Bruce DeSilva's A Scourge of Vipers is at once a suspenseful crime story and a serious exploration of the hypocrisy surrounding sports gambling and the corrupting influence of big money on politics.
To solve Rhode Island's budget crisis, the state's colorful governor, Attila the Nun, wants to legalize sports gambling; but her plan has unexpected consequences. Organized crime, professional sports leagues, and others who have a lot to loseor gainif gambling is made legal flood the state with money to buy the votes of state legislators.
Liam Mulligan, investigative reporter for The Providence Dispatch, wants to investigate, but his bottom-feeding corporate bosses at the dying newspaper have no interest in serious reporting. So Mulligan goes rogue, digging into the story on his own time. When a powerful state legislator turns up dead, an out-of-state bag man gets shot, and his cash-stuffed briefcase goes missing, Mulligan finds himself the target of shadowy forces who seek to derail his investigation by destroying his career, his reputation, and perhaps even his life.
About the Author
BRUCE DeSILVA spent forty-one years as a journalist before writing Rogue Island, his first novel, which won the 2011 Edgar and Macavity Awards for Best First Novel.
Read an Excerpt
A Scourge of Vipers
By Bruce DeSilva
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Bruce DeSilva
All rights reserved.
A snake—that's what Mario Zerilli had called me. And now, just an hour later, something was slithering across my cracked kitchen linoleum. It was three feet long with lemon racing stripes twisting the length of its brown body. I watched it slide past the wheezing fridge and veer toward the kitchen table where my bare feet rested on the floor.
It raised its head and froze, its forked tongue flickering. It had caught my scent.
I pushed back from the table, got down on my knees, and studied it. A pretty thing. I flashed out my right hand and pinched it just behind its head. It writhed, its body a bullwhip. I was startled by its strength.
I carried the snake into the bedroom, opened my footlocker, and used my left hand to empty it, tossing a half-dozen New England Patriots and Boston Bruins sweatshirts and a spare blanket onto the bed. Beneath the blanket was a Colt .45 that once belonged to my grandfather. I tossed that on the bed, too. Then I dropped the snake inside, slammed the lid, and started thinking about names.
Stop it, I told myself. The garter snake was probably an escaped pet, the property of someone else in the tenement building. How else could it have found its way into my second-floor apartment? When I had the time, I'd ask around, but if no one claimed it, I'd be heading to the pet store for a suitable cage.
I could hear the snake blindly exploring inside the footlocker, its scales rasping as they slid against the wood. I couldn't help myself. I started thinking about names again. Mario leaped to mind. But no, I couldn't call it that. I liked garter snakes. If Mario had sneaked it in, it would have been a copperhead or a timber rattler.
The trouble with Mario started a week ago when his great-uncle, Dominic "Whoosh" Zerilli, and I got together over boilermakers at Hopes, the local press hangout, to talk about the future. I was a newspaper reporter, so I didn't have one. Whoosh was contemplating retirement.
"The wife's still nagging me about it," he said. "Wants me to sell the house, turn my business over to Mario, and move to Florida."
"So why don't you?"
"I'm thinkin' on it."
"And what are you thinking?"
"I'm thinkin' I'm sick to death of fuckin' snow. I'm thinkin' the warm weather might be good for my arthritis. I'm thinkin' that if I move down there, I won't have to listen to Maggie talk about moving down there every fuckin' night."
"But she's got her heart set on one of them retirement villages in Vero Beach or Boca Raton. Keeps shovin' brochures in my face. 'Look at this, honey,' she tells me. 'They got maid service, swimmin' pools, croquet, a golf course, horseshoes, craft rooms, shuffleboard. And have you ever seen so many flowers?'"
He made a face, the same one I once saw him make when he absentmindedly stuck the coal end of a Lucky Strike in his mouth.
"Sounds nice," I said.
"Oh, yeah? Then you move down there with her."
"What's wrong with it?"
"You shittin' me? Craft rooms? Croquet? And I hate fuckin' shuffleboard. No way I'm wastin' whatever years I got left listenin' to a bunch of wheezers with bum tickers and colostomy bags pass gas and brag about the grandkids that never visit while they wait for the reaper to show up. Jesus Christ, Mulligan. Have you ever seen them fuckin' places? They're full of old people."
Whoosh was a few months short of eighty.
"Don't you dare laugh at me, asshole."
"Yeah, but it's takin' some effort."
He waved the waitress over and ordered us both another round of Bushmills shots with Killian's chasers.
"Maybe you could compromise," I said. "Get yourself a beachfront cottage on Sanibel Island or a luxury condo in Fort Myers."
"Where the Sox have spring training? I already thought of that. Trouble is, ain't no way I can hand the business over to Mario."
"Cuz he's a fuckin' moron."
Mario, just twenty-six years old, had already done state time for drunken driving and for using his girlfriend as a tackling dummy. Now he was awaiting trial for kicking the crap out of a transvestite who made the near-fatal mistake of slipping out of the Stable, Providence's newest gay bar, to smoke a cigarette. But he was Whoosh's only living blood relative. The punk had inherited the title two years ago when his father was gunned down in a botched East Providence bank robbery. Mario's grandfather, Whoosh's only brother, fell to esophageal cancer back in 1997 while serving a ten-year stretch for fencing stolen goods.
