They were still crumpled up like newspaper on the floor of the front room of the Rialto, empty bottles in their hands, when the garbage truck rumble shook them up and back into the theater. They ran to the back door and scrambled up to the narrow vent to peer out at the driveway again: the heavy-duty truck was backing up to the dumpster. Vinnie put his mouth up to the vent and yelled, trying to get their attention, but the truck was noisy, and then Sonny jabbed him in the ribs to shut him up and they both fell down to the floor again, rolling across the stage.
They were too beat-up to keep fighting again for all that long; they traded a couple of swings that missed and then scrambled back up to see the truck pulling away. The dumpster was sitting at the mouth of the driveway now, blocking the convertible and the pickup from view.
A few hours. Police car sirens sailed by again, making number four or five, and maybe it still was just a matter of time, but it was going to be a long time. At the bar, they smashed open more of the cabinets, and then Sonny started laughing and turned on the popcorn maker. "We're going to burn the place down," Vinnie said, choking on the smoke as they scorched the first batch.
Sonny just laughed harder and poured in another bag. "There's a way to go out, man," he said. "Real blaze of glory," and they sat down shoulder to shoulder and ate singed popcorn and stale Raisinets from the back of the case, washed down with more red wine.
Sonny caught Vinnie's face with his hand and turned it to the light back and forth. "You're not so pretty anymore, Terranova," he said.
"Look who's talking," Vinnie said, half-grinning at him because his mouth hurt too much, and swiped a thumb under Sonny's puffy bruised eye, purpling and spectacular.
They sagged down flat to the floor after a while, somewhere short of sleep, Sonny's chest rising and falling under Vinnie's hand and the jukebox steadily rippling with color. It was getting dark outside again, and there were empty bottles making battlements all around them.
"So what am I looking at?" Sonny said, out of the dark, his hand covering Vinnie's. "Conspiracy, racketeering—plead down to eighteen months, maybe a year—"
And Vinnie was back in that ballroom, watching Patrice scrabbling at the garotte, knowing what it meant. He spread his fingers wider involuntarily, as if he could keep hold of this, cup Sonny's heartbeat under his hand. "There was a camera in the ballroom," he said. "Last night—the whole thing's on videotape."
Sonny was silent for a moment and then he said, soft, "Lethal injection, huh?" His hand was still on Vinnie's, pressing it close. "You want to see me dead that bad?"
"It's not about what I want," Vinnie said.
"What else is it about?" Sonny said.
They didn't say anything more.
Vinnie woke up alone on the floor of the theater, the front door padlock and chains dangling loose, picked open. He pulled himself up and staggered out the door, hand braced against his throbbing back. The street was empty in both directions; he guessed a direction at random and ended up outside the First Baptist Church, in a parking lot full of ordinary middle-class sedans and one conspicuously empty spot, sprinkled with broken glass and a bent golf club off to the side.
He went back for the pickup; it got him another fifteen miles before the cops stopped him, yanked him out of the cab, threw him to the pavement and cuffed him with his arms twisted up painfully high. They ignored his attempts to hint them towards the church, took him to the local station and left him in a holding room. After fifteen minutes without a word, Vinnie started banging on the door with the chair, yelling for his phone call. A couple of them came in and dissuaded him, with nightsticks.
The next couple of hours he spent curled up on the floor trying not to puke. By the time Frank got there, Sonny's trail was cold.
They put wiretaps on every line and shadows on every street corner in Jersey, and not a word came in. It was like Sonny had vanished off the face of the earth. Mahoney and Don Baglia were pulling so many strings that all the politicians in the tri-state area were jiggling like marionettes. A week went by; it was pull Vinnie out or put him back into play, and when Frank quietly asked, Vinnie said, "Let me out of this fucking place already," made bail and went back to Atlantic City.
Hunch met him at the hotel and patted his arm. "Come on, kid, there's work to be done," was all he said. Just like that, Vinnie was back in silk suits and ties, looking for traces and clues, itching all the time under the bull's-eye target that one phone call from Sonny to any made man in Jersey would paint on his back.
The vultures were circling, all the penny-ante crooks who'd never have dared roll the dice with Patrice or Sonny still at the table, if Mahoney didn't have a murder charge sitting on his back: greedy, small men with piggish eyes and oily smirks, who made offers in undertones, trying for a piece of the action, picking and picking, part of the inevitable disintegration that he'd started. Vinnie listened to them and smiled a whole lot, and then he lost it and started beating the shit out of Paulie Rossa on the casino floor until Hunch made the security guards haul him off; shoved into the back office, Vinnie threw himself across the room and punched a hole into the wall.
