“THERE he is.” Nino leaned back in the seat and jerked his chin at a tall, thin figure ascending the steps of the Public National Bank.
“You sure, Nino?”
One of the young men was already reaching down to the floor of the car to retrieve a violin case. He kept his eyes on the figure on the steps as he snapped the chopper together with practiced ease and mounted a drum magazine. “You sure that’s him? You don’t wanna make a mistake.”
“I ain’t makin’ a mistake!” Nino snarled. “Now go on! Do as you’re told!”
A series of deafening reverberations shook the interior of the vehicle. The man on the steps danced like a marionette before falling facedown against a pillar.
Nino grinned. One less mug was one less mug. “That’ll teach him.” The big Packard pulled away from the curb and disappeared into the milling traffic of the late-night street. “Yeah.” He sat back and lit a fresh cigar. “That’ll teach him to mess with Nino.”
THE phone woke him early the next morning, shrilling just inches from his ear and jarring him from an unsettling dream of night and endless city streets. He rolled over, a stocky, dark-haired young man in silk pajamas, and grabbed the phone just before the ringing stopped.
“What?” The voice that spoke was a flat, rather nasal voice, a New York voice, born on the Lower East Side among tenements and corner stores, cigars and street cars and laundry hanging from the fire escapes and iron balconies of innumerable overcrowded, low-rent apartment buildings. “Whoszis?”
“Hey, Nino, you up?” His brother Tony was younger by three years but infinitely simpler in temperament and disposition. His one claim to fame was his ability to back Nino to the wall, no matter what. “It’s Ma. She ain’t so good.”
“Whatta ya mean? She was fine the last time I seen her.” He grabbed the alarm clock and held it close to his eyes; like the rest of the Moretti family, Nino was slightly near-sighted, a fact he refused to admit. At thirty-eight, he was quickly approaching the age when spectacles would be necessary for any ordinary man. Not Nino, though; not The Little Prince.
“The doctor says it won’t be long. Maybe you better come home, Nino. Come and see her before it’s too late.”
A click, and the line went dead. Nino lay back for a minute, screwing his fists into his eyes. What day was it? Yeah, Saturday… or early Sunday, something like that. If he was still living at home, he’d be getting up in a few hours, going to Mass with Tony and his mother, but Nino didn’t do that anymore. He hadn’t been inside a church since Louie the Goat was bumped off, and then only so the other mugs could see him and know who was supposed to get the credit. The news that The Little Prince had shown up at the funeral lit up the Lower East Side for weeks. It took a lot of guts to stand there in church, but that was Nino.
He nudged the palooka beside him—a compact, blue-eyed youth with a mop of ginger hair—with his elbow. “Hey, you. Get up.”
“Awww, Nino, come on….” The other man winked at him. “You said last night we was for keeps.”
“Ain’t nothing for keeps around here, mug.” Nino stuck one foot in his back and shoved. “Go on! Get out!”
The young man made a face. “You don’t love me no more?”
“I never loved ya to begin with. Get your clothes on.” Nino rolled onto his back and contemplated the ceiling while the palooka got dressed. “What’s your name?” he asked. Somehow they’d never gotten around to names; Nino had picked him up in a club just after midnight and spent five minutes slipping him the tongue and a C-note before inviting the boy home on impulse. It wasn’t something he usually did; for reasons of personal safety, Nino preferred to take his pleasures elsewhere. It wasn’t good business to take somebody home. You never knew who was working for who and what kind of heat they were packing. Marco Dinetti got it the same way—stabbed in the eye by some Village gunsel working for Lili Wacker’s mob. By the time his boys found him, he’d been dead a week and blue flies had set up housekeeping in his skull.
“Don’t you remember?” Nino’s latest conquest pouted. “It’s Charlie.” He slipped into his coat. “Am I gonna see you again, Nino?”
“Don’t lay no bets on it… wait a minute.” Nino reached for his wallet and gave the guy another C-note. “Here. Go as far as it’ll take ya, mug.” He waved as the other man went out the door. “Yeah, see ya.”
Nino went into the bathroom and ran the shower hot. There had been a lot of drinking the night before and a lot of whoopee, and he felt like half the Brooklyn Navy Yard was rattling around inside his head and banging on his brains in two-four time. He stripped off his pajamas and stood under the shower for twenty minutes, then soaped up good, shaved away the shadow of his dark beard, and rinsed off cold. Once the coffee got going, he swallowed a cup with two aspirins and dressed: dark suit, dark tie, black shoes. He slipped a sleek black handgun into his shoulder holster and checked the knot of his tie in the mirror.
He looked like hell.
TONY was waiting when Nino arrived with Danny Murphy. Danny and Nino had grown up together, stealing from freight cars and chasing each other through the streets, raising Cain wherever they could. Danny, an amateur boxer of some note, had been known to help Nino out of a scrape or two in his time. Murphy wasn’t very big but was real handy with his fists—maybe too handy. Some guys whispered that Danny Murphy was crazy, trying to get himself killed, starting fights with anybody who came near him and taking down guys twice his size just for something to do. Danny grew up just as poor as Nino—the youngest of fifteen loud, redheaded kids in a tiny apartment on the Lower East Side, right above a fruit store. Danny even walked like a guy spoiling for a fight—balanced on the balls of his feet with his fists sorta swinging by his sides, ready to deck somebody in the kisser. Danny’s big blue eyes and gentle mouth belonged on a matinee idol, but anybody who thought Danny Murphy was soft was a real dumbbell.
“How’s it goin’, Tony?” Danny faked a punch at Tony’s jaw.
