Page 73 of The Moneychangers

The other complained, " 'S 'at lazy bum Pedro goofin' off. Some doorman! Hey, who are ye? Wadda ya want?" Miles told him, "I was looking for Jules LaRocca."

"Look someplace else," the first man ordered. "No wunna that name here."

"Hey, Milesy baby" A squat pot-bellied figure bustled forward through the gloom. The familiar weasel face came into focus. It was LaRocca who in Drummonburg Penitentiary had been an emissary from Mafia Row, and later attached himself to Miles and his protector Karl. Karl was still inside, and likely to remain there. Jules LaRocca had been released on parole shortly before Miles Eastin. "Hi, Jules," Miles acknowledged.

"Come over. Meet some guys." LaRocca seized Miles's arm in pudgy fingers. "Frenna mine," he told the two men on barstools who turned their backs indifferently.

"Listen," Miles said, "I won't come over. I'm out of bread. I can't buy." He slipped easily into the argot he had learned in prison.

"forget it. Hava couple beers on me." As they passed between tables, LaRocca asked, "Whereya bin?"

"Looking for work. I'm all beat, Jules. I need some help. Before I got out you said you'd give it to me."

"Sure, sure." They stopped at a table where two other men were seated. One was skinny with a mournful, pockmarked face; the other had long blond hair, cowboy boots, and wore dark glasses. LaRocca pulled up an extra chair. "Thissa my buddy, Milesy."

The man with dark glasses grunted. The other said, '.The guy knows about dough?"

"That's him." LaRocca shouted across the room for beer, then urged the man who had spoken first to,-"Ask him sumpum." "Like what?"

"Like about money, asshole," dark glasses said. He considered. "Where'da first dollar get started'

"That's easy," Miles told him. "Lots of people think America invented the dollar. Well, we didn't. It came from Bohemia in Germany, only first it was called a thaler, which other Europeans couldn't pronounce, so they corrupted it to dollar and it stayed that way. One of the first references to it is in Macbeth 'ten thousand dollars to our general use."' "Mac who?"

"Macshit," LaRocca said. "You wanna printed program?" He told the other two proudly, "See what I mean? This kid knows it all."

"Not quite," Miles said, "or I'd know how to make some money at this moment."

Two beers were slapped in front of him. LaRocca fished out cash which he gave the waiter.

"Before ya make dough," LaRocca said to Miles, "ye gotta pay Ominsky." He leaned across confidingly, ignoring the other two. 'The Russian knows ya outta the can. Bin askin' for ye."

The mention of the loan shark, to whom he still owed at least three thousand dollars, left Miles sweating. There was another debt, too roughly the same amount to the bookie he had dealt with, but the chance of paying either seemed remote at this moment. Yet he had known that coming here, making himself visible, would reopen the old accounts and that savage reprisals would follow if he failed to pay.

He asked LaRocca, "How can I pay any of what I owe if I can't get work?"

The pot-bellied man shook his head. "First off, ya got ta see the Russian."

"Where?" Miles knew that Ominsky had no office but operated wherever business took him.

LaRocca motioned to the beer. "Drink up, then you in me go look."

"Look at it from my point of view," the elegantly dressed man said, continuing his lunch. His diamond ringed hands moved deftly above his plate. "We had a business arrangement, you and me, which both of us agreed to. I kept my part. You've not kept yours. I ask you, where does that leave me?"

"Look," Miles pleaded, "you know what happened, and I appreciate your stopping the clock the way you did. But I can't pay now. I want to, but I can't. Please give me time. Ominsky shook his expensively barbered head; manicured fingers touched a pink clean-shaven cheek. He was vain about his appearance, and lived and dressed well, as he could afford to.

'Time," he said softly, "is money. You've had too much of both already."

