To Be a King: Chapter 2
TO BE A KING
Copyright © 2017 by Gunner Alan Lindbloom
Cover design 2017 by Ryan MacKay
Omnio “King” Falcone spent his last night in prison tossing and turning, trying to find a comfortable position on his lumpy mattress. But he was far too anxious to sleep. He’d spent the last eight years formulating a master stratagem that he promised to implement if a day ever came when he was released from prison. And that day had finally come. In a few hours he would step back into the world a free man. And as he now lay on his bunk, tossing and turning, he found himself meditating on the minutiae of his strategic blueprint. Over and over he reviewed every step he’d have to take, every ally he’d have to make, every obstacle he’d have to overcome. It was all perfectly clear, real in his mind as the bars of his cell. Finally he would face those who put him there.
All night he lay there, mostly staring at the concrete ceiling, wide awake, listening to Lucky’s rhythmic breathing, the occasional toilet flushing in a nearby cell. The night seemed to stretch on orever. Then, finally, just after 7:00 in the morning, he heard the jingle of keys and approaching footfalls echoing off the cinderblock walls down the cellblock. He knew they were coming for him. His heart began to race, and suddenly Warden Gonzalez and Officer Younger were standing in front of his cell.
“It’s time, Falcone,” Warden Gonzalez said coldly, emotionless, motioning for Younger to key open the door.
As King gathered up his bedroll and duffle bag, Lucky jumped off his bunk and embraced him affectionately. “It was good knowin’ ya, man,” he said, and then offered him a wink. “When you’re tappin’ that first ass, make sure you give her one for ya boy.”
“I will, Luck,” King chuckled, stepping out of the cell, making no attempt to look back at the 8’x10’ broom closet that had been his home for the last year.
Warden Gonzalez and Officer Younger escorted him from his housing unit to the prison’s control center, where he turned in his bedroll and prison-issue garb. Vittorio Salestro had arranged for a new Baroni suit to be deposited into his property, and though the designer suit was a bit tight around the neck and shoulders, it was much better than walking out wearing one of the khaki jumpsuits the prison usually provided indigent inmates upon their release. Don Salestro had also arranged for $3,000 to be wired into King’s prison account, so at least he wouldn’t be walking out completely destitute.
“So what’s your plan, Falcone?” Warden Gonzalez asked, watching him don the expansive black suit in a small Quarter Master annex.
King stepped in front of wall mirror and began carefully tying his tie. “My plan?” he parroted, not even turning to acknowledge the warden. “Why, to take over the world, of course.” “Pinky and the Brain,” Officer Younger mumbled under his breath.
Warden Gonzalez shot his dim-witted employee a look. “Pinky and the what?” King was suddenly grinning, but he said nothing as he continued perfecting his Windsor knot in the mirror.
Officer Younger looked like a starved mutt cowering under its abusive master. “Pinky and the Brain,” he said nervously. “It was a cartoon. Brain was a little mouse with a giant head… Because he had a giant brain… That’s why they called him Brain. He was always saying how he was gonna to take over the world.” King chucked inwardly, having predicted Officer Younger would recognize the Brain’s mantra.
Warden Gonzalez studied King for a moment, wondering if his officer had just made him the butt of some kind of inside joke. “Seriously, Mr. Falcone, what’s your plans now that you’re a free man?” he asked for the second time, ignoring his officer. “You going back to Detroit?”
With one final adjustment to his tie, King turned to face the warden, who stood a good half-foot shorter than him. “What I plan to do, and where I plan to do it, is none of your business.” He gestured a hand around the room. “Here in this pathetic little world you think you control, you like to think you’re someone special. But in my world, where I come from, you’re nothing. I’m no longer one of your inmates, so my plans are none of your concern. You can take this prison and go fuck yourself with it. Now, if you don’t mind, I have a bus to catch.”
Face flushed with anger, the warden led him over to a discharge counter without saying another word. He figured he would surely see the arrogant young Mafioso again sooner or later. If they didn’t get themselves killed first, they almost always ended up back in prison. And they almost always found their way back to Jessup. When this one did, Warden Gonzalez would make sure he paid for his insolence.
King was issued several items: papers to verify his official release from federal custody; a personal identification card; a bus ticket; and a state-issued debit card loaded with the amount of $3,090—the extra $90 from saving three months of his measly $30 monthly prison pay, which he earned working in the prison’s surprisingly extensive library.
During his eight years in prison, he always found a way to work in the library. He loved reading and learning, and he had spent much of his time holed up alone in his cell, self-educating on everything from history, politics, and sociology, to corporate business, venture capitalism, and the stock market. He studied history’s greatest military minds, from Alexander the Great and Sun Tzu, to George Patton and Douglas MacArthur. He read books penned by some of Wall Street’s foremost investment strategists. He taught himself about banking, corporate structure and tax codes. He read books on cultural etiquette, fine foods and fine wines. From his studies he learned how to act worldly and cultured if needed, such as in the presence of powerful businessmen or men of influence, whom he knew would be integral to the success of his master plan. No longer could he walk around like he was just another street thug. For his plan to succeed, he would need
to carry himself differently, with a touch of panache and sophistication. Even old-school bosses respected an educated, cultured and well-spoken man.
From the control center, Officer Younger escorted him outside to the prison’s front gate. “Well, this is it, Falcone,” said Younger, motioning an officer in an overlooking gun tower to open the gate. “You’re a free man, now.” There was an audible clank and a loud buzzing alarm sounded as an electric motor powered open the gate. “But you’ll fuck up and be back.”
King turned and narrowed his eyes on him menacingly. “That’s right, I am a free man now,” he said with projected contempt. “But you, you brainless idiot, will never be free. You’ll forever be a redneck buffoon trapped in his own pathetic little world of nothingness.”
And with that King Falcone stepped through the open gate a free man. Some fifty yards away he saw the bench where he was supposed to wait for a shuttle bus to pick him up and deliver him to a Greyhound station in town. Next to the bench was a dumpster that he headed straight for. Not wanting to keep anything that would remind him of his time behind bars, he deposited nearly the entire contents of his duffle bag in the dumpster.
The only item he kept was a leather wallet he’d made in a craft class several years previous. Inside it were a few old photos, his new ID, the $3,090 state debit card, a bus ticket, and the ambiguous letter he received from Sicily three years ago. Everything else went in the dumpster. Fifteen minutes later he loaded onto a crowded city shuttle bus that took him to a Greyhound station in Jessup, where he planned to catch a 10:00 AM bus north to Detroit.
In the lobby of the Greyhound station, several people were quietly waiting for buses to arrive. With nothing else to do, he sat on a bench and almost immediately smelled the distinct aroma of bacon, his favorite. Wondering where it was coming from, he peered out the front window and noticed a small cafe across the street. His stomach began growling with excitement. The old analog clock on the wall read 9:05. Plenty of time for him to eat a quick breakfast.
He smiled at woman quietly feeding a baby in a stroller a few feet away. “Excuse me, ma’am, do you know if there’s a bank anywhere nearby?”
He was relieved to learn there was indeed a federal bank just around the corner. So, with almost an hour to burn and his stomach demanding food, he walked to the bank, cashed out his entire debit card, and headed straight for the little cafe. He’d dreamed of a steak, bacon, and eggs for eight years. And that’s exactly what he ordered. As he ate, though, he began noticing the café’s other patrons discreetly watching him. Which really wasn’t all that surprising. Not only did he look like a starved animal, grunting and groaning as he scarfed down his food, but a man with his exotic looks, wearing a $3,000 suit, was not a common sight in a small town like Jessup. But regardless of their oblique stares, he devoured his food with impunity, as if he was the only person in the room. He simply did not care about exercising table etiquette. Not today. Not after being deprived of real food for eight years. He devoured his entire meal within five minutes and declared it the best meal of his life, if only because he’d forgotten how good real food tasted.
After he finished, he sat in his booth, feeling bloated and satisfied, quietly reading a local newspaper and sipping black coffee. At 10:05 he saw a Greyhound bus pull into the station across the street. Tucking the paper under his arm, he left a $10 tip on the table, thanked his waitress politely, and strolled from the cafe with a determined pep in his step, ready to meet his destiny.
