FAMILY BUSINESS
by Dennis Calero

 

Antonio Gianni felt the cool air of the building's industrial-strength air-conditioners hit him, and walking through the barrier of cold was like crashing through a pane of glass. Myers, his father's former VP, now the interim CEO of Jenson Toys, was trailing behind him. His own walk was forceful, his muscular legs pumping in strides that gulped the floor. Myers, a swollen peach-pit of a man, stumbled forward in awkward sips.

"Hurry up, weasel," Gianni said. "I want to get this over with."

Myers gave a little indignant harrumph, but not too loudly." Anyone who knew who Gianni was and what he did for a living took care not to protest too much.

Gianni punched the elevator call button.

"Something on your mind?" His voice echoed in the marble-tiled lobby. The building was empty except for a lone security guard leaning in a corner, possibly asleep.

Outside the glassed-in lobby, it was still dark, but it had already been getting hot.

"I was just going to say, don't you think it's odd that your father chose to have his will read at six o'clock in the morning?"

"I'd say he was a bit odd."

"Your father was a good man." Just something to say.

"That's what I'm told." Something to say back.

He tried to sound cold, unconcerned, but for the first time in a long while, Gianni was truly nervous. It was a lead weight on his mind not unlike the tug of the nickel-plated .44 automatic that he kept in a shoulder holster under the jacket of his Brooks Brothers suit.

The offices of Debitzer, Abrahms and Sweezey was a luxurious space of granite and wood paneling that, in the early morning, still smelled of wood oil and Pine Sol." To Gianni's surprise, there was already a receptionist at the front desk, a pleasant-looking young girl with a nice rack. She gave them a welcoming look.

"Mr. Gianni," she said as she rose. "Mr. Meyers, please follow me."

She had a nice ass, too, Gianni noted as she turned and led them down a long hall to a conference room.

 

* * *

 

There was a wall lined with books, a large teak conference table, three leather chairs and a TV/VCR.

"Please make yourselves comfortable," the receptionist said, flashing her eyes at Gianni. She asked them if they wanted coffee.

Sure, he thought. Give me the eyes. I'm probably going to inherit about six million dollars in ten minutes or so. Better get in good while you can. She did have nice eyes, though; a kind of green with a little violet around the pupils. Gianni had studied painting in high school before he and the public school system parted ways, and she had the kind of eyes that inexperienced painters were always trying to depict in portraits but always looked pretentious.

He refused the coffee. Myers asked for a Coke. Looking at his puffy, middle-aged flesh, Gianni had to suppress a laugh. This guy needed a syrupy, high-calorie soda like a bullet in the head.

"It's a bit odd," Myers said after a long moment. It broke the utter silence like a thunderclap and Gianni jumped internally.

"What now?" He had sounded a bit harsher that he had meant to, angry with himself for being so god-damned jumpy. What the hell was wrong with him?

His father had walked out on him and his mother twenty years ago nearly to the day, and now he was dead. What could a dead man do to him? Make me filthy rich, he thought.

This thought was tinted green and black.

There I go again, thinking in color.

But the churning in his stomach was like that: a green center of warmth and regret, of the excitement of the money, swirling with the black of his seething hatred for the bastard. Over the past two decades, he had managed to take his feelings concerning the matter and stuff them into a dark corner of his mind.

But here he was and all of it now threatened to spill out of his head like bile.

"What?" he repeated to Myers, who had apparently taken his mental
rambling for annoyance.

"Well," Myers said, clearing his throat, "your father had a large family ... a large extended family, I mean." He cleared his throat again.

Gianni ignored the man's attempt to backtrack.

"His real family, you mean. Yeah, this is strange." He thought a moment. "I mean, if this is some special side arrangement for the prodigal son, then why are you here?" He pointed at Myers with his thumb cocked, like a gun. A little affectation he'd adopted since he turned pro.

Myers turned away, adjusting his tie nervously, like some hammy comedic actor. Gianni pictured him saying, in a Rodney Dangerfield accent, "I get no respect."

 

* * *

 

Just then, the door opened and an old man walked in. He wasn't elderly or a senior citizen. This fucker was just plain old. In his gnarled hands, he carried a manila folder and a videotape in a gold-foiled cardboard sleeve.

"Mr. Gianni," he said, his voice a rich baritone with a hint of a Spanish accent. "My name is Nastilla, I was your father's attorney and friend. We have some business that must be attended to." He sat down in the remaining chair, placing the folder and video on the table in front of him. "Very serious business, I'm afraid."

