John Strausbaugh, Stories




Bullet to the Moon





Chapter Seventeen






   It went like the captain said. We hid down in the stinking roach pit of the crew quarters and the tub sailed on. At some point the engines was cut off and we lay in our stinking bunks with the covers up to our ears pretending to be asleep for maybe a hour while Italian navy boarded and poked around a little until the captain took them to his quarters and paid them off with fresh fish. Then the engines kicked in again and we sailed on.

I don't know how many hours went by before a sailor come to fetch us, but it was evening out when we joined the captain on the bridge. The tub was standing out in a harbor.

"Napoli," he said.

It sure didn't look like the Sunny Italy posters in the restaurants in Little Italy. It looked more like Jersey City or Newark. A dirty, beat-down city with a lot of crumbling, ratty buildings and a crummy harbor where rusty tubs floated along with a lot of garbage in oily water.

"What a dump," Clarence said.

"Yes," the captain nodded. "Worse with Nazis here and war on, but always a dump. From Roman times a dump."

Not far off down the harbor, a big double-humped mountain made a dark camel's back against the evening sky.

"Vesuvio," the captain said. "Volcano."

"You built a whole city right next door to a volcano?" Clarence scowled.

The captain shrugged with his face, shoulders and hands, the way a waiter in Little Italy did when you raised a beef because they was out of clams casino.

"Stupid guineas," Clarence grumbled. "Don't it explode?"

"All the time," the captain said. "You know Pompeii? On the other side. Roman times. Poof. Big explode in '44 too. Two, three villages poof."

"It don't worry you?" Clarence asked.

The captain shrugged his whole body again. "Why you think so many of us go to America?"

The captain let it get darker before he nosed the tub up to a crumbling concrete pier. His sea monkeys and a bunch more on the dock scrambled around shouting and waving their arms and not doing much that looked useful to me. A couple of wop soldiers in black fascist uniforms lounged on the dock with rifles over their shoulders doing even more nothing than the sea monkeys. I watched a kraut officer in a gray Heil Hitler uniform march over to them and read them the riot act. It felt dizzy to be standing there inside the Reich watching a scene I only would see before in the moving pictures. When the kraut marched away the wops gave him the finger behind his back. In wop it was two fingers but I didn't need no translator.

Then I watched a little kid run up to them and go into a song and dance, pointing down to another pier and hopping up and down. They batted the air near his head with their rifle butts but he wouldn't go away and eventually they let him lead them off to see whatever it was he was going on about. As soon as they disappeared I saw a big, heavyset young mook come strolling up the pier toward the boat. Even from a distance I could see he was muscle.

"Your man's here," I told Seymour Spitz.

The captain let him onto the bridge and then took a powder. He was a wide-shouldered, dark-skinned wop in his thirties, full a noodles,  with a lot of shiny black hair and a couple gold chains hanging in his open-collar shirt. He looked like any wop gangster's hard guy from back in Brooklyn.

"Mr. Spitz," he said, sticking out a big, tanned hand with gold rings on it.

"Adolfo," Seymour Spitz said, hanging out his thin, gray hand.

"Been a while," Adolfo said.

"Those were good times."

"How's Minnie?" Adolfo said.

"Feh," Spitz shrugged. "Meet the boys and girl."

Adolfo raised his eyebrows at Smith as he crushed my and Clarence's hands. "Welcome to the Reich, boys. Miss."

"Ain't glad to be here, thanks," Clarence muttered, rubbing his hand.

"You ain't the only one." Adolfo grinned at our organ grinder outfits. "That supposed to be disguises? Look like the chorus of Cavalieri."

"What's that crack supposed to mean?" Clarence said.

Adolfo waved some gold rings at him. "Opera. Kind of the wop national anthem around here. About some hard guys got in a knife fight a long time ago. Folks around here know it the way folks at Ebbets Field know take me out to the ball game. How the bums doing, by the way?"

"Ain't played in a while," I said.

"Right, I guess not. Yankee man myself anyway."

"Basta," Seymour Spitz said. "Where's the boss?"

