The phone rang at 7:15 a.m., an obscene hour for Bekka and me. I was going to let it ring through to the answering machine.... Only I'd forgotten that Jane was up at that hour, getting ready for school. She'd picked up her extension, expecting it to be Lance or another classmate begging for a ride to school. Instead, it was someone who was familiar with her, but she didn't know him.
Jane knocked on our door. I grunted. She came in and said, "There's some guy named John Ventimiglia on the phone for you. He was insistent. Any idea who he is?"
"That's don Ventimiglia, and you'd better believe we know him. He's important. Go hang up your phone, this needs to be private."
I rolled over and grabbed the phone, politely saying "good morning" into the handset. Don V. said good morning back, and asked if I was still in bed. I affirmed that I was. He said, "You've been letting the best hours of the day pass you by. Get up."
"So what can I do for you, sir?" I asked.
"I am curious about this man you have with you, the failed gunman. How useful will he be to us?"
I said, "Not much at all. He's just some poor sap whose wife and child were taken hostage by the organization. They threatened to kill his family if he didn't do the things they told him to. That covers two murders. Now that he's been put in our care, the organization will assume he has been destroyed by us. The dude just wants his wife and kid back, and to return to whatever he considers a normal life."
"He is not part of the organization?" asked don V.
"Nope. He was selected by them for his ethnicity, and no other reason."
don V. sighed. "Bud mentioned an interest in retrieving this man's family. Do you have anything to say about that?"
"Yeah. We ought to do it, just because it's the right thing to do. This dude can't go to the police, he's committed too many crimes. Hell, he has the address where they were being held, it's in Downey. An extraction should be a walkover."
Ventimiglia did not comment. Instead he said, "You will be relived of this man in the afternoon. Rizzo will come to Inana to collect him in the afternoon. I do not know what the man's fate will be. I will decide after I meet him. Do you have any input?"
I said, "Look, this guy was just a stooge. Trouble found him in a big way. He's harmless." I told the don everything that Alexi had explained to me.
"Trouble seems to revolve around the man. I will take what you have told me into consideration. Good morning, Lenny."
I got up and went downstairs. First I checked the guest bedroom to see if Alexi was still present, then I went down to the kitchen, where Jane was eating toast and drinking coffee. I told her our guest would be leaving today. Fine with her. He snored.
"So what's gonna happen to him?" asked Jane.
"No clue. Ventimiglia is handling this himself, so Alexi has set off a lot of alarm bells in the family. All I know is that I bring him to work with me, and Rizzo is coming down to pick him up."
"Who is Ventimiglia?" Jane asked.
"He is don Ventimiglia, and he's at the top of the food chain for mafia in Southern California. Everyone is ultimately answering to him. Him and I have met on a few occasions, and all under tense circumstances. Having the don angry with you is practically a death warrant. He is living proof of the old adage 'There is no such thing as a minor detail.' He knows where the bodies are buried, and also knows where they bought the shovels, and for how much. Who knows, you may meet the don at some point. I never expected to, and I did."
"I'll bet he's a really cool guy under his armor," Jane teased.
I chuckled. "Well, he hasn't had me killed, that's something. And he's had the opportunity to do it, god knows. He's a private man. I know he likes playing tennis and drinking Hennessey. That's it."
Jane finished her coffee and put the mug in the dishwasher. She said, "I'm taking the Sportster to school. It makes a smaller target. So if I get followed today, where do I run to? Another porno shop in Long Beach?"
I said, "Aim for either a police station or sheriff's station. Don't mention the gun in your pocket, just tell them that some creeps in a red Pontiac followed you as you left school. You're marginally safer with the cops."
"Okay, deal. I'm off. I like to leave early so I can get a parking space close in."
I kissed her forehead and said, "See you later. Remember, Bekka and I will both be at the mansion through the afternoon, so stop by. Until this mess is cleaned up, I'd just as soon keep you close."
Jane stopped at the top of the stairs. She smiled and said, "Damn Lenny, someone hearing you would think you care about me and shit."
