Preludes 2

I’d had a lot of time to think recently. A broken femur and traction leaves you with nothing but day time television for company. Sure I had a flip phone, but the only one who ever called was my mom and I usually kept the talks down to save on my minutes. I was waiting for Detective Jan Belkin from the local PD to call and confirm that they would be footing the bills for my hospital stay at Saint Mary’s. Hopefully they would cover my time laid up too, but the way things were with them I’d be lucky to get the hospital covered.

So while laid up I thought about something that had been bother me for a while. I’m a shiner, someone touched with a bit of extra power, superhuman power. There are others like me and people with different forms, called beasts, that usually had some shine too. Don’t call us superheroes, don’t call us mutants, don’t call us freaks or aces or any other near-derogatory term that falls under the Civil Liberties and Discrimination act. People could sue you, bub. My lay up had let me think about my shine a bit. One of my shotgun spread of powers was the ability to know where something bad was going to happen, if I let myself. The last encounter I had, with a fella named Jook, had left me beat up pretty bad with a broken leg. Even though I heal up fast; bruises in hours, bones in a couple of weeks, I was still stuck in the hospital for a while.

So what I’d been thinking about was ‘Am I the reason bad things happen in those places when I think they will?’ While laid up I felt around for these hot spots of action and then watched the news. Sometimes stuff happened and made the small screen, sometimes it made the paper the next day. It seemed that something always did happen. It also seemed that things were lower key without my presence, it was as if my presence escalated matters and I’d been contemplating leaving off being on the scene anymore.

Today was my release. I had a hot spot on my radar, a big one, like a supernova. The kind sister wheeled me out to the curb where there was a police car waiting. The hospital staff, who were familiar with my up and down money situation didn’t even hand me a bill. I figured they would add it to the pile.

I stood up from the chair and took the bag with my personal effects from another nun, “Thank you sister Mabel.”

“Walk with God, Billy.”

“I do, sister, I do.” My mom had been a cradle catholic and raised me as one too. Therefore, I’d lost religion around 16. Turning to the cruiser I said, “Good morning, Detective Belkin.” To Jan.

“Can I give you a ride, Billy?”

I looked up and down the curb, “Looks like I need one. My ma was supposed to drive down, but got called into the cannery on account of the day supervisor losing a hand to the machines.”

“I have you covered. Get in.”

I hopped in, not gingerly, not as if recovering from a major injury, but as spry and healthy as ever. I think could have left the hospital a few days ago.

“You’re looking good.”

“Feeling good too. I’m hoping you have a check for me?”

“Billy…” she said, drawing out my name.

“That’s not a good start to the conversation.”

“He’s pressing charges against you. I gotta book you.”

“What?”

“It’s a technicality, the DA will drop the charges when he proves Sked was disobeying the law and you and your friend Jook intervened.”

“It has to help that I was there contracted to the police that day too.”

“Billy…”

“Jesus Christ! They are throwing me to the wind?”

“It wasn’t my call, Billy.”

“Fuck that, you are the one I verbally agree to work the job for on account of all the racial tension around MLK day! Can’t you just say we had an agreement?”

“It wouldn’t matter if I could, the Captain, she said she’d disavow my actions. She’s trying to calm the situation down. With Sked in county we’ve had a lot of Nazis in town and your arrest may calm things.”

“So I get the crap beat out of me for nothing? I tell ya, being a good citizen doesn’t pay at all.”

“Not true, the Panthers, through an intermediary paid off your hospital bills. All of them, including your outstanding ones, that was a pretty hefty chunk of change.”

I grunted and sat back, it was a hefty amount. “So Saint Mary’s is covered at least. I suppose I can hit the soup kitchens to get by.” I wasn’t kidding.

“We passed the hat too, raised a grand for you.” She brought out a thick envelope, handed it to me, but held onto it as I tried to take it. She looked me in the eye at the next stop sign and said, “Billy. Everyone contributed, the captain, the officers, hell the DA even handed out twenties to his staff to put in the pot; we know what you do for us and we appreciate it. Do you understand?”

I nodded. They had my back; they didn’t want me to go back to being a petty thief like I had been, doing odd jobs to make ends meet. Good guys weren’t the only people I could help.

“I understand and I appreciate it. I just wish things were more…formal.”

“Yeah, I get that.” She let go of the envelope and drove me to the station.

I was arrested, charged with six counts of Assault and Battery and 4 of Felony Assault, these last ones were new and potentially could see me put away for 20 years if served consecutively. When I went before the judge he heard the charges and the DA requested a hundred thousand dollars in bail, the Judge looked at me, then looked behind me and listened to my public defender list the reasons why that was a hardship amount. Another glance behind me at the galley and the Judge set bail at a cool grand. Easy come, easy go and if, no when, the charges were dropped, I’d get my money back.

As I was shuffled out the door I couldn’t help but glance at the spectators, who watches such lowly court proceedings on a Wednesday morning? Cops, that’s who. The benches were lined with the boys and girls in blue who had only smiling faces for me as I was escorted away. Sometimes there are benefits besides money.

