Not waiting for the storm to let up, seventy-year old Caesar Vincenzo ran stiff legged, head down, from the car into the store. Soaked, he stood proudly inside his twelve-year-old business, Rex Appliances. With his fingers he combed back wet hair and noticed a young couple transfixed before three large plasma screens, two roaring with action movies and a third showing White Christmas, a holiday favorite that he planned on watching soon. He was smiling when the couple turned and withered at the sight of Caesar. Hair dyed black, barrel-chested with thick arms filling out his sport jacket, Caesar’s large chin gave his meaty face a menacing look, the look of a hit man, not a successful business owner, which only depressed him. He shook his head and lost the smile as the young couple scooted toward the appliances lining the back wall.
The five-thousand-square-foot store carried mostly televisions and audio gear and a few brands of washers and dryers, but it was the new plasma technology that Caesar loved. The clamor of hyenas taking out a wounded lion, the automatic-weapons fire of a shoot-’em-up, and the Haynes girls singing "Sisters" carried the formative sounds of the Big Bang.
The store provided economic cover for Caesar’s cash business. Averaging a half million a year, he mostly stashed it in off-shore accounts and safety deposit boxes. For trips to the Bahamas he used receipts from modest hotels and restaurants, making business vacations appear as reasonable expenses to the IRS, who had audited him twice in the nineties. In Nassau his actual time and cash money was spent on Paradise Island in thousand-dollar-a-night penthouses, hookers galore. Planning retirement someday on the southern tip of the Baja, he had built a beach house in Del Cabo under an entirely new identity.
The bobbing head of Jeff Montgomery caught his eye. His manager for five years, Jeff ran a tight ship: hired and fired, kept immaculate books, and had a record of strong sales. He should have been an employer’s dream except that he routinely challenged Caesar’s authority and his inadequate knowledge of the store’s products. However, this Christmas season, in the spirit of one-upmanship, Caesar had insisted they carry a few holiday items. Jeff reluctantly purchased a half dozen three-foot tall artificial trees that now crowded the floor in front of the checkout and an open box of four-inch tall white-tipped pines that covered most of the counter.
One night Caesar dreamt that Jeff appeared out of the sky, riding a cloud, looking down on him with his familiar smirk. Like a nightmare where the dreamer is stuck, unable to move, Caesar had to listen to an endless barrage of exotic knowledge from his employee with the occasional work-related, sarcastic dig aimed at the boss.
Occasionally, Caesar had fantasies of slitting Jeff’s throat and throwing him in the dumpster out back, but ignored the impulse. Years ago, Frank Laconti, his lifelong boss, had impressed upon Caesar that his skills and efficiency would tempt him to eliminate people that made him jealous, angry, or simply got under his skin. "Keep your cool," Laconti had cautioned. "You’ve got a code of honor to follow. I don’t want to see a trail of bodies, unless they’re the bodies I’ve blessed for destruction."
He had maintained that code for decades as he watched Little Tony, Caesar’s contact and mentor, walk into Rex’s carrying his briefcase, looking more like a seedy Sony rep with time to kill than the most ruthless of Laconti’s hit men. Little Tony had a big, formless nose, narrow face and playful eyes. Ten years Caesar’s junior, he enjoyed bragging about family business with a long-standing employee like Caesar Vincenzo, and took delight in teasing him, not only about his height, but Caesar’s pride in making clean kills.
"Still using taxis? Caesar said, watching the boxy red and yellow cab leave the parking lot.
"You bet. That way a couple of paisans like us can have a little taste, and I don’t have to worry about getting pulled over for something stupid like speeding and the cops finding a hundred grand on me and a necklace of thumbs–just kidding … about the money. Hey, taxis keep me foot-loose and fancy free … just some old guy being driven to the grocery store, a nobody."
Little Tony pointed with his chin in the direction of Caesar’s office and two men walked in shutting the door.
Tony took Caesar’s chair and Caesar stood, unsmiling, hands clasped in front, a predator’s still moment before nailing something running through the brush. Tony stretched his long legs far under the desk and leaned back, making himself comfortable. Tilting his head right, glancing down, he grinned as if admiring a pair of severed heads fashioned into a footstool.
