The King of Naples

‘Don Totò, pardon my insolence, but we can’t wait anymore. We’ve got to go, right now!’

Don Antonio, with his pondered ways and slurred cadence, waves in my general direction from his velvet armchair and, without even bothering to look towards me, says ‘Vabbene, vabbene. I understood. You get the car and I’ll be there in two minutes’.

He clearly doesn’t get the urgency of the situation.

I try again.

‘Don Totò, We haven’t got two minutes. Let me help you up, we’ll be quicker. Please.’ He lets out a brief, powerful sigh, and, after firmly grabbing his prized ivory cane in his scaly left hand, hoists his rusty frame out of the enveloping luxury of his regal poltrona in a jolt.

I grab hold of his right arm, skipping the ceremonial niceties, and tow the man out of the dining room, through the never-ending corridor and out to the annex where Germano, our getaway driver, is revving for us. Part one of the Grand Plan: I place Don Totò in the back seat and jump into the front.

Germano, wound up like a toy soldier, lets loose, pedal to the metal, and glues us to our seats in a rocket-propelled escape, exactly in the nick of time. I give him a slap over his bald, sweaty head.

‘Gerry, Maronnamia, slow the fuck down! Are you trying to kill the man?’ Don Totò looks at Germano, and for the first time probably ever, addresses him directly.

‘Don’t listen to this idiot, step on it.’

His words fill Germano’s sails like a violent gust of Scirocco, and we fly out of the town just as a swarm of liveried helicopters blitz overhead towards the empty compound.

‘You see… there was no need to hurry,’ jests Don Totó. ‘Give me my bag.’

I grab his burgundy briefcase from the front, and he extends his crone-like arm out for it. Without any forward-leaning, of course, so that I have to twist backwards ad stretch out, with the usual veneer of reverence. I hold the case in the air, and he, with his insufferable sluggishness, takes it from me and clicks the locks open.

As we all suspected it would be, there it is. The radio detonator. Textbook Don Antonio Cipriani. The stuff of the old tales, in action. A Machiavellian masterclass.

‘Tell him to pull over!’

‘But Don Totò, it’s not safe yet.’

‘Just do as I say,’ he roars. We comply.

I have often wondered how he manages to get that voice out of his small, feeble old frame without rupturing something. It’s clear, some things don’t weaken with old age. Time, for example, doesn’t seem to have touched that drive, that resolve, that cazzimma that has got him all the way to the top and kept him firmly there for all these years. And that’s why he’s still handled with kid gloves by all the other families. O’ muostr, they call him, behind his back. The monster. The thing is, in dialetto the word has a double meaning. It implies both greatness and wickedness. And he, in fairness, is full of both.

As the car comes to a halt on the roadside, Don Totò’s juddering fingers ceremonially lift the safety cap over the detonator’s red button.

The leathery skin-folds on his face slowly extend to a solemn grimace as he prepares himself with deliberate movements, like an oriental Paterfamilias at a tea ceremony. Here he goes. He lets out a wheeze, then pushes the button, without even bothering to look behind him.

KABOOM!

The country-house, by now crawling with disappointed sleuths of Carabinieri, is instantly turned to dust, immolated in plumes of tufa-stone yellow and lava-like red, a reawakened Vesuvius, bestower of death.

‘Let’s do the sign of the Cross,’ he says, ‘and go; I’ve got things to do.’

‘Don Totò, you must rest and lie low for a few weeks, now. With all this mess, you’ll have the whole Army after you, like they did with the Sicilians,’ I suggest, hoping to be helpful.

‘And who the fuck are you to tell me what I should do?’ he whispers, matter-of-fact. He clearly doesn’t appreciate my concern or my counsel. I better kiss up to the mummified deity here, before I also end up blown to smithereens.

‘My apologies, Don Totò, I didn’t mean it that way. I was just saying that it is perhaps better if…’

‘I couldn’t give a shit what you were saying,’ he swiftly interjects, this time a little more forcefully. ‘Listen to me, strunz, don’t you dare giving me advice ever again, understood?’ I nod, obsequiously, wishing I hadn’t said a thing. Nevermind. Germano starts the car and gets going. We’ve got to reach the next meeting point as soon as we can, because within the next few minutes the whole of the province’s Police is gonna to make a very angry appearance. Timing is crucial if we want to slip through before the area is cordoned off.

‘Gerry, move it, jamme belle!’

He steps on it. I turn and look at Don Totò. His eyes are now shut in silent contemplation, head leaning on the window, face relaxed and utterly serene. He could’ve exercised some of that self-control a few moments ago, instead of having a go for trying to help. Anyway.

