Wiseguy: The Proposal

By Suzinsf

Thriller / Mystery

February 6th-8th

It was Saturday before Vinnie was free of the oxygen mask, finally able to breathe with only a nasal cannula to assist him, at last more conscious than unconscious. Lococco had stood guard the entire three and a half days, snatching sleep where he could and meals when McPike slipped into the hospital in the dead of night to relieve him for a few hours. He had finally taken time to return to the Waldorf for a shower and a shave, McPike having alerted him to Rudy's plans for a mob summit at Vince's bedside sometime Saturday afternoon.

He and McPike had had the opportunity for some strategizing during those long nights, and had slowly hammered out the nucleus of a course of action, one designed to ensure that if Vince was put into position as Aiuppo's cappo de tutti, it would be as a contractor. A freelancer, rather than Aiuppo's hand-picked successor. It was the only thing either of them could come up with that might insulate Terranova, even marginally, from the internecine power-struggles within the mob.

Roger had spent a great deal of time on the phone to the most trustworthy of his business advisors, setting up a series of corporations to hold the assets of the fictitious empire he was constructing as Terranova's power base. It would eventually be funded with the hundred million that Frank had triumphantly presented to Beckstead as the fruits of an on-going Federal search for the last of the evidence outstanding in the Mel Profitt case.

McPike had made it clear that it had turned up independently of Vinnie's current situation, and had begun planting the idea of using it to fund the apparently inevitable mob penetration by Terranova. He had also begun laying the groundwork for Lococco's inclusion as partner. That, he assured Roger, would be the true battle. Beckstead was vehemently opposed to civilian participation in Federal operations. Frank had proposed, and Roger had reluctantly agreed, that approaching the Attorney General might be the path of least resistance. McPike hoped to obtain special agent status for Lococco, and possibly Tracy, should her participation be as inevitable as they both suspected. He had scheduled a meeting with Attorney General Reno at her earliest convenience, which was some three weeks away, long enough, they hoped, for Vince to be back on his feet and able to play the role of super-mole convincingly for her.

McPike had also arranged to passively bug Vinnie's private hospital room Friday night, ensuring that the outcome of Aiuppo's master plan would be known in its entirety. They had done what they could reasonably do without Vinnie's active participation, and could now only wait.

Roger sat in the chair he had dragged in from the waiting room three days before, feet propped on the un-deployed railings of Vinnie's bed where they projected below the mattress, sunglasses on, dozing fitfully. Four days of minimal sleep and DeSilva's amphetamines had left him trembling, with nerves attenuated to the breaking point. He doubted his ability to hit the broadside of a barn with anything less than a tank by now, and had left his gun at the hotel, trusting that between them, Capuzi and Aiuppo's security would be sufficient to ensure the safety of the assembled mob notables. He couldn't bring himself to care much. The fact that McPike would have a small army of SWAT/HRT troops in the rooms on either side of Vinnie's, should they be needed, relieved him of any responsibility save that of getting Vince onto the floor and behind cover if things got ugly.

~*~

Vince lay on his back, staring at the ceiling groggily. The mind-numbing exhaustion of the past few days was finally beginning to lift, and he felt half-way normal, despite the thick cough that still shook him. He watched Roger doze restlessly, distantly amazed by the conspiratorial industry Lococco and McPike had shown while he had been unconscious. When Lococco had briefed him on the steps they had taken, he had been both impressed and irrationally angry that they had proceeded without his participation. Roger's response had been a dismissive shrug, and the observation that Vince could arrange matters to his own satisfaction when he bothered to wake up long enough to venture an opinion:

"So sue me," Roger shrugged. "You haven't exactly been the life of the party," he told Terranova, ignoring his obvious annoyance. "We can always change things, but neither McPike or I are wild about the idea of you winging it Saturday afternoon when Rudy has his little conclave. So this is the story, Buckwheat; you and I are partners in a holding company with interests all over the country. You've been handling, well, developing, the East Coast action, while I've been handling the West Coast. We've got our fingers in a whole lot of legitimate pies, and even a few dicey ones. Everything from restaurants to food service to fishing to wine to laundry to - pick your poison. We've even spiked it with a sizable dose of hi-tech."

Vince frowned. "It sounds like you've transferred just about all your business interests into it," he observed.

"Yeah. The way I figure it, we'll be tied up in this little exercise for awhile, maybe for years. I won't sit around on my hands hoping that my people can keep it together without me for that long without getting tempted to hack off a few chunks for themselves. So I've consolidated the whole package and cut you in for half the action. That way, anyone who checks is gonna have a real clear idea just how much you're worth and just how well you've been doing without the mob. It'll shore up your claim to be an independent, and besides, it finally gives me a way to hand off some of the cash to you. If you're planning on marrying the woman of your dreams, you're gonna have to be able to afford her. And don't tell me you can raise a family on the piddley salary the government pays you."

