Wiseguy: The Proposal

January 27th-28th

McPike cursed Terranova's choice of meeting places. The aquatic park was far too public for comfort, much less safety. He surveyed the late afternoon inhabitants foolish enough to brave the sleety drizzle of an early February Sunday in New York for an outing, wishing he were not among them. Vinnie was nowhere in sight as Frank wandered along an asphalt path toward a lone - and clearly freezing - hotdog vendor and purchased a carton of stale popcorn, juggling his briefcase and umbrella in an effort to hold all three.

Taking his snack, he headed toward the broad path along the waterfront. Resting his elbows on the wet railing and standing the case on the pavement between his feet, he looked out across the misty harbor at the statue of Liberty, eating the popcorn. He amused himself by tossing a few kernels at the time into the air and watching the aerial acrobatics of the gulls as they dove, squawking, for them, snatching the food out of midair.

"Waste of good popcorn," came the wry observation from McPike's left some five minutes later. Without a word, Frank offered the popcorn to Vinnie, who took a handful, sampled it, then frowned and joined McPike in tossing it into the smudgy sky, where it disappeared into the maws of the hungry birds.

"I don't suppose it matters, but I've spent the last forty eight hours wondering how many pieces we'd find your body in," the OCB Regional Director stated resignedly. "Instead, I see you standing here looking like an ad for G.Q. in your spiffy new clothes. Uncle told me Lococco's in town babysitting you while you try and get yourself killed."

"I'm not trying to get myself killed, Frank. I'm trying to prop up my cover story long enough to ask a girl to marry me." Vince's voice was weary. "For the record, I tried to keep Roger out of this."

"Well I'm glad, for once, that you ran into someone even more mule-headed than you are. I may not like him much, but if anyone can keep you alive, it's gonna be him."

Vince glanced at McPike, surprised by the comment.

"So tell me how the council meeting went down." Frank changed the subject.

"Let's just say it wasn't an experience I'd care to repeat," Vince said dryly. "I'm definitely getting too old for the adrenaline rush."

"I know that feeling," McPike agreed, "Working with you for the last dozen years has cured any addiction to it I may once have had."

Vinnie grinned. "You blaming me for your gray hairs?"

"What's left of ‘em," Frank confirmed. "Do me favor and actually quit this gig so I can enjoy my old age."

"As soon as I can, Frank. As soon as I can." Terranova was suddenly serious again. "You know where they're keeping Greco yet?"

"County lock-up," McPike informed him. "You know you're on your own with this. I can't get you in to him, not without blowing your cover completely."

"Yeah. Don't worry about it, Frank. Rog has an angle." Vince's tone was grim. "Just don't plan on letting Tony make any deals for witness protection when we're through with him."

"You'd better keep the rest of that thought to yourself, Vinnie. I do not need to know what that crazy bastard, Lococco, has in mind for our friend Tony." McPike stated, throwing up a cautionary hand.

"It's Greco, or it's me. I don't have to tell you which one I'm more partial to," Vince replied.

"Yeah, well, you're not alone. But last I checked, I was still supposed to be reporting assassination plots to the police. So just let's keep this under your hat, will you?"

Terranova stuffed his hands into the pockets of the black wool greatcoat Roger had added to his wardrobe on the way out of the hotel an hour before. "I wish I knew what the hell Rudy was planing," he mused. "I threw as much of a monkey wrench into it as I could at the council this morning, but my gut tells me I'm gonna be playing his game whether I want to or not."

McPike nodded. "Provided you live through the next three days, I don't see much in the way of alternatives. Not as long as you refuse witness protection, anyway."

"And I'm not disappearing without at least talking to Tracy, first. I can't do that as long as Rudy has her. And he's not gonna let her go till he's got me where he wants me."

McPike sighed. "You're sure you know what you're doing, setting your cap for her? You don't even know her, Vince."

"I can't even explain it to myself, Frank. But I've never been as sure of anything in my life. I want her. If she'll have me. There are no lies between us, Frank, and I can't even start to tell you how good that feels."

McPike dribbled a handful of popcorn over the water without responding immediately. "Just be careful, will you?" he upended the last of the popcorn into the oily waves. "What did you mean when you said you'd monkey-wrenched things this morning?" he changed the subject.

Vince went with it, relieved. "Basically, I told the council I'd give them Greco, but that I didn't need or want their action. I kinda implied that I had business of my own to handle. I don't think Brod and Castellano are gonna let it go, though. Rudy made it pretty clear they were pissing him off."

"You steer clear of those two, Vince. They are bad to the bone and if they can find a way to screw you — or even kill you — they will. Just deal with the Greco problem and get Capuzi to clear you so you can get the hell out of New York."

Vinnie nodded. "That's the plan," he agreed. "Let's just hope it comes together the way we want it to."

