Close Call 

Close Call 


By Frank Conrad Musumici

I felt a horrible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach accompanied by an unbearable urge to move my bowels. 

I could see the .357 magnum revolver, as it pressed against my right temple, unfocused, ugly, and lethal. Beads of perspiration formed on my forehead as I forced myself to remain still. I thought of my own weapon, a .38 caliber revolver, which was secured by an ace bandage around my right ankle. I knew I would never reach it in time, and so I stood, frozen in quiet and profound terror. When I saw the two men step out of the shadows, I immediately understood. 


The day I was called to the boss’s office, I drove in a heavy downpour, through the noisy, sluggish Manhattan traffic, to get to the midtown office of Lake investigations. I had been employed by the Lake Detective Agency, as an undercover operative for the past three years. During that time I had successfully completed several high-stakes undercover operations, including the infiltration of a theft ring that operated in the New York City Garment District. 

During that particular assignment, I had worn a wire resulting in many grueling hours of transcribing the tapes into written reports. I was excited at the prospect of returning to the field and away from the paperwork for awhile. When I arrived Ms. Garcia was busy typing. She looked up from her work, gave me her usual insincere smile and told me that Mr. Lake would be with me shortly. 

J.T. Lake seemed in a particularly good mood this morning, as he asked me to sit down. 

“How are you this morning Frank?” he asked, smiling broadly. “I have a new assignment for you and I think you can really sink your teeth into this one. One of our clients is the Sunshine Brewing Company. They have a large shrinkage problem and they need a good U.C. Man to look into it. They’ve been losing a lot of product lately, are you interested?” 

I nodded, and he began my briefing. 

My temple began to throb as Toker jammed the revolver against it. Toker was a predator, an animal who enjoyed terrorizing the helpless, and at that moment, I knew that he would love nothing better than to pull the trigger. All he needed was the slightest excuse. I decided not to give it to him. 

Toker earned his name from the fact that he was constantly toking on a marijuana joint. I've heard people say that marijuana makes one mellow, but in Toker’s case, I think it made him more sadistic. He stood about 6’5” tall and weighed approximately 250 pounds. He had the face of an old boxer, weathered and broken, and when he was angry, which was often, his eyes narrowed and seemed to burn with cold hatred. 

The first time I saw Toker in action, I had been working on a truck in the courtyard. I heard muffled voices coming from several rows behind me, and peering around the rear of my truck, I saw Jocko and Toker talking to one of the Hi-Lo drivers. I tried to hear above the noise of revving engines, but all I caught was an occasional angry word. 

The conversation was heating up and the Hi-Lo man became more and more nervous and animated.   

Suddenly, Toker pulled a short piece of steel pipe from his jacket pocket and hit the man square in the face. The man staggered back against the side of the truck, holding his face. Blood poured through his fingers and ran down his wrist and onto the sleeves of his jacket. 

Toker’s lips went slack, a string of spittle running down the side of his mouth. 

Jocko pushed Toker to the side and said something inaudible to the Hi-Lo man. All three began walking toward the loading dock area, the driver still holding his hands to his face as Jocko lead him by the arm. 

Later, I asked one of the loaders if he knew what the argument was about. 

“It’s a personal thing between Jocko and Charlie,” he said and quickly walked away. 

John Vannelli’s smile was humorless as he walked up to Toker and me, his cousin Vinny standing to his right looking bored. 

“What’s this about?” I asked. Though I had a pretty good idea. 

Jocko just stared, his smile frozen. After what seemed like hours, though it was probably seconds, he asked, “Are you a plant?” 

“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked, adrenaline pumping outrage into the words. 

Ignoring my question, he pushed on. “I think you are,” he growled. “I think you were put here by the higher-ups to check out the situation. Nobody messes with me, remember that.” 

With those words he nodded to Toker who delightedly jammed the revolver against my temple again, and forced me to walk to the dock, which was several yards away. I looked down at the oily water and cursed myself for letting Toker sneak up on me in such an isolated area. Jocko nodded once more and Toker cocked the hammer of his revolver. The click sent a tremor through my body and I felt nauseous. 

John Vannelli, whose nickname was Jocko, was the leader of a group of some twenty employees who made an extremely good living from the theft of the company’s product. 

Jocko was a smooth operator and seemed to have total control over the group’s illegal activities. Much later in the investigation, I learned that he ran a tight ship, taking a piece of the action from every illegal transaction that occurred at the plant. When I first met Jocko, I was working as a truck inspector, a job that gave me complete access to the entire loading and parking areas. 

Jocko was understandably suspicious of newcomers and attempted to gain information by befriending me. In so doing, he saved me the energy and time of doing exactly the same thing to him. 

