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Jake heard from Fredo Papillardi the usual way: a typically verbose note to Jake's Atlantic City post office box: "Call Fredo."
So Jake called. But instead of Jake telling Fredo the where and when of the meet, as was customary, Fredo insisted on next Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. in a place with a TV. Jake didn't like that One of the rulesSarge's ruleswas always set the conditions of a meet. But Fredo was insistent this time, said it had to be this way"Totally necessary"so Jake gave in. Fredo pushed for a hotel room but Jake wasn't giving in that much. He told Fredo the address of a place on Fairmount in AC. Leonardo's Bar & Grille.
• • •
Jake got two drafts from Ernie at the bar and settled himself at an isolated table in a dark corner. Next best thing to being invisible.
Leonardo's was a particularly dingy dive, which was one of the reasons Jake liked it. Always night inside; so dark the afternoon regulars winced and cringed like vampires every time the front door swung open. One of a hundred just like it spread across the Atlantic City you didn't see on postcards.
AC wasn't Jake's favorite city, but it was the closest to his place on the Bass River. He thought of AC as two cities, really. First was the new Atlantic City, the one you did see on postcards, crowded up against the ocean with its high, shiny casinos and boardwalk-treading tourists. Then the old AC that the gamblers' buses had to pass through to get to the casinos, with its dirty, crumbling sidewalks, empty storefronts, shuffling residents, and old, leaning buildings that rarely rose above two stories. Beirut on the Jersey Shore.
Leonardo's was in the second AC, in a working-class neighborhood four blocks west of TropWorld, in another time zone, another climate, another country. Jake liked it not only because it was dark, but because it was never crowded, and because Ernie, the owner-barkeep, had selective Alzheimer'sknew every stat about every guy who'd ever worn a Phillies or Eagles uniform, but never knew nothing nohow about nobody who was ever in his joint. Try to talk to Ernie about his clientele and you'd swear the place was empty day and night.
Jake watched Fredo breeze in from the bright afternoon and stand, lost and disoriented, in the gloom. Watched him stumble to the bar, an island of dimness in the dark.
"I'm lookin' for a guy."
Ernie gave him a hard look. "This ain't that kinda bar, sweetie."
"Very funny. Name's Jake."
"Jake who? I don't know no Jake."
Good old Ernie.
"Over here," Jake said, flicking his Bic and raising the flame like a metalhead during a ballad. He kept it burning until Fredo had groped his way to the table.
"Jesus, Jake, it's like a fuckin' cave in here."
"Your eyes'll adjust."
"Look, I thought we agreed to meet where there's a TV."
"There's one over the bar."
"Yeah, but it's got the fuckin' game on."
"That can be fixed. What are we supposed to see at four?"
"The whackee, if you know what I'm saying."
Jake thought about that. Four o'clock was too early for news. So who was the target? A talk-show host? He stared at Fredo. He knew he had dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin, liked shiny shoes, thousand-dollar sport coats, and heavy gold, but all he could make out here in the dark was slicked-back hair, a bulky build, and a sport shirt. Light glinted faintly from the thick gold chain around his throat. Fredo was a made man and proud of it. Jake wouldn't have been surprised if his license plate read MOB-1.
Jake, on the other hand, was careful to make sure he'd never be mistaken for one of the Boys. Straight blond hair streaked with barely noticeable gray, long, straight nose, blue eyes, sharp chin, lean, wiry build, jeans, sneakers, work shirt. And no gold. No chains, nothing that reflected light.
He pushed the extra eight-ounce draft toward Fredo.
"This one's yours. We've got a couple of minutes to kill."
"Don't they have any wine?"
"What do you like?"
"A Cabernet or something'd be good."
"Ernest, my good man!" Jake shouted, flicking his Bic again and waving it in the air. "A bottle of your best Cabernet Sauvignon, if you please."
Ernie barked a laugh and raised his middle finger in front of the TV screen.
Jake put out his lighter and pushed the draft closer to Fredo. "Maybe you'd better stick with beer."
Fredo took a pull on the draft and jerked his head toward the bar. "That guy don't exactly strike me as the sort who'll jump at the chance to change the channel at four."
"Ernie's all right," Jake said, draining his beer. It could have been colder and the glass could have been cleaner, but it was beer. He glanced at the ancient Rheingold clock behind the bar and watched the minute hand swing onto the twelve. Four o'clock. "What channel we want?"