"People do it all the time, Rog." Vince snapped, acutely uncomfortably with the idea of sudden wealth. Yet even he could see the necessity for establishing a paper trail to support his claims of legitimate action. He supposed he was lucky in having a partner who had a ready-made fortune and no objection to using it on Vinnie's behalf. Partner. He considered the word, with all its ramifications. In all his years as a cop, he'd never had the luxury of working with a partner on a day-to-day basis. McPike was probably as close as he could claim to have come to a partnership, though it had been a surreptitious one at best. His work with Lococco inside Mel Profitt's organization had approached a partnership, intermittently, when Roger's paranoid radar had not been hyperactive. But this would be the first time he would be working with the full knowledge and assistance of another agent. He hoped McPike would be able to convince the Attorney General of the need to legitimize Roger's presence. And Tracy's, for that matter. "So what are you calling this company of ours?" he asked Lococco at last.

Lococco's grin was manic, with more than simply the amphetamines. "Pangea," he informed Terranova. "I figured it was an appropriate name for a coupla guys on the way to world domination," he laughed.

"Wasn't that the name of some hypothetical prehistoric supercontinent?" Vince inquired, unsure of his geology.

Roger nodded. "The theory goes that in the pre-Triassic period, all the land mass on the planet was consolidated into a single supercontinent. Just think about it, Vince. One continent. No borders. No boundaries. Hell of an analogy to the global economy we've got going now, eh? Gondwanaland was the other one, and that one was only made up of the southern hemisphere continents. Besides, Pangea sounds better."

Vinnie could not suppress his smile, as much at the awareness of Lococco's pleasure in the pulling together of myriad details as at the ironic appropriateness of the name Roger had chosen. "I'll give you that," he agreed, laughing.

~*~

It was nearly three, by Roger's watch, when Aiuppo's security team arrived to sweep the room for electronics. Lococco tendered no particular objection, save to point out that neither he nor Vince had left the room in days, then had simply stayed out of the way, trusting that McPike's bug guys had known what they were about when they had set up the devices. Roger had dragged the chair to one wall, taking up his post silently there, watching as Capuzi's men duplicated Aiuppo's men's efforts twenty minutes later.

At quarter to four, the luminaries began to arrive and Roger assumed his position at the head of Vinnie's bed, leaning a hip on the nightstand, arms folded across his chest. Capuzi was first in the door, and he conversed quietly with Vince, inquiring after his health and making idle observations concerning the rest of the Dons as they arrived.

"Marcus Maggioncalda, from Philadelphia," Capuzi pointed out the lean, roman-nosed, balding man of approximately fifty who entered the room, leaving his bodyguards outside. "He took over a few years after Mac Mahoney bit the end off his pistol. A good man, cautious, but a head for business." Capuzi smiled at the new arrival, shaking his hand and introducing him to Vince. "This is Rudy's stepson," he added, generating a nod and an expression of sudden comprehension.

"Your old man is quite the politician," Maggioncalda observed with a certain humor. "It takes a lot of acini to bring together the families with interests here - unless it's in a fire-fight," he said, smiling faintly at Vinnie's laugh. "Nice to meet you Vincenzo. I'll be interested in seeing whether we can do business together."

"Nice to meet you, Don Maggioncalda," Vince replied, shaking the older man's hand.

A new arrival made his way across the floor, stopping to shake Maggioncalda's hand on the way toward the bed. "Carmine DeSouza from Miami," Capuzi supplied.

"Yeah, I recognize him," Vince said. "He came up to Jersey after Dave Steelgrave got whacked to help Sonny out. A good guy. Him and his brother, too." He shook De Souza's hand.

"Vince, it's been a long time." DeSouza said, turning to Capuzi. "Cherry, good to see you," the skinny, ferret-like mobster greeted his host with a warm handshake.

"It's been too long, Carmine," Capuzi agreed, smiling as he turned to the short, paunchy man who had plowed single-mindedly through the gathering to the bedside. The smile became forced. "Cyrus," he acknowledged. "This is Vincenzo Terranova. Rudy Aiuppo's stepson. Vince, this is Cyrus Weinstien, from Detroit."

Vince took his cue from Capuzi, nodding politely, and extending a hand. It was shaken, Weinstien's palm clammy. He resisted the urge to wipe his hand on the sheets as the Detroit Don marched over to DeSouza and proceeded to pick an argument.

Capuzi shook his head, clearly annoyed. His expression lightened as yet another man made his entrance. "Ah, Robbie," he greeted the younger man. "This is Vince Terranova, Rudy's stepson." He turned to Vince. "Vinnie, this is Robbie Castaluccio. I placed him into Jersey a few years ago. He has done very well for himself."

Castaluccio's gaze was frankly appraising, as brown eyes swept over Terranova. "I hear Jersey is your old stomping ground," he commented.

"Atlantic City, with Sonny Steelgrave's crew," Vince agreed. "He brought me up."

"Come on over some time. Maybe you got a few old haunts you wanna visit. At least I can buy you a drink at the casino." Castaluccio flashed Vince a mouthful of expensive teeth and gave Capuzi a rough hug. "Nice to see you, Cherry. How come you don't come and visit me no more?"

"I figure, what's a young blood want with an old man breathing down his neck?" Capuzi grinned warmly. "So what do I tell Celia, when she asks me why you don't come to Sunday dinner?"

Castaluccio grinned back, model-perfect features reflecting a long-running argument. "Maybe when Rudy and Vince, here, get the city back under some kinda control, I'll risk it." He turned to Vinnie and offered his hand.

