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Authors: Bruce DeSilva

A Scourge of Vipers

 

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For Blackie, the car-chasing, chicken-killing mutt my mom and dad gave me for my fourth birthday, and for all the pooches I've loved since then. But especially for Brady, my gentle Bernese mountain dog, and Rondo, his goofy mixed-breed best bud, whose joyous approach to life sustained me during the long slog of writing this novel. Nothing keeps your head straight like the companionship of a great dog.

 

AUTHOR'S NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Although a few of the characters are named after old friends, they bear no resemblance to them. For example, my old high school chum Bruce McCracken never worked as a private detective. A handful of real people, including New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, are mentioned in passing, but they have no speaking parts in the story. Although I borrowed the colorful nickname of a former Rhode Island attorney general, the fictional and real Attila the Nun are nothing alike, and the character's actions and dialogue are entirely imaginary. References to Rhode Island history and geography are as accurate as I can make them, but I have played around a bit with time and space. For example, Hopes, the newspaper bar where I drank decades ago when I reported the news for the
Providence Journal,
is long gone, but I enjoyed resurrecting it for this story.

 

1

A snake—that's what Mario Zerilli had called me. And now, just an hour later, something was slithering across my cracked kitchen linoleum. It was three feet long with lemon racing stripes twisting the length of its brown body. I watched it slide past the wheezing fridge and veer toward the kitchen table where my bare feet rested on the floor.

It raised its head and froze, its forked tongue flickering. It had caught my scent.

I pushed back from the table, got down on my knees, and studied it. A pretty thing. I flashed out my right hand and pinched it just behind its head. It writhed, its body a bullwhip. I was startled by its strength.

I carried the snake into the bedroom, opened my footlocker, and used my left hand to empty it, tossing a half-dozen New England Patriots and Boston Bruins sweatshirts and a spare blanket onto the bed. Beneath the blanket was a Colt .45 that once belonged to my grandfather. I tossed that on the bed, too. Then I dropped the snake inside, slammed the lid, and started thinking about names.

Stop it, I told myself. The garter snake was probably an escaped pet, the property of someone else in the tenement building. How else could it have found its way into my second-floor apartment? When I had the time, I'd ask around, but if no one claimed it, I'd be heading to the pet store for a suitable cage.

I could hear the snake blindly exploring inside the footlocker, its scales rasping as they slid against the wood. I couldn't help myself. I started thinking about names again. Mario leaped to mind. But no, I couldn't call it that. I
liked
garter snakes. If Mario had sneaked it in, it would have been a copperhead or a timber rattler.

The trouble with Mario started a week ago when his great-uncle, Dominic “Whoosh” Zerilli, and I got together over boilermakers at Hopes, the local press hangout, to talk about the future. I was a newspaper reporter, so I didn't have one. Whoosh was contemplating retirement.

“The wife's still nagging me about it,” he said. “Wants me to sell the house, turn my business over to Mario, and move to Florida.”

“So why don't you?”

“I'm thinkin' on it.”

“And?”

“And
what?

“And what are you thinking?”

“I'm thinkin' I'm sick to death of fuckin' snow. I'm thinkin' the warm weather might be good for my arthritis. I'm thinkin' that if I move down there, I won't have to listen to Maggie
talk
about moving down there every fuckin' night.”

“But?”

“But she's got her heart set on one of them retirement villages in Vero Beach or Boca Raton. Keeps shovin' brochures in my face. ‘Look at this, honey,' she tells me. ‘They got maid service, swimmin' pools, croquet, a golf course, horseshoes, craft rooms, shuffleboard. And have you ever
seen
so many flowers?'”

He made a face, the same one I once saw him make when he absentmindedly stuck the coal end of a Lucky Strike in his mouth.


Sounds
nice,” I said.

“Oh, yeah? Then
you
move down there with her.”

“What's wrong with it?”

“You shittin' me? Craft rooms? Croquet? And I
hate
fuckin' shuffleboard. No way I'm wastin' whatever years I got left listenin' to a bunch of wheezers with bum tickers and colostomy bags pass gas and brag about the grandkids that never visit while they wait for the reaper to show up. Jesus Christ, Mulligan. Have you ever seen them fuckin' places? They're full of
old
people.”

