Tommy “The Torch” Torrelli sent an immaculate black Range Rover to collect me for our meeting. It rolled up right on time to the corner park bench where his men had directed me to wait. The tinted rear passenger window came down halfway and a man with slicked back black hair, slightly pudgy features, from years of a guiltless diet, and a pompous smirk looked me in the eyes.
“Get in,” he said and then closed his tinted glass shield.
I trotted around the back of the Range Rover, trying to control my excitement as I climbed in the car of one of the most feared mobsters in the country. I closed the door and sat next to the man with slicked back hair with a black leather brief case sat between us. He wore a sharp looking gray suit and matching custom-crafted leather shoes.
“So you're the reporter packin' the nuts to see Tommy, huh?” he said as he sized me up. “I thought you'd be bigger.”
“Yeah? Well, I thought you'd be Tommy.”
“No way. He sent me to make sure you weren't followed and give you the ground rules.”
“What are the ground rules?”
“Not so fast. Give me your driver's license.”
“Because I need to verify you are who you say you are,” he said and held out his hand waiting for me to produce it.
I pulled out my wallet and handed him my license. He took it, put the briefcase on his lap and pulled out a folder bulging with papers. He leafed through the pages until he came to what looked like a police profile sheet that had my same driver’s license photograph on it. He compared it with my license and then closed the briefcase and replaced it between us.
“Where did you get all that information on me?”
“In this line of work, you have to do your homework or someone will eventually get the upper hand.”
He handed back my license and gave his driver a nod. Only then did the driver pull away from the curb.
“I'm Anthony,” he said extending his hand.
I shook it. “Hi. How long of a drive is it to where we're going?” Matt asked.
“It won't be long. But first, the ground rules. The first rule is take off your clothes,” Anthony said as he leveled a stainless steel Smith and Wesson revolver at me.
* * *
The drive took thirty minutes. I spent the first ten removing my clothes down to my boxers and socks to prove that I wasn’t wearing a recording device or carrying a concealed weapon. As I put my clothes back on, Anthony went over the rest of the ground rules.
“Only call him Tommy ‘The Torch’. He loves the nickname and likes it when people call him by the name he's earned on the street. If he offers you something to eat or drink, politely decline. He's just testing you to see if you're a freeloader. And most importantly, be respectful, but show some balls. He doesn't like timid people. Look him in the eye and try not to act nervous. You got all that?”
“I think so.”
“Well, you'd better. Otherwise today could be the biggest mistake of your life.”
* * *
The Range Rover pulled up to a wrought iron security gate that automatically opened.
“Is this one of Tommy's properties?” I asked.
“That's none of your fucking business,” Anthony said. “If I were you, I’d worry about not pissin’ Tommy off and not where he spends his time.”
We proceeded up a palm tree lined driveway with brilliant blue rectangular ponds on either side. The entire perimeter of the property was ringed with an eight-foot high stucco wall. Beyond the perimeter, a few off-white, anvil-shaped thunderclouds decorated the late summer horizon over the Atlantic Ocean.
The driver eased the car around the circular driveway featuring an ornate marble sculpture with four dolphins leaping from the waves and spitting water from their blow holes with a mermaid in the center. Her head was thrown back, arms in the air, hair blowing in an invisible gale revealing her smooth, chiseled breasts and torso. It looked like a cross between an erotic Playboy photo shoot and the figurehead on the bow of an old sailing ship.
The driver stopped in front of the main entrance to a two-story mansion with several marble steps leading up to the front door where two bulky men in suits waited with sunglasses and unsmiling faces.
“Wait here. I'll get the door for you. If the guys don't recognize you, they might shoot you. But they won't if you're with me,” Anthony said as he exited. He walked around the back of the car to open my door. I followed him up the steps to the waiting bodyguards.
“He’s clean. I checked him in the car,” Anthony said to one of the suits.
Anthony continued into the foyer of the house with several floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows displaying the churning greenish-blue Atlantic Ocean that contrasted with the blue reflection of the massive rectangular infinity pool in the back yard.
Anthony motioned for me to follow him down a set of stairs to the right of the foyer that led to a room with cool tile floors and a mahogany bar that spanned the twenty-foot length of one entire wall. Dozens of liquor bottles decorated the shelves behind the bar in front of two large mirrors that reflected the bright summer sunshine into the room. Several stuffed leather couches and chairs were arranged in the middle of the room and three upscale restaurant-style dining booths lined another wall. The entire far wall offered sliding glass door access to the pool. It was a sedentary alcoholic's dream space with a view.
“Have a seat on the couch over there and enjoy the view. I'll let Tommy know you're here,” Anthony said.
I pulled out a small pad of paper and a pen from my pocket. I unconsciously clicked the pen open and closed as I looked around the room and stared past the pool and out to sea.
I hadn't heard Tommy enter the room and involuntarily jumped when his voice erupted next to me. “You must be Angus Conn,” Tommy said.
“Holy shit. Ah...Yes...Yes. That's me,” I said, flustered.
I rose to my feet and shook his meaty hand.
“Jesus. Relax kid,” Tommy said chuckling.
He turned and walked behind the bar. I noticed he was casually decked out in dark blue designer jeans with leather slip-on loafers and a loose-fitting white linen shirt open at the top to reveal his graying chest hair and thick gold chain with a large gold crucifix pendant.
“It’s great to finally meet Tommy ‘The Torch’.”
Tommy’s smile morphed to a look of confusion.
“Nobody calls me that anymore. Especially someone I've never met. You're not too bright are you kid? I hope you’re not one of those guys who’ve got more balls than brains. There are too many of those idiots running around these days.”
“I’m blessed with the rare combination of balls and brains.” I said.
“Yeah, we'll see about that,” he said as he moved behind the bar. “You want a drink?”