After a layover Atlanta and stops in Frankfort, Knoxville, Cincinnati, Toledo, and Ann Arbor, his bus arrived in Detroit twenty-one hours after leaving Jessup, just as the sun was coming up. At exactly 7:08 in the morning he debarked from the bus and stepped into a surprisingly busy Greyhound terminal. Making his way outside, he stopped on the sidewalk and breathed deeply for several minutes, taking in his surroundings. Home. His beloved city. All the familiar sights, sounds, and smells flooded his senses. The air was damp and cold, the sky gray and overcast. Morning dew slicked the cragged macadam of Lafayette Avenue, where the first of the city’s morning commuters raced toward their downtown office buildings. The smells of garbage and automobile exhaust battled for odor supremacy. Steam wafted from manhole covers in the middle of the street. Police sirens sounded in the distance, echoing off abandoned buildings and modern skyscrapers alike. A pair of rough-looking black prostitutes eyed him salaciously while ignoring a snoozing bum sprawled on the sidewalk behind them. A malnourished mongrel rifled through a pile of garbage someone had deposited on the sidewalk. “Home sweet home,” he mused, taking in the scene with a smile.
He couldn’t wait to get to work. But first he needed to get himself a hotel room and do some shopping. Yes, he needed a nice room with a hot tub to soak away the memory of prison. Then he would use the hotel’s gym to get a little workout in. A good workout would settle his nerves and clear his head.
After hailing a passing taxi, he instructed its driver to take him to the Renaissance Center, the city’s largest skyscraper, where he paid $450 dollars for an executive suite in the Detroit Marriott. Then he stepped into the luxurious room, the first thing he did was he strip naked and order breakfast from room service. The second thing he did was pour himself a glass of cognac from the mini bar and then submerge himself in a steaming hot tub. Within minutes the cognac began taking effect, relaxing him as the hot water loosened muscles that were stiff from the long bus ride. He was so comfortable, in fact, that he didn’t even bother getting out of the hot tub to answer the door when room service arrived with his breakfast. He simply called out to the attendant and had it delivered straight to him as he soaked in the bubbling water.
“Can you do me a favor and have my suit cleaned and pressed?” he asked the attendant, handing her a $20.
“Yes, sir,” the attendant answered with an appreciative nod. “I’ll bring it down now and have the concierge return it to your room as soon as its finished.”
“Perfect,” King said, and then settled back into the water to relax and enjoy his breakfast.
Rejuvenated after his breakfast-in-bath, he was ready for a good workout but had nothing to wear. So, with nothing else to do, he sprawled out on the room’s sumptuous bed to take a brief nap while his suit was being cleaned and pressed. But he hadn’t anticipated how incredibly comfortable the bed was. Having barely slept over the last several days, and after sleeping on a rock-hard prison mattress for the last eight years, the bed had a drug-like effect on him. Mere seconds after hitting the pillow he was comatose, and he didn’t wake up for nearly six hours. When he finally did roll out of bed he felt like a new man, his body completely recharged. Since he’d slept the entire day away, he decided to postpone his shopping excursion and have a little fun. Tonight he needed to release a bit of pent up energy. Particularly sexual energy. After all, he had been locked up eight years and had only occasionally taken advantage of the conjugal visiting trailers at Jessup. Hookers had never done much to arouse his libido. Early on in life he had found that he only became aroused by women when they were genuinely aroused by him. And the fact that hookers were paid professionals had always been a turnoff, to the point that he usually lost any desire for them. But tonight he wasn’t interested in a hooker. Tonight he was interested in the company of a good girl. A nice girl. Perhaps a little romantic ambiance with a ride down Lakeshore Drive. Deciding he knew just the place to find such girl, he quickly showered and used the room’s complimentary assortment of toiletries to shave and ready himself for his first night on the town in over eight years. While he’d slept, the hotel’s concierge had returned his suit, clean and pressed as requested, so after slipping into it he called the front desk and had them order him a cab. Ten minutes later he ducked into the backseat of a taxi that reeked of curry and was driven by an Indian driver with turban.
“Eight mile and Gratiot,” he said, handing the driver a $20. “Players.” Like most taxicab drivers, this one had a lead-foot. Within a minute they were racing down the Lodge Freeway at nearly 90 mph. Fifteen minutes later the driver turned off East 8 Mile Road into the parking lot of Players Gentlemen’s Club. Located on Detroit’s northeast border, Players was one of the city’s premier strip clubs. Known citywide for its beautiful girls, it was one of only three 4-star gentlemen’s clubs in the entire city. Before going to prison, King and his crew had frequented the club often, usually as a place to conduct informal business meetings.
He knew its owner, a little man named Salvatore “Little Sal” Finazzo, who was in fact just a front-man for the Syndicate, as were nearly all the strip-club owners in Detroit. Finazzo was a sleazy Italian pimp who worked for the Vito Adamo, boss of the Syndicate’s powerful Toccio crew. A low-level flesh peddler, Finazzo liked to act as if he had Syndicate status because he was the brother-in-law to one of the Syndicate’s top chieftains. In actuality he was nothing but a lackey they used to throw the fads off their trail. But he had always treated King with respect whenever he dropped by, comping his drinks and meals, seeing that he was entertained by the finest girls the club had to offer. King had always been cordial with the man out of respect for the Toccio crew, which was headed by Giacomo Toccio, one of the most seasoned and powerful caporegimes in the Syndicate, second in power only to King’s uncle, Leoni Gianolla, the Syndicate’s current Boss of Bosses. But King never really liked Finazzo. Pimping women had never been part of his crew’s operations, though he fully understood it was one of the Syndicate’s most lucrative street rackets. Using strip clubs to prostitute women was extremely profitable and easy to do. But not all of the strippers were “working girls.” Many were just regular girls. Some were college students by day, exotic dancers by night. A few were even nice girls who had found a very lucrative way to make fast money using their bodies without actually selling it for sex. And tonight he was hoping he might become acquainted with one such girl.
After tipping the taxi driver, he stepped into the club’s entry foyer and was instantly met by a hulking bouncer. “I.D. and ten dollar cover,” growled the huge bouncer.
King was a bit caught off guard because in his previous life no one had ever asked him for identification. Nor had he ever paid a cover charge. At least not there in Detroit.
Before going to prison, he had been well known throughout the city. Club owners, managers, bouncers, they all knew him and his notorious crew. No one would have dared asked him for identification. By the time he was eighteen, he was a regular on the local club scene, and at nineteen he opened his own a nightclub. No matter where he went, owners, managers, and bouncers always gave him VIP treatment. But that was a different time. Things had changed. People—bouncers, management, owners—they were all new. He’d also changed. His old acquaintances probably wouldn’t even recognize him if they walked right by him. After all, eight years was a long time. He went in at 24 and came out at 32. He had matured into a grown man. And the years of heavy weight lifting had added a lot of muscle to a frame that had already been muscular to start with.
King pictured the club’s owner in is mind. Little Sal Finazzo. Short, maybe 5’5”, with long greasy hair slicked into a pompadour. Always clad in a cheap suit. Lots of gold chains. Fake Rolex. Gaudy nugget bracelet. Too much cologne. Perpetual bad breath. A repugnant little man for sure, King remembered, but he considered asking for him. Then he figured name-dropping probably wouldn’t get him anywhere with this robotic bouncer now demanding to see his identification.
“Actually, paisan, I don’t have any I.D. on me,” he explained to the bouncer, a mammoth Italian wearing a black tuxedo and bow tie. “I left in my hotel. But I’m pretty sure you can see I’m old enough to get in. I’m thirty-two.”
The bouncer sized him up. “Sorry, pal. No I.D., no get in. You know how it works.” King glanced inside and spied several nubile young beauties gyrating around a set of poles on center stage. “So how much is it gonna cost me to get in?” he asked, removing a wad of cash from his inside pocket, knowing a shakedown when he saw one.
The bouncer glanced at the money and studied him for a moment. Nice suit, which meant he had money. Handsome, like a movie star. Built like an NFL linebacker. Eerie black eyes that for some reason made him nervous. “You ever been here before?” he asked, avoiding direct contact with those eyes.
“Sure,” King shrugged. “But it’s been a while. About eight years. Why?” “You look familiar but I’ve only worked here for three years so it must be from somewhere else.”
King nodded, mildly annoyed. “So what’s the ticket, paisan?” he prompted, finding this whole charade ridiculous. After all, he knew the bouncer was just looking to make an extra buck.
“Fifty,” said the bouncer, looking at the wad of cash.
King handed him a $50, brushed past him and headed straight for the bar, paying little attention to several girls who instantly locked lascivious eyes on him. “Do you still serve Player’s Punch?” he asked the bartender, a bubbly blond wearing a tuxedo top unbuttoned to display her ample cleavage. “Of course,” she answered. “It’s our house special. Would you like one?”
