I watched her as she wrapped her lips around the cigarette again. The tip glowed cherry, bathing her pale skin momentarily with the light of the fire that burns down below. Fair warning, if you’re into that Sunday School stuff. The glow faded but my feeling that this was not going to be an ordinary job stuck with me like a long needle just brushing the skin at the base of my skull. Best to move forward then.
“What sort of help?” I asked.
She gestured toward the darkness out of which she had risen. “May we speak in private?”
I looked at the shlubs lining the bar. Not much danger there. Still, she was my meal ticket and the booze wouldn’t be too far away. I gestured for her to lead the way. Before she turned she called out to Jake, “Another Scotch for Mr. Lowell, and another Manhattan for myself. Not so much Vermouth this time.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jake said in the most polite voice I had ever heard him use. “I’ll bring ’em on over to ya.”
She flashed him a smile. “Thanks, Jake.” Jake smiled back. His face, surprisingly, was capable of the expression without cracking. She turned and swept into the booth in the farthest, darkest corner.
Among a certain type that booth is legendary. It’s the booth where Louie the Skunk shook hands with Precinct Captain O’Malley, giving Louie Control of a large slice of Midtown, the booth where Six Finger Frankie proposed to a dancer named Lorraine before she took off with Old Ed in Frankie’s car, and it’s the booth where Lumpy Gannett accidentally shot himself twelve times with his revolver. There’s a mystique surrounding that booth, and it repels those who don’t belong. Maybe the faint smell of corruption and blood speaks to some part of the human animal, pushing them away. If she noticed it she was unaffected.
I settled myself across from her in that booth and our drinks weren’t far behind. She sipped her drink delicately and nodded, dismissing the hovering Jake. I took a sip of my own hooch. “What can I do for you, Miss…?” I finally asked.
“Fanutti. Lola Fanutti. You may have heard of my late husband.”
The excellent Scotch turned sour in my mouth. Everyone had heard of Vittorio Fanutti. Until last winter when they hoisted his car from the icy East River with Fanutti still and blue in the back seat. The papers had carried it on the front page with lurid photos. Fanutti had walked the tightrope between legitimacy and the underworld; he had money and he was using the money to buy power. He planned to be mayor one day and what he wanted he usually got. People weren’t so worried about where a man’s dough came from in those days, as long as he spent it.
When Fanutti got hitched to a girl from out of town there was much talk but not much substance. She seemed to appear from out of nowhere, and the courtship was brief. The wedding was a spectacle, with all the big shots from the East Coast in attendance. Everyone wanted to know who the girl was. The rumor Fanutti denied loudly every chance he got was that she was a Contessa from the old country down on her luck. He denied it just often enough to make sure most people thought the story was true. I’d seen per picture in the society pages and I had heard that she was a real looker, but nothing prepared me for the real thing. She was a lady, all right, but she was no Contessa.
I sat across looking at Mrs. Fanutti and I knew I was out of my league. That the man had been connected there was no doubt. If she was coming to me that meant she didn’t want any of her former husband’s associates involved, which meant they weren’t going to be happy about whatever it was she wanted me to do.
I have two rules in life: know who the boss is and don’t make the boss mad. I kissed San Francisco goodbye, at least for another day. At least I’d gotten a couple of drinks out of her first.
“You’re about to tell me you can’t help me,” she said. The Kentucky in her voice got a bit stronger as the Manhattan reached her head.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I have a fondness for my shoes.”
“Yeah, I prefer them to the cement kind. Especially when I’m swimming.”
“You haven’t even heard what I need you to do.”
“It doesn’t matter, sister. Not with the sharks you have swimming in your pool.”
“Please, Mr. Lowell. It can’t hurt you to at least have another drink and listen.”
I wasn’t so sure she was right, but she had a persuasive way about her.
Tune in next time for the conclusion of: The Widow’s Tale!