"Caesar, you’ve got another nice deal comin’ up. Right in your own backyard. ‘Tis the Season…. After Mass he drops off the wife and tells her he’s going to the cemetery to visit the parents; then runs off to the girlfriend’s. Seems like you got it all figured out."
"I did my preliminary work a few weeks ago. Wherever he goes he leaves a trail of crumbs a mile wide. Same routines." Caesar kept it simple with Little Tony. The slightest weakness, lack of knowledge about the mark, and Little Tony would laugh in his face, level another ‘short’ dig, or wipe his feet on Caesar’s code of honor.
Little Tony pointed to the envelope.
"Everything’s there, including your money for Sunday’s job. Boss really liked your last hit, very smooth; eliminated a real problem child. So, he told me to pay you in advance and said to relax for a while. He’s sentimental about Christmas and the start of the New Year is quiet anyway. Besides, he’d like you to keep the decks clear in case he decides to wack Ruth Cassano. Now that would be a Holiday Special."
Caesar stared, expressionless, blindsided.
Tony said, "Hey, I’m just busting your balls. She’s not down for house-cleaning."
Caesar didn’t flinch even though his insides tumbled.
"C’mon," Tony said, opening his arms wide, a moment of truth. "I’m only teasing ya. Everyone knows you had the hots for that witch. The best thing you ever did was stay away from that voodoo snatch. Hey, no firsthand experience, but the boss says she’s on fire down there." Hand raised, ready for his oath, Tony added, "That’s what I hear–just sayin’." He made a lopsided shrug. "Frank still likes her. I guess she helped him out with some personal matters, read his fortune, even warned his son might die soon." He chuckled deeply, a lower register used for moments of wisdom. "Me, I’d never let that witch get anywhere near my joint."
Caesar hadn’t known about Laconti’s affair with Ruth and now his anger was aimed at his lifelong boss, a downpour of rage, a West Palm Beach storm that clobbers you late afternoon.
Caesar nodded his head and even smiled a few times as they moved on to other topics. He decided Sunday’s hit would be his last. And just as swiftly, a plan surfaced. If Ruth had been privy to Laconti’s business she might be led to believe she was a target. Caesar decided to go after her. It felt right, like the perfect hit. He would bring Ruth terrible knowledge, but also her chance to be saved by the one man who had always loved her.
A short knock and Jeff popped his head in. "I need to make a deposit. Can you watch the store for a few? That couple left. The place is quiet."
"Sure, and pick up some sandwiches for us," Caesar said.
Once Jeff was gone, Little Tony rose slowly from his seat and towered over Caesar, leaning close, a wide smile cutting his face in half. Caesar always thought he looked goofy when he smiled like that.
"I gotta tell ya," Tony said, "it’s now official–heard it on the news." He yelled like someone winning the lottery–"Ceez, you’re short!" He laughed in spurts, a jagged bark that infuriated Caesar. "The average height in the good old US of A is now five-ten, anything less–like five-eight–is Mr. Short. You remember that song about short people?"
"Are you gonna finally buy something today?"
"I want something big, at least fifty-five inches. And it’s gotta be Panasonic."
"In the back," Caesar said. "We got some in this morning. Go take a look. I need to keep an eye on things." Caesar hustled to the front door, locked it, and flipped the sign from "Open" to "Sorry, We’re Closed." Returning to the counter, he pulled a smooth piece of rope from a side drawer, stuck it in his pocket and walked stiff with rage toward the stockroom. Barehanded, Tony was ripping open the end of a large box.
"Hey, Shorty, help me out here," were Tony’s last words as Caesar pulled the rope from his pocket with the flourish of a magician and brought it over Little Tony’s head, crossing his hands, yanking mightily. With a shout he stomped the back of Tony’s leg sending him to the floor, shoving his knee against his back and strangling him. With his face twisted toward Caesar’s, Tony’s eyes seemed to grasp something important and then dimmed.
Caesar wondered if Little Tony heard his words of victory and scorn before he broke his neck for good measure. Later that night Caesar would return, retrieve the body, and feed Tony to the Everglades’ finest.
