“Carlo,” I said as Paulie sat.
“Spin,” said Carlo.
I turned to the man I didn’t know. “Antonio.”
He didn’t say anything. The cuckoo clock over his head ticked loudly. I could hear the gears grinding.
Donna Maria shuffled in. “Don’t mind him.”
“I’ll forget to mind him when I know who he is.”
“He’s from the old country.”
“Mine or yours?”
She laughed to herself. A clear crystal Virgin lighter, about the size of an eggplant wobbled when she sat behind her desk. It had a brass metal head that flipped up to reveal the flint. They made better paperweights than lighters, but that didn’t stop old Italian ladies from buying them. I’d seen about a hundred of the monstrosities in my life.
“There’s only one, but if you have to know…” She waved her hand at the stranger.
“Aldo,” said the man. “From Portici. I’m sent to make sure this runs smooth. So we don’t have any trouble with our friends from the south.” He spoke in an Italian I knew well, the spiraling tones of my hometown clicking together like gears.
“I don’t need to be watched.”
“He ain’t watching you.” Donna Maria sat back in her chair, her body filling in the worn spots in the leather. “He’s watching me. Ain’t you, Aldo?”
Aldo didn’t answer.
“All right. Let’s get down to it,” she said. “This thing with you two, it’s bad for business. Not just your business, but mine, because if I gotta get into it with you to keep the peace—”
“It wouldn’t be a peace,” Paulie interjected.
“You can put it back in your pants. As an interested third party, I’m just here to make sure all’s fair and send you two on your way. I don’t need to tell you that what’s done in here is done. What’s agreed is law. What is said is true under God and the Holy Virgin. Yes?”
I made the sign of the cross. Paulie and the two men sitting behind Donna Maria did the same, even though it wasn’t their job to agree. It was their job to listen.
“Bene,” Donna Maria said, fingering a piece of paper. “We got a nice chunk of territory east of the river and north of Arroyo Seco. Biggest hunk of camorra territory in the country. You guys got tobacco, real estate, protection, and something happening with a garment factory on Marmion. Good job, that. No tributes to pay, either. Nice to be Neapolitan.”
Paulie snickered. I lit a cigarette with my own lighter. She didn’t know all of what we had, but she didn’t have to. She only had to know that within our territory, she could push all the drugs she needed without interference, and though she didn’t officially run prostitution, she managed to squeeze cash out of a few pimps working in the soot of the 110. We split the local councils and brokered the bigger politicians individually. When shit broke out with the gangs, we negotiated the area as a solid block. It was a good system, and I was invested in keeping it intact. We loved peace. Peace was profitable.
“I have a proposal,” I said. “Geographic. Split at the railroad tracks. I take east.”
“You take west,” said Paulie.
“The shop is mine. What’s left of it.”
“Split along the foothills through Avenue 37,” offered Donna Maria.
“That cuts the commercial district by half a mile,” Paulie said. “Do this. He gets three blocks at the edge of the foothills, and I get the outer ring up to the river and the arroyo”
“Fine,” I said. That gave me the garment factory and the shop. That was all I needed in the end. He could have the commercial sector if he thought he could make any money off it.
“When he bails on us, I get his stake,” Paulie said.
“What?” I said.
“Eh?” Donna Maria said.
Oh, that son of a whore was going to try and corner me. I should have shot him when I had the chance.
“See how easy this was?” Paulie continues, holding his hands out to indicate the room, the people, the agreement. “I would say, normally, he’s just going to grease me first chance he gets, but he woulda done that yesterday if he coulda.” He turned to me. “I ain’t afraid of you. I’m a made man. If you take me out, you’re gonna lose your dick. So I been trying to figure what you’re doing. Sat up all night, thinking. Tick tock, all night, listening to that clock, and it wasn’t till the sun came up that I realized. You’re getting your shit in order. You want out of the life.”
There was a dead silence that was filled with the ticking of the cuckoo clock and the laughter of the children outside.
Donna Maria laid her gaze on me. I didn’t have to answer the charge, serious as it was. I didn’t have to entertain the challenge or defend myself. I could leave it hanging with a laugh and a wave of my hand. But with Donna Maria looking at me and the ticking of the clock over Aldo’s head, I knew I had to counter the charge.
“Let me tell you something. My great-great-grandfather carried a carabina for Liborio Romano when the Atto Sovrano was nailed to a tree. And not a generation has passed without an olive tree being planted for us. Not one grows that my grandfather didn’t oversee the pricing, and my father, even now, fixes the price of every kilo. My family is in the orchards, from the roots to the leaves, and you think I can run away from that? The blood beating in me is Napoli. It’s this life. I’m camorrista, blood and bone. And do not ever, ever bring anything like that up again. It’s an offense to my father and my father’s father.”
A heavy silence followed. Even the children were quiet. Only the clock went on and on.
Paulie leaned on the arm of his chair and stroked his chin with his finger. I know I betrayed nothing, but he was a little too confident. “I know who you are. And there’s another piece of this deal. You drop the inamorata.”
Donna Maria broke in. “We don’t discuss the women, Paulo.”
“That’s the deal, or I’m out. Theresa Drazen goes.”
“You can’t lead like this,” Donna Maria said. “You’ll end up dead.”
“Well.” Paulie fingered his phone. “So you know, it’s not just ’cause I don’t like her face. It’s because she met the district attorney at the Downtown Gate Club today for a private chat.”
I burned from the inside, as if my spine were a fuse, and my heart was a bomb; the spark coursed from my lower back upward.