“I would,” he answered. “But not too strong. I’m a bit of a lightweight.”
As she went to making his drink, he turned on his barstool and took in the scenery. The room was dark and filled with smoke, but there was just enough light for him to see across the club. Seated at tables and booths were well dressed men, their eyes transfixed on half-naked beauties who were teasing them with the seductive movements of their bare hips and breasts. Rhythmic music poured from ceiling-mounted speakers. Scantily clad waitresses scurried about, delivering watered-down drinks to patrons who were already drunk with testosterone and lust. A heavy mixture of cheap perfumes lingered in the air. Several guys were in the middle of receiving lap dances, their eyes locked on taut nearly naked bodies as they whispered to their “dancer” in hushed tones, surely doing their best to wow them with inflated tales of generosity and large bank accounts.
Seated in one of the preferred corner booths was a group of four Chaldean Arabs smoking cigars, talking loudly and laughing boisterously while several topless girls flitted around them like a flock of lusty-eyed nymphs. They were tossing money at the girls like it had no more value than the paper it was printed on, and they were clearly having the time of their lives. “Here you are, sir,” said the busty bartender, handing him his drink, a sweet concoction of coconut rum and fruit punch. “That’ll be eight-fifty.”
He handed her a $10 and motioned for her to keep the change. “You guys still make a good steak Siciliano?”
“Of course,” she said, flashing him a flirty smile. “The best in town. Would you like one? Comes with a side of spaghetti and garlic bread.”
“That would be wonderful,” he said, slowly taking a sip of the strong, fruity drink, eyeing a curvaceous raven-haired beauty over the rim of his glass. “I’ll also have an appetizer of bacon-wrapped shrimp. Steak medium. And tell the cook to add a spoon of sugar to my sauce. In fact, you can bring me a side of sauce and some fresh bread with the shrimp.”
She punched his order into a computer. “Anything else?”
“Nope. Just make sure the cook adds sugar to the zugu. But only one spoon.”
“One spoon of sugar to your sauce. Got it. I’ll have your bread and sauce brought right out with your shrimp. Your steak shouldn’t be too long. I’d say about fifteen minutes at most.”
“Perfect,” he said, and then returned his attention to the main floor. The curvy raven-haired girl was now staring straight at him as she gave an older man in a cheap suit a lap dance. He made sure she knew he was watching her, and the instant she finished teasing the old man, she collected her gratuity, slipped on a bikini top, and made a beeline straight for him.
“Want a dance?” she propositioned coquettishly.
He slowly took a sip of his drink and studied her for a moment. He could smell her
perfume. It reminded him of the flowers his grandmother used to plant around their house every spring. Not strong. Faint and pleasant. She was short. The top of her head barely came to his chest. Maybe 5’2” and no more than a 120 pounds, but surprisingly curvy.
Her jet black hair was styled in a pageboy that gently curled under her chin. Her eyes were big and round, light blue with long natural lashes. Her fair skin had faint tan lines on breasts. She was compact and stout but not overly muscled. She was curvaceous, just the way he liked his women, and he wondered if her almost disproportionately large breasts were natural. She was more cute than beautiful, yet he found her extremely arousing. He’d always had a thing for short girls, especially brunettes built like this one.
“Sorry, shorty, but I don’t get dances,” he declined politely, casually sipping on his drink.
“You don’t get dances?” she echoed, looking slightly disappointed. “Then why are you in a strip club?”
“Well,” he shrugged, “they make a good steak here. Or at least they used to.”
She gave him an incredulous look. “And I suppose the scenery is just a bonus?”
He tipped his glass to her. “Exactly!”
She stared up at him for a moment, taking him in. He was tall and powerfully built under his suit. Very good-looking. Boy, was he good-looking! It wasn’t often a guy with his looks came into the club. Especially one dressed in a 3-piece suit. She wondered who he was, where he had come from, and why he was dressed so formally. There was definitely something very different about him. One thing that she found unusual was that he was yet to even glance at her breasts, which she considered her most endearing physical feature. Usually, every man she came in contact with stared at her chest as if they were under some kind of spell. Which after a year of working there she had grown to find repulsive. It made her feel like a piece of meat. But not this mysterious Adonis. He looked her dead in the eye when he spoke. And because of it she suddenly felt uncharacteristically insecure and exposed.
“So why don’t you get dances?” she asked, trying to hide her breasts by folding her arms over them.
Just then the bartender set two small plates on the bar. One had his bacon wrapped shrimp, the other slices of fresh Italian bread and a small ramekin of spaghetti sauce. “Your steak should be ready in a few minutes,” she said, and then returned to pouring drinks.
King dipped a piece of bread in the sauce and popped it in his mouth. It was delicious. The bread was fresh and the cook had added just the right amount of garlic, oregano and sugar to the sauce. It wasn’t his grandmother’s zugu, but it wasn’t bad for generic restaurant sauce. He dipped and ate another piece of bread and then finally returned his attention to the little brunette, who was still awaiting an answer as to why he didn’t get lap dances.
“Not my style,” he shrugged, washing down the bread with sip of Player’s Punch.
“Never been. I’m not paying you to tease me. Why would I give you money just to get me worked up and then watch you run off and work the next mark?”
She reeled back and glared at him. “So you’re judging me?”
“Of course not,” he said, chuckling at her angry inflection. “Settle down, shorty. That’s not what I meant. I respect your hustle. But, like I said, it’s not my style.”
This seemed to placate her slightly. “So what’s your style?” she asked, intrigued by his uncanny ability to speak to her without ever glancing down at her chest.
He popped a shrimp in his mouth, savoring it for a moment before answering. “Well…” he began, then paused to take another sip of punch. “Giving you money to tease me just seems like a waste.”
Now she looked even more offended. “A waste!” she spat, loud enough to turn the heads of several people within earshot.
“Yes, a waste. I mean, if I were to spend my money on you, it would be to take you out to a nice dinner. Maybe a movie afterwards. And if I like you, and you like me, we could go somewhere private and dance for each other. Just the two of us. Alone. No teasing.”
She expelled a melodic giggle of incredulity. “Oh, shit, that’s a great line, pal,” she said, sounding genuinely impressed. “And original. I’ve never heard that one before. You’re a slick one, I’ll give you that. You’re obviously a player.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Not quite. That wasn’t a line. You asked why I don’t get dances, so I told you. That’s all. It doesn’t make ma a player.” “But you are. I can tell.”
Feigning indifference, he took another bite of bread and glanced around the club, which seemed to be getting busier by the minute. “Not that I’m trying to get rid of you, shorty, but shouldn’t you be working? I mean, you’re not making any money standing here talking to me.”
She hopped up on the stool next to him. “I could use a break,” she said, brushing a lock of raven hair from her face. “How ’bout you let me buy you a drink?”
“How ’bout you let me buy you one?”
“You won’t buy a dance but you’ll buy a girl a drink?”
He shrugged and glanced down at her body, making sure she saw it. “I suppose it’s the least I can do. I mean, it’s been a while since I’ve been in the company of a beautiful woman.”
Suddenly she was blushing. “You think I’m beautiful?” she asked, coyly, feeling even more insecure and exposed than before.
“Very,” he said, half-honestly.
She knew he was lying but she could tell from the look in his eyes that he was attracted to her. He had been watching her since he stepped through the door. And she would be lying if she said she didn’t like it.
“You haven’t been in the company of a beautiful woman?” she asked, staring up at him with intrigue. “What does that mean? How long has it been?”
He looked her deadpan in the eye. “Longer than you would believe.”
He was about to answer when the door to the kitchen swung open and out stepped a man wearing a white chef’s apron and matching hat. In his hand was a plate of steak and spaghetti. The instant he saw King seated at the bar his eyes went wide with recognition and disbelief.
“Holy shit!” the chef exclaimed. “I don’t believe it. King Falcone in the flesh! Sugar in the sauce. I knew it had to be you!” He set the plate on the bar and extended a hand to him.
“Goddamn, man, it’s been forever!”
Joe Bowlin had been a cook at Players for over twelve years, but he was no an ordinary cook. He practically ran the place. Having grown up in the rough, lower-middleclass suburb of Roseville, a small city just a few miles outside Detroit, he was a slick and effervescent street hustler. Which was how he landed a job at Players in the first place.
