Author's note: Someone on this forum (Rachel) wanted me to bring back one of my best-loved characters, Danny "Springs" Springer. I introduced you to him in "A Mobster's Hallowe'en". It's time the newbies on this site got to know him. Here's his debut story. Enjoy!
"Goooood morning, Sin City! This is Jabber J with your morning wake up call! It's oh-six-hundred hours! What's the "oh" stand for? Oh, my God, it's early! We got some Triple Threat lined up, along with--"
A long, muscular arm snaked out from beneath the covers of the king-sized bed. The hand attached to it fumbled clumsily with the off switch of the clock radio and silenced Jabber J's obtrusive chatter. Criss Angel flung the bedclothes aside and wrenched himself into the perpendicular, yawning and coughing as he stood. He stumbled bleary-eyed into the bathroom, rubbing his stubbled face.
A quick shower, a few swipes of the razor across his lathered jawline, a brief bout with a toothbrush, and Las Vegas' hottest illusionist was ready to face the day. Room service would be bringing him breakfast in about ten minutes or so. In the meantime, he concentrated on dressing for the seven AM rehersal for his television series, MindFreak: fashionable ragged jeans, gray Affliction t-shirt, heavy chains and pendants, earbobs, combat boots, skull bandana tied convict-style around his head. Criss disliked these early morning rehersals, but if he wanted to give his fans--not to mention the producers and sponsors--the very best he had to offer, it was just one more sacrifice he had to make. Every minute shown on the small screen was the product of hours and hours of planning, rehersing and taping, and Criss wanted to make every minute count.
A knock on the door announced the arrival of breakfast. Criss strode into the living room and let the waiter with the shiny chrome food cart inside the suite. "Good morning, Mr. Angel," he said.
"Morning," Criss replied. "Just set it over there, okay?"
The waiter rolled the cart with its gleaming silvery domes by the sofa. Criss tipped him the usual fifteen percent and settled down to eat. As if on cue, he felt a familiar nudging on his arm. With a mixture of humor and chagrin, Criss turned to his beloved cat, Hamlet, known affectionatly as Hammie, who stood there with expectant eyes. Criss sighed. It was the same routine every morning: waiter comes in with food on the cart, Criss sits down, Hammie jumps up hoping for a taste. Criss petted the animal's sleek fur.
"You are such a spoiled little kitty, you know that?" he cooed. "You are such a spoiled little kitty." He raised one of the lids covering his breakfast and broke off a piece of bacon. "Here," he said, feeding the morsel to Hammie. "Now leave me alone."
Hammie munched on his bacon while Criss tucked into his breakfast. Outside, the Nevada sun had fully risen, casting a golden glow through the slanted windows of the Luxor Hotel and Resort, promising a beautiful day.
Meanwhile, several hundred miles and couple of time zones away, thirteen-year-old Alicia Rose of Marvinville, Iowa, was standing by the curbside with several other classmates, waiting for the school bus, their backpacks stuffed with books, papers and other supplies. The gloomy gray skies threatening rain later in the day matched Alicia's mood that morning. Today there was a MindFreak marathon on A&E that she so wanted to see, but as bad luck would have it she had to go to school. Faking sick was out of the question--her mother was wise to any false symptoms, thanks to her bratty little brother, Kyle, who had practically turned it into an art form. Nor could she simply skip classes altogether, for the school's truancy rules were strict to the point of being totalitarian; attendance was scrupulously recorded by the teachers and office staff, and God help the poor student who went AWOL during school hours.
So there Alicia stood, waiting in her crisp white blouse and blue plaid skirt with navy knee socks, waiting with her fellow inmates for the bus to transport them all to St. Benedict's Acadamy for their daily lessons. She prayed for a major disaster to occur--a fire, a flash flood, a sudden late season winter storm, anything to get out of school so she could watch her beloved idol, Criss Angel, on TV. Never mind they were episodes that she had seen three or four times before. She longed to hear his voice, so deep and strong, to gaze upon his toned body, to sink into his hazel eyes. She worshipped him, yearned for him, ached for him, but the closest she came to him was on the small screen, so near, yet so far.
Someday, she mused, someday I'll meet him. Someday I'll be able to put my arms around him and feel his warmth. Someday I will look into his beautiful eyes and find the love I've been looking for. Someday, my Angel, someday...
The big yellow bus with ST. BENEDICT'S ACADAMY lettered in black on the side came rumbling to the curb. With the air of condemned prisoners, Alicia and her classmates climbed aboard and took their assigned seats. Alicia stared out the dirty square window toward the west where her Angel lived, so far away, yet close to her heart.
Someday, my Angel, someday...
Michael "Mick" Piccucci was dying.
He'd been dying for over six months now, lying in his ornate bedroom in his two-and-a-half million dollar Las Vegas mansion atop a grassy mountain with a view of the Baja Golf Course. How he had loved playing golf there! Back in the day, he was there three or four times a week with The Guys. True, he never shot below ninety, but that didn't matter. What mattered was the fresh air, the green grass, the trees, and above all the Manhattans served in the grill room. And, of course, the cameraderie--Springs, Shorty, Bluseman, all of them. But Mick had practically outlived every one of them, or almost; Springs was still among the living as far as he knew. The rest went to whatever eternal reward awaited them in the Great Beyond. Of all The Guys of Glitter Gulch, only Springs and Mick remained, the last of the Syndicate which had run Las Vegas since the end of the Second World War.
Mick and The Guys (they never gave themselves a fancy name, like the Mafia or the Purple Gang; they simply referred to themselves as The Guys. It had been the press who had dubbed them The Guys of Glitter Gulch.) had spent their prime years hustling, extorting, and taking kickbacks from the Silver Slipper to the Ranchero. They never went near the Flamingo or the Sands--that was the Syndicate's territory, and it would have been suicide to hustle there. So they kept to their side of the street, getting a few million here, a few million there, until the Gaming Commission got wise to them all and cracked down on the rackets. Fortunatly, Mick had "invested" in a few offshore tax shelters and a Swiss bank account to keep the IRS from getting hold of his ill-gotten gains. Today, Mick Piccucci was worth over eight million dollars.
And for what? For his (bleep) of an ex-wife could claim it for their (bleep) of a daughter? For his playboy son, Michael, Jr., to squander it on his greedy (bleep) of a wife and bratty kids, not to mention those floozies he kept as mistresses? Was that why he squirrled away all his money the way he did? If he had his way, he'd take it all with him to the grave, no matter what they said! But he had to leave it to someone--but who?
Criss strode into the production office just barely after six-forty-five AM. The usual office staff wouldn't arrive until eight-thirty, so a heavy silence hung in the air. A pair of bluejeaned legs were propped up on one of the desks, their owner hidden behind the morning edition of the Las Vegas Sun.
"Morning, JD," Criss said.
JD Sarantakos, Criss's elder brother and MindFreak production co-ordinator, mumbled his greetings of the day without looking up from his paper. Criss sat down at one of the desks to go over the itinerary for the day.
"Anything of interest in the news today?" Criss asked casually.
"The war in Iraq's stalled, the economy's tanked, GM and Chrysler want government bailouts, Obama's still looking for a First Dog, interest rates dropped--the usual," JD replied. "Oh, hey, you remember Athene Christopolous?"
Criss remembered Athene Christopolous all right, like he remembered the pain from his failed demonstration with that pneumatic nail gun. The heiress of the Omicron Corporation had tried to add Criss to her stable of conquests by sneaking into his suite at the Luxor and hiding in his very own bed, completely nude, only to be driven out by his mother, Dimitra, and the hotel security staff. He still relished the memory of the videotape images of his mother smacking Athene squarely on the ass as she made her escape clutching her clothes. Somehow that tape made it onto the fanboards, and the Loyals couldn't get enough of it; it became the number one requested clip on YouTube. Amusing as that had been, he still found the whole experience distasteful. "Yeah, what about her?" Criss grumbled.
"Says here she died," JD replied indifferently.
