TO BE A KING
Copyright © 2017 by Gunner Alan Lindbloom
Cover design 2017 by Ryan MacKay
After his short but productive shopping excursion, King took Madonna on a guided tour of his old neighborhood, an area of Detroit’s upper eastside built by immigrant Italian stonemasons back in the 1920’s. Situated along the uppermost reaches of the Detroit River and adjacent to the affluent suburb of Grosse Pointe, it had once been one of the most sought after neighborhoods in the city, inhabited by mostly first-generation Italian and Greek immigrants. As he now showed her his old haunts, he explained how the neighborhood had once been a very ethnic enclave of the city, one that prided itself on old-world culture and values. But that had all changed. Due to the crime and drugs of encroaching neighborhoods, these middle-class families had long since relocated to the city’s outlying metropolitan suburbs, where it was much safer to raise a family. Today, his once-beloved neighborhood was a slum, predominantly inhabited by lower-class blacks. But there were a few Italian families still scattered throughout the neighborhood, and King made a point of stopping to see the parents of several friends from his youth. He even dropped by several local businesses, restaurants and liquor stores to pay respects to their owners. Wherever he went, he was received with warm hugs and smiles. The instant people saw him, they shouted his name and embraced him affectionately, as if he was their long-lost son or brother. He seemed to know everyone, and they all seemed genuinely thrilled to see him, offering him food and gifts. One particular old Italian man who owned a produce market insisted he take a huge box of fresh fruit and vegetables. Several people even offered him money as welcome home gifts, but he always refused such offers of generosity.
Madonna felt like she was in the Twilight Zone. As he stopped to see all of his old friends and acquaintances, he would respectfully introduce her as a good friend. Everyone was extremely nice and seemed genuinely excited to meet her. Some of the older Italian men, and even women, gave her hugs and kisses on the cheeks. It was a new experience for her. She had only seen people greeted like this in the movies. Mafia movies. And observing how people received King, how they did everything short of kiss his pinky ring, it made her feel like she was on the set of one such movie. But this was no movie. This was real. He was real. And with each passing moment, she realized that she knew almost nothing about this mysterious man named Omino “King” Falcone. All she knew is that he had touched her very soul while making love to her last night. After showing Madonna some of his childhood hangouts, he took her to one of his old favorites, “Nick’s & Cuts,” a neighborhood barbershop that was owned by a fatherly old Italian named Niccolo Moceri. Located only a few blocks from his childhood home, the shop was directly next door to another of his old favorites, “Mr. Q’s Billiards & Arcade,” where he and his neighborhood cronies had spent countless days hanging out, hustling and flirting with neighborhood girls. He was surprised to see that both buildings were still intact. It fact, they looked exactly the same. Most of the neighborhood had changed, but not this little corner where he’d spent so much of his youth. As they now parked and stepped onto the sidewalk out front, he couldn’t help but smile at the burned-out old sign above the shop’s front door. “Nick’s & Cuts.” Even as a child the pun wasn’t lost on him. When he snatched open the front door, a pair of bells jingled melodically, announcing their arrival. Nick was cutting the hair of a balding older man when he looked up expecting to see just another customer. But when he saw King smiling at him, he frozein shock.
La mio bella figlioccio!
Nick said in Italian. His beautiful godson.
Madonna saw excitement in the old man’s eyes, but she also noted something else. He didn’t look all that surprised. In fact, he almost looked like he was expecting him. Unlike all the others they had visited today, this old man had no fear in his eyes. There was nothing but genuine excitement, even love in his eyes, and he expressed it by dropping his clippers onto the counter and embracing King in a long hug.
“Omnio…” the old barber stammered, his throat constricting, his eyes welling with tears. “Mio bambino, sei a casa, you’re finally home!” A heavy-set, matronly woman with thick black hair that was graying at the temples appeared from a door leading into the back of the shop. She took one look at King and charged over to steal him away from her husband. “Omnio, mio bambino!” she wailed, pulling his face down to hers. “You’re home! I can’t believe it. Your nonno said he would find a way but…” She let her words trail off, knowing how much his grandfather had meant
“Yes, I’m home, Vicky,” King said with a loving smile, bending down to hug her affectionately. “Grandpa always had his ways.”
