The Venice Hit by Mark SaFranko
The Venice Hit
by Mark SaFranko
By now Nicodemo was growing bored with shuttling back and forth on the vaporetto. Though he’d tried all the others, most of the time he preferred riding the number one line, which stretched all the way out to the Lido. In either direction the trip seemed to take an eternity, with the boat lurching to all kinds of stops that followed no pattern. It was early July, the height of the tourist season, and as hot as a blast furnace, hotter than it ever felt back in New York — and it could feel pretty damned hot there.
But what could he do about it? His father had always told him that there was nothing you could do about the weather, so just forget it. Besides, he was here to carry out an assignment, and it had turned out to be much tougher than he’d anticipated. For one thing, it didn’t seem to make any sense from the beginning. Couldn’t the organization just get one of its associates on this side of the pond to do the job? No, apparently not. For another, the crowds were suffocating, and it was his job to locate a single man in the sweaty, swirling masses.
At every station he scanned the new faces boarding the boat, but it wasn’t easy with the crowds so thick. Once or twice he thought he’d recognized Scarvuzzi — the man with the contract on his head — sometimes even other people he knew back in America, but quickly realized he was wrong. After a couple of days of this random, fruitless surveillance he’d even come to doubt that Rocco Scarvuzzi was in Venice at all, but every communication from home assured him that it was indeed the case, and to keep hunting until he cornered the rat and retrieved the organization’s money, if there was any left. As for the other part of it — revenge — that went without saying. Mancuso, the boss, had put it this way with a laugh in their last phone conversation before Nicodemo got on the plane: “Think of it as a working holiday in the old country.”
What Mancuso didn’t know –- or care about — was that Nicodemo wasn’t much of a traveller. He had no desire whatsoever to visit the old country.
Nevertheless, he’d first stopped in Palermo, which he’d enjoyed, with its tall palm trees, stunning architecture and seductive blue Mediterranean, then Rome, which he hated on account of its brutal heat and traffic, before being ordered to move on to Venezia. Since Nicodemo wasn’t into computers, he had to take all of his orders by cell phone.
“We got word he’s in Venice….”
“But I thought you said he was in Rome.”
“He moved. He moved yesterday.”
No answer. It meant they were sure. No one in the organization ever wasted words. Besides, it was possible that the conversations were being monitored or recorded or who knows what, and they wanted to get off as soon as possible.
After leaving Rome, he was directed to a cheap hotel in Mestre, just outside of Venice, where he was to stay until something opened up inside the city. The place wasn’t bad, except for a faintly sour smell in the bathroom and his suspicion –- after scratching himself silly in the morning –- that there were bedbugs nesting in the mattress. Worse, there were no decent restaurants anywhere around the hotel, which sat near the river in a moribund business district.
Then he’d lucked out and got himself booked into the Hotel Violino D’Oro when there was a cancellation. Very fortunate, he was told when he checked in, because it was virtually impossible to find a room in Venice once the tourist season was in full swing. But the organization had its ways, Nicodemo knew, which made this excursion all the more baffling. If it could wangle him a room in a five-star hotel, why could it not pull off this operation without having to make him fly across the Atlantic?
But according to New York, they’d maneuvered him close now, very, very close. Scarvuzzi, the slimy louse, had slunk into the city of canals because he thought no one would ever think to look for him there. But the organization’s sources here had the name of a hotel where they thought he might be holed up: the Cavalletto, which wasn’t far from the Rialto.
Nicodemo hustled himself over to the huge lemon-colored lodging and strolled back and forth in front of the front doors. He couldn’t speak a word of Italian aside from “grazie” and “prego” and sometimes he even got those mixed up. Languages — to say the least — weren’t his thing in school, whenever he showed up at all. But he was slick enough to understand that once he asked for a Signor Scarvuzzi at the front desk, he’d be tipping off everyone, including his quarry. After loitering outside for a while, he ducked in and hung around the lobby, hoping to intercept Scarvuzzi before one of the staff inquired whether he could be of any help and told him to move along.