Whoosh and Maggie did have an adopted daughter; but Lucia, a young mother who performed with a New York City dance troupe, was an unlikely candidate to take over his bookmaking business. My old friend and his wife never had any kids of their own.
"Wouldn't trust Mario with the business even if Arena gave a thumbs-up," Whoosh was saying. "Which there's no fuckin' way he's ever gonna."
"He already said. The kid's unreliable. Draws too much attention to himself."
"So what are you going to do?"
"Find somebody I can trust," he said. "Ain't all that much to it, really. Take the bets, pay off the winners, collect from the losers. Keep half of the profits, and wire the rest once a month to an account I got down in the Caymans."
"Got somebody in mind?"
"Why not? You been tellin' me how much you hate the corporate pricks who bought The Dispatch. You keep sayin' they're gonna fire your ass if you don't up and quit first. We been friends a long time, Mulligan. You've hung around me enough to understand how I do business. Anything you don't know, I can show you. How to write bets down in code. Which cops to pay off. How much tribute you gotta kick upstairs to Arena every month."
"So whaddaya say?"
I'd never had a moral objection to bookmaking, at least not the way Zerilli went about it. Unlike the officially sanctioned gangsters at the Rhode Island Lottery Commission, who peddled chump numbers games and scratch tickets to suckers, my bookie had always given me a fair chance to win. But I was reluctant to climb into bed with Giuseppe Arena. As head of the Patriarca crime family, his interests included truck hijacking, union corruption, prostitution, arson-for-hire, money laundering, and New England's biggest luxury-car-theft ring.
Still, I was growing anxious about how I'd manage to pay the rent and keep my ancient Ford Bronco fed with gas and junkyard parts once The Dispatch was done with me. My young pal Edward Anthony Mason III—trust fund baby, son of The Providence Dispatch 's former publisher, and first journalist laid off when the paper's new owners took over last year—was dangling a reporting gig at his online local-news start-up, The Ocean State Rag. But the venture wasn't making any money yet, so the job didn't pay much. A standing offer to join my old buddy Bruce McCracken's private detective agency would pay better, but it wasn't journalism.
But bookmaking? Now that was real money. I could replace the torn sofa I'd found on the sidewalk, buy myself a new Mustang convertible, move into a luxury condo on the bay, start an IRA. Maybe even invest in some Red Sox T-shirts that weren't adorned with cigar burns and pizza grease.
"Have you broken the news to Mario yet?" I asked.
"How he's gonna take it?"
"He's gonna be wicked pissed."
"He's still got that no-show Sanitation Department job, right?"
"Probably doesn't pay much," I said.
"A couple grand a month. Chump change if you gotta work for it, which he don't, so what's to complain about?"
"He'll make trouble," I said, "unless you can buy him off with something else."
"Already on it. I been introducin' him to another line of work."
"Somethin' that don't require a remedial course in junior high math. So are you in or out?"
I took a pull from my beer, tipped my head back, and thought about it for a moment.
"Can you give me some time to think it over?"
"Sure thing, Mulligan. Just don't take too goddamn long, okay? I'm havin' a helluva time holding Maggie off. She's fuckin' relentless."
* * *
I never learned how Mario found out about Whoosh's offer, but two days later the threatening phone calls started. The first one went something like this:
"The one and only. And you are?"
"I'm the guy who's gonna be your worst nightmare if you don't stop messin' with what's mine."
"You mean the redhead I picked up at Hopes Friday night?"
"Cuz you're welcome to her," I said. "She's a poor conversationalist, and the sex was below average. I got no plans to see her again."
"Stop kidding around, asshole. You know what I'm talkin' about."
"Let me think. Did my story about no-show sanitation jobs cause you some inconvenience?"
"I'm talkin' about my Uncle Whoosh's racket, you dumb fuck. You better hear what I'm saying, cuz this ain't no joke. Back off, or I'm gonna tear you a new one."
He called me daily after that, usually right around midnight. I should have stopped provoking him, but I didn't. Sometimes I just can't help myself. So after work last Friday, I found my Ford Bronco vandalized in the parking lot across from The Dispatch, although with all the old dents and rust, the new damage matched the décor. And tonight, before I came home and found the snake, Mario caught me staggering out of Hopes after last call and pointed a small nickel-plated revolver at me.
"Ain't laughing now," he said, "are you, shithead?"
"You haven't said anything funny yet."
"My uncle's racket is supposed to go to me. I'm his blood. This is my future you're fuckin' with. I don't know what you got on Uncle Whoosh, but I'm warning you. Get lost. If you don't, I'm gonna bust one right through your heart, you fuckin' snake."
He was pointing the gun at my belly when he said it. I wasn't sure if he was confused about human anatomy or just a lousy shot.
