After the third time Primo broke into his house, Leonardo learned to accept that Primo would be wherever Primo wanted to be, propelled by his grand plan into whatever space would hold him, and nothing in God’s power would deter him, even if that meant Leonardo was out of bed at three in the morning again, shivering in his kitchen, his bare feet cold on the tiles.
Primo helped himself to Leonardo’s cigarettes, Regina’s wine, Francesco’s cheese, which they’d made together from the small flock of sheep Leonardo still kept, largely in vain, and Primo took it all with the cold glint in his eye that said it was his by right anyway, and to question him would be suicidal foolishness.
Tonight, Primo was grinning around his mouthful of smoke, tapping his blunt fingers into the stack of papers on the table. “Leo, we’ve done it,” he said, when Leonardo put the gun down. “We’re going to be billionaires. Sit down. Take a look.”
Leonardo sat down. Primo poured him a drink. Leonardo drank it. It was his wine, and his house and Primo was hosting him at his own table. This was just how it would be, from now on.
Leonardo quietly let go of the notion of growing olives in retirement, and looked at what Primo was offering him.
It was a letter, informal, the kind of thing which one sent to a friend to let them know something was happening before it happened, neatly penned and on anonymous paper. It simply said: Plans for the port will be approved next week.
“Who sent you this?” Leonardo asked him, almost not believing his own eyes.
“Friends in Rome,” Primo said, with the acidic calm he sometimes exuded, topping up his own glass, cigarette burning down towards his knuckles. “Congratulations, Leo. We are celebrating. Don’t look so fucking glum.”
“Stop waking me up in the middle of the night if you want me to be cheerful.”
“If I want you cheerful I’ll fucking tell you. You know what to do,” Primo said, smiling at him, a hint of teeth in the darkness, a puff of wine-scented smoke against Leonardo’s face, and then he was gone, leaving his mess behind, and the remains of the letter in the ashtray, curling up as the glowing end of Primo’s last cigarette incinerated it.
“I don’t understand why he can’t talk to me in the morning,” Leonardo said to Regina, when he had finished cleaning up and gone back to bed. She had curlers in her hair and a smudge of cream in her eyebrow which hadn’t soaked in, and Leonardo felt a sudden crush of love for her, like a chest pain. The thought of her, here, when Primo was so close was in its own way alarming, despite the fact that she and Primo had only ten years of difference between them. She remembered him too. Everyone remembered Primo.
Regina looked troubled but didn’t answer.
“He’s always been a night person,” she said. “Even as a boy, remember? He used to skulk around the mountains, hunting.”
“Yes, well if he wants me to be useful, I need to sleep.”
“I’m not sure that’s ever as straightforward as you think it is,” she said, running a hand through his disordered hair. “Maybe he comes here because he knows you won’t be happy to see him. You’ll be honest.”
“One day I’ll honestly shoot him in the face,” Leonardo grumbled, but he went back to sleep before dawn caught him anyway, soothed by Regina’s even little snores.
The port took shape around Primo.
Leonardo watched it form out of nothing and kept the numbers in line, wondering what would happen if Primo checked his work. It was difficult to say, because he almost never did, and when he did, it was over a drink, letting Leonardo give him an account of their outgoings without anything between them but a bottle. Primo listened, and he asked questions, and he never asked to see the evidence. He had meant it, when he said Leonardo was to be trusted. He had extended to Leonardo a noose with which to hang himself, if he fucked Primo over. Primo trusted him because Primo trusted in his own ability to keep a clean house, and Leonardo was not under the impression it meant he had free reign to line his own pockets. In a way it was worse to see it, and to know that when Primo smiled at him he meant it, in the way Primo always meant it: I see you. I know who you are.
They sat in the office in the temporary building erected for the construction project with a bottle of good chianti Primo had unearthed from somewhere, and Leonardo rattled off the numbers for him, the cash, the bribes, the government subsidies, the incoming funds from their rackets, all of it cleanly laundered, fresh as newly-broken ground as soon as it went into construction.
“And the minister? The anti-corruption one, face in all the papers?”
Leonardo knew that Primo was perfectly aware of his name. “Set up with a very nice girl.”
“Fantastic.” Primo finished his glass and slammed it down, leaving the rest of the bottle on the table. “You teach your boy this?”
Primo said it like it was a magic trick he’d just learned the secret of, something thrilling and mildly pyrotechnic. Leonardo wondered every time what went on inside his head, that something essentially comprised of the shell game played on corners on a large and slightly more corrupt scale could be so exciting to him, but of course, it wasn’t the numbers, it was the power behind them. One day, Primo would ask to see Leonardo’s proofs. Trying to imagine him with a stack of reports was an alien concept, like trying to put a tiger in a suit, but here he was, trousers neatly pressed and pinstripes tracing up the side of his legs, buttons of his shirt undone over his chest, displaying an ancient gold cross and several saints in a tangle of chains.
Primo waved at him, leaning across the table so the shirt pulled into his shoulders. It was a nice one, a cream colour which made his sallow face look a bit healthier. “Come on, I went to look at what we’re doing. I want to walk. You need some air. Can’t drink anymore? You really are getting old.”
The winter breeze was welcome, stiff and cold, right off the water. There had been nothing here, two years ago. There had been farmers right down to the waterline, and a road along the coast. Nothing but deep water and invisible opportunity. Now there was concrete everywhere, stacks going down, jetties coming up, kilometres of it. Primo lit a cigarette and passed it to Leonardo, then opened his arms to the wind, grinning wide enough to split his face. “Look at this,” he said, quietly. “Fucking look at it.”
“I’m looking, Primo.”
“But do you see it?” he asked, still baring his teeth, strong and white despite the tobacco and the coffee which Leonardo thought sometimes was all that kept Primo alive between plates of pasta someone put in front of him when he wasn’t looking. “We’re making ourselves a licence to print money. Do you think you can handle it?”
“Like Getty handled it?” It fell out of Leonardo’s mouth, teased from his mind by the wine and the way Primo had which made Leonardo careless around him. The paradox of his regard, that Leonardo knew Primo would kill him if he felt he had to, but the rules were clear enough that beyond them, Leonardo was free. “You want to be like that?”
“Nobody will kidnap Francesco.” Primo stopped walking, wind lifting his hair off his neck. It was longer now than Leonardo had ever seen it, grown out of its careful cut and down around his shoulders. Leonardo wondered if it was deliberate, like with everything Primo did to himself. Leonardo wondered how he he had immediately made the leap to Leonardo’s worst fear like clockwork, like an Olympic fucking gymnast.
“Would you pay?”
“Why do you keep asking?”
“Would you pay like Getty paid?”
Primo stared at him. “I’d kill them.” Primo said it simply. A fact. “That’s why he won’t be kidnapped. I’ve been reading. You know how many people die drilling for oil? Getty oil?”
“Since when do you read?”
“Since always,” Primo said, the light disappearing from his horribly pale eyes as though nothing bright had ever animated them. Then Primo smiled, aiming it at him. “So? Do you know how many people die drilling for Getty?”
Leonardo couldn’t have begun to guess, so he said the worst thing he possibly could have. “You need a girlfriend, Primo. Get you off sometimes, maybe you’ll sleep better. You could stop reading about oil rigs.”
“Find me one.”
“What do I pay you for, Leo? If you think I need a girlfriend, find me a girlfriend. A nice-looking one, well-dressed. I don’t care if she can cook or not.”
“What about how she fucks?”
Primo took a long drag on his cigarette, cheeks hollowing out around the butt before smoke began pouring out of his nose, making his eyes look grey through the haze. “Doesn’t matter, does it?”
Leonardo tried to think of an answer to that very dangerous question, and couldn’t find one. “If you want to keep paying for it I can find you a live-in.”
“Like Regina, eh?” Primo said, casually cruel, the genesis of their conversation forgotten, sent off the corniche and into the water by Leonardo’s strike, a blow aimed under Primo’s surprisingly thick skin. Primo flicked the end of his cigarette at a dormant crane, the half-built harbour sketched out in concrete around them, the beginning of an empire which only Primo seemed to see the edges of. “She cooks, too? Got your money’s worth.”
