Jane got me up when she left for school. I did my morning line of speed and refilled my vial, then jumped in the shower. After I was dry I pulled on black jeans, Doc Martens, a plain blue t-shirt, and my holster. Bekka went in the bathroom and pulled her own line of speed, then jumped into sweatpants and a shirt. "I'm gonna miss him," she said.
"Me too. He gives an air of dignity to everything he does. Only he could make a leather jacket over a three-piece suit look cool."
We went downstairs and headed for the coffee. Don V. was sitting at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and chewing his way through a bagel. He had a slightly sad look on his face: his brief vacation was over with, and he had things to take care of when he returned home. He had enjoyed himself, though, and hopefully we had provided him with some happy memories.
Bekka was on the board for a loop in the afternoon, and wouldn't be taking off anytime soon. The don had his suitcase and garment bag packed, waiting in the entryway. I finished my bagel and the don and I looked at each other. We got up to go. Bekka embraced him tearfully. "You wonderful man," she said. "Don't let 'em give you any shit, okay?"
Don V. hugged back and said, "Take care of yourself, my lady mafioso. And take care of your husband. He is madly in love with you."
"I shall. Hai il mio amore, Don Ventimiglia."
I grabbed the don's things and we headed downstairs, me stashing his stuff in the back seat of the Cadillac. The don seated himself in the passenger seat and gazed out the window while I got us onto the street and pointed towards the mansion. Don V. said, "You are rather enamored of this car of yours, aren't you?"
"Very much so," I replied. "Rico Carelli built it for me custom. It's got a hot motor, tuned suspension, bulletproof glass, and armored door panels. I have the rather bad habit of being shot at."
Don V. chuckled. "Yes, you have had quite a bit of adventure during your brief association with the family. More than one would expect. Hopefully things have been calm for you as of late."
I assured him, "It's been months since I've had my gun in my hand outside a firing range. I don't miss it."
We arrived at the mansion, where I opened up the garage door and got the don's Lincoln into the driveway. Then I went inside and left a note for Small Steve saying I wouldn't be around until the afternoon. I got back behind the wheel of the Lincoln, checked the gauges and saw there was plenty of gas, and we headed out. When we were on the freeway I fumbled into my denim and got out a Marlboro. Don V. frowned at this and said, "Here, have one of these."
He pulled out two of his Cuban cigars from his jacket, cutting the noses off with his round trimmer. We lit up and cruised north. We rode mostly in silence, not even the radio, except for when I wanted to check traffic reports. A mild backup in Torrance, but otherwise fairly smooth. The Lincoln felt sluggish compared to my Cadillac, but that was to be expected.
I piloted us into Bel Air and pulled up to the don's gate. "The gizmo to open the gate is on your visor," he said. I pushed the button and the gate slid open. I went up the drive and stopped in front of his door.
We had been observed. As I got out of the car two well-dressed goons came out of the house and pointed guns at me. "Get your hands on your head, motherfucker!" one of them yelled. I obliged. They were on edge, and I'd already had enough holes blown in me in my life that I didn't want to get put down by friendly fire.
Don Ventimiglia was out of the car and looking pissed. "Nicky! Dino! Sheath your fucking guns! This man is a friend!"
Nicky and Dino re-holstered their guns and looked at Don V. in amazement. "Don Ventimiglia, you're safe!" said the one called Nicky. "Where have you been? Everyone has been worried."
The don walked to me and put his hand on my shoulder. "I have been enjoying the hospitality of this man and his family down in San Diego. Nicky, Dino, this is Lenny The Punk. Lenny, this is Nicky and Dino, two of my handlers."
The two appraised me coolly. Dino said, "I've heard about you. You're the speedfreak, who's always getting shot at. Why are you with the don?"
Don V. answered for me. "I imposed myself upon him. My experiences with him showed me that he is an intelligent and gracious man, and one I could trust. I showed up at his door begging for shelter. He took me in and treated me as family. Over the past several days I have taken drugs, been to the zoo, ridden a motorcycle, eaten well, and generally enjoyed the hell out of myself with the help of him, his charming wife, and the wonderful young lady who lives with them. I knew my disappearance would cause trouble, and people would be searching for me, but Lenny here did not rat me out. For this he has my eternal gratitude. He is a man to be trusted."
Nicky got in my face. "You gave drugs to the don? The fuck did you give him, punk, heroin? That damn crank you take?"
