This literary thriller, set in the heart of Florida, shines a hot spotlight on the seamier side of the Sunshine State. La Cosa Nostra is still going strong in Tampa, Florida: especially in Ybor City, where discretion has long been the watchword. Joe Boy Provencenti is about to change all of that in this nail-gnawing Florida Thriller.

Chapter 3

 Wise Guys

© Michael C. Rudasill 2003

"What do you have planned for the kid?" Franco asked uncertainly. He stood on the cracked asphalt road beside the muddy Land Rover, watching as a member of their crew drove the bloody Plymouth up the ramp into the spotless steel trailer.

Franco scowled sourly as he waited for a reply, fully expecting that the answer to his question would be as stupid as the idiot who provided it. A large, 50ish, florid man in a shapeless blue suit, Franco Marcetti looked out of place standing next to the smooth young captain of his crew.

A few yards away, the shattered muscle car idled jerkily up the ramp like a wounded warrior that had been whacked with a hammer, finally down for the count. The souped-up engine throbbed deeply as the car delivered its swan song: an automotive aria filled with basso profundo angst, a mere echo of the machismo of bygone days.

As the mule drove the car up the ramp, he blinked myopically, struggling to see through the jagged hole in the spider-webbed windshield. There was scarcely room to squeeze the car into the steel trailer behind the wall-to-wall bales of reefer and coke, but somehow, the driver would make it fit.

Even from a distance, Franco and Joe Boy could smell the cocaine.

The fresh white blow refused to be stifled. It tweaked their noses playfully, tantalizing them with the distinctive, tangy aroma: the calling card of pure, unadulterated Colombian flake. The bitter payload, as deadly as sin, was to them the smell of money just waiting to be made.

"Pig's got big plans for that kid," Joe Boy said. "The boy is in good hands, Frankie. Pig's gonna take him up in his plane, and they're gonna have a little talk." Joe Boy wiped his nose with the back of his wrist and sniffed loudly. "The kid's still conscious, you know," he continued animatedly, "half of his forehead is missing, but he can still talk. That's good for us, bad for him." He took a lengthy pull on his cigarette and flicked the glowing butt into the dry bushes. "Pig'll make him sing like a bird. He'll play that punk like a Stradivarius."

"Too bad he won't be able to tell us where your Lamborghini is," Franco said innocently, sneaking in a jab.

"Don't remind me." Joe Boy turned away sharply, fighting the fury that surged within him. Above all that had happened tonight, he was most grieved by the loss of his tan Lamborghini.

They climbed into the Land Rover, and Franco slipped it into gear. Behind them the big rig throttled up, its huge diesel engine revving noisily. The plane roared as if in response and began a slow taxi to the north, up the long, empty strip of wild, weed-damaged asphalt.

Franco glanced over as the younger man lit a fresh smoke. In the flickering light of Joe Boy's Zippo, his smooth-chiseled, cherubic face was the very image of pride. His curly, jet black hair was slicked straight back, his mouth cocked in a permanent sneer: delicate lips, long, thin nose, olive complexion. A face the ladies could die for . . . when they least expect it, Franco thought. He looked away quickly.

"What you lookin' at, Frankie?"

"Just looking around, boss."

"Don't worry about me, Frankie. I'm doin' all right, Lamborghini or no Lamborghini." Joe Boy blew a heavy plume of smoke toward Franco's swarthy, pockmarked face and laughed with a brittle monotone croak, showing his tongue like a wolf.

"I'm not sweatin' it. Pig'll make that boy spill his guts. They'll dump him in the middle of the Gulf, and nobody'll be the wiser. No one will find him but the sharks. Or maybe Charley the Tuna." He laughed loudly, admiring his brilliant joke.

"You can count on one thing," Joey continued. "Before he croaks, he'll give Pig the name of the girl who stole my car. And I'm going to hunt that girl down like a dog, Frankie: like an itty-bitty hillbilly hound dog." He smiled cruelly, running his tongue across his lips.

"She'll be fun while she lasts. The nerve of that kid, stealin' my sled. That was my ride, Frankie, my ride! She's got fire, huh? What do you think?"

"She's got fire, alright," he agreed tiredly.

"Yeah, man, she's got it good. Did you see how quick she was? She ran away like some kind'a redneck energizer bunny, bouncin' through the weeds. She's a real babe, huh? What do you think?" He slapped his companion on the shoulder.

