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Just One of Those Things
by astolat

"So you want to tell me why I had to do the full twenty months, McPike?" Vinnie said. "Other than it saved me having to see your sour mug for that long. And where the hell is Stan, anyway? Shouldn't he be meeting me?" He looked both ways down the alley: there weren't any cars except the one McPike had driven up in.

"Stan retired to Florida," McPike said. "And you did the full sentence because I talked the OCB into it. It'll give you a lot more cover." He held out a folder.

Vinnie didn't take it. "No way did Stan walk out on me."

"Stan Dermott was already overdue for retirement when you went into the joint," McPike said. "It caught up to him. He had himself a minor heart attack about six weeks ago and got cashiered by his doctor. I'm sure he sends love and kisses, though."

"So who's going to handle me now?" Vinnie demanded, with the bad feeling he already knew the answer.

"You're looking at him," McPike said. "You want to stand out here complaining, or are you going to take a look at your first target?"

"Great," Vinnie said under his breath, and started flipping through the folder. "Wait a second, are you kidding me? This guy's a solo act. What the hell am I doing going after him? Last I heard, the O in OCB stands for organized."

"Oh, really? And here I thought it stood for oblivious," Frank said. "This guy is a freelance hitman: everywhere he goes, we get bodies. We manage to flip him, who knows what kinds of bugs we'll find crawling around underneath. Now quit whining and let's get down to the bureau office."

"Yeah, great, whatever," Vinnie said, and stalked towards the car, pissed-off. McPike didn't like him, and that was fine, the feeling was plenty mutual, but Vinnie knew a crap, nickel-and-dime rookie assignment when he saw one. Getting patronized after twenty months in the state pen was too fucking much to swallow.

Well, it turned out the freelance hitman wasn't freelance, and three days after meeting him, Vinnie was on a plane to Vancouver to meet the bugs crawling under his rock: a batshit crazy arms dealer named Mel Profitt and his sister Susan.

Being patronized sounded pretty fucking wonderful to Vinnie right now, if it came with a pat on the head and a one-way ticket back to Brooklyn. Instead he spent most days wondering if the only way he was getting home was in a box measuring seven by two, and too many nights wondering how long it would take before he'd be grateful even for that. Working for the Profitts was like living a game of high-stakes roulette: the drinks were free, half the days were black, and there was always a chance his number would come up.

Six months in Vancouver, graduating from arson and drug-dealing up to major arms sales, until he couldn't watch the evening news anymore because he kept wondering whether the bombs falling on the other side of the world were his fault. Six months trying to dodge explosions and bullets, half of them set off by Mel himself, and sometimes failing.

"I'm sorry to wake you, Vinnie," Susan said, pulling open the blinds, "but we're scheduled to leave in a couple of hours. How are you feeling?"

"You've got to be kidding me." Vinnie sat up painfully and put his good arm up to block the sun. "I got back from the hospital yesterday. Your brother can find somebody who didn't get shot on his account last week."

"Of course, darling, if you prefer," Susan said, "but you seemed to miss home so much, Mel and I thought you would like to come," and she smiled and bent down to let him kiss her as he struggled to get out of the tangled, sweaty covers.

Between the codeine and the leather seats on the private jet, Vinnie managed to sleep nearly the whole flight, but he woke up stiff and sore, shoulder hot to the touch around the bandages. He didn't give a fuck, though, not once they were coming down the LIE towards the Midtown Tunnel and he got his first sight of the Empire State Building, lit up red and green and white for the feast of San Gennaro.

"So what are we doing here, anyway?" he asked, sitting back against the seat.

"We bring a lot of goods in through New York," Mel said. His hand was resting on Susan's knee, just over the hem of her skirt. She was watching Vinnie. "A gentleman here by the name of Paul Patrice used to handle things for us."

"You're having trouble with Patrice and you brought us onto his turf?" Vinnie said. He'd grown up in Brooklyn, hearing stories about Pat The Cat, and if nine out of ten of them were phony and the last one was exaggerated, the guy was still a great white in the Cosa Nostra shark tank.

"The trouble with Patrice is he's dead," Susan said, which was news to Vinnie, and maybe even news to OCB headquarters: McPike sure as hell hadn't mentioned any major local shakeups when he'd checked in before the flight. "We don't have all the details, but apparently, as of Saturday, the new power in town is an operator from Atlantic City."

Steelgrave came to their penthouse suite, but Mel and Susan kept the negotiations private. Vinnie wasn't sure he'd have been able to pick much up anyway; the hole in his shoulder was hurting worse after all the exertion, and if he took enough painkillers to do any good, he felt like his head was floating a couple of feet above the rest of his body. He went out on the balcony for a smoke and to try and let the wind clear some of the fog out.

The door slid open halfway through his cigarette, and one of Steelgrave's men came out with a cigar. "Got a light?" he asked.

Vinnie fumbled the lighter a little, no thanks to the shoulder, and the wind made it tough. The other guy finally leaned over and cupped his hands around the lighter and Vinnie's hand and got the cigar going. "What's with the arm?" he asked, gesturing as he straightened up.

"Nah, it's nothing," Vinnie said. "We had a little excitement up in Vancouver a week ago, that's all."

"Hey, you're not from Vancouver, not with that accent," Steelgrave's man said, grin flashing suddenly in his face. "You a Bronx boy?"

"Brooklyn," Vinnie said, grinning back. "My ma lives off Flatbush Avenue. You?"

"Arthur Avenue, three miles from Yankee Stadium," he said. "How'd you end up in Vancouver, for Christ's sake?"

"Took the wrong exit off the New Jersey Turnpike and kept going until I hit water?" Vinnie said. "Other than that, beats me." It came out a little too real; it was a clear night, and from their spot on the 38th floor he could see clear down the river to the Brooklyn Bridge, and right now all he wanted was to get on the D train and ride it straight to his mama's house, even if she wouldn't let him in the door. He tried to smile to cover for it and held out his good hand. "Vinnie Terranova."

The other guy had a good firm grip, calluses that weren't just from using a gun, a couple of nice diamonds, three-four carats each, and a plain gold wedding band. "Sonny Steelgrave."

"Oh, hey," Vinnie said.

Steelgrave laughed. "Forget about it. I don't need people to kiss my ring."

"He's probably got enough of 'em trying already," Frank said. They'd found the only deserted spot in Times Square, a thin alley behind the Marriott Marquis that smelled like rotting cabbage. "Steelgrave married into the Bronx this past weekend, and surprise, surprise, Patrice and two of his top lieutenants have been MIA since the wedding. The smart money says Profitt's information is solid, and your new pal is now the top Family man in the tri-state area."

"What, you think the guy had them whacked at his own wedding?" Vinnie said. "Come on, Frank."

"Give the devil his due, our people are pretty sure Patrice was looking to whack him there," Frank said. "Patrice has been trying to muscle into Atlantic City ever since Steelgrave's brother bought the big one courtesy of some top-shelf gunrunners, back in February. Looks like Steelgrave managed to outmaneuver him—and since Patrice had at least ten times the resources, we're dying to find out how."

"Lucky for you, Mel and Susan are too," Vinnie said. "Steelgrave wants the same deal they had with Patrice, and they're holding out for some romance. Looks like he'll be playing host for us this whole week."

The festival was going full-swing down in Little Italy, and after Sonny gave them the full VIP tour, Vinnie was starting to figure that what Sonny had over Paul Patrice was mostly that everybody seemed to like the guy. The people behind the booths shaking his hand were probably giving him a cut, but they were still smiling for real, not that scared, fixed-mouth grin that Vinnie had seen on too many faces in Brooklyn when a made man rolled by.

They ate at Angelo's, waved in past the usual line, and he got distracted by heaven on a plate: veal that melted in your mouth, homemade pasta that came to the table steaming hot, not cooked to mush, sauce almost as good as his mother's. Sonny grinned at him across the table and held out his plate. "Here, trade me some of that for the manicotti. Hey, Rocco! Let's get another bottle over here."

It was noisy and the air smelled like garlic and oregano and fresh bread, and after a couple glasses of wine Vinnie didn't give a damn that Mel was watching him with narrowed eyes while he and Sonny traded Catholic school horror stories. "So the guy shoves it in his desk," Vinnie said, "except he doesn't put it out first, and he's got all his notebooks and everything in there—"

"He set his desk on fire?" Sonny was already laughing.

"Nah, wait, it gets better—the desk starts smoking, right? But Sister Mariana's already left by now, and Sister Carmela, she can't see so good, which is why he had the balls to start smoking in the back of the classroom in the first place. So she doesn't notice—meanwhile he's got the top of his desk up a little and he's trying to put the fire out by slapping at it, which is working about as well as you would expect. Of course, nobody else is saying a word—"

"There was an open fire in the classroom and no one said anything?" Susan said, leaning across the table.

"Well, you know, we didn't want to get burned alive, but against getting a pal in trouble with the nuns, you have to have your priorities straight," Vinnie said, grinning at Sonny.

"And you had it easy," Sonny said. "They weren't even allowed to use the rulers anymore by the time you were in school. Madonn', it's a miracle I've still got the use of my hands."

"Oh, that memo took a while to get around, I got whacked pretty good a few times," Vinnie said. "I still have nightmares about Sister Mary Michael. You wouldn't think a woman that small could pack that kind of a wallop, but I've gone six rounds in the ring and taken less of a beating."

"A boxer, huh?" Sonny said. "Ever do Golden Gloves?"

"Yeah," Vinnie said. "You?"

"Yeah, fifteen, sixteen years back, before my dad died," Sonny said. "Damn, it's been a while. Hey, we should head down to Gleason's while you're here—take a look at the up-and-comers."

"Sure, all right," Vinnie said.

"So, what do you think of our new business partner, Vinnie?" Mel said, back in the hotel. Susan perched on the arm of his chair with her ivory dress spilling down away from her shoulders, studying Vinnie with her wide grey eyes and making him feel like a bug pinned to a board.

"What are you asking me for? I met him same time you did," Vinnie said uneasily. "I don't know, he seems like a good guy." Actually, next to Mel, he seemed like a goddamn prince, but Vinnie wasn't planning on volunteering that opinion.

"Mm," Mel said, toying with a bracelet on Susan's wrist. "We've got some other business to take care of while we're in town. Why don't you represent me with him tomorrow? See if you can't get him to lower the price a little, compensate us for the disruption in service."

"Look, Mel, you don't want to insult this guy by not showing up," Vinnie said. "I don't even know what you guys have talked about so far."

"Oh, I think he won't mind if you show up in my place," Mel said airily, with that narrow little smile that meant he thought he knew something you didn't.

Which maybe he did, because Sonny said, "Thank you, Christ," breaking into the awkward apology Vinnie was making. "Forget about it, just tell me you don't have a burning desire to see the ballet."

"Ballet?" Vinnie said, staring.

"Where the hell else am I going to take the guy, he brings his sister along," Sonny said, shrugging helplessly. "What's with the two of them, anyway?"

That was a question looking for a full-day answer. "Uh," Vinnie said.

Sonny waved it away. "Nah, never mind, forget I asked; I'm not looking to put you on the spot. What do you say we go uptown, catch the ball game instead?"

"Well, I don't know," Vinnie said sincerely. "What are they doing at the ballet?" He ducked the swing Sonny mimed at him.

Sonny had top-notch seats practically on the field behind third base, and they lost their voices yelling at the Red Sox pitcher. After the game, Sonny looked at him and said, "I'm sick of eating in restaurants, okay?" and took him over the GW bridge to a big house looking out on the Hudson. It looked like they'd just moved in: half the furniture was under covers, half the rooms were empty. The kitchen was up and running, though, with a marching band's worth of copper pots hanging from hooks and an old-fashioned round wood-block table in the corner.