Leonardo slapped him, as hard as he could, just to stop him talking. Leonardo didn’t want to hear anything he’d have to remember. “Never speak about my wife like that again, do you understand me? I’ll walk, Primo. I fucking will. She’s saved our skins more times than you could ever know.”
Primo grabbed him by the hair, quick as a fish, his other hand cupping Leonardo’s cheek, thumb pressed so close to his eye Leonardo briefly wondered if he was about to pop it right out of Leonardo’s skull. There was something that happened when Primo looked at him like that, close enough for Leonardo to see the unevenness of his pupils from some long-ago childhood head wound, the glassy blue of Primo’s irises almost invisible against his bloodshot sclera, which made Leonardo feel as though he were being broken down for parts. Primo’s thumb began to stroke his cheekbone, still under the eye, tugging lightly at the bottom of his eyelid so Leonardo's eyes began to water. “You really think you will, yeah?” Primo mused, close enough that Leonardo could smell the smoke which clung to his skin, the scent of his hair, the cologne which Primo seemed to change as the mood took him, refusing to let himself become a consistent sense-memory. Sometimes, Leonardo forgot Primo’s preternatural grasp of detail, his indelible memory, the way he saw roads where other people saw cracks. He would never forget what Leonardo had said to him. “You really think you’ll walk away from me.”
“Don’t insult my wife.”
“I protect your son, I can say anything I want about your wife.”
“You claim my son. I don’t think that’s protection, do you?”
Primo grinned at him. Leonardo wondered if there was cocaine in his teeth, if he’d be able to taste it.
“Leo, you’ve got more balls than I thought.”
“You have the devil’s own mouth. God help whatever poor cunt takes your cock.”
Primo kissed him as though it had always been inevitable. His mouth was very warm, and he tasted like smoke and yes, a tiny, acrid hint of cocaine, invincible and awful and everything Leonardo had begun to suspect was true, lurking under the surface.
Primo’s house was on the hill above the port.
He had taken over an old farmhouse tucked in against the wind and left it mostly the way it had always been, except for the kind of renovations he’d done himself, useful nooks and crannies made secure, a few paintings on the wall which indicated nothing of his taste for the medium and everything about what people had given him.
A small, empty kitchen with an ashtray on the table and a huge, whitewashed bedroom, beams in the ceiling crooked and bowed but high enough that even someone as tall as Primo was didn’t need to think of stooping.
The floorboards creaked with every step. It was astonishingly clean, everything scrubbed down and salted, even the ever-present scent of cigarettes almost clinical in its intensity.
From the high bedroom window, the shape of the jetties looked like an ear.
Leonardo hadn’t been inside before. They did business at the office, a legitimate enterprise between them, full of small men in suits who looked at Primo like he was God’s gift to Calabria. Maybe he was. Maybe God had a cruel sense of humour.
“Primo.” Leonardo looked back at Primo in the darkness of his cavernous bedroom, a great, plush bed, the stacks of books, the neatly arranged wardrobe, the rifle in the corner by the curtains, the long, white shape of him still predatory even in rest.
Leonardo couldn’t help but look at him, the stretch of his long torso, the surprising density of his legs and the soft, spent thickness of his cock against his thigh, the way his eyes caught the light wherever it was. “Did you mean for it to look like an ear?”
Primo smirked at him, smoothing two fingers through his moustache. “Light me a cigarette, Leo,” he ordered, “who says it looks like an ear?”
You’re a monster Leonardo thought, obeying him, remembering the taste of his skin, the inexorable press of his fingers, the way that -- for an instant -- something in Primo had been alive and warm. He looked younger when he fucked.
Leonardo took the last cigarette out of the pack and shared it with him, leaning back against the pillows. He’d been a young man once, too, and hadn’t been afraid of other young men. It had passed, when he met Regina. He had thought it was gone, a relic of youth, the kind of thing brash boys goaded each other into. Primo wasn’t quite brash, and had hardly been a boy. “When you came back from National Service a few of them thought you’d deserted, you know.”
“Who says I didn’t?” Primo took the cigarette out of Leo’s fingers and placed it between his lips, talking around it as he reached for the little vial of cocaine he always had nearby, scraping a bit of it out and snorting it directly off his nail before he silently offered some to Leonardo.
It had never been Leonardo’s drug of choice. He preferred nothing at all, disliking the manic edge it gave him. He declined, and Primo didn’t insist, handing him back the cigarette.
“You’re too smart,” Leonardo said. “Only an idiot would think you’d just walk off a base and come straight home.”
“What’s your point?”
“Why’d you get discharged, Primo?”
Primo’s smirk deepened into a smile, a leonine curl to his lips, closed over a secret. “Good behaviour,” he said. “Get out, I’m sick of looking at you. I knew you’d fuck like a builder. In, out, bang the nail in crooked and leave. Give my love to Regina.”
“Come for dinner,” Leonardo said, feeling his back creak as he found his clothes. “Francesco will be happy to see you.”
Primo smoked at him in silence, watching him leave without a word.
Primo abhorred routine, loathed a standing appointment, did things on his own warped time. He still had an open door to local politicians, to villagers from home with concerns, to the little boys who congregated around Francesco, who had become something of a teenage celebrity in the village.
It made Leonardo twitch, seeing Francesco carry the knife Don Salvatore had given him, the one he’d used to cut off the Getty boy’s ear. Ah, Paul. He hadn’t deserved what happened to him. He hadn’t done anything but be born, but that was all any of them had done, at first.
Francesco hadn’t stopped carrying the knife, and Leonardo hadn’t tried to make him. It had been Don Salvatore’s last declaration to them all: you will stay, and you will serve your people. Primo had taken it as a joke, later, that Francesco had used it on the first day he’d had it to declare his loyalty to Primo instead of Salvatore. Leonardo had taken it to mean that Francesco was capable of answering the desperate plea of a hostage who hadn’t wanted to die.
In their own ways, all of them, they had John Paul Getty the Third to thank for their fortunes. Leonardo perhaps most of all, because Paul had told him it hadn’t been an act of cruelty on Francesco’s part, his mutilation, and asked him to forgive a boy he didn’t know. Paul had given him a tiny sliver of hope that someday Francesco might escape this, still.
Primo had no such illusions, but Primo hadn’t been a child for very long at all, and Leonardo hated to think about what he might have been had he ever had a chance to be.
Manhood imposed itself on them all differently, and Primo’s car-crash encounter with it had perhaps been the worst of them all.
He showed up for dinner at ten in the evening on a Thursday, when Regina was setting out the second course and Francesco was itching to go out with his friends, his teenage griping dead in his mouth the instant Primo appeared in the doorway, his leather jacket heavy with a gun in the pocket and his hands full of expensive port. He had sunglasses on, lightly tinted, and Leonardo guessed he must be going up or coming down, but his tight smile said he knew he was about to be the life of the party in either case.
“Primo!” Francesco explained sitting up straighter. “Are you coming in?”
“I was invited,” Primo said slowly, taking off his glasses. Going up, Leonardo thought, looking at his pupils. “Aren’t I?”
Regina looked at Leonardo, catching his eyes and asking him the unspoken question of whether it was possible to turn him away. “Of course he’s coming in,” Leonardo said to them all. “He’s too thin, look at him, you don’t know how good you have it, Francesco, with your mother’s cooking.”
Primo looked at Regina, glass-animal eyes full of something Leonardo didn’t have a name for. “She’s really something, it’s true.”
“I’ll set you a place,” Regina said, calmly. “Wine?”
Primo waggled the bottle of port at her. “Bring another glass, we’ll all have some.” And then he sat down, making himself a space with a chair from beside the kitchen counter, throwing his jacket off on the back of it, sound of the gun thunking into the wood louder than the slam of blood in Leonardo’s ears.
Leonardo watched Regina’s departing back and wished he could speak to her through his mind, through the grace of God, somehow, and ask her to be kind.
As always, she understood things better than he gave her credit for, because she brought back a plate and four port glasses, and while Primo was pouring it, she made sure everyone had enough lamb to feed an army, laughed at a joke, and took up her glass. “Nice to see you, Primo,” she said. “Look, you’ve made Francesco very happy.”
