Matthew Levine and
Robert Haydon Jones

Matthew Levine
“Blank Slate”

By Robert Haydon Jones
Inspiration piece

NB: The story is true. The names are fictitious.

It was a railroad flat in Chelsea. You opened the door and walked into the kitchen. Chris was sitting at the kitchen table with Emilano Puglio. Two of Puglio’s young guys were with them. They were counting the $750,000. They were taking the money from the big suitcase and putting it into three valises. It was taking forever.

Chris and Puglio were talking baseball. The Mets had a rookie pitcher you had to see to believe. Chris pressed the signal button in the cigarette pack in his shirt pocket and maybe three seconds later, Billy Cox burst through the door and shot Emilano Puglio twice in the head.

Blood and brains spattered Chris and his new Zegna jacket. His ears were ringing. The gunshots had been very loud. Puglio was face down on the table. His two guys were cowering and screaming, “No, no, please”.

Billy Cox was bearing down on them with his Beretta BU9 Nano in the regulation, two-handed, grip.

Chris yelled, “That’s enough Billy! That’s enough.”

Two other Agents were in now. They quickly cuffed the two terrified hoodlums. Billy Cox bonked one of them full on the nose with the barrel of his pistol. There was a spray of blood.

“Jesus, Billy, go easy, or you pay for our dry cleaning” Chris said.

“I hate these scumbags”, Billy said.

“I know, I know”, Chris said.

“But why did you blow away my man Emilano?”

“Look under the table.”

Chris bent down and looked. A 45 pistol was still hooked on Puglio’s finger. Chris was mortified. He had never figured that Puglio would have his gun out under the table. Like it or not, Billy Cox had saved Chris’s life.

Chris was glad to be alive but working undercover with Billy Cox was not easy. With Billy, it wasn’t a good day, unless there was a life or death situation.

Chris and the other Agents in the squad were all too familiar with life and death situations. It was the nature of their work.

You made your way along the food chain of bad guys on your way to the big fish. You busted someone and then you turned them. Then you busted and turned the next guy up. And so it went.

Unfortunately, all too often, their informants screwed up. They couldn’t take the pressure. They were sloppy. Or unlucky.

When they were found out, their bosses killed them. Often very, very slowly. This was perhaps the most painful reality of being a DEA agent. These were low-level criminals but human beings all the same. You worked with them for weeks, sometimes months, and when they ended up tortured and dead it was hard not to take it personally.

But Billy Cox didn’t care. If you were a bad guy, you deserved heavy punishment. That was Billy’s deal. But, then again, Billy was unusual in many ways.

Billy Cox was the smallest male Agent in the DEA. He was just 5’8,with blond curly hair and a pleasant, pug nosed, lightly freckled, face. He had very dark blue eyes. Early on, an Agent joked that Billy reminded him of Doris Day when she was off her meds – and forever more – Billy was known in the Agency as Doris.

His family ran a big steel mill in the Midwest. They were heavily involved in politics. Billy was the first of his family to go to Harvard. He had been a mainstay of the wrestling team. He graduated cum laude and served six years in Special Forces.

Billy had turned down his family’s offer to take over the steel mill and joined the Agency. He graduated Number 1 in his Training Class and he also outscored all his classmates on physical proficiency. Doris was one tough hombre.

But he looked too good, too “white bread”, to go deep undercover, so Billy Cox worked support. There was nobody better at making a collar. And this was where most “incidents” happened.

The biggest problem was that maybe 5% of the time they were making a really big buy, it was a setup. The bad guys were looking to score the money. They might have the drugs – or just enough for a “taste” but they had come for the money and not for any sale.

They came to rob the “buyers”, the undercover crew. They would jump them right through the door– five or six banditos with guns out. It was very, very, scary.

Billy Cox was the leader of the prime Backup team. He was lightning fast. On his first time with Chris’s crew, Billy banged through the door and yelled, “How dare you?”

Then he shot a fat guy who was holding an AR15. He shot him in both hands. The AR15 clattered to the floor. The fat guy screamed and screamed. Billy stuck his pistol in the next guy’s ear and the guy dropped his pistol. So did the others.