I was having none of it. "Ecstasy, actually. And chew some gum, your breath stink."
Don V. put a hand on Nicky's chest. "I requested the drugs," he explained. "I was curious about this drug Ecstasy, and Lenny had some. He was merely being a good host."
Nicky backed off by a step. He sneered, "I thought all you punkers were into heroin."
"Shit no," I replied. "That's the drug that costs the most and gives you the least. You're right, I am a speedfreak. It seems to suit my personality."
"Enough of this," said the don. "I must use the restroom. Lenny, I would enjoy your company at lunch. Will you join me?"
"Absolutely. And if I may, I would like to see your gardener Alexi. I'd like to see how he's doing."
Don V. smiled. "You do that. I am sure there are matters I must attend to, so why don't we meet in my office in a little while? Then we shall have lunch. You will probably find Alexi in the flower beds. I will see you soon. Have Gaines show you to my office. You two, I am sure you are eager to let people know I am home again. Come in and use the phones. I will send Gaines after my things. And you two are to speak no ill of Lenny when you talk to people, am I clear? He was my gracious host during my absence, and I am in his debt." Dino and Nicky gave me cagey looks, then followed Don V. up to the front door, Nicky skipping ahead of him to open the front door.
I wandered the grounds blindly and finally came across Alexi trimming shrubs into an artistic shape. He saw me, goggled, then dropped his shears and embraced me. "My friend, how are you?" he said.
"Doing great," I replied. "I just brought Don Ventimiglia home. How are you? How are your wife and baby?"
"We are very well. Nina helps in the kitchen, she makes fresh bread for the house. Nikita is well. She has teeth now. I go to school at night, I learn to read and write. I am paid but have no expense, so I save money. We do not have any trouble here, life is fine here. How are your wife and the young girl, the one with blue hair?"
"They're both fine. We had the don as our guest for several days, and we had fun. Don Ventimiglia rode my motorcycle, he went for a ride with Jane yesterday. I was happy to have him as my guest."
Alexi and I made small talk for a while, him showing me his flower beds, in which he took great pride. After a bit I gave him an embrace and excused myself, heading back for the front door. Gaines opened the door nanoseconds after I rang the bell, he must have been waiting for my return. He led me through the monstrous house to an ornate door, outside of which Dino was positioned on a stool. He blocked me off.
"Nobody's allowed in Don Ventimiglia's office," he said.
"He's expecting me," I pointed out.
Dino sighed, knocked on the door, then opened it and called, "Don, that guy Lenny is back."
"Please, show him in," came the don's gravelly voice.
Dino got a stunned look, shrugged, and gestured at me. I followed him into Don V.'s office, a roomy space with Oriental rugs on the floor. The don sat at his desk hanging up the phone. He gestured me forward and into a seat across from him. I looked at the wall to his right and was amused to see Bekka's centerfold from Penthouse tacked up. He caught my glance and gave an embarrassed smile.
"Your wife is a knockout," he said. "I could not help myself. I sit at my desk and work, and am watched over by a beautiful naked Sicilian girl."
I said, "Hundreds of thousands of men have seen my wife naked. It doesn't bother me."
The don changed gears. He leaned on his desk and said, "I have made a decision, at least temporarily. I just got off the phone with your capo, Angel. He is a smart man, and runs his businesses well. Until I make a final choice, he shall be the interim head of cosa nostra. Who knows, I may decide that he is the man for the job, and keep him there. But his position will increase in stature. Are you curious as to how I made my decision?"
I told him yes, indeed.
"As I said, he is smart. Also, he is one of the few men who did not show up kissing my ass when I announced my plans to retire. That tells me he felt he had better things to do. I want that level of confidence in my successor. In fact, the more I think about it, there is a very good chance your capo will end up running Southern California for the family. Him and I shall discuss things further over dinner tonight at his trattoria. What do you think of that?"
"Wow," I muttered. "It couldn't happen to a more capable guy."
Don V. trimmed a couple more cigars and tossed one over to me. We lit up and grinned at each other, just a couple of mafia dudes talking business. The don gazed up at Bekka's centerfold.
"Yes, I am happy having a beautiful Sicilian girl looking down upon me. I must ask, if it is not too rude: are you bothered by what Bekka does for a living?"
