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74

She looked so different than she had on the plane. My aunt Elena now wore dark blue jeans, a black T-shirt and a fitted black jacket, her dark hair pulled into a tight ponytail. She held herself differently, too-like a snake coiled but ready. The only familiar thing was those sunglasses with the silver braided arms, pushed onto the top of her head.

Elena held a small gun that was silver on the top, black on the bottom. That gun looked as if it belonged in her hands, as if she had carried it all her life.

She pointed the gun at Ransom. Is he out?

Elena, what are you?

Is he out? she demanded.

For now, my father said, but what? He peered at her.

Christopher, Elena said simply. Nothing else.

My father inhaled sharply. My God, youre the top, my dad said, looking at Elena. You are the top of the System, not Maurizio.

Really? I said, and I couldnt help the surprise in my voice.

My aunt glanced at me with no expression, then looked back at my father.

His mouth opened, as if he were about to say something, but he paused and I could see him working through something in his head. Youre the reason why we could never take down the Camorra.

My aunt gave him a chagrined smile. No, Christopher, youre the reason. Everything youve told me allowed me to keep my clans just in front of your men for years.

Unbelievable.

Aunt Elena gave the grand Italian shrug. You chose to fight them. I chose another way.

To join them? my father said incredulously.

She nodded. And to rule them, to feed off them, to have the life I wanted because of them.

Was it worth it?

Was your choice worth it? Her gun still out, now pointed at my dad, she took in all of us with her eyes. Was it worth it to give them up?

Neither my father nor aunt said anything for a moment. Then my father dropped his head. No, he said a moment later. No.

Another moment of silence before my dad raised his head. He appeared weary from his admission. And now? he said, gesturing at us. Now youre going to kill your niece, your nephew, your brother, his only love?

I glanced at my mom when he said that and saw her eyes open wider, staring at my dad.

No, Elena said. Im going to save you.

She raised her gun then, pointed it at Ransom and fired a shot into his head.

Aunt Elena! I said.

She fired another shot, this time into his groin, and blood spurted into the air, a few drops splashing onto my shirt.

Jesus! Charlie yelled.

Oh, Lord, my mother whispered.

Elena lowered her gun. Her eyes darted to me. He would have killed you. And worse. There was little emotion in her voice, just someone delivering the facts.

My hand over my mouth, I glanced down at Ransom. A different smell rose from him now-that blood smell. The blood pooled, dark and thick.

Now you know who is at the top of the System, Elena said to my dad. But you will not turn in your sister. I know that. I know you well, Christopher, and now that Izzy has found you, you are done living this life of secrecy.

My father looked at Ransom, then back at her. And you arent? His voice was incredulous again.

She shook her head. I enjoy my life. Most of it. And the parts I dont enjoy? A glance at Ransom. Well Another shrug. Like most people I manage those parts. I do what needs to be done.

What about Maurizio? Did he know of your position?

A wave of pain seemed to ripple through her features. She gave a single nod. S'i. Of course. He and Paulo. But they didnt know about you being alive. No one did. Twenty-two years ago, I used the secret of you being an FBI agent to rise to the top of the System. But then I helped you plan your demise-your fake demise-and I kept your existence secret all these years. But Maurizio must have heard me talking to Isabel in Ischia about you.

I thought Id convinced you to talk, I said. I actually thought Id cross-examined you into telling me.

She looked at me, her eyes keen and clear. They were the same eyes, I suppose, that I had seen before, but they appeared different coming from this body, this version of Elena. You did convince me, Isabel. Her eyes slid from me to my dad. And Maurizio died thinking I had betrayed him because I hadnt told him that my brother was living. I would have told him about you as soon as Isabel found you, because I knew once that happened you would be leaving this life.

My dads face grew sad. You wanted that for me.

A solitary nod from Elena. Of course.

Im sorry, I said. I had pulled a string a few weeks ago when I started looking for my father, after that night in the parking garage, and now so much had unraveled.

My father held out his hand, as if to stop me from falling. No, Im sorry. I wanted to get caught, to be found. Otherwise I wouldnt have spoken to you that night in the stairwell. Elena is right. I was done with that life.

