Copyright © 2001 Mario Puzo.
All rights reserved.
MICHAEL CORLEONE STOOD on a long wooden dock in Palermo and watched the great ocean liner set sail for America. He was to have sailed on that ship, but new instructions had come from his father.
He waved goodbye to the men on the little fishing boat who had brought him to this dock, men who had guarded him these past years. The fishing boat rode the white wake of the ocean liner, a brave little duckling after its mother. The men on it waved back; he would see them no more.
The dock itself was alive with scurrying laborers in caps and baggy clothes unloading other ships, loading trucks that had come to the long dock. They were small wiry men who looked more Arabic than Italian, wearing billed caps that obscured their faces. Amongst them would be new bodyguards making sure he came to no harm before he met with Don Croce Malo, Capo di Capi of the " Friends of the Friends, " as they were called here in Sicily. Newspapers and the outside world called them the Mafia, but in Sicily the word Mafia never passed the lips of the ordinary citizen. As they would never call Don Croce Malo the Capo di Capi but only " The Good Soul."
In his two years of exile in Sicily, Michael had heard many tales about Don Croce, some so fantastic that he almost did not believe in the existence of such a man. But the instructions relayed from his father were explicit: he was ordered to have lunch with Don Croce this very day. And the two of them were to arrange for the escape from Sicily of the country's greatest bandit, Salvatore Guiliano. Michael Corleone could not leave Sicily without Guiliano.
Down at the end of the pier, no more than fifty yards away, a huge dark car was parked in the narrow street. Standing before it were three men, dark rectangles cut out of the glaring sheet of light that fell like a wall of gold from the sun. Michael walked toward them. He paused for a moment to light a cigarette and survey the city.
Palermo rested in the bottom of a bowl created by an extinct volcano, overwhelmed by mountains on three sides, and escaping into the dazzling blue of the Mediterranean Sea on the fourth side. The city shimmered in the golden rays of the Sicilian noon-time sun. Veins of red light struck the earth, as if reflecting the blood shed on the soil of Sicily for countless centuries. The gold rays bathed stately marble columns of Greek temples, spidery Moslem turrets, the fiercely intricate facades of Spanish cathedrals; on a far hillside frowned the battlements of an ancient Norman castle. All left by diverse and cruel armies that had ruled Sicily since before Christ was born. Beyond the castle walls, cone-shaped mountains held the slightly effeminate city of Palermo in a strangler's embrace, as if both were sinking gracefully to their knees, a cord pulling tightly around the city's neck. Far above, countless tiny red hawks darted across the brilliant blue sky.
Michael walked toward the three men waiting for him at the end of the pier. Features and bodies formed out of their black rectangles. With each step he could see them more clearly and they seemed to loosen, to spread away from each other as if to envelop him in their greeting.
All three of these men knew Michael's history. That he was the youngest son of the great Don Corleone in America, the Godfather, whose power extended even into Sicily. That he had murdered a high police official of New York City while executing an enemy of the Corleone Empire. That he had been in hiding and exile here in Sicily because of those murders and that now finally, matters having been "arranged," he was on his way back to his homeland to resume his place as crown prince to the Corleone Family. They studied Michael, the way he moved so quickly and effortlessly, his watchful wariness, the caved-in side of his face which gave him the look of a man who had endured suffering and danger. He was obviously a man of "respect."
As Michael stepped off the pier the first man to greet him was a priest, body plump in cassock, his head crowned by a greasy batlike hat. The white clerical collar was sprinkled with red Sicilian dust, the face above was worldly with flesh.
This was Father Benjamino Malo, brother to the great Don Croce. He had a shy and pious manner, but he was devoted to his renowned relative and never flinched at having the devil so close to his bosom. The malicious even whispered that he handed over the secrets of the confessional to Don Croce.
Father Benjamino smiled nervously as he shook Michael's hand and seemed surprised and relieved by Michael's friendly, lopsided grin, so unlike that of a famous murderer.
The second man was not so cordial, though polite enough. This was Inspector Frederico Velardi, head of the Security Police of all Sicily. He was the only one of the three who did not have a welcoming smile on his face. Thin and far too beautifully tailored for a man who received a government salary, his cold blue eyes shot two genetic bullets from long-ago Norman conquerors. Inspector Velardi could have no love for an American who killed high-ranking police officials. He might try his luck in Sicily. Velardi's handshake was like the touching of swords.
The third man was taller and bulkier; he seemed huge beside the other two. He imprisoned Michael's hand, then pulled him forward into an affectionate embrace. "Cousin Michael," he said. "Welcome to Palermo." He drew back and regarded Michael with a fond but wary eye. "I am Stefan Andolini, your father and I grew up together in Corleone. I saw you in America, when you were a child. Do you remember me?"
Oddly enough Michael did remember. For Stefan Andolini was that rarest of all Sicilians, a redhead. Which was his cross, for Sicilians believe that Judas was a redheaded man. His face too was unforgettable. The mouth was huge and irregular, the thick lips like bloody hacked meat; above were hairy nostrils, and eyes cavernous in deep sockets. Though he was smiling, it was a face that made you dream of murder.
With the priest, Michael understood the connection at once. But Inspector Velardi was a surprise. Andolini, carrying out the responsibility of a relative, carefully explained to Michael the Inspector's official capacity. Michael was wary. What was the man doing here? Velardi was reputed to be one of Salvatore Guiliano's most implacable pursuers. And it was obvious that the Inspector and Stefan Andolini disliked each other; they behaved with the exquisite courtesy of two men readying themselves for a duel to the death.