Growing up, Niccolo and his wife, Victoria, had been godparents to King. Nick had been a friend of his father’s, and Victoria had often babysat him when his mother was too sick to take care of him. He had spent countless days under their watch at the barbershop, which was a neighborhood landmark. All of his friends, cousins, and uncles had gotten their hair cut there. In fact, the entire neighborhood got their hair cut at Nick’s & Cuts. It was a place where everyone went to catch up on the latest neighborhood gossip. It was tradition to drop in at least once a month for a cut and to catch up on all the recent happenings in the neighborhood. Everyone trusted them. Getting your hair cut by them had an almost therapeutic effect. For some reason, when people lounged back in the old leather barber chairs, they became relaxed and often felt inclined to divulge intimate details of their lives. Of course, Nick and Vicky never spread bad news or malicious gossip, but their shop acted as the neighborhood grapevine. If anyone from the old neighborhood wanted to get a message to someone, or find out what a person was up to, all they had to do was drop by the shop. By the time they were finished getting their hair cut, they would be caught up on all the latest neighborhood gossip.
Nick quickly finished trimming the old man’s hair and then sat King in his chair for a “full service” trim and shave. Meanwhile, Madonna sat and listened quietly as Nick and Vicky caught King up on all the latest news, including the whereabouts of several old friends and acquaintances. She saw the sadness in his eyes when they told him how several people had passed away. Most died of natural causes, but a few had tragically died young from car crashes, drug overdoses, even murder. This seemed to sadden him greatly. But not all the news was bad. They also relayed how many of his old acquaintances had succeeded in life and moved out of the neighborhood. There were many marriages, new families and lots of young children, all of which seemed to make him very happy. Over and over he expressed how excited he was about the prospect of seeing this person or that person. He laughed and recounted stories about his old friends and relatives from the neighborhood. He truly seemed in his element, and his usually dark and ominous eyes were beaming with genuine joy.
They shared many stories, but what Madonna found most entertaining were the ones involving King and his group of neighborhood ruffians. She was very much enjoying listening to these humorous anecdotes from his past, but she was an instinctively perceptive person and sensed that Nick and Vicky were holding back, as if there was something they wanted to tell him in private. She also found it peculiar that neither of them brought up the subject of King’s family. Or at least not his immediate family. They spoke of his cousins, even a few aunts and uncles, but there was no mention of his mother, father, or siblings. She also found it interesting that Vicky mentioned in passing that they’d already heard he was home. How was that even possible? She distinctly remembered him telling her that no one knew he was out. Including his family. News couldn’t travel that fast. Or could it? Whatever the case, she knew she was missing part of the story.
After Nick finished giving King the full-service treatment, he invited him back into his office for a private tete-a-tete, leaving Vicky to run the shop and entertain Madonna. Once in his office, Nick dropped into a creaky old swivel chair behind his desk. “Have a seat, giovane amico,” he said, gesturing toward a lone leather chair in front of his desk.
“It’s so good to see you. It seems like so long. You look like a million bucks. That’s a nice suit for a guy who just got out the Big House two days ago.”
King chuckled and sat in the chair, casually flattening the lapels of his suit.
“Yes, well, Grandpa always stressed the importance of appearance. People respect a welldressed man.”
“Sure,” Nick nodded. “In your case that’s true. But most men need more than a fancy suit to command respect.”
“That’s true,” King agreed. “Clothes never make the man. It’s the man who makes the clothes.”
“So… the girl,” Nick said, no longer able to avoid the subject. “Who is she?”
“Just a new friend. Why?”
Nick shrugged. “Just wondering. She’s cute. Sort of reminds me of Contessa at that age.”
King hadn’t heard that name in many years, and just the mere mention of it sent a wave of suppressed emotion surging through him. “Like I said, she’s just a friend,” he said coldly, clearly uncomfortable with the subject. “Sorry, Omnio,” Nick said, realizing he had touched a nerve. “I didn’t mean to—” “I know, Nick,” King interrupted, holding up a hand. “But the past is the past. My
grandfather always said let sleeping dogs lie.”
Nick offered him a fatherly smile. “Yes, of course, bambino. Your grandfather was always smarter than me. I suppose that’s why he was so successful and I’m just a lowly barber.” “So, Niccolo…” King said, leaning back in his chair, looking him in the eye. “What’s on your mind? I can tell you have something to tell me.”
