The tall man found his shoes burrowing into the silk pile of the Kashan rug, which dated from the early 17th century and Shah Abbas and should have been hung reverently on a wall; he stopped shuffling with a feeling of desecration. He was no longer smiling; in fact, he was becoming angry. This would never do. Not with Nino. You had to match Nino’s cool.

He made an effort and composed himself.

“It’s nothing, really,” he repeated. “Let’s get on with it, Nino, shall we? Whatever it is. Whatever’s on your mind.” A mistake, he thought with a sinking feeling. It showed fear. You never showed fear to Nino, because then he had you.

“You don’t know?”

“No, Nino, I don’t.”

This time it was Importuna who smiled. What big teeth you have, Grandpa.

“Superba Foods?” Importuna said suddenly. “L.M.T. Electronics? Harris-Fuller Farm Implements? Ultima Mining?”

“Yes?” The tall man was really proud of himself; his eyes had not so much as flickered. Even his breathing remained under control. “What about them, Nino?”

“Now you’re being coy with me,” Importuna said. “Or stupido. And you are not stupido; I don’t employ controllers who are stupido. So my vice-president the controller is playing the game of innocence. To play the game of innocence is to admit your guilt. Bene?

“I wish I knew what you were talking about, Nino.”

“Guilt,” Importuna repeated through the oversized teeth. The smile added stress to the word, like a written underlining. It tied little knots in the tall man’s back. But he maintained his puzzled posture.

He shook his head carefully. “Guilt, Nino? Guilt about what?”

“L.M.T. Ultima. Superba. Harris-Fuller.”

“I heard you the first time. I still don’t understand.”

“They’re companies owned by the conglomerate?”

“Of course.”

“You’re controller in those companies?”

“What’s the point, Nino?”

“You are stupido after all.” Importuna gripped a fresh stogy in his teeth and leaned back in his tall swivel chair. “But then to think you could get away with your beautiful false bookkeeping without my finding out, Mr. Controller Vice-President Big Shot High Liver Whoremaster Gambler, is all by itself the sign of a fool. Not that you haven’t been smart the way you manipulated the figures. You’re a real magician with figures; I always said it. It looked too easy to you, hey? A little here, a little there, some from this company debited to that and from that company posted to a third-you thought you could pull this stuff for years under my nose. Maybe it was luck, amico-your bad luck, my good luck-that I found out at all?” lie lit the stogy and, like a one-man firing squad, directed a burst of acrid smoke across the great table. “What do you think?”

“Oh, I agree,” the tall man said. “A man would have to be a fool, Nino, as you say. He’d never have a Chinaman’s chance against you.”

The large head wagged.

“Now you insult me. You’re still playing games. You think I’m guessing, trying to trap you when I don’t really have the goods on you? Another of your mistakes, amico. I sent an expert to examine your books. Under cover, of course.”

The controller said slowly, “That new man, Hartz.”

“S’intende. He reports to me that my smart controller-vice-president has stolen from me and my brothers over the past three years over $300,000. What’s more, he brought me the proofs. If I turn the proofs over to the district attorney and the Internal Revenue, Mr. Controller, you’ll spend what is left of your life either in Sing Sing or the Danbury prison, depending on whether New York State or the federal government gets its hands on you first. You were going to say?”

“You might offer the condemned man a cigar.”

Importuna looked surprised. He extended the box of stogies.

“Not those, if you don’t mind,” the tall man said. “The Havanas you keep for your peers are more to my taste.”

“Your taste,” the tycoon said, smiling for the third time. “Oh, yes.” He picked up the antique Florentine dagger he used as a letter opener, and with it he nudged a tooled-leather humidor toward the other side of the table. The controller opened it, scooped out a handful of big fat fragrant green cigars, lit one, slipped the others carefully into his breast pocket, sat back, and puffed with enjoyment.

“I don’t know what you paid the man who smuggled these in from Cuba for you, Nino, but they’d be a bargain at triple the price. How can you keep polluting the atmosphere with those ghastly black pretzels of yours when you’ve got these to smoke? But what I was about to say, Nino,” he went on, “is that if you’ve called me up here this evening to talk about it, you’ve something other than policemen and income tax people in mind for me. That was clear from the start. Of course, I couldn’t be altogether sure. I mean, if I seemed a bit nervous, I’ll admit I was. But now I’m positive. Your so-called proofs are the lever with which you’re trying to shove me into a deal. You want something for your money, and I’ve apparently got it.”

“That,” Importuna said with the soft smile, his fourth, “is not the saying of the stupido I took you for.”

“I feel fairly safe in assuming that, with your usual efficiency and thoroughness, you’ve gone into my activities in depth. So you probably know where the allegedly borrowed funds went, and how, and you know as well that I haven’t a dime of it left-that I’m additionally in debt, in fact, way over my head. So you can’t be expecting restitution. At least not in kind. So what’s the quid pro quo, Nino? What do I have that you could possibly want?”


For a moment the tall man sat quite still. As he sat his eyes darkened to a deep sea blue. “Virginia,” he said, as if it were a word he had never heard before.

“Virginia,” the industrialist repeated, tasting it.

He took the Havana out of his mouth, peering at its smoke. “Well, I don’t know, Nino. This isn’t your mountainside Italy. Or the 19th century. By the way, you are proposing to marry my daughter, aren’t you? Not just play some dirty bedroom game with her?”

“Maiale! E figlio d’uri maiale!”

The tall man sat unmoved by the almost visible steam coming out of the espresso eyes. He was a little surprised at Importuna’s wrath; the old cod must really like the girl.

The man behind the table sank back, fuming. “Yes, she’s to be my wife,” he said curtly. “Don’t make me mad again. What I say to you is this: You talk Virginia into marrying me, and I not only won’t prosecute you for embezzling Importuna money, I’ll even pay your debts-$46,000, isn’t it?”

“Forty-eight and some,” the embezzler said delicately.

“-because then, you see, you’ll be my father-in-law. My suocero, as they say in the old country. Family. You know how we take care of family… suocero.

“I’m a bit young for the role,” the controller murmured, “but unsuccessful thieves are like beggars, Nino, aren’t they?” He stuck the cigar back between his teeth. “At that I’m not sure I understand. You say you want to marry Virginia. You’ve never struck me as an Italian Miles Standish. You usually speak right up when you want something. How come you haven’t asked her? Or have you?”

“Many times.”

“Then she’s turned you down.”

“Each time… “ Importuna was about to say more. Instead, he crushed his stogy out.

“Then how do you expect me to get her to change her mind? You’ve been an American long enough to know that dutiful daughters and arranged marriages went out with bundling and the bustle.”

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