Vince shook it, then curled over onto his side, pressing the pillow there against his chest as the cough rattled in his lungs, thick and phlegmy, rasping out an apology when he could draw breath again .

"Hey, man, we're the ones invading your bedroom. This coulda waited a few more days." Castaluccio shrugged. He smiled again at Capuzi and joined the little group of Dons a few feet away.

"Chicago and Milwaukee are late," Capuzi commented. "And where the hell is Rudy?"

"Hell if I know," Vince admitted. "Considering this was his bright idea, you'd think he'd make an effort to get here on time."

The last two stray Dons arrived together. Arthur Zanetti, the mob's man in Milwaukee, a seventy-ish corporate type, and Chicago's representative, Paul Torricelli, a short, stocky man in his late forties who looked like he had worked his way up from the docks, shook hands all around, greeting Capuzi with casual familiarity.

~*~

The group, now complete, continued speaking among themselves. Lococco, feigning invisibility, watched them, assessing them according to his estimation of the risk they posed. He knew it was early to make this kind of judgement, without having any patterns of known past behavior to work from, still, it was instinctive, and he saw no reason to refrain. At the very least, it would let him compare his intuition against reality, when McPike presented him and Vince with the jackets on everyone in the room. He knew he still harbored the vestiges of the tendency to underestimate the mob, and the men who made it up. It was a mindset he was bent on correcting. He glanced at his watch, wondering what was keeping Aiuppo, beginning to be concerned by his lateness.

It was less than a minute later when Rudy made his appearance. The woman on his arm towered over him by a good four inches, pointing up his small stature. A heart-shaped face set with wide hazel eyes, a strong jaw and a chin that spoke of stubbornness, a mane of dark tawny hair twisted into a soft knot at the crown of her head, those were the impressions Roger had of her as she walked into the room with the old Don. This, he realized, had to be Tracy Steelgrave. He recognized the poise of someone who had learned in the crucible of experience to betray nothing to an adversary.

He didn't move from his casual posture, hip propped on Vinnie's nightstand, watching the stir her arrival caused. Lococco knew enough about mob politics to know that women were most emphatically not welcome at gatherings of this nature. His quick glance at Vince confirmed the impression that Rudy had yet another surprise in store for them. The room was large enough that even straining an ear for his words, Roger could only guess at what Rudy said, though it was clear from the shuttered politeness on the faces of the mobsters that they were as startled by the breach of protocol as Vince was. His words were followed by quiet introductions, and Roger's only concession to curiosity was to hook a finger into the frame of his sunglasses and tug them down his nose, eyeing her expressionlessly as he watched her work the small crowd.

There was nothing affected in her easy, almost flirtatious, interaction with the half-dozen or so mobsters. Roger could not have said how he recognized the tension that underlay her manner, but it was as clear to him as his own. She liked this no better than he did. And she knew she had to play the hand the fates had determined for her, or risk the life of a man she cared for. As did he.

The surprising calm she displayed in the face of the assembled Dons' consternated acknowledgement of her family name and their evident uncertainty as to why she had been brought into their presence impressed Lococco. Whatever it was that Rudy was up to, she was a knowing participant, though how willing, he had no idea. He watched as she played them, singling out each man in turn, bending all her attention on them. Watched them warm to her, the wariness in their faces lessening as she moved on to the next one. There would be no tearful histrionics, no wailing and beating of the breast at Vince's diminished capacity. As a lawyer, and the daughter of a mob boss, she knew precisely how to garner the respect of an opponent. Whatever her feelings were, they would not be subject to public display. Clearly, the assembled gangsters were as impressed at her self-possession as Roger was. He was beginning to understand what Vince saw in her.

When every mob player in the room had been favored with a moment of her undivided attention, she turned away from them, moving toward the bed and her lover. In the unguarded moment before her glance fell on him, Roger saw the depth of her distress in the hazel eyes and was forced to acknowledge that whatever lay between her and Terranova was greater, by far, than he had been willing to believe. That realization left him completely unprepared for the impact of her gaze as her eyes met his own.

It was as though every lie in his life, every justification, had been suddenly thrown into the harsh spotlight of public scrutiny. He felt naked, stripped of defenses he hadn't even known he had, the barriers he'd constructed over thirty years dissolving as though they'd never existed. It terrified him at a level that had never before known fear and he froze, meeting those green-flecked eyes helplessly, a deer in the headlights.

He had been seen, in his entirety. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the unspeakable, all had been assimilated in that split second. Never in his life had every pretense been ripped from him, exposed as a fabric of lies and self-deceptions. He was known, beyond any possibility of denial. In those bare seconds, he saw her assessment of him, her recognition of his dangerous nature, and her visceral, physical response to it. Only the barest hesitation in her step betrayed her, that and the green that flared in her eyes as her pulse began to throb noticeably in the hollow of her throat. He saw the adrenaline hit her system, saw the flicker of fear in her eyes. Fear and something more. He blinked, unsure of what he had just seen, and in that moment her gaze moved on to Vince.

