The Magdalene Heist
by Anselmo J. Alliegro
I: The Shiny Object
A private investigation office Sam Spade would keep, high in the Empire State Building, replete with Paul Pronzini’s trench coat and hat on a rack. A large man, Pronzini sat squeezed behind his desk, aged late forties, tie loose around his thick neck, more fat and flabby than the husky, muscular man he had been some years ago.
She walked into his office ten years too late.
His client sat across the table, prim and shapely, chin-length bob-style raven hair, draped in a conservative black skirt suit, with matching stockings and high heels. Pronzini noticed her black stockings and wondered if a garter belt held them up. The skirt was short, but not short enough to provide him with an answer.
Ten years too late! He needed to stay focused. If Maggie Stefano was anything like her father, this exquisite rose could have sharp thorns.
“Shoot straight with me, Ms. Stefano. If I can’t trust you I’ll have to drop the case,” said Pronzini bluntly.
Maggie leaned back, displaying an exaggerated sense of disbelief. “What do you mean? I gave you the name of the man I’m looking for: Joe Russo.”
“I’ve learned a few things about Joe Russo,” disclosed Pronzini. “He’s changed his identity and is shipping out of the U.S.”
“You’ve found him? Where is he?”
“Why are you looking for him, Ms. Stefano?”
“I think Joe, that son-of-a-bitch, killed my father.”
“He’s the thief that got away?”
Mob boss Frank Stefano, a man Pronzini respected and had worked for, kept himself out of the headlines. He was the last of the old-timers, quietly directing a vast and profitable business empire. If Joe had killed Stefano, Maggie could have Joe eliminated by simply offering him to her father’s associates.
“That’s what I think. I know you can find him,” said Maggie.
“Why not go to the police?”
“I have my reasons.”
Pronzini leaned forward. “Revenge?” he specified, and leaned back again, quite dismissive. “No offense, but I can’t take the case. I’ll return your retainer’s fee. Look, Ms. Stefano, I specialize in insurance matters — nice and clean — and only took the case because I was your father’s friend. Besides, I have a feeling you’re not telling me the whole story.”
“If you don’t help... I can’t turn to the police. You know my father’s business.”
“What proof do you have Joe’s a murderer?”
Maggie sat quiet, her dark-blue gems gazing, pleading for his sympathy, and wandering off in search of a reply. She rose from her chair, turned away from Pronzini, and took a few anxious steps.
“Please, if I tell you... I never told anyone,” she began. “When I was younger, much younger — a silly, foolish girl — Joe Russo was my boyfriend. Had my father known, he would’ve killed him; it’s the rules of the Mafia. He worked for my father.”
“Don’t expect me to believe you love the man,” Pronzini said.
Maggie turned to Pronzini. “Not now but, back then, we planned to run away together. And I was a rebellious daughter; I told Joe about my father’s most precious possession: his golden statuette of Mary Magdalene. It’s worth a fortune and made of solid gold. Joe and I planned to take it and run away to a Caribbean island.”
Pronzini looked up at her from behind his desk, scrutinizing her, gauging for any sign of deception.
“Told you I was a silly girl,” she added.
“So what you really want is the statue?” Pronzini finally said.
“How can you say that? I hated my father’s lifestyle, but I never hated my father. Rest easy when I tell you, I love my father and will stop at nothing to find his killer.”
“This kind of case will cost you. We’re talking murder, fugitives, stolen treasure — high stakes.”
“Justice at any price,” she said.
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“You said he’s leaving the country. Where’s he going?”
“Somewhere in the Caribbean. I know what you’re thinking. Let’s not jump to any conclusions, Ms. Stefano.”
Paul Pronzini requested details from Maggie about the stolen treasure. A priceless statuette, Maggie explained, about 12 inches tall, made of solid gold, created in the 15th century by the Renaissance sculptor Donatello.