Francesco blushed to the roots of his dark hair, exclaiming something rude out of embarrassment to have been caught out in his hero worship. He drank his port awkwardly, still, like a child with a food they didn’t like but knew their parents would make them finish.
Leonardo drank his own, marvelling at how good it really was, smooth and thick and sweet, with the tannic tang of excellent wine hiding behind its softness. “Fantastic.”
“Fantastic,” Primo echoed, ignoring his food until Francesco asked him how it was, playing at adulthood with abandon.
Regina ate in silence, watching their son, an expression Leonardo could only describe as longing on her face. Leonardo understood. He understood it more than he could have said, and had no words to tell her; here was everything Francesco thought a man was, a person Leonardo had known since he too had been a boy, and watched become something else.
Leonardo sat back to listen when Primo began telling Francesco a story, leaving his fork on the table again so he could use his hands to illustrate the shapes he was spinning, talking about a night out in Rome, an encounter with locals, a dialectical misunderstanding, something innocent and likely false. Francesco listened, rapt, trying out the Roman words in his mouth and laughing.
Leonardo took Regina’s hand under the table, stroked her knuckles until she looked at him. There was a question in her eyes he still couldn’t answer, but it was one they were asking each other.
“Never been to Rome?” Primo asked, leaning forward over the table, breaking Leonardo out of his thoughts. “The boy’s never been to Rome? What kind of father are you?”
Better than anyone you had, I hope, Leonardo didn’t say. “A protective one.”
“We’ll have to change that,” Primo said, forming a plan right before Leonardo’s eyes. “Everyone likes opera, don’t they?”
“I like opera,” Francesco volunteered, naked hope on his face.
Francesco had never sat through a record in his life, and Leonardo would stake his life on it, but even if Primo could tell it was a lie, he banged the table and announced it done, then poured the last of the port into Regina’s glass. “So, we’ll go to the opera. When’s your birthday, Francesco? Three weeks and two days, no?”
“Yes,” Regina said, faintly. “That’s right.”
“I’ll be sixteen,” Francesco announced proudly.
“A great age,” Primo agreed. “Wouldn’t you say, Leo?”
The opera was probably excellent. Primo had a surprising affinity for good taste, though he was just as prone to drinking whatever village rotgut someone was trying to ply him with, and with mud on his trousers and blood on the barrel of his shotgun as often as in new clothes.
He’d dressed for the occasion, so they all had.
Leonardo didn’t like Rome. He felt like a country mouse every time, disliked the noise and the fray of it, the way Romans had of shouting at each other in passing, the constant drone of expensive cars and the smell of the exhaust. It reminded him in some way of burning bodies, the petrol-tang in the air and the smoke from distant factories going up against the blue sky. Leonardo preferred the mountains. Perhaps he really was too Calabrian to stomach what they were doing like this, to know he’d be in Rome often, now, if Primo chose to go.
He wasn’t sure whether to read into the opera Primo had chosen for them, but when the curtain went up on Tancredi Primo was already sitting next to Leo with his arm over the back of his seat, fingers resting against Leonardo’s collar, and he whispered in his ear: “we’re close enough to see their eyes. I thought he’d like that.”
The story was an old one, but it had a new ending, unearthed sometime in the last few years, and Leonardo had never heard a voice like Marylin Horne’s in all his life, but all his breath was gone, sucked out by the rapt attention Primo paid to the performance, the nearly-childlike focus he had on something fascinating and bright.
By the end -- when Tancredi had been left joyful in the arms of his love, who had been proven loyal and brave, as such things nearly always went in opera -- Primo was smiling a very small smile, like he knew something brand new.
Francesco had fallen asleep between Leonardo and Regina, and it took the applause to wake him.
When they had managed to exit the theatre with the rest of the crowd, four inconspicuous figures among the masses, Francesco had revived enough to look bashful over his lack of interest, but Regina looked genuinely worried, her hair spread out behind her by the wind and her dress wrapping itself around her calves like a tall, concerned Venus on the pavement, her hands on her son’s shoulders as though she alone could straighten them.
“Well,” Primo said, very quietly, “what did you think?”
“I liked the original ending better,” Leonardo said.
Primo looked at him, standing at his ease with his hands in the pockets of his tight trousers, pulling them taut across the front of his legs. He looked at home here, but he looked at home wherever he was, these days, Leonardo had noticed. He always had an air of knowing, like he was aware of exactly who he was, and if Rome thought he wasn’t a good fit he’d make it a problem. “You liked it when Tancredi died happy, eh? This way he has to live with his victory, Leo. Thought you might enjoy it.”
“Liar,” Primo said, waving a hand at him, delighted with himself. “You want to go home to your fucking sheep.”
“Fuck you, Primo. Let’s go eat, I’m starving.”
“I liked it,” Regina said, still holding Francesco, whose bashfulness had progressed to a sullen teenage silence at being ignored. “I’m glad they got to live this time. It always made me so sad, that the noble women always lose out in the end. Shall we find the restaurant?”
Primo tilted his chin at her, letting his hair fall away from his face, and just looked, faint curl to his lips the only indication that he had even heard her speak. “Regina, you surprise me,” he said. “I didn’t take you for an opera lover. I remember when you used to--”
“Primo, shut up. I used to plait your hair and clean your cuts like every other girl in the village, and then you’d disappear when you’d gotten what you wanted, and I’m too tired for this. I liked it. Thank you for taking us. Come on, Francesco, I think it’s this way.”
Francesco stood his ground, in the space of a heartbeat. “I’m sorry I fell asleep.”
“Bored?” Primo asked, looking down at him.
Leonardo’s throat hitched, involuntary, knowing that when Primo asked a question like that it never ended well. Regina had already stood between him and a little victory, and Leonardo had no idea what he’d do.
Primo smiled at Francesco and bent towards him. He swept a thumb across Francesco’s cheek, then tapped him lightly on the face, his smile widening to a grin. “Don’t lie to me. Next year we’ll just go hunting, and you can show me how you shoot.” He glanced at Leonardo. “We already know you can use a knife.”
Primo straightened into a stretch and lit a cigarette, then another, and a third, until he’d handed one to all of them, even Francesco, who held it like a holy relic bestowed by a saint, and didn’t know how to smoke it. Primo shook out his shoulders, tossed his hair and walked off in the opposite direction from where Regina had started to go, calling back over his shoulder that they should follow him if they wanted the best vongole this side of the city, though Leonardo knew Primo didn’t much care for them at all.
Their hotel was out of town in Tivoli, small, opulent, tucked away near the ruins of Hadrian’s villa.
Let it never be said Primo had no sense of humour.
Regina was naked in the heat, the window of their palatial room cracked open, the door to the adjoining bedroom for Francesco only slightly ajar, a compromise between worried parents and embarrassed teenager, and a great joke on the part of Primo, who had, Leonardo suspected, arranged it so they wouldn’t be able to make it into a romantic moment.
Leonardo was not in a particularly romantic mood in any case, and it was too hot to sleep, the air too close and too acrid, and the weight of the city all around them.
Regina was awake too, eyes half open, watching him. “Leo. What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.” he hated to lie to her, but in this case, it wasn’t untrue, just not the whole of it. He had no idea how to tell her the whole of it. “He’s being friendly, I think. You know what he’s like.”
“Do I want to know what he’s like, right now?”
“Regina. What we’re doing… there’s no out, now. There’s nothing to do except just… do it.”
She put a hand on his chest, stroking through the hair there, thick and greying, then over the softness of his belly, thinner than he’d been two years ago, when he had been thinking of retiring to farm in peace. When he had been thinking maybe Francesco would go to university. When he had been thinking maybe he’d buried his last shotgunned corpse.
“We’ll all be rich. Not just some of us. That’s what he’s after, isn’t it?”
If he closed his eyes, he could smell him. Leonardo wondered what was wrong with him, that he thought he would end up back in Primo’s bed, that all of his decisions would lead him there, and couldn’t muster any disgust, just a litany of thoughts about what it meant to be Primo’s like that.
His life might have been different, if he’d left Calabria. He might have had a different ending. “I want to get Francesco out, Regina.”
