Mosca’s was a white house with a pitched roof and a sign so small Jay blew past and had to double back, parking the Mustang facing the road. It was early for supper but the lot was nearly full, a raucous song pounding out the open windows.
The plan required him stepping foot in New Orleans, where the Italians still ruled.
He had taken the head of a New Jersey mob boss and left it floating in his Roman bath-style swimming pool, after a failed hit. The new boss sanctioned the kill but put a new hit out on Jay to keep up appearances.
Anyone who wanted the New Jersey crew’s favor might put a bullet in him. Their consciences went unsullied from whoring out girls barely older than children, or chopping off a working man’s hands for not paying street tax, but draw their blood in defense of your life and suddenly they had honor to protect.
This was a peace mission. Mama said Shooter owed the Eye-ties money, and had used his Calvineau protection to stiff them.
Mosca’s served food family style, big platters of garlic-spangled seafood, heaping bowls of tangled pasta. Servers bustled between tables, spoons and forks clattered, and Louis Prima and Keely Smith sang a lively duet on the jukebox. Jay liked Italians because they took a bite out of the ass of life. The music and the tang of garlic put speed in his step.
Salvatore Gingerelli, the boss of New Orleans, sat at his table surrounded by men hunkered over plates, eating quietly with napkins tucked into expensive shirts. They had the puffy bloodshot cheeks of heavy drinkers, pale skin rouged from hard living and nose candy.
Jay waited for the hostess, breathing in the ambrosia of olive oil and garlic.
If the mission failed, it would be a good last meal.
Sally Jiggs gestured to Jay with a serving fork.
He wore aviator glasses with steel frames and his sparse hair was combed straight over his crown, peppered gray like the hair covering his thick, sun-spotted arms.
His short compatriot, dressed in a plain black suit, stood and pulled out the empty chair. His jacket opened to reveal a shoulder holster. “It’s a long way from Jersey.”
Jay sat, thanked them, and tucked a napkin into his work shirt, but kept his feet planted, like a tiger ready to pounce.
“You are welcome at my table,” the big man said, and tore the heel off a loaf of bread and drowned it in a bowl of shrimp and garlic. “Up New York way, they call me Sally Jiggs. Mangia, Jay. Nothing good happens on an empty stomach.” He offered the bread basket.
Jay took two pieces, then filled his plate with broiled oysters and chicken cacciatore. The first bite was heaven. A clove of garlic melted on his tongue, followed by a sweet oyster spiked with breadcrumbs, broiled in butter.
“I told you, you never know who’s gonna walk in here,” a stocky man with a glossy black hairpiece said. “Sophia Loren ate at this table with Harry Connick, back in ’88.”
“This shit again.” The fifth, with his remaining red-gold hair coiffed into a sparse mane, wearing a silk guayabera unbuttoned at the belt. “She had the oysters oreganata, and you ate her scungilli.”
“To the one who took out Frankie Dee,” Sally Jiggs said, and poured Jay a glass of wine.
The table went silent, only the clatter of people eating and the blare of Prima’s trumpet. Jay closed his fist around his table knife.
“How’d you walk in here with balls that big?” Hairpiece asked. “Wreckin’ balls, you got.”
They laughed, and Jay broke half a grin. He twirled linguini on his spoon and enjoyed the tart, heady sauce. The kind that bubbled in a tall pot, like the mouth of a volcano giving forth the earth mother’s rich red blood.
“Personally, I thought Frank was a pompous asshole,” Big Sal said. “Fuckin’ Napolitano, they think their shit don’t stink. Look down on us Siciliana and Calabrese. They call us torreno, dirt people. The New York crew thinks the same of us here down South, don’t they? Frankie sure did.”
“He wiped his hands on that silk handkerchief every time he touched something,” the red lion said, cutting a veal cutlet.
“All I know is he swung first,” Jay said, and sucked a shrimp tail out of the shell, leaving no meat.
“He speaks,” Hairpiece said.
“Thank you for supper.” Jay dabbed with the napkin. “I ain’t had red sauce worth a damn in too long. But I know y’all ain’t spilling the wine just to thank me for what I done.”
The small man with the gun cracked a grin but remained quiet.
“We’re here to talk ancient history,” Big Sal said. “I got a whole shelf of history books. It’s what makes us, whether we like it or not. You know, these peckerwoods treated us as bad as they did the moolies when we first got here. Lynched eleven Italians in the town square.” He gestured with his fork, across the river. “They blamed us for killing the New Orleans police chief and strung us up like animals.”
“If my ancestors did the stringing, I’ll piss on their graves. But don’t pin it on me.”
Big Sal smiled like a benevolent grandfather. “If they did, I don’t know about it. I had the pleasure of whoring out the great-great-grandaughter of one of the men who led the riot, though. And I love that these inbred fucks have to live knowing they’ll never get rid of us. That’s why we southern Italians get along with you Cajuns. They’ve always spit on us. Like we ain’t exactly the white man.”