But Scarvuzzi never showed up. How did the weasel manage to come and go without being seen? Maybe he left first thing in the morning and didn’t come back until after midnight? Maybe the organization had the wrong information and he wasn’t here at all?
After sitting in a cushy chair for a couple of hours with an American newspaper, Nicodemo went back into the streets and scoured the hordes in the vicinity of the hotel for him, but still no luck. Then he scurried around the city in widening circles until he began to wonder whether there’d been some kind of mistake and Scarvuzzi had already split.
It would have been so much easier if he could have used a car. You couldn’t live without wheels, even in Manhattan. And so he’d had no choice but to take to the damned vaporetto. Running with perspiration, he rode it hour after hour, sometimes even dozing off when he had a seat near the window and wasn’t forced to move in order to let other passengers in and out of his row. Nicodemo was a large man, nearly three hundred pounds. A stinking hot Venice wasn’t the ideal spot for someone of his girth.
Which made him return again and again to the question of why he’d been the one to draw the assignment to take out Scarvuzzi in the first place. Why would Mancuso send someone like him to a place where he would have to be constantly on his feet in a sauna? The boss might be at the controls of a powerful machine, but he didn’t have a clue about Venice in the dead of summer.
But the pattern continued unchanged. Every night Nicodemo took another phone call from the States. He’s there, they kept assuring him. Just sit tight and keep your eyes peeled — he’s there. It’s only a matter of time. Be ready.
He tried to pry more information out of them, but they kept saying the same few words: He’s there. Be ready.
He knew what those few words signified. It had been discussed before he left New York. And it was one more thing he didn’t quite understand about the assignment, but then he’d never been sent overseas to do a job before. Since security was so tight everywhere in Europe, he hadn’t been able to transport a weapon into Italy, so he’d have to find one there to carry out his orders: that’s what “be ready” meant. Nicodemo thought it was odd that a pickup point for a piece hadn’t been arranged: this was virtually unheard of in the organization, since their tentacles reached all over the world. And that’s why the entire escapade didn’t quite add up. But then lots of things in life didn’t make sense.
He was also reminded that he was one of the few men connected with the organization who was clean — in other words, he didn’t have a police record. He might have fallen under suspicion once or twice, but he’d never even been arrested — for anything. He’d never had to give up his passport. There weren’t many of those. That part did make sense.
He spent an entire afternoon peering into Venetian shop windows and pared his choices down to two: a fancy serrated knife for slicing bread that he spotted in a jewelry store on Salizzada S. Luca, and a fearsome double-edged Crusader dagger displayed in a medieval specialty shop on Calle de Fuseri. He would have gone for a garrote, but he wasn’t at all convinced he could maneuver himself into a position to use it. If his killer didn’t position it just so, a garrote would give Scarvuzzi more of a chance to fight back and maybe even get away. The way Nicodemo saw it, a blade afforded him more possibilities, even if the outcome was likely to be much bloodier. And there would be no escaping for Scarvuzzi once he drove it in. In the end, after weighing the matter carefully, he went for the dagger. It was smaller than the knife, it came with a sheath, and it would be much easier to hide on his person.
He was ready for the moment, if it ever came. But he had his doubts.
One night Nicodemo got a directive from the boss to check the casino. He dressed in his best clothes, including jacket and tie, traveled there by boat, paid his entrance fee and did as he was told. He’d never seen a casino like this before. Compared to what you had in Vegas, and even in Atlantic City, this joint was like a funeral parlor. The help was taciturn, even nasty. It was like they didn’t want you there. At the tables there were hardly any gamblers. He walked slowly past them and the slot machines, closely studying the faces of every man he encountered in the event Scarvuzzi was using some kind of disguise. But again — nothing. The son of a bitch was like a ghost.
Of course Nicodemo knew that Scarvuzzi existed because they’d rubbed shoulders once or twice back in New York and Jersey. He couldn’t even say that he had a bone to pick with the man personally. But you never screwed with the guys at the top, you never messed with their women, and you never, ever stole their money. According to Mancuso, Scarvuzzi had done all three.