Processing my bail ate up most of my afternoon and at the end of it I was given a ride to my office by regular girl in blue, something that Jan arranged, I was sure. My office had been broken into. The glass had been smashed out of the door and someone had let themselves in. Right now it was being repainted and my belongings, all of my belongs from both rooms were under a massive tarp near the door.

My land lord was a cheery sort of guy and there to greet me as I came in. “You got some rent for me?”

“I’ll have it, Hal, I had to put it down for bail this afternoon, when I get it back, it’s yours. What happened here?”

He shook his head, “I swear to God, Billy, if you didn’t have the police department and all their friends backing you, I’d boot you out on your ass in two seconds flat. Your office got vandalized. We found out about it three days after you were in the hospital. Lots of profanity on the walls, and they busted most of your stuff up. We saved what we could and I found a few new things for you too, second hand, dumpster stuff really, but honestly probably better than you had before. I’m supervising the last of the painting today, I have some guys coming down to set things up for you tonight. Why are you here? You should be at home, recovering.”

 I thought about the best way to tell him I’d been evicted from my apartment and has been sleeping over at my office the month before I got hurt.

“Jesus, Billy! This isn’t the Ritz! You can’t be crashing here, the building codes don’t allow it!”

“I was working.” I said.

“Yeah, yeah, I get ya, twenty-four hour shifts. Look I understand, you’re going through a rough patch. I ain’t one to kick a man while he’s down either, don’t ever let it be said that’s the case!”

“I wouldn’t, Hal, you’ve been a very understanding landlord.”

“Landlord? Hell, Billy I’m as close to a friend you got! How about I spot you some cash for a room tonight, maybe at the Franks? Hell, make it a week, you’ll need a proper bed.”

My sense of alarm kicked into overdrive, Hal was tight with his money and though it was true what he said about being as close to friend as I had, this was not normal behavior. He was reaching for his wallet and I put a hand on his arm to stop him with a shake of my head, “What are you up to, Hal?”

He glanced at the painters and shook his head, “I uh, maybe let’s talk down the office?”

I nodded and he led me back to the elevator where we went down into the basement. At one time the place had been a laundry service. Not a laundromat, these were not coin operated machines for the unwashed masses to use, but industrial machines made to launder mass quantities of linens. Hal said they dated from back with the building was a hotel. Rows of cardboard boxes were piled among the old machines, making the place feel like a storage unit or my mom’s place. My mother is a hoarder, keeps everything from last year’s newspapers to broken television sets. The boxes looked like someone’s moved house.

There was a glass paned office that looked out on the derelict machines and Hal led me inside and closed the door. There was a monstrous desk there with a worn chair behind it on wheels. A brown leather couch with some covers pushed to one end indicated Hal did his own share of sleeping in his office.

“What’s wrong?” I asked him.

“I need a favor, Billy.”

“What?” Over the couple of years I’d been here I figured I at least owed him one favor. Probably two.

“I’m in trouble.”

“So I’ve gathered. Do I have to chisel it out of you or are you going to tell me?”

“It’s a delicate matter and it’s…embarrassing.”

“Hal, you’re fifty years old, you could be my father, you know what I do for a living and you know I’ve seen and dealt with a lot of ‘discrete’ cases; so you also know I don’t put names to actions. I may have shared a thing or two with you, but I’ve never named names and I sure as heck wouldn’t do anything to jeopardized our…relationship.”

“I’m not married.”

“I know, you’re more of a playboy.”

“No!” He said, then scowled as he saw that I was winding him up, “No. But I have…needs, Billy.”

Shit. Needs. I looked around in the dim light; cups of instant noodle soup, little plastic pouches of apple sauce and half a pot of coffee in an automatic coffee maker were sitting on the long table that completed the room’s décor. “Who do you owe and how much?”

“No, it’s not that.” He looked down and his face crumpled into a frown, he sat down heavily in the office chair and put his head in his hands. “It is that.”

“I know it is. You’ve been living here. You cash out your house?”

He looked up and his eyes were red and watery, he was almost crying, “Didn’t have one. I gave up my apartment. A nice place, but I couldn’t afford the rent anymore.”

“You take loans on this place?” I asked, he nodded in response, “But the bank won’t loan you any more?” Again he nodded. “But the guys you owe want more. So…the next step in this shakedown would be for you to sign your building over to them, am I right?”

He nodded and put his head down on his hands. He started moaning. “Look, Hal, I draw the line at moaning. Pull yourself together!”

“I can’t, Billy, they got it all. I’d be lucky to be hired on as a building manager. Of my own place!”

“You haven’t told me anything yet, Hal. I’ve told you things and you confirmed them. Like I said at the beginning of this, it’s going to be a long night if I have to pull every word out of you. Tell me what happened.”

“I like to hang out at a bar, Savini’s, you know it?”

Did I know it? Yeah, I knew it. To Hal, I said, “Yeah, go on.”

