Nobody was killed on his business trip, so it was already going better than most.
In truth, he detested these outings. They did give him a reasonable vacation and he was grateful for the opportunities they beset him with, but give him thirty gallons of alcohol to distribute to a dozen New York pansy bars and he’d be happy. These trips? Suddenly, without a gun to rely on and needing to stand up to men double his age with his five-foot-six-tall self, it was…demeaning, almost. It felt like a joke. He didn’t even have his friends to keep him company.
At least it was over. Now Campo had a new line of alcohol from Montreal to the cozy harbors of Brooklyn. $640 less than what the man had offered him. With Campo’s signatures and scripts to read, Vincenzo had become an alright business negotiator.
But he didn’t know why he’d asked him to do this. Campo could make grown men cower and strangers cry at the sight of him entering their establishment. Vincenzo was getting there, but he couldn’t do it without Dominic to back him up or Luis to drive him there. All he had was this driver that Campo had provided him with.
Mr. DuPont. Not even an Italian, with his blond-white hair and fair skin. Not that it mattered, but he knew Campo preferred his men Sicilian-raised and rarely worked with any other type.
He was a decent man, Mr. DuPont. He got Vincenzo to his appointments half an hour early without him saying anything. It was his preferred time to get anywhere, anywhere excluding interactions with his father. The amount of joy he got from arriving to that bastard’s office five minutes late was unreal.
“I do like to be punctual,” Mr. DuPont said as he drove. “My daughter, on the other hand, well, she’ll be late for her own funeral.”
“That so,” Vincenzo said, and admired the snowy scenery passing by. He had another ten miles of small talk to withstand before they reached the train station. So far, he’d learned about his life in France, his late wife whom he adored, and his daughter Émeline, who he talked about like how a devotee talked about his beloved God.
“She lives there as a public relation worker? She’s like a guide for tourists, and a very good one. I needed to leave due to work, but I send her money every month. Campo’s been a very kind man, you know this, and he offered her a job here, but she didn’t want to leave France.”
“Lovely, she is. Émeline DuPont.”
This old man was nearing his fifties, so Vincenzo didn’t want to draw any contention with him. Plus, he was a friend of Campo’s, but he could only handle so much. He pressed, “Sir, while this Émeline sounds like a wonderful girl, I do have a suitor already.”
“Oh!” he exclaimed. “Sir, I didn’t mean it in that regard! I’ve heard you have a lucky little, uh, individual in your mitts. Campo’s told me all about her.”
Vincenzo strained his smile. Back in the summer, he’d politely asked Campo to refrain from speaking about Sylvia to strangers. Not that he was ashamed of her, but after that attack last week, he needed to be careful with who knew what about his personal life. He prayed this man didn’t know anything about his past.
“I just love her,” Mr. DuPont added. “Ever since her poor mother passed away, she’s been such a sullen girl. How I want her to come over and find a man.”
Vincenzo had noticed his wedding ring. He selfishly noticed most people’s rings, but instead of keeping it on his finger, he wore it on a silver necklace close to his heart.
“You seem to have a loving family,” Vincenzo said.
“Thank you. Whenever I see young men out without a little thing at his side, I worry about how unhappy he must feel.”
“What a dismal feeling that must be.”
Vincenzo sighed. He knew he should’ve ignored this veering conversation, but whatever this man wanted from him, he got hooked. “What I would give to have what other men can.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Marriage,” he said. “To marry someone. I’d like to have that one day with her.”
“Ah.” Mr. DuPont fixed his white driving gloves. “Perhaps I’ve said too much.”
“You haven’t,” he lied. “If I had my way, I would’ve married her this year. There’s nothing stopping me from personally asking for her hand in marriage. This world, or the men who run it, have other plans for my happiness.”
“My apologies, sir. Forget I said anything. I was just making conversation.”
“You’re fine.” He itched his hand. “Not to be so rude, Mr. DuPont, but if I had the feeling that Campo set you up for this…”
“Campo? Oh, no, sir! It’s nothing like that. He’s just worried about you, like a father is with his son.”
His smile came back. “That’s what I thought.”
He laughed abruptly. “It seems you caught me. Before you came here, Mr. d’Antonio might’ve called me to bring this up with you. He’s curious, how can you blame him! He wants to see you happy with this Sylvia person.”
“You can tell Campo that I appreciate his concern, but until the world is changed, my spouse and I will be content as we are.”
“Is she?” he asked. “You work in a business that can shape laws into your favor. Can’t you rewrite some documents here and there to finalize the marriage process?”
“I—” The thought came, then went. “Perhaps,” he then said. “I’ll think about it.”
“I hope it happens. How I love weddings.”
