“I am sorry; I tried to run from my inescapable fate. I should have stayed with you,” Angelina confessed, placing the bruised hand to her cheek. “I was foolish, and for that, you suffered his abuse.”
An intolerable pain filled her heart as the memories of the past month played in her mind. This was not the homecoming she wanted, but ‘wants’ did not matter anymore; only ‘musts’ and ‘needs’ reached the level of priority.
“But, my dear,” Angelina sniffled, “You are not the only one who has paid a heavy price. In our time apart, I, too, have suffered.”
The piercing gaze from the crucifix hanging above the bed fed the festering guilt in her soul. With a sigh, Angelina bowed her head.
“I have done horrible things. Things that God cannot forgive.”
Her heart ached to confess her sins to the priest who presided down the hall. The freedom from confessing could help soothe Angelina’s wounds, but so much had transpired since the massacre that stole her brothers from her. What she witnessed that morning, what she suffered that night, what she had done since were perpetual evils that lurked in Angelina’s every thought. The tug-of-war between her mind and her soul battled over the permanency of every sin’s stain. Each monstrous act carved a black mark into her soul and slowly consumed her. Not even holy water, blessed by the Pope, could cleanse her bloodstained soul. She was a sinner now, just like the wolves that tore the flesh of her family apart.
“I am not the sweet, innocent girl you knew,” Angelina confessed as a flood of emotions surfaced. “They made me a wolf,” she blubbered as she pounded her chest. “They made me a wolf just like them!”
Angelina had lost so much, but she had not allowed herself the time to grieve, to cry for the souls lost, including her own. Now, in the peaceful sanctuary, as the chapel bell tolled in the distance, Angelina released her pain. Frothing at the mouth, lungs gasping for air, and tears blurring her vision, the full depth of her aggression forced a growl from her vocal cords. The unearthly noise left its mark of pain in her throat, and she fell into a bout of silent sobs as she remembered the acts that changed her life.
She removed a white lace handkerchief from her sleeve and cleared away the stains from her temporary collapse of emotions. By the final gong of the nearby chapel bell, Angelina had tucked her feelings and her handkerchief away.
“I will not give the wolves the satisfaction,” Angelina mumbled. “My soul is still filled with love and compassion.”
With a sigh, she brushed a strand of hair from the swollen eye and exposed another long gash. Angelina bit at her free hand to suppress the overwhelming urge to curse the bastards who inflicted these wounds. She snarled, and her nostrils flared as her gaze swept down the body entombed in white linen.
“They will pay for this! For all of this! I will make them suffer!”
As much as she hated the anger within her blackened heart, she despised the men who conjured the evil demons into her life. They soiled her flesh and tainted her soul, damning her to a life of hell.
“I am so sorry for who I am now,” Angelina intoned. “Perhaps, God put you here, so you would not see what I have become. But what I have become is a necessity. It pains my heart that we cannot seek vengeance side by side. I promise, with all my being, I will savor it enough for both of us!”
Angelina placed a kiss on the battered hand before tucking it under the white linen.
“Someday, we will be together again. Until then, I give you my love.”
One Month Earlier
As a mafia boss, Maximus Fiori rarely allowed time for his ego to bask in material forms of vanity, but today was a special day. With a sigh of satisfaction, he leaned back in the leather chair, propped his feet on his ornate desk, and admired the expensive décor within the polished walls of his spacious office. His eyes roamed around the room, noting each finery. The hand-carved furniture, gold coasters, ivory statues, fresh-cut flowers, and the collection of Waterford Crystal, dancing with the sun’s golden beams, warmed the room. The recessed bookcases held copies of the greatest novels ever written. His favorites, Pragmatism, by William James, Enchiridion, by Epictetus, and Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, encouraged mindfulness of the ramification of his choices. But today, what held his attention the most were the three famous paintings adorning the walls.
As he recalled a humorous conversation about the paintings, Maximus leaned further back in his chair.
“Any guess why I picked Ruben’s, Consequences of War?” Maximus asked his top captain, Freddy.
Freddy, looking up at the terrified faces in the painting, shook his head.
“Boss, I don’t know any cat named Ruben.”
“Ruben was a proponent of peace.”
“He has an odd way of showing it,” Freddy quipped.
Maximus laughed, “Yes, it looks like chaos.”
He watched Freddy’s eyes flit from the naked woman pulling at the arm of a man in a red cloak.
“That is Venus. She is trying to stop Mars, the ‘god of war.’ Alecto is the man next to Mars,” Maximus explained. “Alecto’s job is to punish the moral crimes of humans.”
“With what we do, Boss isn’t that...” Freddy’s hand swooshed in the air to conjure the right word. “You know. Odd!”
“Does it make you feel guilty?”
“I do what I must,” Freddy puffed his chest.
“For me, it is a reminder that there are limits, lines you never cross. When you do, you provoke chaos, uncontrollable chaos,” Maximus added before sipping from his glass of bourbon.