She kissed him gently, on the corner of his lips. “He trusts you. Be careful.”
Leonardo slipped into a fitful doze, too warm under the covers, too warm in the city, too close to Primo, roaming somewhere nearby.
A nasty, ungenerous part of Leonardo wondered if Primo had found himself some company for the night, but the rest of him knew he hadn’t. Primo wouldn’t lay himself out like that, alone in the capital, not when he had people who knew him nearby.
Leonardo had only just dropped off when someone scratched at the door, a deliberate scrape of nails on varnish.
Regina didn’t wake up, or pretended not to.
Leonardo got out of bed.
“No nightshirt and slippers this time?” Primo asked, a slipshod mania in his rasping voice. “Come on, you’ve slept enough.”
Leonardo dressed quickly, quietly, wondering whether this would be a night for shame or a night for something else, and couldn’t decide which was better.
Primo was waiting outside the hotel in the car, a smudge of cocaine around his left nostril, illuminated by a street lamp. He sniffed once, no grin to punctuate it, and handed Leonardo a gun, a little pistol with a snub nose and six bullets, Leonardo’s preferred size, shape, weight. “I don’t want that.”
“Too bad,” Primo said. “We’re going visiting.”
“You remember our friend, the minister? Set up with a nice girl, you said. Well, that nice girl has been working very hard. He speaks to journalists. He drops hints. He has a nice little place in Rome, just a little bolthole where he has parties. He invites press. Fucking lefties and communists. Wants to get good with them. Wants to make Italy a more honest place.”
“How do you know that?”
Primo shrugged, pulling the slide back on his own gun. “You’ve always underestimated whores, Leo. You didn’t think I’d come all this way just for a fucking opera, did you?” He took a wild, deep breath, the tiny hint of teeth between his lips shockingly bright, a horrible spear to Leo’s guts. “You know me better, old man.”
They drove back to Reggio Calabria after breakfast.
Primo patted the front seat for Francesco, and left Leonardo and Regina alone in the back.
No chauffeur for Primo, who still drove his anonymous Alfa Romeo everywhere, unless he had a pressing need not to, and Leonardo wondered every time how long it took him to clean the bloodstains out of the back, how many people had been in this very backseat and not quite known it was the last place they’d ever sit.
Primo let Francesco fiddle with the radio, singing along with the songs in Italian and making almost the right sounds over the English ones to Leonardo’s trained ear.
Even Leonardo knew ‘You’re So Vain.’ Apparently, so did Primo, showcasing his surprising voice, rarely on display.
“I didn’t know you spoke English,” Francesco said, recovered from his night of mortification.
Primo flicked the end of his third cigarette out the window. “I’m learning. Pass me that.” He snapped his fingers for the map. “Find Pompeii for me.”
Regina glanced at Leonardo and said nothing, the tilt of her eyebrow a faint question.
“Detour,” Primo said, grinning. “Light me another.”
They reached Pompeii in mid-afternoon, after Primo had stopped for a piss on the side of the road and Regina insisted they all ought to eat something.
The whole place was asleep, and Leonardo envied everyone who wasn’t him, stiff after hours in a car he was too big for and which he knew too well to like.
Primo took Francesco around the ruin, steering him through the streets like he owned them himself, and for once, he let someone else do the talking. (“Go on, smart guy. Tell us what they teach you at school these days.”) Leonardo felt himself falling back to look, taking Regina’s hand like a lifeline.
“Did you ever think it would be Primo?” Leonardo asked her, when he was sure they were out of earshot, watching as Francesco leaned over a section of mosaic and pointed at it, looking worshipfully at Primo, who was smoking through his grin.
“I thought his father would kill him before he’d get a chance to be a man.”
Leonardo shook his head, but even to Regina he couldn’t form the thought into words.
Primo’s father had never lived up to his elder brother’s expectations, and like all stupid men he had taken it out on those weaker than him. Like his scrawny, pale son, who sang in the choir and was probably the best shot in Calabria.
Primo had had a black eye more often than he hadn’t, until his big, stupid father had died in a hunting accident. Primo had been thirteen.
Don Marco had been found down a ravine three days after he’d disappeared, half-eaten. His brother, Salvatore, had not seen fit to take in his son.
It was a peculiar kind of cruelty to leave your own flesh and blood an orphan, and Leonardo’s regrets were many, but sometimes he wondered what might have happened to them all if someone had convinced Salvatore that his strange, lupine nephew was deserving of shelter under his roof instead of being made to earn his entry. At the time, Leonardo had also been too young to know what Salvatore saw in Primo which prevented him from offering him kindness.
Primo hadn’t left any tracks that day on the mountain, or any day afterwards.
Instead, Primo had raised himself, and made himself useful. Primo had been patient enough to see how small Salvatore was long before Leonardo had realised Primo was bigger than them all.
Meanwhile Primo had done what Primo always did: he’d listened. He’d heard Salvatore declare Leonardo’s son his heir, the closest thing he had to blood. He’d heard Leonardo send a plea to God that Francesco would leave Calabria one day. He’d split the difference in the only way Primo could, right through the heart.
Once or twice, he’d even listened to Leonardo. Sometimes Leonardo felt it was the only thing Primo had ever given him which mattered, and then he remembered what it had been like to be poor, and banished the thought.
Primo was a creature of unique gifts, but only Primo had ever known exactly what they were.
Three years after they’d broken ground, ships were in the port.
They had a harbourmaster. They had stevedores and longshoremen. They had a union. They had government money coming out of their assholes and straight into their pockets. They had the loyalty of their kingdom the way only kings who kept promises could ever hope for.
They had a tanker from Morocco in the docks and another coming up from the Suez Canal, but Primo only cared about one.
“It’s fucking late.”
Their office was no longer at the port. They had a whole building in Reggio Calabria which turned a steady profit in commercial rates and flats and had an enormous frontage with a brass plaque with the names of their directors on it.
They still met at the port when it mattered. Primo still used an old shipping container as a waiting room, back sawed out and attached to the prefabricated office block they’d had for years. He was leaning in the doorway, looking at his watch, fitfully rubbing at his gums.
“Panama’s a long way down,” Leonardo pointed out. “Sit, if you’re not going home.”
“Get me a cigar.” Primo waved at the battered filing cabinet. “Second drawer behind the ‘F’ section.”
Leonardo did, vaguely surprised he hadn’t known they were there. “I didn’t think you liked cigars.”
“Cigars are fucking pointless, Leo. What do you do with a cigar? You hold the smoke in your mouth like a cock and blow it back out again. They’re for men who don’t know they’re unimportant.” He held his fingers out. “Save one for the bastard. He’s late? We smoke without him.”
Primo threw himself into the battered office chair which had been there since the port was under construction, and wheeled himself to the doorway, sprawled over it so Leonardo could see the outline of his body through his clothes, not an inch of him turned to softness in the years since his ascension. Leonardo supposed it was difficult to go soft when you were always moving.
He pulled up a chair beside him, in the shelter of the doorway, the hatch of the container open to the wind. He lit both the cigars he’d taken out, and watched Primo smoke. He did it like he was holding a bad cigarette, tilting it negligently between two fingers, sucking the base of it until the ash clinging to the burning end was long enough to fall. Leonardo knew he was perfectly capable of miming the right form and was simply choosing not to. “Jesus Christ, Primo, at least don’t abuse it. It’s a good cigar.”
Primo smirked at him. “You know why I like sucking your cock, Leonardo? Because you’re fucking shaking every time. There’s no way to abuse a cigar. It’s a cigar.” With that, he ground it out on the heel of his boot, half-smoked, and tossed it into the water. “Look, it’s here.” he aimed his chin at the horizon, where navigation lights were cresting the curvature, almost out of sight. “Go get the rest of them, they’re asleep in the warehouse.”
Leonardo couldn’t have said what exactly stopped him from jumping up and obeying, but he hadn’t finished his cigar yet, and so he didn’t. He smoked quietly and watched Primo’s face. There was no question Primo knew exactly what he’d said. The only question was why. “In a minute,” Leonardo said quietly. “It won’t be close for forty minutes, at least.”