"Sonny! I don't believe you, you bring a guest and you don't even give me any warning?" his wife Theresa said, coming out of the living room with her hair pinned up and work gloves on, a smudge across her cheek. "The house is a disaster, I haven't got a thing to put on the table," but he just laughed and waltzed her a couple of turns across the floor, and in ten minutes she had plates of spaghetti and sauce and Parmesan in front of them, a couple of fried steaks and a salad, real, ordinary home-cooked food.

Vinnie couldn't help grinning, watching them work around each other; she so obviously had Sonny's number, smacking his hand away from the antipasto platter without even having to look. "Here, be useful, open the wine," she said, and nudged him back to the table, though she let him steal a kiss.

"You're a lucky guy," he said, after she'd left the room.

Sonny smiled, looking after her with soft eyes. "Yeah." He turned back. "You know, most guys, they'd say that because of the house or the cars, the fancy suits, whatever. People don't know what really matters." He poured them glasses of wine and slid one across the table. "I lost my brother six months ago," he said, quietly. "Put things in a whole new perspective, you know what I'm saying?"

Vinnie nodded silently, and they raised their glasses together.

"Listen, let's make it simple," Sonny said, after they'd finished; he took Vinnie out into the yard to talk. "Tell Profitt he can have a ten percent discount for the next six months. Then, if he's happy with how things have been run, it goes back to the regular rate, and we come back to the table a couple of years after that."

"I'll let him know," Vinnie said.

Sonny jerked his head towards the river, and they strolled over together to look down and watch the boats creeping by; the lights were starting to come on in the city. "You like it there up north?" he asked.

"It's all right," Vinnie said.

Sonny nodded. "Listen, I want to ask you something, but I don't want you take this the wrong way—you probably heard things got a little messy around here lately, but that's not how I like to operate, you understand?"

"Yeah, okay?" Vinnie said, cautiously.

"With the shakeup, right now I have more action than I have good men to give it to," Sonny said. "I could use a guy like you, somebody who knows the score." He put up his hands when Vinnie took a breath. "No, relax. I've got no interest in having a problem with Mel, that's not what this is about. Just, if you were interested, I'd talk to him about it, see if we couldn't come to some kind of arrangement."

For a moment, Vinnie wanted to jump at it: a chance to get out of the snake pit and the cold, to slip free of the hooks Susan was planting deeper under his skin every time he ended up in bed with her, to come back home. Mel would let him go, Mel would throw a fucking party to see him go, to get him away from Susan. Even Frank would go for it; Vinnie could sell him on—

It was like a hit of cold water in the face to realize where that train of thought ended up: trading Profitt for Steelgrave. Trading the psycho who sold death by the truckload for this man, who'd just brought Vinnie into his house and fed him at his table, who liked him enough to go out on a limb and risk what had to be a multi-million-dollar deal just to make him a job offer.

"Sonny," he said, his voice a little strange, "Sonny, I appreciate it—a lot. But—I took the job. I don't feel right, walking away because I'm a little homesick."

Sonny put a hand on his shoulder. "Hey, forget about it. I understand." He glanced Vinnie up and down, thoughtfully. "And she's a beautiful woman."

Vinnie took a deep breath. That was probably part of the reason, too, no matter how little he wanted to think about it. "Yeah."

Sonny nodded. "If you change your mind, just remember the door's open, all right?" He put his arm around Vinnie's shoulders. "Come on, let's go back in, have an espresso. You wouldn't believe the cheesecake Theresa makes."

Vinnie crept back home five months later, leaving behind a woman and a resignation letter and an empire in flames. The sticky crawling feeling of wearing another guy's skin, though, that stuck with him no matter how hard he tried to shed it.

The job at the garage helped, some. The roar and whine of the power tools and the engines drowned out the voices inside his head, and most days there was enough heavy lifting that he got home tired enough to fall into bed and sleep at least a few hours before the dreams woke him: Mel's face, bloated and white and glassy-eyed; Susan's eyes full of delusions, her voice calling his name down an endless echoing hallway.

But he had two days off a week, and there wasn't enough overtime to use them up. He killed some time doing odd jobs for Pete down at the parish and working a soup kitchen line, and when that wasn't enough, he started going down to the local Y, lifting weights, pounding the heavy bag until he was soaked with sweat and mindless.

He'd been working it for an hour on a Saturday morning when somebody behind him said, "Vinnie?" and he turned around to see Sonny Steelgrave on the floor in a silk suit and tie, out of place among the tracksuits and shorts: a couple of other guys in suits were standing at the door to the gym offices, hanging back. "How long you been back in town?" Sonny said. "And what the hell happened to your face?"

"My face?" Vinnie said blankly, and reached up to touch his jaw, soft with two inches of beard.

"Well, there's got to be some reason you're wearing that rug on it," Sonny said. "Are you in disguise or what?" One of the men back at the door coughed, and he glanced over his shoulder. "Listen, I've got some business to take care of, won't be long—catch a shower, we'll go get a cup of coffee after."

"Sonny—" Vinnie said.

"I heard about Profitt," Sonny said quietly, reaching out to touch his arm. Vinnie was glad about the beard, then, because he was pretty sure more than he wanted was showing on his face. Sonny just nodded. "I'll be out soon, wait for me." Then he was gone.

Walking out on Sonny Steelgrave didn't strike Vinnie as the best of ideas, so he went ahead and took the shower. He came out to find Sonny at the edge of the boxing ring, watching the kids go at it. "C'mon, come with me," Sonny said, tilting his head, before Vinnie could get into his planned excuse, and Vinnie ended up following him out onto the street and down the block into a barber shop.

"Sit down," Sonny said, pointing at an empty chair, and beckoned over the barber. "Here, get the carpet off his face, will you?" he said, handing over a twenty, and Vinnie somehow found himself lying back and getting scraped clean. The barber went at his hair, too, and when he got up the guy in the mirror looked familiar again. And maybe he had been in disguise after all, because he was having a hard time looking at himself.

"Better. You're still missing twenty pounds, but at least you don't look like a mountain man," Sonny said. "You know this neighborhood? There a decent coffee shop around here?"

"The diner a couple blocks away, they make pretty good coffee," Vinnie said, glad to follow him away from the reflection, still letting Sonny's gravitational field tow him along. Then a police car went by, running sirens and lights, and it was like a wake-up call. He made himself stop. "Sonny, hang on a second—look, I have to get to work."

"Work?" Sonny stopped on the sidewalk and turned to him. "What are you doing?"

It wasn't like Vinnie was ashamed of the job—it was honest work, more honest than what he'd been doing, God knew, except he stumbled over it anyway. "I'm—I'm working at a service station, a friend of mine's, Squilla's."

"Oh, right, a service station," Sonny said. "Business is booming, you can't be a little late, huh? Give it a rest. What do you think I am, a moron?" He ignored Vinnie's awkward denial and stepped close, put his hand on Vinnie's arm. "I don't need a neon sign. Profitt went down ugly, and you got caught in the middle. Relax. I'm not looking to give you a hard sell. You got out, you want to stay out, I respect that. Does it mean you can't have a cup of coffee with me?"

Vinnie stared at him, helplessly. It was like Steelgrave had a lemming instinct for sticking his head into the guillotine. It wouldn't even take work. All Vinnie had to do was let Sonny talk him into taking a job, go home and call the OCB and put himself back on the payroll, start taking apart another guy's life, tell himself he was doing the right thing. He wouldn't even have to make the call himself. The OCB was probably watching them; chances were good Sonny had a full-time tail. Even if he turned Sonny down today, Frank would show up on his doorstep to talk him into it tomorrow—

And there was only one way to make sure that couldn't ever happen, and that was to chase Sonny with the one explanation that would keep him away for good. "Sonny, Mel went down because I took him down," Vinnie said. "I'm a federal agent."

"What?" Sonny stared at him. "Is that supposed to be a joke?"

"No," Vinnie said. "I'm with—I was with the OCB."

Sonny looked so honestly baffled it was funny. "You're a cop? You're a fed?" he said. He turned half away, took a few steps, and whirled back. "Hang on a second. You don't mean you turned informer. You were a fed when you went in to start with—"

"Yeah," Vinnie said. "I was an undercover agent."

"All right. Jesus," Sonny said. He stood there looking off at nothing, frowning, then he looked back at Vinnie. "And now you're busting a service station? What the hell are they servicing, nuclear submarines?"

Vinnie snorted a laugh. "No, I'm not busting them—it's just a job. I quit the bureau. After Mel—" He stopped and shrugged, uncomfortably. "Anyway, I quit."

Sonny stood there, tapping his hand against his leg, and then abruptly he said, "Okay, so you made sure I'm not going to make a recruiting pitch. Now do you feel safe enough to come have a goddamn cup of coffee?"

Vinnie blinked at him, his turn to be confused. "What?"

"Well?" Sonny said. "Or are you too righteous to sit at a table with me when you're not doing it with a badge in your back pocket?"

"Hey, I'm not—" Vinnie stopped and laughed, a little helplessly. "Okay, sure, what the hell. If you're game, I guess I am."

"I'm going to be giving my old boss ulcers if he finds out about this," Vinnie said, sliding into a booth at the diner.

"Oh yeah, I can see that's really preying on you," Sonny said, putting up an eyebrow. He flagged down the waitress with the coffeepot.

"Ah, he's a good guy," Vinnie said. "He followed me all the way to Vancouver, anyway." He bent over his coffee cup and stirred in cream and sugar to have something to do with his hands.

"Such a good guy you came back here looking like a veteran with shellshock," Sonny said. "And now you're working a grunt job—aren't you supposed to get a pension or something?"

"Sure, after twenty years," Vinnie said. "I crapped out after five, so."

Sonny shook his head in disapproval. "So what the hell happened? You got your man, isn't that a happy ending?"

"Yeah, well." Vinnie looked down into his coffee, and it would be crazy to talk about this to Steelgrave, of all people; he couldn't do it, except he found himself saying, "Somebody had to stop the guy. He had no brakes on. Some of the stuff he did—just the stuff I saw, and I didn't even see all of it—" He stopped and started up again. "He liked to party on this boat. One time, this girl—not a player, just a pretty face—he got pissed off at her, and he told me to throw her off. Right into the goddamn ocean, twenty miles from shore, middle of a storm. He put a gun to my head and told me to do it."

Sonny was watching his face. "So why didn't he shoot you?"

"Susan," Vinnie said, tasting her name like a sharp knife. "She didn't say anything, but he already knew she—she—"

"Yeah," Sonny said. "What happened to her?"

"She's in an asylum," Vinnie said, his voice cracking. "I put her in a—" He swallowed it down and closed his hands around the coffee cup, tight, except it wasn't enough, because it was rattling against the table.

"Come on," Sonny said, tossing some money on the table. "Coffee isn't going to cut it for this."

Vinnie followed him on autopilot, numb and sick to his stomach at the same time. Sonny got them into the bar on the corner, ordered a row of whiskey shooters and made him drink them down, bitter and burning. Vinnie's shoulders started loosening up a little after the second one, and after the third he said, "Mel knew everything was going south. He didn't know it was me, he just knew the net was closing in and he couldn't get out, it was all over, and he—he asked her—he got her to give him an overdose. He didn't give a fuck what it did to her. He didn't give a fucking damn, and it just—she cracked, Sonny. She couldn't let herself believe he was dead." He was breathing hard, panting like a dog, and his shoulders were knotting again.

