The rain which had been coming down in a steady light drizzle developed all of a sudden into a downpour. Umbrellas mushroomed over the heads of the bereaved gathered at the graveside.
The officiating priest had been caught out by the cloudburst and stood helplessly like a drowning rat, holding his soggy breviary, until a compassionate soul leaped forward to give him shelter. Only then was he able to compose himself once again and resume his mournful dirge in a monotone voice: Earth to earth, ashes to ashes…
“Mud to mud,” Freddy found himself whispering under his breath, looking at the freshly dug mound of earth which was being transformed into a quagmire under the onslaught of the weather.
But he could have, equally, been referring to the dead man’s murky past; for, although some onlookers believed that they were witnessing the final journey of an ordinary man, his past had been far from ordinary. As if to emphasise this point, various men, wearing sombre suits and dark glasses, were watching the proceedings from a respectful distance and trying to appear unobtrusive. To untrained eyes the plain-clothes policemen were indistinguishable from the ex-confederates who had come to convince themselves that Don Girolamo Quaglione had not done yet again one of his disappearing acts.
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The phone rang as Freddy Quigley stared at the open window in front of him thinking of a bleak future. He now understood why so many people, facing financial ruin in the times of the Depression, a situation which confronted him now, had chosen to jump to their death rather than submit to the indignity of defeat.
His business enterprises had always been a roller-coaster ride of successes and failures, but up to now he had been able to overcome difficulties. This time, due to the vagaries of the world’s
economics, he seemed to have plunged back into a crisis from which he would find impossible to extricate himself, unless a miracle happened. He often told his clients: “The impossible I can do. Miracles take a bit longer.”
But the divine intervention he was seeking came almost instantaneously in the form of a call from his bank manager.
“Congratulations,” the man said, trying, but not succeeding very well, to conceal the excitement in his voice. “Your bank balance is healthier by a cool five million, you lucky dog.”
Quigley was puzzled. “What do you mean, Jim, how can it possibly be?”
“An inheritance, dear boy. You better come round at once; there are important matters to discuss.”
The four-letter expletive which sprung to Freddy’s lips was diplomatically suppressed to spare the feeling of his secretary, the demure Miss Flinton, whose coral pink ears would have turned crimson red had she heard the profanity. Instead he kissed her fully on the mouth. In his euphoria he failed to notice how enthusiastically she had reciprocated.
All the way to the bank he kept speculating as to the provenance of the legacy. Since his parents had been killed in a car crash, he had been raised by his Aunt Betty and she had died a few years back, penniless.
Inside the conference room of Jim Beresford’s bank, in addition to the manager, representatives of the legal firm of Sedgwick & Sedgwick were also present.
“We are here to execute the last will and testament of the late Girolamo Quaglione,” one of the partners said.
Then, noticing the blank expression on Quigley’s face went on to explain that Freddy’s father had not died in a car crash, as his son believed, but that he had gone into hiding following his agreement to testify against some bosses of the Mafia, of which he was also a member. In return he was given a new identity and promised round-the-clock protection.
“If he was, as you say, a gangster,” Quigley interjected, “then his money is tainted.”
“No, it is absolutely legitimate,” the banker said hurriedly—conscious perhaps that he was on the verge of losing a very wealthy customer—“hundred per cent kosher.”
“You see,” Sedgwick senior elucidated, “your father was handsomely rewarded for his co-operation with the authorities and made very shrewd investments which grew into the tidy sum you are about to inherit. So you needn’t be concerned about ethics.”
“There is only one condition attached to the will,” he added, “and this is that you should attend the funeral which will take place in his native village, where your mother still lives.”
Learning that he was a mobster’s son and that his mother was alive was a double whammy for Freddy, but all he could think was the absurdity that he had been requested to be a witness to the last rites of a man of whom he had only distant memories. He could not reconcile the portrayal of his father as a callous gangster with his hazy recollection of him, serenely reclining in a leather chair in his library with a cigar in one hand and glass of brandy in the other while at the same time nursing a fluffy white cat on his lap.
Finally, having satisfied all the legal requirements, he went back to his flat unaware that Miss Flinton was still at the office waiting for his return in the vague hope that they would resume where they had left off.
Freddy had been given a bulky folder of documents which had belonged to the late lamented—although he doubted whether that was the appropriate terminology. Among the contents he found several newspaper clippings and a letter addressed to Alfredo Quaglione. He felt he had no right to read other people’s correspondence until he realised with a jolt that he was the intended recipient.
“Of course,” he thought, “Freddy is not a diminutive of Frederick but of Alfredo.”
He too had acquired a new identity.
The letter was very terse and a bit of an anticlimax, not adding anything to what he already knew:
When you read this I will no longer be on this earth. Even though I
neglected you during my lifetime, you have been constantly in my
thoughts. Please forgive my past indiscretions. My last will and
testament, lodged with the firm of solicitors Sedgwick &
Sedgwick, will show how I intend to dispose of my fortune. The
executors should by now have contacted you.
I hope you will be able to avail yourself of my bequest.
Your loving father, Girolamo.”
The press cuttings were more revealing and gave him some insight into the world of organised crime.
He began to scan the reports of drug busts and internecine wars in the criminal fraternity, but the name of his father was never at the forefront although his presence, a kind of Mr. Big, lurked in the background, always hinted at but never spelled out. The few times he was mentioned were in relation to the trial in which he had testified, although his part had deliberately, and understandably,been underplayed given the sensitivity of the case. Another minor item of news referred to his ‘disappearance’. Despite all this information, Don Girolamo’s character remained as elusive as ever.
◊ ◊ ◊
Freddy was the last to leave the cemetery; all the other guests had already gone ahead for the wake and to pay their respects to Donna Carmela.
As he approached the spacious villa, set in acres of ground long forgotten memories were rekindled. He remembered how the villagers seemed to be in awe of his family, an attitude which at the time he had interpreted as respectful to his father’s standing as an influential businessman and landlord.
He saw the long line of black limousines parked on the driveway and felt a sense of déjà vu.
It reminded him of the fleet of cars which disgorged Girolamo Quaglione’s associates whenever he convened a meeting. They always displayed an air of bonhomie and greeted each other with big hugs.
Even their sudden departure following an urgent telephone call had seemed perfectly natural: they were on their way to yet another conference. In retrospect Freddy could recall that these people had an aura of menace about them and he now knew that they were not the legitimate financiers they professed to be.
When at last he plucked up courage to go into the house, he was led to the study which he entered with some trepidation. His mother was regarding him more with curiosity than affection, Freddy sensed. Even in her old age, she retained the handsome looks and dominant personality of her youth.
“Siediti,” she said, “sit down, Fredo, and let me look at you.”
“I am so glad that you didn’t take after your father,” she continued. “He was a nobody.”
There was contempt in her voice. “He managed to con people into believing that he was a capo,
but he was just a foot-soldier in the organisation. He broke the law of omertá, the code of silence, and had to be punished. The piovra, the octopus, has long tentacles and in the end got to him. His was not a natural death.”
“So,” Freddy ventured to enquire, “if he was not the Mr. Big, who is the Godfather?”
For the first time, she smiled: “You are looking at her.”
She then delicately raised a china cup to her lips and took a sip of tè al limone.
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© Luigi Pagano