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Mario Puzo
























  Evelyn Murphy


  a Sicilian code of honor which forbids

  informing about crimes thought to be the affairs

  of the persons involved

  World Book Dictionary



  IN THE STONE-FILLED VILLAGE of Castellammare del Golfo, facing the dark Sicilian Mediterranean, a great Mafia Don lay dying. Vincenzo Zeno was a man of honor, who all his life had been loved for his fair and impartial judgment, his help to those in need, and his implacable punishment of those who dared to oppose his will.

  Around him were three of his former followers, each of whom had gone on to achieve his own power and fame: Raymonde Aprile from New York in America, Octavius Bianco from Palermo, and Benito Craxxi from Chicago. Each owed him one last favor.

  Don Zeno was the last of the true Mafia chiefs, having all his life observed the old traditions. He extracted a tariff on all business, but never on drugs or prostitution. And never did a poor man come to his house for money and go away empty-handed. He corrected the injustices of the law—the highest judge in Sicily could make his ruling, but if you had right on your side, Don Zeno would veto that judgment with his own force of will, and arms.

  No philandering youth could leave the daughter of a poor peasant without Don Zeno persuading him into holy matrimony. No bank could foreclose on a helpless farmer without Don Zeno interfering to put things right. No young lad who hungered for a university education could be denied it for lack of money or qualification. If they were related to his cosca, his clan, their dreams were fulfilled. The laws from Rome could never justify the traditions of Sicily and had no authority; Don Zeno would overrule them, no matter what the cost.

  But in the last few years his power had begun to wane, and he’d had the weakness to marry a very beautiful young girl, who had produced a fine male child. She had died in childbirth, and the boy was now two years old. The old Mafia don, knowing that the end was near and that without him his cosca would be pulverized by the more powerful coscas of Corleone and Clericuzio, pondered the future of his son.

  He had called his three friends to his bedside because he had an important request, but first he thanked them for the courtesy and respect they had shown in traveling so many miles. Then he told them that he wanted his young son, Astorre, to be taken to a place of safety and brought up under different circumstances. And yet to be brought up in the tradition of a man of honor, like himself.

  “I can die with a clear conscience,” he said, though his friends knew that in his lifetime he had decided the deaths of hundreds of men, “if I can see my son to safety. For in this two-year-old I see the heart and soul of a true Mafioso, a rare and almost extinct quality.”

  He told them he would choose one of them to act as guardian to this unusual child, and with this responsibility would come great rewards.

  “It is strange,” Don Zeno said, staring through clouded eyes. “According to tradition, it is the first son who is the true Mafioso. But in my case it took until I reached my eightieth year before I could make my dream come true. I’m not a man of superstition, but if I were, I could believe this child grew from the soil of Sicily itself. His eyes are as green as olives that spring from my best trees. And he has the Sicilian sensibility—romantic, musical, happy. Yet if someone offends him, he doesn’t forget, as young as he is. But he must be guided.”

  “And so what do you wish from us, Don Zeno?” Craxxi asked. “For I will gladly take this child of yours and raise him as my own.”

  Bianco stared at Craxxi almost resentfully. “I know the boy from when he was first born. He is familiar to me. I will take him as my own.”

  Raymonde Aprile looked at Don Zeno but said nothing.

  “And you, Raymonde?” Don Zeno asked.

  Aprile said, “If it is me that you choose, your son will be my son.”

  The Don considered the three of them, all worthy men. He regarded Craxxi the most intelligent. Bianco was surely the most ambitious and forceful. Aprile was a more restrained man of virtue, a man closer to himself. But he was merciless.

  Don Zeno, even while dying, understood that it was Raymonde Aprile who most needed the child. He would benefit most from the child’s love, and he would make certain his son learned how to survive in their world of treachery.

  Don Zeno was silent for a long moment. Finally he said, “Raymonde, you will be his father. And I can rest in peace.”

  The Don’s funeral was worthy of an emperor. All the cosca chiefs in Sicily came to pay their respects, along with cabinet ministers from Rome, the owners of the great latifundia, and hundreds of subjects of his widespread cosca.

  Atop the black horse-drawn hearse, Astorre Zeno, two years old, a fiery-eyed baby attired in a black frock and black pillbox hat, rode as majestically as a Roman emperor.

  The cardinal of Palermo himself conducted the service and proclaimed memorably, “In sickness and in health, in unhappiness and despair, Don Zeno remained a true friend to all.” He then intoned Don Zeno’s last words: “I commend myself to God.” he said. “He will forgive my sins, for I have tried every day to be just.”

  And so it was that Astorre Zeno was taken to America by Raymonde Aprile and made a part of his own household.



  WHEN THE STURZO TWINS, Franky and Stace, pulled into Heskow’s driveway, they saw four very tall teenagers playing basketball on the small house court. Franky and Stace got out of their big Buick, and John Heskow came out to meet them. He was a tall, pear-shaped man; his thin hair neatly ringed the bare top of his skull, and his small blue eyes twinkled. “Great timing,” he said. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”

  The basketball game halted. Heskow said proudly, “This is my son, Jocko.” The tallest of the teenagers stuck out his huge hand to Franky.