"Hey. Hey," Sonny said, and got up and slid into the booth next to him, put his hand around Vinnie's shoulders and gripped him at the base of the neck, squeezed down hard enough to make the muscle give.

"She loved me," Vinnie said. "She fell in love with me, and I used it. I used it, I got to her, to both of them, and that was the job, that was the fucking job—"

Sonny put another shot in his hand, and Vinnie downed it. Sonny said quietly, "The two of them, they had any other family?"

"No," Vinnie said. "They were abandoned as kids. She was still a baby, he was two or something—their mother just dumped them and took off." He took another shot. "Who the fuck does that? Just left them—didn't even get them adopted, anything."

"They didn't have a chance, starting out like that," Sonny said.

Vinnie shook his head without looking up. Sonny's hand was warm on his neck and shoulder. He shut his eyes and just focused on that, the warmth, trying to let go.

Sonny got the rest of the whiskey into him and took him to a motel. "This guy needs to sober up a little before his mother sees him. You got someone can run out get us some black coffee?" he said, peeling off a hundred into the desk clerk's hand.

"No problem," the clerk said, the hundred disappearing, and gave him a key to an upstairs room on the corner. "I'll keep the rooms around it empty, he can get some sleep."

"Hey, I appreciate that," Sonny said, and slid another hundred over.

Vinnie fell onto his back on the old quilted bedcover and put the heels of his hands against his eyes. Sonny sat down next to him and slid an arm under his head. "Come on, drink some water."

Vinnie drank a couple glasses and fell half-asleep curled on his side, vaguely aware of light and noise and time passing outside, the soft knock as the coffee arrived, Sonny talking with the guys standing guard outside, Sonny talking on the phone. Vinnie drifted for maybe another hour and then opened his eyes. Sonny was sitting up in the other bed working on some papers, coat and jacket tossed over the foot of the bed, his tie off and his collar open, shoes off.

Vinnie just lay there watching him a while, not really wanting to move. Sonny lifted his head, and they looked at each other a while. Then Sonny put down his papers and stood up to take off his shirt and pants, laying them straight on the bed. Vinnie didn't bother being careful with his own clothes, just pulled the t-shirt over his head and kicked his jeans and shorts onto the floor after he'd heeled off his boots.

It wasn't anything like being with Susan; not just the part about being fucked, but everything. Nothing like being flayed by that soft scalpel touch of her fingers down his back, always hearing her silent plea for him to find a way to get her out of her head, to break her out of the cage she was stuck in. Trying, working at her so hard, using every part of his body and anything he could think of to bring her with him, holding back on the edge even when he felt like he was dying inside her, his face buried against her skin, her whole body curving into his, even when she stroked the back of his neck and urged him low and gentle to go on ahead, because he couldn't stand to leave her behind. Even though in the end he had.

Sonny didn't ask him to do anything, just moved right onto him and took possession. Fucked him hard and fast, bearing him down into the sagging mattress, saying with casual practicality, "Come on, tilt up for me, yeah, a little more." His hands gripped brutally tight as they moved together, skidding slow and frictional along Vinnie's skin, leaving hot reddened streaks like Sonny was peeling away the dead snake-layers of that other self, burning them off him.

Afterwards, Sonny lit a cigar and lay smoking it in bed next to him, both of them naked and sweat-sticky, radiating heat against each other. Vinnie felt wiped-out and peaceful, like lying out next to the pool on a hot summer day, nothing in his head at all.

He sneaked back into the house like a kid, a little before midnight, and slept like a log. For once he woke up without being called. Mama shrieked and nearly dropped the plate of eggs and bacon when he came downstairs on his own, and it got cold while she kissed him on both cheeks and scolded him tearfully in Italian so fast he couldn't follow it, a worry he hadn't been able to let himself see starting to fade out of her eyes.

"Don't eat that, I will make fresh," she said, when she finally let him sit down, but he ate the cold ones anyway while she cooked, then cleaned the second plate too and even had time for a shower before his ride came by. He rolled down the window and let the cold air scrub his face. He still didn't know what he was going to do with the rest of his life, but he felt like maybe he could stand to think about it, at least a little.

"Hey, check it out," Squilla said, later that afternoon. "Think they lost a hubcap around the corner or what?"

Vinnie poked his head out from under the hood and saw the long sleek limousine pulling up in front of the service station lot. The driver came around and got the door for Sonny. Squilla whistled under his breath. "Holy shit, isn't that—"

Sonny caught Vinnie's eye and jerked his head towards the limo. Vinnie said, "Listen, Tony, I gotta go," and cleaned his hands on a rag, pretending not to notice how Squilla and Richie were staring at him, Squilla muttering, "Jesus, that's why you shaved?"

"I changed my mind," Sonny said, after he'd gotten in and they were rolling. "I am going to recruit you."

"Sonny, I'm not—"

"No, not for anything like that," Sonny said. "But you're made for heavy work, and I don't mean this line you have going over in auto parts, that's just turning off your goddamn brain and sticking it in a drawer. And I need you."

He had a folder in the side pocket of the car door with a couple of photos: two men with the same cold eyes and hard jaws, one clean-shaven, the other bearded and hulking. "The Zhoratso brothers, George and Minos," Sonny said. "If you gave a call to your old home office for the backstory on these princes, you wouldn't want to look at the long distance bill by the time you got done hearing it."

Vinnie looked up from the photos. "Friends of yours?"

"Yeah, well," Sonny said. "Back in the day when the late unlamented Paul Patrice was applying some heavy-duty pressure in my direction, I wasn't in a position to be picky about my associates." He shrugged. "I knew the score, I got them to clean up their act some, and they brought in a lot of cash. The problem is, they've backslid. I gave them a final warning two weeks ago and told them to get ready to close up shop the next time they made a mess on my turf."

"So what, you want to turn them in?" Vinnie asked. "If you're looking for me to pass something to the OCB—"

"Do you see a long skinny tail anywhere between my legs?" Sonny said. "So don't ask me if I'm a rat." Then his jaw went tight and he looked out the window, his hand closing into a fist. "Christ. But if it came to that—"

Vinnie stared at him. He'd been mostly throwing it out to move the conversation; he couldn't imagine Sonny turning state's. "Did they come after you?"

"Believe me, that I can handle," Sonny said. "They went after Theresa."

"Jesus. Is she okay?"

"Yeah, thank God. She was out shopping and spotted Minos tailing her, called me from the store." Sonny thumped his fist against his thigh. "Goddamn bastard. She's old Joey Bags' daughter, you know, Don Baglia, up in the Bronx. Anybody else, any other woman—if she didn't have those instincts— " He stopped.

"I'm glad she's okay," Vinnie said, uneasily, because now he knew what Sonny was going to ask him to do, and it was going to be goddamn hard to tell him no. And he was going to have to; Vinnie didn't have any illusions about being able to keep the lines drawn. It could get messy bodyguarding for celebrities, much less the wife of a mafia don who was already in the middle of a war; he'd be one step short of turning enforcer the entire time, and he wasn't going to sign up for that.

Except Sonny didn't ask, not right away, just leaned back against the limo seat and stared out the window while the city rolled by. Vinnie took his cue and settled in for the ride; he distracted himself by coming up with how he was going to report this ride when Frank finally caught up with him. "I just gave him names of a few other undercover guys, that's all," or, "Yeah, he offered me a job, but it was only ten times as much money, so I turned him down." Or his personal favorite, "Well, Frank, I always wanted to be a gangster, but it was easier to get into the FBI."

There were a lot of men in long dark coats hanging around Sonny's house; they even made the limo roll down the windows in back and waited for Sonny to give them the nod before letting them up the drive. Sonny got out of the car still without a word; Vinnie trailed after him up the walkway and inside, and followed him into the kitchen. The rest of the house had been unpacked now, full of polished furniture and old carpets and expensive china behind glass, but the kitchen was still the beating heart of the house, glowing warm, and Theresa was turning around from the stove to look at them, five months pregnant.

Frank was having coffee in his mother's living room when Vinnie got back. "Nice car," Frank said, looking at the Cadillac Vinnie had parked out front, Theresa's car: Sonny had given him the keys.

"It's a loaner," Vinnie said shortly, and went upstairs to start packing a bag.

"What are you doing?" Frank said, climbing up after him. He looked weird and out of place in the bedroom doorway; he made everything look smaller and older. "You want to go after Steelgrave, believe me, the bureau is there. What's with the lone gunman routine?"

"I'm not going after Steelgrave," Vinnie said, tossing two armfuls of clothes into the suitcase. He'd left behind the wardrobe Mel Profitt's money had bought, so he only had a couple of old suits, a few pairs of slacks and a sportcoat; the packing was going to go fast. He reached into his jacket and gave Frank the folder with the photos of the Zhoratsos. "Sonny's got some trouble with these guys. They're—"

"The Zhoratso brothers," Frank said, staring at the photos; his jaw had gone hard and angry. "You've got something on them?"

"Nothing for the Justice Department," Vinnie said, eyeing Frank. "You really want these guys. What do you know about them?"

Frank looked up, unsmiling. "I know they mutilated a twenty-six-year-old federal agent and walked on insufficient evidence. You'd better level with me here, Terranova. If these guys are about to get into it with Steelgrave—"

"Oh, they're already in it," Vinnie said. "They're in it up to their hips."

Frank put up his eyebrows. "And you're walking right into the crossfire because...?"

"They tried to grab Sonny's wife," Vinnie said.


Vinnie snapped, "She's pregnant, Frank."

"I'd say 'and' again, but I hate repeating myself," Frank said. He squinted at Vinnie. "Are you trying to save souls here again or something? Because you know how well that worked last time."

"Yeah, fuck you," Vinnie said, turning back to the closet for his shirts. "Sonny wants a bodyguard for her. I said I'd do it."

"What?" Frank stared while Vinnie went back and forth for more clothes. "Is that supposed to be some kind of joke?"

Vinnie just ignored him and started in on socks and underwear.

"You're telling me you're actually taking a job with the head of the Five Families?" Frank grabbed his arm. "Hey, look at me. Have you lost your mind? You think this is going to stay a straight bodyguard job? If Steelgrave thinks you're good enough to protect his wife, it's only a matter of time before he tries to graduate you to heavy work."

"No, it's not. He knows I was with the bureau."

"Oh, Jesus," Frank said. "Your cover sprang a leak somewhere? How did he find out?"

"I told him," Vinnie said.

"You—" Vinnie hadn't ever seen Frank speechless before, but apparently there was a first time for everything. "You—" He shoved off Vinnie's shoulder and walked across the room away from him and stopped, hunched over, his hand bridging his forehead.

"I was trying to get him to lay off!" Vinnie said. "It didn't occur to me he'd decide it was a selling point."

"Oh, just shut up," Frank said, lifting his head. "You know, Daryl wanted me to bring you in for a full-scale debrief, and I talked him out of it. Now I'm thinking I should hand you over to the department shrinks for at least a year."

"I'm not nuts, and I'm not coming in," Vinnie snapped, straightening up. But he had to look away from Frank's stare after a second; it felt too much like looking his own better judgment in the face. "Look," he said, more quietly, "if I can talk Sonny into giving you evidence on the Zhoratsos, I will. But I wouldn't hold your breath. On the bright side, I don't think they're going to be around a lot longer, if that makes you feel any better."

Frank's eyes got narrow and cold. "Yeah? You planning to help Steelgrave make sure of that?"

