Introducing "The Schulyer Diamonds" by Ben Fine, the first place winner in the Crime category of the 14th Annual Writers Digest Popular Fiction Awards. See a complete list of the competition winners and read the first place entry in each category here. For an extended interview with the grand prize winner, visit this page. Read the grand prize winning short story here.
The Schulyer Diamonds by Ben Fine
It’s 10 a.m. and I’m already sitting in my office, bare as it is, sipping scotch and looking at the clock. My secretary Shirley is out in the front room playing games on her phone and I’m waiting for an appointment at 11. Not much to do but sit and wait, I’ve already read the paper and looked at my email. Another client is a good thing; have to maintain my inflated lifestyle. Looking at my surroundings sometimes, I think my life should have been lived in a '40s film noir set in some dark gray Midwestern city. But here I am in New York City, 1653 West 53rd Street and it’s the 21st century.
I’m a lawyer, or at least I went to law school. Struggled through and then busted my ass to pass the bar. I wanted criminal law, thought it would be exciting but all the big firms passed me by. I worked two years in the PDs, that’s public defender’s office, then got riffed in a budget crunch. I landed a job at Cumming and Haverford doing mostly investigative stuff. When I found out how much the investigators made, I got myself a private investigator’s license and hung out a shingle for myself both as a lawyer and a PI. Found an office in Brooklyn. People call me by my middle name, Pete, so I put two names on the door—Peter Devlin, Private Investigator and Daniel Devlin, Attorney at Law. Most of my living comes from investigations for law firms.
I was struggling by until I ran into a guy I knew in Law school, Paul Demell. He was the biggest slacker in our class; cheated his way through classes, somehow passed the bar. He spoke Spanish and became an immigration lawyer. He was as crooked as they come, buying and selling green cards. After we talked, he hooked me up with some of his clients, wetbacks in trouble, and I began handling small-time lowlifes. At this level, word of mouth travels quickly and pretty soon I had a flourishing clientele of scumbags and small-time crooks who paid. This and the investigative work played off each other and in time I was earning a good living and moved to this office in Manhattan and into a nice apartment in Bayside.
My wife Melanie though was long gone. She was gorgeous but not too bright. I met her at a dance club during law school and she thought I was going to make a mint as a lawyer. When I graduated and she realized I wasn’t going to make any big money she flaked off quickly. She’s married to an accountant now and lives in Great Neck.
At 11 sharp Shirley buzzed me. “Pete your client’s here.” It’s not usual for my clients to be this punctual but I had her send him in. He was tall and thin with pale pasty skin and wispy brown hair but dressed better than I could ever imagine. His suit must have been a several thousand dollar piece, his nails were done, and he had a silk tie with a diamond stick pin; perhaps out of style but at his apparent pay grade he could dress the way he wanted. He was holding a large manila envelope.
“Are you Mr. Devlin?” he asked.
“Which one do you want?” I answered. He seemed amused by that and said, “I need both but I know you’re one person.” I was curious. “I’m Devlin” and I stood up. He held out his hand. “I’m John Lapointe.” Something about him looked familiar but it took a moment or so to place him. John Lapointe: big in social circles, old money, the LaPointe foundation, I had seen him in the society pages
“What do you need” I asked him.
“First I need you on retainer” he answered, “so I can speak freely. People who recommended you said you were an understanding guy.”
I couldn’t imagine who in his circles could recommend me but I said okay.
“Is a thousand enough to retain you.”
“Sure," I told him, and he placed 10 crisp, brand new $100 bills on my desk. “Now tell me what you want?”
He took out of the Manila envelope two glossy pictures that appeared identical. A face and shoulder shot of a beautiful woman wearing a gaudy diamond necklace.
He pointed at the picture and told me. “That’s Mira Schuyler, wife of Thornton Schuyler.” I recognized her also from the society pages. “See that necklace; it’s worth 1.5 million.” “Lot of big-ass diamonds,” was all I could answer.
“See any difference in the pictures?” he asked. I told him no, it seemed to me that they were copies of the same print.
“There is” he went on. “The necklace is different.”
I was curious but impatient. “So get to it, what do you need from me?”
He took out of his pocket the same necklace as in the pictures and placed it on my desk. As I looked down on it, it was a magnificent piece of jewelry and I could understand the million-plus price tag.
“See Thornton Schuyler loves Mira,” he started, “and loves to give her all she wants. That’s just one of the baubles he’s gifted her. Mira, however, likes hard cash more than glitter. I have a jeweler friend who can make identical copies so that only a good jeweler with a good glass can tell the difference. Mira lends me her necklace and I return it or one that’s identical to it together with a big wad of cash. Mira’s happy, Thornton has no idea and I’m happy. It’s a win- win.”
