MY POPS ONCE told me that a real man provides for his family, no matter what the circumstances. Ironic since he disappeared when I was ten, leaving my mom to raise me and my two brothers alone. For months, I watched Ma sit by the phone, waiting for the call that he’d been found. Every time the doorbell rang, dread would fill her eyes as she dropped her head and shuffled to the door.
But the bastard never showed. Pops went to work one day, and we never saw his face again.
Ma did her best, but raising three growing boys was no picnic. Especially since Pops had married her right out of high school and hadn’t allowed her to work. With no skills and no work history, she did what she could and went to work cleaning houses. She exhausted herself, pulling double minimum-wage shifts for fucking peanuts.
So, when I saw an opportunity to help her out, I jumped on it.
It all started outside my grade school…
Principal Jones leaned against the bike rack beside me, waiting for Ma to show as he blabbed on about the importance of keeping my hands to myself. I wanted to point out that if my classmates weren’t such loud-mouthed assholes I wouldn’t have to use my fists to shut them up, but knew that’d just dig me further into the hole.
While we waited, a decked-out black-and-chrome Jaguar slid into one of the handicap spaces. The front doors opened, and two men dressed in suits and shiny black shoes emerged. The driver hung back, taking his time, while the passenger, a broad-shouldered, no-necked, mean-looking bastard, approached me and Principal Jones with his head on a swivel and one hand in his pocket. Still watching us, he stepped aside and waited as the driver approached.
The driver was tall with dark hair and features. His suit jacket was stretched across a generous potbelly, and a lit cigarette hung from his lips. After he straightened his jacket, he took a drag as his gaze drifted from Principal Jones to me. He gave me a calculated smile, like he was sizing me up.
Refusing to be intimidated by some rich old asshole, I stood straighter and met his gaze. He chuckled, flicking the butt of his cigarette away. Expecting my principal to go ballistic about the man smoking on school property, I turned to watch the fireworks, but Principal Jones was walking back toward the school, leaving me alone with the two suits.
“You Gino Leone’s boy?” the older man asked, still watching me. He had a scar on his cheek and the bridge of his nose zigzagged like it had been broken a time or two.
The mention of my pops gave me pause. When Ma had reported his disappearance, she told me and my brothers the cops would be by to ask us questions. It had been months and the pigs hadn’t bothered. The men in front of me didn’t look like any cops I’d ever seen, but I wasn’t going to risk it. If they knew something about Pops, I wanted to hear what they had to say. I nodded. Then, because my inner voice of self-preservation told me to be a little more respectful, I added a hasty, “Yes sir. How do you know my father?”
Instead of answering, the old man stepped closer and patted me on the shoulder. I was big for a ten-year-old, but his hand was enormous. It slid down to my bicep and wrapped around my arm. Shocked, I watched his giant mitt probe my muscles. A few of his knuckles were bent funny, like they’d been broken or popped out of place too many times. He was a fighter, which seemed odd paired with his nice suit and round gut.
“We can work with this,” the old man said to his companion. “It’ll take some training, but you got balls, kid, and that’s what matters. You did a good thing today,” he said, pulling my attention back to his face. Something lingered behind his eyes. Pride? Amusement? I couldn’t get a read on him.
A good thing? I searched for sarcasm in his tone, but he seemed genuinely pleased with me, which didn’t make sense since I’d been suspended for breaking a kid’s arm. Hell, I wasn’t pleased with myself. Principal Jones said Mom would most likely get stuck with the kid’s hospital bill. She’d probably ground me for life. Then she’d have to pick up a third job. Just thinking about her having to work more because of my temper made me sick to my stomach. She was already so damn tired all the time.
I hadn’t done a good thing; I’d royally fucked up.
The old man grinned, splitting his face in two and making him look like a frog. “Not just a good thing. A great thing. A smart thing.” He leaned closer to me and added, “You opened doors for your future today, kid. Doors that pay well.” He eyed my too-small T-shirt, my faded jeans, and my worn sneakers. “You look like you could use a little extra cash.”
I knew exactly what I looked like, but his words still stung. I scowled at him, and he held up his hands and shook his head.
“Just an observation. No offense meant. Look, you did me a favor today, so I’m trying to return the gesture. That’s how it works with the Family. You scratch our backs, we scratch yours. Now, you interested in some work or not?”
I glanced back at the school and then scanned the street. Principal Jones hadn’t returned, there was no sign of my mom, and the entire conversation was confusing me. “I did you a favor?” I asked.
“You helped my nephew.”