“I said, drop it!” Billy shouted and shot the guy. A double tap. A round in each knee. The sound of the shots was tremendous. You couldn’t hear anything. The guys who had been shot were screaming hard. The other three guys were pleading. They had their hands way up.

“OK”, Billy said.

“Time to collar up these scumbags.”

Billy was damn good – probably the best support action guy in the Agency – but he was also a prime pain in the ass. Almost every time he was in action, there was unpleasant aftermath. He shot and whacked perpetrators who were absolutely no threat. Often their attorneys complained. Some even brought actions. There was a blizzard of paper work.

Billy had a simple solution. He just lied. He shot a bad guy with his hands up, three times because the guy made a move toward an ankle holster. It turned out the holster was empty, but how was Billy to know?

He killed a big shot from the Cali Cartel with two rounds to the back of the neck. According to Billy, one of the Cali gunmen had suddenly fired at point blank range at an Agent. Somehow, he had missed. It was kill – or be killed.

The truth was the big shot was telling his crew to give it up, when Billy blasted him and his right hand man.

So, Billy got away with everything. Everyone ploughed through the paperwork and lied on their testimony and Billy skated.

Chris stayed in the city during the week in an apartment with two other Agents. They partied hard. Real hard. A few times Billy joined them at clubs but he always went easy

Once the usual St Patrick’s Day spree morphed into the usual, nighttime celebration. Toward the end there was the usual discordant singing until Billy quietly took over and serenaded the pub with a lilting, crystal tenor. He knew all the words too.

Chris and Billy shared a passion for oysters. Chris often ran into Billy at Clarkes or the Oyster Bar at Grand Central. Each time he did, Billy was with a beautiful woman. Not just pretty – not just attractive – these were knockout beauties.

Once at Clarkes, they took a table together. Billy’s companion was a lithe, auburn haired woman in her mid-twenties. Chris was sure he knew from somewhere. Chris’s date was a hatcheck girl from the Plaza. The women hit it off right away.

Billy was with Jenny Lind Malone, the prima ballerina from the New York City Ballet. Sandy, Billy’s date, was a dancer too, a chorus girl, who also worked at the Plaza so she could live in Manhattan.

Afterward, in Sandy’s apartment, she told Chris that Jenny had solemnly whispered to her that Billy was the best lover she had ever known. Chris said that was because he had never been with Jenny and Sandy said, “Of course”, without missing a beat.

Chris went to Rome and Palermo on an undercover job that took almost three months. When he returned, Billy was in trouble again. He was lying his ass off in court testimony.

The lies weren’t necessary. They had all they needed to convict but, evidently, Billy was determined to make sure. The problem was he was telling such whoppers, that even the Federal Prosecutors were disturbed. There was no problem with the juries. As Billy spun his outrageous lies he looked directly at the jurors. Many of them smiled at Billy as he spoke. He smiled back. He was the epitome of decency.

Somehow their convictions survived appeal but a lot of Federal Prosecutors wouldn’t take their cases. They bounced from district to district.

Then the day after Christmas, Tony Palazzo and Frank McMahon were in the Bronx about to lay out a million dollars and close a two-year operation, when they got jumped by a six-man knockoff crew. Tony heard them coming and buzzed Billy but he was late. The bad guys came in and killed Palazzo. Frankie McMahon just left the open moneybag and ran out the back door.

Billy and his crew tried to bust in but Tony Palazzo’s body was wedged in the doorway, so Billy and his guys had to take the door off its hinges. By the time Billy got in, three of the bad guys had gone out the back with the money. The other three opened up on Billy as he came through. He had seven rounds go through his clothing.

Billy never broke stride. He shot the bad guys in the head as he went through and continued through the backdoor and down the back steps, along the alley and into the street. He ducked and rolled below a double-barreled shotgun blast, and then shot that bad guy in the heart and the throat. He killed the fifth bad guy just outside the getaway car, a silver Mercedes S500. Billy shot the sixth man four times in the torso and twice in the head. He shot him right through the windshield as he sat at the wheel.