I thought about what Anthony said on the way over. “No, thank you,” I said.
“What the fuck. You come in here, you're rude to my face and now you won't accept a drink from me? You think you're too good for me? Is that it? I'm a bad guy and you're some self-righteous goody-goody reporter fuck.”
“No, that's not it at all. Someone apparently gave me the wrong information about you.”
Thanks for that Anthony. You’ll get yours, meat gazer.
“There’s a lotta that goin’ around. That’s why you’re here. So, then what'll you have?”
“Whatever single malt Scotch you've got, straight up,” I said.
Tommy smiled and began pouring drinks. I took a couple steps toward the bar.
“Have a seat at the booth over there, kid. I'll bring it to you,” Tommy said.
A few moments later, Tommy came around from behind the bar and handed me a half-full lowball glass of golden whisky and sat on the leather bench seat opposite me in one of the booths.
“Salute,” Tommy said and raised his glass.
“Salute,” I said.
We each took a long pull and savored the warm flavor.
“So, do you know why I brought you here?”
“Your people said you wanted to find someone who might be able to help shape your image in the press.”
“That’s part of it. But you’re here because I don’t trust no one.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I read your articles about me and my business. They were good, but a little off the mark. I believe you could be more effective if you had a little more insight from my end. And that’s exactly what I need.”
“What kind of insight?”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. I’ll just say that a man of your talent and readership could be an asset to me if I could direct you.”
I smiled. “I don’t work that way. I’m a freelance journalist, but I can’t be bought. It would diminish my credibility.”
“I’m not interested in throwing out lies or propaganda. But I do have a deal brewing. A legitimate deal, that would help me and my family get out of the more gray area deals we’ve worked in the past. But I’m gonna need a bit of well-placed coverage to get legitimate business behind my efforts.”
“Don’t you have people for that? I’m sure you could get any number of journalists to say what you need them to say. Why me?”
“You’re right. I can get access to people in all the newspapers and a few magazines. I also have a lawyer who can feed them plenty of bullshit. He’s a good lawyer but a terrible writer. I need a guy with a reputation for telling it like it is. I need your squeaky clean reputation. If people hear it from you, it has to be right, right?”
“I won’t be a mouthpiece for anyone.”
“That’s exactly why it needs to be you. But my bigger problem is that I don’t trust you. Like I said before, I don’t trust no one. I’m sure you can understand that trust is a liability in my business.”
“Trust is an interesting concept,” I said and took another sip of Scotch.
“In my experience, it’s hard earned and easily lost.”
“I would agree with that, but I don’t agree that you don’t trust anyone.”
Tommy looked at my face with unblinking eyes. “Are you callin’ me a liar?”
“Not at all. I just think you’re ignorant.”
I could see his steaming rage building up pressure behind his penetrating stare. “What the fuck did you just call me?”
“Do you sleep alone?”
“It’s none of your fucking business who I sleep with.”
“Okay, when you sleep, do you lock your doors or trust your security people to protect you? We’re all vulnerable when we sleep.”
“My men are well paid to whip anyone’s ass that threatens me day or night.”
“So, you trust them with that responsibility?”
“No, I pay them to do their jobs.”
“When you wake up and brush your teeth and drink your morning coffee, do you trust that the water is safe?” I didn’t give him a chance to answer, I just continued, “Do you trust your drivers? Your maids, pilots, chefs who serve you food, the news you read, your banks, your cars, your business partners, your family, your friends, your mistresses? The truth is that everyone trusts more than they care to and more than they should. We’re programmed to trust from birth.”
“I see to it that I surround myself with trusted people. They earn my trust by my own criteria. That’s exactly why you’re here. I have to trust that you will do the job I need you to do for me and I shouldn’t have to put a gun to your head for you to do it.”
Tommy pulled a Colt 1911 from under the table and pointed it at my forehead.
If this is my last living moment, I’m not going spent it begging for my life, I thought.
“All I can promise is that I will write what I see and give you final editorial approval before I submit any stories to publishers. If we disagree on content, I won’t publish the work and you’re free to find someone else. As much as you may hate it, you’ll have to trust me on that,” I said and raised my glass and drank what I thought could very well be my last drink.
Tommy smiled, lowered the gun and took a drink of his own before deliberately placing his glass back on the table. In the blink of an eye, he pointed the gun just over my left shoulder and fired. The concussion from the blast destroyed my hearing and flapped my cheeks as if I was in a wind tunnel. I instinctively closed my eyes, but otherwise didn't flinch.
I opened my eyes and saw that Tommy's lips were moving, but I couldn't hear what he was saying. I took another sip from my glass as if nothing had happened and waited for Tommy's lips to stop moving.
I couldn't hear my own response over the ringing in my ears but I’m sure I said it loud enough for Tommy to hear it just fine. “I can't hear a word you just said Mr. Torrelli. That gunshot was loud as shit.”
Tommy smiled and then raised his voice, “I said, I trust that you’ll hold up your end of the bargain, or next time, I won't miss.”
“Fair enough,” I said, slightly louder than I needed. “Now, if you're done fucking around, I’m ready to get some of this insight you want me to have.”
Tommy smiled and tucked his gun back into his waistband. “I like you kid. You definitely have balls. But I trust you. Time will tell if you have an equal amount of brains.” Tommy stood and motioned for me to follow him. “Come on outside, we’ll talk next to the pool, it's beautiful out today.”
* * *
Todd Tavolazzi has a B.S. in History from the U.S. Naval Academy and a M.A. in International Relations from Norwich University. He is a career Naval Officer and part-time writer stationed in Naples, Italy. His flash fiction has appeared on 100wordstory.org and is currently working on his first novel. He usually writes on his balcony with a drink and a smoke overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
This is his second story for Potluck.