It took a few tries but Nora was able to coax the Ford to life and a few minutes later we were back on the bumpy dirt road from Hell. We were quiet the entire ride- Nora with her eyes fixed on the road like an eagle searching for prey, and me with my eyes glued to my cell phone waiting for the moment when we could get a signal and find out just where in Gods green creation we’d been stranded. It took about ten minutes of being thrown around before we cleared the trees and got onto a road that was paved. A few minutes later I got a signal on my phone and told Nora to pull over. It wasn’t exactly a 4G connection so it took forever to load, but I was eventually able to get a map and directions to the nearest town. Luckily, we were only twenty miles or so away from civilization, and Nora said that we could probably make it with the amount of gas we had.
“Probably” wasn’t very reassuring, especially when you’re talking about a hike measured in miles if the truck gave up the ghost before we got into town. That’s mile with an “s”…as in plural. I haven’t walked over a mile in one go since the academy, and when I’d done it then I still had two good knees, it took me four times as long as everyone else, and I puked twice. Yes, in a week where I’d been knocked unconscious, shot at, and had to go into hiding to keep from getting killed, the thought of having to walk a few miles to a gas station is the thing that really had me anxious.
In retrospect, it’s possible that my priorities may be a bit out of whack.
I tried to keep myself from glancing down at the gas gauge every few seconds. “Remember, regardless of what we end up doing today we’ve got to be back at the cabin before sundown just in case Ron or Matt come by to check on us.”
She nodded and then frowned when her phone beeped…a lot. She fished it out of her pocket and when she looked down at it she rolled her eyes and sighed dramatically. “Great. Five missed calls and two voicemails from John.”
“Wow, stalker much?”
She cast me a withering glance to which I responded with a smirk. “He was a nice guy, but way too clingy. I could tell that over the course of just a thirty minute chat. This just confirms it.” Then her face grew into a smirk of her own. “I noticed that you never did ask about my date.”
I blinked innocently at her. “Oh? Sorry. We kinda had a lot going on at the time.”
“Uh-huh.” Abandoning that line of attack she glanced down at the phone on my lap. “You going to call Richard?”
“When the signal is better.” The dubious look she gave me prompted me to add, “Talking to him will be bad enough. The last thing I need is to do it over a shitty connection that’ll force me to have to call him multiple times because I keep getting dropped.”
She didn’t look convinced, but she shrugged and concentrated on the road. I used my short reprieve to try and take a cat nap and not worry for a while. It didn’t work.
It was a close thing, but we made it on fumes to a little gas station that looked like the pumps hadn’t been updated since the 40’s. “Well, the pumps match the truck at least,” I drolled.
Nora rolled her eyes and filled up the tank while I went inside to pick us up some drinks and something for breakfast. I grabbed a couple of mocha Frappuccinos and a box of Little Debby honeybuns and took them over to the elderly man behind the counter. He looked up at me, then down at the junk on the counter, and then back up at me again, his bushy white eyebrows lifting as though to ask, “Really?”
I smiled and slapped my stomach a few times. “Breakfast of champions. Gotta keep up my girlish figure.”
He grunted and rang me up.
After another ten minutes of driving we got back into Saint Louis proper and Nora stopped at an Autozone to get backup supplies for the truck. While she was inside I bit the bullet and called my brother. Just my luck, he answered on the third ring.
“Heya Nicky. Long time, no talk.”
“Hi, Richard. How’s the quality time with Gram going?”
He sighed. “Okay, I guess. I forget just how much fun it is to have someone criticize your entire lifestyle. In the first twelve hours I took shit about everything from the food I eat, to the way that I dress and furnish my apartment. Oh, how I’ve missed that.” In my mind’s eye I could picture him looking melodramatically towards the heavens. “Luckily she’s been in meetings or dinner parties or whatever the political hell most of the time so far. In fact, if you were calling to talk to her she’s not in right now. She’s out schmoozing some senator from Texas.”
“No, actually I was calling to talk to you.”
There was no mistaking the surprise in his voice. “Me? Oh, uh, okay. What’s up?”
“Well, I’m consulting with the local police on a case and I was hoping that you could help me with some information…unofficially.”
“Oh God, Nick. Please tell me that you and Nora aren’t off playing Lone Ranger again.”