Criss sat up, surprised at this sudden turn of events. "Died? How?"
"Complications from surgery," JD read. "Seems she went in for a little nip and tuck and something went wrong." He lowered the paper a few inches. "Did you know she was fifty-three when she died?"
Criss remembered Johnny Thompson's words when he mentioned that she had been seen with Elvis. She's fifty if she's a day! She's been like that for thirty years, acting like she's twenty! She's been through three husbands and God knows how many lovers! Criss was wiser than he knew when he resisted her advances as he did. Now she was dead and gone. He felt no grief, of course, but he felt no sense of triumph either. If anything, he felt sorry for her in a way. Athene had spent a fortune trying to preserve her youthful beauty with makeovers, special diets, vigorous fitness routines, trips to expensive European spas, and now plastic surgery, but in the end it had all been in vain. In the final decades of her life Athene created the illusion of eternal youth, but she could not completely reverse the natural aging process itself. She could fool Mother Nature, but she couldn't fool Father Time.
"That's too bad," said Criss.
JD grunted in reply. Then a memory struck him. "Oh, you know what? I got a letter from Maury. Remember her?"
Criss smiled. Now there was someone worth remembering! Maury Brighton, that sad, neglected little waif whose greedy parents were now serving three to five years for their part in the theft of the Luxor's safe had been JD and Lynn's foster daughter for about three months until Social Services located an aunt and uncle somewhere in the Midwest willing to take her in. For that brief span of time Maury had practically been a member of the Sarantakos clan, going to school, accompanying her foster father to "Uncle" Criss' tapings of his show, listening to "Grandma" Dimitra's wonderful stories from Greece--it had been Heaven on earth for a child who had known nothing but storm and strife from her own parents. When she learned that she was going to live with her Aunt Elaine and Uncle Bryan, she was heartbroken. It took a great deal of convincing on her foster parents' part to accept her new home. Criss had given her a small circle-A pendant as a farewell gift. "I'll always be your 'Uncle' Criss," he had told her before she boarded the plane.
"What's she got to say?" Criss asked.
"Says she's doing well in school," JD replied. "She's in sixth grade now, likes to log onto the fanboards but can't join until she's thirteen. Her aunt and uncle sound like pretty decent people; same with her cousin who's about ten or so. All in all she's adjusted pretty well, it seems. Still misses us, though. She wants you to give Hammie a kiss for her."
Criss had to laugh at that. "Did she say anything about her folks getting out of the slammer?"
JD shook his head. "Didn't even mention them. It's like they never existed."
Criss shrugged. "Just as well," he said. "They weren't the greatest parents in the world, you know."
"They weren't parents at all, Criss," JD said. "They cared more for themselves than their own daughter. Some people just shouldn't have kids."
"Will she have to go back to them once they're paroled?"
"If I was her aunt and uncle, I'd sue for custody. The Brightons shouldn't be allowed to keep a dog, let alone raise a child. Take it from me, she's a helluva lot better off where she is right now."
Criss nodded and let the matter drop. The MindFreak staff was filing in for the production meeting. It was time for business, if it could be called that--production meetings usually started out in all seriousness, but as time wore on they broke down into either buffoonery or brawling. Criss could only pray today's meeting would not end up with the latter.
"What the hell do you mean you can't get my divorce annulled?!" Tina LaRue Piccucci demanded. "I gave that (bleeper) the best years of my life, and he dumped me! That lousy pre-nup I signed wouldn't pay the rent, let alone let me live like a normal person!"
Her attorney sighed wearily. "Well, if shopping for designer clothes and shoes every day, a eleven-hundred-dollar-a-month penthouse apartment on Flamingo, and driving a late model Mercedes-Benz is your definition of 'living like a normal person', then no, it wouldn't," he replied. "According to the divorce papers that you yourself signed, you agreed to the terms of the pre-nup, waiving all rights of rescension. You are legally divorced, Mrs. Piccucci. Only if you remarried your ex-husband would you be considered his lawful spouse."
Tina stared despairingly at him. "But I have a daughter to support!" she cried. "Our daughter! Mick's her father, for chrissakes! Surely he would remember her in the will!"
"That I can't say, Mrs. Piccucci," the lawyer said, shaking his head. "You'd have to contact your ex-husband's attorney to find out about that. Other than that, I can't help you. Good day, Mrs. Piccucci."
Tina's mouth flapped open and shut like a goldfish. The lawyer didn't even flinch when, defeated, she picked up her Gucci handbag and stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind her. So, that (bleeper) thinks he can cut me out of the will, does he? she thought. Well, I'm gonna give him a fight to remember! I'll take the whole (bleeping) family to court if I have to, but I'm gonna get my piece of the pie--a big piece! Not just for me, either, but for Heather as well. We're gonna get what's coming to us if it's the last thing I do!
Dear Mr. Piccucci:
This is to inform you that your account is past due. Please pay in full as soon as possible. If you have already paid, please disregard this notice.
Thank you for your consideration.
Michael Piccucci, Jr., disregarded the notice, though he had not paid in full. It was the story of his life, it seemed. He and his wife, Pamela, had been practically living on credit, just like millions of others who wanted to achieve the American Dream on the installment plan. The house was mortgaged to the hilt three times over, and the cars were one overdue payment away from getting repoed. There was nothing the Piccuccis had, inside or out, that was fully paid for, not even the groceries. By procrastination and creative bookkeeping, Michael and Pamela kept their heads above water, though just barely enough to breathe. Yet the creditors were not satisfied; they hounded the Piccuccis relentlessly, informing them in chillingly polite tones that payment was due and if no action was taken, they would have no choice but to resort to a collection agency. For Michael, Jr., the only thing standing between him and total bankruptcy was his father, or, rather, his father's fortune.
He had tried hitting the old man for money countless times in the past, and had been turned down countless times. What the hell do you think I am, a bank? Why can't you go into business for yourself, like I did? You can't go sponging off me like that! I worked for my money, you know!
Yeah, Dad "worked" for his money, all right. He worked over those casino and nightclub owners but good, shaking them down for "protection" money or whatever, taking a big chunk of the profits and depositing them overseas. How much was he worth now? Five million? Six million? Only God and Dad's lawyer, Richard Close, knew for sure. He knew for certain that when Pop kicked the bucket, he, Michael Antonio Piccucci, Jr, stood to inherit everything. He was the only son and legitimate heir, after all. That (bleep) he had married, that former stripper that had caught his fancy thirty years ago, Tina LaRue (which was obviously a stage name; Michael wondered what her real name had been), was a gold-digger of the first order who sank her blood-red claws into him and made him sign a pre-nup which would have cleaned the old man out when they got divorced, had it not been for Richard Close, Dad's lawyer, who found a few convenient loopholes and saved the family fortune. Tina got her cut after the hearing, considerably less than she had bargained for; he recalled how she had stormed out of the courtroom, probably on the hunt for a new sugar daddy, while Pop managed to get out of the deal with his shirt on.
Yet, Tina didn't give up. Once she heard that Pop was on his last legs, she came roaring back on the scene, demanding her "fair share" of the estate. No dice, said Close, you're persona non grata; you lost out on the deal when you divorced your husband. You got your settlement, now get outta here.
So what did that little gold-digger do? She went and tried to get her divorce annulled so she would be his "legal widow" and claim his estate! What a joke! No way on God's green earth was she going to get away with that, not if he could help it! He was the sole heir to the estate, and that was that.
Michael looked at the pile of bills on the desk. If only the old man would die already. He and Pamela would be set for life. The wolves at the door would be fed, and there'd be some left over to set them up for life. Maybe take that cruise they'd always wanted. Send the kids to some Ivy League college. Relax and enjoy life instead of worrying about money.
Or he could ditch the wife and kids and enjoy life himself, with that little blond bombshell he'd been seeing on the side. Jessie was hot, hot, hot, and she delivered the goods like no one else, not even Pamela, who was getting long in the tooth and baggy up front, anyway. It was time to upgrade. If only the old man would die...
