“Sign here, please.”
The Marquis reached into his coat pocket for a pen. The mediating consigliere just sighed, already tired of having to explain things to the boy.
“Not like that, sir Allesandri. We use a different kind of ink here.” The bookish, scrawny old man removed a pocket knife and unhesitatingly jabbed it into the thick of his right thumb, digging it in and letting it bleed. Once removed, the consigliere pressed the blood-red tip of the knife against the paper like he was using an old-fashioned quill and ink well and drew a line in it with his blood. He looked to the Marquis. “Like this.”
The Marquis laughed a small measure. “Blood pacts, huh? Those must make for a mighty fine geas. I can see the Council takes its security very seriously.”
“Yeah, unlike our standards, which seem to have been lowered considerably since we last met,” the Sartini family head intoned mockingly. “If I’d known it was ‘Bring your kids to work’ day, I would’ve made a stop on the way over to pick up lil’ Georgie. Seriously Paulie, the fuck is this? What kinda chumps does that Allesandri asshole take us for, sending his fucking bastard kid to negotiate with us instead of squeezing his own fat fucking ass through that door?”
“Like you’re one to talk, Georgie,” said a deeply muscular man whose bright red hair made him look more Irish than Italian. “You’ve put on quite a bit of weight since the last time we met. What is it now, two-fifty? Two-eighty? No? Three hundred? I have to admit, that’s impressive. Perhaps you should continue feeding yourself into gross obesity. Who knows, you might be able to make some money at the carnival freakshow on the side.”
“That’s enough cajoling, Paulie.” “Yes, leave that to the professionals, like us.” “We know how to make people laugh.” “And others cry.” The Capello twins, Ivo “Straightjacket” Capello and his brother Jesse “The Coyote” Capello, spoke in turn, their exchanges matching each other precisely as they exchanged indeterminable gestures behind their porcelain masks.
Paulie “The Rock” Pescatorre frowned. “I don’t know, I thought it was rather funny.”
“No, it was not.” “Not compared to what we were about to do to the federales.” “An impressive trick and treat which this meeting has so rudely interrupted.” “So please.” “Get to the point.”
Paulie sighed. “Fine then. I suppose we should get down to business. Although I’m curious too. What exactly is going through the head of that man you call ‘father’, Marquis, sending his illegitimate son to a Council meeting in his place? Frankly it’s unheard of. I don’t want to assume, but does he mean to insult us?”
“No, nothing of the sort,” the Marquis assured them. “You’ll have to forgive him, it’s been a while since the last Council meeting. What has it been now, a year?”
“One year, two months, and three days.” “Quite a number to be sure.”
The Allesandri representative nodded. “Indeed. And in that span of time, I’m sorry to report that my father has fallen ill, perhaps irreparably so. As a matter of fact, he’s been bedridden for the past few months. You can understand what a perilous position this puts our family in, and why we’d wished to keep it a secret. Nothing worse than a leader who’s not quite dead, but not quite alive at the same time.”
“That man is your father, you little shit. I may hate him with every pound of my flesh-“
“And that’s a lot of pounds.”
“-but he is your father and your patriarch, and you will show him some goddamn respect!” Georgie “Big Daddy” Sartini slammed his fat fist into the oaken table. “Kids these days! They’ve got no fucking principles!”
“Believe me Mr. Sartini, I mean him no disrespect. I’m simply stating facts. Our family is in a vulnerable position, and we’re all just a little bit on edge. Which leads us back to the very reason I called this meeting.” Eyebrows were raised. “With the approval of our family patriarch, of course.”
“Alright, so spit it out, boy,” Paulie said boldly, losing his playful demeanor. “What’s so important that you felt you had to convene the Council to deal with it?”
“I’m glad you asked, Paulie. I’m afraid,” the Marquis said, pausing to remove his bright pink hat, “that it’s you.”
“Wha… me?!” Paulie asked in shock. “But I’ve done nothing to you or your-“
“Save it, Paulie. You’re a dry throat crying out to a deaf man for water. Don’t worry though, I got you this instead.”
The Marquis removed something, a burnt patch of fabric, from his coat pocket and pushed it across the table so it settled in front of Paulie. It was the remains of a welcome mat, like the kind you’d find in bars and restaurants. It had been nearly charred beyond recognition, but some of the lettering was still visible. Just three letters, ‘CAS’, no doubt part of a larger word. The look on Paulie’s face lost its song and took on a much darker tune.
