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Omerta, Page 2

Mario Puzo

  “I’m driving,” Heskow said, then added, almost apologetically, “It’s a very big payday.”

  For the rest of the weekend, Heskow baby-sat for the Sturzo brothers, cooking their meals, running their errands. He was not a man easily impressed, but the Sturzos sometimes sent a chill to his heart. They were like adders, their heads constantly alert, yet they were congenial and even helped him tend to the flowers in his sheds.

  The brothers played basketball one-on-one just before supper, and Heskow watched fascinated by how their bodies slithered around each other like snakes. Franky was faster and a deadly shooter. Stace was not as good but more clever. Franky could have made it to the NBA, Heskow thought. But this was not a basketball game. In a real crisis, it would have to be Stace. Stace would be the primary shooter.


  The great 1990s FBI blitz of the Mafia families in New York left only two survivors. Don Raymonde Aprile, the greatest and most feared, remained untouched. The other, Don Timmona Portella, who was nearly his equal in power but a far inferior man, escaped by what seemed to be pure luck.

  But the future was clear. With the 1970 RICO laws so un-democratically framed, the zeal of special FBI investigating teams, and the death of the belief in omerta among the soldiers of the American Mafia, Don Raymonde Aprile knew it was time for him to retire gracefully from the stage.

  The Don had ruled his Family for thirty years and was now a legend. Brought up in Sicily, he had none of the false ideas or strutting arrogance of the American-born Mafia chiefs. He was, in fact, a throwback to the old Sicilians of the nineteenth century who ruled towns and villages with their personal charisma, their sense of honor, and their deadly and final judgment of any suspected enemy. He also proved to have the strategic genius of those old heroes.

  Now, at sixty-two, he had his life in order. He had disposed of his enemies and accomplished his duties as a friend and a father. He could enjoy old age with a clear conscience, retire from the disharmonies of his world, and move into the more fitting role of gentleman banker and pillar of society.

  His three children were safely ensconced in successful and honorable careers. His oldest son, Valerius, was now thirty-seven, married with children, and a colonel in the United States Army and lecturer at West Point. His career had been determined by his timidity as a child; the Don had secured a cadet appointment at West Point to rectify this defect in his character.

  His second son, Marcantonio, at the early age of thirty-five, was, out of some mystery in the variation of his genes, a top executive at a national TV network. As a boy he had been moody and lived in a make-believe world and the Don thought he would be a failure in any serious enterprise. But now his name was often in the papers as some sort of creative visionary, which pleased the Don but did not convince him. After all, he was the boy’s father. Who knew him better?

  His daughter, Nicole, had been affectionately called Nikki as a young child but at the age of six demanded imperiously that she be called by her proper name. She was his favorite sparring partner. At the age of twenty-nine, she was a corporate lawyer, a feminist, and a pro bono advocate of those poor and desperate criminals who otherwise could not afford an adequate legal defense. She was especially good at saving murderers from the electric chair, husband killers from prison confinement, and repeat rapists from being given life terms. She was absolutely opposed to the death penalty, believed in the rehabilitation of any criminal, and was a severe critic of the economic structure of the United States. She believed a country as rich as America should not be so indifferent to the poor, no matter what their faults. Despite all this she was a very skilled and tough negotiator in corporate law, a striking and forceful woman. The Don agreed with her on nothing.

  As for Astorre, he was part of the family, and closest to the Don as a titular nephew. But he seemed like a brother to the others because of his intense vitality and charm. From the age of three to sixteen he had been their intimate, the beloved youngest sibling—until his exile to Sicily eleven years before.

  The Don planned his retirement carefully. He distributed his empire to placate potential enemies but also rendered tribute to loyal friends, knowing that gratitude is the least lasting of virtues and that gifts must always be replenished. He was especially careful to pacify Timmona Portella. Portella was dangerous because of his eccentricity and a passionate murderousness that sometimes had no relationship to necessity.