  “Hey,” Franky said. “How about giving us a little game?”

  Jocko looked at the two visitors. They were about six feet tall and seemed in good shape. They both wore Ralph Lauren polo shirts, one red and the other green, with khaki trousers and rubber-soled shoes. They were amiable-looking, handsome men, their craggy features set with a graceful confidence. They were obviously brothers, but Jocko could not know they were twins. He figured them to be in their early forties.

  “Sure,” Jocko said, with boyish good nature.

  Stace grinned. “Great! We just drove three thousand miles and have to loosen up.”

  Jocko motioned to his companions, all well over six feet, and said, “I’ll take them on my side against you three.” Since he was the much better player, he thought this would give his father’s friends a chance.

  “Take it easy on them,” John Heskow said to the kids. “They’re just old guys futzing around.”

  It was midafternoon in December, and the air was chilly enough to spur the blood. The cold Long Island sunlight, pale yellow, glinted off the glass roofs and walls of Heskow’s flower sheds, his front business.

  Jocko’s young buddies were mellow and played to accommodate the older men. But suddenly Franky and Stace were whizzing past them for layup shots. Jocko stood amazed at their speed; then
they were refusing to shoot and passing him the ball. They never took an outside shot. It seemed a point of honor that they had to swing free for an easy layup.

  The opposing team started to use their height to pass around the older men but astonishingly enough got few rebounds. Finally, one of the boys lost his temper and gave Franky a hard elbow in the face. Suddenly the boy was on the ground. Jocko, watching everything, didn’t know exactly how it happened. But then Stace hit his brother in the head with the ball and said, “Come on. Play, you shithead.” Franky helped the boy to his feet, patted him on the ass, and said, “Hey, I’m sorry.” They played for about five minutes more, but by then the older men were obviously tuckered out and the kids ran circles around them. Finally, they quit.

  Heskow brought sodas to them on the court, and the teenagers clustered around Franky, who had charisma and had shown pro skills on the court. Franky hugged the boy he had knocked down. Then, he flashed them a man-of-the-world grin, which set pleasantly on his angular face.

  “Let me give you guys some advice from an old guy,” he said. “Never dribble when you can pass. Never quit when you’re twenty points down in the last quarter. And never go out with a woman who owns more than one cat.”

  The boys all laughed.

  Franky and Stace shook hands with the kids and thanked them for the game, then followed Heskow inside the pretty green-trimmed house. Jocko called after them, “Hey, you guys are good!”

  Inside the house, John Heskow led the two brothers upstairs to their room. It had a very heavy door with a good lock, the brothers noticed as Heskow let them in and locked the door behind them.

  The room was big, a suite really, with an attached bathroom. It had two single beds—Heskow knew the brothers liked to sleep in the same room. In a corner was a huge trunk banded with steel straps and a heavy metal padlock. Heskow used a key to unlock the trunk and then flung the lid open. Exposed to view were several handguns, automatic weapons, and munitions boxes, in an array of black geometric shapes.

  “Will that do?” Heskow asked.

  Franky said, “No silencers.”

  “You won’t need silencers for this job.”

  “Good,” Stace said. “I hate silencers. I can never hit anything with a silencer.”

  “OK,” Heskow said. “You guys take a shower and settle in, and I’ll get rid of the kids and cook supper. What did you think of my kid?”

  “A very nice boy,” Franky said.

  “And how do you like the way he plays basketball?” Heskow said with a flush of pride that made him look even more like a ripened pear.

  “Exceptional,” Franky said.

  “Stace, what do you think?” Heskow asked.

  “Very exceptional,” said Stace.

  “He has a scholarship to Villanova,” Heskow said. “NBA all the way.”

  When the twins came down to the living room a little while later, Heskow was waiting. He had prepared sautéed veal with mushrooms and a huge green salad. There was red wine on the table.

  The three of them sat down. They were old friends and knew each other’s history. Heskow had been divorced for thirteen years. His ex-wife and Jocko lived a couple of miles west in Babylon. But Jocko spent a lot of time here, and Heskow had been a constant and doting father.

  “You were supposed to arrive tomorrow morning,” Heskow said. “I would have put the kid off if I knew you were coming today. By the time you phoned, I couldn’t throw him and his friends out.”

  “That’s OK,” Franky said. “What the hell.”

  “You guys were good out there with the kids,” Heskow said. “You ever wonder if you could have made it in the pros?”

  “Nah,” Stace said. “We’re too short, only six feet. The eggplants were too big for us.”

  “Don’t say things like that in front of the kid,” Heskow said, horror-stricken. “He has to play with them.”

  “Oh, no,” Stace said. “I would never do that.”

  Heskow relaxed and sipped his wine. He always liked working with the Sturzo brothers. They were both so genial—they never got nasty like most of the scum he had to deal with. They had an ease in the world that reflected the ease between them. They were secure, and it gave them a pleasant glow.

  The three of them ate slowly, casually. Heskow refilled their plates direct from the frying pan.