"Taking you to him. Be tickled to hear you ain't forgot your dago, Mr. Spitz. Just the other day he was telling me he bet you forgot it all."

"I ain't forgot nothing," Seymour Spitz said.

A Model T truck with a canvas back was parked on the pier below the boat. Sea monkeys was loading crates of fish into it. Naples was in blackout, just like New York, so they worked in the dark. It was nothing for us to troop down the gangplank and climb into the back of the truck. We sat on folded blankets on crates of cold fish. The sea monkeys buttoned the back canvas up tight and we rolled.

Right away we began to make left turns right turns left turns. Either Naples was one screwy city or the driver was practicing his evasive maneuvers. I could hear some city sounds outside. People talking wop, some wop music on a scratchy radio, a baby squalling.

"Not much of a sightseeing tour," Adolfo said. "Too bad. We do got some sights to see. You notice Vesuvius down the road? Come back after this is all over, I'll show you around good."

Clarence was frowning at him.

"Where you learn American?" he asked.

"Arthur Avenue," Adolfo said. "You?"

"Bronx? What you doing in this toilet?"

"Came here with Creepo in '38," Adolfo said.

Smith said, "That a Marx Brother I never heard of?"

"Nah," I said. "That's a wop gangster I guess you never heard of."

Call me a dumb head, but when Green was talking about the Camorra and Seymour Spitz's old pals I never thought of his old partner Creepo Vini. Maybe I was too busy picturing how the natsies was gonna torture and hang me for being a spy.

Adolfo gave Smith a quick rundown on Creepo.

"My Uncle Vito used to say Creepo was the sort of gangster who'd chop your hand off while he was shaking it, then slap you in the face with it," he grinned. "None a the American wops wanted to deal with him. Only Mr. Spitz. How long was you two partnered up?"

Seymour Spitz's shrugged. "How should I know? Ten years."

"Nah I think it was more like twelve," Adolfo said. He told Smith, "Yeah, Seymour Spitz and Creepo Vini. Uncle Vito used to call them the Brain and the Butcher. When I was in school us wop kids dreamed of joining their team like other kids did the Yankees. Busted my buttons when I actually made it. We had some fun times huh Mr. Spitz?"

"One big picnic," Seymour Spitz said.

"Course Creepo slowed down some now. These days he's more like you, Mr. Spitz. Pays a lot a guys like me to chop hands for him."

"What're you and him doing here?" Smith asked.

"Creepo got deported on a alien rap goin on ten years ago," I told her. I looked at  Adolfo. "I guess you come with?"

"Me and a couple of the boys. They couldn't cut it and went back to Arthur Avenue, which beat the heck outta me. I love it here. I mean the joint is a dump, but it's gangster heaven. We run the whole city. Mayors, judges, cops, the whole town's dirty. Or at least it was till the krauts showed up. With them sticking their beaks in everybody's business the black shirts in Rome made a big show of cleaning up. But it ain't that clean. We still get left alone mostly. We run the harbor, the trucking, the whorehouses, a bunch of pizza joints, we're all over the railroad, we got our own judges and politicians and police chiefs. We even got a couple banks. It's like printing money. We turned all the local kraut bosses pretty quick too. Half of them are on the take and the other half don't squawk as long as things run quiet."

"Sounds pretty sweet," I said.

"Be better if they left and things went back to normal, though," Adolfo said. "These natsies is nasty, even when you think you got um in your pocket. Doing business with them is like swinging a rat by the tail. You never know when they gonna twist around and bite ya. Nobody around here likes them or the fascists. Up in Rome, Milan, sure. Streets are clean, trains run on time, all that. People down here don't give a hoot about all that. Around here every Guido and his mother is at least a little bent, and five out a seven work for Mr. Rovini one way or another. They'd all be real happy to see Hitler and Mussolini swing side by side, and all their little pals with them. So every chance we get to stick the knife in we do, which is why you guys is here."

Clarence was still frowning at him. "They got pizza  joints?"

Adolfo laughed.

"Enough with the kibbitzing," Seymour Spitz snapped. "When we there? You bending our ear while this monkey driving us over hill and dale."

