With the sights and sounds changing dramatically, and not for the better, during the trek from suburban Westfield, New Jersey to the urban enigma known as Newark, Al Damiano, a man of more girth than mirth, glanced from time to time at his partner, who was uncharacteristically quiet.
His 6' 8" frame crunched uncomfortably in the passenger seat of Damiano's restored '68 Camaro, Eddie Goff, who was known for being garrulous with friends, strangers, children, and even, as a rumor went, trees, seemed lost in thought. But not happily so.
"You okay?" Damiano asked at one point.
"Peachy," was Goff's one word reply.
Six laconic minutes later, Damiano again broke the silence. "Anything you want to talk about?"
This time Goff let a sour expression suffice. But that didn't stop Damiano.
"Look, I get it if you're feeling burned out," Damiano said. "It comes with the turf. So maybe we set a target on earnings, then take a break - a hiatus - whatever you want to call it. You can travel. Recharge. Be stupid. Anything you want. Sound good?"
Goff made no effort to respond.
Fifteen minutes later the denizens of a blighted area that was close geographically, but in every other sense far away from the modern stretch of office buildings dubbed The New Newark, took notice of the arrival of the '68 Camaro, which to them was of greater interest than the Benzes and BMWs that arrived Monday through Friday from towns like Summit, Short Hills, and South Orange.
Pulling into the parking lot adjacent to a medical lab on a singularly bleak street, Al Damiano again faced his partner.
"One favor, okay?"
"Don't be impossible."
"Let's just go in, get the goddamn gig, and walk out with a retainer."
"Because it's good business."
"And the real reason?"
"What're you talking about?"
"With you there's always a why."
"Myra wants to redo the kitchen," Damiano acknowledged with a shrug.
"What do you mean, and?"
"And maybe buy new living room furniture," Damiano added.
Goff studied his partner for a moment, all the while bracing parts of his body accustomed to creaking too much after years of pounding on basketball courts near and far.
Then out of the car climbed the two plus-sized men.
After being kept waiting for close to twenty minutes, Eddie Goff was even less ebullient when he and his partner were led into the medical lab's conference room. There they were greeted three well-tanned physicians in hand-tailored Italian suits: Dr. Vince Grazio, Dr. Phillip Dudek, and Dr. Charles Goldsmith.
"I take it," Dudek began once the visitors had taken seats, "that our attorney has explained the situation."
"Situation?" asked Eddie Goff. "Or pickle?"
Knowing from experience the result when Eddie Goff's vexation was allowed to go unchecked, Damiano quickly spoke up. "Stavis tells us about everything from when the sun comes up to what the Yankees lineup will be."
"So, for want of a better term," Goldsmith interjected, "can you make our difficulties... umm... disappear?"
"We're private eyes," Goff answered tersely. "Not magicians."
"Okay, I get that," said Grazio. "But can you help?"
"What exactly does your attorney say about us?" Al Damiano asked.
"A lot of things."
"About our ability to deliver?"
"That you're the best," Grazio replied.
"But what kind of guarantee do we have?" asked Dudek.
"What kind of guarantee do you have that you won't be hit by a sixteen-wheeler on your way home tonight?" Damiano shot back.
"Or that your wife isn't banging the produce guy at Whole Foods?" added Goff.
"That's not exactly comforting," said Goldsmith.
"You want comforting, get a puppy," Eddie Goff responded.
"Okay, just so I know," said Dudek, "why you two instead of the others that were suggested?"
"Besides reputation and track record, plus the recommendation of your lawyer?" asked Damiano.
"Exactly," Dudek replied.
"A lot of guys are competent," Damiano stated matter-of-factly. "Ex-cops, sheriffs, former military police."
"So what makes you two different?" asked Dudek.
"The FBI taught us how to make a case," Damiano said forcefully.
"Which means, as it regards to us?" chimed in Grazio.
"We also know how to un-make 'em," said Goff.
The three physicians exchanged looks, then Dudek spoke. "So where do we start?"
"You know our hourly rate?" Damiano said.
"Which, frankly, seems quite high," piped in Goldsmith.
"Oh yeah?" asked Goff, who felt his partner put a hand on his shoulder.
"Okay if I handle this?" Damiano asked.
"No," Goff responded, glaring at the three doctors, one after the other. "It's my understanding," he said to Goldsmith, "that you have a house in South Orange valued in excess of $4 million."
"Still, nothing," Eddie said, turning to Dudek. "And yours, in Short Hills, was appraised recently at close to that much."
"Please --" said Goldsmith.
"Please, my ass! And you," Goff said to Grazio, "you've got a home in Summit worth a mere $1.5 million, plus a place at the Shore appraised at almost that much. And that's without mentioning your wife's Bentley or your Lamborghini."
"I don't see where this is appropriate," Goldsmith interjected.
"Given that you're likely to spend twenty years behind bars, and get hit by fines that could put your wife and kids in the street?"
"L-let's try to be constructive," said Dudek, having turned ashen. "The retainer you need is $20 thousand, correct?"
"$30," said Goff.
"But I thought --"
"It just went up."
"M-may I ask why?" demanded Grazio.
"Because my partner's wife wants her kitchen redone."
For a moment there was silence until it was broken by Goldsmith. "I think I should call Stavis!"
Eddie Goff promptly pulled out his iPhone. "Let me do the honors."
Clearly rattled, Dudek got to his feet and paced for a moment, all the while studying first his colleagues, then the two detectives. "If we say yes to the $30 thousand as retainer, are we good?"
Al Damiano started to respond, but was cut off before he could say a word.
