So the first thing I should maybe get straight is that everyone’s always referring to us as a family. “The family,” they call us, like that’s what we call ourselves. It’s closer to the truth than they get with their various other nicknames — the Mafia, the mob, what have you. But calling us “the family” is like calling your pop’s corner store “the family” because he gave your little brother a job. There ain’t much more to it than that. And when it comes down to it, the thing that keeps us hanging together isn’t a sense of family responsibility. Not that we don’t love each other, but love don’t take you far in a dangerous business like this one. No, the thing that keeps us all together is fear. The fear that if you don’t help out another guy in need, that might be the last time you get the chance to make that choice. The fear that if you do help him out, maybe there’s someone bigger you pissed off. Hey look, our little organization is the best thing to happen to the Italians. It just ain’t that great.
So I guess what I’m saying is that when someone comes knocking on my door at two in the morning looking for help — I wouldn’t say that I don’t take it seriously exactly. But I ain’t afraid to let him wait on the doorstep a minute or two, take the time to make myself decent. Maybe give him the chance to get sick of waiting, run off to someone else’s doorstep. I’ll come along eventually, I don’t got much choice in the matter. So when I heard Rocco Moretti pounding on the door I didn’t sweat too hard about making him wait in the snow for a few minutes. Worst case scenario, he looks a little pissed off when I open the door.
Lucky for Rocco my pop don’t got the same philosophy. When I got out to the front room Poppa was there, wrapped in his worn grey sweater, his moustache tousled and his bald head criss-crossed with red wrinkles from his pillow, standing next to Rocco. And Rocco didn’t look pissed. He looked scared. I ain’t seen many guys look that scared, but I knew what it meant, same as any Italian in Brooklyn would know.
“Mammina,” Poppa said — “little mamma,” his nickname for me for years. He sounded scared too. “You know Rocco?”
“I know him,” I said. “Hello, Rocco. You look like shit.”
“Always a charmer, Maxie. It’s a real surprise you ain’t got rid of this one yet, Mr. Colazzo.”
Poppa snorted. “You both go into the kitchen. Rocco, you hungry?”
Rocco shivered and rubbed his hands together as if he was still cold from the snow. I didn’t think it was the cold making him shiver, though.
“I couldn’t eat a thing, Mr. Colazzo,” he said.
Poppa nodded. “You heat up the zitis then, Maxie. Give him a seat. I’ll bring in the grappa. I think we all need a drink.”
I showed Rocco into the kitchen.
“I really ain’t hungry, Maxie.” He stamped his feet on the cracked yellow linoleum and rubbed his hands together to warm them up. And no wonder — January in New York City, and this guy walked outside in just a three-piece suit and a battered fedora, not even stopping to put on gloves.
“Did my pop lock the door behind you?” I flicked the switch on the gas oven and heard the soft rush of the heat coming on.
“What? Yeah, yeah I guess so.”
“You know what the older generation is like, Rocco. If a problem can’t be solved with feeding someone, it ain’t worth fixing. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, you can’t do shit if you ain’t had a good meal.”
Rocco shook his head. “You were always a weird kid, Maxie.”
“I prefer brainy, but I’ll take weird if that’s the best you can do.”
The zitis were on the windowsill like usual; in the wintertime, outside was better than a refrigerator, and living on the second floor meant that we didn’t have to worry much about wandering food thieves. I opened the window. The chill was like adrenaline delivered straight to the vein, sending a thin column of cold like an icicle from my lungs to my toes. I heard Poppa come in behind me, clinking the delicate crystal grappa glasses in his hands.
“Close the window, Maxie,” he said. “Rocco’s cold, can’t you see?”
I grabbed the icy baking dish. “I was getting the zitis.”
“Really, Mr. Colazzo, I’m not hungry.”
Poppa nodded and arranged the grappa glasses. They had been in the family for years, brought over from Palermo when Poppa was only about twelve himself — thin as a man’s finger, but with the sweeping hourglass curve of a woman, etched with spiky grape blossoms. Rocco picked it up between two tiny fingers and gulped it in one shot, then set down his glass for more.
“So.” Poppa poured him another glass; this one Rocco sipped slowly.
“Sorry to drink it all, Mr. Colazzo. Big guy like me, it takes a lot to calm me down.” The color was beginning to come back into his face, though he still sat all tense and straight, and looked over Poppa’s shoulder every couple minutes at the front door.
“It’s no problem. So tell me what it is sent you in here at two in the morning to wake me and my daughter up.”
Rocco took another sip, the tiny cup shaking between his fingers.
“I’ve had a shock, Mr. Colazzo, I won’t lie to you.”