McPike nodded and bent to hand the briefcase at his feet to Terranova. "Uncle Mike told me to tell you he up-graded your laptop and cleared out all the front accounts that the old one had access to. There won't be any way they'll be able to do more than reconstruct what was on the drive when they took it. If they're lucky. He left your passwords the same and just switched ISP fronts. He said to call him when you're ready and he'll walk you through the new security protocol."

"The transcripts in here, too?" Vince asked.

"Yup. All three hundred and forty pages," McPike said smugly. "It makes for great bed-time reading At least till you get to Greco's testimony. That's on page two eighty three."

"Thanks." Vinnie took a firmer grip on the wet briefcase. "I'm gonna get outta here. Give me a few minutes, just in case."

McPike nodded. "Take care of yourself. And make your call-in schedule!"

"You got it."

McPike watched Terranova walk away into the drizzle, and saw a raincoated figure detach itself from the lee of a notice kiosk, falling into step with the agent. Lococco, he surmised, relieved that Vince was not on his own.

~*~

"You get Greco's location?" Roger inquired, unlocking the BMW with the remote as they approached.

"Yeah. You were right. He's in county lock-up. We aren't going to get a chance at him until they trot him out for the Grand Jury on Monday morning. In the meantime, I want to hit the neighborhood, shake a few trees, see what sort of rumors are floating around. I have some contacts that may know something useful." He got into the passenger seat of the convertible, slamming the door shut after him, Lococco sliding into the driver's seat a second behind him.

"We should see what we can dig up on the Junior Achievers," Roger suggested. "I have a feeling we are gonna be locking horns with those bastards any time, now.

"You mean Brod and Castellano?" Vince said with a nod, "Count on it. They're gonna be looking for any opening we give them."

At this confirmation, a contemplative look came over Roger's face. "There must be a way to control the situation. Make them come to us, on our terms, when we're ready."

"I'm open to suggestions," Vince agreed.

Lococco considered this as he put the car into gear and pulled into traffic, heading for Brooklyn.

Roger pulled up to the curb in front of a run-down laundromat half a mile from Vinnie's house. "You want me in there with you?" he asked as Vince opened the car door.

"Nah, Manny is an old friend. He kept an eye on my mom while I was in the slam. He's gonna take one look at you and think I've come gunning for him. He'll rabbit."

Roger grinned, his maniac smile sparking in his eyes for the barest moment. "Okay," he said. "Yell if you want me to break any legs," he added sarcastically as Vinnie climbed out of the car. Vince raised a cynical eyebrow by way of rejoinder, and walked into the laundry.

Manny was arguing with an elderly woman who ranted in mingled Italian and English that the dryer was broken and had eaten her coins without drying her clothes. Manny, grayer, paunchier and wearier than ever, finally relented, as he had every Sunday afternoon for thirteen years, and fed his own quarters into the dryer. He didn't notice Terranova standing by the door until he was half way to the little office in the back. His double-take was comic. The fear on his face wasn't.

"Vinnie!" he approached Vince, anxiety writ large on his features. "What are you doing here?"

Vinnie's internal alarm system went off with a vengeance. "I live here, Manny. What the hell is wrong?"

"Come on in back, Vinnie. We can talk there." With a furtive and clearly frightened glance out the front windows of his business, he caught Terranova by the arm and hustled him into the dingy little office. "There's a bounty on you, Vinnie. Brod and Castellano are willing to pay ten large to anyone who can tell them where to find you — a hundred large to anyone who drills you."

"What?! Why?" he exclaimed, astounded at the temerity of Aiuppo's lieutenants to flout a grace given by one of the ranking mobsters in the city.

Manny sank into the rickety wooden chair at his desk. "They say you're a cop," he said, face gray. "They say that one of Sonny Steelgrave's wiseguys testified in front of a Grand Jury that you're a Federal agent, Vince."

Vince let his anger show, snarling. "Tony Greco. The weasel was skimming from Sonny's dock operations in Atlantic City. I fingered him and he headed straight for witness protection. Only when the Feds found out he'd iced some guy on the docks, they threw him in the slammer, instead. So now he's found a way to get some payback and maybe finally make it into witness protection with the cash he stole from Sonny. Brod and Castellano want me outta the way ‘cuz Rudy is considering putting me into his old territory to ride herd on the bastards. He thinks they've been bleeding him like Greco bled Sonny. Capuzi's given me till noon on Tuesday to get him proof that Greco was a thief. They're risking a war if they break his grace!"

"The hit is on, Vince. And I don't think that you're the only one on the list. I think they're gonna go gunning for Don Aiuppo as soon as they've whacked you. They want the whole ball of wax, and they don't want to wait any longer for it. They been taking twenty, thirty percent outta the neighborhood for years, now. The old Don, he don't see so good no more, so they been getting away with skimmin' the cream right off the top."