He sat in a chair and shook while Hunch got one of the girls to wrap up his bloody knuckles. After she left, Hunch poured him a drink and watched him sip it. After a few minutes of silence, Hunch said, "You know, when a fellow gets into a little too much trouble in this business, the trick is he takes a little trip—to Italy maybe, South America, and then he lies low for a while, real low." He wagged a finger. "With no exceptions! That's how you get caught, making exceptions. No calling a girl, no calling your family, no calling your best friend—"
"I miss him," Vinnie said, his voice cracking, and it wasn't a lie.
He stayed up late nights, working, struggling to keep together Sonny's crumbling empire. A couple of numbers guys downtown made a bid for independence. "Let that slide, and we're done," Hunch said. Vinnie took a little muscle with him and broke their legs in their office, emptied their cashbox, and gave their action to other guys.
"What's next, you're going to order a hit on somebody?" Frank snapped, at the meet Vinnie didn't want to go to afterwards.
"Look, Frank, I had to do something," Vinnie said. "Doing this now maybe keeps everyone else from thinking the organization's gone soft, means I don't have to do something worse later on to keep it from falling apart."
"It's supposed to fall apart," Frank said. "That's the whole goddamned idea!"
"It'd just be somebody else picking up the pieces if it wasn't me, somebody of Mahoney's, or maybe the Chicago people would send someone down; and then we could forget about ever tracking down Sonny or Aldo."
"You ever see Steelgrave again, it's going to be at the wrong end of a .38 special," Frank said. "Lay off. It'd be somebody else if it wasn't you, sure, but they wouldn't be doing such a good fucking job."
It did keep things quiet for a month or so after that, and one day Hunch limped into Sonny's office, put a folder of airplane tickets on the desk Vinnie was sitting behind, and gave him a slow wink. "Take a vacation, Terranova," he said, limping out.
"There's no extradition treaty with Costa Rica," Frank said. "Even if you find him, what good's it going to do you? You can't bring him back."
"You get that he's just asking you to deliver yourself so he can shoot you in person without having to risk coming back to the States," Frank said.
"I'm ordering you not to go," Frank said.
Vinnie got on the plane anyway. He walked off the runway into steamy jungle heat, his shirt instantly soaked through with sweat, no one around but a handful of porters dozing in the shade and the one solitary airline ticket clerk with his eyes closed leaning towards the desk fan.
An engine was rumbling closer along the dirt road. A battered old jeep pulled up. Sonny shoved it into park and took off his sunglasses and said, "Christ, Vinnie. You look worse than me."
Actually Sonny looked good, tanned dark under the loose white shirt open at the collar, sleeves rolled up over arms that had gotten more muscled. At least at first glance; on the second, Vinnie saw the twitch in his jaw, the restless way his fingers tapped at the steering wheel all the way along the dusty, winding road into the rainforest. The house was really a shack, not much more than a roof over three walls: four mattresses stacked up to something like the height of an ordinary bed, swathed in mosquito netting; a generator smelling of gasoline, an outhouse with a washing machine and a tank for a shower, an icebox and a kitchenette, crates full of books, most of them faintly mildewed, and a big green iguana sitting on the front porch between two old lounge chairs, utterly unimpressed by its surroundings.
Sonny waved at the cottage with one comprehensive sweep of his arm that took it all in and handed it over, and put himself into one of the deck chairs with a book. Vinnie put his bag down inside, next to the bed, and went back outside and stripped down. The water was cool and fresh on his skin while he stood naked under the shower in the blood-warm air, turning his face into the spray, steam rising from the flat black paving stones.
Afterwards he left his sweat-crumpled clothes in the small laundry hamper; he didn't want to put them back on. Instead he just gave himself a cursory wipe-down with the towel and wrapped it around his waist, tucking in the ends, and walked back to the cottage still damp.
Sonny was still reading. Vinnie sat down on the other deck chair. The iguana stirred and sluggishly crawled off the deck into the jungle, getting out from between them. "Okay, so you gonna tell me why or not?"
"Why what?" Sonny said, not looking up from his book. "Why aren't you dead? Why didn't I call Mack or Hunch and have you put on ice along with Pat the Cat?"
"Yeah," Vinnie said.
Sonny closed the book, slowly, put it down next to his wineglass. "I spent those first couple of weeks just running, running like a hunted animal. I slept in ditches, I stole cars, I stole food." He rolled his head over. "You ever have to steal food, Vinnie? You ever have to steal food just to eat?"
Vinnie shook his head, silently.
"Nah," Sonny said. "Didn't think so. I'd be lying in some godforsaken stinking hole in the ground, eating something I scrounged out of the garbage, and the way I got myself to sleep was I'd tell myself stories of how I was going to kill you. From the front—always from the front, so you'd have to see me coming, look down the barrel of the gun before I put it in your mouth and blew your goddamned lying head off."
"So you wanted to do it yourself?" Vinnie said. "Well, here I am."
"Yeah," Sonny said, and reached into the ice bucket on his other side and brought out a pistol, small and vicious and snub-nosed. Vinnie straightened, swallowing.
