The city lights danced past the windows, like fireflies flitting through the rain-soaked air. They caught and distorted in the droplets on the glass, their yellow glows bulging and dying. The city itself moved at a more sedate pace, wandering idly past the auto windows as if on an evening stroll, or in Carrada’s case, an evening prowl.
Joe leaned back in a seat pretending it was leather and passed the brim of his hat nervously through his hands as it balanced on his knee. Soft fingers clasped around his other hand and squeezed. He looked over and the breath fled his chest like a bank robber whose water gun just squirted. He remembered why he’d been looking out the window. When he looked at her, he couldn’t think; his mind turned to mush. He looked her over, trying to think what his mother could possibly find to criticise. He came up blank, but his ma was a pro.
“Take a breath Joe, we don’t want you keeling over before dinner,” she said. “I swear, you’re more nervous than I am.”
“That’s because you don’t know my mother. You wait until your second cab ride over there; we’ll have to lock the doors to stop you bailing on the bridge.”
“She can’t be that bad.”
He mulled this over.
“No, she’s a doll. When you get to know her, I mean. When you really get to know her.”
“You’re just trying to scare me and it’s not going to work.”
She pouted out her lips in that way of hers and Joe couldn’t keep the smile off of his. She’d do just fine. A glance out the window told him it was time. He reached forward and tapped the driver’s headrest.
“Anywhere here, buddy.”
Betty looked at him askew.
“This is the place?”
Joe fought back a laugh, looking through the windows at the fine stone buildings around them.
“This? I wish. We got a bit of a walk. Fifteen minutes. Twenty tops.”
“Twenty minutes? Joe, it’s raining. Why don’t we take the cab to the door?”
“Take the cab into Eastpoint?” Joe asked. “And here I thought you liked that purse. And I was sure the driver liked his rims.”
“It can’t be that bad.”
He didn’t answer but stuffed a couple of bills into the driver’s hand and got out the car. He jogged around to the other side and splashed down the curb to open Betty’s door. She passed her umbrella out with a baleful look and he held it over her as she wetted her good shoes in the gutter.
“Trust me, it’s that bad.”
He took her arm in his and led her into Eastpoint. The rain was really coming down now and, walking through the wet darkness of the night, he was starting to regret sparing the driver’s rims. His jacket was soaking through and mud was splashing on to the upturns of his trousers. His left shoulder and ear were pretty dry but he didn’t have the balls to force his way further under the umbrella after making Betty walk into town. There were no streetlights here to guide them, no illuminated shop fronts or glowing front windows. The streets were dark, and far-off sounds found their ears with a whispered threat. Eastpoint had always had that undercurrent. A trace of violence in the air. Joe’s right hand twitched a little towards his gun and he pulled Betty closer as he quickened their pace.
The walk was short though and they turned on to their street with no problems. Their nice clothes got a couple of sideways looks from the few people they met on their way in, but Joe wasn’t a little guy and he was from the town after all. He sent them off with a glare. They came to the door and knocked. They didn’t have to wait long before it flew open and they were pulled inside.
“Oh! Come in, Come in! What are you doing out there? You’ll catch your death!”
Mary Fortey was a small woman. Her figure was rounded and her face was lined, her grey-blonde hair pulled into old woman-curls. Her energy, however, was unchecked by her age and she buzzed around the hall, fussing and fidgeting, pulling at collars and inspecting them like they were entrants at a dog show.
“What are we doing? Ma, we were standing at the door. It’s established etiquette, you know. People have been doing it for thousands of years.”
“Established etiquette, he says! Standing at the door. What is this, the mayor’s office? Just come in.” She grasped Joe by the arms and gave him a squeeze, looking at him indulgently. “Oh, Joey, how are you? Let me look at you. You’re looking a little pinched, are you eating?”
“Yeah, I’m eating, Ma. I’ve grasped that basic biological function, alright.”
“Hey, I’m your mother, I can’t worry about you? And you must be Betty. Joey was right, you are beautiful.”
