Illustration for "Hot Sauce Charlie" Copyright (c) 2018 by LA Spooner. Used under license.

Hot Sauce Charlie

Story by Les Berkley

Illustration by L.A. Spooner


Hot Sauce Charlie Martorano is sharp as razor wire. That’s why he’s alive, sending me packages from somewhere in the South Seas, rather than floating around in the John Heinz Memorial Wildlife Preserve, where the Philly mob buries straying members of the flock. That’s why I think that, except for one thing, he told me the truth about the night he got away clean. I think he really worked the whole plan out, walking up those thirteen steps. People are saying that he was too smart to stay in La Cosa Nostra, and that’s why he got out. Some of them even say he was too nice a guy for such a rough business. Well, this is the truth…

I met Charlie the first time over chili, which is the way most people probably get to know him. It was a little while after the Chicken Man gets whacked, beginning of ’82 maybe, and mob guys are starting to talk to the cops and reporters like yours truly. Fact is, so many guys are flipping, they call part of South Philly “Pancake Alley”. So, I’m in Deke’s Diner down on Passayunk, looking like a newsman, sitting over a bowl of Texas chili and pouring in about two bottles of the wimpy crap they call “red hot”.

Charlie Martorano gets up from the counter and comes over to my table carrying a little bottle of light red stuff with a picture of a Mexican broad on it. He puts about a teaspoonful of it on my chili and waits for me to stir it in. I do, and then I swallow a nice forkful. When he sees that I don’t start coughing and sputtering, he sits down and introduces himself.

Hot Sauce Charlie is about five-seven, skinny as my soda straw, and looks just like the guy the casting agency would send to play a nervous mobster. I let him tell me his story, about him having been a card sharp out in Vegas until the casinos caught on. Now no Mafia guy is going to tell me flat out he’s a gangster, but Charlie drops all the right names. He says he’s seen my mug and my byline in the Bulletin.

We make some small talk, and his is pretty impressive. He knows who the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra is, and what the Mayor is trying to do about the bums hanging out on South Street. He, Charlie, thinks the best thing to do about bums is to put them on the City payroll with their buddies. I agree, and we kill a couple bowls of nice meaty chili with plenty of his sauce mixed in.

Just before he excuses himself, he looks straight at me and says, “About two days before they shot Sal, Chuckie Bananas gets a call from a guy with a real heavy Puerto Rican accent. That’s Puerto Rican, not Mexican, understand?” I allow as how I know the difference. Then I actually do something smart; I don’t try to give him money. A lot of guys want to get paid for tips; it gives them a feeling of working for me or my paper, but I knew he was doing it because he thought I was OK.

When I get back to the office, I check him out with a couple of the older folks on the staff. Seems Charlie is indeed a genuine made guy. He’s even close to Vince Gambelli and his pervert brother Luca, who are very big fish in the mob pond. I get congratulated by some of the guys, who admit to having tried without much luck to get Hot Sauce to open up. “It’s my iron stomach,” I tell them. Then I check out that Puerto Rican angle with a couple of cops down at the Roundhouse, and in two hours I’ve got a nice piece for the late edition. My editor is so proud of me, he even gets my name right.

So, it goes on for a while. Once every couple months Hot Sauce Charlie lets me know he wants to talk or drops into one of the local eateries for some of his favorite food. I let on about how I’m a pretty good cook, and we start swapping recipes. Chili recipes, of course. No snitch is ever a friend; it just doesn’t work that way, but Charlie is as close as it can get. I mean, you’ve got to like a guy who can quote Sartre and John Foster Dulles in the same conversation. Like I said, I think he likes me too, but he doesn’t really open up until Nancy comes along.

Everybody at the paper knows Homeless Nancy. Sometimes she sleeps on the steam vent back by the loading dock when the days get cold. Some of us talk to her now and then. Most reporters feel they’re only one check from homeless themselves, so we’ve got sympathy. Besides, if you’re short of copy, the plight of the unfortunate always sells.

