Chapter One

 

Monday, July 9, 1934

 

 

THE EARLY part of the evening turned out to be a real lulu. The wrap party for Cullen Reilly and company filled Suede to capacity. Reilly had just finished a picture for MGM and wanted to blow off some steam. Often did after a long shoot, or for any reason at all. Frankie Monetti’s best customer for the restaurant, bar, and not-so-secret activities on the top floor of the club. Reilly ordered up four muscular humps to keep him occupied while the party thrummed downstairs.

The district attorney’s bet with the mayor about who could win more at the craps table made for some swell action in the gambling room. Suede’s main floor filled with the curious, while both DA Fitts and the mayor peeled off C-notes as though they’d printed them in their basements. In the end, neither won as much as the house. A good night for Monetti’s lone legit venture.

At two fifteen, the party broke up, but not before Frankie did some serious ogling. From his usual booth, he watched the pretty boys sway and paw each other. He feasted eyes on the young bucks, who were only too happy to have their local mobster watch them fuck each other insensible.

Duke, his number one, drove him and a few of the boys home. Frankie always kept four close, just in case.

“You fellas get some sleep.” Duke, Fat Artie, Wild Eye, and Johnny went to their wing, while Frankie unlocked the door of his Holmby Hills mansion.

The night quiet, Frankie leaned against one of the fluted white columns under the portico and stared up at the fat moon, his senses dulled but not nearly enough, despite his being bent. As the clock in the foyer chimed three, he gave a fleeting thought to waking Tommy, his houseboy. “All good boys should be in bed.” He chuckled. “With me.”

Slivers of moonlight slipped into the breach as Frankie stepped over the threshold, into his foyer, then slid the bolt into place. For a few hours, no work, no orders to give.

The grandfather clock ticked overloud as moonlight glinted off the heavy pendulum. An orange glow caught his attention as he passed the middle arch that led to the living room. Through the open damask draperies, light from the streetlamp filtered in to reveal a shadowed figure, deep in the recesses of the room. Acrid cigarette smoke wafted through the still summer air.

His black onyx pinkie ring caught on his pocket as Frankie dug deep for the security of his body-warmed .38. “Who’s there?”

Another bright glow, then the sizzle of cigarette paper. “That any way to greet an old chum? I figured at least you’d remember me.”

The familiar gravelly voice lifted Frankie’s boozy haze like a movie curtain. Fear slithered down Frankie’s spine. Yeah, he remembered the Ansonia Hotel, the Turkish baths. “Gent? What are you doing here?”

“Hey, hey. Don’t need the hardware. I’m here to talk.”

“You shouldn’t be here. If Sal finds out, you know—”

“Sal sent me.”

The cock of the hammer echoed off the walls.

Frankie’s finger froze on the trigger. “Why?”

“He sent for ya. I’m here to make sure ya come in.”

The grit in Gent’s voice scraped over Frankie’s nerves. “Sent for me, huh? That doesn’t sound good.”

Frankie glanced into the empty foyer, his gun in hand.

Gent flipped on a lamp, then shifted in the corner sofa chair, his Fedora pulled down over his eyes. “T’ings don’t add up.”

“What things? He thinks I’m cheatin’ him?”

“Yeah.”

Frankie walked fully into the room, his grip still on his gun. “Like what?”

“I’m takin’ ya in. All I know is Sal wants ta talk. You have to explain.”

“Why’d he send you?”

“It’s what I do.”

“Everything’s copacetic here. Guaranteed.”

Gent shrugged. “He don’t believe it. Not bad enough, you fucked up the hit on McGregor. The one t’ing he asks you ta do, and you botch it. He ain’t happy, Frankie. Not happy at all.” Gent raised his head and tipped his Fedora’s brim back with the gun barrel. “I’m here ta clean up, then take you back. No more complicated ’an dat.”

The six-foot-four-inch Gent unfolded himself from the chair. His shadow loomed on the wall behind him—Sal’s hulking avenger.

When Gent stepped into the light, uncharacteristic fear ripped through Frankie and wrung him inside out. “Stay right there.”

“I ain’t killin’ you here and only on Sal’s word. We can keep our rods on each other, but I’m gonna do what Sal sent me to do.” Gent inclined his head, then stubbed out his snipe in the glass ashtray beside the chair.

“What’s he wanna know? Why now? Why you? I haven’t heard from you in five years. He said we ain’t s’posed to see each other. ’Member?”

Gent sighed, then tucked his gun into the chest holster. “All’s forgiven about that. Sal’s got a new bone to chew. Money and McGregor. He’s got ’em both stuck in his craw, and you gotta come get ’em out.”

“Fuck McGregor. As long as I steer clear, he’s got nothin’ to do with me.”