She smiled warmly at Betty but Joe saw her inspecting gaze flick over her. His ma meant well, she really did, but it would take a hell of a woman to be good enough for her boys.
“Thank you for having me, Mrs. Fortey. Your home is so lovely.”
“Oh, it’s a mess,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “But come in, don’t just stand there.”
She bustled into the dining room and Joe and Betty followed after shedding their coats.
“It’s good to meet you at last. Joe has told me so much about you,” said Betty.
She was stood with that awkward air of someone meeting a partner’s parents for the first time. Her posture was stiff and closed, hands clasped in front of her like a little girl standing outside the principal’s office. Joe slipped his hand into hers.
“And don’t you believe a word of it!” Mary said, swatting at Joe. “I swear, the way this boy talks about his ma sometimes. It’s like I’m a monster or something.”
“Nothing but good things, Ma,” Joe replied, putting an arm round her shoulders. “Who could say a word against you?”
He bent down and kissed her on the cheek and she laughed with a gentle pat on his face.
“Oh, he’s a good boy, really. He looks after me. Sends me money, flowers on my birthday. Not like his brother.”
“I buy you flowers all the time, Ma.” The response was shouted from the lounge, but he joined them in the dining room as he talked. “I’m stockpiling them is all. I’m saving them for your funeral.”
He offered a smile and a nod to Betty and Joe. He was dressed casually, in loose trousers, braces and a vest and he had the easy manner of a man who always felt at home.
“You see how he treats me?” Mary said to Betty. “Quit showing off, Michael and get the gabagool. Two boys I got, Betty. One is my handsome detective in the big city, all successful and living right. Then I got this one, who wears a vest to Sunday dinner.”
“Well it’s good to meet you, Michael.”
“Yeah, good to meet you too. You seem nice. Not like the girl he brought back last week. And the one the week before, God!”
Michael grinned at Joe, who rolled his eyes.
“What a thing to say!” their mother piped up. “Apologise to your brother.”
“Come on, Ma. It was a joke.”
“If only you could bring a nice girl home,” Mary continued.
“I bring back plenty of nice girls.”
“Nice girls! I had to scrub the chairs after the last one. I had to turn Jesus around. I didn’t want him to look on me with someone like that in my house.”
Joe was happy to see Jesus still looking into the dining room from his place on the wall. If anyone could keep his gaze throughout the meal it would be Betty, but you never knew with his ma.
“You know she didn’t appreciate that, Ma,” said Michael.
“She was kinda asking for it with what she said about Ma’s meat loaf, Mikey,” said Joe. “Nice girl is pushing it.”
“Yeah, well. She was real nice to me.”
“Not after Ma was done with her. I thought she was gonna throw her out the dining room window.”
“She woulda if she didn’t hate the draft.”
“Don’t you listen to these boys, Betty,” Mary cut across them with a glare and a couple of swipes of a dish towel. “They have no respect for their mother. Now set the table the two of you. Betty, would you help me in the kitchen?”
“Oh, of course,” she replied with a glance back at Joe. “What would you like me to do?”
Mary led her into the kitchen and Joe and Michael were left together in the dining room. Michael took a seat, throwing his feet on to another chair after glancing to check his mother had truly left.
“You’re letting her go alone with Ma?” he asked.
“I’m gonna say no to Ma? What am I, going for the Medal of Honor?”
Michael surrendered the point with an upraised hand.
“Seems like a nice girl,” he said.
“Yeah, she is.”
“Fucking killer legs.”
Joe threw him a look, pulling out a chair for himself. “Don’t push it.”
Joe loved his brother but he was like a dog with a bone around women. He wouldn’t be letting him alone with Betty anytime soon. They made casual conversation before the door to the kitchen swung open again. Michael’s legs dropped from the chair like the floor had been magnetised but it was Betty who walked into the room, smiling a knowing smile at his brother.
“Your mother wants you to help her bring the dishes,” she said to him.
Michael nodded and got up with a curse. Betty slid into the chair beside Joe.
“How was she?” he asked.
“It was fine,” she reassured him. “You worry too much. I can handle myself, you know.”
