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Yea, though I ride, in relative luxury, through the valley of the shadow of death...
Despite being imprisoned in the carpeted darkness of the full-size Mercedes' trunk, Paul Dimino had a rough idea where he was, and worse, where he was headed. Starting at the point of abduction, through each turn, and with the speed at which the vehicle was now traveling, he guessed they were on the Cross Bronx Expressway. For men of his profession, that borough had only one purpose: making a body disappear. He tugged at the plastic cuffs that bound him. The ends had been expertly looped through the back of his belt, allowing his hands little movement. Another was wound tightly around his ankles, and a precut length of duct tape sealed his mouth from earlobe to earlobe, the taste of adhesive bitter.
Inexplicably, calm seized him. Although the remainder of his life might be measured in minutes, he seemed to accept his fate with a previously unrealized strain of dignity. Not that finding himself in such a situation was unexpected. Like a single malignant cell, the possibility that something like this could happen, whether provoked or not, had been in the back of his mind since the day he was sworn into the life. A product of Catholic schools, he had been shaped by the notion that consequences, although sometimes brutal, were intrinsically redemptive. Penance -- the workingman's therapy. Apparently there was more altar boy in him than he knew, because the relief he was experiencing, with all its intricate opiates, seemed to have dissolved the need for fear.
He had murdered three men -- in the line of duty, he reminded whoevermight be monitoring his last-minute codicil -- and each of them had nothing but panic in their eyes as their final moments slipped away. But now placed in the identical situation, he was interested only in timing the patterns of surging rain on the trunk lid, each a tiny, mathematical fugue. A slow, tranquil breath warmed him.
For some reason, he was being offered a last few unencumbered moments to weigh his life. A wife and son, he guessed, were its measurable total. A wife and son, but not a family. He had made no such investment. Instead, he had given free rein to base instincts, leaving everything else to pale with insignificance. Never having tasted the bittersweet affirmation of hard work or sacrifice or selflessness, everything now seemed useless and ephemeral. Even the difference between living and dying.
The Mercedes hit a deep pothole, slamming his head against the floor. He tested the cuffs again. When the two men had forced him into the trunk at gunpoint, he noticed that they had even thought to disconnect the interior safety release. Briefly, he had considered trying to buy them off, but they had treated him with complete indifference -- an indication that this was not the first time they had murdered someone.
His first time had been difficult. It was not a question of whether he could kill somebody, but whether he wanted to. He knew the decision was irrevocable. Had he been offered a bribe at that instant, he now wondered if he would have chosen differently. Probably not. He didn't particularly like murder, but it was a tool, the most complicated one men of his tradition used, something that was both exciting and repulsive, a necessary passage if a man was to be taken seriously.
He had never seen either of these men before, and the one who did the talking sheared off the ends of longer words to their last hard consonant, leaving the slightly fractured, staccato accent that was peculiar to the Chicago area. He assumed that they had been brought in from out of town, which was unusual. The endless government assault had robbed the five New York families of their swagger, along with their most prized possession, the illusion of invulnerability. Uncertainty had caused them to become extremely provincial, trusting only their own. That these two were imported meant someone comfortable with the old ways, someone with patience, had issued the contract for his death. That suggested only one person -- Bastiano "Buster" Delvecchio, the head of the Corsalini crime family.
Delvecchio must have finally discovered that Dimino had been stealing from him. To a reasonable person, some degree of mitigation for being a thief could be offered. After all, hadn't he done everything his boss had asked of him, including the three murders? And though he knew things that could hurt the old man, he never breathed a word, not even when serving a year and a half on a weapons charge. For his loyalty, he was thrown only crumbs. As much out of anger as greed, he began skimming from the family's vending machine interests. Suddenly, deceiving his boss became as addictive as the stolen money. Paradoxically, as dictated by the counterclockwise rules of organized crime, stealing had returned power to him. It proved that he was more cunning than the old man. Dimino barked a muted laugh through the duct tape. So smart that I'm now the one in the trunk.
In the bumpy darkness, he smiled. I would do it all again. It was all about respect, and part of that was dying without complaint or apology. But there was enough Sicilian outrage left in him to argue that while a man could accept violent death, he must also plot against those who caused it.
Given the circumstance, he could think of only one way to avenge his own death. He stretched his left hand to his right and, with some difficulty, slid the flawless star sapphire ring off his little finger. His initials were engraved inside. He wriggled around until he found a seam in the carpeting, probably leading to the tire well, and pushed the ring down into it. If it were found, his last moments alive could be traced to the Mercedes and, with a little luck, back to Delvecchio.