“What do you need me for?” I asked him.
“I was told that you could find a suitable person to handle the transactions. You will do all the dealings.”
I knew who he wanted. My biggest client Harry Sienna was a jewel thief who dealt with a big-time jewelry fence Nathan Ferlisi.
“What’s my fee?” I asked him
“I thought 25,000 would be fair,” he answered.
“25G for 1.5 million seems kind of paltry. I’d say 10 percent. That’s 150,000.”
He shook his head and said “That’s kind of steep.”
In the past, I had walked the thin line between honesty and crime but never before had I actually crossed the line. Here I was treading on thin ice and putting myself at big risk. Greed overcame me; it was too big to pass up. “You could always find someone else,” I told him.
Lapointe reluctantly agreed. He pointed at the necklace on my desk “That’s the real one.” I almost jumped back, he treated it so cavalierly. “”Take care of everything and then I’ll take care of you. I was told that you are a man who can be trusted to not try to help himself. Call me when it’s done.” He placed a card on my desk with his phone number.
“I hope that it can be done in less than week” he said.
“I’ll try my best.” I told him. “A suitable buyer has to be located and it might not be easy.”
As he got up to leave, I asked him “What are you doing this for? You’re a rich man. I know who you are, Lapointe foundation and all.”
He shook his head. “That’s my family yes, but I’ve had some reversals and getting extra money is always pleasurable.” With that he shook my hand and left.
I looked at the necklace and carefully placed it in my office safe. I didn’t feel secure having it with me and I wanted this done also as quickly as possible.
I called Ferlisi and arranged to meet him at Le Chenoir on 81st and 1st. He liked to eat and sip wine and although it was crowded at Le Chenoir, no one listened to your conversations.
Over wine and a nice Filet Mignon I explained the whole setup to Ferlisi and showed him the photo of Mira Schuyler, who he recognized immediately. Ferlisi had tons of contacts for good stolen jewelry but even he was taken aback at the cost of the piece.
“Might be somewhat hard to unload at that price” he told me. “It’s a well-known piece and whoever buys it will have to alter it a bit. Give me a few days.”
Ferlisis was very good at what he did and within a week he had set something up. I brought him the necklace and he took it from there. Two days later I picked up a satchel in Ferlisi’s jewelry store in Garden City with 1.3 million in cash. Nathan had taken a $200,000 fee.
I had never seen so much cash in one place and like the necklace itself I was nervous holding it. I have a carry permit but I only rarely pack. However with the satchel I holstered up and put in my 357 Magnum. It made me feel somewhat secure. I called Lapointe and he told me to come to his foundation office on 51st and Park.
I met him there, handed him the satchel and he spent a good 10 minutes counting it. He then handed me a smaller satchel with 150,000 in cash. The entire deal had gone smooth as silk. “I’m very happy with this Mr. Devlin” he told me. “We’ll have some more pieces to deal shortly. It has been a pleasure doing business with you.” He shook my hand and I left.
It was two weeks later when I read the news in the Post. John Lapointe of the Lapointe foundation was killed by two would-be carjackers at a gas station off of the Long Island Expressway. He was in his Porsche driving supposedly to his house in the Hamptons when two carjackers forced him off the road. Lapointe apparently struggled and he was shot and killed. The killers, driving a late model dark blue Toyota fled without the Porsche.
It seemed fishy to me, Lapointe getting killed so soon after doing the necklace deal and I was suspicious; especially by the fact that the Porsche wasn’t taken. The next day my suspicions were verified.
At 10 in the morning I walked into my office and Shirley casually told me “There’s a babe waiting for you; a real looker.”
Mira Schuyler was sitting by my desk. She was a stunner. Usually these very wealthy women are too thin for me—bony looking almost, but not Mira. She had curves in all the right places to go with honey blonde hair and an enticing look. She smiled at me and introduced herself and there was a twinkle in her eyes that melted me. I could see why Thornton Schuyler was hooked.
“I’m frightened Mr. Devlin,” she started, “John was murdered and I think Thornton set it up.” It was clear she knew all about my involvement. “He must have found out. He has a very bad temper and he knows about me.”
“Why would he kill Lapointe? He has insurance on the necklace; a slap on your wrists maybe.”
She shook her head “He’s a vindictive man and I found out that he’s been talking to someone named Nicholas Green who has a very bad reputation.”
“Oh, shit” I said to myself. The killing did look like Green’s work and if he was involved, it was scary.