Vince began pacing the confines of the narrow room, thinking hard. "You got any proof? Any way to back up your story?"

"I'm strictly small time, Vinnie," Manny protested. "What I know is street gossip. There's no way of proving anything! And the guys who complained are all renting space at the cemetery. There's no way I'm gonna go up against those two. I've got a family!"

Vince nodded sharply. "Okay, Manny, I'll see if I can get this to Rudy. If they're looking to kill him, I've gotta let him know."

"Just don't tell him where you got it," Manny pleaded. "If Brod and Castellano win this one, I don't wanna be on record as a squealer."

"Okay," Vince agreed reluctantly, and headed for the door into the laundry.

"Vinnie,” Manny said sharply. "Use the back way, man. If they're watching the place, they may hit you on your way out the front door."

Terranova nodded. "Thanks," he said gravely as he let himself out into the grubby alley behind the laundromat.

~*~

Lococco had watched Vince enter the laundromat and then began a scan of the neighborhood, watching as the local inhabitants went about the mundane business of their lives. He spotted the hardware store across from his parking spot and considered a moment, then got out of the car and jogged across the wet street to the opposite sidewalk, entering the shabby little storefront. It took him less than five minutes to find what he was looking for and make his purchases, tucking the two fist-sized boxes and a plastic pouch about a foot long into the large pockets of his cashmere overcoat as he exited the shop and headed back toward the car. To his surprise, he saw Terranova approaching from the end of the block and he started the car and pulled out to meet him, ignoring the liberal use of car horns as he blocked traffic for the ten seconds that it took Vince to climb into the vehicle. "What's up?" he asked, alerted by the grim expression on Vince's face.

"Brod and Castellano are defying Capuzi's orders. They've got a hit out on me and probably on Rudy, too. According to Manny, they're about to stage a palace revolt. If they kill Rudy and me, they've got clear title to Brooklyn. I guess they figure they'd better move now, before Aiuppo can come outta retirement again and cement an alliance with Capuzi and his boys."

"I knew we'd be having to deal with those two sooner rather than later," Lococco said. "You'd better let your stepfather know what's going on. His security is gonna have to double-time it. And we wouldn't want anyone capping him till you've got the princess back, now would we?"

In answer, Vinnie was already dialing Aiuppo's private line. He got Rudy on the second ring. Vince told him, briefly, about the break-in at his house and the missing laptop, and then related the news that Aiuppo's lieutenants were about to go independent, by way of an assassination attempt. His parting words made his priority in relaying this news unmistakably clear to Aiuppo. "And you'd better make damn sure that those bastards can't get anywhere near Tracy. Because if they track her to you and your guys let them hurt so much as a hair on her head, I'll kill you myself." He hung up and tucked the phone into the pocket of his greatcoat. "Shit," he muttered to himself, frustrated anger radiating from him.

Lococco glanced at him, waiting for the rest of the imminent outburst.

"God damn him," Vince spat. "I swear, I'll kill him for this."

"All in good time, Buckwheat." Lococco said laconically. "Let's deal with Popeye and Bluto, first, okay? What did your contact say, exactly?"

Vince rubbed the back of his neck, working his shoulders to relieve the tension there. "It looks like they've been planning this for a while," he began. "They've been pulling an extra ten, fifteen percent out of the neighborhoods for the last few years, probably to finance their little coup. I guess that's what Rudy suspected and why he's been trying to drag me into this whole thing for the last two months."

Lococco mused on this. "So what's the likely reaction when Capuzi and the other honchos find out they've iced Aiuppo?"

"Depends," Vince said. "If the boys handle it smooth enough, the rest of the dons will pretty much accept it as a done deal — as long as none of their territories or deals get cut into. If they make a mess, though, they're looking at a war."

"Define ‘mess,’" Roger requested, tersely.

"Anything that means getting Federal heat turned on. If they're quiet about this and can make it look like a simple hit, they're off the hook, especially considering what Tony's been blabbing about me. And I guarantee no one is gonna be celebrating if Rudy decides to take back control... Too many new deals will get scrapped if that happens. But if it turns into a shooting war, the Dons are gonna shoot back."

Roger pondered this for a moment. "So, what would happen, theoretically, if you show up Tuesday with not only proof that Greco was a thief, but that the wünderkind are, too?"

"They're looking at screwing up every alliance they've got. If they break faith with Aiuppo — and get caught with their hands in the cookie jar before they can waste him — what's to say they won't try the same thing with their business associates?" Vinnie explained. "Theoretically, why do you want to know?"

"Can we make a deal with them? Get the heat off you in exchange for our silence?" Lococco asked, with the tone in his voice that signaled a plan in formation.

"Silence about what, Rog? We don't have a thing on them except rumor and hearsay. They've been real careful to ‘discourage' vocal opposition. No one from the neighborhoods is gonna risk getting killed to help us outta a jam."

