SO IT WAS that Michael Corleone and Nick Geraci began their final year in business together in a state of perfect Cold War stalemate.
They’d each attacked the other and thought, mistakenly, that the other didn’t know.
They were both frozen by a secret they thought they were harboring, wary at all times of tipping their hands.
They might have been eager to kill each other now, too, but they couldn’t.
It wasn’t safe for Geraci to make a move against Michael (or Russo, for that matter) without the blessings of the Commission, which would be essentially impossible without being on the Commission. Just as important, killing Michael Corleone might also mean killing the most powerful army of on-the-take politicians, judges, union officials, cops, fire marshals, building inspectors, coroners, newspaper and magazine editors, TV news producers, and strategically placed clerk-typists the world has ever known. No one but Michael and Hagen knew everyone the Family had on the payroll and everything about how that operation worked, and Hagen seemed incorruptible. Michael had toyed with Hagen’s dignity, but those two needed each other the way old married people do. Even if Geraci was wrong about this, he was right: the risk of trying to flip Hagen was too great. Maybe one chance in a thousand it’d work, nine hundred ninety-nine it’d get Geraci killed. Even if Geraci did get rid of Michael, it was hard to imagine Hagen-out in Nevada, not even Italian, no chance of taking over the operation-saying, Okay, Nick, here’s how this thing works. Even the indirect access Geraci now had to that machine of connections was too valuable to jeopardize.
As for Michael, he needed Geraci far too much to kill him. Who else could oversee this business in Cuba? Michael needed someone who’d pick the right men, get the job done, and yet after the job was done be disposable: Geraci to a T.
More important, who else would, during this transition phase, seem like a credible boss to the other Dons? Kill Geraci now, and Michael would kill any chance he had of keeping the pledge he’d made to his wife and his father.
His ex-wife. His dead father.
No matter. Divorce and death are terrible things, but a man who uses them to break a promise cannot consider himself a man of honor.
Nick Geraci hadn’t noticed his shaking problem until the day Michael Corleone told him he was the new Boss. It didn’t completely go away after that, but it was barely noticeable, easily explained away (chills, coffee jitters) until that summer, about the time he first went out to New Jersey with Joe Lucadello (whom he believed to be “Agent Ike Rosen”) to visit the swampy tract of land Geraci had found when he and Fredo had been planning Colma East. Whatever the merits of Fredo’s plan, the land had been a steal. Geraci had used the barn for various storage needs and otherwise sat on the property. Anytime he wanted to, he could sell it for twice what he paid.
They all drove there together, Donnie Bags at the wheel and Carmine Marino, the baby-faced zip, also up front. Rosen wore an eye patch and didn’t seem Jewish at all. He’d brought another agent, a tight-jawed WASP whose name was supposedly Doyle Flower. The same congressman who’d told Geraci that Michael never met with anyone on the presidential transition team had spoken about all this with Director Albert Soffet, who’d apparently confirmed that Rosen and Flower were indeed CIA field agents. Nonetheless, Geraci used a trail car, with Eddie Paradise and some muscle, just as a precaution.
They turned down the rutted, muddy road to the barn. Rogue garbage trucks and private citizens had for years been using this place as a dump. The property was pocked with stoves, toilets, and the rusting hulks of cars and farm machinery. That island of debris in the scum pond was a portion of what had once been Ebbets Field.
“Good place to plant your stiffs, I bet,” Rosen said.
“I wouldn’t know about that,” Geraci said, which was true. Any recent bodies on the property would have been the work of civilians. Mob guys out here-Stracci’s people, for the most part-knew who owned the place and respected that. “We’re the best boogeyman the cops ever invented. Every time you guys find a body rolled up in a carpet, we get blamed.”
“We’re not cops,” Rosen said.
“My granny had one of those things,” Flower said, meaning Donnie’s colostomy bag.
“You get used to it,” Donnie said. “Probably like your friend’s pirate thing there.”
“Did you shit?” Rosen said. “It smells like shit in here.”
Donnie rounded a bend so hard a flume of mud shot up and was about to say something stupid when Carmine interrupted him. “Is not his shit, that smell. Is New Jersey.”
