Fringe Benefits
 

 

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FRINGE BENEFITS

                                                         by Dana King

 

Funeral homes are great places to meet women.

That’s what Greg Geary thought, scoping the woman across the room. Tall, wavy brown hair, nice figure. Dark eyes, probably brown, too far away to be sure. She made evasive eye contact, flirtatious as a librarian to the casual observer. Greg was not a casual observer.

The necklace gave her away. She fingered it absently, her mind somewhere else. Lots of women wore simple necklaces to the mortuary. If one started to play with hers during eye contact, the only uncertainty was bacon or sausage for breakfast. Greg Geary could sell skateboards to quadriplegics.

He wiped a speck of dust from the hearse with the cuff of his midnight blue suit. No black for Greg. Too depressing. Funeral homes were buzzkills already. Greg could’ve hung his MBA in the family turpentine business, but there were no women in turpentine.

He ambled to his pet spot in the hallway, anyone using the rest room would have to walk past him. Six-two, one-ninety, hair almost black, eyes blue as Windex, Greg could influence the bladder of any woman not beside herself with grief from this spot. The brunette showed signs of biological urgency when Greg felt a tug on his sleeve.

“Hello, young man, you don’t know me, that’s my brother in there.” Mrs. Finnegan, or Finneran, some F name. Black dress, pearls older than the Shroud of Turin and so much grandma powder Greg wondered if the embalmer had gutted the wrong person. “I just wanted to tell you we all appreciate how nice everyone here at DiGirolomo’s has been to us. It’s so rare nowadays to see a young man like yourself show the respect and patience you’ve shown us.”

The brunette passed by no more than three feet away. He looked over Mrs. F’s head and made direct, sustained eye contact for the first time. They were chocolate brown. Not cheap milk chocolate from the impulse rack at the drug store, good Ghirardelli dark chocolate, the kind that wouldn’t melt too fast but would taste so good when it did.

And she fit the profile. Most women only go to a viewing to support a friend and couldn’t pick the stiff out of a lineup if he was propped up still in the box. So the evening shouldn’t be a total waste, Greg’s women used their visits as excuses to wear deniably risqué dresses and get together afterward to drink Cosmopolitans and comment how bad they all felt for Emma and no matter what everyone said about what a great job the undertaker did, that guy looked dead. I mean, really, all waxy like he was? And who was he, Emma’s uncle, or her dad, maybe? I hope not her dad, that would suck, and I love those earrings you’re wearing, Beth.

He opened his mouth to speak, but that F woman was still there, babbling about poor Carl.

“Bunions, big ones, used to have to shave them down with a pen knife. He suffered so with them. And after his fourth heart attack…”

The moment was slipping away. Greg was a hound, but he wouldn’t disrespect an old woman like Mrs. Whateverhernamewas. It drove him up the wall sometimes, but that quality was part of his charm. Women sensed it, even if they didn’t see it in action. Ghirardelli Eyes had seen it, and she’d be back. She had to come out of the ladies’ room sooner or later.

Mrs. Finneran or Finnegan told Greg what a burden poor Carl’s colostomy bag had been and toddled off to the ladies’ room herself. The delay wasn’t so bad. It was easier to hit on them on their way out of the lounge, anyway. Sometimes they really did have to go, and a distracted woman is always harder to seduce. That was the problem at funerals. It took more than talent to score at a funeral, it took something supernatural.

The evening viewings more than made up for it. Steve DiGirolomo never figured out why a young hunk like Greg wanted to work every evening, but Steve was too busy with the customers, present and future, to pay attention to someone more interested in living than in wearing the right tie to meet Saint Peter.

Greg’s album of memories included a gymnast of extraordinary flexibility, if too top-heavy to be of Olympic caliber, at least not as a gymnast; a singer with an uncanny ability to control her breathing while holding open her throat; a redhead; the thirty-ish blonde who wouldn’t leave her friend without a date until they realized Greg was date enough for both of them; and The Redhead.

The brunette was coming back, maybe ten feet from being approachable, when  Corrado “Frankie Blue Eyes” Abbondondolo put a hand then size of a pot roast on Greg’s elbow and pulled him aside. “You know who I am?” Greg shook his head. “Call me Frankie Blue Eyes. Everybody does.”

“They call you Frankie Blue Eyes?” Abbondondolo’s eyes were as blue as topsoil.

“It’s a long story.” Rumor had it Corrado Abbondondolo couldn’t get it up with a winch unless he was listening to Sinatra. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Luck Be a Lady” had good track records. Some of the ballads, like “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” not so good. Frankie could have lived without the nickname, but no one in or out of the mob could pronounce any part of Corrado Abbondondolo, so he put up with it.

“My name don’t matter,” he said. “What matters is Mr. Bevilacqua needs to talk to you. Tonight. Nine-thirty at the Lamp Post.”

