That month forty years ago was the worst period I had ever had to live through. Once the Roman Empire, crumbling from greed and overexpansion.
Death or prison. Those were the only two routes out of the life for a guy like me. It was how Our Thing worked. It was never really thought, however, until the worst winter of my life.
Jimmy Santi was just a kid. The boss's son took over at way too young an age when his old man died of a heart attack. No one believed that this twenty-seven-year-old had what it took to lead this little famiglia through a time of war. Shit, even bosses who had been in this thing for thirty years failed consistently. Jimmy had a different approach to things, however.
“Don’t be greedy,” he told his caporegimes in a private meeting at a small restaurant we conducted business at Fortunado’s. “The Boy Boss” as we called him looked into the eyes of every single one of us. One by one. Those blue eyes, that came from his mother whose family was from northern Italy, reading the darkest corners of our hearts and minds- looking for betrayal.
Joey “Angry Joe” Calabrese slammed his fist on the table, causing part of his scotch and soda to fly over the rim of his glass and leave a wet mark on the fabric shouted, “Vafancullo with that, Jimmy! We need to strike hard and take their businesses for our own. I refuse to sit here like a deer in headlights.”
Jimmy’s Uncle Chris (“Angelo Della Morte” as we called him) appeared from the shadows clad in all black from behind Jimmy’s right shoulder. His face was expressionless, apart from his eyes. His eyes meant to live out his name as the Angel of Death.
Jimmy raised a hand to his uncle and spoke calmly, politely, “I’ve got this, thank you, Uncle Chris.” The older man retreated to his position as the boss turned back to face Joey. “You will do as I say, both as a favor to myself,” he directed a knife-hand toward the capo then pointed to himself, “and as a favor to my father- God rest his soul,” the hand now directed toward the sky. “You were a loyal captain to him when he was alive and I will expect the same respect for where I sit now,” Jimmy lit a cigarette, “if you cannot do so, we can figure things out in a more private setting.”
Usually carrying a face that looked like a smile would break out at any moment, Jimmy now carried the appearance of an aged, battle-toughened force to be reckoned with. The smart guys knew right then not to question leadership.
“Don Jimmy,” another capo, Tony “Tiny T” Giacomo spoke in his heavy Sicilian accent, “What do you suggest we do, then?”
“Antonio,” our young Godfather spoke, “and all of you here with me, do you know why Roman Empire, Napoleon, and every other great civilization has fallen? Have you ever read about why invading Russia always ends up in disaster?”
Jimmy “The Boy Boss” Santi stuffed out his cigarette in an ashtray and sipped his neat bourbon before continuing. He was just about to speak when the waitress came over to take his order, instead of getting angry and throwing his drink on her, like many others in Our Thing would have done, Jimmy only smiled and told her, “Veal with an appetizer of fried zucchini flowers, please. Thank you, Angela.” The young woman left to put the order in and Jimmy finally told us his thoughts.
“Those civilizations got too greedy. They overstepped boundaries and traded security and strength for overzealousness. They wanted too much, it stretched them too thin to where the enemy could easily cut the head off the beast.” He lit another cigarette before continuing, “Now, we have seen countless others before in our line of work do the same thing. Remember what happened to the Farese family down south when they tried to cross state lines?”
Each of us looked around each other, we had known that the Farese dynasty had ended in blood running through the streets like rivers with the boss, Santino Farese being gunned down on Thanksgiving day in front of his wife and children. None of us wanted that.
“Now, the Russians,” Jimmy spoke, “When the Russians are invaded, they do not respond with an immediate counterattack. They burn the earth and pull back- allowing the enemy to believe that they are making successful progress towards Moscow. Meanwhile, the Russians wait for winter to hit.” He thudded the table hollowly.
The waitress, Angela set Jimmy’s food in front of him. He made a quick sign of the cross and ate with us.
“The Russians know that to fight selflessly and to be patient means victory. That is what we intend to do.” The rest of the meal went on with little talk, mostly just some business discussion that didn’t have to do with the war.
That was the first of the month. The last easy day.
A week later I get a phone call from Chris, “Boss wants to see you. Come alone.” That was all.
Nervously, I arrived at the house and was led to the office that Jimmy occupied. It had belonged to his father, Peter “Capo del Pace” Santi.
“Jimmy, you needed me?” I asked nervously. I thought that this may be my last night to breathe, I hadn’t even been able to tell my wife that I was going out.
“Uncle David,” Jimmy said. I wasn’t really his uncle, but I may as well have been, “Can I offer you a bourbon?” He nodded to the bar stand beside me.
“Just a small one,” I replied.
Jimmy walked over and poured about an inch of brown whiskey into each glass with two ice cubes apiece. He handed me one before resuming his position in the aged leather chair behind the vast desk.
