The car skidded onto basalt square, loudly and unafraid. Some gate guards, military, approached it immediately.
There was no nonchalant opening of windows, he straight up opened the door and walked to meet the guards face to face. He was still lighting the cigar as he came to a stop, it irritated him that he only had two more and he let that show.
“You boys get outta my way, I need to speak with Celio.”
“What?” The guards seemed confused. “Why do you think you can just come in in the middle of the night?”
“Ring him and tell ‘im Lazaros Infeperio is here.”
The name seemed to alert them to the fact they should maybe take the risk of waking someone else up to challenge the Don, it was better than doing it themselves.
They coughed and shook their heads in disapproval – the only resistance they had the courage to show – while one of them grabbed a phone.
Lazaros smoked, impatient, with the twins already at his flanks. He noticeably tapped his foot so as to make the guards nervous.
The basalt house was the presidential manor, named after the fact it was the blackest building in the city by a good margin of darkness. It had been built centuries in the past, during the royalty days, when opulence was spent on buildings – it was almost all made of basalt, volcanic rock. The stripes of color created by the reflection of the stars were as notable as nomadic, they moved with both the skies and the point of view.
The guard, grabbing onto a phone, nervously argued, then apologetically informed, then dejectedly conceded while letting go of the cord. After that, Lazaros was waved along while the gate automatically opened.
“Freakin’ waste my time again, I’ll make you regret it,” he threatened, more out of grumpiness than for any legitimate reason. Just to see them scared, it made him more confident.
There were a couple more guards by the actual entrance to the house. Lazaros had the impression Celio was expecting trouble, though mostly, that was because he was already there.
Despite the late hours, Celio was not only fully awake but he looked as if he had just left a meeting. His office was fully lit and his desk and chairs had signs he had been entertaining visits all day. He was wearing a sharp black suit to compliment his dark skin. Despite his relationship with the mafias, he was not to be taken lightly, and he sure had that image.
“You don’t think it’s disrespectful to demand my attention? Like I’m one of your lackeys?” He said it without even looking up at Lazaros, concentrated in what he was writing. He didn’t hesitate a beat, however.
“If you were a button o’ mine, Celio, I’d send for you. Or maybe I’d send someone to tell you what to do, I sure as hell wouldn’t show up in person to talk to you like a man.”
Celio paused for a second to give the words a slight nod. He put down the pen and looked up at him.
“Don Infeperio, forgive my disrespect.” The Don edged back a bit surprised. “Why have you come to me?”
“I’ve recently realized you’re protecting Donna.”
“I can only surmise you know this because you tried to attack her.”
“Attack her? She’s an old woman, Celio, why would I attack her? Why would I need to? I wanted to talk to her but your goons turned me around.”
“My…you mean the police officers? It is my understanding very few of them are actually mine.”
“Yeah, and they were there to stop me,” he told him, insulted and trying to signify he only had two people who were loyal to him, as in, really too few. “Why?”
“Donna contacted me with concerns about you attacking her. She made a good case and so I had the duty to provide her, an esteemed citizen, the appropriate guard. Just to be on the safe side.”
Lazaros could’ve mentioned she attacked him first but he preferred to let that die. Let it be a fact only Donna and her men would know about, let them wonder forever why Lazaros utterly ignored it. In his current position, it was a weakness. Once he came out on top, it would be seen as a strength.
There were more important things to call Celio out on.
“Can ya drop the pretense here, Celio? I’m really not in a mood for politics.”
“You want to start a war,” he flatly stated, “I won’t allow that. If that means picking between you and Don Serratore, the decision is simple.”
“Yer bein’ played, my friend. I never wanted to start a war, she’s the one who’s trying to make a big thing out of all of this.”
“What do you mean, all of this?”
He chewed on his cigar, angry. What was his angle? How could he talk to Celio? Explaining what had been going on regarding his take-over would never fly, the man was corrupt but he wasn’t a criminal, much less interested at all in respecting mafia code. People rarely make the distinction but there was a clear one which was why the corrupt were held in so little regard by the criminals.
Celio wasn’t a monster, he cared about Igtalia and its people, but he still put himself first. He justified it, of course, if he’s not okay, he can’t look out for others: one of the many faces the power-hungry put on. The heart was there, however, clearly evident and possible to manipulate. That was his angle, self-preservation and the good of Igtalia.
“You’d side with an old woman on her death-bed? Instead of with me? When have you ever had problems with my family?”