Roger released the breath he had not consciously held, the world returning to something far closer to normal than the preceding few seconds had been as he shoved the sunglasses back up his nose. Until he shot a look at Terranova and inadvertently caught his eye. He saw the awareness in Vince's blue gaze, a pain he could not name clouding them, and knew his unmasking had been witnessed, at least by Vince. Lococco knew his rattled nerves were evident, though only Vinnie would recognize them as such. The wariness in Terranova's eyes in the moment his attention lingered on Roger triggered an irrational wave of guilt, and Lococco moved away from his post at Vinnie's bedside, giving way before Tracy's advance, unsettled enough by the last few minutes to need the elbow room, under the guise of allowing the lovers some semblance of privacy. He moved across the room to the door, needing all the distance he could get as he fought to regain his equilibrium.

~*~

Vinnie felt as though the breath had been knocked out of him. The stunned shock he had just seen in Lococco's eyes and saw now in Tracy's, the instant before it was veiled, could not erase the memory of the energy that had crackled between the two. It had been like heat lightening - wild and unpredictable, and of such voltage that the hairs at the back of his neck still prickled with it. He could practically smell the ozone generated by the power of their meeting. The bitterness of the irony that it would be Tracy who unintentionally breached Roger's defenses hurt in ways he had never hurt before. The fact that, consciously or otherwise, Tracy had sensed - responded to - that vulnerability hurt in ways he had not known he could be hurt. He swallowed, his mouth dry. The deepest irony of all was that he doubted either Roger or Tracy knew what had transpired between them. The instantaneousness of that connection would first be disbelieved, then denied. Whether it would come to be more than a single, wrenching insight, he didn't know, and feared to guess at. And then he locked eyes with Tracy.

The pain she felt for him was clear in her face, eclipsing anything else. He caught her tentatively outstretched hand in his own, running his thumb over the fine bones of her fingers. "It's not as bad as it looks," he assured her, voice raspy, hoarse.

"What have they done to you?" she whispered, stroking the sweat-stiffened hair away from his forehead with her free hand.

Vince could see the glitter of tears. "I got sloppy and one of Castellano's guys put a knife in me," he admitted, a deep, phlegmy cough wracking him.

"Don't pull that macho crap on me, Vince. You sound every bit as awful as you look. I want to talk to your doctors myself." Her voice was uncompromising, despite the low pitch meant for him alone, insisting on absolute honesty.

"I have it on good authority that I'll survive," he smiled up at her, disarming the worst of her fear. "God, I'm glad to see you." The heart-felt truth of this cleared the last of her worry from her face and he saw her soften, felt the light brush of her fingers over the inside of his wrist in answer. He felt his body's instinctive response and knew that he would have to have been dead a week before that touch, in that spot, by this woman, would cease to move him. He brought her hand to his mouth and brushed his lips over her knuckles in the lightest of kisses.

The illusion of privacy was shattered as Aiuppo cleared his throat. "I'm sorry my dear, I know it has been hard on you, not to have seen him before now, but we have business to discuss with Vincenzo. Perhaps you could continue this when we are finished?" he suggested gently.

Vince, his eyes fixed on Tracy, saw the depths of her anger as she stiffened, marshaling her temper.

She took a deep breath and schooled her features to betray none of what she felt as she turned to face the roomful of Dons. "As it happens," she said calmly, I have an item of business to discuss with him myself. It won't take a minute," she assured them with a smile as she turned back to Vince. In the silence of the room, she took a deep breath and met his eyes. "Vincent Terranova, will you marry me?" she asked, ignoring the stir this caused among those gathered. Her eyes never left his, watching as fear for her warred with desire. She saw his question, knew that he wanted her to be certain of what she asked, here in this assembly. She waited, trying to make it clear to him that she asked this of him with full knowledge of what it meant, willingly assuming the risks. He was silent for so long that she began to despair of his answer. The tenderness in his eyes as he nodded made her heart leap with joy.

"Yes, Tracy Steelgrave, I'll marry you," he told her, ignoring the hubbub in the room as this was heard and its implications digested. Tracy, eyes aglow, leaned over him and kissed him lightly on the mouth, the tip of her tongue brushing the inside of his upper lip. Vince fought the urge to seize her on the spot, to make love to her until neither of them could move, forced to content himself with that single kiss as she turned to face the mobsters in the room.

"Thank you for your indulgence, gentlemen. That question has been needing an answer for some time, now. I'll leave you to your meeting," she said, sliding her fingers free of Vinnie's, letting none of her reluctance show as she walked calmly to the door, ignoring the various reactions from the Dons as she passed them on her way out. She met only Aiuppo's eyes, his genuine pleasure for her - for them both – obvious in his face.

~*~

Roger felt her brush past him as she left the room, thrown by her nearness and by the anger that radiated from her as she passed. That he could sense it despite the complete lack of physical cues from her startled him. It was as though he had stumbled onto an extra sense, one that was activated by this woman's proximity. It unnerved him, making him deeply uneasy. As Rudy motioned to Capuzi to begin, Lococco returned to Vinnie's bedside, resuming his post there.

"Congratulations, Vincenzo," Capuzi began, eyes sparkling as he looked to Vince.

"She's enough to make a man start questioning the wisdom of bachelorhood," Castaluccio grinned.

The nods of agreement were essentially unanimous, as the rest of the Dons offered their congratulations.