At first it was touch and go with Jocko. Sometimes he was quite friendly, joking and laughing like we knew each other for years; at other times he seemed to watch my every move with deep suspicion. In time, he stopped asking questions and seemed to accept me as one of the guys. One of the things that really broke the ice was the fact that both of us played guitar. 

When he found out about our shared interest, it opened the door to a wealth of information. As I gained more and more of his trust, I began to be accepted by his small circle of cronies, all of them except, of course, Toker.  The only thing Toker excepted about me was the disdainful fact that I existed. The feeling was mutual, and we more or less stayed out of each other’s way. 

When the client read my reports concerning Jocko's activities at the plant, he opted to obtain evidence for prosecution. Consequently, I started carrying a miniature tape recorder and began recording my conversations with Jocko. The recorder was cleverly hidden in a box of small cigars that I smoked during the entire operation. Half of the box contained cigars and the other half the recorder. As a matter of fact, several times I offered Jocko a cigar and he didn't even realize that he was talking into the recorder as he took it from the box. 

During one of our periodic jam sessions, (Jocko and I sometimes played guitar during our lunch break), he asked me if I would be interested in making some extra money. This was a crucial point in the investigation. The easiest way to get rid of a suspected under cover agent is to set him up so that he is involved in a theft. By informing management that the U.C. is involved, the investigation would become compromised. 

I knew the reason that he asked me to join him in his operation was because of my truck inspector job at the plant. I was simply in the way. Since my job consisted of reporting any mistakes in the loading process, he knew that he could not continue his operations, without cutting me in, which was the plan that our team had from the very beginning. 

I told him that I would be interested in hearing what he had to say. Jocko invited me to one of the neighborhood bars and gave me the whole rundown of his operation, outlining how I could make good money just by making sure that certain trucks passed my inspection. I of course recorded the whole conversation from my box of cigars in my shirt pocket. 

I contemplated diving into the East River and swimming for dear life, but the thought of getting hit with a bullet, bleeding into that dirty water and drowning was, to put it mildly, quite unappealing. Instead, I summoned up all the courage I had left, which didn’t amount to much, and I shoved Toker’s hand with my arm, moving the revolver away from my head.   

“Are you crazy?” I yelled, “You could kill somebody with that damn thing.”  The gamble worked and Toker unsure of what to do next, looked at Jocko for direction. 

“Put it away,” he ordered. 

Toker looked at me with naked hatred and very slowly, dropped the revolver into his jacket pocket. 

Jocko walked up to me, stuck his face close to mine and whispered, “If I find out that you’re a plant, I’ll kill you myself.” 

After searching my body for wires, thankfully bypassing my cigar box and my ankles, I was roughly pushed forward. I turned toward the truck yard and walked away. My knees felt like rubber. I thought for sure that they would give out, but they didn’t. After that Jocko seemed to watch me all the time. 

After I reported the incident, it was decided that the next phase of the operation would begin. A surveillance team in a company van was parked at a strategic point just outside of the plant. A prearranged signal from me would tell the surveillance team to follow and videotape the movements of the trucks that were carrying extra product. 

The surveillance team successfully videotaped most of the trucks that I pointed out and obtained evidence showing many of the subjects actually selling the product openly to stores and individuals not on their scheduled routes. 

 One month later, eighteen employees were arrested on theft charges. I was pulled off the assignment and began transcribing my recorded tapes for the trial. 

During the trial, Jocko, who appeared more like a choirboy then a tough ringleader, sat quietly and seemed passive until he saw me with the assistant D.A. As I walked into the court to testify, his eyes flashed with both hatred and betrayal. Up until that time I was known only as Agent 21, but now he realized the full impact of his situation. 

When the D.A. introduced the tapes into evidence, Jocko’s jaw dropped in disbelief. When the tapes were played in court, both Toker and Jocko stared at me through narrow eyes. It looked almost as though they had rehearsed the scene. The trial lasted several months and in the end sixteen individuals were indicted on charges ranging from grand theft to extortion and loan sharking. 

Once, toward the end of the trial, I had the unpleasant occasion of accidentally meeting Jocko just outside of the courthouse. He smiled coldly and, through clenched teeth, informed me that he should have killed me when he had the chance. 

“ I’ll get you sooner or later,” he growled. “I know where to find you.”  

That was the last time I ever saw Jocko or his associates. 

Soon afterward, Mr. Lake had a new assignment for me, and Jocko and Toker sank into the recesses of my mind, from where they would occasionally be dredged up, as I told my war stories. 

Written and read by Frank Conrad Musumici © 2020 All rights reserved

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