"Only if you answer some questions," Goff stated. "And I mean to my satisfaction. But first I'm going to do something I'm sure will offend you."
"What does that mean?" asked Goldsmith.
"I'm going outside for a smoke."
Dismayed, the physicians watched Eddie Goff saunter out of the room. Then, as one, they turned their eyes on Al Damiano.
"Who in hell does he think we are?" asked Goldsmith.
"The schmucks who kept us waiting for twenty minutes even though you need us desperately."
Being the only white face visible in an area otherwise filled with blacks and Latinos was hardly new or uncomfortable for Eddie Goff. One of only two white guys on his high school basketball team, he spent much of his youth playing ball -- both pick-up and organized -- in questionable parts of Newark, Elizabeth, Rahway, and Linden.
Accepting the judgment of teachers, cops, and other figures of authority that he was nothing but a dumb jock, he coasted through bonehead courses first in high school, then in college, until one day he woke up to a strange realization. More than most, he suddenly recognized, he was someone who got it. That he came off gruff and unpolished, which engendered a kind of fear in others that enhanced the talent he possessed during his playing days, proved to be even more important than his NBA dreams when he blew out a knee.
Ensconced in a job teaching and coaching in high school, he found himself largely marking time until, thanks to a drunken dare, he applied for a position with the FBI. To the surprise of the powers-that-be at the Bureau, his scores - not just on placement tests, but on those judging aptitude and fearlessness as well - were off the charts.
Street smart, competitive, and tough, despite being the most conspicuous undercover operative ever - which caused mobsters, drug dealers, and scammers to doubt that anyone his height could possibly be a Fed - he was soon on his way to becoming a legend.
But as bureaucracy came to supersede traits like guts and initiative, Eddie Goff, with a family that by then included a wife, a young daughter, and another child on the way, found himself chafing at the ever-increasing company man mentality. So when Al Damiano, who was almost as much of a renegade as he was, suggested that they start a business as private investigators, Goff didn't hesitate.
Having enjoyed the last puff on a cigarette his doctor had repeatedly warned him against, Goff was stomping on the butt when out from the lab stepped his partner.
"The natives are restless," Damiano said.
"So my understanding is that before opening this lab, then another one in Paterson, each of you was doing pretty well," Goff said to the physicians a few minutes later. "Correct?"
The three doctors nodded.
"You're a urologist?" he asked Grazio.
"And you, a rheumatologist?" he asked Dudek, who nodded. "And you're the Union County king of Botox if I'm not mistaken?" he said to Goldsmith, who frowned.
"Is this really necessary?"
"Only if you want to keep me from walking out. And the labs, as I understand it, were designed to bring in additional revenue."
"By serving a much needed function," Goldsmith stated.
"Including performing tests that aren't necessary?"
"Which, I must inform you, did no harm whatsoever," Goldsmith countered.
"Except to the taxpayers, who got stuck footing the bill. But given your lifestyles, even those extra bucks, according to the charges against you, weren't enough."
"Is all this relevant?" Dudek asked.
"If we were to represent you?"
"You mean it's still not certain?" queried Grazio.
"Very little is certain in this world. But what seems to be certain is that despite the volume -- legitimate and not-so-legitimate -- you started billing the state for services rendered to a different group of people."
"Which group?" Grazio inquired nervously.
"The ones who are dead."
"You're making me very uncomfortable," Goldsmith said.
"And we're having a ball? Let's move to another topic. I may not be as sophisticated as you, but accordingly to the statute I read, a doctor must be on site at all times."
"And one of us was often here," offered Grazio.
"Okay, sometimes," Dudek said softly.
"And when you weren't, as I understand it, you had a fireman on disability leave, who you dressed in a white coat and stethoscope."
"After being given significant training," Goldsmith insisted.
"At Harvard Med School? Or Rutgers? Or Yale?"
Visibly distraught, Dudek turned beseechingly to Damiano. "Must this go on?"
"One last question," Goff said. "Ready?"
He eyed the three physicians, who were eager to get the interrogation over with.
"Fire away," said Dudek.
"What do you mean, why?"
"Why the fuck did you do it?"
Silence reigned as the doctors exchanged glances, then Goldsmith became the designated spokesman. "Everybody does it," he said.
Shaking his head, Eddie Goff turned and walked out of the conference room.
Several minutes later Al Damiano emerged from the medical lab with a smile on his face.
"You're beautiful!" he said to Goff.
"What's in hell's that mean?"
"Thanks to you, the retainer is up to $40 thou."
"And we bumped our hourly by ten percent."
"Which means I should walk out more often."
"I don't want anything to do with it."
"Why in hell not?"
"My sense of decency has been offended."
Al Damiano gaped at his partner. "I didn't know you had a sense of decency."
"Neither did I," Goff admitted.
"Eddie, I don't get it. We've represented mobsters, racketeers, hucksters, crooks, sleazebags, and slimeballs. Why all of a sudden?"
"First, it's not all of a sudden. And crazy as it sounds, even with the worst of the others, I could find something - some spark of humanity, no matter how slight - to justify what had to be done. But these guys --"
"They make my skin crawl."
Damiano took a deep breath while searching for the right words to say.
"But what if --" he began tentatively.
"This costs us Stavis as a guy who refers cases?"
"And if the word gets out, we lose even more business?"
Goff shrugged. "I guess --"
"That somehow life will go on."
With that, Eddie Goff began walking toward Damiano's car.
Al Damiano started to protest, then reconsidered, hoping that maybe, if he was lucky, the passage of time would somehow help.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, and boxing. His fiction has appeared in Ireland, England, India, and in several American publications. www.elboxeothemovie.com