Authors: Tony Richards
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This one's for Andy Rodriguez
DEATHS IN DIFFERING CLIMATES
The moment Meyer Lansky stepped out of the coolness of the plane into the sunlight of Havana, he could see it, practically feel it like texture on his skin. He could see it on the faces of the two men waiting for him at the bottom of the steps. And could feel it mingled with the basting heat that closed around him like a second suit of clothes the instant that he emerged from the cabin.
And this week, it was
he needed. More than his fair share of grief had found its way into his lap back in Vegas these last couple of days.
Lonnie Coen, for instance. “Laughing” Lonnie, a man he'd known for years. The putz had been found with both hands in the till right up to the elbows, over at the Flamingo. Turned out it had been going on for quite a while. Meyer had ordered him driven out into the desert, one-way trip.
A friend? No. Meyer had stayed on top for so long by understanding that there were no such things in his line of business. ButÂ .Â .Â . Lonnie was somebody whose company he'd valued. Someone who had made him smile, and that was a rare thing. It was like being suddenly punched by the clown at your kid's birthday party.
Lonnie Coen. Of all people. Damn.
Then there was this new guy sent down from Chicago, this Carmine Vincenzi. The guy was a flake, only interested in cocaine and showgirls. It often made him insane, the way the families used his Vegas as a dumping ground for all their drek. He and Siegel had built it out of nothing, out of frigging sand, for God's sake!
And now he'd gotten on a plane, flown to a completely different country. And here was trouble once again, waiting for him like a shadow. His feet hadn't even touched the ground yet. Meyer felt his shoulders slump.
The two men on the runway belowâtheir eyes were a little too wide in their sunburned faces, their jaws were tense, and they were shuffling uncomfortably. He knew them both. “Big John” Roth and Eddie Lanzarro, neither of them what you'd call the fragile type. Whatever kind of trouble it might be, it was serious.
Meyer looked away from them, squinting off through the heat haze, and then adjusted his sunglasses and the brim of his hat. He made his way down slowly, a heavy leather briefcase swinging from his grasp. He had no other luggage. Everything that he required was at the Hotel Nacional.
Lanzarro ducked his head respectfully, reached for the briefcase, and Meyer let him take it. But he refused to look at either of the men. He peered, instead, at the lines of tourists waiting by the customs shed, every single one of them as eager as hell to start putting money in his pockets, by way of the clubs and the casinos that he ran here.
The sight should have given him some comfort, but did not. He took out a cigar, lit it slowly. Both the huge men who had come to greet him became even more uncomfortable. And, despite his weary annoyance, Meyer relished that.
Physically, he was no match for either of them. They could crush him like a dried-out leaf. Yet he had the ability to make them, and a whole battalion like themÂ .Â .Â .
And that was what power was really all about.
He exhaled smoke, watched as the heat spirited it away. Then finally he asked, “So, what the hell is going on?”
They were both tongue-tied at the moment. Big John finally replied.
“It's the new guy, Mr. Lansky, sir.”
“Yeah? I've met him. Something of a ladies' man, as I recall. Someone's husband's after him?”
“Uhâwe're not sure what's wrong with him, sir.”
“Could you expand on that? You know that there is
ass-shaped, but you can't quite put your finger on what that elusive thing might beâis
what you're trying to tell me?”
“He's gone nuts, Mr. Lansky, sir,” Eddie Lanzarro broke in. “He's locked himself in his suite, and he won't let anybody in. And he keeps screaming, yelling about some broad or something.”
Well, this was a new one, and Meyer thought that he had heard them all. He recalled the one time Mantegna had come out West. A big, sturdy young guinea with matinee idol looks. Women were like trophies to him, nothing more.
So why would somebody like that go crazy over just one broad? Start
about her? Too long on the booze, maybe? The rum was strong and plentiful here, and that kind of thing had happened before.
“Why doesn't someone break the door down?” Meyer inquired. “Who's going to mind? We own the damned hotel.”