Over the years, he had taken full advantage of his position at the club, bedding innumerous strippers, acquiring countless connections and contacts, and selling cocaine, pot and ecstasy to the revolving door of strippers who worked there. But his main charge was not as the club’s head cook or resident drug supplier. It was to act as a liaison between the club’s many regular patrons seeking the services of working girls, an operation overseen by Vito Vitale, the club’s real owner. Everybody knew Joe. And since he worked at Players people assumed he was well connected to the Syndicate’s top brass. Which was partly true, since he did in fact, report to Vito Vitale, a Toccio captain. But King knew Joe was really just a small-time pimp and dope pusher, a puppet for the Toccio crew.
King gave him a firm handshake. “Hey, Joe, how ya doin?”
Joe stepped back and looked him over. “Jesus Christ, man!” he exclaimed. “You got big as a fuckin’ house. But…” He shot a furtive glance around the club and lowered his voice to a whisper. “I thought the feds had you for good? Somebody said you were never coming home.”
“Apparently, somebody lied to you, Joe,” King said, grinning cryptically, noticing from the corner of his eye how the little brunette was studying him intently. “I’m back for good. Just got out yesterday.”
Joe eyed him suspiciously, his mind flashing back in time. Back in the day, King Falcone had been a bit of a local legend around town. But he wasn’t supposed to be there. He was supposed to be serving a life sentence in federal prison. Joe wanted to ask how he got out but knew better than to press the issue, for some things just weren’t meant for his ears.
“Well, it’s good to see you, man,” Joe said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder toward the kitchen. “When your order came back, it was like a blast from the past. You’re the only guy who ever asked for a spoon of sugar in the sauce. That’s how I knew it was you. I remember you used to go ape shit when I forgot the sugar.”
King chuckled. “Yes, well, you know us Sicilians. We prefer a touch of sugar in our zugu. It’s a secret the rest of the world has yet to discover. So don’t tell anyone.” Joe laughed and held his right hand up like he was swearing an oath. “Hey, your secret is safe with me, King. Mum’s the word…” Again he cast a nervous glance around the club before lowering his voice to a whisper. “But hey, does Tony G. know you’rehome?”
King shrugged, feigning indifference. “Maybe, maybe not. But I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone you saw me. I don’t need any drama before I even get settled in.”
Joe nodded his understanding, the message perfectly clear. Though King made him nervous, Joe had always liked him. The guy had a style and presence about him. He was a real Mafioso through and through. And he wasn’t ashamed of it. Shoot, he was proud of it. He had never flaunted his status, but at one point he had been well respected and feared by even the top bosses. He and his crew used to come in the club looking like real bigshots, always accompanied by a couple of intimidating bodyguards, just like in the movies. And even though none of them were Made Men, or much more than a bunch of low-level wiseguys working the petty street rackets, they were respected because of King’s grandfather. Even Joe, a nobody cook at a strip club, knew of the legendary Pete “The Butcher” Falcone. The old boss had been a living legend before he died. King, the don’s favorite grandson, had once run around the city like he owned it. Because he could.
Back then, nobody dared cross the favorite grandson of Don Falcone. That is, nobody outside his own family. At one point, he and his own cousin, Anthony Gianolla, son of the Syndicate’s current Boss, had some kind of falling out. It had been very hush-hush. Nobody knew exactly what happened, but it was right before King was indicted and supposedly sent away for life. That was the last Joe had ever heard of King Falcone. Nobody ever talked about him again. Yet here he was, in the flesh, back in Players, wearing a 3-piece suit and ordering his signature breaded Sicilian steak and spaghetti with sugared meat sauce. And he was looking more menacing than ever. But he was alone, with no sign of his crew. Joe figured he would at least have Jonny New York with him. Back in the day, King never went anywhere without Jonny New York. Joe now gave him a curious look.
“So, King, did you stay in touch with any of your guys while you were away?”
“Not really,” King answered, draining his drink and motioning the bartender for another. “Haven’t heard from them in years. I guess most of them work for Anthony and my uncle now.”
Joe gave him a surprised look. “What about Jonny New York? Wasn’t he your righthand-man?”
King displayed no outward reaction, but the mention of his best friend and picciotti sent a wave of emotion surging through him. “Haven’t heard from him either,” he said stoically. “I told him forget about me and focus on taking care of his family. He wrote a few times. Even came to see me once or twice. But we had nothing…” He shrugged. “I told him to move on.”
The bartender set his drink on the bar. King took a quick sip and looked Joe in the eye. “You seen him lately?”
Joe nodded thoughtfully, knowing he was definitely missing something here.
“Actually, yeah, I have. He runs Duchess. Over off Seven Mile. Place is a bit of a dive but he’s got a few decent girls working in there.”
The little brunette cleared her throat, as to let them know she was still there. King glanced down at her, wondering why she was still lingering. “Off Seven Mile, you say?
Seven and what?”
“Seven and Duchess,” Joe replied. “Right on the corner. Why, you gonna go see him?”
“Maybe,” King said, glancing at his plate of food, his mouth salivating in anticipation. “But right now, Joe, I’m starving and my dinner’s getting cold.”
Joe looked at the plate on the bar. “Oh, sorry, King,” he apologized, and then waved over a handsome, middle-aged man wearing a sharp suit. “King, this is Jerry Bobcheck, our manager. Jerry, this is King Falcone. He’s an old friend of Sal’s” Jerry extended a hand to him. “Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Falcone,” he said, shaking his hand as if he was meeting a celebrity. “If you’re a friend of Sal’s you’re a friend of mine.” He waved over a behemoth bouncer who had been lurking in a nearby hallway that led to the club’s dressing room. “Carmine, show this gentlemen over to our best VIP booth. See that his meal and drinks are comped. And make sure the girls treat him right.
He’s a friend of Mr. Finazzo’s so he gets the platinum treatment.”
“I appreciate that,” King said, and then offered Joe a parting handshake. “Thanks Joe. It was good seeing you. Give Vito and Sal my regards. And remember what I said: You didn’t see me.” He turned to the little brunette, who was trying to act as if she hadn’t been listening. “Excuse me, shorty.”
A waitress carried his food while Carmine the bouncer led him over to a reserved VIP booth at the back of the club. “So you’re King Falcone,” said the bouncer, slowly looking him over.
King slid into the booth shot him a look. “You say that like you’ve heard of me.”
The bouncer waited for the waitress to set his food down and leave before answering. “I’ve heard guys talk about you.”
“Yeah?” King asked, looking up at him with a touch of surprise. “And what did they say?”
The bouncer suddenly looked uncomfortable. “Nothing really,” he said nervously. King raised an eyebrow. “Nothing?”
“Well…” the bouncer shrugged. “I mean, I’ve heard guys say you used to have a lot of pull around town. And…”
The bouncer suddenly looked like he wanted to run. “And you were serving life in prison.”
“Well, they were misinformed,” King said curtly, dismissing him with a wave of his hand.
As the bouncer lumbered off to resume his post by the dressing room, King turned his attention to his meal. It had been over eight years since he had tasted steak Siciliano, and it was just as delicious as he remembered. But he exercised perfect table etiquette, taking his time to savor every bite of the tender breaded steak. And as he ate, a steady stream of silicone-enhanced beauties began stopping by his table to offer him lap dances, which he politely declined, although this didn’t dissuade them from staring at him as he ate his dinner.
Ever since he was a young man, girls had always found the physical appearance of Omnio Falcone appealing. And now, as a grown man, his 6’4”, heavily muscled frame gave him an even greater appeal. But there was something more. He emanated a certain energy, an aura of danger and mystery that women were drawn to like insects to light.
His unique obsidian eyes seemed to bore into the soul of whoever he turned them on. No matter where he went, woman of all ages stared at him with intrigue. And though he didn’t usually mind how women appreciated his looks, tonight he was feeling a bit self-conscious about all the overt stares he was receiving. He just wanted to enjoy his dinner and maybe find himself a nice girl to take home.
Strangely, the one girl he had his eye on was the only girl who didn’t approach him for a dance while he ate. The short brunette from the bar. He found her to be very attractive, and hoped that she might come over and join him for dinner. But she, for whatever reasons, was the only girl in the club acting like he didn’t exist. And he wondered why.
After his meal, he ordered his third glass of Player’s Punch. And just as he settled in to drink it, he watched the buxom little brunette take the stage for her requisite hourly striptease act. He made sure she knew he was watching her as she strutted around the poles seductively, and he noticed her glance at him several times. She even offered him a few discreet smiles. He became mesmerized by the movements of her hips and breasts.