But the ring was valuable, and if found by the wrong person would simply disappear. He had to leave other evidence, the kind the law has special equipment to find -- DNA. Lying on his side, he raised his head until it was touching the trunk lid. Finally he found an edge on the metal, but it wasn't sharp enough to cut him by simple contact. Fucking Germans. With a quick jerk, he raked his ear against it. When he didn't feel the dampness of his own blood, he did it again, harder. Still he felt nothing. The car veered to the right and slowed down, an indication they had gotten off the expressway. There wasn't much time left. He smashed his head as hard as he could while raking it against the lid. Almost immediately, he felt blood. He started rolling around the trunk, leaving stains in detectable amounts. Take that, old man.
Suddenly the Mercedes jerked forward as the driver stomped the accelerator and started taking corners at dangerous speeds. Then Dimino heard a siren. After a few more turns, it seemed to be closing.
A gunshot boomed from the Mercedes. As quickly as he could, Dimino turned himself so his feet were pointing toward the back of the car and curled up in a ball, hoping that if the cops returned fire, he would be hit only in his feet or legs. But no shot came from the pursuing car. Again the Mercedes fired. Still no return fire. Did they know he was in the trunk and didn't want to risk hitting him? He hoped so. Goddamnit -- whoever you are -- don't lose us.
After a couple more sliding turns and accelerations, the Mercedes fishtailed to a stop. Dimino was thrown forward, hitting the front wall of the trunk. Then he heard the car's doors open, followed by quickly shifting footsteps. "Hold it! FBI!" came from the distance.
Now there were multiple gunshots. He heard the rear window above his head explode. He tried to shrink into a smaller ball. More gunfire erupted, and then along with the sounds of everyone running, it trailed away. Complete silence followed as the rain drummed on the trunk lid, matching the rate of Dimino's pounding heart. Waiting until there no longer seemed to be any danger, he started kicking the sides of the trunk and mumbled urgently through his gag. Outside, a man's voice said calmly, "Hold on, we'll get you out of there." Dimino could hear him walk around to the driver's door -- almost in slow motion -- and felt the car lean slightly as the person got in and took the keys from the ignition. An instant later, the trunk lid opened. Two men dressed in windbreakers stood over him. The older one, pulling the tape from his mouth, asked, "Who are you?" in the damaged, irresistible baritone of a longtime whiskey and cigarette abuser.
"I assume you're the FBI."
Each agent grabbed an arm and pulled him out of the trunk. "I'm T. H. Crowe. This is Dick Zalenski. Yeah, we're agents." Crowe's face was heavily creased with age. Zalenski, who looked thirty years younger than Crowe, just nodded. Even under the dark, unpredictable sky, his face glowed with an unassailable innocence as if someone had granted him absolution of all future sins. Dimino thought they could have been some kind of before-and-after advertisement. Just Say No -- to becoming an FBI agent.
"I'm Paul Dimino."
Crowe said, "Dimino? Aren't you connected to the Corsalini family?"
Dimino knew he was about to make a decision that would change the rest of his life. Either he had to play dumb and get away from these men -- which would mean disappearing permanently, because Bastiano Delvecchio was a patient man -- or he could seek federal sanctuary, which meant turning against the head of his family. "How did you guys know I was in the trunk?"
"Someone tipped our Chicago office that these two guys were coming out here to zip someone. Their surveillance crew put them on the plane at O'Hare, and we picked them up when they got off at JFK. Looks like your lucky day." They were standing in the parking lot of an old factory. Crowe pointed up at the wall next to where the Mercedes had dead-ended. In faded letters, Dimino could just make out the name of the business:
LANTRELL'S CHICAGO-STYLE SAUSAGE
"Not to seem unappreciative, but if you were following them since the airport, why didn't you grab them as soon as they put me in the trunk?"
With what Dimino supposed passed for a smile, Crowe said, "Actually, my vote was to wait until your toes were in the grinder -- "
"We had to wait for backup," Zalenski interrupted. "We get calls like this all the time. We cover them, but until tonight they've always been BS. When we saw this was for real, we called for help."
"Did they get away?"
"Other units in the area are looking for them. If we don't find them, it'll just be temporary."
"Well, I guess I don't have to say thanks."
Crowe inhaled a slow, bracing breath before he spoke. Everything about him seemed lethargic. Speaking appeared to drain him even further. "Are you affiliated with the Corsalini family?"
Dimino looked up at the sign on the wall and then at the younger agent before turning back to Crowe. Even though he was about to disappear forever into a black hole of anonymity, he smiled. "Not since I joined the Witness Protection Program."
After cutting away the flex-cuffs, the agents led him to their car. Before getting in, he ran back to the Mercedes and dug out his ring. Slipping it on, he turned his face up to the steady rain and opened his mouth, catching its sweetness on his tongue. Maybe it was true what the Bible says, he thought, that the wages of sin is death, but apparently it depended on what kind of week you put in.