Maximus introduced Freddy to each painting as they walked around the room.
“This is La Primavera, by Botticelli,” Maximus said, pointing at the second painting. “The Medici dynasty adopted the orange grove as a symbol of family.”
“Who’s the dame in the middle,” Freddy asked, “Is that the Blessed Mother?”
“No, that is Venus.”
Maximus chuckled, leave it to Freddy to turn a dry chat into a humorous tête-à-tête.
“Well, when you are the goddess of love, sex, and beauty, you get a lot of attention.”
Freddy raised his glass. “To the beautiful ladies who give us sex!”
Maximus grinned and joined the salute. “And for any that could love us.”
“You handsome cats get women to love you. My face, only a mother could love!”
Maximus chuckled and patted his friend on the shoulder.
“Here, it is said, she represents the benevolence of men.”
“In our line of work, are we considered ‘benevolent’ men?”
With a raised eyebrow, Maximus replied, “probably not.”
“So, who painted the one above your desk?”
“Sounds like a good Italian name.”
“In this painting, the dragon is a devil that plagued the town. First, it ate the livestock, then began feasting on the people. His next victim is the king’s daughter,” Maximus explained. “That is St. George on the horse with his spear in the dragon's head. Does St. George look intimidating?”
“If it intimidates you, even a little, I have excelled in my intent!”
“Nice play, hanging it behind your desk, like a warning. Bet it helps swing the negotiations to your favor.”
“How astute of you,” Maximus winked.
“Per conoscere un furbo, ci vuole un furbo e mezzo. To recognize a fox, it takes a fox and a half!”
Maximus raised his glass and tipped his head.
“Dove non sono i cani, la volpe è re. Where there are no dogs, the fox is king!”
With a clink of their glasses, they cheered, “salute,” in unison, and drained the last of the golden caramel liquid.
As Maximus finished his tale of St. George, Freddy made them another drink, occasionally nodding as he listened to his Boss.
“St. George’s reward for slaying the beast was the hand of the king's only daughter.”
“It is always about a woman, Boss,” Freddy chuckled. “Always about a woman.”
The memory of his conversation with Freddy made Maximus chuckle. Freddy’s loyalty, wit, and unique perspective made him Maximus’s favorite. With a sigh, he ran his hand through his hair. He had come a long way from that day with Freddy. But Maximus’s life had yet to reach a level of satisfaction. He still yearned for something more.
Maximus gazed about the room again. Each item pulled back a memory along his path. The casual jaunt through the past decade surfaced pleasant events and ones he wished he could forget.
The stench of World War II was fading, giving a much-needed respite from death and poverty. Now that peace reigned, people could enjoy the spoils of victory, and Maximus had done his part to earn an enormous pile of cash.
To the displeasure of his parents, Maximus built his empire with strategic steps that started in Italy and continued in Kansas City. Yet, hard work and determination were not the only things that helped Maximus reach his level of power. He would never admit it, but one man hastened his ascent to the top. Although meeting Peter Berg at Harvard may have been luck, their friendship was the catalyst for Maximus’s success.
For three summers, while his parents traveled the world, Peter came to Kansas City to stay with Maximus’s family. By the time they graduated from Harvard, the two men’s friendship had grown into a brotherhood. Both men were driven, intelligent, and strong-willed. Even with their headstrong ways, they only fought about one thing. That one thing, however, turned out to be what caused a massive divide between them.
“You don’t respect me, do you?” Peter quarreled.
“That is not true, Peter, and you damn well know it!”
“Then, why? Give me one good reason your answer is no?”
A gentle knock broke Maximus’s reverie, pulling him back to a professional posture.
“Yes, come in.”
“Sorry to bother you, Mr. Fiori, but this telegram says urgent!” Clara said, peeking her head around the door.
“I have been expecting it.”
With a wave of Maximus’s hand, Clara entered the room, tugging on her tight, gray pencil skirt.
Maximus rolled his eyes and groaned.
Clara moved across the floor with the intended gait of a seasoned runway model. Each wobbly step on the four-inch stilettoes was proof she was nothing close. The ultra-thin spikes beneath her heels barely supported her long legs, much less her massive boobs, which threatened to escape her low-cut blouse. At the end of her self-imposed runway, Clara leaned over his desk, providing a perfect view of her cleavage.
Maximus hired Clara as part of a business agreement with her father. On her first day, when she arrived in a short skirt and low-cut blouse, Maximus regretted the arrangement. Clara was the bait in her father’s trap to gain leverage over Maximus. By falling prey to her seduction, Maximus would become vulnerable. Firing her would violate the terms of the agreement, costing him a sizeable sum of money, and Clara’s father would punish her. Her termination was not worth the price either would pay, so Maximus kept her as his secretary.
“Miss Clara, this is the third time we have discussed your appearance,” Maximus growled, snatching the telegram from her tiny hand. “You have only worked for me for a month. Make this the last time we discuss your attire. Unless being fired is your goal!”