My mother barked a disbelieving sound. We all looked at her. She rubbed her forehead as if too many realizations were flooding in.

My mother took a step. Enough, she said forcefully. I am taking my son- she gestured for Charlie to stand -and my daughter out of here. Away from the two of you.

Elena nodded. You should. Immediately. Dez Romano has rigged this building with a gas leak. It hasnt been activated, but if he-

A distant clanging sounded in the building, and then thudding, as if someone were climbing stairs. And then Dez Romano staggered past the room, clutching his head.

Romano! my aunt said, her voice like a drill sergeant. Stop.

He kept moving, his feet shuffling down the hallway.

Elena spun and sprinted out of the room, her feet and her body moving like those of a woman years younger.

In the hallway, she kicked Dez Romano behind the knees, causing him to pitch forward, his face slamming the concrete hallway. An animalistic moan arose from his throat and he clutched his head again.

Whats wrong with him? I said. Is it exposure to the gas?

No, my father said, hes suffering from vertigo.

Your fathers trademark move, my aunt said. But Romano might still have been able to activate the gas. She kicked him in the stomach, pointing the gun at his head. Romano, she yelled. Did you start the leak?

Still lying on his back, he clutched his head, his eyes swinging wildly at the five of us standing over him, his gaze landing on Elena. Who the fuck are you, bitch? How do you know

Another well-placed kick to Romanos gut caused him to yelp and move his hands from his head to his stomach and roll onto it.

I own you, Elena said. There was no mistaking the pride in her voice, and something else. Pleasure. She clearly enjoyed this role, being this Elena, much more than she did the weak, sad wife role Id seen in Italy.

She looked over her shoulder at us before returning her gaze to Dez. Go, she said. A direct order. I want to have a little chat with my friend here, and there is time. If he did activate the leak, it will take at least fifteen to twenty minutes before it ignites the flame. Isnt that right? That is what you told the duke, right, il diavolo? She scoffed. He gave himself that nickname. Pathetic.

With the heel of her foot, my aunt kicked Dez in the side, forcing him to roll over onto his back. She pointed the gun at him, releasing the safety. Isnt that right, diavolo? she yelled.

He tried to sit up, failed, nodded.

Now, go, Elena said to us.

Come with us, my father said.

No. I will handle this. You all must leave. Go somewhere where there are many people. You must be seen by many people. All of you together.

That sounds like an alibi, I said.

My aunt nodded, although she was still staring down the barrel of her gun at Dez Romano.

What do we need an alibi for? my mother said. We havent done anything wrong. We need the police.

My aunt shot her a glance. There will be questions after this. Many, many questions, and it could mean trouble for all of you. She pointed her head in the direction of my father. Christopher faked his own death and hasnt paid taxes for twenty-two years. And you- she nodded at my mother -collected life insurance benefits because of it. That is fraud, a felony.

I didnt know he was alive.

I spoke up. And the statute of limitations would have run on some of that.

My aunt scoffed. Thats the least of your problems, my aunt said dismissively. She stared at my dad. You have killed, Christopher. You killed my husband. And your daughter, knowing that, helped you to escape to the United States. You could both go down. Hard. She nodded in the direction of the room wed been in. And dont forget the body in there. She shook her head. Get out. Now. Be seen together by many people.

But what are we supposed to tell the police? my mother said. The superintendent has officers everywhere looking for Charlie.

Does anyone know you are here? At this address?

My mother shook her head no.

And you, Isabel and Christopher, she said. Does anyone know you are here?

No, I said.

No, my father said.

Then it was a prank, my aunt said. Charlie has no drug problems. No one will say he did. A friend, someone, was playing a prank. You can think of something. It will be easier than trying to explain the rest of it.

What about his face? my father said.

Make something up, she said fiercely. Youve always been good at that, Christopher.

What are you going to do? my father said.

His sister gave him a small smile but it faded fast. This is where we part ways, brother.

Dez tried to sit up. Gotta get out of here, he said, raising his hands to his head again.

My aunt looked at her watch, a large white circular face with a black band. Now. Go.

Goodbye, Elena, I said.

She smiled a sweet smile that made me remember the woman Id spent time with in Italy. Goodbye, cara.


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