Vinnie rolled his eyes. "Give it a rest, Frank." He tossed in a spare belt and started shoving down the suitcase lid until he could snap the buckles.

Frank threw his hands up in the air. "You know, I should've noticed your reports were looking a little sketchy back when Profitt brought you to town," he said grimly. "You said Steelgrave made a pass and you fielded, you didn't say it was love at first sight."

Vinnie kept his head down, fiddling with the case, cold lump of guilt sitting in his stomach. He'd played Sonny's original offer down a little, tried to make it seem like just a feeler. Otherwise, the bureau might have tried to use it, asked him to vouch for another agent. He'd told himself at the time that he didn't want to end up on the hook, hung out to dry if some other guy screwed up, but—so far he was 0-for-2 on converting chances to bring Sonny down, and he couldn't even pretend he was swinging at the ball at this point.

Frank eyed him narrowly. "Then again, I was so thrilled to be home myself, I'd probably have missed it if you circled his name in red and drew little hearts around it. Come on, Vince. You don't want to do this. The guy's a snake."

"Frank, I grew up in this neighborhood," Vinnie said. "Believe me, I know better than you what this guy is, and I'm not in danger of forgetting it. I'm going in there to make sure an innocent woman doesn't get hurt. That's all."

"Oh, for—" Frank shook his head and went for the door. He stopped just in the hallway. "You know, Terranova, you want to jump the tracks, that's up to you," he said. "But quit deluding yourself. You head down this road, you know exactly where it leads."

And the hell of it was, Vinnie did, too, except that didn't make it any goddamn easier to find himself an exit ramp. He tried to come up with one on the drive back, but then Sonny came out to meet him in the driveway and got the bag off the passenger seat before Vinnie could say anything.

"I was going to find someplace in the neighborhood—" Vinnie started, holding out his hand for the bag.

"Are you kidding me?" Sonny said, not letting him have it back, and took him straight upstairs to the guest room on the other side of the half-painted nursery, a handful of stuffed animals staring out at Vinnie in an accusing, glassy-eyed row as he went by.

"Great," Vinnie muttered, when Sonny left him to unpack, saying, "Dinner's at seven." He put his things away, the handful of suits and jackets hanging forlorn and lonely in the giant closet, and went into the bathroom to wash his face and put a little cold water on the back of his neck. He was already doomed.

By the end of the week, the clothes he'd brought had migrated to parts unknown, and the closet had a lot less empty space. "Sonny, come on," Vinnie protested.

"Hey, I got an image to maintain," Sonny said. "Besides, you look good in Armani." He smacked Vinnie's ass with a friendly leer and stole another slice of proscuitto. "Theresa, tell this guy you can't be seen around with some kind of bum."

"What am I going to do, I married you, didn't I?" she said, and took the deli package away while Sonny groaned and mimed being stabbed in the heart. "Give up, Vinnie, he won't let me dress myself half the time. Go sit at the table before you ruin your appetite, dinner's almost ready."

The fancy dining room set collected dust while they ate at the kitchen table, except the handful of times Theresa had some friends over, or her parents came. Once her brother Aldo stopped by; without wanting to, Vinnie got it that he was minding the store in Atlantic City while Sonny consolidated his hold on Patrice's territory. Sometimes other people came by, people Vinnie knew from bulletin boards and rap sheets—Harry Shanstra, Joe Dirigio, even Mack Mahoney himself. Business never got discussed, except if you counted the unspoken understanding, something like being at a royal court, that they were there as much to show their respect as for dinner.

But most of the time it was just the three of them, sitting at the round table and talking about nothing and everything. Theresa was sharp as a knife and quick as Sonny himself, the two of them batting conversation back and forth like ping-pong balls. Vinnie thought sometimes he could already see them with their kids around the table, the same kind of noisy clamoring affection he remembered growing up, Sunday afternoons with the cousins at the table. They slotted him into their banter like a puzzle-piece, and fitting into them felt like coming home. It was too damn easy to forget that behind Sonny's office door, lives and limbs got broken, and that the people he was protecting Theresa from were the same kind of people Sonny did business with every day.

He'd gone home a couple of nights the first week, but it was easier to stay away. Mama had decided he was playing some kind of deep game, and she was determined not to fail again, as she saw it—she hadn't forgiven herself for not trusting him, before, when the OCB had made him keep her in the dark. Vinnie had tried to tell her that he wasn't undercover this time, that he was just doing a straight job for a friend—a friend who just incidentally happened to be a mob boss. She'd just smiled understandingly and patted him on the arm. He didn't have the heart to spell it out hard enough that she'd finally believe him, but sitting at the table while she looked at him with all that satisfaction made him feel like a fraud.

Anyway, Sonny liked it better when Vinnie stuck close to Theresa. He didn't leave the house unless Vinnie was there, not since the first afternoon when Vinnie had pointed out half a dozen ways for someone to get past the guards and the security system. "Listen, I don't want her scared, I don't want her feeling like a prisoner in her own home. That can't be good for, you know—" Sonny waved his hand vaguely around his stomach. "I don't want her trying to look out for herself. You and me, we're going to look out for her."

The next day, Theresa waited until Sonny left the house and sat Vinnie down with coffee. "Okay. Tell me what I shouldn't be doing."

"Mrs. Steelgrave, you don't need to change your habits—"

"It's Theresa," she said, "and I'm not a mushroom, so quit trying to feed me that crap. I know Sonny told you not to worry me. Forget about that, I'm not the type to sit around biting my nails. Sonny wouldn't put you here if he didn't trust you to keep me safe, and I trust him. But don't you waste my time trying to come up with excuses to get me to go to the cellar for potatoes either, you understand? I've got the baby to think of, and I don't want to be taking any dumb chances."

She was all fired up by the end of the speech, her eyes flashing, and she glared at him narrowly to make sure it was getting through. Vinnie said meekly, "Okay," and spent the rest of the afternoon giving her a quick rundown: no regular schedule, no going out alone, staying clear of uncovered windows, staying out of rooms with outside doors.

"Look, and I'm not just saying this, chances are they know they missed their shot and nothing else is going to happen," Vinnie said. "But God forbid it does, remember these guys aren't psychos. They aren't looking to kill you, they're looking to grab you. That gives us an edge. Anything goes down, your job is to stay out of the line of fire and give me as much time to get to you as you can."

She nodded determinedly. Sonny threw up his hands when Vinnie told him about the conversation. "Terrific. Do you believe this? This is the woman I married. She gets an idea in her head, she's like a goddamn terrier, she won't listen to a thing I say," he said, trying to sound exasperated, except he couldn't help adding, "Can you imagine the kind of sons she's going to raise?" looking ridiculously proud.

Nothing did happen, not for two weeks, three. Then one afternoon Vinnie was out at the supermarket with Theresa, looking around while she picked through the fruit, and something put his hackles up. He couldn't put a name to it: there was nobody suspicious around, they were out in public with a dozen other people pushing shopping carts around, but she looked up right away and said, "What is it?"

"We're leaving," he said, and she left the cart half-full in the middle of the aisle without a word and let him get her straight to the car and back home. He went back to the store after she was safe in the house with the guards on alert. "Any cars out of place, anybody just hanging out?" he asked, slipping a ten to the head of the loaders in the back lot.

"There was that delivery van, the green one, that's been here all week," one of the guys offered, and got himself and his boss an extra twenty apiece for remembering the name on the side was "something Greek, Kasidakis, Katsidakis, something like that," which turned out to be a small bakery in Astoria that had no reason to be delivering to Jersey.

Sonny listened to Vinnie's report that night in his office, the lights low and his face like something out of Francis Ford Coppola, full of shadows, his hands tight on the arms of his chair. "I'll take it from here," he said, murderously quiet. "You stick with her like glue, you understand me?"

"Yeah, all right, but you're going to listen to me first," Vinnie said grimly. "Sonny, you give me half an inch, I can have them in a federal prison before morning. The bureau wants these guys, and they aren't going to care where the info comes from. Are you going to let your pride stand in the way of keeping her safe?"

"Shut your mouth." Sonny shot up out of his chair, came right for him; Vinnie held his ground. "You think I'd let anything happen to her?"

"You tell me," Vinnie said coolly.

Sonny almost lunged at him, knotting his hands in Vinnie's lapels. "You have some fucking nerve—"

Vinnie knocked his hands off, shoving him back. "You got me here to protect her, and that's what I'm going to do until you throw me out the door. You don't want to hear this, go ahead and fire me, but don't you fucking ask me to sit on my hands."

Sonny stood there glaring at him ferociously, his hands clenched up at his sides, breathing hard, and then he shook himself a little and let them unwind. "All right, you tell me something," he said. "You think these guys are sitting somewhere under a neon billboard, your pals are going to roll out there and pick them off the vine?"

"Sonny, you've got what, a hundred guys on the street? Two hundred?" Vinnie said. "The OCB can hand their mugshots to thirty thousand NYPD officers."

"Yeah, a bunch of traffic cops, they're going to find the Zhoratsos, sure," Sonny said contemptuously. "These guys aren't fucking amateurs. I hand them to the feds, they're going to hear about it long before your people lay hands on them. And then what do you think happens? They know I've sold them out, their operation here is done, they're history. And that is when this stops being a business dispute and turns into a vendetta."

"You call this a business dispute? They're going after your wife," Vinnie said.

"Yeah, but as things stand, they're not going to kill her," Sonny said. "They're animals, but right now they're still animals looking for leverage. I take that chance away from them, they've got nothing left to lose and only revenge to gain."

"So, what, it's all right with you if she's tied up in a basement somewhere, long as she's alive?" Vinnie said. "How are you planning to get her out if it comes to that?"

"If it comes to that, I'll trade me for her," Sonny said: calmly, calmly as if he wasn't talking about handing himself over to a pair of butchers for slaughter. Vinnie stared at him. "They'll take it: they kill me, they've got enough of a power vacuum they can keep operating, at least for a while. She'll be all right, she won't be a target anymore with me out of the picture—"

"Oh, that's great," Vinnie said, his voice rising. "That's just great, Sonny, that's a brilliant plan, I bet she'd love that—"

"She'll be alive," Sonny said furiously. "She'll be alive and safe, and so will the kid, and that's what matters. That's the only thing that matters—"

They were in each other's faces, yelling, and the door slammed open. "All right, that's enough out of both of you," Theresa said, marching right in.

"Theresa, this is none of your business," Sonny said.

"Like hell it's not," she snapped. "This baby is not growing up without a father, and you need a thicker door if you don't want me hearing you talk like a lunatic." She turned to Vinnie. "And I don't care if the cops can find them in five minutes. We're not sending these men to jail. They've tried to hurt me, to hurt the baby, to get to Sonny. They get away with that, it's open season on my children forever, and that is not going to happen, do you understand me?"

Both of them stood, silenced. She stopped and held herself ramrod straight, looking at them, regal even with the swell of the baby under her dress, and then Sonny crossed the room to her and took her face in his hands and kissed her softly, saying, "All right. All right."

Vinnie watched them, knots tightening around his throat; his heart was pounding as Sonny turned around with Theresa's hand in his and said, "Vinnie, I love you, we both do, you know that. If this is as far as you can go, I'm still grateful to you for the rest of my life. But you need to decide right now if you're in or out of this. And if you're out, you need to go."

They were between him and the door. Vinnie shut his eyes and said, "I'm in."

They sketched out the plan together. Sonny found himself a chorus girl willing to risk her life for a fat payoff, about Theresa's height and convincing in a dark brown wig with stuffing under her dress. Vinnie drove Theresa to her father's house in the Bronx and drove the fake version back. "Be careful," Theresa said, tense and pale, her hand clenched on his arm as he got ready to head out.