"She's a real babe-aroo," Franco answered wearily, "no doubt about it." Poor girl, he thought, what did she do to deserve this?

"Wrong place, wrong time, that's all it was," Joey replied, as if he were reading Franco's mind. "It's too bad we have to do it, right? Ain't that what you're thinkin'? You're gettin' sentimental in your old age, Frankie." He was taunting his lieutenant now, drawing him out.

"Yeah. I'm crying," Franco said, smiling tightly and raising his eyebrows, "boo hoo." Joe Boy responded with another dry laugh and pulled hard at his cigarette, illuminating the interior of the Land Rover with the dull red glow.

"Go ahead and cry," Joey said to Franco, smiling brightly. "That's an order. One of us ought to. My Lamborghini's been ripped off!" As much as he missed his car, the thought of the girl's impending demise greatly cheered him.

Frankie pulled up to the entrance of the deserted subdivision, then turned left onto the darkened four-lane truck route, heading towards Tampa. I'm sentimental, all right, Franco thought, too much for my own good. But it never stopped me from doing what I'm told, no matter how down and dirty it gets.

Looking over at his captain, who was gazing out at the darkened Florida countryside, Franco reflected bitterly on his fate. I obey orders, like a good soldier, he reasoned, and so I'm stuck babysitting the Don's son, a baby-killing punk who was a wannabe wise guy when I was already a made man. Joey knows how to kill, but not how to live. He tries to be tough, but he's just plain mean. He's just a Tampa hick tryin' to sound like the wise guys from New York City. If he wasn't the Don's son, the real tough guys wouldn't give him the time of day.

"What are you thinkin', Franco?"

"I'm thinking that you've been hanging out with Nick and Jim too much. You're starting to sound like 'em. You're from Tampa, and Tampa ain't Brooklyn, no matter how you cut it."

"Better to sound like them than to sound like some two-bit Tampa hick, paisan."

Franco scowled and focused on the road ahead. Joe Boy talks like a hood in a cheap novel, Franco mused. Nick and Jim talk that way, but at least they came by it honest. Nick and Jim were old-time wise guys from Brooklyn who had been exiled to Tampa for transgressions in their youths. They had become button men in Franco and Joey's family, the Provencentis, and Big Jim had recently become a made man.

The two New Yorkers had found a willing protégé in young Joey Provencenti. They had schooled him in the ways of the knife and gun. And Joey, an ambitious punk on the make, had diligently copied their New York wise guy accents.

As they sped down the deserted highway, a blue sign arose out the darkness and flashed past them. Except for the sign, the night was dark and empty.

"You know what I'm thinkin', Frankie?"

"No, what?"

"It bothers me that my car was ripped off. But there's something even worse than that."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm thinkin' that maybe the girl got a look at me. You know what I mean." He sat up, straightening his back. "Maybe she made me."

"Our flashlights were right in their eyes. They couldn't see a thing."

"Yeah, but you know that we didn't plan to leave any witnesses. I stepped up pretty close when I whacked that kid who was sitting beside her. She might'a seen me."

"Yeah, I guess she could have made you," Frankie replied slowly, glancing over at his boss. "You did step up pretty close to the car." Joe Boy had a point.

As they approached a small town, their Land Rover slowed, rolling up to a stoplight. Across the street in an empty gas station, a patrol car idled. It was the only vehicle in sight. The light changed and they pulled away before Joe Boy spoke again.

"That girl was sharp, Frankie. To get away from us like she did, to outrun us and steal my car . . . that took guts. Who knows, maybe she got a look at both of us."

"Okay, you sold me. You're right; she was sharp. She might have made us. Plus, she stole your car. Didn't you say that you left your wallet in the car?"

"Yeah. Don't remind me. I left 20 grand in the glove box, too."

"Well, if you left your wallet, she can ID you from your driver's license, so we can't afford to let it slide. We'll check with the Don to see if we can put out a contract, and that's that."

"That ain't enough. Not on this one. Tampa's just a hick town, and we can't count on these Tampa hicks to do the job right. I'm bringin' in the Mick." Joey said it emphatically, with his jaw set. Taken by surprise, Franco caught his breath.

"The Mick? That freak?"

"Yeah, that freak," Joe Boy responded defensively. "Sure! He's the best!"

"He's one of the best, maybe," Frankie said, shaking his head, "but he's as nutty as a fruitcake. He's a serial killer! What about the bodies they found before he left town?"

"What about 'em?"

