The war of 1947 between the Corleone Family and the Five Families combined against them proved to be expensive for both sides. It was complicated by the police pressure put on everybody to solve the murder of Captain McCluskey. It was rare that operating officials of the Police Department ignored political muscle that protected gambling and vice operations, but in this case the politicians were as helpless as the general staff of a rampaging, looting army whose field officers refuse to follow orders.
This lack of protection did not hurt the Corleone Family as much as it did their opponents. The Corleone group depended on gambling for most of its income, and was hit especially hard in its “numbers” or “policy” branch of operations. The runners who picked up the action were swept into police nets and usually given a medium shellacking before being booked. Even some of the “banks” were located and raided, with heavy financial loss. The “bankers,” .90 calibers in their own right, complained to the caporegimes, who brought their complaints to the family council table. But there was nothing to be done. The bankers were told to go out of business. Local Negro free-lancers were allowed to take over the operation in Harlem, the richest territory, and they operated in such scattered fashion that the police found it hard to pin them down.
After the death of Captain McCluskey, some newspapers printed stories involving him with Sollozzo. They published proof that McCluskey had received large sums of money in cash, shortly before his death. These stories had been planted by Hagen, the information supplied by him. The Police Department refused to confirm or deny these stories, but they were taking effect. The police force got the word through informers, through police on the Family payroll, that McCluskey had been a rogue cop. Not that he had taken money or clean graft, there was no rank-and-file onus to that. But that he had taken the dirtiest of dirty money; murder and drugs money. And in the morality of policemen, this was unforgivable.
Hagen understood that the policeman believes in law and order in a curiously innocent way. He believes in it more than does the public he serves. Law and order is, after all, the magic from which he derives his power, individual power which he cherishes as nearly all men cherish individual power. And yet there is always the smoldering resentment against the public he serves. They are at the same time his ward and his prey. As wards they are ungrateful, abusive and demanding. As prey they are slippery and dangerous, full of guile. As soon as one is in the policeman’s clutches the mechanism of the society the policeman defends marshals all its resources to cheat him of his prize. The fix is put in by politicians. Judges give lenient suspended sentences to the worst hoodlums. Governors of the States and the President of the United States himself give full pardons, assuming that respected lawyers have not already won his acquittal. After a time the cop learns. Why should he not collect the fees these hoodlums are paying? He needs it more. His children, why should they not go to college? Why shouldn’t his wife shop in more expensive places? Why shouldn’t be himself get the sun with a winter vacation in Florida? After all, he risks his life and that is no joke.
But usually he draws the line against accepting dirty graft. He will take money to let a bookmaker operate. He will take money from a man who hates getting parking tickets or speeding tickets. He will allow call girls and prostitutes to ply their trade; for a consideration. These are vices natural to a man. But usually he will not take a payoff for drugs, armed robberies, rape, murder and other assorted perversions. In his mind these attack the very core of his personal authority and cannot be countenanced.
The murder of a police captain was comparable to regicide. But when it became known that McCluskey had been killed while in the company of a notorious narcotics peddler, when it became known that he was suspected of conspiracy to murder, the police desire for vengeance began to fade. Also, after all, there were still mortgage payments to be made, cars to be paid off, children to be launched into the world. Without their “sheet” money, policemen had to scramble to make ends meet. Unlicensed peddlers were good for lunch money. Parking ticket payoffs came to nickels and dimes. Some of the more desperate even began shaking down suspects (homosexuals, assaults and batteries) in the precinct squad rooms. Finally the brass relented. They raised the prices and let the Families operate. Once again the payoff sheet was typed up by the precinct bagman, listing every man assigned to the local station and what his cut was each month. Some semblance of social order was restored.
* * *
It had been Hagen’s idea to use private detectives to guard Don Corleone’s hospital room. These were, of course, supplemented by the much more formidable soldiers of Tessio’s regime. But Sonny was not satisfied even with this. By the middle of February, when the Don could be moved without danger, he was taken by ambulance to his home in the mall. The house had been renovated so that his bedroom was now a hospital room with all equipment necessary for any emergency. Nurses specially recruited and checked had been hired for round-the-clock care, and Dr. Kennedy, with the payment of a huge fee, had been persuaded to become the physician in residence to this private hospital. At least until the Don would need only nursing care.
The mall itself was made impregnable. Button men were moved into the extra houses, the tenants sent on vacations to their native villages in Italy, all expenses paid.
Freddie Corleone had been sent to Las Vegas to recuperate and also to scout out the ground for a Family operation in the luxury hotel-gambling casino complex that was springing up. Las Vegas was part of the West Coast empire still neutral and the Don of that empire had guaranteed Freddie’s safety there. The New York five Families had no desire to make more enemies by going into Vegas after Freddie Corleone. They had enough trouble on their hands in New York.
Dr. Kennedy had forbade any discussion of business in front of the Don. This edict was completely disregarded. The Don insisted on the council of war being held in his room. Sonny, Tom Hagen, Pete Clemenza and Tessio gathered there the very first night of his homecoming.
Don Corleone was too weak to speak much but he wished to listen and exercise veto powers. When it was explained that Freddie had been sent to Las Vegas to learn the gambling casino business he nodded his head approvingly. When he learned that Bruno Tattaglia had been killed by Corleone button men he shook his head and sighed. But what distressed him most of all was learning that Michael had killed Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey and had then been forced to flee to Sicily. When he heard this he motioned them out and they continued the conference in the corner room that held the law library.