As soon as the Bureau car containing the government's newest informant pulled out of the lot, the two men who had abducted Dimino came from a prearranged hiding place behind the plant. The taller one, Jack Straker, took out an unfiltered cigarette and rolled it against the tip of his tongue, wetting the end. He lit it and slowly pulled the first drag deep into his lungs. Howard Snow watched the tiny ritual, and, without a cigarette, he inhaled a breath of equal size, rhythm, and reward.
In his flat Chicago accent, Straker said, "That was a pretty convincing chase. I almost lost it coming around that last turn into the lot. Thought I was going to take out the fence. You were looking a little white-knuckled yourself there, Howie." He was smiling. Jack Straker was not particularly good-looking, until he smiled. Although perfectly balanced, his features had a strangely anonymous quality. At rest, his face had a look of chronic boredom that threatened to drain the energy from those within its range. But when he smiled, planes shifted and its remarkable equipoise was revealed. His cheeks drew up under high cheekbones and his eyes were pulled into flawless teardrops, suddenly shining. The lower lip flattened, allowing the cleft in his chin to become shadowed, bisecting his face and exposing its symmetry. When the transition occurred, the smile's target, most often female, felt the small, jolting euphoria that came with discovering something so well hidden. Occasionally, whether out of actual boredom or maybe to determine if there was a limit to this endowment, almost in parody of himself, he would bare his teeth farcically. It didn't seem to matter. Anything from the most reticent smirk to a full, howling jack-o'-lantern -- it all worked.
Howard Snow, on the other hand, was short and slight of build. His hands were small and childlike, constantly seeking any object to fidget with. Even dressed in an expensive warmup suit with three thick gold chains around his neck, he looked more like a librarian than a mobster. His face had the perennial expression of being slightly puzzled by everything within range of his myopic eyes. He reached into his pocket and took out a pair of glasses. Even with his vision adjusted, he looked around as if the correction was still somewhat suspect. His left hand went to one of the gold chains and started fingering its sharp links methodically.
Snow smiled appreciatively. "I could use a change of underwear."
Straker laughed. "Christ, Howard, that's actually pretty funny. For you, it's damn near hysterical."
Snow looked down, slightly embarrassed by the compliment, and then to ease his discomfort walked around the back of the car and examined the shattered window. "Dreagen's going to be pissed about that."
"Dreagen? What does the administrative ASAC have to do with this? Or anything that real agents do?"
"He told Nick that he wanted this for his personal Bucar after we were done tonight. I guess it won't be too bad to get fixed."
Straker laughed in the peculiar way he always did when he was about to say something sardonic. "That's perfect. Assistant Special Agent in Charge Bernard E. Dreagen. A sniveling asshole, who has never worked a case in his life, wants to drive a Mercedes that some poor hump agent worked his tail off to seize as part of a drug forfeiture, a car he could probably use undercover to make more cases." Straker got a black leather bag out of the backseat and pulled a handheld radio from it. He tossed it to Snow, who caught it clumsily. "Call for any of the units that are still in the area who can give us a ride."
"Aren't we taking this?" He watched the rain slant in the jagged opening where the rear window had been. "It isn't that bad." Straker got behind the wheel without answering. "What are you going to do?" Snow asked, his voice slightly elevated, more pleading than questioning.
Straker took a drag on his cigarette. "Evidently you've forgotten how delighted Dreagen was to dump you on this squad."
"Come on, Jack."
Straker took a final, long drag and flipped his cigarette in a lazy, tumbling arc. "Call for the car... and you better give me a little room."
Snow shook his head and backed up.
The Mercedes' oversized engine caught with a roar. Straker's eyebrows snapped up and down as he raced the engine. He fastened his seat belt without bothering to close the door. He dropped the shift into reverse and gunned it. The car accelerated a hundred feet before striking a concrete light pillar, caving in the rear end of the vehicle. The fifteen-foot metal light stanchion collapsed and fell on top of the car, shattering the sunroof. Straker then put it in neutral and revved the engine to near capacity. With a formal salute to Snow, he closed the door and shifted into gear, holding the accelerator against the floor. The tires spun briefly on the wet pavement, then the vehicle catapulted forward. It reached almost fifty miles an hour before slamming into the wall, taking out a couple dozen courses of brick. The engine sputtered, choked, and died as steam escaped up into the cool rain.
Snow ran to the car as Straker stumbled out, his forehead bleeding. "Jesus Christ, Jack, are you all right?"
"Fucking air bag failed," Straker said through clenched teeth, testing the cut with his fingertips. "I think I screwed up."
"Whoa, John William Straker second-guessing an impulse?"
"Jesus, Howie, first a joke, and now you're taking a shot at me?"
"I've been running with a bad crowd."
"And yet another shot. Maybe there is hope for you." Snow smiled self-consciously. "But I think you're missing the point. If I had been more patient, and with a little bit of luck, the ASAC could have been killed driving this thing."
Copyright © 2005 by Paul Lindsay