According to my aunt, my father was careful while he worked for the FBI, so careful, she said, that the System did not seem to realize it was Christopher McNeil, the Camorra’s star whose cover was being a police psychologist, who was the cause of their undoing. And so it was all going fine, Elena said, until Christopher brought down the wrong person-the brother of her husband, Maurizio.
Elena knew the whole time what Christopher was doing. She was the only one, aside from his FBI handlers. He’d told her so she would understand that he was not truly in the System, that he was trying to right the grave wrong of their father’s death.
“But when he told me that he had targeted Paulo, Maurizio’s brother, and that they were about to bring him down, I begged him not to do it,” she said. “I told him, you cannot do this. This is my husband’s brother. Paulo is like you are to me. Maurizio loves him as I love you. If you do this, the entire family will collapse. Paulo is the patriarch of this family. He is the reason we all have money. Paulo takes care of everyone.”
“Is Maurizio part of the System?”
“Yes.” Elena dabbed her eyes again. “I didn’t know it when I met him. I didn’t know that nearly everyone I met when I moved to Italy was Camorra.”
“Did you ever live in Naples? I thought the Camorra was only in Naples?”
She smiled grimly. “The Camorra’s stronghold is in Napoli. Their home is Napoli, but they are everywhere. They are in Rome. In fact, it is easier for them to operate from Rome, where they are still not expected to be strong.”
“So you and Maurizio stayed in Rome after you were married?”
“Yes, but the family had a house in Napoli, too, and so we went back and forth. It was a very good life.” She sighed. “You must understand that I have known Maurizio since I was seventeen. When my family had all deserted me-or at least that’s how I felt when I was moved to Rome -it was Maurizio’s distant family who took me into their fold, introducing me to him.”
“Your father was killed by the Camorra and yet you moved to Italy and moved in with them? I don’t understand.”
“Isabel, please don’t try to understand this in a simple frame. There is nothing simple about the Camorra. As I told you before, my mother’s family was traditionally Camorra, but many members of the family did not want to be defined by that. Many chose not to participate, others did, but even if someone did work with the Camorra, it didn’t mean that the entire family was a part of it. I believe my mother thought I was safe, because I went to her family in Rome, not Napoli, and all the Camorra members that she knew were from Napoli.”
A pause. Then I decided to say what I was thinking. “It sounds like you were a sacrificial lamb.”
The muscles in her face tensed, then she laughed. “That is what your father once said, too. But by then it was too late. I was part of Maurizio’s family-my only family, it felt like-and they were part of me. And it was okay for a long while, because although your father knew Maurizio’s family was Camorra, his clan wasn’t trying to work in the United States, so he wasn’t part of any operation that your father was focusing on. But then Paulo began to move into America, and it came under your father’s jurisdiction, and then there was this operation to bring him down. As I said, I begged him not to.”
“And how did my father respond?” How strange it was to speak those words-my father-and be referring to someone alive, someone I was about to meet. Again.
“Your father was torn. On one hand, it was his job to stop people in the System. And I had always understood what he was doing. But now there he was, bringing down one of my family members. We were going to have no money left if Paulo went down. And we all loved him. Despite what he does with the System, for work, he is a good man in many ways. I finally decided I had to let them know, the people who were my family now. I told Maurizio and his brother what was going to happen and that it was going to occur very soon. When they didn’t believe me, I finally had to tell them why I knew this-because my brother was an undercover agent for the FBI. And he was spying on the System.” She shook her head now and looked up.
I stayed silent.
“Can you understand how torn I was?” Her eyes beseeched mine.
“Yes, of course.”
She slipped her sunglasses back on. “It was horrid. I wanted so desperately to protect my brother, but I also wanted to protect my husband and his family, my life. I had already lost one life, you know. I couldn’t bear the thought of the death of yet another.”
She dropped her head and began to sob again.
“What?” I said. “What happened?”
A few more shuddering cries, then she restrained herself. “They couldn’t get to Christopher. Not right away. Being with the police force and having protection from the FBI meant he was not an easy person to reach.” She looked out the window then back at me. She took off her sunglasses, and her eyes were dead. “So they killed my mother.”
“Grandma O died in a car crash in Phoenix.”
“Is that what you were told?”
