The meeting place was the tip-off. Tessio loved that place. Which meant that most likely he'd contacted Barzini himself and that either he or Barzini had set up a hit on Michael, which Michael had somehow anticipated.
Geraci poked the T-bones with a long steel spatula. "You want me there for protection," he said, "or at the table or what?"
"That was a hell of a long pause."
"Sorry. Had to get some steaks off the grill here."
"I know what you're worried about, Fausto, but not why."
Did he mean Geraci had nothing to worry about? Or that he was trying to figure out what if any role Geraci had played in Tessio's betrayal? "Well, pilgrim," Geraci answered, in his best John Wayne, "I ain't so much worried as I am saddle sore and plum tuckered out."
Geraci sighed. "Even in the best of times I'm a worrier." He felt a tide of gallows humor rise in him, though he spoke flatly: "So shoot me."
"That's why you're so good," Michael said. "The worrying. It's why I like you."
"Then you'll forgive me if I point out the obvious," Geraci said, "and tell you to take a route there you'd never ordinarily take. And also to avoid Flatbush."
Now it was Michael's turn for a long pause. "Flatbush, huh? How do you figure that?"
"Of course," Michael said.
"The Dodgers. Second game of a twin bill with Philadelphia."
"Right," Michael said.
Geraci lit a cigarette. "Not a baseball fan, eh?"
"Used to be."
Geraci wasn't surprised. Seeing the business side of gambling ruined sports for a lot of the smarter guys. "This could be the Bums' year," Geraci said.
"That's what I keep hearing," Michael said. "And of course you're forgiven."
"For pointing out the obvious."
Geraci lifted the steaks off the grill and onto a platter. "It's a gift I have," he said.
An hour later, Geraci arrived at Two Toms with four of his men and positioned them outside. He took a seat alone and sipped an espresso. He wasn't afraid. Michael Corleone, unlike his brothersthe brutish Sonny and the pathetic Fredohad inherited the old man's deliberate nature. He wouldn't order a hit on a hunch. He'd make sure, no matter how long it took. Whatever test was coming, however galling it was to be tested by the likes of Michael Corleone, Nick Geraci would respond with honor. He was confident he'd emerge unscathed.
Though he'd never heard Salvatore Tessio say a bad word about Michael, Geraci didn't doubt that Sally had thrown in with Barzini. He had to be angry about the nepotism that made a Don out of a greenhorn like Michael. He had to see the folly of cutting the organization off from its neighborhood roots to move west and becomewhat? Geraci had taken over countless once-thriving neighborhood businesses built by industrious, illiterate immigrant fathers and ruined by American-born sons with business degrees and dreams of expansion.
Geraci checked his watch, a college graduation gift from Tessio. Michael certainly hadn't inherited the late Don's legendary punctuality. Geraci ordered a second espresso.
Time and time again, Geraci had proven himself a loyal member of the Corleone organization and, still shy of his fortieth birthday, maybe its best earner. Once he'd been a boxer, a heavyweight, both as Ace Geraci (a boy- hood nickname that he let stick, even though it mocked him for acceding to the American pronunciation of his name: Juh-RAY-see instead of Jair- AH-chee) and under numerous aliases (he was Sicilian but fair-haired, able to pass as Irish or German). He'd kept his feet for six rounds against a man who, a few years later, knocked the heavyweight champion of the world on his ass. But Geraci had hung around gyms since he was a little kid. He'd vowed never to become one of those punch-drunk geezers shuffling around smelling of camphor and clutching a little bag of yesterday's doughnuts. He fought for money, not glory. His godfather in Cleveland (who was also, Geraci gradually learned, the Godfather of Cleveland) had connected him with Tessio, who ran the biggest sports gambling operation in New York. Fixed fights meant fewer blows to the head. Soon Geraci was called on to give out back-alley beatings (beginning with two kids who'd assaulted the daughter of Amerigo Bonasera, an undertaker friendly with Vito Corleone). The beatings punished deadbeats and loudmouths who had it coming, and earned Geraci enough money to go to college. Before he was twenty-five, he'd finished his degree, left the enforcer racket, and was a rising man of promise in Tessio's regime. He'd started out with some dubious qualitieshe was the only guy hanging out at the Patrick Henry Social Club who hadn't been born in Brooklyn or Sicily; the only one with a college degree; one of the few who didn't want to carry guns or visit whoresbut the best way to get ahead was to make money for the people above him, and Geraci was such a gifted earner that soon his exotic flaws were forgotten. His most brilliant tactic was to exaggerate his take on every job. He handed over sixty or seventy percent of everything instead of the required fifty. Even if he had been caught, what were they going to do, whack him? It was foolproof. His overpayments were an investment with jackpot-level payouts. The more he made for the men above him, the safer he was and the faster he rose. The higher he rose, the more men there were underneath him paying him fifty percent. And if the greedy morons held out on him, he was smart enough to catch it. It became clear all over New York that there was a difference between getting hit by the toughest guy you ever fought and having your eye socket flattened into a bloody paste by a blow from a former heavyweight prize- fighter. The threat of what Geraci could do became a part of the mythology of the street. Soon he rarely needed to do anything to get his money but ask for it. If that. Intimidation is a better weapon than a fist or a gun.
Excerpted from The Godfather Returns by Mark Winegardner Copyright © 2004 by Mark Winegardner. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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