Jake got up and went to the bar. He waggled his empty glass at Ernie.
"Another one of these, and put on Channel eight."
Ernie nodded, refilled the glass, then pointed the remote at the screen. Cries of outrage arose from the bar and the surrounding room as the game disappeared.
"Fuck y'sall," Ernie said.
The Rheingold clock must have been slow because the show on 8 was already off and running.
"Oprah?" Jake said as he returned to the table. "You didn't tell me you wanted Oprah. We could have a riot in here."
"As long as he don't change the channel before you see the guy."
"He won't. Unless someone tops the twenty I gave him when I came in."
The guy, the guest, was a sight. A vaguely familiar apple-shaped head on a Humpty-Dumpty body. And artificial turfa curly rug on his winesap head. Not a bad rugyou had to take two, maybe three looks to tell for sure those curls were not homegrownbut not a great one. Not Sinatra quality.
"I give up," Jake said. "Who is it?"
"That, my friend, is Whiny. Known to the rest of the country as United States senator Stanley Weingarten."
Jake refrained from telling Fredo that they weren't friends. He was thinking. A senator. They wanted him to hit a senator.
Then the guy started talking. What a voice. Like fingernails on the mother of all blackboards. When Fredo had called him Whiny, Jake had assumed it was because of his name. Listening to him now, he knew there was another reason.
And didn't he ever stop for air? Oprah had asked him one question and he was off to the races.
"…and I know that we've got to find better, more efficient ways to fight crime, but good Lord, we don't want to turn the country into a police state."
Oprah jumped in when Whiny finally took a breath. "I understand you're against the new wiretapping bill. Don't we need to know what drug dealers and organized crime are talking about and planning?"
Weingarten's voice jumped an octave. "Of course we do! But to allow the FBI such broad powers is to practically make them a law unto themselves. Fight crime, yes, but not at the cost of free speech and privacy." He sighed dramatically. "But you know, I'm beginning to wonder if fighting the good fight is worth it."
Oprah looked startled. "I can't believe I just heard you say that. This has been Stanley Weingarten's fight for the last fourteen years!"
"I find it a little hard to believe myself," Whiny said. "But maybe that's what the country wants. Sometimes I think maybe I'm a dinosaur. Maybe I should get out of the way and let the Justice Department do anything it damn well pleases. And then later on I can shake my head sadly and say I told you so."
"Don't count on that, asshole," Fredo muttered, then turned to Jake. "Seen enough?"
Jake nodded and shouted to the bar. "Thanks, Ernie. That's all we can stand. Put the game back on."
Cheers from around the room.
"So what's the beef?" Jake said.
"Mr. C says Whiny's gotta retire from politics, if you know what I'm saying."
Mr. C was Bruno Caposa, head of the Lucanza family for the last twenty years, and Fredo's uncle. Which explained why Fredo, whose mean streak tended to over-power his intelligence, had made it to capo in Mr. C's organization.
"I gathered that. Why?"
"How come you want to know? You never wanted to know before."
True. Jake had done a number of jobs for Mr. C over the years, jobs the Big Guy had wanted done clean, with no connection to his organization. After what had happened to Gotti, Mr. C was putting even more distance between himself and the wet work. Fredo had arranged most of the jobs and Jake had never asked why. Because he'd never cared why. Usually one bad guy hired him to hit another bad guy, and the cops and DAs made outraged noises in public but behind closed doors they high-fived each other and crossed another jerk off the list.
This was different.
Jake said, "This time I do want to know why. We're not talking about some two-bit wise guy here, or even another boss. We're talking about a U.S. senator, some-body lots of people voted into office, somebody who'll turn on a world of heat when he goes down. Not just local and state heat, but federal heatglobal warming, Fredoso I want to know the story from day one."
"All right," Fredo said. "I'll nutshell it for you. Coupla years after Whiny gets elected for his first term, a bunch of hard-nosed Southerners start pushing for this crime bill. It happens regularly, but this one was real scary. It had all sorts of provisions that were going to cramp our style something fierce. I tell you, we was all sweating bullets, if you know what I'm saying. I mean, we'd already took a bad hit with this legalized gambling shit."
Jake couldn't help but smile. "Save that for the gambling commission. Don't try to run it on me."