Flower and Geraci both laughed, which cooled things off. Carmine was a born leader. He was almost thirty but looked ten years younger. He was related to the Bocchicchios on his mother’s side and was also a godson of Cesare Indelicato, the Palermitan Don who’d been Geraci’s partner in the narcotics business from the beginning. The kid had originally come over to be a hostage during the first meeting of all the Families. Five years later, and he was already running a crew of fellow zips over on Knickerbocker Avenue.
Two cars were parked behind the barn. It was broad daylight, but they were both bobbing with illicit coitus.
“The only real problem we have out here,” Geraci said, “as far as the locals go, is this.”
The trail car pulled up behind them. Only Eddie Paradise got out.
“You’re shaking as much as those cars are,” Rosen said. “You okay?”
“Donnie and his fucking air-conditioning,” Geraci said, though it hadn’t been particularly cold in the car. He got out of the car. Moving around helped make the shaking stop.
Carmine got out, too. In one fluid motion, he drew a pistol from the waistband of his pants and fired three hollow-point slugs into the barn siding.
The trespassing cars began to lurch in place; inside, the terrified fornicators clawed at their strewn-about clothing. Carmine fired another shot.
“Four in a row into the broad side of a barn,” Flower said. “Impressive start, friend. I should warn you, though. The tests do get harder.”
Carmine waved as the cars sped away.
They all had a good laugh, even the agents. Geraci’s shaking had stopped.
“Last time he did that,” Donnie said, “the fuckers got stuck in the mud. We went to give ’em a push, but they got out and ran. That was one of the cars getting chopped when a friend of ours got pinched, which I don’t know if you can call a car abandoned by sex perverts stolen.”
Momo the Roach had happened to be in his chop shop when it got raided. He was now doing a stretch for grand theft.
“Tits on that girl in the Ford like no tomorrow,” Agent Flower said.
“Tits like that, and tomorrow can go fuck itself,” Carmine said, by way of agreement.
Rosen nodded, a faraway look in his eyes, muttering, “Not bad, not bad,” and it took Geraci a moment to realize he wasn’t talking about the redhead’s tits but rather sizing up the property.
“How’s it look?” Geraci said.
Rosen kept nodding, too lost in thought to answer. Geraci showed them into the barn. Rosen grunted in appreciation. It only looked dilapidated from the outside. Inside, the building had been fortified by the guy who fabricated armored cars for the Corleone Family.
“Anyone have any paper?” Rosen asked. He held up a pencil.
Flower pulled out a little pad of paper from his shirt pocket.
“Bigger.” Rosen drummed the pencil in midair with a speed Buddy Rich might envy.
“We got a bakery box,” Eddie Paradise said.
Rosen frowned. When he did, you could practically see in there, whatever was behind the patch. “Needs to be paper.”
“Sorry,” Eddie said. “I don’t write things down. That way I don’t lose nothin’.”
Geraci looked in the car and found Bev’s biology notebook. “How’s this?”
Rosen thanked him. He sat on the floor of the barn and drew plans to convert the inside into a gymnasium. He seemed to draw as fast as he could move his hand. He went back outside, found a spot where a barracks could go, and he drew those plans, too. Inspired no doubt by the sight of Carmine and Donnie Bags on the ridge above the scum pond, shooting seagulls and rats, Rosen walked off some measurements and sketched a rifle range.
Donnie was missing everything, but Carmine looked like Buffalo Bill out there, vaporizing gulls in explosions of blood-pinked feathers. Other than those who’d been cops or in the war, most of the men in this business, Geraci included, really couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. The shooting that needed to be done got done at close range. Geraci had never even heard of anyone who’d been killed with a rifle, which was probably what this job down in Cuba would take. Who ever heard of a Mob sniper? That said, who better to go down to Cuba and whack an avowed enemy of freedom than Carmine Marino?
“Damnedest thing you ever saw, eh?” Flower said, elbowing Geraci and nodding at his partner’s manic drawing style.
Rosen handed him Bev’s notebook. The drawings were miraculously neat, given how fast he’d done them. They were easily good enough to build from. The design of the barracks was simple and clean.
“I’m a frustrated architect,” Rosen said, as if in apology.
Geraci said he had a crew that could knock this job out in three days. Rosen frowned and said it was a lot more complicated than that. It turned out there were all kinds of government regulations that made that impossible, for money reasons (Geraci could get it done, but he had the right to make a buck in the process) just as much as security.
