Read an excerpt of A Scourge of Vipers, the newest Liam Mulligan novel from Bruce DeSilva, publishing April 7.
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 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 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, horse shoes, 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
“How he’s gonna take it?”
“He’s gonna be wicked pissed.”
“He’s still got that no-show Sanitation Department job, right?”
“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.”
“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.
“Can you give me some time to mull it over?”
“Sure thing, Mulligan. Just don’t take too goddamn long, okay? I’m havin’ a helluva time holding Maggie off. She’s fuckin’ relentless.”
I never learned how Mario found out about Whoosh’s offer, but two days later the threatening phone calls started. The first one went something like this:
“The one and only. And you are?”
“I’m the guy who’s gonna be your worst nightmare if you don’t stop messin’ with what’s mine.”
“You mean the redhead I picked up at Hopes Friday night?”
“Cuz you’re welcome to her,” I said. “She’s a poor conversationalist, and the sex was below average. I got no plans to see her again.”
“Stop kidding around, asshole. You know what I’m talkin’ about.”
“Let me think. Did my story about no-show sanitation jobs cause you some inconvenience?”
“I’m talkin’ about my Uncle Whoosh’s racket, you dumb fuck. You better hear what I’m saying, cuz this ain’t no joke. Back off, or I’m gonna tear you a new one.”
He called me daily after that, usually right around midnight. I should have stopped provoking him, but I didn’t. Sometimes I just can’t help myself. So after work last Friday, I found my Ford Bronco vandalized in the parking lot across from The Dispatch, although with all the old dents and rust, the new damage matched the décor. And to night, before I came home and found the snake, Mario caught me staggering out of Hopes after last call and pointed a small nickel-plated revolver at me.
“Ain’t laughing now,” he said, “are you, shithead?”
“You haven’t said anything funny yet.”
“My uncle’s racket is supposed to go to me. I’m his blood. This is my future you’re fuckin’ with. I don’t know what you got on Uncle Whoosh, but I’m warning you. Get lost. If you don’t, I’m gonna bust one right through your heart, you fuckin’ snake.”
He was pointing the gun at my belly when he said it. I wasn’t sure if he was confused about human anatomy or just a lousy shot.
Confident that he’d made his point, Mario brushed past me and pimp-walked away down the sidewalk. As I turned to watch him go, he shoved the pistol into his waistband and pulled his shirttail over it. I decided not to take any more chances. The next time we met, Mario wouldn’t be the only one packing heat.
My late grandfather’s Colt, the sidearm he’d carried for decades as a member of the Providence PD, used to hang in a shadowbox on my apartment wall. I’d taken it down and learned how to shoot a few years ago after my investigation into a string of arsons in the city’s Mount Hope section provoked death threats. But Grandpa’s gun had a hell of a kick and was too large for easy concealment. So the day after that encounter with Mario, I splurged three hundred bucks on a Kel-Tec PF-9 at the D&L gun shop in Warwick. The chopped-down pocket pistol was five and a half inches long, had an unloaded weight of just twelve and a half ounces, and tucked comfortably into the waistband at the small of my back.
Beyond ten yards, I couldn’t hit anything smaller than Narragansett Bay, but I didn’t figure on doing any sharpshooting.
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