Primo was about to move. Leonardo could see it, the bunching muscles in his thighs, the taut clench of his abdomen as he leaned to the side, and then--
A rap on the side of the container, and a bright light. “Customs!” Announced a tremulous male voice, accompanied by the tread of at least three sets of boots. “Celebrating?” the official said, catching sight of Leonardo’s cigar. “What’s the occasion?”
Primo pulled out his gun and shot him, nodding at the two policemen who’d accompanied him to his quick death.
Leonardo had blood on his face. He could taste it, the blow-back spatter of an exploding head, splashed across his lips.
“Well?” Primo said, bending to pick up his spent casing. “You know what to do, don’t you?” He waved a hand at the police, encompassing the body, the blood, the little duo of new accomplices. “What took you so long?”
One of the policemen looked as though he couldn’t have been older than nineteen, a barely-there moustache painting his trembling upper lip. “He didn’t want to come. Don Primo, Sir, are you sure--”
Primo shot him too, turning to the last man standing. “Like I said. You know what to do. Put him where I said to put him. This one, you give back to his family.”
Don Primo, Leonardo thought. He’d never heard it quite like that before, like there was weight behind it, like there never hadn’t been.
Primo picked up his second casing and put it in his pocket. “Next time, don’t be late.”
The policeman left, and took the bodies. Leonardo wondered if the shots had woken the sleeping men in the warehouse, or if they really were there at all.
Leonardo was left with Primo and the blood, the stain in the doorway of the container looking black in the striplights. “I thought that fucker would turn up with the ship,” Primo said, absently, uncapping a can of petrol from behind his desk.
“The ship isn’t late. You gave the customs agent the wrong time.”
Primo splashed a bit of petrol right into the blood, making a strange, swirling oil pattern on the concrete. “Are you getting slow in your old age?” He smiled at Leonardo before he tossed him a handkerchief. “Don’t let it dry on you, it’ll be hell to get it off.”
Leonardo numbly wiped his face. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“This isn’t what you’re for,” Primo said, taking the bloody handkerchief back and throwing it into the blood. “You’re better at it when you’re surprised.”
“How much is on the ship?”
“Three hundred kilos. Anything you want in here?”
Numbly, Leonardo shook his head. “What will I tell the harbourmaster?”
Primo huffed at him. “Rogue cigar. Give him his own box. I’m done with this one.”
In the years since Leonardo had first crossed his threshold, Primo’s house had never accumulated the patina of a place someone actually lived. There were no accumulations of objects on surfaces, no souvenirs, nothing to indicate ongoing life but the shifting landslides of books by the bed, some of them in English, now.
It was still very clean, and never as big as Leonardo expected.
The kitchen still smelled of ashtrays, and the bathroom Leonardo was terribly familiar with smelled of lemon soap.
Primo got in the shower with him.
The water was always hot, a creature comfort Leonardo wondered at. Sometimes he longed for a cold shower, but Primo simply refused, turning it up warm, his boiler never seeming to run out of heat.
Primo washed his hair with some shampoo Leonardo had never seen anywhere else. Somehow the fact that it had flowers on the bottle was the oddest part, incongruous and purple, a splash of colour against the pale tiles.
Even now, Leonardo was never sure how and when he was allowed to touch Primo. Sometimes, Primo hissed at him to put his back into it, and ground himself back on Leonardo's cock as though it was the only thing keeping him on Earth. Other times, he slipped out from under Leonardo’s hand when he rested it on his shoulder.
Tonight he had soap bubbles dripping down his spine, and Leonardo swept them away with the washcloth hanging over the glass door, and Primo let him.
Primo dropped to his knees before Leonardo had even turned off the water, and God help him, Leonardo was already half hard. There was something Pavlovian about it, the way he never quite knew what Primo wanted, what Primo would let him do.
Primo sucked cock like it was a challenge. Leonardo did his best to make it one.
He grabbed Primo by his wet hair and pulled him off. “You don’t get to cover me in brains and still call the shots, asshole.”
Primo swiped a finger across his moustache and just knelt there, the edge of his lips brushing Leonardo’s cock like it was the only place they could possibly be. “So?” he prompted.
“On the bed. I don’t expect an apology, but this better be the fuck of a lifetime.”
“Only if you get better at it,” Primo said, but he got up when Leonardo yanked his hair, and he went.
Primo cursed like he had an audience of dozens when Leonardo finally shoved himself into him.
He always laughed a little bit when he came.
Leonardo hadn’t ever slept well in Primo’s bed, so he didn’t usually stay. His thoughts almost always turned to Regina, to what she knew and what she didn’t want to ask him. He had made a vow before God, after all, for whatever value that held, now. He had no certainty of his soul, but he supposed that if the church was right, he was really only going to one place. Regina was a believer more than him. She had a kind of grace to her which Leonardo sometimes thought was just the gift given to women, but Regina would have disabused him of that. Women were just as much capable of cruelty and harm, but they just hadn’t been born as men. They’d spoken about it exactly once, what would have happened if Francesco had been a girl. She wouldn’t have been able to go to university. Regina had stared stonily at him. And why is that, do you think?
In another world, maybe. In a place that wasn’t Calabria.
Primo was watching him, sprawled on his back with one arm tucked under his head, examining Leonardo’s face. “You look like you’ve got another round in you. Or like you might throw up.”
He was exactly right, as he often was. “Primo.”
“Do you ever think about them? The people you’ve killed?”
“You never answered my question.”
“How many people do you think die drilling for oil, Leonardo? Shut up and decide if you’ve had enough, or fuck off.”
“I’m going home.”
Perhaps it was the note of acceptance in it which made him pause, or the way Primo had looked away first, none of the theatrical play acting he sometimes tried when he thought Leonardo wasn’t paying attention the way he ought to be. No, it was just Primo in the darkness, the long line of his neck and the sharp cut of his jaw, that high, proud nose of his catching just a glint of light from the dim lamp by the bed. His eyes were closed.
“You know what, I can’t be bothered. My wife will thank me for a good night’s sleep,” Leonardo said. “Move over, you big bastard. You take up the whole bed.”
“It’s my bed,” Primo pointed out, with a flat, suspicious look, eyes open now, watching Leonardo pull back the covers.
“You want to sleep, I want to sleep. It’s a bed.” Leonardo lay down beside him, feeling as though he were laying himself on an anthill and at any moment he’d be stung.
Primo turned out the lamp, extinguishing its faint glow, leaving Leonardo in the dark with the smell of them both, sex and sweat and cigarettes, and the perfume clinging to the pillows which had come off Primo’s hair, that soft, strange mane of his he had always had.
Leonardo had never imagined having a face full of it, or the way Primo’s long back arched beneath him when they fucked, all of it too much to look at without biting his shoulder just a bit. Primo turned his back, side on, and said, to the window, “I think about the one I didn’t kill.”
“So many times, Leo. I was going to kill him so many times. I remember. ‘Put down the gun. Look at me. Look at me. Breathe.’”
Leonardo barely remembered saying the words.
“I was going to shoot you, too.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I’d just killed the only other person in the village who spoke bloody English,” Primo said, words like a knife between the ribs. Leonardo wished he hadn’t felt an urge to stay the night.
“Don’t sound so glum,” Primo said, still facing away from him, his scornful back a pale, freckled wall. “You were right in the end, weren’t you?”
“Go to sleep.” Leonardo meant it as much for himself as for Primo, and thankfully a good fuck was more than enough to send him off whether he wanted to resist or not, these days.
In the morning, Primo had his face tucked into the side of Leonardo’s neck, his moustache tickling the short, fine hair at the edges of Leonardo’s hairline, his breath wet and warm against his skin.
He didn’t snore at all, breathing near-silently, a steady, even, animal rhythm.
Leonardo didn’t dare move.
Primo broke into Leonardo’s house again three weeks later, when they’d first begun to see dividends from the ship from Panama, more than Leonardo had dared to imagine.
He’d been to collect payments himself. He’d taken Francesco, because at this point there was an inevitability to it he didn’t like to think about. At his son’s age, he had already been blooded six times over. He’d wanted something different for his child. His beautiful boy, who had some mistaken belief that violence was in the blood, instead of in the air, in the space between people who had no other way of making a place in the world.