“Bullshit. He holds press conferences, accuses the Syndicate of shit they never thought of. Yak, yak, yak. He’s gonna clean up Los Angeles. Sooner or later, that flatfoot is gonna find somethin’ to hang on ya, and that makes Sal nervous.”

After Gent sprinkled tobacco for a new cigarette, he licked the paper with a delicacy that belied his muscled bulk.

Being sent for was as harsh as it got. You go in alive and come out dead and always someone you know whacks you. No exceptions. “Why you?”

Gent scratched a thumbnail across the top of a stick match, then lit his newly rolled cigarette. “Sal respects me. I do what he says, keep my nose clean, ya know? Then he gives me more to do, trusts me.”

“You his man? He own you?”

Gent shrugged. “No one owns me. I’m just there.”

Frankie nodded. “Does he know your name?”

Gent turned his back. “I ain’t here to talk about me. I got work to do, then we take the train back to New York. That’s all there is.”

The ambivalence in Gent’s voice made him, like always, harder to figure. “So you’re here to kill McGregor?”

“Last thing before we leave. Gotta have a look-see at the books first. Get a feel for the operation.”

Frankie laughed. “What would you know about the books?”

Gent took two steps, then grabbed Frankie’s tie. “Five years is a long time. Even a dumb mook like me can learn shit in five years.”

Frankie calmly stared into Gent’s dead eyes. “I don’t doubt that, but last I heard, you’d racked up dozens of kills. When did he make you a book man?”

Gent pulled Frankie closer. “I know some shit. Learned to figure when Sal gave me the wire service to manage. Insteada breakin’ heads, I hung around and learned, top to bottom. Then I broke heads.” Gent released Frankie with a shove.

Frankie straightened his tie. “Big step. Your own operation.”

“Makes Sal a load and he likes that. I showed him he could trust me, so he figured I’d know what’s what out here.”

“Glad to hear it. I’ll have my man Nickels show you the books.”

“That or I take ’em. Either way.”

Fury rose up at Gent’s indifferent shrug.

“You changed, Frankie. You talk better, and look at your kippy digs. Just like fuckin’ Gable’s, for Chris’ sake. People notice ya. I see ya in the papers. Sal says drawin’ attention to yourself is bad for business.”

“Sal doesn’t understand how different living out here is. I can’t sound like a street hood from the Kitchen and chinwag with the bigwigs. To get things done, they have to respect me. I can’t talk all that goombah shit. Gotta live high, like they do. Meet ’em on their level.”

Gent shook his head. “Sal don’t like it. Thought you settled down. You don’t follow orders.”

“Fuck that! He doesn’t think killing a cop will draw attention? McGregor’s big news. Someone ices him and who knows what might happen.”

“Sal wants McGregor gone, and you lost your chance.”

“Why do I want to call attention to myself by offing the guy? That’s not good business sense.”

“There never was a cop Sally couldn’t buy.”

“Not that one. Sal doesn’t know what it’s like out here. You muscle in, but with finesse. I convinced the studios that turnin’ over thousands a month is their idea. Finesse.”

Gent stood loose and dandy while he smoked his cigarette. “Nah, I think maybe you wanna be in them movin’ pitchas.”

“You don’t know shit about my life. You’re still the same old Gent, listening to everyone’s bullshit. Maybe the organization needs some young blood at the top.”

“Sal’s had a guy out here, and he knows how you do things.”

Tired of the verbal hammering, Frankie flopped onto the sofa. “Yeah? Who is it?”

“Dunno. Word is, only Sal knows.” Gent sat down beside him. “The guy followed McGregor to Redondo Beach the same time you were s’posed to plug him. Seems McGregor spent that weekend there with a guy.”

“If he’s got someone tailing McGregor, why don’t he bump him off?”

Gent shrugged. “Not his job. Strictly hands off. Sal’s orders. He says you’re soft on the cop. That you ain’t changed any like that. McGregor was at Suede. You rump him, Frankie boy?” Gent brushed Frankie’s shoulder with an open palm. “Maybe the fuck didn’t go so well and you pissed him off? That why he’s after you?”

The silence stretched taut between them. The insult went sideways as Frankie assessed the mention of the club. “What does Sal know about Suede?”

Gent leaned forward. “Enough. Knows you have Hollywood drinkin’ your booze and movie stars and swank politicos fuckin’ each other in the fancy rooms. You have muckity-mucks in your pocket, but can’t get one cop to play ball. Sal wants his cut, is all. He don’t care if you deal cock or pussy, it’s alla same to him, but he figures you owe him for settin’ ya up so nice.”

Frankie slammed his fist on the coffee table. “He ain’t a part of that. I financed it myself. You tell him that, hear?”