The five hour production meeting went well enough, or at least without Criss throwing a temper tantrum whenever something didn't go the way he planned. The staff knew he was a perfectionist, giving one hundred and ten percent to produce the best series on television, which meant designing, redesigning, scheduling, postponing, and endless hours of rehersing, then taping and editing, all for a forty-five minute episode. Only after days, weeks, even months of this process, accompanied by the inhuman amount of stress which was the price of any production did the finished episode finally go on the air, then the whole process started over again. The pressure to produce sometimes got to be so great that occasionally the MindFreak staff had to dodge flying objects furiously flung by Criss when he was in one of his rages. It wasn't easy to work for an artist such as Criss Angel, but in the end it was all worth it.
Criss' older siblings, JD and Costa, knew how to handle Little Brother's angry outbursts--after all, they knew him more intimately than the rest of the staff. When Criss first launched MindFreak Productions and first brought his brothers on board, his two brothers made it explicitly clear that they would not cater to his every whim, nor endure any type of abuse whatsoever. They would work with him, but they were not his lackeys. If they had any objections to anything he planned to do (and they had plenty over the years) they would not hesitate to make their opinions known to him. He may be the star, they had said, but they had seniority. In other words, if Criss ever got out of line, they'd kick his ass all the way back to New York. To his credit, Criss agreed to their terms, for he depended greatly on his brothers' skills and talents.
MindFreak Productions may have been his brainchild, but in time it had turned into a family business; even his cousins were part of the company, like George Strumpolis who did most of the grunt work, setting up props and getting the equipment ready, among other things. Of course, George wasn't all brawn, despite beating Criss' score on the punching bag game in his cousin's suite. He contributed as much brainpower as muscle to the company, unafraid to bring up his personal opinons about whatever crazy scheme his famous cousin dreamed up. George enjoyed working with Criss, though his little cousin could be a pain in the kiester sometimes. And he could kick Criss' ass just as hard as either JD or Costa.
But of all the members of his family working for him, it was his mother, Dimitra, who held a special place in the business--and his heart. She wasn't officially employed, but she served as the moral compass guiding Criss' and his brothers' lives, the rock which kept him anchored in the real world, the source of love and tenderness in the cold, hard world of showbusiness. Whenever Criss performed one of his dangerous demonstrations, she stood on the sidelines with tissue in hand to wipe away the tears of anxiety and horror as she watched her youngest son subject himself to self-inflicted torture in the name of entertainment, only to see him emerge unscathed and ready to give her a big hug. She couldn't bear to see him killed, and Criss couldn't bear to see her suffer for his sake. Only after the hotel demolition escape did he finally promise her never to perform any more death-defying stunts, to her great relief. At seventy-four, she couldn't take too much excitement like that, so she spent her days in New York, coming to Vegas for long visits with her three sons and her only granddaughter, Little Dimitra, now a teenager and not so little anymore. Though distant, Criss' family was as close as ever.
That closeness was reinforced as Criss and his brothers headed for the deli for lunch. Back in the day, Criss would have scarfed down a pizza and washed it down with a large soda, but the physical demands of his career required healthier fare: turkey pita wrap, tomato bisque soup, bottled water and an apple for dessert. It was a sacrifice Criss was willing to make, along with his fitness regimen in the gym (though he had hated working out at first) and cutting his alcohol consumption to just a Martini or two--no more getting wasted at the clubs, he vowed. He had too much to live for to die in a drunken driving accident.
The brothers settled down in a corner booth to eat. Costa swallowed his first mouthful of sandwich and turned to Criss. "Hey, Criss, didja hear about Athene Christopolous?"
"Don't ruin my appetite, okay, Cos?" Criss groaned. "And, yeah, I heard--she died. So what?"
"Well, gee, don't get all broken up about it," Costa replied sarcastically.
Criss set down his pita wrap. "Look, Cos, she's history, okay? She was a fifty-year-old spoiled brat behaving like she was twenty, racking up boyfriends by the score and running through a bajillion dollar fortune searching for the fountain of youth. As far as I'm concerned, ding, dong, the witch is dead, so let's just drop it, okay?"
"It was hardly a 'bajillion dollar fortune'," JD spoke up. "Omicron's been bleeding red ink for almost a decade. They were ready to declare bankruptcy just before Athene died on the table."
"Little wonder," Costa added, "the way she spent her money like that, I'm surprised they didn't go belly up years ago."
"Well, she's gone now, so let's move on to something else," Criss insisted. "She doesn't concern me anymore. That ship has sailed a long time ago." He sank his teeth into his pita and chewed furiously.
JD couldn't help but smile at the memory of the videotape of Mom catching a totally nude Athene in Criss' bedroom, and driving her out with a few well-placed smacks on her bare ass. How it got on YouTube he would never know, but it became so popular it was featured VH1's Best Week Ever!. It still generated a few laughs online, especially among the Loyals. He wanted to bring it up, but the sour look on Criss' face warned him to keep quiet about it. Still, it was pretty funny, though. In the end, JD reasoned that of all of Athene's outrageous antics, her little break-in and subsequent spanking from Mama Dimitra would be the only thing by which she would be remembered. Well, like Criss said, that ship had sailed, so it was best to put it behind them all; life went on and blah, blah, blah.
For Alicia Rose, however, life was going on at a snail's pace as she sat in her math class, half-listening to Sister Constantine's lesson about binomials. She glanced at the plain white-faced clock on the wall. Two-fifteen, it read. Another hour and fifteen minutes and she'd be out of school and racing home to watch the few remaining episodes of MindFreak on A&E. Assuming, of course, that Kyle didn't beat her to the TV set to sate his addiction to violent video games. Her mother did her level best to turn her son away from the CGI mayhem he so passionatly adored and toward more wholesome activities like Little League baseball, adventure books and puzzle games. Kyle, however, turned up his freckled nose at such "wussy" things while popping another installment of Death Race 5000 into the PlayStation console and venting his youthful fury through the characters on the screen.
Kyle Rose was incorrigible, a ten-year-old terrorist whose greatest joy in life was making his sister Alicia's a living hell on earth. He used to sneak peeks in her diary until she stopped keeping one; he snatched french fries from her packet when Mom took them to McDonald's; he would grab an item of great personal value to her and led her on a merry chase throughout the house until their mother intervened and forced him to surrender it, if he didn't throw it out a window or flush it down the toilet like he did with her best pair of knee-high stockings when the family was getting ready to go to Cousin Dale's wedding (Mom let her borrow a pair of her own); he made endless references to bodily functions, especially when it came to the large intestine; and he mocked and scorned her choice of music or other entertainments, forcing her to keep her love for Criss Angel a secret. He was Bart Simpson squared, a demon in blue jeans and t-shirt. His flaming red hair, inherited from their father, only added to the infernal image.
Her mother, Nancy Rose, was a gentle, loving woman, everything a kid could wish for in a mother. The only problem Alicia could see was that she was way out of touch with the twenty-first century; she lived in a Leave It To Beaver world of sunshine and flowers and picnics in the park, of families who went to church on Sunday and played Monopoly or Scrabble in the evenings or had singalongs around the piano in the parlor, and where children listened to the wisdom of their elders and never, ever spoke back to them. That was why she sent her children to St. Benedict's Acadamy instead of public school in spite of the high cost of tuition: to shield them from the evil realities of life on the street.
Alicia glumly recalled her tenth birthday, when all she wanted was a copy of the latest Harry Potter book. She had surreptitiously read the first few in the public library, but now she wanted her own copy, and it took a lot of nerve on her part just to ask. Instead, her mother presented her with a dog-eared copy of Little Women. "I read this when I was your age," she had told her disappointed daughter. "You'll find it's so much better than reading about evil witches and wizards." Alicia had taken the book with mumbled thanks and stowed Louisa May Alcott's timeless classic in the back of her closet, then rode her bike to the library to check out the Harry Potter book she wanted.