Nick shifted uncomfortably in his chair and seemed to gather his thoughts. “It’s your cousin Dino,” he began slowly, nervously. “He was here, just this morning, waiting for us when we opened the shop. He wanted to know if you’d been in yet.” “I figured as much,” King said, nodding pensively. “That’s how you knew I was home. I was at one of Vito Vitale’s places last night. I’m sure someone passed it along to Sal Finazzo, who reported it to Anthony. So what else did Dino say?”
“He knew you would be coming in for a cut. You know, to catch up on what’s been happening in the neighborhood.”
“That it?” King asked, knowing there was more.
“No,” Nick answered, looking twitchy and apprehensive. “He wanted me to give you a message.”
“Yes. He said your Uncle Leo wants you to go see him at one of his night clubs. His new place. I think it’s called Atlantis. Up in Marine City. Or is it New Baltimore? I can’t remember. But it’s somewhere out that way.”
King studied the old barber, who had always been like a father to him. He was a master at reading people, especially people he knew well, and he sensed that Nick was definitely holding something back.
“That all Dino said?” he asked.
Nick took a deep breath, stood and walked over to an old metal filing cabinet, from which he removed two shot glasses and a dusty old bottle of grappa, Sicilian moonshine. After pouring each of them a shot, he set one on the desk in front of King.
“Here, paisan, drink,” he said, returning to his seat. “You’re a grown man now. We can all use a stiff drink once in a while.”
King glanced at the glass but didn’t move. “A stiff drink often precedes bad news,” he said dogmatically. “Tell me, Nick, what else did Dino say?”
Nick pointed at the shot glass. “Drink first,” he insisted.
Mildly annoyed, King gulped down the shot and set the glass back on the desk. He hadn’t drunk in many years, and the effects were almost instant, the strong alcohol immediately warming his chest and stomach. Within seconds he felt the mild rush of euphoria that Nick thought would calm him before the bad news. It didn’t. Nick drained his glass like a seasoned drinker and expelled a satisfied sigh. “Dino is a cocky little bastard,” he declared, a bit more confidence in his voice. “You know I never liked him or Anthony. They were always trouble. And now Dino is just Anthony’s
King furled his brows in annoyance. “Nick, just spit it out. Tell me what Dino said. Have you ever known me to shoot the messenger?”
“No, paisan,” Nick answered, looking relieved, pouring himself another shot.
“You’ve always been a good boy. Very respectful. Nothing like those cousins of yours. They have no respect for anyone.”
Nick’s sun-spotted old hand shook as he poured the moonshine, which made the muscles of King’s jaw flex and quiver as he bit back his anger. Whatever Dino had said or done, it clearly had the old barber shaken. But King did not overtly show his anger. He simply flashed Nick a warm smile “Nick,” he began, leaning forward in his seat, “I have several more stops I need to make today, and I know you have customers to get back to, so no more beating around the bush. Just tell me what Dino said.”
Nick drained his second shot of grappa, the alcohol finally giving him the courage to come right out and say what he had to say. But first, he removed an envelope from his desk and set it between them. “He gave me this,” he said, staring at the envelope like it was toxic.
King opened the envelope and saw it contained twenty $100 bills. “What’s it for?” he asked, setting the envelope back on the desk.
“Information,” Nick answered matter-of-factly. “He wants me to call him if I hear anything about what you’re up to. He also wanted me to give you a warning. You can’t do anything without Anthony’s permission. He told me to tell you that things have changed since you’ve been gone.”
King’s eyes suddenly looked cold and menacing, his face flush with anger. “Well, next time you see Dino, you tell that little fuckin’ canooda I said to go fuck himself. I don’t need Anthony’s permission for anything. He’s not my boss. Never has been. Never will be. I work for myself. If he has a problem with that, tell him to take it up with Gino Salestro in New York.”
Nick held up his hands as if warding off a blow. “Hey, you said you wouldn’t shoot the messenger. I’m just relaying what he told me. You’ve always been like a son to me. Vicky feels the same way. Don Falcone was always good to us. He helped us open this shop over thirty-five years ago, and he always made sure we were protected. I cut your daddy’s hair before you were even born. Vicky went to school with your mother.” He pointed at the envelope of money. “I don’t want that. I’m not going to tell that little weasel shit. Your business is your business, Omnio. If I hear anything, you know I would never repeat a word of it. Not to him or anyone else.”
