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Before the gunfire began, it was quiet around Vincenzo Cabrizi's cottage on the shore of Shasta Lake in far northern California. The only sounds were the choppy sloshing of the lake under the murky sky, and the muffled, twangy voice of Tammy Wynette coming from inside the cottage. The moon was a ghostly crescent behind a thin veil of wispy clouds that passed slowly by. The floodlights around the cottage cast dancing reflections on the lake's surface.
Although Cabrizi referred to it as his "lakeside cottage," it was hardly that by anyone's standards. Two stories tall, it was constructed of hand-cut granite taken from the mountains around the lake, and timber from trees felled on the spot. The surface of the outer walls was uneven and rough, which gave it the look of an organic structure, a natural part of the woods around the lake. It was not accessible by any road. Getting to the cottage required a boat, a helicopter, or a five-mile hike through dense woods. The cottage itself was heavily guarded, so in the unlikely event that someone made it through the woods, they would be unable to get inside.
Cabrizi left New York to visit his cottage two or three times a year, and he always brought along his entire security force, although the place was guarded and tended to all year around by a staff of its own. Cabrizi and his entourage had arrived early that afternoon by helicopter.
Cabrizi also had a cabin in New York state's Finger Lakes district, but he preferred this lakeside cottage in northern California. He liked the climate better, the air, the dense woods. And he was convinced the fishing was better.
When he was not handling business, Vincenzo Cabrizi enjoyed two things in life and enjoyed them passionately: Country and western music, and Trivial Pursuit. He'd never had a stomach for the old crooners so many of his contemporaries enjoyed like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet. And he despised rock and roll, rap, and the flashy trash that passed for "new country" these days. He preferred the old country and western songs, and he refused to listen to them on CD or tape, favoring vinyl discs. Cabrizi found card games and backgammon, the games of choice among his peers and underlings, to be colorless and without intellectual challenge. He enjoyed betting on each Trivial Pursuit question asked, and had been known to drop six figures on pivotal turns.
Cabrizi's music and gaming preferences drove everyone around him to distraction. They all hated country and western music, and few of them were any good at Trivial Pursuit. But they kept their feelings to themselves because none of them wanted to offend Mr. Cabrizi. They all knew better.
Vincenzo Cabrizi was one of the most powerful Mafia bosses on the west coast, one of the last of his kind. A dinosaur who had lived long enough to see his relatives' skeletons exhibited in museums, but who was still just big enough and strong enough to squash with one foot anyone who complained that he was still around. Officially, of course, the Cabrizi family did not exist as a criminal organization. The FBI, however, insisted otherwise, and although its many attempts to prove the theory had failed, the agency kept trying.
Cabrizi was seventy-nine years old. His hair was silver, but still thick, and although his greying skin was pale, it was smooth, almost entirely without wrinkles. He was tall, quite trim and fit, not only for his age, but for someone in his business. Most of his fellow bosses – the many long gone, and the few who remained, mostly retired – were fat and pasty with dark pouches of sagging flesh beneath their eyes and looked older than their years after decades of shoveling pasta and cannolis into their faces and drinking and smoking copiously. Not Cabrizi. He took pride in his health and appearance, always refused a second helping at the table and tried to get regular exercise. His only complaint was a nasty case of gout, which flared up in his right foot now and then. The foot was swollen and throbbing now as he sat at a table in the spacious den. It began with only the slightest warning – a vague pain in the knuckle of the big toe on his right foot, always in the right foot. It quickly developed into an excruciatingly painful and crippling condition, with his foot swelling up enormously and becoming painfully sensitive to the slightest touch.
Seated to Cabrizi's right was his oldest son Tony. Seated across from them was Cabrizi's accountant, Caspar Begelman – known as Snoopy, because the comic strip dog was a beagle.
As a cool breeze whispered through the trees around the enormous house and the lake slapped against the shore outside, Cabrizi played Trivial Pursuit with Tony, Snoopy, and two of his soldiers, Sticks Fenzo and Bunny Corsone.
Cabrizi wore a blue-and-grey satin robe over blue silk pajamas and a black, calfskin-lined slipper on his left foot. His inflamed right foot remained bare, swollen, and bright red, slightly elevated on a small stool with a pillow on it. Tammy Wynette sang of her troubles on the stereo and a bottle of Chivas Regal stood near one corner of the board game, almost empty, with glasses all around. Two bowls – one filled with cashews, the other with peanuts – were on the shiny oak tabletop. Flames crackled and sputtered in the huge fireplace behind Cabrizi.
"What did Mark Twain put last on a twenty-seven-item list of things to be rescued in the event of a boardinghouse fire?" Snoopy asked, reading the question off the card he held in his narrow, manicured, fingers.