“Anyone could see that. You want me to ask Maxie to leave, talk man to man?”
“She’s the reason I’m here.” He looked from Poppa to me, and I felt my throat drop down into my stomach. He knows. I rested a hand on the drawer pull behind me. It wasn’t the knife drawer per se, but I knew enough about the organization to keep a sharp one in every drawer just in case. I guess my face must have given it away anyway, because Rocco snorted. “Don’t act like that, Maxie. I ain’t here to bust you or your old man. You think I would have sat at your table and had a drink with you if I were?”
“I don’t know your style that well, Rocco.” But I relaxed my grip on the drawer. “And I don’t know what you mean by coming here for me then.”
“Look, it ain’t no secret around here that you have a nose for information, Maxie. You been doing jobs for your dad for a few years now. They say there ain’t nobody better than you at getting to the bottom of things. I don’t got no problem with it. If it’s just us at this table, I think the dons got it backward, not letting the women be soldatti. I’m a — what do you call it? A feminist.”
I snorted. “So what do you want then, Mr. Feminist?”
“Like I said. Your help.” He finished off his third glass of grappa, and reached into his coat. “Relax,” he said. “I’m just getting something.” He pulled out a long yellow envelope, thick in the middle, and slid it down the counter toward me. “Here.”
The envelope was as cold as the air from the window. Inside was a packet of photographs, slightly underdeveloped — someone had been in a rush to get them to him. Five full-body shots of a corpse, along with a few close-ups of his wounds.
“These look like police photos.” I spread them out on the counter in front of me.
“One of our guys on the force got them to me. Recognize what you see?”
“What, the guy?” Middle-aged, with leathery skin and a web of wrinkles around his eyes. Hair stringy and fair. Nose looked like it had been broken. Fingers calloused. “Never seen him.”
“Not who. What.”
I looked again. “Looks like the fingers are broken. Just there, just between…” I scooped up the photos and spread them out again on the table, between the three of us. “Between the first and second knuckles.”
“How you know that, Maxie?” Poppa asked.
“The way they’re bent, look at it. No finger’s supposed to look that way.” I squinted down at the pictures of the throat. Garrotted, but not hard enough to kill; there was a fine, pale bruise, almost invisible, but the wire hadn’t cut into the flesh. Two bullets right into the heart had done for him, and the lobes of both ears were gone. And that’s when I knew what I was looking at.
Now, I ain’t saying that what assassini do for the organization is pretty, because it ain’t. But killers are just like anyone else. They take pride in their work — at least the good ones do — and after a while, maybe get to see it as a kind of art form. If you know what you’re looking for, you can come to recognize an assassin like you recognize a famous painter. There’s no more resemblance between them than there is between a Rembrandt and a Rafael. I looked up at Rocco.
“Is this what I think it is?”
“That’s what I said when I saw it.”
I pushed the pictures over to Poppa, who turned white. “This was…before your time, mammina.”
“Not by much.”
“Now, I’m not privy to the workings of the higher-ups.” Poppa cleared his throat. “But I had been led to believe that Gianni Falcone was dead.”
Rocco looked down at his hands awkwardly. So that’s what he was afraid of.
Gianni Falcone hadn’t been on a first-name basis with most people not in the organization. To the rest of Brooklyn he was known as “La Spada” — the sword. People had been known to blow out their own brains once they found out he was coming for them. One guy killed his whole family rather than let Gianni get his hands on them. Once Gianni was on your trail, the only escape was to beat him to the job — and any way you could think of to do it was bound to be faster and more pleasant than what he had in store for you.
His preferred method was simple. First, he’d break your hands — not so you couldn’t fight, but so you couldn’t escape. Then he’d tie a wire around your neck — loose enough that you wouldn’t choke, but tight enough that if you moved your head from side to side at all, you’d either choke or go unconscious from the pressure on the veins in your neck, and then choke. Your two options were either to slowly strangle yourself, or to sit perfectly still, look Gianni straight in the eye, and talk.
Gianni only wanted to talk about two things. The first was whatever he was after you for — what you’d heard, what you’d seen, what you knew — and who else knew about it. Chances were good that anyone you named would wind up on Gianni’s list, of course. If you weren’t in the mood to talk about that, then he’d talk about all the ways he could kill you. And your wife. And your kids. Most people were willing to return to the first topic after that.
If you weren’t so willing, there were other ways. Gianni might not rush to take your life. Instead, he’d take something a little more poetic, something that wouldn’t kill you but that you were sure to miss. Your ears if you heard something you shouldn’t. Your tongue if you talked. Your hands if you got into something that wasn’t none of your business.
