Funerals were a source of mystery and entertainment in families such as mine. At least they are for me. This thought crossed my mind as the crowd gathered in the foyer of Nardolillo's Funeral Home. First our family members, then several FBI agents along with local cops, all shuffled past the casket. A line of mobsters uneasily followed them. Family friends were last to drag their feet past the dead man.
It was easy to tell who was what.
Mafia wise guys wore lots of bling. Heavy gold rings with diamond chunks laced their pinky fingers, while thick gold necklaces -- heavy enough to sink a cruise ship -- adorned their necks. Dressed in Armani suits that cost a small fortune, wearing handmade leather shoes, and silk neckties that finished off their attire, these men were easy to spot.
FBI agents wore cheap suits bought off the rack, had well-trimmed haircuts and pious attitudes. The only exception to that would be my friend and tenant, Aaron Grant. An undercover FBI agent, Aaron always dressed like he modeled for GQ Magazine.
The local Rhode Island cops, a more relaxed crew than the FBI, wore casual clothing or uniforms. These guys couldn't afford Armani and wouldn't wear FBI attire if it killed them. I'm aware of this since I work with cops all the time.
My immediate family had gathered early for private viewing and a prayer service. I was spared that event, I'm happy to say. My great uncle, Nate, was laid out in a pin-striped suit, his features as dashing as ever, even in death. Stiff and cold, his handsome face remained the same.
The rest of the family, cousins, aunts, uncles, my parents, grandmother, and I filled the first several rows of chairs lined up before the casket. Everyone had taken their turn to kneel in front of the dead body to whisper a "Hail Mary" or maybe to curse the charming scoundrel. Everyone except the FBI guys, that is.
Nate Esposito, the family bad boy from my dad's side, was the family member nobody acknowledged knowing -- when put to the test. His dirty deeds had led him into an unpredictable and sordid life that left most of us just plain embarrassed.
Anyhow, I viewed the whole scene with a straight face, though my offbeat sense of humor caused me an internal chuckle at the varied parade. Great uncle Nate would have loved every minute of this.
My gaze took in the heavy brocade draperies and thick-piled carpets. Soft music played in the background, and the nauseating smell of funeral flowers clogged my nostrils. This place had earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from my family over the years, and rightly so.
It was expected that when a family member passed on, no matter how, Nardolillo's was the place for viewing -- and all that entailed. Traditionally, my relatives used this funeral home.
My mother, Theresa Esposito, sat on one side of my father, Gino Esposito, while my grandmother and I sat on the other side. Mom leaned forward and pitched her head a bit, motioning that I should follow her into the foyer. Yikes. Now what? I nodded and whispered to my father that we would return in a moment. He stared at me but didn't utter a sound.
In the corridor, my mother grasped my arm. She glanced in both directions and dragged me toward the sofa furthest from where we stood. Other than the few people heading into the opposite viewing room, the corridor lay empty.
"Did you see that crowd? What do you think the cops want?" she asked in a whisper.
Obviously my mom, peacemaker and mother extraordinaire, had figured out there was more to the viewers than grief. This revelation was big. Mom tended toward innocence.
"Apparently some of these people want to make sure he's dead, Mom. I think the FBI is here to verify that, but also to keep an eye on who attends this affair. The cops, well, they're probably friends, ya know? As for the mob, who knows what they're about?"
My mother nodded. She squeezed my hand and glanced down the hallway. I turned and my eyes followed her gaze. Aaron Grant headed toward us. He smiled, his white teeth flashing bright against his tan. The man was golden brown all year through. How he managed that I couldn't imagine. It was a tan most women dreamed of.
I smiled back, as did my mother. Yeah, she thought Aaron was a real catch, but then, she thought Marcus was too. The only problem being, the family had no idea Aaron was undercover FBI. If they knew, he wouldn't be welcome in the bosom of our Italian tribe. Even Marcus Richmond, a Rhode Island State Trooper, walked a thin line with my father, but it was doubtful that Marcus cared. His State Police status gave him a certain amount of ego and swagger. He wasn't easily put off. I liked him for it.