“Yeah, keep them flippers where I can see ’em, mick.” Tony stepped back and crashed into the cupboard. Put one foot wrong in Nino’s ma’s old place and the whole joint shuddered like a hophead on a Saturday night.
“You wanna keep the noise down?” Nino stepped in between them. “Ma’s sick, okay? Or ain’t I being clear enough for you two mugs?”
“Sorry, Nino, I didn’t mean nothing.” Danny shrugged his hands back down where they belonged. “No disrespect to your ma, you know me.”
“Yeah, I know you.” Nino found some coffee in the usual place and dug the percolator out from under the sink. It was pretty dusty, but so was everything else. “Hey, how long has Ma been under the weather, huh?” He glared at Tony. “You don’t call me, you don’t get no word to me? Whatta ya think this is, huh?” The anger was there inside of him, boiling just under the surface of his skin, and the blood beat in the back of his eyes and in his fingertips.
“Don’t be like that, Nino.” Tony shrugged like the big gorilla he was, all brawn and no brains. “You know I didn’t mean nothing. I was talking to Big Jake and Arnie the Dope and nobody knew where you was.”
“Big Jake?” Nino sneered at him. “Arnie the Dope? You know where to find me. You just didn’t have the guts—”
“You go on, Nino.” Danny took the percolator out of his hands and ran it under the tap. “I’ll make some coffee. You go on in.” He nodded toward the back bedroom. “It’s oke. I can handle this big mug. He gives me any trouble, I’ll put him out like a light bulb.”
The room was dark, all the window curtains drawn. Nino’s mother was a faint figure lying in her bed, pale and silent. There was a queer sort of smell in the room, like blood and vomit mixed; he tried to hold his breath and not breathe it in too much. Nino had no stomach for that sort of thing. “Ma? It’s me, Nino.”
“Nino?” Her voice still sounded the same as it always had: melodic and a little bit tired. “Come here, caro. Let me see you.”
It was bad. There was an odor of pus and blood in the room and the smell permeated everything. “Right here, Ma. I’m right here.” He sat on the side of her bed and embraced her, and tried not to cry. It was no good to cry. Ma had been sick like this for months and never told anybody; even though Nino had money for the doctor, she wouldn’t go, wouldn’t take anything from him.
Maybe Ma don’t want your blood money. Tony’s take on the whole thing was not exactly comforting.
It ain’t blood money. I earned this with my own two hands, see.
Yeah, we all know how you earn your money, Nino.
You ain’t never been too proud to take it.
“I want you to be good boys, okay?” She reached for him, held his wrist. “You and Tony look after each other, huh?”
“Aw, Ma, don’t be talking like that. You’re gonna be just fine. I’ll get a different doctor. Doc Yoplanski don’t know nothing. He ain’t so smart.” His bottom lip trembled; he struggled not to cry. Not now. Now it was too late.
She held on to his wrist. “Be good to your brother. Tony ain’t got your smarts, you know that. Look after him.”
His face suffused with blood; Nino stood up. “I gotta go.”
He walked right out, past Tony and the coffee pot, right out onto Broome Street like he was touched in the head and didn’t stop until Danny’s hand fell on his shoulder.
“Don’t be coming down all hard on Tony,” Danny said. “You know he ain’t….” He took a breath. “You know he don’t like lookin’ for you in them places.”
“She ain’t good, Danny.” Nino went back, sat down on the stoop, and laid his pounding head in his hands. “She ain’t so good.”
“We’ll get a good doctor for her, you and me. We’ll get a great doctor and he’ll get her fixed up in no time, huh? That’s what we’ll do, me and you. We’ll do it, Nino. We can do something for Ma, can’t we?”
But they couldn’t. Nino was in Dutch, but good. And in a week or two, she was gone: cancer. He would never forget the smell, the blood-and-vomit smell in her room the day he went to see her. And at the funeral, carrying his mother’s coffin, he thought about his old man and how he beat on her almost every day—beat on her and beat his brother Ray, beat him ’til he died—and it did something to Nino, killed something inside of him. After the funeral he went back to their old apartment with Danny and with Tony and opened a bottle and proceeded to drown his sorrows in the traditional manner. By midnight, he was well and truly stewed; Danny, who rarely took a drink, brought him home, stripped him naked, and rolled him into bed.
“Nino, I’m leaving the phone here by you, alright? You promise me you’ll call me if you need to? You’re gonna be jake.” Danny leaned down and patted Nino’s cheek. “You listenin’ to me, Nino?”
“Why dontcha stay?” Nino curled up on his side, head swimming, the skin of his face tight with the salt from his tears. “What’s the matter with you? Why can’t you stay here? What’s your big hurry, anyway?” He grabbed a handful of Danny’s coat and held on. “Why’re ya in sucha big rush, huh? Can’t stand to be here with me?”
Danny tried unsuccessfully to extricate himself from Nino’s grip. “Awww, don’t start that again!”
“Danny, come on. Ain’t we always drunk outta the same bottle, huh?”
Danny gazed down at him, and something moved in his expression. He shrugged out of his jacket. “Alright, quit your yappin’.” He pulled a chair and sat beside Nino’s bed. “I’ll sit here ’til you fall asleep.” Nino made as if to say something, but Danny was quicker: “We’ve had this argument before. No.”
Nino made a face. “Yeah, but—”
“You know why.”