  “I always meant to ask,” Franky said to Heskow. “Why did you change your name?”

  “That was a long time ago,” Heskow said. “I wasn’t ashamed of being Italian. But you know, I look so fucking German. With blond hair and blue eyes and this nose. It looked really fishy, my having an Italian name.”

  The twins both laughed, an easy, understanding laugh. They knew he was full of shit, but they didn’t mind.

  When they finished their salad, Heskow served double espresso and a plate of Italian pastries. He offered cigars but they refused. They stuck to their Marlboros, which suited their rugged western faces.

  “Time to get down to business,” Stace said. “This must be a big one, or why did we have to drive three thousand fucking miles? We could have flown.”

  “It wasn’t so bad,” Franky said. “I enjoyed it. We saw America, firsthand. We had a good time. The people in the small towns were great.”

  “Exceptional,” Stace said. “But still, it was a long ride.”

  “I didn’t want to leave any traces at the airports,” Heskow said. “That’s the first place they check. And there will be a lot of heat. You boys don’t mind heat?”

  “Mother’s milk to me,” Stace said. “Now, who the fuck is it?”

  “Don Raymonde Aprile.” Heskow nearly choked on his espresso saying it.

  There was a long silence, and then for the first time Heskow caught the chill of death the twins could radiate.

  Franky said quietly, “You made us drive three thousand miles to offer us this job?”

  Stace smiled at Heskow and said, “John, it’s been nice knowing you. Now just pay our kill fee and we’ll be moving on.” Both twins laughed at this little joke, but Heskow didn’t get it.

  One of Franky’s friends in L.A., a freelance writer, had once explained to the twins that though a magazine might pay him expenses to do an article, they would not necessarily buy it. They would just pay a small percentage of the agreed-upon fee to kill the piece. The twins had adopted that practice. They charged just to listen to a proposition. In this case, because of the travel time and there were two of them involved, the kill fee was twenty thousand.

  But it was Heskow’s job to convince them to take the assignment. “The Don has been retired for three years,” he said. “All his old connections are in jail. He has no power anymore. The only one who could make trouble is Timmona Portella, and he won’t. Your payoff is a million bucks, half when you’re done and the other half in a year. But for that year, you have to lay low. Now everything is set up. All you guys have to be is the shooters.”

  “A million bucks,” Stace said. “That’s a lot of money.”

  “My client knows it’s a big step to hit Don Aprile,” Heskow said. “He wants the best help. Cool shooters and silent partners with mature heads. And you guys are simply the best.”

  Franky said, “And there are not many guys who would take the risk.”

  “Yeah,” Stace said. “You have to live with it the rest of your life. Somebody coming after you, plus the cops, and the feds.”

  “I swear to you,” Heskow said, “the NYPD won’t go all out. The FBI will not take a hand.”

  “And the Don’s old friends?” Stace asked.

  “The dead have no friends.” Heskow paused for a moment. “When the Don retired, he cut all ties. There’s nothing to worry about.”

  Franky said to Stace, “Isn’t it funny, in all our deals, they always tell us there’s nothing to worry about?”

  Stace laughed. “That’s because they’re not the shooters. John, you’re an old friend. We trust you. But what if you’re wrong? Anybody can be wrong. Wha
t if the Don still has old friends? You know how he operates. No mercy. We get nailed, we don’t just get killed. We’ll spend a couple of hours in hell first. Plus our families are at stake under the Don’s rule. That means your son. Can’t play for the NBA in his grave. Maybe we should know who’s paying for this.”

  Heskow leaned toward them, his light skin a scarlet red as if he were blushing. “I can’t tell you that. You know that. I’m just the broker. And I’ve thought of all that other shit. You think I’m fucking stupid? Who doesn’t know who the Don is? But he’s defenseless. I have assurances of that from the top levels. The police will just go through the motions. The FBI can’t afford to investigate. And the top Mafia heads won’t interfere. It’s foolproof.”

  “I never dreamed that Don Aprile would be one of my marks,” Franky said. The deed appealed to his ego. To kill a man so dreaded and respected in his world.

  “Franky, this is not a basketball game,” Stace warned. “If we lose, we don’t shake hands and walk off the court.”

  “Stace, it’s a million bucks,” Franky said. “And John never steered us wrong. Let’s go with it.”

  Stace felt their excitement building. What the hell. He and Franky could take care of themselves. After all, there was the million bucks. If the truth were told, Stace was more mercenary than Franky, more business-oriented, and the million swung him.

  “OK,” Stace said, “we’re in. But God have mercy on our souls if you’re wrong.” He had once been an altar boy.

  “What about the Don being watched by the FBI?” Franky asked. “Do we have to worry about that?”

  “No,” Heskow said. “When all his old friends went to jail, the Don retired like a gentleman. The FBI appreciated that. They leave him alone. I guarantee it. Now let me lay it out.”

  It took him a half hour to explain the plan in detail.

  Finally Stace said, “When?”

  “Sunday morning,” Heskow said. “You stay here for the first two days. Afterward the private jet flies you out of Newark.”

  “We have to have a very good driver,” Stace said. “Exceptional.”