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55

There he was. There he was.

Seeing him was like stepping into some altered universe. I was eight years old and thirty at the same time. I was in Italy and also in Michigan on the lawn behind our house when my mother told us he was dead.

It was one thing to wonder if he was alive, it was yet another to have him truly standing in front of me. My father. After all these years.

ItsItsIts. I stopped. People always say I was at a loss for words. I had never understood that so well-so very, very well-until now. Finally I managed, You. Its you.

Sometimes its tough to see your friends and family age. Its surreal, though, to have someone immortalized, eternalized, forever in a certain body, a certain form and face, and then to see them twenty-two years older. It wasnt that he looked so terrible, but it was bizarre, like watching a flower bloom or a canyon form on fast-forward at high speed.

He was a handsome man in his late fifties, his hair a salt-and-pepper gray instead of chestnut brown like Charlies or Elenas. He was still trim and lean, but he seemed different than I remembered, more refined. His dark blue slacks were slimmer cut-Italian tailored, I realized. He wore a white shirt and an olive linen blazer that had breast pockets, as well as regular ones. He looked very much like a man who had lived in Italy for many years.

I looked down at his feet again. You still wear boat shoes.

He followed my gaze, seemed at a loss for words himself, then we both looked up, locked eyes. His eyes were like those of someone much older. They were the kind of eyes seen in photos of people who have lived through a terrible war-they were open too wide, theyd seen too much, and they were a little dead to that world that remained in front of them.

He nodded at Grandma Os necklace around my neck. You wear that well.

I couldnt stop staring at him, this man with the copper glasses and the boat shoes. Christopher. I couldnt call him my father. Id been calling him that in my mind forever. But now, seeing this man standing in front of me, I realized I didnt know him. My father was the man I knew twenty-two years ago, the man I knew in my memories.

But the body in your office I managed to say.

The silence in the room crackled. My skin tingled. The thoughts in my brain careened.

Christopher and Elena looked at each other. Elena started to weep. I glanced at Maggie, who was blinking madly, her mouth slightly open. Seeing Maggie, usually so bossy and full of advice, now silent made everything even more serious somehow.

I turned to Christopher and Elena. Who was that body in your office? Was that another faked death? My voice was loud and surprisingly angry. I hadnt seen that emotion bubbling up.

Everyone stared at me; the air bristled around us.

Whosebodywasintheoffice? My voice was demanding now, the voice I used when a witness on the stand wasnt cooperating.

But Christopher was not your typical witness. He stared at me with his green eyes under those round copper glasses. His eyes were unblinking, almost in shock, and yet there was something else behind them. It looked like pride, directed at me.

He glanced at Elena again, as if in a silent question. Like Charlie and me, they didnt seem to need words.

Elena threw her shoulders back and opened her mouth. It was Maurizio.

Your husband, Maurizio?

Her face sagged; she nodded.

Did you? I said, looking at Christopher.

His eyes watched me. He nodded.

You killed him, I said, to make sure I understood.

Another nod.

I glanced at Elena, whose chin was trembling, tears starting to stream.

What in the hell is going on here? My voice was angry again. I had no idea how to interpret this situation. Was Christopher-my father-a ruthless killer? Was Elena scared of him. Should I be scared of him?

Maggie spoke up. Maurizio was in the Camorra, isnt that right?

How great it felt to hear Maggie back in defense-lawyer mode.

Elena and Christopher both nodded.

Did he threaten you, Mr. McNeil?

Yes, he tried to kill me. So I killed him.

I felt my bottom lip move away from my top. I felt my head recoil at the stark simplicity of his words, as if they were easy to say-So I killed him.

He saw my reaction. He nodded as if he understood, didnt expect me to think any differently.

I didnt know what to think. My mind screamed and staggered.

How did Maurizio know about your office down there? Maggie asked.

No one knew until today. We believe he followed Isabel and Elena from Ischia. He was there with her on the island. As best we can gather, he must have heard her and Izzy talking. When Elena told him she was going back to Rome, he didnt give anything away.

Elena began to weep again.

Christopher moved fast to her desk and stood beside her, a gentle hand on her shoulder.

Elena looked up at Christopher, her chin still trembling.

He crouched beside her chair, and, as if begging forgiveness, held out a hand. I am sorry. Truly sorry.

Something in me said, Wheres my apology? but I knew Elena had suffered so much more than me.

Elena took Christophers hand, grasped it with both of hers. They stayed like that for a long moment.

Then Elena sat up and looked at us. What have we done to Charlie?

Christopher shook his head back and forth, making his gray hair move slightly at the sides. This is not your fault. This is not your fault. It is because of me that they have done this to my son. They are trying to get to me.

Something about the words my son rankled me. They were technically true, but what right did he have to use them?

Elena shook her head. Dont give in to them, Christopher. Dont give them what they want.

Who are you talking about? I said. Who is them? The Camorra?

Yes, Christopher said. They must know Im alive, that I have spent the last twenty years fighting them.

He looked at Elena. She shook her head slowly. It wasnt me. I didnt tell them this time. You must fight them.

At the cost of my son? I have already given them my life. I gave up my children. I cant now sacrifice my sons life. And you know that they will kill him, Elena.

Elena stared into the eyes of her brother. Im surprised they have not already.

What? My insides felt as if they were ripping apart. Do you think they would really kill Charlie?

If they dont get what they want, Christopher said, then yes.

Then give them what they want! And what in the hell do they want?

Christopher took a step away from my aunt. Me. They want me. And Im guessing they want something else, too, but Im not sure what. What I am sure about, though, is that Im going to give them what they want if it will spare Charlie.

I wasnt sure what he meant. How?

They kidnapped Charlie in the United States, in Chicago, and in a very public way. They clearly were sending us a message.

Us? I said with trepidation. I couldnt stand the thought that I might have contributed to what was going on with Charlie, but I knew that he was right. Dez Romano, I said.

Christopher nodded. Between your involvement with him-

I wasnt involved with him.

Christopher held up a hand, as if to say, Its not the time to discuss that, and I resented that hand, the way he seemed to be telling me what to do as if he were a father who knew me, a father whod been around.

He continued talking. And the Camorra likely finding out about me, they turned to someone who would be a message to both of us-Charlie. Ive gotten that message. Im ready to respond.

So, what? Youre going to go to Chicago and turn yourself into them?

Not exactly like that, but yes.

I paused. Then, I need to go home, too. I cant stay here while this is happening to Charlie.

Then you are responding to their message, too.

I looked at him defiantly. I guess I am.

He opened his mouth, about to protest, but then he nodded. I understand. But it might complicate things if we all travel on public airlines.

Why?

Because theyre clearly looking for me, for us, and by flying a public airline, well be easier to find. The American passport system and airline system is impossible to infiltrate right now, but in Italy? The Camorra could easily find out passenger lists in and out of the cities.

I know someone who has a private plane. Would it help if we flew private?

My father turned to me, his eyes locking back into mine, but this time it seemed as if he were seeing me, really me, for the first time since hed appeared. His gaze gave me a strange, almost violent sensation. My head could not catch up.

So I just repeated my question. Would it help if we flew private?

My father nodded.

I looked at Elena. Is there a phone I can use that we know for sure is secure?

Christopher took a phone from his pocket. They do not know this number. Who do you want to call?

I looked up Theos number on my own phone and dialed it. Hi, I said when he answered. Any way I could borrow your plane?


Part III 54 | Red, White & Dead | c