"I'm not going to let anything happen to Sonny, I promise," Vinnie said.

"Don't let anything happen to you, either," Theresa said sharply, and kissed him on the cheek.

Vinnie dropped his head, swallowing, and muttered something fast before he got out the door. Sonny was pacing furiously by the time he came back in with the actress. "All right, all right," Sonny said, looking her over narrowly. "You understand what you're gonna do, right?"

"Yeah, I got it," she said, popping gum in the corner of her mouth. "Five-thirty, I act like I'm sneaking out, I drive straight to the church and go to morning Mass, the end. Trust me, I can remember a Fosse routine for scale, I can remember this for a hundred grand."

Sonny shook his head and walked to the bar and poured himself a couple fingers of brandy. "You think she's going to screw it up?" he muttered.

"Relax," Vinnie said. "Angelo's going to be here with her, right? He'll make sure she gets out on time. She's not a dummy."

"Yeah, okay," Sonny said, and looked at the glass and tossed it out in the sink without actually drinking. "When do we head out?"

"Not until late," Vinnie said.

Around midnight they got changed into black slacks and black shirts and turned off all the lights downstairs before they slipped out to the garage. Sonny's driver Angelo backed in, and they climbed into the trunk together. "You know where to go?" Sonny said.

"Yeah," Angelo said. "The car's there."

"Good," Sonny said, and pulled the lid down on them like a coffin. The trunk was clean, but it was still pretty rough going, both of them braced against the sides and the roof as the car bumped them around. Sonny snorted. "All of a sudden I've got a lot more sympathy for the guys I've sent on rides like this. You ever do this before?"

"No—ow," Vinnie said, muffled; his face had gotten mashed into Sonny's shoulder by a left turn.

It was only ten minutes' drive, then Angelo let them out in an underground parking garage and drove away again. The beat-up Trans Am with the smoked windows was parked outside, right across the street from the church. There was even coffee sitting on the dashboard, even if it was cold.

"Think they're really going to go for it?" Sonny said.

"They've gotta be pretty desperate by now," Vinnie said. "Every day gets you closer to finding them, and they know when you do, they're going down hard. I don't think they'll be able to pass it up."

Sonny nodded. His leg was jittering against the running board, thump-thump-thump, until Vinnie absently put out a hand and held down his thigh. Sonny stopped and looked over sharply. Vinnie went still. "How much time we got?" Sonny said.

Vinnie looked at his watch in the amber street lamp: two-twenty-four AM. "A few hours," he said, a little hoarse.

"Right," Sonny said, and reached over and took the cup out of Vinnie's hand and put it back on the dashboard.

The girl showed right on schedule, and went up the stairs straight into the church, just like they'd told her. Sonny's head was tipped against the window; he'd fallen asleep about five minutes after saying, "Don't be ridiculous, I'm not going to sleep," when Vinnie had said, "Get some shuteye, I'm used to these things."

The green delivery van pulled up to the front, five minutes before Mass let out. "Wake up," Vinnie said, shaking Sonny by the shoulder.

"What, I'm up," Sonny said, shaking his head groggily, but his eyes got hard and clear the second he saw the van. He reached into the glove compartment and pulled out his piece. Vinnie didn't have to check his own; he'd cleaned and loaded it fresh three times during the night.

They were out and moving the second the Zhoratsos opened the van doors and got out in their white bakery uniforms, just as the church doors opened and the handful of early worshippers came out. The fake Theresa was in with them, talking to an old lady as they came down the steps together. The Zhoratsos clearly didn't give a damn; they shoved the old woman aside, knocking her down roughly on the steps, and grabbed the girl by the arms to hustle her down into the van.

"I'm not her!" she shrieked, struggling. "Let go of me!"

George got it a second faster and turned, already going for his gun. That made it easier to shoot him, or at least Vinnie hoped that was what made it easy, because it was: two shots to the torso and one shot to the head, just like the firing range, and it didn't bother him at all; it just felt good to watch the son of a bitch topple over with his mouth open and the third eye smoking on his forehead. The actress stumbled and went down with him, her arm still clutched in his dead man's grip. Minos roared incoherently, seeing his brother go down, and came at Vinnie with a lunge, a knife clenched in his hand. Sonny pumped six shots into him, and he staggered and took two more limping steps before falling forward onto his face and lying still in a spreading pool of blood.

Vinnie shoved the gun into his waistband and helped the actress up and away from the carnage. "It's okay, you did great, you're fine," he told her.

"Jesus fucking Christ, I need a drink," she said, trying to light a cigarette with shaking hands; her wig had gotten knocked askew, and her own dyed-blonde hair was showing underneath.

He eased her down to sit on the steps. Sirens were already coming their way; the whole block was deserted except for the three of them and the cooling corpses. "You're sure we're in the clear for this?" Sonny said uneasily, eyeing the bodies.

"Yeah, I'm sure," Vinnie said. "Long as that gun's registered and you've got a license, we're fine. They tried to kidnap an unarmed woman, they pulled on us first. Leaving the scene would be a bigger problem at this point. Just put the gun down and keep your hands in sight."

"Okay, fine, okay," Sonny said. He put down the gun on the steps and paced back and forth. He stopped. "It's just not right, standing around waiting for the cops to show up."

"Sonny!" Vinnie said. "Just relax."

"Yeah, yeah," Sonny said, and resumed pacing. "And what the hell is taking them so long, anyway? I could be halfway to Canada by now. Christ."

"What the living fuck were you thinking, Terranova!" Frank was short of frothing at the mouth, but not by a lot.

Vinnie kept his mouth shut and his eyes on the table, fighting off the guilt; Sonny's lawyers had been on standby, and they had to be outside by now. Frank couldn't hold them off forever.

Frank knew it too, and he blew out a gusty sigh and slumped into the chair across the table. "What are you worried about, anyway?" he said bitterly. "We've got a priest and seven morning-Mass attendees who all swear the Zhoratsos grabbed the girl and attacked you guys when you tried to stop them. Congratulations, your first job as a Steelgrave hitman went beautifully."

"Oh, go to hell," Vinnie said. "Like you're not just as happy to see these guys go down."

"I'm not crying over them," Frank said. "Vince, what are you doing?"

Vinnie looked away.

"Listen to me, it's not too late," Frank said. "Unless you're in deeper than this, it's not too late. I still haven't turned in your resignation letter, officially you're still on leave."

That was worth a laugh. "Oh, come on, Frank," Vinnie said. "The bureau's going to let me come back after I was Sonny Steelgrave's codefendant on a mob shoot-out? I walked right through that door the day I signed on for a paycheck with his name on it, and we both know it. If I'm officially on leave, I'm just surprised I haven't been fired yet."

Frank got up and walked restlessly to the other side of the room. He muttered, "I might've told the bureau Steelgrave gave you a line on the Zhoratsos, and I was authorizing you to pursue it off the record."

"You what?" Vinnie stared. "And they bought that?"

"Daryl got himself a real nice promotion out of the Profitt bust," Frank said, shrugging a little. "He was so happy to see you back in the saddle he didn't think about it too hard. Besides, you were right. We wanted the Zhoratsos and bad. There's going to be a lot of celebrating at headquarters because of today, at least until I go down there and tell them that this wasn't a bureau operation after all."

He came back, planted his hands on the table and leaned forward. "Listen to me. Let me get you out of here before Steelgrave drags you any further down. Let me get you down to Washington for a debriefing. I know you've got a lot of good reasons for not wanting to dredge up the Profitt stuff. We'll take it slow. A couple of months—"

"Frank—" Vinnie stood up and shoved away from the table. "Look, I made a choice. Whatever you told the bureau, that doesn't change what I did."

"You took out a couple of major-league lowlifes in a righteous shooting, and you stood up and took the heat for it," Frank said. "If I wasn't watching Steelgrave plant this in you like a hook, I'd be patting you on the back."

"Christ." Vinnie groped in his pockets, but he didn't have his cigarettes, and God, did he need one right now. He'd only suggested doing the hit this way because everyone in the whole world would know who'd done it, a message in ten-foot-tall neon. He'd thought he'd made the choice and that was it. It had been a relief, almost, to have it over and done with, no going back.

Frank went to the door and opened it to talk to someone outside; in a moment he closed it again and tossed a half-full pack of Marlboros and a lighter on the table. Vinnie sat down heavily and lit up. Frank watched him for a few minutes, and then he said, "Steelgrave's got half a dozen priors on his rap sheet and a lot of circumstantial evidence building towards a RICO case. We'll lose at trial, but I've got enough to get an indictment for manslaughter and put him away without bail until we get there."

Vinnie jerked his head up. "For Christ's sake, Frank! His wife's about to have their first kid, these assholes were trying to hurt her—"

"Oh, really?" Frank said, laden with sarcasm.

Vinnie stopped and snorted. "What, are you trying to blackmail me or something?"

"Hey, I'd stuff Steelgrave in a holding cell for six months with pleasure," Frank said. "However, if this were a bureau operation, I couldn't, because you'd have to testify as an agent and hand his defense lawyers an entrapment defense on top of everything else, not to mention blow your cover if you hadn't already."

"Wait, you are trying to blackmail me?" Vinnie said incredulously.

"I'm just pointing out cause and effect," Frank said. "You come in, make this official, Steelgrave goes home to his wife and stays there."

"Jesus," Vinnie said, shaking his head. "You better watch out, Frank, you're turning a little gray there yourself."

"Yeah, yeah," Frank said. "Yes or no?"

Sonny's lawyers pried them out before sundown, thanks to a helpful judge and the parade of witnesses. The limo was sitting outside the front door surrounded by a crowd of reporters and cameramen, but Theresa was waiting for them in the back seat of a Cadillac with smoked-glass windows, parked at the emergency exit next to the dumpster.

They got in on either side of her. "Take us home, Angelo," Sonny said, and Vinnie closed his eyes and faded out all the way to Jersey.

His eyes felt gritty when they got back, not rested, and he stumbled a little getting out of the car. Sonny's hand gripped him above the elbow, warm, and Theresa opened the door. The house was quiet and dark except for the maid reading at the dining-room table. She looked up as they came in and slipped away after a few words with Theresa. Sonny helped Theresa off with her coat; while he put it away, Vinnie gave her his arm to lean on while she bent down a little awkwardly to take off her low heels.

"I'm going to go lie down," she said.

"Yeah, go ahead, I'll bring you something to drink. You want some ginger ale?" Sonny said.

"Just some water," she said, smiled at them both tiredly, and went upstairs.

Sonny went into the kitchen to get her a glass; Vinnie trailed after him. "You look beat," Sonny said, cupping Vinnie's face in a hand. "You didn't sleep any last night, did you?"

"It's all right, I'll catch up," Vinnie said; he felt more hollow than tired. He hadn't given Frank an answer yet.

"Yeah," Sonny said, stroking his thumb gently over Vinnie's cheek, just brushing the corner of his mouth.

They went upstairs; Theresa was already snuggled into the big king-size, her eyes half-closed. Vinnie hesitated in the doorway while Sonny bent down over her, murmuring softly into her hair. She gave a little choking laugh without even opening her eyes. "Sonny, I swear you're more shameless than the Mata Hari," she said. "What, do I look like I was born yesterday?"

"Hey, Theresa—" Sonny protested, but she cut him off by pulling his head down for a kiss. Then she whispered something that made him go a little red, and put her head back down pillowed on her hands, smiling to herself a little, her cheeks flushed pink.