“That’s from the Castaway Club downtown. Or, you know, what’s left of it. Sad story is, we had to burn the place down for the insurance after we found it was being haunted by a poltergeist. We only just pulled off an exorcism by fire, and a number of our employees died before we managed that much. All in all, it’s been somewhat of a loss for us, considering the Castaway is, or rather was the primary moneymaker for the Allesandri family in the downtown scene.”
“That’s terrible,” Paulie said. “I do hope the Madam is alright. I know she’s been a close friend of your family for years.”
“You see, that’s the thing, Paulie. The Madam is dead. You killed her.”
The frown on Paulie’s face grew deeper. “Pardon? I’m deeply sorry for your loss, but how could I have had anything to do with the Madam’s death? I wasn’t even aware she had died until just moments ago. How can you expect to pin the blame for this on me?”
“You specifically? No. The Pescatorres and their organization, which by definition includes you, is another story I’m afraid. You see, we have it on good word from a Mr. Gresham Walsh that you and the Madam have been arranging some under-the-table dealings beneath our noses for quite some time now. Sabotage from within our own ranks.”
A folder of greasy, thinly worn documents was passed along the table, disseminated between the individual members of the Council.
“These are the records we acquired from Gresham Walsh detailing in more or less approximate measure the dealings he helped his ex-wife, the Madam, conduct with a group of Pescatorre soldatos for a large quantity of our imported goods. You’ll notice that over the period of a year or so more than three tons of our most expensive liquor changed hands between her and the Pescatorre family’s men, costing us thousands of dollars in the process. While we haven’t yet identified whether or not Paulie himself is implicated in this little tradeoff, I believe there’s more than enough evidence in this little folder to make my point clear. The Pescatorres have been trying to get an edge in on Allesandri turf. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but these kinds of infringements are exactly what this Council was founded to prevent. What use are these gatherings if they can’t keep the peace between New York’s five great crime families?”
“It’s true, this certainly is an issue.” “Very troubling indeed.” The twins exchanged glances behind their masks. “How do you propose we settle this, Marquis?”
“As the Council intended. Formal discourse, followed by negotiations for recompense of all damages done. But first, everyone here has to agree on the implicated party’s guilt before we can continue. Does anyone have any objections to the claims I’ve just made, given the evidence provided?”
“None here.” “Certainly not.” “While the businesses of the Allesandri and Pescatorre families are none of our concern-“ “-the laws of this Council must be upheld.” “Rules are meant to be broken-“ “-but some must be secured.” “For all of our mutual benefits, of course.” “Of course.”
The Sartini don let out a mighty harumph. “Feh. No complaints here.”
The Marquis nodded. Then, reluctantly, he turned to face the Vitali don. “What do you have to say, Romeo? Is Paulie guilty?”
The young man who represented the Vitalis had stayed silent during the course of the entire meeting. It was less than a year ago that he had assumed the position of family head. The youngest capofamiglia ever at twenty one years old. He was wet behind the ears with inexperience, and deeply out of his element in a meeting such as this. He had been relying on Paulie Pescatorre up until now, but being called upon to prosecute the man who had more or less sponsored his rise to power had noticeably shaken him. It wasn’t hard to see why he was having a difficult time responding.
“Go on, Romeo. Tell them what you really think,” Paulie intoned fatherly. “It doesn’t matter what you say, feel free to speak your mind.”
“Well…” the young man began, “Paulie has done many good things for me in this past year. I don’t know if I or the Vitalis would have gotten by without his help. It would go against my principles to betray such kindness by decrying his guilt when all I have to go on is your word, Marquis Allesandri.”
“There, you see-“
“That being said, I was told to speak my mind, and I can’t in good conscience say that Paulie isn’t guilty of these crimes against you, or that he shouldn’t serve out a punishment for his transgressions. That would be a lie, which is also a grievous offense to my principles.”
Paulie groaned. “Jesus kid, I just told you to speak your mind, not tell them the truth. Shame on me for thinking ‘don’t rat me out’ went without saying.”
“So you were involved in this,” Ivo said. “Shame on you,” added Jesse.
“… I was aware of it, yes.”
The four other representatives returned the folder of evidence to the Marquis, who shook it and patted off the dust before returning it to his own consigliere. “I believe that settles it then. Do you have anything to say, Paulie?”
“Yeah. So what if they have?”
