Illustration to accompany The Altos.Copyright(c) by Tim Soekkha. Used with permission

The Altos

Story by Russell Richardson

Illustration by Tim Soekkha

Two large mounds of manhood, Sal and Dino, were playing cards at a table in the back room of a New Jersey delicatessen. Between them, on the otherwise bare tabletop, lay the remnants of their game of Rummy. Sal had been on a losing streak——had played terribly, in fact, obviously due to a mental preoccupation. But he had no interest in pressing his luck anew. He exhaled, slapped the table, and pushed back his chair. “Dino, it’s been fun, but I gotta run,” he said.
Dino, the larger of the goons, lifted his lethargic eyes while his paws swept the cards together. “Where you goin?”
“Home,” said Sal, still seated but poised to spring. “Jeanie’s making manicotti and Debbie’s back from college.”
Dino shrugged. “You shouldn’t run off so soon.”
“What do you mean?” asked Sal. Now he did stand but refrained from movement. The triangle of chest exposed by his tracksuit was dotted with beads of sweat. But the room was temperate.
Dino locked eyes with Sal. Whereas Sal’s gaze was shifty and moist at the edges, Dino’s was cool, dry, and heavy-lidded, as usual. His eyes had been party to many awful deeds without batting a lash. Sal, too——both men had carried out grisly business for their boss through the years——but Sal’s were clearly the softer pair. He dropped them when Dino said, “Sit down, sweaty. Play another hand.”
“Sorry, I gotta go,” said Sal, searching his pockets for car keys. He gave them a pronounced jingle as if to prove his need to leave.
“Sit down,” snapped Dino, suddenly stern. “The manicotti can wait.”
“Why? We’ve played cards for an hour. No thanks.” Finally, Sal moved toward the door at the room’s far end. Dino lumbered to his feet.
“Sit down,” he barked, pointing at his Rummy partner’s chair. “Boss says.”
“Boss says?” croaked Sal. The words caught in his throat. “What does he want?”
Dino, lowering himself into his own unlucky chair, merely jabbed at Sal’s seat again. Repeating, meekly, “Boss says?” Sal, at last, obliged the order. “What’s he want, Dino?” His mouth danced in a little quiver and his right hand surreptitiously cupped his brand new, diamond-encrusted watch to hide it.
“I’m not at liberty to say,” was all Dino would divulge. The morsel was enough to make Sal sprout even more sweat. Dino dealt a fresh hand, but Sal found he lacked the motor skills to pick up the cards. “I’ll have to call Jeanie and let her know——”
“Nope,” said Dino. “No calls till you see Boss.”
“But Debbie’s there, too. My daughter! They’ll be worried.”
“What do they have to worry about?” asked Dino, intoning suspicion.
“You know, if I don’t show and don’t call——”
Dino nodded a wordless command for Sal to claim his cards. The two men were silent while they arranged their hands. But Sal couldn’t contain the stress. “That’s it,” he blurted. “I’m calling home.”
“No!” said Dino. He stabbed a sausage finger at Sal. “You’re getting on my nerves.”
“How do you think I feel?” asked Sal. He smacked his chest for emphasis. “It’s kinda freaking me out.”