"Okay, sure. We've got our hands in the casinos, but it ain't like the good old days. And I mean, sure, we've still got sports betting and all, but how long before they legalize that? We still got some numbers, but state lotteries have taken a big chunk out of that. I mean, we can't offer a multimillion-dollar hit. So what are we left with? Drugs and girls. And I tell you, Jake, since this AIDS shit come along, we ain't doing too good with the girls either."
"You're breaking my heart, Fredo."
"Yeah, well, it's dog-eat-dog out there, Jake. But anyway, this brand-new Senator Weingarten sends word through channels that he's looking to talk to some highly placed people, if you know what I'm saying. Things go back and forthdat-da-datand eventually a very quiet meet is set up with some of the bosses. Whiny tells them he's planning this fierce opposition to any and all anticrime bills. Trouble is, with all the mailings and traveling expenses and TV airtime he'll have to buy, it's gonna be expensive, and he doesn't have the funds to wage the campaign in a manner that will guarantee its success. Would they care to contribute to the Weingarten war chest?"
Jake nodded appreciatively. Weingarten was no dummy. He didn't go in and threaten, didn't pull some dumb pay-up-or-else scam. That would have been blackmail, and that would have got him nothing but trouble. Instead he'd said, I'm going to orchestrate a major opposition to legislation that happens to be dangerous to you, and I need help to do it right. So, how would you pillars of the community care to help? The Big Boys could almost feel like public-minded citizens when they forked over.
"I bet they went for it big."
"You know it," Fredo said. "Practically fell over each other to contribute. My uncle tells me he knows how Whiny keeps getting reelected: The guy could sell matches to a guy on fire. And he would, too. Anyway, the deal is struck and Whiny does his thing, and he's beautiful, man. He gets the ACLU involved, all the freespeech groups, mass mailings around the country telling people to write their congressmen, and he goes to the telcos, who get their lobbyists to start buttonholing politicos and giving them an earful whenever they can."
Jake gave a low whistle. "The ACLU, the telephone companies, and you guys. There's an unholy trinity."
"But it worked. The combination of inside pressure and outside pressure killed the bill."
"And you've kept the good senator on retainer ever since?"
"You got it. He not only plays on our team, he tells us about other politicos who've got itchy palms, and let me tell you, there's a shitload of them down there. But Whiny takes the lion's share. Man, I'd love to get into his Swiss account. I'd retire."
"And now he's holding you up for more?"
"Let's just say, he's being very unreasonable. He wants more, we're willing to give him more, but not right now. I mean, the families are a bit fucked-up right now. Castellano went down, Gotti got sent up, the Luchese family is just barely holding together. My family's the only one around that's still in one piece. My uncle's told Whiny he'll get what he wants but he'll just have to be patient, wait till things settle down. What's Whiny do? He starts pulling this shit." Fredo jerked a thumb at the TV. "Starts talking about how tired he is of the fight, how maybe he should withdraw his opposition to what he's beginning to see as 'the will of the people.' The law-and-order politicos hear that and they're already making noises. The fat son of a bitch."
Right, Jake thought. Whiny bows out and the opposition loses its conductor. The Boys could be in big trouble.
"What's retiring him going to do?" Jake asked. He. had an idea but wanted to hear what Fredo had to say.
"It shuts him up, for one thing. And it makes him like a…whatayacallit…one of those Christian guys they threw to the lions in the old days."
"Right. Whiny the fuckin' martyr. And we blame it on some gun nut."
"Why a gun nut?"
"Why not? Everybody starts talking about stricter gun control instead of the stuff that can really hurt us. Man, I love gun control. Too many citizens with guns out here, know what I mean? We should be the only guys with the guns."
Jake nodded. Properly manipulated, a martyred Senator Weingarten could be an even more potent weapon than he'd been while alive.
Fredo leaned closer. "But he's got to go down right, know what I'm sayin'?"
Jake stiffened. "I hope you're not saying you pick the time and place, because if you are, it's no deal."
"No, listen, Jake. Whiny's speaking at a big free-speech rally in the city the end of next month. Mr. C says it's gotta be then. And he's willing to make it worth your while."
Sarge's Rule Number Two: Never let anyone else choose the time and place of a hit. Never.
"No way," Jake said.
Copyright &169; 1997 by F. Paul Wilson and Steven G. Spruill