Ice clinked as Theodore Wosniak poured a generous measure of scotch over it. All the while, he watched the men filing in, not the glass.
He preferred to take guests of this nature in his library. There, he was surrounded by the trappings of wealth, taste and power.
Partially silhouetted by the stoked fire in the hearth behind him, he sank back casually into his low backed, leather armchair, scotch in one hand, cigar in the other, and put one foot on his leather ottoman as he watched his guests being shown in by two of his most intimidating looking men.
The three of them filed n silently without a glance at Wosniak’s thugs, or to the antique furniture and tall book shelves. The two behind kept their eyes down, not knowing what to expect, but seeming certain that it wouldn’t be good. And the one in front…
Vincent Liedecker never took his eyes off Wosniak, and those eyes betrayed nothing but cold calculation. The pride and arrogance were gone. The life of privilege had been beaten out of him on more than one level. This wasn’t the same man who appeared in the back of Wosniak’s car so many months ago, nor was he even the man he’d visited in his own home mere days before.
That brought a mocking smile to the older man’s face.
“And here he is, once again in my home.” He raised his glass to Vince. “Invited this time. And not alone.”
One of Liedecker’s companions broke his staring contest with the floor. He visible steeled himself and then spoke with stony certainty. “We insisted.”
Wosniak barked a laugh. “And one of them’s a familiar face. Burke, wasn’t it? Something tells me whatever work you’re doing, it doesn’t pay as good as I did. You might want to thank your friend her for ‘saving’ you.”
The other man, one Wosniak had never seen before, spoke up now. “It’s not your back he’s watching her, is it?”
“Easy, Callahan.” Vince warned.
“Yes. Easy.” said Wosniak, relishing the new balance of power, “Vincent, what is this? You call me with a problem. And you bring these bastards here that give me no respect?”
Callahan, as he was apparently called, drew himself up. “After what happened with Burke? You better believe we weren’t about to let Vince come in here alone.”
Vince looked back at him and gestured subtly that he could take it from there. Callahan clammed down, but didn’t look happy doing it.
“My friends are loyal.” said Vince. “Probably more than I got any right to expect, and a damn sight more than a man deserves. And they ain’t wrong, Wosniak: you’ve got a history of making some mighty lopsided deals with us.”
Wosniak snorted and took another sip of scotch. “And you’re about to make another one. That’s why I’m sitting here and you’re standing there, Vincent. Never make a deal you don’t got the better end of. I know it, your father knew it. It’s the secret that made us great men and it’s not having it that makes you the man standing in both our shadows.”
“Don’t you compare what you do to what my daddy did.” Vince snapped.
“And don’t you ever tell me what to do.” Wosniak shot back. He dropped his foot from the ottoman and leaned forward with a dangerous expression. “Ever again. You’re the one that needs me and mine now, Vincent. It would do your lifespan wonders to remember that.”
He took a drag on his cigar and sat back again. “Now. I understand from our conversation on the phone that you’ve now come to realize the realities of your situation. That you can’t take your fight to these other gangs and still remain as ‘above it all’ as you liked to believe. How is your woman, by the way?”
Vince bit the inside of his cheek to keep his tongue civil. “She wasn’t hurt. But she had to watch me shoot that woman. No tellin’ what’s goin’ through her mind about now. Lord knows I’ve tried.”
“She’ll be alright, Vince.” said Callahan. “Just give her time. Not like you killed the nut in front of her.”
Wosniak chuckled again and rattled the ice in his glass. “Right. That was a hell of a shot, Vince. Right in the spine. My people at the hospital say the docs think it’ll be years before she even thinks of walking again. ‘Course, one word from me and we find a more permanent solution.”
“That won’t be necessary.” said Liedecker flatly. “The woman’s in intensive care, probably won’t walk again without tech she can’t afford—what would be the point?”
“The point is sending a message to whatever’s left of the Wild Men. Letting them know that you’re off the table as far as fair game’s concerned.”
“And the chunk of lead in her spinal column’s too subtle?” Vincent asked.
“Entirely.” said Wosniak without an ounce of humor. The Wild Men were crazy before, but not they’re hurt bad and they don’t have leaders to keep them from doing something stupid. You’ve already seen how this is gonna go down, Vinnie, the only choice you’ve got is how you answer it.”
Vince ground his teeth. “My name ain’t Vinnie. Not to you.”
“I’ll call you what I want, Vinnie” retorted Wosniak. “Because this isn’t me hoping you can get me weapons, or letting you get rid of some rivals for me. No, this is you asking for my protection. And even your daddy’s favorite son’s got to know that protection from me and mine—that’s expensive.”
Vince huffed, “I got more goddamn money than God, just name—“
“That’s not the expense I’m talking about.” Wosniak cut him off. He slowly got to his feet and took a long drag on his cigar. Eyes locked on the three men, he started to pace slowly around them, making them turn in place to keep eyes on him.
“Way back when you bartered with me for my driver,” He gave Burke a pointed look, “I told you we could use your talents. You’ve got a devious mind, Vincent, a very devious mind. How many people could have pulled off stealing an entire shipment of guns on a crowded highway? Or blown up their own building to hamstring an entire gang? None of my guys think like that.
“Let’s face it; they’re old. I’m old. We remember when things was easy and the ‘bangers on the street didn’t turn coat the second someone made them a more shiny offer. We remember when this business had a certain kind of honor and respect: we had out territory, they had theirs and everyone got fat and rich.
“But the times, they’ve changed. Goddamn Wild Men did as they pleased and never came to the table to negotiate. The Mara wants to take the whole damn city and are ready for all out war to do it. Bribing cops don’t work no more because none of those two respect the practice and would sooner kill a pig than grease ’em.”