Gerry sweeps left off the tarmac and into a country lane as planned, and after a few bumpy, dust-filled kilometres we find our second car hidden in the barn of a run-down old farm. Part two of the Grand Plan: A small hatchback and a female driver.

Don Totò steps out of Gerry’s car and strolls over to the perfectly drab Fiat Uno, which boot has been lined with duvets and pillows to make the journey as comfortable as possible for our prestigious stowaway. He hops in. I gently lower the boot and get in the front passenger seat, speedy-fast.

Ciao Salvató.’

There she is. The skipper of this old vessel.

Signorina Marianna Cipriani, the twenty-three year old princess of the realm, the granddaughter of the man himself, getting stuck in. Good girl. From her nonno she inherited, as well as the dark skin and the bad mouth, a natural dexterity at the wheel, which has been put to work, famously, since her teenage years.

‘Good day Mariá, all good?’

‘So far,’ she says as she slams the Uno into reverse and gets out of the barn in a backwards drift. First gear, wheel-spin, and we’re off through the gravelled country lane and back onto the tarmac, away from the pig-infested entroterra and down, hopefully, towards the safety of the city.

‘Take the TangenzialeMariá, we’ll miss all the traffic.’

‘Don’t talk shit, Salvató. We go straight down the statale until Capodichino, and if we hit a snag we can bail and go hide in Scampia. Raffaele and his men are standing by, in case we do. That’s the plan.’

‘We’ll stick to the plan, then. But there’ll be roadblocks up on the statale soonfor sure. If they aren’t up already.’

‘We’ll see,’ Marianna says, as we lose the countryside and get onto the 7bis, a filthy, patchwork ribbon of asphalt that cuts through the hinterland almost in a straight line, daisy-chaining the big town to all the neighbouring cesspits. Aversa, Giugliano, Melito, Scampia, each of them accursed by this abhorrent slither of broken-up bitumen.

I don’t envy poor Don Totò right now, boot-bound in a rust-bucket with end-of-life shock absorbers and agitated by the most pitifully ill-maintained road mantle. Not his finest hour. And yet, not a single word from the old sod so far. Fair play.

Traffic is always slow and edgy through the paesi, with their first-come-first-served intersections and invisible road markings. Today is no exception. And naturally, as traffic gets closer to the city it swells, grinds, and turns to a creeping Gigli procession, inching ahead with obsequiously exasperating pace. Marianna does her level best to hold off her renowned urge for blasphemy, and I light the third Merit on the trot. None of us is saying it, but we both know. We should’ve got on the tangenziale.

An interminable swathe of steel cells in varied states of decay now stands between the safe house and us. Luckily though, none of them seem to have a blue light on the roof.

‘We’re not getting stuck here,’ says Marianna, ‘two minutes and we’re in Secondigliano. Then we’ll just take Via Miano and go down the Capodimonte way instead.

That’ll work. We turn right, down to the slightly easier traffic of Via Miano, and Marianna, like a fox fleeing the hunt, assaults the road in pursuit of clearance, break-neck down the big straight while dodging moped-riding families of four and overloaded water-lorries, then through the woods, high revs on tight bends like a Banshee, down the hillside in a serpentine drift and out, finally at our much-coveted destination. The city of a thousand colours, the city of a thousand fears.

We hit the right halfway down Corso Amedeo, and after a few hundred yards we disappear through a palazzo’s archway. The metal gate behind us clams shut and we are safe at last, on our turf at the heart of la Sanità.

‘Good work, Mariá,’ I say to her as I rush to the back to free the shaken-up captive, ‘I’ll have to give you a call next time I need someone high-velocity.’

‘Make sure you do,’ she replies, smiling ambiguously. That girl is a whole heap of trouble.

I open the boot, winch the old pharaoh out of his catacomb and hand him his cane. He’s as spritely now as he was when he got in.

‘You see, we didn’t need to worry. I’m still the boss here’, says Don Totò, edging between pride and fear, ‘let’s get going.’

I follow him to one of the many doors facing in on our cobblestone courtyard while Marianna waves us goodbye and disappears with the Uno. We enter a flat. A spartan, unassuming two bedroom box flat with kitchenette, where Donna Angelina, the widow of one of Don Totò’s old underbosses, is waiting for us.

‘Donna Angelina, c’è permesso?’ asks Don Totò.

Ue, Don Totò, come in, please. You don’t even have to ask,’ she replies with servile prostration and the formal “voi”, ‘do as if you were in your own home.’

