Another visit to Marcello Barbuto's office.
We drove to Murray Hill in Nick Santini's SUV, some monster vehicle that was bigger than my bedroom in my parents' house. He blasted ear-splitting rock music -- Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Metallica -- until, finally, Russell Boyer begged him to stop.
"I don't have any Barbra," Nick needled. "Or Bette. Or Judy. Sorry."
"I don't care what you play," Boyer sniffed. "As long as I have some hearing left at the end of the ride."
"Shea, you like my music, don't you?" Nick asked. Boyer and I were perched in the back seat, while Dennis Marshall rode shotgun.
"It's fine," I said. Better get used to agreeing with everything these guys say, I thought.
"See?" Nick crowed. "The kid has good taste!"
Boyer gave me a tart look. "Don't encourage him. He's trying to bother me. He always does this."
"Let's just turn the music off," said Dennis. You could tell that he was a corporate lawyer: he had a mediator's composed demeanor. "We're almost there."
We parked in front of the laundromat, just down the street from Mama Santo's Restaurant.
"Don't talk unless I tell you to, Shea," said Nick. "None of you guys say anything. I'm gonna handle the whole thing."
"I thought I was in charge of this negotiation!" said Boyer.
"I know these guys -- you don't!" Nick retorted.
"Gentlemen! I think we should just go in, do what we came to do, and then leave in good order," said Dennis. "This should be a simple, straightforward transaction."
Nick shook his head. "Nothing is ever straightforward with the Barbutos. Or simple."
I'd been nervous before, but now I was scared. What if Marcello Barbuto didn't want to cooperate? Then what? We couldn't exactly call the cops -- could we? Not if we wanted to get out alive.
The office, like last time, was stuffy and hot, even though an old air conditioner whirred loudly in the front window.
"Nicky! What the fuck are you doing here?" The surprise on Barbuto's face was real.
"Hiya, Chel. Long time, no see." He shook his cousin's hand. "I'm here with my associates. And I see you have your associates, too. So we're equal." Nick nodded in the direction of the two non-speaking thugs who had been there during my previous visit. "We're here to pay off Mr. John Desmond's gambling debt. I believe you hold a marker for my friend's parents' house."
"I might." Barbuto was not pleased.
Nick nudged Russ Boyer, who looked ready to jump out of his skin. "I... I have an envelope here to pay off the debt. $75,000 in cash." Boyer opened up his briefcase and took out a thick envelope. A very, very thick envelope. He started to hand it to Barbuto, but Nick took it instead.
"Mr. Boyer here was going to cut a check for the amount, but I suggested that you might appreciate a cash payment instead," said Nick, testing the weight in his hand. And it was a good weight. More money than I'd ever seen in one place, certainly.
The better-dressed thug leaned down and whispered something to Barbuto. "My associate says that the full amount of the debt is $76,745."
Nick's face was impassive. This guy must be a great poker player, I thought. "Here's the cash, Marcello. Consider the remainder a delivery charge."
Barbuto's face was turning red, and not only because of the damp heat rising from the laundromat below. "You trying to short me, Nicky?"
"And you trying to bullshit me, Chel?" Nick crossed his arms over his chest defiantly. "Take the cash. That's what you want, isn't it? Your fucking money?"
Barbuto hesitated. He glanced at his associates. "You're screwing me over, Nicky! Come on! What are you up to? I know you're a butt pirate, but you're still my cousin. What, you buying this kid's ass for yourself?"
"Maybe," Nick shrugged. "Not that it's any of your fucking business." He reached over and cupped my ass while I tried not to flinch. "I admit it's a fine piece of ass. But you know that already, don't you? How much is Vincenzo paying you for the kid?"
Barbuto sneered. "Enough. Okay, plenty. I may not swing that way, but I can recognize a valuable piece of merchandise when I see it. The minute the kid came in here I knew Vinnie would give me a bundle for him. I knew he'd never be able to round up that kind of dough to pay off his old man's debt. So I kind of promised Vinnie I'd make delivery on him to Vegas in the next couple of weeks. Vin's already got the kid booked with some high-roller from Hollywood! Those guys love something new, you know what I mean?"
"Wait!" I took a deep breath. "Booked? But I hadn't agreed to go out there!"
"It doesn't matter what you agreed to, Shea," Nick explained. "If you hadn't gone voluntarily, then you would have gone... involuntarily. That's the way it works with these guys."
"You're killing me here, Nicky!" Barbuto griped. "I'm a businessman! He'd have gotten his share of the dough. The debt would have been paid off -- eventually."
"Yeah, but after how many years?" Nick said darkly. "You know as well as I do that as long as the kid was making money Vinnie would never let him go. There would always be more charges, more interest to pay off. Charging him for clothes, for services, for drugs, for whatever. That kind of debt never gets paid -- and you know it." He put the heavy envelope on the desk in front of Barbuto. "Take the cash, Chel. It's all there. And give me the marker."
