The doorbell rang at 8:30 on Sunday morning, an inhuman hour for a Sunday. I managed to slither out of bed without waking Bekka or Jane, pulled on my boxers, grabbed the Beretta, and aimed down the stairs. If it was Jehovah's Witnesses, I had no compunction about pointing the gun at them and telling them to start running. We hadn't gone to sleep until 4:30, and didn't intend to get up until at least eleven. We had a ride planned for the afternoon, scooting up the 5 to San Clemente, then running the Ortega Highway across to Lake Elsinore. Down the 15 into Escondido, where we'd hit Hollandia Dairy for milkshakes and lunch, then back home for a relaxed afternoon and evening. A good Sunday.
I opened the door, keeping my right hand holding the gun concealed. I was shocked at what I saw. It wasn't Jehovah's Witnesses. Standing there, alone, was Don Ventimiglia. We took each other in. As always, he was dressed to the nines, but he looked tired. He looked at me and gave a small smile. "Lenny, you are sleeping in late again, aren't you?" he said.
I collected my jaw off the mat and said the only appropriate thing, "Don Ventimiglia, to what do I owe this honor?" I tilted my head out and looked for his guards. I couldn't spot any: whatever, they must be on the street.
The don said, "Lenny, I wish to hide. Just for a couple of days. Will you help me?"
I stared at him, blank for a response. For lack of anything better to say, I told him, "Why don't you come in for some coffee, sir. You can explain what you wish of me."
I led him up the stairs to the living room, where ensconced him on a sofa. Sitting down, he looked wizened, as though he had deflated inside his clothes. I went in the kitchen and set up the coffee pot. He took in his surroundings: the blue carpet and walls, the Nagel prints, the punk rock concert posters, the motorcycle helmets on an end table. He said, as a statement of fact, "Your ladies are still asleep."
"They are. It's a Sunday," I said, for lack of better explanation.
Squeak wandered in rubbed against the don's legs. He scooped him up and placed Squeak on his lap, petting him. I observed this and warned, "That's Squeak. He likes to shed on expensive clothes."
The don gave his gravelly chuckle and said, "I love cats. My wardrobe would not be complete without some hair. And I have a clothes brush in the car."
"So who is here with you?" I asked. "I didn't see anyone on the street."
"I am alone," the don replied.
"Really." I was surprised. It was my understanding that Don V. always traveled with his driver and a bodyguard.
Bekka came downstairs and into the kitchen, yawning and stretching in a t-shirt and panties. She said, "Lenny, you're getting up already? Who was at the door?"
"We have a guest," I said.
Bekka turned and saw Don Ventimiglia. The don rose from the sofa and bowed. "Good morning, Bekka. How are you?"
Bekka tamped down her initial panic and said, "Good morning, Don Ventimiglia. A cosa dobbiamo questo onore?"
The don replied, "Non è un onore, è un peso. I have come to ask for the help of your husband and you. Your young girl will also be imposed upon. Please, why don't you pull on some clothes. Your husband is very kindly making me some coffee, I will tell you of the favor I wish while we drink."
"Certainly. Ci torneremo." Bekka and I whisked upstairs and pulled on clothes. I dumped pre-chopped speed out of my vial onto the mirror in the bathroom, and we just snorted from the pile I made. We were back downstairs in under two minutes. I was still struggling into my shoulder holster as we returned to the living room, getting the Beretta back in its place, then pouring out three mugs of coffee and passing them around. The don took a sip of his and nodded appreciatively.
I said, "Tell me, sir, what is it we can do for you? We will help in any way we can."
The don looked at me from over the rim of his mug and said, "Lenny, I am running away from home. Just for a few days. I am seventy-eight years old. Were I a civil servant, I would already have been retired for thirteen years. I wish to retire, I am an old man, and no longer up to the task of running such a large organization.
"When I let my lieutenants know of my plans, the posturing began immediately. I am afraid such infighting will damage cosa nostra, and I do not want to be witness to it. I shall choose a successor when I am ready, and when I have found the right man. In the meantime, the lieutenants are lining up to kiss my ass. I am sick of it, I wish to give it no thought. What I am asking of you, Lenny, is to live in your house for three days. I wish you to be my shelter, a place of quiet and sanity, where my biggest decision will be where to take you and yours to dinner at night, and at what time I will walk upon your lovely beach each day. Please Lenny, will you help me?"