The stock Sportster fired up. I heard Jane putt out onto the street, then punch it down Neptune. She had a pistol and a fast ride: that was all we could do to protect her in the current situation. She understood the gravity of the situation, and kept her eyes peeled. Any scumbags assigned to snatch her would quickly realize they'd bitten off a bigger bite than they could chew. Jane was wily.
I went back upstairs to the suite and sat on the edge of the bed. After I considered things, I got back up and hit the shower, dressing in gray jeans, an Ill Repute t-shirt, and 14 hole Doc Martens. I went all the way downstairs and set up a fresh pot of coffee. A quick check on the street showed no foreign vehicles, nothing out of place. Heading back up, I stuck my head in the guest room Alexi was in. His clothes were neatly folded on the dresser. He was dead to the world, snoring softly. I left him and went back upstairs to the bathroom, where I snorted my morning line of meth. That task completed, I grabbed my smokes and went out on the deck to watch the morning surfers. Maybe don Ventimiglia was right, and I was missing out on the best hours of the day.
After an hour and five cigarettes I roused Bekka, who never woke up willingly. I chopped out her line of speed and left it, knowing she would head straight there as soon as she moved around. Back downstairs to fire up the coffee maker, then to where Alexi slept. I woke him with a gentle shake of his shoulder. He was confused when he woke up.
"I do not.... You. Have I slept too much?" he said.
I told him, "No, you are fine. I'm making coffee, and I have learned you will be leaving here. You will go back to LA."
Bekka walked into the room, looking perky from her first line of the day. She said, "How did you sleep, Alexi?"
"I sleep well. I have not slept well since my family was taken."
Bekka asked me, "So what did the don have to say?"
I shrugged. "He had questions. Alexi is being picked up and being brought back to LA. He'll meet don Ventimiglia himself. My hunch is they've connected Alexi with the murders he committed, and they want to ask him questions. I doubt they'll like the answers, I sure didn't. I bring Alexi here to the mansion with me, and Rizzo will be by sometime in the afternoon to pick him up."
"Think they'll destroy him?" Bekka asked.
Another shrug. "I doubt it. He was a pawn, and didn't act willingly. They'll squeeze him for what he knows, and that's it."
Alexi was out of bed, had pulled his pants on, and was now making the bed. He looked at me and asked, "What is pawn. You say that about me."
"In the game of chess, a pawn is a small piece. It is slow, and considered disposable. You can accomplish things with pawns, but not much. They are used and discarded. You were treated as a pawn by the people who took your family, and you are still a pawn to the mafia. Do not worry, they will find your wife and daughter, you will be reunited, but you are of little use to the mafia. If you were part of the organization, you would be worth much more."
He stretched and asked, "You are taking me to LA? Is this good?"
I gave him a confident smile. "I will not take you to LA. You will go to my place of work with me and wait. Another man from the mafia will come for you and will take you to LA. How good it is depends on how easily you give up information. But you have none, so far as I can tell. I do not know what will happen to you, but I am confident you will live."
Bekka said, "You drink coffee, Alexi? We'll have it ready in a few minutes."
Alexi finished dressing and we went downstairs, starting the coffee maker and turning on the TV for news. Nothing of interest. As always, Alexi was rapt by the TV, trying to hang on every word. I knew how I'd keep him occupied while we waited for Rizzo to show up. The maker stopped dripping and I grabbed three mugs, filling each one. Alexi showed no suspicion of the beverage handed to him, simply thanking me and taking a sip.
He sat on one arm of one of the sofas. He asked me, "I try to kill you and you are not angry. You treat me as guest. Why do you do this?"
I thought for a second. I said, "You were following orders. You did not say to yourself, 'Today I will kill a man named Lenny.' You were under duress. It was nothing personal, so I didn't take it personally. What you did was not your fault. Do you understand what I am saying?"
"I understand. Thank you." He put his hand out, so I shook it. He smiled, the first time I could remember him smiling.