"Relax, Mr. Spitz. You're in wop hands. Sure it's part of the Reich, but it's still wop. On their own clock here."

"Yeah I remember that clock from bygones," Seymour Spitz said. "They only got one time. Domani. Everything domani."

"Don't worry," Adolfo said. "Domani this all be a done deal."

He did this wop thing of sliding his palms back and forth together like he was wiping them. It made his golden rings ring.

Up in the cab the driver grinded gears and we began a long, winding climb uphill.

"See? Almost there," Adolfo said.

After corkscrewing uphill for another ten minutes or so the truck stopped and a guy outside threw the canvas flaps open. We stepped down beside a dark, quiet garden. Trees and bushes on that side of us, and on the other a tall wedding cake of a castle, with spires and columns and winged angels and a couple of hundred windows I could see all with blackout curtains in them. With no lights on and the sky dark it did that thing of looking like a crepe paper cutout, just like the towers of Manhattan did, only this joint was ancient, hundreds of years old.

"Villa Rovini," Adolfo said. "Wop for Creepo's house."

"Creepo lives here?" I said. "You wasn't kidding about gangster heaven."

"They call this neighborhood Prosillipo. Best neighborhood in town. Every house a castle, and every one lived in by somebody dirty or a noble family or usually both. Head kraut lives up here. You're way up a hill above the riff and raff. Wasn't blacked out, you'd see the whole city laid out down there. Like Manhattan from the Empire State Building."

"Never been up it," I said.

"That's two views you missed. From the end of the garden you can see the water, islands, Vesuvius, the whole book a postcards at once."

We was standing in a small gravel parking area between the garden and what I figured was the rear of that giant castle. The gravel was all parked on by half a dozen gigantic black European-style limousines, the kind that were about a block long between the chauffeur and the passengers, with black fenders like waves and whitewalled tires almost as tall as me. Guys who had the international look of gangsters was leaning on them smoking and killing time. They nodded at Adolfo and he waved back.

More lugs was standing around the door to the house. Adolfo turned to us. "Weapons, gentlemen. Miss. You'll get them back."

Smith and Clarence looked at Seymour Spitz. He nodded. They handed their six-shooters to Adolfo. He passed them to one of the lugs.

He opened the door and we stepped through a felt blackout curtain into blinding white light. Smith pushed me behind her. I blinked around at the biggest kitchen I ever saw. I bet the kitchen in the Waldorf isn't as big. Stoves and counters and sinks and hanging pots and pans forever. Some cooks in white mushroom hats and waiters in black tuxes was bustling around over in one little corner of it, and the air smelled like spaghetti sauce and garlic bread. My stomach did flip flops like a dog getting cute for a bone. I ain't a big eater but I wasn't able to keep much down the whole trip in the sub and for the first time in ten days I was starving.

Adolfo led us through the swinging waiter doors into the grandest dining hall I was ever in. It looked like the palace banquet hall in one of them pictures they were always showing in the Depression about millionaire playboys and princes and princesses. This room was the size of a indoor football field with wood-paneled walls that had dark old paintings hanging on them in golden frames and suits of armor standing in the corners. The ceiling was a painted picture of a blue sky with fluffy clouds and pink-butted cherubs floating in it. It looked really real.

A shiny wood dining table ran the length of the room. It had about a hundred wooden chairs around it, but only the handful way off at the far end was occupied. The guy at the head of the table looked around a silver candelabra with about fifty white candles burning in it and raised his wine glass and grinned.

I knew it was Creepo Vini. I never saw Creepo Vini before in my life but I knew it was him. He was about the same age as Seymour Spitz, and where Seymour Spitz was all different shades of gray, Creepo Vini was all different shades of silver. He wasn't a big guy and he was kind of a chub. His head was perfectly round like a soccer ball and what was left of his silver hair was glued back on the sides. He wore a suit that was a dull slippery silver like a shark's hide and a high-collar shirt that was a darker silver and a tie that looked like carved pewter. He wore a silver wristwatch and silver rings on about six fingers.

"Seymour! Ciao bello! Benevenuto! Come park your carcass."



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All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009-2010 John Strausbaugh


All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009 John Strausbaugh