Sonny swallowed, and actually looked nervous for once in his life; then he looked up and cleared his throat and said, "Come on in."

Vinnie got it right away, because he wanted to get it, and it was all he could make himself do to say, "Sonny, are you—"

"Yeah," Sonny said. He was already up taking off his jacket, shedding it along with the hint of uncertainty that didn't sit right on him. Vinnie came inside and slowly closed the door behind him. He went to the other side of the bed and took off his shirt, crumpled and stained at the elbows where he'd leaned on the dirty table, his belt, his boots. He hesitated there for a second, but Sonny was stripping off his own pants. They were both down to undershirts and boxers when they slid under the covers, both of them curling up around Theresa. She was breathing deep already, but she smiled drowsily when they got in.

"Get the lights, would you?" she murmured, and in the dark, Vinnie let his head sink backwards into the thick feather pillow and fell asleep listening to both of them breathing, steady and strong.

It was easier to tell them about Frank's offer in the morning. "Come on, forget it," Sonny said, bringing his coffee to the table. "Not a chance. Listen to me, we can beat this thing with our eyes closed, Ketchell says they haven't got a thing—"

"They've got enough to hold you without bail," Vinnie said. It wasn't all that different from the interrogation room; he was staring down at another table, just this one had wood grain, and the light coming in was morning sun instead of fluorescent glare.

"Like hell they do," Sonny said impatiently. "McPike's just trying to put the heat on you, man. He'll never find a DA to sign on for this case. To do what? Look like an idiot in every newspaper in the tri-state area when I walk?"

"Frank can be pretty persuasive when he wants," Vinnie said.

Theresa put her hand on Sonny's arm; he paused and looked at Vinnie narrowly. More quietly, he said, "What's he want from you, exactly?"

Vinnie shrugged. "To go down to Washington, get debriefed from scratch—the Profitt thing, my jail time, my first couple street assignments before that," he said tiredly. "Go through everyone I met, everything that happened, all the details of my career. That's all. It'll just take a while."

Sonny and Theresa looked at each other. Then Sonny said, "All right. All right, go." Vinnie raised his head and looked at him. "You want to go, right?" Sonny said impatiently. "So, go. I'm not putting a goddamn chain around your ankle."

Theresa rolled her eyes, and she reached out and covered Vinnie's hand with hers. "We'll be here when you get back."

"Yeah, maybe," Sonny said, shortly, and got up and walked out of the kitchen, but he came into the bedroom while Vinnie was packing and pulled him into a rough hug and kissed him on the cheek. "Watch yourself down there, all right?" he muttered. "Your bosses in Washington, those are the real sharks. Make us look like penny-ante stuff. I don't want to be scraping you off the street again in a couple of months."

"Yeah," Vinnie said softly, his eyes hot and prickly, holding Sonny tight.

It was pretty obvious Daryl hadn't bothered to actually read the sixty-odd pages of questionnaires that he'd demanded. All his questions so far either had been answered there already, or were so stupid that he made up for it by asking each of them three times in minor variations, maybe pretending he was running some kind of sophisticated interrogation. Vinnie kept thinking about giving wildly different answers and making stuff up just to see whether he'd even notice.

A week-long wrap-up with this jerk after three months shoveling up all the shit he'd piled into the corners of his head over the last five years, it was too much to fucking lay on a guy. Going through everything with Frank, that had been one thing—taking out each piece of what had happened with Mel and Susan, looking at it again with the distance of Frank's cool assessing eyes and then putting it away, that had felt almost good. Watching Daryl pick over the bones just made him feel sick.

He shot Frank a look. Frank glared back, meaningfully, and yeah, okay, it could've been worse: if Daryl was smarter than a box of bricks, he might've asked some questions it would've actually been tough to answer, like "Isn't Steelgrave going to be suspicious about you disappearing for three months with no contact?" or "Are you sure he doesn't suspect that you're an agent?"

They let him out for an hour at lunchtime. The guys at the deli knew him by now; without even asking they handed him his Italian hero and his Coke and his eight quarters of change, and he took them to the old-fashioned phone booth outside. "Hey, Marita, Sonny or Theresa there?" he asked, when the maid picked up.

"No, Vinnie, at hospital!" she said, excitedly, and his sandwich fell to the floor while he scrambled for a pen to write down the number Sonny had left for him to call.

"Where the—where you been?" Sonny demanded, panicky and frazzled, when Vinnie got him on the line, which seemed to be a phone at the nurses' station. "We've been here since six o'clock, I called your hotel five times."

Vinnie groaned. "The place they've got me shacked up, I had to leave at a quarter of six just to get here on time. I've been stuck in an all-day meeting since seven. How's she doing? Is everything okay?"

"What do I know?" Sonny said. "She yelled at me and threw a water jug at my head, I figure that's a good sign. They kicked me out half an hour ago, so the main event's gotta be starting pretty soon."

The quarters and the lunch hour both ran out too damn fast, and Vinnie couldn't make himself pay a lot of attention to Daryl's questions after that. "I'll be back in a minute," he blurted abruptly, and walked out of the conference room while Daryl was still saying, "Well, we're getting close, let's just go over—"

Vinnie stood in the hallway, trying to think, jingling the handful of small change left in his pocket: not enough for five minutes of a long-distance call, even if he could find a payphone in the building. Then he straightened up and shot his cuffs and hung a left towards the elevators, walking fast and purposefully, like he belonged. He had to go up a couple flights of stairs to find what he was looking for: an empty office, freshly cleaned and unlocked, with no nameplate on the door.

He opened the door and went inside and rummaged through the drawers: there were some old file folders left behind, some scattered unimportant papers. He collected up all the pages and stuffed them into a single folder and stepped outside to the hall secretary's desk. "Hey, sorry to bother you," he said, when she looked up. "I don't know who used to have the office, but I was looking for a pen, and I found this sitting in the drawer. I don't know if I should go looking through it to see if it's important—"

"Oh, I'll take care of that," she said, taking it from him. "You must be—Henry Thornton?" She sounded a little dubious. "I'm sorry, we weren't expecting you until—"

"Nah, don't worry, I'm not him," he said. "I think they're just parking me here for a day or something while they shake out some space for me downstairs. Hey, right now I don't even rate a pen." He shrugged with a self-deprecating grin. "Vince Terranova," he added, holding out a hand to shake. "Just got in from New York."

"Jennifer Deale," she said, smiling. "And I think I can help you out." She handed him a pen. "Do you need any other supplies?"

"Just some paper would be great if you had any," he said. As she started rummaging, he asked, "Is the long-distance code here the same, still 9-6-4-2?"

"No, there's a different one for each floor," she said. "Up here it's 7-4-3-6, after you dial 8 for the outside line." She wrote it down for him and gave it to him with a few sheets of blank looseleaf.

"Thanks, appreciate it," Vinnie said, holding up the paper. He went back into the office and shut the door.

Sonny picked up before the first ring had even finished. "This nurse, she told me to take a nap, would you believe that? She said it's going to be a while. What does that even mean? Is that bad?"

"I don't think so, it's usually a long haul with the first kid, right?" Vinnie said. "Ma always used to say Pete took thirty hours or something. Just relax, you haven't been there that long yet."

"Yeah, all right, all right," Sonny muttered. "I thought you were in some meeting, where are you?"

"I stepped out for a minute, I found an empty office," Vinnie said.

"You're calling me from FBI headquarters?" Sonny said. "What are you, nuts?"

"The maternity ward at Mount Sinai is not a flagged number, relax," Vinnie said.

Sonny started laughing. "I can't believe you, you're calling me on an FBI line, that's great."

"Yeah, yeah," Vinnie said. "Look, I gotta get back, I'll call again soon."

"Yeah, okay," Sonny said, and hung up.

"Sorry it took me a while," Vinnie said, coming back to the conference room, and sat down without saying anything else. The trick was not to give explanations unless you had to; let the other guy come up with his own explanation, it would make more sense to him.

Daryl said stiffly, "Yes, well," and fired off another question he'd already asked.

Vinnie stepped out again for a quick check-in when he couldn't take it anymore. The baby situation was status quo ante; Theresa's parents had arrived and her mom had gone in to be with her, but nothing else had changed. Sonny, on the other hand, was starting to unravel. "She'd come out and say if something was going wrong, so everything's gotta be fine, right?" Sonny said. "Why the hell can't they just come out and tell you something? 'Looking good, it'll be three more hours,' whatever."

"Yeah, well, then if it takes five hours, you're nuts for the last two," Vinnie said as reassuringly as he could manage. "They don't want to give the game away, man."

"Bastards," Sonny said. "These guys, they think they're God Almighty, let me tell you."

"Just quit borrowing trouble, all right? No news is good news—what you need to worry about is if they do come out and get all serious with you, you know what I'm saying?"

"Yeah. Yeah, okay, I guess," Sonny muttered. "Christ."

Frank eyed him narrowly when he came back in. "What did you have for lunch, the bad shellfish?" Vinnie just waved a hand and sat down.

On the third call, Sonny was a lot more agitated and a lot harder to knock out of it. "Her ma hasn't come out, and about five people just went in there. I can't get a straight answer out of nobody, what the fuck is this!" There was some muffled noise on his end. "—what? Watch my language? Why don't you watch your goddamn patients, you can't tell me what's going on with my wife!"

"Sonny—" Vinnie said, too late. The receiver on the other end clattered as it dropped to the counter. He could faintly hear Sonny yelling, "—know who I am? Maybe you better do a little research, because let me tell you, something happens to her—" and then someone there picked up the phone and hung it up, and he was listening to a dial tone.

"Now," Daryl said, "I want to take a look at the expenses charged to the hotel in Vancouver. I know you understand the importance of keeping clear reports of all gifts and meals acquired in the course of an undercover investigation, Agent Terranova, but there seem to be reports missing for some days. Let's see if we can't fill in a few of these gaps."

Vinnie dialed with his forehead propped up in his hand; he had a headache drilling in at the temples. "Hey, they didn't throw you out yet? What's going on?"

For a long moment Sonny didn't say anything, and then with his voice breaking and low he said, "Jesus, Vinnie, I'm really going nuts here."

Vinnie shut his eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I'm not there," he whispered. "I wish I was there."

Sonny didn't say anything, just held on, breathing hard on the other end of the line like a guy running a race.

Vinnie went back downstairs and locked his hands together on top of the table, answering Daryl's questions on autopilot, staring at the stack of papers in front of him without seeing it. He couldn't hold out more than half an hour, and then he was getting up again.

Frank followed him out into the hall. "Okay, what the hell is going on—"

"Just give me a break, all right?" Vinnie snapped, and walked away.

"Maternity," a woman said, answering the phone.

"Uh, yeah, is Sonny Steelgrave there?" Vinnie asked.

"I'm sorry, I don't see—oh, one moment," she said, and after a second Theresa's father picked up the line. "Vincenzo? Vinnie, is that you?"

"Yeah, Don Baglia, is everything all right—"

"Yeah, Vinnie, yeah, everything's great," Don Baglia said. "It's a boy!"

For a moment Vinnie couldn't breathe, then he managed, "That's great—that's really great, Don Baglia. Theresa, is she—she's okay, right?"

"Yeah, she's fine. Sonny's in there with them right now. Listen, kid, I gotta go. They got this crazy rule only two guests at a time, so I want to see my grandson, I have to get in there before my wife decides I missed my shot and goes back in."

"Yeah, sure, of course," Vinnie said. "Hey, give them my—give them my congratulations, would you?"