I gritted my teeth. “I’m working with Nora, so that doesn’t exactly make me ‘lone’ now does it?”
“The Lone Ranger worked with Tonto, genius.”
“Oh, right. Good point. Anyway, no, it’s official this time. Given the nature of the case and some things that have happened recently I’m just not sure who we can trust, so I was hoping that you could help us out.”
His voice perked up. “You’re working that Godfather thing aren’t you?”
I arched an eyebrow at the phone. “How the hell do you know about that?”
He scoffed. “Please. I work for the F.B.I. When that many bodies turn up, especially when they have mob ties, it shows up on my radar. Besides, it’s not like it hasn’t been national news the last few days.”
“Right, well it’s those mob connections that I need help with. I need you to send me everything that you have on the members of the Carnelli family that operate in Saint Louis.”
His voice darkened. “Those aren’t the kinds of people you that should be fucking with, Nick. This isn’t some clepto jewel thief or a disgruntled employee stealing from their boss. We’re talking about some really dangerous people. Cement-boots-and-sleeping-with-the-fishes dangerous.”
I tried to keep the anger out of my voice but I wasn’t very successful. “I’m not a moron, Rich. I know who they are and I know how dangerous it is. I own every movie Scorsese ever made.” He snorted at that, but I continued, “I’m a big boy and can handle it. Now are you going to help me or not?”
“You’re asking me to give you information that could get us both in trouble. If you’re working with the cops, why can’t you get it from them?”
“I told you, I have my reasons. I wouldn’t call you if I had other options, trust me.”
“Nice. Look, Nick, what you’re asking-“
“Is for some damn files, not classified state secrets! No, you know what? Forget it. I told Nora that this was a waste of time and that you wouldn’t help me. You never gave me the time of day before, unless it was to torment me. Why start acting like a big brother now? Have fun with Grandma, jackass.”
My finger was about to hit the disconnect button when he shouted, “Nick, wait!”
There was a long, resigned sigh. “I didn’t say that I wouldn’t help you, dickhead, but if I do this you have to promise me that no one knows about it and that you’ll be careful. Otherwise it’ll mean both of our asses. Not only could I lose my job, but Grandma would fucking kill me if anything happened to you and she found out that I helped.”
Surprised, I stammered, “Uh, yeah, I’ll be careful and no one but Nora knows. Promise.”
He grunted and I could hear typing in the background. “Give me fifteen minutes and then check your e-mail. I’ll send you what I can. You still using that same address you had a few years back?”
“Okay then. Fifteen minutes.”
“Hey Rich? Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.” His tone darkened again. “To anyone. Ever.”
“Good luck, little brother.”
Well, wonders never cease.
True to his word, fifteen minutes later I got an e-mail with a series of file attachments. I read over the first few files before Nora came out of the store. I flagged her down and she sped up her pace, dumping her bags into the back of the truck. The rusted truck door squealed as she pulled it open. “You talked to Richard?”
“Yeah, check your e-mail. I forwarded you what he sent.”
She let out a little whoop and jumped into the truck. “Told you he’d help!”
“Yeah, yeah. You still owe me a foot rub.”
“Keep dreaming, Taft.”
According to the files the Carnelli family is one of the largest of the original Italian mob families still operating inside the U.S. The man running things in Saint Louis is Paul Carnelli, with his son, Joseph, operating as his lieutenant. When I saw the list of all the businesses, both legitimate and otherwise, that the Carnelli’s were suspected of running in our fair town I let out a whistle.
“Holy 30’s Chicago, Batman. This is a really long list. I had no idea that the mob was still this influential, especially around here.”
Nora nodded as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “The Carnelli’s own a lot of various businesses here in the city and most of them are probably legit. It makes a good smoke screen for the other crap that they do. Every once in a while we get lucky and catch some low level enforcer or bookie, but they’re slick and can afford the best lawyers that money can buy. It drives the department nuts because we can never catch the big fish doing anything-“
“Fishy?” I waggled my eyebrows at her.
“Okay, so just to be sure that I’m clear on your plan, you want us to walk into a bar owned by Carnelli, where Carnelli’s people are known to frequent, and do what exactly? Just start asking questions?”
“Of course not! Don’t be silly.”
“Oh, good. You actually have a plan.”
“We’re going to buy some drinks first.”