Nick Green was a smooth professional assassin. Seventy years ago he would have been in Murder Incorporated but now he was an independent. The old style Mafia bosses, with the FBI breathing down their necks, didn’t like to use their own killers and Green had become the go-to guy for them. He had been a gang leader and big drug dealer in Harlem. He mad a ton of cash as he moved up the criminal ladder. Now he contracted out to gang bangers that he knew and used to work with to do the actual killing. He was smooth and efficient and the professional mob loved him. The police knew about him but he hadn’t slipped up and seemed untouchable.
“Talk to this Mr, Green please. I can’t talk to Thornton.” Mira pleaded “I’m really frightened.”
There was nothing really I could do for her, but I told her I’d try and she left. She was something else and I wanted to help her. She was the first woman that made my heart pump in quite a while. First, though, I wanted to warn Ferlisi. I called him but it was too late. I reached his bereaved widow, who told me that two thieves had killed him in a robbery at his jewelry store. The assailants had been seen—two young black men driving a dark late model Toyota. They had grabbed a bunch of stuff but hadn’t stolen a great deal. “There was no reason to kill Nathan” his wife sobbed. “He would have handed over everything.”
I was curious as to why Schuyler would have Ferlisi killed. Nathan wasn’t part of the theft and killing him was too vindictive even for a vindictive man. Then it hit me. Forging the jewelry was Schuyler’s plan, not Lapointe’s. Run it through Lapointe, his wife was happy and he collected the cash from insurance. Something must have gone wrong and now Schuyler was cleaning all up the loose ends. Unfortunately if I was correct, I was another loose end.
I looked up all I could on Schuyler on the internet, after all, investigations were my business, and there were many rumors about an out-of-control lifestyle and losing a fortune up his nose. The jewelry deal looked like easy cash for him. After a while, I was certain that I was correct and I was in trouble. I was happy to have the Magnum next to me.
That afternoon, I pulled into my building’s parking garage and spotted the dark blue Toyota just sitting there. I had to decide quickly, so I pulled out the 357. As I got out of my car one of two gang banger’s wearing hip-hop clothes holding a pistol started coming towards me, the other stood off to the side. “Hey Mister” the first yelled and I fired and shot before he could say more.
I aimed, as they taught us, at the biggest part of his body and I must have hit something. He let out a painful yell like a wounded dog and ran back to the car. The other followed. At that distance a magnum’s bullet would rip a hole the size of a half dollar in his body, but he must have lived. They sped out of the garage. I walked over and there was a puddle of blood but no one else came down. I couldn’t report it to the police without revealing my involvement so I went upstairs and packed some stuff. I called Shirley and asked if I could stay with her for a few days. She had a good sized apartment in Flatbush. She was a good friend and told me sure and didn’t ask why.
I was now a bit trapped. I knew Green was gunning for me but the police were not an option. Schuyler wasn’t an option either. I had a wild idea that perhaps Green could be reasoned with. I had heard that he liked to drink at Ben and Jack’s on 48th Street, so I went there and parked illegally outside. He was standing at the bar and I recognized him, also from society pictures. He liked living in rich circles despite his profession. I walked over. He was black tall, well dressed in an expensive suit, with slicked down short hair and a no nonsense expression.
“I’m Pete Devlin,” I told him
“So?” he answered, not even flinching at my name. “I believe that you’re looking for me.”
“I don’t think so.” He answered; still no sign of recognition.
I decided to come clean with him right up front. “Listen Mr. Green. Please tell Schuyler than I’m a man of silence and not a problem to him. When I do something I never talk about it. Please do that for me. Mrs. Schuyler is a silent woman also.”
“Listen Devlin, if I knew what you were talking about I might say something. As it is, I don’t, so leave me alone.” He turned back to his drink.
After I left him, I had no idea what he would do but I got my answer very quickly. I was heading down the FDR to get to Brooklyn and by chance I spotted the same Toyota in my rear view mirror. How they picked me up so quickly I don’t know but I put my handgun on the seat next to me. One of the would-be killers I had shot, but Green probably had several on his payroll. These were gang bangers, so I figured this to be a drive by. I let the Toyota get alongside me and I saw a shotgun out of their window. I fired first directly at the shooter. He was startled and there was a shotgun blast into the air. I might have hit the driver because the car swerved and slammed into the side wall. I floored my car and left.
Perhaps my only option was to bite the bullet and go to the cops. Jail time was better than getting killed by Green’s men. I still had two ideas up my sleeve. Seidenberg ate breakfast each morning at Ralph’s Diner on Coney Island Avenue, so I slept a few hours at Shirley’s and went over to Ralph’s.