Bekka and I smiled at him. "Sir, this is absolutely not a problem. We will be honored. Tell me, how did you get here, though?"
"I drove. I got your address from your capo a while back, just as a matter of bookkeeping. The auto club provided me maps so that I could find you. To be honest, I have been planning my escape for over a week. I knew you had this beach house, and I know you and Bekka to be persons of great honor. You will not rat me out when the alarm goes out that Don Vito Ventimiglia has disappeared. I trust you. And do not worry about repercussions when I resurface. After all, I am still the don."
Just then Jane made her way downstairs, yawning into her hand, wearing nothing but panties. "What the fuck, you guys," she said. "Coffee's on already?"
I said, "Um, Jane, we have a guest."
Jane's eyes focused, and landed on Don V. She squealed and shot back upstairs to put some clothes on and regain her dignity. Don V. looked a bit surprised, but not shocked or embarrassed.
"Sorry about that, Don Ventimiglia," said Bekka. "We kind of have a lax dress code around here. Jane does, anyway."
The don gave one of his small smiles. "Oh, to be a younger man, that I might appreciate such a view more. I will guess that is Jane, the one my soldiers all call Gator Bait?"
"That is her," I said. "I apologize for that."
"No apologies necessary. I am an old man intruding on your Sunday. I must apologize to you, as I certainly am disrupting your plans for the day."
"Nothing of consequence, sir. Brunch, and riding our motorcycles. Did you have anything you wish do do?"
"You ride motorcycles?" asked the don. "When I first arrived on the West Coast, I had one, an Indian, that I would sometimes take out on the Pacific Coast Highway. As my responsibilities grew, the demand that I not ride the damn thing did too. It was a hell of a machine. What do you ride?"
"Three Harley Sportsters," said Bekka. "One brand new and dead stock, the other two outlaw machines. Would you like to see them?"
The don broke into the widest smile I'd ever seen on him. "I would enjoy that very much," he said.
Jane came downstairs in jeans and a t-shirt. "Oh my god, I'm so sorry, I didn't know anyone was here...."
Don V. stood up and went to her. He said, "You are Jane, am I right? You are also known as Gator Bait? It is a pleasure to meet you." He went down on one knee and kissed her hand, making her go pink in the cheeks. "I am Don Vito Ventimiglia. In line with how you think of my other soldiers, call me uncle Vito."
"Yes sir," said Jane, practically curtsying. She went and grabbed a mug and filled it.
I said, "The don will be staying here for a few nights."
Jane replied, "Really? Okay. I'll make sure the guest bathroom is nice. Don't worry, sir, you're here during the week, so we're quiet. Hopefully I won't wake you up getting ready for school."
"What time are you up?" asked Don V.
"About 6:20," replied Jane.
"Dear girl, do you drink coffee?"
The don smiled. "Then we shall have coffee together. Please make enough for me to have a couple cups when you do. These two, they sleep away the morning, they sleep through the best hours of the day."
"Volete vedere le nostre moto," Bekka said.
"Si, si," said Don V.
"Huh?" said Jane.
Bekka said, "The don wishes to see our motorcycles. Tell you what, grab the keys off the pegs, he may want us to fire one up."
Jane snatched keys off the pegs we had on the wall and we all filed out and down to the garage. The don stopped and stared at our cars first.
"There are three members of your household, you have three cars, and three motorcycles, yes?"
I explained, "Well, the Cadillac is mine, the black one there is Bekka's, it's a 1970 Plymouth Sport Fury, and the red one is a 1971 Cutlass 442 we picked up for Jane to drive. Our friend Boss has set us up well with hot rods."
"Yes, the large motorcycle tough I've heard about, the one that generates all the Ecstasy." He paused, gathering his memories. "Bekka, you had a Ford Falcon, that you lost to a fire-bombing. Is that correct?"
"You are correct, sir," said Bekka. "I still miss it."
The don smiled. "Perhaps someday we will find you another Falcon to drive."
We went further down into the garage, where the motorcycles sat, ready and waiting. I'd turned on the overhead light so we could see better. I rested my hand on Jane's stock Sportster. "This is the new one, completely stock. This one over here...." I went to my own ".... Is mine. Chromed, extended forks, and quick. And this last purple one is Bekka's. Hers is certainly the prettiest of the three, no doubt about that."