Though he sat up with a strong, confident posture, Nastilla had to be pushing a hundred. He had a snow white beard and his hair was so long that even pulled back into an intricately knotted ponytail, it still reached halfway down his back. It was in stark contrast to his impeccably tailored charcoal suit, an Armani maybe.

"First things first, I always say." He opened the manila folder in front of him and flipped through the documents reverently, like pages in an old and fragile book.

Not wanting to appear curious, Gianni fought the impulse to look over at the papers. He looked instead at the wall of books, trying his best to look disinterested. But there was something odd there too, though he couldn't put his finger on it. Some of the books looked old, sure. Most of them were heavy legal volumes, some dating as far back as the 1800s, but some looked ... older. Their spines were inlaid with metal and jewelry. Antiques? In a law library?

"Mr. Gianni?"

He was brought back by Nastilla's voice. It was almost hypnotic. "I know you and your father were not on good terms," he said. "But for the moment, put aside those feelings and listen to me."

Gianni decided he liked the old guy. Maybe his look simply appealed to the artist in him, such a strange ... what was that word his art teachers always threw around?

Juxtaposition.

Yeah, that was it. The man was a living juxtaposition: that crazy hair, that sharp suit that didn't come off any rack, the voice that was like chocolate icing and that vanilla face crisscrossed with lines ... and those eyes. The eyes ... the same as the girl's. Green flecked with purple around the pupil. His daughter, maybe? Was this a family business?

Yeah, he liked the old guy, but that was no reason to take guff. "You know, Mr. Nastilla," he said, pronouncing the double l's with the proper Spanish y sound, "it's been a very long time since anyone told me what to do."

The man's look did not waiver.

"I imagine so," he said. "Yet, a man in your position knows the value of listening. In fact, I might be so bold as to suggest that listening and understanding the situation ..."

He pronounced this carefully, as much for clarity as for emphasis, ... is one of the primary factors in your success in your vocation."

"Yes," Gianni admitted, "that's true. But I don't like being buttered up. I'm not a busty secretary. I don't like it."

"Touché," Nastilla said, but with no real reaction.

Gianni had hoped to hit a nerve, but he had either, despite his supposed talents, misjudged the situation or the man was extremely guarded.

"Maybe you'll like this," Nastilla continued, flipping through the documents. "Your father has left you cash and income-producing assets with a total value of just over six hundred and seventy-five million dollars."

 

* * *

Gianni couldn't help it. His jaw dropped and for a long moment, he couldn't take in a single breath.

"Ah," Nastilla said, with a polite smile. "You seem to now understand the situation."

Gianni sipped his coffee. He was barely managing to keep his hand from shaking.

"If you need anything else, please ask," the girl said, then left.

So much for his pet theory, the burgeoning sense of unreality about this whole situation that actually had him thinking ... but that was crazy. They had both been in this room at the same time and this was not an Outer Limits episode. This was his life.

Well, he thought, my life plus about six hundred million dollars.

Now he was shaking. The son-of-a-bitch did it again. But he would not get emotional! He would not let a dead man shake him. Not with money he wouldn't.

When Gianni felt reasonably under control, he looked up at Nastilla, sure the old man would be smiling; he and his dead father sharing a final little joke. But the man had a look of concern on his face that seemed genuine.

"I know this is a massive shock," he said. "Please let me know if you are ready to continue."

Gianni knew he meant him, but he looked over at Myers, a reflex action. Myers was absolutely pale, as if he had just been turned to alabaster, his skin smooth and dry. Gianni had read somewhere that when the body stopped sweating, it could be a sign of deep shock. Holy shit, was the guy about to have a heart attack?

But Myers finally noticed he was being stared at and composed himself.

Gianni realized something. He didn't know. He was my father's right hand man, took over the company when he died, but this is news to him.

There was a little mystery here, and if he could concentrate on that, he thought he might be able to keep his shit together. Gianni turned to Nastilla. "Go ahead."

Nastilla turned to the papers again. "The numbers are pretty straightforward, actually. Your father has turned over his most public company, Jenson Toys, to his youngest son, twenty-eight-year old Robert. I don't think you two have ever met."

"No," Gianni answered, taking care to keep his voice even.

"He has expressed great interest in meeting you. Perhaps some day you will," he said, and sighed wistfully. Again, the hypnotic quality of that voice like a rolling echo coming from somewhere warm and deep.

Robert, huh? He might just look him up.

"In any case," Nastilla continued, "Mr. Jenson has stipulated in his will that Mr. Myers be interim CEO until Robert completes his MBA. Afterwards, Mr. Myers will resume his duties as head vice-president of marketing until retirement, at which time he will receive a nice bonus package."