He felt no remorse for the killing, but felt bad that he had ignored Frank Laconti’s most sage advice from years ago: "Caesar, you have a job to do, do it well, be professional, and clean up after yourself. Don’t make it personal–like, ‘This’ll be easy, I hate this guy’s mug,’ or, even worse, ‘I feel sorry for this guy, he’s just a working stiff with a family.’"
The boss’s warning not to kill for personal reasons kept Caesar from murdering everyone around Ruth, including her husband, and claiming her as his own. Strengthening that attitude was a documentary he had caught late one night, a reenactment of some mad Indian–maybe an Eskimo–blasting away a woman’s entire family and then walking into the house and claiming her. "That lucky Indian lives in a very small world. Not possible in mine."
Yet he still wondered if Little Tony’s outlook offered another course of action. In his one and only meeting with Frank Laconti, Caesar had asked about his mentor’s philosophy and got his answer.
"Little Tony’s an animal," Laconti spat. "One of a kind, and not the kind you want to be–capiche? Once in a while I need the services of such an animal, like when someone needs to suffer. Then, I send the bastard from hell."
Well, now the bastard from hell permanently resided there.
"Herb," Caesar yelled at his next door neighbor, the man behind the screen door, a mere silhouette embedded in the morning fog. "Come here and sit with me and Big Al." Several yards to Caesar’s right, a twelve-foot gator had climbed out of the one-acre lake at the center of Pine View Condos.
In his baggy swim trunks, unbuttoned short-sleeve shirt, and Santa’s hat, Caesar dangled a foot over the edge of his lawn chair, muttering, "I’m gonna feed you to Big Al one of these days." Caesar’s dislike of his neighbor was visceral, as though Herb Jankowski were a missionary insulting tribal elders, refusing to partake of the tribe’s women and cuisine. "Control," he exhaled, "Keep cool."
Caesar heard a snap and click as if an armored-plated, 500-pound reptilian locomotive could be deterred by Herb’s locked screen door.
"And don’t call Alligator Bob," Caesar shouted, "or I’ll feed your grandkids to Big Al. That old Polack’s not gonna ruin my communion with nature."
Caesar noticed another figure behind the screen door, smaller and even less consequential than Herb, his wife Connie.
Most of Pine View’s residents regarded Big Al with amusement. Some occasionally fed him donuts and burgers from a distance, or simply left food out for him–an offering to a steely-ass god. Those worried about the gator were ignored, intimidated by the likes of Caesar, or simply told that Big Al was harmless, with regular, easily observed routines.
"Remember," Caesar yelled, "stick with the devil you know. Get rid of Big Al and his cousin may show up, minus Al’s good nature."
It wasn’t practical last night to feed Little Tony to Big Al, but at least he got to see several cousins unceremoniously devour his nemesis at a swamp not far from his home.
Caesar loved Big Al’s perfection, wondering when the animal had last opened his powerful jaws to feed, knowing that it could have been months.
He ran the facts: a bite of two thousand pounds per square inch, capable of devouring gobs of flesh instantly or drowning and hiding its prey in a lair to ripen. With dozens of teeth divided between two jaws, the beast caught and destroyed its prey with powerful bites, yet could go months as a dieting beachcomber, swimming or basking in the sun. Recently, in the Palm Beach Post, Caesar saw the result of a fight between a six-foot gator and a thirteen-foot Burmese python in the Everglades. Swallowing the gator, the snake had temporarily won until the alligator burst through the python’s stomach: Rebirth, Caesar had decided.
Caesar eyed the beast with awe. With less awe, he noticed Dorothy, a plump, fifty-year-old blonde in a two-piece bathing suit, across the lake from where he sat. She watched him from outside her lanai, waiting for a signal to join him and, when none came, retreated inside. A few months back she had pulled up a chair alongside Caesar and listened to him wax poetic about Florida’s large reptiles. Whether it had been the gators or the Bloody Marys he poured into her, Caesar landed the housewife back in his condo and on his couch. For nearly an hour, her confused husband wandered the back patios, asking if anyone had seen Dorothy, falling into small talk with his neighbors before finally returning to his condo to watch TV.