Don V. had frozen at mine. He ran his hands over the gas tank, feeling the handlebar grips and controls, caressing the seat. "It is a beautiful machine," he said. "Would you humor an old man?"
"Would you allow me to ride this black one? I will try to not fall over."
Wow. Okay. I've got the fucking head main guy of the Southern California mafia standing in my garage, asking if he can ride one of my bikes. This is a different Sunday than what I was counting on. I said, "Sure, no problem, let me get it warmed up and on the street for you, okay?"
That was fine with him. He smiled when I fired up the engine, sitting there, letting the motor warm. I goosed it up onto the street, then leaned it back on the kickstand.
"You need a helmet, Don," I said. "Let me go and grab all three, we can find out which one fits you best."
He tried all three, and mine fitted him best. He was limber enough from playing tennis that he was able to swing his leg over on the first try. The don sat down, got the bike underneath him, and swept the kickstand up. He clicked down into first and gave it some throttle, letting the clutch out gently. The motorcycle swept up the street, the head of one of the most powerful criminal organizations on the planet at the controls. I held my breath.
He reached the end of Neptune, then looped back. First, second, third, a little wobbly, but doing okay. He got to the parking lot and came back, being more aggressive with the throttle. By his fourth pass he was rock steady and pushing 45 on the straights. His sixth pass he was totally relaxed, comfortable with what he was doing. On his seventh and final pass he down-geared and stopped in front of the garage, finding neutral on his own. He put down the kickstand and shut off.
The look on his face was one of pure joy.
I had made a mafia don very happy.
He unstrapped his helmet, handing it to Jane, who looked like she'd been waiting all day to serve that purpose. Don V. embraced me, saying, "Thank you, Lenny, I don't remember the last time I felt that free."
I considered things. I said, "Don Ventimiglia, would you like to ride my motorcycle this afternoon? It is what we had planned. I can double-pack Jane on hers, Bekka will ride her purple machine, and you may ride mine. Our plan was to go over Ortega Highway and come back here by way of Escondido. It's about a ninety mile loop, with a stop for refreshments. Do you feel up for such a ride, or would you like to do something else?"
The look of elation still on his face, Don V. said, "I would relish such a ride. You do not know how I feel at the moment. Lenny, I am alive. My senses tingle. I cannot describe how I feel. You lead, and I shall follow. I had forgotten the joy of feeling that power, the wind in my face. Yes, I wish to ride this afternoon. In the meantime, I have not eaten since last night. I woke you, so I know you have not eaten either. Can you make a suggestion?"
Bekka said, "Well, on Sundays we usually go to a place called Triplets for brunch. If you're really hungry now, we've got bagels and cream cheese...."
Don V. said, "You are my hosts, please, do as you would. I am sure we will have a good meal of it. Please, allow me to treat you."
"Most kind of you, sir," said Bekka. "Tell me, where is your car?"
The don gestured upwards. "In the spaces reserved for beach parking. There is little parking for visitors near where you live."
Bekka gestured to me. "Let's get the don's stuff, we'll show him to his room. Don Ventimiglia, I get the impression you're running away. How do you know you haven't been followed here?"
The don said, "I left a note at my bedside saying I would be taking a drive, and would be gone for a few hours. My security detachment would be told of this note, and write it off as the whims of an old man. It is right about now that they are starting to worry. In a way, it is frightening. I had to escape. I have had my bags packed for five days, watching for the right moment to get them in my Lincoln without someone asking what I was doing. This morning seemed like the right time. Heh, if there is any justice in this world, the alarms going off saying Don Ventimiglia is missing will happen while I am on a motorcycle on your Ortega Highway, as free as any human can ever feel."
Bekka vocalized what I'd been thinking, which was, "Don Ventimiglia, do you see us as your ticket to freedom? Because we're not. We're a couple of drug addicts who make dirty movies. We can give you a respite, until the rest of the family catches up with us, then you're back to your compound in Bel Air. You have been very good to us, but we can't perform miracles. We're just a couple of fuck-ups from North County San Diego. Don't rely on us for any type of freedom."
