Il Bestione – Susan Fanetti

“Do you need me more tonight, don?” Paolo Romano stood on the street before the building that housed the Little Italy Community Society and considered the neighborhood around him. It was dark, and late; the drive back to Manhattan from Long Island had been long. But the Five Points never slept, and the hard-hearted bustle of dark things happening in the dark pulsed around him. He hadn’t been on Long Island before this day, though his sister had lived there for three years. He hadn’t seen her in that long. Even now, on the night of a day he’d been in the town she’d made her home, when he’d seen her husband and spoken to him, Paolo still had not seen Caterina since she’d moved away from Mulberry Street. He had meant never to see her again. Caterina was hope and goodness personified. Here in Little Italy, they’d called her La Bellezza, The Beauty, and she fit that name in more than the shape of her face or the sheen of her hair. Caterina was light. Paolo was dark. He’d been no good to her when she’d had no one else, and he would be worse for her now. So when he’d arranged with his brother-in-law to get her away from Little Italy and its evils, he had meant that to include himself. Now, however, it appeared that his business would extend to Long Island. He’d been so close to her today.

Close enough to see her husband, to hear of their family, to be invited to their evening meal. She was all that was left of his family, and he’d been so close. He might have seen her today, shared bread with her. Perhaps felt her love and forgiveness. Forgiveness he did not deserve. Paolo shut his eyes against the empty black of loneliness rising into his chest. Then he shoved it away and answered the question that had been asked. “No, Cosimo. I’m going up. Put the Mercedes away, get a couple of the boys to wash it.

Then the rest of the night is yours.” His driver and guard, a square-headed, blunt-nosed boulder of a man more than twenty years Paolo’s senior, gave a nod that was partly a bow and wedged himself again behind the wheel of the motorcar he’d left running. With a wave, he started slowly down the street. Paolo watched him turn the corner before he turned himself and strode to the building. It was only ten feet at the most, but in those few steps, several men and two women of the sort who would be out after dark in this unkind neighborhood greeted him with deferential nods and soft words. He returned their greetings with one nod of his own but no more, and walked into the building, and the business, that had become his when he’d killed the man who’d had it before him. So far, Paolo had made few changes to the Little Italy Community Society or to the businesses run from it. He’d simply taken it over from the man he’d killed and run it better. On the first floor of this building was a suite of offices, two small rooms that served as a reception area and workspace for his secretary and for his second-in-command, and a large office that Paolo used for himself. He’d changed virtually nothing in that room after he’d taken over; it amused him to sit behind a massive carved desk in a heavy, tall-backed leather chair like a throne and know that he’d claimed it for himself.

There was a kitchen and large pantry as well, and two small rooms from his cook and housekeeper, but those spaces, Paolo entered only rarely. Most of his time was spent in the other half of the first floor, a larger room arranged as a parlor. This was where he met with the people seeking his help or his partnership, or those whom he’d called to make an accounting or a reckoning. If he brought them to his office, it meant that business had become quite serious and the reckoning severe. Tonight, at this late hour, the first floor was dark and quiet. But beneath his feet, as he stood at the foot of the staircase that would lead him to his private rooms, the floor shook lightly with the commotion from the basement. Even the newel post shook. Below him, the boys and young men who made up most of his workforce lived, and that basement was never quiet. Boys, especially such as these, were rambunctious, to say the least. But they knew his rules and respected them.

They’d quiet if he demanded it, but he usually left them to their roughhousing. Paolo had continued the tradition that had once brought him to the Little Italy Community Society: a welcome to the orphans and young discards of the neighborhood. Only boys were offered room and board in this building, but he had arranged with Carmela Ganza, the madam of one of the most successful bordello he ran, to take in the girls. That was a change he’d made; before, girls were ignored and left to starve on the streets, or pulled into the bordellos and put to use in ways they were too young to endure. He had spent too much of his life already watching women suffer and failing to prevent it. Paolo made sure the girls were cared for at least as well, as safely, as the boys. The very young ones got room and board for simple work—errands and housekeeping. Not until they were old enough to be considered grown, and understand the choice they were making, did Paolo offer them that choice—to do the real work that took place in the place they lived, or to move out. If they chose to leave, they did so without obligation to him. He sent them off with enough money to keep them sheltered and fed for a month, if they were smart about it.