Vaguely embarrassed by the public nature of his engagement, Vince smiled, a faint flush in his cheeks, acknowledging their good wishes. "Sorry about that, but Rudy hasn't let her visit before now. It was a ‘merger' we'd been trying to hammer out for a while, now."

"No need to apologize, my boy," Aiuppo smiled. "And it is time we speak of the rest of the business before us. These gentlemen are all aware of what has taken place in the last week. Castellano has been questioned and his and Michael's plans have been exposed. Everyone here knows that they went after you in spite of Chero's grace. The money they have taken we are still trying to track down. Carlucci, the man you brought in, is a good accountant. He is working with Chero's man now to try to reconstruct the books that Brandon's man tried to destroy. I think I will keep him on as chief accountant, at least until you decide who you would prefer," Rudy told him.

Vince spared a thought for the mild-mannered accountant who would probably not thank him for suddenly having drawn the attention of ranking mobsters to him. He didn't strike Vince as comfortable in the spotlight. "He's a good man," Vinnie agreed. "He'll do fine for the moment."

Capuzi cleared his throat. "Vincenzo. Rudy has asked that we - those of us with sizable interests in New York - consider placing you into Brooklyn to try and clean up the mess there. You must know there is some lingering concern over what Tony Greco had to say about you to the Grand Jury."

Vince laughed, irony evident in the sound. "I'm not surprised," he agreed. "But I don't see that it matters, because I'm not planning on staying on the East Coast much longer. My partner and I have a business to run and since most of our action is out west, that's where I'm heading. As soon as I can get Tracy to marry me," he finished.

Capuzi glanced at Aiuppo, brow furrowed. "Rudolpho, I was under the impression that you had spoken with Vince about this."

"I did, but only in broad terms. I saw no point in taking it further until the Greco issue was resolved." Aiuppo met Terranova's eyes frostily, making his displeasure clear to Vince. "He is not convinced that staying here and assuming responsibility for the mess that has been left is a wise choice. Especially for a man about to start a family of his own. He has questioned how far his loyalty to us goes. Particularly when ‘la famiglia' has not shown itself to be particularly loyal to him, in the wake of Sonny Steelgrave's death. And he is quite right when he says he has interests elsewhere. As I am sure some of you have discovered for yourselves. My stepson is quite truthful when he says he has no particular need to step into the position of cappo. But it is my hope that we can convince him that Brooklyn needs him."

"What about his partner?" Weinstien asked, shooting a belligerent look at Lococco. "We haven't even been introduced to this man. He stands here like the furniture!"

Roger straightened slowly, removing his sunglasses and fixing his arctic stare on the mobster as he hooked the earpiece into the breast pocket of his suit coat. No one in the room was left with any doubt about his willingness, perhaps even eagerness, to kill, if pressed. He let that pregnant silence continue for a moment, seeing the flicker of hesitation in Weinstien's eyes. "It's Vinnie's call. I'm along for the ride on this one, but if he decides to stay, I'll back his play. We've worked together too long now for me to want to break in a new business associate, so I plan on watching his back as long as he insists on keeping company with the mob. But just so we're all clear on this, he needs this like he needed that knife between the ribs."

"You're not even Mafia?" was Weinstien's appalled comment.

Roger smiled. The expression reached no further that the wry quirk of his mouth, eyes unlighted by any amusement "And no desire to be," he supplied. "I've seen what your kind of brotherly love gets a man, thanks anyway. It takes a hell of a lot to make Vinnie wonder whether his loyalty has been misplaced, but you people managed to accomplish it."

"Roger." Vince said simply. The single word was enough to silence Lococco. He made sure that every mobster in the room was aware of it. That it was Terranova who commanded here.

Aiuppo, eyes narrowed at Roger, performed the formal introductions at last. "Chero Capuzi, Queens. This is Roger Lococco, Vincenzo's partner of many years. Roger, these other gentlemen -"

"I caught their names while I was holding up the night stand," Roger interrupted. He turned to the gathered Dons. "I can't say it's a pleasure meeting you," he said coldly.

"We could have you killed - like that," Weinstien glowered with a snap of his fingers.

Roger's smile didn't reach his eyes. "You could try. The C.I.A. has had assassins after me for ten years. I doubt your guys'll have any better luck than they have."

Vince watched this little tidbit hit its target, seeing the sudden stillness of the Dons as they reevaluated Lococco. His stock rose from hired muscle to player in that momentary pause.

Maggioncalda stepped forward, offering a gnarled hand. "We are not exactly known for our observance of the social niceties," he said. "Let's begin again, shall we? I'm Mark Maggioncalda, Philly."

Roger nodded once, shaking the man's hand.

Castaluccio followed him, grinning as he shook Lococco's hand in turn. "Rob Castaluccio, Atlantic City." He glanced at Vince. "Certo che, con un armadio così al tuo fianco, non hai più paura di nessuno," he said to Vinnie in Italian, catching the flush of color on Terranova's face at the words.

"I'm not the one in this room who needs protection," Vince replied sharply, forestalling any reaction on Roger's part with an up-held hand. "Big, strong or otherwise."

Roger's hackles rose and he glowered at the man who stood grinning back at him, only able to guess at what had been said, but the inference clear.