He put the phone down slowly, his hand clenched tight on the receiver. Three hundred miles away, and here he was answering questions about whether he'd gotten a salad with his steak on a Tuesday night six months ago.

He looked up. Frank was in the doorway watching him steadily. "She had the kid?"

"Yeah," Vinnie said.

Frank just nodded. "Come on, let's get back downstairs," he said quietly.

The questioning dragged on for another couple of hours, until finally Daryl said, "Well, that seems reasonably complete," and closed the dossier. Vinnie sat back hard and scrubbed both hands over his face; his skin felt tight over his bones, prickle of five o'clock shadow on his jaw and his mouth sour and cottony from too much stale coffee and clenching.

And after all of that, Daryl had just ignored the Zhoratso case completely: not a single damn question, even though the report was as sketchy as a kindergarten drawing and should have raised red flags all over the place. Vinnie hadn't lied, except by omission, and even a complete idiot had to have seen the swiss-cheese holes. He should've been grateful; instead it just made him feel dirty, like he'd made some back-room deal without even meaning to.

"All right, we're done here," Frank said, reaching for the dossier to slide it back over to himself. Vinnie pushed his chair back from the table.

"Just a moment," Daryl said, putting his hand down on the file. He picked it up. "I think we should talk a little bit about your next assignment, Vinnie."

So it was Vinnie now, huh? Vinnie couldn't even bother to raise his eyebrows. "Look, Mr. Elgin, I've got some things to take care of back home, and I'm not really up for—"

"Nonsense," Daryl said, waving it off. "You're raring to go. Look at this, you weren't even home for a month before you were going after these Zhoratsos. Vinnie—" He got up and came around the table. He sat down next to Vinnie and leaned forward conspiratorially. Vinnie straightened his legs out to slide his own chair back a little and open up some room. "I know you had a bad time in Vancouver, but trust me, the best cure for a guy like you is more work. You got back on that horse, now come on, stay up there."

Frank said, "Sir, can I have a word?"

"In a minute, Frank," Daryl said, never looking away from Vinnie, friendly smile still fixed in place. "Besides, Vinnie, I think you have to see that you're in an absolutely pivotal position right now—"

"What are you talking about?" Vinnie said.

"Daryl," Frank said, through clenched teeth. "We discussed this—"

"You know, Vinnie, Frank seems to have this idea you've lost your nerve," Daryl said, laughing over him. "I've made this little bet with myself he's wrong. I'm confident that you can't fail to understand the difference you can make right now. We could try for years and never plant anyone as close to Steelgrave—"

Vinnie punched him. The chair rocked back and toppled over with Daryl in it, his head snapping back, the accordion file of papers exploding everywhere out of his hands. Daryl pushed himself over onto his back, reaching up to his bloodied mouth. "Are you out of your mind? What do you think you're—" He broke off, scrambling hastily backwards and away as Vinnie stood up.

Vinnie flipped open his wallet and pulled out his badge. "Do me a favor, Frank, don't save it for me this time," he said, and he turned his back and walked away, his badge on the table, his career spilled out across the floor, going home.

The crappy $35-a-day hotel room left over just enough of his per-diem for him to eat. He'd had to bring the suits Sonny had given him, since his own were probably making landfill somewhere, and they made everything around them look cheap: the polyester quilted bedcover and the particleboard furniture and the faded print wallpaper. Sleeping here had felt like being in jail again, hearing the sirens going by on their way into the D.C. badlands, the banging of the pipes inside the walls, the mutter of conversations you couldn't make out. He wasn't going to miss it.

Vinnie kept packing, ignoring the pounding on the cardboard-thin door, until Frank yelled, "Open the goddamn door, Terranova, or I'll flash my badge and get the maid to do it."

Vinnie rolled his eyes and went to let him into the room. "Just don't start with me," he said over his shoulder, going back to the closet.

"I tried to warn Daryl off, all right?" Frank said. "And yeah, he didn't listen, but you already spanked him for it, so calm down. He authorized me to tell you it's forgotten. You come back, you can take your pick—"

"Forget it," Vinnie said. "Ripping people open for desk jockeys like him to build their careers on the corpses, while the ones who give his orders, they're raking in as much as they can get from the Mel Profitts on the side before they sell them up the river—no. Not any more."

"So you're going to go back to Steelgrave?" Frank said. "That's not what you are, goddammit. You're not one of those people—"

Vinnie stopped throwing clothes into the suitcase and turned to look at him. "Frank—" He stopped to get his voice under control. "Frank, I love those people," he said softly.

Frank stopped. He blew out a breath. "Yeah," he said tiredly. "Yeah, Vince, I know." He pulled out the battered desk chair and sagged into it.

Vinnie finished packing. Frank watched him silently. Vinnie set the two suitcases down on the floor and got his coat out of the closet and sat down on the bed facing him. He looked down at his hands and said quietly, "Listen, I really appreciate what you did. I needed to do this, I didn't even know how much. I'm not saying I'm making the right choice. But I do know I'm done here."

Vinnie stood up. "Come on. Take me to the train station, we'll have a drink before I go."

"Oh, sure, great," Frank said. He got up and took Vinnie's smaller bag. "A real bon voyage. You know, Daryl's going to stick me on the Steelgrave case just to get his own back after this."

"Hey, it'll be like before," Vinnie said. "We'll get together, go out for coffee in the middle of the night once in a while, I'll just have to remember not to report."

It was two in the morning when he got off the train at Penn Station, his footsteps echoing off the ceilings in the mostly empty hallways. The cab took a straight shot across through the ghost town of Herald Square and up Madison to Mount Sinai. Visiting hours were long over, and there was nobody around but the nurses, one small huddled family, and one haggard unshaven guy staring into the vending machines.

"Room 415, end of the hall," the nurse said without looking up: it was a private corner room, with pale cream walls and nice wooden furniture, heaps of flowers everywhere. Theresa was asleep in the bed, propped up on pillows. Sonny was on his feet, staring down into the bassinet in the corner with a kind of dazed look. Vinnie put down his suitcases inside the door and went over.

"Look at this guy," Sonny said. The baby was big, filling out his fuzzy blue footie pajamas, kicking his feet enthusiastically in the air. "Eight pounds and change, you believe that? First time out, she hits a home run."

"Yeah, she sure did," Vinnie said softly, putting his finger down for the baby to grab onto. The baby tried to chew on it.

"Maybe he's hungry," Sonny said anxiously. "Think I should get them to bring another bottle?"

"I don't know, maybe? This kid looks like he doesn't need to eat for six months," Vinnie said.

"Sonny! He had a bottle twenty minutes ago, he's not hungry," Theresa said sleepily from the bed. "Vinnie." She kissed him when he bent down to her. "We've got suites at the Plaza, take this guy back and make him get some rest, will you?"

"Hey, come on, we're not leaving you alone," Sonny protested.

"No kidding," she said, rolling her eyes a little. "Five hours I've been trying to get some sleep. Go on, get out of here, go work it off. The baby'll still be here in the morning."

With her pushing, Vinnie managed to pry Sonny loose. They came out to the deserted streets in the dark, and Sonny looked up at the sky and laughed out loud. "A son!" he yelled, throwing his hands up in victory, punching his fists in the air, and then he took off right past the waiting limo and darted across the street before Vinnie could stop him.

Vinnie caught up to him banging on the door of a closed-up restaurant. "Hey! Hey, what's a guy gotta do to buy a drink! C'mon, open up!" Sonny called, and then he tried the place next door too, even though it was a jewelry store.

"Sonny, it's four in the morning!" Vinnie said, dragging him back from the big plate-glass window. "You're gonna set off the alarms or something."

"Who cares!" Sonny said. "Man, I'm going to get her the biggest goddamn diamond in the city." He got distracted by the lights of an open place, a drug store with the one drowsy checkout clerk staring as Sonny went running up and down the three aisles, jumping to grab stuff off the top shelves, piling it into a big heap on the counter: diapers and wet-naps and jars of mashed bananas and green beans.

"What, you don't have any of this stuff at home?" Vinnie said, grinning as he watched.

Sonny shoved a king-size package of diapers into his arms. "How should I know? Anyway it can't hurt to have more."

They staggered out with six giant bags apiece, more than could fit in the trunk of the limo. Sonny threw the last couple onto the seats. "Angelo, do me a favor, take this stuff back to the Plaza," he said, grabbed a couple of random bottles out of the wet-bar, and slung an arm around Vinnie's neck. "Come on, let's walk down, we'll go through the park."

"You want to walk forty blocks in the middle of the night?" Vinnie said, but he let Sonny drag him into Central Park, and they got drunk on champagne and whiskey, got lost trying to go around the zoo and wound up flat on their backs in Sheep Meadow, all the way on the wrong side of the park, watching the sun come up.

Sonny was still clutching the empty bottle of champagne. "I've got a son," he said softly, wonderingly, and Vinnie rolled over and kissed him, because he couldn't help wanting to. "Christ, I'm tired," Sonny muttered, kissing him back, sloppy and desperate, the bottle rolling away over the grass.

"You need to get some sleep. How long you been up, anyway?" Vinnie said, and hauled him up; they staggered out onto Central Park West and got a cab back to the hotel. Up in the suite, Sonny paced back and forth in front of the windows like an animal in a cage, too wired to sleep even when he was half falling over his own feet, until Vinnie closed all the blinds and took him to bed.

"I can't," Sonny said, trying to sit up. "I can't, I have to—"

"No," Vinnie said, pushing him flat again. "Just close your eyes, quit fighting it."

"Yeah, whatever, come on," Sonny said, pushing back. Vinnie put more of his weight on him, smothering the attempt. "Oh, what, you're gonna hold me down?"

"If that's what it takes," Vinnie said, and Sonny went a little nuts, shoving at him crazily, until Vinnie pinned his arms down against the mattress and got right on top of him. Flattened, Sonny gave up for a minute, glaring up at Vinnie, breathing hard.

"So, you ready to sleep?" Vinnie said, panting. His dick was tucked up against Sonny's thigh. Sonny's was pressed between them, hard against Vinnie's stomach.

Sonny jerked, snarling, "Goddamn—fucking—son-of-a-bitch—" through three more tries at bucking him off, and then he caught Vinnie's eye and they both started to laugh. "Yeah, sure, I'll just drop off anytime now," Sonny said, still laughing while Vinnie got both his wrists under one hand and slid his other hand between Sonny's legs.

Then Sonny wasn't laughing or fighting anymore, just his hips still making little jerky movements that dragged his dick across Vinnie's stomach, leaving a slick trail. His whole body was strung taut from Vinnie's grip on his wrists, his head tipped back and his eyes shut, his mouth open to breathe. Vinnie worked him until he loosened up, rocked his fingers in slow and easy, taking it a little at a time, so fucking good just to watch Sonny coming unwound and starting to get sort of mellow and relaxed under him.

"Christ, this shouldn't feel this good," Sonny said. "All right, come on, enough," and Vinnie put himself in. "I can't believe I'm letting you do this."

"What, you think you could stop me?" Vinnie said, grinning, and timed his thrust just as Sonny predictably got all fired up again and tried to jerk up.

Sonny fell back against the pillows, groaning. "Oh, you fucking bastard," he said. "All right, tough guy, so give it to me already if you're going to do it. Come on, you can do it harder than that—what, you think I'm going to fucking break? Yeah, that's it—that's it, Jesus, Vinnie, yeah—" whipping him on all the way to the white-out, and the next thing Vinnie knew he was waking up with the sheets stuck to his stomach and Sonny nuzzling up against his throat, saying huskily, "C'mon, wake up, let's get back to the hospital."