“They serve dinner there too, and have a spread set up, a sort of buffet with a two drink minimum. I was always in there and got friendly with the owner, Angelo, same last name as the bar. He and his wife were always going on about how come I didn’t have a good woman, no wife, no children, that sort of thing. At first it was cute, then they got so overbearing that I almost started looking for another place to drink. But one day, Angelo’s nephew, after watching them go through the motions with me again, came over and sat down next to me at the bar. Dario, that’s his name, but his last name isn’t Savini…”

“No, it’s Vitellos.” I said.

“You know him?”

“He is an acquaintance of mine, yes. Go on, what did Dario tell you?”

“He smiled and asked if I were homosexual, kinda quiet like and I denied it. He kept pressing me and I kept shaking my head, wondering if he were a fag or something himself. Finally I must have convinced him, cause he said he could get me a woman. An escort to bring into the bar, someone who could pretend to be my girlfriend and maybe more, if I had some extra money to spend.”

I frowned a little, this was the sort of racket the Vitellos were reduced to?

Hal saw my frown and shook his head, “Don’t you frown at me, Billy, there’s better men than me who’ve paid for it and I’m not exactly a looker, am I?”

“You were conned, Hal, you know that don’t you?”

He shrugged his shoulders, “Dario had pictures a few printed out copies, he said all I had to do was point at one, give him half a yard to see if she and I were compatible. I wasn’t gonna, Billy, I really wasn’t but these girls! Like nothing I ever seen before! I couldn’t have pulled one of them when I was your age. I picked one at random, a strawberry blonde, said she was a hundred sixty five centimeters and a nice rack. Her hobbies were…”

“Stop, keep to the point Hal; the money. I don’t want to know what pretend hobbies they gave her or how tight her snatch was, ‘cause I’m assuming you got into it at some point. I want to know how you got so far in debt to the Vitellos that they practically own your building.”

He sighed, “Well you said tell you what happened.”

“Skim the important parts. If I wasn’t sexy-talk I think I can get on that new fangled internet for that.”

“The internet was invented ages ago, Billy. You’ve never been online? Hell, I have acces down here.” He pointed to a rectangular block of plastic sitting on the desk with what looked like a phone cord coming out of it. “That’s hooked up at 80 Baud, about as fast as you can get, I have to keep internet in the building for the businesses, all the credit cards are processed through it these days.”

“Back to your story!” I growled.

“Yeah, yeah, okay, well I met Luciana and we hit it off real good, she was a foreigner, Billy, had a strong accent. One thing led to another and I started thinking marriage after a couple of months. You remember when I was so happy about a year ago?”

“When you spotted me rent last November? Yeah, I remember.”

“Say I don’t suppose you could come up with that?”

“You’re hiring me now, remember? If anything you’ll owe me a few months rent.”

He slumped a bit, “I should make better deals. Anyway I asked her and she said yes!”

“And then no.”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

“Well her mom was probably sick, needed a kidney or something back in Russia, those are expensive, plus she needed to go take care of her, am I right?”

“Cancer, there was an experimental treatment available in Germany…”

“There wasn’t any cancer, she didn’t fly back to Europe; she was probably moved to a different city to work the same con on some other….naive guy. The bills kept coming in though right?”

“Yeah.”

“How much?”

“Almost three hundred thousand. When I couldn’t come up with the last forty Dario got me a loan, through his family. By then I was balls deep into the bank. I’ve got no more collateral to borrow against and my loan from Dario is up to sixty five now. I’m supposed to pay him in three days.”

“How much?”

“All of it.”

I whistled, “And if you don’t?”

“I short sell the building to them, so I’ll owe the bank sixty or seventy thousand, backed by a business Savini owns as a co-signer. But the interest rate will be normal then, bank rate, maybe twelve percent.”

“With no building, probably no job, how long do you think you’ll be able to make payments before you put a bullet in your head?”

“I would never!”

“Hal, you’re fifty years old. You have no assets, except this place, you’ll be lucky to get a job to pay off the bank before you go on retirement at seventy. And every spare cent you own will be going to pay off your debt. That combination makes a man think real hard about how much they really want to continue living.”

“Can you help me?”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Go talk to them, see if I can get more time.”

“Another month, two more? Your marker will be double by that time and I bet they wouldn’t go for it anyway. Why should they? They are already getting what they want; this place. Once they figured out who you were and what you had they suckered you.”

“They probably did.”

“They did. Look, I get it, you’re a lonely guy, found a good thing, but Hal, how could you be so goddamned stupid?”

“Billy, I…”

“Shut up. This was your life, this place is worth millions, not hundreds of thousands, your off the old city center, it’s hip, it’s trendy, the neighborhood is coming back in a decade the place will be worth thirty or forty million, which is exactly what the Vitellos will sell it for. Have you looked for another buyer? A partner?”

Hal swallowed and nodded, “Yeah, nobody wants in.”

“Word on the street is probably that you should be left alone. Okay, let me think for a second here, you aren’t paying me to tell you what you should or shouldn’t have done.”

