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the stolen princess

Chapter 1
Uncle Frank’s Lament

Stumpy rings the gong and, as usual, the joint goes nuts—which is my cue to step out the back door into the chilly October night. The quiet of the back alley and the brisk freshness of the night air are in stark contrast to the claustrophobic smoke-and-noise filled Go-Go bar. I’m grateful to Stumpy for the bouncer’s job, but by 2:30 in the morning, I’m glad for the opportunity to escape the madness. For the next half-hour, Stumpy’s á Go-Go will resemble a scene out of every adolescent’s dream—scantily-clad dancers bumping and grinding on top of the bar, while the drugged-out band makes as much noise as their amplifiers will permit, and the laser lights play havoc with your retinas.The customers love it, but I can’t take it, so every night, at 2:30 a.m., when Stumpy sounds the gong to begin the insanity, I step outside. Whitey—Detective Lieutenant Whitehead—had warned me about doing this, pointing out that everybody knows my routine, and that some night, a black Lincoln with black-tinted windows will cruise around the corner into the alley, pump my body full of .45 caliber bullets, and slowly pull away without so much as a “How do you do.”

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I’m reminded of this because no sooner have I inhaled my first breath of fresh air than a black Lincoln pokes its nose around the corner. I press myself into the doorway and unholster my .38 as the Lincoln cruises past and slows to a halt at the curb a few feet away.

The back door opens, but nobody steps out. An invitation? Obviously, but for what? A parley of some sort? More likely a bullet to the head.  Still, who can resist an open door?

I walk over and squat down so I can see inside the car. Uncle Frank is squeezed into the back seat. Two men slouch down in the front seat—no guns visible, but I have no doubt they aren’t too far away.

“No need for that,” Uncle Frank says, motioning to the .38 which I’m pointing at his head.

Uncle Frank looks like he’s aged about 100 years since I last saw him.

About a month earlier, I had pushed his bodyguards aside and exploded through his office door to find him sitting at the same desk that his brother Fat Tony used to occupy before Uncle Frank put a bullet between his eyes, effectively changing him from capo to kaput. The office looked the same as it did that day, maybe a bit cleaner, and there was a new chair, I guess because Fat Tony’s brains had been spilled all over the old one. But I wasn’t there as a design consultant. I was there to find out what had happened to Red—and I was out-of-control furious.

“Where is she?” I had demanded.

“Who?”

“You know who—Red!”

Uncle Frank looked a little puzzled; then he made the connection. “Oh,” he said, “You mean Maria.”

“Red.”

“OK, Ox, whatever you say, but calm down, I don’t know anything about her. Has something happened to her?”

I felt the presence of the two bodyguards that I had knocked to the floor on my way in moving behind me, probably with guns drawn, but Uncle Frank shook his head ‘no’ and they left the room.

“She’s gone,” I said. “disappeared. She hasn’t showed up for work, no calls—nothing. I found out where she was living, but she’s not there either. Left there without a word too. The whole place was cleaned out. I smell a rat, Frank, and it smells a lot like you.”

“You think I did—what? Hurt Maria. She’s my niece for Christ’s sake!”

“And Fat Tony was your brother, but that didn’t stop you from blowing his brains out.”

“Tony was different. Tony was an animal. He would have hurt Maria, and she was his own daughter. He was crazy, but Maria? No, I wouldn’t hurt Maria. I love that girl, and I blame myself for not stepping up sooner to protect her. Think about it, Ox. I got no reason to hurt her.”

“She’s a witness, Frank. She saw you kill Tony. Maybe you thought she would want to see justice done for her father’s death.”

“God dammit, Ox, you were here. If I hadn’t shot him, Maria would have done it herself. She already got the justice she was looking for. And don’t forget, you’re a witness too, and you’re still walking upright.”

Uncle Frank had a point. If he had wanted to eliminate witnesses, he would have started with me, not Red. If I had been thinking straight, I would have realized that, but I wasn’t thinking straight. Ever since Red had failed to show up for work, I had gone crazy with worry about her.

I dropped into the chair in front of the desk, my anger and madness dissolving into despair. “What do you think happened to her? The Colombians?”

“Nah, they don’t even know she’s alive. Besides, there are no Colombians in this neck of the woods anymore. You took care of that.”

“What then?”

“I’m not sure, but I don’t think anything has happened to her—I would have heard. I think maybe she just took off like she did years ago when she left the family.”

His words stung. If he was right, and I was afraid that he was, it meant that Red had walked out on me, that she left and didn’t want to be found. The idea sent me into a depression that completely overwhelmed me for the next two weeks, and lingered on in the fringes of my consciousness from that time until this moment.

“You look like hell.”

Uncle Frank’s words startled me back to the present.

“You don’t look so good yourself.”

“I’m not so good. Got a lot on my mind.”

“Like the Feds? How come you’re not in jail? Didn’t Whitey come after you with your brother’s notebook?”

“It’s cold. Get in the car and shut the door—and put that gun away before someone gets hurt.”

I climb into the car and shut the door. It’s warm, too warm, and it smells of cigarettes. I like it better outside, even if it is chilly.

“So, how come you’re still walking around a free man?’

“Because that brother of mine was an egomaniac. Seems there’s no mention of anybody in that little book of his other than himself.”

“He did it all,” the driver interrupts. “Every killing, every loansharking deal, even the drug deals, all Tony,” and he and the guy in the passenger seat start cracking up laughing.

“So,” Uncle Frank continues, “Whitey comes in with half the U.S. Army at his heels looking for Tony, but there’s no Tony. ‘Where’s Tony?’” he asks. The guy in the driver’s seat cracks up again, “Where’s Tony?” he repeats, nudging the guy in the passenger seat, sending him into gales of laughter.

“I don’t know, I say, maybe Vegas. ‘Funny’, Whitey says, ‘how every crook in this town goes to Vegas.’ ‘Maybe Cuba,’ I say. ‘I hear Cuba’s very popular this time of year.’ They tear the place apart, turn everything upside down, but find nothing. They conduct some raids, find the drugs, dig up a few bodies, but nothing links me or the boys to any of it. According to the book, it’s all Tony, and there’s no Tony, so they leave empty-handed and very frustrated.”

By now the two guys in the front seat have their heads buried in their hands, shaking with laughter.

 “What’s so funny?” Uncle Frank says with a touch of anger in his voice.

“There’s no Tony,” the driver says, barely able to get the words out between fits of laughter. “There’s no Tony,” repeats the passenger seat, and the two of them double over they’re laughing so hard.

 “No respect.” Uncle Frank says to me. “This is what I got to work with.” He shakes his head and frowns.

“Who are these clowns?” I ask.

“I think you know Cousin Sal, but I don’t think you met the guy behind the wheel. That’s my sister’s boy Nikko.”

They turn to nod a hello, their eyes streaming tears.

“Sorry Sal,” I say, “Didn’t recognize you. How’s the leg?”

He stops laughing. “That’s not funny, Ox,” he says. “Someday that little midget’s gonna get his. As soon as Uncle Frank gives me the green light. You’ll see. I’ll cut him down to size.”

“Cut him down to size,” Nikko says, now nearly hysterical with laughter. “He’s gonna cut the midget down to size.”

“Shut up, Nikko!” Sal growls. “It ain’t funny.”

“He’s not a midget;” I say, “He’s a dwarf, and if I were you, I’d be thankful he only broke your leg. Next time it could be your head. And it’s Mr. Ox to you sonny.”

He turns his back on me and goes quiet.

“OK Frank,” I say, “What’s up? You didn’t come here to introduce me to your lovely family.”

Uncle Frank looks a little green around the gills.  

“I need your help,” he says.

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