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"I know exactly how you feel."

Frank Spinoza held the telephone receiver away from his ear, trying to mute the caller's strident tones. He rocked back in the leather-covered chair, legs crossed, examining the spit shine on his Gucci loafers and waiting for the caller to wind down a little.

"Certainly I've been in touch," he said when there was a moment of dead air. "The minute that I heard. The families share our mutual concern."

"They'd better," the voice on the other end informed him brusquely. "If the commissioners don't want to fight for what they've got in Vegas, I'll take care of it myself. And there are others who'll stand by me, too, you betweencher ass."

Impassive, Spinoza heard him out, even though his gut was churning now, trying out the soothing phrases he had learned by watching, listening as the capos talked among themselves.

But Johnny Catalanotte, as the on-site representative for the Midwestern family, had the strength of an army behind him, and he was no one to fool with.

Unless you had the talent.

"Believe me, John," Spinoza said, turning on the chair, "they're meeting on it now. It's top priority, no question. I'm waiting for their word."

And he proceeded to lay it on, spinning castles out of smoke for Johnny Cats. He talked an army into existence and had it standing by his shoulder, ready to move when the word was given, assuring his anxious caller that the word was on the way. By the time he finished Johnny Cats, while not eating out of his hand, at least was not gnawing on the fingers, either.

"I'll be waiting, Frank," the man from Cleveland told Spinoza solemnly. "But not too long."

"There should be something later in the morning, Johnny. By the time you get here, anyway."

"I hope so, Frank. For your sake."

"I'm not worried, Johnny."

"Someone better be."

The line went dead and Frank Spinoza cradled the receiver. He found his palm wet where he had been holding the phone and blotted it with clean-pressed linen.

He knew his answers had not satisfied the Cleveland connection. Johnny Cats was still steaming, but at least he was more rational, less primed for an explosion than Larry Liguori, the Chicago mouthpiece. Liguori was still agitating for a full-scale sit-down to resolve the Kuwahara situation. He would not be satisfied with anything Spinoza said or did until he saw some solid action taken to resolve the problem — preferably by serving up some Japanese heads on silver platters. Now, with Bob Minotte and his soldiers cooling at the county morgue, Liguori's adamant position was immensely stronger than it had been days, or even hours, earlier.

Las Vegas was a powder keg, and Frank Spinoza felt as if he might be sitting on the lid, waiting for it all to blow around him. When it went, he didn't know if he could salvage anything from the debris or not. If it went, not when, he reminded himself. Got to keep thinking positive.

Minotte was on everybody's mind, and Frank Spinoza, though he never liked the man from Baton Rouge, would not have minded something in the way of action, either. But he was under orders from New York to keep the lid on, no matter what. He did not necessarily agree with those instructions — might not even understand them fully — but it was not his place to question La Commissione.

He had not advanced to where he was by making waves or making enemies. And Frank Spinoza knew the desert that surrounded Vegas had as many unmarked graves as it did Joshua trees, each one concealing all that remained of someone who had rocked the boat unnecessarily. Unless he missed his guess they would be planting Seiji Kuwahara and a number of his kamikazes out there sometime soon, and he would gladly read some words above the dear departed... but not before the word came down through channels.

And they would have to be discreet about it. No more Wild West theatrics like last night.

Nervy bastard, that Kuwahara, attacking a man in his own goddamn house at that hour of the morning, coming at him with a frigging sword...

A knock on the office door distracted Frank Spinoza from his reverie. He swiveled toward the sound, taking a moment to blot his palms again with the handkerchief, now damp itself.

"Come in."

Paulie Vaccarelli stuck his head in through the door and mumbled, "Sorry for the interruption, boss."

Paulie was Spinoza's "private secretary," in the jargon of the business. He had never heard of shorthand and the only typewriter he was familiar with was usually transported in a violin case. But he was indispensable at coping with the daily problems that arose from managing an empire, and Spinoza valued him.

"What is it, Paulie?"

The gunner frowned.

