Beneath the Gray Brioni Suit
Beneath the gray Brioni suit, underneath the Salvatore Ferragamo five-fold Italian silk tie and the tailored John Varvatos shirt, on the day the missile would strike the Santa Monica Pier, the G-Men attached a device to her chest. Above her left nipple, the bald man taped the flat, metal disc to her skin with cheap, white medical tape. Too close to my heart.
“Can this thing stop my heart?” Alexa Lydle asked and looked at the listening device, rather a transmitter, applied and tested by the two FBI agents as the three sat in the black van parked one block from Alexa’s house.
“No,” the bald man said.
“Your heart is the least of your worries.” The other man with garlic breath laughed and patted Alexa on the shoulder like a cat might knead the tummy of its owner. She was short and could stand in the van, but the two men were tall, so they sat on wooden boxes. When garlic breath finished, she buttoned her shirt.
Don’t touch me. I have no power here. You have no clue what my worries are. My heart keeps me ticking.
On this last Friday of November 2022, when not one of the ménage expected a missile to strike, the men finished, and Alexa walked home to prepare dinner for her guest of honor, a suspect of great interest to the FBI agents. Special Agent! What does that even mean? Special.
Handmade spaghetti. A simple marinara. Fresh baked bread. Francisco doesn’t eat salad, and Alexa didn’t want to eat salad alone, so she never made salad for Francisco. She concocted a fresh fruit appetizer of kiwi, blueberries, honey dew, and cherries with a light sauce never heavy and never too much sugar. Frank loves this dish. She readied the bowl, then chilled the fruit cocktail in the refrigerator.
Alexa never offered alcohol before dinner. One of Francisco’s foibles. The fruit cocktail was an aperitif, wine with dinner, and a digestif cocktail of brandy or whiskey, neat, depending on conversation. Sometimes, Francisco requested a Grasshopper or a White Russian after the meal. Alexa kept all the best cocktail ingredients.
Frank harbored strange food habits. The fruit cocktail must appear to be his idea, but Alexa knew he would ask. She focused on the meal as best she could while the FBI agents listened. She usually played arias sung by Renata Tebaldi or Giuseppe di Stefano as she made dinner. She often sang as she cooked a solo meal for herself. The special agents asked Alexa not to play music. She mentioned that Francisco would find this strange, and strange changes in routine make Frank nervous. He would expect music because Alexa always played an Italian aria. The law enforcement goons relented and said yes but keep the volume down.
Soon after Alexa moved into the Pacific Palisades house overlooking the Riviera Country Club Golf Course, gifts arrived from members of the organization her father worked for and she now worked for. One gift was a sizeable, awkward wall clock with no aesthetic value. Alexa wasn’t fond of the inelegant clock, but she wasn’t sure who sent the contraption. So as not to offend anyone, she hung the four-foot-tall timepiece on the kitchen wall by the cased opening to the dining room where Alexa and Frank would eat and chat.
Ceilings in the ranch-style house were ten feet, so the abnormal clock perfectly filled the space and did not crowd the crown moulding. All wood trim was twenty-five years old with a brown mahogany stain that appeared black when the sun didn’t sneak into a room. The house belonged to her father, so when he died she moved in. Alexa was indifferent to the dark moulding and didn’t think repainting the wood was necessary. The masculine wood decor appealed to her aesthetic sensibilities and reminded Alexa of her father.
She hired painters to repaint the walls a unique color throughout the three bedroom, two-and-one-half bath one-story house. The kitchen yellow matched Van Gogh’s yellow in his “House in Arles.” The dining room was cadmium red much like Rembrandt brushed into the Portrait of an “Old Man in Red.” Alexa’s Italian leather house shoes complemented the Rembrandt red.
The awkward, large second hand of the wall clock, wider and longer than the minute hand, sported a ceramic human hand near the Roman numerals. The hand was curled into a fist and the index finger pointed past the clock circle as if ignoring the numbers and admonishing clock makers and prophets who wished to control time.
Not only was the clock oddly shaped, more like a rhombus, but the ticking was peculiar. As the second hand passed six on the way to twelve, the arm lifted so quietly that unless Alexa stood immediately in front of the clock, she could not hear the movement. Once the hand reached twelve falling to six, the clock arm clicked with a loud ratchet, ratchet, ratchet until the second hand passed six again and the sound deceased for the next thirty counts.