As he half-listened to Mr. DuPont talk about his daughter, Vincenzo reconstructed a world where his unattainable was now possible. Campo had altered his birth certificate, why couldn’t he doctor one for Sylvia? If he did that, if they got married remotely on some island without his father present…
It could work. He could have his fantasy made real, just by a trip to a courtroom.
As they neared the station, he admired his ringless hand. Could he ask Sylvia for her hand in marriage? Did she want it? He’d changed so much of his life for her, but he never dwelled on the question for too long. It depressed him.
He hid his hand in his jacket. No use fretting over that now. He had too much work to do. He had to clean up the house, make it suitable for a bride, a wife. And he needed to become a better man to be her husband. He was doing well, but there was always room to improve. That’d take months to accomplish, maybe years.
And if he came up with any other reasons to prolong the proposal, he’d add them to the list.
He returned to Brooklyn later that afternoon. Gone was the October warmth. Within days, autumn had settled within the bare trees of his cul-de-sac. The grass had died brown and the Sun was blocked by a thick blanket of clouds that dropped the temperature enough to redden his fingertips. It wasn’t as bad as Canada, but he couldn’t wait for winter. He’d met her in the springtime. Spending winter with her? His birthday? Christmas? He couldn’t wait.
He drove himself home. After calling Dominic three times, he couldn’t get a hold of him, and despite being more powerful than Luis, he knew that that Saturday was Ana’s birthday. His business trip gave him a convenient excuse to miss it, but he didn’t want to pull him away from that. And he couldn’t dare ask Campo or his Nonna to pick him up, and Sylvia didn’t have a car.
So when he saw a stranger’s car parked in his front lawn, it gave him pause. A black Bentley with cracks in the window and wheels too dirty to be owned by any of his men.
He almost went for his gun, then saw Mezzanotte in the window. When faced with strangers, she either booked it underneath his bed or in-between his pillows for maximum protection. She’d been getting over Sylvia as a long-term tenant, so her in the window made him think that everything was fine.
Then he saw Luis sulking on the front steps.
He exited the car with his luggage. Luis didn’t get up to help. With his thousand-yard stare, he didn’t know if he registered him. “Luis.”
“Sir!” He slicked back his hair to be more presentable. “Thank God. I thought you were coming in later tonight.”
“I just got home. Why—?”
“Okay. First, uh, before you come in—”
He tried to walk through him.
He stopped him. “B-before you come in, know that I did everything to calm things down. That’s what I do, I’m a calm fella, and that’s what I tried doing.”
He shoved him a bit too hard and opened the door.
His Nonna had a hearty meal cooking in the kitchen, rooting him back home. The table had been set for eight, but the amount she had cooking could’ve been just for him and her.
Something thudded upstairs. Mezzanotte ears perked from behind the curtains.
“Welcome back home, my little baby,” his Nonna said. “Did you have fun? Did you eat? I’m making pasta and steak, and I have a pizza cooking in the oven. I thought everyone could have a little of something, but I don’t know what your friends eat. Can you translate?”
“What friends?” he asked more to Luis than to his grandmother. By the door, he saw two pairs of shoes that belonged neither to him nor to Sylvia.
“Move it, we got a cold one here.”
Hurried, slippered footsteps rushed down the stairs, and around the corner, wearing a hideous robe, came Mitsuko. She was carrying a foot-long bag into the kitchen and walked gracefully around Vincenzo like he wasn’t the owner of this house and she wasn’t a trespasser. “Why are we lollygagging, gentleman? We have work that needs to be done. Luis, what’s the damage?”
“No damage report,” he said. “He’s still not answering the door, and I won’t take your advice and break a window, ma’am. I got a level of trust with him I need to protect.”
“Coward. And don’t call me ‘ma’am’. Only certain girls can call me that.” She dropped the bag into one of the boiling pots Nonna was tending to. His Nonna didn’t seem that fazed by the behavior, or that a stranger, at least to her, was parading around her home quite rudely.
“Why’re you here?” Vincenzo demanded. “I didn’t invite you in.”
“Is this really your home? I love your interior decorating skills. Very bāchan of you.” She bowed to Nonna, who smiled and bowed back, then took out her hot bag with oven mitts. “Bag of rice,” she said when she caught Vincenzo staring. “It works well to calm a girl down.”
“I wish I could bring one over to Dominic,” Luis said. “I knocked and knocked and knocked, and he’s still not answering. It’s been two days. And I know he’s not dead because his fireplace was going last night and I heard his gramophone change artists.”
“What’s wrong with Dominic—” Vincenzo stopped. “No, what’s going on here? Why’re you here? Who invited you?”
