Tony Agrioli was grateful to leave the blistering sun and dive into the cold air of Malachi Best’s noisy The Desert Gold casino. Mozzarella’s Italian Restaurant was past the roulette tables and the Beatles’ newest hit, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” blared through the sound system when he arrived at the oversized table in the rear.
“You need me, Boss?”
Best handed Tony a folded piece of paper and wagged his finger over the calzone on his plate. “This needs to be done tonight, Anthony.” The Vegas mob boss sipped red wine from his crystal glass and spoke distinctly. “Take care of them. You know what I want.”
Anthony studied the typed list, the letters gummed from old ink and hard to read in the dim light of the casino’s dining room. Two handwritten additions stood out on the grease-stained list, though.
They were the names of twelve-year-old twin boys.
Anthony’s face prickled with shock, feeling like he was back in Public School 103 when the teacher called for the answer to a difficult arithmetic question. He looked up for confirmation from Best’s two men and a gray-mustached individual Anthony didn’t recognize. Best showed no inclination to introduce him to the uncomfortable guy trying to disappear inside his off-the-rack suit.
Built like a fireplug, Big Nose Pennacchio had been with Malachi since they were kids, and was his most trusted associate. He got the name Big Nose, not because of the size of his schnoz, but because his last name sounded like Pinocchio.
Rail-thin Seymour Burke had been with them since they opened the casino.
Both were well-heeled in custom suits cut to hide the bulges of their holsters. Neither made eye contact, as if that would absolve them of what was about to happen.
“The whole family, Mr. Best, and not just Enrique Sandoval?”
The boss’ heavy eyelids drooped as they did when he intended to make a point. “They are not our kind of people. They are Cubans, and they do not play by the same rules. Those people only know one thing, and I will give it to them.”
With nervous fingers, Anthony refolded the paper along the creases. “Mr. Best, again with respect, these are kids.”
Malachi carefully placed his fork on the edge of his plate and leaned back. His oily black hair glistened with Vitalis. “You know, Anthony, since we moved the business to Las Vegas, I have been reading a little history about the West, when I go to bed and cannot sleep. Not too long ago I finished an interest- ing story about a Colonel John Chivington in Colorado who was fighting the Indians nearly a hundred years ago. When he gathered his men to wipe out an Indian camp, he said to kill them all—men, women, and children, because ‘nits turn into lice.’” He hammered that last word, as if were the most disgust- ing thing in the world. “Think about that Anthony. Nits to lice. Kids grow into adults.
“That is what we have here with these Cubans.” Best waved a forefinger for emphasis. With each word, his voice rose and his carefully crafted diction deteriorated. “They are on our turf, in my town, and they are taking away my business. You know, they could have gone to some other rat hole town out in the desert and started their own casino! But instead they moved in here without asking anybody in the Family and started cuttin’ in on our business and they siphon off the money that we’re entitled to!”
He drew a deep breath to regain his composure and the precise speech pattern he worked so hard to effect. “Cubans do not think like us. That is why those Babalus muscled in on our action and opened that place…that…”
He snapped his fingers.
Big Nose didn’t take his eyes off the plate in front of him. “The Little Havana Casino,” he said.
“Right. They have no respect for American tradition. This is nineteen sixty-seven and they should know better than to muscle in on our territory. At the very least they didn’t come to us as they should have, hat in hand to ask permission. Then they hire away acts that have worked for the legitimate casinos for years and look at us like we cannot do anything about it. Well, we can.” Best was furious when Enrique Sandoval made friends with Frank Sinatra and convinced Ol’ Blue Eyes to perform in the new Havana Club at the farthest undeveloped end of what had become known as The Strip.
When Best contacted Connie Smith to appear in The Desert Gold a month later, she declined because she was already committed to the stage in the Little Havana Club. It sent Best into a rage that took two days to cool off.
“I can tell you to take out the mom and dad, but the kids will grow up and I will have to deal with them in the future.” Best reached out to pat Anthony’s arm. “Cubans don’t quit. I do not intend to be looking over my shoulder in twenty years. Nits turn into lice. History repeats itself. Do this for me, mio figlio.”
Malachi Best had never referred to Anthony, as my son. It was a watershed moment at the worst possible time.
Trying to land on a respectful argument, Anthony focused on Malachi’s thick hands. It wasn’t the killing that bothered him. He was an enforcer, and the very definition of his job involved violence and death. He’d killed many times with a clear conscience, because everything he did was for the Family. But Families didn’t make war on women and kids. There was honor in war back where they came from in Chicago, and it never came home to women and children.
Life in the energetic desert town had changed Malachi in a disturbing way.