Gent dragged deeply on his cigarette. “I’d like to hear you tell him that.” Gent wagged a brow. “After you killed Marino, Sal figured you’d lay low and build the organization, quiet-like. Wasn’t protection enough for ya? You made good scratch with that. Why’d you have to go and muck around with them that makes movies?”

“Sal knows too much. Is it someone in my crew?”

“Could be,” Gent said with a shrug. “But you’ll never know. Point is, Sal only trusts to a point, an’ you way over. When you set up shop someplace and don’t invite him along, he takes offense. Ain’t polite not to invite family.” Gent’s gaze never left Frankie’s. “You live or die because of him.”

Family. Frankie hadn’t thought of his in years. Hadn’t wanted to.

“With Suede set up like it is, Sal figures you haven’t reformed. He’s pullin’ you in.”

Frankie huffed. “And he sends you to do it, does he?”

“He thinks I’ve changed. Dat I don’t care about dat anymore. Difference between me and you? You never learned there’s a time and place for everythin’. By openin’ a setup like Suede, you rub it in his face. He got the message, and so will you.”

“What, you don’t like cock anymore?”

Gent licked his lips. “Never said that, but I learned to hide it. After what happened with you, I figured it all out. I stay alive ’cause I keep it to myself and a few parties who don’t dare talk. It’s best. Never know who you can trust.”

“Come on. I know you. You can’t live without it. What good does it do to act like you can?”

Gent shook his head. “Keeps my fuckin’ head on my shoulders, that’s what. Look, Sal’s pissed and he wants to deal with you. Nothin’ to do wit’ me. I clean up, then I bring you in.”

“We’ll see. Look, it’s been a long day.” Frankie looked at the clock on the mantel. Four thirty. “We’ll sort this out in the morning. I got a guest room if you want it. I’m going to bed.”

“Sounds swell.” Gent eyeballed the room as they walked out. “You fell into a honey pot here.”

Frankie followed Gent’s gaze. “Got lucky. Old geezer died and the family couldn’t stand the place. I made ’em an offer, cash, and they took it.”

“Nothin’ like the Kitchen, eh?”

“Can we talk about this in the morning? I’m too joed out.”

Gent shrugged. “Sure. I’m bushed too.”

“Come on.” The gun dangled from Frankie’s finger as he led Gent up the winding cast-iron staircase. At the second floor, Frankie turned right, then scuffed down a wide, carpeted hallway.

“This place reminds me of the Ansonia.”

Frankie stopped at the third door. “I had this room done like your bedroom back there. The large rugs, heavy leather-and-wood furniture. I remembered you were partial to the coffee-and-cream on the bed. Thought maybe one day, you’d come out and work for me. Wanted you to feel at home.” He hoped Gent hadn’t heard the unintentional velvet in his voice.

Gent walked into the room and sighed, seeming to admire everything, in Gent’s critical way.

Frankie pulled closed the tan draperies beneath the padded cornices. “The sun’ll be up in a couple hours.”

Gent eyed the titles in the bookshelves. “You read a lot?”

Frankie grinned. “I had Nickels set this up along with the library downstairs. Somehow lotsa books impress the hell out of guests, but I’m dodgy on whether or not I read them all.

“Bathroom over there.” Frankie pointed to a closed door. “Pajamas in the top drawer and a robe on the hook in the bathroom.”

He strode toward the door, but Gent grabbed his arm as he passed. “No matter all Sal’s shit, it’s good to see you.”

Frankie looked down at the hand, then picked it off. “Wish I could say the same. Night.” Frankie stepped out into the corridor. “Best we don’t tell the boys you’re here. You won’t make it out alive.”

“Be worth it just to see.”

Frankie shrugged as he walked down three doors and opened his. As he looked back, Gent leaned against the door casing, a knowing smile on his face.

In his room, Frankie closed and locked the door. He loosened his tie and flopped down on the bed.

He hadn’t expected the end to come like this or to see Gent ever again. How like Sal to send the one person from whom the news would hurt the most.

He lay back on the pillows. Beneath all Gent’s politeness steeped anger. That last night in New York, he’d felt Frankie’s betrayal as keenly as Frankie. Sal had set it up so cleverly. Sent Frankie away, then told Gent it was because Frankie had the charm and the smarts to pull off the takeover in Los Angeles, while he kept Gent tied to New York and menial jobs, including being Sal’s personal killing tool.

They’d grown up two blocks apart in New York, he and Gent. Frankie started a gang when he was thirteen, and Gent joined, willing to take orders even though Frankie was four years younger. They just about lived in their hideout behind Finnegan’s Pool Hall. Thirty guys maybe, toughs from the neighborhood, fearless and ready to scrap.

They provided protection for anyone in Hell’s Kitchen who paid them a quarter a week. No pies went missing off the windowsills and no apples off the food carts. A thief might find his teeth missing when Monetti’s crew caught him. No one got mugged, and mothers could walk their babies without worrying.