I thought back to that time. I’d been eight years old, and although I hadn’t spent much time with her, I was fond of Grandma O. I liked her musical voice, the way she broke into songs in Italian whenever there was a tense moment. She was funny like that-she could defuse almost any situation.
And then one day, my father sat me down and said that Grandma O had died.
“Yes, I think so,” I said to Elena. “My father told me…” I drifted off for a second, thinking. “He told me that she had problems with her car and she died. I assumed it was an accident. I felt like that’s what he was saying.”
Elena squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them. “I’m sure that is the impression he was trying to give you, but the truth was that her car exploded. The official story from the police was she had put a propane tank in the trunk and the propane tank leaked and ignited when she started the car. But I know that wasn’t true.” She grimaced. “Or rather, it was true, but she had not placed it there. One of the System’s men did and he turned the tank on so that it was leaking.”
“They killed your mother.”
Why hadn’t I found it suspicious that my grandmother died such a short time before her son? I suppose because my parents had done a good job of dialing down the violent nature of her death. And soon her death was overshadowed by my father’s.
Elena nodded, her lips pressed together, making the skin around her mouth bleached white.
“They did it as a way to get a message to Christopher, to my father?”
Another nod. She relaxed her lips and blew out a large breath. “They were trying to say, we’ve killed your mother and we will kill you, Christopher, and your family, too. It is only a matter of time.”
“Oh my God,” I said.
She shook her head again and again, as if she was trying to shake away the memories and all that had been done.
“How awful,” I said.
“You have no idea. I had killed my mother. And now they were trying to kill my brother and his children.” She stopped and looked at me, and then she spoke very, very softly. “And so he…”
But now I could pick up the story. “And so he faked his own death.”
She nodded, she stopped, she nodded again. She turned to me. “Yes, Isabel. That is what he did.” She gave me a grim look. “It nearly destroyed me, the thought that they might kill you. And trust me, Isabel, they would have killed you.”
“Weren’t you worried that they would kill you? I mean, after what they did to Grandma O. Weren’t you afraid they would do the same to you to send a message to him?”
She sighed and shook her head. “The System is very difficult for an outsider to understand. They are ruthless, yes, but there is still a circle of loyalty, and I fell within that circle. Your father knew that, too. He knew that they were coming for him next and for his family, and they wouldn’t stop, and so he went to the FBI. He told them what was going on. The FBI said that they would immediately put the family in the witness protection program. But your father said the witness protection program was no way to live, no way to move on. He didn’t want you all to have to change your identities and your lives. It would have been awful. And so instead of doing that to you…” Her words trailed off.
“But when there was no body, didn’t the Camorra suspect something?”
She laughed but it was without mirth. “Your father was very smart. He played on their egos. He landed the helicopter on the water and rigged it to explode after he’d gotten out. To this day, I know different clans, different members of the Camorra who pride themselves on having killed my brother.”
“So, like I said before-that’s why you weren’t at his funeral. Because you knew he wasn’t dead.”
She nodded. “I couldn’t bring myself to act like he had died. It was enough that I had killed my mother.”
“You didn’t kill her, the Camorra did.”
“Because of me. Because I told them about Christopher.” She clutched her stomach and rocked forward, her head bent.
I put a hand on her shoulder, leaning closer. “Are you all right?”
I had to ask. “Where has he been in Italy this whole time?”
She shrugged. “That is your father’s story. I will let him tell you.”
She seemed depleted by what she’d told me so far. I decided not to push her.
We sat for a while in silence, the train gently rocking. Elena made a huge exhale of breath, then turned to me. “Those men who chased you in Naples,” she said. “They weren’t trying to kill you.”
“What do you mean? They came in the hotel, they seemed to be looking for me and they ran after us with guns!”
She shook her head dismissively. “Trust me. When the Camorra wants to kill you, they kill you. They don’t look, and they don’t chase. They just do.”
“Then what were they doing exactly?”
A small shrug. “My guess is they were trying to scare you.”
“They did a great job. But why?”
Another shrug. “It would be difficult to kill you. To kill italiani? S'i. That happens all the time. But if the Camorra kills a young, attractive American woman, it could cause problems for them.”
“And when I go back to the United States?”
She examined my face. She glanced from my mouth to my hair and back to my eyes. “I would be very careful.”