The Godfather Returns
Random HouseCopyright © 2004 Mark Winegardner
All right reserved.ISBN: 1-4000-6101-6
ON A COLD spring Monday afternoon in 1955, Michael Corleone summoned Nick Geraci to meet him in Brooklyn. As the new Don entered his late father's house on Long Island to make the call, two men dressed like grease monkeys watched a television puppet show, waiting for Michael's betrayer to deliver him and marveling at the tits of the corn-fed blond puppeteer.
Michael, alone, walked into the raised corner room his late father had used as an office. He sat behind the little rolltop desk that had been Tom Hagen's. The consigliere's desk. Michael would have called from home-Kay and the kids had left this morning to visit her folks in New Hampshire-except that his phone was tapped. So was the other line in this house. He kept them that way to mislead listeners. But the inventive wiring that led to the phone in this office-and the chain of bribes that protected it-could have thwarted an army of cops. Michael dialed. He had no address book, just a knack for remembering numbers. The house was quiet. His mother was in Las Vegas with his sister, Connie, and her kids. On the second ring Geraci's wife answered. He barely knew her but greeted her by name (Charlotte) and asked about her daughters. Michael avoided the phone in general and had never before called Geraci at home. Ordinarily, orders were buffered, three men deep, to ensure that nothing could be traced to the Don. Charlotte gave quavering answers to Michael's polite questions and went to get her husband.
Nick Geraci had already put in a long day. Two heroin-bearing ships, neither of which was supposed to arrive from Sicily until next week, had shown up late last night, one in New Jersey, the other in Jacksonville. A lesser man would be in prison now, but Geraci had smoothed things over by hand-delivering a cash donation to the pension fund of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, whose men in Florida had performed like champs, and by paying a visit (and a sizable tribute) to the Stracci Family capo who controlled the docks in north Jersey. By five, Geraci was exhausted but home in his backyard in East Islip, playing horseshoes with his two girls. A two-volume history of Roman warfare he'd just started reading sat next to the armchair in his den, in position for later that night. When the phone rang, Geraci was a few sips into his second Chivas and water. He had T-bones sizzling on his barbecue pit and a Dodgers/Phillies doubleheader on the radio. Charlotte, who'd been in the kitchen assembling the rest of the meal, came out on the patio, carrying the phone with the long cord, her face drained of color.
"Hello, Fausto." The only other person who called Nick Geraci by his given name was Vincent Forlenza, who'd stood as Geraci's godfather in Cleveland. "I'd like you to be a part of this thing Tessio arranged. Seven o'clock at this place called Two Toms, do you know it?"
The sky was blue and cloudless, but anyone watching Charlotte rush to herd the girls inside might have thought she'd learned that a hurricane was bearing down on Long Island.
"Sure," Geraci said. "I eat there all the time." It was a test. He was either supposed to ask about this thing Tessio arranged or he wasn't. Geraci had always been good at tests. His gut feeling was to be honest. "But I have no idea what you're talking about. What thing?"
"Some important people are coming from Staten Island to sort things out."
Staten Island meant the Barzinis, who had that place sewn up. But if Tessio had set up peace talks with Michael and Don Barzini, why was Geraci hearing it from Michael and not Tessio? Geraci stared at the flames in his barbecue pit. Then it came to him what must have happened. He jerked his head and silently cursed.
Tessio was dead. Probably among many others.
The meeting place was the tip-off. Tessio loved that place. Which meant that most likely he'd contacted Barzini himself and that either he or Barzini had set up a hit on Michael, which Michael had somehow anticipated.
Geraci poked the T-bones with a long steel spatula. "You want me there for protection," he said, "or at the table or what?"
"That was a hell of a long pause."
"Sorry. Had to get some steaks off the grill here."
"I know what you're worried about, Fausto, but not why."
Did he mean Geraci had nothing to worry about? Or that he was trying to figure out what if any role Geraci had played in Tessio's betrayal? "Well, pilgrim," Geraci answered, in his best John Wayne, "I ain't so much worried as I am saddle sore and plum tuckered out."
Geraci sighed. "Even in the best of times I'm a worrier." He felt a tide of gallows humor rise in him, though he spoke flatly: "So shoot me."
"That's why you're so good," Michael said. "The worrying. It's why I like you."