Pronzini took the case, lured by the shiny object. He knew far more about Joe Russo than he had revealed. Only recently the FBI had paid him a visit; they too were searching for Joe. Did Joe really possess such a valuable work of art? Joe had the answer, and his ship had not yet sailed.
Three days before Maggie entered his office, Pronzini met with Joe Russo at the Museum of Natural History. Pronzini waited in the Hall of Biodiversity, among the exhibit’s lifeless critters in display cases. Joe found him there. They walked casually as they spoke.
“Punctual, I like that,” said Pronzini. “Can I trust a man that’s punctual?”
“You can trust this man, right here,” said Joe, pointing at himself.
“I only trust people I’m depending on. And I’m depending on you, Joe.”
“Depend all you want. Hey, I don’t cross nobody.” Joe looked around. “Weird place to meet.”
“I came here often as a kid,” Pronzini said. “You know, get out of the hustle and bustle.”
“Got the documents?” asked Joe.
“Yeah, but first, some words of wisdom. Don’t get sentimental. If you call family for birthdays and holidays, their phone may be tapped to reveal your whereabouts. Investigators like me catch a lot of fish that way.”
“Right, no phone calls. Now out with the documents.”
“Pay attention, and lower your voice,” warned Pronzini. “Captain Reggie, that’s your contact’s name. He’ll ship your ass down to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. From there you’ll fly to your destination. That’s where you’ll meet your guide to help you settle in. It’s all written down for you, along with the documents.”
Pronzini reached into his coat pocket and pulled out an envelope. Before he could hand it to him, Joe reached and swept it from his hand. A former Mafia soldier, Joe was all brawn and no brain; erratic, impulsive, and a possible liability.
Joe had been nearly beaten to death by a business partner for a debt he couldn’t pay. If captured by his former associates, he could name Pronzini as an accomplice, and land Pronzini in the Mafia’s hit list.
“You’ve cost me plenty, Pronzini,” said Joe.
“To keep your own people from nailing your ass, probably a bargain,” replied Pronzini.
Pronzini stopped under a life-size model of a giant squid. He gazed up at the sea monster hanging from the ceiling.
“When I was a kid I had nightmares about him,” said Pronzini. “Drowning... drifting down into the deep... that thing waiting for me. Know why he’s got all those arms? Because he’s greedy. If he wants you, you haven’t got a chance.”
Pronzini turned to Joe with a grave expression frozen on his face. The monstrous squid loomed over him, like an ominous cloud.
II: The Interview
On a sunny February day, temperate for the season, Robert Anello was enjoying a ray of sunlight on his face as he walked home down Thompson Street. Robert had felt old at twenty-five, having dropped out of art school, his life droning on without any notable accomplishments. But recently, a sense of hope had come to Robert’s life.
Robert saw two men in suits watching him, looking conspicuous, and standing idly among the pedestrians that hurried along. Robert wanted to ignore them, but they blocked his path. They looked like police detectives. What have I done? thought Robert.
“Please step into the car, Mr. Anello,” said the one that approached him, and indicated a car at the curb.
“Who are you?” asked Robert.
The man flashed a license: Federal Bureau of Investigation. “I am Special Agent O’Brien, and my partner is Agent Kurins. You’re not in trouble, Mr. Anello. We just need to ask you a few questions. Real quick, in the car where it’s nice and quiet,” said Agent O’Brien, guiding Robert toward the car.
They stepped into the vehicle; Robert with Agent O’Brien in the back seat, and the other took the driver’s seat. They stayed parked at the curb.
“This won’t take long, Mr. Anello. How long have you known Ms. Maggie Stefano?” asked Agent O’Brien.
“A few months. We met at the gallery where she works. She’s a curator. Hired me to make her a sculpture,” Robert explained, feeling trapped with the two agents. He noticed that the quiet agent, sitting on the driver’s seat, was taking notes.
“That’s interesting,” said Agent O’Brien. “What type of sculpture was it?”
