Not waiting for the storm to let up, seventy-year old Caesar Vincenzo ran stiff legged, head down, from the car into the store. Soaked, he stood proudly inside his twelve-year-old business, Rex Appliances. With his fingers he combed back wet hair and noticed a young couple transfixed before three large plasma screens, two roaring with action movies and a third showing White Christmas, a holiday favorite that he planned on watching soon. He was smiling when the couple turned and withered at the sight of Caesar. Hair dyed black, barrel-chested with thick arms filling out his sport jacket, Caesar’s large chin gave his meaty face a menacing look, the look of a hit man, not a successful business owner, which only depressed him. He shook his head and lost the smile as the young couple scooted toward the appliances lining the back wall.
The five-thousand-square-foot store carried mostly televisions and audio gear and a few brands of washers and dryers, but it was the new plasma technology that Caesar loved. The clamor of hyenas taking out a wounded lion, the automatic-weapons fire of a shoot-’em-up, and the Haynes girls singing “Sisters” carried the formative sounds of the Big Bang.
The store provided economic cover for Caesar’s cash business. Averaging a half million a year, he mostly stashed it in off-shore accounts and safety deposit boxes. For trips to the Bahamas he used receipts from modest hotels and restaurants, making business vacations appear as reasonable expenses to the IRS, who had audited him twice in the nineties. In Nassau his actual time and cash money was spent on Paradise Island in thousand-dollar-a-night penthouses, hookers galore. Planning retirement someday on the southern tip of the Baja, he had built a beach house in Del Cabo under an entirely new identity.
The bobbing head of Jeff Montgomery caught his eye. His manager for five years, Jeff ran a tight ship: hired and fired, kept immaculate books, and had a record of strong sales. He should have been an employer’s dream except that he routinely challenged Caesar’s authority and his inadequate knowledge of the store’s products. However, this Christmas season, in the spirit of one-upmanship, Caesar had insisted they carry a few holiday items. Jeff reluctantly purchased a half dozen three-foot tall artificial trees that now crowded the floor in front of the checkout and an open box of four-inch tall white-tipped pines that covered most of the counter.
One night Caesar dreamt that Jeff appeared out of the sky, riding a cloud, looking down on him with his familiar smirk. Like a nightmare where the dreamer is stuck, unable to move, Caesar had to listen to an endless barrage of exotic knowledge from his employee with the occasional work-related, sarcastic dig aimed at the boss.
Occasionally, Caesar had fantasies of slitting Jeff’s throat and throwing him in the dumpster out back, but ignored the impulse. Years ago, Frank Laconti, his lifelong boss, had impressed upon Caesar that his skills and efficiency would tempt him to eliminate people that made him jealous, angry, or simply got under his skin. “Keep your cool,” Laconti had cautioned. “You’ve got a code of honor to follow. I don’t want to see a trail of bodies, unless they’re the bodies I’ve blessed for destruction.”
He had maintained that code for decades as he watched Little Tony, Caesar’s contact and mentor, walk into Rex’s carrying his briefcase, looking more like a seedy Sony rep with time to kill than the most ruthless of Laconti’s hit men. Little Tony had a big, formless nose, narrow face and playful eyes. Ten years Caesar’s junior, he enjoyed bragging about family business with a long-standing employee like Caesar Vincenzo, and took delight in teasing him, not only about his height, but Caesar’s pride in making clean kills.
“Still using taxis? Caesar said, watching the boxy red and yellow cab leave the parking lot.
“You bet. That way a couple of paisans like us can have a little taste, and I don’t have to worry about getting pulled over for something stupid like speeding and the cops finding a hundred grand on me and a necklace of thumbs–just kidding … about the money. Hey, taxis keep me foot-loose and fancy free … just some old guy being driven to the grocery store, a nobody.”
Little Tony pointed with his chin in the direction of Caesar’s office and two men walked in shutting the door.
Tony took Caesar’s chair and Caesar stood, unsmiling, hands clasped in front, a predator’s still moment before nailing something running through the brush. Tony stretched his long legs far under the desk and leaned back, making himself comfortable. Tilting his head right, glancing down, he grinned as if admiring a pair of severed heads fashioned into a footstool.
“Caesar, you’ve got another nice deal comin’ up. Right in your own backyard. ‘Tis the Season…. After Mass he drops off the wife and tells her he’s going to the cemetery to visit the parents; then runs off to the girlfriend’s. Seems like you got it all figured out.”
