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Five Points, 2007
"CAN YOU BELIEVE somebody called and complained about me and Sheila Carella?" Dario Donato asked as he strode through Police Plaza toward the courthouse, his long, jeans'-clad legs eating up the pavement. Realizing he was a half hour late for court, he uttered a soft curse. It was the wrong day to have to help his landlord dad straighten out legal matters about a rental property. Clapping a hand on his chest, over his heart, as if wounded, he said, "I mean, who would do something like this to me, Pat?"
"A taxpayer?" his partner suggested as he ran a hand over his buzz-cut red hair. "Or maybe you just pissed off the Fates. Anyway, the chief wants you to lay low until the complaint blows over. Pick up a couple cold cases."
"Budweiser or Rolling Rock?"
"You know those aren't the kind of cold cases he means." No, Dario was supposed to rot behind a desk while an arsonist got away, and all because he hadn't kept his pants zipped. "You know we're going to wind up arresting a land developer on the arson case," he mused. Ever since plans had been underway to develop Manhattan's riverfront, properties near the water had started going up in smoke, then the land was sold for a relative pittance. Relative for Manhattan, anyway. "I'm thinking Ralph Stone or Chuckie Haswell," said Pat. They were the biggest players. Trump was too smart to get his hands dirty with arson. Dario nodded. "Seriously, are we on for a cold case later? Now I'm talking brewskies again."
"Tomorrow's good, but tonight I've got a date with Karen."
"Ah. The girl next door."
"Not every woman can live up to Sheila Carella."
"She does set a high bar."
Dario had met Sheila a monthago, when he'd busted her for unpaid parking tickets. She had big hair, bigger breasts, and always wore fishnet stockings with miniskirts and spike heels. She was kinky as hell, too, and liked to play all kinds of sex games, which meant things had been going extremely well. At least until Dario had taken her home to meet his folks. Not that he'd expected Sheila to blend seamlessly, but his mother, Bianca, had kept crossing herself and whispering, "When's my only boy going to grow up and meet a nice girl he can marry?" It didn't help that Dario knew she lit candles each morning at mass, in front of whatever saint presided over philandering sons. On the night of Sheila's visit, Dario's sister, Eliana, had kept rolling her eyes and mouthing, "It's her brains you like, right?" Fortunately, Sheila's main concern had been her lipstick, so she hadn't noticed. Or else Dario's dad's meatballs and red sauce had distracted her. Beppe Donato was one of the best cooks in Little Italy.
"I like Sheila," Dario defended as he and Pat started up the courthouse steps. When they reached the top, they flashed their badges at a security guard.
"The only kind of man who wouldn't like Sheila," said Pat as they headed inside, "is in the morgue."
"True," Dario agreed, now walking down a hallway. "But I don't like Sheila enough to have to lay low for a couple weeks. Another ten buildings could burn. I just don't get it. Who could have complained about me dating somebody I arrested? Who cares?"
"Maybe Sheila called the boss. Did you two have a fight?"
"You have a devious mind."
"Of course. I'm a cop."
Dario thought back to his and Sheila's last date, when they'd skipped dinner and headed straight to bed, then he shook his head. "Last time I saw her, I put a smile on her face. She could have done a toothpaste commercial. She claimed multiples."
"Personalities?" Pat joked.
Dario shook his head. "Orgasms."
"Then I'm out of suspects. But don't worry. I've got the arson case covered, and I'll call if anything happens. Meantime, do what the boss ordered, and rustle up some cold-case files to keep yourself company."
"Will do." Dario splayed a hand on the courtroom door and prepared to push. "See you around, partner. And watch out for Karen. The glint in that girl's eyes says she's got diamonds and wedding cake on the brain."
There was a long pause. Then Pat said, "Uh…I have something to tell you. I proposed last week."
Dario's jaw slackened. "To Karen?" "Yeah." "Congratulations," Dario managed, but he felt hurt. Pat had been his partner for two years. They'd double-dated, played ball. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I was going to…"
But he didn't think Dario would understand. Not Dario, who was still chasing women like Sheila Carella. "That's okay, partner," he said quickly. "I forgive you." "Good. Because you're going to be my best man." Even so, Dario was still reeling from the news as he entered the courtroom. Everyone was getting married. Even his sister, Eliana. She'd fallen for the nephew of a man reputed to have mob connections, but who was legitimate, according to Dario's sources at the precinct. Not that the information had calmed their mother's fraying nerves. For months, his parents' Mulberry Street apartment had been
"wedding central," and in three weeks, Dario and Eliana's other six siblings—all sisters—would arrive from around the country for the wedding.