Clara’s face went bright red, tears welled in her eyes, and her bottom lip quivered.
“Are you dressing like a tramp because you want to, or are you following your father’s instructions?”
“Mr. Fiori... I... Um... I.…”
Miss Clara’s thin form trembled as Maximus’s dark eyes roved across her body. Her beauty was not natural, she needed the makeup and provocative attire to accent her only arousing feature, her tits. In a bar, men would fight for her attention just for the chance to fondle them. With enough alcohol, he too might make his bid for the same reason.
Maximus undressed her with his eyes. Had she an ass, he would consider bending her over the desk.
“Do you want me to fuck you? Perhaps bury my head in your tits. Or would you prefer I force myself on you?”
While Maximus waited for a reply, he tapped the telegram against his desk, but Clara was speechless.
“You are an easy target, Miss Clara. Your father plays a game of kings. He will never stop using you as a pawn. Do you want to fall in love, marry a man who appreciates you as someone more than a set of great tits?”
As her tears grew, Clara bit her lip, “I want to fall in love.”
“Your employment with me will help you gain experience and improve your skills as a secretary. I want you to go to school. Become an educated woman and marry an educated man!”
“I will take care of the cost of school and help you with a schedule. I will deal with any interference from your father. Become someone, Miss Clara. It is the only way to break this abusive cycle.”
With a wave of his hand, Maximus dismissed his secretary. He stretched his neck and drew a deep breath before turning his attention to the long-awaited telegram from Rosario Beretta. As a child, Maximus heard the stories about the man who saved his father’s life. The stories of Rosario Beretta made Maximus consider him a hero. During a recent visit to Northern Italy, Maximus offered Rosario a lucrative business opportunity. Today’s telegram from Rosario was to accept or deny the offer.
A tingle of excitement zoomed up Maximus’s spine as he unfolded the telegram.
“Ah, the sugar that will make today sweeter than the rest. How is life in sunny Italy, Signore Beretta?”
His hands trembled as he stared at the words on the parchment. This was not the response Maximus expected.
A vivid memory of Rosario Beretta sitting nervously across a small table outside Anna’s Café in Alessandria filled Maximus’s mind.
“I know this is hard for you,” Maximus postulated.
“Is it that obvious?” Rosario quipped.
“You are doing fine, do not worry. I have made sure no one is watching us. You are safe.”
“It is not me I worry about; it is my family.”
“I understand,” Maximus replied. “Perhaps, if you take a step back. Focus on the benefit of this endeavor.”
As Maximus replayed the conversation with Rosario, an immense pressure grew in his chest. Without hesitation, Maximus had dismissed the man’s concern for his family by insinuating the financial gain outweighed any risk. As the oxygen left Maximus’s lungs, the symbolism of Consequences of War prevented him from inhaling.
“Alecto punishes the moral crimes of humans,” Maximus chastised himself.
Each letter intensified the searing pain from Alecto’s sharp dagger as it plunged deep into Maximus’s heart. Guilt replaced the joy and eagerness he felt that morning. Maximus’s greed put Alecto to work and caused the death of innocent people.
“I promised to protect you,” Maximus mumbled.
Five minutes ago, Maximus was basking in his wealth. A greedy dragon, rolling in the mountainous piles of gold. Every aspect of good in Maximus’s life faded, along with his warm olive complexion as he conjured a vision of the bloody tragedy.
Berettas attacked. All sons murdered. Daughters survived. Orders?
Maximus released a growl of fury and slammed his hand against the desk.
“A man’s family is sacred unless you want a war! Even I abide by this unspoken rule!”
Don Salvatore was the only one ruthless enough to create this level of destruction. At his meeting with Rosario in Alessandria, Maximus promised to prevent any attack by the tyrant. As he crushed the telegram in his hand, Maximus’s guilt turned to anger.
“You want a war, Don Salvatore? I will bring it to you, and I will crush you!”
Maximus paced the floor to collect his thoughts. He calmed his fury.
“Anger blinds a man from wisdom,” he reminded himself.
Maximus would go to war with Don Salvatore, but Rosario’s daughters were still in danger. Any reaction would cause more bloodshed. Out of respect for Rosario, Maximus felt a strong obligation to secure their safety. With reluctance, Maximus sighed, retribution would have to wait until the daughters were safe.
“Yes, sir?” her voice quivered.
“Get Peter Berg on the line. Then call Figgy. If he does not answer, keep calling until he does!”
Maximus fondled the coins in his pocket while pacing across the hardwood floor. The click of his shoes blended into a rhythmic union with the coins as his plan formed. Maximus was sure Peter could supply what he needed; the challenge was convincing him to help.
“I have Mr. Berg on the line, Mr. Fiori.”
Maximus did not respond to Clara. He sat in his chair, picked up the receiver, and did what he did best, take control.