“I did my preliminary work a few weeks ago. Wherever he goes he leaves a trail of crumbs a mile wide. Same routines.” Caesar kept it simple with Little Tony. The slightest weakness, lack of knowledge about the mark, and Little Tony would laugh in his face, level another ‘short’ dig, or wipe his feet on Caesar’s code of honor.
Little Tony pointed to the envelope.
“Everything’s there, including your money for Sunday’s job. Boss really liked your last hit, very smooth; eliminated a real problem child. So, he told me to pay you in advance and said to relax for a while. He’s sentimental about Christmas and the start of the New Year is quiet anyway. Besides, he’d like you to keep the decks clear in case he decides to wack Ruth Cassano. Now that would be a Holiday Special.”
Caesar stared, expressionless, blindsided.
Tony said, “Hey, I’m just busting your balls. She’s not down for house-cleaning.”
Caesar didn’t flinch even though his insides tumbled.
“C’mon,” Tony said, opening his arms wide, a moment of truth. “I’m only teasing ya. Everyone knows you had the hots for that witch. The best thing you ever did was stay away from that voodoo snatch. Hey, no firsthand experience, but the boss says she’s on fire down there.” Hand raised, ready for his oath, Tony added, “That’s what I hear–just sayin’.” He made a lopsided shrug. “Frank still likes her. I guess she helped him out with some personal matters, read his fortune, even warned his son might die soon.” He chuckled deeply, a lower register used for moments of wisdom. “Me, I’d never let that witch get anywhere near my joint.”
Caesar hadn’t known about Laconti’s affair with Ruth and now his anger was aimed at his lifelong boss, a downpour of rage, a West Palm Beach storm that clobbers you late afternoon.
Caesar nodded his head and even smiled a few times as they moved on to other topics. He decided Sunday’s hit would be his last. And just as swiftly, a plan surfaced. If Ruth had been privy to Laconti’s business she might be led to believe she was a target. Caesar decided to go after her. It felt right, like the perfect hit. He would bring Ruth terrible knowledge, but also her chance to be saved by the one man who had always loved her.
A short knock and Jeff popped his head in. “I need to make a deposit. Can you watch the store for a few? That couple left. The place is quiet.”
“Sure, and pick up some sandwiches for us,” Caesar said.
Once Jeff was gone, Little Tony rose slowly from his seat and towered over Caesar, leaning close, a wide smile cutting his face in half. Caesar always thought he looked goofy when he smiled like that.
“I gotta tell ya,” Tony said, “it’s now official–heard it on the news.” He yelled like someone winning the lottery–”Ceez, you’re short!” He laughed in spurts, a jagged bark that infuriated Caesar. “The average height in the good old US of A is now five-ten, anything less–like five-eight–is Mr. Short. You remember that song about short people?”
“Are you gonna finally buy something today?”
“I want something big, at least fifty-five inches. And it’s gotta be Panasonic.”
“In the back,” Caesar said. “We got some in this morning. Go take a look. I need to keep an eye on things.” Caesar hustled to the front door, locked it, and flipped the sign from “Open” to “Sorry, We’re Closed.” Returning to the counter, he pulled a smooth piece of rope from a side drawer, stuck it in his pocket and walked stiff with rage toward the stockroom. Barehanded, Tony was ripping open the end of a large box.
“Hey, Shorty, help me out here,” were Tony’s last words as Caesar pulled the rope from his pocket with the flourish of a magician and brought it over Little Tony’s head, crossing his hands, yanking mightily. With a shout he stomped the back of Tony’s leg sending him to the floor, shoving his knee against his back and strangling him. With his face twisted toward Caesar’s, Tony’s eyes seemed to grasp something important and then dimmed.
Caesar wondered if Little Tony heard his words of victory and scorn before he broke his neck for good measure. Later that night Caesar would return, retrieve the body, and feed Tony to the Everglades’ finest.
He felt no remorse for the killing, but felt bad that he had ignored Frank Laconti’s most sage advice from years ago: “Caesar, you have a job to do, do it well, be professional, and clean up after yourself. Don’t make it personal–like, ‘This’ll be easy, I hate this guy’s mug,’ or, even worse, ‘I feel sorry for this guy, he’s just a working stiff with a family.’”
The boss’s warning not to kill for personal reasons kept Caesar from murdering everyone around Ruth, including her husband, and claiming her as his own. Strengthening that attitude was a documentary he had caught late one night, a reenactment of some mad Indian–maybe an Eskimo–blasting away a woman’s entire family and then walking into the house and claiming her. “That lucky Indian lives in a very small world. Not possible in mine.”