I’d heard Tiny Aria say a million times that in Fortuna, if you scratched beneath the surface, you’d only find more surface. He laid this on me again when he phoned about the Reno Morelli kidnapping. Reno managed The Gutterball, a dive where mooks, con-men, and low-level operatives met to figure out which cops weren’t on the take and which ones had to be. Cops drank there on the sly all the time. The Gutterball was lucrative, but Reno’s legit breadwinner was the Ambrosia Banquet Room out on Highway 18 leading into the burbs.
This glitz-palace was perfect for wedding receptions, reunions, Christmas parties, and always booked six months in advance. A couple of cast-concrete lions bookended the entrance steps. In the middle of the front parking lot stood a massive fountain with a pair of cherubs lit from under the water with colored floodlights. The lobby featured a red carpet and a huge chandelier. All that was missing were a couple of slot machines. Many a made-guy earned bones as a parking valet there. I did, too, but that was eons ago.
Cherry, my girl, was the featured dancer at the Blue Moon on the night Reno disappeared. One minute, Reno was there sipping Dewar’s, the next he was gone. According to Tiny, Fortuna cops were called in and they found in our Blue Moon office a ransom note in lipstick, with a number, a time to phone and the words one cool million.
Tiny managed the Blue Moon with me. I’d been out that night at a Fortuna State basketball game watching my nephew pull down rebounds. Tiny, along with Cherry and a new dancer named Vera, had been taken into FPD custody and hammered with questions. What time had they last seen Reno, for how long in his employ, did they recall anything suspicious before his disappearance? They ID’d his car, a white Lexus with gold trim, still in the parking lot. Cops phoned his wife. She said he wasn’t home. For a professional mobster, Reno was known as a straight-up operator, had very few enemies, so this was a surprise.
Reno was a sly silver fox, a capo. Tiny feared he’d been whacked. What happened between those in the upper echelons was seldom the business of those like Tiny and me who served them. Cherry and Vera spoke of Reno as a “giving” boss. Tiny described him as a “charitable man” who contributed to the policemen’s benevolent fund and the firemen’s ball and offered regular bonuses to his kitchen staff at the Ambrosia. He threw parties for his workers, treated them to prime rib and lobster and all the Asti they could drink.
Cherry’s line was priceless: “Why would anyone want to hurt such a kind man?”
For all his admirable qualities, I could have given a dozen reasons, but nobody was asking me. So, after hearing from Tiny, I started snooping and learned Reno had recently invested in a new enterprise, a neo-food restaurant called Cut that was being managed by a Yakuza operative named Taka and funded by both Yakuza and Russian interests. His capo status meant nothing to them.
For the most part, Reno was a gentleman and a lady’s man. He got along well with players from other mobs. His secret, he once told me, was respect, of course, and that he stayed away from narcotics and guns. Running a dive and a banquet hall and paying off cops was old-school diplomacy that didn’t carry enough cred to make one feared. This gave me one more reason to wonder why anyone would even bother with Reno.
Cut featured a nouveau-styled cuisine that attorneys on diets tended to like. When I asked Cherry if she’d eaten there—and she had—she told me her drizzled-with-miso-Asian-inspired steak entree had looked like an angle Picasso might have used for one of his cubist renderings. Gotta love Cherry’s esoteric humor.
Word had gotten out, so I went to Cut to poke around. I spoke to Taka directly and got his permission. None of his doormen, kitchen or wait staff knew anything out of the ordinary. I phoned or else visited some of Reno’s so-called friends and associates, including his wife by his second marriage (he was on his third), and then I dropped in on old friend Danny Hernandez of the Fortuna police. Danny suspected that Reno owed money to people from out of town. Who didn’t? Yet he, too, was surprised this had happened.
Danny was a sweetheart. A cop on the take, but he had mouths to feed. “Reno tended to keep a low profile. Makes no sense.”
“But he’s had his share of enemies,” I said. “Maybe someone’s back in town.”
From what I could glean from Danny, the FPD had no plans to assign a detective to the case. The file on Reno would stay open and leads would be gathered and assessed. All par for the course. This was a mob kidnapping. Let the mob handle it.
Was it the mob? I didn’t think so. I then phoned another cop crone from days gone by, one Sergeant Theo Marvin; we’d bowled in a league together at Fortune Star Lanes, one of only three remaining alleys in the city. Theo was a heck of a bowler and headed up the Fortune Hill precinct house. He told me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, my friend. I know Reno wasn’t always exemplary in his business dealings, but you got crummier fish to fry.”
“What you mean? Take matters into my own hands?”
“How you do it is your business. All I know is they found some new evidence. Jake Zane’s sentence got reduced. There’s just no evidence. He’s out on parole.”