 We sat in silence for several minutes while I contemplated my options. I had a history with the Vitellos, did a few pieces of work for them back in my youth, things that would get a person arrested. I was on course to becoming a ‘made man’, if I had wanted it. And I did want it, but then the Teungs out of China had started a gang war with the Vitellos, I had a guy die on me in a very messy way and it didn’t make me want revenge; it made me want to never be in that situation again. I ran from the Vitellos as fast as my feet could carry me. Some of the guys found me at my mom’s place a few days later, I was only seventeen, that meant something to them, I guess had I been eighteen I might have gotten a pair of cement shoes, instead the local man apologized to my mother for getting me involved and, when he got me alone, threated to kill her in front of me ‘in the most brutal way possible’ if I ever mentioned what had happened. That wasn’t my last run in with the Vitellos, but I’d tried to steer clear of them ever since.

Ironically while the Tuengs and Vitellos have been fighting it out in the streets, a new gang has moved in from Mexico, the Ramos Clan. So far neither of the two power houses had stopped fighting each other long enough to deal with this new threat, time would tell if that was a mistake or not.

So, I owed Hal, no doubt I’d get a year or two of free rent out of him, depending on what I could do for him. And I had connections with the Vitellos, things I could probably use, not everyone there had bad memories of me. Did I want to call use my connections and any favors I had left with the Vitellos to help Hal? If didn’t help him I could probably broker the chaos of his removal into another six months of rent or so until the new owners realized I was just as much a dead beat as Hal was. Potato…po-tah-toe.

“I think I can help you Hal.”

He let out a strangled breath of relief, “Thank you, Billy! Thank you!”

I held up a hand, “It’s not for free, Hal. I get a ten percent stake in the building.” I was shooting for the moon, he’d never go for that.

“Ten percent? What are you crazy?”

“What’s ten percent of nothing?”

“Billy, geez, I know the price would be high, but can’t we just put a price on it and I’ll deduct your rent from what I owe?”

“If I own ten percent of the building, the Vitellos can’t take it all from you, they’ll have to work with me too. So we have to get the paperwork done fast, today if possible.” That was logical and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Vitellos leveraged me to get my share. I didn’t know for sure, but I suspected I wouldn’t like being leveraged.

“I don’t think I can do it that fast, these legal things take weeks…”

“What can you do?”

“Six months free rent?”

“Ha! Free rent for as long as you own the place and you mark my account prepaid two years if you sell.”

“Forever? C’mon, Billy! Work with me here!”

“Okay, we sign a new lease, saying I’m cleared up to now, we set my rent at half what it is now for the next, oh say, twenty years. And that I’m paid up for the next two.”

            “For the next twelve months and seventy-five percent of what you’re paying now.”

“18 and sixty.”

“14 and seventy.” Hal said.

“Plus expenses.” I added.

“Expenses, like what?”

“Like me ending up in the hospital if the negotiations go poorly.”

“That comes with the job, Billy, you can’t ask me to assume your professional hazard risks.”

“I can and I am. I’ll cap them at five thousand.”

“Twenty-five hundred.”

I sighed, on the one hand this was the most animated I’d seen Hal get in the last four months, on the other I knew just how much a hospital stay could cost. “Three thousand and you scrap up some cash for me now, say five hundred.”

“I don’t have anything…”

“Turns out, neither do I. Do you want me taking the bus over to negotiate for you?”

“You can borrow my car.”

“You have a car?”

“It’s a beater.” Hal answered. I hadn’t expected anything less.

“Fine. And you wire me up for internet too.”

“Done.” He stuck out his hand and we shook on it.

“Draw up the lease.”

“Oh, you’ve already got internet. All the offices do, it’s the blue plug next to your phone line.”

“Geez, Hal, do you really think it’s a good idea to tell me I got a bad deal right after we shake on it?”

He had the good sense to look a little chagrined, “Yeah, sorry, I couldn’t help it.” He dug around in his pockets and came up with a folded over bill and a set of car keys. “Ten bucks make it better? It’s all I got.”

I nodded and took the money and the keys.

“The car is out back, next to the service entrance.”

There wasn’t anything left to talk to Hal about, either he’d draw up the paperwork or he wouldn’t, “Fine, I’ll go see them now. Don’t work too hard, Hal.”

“Thanks, Billy, I mean it!”

Funny how he could ‘mean it’, but still barter me down like a guy at a flea market looking to make a deal. Maybe that’s my problem, I treat my services like they can be bartered. I stopped there, I was getting suckered. Did an accountant start high and dicker with his clients? Did a lawyer? Did the nuns over at Saint Mary’s? No. A scowl was on my face that only deepened as I made my way out the back door and saw Hal’s ‘car’. I’d seen it before and thought it was a derelict, abandoned and left behind the building so long that even the city didn’t want to tow it because it might be an historical landmark of some sort.

Bald tires, dented bumpers on both ends and the passenger side, rear window was busted out and had plastic duct taped over it. If I was lucky it wouldn’t start. Sometimes the things you think are dead or dying will fight the hardest for life and that’s probably why Hal’s car fired up without any effort at all. For its terrible cosmetics, it drove smoothly too, sure it needed an alignment and would never outrun a healthy guy on a bicycle, but it ran.