Just once, Alicia thought as she sat at her crummy wooden desk feigning attention to Sister's lecture on binomials, just once she'd like to wake her mother up and force her to face the real world. We're not living in the Nineteen-Fifties anymore, Mom, she'd say to her. The Beaver's downloading porn on the Internet, Wally's packing a pistol at school, June Cleaver is having an affair with the milkman and Ward's hanging out with the guys at some topless bar! Couples are divorcing as fast as they're getting married; heck, kids my age are already having sex! There's war, death, destruction, famine, crime, genocide, pollution, and a lot of other evils in the world. It's nothing new--it's been going on for centuries. You just have to get your head out of the sand and look!
Alicia looked down at the circle-A doodles in her notebook, then at the tiny postage-stamp sized photo of Criss Angel taped in the corner of the inside cover. Criss was her escape from the cesspool she called her life, shielding her from the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune: her little brother's torments, her mother's delusions of perfection, St. Bennie's mind-numbing propaganda about being proper Catholic ladies and gentlemen, and the usual angst every thirteen-year-old girl goes through when her hormones take over. No one understood her, she thought. No one, except Criss. If she had her way she'd chuck home, family and school and run away to Las Vegas just to be with him. He was the center of her universe. He was her whole world. Nothing else mattered except that Criss Angel should exist.
Someday, my Angel, she sighed inwardly. Someday, we'll be together and we'll live happily ever after. Just you and me, together, forever.
The two-twenty bell clanged like a fire alarm, jolting Alicia out of her reverie. It was time to go to Confirmation Class, the last one of the day. She picked up her books and trudged to the chapel where Father Michael waited to give instruction. At least it'll be better than binomials, she thought.
Back in Las Vegas, Mick Piccucci sat in his wheelchair behind the gilded Louis XIV table with his lawyer, discussing his final will and testament. Richard Close, Mick's longtime attorney who discreetly overlooked his client's checkered past, had spelled out the estate laws in the state of Nevada chapter and verse. Mick, however, was not interested in chapter and verse. He wanted payback.
"Look, Mick," Close pleaded, "you gotta leave it to someone! I know you're still (bleeped) off at your ex-wife and your son, Mike, Jr., but someone's got to inherit your estate! Otherwise, it goes into probate, and that's gonna leave an even bigger mess. You know what they say: you can't take it with you, you know!"
Mick sighed as heavily as his nicotine scarred lungs would allow. Close had a point; he had to leave his estate to somebody, but double-damn if that (bleep) of an ex-wife or that worthless bum of an only son was going to reap what he sowed. And triple-damn if the government was going to sink its greedy meathooks into it, not after spending decades of his life dodging the system to build it.
"You got the whole thing listed on there?" he asked Close.
"The whole thing," Close confirmed. "Money, property holdings, stocks, bonds--the whole nine yards. All we need is a name."
"Gimme until tomorrow," Mick said. "I'll sleep on it."
"Mick, for God's sake, you're a dying man!" Close exclaimed. "You could be dead tomorrow! You want this to go intestate? It's now or never!" He leaned closer to Mick. "Look, I got word on the legal grapevine that your ex is filing to get the divorce annulled so that she can be your legal widow and claim the whole estate! And your son will be moving heaven and earth to make sure that she doesn't get a dime! This is heading for a showdown unless you come up with a legal heir. Come on, Mick, whaddya say?"
Mick coughed hoarsely and spit up some phlegm in a monogrammed handkerchief. "If I had my way," he croaked, "I'd leave it all to you. You're the only guy who never double-crossed me, even if you are a lawyer."
"Well, that's very generous of you, Mick," Close said. "But your heirs could contest the will if you did that."
Mick sat in stony silence, deep in thought. Again, his lawyer was right. Years of high living with The Guys--the Havana cigars, the endless boozing, the rich food at Las Vegas's finest restaraunts--had taken a toll on his health. Bum liver, bum ticker, bum kidneys, bum everything. It was a wonder he had outlived his cronies, or at least the ones who didn't get rubbed out. His number could come up any moment now and if he didn't provide an heir, all hell would break loose in probate court. But who? Who did Mick Piccucci feel was worthy of his estate, valued at over six million dollars--maybe more with the money he secreted overseas?
Mick thought, weighed his options, thought again, then, after several minutes of silence while Close waited patiently beside him, he took a pad of paper, scrawled something onto it with the large fountain pen his father had given him when he graduated from the eighth grade, and handed it to Close. "Here," he rasped, "that's my final decision."
Close read the scrawl on the pad. "You sure about this?" he asked, puzzled.
"Damn straight I am!" Mick snapped. "Now get outta here! Go on and make out the damn will, and quit botherin' me!"
For Mick Piccucci, the end came in the wee hours of the morning the next day. It wasn't a quiet death, going gentle into that good night with a serene smile on his face. No, it came with the force of a mob hit, his ticker siezing up as if someone threw a monkey wrench into the gears, then the shortness of breath like a plastic bag over his head. He flailed around in bed, fighing off the Grim Reaper with the last of his strength. "God! Help me!" he gasped, groping desperatly for the call button to summon his caregiver.
The call buzzer went off in the caregiver's room, sending her dashing into Mr. Piccucci's room. As fast as she had run, it was still too late--Mick Piccucci, the next-to-the-last survivor of The Guys of Las Vegas's golden age, lay sprawled in his king-sized bed, his mouth agape in his final efforts to breathe, still clutching his chest. The caregiver drew a deep clensing breath and picked up the phone to call the coroner, then sat down to wait. There would be no sleep for her tonight. She did, however, have enough presence of mind to note down the time of death; the cornoner would need it for the death certificate.
The county coroner handled the transfer of the body with smooth efficiency. The caregiver gave him the necessary information needed for the record, and Mick Piccucci's body was wheeled out on a gurney, covered head to toe with a heavy white sheet.
"Shall I inform the family?" the caregiver asked the cornoner.
"Did Mr. Piccucci have any next of kin?"
"Yes, a son, Michael, Jr. They...didn't talk much, though."
"We'll contact the son," the coroner said. "You've done enough for tonight. But I need your name as witness to the death."
"Casey," she said. "Casey Worth."
"All right, Ms. Worth," the coroner said. "Thank you for your co-operation. We'll take it from here. Good night."
"Good night, sir."
Casey watched as the coroner's ambulance slowly rolled out of the drive. There was nothing for her to do here anymore. Nothing but wait until morning and leave the Piccucci house for the last time. Then she would have to find another person to care for, or hope a permanant position would open at the Luxor. Either way, things were going to be tight for her and her family.
There was one thing she remembered she had promised Mr. Piccucci she would do when he passed away. He had entrusted it to her and no one else, and she felt obligated to perform it. But it would have to wait until morning. Maybe it would lead to another job. She hoped against hope.
Dawn broke over the mountains and reached deep into the valley. Casey went into the study, opened the front drawer and took out the small black address book Mr. Piccucci had kept for over fifty years. It was faded and dog-eared, its pages scribbled on and numbers scribbled out and replaced with new ones. She found the number she was looking for and dialed it on the desk telephone. After several rings, the other party finally picked up.
"If this isn't an insanely beautiful blond," the voice growled, "I'm hangin' up!"
"No, sir," Casey said nervously. "This is Mr. Piccucci's caregiver. I just called to tell you that Mr. Piccucci...well, he..."
"Mick kicked the bucket?"
"Yes, sir, he did."
"I'm sorry, sir--"
"Ah, what the hell you got to be sorry for? He wasn't long for this world, anyway. Way of all flesh and all that crapola. You call Mick, Jr., yet?"
"No, sir, I was instucted to call you only."
"Okay, okay, fine. Look, you're a good kid; you did your job and now you can go home. And, uh, sweetheart?"
"Thanks for takin' care of Mick."
"You're welcome, sir."
"Yeah. I'll be over soon. Just get that box of pictures for me, willya?"
"Good-bye, Mr. Springer."
