Las Vegas 1970
“Smothers, you listening?” Jimmy P snapped his fingers in front of Brock’s face.
“Yeah Jimmy, I’m listening.”
“Good, he’s gonna be here any minute, so go down to the loading dock and wait for him. When he gets here, bring him up to Don Carlito’s office.”
“How will I know it’s him?” Brock asked.
“Don’t worry, you’ll know it’s him when you see him,” Jimmy said. “Now get out of here.”
Brock hit the elevator call button and the doors slid open immediately. Inside he turned around and asked, “Is it true what they say about him?”
“People say a lot of things, kid,” Jimmy shrugged as the doors closed.
As the lift descended Brock decided he was tired of working for guys like Jimmy P; guys who’d grown up on mob movies and thought they were some kind of Al Capone. It was time to move up the food chain.
The Elevator doors slid open on the ground floor. Brock’s senses were assaulted by the sounds of slot machines, the smell of too sweet cocktails and the sight of chumps getting taken for a ride one hand at a time and loving it.
He waded through the crowd of vacationers and gambling addicts, past the craps and blackjack tables; through the swinging doors labeled “employees only,” past the kitchen and finally onto the loading dock.
Brock Smothers was a big man. He’d played both sides of the scrimmage line for Wriggly High School back in Pennsylvania, protecting his quarterback and putting the fear of God in every other QB in the state.
In 1954, his junior year, Brock flattened the running back from Richmond High. The kid didn’t wake up for a week. Brock’s mother was horrified. His coach told Brock he’d just been doing his job. Brock reckoned the coach was right.
Brock’s father did not weigh in, though he’d been in the stands that day, with his wife who was not Brock’s mother, watching his older son Kevin, who Brock hated.
In 1965 Brock accepted a scholarship to a large northeastern university and discovered he liked college a great deal. The professors asked little of him and the girls were much more fun than the ones back in Wriggly. And on the field Brock was a terror. By the end of his sophomore year, he’d set the school record for sacs and his quarterback was the safest in the league.
Then, just 3 games in to his junior season, Brock got drunk and killed a townie with his bare hands.
The university lawyers claimed self-defense, the prosecutor settled for manslaughter, and Brock went to prison for a 5-year stretch.
Inside, Brock met the kinds of people who could offer a man of his strength work on the outside in exchange for protection on the inside. Brock was good at protecting people.
Four months before his scheduled release, Brock got stabbed in the stomach eight times. In the infirmary the doctor gave him morphine, which Brock enjoyed.
Upon his release Brock went to work for the Italians. Unsurprisingly, he turned out to be pretty good at the protection racket and insuring folks paid their debts on time.
In 1974 he performed his first murder for hire; a bookie with a failing liver and a guilty conscience. He could have exposed all the illegal gambling in the Midwest, but Brock smothered him with a pillow. His boss got a kick out of that. After that Brock was a Made Man. The Family gave him the best of everything and didn’t mind the morphine as long as he got the job done.
It was around that time Brock began to hear stories about the Man with the Case, always in hushed voices, usually after half a bottle of whisky or more.
The old guard, the ones with grey hair and Italian parents called him Signore Infinito. If they were to be believed he’d been disappearing marks for the Mafia since before they’d come to the new world.
They always said it the same way: Disappeared. No bodies, no evidence, no pesky questions. The Family didn’t use the Man with the Case when they wanted to send a message. They used him when they wanted someone erased from the face of the earth.
And he’s coming here, Brock thought.
The growl of an approaching vehicle pulled Brock from his musings. A black town car pulled up to the loading dock and The Man stepped out, gaunt and straight-backed. Brock thought he could take him.
The Man reached back into the vehicle and pulled out the case.
Anti-climactic, Brock thought. It was old, the brown leather faded but well cared for, with no scuffs or tears. It looked completely unremarkable.
“Welcome to the Palms, sir,” Brock said as The Man climbed the loading dock steps. “Don Carlito is waiting upstairs if you’d follow me.”
The man said nothing but gave a barely perceptible nod.
Brock led him though the service area and casino floor back to the elevators. When a family of tourists attempted to join them a hard look from Brock inspired the father to hold them back and wait for the next lift.
“I know your reputation, sir,” Brock said once the doors slid shut. “And I’d just like to say it’s an honor.”
The man didn’t respond, and Brock didn’t speak again.
When the doors slid open Brock led The Man to the door at the end of the hall, where Jimmy P raised a finger.
“Hold on a sec,” he said.
Jimmy opened the door just enough to squeeze his oversized head through the crack.
“Boss, Brock is back with the man you were expecting.”
“Send ‘em in,” Brock heard the Boss’ voice from inside.
Jimmy opened the door wide and said, “Go ahead.”