STANLEY ZADWADZKI was some kind of clerk, only nobody was really sure which kind or what he did. Technically one might classify him as a bookkeeper, if one were inclined to be generous, but really he did all the little jobs around the office nobody else cared about or wanted to do. His pay varied, depending on what he happened to be doing and how generous the boss—Big Frank O’Hara—was feeling. Stanley had no set lunch hour, got no regularly scheduled breaks for coffee or a cigarette, and he belonged to nothing remotely resembling a labor union. Everybody—from the big boss all the way down to the wiseacres who brought the newspapers in—made it a point to pick on Stanley, mostly because he was smaller than the rest but partly because he didn’t or couldn’t fight back. It was alright with Big Frank to trip Stanley up if he was coming past a row of desks with a tray full of dirty coffee cups—and if it was half-past quitting time on some sunny afternoon, the guy who dropped a flask of something wet on Stanley’s double entries in the ledger was the biggest hero of them all. Even Phyllis, the leggy redhead who worked Reception and who swore up and down Stanley was a nice guy and maybe they ought to stop picking on him, wasn’t above bumping him with the filing drawers or stepping on his wingtips with her stiletto heels.
Stanley wiped his mouth in his handkerchief, suddenly nervous. “I was just… I was having my lunch, I don’t think—”
“Boss wants to see ya.” The goon shrugged. “He don’t like to be kept waiting by no pencil-pusher. You know that.”
“Al-alright.” He laid the sandwich down and wiped his sweating palms in his pants. Big Frank wanted to see him. That was never good.
Stanley came from a little town in Kansas, some place not much more than a wide spot in the road, with a few cows and some fields full of corn and a few willow trees bending and swaying in the summer breeze. Stanley’s parents had loved him once, but that was a long time ago and they were both dead now, and with them went the memories of that little town, and the pretty white church where he’d spent Sundays, and the little school, and the swings in the park. It was all gone, and Stanley was in New York now and had been ever since he’d come East on a train one wet Monday morning with nothing to his name except a cardboard suitcase with a change of clothes and five dollars in change. He’d cried from Kansas to Virginia, stopping to change trains at Union Station in Washington, DC, and then he’d wept silently from DC to New York, his forehead pressed against the window. A large man with a Siamese cat in a carrier had sat next to him when Stanley changed trains at Union Station; the large man fell asleep and the cat yowled in its carrier and Stanley was miserable. When he finally got off the train in New York City, he was still miserable and still alone, and the only place he could afford was a third-rate flophouse with a hand-painted sign advertising “BEDS: FIFTEEN CENTS.” He paid the fifteen cents and climbed the stairs and somehow never left. His landlady, Mrs. Reilly, cooked his meals and did his laundry with something less than Christian charity, but it was cheap, and besides, he couldn’t think of anywhere better to go. He had no friends.
He’d found the job with Big Frank when a guy in Tiny’s Bar mentioned Big Frank was looking for a bookkeeper, some smart guy with an education and a good head on his shoulders. What Big Frank got was Stan the Rube, or as the backroom boys liked to call him, Stan the Stupe, short for stupid. It wasn’t too long before Stanley realized what working for Big Frank meant—Big Frank wasn’t just another honest businessman—but by then it was too late: once in, never out. So he stayed and did Big Frank’s books and the boys all called him Stan the Stupe.
Big Frank liked to call him something else, and it wasn’t long before Stanley realized what that meant, and he wept secretly with shame and was glad his mother and father were dead. The rest of the boys knew and teased him: “Hey, gunsel, how’s tricks?” The rest of the boys teased him because they knew what it meant when Big Frank called for him, when Big Frank sent one of his gorillas to find Stanley and bring him to the office. Big Frank’s office was in a private part of the business, set behind a fake wall. You had to press a button to get into it, and you didn’t get out until Big Frank was ready to let you out. The first time Stanley went to Big Frank’s office, he’d stood there with his mouth open until Big Frank yelled at him, told him to get his stupid rube ass in the door and not waste time. That day—those moments—effectively crushed the last of his innocence. When he was finally let out again, he was bruised and bloodied and it felt like someone had torn his insides out.
He wondered if a man could die from it. He wanted to ask someone—a doctor—but he was too ashamed. He had dreams about something very different, dreams he hardly dared to think about, dreams of someone kind and gentle laying him down on a soft feather bed and touching him and kissing him, bringing him slowly and effortlessly to a shattering peak and letting him drift down slowly, softly.
He had been with Big Frank for five years now and he knew Big Frank owned him, body and soul. There was nothing Stanley could do about it. There was nothing anyone could do about it. Big Frank owned this territory and nobody had better not say anything about it. Or else. That was what Big Frank said, and he drew his finger across his throat and laughed. “Ain’t nobody takes what’s mine,” he said. He stroked Stanley’s cheek the day he said it, and kissed him and said Stanley was his favorite out of all the boys he’d ever had.
Big Frank often gave Stanley little jobs to do. Whenever there was an important party, Big Frank took Stanley with him, made Stanley stand beside him and light his cigarettes, flick the dust off his shoulders and his shoes. “He’s a clever gunsel,” Big Frank would often say. “Does everything I tell him to.” And he would tweak Stanley’s cheek. “Ain’t that right, kid?”
Stanley waited now while Jimmy Two-Shots Brown opened the hidden door for him. He had that name because he once took out half a dozen cops with only two shots left in his revolver. Jimmy was about six feet six and weighed maybe a hundred and fifteen pounds, soaking wet and carrying books. His two front teeth were missing and he’d left the tip of his nose somewhere in the Bowery, but he was smart and Big Frank trusted him, and that was all that mattered.
“Go on in, gunsel. The old man’s waiting for ya.”