“Oh, well that’s a relief. That way I’ll be nice and mellow when we get whacked.”
Carnelli’s bar was called South Side and it looked…like every other bar that I’d ever seen. I’m not sure what I was expecting, exactly, but knowing that it was a legit “mob bar” I guess part of me expected something like a room full of guys in three piece suits and fedoras, Sinatra blaring over the speakers, and everyone talking like they were on the set of Goodfellas. I know that’s ridiculous, not to mention probably more than a little racist, but there you go. Instead, we got a dimly lit bar that looked incredibly ordinary. There were tables with plain wooden chairs lining the walls and scattered around the room proper. The bar area had mounted T.V.s on either end playing SportCenter, and ACDC was singing about the highway to Hell from a little jukebox in the corner.
It was also mostly empty.
There were a few people at various tables and one guy in a disheveled business suit at the bar. He was yelling at the football recap SportCenter was playing, and it looked like he hadn’t left yet from the previous night given the ten o’clock shadow that he was rocking. The bartender, a large brute with a bald head and bushy brown beard, shouted for the guy to keep it down and chucked a bar rag at him.
The patron replied with an obscene gesture but sat back down. “I lost three hundred bucks to those assholes last night!”
The bartender chuckled. “Then maybe you should stop pissing your money away and invest it in a stock portfolio like I do, ya dumbshit. I keep tellin’ ya but you just don’t listen.”
I arched an eyebrow at Nora. “Uh…this really isn’t what I was expecting. You?”
She slowly shook her head. “No. Not a lot of people either. Then again, it’s barely past noon yet. Let’s get a table. Try and look inconspicuous.”
“Right. Inconspicuous. A 500 pound fat guy and a hot chick walk into a bar; we’re practically the start of a lame joke and she wants inconspicuous.”
She elbowed me in the gut. “Just sit down, wiseass. I’ll get us some drinks.”
I carefully sat down in one of the chairs at a table towards the back of the room near the jukebox. Nora came back a few minutes later with a couple of beers and grinned. “They didn’t have sweet tea.”
“Ha. Ha, ha,” I deadpanned. “Leave the comedy to me, amateur.”
I took a sip of beer and grimaced, which made Nora snort. “Uh-huh. Now who’s the amateur?”
She sobered when a young man in a navy blue three piece suit exited a door behind the bar and approached our table. He bowed his head and spoke in a very hushed voice. “Pardon me for interrupting, but the owner of this establishment, Mr. Carnelli, would like to have a word with the gentleman.”
Before I could reply Nora stood up. “The gentleman doesn’t go anywhere without me.”
The man shrugged. “That will be fine, ma’am.”
I held up a hand. “Uh, the gentleman would like to know what this is regarding.”
The man glanced back down in my direction. He was clean cut, clean shaven, and young- perhaps in his mid-twenties. He also had an extremely non-descript face and haircut. If it wasn’t for the nice suit, he’d hardly stand out at all. I’m sure that came in handy in his line of work. He shook his head. “I apologize sir, but that’s something that you’ll have to ask Mr. Carnelli. I was asked to extend the invitation, nothing more.”
Nora smiled sweetly at me. “And he accepts.”
I eyed her warily and stood up. “You heard the lady. I guess we’re following you.”
Nora and I trailed the young man past the bar and into the back. There was a long hallway lined with several other guys, all in suits and all with the solid frame and demeanor that screamed “muscle.” They eyed us as we walked past and didn’t look very friendly. Nora leaned over and whispered. “Remember, stay calm. These guys can sense fear. It’s like blood in the water.”
“What about pee in the water? What does that do? Because I may wet myself.”
Our guide opened the door and led us into the back office. It was mostly barren with the exception of a large wooden desk, a few chairs, and several monitors mounted on the left-hand wall showing security feeds at various angles in the bar. I’d been expecting to see Paul Carnelli waiting for us. Instead, going by the pictures Richard had included in the files, it was Carnelli’s son, Joseph, who rose from the desk to greet us.
Joseph Carnelli was a rather large man. He matched my height and probably clocked in at around three hundred pounds, but he carried it well and it was obvious that there was a fair amount of muscle packed along with the girth. He was in his mid-thirties and had a square jaw with rough, weathered features. It was the face of a hard man who had seen a hard life and it sent a chill down my spine when he smiled at me.