Celio tapped his fingers on the desk, thoughtful.
“She’s held hers in line for a lot more time. The other families respect her.”
“They haven’t sided with her, she lied to you on that point.”
“That’s not the point. They will if I do, I’m the swaying vote, here, I know that much.”
Celio didn’t know about the Shadow Conclave, Lazaros couldn’t use that to convince him. He took the cigar out of his mouth and looked out one of the windows. Thinking.
“You think she can keep everyone in line? Be the Don of Dons?”
“I’m pretty sure.”
“You’re right,” he gestured at him, “I’ll admit to that, you’re right. But so could I.”
“I trust her more.”
“You should,” he nodded sagely, his tone evidently holding a but. “In times of peace, see?”
Celio opened his eyes mildly.
“You know about the beasts, yes? You know they’re coming our way.”
“No we don’t, they seem to be focused on the east.”
“They’re coming our way, see?” Celio would check again in the morning and confirm it, but right now, he would believe Lazaros. That was his charisma, his words were strong and spoken as if he was writing them on his skin and may it be burnt if they were lies. “And when our country’s flooding with fugitives? With refugees? With criminals, too, from the east and the south and the north. You know the topography, we’ll be the last line of defense outside of the islands.”
Celio didn’t say anything but he was clearly considering his words.
“Can Donna hold it together then? Huh?” He stepped forward in indignation. He threw the cigar out the window. “No! I already have the support of the underworld, see? I spent the last weeks making alliances with outside organizations, see? What has Donna been doing? Besides stabbin’ me in the back!” He kicked the chair for added effect. “In my own home!”
He took a heavy breath, he wanted to show the insult. While he had been busy setting up for future troubles, she was being a conniving little traitor. That was the concept he was trying to sell.
“I’m ready to weather the storm that’s comin’, see? With me, you can just sit back and take care of our people, Celio. Keep those taxes flowin’ and keep our country great.” He grinned acutely.
He was still angry, angry because Celio didn’t see it, that’s how he wanted to make the man feel. He wanted to intimidate him to reason. He approached him even more, subconsciously cornering him.
“Donna? That old woman’s just worried about not losing the power left to her by her man.” A lie, of course, she had held the power all along. Celio didn’t know that, however. “All she cares about is her legacy, I’m tryin’ to accomplish somethin’ here! And so should you, damn you!” He slammed his fist on his desk, he was showing Celio he was so upset because he really wasn’t helping his own case, or Igtalia itself.
It was half true but nobody could have been able to tell.
Celio looked away from the Don’s fierce gaze, coughing nervously.
The Don knew he had won then, that old woman would regret challenging him.
“And if by some impossible miracle, we don’t have to deal with the beasts, fine, maybe Donna would’ve done better.” He placed his fists on the desk and leaned in, “but I won’t be doin’ bad either, you know that much. My alliance will still help plenty.”
Celio had leaned back in his chair, seemingly out of comfort but clearly more out of fear. Lazaros didn’t mind using intimidation to convince someone, it’s what he was good at.
“Can ya back off, Lazaros?” A more casual voice let Lazaros allow himself to relax. His shoulders slumped slightly and he took one of the chairs, sitting down.
“Sorry, Celio, didn’t mean to go off like that. Just makes me mad seeing you makin’ these mistakes.”
The President of Igtalia for three consecutive terms massaged the base of his nose, putting some effort into thinking about what he should decide to do. What he never wanted was happening, two Dons were vying for power and he had to pick a side, he had to allow one of them to obtain power none had never had. That he could remember, at least.
Who to choose?
Lazaros had to give him a hand. Convincing him which was the better choice was one way, probably the one Donna had used, but Lazaros would give further reasoning. Instead of telling him which one was better, he had to tell him which one was worse.
“I respect your dedications towards your people, see? I understand it. I respect it. You should know what I mean when I say I will fight for mine.” Celio looked up. “It’s what this’s about, in the end, see? The Infeperio family look to me for leadership. For guidance. Above all, to guarantee they’re breathin’ tomorra.” He leaned in over arms tensely poised over his legs. “I never let an attack on them go unpunished. I never leave some two-bit informant who screwed them over…alone. Donna’s right about one thing: I will fight. The others won’t ‘cause they only care about themselves but I’m here tryin’ to accomplish somethin’, somethin’ my family believes in, and I’m also here to protect ‘em. I will fight, see? I’ll go to war, don’t think I won’t.”
