The Toothpick Tower

Assassins come in many flavors: the bitter poisoner, the earthy strangler, the smokey arsonist, the icy sniper, the hot bomber. Carlos de Leon, a.k.a. Rat-gêló, has the complex flavors of a magician. The slight of hand is sweet and sour, but the finish is usually sharp, sometimes spicy. His story begins as a child at play. As his journey continues, childish toys turn deadly. Enjoy this vignette from Chapter 14 of Gypsy Spy“Business”.

Alexandro Martelli eyed the hill wearily. Only three blocks to go, he thought. He pulled his handkerchief out and mopped his forehead. He couldn’t recall a February in Milan that had ever been this hot. He took a couple of deep breaths and began to tackle the hill. Martelli was not an old man, but the weight of the world and his corpulence made this daily ascent grueling. Penance he paid for his life’s pleasure, he thought.

That his was a blessed life, he had long believed. His parents weren’t poor when they married. But they were frugal. With a home full of love and all of life’s necessities, they had instilled in him a strong sense of stewardship, fairness, and levelheadedness. They supported him all the way through his scholastic career until he earned his degree in business.

After he finished graduate school, he went to work for his uncle, helping him manage his small restaurant. He was excited to be able to put into to practice what he had been taught. He was elated to see that his suggestions to his uncle improved the profitability of the business. It was while working in his uncle’s first restaurant that he found his two great passions in life: fire arms and Sofia Gilano.

One of his duties when he began working was making the bank deposits. As the business grew, so did the deposits. He felt uncomfortable carrying such large amounts of lira without protection. He purchased his first pistol, a .45 caliber which his cousin swore had belonged at one time to an American officer who had served in Italy during the Second World War. From the moment it was placed in his hand, he was hooked. For the first time ever, he was comfortable enough while making the deposit that he didn’t feel the need to constantly look over his shoulder. It made noticing the new teller all the much easier.

Sofia Gilano was wearing an emerald green, silk dress on that day. It clung to her willowy form as she moved about the bank in search of money wraps to better organize his sizable deposit. Her thick, brown hair fell freely off her back as she bent down to pick up one which had fallen. As he accepted the deposit slip, he lost his soul in her deep, gold colored eyes. He watched her full lips move as she said something which he could not hear. Going to the bank became a religion, Sofia his altar of worship.

He held few delusions of himself. He knew most people did not consider him physically attractive. He had a short neck and was not tall in stature. His eyes were large, almost bulging; his lips thin and nearly nonexistent. Even at that young age, he had been slightly overweight and balding. But he knew his heart, and his heart was good. He faithfully went to Mass, was devoted to his parents, honest in his business, kind to strangers, and charitable to the poor. He had a gentle humor and a deep intellect. He knew that the person he would want to spend his life with would be able to see all his qualities in spite of his personal appearance. After a year of deposits, Sofia saw. Within six months of her enlightenment, they married.

When his uncle opened the second restaurant, he gave Alexandro an increase in wages. His earnings were modest. Still, he was able to pay the bills, save a little of money, and have a bit left over for flowers for Sofia and once in a while, a new gun. Sofia never liked the guns. They were warring mistresses. She accused him of swaggering with them, like John Wayne. The idea of him trying to walk like John Wayne always put Alexandro into hysterics. His laughter seldom improved her argumentative moods. “They’ll be the end of you,” she used to say. But Sofia loved him, if not the guns. She suffered his indulgence.

Two years after their wedding, Sofia gave birth to Giovanni. Alexandro discovered quickly that his earnings were now meager. He confessed his concerns to a new found friend—a weapons wholesaler, as the man called himself. He offered Alexandro a part-time position. All he had to do was receive and inspect merchandise. After the first year, he was delivering it. After the second year, during which Benito was born, he was selling to men with whom his friend, Michel Jugaro, put him in contact. By the time Gorgio was born, Alexandro was fat, financially and physically.

He became a full partner with his uncle. They expanded the business into five restaurants: a full-fare family restaurant, two small pubs, a sidewalk cafe, and a singles bar. He managed both of his businesses well. He made wise investments. He began to forget his frugal youth and hungered for greater riches. He informed Jugaro that he wished to be able to move more inventory. Michel told him that there was only one way possible for that to happen; he had to be indoctrinated. What he had suspected, what he had feared to be true, was now dangerously close. But he pushed forward. Michel informed him who his real clients were.

At first, he felt he could handle it. After all, he wasn’t a communist insurgent like the Red Brigade. Neither was he an underworld criminal. What they did with the weapons he sold them was not his business. But it was. In his heart, he knew it. And he had lived too long listening to his heart to deceive it now. He began to die. The joy he had taken in supplying his family with the best things in life became empty. Their prosperity was watered with blood. His guilt was amplified by the excitement he felt in completing the very deals he believed to be morally wrong. He couldn’t continue. He didn’t dare stop. He was disgusted with his own weakness.

He entered his uncle’s restaurant, the original one, the one in which they served whole families. Its ambience always warmed his heart. Here was honest accomplishment. Here were the good old days. Within these walls, he would allow himself the luxury of forgetting the illegitimate side of his life. Pietro, his cousin and now head chef, stuck his head out of the kitchen to greet him. No need to place an order. Pietro knew what he would eat: ravioli with plenty of marinara sauce, a half loaf of garlic bread, and a salad to finish him off. The waiter brought him a bottle of his favorite red wine and a healthy glass. Alexandro always poured for himself.

He sipped his wine and took in the lunch crowd. Several of them nodded greetings to him. He gave them a smile. The atmosphere was that of a wholesome neighborhood. People here knew each other. People here cared for one another. He didn’t know the young man seated at the table in front of him. An out-of-town business man perhaps? he wondered. The stranger was dressed in a dark, two-piece, silk, pinstripe suit. His dark face was clean shaven. His black hair was slicked back and pulled tight. Alexandro suspected a pony tail. It was the fashion of the youth these days. A small, gold loop earring hung from his left ear lobe. No rings adorned his fingers, no watch his wrist.

With his white shirt starched stiff and his red tie pulled tight, he looked all business. Except, he was involved in a childish endeavor. Two boxes of toothpicks stood open before him. He would pull a toothpick out of each one, alternately, and stack them on the tower that was forming on the table. Alexandro became transfixed with the grace and speed of his placements. He remembered how, as a youth, he had passed the time on rainy days by building castles with flat toothpicks. He would glue them down with a paste his mother made with water and flour. But this man had no paste, and his toothpicks were round. Amazing.

Alexandro leaned forward to get a better look at the edifice taking shape on the table before him. The young man looked up and smiled. The smile entranced him. Near perfect, white teeth gleamed at him. The man’s beauty was painful. Alexandro looked into his ice blue eyes and knew they contained no mirth. It was retirement day. He could not fathom how he knew. But he knew.

The man flicked his fingers out in a fan. The tower disintegrated. Alexandro’s world went into slow motion. He sat frozen as he saw the toothpicks, each one in individual and extreme clarity, fly toward him. A relentless stinging began as they bit into the tender flesh of his neck and face. Involuntarily, his hands moved to the discomfort in his neck. In doing so, he dislodged the tiny projectiles embedded in his jugular veins and carotid arteries. His blood began to flow. That bright and beautiful smile loomed before him as he died. He was free of his guilt. He had been liberated from his love of riches.

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