“What if my men have been stealing from you and your family, Marq? As you are right now, what would you do?” The Pescatorre don had lost every ounce of the cheer he’d entered the building with. “Your family is a powerful one, certainly. If it wasn’t there wouldn’t be any room for it on this Council. But my Pescatorres control the majority share of this island and the surrounding cities. By sheer volume, my territory dwarfs that of everyone else here combined.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“I’m not trying to say anything. I’m simply stating facts. Isn’t that right, Marq?” His tone was mocking, provocative. Nothing would have suited him better than for the Marquis to make a move right here, right now. “I am the head of the largest crime syndicate in the state, in the country, and what are you? A bastard child filling in for daddy in pants too saggy and shoes too big for you to fill. What would you do to stop me from taking whatever the hell I wanted from you?”
“There are laws in place, Paulie-“
“Laws? What use do gangsters have for laws? It’s a farce.”
“It’s our way.”
“Fuck the way.”
“You…” The Marquis’ eyes narrowed, emphasizing his snake-like slits. “Are you looking to start a war, Paulie? Is more money on the pile really worth that much to you?”
The two maintained unblinking eye contact for almost a full minute before Paulie burst out into a fit of his usual jovial laughter. Everyone seemed to noticeably de-stress. “Relax, you curmudgeon. A bastard isn’t supposed to be concerned with the affairs of his father.” He addressed the Council as a whole, but his message was directed at the Marquis in particular. “I have no particular desire to start a war today. Not here. Not now. I just wanted to see how you’d react to the idea. You, in particular Marq. I liked the look you had in your eyes just now. You weren’t backing down.”
The Marquis let out a deep, exasperated sigh, and fell back on his chair. “Jesus, Paulie…”
The Pescatorre don just kept on laughing. “Yes yes, I know. It was a cruel trick. But it was certainly a funny one, wasn’t it?”
“Not at all.” “Your sense of humor needs work, Paulie.” “I felt more like vomiting than laughing.”
“Speak for yourself, you mad bastard,” the Marquis added to the twins’ commentary. “What if we’d taken you seriously? You could’ve actually started a war just now.”
“Yes, that was in very poor taste, Paulie,” Romeo Vitali chipped in. “You shouldn’t kid about those kinds of things. Do you have any idea how much risk you just put each of us in there with your loudmouthed boasting?”
“What’s life without risk, my boy? Isn’t that why we’re in this business? You and I, the Sartinis, the Capellos, and the Allesandris. We’re all men who could never be content with anything we owned if we hadn’t stolen it. We willingly put ourselves at risk, knowing we could be caught at any time if we aren’t careful, all for the sake of making a profit. A game of tag played with bills and bars of gold. Wouldn’t you call that the game of kings?”
The Marquis raised an eyebrow. “Then the booze you stole from us-“
“Will be repaid in full. Don’t go getting your panties in a twist.”
“And the Castaway?”
“I will personally loan you the funds to rebuild it. Does this sound like fair recompense to you?”
“More than enough. Thank you, Paulie.”
“Well then.” “It seems this meeting is adjourned.” “As always-“ “-it has been a pleasure doing business with you all.”
Georgie just put out his cigar, more than ready to leave. “Never fucking again…”
“We can all hope,” Romeo added. “Though knowing the criminal element in this city, we’ll all probably be back here very soon.”
“Huh?” Paulie said, wiggling the cigar he held in his mouth. “Who said the meeting was over? I still got something I want to discuss.”
Every eye in the room was on Paulie once again. Scrutinizing. Accusing. Planning.
“And what would that be, Paulie?” the Marquis asked. “You never submitted a formal request for a meeting.”
“I was going to,” the Pescatorre family leader replied, “but once you called this one to order, I figured it’d be better to just mention it here in this meeting than waste everyone’s time scheduling another one.”
“You know that’s not how things are done.”
The large redheaded man just waved the Marquis’ words away dismissively. Everyone in the room let out a collective sigh. They each had already had enough of Paulie’s disdainful nonchalance.
“Alright Paulie, let’s hear it. What do you want to talk to us about that’s so important?”
Paulie grinned, nearly crushing the cigar in his teeth. “Have you ever heard the name ‘Donahue’ before?”
I knew I was in the shit house the moment Annie ordered her lunch. A pound of sirloin steak, seasoned potatoes, side soup and side salad, spaghetti and meatballs with toasted bread, and lasagna, just like mom used to make. Way more food than a sick little girl could ever hope to eat (even if she was a teenager). Which could only mean one thing.