"Do you remember the heat it caused? They brought in the FBI, FDLE, you name it."

"Hey, sure, I remember the bodies," Joe Boy said without concern, blowing out a thin stream of smoke. "That's why Mickey had to leave town. It was my idea for him to leave, remember?"

Like you had any choice, Franco thought, staring fixedly at the road ahead of them. Joey's father, the Don, had given the order for the hit man to leave Florida. Joey had merely been the errand boy.

Mickey O'Malley, known to his culturally insensitive criminal colleagues as "The Mick," was a homicidal sociopath of the worst kind: the intelligent, talented, and successful kind. He had once worked for the Provencentis, and there had been some trouble.

Some of O'Malley's female acquaintances had turned up in vacant lots. The matter had gained the attention of the entire nation, not to mention the local police and Federal investigators.

In spite of the fact that he was the best hit man in the Southeast, Mickey had been asked to retire. He left Tampa for the upper Midwest at the rich young age of 28, promising to stay away from major mob cities where the families might frown on murders involving the local talent.

"I'm bringin' in the Mick, and that's that," Joey repeated. "He'll get that little energizer hick, no matter what she tries to pull. And don't give me no grief about the bodies," Joey said through clenched teeth.

"I don't care if he leaves a body in every back yard in Ybor City. If he bags some freebies, we'll just call it 'latter day damage,' like the military calls it. You know what I'm talking about," Joey added uncertainly, seeing Franco smile. "You know what I mean."

That's collateral damage, you pinhead, mused Franco, enjoying the moment. What a complete idiot!

"I'm bringin' in the Mick, and I'm turnin' him loose," Joey added for good measure, nodding ominously. "The trouble is, Frankie, we didn't shoot the kid in Tampa. These are the boondocks. And they aren't our kind of boondocks, either. You know what I'm talkin' about.

"We don't have connections here. We don't own the cops, the judges. We got nobody. We never had a reason to have anybody way out here. And there's no way I'm going to face a jury of rednecks in Petticoat Junction over the murder of some stupid hick who poked his nose where it didn't belong."

"If you want to bring in the Mick, you've got to clear it with the Don," Franco said cautiously. "Don't go off half-cocked."

Joey answered Franco with a string of expletives, slamming his fist on the dashboard for emphasis.

"I'll be waking the Don up when I get home," he spat angrily. "Whad'ya think, I won't talk to him about this? If I let him sleep after something like this, he'll have my head for breakfast with his crab roll."

They both knew that Joey had been way out of line. He never should have left Tampa to come to a backwoods landing strip in Homeland Estates. But Joe Boy had invested millions of his own cash into the deal, and if he wanted to see the action firsthand, who could stop him but the Don himself? If the truth were known, Joey was a thrill junkie who loved to visit the scene of his crimes.

Joey sat back indignantly in the plush leather seat and lit another cigarette off the scorched remnants of the one he had just consumed. He puffed fiercely, beginning to relax, gesturing expansively with his hand.

"No scrawny redneck girl's takin' me out, Frankie," he said from the midst of a thick cloud of smoke. He used Franco's nickname with affection, for he was beginning to enjoy the idea of what lay ahead. The prospect of fresh blood never ceased to warm Joey's heart, and he lavished the overflow on his companion.

"Hey, Frankie."

"Yeah, what?"

"You ain't half ugly, for a stupid piece of garbage."

"Thanks, boss. I appreciate that." Frankie was still thinking about the boy they had shot, trying to get the picture out of his head.

The boy was up in the plane with Pig right now, undergoing unspeakable torture. Maybe he was still able to talk, even with half of his forehead missing. But more than the boy, Franco pitied the girl. Poor kid, he reflected. I wouldn't be in her shoes for all the crank in Kansas.

Franco knew what Joey Provencenti was capable of. And Franco was one of the few living souls who knew what Mickey O'Malley had to offer in the name of death and mayhem. That girl better run like nobody's ever run, he thought, or she'll be toast.

Franco looked down the empty road that stretched ahead of them: flat, empty, and uninviting. The soulless highway, a frozen, land-locked river of grit and asphalt trapped in the merciless glare of their headlights, flashed submissively beneath their tires. They were devouring the miles, hungrily hurtling toward the relative safety of Ybor City.

Poor kid, he reflected, thinking about the girl who got away. Before Joe and Mick are through with her, she'll be begging for someone to finish the job.

It was true.

He might as well admit it.

Sometimes, Franco didn't enjoy his work.

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