The don said, "I do not expect that from you. You, Lenny, and you, Bekka, you are a respite. I need to be around people who do not think like mafioso. The two of you certainly qualify. Despite your devotion to the family, you are the least likely pair of mafioso I have ever come across, and I used to work in Vegas. By the way, Bekka? You will break new ground. Even if it comes from my death bed, you will be the first woman member of La Cosa Nostra. I will see to it you are a full-fledged member of the mafia. You deserve it, and not just because of your Sicilian blood. You have stood straight and tall, and put down your enemies. There are mafia men who don't have the stones you do."
I was stunned into silence. Bekka did the proper thing, which was to stand straight and tall, take Don V.'s hand and kiss it, and simply say, "Thank you, Don Ventimiglia."
From behind us Jane said, "So does that mean Bekka is in the mafia now?"
Don V. replied, "So far as I am concerned, yes. It will need to be formalized, and there is a ceremony, but Bekka Schneider is mafioso in my eyes. Nothing can take that away."
"What of Lenny?" asked Bekka. "He is a soldier, and a good one."
"But he is not of Italian or Sicilian origin. He will remain in high regard, but he will always be an associate. It cannot be helped."
Bekka sighed. "So what becomes of him?" she asked.
Don V. laughed in his gravelly way. "Do not discount associates. Meyer Lansky was an associate, and look how far he got. He was too violent, I was cleaning up his messes when I got to Vegas. But there is room to move in the family as an associate. Lenny has his business, he will be fine. He has proven to be a worthy soldier, and an asset. If anything, the demands put on him will be more than the ones put on you. You will become mafioso because I feel like breaking down that wall. You will not live with a knife clenched in your teeth."
Bekka said, "Good. Lenny's better at that shit than me anyway."
Jane said, "Too cool."
Don V. turned to Jane and said, "Young lady, what is your ambition? What do you wish to accomplish?"
Jane shrugged and said, "I dunno. Bekka just took away one of my goals, which was to become the first lady mafioso. Besides that, I guess make a porn video that kills. Porn that makes guys come so hard they die. Finishing college, too, I guess."
"Where do you wish to attend college, young lady?"
"UC Berkeley," said Jane."
Don V. laughed. He said, "I shall see you attend college, young lady. You only have to do two things."
Jane looked nervous. "And those are?" she asked.
"For the next three mornings, you greet me with a smile and coffee. A smile from a young lady in the morning will fill out his day. The coffee is only an afterthought. I have seen your smile, and will relish it."
Jane said, "You get me into UCB, and I'll greet you topless."
The don laughed at this. "I wish a pleasant greeting at my age,and that is all. I do not wish to be surprised."
I relieved the don of my helmet. "What say we head to brunch?" I asked. "They're an informal bunch around there, let's go eat."
Don Ventimiglia said, "Yes, let's go eat. I cannot wait to spend more time riding on your motorcycle."
As we piled into my Fleetwood, Don V. said, "I cannot be spotted back here."
"Naw, you're clean," I said. "I'll keep my eyes peeled for anyone trying to shadow us. Anyone you want me to try and spot?"
"My own men," he sighed. "They mean well, but I wish to be left alone. That is why I sought you out. You are regarded as crazy, completely unstable. The other lieutenants cannot understand why Angel ever recruited you. I understand, you are intelligent, and you have balls. Bekka, you have balls, too, if you get what I mean. But your craziness, your drug habit, sets you apart. They would never expect me to associate myself with you."
Bekka snickered at this. "Yeah, we make good foils. We are definitely not the expected face of the mafia."
I pulled in the lot and grabbed a space. We went in and were seated after a short wait. Our waitress, Regina, wished us good morning. "You have a friend today. Four brunch specials?"
"Just what we need," I said. "Regina, this is our friend, um, Vito. He's down from LA."
Don V. took Regina's hand and gave it a kiss. "Good morning, young lady. Lenny speaks highly of this place."
Regina, who was not used to being greeted in such a manner, smiled and blushed. "Thank you, sir. Coffee all around? I'll be right back."
The don sat and considered Jane from across the table. He succeeded in doing what few were capable of, which was to make Jane look self-conscious. He finally said, "Tell me, dear girl, is it difficult getting your hair the color that it is? I am curious."
Jane said, "It's not that big a deal. I bleach it out, then use a permanent dye on it. I do it about once a month."
"It is a striking look, but one that is flattering on you. I believe the term is 'rocking'."
Jane went a bit more pink and said, "Thank you, sir."