“Relax. Why you so jumpy?” asked Dino from beneath the shelf of his forehead. “Something on your conscience?”
“No!” said Sal. “Of course not. It’s nerve-wracking to have to stay here and not know the reason, though. Do you know the reason?”
With surprising daintiness, Dino drew his finger across his lip to zip it and tossed the imaginary key.
“C’mon,” groaned Sal, scanning the room, finding no relief. “What is it, 5 o’clock? Who knows when he’ll show? It’s Tuesday. What if he goes straight to Atrillo’s for dinner? You know he goes there for steak on Tuesdays.”
Dino shook his head, undisturbed from his cards. “He’s coming. It’ll be awhile. He’s rounding up the guys.”
“The guys?” asked Sal in a nervous pitch. “What guys?”
“The Caps, stupid,” grumbled Dino. “Damn, what’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing. What, is there a meeting I didn’t hear about?”
Still fussing with his cards, Dino’s eyes rolled up to meet Sal’s. “Something like that.”
“This is ridiculous,” spat Sal. He pitched the cards aside and stood up. When Dino started to rise, Sal waved him off. “I’m just going to the fridge. I’m hungry and you’re ruining my dinner.”
Ploddingly, the overweight man weeble-wobbled to the refrigerator. The fridge stood beside the sink and was plastered with pornographic pin-ups befitting a space furnished in the style of a well-heeled frat boy’s rumpus room, complete with wall-mounted flat screens, a pool table, a pinball game in one corner. To another side sat a metal desk and filing cabinets which constituted the boss’s office area.
Sal hung on the open fridge door and peered inside. He hemmed, snorted, sighed. At last, he swung the door shut with a clatter and turned back to Dino. “There’s nothing to eat,” said Sal.
“There’s still ziti in there,” muttered Dino, now checking a text message on his phone.
“Who’s that?” asked Sal.
“Never mind,” answered Dino, taking up his cards again. “Eat the ziti.”
“I can’t eat ziti if I’m having manicotti for dinner,” said Sal. His thumb jerked toward the room’s second door, beyond which was the deli’s storefront. “Forget this. I’m getting a sandwich.”
Dino exhaled and rose mightily to his feet. “Then I gotta go with you.”
“Are you serious?” Sal flapped his arms in a gimmie-a-break motion. “Why you holding me hostage?”
Dino made his own exaggerated display, rolling his neck in annoyance. “Orders.”
“I don’t need a babysitter.”
Dino stared back.
“Tell me what’s up,” complained Sal, still gesticulating. “You’re really freaking me out.”
Impatiently, Dino beckoned him to follow and started for the deli door. “C’mon, I could use a hoagie, too.”
Briefly, with Dino’s back turned to him, Sal checked the other exit, the door that opened on the parking lot, and he invested in heavy thought; and then he looked at the upright wooden wardrobe that stood near the pinball table, about twenty feet away. Unassumingly stowed inside the wardrobe were not clothes but a battery of handguns and shotguns and ammunition. His eyes flitted to Dino, who was holding the door and observing Sal coldly. Dino tapped his foot.
“Coming,” said Sal, stumbling forward.