Sonny gave him a flash of his smile, stood up. "Let's go for a walk, Vincenzo."
"No," Vinnie said, not getting up. "You want to shoot me, you can go ahead and do it here, get the blood on your goddamn porch."
Sonny stepped over and rested the muzzle against Vinnie's cheek, cold cold cold. "You think I wouldn't?" he said, stroking it up and down. Vinnie tried not to look down at it; his heart was pumping in his chest; that was the last thing he'd ever think, and Christ, Frank was going to be pissed off when he never came back.
Sonny put out his other hand and tilted Vinnie's head up, so he could drag the warming muzzle down along the line of Vinnie's jaw, over his chin, rub it over his lip. Vinnie looked up at him, looked past the gun and locked onto Sonny's glittering eyes; if Sonny was going to pull that trigger, he didn't want to know about it before it happened.
Sonny pushed Vinnie back into the lounge chair, cheap plastic straps creaking under his weight and then under Sonny's weight too. Vinnie was breathing hard through his mouth and fogging up the black metal barrel. "See, Vinnie, I do want to kill you," Sonny said. "I just don't want you to be dead after."
"Yeah, well, that's kind of a trick," Vinnie said, a little unsteadily.
Sonny smiled with one corner of his mouth, leaned in close and said softly, "How bad you want to stay alive, Vinnie?" and the barrel was sliding down Vinnie's neck, over his chest, down, and he was shaking as Sonny nudged the towel open.
"Jesus, Sonny," he managed, shivering, the gun stroking the inside of his thigh, his mouth dry, and this wasn't—it wasn't—He threw an arm out blindly behind him and caught the propped-up back of the chair; it stuttered out and slid flat. Sonny fell forward on top of him, and the chair tipped over and rolled them out across the deck.
The gun skittered away, and they both went for it and got each other instead. They wrestled in furious silence, only panting for breath as they grappled, kicking over the other chair. Vinnie got an elbow in the cheek, hard; he banged Sonny's head against the deck; the ice bucket fell off the table and hit Vinnie on the back. Sonny bit his shoulder, not hard, and Vinnie scraped his teeth along Sonny's neck, his jaw; Sonny fisted a hand in his hair, yanked his head back and sucked on the tendons of his throat while Vinnie gulped for air.
Vinnie shook his head like a dog, getting loose, and went for Sonny's mouth, groping at his waistband. Sonny's hand was on his ass, fingers gripping bruisingly hard, pulling him in tight. "Yeah, that's it," Sonny said, muttering against his mouth. "Come on, baby, that's it; give it to me."
"Yeah," Vinnie said, "yeah—" He'd gotten Sonny's pants open and shoved down; he couldn't get Sonny's goddamn shirt off, so he just put his hand up underneath it, along the sweat-slick line of his spine, playing his fingers over the vertebrae, cupping the back of Sonny's neck while he pushed him flat to the deck. Sonny was grinning with bared teeth and half his mouth, his hips moving, they were humping at each other crazily now, scrape of wood against Vinnie's knees. Then Sonny put his hand on Vinnie's dick and it was all over just like that, Sonny's hand tight and stroking him through it, brutally fast.
"Christ," Vinnie said, burying his face against Sonny's neck, hard, sucking at the sweat beading on Sonny's collarbone; his arms were trembling so hard he was practically vibrating.
"All right, enough, I'm getting splinters here," Sonny said, and heaved Vinnie off him to the side. He stood up and stripped the shirt off over his head, wiped it down his stomach and stepped out of his pants, went inside. Vinnie stood up slowly, his knees stinging, his lip throbbing where Sonny had bitten him, and followed him in. Sonny was already stretching out on the mattress, watching him with heavy-lidded eyes, one arm behind his head.
Vinnie stood at the foot of the bed, wavering like a strong wind could blow him over, and then he ducked his head and climbed through the mosquito netting and onto the bed. Sonny caught his shoulder with a hand, halfway up, and said softly, "That's good, Terranova. Stop there," and Vinnie shut his eyes so he didn't have to watch himself suck Sonny's dick, except it wasn't anything like prison; Sonny tasted like clean sweat, soft skin of his belly and his hips under Vinnie's hands, and Christ, he wanted to do this, and then Sonny was coming in his mouth and Vinnie coughed and spat onto the sheets and fell over onto his back, breathing hard and wiping his mouth clean on the back of his hand.
Eventually, Vinnie said, "So now what?" It was starting to get dark, and mosquitoes were singing aggressively outside the netting.
"I'll let you know," Sonny said. "Who knows, in a couple of weeks I might start to feel a little less like killing you." He reached outside for the bottle of wine sitting on the rickety crate end table.
"Yeah, great," Vinnie said, rolling his eyes, and held out his hand for the bottle.
= End =
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