I gave a small laugh. "No. I explain to people, it's what she was doing when we first met, it's what she was doing when we fell in love. It's only performance, it means nothing. Her deciding I should have lovers besides her came as quite the surprise, but she has always been indulgent with me. I didn't ask for that to happen, she presented it to me. So now I have three lovers. I just hope I can keep up."
Don V. laughed. "Yes, be glad you have youth on your side! You still have the energy and stamina to keep three women happy. Hah, at my age I could only keep three women happy by taking them shopping. Come, Lenny, let us go have some lunch."
We clamped our cigars in our mouths and went out the door, the don still chuckling at my sexual predicament. Dino gave me a look that was one of both annoyance and amazement. After four days of worry, Don Ventimiglia returns home in the company of this.... Nobody, a punk rock thug, a low-level soldier who makes porn starring his own wife. And the don treats him like a close friend.
After lunch Don V. told Nicky to drive me home. Nicky wasn't overjoyed by this assignment, but was used to doing as he was told. We got in the Lincoln and Nicky aimed us down the hill into Beverly Hills, then onto the 405.
"Mind if I play some music?" I asked, extracting a tape from my jacket.
"Whatever," Nicky muttered. I put the tape in the slot. The Cramps Songs The Lord Taught Us filled the cabin.
"What the fuck is this?" he asked as "Rock On The Moon" came to a close.
"It's the Cramps," I said. "Psychobilly. This is an early album, like 1979."
Nicky hunched over the wheel. He said, "Do you have any idea how many friends I would make if I shot you in the doorway of your own home? Four days of us searching for the don, and he's hanging around some punker in San Diego, a chump who pimps out his own wife for porno movies."
I calmly replied, "Watch your fucking mouth. Never call me a pimp. Bekka was a porno queen before we ever met. When we fell in love she was still a porno queen. It's her career. It means nothing."
Nicky gave an ugly grin. "So why shouldn't I kill you?" he asked. He opened his jacket and rested his right hand on his pistol.
I opened my own jacket and fast-drew my Beretta into my hand, waving it in his general direction. "Because you might not connect on your first shot. People have shot me in the past, and it didn't stick. How about you? You ever suffered from lead poisoning?"
He slowly moved his hand back onto the steering wheel. "No," he replied. "That's right, you got a rep as a bullet magnet."
I re-holstered my Beretta and lit a Marlboro. "I keep getting hit with the damn things, yet I still keep moving around. It's the damndest thing. No, what temporary political favor you'd gain by unloading at me is outweighed by the fact that I'd probably still survive, blow some holes in you, and if you didn't bleed out from my bullets, Don Ventimiglia would have you disposed of. You'd never leave the hospital alive. The don and I have shared too many meals, had too many drinks, done drugs together, for us to not consider each other friends, and good ones.
"Dude, I think I gave the don what he really needed. He wanted someone to treat him as just a man, not the main guy of Southern California. He needed some fun in his life, so between me and Bekka and Gator Bait we provided it. He had a real vacation, nobody watching his back or opening doors for him. He got to spend a few days just being some dude. And he'll always be welcome in my house, I'll always make sure I've got a bottle of Hennessey ready for him."
Nicky looked over at me. "You'd do it again, wouldn't you? Hide out the don, scare the shit out of everybody, get people pissed off at you."
"In a heartbeat."
He laughed, and it was a genuine laugh. "Lenny The Punk, you do got some balls on you."
I guided Nicky to the mansion, where I invited him in for a belt off my flask. He refused, wishing me a good day and the demand that I never play my music around him ever again. I tucked my tape back in my jacket and gave him a grin. He didn't gun me down in the driveway. That was nice of him.
I went in the mansion and stuck my head in Gina's office. She said, "Angel has called, like, four times looking for you. He doesn't sound happy. Call him at home."
I went in my office and dialed. Angel picked up on the second ring.
"Hey Angel, it's Lenny."
There was a pause. Then, "You fucking prick. You dirty little scumbag punk rock speedfreak asshole shithead son of a bitch. Give me a single reason why I shouldn't drive down there and kill you."
"Nice to hear from you too, Angel," I said. "I'm guessing you're not happy with my actions over the past several days."
"Goddamn right I'm not. You bastard, you lied to me. You were probably sitting across from the don in your living room while you played stupid and acted like you had no clue as to where he was. We had people literally going from parking lot to parking lot in Las Vegas looking for his car. Meanwhile, Don Ventimiglia is hanging around your dumb punk rock ass."
