I admit: I’m no angel.
I am a sucker for a pretty face; and not indifferent to a shapely body, either.
So, if a tycoon wishes to steer his girlfriend towards me, having got tired of her, who am I to say no? I am happy to oblige.
Don’t get me wrong: I love my wife Teresa but I dare say that, having produced five delightful children, she is glad of the occasional rest.
Besides, it is part of my job. My associates rely on me to provide them with inside information. It helps with the smooth running of the organisation.
And you’d be surprised what can be learnt from a pair of pouting lips, once the initial ardour of lovemaking has died down and you are lying on silk sheets, side by side, gazing adoringly into each others eyes.
They call it pillow talk and in my opinion it is a very apt description.
◊ ◊ ◊
I was introduced to Joseph Schloss the Third at a christening party in the house of my uncle. I knew of him but not about him.
In fact we were all in the dark regarding this shadowy character and nobody had been able to find out anything on his background, which was rather baffling as our intelligence was superior to that of the CIA.
Rumour had it that he had connections in high places, even as far as the White House.
Carruthers, also known as ‘the philosopher’ – because he hailed from Cambridge and had a string of letters after his name – opined that it was ‘in the realm of possibilities’.
‘Remember JFK, Sam Giancana and ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’? He said, tapping his nose meaningfully, and everybody nodded wisely.
I too nodded in agreement even though I didn’t have a clue as to what he was talking about. I am a simple Sicilian boy and don’t always understand the subtleties of the English language.
But I was fascinated by those words and made a mental note to add them to my vocabulary.
But I digress. I was feasting my eyes on an attractive lady, dressed in red, who seemed to be propping up the bar in a corner of the room, when Uncle Gesualdo approached me with this guy in tow. I realised right away that this wasn’t a social call and that my services would soon be required.
‘Have you met my nephew Valentino?’
I am called that on account of my first name, Rodolfo, and also because my dark Mediterranean looks remind people of that heartthrob.
I have disliked the nickname since I heard that his sexual proclivities had been called into question, but I am stuck with it.
‘Ah, the Italian stallion’, my uncle’s guest mocked.
I kept my cool and gave him an inane grin. I knew that in a couple of minutes the schmuck would be begging for my help.
‘Don’t be deceived by his gormless looks, the boy has got brains’, counteracted Uncle Gesualdo.
This was said with an affectionate smile and I know there was no malice in the remark because he holds me in high esteem and everyone thinks that I am the presumptive heir to his empire, although he has never told me so.
I guessed what my uncle’s companion was going to say before he opened his big mouth and sure enough he asked me if I could do him a favour and become a regular escort to this young lady who was taking up too much of his time.
My intended quarry was a minor actress, Gloria Labouche, the star of many of those ‘artistic’ films that one normally finds only in selected clubs.
Luckily for me, she turned out to be the same woman I had been admiring five minutes earlier.
They left me to my task and I made a beeline for the bar.
‘Hi’, I said to Gloria, ‘I’m Valentino. It looks as if you could do with a drink.’
It was the most idiotic opening line I could have come up with as by now she must have been on her seventh dry Martini.
She accepted my offer graciously and turning to Rocky ‘The Muscle’ Murciano, who was acting as a barman for the occasion, she motioned to him to pour her another cocktail.
‘I think you had enough for today, lady.’ He barked, and refused to serve her.
Ideally I should have told that oaf to shut his mouth and give the dame whatever she wanted, but I didn’t.
I don’t know whether it was the thought that a fracas might ruin the celebrations or the sight of the broken nose and cauliflower ears, which were the salient features of his pug’s face, but I decided it was prudent to abstain from an argument .
Instead I decided to use diplomacy and whispered to Gloria:
‘Would you like me to take you home? We can have a quiet drink at your place.’
She focused her glazed eyes on me with difficulty but she must have liked what she saw.
‘Sure’, she slurred, ‘Can you drive?’
And before I could answer, she had thrown me her car keys.
◊ ◊ ◊
If her apartment had been any further she would have passed out in the vehicle.
As it was, she managed to stagger inside the flat and I made her take a shower to sober up while I brewed some strong black coffee.
She rubbed herself dry in front of me with no inhibition whatsoever and drank gallons of the stuff, after which she was once again fit as a fiddle and ready for anything.
‘Let’s skip the drink’, she said leading me towards the bedroom.
Now, I have met a lot of women but they never cease to surprise me.
And this was no exception.
‘Do you mind if I set the video recorder running?’ she asked, ‘I like to study my performance; it helps me to develop my acting technique.’
I agreed for Art’s sake but, being a gentleman, I did not inquire if all those tapes, neatly stacked on the shelf, were the result of previous auditions.
When the time for a cosy chat arrived, I didn’t like what I heard.
Her boyfriend, far from being the wealthy magnate we all assumed, was in dire straits. His business was going to go down the pan unless a considerable injection of capital could be procured. Did I know any possible investors?
I said that I’d think about it.
What I should have done, but didn’t, was to rush to Uncle Gesualdo and tell him all I had learnt.
It would have saved trouble all round.
But the thought of further trysts with the lovely Gloria held me back. A very unprofessional thing to do.
◊ ◊ ◊
I never had the chance to reacquaint myself with my latest conquest and I don’t know if she was part of the scam. I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.
The fact was that two days later I received a letter from our esteemed entrepreneur to the effect that he was in possession of a certain personal video tape, the return of which would depend on relinquishing a sum with a long string of zeros.
I could only dream that kind of money, let alone possess it.
Of course the rat knew this but believed that, through me, he could dip his paws into the firm’s funds.
I am not a violent man but my first reaction was to go and ram the tape down the throat of that-son-of-a-bitch and I said as much to Uncle Gesualdo, to whom I have to defer before taking any initiative, when I confessed my misdemeanour.
I don’t have, as he often points out, the ‘authority’ to do anything without the knowledge and approval of my confederates.
I had to eat humble pie and admit to the debacle.
It wasn’t a question of money; if this episode became public, it would heap ridicule upon the ‘firm’ and would damage its reputation.
‘You are too impulsive, Valentino’, uncle said in his usual calm and assured manner, ‘there is more than one way to skin a cat.’
It was what he said next that was unusual, which made me suspect that perhaps the room was bugged.
‘We must let the Law deal with this. Here’s what we’ll do…’
◊ ◊ ◊
That’s why I came to be sitting at a table in a downtown café with an envelope containing a negotiable bond for the specified amount.
The blackmailer had insisted on it; he did not want banknotes that could be traced.
But if he thought that he had been clever, he had another thing coming.
I was wired up to obtain proof of his guilt when the exchange was made and all around me were agents in plain clothes, ready to pounce on our crooked financier, though even I could not tell who they were as they blended easily with the regular clientele.
I kept looking at my watch and wondering whether he would turn up.
He was now ten minutes late; perhaps he had smelled a rat.
To take my mind off from the business on hand I was on cloud nine watching the voluptuous barmaid – purely out of professional interest you understand – when I was brought back to earth by a sudden hush and saw two guys sitting at the next table watching with open mouths the news flash which had just appeared on the television screen. I followed their gaze and was amazed at what I saw.
The reporter was describing the discovery of two bodies in a riverside apartment; that of the porn actress Gloria Labouche and of her lover Joe Schloss who was thought to have strangled her in a fit of jealousy before committing suicide.
I marvelled at what seemed to be a fortuitous coincidence.
But, while stunned by the unexpected outcome, I could not help recalling uncle Gesualdo’s words:
‘…there is more than one way to skin a cat.’
© Luigi Pagano