"Don't sweat it. I wouldn't mind a little protection like that myself," he told Vince, and flashed his smile at Roger again. "You get tired of New York, come see me. There's always room for an enterprising entrepreneur in Atlantic City."

Roger choked back the urge to bash in that perfect smile, not deigning to legitimize the innuendo by reacting. He let the impulse show only in his eyes and saw Castaluccio grin.

"Good dog," Castaluccio said as he tuned away, rejoining the group, passing DeSouza. "Watch out," he warned Miami's rail-thin don, "that one bites."

DeSouza scowled and approached Roger, hand outstretched. "Ignore him. He's like that with everyone till he gets to know ‘em. Carmine DeSouza," he said. "Miami."

Roger shook the proffered hand, acknowledging the advice with a single nod. "Don DeSouza," he said.

Milwaukee and Chicago were next, Weinstien of Detroit bringing up the rear, his dislike of Lococco unmistakable.

"Alright, make your case, Chero," Maggioncalda told Capuzi, when the formalities had been concluded. "Why should we put a man who questions his loyalty to la famiglia into a position of power in Brooklyn? What can he do for us that someone else can't?"

"Who among you have bothered to confirm that Vincenzo and his partner are, in fact, legitimate businessmen?" Capuzi challenged.

There were several nods, Castaluccio chief among them. "I don't know about the rest of you gentlemen, but I like to know who I'm getting into bed with, and whether it's safe to shut my eyes on them or not," he said. "Vince and his dangerous friend here, have managed to turn a hundred million into over two billion in less than ten years, and most of it legit, from what I can determine. We can't use that kind of leadership in New York? I say we dress it up and hand it over to the two of them and stand back and see what they can do." He met eyes as he surveyed his fellow dons. "If they'll take it. Vince is right. He doesn't need us. So it's up to us to convince him that there's some reason to stay and pull our bacon out of the fire."

Weinstien spat derisively. "We don't need some schmuck with a bank balance, we need someone who can castrate the damned immigrant mobs that are moving in on us from everywhere!"

Lococco snickered, contempt clear in his expression. "No wonder you've got problems," he observed. "War isn't profitable for anyone fighting it. The only ones who make any money are the ones who supply the raison d etre."

"You're kinda gutless for a tough-guy," was Weinstien's retort, as he eyed Lococco.

Roger grinned at the pugnacious little mobster. "Discretion is the better part of valor,'" he quoted. "There's a difference between being a tough-guy and being a smart one, and I haven't stayed alive the last ten years by being stupid." Roger leaned back against the night stand casually before continuing. "When Mel Profitt self-destructed, Vinnie and I hacked off as big a chunk of his business as we could walk away with. We’ve never looked back. Now, unless you can come up with a compelling reason for us to bail you out of what sounds like a major jam, we have don't appear to have much to discuss."

Vince had let Roger field the initial conversation, content to allow him to act as a lightning rod for the objections of the assembled Dons. But it was something that Lococco said that sparked a suspicion and he watched the mobsters intently as he spoke. "It sounds to me like someone is profiting from the chaos in New York. Ask yourselves who has the most to gain by giving the new gangs a hotfoot and aiming ‘em at the rest of you. Whoever they are, they are doin' a hell of a job keepin' you squabbling over the details while they change the big picture on you." He saw both Lococco's glance of keen interest and the abrupt change in focus among the gangsters as they considered this perspective. "It's one of the oldest techniques in the book. Divide and conquer."

This produced a general murmur of worried speculation. Capuzi and Aiuppo exchanged looks, then met Vinnie's clear eyes. "You think one of us is deliberately stirring up trouble?" Rudy asked, clearly not having considered this.

"I think it's a distinct possibility," Vince said to Rudy, then turned his attention to the rest of the room. "I have a certain amount of loyalty to my stepfather, but the rest of you I have no particular reason to trust." He looked over Rudy's head and swept the rest of the assembly with cold appraisal. "If I get involved in this, it sure as hell won't be for you. There are people I grew up with in the neighborhoods who are getting killed because you can't - or won't - step in and do something. They're where my loyalty lies. And if I find out that someone here is behind the trouble, they are looking at a whole lot more than castration."

There was a stir among the Dons as they discussed this among themselves. Vince ignored the worried furrow on Roger's forehead, shaking his head slightly to indicate that he knew he was treading a tightrope. Lococco had made it very clear that there was little inducement for them to enter into the arrangement that Aiuppo was hoping to orchestrate. Most of the dons had been willing to let them walk away. But Vinnie's instincts as a cop told him that there was something going on in New York that no one, mob, or law enforcement, had yet stumbled onto. And whatever it was, it was big. There would be no better way to find out what it was and who was behind it than by accepting the position as cappo. He caught Roger's eye, beckoning him closer.

Lococco bent to hear what Vince had to say, his features blankly immobile.

"I'm going in, Rog. Something's up, and I've got a real bad feeling about it." Vince met Lococco's stare of disbelief, not allowing himself to be swayed. "You can leave right now, no hard feelings. You've done what you said you would," he said softly, for Roger's ear alone.