  How Portella escaped the FBI blitz of the 1990s was a mystery to everyone. For he was an American-born don without subtlety, a man incautious and intemperate, with an explosive temper. He had a huge body with an enormous paunch and dressed like a Palermo picciotto, a young apprentice killer, all colors and silk. His power was based in the distribution of illegal drugs. He had never married and still at age fifty was a careless womanizer. He only showed true affection for his younger brother, Bruno, who seemed slightly retarded but shared his older brother’s brutality.

  Don Aprile had never trusted Portella and rarely did business with him. The man was dangerous through his weakness, a man to be neutralized. So now he summoned Timmona Portella for a meeting.

  Portella arrived with his brother, Bruno. Aprile met them with his usual quiet courtesy but came to the point quickly.

  “My dear Timmona,” he said. “I am retiring from all business affairs except my banks. Now you will be very much in the public eye and you must be careful. If you should ever need any advice, call on me. For I will not be completely without resources in my retirement.”

  Bruno, a small replica of his brother who was awed by the Don’s reputation, smiled with pleasure at this respect for his older brother. But Timmona understood the Don far better. He knew that he was being warned.

  He nodded respectfully to the Don. “You have always showed the best judgment of us all,” he said. “And I respect what you are doing. Count on me as your friend.”

  “Very good, very good,” the Don said. “Now, as a gift to you, I ask you to heed this warning. This FBI man, Cilke, is very devious. Do not trust him in any way. He is drunk with his success, and you will be his next target.”

  “But you and I have already escaped him,” Timmona said. “Though he brought all our friends down. I don’t fear him but I thank you.”

  They had a celebratory drink, and the Portella brothers left. In the car Bruno said, “What a great man.”

  “Yes,” Timmona said. “He was a great man.”

  As for the Don, he was well satisfied. He had seen the alarm in Timmona’s eyes and was assured there would no longer be any danger from him.

  Don Aprile requested a private meeting with Kurt Cilke, the head of the FBI in New York City. Cilke, to the Don’s own surprise, was a man he admired. He had sent most of the East Coast Mafia chiefs to jail and almost broken their power.

  Don Raymonde Aprile had eluded him, for the Don knew the identity of Cilke’s secret informer, the one who made his success possible. But the Don admired Cilke even more because the man always played fair, had never tried frame-ups or power-play harassments, had never given publicity pin marks on the Don’s children. So the Don felt it was only fair to warn him.

  The meeting was at the Don’s country estate in Montauk. Cilke would have to come alone, a violation of the Bureau rules. The FBI director himself had given approval but insisted Cilke use a special recording device. This was an implant in his body, below his rib cage, which would not show on the outer walls of his torso;the device was not known to the public, and its manufacture was strictly controlled. Cilke realized that the real purpose of the wire was to record what he said to the Don.

  They met on a golden October afternoon on the Don’s verandah. Cilke had never been able to penetrate this house with a listening device, and a judge had barred constant physical surveillance. This day he was not searched in any way by the Don’s men, which surprised him. Obviously Don Raymonde Aprile was not going to make him an illicit proposal.

  As always, Cilke was amazed and e
ven disturbed by the impression that the Don made on him. Despite knowing that the man had ordered a hundred murders, broken countless laws of society, Cilke could not hate him. And yet he believed such men evil, hated them for how they destroyed the fabric of civilization.

  Don Aprile was clad in a dark suit, dark tie, and white shirt. His expression was grave and yet understanding, the lines in his face the gentle ones of a virtue-loving man. How could such a humane face belong to someone so merciless, Cilke wondered.

  The Don did not offer to shake hands out of a sensibility not to embarrass Cilke. He gestured for his guest to be seated and bowed his head in greeting.

  “I have decided to place myself and my family under your protection—that is, the protection of society,” he said.

  Cilke was astonished. What the hell did the old man mean?

  “For the last twenty years you have made yourself my enemy. You have pursued me. But I was always grateful for your sense of fair play. You never tried to plant evidence or encourage perjury against me. You have put most of my friends in prison, and you tried very hard to do the same to me.”