“What happens if they don’t pay?” Francesco had asked him, sitting behind the wheel of the car which Regina had spent days teaching him to drive.
“You’ll have to tell me someday.”
It had only been late afternoon, that golden moment when everything looked peaceful and people were slowing down before dinner, washing their hands and their faces. Francesco had looked appallingly young to Leonardo’s eyes, but that was perhaps the curse of all fathers, to see the youth in their sons above all else.
Well, maybe not all fathers.
“It depends who they are, and what we can get from them. It depends who they know, who they speak to. It depends who they fuck.”
Francesco had smiled. “Primo says--”
“Primo says, Primo says. Primo says a lot of things. Be careful. It’s not what he says, Francesco. It’s how he says it. It’s what he means. Sometimes, it’s just who he’s looking at when he talks.”
“Primo says the women are the hardest to crack,” Francesco said quietly.
“As if Primo would know the first thing about women.” It fell out of his mouth, dangerous and true. “He’s not an expert in everything.”
“He says he’ll take me to a good place when it’s time.”
“Time for what?”
“To become a man.” Francesco blushed. “You know.”
“Over my dead body, Francesco. Over my dead body!”
“You can’t stop me.”
“Go to university!” Leonardo had slammed the dashboard so hard he had felt the smack of it all the way up his arm, twanging into his elbow. “Meet a nice girl and take her to dinner! For fuck’s sake, if you never listen to me again, remember this: love doesn’t have to be a deal. It shouldn’t be. It should be-- it should be good. You should have the chance for it to be good.”
“What if I don’t want to go?”
Francesco had looked at him with a fight in his eyes Leonardo already knew the outcome of. “A man makes his own decisions. Even if he’s got someone steering him.”
Francesco had swallowed, and Leonardo had watched his knuckles tighten on the wheel. Soon he might put those little fists to a different use. Soon the sight of him smoking wouldn’t be so unfamiliar. Soon, Leonardo would know what direction he would turn his potential, and have such little say in it.
“Papa. Do you love Primo?”
Leonardo had cuffed him in the ear and told him to drive, and never to ask him that again.
Primo was eating leftovers out of the new fridge when Leonardo hauled himself out of bed, a bit of parmesan sticking to his moustache and his hair tucked back behind his ears so it wouldn’t interrupt his foraging. “How’d it go?” Primo asked, kicking the door closed with his heel.
“Get the fuck out,” Leonardo said, pointing at the hall. “Out.”
Primo went utterly still, save for the motion of his jaw. “Why?”
Maybe if he’d flown into a rage Leonardo wouldn’t have answered him, but there was something in the question which was too familiar for Leonardo to ignore it. “You want to take my son to a brothel? You promise him the world and give him nothing but the shit your father gave you? You do this to me, and you still come to my home like an animal in the night? Get out, Primo. Get out until I can look at you again.”
“I’ll never understand your problem with whores,” Primo said, taking another mouthful of the meal he’d scavenged, “but you’d better get over it, unless you want to be a very rich hypocrite.”
He didn’t clean up after himself, leaving the plate and fork on the counter-top, a smear of red sauce where the food had been the only other sign of his presence.
Leonardo was still in the kitchen drying the plate ten minutes later when Regina appeared, asking him why he hadn’t come back to bed. Leonardo looked at the plate in his hands and wondered how long he’d been swiping the same place over and over. “Primo was here.”
“I know. I heard.”
Regina was tall enough to embrace him from behind and rest her head against his, her pointed chin digging into his shoulder. It was appallingly comforting, and Leonardo wondered what exactly she’d thought Primo had said, and whether she knew how badly Leonardo needed her touch. “I heard. Do I want to know?”
“I don’t think you do. I don’t know. I don’t know what you think of me.”
“I said to Angelo Calati’s grandmother, once,” Regina murmured. “Remember? I told her, we’re all bought at birth, here. That she had to realise I didn’t want to tell her about her grandson’s death but she had given me no choice. It was that or drag her off the farm. We clean up your messes, you know. Women. We always have.”
“And you’re asking me if there’s another one coming.”
“I’m asking you if there’s anything I should know. If you tell me I shouldn’t know it, I’ll believe you. I know what it’s like, not to have a say.”
“Primo finished the parmiggiano,” Leonardo said, after a long while, his hands gripping the side of the sink without his will or intent, knuckles and palms in agony. The plate had cracked on the bottom of the basin where he’d dropped it.
“I’ll make more,” Regina said, kissing his cheek.
Two nights later, Primo came back, with a map this time, Rome and Civitavecchia, and a bottle of something sweet and bitter and homemade, tasting of oranges. Leonardo wondered if he’d made it himself or if it had been tribute. There were orange trees in Primo’s overgrown garden that Leonardo had longed to prune for years, always heavy with fruit he ate right off the branch until they’d turned and fallen and he lost interest.
Primo had never known how to tend them. Leonardo wondered if that was what Regina had meant years ago in Rome, when she’d reminded Primo that he’d come to her before, that she remembered what he’d needed then, too. That there were things in life he had never learned to respect, which mattered more than he thought they did.
Leonardo saw in the dawn with him at his own kitchen table, and Primo was still there when Regina started making breakfast.
She handed him a plate and told him to make himself useful.
Leo hadn’t known quite this exact fear, yet. He felt like a man standing in a road, watching a charging horse galloping towards him, its rider long gone.
Primo made coffee under Regina’s watchful eye, and grinned boyishly at her when she approved it. “See, Leo,” he said, hopping himself onto the kitchen counter like he belonged there when she had gone to rouse Francesco for school. “You’ll always get your money’s worth, no? What do you think of the offer from the Sicilians? I think we can push the Sardinians out.”
A few years after Paul, the price of oil slammed into the roof and came out the other side. The country ground to a halt. There were queues at every petrol station again, like in ‘73, the first time people had truly realised what it meant for them to be deprived of something they depended on that they hadn’t chosen for themselves.
Leonardo waited in the queue like everyone else at the tiny petrol station near the farm with a couple of jerry cans, breathing the fumes from the cars and thinking how nice the view was, suddenly. Whoever had had the bright idea to put the station high up on a mountain road with nothing else in sight for miles probably hadn’t been thinking of the beauty of it, but Leonardo appreciated it anyway. He remembered when they’d only intermittently had electricity in the mountains, when one storm had been enough to plunge them back into firelight for days, if not weeks.
It had been true then and it was true now: Italy didn’t care about Calabria.
It was days like today which Leonardo knew were places in his soul which had become turning points, snags in what in a better world might have been a simple, pastoral tapestry. He understood deprivation. He understood being dependant on something huge and indifferent to his suffering.
He filled his cans and the car, paid for the privilege with the money he no longer cringed to part with, and went to work.
Primo was fine. He had sat down with Leonardo and grinned through his mouthful of smoke and said: “Leonardo, I want to make an investment.”
They had done something Leonardo had never seen or heard of in their organisation and made a deal with the Sicilians to push the Sardinians out of the nearest port to Rome, and banked in a terrifying amount of money on the eventual dividends of what they could move through it from Calabria. He’d bought futures in fucking cocaine.
Now that it couldn’t be delivered, Primo had something better: Primo owned their debt.
It was days like these, when the sun was high and the heat was heavy and Leonardo wanted nothing more than to sleep on the farm, that he realised he was in his own way no longer a simple man with simple needs, either.
There was something angry in him, too. There was a shard of whatever furious wreckage was inside Primo, and it was days like this when Leonardo understood him.
Primo was in a suit in their office in Reggio Calabria, well-tailored. He’d washed his hair. He was on the phone already when Leonardo arrived, so it was easy for an instant to watch him without Primo turning the focus back on him.
He had his thumb on the corner of his mouth, between his moustache and the little mole which was the final punctuation of his face’s distinct asymmetry; the sleepy eyelid of his left eye, the prominent curve of his nose, the way his lips sat together slightly off-centre. Nobody would have called Primo beautiful when he’d been a teenager, all of him growing at different rates, but as a man, his face was something arresting, everything together greater than any individual part.