But Dorothy was counterfeit. Caesar wanted Ruth. Last night he had called her and insisted she meet him today at Lake Worth Pier. She almost hung up until she heard of the danger to her family, especially her grandchildren. She finally agreed to the meeting.
He had fallen in love with Ruth at a friend’s gravesite some forty years ago. That cold December day at Cleveland’s Calvary cemetery, he saw an expression he had never seen on a woman before: the world shunned for the beloved, for her first love. Upon leaving the cemetery, Ruth spoke with Caesar briefly, and some light behind her eyes charged his soul. That feeling, that lightning never struck again with anyone else.
Caesar honed his jealousy and hunger over the years yet Ruth had remained elusive, repulsed by his advances. After her husband’s death and numerous calls, they went out to dinner once. At sixty-two with the delicate face of an aging Audrey Hepburn, plenty of suitors, strong family and faith, Ruth had no need for Caesar and crushed his dream before dessert came. Caesar, defeated in love, kept killing to forget, and simply bought his women. The closest female in his life was a call girl out of Miami. She at least acted like he mattered.
Unlike Big Al, Caesar wasn’t perfect or fulfilled. He could intimidate the locals of Pine View, threaten them, and sometimes bed their women. But at seventy, loneliness had eaten clean through his soul. He comforted himself with thoughts of his beach house in Del Cabo, the money stashed away, and a business he could run from afar. He’d treat Ruth Cassano like a queen. This time, he’d get the girl.
Caesar went inside to make coffee and warm up an egg sandwich. He opened the sliding door of the lanai and the air was still, the fog heavier, discouraging his neighbors from their morning walks around the lake and digging in small flower beds at the back of every condo. At eight in the morning, a lot of Pine View residents were keeping to their breakfast nooks and close to their TVs. Caesar was filling the carafe when he caught sight of a ghost-like figure near the lake–Herb!
Feeling generous, Caesar came outside to offer his brave neighbor a sandwich just as Big Al glided into the water. He observed only a faint ripple where the beast had submerged.
"I don’t believe it," Caesar chuckled. "You grew a pair overnight and now you’re hanging out with Big Al? I bet the wife’s in for a good time tonight."
"This gator’s not gonna stop me from enjoying my own lake," Herb said.
From behind the screen door, Connie spoke up, but remained invisible, swallowed by the fog. "Go on and take a walk, Herb," the disembodied voice crowed. "Caesar’s right, you’re afraid of your own shadow. I’m taking my shower now, locking the door."
"Women can be tough on a guy," Caesar mocked, giving Herb a playful slap on the shoulder, feeling stiffness, touching only anxiety and bone through his cotton shirt. Herb wore large sunglasses, shorts, sandals and white socks.
"She’s bossy," Herb argued.
"She just thinks you need a little exercise, some color."
"I don’t need a damn thing."
You need this." Caesar pulled off his Santa hat and handed it to him.
"I don’t want that."
"Take it," Caesar growled, and Herb took the red hat and plopped it on his head. "So, what do you do all day?"
"I watch my shows. Listen to the radio. It’s a good life. I worked like a dog for years. I don’t need hobbies."
"Walking’s not a hobby. Don’t you like the sun?"
"It’ll kill you. I’m fair-skinned." Herb rubbed his arms as though the sun’s warmth beginning to penetrate the mist would soon drill him with cancer. "You’re dark skinned–Italian–right?"
"Worse, I’m Sicilian," Caesar said, looking across the lake, squinting. "I thought life was about enjoyment." He pointed at several white herons taking up station on the opposite bank. The birds were only slightly more substantial than the fog.
Caesar lost faith: perhaps Ruth’s heart was as cold as Herb’s, at least toward him. Maybe after losing her first love and later her husband, the possibility of ever loving again had died as well. But he couldn’t think like that. By leaving his work, gathering all his strength, perhaps he could make Ruth his own. Caesar thought of the stamina, patience, and energy it took to murder: motionless for an eternity, his heart beating wildly, waiting to strike some mark. It was never easy. Why should this be?