No one ever “needs” to talk about good news. Hearing that Carmine Bevilacqua “needed” to talk was like hearing Torquemada “needed” to ask about some religious beliefs. It would be more monologue than conversation, and Bevilacqua would hold the option on how Greg left the room. Or if.

“You’re sure he wants me?” Greg said.

“Yeah, I’m sure. Someone wants me to see somebody about something, I make sure it’s the right guy, you know what I mean?”

“But why? What could Mr. Bevilacqua want to talk to me about?”

Frankie smiled, sincere as a tax auditor telling someone how sorry he was about seizing the boat. They both knew the topic was Gina Feroce. Short, hair even darker than Greg’s and brown eyes the size of half-dollars. Cheekbones high enough to balance a toothpick, a pear-shaped butt that had earned a “Million Step” badge from her Stairmaster class. Smart, good sense of humor, fun to be with. Gina was the complete package.

Except for being Carmine “The Fence” Bevilacqua’s goomah.

A goomah was practically a sacred obligation in the Pittsburgh mob. For a made man to have just a wife was unheard of. If a mobster said, “He won’t come with us; he’s married,” he might as well call the guy a fag. Goomahs were as common in the mob as trophy wives in the U.S. Steel Building.

Carmine probably knew Greg had got Gina’s freak on before they were dressed again. He didn’t get to be The Boss (capital T, capital B) without knowing all there was to know about anyone who could hurt him. Gina didn’t know a lot, but no way any woman spends as much time naked with a man as Gina did with Carmine and not know something.

Greg had never met Carmine, and had never noticed a void in his life. “Uh, Mr. uh – Mr. Blue – I mean Frankie, I don’t know anything about Mr. Bevilacqua’s business.”

“I think he wants it to stay that way. Don’t be late. He hates late.” Frankie Blue Eyes evaporated into the crowd of mourners like dry ice into a warm room, no mean feat for a man who weighed at least three bills.

Greg was at the Lamp Post Lounge at 9:15, trying to look like he just happened to be there, shivering and sweating like a malaria case. He almost left, but that would only make things worse when Carmine found him. Greg finally figured he’d be part of an on-ramp already if The Fence wanted it that way so he decided to get it over with and went in.

People outnumbered necks six to nothing in the Lamp Post. It was supposed to be a public place, but every face there belonged to Carmine Bevilacqua, one way or another.

Carmine sat in a corner, back to the wall. He had the thick, hairy brows usually seen in a cave painting and was showing surprising delicacy removing the wrapping from a cannoli. He had a neck, but it was wider than his head, which was size eight.

Carmine Bevilacqua wasn’t known as “The Fence” for the usual reason, even though his house had more merchandise off the back of a truck than there were crackers at a Klan meeting. Carmine was the poster child for Mob Rule Number Four: The more you have, the less you pay for.

He was “The Fence” because no crime occurred for one mile in any direction from Carmine Bevilacqua’s home. None. Nessun. To discuss such a thing was a capital offense. Since everyone knows fences make good neighbors, the name stuck.

 “Mr. Bevilacqua?” Greg’s voice had the resonance of a rusty hinge.

Carmine grunted and put a third of the cannoli in his mouth. Greg started to sit, froze when Carmine stopped his bite halfway, some of the filling wandering from his mouth and across his chin. Greg stood and Carmine finished eating.

He took his time with the cannoli, brushed the crumbs from his hands, and drained his glass of wine. A hanger-on filled it before Carmine’s hand let go.

“I hear you got a way with women.” His voice was like oily gravel.

Greg flashed to the time he told a friend Gina had an ass to die for. He’d thought he was speaking rhetorically.

“Well, I do pretty well, I guess – ”

“Pretty well, hell. You arguing with me?”

“No, Mr. Bevilacqua, not arguing. I guess I do have a way with some of them.”

“One in particular.”

“I know who you’re talking about, and I want to tell you, Mr. Bevilacqua, I’m really sorry about that, if I had known –”

Carmine!” Gina Feroce blew across the room like the Tasmanian Devil in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Teachers at North Allegheny High School still talked about the girl who broke the state wrestling champ’s nose when he tried to feel her up ten years ago. She never laid a hand on him; she broke it stepping on his face while he was down for the count from a chemistry book to the side of the head.

No-Necks Two and Three started to move her way and thought better of it. Carmine started to stand, to free up his hands.

“Sit down, Carm, I can’t believe you brought him here! Did it ever occur to you that maybe I seduced him? That I might get tired of having to choose between being on top or being able to breathe once in a while?”

Not even the Lamp Post was dark enough to keep Greg from seeing Carmine’s color change. Until now Greg thought the worst that would happen was a little slapping around. Now this crazy woman was embarrassing a man who’d killed more people than cholesterol, and DiGirolomo’s didn’t offer employee discounts.