Danny "Springs" Springer hung up. So, Mick bit the big one, he thought. And I'm the last one of The Guys--but not for long, not with this effing cancer eating into my gut. At least I'm still around to attend his funeral. Never thought I'd live so long to bury the son of a (bleep).
Springs mixed himself a glass of orange juice and vodka. He held his glass up toward the ceiling. "Well, Mick," he said aloud, "I'll be seeing you again, wherever you are. Just have a brandy waiting for me when I get there, okay? Just for old time's sake."
He drained the screwdriver and headed to his wardrobe to dress. He had to pay a courtesy call to the family, just to pay his respects to Mick--and to see who hit the jackpot in the will.
The dawn found Criss on the exercise bench in the gym, curling a heavy fifty-pound barbell to his chest, inhaling and exhaling deeply with every rise and fall of the weights. His lightly clad body shimmered with sweat. He personally disliked working out, but he was too self-disciplined to skip even one session. He had to keep his body in top physical condition; the physical requirements of his career demanded it. He had to stay healthy for the sake of his fans, and those who had invested in his shows here at the Luxor. A toned body was money in the bank for all concerned.
Nearby, a flat screened television mounted on the far wall was broadcasting the morning news: President Obama's stirring "We will recover" speech, the latest corporate bailout, and the stimulus plan still in the works. Criss half-listened to the broadcast, if he listened at all. It was basically all the same, he thought. The economy's down the toilet, and everyone's looking for a way out.
In local news, former mobster Michael "Mick" Piccucci, one of the members of The Guys of Glitter Gulch gang, died today in his home in Las Vegas. The gang had been notorious for taking bribes and kickbacks from casinos and other establishments during the heyday of the City's mob era. He was reported to be worth around six million dollars, but the Federal Reserve claims it could be more due to off-shore tax shelters and other funds not yet discovered. He is survived by a son, Michael, Jr., and his daughter by his former wife, Tina LaRue Piccucci. He was eighty-six.
Criss set down the weights and headed for the treadmill. It was time to work on his lower body now. Still dripping with sweat, he climbed onto the heavy vulcanized conveyor belt, turned on the machine and started running. The death of some former mobster did not concern him. Why should it? It had nothing to do with him. You live, you die. C'est la vie.
For those who knew Mick Piccucci, however, the death of the former mobster concerned them very much. Springs arrived at the house at nine that morning--early for him, since he rarely left the house before noon. He stepped into the spacious marble foyer of the mansion and reflexivly headed for his late friend's study. A skinny woman with dark hair stood there, bewildered. "Are you Mr. Springer?" she asked timidly.
"Yeah, I'm Mr. Springer," he replied nonchalantly.
"I'm Casey Worth," she said. "I called you on Mr. Piccucci's orders."
"You got the box?" Springs asked.
Casey handed him a vintage wooden cigar box. "Right here, sir," she said. "Mr. Piccucci told me to give this to you. I didn't open it, though, I assure you."
Springs took the box from Casey. "Wouldn't have mattered if you did," he said. "Thanks a bunch, sweetheart."
"You know," Casey spoke up hesitantly, "Now that Mr. Piccucci is...gone, I'm sorta out of a job. So if you need someone who needs a caregiver..."
"Yeah, sure, okay," Springs said absently, still looking at the cigar box. "You know where Mick kept the will?"
"That was none of my business, sir," Casey replied. "I do know that his lawyer was here just yesterday to talk about it."
Springs nodded. "Ah, it probably all went to Junior," he said with a resigned shrug, "being his only son and all, more'n likely. He'll probably blow the whole wad in a month."
"I never involved myself with the family matters here, Mr. Springer," Casey told him.
Springs smiled a little. "Good," he said to her. "Because this is one family you don't wanna get yourself involved in."
"Will there be anything else, Mr. Springer?"
Springs waved his hand dismissively. "Nah, you go on home. You did your part. And don't worry about finding work--there's still a lot of old farts around for you to take care of. I'm sure you'll get a good reference from Junior."
"Thank you, sir." Casey left in a hurry, relieved to be out of there. Five years of caring for Mr. Piccucci made her feel like an extra from The Sopranos. Mr. Piccucci himself had treated her well enough, but the knowledge that he had been a gangster from the Forties and Fifties who had not hesitated to contract killing a person was unsettling. Still, the pay had been good, good enough to support her family. She could only hope that her next client would not have ties with the Syndicate.
Meanwhile, Springs sat in Mick's office chair, going over the contents of the cigar box, still redolent of fine Havana cigars, sifting through the photographs inside it. So many memories were contained in that wooden box, of dinners at the Silver Slipper, of beautiful dames and expensive sports cars, of long afternoons spent on the track, of children's weddings and parents' funerals, of wine, women and song. His era had passed, however: the wine bottles were empty, the women got married and grew old, and the band had stopped playing the songs, packed up their instruments and gone home, but the melody lingered on.
A slam of the front door shook Springs out of his reverie. He got up from the padded leather chair and walked into the foyer to see who it was. The minuted he saw who it was, he regretted his action.
"Hello, Springs," purred Tina LaRue Piccucci. "Nice to see you again."
"Hello, Tina," Springs said grimly. "Too bad I can't say the same thing about you."
"Now is that the way to greet an old friend?" Tina admonished. "Especially the widow of one?"
"Who said you were an old friend?" Springs retorted. "And who the hell said you were his widow? You divorced him years ago, remember?"
"So? I'm still the mother of his child."
"That don't mean nothin'. You dumped his ass, and now you got the gall to come in and say you're his widow? You're full of it, Tina."
"I still have legal claim to his estate, regardless," Tina pointed out. "I'm the mother of his biological daughter, you know."
"Yeah?" Springs countered. "Well, Junior's the eldest legal heir by his first wife, sweetheart. You and your 'biological daughter' are second bananas as far as he's concerned. In fact, I know that Mick made a new will, just yesterday before he kicked the bucket."
"So, if I were you, I'd turn my ass around and walk on out of here, because you ain't gettin' nothin', sweetheart! Neither you nor your 'biological daughter' are getting jack squat! Junior's the only legitimate heir, and you ain't nothin' but a gold-digging (bleep)! Always have been, always will be. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!"
"The will hasn't been read yet, Springs," Tina reminded him. "And I can contest if I have to. No one is going to shortchange me, not even Mick, may he rot in Hell! Just you wait and see! I'm gonna get my share of the estate if it's the last thing I do!"
"Blah, blah, blah, big words, sweetheart!" Springs sneered. "You ain't got a leg to stand on in court. You wanna waste what's left of your alimony fighting it out in court, you go right ahead! You're only gonna make some lawyer rich, that's all. And, remember, you're too old to go back to strippin'."
"(Bleep) you, Springs," Tina retorted. "(Bleep) you and the horse you rode in on!" She spun on her Manolo heels and stormed out of the house. "See you at the funeral," she said curtly.
"See you in Hell," Springs said in a low tone as she slammed the heavy door behind her.
Michael, Jr., felt no overwhelming grief when he heard the news of his father's death. He felt no anger, no sadness, not even shock. Instead, it was like the storm clouds breaking and rays of sunshine beaming down their warmth and light upon him, and a tremendous feeling of buoyancy, of dancing on air. At last, the old man was dead! The estate was his at last! No more money troubles, no more collection calls--he was finally set for life!
His first instinct was to call Pamela to tell her the good news. He could picture her screaming with joy when she heard about his father's death and their new wealth. He reached for the phone to call her on her cell, but then hesitated. Why should he? Why should she share in what was rightfully, legally his and his alone? Well, she was his wife, granted, but their marriage had been going stale lately, and though they never had any real knock-down, drag-out fights, they never discussed divorce.
Yet Michael wanted his freedom as well as his father's wealth. He yearned for the carefree bachelor days when he had girls at his beck and call and could party all night and sleep all day if he wanted. It was his mother who insisted he get married, settle down and start a family to carry on the Piccucci name. He had met Pamela in a bar somewhere in Cabo and she had really turned him on like no other girl he had met before. It was only after a traditional Italian wedding and Mexican honeymoon did it occur to Michael that his free and easy days were over, and he was just another henpecked husband with a wife and, later, kids to support.