Most of the boys chose to stay. Many of the girls chose to go. It was as he preferred it. He’d been a grown man, twenty years old, when he’d found himself alone and destitute in Little Italy. Weakened and shaken, furious and afraid, he’d met another young man who’d brought him here, to this building, to Don Giulio Fausto. The don had offered him a bed and a meal, and protection, in exchange for work, and Paolo had taken it. At the time, he’d known that Giulio Fausto was a bad man, and that bad men worked for him. He’d known because Fausto’s men had raped his sister and beaten him nearly to death, for no reason but the entertainment of it. But he’d taken that bed and a meal anyway, and he’d agreed to work for the don without a blink. By the age of twenty, Paolo had lived a life full of hard lessons to teach him that good and bad were insignificant concepts, a privilege few could afford.

For the rest, power was the only thing that mattered. He’d watched Don Fausto, learned his ways, worked himself closer to his circle. When Paolo’s past confronted him, and men working for Don Cuccia tracked him down on the streets of New York with the aim to avenge the death of Cuccia’s only son, the shield of Don Fausto’s power had made Paolo strong enough to repel them. He leaned into that protection, exploited that shield. But he never forgot who Fausto was, or what his men had done. He bided his time and remembered. When his own strength was enough to do it, he’d killed the don and the men who’d hurt his sister. He’d made a show of it, so there would be no doubt who had done it, or how. When some of Fausto’s remaining close associates had tried to retaliate, Paolo had killed them all. He’d killed every man who dared stand in his way.

Now the power was his. Five years ago, Paolo had killed the most powerful men in Little Italy. They weren’t the first men he’d killed; in fact, by then, he’d been up to his wrists in blood. Since then, it seemed he swam in it. He’d been a slave. He’d been a beggar. No longer, and never again. He was twenty-six years old, and he was a man other men feared. They called him Don Romano. They called him Il Giovane, the Young One.

They called him Il Bestione. The Beast. In his bedroom, Paolo turned on the electric lamp, wincing as always at the harsh glare and unsettling hum it made. He supposed someday he’d grow used to electricity, but he hadn’t yet. It made his eyes burn and his head ache. He hung his suitcoat and vest on the back of a chair, undid his tie and draped it over the back of the chair as well. Removing his collar and cuffs, he set them on the tall bureau. With his cufflinks in his hand, he opened the top drawer of the bureau and dropped them into their compartment in the velvet-lined box he kept for the purpose. He’d discovered a taste for gold cufflinks and had accumulated more than a dozen pairs. If he had an extravagance, it was those.

Before he slid the drawer closed, a dull metallic glint caught his eye. Knowing what it was, he meant to close the drawer without further notice, but his sister was in his head more than usual tonight, so instead, he took hold of the cheap round locket and lifted it from the drawer. The letter Caterina had sent with it, he left where it was. The locket wasn’t gold, or silver, or any precious metal. Tin, most likely, burnished to look more valuable. A gaudy rose on its face attempted to further deflect from its shoddiness. Once a satin ribbon had been laced through its ring, but that had been lost somewhere, while it had been in Caterina’s keeping. The locket had been their mother’s. It was the only thing of hers that still survived, besides Paolo and Caterina themselves. He popped it open—the catch stuck stubbornly, stiff from disuse.

