Thursday, October 11, 2018

My Crime Fiction: 'The Count And The Cook'

 The below short story first appeared in American Crime Magazine in 2018: 

The Count and the Cook

 By Paul Davis

I carry my father’s Scot-Welch name and his blood proudly. I’m proud of my Italian blood as well.

I'm half-Italian – Sicilian, in fact. My mother’s maiden name was Guardino, and her parents came over to America from Sicily in the 1930s.  

I was reminded of this side of the family when I was contacted by a cousin that I remember only as a baby when I was a teenager. My cousin, Mike Guardino, read my newspaper crime columns online and sent me an email message.  

Like me, my cousin had served in the U.S. Navy. We emailed each other for a while and exchanged photos. I have little memory of him, but I recall clearly his father, my Uncle Sal, who was my mother’s brother. 

My uncle used to visit my house in the 1960s when I was a teenager. I recall a wiry guy of average height, with a rugged face and a strong voice. He and my father would sit at the kitchen table, drink beer and argue about World War II.  

My father had served in the U.S. Navy in the Pacific as a chief petty officer and Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) frogman and my uncle served in the U.S. Army in Europe as a rifleman. The two would share their war experiences and rib each other. Often the exchanges would get heated, but the nights always ended on a friendly note.  

My father died of cancer in 1976 and my uncle died of heart failure in 1988.

Mike emailed me and suggested we meet in person. He lived in South Jersey, not far from my South Philly home, so we met at Russo's bar in South Philly. Mike knew the owner and we were served great Italian sausage sandwiches and red wine.  

Mike said he felt like he knew me, as he was a regular reader of my crime column in the local newspaper. He also recalled his father speaking lovingly about his beautiful sister Claire, my mother. 

Originally from South Philadelphia, my cousin moved to South Jersey after getting out of the Navy. He told me that he was a New Jersey state trooper, having followed in the footsteps of his father, who had been a Philadelphia police officer.   

Like our late fathers, we swapped stories about our time in the military. I served on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War and afterwards on a Navy harbor tugboat at the nuclear submarine base in Holy Loch, Scotland. My cousin told me he served more than a decade later on a Navy Destroyer in the Mediterranean. I also discovered that like me, my cousin was an amateur boxer while in the Navy.   

We spoke eventually of Sicily, which we both visited while in the Navy. We both have fond memories of our time in Sicily. My cousin also told me of the time he visited Sicily as a young boy with his mother and father and his father’s friend and family.  

He could not recall the name of the town, which was near Palermo, nor could he remember the name of the seaside resort where they spent a wonderful week. But he did recall that the fine vacation was marred somewhat by an altercation with a powerful local man known as “The Count.”  

The Russo and Guardino families had a great first day at the resort. They eat fabulous Sicilian food, drank wine, basked in the warm sun, and swam in the ocean and the pool. 

Also at the resort was a large party of local men and their wives. The leader of this group was a man in his late 30s that everyone called “The Count.” He was darkly handsome, athletically fit and possessed a regal bearing. He gave all of the instructions to the resort staff and did most of the talking among the men. 

Mike Guardino, all of 10-years-old, first understood the expression “looking down one’s nose at someone,” as the man called the Count did indeed rear his head back and look down his nose at people. 

The man, Luigi Di Salvo, who was called Count Luigi, was the center of attention that first day, showing his prowess as a diver and swimmer as he leapt from the diving board and dove into the pool. He also showed his prowess as a fencer, as the resort had set up an area near the pool where Di Salvo and a friend matched fencing swords. Di Salvo won the match and his group of friends all applauded.   

At dinner that first night, Sal Guardino and his wife and small child sat with his friend, Angelo Russo, known as “Ange,” and his wife and young son. Russo owned and operated a small bar and grill in South Philadelphia. Russo, who came from a poor family, was proud of his success as a cook and bar owner.  

Russo was a big and heavy man with a large belly from eating his own food, and huge muscular arms and legs from the physical work he performed in the bar and grill.  

