Sonny Steelgrave swept into the room, bubbling with energy.
"Vinnie," he called. "You ready? Okay, let's go!" He paused at the bar, his fingers tapping out a drum riff which ended abruptly as Vinnie stepped out of the bedroom carrying his shirt and shoes.
"Hey, what's this? You're not even dressed yet."
Vinnie turned away from Sonny's disapproving look and sat down on the sofa.
"I don't think this is such a hot idea," he said, slipping his feet into his shoes.
"Why not? Your mamma likes me. I told you I was good with mothers," Sonny said airily, rapping his ring on the side of the bar.
"Yeah, well, it's not just gonna be my mother. My brother's gonna be there, too."
"So? What, am I Jewish now or something? I can't talk to priests?" Sonny leaned against the bar, crossed his arms and gave Vinnie a calculating stare. "If I didn't know better," he said in a low, disgusted voice, "I'd think you were ashamed of me."
Vinnie finished buttoning his shirt, stood, straightening up to his full height, and looked at Sonny squarely. "But you know better," he stated confidently.
Sonny held his gaze for several seconds, then turned and headed for the door, diffusing the tension. "Yeah, yeah. So what's the matter then?"
"I dunno," Vinnie said slowly, reluctantly following Sonny out of the room, wishing he could think of a tactful way to talk Sonny out of this dinner engagement. "You know what it's like with family. My ma's not exactly happy with her son being a jailbird and all. And Pete's pretty disapproving of this lifestyle. It's kinda hard going back there, y'know. Sometimes I think it'd be better not to visit at all."
Sonny stopped in mid-stride and swiveled around to face him. "Don't talk like that," he said. "They're your family, man. Don't talk like that about your family. You cut yourself off from them, you cut yourself off from me. Then you're nowhere. Yeah?"
Vinnie exhaled the breath Sonny's sudden outburst had caught in his lungs. Sonny wasn't going to be talked out of this.
"Yeah," he agreed.
Sonny relaxed. "Good. C'mon. I do not wanna be late for your mamma's home cooking."
Vinnie drove, navigating around road construction and one- way streets into the heart of Brooklyn and the old neighborhood. Sonny was in a jovial mood.
"Your mamma a good cook?" he asked.
Vinnie's eyes were on the rearview mirror. "Yeah," he replied distractedly, suddenly turning down the wrong street.
"Yeah," repeated Sonny with a sigh. "She's Italian, man. She's a good cook." His eyes were darting from window to window. "Where're you going, Vinnie? This ain't your neighborhood."
Vinnie nodded at the rearview. "We got company."
Sonny checked the passenger-side outer mirror and cursed under his breath.
"Patrice," he snarled. He pointed to the next corner. "Pull up. Let's hear what these goons have gotta say."
Vinnie pulled over to the curb and the black Caprice glided up next to them. Vinnie recognized Simonetti in the passenger seat and rolled down his window.
"Mr. Patrice sends his greetings. He hopes you weren't planning to visit his domain without also visiting him."
Vinnie heard Sonny mutter, sotto voce, "'Domain,' for fuck's sake!" but when he glanced over Sonny was all artificial smiles and cold courtesy.
"You can tell Mr. Patrice this is just a social visit. Nothing to concern him," Sonny said, his eyes taking on a lethal, let-them-try-anything glint.
Simonetti smirked and held out a folded piece of paper. "Everything concerns him."
Sonny nodded for Vinnie to take the paper, which he did and handed to Sonny. Sonny read it, unsmiling. At last he said, "Okay. Tell Mr. Patrice we'll be there at eleven."
Simonetti gave a curt nod and the Caprice sped off. Vinnie pulled away from the curb just as Sonny pounded the dashboard with his fist.
"Patrice, man! Patrice!" he exploded. "Who the hell does he think he is?! I can't go visit someone's family in Brooklyn without his say?!"
He took a deep breath and sat back, still quietly fuming. Vinnie made another turn and glanced at him warily.
"Patrice," Sonny muttered as if he were saying some awful Sicilian curse. "That man is this close to getting his throat slit."
Vinnie drove on, unable to think of anything to say, his mind frantically working on: why was Patrice pushing Sonny so hard? What was going to happen if he pushed too hard? He already knew how Patrice knew where they were going: Sid Royce had known, and telling something to Sid was just as good as whispering it into Pat-the-Cat's ear.
