By Thom L. Jones (For more of his stories check out his Mob Corner)
He heard they were going to kill him soon, from the baker who ran a shop at the end of the street. It wasn't that much of a surprise, not like winning the lotto, at least. Some things are inevitable he thought as he walked back to his apartment. The sun rises, it's cold in February, in August the lambs are slaughtered, and if you fuck with these guys you will very probably find everlasting sleep much quicker than you imagined. Things to ponder on over a good bottle of wine. He wondered how much time he had, to get things sorted. They’d already tried once.
He'd gone in to buy some cannoli, and come out with another death threat hanging over his head. Funny how quickly things can change, he thought as he let himself into his place on the third floor. He locked the door, jamming a chair under the handle, though he doubted they would come for him here. The way they worked, it would be crossing a piazza or me sitting nursing a coretto at some bar, perhaps nibbling on a ricotta-filled sfogliatelle, smoking a Diana Red, at peace with the world, under the hot Sicilian sun.
He picked up the telephone and dialed a number, standing by the window, looking down towards the square. There, on the corner, was the cafe where they had killed the Squadra Mobile cop, Giuilano, a few years back. Luca Bagarella had done that one. Pinged him in the back. The cop was known as 'The Sheriff' all over town, fast on the draw and a crack shot, so he'd been shot from behind. That's the way they would come after him. He'd be a hard man to kill face-to-face, and they knew that.
The phone clicked on and the voice he knew so well answered.
“Albi, it's me. I've got the word. They're starting something again.
Soon, I guess. I'll need a couple of the guys to keep me company watch my back, that sort of thing. How are you placed?”
The voice he heard was flat and cold, unemotional, spare, just like the man who carried it.
“You want someone to-night, now?”
“No. They’ll not start it that quick I‘m guessing. Have them here in the morning. They can pick me up when I go for coffee. Say nine or so.”
“Okay, it’s sorted.” There was a pause as though he was thinking it out.
“Maybe you should get out of town for a while. Take a trip. Somewhere exotic, Take a cruise to Tahiti.”
“No. I’m going to fix this once and for all. Running away is not the answer. I’m gonna be like Gary Cooper in ‘High Noon’ face up to my foes like a man.”
“What the hell talking about?”
“You don’t watch the old movies on tape, do you?” I asked. ‘Great film, made in the early 1950s; a western, about a sheriff in some hick town waiting to front off to some gunslingers sent to kill him.’
There was a longer pause as though Albi was shaking the wax out of his ears.
“You know of course this isn’t the old American west and these guys are real and very, very dangerous?”
“Hey Albi. I’m only pulling your leg. Meet me at ten in the usual place”
“Okay,” and he was gone.
The next morning, I went down into the street. I stood talking to the building supervisor and handed him the rent money for the month coming.
The two men were standing across from the building, in the shade of a plane tree, smoking, watching. They each were wearing loose baggy shirts, out over their jeans, covering the guns on their hips.
We all waked down to the Bar Lux. They waited outside, and I went in.
Albi was sitting in a corner, away from the window. There were two ristretti waiting, and I downed mine in one gulp. Albi nodded cross at the man behind the counter, and he got steaming on the machine for backups.
They’d tried to kill me a month earlier. Missed me and killed my woman instead. She’d gone down to the car, early in the morning. Left her purse in the glove box. We’d gone out for dinner the night before, and she had told me she was pregnant. We agreed to marry and I’d be a father and life would be filled with light and happiness. I was shaving in the bathroom when the explosion blew me off my feet.
I ran down the three flights to the street, but I knew it was too late. And it was.
The air was filled with dust and smoke and leaves blowing about and people screaming and yelling. My car was twisted into a pretzel and she was crumpled up like a used sanitary napkin by a scorched tree. I held her in my arms until the para-medics untangle her broken body and took it away.