"The rest of his public holding, stocks, bonds, T-bills, CD's, money market funds, and real estate is to be divided among his remaining children and his wife. They will be informed at a reading this afternoon."

He gave Gianni a sympathetic eye. "Until recently, there was a stipulation that your mother receive a share of the holdings worth about six million, but he had the will amended when he learned that your mother had passed away. I'm sorry."

"He paid for the funeral, so I guess that counts for something," Gianni said, his voice laced with sarcasm.

Myers finally spoke up. "You keep saying his 'public holdings'."

"Yes, well, of course, I don't mean public in the legal sense," he said, still looking at Gianni as if he had asked the question. "The vast majority of your father's fortune is hidden in various offshore accounts and his other business concerns are, shall we say, somewhat off the legal radar."

"Are you saying they're illegal?" Myers asked, stupefied.

"Quite. The various concerns are outlined in these documents, which are for you, Mr. Gianni, to look over and study at your leisure." He slid a piece of paper across the table. "In a nutshell, they are stakes in various organized crime families, including the Giannis, and, in turn, prostitution, drug trafficking, money laundering, computer hardware and software piracy in foreign markets, et cetera."

Gianni looked it over. As he read, his yes seemed to glaze over.

"Holy shit," he finally said.

"Indeed."

He shoved the paper away. Meyers drew it toward him and examined it himself.

"What are you saying?" Gianni asked. "That all these years ... I've been working for him?"

"In a roundabout way, yes."

"No," Gianni said quietly. But it was like uncorking a bottle, and his hate rose to the surface in a bubbling ferment. He saw his father's face staring up at him from hell.

And it was laughing at him.

Gianni stood, not fully aware of what he was doing. He pulled the gun from his holster.

"What are you doing?" Myers said.

He pointed the gun at Nastilla.

 

* * *

 

"Mr. Gianni, please." Nastilla made a odd little hand gesture. Though he was moving slowly, his fingers seemed to blur, like he was watching them through a distorted lens.

He pulled the trigger.

The hammer fell ... but nothing happened. He looked at the gun, dumbfounded. He appeared as confused by the gun's jamming as he was by the fact that he was just about to shoot this man.

Instead, he looked at Nastilla, a sheepish grin of apology on his face.

"My gun," he said, showing it to him like a child might display a recently deceased pet frog to a parent. "It's never jammed before."

"Think nothing of it," he said and moved to the bookshelf.

"There is one last item your father left you." He removed one of the volumes and placed it on the table with a heavy thud. "This book."

Gianni looked at it, no longer trying to hide his curiosity. A thick film of dust obscured its cover. The title was embossed in the cover.

Gianni had trouble reading it.

"Ecantadas del Muerto," Natilla said. "Roughly translated ... Death Magic."

Gianni started to wipe the dust off the cover, but quickly withdrew his hand. It was like touching dried skin. He thought of the serial killer, Ed Gein, who had made clothes, belts and lampshades from the skins of his victims. What had the bastard been doing the past twenty years?

"Yes, your father went through quite a bit of trouble acquiring a copy," Nastilla said, "when he was a young man, about Robert's age. But ..."

He pulled the videotape from its gold sleeve and inserted it into the VCR. He turned the TV on to static.

"I'll let him explain it himself."

The static abruptly assembled into the image of his father.

"Hello Anthony," it said.

 

* * *

 

Had he thought Nastilla looked old? Good god, he hadn't seen his father in two decades and yet ...

Seen through the RGB haze of the television screen, his father's face was a map of wrinkles and veins, like a spoiled fruit covered with a caul of webbing. If Nastilla looked old, his father looked positively ancient.

Wasted, a voice in the back of his mind whispered. Like whatever he'd been doing had sucked the life out of him.

"Is he wearing make up?" Anthony asked.

"No, I'm not," answered his father's spectral image. "This is what I really looked like when I was not made up for public appearances."

Gianni paused and blinked.

"Is this some kind of joke?" he asked.

"No, it isn't," his father said.

Gianni laughed. "What are you supposed to be, a ghost?"

"No, not at all," Nastilla said. "Before your father died, he cast a simple enchantment on this videotape. He felt things would be easier to explain, if you were able to ask him questions directly."

"What the hell are you talking about," Myers said. "You mean like spells? Like a witch?" He was visibly shaken. Gianni imagined that in his world of databases and market analysis, there was little room for voices from the dead. The fact that Myers was acting like a wuss actually helped Gianni get a stronger hold on himself. After all, Gianni didn't believe in ghosts, spells, the Holy Catholic Church or even Coco the Kookoo bird, for that matter. He only believed in the gun in his holster, the Holy Power of the Bullet. That was his church.