The deli’s counter girl made their sandwiches while the two buffaloes cooled their heels in silence. Dino browsed the rack of chip bags, gazed out the front window at foot traffic, and selected a soda bottle from the cooler, all done without acknowledging Sal, who could only pace and gnaw his fingernails. When the girl presented their white-paper-wrapped grinders on the counter, saying, cheerfully, “One meatball parm, one prosciutto and peppers,” the men swiped them up without manners and retreated to the back room. The girl wasn’t ruffled. The men who occupied the back were often rude and never paid. Everyone knew they were degenerate mobsters.
Having returned to the back room——the door’s lettering read, “Office,” but that implied more legitimacy than it deserved, and it was soundproofed to keep its illegal secrets contained——the men sat at the table and unwrapped their sandwiches, using the great swaths of white paper as placemats. Sal, whose rabbit mind had been exploring all the passageways of its maze, spoke: “My Debbie. What a beautiful daughter. You know, you have kids. She’s everything to me. Such a daddy’s girl, too. I can’t wait to see her. I swear, she loves me so much, I don’t know what she’d do if——”
“Uh-huh,” said Dino, so dispassionately that Sal abandoned this line of pleading abruptly. In contemplation, he stared at his long lump of sandwich, appearing dead on the paper. He lifted the bread top, squinted, sneered, and released it with a disgusted grunt. “As I expected,” he said. “She forgot the sauce. Stupid kid. I can’t eat this dry.” He began to collect his meal, intending to carry it back to the deli. But Dino snapped his fingers and barked, “Sit down.”
“But——” said Sal.
“Eat it,” commanded Dino. He glowered at his mute companion and then sighed. “Hey,” he said, at last, adding a dash of pep to his tone. He bit off a cheek’s worth of meatball parm. “What’s the most cruel thing you ever see Boss do?”
Sal never looked healthy, his size and lifestyle having aged him an extra ten years, at least. Now his pallor and tremble made it seem he might faint. His mouth flexed without delivering a word.
Dino waved a finger and his girlish gold bracelet slid loosely about his wrist. “I got one,” he said. He wiped the back of his hand across his saucy lips. “Remember that guy, The Pimple? What a douche. Boss discovered he was taking a cut on the side. You hear this story before? Well, first Boss kindly gives him a warning. But Pimple can’t stop, he’s too greedy. So, Boss takes some guys to his house and makes Pimple watch while Boss, personally, bashes in his wife’s head with a tire iron. Pretty cold. Right in their living room. But, know what’s funny?”
All the blood had drained from Sal’s face. His head teetered on its stem. Absently, his fingers stroked the glittering crucifix at his neck.
Dino went on. “Pimple gets laughing like crazy. Says, ‘I hated her anyway, you done me a favor.’ So, Boss has their kids brought in and he whacks them next.”
For a moment Dino chuckled, and then his hand suddenly rocked the table with a solemn strike. He glared into Sal’s eyes. “Know what Boss decided that day? No more warnings.”
Sal burst up, a feat for such a fat man, and bolted to the sink. He vomited in and around it and then propped himself, dry-heaving, on the counter’s edge. He stayed slumped this way until a sour, rumbling chuckle from behind lured his attention. His eyes fell upon the ugly sneer on Dino’s face.
“Well, well,” said Dino. “Don’t you have the guilty conscience?”
Gingerly, Sal relinquished his support. His squeaky new Nikes scuffed from the sink to the table. Like the defeated giant he was, he stood slouched, gazing down at Dino’s revulsion. Sticky hoarseness marked his frail voice. “How long have you known?” he asked.
“I didn’t,” said Dino. Arms folded, he leaned his girth back as far as his chair would allow. Sadness, victory, anger——his face registered an emotional mélange. “Your stupid antics tipped me off.” In a dramatic flourish, he shot forward and flung his hands to shove his half-eaten sub away. It skidded to the floor in a tomato sauce mess. He threw fire up at Sal. “You make me sick. What is it? You taking money?”