It was Russo’s idea that he and his good friend Sal Guardino visit the island where their two families had come from originally. The two men had visited the island once before, as they were both veterans of the Allied invasion of Sicily in World War II. Russo had been Guardino’s sergeant and as the two men both hailed from South Philly, they became good friends. 

Russo, thrilled to have returned to Sicily, ordered a local wine and gave a toast in Sicilian. 

At a table nearby, Di Salvo sat with his party. He heard the toast, and he called over the resort’s manager. Loudly in Sicilian, he upbraided the manager for allowing "fat, loud and ignorant American tourists" to sit near his table. The manager apologized and said he would arrange more appropriate sitting in the future.  

Young Mike Guardino did not understand what was said but he saw Russo’s face turn dark red and saw his powerful, big hands grip and twist his napkin. Sal Guardino, who didn’t understand Sicilian, didn’t know what was said, but he too saw Russo’s anger.  

Russo rose out of his chair and walked up to Di Salvo and shot him an angry look. 

“Meet me on the beach – now!” Russo said to Di Salvo in Sicilian. 

Di Salvo got up from his chair, slowly and disdainfully. He waved his arm, bidding Russo to go first. Sal Guardino told the wives and children to stay at the table and he would find out was happening.  

On the beach, Russo told Di Salvo that he heard his remark, and if his wife and family understood Sicilian they would have been insulted and humiliated. He then would have to do something.  

Di Salvo, surrounded by three men, laughed and said in perfect English, “Do what exactly?” 

Guardino stepped behind Russo and Di Salvo’s men looked at each other and backed up a bit. 

Mike Guardino had broken free from his mother’s grip and ran to the beach after his father. He watched the men face off against each other.  

“This conversation is over. I have nothing more to say to someone like you,” Di Salvo said, looking down his nose at Russo. He then simply walked away, his three men in tow. 

The manager ran up to Russo and Guardino and he looked as if he were going to cry. 

He pleaded with Russo to not make a scene. Russo countered by saying that the man had insulted him, his family and friends. The manager apologized for Count Luigi and said the resort was large enough to accommodate both parties - separately, but equal in service.  

The manager put his arm around Russo and said in a low voice that Count Luigi was not truly a count, but he had come home from the university showing airs. He was, however, truly the son of an important man in Palermo - "a Man of Honor." 

Cosa Nostra?” Guardino, the South Philly cop, asked. “We got those guys where we come from as well.”  

The manager again pleaded for peace.  

“OK,” Russo said. “I can see that this guy is an athlete and I’m an old, fat guy now. But in my day, before the war, I was a professional boxer, and I can still throw a good combo. You tell the Count that.” 

The manger did not know that a “combo” was a combination of left and right punches, but he understood the idea. And he had no intention of telling Di Silva anything of the sort.  

But one of Di Silva’s men was standing nearby and he heard every word.                  

The next day Russo was getting drinks for his group at the poolside bar when one of Di Salvo’s men sided up to him.  

“The Count wishes to speak to you,” he said, pointing towards Di Salvo at a nearby table.  

“I’ll be right there,” Russo replied.  

Russo dropped the drinks off to his family and walked over to Di Salvo. Di Salvo rose and looked Russo up and down disdainfully.   

“I heard you threatened me with your boxing skills,” Di Salvo said. “Well, as it happens, boxing is among my skills as well. I boxed at university. If you were not a fat, old man, I would challenge you to a boxing match.”  

“Challenge accepted,” Russo said flatly. “I’ll take you in the first.” 

Di Salvo looked confused until one of his men explained that Russo meant that he would end the match in the first round in his favor. Di Salvo smiled and said they would meet on the beach that night. Lights and a boxing ring would be set up. He would make all of the arrangements with the resort manager. 

Later, as Russo nursed a drink with Guardino, the manager came up to him and asked if he was insane. 

“The Count is a world-class athlete, and you are old! The Count’s father, Don Antonio, is here,” the manager said, pointing surreptitiously to an elderly man sitting by himself at a table with a big man standing nearby. 