  Cilke smiled. “I’m still trying,” he said.

  The Don nodded in appreciation. “I have rid myself of everything doubtful except a few banks, surely a respectable business. I have placed myself under the protection of your society. In return I will do my duty to that society. You can make it much easier if you do not pursue me. For there is no longer any need.”

  Cilke shrugged. “The Bureau decides. I’ve been after you for so long, why stop now? I might get lucky.”

  The Don’s face became graver and even more tired. “I have something to exchange with you. Your enormous success of the past few years influenced my decision. But the thing is, I know your prize informant, I know who he is. And I have told no one.”

  Cilke hesitated for only seconds before he said impassively, “I have no such informant. And again, the Bureau decides, not me. So you’ve wasted my time.”

  “No, no,” the Don said. “I’m not seeking an advantage, just an accommodation. Allow me, because of my age, to tell you what I have learned. Do not exercise power because it is easy to your hand. And do not get carried away with a certainty of victory when your intellect tells you there is even a hint of tragedy. Let me say I regard you now as a friend, not an enemy, and think to yourself what you have to gain or lose by refusing this offer.”

  “And if you are truly retired, then of what use is your friendship?” Cilke said, smiling.

  “You will have my goodwill,” the Don said. “That is worth something even from the smallest of men.”

  Later Cilke played the tape for Bill Boxton, his deputy, who asked, “What the hell was that all about?”

  “That’s the stuff you have to learn,” Cilke told him. “He was telling me that he’s not completely defenseless, that he was keeping an eye on me.”

  “What bullshit,” Boxton said. “They can’t touch a federal agent.”

  “That’s true,” Cilke said. “That’s why I kept after him, retired or not. Still, I’m wary. We can’t be absolutely sure . . .”

  Having studied the history of the most prestigious families in America, those robber barons who had ruthlessly built their fortunes while breaking the laws and ethics of human society, Don Aprile became, like them, a benefactor to all. Like them, he had his empire—he owned ten private banks in the world’s largest cities. So he gave generously to build a hospital for the poor. And he contributed to the arts. He established a chair at Columbia University for the study of the Renaissance.

  It was true that Yale and Harvard refused his twenty million dollars for a dormitory to be named for Christopher Columbus, who was at the time in disrepute in intellectual circles. Yale did offer to take the money and name the dorm after Sacco and Vanzetti, but the Don was not interested in Sacco and Vanzetti. He despised martyrs.

  A lesser man would have felt insulted and nursed a grievance, but not Raymonde Aprile. Instead, he simply gave the money to the Catholic Church for daily masses to be sung for his wife, now twenty-five years in Heaven.

  He donated a million dollars to the New York Police Benevolent Association and another million to a society for the protection of illegal immigrants. For the three years after his retirement, he showered his blessings on the world. His purse was open to any request except for one. He refused Nicole’s pleas to contribute to the Campaign Against the Death Penalty—her crusade to stop capital punishment.

  It is astonishing how three years of good deeds and generosity can almost wipe out a thirty-year reputation of merciless acts. But great men also buy their own goodwill, self-forgetfulness and forgiveness of betraying friends and exercising lethal judgment. And the Don too had this universal weakness.

  For Don Raymonde Aprile was a man who had lived by the strict rules of his own particular morality. His protocol had made him respected for over thirty years and generated the extraordinary fear that had been the base of his power. A chief tenet of that protocol was a complete lack of mercy.

  This sprang not from innate cruelty, some psychopathic desire to inflict pain, but from an absolute conviction:that men always refused to obey. Even Lucifer, the angel, had defied God and had been flung from the heavens.

  So an ambitious man struggling for power had no other recourse. Of course there were some persuasions, some concessions to another man’s self-interest. That was only reasonable. But if all that failed, there was only the punishment of death. Never threats of other forms of punishment that might inspire retaliation. Simply a banishment from this earthly sphere, no more to be reckoned with.