“Good boy.” Best seemed surprised to find that his fists were clinched. He flexed his fingers. “You do that, and I will have some- thing extra for you later, and soon you will get a new position.” His speech pattern slipped back to his younger days. “You won’t be muscle no more. I’ll make you a caporegime. How about t’at?” Being a lieutenant in the organization was a significant promotion, but he didn’t want the rank for whacking kids. “Mr.
Best, again with all due respect, since when do we do kids?” “Since I said so.”
It wasn’t the air conditioning that made Anthony feel cold. It was the set of the mob boss’ jaw, and the expression on his face. Barely restrained tension crackled between them like an electrical short and Anthony knew he was straddling the line. From there, it could go either way.
Malachi Best wasn’t used to being questioned. He wiped his fingers on a linen napkin and then used his thumb to scrape sweat off his eyebrow. “Let me say it again, Anthony, slow, so you can understand. That family has connections, and I do not intend to be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life. Wipe them all out, and do not leave anything to connect me to the job.”
Best put his shoulder between them. The slight movement said the argument was over and the men at the table relaxed. “Good. You’re a good boy, Ant’ny. Nits to lice.”
Anthony watched Malachi’s jowls quiver as he took a bite, tucked it into his cheek, and spoke to the trio beside him. “We have to make an example out of them, or else every Babalu or that crummy little island is going to come down here in my backyard and start taking money out of my pocket. I will not have it.”
Then he took a long sip of wine and waved Anthony away like a bothersome fly.
Anthony’s respect for Best died the minute the boss flicked his fingers in dismissal. It had been withering for a long time, but he hadn’t realized it until that moment. The Family was changing. Maybe it was the desert heat, or the insane amount of money flowing into Malachi’s pockets, or that Anthony was simply growing up, but he felt different.
He left the restaurant for the address on the folded paper in his coat pocket. The vein in his forehead throbbed, a lifelong indicator that he was angry or frustrated. The built-in warning system often reminded him to back off and regain control.
It was nearly four in the morning when Anthony crept through the dark backyard. The checkered wooden butt of the .45 Colt 1911 was as familiar as a spoon and he felt the familiar electric tingle of adrenaline and anticipation that sharpened his senses. He wanted the knock-down power that came with the larger caliber in case he ran into any trouble. He also carried a Ruger
.22 semi-automatic in the pocket of his coveralls. He was usually a sharp dresser, but tonight his shop coveralls had a utilitarian purpose, as did the baseball bat in his other hand.
The pool lights made navigation through the expensive landscaping easy. He paused beside the diving board to listen. Anthony didn’t think the family had a dog, but in his line of work, he was prepared for anything and everything. If you worked for Malachi Best, you knew surprises and mistakes were not tolerated.
Back home in Chicago they called Anthony an “arm breaker.” The term still held up in the booming desert town, where Malachi Best wound up running The Desert Gold casino after brief stints in protection rackets, prostitution, numbers, extortion, and counterfeiting.
On that scorching August night, the Cuban crime family asleep upstairs included a mom, dad, and kids, with links back into Havana long before Fidel Castro wrested control of the island and sealed it off from the rest of the free world.
After escaping Castro’s grip in 1960, the Sandovals made a successful living in southern Florida by running numbers out of a small frame house in Miami. They used the wellspring of cash to bring more relatives into the fold, and then expanded the business to include gambling and prostitution. It soon became one of the biggest operations in the Sunshine State.
Four years later the law closed in, and after losing more than one cousin to arrest and imprisonment, they moved west to drink from the tremendously deep river of money flowing into the desert town of Las Vegas. The problems began when the dad, Enrique, went straight to work in direct competition with Malachi Best’s casino in the wide-open gambling town, cutting in on the Family’s profits.
Enrique Sandoval’s house was silent. Anthony reached the back door and found it was locked. He expected that, but it never hurt to try the simple way first. He carefully placed the bat on the Mexican tile, and unzipped his coveralls enough to slip the .45 into the shoulder holster. That done, he dug out the set of picks he’d learned to use as a kid. The cheap General lock surrendered a moment later. The door opened into a dark, spacious kitchen smelling of spices that reminded him of tamales.
The pistol back in his hand, Anthony waited for several long moments. When he was sure no one was up, he crept through the kitchen and into the dining room. Beyond, the television bathed the living room in a cold, silver light. A soft hiss accompanied the Indian Head Test Pattern.
On the couch with his back to the kitchen, a slender, dark- haired bodyguard in a shoulder rig snored loudly, his head thrown back on the cushions. Once again, Anthony holstered his pistol. Half a dozen quick steps cushioned by thick carpet brought Anthony to the sleeping man. The angle was perfect. Planting his feet, he swung the bat as if splitting a piece of firewood with an ax. The resulting crack sounded like a home run. Shocked by the massive blow to his forehead, the bodyguard’s body jerked and Anthony quickly struck again, just as hard. The sound of the second whack was softer, and wet.