Sure enough, Seidenberg was sitting in a booth with a big plate of eggs and bacon. He was the NYPD chief of detectives; a hefty man with unruly hair scarfing down his breakfast. Seidenberg was a well-known person in the city who had successfully moved up the ranks of the NYPD as a Jew in an Irish power structure. He had closed several big cases and was the model for Jake Grunbaum in the Grunbaum crime series movies. I played in a card game with him and several other lawyers and newsmen but he never liked me because of the lowlife clientele that I represented.
“What do you want Devlin?” he asked me gruffly as I sat down in his booth.”
“I think I can help you if you give me some advice. I know who killed Lapointe.” “Tell me and I might give you advice.”
I told him I thought it was Nick Green and I laid out the whole story talking about a “client” of mine. “I think Ferlisi out in Garden City was killed by Green also.” I was pretty certain that Seidenberg had figured out that I was the client.
Seidenberg continued to work on his breakfast and shrugged. He then told me. “We’re pretty certain that it’s Green but you have helped me with the why. Tell your client he’s going to have to come in and talk to us if he wants help. Make certain he knows that he’s not getting an easy pass—stealing jewelry is a big crime. Still, time in the can is better than a coffin.”
I thanked him and left. I knew though that if I went to the police I was looking at serious jail time. I definitely didn’t want that; through my clients I knew how bad the joint was.
I had one more option and for that, I had to call in an old favor. Sal Camorota was a capo in Brooklyn’s Lucchese family. He was an old fashioned Mafiosi and a thug—tied to all the rules, customs and history of La Cosa Nostra. However, his son Gary Camorota was gay and was arrested performing a lewd act in a public restroom. To the old-fashioned wise guys, being gay is both a bad thing and embarrassing. To Sal, it hurt his standing in the family and somehow it came to me to squelch the whole episode, make it disappear. I called in a favor due me by one of the DAs and the whole occurrence was dropped. Sal Camorta called me personally to thank me and told me “You did me a solid Devlin. If you ever need a favor don’t’ hesitate to call.” The world of these traditional thugs revolved around such favors. After helping with Gary, Camorota’s family threw some small time cases in my direction; nothing big but some extra cash is always a good thing. Now I was the one who needed the favor. I called one of Sal’s lieutenants, Frank Ferrara and told him I needed to speak to Camorota. Ferrara knew me and called me back quickly. He told me to meet Camorota at a small Italian restaurant, Robbiano’s, in Sheepshead Bay.
It was just a trattoria and I parked on the street in front. There was a big black Cadillac double parked on the main avenue. I assumed it was Sal’s as one of his men stood by it. When I entered Robbiano’s, Ferrara greeted me and then patted me down. He took my Magnum and he seemed surprised that I had heat. “It’s strange, to see a lawyer packing a Magnum. I’ll give it back when you leave,” he told me. He then led me over to Camorota’s table where Sal was sitting with another lieutenant, Ronnie Russo, over glasses of wine and plates of pasta. Sal motioned me to sit down.
“Nice to see you Devlin” Sal said to me “You must be calling in your favor.” I nodded and then feeling I had no reason to lie to him, laid out all that had happened. He shook his head “Not much I can do Devlin. Green is one tough, slick black son of a bitch. He’s an independent and I can’t take him out. Too many people like him. Best I can do is talk to him.”
“That’s all I can ask for and that would be great,” I answered “but also talk to Schuyler. Tell him, if you would, that I’m a friend of yours and I’ll keep silent. My guess is he won’t want to tangle with you and he’ll call Green off, especially if you also talk to Green and also tell him that I’m your friend.”
“I guess I can do that,” Sal told me. “Devlin, my advice from here on in is; stay in your own element. You’re a lawyer not a gangster. I’ll let you know what happens.” He then motioned for Ferrara to show me out.
My answer came in less than two days. Ferrara called on my cell and told me to come again to Robbiano’s. I went through the same procedure and sat down with Camorota. “Devlin, I think you’re okay. I had people speak to both Green and Schuyler and we made it understood that you were a friend of ours. Green understands that this means leave you alone and I’m pretty certain he’ll relay this to Schuyler. Schuyler is coked up, he’s bought a ton of powder from some friends of ours, and he was pretty shaken when we spoke to him. Again take my advice and stick to being a lawyer— crime is only for true criminals.” He smiled as he told me this. I thanked him and left relieved that I was probably off the hook. Now all I had to worry about was whether the police got up to handling my involvement in the jewel deal. For the time being, my life was safe so I’ll deal with that when and if it comes up.