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A Bullet For Carlos excerpt

Chapter 1

A Present for Maria

Brooklyn, New York, Winter 1982

Zeppe Mangini paced the busy sidewalk while nursing a cappuccino. He felt it was a sure sign that the world was falling apart when people sold cappuccino in paper cups, but he sipped the drink to draw warmth and to make himself appear busy. Every few steps he glanced across the street to the apartment at 1255. Tommy Nunzio had lived there since he was a kid. Tonight he would die there.

Zeppe finished his cappuccino while he waited for a break in traffic, then half-walked, half-jogged across the street. The horn from a souped-up Camaro blared at him as he reached the sidewalk. He tugged on his cap, covering a full head of coal-black hair, then nodded to his brother, Dominic, standing by the front steps.

“Hey, Dom, you sure there’s no other way to do this?”

“This is the cleanest. He’ll buzz you in.”

“Yeah, but that ain’t right. I’m—”

“Do it.”

Zeppe hit the buzzer, fidgeting as he waited for Tommy to answer. The last time his finger hit this button it was to ask Tommy out for a beer. Now…

“Who is it?”

“Hey, Tommy, it’s Zep. Open up.”

They walked into the building and climbed the stairs to the third floor, Zeppe cringing with each groan of the old wood. Images of him and Tommy as little kids came to mind, and Mrs. Nunzio hollering at them, warning them about playing on steps. Zeppe took a few seconds to catch his breath, and to calm the rotten feeling he had in his gut, but he couldn’t chase away the image of Mrs. Nunzio. He half expected to smell her strong garlic sauce as he reached the top of the third floor.

“Dom, can’t we buy him a little time?”

“Not on this one,” Dominic said, and stood to the side.

Zeppe knocked on the door. After a few seconds it opened. Dominic moved fast, pushing Zeppe inside while he shoved his gun into Tommy’s stomach. “Keep your voice down.”

Tommy backed up, hands in the air. “What’s going on? What—” His look shifted from Zeppe to Dominic. He froze, his eyes growing large. “Zeppe, what’s this about?”

Zeppe closed the door with the heel of his foot, never taking his eyes from Tommy. “You shouldn’t have crossed Vito.”

“That’s enough,” Dominic said.

Tommy cocked his head, lifting his eyes in a pleading gesture. “Hey, Zep, can you help me out?” His voice cracked when he asked.

Dominic raised the gun to Tommy’s head and pulled the trigger. Twice. The small caliber bullets bounced around inside his skull, dropping him to the floor. There was little pain. Even less blood.

Dominic knelt beside him, checked his neck and pulse. The two in the head had done the trick.

“Let’s go,” Zeppe said, but as he reached for the doorknob a noise from the bedroom alerted him. “You hear that?”

Zeppe and Dominic stopped. Listened. A fan hummed in the bathroom and the ever-present noise of the fridge came from the kitchen, but something different from the bedroom. “Turn off the lights,” Dominic said, then crept toward the back room, gun drawn. “I’ll go in low. Hit the light once I’m in.”

Dominic crouched, pushed open the bedroom door and crept forward, his gun leading the way.

Zeppe waited for him to get in, then hit the light. “Mother of God! A Goddamn baby.”

Dominic glanced about the room, barely big enough to hold the crib, a rocker, and a small chest of drawers. The baby fussed, tiny hands covering its eyes. Dominic picked the baby up, laying it on his shoulder. “I think it’s a girl.”

“I’ll check the rest of the place,” Zeppe said.

He returned in a few minutes, gun tucked into his pants. “So what do we do?”

“Call Vito, but use the phone booth. I’ll wait here.”

Zeppe thought about the baby all the way down the stairs. Vito would be pissed; they should have known beforehand. He exited the building, crossed the street and called Vito.

“Hello.”

“Yeah, it’s me. We got a problem.”

“What kind of problem?”

A long pause, then, “We delivered the message, but we found something unexpected.”

“Don’t make me guess.”

“A baby.”

“How did we not know about a baby?”

“I don’t know. I never heard of no baby, but sure as shit it’s his. Got pictures everywhere, baby clothes, baby food in the fridge and cabinets. A room fixed up.”

Zeppe waited through more silence.

“Leave it.”

“Leave it? Christ’s sake, boss. It could die.”

“Leave it.”

“Okay, you got it,” Zeppe said, and put the phone back on the receiver. Ain’t no way Dominic is leaving that baby.

Head hung low, Zeppe walked back across the street, up the steps, and into the apartment where Dominic waited with the girl. “Vito said leave it.”

Dominic was a small man, but intensity surrounded him, an aura of danger that even Zeppe wasn’t immune to. He had seen men far bigger than his brother back down after meeting his glare.

“I’m not leaving her,” Dominic said. “Do you know Tommy’s wife? Where is she?”

“I don’t know, Dom. I heard she left him a few months ago, but I didn’t know about the baby. I swear. I wouldn’t have done this if I knew.” Shouldn’t have done it anyway. Goddamnit.

“Did Tommy have family? Brothers or sisters?”

“His brother died last year, remember?” Zeppe paused. “There might be relatives, but none I know of.” Zeppe knew there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of Dominic leaving that baby alone, or with child services, but he had to try. “Child services would—”

“I wouldn’t leave a dog with them.”

“Hey, Dom. I know how you feel, but—”

“Take her with us.”

“Are you nuts?”

