I join you?” Byrne said.
“Sure. I was waiting for a friend, but he just texted me that he can’t make it.”
Byrne, a stocky man with gray hair, was about 70 years old. He was a retired hardware store manager that I met at a cigar dinner some years ago. He came up to me a the cigar dinner and told me he recognized me from the photo that accompanied my crime column in the local newspaper. He introduced himself and we shook hands.
As we smoked our fine cigars, we spoke of our military service during the Vietnam War. Byrne had been a Marine at Da Nang and I had been a sailor on an aircraft carrier.
I liked him and I gave him my card that had my telephone number and email address on it. He wrote his telephone number and email address on a piece of notepaper and handed it to me. But for whatever reason we never contacted each other.
The waitress stopped by our table and Byrne and I ordered lunch. Byrne had a copy of the Philadelphia Daily News, a newspaper I used to write for, and he showed me an article on the murder of John “Johnny Boy” Grillo, a local mobster who had just been released from federal prison. He had been shot multiple times and died on the street.
“I read that online this morning,” I said. “I didn’t know him, but I knew his father Dom some years back. I heard the kid was nothing like his father.”
“I knew them both,” Byrne said. “I knew the father from the neighborhood, but only to say hello to. I knew he was a mob guy, but he was always polite. I knew the kid as he was a friend of my daughter’s.
“Want to hear a story about my “Sitdown” with Dom over his kid?”
“Sure,” I replied.
I didn’t pull out my notebook or small tape recorder, as I didn’t yet know if he was telling me this story for my crime column, and I didn’t want him to shut him down by asking just yet.
“Well, it wasn’t a formal sitdown, as I wasn’t a member of the mob. Hell, I’m not even Italian. But like I says, Johnny Boy was a friend of my daughter when they was teenagers."
Our lunch orders arrived and as we ate, Byrne went on to tell me about the time he was returning to his South Philly rowhome years ago. He was accompanied by his friend Mike Fratelli, a Philly detective.
Byrne’s teenage daughter and wife and gone to the New Jersey shore and were staying at his in-law’s summer home. Byrne had remained in South Philadelphia as he had to work at the hardware store where he was the manager. He met Fratelli, and they had a couple of beers at their favorite corner taproom.
They walked from the bar to Byrne’s house and when they got there, Fratelli saw that one of the basement windows and been pushed in. Lights were on in the basement, and they heard music.
"Your family is down the shore, right?” Fratelli asked.
“Give me your house keys and you stay here,” Fratelli said.
Fratelli took the keys, drew his firearm, ran up the steps to the front door and let himself in.
Byrne bent down and looked in the busted basement window and saw about four or five teenage boys and girls drinking his liquor from his basement bar and dancing to the music from his radio.
Byrne, who had a license to carry a firearm as he handled money at his store, drew his 9mm Beretta and pointed it at the group in his basement.
“Get the hell out of my house, you punks,” Byrne yelled.
“Fuck you,” one of the boys said.
Byrne fired a round into his basement wall away from the teenagers as a warning shot. The teenagers ran up the basement stairs in fright and straight into the arms of Fratelli. Fratelli herded the teenagers out the front door and onto the sidewalk.
“We thought you were all at the shore,” one of the girls said. “We just broke in as a goof. We weren’t going to steal anything.”
“I know you. You’re Janice, my daughter’s friend,” Byrne said. “What the hell do all of you think you are were doing?”
One of the boys, a big and husky teenager, rushed Byrne and pushed him up against the wall. Byrne slapped the teenager across the back of his head and face with his Beretta. The kid fell to the sidewalk bleeding.
“You killed Johnny Boy,” Janice cried out.
The kid stood up and placed his hand on the back of his head. Byrne told the teenagers to get lost. He told them to never see his daughter again.
“That kid was Dom Grillo’s kid,” Fratelli said as the teenagers walked away.
“He shouldn’t have broken into my house.”
The following evening, Janice and her father visited Byrne. The father apologized for his daughter’s behavior and pleaded with Byrne to not have his teenage daughter arrested. Byrne told the man he did not plan to press charges.
The father thanked Byrne and assured him that his daughter would be punished.
The two men shook hands as Janice looked down in shame and embarrassment.
While at work the next day, a neighborhood hoodlum strolled into his hardware store and approached Byrne. Byrne’s hand reached behind his back to the holster that held his Beretta.
The man smiled and said that Dom Grillo wanted to buy him a drink at the Oregon Avenue bar that night at eight o’clock.
“Tell him I’ll be there.”
Promptly at eight, Byrne walked into the dimly lit bar with Fratelli. They began to walk to the back of the bar where Dom Grillo was sitting with his son.
A young hoodlum stepped in the way and asked if they were armed.
“Hell, yeah. I got two guns on me,” Byrne said. “And I’m a Marine, so I know how to use ‘em.”
“I’m a cop, so you know I’m packing,” Fratelli said.
“Let ‘em through,” Dom Grillo said.
Grillo, a rugged and gruff man in his 60s, was a captain, or capo, in the Philadelphia Cosa Nostra organized crime family. He controlled illegal gambling and loan sharking in the neighborhood. But having faced the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers in close-quarter combat, Byrne was not intimidated by Grillo or any other gangster.
“Sit down,” Grillo offered.
Byrne and Fratelli sat down across from Grillo and his son, whose face and head were bandaged.
“I see you brought Mike the cop with you,” Grillo said.
“Yeah, he’s my friend and he was with me when we caught your son and the other kids in my house.”
“And you felt you had to pistol-whip my son because he broke into your house.”
“He attacked me. So yeah, I was defending myself. I could have shot him.”
“This true?” Grillo asked Fratelli.
“Yeah,” Fratelli asked.
Grillo turned his head and faced his son.
“Well, what do you have to say for yourself?”
"This crazy guy threatened us with a gun, so I rushed him and …”
“Shut up now.” Grillo ordered. “You broke into the man’s house. He had the right to shoot you. Perhaps he should have.”
Johnny Boy Grillo sat back and remained quiet.
“I’m truly sorry for my boy’s rash and stupid behavior, and I’m grateful that you didn’t shoot him. I hear you are a decent man, and I hear you was a Marine, so I respect you.
“Let me pay for the damage to your home,” Grillo said.
“I manage a hardware store, so the repairs got done. I don’t need or want any money.”
Grillo rose and shook Byrne’s hand.
“Even after this, Johnny Boy still went on to be a pain in the ass to his father. He followed his dad into the mob and the dad had to get him outta of jams," Byrne said as the Penrose busboy cleared away our dishes. “The kid was always mouthing off to people and making trouble for his father.
"I think the old man was glad that Johnny Boy was put in prison. Old Dom got to spend his last years not worrying about his brash and stupid son.”
Byrne added that he was not surprised that someone shot and killed Johnny Boy Grillo the minute he walked out of prison.
“Apparently, he didn’t get the kind of homecoming he expected,” I said.
© 2023 Paul Davis