I carefully navigated over to Savini’s, I knew the place, had even been invited to eat there a couple of times, before it was determined I wasn’t ‘made man’ material. The door was propped open and a mixed smell of cigarette smoke and marinara wafted out onto the street. Dario was leaning up against one side of the doorway, his ear glued to a phone and a cigarette dangling from his other hand by his waist. I drove by and parked down the block.

I remembered Dario now, he wasn’t related to the Vitellos in any way I remembered. He was Italian though, a good Catholic, an altar boy…had to be barely 20 now. Which would have made him 12 back in the day…I doubted he would remember me. I walked up to him and stood waiting while he spoke on the phone.

“No. No. I’m busy tonight.” He said, “You know I’d see you if I could, baby, I just got this thing…” He looked up at me, his brow furrowed for a moment, as if he thought he knew me. “Hold on a sec.” To me he said, “What do you need? I ain’t got any change, but go ‘round back and maybe Mrs. Savini will have something for you in the alley.”

He thought I was a bum! I almost laughed, instead I just smiled slightly and shook my head, “Please excuse me, this is about Hal Franklin and the debt he owes you.”

Dario held up a hand in a ‘stop sign’ motion and said back into the phone, “I gotta go, business. I’ll call you later.” He flipped his phone shut and turned his attention to me.

“I think I know you.”

“I used to work for…your uncle Ezio. I came in here a few times, I remember you, Dario, dressed nice from church.”

 He scowled, “Yeah, well times change. Ezio…he’s…not in today.”

“Is he retired?” By which I meant ‘dead.’

“No, no, nothing like that. His wife, she’s got the cancer real bad, in her lady parts. Only has a few weeks left, so he’s taking care of her.”

“Aw…shit…Erma?”

He nodded.

“That’s too bad, too bad by far, she was, is, a classy lady, they made a good pair. Where they at? I’d like to go by one last time and…”

Dario moved fast, faster than a norm, he had me up against the building with his forearm pressing my throat in a flash, “You with the Teungs, now? Huh? You think I’m stupid? You think I’m going to tell you where one of my family is so you can pass that information along?”

Footsteps preceded the shadow of a man who quickly came out from Savini’s. “We got a problem here?”

I recognized that voice, Vic ‘Hands’ Pelino.

“Hey, Vic. Wanna tell Dario here I’m an okay guy?”

Vic squinted at me, then leaned in closer. They guy’s eyes were no good, but he refused to wear glasses. “Little Billy? It is you!” One of his meaty paws clapped me on the shoulder, which his other one felt around my waist band and sides for weapons. “He’s clean, Dario. Used to run with us. What are you doing here, Billy?”

“He’s here about Hal’s marker.”

Vic’s face fell, “Aw, Billy, tell me you’re not messed up in that. It’s bad business. You know the routine.”

“He’s my landlord. Asked if I could talk to you.”

“He didn’t send you with payment?” Dario said, “Hell I knew you didn’t have no money!”

“Is that Billy?” Old man Savini’s voice called through the doorway, “Get in here and say ‘hello!’ He’s a hero, boys!  A goddamned hero! Don’t you read the papers?”

Vic shook his head, “Dat true, Billy? Are you a hero?”

Vic always wanted to go down swinging preferable while rescuing a bus full of orphans, he had a hero complex and how he ended up with the Vitellos was something I had never found out.

“Who are you here with, Vic?”

“Gino.” Vic said, “You’ll like him, he’s got a code, like you.”

Dario scowled and moved away from us, “Savini’s holding the marker, make a deal with him.”

“Vic, I thought you were working for Mister Palmiro?”

“He retired. Never like him anyway. I was working for Baby George for a time…but we didn’t get along real well.”

“You crashed his Benz!” Dario said from down the sidewalk, “You need glasses man! Just get some glasses!”

“I don’t need no glasses!” Vic growled and Dario retreated further.

“Boys!” Angelo admonished, stepping onto the sidewalk, not, I noticed with first glancing up and down the street.

“Are things that bad, Mr. S?” I asked.

“Things are bad. Let’s get in off the street. Look at you! All skin and bones! Paula! Look who’s come to visit! It was him a couple weeks ago, in that fight! I told you!”

Paula Savini came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a red and white towel until she got a look at me. Then she screamed and launched herself toward me with cry, “Billy! I thought you were dead!”

Her meaty arms circled my waist and she shook her head, “All bones! Not a shred of meat on you!”

“Times have been tough, Mrs. Savini.”

“Why didn’t you come here? You know I would never let this happen! There will always be a meal for you here whenever you are hungry!”

The weird thing was, she meant it. She was a smart woman, like many standing behind the made men in the Mafia, she knew what was going on and had to know I was tossed out like the garbage on a Tuesday, but I know if I showed up here with empty pockets I wouldn’t leave until my stomach was bursting and my head was buzzing from Angelo’s ‘small beers’.