Michael set down the phone. No, best to hold off for right now. He had to think things through first if he wanted to start living again the way he used to. Sure, there'd be alimony payments and child support, but with the help of a good lawyer he'd still have enough to live the good life with Jessie. No marriage--no way was he getting into that trap again! Just shack up, kick back and relax, take it easy and soak in the sun. Michael Piccucci was made for la vida buena, not family life.
One person who was oblivious to the goings on in the Piccucci family was Alicia Rose, who was sitting in the computer lab at school, linking onto the Criss Angel fanboards. The top thread in particular caught her eye: LOYALAPALOOZA! Three days of magic and mayhem in Las Vegas, with Criss Angel presiding, three weeks hence.
Alicia longed to go to Loyalapalooza, more than anywhere else in the world. It would be the fulfillment of a dream, to go to Vegas and meet Criss, touch him, embrace him, even kiss him right on the lips--oh, that would be Heaven! Maybe he'd fall in love with her, take her up to his suite in the Luxor, and then who knew what would happen? Maybe in time he would marry her! To be married to Criss Angel would be the summit of all happiness to Alicia. No more bratty Kyle tormenting her! No more patronizing mother! No more St. Benedict's Acadamy telling her what to do and not to do! She'd be free, and she'd be happy!
But it was hopeless, and she knew it. No way would her mother let her go to Las Vegas, even if St. Bennie's sponsored the trip. Mrs. Rose was not about to let her baby go on a several hundred mile trip just to see Criss Angel, nosireebob! Alicia had school, she had responsibilities, and she needed to remain in the safety and security of home and family. Who knew what evils lurked in that place they rightfully called Sin City? It was no place for a little girl to go running around unsupervised. Besides, she didn't have any money to make reservations.
But, oh, how she wanted to go! How she yearned to go! Loyalapalooza was to Alicia Rose what Prince Charming's ball was to Cinderella. She wished she had a fairy godmother who would appear and send her to Vegas with a wave of her magic wand. A limo, maybe, or even a private jet, along with designer clothes that made her look more mature instead of the dreary school uniform she wore practically every day. She'd have a bottle of champaigne to share with Criss (even though she was only thirteen), and they'd jet all over the world, even go to Greece, the land of his ancestors. Of course they'd have to bring Hammie, Criss' cat, along for the trip so he wouldn't get lonely.
The school bell clanged, signalling the change for class and bringing Alicia back to reality. Sadly she logged off the fansite and dragged herself back to the grey, mundane world of school. If only she could go to Loyalapalooza, if only, if only....
Mick Piccucci's funeral Mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church was a small affair, consisting of Michael, Jr.'s, family; Danny Springer, Tina LaRue Piccucci and her daughter, Heather; Mick's few surviving friends and aquaintances; his caregiver, Casey Worth, and his lawyer, Richard Close. A reporter for the Las Vegas Sun was also present to cover the service for the Names and Faces section for tomorrow's edition. The priest's voice echoed through the near empty church.
"I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body..."
Yeah, yeah, yeah, Michael, Jr., thought irritably. Ashes to ashes and all that crap! Plant the son of a (bleep) already, okay? I got a one o'clock tee time!
"We bought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out," the priest continued. "The Lord giveth, and the Lord hath taken away..."
The Lord giveth, all right, Tina said to herself smugly, but I'm the one who's gonna be taking away! When all this is all over and the will is read, I'm gonna take away what's mine and move to Beverly Hills, and no one's gonna stop me!
"From henceforth blessed are the dead which die in the Lord: even so saith the spirit; for they rest from their labors."
Yeah, Mick, Springs thought sorrowfully, rest in peace, pal. You deserve it. I'll be seeing you soon. Just have a brandy waiting for me, just like old times, okay?
"Let us commend our brother, Michael Antone Piccucci, Sr., to the mercy of God," the priest intoned with upraised arms. "The Mass is ended. Go in peace."
"Thanks be to God," everyone spoke in unison. Yeah, thank God it's over! Michael, Jr., said inwardly. Now let's get the money already and get on with our lives!
A recorded choir sang Libera me, Domine, as the mourners filed past Mick Piccucci in his heavy wood-grained casket smothered in floral tributes. Springs was first by the side of his late friend and partner in crime. "So long, Mick," he said, trying to smile a little. "I'll see you later."
Casey was next. She dabbed her eyes a little as she paid her last respects to her former employer. "Good-bye, Mr. Piccucci," she sniffled. "I know you did a lot of bad things in the past, but you were really a good man, really you were. I never thought of you as a criminal, just as...well, you know. Rest in peace, Mr. Piccucci."
A few others filed past the casket, some blessing themselves as they passed. Tina LaRue Piccucci, swathed in black lace and clutching a white hankie, gave an Oscar-winning performance as the bereaved widow as she approached the casket. "Oh, Mick," she wailed. "I can't tell you how much I miss you! I know we had our differences, but in the end I loved you more than any man on this earth! I never got to tell you how much I still love you, and now--sniff--it's too late! I'll visit your grave every single day, Mick! And that's a promise!"
Tina doubled over sobbing, or appeared to be sobbing as she was led away by her daughter, Heather. Michael, Jr., rolled his eyes in disgust. "Got any eggs to go with that ham, Tina?" he growled under his breath.
He looked down at his father's body. "So long, Pop," he said unemotionally. "Wherever in hell you are, it's where you deserve to be."
He herded his wife and two sons out of the church. "C'mon, let's get something to eat and get outta here," he said curtly. "I got business to attend to."
"But what about the drive to the gravesite?" Pamela wanted to know. "We can't leave until your father's interred."
Michael, Jr., swore under his breath. "You go on ahead," he told her hastily. "I'll catch up later."
Pamela took a boy in each hand and went outside where the limo was parked. Michael, Jr., strode quickly to where Richard Close was standing and faced him squarely.
"Mike, I'm really sorry about your father--" Close began.
"Never mind that," Michael, Jr., interrupted him. "What about the will? You got the will?"
"Yes, I got the will," Close answered. "Everything's all been taken care of--signed, sealed and delivered. The reading is tomorrow at ten AM in my office."
"Tina's not getting anything, is she?" Michael, Jr., asked anxiously.
"I told you, everything's all been taken care of," Close insisted. "Just come to the reading tomorrow and don't be late, okay?
Michael, Jr., sighed. "Okay, tomorrow it is," he said, and left to join Pamela and the kids in the limo. Tomorrow, he thought. Tomorrow he would be a rich man, only a day away from being free of his problems forever. In twenty four hours he would revert to the lifestyle he had once known and enjoyed, with no nagging wife, no bratty kids, and no debt collectors hounding him day and night. Just twenty four hours away lay freedom.
But there were still those hours to get through. Right now, he had to join Pamela and the other mourners to the gravesite and bury the old man next to his mother in the cemetary. Once that was over, he could grab a quick snack at the wake and head for the golf course to make his one o'clock tee time, shoot a few holes, then come home for dinner and bed. Then tomorrow would arrive, and he'd be at Close's office, bright and early, go through the formalities of the will, claim his inheritance, and it was good-bye Vegas, hello Cabo! Michael, Jr., felt like a kid on Christmas Eve waiting for Santa to arrive. Well, Mike, old buddy, he said to himself, looks like Christmas is coming a little early this year!
Casey Worth didn't go to the gravesite ceremony, having no car to drive and no one to give her a lift. She relied heavily on public transportation to get to work and back, even if it meant getting up at six AM to catch the bus to get to Mr. Piccucci's house. And anyway, she had done her duty to Mr. Piccucci simply by attending the funeral Mass; the rest was the family's business. Now she had to move on with her life.