"Witches are women, you idiot," Jenson said. "Shut up. I'll get to you soon enough."

Myers gave a little shriek but said no more. Gianni thought that if it would have been possible, Myers's brain would have ejected itself from his skull. But he stayed put, out of fear or curiosity or a combination of both, Gianni didn't know.

Gianni turned back to the TV.

"So, what's the gag? Are you in another room? Looking at us by remote camera?"

"No," Jenson answered.

"Satellite from Guatemala? Whatever, I'm not buying it." Gianni stood up to leave, but even as he did, he realized he wasn't going anywhere. In spite of himself, he found himself believing it, at least a little. There was something in the air, something like the smell of ozone before a lightning storm. Some deeper part of his mind now sang quietly, like a tuning fork that had finally come into close proximity with the correct harmony to set it vibrating.

"It doesn't matter," Jenson said. "You don't have to believe it, just sit down and listen."

Gianni sat back down.

"I believe I have given you the impression that I have ignored you, turned you and your mother away and then allowed you to operate out of the sphere of my influence. This is not exactly true.

"I was in love with your mother," Jenson said. "In a way, I was in love with her until the day I died. But I had to leave her ... I couldn't tell you why when I did it."

"It was because she was a wop who wanted to give you a dago son," Gianni said, bitterly.

"Don't be crude," Jenson answered.

"I can tell you now, though. I think that some people born with a certain sensitivity. A sense of certain forces that are at work in our world, as real and as powerful as gravity and electromagnetism. But there is little credible history written on these forces so those who do feel its pull and influence either ignore it or go crazy and live in the woods.

"Well, I had no intention of living in the woods, but I knew I would go crazy if I didn't try to make sense of the things I was feeling, the fleeting glimpses of the things I would see in my dreams, both fantastic ... and horrible.

"I left. I went all over the world. I went to Russia and Tibet and parts of China that aren't on any map. I learned from men and women who practiced with these forces for their whole lives, and I was tempted to stay with them, to spend my life learning and growing and communing with spirits."

He smiled, his yellowed teeth split into the rictus-driven grin of the dead.

"But that just wouldn't have been me."

"Again, maybe I was too young, but maybe I just wasn't cut out to wear a diaper and pray all day. Finally, I was able to ... procure that book in front of you."

Gianni looked at the book again, saw that edges of its pages were stained with blotches of dark brown. He had seen enough old blood to know when he saw it.

"I came back to New York, played the horses and amassed a small fortune, using the specialized knowledge I found in that book. Let's just say, it's the kind of advice you don't find in Kiplinger's Guide to Investing."

He laughed, and it was like ice against sandpaper.

"I invested it in the stock market, then started Jenson Toys and a few other real estate and utility concerns. Why Toys? I don't know. Maybe I still dreamed of bringing you into my life.

"Anyway, not only did I seem to have a knack for moving my companies in the right directions, but I had an uncanny ability to negotiate with the unions. That got the attention of several crime families that tried to move in and 'squeeze me for a piece', I think they say. That was a mistake."

Jenson went on to explain how a few simple mind altering invocations kept the mob's messengers at bay. But when the big boys came to call, their minions having failed to be able to recall anything more significant from their meetings than the time of day, Jenson decided to take it as an opportunity to go on the offensive.

There was no way to take direct control over the entire personnel of any crime family. That would have been unduly enervating and would have drawn undue attention, but with a few well-placed men under his control, he suddenly had a formidable work force at his disposal. A work force that wasn't limited by conventional morals, something that was always an obstacle for someone with his talents.

"That was how you came to my attention," Jenson said. "Someone in the Gianni family gave me a tip that there was a talented young man making his name as someone who was particularly adept at ... taking care of problematic people.

"Klemco," Gianni said. It was his first big job. It had come from out of the blue. He had been making a living running stolen cigarettes, occasionally making an extra grand or two knocking off some big mouth or some schnook who had plain refused to pay back a loan. But the Klemco guy, the head of a big pharmaceutical company, that was a sweet job that came with fifty grand attached.

It had required him to be clever, and he had enjoyed it. Not the killing -- only sickos enjoyed the actual killing -- but the time and prep work it took to get close to a guy like that without having to wipe out a handful of guards and witnesses ... that appealed to him.

But he hadn't held his breath for more work like that. He figured it was a one-time deal. Maybe somebody hadn't been available, with the fifty grand meant only to insure that he wouldn't fuck it up. But three months later, there was a selectman from Rockland County, and within a year, he was doing clean-up jobs exclusively. Years later he had managed to put away a small fortune.