The gilded replica was the type of sculpture that had required his utmost attention and finest craftsmanship, for it was a labor of love in more ways than one. The original statuette had an intriguing history. The 15th-century artist, Donatello, created the Repentant Saint later.
The sculpture was made of wood, and depicted a saint standing old and emaciated, her hands clasped in prayer. There was another, earlier work, in stark contrast. Donatello, in his later years, might have felt religious remorse for his sensual, golden statuette of Mary Magdalene, which was scantily clad with long flowing hair. She looks up, reaching out to heaven with an outstretched hand.
What type of sculpture was it? The type that might get him in trouble. The original statuette, a work of incalculable value, had been stolen decades before from the Prado Museum and never recovered. These agents can mistake a replica for a forgery, and forgeries are a crime.
“Oh just a small... classic theme... made of bronze,” rambled Robert.
Agent O’Brien took out a photograph. He held it close to Robert. “Recognize this guy?”
“He doesn’t look familiar.”
“Has Maggie mentioned a Joe Russo to you? Joe Russo, Mr. Anello.”
“Think hard. Your help is important.”
“Never heard of him. Can you tell me what’s going on?”
“We can’t do that.”
“Is Maggie in danger? I need to know.”
“Keep an eye out for Joe Russo. Let me give you my card.” Agent O’Brien handed Robert his business card. “If you see this guy, give us a ring. It’s confidential.”
Agent O’Brien opened the car door. Robert gladly stepped out, greeted by the cool breeze and the sunny February day.
He glanced at the fourth-story window of his apartment. Something glinted in the sunlight behind the window of his roommate’s study. Robert felt uneasy, thinking Lou might have seen his interview with the agents.
Robert entered the apartment quietly, hoping to avoid detection. Yet Lou was waiting.
“Robert, get in here,” Lou shouted.
Robert came to the doorway of Lou’s study. He caught Lou sitting at his desk, cleaning his M-16 military rifle with a rag, and smoking his long wooden pipe. He was aged and fat, with a white bushy beard, but strong and tenacious. And he was glaring at Robert. Lou had fought in the treacherous jungles of Vietnam. He had seen a man die, close and personal, at the end of his bayonet.
Lou stopped polishing his rifle and removed his pipe. “Who were those guys?”
“What guys?” replied Robert, purposely evasive, aware of Lou’s paranoid obsessions with the government.
“I saw you from my window. The scope on my rifle has proved pretty handy.”
“You were pointing that thing from the window? People can see you! That’s what I saw flashing in your window.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Now tell me about those guys.”
“They were FBI agents. Don’t panic, it has nothing to do with you or with me.”
“G-men,” said Lou, visibly disgusted.
“They were looking for a man named Joe Russo. Ever heard of him?”
“No, but if I did it’s nobody’s business.”
“I’ve never heard of him either.”
Lou stuck the pipe in his mouth. He began polishing the rifle again. Robert was about to leave. Then Lou stopped polishing and removed his pipe irritably.
Lou began his tirade, “We’re robbed, jailed, attacked, monitored, regulated, licensed, taxed, spied on. Know who’s doing it? Big Brother, kid. The government is screwing us every which way. Freedom? Ha! No such thing. United States? United slaves. Take a seat.”
“Nice rifle,” said Robert, and took a seat across from Lou.
“That’s all the government I need. Sure, they’d like to license me and ID me, and take away my right to carry a gun. Don’t let ’em ID you, kid. They pigeonhole you that way, keep tabs on you,” said Lou, and puffed on his pipe.
“But you fought for this country,” Robert reminded him.
“And what did I get for it — spit!”
Lou stood, his belly protruding over the back brace fastened around his waist. He was wearing his usual t-shirt and boxer shorts. His face became twisted with pain from a back injury he had suffered during his former job with the fire department. Robert had suspicions of his own, but not toward the FBI. His interview with the agents left some questions lingering in his mind. His lovely girlfriend, Maggie Stefano, had much explaining to do.
Copyright © 2015 by Anselmo J. Alliegro