Maybe it’s because she knows I’m the kind of guy who’s nice to kittens and puppies, but one day Homeless Nancy stops me on the street. This is back during the Clinton mess, and she says clear as day, “It has to be a setup!” I ask her what, and she says, “That Linda Tripp bitch. I mean, what girl keeps a goddamn dress with cum stains on it?” Instantly, a light goes on in my head, and it has nothing to do with impeachment hearings.

A few days later, I call Hot Sauce and ask him to meet me down by the Gallery. I know Nancy works that corner a lot, and sure enough there she is. When she sees me with Charlie, she kind of focuses down on him.

“Her name was April Glaspie,” she says firmly. “Glaspie, not Gillespie.” Then she waits. He doesn’t miss a beat.

“Yeah, that’s right. April Glaspie. She’s the one told Saddam Hussein it was OK to attack Kuwait, then turned around and told us she never said any such thing!” He laughs, and she laughs. For about thirty minutes they go through current and past events like a goddamn clipping service, laughing and arguing and agreeing. Next morning, he has her in a nice efficiency in South Philly with a Vietnamese landlady who keeps a good eye on her.

Every week, he gives money to get her groceries and send her laundry out. I see her on the street in clean dresses and new shoes, and she smiles at me, a smile like a ten-year-old with a Bassett’s ice cream cone in her hand. She doesn’t look like a kid, though. Those new clothes fit just fine. I knew they would, and Charlie seems pleased with the results.

One day not long after, Charlie comes over to my place. He almost never does that, but this is special. When he walks through the door, he’s carrying a dark red bottle in his hand. No label on it, but with him, it can be only one thing. He’s got a bag in the other hand, with two plastic bowls full of Tex-Mex pork chili—one of my recipes. He sets them down on my kitchen table and holds out the little bottle. He leans in and whispers, “Twelve.. million… Scoville… units.”

“That’s impossible!” I shoot back. A jalapeno pepper is maybe five thousand units, and the hottest superhot jalokia comes in around four million. “You can’t have anything that hot, and you know it.”

“Esters,” he replies.

“Esthers, Sarahs, Rebeccas, it doesn’t matter. Nothing gets that goddamn hot. You’re kidding, right?”

“Nope. It really is the esters. There’s some kind of reaction that enhances the effect of hot. Twelve million units. They make it in Pakistan, out of some new pepper they grow up there. Nobody knows what the process is; the Paks keep the secret better than their atomic bombs. Go on, give it a shot.” I reach for the bottle, but he waves me off. Carefully, like an old-time druggist making up a prescription, he pours exactly one drop into my bowl. I grab a spoon, but he waves me off again and stirs it up himself, taking a good five minutes to mix it in fully.

When I see him take the same precautions with his own bowl, I start to really take this seriously. I make sure there’s plenty of rice with the chili and enough cold beer, then I lift a small forkful. I put it in my mouth.

When I was a college protester in the Vietnam days, a tear gas round burst right in front of me. That was close to the stuff Charlie brought. Instant tears, and this burst of napalm in my mouth. “That’s awesome shit,” I say, only what comes out is “At awga it,” because my larynx seizes up, and my vocal cords get mostly useless. A couple swallows of rice, and thirty seconds later, I spit out, “Oh my God! Where did you get this stuff? It’s amazing!”

Of course, it’s a secret where he buys the sauce—Charlie’s like that—but I never press him. Besides, I’m too busy trying to cope with the chili. I finally do it, but it takes a good hour and a lot of rice. I’m proud of myself though when Charlie finishes his bowl only a minute or two before me. This is definitely the marathon for the mucous membranes, and second place is fine with me.

So, Charlie leaves me the little bottle by way of thanks, and the tips he throws my way get better and better. I see him and Nancy around town sometimes. He starts getting her some sharp-looking outfits, and the results are more than decent. And they never stop talking. One time it’s the Kennedy thing: how Jack Ruby would never have shot Oswald unless somebody told him to. “Yeah,” Charlie says, “I met a guy once knew Ruby. Said that bum didn’t take a shit without permission.”