Roger's silent laugh was mirthless. "Sorry, Buckwheat,” he whispered. “You don't get rid of me that easily. If you're gonna jump outta the frying pan and into the fire, you're gonna need someone with a fire extinguisher at your back. Besides - what do you know about running a business? A legitimate one, anyway. You know there's gonna be a shit storm about this in the hallowed halls. We can walk away from this. Aiuppo's leverage is basically gone. You've got the girl, you've declared your independence, it's a loaded deck. Why stay?"

"I have friends on the streets who may not make it to their next birthday unless someone figures out what the hell is going on and stops it. It's my job, Rog. Until I can walk away feeling like I did it right, I can't walk away at all."

Lococco shook his head, a certain fondness glinting in his eyes. "Suit yourself, Don Quixote," he said with a faint smile. "You are the king of lost causes, Vince."

"No, just the hopeless ones," Vince smiled back. "That's how I wound up in your corner ten years ago."

"Just call me Sancho," Roger sighed. "Okay, Buckwheat. I'll hold your sword while you go tilting at windmills."

Vince's laugh was genuine and laced with irony. "Just don't let Castaluccio hear you say that. I don't want him anywhere near my sword."

Lococco froze, then grinned. "Shall I tell him you said so, sweetheart?"

"I'll get back to you on that," Vince said, still smiling, turning his head to meet Capuzi's look as the mobster approached the bed.

"Vincenzo, we have decided that what is needed is a fresh perspective. You have made a point that none of us had even considered. It is clear that Brooklyn needs you. We need you. Find out what is going on, and put a stop to it. We will back your play with anyone who screams."

"That sounded like a request for help," Roger observed. "What's in it for us?"

"You mean besides job satisfaction?" Maggioncalda asked with irony. "How about a free rein to straighten up the mess. A six month grace while all the income gets plowed back into the territory and a clean twenty percent goes into your pockets without a fight. We take the loss until we have an idea what the hell is going on. If you pull it off, you succeed Aiuppo in Brooklyn and we think about making your partner Don."

Roger cocked an eyebrow. "I'm not sure we're looking for a long term relationship," he said. "If we say yes, then we come in as contractors. Independents hired by you to solve a problem. When the problem gets identified, we solicit opinions, but the solution is up to us. The twenty percent is twenty five, and you eat the loss until we have a line on what's going on in Brooklyn, or until you bring us a vote of no confidence."

Weinstien snorted. "Twenty five? That's extortion!"

Lococco grinned his most irritating grin at the man. "So take your offer to someone who cares," he said cheerfully.

"You gonna let him pop off like this every time we have a business proposal to discuss?" Weinstien demanded, looking to Vince.

Vinnie's face darkened, expression cold. "Anything that comes out of Roger's mouth you treat like it came outta mine. He's my partner. He speaks with my voice, when business is being discussed. You don't like it, then find someone else to fix your little problem. You want me, you get him. That's the deal."

"I wish," Castaluccio said softly, the impish glint in his brown eyes focused on the pair of men they courted. He had pitched it to carry to them, Lococco stiffened as it hit home and shot him a look that would have melted concrete. Vince saw the self-satisfied smirk that said he was going to enjoy baiting Lococco.

Zanetti frowned. "Weinstien is right. Twenty five is steep, when we don't have a time frame. I'm willing to make an investment in infrastructure, but not at the expense of long-term profitability. I want a closing date on this particular window of opportunity before Milwaukee signs off on the deal."

Capuzi nodded. "Twenty five percent, with a performance review in six months. If we agree that progress is being made, we give it another six months. If we aren't happy, you walk away with your take, and we move on to plan B."

Vince considered this, glancing at Roger, who gave a slight shrug, handing the responsibility for the negotiations back to him. "And what if we're not happy? I want a personal guarantee from every one of you that Roger and I walk outta here with a clean bill of health the minute we start feeling unappreciated. No hard feelings, no hired killers. Period."

"Done," Maggioncalda agreed. There were nods from each of the Dons, some more willing than others, but the consent was unanimous.

"Well, gentlemen, it looks like you've just hired yourselves a coupla designated hitters," Vince said with a pleasant smile, then spoiled the effect as a coughing fit hit him.

"Perhaps we should let Vincenzo get some rest," Rudy suggested when it showed no signs of letting up. We can finalize the details later."

"Fair enough," replied Torricelli, clearly restless and eager to be on his way. "I say we take this to Capuzi's and hammer out a deal we can all live with, then have the legal eagles check it over. When everybody's happy, we all go home."

Capuzi nodded, turning to Lococco. "Join us for dinner," he suggested. "We can draw up the paperwork then."

"Make it breakfast. I've got a lot of loose ends to tie up before we're gonna be able to give this our full attention, and I'd better get started before our people start getting wind of a deal with the mob. They are not gonna be real happy about it. We're pretty much legit across the board."

This was agreed to and at last, the assembly began to disband, Dons trickling out of the room by ones and twos. Vinnie's cough had begun to die down and he was able to manage enough polite farewells to clear the room. Alone, he and Roger exchanged looks, wondering how long it would be before McPike came bursting through the doors in a state of apoplexy. To Vinnie's delight - and Roger's dismay - it was Tracy who was first through the door.

She stuck her head in. "The coast clear?"