"Is Sonny still out there?" Theresa said sleepily.

"Yeah, I got it," Vinnie said, and dragged himself down the hall: the light was on in the nursery. "Here, lemme have him." Fretful, baby Vincenzo socked him one resentfully in the chin as Sonny handed him over. "He having a bad night?" Vinnie asked, bouncing him a little.

"I don't know, man, I'm starting to think he's playing me," Sonny said, yawning. "He gets quiet, then I go to put him down and it's off to the races again."

On cue, the baby squalled again, and they scrambled for the bottle.

Two diaper changes, six lullabyes, and an hour of bouncing-and-walking later, they finally got him settled down again in his crib, looking all deceptively peaceful and innocent like he hadn't just made it ten nights running he'd kept them up. "So tell me something, how come he doesn't pull this stuff with Theresa?" Vinnie whispered, turning off the lights as they crept out.

"You kidding me? He knows who's the boss of him," Sonny whispered back, pulling the door shut carefully.

"Yeah, and it's sure not us," Vinnie muttered, while they stood crouched and frozen outside the door, listening for any sound of stirring.

The lights were off in the hallway, and they were both kind of half-drunk from not sleeping for most of the last week. Sonny whacked into the pier table, and the big vase full of flowers tipped over and washed away the three dozen congratulations cards. Vinnie started trying to rescue them from the puddle. "Ah, screw it," Sonny said, and instead they just threw a couple of towels out of the guest bathroom onto the floor to mop up the water and stumbled the rest of the way down the hall to the bedroom. Theresa was warm and snuggled down in the middle of the big bed, and she barely even stirred when they crawled in with her.

"I swear to god, how does anyone do this with just two people?" Sonny muttered, sprawled on the couch with an icepack on his head, a week later.

"Dunno," Vinnie muttered dimly, his eyes shut; he was stretched out lengthwise with his head in Sonny's lap.

"You know, he's never going to learn to sleep through the night the way you two keep fussing over him," Theresa said severely, bringing over a tray with coffee. "It's okay if he cries a little, it doesn't mean something's wrong."

Sleep was a hazy memory, and sex was like a really good dream he'd had a year ago or something. The first night the baby made it all the way through to six am, Vinnie woke up when the sun came in, then went down the hall and found Sonny asleep in the armchair next to the crib. He stirred and opened his eyes, and they stared at each other, more awake than they'd been since the baby came home from the hospital, and then Vinnie went down on his knees and opened Sonny's pants. He sucked Sonny off clumsily, the first time he'd ever tried it, but Sonny dug his hands into Vinnie's hair and groaned softly and shot after only a couple minutes.

"Christ, I needed that," Sonny muttered, and then he dragged Vinnie into the bathroom and jerked him off up against the wall, kissing him urgently, his hand stroking hard and fast, buried in Vinnie's boxers.

Theresa was pretty much back to fighting weight by the end of the first month, and she came back from her two-month checkup with a clean bill of health for her and the baby. "Yeah?" Sonny said, just about purring, and nuzzled at her neck from behind while she laughed softly and caught her lip between her teeth, working on dinner at the stove.

Vinnie couldn't help smiling, watching them, even if he felt a little—wistful, maybe. "Hey, listen," he said, "I'm going to go out to Brooklyn for the night."

"What?" Sonny said, looking up. "What's the matter, something wrong with your ma?"

"Nah, nothing like that," Vinnie said, taken aback, groping for an excuse he hadn't figured on needing. "I was just thinking, it's been a while, that's all—"

"So it can't wait a night or what?" Sonny said, and then Theresa nudged him with an elbow and he said, "What?" looking at her.

She rolled her eyes and said, "Vinnie, honey, we don't want you to go." Vinnie stared at her, and then Sonny looked back at him and said softly, dangerously, "Hey, no. No. You're not going anywhere."

Vinnie didn't remember a lot about dinner after that, just a mechanical sort of going through the motions until he was helping Sonny clear the table while Theresa put the baby to bed upstairs. "Leave that, the maid'll get it tomorrow," Sonny said, after they finished stacking the plates in the sink. Vinnie rinsed off his hands and dried them on the dishtowel, slowly, and let Sonny take him upstairs, driving with a hand on the back of his neck.

His mouth was dry going into the bedroom, like he'd never been in here before. Theresa was taking off her earrings at the vanity. She turned around to look at them, braced against the vanity, a little color shading under her cheekbones and her eyes brilliant.

Sonny moved across to her first, cupped her face in his hands and kissed her, slow and sweet, and reached around to the zipper of her dress. Vinnie watched them, his breath coming quick; the blue silk slid down over her waist and her thighs like a wave as she wound her arms around Sonny's neck, her dark hair tumbling down in long, loose strands, pins scattering on the floor and glittering silver in the nest of silk puddled around her long, beautiful legs.

Sonny turned and looked at him, his eyes hot and a little wild, and Vinnie came closer, towed in almost involuntarily, and Sonny took his hand and put it on Theresa's skin, his own hand covering Vinnie's, sliding up to the clasp of her bra. She gave a little sharp gasp when Sonny brought Vinnie's hands around to cup her breasts. Vinnie shut his eyes, shivering; this was really happening, Jesus—

Sonny was taking off his sweater and his shirt, quick and impatient, and then he was working on Vinnie's, pushing him into Theresa's arms while he slipped behind him and unbuckled his belt. Theresa was kissing him, or he was kissing her, feverishly, her mouth cool and sweet. "Oh, God," he said, as Sonny slid his pants down.

"Yeah," Sonny said, roughly, biting at his neck, and reached around to take hold of his dick, thumb sliding over the already-slick head, bringing him up to stroke between Theresa's legs, right through the soft wet folds. Sonny's dick was hard and hot up against him.

"C'mon," Theresa said, breathlessly, and they lay down on the bed together. Vinnie didn't know what to do; he wasn't sure—because yeah, it was pretty soon, but that wasn't a guarantee, and he didn't exactly have a condom handy—

"Hey." Sonny tilted Vinnie's head up and kissed him—in front of Theresa, and Vinnie felt her shivering under his hands. He was shaking too, like he was drowning. Between them he thought maybe he was, because he couldn't get his goddamn breath, and then Sonny said, "Listen to me, the next one's yours. You understand me?"

"Jesus, Sonny," he said, whispering, and looked over at Theresa.

She smiled and leaned over him to kiss Sonny, then bent down and kissed him. "What, you think we're going to let you get away?" she said gently, touching his face, and of course they weren't, not ever, they'd never get themselves untangled after this, and that was the scary part. Sonny hadn't pulled this out of a hat; he knew exactly what he was offering, what they were putting on the table, and Vinnie knew he'd be giving back just as much. He'd never stand up in a church with them, and his kids wouldn't have his name, but this was as good as making all the vows in the world.

Sonny was warm and solid up against his back. He ran his hand down Vinnie's side and rubbed his hip, kneading into the flesh. "Yeah," he said. "You all right with that?"

Theresa was propped on an elbow watching him, her eyes soft and bright. "Yeah," Vinnie said huskily, putting his hand over Sonny's, looking up at her.

They took their time, got themselves arranged on their sides, then Theresa pressed up close and Vinnie slid into her, one slick easy glide that took him all the way in. He put his thumb up against her clit and kept her warm while Sonny worked into him. It got a little rough with the complicated angle, struggling the whole time to keep from thrusting into the sweet hot clenching of her around him, and Theresa cupped his face in her hands and brushed kisses over his mouth. He shuddered, thinking she could see it on his face, she had to be able to see it on him, everything Sonny was doing, that Sonny was—that Sonny was, Jesus, in him—

"Oh, there we go," Sonny said, low with satisfaction, and Vinnie rocked into her with the first thrust, the snap of Sonny's hips driving him. Theresa gave a little gasp and curved her leg over his hip and around Sonny's thigh, pulling them all tight and close together. She was hiccup-laughing and breathless, and Vinnie caught her mouth again with off-center kisses while Sonny slid his arm around his chest and ran his teeth up and down Vinnie's neck, and they had him, he had them both, and maybe it wasn't the right thing to do, but it was as close as he was ever going to get in this lifetime.


They had the christening party for Salvatore Jr. at the Hyatt on the water in Jersey City, noisy and full of kids running around the room and playing with the telescopes planted to look out at the Statue of Liberty and downtown. "Look at this," Don Baglia was saying, jubilantly, showing the kids off to a couple of his old cronies. "Two for two, would you believe it? You know, Sonny, it's okay with me you give me a granddaughter next."

"Hey, I'll see what I can do." Sonny slung an arm around Vinnie's neck on the other side of the crib, grinning, and gave him a glass of champagne. Vinnie grinned back at him and put an arm around his waist. "Theresa, what do you think?"

"I don't know, are you going to spoil her the way you do these guys?" she said, slipping under his arm on the other side, letting her fingers rest on Vinnie's arm where no one else could see.

There were a lot of toasts, and a ridiculous amount of food, and Vinnie's head was already done-in from the church ceremony. He wandered out through the lobby to sneak a cigarette—Theresa was pretty much putting an end to that habit, along with Sonny's cigars, although the two of them were still fighting the leash a little now and again.

There were a couple of unmarked sedans at the mouth of the parking lot, and a few guys walking around taking photos and writing down license plate numbers. Vinnie rolled his eyes and went back inside to look around the lobby. "Hey, Frank. You got enough candids, or you need me to pose?"

Frank gave up and put down the newspaper he'd been tucked behind. "Sure, that would be great. You can be the centerfold on the next Most Wanted list." He got up from the armchair.

"You want to come in? There's plenty of food left," Vinnie said. "My ma made the lasagna."

Frank rolled his eyes. "Nice work on the social club, by the way. How'd you figure out we had the bug in the ceiling?"

Vinnie shrugged. "It's where I would've put one. You got my note about the microchips?"

"Isn't Steelgrave going to get pissed off about you sending us tips?" Frank said.

"He told me to send it," Vinnie said.

Sonny had shut down all the major arms smuggling through the Tri-State area ports a couple months ago, a little while after the new baby had been born. Vinnie had eyed him dubiously. "Okay, what's going on?"

Sonny'd just shrugged. "Hey, I'll get you a diamond necklace like I got Theresa, you want that instead." A couple hours later, after Vinnie had gotten through with him, he'd added, a little groggily, "Christ, I'd have done it sooner I knew you were going to thank me like that."

"Hmm," Frank said, eyeing him narrowly. "Are you looking to set up a quid-pro-quo here?"

"Hey, run the idea by Daryl, see what he says," Vinnie said dryly. "Meanwhile, come on, do me a favor and get the guys out of here before the family comes out, would you? By now you've got everything useful, keeping them hanging around is just grandstanding."

"Yeah, yeah," Frank said. "Why don't you go back to the party and quit telling me how to do my job?" He paused and added, "Mom and baby doing okay?"

That made it Vinnie's turn to eye him warily. "Yeah, they're great."

Frank just nodded, poker-faced, but afterwards, when Vinnie was collecting up the last of the presents to take out to the limo, there was one badly-wrapped box with no card stuck on the end of the table that turned out to be a soft Irish wool baby blanket.

"Hey, you done?" Theresa said, stopping by the table, she was carrying little Vincenzo, and Sonny had the baby in his carrier.

"Yeah, come on, let's get out of here, I want to get home before dark with these two," Sonny said.

Vinnie grinned and tossed the blanket into the carrier, covering up the baby. "We're all set. Here, let me take that guy," he said, and swung little Vincenzo out of Theresa's arms.

= End =

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