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FIFTEEN DIGITS: Prologue and Chapters 1 and 2

Prologue

The problem with all you lawyers,” Mauro lectured Spade, “is you think the support staff ’s nothing but replaceable parts—just warm bodies in blue blazers running your files up and down the floors whenever you snap your fingers. You guys treat us like we’re invisible.”

Rich Mauro sat back in the booth and took a pull on his beer. Spade studied him for a moment, then smiled a disconcerting grin— a Cheshire Cat That Ate the Canary kind of thing.

“And that’s why you’re where you are and I’m where I am,” Spade pointed out smugly. “Where you see problems, I see opportunities.”

Jason Spade leaned across the table, over the half-finished Harp’s and the untouched onion rings. In the crowded bar, between the blare of the Smithereens on the jukebox and the howl of drunk Irish electricians toasting some dead union brother, there was no need to whisper, but Jason Spade’s was the kind of idea that demanded secretive tones. Even if whispers weren’t required by the environment, they were called for by the very nature of what he was about to propose.

“The benefit of being invisible,” Jason whispered, looking straight into Mauro’s eyes, “is that people don’t see you when you’re robbing them blind…now, how ’bout you and I get rich, Rich?”

And with that simple question, a chain of events began that changed, destroyed, and ended lives. People would be maimed, tortured, and killed. Millions of dollars would be stolen, then stolen away from the thieves themselves.

It was a question that would eventually make Rich Mauro, Jason Spade, Vicellous “Vice” Green, Dylan Rodriguez, and Eddie Pisorchek suffer beyond measure. Some of them would die because of it.

After it all went down, to the ill informed, it appeared that it happened because of money. But to those who were involved in it, to the guys who were so deep in the mess that it covered their mouths and pushed up into their nostrils, they understood that it all happened for love—love that was pure and real or love that had never been there to begin with, but love nonetheless.

And all of it—every cry of agony, every drop of blood—it all began with that conversation between Rich Mauro and Jason Spade, a conversation that lasted less than fifteen minutes, on a summer night, over a couple of beers in a graffiti-stricken booth in the back of McMahon’s Pub.

1

Rich Mauro dragged the razor deliberately—starting just below his ear, continuing down along the side of his face, moving across his jawline. He rinsed foam and stubble away under the faucet and then traced the plastic disposable across his chin, careful to scrape off every whisker. It was a big day; he had to look good. Satisfied all facial hair was gone and forever part of the Queens County sewer system, he splashed cold water on his cheeks, mouth, and neck and studied himself in the mirror.

Rich knew he wasn’t a traditionally handsome man, not like the guys you saw in the movies anyway. But he had his father’s chin and it was a damn good one. Hell, the Marlboro man would kill for his jaw. It was solid. Granite. It not only gave his face character but had held up in at least a half-dozen scrapes, and it wagged a mile a minute so he could talk his way out of a half-dozen more.

Other than a cream-colored 1977 Pontiac Grand Prix and a leather tool belt, the jawline was the only thing his father had left him when he and Rich’s mother were killed.

When shaving, Rich would sometimes stare at himself, unaware of the minutes passing. If he looked deeply enough and blocked out his peripheral vision, the image in the mirror would morph, and soon Rich would find his father looking back at him. His old man would stare silently, almost with wonder at how his little boy had grown up so big—the father’s eyes always loving, but also burdened with the slight weight of melancholia.

Then, and always too soon, his father’s image would slowly fade away, leaving nothing behind but the reflection of a much younger version of the man, shrouded in a thin film of steam rising up from the sink.

Towel wrapped around his waist, Rich padded on his wet feet across the hallway’s hardwood floor and entered his small bedroom to find his Uncle Jimmy laying a tie flat across the bed. Next to the tie was a pair of tan slacks and a white button-down shirt. All the clothes still had the tags on them.

“Whoa, Jack LaLanne,” Jim Mauro joked, jabbing his nephew a few times in the chest, “I remember when I could take you down.”