She was doing this to punish me.
“Come on, Annie, forgive your big brother already!” I practically begged her. It sounded just as pathetic in person as it does in print.
“Order me another five lunches, and maybe I’ll consider forgiving you,” she said, her mouth full of steak. You know Annie’s mad when she doesn’t bother with her table manners.
“You know I can’t do that. We need that money to pay the doctors. Come on Annie, what can I do to make it up to you?”
“You left me alone by myself for twelve hours without food or anything to drink if it wasn’t for the doctors. I don’t know if there is anything you can do to make it up to me.”
“Then are you just gonna be mad at me forever?”
She chewed her steak, then swallowed. “Yup.”
“Come on Annie, you know I would’ve come back home if they hadn’t offered me extra hours. I’m trying to make as much money as I can so we can make you better! Doesn’t that redeem me just a little?”
She gave me the stink eye before finally giving up, like she was saying “fine, you win”. She set her silverware back on the table.
“I guess I can’t actually be mad at you forever. As useless as you are, you do bring home money and food for us, so I guess I owe you for that too.” I thought she’d calmed down, but as soon as she’d finished making her concessions, she started raising her voice again. “But if you ever leave me alone again like that I’m calling the cops! And you’re still taking me out to lunch for the rest of this week!”
I suppose it was the best deal I was going to get. “Deal.”
“Alright, then you’re forgiven. But you better watch yourself, mister! I do your taxes!”
I couldn’t help but laugh at that. “I know, I know. Your brother’s a klutz, so he’ll be careful from now on.”
Still pouting a little, she pushed the rest of the enormous lunch towards me. “You can have it, I’m not hungry anymore…”
That’s how I knew we’d made up. I reached over and ruffled her hair. “Thanks, Annie.”
“Oi! There you are!”
And that’s how I knew my peaceful lunch with my little sister had come to an end. I turned around in my seat, hoping not to see who I knew would be there. Sure enough, it was Sostene with his bright yellow umbrella, standing just outside the restaurant’s fenced-in outdoor patio. He waved at me like he was trying to catch my attention. As if he didn’t already have it. That, and the attention of literally everyone else.
Annie gave me a weird look. “Big brother, who’s that? And why is he carrying that umbrella? It’s not supposed to rain today, is it?”
Sostene vaulted over the fence with his umbrella in hand, and my mind raced to think of an excuse. Jumping to the nearest half-truth available, I blurted out without even thinking, “Oh, him? He’s just a coworker! I work with him at the hospital! Because he’s my coworker!”
Smooth. Before I could think of anything else stupid to say, Sostene walked right over to our table.
“Alfonso, they’ve got a job for you-“
“Back at the hospital!” I interrupted before Sostene can finish his incriminating sentence. “Dammit. I just knew they’d be calling me back in as soon as they could! I even after I told them I was taking an extended lunch break. Sorry, Annie.”
Sostene at me, then back at Annie, and it looked like he’d finally pieced it together.
“Ohhhhhh, so this is the little sister you’ve been telling me about!” He smiled cordially and offered his hand. “A pleasure to meet you, madam. My name is Sostene Caputo. I work with your brother at the clinic as a nurse’s assistant.”
Anastasia shook his hand gingerly. I think she was starting to catch on to what Sostene was.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Caputo.”
“Likewise. Alfonso is always talking about you.”
“Really? What does he say?”
I cut him off before hijinks could ensue. The longer this went on, the higher the chances of us messing up each other’s cover stories became.
“I’m sorry to be so blunt with you Sostene, but give it to me straight. Is this an emergency, or may I please finish the lunch I planned for my little sister?”
The cheerful look on Sostene’s face instantly dropped. “Not an emergency, no. But I’m afraid it’s still urgent.”
Well that didn’t tell me much. “Urgent how?”
“We’ve got a patient in critical condition back at the clinic. Big fish. From what we can tell, it looks like he was attacked in broad daylight. Gang violence. He’s not dead yet, but he’s pretty angry.”
He was speaking in thinly-veiled code. “Patient back at the clinic” obviously meant someone in the five families had been attacked. “Big fish” meant it was likely that it was the Pescatorres, although the choice of words in “gang violence” suggested it wasn’t done by anyone within the families. I frowned.
“What kind of gang violence?”
Sostene grinned a little. The expression was grim, mocking, and devoid of any of the usual happiness a grin would suggest. “Have you ever heard the name ‘Donahue’ before?”