The most annoying thing about all this was nobody knew when the old badger was going to kick the bucket. But to make the wait comfortable, at least, Stefano had secured a nice leather chair near the fireplace, Vince covering his flank.
He didn’t expect hostility. If he had, he wouldn’t have shown up; he wasn’t that brave. But he still liked having Vince at his side. This way he had at least one ally in the room. The others were fleeting alliances or all-out rivals for the business soon to be up for grabs.
Luigi Ferretti, the old badger’s right-hand man, stepped into the room and walked toward Rossi, an east coast boss. They exchanged a few whispered words, then Rossi put his wine glass down, straightened his suit like a boy being called to the principal’s office, and followed the consigliere.
Stefano was too low on the food chain to receive the call so soon. First the dying man’s old comrades, then the young Turks. No doubt the big pieces of the old man’s empire would be taken by the time his turn came. But even if there were only scraps left, he couldn’t afford not to be here. He had to circle with the other sharks.
His cell phone buzzed. Just short; a text message. He fished it from his pocket and cast a glance at the screen.
Having a great time, but the hotel bed is so empty without you.
He smiled at the thought of Donata in that Parisian five-star hotel, wearing a silken negligee—maybe the one as red as spilled blood—her small breasts and hard nipples pushing against the barely-there fabric. He was damn lucky to have married her rather than taken her as a mistress, even if he did tend to send her away on shopping trips to London, Paris, or New York when he had to get this involved with the family business. Even if, as she put it, she only bought the clothes so she could take them off for him.
His neck was cramping up, so he stood, stretched out, and then headed for the open balcony doors and the salty breeze. In a corner, two men were talking in murmurs, denying him solitude, so he headed down the broad stairs toward the front of the mansion.
The white gravel driveway was lit all the way from the road. Above the rhythmic swell of the ocean sounding from beyond the house, Stefano heard the revving of a powerful, aggressive engine.
A motorcycle, all sharp edges, painted black with white highlights. It zipped along the winding driveway as if it had a race to win, swerving dangerously and then stopping with a dramatic turn, spraying gravel everywhere.
Including across Stefano’s polished leather shoes.
The driver was hunched over the handlebars, wearing a matching full-body leather suit with Kevlar plates.
Like some modernist centaur on wheels.
The driver stepped off, displaying long, long graceful legs and a tiny ass clad in leather. Woman? Lean and angular, but feminine, even when kicking the stand underneath the bike. The helmet came off after a somewhat awkward release. Short, spiky hair beneath. Not a woman—and that jolted through Stefano just as hard as the driver’s cold, motionless, focused expression. In that pale face lurked the blackest, darkest eyes Stefano had ever seen, and lips like they’d been cut with knife blades, perfect, sharp, and deadly.
The driver cast him an annoyed glance—At his proximity? His staring?—but then paused and regarded him longer. No smile, no recognition. Eventually, he turned to hang the helmet from the handlebar.
Stefano backed away, but watched the man unstrap saddlebags just large enough for a proper suit and toiletries.
The driver glanced at him again. “Old guy’s not dead yet?” he asked.
“Not that I know of.”
“Bene.” The driver shrugged. “I’ll go have a shower now. Wanna come?”
What. The. Fuck. He forced himself not to recoil. Think, Stefano. Think. If he’s family. Son? Cousin? Grandson? He couldn’t afford to make enemies here, even if those words—that invitation—could get men killed.
Wanna come? The way he’d said it could have meant anything.
Stefano decided on a sneer. “That would hardly be appropriate.”
The driver shrugged and sauntered past him toward the house. The guards near the door stopped him, but when he produced a piece of paper from inside his leather suit, they let him pass. They even looked a little impressed. Or was it bewildered?
Stefano followed back into the house—not following the driver, though, of course not—and watched him climb the big central staircase inside.
The leather played off his body in interesting ways. He tried to ignore the other details—taut piece of ass, broad shoulders, the V-shape of the back at odds with the first impression of femininity when he’d straightened up from the bike.
Not that women had any reason to be here. At least not attractive single women. Stefano shook his head and turned away.
“What the fuck is he doing here?” one man said, casting a baleful eye up the steps.
“He’s Battista’s boy,” another man said, in the far more hushed tones of respect.
“Gianbattista’s getting senile to rely on him,” the other man sneered. “Fucking wild card.”
“Well, seems Battista’s not coming personally.”
Stefano inched closer, ostensibly to settle at one of the small round tables scattered around the house, and pretended to be interested in the glass of salt sticks nobody else had touched.
“What’s he up to these days, anyway?”
“Breeding roses, they say.” The boss ignored his companion’s incredulous snort. “For all intents and purposes, Battista’s retired. I’d say the boy’s making sure nobody comes calling in favors.”
“Oh yeah. He killed Diego Carbone. In self-defense.”
The other man grimaced. “I’d heard Carbone was dead, but not who did him.”
“I have it on good information. He did Diego. Pumped him full of lead and then strangled him. It was a massacre. Diego shot him, too. Put the boy in the hospital for a few months—blood poisoning or some shit like that. People say he’s just as insane as Carbone now.”
“Cazzo.” The man glanced up the stairs, but the driver was gone. “I believe it.” He looked around as if trying to escape the conversation, then stood and followed a servant with a silver tray of canapés.
Stefano made eye contact with the boss who’d been left behind. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help overhearing that conversation. Stefano Marino.” Stefano offered his hand.