Anthony listened carefully as blood soaked into the sofa. After a full minute, he wiped the bat on a cushion and crept slowly up the staircase. On the second floor, he followed the dark hallway toward the parents’ bedroom, which he’d identified while waiting in the shadows across the street.
The door was partially open, probably so the sleeping couple could hear the kids. Inside, he saw them in the silver rectangle of light spilling from the window. He moved quietly to Enrique Sandoval’s side of the bed.
The only sound was soft breathing. Anthony once again set his feet and swung the bat. Enrique Sandoval’s skull caved under the powerful blow. The body jerked from the impact. Blood sprayed. Wearing only a man’s white t-shirt, his wife propped herself on one elbow and turned to look back over her shoulder, her mind cloudy with sleep. “Que pasa?”
Anthony adjusted his grip on the bat to gain distance and moved one step back, so the wall wouldn’t interfere with his swing. With a mighty grunt, he swung for the bleachers. The bat cracked against the woman’s head, nearly knocking her out of the bed. He hit her a second time. She fell back, bare legs twitching. He stepped backward and smashed Enrique’s head once again to anchor the Cuban mobster.
A muffled voice at the other end of the house called a question as blood splatters ran down the walls. “Miss Adriana, está todo bien?”
Anthony pitched the bat between the bodies, drew the .22 from his pocket, and moved quickly to the door. Using one finger, he pushed it almost closed and waited in the darkness, peering into the hallway.
In khakis and an undershirt, a barefoot young man came down the hallway, hair sticking upright from sleep. Startled awake by a noise he couldn’t identify, he held a revolver loosely in his hand, pointing at the floor. When he reached the doorway, he paused to listen. If they had accidentally knocked something onto the floor while engaging in what he thought of as “marital relations,” it would be embarrassing to disturb the jefe and his missus. Hearing nothing, he respectfully lowered his head and quietly knocked with a knuckle.
“Senor? Con permiso?” He waited for a response. He asked a second time. “Está todo bien?”
Anthony jerked the door open and stuck the .22’s muzzle against the startled bodyguard’s forehead. The shot was sharp and loud. The man’s head snapped back and he collapsed onto the floor as if his legs had turned to noodles. The carpet quickly absorbed a wash of pumping blood.
The house still lay hushed. Anthony allowed himself to relax, breathing through his mouth and listening intently for any sound. Silence meant he hadn’t miscounted the bodyguards, and the children were still asleep.
Gritting his teeth and dreading the next step, he reentered the hallway and approached the boys’ room. Their door was closed, and when he gently pushed it open, the kids slept deeply in separate beds. Moonlight spilled through the open blinds into the air-conditioned room. A plastic General Electric radio glowed on the nightstand between them. Tuned low, a rock ’n’ roll song explained why the boys hadn’t stirred at the sound of the gunshot. The still-warm .22 hanging loosely in his sweating hand, Anthony stopped between their beds.
One slept on his stomach, facing the wall; the other was on his back with his mouth wide open. Anthony glanced around, making out baseball and travel pennants thumbtacked to the walls. Sandy Koufax and Ernie Banks posters filled the wall over one bed, held by bright thumbtacks that reflected the streetlight shining through the window. Above the other, a tattered Beatles poster joined a line of pictures ripped from Tiger Beat magazine. Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Michael Nesmith smiled in the darkness at the man who’d only moments before killed the kids’ parents.
He raised the pistol that suddenly weighed a hundred pounds and placed the muzzle above the ear of the baseball-loving boy asleep on his stomach.
“We don’t do kids, Mr. Best.” “Nits to lice. You work for me.” His stomach clenched.
If I don’t do this, Malachi Best will leave what’s left of my body in the desert.
Anthony was Family. The Family took care of its own, but they also exacted terrible revenge for wrongs or betrayals.
After all, they’re Cuban children who don’t mean anything to me.
He swallowed the bile rising in his throat and for the first time in his life, Anthony’s hands shook on the job.
Do this and I’ll be a lieutenant.
His temples pounded and his mouth felt dry as desert sand. He took a deep breath, trying to separate himself from what he was about to do.
Two pulls on the trigger and he could walk out to join Malachi’s elite leadership team.
His mind found a safe closet, and Anthony squeezed the trigger.
A sharp snap was the only result when the firing pin struck a faulty round. Sleeping deeply as only children can, neither of the twelve-year-olds moved.
Shocked, Anthony held the pistol in the moonlight and looked at it as if he suddenly found a live snake in his hand.
With a shudder, he dropped the weapon into his pocket, hurried out of the room. He fled to the kitchen and grabbed a dishtowel.
Minutes later, his hands and face wiped clean, the dishtowel and his blood-splattered coveralls were in a neighbor’s trashcan and he drove away, his life and those of the twins changed forever.