A threat. Not a direct threat, in ultimatum form – do this or else – but a threat nonetheless. Now he had reasons to go with the Don, and consequences if he didn’t. He was sure Donna had only given him reasons to go with her. She probably gave reasons not to go with Lazaros but that’s what he was dispelling. Reminding the man he wasn’t a warmonger, that he would seek to avoid fighting as much as Donna would.
Celio sighed beyond troubled.
Lazaros had seen it before and he would see it again: someone stuck between a rock and a hard place. Lazaros was usually the rock, squeezing on to the hard place while telling them to go left. Those who went right? Never went well for them. Those who went left? Sometimes it went well, that was life. Can’t survive everything, can’t always do well.
Unless you’re Lazaros Infeperio.
Celio looked up. He turned his neck, little cracks bringing a bit of relief to the man. He crossed his arms and mumbled. He hummed, he frowned, his nose and lips twitched. Lazaros waited, he wanted to leave him be to catch up to the only good decision he had to make but that might actually mess with the man’s ego. It was better to be patient.
“Alright,” he said with a surrendering gesture accompanied by a shrug, “when you’re right, you’re right. You’re my best bet.”
“Ahha!” Lazaros punched the desk and extended the hand for a handshake. “Knew you had it in you, Celio! This’s why I always vote for you, see?”
Celio corresponded to the hand-shake, unable to match the Don’s firmness. You could dominate a man with a handshake, it was a basic body language maneuver, and the Don employed it.
“I want you to contact the other Dons, Celio, let ‘em know you’re backing me up. Pretty much everyone but Donna’s already on my side.”
“They are?” As Lazaros had expected, Donna had told him they were all on hers.
“’Course, they know which horse to bet on.” He grinned and sat back, lighting his second to last cigar. “Just ask ‘em.”
“Hmpf,” he shook his head, “I really should’ve known better than to believe you’d been that blindsided.”
“Yeah, ya should.” He put away his lighter and stood up.
“You were outta town,” he shrugged, “that’s why I believed it.”
Lazaros was feeling pretty good, he might as well push it. “Do me a favor and lemme give Donna the good news. Pull out your people.”
“Sure. Why not?”
He grinned evilly in the back of his mind, cigar in-between fingers as his hand gestured to him blowing the smoke out. The Don wasn’t the first to do that particular gesture but he was sure he was executing one of the most victorious and arrogant expressions humanity had ever produced.
“We’ll talk again soon, Celio.” He turned around and walked away, “you made the right call, here.”
“I sure hope so, Mr. Infeperio.”
He smiled and left the room, walking with purpose.
The talkative twin opened the door for him and the mute one slightly glanced at him as if asking him where to go next.
“Back to Donnas’,” he smirked, “we won, boys.”
“Pres. decided to back the right horse,” he paused to blow out smoke, hearing the engine revving and the gears changing. “Made ‘im see that mare just wouldn’t cut it.”
His people would still be gearing up for war, which was good. They didn’t have marching orders so they wouldn’t attack anyone and it’d be good practice anyways. They’d need to mobilize for real eventually. He’d only tell them to stand down when he returned to his turf triumphant. They’d feel all the more grateful he’d pull it off.
They passed by where he had met the down-on-her-luck-for-the-past-decade former detective woman, finding no more cops blocking their way. Or it seemed that way, the cop car was parked next to the sidewalk. He blew smoke at it in as clear a gloat as he could manage.
This’s how the world works, girl. The righteous get out of the way of the powerful.
Donna’s own men were waiting in front of the gate to the Serratore mansion, the center of their turf.
“Stop the car. Turn it off.”
The mute did so. The lights went off and they were left in darkness, being watched by the three goons that were in front of the gate. Lazaros sniffed, throwing his cigar out the window, all spent.
He sighed heavily while lighting the other one. The final one.
He knew Donna, he could see how the finale to this whole thing could unfold, how low he would have to go. Possibly. Most likely.
He steeled himself. This was going to be the moment he was least proud of if it went the way he thought it would go, but if she were stubborn to that point, there would be no other recourse left to him.
“Things’re probably gonna get violent, boys. You back me up no matter what, no one’ll get hurt.”
The two looked at him, they exuded dedication, they were ready for it. To earn their place in the Infeperio family. He liked their look.
“Well. No one of us.”