"Then you'll forgive me if I point out the obvious," Geraci said, "and tell you to take a route there you'd never ordinarily take. And also to avoid Flatbush."
Now it was Michael's turn for a long pause. "Flatbush, huh? How do you figure that?"
"Of course," Michael said.
"The Dodgers. Second game of a twin bill with Philadelphia."
"Right," Michael said.
Geraci lit a cigarette. "Not a baseball fan, eh?"
"Used to be."
Geraci wasn't surprised. Seeing the business side of gambling ruined sports for a lot of the smarter guys. "This could be the Bums' year," Geraci said.
"That's what I keep hearing," Michael said. "And of course you're forgiven."
"For pointing out the obvious."
Geraci lifted the steaks off the grill and onto a platter. "It's a gift I have," he said.
An hour later, Geraci arrived at Two Toms with four of his men and positioned them outside. He took a seat alone and sipped an espresso. He wasn't afraid. Michael Corleone, unlike his brothers-the brutish Sonny and the pathetic Fredo-had inherited the old man's deliberate nature. He wouldn't order a hit on a hunch. He'd make sure, no matter how long it took. Whatever test was coming, however galling it was to be tested by the likes of Michael Corleone, Nick Geraci would respond with honor. He was confident he'd emerge unscathed.
Though he'd never heard Salvatore Tessio say a bad word about Michael, Geraci didn't doubt that Sally had thrown in with Barzini. He had to be angry about the nepotism that made a Don out of a greenhorn like Michael. He had to see the folly of cutting the organization off from its neighborhood roots to move west and become-what? Geraci had taken over countless once-thriving neighborhood businesses built by industrious, illiterate immigrant fathers and ruined by American-born sons with business degrees and dreams of expansion.
Geraci checked his watch, a college graduation gift from Tessio. Michael certainly hadn't inherited the late Don's legendary punctuality. Geraci ordered a second espresso.
Time and time again, Geraci had proven himself a loyal member of the Corleone organization and, still shy of his fortieth birthday, maybe its best earner. Once he'd been a boxer, a heavyweight, both as Ace Geraci (a boyhood nickname that he let stick, even though it mocked him for acceding to the American pronunciation of his name: Juh-RAY-see instead of Jair-AH-chee) and under numerous aliases (he was Sicilian but fair-haired, able to pass as Irish or German). He'd kept his feet for six rounds against a man who, a few years later, knocked the heavyweight champion of the world on his ass. But Geraci had hung around gyms since he was a little kid. He'd vowed never to become one of those punch-drunk geezers shuffling around smelling of camphor and clutching a little bag of yesterday's doughnuts. He fought for money, not glory. His godfather in Cleveland (who was also, Geraci gradually learned, the Godfather of Cleveland) had connected him with Tessio, who ran the biggest sports gambling operation in New York. Fixed fights meant fewer blows to the head. Soon Geraci was called on to give out back-alley beatings (beginning with two kids who'd assaulted the daughter of Amerigo Bonasera, an undertaker friendly with Vito Corleone). The beatings punished deadbeats and loudmouths who had it coming, and earned Geraci enough money to go to college. Before he was twenty-five, he'd finished his degree, left the enforcer racket, and was a rising man of promise in Tessio's regime. He'd started out with some dubious qualities-he was the only guy hanging out at the Patrick Henry Social Club who hadn't been born in Brooklyn or Sicily; the only one with a college degree; one of the few who didn't want to carry guns or visit whores-but the best way to get ahead was to make money for the people above him, and Geraci was such a gifted earner that soon his exotic flaws were forgotten. His most brilliant tactic was to exaggerate his take on every job. He handed over sixty or seventy percent of everything instead of the required fifty. Even if he had been caught, what were they going to do, whack him? It was foolproof. His overpayments were an investment with jackpot-level payouts. The more he made for the men above him, the safer he was and the faster he rose. The higher he rose, the more men there were underneath him paying him fifty percent. And if the greedy morons held out on him, he was smart enough to catch it. It became clear all over New York that there was a difference between getting hit by the toughest guy you ever fought and having your eye socket flattened into a bloody paste by a blow from a former heavyweight prize-fighter. The threat of what Geraci could do became a part of the mythology of the street. Soon he rarely needed to do anything to get his money but ask for it. If that. Intimidation is a better weapon than a fist or a gun.
