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A sullen angry crew was gathered in the meeting room of Frank Spinoza's penthouse at the Gold Rush Hotel-Casino. Spinoza, cautious underneath his best ingratiating smile, rode the headspot at a massive conference table, Paulie Vaccarelli at his right shoulder for support. The rest were ranged around the table, muttering among themselves. Frank Spinoza could have cut the tension with a meat ax. On his left sat Johnny Cats, the man from Cleveland, with his able second, Tom Guarini.

Beyond the Midwest delegation Larry Liguori was holding forth for Chicago, pausing now and then to confer with his strong right arm, Mike Teresa.

And opposite the others, set deliberately apart from them on Spinoza's right, was Julio DePalma, sole ranking survivor of Minotte's Southern contingent. His forehead was bandaged with gauze and adhesive tape, giving his oval face a bulky look. He was flanked by two unsmiling hardmen who refused to sit, remaining on their stations at parade rest like a pair of guards outside Buckingham Palace. Julio DePalma clearly was not taking any chances, even in the company of friends.

"I promise you, there will be action taken," Frank Spinoza told the small assemblage.

"Yeah?" Liguori challenged him. "When's that?"

Spinoza spread his hands, a gesture meant to be effusive, which instead made him look helpless.

"As soon as the commission has a chance to meet and talk things over."

Liguori made a disgusted face.

"A chance my ass. My people have been asking for a meet the past six months and all we get is, "Later, later." Now it's "later," and we got a shooting war, but still no sit-down." He looked around at the others, appealing to them. "I don't know about the rest of you but I'm sick of waiting on New York."

Johnny Cats chimed in at that.

"Damn straight. I don't need anybody two thousand miles away to help me handle Kuwahara and his group. I say we hit the bastards now, today, before we wake up dead some morning."

A general murmur of assent ran around the conference table, washing back at Spinoza like an angry surf. He raised his voice to make it heard above the rumble.

"Wait a second. We're not a bunch of punks who run around and just start whacking people left and right. We're organized. We've got a system."

"That's fine," Liguori countered, "if it works."

"It'll work," Spinoza told him sharply, glaring. "Give it time, Larry."

"Time? Give it time, Frank?" Liguori looked incredulous. "Six damn months..."

Guarini interrupted Liguori.

"You're all out of time, Frank."

Spinoza cocked an eyebrow, feigning surprise as he stared down his nose at the Cleveland consigliere who had spoken out of turn.

"You speaking for the family now, Tom?"

"He speaks for me," Johnny Cats responded, his voice a rumble from inside his barrel chest.

Spinoza shrugged.

"Well, then — you both surprise me. I thought Cleveland had some legs."

"We've got legs," Catalanotte said, bristling. "And I'm not waiting for some lousy Jap to cut them off around the ankles." He leaned across the table toward Spinoza, index finger pointed like a pistol barrel. "I won't let anybody sneak up on my blind side like they did with Bobby, rest his soul."

"A goddamn sneak attack," Liguori blurted out. "Pearl Harbor in the frigging desert."

Spinoza raised his hands again, trying to quiet the uproar with an effort.

"Take it easy, everybody. The commissioners aren't sitting on their hands. No one has anything to worry about."

Johnny Cats snorted.

"Tell that to Bob Minotte, Frank."

"Minotte was..."

"He was set up, goddammit!"

Julio DePalma had been listening to the hot exchange, and now he could contain himself no longer.

Lurching to his feet, he overturned his chair and the two flankers had to step aside as it flew backward, grazing one of them on its way to the carpet. Every eye was on DePalma as he leaned across the conference table, supported on one hand, shaking the other fist at Frank Spinoza.

"Kuwahara's chopsticks set him up and knocked him over while his good friends sat back watching."

Spinoza fought to control the anger rising in his throat.

"We all know how you feel..."

"You don't know shit, Spinoza. Me, I'm not forgetting Bob Minotte. And my people aren't forgetting, either. We're remembering who iced him, and who let it happen."

"You need a rest there, Julio," Spinoza replied stiffly. "You're talking crazy."

"Am I, Frank?" DePalma's voice was balanced on the thin edge of hysteria. "You think so? Maybe you should think about some short-term life insurance."

Spinoza felt the color flooding his cheeks as he faced the rival mafioso, and The Man's words echoed in his head.

Keep the lid on, Frank. We're counting on you. He said, "I'll write that off to your condition, Julio."

"Oh, yeah? Well, write this off, you..."

DePalma came for him, had actually begun the move, when something struck the giant plate-glass window on Spinoza's left. The thick pane shivered, shattered, coming down in a sheet of glistening shards around them, jagged pieces of glass bouncing on the deep-shag carpet, some of them rebounding off the tabletop and causing men to flinch.

But every eye was on the shattered window now, no longer captured by DePalma's rush. Even DePalma himself was staring dumbfounded at the mess, his fists half-raised.

"Well, what the..."

It was Johnny Cats. Spinoza recognized the voice despite its strangled tone and Mr. Cleveland never got the sentence finished. Because something strange was happening to Julio DePalma. One instant he was standing there, both hands raised as if he had been wakened in the middle of a boxer's nightmare, then he underwent a ghastly transformation right before the gaping eyes of the assemblage.

Julio's face was folding in upon itself, imploding, teeth and lips and nose and all sucked inward as if someone might have pulled the plug and all of him was going down some hideous internal drain. His skull appeared to mushroom outward, bits and pieces of it spinning off in free-flight, spattering the hardmen who still flanked him, staining them with viscous crimson streamers.

DePalma vaulted backward, going through the motions of a sloppy somersault and touching down upon the carpet in a sodden heap. He shuddered once and then was still, no single tremor of vitality remaining in his flaccid form.

Spinoza was still gaping at the carcass on his rug when one of DePalma's hardmen gave a strangled cry and raised both hands to clasp his face. But he was much too late to catch it now as flesh and bone and blood exploded in a pink halo, the compression spinning him around and draping him across the fallen chair once occupied by Julio DePalma. Only then did Frank Spinoza hear the rifle fire, his conscious mind at last connecting visual and auditory input to complete the picture, danger warnings flashing in his mind with neon-bright intensity.

He pushed off from the table, saw the others moving for the cover of the table, of the walls, and on the way down there was just the briefest impression that another body had touched down on the periphery of his vision. Julio's other hardman, sure, and he was wallowing along the carpet now with red geysers spouting from his severed jugular where steel had triumphed over yielding flesh.

Spinoza felt the carpet on his face, a worm's-eye view with giant furniture surrounding him on every side. He closed his eyes and burrowed down, willing the floor to open up and swallow him alive, to hide him from the rolling thunderclaps and wrenching screams that rang inside his skull.

They were under fire, goddarnmit. Someone out there had the sheer audacity to fire on him, on all of them.

And in the inner sanctum of his empire, yet.

Liguori's words came back to him: "A goddamn sneak attack. Pearl Harbor in the frigging desert." Spinoza hugged the floor and prayed for daylight, for salvation, reaching in his mind for some forgotten god or anything that could transport him far away from there and on to safety. Overhead, his answer was the rolling thunder of a biggame rifle.

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