“Yes, I know this, Nick,” King said, genuine affection in his eyes. “I trust you completely.”
A look of relief appeared on Nick’s face. “Thank you for saying that, Omnio. It means a lot to me. I’m too old to get involved in this type of shit. I’m just an old man who runs a crummy old barbershop. I’ve never worked for your family. I run a legitimate business. Your uncles, cousins, they’ve tried many times to get me to run numbers out of here. Or host poker and dice games in the basement. But I never wanted any part of that. I know it pissed them off, but they left me alone because I was friends with your grandfather, God rest his soul. Now that your grandfather is gone, the only reason Leoni doesn’t bother me is…” He gestured toward the window behind him. “Look out there. The neighborhood has gone to shit. Nobody cares anymore. The melanzani don’t take care of their homes. They steal anything that isn’t bolted down. They sell drugs right on the streets. They kill each other over pennies. Druggies walk around the neighborhood like zombies. And the cops don’t do shit. Your grandfather would’ve never let this happen. He loved this neighborhood. But Leoni? Anthony? They don’t give a shit. They say there’s no money left down here, so they let the blacks turn it into a wasteland like the rest of the city. That’s why everyone left. All the old families are gone. Five years ago, when we sold our house, we barely made enough to put a down payment on a little ranch out in St. Clair Shores. Now we have a big mortgage we can barely afford. But at least we don’t need bars on our windows or have to worry about waking up to find our car stolen.”
He paused to take a deep breath and force down his rising anger. He was tempted to pour himself another shot but decided two was enough. “Anyway…” he continued, forcing away thoughts of his dying neighborhood. “What was I supposed to do? I know Anthony sent Dino. If I didn’t take the money and agree to help, I’d come to work tomorrow and find my shop burned to the ground. I mean, I know this place isn’t much, but it’s all I got. A few more years and we’ll have our house paid off. Then we’ll retire and maybe buy one of those fancy motor home deals. You know, the kind we can live in.” He grinned as he pictured his lifelong dream. “We want to drive around the country, see the sites, enjoy our old age, do what retired people are supposed to do.” Feeling a deep sense of love and affection for the old barber, King stepped around the desk and embraced him in a hug. “Paisan, I’m sorry for snapping at you. You and Vicky were always good to my mother and me. Let me get on my feet and I will see what I can do to help.”
Nick gave him a firm embrace and stepped back to look him in the eye. “I won’t tell Dino anything, Omnio. I swear it on the Blessed Mary.”
“I know you won’t,” King said, setting a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Next time you see him, just tell him I dropped by to get a cut and catch up on the neighborhood gossip.”
“I will,” Nick said, then thought of King’s nefarious uncle. “But will you go see Leo?”
“Eventually. He’ll want to know what my plans are. Not that I’ll need to tell him, since I’m sure he’ll have his guys watching every move I make.”
Nick looked at him nervously. “I hear that he’s not well, Omnio. I hear some of the others in the community are not happy with him.”
“Yes, I’ve also heard that. But he has orders to leave me alone.”
“I doubt it.”
Nick snatched the envelope off the desk and held it out to him. “Take this. I don’t want it.”
King pushed the envelope back to him. “Keep it. Use it toward your mortgage. Take your grandkids to Disney Land. Whatever. It’s yours.”
Nick thrust the envelope back at him, switching to Italian for emphasis, a habit that many Italians did when upset. “Take the money, Omnio! I know you need it. For Christ’s sake, you just got out of prison. Suck up your pride for once and take the money. If you need more, you come see me. By no means am I a rich man, but I have a few dollars in the bank. What’s mine is yours. We may not be sangue, but you have always been like a son to me and Vicky. We were devastated when you went away. We’re thrilled to have you home. You’ll always be part of our family.”
King could tell the alcohol was making the old barber emotional, but he also knew that Nick would be offended if he didn’t take the money. So, reluctantly, he took the envelope and slid it into his inside pocket. “Thank you, Niccolo,” he said, also switching to Italian. “You’re a good man and a good friend.”