“A-are you sure it’s me? I m-mean, I was just doing the books and I think—I mean, I’m sure he—”
“Go on in!” Jimmy Two-Shots shoved him through the door into Big Frank’s office. Big Frank was with his tailor and this made Stanley glad—somebody else meant Big Frank didn’t expect to be serviced, didn’t want Stanley down on his knees in front of him or worse.
Big Frank was easily as tall as Jimmy Two-Shots but three times as heavy. His huge gut stuck out in front of him like the prow of a tug, and his enormous buttocks quivered when he walked. His eyes were pale and bulbous and set flat in his bloated face, and his big lips were pink and greasy-looking. He favored a lot of jewelry and all of it was real, from his diamond pinky rings to the emerald stickpin shimmering in his cravat. Big Frank liked aftershave lotion too, but not that bay-rum garbage the rest of the boys used; Big Frank’s cologne came from France in tiny little bottles and smelled like lots and lots of money, and the pomade Big Frank wore in his hair was made from ingredients that smelled like his cologne, and Big Frank only wore the very best clothes.
Big Frank started out as a fabric cutter in some garment district slop shop when he was eight years old, and stole and lied and cheated his way up until the Volstead Act made the sale and possession of alcoholic beverages illegal, and then he branched out into a little liquor on the side. Big Frank ran numbers and he ran girls; he owned a string of fancy nightclubs where patrons could drink and dance and screw the dames from the floorshow in special rooms upstairs.
Big Frank liked living large and he didn’t care who knew it. His organization ran like the proverbial well-oiled machine—except in this case it was oiled with sex and booze and maybe a Cadillac of good-quality cocaine on the side, if that’s what Frank’s guys wanted. There were only two other bosses in the entire city with as much pull as Big Frank, and one of them was Joey Texas, whom everybody said was almost washed up except he’d found himself a brand new torpedo.
“Some little greaseball named Nino,” Jimmy Two-Shots said. “They call him The Little Prince.” Rumor had it Nino Moretti had his eye on Joey’s territory, and it was only a matter of time before he drilled Joey and took over the works. Yeah, Nino was the big six, alright.
“You want—you wanted—uh, Jimmy said—” Stanley ran a hand through his hair, which was dark blond and very soft and never stayed put. No matter how much he combed and brushed and pomaded, there were always one or two strands springing loose to tickle his pale forehead. “You wanted me.”
“Yeah, there’s a big shindig Saturday night and you’re going.” Big Frank shoved the tailor away and got down off the stool. “I need you with me. You got it?”
“Of course, boss.” Stanley let himself exhale. A party. It was just a party. “You know me. I’ll be there.”
“Vinnie here is gonna give you one of Jimmy’s old suits to wear. Gotta have a monkey suit to go to one of these things. I don’t want you looking like no hick, you hear me?”
Big Frank wanted him to go because Big Frank wanted to show off his power and his wealth, which meant all of Big Frank’s mob would be there, and all the other bosses—including Joey Texas.
Yeah, Big Frank wanted Stan to go because Big Frank wanted a flunky—somebody to dust off his shoes and wipe his chair down. “Thank you, s-sir. I’d be happy to go, if you think it’s alright. I wouldn’t want it to interfere with my work, you know I’d rather—”
“Shut up!” Frank lifted a decanter off the desk and poured for himself. “You talk too much! I want any lip from you, I’ll undo my pants.”
The tailor was looking at him strangely, and Stanley felt a hot flush color his cheeks. “Yes, sir.”
Big Frank jerked his chin toward Stanley. “He gives really good blow, this one.” He grinned at the tailor, who grinned back in a knowing manner. “You wanna try him some time? I shit you not. This boy can really blow the pipe.”
Stanley wanted to claw a hole in the floor and crawl inside, but he forced himself to stay silent. He’d learned the hard way going up against Big Frank O’Hara was a mug’s game, one Stanley always lost.
“The Silver Arrow, nine o’clock Saturday night. You be there. Jimmy and some of the boys’ll be by your place to pick you up.” Big Frank waddled over and caressed Stanley’s cheek. “Just to make sure you won’t be late. It’s nice to have an escort.”
NINO was waiting when the delivery boy came up with his suit; he peeled a twenty off the roll and handed it to the kid. “That’s what I like about this place,” he said. “They always deliver on time.” He shut the door behind the kid and glanced over at Danny Murphy, who was sitting in Nino’s easy chair cleaning his nails. “You gonna sit there like a bump or you gonna help me?”
“Dwawwww!” Danny made an exaggerated face. “Does the itto boy need help getting dwessed?” He folded away his pocketknife and got up. “Alright, gorgeous, let’s see what Santa brought.” He unzipped the suit bag and whistled appreciatively. “Holy Mother of God,” he exclaimed. “Ain’t you gonna cause the hoo-ha tonight!”
“Yeah,” Nino said. “I figure if I got it, I ought to show it off.” He shrugged out of his dressing gown, revealing his silk boxers and imported sock garters. “I’ll show Big Frank’s mugs who’s the biggy around here.” He regarded himself critically in the mirror, craning his neck to see over Danny’s shoulder. “You think this suit makes me look short?”
Danny raised an eyebrow. “No.” He plucked Nino’s diamond shirt studs off the dresser and inserted them carefully into the boiled shirtfront. “Maybe you ain’t the tallest guy around, but you got plenty going for you.”
“Yeah?” Nino smoothed his thick, black hair with his hand. “You think so?” Nino’s face was too broad to be considered classically handsome, but there was something attractive in his lively dark eyes with their thick, luxurious lashes, his wide, sensual mouth, and the dramatic sweep of his winged black brows. His suits were cut to make his shoulders look broader than they actually were, and his tailor knew how to tuck and drape his shirts and trousers to make him seem taller, his figure more elegant. He resembled the movie actor Edward G. Robinson and was highly conscious of it and vain; he favored pinstriped suits and silk shirts and dark fedora hats.