“Uncle David, I know you were a very loyal captain to my father and I have to express my gratitude to what you have shown me as I take his position,” He began, he looked like his father so much at this moment, that I would have sworn the old man had come down and possessed his son’s body. “This is a trying time, we’ve had two soldiers and three associates hit in the last six days, I know what they guys are saying. That I am week and am letting this new outfit take charge, but I have a plan and I need to ask you.” He paused to down his drink and then pour himself another.
“I have to ask you right now, are you loyal to me or do you have other agendas in your heart? Be honest, I’ll know if you are lying.”
It was at this moment that I realized Angelo Della Morte was standing behind me by the door. He didn’t move or make any advances, just sat quietly, eyes on the back of my head. It felt like the Grim Reaper himself was in the room with me. Looking at Jimmy may as well have been the eyes of God himself on me.
I chose my words carefully, “All due respect, Boss. Your father was like a brother to me since birth. Admittedly, I only gave you the support that I gave in memory of your father, however, how you have been able to hold yourself coming into this position of power during a time of war shows me that your father taught you well and that if we make it out of this, you could lead a time of peace and prosperity as your old man did before.”
The Boy Boss nodded in thought, eyes a million miles away. Finally, he looked up and smiled, “Thank you, Uncle David, that’s what I needed to hear. I’m letting you in on my plan.”
I sat up and gestured for my best friend’s son to tell.
Don Abrusci’s top two men go to the same café every morning for their espresso. If we are going to win this war, it is time for a counterattack. Winter is here. I want you to find the two most trusted hitmen you have to take care of them. No junkies, no one outside the family, no one who will talk, and most importantly, no one who will fucking miss.” He went into further detail about how once those two were gone, it would open up the door to our rival family’s boss. “We may call ourselves the Roman Empire, but for now, we are the Visigoths taking Rome for our own because they want to encroach on our territory.”
We hugged each other, I shook hands with Chris (who greeted me like a friend again after hearing my allegiance) and I left to find my hitmen. I knew exactly who to pick.
The radio told us exactly the news we wanted to hear, “Two high-profile mobsters were killed this morning in a gangland-style execution at the Villa Roma café on Carpenter Street.” Jimmy shut off the radio as the news reporter went on to explain that the men had been from a different city for what was believed to be a power struggle for our hometown.
“Thank you, Uncle David, I will see that you and your men are rewarded heavily for this.”
I looked over at my boss. He had aged heavily in the last few weeks. Dark circles of sleeplessness clouded around his eyes, his skin had lost color. I knew he was stressed, though he wasn’t saying anything. I also suspected he hadn’t been eating much since that meal.
“What’s our next step, boss?” I asked. I was genuinely curious as to how Jimmy planned to get to Abrusci.
“Take your wife out to dinner tonight, keep eyes on the back of your head, but enjoy some peace. I have some phone calls to make,” I was told before being sent off.
I did have a good night. My wife and I caught a show at one of the theaters. It was about a woman who is going insane while staying with her sister and the sister’s husband, an old Tennessee Williams play. After that, we got dinner at a place that I had taken her to many times when we were younger and I had extra cash. I received a phone call from Jimmy ten minutes after arriving home.
“I hope you two enjoyed your night. Come to my place at four tomorrow, we are taking a ride.”
Jimmy explained to me on the car ride while his actual uncle drove. “We have a meeting with Abrusci at a place halfway between cities. I cashed in some old chips for favors owed to the family in Chicago and Pittsburgh for a bit of extra help.”
“Extra help?” I asked, “What for?”
Jimmy looked out the window and make a thoughtful gesture with his face, “In case we need it.” I realized exactly what I meant when we pulled up.
It was a diner on the side of some country road with nothing but trees and grass on either side. The parking lot was filled with Cadillacs and Lincolns. Chris only stopped the car in the middle of the road in front of the place when a roar of gunfire sounded, bullets tore through glass and metal of the cars of Abrusci’s men, it was a slaughter, they had no chance of survival. It only lasted about two minutes, but I could have sworn it had been years passing as we sat there watching the carnage.
A man I recognized to be Jackie Trulio, a capo from Pittsburgh approached the now open window where Jimmy sat. Jimmy handed him a large envelope filled with cash, only saying, “I appreciate the help, tell Don Carlo my offer when you get back and also let the Chicago guys know to tell their boss. New York has already given their go-ahead.”
So ended the reign of Don Abrusci and the phenomenon that the media and the historians would later call the December bloodbath to end the war. Abrusci’s city was agreed upon by New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Buffalo to be an open territory. A peaceful ground for cooperation among families.
In one month, Don Jimmy “The Boy Boss” Santi had brought about what we called the Pax Romana and proven himself capo di tutti capi- boss of bosses.