Maybe it was the alcohol muddling his perception, but she seemed to be dancing for him. By the end of her performance she was looking directly at him, their eyes locked as if they were the only two people in the room. Watching her, his heart began to race and he suddenly found himself sweating under his suit. He felt a stirring in his loins that he hadn’t felt in over eight years. Something about her reminded him of a woman from his past, a woman who had once been very dear to him. Though this girl didn’t possess the striking beauty of the woman from his past, they were built similar—short and petite with full breasts, muscular legs, and a perfectly shaped callipygian behind. He wanted her. Badly. He only hoped that she wasn’t a hooker or junkie. She didn’t look it, but looks could be deceiving. If she was, it would most certainly ruin her appeal. After all, he was looking for a good girl.
Indeed she was watching him watch her. And as she stepped off stage, she felt a pang of trepidation when he began waving her over to his table. She hesitated, sensing he was trouble. She had begun working at the club over a year ago, and since then she had encountered every facet of unscrupulous character. Most were just run-of-the-mill perverts and sexual deviants, or men who had never seen an actual naked beautiful woman in real life. But there were also a lot of criminals and shady characters who frequented the club. Most commonly were drug dealers. Usually of the black persuasion, they were low-level street dealers who always presented themselves as if they were bigshot high-rollers, a result of watching too many rap videos. Just because they walked
around with a few thousand dollars in their pockets, they felt like they could objectify the girls like they were all whores who could be bought with a little cash. Then there were the stick-up guys who only came in to splurge after a particularly good score. They were good tippers and sometimes fun to hang out with, but they were usually lowlifes who would get drunk and brag about their latest criminal exploits. Then there were the professional athletes who tossed money around like it grew on trees. They usually came in when their girlfriends and wives failed to meet their sexual needs. After a few drinks, they became inflated with self-worth and acted like the girls should fall at their feet. And she couldn’t forget the married businessmen whose wives thought they were attending important meetings, when in fact they were there at the club drinking and soliciting the “working girls” to have sex with them at a nearby motel. But the list of sleezeballs didn’t stop there. She couldn’t forget the upper-class perverts—the crooked cops, narcissistic politicians, alcoholic judges, and corrupt city officials. The list went on and on. And they all treated the girls like they were nothing but sexual play toys for hire.
The club’s owner, Sal Finazzo, always gave these men special VIP treatment because they were men who could dole out favors.
Of course the club’s most common patrons were simple blue-collar factory workers who came in every payday to get drunk and spend all their money on lap dances before going home drunk and broke to their angry wives. But she could deal with such men. They were relatively harmless and the bouncers handled them when they got out of line. She had even learned to enjoy and appreciate their attention.
There was, however, one group of patrons who made her nervous. No, they made her more than nervous. They downright scared her. The Italian Mafiosi. The wiseguys.
She knew from the grapevine that the club was owned by Italian mobsters, an enigmatic lot of men who came in from time to time. Mysterious men in dark tailored suits. Dangerous-looking men who always posted a couple of intimidating bodyguards by the bar and front door. They had money but never flaunted it. They usually sat in one of the VIP booths and talked in hushed tones as they ate dinner. They rarely got lap dances from the girls, who were given explicit instructions to never, ever approach them during their informal dinner meetings. And it hadn’t taken her long to learn the who’s who of their pecking order. Sal, the club’s owner, often made himself seen when they were around. And he always made sure to treat the ones with rank like literal royalty, though they rarely seemed impressed by his efforts. In fact, they sometimes acted like they were the ones who actually owned the place, using Sal’s basement office when they wanted a more private setting or a place to play high-stakes poker games. They did solicit the services of working girls from time to time, but never once had they propositioned her. Somehow they knew she was one of the rare few who weren’t for hire. Occasionally she’d dance for one of them, and they would tip her generously, but they always made her nervous. She knew they were bad men. Dangerous men. Maybe she had watched too many movies, but she wanted nothing to do with mobsters. Twice she had been asked out by one of them, and though they had been handsome and very respectful, she wanted nothing to do with such men. Even though she didn’t actually have a steady boyfriend, she had broken the cardinal rule of stripping by telling them she was in a serious relationship. She came to work to make her money and go home, not look for a boyfriend. Stripping was just a way to pay the bills until she finished school and launched her own business.
Unfortunately, tonight she was working. Which meant she couldn’t just ignore the dangerous-looking man now beckoning her over to his table, even if he gave her the heebie-jeebies. Sure he was handsome, well-dressed, and had certain mystique about him. But she knew from eavesdropping on his conversation with Joe that he was some kind of Mafioso fresh out of prison. And from the way Joe had treated him, he obviously had status. Because Joe almost never fussed over the wiseguys who frequented the club. In fact, tonight was the first time she had ever seen him come out of the kitchen to pay homage to one of them. And he had acted as if this ominous brute of a man had once been some kind of boss. Which she found surprising since he was relatively young. It was
almost always the older ones who received such gestures of respect. She wished she could just ignore him and go back to working the blue-collar drunkards who worshiped her like she was some kind of goddess. But he waving her over, staring at her with those scary black eyes, so all she could do was play it cool and hope that he would lose interest in her. After all, the working girls were always eager to entertain a man like him. Because the last thing she needed in her life was some mobster fresh out of prison obsessing over her.
“Would you like a dance?” she asked playfully, morphing into her flirty work persona as she stepped up to his table.
He chuckled and shook his head. “Why do I feel like we’ve had this conversation before?”
“Deja vu?” she quipped, forcing a smile. “So… is there another reason you called me over?”
“Is that a proposition?” he asked, grinning salaciously.
“No, it isn’t,” she said, unable to suppress an amused giggle. “But you called me over. I didn’t want to seem rude.”
“I still owe you a drink.”
“I’m not thirsty.”
He pointed at the empty booth across the table. “Sit.”
She remained standing and folded her arms across her chest. “Wow, is that an order?”
“Please sit?” he amended, trying to disarm her with a smile. “Is that better?”
“A little,” she admitted, grinning slightly, finding his charm nearly impossible to resist.
He flagged down a passing waitress. “My friend here would like a…?” He looked at her and waited for her to fill in the blank.
“A diet Coke, Pam. No ice.”
The waitress gave King an eager-to-please look. “And for you, Mr. Falcone?”
“A Corona and lime,” he said, having had enough Players Punch.
“Right away, Mr. Falcone,” said the waitress, scurrying off toward the bar.
The petite brunette stood there with her eyes narrowed on him curiously. “So…’Mr. Falcone, who exactly are you?” she asked, exaggerating the pronunciation of his name.
He studied the contours of her face for a moment, never letting his eyes drop below her chin. Maybe it was the alcohol, but she seemed even more attractive. Very unique looking. Bordering on beautiful. Like a little porcelain China doll. Big, innocent doe eyes. But why did she seem so standoffish? Most strippers were much more aggressive.
“What’s your name, belle?” he finally asked.
“I asked you a question first,” she countered defiantly.
“I’ll tell you after you tell me your name.”
“Paige,” she said with little conviction.
He raised an eyebrow. “Paige?”
“I meant your real name.”
The first rule of exotic dancing was never divulge your real name to a patron And she had never broken it before. “What makes you think Paige isn’t my real name?” she asked, trying to avoid those probing dark eyes.
“Oh,” he shrugged, “let’s just say I have a knack for knowing when people are lying to me.”
The look he was giving her made her giggle. For some reason he made her feel giddy. Which was odd since she never got giddy around guys, especially customers.
“Fine,” she acquiesced, “I shouldn’t tell you but my real name is Madonna. But if I said that first you wouldn’t have believed that either.”
“No, probably not,” he admitted, unconsciously glancing at her bare navel. “So, Madonna, are you going to sit and at least have a drink with me?”
Her conviction wavering, she slid into the booth across from him. “One diet Coke. But then I have to get back to my paying customers.”
“Madonna,” he said, almost to himself, rolling the name over in his mind. “I like it. A bit ironic, but I like it.”
“Ironic?” she asked with a confused look. “What do you mean ironic?”
“Well, the name Madonna evokes thoughts of the Virgin Mary. And, no offense, but you being a stripper is a bit of a contradiction.”
She took a moment to decide she wasn’t offended by that. “Huh, I can’t believe I never thought of that.”
He slowly examined her features for a moment. “So, Madonna, may I ask your nationality?”
He shrugged. “I was just wondering if you might be Italian.”
“I’m French, actually,” she said proudly. “Can’t you tell from my pudgy nose?”
He glanced at her nose. “It’s a cute nose.”
She leaned back in the booth and began to blush. “You men are all the same. You all tell us what you think we want to hear. But you don’t have to lie. I know my nose is too pudgy.”