That was when Geraci felt sure this whole thing was for real. These clowns really did work for the government.
Rosen took the notebook back and paged through it like a spinster fogging the window of a bridal shop. “I don’t know, though,” Rosen said. “If only the locals weren’t such a problem.”
“Problem how?” Geraci said.
“Taking away the place people shitcan their most inconvenient trash or go to fuck their babysitters,” Flower answered, “definitely gets noticed in a community.”
“Especially in New Jersey,” said Carmine. He’d come back to the car to get more ammo.
“I’m from New Jersey, sir,” Rosen said.
“So then you know,” Carmine said, shrugging and slamming the trunk shut.
“I like you,” Flower said, patting Carmine on the back. “Just the kind of man we need.”
“My back?” Carmine said. “Don’t touch it no more.”
“He’s funny about that,” Geraci said. “The back patting.”
“Funny,” Carmine said. “Many dead men are laughing about this, I think.”
“Now I’m even more sure,” Flower said. “Mr. Marino, you’re at the very top of my list. Between all those dead rats and your attitude, you’re going to be hard to beat.”
Carmine smiled broadly and slapped Flower on the back, and Flower feinted a return slap that stopped short, and they both laughed like hell.
“Only Italian I ever saw who had a thing about being touched,” Rosen muttered, which made Geraci wonder if he was really Italian or if that was what someone who wasn’t Italian would say.
“The locals won’t be a problem,” Geraci said. “Trust me.”
The next day, a sign went up out by the highway, announcing an exclusive new subdivision. DELUXE LOTS ON SALE JUNE 1962! it read underneath. A year away. This should turn whatever curiosity the locals had into a plus. The anticipation might make it worth really developing the place-draining it, hiring lawyers and architects, bribing the planning commission: the usual subdivision drill, no different for a Mafia Don than anybody else.
That night at dinner Nick Geraci started shaking, enough to scare Barb and Bev. Charlotte wanted to call an ambulance. “It’s nothing,” he said. “Coffee jitters.” She said she thought he’d stopped. “That’s the problem,” he said. “I had an espresso at the club this afternoon.” Which he hadn’t. He concentrated on the movement of his hands and jaw as he ate, and the shaking stopped. But when it happened again in the morning, Char said if he didn’t go see a doctor she’d get a knife and stab him in the leg so he wouldn’t have any choice. He said he was fine, it’d pass. She went and got the biggest knife in the kitchen. He smiled and told her he loved her. She wagged it and said she was serious. “Me, too,” he said. He was. He held up his quavering hands. “Be a doll and dial him for me, huh?” Though the moment she set the phone back down he was fine.
His regular doctor prodded him with tools and questions, but he was stumped.
“I wonder if maybe it’s in your head,” he said. “Are you having a tough time at work? Pressure, stress, that sort of thing? Or at home, things okay there?”
“You think I’m a fucking nut, is that what you’re saying?”
He referred Geraci to a specialist.
“If specialist is just another word for shrink, I’ll be back, only not as a patient.”
The doctor said he certainly understood that.
The specialist was supposedly a world-famous neurologist and tiny, barely five feet tall. He diagnosed Geraci with a mild form of Parkinson’s disease, related to getting hit in the head all those times as a boxer and triggered by a serious concussion.
“I didn’t get hit in the head all that often,” Geraci said.
“You boxers are all the same,” the doctor said. “All you remember is what the other guy looked like. Tell me about that concussion, though. Pretty recent, right?”
Geraci hadn’t told the doctor a thing about the plane crash that had nearly killed him. “I guess so,” Geraci said. “If six years ago qualifies as recent.”
“What happened six years ago?”
“I fell down,” Geraci said. “Knocked myself cold. Damnedest thing.”
The doctor looked into Geraci’s eyes with his flashlight gizmo. “Fell down from where?” he asked. “The Empire State Building?”
“Something like that,” Geraci said.
From an upstairs window of the Antica Focacceria, Nick Geraci watched a wiry, moustached man-his friend and business partner Cesare Indelicato-cross the Piazza San Francesco, theoretically alone. The piazza was an oasis of light tucked deeply in a neighborhood of dark, narrow streets in the oldest part of Palermo.
