Alice was not alone when I got back to the office. There was a man standing on the far side of the room, as far from her desk as possible, whom she skewered with a venomous look for my benefit as I walked in. She didn’t like him.
I couldn’t blame her. He was a big man with a broad face, his heavy-lidded eyes almost bulged over a nose that had been broken more than once. His tailored suit was straining around the middle but it was the bulge from the shoulder holster that got my attention. One of his scarred hands was never far from it, as if he thought there would be a quick-draw contest. If there was, he would certainly have the advantage; my gat was in the safe in the next room.
“There’s another one inside,” Alice said. “Even worse. This one’s just stupid.”
“Watch it, sister,” he growled.
Alice looked back at me. “You OK?” she asked. “I heard there was some trouble.”
That girl could hear cockroaches whispering secrets from across the city. “You don’t have to worry about me,” I said, but I was glad she did. “You know how it is: when it rains it pours. So who is it in there?”
“He didn’t give his name. He’s not a very polite man.” She raised her voice on the last part, to make sure she could be heard through the glassed door. “He said he had some work for you.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’d rather starve.” You gotta admire the spunk in that girl, even though it was sure to get her into trouble someday.
I didn’t want to go in there. I needed time to sort things out, just me and the bottle hanging heavy in my coat pocket. If you don’t stop and think sometimes you get sloppy. I took a breath. “Hold my calls, Doll,” I said. “And don’t antagonize this guy. If he’s as dumb as you say he might try to shut you up. It would cost him plenty, but morons are like that.” He took a step toward me, his face turning purple. “Easy, Boss,” I said, holding up my hands, “Just having a little fun”
“I don’t like your fun.”
“I didn’t ask you to. I didn’t ask you to come in here at all. If you’re going to stay in here bothering my secretary, then take your hat off and sit down like a civilized gentleman.” I gestured to the chair we used on the odd occasion when a client came in. We’d put them in the chair for a few minutes to make them think I was a busy man. He hesitated. “Take a load off, relax,” I said. “We’re all friends here.” The oaf had been taking orders all his life; all I had to do was sound like I was in charge and he buckled. The look he gave me said that he disagreed about us being friends. The chair groaned under his weight. I turned to Alice. “If he bothers you any more, tell him to wait in the hall,” I said.
I was just stalling, I knew. I was dealing with the insignificant problem, the one I knew I could handle, while the real danger waited in the next room. I could turn and leave, skip town and keep running the way I had told Lola Fanutti to run, but I knew that my best escape route included one more visit to the safe in the next room. I couldn’t turn yellow in front of Alice, anyway, even if yellow was the same as smart. I pulled out the bottle and shed my coat. A bottle of liquor in my hand would perhaps disarm my guest, and it was the best weapon I could put my hands on at the moment.
I turned and walked with what I hoped looked like confidence to the door and stepped through.
He was seated in the client chair, facing my desk, legs crossed, savoring a thin cigar. The smoke rose in a thin trail, feeding a layer of haze in the room that filled the cieling but stopped just short of the top of his slick black hair. If Lola Fanutti smelled like money, this man smelled like power. The kind of power that doesn’t even need money, transcends it, the kind of power that simply has to ask for what it wants and expects to be satisfied. If money is an issue, someone else will pay.
“Mr. Cello,” I said. He didn’t stand so I went straight around the desk and sat in my chair. It was subtly taller, but with Cello that didn’t matter.
I had never met Cello before, and I had never seen a photograph, but this couldn’t be anyone else. Presidents had kissed this man’s ass. He was about as close to a King of the World as there was likely to ever be. Sure, there might be some bankers over in Europe somewhere who were more powerful, but they would shun the title, preferring to remain “friends of the king”. Cello had been born in the Bronx, with nothing but a keen business sense and ruthless efficiency. He was the biggest shark in the pool. In the ocean. He’d managed to stay on top for a long time, even as the feds trumpeted victory over so-called “crime bosses”. The man sitting in my office was the boss of the bosses.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Lowell,” he said in an easy, conversational voice.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” I asked.
“Your secretary,” he said. “I like her. You are very lucky.”
“Sooner or later she’ll come to her senses.”
“When she does, give her my card.” He flipped a heavy white card onto my desk. It shone against the dingy oak.
“I don’t think she likes you.”
He laughed softly. “I need more people who are not afraid of me,” he said. “Which brings me to why I’m here. You have recently accepted a new client who I know very well. Better than you, certainly. I’m sure her story, while touching and plausible, was not entirely accurate. A complex woman, Mrs. Fanutti. One thing she likely told you is certainly true, however; she holds the key to vast wealth and power. Vast enough that even I find it interesting. The fact that she killed a man who was like a son to me motivates me further.”
“You’re wrong about two things,” I said.
“First, Alice is too smart not to be afraid of you. Second, I didn’t take the job.”
“Interesting. Perhaps I misspoke before. I need people who can be honest with me, even if they are afraid. Your… Alice? She has that courage. You said no?”
“I told Mrs. Fanutti that what she asked wouldn’t work.”
He smiled, and took a slow pull on his cigar. The smoke billowed in twin plumes from his nostrils, then slowly rose into the cloud above. “She is subtle,” he said. “You will work for her, and not because I say so. She will make you want to help her. I wish I had that kind of power over men.” He shrugged. “But that is woman, no? Let me tell you a little more about her.”
Tune in next time for: The Black Widow!