Now the boss had Nicodemo Forseca wandering the byways of Venice like the thickest rube. What made it even crazier was that the city was a shock to the senses, like New York to someone who didn’t know which end was up. All that sloshing green water, and the fleets of gondolas swaying in their slips like flocks of lazy geese, and the gondoliers dressed in those faggy outfits — it was like being stranded on another planet. Some people called it magical, with all of its little bridges and squares and dark, romantic corners. But it gave Nicodemo the creeps.
It must have been the fourth or fifth day in, another sweltering afternoon. Nicodemo had grown so weary of foraging Venice for Scarvuzzi that for something completely different he decided instead to follow a woman — a very beautiful woman with only a paperback for company — just to see where she would go. Or maybe something more.
He didn’t admit as much to himself, but he was feeling lonely. He had no intention of trying to pick the lady up, though he needed one, for sure. The women he consorted with back in New York, mostly exotic dancers at gentlemen’s clubs run by the organization, he couldn’t care less about. In fact, those tarts sickened him with their greed and drug habits. He had to be careful in Venice, however. A female
— especially one of the aloof Italian beauties he saw everywhere he turned — could ruin everything. That is, if she’d want anything to do with him in the first place.
She’d boarded Linea 1 all the way back near the port, when he was already making his second loop of the day. She had rich black hair and wore oversized sunglasses and elegant but casual clothes, a tight-fitting cotton jacket and skirt, and sexy gladiator sandals that tied in dainty ribbons around the calves, and while she wasn’t quite as young as so many of the other babes flitting around Venice, there was an elegance about her that the others couldn’t approach. Nicodemo noticed that there were silver rings wrapped around several of her fingers, but none on the third of her left hand. Whether he should infer anything from this, he didn’t know. But he didn’t care. He decided yes, she was the one he would tail, just to break up the numbing, nerve-racking grind of trying to find someone who might not even exist anymore.
The lady seemed to ride the boat forever. Finally, without even looking up from her book, she left her seat when it neared the Basilica of Saint Mark. Nicodemo jumped up and fought his way past the milling, heat-dazed riders and tried to stay a few paces behind her. He hoped that she wouldn’t go anywhere near a church — there were entirely too many around here for his liking — and, thankfully, she didn’t. Instead, she took an empty table outside a swarming bistro.
When the waiter came by she said a few terse words to him in Italian. A few feet away Nicodemo leaned against an ancient sculpture, hands in his pockets, watching and biding his time until an adjacent table vacated.
“Limoncello,” he grunted to the same waiter. The deep rumble of his voice made the lady glance up from her reading. Their gazes collided.
“Pallini?” asked the waiter.
“Yes — si, grazie.”
The cover of her paperback featured, coincidentally, the colorful drawing of a striking young woman seated at a table beside a seaside cafe. Above the illustration were a few Italian words, but naturally Nicodemo couldn’t understand them. Books, like school, weren’t his thing either. He couldn’t say he’d ever actually read one of any kind from cover to cover. A few pages once or twice, but that was about it. He knew from a young age where he was going in life, and books wouldn’t have anything to do with it.
Nicodemo kept glancing at the lady. He didn’t want to come off as a sleazebag, because that’s not what he was. Finally he cleared his throat and their eyes met again.
“Hot. Very hot,” he ventured, fanning his face with his stout fingers, hoping she understood his New Yorkese.
An enigmatic half-smile flashed across the lady’s lovely features. She nodded, her eyes hanging with vague curiosity on his face for a second or two, before she went back to her pages. From somewhere nearby floated the pleasant notes of a saxophone weaving its way through a languorous tango. Nicodemo wondered how anybody could read surrounded by so much commotion and strangeness.
Now what was he supposed to do? For an instant he thought about how different his life would be if he had someone like her, if he lived a quiet, conventional life, if he didn’t do what he actually did for a living. It made him a little sad, thinking of that. But it was crazy to hope that anything like it could ever happen. Just as quickly the vision evaporated.
“You live here, in Venice?”
It was a ridiculous question, he knew it when he asked, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say. And he knew his question had to be something innocuous, something that wouldn’t scare the beautiful lady off. He couldn’t possibly talk to her like he did to the strippers back in New York. The truth was that he hardly spoke to them; a word here or there was all that was needed, and so he had no idea how to address another type of woman.