“I have to disagree. I like it. I think it fits you perfectly. You’re a doll. I’m sure guys tell you that all the time.”
She narrowed her eyes on him, trying to discern if he was just running more of his playboy game. Guys were always running their sycophantic bullshit on her. Especially here at work. The men who came in night after night were almost always the same. Sleazy. Horny. Eyes burning with lust. And no matter who they were, their attempts to impress her were universal—flaunting their money, always claiming she was the most beautiful girl in the club. It became trite and redundant. But the money was good so she always played along.
“Sure, guys run their game on me all the time,” she said with a meek shrug, trying her best to maintain eye contact. “But I know they’re full of shit. You, though? You’re good. When you say it, you almost sound like you mean it. You’re obviously a player.”
He furled an eyebrow, a bit surprised that such an attractive girl was so insecure.
“I assure you, sweetie, I’m no player.”
She was ready to challenge this when the waitress returned and set their drinks on the table. But when King tried to pay for them, the waitress refused to take his money. “Sorry, Mr. Falcone. I can’t take your money. Jerry said your dinner and drinks are on the house.”
“Then take this for yourself,” he said, thrusting a $20 at her.
Again she refused, holding up both hands as if in surrender. “Thank you, Mr. Falcone, but you’re a house guest. I can’t take your money. House rules.”
As she scurried off, a slight frown appeared on his face, for he didn’t appreciate being calling mister. It made him feel old. He had to remind himself that he was no longer a young man, but in fact a grown man wearing a $3,000 suit. Forcing away such thoughts, he took a sip of his Corona and returned his attention to Madonna.
“So where were we?”
“You were trying to convince me you weren’t a player,” she said, grinning, slowly taking a sip of her diet Coke through a curly straw. “And I was about to say you’re full of shit like every guy who comes through these doors.”
His eyes bored into her. “That’s awfully cynical for such a young girl. And dead wrong. Like I said, I’m not a player. It’s not my style. If you knew me you’d know this. I just call it how I see it. You’re a beautiful girl. It’s not hard to see. That’s no line. No bullshit. It’s simple fact.”
She suddenly felt flush and uncomfortable, even embarrassed. There was something about this large and dangerous-looking man. He had originally shunned her up at the bar, but now he seemed to have cast a spell on her. A spell that was somehow overriding her usually astute sense of better judgment. Why did she feel so drawn to him? He was older, but by no means old. Probably early thirties. Yet he carried himself like that of a much older man. More mature, with the swagger and confidence of a man who came from a background of pedigree and prestige. But he wasn’t overbearing. So many men with his looks and charm were arrogant to the point of cocky. But not this one. Yet based on his looks alone he had reason to be cocky. Whatever it was, he now had her feeling like a teenage schoolgirl. And she didn’t like it. Not one bit. Sure he was strikingly handsome and charming, but her gut told her he was a bad man. A dangerous man. And her gut had never led her wrong before. It was time to forget she ever met him and get back to work.
“Well, Mr. Falcone, it’s been nice talking to you,” she said, offering him a polite smile as she slid to the edge of the booth and prepared to leave. “And thank you for the Coke. But it’s still early and I need to make some money. Gotta pay the bills.”
He gently grasped her hand, motioning her to remain seated. “At least finish your drink,” he said, a softer look in his eyes. “And do me a favor, call me King. Just King. The whole mister thing makes me feel old.”
His touch was electric, sending a surge of heat through her body. She suddenly had goose bumps and felt light-headed. His hand was so large and strong, callused and rough the way a man’s hand should feel. She wanted to get up and run but she was paralyzed, unable to move a muscle. Why did he have to be so damn good-looking? And those eyes! Why did she feel as if they were reading her every thought? It took her a moment, but she regained herself and settled back into the booth, deciding he wasn’t going to let her leave even if she wanted to. Which she now realized she didn’t.
“King?” she chuckled. “And you had the nerve to question my name?”
“My real name is Omnio. It’s a derivative of an old Latin word that means King. Sort of a regional word used in Sicily where my family is from.”
She studied the countenance of his face. “So, ‘King, how old are you?”
“Thirty-two. How old are you?”
He nodded and shot a quick look around the busying club. “Well, belladonna, I understand you want to get back to work and make some money. But would you at least stay and finish your drink with me?”
“Why?” she asked, her eyes locked on his. “If you haven’t noticed, the other girls in here are drooling over you. Most of them are way prettier than me and they all know you’re some kind of…” She let the words trail off and glanced around nervously.
“Some kind of what?” he prompted, casually taking a sip from his Corona, his eyes again boring into her.
She leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially. “I know what you are. Jerry doesn’t give just anyone the platinum treatment. Not even the athletes get it. Only wiseguys. And only ones who have status. So that means you must be a someone.”
He leaned back in his booth, his hand clutching the sweaty Corona bottle. “You know…” he said, then took a sip and tipped the bottle to her. “From the moment I saw you something told me you were more than just a pretty face.” He surveyed the loud, smoky room. “But as to who I am… Well, I’m nobody special. I barely even know Sal Finazzo.
And I never met your manager before tonight. I know Joe from back in the day, but I haven’t seen him in years.”
“But you are Italian?” she asked, clearly sensing he was downplaying who he was.
“Sure,” he shrugged. “I’m half-Sicilian. Is there anything else you’d like to know?”
She thought for a moment. “Nope. That tells me enough. I might be just a stripper but I’m not stupid. I know what goes on in here. I know what Sal does and who he really works for. And I also know there is a lot more to you than you’re letting on. You’re just selling me a canard.”
“A what?” he asked, confused.
“Vendre des canards a moitie,” she said in perfectly enunciated French.
He raised an eyebrow. “What is that, French?”
“Yes. It means to half sell the ducks. English translation: You’re half full of shit. I told you, Mr. Falcone, or King, or whoever you are, I’m not stupid. I heard you and Joe. You just got out of prison. And that’s why you said you haven’t been in the company of a woman for so long.”
“I said I haven’t been in the company of a beautiful woman,” he corrected, flashing her a smile.
She rolled her eyes. “You just don’t give up, do you? I know I’m not beautiful? Cute, sure, but far from beautiful. I’m too short and chubby to be beautiful. Beautiful girls are tall and skinny.”
He slowly took in her curves. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” he said, sipping his Corona. “Some guys like girls with nice curves.”
“Yeah, right!” she scoffed. “Find me a guy who prefers short girls to tall ones, and I’ll find you a girl that prefers fat old men to guys who look like you.”
“That’s easy. You’re looking at one. I’ve always preferred short girls to tall ones. And I hate bony girls. I’m Sicilian. We like our women to eat and have curves. Means they’re healthy and fertile.”
She studied him for a moment, unsure if she believed him. But he did sound convincing. “Okay, maybe you do like short girls,” she finally said, giving him the benefit of the doubt. “But why me? I mean, look around. This place is filled with hot girls. Plenty of them are short and beautiful. Why single me out? You could get any one of these girls to go home with you.”
He stared at her for long moment without saying a word. There was something very different about her, something he had not expected. A high level of intelligence. It was in her eyes, but also in how she talked. She was articulate and well-spoken. Not just for a stripper, but for any woman her age. Clearly her job here was just a theatrical performance she used to put food on the table. But he sensed there was much more to her. He found himself very intrigued and suddenly wanted to get to know her better.
“Madonna,” he finally said, “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
“Depends what it is.”
“Do you like working as an exotic dancer?”
“You mean do I like being a stripper?”
“If that’s what you prefer to call it.”
“It pays the bills,” she shrugged, a touch of shame in her eyes.
“That’s not what I asked.”
She suddenly became very defensive. “I know it sounds cliché, but I’m only doing it to put myself through school. I’m studying to be a certified public accountant. You know, a CPA. When I graduate I’ll help people do their taxes, balance their bills, consolidate debt, give investment advice, stuff like that. My goal is to start my own accounting firm. I was thinking maybe even on-line. The Internet gives me access to millions of potential clients.”
King nodded, impressed. Just as he suspected, she was indeed more than just a stripper with a cute face. She had a head on her shoulders. And from the sound of it, one with a pretty good brain in it. Seeing her in a whole new light, an idea began forming in his head, the gears of his mind clicking away.
“So what do you think of Mr. Finazzo?” he asked, studying her reaction.
She narrowed her eyes on him. “That’s a loaded question. He’s your friend.”
He shook his head. “I assure you, Salvatore Finazzo is no friend of mine. I told you, I barely know the man. To be honest, I always thought he was a bit of a slimeball.”