Alexa was as fond of Tagliata rib steaks as Francisco. When Frank called the week before to say he would be in town, he asked for steak.
“I have business next week in Los Angeles.”
“Good. What night for dinner?”
“Friday. Is that okay?”
“Friday is perfect.”
“Steak it is.” The FBI tapped her phone. They knew about the steak, and Alexa knew they knew.
“What kind of business?” Garlic breath asked a few hours after the phone conversation.
“You heard the conversation.”
“What else do you know?” Baldy asked.
“Frank wants steak.”
“What else?” Garlic breath queried.
“I never ask Francisco about his business. That would be rude and dangerous.”
“You’re gonna ask at dinner.” Baldy said.
“The hit man’s business is our business.” Garlic breath mentioned. “Which makes it your business. Capeesh? ”
“I will do as you wish.”
Next to the awkward wall clock hung a brass crucifix of Jesus. Another gift. Unlike usual depictions where Jesus looked down and to the side, this Jesus stared straight ahead. His skin was a light coffee hue much like Francisco’s skin. She hung the crucifix at eye level and sometimes gazed into Jesus’s eyes. At private school, she often heard the expression, “What would Jesus do?” If I could summon that kind of power, I would rain holy hell on these special agent assholes.
Atop a credenza in the foyer stood Salvador Dali’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross, Bronze Sculpture.” The original. On a dining room wall hung the Salvador Dali painting of “Christ of St. John of the Cross.” The original. Frank liked to sit facing the painting, which was fine with Alexa. She was not religious. She found some pleasure in the mythology, the architecture, and the art of the church, but she saw no evident truths in any of the stories.
The Dali artifacts were gifts from members of the organization. The bronze sculpture belonged to her dad as a gift from Don Anthony Ricci, who died of natural causes in the same month her father died of a heart attack. Ricci’s son, Little Luca, gave the Dali painting to Alexa. When she researched the painting, she discovered the Dali was stolen from a Glasgow gallery.
The FBI men installed surveillance equipment inside Alexa’s house. Garlic breath attempted to move the Dali painting to hide a transmitter.
“Don’t touch that,” Alexa demanded.
Garlic breath ignored her and tried again.
“I said don’t touch the painting. It’s worth more than your house.
Garlic breath stopped fiddling with the painting and walked into the kitchen.
“Why do you dress like a man?” Baldy asked.
To piss you off, asshole. “What do you mean?”
“You wear a suit and tie.” Baldy added.
“I’m just saying.”
These clothes cost more than your entire wardrobe. Is there an FBI fashion censorship manual that includes women’s clothes? I don’t dress like this every day, asshole. Only when I have dinner guests. I could care less what the world thinks. My dinner guests enjoy the clothes. I enjoy the men’s suits. Perhaps I feel comfortable and unique around my friends.
“Just keep him talking,” the bald man said.
“And feeding him wine,” garlic man chimed in. “Loosen him up.”
“Francisco doesn’t know the meaning of loosened up.” Alexa wasn’t trying to be funny, but the response sounded funny anyway. The bald man laughed, and Alexa managed a small, painful chuckle.
The agents were more like technicians who came to service the cable TV or repair the WiFi modem, but unlike the cable guy the FBI Special Agents arrived five minutes before their appointment, eight hours before Francisco Barconi arrived for dinner. Alexa never asked the names of the agents. She was sure they told her at some point, but their names were unimportant.
To herself, she called them Biff and Buff. Biff for the bald agent and Buff for the garlic breath agent. She never asked if they wanted water. She never asked if they were hungry. She never pointed out the location of the bathroom. When Buff tried to make conversation about the Lakers or California environmental politics or Biff talked about North Korea, Alexa never responded. The few words she spoke were, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.”
“You sure are bling,” Biff said.
“What?” Alexa asked as she sliced an onion with a ten-inch carving knife on a maple cutting board.
“The way you dress.” Buff said.
“The way I dress?”
“Your clothes. That tie.”
Alexa had tucked her tie into the gap between the second and third shirt buttons while she prepped the evening meal.