"I wondered if you knew anything about Nate's latest business deals, Lavinia?" Mom asked under her breath as Aaron approached. Unwilling to speak of our dirty laundry in front of a non-family member, my mother's words rushed from her mouth.
"What business deals?" I asked, wide-eyed.
"I'm not sure, but I thought your police friends might have mentioned Nate's activities to you. If he'd behaved, he wouldn't be here now."
"I thought he croaked from a heart attack. How did the old miscreant kick the bucket?"
"He, um ... well, he was found in a very compromising situation with a lady friend. His wife is beside herself over it. He and the woman were, ah, well, um, doing the, uh, you know ... and he kind of died from overexertion."
"Get out.... Really?" I guffawed and clapped a hand over my mouth in haste.
"Lavinia, really. It's not funny. Lena is quite mortified."
I nodded, though a smile lingered when I turned to greet Aaron.
The WWF-sized, handsome man leaned forward to kiss my mother on the cheek. Then he kissed me on the lips. I smiled while my mother blushed. Good grief.
"I'm so sorry for your loss, Mrs. Esposito. Is Mr. Esposito inside?" Aaron murmured.
Charm dripped off the man. I stared at him through narrowed eyes, when I suddenly realized he was here on business instead of to express sympathy. Like his FBI cronies, Aaron was undoubtedly here to see if Uncle Nate had indeed kicked the bucket. I rose and nodded my head in answer to his question.
"Yeah, he's in there with the FBI, cops, and the mob -- who have all paid their respects to the old geezer."
"Lavinia!" My mother glared at me, her tone a tad snappy.
Aaron held his grin in check and turned to escort us into the viewing room. "Vinnie, I'm sure you didn't mean to offend your mother that way."
Lavinia Esposito is my given name, in honor of my Aunt Lavinia Ciano. My twin brother, Giovanni, nicknamed me Vinnie when we were kids -- and it stuck.
The aunt of all aunts, Lavinia had been my friend and confidante during my lifetime. She'd backed me up in tight spots with my family. When Livvy died, she'd left her colonial apartment house in the country, and a small gift shop in Providence, to me.
As a criminal justice instructor at a local university, I deal with cops, security personnel or "Two-Point-Fives" as they are called in the business, and wannabe's every day of the school year. I had Livvy to thank for that. My life was never dull or mundane, and I enjoyed every moment of it. Well, most of the time.
My mother walked on one side of Aaron and I walked on the other as we slowly entered the room. My gaze roamed the cops and agents lined against the rear wall, all of whom whispered to one another. They glanced in our direction and then away, no recognition on their faces. Ah, that good old cop training.
A woman stepped behind us as we approached the casket. My mother left me with Aaron and returned to sit with my father and Nonni, my grandmother. Aaron glanced down at me as I knelt on the small bar in front of the casket. It tickled my sense of humor to know that Aaron would have to follow suit. He'd kneel to this criminal and pretend to pray. With a smirk, I glanced over as he took his place beside me.
His large frame nudged me sideways as he moved closer. My knees teetered on the edge of the short bar. Aaron turned, a look of surprise toward me. I peered past him at the round, bodacious woman with thin, flaming red hair who settled next to us.
Her pink scalp showed through the teased hairdo. Globs of make-up plastered her face. Lips defined outside their rims sparkled with glittery red lipstick. Good God, Halloween had come and gone.
The bar sagged in the middle. Shit. We'd be on the floor in a second, if this kept up. I leaned way forward for a better view of who'd joined us, when a loud whoop issued from my left. I glanced at Aaron before scrambling to my feet.
My great-aunt Lena scurried forward, her handbag swinging wide, her wrinkled features contorted in rage. She hurled the handbag like a shot put.
"You tramp!" Lena screamed. A mad dog snarl curled her lip. "You killed my Nate--you dirty rotten tramp."
The handbag found its mark as the broad-chested woman rose from the casket bench to stare at the oncoming maniac. The bag whacked the redhead upside her head, sending the woman to the floor on her knees. On spindly legs, Aunt Lena scurried forward. Loose high-heeled shoes flopped on her tiny feet. The black knit dress stretched across Lena's plump body and her stiff blue hair bounced with each step.