Lococco considered this as he drove, heading back downtown toward their hotel. "How bout McPike? He got any guys under in the Hardy boys' organization?"

"Not that he's ever let slip to me," Vince said, suspiciously. "Why?"

"’Cuz we’re gonna up the ante on those boys, my friend," Roger assumed his ironic drawl. "Get in touch with Frank and see if he can dig anything up for us."

"Roger, he's not gonna give up another agent just so we can pull Brod and Castellano's tails!" Vince protested.

"Not even to keep you alive? Besides, I'm not suggesting that he blow an agent's cover, just see if there's any solid proof you can go to Capuzi with. Or that can be used as leverage with the ‘girls'," Roger said. "It's worth a shot, unless you're real fond of the idea of getting blown away before we can get to Greco," he added.

"I thought that's what you were here to prevent," Vince muttered, sotto voce.

Lococco wrenched the steering wheel hard over and swung the little sports car to the side of the road in a smoking arc and turned to glare at Terranova. "Exactly, Buckwheat, but if you think I'm just gonna stand by and let you play the target, you've got a seriously over-inflated idea of what I can do. I can't keep you alive if you really don't care about staying that way! I can't do this alone, Vince! I'm not the suicide prevention hot line!" Lococco's grip on the steering wheel was white-knuckled, barely controlled rage blazing in his eyes.

"I'm not suicidal, Roger," Vinnie said quietly.

"That's not what it looks like from where I'm sitting, Vince," Lococco retorted, bitingly. "From here, it looks like you got shit for brains, falling for some mob diva and making an heroic stand for love, honor and famiglia'. Gonna go out with all your guns blazing? If that's the way you want it, go for it. But don't expect me to like it!"

Terranova stared at Lococco, dumbfounded at this tirade. Slowly, it began to dawn on him that there was more here than just frustration at their current circumstances. Lococco was jealous, though of what exactly, Vince was at a loss to say. That realization stunned him momentarily speechless as he stared into Roger's January gaze. "I love her, Rog," he said finally. "I don't expect you to understand why, or even care. She sees me the way I am, Roger. No apologies, no excuses. I like the man I see in her eyes when she looks at me. I'm not walking away from this situation, any more than I walked away from you ten years ago, just because I'm being manipulated by a master con-man. It's not just my life on the line anymore, don't you get it?"

"No, it's mine, too," Lococco snapped.

Vinnie didn't break eye contact. "That was your choice, Roger. You can walk away any time you want and I wouldn't blame you. This is not the way a member of the Billionaire Boy's Club should be spending his vacation," Vinnie told him, gently. "You have no reason to stay, except to help a friend outta a big-time mess. And because I'm asking you to."

Lococco froze, then closed his eyes. Vinnie saw the fight drain out of him as he shook his head self-mockingly. "Stop me if I'm wrong, Buckwheat, but I think we just had our first lover's quarrel." He turned to meet Vinnie's gaze. "She'd better be worth it, ‘cuz I wouldn't do this for anyone but you."


It was nearly midnight before Vince finally got through to McPike in person. "Frank, we got trouble." There would be no breaking it gently.

"What - something else has gone to hell? Cut to the chase, kid. What now?" McPike's voice was colored with exhaustion. Vince could hear it in every slurred syllable.

"Brod and Castellano have a contract out on me 'n Rudy," he stated simply.

"Wait-a-minute, wait a minute! I thought you told me that Capuzi's given you till Tuesday, noon, to get Greco? Are theycrazy?" McPike's frustrated outrage was unmistakable.

"No, but they're starting to get a little desperate. I was out on the streets looking for information this afternoon, and that interesting little item came my way. Seems like Brod and Castellano are planning on taking over Aiuppo's territory. And they're plannin' on nailing us to do it. If they can keep it quiet, they step into Brooklyn as top dogs and the other Dons'll stand back and let them."

"Not on my watch, they won't!" McPike snarled. "They're gonna have a war on their hands, even if I have to call in the National Guard!"

"Frank, that's not the way to play this!" Vince hastily replied, not liking the ragged quality in Frank's voice. "If you can get me any kind of proof that they've been skimming from Rudy, I can go to them and get them to back down."

"Wrong, Vince, you can go to them and get yourself killed!" Frank roared. "Even if I could find something, all it would do is confirm you as a threat to them!"

"They're already pretty clear on that, Frank," Vince said, unable to restrain his cynicism. "But if I can bring Capuzi proof that they have every intention of hitting Rudy and taking over the party, I can make their lives the same shade of hell they've made mine in the last coupla days!"

McPike's sigh was eloquent. "Vinnie, I've got maybe three agents in their organization. Only one of them is in any position to corroborate any of this. I can't ask an agent to blow his own cover!"

"He doesn't have to blow his cover, Frank, all he has to do is come up with hard evidence that the kids are plannin' a hostile take-over," Vince wheedled.