“I have been working, not making any money, but keeping busy.” I couldn’t say I would never lean on her for support, not without offending her, Angelo and every other gangster in the place. But I also knew that my free meals would turn into favors, which would turn into jobs, which would lead me right back in among them. I wasn’t the smartest young man, not 8 years ago, not now, but I knew better than to get involved with them again. I recognized several other people at the bar and knew I was going to be here all night. With Savini holding the marker himself, he was the one I had to deal with and I wouldn’t be dealing with him until the last customer left.

“So tell me about this fight of yours, huh? A big guy, this Skin Head?” Angelo prompted me.

“He was and is….” I spent then through closing telling a modest tale of bringing Sked down. They liked it, not because they liked seeing a racist asshat going to jail; they were just as racist. My last name was ‘Greer’, not exactly Italian, but that was my father’s name. My mother’s maiden name was ‘Clarizio’; the mob treated me like a long lost cousin who had been raised by savages. I downplayed Jook’s part in the events, but gave him the heroics he deserved, which Angelo probably already knew anyway. Still it entertained the men there and got me in their good graces…which extended to drinks and food.  Eventually the place closed down, it was pushing 11 by the time Angelo had me moping the floor. Vinny was still there, said something about keeping an eye on the place, as his ward got into a black luxury car, he was snoozing in a booth next to the front door. I finished cleaning up for the Savini’s and, as I expected, the old couple was waiting for me at the end of the bar.

“Billy, come here and talk with us.” Paula called.

I went, as we all knew I would. Angelo beckoned to a stool, “Sit. Beer?”

I shook my head, “I have had too many already, papa Savini.”

Paula smiled and we all sat around the end of the bar. “Vinny tells us you were asking about Mister Franklin’s loan, yes?”

“I was, Missus Savini.”

“Mama.” She said. Which told me a lot right there; first I wasn’t as ‘out’ as I had hoped and second, I was enough in their good graces that a negotiation over Hal’s loan would be possible. My face fell and I have to admit I was a little shook up.

If you’ve ever been so alone that the people who abused you start looking good again, well, you know where I was at. It had been so long since I’d felt anyone really had my back unconditionally and one thing you can say for the mob; they will never let you down. They may put three bullets in your back and drop you into the lake bound in chains and cinder blocks, but they won’t leave you hanging.

“There, there, Billy, it’s okay, it’s okay, boy!” Mama Savini gave me a comforting hug. “So thin, father, he is so thin!”

I pulled myself together. “I am sorry.” I wiped my arm across my face and looked at Angelo. “I forget myself and I am here on business, not looking for comfort like a long lost son.”

He nodded, Paula said, “There is no reason why you can’t do both things.”

“And you gave me bread and comfort and I broke down when it came to business. I am not cut out for this life.” I said, they didn’t deny it, “What can be done about Franklin? The building is all he had, he made stupid choices and he has been paying for them.”

“Yes, with his building. We know.” Angelo said.

“So you will take it from him?”

“Billy…” Paula spread out her hands and shrugged, “look at the man. No!” She admonished me sharply, “Not as who asked you to come speak to us, but step back and look at him! Now, do you think, if we did him this favor he will behave any differently?”

I didn’t answer right away, when I did, I was honest, “He is a lonely man. He might.”

“So,” Paula said, “If not us, who? Who gets his real estate? We can give him a job, keep him on as a manager. He’ll make more money probably.”

“But his debts…”

“We don’t care about his debts, we want the building, the building is worth far more than he’ll ever be.”

She was, of course, forgetting that the building was his already. I understood her point; Hal had more assets than value. “I…I just feel bad for the man. He has nothing. He thought he was doing this for love, for passion.” I held up my hand, “Yes, mama, I know he should have known better, he is a grown man, entitled to make his own mistakes, but he isn’t a bad man, just a hopeful one. A man who thought he had something, who thought he was taking care of someone who, to him, was family.” Family always gets them. Manipulation is a two-way street.

Angelo took up the fight to spare Paula from breaking character, “What is in this for you, Billy?” What do you get out of this?”

I told them the deal Hal and I had ironed out.

Paula rolled her eyes and said, “You bargain like a man on his death bed does with God. Next time, come to me to make your deals.”

“He didn’t really understand what he was asking me to do. Plus, I owe him too, for past favors.”

“This talk on favors is interesting. You are not without your skills, Billy. We could still use you, especially in this war.” Angelo nodded toward the sleeping mountain near the front door.

“What do you want from me to make this deal?” I asked.

“We don’t have a deal.” Paula said.

“Yet.” Angelo said, “But I can see ways to make one. What do you want for your friend?”

I had been thinking this one through all night and had a ready answer, selling it would be the hard part. “Half. You and Hal go into a partnership. You buy him out of his debts, erase them, essentially, and take over half ownership of the building. This is free and legal and clear with no questions raised. Your business provides a capital influx to his, in a few years as the area becomes prominent again the building gets sold and you have the profits free and clear or can buy him out of the other half.”