Cabrizi took in a deep breath as he leaned his elbows on the table, joined his hands together and rested his chin on his knuckles. He exhaled slowly as he thought. Then, almost muttering the answer, he said, "Your mother-in-law."
Snoopy nodded and said, "That's correct."
Smiling, Cabrizi reached over and swept a stack of cash toward him, adding it to the stack of cash before him. He leaned back in his chair and sighed, smirking.
"I got so much useless information crammed in my head," he said, "I'm surprised I got room for a brain."
It was Bunny's turn next. He was called Bunny because of the enormous, oblong ears on his bald head. He was a big hulk of a man with three rolls of fat on the back of his hairless neck. Cash was put on the table, Bunny rolled the dice, and his piece landed on a green spot – Science and Nature. Snoopy removed a card from the box and read the question.
"Why is the funny bone so called?"
Bunny's thick eyebrows, which nearly became one just above the bridge of his flat nose, drew together slowly and created deep creases in his thick-skinned forehead. "Whatsat? I don't unnerstand the question."
Snoopy cleared his throat and said, "Well, uh, you know what the funny bone is, right?"
"In your elbow?"
"Yes, that's right. Now, the question is, why is it called the funny bone?"
Bunny's eyebrows shot up suddenly. His eyes rolled back a bit as he thought about it, then he said uncertainly, "'Cause, uh ... 'cause when you hit it on somethin', everybody laughs atcha?"
Snoopy shook his head slowly as everyone at the table turned to Cabrizi. It was traditional to let the old man answer questions the other players could not. It did not affect the bets in any way, it simply was something he liked to do.
Cabrizi smirked and said, "Because it's the humerous bone."
Snoopy smiled and nodded, and put the card away.
Cash rustled quietly as it was shuffled around and stacked.
Tammy Wynette continued to sing mournfully to the accompaniment of whining guitars.
The game continued, the players totally unaware that the woods around the cottage were swarming with FBI agents.
* * *
There were sixteen agents in all, but none of them were concerned with Vincenzo Cabrizi. They were there for the man who was supposed to kill Cabrizi that night. Of course, if, in the act of apprehending the killer, a few of Cabrizi's goons inside the house, or even Cabrizi himself, got in the way, the agents harbored no plans to jeopardize their operation in order to protect or save them. They were expendable.
The information was not concretely reliable, but it could not be dismissed. According to that information, the Shadow was going to kill Cabrizi that night in his lakeside cottage.
Heading up the FBI team was Special Agent Rick Becker. Becker had a Mafia informant he'd been cultivating for years now. It was a tip from that informant that had Becker and his team huddling in the woods around Vincenzo Cabrizi's house. He had led them on the necessary five-mile hike through the woods, silently and with great organization, until Cabrizi's cottage was in sight in the distance. Then they had spread out, communicating quietly with earphones and tiny microphones in the collars of their black jackets as they formed a large three-quarter circle around the cottage, ending on each side at the lake's shore.
Four of the agents wore thermal goggles, which allowed them to see in the dark. The goggles had permitted them to avoid Cabrizi's guards positioned in the woods and around the house. The agents with goggles had been strategically positioned so they had a clear view of three sides of the house. The front of the house, where the floodlights were, faced the lake.
Becker had been assigned to the Shadow almost six years ago. The problem with the Shadow was that he had earned his name by never showing himself. He was the most notorious hit man in America. No one, including the FBI, knew who he was. They had plenty of aliases, but no real name to go with the killer. Not even a face. The only people to see the Shadow did not live long enough to give anyone a description of him.
Although the Shadow worked in the underworld of organized crime, he did not limit himself to that. In his long investigation, Becker had found the killer's particular pattern of work in murders that had nothing at all to do with the Mafia. Many of them did not even look like murders, but merely vaguely suspicious deaths. This had led Becker to the conclusion that the Shadow was independent, a free spirit. When he was not working within organized crime, he was killing industrial spies, loose-lipped mistresses, people who got in the way of rich and powerful men.
The night was quiet except for the occasional cry of an owl, the rhythmic sounds of the lake water sloshing against the shore, and the endless singing of Tammy Wynette. A few stars sparkled through the thin clouds overhead. Becker had a feeling he recognized. It was a kind of buzzing, vibrating feeling in the back of his neck. He had felt it before, always before violence and gunfire. He was not sure why he felt it now, with the night so quiet and no sign of anyone approaching the house. He hoped it was a good sign – that this was the night he would finally nail the Shadow.
* * *
The Shadow crawled out of Shasta Lake, agile and silent. He stayed low, on all fours, and did not rise until he was concealed by a drapery of trees and bushes.
The lake was cold, but he had not felt it. He pulled the rubber gloves from his hands and began to peel from his body the black neoprene drysuit that had kept him dry in the water. Underneath, he wore form-fitting black clothes – leggings and a long sleeve turtleneck shirt – flexible enough to allow him to stretch and climb. He was armed with a silencer-equipped Smith and Wesson 9mm with two extra magazines, as well as a sheathed knife with a six-inch surgical steel blade that extended from the two center loops of a brass-knuckles-like handle.