Sonny's voice shook him from his thoughts.
"Where are we going? You're almost back to Atlantic Avenue. You're going in the wrong direction."
"Yeah, well, I thought that after that little run-in it might be better if we went home."
Sonny's eyes flew to the rearview. "Why? They still following us?"
"So what's the problem? Come on, Vinnie, we're late as it is. I don't want to keep your mother waiting. It's impolite."
Sonny was almost back to his earlier good humor, but not quite. Being tailed by Pat-the-Cat's men and summoned to a 'business meeting' had put a damper on his high spirits.
"I just thought, you know, after that..." Vinnie trailed off. He couldn't complete the thought: I don't want you sitting in my mother's house planning how to kill Patrice while my family sits there and wait for me to slap the cuffs on your wrists and admit I'm a Fed. He steered the car back in the right direction.
"It's all right, Vinnie," Sonny said quietly. "I'm not gonna talk about gutting the Cat to your mamma and Father Terranova."
Jolted by this uncannily accurate guess at his thoughts Vinnie looked over to see Sonny smiling pleasantly. Sonny laughed.
"Let's go, man. I can't wait to taste that homemade cannolli!"
Pete answered the door and showed Sonny and Vinnie to the dining area. Carlotta Terranova was busy in the kitchen, from which wafted the spicy aroma of her special tomato sauce. Sonny sniffed the air and rolled his eyes.
"Oh, man." He disappeared into the kitchen.
Pete glanced over at Vinnie. "I thought you said you could talk him out of this," he whispered.
Vinnie shrugged. "He was set on it, Pete. I tried, but what could I say? He gets kinda sensitive if it seems like I don't want him around my friends and family."
"Sensitive?! Oh, Vince, I don't believe I'm hearing this." Pete shook his head. With a sigh he picked up a napkin and started folding it. Vinnie joined him. He wanted to get this dinner over with as quickly and as uneventfully as possible. He'd hated introducing Sonny to his mother, and he hated bringing Sonny to his family home. In many ways, he liked Sonny, liked him more than he should, but the man was still a gangster.
"I thought you were gonna talk Ma out of it," Vinnie pointed out.
Pete looked sheepish. "I tried, but you know how she is. I think this is a stupid and potentially dangerous situation, but she had to have her own way."
Vinnie grinned despite his unease. "That's our ma."
In the kitchen, Sonny greeted Carlotta with a brief hug and a kiss of her hand. He snooped around the counter a bit, taking inventory of the ingredients scattered around, and finally stopped at the stove. He peered into the vat of tomato sauce and inhaled deeply.
"You need any help, Mrs. Terranova?" he asked, picking up the wooden spoon on the pretense of stirring the sauce.
Carlotta slapped the spoon out of his hand.
"Mr. Steelgrave, I've been cooking for my family for fifty years," she said haughtily. "I don't need your help. And you don't get to taste the sauce until dinner is served," she added.
Sonny grinned. "That Terranova stubbornness," he sighed. Carlotta shooed him from the kitchen and over to the dining area where Pete and Vinnie were halfheartedly setting out the plates.
"Just have a seat here, Mr. Steelgrave. I'll bring the dinner out in a few minutes," she assured him, motioning for him to sit at the head of the table.
The meal progressed in a more or less relaxed manner. Sonny was practically oozing with Steelgrave charm, chatting with Carlotta about Sicily, family, any neutral subject he could think of. Carlotta was polite and pleasant, and even Pete was making an effort, only occasionally sliding into thinly veiled sarcasm. But Vinnie remained sullen, unnerved by the sick surreality of it all: a nice, cozy dinner at home with a murdering mafia kingpin. It disturbed him how easily Sonny fit into this world of homemade dinners, family priests, and open affection. He forced himself to ignore his misgivings, knowing Sonny's eagle eye would spot his gloominess and he'd be questioned about it later.
The first tense moment came when Pete insisted on discoursing on how the infiltration of drugs was destroying the neighborhood. He went so far as to say he hoped God would have mercy on the souls of those who would profit from the suffering of children, when Vinnie kicked him lightly under the table. Sonny narrowed his eyes at Pete, but did not rise to the bait, and Carlotta steered the conversation to a safer topic.