  Treachery was the greatest injury. The traitor’s family would suffer, as would his circle of friends; his whole world would be destroyed. For there are many brave, proud men willing to gamble their lives for their own gain, but they would think twice about risking their loved ones. And so in this way Don Aprile generated a vast amount of terror. He relied on his generosity in worldly goods to win their less necessary love.

  But it must be said, he was as merciless to himself. Possessed of enormous power, he could not prevent the death of his young wife after she had given him three children. She died a slow and horrible death from cancer as he watched over her for six months. During that time he came to believe that she was being punished for all the mortal sins he had committed, and so it was that he decreed his own penance: He would never remarry. He would send his children away to be educated in the ways of lawful society, so they would not grow up in his world so full of hate and danger. He would help them find their way, but they would never be involved in his activities. With great sadness he resolved that he would never know the true essence of fatherhood.

  So the Don arranged to have Nicole, Valerius, and Marcantonio sent to private boarding schools. He never let them into his personal life. They came home for the holidays, when he played the role of a caring but distant father, but they never became part of his world.

  And yet despite everything and though they were aware of his reputation, his children loved him. They never talked about it among themselves. It was one of those family secrets that was not a secret.

  No one could call the Don sentimental. He had very few personal friends, no pets, and he avoided holiday and social gatherings as much as possible. Only once, many years before, he had committed an act of compassion that astounded his colleagues in America.

  Don Aprile, when he returned from Sicily with the child, Astorre, found his beloved wife dying of cancer and his own three children desolate. Not wanting to keep the impressionable infant in such a circumstance for fear it would harm him in some way, the Don decided to place him in the care of one of his closest advisors, a man named Frank Viola, and his wife. This proved to be an unwise choice. At the time, Frank Viola had ambitions to succeed the Don.

  But shortly after the Don’s wife died, Astorre Viola, at the age of three, became a member of the Don’s personal family when his “father” committed suicide in the t
runk of his car, a curious circumstance, and his mother died of a brain hemorrhage. It was then that the Don had taken Astorre into his household and assumed the title of uncle.

  When Astorre was old enough to begin asking about his parents, Don Raymonde told him that he had been orphaned. But Astorre was a curious and tenacious young boy, so the Don, to put an end to all his questions, told him that his parents had been peasants, unable to feed him, and had died, unknown, in a small Sicilian village. The Don knew this explanation didn’t completely satisfy the boy, and he felt a twinge of guilt over deceiving him, but he knew it was important while the child was still young to keep his Mafia roots a secret—for Astorre’s own safety and for the safety of the Aprile children.

  . . .

  Don Raymonde was a farseeing man and knew that his success could not last forever—it was too treacherous a world. From the beginning he planned to switch sides, to join the safety of organized society. Not that he was truly conscious of his purpose, but great men have an instinct for what the future will demand. And in this case, truly, he acted out of compassion. For Astorre Viola, at the age of three, could have made no impression, could have given no hint of what he would later become as a man. Or how important a part he would play in the Family.

  The Don understood that the glory of America was the emergence of great families, and that the best social class sprang from men who had at first committed great crimes against that society. It was such men who in the search for fortune had also built America and left evil deeds to crumble into forgotten dust. How else could it be done? Leave the Great Plains of America to those Indians who could not conceive of a three-story dwelling? Leave California to Mexicans who had no technical ability, no vision of great aqueducts to feed water to lands that would allow millions to enjoy a prosperous life? America had the genius to attract millions of laboring poor from all over the world, to entice them to the necessary hard work of building the railroads, the dams, and the sky-scratching buildings. Ah, the Statue of Liberty had been a stroke of promotional genius. And had it not turned out for the best? Certainly there had been tragedies, but that was part of life. Was not America the greatest cornucopia the world had ever known? Was not a measure of injustice a small price to pay? It has always been the case that individuals must sacrifice to further the advance of civilization and their particular society.