"That's the problem, Vince, there is no hard evidence! All we've got are vague suspicions and some very creative bookkeeping in Brooklyn, none of which gets us anywhere." McPike was grim. "I've been reviewing his reports for the last six months, trying to piece together what the hell was going on, and there's nothing! Those two jackals have covered their tracks very carefully."

Vince sighed. "Frank, I've gotta find something. Anything. And it's gotta be legit. No one is gonna be takin' anything I say on Tuesday on faith."

"Well I can't do anything about it now, Vince. Let me talk to his field supervisor tomorrow and see if anything new is shaking loose with your parading around the city," McPike agreed reluctantly. "Maybe we'll get lucky. We're sure as hell about due!"

~*~

Lococco sat sprawled in the sitting room of the suite in a large wingback chair, feet on the ottoman, nursing a scotch and waiting for Terranova to finish his phone call to McPike. From Vinnie's half of the conversation, the possibility of hard evidence of plots to overthrow on the part of Aiuppo's lieutenants was not looking very good. Roger mused on this, considering various scenarios and their relative workability, as well as their likelihood of producing the desired results. He also braced himself for the likely argument he was going to get from Vinnie when he announced his intention of doing a solo recon of the area around the county lock-up, as well as the Federal Circuit Court buildings where the Grand Jury was to meet on Monday morning. He would be much happier working alone, given the fact that Vince had a sign saying ‘hit me' stuck to his back.

Vince finished his conversation and collapsed onto the couch across the coffee table from Roger. "Frank's going to check with the field supervisors who have agents in place inside Brod and Castellano's business tomorrow and see what he can find out. But that doesn't leave us much time to do anything with it, if he finds it."

"Well, we could try a little poker," Roger proposed. "Are you up for a bluff?"

"Roger, you don't walk into their office in broad daylight, tell them you know they've got their fingers in Aiuppo's till and expect to walk out again without provoking a reaction!" Vince sat upright, leaning forward slightly, his doubts clear on his face.

"On the contrary, Buckwheat, A reaction is exactly what I hope to provoke," Roger smiled, his expression feral. "If they make a move on the spot, there's gonna be a whole office-full of eyewitnesses. That means they'll come after us outside, in short order. If we make ourselves look like targets, we may be able to expose them to Capuzi. He should be able to rein them in long enough for us to deal with Greco and get you out of town."

Vince considered this, clearly not liking the idea, but not seeing an alternative. "Don't underestimate them, Rog. They are smart, and they are mean, and if we aren't real, real careful, we'll wind up dead in their lobby on our way out of the building."

Roger shrugged. "It's one way of pulling their fangs," he said.

"Yeah, but to do it, we gotta stick our heads in their damn mouths! The odds are real good that they'll bite 'em off for us!"

Roger didn't reply, staring into his glass as he swirled the contents absently. "I'm going out in a couple of hours to get the lay of the land along the route they'll be taking Greco tomorrow," he changed the subject.

"I'm coming with you," Vince stated, as Lococco had expected he would.

"No, my friend, you are not." He put the glass down on the coffee table and met Terranova's angry look. "You are a target. They know you're going after Greco. They undoubtedly know where Greco is. Therefore, it's safe to assume that they'll have their guys looking for an easy kill shot in his vicinity. You show up there, and there's a high probability you won't make it to breakfast."

"And what about you, huh? They're not gonna ask you for an I.D. before they open fire on you, Roger. They'll gun you down and then figure out they got the wrong guy. You are not going out there without back-up!"

"Vinnie, Vinnie, give me credit for a few brain cells!" his smile was cynical. "Taking them out is part of my objective, here. I have no objection to thinning the ranks of the Mafia goons waiting in the wings for a shot at you on my way to getting Greco outta jail."

Vince stared at Roger, abruptly — and uneasily — reminded how dangerous Lococco truly was. "You're not an assassin any more, Rog. Murder is a capital offence, in case it slipped your mind."

"Self-defense isn't," Roger replied without heat.

Vinnie's eyes widened as comprehension dawned. "You're gonna draw their fire? Deliberately? Rog, I'm not the one with the death wish here, you are! You cannot go out there without back-up!"

All humor, all light, fled from Lococco's face. "I was doing whole squads of V.C. solo in the ‘Nam while you were in grade school, Vince. Believe me, I know what I'm doing. I know exactly what I'm doing. They won't know what hit them. Literally."

"This isn't the jungle, Roger," Vince exclaimed, truly horrified by the turn the conversation had taken.

"You're wrong, Vince. It's just made outta concrete." Lococco said with finality as he picked up his glass. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I will fear no evil — ‘cuz I'm the meanest sonovabitch in the place,'" he quipped.

"It's not funny, Roger." Vinnie's voice was strangled.