Sonny Corleone relaxed in the huge armchair behind the desk. “I think we’d better let the old man take it easy for a couple of weeks, until the doc says he can do business.” He paused. “I’d like to have it going again before he gets better. We have the go-ahead from the cops to operate. The first thing is the policy banks in Harlem. The black boys up there had their fun, now we have to take it back. They screwed up the works but good, just like they usually do when they run things. A lot of their runners didn’t pay off winners. They drive up in Cadillacs and tell their players they gotta wait for their dough or maybe just pay them half what they win. I don’t want any runner looking rich to his players. I don’t want them dressing too good. I don’t want them driving new cars. I don’t want them welching on paying a winner. And I don’t want any free-lancers staying in business, they give us a bad name. Tom, let’s get that project moving right away. Everything else will fall in line as soon as you send out the word that the lid is off.”
Hagen said, “There are some very tough boys up in Harlem. They got a taste of the big money. They won’t go back to being runners or sub-bankers again.”
Sonny shrugged. “Just give their names to Clemenza. That’s his job, straightening them out.”
Clemenza said to Hagen, “No problem.”
It was Tessio wbo brought up the most important question. “Once we start operating, the five Families start their raids. They’ll hit our bankers in Harlem and out bookmakers on the East Side. They may even try to make things tough for the garment center outfits we service. This war is going to cost a lot of money.”
“Mabe they won’t,” Sonny said. “They know we’ll hit them right back. I’ve got peace feelers out and maybe we can settle everything by paying an indemnity for the Tattaglia kid.”
Hagen said, “We’re getting the cold shoulder on those negotiations. They lost a lot of dough the last few months and they blame us for it. With justice. I think what they want is for us to agree to come in on the narcotics trade, to use the Family influence politically. In other words, Sollozzo’s deal minus Sollozzo. But they won’t broach that until they’ve hurt us with some sort of combat action. Then after we’ve been softened up they figure we’ll listen to a proposition on narcotic.”
Sonny said curtly, “No deal on drugs. The Don said no and it’s no until he changes it.”
Hagen said briskly, “Then we’re faced with a tactical problem. Our money is out in the open. Bookmaking and policy. We can be hit. But the Tattaglia Family has prostitution and call girls and the dock unions. How the hell are we going to hit them? The other Families are in some gambling. But most of them are in the construction trades, shylocking, controlling the unions, getting the government contracts. They get a lot from strong-arm and other stuff that involves innocent people. Their money isn’t out in the street. The Tattaglia nightclub is too famous to touch it, it would cause too much of a stink. And with the Don still out of action their political influence matches ours. So we’ve got a real problem here.”
“It’s my problem, Tom,” Sonny said. “I’ll find the answer. Keep the negotiation alive and follow through on the other stuff. Let’s go back into business and see what happens. Then we’ll take it from there. Clemenza and Tessio have plenty of soldiers, we can match the whole Five Families gun for gun if that’s the way they want it. We’ll just go to the mattresses.”
There was no problem getting the free-lance Negro bankers out of business. The police were informed and cracked down. With a special effort. At that time it was not possible for a Negro to make a payoff to a high police or political official to keep such an operation going. This was due to racial prejudice and racial distrust more than anything else. But Harlem had always been considered a minor problem, and its settlement was expected.
The Five Families struck in an unexpected direction. Two powerful officials in the garment unions were killed, officials who were members of the Corleone Family. Then the Corleone Family shylocks were barred from the waterfront piers as were the Corleone Family bookmakers. The longshoremen’s union locals had gone over to the Five Families. Corleone bookmakers all over the city were threatened to persuade them to change their allegiance. The biggest numbers banker in Harlem, an old friend and ally of the Corleone Family, was brutally murdered. There was no longer any option. Sonny told his caporegimes to go to the mattresses.
Two apartments were set up in the city and furnished with mattresses for the button men to sleep on, a refrigerator for food, and guns and ammunition. Clemenza staffed one apartment and Tessio the other. All Family bookmakers were given bodyguard teams. The policy bankers in Harlem, however, had gone over to the enemy and at the moment nothing could be done about that. All this cost the Corleone Family a great deal of money and very little was coming in. As the next few months went by, other things became obvious. The most important was that the Corleone Family had overmatched itself.
There were reasons for this. With the Don still too weak to take a part, a great deal of the Family’s political strength was neutralized. Also, the last ten years of peace had seriously eroded the fighting qualities of the two caporegimes, Clemenza and Tessio. Clemenza was still a competent executioner and administrator but he no longer had the energy or the youthful strength to lead troops. Tessio had mellowed with age and was not ruthless enough. Tom Hagen, despite his abilities, was simply not suited to be a Consigliere in a time of war. His main fault was that he was not a Sicilian.
Sonny Corleone recognized these weaknesses in the Family’s wartime posture but could not take any steps to remedy them. He was not the Don and only the Don could replace the caporegimes and the Consigliere. And the very act of replacement would make the situation more dangerous, might precipitate some treachery. At first, Sonny had thought of fighting a holding action until the Don could become well enough to take charge, but with the defection of the policy bankers, the terrorization of the bookmakers, the Family position was becoming precarious. He decided to strike back.
But he decided to strike right at the heart of the enemy. He planned the execution of the heads of the five Families in one grand tactical maneuver. To that purpose he put into effect an elaborate system of surveillance of these leaders. But after a week the enemy chiefs promptly, dived underground and were seen no more in public.
The Five Families and the Corleone Empire were in stalemate.