Her tiny cell phone rang in her purse. Casey felt embarrassed that she had forgotten to turn it off during the service. Thank God it didn't ring in church, she thought. She pulled it out and looked at the tiny screen to see who was calling her: MOM, it read. "Hi, Mom, what's up?" she spoke into the phone.
"Oh, hi, honey," her mother's voice came over the receiver, "am I interrupting anything?"
"Oh, no, no, Mom," Casey said, "the service is over, so it's okay."
"Good. Listen, I got a call from the Luxor Hotel. They want you to come in for a whole week. Some housekeeper's got to go into the hospital for something--they didn't say what. Anyway, you're to come in on the morning shift, starting tomorrow."
"Got it, Mom. Thanks."
"You're welcome, honey. See you."
Casey turned off her phone. Well, she had a job for a week, anyway. After that, who knew where her next paycheck was coming from? She sighed heavily. With the economy the way it was, she'd be lucky if she found another job anywhere, let alone a caregiving job. Maybe at one of the nursing homes? But you had to be certified to do that, and Casey was not yet certified, though she was working on it. All she could do was hope for the best. Something would come up, she was sure of it.
Criss Angel's live show, Believe, was drawing rave reviews from the critics, but the box office take was less than encouraging, barely above the break-even point. Despite assurances from the Luxor's president, Felix Rappaport, that the economy was to blame, Criss felt it reflected badly upon himself as an artist. The show was supposed to be his magnum opus, the culmination of years of hard work and creativity. He had hyped the show to the whole world, only to perform in a theater with half-empty seats. What was he doing wrong? Why wasn't it selling out? Where was everybody?
"I just don't understand it, Felix," he said as he sat at the bar waiting for his Martini. "I put Mind, Body and Spirit into that production and hardly anyone's come to see it. I know not everyone thinks it's great, but there are those who really like it." He rubbed his face with his hands. "I don't know what to do anymore, Felix. I really don't."
Felix put his arm around Criss' shoulder. "Look, Criss, it's not you, okay?" he said. "The economy's taken a nosedive and tourism's gone with it. People don't have as much to spend as they used to. It's just bad timing, that's all. You don't think I'm feeling the pinch? Even with online discounts, half the rooms here are empty. It's not your fault, Criss, so don't take it personally."
The bartender set Criss' Martini on a coaster before him. Frustrated over the lack of ticket sales for his show, Criss picked up the glass and drained it in one swallow. "If only there was something I can do to get people coming in again," he mused.
Felix laughed a little. "When you do find something, let me know," he said. "I'd like to hear it."
He patted Criss' shoulder. "Cheer up, Criss. Things will get better soon, just you wait and see. In the meantime, you still got your health, and you still got your family. And you still got your room here at the Luxor, which is better than some people who are losing their homes to foreclosure. You're luckier than you think, Criss. Just keep that in mind when you're down."
Criss looked up at Felix and smiled. "Thanks, Felix."
"Buy you another drink?" Felix asked.
Criss shook his head. "No, no, I'd better not," he replied. "I don't want to drown my sorrows in booze. Like you said, I got my health, and if the economy tanks any furthur, I'd like to keep that as long as I can."
The phone rang in the Piccucci household that evening. Pamela set down her paperback novel and answered it. "Hello?"
"Mrs. Piccucci?" a timid girl's voice came from the other end.
"This is Casey Worth, Mr. Piccucci's caregiver. I hope I'm not bothering you."
"Oh, no, Casey, not at all. How may I help you?"
"Well, I usually get paid on Fridays for caring for Mr. Piccucci, and now that he's...you know...I was wondering how I was going to claim my last paycheck. Shall I pick it up at the house, or have you mail it to me? I can give you my address if you want."
"Now don't worry about a thing, Casey," Pamela assured her. "I'll have Mike pay you at the house. He has to go there anyway to straighten out the details of the estate. Just go there tomorrow during the day and pick it up." In a burst of magnaminity she added, "And since you took such good care of Mike's father, I'll have him leave you a bonus."
"That's very generous of you, Mrs. Piccucci."
"Oh, it's nothing, nothing at all," Pamela said airily. "You earned it. And we'll make sure to give you a good reference as well."
"Thank you, Mrs. Piccucci."
"You're welcome, Casey. Good-bye."
"'Bye, Mrs. Piccucci."
Pamela hung up the phone. Her husband entered the bedroom, wearing nothing but a thin dressing gown. "Who was that?" he asked gruffly.
"Your dad's caretaker, Casey What's-her-name," she replied. "She wants her last paycheck. I told her you'd have it ready at the house tomorrow."
Michael, Jr., grunted.
"I promised her a bonus as well," Pamela continued. "And a good reference."
"How much of a bonus?"
"I didn't give an exact figure, but after putting up with your dad all these years, the poor girl deserves something. And anyway, we can afford it now. You won't forget, now, will you, darling?"
Michael, Jr., grunted again. Pamela set down her book in disgust. "Mike, for heaven's sake, will you please stop grunting like a pig and give a straight answer for once?"
"Okay, fine!" he snapped. "I'll remember to pay the damn caretaker! Now get off my back, willya!"
"Well, sorreeee! Excuse me for living!"
Michael, Jr., stormed out of the bedroom and into his own. For the past four years, the Piccuccis had been sleeping in separate rooms, since one king-sized bed proved not to be big enough for both of them. The same went for cars, bathrooms and vacations. Only money held them together, though they fought over it constantly. Michael, Jr., knew that Pamela could take him to the cleaners in a divorce suit with the help of a good lawyer due to the common property laws in the Southwest, but he could give back as well as he got in a lawsuit. Greed held them together while at the same time it drove them apart.
Take the money and run. Those words repeated themselves over and over again inside his brain. Go on, take the money and run. It sang in his head, though he couldn't remember the artist who sang it. Some time in the Seventies, but who? Oh, well, it didn't matter who recorded that song, but it was good advice as far as he was concerned. Ten o'clock tomorrow morning he'd be a free man, and to hell with Pamela and the rest of the world. Go on, take the money and run! Ah-ooh Lord! Go on, take the money and run!
Ten o'clock AM, read the giant clock over the skyscraper where the offices of Bruin, Close, LLC, were housed. The plate-glass window of the executive conference room overlooked the fabled Las Vegas Strip, but no one present had any desire to take in the view. Tina LaRue Piccucci, her daughter, Heather, Michael, Jr., Pamela and Springs were tensely awaiting the reading of Mick's will. The atmosphere was more like a Mexican standoff than a simple gathering of friends and relatives to discuss the disposition of an estate. No one spoke, just glared daggers at one another.
I'm the only heir here, Michael, Jr., communicated mentally to the others. Why the hell should any of you be here? You're just setting yourselves up for a big disappointment.
You think you're gonna get it all, huh, Junior? Tina sneered inwardly. Think again, big boy! Heather and I aren't leaving this room until we get what's ours!
This is gonna get ugly, Springs thought. No matter who gets it, it's gonna get ugly. Even if Mick doesn't leave me a dime, I'm gonna make sure that (bleep) doesn't get her meathooks into that money! It's Junior's, and that's all there is to it.
Everyone looked up as the side door of the executive boardroom suddenly swung open. "Sorry I'm late folks," Richard Close apologized breathlessly. "Okay, let's get started, shall we?"
All eyes were focused on the slim manila folder in Richard's hand. He opened it and took out the official looking document inside, then sat down to read it. The room was silent, save for the annoying hum of the flourescent lighting above their heads.
"I, Michael Antonio Piccucci, Sr., being of sound mind, etc., do hereby make my last will and testament, all previous wills null and void. To the following, I bequeath my estate."
Tina gripped her Gucci handbag in anticipation. Michael, Jr., held his breath. Springs braced himself for the worst.
"To my friend and business partner, Daniel William Springer, I bequeath the sum of five hundred thousand dollars."
Both sides of the Piccucci family turned to Springs, who responded with a contented smile and a satisfied shrug. I knew Mick wouldn't forget me, he thought. Five hundred grand--I can live with that.
