After dinner, Smitty sat in the back of the car with Zach and Charlie, smoking a cigarette. He was seeing them off at their hotel.
“How did ya enjoy your dinner?” Smitty asked.
“I’m so full, I had to unbutton my trousers,” Zach said.
“That was the best meal I ever had,” Charlie added. He sat back rubbed his distended stomach.
“I never seen anyone put away that many steaks before,” Smitty said. “How many did ya eat, three?”
“And two baked potatoes,” Zach said.
“I hope Mr. Graziano ain’t mad I ate so much,” Charlie said.
“Nah, don’t worry about it,” Smitty said. “When ya do business, sometimes ya have to spend a little money to make money.”
“What about the extra twenty-five dollars for fighting?” Charlie asked. “Do ya think we went too far?”
“Mr. Graziano wouldn’t have agreed if he felt it was too much,” Smitty said. “Besides, he likes ya, if he didn’t you’d know it. Relax, you’re part of the family now, and Mr. Graziano always takes care of his family. That’s one thing ya never have to worry about, he’s a very generous man. Just don’t ever cross him or...” He took his last drag from his smoke and tossed it out the window.
“Or, what?” Zach asked.
“Well,” Smitty said, “let’s just say if ya ever cross him you’ll get to meet Big Al.”
“Who’s Big Al?” Charlie asked.
“Okay, I’m gonna tell ya a little story since ya asked,” Smitty said, “but this stays between us, understand?”
Zach and Charlie nodded their heads.
Smitty leaned forward and lowered his voice as he began his story.
“There was this guy that crossed Mr. Graziano once,” Smitty said. “He met his unfortunate demise not long after Mr. Graziano arrived here in Tennessee. The guy’s name was Earl Watkins. He was running for Mayor in a nearby town called Whitehaven. He asked Mr. Graziano for a loan. He needed extra money for his campaign, and Mr. Graziano obliged him. He loaned him the money with one simple request in return. Instead of paying back the loan, Watkins would handle certain favors for Mr. Graziano when asked. Watkins was to ensure the police would turn a blind eye on certain delicate matters regarding some of Mr. Graziano’s business deals. He thought the request was reasonable, and Watkins agreed.”
Smitty removed a new pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket and packed it on his palm. He placed another cigarette in his mouth and lit it. Then continued with the rest of his story as he blew smoke out the window.
“Watkins eventually became Mayor of Whitehaven, and after a few months he thought he was untouchable ... big mistake. His title must have gone to his head, and he dismissed the agreement he made with Mr. Graziano.
One day, some men that worked for Mr. Graziano were arrested in Whitehaven for trafficking booze, so Mr. Graziano stopped by Watkins’s office for a friendly conversation. He informed Watkins how his operation was losing money. He also informed Watkins that some of his men were arrested, and how he was supposed to have prevented that from happening based on their agreement.
Well, things went south shortly after Mr. Graziano reminded Watkins of their agreement and the money he lent him. Watkins lost his temper and began shouting at Mr. Graziano ... another mistake. He used words like: ’damn yankee, grease ball, dago, and wop.′ Oh yeah, and ‘guinea’ was thrown in there a few times too. This made Mr. Graziano very angry as ya can probably imagine. It was totally uncalled for.
So, Mr. Graziano decided that it was time Earl Watkins met Big Al. After all, to Mr. Graziano, a deal is a deal and a gentleman always keeps his word.”
Smitty took another drag from his cigarette and blew the smoke out the window. He could see that Zach and Charlie were drawn into his story. They were on the edge of their seats, waiting to hear the rest of his story, which made Smitty chuckle inside.
“So one evening, after Watkins visited his favorite prostitute, he was asked to take a little drive. The request was politely made with a Smith & Wesson behind his ear ... an extremely motivating and effective method, I must say.
Well, anyway, Watkins was introduced to Big Al that night. Big Al is Mr. Graziano’s pet alligator, by the way. He was named after Al Capone, the notorious gangster. Since they both were vicious and shared the same appetite, Mr. Graziano thought the name kinda fit, see.
Anyway, to make a long story short, Watkins was hung by his hands over Big Al’s swimming hole. He became terrified as he was slowly lowered closer to the dark, murky water with Big Al silently floating below him. His cold leering eyes skimmed the top of the waterline. Then he sighted Watkins before he fully submersed himself into the water.”
Smitty had Zach and Charlie so deeply absorbed in his story that they both had looks of horror on their faces.
“Then suddenly, Big Al leaped in the air with his mouth open,” Smitty said. His voice turned intense and his hands were animated.
“His powerful jaws engulfed Watkins and chomped down hard on his legs. When he fell back into the water, he took Watkins’ legs with him. Watkins dangled from the chain with his legs bitten off. He screamed in agony ... never heard anyone scream like that before. It was pretty gruesome actually. Yep, it was a hard lesson Watkins learned that night. It was sure one mistake Watkins never made again as long as he lived ... which wasn’t very long.”
Smitty finished his story in a nonchalant manner as he took a deep drag from his cigarette.
Zach and Charlie looked at each another. They were numb and in shock. The look on their faces said it all. What did we get ourselves into?
“But you boys don’t have to worry,” Smitty said. “Just fly right with Mr. Graziano and he’ll take care of ya ... in a good way.” Then Smitty began to laugh. His laugh was deep and wicked.
When the car finally stopped, Zach and Charlie were relieved Smitty was getting out. They didn’t know how much more of his callous and wicked laugh they could stand. Charlie reckoned he’d have bad dreams after hearing a story like that.
“Well, boys, here we are,” Smitty said.
Zach and Charlie glanced out the window and saw a large, luxurious hotel. They thanked Smitty again for his hospitality and asked him to thank Mr. Graziano again for dinner. He smiled and ensured them that he would. He lit up another cigarette, and remained seated as though he was in no hurry.