She ignored Nicodemo, or maybe she never even heard him. He was embarrassed. He could feel the blood rush into his cheeks. But he kept his eyes on her as she read her book and occasionally reached for her cup.
He opened his mouth to say something else when suddenly she pushed her chair back, closed her book, and rushed off. He fumbled in his pockets for Euros — it was so different here, where he knew no one, and where no other good guy was about to pick up his tab or let him have his refreshments on the house — and dropped a few heavy coins that he didn’t bother to count on the table.
He could see the top of the lady’s head as it moved deeper and deeper into the undulating field of tourists on the waterfront. He willed his legs to move faster, but she seemed to effortlessly widen the distance between them. He felt a bit annoyed, even shaken, at not being able to keep up with a mere female, but he reminded himself that he was overheated. And that he was in need of a cold shower. Maybe he needed to catch a plane and go back to America and sleep in his own bed, leave this ugly business to someone else. But Mancuso wouldn’t like it. The boss wanted Scarvuzzi wiped off the face of the earth. If Nicodemo let him down, he might not work again anytime soon. Even professional killers as good as he was could be replaced.
Flagging, he lumbered onto the vaporetto again, believing that he’d glimpsed the dark-haired beauty boarding it. He made it onto the boat just as it was shoving off, but he realized before long that the lady was nowhere to be seen. Just as well, he decided. He would return to the hotel, shower and nap. But at the last second he impulsively decided to get off at the next stop. He wouldn’t be able to say why he did it, except that he suddenly didn’t want to face the empty hotel room, and it was too early in the day to throw in the towel on his assignment.
After wobbling through a serpentine maze of byways, he found himself in front of a New York-style pizza stand, which was situated at the tail end of a row of chic shops and boutiques. On the other side of the smudged glass the fare -– huge wedges sprinkled with mushrooms, and pepperoni, and chunks of greasy sausage — looked mouthwatering, just like it did back home. Come to think of it, Nicodemo hadn’t treated himself to a single morsel of Venetian pizza, which was something he’d been curious about since setting foot in the city. He pulled out his money, and after trying to explain to the kid in the apron that he wanted one pepperoni and one sausage, inhaled a pair of big slices as he sat at the base of an eroded fountain where millions of pigeons had relieved themselves over the centuries. It was still daylight, but already he felt completely enervated and no longer gave a damn whether or not he found Scarvuzzi today. What were the chances he would, anyway? All of it -– coming to Europe, traipsing around these strange Italian cities, trying to find a needle in a haystack –- had been a colossal waste, enough to make him want to go back to the States and disappear into some city out west where the organization would never find him…and hope that he could forget about his past altogether, if such a thing were possible.
So why the hell had he gotten off the vaporetto? He forced himself to his feet and began to walk again. When he looked down, he noticed that a dollop of greasy cheese had grazed the front of his expensive silk shirt, leaving a spot. This irked Nicodemo — his sartorial habits were impeccable, no matter what the weather. He stopped and tried to dab the stain away with his handkerchief, but only succeeded in spreading it. When he got back to the hotel, he’d have to send the shirt directly to the cleaning service.
The sun, a sphere of muted orange fire, had begun its descent into the western mouth of the Grand Canal. Near the Ponte S. Moise, a sign caught Nicodemo’s eye: Kaniewska’s American Bar. Inside the lights were on. Right now he would just about murder someone for an ice-cold beer, American style. He decided to go in, though he knew it wasn’t likely to be any more comfortable indoors because the Italians, he’d discovered, apparently didn’t believe in air conditioning.
Once across the threshold, it took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the shadows. Across the room a balding, reed-thin man wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a white apron jabbered something to him in rapid Italian.
“Prego, prego,” Nicodemo responded. When his answer was met with a puzzled stare, he realized that he must be using the wrong word again.
The waiter began motioning to him, in an attempt to herd him to a small open table near one of the front windows. It was then that he saw Scarvuzzi, sitting by himself in a corner, an espresso cup hoisted between his thumb and forefinger, a newspaper on the table in front of him.