“Make the arrangements he ordered,” Russo said. “The fight is on.”  

The manager stormed off waving his arms and muttering. Russo walked back to his room. Guardino walked over to Don Antonio’s table. The big man moved in front of the table. 

"Get out of the way," Guardino told the man. 

The man at the table barked an order in Sicilian and the big man moved. 

Guardino sat down and faced the Sicilian Cosa Nostra organized crime boss. Guardino pulled out his wallet and slapped his police badge on the table.  

“I hope this will be a fair fight between your son and my friend,” Guardino said. 

 Don Antonio slowly sipped his coffee. He looked directly at Guardino.

“I do not fight my son’s battles. He is capable of fighting the foolish fights he himself begins, " Don Antonio said in English. “Frankly, I hope your friend knocks him on his ass, as you Americans say.”  

The two men laughed. 


Later that night, Russo and Guardino arranged for a car to take their wives and sons to a restaurant in Palermo, but Mike Guardino slipped away and hid behind a low wall near the beach to watch the fight. 

Lights were strung over a makeshift near-regulation boxing ring. Di Salvo came out in boxing gloves and a pair of shorts, his bare torso and arms thick with toned muscle. The large crowd cheered for him. 

Russo and Guardino walked towards the ring. Russo had on boxing gloves and was in shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt, which covered his protruding belly and showed his big arms. His bare legs were as thick as tree stumps.  

The fight began with Di Salvo delivering a series of solid blows to Russo’s face and middle. Although Russo’s left eye was closed, and his nose bloodied, he stood toe-to-toe with his younger opponent and traded punches.  

Then Russo delivered a good left to Di Salvo’s nose and a strong right hook to Di Salvo’s ear, which dropped him hard to the canvas. 

The crowd gasped, and some brave souls even cheered. Di Salvo got up quickly and showed that he was not injured. It appeared that only his pride was hurt. He rushed Russo and pounded him, but the old cook took the beating and stayed on his feet.  

Round two saw the two hit each other repeatedly and both were bloodied. Russo looked the worst of the two, as he had blood coming from his eyes, ears and nose. The referee the resort had hired tried to stop the fight.  

Russo would not have it. He waved Di Salvo on.  

Like Rocky Marciano, Russo’s boxing hero, Russo dropped his right hand low to the canvas and then brought it up swiftly where it connected under Di Salvo’s chin. Di Salvo collapsed on the canvas floor.  

The referee gave Di Salvo an “eight count” and then Di Salvo rose slowly to his feet. 

He came at Russo slowly, cautiously. Russo leaned on the ropes with his hands up. His left eye was closed, and his right eye was filled with blood, so he had trouble seeing Di Salvo. But when Di Salvo came in slugging, Russo wrapped his left arm around his opponent and drove his right hand repeatedly into Di Salvo’s middle.  

Di Salvo tried to break free as well as block the powerful blows to his body, but Russo had swung him around and pinned him against the ropes. Russo rained down punches into Di Salvo. The referee tried to break up the fighters, but he was not strong enough. 

Finally, Di Salvo collapsed in Russo’s grip and Russo let him drop to the canvas.             


The next day a much humbled and bruised Di Salvo walked up to Russo’s table and bowed to the two families assembled for lunch. He brought a bottle of fine wine and offered it to Russo. 

“My father suggested that I apologize for my rude behavior and congratulate you on your win in the boxing ring,” Di Salvo said. “As always, my father offers wise advice. I am truly sorry if my boorish behavior spoiled your vacation.”  

“Apology accepted,” Russo said gruffly. “Sit down and have a drink with us.”  

Di Salvo sat down. This time, Di Salvo offered a Sicilian toast.  

“If you and I recover sufficiently during your stay, I’d like to once again challenge you," Di Salvo said. "But not in the boxing ring!”  

Everyone at the table laughed.  

“We can set up targets here. How are you with guns?” Di Salvo asked Russo. “Can you shoot?”  

“Ask the Nazis he kicked off this island,” Guardino said.  

 © 2018 Paul Davis 

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