I told him, "This afternoon, a man named Rizzo will come to pick you up and drive you to LA. He is a good man. What will happen in LA, I don't know. You will be interviewed again. It is important you tell the men you talk to the truth, and everything you know. They should treat you well. After that, I can't say."
Alexi nodded solemnly. "I will cooperate. The mafia has been good to me. I will work for mafia, if I need to."
"Don't get ahead of yourself."
Bekka announced she was headed upstairs to shower, and were we taking one vehicle or two today?
I said, "I figured we'd all just ride in the Fleetwood. Jane will be joining us after she gets out of school, so we'll have at least one powerful motorcycle at our disposal."
Forty minutes later the three of us piled into the Cadillac and headed for the mansion. Alexi asked nervously, "Where do we go?"
"Back to the place we stopped at last night before coming here. It is where Bekka and I work. It is where we make the sexy movies, do you understand?"
Alexi looked embarrassed. "I will watch you make a sexy movie?"
I laughed and said, "No. For lack of anything better to do while waiting for the man from LA, you will watch TV. We will have lunch, and you will leave in the afternoon. Do not worry, you will be safe."
We walked in the mansion. Bekka threw her purse in her locker while I escorted Alexi into the media room, where I turned on the giant TV and handed him the remote. I told him to drink the sodas from the big fridge in the kitchen, and the bathroom was four doors up on the right, two doors past my office. He nodded and profusely thanked me.
I no sooner had the lights on in my office when the phone rang. It was Angel. He asked, "So who's this clown you're sending us?"
"He's not a clown, he's a pawn," I replied. "He's just a random guy, y'know, who got dragged into this whole scene against his will. I'm gonna tell you the same thing I'm gonna tell Rizzo, which is to treat him gentle. I've been fairly successful at putting his mind at rest, but I think he's still scared of us. He's worried that we're gonna kill him. I treated him nice and he's been totally cooperative. Shit, he had an eight hour window to bolt, and didn't take it. I'm instilling a sense of trust of the mafia in him. Shit, you give the guy something to eat and he's happy as a lark."
"Is it true that we're doing an extraction for him?" Angel asked.
I paused. "I haven't heard one way or another from the don. I hope we are. When this guy got snatched, they also took his wife and infant daughter, and told him they'd die if he didn't do what they told him to. He killed two people and was going to leave bodies behind at that book store, if I hadn't stopped him. All to protect his family. He's scared, bbyut he's got some balls."
Angel was briefly silent. He said, "I'll see the extraction goes through. But this time it's your turn to ride in the damn helicopter. He's your boy. You say he killed two people?"
"That's what he told me. One at a liquor store, one at a house. His minders were sitting outside watching to make sure he didn't bolt, so he had to go through with it."
"Jesus. This dude knocked off two family employees. He'd better have some good answers when we talk to him."
I said, "Like I said, be gentle with him. His English ain't so hot, so he doesn't volunteer information, but he'll talk as long as he's not scared. Frighten him and he clams up. And I don't think you can loosen his tongue by roughing him up. He's twenty-four, honest, and scared shitless. Smile at him and he'll trust you."
"Okay. We'll treat him nice, for the most part. What's your take on him?"
"He's just some immigrant, a numbnuts who probably lost a crappy job because he didn't show up for five days and counting. He's got his pride, and he wants to protect his family, but ultimately he's a nobody. Just some dude from behind the Iron Curtain."
"And the organization snatched him, his wife, and his infant daughter, and forced him to kill people, otherwise his family would die. And he did it."
"That's the size of it, yeah."
Angel laughed. "You're right Lenny, he's got some balls. Shit, maybe we can find a job for him somewhere around here."
I laughed back. "That's easy. Put him out at Boss's labs. He'd get a living wage for him and his family, and it's simple work. Ecstasy fucked up his life, maybe Ecstasy can get him living comfortable again."
"Where is he right now?" Angel asked.
"In the media room, watching TV. He loves TV. I think it's how he is teaching himself English, and more power to him."
"Listen Lenny, I gotta get going. Rizzo will be there around two to pick up this clown. You really think he's just some dope?"