Inside was a photograph, faded and grainy, of their father as a young man, and a tiny twist of his hair. The only thing of his that still survived. Caterina had had this locket with her when they’d landed in New York, and had somehow managed to save it, and only it, when they were attacked that night. Before she’d moved to Long Island with her new family, she’d sent it to him with the letter he’d left in the drawer. He didn’t need to pull it out and unfold it to remember the words. They were few, and memorized. In Italian, she’d written, Don’t forget us. We are who you are. You are in my heart forever. With great love, Your sister, Rina.

Remembering the words, Paolo snapped the locket shut, returned it to its place resting on the letter, and closed the drawer. He wished he could forget. Some things were better forgotten. As he shrugged out of his suspenders and was about to sit and remove his shoes, a soft knock at the main door of his apartment caught his attention. The hour was late; a knock now should mean trouble, but the sound hadn’t been sharp enough to be Cosimo or Aldo. Another soft knock. On his bureau was a burled-wood chest. Inside that chest was a revolver. A knife was Paolo’s preferred weapon, but now, not knowing who was at his door, he took his gun from its chest. An abundance of caution, surely, but too much was better than not enough.

He went to the door and stood against the wall beside it. “Who is it?” “Maria, Don Paolo.” His housekeeper. One of the first girls he’d taken from the streets. She’d reminded him of his sister, so when the time had come for her to go or stay, he’d offered her this work instead of the bordello. He put the pistol behind his back and opened the door. Maria was carrying a tray laden with a chunk of bread, a hunk of hard cheese on a stoneware plate, a bowl of mixed olives, and a carafe of dark red wine. “What is this?” he asked, trying to be gentle. “You don’t need to serve me in the middle of the night.” “I was awake.

I hear you come in. You are gone so long today, I no was sure you eat.” Maria was the housekeeper, not the cook. “Does Leonora know you ransacked her kitchen?” She smiled a little. “I hope she no will notice.” “I won’t tell if you won’t.” Her tiny smile became real. Since he hadn’t eaten, he stepped back and let the young woman come into his room. She carried the tray and set it on the table. He owned the building and was one of the wealthiest men south of Washington Square— probably the wealthiest, though the neighborhood was hardly an enclave of affluence—but Paolo’s rooms weren’t extravagant.

A bedroom, a sitting room, and a private bathroom. The furnishings were comfortable but not lavish. The kitchen was downstairs. That was another thing he’d changed: Giulio Fausto had kept his rooms like Italian royalty, full of heavy carved woods and gilt trimmings. In public Paolo wanted people always to remember that he had killed Fausto brutally and claimed all that had been his, he wanted them to see him in Fausto’s throne, behind his ornate desk, and remember that body lying naked and emasculated across Mulberry Street, its head sitting apart, and remember exactly who had done it. In his private space, however, he couldn’t relax amidst so much decadence. His roots were humble, and he didn’t know how to find comfort in excess. He’d been born into the life of a shepherd. That life would have suited him well, once. But that had been stolen from him.

The life he’d stolen to replace it chafed, like wrong-size shoes from the feet of a corpse. But he was young, still. As old as he felt, he was truly still young. He would find a way to make this life fit. Maria stood beside the table, her hands clasped humbly together and her eyes slightly downcast. Paolo knew what she wanted; he’d read interest in her eyes many times. But humble, grateful girls who cast down their eyes held no allure for him. They reminded him of his sister. He had taken Maria off the streets, given her shelter, food, and work. Protection, too; now he was powerful enough that his shelter was a shield as well.

The girl saw him as her savior. He was not. His sister had thought him her savior once, too, but he had not saved her. Someone else had. When Paolo had need for physical release, he sent word to Carmela. Either she herself came to service him, or she sent one of the older women, those in their thirties, sometimes older, who were jaded and hardened. Women who’d learned long ago that salvation was a delusion, and who held no delusions about him. Those women, he would fuck. “Grazie, Maria,” he said. “Buonanotte.

” Her shoulders sagged a little. Then she dipped, bending her knees in something resembling a curtsey, and left the room. Paolo returned his revolver to its place and poured himself a glass of wine.

.

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