Roger knew a cue when he heard it and headed for the door, careful to avoid eye contact as he brushed past her on his way out. He shut the door behind him, stiff-arming McPike, who attempted to force his way in. "I don't think you want to go in there. There are some private negotiations being concluded," he told the OCB Regional Director wryly.


McPike glowered at him. "What the hell was that all about? You and your silver tongue had just gotten him off the hook! Why did he turn around and step back onto it?!"

Roger took him by the elbow and led him into the room next door, ignoring the SWAT/HRT troops who were packing up their tents preparatory to leaving. Roger leaned past one officer's shoulder and shut off the reel-to-reel.

"What the hell do you think you are doing?!" McPike demanded, reaching to turn it back on.

Roger caught his wrist in a vice-like grip. "Unless you're into the peeping-tom thing, I'd leave it off. The sweet thing is in there with him, and I doubt they're doing much talking."

Frank shook him off, conceding the point. "Explain to me what just happened in there," he commanded sharply.

Roger gave him a sardonic smile and sighed. "You've raised yourself a right fine policeman, Frank," he said. "He made a deductive leap that everyone else in that room missed. There's an unnamed player out there messing up the works, hoping to clean up by supplying the mob and the newcomers with all the makings of a war. Vinnie's guess - and one I agree with - is that whoever it is, is gonna stand back and let them duke it out, sweep up the bodies, hang up their shingle and declare themselves open for business."

McPike blinked. "That's a hell of a leap," he said. "Nothing we've seen makes me think there's anyone making trouble on that scale just to take out the mob," he said cynically.

"Well, I suggest you start looking harder," Lococco said acerbically. "Vinnie's got a sense for trouble and this is trouble with a capital T'. Your best bet for finding out what's going on is to back us on this. It may save you a lotta bodies down the road."

McPike began pacing, dodging the departing police, thinking fast. "It would explain a lot," he said reluctantly. "How did it play with the goombas?"

"You shoulda seen the radar come up. There are gonna be a lotta sleepless soldiers out looking for conspiracies in dark allies," Roger told him.

"They took it seriously?"

"Deadly," Roger assured him. "They want Vinnie to smoke out whoever it is that's pulling the strings - and strangle ‘em with them."

McPike sighed resignedly. "Well, this'll be easier to sell to Beckstead, anyway. I guess I'm not gonna be retiring anytime soon," he added.

"Guess not," Roger agreed, tongue firmly in cheek, grinning at the glare McPike threw his way. "I have a breakfast date with the boys to hammer out the final agreement. When I know the details, I'll contact you. Then I'm gonna be spending some major quality time with my bed. I take any more uppers and I'm gonna be crossing orbits with Pluto."

McPike nodded. "I want hard copy on anything you get," he told Lococco. As of now, consider yourself on the Bureau payroll."

Roger nodded and stretched. "So when are we getting the low-down on the circus in Vinnie's room?"

"Uncle Mike is putting together the files. He'll be downloading them in half an hour or so. You up for a post mortem?"

"I was counting on one. I want to know everything there is to know on those sleezoids." Roger was emphatic.

McPike quirked an eyebrow. "Sounds like theirs isn't the only radar that got activated," he observed.

"Vinnie isn't the only one with a nose for trouble," Lococco told him. "And right now, I've got a snoot-full of something I don't much like."

"Let me guess. Castaluccio." McPike allowed a smile to flicker across his face.

"He's just the icing on the cake," Roger said.

"He'd fuck anything that moves, male, female or undecided," Frank told him. "He has a reputation for giving safe sex a bad name."

Roger nodded. "Yeah, I'd kinda picked up on that, thanks," was the sarcastic reply.

"I heard the moves he made on you and Vince. Don't expect them to be the last," McPike warned him.

"The next time he tries it on me, he'll be singing falsetto." Roger's expression was grim.

"Oh, he won't be that obvious about it, not always, anyway. DeSouza was right about that much, anyway. And you'd better keep an eye on Vinnie's girl. He'll use her to get to him."

"That's Vinnie's problem. He's perfectly capable of hanging up the no poaching signs without any help from me." Roger dismissed this, ignoring the inexplicable uneasiness that sparked along his nerves. "You gonna include her in the briefing?"

"Since she's just made herself part of the equation, I guess I have to. Just keep it quiet. If Beckstead finds out I've got civilians participating in agent briefings, he'll hand me my head - on a platter."

Roger held up his hands, shaking his head wryly. "Hey, he won't get it from me, Frank. Till you clear it with him, I'm still persona non grata with the Justice Department."

McPike was silent for a moment, then hitched a shoulder in the direction of Vince's room. "So how long do we give them to play the balcony scene?"

Roger grinned. "It depends."

"On what?" McPike wanted to know.

"On whether or not she invites him in," Roger said.

This caught McPike by surprise. "In a hospital room? He can hardly move!"

Roger raised his eyebrows. "It wouldn't be stopping me," he grinned again at McPike's expression.

"Yeah, well, your reputation is almost as bad as Castaluccio's. Vince isn't that kinda guy."

Roger laughed. "Every guy is that kinda guy, with the right girl."

McPike glowered. "I can see it's gonna be a real pleasure working with you," he muttered. "Something tells me it's gonna be a long six months."


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