I blinked. Nephew?
“The boy being harassed by that little shithead you attacked.”
My mind raced, trying to think of who he could be talking about. My fight today had been to fulfill my own personal vendetta. Some new kid, a jackass richie-rich, had been pissing all over the school, trying to mark his territory. Yesterday he’d been in the lunch line behind me, close enough to see the free-lunch status on the check-in computer and had been talking shit about it ever since. I’d been waiting for an opportunity to teach him a lesson, which came today when he was stuffing a kid into a locker after recess. I hadn’t even seen who was being bullied, just saw the richie-rich with his back turned and pounced. I thought back to the layout of the lockers, trying to figure out who the poor sap shoved into his locker could have been. “D’Angelo Mariani?” I asked.
“His friends and family call him Angel,” the old man said. “Mariani.”
Even if I had never heard the name before, the reverent way he uttered it spoke of power and authority. But all Vegas natives knew who the Marianis were. They were one of the big Families who ran several of the casinos and businesses. The name was everywhere. I don’t know why I’d never made the connection with D’Angelo. Probably because he was a scrawny, nice kid. Not at all what I’d expect a Mariani to be like.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
He cracked a smile and turned toward his associate. “Gets right down to business. Just like his old man.”
“How do you know my father?” I asked again.
Emotion flickered across the old guy’s face, but before I could place it, it was gone. He nodded. “Don’t worry about it, kid.” When I didn’t respond, he added, “Good man. Stand-up guy.”
The way he didn’t use tense wasn’t lost on me. Nobody seemed to know whether Pops was alive or dead, and if this guy knew, he wasn’t telling. Pops had warned me to stay away from the families. I knew he’d tell me to run… to get the hell away from the Marianis.
But if Pops wanted a say in my life, he should have come home.
The old man pulled out a billfold and made a big show of thumbing through his wad of cash. Hundreds, fifties, and twenties floated through his fingers like they were Monopoly money of no real consequence, but it was more cash than I’d ever seen. He tugged several bills loose and offered them to me. It had to be at least four hundred dollars. My mind raced, imagining what I could do with it. I had to force my gaze back to his face and remind myself I still didn’t know what he wanted from me.
“My nephew needs a friend. A guy on the inside who can look out for him. He’s a smart kid, but his blood will earn him some enemies. You do this for me, and I’ll make sure your family is taken care of. Protected. Capisce? Understand?”
My attention drifted back to the cash. I was young, but I wasn’t stupid. There were no Good Samaritans in Vegas. Everyone sought the big payout, and nobody gave away anything for free. “You want me to be his friend and protect him? That’s it?” And he was willing to pay me hundreds for it? There had to be some sort of catch.
“Yeah. You’ll get training. Like I said, you got balls, but we gotta get you in shape and teach you some shit. Other opportunities might arise—chances for you to earn more—but Angel will always be your primary responsibility. What do you say, kid?” He added a few more twenties to the stack, sweetening the deal. “You ready to step up and become a man? Ready to help your mom out?”
The mention of Ma made me pause. Whoever this man was, he was too personal… too familiar. It felt strange, worrisome.
He chuckled. “I’m asking you to be my nephew’s friend and bodyguard, Franco Leone. You better believe I know everything there is to know about you. My family is my world, and I protect them. Can I count on you to protect them, too?”
I knew nothing about the old man. Not a damn thing. Angel, however, I did know. He was a quiet kid. Respectful. Smart. A little geeky. I could hang out with him and watch his back. Especially if it meant helping out my mom.
Before I could agree the old man said, “Leave everything to me. Don’t worry about this bullshit suspension. I’ll have a chat with your principal and set him straight. You make sure your ass is in school tomorrow and every day after. Your mom will never see a hospital bill for what you did to that kid. I’ll handle it.”
It was too good to be true. “You can really do all that?” I asked.
“‘All that’?” He laughed, and his associate joined in. They carried on for an uncomfortable minute while I wondered what was so funny. Finally, the old guy wiped a tear from his eye and said, “Kid, you have no idea what I’m capable of.”
Something in his tone made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, but I was desperate. He offered me the money again, and this time I took it.
“I’ll be his friend. I’ll protect him,” I promised.
Mom’s beat-up old sedan turned the corner and came barreling toward us. Bracing for the verbal ass-whipping I was about to receive, I stashed the cash in my pocket and tried to look apologetic. “I don’t suppose you can help me with her?”
The old man chuckled. “I’ll see what I can do.” He squeezed my shoulder in a gesture that bordered on painful, getting my attention. When I looked up at him, his smile had disappeared.