“What’s wrong with my tie.” These guys wouldn’t know a tie.
“Nothing at all.” Biff said. “Your clothes are perfect.”
“Bling,” Buff chimed in.
Alexa walked to her bedroom at the back of the house.
“These Guineas,” Biff whispered.
“She’s not a Guinea.”
“I thought she was born in Sicily?”
“Pay attention. The dinner guest is Italian. You can’t be serious.” Buff paid attention.
Biff and Buff placed transmitters throughout the house. One under the dining
room table. One in the kitchen light fixture. One in the seven-foot-tall floor lamp with the brass eagle that guarded the small library. Alexa thought the lamp was hideous, but she didn’t know who gifted the lamp, so she kept the fixture on display.
“Does this mean I don’t have to wear the one on my chest?”
“No,” Biff and Buff said simultaneously.
When Alexa was away from the organization, she cosplayed as Italian. Her clothes. Her hand gestures. The way she tilted her face like Little Luca. She sometimes sat on the patio at sunset and smoked a cigar, holding the stogy like her father would, and sipped scotch.
When she was around the Italians, she knew the difference. Clothes, food, cigars, alcohol, and hand gestures do not make a person something they aren’t, no matter how much she role played at home. Alexa deeply understood the allegiance of her job as accountant. She was no sycophant. She was a professional. To serve Francisco dinner as a snitch, a pawn for the FBI, with trumped up tax evasion charges against her, placed her at odds with everything she embraced about her work, her life, her appearance, and she saw no way out.
Alexa enjoyed traveling to Costa Rica, Alaska, and Nepal. She planned a trip to Peru next year, but the pandemic nixed that idea. Her loyalty gave her a lifestyle she liked. She was not naive about the company businesses. She was good at laundering the cash. Her father, as the organization’s accountant, taught her well. University professors taught her legal maneuverings and the IRS accountants unknowingly taught her loopholes at their seminars.
Only a blind act of providence could save her, and she didn’t believe in providence.
Francisco is one-hundred percent Sicilian. Alexa and Frank attended the same private schools. Francisco was by no means dumb, but he knew at an early age he would follow in his father’s footsteps. Who needs school when your income is guaranteed for life. Not until her senior year in high school did Alexa decide she would follow her father as an accountant. Everything fell into place.
The two-acre Los Angeles inner city private school compound near USC where Alexa and Francisco met was juxtaposed between a commercial area with light industrial machine shops and a residential area controlled by local gangs. Frank slid by in algebra with Alexa’s help. In return, Francisco offered Alexa protection from the rich, private school bullies.
Alexa’s father knew Frank’s father. She eventually learned that everyone knew everyone. Frank and Alexa talked at birthday parties, weddings, and dinners. Over a couple of decades, the two became close friends even though their roles were galaxies apart. Trust was central, and the connection was strictly platonic. They were buddies. When Francisco was in town from Vegas, where he lived, Alexa cooked dinner.
Francisco often took collectibles as payment. He enjoyed cigarette and classic cigar lighters. On this day of the missile attack, this day when the special agents bugged Alexa’s house, after Frank arrived at LAX, he took a taxi to “Arno’s Gold & Jewelry,” a shop owned by the organization. The shopkeeper resembled Delores O’Riordan of the Cranberries.
“I’m Frank. You have a package for me.”
“Yes.” The woman pulled a box from under the counter.
“Did you look at it?” Frank asked proudly.
“Is that okay?”
“Open the box.”
The woman slipped on a pair of cotton gloves, carefully opened the box, and peeled back the tissue paper. She lifted the Van Cleef and Arpels Dunhill Lighter.
“Early 70s,” Frank said.
“The gold and wood are beautiful.”
“Thank you for holding this.” Frank said. “Would you call me a taxi?”
“What about Uber?”
“I don’t have a smart phone.”
“2020 and you don’t have an iPhone. Samsung?”
“Would you call me a taxi? Please.”
The taxi driver was a chatter box. Frank didn’t want to chat. “Anyone ever say that you look just like Antonio Banderas?” The driver asked.
“Anyone ever compare you to Joseph Stalin?”
The driver stopped talking. “Linger” by the Cranberries came on the radio.