“Gina, Gina, hey, calm down, babe, it’s not like you think,” Greg said. It was everything like she thought, but nothing good could happen if Carmine lost face in front of the Family Neckless.

True talent is the meshing of a gift with the opportunity. Who knows how many kids have the ear of a Wynton Marsalis but live in Kosovo, or grew up in sub-Saharan Sudan with Randy Johnson’s arm? Carmine Bevilacqua had Greg schvitzing like a bad comic, but the woman had not been born who was able to resist Greg’s gift.

He stepped between Gina and Carmine and caught her above her elbows. “Everything’s all right. I’m here to talk about something else. You know a man like Mr. B isn’t so insecure he has to worry about me. Everything’s copasetic.” He turned to Bevilacqua. “Mr. B, do you mind if Gina joins us for a quick drink? I don’t want to interrupt you two, but, as you can see, we know each other, it would be nice to say hello.”

Gina stood open-mouthed, in a state between disbelief and catatonia. Carmine stared through Greg for a few seconds before a tenth of a smile dented his face. He held up a finger to keep No-Necks One and Four from doing anything rash.

Refreshments were served: vodka Collins for Gina, MGD for Greg, Dago Red and another cannoli for Bevilacqua. They sat around the semi-circular booth with the good humor of an Israeli-Palestinian border negotiation. Greg broke the ice.

“Gina, pretty girl like you, you should learn to calm down sometimes. Like tonight. We all know you didn’t mean any of what you said to Mr. Bevilacqua. You were mad, and you wanted to get under his skin. That’s understandable, you don’t want one little mistake to ruin a good thing. If I had known you and Mr. Bevilacqua were as friendly as you are, I would never have come on to you like I did.”

He turned to Carmine. “Mr. B, working at DiGirolomo’s has taught me that you deserve all the respect you get. I flirted with Gina out of ignorance, and I went too far. Look at me.” Greg swept his hands from his shoulders to his waist. “Am I a man of substance? See? You’re smiling already. So’s she.” He gestured toward Gina. “She let her passions run away with her a little. It happens. You know what kinds of passions she has better than anyone.” Greg winked at Carmine. Carmine didn’t smile. Greg let some beer trickle through the sawdust in his throat.

 “You know why a woman like Gina fools around with someone like me?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “To remind her of how good she has it.

“But, in my own defense, look at her. She’s beautiful. She’s smart, she’s funny, she got a mouth on her like Chris Rock, but what are you gonna do?” He took Gina’s hand and placed it over Carmine’s “It’s not my fault, not knowing how you two are, and it’s not her fault, she can hardly believe the good deal she’s got.”

 “I gotta go, but I’m glad we had a chance to see how well this worked out for everyone. Please, give me a call if there’s anything I can do for you. Mr. Bevilacqua, it’s been a real pleasure.”

Turns out there was something Greg could do for Carmine, and it took a forward thinker like The Fence to see it.

“I talked to that kid Geary, from the undertaker’s, last night,” Carmine said to Frankie Blue Eyes over a plate of spaghetti the next day at breakfast. Spaghetti for breakfast doesn’t seem so unusual when it’s two in the afternoon.

“How’d it go?”

“Went good. He’s a sharp kid, has respect, didn’t know anything about me and Gina when that thing happened.”

Frankie Blue Eyes stopped chewing, eyes down. First graders in that neighborhood knew she wasn’t called “On The Fence Gina” because she couldn’t make up her mind.

Carmine kept talking. “He not only showed me more respect than a lot of guys in this thing of ours, he even explained how Gina could make a mistake like that, fooling around with him, I mean. Just because maybe she couldn’t believe she really had it as good as she does with me.”

Frankie Blue Eyes started chewing again, avoiding all eye contact.

“I think we might have a use for this Greg Geary character.” Carmine pushed aside his spaghetti plate to start work on his first cannoli of the day. Frankie Blue Eyes held his breath. He didn’t know what kind of name Geary was, but it wasn’t Italian. This could be a problem, depending on what Carmine had in mind.

“It ain’t like it used to be when you and me was coming up,” Carmine said. He slid his tongue the length of the cannoli to slurp as much filling as he could. This one had a touch of anisette. Carmine liked these so much he sometimes thought about confessing, but always decided unnatural desires for crème-filled pastry were small potatoes compared to thirty-eight or thirty-nine homicides. (He lost count after twenty-five.)

Carmine cleaned some stray filling from his chin with an index finger, licking and sucking it clean with more enthusiasm than Frankie Blue Eyes thought was manly. “Used to be the wife took what she got and kept her mouth shut, a guy got sent away or had to be whacked. Now some babbo don’t come home one night and every bim he’s banging wants to jump in bed with the Feds.”