“I think so,” Danny replied. He stood back to admire his handiwork. “You’re gonna be fightin’ off the nookie tonight! Hoo boy!”
“I’ll leave the janes to you,” Nino said. “Women ain’t my department.” He ran a critical finger under his collar. “This thing is choking me,” he said. “I’d like to get my hands on the guy who invented this thing. Tell me, why do we gotta get all rigged out like this for? I ain’t meeting the president. This place is just another one of Frank’s dirty speakos.”
“All the more reason,” Danny replied. “Let those mugs know you are one very pricey article.”
“Alright,” Nino sighed. “Let’s get it over with.” He cast a final glance at himself and sneered. “Nookie,” he muttered. “Nuts to that.”
“IT DOESN’T fit.” Despair: Stanley gazed at himself in the full-length mirror fastened to the back of his bedroom door. The suit was too large and hung on his slender frame as if it had been made for a much bigger man, which it had. The sleeves weren’t too bad and the trousers had been hemmed by Big Frank’s tailor, so at least Stanley wouldn’t be tripping over himself, but he looked ridiculous—a boy playing in a man’s clothes. He had gone to some significant trouble to be ready for tonight: showering, shaving away his light blond beard, and combing enough pomade into his hair so it ought to stay put for more than its usual half hour. He had even steeled himself to the idea of appearing yet again in public as Big Frank’s catamite and flunky, and was almost looking forward to the evening because there would be music and dancing, and Stanley loved music above almost everything else. He’d go almost anywhere, provided there was a dance band. And there would be food—Big Frank paid him next to nothing, and Stanley was almost always hungry.
But this—this was horrible, almost certainly calculated to further humiliate him because humiliation was Big Frank’s stock-in-trade. He delighted in belittling those around him, as if his own powerful ego couldn’t bear even the smallest of challenges. “I can’t go looking like this.” The more Stanley looked, the worse it got; he looked like a puppet or a child, a clown. Everyone would be looking at him, looking and laughing, wondering what Stan the Stupe had done this time that Big Frank needed to punish him. Hey lookee here, boys! Stan the Stupe musta spilled Big Frank’s coffee…!
The radio was playing in the background:
They’re writing songs of love, but not for me
A lucky star’s above, but not for me
Nobody cared about Stan the Stupe. Nobody cared about Stan the country bumpkin, the rube, the stooge from some Kansas hick town half a mile past the end of nowhere. Nobody cared if he lived or died, and if he washed up on the Jersey shore tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter a damn to Big Frank or any of his hoods. Just another greenhorn who couldn’t take it. Just another wide-eyed farm boy too far out of his league.
But he loved this song, and he dreamt of love like that—late at night, alone in his bed, he imagined someone cared about him… someone really gave a damn.
“You are an idiot.” He swiped at his face angrily. He would go. It wasn’t like he had a choice.
“AHHHH, Sam, how’s tricks?” Nino Moretti, resplendent in a handsome cutaway coat, reached past Danny to shake Sam the Butcher’s meaty hand. “Have a cigar?” Nino’s thick, wavy black hair was combed back over his head and glistened with its own cold, blue light. His dark eyes, twin pools of black water, surveyed the room and its occupants dismissively.
“Thanks, Nino, that’s white of ya.” Sam leaned in while Nino offered him a light, nodded at Danny. “Big crowd come to see Frank, huh? Everybody loves Frank.” Sam was as broad as he was tall, with a huge barrel chest and a luxuriant growth of thick, black hair on his knuckles and in his nostrils. His wide shoulders made him look like he had no neck, which was Sam’s other nickname, “No-Neck.”
“Yeahhhh.” Nino, contemptuous, drawled the word out to its longest possible extension. “What’s he been telling you boys lately?”
Sam bristled. “Now look here, Nino—”
“Aw, stick it in your eye!” Nino puffed on his cigar, his wide mouth distorted by a sneer. “Big Frank don’t frighten me! He couldn’t frighten a stable full of choirboys and you know it!”
“It ain’t good business to be talking that way, Nino,” Sam said. “You better watch what you’re sayin’. Something might happen to ya.”
“Like what?” Danny stepped sideways a little so he was between Nino and Sam. “Don’t be getting ideas, Sammy. Your head might burst.” The Irishman grinned, a flash of white teeth. “Big Frank wouldn’t like the mess.”
“That ain’t funny,” Sam huffed.
Danny hunched up his shoulders and stuck out his head. “Dat ain’t funny,” he mimicked. “You’re dazzling me with your wit, here.”
“Yeah, well….” Sam eyed them both. “Youse guys better watch it.” He turned away, headed toward the buffet table where the caterers had laid out a diverse sampling of cold meats, cheeses, smoked fish, and the like.
Danny waved him off. “Aw, watch your mother.”
“You trying to get us kicked out or something?” Nino glared at Danny, who appeared to be enjoying his own joke far too much. “Don’t be riding him. We’re here to keep an eye on things, maybe do a little business.” He looked Danny up and down. Like Nino, Danny was dressed to the nines, but where Nino favored dark clothing, Danny’s outfit was a pale dove gray, with a dark tie and shoes buffed to a blinding shine. His hair was combed back from his temples in waves, and he’d even had a manicure. “And keep away from Big Frank’s dames. I don’t want you getting dizzy with some jane, see?”