“Would you turn that up?” Francisco asked.
Unlike Frank, Alexa enjoyed learning. The organization paid for her Bachelor of Science in accounting, the MBA, and CPA licensing. She would enter Stanford Law next Fall. Before she graduated from high school, she knew the complexities of blind trusts, movie production companies, off-shore corporations, and cash businesses. Every morning at breakfast, her father casually talked accounting, finance, and banking as if discussing the Dodgers. Alexa was a natural with numbers, and her father fueled her genius ways.
The IRS audited the organization every two years. Zerilli Holdings accounted for four Italian restaurants, two Chinese restaurants, three neighborhood bars, six food trucks, two trucking firms, two porn production studios, a concrete manufacturing business, seven laundromats, three dozen used car lots from San Diego to Humboldt, one card room in Los Angeles, one card room in Petaluma, three strip clubs in Los Angeles, and fifteen coin-operated car washes. There was an import-export business out of San Pedro, a residential construction firm in Covina, a vineyard in Temecula, two gold and diamond jewelry shops in the Valley, eighteen pawn brokers between San Diego and LA, four long-term storage sites in Palmdale, and one commercial real estate company in Thousand Oaks. Thanks to California lawmakers, Zerilli Holdings now owned twenty-three marijuana dispensaries.
Growing up, or in Alexa’s case aging but not getting taller, Alexa tried to learn self-defense, not in a class of kids yelling kia and feigning discipline, and not from an older brother because she had no siblings. She tried boxing, which lasted two months. Alexa was not good at punching or kicking.
After too many ass kickings at school and before Frank became her schoolyard guardian, Alexa religiously watched Charles Bronson in Death Wish. Charles, aka Paul Benjamin, filled a sock with quarters and beat punks until the sock burst and the coins scattered on the ground. Bronson graduated to guns. As a kid, Alexa didn’t have the cash for a roll of coins. She learned from Charles Bronson that any dense object slammed against an adversary’s head automatically changed the dynamic, because as small as she is, no one expects her to strike.
Alexa planned to carry a blackjack or brass knuckles, but such weapons are evidence of premeditated malice, so she nixed that idea. She learned to catalog every moveable object in a room. The wall clock. Salt and pepper shakers on the café table. Wine bottles, beer bottles, and coffee cups. Even a book, the sharp end of a spoon, a door, and the prongs of an electrical cord are weapons. Objects to throw or stab with. If she ever had children, she would be the best mother at childproofing the house.
Alexa settled for a gun. Or five guns. A .38 in her purse. Two nine millimeters, one in a kitchen drawer with the spatulas, and one in an antique box atop her bedroom chifforobe. Her grandfather’s WWI .45 waited in the foyer table drawer beneath Dali’s bronze Jesus, and she tucked a sawed-off shot gun under the kitchen cabinet next to the slow cooker. She was a good shot. Anyone in the organization would mentor her at the gun range. The FBI guys removed all the guns.
She found it ironic that Charles Bronson was an accountant. Before Frank helped at school, Alexa defended herself by throwing objects and jabbing with rulers until the other kids thought she was mean, or crazy, and someone not to fuck with. The FBI were fucking with her without pulling a weapon. The law in the hands of the government sucked.
She had never killed anyone. Even if she could find another gun, killing these agents wouldn’t solve her problems. She wanted to talk to Frank, but the house was bugged.
Alexa lost track of time as she prepped for dinner, so when a sharp rapping noise came from the front door she jumped a little. The kitchen clock read five.
She started an aria louder than the special agents would approve.
“What’s in the box?” Alexa asked as Frank entered the foyer.
“The company gave me this relic as payment. I picked it up near LAX.”
They walked into the kitchen where Frank opened the box. “What a lovely lighter, Frank. You are so fortunate.”
“I haven’t eaten all day.” Frank closed the box. “A fruit cocktail before dinner would be a nice refreshment.”
Alexa and Frank sat at the dining room table watched over by Jesus while the FBI men listened. Francisco Barconi enjoyed the fresh fruit cocktail with a diminutive grapefruit spoon. Alexa enjoyed the dual nature of the spoon as an eating utensil and the serrated end as a perfect weapon to gouge an eye.