Sal stuttered, unsure of his best defense——a protest, a lie, a redirection? Dino interrupted. “How could you, man? To steal from the Boss? From us?” He shook a head full of disappointment. “So stupid.”
“It was a mistake,” said Sal, crackling with fear. “I plan to pay it back——it’s, like, a loan to help with college——”
Dino’s laugh brought Sal up short. “A loan for college,” he spat. “The Boss will totally understand that. He won’t notice at all the fancy new jewelry you’ve been flashing around. A loan for college. Right.”
Dumbfounded, Sal remained rooted to his spot, arms dangling at his sides. The air stank of his sweat. “You mean to say the Boss doesn’t know?” His words slurred out, burdened by something akin to regret, dread, the feeling of standing in a pit of one’s own digging——a grave.
“Yes, I mean to say that,” said Dino, mockingly. “But he won’t be in the dark for long, I tell you. Now, sit.”
But Sal stood stationary. “Then why does he want to see me?”
“Hell if I know,” said Dino. “Sit. Down. Eat your sandwich. He’ll be here any minute. Then we can have a nice chat.”
“But you made it sound like——”
Dino pounded the table. “Boss said keep you here, so I did. That’s all I know. Now, if you don’t sit down, I’ll break a kneecap and make you sit.”
Swooning, Sal leaned forward and reached out to brace himself on the table. “Oh,” he moaned, bent over with his head slung between his stretched arms.
“Knock it off, you puss,” said Dino. “This is embarrassing.”
Sal reversed his posture and arched his back to groan at the ceiling. Dino dragged a hand down his fuming face. “Sit.”
“Listen,” begged Sal, warbling, regaining his balance enough to look Dino in the face. Tears dampened the crest of Sal’s cheeks. “I meant no disrespect to anyone, especially not the Boss. It’s simply a——a temporary lapse in judgment. Easily rectified.”
“Save it for him,” snarled Dino. “Now, sit.”
“For your silence——” Sal held up his petitioning hands, his glistening palms shown outward “——I would more than fairly compensate you. Any amount, you name it. And I’d square things, put all the money back. No one would be the wiser and you’d be well provided for.”
“Shut up and sit, you snake.” Dino curled two balled fists on the tabletop before him.
“Dino, be reasonable——”
“I can’t,” said Sal. In place, he shifted from foot to foot like a child who has to piss. “I can’t, I can’t——”
Dino roared. “Siiit——”
“I can’t!” Sal shrieked. He wheeled to the left and charged at the wardrobe, his footfalls thunderous and room-shaking, and the table crashed onto its side behind him as Dino knocked it over, exploding in pursuit. Sal reached the wardrobe and yanked open one door panel, but Dino had seized his elbow and was bringing him down in a tackle. The two monsters collapsed onto each other in a tangle of berserk arms as they swatted their faces, their bodies, and the floor beneath them. Somehow Sal wound up on his back with Dino laid upon his torso, crushing his lungs. Dino’s hands grabbed hold of Sal’s fat neck and his thumbs squeezed in search of a windpipe. Struggling to breathe, Sal slapped his fists against the sides of Dino’s sweaty, slippery skull. His air supply was thinning. His eyes grew blurry. He started to choke. All was lost.
And then Dino cried out in pain and clutched at his head, releasing Sal’s neck. A sharp edge of the diamond watch had caught Dino’s temple and sliced a small gash across his brow——not much, an inch, but a surprise that streamed a sudden blood flow into Dino’s eyes. While Dino pressed the heel of his hand into his bleary socket, Sal, reinvigorated, summoned the strength to shove the mammoth aside——enough to roll his body out from underneath. He labored to his knees and when Dino pounced again, Sal drove the bone of his elbow into the oncoming nose with a terrific crack. Dino’s blood was going everywhere as he fell backward, clutching his wailing face. He slithered on his back. Standing now, a wheezing Sal glared down at his enemy. Dino’s head was writhing on the floor. Sal began to kick it like a soccer ball. The Nikes had good, gripping tread.