At that she expelled a melodic giggle. “Hey, great minds really do think alike.”
“So, are you with someone?” he asked, studying her face for any telltale signs of deception.
“Are you asking if I have a boyfriend?”
He nodded. “Yes.”
Of course she always told customers that she was single and available. It was part of the job, one of the cardinal rules of stripping. Men always spent more money on lap dances when they thought they actually had a chance. To them, it always came down to their wallets. Though she played along and always pretended to be impressed by their money, it was simply a ruse to encourage them to keep spending it on her.
The truth was that she was not impressed by money. She wasn’t looking for a sugar daddy. She made her own money. Quite a lot of it, actually, and she was entirely self-reliant. Unlike so many
of the other girls she worked with, she would never depend on a man to take care of her. The fact that she didn’t actually have a boyfriend made it all that much easier to dupe men into thinking they had a shot with her. But she would never date a guy from the club. Especially not one who tried to impress her with money and hollow promises of material gifts. She found such men to be repugnant and pathetic. But this mysterious Adonis hadn’t tried to impress her with money, even though from the way he was dressed it appeared he had some. He also didn’t seem to be putting on an act for her, pretending he was someone he wasn’t. In fact, he called himself a nobody. Which she knew was a lie. She was certain, just from the way he carried himself, that he was indeed somebody. Or at last had been before he was sent to prison.
“No,” she answered honestly. “I don’t have a boyfriend. Haven’t had one since I started working here almost a year ago. Guys are just too insecure about it. But it’s no big deal. I don’t have time anyway. I go to school full-time at Wayne State. I work here six nights a week. I’ve got my own place, bills, a cat. Plus I’m saving for grad school. Who needs a man? They’re too clingy and jealous. Nah, I’m good. I don’t have time to be bothered.”
He nodded pensively and glanced at her diet Coke. “So let me get this straight: You don’t drink. You’re going to college. You got your own place. No boyfriend. And you’re saving for grad school. Wow, if that doesn’t break the stripper mold I don’t know what does.”
She burst into full-out laughter. “Huh, I never thought of it that way. But don’t tell anyone. You’ll ruin my bad-girl image. And if you’re wondering why I don’t drink, it’s because I’m allergic to alcohol.”
“Seriously?” he asked, eyes wide with surprise. “I’ve never heard of anyone being allergic to alcohol. What happens if you drink it?”
She gave him a deadpan look. “Oh, I have a terribly adverse reaction. Trust me, you don’t ever want to see it.”
He leaned forward with his elbows on the table. “Seriously, what happens?”
“I get drunk,” she said matter-of-factly. “It ain’t pretty.”
This caused him to expel a thunderclap of laughter that reverberated throughout the entire club, attracting the attention of everyone within. That was the icing on the cake. Not only was she cute and smart, she was witty and funny. Right then and there he decided he had found his good girl. And quite possibly more.
“Madonna, do you have a car?” he asked.
“Of course, why?”
“Would you take me somewhere?”
“But I’m working.”
“So what?” he shrugged. “You said it yourself, Jerry thinks I’m a someone. I’ll just ask him if you can take the night off.”
She glanced around the crowded club. “It’s Friday night. Look how packed we are. He’ll never let me leave.”
“Just let me handle it,” he said, a dangerous glint in his eyes. “I’m sure I can persuade him to let you take the rest of the night off.”
“But I…” she began, but it was too late. He was already on his feet, heading for her manager, Jerry, who was posted by the bar. All she could do was sit and watch while he had a hushed exchange with her boss. As she discreetly watched them talk, she couldn’t help being amused by how he towered over Jerry, both in height and sheer size, and how Jerry almost seemed to cower in his presence. After several head-nods from Jerry, they shook hands and he returned to her table with triumphant smile on his face. “Go get changed,” he said, gesturing toward the dressing room. “Jerry said you’re free to go.”
She could feel Jerry watching them from across the room, but she was scared to even look in his direction. “What did you tell him?” she asked nervously.
“You quit,” he said matter-of-factly. “That you’re done stripping.” Again he motioned toward the dressing room. “Now go get dressed. I want to—”
“You WHAT???” she exclaimed, cutting him off, causing everyone within earshot to look their way.
He shrugged insouciantly. “I told him you decided it was time for a change of occupation, and that you’re coming to work for me. As my accountant.”
She was suddenly flush with anger, her head spinning, a ringing in her ears. She couldn’t remember the last time she felt this angry. It had taken her months of auditioning to get this job, and she had to work the shitty day shift for nearly a year before she was allowed to work the far more profitable night shifts.
“Are you crazy?” she yelled, barely able to hold it together. “Do you know how hard it was for me to get this job? Do you even realize how much money I make? This is the top club on the eastside. Dozens of girls audition here every week. It took me a year to finally get on nights! Sometimes I make over a thousand a night! And…” She glared at him. “You don’t even know me!!”
He couldn’t help being amused by her sudden outrage. “Relax, sweetie,” he said, flashing her his most charming smile. “It’s going to be okay. I’m looking for some help. Good help. And you seem like you have a head on your shoulders. Don’t worry, you’ll make more money working for me. And you won’t have to take your clothes off to do it.”
He grinned down at her breasts. “Well, unless you want to. But don’t expect a bonus.”
She glared up at him. “You ARE crazy!”
He shook his head. “Honey, I may be a lot of things but crazy isn’t one of them. Now why don’t you go get dressed? We’ll talk more as you drive.”
She continued glaring at him, angry but somehow intrigued at the same time. His confidence and casual disposition was somehow deflating her anger. Maybe he was crazy. Maybe he was a bad man. But something about him fascinated her. And as angry as she was, she now realized that she wanted to know more about him. So, after a long moment of ambivalence, she decided there was no turning back now, because he clearly wasn’t taking no for an answer. All she could do was head for the dressing room and change into her “street clothes.”
Ten minutes later she emerged from the dressing room looking like a completely different person. Her hair was pulled back. She had removed most of her makeup. And now she was wearing plain blue jeans, sneakers, and a frumpy white sweatshirt under a black windbreaker. But when she noticed King quietly conversing with Jerry and Joe the cook by the bar, she decided to wait for him at the front door, wanting to avoid any words with her boss.
After King reiterated to Joe and Jerry that he wanted his arrival back in town to be kept between them for the time being, he turned and strode over to the front door where she was waiting. “All set, shorty?” he asked, flashing her a smile.
“No,” she answered, still looking annoyed. “I can’t believe you told Jerry I quit. I hope you know what the hell you’re doing, Mr. Bigshot.”
“What did I tell you about calling me mister?”
“Whatever,” she grumbled, pushing the door open to lead him outside. As soon as the valet attendant saw her, he quickly ran off to retrieve her white Cadillac Escalade.
“Thank you, Brian,” she said to the attendant, handing him a five dollar bill. Then, still trying to look annoyed, she turned to King. “You drive. I hate driving.”
“That’s your car?” he asked, pointing at the Escalade as the valet pulled it up.
“Sure. You like?”
He gave the big SUV a quick once-over. Pearl white. Chrome rims. Tinted windows. A beautiful Cadillac. Expensive for sure. Impressive for a young girl. And an interesting choice for someone who was so diminutive. But the truth was that he also hated driving. He didn’t even have a valid license. In fact, he’d never had one. Before going to prison he always had a driver or his picciotti to drive him around.
“Yes, it’s very nice,” he said, opening the passenger door, sliding onto the front passenger seat. “But I’d prefer you drive. I’ve had a few drinks and you don’t want me crashing, do you?”
After climbing into the driver’s seat, she gave him the slightest grin. “Crashing my car is the last thing I’m worried about. I’m still not sure if you’re some kind of psycho or serial killer.”
He flashed her a smile. “Well, I’m definitely not a serial killer.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Am I really that scary?” he laughed.
“Yes,” she answered, partially serious and partially joking.
“Well, you have nothing to worry about,” he assured her, noticing how small she looked behind the wheel, wondering why such a tiny woman would drive such a massive SUV. “I’m not planning to chop you up.” He grinned salaciously at her thighs. “Although, eating you might be nice.”
“Funny,” she said, rolling her eyes before pulling the big Cadillac out onto eastbound 8-Mile Road. “So where we going?”
“Just drive east toward the water,” he answered, pointing straight ahead.
For the next ten minutes, as they drove, he tried to ease her anxiety and nervous apprehension by engaging is some basic small talk, trying to learn a more about her. “So where are you from, Madonna?” he asked, genuinely interested to know.