A blessing from Theo. Jake Zane had been in stir for at least a nickel and I’d forgotten about him. He was the brother of Reno’s second wife. He’d botched a warehouse heist for Reno in which a young cop, a black man with a wife and three kids, had been shot dead in the chest. There’d been a huge outcry for justice, but nobody knew the perp and there was no way Reno would take the fall. Since Jake Zane had been there and, essentially, in charge, Reno snitched on him. By doing so, Reno cleared his name and made the cops look good. What I knew about that warehouse job was that three men, including Jake, had been hired. I didn’t know the names or whereabouts of the other two. One of them had been the perp. Not Jake.
I started on the phone with Reno’s second wife, Brigid, Jake’s sister. I begged her, explaining that her brother was in deep trouble and I could maybe help him. She agreed, with reluctance, to meet me at Scarlet O’Hara’s.
“He wanted out, he got out,” she said. She didn’t want to order a drink, or to stay long.
“I know about Reno. It’s your brother I want. You think he’s around? Who’s he run with? He got a girl?”
She said Jake was always wild and even the likes of Reno couldn’t keep up with him. “He likes the high drama.”
“So, then a kidnapping does fit. Doesn’t it?”
She shrugged. “What kidnapping? It’s your stinkin’ world, not mine. You got five more minutes with me. You do know, how much I despise you, right?”
I used those minutes wisely, describing what had happened. She admitted that she genuinely doubted her brother’s sanity.
“Jake never grew up. He thought working for Reno was the be-all and end-all. It was sordid. I’m glad Reno dumped me for some tramp. That man was never faithful. I have no idea what Jake saw in him. Or what I did, either.”
“Money, that’s what. You got a nice house out of the divorce settlement, didn’t you?”
“Bet your ass, I did. Had it coming to me. But the smartest thing was that he and I never had kids together. He learned his lesson from his first marriage.”
“You think they got something to do with this?”
“His kids? No. He took care of them. Money-wise, anyways. Domenic, his son, he’s still around Fortuna. His daughter, I don’t know. She’s long gone. I never got that close to them.”
“You sure you ain’t seen Jake around?”
“Even if I had, you think I’d tell you?”
I got the picture. She wasn’t stupid. She rose and started to leave. Then she stopped. “But Jake, he was the one Reno was closest to. They had a real almost father-son bond.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“I was even a little jealous of it. Kinda gay almost. But not gay. You know, Jake and me, we lost our father early. Maybe Reno fit that role for him.”
“But why kidnapping?”
“Why else? You said so yourself. Money. Jake was locked up, took the blame, had his name smeared all over the city as a possible cop killer, even though there wasn’t any evidence. His friendship with Reno was something he valued. How much now I can’t say. I just know for sure that Jake loved him very much.”
“At one time, anyway, right?”
She nodded. I thanked her and asked if I could speak with her again, if necessary. She said not a chance. She was leaving town for a while. “Sordid,” she said. “I’ve had it up to here with everything sordid.”
Many a cop in Fortuna was now on the hunt for Jake Zane. He had to be our man. I phoned Fortuna Savings where he’d worked as a teller before getting entangled with Reno. I got lucky and showed up before any cops had. There was one manager who’d been there with Jake years ago and after I spoke with him face to face, he agreed to give me five minutes. His name was Arthur Brand.
“When Jake was here working for you, did he have a girl?”
“He had a few, I suppose, but there was one, yeah, she’d even come by now and then.”
That girl’s name was Nina Dart, a former model now a buyer for a clothing boutique on the city’s tony west side. Arthur guessed they’d been together about eight years, maybe more. He found her Facebook page for me, complete with her address and current status—single. She still looked hot to trot, too. I kissed old Arthur on his bald head as I thanked him, adding, “I only took five minutes. A deal’s a deal.”
I beat it out of there before he could even reply. I was no genius, but I knew where I’d find Jake Zane. I did more searching online and found it obvious that Nina spent lavishly on clothes and visits to fashion shows. I phoned Danny, calling in a favor, asking if he’d look up her record. We learned she’d been busted once for possession of a controlled substance. Danny guessed if not cocaine then amphetamines, used commonly enough among models. I shared with Danny what I knew. It wasn’t much, but it was more than he had and he was grateful.
“Get you the bust on Jake Zane kidnapper,” I told him. “Might even merit you a promotion.”
He liked hearing that. I told him to phone Theo, as well, to fill him in, but not to use my name. Then I tracked down Reno’s son, Domenic, who owned a dry-cleaning business, conveniently enough for me, not far from Nina’s west side address. I’d met Domenic a few times and he recognized me when I walked in. He’d put on weight and lost some hair and he balked, at first, until I told him his old man was still alive and that I was determined to find him. He liked hearing that, but he was justly skeptical.