During the war, Geraci mastered the ration-stamp black market and held a draft-exempt civilian position as a loading-dock inspector. Tessio proposed him for membership in the Corleone Family, and at the ceremony his finger was cut by Vito himself. After the war, Geraci started his own shylock operation. He specialized in contractors, who at first never realized how front-loaded their expenses were and underestimated how tough it was, at the end of jobs, to get everyone who owes you money to pay (here, too, Geraci could be of service). He also targeted business owners who were degenerate gamblers or had any other weakness that made them seek quick cash. Before long, Geraci was able to use those businesses to launder money and give wiseguys something to put on their tax returns-at least until the time came to bust the place out. For thirty days, deliveries would stream through the front door and go straight out the back: presents for wives and girlfriends, gestures of friendship to cops, but otherwise sold to bargain hunters from the neighborhood. Once the bills came, so, too, would a mysterious fire-dago lightning. Geraci hated both the term and the crude endgame strategy, and he put it to rest by working on a night school law degree and supplanting the fires with perfectly legal bankruptcy proceedings. He incorporated every business in question (Geraci had a guy in Delaware), sheltering the owner's personal assets. If the owner was a good sport, Geraci tossed in a thousand bucks and some land in Florida or Nevada. When Michael Corleone took advantage of his father's semiretirement and covertly got involved with prostitution and narcotics, the businesses Vito had refused to enter, he'd put Geraci in charge of narcotics and let him hand-pick several men from Tessio's regime and what was left of Sonny's. Within months, Geraci worked some things-with the great Sicilian Don Cesare Indelicato, with the powersthat-be on the docks in New Jersey and Jacksonville, and with airports in New York and the Midwest, where he operated several small planes owned by companies the Corleones controlled but did not on paper own. The Corleones, unbeknown to most of the men in their organization, were making as much from narcotics as anybody in America. Without that money, they could never have amassed a war chest big enough to go after the Barzinis and the Tattaglias.
Finally, just after nine o'clock, Peter Clemenza and three bodyguards walked into Two Toms and sat down at Geraci's table. Geraci took it as a bad sign that Michael hadn't come, that he'd sent his caporegime instead, the one who'd over the years supervised the family's most important hits. Which sealed it: Tessio was dead.
"You eat?" Clemenza asked, wheezing from the effort of the walk from his car to the table.
Geraci shook his head.
But Clemenza waved a meaty paw to indicate the restaurant's aroma. "How can you resist? We'll get a little something. Just a snack." Clemenza ordered and devoured an antipasto crudo, a plate of caponata, two baskets of bread, and linguine with clam sauce. Last of a breed, Clemenza, almost literally so-the last capo Michael had inherited from his father, now that Tessio was dead.
"Tessio's not dead," Clemenza whispered to Geraci on the way out.
Geraci's stomach lurched. They were going to make him pull the trigger himself, a test of loyalty. Geraci's certainty that he would pass was no solace at all.
Darkness had fallen. He rode in the backseat with Clemenza. On the way, Clemenza lit a cigar and asked Geraci what he knew and what he could guess. Geraci told the truth. He did not know, yet, that earlier that day the heads of the Barzini and the Tattaglia families had both been killed. He couldn't have known that the reason Clemenza was late was because he'd first had to garrote Carlo Rizzi, Michael Corleone's own brother-in-law. These and several other strategic murders had all been made to look like the work of either the Barzinis or the Tattaglias. Geraci didn't know that, either. But the things Geraci had been able to surmise were in fact correct. He took the cigar Clemenza had offered him but didn't light it. He said he'd smoke it later.
The car pulled into a closed Sinclair station just off Flatbush Avenue. Geraci got out, and so did everyone in the two cars that had pulled in beside them, one bearing Clemenza's men, the other Geraci's. Clemenza and his driver stayed in the car. When Geraci turned and saw them there, an electric ribbon of panic shot through him. He looked for the men who would kill him. Trying to guess how it would happen. Trying to figure out why his own men were standing by passively watching. Why they'd betrayed him.
Clemenza rolled down his window. "It ain't like that, kiddo," he said. "This situation here is just too-" He put both palms to his jowly face and rubbed it fast, the way you'd scrub a stain. He let out a long breath. "Me and Sally, we go back I don't want to think about how long. Some things a man just don't want to see. You know?"
The fat man wept. Clemenza made very little noise doing it and seemed unembarrassed.