Leonardo looked at him, and listened.
Primo was calling in the debt. Leonardo wondered if he knew how angry this would make people, and then revised it: of course he did.
For a while there had been little traffic in the port. Marine diesel had suffered from shortages just like everything else, but Leonardo was fully aware there were people who considered Primo an opponent, not just a personal enemy.
Any crack, any unrest, and someone would be poking their fingers into it.
They’d spent a long time cultivating a good relationship with the Sicilians, so it came as a surprise when Primo called him very early in the morning on a Saturday, just before Leonardo was heading out to check on the sheep. “Come over,” he said. “We have visitors from out of town.”
“Francesco has the car today. I’ll be a while.”
Primo cursed at him. “You have more money than you’ve ever had imagination for, and you only have one car? Make him drive you. Idiot.”
Leonardo hung up, and yelled out the door for Francesco.
Maybe Primo had a point. Leonardo had said it to Paul, all those years ago, when Paul had asked him what they’d do with the money: We are poor. We will spend it.
Had they? Leonardo hadn’t, much, on himself. Neither had Primo, strangely enough. Maybe he’d snorted a fair portion of it, but money had given Primo something else which was more dangerous: confidence.
Leonardo and Francesco pulled up in front of the office in the city a short while later. There was a huge Mercedes idling across the road, burning petrol, flagrantly. Declaratively.
“Stay here,” Leonardo said to Francesco, who didn’t listen to him at all, parking on the pavement and pocketing the keys.
“Give me a gun.”
“Give me a gun, Papa.”
Leonardo handed him one, the one he’d been keeping under the upholstery in the passenger seat for years. “You stay with me, do you understand? You do what I do. Now, get out of the car. We’re not in a rush. We’re going to a meeting. Yes? Tell me you understand.”
Francesco nodded at him, solemnly.
“If you shoot that thing without either of us giving you a signal, this could go very badly. So don’t do that. You’re a man now. You have one word to think about, today, and it will never be one Primo teaches you. You will be temperance itself, Francesco, or we’re in more danger from you than anyone in there. Now. Smile. Walk.”
He clapped Francesco on the shoulder and steered him in, wondering when his son had gotten so much taller than him. Primo’s office was on the second floor. It had a view, a great glass-fronted balcony, a prime spot for surveying the kingdom. Or for watching the road.
He was sitting on his desk with his hands under his thighs like a child, three Sicilians arranged around him, and he was negotiating. “Ah, Leonardo. You’re late. Say hello to our friends from across the strait. Have you brought the papers?”
“Yes,” Leonardo lied. He extended his briefcase to Primo, greeting the three strangers, people he didn’t recognise, perhaps Cosa Nostra underlings, and perhaps not. They had been speaking Sicilian, but Leonardo had no way of knowing quite which Sicilians they were. That was the paradox of the Cosa Nostra. They could be anyone. They could be working with or against their brothers, they could be here sensing weakness in Primo, whose money they had all used to finance enough murders that Leonardo had wondered if Primo was trying to match a number he’d read somewhere, if he was going to ask Leonardo to tally it. “Primo, have you even offered them a drink?”
“You smell like goats,” Primo said, cheer colouring his voice. “I’ll have a whiskey, if you’re pouring.”
“Gentlemen?” Leonardo asked the Sicilians, watching the way their eyes couldn’t settle, thrown by his arrival, and by Francesco, who, God help him, was already going for the drinks cabinet. “Something to make the conversation easier? We know you’re in a tight spot, here. We’re all feeling it, of course. Terrible, this oil business, isn’t it? I’m sure your product will be moving soon, too.”
Outside, their car idled, a driver primed in the front seat, not even pretending to read a newspaper. These were people Leonardo had known variations of for decades, parts of a vast organ with metastatic cells in every part of Italy, except here. Whatever the ‘Ndrangheta had been before Primo, it had always been Calabrian, a closed fist, a fiefdom of the impenetrable mountains. Primo had opened the hand. It attracted notice, when he started making demands from his mountain fortress.
“We expect to be compensated for what we’ve already paid for,” Primo said. “Unless you have another solution?”
“Nizzuto. This isn’t how we do business.”
“Isn’t it?” Primo took the whiskey Francesco handed him and sipped it delicately, slinging an arm around Francesco’s shoulders and shaking him. “Listen,” he said to Francesco, speaking into his ear, watching his audience. “This isn’t how people do business, apparently. What about us, hm? How do we do business? I’ve paid for something, now I’m owed it. Unless you can offer me something of equal value. With interest, of course. We’ve had such a good relationship, until now. I don’t see why that has to end in insult.”
They had a good relationship with politicians and judges and magistrates and cops with heavily-lined pockets, with expense accounts, with people so far down the line that farmers were still willing to let their crops turn over to stay on the hunt for betrayers. Leonardo had gotten used to being cocooned within it, bolstered by the numbers, by the bribes and the ledgers and the distance of it all. Leonardo had lost the knack for this, the face-to-face encounters, the anonymous red hands he sometimes forgot were as real as the threat of bankruptcy or frozen assets. He had been too old for this four years ago.
“I’m sure we can come to an agreement,” Primo continued, “unless you want the Calabrian regeneration project to come under a lot of scrutiny, or the port to get shut down while it’s nationalised. Or for certain arrangements which have been made in Rome to come to light.”
One of the Sicilians tensed, and then relaxed. “Payment in kind. That’s all you want? You’ll accept that?”
Primo shook his head, still holding Francesco next to him, Leonardo’s briefcase cracked just enough for him to reach in, quick as a snake, and pull out the old gun Leonardo had put in there for him. “You’re not listening to me.” He thumbed the hammer back. Leonardo had his own out almost as quickly. Only Francesco hadn’t moved, his shaking hands limp by his sides.
The Sicilians had been waiting for this moment, already armed, barrels raised. Nobody shot. For a moment, nobody breathed. “You can go back to Sicily and tell your Don that if he wants to arrange a rate of interest, he can speak to me in person. You know where I am.” Primo lowered his gun, and finished his whiskey. “Now fuck off back to your island, and don’t ever come here uninvited again.”
For a moment, Leonardo wondered who was more confused, him or the would-be negotiators, or the guns themselves, inanimate, sprung and ready for violence.
He let out a deep sigh, and lowered his, then, for good measure, took all the bullets out.
“Get another fucking car,” Primo said to him. “What’s the point of you if you can’t be where I need you? Stop thinking like a peasant.”
“Would they really have shot you?” Francesco asked, busying himself with the drinks cabinet, slowly rolling ice around in a glass.
Primo stared at him, taking his measure. “Of course.”
Leonardo knew from grim experience how difficult it was to imagine anyone extinguishing Primo, but maybe it was because in Calabria he was feared the way a plague was feared, feared like deprivation, feared like a storm.
They were part of a different world, now. A bigger one.
“You gave him a gun?” Primo asked, tilting his chin at Francesco.
Primo looked Francesco up and down, and said nothing.
“Primo,” Leonardo said, feeling unbearable all of a sudden, as though something huge and shapeless was trying to climb out of his skin, “well done.”
Primo caught his eyes and held them, and something which had been lodged in Leonardo’s throat gave way like a blood clot, the rush of blood through his arteries hot and awful, a fierce wash of unwilling love.
“You did well,” Leonardo said to Francesco, when they were going home. Leonardo was driving. Francesco still had a tremor, his lip raw from being worried between his teeth. “It’s a very difficult thing, not to shoot.”
“No. Listen to me. I’m your father. He isn’t. You did well. Sometimes, having a gun and not using it is the only thing which is important.”
“Are we peasants?”
Leonardo was still reeling from relief, and couldn’t quite focus on Francesco’s question. “What?”
“I heard what he said. Francesco, I can’t answer that. Only seeing more of the world can answer that. I know what I am. I don’t think it’s good. I don’t think it’s noble. I know where I’m going, in the end. Is that what you want to hear? You’re a man now, so I’ll tell you.”
Francesco swallowed. “Would he be… would he be angry with me? If I went to university?”
Leonardo imagined Primo’s face, vivid and clear, easy to conjure. Stop thinking like a peasant. Maybe it was already too late. “No,” Leonardo said. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think so.”