Now, Eliana's diamond engagement ring flashed as she waved from the front of the courtroom. With bright red lipsticked lips she mouthed, "Where have you been? Ma's freaking out!" Before Dario could respond, his sister turned to face the judge again, her black hair swirling around her shoulders like a cape.
Great. They'd drawn Judge Zhang, one of the most ponderous deliberators in the history of New York courts, which meant this informal hearing might drag on. Judge Zhang was so small that his robes seemed to swallow him, and his hair and eyes were as shiny and black as the cloth itself.
As his family scooted to make room for him, Dario noticed Brice Jurgenson on the other side of the courtroom, flanked by Beppe's furious tenants. Skinny and bespeckled, Brice had only a few wisps of white blond hair left. An attorney, as well as a tenant, he'd convinced the others to put their rent into escrow until Beppe finished repairs to the building.
Luther Matthews, a museum curator, was present, as Dario had anticipated, and he was delivering a speech about preserving the property for historical reasons. But why was Chuckie Haswell here? Because he was a prime suspect in Dario's arson case, Dario did a double take. Chuckie was short, with sandy hair and assessing brown eyes, and his suit probably retailed for Dario's annual salary. Was the realty mogul present because Beppe's property was on the water-front? Did he know Beppe was desperate to sell, and that Luther Matthews was determined to declare the property a historical landmark, which would sour their chances of selling?
"Mr. Matthews," Judge Zhang said. "Would you mind starting from the top? We've had a disruption."
"Sorry," Dario murmured.
"No problem," returned Judge Zhang. You've come before my court many times, so I know you're a busy man, Officer Donato."
"Busy giving Sheila Carella parking tickets," Eliana muttered.
"At least I'm not marrying the mob," Dario shot back, before turning his attention to Luther.
"I'm from the Centuries of Sex Museum," Luther began again, using a forefinger to push horn-rimmed glasses upward on his nose. "As we all know, the geographical area in question, not just Mr. Donato's building, is of significance."
"Go on," urged Judge Zhang.
"The intersection where Orange, Cross and Anthony Streets once met, and where Mr. Donato's building stands today, used to be called Five Points. It was synonymous with vice. Tap dancing originated there, as well as our city's most notorious gangs. Famous travelers such as Abraham Lincoln were given tours of the neighborhood's crowning jewel, Mr. Donato's property, which was a brothel calledAngel's Cloud."
"After Angelo Donato," Beppe put in, losing his patience. "My ancestor. We all know this. It's why I own the property. And since it's mine, I don't see why other people are allowed to turn it into a historical landmark so I can't sell it."
Dario's mother, Bianca, crossed herself. She felt the family's long-time connection to a house of sin was tantamount to a curse. "If you don't sell, Beppe," Dario had heard her vow many times, "your only son is never going to settle down with a nice girl. Due to this legacy, he'll be a womanizer his whole life, just like Angelo." To whatever extent this was true, Dario hadn't minded.
Luther continued, "When Angel's Cloud was first built, nearly every house radiating from Five Points was a brothel. So-called panel games were invented at establishments such as Angel's Cloud, where women would remove panels in the walls and rob male clients while other women kept the men…" Luther smiled "…shall we say, occupied.
"These were powerful men, too. Lawyers, doctors and town fathers. Many wives, under the guise of temperance societies, tried to shut the places down. Because of morals, yes." Luther flashed another smile. "But also because their husbands were having such a good time." Stepping forward, Luther lifted some folders and began handing them out.
"I've put together a package of pictures, to illustrate why Mr. Donato's property must be declared a landmark."
"Ridiculous," insisted Beppe.
"As curator of the Centuries of Sex Museum," Luther continued, "I've learned a great deal about life at Angel's Cloud. Of particular interest is the possible murder of a woman named Gem O'Shea. Recently, her ancestors have been in contact with me, but before I say more about that, I'd like to acquaint everyone with the O'Shea family tree…" After pausing to catch his breath, he rattled off names, then listed Angelo Donato's relatives, including Dario's great-grandfather, Enrico, and his grandfather, Salvador. "My predecessor acquired many items from Angel's Cloud through the Donato family," Luther continued. "For years, the museum has owned all the original furniture, as well as portraits of the women who worked for Angelo. Replica rooms are roped off in our museum, preserving rooms exactly as they once were. I think this proves that our relationship with the Donato family has been excellent, but now that Mr. Donato has voiced intentions to sell, we have to try to save the building itself.