They chatted about sports and travel during dinner. Never politics or religion.
“How many people have you killed?” Alexa asked near the end of the meal.
Francisco stared at Alexa. The minute hand on the kitchen clock, in the next room, moved through one circle. Alexa didn’t worry. Their twenty-year relationship was solid. Although Alexa rarely asked business questions, she knew Francisco would not interrogate her motives if she finessed the conversation. Francisco never felt remorse. They talked about that in the past. She envied him. She wondered about the women, though. Alexa simply asked the question and waited while she quietly sipped her wine.
The second hand of the kitchen clock clicked slowly past twelve, ratchet, ratchet, ratchet, past six and became quiet.
Francisco sat down his wine glass. “Over two hundred. Maybe three hundred.” Francisco tore a piece of bread and dipped it in the marinara.
“How many women have you killed, Frank?” Alexa asked.
“Eleven women.” Francisco said emphatically and tore another piece of bread. “Not exact on the number of men, but I know it is eleven women. I don’t keep records. Not a good idea. I don’t have a computer or one of those smart phones to create personal memos about names and places and how and why. I don’t know how to work gadgets and computers. I never ask the bosses about reasons for this or that job. Doesn’t matter. This is my work.”
Frank dipped the bread in the marinara and chewed. “On TV shows, the killer has photographs on the wall of the people he kills, or a picture book, or a secret compartment in the floor full of Polaroids. The serial killers, I mean. Am I a serial killer?”
“I don’t own a camera. I suppose I could go to the police station and ask to see the crime scene photos. That would be a laugh. I do the job and leave. The women I remember. Not out of remorse. More like bird watching.”
“I didn’t know you are a bird watcher.”
“When I was a boy in Italy, my mother was a bird watcher. Not professional, but she had tiny binoculars and a catalog with drawings of birds and their names. I once knew thirty birds by their songs. My mother knew the songs of over sixty birds.”
Alexa poured wine for the two of them.
“There was this little bird that danced around our back garden one spring as the flowers bloomed. I memorized the colors of the head and the wings. I memorized the song. I could draw the patterns of the tail feathers and the back. I’m an average drawer. The little bird looked light brown, but in certain light the wings were a greenish gray tint with white underneath. I say little, but I think the bird was an adult.”
“Little like me.”
“A rare, little bird. No matter the markings and colors, the song is always an identifier. This song was a mix of whistles and cricket noises. The bird wasn’t in my mother’s book, so she searched other bird books. We lived on the coast up from Palermo, near Capo d’Orlando, closer to Catania. I traveled with my mother to Catania or Palermo, where my mother shopped for flour and salt, and used the occasion to ask birders about the little gray bird.”
Frank paused for a moment and stared into the distant past. “People sing. I don’t literally mean sing, but when someone talks they sing their story even if the words don’t tell their truth.”
“My mother asked semi-professional bird watchers about the little bird. They dismissed her as a simple housewife. Others were bold enough to say she was mistaken in her identification, and she should borrow a camera. No one in our town owned a camera.”
“On one trip to Rome, she visited a man who wrote articles about animals, especially birds. My mother read about the man in a birding magazine. He said he was interested in seeing the bird and would soon visit.”
“The next April, the man from Rome arrived on the same morning the little bird arrived.
“Blyth’s Reed Warbler.” The man from Rome said.
“Is that good?” My mother asked.
“It’s impossible, but there’s the bird.”
“At that time, no one had seen the warbler in that area of Italy, or at least a serious birder had never reported a sighting. Only when an expert sees the bird does it officially exist even though dozens of locals might watch the creature bounce about the garden, sing from a tree branch, and rut in the dust for grubs. The man from Rome gave my mother credit for the sighting which was a bird record for Italy. She became a local celebrity.”
The two agents sat in the van with the surveillance equipment. Biff thumbed through a Marvel comic. They wore headphones and listened to the dinner table conversation.
“Jesus,” Biff swore. “Stop with the little bird, already. What’s up with this goon?”
“Birders asked my mother to join their groups, both local and national, but she declined. Even an ornithologist from the University paid a visit.”
Frank placed both hands flat on the table on either side of his wine glass and stared at Jesus. “The women I killed were like that little bird.” Frank continued.