"You got another call, line two. The Man."

Spinoza felt the old familiar tightening in his stomach but he forced a practiced smile and thanked his Number Two, waiting until Paulie retreated before he reached for the phone.

For an instant all he heard was the bottomless long-distance hum of the line, then the deep familiar voice filled up his ear.

"This line secure?" the caller asked him.

"Yes, sir. Checked out this morning." Damn the squeak in his voice!

"I've been waiting for some word," The Man informed him, recrimination in his tone.

"I was about to call you," Spinoza lied. "I just got off the phone with Johnny Cats."

A hesitation on the line.

"And how's he bearing up?"

"He'd like to see some action on this thing. They all would."

There was an expectant silence on the other end. Spinoza felt a sudden need to fill the yawning chasm.

"I've arranged a meet for later in the morning here at my place. Just to keep things cool."

"That's good," the caller said, and still his tone had reservations. "It's important that you keep the lid on, Frank. A deal is in the works, but any premature reactions on your end could dump it in the toilet."

"I'm on top of it," Spinoza told him earnestly.

"I hope so, Frank. I'm counting on you. Everybody's counting on you."

The words had their desired effect. Spinoza felt the burden settling down across his shoulders like a physical weight. Unconsciously, it made him squirm.

"Don't worry, sir. I've got a handle on this end, as long as Kuwahara pulls his horns in for the next few days."

The caller's voice turned sharp.

"No matter what, Frank. Keep the lid on. When it's time to move, you'll be the first to know."

"Yes, sir."

"I knew that you could do it." And the line went dead, the hollow humming in his ear again. As he reached out to cradle the receiver he saw his hand was trembling, and he brought it quickly back into his lap, covering it with his other. Spinoza sat staring at the silent telephone, skeptical that any deal New York came up with would be satisfactory to all concerned in Vegas. It sure as hell would not satisfy Minotte, cooling in a drawer down at the county morgue. And it would have to be some deal to satisfy Minotte's capo now or any of the others who were up in arms.

Some deal.

Like Seiji Kuwahara's head, for starters.

Frank Spinoza made a conscious effort to calm down. It really did not matter to him what the deal was from New York — just as long as he was on the winning side when it all shook out in the end. And Spinoza had made a lifelong habit out of choosing winners. It was a knack he picked up on the streets of Brooklyn as a child, growing up wild and mean — incorrigible, they called it — with a father in jail and his mother working at a string of dead-end jobs that kept her out all hours of the day and night.

He did not like to think about the jobs that she had taken, or the price that she had paid to keep him fed and clothed through frigid New York winters. He would have happily repaid her now — if she had not been gone these twenty years.

Brooklyn was a hotbed for aspiring mafiosi in those days. Like now, he thought, but with a difference, right.

The old Murder, Incorporated crew was still around the neighborhood back then, still a few good years away from Sing Sing and the chair. It made for opportunities. Young Frank Spinoza started out by running errands for them, picking up some pocket money in the process.

He had risen through the ranks, surviving several dons along the way and always siding with the heir apparent who appeared most likely to succeed. Thus far his choices had been right on target, leading him to the respected post as New York's top ambassador to Vegas.

Respected, as long as he had the correct answers. As long as he could carry out his orders.

"Keep the lid on, Frank. We're counting on you." Dammit!

For the first time in his life he had some doubts about his ability to carry out the task he had been given.

Doubts concerning whether he could keep the lid on in Las Vegas with so many different pressures threatening to blow it off right in his face.

Spinoza calmed himself, taking a deep breath and looking around his luxurious office, drawing strength from his surroundings. He was equal to the task or he would not be sitting here, about to meet with some of the most fearsome mobsters this side of the Rockies.

He could handle them, could handle anything that came his way because he was a born survivor. Frank Spinoza smiled and felt the tension slowly melting out of him. He was adept at picking winners, and this time would be no exception. If he played his cards right he just might come out looking better than The Man himself. Frank Spinoza closed his eyes and made a wish.

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