“Ah, you can still take me, Unc,” Rich lied. The truth was, Rich was built like a brick shit house, five foot ten and two hundred pounds of muscle. He wasn’t one of those guys who looked like they worked out, all biceps and six-packs. In fact, he hadn’t been inside a gym in years. When you worked construction, you didn’t need a gym—every day was a work out. He just had that trademark stocky, fireplug frame that was embedded in the genetic code of so many Italian men.

“What’s this?” Rich asked, pointing to the clothes.

“That’s nothing. Just, you know, first day of work and all.”

Rich picked up the shirt and inspected the tag.

“Mur-Lee’s?” Rich scolded. “We can’t afford clothes from MurLee’s.”

“We don’t need to afford them. I bought them.”

“Fine,” Rich countered, “then you can’t afford clothes from MurLee’s. We’re returning ’em.”

Jim grabbed the shirt and the pants and ripped the tags off each. With a defiant smile, he tore the tags up and sprinkled the little pieces over his nephew’s head like confetti.

“The shirt is going on your back, the pants are going on your ass, and as for the tie, you have a choice…either the tie or my hands are

going around your neck. You decide.”

Rich brushed the paper from his hair.

“Fine, but no lottery tickets for two months.”

“Deal.” Jim smirked. “But that doesn’t even cover the cost of the tie. Sharp, huh?”

Rich looked at the tie lying on his bed. It was too skinny and had a paisley pattern that had been out of fashion since forever. It was hideous.

“Sharp as a tack. I love it,” he said, giving his sixty-four-year-old uncle a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you.”

Jim’s face flushed with pride, partly for his nephew and partly for having been able to walk into that snooty Mur-Lee’s, pick out an outfit, and pay for it in cash. Jim would never admit it, but buying those clothes was one of the biggest thrills of his life. About thirty years earlier, when he worked for Garibaldi Construction, he had helped build the five-store commercial strip where Mur-Lee’s was located. He’d hung the drywall, done the ceilings—he even came up with the idea for the built-in mahogany display cases that became the store’s showpiece and were still there.

A year of his life he worked on that job—his skill in every piece of floorboard, his heart in every driven nail. Thanks to an unexpected sneeze and a sharp Sheetrock knife, Jim literally gave his blood to that job. The store was perfect. Crown molding, solid oak changing rooms. He had never been so proud of a project. But as soon as it was completed, Mr. Murrel and Mr. Lee opened up shop, the union hall sent Jim to work on a housing project in Uniondale, and he could never afford to step back into what he had built.

But for a day like this, he didn’t care about cost. He’d raised Rich, his brother Richie’s son, since the boy was ten. And he loved him like he was his own. Jim had never married, since he realized early on that his two biggest loves—scotch and the ponies—would never take a backseat to any woman. He had a deep respect for people who fell in love, committed themselves wholly to each other, and built lives together. His own parents did it, and it was beautiful—so he swore he’d never sully the institution of marriage with his own bastardized version of it.

As a result, Jimmy had accepted the fact that he’d never have kids, and that was fine because having a child had never been a burning desire of his. The occasional romp with a young bar girl had always been enough for him—but the by-product of such activities was something he knew he could do without, so he always took precautions, despite what Father Dolan had taught him about “wasting God’s seed” during Jim’s education at Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

But after the accident, Jim had a child to care for whether he wanted one or not. His nephew had no place else to go. The same week he buried his brother and sister-in-law, Jim moved all of Rich’s belongings into his home. And despite the circumstances, it was never awkward or uncomfortable. Rich and Jim had been close before the deaths of Rich’s parents, and they just became closer afterward— closer than Jim would have ever imagined almost twenty years earlier when he first took Rich in.

Jimmy once told a friend of his (after a snort or two of Black Label made such emotional displays by men socially acceptable), “I loved my brother Richie with all my heart and I’d trade places with him in an instant if I could, and God forgive me for sayin’ this, but his dying was the best thing that ever happened to me… ’cause it gave me my boy.”