"It wasn't meant to be, Buckwheat." Lococco stared over the rim of his glass across the coffee table at his friend, letting the killer show in his eyes. "I did this for almost fifteen years. This is why I came along. I don't have the burden of scruples to deal with, Vince. I have one goal, and one goal only. That is to keep you alive. Anyway I can. So you are going to sit here, like a good little Federal Agent, and come up with some way to get those rat-bastards off your ass tomorrow. Because we're gonna need a clear field to get at Greco and get any information outta him. I'd rather not be doing a re-enactment of the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral in a hospital corridor tomorrow night. A whole lot of civilians stand to get hurt if we play it that way." He watched Terranova swallow hard, and handed him the glass of scotch. "Drink this. Drink a lot of this. You'll feel like hell in the morning either way, but at least you'll get some sleep," he told the haggard man on the couch.

Any reply Vince was about to make was interrupted by the polite knock on the door. "Ah," Roger sighed, as he rose to open it. "The toys have arrived. I hope Delaney put the extra goodies in the box.

"What goodies?" Vinnie asked, dazedly.

Roger held up a hand to forestall further questions as he opened the door to the suite. The bell captain stood outside with a heavily laden baggage cart, and Roger moved out of his way, allowing him entrance.

The cart was quickly unloaded and the bellman left with a hefty tip in his uniform pocket. Roger pulled open the first of the boxes and began emptying it onto the floor and Vince took the weapons as he unpacked them, laying them on an Edwardian settee to get them out of the way.

"Ah, good. He got the message," Roger said to himself as he pulled a set of binoculars from the packing material, followed by a pair of night-vision goggles. "This should make any hidden agendas pretty visible," he added, and noted the slight lessening of the worry in Vinnie's face. He finished opening all the boxes, pleased that the rifles had all come disassembled, in well padded carrying cases. They would be considerably less conspicuous that way. No sense in terrorizing the hapless hotel housekeepers.

Vince had taken possession of the .357 and turned the heavy pistol over in his hands, admiring the finish of the polished stainless steel. Roger joined him beside the settee and glanced at the gun in Vince's hands. "I never have understood why you would rather lug around a six pound hunk of iron than a little baby like this," he said, snagging the H&K automatic for himself. "Must be remnants of your cowboy days. Me, I grew outta six-shooters when I figured out I'd be humping that iron all over ‘Nam - on foot."

Vince shrugged. "Most of the automatics are a little small for my taste. Someone points a revolver at you, and you're gonna notice. Real fast."

"A taste for the flamboyant," Lococco grinned. They stowed all but the sniper rifle under the beds quietly, Roger ignoring the brooding nature of the silence. "Get some sleep, Vince. I'll be back before noon."

"I don't like this, Roger. At least let me get McPike to send out some troops," Vince pleaded, knowing it was futile.

"I don't work by committee, Vinnie," Roger said dismissively. "And besides, it'd be a cold day in hell before McPike would sanction the kind of job I'm planning on doing tonight."

Roger knew Vince couldn't argue with this. Likely, Frank was none too happy with what he had been told. Vinnie hesitated, then sighed. "Just watch your back, man. I don't want to be hearing about your dead body being found on a rooftop across from the county jail."

"Stop worrying, Buckwheat. It won't be my body you'll be seeing on the morning news. I'm gonna grab a few zees before I hit the dance floor."

Vince watched Roger disappear into his room, nudging the door shut behind himself, and returned to the sofa and the scotch that stood on the coffee table in front of it. It was well over half an hour later before he picked up the glass and began working on emptying the bottle.

~*~

Lococco woke at two forty, within five minutes of the time he set his internal alarm for, rising and donning black jeans, black T-shirt, shoes and raincoat. Light was leaking in around the doorframe, signaling Vinnie's presence in the sitting room. He hoped the agent had drunk enough to put him to sleep, but he wasn't counting on it. Picking up the case that held the broken-down sniper rifle, as well as the binoculars and the infrared goggles, he stepped out of his room.

Vince was sprawled on the couch, glass balanced on his chest, unfocused blue eyes fixed on some unseen thing. He had made a sizable dent in the contents of the bottle, Roger noted. Wordlessly, he found Vinnie's now empty canvas gym bag and put the goggles and binoculars inside. He could feel the weight of Terrranova's gaze as it settled on him. He ignored it. Ready, he straightened and met cerulean eyes. "Get some sleep, Vince," he said again, knowing it was probably pointless. Vince was a brooder, and the burden of a Catholic guilt complex provided ample fodder for worrying. He paused long enough to cap the scotch bottle and return it to the bar area across the room. "I think you've had about enough," he said wryly. "I need you on the vertical tomorrow, Buckwheat." He headed for the door with his equipment and let himself out into the corridor without a backward glance.

"Be careful, Rog," Vince said softly to the closing door.