So — Mancuso hadn’t been lying to him after all.
Scarvuzzi appeared relaxed and satisfied, without a care in the world, utterly oblivious to the fact that he was being stalked. The shock on both their faces would have been humorous to the waiter had he understood: here they were, finally, hit man and victim, staring each other down, more than four thousand miles from home.
But no greetings were exchanged. Within the space of only a second or two Scarvuzzi was able to jump up and make it out the door before Nicodemo had the chance to block his way.
“Pazzi Americani!” cried the waiter. He was furious. He was going to be stiffed by Scarvuzzi, just like Scarvuzzi had cheated the organization.
Nicodemo flew out to the sidewalk and looked left and right. Night was falling rapidly. Scarvuzzi was already loping away, in the opposite direction of the Grand Canal.
Nicodemo, reenergized, bolted after him. From the very first step he had to strain to keep up, to hold Scarvuzzi’s embroidered turquoise jacket in his sights. When he reached the campi, Scarvuzzi plunged into the river of humans clogging it. Already he’d managed to widen the gap between himself and his pursuer.
When it got dark, all of Venice’s beauty seemed to vanish, and the street people took over. The usual assortment of beggars and homeless were scattered around the squares, their hands extended. Hucksters were all over the place, doing everything from selling counterfeit handbags to launching cheesy fireworks into the sky. But Nicodemo couldn’t be distracted by any of that now. This was his chance, the chance he’d been waiting for. If he failed to grab it right now, he might never get another. And when he was through with Scarvuzzi, he could finally go back to New York and forget he’d ever been here.
But that man possessed the speed of a frightened animal, which Nicodemo hadn’t counted on. With every step he grew a little more flustered. He was already painted with a slick sweat. His expensive leather shoes felt too tight. Even though he hated sneakers, he realized he should be wearing them now. How the hell was he supposed to keep up?
In the distance the figure of Scarvuzzi grew smaller and smaller, until he turned into a speck and nearly disappeared altogether. Nicodemo began to panic. When he reached the next square, he panned it swiftly until he caught a flash of Scarvuzzi’s white trousers rising over one of the ubiquitous pontes.
Suddenly he had a suffocating sensation of déjà vu, of heavy, incipient fate, as if all of this had happened to him once before, even though he knew that it hadn’t, it couldn’t have. He felt for his dagger, which he’d been carrying in the small of his back, and bulled aside pedestrians, one of whom swore at him in Italian. He didn’t care. His only concern was staying fixed on his target. And, sure enough, Scarvuzzi was in his view again. Maybe he was slowing down, running out of gas. Nicodemo felt a new surge of adrenaline. He was like a wolf — a fat wolf, maybe — running down a sick elk. Eventually he would wear the elk out. It was just a matter of time, like Mancuso said.
But the lane suddenly turned blind, and once again he lost sight of his man. This time, on account of the gathering blackness, it wasn’t so easy to pick up the spoor. He had no idea where Scarvuzzi was now, and not being familiar with Venice whatsoever didn’t help. If it weren’t for the stray shaft of gray light from a single window above, he would have been in total darkness.
At the next crossway he pulled up again, suddenly realizing that he was cocooned in utter silence. Where the hell was he? And where were all the people? How could everyone in the world suddenly disappear?
Behind him echoed the slap of leather soles. Bouncing off a clammy wall, the hit man did a clumsy pirouette. When he finally cornered Scarvuzzi, which he was convinced would happen in short order, he’d run him through with the dagger, maybe slit his throat for good measure, and no one in Venice would see or hear a thing. Then he’d dig in the corpse’s pockets for his money and room pass, head straight to the Cavalletto, and take whatever was worth taking. His job would be finished.
The footfalls felt closer now. He could even hear Scarvuzzi wheezing as he struggled to stay a few steps ahead. They both smoked cigarettes, but Nicodemo was significantly younger, if not more athletic, and this had to be to his advantage. Suddenly encouraged, he swerved left-right-left through a maze of alleyways until he could, like pit viper, sense his prey was close, right in front of him for the taking.