Gathering information beat sitting near the fireplace being bored. The thought that the driver had killed Diego—an enforcer so violent as to be virtually insane—made him uneasy. He didn’t hear much news from the east coast, wrapped up as he was in the microcosm of his own territory and his immediate interests. But some interesting names in all that. Il Gentiluomo, Gianbattista Falchi, cultured on the outside with his mild manners and graying temples, an old-style consigliere like straight out of The Godfather. Stefano had met him only once, warned and aware that Falchi was a trickster and schemer, yet still not immune to his charisma.
How curious that the old consigliere trusted his security to this young killer who didn’t seem to give a fuck about tradition. Maybe as a retiree with still-considerable influence, Gianbattista Falchi could afford to ignore tradition, too.
“You’re still here,” a voice said at his back.
Stefano turned around to find himself standing way, way too close to the driver. Those black eyes were without light, without reflection. The stare punched the air from his lungs, and those lips . . . God, those lips. Distantly, he heard his conversation partner making his excuses, but he paid the man no mind, and neither did the driver. He could feel the heat from the driver’s body. Imagined touching. Being touched. He blinked and stepped away.
Only then did he realize the driver had changed and showered, as promised. His short hair was still wet, and he was wearing a severe black suit over a white shirt. No tie. The suit was cut to hide the gun under his right shoulder, but also showed off a whole lot of lean muscle. Not an ounce of fat on him.
Stefano swallowed. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“They call me Barracuda.” No smile, just stating a fact. The name was oddly fitting for that expressionless face. “Silvio Spadaro.”
Spadaro was offering his hand. Stefano took it, the grip firm and dry, the skin rough. Of course, he was a killer, a sicario, so he’d have to touch guns enough to harden against them. Stefano swallowed. He shouldn’t be thinking about what this hand touched and how. “Stefano Marino.”
“I know.” Spadaro lifted an eyebrow, and didn’t release Stefano’s hand. “How long have you been waiting for the old man to die?”
“Leukemia takes a while. We’ve had some false alarms in the past.”
“This time it’s real. That’s why I’m here.” Spadaro kept holding his hand, and Stefano realized he was beginning to sweat. It wasn’t fear. The man was just so intense. Not freakish, not insane. Just mental games, psychological warfare. A killer’s job.
“So, how—” he forced his hand from the man’s grip “—is Gianbattista Falchi these days?”
“Sta bene.” Spadaro cast a quick glance around the room. When the eye contact broke, Stefano could breathe again. But then the eyes came back, staring him point-blank in the face. “He sent me to pay his respects.”
“Why’s he not coming personally?”
“Want the truth or a polite lie?”
Stefano huffed. “Surely he’d say goodbye to his old friend?”
“He fucking hates the rest of the family,” Spadaro said flatly. “And he hates the smell of hospitals. The lies, the polite smiles. He said he wouldn’t trust himself not to make a scene.”
Seemed Gianbattista had embraced his retirement. Or saw a danger to himself here. Stefano filed the thought away. “So he figures you of all people won’t?”
Spadaro’s lips quirked. “Maybe I’m here to make sure the old guy meets Death properly this time. Do you know what’s going on in people’s heads here?”
“I have an educated guess.” Stefano reached for the glass of salt sticks, more unnerved than he wanted to admit by the killer’s comments. He didn’t expect violence, but you never really knew with the family, did you?
“Yeah, well, fuck ’em.” Spadaro cast another glance at the assembled Mafiosi. “I wouldn’t change places with any of them.”
Was that a slip of the mask? Calculated provocation? “Oh? Why not?”
“You know what they did to Joey D’Amato?”
Stefano straightened. Why would Spadaro mention the faggot? Way too crass and unsettling, especially considering he’d been vanished, not even a body to bury.
Spadaro studied him, head tilted. “That’s why I don’t belong to anybody,” he said quietly, but with the force and conviction of a kidney punch. “I’m not following their fucking rules.” He swept the crowd again with his expressionless black eyes, then fixed them on Stefano’s face.
Stefano’s lips tingled. It was still hard to breathe and he had no idea why. He couldn’t let this man intimidate him. Couldn’t be seen as too interested. Barracuda or not—even Gianbattista Falchi’s protetto or not—he could afford zero suspicion. He’d be dead. Fuck Spadaro for flustering him so, and fuck himself for getting flustered, but he’d never show it. “Well, give Falchi my best wishes when you return to him.”
“Will do.” Spadaro sketched an ironic salute and stepped away.
Stefano fought the urge to straighten his tie, fought harder against the urge to watch the Barracuda cut through the assembled groups of men.
He caught Vince’s gaze, and though his bodyguard relaxed a little, he still looked worried. Stefano could see why. A sicario who belonged to a “retired” consigliere, and not just any pensioner, but crafty old Gianbattista Falchi, who’d been more powerful in his own right than many bosses. That was all manner of disturbing. “Paying his respects” by being anything but respectful. Mentioning D’Amato like killing the faggot was somehow wrong. Mentioning him in fucking public.
He stood around, restless, then noticed Luigi approach Spadaro and touch his shoulder. The black eyes flared and Spadaro glowered at Luigi as if he were about to take the older man’s head clean off. But he reached into his suit jacket, pulled his gun from his holster with two fingers, and handed it to Luigi. The consigliere took it without batting an eyelash, then went upstairs. Spadaro followed.
Vince stepped to his side. “That’s really fucking impressive. Arrives here and gets seen almost immediately.”
“Well, he was sent by Gianbattista Falchi.”
Vince nodded solemnly. “I don’t like his attitude.”
“I fucking hate it.” The way the man’s presence made his skin tingle wasn’t hatred, but that wasn’t something he could admit. Spadaro seemed to have that effect on people. The fact that he clearly carried weight and power was even worse.
So what was this guy’s game?