The Man stepped into the room and after a moment’s hesitation so did Brock. Maybe the boss felt he needed the muscle in the room.
Inside the office, Don Carlito stood from behind his massive oak desk and moved to greet his guest.
“Thank you for coming Signore Infinito,” he said, offering The Man his hand. He shook it firmly, but briefly.
“You called, I came,” The Man answered in a voice like gravel. “As per our contract.”
“Of course. Please take a seat Signore Infinito,” Said Don Carlito. “Brock, get our guest a drink. Whiskey? Vodka?”
“Wine, if you have anything red from Italy. If not, water is fine.”
“Certainly. Brock the red on the far left. 2 glasses please.
Don Carlito circled back around his desk and sat heavily in his giant, leather chair. Brock went to the liquor cabinet as ordered, resentful of being reduced to the role of waiter.
“As I’m sure you’re aware signore, my father passed last month,” Carlito said.
“Yes, you have my condolences,” said The Man, his voice hollow, without regret.
It’s like he’s just imitating what real people say, Brock thought as he uncorked a dusty wine bottle and poured blood red liquid into two long-stemmed glasses.
“Thank you, signore,” Carlito said, taking the glass Brock offered. “My father always spoke of you with the greatest respect.”
The man said nothing to this but accepted his wine from Brock with a nod. Brock considered taking the chair next to the Man, thought better of it and instead stood next to the liquor cabinet, hands folded in front of him.
“Things are changing in the Family,” Carlito continued. “With our holdings here in Las Vegas, for the first time we are making more money through legitimate means than other avenues.
“My father worked his whole life so my brothers and I would never need to get our hands dirty. Although this did not come to pass, his efforts have insured that my own son’s hands will remain clean. This is a comfort to my wife and mother.”
This was news to Brock. He’d never worked a legitimate job in his life. He wondered what exactly his place would be in this new “legitimate” business.
Carlito continued, “You’ve worked for my family for years, since before we left the old country. I wanted you to know that we are grateful for your service.”
Carlito paused, waiting for a response.
The Man sipped his wine and said nothing.
Carlito pressed on, “As I said we are grateful, Signore Infinito, but we will no longer require your services.”
Brock had never seen the Don look anything but self-possessed, but now he noticed sweat beading on his boss’ brow and he gripped the edge of his desk with white knuckles.
The Man’s expression did not change.
“Very well,” he said. “If you no longer require my services, I will need my contract returned to me.”
“Of course, Signore,” Carlito said with the barest hint of relief in his voice.
The don pulled a heavy brass key from his pocket and used it to unlock a desk drawer. His hand came back into view holding a small metal lockbox. He used another key, retrieved from a chain around his neck to unlock it.
Inside, Brock could see a folded animal skin of some kind. Carlito lifted it from the lockbox carefully, out of reverence or fear, Brock could not say, and held it toward The Man. Brock saw small brown smudges on the hide, letters he did not recognize.
The Man stood and took the skin from Don Carlito’s hand and stowed it in the inside of his suit jacket. While Carlito’s motions seemed reverent, almost ceremonial, The Man’s were casual.
“Our business is concluded,” he said, draining his glass before retrieving the case from beneath his chair and leaving the room without another word.
Carlito slumped in his chair and after a moment of reflection drained his own glass.
“Get me another, would you Brock?”
The Man looked out the window of his Chicago apartment and watched young children play in a jet of fresh water liberated from a yellow fire hydrant. Music from the next apartment over sliced through the thin walls of his bedroom, or at least it was what they were calling music these days. He couldn’t make out the words; the base was so loud, though to be fair The Man had not been excited about a new song in centuries.
The Man’s apartment was a sparsely furnished 3-room, government-subsidized place. He could have lived anywhere, but The Man lost interest for opulence long before music. He owned three pieces of furniture: a ladder-back chair, a small square table in the kitchen, and a twin bed in the bedroom. A clock ticked on the wall across from his bed, and a print of three ducks on a placid pond hung above it. The painting had been there when he moved in.
A knock at the door cut through the driving bass next door.
The Man hadn’t had a visitor since taking up residence in the little apartment, but the knock did not surprise him. Very little did.
It took seven steps to get from the window of his bedroom to the door in the kitchen. He opened it to reveal an old man.
Thick glasses magnified his eyes to bug-like proportions, a ring of white hair clung to the side of his head, and he gripped a wooden cane tightly with his right hand.
“My God,” the old man said. “It’s you.”
The Man said nothing, but moved from the doorway to let the old man in.
“Of course. You weren’t one for talking back then either,” the old man said as he entered the cramped kitchen. “I hope you don’t mind me barging in like this, you do not have a phone, and I do not have the time left to be corresponding the old-fashioned way.”
They stood there for a few moments regarding one another, saying nothing. Finally, The Man broke the silence.