They found the bag of money in the trunk.

They lied big time on the official reports. They said Billy and three of his crew had done the shooting. Everyone knew it was just Billy, but there was no way they could let that get out there. The dead guys were all known violent criminals. They had all been armed. It was a big story. A DEA shootout. Six dead bad guys. There was no need to make a big deal of the forensics.

Frankie McMahon was treated for stress. He was a veteran Agent but he came away with big time PTSD. When he ran out the door, he turned toward the back and the garbage cans instead of the street. That was why he survived.

Frankie kept wondering why he had run that way. He went for counseling but it didn’t help. Six months later, he got a full medical disability. He was 38.

They transferred Billy Cox to Headquarters in Washington. His primary job there was training. That involved a mountain of paperwork and scores of decisions on personnel Billy didn’t want to make. Above all, it was boring. It was brutal torture for Billy.

Billy had acquired a wife from Chicago named Lorraine. She called Chris and pleaded with him to intervene – to help Billy get out of Washington. Chris called Gus Webster, who was the Foreign Service director, and asked him to post Billy. Webster was pleasant enough but he had been warned about Billy. There was no way he was posting him anywhere.

So Chris called Billy and told him to bring Webster a jelly doughnut every morning. Billy did as instructed and 19 days later he got posted to the embassy in Lima, Peru.

Just eight months later, Billy was transferred back to the States because the Ambassador to Peru had demanded he be returned. Billy arrived alone. His wife had divorced him.

The question was where to park him. The Director had the brilliant idea of posting him to the Midwest. She created the title of National Coordinator. Billy reported to the headman in a big city, who was absolutely delighted to have him. Billy got all the paperwork.

It seemed a fairly happy ending. Then about a year later, Billy was stopped by a security guard in the parking lot outside a high-end suburban mall. He had been observed taking i-phones and other electronics and not paying.

Billy badged the guard and explained that he was conducting a training exercise. He assured the guard that all the items would be returned in due time. The guard stood firm. The State Police were called.

Billy ran the training story again but it fell flat. In the end, the State Cops arrested Billy and opened the trunk of his car. It was stuffed with over $250,000 worth of cell phones and electronic devices.

Chris had served in Recon in the Marines with John Higgins, the State Police Chief. The Director asked Chris to intercede for Billy. He flew straight out. Higgins was cordial enough but he did not like Federal Officers. It was clear that Billy Cox had been looting stores in the Chicago area for months. Higgins wanted him in prison.

Chris explained that Billy had been a hero as a backup man. It had twisted him. The plan was to retire Billy on disability. But the theft charges had to go away. Higgins wasn’t buying it, and then Chris reminded him that they both still faced open warrants for the tens of thousands of dollars of damage they had caused to a famous restaurant during a brawl they had with some paratroopers during an R&R.

Higgins relented. Billy Cox went on disability. Five months later, his governor appointed him to fill the seat of a deceased Congressman. Billy served out the term and was re-elected. He is now in his 13th term in Congress.


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  1. Posted June 17, 2017 at 12:19 pm | #

    Wow! I just finished Mary Dearborn’s brilliant new biography of Hemingway, and here’s Jones doing his Ernesto thing. Same pacing and spare language. Excellent. I know some of the models for Chris and Billy Cox; none of them are small, but their stories are chillingly similar. Nice work, Jones.

  2. Posted June 18, 2017 at 4:36 am | #

    Once again R.H.J. hits a home run! If this story doesn’t hit home with all his readers they should retire their bat and never approach home plate again. but, once you sit in the dugout and read it you’ll be raring to go and write a great review.

  3. Posted June 19, 2017 at 6:44 am | #

    This is a different area for Bob, but he makes a ripping yarn out of it. Shows that whatever Bob does is well worth reading.

  4. Posted July 18, 2017 at 5:05 pm | #

    Gripping hard boiled read about a “good guy” on the edge, a white hat who’s probably worse than most with black hats. Begs the question…do the means justify the end? Haunting painting. Captures the subtext of the main character.