"The remainder of my estate: money, property holdings, accounts, personal property, stocks, bonds, and etc., totalling eight million nine hundred and ninety seven dollars..."
That's almost nine million! Michael, Jr., calculated. The old man was richer than I thought!
Eight million nine hundred something? Tina was elated. I'll be set for life!
"...I bequeath to my caregiver, Casey Worth, and make her my sole heir to my estate."
Michael, Jr., felt as if he had been sucker-punched. Tina's heavily made-up jawline dropped to cleavage level. Pamela gasped for air. Springs shook with suppressed laughter. "Could you repeat that again?" Michael, Jr., requested in disbelief.
"The remainder of my estate: money, property holdings--"
"Not that part!" Michael, Jr. shouted angrily. "The other half!"
"I bequeath to my caregiver, Casey Worth, and make her my sole heir to my estate."
Tina shot up from her chair and snatched the will. She flipped through the pages furiously, searching for any mention of her or her daughter and finding none. "That son of a (bleep)!" she exploded. "After all I did for him!"
"You mean making his life miserable?" Michael, Jr. retorted. "Can't say I blame him."
"What about us?" Pamela demanded. "Mike's his only son! He's the one who should get the estate, not some little nurse who emptied his dad's bedpan every day!"
"Look, Mick wanted to leave everything to Casey, all right?" Close said in exasperation. "I didn't have anything to do with it except draft it. It was his decision, not mine. If you want to contest it--"
"You're damn right we're gonna contest it!" Tina screamed at him. "And I ain't gonna quit until I get what's mine!"
"Oh, you're gonna get yours all right, honey!" Pamela sneered. "We'll fight you all the way to the (bleeping) Supreme Court if we have to, but you're not getting a single penny from this estate!"
"Have it your way, (bleep)!" Tina shot back. "I'll see all of you in court! And that little (bleep) Casey, too!"
Tina grabbed Heather and stormed out of the room. Michael, Jr., turned to Close. "You screwed me over, Rich," he said. "You knew damn well that estate was supposed to go to me."
"Like I said, it wasn't my decision to make," Close protested. "You want to contest it, go right ahead."
"All right, fine!" Michael, Jr., retorted. "I'll do that!"
He strode out of the boardroom, Pamela in tow. Close breathed a sigh of relief, glad he still had his hide. Springs sat in his chair, chuckling. "Looks like you got a scrap on your hands there, Rich," he said.
Close could only nod in weary agreement.
A battered Chevy van, noticably out of place among the late model cars parked in the driveway of the Piccucci manor, pulled up discreetly to the curb, as if ashamed to be seen there. Casey Worth emerged from the passenger side. "I'll be right back, Mom," she said, "I won't be long."
She shut the van door and ran up the brick walkway up to the front door. The doorbell echoed like a death knell throughout the empty house. She waited patiently for someone to answer. She peeked through the narrow side window to see if anyone was coming. Sure enough, she saw Mr. Piccucci's son striding up to the front door. Casey respectfully backed away a few steps.
The heavy door flew open. Michael, Jr., glared irritably at Casey.
"Hello, Mr. Piccucci," Casey said cheerfully. "I'm here to pick up my paycheck."
It was all Michael, Jr., could do to keep from strangling the woman who usurped his inheritance. Without another word, he stormed away from the front door and into the office, picked up Casey's pay envelope, and strode back to the foyer. He thrust the plain white envelope into her face. "Here!" he said. "Now get out!"
The heavy door slammed shut. Casey wondered what she had said to offend him as she made her way back to her mother's van. She had only done what Mrs. Piccucci had told her to do. What was wrong with Mr. Piccucci all of a sudden?
As her mother drove her to her job at the Luxor Hotel, Casey told her about Mr. Piccucci's cold shouldering. Her mother patted her on the knee. "Now, don't let it bother you, Honey," she said. "It's not anything you did. They're just going through a rough patch right now; it's always like that after a death in the family. Anyway, you got your money and that's all that matters. We can pay the bills and get some groceries. And don't worry, you'll get another job somewhere. People always need someone to care for a sick relative, and you got good references. We'll come out of this just fine, don't worry. In the meantime, you got your cleaning job. That'll tide us over for a while."
"Why won't Benny get a job?" Casey pouted. "He's thirty-two, for God's sake! He should be working and living on his own."
"Your brother just hasn't had any luck, that's all," her mother replied. "Times are tough all over."
"He hasn't had any luck because he won't get off his ass and find a job!" Casey said irritably. "All he does is sit on the couch and watch TV. If we cancelled the cable, he wouldn't have an excuse to loll around all day. And we'd save money, too."
"Now, you know how much your dad likes television," her mother admonished her. "He can't go out and do much since he's been on disability."
"It's just that I'm tired of being the breadwinner, that's all."
"I've been helping out some, ain't I? I got that job at the liquor store."
"Yeah, but you barely work enough to pay for the cable bill, let alone support the family. I'm twenty-eight years old, Ma. I want to get on with my own life--have a career, get married, have a family of my own. Instead, I'm stuck supporting you, Dad and Benny--especially Benny, that overgrown kid who won't lift a finger except to use the remote!"
Ma said nothing, just drove on. She didn't blame Casey for feeling the way she did. Ever since Phil went on disability five years ago and she herself had been laid off at the factory, her youngest child had become the sole provider for the family. Benny, however, had been an underachiever practically from birth; his grades were seldom above C level, he never went out for sports, he had no ambition in life except TV, beer, and going out to topless bars. No matter how much she nagged and nagged him to get a job, he never made the slightest effort to make any contribution to the household. In time, he was virtually part of the furniture.
The giant black pyramid loomed into view, the enormous banner advertising Criss Angel's Believe show covering half the front of it. Ma let Casey out by the curb; it wouldn't do to have the family's rickety old van pull up to the valet drive. Casey kissed her mother good-bye as she clambered out of the passenger seat. The van pulled away while Casey ran to the service entrance (employees were prohibited from using the front entrance when reporting for work). The encounter with Mr. Piccucci, Jr., was forgotten. Ma was right--the family was going through a rough patch with the death in the family. Well, it was none of her concern anymore. She would no longer have anything to do with the Piccucci family ever again.
"All right, this is the Presidential Suite," Rosario, the supervising housekeeper, informed Casey authoritativly as she led her inside. "The hotel's biggest star, Criss Angel, lives up here. Not everyone is allowed up here, even the staff, unless they have official business here. There are a lot of valuable things in this suite, so be extra careful when you are cleaning. Any reports of theft and you will be fired. Understood?"
Casey was astonished at the sight of the enormous suite, filled with arcade sized video game consoles, model trains, awards and other luxuries. She quickly snapped back to attention in a moment. "Oh, yes, ma'am," she agreed eagerly. "I promise I won't steal or break a thing!"
Rosario nodded approvingly. "Good. Now, you start on the bathroom. Remember what I taught you: start from the top down, polish all the fixtures, and don't forget to do the mirrors."
"Yes, ma'am," Casey replied obediantly as she picked up her cleaning equipment and headed for the bathroom. Rosario picked up her duster and swept it across the furniture with professional ease. Casey, meanwhile, had found the bathroom and entered cautiously, not knowing what to expect in such a sumptuous suite. The first thing she laid eyes on, however, made her want to giggle, for there in the marble basin a gray and white tabby cat lounged lazily, its graceful tail flicking idly.
Casey suppressed her amusement. "Well, hello, there!" she cooed. "Aren't you a pretty kitty?"
The cat looked at her in typical feline indifference. Casey scooped it up. "Well, you can't stay here," she told him, "'cause I got to clean the bathroom." She petted the animal's sleek head affectionatly. "You are soooo cute! Yes, you are!"
She gave the cat a kiss and carried it to the bedroom. "Now you wait here like a good kitty, okay?"
The cat curled up in the rumpled bedclothes and dozed. Casey went back into the bathroom and got to work. Well, I guess Criss Angel isn't such a bad sort if he likes cats, she thought.
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