“We invited ourselves over after Laurence received a somewhat disturbing phone call from Sylvia yesterday at 12:30 in the morning.” She started walking up the stairs. Vincenzo followed. “She was whimpering, saying she was a terrible human being who had no right enjoying any of the gifts she’s been provided with. It’s a slip in her personality. You haven’t seen much of this side of her, but when it gets to ‘calling-her-friends-at-midnight-crying’ bad, that’s when we’re called in.”
“Why is she upset?”
“A whole story that I’m not allowed to talk about. Just know that some words may or may not have been exchanged at the Kitten between Sylvia and Dominic that may or may not have sent Sylvia into thinking she’s a monster and Dominic into his house out of fear.” She opened his bedroom door. “Happy Halloween. Welcome to the nightmare.”
With her acting in such a frazzled way, he honestly expected blood, or a standoff between foes. Being that it was in his room, he was ready to yell at whoever else had entered his personal space.
Sylvia was in bed, propped up by six pillows with tea in her hands and a wrap over her forehead. Two empty beer bottles and a carton of half-finished ice cream circled her, along with Laurence, out of his womanly garments, curled up next to her. He touched her forehead like a doting mother.
Her red eyes, rubbed of makeup and tears, looked at him pathetically. Then she burst into tears and hid her head in Laurence’s shoulder.
“What’s wrong with her?” Vincenzo asked.
Mitsuko lay down the warm bag of rice across Sylvia’s buried feet. “It got bad.”
“Wonderfully bad,” added Luis. “She’s been like this all weekend.”
“And why didn’t anyone tell me?” Figuring he wasn’t going to get a decent answer from any of them, he sat beside Sylvia and touched her head. He knew her Moon waxed and waned, hiding the light that shone through her, but he didn’t understand why they were tiptoeing around the problem. “Sylvia.”
“I’m a terrible human being,” she cried. “I wanna end my life.”
“Stop saying that,” Laurence said. “You’re a beautiful, young woman, so stop putting yourself down because of this dramatic nonsense. Why don’t we go out for that walk, or listen to a nice tune?”
“No…” She covered her face and, like a turtle, wiggled into her blankets and hid herself from the world.
Laurence patted the sniffling lump. “This’s getting out of hand.”
“One of you better tell me what happened before I kick all of you out,” Vincenzo said, almost playfully but not really because what was happening? It couldn’t have been too dire; he didn’t read that kind of atmosphere here, but this was his room. His home. Where was his agency with these people, and why couldn’t he yell at them?
He touched the blankets. “Sylvia, please tell me what’s going on.”
“I can’t,” she said, muffled. “I found something out about Dominic that he didn’t want me to know. Now he’s upset with me and I’m a bad person.”
“And what was it that you found out?”
She didn’t answer. When he looked at Laurence and Mitsuko, he got nothing, and Luis wasn’t looking at him, just looking out the window towards Dominic’s dark home.
Vincenzo ran through every month of every year he’d known Dominic for. He lost all communication with his family in Connecticut. He liked painting. He did what he was told. He owned two cars.
He was going to lose his mind. What was it? It couldn’t have been a part of their gangster business because it was affecting Sylvia and her friends.
Had he said something about their lifestyle? He was normal, obviously, and he never protested their trips to pansy bars. Was this something deeper? Had a truth he’d meant to conceal slipped out?
Did he actually hate what the Black Kitten stood for?
He better not of. If that was true, he’d kill him.
“Alright, then.” He leaned down and kissed what he believed to be Sylvia’s head. “I’m going to buy you more ice cream. What else do you need?”
“Then cookies. Can you two take care of her for the time being?”
“We’ve been doing it for ten years, I’m sure we can do our best,” Mitsuko said.
“We’ll be fine,” Laurence said more kindly.
“Okay. Before I leave, I’m going to help my Nonna cook. She likes eating at six, so I think she could use some help.”
“It smelled good,” Laurence said.
“Is all she cook Italian?” Mitsuko asked.
“What else would she cook?” he questioned. “How hungry is everyone?”
“Are we invited?”
“Of course, why wouldn’t you be?”
While Sylvia didn’t move, Laurence, Mitsuko, and Luis looked at one another.
“Are you asking us to dinner?” Mitsuko then asked.
“…Yeah,” he said slowly, and only then did he realize how foreign the offer sounded in his mouth. Just a few months ago, he would’ve never let any of them in his home. Now, even though they’d technically broken in like vagrants, he would’ve never let them leave without at least offering them dinner first. “You’re guests, so there’s no way she nor I would have you over without feeding you.”
“That’s very strange to hear,” Mitsuko said. “I’ll take milk. Whole milk, if you have any.”
“I’ll take that pasta I saw her cooking,” Laurence said.
“And Luis?” Vincenzo asked, but he’d gone back to the windows. His foot was tapping, a tic that came out whenever he was losing control of a situation.