Nick beamed with genuine love and affection. “And you are a good man, Omnio. Which reminds me, have you gone to see Giovanni yet?”
King grinned at the thought of his faithful protettore. “Actually, he’s next on my list of stops.”
“Does he even know you’re home?”
“I doubt it,” King shrugged. “They don’t keep him in the loop. Anthony never liked him because of me.”
“And because of Pamela,” Nick added with a chuckle. “Yes,” King nodded, also chuckling. “And Pamela.”
“Well, that explains why they got him peddling puttane from that dive he runs…”
After a few more minutes of casual banter, they returned to the front of the shop to find Vicky cutting the hair of a young woman while finishing up what must have been a particularly funny story, because Madonna was listening with rapt attention and a broad smile on her face.
“What’s so funny?” King asked.
Madonna winked at Vicky. “Oh, she was just telling me how you once hung your cousin’s bike in the tree out front. That wasn’t very nice of you.”
King grinned, remembering the day quite well. He was no more than 12. A hot summer day. He and his crew of neighborhood ruffians had been hanging out at the billiards hall next door all afternoon. After a few hours of video games, they stepped outside to sit on the front stoop and wisecrack on random passersby while munching on penny candy from old man Gus’ liquor store across the street. They were enjoying the mid-summer weather, lounging in the sun, laughing and having a good old time when his younger cousin, Anthony Gianolla, showed up on a new bicycle, bragging about how it was better than everybody else’s bike. This irked King, because even at a young age he hated a braggart. So when Anthony ran inside Gus’ store to buy some candy and ice cream, King decided to play a little joke on him. It wasn’t easy, but with much effort he hauled Anthony’s bike up into the old Dutch elm out front. About twenty feet up he hung it on a limb so it dangled precariously over the street. When Anthony came out and noticed his bike was missing, he broke into a panicked fit of tears, even dropping his ice cream on the ground. King and his crew roared with laughter and thought it was hilarious. They laughed even harder when Anthony began demanding they tell him who stole his bike. They howled with laughter until King finally ended the ruse by pointing up in the tree. Anthony was furious and promised to tell his father. King thought nothing of it at the time, but the incident ended up being the beginning of a rift in their relationship that would escalate in the years to come. At the time, it was just a silly adolescent prank, but he now remembered how his grandfather had scolded him for it in front of his uncle Leoni, Anthony’s father, but then later pulled him aside and told him Anthony had it coming for bragging about his bike. Knowing he had a few hours to burn before he could make his final stop of the day, King decided to treat Madonna to a nice dinner. So after a final hug from Nick and Vicky, he had her drive him to one of his favorite restaurants in the city, an obscure little steakhouse on Gratiot Avenue called Capers, where steak was sold by the ounce. He knew the old couple who owned the place, and asked for them upon being seated. Just as he expected, they were both there and delighted to see him. Like everyone else, they refused to take his money, insisting his bill was on the house.
Madonna had no inhibitions when it came to eating. She was small, but loved to eat. So she ordered a 16-ounce sirloin with a baked potato that turned out to be the biggest potato she had ever seen. In fact, everything seemed bigger at Capers. Even the glasses were twice the normal size. She was utterly amazed by the amount of food King was able to eat. He devoured a 48-ounce porterhouse, which was by far the biggest steak she had ever seen. He even had a salad, breadsticks, two massive glasses of milk, and a piece of pecan pie for dessert. She decided it must be all those muscles that needed so much fuel. Either that or he had a tapeworm.
It was after 7:00pm by the time they finished dinner, so King decided it was time to make his final stop of the day—Duchess Gentlemen’s Club, a seedy strip joint located on the corner or Duchess Street and 7 Mile Road. But when they got there, the valet booth was empty and looked as if it hadn’t been used in years. Yet the parking lot was surprisingly full. He had Madonna park in an empty space reserved for handicapped drivers, and when he stepped from the car he noted several expensive sports cars and luxury sedans parked in the dark alley behind the building. They looked oddly out of place in this rough neighborhood, and one of them in particular caught his attention. A brand new Cadillac CTS. Black. Tinted windows. Sparkling clean and polished to mirrored perfection. He knew exactly who it belonged to.