“I can tell you the color of the women’s eyes. Hair color. I can draw a map of the freckles and moles on their faces.” Frank looked at Alexa. “They never see me coming. I cut them with a knife and watch their eyes. I don’t interrogate them or torture them. I kill the men quickly with a gun. I’m not interested in their self-defense tactics. But the women, I watch die slowly. I’m curious. The little birds. Their songs are whimpers.”
Frank raised and waved the wine glass as he sang. “Sail with me into the unknown void / That has no end / Swept along the open road / That don’t seem to begin.”
“What is that? Alexa asked.
“It’s from an Arlo Guthrie song. When I killed the first woman, that song was playing on her house radio. I listened to the song as she bled out on the kitchen floor. The DJ mentioned the song and artist, so I made a mental note and eventually memorized the words. I recite the song every time I kill a woman. I never linger over the men.”
Biff’s phone vibrated in his pocket with lyrics from Adele’s “Hello.” He read the text. “My wife is in labor.”
“Timing.” Buff remarked.
“You can’t plan this shit.”
“I can handle the dinner convo and the equipment.”
“Sorry man. I have to go.”
“Yea. Go. Slap the wife and kiss the baby for me.”
Biff stuffed his gear in a small gym bag. “I’ll call from the hospital.” He opened the back door of the van, stepped out, and closed the door.
Buff put on the headphones.
“You know the family has a guy working in the FBI.” Francisco picked up his knife and fork, cut the last piece of steak from the bone, and chewed.
“Oh, shit.” Buff said to the empty van.
Alexa finished her wine. “That’s a smart move. I’ve heard rumors, but that’s not my side of the business.”
“The FBI ever approach you?”
“Not the FBI. Every year around tax season, the Secret Service and the IRS drop by my office or send a dozen emails.”
“What do you say?”
“My father taught me to say one thing and one thing only. There’s the books. You’re welcome to look at them.”
“And they leave you alone.”
“Never. They show up quarterly. Every two or three years one of their forensic accountants believes he found something, so an audit team performs an extensive review.”
“Sounds expensive and time consuming.”
“For them, yes. The taxpayer’s money.”
“It’s my job. I’m better that any Federal accountant. Zerilli Holdings pays a lot of legitimate taxes which pays The FBI accountants. They’re already on our payroll.”
The van was stuffy. Buff removed the headphones and opened a slider window on the west side. He heard the ocean in the distance and smelled the salt air. The little window didn’t allow much of a breeze, so Buff stepped out the back.
A dog barked down the street, then another dog responded. He envied Biff and his growing family. Buff was divorced two years with no kids. He poured his efforts into work to pass the time. He thought of himself as a good agent and investigator. He didn’t belong to a gym because he exercised at home on free weights and a pull up bar. He worked the speed bag in his garage. He did his daily pushups and crunches. He never dated. He never went to bars or clubs. He had no social life, and suddenly Buff realized he was alone in the world.
The impact wave and the noise of the missile striking Santa Monica Pier five miles away arrived at Buff’s van. He never knew what happened.
Alexa and Francisco had moved to the kitchen to drink Grasshoppers. Alexa’s kitchen was on the east end of the house, so when the missile wave struck, forty-feet of framed walls and sheetrock acted as a buffer. The house burst into flames, and the impact knocked Alexa and Frank to the tile kitchen floor.
Alexa passed out briefly. When she woke, her face was two feet from Frank’s face. A splinter of wood lodged in the back of his head and bulged from one eye socket. Alexa smelled what she thought might be flesh burning and realized her Brioni jacket was on fire. She shed the suit coat and slowly sat up. Her head throbbed. Smoke poured from the ceiling, and the wall clock lay face down and shattered. The ceramic finger of the second hand pointed toward the front of the house.
Alexa stumbled and coughed down the hallway into the foyer. The Dali Jesus stood unphased on the credenza. She wrapped her fist around the sculpture, opened the front door, and walked into the burning night.
Ramsey Mathews was born in Fitzgerald, Georgia. In Hollywood, he performed stand-in and stunt work for Patrick Swayze and Ron Perlman. He earned his PhD in English and Creative Writing from Florida State University, and he lives in Tallahassee, Florida.