“She didn’t say anything?”
“She mighta said a little something about the, er, substances I have to handle as a nurse. But I’m used to it. I just wish she hadn’t said it while I was elbow deep in stuffing.”
“Nothing about your dress?”
“My dress?” Her eyebrow crooked upwards. “She said she liked it. Why, is there something wrong with this dress, Fortey?”
“Are you kidding?” Joe replied. “I love this dress. I can’t stop thinking about it.”
“Shut up,” she said and pushed him playfully away.
“I’m serious! Me and the boys talk about nothing else at the station. I wear it myself on Thursday nights, while you’re at work.”
“Now that I’d pay to see.”
“Ma usually can’t resist saying something, though. She must actually like you.”
“Usually, huh? How many girls you brining back here, Joe?” she asked and Joe had to squint to make sure she was playing. “Maybe Michael wasn’t kidding after all.”
“Yeah, actually I got another one coming after this so we better get this moving.”
Betty didn’t have time to reply before the kitchen door swung again and Mary and Michael walked in with the food.
“This looks great, Ma,” Joe said as it was laid down in front of him.
“It does. It smells delicious, Mrs. Fortey.”
Betty was a treasure; a beautiful thing in all ways Joe thought mattered. All ways but one – she was no cook. His mouth watered and his stomach growled like a jumpy mutt as he smelled those juices, whispering up in the smoke.
“Thank you Betty,” he heard his ma say. “Would you like to say grace?”
She did and Joe muttered along while his hand twitched like a trigger-happy cowboy. His ma and Betty both eyed him across the table and he controlled his urges until the prayer was done. Then he attacked his food with gusto.
“You know who I saw today, Joe?” Michael spoke up after a good time of silent gorging.
This got his attention. He hadn’t seen Ray in a long time. Not since he’d left for the city. The two of them had been thick as thieves once, like brothers. But they’d gone their own ways.
“I never liked that boy.”
Joe rolled his eyes.
“Ma, come on!”
“Always in trouble,” she continued, unabashed. “His mother is sick to death. I see her in the market. The things I hear, it makes me grateful.”
She threw up her arms to underline her point and he and Michael shared a glance at the backhanded compliment. From their mother, they’d take it.
“You know, Ray quit school just to look after her after his dad died, Ma,” he argued. “She was always hard on him. He’s a good guy.”
“You don’t see the people he goes around with, Joey. Always a bad one, he was,” his mother said. “You remember where he led you, don’t you, Joseph? Principal Matthews’ typewriter, stealing, lying to me about it.”
Eight years and his mother’s voice still chilled like an Acrtic winter whenever she said the word’s Principal Matthews’ Typewriter. And Joe still felt his stomach twist and knot like a little boy at the sound.
“Yeah, I remember, Ma. My ass is still sore.”
“Language,” she said, swatting the air because he was too far to reach.
“That was a long time ago. He was sorry about that, we both were. I don’t even know what he’s doing now. We lost touch after he dropped out.”
“He fell in with a bad crowd for a time,” said Michael, ignoring his mother’s look as he chewed through his speech. “Grazzo and his crew, I think. I don’t see him round so much no more. He was wearing a nice suit though. Custom made, Italian. Whoever he’s with, it’s paying him.”
“Whoever he’s with, he says!” Mary exclaimed and her arms flew up once more. “It’s those people, Joey.”
“Come on, Ma. Ray? No way!”
He wouldn’t believe it. Ray was a lot of things but that? No.
“Those people?” Betty asked.
“No one, don’t worry about it,” he said.
“Joey’s right,” his mother agreed. “We’re not talking about it at the dinner table. What Betty must think of us. Joey, tell us about what you’re doing now. My big detective.”
“I can’t really say much, Ma. It’s kinda secret.”
“What are you with the feds now?” said Michael. “They got you working secret missions, Joey”
“Yeah, something like that. And remember, Ma, you can’t say anything about what I do around Eastpoint.”
“What am I, some idiot who can’t keep her mouth shut? I’ve lived here a lot longer than you Joseph.”