Thanks to dear old dad, he thought.

"I didn't know it was you at first," Jenson said. "You had changed your name."

"'Jenson' doesn't go over well in Bensonhurst," Gianni said. "And besides, Victor Gianni was more of a father to me than you ever were. If all this is true, why didn't you come back for us?"

"I did come back."

"Bullshit."

"It's true," Jenson said. "Your mother even let me look in on you, but you were asleep, I think you were five. We talked that whole night, but I evaded her questions when she asked exactly what I had been doing while I was away. I think she had an idea anyway, though. Your mother may have been a little sensitive too. I think she smelled that what I had in my worn backpack was something ... well, something just plain wrong. But what I think scared her more is that she could smell it on you."

Gianni knew it was probably true. His mother had loved him, he didn't doubt that. But though he never got into real trouble as a kid, his mother had always looked at him like she was waiting for him to do ... something. When he had started running with the Giannis as a young man, she didn't complain much. Maybe she had been relieved that he hadn't gotten involved in something worse, but at the time he couldn't imagine what that might have been.

Looking at the book in front of him, he thought he now knew.

"All of which," Jenson said, "brings us to our business today."

"And what business is that?" Gianni asked. "I don't see how anything you've said today makes a damn bit of difference. Why give me this?" He indicated the book without touching it. "Why give me anything at all? Why not give it all to Robert?"

"Robert's a good boy," Jenson said, "and while I love you, you are definitely not a good boy."

Gianni smiled. "Damn straight."

"Robert could read that book front to back, immerse himself in chicken blood and kill twenty virgins and it wouldn't do a thing for him," Jenson said. "It must be his mother's nice bland Aryan blood. But you, you're something else."

Gianni thought about all the times when, despite his careful planning, someone had almost got the drop on him, almost managed to slip by him, and how he had known, almost seen it before it happened. He had never given such insight a second thought.

Until now.

"So, I give you the lion's share of my wealth to do with as you please. The book is yours as well. Again, to study and understand what it is that make you different, or to throw away, though I wouldn't suggest trying to burn it."

Nastilla laughed a dark brooding laugh.

"And what do I have to do?" Gianni asked.

"Your job, that's all. For me, one last time."

 

* * *

 

Myers rose abruptly. "I've had enough of this crap!" He went to the door, found it locked and shook it. "Let me out of here, you crazy bastards!"

Nastilla made another hand gesture, too fast to follow. Myers froze, then quietly took his seat. His teeth were gritted and his face was covered with sweat, as if his body was a sheath, beneath which the real Myers struggled to free himself from the prison of his own body.

"Imagine my surprise," Jenson said, "after all those years of making my way through and around the most evil, nefarious souls on Earth, at my being done in by a cheap poison in my coffee by a fifty-two-year-old overweight marketer."

Myers shook in his chair, making quiet mewling noises.

"This guy?" Gianni asked, pointing at the struggling Myers, again with his thumb cocked like a pistol.

"Who would have thought?" Jenson said. "Somehow he found out about my will, at least the public portion, and ..."

Gianni rose. He pulled out his automatic.

"You'll find," Nastilla said, "that your weapon is no longer jammed."

"I figured," Gianni said, and pointed his gun at Myers.

He spared the guy some suffering by not hesitating.

Why be needlessly cruel?, he thought.

"And that's that," Nastilla said. The young woman entered and promptly dragged Meyers's body out. He had not seen Nastilla unlock it.

Nastilla tried to pass the papers to Gianni, but he pushed them away.

"I didn't do it for the money," he said to Nastilla. "Liquidate the funds and give them to Robert. Deposit it in offshore accounts. Tell him I'll be looking him up soon to say hello."

Gianni picked up the book. "I'll take this though."

For an uncomfortable moment, the book seemed to be moving within his grasp, pulsing like a living thing. Then, all at once, it was just a book again, as if it has never been anything else. Just a ratty if slightly ostentatious book that he suspected had the power to change his life more than six hundred million dollars ever could. He turned toward the door.

"I don't understand," said Jenson. "If not for the money, then why?"

Gianni looked back.

"I'm my father's son," he said. It was just something to say.

The image of Jenson disappeared.

Gianni left the office, rode down the elevator, and went out into the hot morning, the rising sun reflecting off his eyes, which were now a pale green flecked with violet around the pupils. He moved purposefully down the crowding sidewalk. He had business to attend to.

Very serious business.

 

Story copyright 2001 by Dennis Calero atomiceo@aol.com

Illustration copyright 2001 by Dennis Calero atomiceo@aol.com

 

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