After he’d gotten what he wanted out of you, you knew you’d die one way or another. The benefit of making it to the end of the conversation was that Gianni would give you the easiest way out. His preferred method was two shots to the heart — one to kill you, and one to make sure. I never heard of Gianni really needing the second shot, but he always took it anyway.
“So Gianni ain’t dead,” I said.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Rocco, don’t give me that shit. It’s all over your face.”
“Then this goes nowhere.” He leaned back in the chair and eyed me.
“Look,” I said. “You came to me. Woke up my Pops in the middle of the night. I can’t help you if you ain’t gonna tell me what’s up. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, a theory ain’t no good if you don’t got all the information.”
“Yeah? Well to paraphrase your mother, go fuck yourself. What I’m about to tell you no one outside the five heads of Brooklyn’s supposed to know, so if you tell anyone I’ll kill you myself.”
“So tell me already.”
Rocco poured himself another glass of grappa. “You’re right that Gianni ain’t dead. At least not as far as anyone knows.”
“How could you possibly lose track of a guy like Gianni?”
“Yeah, it happens to guys who owe us money or soldiers we’re giving to the feds. It don’t happen to guys like Gianni.”
“Yeah, well I guess it does, cause it did.” He took another gulp. “Jesus, Maxie, let me finish. Like I was saying. We got wind of it that the cops had been onto him a couple years back. They’d known about him for a while, but we kept it all quiet. Then this one detective, O’Brien — just promoted, wants to make a big name for himself — gets it into his head that he wants to take Gianni down. Next few months seems like all we’re doing is putting out fires, making Gianni lay low until this O’Brien finds something else to distract him. But it ain’t happening. It’s Gianni or nothing as far as O’Brien’s concerned. Eventually there’s an execution downtown. Looks sort of like Gianni’s work. Same kind of gun, roughing up the guy a bit before you end him, that sort of thing — and O’Brien’s sure he can tie it to Gianni good enough to satisfy a judge. Only thing is, Gianni didn’t have nothing to do with it.”
“What, like a copycat?”
“More like an admirer. Kid by the name of Pauly, had dreams of being a big shot someday and thought he’d off a guy like Gianni to build up his reputation as a guy you don’t want to fuck with. But Gianni don’t got no patience for him. He figures Pauly set him up on purpose, maybe hoping to get his job.”
“And did he?”
“Fuck no, Pauly’s dumb as shit. He never had half the brains to pull off a stunt like that. But Gianni wasn’t thinking clear. Said that even if he wasn’t gunning for him on purpose, people still got to be taught a lesson about copying his style. He wanted Pauly dead, and so he asked the heads for permission.”
“But they turned him down.”
“Course they turned him down. Not only that, they told Pauly to defend himself if Gianni came after him.”
I refilled our glasses. Rocco was starting to talk a little faster, give a little more information, which is something I like in a potential client. “So what then?”
Rocco didn’t drink it right away this time, just swirled the grappa around in his glass a little and stared down into it like a crystal ball. “Last sign we had that Gianni was alive was when Pauly turned up dead. Him and his girl both. Shot in the head while they slept. Believe me, we looked long and hard for Gianni. Had guys out all over the city. We even contacted our associates in Sicily, asked them to keep an eye out. But nothing. No one’s heard a thing about him in two years.”
I spread the pictures out again, rearranged them, slid them back and forth and around until I’d seen them from every angle, in every order. They didn’t have anything new to tell me.
“Why would Gianni come back now?”
“Fuck if I know. For all we know he’s dead. Maybe Pauly woke up and got a shot off into Gianni before he died, and Gianni bled to death in an alley somewhere. Maybe Gianni’s back in New York after hiding out someplace we wouldn’t look. Utah or some shit like that. Maybe he’s been in New York this whole time. He was a smart guy, he could keep hidden if he wanted to — and he had every reason to want to. All I know is that if Gianni’s alive and killing people in New York City, it spells bad news for a lot of people.”
“He’s right, Maxie,” Poppa said. “Someone like that, if he believes that the whole world is against him, there is nothing he won’t do for revenge. He’s been gone this long, he has nothing to lose but his life, and maybe he thinks he as good as lost it already.”
That was no joke. Gianni had disappeared believing that the heads were protecting the guy setting him up to the cops. If he came back with a vendetta against the heads and everyone working with them, then almost every Italian in Brooklyn was in his crosshairs. I finished my drink. I’d had enough that the pictures were beginning to bleed together into one big pile of bodies. Maybe it was just the power of suggestion.