“Alright Ma, I’m sorry. I’m just saying.”
Mary’s terse reply was cut off by the sound of wrapping knuckles on wood. The door. Joe raised his eyebrows at this mother and his brother but got nothing back so stood up with caution and a tap at his hip. He walked the distance to the door with his family behind him, traipsing like rats to his piper’s tune. He cracked the door and peaked outside. It was a uniform. Not a cop but some sort of messenger. But anybody could get a messenger’s uniform.
“Let him in will you, Joey. The boy’s freezing out there.”
Joe glanced back at his mother warily but complied, hand hovering near his belt.
“Mr. Joseph Fortey?” he said.
“Yeah, that’s me,” said Joe and he relaxed just a little. No bulge at his hip, no reach to his side.
“We got a call for you down at the post office, Mr. Fortey.”
That was where he knew the uniform. Not a mailman but one of their messenger boys. He let out his breath and nodded his head as his mother gasped behind him.
“A telephone call?” she said, as if she’d never dreamt of such a thing. “Oh, Joey. I am proud of you.”
Joe looked back again to smile and caught his brother rolling his eyes.
“If you’d like to come with me, sir. I’ll take you there,” the messenger chipped in.
“Now?” said his mother, suddenly not so enthused. “We’re having dinner. They can’t wait?”
“They said it was important, sir,” the messenger addressed Joe.
He wasn’t lying. He had that frazzled, slightly manic look of a man who was in a rush but couldn’t admit to it. Someone had spooked him, had torn in to him. Joe knew a certain lieutenant who had a special skill for that sort of thing.
“I’m sorry, Ma, I gotta go take this,” he said. “Betty-”
“Go. I’m fine here. We’re having a nice dinner.”
He nodded gratefully. He was no messenger boy but he wasn’t going to push it with Schwartz either.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
The messenger walked him the short way to the post office in silence, eyes forward but for when he couldn’t help but glance back. Joe knew what he was thinking. He was asking himself who this guy was – what made him such a big shot that he was getting calls and messages? Joe was wondering the same thing.
The messenger left him at the door to the post office with a respectful nod and Joe pushed his way inside. A quick word with a girl at a desk and he was in a booth. He reached for the phone and pulled it to his ear.
“Do you live in fucking China, Fortey? I’ve been waiting an hour.”
Schwartz’s standard greeting. Joe didn’t even get chance to say hello.
“Sorry Lieutenant, I was at dinner.”
Schwartz grunted and that was as close to acceptance as Joe was going to get.
“I got a lead on Bray and you’re gonna follow up on it. You got a pen?”
“Oh, er, yeah. I got one.”
He scrambled for a second and found a pencil and a scrap of paper on the shelf beneath the phone. They knew what they were doing here.
“Frankie’s meeting with Michael Surrone on Wednesday.”
Joe winced a little and glanced around. There was no way anyone could hear them, at least he didn’t think, but he felt exposed out in the open like that. He responded with a whisper.
“The mayoral candidate?”
“How many fucking Michael Surrones are there, Fortey?” Schwartz’s bellowing tone was unchecked. “Shut the fuck up and listen. I think Surrone is in Frankie Bray’s pocket. The guy was nowhere a month ago and now he’s a contender. He’s come into some serious fucking green from somewhere. Some support too.”
That was true enough. Joe had never heard of the guy three weeks ago and now he was everywhere. He was just the kind of guy Frankie would go after too – a real slickster; no past but a dirty appeal. Eastpoint guys and their kind liked him.
“You think he’s mobbed up?”
“No. Frankie’s too smart for that. I don’t trust him as far as I can fucking throw him, though. Half the politicians in this city are bent, but this guy’s a fucking right angle and I’m gonna find out what Frankie wants with him.”
He said it in a way that warranted no reply. It was a statement of fact; Joe liked that about Schwartz.
“So what do you want me to do?”