“Ah, Nicolas Taft! I’m so happy that you accepted my invitation.”
The surprise I felt when he used my name must have been mirrored on Nora’s face as well because he looked between both of us and chuckled. “Yes, Mr. Taft, I know who you and Detective Charleston are. Of course I do! You’re the two who captured the infamous jewel thief Bella Lamond, ‘The Ghost,’ a few years back, yes? It was all over the news and the papers.” He winked. “I also have a feeling that you know who I am as well, so I suppose that we can just skip the introductions.”
He gestured at the two chairs in front of his desk. “Please, have a seat. I’m sure we have quite a bit to talk about. That’ll be all, Rudy.”
The young man who escorted us gave his boss a nod and left the way we’d just come. When we failed to sit down right away Joseph laughed again and sat down himself. “Please, relax. Have a seat. If I wanted to do something nefarious to you I assure you that you wouldn’t have made it down the hallway.”
Nora and I both took a seat and I tried my best not to shake. I reminded myself that Nora and I were still armed, since no one had bothered to frisk us. It didn’t comfort me much. If he didn’t have us frisked it’s because he was confident that it wouldn’t matter one way or another.
Carnelli smiled at me again, a shark sizing up a baby seal. I did my best to look as though I were calm and relaxed. “Before we begin I’d like to thank you both. You see, my family owns several jewelry stores in the city, one of which was hit by the so-called ‘Ghost,’ so it was quite a relief when you captured her.”
I forced a smile. “Glad we could help.”
“I hear that she had a very unfortunate accident in prison and that they were unable to save her.” He clucked a few times with his tongue as he shook his head. “Very sad.”
The grin on his face said that it was anything but, and it sent a chill through me. “Anyway, on to more pressing business. What brings you two to my little establishment? I’m sure that it’s not the drinks.”
The question was aimed at me. Blood in the water, I reminded myself. I looked him straight in the eye. “I’m working as a consultant for the Saint Louis Police Department. Detective Charleston and I are part of the investigation of the recent ‘Godfather’ killings that I’m sure you’re aware of, given that your cousin was one of the unfortunate victims.”
I heard Nora gasp next to me, but Carnelli simply nodded. “Very straightforward and honest. I’m pleasantly surprised.”
I shrugged. “I just don’t see any point in lying to you. You knew who we were and why we’re here before you invited us back here.”
He smiled again. “True, and I must admit that I find your openness refreshing. So tell me, Nicolas- do you mind if I call you Nicolas?”
I shook my head. “Not at all.”
“Good. So tell me Nicolas, just what is it that you think I can do for you and your detective friend?”
I leaned back in my chair, trying to look relaxed. “Well Mr. Carnelli-”
I inclined my head. “Joseph. I was hoping that you might tell us what you know about this rival crew made up of Potosi’s ex-cons.”
Nora’s head jerked towards me. “Uh, Nick?”
I kept my attention on Carnelli, who smiled slyly as he replied, “Even if I had such information, and I’m not saying that I do, why would I do a silly thing like share it with the police, Nicolas?”
I returned the smile. “Because I get the impression that you’re a very intelligent man who can recognize a golden opportunity when you see one. It’s just good business sense to cooperate with us.”
He snorted. “How do you figure that working with the police would be good for business?”
“Because whoever these people are, they’re horning in on your territory. Personally, I don’t care about what you or your family does, or even at this point if you’re behind the killings I was hired to investigate in the first place. What I do care about is finding out who these people are and stopping them, because they’ve already attacked me twice and I’m really tired of constantly having to look over my shoulder to make sure that no one is about to put a knife in my back. Helping us get rid of them will help you and your business in the long run.”
Nora was giving me a look that said that she was sorely tempted to pull her gun and shoot me. I ignored her and kept my attention on Carnelli. He eyed me for a long minute, his face blank and unreadable, before finally barking out a laugh and slapping the table, causing me to jump. “Ha! I like you, Nicolas! You’ve got stones! No one, and I mean no one, has ever spoken to me like that. I have to tell you, it’s refreshing as hell. You’re just so…up front and honest. It’s like talking to an oversized Boy Scout! I love it! I can’t tell if you’re really smart or the dumbest S.O.B. I’ve ever met.”
“I know my vote,” Nora growled as she continued to glare daggers at me.