“He's got a gun, Mr. Lansky. He keeps threatening to use it.”
“And you two are scared of guns?”
“We weren't sure how to play it, sir. We didn't want to put ourselves in a position where we might have to whack him without your say-so first.”
Meyer pursed his lips and nodded.
Let's face it, they were right.
“Okay. Let's go see what's up.”
They were not troubled in the slightest by the local officials as they drove out of the airport. Their limo even got a couple of salutes from the men in beige uniforms. Their kind were very much persona grata here, thanks to Meyer's dealings with the President.
Meyer uttered not another word as the car bore them into the heart of the city. Instead, he took some ledgers from his briefcase, and spent the entire journey poring over figures. When he looked up again, the car had slowed to a halt in the palm-filled courtyard of the Nacional. A commissionaire was hurrying down the stairs to open up his door.
Meyer headed through the lobby to the elevators, his men following closely behind. He maintained his silence as they rode to the fourth floor. And stepped out into the middle of a most peculiar scene.
The twin doors to Mantegna's suite were shut. Three more guys were banging on the woodwork, trying to reason with the man inside.
The voice that answered themÂ .Â .Â . Meyer could not quite make out what it was saying, but could hear that it was high-pitched, practically hysterical in tone. A screeching, adolescent kind of voice he'd never have believed could come out of a fellow like Mantegna.
At the far end of the corridor, a small group of the hotel's staff had been allowed to gather. Maids, bellhops, even a hotel dick. He pointed them out to Eddie.
“Lose the audience, now.”
Then, Big John trailing along behind him, he marched up to the locked doors, ushering the rest aside.
“Mario? This is Lansky, and I'm telling you to open up, this instant.”
That reedy, frenzied voice came skirling out again.
“I want her
! Why won't she come to me? I want her
Meyer slammed a palm against the woodwork.
“Stop this bullshit! Either you open up this door or we'll open it for you, and you don't want that!”
“Screw you!” came the answer. “You don't count for nothing! Only sheÂ .Â .Â . only herÂ .Â .Â .”
The words petered away and a rhythmic sobbing took their place.
Meyer kept ahold, but it was difficult.
in front of his own men?
in front of the damned dago staff? He felt his shoulders bunch.
And stepping back from the door, nodded to Big John, who took a Smith & Wesson from the waistband of his pants, holding it chest high; then turned his shoulder to the doors, and rammed them.
Despite his bulk, they held at the first attempt. Big John grunted and pulled back, back, ready for a second try. The blast of a gunshot came from inside.
They stood frozen, staring at the wood. No holes had appeared. It wasn't them Mantegna had been shooting at.
Meyer felt his chin jerk with bemusement, then gestured for Big John to continue.
The man went powering into the doors again, and this time they crashed open wide.
Mantegna was lying on his unmade bed, beautifully dressed in a white tux, a maroon cummerbund and the same color bow tie. Immaculate in his patent leather shoes. Except his matinee idol looks were no longer in place.
He had shoved the Magnum up into the palate of his mouth, the discharge so fierce that the entire top of his skull had been ripped away. Meyer fished a handkerchief out of his pocket, dabbed his upper lip. Circling the bed, he stared down coolly at the ruined figure, wondering what exactly could have made the guinea do this.
Some kind of illness? Some form of madness? Syphilis?
Eddie Lanzarro had rejoined them. The shorter, heavyset man seemed to notice something. He reached across the bed to the nightstand, and took off it a single sheet of hotel notepaper. Read it with a puzzled air, his temples creasing.
“He's left some kind of note here, Mr. Lansky.”
Meyer waited for the man to bring it to him. He peered down at the crazed, uneven scrawl.
The woman of my dreams
Lives only there.
Awake, I cannot find her
Some kind of abbreviated poem. Meyer closed his eyes a moment, shook his head from side to side. What kind of sickness could turn somebody like Mantegna into a poet? It was all very hard to understand.
He broke out of his reverie, returned his attention to the mess in front of him, his manner becoming businesslike again.