As he leans in to kiss her cheek, she grabs his hand instead in an uncontrolled reflex and kisses his papyrus skin, tears in her cataracts, thanking him and blessing him in a lament for ‘everything that you’ve done for this family’. That, of course, isn’t likely to include the fact that her husband was mown-down in a revenge drive-by because he worked for Don Totò.

I pay my respects to Donna Angelina and leave her in the kitchen. We walk into the back bedroom, at the end of which here’s a walk-in wardrobe.

‘Open that up, Salvatò’

‘Sure, Don Totò.’

I open the wardrobe and reach between the floor tiles, prying into the gap when suddenly: click. The four middle tiles lift smoothly on the near side, uncovering a little wooden ladder to the world below.

Part three of the Grand Plan: I lower Don Totò into the ground and follow him down.

Here we are, at last. A barren, stonewalled cavern barely fit for human habitation. All there is in here is a small flat-pack table, two chairs, a mattress on the floor and a plumbed-in, unashamed hole in the floor brazenly claiming the title of “toilet”. The only means of communication with the outside world: a notebook, a pencil, and Donna Angelina. This is perfect.

‘Assiettete, Salvatò, sit down,’ he points at the empty chair. I sit. He continues on. ‘We still don’t know who the infame who snitched on me is, but I’m going to find out soon enough. When I do, I want you to look after that. If it wasn’t for l’ispettore Maresca warning me of the blitz, I’d be on the 41bis by now.’

The much-feared 41bis is a special custodial provision, tailor-made by the government for people like Don Totò. They throw you into perennial solitary confinement with no visitors allowed and no channels to the business outside. Worse than death. Captivity is not the problem; lonely, claustrophobic rooms become a daily occurrence whether you’re banged up or running. What scares the bosses is the idea of being gagged and impotent in Limbo, unable to direct their interests while someone else on the outside is running their show.

‘Don Totò, you needn’t worry about a thing. I’ll look after that all-right. And I’ll thank the inspector personally for you. He was great help. A man of honour.’

‘He sure is,’ he retorts, unaware of my growing sarcasm. ‘Take this, and give it to Cimmino.’ he hands me a piece of crumpled-up scribble, ‘you and Marianna are the only ones who know I’m here. Keep it that way. I’ll give you instructions every two weeks; Donna Angelina will get them to you down at the church of Santa Maria. Starting this Sunday. Ten o’clock mass. Make sure you take confession beforehand, you heathen.’

‘I think you’re right, Don Totò, I’ll have to take confession for my sins.’

He looks at me, puzzled, not expecting a response. I gently raise myself up to standing, and start praying, out loud. Finally, part four of the Grand Plan.

Oh, Gesu d’amore acceso, non t’avessi mai offeso…’

My right hand reaches behind my back.

‘Oh, mio caro e buon Gesu, con la tua Santa Grazia, non ti voglio offender piu…’

I slowly extract my Glock, savouring every millisecond of Don Totò’s sudden change of facial expression. He really didn’t see this one coming. Blind old fool.

Perche ti amo sopra ogni cosa…’

I point the barrel at his frail, sitting old frame.

BANG. One in the chest, point-blank. My ears whistle, stunned, the conflagration’s sound magnified by the cave.

‘Gesu mio, misericordia.’

Before he has time to formulate any last, damned word, BANG, one right in the centre of his crinkled, judgemental forehead.

Amen.’

Rest in peace, Don Totò.

I climb up out of the hole and close the hatch. Donna Angelina approaches me, and after quickly reaching my left cheek with one of her sticky, moustachioed kisses, she turns and spits venom onto the tiled floor. ‘Justice, at last. Now I’m at peace. Grazie, Salvatò.’

Grazie a voi, Donna Angelì, now don’t you worry, I’ll send someone over to clean up the sarcophagus soon.’

As I leave, she hands me a rum soaked, sticky-sweet pastry.

‘Salvatò, take a babbà.’

‘Wrap it up for me, Donna Angelì, I’ll eat it later.’

I reach into my jacket’s inside pocket, and grab my phone while walking out of Donna Angelina’s flat, finally taking in the crisp, salsedinous breeze blowing in from Mergellina. I dial her number.

‘Hello?’

‘Ue, Mariá, I’m done.’

‘Good. How you feeling?’

‘Like a king. Mariá! Say hello to the new King of Naples.’

Buongiorno, Your Majesty! Now come to me, quick. I’m in Piazza. Let’s go to Via Chiaia and get a panino. I’m famished.