He put a black ski mask over his head, slid his fingers into the cold metal loops of his knife and removed it from its sheath. Leaving his drysuit behind under a bush, the Shadow moved silently through the woods, following the shoreline until he came to his first security guard.
The guard had his back to him, oblivious to the danger he was in. The Shadow squeezed the brass-knuckles handle in his fist. He crept up behind the guard without making a sound. He reached around and slapped a hand over the man's mouth as he rapidly punched the blade into his back three times in rapid succession, all the way to the handle. The Shadow felt the man's body go limp against him and lowered the corpse to the ground.
He moved on along the edge of the lake, punched the knife into the backs of two more guards, and into the throat of another. Each guard was eliminated as quickly, silently, and efficiently as the first.
Within ten minutes of coming out of the cold water of Shasta Lake, he reached the house and moved silently around the edges of its light, staying low. Finally, he stood before the rough, jagged granite wall of Vincenzo Cabrizi's lakeside cottage. To do what he needed to do, he would have to step into the light and expose himself, which meant he would have to do it fast.
He slid the blade into the sheath on his belt, stepped into the light and moved rapidly to the front of the house. He quickly placed both hands on the cold, damp rock surface, and felt for solid holds. Seconds later, he was halfway up the wall, unnoticed.
* * *
Vincenzo Cabrizi pushed his chair away from the table.
"Tony," he said, "help me up the stairs. I'm tired. I'm done for the night. I'm ready to turn in."
Tony stood at his father's side.
Cabrizi refused to walk with a cane or a crutch – it was a sign of weakness, he said. So when his gout flared up, he had someone, usually Tony, help him around when he walked.
Tony stood on his right side and put an arm around his shoulders. "Just lean on me, Pop," he said.
As they went up the stairs, Bunny followed them.
"I took the new pills the doctor gave me," Cabrizi said. "But so far, they ain't helped."
"Maybe it takes a little time for 'em to kick in," Tony said.
Cabrizi's room was on the second floor. They stopped on the second floor landing to give Cabrizi a moment to lean against the wall and rest, then Tony helped him down the hall.
Across the hall from the door to Cabrizi's room was a chair with a couple of comic books on the seat. Bunny went to the chair, picked up the comic books, and sat down as Tony took Cabrizi into the room.
Cabrizi stopped in the doorway and turned to his son.
"Tony, do me a favor," he said. "Go downstairs and get me some herb tea, bring it up here. Will you do that? You know the kind I like."
"Sure thing, Pop. I can send it up in the dumbwaiter, if you'd like."
"Nah, bring it up yourself, I wanna talk to you a little, okay?"
"Okay, pop. You need help to the bathroom?"
"I can take it from here."
Tony turned and headed back downstairs.
Cabrizi stood in the doorway and looked at Bunny, who sat reading one of the comic books.
"You enjoying that comic book, Bunny?" he said.
"Oh, yeah, Mr. Cabrizi," he said. "It's Batman. He's my favorite. Along with Ironman. Batman and Ironman, they's my favorites."
"Well, you enjoy them in good health, my friend." The old man smiled broadly.
"You have a g'night, Mr. Cabrizi."
He closed the door of his bedroom, and managed to lean on chairs, a table, walls, and a doorjamb as he made his way to the bathroom to get ready for bed.
* * *
As Vincenzo Cabrizi was making his slow way up the stairs with his son, Special Agent Rick Becker began to get nervous. Nothing had happened since he and his team had arrived shortly after sunset. Everyone had orders to report anything they saw, no matter how uncertain they were of its significance, but no one had spoken up.
The Tammy Wynette album playing loudly inside had repeated several times. The same songs over and over. The mournful music was getting on Becker's nerves, so he knew it must be bugging the others. But that wasn't important.
The important thing was that nothing was happening.
Becker began to wonder if his tip had been false.
"Fourteen," a male voice said quietly in Becker's ear.
Fourteen was positioned on the eastern side of the front part of the house, at the lake's shore.
"Go ahead, Fourteen," Becker said.
"I thought it was a shadow at first, but it was legs, I just saw legs going in the second floor window in the front of the house, legs going in the second floor window in front. He's in!"
"Okay, that's it," Becker said, his voice louder now. "He's inside. Everybody move in now."
Becker shot from the cover of trees and bushes and darkness, headed toward the house.
There was a sudden rush of movement in the glare of the floodlights as agents hurried out of the woods, guns drawn, and closed in on the house in which Vincenzo Cabrizi was about to die.
Excerpted from Loveless by Ray Garton. Copyright © 2008 Ray Garton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted July 22, 2013