Rocco put a hand on my arm. I tried to pull it away, but he had a tight grip, and when he leaned forward his eyes were desperate. “Please, Maxie,” he said. “I know you don’t got no reason to help me here. But I also know the work you done for your pop. You find things out. You fix things. You can get to the bottom of anything you want, and keep quiet about it. That’s a skill we need — that I need. If you were ever to make an effort to branch out, maybe become a full member of the organization, I’d help you do that. All you have to do is find Gianni Falcone.”
I laughed to myself. “I don’t know if they even got a word for that, Rocco. Wise gal? Made woman? Goodfemale?”
Rocco shrugged. “So we’ll come up with something. You’ll be the fucking suffragette of the mob.”
“It’s a steep price. Gianni Falcone ain’t chicken shit as far as targets go.”
“We all paid something to get into this business. The price don’t feel as steep if you want it bad enough.”
I wanted it. But how bad was bad enough I couldn’t say. Gianni wasn’t the only danger out there. If I didn’t find him, or if I didn’t keep quiet enough about my involvement and pissed off the wrong people, or if a hundred other little things went wrong, it meant trouble for me, for my pop, for everyone. But if Gianni went free, wasn’t it the same thing? I nodded.
“Here’s hoping it ain’t Gianni.”
“I’ll drink to that.” He straightened up and rubbed his hands together in anticipation of the cold. Poppa stood up too, bracing himself on the table until the arthritis in his knees loosened up.
“If you want to stay out of the cold, our sofa is available for you.”
“No, I better get home.”
“Here.” I followed Rocco to the front door and got a scarf and gloves from the basket by the door. “Just don’t forget to bring them back.”
“And don’t — Well. You know. Make it home safe is all.”
I made sure the lock and bolt were both tight behind him before heading back down the hall. Poppa was standing by my bedroom door, his face almost as grey as his hair.
“I don’t like this, Maxie,” he said, but weakly, like he already knew what my answer would be.
“I know, Poppa.”
“I go to a lot of trouble keeping it secret how you do work for me.”
“And now you go and throw it all away because why? Because nothing.”
“Because of Gianni, Poppa. If Gianni’s out there, he’s coming for everyone.”
Poppa snorted. “Gianni is coming for the capos and they know it. That Rocco, he just does what they say with no questions. But I know how it is. I been through a lot of capos in my time, and they come and go without no trouble to us down the ladder. You and me, we keep out of this and we’ll make it through.”
I wasn’t stupid enough to try and change his mind. Poppa was of the old school. The organization was like the government — in a lot of ways was the government, at least as far as most of the Italians in America were concerned. Big, unwieldy, and demanding, but ultimately necessary to keep society going. Me, I’ve always been a bit more of a Platonist as far as theories of government go. A place for everyone and everyone in their place. Being a woman shouldn’t come into it much.
“If I ain’t gonna do this for them, then what the hell is it for, Pops? Something to keep me out of trouble until I get married and start popping out a kid every year?”
“Would that be so terrible?”
“I don’t exactly recall you being thrilled about spending your youth changing diapers and hanging up laundry. You was at the speakeasies back when they was running, or illegal gambling, or standing outside the baseball stadium fixing games. Don’t think we didn’t know.”
Poppa turned red. “I give up everything for my family! I work to put food on your table, buy clothes for you and your brothers to go to school. Even now I help you make some money, not just be lazy in the house all day. Don’t tell me I wasn’t a father to you.”
“You’re a great father. Pops, you know that. But…” I sighed. “Okay, look. Just because something was good for Momma don’t mean it’s good for me. Just because something was good for you don’t mean it’s just for you neither. I want this. You always said I was the brainy kid. I want to do something more with that than argue prices with the butcher or keep track of how many grandkids I got.”
“This could kill you, Maxie. This ain’t just about something to keep you out of trouble no more. You could die.” He put a hand on my shoulder. Poppa and me are almost the same height now, after years of carrying the organization’s secrets bent his shoulders for good. He don’t do much for them now that he’s an old guy, but the effects don’t go away. Being born into it means you ain’t never out. Maybe that was why Gianni came back. Maybe he tried to get out too, before he realized there ain’t no such thing. It was hard not to think of it, looking into Poppa’s sad, grey face. All the memories he’d hoped he wouldn’t have to pass along to his kids. I was the girl of the family, I had an easy way out, and he would never be able to understand why I wouldn’t take it.
“I won’t die, Poppa,” I said. It was bullshit, but bullshit is sometimes all you have. He shook his head.
“Okay, Maxie. You made up your mind. I can’t change it for you.”
“We got that in common.”
His smile was sadder than tears. He didn’t say goodnight, just shuffled into his bedroom and closed the door.