I said, "Dude, like I said, he had an eight hour window of opportunity to just leave my house and walk away. He didn't. He understood things well enough to know that running would just make him some enemies. That, and he trusts me and Bekka, we treated him well and he wasn't expecting that. He ain't stupid, just lost."
"I think I understand the situation," Angel replied. "We'll treat him as a friend, give him a couple beers, let him open up. And it's always nice to have people with balls around. Don't worry, we ain't kicking his teeth in."
"That's kosher. Listen, I gotta dive into some paperwork here. I'm gonna sign off."
"I'll talk to you later, Lenny. And remember, it's your turn in the helicopter." Angel hung up.
I put the phone down, then crept up the hall and stuck my head in the media room. Alexi had grabbed a soda, and was now watching The Price Is Right with rapt fascination. I tiptoed back to my office and got to work.
Bekka and I took Alexi to Triplets for lunch. His illiteracy in English showed up again, so I ordered him a Reuben sandwich with potato salad. As always, he wolfed down his food, as though someone might try to take it away. Given how scrawny he was, it may really have been hunger. He seemed like the kind of guy who would forfeit his own meal so that his family would have more.
We rode back to the mansion, Alexi still fascinated by the quiet grace of the Fleetwood. A couple minutes before two Rizzo showed up, another big guy with a gun under his arm to scare my secretary. She showed him to my office.
We gave each other a man-hug. Rizzo asked, "So, is he cuffed?"
"No need for it," I told him. "He trusts me and Bekka, he knows we're mafia, so at this point he has a degree of trust of the mafia. Cuff hi, you'll just scare him, and he won't talk. His English is shaky, and he locks up if he's nervous."
"Got it. Anything I should know about the guy?"
I shrugged. "He's just a dude, a nobody. But he's got balls. His wife and child are in the hands of the organization, and he's worried sick about them. He doesn't smoke. Any food you put in front of him will be consumed entirely. And despite our assurances, he's still scared shitless. Remember, we met because he walked into an adult book store with the instructions to kill me, Bekka, and anyone else who looked important. Instead, I got the drop on him. He can't figure out why I've been so nice to him. He fully expected me to take him out behind the building and blow his brains out. Instead, I feed him, put him up in my house, and generally keep him comfortable. He's waiting for the other shoe to drop, only there ain't no other shoe. Treat him friendly and he'll answer all your questions, to the best of his ability. Stomp him and you won't get a fuckin' word."
Rizzo said, "Okay, good information. By the way, I heard there's gonna be another extraction, and you'll be in on it."
"Yeah. This dude's wife and infant daughter. It's just the right thing to do, you know?"
"We'll make it work. We always do."
We walked down the hall and into the media room. Alexi looked up and was mildly frightened at the sight of Rizzo, who certainly looked more mafia than I did.
I said, "Alexi, this is Rizzo, he'll be driving you back to LA. Rizzo, Alexi."
Rizzo did the right thing, which was to assemble a sincere smile and put his hand out. He said, "How ya doin', buddy? We're riding back to LA together."
Alexi shook the hand and said, "Hello. I must return to LA, I must find my wife and daughter."
"Don't worry, we'll help with that. We should get going, okay?"
We all walked out to Rizzo's car, a seven-series BMW. Stopping at the passenger door, Alexi looked at me and said, "I am in your debt. There was no reason for you to not kill me, yet you did not. You treat me well, you treat me as a guest. May God bless you and your wife. I thank you." He got in the car.
Over the roof of the car, I said to Rizzo, "So now what?"
He shrugged. "I drive him to LA, they interview him for a few hours, then we start arguing about what to do about dinner. After that, I have no clue. This guy ain't getting disposed of, there's no reason for it. So what happens after they get information out of him is totally up in the air. Maybe put him up in a motel and interview him again in the morning."
I gently slapped the hood as Rizzo got into the car. He fired up and slowly began backing out of the driveway. I looked at Alexi. He was giving me the peace sign. I gave him one back and went back into the mansion.