We sipped at our coffee. I asked the don, "Did you have any plans for while you are down here?"
"Do you have suggestions?" he asked back.
"You should visit the zoo," said Bekka. "You sound like you could use the distractions, so the zoo and Sea World would be fun places to visit."
"Yes, the San Diego Zoo is very highly rated, isn't it? I shall do that. Will you be able to join me?"
I said, "Bekka, why don't you and the don visit the zoo tomorrow? Jane will be in school and I have work, but Bekka has no obligations that I know of."
"Not a bad plan. Don Ventimiglia, ti piacerebbe visitare lo zoo?"
"Io godere," replied the don.
"What?" said Jane.
"It's Italian," I said. "And no, I don't understand it any better than you do."
"Bekka, where did you learn to speak Italian?"
Bekka replied, "I've told you, my parents were Sicilian. It's what they spoke around the house when I was growing up. I was raised pretty much bilingual, although my Italian has gotten rusty from lack of use. It's nice to be able to speak it again, besides for when I'm cursing at Lenny."
Don V. was amused by this. "Yes, it is a language that lends itself well to cursing. Does Lenny often find himself being cursed at in a language he does not understand?"
"Only when he's an idiota," Bekka smiled.
We had a leisurely brunch, the don enjoying his meal. He asked Jane questions about school, which she answered politely. She had picked up on the fact that this was an important man, the head of the area mafia, and that his presence was an honor. She remained on her best behavior.
After we finished eating (and the don grabbing the check) we headed back towards home. Bekka reminded that we still needed to get Don V.'s stuff out of his car and to the house. I aimed for the beach parking lot and located his car: an easy job, since surfers tend to not drive gray late-model Lincolns. The don retrieved a suitcase and a garment bag from the trunk, placing them in mine. We drove back up to the house and I backed into my space.
"Don Ventimiglia," I said, "you cannot leave your car at the beach. Give me your keys and I will swap out yours and mine, so your car will be at hand."
"Do not concern yourself," he said with a wave of his hand. "I will check on the car in the mornings, when I walk on the beach. It is insured, and there is nothing of value inside."
"Are you sure?"
"It will be fine. It is only a car. I will move it daily, so that it is not suspected of being abandoned. Tell me, when do we go for our ride?"
Bekka said, "In just a little bit. Let us show you to your room. Jane, grab the don's garment bag and head upstairs, we can check the room and bathroom." Bekka hefted the suitcase out of the trunk and headed up to the door, Jane in tow. I began moving in that direction, but was stopped by Don V.
"I want to thank you again," he said.
"No problem," I replied. "You are welcome in my house for as long as you want. We will try to be good hosts."
"You won't rat me out?" asked the don.
"Absolutely not. Your presence here will be your secret. What temporary political favor I would gain is outweighed by not betraying a man who has treated me very well during my association with the family."
We went in, and I showed the don upstairs to his room. The girls had turned back the covers, hung his suits in the closet, and laid the suitcase on a chair next to the dresser. Bekka said, "I'm up for a ride. Just let me change into my boots and pull on my leather. Lenny, why don't you let Don Ventimiglia wear your leather and helmet, you can wear your denim."
The don said, "I will not take another man's gear. I do not need the helmet. As anyone who does business with me will tell you, I am quite hard-headed."
"At least wear my leather," I said. "I'll be fine in my denim."
"I shall wear your leather, and I thank you."
We went downstairs, where Don V. slipped my leather jacket on over his three piece suit. I helped him belt it up, The four of us went downstairs and fired up all three motorcycles to warm up. While they did, I explained, "Okay, we're going north on I-5 to San Clemente, then jumping onto Hwy. 74, known as the Ortega Highway. We're riding through the mountains, coming out in Lake Elsinore. Given that it's a Sunday and what we're doing isn't an original idea, don't worry about us losing you. That, and I'm double-packing, so I'm not in the mood to go too quick. If we do get separated, there's a taco stand a couple blocks shy of I-15 that we'll stop at for sodas. From there it's a freeway ride into Escondido and Hollandia Dairy, where we're getting milkshakes. Then home. Are you ready, Don Ventimiglia?"
He put his sunglasses on, then nodded and beamed. Jane said, "Yay milkshakes!" That girl was always hungry, but was incredibly fit and trim. I believed she was powered by a small black hole. We mounted up and took off.