“See that he's shipped back to his family. See it's done by
peopleâdon't let the locals touch him. And get someone to clean this room up. This is a two-hundred-a-night suite, for chrissakes!”
As his men went about their duties, Meyer crossed over to the window and gazed down at the city below.
He'd thought it the first time he had come here, and he thought it still. Cuba was an odd country; Havana one extremely individual town.
The kind of place where anything could happen.
Trouble, in particular.
The night of his return to Toronto from his first ever business trip abroad, Ellen Jackson caught her husband making peculiar noises in his sleep.
It turned out, when she moved her head closer to his, to be a faint and tuneless singing, and it startled her. Because in the twenty years that they'd been married, Ellen had never once heard Frank sing, not even when he was wide awake. Not that he was in any way a sad or somber type. He had always seemed happy in an ambling, contented fashion. It was simply that there was not an extrovert bone in his whole body.
She'd already been getting worried. Since meeting him at the airport, she had started noticing a number of strange changes to his usual manner. Mostly, just the little things only a wife would notice.
The way that he'd dropped certain characteristics, certain ways of acting, saying, doing things. The way his eyes would not meet hers properly, even when they were up close.
And why had he come back from such a hot part of the world with barely a trace of sunburn? If anything, he looked paler than when he'd left.
And the sheer exhaustion, when he'd finally gotten back to their quiet suburban home. The glassy, faraway look in his blue-gray eyes. As if he'd lost all interest in the world, his mind somewhere else entirely. Not even his precious potted cacti seemed to warrant his attention.
She'd put it down to jet lag at first. But then there was his physical coldness. On the few occasions he had allowed her to touch him, his skin had felt chilly, clammy.
“What do you expect?” he mumbled when she commented on it. “Look what I've come back to.”
True, the snow continued to lie three feet deep across the city. But the house was good and warm, and he hadn't been outdoors since walking from the car.
Then there was the matter of his quietness as well, which should have been the last thing to concern her. In the years that she had known him, Frank had been the kind of person who could sit quite happily at a crowded dinner table, listening to the ebb and flow of conversation around him, nodding and smiling but hardly ever joining in. And she'd always liked that about him. Ellen hated loud men.
But his silence since he'd come back was more rigid, the blissful quality gone. Like a steel shutter had come slamming down. A silence like a metal wall.
Two explanations went through Ellen's mind, the first one rather fanciful. Maybe the Cubans had done something to him during the five days he had been their guest. But that was nonsense, and she knew it.
The second theory was that, while he'd been away, her Francis David Jackson had been with another woman. He was not, she was the first to admit, the most dashing of men. Overweight and balding, with loosely defined features and a massive, fleshy nose.
But wasn't Cuba an extremely poor country? And wouldn't a man with dollars in his pocketâany manâbe eligible there?
The thought had nagged at Ellen furiously that whole evening. She'd unpacked his luggage slowly, looking out for any clues, and found nothing
But now there was this. This oddest thing.
She raised her head off her pillow to listen. Found it a strain to make out the words.
“She'sÂ .Â .Â . under my skin.”
But who was
Frank punctuated it with a grunt, and then repeated it.
“She'sÂ .Â .Â . unn-der my skinâ”
It was hard to tell in the darkness. But as he kept on mumbling that, his features seemed to crease up.
Twist, as though with pain.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The next morning he was due back in the office, but she couldn't get him out of bed. Frank had always been a punctual early riser till today.
His eyes kept coming half open, as glossy as a pair of tiny mirrors. They wouldn't focus on her, and would close again the next instant. He kept moaning in protest, rolling away from her, however persistently she tried to wake him.
He was sick, for God's sake. That was the explanation. His first time in a third world countryÂ .Â .Â . who knew what he'd caught?
She got on the phone to their doctor, Leland Hague. And being an old family friend, when he heard what the trouble was, he came around right away.
He examined Frank up and down, then finally turned to Ellen, a wary look on his thin features.