“Canada. And you can just call me Donna. Only my parents call me Madonna.”
“Canada, eh? Well that narrows it right down, doesn’t it?”
She giggled and punched him playfully on the arm. “Smart ass. I was born and raised in Toronto.”
“So where do you live now?”
He shrugged. “Just curious.”
She was beginning to sense that he was indeed harmless. At least to her. So she tried to relax and not think about the money she could be making. And, strangely, she soon found that she was actually enjoying herself.
“I have a little apartment in Mt. Clemens.”
He nodded pensively. “Have you ever seen Grosse Pointe’s Lakeshore Drive?”
“No, but isn’t that where all the rich people live?”
“It is. And it’s only a few minutes from here. I’d like to show it to you.”
“Oh…” he shrugged. “Let’s call it inspiration. For both of us. Just keep driving until 8-Mile until turns into Vernier. When you get to Lakeshore Drive, make a right.”
Several minutes later, when they reached Jefferson Avenue, she turned right and was struck silent by what she saw. Situated on the shores of Lake Saint Clair were the types of homes that she never knew existed in Michigan. Mansions. Huge pretentious estates with gated drives and elegant manicured landscapes illuminated by floodlights. Never in her life had she seen such ostentatious displays of wealth. Some of the homes were breathtaking, resembling castles, including homes owned by the furniture mogul Art Van, and Ford Motors’ baron William Clay Ford. As far as the eye could see were huge palatial estates overlooking the water.
Though King was amused by the awestruck look on her face, he himself was not nearly as impressed. He’d seen this stretch of lakefront real estate many times. Thousands of times. Unlike he had so surreptitiously led her to believe, he had not asked her to take him there for inspiration. Nor was he there to appreciate the area’s pomp and grandiosity. He was window shopping. He was looking for a new home.
“Slow down,” he said, almost forcefully, pointing at one particularly impressive mansion. “That’s the one.”
She slowed down and followed his gaze to a massive, Victorian mansion at the end of a private cul-de-sac. Nestled deep in some trees, far back from the road, the home was enormous, with huge white ionic columns supporting a gigantic front porch. A wrought iron gate bore a family crest and gave access to a long expanse of cobblestone drive that meandered through a perfectly manicured landscape. The entire property was illuminated by a series of powerful, strategically-positioned floodlights that accentuated the home’s opulence and grandeur. In the center of its circular drive was a massive bronze statue of Atlas, the Greek Titan who was forever condemned to carry the weight of the world on his back. Parked in front of the home’s huge eight-car garage was a black Mercedes-Benz and some kind of sleek European sports car.
“My God,” she mused, never having seen anything so excessive, yet so elegant and beautiful. “That house is incredible!”
“I’m going to buy it,” he said matter-of-factly
“Are you now?” she chuckled sarcastically. “Well, I don’t mean to burst your bubble, big guy, but don’t you think that’s…” She paused to find the right words. “Oh, a bit optimistic for a guy who just got out of prison yesterday?”
By now the house was out of sight, but he continued staring back in its direction. “Maybe,” he said, finally turning to face her. “But I have a plan, bella mia.”
“Belly mia?” she echoed with a confused look. “What does that mean?”
“Bella mia,” he laughed. “Not belly. It means my beauty.”
“Oh,” she said, blushing. Even though she was used to receiving compliments like this every night at work, she loved the way it sounded in Italian. Especially coming from him. She wanted to hear him say it again, for it gave her a hot, tingly sensation down below. But of course she didn’t want to fish for compliments. She knew that would only make her seem desperate and insecure.
“So, big-timer, tell me about this plan of yours,” she asked instead. “I mean, it better be a good one, because that house probably cost a couple million bucks.”
“Closer to ten million.”
“Yeah, well, we all have dreams,” she said, not even considering he might actually be serious. “Speaking of, I worked at Players to pay for school. And now, thanks to you, Mr. Day-dream-believer, I might not have a job to go back to. I’m going to have to kiss Jerry’s ass just to get back on days. And I would’ve made at least $500 tonight.”
He removed a wad of cash from the inside pocket of his suit jacket. “You work for me now,” he said, peeling off ten $100’s and holding them out to her.
She glared at the money as if it was toxic waste. “Hey, I don’t want your money, asshole,” she barked, the offense in her voice audible. “I’m NOT a hooker. You can get out of my car right now if that’s what you think this is!”
“I know you’re not a hooker,” he said, thinking she was a feisty little spitfire.
“Consider the money an advance. Soon I’ll be in need of an assistant, someone to keep track of my finances and business affairs; someone to oversee collections, investments, banking; someone to make calls and schedule my appointments. Sort of a secretary slash accountant slash assistant. Stuff like that.” He held the money out to her again. “Take it. It’s a small advance.”
She looked at the money. “A small advance?” she parroted.
“Yes. To cover what you would’ve earned tonight.”
Again she glanced at the money. “Where did you get that? I mean, didn’t you just get out of prison yesterday?”
“It was a gift from a friend I was in prison with. Tomorrow I’ll go see more friends to get the money I’ll need to start my business back up.”
She considered this for a moment. “So you were serious back there? You actually think you’re going to have the money to buy that house?”
“Yes,” he answered without even batting an eye. “In order to achieve greatness, you must first believe in yourself.” He motioned a hand toward the passing waterfront real estate. “The people who own these homes, they didn’t become successful by accident. They had a plan. They believed in that plan. They were determined and worked hard. I know it’s cliché, but all things are possible if you just believe. Every great accomplishment started with a dream. A dream is really just a plan never put in motion. Once you achieve it, it’s no longer a dream. It’s reality. If you can envision it in your mind, you can accomplish it. You just have to have a solid plan and actually implement it. I’ve known some very powerful and wealthy men who started with nothing but a plan. That’s how I know it can be done.”
She nodded, both amused and impressed. “Wow, that’s quite the maxim you have there. Where did you get it, Confucius?”
His eyes suddenly went from pensive to stern and cold. “No,” he answered tersely. “It was the philosophy of a great man.”
“Yeah? And who was this great man?”
“Oh yeah?” she asked, flashing him a goading smile. “Does he happen to live in one of these big houses?”
“No,” he said, his eyes glazing over with a sad, distant look. “But he did before he died. We passed it about a mile back.”
From the sullen, nostalgic look in his eyes, she realized he was serious and that his grandfather had meant a great deal to him. So rather than push the issue, she decided to not add anything and just allow him a moment of reverence.
With his grandfather’s words echoing in his head, he stared out the passenger window, subconsciously crumbling the wad of cash in his hand, lost in his inner thoughts. He had so many fond memories of his grandfather, and not a day went by that he didn’t miss him.
Meanwhile, as they drove in silence, her mind began to dissect the strange night she was having. It was like she was in a dream. She felt as if this handsome and mysterious man had somehow cast a spell on her. And it was a bit unnerving, even scary, for she had never been under such a spell. He was certainly unlike any man she had ever met, so arcane and confident. Yet he was surprisingly humble, especially considering his physical looks. He was beyond handsome. He was beautiful, like the Greek gods she had envisioned in her mind while studying Greek Myth in high school. But there was something else. His eyes. Never had she seen such unique eyes. It was almost as if he didn’t have irises. Just giant pupils. Pitch black. Intelligent and full of life but calculating and dangerous. Almost hypnotic. And they seemed to bore directly into her soul every time he looked at her. Since the moment he had locked them on her back at the club, she felt like she was drifting through some kind of sublime dream. There was much behind those dangerous eyes, and she suddenly wanted to know what it was.
“King,” she said, finally breaking the silence. “Would you like to come home with me?”
He turned from the window and looked at her as if he had forgotten she was there.
“I said would you like to come home with me?” she repeated, looking dead ahead at the road, purposely avoiding those eyes.
“Are you asking me to spend the night with you?” he asked, a bit surprised by her forwardness.
“Yes,” she answered softly, daring to gently put her hand on his. “I want to spend the night with you.”
Her touch sent a surge of excitement coursing through his veins, and suddenly he felt hot and flush all over. “Who do you live with?” he asked, his heart racing in his chest.
She gave him a coquettish grin. “Just my cat. Do you want to meet my kitty?”
Her look and tone told him all he needed to know. He glanced down at the swell of her breasts and instantly felt an erection growing in his pants. He wanted her. No, he needed her. Badly!
“Yes, I definitely want to meet your kitty,” he said salaciously, knowing quite well that she was not referring to her cat.
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