Another time—swear to God—it’s John D. Rockefeller and the Trilateral Commission. I thought nobody except maybe Lyndon LaRouche remembers that one. I guess Charlie and Nancy must read about this stuff somewhere because half of it is way before their day.

It gets confirmed one time when I’m in the Palm, where all the big Philly wheels get together to discuss screwing people. I’m interviewing this Deputy Mayor about a new public-school initiative when I hear familiar voices. Over about three tables away, in the goddamn Palm which is pree feeks at a hundred-fifty bucks, Charlie and Nancy are discussing Jack the freaking Ripper. It’s Abberline this and McNaughton that, and they go on and on about the kidney in the package, and Bright’s disease and post-mortems.

I never find out if they solve it, because Deputy Dawg goes up and complains to the manager about his appetite being ruined, and I have to pull rank and threaten the wrath of the Bulletin to keep them from throwing Charlie and Nancy out. Then, because it’s my job, I have to chase the freaking Deputy clear back to Dodge City to get a decent interview.

Life goes on for a while. My career gets a nice boost thanks to the stuff Charlie sends my way, and Nancy stops looking like a bag lady altogether. Look, I’m not going to say she gets cured and turns into a nice little housewife with 2.5 kids and a minivan. Without Charlie and the Vietnamese landlady, she’d be back on the street in two weeks trolling for her dinner in George Perrier’s dumpster, but with them to look after her she has a version of normal life that’s probably as good as she’ll get.

At least she does until that twisted fuck Luca Gambelli sees her in one of her new outfits. That evening, the Vietnamese lady gets called out on a bogus emergency, and one of the neighbors hears Nancy scream. He calls the cops and then Charlie. The cops get there first, which is lucky because things are really bad. It’s so bad that when Hot Sauce Charlie gets there, he’s ecstatic for a minute because he doesn’t recognize her because the thing in pieces on her bed can’t possibly be his pretty lady.

Two days later, he meets me in a motel room up in Bensalem and spills everything. I’ve been telling you the kind of head he’s got, how he remembers all these little details, but the stuff he gives me is unbelievable. It’s like opening an encyclopedia; he’s got names and dates and places up there like they were all filed and cross-referenced. There’s more too, physical stuff. He’s got notes of meetings and tapes of phone calls, and piles of computer disks a foot high. He’s even got video.

He gives me all of this in a flat voice like you get from a machine, except every fifteen or twenty minutes he starts to break down, and I have to wait with my mouth shut until he gets it together again. Then sometimes he just falls apart completely and starts talking in this broken voice like a kid. “She could cook, you know,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe it. I had to stand with her and keep her thinking about it, but she could cook. I’m damn near fifty years old, and nobody ever cooked for me.”

I don’t say much, just make a few noises and wait for the flow to start, keeping an eye on the laptop where I’m recording him. “She was a terrific lover, too. You wouldn’t believe that either—or maybe you would. I mean, did you ever?” He doesn’t sound jealous, just curious, and I tell him no, which is true, and he goes on.

It takes two days till I’ve got everything. I’m so nervous I stay up late uploading the stuff from my computer to a safe place, while he tries to sleep next door. In the morning, he knocks on the door. He tells me to do whatever I have to with what he’s told me. Says I shouldn’t call or meet him anymore, so I give him a password to one of the Bulletin sites where I can leave messages for him, and he can answer. Last thing he does is give me a video cassette. “I had a camera on the front of Nancy’s place. Luca’s on there, going in and out.”

He shakes my hand, gets in his Buick and drives off. I call my editor and head down to the DA’s office. The Philly DA’s a straight arrow—they call him a Boy Scout—but I guess somebody in his office isn’t. Or else maybe some smart Mob guy sees the action coming down and figures out who flipped.