“Am I interrupting your fucking social life, Fortey? Are you in a hurry? I’m getting to it.” Joe hadn’t interrupted but the point wasn’t worth arguing. He shut his mouth and listened. “They’re meeting at The Carrada Pacific, Wednesday at five. Frankie’s booked the floor so no outside observers. I got a guy over there though and I got you into Surrone’s security detail. Now, Surrone might be a fucking idiot but Frankie’s not; you won’t be in on any secret conversations, but these security guys hear things. Go along, keep your ear to the ground, talk to the other guys about what they know. Whatever you fucking do, don’t get caught doing it. Learn a little subtlety. The department can’t afford another widow’s pension.”
“I’m not married, but I appreciate the concern.”
“Get down to Surrone’s place for three. 102 West Peverell Street, over in Goldwater. You got that?”
He scribbled a note on his paper and stuffed it in his pocket.
“Good. I’ll get you your own piece if you don’t already got one. Don’t take your police issue; Frankie will spot it a mile off.”
“I got one.”
“I knew there had to be something I fucking liked about you, kid. Don’t be late. Oh and wear a violet in your lapel. Frankie likes violets.”
Joe considered questioning this but quickly though better of it. It was an odd request, but Schwartz was a man of odd requests. And every one of them was thought through.
The line died without another word and Joe was left humming to the dial tone. He hooked the receiver back in place and stood for a minute in thought. There was a lot to think about. And then there was more. Glancing around, lost in his thought, he spotted a vision from his past.
Across the hall, stood near a counter, was none other than Ray Moreno, his tall frame decked out in his custom Italian. Joe felt himself freeze in place. He thought back to what his mother had said, about what Schwartz had just told him to do. And then he looked at the men in Ray’s company. One he didn’t recognise, but he knew the type. Middling guy. No gall, no creativity but dependable and safe and mob all the way. He was wearing a suit that was nicer than Ray’s but not as nice as the man to his left. That was the man Joe couldn’t take his eyes off. John Rappalino.
John was close to the big man himself – some said they were like brothers. Whatever the case, he was an important guy. One of the toughest, smartest captains in the mob. No one but Frankie told John what to do. And there was Ray chatting to him like an old poker buddy.
Joe just stood there and watched, not even thinking, unable to take it in. He was stirred into action by the two wiseguys leaving. They clapped Ray on the shoulder and left him alone and, before he could think, Joe was walking towards him. Ray spotted him when he was halfway over and Joe saw his eyes flick to where his new friends had departed.
“Hey Ray,” he said, wrestling a smile on to his face.
“Joe, how you doing?” said Ray, opening his arms in expansive greeting. “Hey, long time since I’ve seen you, buddy.”
“Yeah, long time. How you doing?”
“Pretty good,” he said. “Ma’s been a little sick, but my luck might be starting to change.”
“Glad to hear it,” Joe replied, glancing down at the suit.
“I hear you’re up in the city now. What are you up to?”
Joe cursed his ma. She hadn’t said anything about the police, but he knew she couldn’t resist talking him up to the girls at the market.
“Ah, nothing special. Jobs here and there. Anything’s better than fucking Eastpoint though, right?”
“Right,” Ray agreed, but there was a little something in his eye. “Well, I gotta get going, but it was good seeing you Joe.”
“Yeah, we should get a drink some time.”
He regretted saying it as soon as it left his lips, but Ray accepted it with polite vagueness.
“I’ll hold you to it. See you around.”
Joe nodded and gave Ray’s arm a squeeze before they parted ways. He let Ray get out the door and gave it a few minutes before following him outside. He took the scenic route home, walking like a zombie through feathery drizzle and a tickling wind. Ray in the mob? Sure, he’d gotten into trouble as a kid, they all had, but the mob? Ray had seen what those guys did. They’d promised each other as kids. It seemed trivial now – a grown man, gun weighing heavy as he walked through the rain, but that promise meant something to him. He shook his head. He didn’t want to go against Ray, but if Ray was mob, then that was how it would have to be. It complicated things though. He needed to be careful. He needed to be on his guard like dog in a thunderstorm. He needed to find a place where he could buy a violet.
By Chris Wright
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