He now stood between and the door now. “I realize now that there’s not rules anymore. And we can’t get by actin’ like there are. And you, boy, have proved that you don’t give a good god damn about the rules. You see, where this is going?”
Vincent made his face into a dispassionate mask. “To get the protection, make sure nothin’ happens to me and Belle, I’ve gotta work for you.”
Wosniak nodded, smug with satisfaction. “On my terms. I don’t want the Maras dead, I want them on their knees beggin’ to polish my balls, you know what I’m sayin’”
For a long moment, the two stared one another down while Burke and Callahan looked on. Vincent knew exactly what Wosniak was saying: his job would be to keep the mob war he’d been trying to bring to a close going in the futile hopes that the proud and entrenched Maras would eventually just give up. It was a task worthy of Sisyphus and while Wosniak had complete faith that it would work, he knew for a fact that Vincent didn’t.
Gesturing grandly with his glass, Wosniak broke eye contact first. “Seeing as you brought your boys all this way, maybe you’d like to confer. I’ll leave you to it.” He turned his back on them and nodded for his toughs to come with him.
They walked out and Wosniak paused, about to close the big, polished oak doors behind him. “Help yourself to the scotch and my cigars.”
When the doors closed, a dark, heavy silence settled upon the three. Callahan and Burke looked to Vincent for a reaction, but got none. Their friend remained rooted to the floor, eyes never leaving the closed doors.
“Vince…” Callahan started.
As if getting a jump start from the words, Vincent lurched into motion, turning and ambling over to Wosniak’s vacated chair and dropping gracelessly into it. “Settle in, boys.” He said, running his fingers through his hair.
“You’re not gonna do it, are you?” asked Burke, “Thinks aren’t as bad as he says. You can hire your own security. We can keep an eyes our ourselves. He says you need him, but you don’t. You just don’t.”
Vincent looked up at his friend. Was three years really long enough to engender that kind of loyalty? His father seemed to forge lifelong loyalties out of thin air over a phone call, but he always felt that he lacked that magic. Everything special there was about his father had really gone to Dee, leaving him to make what he could out of himself with scraps.
He sighed. “You just heard the words, Burke. Not what was goin’ on behind them. This war’s going on whether I’m part of it or not, but if I don’t choose his side, Wosniak’ll make sure I don’t live through it to keep me from turnin’ to the other side.
“Wouldn’t surprise me if he told that woman how to get at me in the first place. He ain’t smarter’n me, but he don’t need to be if he’s mean enough. Like he said, he’s learnin’ how to play the game from the outside, and he doesn’t want my ‘devious mind’ helpin’ the Maras. He brought up Belle just to make sure I knew where the next shoe’d drop if I don’t take him up on his offer.”
Callahan paced the floor, looking at the library around him. “You could just skip the country.”
Burke sank heavily onto a leather couch, hands on his knees as he was on edge being back in that room. “If what Vince is saying is right, they wouldn’t make it to the airport.”
“Well we’ve got to try something. Just giving in’s not an option. Right, Vince?” Both men looked to their friend and found him contemplating the decanter of scotch Wosniak left behind. “I said right, Vince?”
“I take it that you two wouldn’t listen if I told ya to back away now and not look back.” Vincent said absently as he stared into the crystal as if some divine answer was forming therein.
Callahan straightened where he stood. “Not a chance.”
“After what you did for me?” added Burke.
Slowly and reverently, Vincent set down the decanter, then opened Wosniak’s humidor, removing three cigars. “Then we…” With great care, he took up the cigar cutter stored in the top of the box and snipped off the end of each before passing the others, “…are in this together.”
Once each of them had a cigar and had nodded in the affirmative, he pulled out his lighter and lit Burke and Callahan’s stogies before his own.
He took a puff and sat back in the chair. “Then we lose this one together, boys.”
It was past midnight by the time arrangements had been made and Vincent had sworn his allegiance to Wosniak’s mob war. He would make the plans, Wosniak would approve them, and then Vincent, Callahan and Burke would enact them, just as they had with the Wild Men.
When they finally left, Callahan and Burke led the way, eager to escape the scene of their Faustian bargain.
“I don’t know, maybe it was stupid of me thinking I could stay out from under the mob’s thumb.” Burke rumbled quietly to Callahan, hands stuffed firmly in his pockets.
Callahan had his arms crossed and his head tipped back to look at the night sky. “I can’t believe Vince caved like that. Sure it was a tight spot, but he’s always the guy with the plan. He didn’t even try and fight even knowing what he was getting you into.”
“Gentlemen.” Vincent stepped up between them. From his pocket, he produced a battered pack of cigarettes and offered them to his friends. When they didn’t take any, he put one into his own mouth and lit it. “I know it seems like we just lost big, but this was just a itty lil’ skirmish in a great big war.”
“What’re you talking about, Vince?” Callahan said, none of the faith he’d had earlier remaining in his voice. “We work for Wosniak now. We work for him turning the city into a shithole just like you were trying to stop. This mob war’s going to go on forever and people are going to die.”
Vincent blew out a long puff of smoke as he sauntered along between his friends down the street toward the garage where they left the car. “Like the man said: if you can fool your friends, you can fool your enemies. You think we’re working for Wosniak? No, that’s what he thinks. What we know is that we’re inside this war now, with one side thinkin’ we’re the Second Comin’ and willin’ to throw all sorts of resources our way.
“That asshole thinks he won, but we came out with every goddamn thing we need to take him and the Mara down, permanently.”
“Yeah?” Burke’s anger fueled stride broke.
Callahan’s expression brightened. “So you’ve got a plan then?”
“It’s a baby yet, but it’ll grow.” said Vincent. “Just give it time.”
End Liedecker: Life and Times Part 2 – The Apprentice
To Be Concluded in Liedecker Life and Times Part 3 –the Master