“Nothing wrong with him that I can find, except his temperature is slightly down, but only by a little,” he told her. “Of course, I can have him admitted and the hospital can run more detailed tests, but if you want my opinionâ”
He ran a finger through his bushy gray moustache.
“He's simply been thrown out by the trip. Abrupt change in climate, diet. Probably exhausted too. I was in Havana myself a few times, back in my Navy days, and believe me, those people don't just burn the candle at both endsâthey take a blowtorch to it. Doubtless had him out every night till God knows when, and Frank just isn't used to it.”
Peering through his bifocals, he saw that Ellen did not look completely reassured.
“I'll prescribe him a little something, okay? And I'll drop around again tomorrow. If he's not showing signs of recovery by then, I'll send him in for further tests. What Frank needs, though, is rest and plenty of it. Sleep's a better cure than any wonder drug cooked up in the last ten years.”
She was always annoyed with Leland and his folksy turns of phrase. The man behaved as if he were some backwoods doctor straight out of the 1930s.
But she had to admit that he was probably right. So she resigned herself to waiting.
Lord knew, it proved difficult. Like sharing the house with a corpse. There was not a sound from the bedroom for the remainder of that day. And on the few occasions that she peeked in round the door, Frank was lying in the same position, eyes still closed and his mouth hanging open.
He was still motionless at ten that night when she slipped into bed beside him. Ellen lay there for what felt like an age, listening to his shallow, rhythmic breathing. This was even worse than the singing had been.
She wasn't sure what hour it was when sleep finally claimed her.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
She woke up to an empty bed the following morning. Didn't even notice it, at first. She reached out, semiconscious, trying to touch Frank. And felt an impression in the pillow where he had been lying.
Ellen sat up with a start, and then a smile overtook her. He had to have gotten better, thank God.
The sun was shining brightly, although there was still snow on the window ledge. She could hear a bunch of small kids playing in a nearby yard. It was just like any other normal day, in other words. Like yesterday's exaggerated fears had merely been a dream.
That is, until she heard the moaning.
It was coming from downstairs, and did not sound normal or even particularly human. Fright reclaimed her in an instant.
” she yelled out, going rigid. “Frank, is that you?!”
She got no answer but another groan. It occurred to her that it
him making the sounds. Still unwell, and possibly in pain.
Jumping up, she got her robe and slippers, headed for the stairs. She came to a halt at the banisters, peering down. She could see Frank's head moving past below her.
He was wandering along the hallway. Had stripped off his pajama top. His head was bowed. His hands seemed to be lifted to his face, but it was hard to be sure from this angle.
He disappeared in the direction of the kitchen. And as he slipped from view he moaned again, louder than before.
Ellen froze, genuinely terrified.
A loud crash.
Had he fallen? She went quickly down.
It wasn't him on the floor, thank heavens. Only a stool from the breakfast bar, turned over on its side. Frank must have done that, but didn't seem to notice.
He was standing with his back to her at the kitchen door, peering out at something. Not the yard, either. His head was lifted too far back for that.
With a fresh surge of shock, she took in the fact that he was gazing at the newly risen sun.
“Frank, stop that!”
She lurched toward him.
“Frank, you'll hurt your eyes!”
He paid her no attention, even when she grabbed his shoulders. She had to turn him around physically, and it took all the strength that she could muster.
His face finally came in sight, and he was crying.
“Frank?” Her fear gave way to astonishment. “What
Those bright, wet eyes settled on her for a second, but he did not answer.
“Jesus, Frank, what the hell is wrong with you?”
He stepped forward abruptly, pushing her aside. Ellen hit the edge of the dishwasher, pain flaring up in her hip. But she righted herself, her gaze still following her husband.
He had wandered back into the hallway. His hands went to his temples again and he continued with that awful moaning noise. It came in long, slow pulses, like some huge sea mammal mourning its dead mate.
Reaching the front door, Frank flung it open and walked out, bare feet crunching in the snow. Ellen dashed out after him and grabbed him by the wrist.