We eventually found out who was behind it. Someone I didn’t even know existed. His name was Salvo. He knew about me though. I’d killed his brother a while back up in Jato. I was part of the team took care of the bodyguards when Riina and his team killed Rosario Riccobono. It was some of the never-ending Machiavellian scheming Toto engaged in. I was just the hired help. The guy I killed had a brother and somehow he found out. This was his way of repayment. Here, in Sicily, there is a thing called vendetta trasversale- vengeance across the line. Everybody in my family had to be slaughtered because of what I did. Me being the first. I had to nail this bastard and quick.
He apparently had a small group working with him, but I knew if I could pop him the rest would fade away. They were basically just street kids, drug addicts, grubs like that, although some were known to us as dangerous killers.
There was something, however, that I was not aware of.
Albi sipped on his second cup of coffee.
“We’ve nailed him. I think we can get him by this evening. I have people in place. What’s the plan?”
We sat there for a while and I told him what I wanted. He nodded a few times, double-checked a point or two and when I had finished, he looked at me as though I had lost my mind.
Three days after my meeting with Albi, I drove out of Palermo in the evening, taking the 118 Highway south until I came to the turn-off that led into the hills up to Mount Baracù. The dirt track leading up into the setting sun sliding into the Mediterranean Ocean one hundred and fifty kilometres west across the Val di Marzara plain, on beyond the port of Marsala.
I pulled up into a small clearing, occupied by Albi’s car and a large, black van. I parked, and then walked up the track until I came to the shepherd’s hut. A group of men stood outside the small, ram-shackled building, smoking and talking softly to each other.
I greeted them, and Albi stepped out of the hut, walking over to give me a hug.
“You have the gear ready?” I asked him.
He nodded, his face serious.
“He’s in there with the stuff you asked for. We’ve set up a hoist as you instructed; you want to check it out?”
I nodded, and we walked past the men, who suddenly seemed stiff and uncomfortable. None of them would ever have been asked to be involved in a setup quite this bad. This whole situation was so different, they would be on edge, wondering how it might go wrong, and the dangers that it would present to them. Albi had picked four of the toughest and most experienced killers in our group, but even they were in for an introduction to a nightmare that would probably haunt them for the rest of their lives. I’d spent a lot of time on this. Salvo was to die, but he was going to suffer in a way no man had for over a thousand years.
We walked a short while, until we came to a small depression. In the middle was the wall of an artesian well which had been sunk here many years ago. Across the top, the men had lashed together an impromptu scaffold to support a load-bearing cross beam. I leaned over the wall and looked down.
“How deep is it?”
Albi picked up a stone. “We measured it; at least a hundred metres. There’s water down there, but this time of year, we guess knee-high, tops.” He passed the small rock to me and I dropped it into the black hole. A few seconds later I heard the plop as it struck the water.
“Seems perfect to me. Let’s go and say goodbye to Salvo.”
We walked back to the hut and ducked under the low slung door lintel into the damp and musty smelling room. It was rectangle in shape, with a couple of narrow windows up near the roof line, and an open fireplace at one end. The floor was packed earth, covered in old, mouldy straw. A broken down bunk-bed sat against the wall opposite the fireplace, and there was a rough-hewn oak table and a couple of chairs to make up the rest of the space. On the table stood three containers of different sizes, and a big coil of rope. It sat folded, on top of a large Hessian sack that was draped across the tabletop.
Salvo was seated in one of the chairs, his wrists hand-cuffed behind his back. He was thick-set, solid in build. I could see the resemblance to the man I had killed, allowing this one was probably ten years younger. One side of his face was covered in black and orange bruising, and there was a gash across his left eye, crusted in dried blood. He had obviously not come easily.
I looked down at him in disgust.
“You know Salvo, they say revenge is a dish best eaten cold. That’s a lot of shit. The day you killed Nina, I wanted to wrap my hands around the throat of the bomber, and squeeze his neck until his eyes popped out. But I’ve had plenty of time to figure out how to dispose of you, and you’re going to wish I had killed you that way.”
He looked up at me, tough, but scared, trying hard not to let one emotion overcome the other.