“You worry too much.” Danny gazed around the room. “Here comes Big Frank. I’m so excited I think I might wet myself.”
Nino stubbed out his cigar in a potted plant. “He’s even fatter than he was last week,” he said. “It’s a wonder his heart’s still beating. Hey, maybe—”
They’re writing songs of love, but not for me
A lucky star’s above, but not for me
Nino couldn’t breathe.
Eyes… pale-blue eyes… that face… that long-limbed boy, moving effortlessly in his too-big suit, his body drifting… in the space between heartbeats, something slammed into Nino’s chest like a freight train.
Danny’s face swam into his vision. “You okay?” He followed Nino’s gaze, trying to understand what it was his friend had seen. “You look like you seen a ghost. You sick or something?”
“Who’s the kid?” It came out as a tortured croak. He couldn’t take his eyes off the young man by Big Frank’s side. If he did, the boy would disappear and Nino would never find him again, not ever, and he would be… he’d die. He’d just—no, better not to think about it. “That kid with Big Frank. Who is he?”
“Aw, that’s Stan the Stupe. He’s Big Frank’s gunsel, you know.” Danny shrugged. “So I hear. Some country boy. He’s been with Big Frank for four, five years now. I’m surprised you ain’t seen him before.”
“Don’t you think I’d remember?” Nino snapped. His heart was slamming into his ribcage. “If I’d seen him, I’d remember him. You think I’m stupid?”
“Yeah, I do,” Danny said. “Cuz you’re mouthing off to me, and you seem to forget I ain’t one of these regular dopes you can push around.”
“What’s his name?” Nino whispered.
“Uh… Stanley Zadwa—something Polish, I dunno.” Danny grinned. “You like him? When you take over Big Frank’s territory, maybe the kid’ll come over to your bed.”
Nino turned on him savagely. “That ain’t funny! Don’t you never let me hear you say nothing like that, never no more, you hear?”
Danny held up his hands in mock surrender. “Okay, I’m jake. Sorry I said anything.”
The kid and Big Frank were standing by the buffet table, the kid staring at the food hungrily. Big Frank was talking to Rick and Blackie, two of his Brooklyn guys. They ran a backroom distillery for Frank’s organization and took a little off the top for themselves. Someday they’d get caught, and Big Frank would have somebody take them for a ride and they’d wash up on the Jersey shore. As Nino watched, the kid edged around behind Big Frank and reached for one of the sandwich trays.
That did it. Big Frank whirled around and brought his fist down on the kid’s arm. “What’d I tell you? Don’t be eating when I’m doing business, okay? What’s the matter with you?”
He was like a kicked dog, Nino thought—just like a kicked dog nobody wanted, that nobody cared about or loved, just a poor dumb animal to be abused whenever Big Frank felt like it.
“I’m hungry.” His voice was quiet, dignified, with a flat Midwestern twang. “I haven’t eaten all day.”
“You’ll eat when I tell you to eat!” Big Frank’s fist made contact with the point of Stanley’s chin, throwing him backward. The kid stumbled and cannoned into a row of chairs and slammed into the floor. He lay there, stunned, and raised a shaking hand to his bloodied mouth.
Nino’s blood roared in his ears. “That rotten bastard!” He started forward but was momentarily stayed by Danny.
“Nino, it ain’t none of your business, okay?” Danny held Nino by the upper arms, shook him gently. “He’s Big Frank’s problem. He ain’t your problem.”
Nino shrugged him off. “Let go of me!” He watched himself as if from somewhere outside his body; he charged forward, got between Big Frank and the kid.
The crowd parted for him, reformed a tight little circle around him and Frank. “What’s your problem, little man?”
“Don’t hit that kid again.” Nino slipped one hand into his coat, fingers closing around a set of brass knuckles. “Ain’t none of us packing a rod in here tonight, but you touch him again and I’ll beat you to death.”
“Oh, big guy, huh?” Jimmy Two-Shots charged toward Nino, but Danny stepped in neatly, dropped him with a single punch. The tight circle around Nino and Frank wavered and shifted; Big Frank was suddenly in heated conference with one of his lieutenants.
“Anybody else want to try it?” Danny’s fists hung at his sides. “’Cause I brought plenty for everybody.”
Nino reached for Stanley. “Can you stand up?” he asked. “Or do you need some help?”
“I’m okay.” Stanley flinched away from Nino’s touch, climbed shakily to his feet. “Leave me alone. You shouldn’t touch me. Frank will be mad. I don’t want to make him mad.” He reminded Nino of himself, of Nino’s own apprenticeship to Joey Texas, his early years clawing his way up from the streets.
“Listen to me.” Nino made his decision. “You ain’t Big Frank’s no more. You’re coming home with me, see? I’m gonna take care of you.” He raised his voice for Danny, who came hurrying over.
“Nino, we better get outta here. These boys ain’t none too pleased and I think some of Big Frank’s goons are carrying heaters.” He glanced at Stanley. “I hope you’re worth it, kid.”
“Come on, kid.” Nino helped him up. “We gotta breeze.”
“Wait a minute!” Stanley stepped back. “You guys have got me wrong. I c-can’t just—I mean, Frank—”
“Nino is offering you his hospitality,” Danny said. “You are gonna go with Nino because Nino stood up for you.” He closed one hand around Stanley’s elbow. “You don’t want to shame Nino by refusing his hospitality.” He squeezed Stanley’s arm—gently, but with intent. “Right?”
“Leave the kid alone,” Nino said, “You don’t gotta scare him.”
Big Frank broke away from his lieutenant and started forward.
“Alright,” Stanley said, “I’m going. I’m going.”