The other tense moment came when Sonny suddenly asked Vince, "How's your Uncle Mike?"
Carlotta, Pete and Vinnie all froze, Carlotta and Pete staring at Vinnie. Sonny frowned slightly and Vinnie quickly came up with a response.
"I dunno, Sonny. Haven't heard from him in a while."
Carlotta turned to Sonny and smiled shyly. "Mr. Steelgrave, Vinnie's Uncle Mike is never mentioned in this house. I hope you won't think it rude of me to ask you to talk of other matters."
Sonny seemed to understand. He patted Carlotta's hand.
"Like that, is it? Sorry, Carlotta."
Pete jumped in with. "Isn't it time for dessert?" and the rest of evening went smoothly. Sonny was embarrassingly laudatory about the "homemade" cannolli (purchased from Mazzola's) and Carlotta nodded her head, pretending to be the proud baker. When the dinner was over, Vinnie breathed a sigh of relief. No one had slipped, Sonny had been on his best behavior, now they could go back to A.C. and leave his family in peace. Then he remembered the night was far from over. They still had a date with Pat-the-Cat, and he'd had no chance to call Frank.
They drove to the rendezvous point, somewhere in the Bronx, in virtual silence. Sonny's mood was getting blacker by the second and Vinnie wasn't surprised when Sonny opened the glove compartment, pulled out a gun, checked it, and shoved it into his jacket.
"You got your piece?" Sonny asked.
"We were only going to my ma's house," Vinnie pointed out. Sonny clicked his tongue in disapproval and reached under the front seat. He extracted another gun and handed it to Vinnie.
"It's a good thing I always come prepared."
Following Sonny's directions, Vinnie drove up a dark, deserted hill onto a bumpy gravel road. This was no part of the Bronx he'd ever been in. At last Sonny told him to park. He stopped the car and peered out into the circle of gravel and shrubbery illuminated by the headlights.
"What is this place, Sonny?"
This was gonna be some meeting. A cemetery at night, with Pat-the-Cat curled up nearby waiting for them. Vinnie switched off the headlights and got out of the car.
Sonny was standing next to the hood ornament, looking around. "The church is up there," he said, pointing off to the left.
"You know this place?"
Sonny smiled wistfully. "Yeah, I know this place. This was the big make-out spot when we were kids." He started walking. "I came up here with Patricia Delvecchio when I was sixteen. Ooh man."
The gravel ended abruptly and Vinnie followed Sonny through the graveyard, the tombstones clearly outlined in the bright moonlight. Sonny suddenly stopped, bent down to examine a tombstone, then headed off quickly in another direction. Vinnie followed dutifully.
"What's wrong?" he asked when he caught up. Sonny was standing at the edge of the graveyard. He pointed to an embankment partially surrounded by trees, some hundred yards away.
"Rachel Rosenstein. Mmpf. Over there's where I made Rachel Rosenstein one very happy lady."
Vinnie relaxed a little. "'Rachel Rosenstein?'" he pressed.
Sonny turned and shrugged. "Hey, a man's gotta broaden his horizons now and then, right?" He headed back through the graveyard, occasionally stopping to utter some girl's name with soft reverence. Vinnie wondered when the litany of Sonny Steelgrave teenage conquests would end, when they reached the church and Sonny's romp down memory lane came to a complete halt. Sonny gazed resentfully at the big, wooden doors, squared his shoulders, and made his way up the steps.
"Pat!" he greeted with false bonhomie as he burst through the double doors. "We've got to stop meeting like this."
Sonny strode down the aisle, Vinnie at his shoulder. Patrice was perched on the altar, immaculately dressed as always. Around him hovered Simonetti, Sweeney and some other goons. The church was splattered with oddly-shaped shadows that flickered with the candlelight. Vinnie found himself repulsed by Patrice's blasphemous use of the church as meeting ground for his unholy dealings.
"Sonny. Vincenzo." Patrice's cold eyes traveled from one to the other and back. Vinnie nodded in acknowledgment and Sonny took a seat in the first pew.
"So, Paul, what's on your mind?"
"I'm disappointed in you, Salvatore."
The false smile Sonny had adopted faded from view.
"You came into Brooklyn, and weren't planning to come see me? You might have hurt my feelings." Patrice smirked.