Enough of this, I thought. "Okay Angel, would you have done any different? The don came to me, man to man, and asked for my help. He wanted to be hid out for a little while, he wanted escape from the bullshit he's been going through. We could provide him with the vacation he truly wanted. What if he had come to you asking for the same favor? Would you have turned him away? Would you have ratted him out, after he begged you not to? Dammit Angel, I know you, and I know you're a man of integrity, and I don't think you'd have done a fucking thing different than what I did. By the way, congratulations on your promotion."
Angel paused again. Then, "How do you know about that?"
"The don told me about it while I was sitting in his office. Then we had lunch. Heh, he has Bekka's Penthouse centerfold up on his wall, I thought that was really cool. Dude, you're going places."
Another pause. "You were really in his office?"
"Um, yeah," I said. "What's the big deal with Don Ventimiglia's office. One of his goons seemed amazed I was in there, too."
Angel said, "Two things happen to men who go into his office. Either they become very rich, or they die shortly after leaving."
I considered this. "I think it was just the don being friendly. After all, he'd been in my home since Sunday, why shouldn't he share his private space? No, I'm still alive, despite threats from some guy named Nicky, and we never talked business, excluding him sharing the news of your good fortune. While he was down here, it was obvious the last thing he wanted to think about was business, so me and Jane and Bekka just showed him a good time. You know he likes motorcycles? He rode mine on Sunday and again yesterday. He's having Boss locate a good outlaw machine for him to ride."
Sounding annoyed again, Angel said, "Wait, you had Don Ventimiglia on one of your damn motorcycles? Are you crazy?"
"Don't worry, I loaned him my helmet and leather. Dude, the don rode a motorcycle. He went to the zoo and Sea World. He took Ecstasy with Bekka and Jane. We smoked weed together. He ate meals that would piss his doctors off. He had a good time in his absence. He had fun just being a random guy, not being watched over. We wanted him to be happy, and he was."
"He really took Ecstasy?" Angel breathed.
"Yeah, and loved it. He went to the zoo down here high and spent forty-five minutes watching the elephants, he loves elephants. Don't tell him I'm saying this, but if you ever want to give him a gift, make sure it's elephant-themed. He's amazed by the damn things. Actually, he's too damn sharp, he'd know where you got the idea from."
"Jesus Christ, Lenny, you just spent four days hanging around the fucking don of Southern California like.... Like...."
"Like he was a regular dude," I said. "It's what he needed. He'll always be Vito Ventimiglia, a very genteel kind of guy, always dapper and looking sharp, always very dignified. But he's got so many people kissing his ass that he's tired of having to be bent over all the time. For better or worse, he was able to relax around us, two drug addicts and a teenage nymphomaniac. No bullshit, no business, no politics, just three weirdos living on the beach down here in San Diego. We were a break from what he's used to, and he's welcome in my house any time he wants to show up."
Silence on the line.
"Angel? You there?"
"Yeah, I'm here. It just struck me what a pressure cooker Don Ventimiglia lives in. And he wants me in that cooker with him. Can I handle what he's asking of me?"
I said, "Damn dude, you're one of the smartest people I know. And you can take the pressure, I've watched you do it. As his interim Don, nobody's gonna be asking you to jump out of helicopters and kill people. So in a way your life will be that much simpler, you just gotta make executive decisions. On that subject, the don is really impressed with Ecstasy. He wants to ramp up production to eighty thousand hits per week, just soak the West with the stuff. You need to get together with Vinny and Boss and work things out. You can't keep working out of trailers in the desert with that kind of volume."
"No problem, I'll get on the horn with Boss and see what he wants. It's gotten popular, has it?"
I said, "On the street, everybody's looking for Smiley. Dealers can't keep it in stock, even at their inflated prices."
"Okay Lenny, sounds like I need to make some calls. Don't worry, I won't be down to kill you. Not today, anyway. Never scare me like that again, though."
"Only if it's really necessary. Talk to you later, Angel."
"What do you mean by that...."
I hung up the phone and danced down to Gina's office, telling her to ignore any calls coming in on the back line. Let them ring through to the machine. Then I went upstairs and stood in front a studio door, staring at a red light. After a while the light went out and the door opened. I stepped inside and located my wife, who was pulling on a robe in anticipation of stepping out by the pool for a cigarette. I embraced her, she held me back. And I told her all about my day.