It’s about ten days later. Charlie’s at home getting lunch ready when he has to go out on a quick errand. He comes back and opens the garage door on the lower level. Two guys have waltzed past the security system and are waiting for him. The short one is Anthony Roccogrande—they call him “Rocco” or “Little Rock”—a squashed-down toad of a man with greasy hair and old acne scars. He’s not maybe the brightest streetlight on the block, but believe me, you don’t want to mess with him. They say Luca Gambelli’s his role model and I won’t argue.

The tall guy is Mickey Perillo. You don’t call him anything except Mr. Perillo, very polite-like. If I was one of those yuppies who write for that other paper, I’d say he was an “under capo” or some shit like that. What he is, is one genuine vicious bastard. Word is, he wants to move up in la cosa, and he’ll use any convenient path.

When Charlie closes the door behind him, the two guys come out of the shadows. Rocky has this big nine-millimeter in his hand, and Charlie figures he’s dead then and there. Only it doesn’t happen. No bang followed by a slug in some painful place where Little Rock likes to put ‘em. Mickey Perillo just waves his hand toward the stairs that lead up to Charlie’s rooms.

I figure either they wanted to do him real slow for an example, or more likely they need to find out exactly what he spilled and where it went. And Mickey maybe was looking for anything he could use himself, to push one or another of the Gambellis out of the way, now things aren’t looking so good for them.

There’s thirteen steps from Charlie’s garage up to the apartment, like old-fashioned gallows. I believe absolutely him, that walking up those steps he figured out his only chance and planned exactly what he had to do. Like I said, there’s only one place I think he’s bullshitting me, and we’ll get to that in a little bit. Any way you cut it, and allowing plenty for luck, it’s still an amazing tale.

Charlie gets to the top of the stairs, with Little Rock right behind and Mickey hanging back to keep things covered in case Charlie tries something. Hot Sauce takes out his keys real slow and steady and opens the door. The back door to his apartment leads to the kitchen. He’s got a nice pot of chili on the stove—first one he’s made since Nancy died. I know the recipe, a real tasty molé style with the long dried Poblano chilies and an ounce or so of bitter chocolate for flavor. In fact, the errand that takes him out is to go down to the Spanish grocery and get some good fresh cilantro.

Well, the smell hits the two Mob guys like the next best thing to Mamma cooking up a pot of what they call “red gravy” down in South Philly. Charlie looks at them, and he says, “You guys want some?” He gets it just perfect: a little scared, like “We’re buddies, right? We’ll eat some of this and it’ll be OK?” He used to be a gambler, and now he’s drawing to the inside straight and the look on his face is exactly right.

Rocco’s buying it for sure—that stuff smells damn good—and he looks at the boss. “Yeah, OK,” says Mickey. “We got some time,” Charlie tells me his gut twists right around when he hears that, but he keeps the poker face going.

Then Mickey says to Rocco, “You don’t let him pick up that pot, understand? You don’t want that boiling stuff in your face.” So, Charlie goes very slowly to his spice rack, steering well clear of his knives, and gets a few herbs to throw in the pot. He tears up the cilantro and stirs it all in with a wooden spoon. Then with the same spoon, working out in the clear where they can watch him, he fills up three bowls and sets them on the table. It’s all misdirection if you ask me, like a stage magician. He’s using what Mickey Perillo said about boiling hot to cover up another kind of hot. The next three minutes are like choreography. George Ballantine couldn’t have done it better.

Hanging from the kitchen counter is the spare set of keys for Charlie’s car. Standing against the counter, he pushes the button on the key ring that honks the horn. The Buick is in front of the apartment, not in the garage, so the honk comes from out in the street. Hot Sauce is counting on Mickey going to look. It could be a cop or one of Charlie’s pals, and you don’t leave stuff like that to Rocco. Sure enough, Mr. Perillo lugs out his gun and goes to the front.

Now Charlie is moving fast, but he makes it look slow. He gets himself a bottle of cola from the fridge and pulls out two beers. Then he picks up the bottle of Pakistani killer sauce and puts some in his and Rocco’s bowl.