“Car’s waiting,” Danny said. He swung Stanley around so the younger man was in front of him. “Got her warmed up and everything.” A gun had appeared in Danny’s other hand, seemingly out of nowhere. “Don’t none of you boys get any fancy ideas, now. Me and Nino, we’re leaving and we’re taking this kid with us for insurance.”
He hustled them out to the curb, where a dark sedan was waiting with Danny’s brother Michael at the wheel. Michael looked like a taller, thinner version of Danny. His face was pale and gaunt, with the flesh bitten away under the cheekbones; his nose had been broken numerous times and had never healed properly.
“Okay, Mikey.” Danny climbed into the front with Michael and Nino helped Stanley into the back seat.
“I just would like to know one thing,” Stanley said. His pale eyes gleamed in the dark.
Goddammit, Nino thought, he’s too goddamn beautiful. Nothing should be so beautiful… nothing that beautiful could survive, not in this world anyway. “What?” Nino deliberately sat apart from him to give the kid a little breathing room. “What is it?”
“Why me? I’m nobody. I haven’t done anything to you. Why do you want to kill me?”
“Kill you?” Of course—the kid thought they were taking him for a ride! Nino laughed gently. This kid was delicate. Not yellow—he had plenty of guts, Nino could see it right away. But delicate in that God only knew what Big Frank had been doing to him for the past however many years. He’d been kicked around, had horrible things done to him. “You got me all wrong,” Nino said. “I’m taking you away from Big Frank for good. He ain’t never gonna hurt you no more, see.”
The kid—Stanley—stared at him. “But he’ll kill you,” he whispered. He turned around in his seat, glanced back at the club now vanishing swiftly into darkness behind him. “You gotta let me out! Big Frank will kill you for this! I can’t be part of it, I can’t let you—”
Nino laid a hand on his shoulder, pressed him back into his seat. “Let us worry about Big Frank. Okay?”
“I don’t know who you are,” Stanley said. He was shivering, probably from cold but more likely from fear. “I left my hat in the club. I haven’t got another hat.” His mouth was still bleeding but it had slowed to a trickle. A dark bruise stained the pale skin of his face.
“I’ll get you another hat. I’ll get you all the hats you want, okay?” Nino had a sudden, inexplicable urge to cry. “It’s okay. You can have anything you want.” He forced himself to breathe; it felt like a sob. “Anything. Anything you want.”
Stanley straightened his back against the seat. “Why should you want to help me?” he asked. “I’m not your problem.”
“Big Frank ain’t no friend of mine, see.” Nino lit a cigarette, offering one to Stanley, who shook his head. “I see him beating on you, I think it’s good business to step in and say something about it.”
“Do a lot of that, do you?” Stanley looked him up and down—slowly, taking his time, his gaze sliding over Nino’s clothes, his jewelry, his face. “Saying things about things?”
“Yeah,” Nino replied. “Yeah, I guess I do. But you can relax now, kid. I rescued you.” He sat back and puffed on his cigarette. He couldn’t figure this kid out.
“What makes you think I wanted to be rescued?” Stanley asked.
Nino frowned. “Say, kid, you screwy or something? Why wouldn’t you want to be rescued? You like Big Frank beating on you?”
“I didn’t say that.” Stanley slumped back into the shadows. “I didn’t say anything at all.”
“YOU sure you’ll be okay?” Danny leaned out of the car. “Cuz I can stick around.” He grinned at Nino and the kid. “You’re in good hands, kid. Nino here owns most of the Lower East Side. He’ll take care of ya.”
“Naw, you go on, I’ll be okay,” Nino replied. “I’ll call ya if there’s any trouble.”
“We’ll wait ’til ya get inside, hey, Mikey?” Danny conferred briefly with his brother inside the car. He hung over the door, his upper body out the window.
“Come on, kid. I don’t think Big Frank’s gonna come after us, but we better get in, just in case some of his boys get ideas.” Nino ushered Stanley up the steps, one hand held across the boy’s lower back, hovering but not quite touching him. The kid was skittish; Nino didn’t want to scare him off. “Right up here. The elevator’s nice. It’s part of the reason why I like this building.” Stanley was silent as they rode the cage up to the fifth floor. “Yeah, it’s nice here,” Nino said. “Nice building. It’s got a lotta class.”
“Mr. Moretti, what is it you plan to do with me? I would like to know.” Stanley drew himself up, dignified and tragic. “Are you holding a rod on me now?”
“Why would I be holding a rod on you?” Nino asked. “You ain’t giving me no cause.”
Stanley arched one pale eyebrow. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll run away?”
The elevator bumped to a stop. Stanley followed Nino down the hall and waited while Nino put the key in the door. “I just wanna keep Big Frank away from you… make sure he don’t hurt you no more. You’re useful to him. I take you away from him, it’s good for me. You know, good for business.” He pushed the door open, motioning for Stanley to enter. “Come on in, kid, make yourself at home.”
Nino’s apartment was understated but tasteful: a main room with the requisite couch and chairs, several nice lamps, and, occupying a place of prominence along one wall, a large cabinet radio set.
“Do you like music, Mr. Moretti?” Stanley drifted to the radio but didn’t allow himself to touch it. He’d never seen a radio as nice: floor model, in a nice walnut cabinet, with an intricate geometric pattern on the grille cloth. It sure was fancy.
“Yeah, I sure do.” Nino shrugged out of his coat, stowing it and his hat away. “Listen, enough with the Mr. Moretti stuff, okay? Call me Nino.” He went into the kitchen, a smaller room just off the sitting area, and opened the icebox. “You must be hungry. You want something to eat? Let me fix you a sandwich or something. Glass of milk?”