Confident that he'd made his point, Mario brushed past me and pimp-walked away down the sidewalk. As I turned to watch him go, he shoved the pistol into his waistband and pulled his shirttail over it. I decided not to take any more chances. The next time we met, Mario wouldn't be the only one packing heat.
* * *
My late grandfather's Colt, the sidearm he'd carried for decades as a member of the Providence PD, used to hang in a shadowbox on my apartment wall. I'd taken it down and learned how to shoot a few years ago after my investigation into a string of arsons in the city's Mount Hope section provoked death threats. But Grandpa's gun had a hell of a kick and was too large for easy concealment. So the day after that encounter with Mario, I splurged three hundred bucks on a Kel-Tec PF-9 at the D&L gun shop in Warwick. The chopped-down pocket pistol was five and a half inches long, had an unloaded weight of just twelve and a half ounces, and tucked comfortably into the waistband at the small of my back.
Beyond ten yards, I couldn't hit anything smaller than Narragansett Bay, but I didn't figure on doing any sharpshooting.CHAPTER 2
It was just past eight A.M. when I stepped into The Dispatch's third-floor newsroom and punched the time clock. The device was the latest employee-friendly innovation from General Communications Holdings International—GCHI to its closest friends—the bottom-feeding media conglomerate that had gobbled up the struggling newspaper last year. I'd never heard of a newsroom with a time clock, but there was no fighting progress.
"Mulligan?" the receptionist said. "The managing editor would like a word."
I plodded over to the aquarium, a glass-walled office where Mister Twisdale—who did not allow the staff to call him Charles and became apoplectic when addressed as Chuck or Charlie—sprawled in the black leather throne formerly occupied by my longtime boss, Ed Lomax. Lomax's passion had been to put out the best newspaper he could every day. Twisdale's assigned task was to wring as much money as possible from The Dispatch before it finally went belly-up.
He was a six-foot-three-inch, broad-shouldered thirty-two-year-old with a boy's regular haircut, a white dress shirt, and a red rep tie splattered with the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity emblem. Wrists thickened by weight lifting shot out of a navy-blue blazer he'd probably bought on sale at Men's Wearhouse. The smug bastard liked the way he looked.
I didn't, but I gave him a toothy good-morning grin and said, "What's up, Chuck?"
"Do I really have to tell you again?" he said.
"Tell me what, Chuck?"
"How to address your superiors."
I made a show of looking around.
"I don't see any of those here."
"Stop being such an asshole, Mulligan. When you win a Pulitzer, you can be an asshole."
"Really, Chuckie? When did you win yours?"
If he'd bothered to read my personnel file, he would have known that I had won a Pulitzer. Not that I gave a shit about that. It was a long time ago. I was more concerned about all the other things this former TV news producer from Oklahoma City didn't know about leadership, newspapers, Providence, or being human.
Over the years, I'd had my share of squabbles with Lomax, but I missed him. He'd been summarily dismissed because he possessed two qualities that our new owners could not tolerate—integrity and a hundred-and-twenty-thousand-dollar salary. Living on Social Security and savings now, he and his wife recently sold their big house in Cumberland and moved into a small condo in East Providence.
Twisdale glowered at me, then gave it up when he saw it wasn't working.
"You're late," he said.
"Just by five minutes."
"Which means you'll be docked an hour's wages. Company policy." He sucked in a deep breath and blew it out through his nose. "Do you know why I put up with you, Mulligan?"
"Not a clue."
"Because you're productive. You turn out twice as much copy as any of your colleagues."
"Do you know why, Chuckie-boy?"
"I suppose you're going to tell me."
"It's because you fired most of the paper's experienced reporters and replaced them with a skeleton crew of fresh j-school grads. Sure, they work cheap, but you get what you pay for. Most of them don't know the difference between a deadline and a chorus line."
"I know what you're up to, Mulligan."
"You're trying to bait me into firing you so you can join the rest of the moochers who live off food stamps and unemployment checks."
Chuckie-boy was on to me. If I quit, I wouldn't qualify for unemployment. If he let me go, I could live off Uncle Sugar while I figured out what the hell to do next.
"Well," he said, "it's not going to work."
"There's a stack of press releases on your desk. Get cracking."
I'd never worked for anyone who said "get cracking" before, and I didn't like it. It made me want to crack his head. As I turned to leave, he pulled a bottle of Purell hand sanitizer from his desk drawer and shot a dab into his palm. Funny. I didn't remember us shaking hands.
The football-field-size newsroom felt hollow as I trudged to my cubicle past the handful of reporters and editors still employed there. Twenty-two years ago, when I hired on as a cub reporter, the place bustled day and night. The news department numbered three hundred and forty then, and they were the very best at what they did, making The Dispatch one of the finest small-city metros in the country. But decades of declining circulation and advertising revenue had taken a toll. By the time the local owners finally gave up and sold out last year, the news staff had already been reduced to eighty. At the time, it was hard to imagine it could get any smaller. Our new corporate overlords promptly cut it in half.
Excerpted from A Scourge of Vipers by Bruce DeSilva. Copyright © 2015 Bruce DeSilva. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Thoroughly enjoyable read with memorable characters. This is a great series.