Here’s the part where I think he’s full of crap. He tells me that the reason he and Little Rock have what you might call a different reaction to the chili is that he himself has a tolerance for the hot stuff. Now I ask my doc, and he says yeah, might be, but I don’t believe it. I told you before Charlie used to be a card sharp, and I think what he does is palm that bottle of sauce and put maybe half of it on Rocco’s chili. I don’t think he stirs it in much either.

Like I said, Rocco is not one of the smartest guys in the world, but he’s not totally dim. He waits until Charlie takes a nice big mouthful of chili and smiles with pleasure before trying it himself. When he does, the results are predictable. First thing, he wants to yell, only his vocal cords are down for the count, and all that comes out is a little squeak like “Ik, ik…” Next, he figures something is big time wrong, and he wants his gun, except now a pile driver is pressing down on the center of his chest and he can’t breathe, and his heart is trying to slam its way out of his rib cage. Doc tells me you can die from hot peppers; you go into respiratory failure and your heart just shuts down. That’s not exactly what happens to Tony Roccogrande, but it doesn’t matter.

Now while Rocco is grabbing at his chest and turning blue and red at the same time, Charlie opens his cola and pours the rest of the sauce into the bottle and shakes it up good. When Mickey Perillo comes back in the room, he sees that Rocco isn’t doing too great, but Hot Sauce is just standing there with a soda bottle in his hand and an idiot grin on his face, so Mickey doesn’t do what he should, which is start shooting. Then Charlie takes his thumb off the cola bottle, and most of the contents spray in Mickey’s face.

Any pawn shop in the city will sell you a pepper spray that will stop a drug-head blind stoned on crystal meth. That shit won’t blister skin; the Pakistani sauce will. Mickey starts screaming and trying to wipe it out of his eyes, which is the worst thing you can do. For good measure, Charlie throws the rest of the cola in Little Rock’s face.

People are saying that Charlie Martorano was too smart a guy, and too nice to belong in the Mob. They don’t know the whole story, but I told you that this is the truth. Hot Sauce Charlie could have walked out of that apartment as slowly as he wanted. Most likely those two guys would’ve been blinded for hours, and maybe forever. But what Charlie does next is he takes the ten-inch chef’s knife from the block and slit both of their throats through the windpipe, so they choke to death on their own blood. Then he goes down the front stairs, gets in his car and calls me.

This is before the towers come down in New York, so I call the DA and he calls the airlines and they get Charlie on a plane. I meet him on the way in a borrowed car that the bad guys don’t know, and we head down to the airport. On the way, he tells me this story, the way I’m telling you.

The Gambellis go to Graterford prison, where one day somebody sticks a nice sharpened-up hacksaw blade in Luca’s gut and lets all the air out permanently. Charlie’s plane takes him to Rome, and then to Palermo, but he’s not there now. Chances are he’s got money stashed in the old country and people he wants to see, but I know where he probably is today. See, last week I get a package with a postmark from Singapore. That country’s a pretty law-abiding place, but south of there, down in the islands, they’ve got pirates. Not your Captain Jack Starling type either, but thoroughgoing bastards. Genuine modern buccaneers who steal cargoes, rape passengers and blackmail cruise lines that use those waters.

I figure that’s where Hot Sauce Charlie is now. Those guys can use somebody like him, smart and with plenty of connections. Besides, he sends me some stuff in that package that will get the Bulletin started on my new series on the Malay pirate menace. I guess the pirate thing sounds pretty romantic—yo, ho, ho and a bottle of rum—but of course it’s not. If I were an Interpol cop, I would find Charlie and blow his damn head off. I’m not though; I’m a reporter. Which makes me a parasite just like him. I get to hear some good stories though…

— ♦♦♦ —


Next Week: 

Thumbnail illustration for "Before the Beginning" Copyright (c) 2018 by LA Spooner.  Used under license.Before the Beginning.  By Richard Zwicker, Art by L.A. Spooner

Sometimes to catch a monster it takes a monster.  What does Frankenstein’s creation really do when he’s left to fend for himself after the death of Dr. Frankenstein?  Why, he becomes a detective of course!

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