It was a typical Brooklyn Fall afternoon – petrol fumes mingled with the smell of hot dogs, pretzels and onions, carried on the chill gusts that whipped along the alleyways, scattering faded copies of the New York times and freshly fallen leaves in their wake.
If you were to walk down such a nondescript alleyway, somewhere between Liberty Street and Monroe, between the dumpsters and crushed cardboard boxes, you might find yourself outside a battered steel doorway, wreathed in steam, fragrant with basil and oregano, and the pungent undertones of plum tomatoes, escaping from the half-open kitchen window to which this particular door grants access. The aroma is inviting, but the welcome – to strangers – is less forgiving. This is not a doorway that the unwary should wish to find themselves, for it is the back door to Don Mascarpone’s Italian Restaurant.
Let us say that you had indeed received an invitation to present yourself at this particular doorway on a cold October afternoon. Tentatively, your knuckles rap upon the rough steel of the door – you wait, feet shuffling, uncomfortable in the gusting wind, the sound of traffic muted in the quiet of the alley. You are almost startled by the sound of bolts being shot and the door groaning on its hinges as it opens. Your welcome is an unsmiling face, with five-o’clock shadow and slick, greasy dark hair – he nods briefly, leans out to look both left and right along the length of the alley, then beckons you in. The door swings shut behind you with a clang, the bolts clatter and you walk from the dark coldness of a concrete-floored corridor into the warmth, light and noise of the restaurant kitchen.
There is laughter too: gathered around a table – upon which rests a clean white and red, chequered cloth, laden with bowls of pasta, freshly-baked bread and bottles of chianti – are a number of gentlemen in Italian suits, smoking fat cigars, whilst other, younger and less formally dressed acolytes stand at a respectful distance, or lounge against brushed steel kitchen appliances, exchanging shifty glances and guarded looks. You are ushered to a chair at the table, the laughter stops and you feel all eyes in the room bearing down upon you – you stare straight ahead, and Don Mascarpone watches you quizzically through the smoke of his cigar. The slightest of nods in greeting and the whole room breathes a collective sigh. The laugher returns, wine is poured and business can commence.
Don Mascarpone – or, ‘The Boss’, to give him his formal title – is an imposing figure; a generously built man in a shiny dark suit. You might say his features held a cold brutality, yet there seemed a generosity of spirit and familial care behind those pale eyes. There is an indefinable quality about him that commands respect without explicitly demanding it – you know, just from spending time in the Boss’s company, that this is a cruel, but fair man. He speaks rarely, but all conversation revolves around him and, when he does offer an opinion, those around him hang on his words, almost reverentially.
Mascarpone has been in ‘The Business’ for as long as you can remember, securing his position as ‘Boss’, following a violent and messy takeover which few now choose to remember. Under his leadership, the restaurant has flourished and an increasingly eclectic clientele now frequent the premises to do business, chew the fat and impress new clients over breadststicks and Ma Mascarpone’s special gnocci and spaghetti meatballs.
Today is no exception – the kitchen is a hive of steam and activity and front of house buzzes with the lunchtime rush. The restaurant feels vibrant, full of warmth and companionship… a warmth disturbed only by the occasional blast of cold air as patrons pass to and from the street outside. A rather more subtle chill fills the room however, as a new customer pushes through the entrance door: for a moment, he stands there, blowing into his cold hands, his crumpled gabardine trenchcoat flapping around his legs, before looking up to survey the lunchtime crowd with his one good eye.
As the assembled diners visibly shrink in their seats, Antonia the waitress sidles up to the new arrival and hisses in his ear.
“For cryin’ out loud, Dan! You’re scarin’ the punters”
Detective Danny Sherbet pulls a spotless handkerchief from his pocket and rubs fitfully at the imagined germs his hands have picked up from the restaurant door – he projects an air of nervousness and, to those who don’t know him, this one-eyed, obsessive compulsive cop with a lollipop fetish seems rather an absurd figure.
“I’ve come to see the boss… it’s a personal matter”
Antonia shrugs, shakes her head and disappears towards the kitchen. Slowly and deliberately, the detective reaches into his jacket – instantly there is tension in the room, followed by an almost audible sigh of relief as he pulls a cherry lolly from his pocket and slips it between his lips. Antonia reappears and practically drags the detective from the room – within moments of his departure, the restaurant has returned to its usual hubbub.
“Danny! Danny – my boy! It’s good to see you!” – Don Mascarpone’s welcome is both warm and effusive – “Come on in, take a seat. Boys!… Vino for the detective!”
Dan waves away the proffered glass – “Sorry Don, I’m on duty.”
“Of course. What am I thinking? So, Danny, how’s things in your line of business?”
“Hey Don, you know how things are – it’s murder out there! Hope you don’t me turning up unannounced like this, but I was passing and thought I’d come in… see what’s going down, y’know?”
“Danny, you are like a son to me – any time you like, you can just walk right in here. I gotta no secrets from you.” The Boss paused, “although, Danny, some of my… err, business associates, they kinda get a little twitchy around cops, so maybe next time you give me the uh, how you say… heads up, nexta time, yeah?”
“Sure”, said Danny, examining his lollipop carefully.
“So, Danny… is this a social visit, or you have some sorta business venture in mind?”
“The thing is, Don”, responded the detective, choosing his words carefully, “I’ve been speaking to Julius Gelati about some, er, personal matters, and your name came up… he seemed to think that I should speak to you about it…”
At the mention of the Sicilian’s name, Mascarpone stiffened noticeably. There was no love lost between the two men, although an uneasy truce existed between them – a necessary and practical means of ensuring that the business concerns of both families might be fully catered for, without undue difficulty. Even so, The Boss felt a twinge of unease at what the detective may have been discussing with his business ‘partner’.
“So talk to me, Danny”
The detective examined his fingernails meticulously, pulled a spotless handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped his hands carefully.
“The thing is, Don, I went to Julius for advice and there’s a question I have to put to you – he said you wouldn’t mind, in fact his actual words were you’d be ‘made up’, when you heard what I have to say”
Don Mascarpone’s eyes narrowed: “Is that so?”
Danny sensed hostility in the air; he felt all eyes in the room upon him – for some reason he felt incredibly nervous. Once again, he rehearsed the words in his mind that he’d planned to say, steadied his nerves and looked Don straight in the eye.
“Don, my friend, you and me go way back – I think of you like my own brother and I know that over the years we haven’t seen strictly eye to eye over some things… but I’m a cop, and it’s gotta be that way – you know what I mean? The thing is, I have some family business of my own that I need to fix, and I couldn’t think of anyone better than you to turn to for help”
Mascarpone acknowledged Danny’s words with a brief nod and gestured for him to continue.
“The thing is Don, you know me and Jeannie had a kid daughter? Well, she’s the cutest little thing you ever laid eyes on and we wanna do the right thing by her and go and get her christened and, well the thing is… we was wondering if you would agree to being godfather for her?”
Don Mascarpone frowned deeply, then his face lit up in a huge grin:
“Guys!”, he said, clambering to his feet and looking around at the assembled family, “Didya hear that? Danny wants me to be godfather! Can you believe that?”
He turned to the detective and grabbed him by the shoulders, “Danny, I’m more than made up, you have just made my day! You better believe I’ll do this for you… Guys! I’m gonna be a a godfather!”