Don Cesare was never really alone. He’d trained his soldatos and bodyguards to blend in. A casual observer wouldn’t have guessed that the young men leaning on Vespas in front of the cathedral were Don Cesare’s men, as were the four milling around outside the restaurant arguing about soccer. A casual observer might have guessed that the nondescript man in the off-the-rack suit walking across the piazza was a history teacher a few years shy of retirement, rather than a hero of the Allied invasion of Sicily and the most powerful Mafia boss in Palermo.
Though it’s also true that Palermo is a city where little is observed casually.
It was three in the afternoon, and the restaurant was closed. The waiter seeing to their table had been approved and searched by Don Cesare’s men, one of whom was stationed in the doorway. There were men downstairs, too, keeping an eye on the cooks and the back door.
Over wine and the restaurant’s legendary beef spleen sandwiches, Geraci and Indelicato discussed various details of their thriving narcotics business. They spoke entirely in English, not as any sort of security measure but because, even after all these years coming to Sicily on business, all these years surrounded by native Sicilians, Geraci’s Italian was atrocious and his Sicilian even worse. He understood it but couldn’t speak it. He couldn’t explain why. A mental block or something.
“It is good to have you in my city, my gigantic friend,” Don Cesare said, finishing his last bite and licking his fingers. “But these matters, I don’t know, I think they are not why you came all this way to speak with me?”
“I brought the family this time,” he said. “My wife and daughters. The older one is off to college in the fall. To university, I guess you’d say. It might be our last family vacation. They’d never been to your beautiful island before, and now they’ve been all over it, at least as best you can in ten days.” They’d have spent more time, but they’d had to come on an ocean liner. Nick Geraci had no intention of ever getting into an airplane again. “I actually never took the time to sightsee before. First time I’ve ever been to Taormina, if you can believe it.”
Don Cesare raised his hands in lamentation. “I own the finest hotel in Taormina. Why didn’t you tell me you were going to be there? I would have seen to it that you and your family was treated like royalty.”
“You do so much for me already, Don Cesare, I wouldn’t think of imposing further.”
But Don Cesare wouldn’t let it drop until Geraci promised he’d come back to Taormina no later than next year and stay at Indelicato’s mountaintop resort.
“I do have another reason to see you in person, though, Don Cesare. It involves your young godson Carmine Marino.”
The Don frowned. “He’s all right?”
“He’s doin’ great,” Geraci said. “Possibly the best man I have. Which is why I wanted to talk to you about a job I want to give him. A valuable, important, but very dangerous job.”
Geraci was tempted to confide in him. Indelicato was a valuable, even trusted, ally. More to the point, he was the only person Geraci knew who’d worked with the CIA before. During the war, the Mafia members not banished to Ustica by the Fascists had functioned in Sicily as the Resistance had in France. Indelicato quickly emerged as one of the leaders of this violent, effective underground. Via Lucky Luciano, the deported American Don, Indelicato met with operatives from the OSS-the forerunner of the CIA-to provide intelligence that laid the groundwork for the invasion of the island. It was supposedly Indelicato who came up with the stunt of air-dropping tens of thousands of red handkerchiefs emblazoned with Luciano’s famous script L to alert the Sicilian people-but not the Fascist invaders from the north-to what was coming. The British, who did not collaborate with the Mafia, suffered heavy casualties in their battles to take the eastern third of the island, but on the western two thirds, particularly in the regions that were Mafia strongholds, the Americans profited from superior intelligence and sustained relatively few casualties. After the invasion, in many of the cities occupied by the Americans, the civilians installed as provisional mayors were mafiosi. When the Allies withdrew, most of the mayors stayed. And when the Dons were freed from Ustica, they returned home to find that, courtesy of the USA and the OSS, the political power of the Mafia had increased exponentially. Soon thereafter, Cesare Indelicato was elected to the Italian Parliament and helped spearhead a surprisingly popular movement to secede from Italy and become America’s forty-ninth state.
Ultimately, Geraci decided not to risk it. “I can’t give you any details,” he said. “I can only say that Carmine wants to do the job and that he’d be the leader of the other men I send.”
“You tell me this why? What reason? You want my blessing, how can I do that if I don’t know what I bless, eh?”
“If you tell me to take Carmine off this job, I’ll do it. But I can’t be specific about what we’re doing. What we have to do.”