“Please have a seat,” he said. “If you have business, I have wine.”
“Thank you,” the old man said. His knees popped as he lowered himself carefully into the ladder-backed chair. “I would be honored to drink with you.”
As The Man turned to his cupboard to retrieve the wine and glasses, his guest continued speaking.
“I do not expect you to remember me,” he said. “We only met once, and it was 60 some years ago. My name is Edward Grable. Back in ’20 I drove you to upstate New York for a job.”
The man turned and handed Edward a glass of dark red wine from Italy.
“Yes,” he said.
Edward tasted the wine smacking his lips approvingly.
“My daughter’s husband is a recovering alcoholic, whatever that means, so no booze in the house. This is good.”
The Man, a glass in his own hand, leaned against the counter and regarded his guest.
“Why have you come, Edward Grable?”
“I saw,” Edward said. “Back in ’20, even though Vito told me to stay in the car. I saw the case. I saw what happened to that man. For a lot of years, I tried to forget. Booze, women, the works. I never told anyone. But I couldn’t forget.
“I worked for Vito for a lot of years, even became his friend near the end of his life, after most everybody else was dead or locked up. I didn’t ask him about you until he was on the way out. I think he was relieved to tell somebody other than his shitty kid. That was back in ’64, maybe ’65. I thought maybe I’d find you then, but my third wife just had our boy, and then the Family started changing. They didn’t seem to have room for old soldiers like me. I was distracted, but once I found out what you were, I knew I’d have to track you down eventually.
“My kids are all grown, wife number four was out the door the moment the doc said cancer,” Edward grimaced. “That one was probably a bad idea. Her kid was cute though.”
The man listened without interrupting, his expression unchanging.
“I apologize, the older I get the longer I ramble,” Edward said.
“Continue,” The man said.
“Alright. The doctors gave me 9 months… that was 6 months ago. I feel pretty good right now, but the docs say that happens near the end.
“It took me longer to find you than I thought it would. Turns out I don’t have the connections I once did, and from what I understand, you stopped working for the family about the same time I did.”
“So here we are.”
“Again, Edward Grable, why are you here.”
“Vito told me who you are and how you came to work for the family,” Edward sounded nervous. “But he could not answer the question that’s been burning up my insides for 60 years,
The old man paused as if savoring the moment, “What’s in the case?”
“I cannot answer that question,” The Man said.
Edward drained the rest of his glass, “I understand… I still need to know.”
The man straightened from his leaning position on the counter.
“You understand what you are asking?”
“If you have a contract for me, you must say the words plainly.”
The old man stood, leaning on his cane.
“Signore Infinito, I want to see the case.”
The Man turned and stepped into his bedroom. He knelt next to the bed, reached underneath it and pulled out the faded violin case. Despite its age the brass latches and hinges gleamed in the sunlight filtering in through the bedroom window.
The Man stood, case in hand and returned the kitchen. He placed the case on the floor, clasps facing his guest. In the cramped kitchen it barely fit between the refrigerator and the wall.
“Before you… just before, Could I trouble you for one more glass of wine?” A slight tremor had developed in Edward’s voice and hands.
“Very well,” The Man said.
He filled the two glasses to the brim, Edward returned to the ladder-backed chair and they drank in silence for several minutes.
When his glass was empty, Edward stood with popping knees and met The Man’s eye.
“I am ready.”
The Man knelt, unlatched the case, stood and lifted the lid, bathing the room in swirling light.
Edward gazed into the case and saw infinity.
The whole of creation whirled within the confines of the ancient case, and Edward understood it. He perceived all of space and time and concepts man had yet to dream of. And perceiving them, he understood.
All of creation spread out before him in incomparable majesty, and then, it came rushing toward him: Swirling galaxies, nebulas of every color, and infinitely collapsing black holes rushed past him, or perhaps he flew past them. Regardless, they came faster and faster, becoming nothing more than bright lines of reality silhouetted in the outline of the case.
Time held no more meaning, having understood it, Edward found it no longer mattered. All that mattered was the beauty held within the case, the beauty of all.
Eventually the bright lines coalesced into a single spiral galaxy, the Milky Way, then a single star system; Sol, then Earth, North America, Chicago, South side, 16th street, The Man’s apartment building. And then Edward saw his own face looking back at him, outlined by the case.
He saw recognition… comprehension in his own eyes. He knew himself, where he fit in the universe with a clarity never intended for mortal man. A small smile appeared on his lips and he was falling. Falling into infinity.
The man closed the case gently and latched the lid. He returned it to its place under his bed and looked out the window. The fire hydrant had run dry. The puddles left behind were already disappearing in the summer. The booming base next door had stopped. Across the street, neighborhood kids played double-dutch, chanting rhymes as they weaved between the ropes.
I rather like that song, The Man thought.