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zingmagazine10 autumn 1999

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“A man the women know as Tony recruited them to be ‘couriers’,” Bob continued. “You met someone at the Rhein-Main airport in Frankfurt and picked up two vests filled with heroin. You then instructed Isabel and Maria in the procedure to follow in taking the vests through Frankfurt Airport Customs. You also instructed them how to get through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport International Arrivals Building. Afterwards, you were to fly to Newark, New Jersey’s International Airport, and be picked up by a limousine. It would take you into New York city where the vest would be turned over to Tony and each of the women would receive $10,000 for their work. Have I got it right?”

If this was a movie, at this point I would have said, “I want to speak to my lawyer,” but this was real life, my life, and all I could do was shake my head and silently curse Mo, the man the women knew as “Tony”.

“Mel, help us,” Tom said trying to bring back Mister Nice Guy. But I wasn’t buying it, he was a worse actor than me. I looked up at him with puppy dog eyes as he went on, “Help us, and at the same time, help yourself. What do you think Tony would do if your roles were reversed?”
I didn’t even want to think about that.

“Would he be a standup guy?” Tom asked me. Knowing I wasn’t about to say anything he went on, “A soldier? Or would he give you up in the blink of an eye? If you don’t help us will he get you a lawyer? Will he give more money to support your family while your doing ten years behind bars?”

Tom was painting a grim picture of my future and he was getting to me, forcing me into some critical thinking.

On an imaginary chalkboard in my mind, I drafted a list:

1. The day before I left on this trip, Mr. New York, the man that we transported the heroin for, called me and said that it was important that he meet with me that afternoon. We met on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Thirty-Ninth street. He told me that MO was becoming “unreliable”. In addition, he was bringing too much attention to himself and, thereby, our enterprise. He had bought a new car, was wearing expensive clothes and jewelry, and spending too much money on restaurants. Mr. New York wanted me to take complete charge of transportation. He said he would pay me the same amount he was paying MO—$35,000 a vest plus traveling expenses. I was stunned! MO had told me that we were getting $30,000 a vest and traveling expenses had to come out of that amount. It certainly was a shocker. To say the least I was disappointed and disgusted with Mo. I indicated to Mr. New York my positive reaction to this offer and would discuss it upon my return. We then hugged each other and intoned, “Insha’ Allah”—Arabic for “by the will of God.”

2. Due to MO’s lying to me concerning the money, he owed me close to $100,000 for the previous successful trips. This really hurt because I had thought of MO as a friend. Now I knew that he had ripped me off.

3. I knew that I was facing a minimum of ten years in federal prison. At the age of 65 it was a death sentence. While in Frankfurt, I finished reading John Grisham’s Chamber. In it a lawyer comments about the protagonist facing a death sentence: “If in fact he had an accomplice, he should’ve talked . . . maybe he should’ve cut a deal with the district attorney, but when you’re facing death, you start talking. You save your ass and let your buddy worry about this.”
After I reviewed my little list, I stopped the acting. It was getting stale anyway. Now was the time to save my own ass. I was ready to give my full cooperation. Screw MO! I help my new best buddies Tom and Bob and they’ll help me. That’s all I was thinking about now. I could beat this thing, I told myself. I might come out a little bruised and battered but I would still have some kind of life. That would be something.

“I want to speak to the U.S. Attorney in Chicago,” I told Tom. I would worry about a personal lawyer later.

Tom was not smiling when he said, “It isn’t possible.”

“If I can’t speak with the U.S. Attorney, I can’t help you,” I said, letting them know I could play hard ball too.

We sat, Tom and I. No words passed between us. We just stared at each other. It was as if we are playing a championship chess match with no hands, minds only.

Thirty minutes silently passed.

I wanted to say something, but I knew it was his move.

I could see it on Tom’s face. He was thinking, “The bust of a large heroin smuggling conspiracy.” Finally. “Okay,” Tom said, “I’ll contact the U.S. Attorney.”

They took me into another office. Tom handled the phone call, introducing me to the US Attorney on the speaker phone.

“My name is James Burns.”
My legs were still weak and I had to sit.

“I am the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. I have with me an Assistant US Attorney to act as witness to our conversation. If you wish, I can ask the two customs agents to leave the room. What is your pleasure?