Everyone waited, enthralled as the scene unfolded before them. I glanced at my father and watched him shake his head, his lips compressed. I could tell he wasn't about to become embroiled in this drama. Smart man. My mother stared in horror. Nonni jeered at the strange woman, the same woman who'd managed to send my great uncle into the wide blue yonder with a smile on his lips.
The cops and agents in the back of the room lolled against the wall, waiting and watching. With their eyes, my family members passed the buck from one person to another, not knowing what to do or how to handle their demented relative.
I determined to stop the scene from playing out any further, but made the mistake of stepping in front of Lena.
"Auntie, please get a hold of yourself." I pleaded with the overwrought woman.
Short in stature, Lena moved like an out-of-control steamroller. Across the room she rolled, brushing me aside like an insignificant ant. I caught her arm, swinging her to meet my gaze. Wrong move.
Her hand came up as she rounded on me. I leaned aside and then grasped Lena by the waist. She struggled as I half lifted her fluffy body off the floor. "Is someone going to help me here?" I yelled.
Cheers, accompanied by applause, rose from the back of the room. With my hands full of her bulging flesh, I whirled Lena around and set her down to face the family.
Aaron grasped my arm. He dragged me aside as the red-haired woman rose from the floor and sped past. Holding the offending handbag clutched tightly in her long-clawed hand, she thwacked Lena with it. The crowd roared and Nonni yelled words like 'Punch-a da tramp-a, punch-a her.' Nonni's heavy Italian accent was laden with excitement.
For a second I thought I was at a Providence Bruins hockey game. I usually yell similar stuff when a fight breaks out on the ice. Smiling cops moved through the crowded room as Aaron grasped my arm. He drew me close when the family swarmed forward to help Lena, and effectively blocked the cops.
My parents and Nonni headed toward the door. My father gripped Nonni's arm. Her fist shook in the air as she yelled words drowned by the noise of the dramatic incident. FBI agents left the room followed by the mob. The cops wrestled through the rest of the family.
My twin cousins were the last people I saw before Aaron removed me from the tide of bodies. Gina and Cara were struggling to break up the elderly women. The two old harridans clutched each other by the throat in an effort to choke the shit out of one another. All over a dead man, huh.
In the corridor, Aaron ushered me toward the side doors. Gina and Cara soon hustled behind us. Gina straightened her long dress while Cara smoothed her dark mass of wavy hair.
"Vin, did you see that?" The twins laughed, speaking at once.
"G," I said using Gina's nickname, "I can't believe that woman would have the nerve to show her sorry ass here. Cripes, she screwed Nate to death. Lena's having a cow over it."
Cara glanced at Aaron who paced the hallway, shaking his head. She turned to me, dipped her head toward him and waggled her perfect eyebrows. I chuckled while Gina glared at her identical sister. I glanced back at the viewing room and watched as funeral parlor guardians headed into the fray.
"We'd better leave, ladies." Aaron glanced at the people still fleeing the room in alarm. He motioned to us with a crook of his finger.
All four of us left the building and scurried across the parking lot. Aaron's black Yukon sat two cars from my pale blue Altima. Gina and Cara had arrived in Cara's school bus yellow Hummer, parked a few rows behind my car.
We stood near the Yukon as a swell of people flowed from the building. My parents were gone, and I was expected at their house -- a neighborhood away.
"I'm going to my parents' house if you want to join me," I said to the twins and Aaron.
"Great," Gina and Cara said with smiles. They moved toward the Hummer and waved as they drove past.
"Your cousins are gorgeous. Beauty runs in your family, huh? I didn't have a chance to meet anyone before round one," Aaron said.
With a snort of humor, I chuckled and nodded. "Yeah, we're a good looking crew, but not everyone is wrapped real tight. Gina and Cara are the exception, though."
"Their real names are Cara and Gina? Don't you get confused since they're identical? How do you tell them apart?"
"Their full names are Regina and Carina. How to tell them apart is secret knowledge." I grinned as we left the lot.