"Here, this is yours. I got another one I can heat up." He handed Herb the sandwich wrapped in a paper towel.
Herb frowned. "It smells good. Sausage?"
"Sure is. I’ll get you a chair and finish the coffee. Then, we’ll see what old gnarly-ass is up to–"
As he turned to leave, an epiphany struck: "You know, Herb, Big Al’s an artist. He moves through the world quietly and then explodes from that quiet place. People think he’s just killing and eating, but he’s creating too. I know. Crazy stuff. Anyway, you look like an artist in that Santa’s hat and sunglasses. Maybe you should take up painting, or at least hand out presents."
"The hell with painting and Christmas. Not my thing. All I know is I did plenty today, showed that monster and my wife I’m not afraid." Herb stared at the water’s calm surface and fussed with the top button of his shirt. "If you don’t mind, I’ll come inside and help you."
"Forget it. I need you to watch for Big Al. If he leaves the water, follow him–of course at a safe distance. He’s a creatures of habit. Nothing to fear. Once you know his routine, you become the predator. I’ll be right back. Relax in my chair."
Inside, Caesar grabbed a coffee filter and measured four-heaping scoops. "A little extra for Herb’s balls," he laughed. Caesar felt light-hearted. Only the occasional romantic comedy did that, if he wasn’t bawling his eyes out.
A yelp got Caesar’s attention and he looked up to see Big Al clamped on Herb’s right leg. With not enough air to push out a scream, only a few yips escaped the doomed neighbor who clung to the lawn chair. Big Al released a single grunt and backed-up, dragging his prey into the water and rolled, a kaleidoscope of thrashing limbs and armored hide. A real showstopper as predator and prey vanished and the lawn chair floated briefly before sinking.
From the safety of his lanai, Caesar heard no shouts from the neighbors, only the drumming of his own heart. Herb Jankowski was gone, leaving Caesar’s sandwich and red Santa hat untouched in the grass.
Late afternoon, blue skies, Caesar took note of the choppy waters and several ships near the horizon before spotting Ruth, sitting on a bench, looking out to sea. She watched Caesar’s approach and he wondered if she noticed anything strange, perhaps a shadowy spirit-thing clinging to him. He knew that Ruth saw someone’s doom as a darkened presence, dogging its victim, and finally cornering the person and finishing them off. If he had to choose, Caesar wished that his death was a dark fluttering thing, a gull, a bird he admired for its tough, disciplined life and wind forever in its face. From Little Tony’s account, he wondered what she had seen hunting down Laconti’s son, who died scuba diving in the Caribbean? And years ago, he learned that Ruth had once comforted a woman with terminal brain cancer and had witnessed a ghostlike wedding veil trailing from the crown of the woman’s head down her back to the floor. God only knows what she would have seen dogging Herb in his final minutes.
Reflexively, Ruth stood up. She was more beautiful than a year ago when he rang her doorbell, Christmas present in hand, and had to endure a lengthy, verbal attack before she slammed the door on him.
Caesar motioned to the bench for them both to sit down. He acted formal and made no attempt to embrace her.
"We don’t have much time," he said seriously. "Let me give you the rundown." He cleared his throat. "Then I’ll answer your questions." Caesar worried that he sounded like a small-town spokesman giving a press conference about a local scandal.
"Several employees of Mr. Laconti’s played loose with his trust and his money during the eighties. Laconti let it go at the time. He may have continued to ignore the problem but recently, one of the parties threatened to expose his business practices to the newspapers, go public."
"You worked for Frank Laconti for years," Ruth said. "And you were not one of his accountants."
"Ruth, your affair and my past are behind us. Everything’s changed. Laconti hasn’t served either of us very well. When you were with him–"
"Please … our affair was thirty years ago and lasted two months–"
"And you learned things, heard things about his business. And since he hurt you financially after you refused to continue the affair, he believes you may have a grudge to settle as well. He knows you, Ruth. He knows you won’t be bought off. So, Mr. Laconti needs you removed. He has grandchildren, great grandchildren; he wants them to do well in life, and not be hurt by his actions."