"While an old bawdy house may not seem a national treasure, Judge Zhang," he concluded, "Angel's Cloud is one of the only original Five Points buildings still standing today."
"I have to sell," Beppe muttered, twirling the end of his inky black mustache anxiously. "The taxes are through the roof! Besides, I've been renting to tenants for years!"
"But now the area's been rezoned, and if the property winds up in the hands of a developer—" Luther stared pointedly at Chuckie Haswell "—a high-rise will appear in its place."
"This is what the Donato family gets for being patrons of the arts," fumed Beppe.
"Patrons of the arts?" whispered Eliana. "By contributing to a sex museum?"
"Shush," commanded Bianca.
"Of course Mr. Donato wants to sell!" Brice Jurgenson burst out, rising to his feet and shaking his fist. "On behalf of the few remaining tenants, I'm here to say the place is unlivable! Overrun with mice! Every Donato slumlord has renovated it, breaking it into ever smaller rental units, and now it's full of architectural oddities and tenants can't—"
"I'm no slumlord!" said Beppe in shock. Noticing how his father's liver-spotted hands were starting to shake, Dario felt a surge of protectiveness. His folks had wanted a son desperately, so they hadn't quit having kids until Dario came along; he'd been a late baby, behind seven sisters. Now his dad was too old to keep up with a rental property full of disgruntled tenants.
"There are strange sounds in the hallways late at night," Brice pressed on. "Very strange sounds. Loud music. Footsteps. Some tenants believe the place is haunted, and—"
"It may well be!" added Luther. "That's exactly my point. We must preserve this piece of history."
"This isn't about history!" protested Beppe. "Just mice. And that's why my son, Officer Donato," he emphasized,
"has agreed to move in, starting tonight. He says he's going to take care of everything."
Inwardly, Dario groaned. "What?" "I already told them," assured Beppe under his breath. "Before you came. You're a police officer, so you can fix anything."
He was hardly a miracle worker. "I'm on an arson case." "Nope," countered Eliana. "I tried to call you earlier, and wound up talking to Pat. He said you got bumped down to desk duty because you were dating criminals, and I told Pop."
Chalk one up to sibling rivalry, but Sheila Carella wasn't exactly a felon. "She forgot to pay her parking tickets," Dario reminded in a hushed tone.
"A hundred of them?" returned Eliana.
Then Luther captured their attention. He was speaking again. "Gem O'Shea may have been the madam of Angel's Cloud, but no one's sure. We do know that her death in a carriage accident was rumored to have been a murder. She was believed to have a son, but he vanished, the father unknown. We have found a record of his son, however. He married a maidservant named Bridget in 1910. She had a daughter, Emma, who had Fiona, who had Erin, who—" "Should be none of my business," Beppe finished.
"Not so," countered Luther. Erin is the mother of Cassidy Case." Approaching the bench, he showed a letter to Judge Zhang. "Cassidy forwarded a copy of this letter to the museum. As you can see, it indicates that a will existed, giving Cassidy's ancestor, Gem, all rights to the property in question."
Beppe gasped. "Who wrote the letter?" "Clearly, the owner of the property," said Luther. "But it's signed only, 'your beloved.'"
"The property has been in the Donato family for over a century," countered Beppe.
"Cassidy will be in town next week, with part of the actual will, as well," Luther went on. "Legally, Mr. Donato may have only squatter's rights to this property, Judge Zhang."
"You say…" Judge Zhang stared down at his notes
"…Mr. Case is going to be here next week, with the documents?"
"On Tuesday," Luther confirmed.
"We'll reconvene then," said Judge Zhang. "Ten o'clock."
"There's just one problem," said Chuckie Haswell, speaking for the first time. "Because my firm, Haswell Realty, had hoped to make Mr. Donato an offer on this property, we've been doing our own research." Heading to the bench, he put a folder in front of Judge Zhang. "As these documents prove, the property was owned by my ancestor, Nathaniel Haswell. Even if Angelo Donato had wished to will the property to Gem O'Shea, it wasn't his to give. He was a front man for Nathaniel Haswell. To protect his reputation, my ancestor only used Angelo Donato to conceal the true ownership of Angel's Cloud—"