Primo came over for breakfast with a gift for Regina.
He tossed the car keys on the table over his shoulder while he was smoking over the coffee pot, stretch of his shirt across his back making wings of his shoulderblades as he turned down the gas and lit another cigarette from the flame. “There. Now you can drive a nice fucking car, and Leo can keep his piece of shit.”
Leonardo said nothing about the Alfa Romeo Primo had arrived in, sitting by the house, the little thing which Leonardo had been so sure would be one of the first pieces of evidence to go up in flames, years ago.
“Actually,” Leonardo said, when Regina didn’t move to pick them up, “we’re giving the car to Francesco.”
Primo turned off the gas and turned around, pouring himself coffee like he was the one who lived here, and not them. In a sense, Leonardo supposed he did, in the way that Primo lived anywhere, when he was out of sight. He had a house, but Leonardo had never been sure he had a home. “Where is the runt?”
“Playing football with his friends.”
“He any good?”
“Yes,” Regina said. “He’s very good. Please sit down.”
Primo smoked in silence for a moment, but then he did. “So, I’m sitting.” he poured her a coffee, and then one for Leonardo. No milk, sugar, just how he liked it. “Are we at a funeral? Spit it out.”
“He’s going to university. We want your blessing.”
“My blessing.” Primo repeated it carefully, and for a brief time Leonardo saw all the versions of Primo he’d ever known: the skinny boy with the watchful eyes, the manic youth with a white rim around one nostril and a gun in his pocket, the lord in his castle, the supplicant on his knees. The dangerous, dangerous man. “Of course you do.”
“You want me to stop thinking like a peasant? I can’t. He can. Let him leave. He can come back, if he wants to. If he thinks he has to.”
Primo looked at Regina. “He’ll come back,” he told her, simply. “What does it matter to you?”
“He’s my son.”
“Women,” Primo said, right to her face. “Sentimental about their sons, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” Regina said, and Leonardo loved her, would always love her for it. “Your problem is you’ve never known how much. He’s going, Primo. If I have to put myself behind him and stand in your way. You’ll tell him he has your blessing.”
Primo sat back, smiling slightly, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. “Ah, Regina, you always were the smart one in the family, weren’t you? What’s the price? I’ve met mothers.”
Regina took Leonardo’s hand under the table and squeezed it. “No price but what you already have.”
“You know who goes to university?” Primo said quietly. “Rich kids. Gettys.” He drank his coffee in one long pull, consuming, consuming, consuming. “I’m sure he’ll make good friends, no?”
The night Leonardo got home from taking Francesco to Rome, Primo was sitting in the car outside his house, his feet on the dashboard and his elbow out the window. He looked far too big for it, even in the loose, thin shirt he was wearing, unbuttoned in the evening breeze, his ever-present cross and saints sitting golden against his pale chest.
He raised two fingers to Leonardo and beckoned.
Leonardo parked his car, took one fleeting look up at the dark window of his home, and turned away. Regina wouldn’t be home for a week, by the time she’d gotten Francesco settled in his newly-bought flat, and taught him how to be alone for a while.
Leonardo got in Primo’s familiar little smoke-scented Alfetta, took the cigarette Primo handed him, grabbed the chains of his necklaces and kissed him, grateful and afraid, always.
Maybe Leonardo had thought it would be different, when he had nowhere else he should have been instead of Primo’s bed.
Maybe he’d imagined an admission. A kind of ambivalent need between them, which had very little in common with love.
It was nothing of the kind for Primo, it seemed, who always managed to arrange himself like an emperor on his white sheets, no matter whether he was splayed against the dark wooden headboard with a raised eyebrow and a hand on his cock or on his front with a pillow under his narrow hips.
Tonight, it was Leonardo who made it different.
He was standing at the foot of the bed looking at Primo, wondering if even Primo knew the genesis of every scar on his own body or if he’d forgotten as many of them as he remembered, and suddenly the silence was too much.
“Do you have a record player?” Leonardo asked him, treading the high wire of impulse. “I’ve never seen it.”
Primo pushed his hair away from his face, an odd little gesture Leonardo didn’t witness often. “In there.”
There was a cabinet against the wall, swept clean like everything else, but it had the air of something little-used. Leonardo opened it, revealing the neatly-shelved records, the speakers and turntable, a faint patina of dust over its plastic case.
Leonardo thumbed through the sleeves, refusing to betray anything to Primo which might result in ejection, in the ruin of something very, very fragile. “Choose something,” Leonardo told him. “I don’t know these.”
Primo had pushed himself against the headboard, splayed wide open, one finger touching the corner of his mouth as he watched what Leonardo was doing with crushing suspicion. “No. You want music, you choose it.”
Leonardo flicked through the operas, the strangely consistent collection of symphonies, and found the ones he’d half-expected -- rock and roll, Italian classics -- and then one he recognised from years and years ago, spinning in Regina’s mother’s house, when they’d been circling each other, trying to pretend they could meet in secret. Leonardo put it on the turntable and dropped the needle, finding the dials by feel. Mina's distinctive, deep tones sent him back in time, just for an instant.
Primo lit a cigarette, the smell cutting through Leonardo’s drifting attention, letting the voice on the record be the only sound before he turned around. “Do you know the words to this one?” Leonardo asked him, watching him smoke.
“What are you doing?” Primo asked, very quietly, an edge of something scalpel-sharp in his voice.
“I like it when you sing.”
“If you’re not going to fuck me you can leave,” Primo said, but something in the way he tapped the over-burned ash clinging to the end of his cigarette into the ashtray on the nightstand took the order out of it. The movement was too deliberate, too careful, too slow.
The first song on the record reached its chorus as Leonardo reached the bed and took a handful of Primo’s hair, looking at him, braced over him, seeing him. “Where would I go?”
Primo grabbed him by his waist and dug his nails in.
Leonardo remembered Francesco’s small voice. Primo says the women are always the hardest to crack. Maybe that was true. Maybe Primo understood silence better than anyone gave him credit for, even Leonardo. Maybe Leonardo had cracked exactly as Primo had meant him to.
“If you don’t lie down, I’ll make you,” Leonardo said, listening to the record, to the hitch in Primo’s breath, even though they both knew it was an empty threat, a play, a song they both knew the words to.
Sometimes, Primo reached up from where he was spread on his back with his legs clamped around Leonardo’s hips and pushed his thumb into Leonardo’s mouth, holding it open, pressing hard into his teeth. He could have done anything, with that hold. He could have led Leonardo around like an animal.
Leonardo took Primo’s hand out of his mouth and kissed his palm, and watched Primo stare at him, surprised.
The record finished, the scratch of the needle on old vinyl lost in the background.
“Why do you want him to go to university so badly?” Primo asked him, later, when he was stretched on his belly, a raw mark on his back where Leonardo hadn’t been able to resist taking a bit of skin between his teeth. “What can he learn that he can’t teach himself? Fifty went to fucking university, and look at where that got us.”
“When you were a boy, what did you dream about? Did you want to travel? Did you want to meet people you hadn’t known your whole fucking life?”
Primo pillowed his head on his arms, watching Leonardo with just his left eye, the dark circle beneath it for an instant reminding Leonardo of a bruise. “Do you know who Charlemagne was, Professor?”
Primo hadn’t called him that in years.
“You know his gift? He understood that there’s no such thing as a good king. Only a smart one. He still didn’t understand Calabria. He meant it to be the last shred of his great empire, and he couldn’t make it his.” Primo rolled over, nothing able to soften his frame out of its hard, tight lines, muscle under skin with little in between. He kissed Leonardo on the cheek, lightly, his other hand bracketing Leonardo’s jaw. His fingers were hard and blunt and calloused. His lips were always very warm. “Leo,” he said quietly, eyes bright with something only he understood; a lacuna, a brilliant joke. “I am Calabria.”
And then he laughed and rolled away.
Leonardo expected him to beckon him into the shower, habitual and familiar.
Instead, he paused by the cabinet, reached in, and put the record on again. His voice reverberated quietly as he walked out of the room, leaving Leonardo alone with the sound.