"Hey, it was just a social call. We paid Vinnie's mom a little visit. Nothing to do with business."
"I'm glad to hear it." Patrice's gaze shifted to Vinnie. "Nice visit?"
"Great," replied Vinnie gruffly.
"Your mother keeping well, Vincenzo? Did she see the specialist I sent?"
Vinnie glanced quickly at Sonny, who was staring at them both in shocked dismay. "What specialist?" Sonny inquired indignantly. Vinnie looked ashamed. He should have told Sonny about Patrice's overture of goodwill, but knowing how Sonny would react, he'd decided not to.
Patrice's attention returned to Sonny. "Sid called me today. He sounded very distressed."
"Sid is an idiot," Sonny said contemptuously, straightening his cuffs.
"He seems to think there is a double agent among your associates," Patrice went on.
Sonny sniffed. "There was that broad from the ballet, but she's no longer a problem."
"He seemed to think there was another one," said Patrice, casting a shrewd look at Vinnie.
Internally, Vinnie panicked. He felt his palms go sweaty and prayed that if he blanched, no one would notice in this flickering, uneven light.
"Sid's been watching too many James Bond films," Sonny scoffed. "Double agent! If there's any double agent in my organization, his name is Sid Royce."
At that, Patrice looked at Sonny sharply, his smirk quickly replaced by a scowl.
Sonny responded with a serpentine grin. "But I was forgetting. Sid's on our side, isn't he?" he said smoothly.
"You repay my words of friendly warning with jokes, Salvatore. I just hope they do not come back to haunt you."
"Thanks, but between me, and Vinnie here, oh, and Sidney, of course, I think we keep a pretty thorough watch. Your concern is touching, but I'm sure you have better things to worry about."
"'The price of freedom is eternal vigilance,'" Patrice quoted solemnly, standing up to go. "I hope, when the time comes, you will call on my assistance, and not rely on new friends" (he stared pointedly at Vinnie) "to save you. You can count on me, Sonny."
His royal edict apparently at an end, Patrice left through the vestry, his heavy companions trooping after him.
"Yeah," said Sonny after they'd gone, "I can count on you like I can count on the next Pope being Buddhist. Prick."
Sonny rose and headed up the aisle. "Come on, let's get outta here."
Vinnie let out the breath he'd been holding ever since he'd heard the words 'double agent'. He'd like to wring Royce's flabby little neck for that. But Sonny had stood up for him. Partly, he was sure, just to piss Pat off, but also because he genuinely trusted Vinnie. To know that Sonny had that much faith in him was satisfying, and also disturbing. He was a double agent, he was a threat to Sonny. And he was starting to wish he wasn't.
Vinnie had started the car and was backing onto the gravel road when Sonny laid a hand on his wrist.
"Let's take the back way, Vinnie. Go around the hill, right there." He released his hold and pointed the way. Vinnie drove on as instructed, over a rough, grassy patch, until they hit a dirt road that wound down between the trees at the back of the cemetery.
"This way?" Vinnie asked uncertainly, not liking the look of this passage, especially in the dark. He wondered nervously if Sonny had bought Patrice's warning after all. This would be the perfect spot to whack somebody, he noted grimly.
"Yeah. This takes us past where me and Angela Cipirilli spent the fourth of July one year, and--"
"You're not serious," Vinnie interrupted, exasperated. He stopped the car and hit the steering wheel. "You're making me drive through this deathtrap just so you can reminisce about getting into some girl's pants? Jeez, Sonny."
Sonny looked affronted. "Hey, they're my memories, okay? So shut up and drive. Besides, Pat doesn't know about this road. He never came up here much."
Vinnie mulled over that bit of news until he spotted the light in the rearview mirror.
"I thought you said Patrice didn't know about this road," he said.
Sonny shifted to look out the back window. He watched for a few seconds, while Vinnie wondered whether to drive on and try to outrun them or stay here and shoot it out.
"Oh shit!" Sonny blurted out, hitting the seat back with his palm. "It's a cop!" He tapped Vinnie's shoulder. "Here, quick. Kiss me."
"Huh?" Vinnie's attention was on the car coming up on them, and he was sure Sonny hadn't said what it sounded like he said.