But Barbuto didn't reach for it. He sat back in his chair and scowled.
"You want me to get my father involved in this?" Nick warned. "He's retired, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't come down here and bring a couple of his old friends to convince you."
"Son of a bitch," Barbuto muttered. "You want that cocksucker that bad, you can have him!" He took the envelope and stashed it in the top drawer of the desk. "Give him the fucking marker," he said to the thug on his right.
The associate went to a file cabinet and pawed through it, pulling out a folder. He handed it to Barbuto, who handed it to Nick. Nick then gave it to Dennis and Russ Boyer, who looked it over briefly and nodded.
"Finito! That ends it," said Nick. "The debt is paid in full?"
Barbuto nodded. "It's paid in full. These guys are witnesses."
"What about a signature?" Boyer interrupted. "Shouldn't he sign off on it?"
"Shut the hell up, Russ!" snapped Nick.
"My word is all the signature you need!" roared Barbuto. "I didn't even open the envelope because this is my cousin and I wouldn't insult him by counting it! And now you want my name on a fucking piece of paper? You faggots get the fuck out of here!"
We began backing out the door.
"Ciao, Marcello!" said Nick. "Send my love to your mama, Auntie Minnie."
"Fuck you, Nicky! Send my regards to your father."
Two minutes later we were in the SUV and speeding down Murray Hill like we'd just done a hit.
"He didn't want me to pay off my old man's debt, did he?" My heart was pounding and hands were shaking.
"Of course not, kid," said Nick. "Vincenzo, our cousin, runs one of the biggest prostitution rings in the West. Vegas, L.A., Palm Springs. Girls, mainly, but also boys. It's a big business and guys will pay plenty for sex if it's marketed right. When Raj told me Marcello was involved I immediately knew the score. Me and my brothers, our business is totally legit, but it wasn't always like that. My father got Chel's father his start back in the day. Drugs, the numbers, women, you name it. Chel remembers that, so he's doing me a favor. I'm sure Vinnie already gave him a nice piece of change for you, Shea. Now Chel has to give it back -- and he hates giving money back. The money we gave him today will cover a large chunk of the fee and that will appease him. He's greedy, but he's not crazy enough to make a stink about it."
"A chunk of it?" I gasped. "But we gave him $75,000!"
"Yeah, but I guarantee you were gonna make him a lot more than that," said Nick. "At least a hundred grand for the exchange, I'd guess. Don't sell yourself short, kid."
"Jesus," Russ Boyer breathed.
"Don't be fooled. Those guys don't play around," said Nick. "That office may look like shit, but Marcello probably has a million bucks squirreled away in that old desk."
Nick drove us back downtown to the Kingman Building.
"You have your cellphone and datebook?" asked Boyer as we got out of the SUV. Now that we were out of Little Italy and on his own turf, Russell Boyer was all business.
"Right here." I was clutching the manila envelope. I couldn't stop thinking about the $75,000.
"Good. Don't forget to answer your calls and then check in with me. And don't forget Monday afternoon."
"Right. With Mr. Kingman."
Boyer winced. "Don't say his name out loud! Have a little discretion!" He glanced at Nick and Dennis Marshall, who were pretending not to listen. Boyer shook his head and went into the building.
"Can I drop you anywhere, kid?" asked Nick, leaning out the window of the SUV.
"No, I have my car in the parking garage."
"Okay, then. I'll be calling you. For that ball game."
"Sure. That'll be fun."
After Nick drove away, Dennis and I stood awkwardly on the sidewalk. "Well, I need to get back to my office, too. It's only a couple blocks away, on Euclid."
"Great." I didn't know what else he wanted me to say.
He cleared his throat. "I'm having a little party on Saturday evening for my wine group. A tasting. I'd like you to come. I mean, if you're not busy."
"No, I'm not busy." I almost opened up my datebook to check, but I was sure the only other appointment I had was with Carter Kingman on Monday. And some vague baseball game with Nick in the near future. "What time?"
"Come around 6:00. You can help me set up."
"I'm warning you, I don't know anything about wine."
Dennis smiled. "It doesn't matter. No one will be judging you."
Yeah, that's what you think. "Sounds good."
"You live on the West Side, right? I live in Pepper Pike. Off South Woodland. I'll call and give you directions. It won't be hard to find."
"I'll get there. I have a map."
"Well, then." Dennis held out his hand and I shook it tentatively. "I'll see you Saturday."
I watched him walk away.
My first job. Client. Appointment. Trick. I didn't even know what to call it.
At least I wasn't on my way to Las Vegas in a sack!
No, I'd dodged that bullet. But there was no way I was going to dodge this one. I was back in business, so to speak. The world's oldest.
Right back where I began.
And I'd just have to live with it.