“Frank! Frank, come
His only response was to shake her loose, then gaze up at the sky again. Except that the sun was not visible from this side of the house.
His eyes fastened on something else instead. Followed it as it drifted across the high blue firmament.
He was staring at an airplane winging its way south. His cheeks seemed to crumple as he watched it. Furrows appeared on his brow. He raised one hand toward the craft, like he was trying to touch it. Then he let out the worst sound so far.
Not a moan this time. A howl of anguished misery.
Several faces appeared in windows across the street. All Frank did was shake his head, go back inside the house.
Ellen followed him, not even bothering to close the door behind her. She was on the telephone by the time that he went back into the kitchen.
“Yes, hello?” came Leland's muffled voice.
“It's Ellen! You've got to get over here, now!”
“Why? What is it?”
Frank came back past and started up the stairs. He seemed to be holding something, but she couldn't make out what it was.
“Frank's gone crazy! Please, IÂ .Â .Â .
“I'll be there as fast as I can.”
There was a bang from upstairs, a door slamming shut. It was followed by the rattle of a bolt. Oh God, he'd locked himself in the bathroom. Ellen bustled up.
She grabbed the doorknob. It turned easily but the door wouldn't budge. So she started thumping on the wooden panels.
“Frank, please, open the door!”
What finally stopped her was the realization she was making so much noise she couldn't make out what was happening inside.
Keep a grip,
a small inner voice seemed to tell her.
Just stay calm until Leland gets here.
She tipped her head forward and asked, in a quieter voice, “Frank, are you okay in there?”
There was some kind of muttering from the other side, but it didn't sound like a response of any kind. More like he was talking to himself.
“Frank. I can't get the door open, sweetheart. I need to get in, just to see that you're okay. I'm concerned for you, that's all.”
She put her ear against the door.
And finally made out what Frank was mumbling.
“She'sÂ .Â .Â
Her fist shot up to her mouth.
“.Â .Â . under my skin.”
The same as that first night. The exact same. He wasn't singing it this time. He was intoning it over and again in a hushed whisper.
“She'sÂ .Â .Â . under my skin.”
There was something else as well, she noticed. Punctuating every phrase, there came a grunt, almost of stifled pain.
she tried again, her voice becoming brittle.
“She'sÂ .Â .Â . uhhÂ .Â .Â . under my skin. She'sÂ .Â .Â . uhhÂ .Â .Â . under myÂ .Â .Â
On and on like a stuck record. What in the name of heaven?
A stair creaked behind her and she spun around. Leland Hague, his coat on crooked and his shirt collar askew, peered up at her.
“He's in there?”
Wide-eyed, Ellen nodded.
The aging doctor moved her gently to one side, then stepped up to the door himself, adopting a stern kind of manner she had never seen before. He reached out with his fist, his knuckles rapping softly.
“Francis? This is Leland Hague. Remember me?”
“âuhhâ” came the reply. “âShe'sÂ .Â .Â
“Would you please open up? Just unlock the door. Nice and easy. Okay, Frank?”
There was a sudden movement at the low edge of her vision. Ellen glanced down at the floor.
Hague was wearing old white sneakers. But now, the toe of the left one was red.
The doctor noticed too, and stepped back, horrified.
There was a thin stream of blood running out from underneath the door.
Oh my God
, thought Ellen.
FrankÂ .Â .Â . ?
Ellen began screaming, but Leland ignored her. He stepped back and then slammed his shoulder into the paneling.
He was too old, too lightly built. It took him twelve attempts before there was a splintering noise. The next attempt, the door loosened a little. And the next, there was a metallic clatter on the tiles inside as the deadbolt dropped away.
Hague stumbled through, carried by his own momentum. Skidded on something wet.
Toppled over, landing heavily.
He tried to get back up and only slithered down again. And then he yelled with pain.
The entire floor was slick with blood. Ellen stared past the doctor at her husband with a stark and almost disbelieving sense of awe.