He gave her a few moments to reflect.
"Ruth, you could run for a while, but these people are animals. They’d find you. And in the meantime they’d have your family and close friends to play with."
"I don’t believe Laconti is that crazy to have me killed?"
"Search your past, things said. He’s an old man. He’s scared. Old men get like that. They lose their balls. You see, they want everything in order because soon everything will be out of order–the worms burrowing in."
Caesar thought he heard another dialogue below his sales pitch, a radio in the background, tuned to an unfamiliar station, a discussion between Ruth and someone else. After all, she read minds and communicated with spirits, with the dead–that old Catholic voodoo thing. Had he become psychic? Probably not. Ruth’s power had simply carried him along. He shivered uncontrollably. Was she summoning an angel of justice to obliterate him?
"Who’s he sending?" she asked, her chin starting to tremble.
"Ruth, it’s me."
"No way in hell."
Ruth sighed, saying, "Then why are you here?"
"Laconti will never leave you alone. If I fail or back down he’d send someone else. We’re little people. And there’re a lot of little people waiting in line to work for the boss. But soon, we’re gonna walk away from that line. That’s real freedom. Ruth, I have a home in San Jose Del Cabo, tip of the Baja, a beautiful place. I want you to go there with me and disappear."
"I’ll never leave my family."
"My way, everyone lives, and lives well. I have a gorgeous ocean view; plenty of money. You’ll have your own room and every day you can go out and shop, make new friends. I’m not an animal. But at night I want you at my side for dinner, especially this time of year. I’ve eaten alone most of my life. No more."
He looked out to sea, saying, "I could even help those closest to you. Soothe their pain after losing you. I know your money situation is lousy, thanks to Laconti. Why just get by? You’re beautiful. You deserve better."
"I deserve to be left alone!"
"All this is upsetting, unexpected–Ruth, please, look to a higher power for guidance."
Barely keeping her voice down, she said, "You monster, talking to me about higher powers. You deserted God a million years ago. Go to hell!" An elderly couple passing by shot Ruth a smile, believing her words part of a lover’s quarrel.
Caesar leaned close. "I’m not going anywhere except with you to Del Cabo, and someday, hopefully not too soon, into a peaceful oblivion, like everyone else. Maybe it’s you who’s in for a surprise."
"I’m calling Laconti."
"Sure." He pulled a thin leather calendar book from his suit jacket and opened it. "Here’s his number. Write it down. Wish him a Merry Christmas. The old man loves this time of year. Maybe he’ll change his mind."
Ruth never bothered to dig for a pen.
Caesar said, "Soon, you’ll go for a cruise on the Baroness. And once beyond the three-mile limit you’ll vanish under the waves, forever. You’ll be on the ship’s manifest. No body, no fuss. Now we can’t have your ghost shopping at Publix in West Palm. But in Del Cabo, everything changes. There you can shop and take wonderful voyages with me. I’ll protect and shelter and love you like no other man."
"You’re insane. I’m not going anywhere with you." She stood up. "Do you know what you hear before your peaceful oblivion devours you?"
"I hear my last breath, or last curse. Or last ‘I love you.’"
"You’re wrong. The last thing you hear is God’s voice. A hint of the glory and you’re gone forever. Oblivion is hell–that final bit of knowledge that God has called your name for the last time."
She turned away and started walking into the twilight sun, never bothering to shield her eyes. Caesar sat in amazement, aching after some essence embodied in each of her steps. Now he understood where he had worshipped all these years.
He heard that radio again, tuned to an unfamiliar station, but no voices, only the distant rumble of thunder. He looked up–clear skies, and a seagull buoyed by the wind and shadowed by the sun. He expected the bird to break right or left and catch those last rays, regain its brilliant whiteness. It never did.
In the parking lot, two young guys who worked for Laconti were getting out of their car. They both wore sunglasses and dark suits and Santa hats. Christmassy, nice touch, Caesar thought, looking back to the west, seeking Ruth who was now gone. He regretted not taking the time to watch White Christmas, but didn’t regret that he was unarmed. He had no last confession to make, either. But he did affirm his love for Ruth and waited.