~*~

Lococco stashed the binoculars and his rifle case in the Z3's trunk, electing to reconnoiter the area near the county jail with only his H&K in its shoulder holster under his arm, and its silencer in a coat pocket. He began by walking the length of the block in front of the jail, scanning the buildings on either side of the street, gauging their suitability as vantage points. He stood in the main doorway of the lock-up and considered the line-of-sight from the three buildings directly across from the jail. The center one of the three was a good eight stories taller than either of the others, which put it out of the running. While he was perfectly capable of hitting a target from as much as a mile away, after a hiatus as long as his, his accuracy wasn't pinpoint enough to guarantee that he wouldn't wind up killing Greco rather than merely wounding him. He wanted the benefit of being within three or four hundred yards of his target. Ultimately, he settled on the structure to the left of the tallest one. It was an older office building, run-down and grimy. Its inhabitants would most likely not even notice him if he were seen leaving the building after the work day had started.

Having chosen his vantage, he then circled the block, entering the alley behind the buildings opposite the jail. It was a minor hurdle to pick the locks on the service entrance of the tallest building and let himself in. While he had chosen its neighbor as his blind, he was not about to let the higher ground go unexplored. It was from there that he expected to be able to spot any of Brod and Castellano's hitters, should they be lurking in the proverbial underbrush. He found the security panel and activated the freight elevator, riding it up to the floor second from the top, fitting the silencer to his pistol. He located the stairs to the roof and crept up them silently, putting on the infrared goggles as he let himself out onto the gravel and tar paper. He stood silently, letting his senses acclimatize to the sounds, the smells, the gestalt of this dreary urban space. His hunter's patience was rewarded by the sibilant whisper of disturbed gravel under someone's foot.

Without a sound, he swiveled his head, tracking the direction from which it had come, waiting to see if he could pinpoint it. It came again, and he stepped forward, making for the front of the building as silently as a cat on the prowl, moving like a shadow, keeping to areas of cover. The eerie green cast the goggles gave everything threw a surreal quality over the stealthy advance across the roof. Roger scanned his field of vision, knowing that the heat signatures of any living creature would glow like phosphorus. He spotted the first man, leaning against the parapet, dragging on a cigarette. A shot would send him careening over the edge to land on the sidewalk below. He considered this, watching the man for several minutes, knowing that a falling body would not go unnoticed, even at four a.m. on a blustery February morning. It would also serve as a warning to any others present that they were not alone here. He weighed his options, and safetied his pistol, tucking it into his raincoat pocket and letting a few of its other contents roll into his gloved hand. The ball bearings were cold, gleaming in the faint light. The figure straightened away from the building's false front, dropping the cigarette butt on the gravel and grinding it out with a toe-tip. It was this sound that had drawn Roger to him.

Lococco flicked a bearing underhand at his head, hearing it thwack into bone. The man went down as though pole-axed, without a cry, only the dull thud of his body hitting the tar paper audible. Roger approached the crumpled form warily, drawing his gun. He prodded the man ungently with his foot, getting no response. Satisfied, he pulled a cable tie out of his pocket and bound the man's hands behind his back, snugging the plastic down tight to the flesh. A second tie, looped through the first, was secured to the ring bolt that was meant to hold a window washing rig. Roger improvised a gag from the man's own shirt, cutting it off him with a switchblade and fastening it hard through his mouth and around his head. One down, an unknown quantity to go, he thought, and began a careful circuit of the roof's perimeter.

He spotted the second one at virtually the same moment the man saw him. Only the fact that he held his pistol at the ready allowed him to fire first as the man's rifle was arcing to cover him. The silenced H&K recoiled in his hand and the second assassin went down.

A quick examination showed that this one, at least, had ceased to be a threat. It had been three years since he had shot at another human being. It was nice to see that his reflexes hadn't deteriorated in that time. Fifteen years in the C.I.A. had rewired his nervous system to a hair trigger and ten years of relatively peaceable retirement had done nothing to change that. It bore out his assertion to Vince that once trained, always trained. He began to entertain hopes of surviving the next few days.

He spared another hour to check the rooftops on either side of the taller building, finding a third hired gun on the roof he had intended as his own perch. Discretion was the better part of valor, he conceded, and he had begun to seriously wonder if the area around the Court Building was as heavily populated with vermin. Perhaps some further pest control was in order. Doing the deed from the Court building also had the advantage of reducing the number of probable police officers, making a clean escape less tricky.

He returned to street level, carefully locking up behind himself. The three hoods could be collected by the authorities later in the morning, leaving nothing but a mystery. He got into his car and headed the thirty blocks to the Federal Court Building. The scenario replayed itself, a near carbon of his activities at the jail. The two additional hitters were rendered unconscious and cable tied to some sturdy architecture to await the later mercies of the police. Roger collected his rifle case and binoculars from the trunk of his car and returned to the roof, assembled the rifle, attaching its silencer, and settled himself to wait.