“We already are in position to have it all and give nothing more.” Paula said.

“I know that. Hal knows that. But anyone who looks at this deal is going to be asking why Hal Franklin gave up his building for a fifth of what it is worth. Why banks wouldn’t loan him the money to pay off the loans he had? Is that the kind of scrutiny you want? In these trying times?” I too, glanced at the front door.

They exchanged a glance and Angelo said, “This deal would be handled privately, the feds, the city, no one would know…unless they were informed.”

“I would never, ever do that!” I said sharply, “But I’m not the threat, you are involved in a war with very bad, very sophisticated people, these people have influence and I know you know they are watching you and your business transactions carefully. They are not above using legal means to bring you down, if they can do so.”

Paula sat back and sighed, “You’re right. You are right. We have noticed increasing scrutiny on our accounts.” Paula turned toward Angelo, “Make the deal, you were right, you always are. I am going to bed, Billy.” She seemed almost elderly to me then; she had never been old before. She kissed me on the cheek and pointed to a large bag behind the bar, “Some food for home.”

“Mama, no! I..”

“You can’t win this argument. Take it, dump it if you won’t eat it or give it to the homeless, but I hope you take it. You are too thin. Your fighting takes more out of you than you think and if you want the advice of an old woman you will put some meat on your bones before you bite off more than you can chew next time.”

I blushed and looked down, “Yes, mama.”

“There’s a good boy.” To her husband she said, “Give him a good deal, but not so painless as he doesn’t forget who he owes.” Just like mama.

When she cleared out he said, “We take a seventy percent stake in the building, clear our unofficial loan to Mister Franklin and take over his loans to the bank. To sweeten the deal he will get a fifty thousand dollar payout to get himself a new place to live and buy himself a better car than the one he loaned you to get here.” He paused and I nodded, “Okay, as for us, you owe us. Not just informal work, but real favors, anything we ask you to do, day or night you come and you do as we asked you to.”

I shook my head, “I think I need Paula back down her to negotiate for me.”

“This is a good deal. We could do nothing and let the building come to us and risk it being informed upon. I trust you, Billy. You might not be a killer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be of use to us and you have the one quality I value above all else.”

“What?”

“You know when to keep your mouth shut.”

I nodded, it was true. “I don’t want to be pulled into your war with the Hispanics. I don’t want to be burying bodies or…making them.”

He scoffed, “We don’t use a dildo to make babies. These favors will be to me and Paula; personally, off the record, not to be sold or bartered to others. Me, you, my wife. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Then you understand that I never use my tools for the wrong job. Five times me, my wife or Vinny may call on you.”

“Wait, Vinny?”

“Would you rather it be Dario?”

I immediately shook my head, “No, no. Vinny would be fine. But why Vinny?”

“To keep you honest. Vinny may not be much in the thinking department, but I believe he will be around a long time and in any deal making sure each party does their part is important. You heard Paula; you will pay for your favors like anyone else.”

I knew the answer here, “It is all an honorable man does.”

He nodded, “Always.”

“Two favors. No more.”

“Four.”

“Desperate times can lead to hard decisions, an open ended favor, despite your talk of the right tools for the job, may lead you to using a dildo to impregnate your mistress. Two favors or we limit my responsibility.”

“Can you only bargain so tough with those you are close to?”

“Can you only give me your word you won’t call me in to murder anyone?”

“Three favors.”

“Three favors.” I agreed, “But no murder, nothing with people outside the organization.” So I wouldn’t be drumming up new business, though maybe I’d be collecting on some old debts.

“Three favors, no wet work, no innocents.” He finally agreed.

What could I do? I shook his hand. We wrote out a copy of the deal for me to bring to Hal the next day, Angelo said their lawyers would forward a formal contract to him later in the week, and that he would be well advised to come back to the restaurant and start eating again.

“Can you do anything about his girl?”

“She is Russian sex slave, we had her on loan, now? The wind has her.”

“The poor bastard.” I said, not sure if I was referring to her or to Hal.

“Yes, indeed. Vinny will see you home.” He walked me to the front door where Vinny was already standing and ready to see me out.

“Geez buddy, you always seem to wake up when we need you.”

“Yeah, boss, I do. C’mon, let’s get you to that little car of yours.”

We walked outside and Vinny stopped long enough to hear Angelo engage the various locks and dead bolts.

“I thought you were supposed to watch them tonight?”

“You. I was watching you tonight. Thanks too. I knew there’s no harm in ya, Billy. Not saying you can’t fight when you have a reason, but for you, cut rate rent ain’t enough of a reason. So I got a little sack time and you got your deal. Everybody wins.”

“So you weren’t asleep in there?”

“Just dozing. I got real good hearing. Man this is a piece of shit, isn’t it?” Vinny tapped the hood of Hal’s car, adding a fresh dent to the motif.

“Hey, easy! I gotta get home in this!”

“Pr’olly won’t make it around the block let alone back downtown. You want a ride? I gotta take the limo back.”

I really did want a ride, Hal could bus down here tomorrow and visit Savini’s and get his car… “Yeah, I think I do.”

