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“Drink?” I asked the man sitting across from me. I wondered how long it had been since he’d had to settle for the cheap stuff.
“Thank you, no,” he said. He gestured toward the bottle with his cigar. “But please help yourself.”
I swallowed the “Thank you” before it got out. I had been about to thank him for letting me drink my own booze in my own office. I hoped he didn’t notice my hand tremble as I poured myself a drink. Normally I don’t drink in front of clients, not before I have their money, anyway, but today had been anything but normal.
Like a cornered animal, I tried to take the offensive. “Do you know who pulled the trigger outside Jake’s today?”
I waited for him to elaborate, but apparently he was done. “Do you know who he was shooting at?” No answer. Cello quietly enjoyed his cigar. “Was it me?”
He exhaled a long plume of smoke. “quid pro quo, Mr. Lowell. I have come to give you information, after which you will owe me a favor. I wouldn’t want you to find yourself too far in debt.” He leaned forward and carefully tapped the ashes off his cigar into the ashtray there. A tidy man, Mr. Cello.
I didn’t like the idea of owing Cello anything. “Perhaps it would be best if you didn’t tell me anything, then.”
“I’m afraid that is not an option,” he said carefully. “You will hear what I have to say and you will do what I ask. You needn’t worry, though. I got to where I am by being able to find the deal in which everyone benefits. You need to hear what I have to tell you, and you will want to do what I ask.”
“I’ve been thinking of moving to San Fran. Maybe today’s the day.”
He smiled gently, almost sadly, and slowly shook his head. “It is no longer your choice to make, Mr. Lowell. Mrs. Fanutti has already decided for you. Would you like to know how I got my name?”
“How much would that cost?”
His smile was more genuine this time. A little. “This, Mr. Lowell, I will give you for free. It will help us work together if you understand a little more about me.” His cigar was little more than a stub, but he continued to smoke it rather than light another. A frugal man, as well. The smoke was filling the room now, it seemed, everywhere except where he sat. “The first man I killed was a musician,” he said.
“Don’t be telling me that. There’s no client-attorney privilege here.”
“Another man has already paid the debt to society for that crime,” he said. “The district attorney would not want the embarrassment of admitting his error.”
“I don’t know. That new guy, Jones, seems pretty gung-ho.”
Cello’s face clouded for just a moment before returning to its usual placid serenity. “As I was saying, Mr. Lowell, he was a musician. His instrument was breathtakingly beautiful. It stirred my soul just to look upon it, and I could hear its sweet, sad voice even as it lay silent next to the man. It was of no interest to the men I worked for at the time, so rather than allowing this work of art to languish in an evidence room or be lost to some meaningless inheritance I took it for myself. Every free moment I spent playing, often through my tears, and I became quite good. My associates found humor in this, and gave me my name. But they are all gone, now, Mr. Lowell, while I am still here. It is because of the cello that I have become what I am.”
“It has allowed me to keep my soul, Mr. Lowell, in two ways. One, through the beauty it creates, through the way I feel when I play it. Second, every time I play, I remember that man I killed. I remember his blood. He had been playing when I shot him. I hope to be playing when the bullet finds me.” He shrugged in a surprisingly disarming gesture. “A man has to have a passion, Mr. Lowell, or he will find his life has ended even before he dies.”
I poured myself another glass of passion. As I raised it I looked over the rim at the man sitting across from me, once again neatly cleaning the tip of his cigar stub in the ashtray, concentrating fully on his delicate task. I wondered how many messages were in that story and whether I would ever get them all. “I’ll be sure to catch you next time you’re at the Met,” I said.
“I’ll send you a ticket, should I ever play there,” he said, ignoring my sarcasm. “You can bring your secretary, Alice.” Finally he stubbed out the final remains of his cigar. “But I’m a busy man, as you are about to be as well, so I fear it is time to get down to business. You have probably already concluded that Mrs. Fanutti is not, in fact, an Italian Contessa.”
“Kentucky Contessa would be more like it,” I said.
He chuckled. “Yes, Kentucky Contessa. That is a very fitting label. Vic–Mr. Fanutti–met her while he was arranging the transportation of the quite good bourbon her father was producing. It was somewhat riskier but much more profitable to produce liquor in those days. Apparently Vic was quite swept off his feet by her. It seems he underestimated her. As did I. As did her father. She married Vic and was welcomed into the family. I shared a table with them many times and found Mrs. Fanutti to be intelligent and charming. Eventually she drove her father out of the business, which was fine with me as she proved to be an able business partner, more so than her father had. Eventually her father stepped aside gracefully, and enjoys a peaceful retirement. Her husband did not choose to be pushed aside so easily, and found himself in a car at the bottom of the East River.”
I tried to reconcile this story with the one I’d heard from a frightened woman at Jake’s. There was more to this, I was sure. I had no doubt that if I checked what facts I could in his story they would all be true. Half-truths are the best lies.
“She will be contacting you again. I will not ask you to accept her offer. I don’t need to. I would like you to call this number as you learn more about her activities. In exchange for this information, I will pay you well, and try to keep you alive when the time comes.” He tossed a second card onto my desk. It came to rest perfectly aligned with the first one.
“You want me to double-cross a client?”
“You can wait until she double-crosses you, if you wish. With luck you will still have time to call. Think of that number as an insurance policy, Mr. Lowell. If she never betrays you, you will never have to use it.” He stood, and his perfectly-tailored suit fell into place. I stood as well and still had the advantage of height. Neither of us were fooled into thinking that meant anything. I opened the door for him. He didn’t offer his hand and neither did I. “Good afternoon, Mr. Lowell,” he said.
I had a feeling we would never be on a first-name basis. “So long,” I said. I looked out and saw the big bodyguard stand, still keeping his distance from Alice. “Why did you hire such a dumb bodyguard?” I asked.
This time his smile was real, and cold. “Bruno is full of surprises, Mr. Lowell. I advise you to stop trying to find out what they are.”
Alice shifted her glare from the goon to the boss. As Cello passed her desk he paused and asked. “Do you like Opera, Alice?”
She was surprised enough by the question that she retracted her claws for a moment. “Uh, I don’t know.”
Cello nodded and followed his bodyguard out the door.
“What was that all about?” she asked.
“The opera? He’s a music lover, I guess.”
“You’re not going to be working for him, are you?”
“No.” Not intentionally, anyway. “It’s late. Come on, I’ll buy you supper.” That surprised her more than anything else that had happened.
Tune in next time for: An Unexpected Call!