“We shouldn’t be in this situation, Zeppe. It was your job to check this out.” Dominic shook his head then handed the girl to Zeppe. “It’s cold outside. Make sure she’s warm.”

“Okay,” Zeppe said, and held her close.

“I’ll wipe everything clean.” Dominic looked around, checked where they’d been, then went to the bedroom and got extra clothes and a blanket. When he returned, he handed the clothes to Zeppe, cracked the door and looked down the hall. “Wrap her tight, Zeppe. I don’t want that baby catching cold.”

Zeppe wrapped the blanket around her, making sure to cover her head. “What the hell are we going to do with a baby?” He said it to himself, but Dominic answered.

“Taking it to Maria.”

“Dominic, you’re my older brother, but you’re as nuts as Maria.”

Dominic turned to face Zeppe. “If you ever say that about Maria again, I’ll kill you.”

They walked to the car in silence, Zeppe handed the baby to Dominic then got behind the wheel to drive. “Where to?”

“First the warehouse, then to Maria’s.”

#

Dominic stared at the baby as Zeppe drove, letting his finger trace along her forehead. “She’s quiet for one so young,” he said, no trace of the vehemence that tainted his voice earlier.

“Yeah, I guess she likes you.”

When the little girl smiled, Dominic smiled with her, but soon afterward turned somber. He thought of the fate Maria suffered because of him. If anyone should have had children it was her, but she refused to marry Dominic because of what he was, and she refused to marry anyone else. He saw the pain when she sat at the playground and watched the children play. Perhaps this was God’s answer to his prayers.

There would be birth certificate issues and people to pay off…but that could be arranged. The bigger problem was getting Maria to accept the baby and then making sure no one ever told the truth. That was the difficult one. Truth had a way of creeping through cracks and oozing to the top, no matter how deep it was buried. He knew he could trust Zeppe, and he could trust Maria…but something in his gut ate at him. This would take careful planning.

Zeppe pulled into a warehouse where Dominic got rid of the gun and changed clothes. Half an hour later he turned down the street to Maria’s house.

“Turn the corner and park on the street after hers,” Dominic said. “We’ll walk.”

“Hey, Dom, it’s cold, and that baby—”

“The baby will be fine in this blanket. I’d rather not be seen on her street.”

After Zeppe parked, Dominic checked to make sure no one was watching then signaled Zeppe to bring the baby. They walked around the corner and up to Maria’s house.

A few knocks brought Maria to the door, surprise registering on her face when she saw them. “What are you doing here?” Her voice not much above a whisper.

Maria was the same as always—as plain as her tawny hair and as quiet as a church at night. “Came to see my beautiful friend,” Dominic said, and removed his cap.

She brushed her fingers through the sides of her hair. “Beautiful? I’m already graying.”

Dominic hugged her and kissed her forehead. “I love that gray,” he said, then nodded to Zeppe, who handed the baby to Maria.

She went wide-eyed. “Whose baby is this?” She held the girl against her and peeled the blanket back one layer at a time. “She’s so small. Where is the mother?”

Dominic brushed the baby’s red cheeks with his finger, and nudged her head with his nose, sniffing in her scent. For the second time tonight he had a smile on his face. “Babies are so innocent. You can even smell it on them.”

Maria walked through the house, humming a tune while she rocked the baby in her arms. “You didn’t answer me, Dominic. Who does she belong to? Some woman friend of yours?”

“I’m surprised at you for saying such a thing, Maria.” Westminster chimes were signaling the half-hour. Dominic waited for them to stop; they were Maria’s favorite. “We found her on the street corner. She was in a stroller, freezing.”

Maria looked at him, perhaps trying to judge the truth. “I’m sorry, Dominic, it’s just…” She shook her head and continued walking. “Who would do that to a baby?” She kissed the girl’s head several times. “Poor baby,” she said, then turned to Dominic. “What can we do with her? Did you call those…services people?”

“You know I would never do that; besides, you always wanted a child. Now God has sent you one.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I can’t keep her.” Maria made the statement, blessed herself when she said it, but a plea rode on her words.

“You must keep her. God has given you a gift. Someone who didn’t care abandoned her, now someone who does care will raise her.”

Maria stared at Dominic for a long time, then she hugged the baby as tears formed in her eyes. “There is no way I can keep her, but I will watch her for a while.” She walked with her for a few moments, then said, “I think I’ll call her Concetta.”

Dominic nodded. “Concetta Gianelli. A good name.”

Panic seemed to set in. “What will the neighbors say? They will—”

Zeppe shook his head. “Tell them a relative died. Trust me, they won’t say anything.” He leaned over and kissed Maria on the cheek, then kissed the baby. “I promise you.”

Dominic looked at Maria, then Zeppe, his eyes colder than the air outside. “No one is to know where she came from. Understand? No one.

“Don’t worry,” Zeppe said. “Just the three of us.”

Maria nodded, clutching the girl as if someone might take her. “Yes, just the three of us.”

Zeppe turned and headed for the door. “I’ll wait outside.”

“Good night, Giuseppe.”

“Yeah, good night, Maria.”

As the door closed behind Zeppe, and Maria walked to the kitchen, Dominic made the sign of the cross, asking God for forgiveness. It was one thing to kill a man—but to take his baby and claim it as a gift from God might be pushing things too far. That was the kind of thing that could haunt a person in both lives. And what will Maria do if she finds out the truth? Even worse, what will this little girl do if she finds out?

 Back to A Bullet for Carlos

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