“C’mon, it’s around back. You think I could take Sked?”

So that’s what he wanted, “Vinny you’re the strongest, toughest guy I know. I think, if you and Sked ever squared off I would bet on you. I’m not saying it would be an easy fight. But the guy is used to hitting people that can’t hurt him. You could hurt him.”

He laughed, a low evil sound and punched one fist into an open palm. “A guy like that. Yeah, I’d love facing a guy like that. Things a lot of himself. Likes to pick on people who aren’t involved his business. Think you could set it up?”

“He’s in jail, Vinny.”

“Yeah, well, I mean when he gets out. On account of you being acquaintances an all.”

“I….You know I’ll do my best, Vinny, for you I’d do my best.”

“Sumthin’ to look forward to. Something to look forward too.”

He dropped me off in front of my building, “You think Hal is still up to talk about this now?”

“Probably, he has some concerns about his kneecaps and if he’ll be able to walk in the next couple of days.”

“Huh? Oh, yeah, right. Well you go tell him the news and I’ll take you home when you’re done.”

“Uh, that’s alright, Vinny. I’ll be fine from here.”

“Ain’t asking. I’m waiting.”

“I’m sort of between homes right now, Vinny.”

“For the love of Christ…and you didn’t tell Paula? She’s gonna be unhappy when she finds out.”

“She doesn’t have to find out. Besides I’m just waiting on a few checks to come in…”

Vinny gave me a look that said he wasn’t buying what I was selling. “You think Hal is really up?”

“He might be.” I hedged, glancing at the building.

“Well fuck him, let ‘em stew, get in. I got a guy that owes me a favor and owns a hotel. You got digs, at least for a week, but don’t be running up the room service or pay per view, okay?”

I hesitated.

Vinny sighed and said, “Don’t make me come get you. You might be faster, but I could do it. And you’ll just be cryin’ like a little baby as I tucked you into the limo. We still own the cops ‘round here.”

“You drive a hard bargain, Vinny.” I got in.

The hotel was nice and I had it for a week. I was up and able to walk back to my office the next morning where a frantic Hal was waiting for me.

He pointed at a package sitting in my desk, “They dropped it off this morning!”

“Good morning, Hal. Good to see you too.”

“What was I supposed to think, Billy? You didn’t come back last night, my car is gone and a couple of goons show up with a…a package for me this morning? I thought they killed you.!”

He did look like he’d had a bad time of things. “I’m sorry, Hal. I truly am. I thought you knew how these things worked? I mean, did you go in and get a loan from Dario in thirty minutes? Or did you have some discussions with him over several hours or days?”

Hal muttered under his breath, “Days, weeks more like. He was softening me up. What did they say?”

I outlined the deal for him. To say he was happy with it would be a far cry from the truth. In fact, his face was starting to turn a little pink, “You’ve ruined me!”

I held up a hand, “Then don’t take it.”

“What?”

“Don’t take what I worked for, tell me ‘no’, I’ll go back to Angelo and tell him you didn’t go for it and he’ll take everything from you anyway.” I hadn’t explained fully the arguments I had used with Paula and Angelo the evening before. My part of the deal was making sure Hal took the deal, otherwise I would lose some face with the Savini’s, again, nothing I needed to tell Hal about.

“Seventy percent!” he shook his head, “You could have done better.”

I turned my back on him and started to walk away. “The package is the contract. If you take the deal great, make sure you get me a copy of the lease me and you agreed on yesterday too. If you don’t take it, well I’m sure the new landlords will be friendlier towards me than you, you might say they’ll be almost family.”

That hung between us for a few steps and then he called out, “When will I get the fifty thousand?”

I stopped and looked over my shoulder at him, “Probably as soon as Paula has the contract. This afternoon I suppose, if you want it that fast. It comes with some unofficial strings, first you buy a new car, second, a new wardrobe, you gotta class this place up a little and that starts with the manager.”

“Is that it?”

“Pretty much.”

“And what about my fiancée?”

I stared at him a minute, “She wasn’t real, Hal. You got that? She wasn’t real, she was hired to play a role and she did it. My advice is to stick with broads you already have seen around and if this one ever comes back, run the other way.”

“You don’t know how it was with us, Billy! I can find her, I’ll get her back. I’ll have money to find her.”

“Yeah? It sounds like you need a private detective. I always find my target, think about it. I’m sure you found my rates when you cleaned up my office. Let me know.”

“Where are you going?”

“To celebrate your good fortune.” I left the building and went back to the hotel, where I spent the week fully recovering. Mama Savini sent some boys around with food every couple of days and Vinny even stopped by and hung out in the evenings. The Police Department denied my hours and didn’t pay me, but I got a few hundred from a hat collection by the boys in blue. The lawsuit against me was dropped and three months after the building got new ownership I got a letter from the managers breaking my lease and offering to let me stay if my rent went back to what it was before me and Hal negotiated it…with a ten percent increase. These are the people I work with. I did, however, find Hal’s broad for him, but that’s another story.