"Kiss me!" Sonny repeated frantically, finally grabbing Vinnie by the neck and pulling him into a kiss. Vinnie's brain was just beginning to take stock of this new, entirely unexpected development when he heard a tap on the window behind him. He started to pull away and face it, but Sonny's grip on him tightened. Sonny's lips were pressed to his and he realized with a lightning-hot jolt that he enjoyed the sensation.
"Move along," a muffled voice said into the car from behind the window. There were some flashes of lights, then Sonny let go of him. Vinnie pulled away rather more slowly than he should have and stared at Sonny. Sonny straightened his jacket, ran a hand through his hair, then his eyes met Vinnie's.
"What? What?" he said defensively. "You want them to find Sonny Steelgrave and Vinnie Terranova sitting up here in a cemetery, armed to the teeth? You wanna get your ass hauled to jail again?"
It was ridiculous. Sonny had actually kissed him to avoid facing a couple of cops. Quick thinking, Vinnie had to admit. He shook his head, smiling, and started to drive on.
Ten seconds later, he could no longer contain himself. He burst into laughter.
"Hey," Sonny cut in. "I just saved us from a night in the cages and some fancy lawyer's fee. Stop laughing."
Vinnie caught his eye, trying in vain to suppress his giggles, and Sonny started in, too. By the time they reached the bottom of the hill and the main road, they'd gotten themselves under control.
"Ah, man," Sonny said, leaning back into the seat, catching his breath. "That was a close one."
Vinnie had another giggling fit. "Hey, I just thought of something. What if that cop hadn't moved on? Can't you just see the headlines? 'Steelgrave and Terranova caught in lovers lane.'" That earned him another roar of laughter, with Sonny wiping his eyes.
"Stop it," he said between gasps. "You've got my side hurting here. It's not even all that funny."
The giggle escaped Vinnie's throat before he even had a chance to stop it. "Sorry, Sonny." To keep from laughing, he concentrated on the road, and driving, and after a while the butterflies in his stomach had vanished, and his pulse had slowed to normal.
Sonny was right. It wasn't all that funny. He'd been laughing away his nervousness. That kiss had opened up his imagination, and he wasn't sure if he was ready to face whatever his imagination presented to him.
They were just reaching the George Washington Bridge when Sonny said, "You know, you're a good kisser. Not as good as Rachel Rosenstein, but not bad."
Vinnie's eyes shot over to the passenger seat. There was an unholy gleam in Sonny's eyes, and he smiled broadly. Vinnie lost it again, and had to slow the car before he laughed them both into the Hudson River. He was glad Sonny was making jokes about it. Maybe that could stop him from thinking about the kiss too seriously.
By the time they reached Atlantic City, Vinnie was exhausted -- by the evening, by driving, by everything. His eyelids began to droop, but Sonny's voice startled him awake.
"You know, I had fun tonight," he said. "Despite Pat-the- Cat's little intrusion into our evening, it was nice. Your mamma, mm, what a cook."
Vinnie pulled the car into the Royal Diamond garage and parked it.
"Hey, Vinnie," Sonny said, suddenly grabbing Vinnie's hand from the steering wheel. "If I marry you, will I get a homecooked meal like that every night?"
No laughter left, Vinnie merely shook his head. Sonny laughed happily, then stepped out of the car and headed for the hotel door. Vinnie sat there, smiling as he watched Sonny's familiar bustling, hurried walk until he disappeared behind the door, then took stock of the evening. A delicious meal at home -- and yet again his mother surprised him with her ability to hold her own against Steelgrave. A surrealistic venture into one of Patrice's lairs -- and he had to find out just what Sid Royce was playing at. Did he really suspect Vinnie or was he merely casting around for a scapegoat to cover his own tracks? And, finally, that mad, ridiculous kiss in the cemetery where Sonny seemed to have seduced half the female population of the Bronx in his youth -- and feeling sadness, wonderment, guilt, and bewildering happiness, Vinnie admitted to himself that he wanted to taste that kiss again. In fact he almost ached to feel Sonny's arms clutching him again.
He relived that moment in his mind, a bittersweet memory, incredibly funny and horribly serious at the same time. This was an unforeseen development, a complication he definitely did not need, and he had no idea how to stop the inevitable -- how to stop himself from falling in love with Sonny Steelgrave.
"Oh God," he sighed.