On the opposite side of the booth, in the restaurant where LaRocca had brought him, Miles had the-feeling of being a mouse before a cobra. There was no food on his side of the table, not even a glass of water, which he could have used because his lips were dry and fear gnawed at his stomach. If he could have gone to Nolan Wainwright now and canceled their arrangement, which had exposed him in this way, Miles would have done it instantly. As it was, he sat sweating, watching, while Ominsky continued his meal of Sole Bonne Femme. Jules LaRocca had strolled discreetly away to the restaurant's bar. - The reason for Miles's fear was simple. He could guess the size of Ominsky's business and knew the absoluteness of his power.

Once, Miles had watched a TV special on which an authority on American crime, Ralph Salerno, was asked the question: If you had to live illegally, what kind of criminal would you be? The expert's answer instantly: A loan shark. What Miles knew, from his contacts in prison and before, confirmed this view.

A loan shark like Russian Ominsky was a banker harvesting a staggering profit with minimal risk, dealing in loans large and small, unhampered by regulations. His customers came to him; he seldom sought them out, or needed to. He rented no expensive premises and did his business in a car, a bar or at lunch, as now. His record keeping was the amplest, usually in code, and his transactions largely in cash were untraceable. His losses from bad debts were minor. He paid no federal, state, or city taxes. Yet interest rates or "vig" he charged were normally 100 percent p.a., and often higher.

At any given time, Miles guessed, Ominsky would have at least two million dollars "on the street." Some of it would be the loan shark's own money, the rest invested with him by bosses of organized crime for whom he made a handsome profit, taking a commission for himself. It was normal for an initial $100,000 invested in loan-sharking to be pyramided, within five years, to $1.5 million a 1,400 percent capital gain. No other business in the world could equal it.

Nor were a loan shark's clients always small-time. With surprising frequency, big names and reputable businesses borrowed from loan sharks when other credit sources were exhausted. Sometimes, in lieu of repayment, a loan shark would become a partner or owner of another business. Like a sea shark, his bite was large,

The loan shark's main expenses were for enforcement, and he kept those minimal, knowing that broken limbs and hospitalized bodies produced little, if any, money; and knowing, too, his strongest collection aide was fear.

Yet the fear needed a basis in reality; therefore when a borrower defaulted, punishment by hired goons was swift and savage.

As to risks a loan shark ran, these were slight compared with other forms of crime. Few loan sharks were ever prosecuted, fewer still convicted. Lack of evidence was the reason. A loan shark's customers were closemouthed, partly from fear, some from shame that they needed bus services at all. And those who were physically beaten never lodged complaints, knowing that if they did there would be more of the same to come.

Thus, Miles sat, apprehensive, while Ominsky finished his sole.

Unexpectedly, the loan shark said, "Can you keep a set of books'

"Bookkeeping? Why, yes; when I worked for the bank., He was waved to silence; cold, hard eyes appraised him. "Maybe I can use you. I need a bookkeeper at the Double-Seven."

"The health club?" It was news to Miles that Ominsky owned or managed it. He added, "I was there today, beforeā€¦"

The other cut him off. "When I'm talking, stay quiet and listen; just answer questions when you're asked. LaRocca says you want to work. If I give you work, everything you earn goes to me to pay your loan and vig. In other words, I own you. I want that understood."

"Yes, Mr. Ominsky." Relief flooded Miles. He was to be given time after all. The how and why were unimportant.

"You'll get your meals, a room," Russian Ominsky said, "and one thing I'll warn you keep your fingers out of the till. If I ever find you didn't, you'll wish you'd stolen from the bank again, not me."

Miles shivered instinctively, less for concern about stealing which he had no intention of doing than his awareness of what Ominsky would do if he ever learned a Judas had come into his camp.

"Jules will take you and get you set up. You'll be told what else to do. That's all." Ominsky dismissed Miles with a gesture and nodded to LaRocca who had been watching from the bar. While Miles waited near the restaurant's outer door, the other two conferred, the loan shark issuing instructions and LaRocca nodding.