Frankie Blue Eyes finished his spaghetti and carefully cut his cannoli in two. It was understood Carmine would eat half. He never ordered two, only a pig would do that, but half of any dinner partner’s cannoli belonged to him. That was the Pittsburgh street tax: a portion of all criminal proceeds and cannoli went to Carmine Bevilacqua.

“This kid got a gift. The way I see it, we make sure Geary meets any broad knows anybody in this thing of ours that gets dead. He can – what do the kids say? – chill them out.”

Frankie finished dessert, wiped his chin with a napkin the size of banquet tablecloth. “You want him to show them the disappearing cane trick? I don’t know, boss, but I think a lot of them are past the age where it matters. Think about Guido Donatello’s wife. Best thing ever happened to her was when Guido found that broad over in Fox Chapel.”

“No, no, Frankie, you got no subtlety. He doesn’t actually do the job on any of them, unless he has to, or maybe if he wants to. I don’t care about that, the kid can put it where he wants, so long as it’s not in Gina. He just has to talk to them, calm them down, find out if they’re thinking about saying something they shouldn’t be saying.”

“Won’t he learn a lot of our business doing that?”

“He shouldn’t, not if the stiff was doing things right. Besides, the kid was ready to have a movement he was so scared before Gina showed up. It’ll be okay.”

It was more than okay. DiGirolomo’s became the official mortuary of the Pittsburgh borgata. Greg got more than enough legitimate amorous opportunities to make up for having to schmooze the occasional fifty-something woman who thought the clothes she wore when she was thirty still looked good on her.

He wondered for a bit if Claudia Donatello might have whacked old Guido herself, the way she clamped onto him at the viewing. She told him she hadn’t lost interest in men, just in Guido, and she noticed how Greg paid attention to the mourning wives and those slut whore homewrecker girlfriends. He decided Claudia was an attractive woman, in an offensive, unhygienic way, but he was still glad when she lost interest in him after he wouldn’t play Spartacus to her Caesar’s wife.

Gina was happy, because her libido learned to think of Carmine’s wallet as his most satisfying male equipment after he raised her bimbo shopping allowance to half a G a week. She didn’t get to fool around with Greg anymore, but he wasn’t nearly as attractive after she saw him coming out of Veltri’s with Connie Zampese’s sixty-three year old cleavage massaging his arm.

Carmine Bevilacqua was finally at peace, exactly what he was thinking at Zuzu Albanese’s funeral, right before he choked to death on a clot of ricotta cheese in one of his beloved cannoli. 

The Pittsburgh mob was shocked that Carmine could be numbed without a hint of foul play. The viewings and funeral were subdued, except for some sotto voce comments about how nice it would be to finish your freaking dessert for a change.

Greg was uneasy. The widow Bevilacqua was a formidable woman who looked not unlike a walrus in a black dress. He was hoping Gina might need some consoling when Frankie Blue Eyes called him aside.

“We got what you might call a situation here,” Frankie said. Greg didn’t ask what. People told you what they wanted you to know in the mob. The only thing you could ask for was trouble. “Boom-Boom thinks you know too much about the business. It might be time for a career change.”

A shiver ran down Greg’s spine, split at the coccyx, then down both legs until his Achilles’ tendons ached. Joe “Boom-Boom” Retagliatta always had a low regard for Greg’s undercover mission. Now he was in charge. Greg watched Carmine’s coffin being lowered into the ground, wondered if The Fence might be able do him one last service, but men like that only reached out from beyond the grave when they wanted company.

“Christ, Frankie, what’ll he do?”

Frankie put a hand like a welder’s glove on Greg’s back. “I took care of it. I told him how much The Fence liked you, and how it would be bad for business if you got clipped, being a civilian and all. He wants I should make sure you understand that if he ever sees you talking to a cop, even to ask directions, he’s calling in your marker. And he don’t want to see you around here no more.”

It was that quick. On Thursday Bevilacqua sent Greg over to check on Zuzu’s wife; on Monday the mortuary poontang business was closed.

He drove to Riverside Park for a walk. The sun shone almost directly overhead, its light interrupted by fair weather clouds. School was out, kids were chasing dogs and throwing Frisbees. Young women jogged, rear ends barely covered by their shorts, ponytails bobbing through the vents of baseball caps like they were waving to Greg, “Follow me.” A breeze came off the river and dried some of the sweat still on his forehead from when Frankie Blue Eyes called him over an hour ago.

It was beautiful. Girls. Kids. Dogs. Frisbees. Dogs. Girls.

Girls…Dogs…

Greg walked back to his car, a man with a mission. The business cards and flyers were already taking shape in his head.

Greg Geary

Dog Walker

Rest in peace, Carmine.