"Ciro! I—" Joey stammered.
Ciro Rosetti sauntered in without a care in the world. He looked good. He topped me by an inch or so, and had the extra weight to prove it, only some of it muscle. Most had likely come from too many home-cooked meals. He had a trusting kind of face with soft lines and no hard edges. The hardness came from within. Dark eyes and dark hair, going a little grey at his temples, peeked out from under his white fedora. A bright red feather peeked out of the black ribbon around it. It looked exotic and expensive. Ciro had done well for himself.
"Mr. Kincaid," his voice carried a weight with it, like each word decided a person's fate. Very likely it did. "It looks as if you've come out even tonight. Good for you. Please accept my apologies for anything untoward that might have been said to you. I have nothing but the highest respects for you and your family. I hope this won't damage our relationship in the future."
Danny struggled to say something, and glanced around at everyone else in the room. I gave a subtle shake of my head for him to not rock the boat, but I didn't think he caught it.
"Um, yes, well, I shall have to see, Mr. Rosetti. Thank you." It was the best I could expect from the kid.
Ciro gave a slow nod. "Joey, if you would wait for me upstairs, I think we should discuss what happened here tonight."
Joey swallowed hard, but then walked out. As soon as Joey had passed by Ciro, Ciro said, "I wouldn't think like that, Joey." Joey stopped, then resumed walking in slow, measured steps.
Ciro stepped closer, and began twisting a ring on his right hand. The gesture seemed unconscious. "Miss Martin, thank you for your services tonight. Without your actions, things could have gone decidedly wrong. I'll see you get a bonus for tonight."
I had played poker with her for long enough that I had gotten to know something of her reactions, subtle though they were. She gave a small smile, but a tightness around her eyes told me she was angry. I had an idea of why, too.
"Now, if you would excuse us, I'd like to have a few words with this . . . detective?"
She brushed past me and Ciro.
He gestured to one of the chairs, so I sat, while he reversed Laura's chair.
"Benjamin Slater," he said solemnly, still twisting the ring on his finger. "Or should I say Bennie Slider?" he smiled then.
"Not so much any more, Ciro, or do I still get to call you Rosie?"
He chuckled at that. "Of all the people to see, I didn't expect you. I thought you got sent to the pen or had to skip town because you pinched from the wrong pocket. I remember going to see you dad, and he was tight-lipped. What happened to you?"
Too much. The explanation was long, and I didn't feel like sharing all the details.
"I had to make a change."
"I'm not so bad at it."
"Not half as good as you are at picking pockets. No one, and I mean no one was as good as you were. I swear you could've taken the keys to the pearly gates off of St. Peter. Tommy Two Fingers used to brag about he was better than you, but he got pinched half a dozen times. He's got a year left at Braginoff. You never got caught. The cops all knew you lifted, but they could never hold you on anything. You were a Goddamn magician!"
I held up my hands, gave a quick flourish, and had the last two cards I had pocketed out. I tossed them to the table with the chips and the deck.
"Ha! That's what I'm talking about. Man I've missed you. What the hell is this private detective thing? Tell me you've got an angle."
"No angle, Ciro. I'm out of that."
"Come on, Bennie, don't give me that. You don't just walk away like that. You're too good for this racket. A PI for Crissake? If you hit hard times, come work for me. It'll be like old times. It'll be better since you won't be down at the bottom."
This was what I was afraid of. Ciro and I went way back. We had our own little racket going. I'd pick pockets or run the scam, and he'd back me up. He even broke into places. He got into the organization and began running bigger jobs. He brought me in as part of his crew to open up locks and the like. Those were good times, but hey were gone, and I didn't want to get back into that. I couldn't. I promised.
"Ciro, you and I—"
"No. Don't say we go way back and then turn me down. I can see you got something going on, and you don't want to tell me all about it, but I can guess. It's your mom, ain't it." It wasn't a question.
A painful memory. "More complicated than that."
"Tell you what, then. It's an open offer. When you get tired of tripping for biscuits, you come talk to me. You just come right in here, and it'll be like old times."
We lapsed into silence, then. Neither of us knowing just what to do. Ciro had been my best friend while growing up, but things had to be different now.
"You still got the ring?" He kept twisting the ring on his right pinkie.
I smiled. "Thing kept turning my finger green, so I had to take it off." I reached to my belt where I had clipped my watch chain. I pulled it off, revealing the brass ring dangling from a few links.
He held up his pudgy right hand to show off the brass ring on his pinky.
"At least mine still fits," I demonstrated by sliding the ring onto my finger.
"Ha! What can I say? Life's been good to me. I don't have to hustle on the streets any more. You remember the day?"
"Course I remember the day. You bet me I couldn't reach the rings."
"I didn't expect you to stand up on the horse like some kind of circus walker."
"It worked. Got enough for the whole crew."
"Until the guy running the carousel kicked us out."
"What do you hear from everyone else?"
His smile receded. "Alex got pinched. He's got another three years. Billy ran into trouble with the Chinks. He killed one of 'em two years ago, and had to vanish. Sophie and I were a thing for awhile, even thought about getting married, but we decided it wouldn't have worked." He began twisting the ring on his finger again. "Josh and Jimmy," the twins who had loved pulling their own brand of scams, "were gunned down two years ago. The cops didn't even give 'em a chance. Hauling hooch in this town has gotten dangerous. They were just hauling a couple of kegs onto a truck."
"Jesus. I'm sorry, Ciro. I didn't know."
"I would've thought the same thing happened to you after you disappeared, but your dad said you were alive. You could've sent word, ya know?"
"I'm sorry, Ciro. I had to get out. Before Josh and Jim it was Tonio and Rick. I just . . . I made a promise, and I aim to stick to it."
"Sure. I hear ya. Man's gotta stick to that. Listen, the offer's still good. If it doesn't work out . . . well, you know."
"Yeah, I know. Ciro," I said as he stood up to leave. "I'm a detective, and that means you and I—"
"We might come to cross purposes. I know you won't rat me out to the cops, Bennie. I know that, but I can already see you'll come sticking your nose in my business."
"Only for my clients."
"If that's the way it's gotta be, then that's what is. Just remember, it's business. It's always about the business. As far back as we go, I can't have you disrupting too much business. You understand."
"Yeah, I understand." I stood up, and came around to offer him my hand. He barked a laugh then gave me a big hug.
"You ain't gotta worry about Joey. Take care of yourself, Bennie."
"Didn't occur to me I'd have to. You take care too, Rosie." The encounter with Ciro went considerably better than I had imagined, but it still meant consequences. I had to watch my step, especially around his operations, or I might end up like Joey.