The Boss waddled through the doorway and stopped short. Six men, their combined weight measured in tonnage, followed and fell in line behind him. All stood openmouthed.
“What the hell is this?” asked the Boss.
Sal was seated at the table, which stood upright again, its chairs tucked under its sides. A game of solitaire was unfinished before him. His hand set down the card it held, and he slowly raised his eyes to the others. “Boss,” he said, “it was terrible.”
The Boss stared past Sal and across the room, to where laid the gory, mountainous remains of Dino. The Boss pointed at the mess and asked, “What happened?”
Without getting up, Sal said, “You guys should sit down. I have upsetting news.”
“No. You should say whatever it is because this——” the Boss nodded to his copse of henchmen, to ensure they saw the same, and they all nodded that they did “——this is very upsetting. To say the least.”
Sal cleared his throat and stiffened his spine. He knitted his hands in front of him, reverently. “Boss, while we were playing cards, it came out that——that——”
“Spit it out lard-ass,” barked the Boss, himself a human meatball.
Sal swallowed. “Dino was stealing money on the side. And we got into a fight.”
“No way,” uttered one of the entourage. “Dino’s a straight arrow.”
“He was a straight arrow,” corrected the Boss, over his shoulder. “Was.” His gaze returned to Sal. “Go on, Sally. This is a serious allegation, for which you’d better have proof. Dino’s been a made man for a long time, as you know.”
“Just go check him over,” said Sal. He gestured in that direction, deigning to look as though the vision were too horrific, too disturbing for his morose heart. “Go on.”
A twitch from the Boss dispatched the henchmen, who all went and gathered around the body. They wore sweat suits, like Sal, and one goon removed his Yankees cap and held it to his breast. Another fanned his face.
The Boss had not left his original post. “What do you see?” he asked.
“A few brains,” mumbled one goliath. “A lot of blood.”
Still shielding his eyes, Sal said, “Check his wrist.”
For a moment the men debated who would touch the body——not from queasiness, but because none wanted to get their tracksuits soiled——and then one grunted, bent, and lifted Dino’s limp arm. “Whoa, look at the watch,” he said.
All the men marveled over the diamond watch, a gorgeous timepiece even besmirched with a crimson smear. The Boss advanced a step, straining to see. “Yeah? It’s nice?”
From the table, Sal spoke up. “I asked Dino how he could afford such an expensive thing. He got really defensive and acted weird. He told me to mind my own business. I kept on him. Finally, he just came out and admitted it.”
“Admitted what?” asked the Boss. The room’s tension was thick.
“To stealing,” said Sal. “To taking a cut out of his bag, on the sly.”
“No way,” said the most vocal of the goons. “Don’t make any sense. He wasn’t a thief and, even so, why the hell would he tell you?”
At last, Sal swiveled toward the macabre scene and addressed the cynic, resolutely. “Because I tricked him.”
“Explain,” said the Boss, crossing the room to inspect the watch.
“Well, you know my kid’s at college. Money’s been tight,” said Sal. “So, I spun a sob story about making ends meet. And he tells me about how I can pocket a little additional scratch.”
Now beside the body, the Boss peered back at Sal. “By stealing from me?”
“By stealing from you,” Sal answered. “As soon as I heard that, it was on. I lunged like a tiger. Nobody steals from us.”
Ragefully, the Boss reared back his shoe and kicked the fat corpse in the side. “Bastard,” he hissed.
“Boss, I don’t believe it,” interjected the skeptical voice of the group, still encircling the body. The speaker was watching Sal for a tell. “It’s all too fishy.”
Sal instructed. “Look in his pockets. I patted him down after I——you know, did that to him. But, look.”
The Boss squatted, nearly splitting the seam of his tracksuit, put down a knee, and groped inside the dead man’s pockets. “What have we here?” he said and produced an impressively thick, rubber banded roll of bills for all to see. He stood and held it under the skeptic’s nose. “Does that convince you?” he snapped.
The skeptic withdrew and raised his hands in surrender.
“Steal from me? The nerve” growled the Boss. He knelt once more and unclasped the watch from Dino’s wrist. As he rose, slipping the timepiece over his hand and up his own arm, he announced, “This is also proof of something else.”
He toddled to the table and set the money down in front of Sal. Sal gazed up with innocent eyes at the Boss, who continued: “This confirms what I already knew: that our Salvatore is one of the most trustworthy guys in our crew. It’s been a long time coming, but today he gets his due. I brought you all together tonight to say I’m making Sal a captain.”
Sal struggled to his feet, unsteadied by the surprise. “Really?” he asked. He came around the table to stand beside their leader.
“Absolutely,” said the Boss, clapping Sal on the shoulder, and he added for the room’s benefit: “Do we need any more proof that this guy will go the extra mile for the honor of our family?”
A slow clap started from the still stunned ring of henchmen and it grew in volume and vigor. One by one, the men came to shake Sal’s shaky hand, to offer congratulations. Even the cynic showed his respect.
“Alright, someone dispose of that traitorous rat,” said the Boss. “And you,” he said to Sal, “you take that money and put it towards your daughter’s education. A mind’s a terrible thing, and all that.”
“Oh, sir,” said Sal, bowing slightly. “I——I don’t know what to say. There’s like fifteen grand here. What a generous gift. I’m seeing her tonight, and this will be such a surprise.”
The Boss dismissed the praise and beamed a grin. He seized Sal’s shoulder. “Well, what do you know?” he said, calling the attention of the group and pointing at Sal’s throat. “Here’s even more proof of his character. Of course, I should have guessed such an honorable man would be devout as well.”
And everyone leaned in to admire Sal’s diamond crucifix.

— ♦♦♦ —


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Thumbnail Illustration for "Jolly Dom and the Crossroads Inn" Copyright (c) 2019 Karolína Wellartová.  Used under licenseJolly Dom and the Crossroads Inn. 
By FR di Brozolo, Art by Carol Wellart

He wasn’t here for comfort. His quarry had very probably been in the common room. Now that he was alone he pulled the harp out; he’d find Pier Cantre with it, sure enough, or his name wasn’t Dommard Doan.

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