Don Cesare considered this. “I think you are asking me to approve that my godson Carmine, who sends his mother money home every month, that he go do something where you think he will be killed, eh? If not that, you don’t need to ask me nothing.”
Geraci answered this only with silence.
“And you know he’s related to the Bocchicchio clan? I wouldn’t want to be the man who got blamed for anything that happened to him.”
Don Cesare said this with no conviction, clearly grasping at straws. Geraci knew full well who Carmine Marino’s people were.
In silence, Geraci waited Don Cesare out.
“One question, then,” Don Cesare finally said. “Carmine, he knows as much about this as you, the danger and also the reason for it, and still he want to do it, s`i?”
“That’s right. Absolutely he still wants to do it.”
The Don bobbed his head back and forth, as if to show he was thinking about the repercussions of anything he might say. “Carmine is a man,” he said. “He does not need me to tell him what brave deeds he can or cannot do.”
“Thank you, Don Cesare.” Geraci felt the tremors coming on and excused himself to go to the bathroom, though all he really wanted to do was move around and concentrate on the moving so that the shaking would stop. For some reason, very little worked better in this regard than any action he could make his prick do. Urinating was in general handier than the other.
“For many reasons,” Geraci said as he sat back down at the table, “one of which being that Carmine will be in charge, I think it’s best that all the men we put on this job be Sicilians.” Another of the many reasons was that the Sicilians did not have rules against killing cops or government officials.
“You want people,” Indelicato said, “I’ll get you people.”
“I appreciate that. But I can’t risk bringing men in just for this job. I need men who’ve been in the States awhile. I don’t want to use too many of Carmine’s people either, especially, God forbid, if something should happen to the guy. I’m going to call in the pizza men, the best ones. Any objections?”
“If not for a tough job, then when, huh?”
Nearly all the men stashed in the pizza parlors had been directly or indirectly dispatched to America by Cesare Indelicato.
“A lot of those people I don’t know at all,” Geraci said.
“Of course you don’t. They don’t get in trouble, don’t have problems, what’s to know?”
“Exactly. I’ve got guys who’ve been out there seven years. Guys I’ve never laid eyes on. I need your advice, Don Cesare. If you were to recommend, say, the four best men you’ve sent over-best in terms of toughness, character, smarts-who would that be?”
Geraci had expected him to have to think about this awhile, but Don Cesare answered immediately, complete with brief descriptions of the men’s skills. If they were half the men he said they were, Geraci would have no trouble getting this done without sending Carmine.
“There’s another, unrelated matter,” Geraci said. “It involves a traitor in your midst. A man sent here from America. An inconvenient man to our Commission, or so they ruled.”
Geraci couldn’t do it himself, as of course Don Cesare understood. He was a Boss. Such things must be done by others.
The frail Capuchin monk struggled down the stairs to the convent’s catacombs. He had glaucoma and an arthritic hip, but he was determined not to become a burden to the order. He could still do all the tasks he’d done when he first came to Palermo as a young man-from the sublime of tending the garden, preparing meals for his brothers in Christ, and embalming the dead to be interred in the city cemetery next door, to the ridiculous of selling postcards to tourists and picking up the filth they left behind. Soda cans, wine bottles, spent flashbulbs (photography was explicitly forbidden), and even, once, a used prophylactic.
It was after lunch: almost three, when the catacombs would reopen to the public. A German tour group milled around outside the barred iron doors. As the monk descended farther, their vulgar noise receded. He smiled and thanked almighty God for allowing him to recognize that even diminished hearing can be a gift from on high.
At the base of the stairs was a candy wrapper. The monk’s knees cracked as he stooped to pick it up.
In the tunnels before him were the crumbling, finely dressed remains of eight thousand Sicilians. Many were hung from hooks in long rows, their skulls bowed in what the monk liked to think of as humility. Others lay on shelves and tucked into recessed alcoves, floor to ceiling. A few reclined in wooden coffins, heads resting on pillows covered by a film of dust that had once been flesh. In life, they’d been dukes and countesses, cardinals and important priests, military heroes who fought alongside Garibaldi and those who drew their swords against him. Some, including the monk’s own grandfather, had been defiled in their mortal lives by their association with what Sicilians call the Friends. Eight thousand dead: people who paid the order handsomely so that their remains or those of their loved ones could be displayed here. The folly of this was not lost on the old monk. With one exception-La bambina, whose presence the monk had helped arrange-the order had stopped accepting bodies in 1881, eighty years ago, two years after the monk was born. For the most part, these people who’d wanted so badly to be remembered had been forgotten by all but their Creator. Few if any of the children in these catacombs-including an entire chamber filled with them-were mourned by a living soul. The corporeal rot of these eight thousand had been slowed by skilled Capuchin embalmers and by the cool, dry air, but, except for La bambina, rot and earthly oblivion had come nonetheless.