The chauffeur had the car door open for them. Father Benjamino and Stefan Andolini ushered Michael into the back seat with deferential pats. Father Benjamino insisted with Christian humility that Michael sit by the window while he sat in the middle, for Michael must see the beauties of Palermo. Andolini took the other back seat. The Inspector had already jumped in beside the chauffeur. Michael noticed that Inspector Velardi held the door handle so that he could twist it open quickly. The thought passed through Michael's mind that perhaps Father Benjamino had scurried into the middle seat to make himself less of a target.
Like a great black dragon, the car moved slowly through the streets of Palermo. On this avenue rose graceful Moorish-looking houses, massive Greek-columned public buildings, Spanish cathedrals. Private houses painted blue, painted white, painted yellow, all had balconies festooned with flowers that formed another highway above their heads. It would have been a pretty sight except for squads of carabinieri, the Italian National Police, who patrolled every corner, rifles at the ready. And more of them on the balconies above.
Their car dwarfed the other vehicles surrounding it, especially the mule-drawn peasant carts which carried in most of the fresh produce from the countryside. These carts were painted in gay, vivid colors, every inch of them down to the spokes of the wheels, the shafts that held the mules. On the sides of many carts were murals showing helmeted knights and crowned kings in dramatic scenes from the legends of Charlemagne and Roland, those ancient heroes of Sicilian folklore. But on some carts Michael saw scrawled, beneath the figure of a handsome youth in moleskin trousers and sleeveless white shirt, guns in his belt, guns slung over his shoulder, a legend of two lines which always ended with great red letters that spelled out the name GUILIANO.
During his exile in Sicily, Michael had heard a good deal about Salvatore Guiliano. His name had always been in the newspapers. People everywhere talked about him. Michael's bride, Apollonia, had confessed that every night she said prayers for the safety of Guiliano, as did nearly all the children and young people of Sicily. They adored him, he was one of them, he was the man they all dreamed of becoming. Young, in his twenties, he was acclaimed a great general because he outfought the carabinieri armies sent against him. He was handsome and he was generous, he gave most of his criminal earnings to the poor. He was virtuous and his bandits were never permitted to molest women or priests. When he executed an informer or a traitor, he always gave the victim time to say his prayers and cleanse his soul in order to be on the best of terms with the rulers of the next world. All this Michael knew without being briefed.
They turned off the avenue and a huge black-lettered poster on a house wall caught Michael's eye. He just had time to see the word GUILIANO on the top line. Father Benjamino had been leaning toward the window and said, "It is one of Guiliano's proclamations. Despite everything he still controls Palermo at night."
"And what does it say?" Michael asked.
"He permits the people of Palermo to ride the streetcars again," Father Benjamino said.
"He permits?" Michael asked with a smile. "An outlaw permits?"
On the other side of the car Stefan Andolini laughed. "The carabinieri ride the trams so Guiliano blows them up. But first he warned the public not to use them. Now he is promising not to blow them up anymore."
Michael said dryly, "And why did Guiliano blow up trams full of police?"
Inspector Velardi turned his head, blue eyes glaring at Michael. "Because Rome in its stupidity arrested his father and mother for consorting with a known criminal, their own son. A Fascist law never repealed by the republic."
Father Benjamino said with quiet pride. "My brother, Don Croce, arranged for their release. Oh, my brother was very angry with Rome."
Christ, Michael thought. Don Croce was angry with Rome? Who the hell was this Don Croce besides being pezzonovante in the Mafia?
The car stopped in front of a block-long, rose-colored building. Blue minarets crowned each separate corner. Before the entrance an extraordinary, wide green- striped canopy lettered HOTEL UMBERTO was guarded by two doormen stuffed into dazzling gold-buttoned uniforms. But Michael was not distracted by this splendor.
His practiced eye photographed the street in front of the hotel. He spotted at least ten bodyguards walking in couples, leaning against the iron railings. These men were not disguising their function. Unbuttoned jackets revealed weapons strapped to their bodies. Two of them smoking thin cigars blocked Michael's path for a moment when he came out of the car, scrutinizing him closely measuring him for a grave. They ignored Inspector Velardi and the others.
As the group entered the hotel, the guards sealed off the entrance behind them. In the lobby four more guards materialized and escorted them down a long corridor. These men had the proud looks of palace servants to an emperor.
The end of the corridor was barred by two massive oaken doors. A man seated in a high, thronelike chair stood up and unlocked the doors with a bronze key. He bowed, giving Father Benjamino a conspiratorial smile as he did so.
The doors opened into a magnificent suite of rooms; open French windows revealed a luxuriously deep garden beyond, which blew in the smell of lemon trees. As they entered Michael could see two men posted on the inside of the suite. Michael wondered why Don Croce was so heavily guarded. He was Guiliano's friend, he was the confidant of the Minister of Justice in Rome and therefore safe from the carabinieri who filled the town of Palermo. Then who, and what, did the great Don fear? Who was his enemy?
The furniture in the living room of the suite had been originally designed for an Italian palace gargantuan armchairs, sofas as long and deep as small ships, massive marble tables that looked as if they had been stolen from museums. They suitably framed the man who now came in from the garden to greet them.
His arms were held out to embrace Michael Corleone. Standing, Don Croce was almost as wide as he was tall. Thick gray hair, crinkly as a Negro's, carefully barbered, crowned a head massively leonine. His eyes were lizardly dark, two raisins embedded on top of heavily fleshed cheeks. These cheeks were two great slabs of mahogany, the left side planed smooth, the other creased with overgrown flesh. The mouth was surprisingly delicate, and above it was a thin mustache. The thick imperial spike of a nose nailed his face together.
But beneath that emperor's head he was all peasant.