“I didn’t know there was so much honor among thieves.”
“There isn’t, Dom. It’s why he was nipped. I think he’s tied up in an apartment just down the street from here.”
I told him about Jake Zane and Nina and this put him at ease because he knew as much about them as I did, if not more. He’d been closer to his mother, who’d died of cancer, and it was her death that had kept him in Fortuna and helped him grow closer to his father and Brigid. He explained that when Reno and Jake Zane were first starting out together, Jake was dating Nina, but she wanted him to move to the west coast so she could get into television. Jake had convinced her to stay, promising her he’d be owning at least one lucrative local restaurant and a fancy bar and maybe a modeling agency once he and Reno finished some business together.
“Jake was smart,” said Domenic. “No strip-tease-dump and drug-dealing tycoon. He wanted no part of that. He wanted to marry Nina. I think she wanted that, too. There was a time when I went out with all of them, me and my wife and Brigid and Dad. It was good for a while.”
“But I think your old man got in the way, didn’t he?”
Domenic shrugged. “If you mean, was he sleeping with Nina, yeah, probably.”
“My guess is that Jake didn’t even learn that until after he went to prison.”
“What’s the word?” asked Domenic. “Motive? My Dad isn’t stupid. He just let Nina go.”
“He was her Sugar Daddy, nothing Jake could be.”
“She was a handful. And expensive. Still, Dad was generous to her maybe just to keep her quiet. I think she was ungrateful and got bored with him.”
“And Jake, young and ambitious, must have been furious when he learned that about your father.”
“Sleep with canines,” said Domenic. “Wake up with fleas.”
A kidnapping. A high-stakes gambit and not a choice any amateur should make. All a question of execution. Too many steps are required. Snare the hostage. Pick up the ransom. They’re better for cop TV programs and more common than they should be. I think they speak to the ignorance of many a two-bit criminal. At least with a hit, you know a pro is getting paid. The job gets done. How well and when and for how much money are other questions.
I shared these ruminations with Tiny and Cherry over Moo Shi Chicken at the Dragon Lantern House. Danny had received another call from me and I’d convinced him to send over boots to watch Nina’s place. Sure enough, after a week of surveillance they saw Jake Zane open the front door one night to pay for a pizza delivery order. They sent in a team, stormed the place and while Nina screamed, Jake went for his Glock and was killed immediately. They found Reno drinking Dewar’s and watching ESPN highlights in the basement.
Turned out, Reno was in on the ruse from the start. He owed Taka money, with interest, for Cut, which was not turning its expected profit. He also owed to other interests, so he’d hatched a plan. He understood that Jake was furious with him, having learned he’d had a long-term fling with Nina. Jake could forgive Nina, he loved her, but he couldn’t forgive Reno, who he felt had twice betrayed him. Reno, always smooth, convinced Jake they’d all get fat on ransom money. But kidnappings are too complex and rarely go as planned, even for someone with Reno’s experience.
“Who’d they intend to get the ransom from? That’s the problem,” said Tiny. “I mean, I know Reno’s made, a true player, but there’s a lot of little spokes on one big wheel and a cool million don’t come easy. And he’s like all of us. Disposable.”
“Tiny, I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
I watched Tiny curse, having spilled soy sauce on his new tie.
“Just take it off,” Cherry told him. “Loosen up.”
“Do that,” I said. “I’ll get it dry-cleaned for you. I know a good place.”
Tiny took our advice. He ordered another round of Mai Tais. The three of us continued eating. Reno would do country-club time. Nina was a widow and one cop’s murder remained unsolved, though the people of Fortuna would accept Jake had been guilty, after all. I was just glad to still be alive on the food chain. Cherry leaned against me and ran her hand along my thigh. For March in Fortuna, the night felt warm.
Basil Rosa is the pen name of John Michael Flynn, who was the 2017 Writer in Residence at Carl Sandburg’s home, Connemara, in North Carolina. In 2015 he completed a one-year English Language Fellowship through the US State Department in Khabarovsk, Russia. Poetry collections include Restless Vanishings, and Keepers Meet Questing Eyes from Leaf Garden Press, and Blackbird Once Wild Now Tame translated from the Romanian of Nicolae Dabija. He’s published three collections of short stories, his most recent Off To The Next Wherever from Fomite Books. In 2019 Jaffa Books of Australia will publish a trilogy of novels from him writing as Basil Rosa: A Million Miles From Tehran, Tax Free Ride On A Midnight Carousel, and A Laugh At Sex. He teaches at TED University in Ankara, Turkey. Visit him at www.basilrosa.com.