“Listen, please listen,” he whispered. I had nothing to do with this. I don’t even know who you are. As God holds my mother in his arms I didn’t kill anyone. You fucking have to believe me,” he was screaming now and twisting on the chair, thrashing about like a landed cod.
I walked over to the table, running my hand across one of the containers. It started to shake and squeals came out from behind the lid. Salvo looked across, his eyes widening in fright.
“I can’t blame you for lying; scrambling to get out of it. You murdered her and my baby she was carrying. For that, you’re going to die, but in a very special way: suppilo suppilo, very slowly.
The Romans had an unique punishment for those who killed close relatives, and Nina was as close as they get. It was called The Culleus, and the way it worked was that the offender was placed, alive, in a sack with an ape, a dog and a serpent, and then thrown into the sea. To-night, you’re going to be the star turn, in my special variation.
Apes are hard to get in Sicily, but I’ve got the dog, and the snake, and in place of the monkey a wild-cat from the Madonie Mountains. You’re going in this sack, the four of you, and then we’re going to lower you all down the well behind the hut, and leave you there to contemplate your future. I can’t imagine how long it will take for you to die, but I guess by the time the snake has bitten you a few times, and the dog and the cat has scratched your eyes out, and then they start to eat you when they get hungry, it’ll probably take a few days.” I lit a cigarette, flicking the match onto his face.
“Should be a lot of fun for you.”
Albi and I left the hut, Salvo’s screams and imploring pleas bouncing off the stone walls. I walked across to the broken-down old table that stood outside, and then passed it, thinking back to the day when I killed for the first time, and crows scattered away from the stone wall, as the shot echoed across the valley. Twenty-five years ago, I had shot Rosario, Nina’s brother on this very spot, and now here I was in the same place, killing the man who had killed her,
I looked out across the landscape, as dark and mysterious as the history of the island itself, and thought of the events that had filled my life for a quarter of a century. When I came into this thing of ours, I knew I would be leading a different kind of existence to the man who tended sheep up in the hills, or the baker who punched out loaves of bread every day; that I would live by the laws of a different state, one that existed within the framework of the traditional one. The thing was, I had never factored in the way it would change me as a person. If I had been legitimate and worked in a shop or a factory, could I have ever found myself on a hillside about to kill a man like this? Where had I been these long, lost years? How had the kind of journey I had been taking, brought me to this place? I found my face was wet with tears. I had been crying a lot recently.
Albi touched my arm, shaking me back.
“I think we should get this over with. The men are uncomfortable. Killing, well that’s part of our business, a liability we have to live with, but this, it’s out of our league.”
He was right of course. In a way, I was surprised that he had been able to get these four together. It spoke a lot for my position in the family. Then again, maybe Albi was an even better manager than I had believed. The men dragged Salvo out of the hut, screaming and trying to fight his way free, and we carried the sack and rope and the three containers up to the well. The biggest man in the group lashed one end of the rope to his thick waist and the other he secured to a stainless steel ring that was attached to the neck of the sack. He flung this over the hoist, and I pulled it back, outside the well-head. Salvos ankles were secured with a strap and he was placed inside the sack that was then drawn up to his chest.
The blood had drained from his face, which was like a mask, distorted into a wild, feral grimace of fear and horror, under the silver gray light of the full moon that hung above us. He was talking that fast it was hard to understand him, pleading and begging me to end this.
“For pity’s sake,” he whimpered, “kill me like a man, not like this.”
“Salvo,” I leaned in to him and whispered so that only he could hear me.
“You murdered the only woman I ever loved. Chances are, you’ve destroyed me forever. Wherever you’re going, I want it to be suppilu suppilu, slow and awful, right up to the moment you close those stinking eyes, you feel the pain I’m feeling.”
I stepped back and leaned down, carefully pulling back the lid on the smallest box. I had slipped on a heavy rubber glove, as a precaution.