Gent was one of the collectors, while Frankie planned new schemes and got new accounts. Even in those days, he charmed housewives out of milk money.

Shortly after Frankie turned sixteen, Salvatore Sebastiani and a couple of his lieutenants came into Finnegan’s. Sal had on a long wool coat with some kinda animal on the collar. He strutted around in spats and carried a cane, his black felt Derby cocked just so on his head. While he stood back and watched, his guys pushed old Finnegan around, told him from that day on, they were partners, that Sal had taken over the neighborhood.

With the use of the old storage room as a clubhouse, Finnegan paid for protection, so Frankie bucked up to Sal and challenged him for territory. Sal laughed, but then backed up when the crew piled out of the backroom and stood behind Frankie.

“You got coglioni, kid.”

Never had words sounded sweeter. From that day, Frankie was Sal’s boy, and Sal taught him all he knew about class and power. He bought Frankie’s clothes, fed him from his own table, and put him in charge of collections. He taught him to speak properly, or Sal’s version of proper.

Those lessons had served him in California. He listened to the way people spoke and copied them, drilling himself over and over until he sounded like them. Now Sal had sent for him. No one he ever knew got sent for and walked out to talk about it.

Frankie twisted the ring on his left pinkie. That hunk of gold symbolized his entrance into the big time. The day he made his bones.

He’d go to New York proud and let Sal look him in the eye. Fuck that guinea brick.

Frankie got up and took off his coat and shirt. Damn the heat. He pulled the chain on the ceiling fan. The familiar whirr somehow soothed him while it stirred the stagnant summer air. Opening the windows didn’t help much. One thudded loudly against the sill when it slipped out of his hand. After he set the screen in place, he took off the rest of his clothes and slid on top of the crisp white sheets. His feet nearly brushed the mahogany footboard as he stretched out, his head on the thick goose-down pillow. Some fuckin’ walk from Hell’s Kitchen and the grimy cot he’d shared with his long-dead brother, Manny.

He slipped a hand beneath his pillow, reassured by the cool steel of his gun. How many years now had he slept with one?

Too many to count.

The doorknob rattled, and then the casing cracked as the door flew open.

Frankie gripped the butt of the gun and drew a bead on the approaching Gent. “What the fuck?”

“You ain’t gettin’ away.” Gent stabbed the air with his gun. “My ass is on the line if I don’t get you to Sal, and I ain’t takin’ a bullet for no one.”

Frankie spread his arms out over the bed. “Clam up and go to bed. Do I look like I’m trying to get away? I’m naked, in my bed, for Christ’s sake.”

Gent tucked his gun into his holster as he scanned Frankie. “I always get to you. Remember that.”

The words thrilled more than scared him. “Always have.”

Gent sauntered toward the bed, the silk robe open, him naked beneath. “Your Ma’d be proud.”

Frankie pulled the sheet over himself. “Would she?”

“She always wanted you to be a somebody.”

“But she didn’t want me to be Frankie Monetti. No use thinking about her. She’s gone, along with Pa and Manny.”

“True enough. Francis, she always called you.”

Gent stepped closer, into the glow of Frankie’s ever-lit bedside lamp. His body hadn’t changed, save for a few new scars. “Still afraid of the dark?”

“Only of palookas who break down the door to my bedroom.” Frankie glanced at the lamp, then up at Gent. “Some habits die hard.”

“I’m stayin’ in here tonight. Don’t trust ya, kid. You beat it, and I buy it. Sorry, but that ain’t happenin’.”

Frankie pointed to the other side of the bed. “Got it. You’re my human handcuff.”

Gent went around the bed, then lowered the robe to the floor. “Don’t hog the covers.”

When Gent’s bulk shifted the mattress beside him, something in Frankie’s world righted itself—for the first time in years. From what was, to what should be—still too great a distance between.

They lay on opposite sides of the bed, their backs to each other. “How’d we come to this?”

“We thought we’d get rich.” Gent huffed. “Couldn’t see peddlin’ ice like my old man or sellin’ meat like yours.”

“Yeah, Ma always wanted me and Manny to open a butcher shop. Something better than Pa’s cart. Respectable, she said. Christ, she never stopped yakkin’ on about it.”

“My pa never saw past 59th Street. I’m not sure he ever stepped outta Hell’s Kitchen. No kinda life. I thought bigger ’an him, more like my Uncle Pap. Remember he gave me his pocket watch before he left? Now that man had moxie. Opened up a respectable gas station and a motel about an hour or so from New Orleans. Hotter than Hell’s outhouse down there, but Pap didn’t owe nobody but himself.” Gent’s speech slowed as he spoke.

“Money don’t solve all the problems.”

“No, but makes ’em easier to solve….”

Frankie closed his eyes. “Not all of ’em.”