He found himself in a dimly lit cul-de-sac. Where the weak spray of light in this passageway was coming from, he couldn’t guess, but the quantity was so insignificant it could have been emanating from something as puny as a cigarette lighter.
Having killed many times before, Nicodemo had rarely been frightened in his life, but now he could feel his heart thrashing like a beached fish against his ribcage. He reached around and fingered his weapon nervously. Flattening himself against the oozing stone, he edged forward in hesitant, miniature hops.
But now he heard nothing except for the sloshing of that green water — no more footfalls, no more breathing. Where the hell was that son of a bitch? Had he been mistaken after all in thinking that he’d forced Scarvuzzi into a trap? Had he been pursuing nothing but a mirage all along?
For the first time the thought scudded across his mind that maybe he himself, instead of Scarvuzzi, had been sent here to be the game. It was a wild thought, a crazy thought, but within the organization that was how things sometimes worked: play one off the other, keep everyone guessing. The cops had been looking very closely at his last gig, where just two months ago he’d blown the head off a gangland associate and tossed the carcass into a Staten Island cemetery. Maybe the organization didn’t want the cops getting too close? Maybe Mancuso had concocted the entire story about Scarvuzzi crossing him? But would the organization really send Nicodemo all the way over here when they could just as easily have eliminated him back home? It didn’t make sense, and it could drive you mad if you were weak-minded. Maybe it was just the heat taking its toll on him.
What was he waiting for? Dagger quivering in his fingers, Nicodemo moved into the open. Across the tiny campi, he glimpsed Scarvuzzi’s jacket. He raised the dagger, ran three steps and lunged at it. Just as he brought it down he realized that it wasn’t Scarvuzzi at all, but a bed sheet that had been left hanging from the bars of a palazzo window.
Again, the sound of jittery feet. It issued from an even tighter opening on the far side of the little square. Nicodemo rushed across, squeezed himself in and pushed forward. But something was happening to him: he felt dizzy, as if he was going to vomit. There was an awful pain in his chest. Maybe he was about to suffer a heart attack, or a stroke.
After all the running and chasing, it was he, not the pursued, who was wearing down.
“Scarvuzzi,” he croaked stupidly. What was he thinking? He was losing his head, all right.
A fat, white, pink-eyed rat exploded out of a hole at his feet and clambered over the toe of his right shoe. When he kicked at it violently, it squeaked and circled and ran back through his legs.
He had lost his head. He was petrified of taking another step. Maybe Scarvuzzi had outwitted him and was lying in wait just ahead to slice him up or shoot him. But he couldn’t back off now, the passage was too narrow and he was unable to actually turn around. He sucked in a shaky breath and scuttled forward. In front of him there was movement. He readied his dagger again and pitched at it.
Instead of sinking the blade into flesh, the ground beneath his feet vanished. He heard someone –- that bastard, Scarvuzzi, no doubt — laughing like a madman from some corner of Hell.
All three hundred pounds of Nicodemo plunged into the icy water. He disappeared under the surface and went down, down, down. As he did, his skull collided with an object as hard and dense and slick as an enormous jetty rock. He was half-conscious and on his way back to the surface when a huge, swiftly moving mass — the vaporetto? — sliced his scalp open, sucked him towards itself, then chopped up his body like the blades of a meat grinder.
The vessel passed overhead and Nicodemo went under again, this time all the way.
The waterways of Venice being what they are -– glutted, anarchic, deadly at certain times of night — the motoscafi driver never even knew that he’d struck a human being and left him for dead. Maybe he didn’t care. No doubt he wouldn’t have wanted to lose his license. When Nicodemo’s bloated, hacked-up remains were found floating in the Grand Canal a few days later, the authorities were baffled. Who was this man? Where had he come from? Why had he been nearly decapitated? Without an identification, and there was none on him, it would be impossible to answer the most basic questions.
Even when Nicodemo Forseca was finally identified several weeks later, no connection was made between him and the mob. The reason for his presence in Venice was a mystery, as it remains today.
As for Scarvuzzi, nothing was ever heard from him again.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Mark SaFranko 2015