Whoosh was a few months short of eighty.

“Don't you dare laugh at me, asshole.”

“I'm not.”

“Yeah, but it's takin' some effort.”

He waved the waitress over and ordered us both another round of Bushmills shots with Killian's chasers.

“Maybe you could compromise,” I said. “Get yourself a beachfront cottage on Sanibel Island or a luxury condo in Fort Myers.”

“Where the Sox have spring training? I already thought of that. Trouble is, ain't no way I can hand the business over to Mario.”

“Why not?”

“Cuz he's a fuckin' moron.”

Mario, just twenty-six years old, had already done state time for drunken driving and for using his girlfriend as a tackling dummy. Now he was awaiting trial for kicking the crap out of a transvestite who made the near-fatal mistake of slipping out of the Stable, Providence's newest gay bar, to smoke a cigarette. But he was Whoosh's only living blood relative. The punk had inherited the title two years ago when his father was gunned down in a botched East Providence bank robbery. Mario's grandfather, Whoosh's only brother, fell to esophageal cancer back in 1997 while serving a ten-year stretch for fencing stolen goods.

Whoosh and Maggie did have an adopted daughter; but Lucia, a young mother who performed with a New York City dance troupe, was an unlikely candidate to take over his bookmaking business. My old friend and his wife never had any kids of their own.

“Wouldn't trust Mario with the business even if Arena gave a thumbs-up,” Whoosh was saying. “Which there's no fuckin' way he's ever gonna.”

“No?”

“He already said. The kid's unreliable. Draws too much attention to himself.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“Find somebody I can trust,” he said. “Ain't all that much to it, really. Take the bets, pay off the winners, collect from the losers. Keep half of the profits, and wire the rest once a month to an account I got down in the Caymans.”

“Got somebody in mind?”

“Yeah. You.”


Me?

“Why not? You been tellin' me how much you hate the corporate pricks who bought
The Dispatch.
You keep sayin' they're gonna fire your ass if you don't up and quit first. We been friends a long time, Mulligan. You've hung around me enough to understand how I do business. Anything you don't know, I can show you. How to write bets down in code. Which cops to pay off. How much tribute you gotta kick upstairs to Arena every month.”

“Huh.”

“So whaddaya say?”

I'd never had a moral objection to bookmaking, at least not the way Zerilli went about it. Unlike the officially sanctioned gangsters at the Rhode Island Lottery Commission, who peddled chump numbers games and scratch tickets to suckers, my bookie had always given me a fair chance to win. But I was reluctant to climb into bed with Giuseppe Arena. As head of the Patriarca crime family, his interests included truck hijacking, union corruption, prostitution, arson-for-hire, money laundering, and New England's biggest luxury-car-theft ring.

Still, I was growing anxious about how I'd manage to pay the rent and keep my ancient Ford Bronco fed with gas and junkyard parts once
The Dispatch
was done with me. My young pal Edward Anthony Mason III—trust fund baby, son of
The Providence Dispatch
's former publisher, and first journalist laid off when the paper's new owners took over last year—was dangling a reporting gig at his online local-news start-up,
The Ocean State Rag
. But the venture wasn't making any money yet, so the job didn't pay much. A standing offer to join my old buddy Bruce McCracken's private detective agency would pay better, but it wasn't journalism.

But bookmaking? Now
that
was real money. I could replace the torn sofa I'd found on the sidewalk, buy myself a new Mustang convertible, move into a luxury condo on the bay, start an IRA. Maybe even invest in some Red Sox T-shirts that weren't adorned with cigar burns and pizza grease.

“Have you broken the news to Mario yet?” I asked.

“Not yet.”

“How he's gonna take it?”

“He's gonna be wicked pissed.”

“He's still got that no-show Sanitation Department job, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Probably doesn't pay much,” I said.

“A couple grand a month. Chump change if you gotta work for it, which he don't, so what's to complain about?”

“He'll make trouble,” I said, “unless you can buy him off with something else.”

“Already on it. I been introducin' him to another line of work.”

“What?”

“Somethin' that don't require a remedial course in junior high math. So are you in or out?”

I took a pull from my beer, tipped my head back, and thought about it for a moment.

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