Albi shined a torch down as I slid my hand in and grasped the reptile by the neck and pulled it out. The Asp viper is the most venomous snake found in Sicily. This was the biggest I had ever seen, a metre in length, and thick as a salami, dark wine in colour, with red and orange saddles down the length of its back. I held its face up to Salvo’s so he could see the wicked-looking fangs, the tongue flicking out in panic as it wriggled in my hands.
“Say hello to your first bed-fellow,” I said, as I dropped it down into the sack. Another man had lifted the lid on one of the other containers, pulling out a pit-bull terrier, muzzled, but still madly ferocious, twisting and lashing out like crazy, trying to free itself from the man’s grasp. He held it over the sack’s opening as another of the team, unbuckled the muzzle, then he dropped the dog into the sack. Salvo was kicking and screaming, and I could see the men were finding it hard to keep control of the situation. I opened the third box and pulled out a small sack that contained the wild-cat, slipping it open and dropping it in with the rest. Albi quickly pulled up the sack over Salvo’s head, locking the strap in place, but leaving enough space for air to ventilate it. He stepped across to support the anchor man, as the other three picked up the heaving, kicking screaming bundle and flopped it over the edge of the well.
The anchor man played out the rope, with Albi taking the strain, and the sack slowly disappeared down into the darkness. I picked up the torch Albi had left on the well-head, and shone it down into the hole. I could see the sack, swinging and kicking from side to side, the awful, gut-wrenching screams drifting up, and then it was gone, down into the darkness, beyond the light of the torch’s beam. Eventually it reached the bottom and the rope went slack. Albi helped the other man un-rope himself, and handed the end to me. I held it for a moment, wondering, and then I threw it down.
The four men stood together in a kind of somewhat protective group, trying to shield themselves from the horror they had witnessed, Even Albi, hard and tough as he was, seemed to be disturbed by his part in this. I thanked each man personally, shaking their hands, hugging them, patting them on the back, and they disappeared back down the track to the van, humping the empty containers, and the pieces of the dismantled hoist, leaving no trace of our visit.
The shepherd’s hut, the well and the land in this area, still belonged to the Rustler. Well into his seventies, he was still a close friend of the Corleone cosca, and no one would come near this place without his permission.
Perhaps in a hundred years or more, archaeologists would uncover the remains of a heavy Hessian sack, and find the bones of a man, a dog, a cat and a snake, and wonder at the strange ritual which had taken place.
For me, it had been one of cleansing, trying to erase the hurt and the hate that had consumed me since the day Nina died. Albi and I made our way back to the cars, and stood there smoking, slowing down, trying to regain back our composure. He looked at me over the glow of his cigarette.“You sorted on this now? I mean, it relieves the pain?”
I looked back up the hill, into the darkness, wondering how Salvo was settling in for the night with his ménage à trois, and shook my head.
“I doubt that the pain will ever ease. It simply helps satisfy its hunger.”
My cell phone trilled and I flipped it open.
“It’s me, Baldo. I got some bad news. You haven’t started yet, right?”
Baldassare Olivero was another of my team. He’d been the guy that organized the snatch on Salvo.
“It’s all over,’ I said. “He’s down in his hole, settling in for a long night, or two.”
There was a long pause.
“Shit. I don’t know how to tell you this boss, but we got the wrong guy.”
“What the hell is it you are saying?” I shouted into the mobile.
“We never knew. How could we for Christ sakes? The guy Salvo. The one you got. It’s his twin brother who did it. His name‘s Giovanni. He’s the one who tried to kill you. Salvo’s got nothing to do with it. He’s a plumber. Lives in Bagheria. Hasn‘t seen his brother in years. They fell out and lost touch. Fuck, I‘m sorry.”
I flipped the cell shut, and stood looking out over the endless landscape. Low in the dark, cloud smeared sky, the moon hung like a huge silver, pitted bowl.
Un Occhio, the evil eye, watching everything that was going wrong in Sicily to-night.
Copyright © Thom L. Jones 2013