by Desmond Manny
Michael Valenti slumped in the passenger seat of the sedan, easing the ache in his lower back, and turned his head to look out of the window. At night it was hard to see stars in the city. Recently the sky had been marked by trails left by an irregular number of criss-crossing planes. Supposedly, National Guard maneuvers. The sound of those aircraft had been driving the people in the city to distraction. The evidence of their passage, fluffy cotton candy-like trails, had come to decorate the sky like streamers at a child’s birthday party. A smell that was even more of an issue had increased day by day. When it was at its worst, in the early mornings, most people could be seen with scarves wrapped around their heads or medical masks on.
Valenti had heard many rumors about the planes, ridiculous claims that the planes and their trails were part of a spraying effort by the government to dose the population with strange drugs. Valenti didn’t buy that bull though. There was no margin for profit in it. Being a man who had grown up learning to appreciate the bottom line he knew that any complicated effort was merited only by the value of its expected return. This was a belief he lived by. Valenti also knew the value of family and of loyalty. These were everything. Which brought Valenti to his business tonight.
Fighting the urge to check his watch again he turned his head to look at his driver. The kid, at nineteen he was nothing more than a kid to Valenti, was sitting with his shoulders hunched over one of those electronic game things. His face washed in a bluish glow, he was oblivious. Valenti reached out and put a palm over the screen and pulled it out of the kid’s hand. On the screen Valenti saw a cartoon-ish version of a hotel hallway as though he were looking into a tiny window. The barrel of a gun was in view and men in dark suits and sunglasses rushed forward. Pixels flashed and electronic muzzle-fire dazzled Valenti. Valenti tossed the device back.
“Turn that thing off. I need you to focus on this, Stevie.” The kid switched off the GameDock without saving. “I am focused, Mr. Valenti. Just, ya know, getting in the right frame of mind. This ‘Mafia Hammer 2’ is a pretty good shooter. Not really my thing though.”
“Kid, you pull this off tonight and you never have to worry. The family will look after you.” Valenti hoped to impress the importance of this on Stevie. Stevie was a good boy, his mother a distant cousin. Valenti had made him his protégé when his father had died and started bringing him up through the organization. Stevie had proven reliable on the increasingly important errands Valenti had tested him with, but could go no further in the family until he made his bones. Valenti, his capo-regime, was responsible for providing the opportunity to do that. So, on a Friday night when Valenti would rather be home eating dinner with his wife and children the two men waited for two other men who had to die.
They were parked half a block from a restaurant where they knew the two men would be. Once the men entered Valenti and his protégé would be given a sign, cross the street, and end both men. It was simple work as far as Valenti was concerned. Stevie would be made or broken by how he did tonight.
As if the thought had summoned them, a car pulled up and let out the two men in question, who hurried into the building. Several minutes passed and then a man came out of the staff entrance, lit a cigarette, took a single puff, then tossed it away. Valenti and the kid got out of the car and started across the street.
The men had shown an error in judgment in choosing a booth. It left them nowhere to run when Valenti and Stevie came quickly through the door, crossed the dining area, and pulled their weapons to fire two shoots each into their faces. Except that Stevie had frozen and stood with the gun extended, not squeezing the trigger. It only took Valenti a moment to notice and turn his own gun on the other man, a red flower of blood blossoming between his eyes where the bullet entered. Seconds was all it had taken.
Valenti grabbed the kid by his still outstretched arm and made to drag him out while the few patrons recoiled in shock. From the corner of his eye he saw men come from the kitchens and instinct told him they were not kitchen staff before he consciously registered it. These were button men as hard as Valenti himself but fortunately poorer shots. Their aim was wild and Valenti heard bystanders scream, as he raised his own gun and put the one in the lead down. Stevie was dumb as a rock. Valenti shoved him aside and hurled himself in the opposite direction firing at the same time. His aim was true and the men went down; One! Two! Three! The blood pounding in his ears he grabbed Stevie by his collar and heaved him up. “Move!”
Valenti meant to make for the door when the impossible caught his eye. The men he had put down were, incredibly, getting up! Their smoking wounds still gushed but they got to their feet with pale, unseeing eyes and the sight of them froze Valenti, his gun slipping away between shock-numbed fingers.
Abominations, they shambled toward him and the hard man who had made his own bones at nineteen could not comprehend. Valenti had an idle thought to retrieve his gun but the horrid thing was too close now. Then suddenly it’s head exploded in a spray of gray and red, and then the other three did the same! Beside Valenti, Stevie held his own gun and Valenti’s which he had picked up.
“Now this,” the kid said smiling, “Is my kind of shooter!”