As they made their way to the front door, Madonna glanced around nervously. Though she worked in Detroit, she’d never been in a real ghetto. Not like this. The building directly next door was boarded up and covered with graffiti. The building next to that was completely burned down. A stray dog was wandering aimlessly around in its overgrown parking lot, sniffing at piles of garbage. Standing on a corner across the street were what could only be a pair of professional prostitutes. A gang of boisterous black teenage boys walked by shouting derogatory expletives at the hookers, who returned a series of rapidfire expletives of their own.
“Nice neighborhood,” she joked, easing up closer to him.
“Yeah, real highfalutin,” he quipped, holding the front door open for her. As soon as they stepped into the entry foyer, they were met by a large black bouncer wearing a tight black T-shirt that read “SECURITY” in bold white letters.
“I.D.,” the bouncer said stoically, sizing King up.
King tried to disarm him with an amiable smile. “I’m looking for Giovanni.”
Again the bouncer scrutinized him suspiciously. “You a cop?”
“No,” King chuckled, amused by the irony of the question. “I’m definitely not a cop.”
The bouncer narrowed his eyes at him. “Vonni ain’t here.”
King remembered the CTS parked in the back alley. He had given Vonni his first car, a black Cadillac CTS, and Vonni had driven one ever since, buying a new one every year. It was his trademark. “Are you sure?” he asked, looking the bouncer in the eye.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” the bouncer replied smugly.
King glanced up at a security camera on the wall. It was trained right on them.
“Why don’t you check and make sure. I saw his car parked out back.”
The bouncer folded his arms over his chest. “I told you, man, he ain’t here. So if you’re coming in, I need to see some I.D.”
King’s eyes went from patient and amiable, to cold and menacing. “I don’t have any I.D.,” he said, motioning up toward the camera. “But if you tell Vonni I’m here, I’m sure he’ll vouch for me.”
The bouncer’s hardline conviction suddenly began to waver. There was something he didn’t like about this guy. It was his eyes. They meant business. They screamed danger. They guy could be a detective. Or worse, a close friend of Vonni’s. And it was never good to piss off the boss, or his friends. So, reluctantly, he stepped into an adjacent coat-check closet and snatched a house phone off the wall.
Giovanni “Vonni” Battaglia, a lithe and muscular man with an intrinsically bad temper, was in his basement office, barely an hour into his regular Saturday night poker game when he heard his phone trilling on his desk. As the game’s host, it was his job to make sure that everyone was happy and things ran smoothly. For over an hour he’d been intently watching his five players, each of them seated at a felt-covered octagon poker table, stacks of cash and chips piled in front of them. Cuban cigars smoldered in ashtrays, filling the air with pungent gray smoke. A scantily clad cocktail waitress scurried about, serving them complimentary drinks. Each player was completely focused on their cards, their expressions blankly indifferent as they donned their best poker faces.
When the phone continued trilling, Vonni felt his anger rising. His staff knew better than to interrupt him during these weekly games. They had been instructed to never interrupt his games unless the building itself was on fire. He had good reason for not wanting to be interrupted. Sometimes his games would last all night, and on a good night they would net him upwards of $10,000 in profit. Even though tonight’s players were by no means high rollers, they had money to lose. One of them was a gambling addict who owned several local businesses. Two were mid-level drug dealers. One was an executive at Chrysler. And one was a particularly adept safe-cracker who had just hit a major score.
Vonni hosted such games three Saturdays a month for his boss Anthony, but this was his personal game, which he hosted every third Saturday of the month. It was his bread and butter, when he earned nearly half his monthly income. And he needed tonight’s players to start betting big if he was going hit his $10,000 goal. But some of the players were already getting frustrated. The businessman was catching all the cards. Barely an hour into the game and he was already up $40,000. Annoyed by the interruption, Vonni finally snatched the phone off his desk. “How come I don’t smell smoke?” he growled into the phone. “Because I thought I told you never to bother me unless the place is on fire.”
“There’s some guy up here asking for you,” the doorman replied.
“Really, Terrance? This is why you interrupt me? There’s a guy at the door asking for me? Who the hell is he? The fuckin’ president?”
“Didn’t say. But if you ask me he looks like a cop. Big guy. About your age. Nice suit. He’s got some little white chick with him.”