The bellhop approached the car and opened the door. He held it open and waited, but Smitty didn’t move. Zach nudged Charlie. They wondered why Smitty wasn’t getting out of the car and just sat there.
“Oh,” Smitty said, “we took the liberty of moving your things here.”
“What? Why?” Zach asked.
“Mr. Graziano thought this place would be more comfortable and accommodating.”
“How we gonna pay for this?” Charlie said.
“Yeah, what’s the big idea?” Zach asked. “We can’t afford this place. By the time we pay for this hotel, we won’t have any money left. Is this Graziano’s way of getting us back for the extra twenty-five bucks we asked for?”
“No, and didn’t I say to relax?” Smitty said. “The owner of this hotel owes Mr. Graziano a favor. It’s been all taken care of.”
“Okay then, but how did Mr. Graziano know Charlie would agree to fight?” Zach asked.
“Listen, Mr. Graziano can be a rather persuasive man. He always gets what he wants. He knew Charlie would eventually agree to fight. He had your things moved here from that rat hole y’all were staying at, while we ate.”
“So, that was the phone call he made,” Zach said.
Smitty winked at Zach. Then he climbed out of the car. “Ya coming or sleeping in the car tonight?”
Zach and Charlie climbed out of the car. They stood on the sidewalk and inspected the hotel. It certainly was a fancy place. They checked the hotel sign that read THE MEMPHIS GRAND HOTEL.
“So, we’re in Memphis?” Zach asked.
“Yep,” Smitty said.
“Why’s he doing this for us?” Charlie asked.
“Mr. Graziano considers ya an investment now,” Smitty said. “And he always takes good care of his investments, see. He will ensure that ya remain comfortable and relaxed. All ya gotta do is just make sure ya win your fights. Simple as that. Now, go upstairs and relax. I’ll contact ya when we have a fight scheduled.”
Zach and Charlie glanced at the hotel lobby through the glass doors. It was much nicer and cleaner than the one they had rented back in Lenox.
“Go,” Smitty said. “I’ll talk to ya guys soon.”
Zach and Charlie said their goodbyes to Smitty and followed the bellhop into the hotel. They followed him through the lobby to the elevator, skipping all the check-in formalities. When they reached the fifth floor, the bellhop led them to their room and opened the door.
When they entered their room, they immediately noticed that it was spacious, immaculate, and modern. The room contained two large double beds with a nightstand between them. It had a lamp and a telephone on it. The lamp had working lightbulbs with a decorative shade. The beds looked inviting and clean. They had matching linens and white fluffy pillows. The walls were covered with beautiful wallpaper and framed paintings. The floor had thick wall-to-wall carpeting, and the ceiling fan had all its bulbs and blades. No dust could be seen on them either.
Charlie crossed the room and opened the curtains. The windows were clean, and he was able to see the moon and stars clearly.
Next to the windows a small round table stood with two chairs on each side. In the corner, a large Zenith console radio stood. It had a big black dial in the center with four knobs under it. The finish was a beautiful wood lacquer. Zach was drawn to it like a magnet and swiftly crossed the room to inspect it.
“Is everything satisfactory?” the bellhop asked.
“Everything’s wonderful,” Charlie said.
Zach didn’t answer. He was preoccupied with the radio and all its knobs.
The bellhop came over and showed Zach how to operate the radio. “This is the power knob that turns it on,” the bellhop said. He turned on the radio. “This is the volume knob, please try to keep it at a reasonable level for the other guests, and these are the channel knobs.” He turned the knob, and a channel came in. It had a clear, warm, deep resonant tone. I’m an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande played.
“That’s Bing Crosby,” Zach said. “It’s from the film Rhythm on the Range.” A smile stretched across his face, proud that he recognized the song.
“You sure know your songs and movies,” the bellhop said with a friendly smile. “Anything else I can help you with?”
“Nope, ya been great,” Zach said. He stood and admired the radio. “What perfection of machinery.”
“Well, I hope you have a pleasant stay with us. If there’s anything else that we can assist you with just call the front desk.” the bellhop said gesturing to the telephone on the nightstand.
Zach thanked him and tipped him a quarter before he closed the door behind him. Then he found his overnight bag near the bed and began to unpack.
“This sure is a nice place,” Charlie said.
“Sure is,” Zach said. “I’m just wondering how we’re gonna get screwed for all this.”
“What do ya mean screwed for all this?”
“Ya don’t get something for nothing, Charlie, remember that. You’re gonna earn fifty bucks a fight, but I wonder how much of it you’re actually gonna get. Stayin’ in a joint like this ... it ain’t gonna be cheap. Ya know what they say, if it’s too good to be true it usually is.”
Charlie sat on the edge of the bed and removed his shoes. “But Smitty just told us Mr. Graziano took care of it.”
“Yeah well, we’ll find out soon enough.”
Charlie wondered why Zach was being so cynical. When it came to people, and money, the combination brought out another side of him. Sullivan probably contributed to that. He figured Zach was just being cautious and didn’t want to get trapped again. He also understood why Zach didn’t like owing people money. They were free men now, and Zach liked it that way. Once their deal with Graziano was over, they could move on again with money in their pockets. Just how much money was the question.
Suddenly the telephone rang. They didn’t expect anyone to call them so soon. Zach answered the phone.
“Hello,” Zach said into the receiver. “In two days? I’ll be sure to tell him. Okay, good bye.” Zach hung up the phone and looked at Charlie. “You’re fighting in two days.”
“In two days, huh?”
“Yeah, ya nervous?”
“Nah, I ain’t nervous,” Charlie said sitting quietly with a pensive stare.