“Here he goes,” Phil said.
“What? Read your history. We’re mixed people. Like this city, in its heart. They use it to shame us, but I embrace it.”
Sally’s men ate to keep their mouths shut.
“But I wanna talk more recent history. Your mom and pop hit one of our jewelry stores in the Quarters, way back. I don’t expect you to remember, you were in your didies. But you were on the job. They used you as cover. The law called you the baby bandits.”
Jay had no recollection. His early years were a red haze of horrors in his blood mother’s hands, and rare glimpses of sun-bleached joy with Evangeline and Andre. But one was of her scooping him up one-handed as he toddled out of their station wagon and setting him in the driver’s seat. Be right back, sweet pea. No following, now.
“Your mama used to take you into jewelry stores,” the red lion said. “Get all dolled up and eyeball a set of gold watches for her folks on their anniversary, she said. She fed you two of my unset diamonds and a three-carat blue sapphire while I was busy with another customer.”
“You were too busy looking at her jugs, Philly,” Sal said, and the table laughed.
Jay ate another oyster. “If you want those rocks back, I’m pretty sure I shit them out already.”
Blood enemies made brief peace at the watering hole. This generation of cumpari played into the friendly silverback image portrayed on movies and cable, but they were just as willing to stuff shrieking children toes-first into a meat grinder in front of their parents as their forebears were.
“We can laugh now, but that’s still on the books.” Big Sal sucked the meat out of a shrimp tail, leaving nothing.
“Fifteen grand in ’73 money,” Phil said. “By the time I saw them missing, she had her ass hanging out the door of a blue Mustang, burning rubber up Dauphine.”
“Two points a week for forty years,” Jay said. “My grandparents have that kind of money, but I know you can’t touch them.”
No laughter. They kept forking food into their mouths.
“You could do them and us a favor by clearing this off the books. We know what you can do.”
Jay wondered why these men of power desired him under their charge. He had a wildness about him, perhaps it gave these men a rise in their drawers to command him around. That, and the fact that the only thing he was good at besides farting up a car seat and fixing every engine made by man, was killing.
The waitress came by with another jug of wine and a pitcher of water. She’d been giving the table a wide berth. It was set by the kitchen door and the juke, noisy and cozy and out of the way. Good for talking when you didn’t want others to hear. Jay waited until she left.
“Maybe I can clear two debts at once for you.” Jay reached into his pocket.
The little gunman moved without a hint of emotion, drawing his pistol.
Jay launched. The table lurched under his weight. He dimpled Sammy’s white dress shirt with the point of his Bowie knife, just beneath the heart. He plucked the little man’s gun upside down from the holster with his left hand.
The table froze.
“Easy now,” Big Sal said, an oyster speared on the end of his fork.
Jay held the pistol upside down, pinky on the trigger, aimed vaguely at Sally’s chest. It was an old convict move, for shooting guards with their own guns.
If the other diners saw anything, they didn’t look twice.
Jay dropped the baby Beretta into the water pitcher, then tossed a postcard into the plate of discarded oyster shells. He sheathed the knife and sat down.
Sammy sighed and dipped his napkin into the water, then dabbed the red spot on his shirt.
The card advertised Shooter Boudreaux’s Annual Second Amendment Expo.
“Friend of your family’s,” Phil said. “Using their juice to avoid his debts.”
Shooter Boudreaux grinned up at them, a black, heavily accessorized rifle in each hand.
Jay worked a lemon seed from the corner of his mouth and spat it onto the stars and bars on Shooter’s cap. “Shitbird forgot who lost that war.”
“They all did,” Big Sal said. “Just like our paisans back home forget they backed Mussolini and got their asses saved by the ‘Merigons.”
“Let them have it. It’s all they got.”
“You offering to put him out of our misery?” Sal said. “That won’t clear my books.”
“I’m not sure I can get Rambo’s fluffer to pay what he owes,” Jay said, and tossed his soaked napkin on his plate. “Or if he has it. But he owes my mama an eye, and she wants him for one last heist that’ll cover her debts and his.”
Sally Jiggs looked into Jay’s eyes for the lie. “That’s a big nut.”
“She’s Calvineau. She knows where the money is and how to get it. Shooter will be on your territory in two days. You gonna give me sanction, or not?”
Sal took the wine jug and gestured for Jay’s glass. He poured, and they drank.
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Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, trained in martial arts in Japan, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He is the author of The Boy from County Hell, which Joe R. Lansdale called “as wild as a night in a cage with an amorous monkey,” Blade of Dishonor, which MysteryPeople called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks,” and the Anthony-nominated crime thriller, Bad Boy Boogie. He also writes short stories that have appeared in Vautrin and elsewhere. You can find out more at www.thomaspluck.com