“Well, I don’t give a shit who he is. I’m not expecting anyone so get rid of him. Tell him I’m out of town or something. If he’s a cop, give him our best booth and comp his first drink. And…”
He was about to give the doorman a stern warning about not interrupting him again, when a sudden thought occurred to him. He had security cameras monitoring the whole place, including the entry foyer. When he turned and looked at the bank of security monitors behind his desk, he saw the guy his bouncer was referring to. The footage was grainy, and at first he didn’t recognize him, but then he focused on the little monitor and was barely able to believe who he was looking at.
“Unbelievable,” he mumbled under his breath.
“What’s that, boss?” the doorman asked, confused.
“That’s goddamn King Falcone!” Vonni blurted.
“Who?” asked the doorman, not recognizing the name.
Vonni ignored the question and began barking out orders. “Take him up to the bar. Comp him anything wants. Then wait five minutes and send him down with Bruno.”
“Down to your office?” the doorman asked, even more confused. “Don’t you got a game going on down there?”
Nothing infuriated Vonni more than having his subordinates question his orders.
“What the fuck did I tell you?” he boomed into the phone. “Get it done. Give me five minutes and send him down.”
“Yeah, I got you, boss. Five minutes. I’ll send him down.”
With a distant look in his eyes, Vonni set the phone down and stepped over to the poker table. “Gentlemen, I’m sorry, but this will be your last hand of the night. Something’s come up that requires my immediate attention.”
One of the drug dealers, a heavyset black named Devon, jumped to his feet.
“That’s bullshit, Vonni,” he spat angrily. “I don’t care what came up, you gotta give me a chance to win my money back.”
Vonni gave him a genuinely apologetic look. “Devon, I’m sorry but these things happen. You’ll just have to win it back next time.”
Devon glanced at the businessman, who had nearly $20,000 of his money stacked in front of him. “Fuck that shit, man. I ain’t leavin’ till I get a chance to win my cake back!”
Vonni made a discrete motion toward the two massive sentries posted by the door, both of whom immediately stepped behind the disgruntled card player. “I’m sorry, Devon,” he said, offering him a threatening glare. “This is my game and I make the rules. I decide when the game is over. And tonight’s game is over. But if you all agree, we’ll resume this game next Saturday night?”
The players looked up at the two behemoth sentries, both of whom were wearing shoulder-holstered automatics. They knew Vonni was not the type of guy to play with. He said what he meant and meant what he said. The continuance of the game was not up for debate. So all of them but Devon agreed to come back next Saturday.
“So, Devon…” Vonni said, offering him a forced smile. “Will you be joining us next Saturday?”
Devon glanced back at the two armed sentries and knew he had no choice. The only people permitted to carry weapons in Vonni’s club were Vonni’s men. Period. Everyone else was subject to a hand-held metal detector at the front door. Also, attendees of his poker games were thoroughly frisked before being allowed to sit at the table. At least two armed bouncers remained posted by the door at all times, and tonight’s two bouncers were currently staring down at him with cold malice in their eyes. “This is bullshit, Vonni,” Devon grumbled, a defeated look on his face, snatching his leather jacket off the back of his chair. “I’m down almost twenty fuckin’ grand and you kick me out?”
Vonni splayed his hands apologetically. “I’m sorry, Devon. I really am. But this isn’t a casino. This is my game. I make the rules. Sometimes these things hap—” The door to the office swung open, interrupting him mid-sentence, and he could barely believe who he was looking at. “Gentlemen, again, I apologize for cutting tonight’s game short. Please come back next week and we’ll resume where we left off. As a consolation, I won’t cut the first ten pots.”
Having no choice, the frustrated players donned their coats, gathered their cash and chips, and began making their way from the office. But as they went, they glanced at the new arrival, wondering who he was, knowing he was surely the reason their game had ended so abruptly.
When the players were all gone, Vonni locked eyes with King and knew his life was about to change forever. “Benvenuti a casa, fratello,” he said in Italian, holding his arms out. “They said it couldn’t be done but the don still had a few tricks up his sleeve, eh?”
As they held each other in a long embrace, Madonna noticed that both of them had tears in their eyes, and both were so choked up they could barely speak.
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