It was a quarter to nine on a gray New York morning when Tony Greco made his appearance in the back of a cruiser, handcuffed to a police officer. Roger said a thank you to McPike for having included the most current photo on file of the man in the briefcase with the transcripts as he sighted down the rifle barrel. "Man," he muttered, "Vinnie, you must be the only good-looking guy in the organization."

Greco, his back to the street, was being led unprotestingly up the stairs. Lococco took a deep breath, timing his shot to the pause between heartbeats, and fired, twice. Through the scope, he saw the fountaining of blood from the wounds in each thigh, just below the buttocks. The rifle fired low, he noted with professional interest, lowering the gun and retreating behind the building's façade. Hurriedly, he dismantled the weapon, fitting the pieces back into the case. He made his way rapidly into the building, this one a transient hotel, meeting no one on his way down the stairs. He left the building from the rear, hearing the telltale thunder of flatfoots on their way in the front. He crossed the alley behind the hotel, heading for the Z3, and unlocking his car, he climbed in. All in all, a successful bit of work, and with only one fatality. He had not lost his touch, he thought with a certain amount of satisfaction.

He returned to the Waldorf near ten a.m. in excellent spirits and roused a predictably hung-over Terranova from a restless sleep. "Well, we've got five less goons to worry about," he told Vince, grinning at the groggy unease in his face. "Only one of them permanently, I'm sure your conscience will rejoice in knowing," he added for good measure. "Better call McPike and have him arrange to send some trash collectors to the jail and the court house. I left a few parcels scattered on various rooftops in the area."

Vinnie blinked. "How many did you shoot?" he asked unhappily.

"You mean besides Greco? Only the one who got as far as pointing a gun in my direction. I told you it would be self-defense." Roger pulled off his gloves, slipping them into his coat pocket before he began shedding clothing on his way to the bathroom.

"So what did you do to the other four? Whisper sweet nothings in their ears?" Vinnie replied sharply.

Roger shuddered melodramatically. "Not hardly, Buckwheat," he answered. "None of ‘em were my type. Besides the low-tech solution worked better." He flicked a ball bearing at the empty scotch glass on Vinnie's night stand and it exploded into powder, the noise making Vince flinch.

~*~

Terranova watched Roger leave his bedroom, disappearing into the bathroom, and he rubbed his palms over his face as though trying to scrub off the night's growth of beard. The relief that washed over him left him feeling wobbly. Lococco had survived, intact, and had exercised considerably more restraint in his dealings with Castellano's gangsters than he had feared. He dialed McPike on his cell phone with a conscience clearer than he'd hoped, and told him where to find the trussed up goons Roger had left littering the scene, garnering a rather vivid description of the condition in which Greco had arrived at the hospital in return.

"Your buddy has a mean sense of humor," McPike concluded.

"Keep it in mind before you jerk him around, Frank. It's dangerous to piss him off," Vince laughed.

"I'll take it under advisement, ‘Buckwheat'," Frank retorted. "I have a meeting in New York in a coupla hours to talk to my agent inside Brod's organization. Where'll you be?"

"I don't know. We haven't discussed an itinerary for the day. I'll leave the cell on, though," Vince assured him.

"See that you do. If there's anything concrete, I'm gonna want to lay it on you as soon as possible."

"No problem," Vince said. "I want anything you get." He disconnected, folding up the little phone and tossing it to the foot of his bed as he untangled himself from the sheets and got up, wandering into the sitting room. His head ached and his mouth felt like the bottom of a gym locker, but it was not the worst hangover he'd ever had, for which he considered himself lucky. He perused the bar's refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of mineral water, downing the whole quart without stopping.

"Don't choke," Lococco told him, entering the room in nothing but a towel and a grin. "Your turn," he gestured in the direction of the bathroom. "You talk to McPike?"

Vince nodded as he finished the water. "You are a sadistic bastard," he grinned back at Roger. "Frank said to tell you nice shooting."

Lococco's grin flashed brighter, then he sobered. "So, you come up with any way to de-fang the brothers Sicilian at the bottom of that bottle you hit last night?"

"Nothing new," Vince confessed ruefully. "The only wrinkle I think we should add is to have Rudy contact Capuzi, if he hasn't already, and let the Don in on the fact that they're defying his grace. Course, Capuzi's gonna want proof," he pointed out.

"Which is exactly what we are trying to provide. Without getting dead, preferably." Roger returned.

"It's the ‘getting dead' part I think you need to reevaluate, Rog. It's gonna be bordering on suicidal to walk in there."

"Hey, I gave you all night and most of a hundred dollar bottle of scotch to come up with something better, so get Rudy to let the goomba know what's going on," Roger reminded him. "Go get cleaned up. We have a social call to make."


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