He bore left, scanning the floor for debris or fallen body parts. His grandparents, who came from the tiny town of Corleone, were among those hung vertically. His grandfather wore a green velvet coat (underneath, the gunshot wound in his back gaped open and a steel rod was all that kept the powdery-boned torso from collapsing). His grandmother (an arm had dropped off some time ago and been loosely reattached with wire) wore her wedding dress. When the monk had first arrived, they, like many of the dead, still had faces. For a half century he’d watched the day-by-day disappearance of their eyes and skin. He kissed his fingertips, applied them spider delicately to the foreheads of his ancestors, mumbled a prayer for their souls, and hurried on.
At the end of the tunnel was La bambina, the lovely two-year-old girl who’d died in 1920 and become one of Sicily’s most popular tourist attractions. The doctor who embalmed her had taunted the monks about the new procedure he’d invented. Before anyone learned his secret, he, too, died (from the deadly sin of pride, the monk would tell the younger brothers, though the prosaic cause was a ruptured spleen). The old monk had spent many reflective hours studying the doctor’s pitiful notes and the girl herself, fruitlessly trying to guess what the doctor had done. The baby with the long blond hair in that glass-covered coffin had been in there for forty-one years. She looked as though she’d died a few days ago.
As the monk approached La bambina, his cloudy eyes seemed to be playing tricks on him. Against the wall near the poor babe was a body as well preserved as hers.
He rubbed his eyes. It was a bald man in a raincoat. Diamonds gleamed from the rings on his fingers and the bar across his fat tie. The dead were not interred here wearing jewelry. Then the monk saw the distinct black lines on either side of the man’s mouth and felt a wave of relief.
It was a huge marionette. The jewelry must be fake. An odd prank, but the monk had lived in Palermo a long time and had learned not to be surprised by anything that happened here.
He drew nearer.
The puppet lines beside Laughing Sal Narducci’s mouth were actually rivulets of blood.
The rope used to garrote him-just before noon, when the catacombs closed for lunch-lay on the floor beside the dead man’s shiny shoes.
The monk took in this grim tableau, in this strange and holy place, and something inside his heart broke. A common thief would have taken the jewels. An ordinary killer would have hidden the body, not left it here, in the same chamber with La bambina! The monk shouted a stream of curses at the Friends. Who else would do such a thing? He had devoted his life to paying penance for his family’s violent tradition, but again and again it sought him out. And now, so late in life, this atrocity. It felt cruelly inevitable. Rage filled him like a poison. His curses grew louder.
The brothers who ran to his aid told the authorities that when the beloved old man collapsed and died, his face was as red as the rightmost stripe of the Italian flag.
When, from the killer himself, Cesare Indelicato heard what had happened-on the terrace of his cliffside villa, overlooking the medieval city he essentially ruled-he marveled at God’s bleak sense of humor. Don Cesare had never met the poor monk, but he recognized the man’s name. It had been Don Cesare’s grandfather, Felice Crapisi, who killed the monk’s traitorous grandfather. Even more strangely, Don Cesare had been asked to kill Narducci twice (first by Thomas Hagen, then by Nick Geraci). The trusted soldato he’d sent had killed Narducci only once, yet the bloody poetics of the Creator saw fit to transform that lone killing into two deaths.
Don Cesare thanked the killer and dismissed him.
Alone, shaking his head in wonder and awe, Don Cesare raised a glass of grappa toward Palermo and toward the darkening heavens.
What toast might he give to such a world, such a God, that had made him so happy, so rich, that had rewarded his every duplicitous act while punishing the superstitious little ants down there striving to do good?
“Salut’,” he cried. He drank.
The toast echoed off the cliff. He heard it again, and again he drank.