Joseph glanced at her and barked out another laugh. “Relax, Detective. You’re about to be very happy with your friend here. I’m going to tell you what you wish to know.”
Nora blinked. “What?”
He nodded and returned his attention to me. “This is entirely off the record, of course. You were scanned when you entered the room so I know that you’re not wired, though I would ask that you both turn off your cell phones before I continue as an added precaution.”
I leaned forward in my chair and nodded vigorously, swallowing past the lump of anxiety that had been in my throat. “Of course.”
Once Nora and I had both turned off our phones and placed them on the desk in front of him Joseph nodded and continued. “Excellent. You have been honest with me, Nicolas, which I respect, so I will do you the same courtesy. No one in my family or business organization has had anything to do with these recent killings. I know that you will obviously not take my word for that, but it is the truth none-the-less.” The muscles in his jaw bunched as his voice dropped to a menacing whisper. “More to the point, I hope that you do indeed catch whoever is responsible, for my cousin’s sake. Johnny was a bumbling idiot, but he was still family. Unfortunately, I do not possess any information that will help you in that regard.”
He straightened and his calm, relaxed demeanor returned to his features. “As to your inquiry, I will tell you what I know. From what you’ve mentioned, you’ve already connected Potosi Correctional and recently released inmates. I can confirm that the head guard, the criminal psychologist, and at least four members of the parole board are currently in the employ of this new operation. The goal is to use ex-cons as ambassadors of sorts to establish a working network of rival gangs in an effort to consolidate the drug trade in the city. According to the most recent information I have received, of the gangs that have been approached the Gravediggas and the East Side G’s have agreed so far, with one or two others leaning in that direction. Not as many as they hoped, I’m sure, but still an impressive feat given that these gangs aren’t exactly known for their ability to play well with each other.”
Nora arched an eyebrow. “How do you know all of this?”
Joseph regarded her. “My cousin and Michael Ricci were two such ambassadors. They were given early release and in return they carried this new organization’s overture to my father, who flatly refused. When they both turned up dead we had assumed that it was in retaliation for that refusal, but when other bodies began to show up, including those from gangs that have already joined, that proved not to be the case.”
“Okay, so do you know who’s behind this ambitious rival organization?”
“Officially, Detective? No. They were very careful to keep their identities a secret, hence using ex-cons and prison guards as their go-betweens.” He met her gaze, his expression intense. “Unofficially, we have reason to believe that members of your police force are involved.”
He shrugged. “Perhaps, but consider this Detective: who else could successfully pull off a venture like this? Who has the resources, the information and the power to not only get inmates released from prison early, but to know who to approach in the first place? There’s also the fact that they guaranteed safety from law enforcement for those who agree to participate as part of their sales pitch. That suggests to me members of law enforcement.”
“It could also be judges, lawyers, and other members of the criminal justice system as well,” I chimed in.
He nodded. “Very true, and I’m sure that there are. An operation like this, in order to work, would need to have connections in very high places in quite a few areas of the criminal justice system. All the same, I would be very careful about who you trust, Nicolas. A rather large bounty was placed on both yourself and Detective Charleston not more than twenty four hours ago by my aforementioned rivals. I can assure you that with the price tag they’re offering even those normally on the side of the angels may find themselves tempted. That knife that you’re so worried about could be much closer to your back than you might have otherwise thought.”
Oh, perfect. “Why are you telling us this?”
Joseph shrugged again. “As you said, it’s good for business. It’s in my best interest to see this rival operation stopped, and if members of the law enforcement community are involved it would make it…complicated for my own organization to handle things in our traditional manner. Besides,” he winked at me, “I rather like your wiggle and I hope that after all of this nasty business is taken care of that you and I might get together again under better, more relaxed circumstances.”
I could hear Nora choking back a laugh next to me as I struggled with how to respond. “Well…uh…that’s very, uh, kind of you.”
He smiled. “Good luck, Nicolas. I hope that we’ll see each other again soon.”
The door behind us opened and Rudy appeared, an obvious indication that our audience was over. We stood up, picked up our phones, and followed Rudy out. Once we were outside and on our way back to the truck Nora glanced over at me. “You do have a nice wiggle.”
“The wiggle is completely unintentional and you know it!”
She finally let loose the fit of laughter that she’d been holding back as I ignored her and climbed into the truck.