But as Jim watched his nephew get ready, he knew he was no longer a boy; he was a man—and though Jim Mauro had been flying blind a lot of the time while trying to raise the kid, he couldn’t have been happier with how that man had turned out.

“Lemme get my shoes and we’ll see how I look in this getup,” Rich said, opening the closet door. He knelt and opened a shoe box to reveal a pair of thirty-dollar black dress shoes that he had bought three years earlier for the funeral of a third cousin he barely knew. He hadn’t worn them since, but somehow, they shone like mirrors. Rich picked up the box and stood, raising his eyebrows suspiciously at Jimmy.

“I polished them last night when you were out with Elyse,” Jim confessed. “Can’t go to your first day with scuffed shoes.”

“Thanks, Unc.”

As Rich put the shoe box back in the closet, his eyes landed on a faded brass hook on the inside of the door. It was empty.

“Where is it?” Rich asked, all playfulness gone from his voice.

“You won’t need it anymore—”

“Where is it? I want it.”

“What for? You’re done climbin’ scaffolds—”

“It’s mine, Uncle Jim.”

“It’s my brother’s.”

“No, it’s my father’s, which makes it mine,” Rich said a little more forcefully than he had wanted to.

“Your old man wouldn’t want you usin’ it anymore. And neither do I,” Jim answered. He didn’t get loud—Jim Mauro never turned up the volume; it wasn’t in his nature. He was as big and thick as a cement mixer but also gentle as a lamb, especially with Rich. Rich couldn’t remember a time when his uncle had yelled at him.

“It’s not like I’m gonna throw it away or anything,” Jimmy promised. “I’d never do that. It’s just…it’s just not an option for you anymore. I mean, you’re wearing a tie to work today, Richie. That means something.”

Rich regarded his uncle for a moment. He could see the pride, the hope, in his uncle’s face. He didn’t want to upset him, but he felt he had to try to clarify things.

“Look, I know it means a lot to you, but I’m just a glorified copyboy—”

“It’s a step to bigger and better, Richie,” Jim interrupted. “A step to bigger and better.”

“Hopefully. We’ll have to see, won’t we?” Rich said, knowing he wasn’t going to win this argument. “But in the meantime, I’m gonna want the tool belt back.”

Jim sighed. “Your dad was thick as a brick too, ya know.”

Jim exited the room. Rich stood patiently, listening to his uncle rummage around. He could tell from the sound that the tool belt had been hidden on the top shelf of the hall closet—most likely behind a bunch of videotapes of vintage 1950s TV shows that Jim never watched but refused to throw away.

Jim appeared in the doorway and tossed the tool belt onto the bed. “Satisfied? Now hurry up and get dressed. You don’t wanna be late.”

As his uncle moved back down the hall, Rich looked at the weather-beaten tool belt lying next to his brand-new dress shirt. It was cracked and faded and there was a faint chalky-white salt line in the leather where it had absorbed decades’ worth of sweat that had rolled down his father’s back. The belt had known his father better and longer than Rich had.

He reached past the belt and picked up the shirt from Mur-Lee’s. He slid his arms into the sleeves and fastened the buttons—they were those thick kind of buttons, the real high-quality jobs that don’t ever fall off. The 180-thread-count cotton surrounded and caressed his skin. He had to admit—it felt damn good.

2

When Rich entered his three of the fifteen digits, he didn’t have to think too long as to what they would be: 4-2-4. April 24—the day his parents died. That was the day when his life as he knew it changed forever.

He knew that once he typed those three numbers, his life would once again change forever, so the numbers somehow seemed appropriate.

If he’d known then how things were going to eventually turn out…what was going to happen to his friends, what was going to happen to him…he would have never sullied his parents’ memory by using that date.

He would have chosen something else.

Copyright © 2012 by Nick Santora

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