But although that was offense enough to get Vito killed, what broke my crew was the valet parking. Men opened little businesses like that to make extra cash. It was a simple thing, but ended with him betraying Paulie and me.
He started the valet business to do something honest. The little shit pedophile was trying to go legitimate, and for that, for doing what I wanted to start but didn’t think I could finish, I destroyed him. I let my temper get the best of me. I chased him. I shot at him. I pulled him out of his house in Griffith Park and threw him down a hill. And from that point on, my reputation as a man who kept control of himself and his crew spiraled downward. It happened faster than I thought it could.
In the weakness came an opening, and in the opening, men’s ambitions flowed. One man’s ambitions made him chase Theresa down the freeway to kidnap her. Another trapped her into attempting murder.
A camorrista accepted that death could come at any time, for any reason. The sins of a boss were visited on his crew. It was a trade we accepted. We could be killed, but our families and our women wouldn’t be touched. And when I became the boss of our corner of Los Angeles, I grew eyes in the back of my head to watch for the knives.
The camorristi didn’t answer to Donna Maria, but we didn’t ignore her either. We did our business because if we actually had the desire to band together, it would be more trouble for her to fight us than to take the loss.
The house lay low to the ground with a corrugated tin panel jutting over the doorway. Potted succulents and cactuses covered the cracked concrete and walls. From the outside, with its rows of citrus trees on the right and left and the sweet smell of the olive trees, it felt like being back in Naples.
I got out of the car. The alarm went on with a chirp. Useless automation. There was no safer car in California.
“Consigliere,” came a voice from behind me. I didn’t turn around but put my hands out, palms in front.
“Ruggero,” I said. “That’s not my job anymore.”
I felt his hands on me, checking my shoulders, waist, back, heels. He was a big guy and a pussycat. Even though I faced the other direction, I know Skinny Carlo was next to him. Skinny Carlo was sixty-five kilos, drenched in seawater, but he was responsible for much of Donna Carloni’s dirty work.
“You run around unarmed like one.” Skinny Carlo had a voice like a serrated knife.
“I left it in the glove compartment.” I turned and flipped him the keys. They twirled in the sun a second before he snatched them out of the air. “It’s loaded and cleaned. Treat her nice.”
“We wasn’t expecting you for an hour. She’s not seeing no one,” Ruggero said.
I walked into the house.
Donna Maria was not interested in how things looked. She preferred misdirection. So, her home looked like a Sicilian ghetto house, decorated with faded floral curtains and browned crocheted table coverings underneath chipped porcelain figurines of children. She’d had eleven babies and had shipped them all back to the mother country to be educated.
I walked through the dark house to the backyard. I was convinced she slept in the dirt somewhere on her eight acres.
The sun seemed brighter back there. Not just vivid, but merciless. Stacks of hutches on both sides stretched back into a distant orchard, and in the wood and wire boxes were animals. There were rabbits to the right and, to the left, small creatures with fur so sleek they could only be minks.
In front of me stood a table three feet high with wood sides and wire mesh stretched over the top. The mesh was crusted with black.
The boss of the biggest Sicilian family east of the Los Angeles river was a handful of sticks wrapped around the middle with twine, no taller than five-two and starvation thin with hair that had more salt than pepper. She made her way to us with the surefootedness of a woman whose feet hadn’t bothered with pavement in a while. In her right hand she carried a twitching white rabbit by its hind legs and, in her left, a two-foot shaft of hard wood. As soon as I saw it, I took my jacket off and draped it over the back of a chair.
“Consigliere,” she called out. Even though we both spoke Italian, I could barely understand her; the Sicilian accent was as thick as tomato paste. “I expected you.”
“I’m here, but you have no consigliere.”
“There are no Italian lawyers to be had. Not for love or money.” She wiggled the rabbit back and forth. It squirmed a little, dropping its ears.
“American ones know the system well enough.” I rolled up my sleeves. This was not particularly messy work, but I still needed to be cautious, and I couldn’t avoid the work altogether. If I demurred, I’d lose the advantage of my lineage and culture.
“I won’t lower my standards.” She handed me the club. It was blacker on the business end and slicked brown and smooth on the grip side. “Americans are weak and mouthy. They don’t show respect, and they die with secrets on the way out of their mouths.”
She held the rabbit out over the wire-mesh table.
“They love life too much, Dona.” I tapped the back of the rabbit’s head, getting my aim right, favoring accuracy over strength. It was the only humane method, and if I hesitated for one breath, she’d notice. This, like everything, was a test.
“And you,” she said. “Do you like running your crew more than sitting by my side?”
“I do.” I brought the club to the back of the rabbit’s head, where the ears met the neck. The death was soundless, with only a hollow thud to alert the universe that it had happened.
“You were doing fine at it, too.” She held out the rabbit and let it bleed out of its nose and mouth onto the black gravel. “Until a couple of weeks ago.” She shook it a little, letting the last of the blood fall away.
“I had it under control.” I took the dead rabbit from her and held it over the grass by its heels as she twisted a valve on the side of the house and picked up a hose. “I admit I failed with Paulie. I didn’t expect him to turn on me.”
“That’s very grown-up of you. And that’s why you made a good consigliere. You know when you fuck up.” She hosed down the rabbit until its fur was matted and flat, and there was no blood on the surface. I turned it so she could get the back, letting the fouled water drip onto the gravel until it flowed clean. She shut off the hose, and I put the rabbit on the grate.
Back home, small animals peeked out of the ruined mountains to peck at the garbage and city families were so poor that a piece of meat didn’t get away just because it ran fast. Despite my father’s position, my mother had run the house as a single parent, and rabbit and raccoon were frequently on the menu.