“He’s putting a lot of faith in you. Do not disappoint him, Franco,” he said.
Before I could ask who this mysterious ‘he’ was, the old man’s smile was back and directed toward the Celica, which screeched to a stop beside his Jaguar.
“Make sure she gets those brakes looked at,” the old man said. “Ron’s Brake and Tire on Decatur will help you out. Tell ’em Carlo sent you. You take care of your mom now. We owe her that much at least.” He shuffled me toward the car as my mom was getting out, extending his hand to Mom. “Mrs. Leone, hello, so nice to meet you. You’ve got a great boy here. You should be proud.”
Mom’s brows knit together in confusion as she looked from the man to me.
“Now don’t you worry about this little misunderstanding one bit. A bully was picking on my great nephew and Franco here stepped in and defended him. It was admirable, and I’m fixin’ to go in there and talk to the principal right now. You have my word Franco’s suspension will be lifted. You’ll be getting an apology call from the principal tonight.”
Ma’s expression softened. “You helped a kid?” she asked me.
I decided right then that protecting Angel Mariani would start with making him sound less like a pussy. If I was going to be his best friend, he needed to be someone I could respect. “He got jumped. It wasn’t a fair fight.”
The old man released my shoulder to pat me on the back and I knew I’d said the right thing. He headed toward the school and I climbed into Ma’s car and put on my seatbelt.
“You really helped a kid?” she asked again.
Well if that didn’t make me feel like shit. Was it so difficult to believe I’d done something nice? “Ma—”
“Don’t look at me like that, Franco. This is the third suspension since your father… disappeared. You can’t blame me for expecting this time to be like the others.”
No, I couldn’t. Especially since I couldn’t have cared less about D’Angelo Mariani when I’d done it. “Yeah.” I patted the cash in my pocket. “Seemed like the right thing to do.”
I watched the old man disappear behind the school doors, realizing I hadn’t gotten a phone number from him. Somehow, I knew it didn’t matter. He seemed like the type of guy who could find me if he needed me.
It’s been thirteen years since I accepted the cash from Angel’s great uncle, Carlo Mariani, sealing my position as Angel’s best friend and bodyguard. In that thirteen years, I’d seen Carlo deal with a lot of shit, but I’d never seen him look as unsettled as he did today. Suit rumpled, he waved me into his office and paused in front of his desk long enough to extinguish his cigarette before lighting up another one. He took a long drag and turned his attention to me.
Parking my ass in the nearest chair, I watched him as he resumed his pacing.
“We got a problem, Bones. One of the Durantes has popped his head out of whatever hole he’s been hiding in.”
The Durantes had run the underworld of Las Vegas before Angel’s dad, Dominico Mariani, took them down about twenty-five years ago. The Marianis didn’t just take the Durantes down, they wiped them out. Every male—regardless of age—was supposed to be dead. That was how families made sure the younger generations didn’t come seeking revenge.
Carlo snorted, spearing me with a look. “Turns out the inside man I trusted to do the job didn’t get it done. Joey Durante lived. He’s Maurizio’s youngest, and was only a few years old when Dom took over Vegas. This Joey son-of-a-bitch is back in town now, talking about how he’s come to reclaim his throne.”
One guy, talking shit out of the side of his mouth. He didn’t even have a family to back him. Wondering why this had Carlo so keyed up, I said, “I’ll set him straight.”
Carlo stopped pacing and stared at me, taking another drag from his cigarette. “This asshole could destroy everything we’ve built, Bones. I don’t want him talking to anyone, you hear me?”
I nodded. “Yessir.”
“Whack him and anyone he’s with, regardless of sex, age, whatever. I want this loose end tied off.”
I couldn’t help but wonder why one man had my boss so unhinged, but the whys were far above my pay grade. Besides, I couldn’t help but feel relieved that Carlo wasn’t calling me to the carpet over a weasel named Matt Deter who used to be one of my distributors. Matt had stiffed me and disappeared on Halloween. I’d been after the little piss ant ever since, but he always seemed to be one step ahead of me. I’d paid out the money Matt owed to Carlo, but I couldn’t let that shit slide. It was bad for business. I had every intention of catching Matt and snapping his scrawny little neck… for several reasons. First, I planned to do whatever was necessary to get him to squeal about who was flooding the streets with dirty dope.
But, apparently revenge on Matt would have to be tabled for now.
Nodding, I said, “You got it, boss. What do we have on Joey Durante?”