“You don’t need to go to any trouble.” Stanley hovered in the middle of the floor, uncertain whether he should stay or go. It was even money, he figured, as to who would kill him first, Nino or Big Frank. He had no reason to trust Nino, except….
“Here you go.” Nino laid a plate of sandwiches on the coffee table and a glass of milk, and a slice of chocolate cake. “I can’t take no credit for the eats. Everything’s from the deli around the corner, but they’re real good. The superintendent’s wife made the cake, and she’s a real nice lady.”
“I don’t want to be any trouble. You’ve been so kind to me.” Stanley sat down on the couch and gazed at the food longingly.
“Well, don’t just look at it,” Nino said. “Go on, dig in.” He wavered, shifting from one foot to the other. “I’ll leave you alone.” The bruise on Stanley’s face had shaded to a dark purple mottled with red; it covered part of his bottom lip and stretched around the side of his jaw. “I’ll get you some ice for your face, after you’re done eating.”
He went into his bedroom and shut the door, shucked his clothes, and put on a pair of silk pajamas and a dressing gown. He took the gun out of his shoulder holster and tucked it under his pillow. He doubted Big Frank would send anybody after him tonight, but it wasn’t beyond possibility. Big Frank had to be pretty sore now because Nino had taken away his toy, and he wasn’t likely to let something like that pass without comment.
Nino smiled wryly. Usually Big Frank’s “comments” had guns behind them. He gazed at himself in the mirror above his dresser. “You sure you know what you’re doing, Nino?” What had possessed him to rescue the kid, anyway? This kid was nobody, nothing to him. Maybe he was getting soft… which meant what, exactly?
He didn’t know. He had no idea. For the first time in a great many years, Nino had no clue, and he wasn’t sure he liked the feeling. Perhaps it was a mistake—maybe Big Frank deliberately put the kid in Nino’s way to trap him… yeah, dangle the pretty candy….
Dangerous. It was real dangerous. But he couldn’t just leave the kid there. He couldn’t leave him there and let Big Frank beat on him like—
Get away from that window!
What’d I tell you? You lookin’ for something out that window?
The old man, yeah… the old man had a bad temper, for sure… and it was always Ray he went for, never Tony or Nino, even though they were plenty worse than Ray, were always making trouble, little snot-nosed brats. It was Ray he went for, even when Ray was only looking out the window… he liked looking out the window because he never went to school, never went outside to play with the other kids; Ma would never let him. The other kids would pick on him, throw rocks at him, hit him ’til he bled.
Yeah, hit him ’til he bled, like the old man did. Until one day when he hit Ray so hard—
Nino blinked. “Yeah, you’re getting soft, alright.” He tightened the belt of his dressing gown and sneered at himself in the mirror. Maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea, bringing the kid here. He wasn’t like the other men Nino knew, the torpedoes and the trouble boys that hung around the speakos and the clubs, or the painted, pin-curled fags looking for trade on late-night sidewalks. Nino knew them all by name, the pansies who’d take money for a blow, wearing out their knees for easy change, maybe an extra fin in their pockets come the weekend. No matter what he’d been doing for Big Frank, this kid was no smack-off.
He wasn’t what Nino usually went for, not at all. That thought alone was enough to give Nino serious pause.
Stanley was still eating when Nino came back. The plate that had held the sandwiches now sported nothing but a faint smear of mayonnaise and some crumbs. Likewise, the glass of milk was empty, and the kid was working on the cake.
He’d cut it up into small individual sections, each approximately the same size and shape, and had set the icing to one side.
“Don’t like the icing, huh?” Nino grinned.
“Oh, no,” Stanley said quietly. “I always save the icing for last. It’s my favorite part.”
He saves the icing for last. Mother of God.
Nino held out the ice bag. “I brought you some ice. You want to put some on your face. It’s pretty bruised, there. I got an extra bedroom; it’s all ready for you when you want to go to bed.”
Stanley took the ice bag from him. “Thank you. This is really very nice of you. I appreciate it.”
Nino sized him up. “Not too much you’re scared of, is there?” He gestured at the kid’s face. “I mean, you took it on the chin from Big Frank and you didn’t even whimper.”
Stanley licked chocolate frosting off his fingers. “I’m used to people hitting me,” he said.
It went through Nino like a blade of ice. “Don’t you ever—” He sat down. “Kid, don’t let people hit you.”
Stanley peered at him curiously. “Why?”
“Because I don’t like seeing people get beat on, what can’t defend themselves.” Nino took a breath. His hands were trembling. It was too much, being close to the kid like this, looking into those guileless blue eyes. He knew what Big Frank saw in Stanley, what anybody with half a brain and a beating heart would see in Stanley—his innocence and his beauty. “Look, kid, I’m gonna go in and get you some pajamas there, and some towels and stuff if you wanna take a bath or whatever, I dunno. I got plenty of books, if you wanna read, or listen to the radio.”
He stepped into the spare bedroom and laid a pair of his own pajamas out on the foot of the bed, along with a stack of fresh towels and some other things the kid might want.
I’m used to people hitting me.
If Danny could see him now, he would probably laugh. Nino “Spats” Moretti—The Little Prince himself—finally caught. No more lonely nights. No more cheap palookas sleeping in his bed. “Yeah, you’re getting ahead of yourself,” he whispered. He half expected Stanley to be gone when he went back into the living room.
Stanley was sound asleep on the sofa, the ice bag pressed against his cheek.
Nino took a spare blanket and covered him up.