The day before the wedding they all had to show up to attend a lightning course in catering. Copacabana had chosen a maître d’ who’d presided over dozens of weddings like this one; people even said that he’d been at Asinara Prison when Cutolo got married, that it was he who’d cut the wedding cake. Bullshit, obviously, but he was a trusted individual. When Nicolas and the others arrived at the restaurant, riding a herd of sputtering motor scooters, the maître d’ was waiting for them at the tradesman’s entrance. He was of an indeterminate age, somewhere between fifty and seventy, cadaverous, with jaundiced, jutting cheekbones. He stood there, stock-still, in a Dolce & Gabbana suit: slim tie, black trousers and jacket, gleaming shoes, dazzling white shirt. It all fit him to a T, Lord only knows, but on him it somehow seemed wasted.
They parked their motor scooters, continuing to do the same thing they’d done while riding: namely, shouting and telling one another to fuck off. Copacabana had told them that the maître d’ would meet them, and that he’d be able to tell them all they needed to know, how to move, which dishes to bring, what timing to follow, proper behavior. In other words, he’d be the commanding general of this gang of improvised waiters. A gang that was missing Biscottino, who was still too young to be credible as a waiter, and Drago’, who was a cousin of the bride, and therefore an invited guest. The maître d’ had received a list of their names in advance and had supplied them with uniforms.
The man in Dolce & Gabbana cleared his throat—a shrill sound, incongruous, which made everyone turn around—and then pointed a bony finger at the tradesman’s entrance and disappeared inside. Tucano was about to say something, but Nicolas smacked him on the back of the neck and followed the man. In single file, and without a word, the others went in as well, and found themselves in the kitchen.
The newlyweds-to-be wanted elegance and austerity. Everyone was to be wearing outfits by D&G—Viola’s favorite designers. The maître d’, in a shrill, thin voice that did nothing to help pin down his exact age, handed out the uniforms, still in their garment bags, and ordered them into the storage area to change into them. When they came back, he had them line up against the immaculate stainless-steel wall that housed the burners and then pulled out the list of names.
Pesce Moscio stepped forward. He’d fastened the suit trousers the way he’d fasten his usual oversized rapper baggies: low on the waist so you could see the elastic waistband of his Gucci underpants. Pesce Moscio loved to wobble in his clothes, so that the folds and drapery would hide those extra pounds, but the maître d’ quickly made it clear to him with the same pointing finger as earlier that this wasn’t right, that he needed to pull up his billowing Zouave britches.
“Vincenzo Esposito.” Possibly one of the most common names in Naples.
Lollipop and Stavodicendo both said, “Present,” and each raised his hand. They’d been classmates ever since elementary school, and every time attendance was taken the same little skit played out.
“The one with the Swiss cheese face,” said the maître d’. Stavodicendo blushed, inflaming even more the acne that devastated his cheeks. “You’re fine, but stand up straight. You’ll be in charge of getting the plates off the table, that way the guests won’t have to look you in the face.” These kids certainly weren’t used to being treated this way; still, Nicolas drummed it into them that the day had to come off smoothly. At all costs. And that meant they were also going to have to put up with this jack-off of a maître d’.
Lollipop smiled behind his little soul patch of a beard; despite his age, 14, he had the whiskers of a grown man. He’d designed a narrow line of beard that ran from his sideburns down to his chin, then along the lower lip, and back up the other side to complete the circuit. The shirt fit him to perfection, thanks to the hours he spent defining his abs in the gym, and the trousers concealed the skinny little legs which he neglected, focusing on the upper part of his body, including the gull-wing eyebrows.
“You, beanpole,” said the maître d’, pointing at Briato’. “You’ll be in charge of the cake, it’s going to be seven layers, and I need someone tall enough to reach the top.” Briato’ really couldn’t get that tie to hang straight over the curve of his belly, but his black hair swept back with all that gel—well, that was stupendous.
“Agostino De Rosa.”
Cerino didn’t look right at all. He’d bleached his hair—when Nicolas laid eyes on him, he’d lost his temper: stava ’na chiavica, he thought to himself in dialect, he looked like shit—and his shirt collar wasn’t enough to cover the tattoo he had on his chest: a fiery red sun whose rays extended all the way up to his Adam’s apple. The maître d’ grabbed him by the collar and yanked it upward a couple of times, but there was no concealing those rays. If it had been up to him, the maître d’ would have sent him packing with a swift kick in the ass, this wasn’t how you turned up, but Copacabana had warned him to take it easy, and so he went directly to the last names on the list. He called them en masse, he wanted to get an idea of how they’d move in the presence of crystal and porcelain.
“Nicolas Fiorillo, Giuseppe Izzo, Antonio Starita, Massimo Rea.”
A ragged platoon broke away from the group. The maître d’ walked over to the two shortest members—Dentino and Drone—who wore their suits as if they were pajamas (they’d rolled up the sleeves and the pant legs to keep them from dragging on the floor) and gave them each two dishes, one for each hand. Then he turned to Tucano, refrained from saying a word because by now time was running short, and handed him a silver serving tray. He’d arranged a handful of champagne flutes on the tray, and now the crystal glasses were tinkling against one another. He spent a little more time studying Nicolas, and concluded that those broad shoulders, lithe physique, and solid, powerful legs could tolerate a different array of weights. He asked him to hold out his arms—the suit adhered to him like a second skin—and arranged two plates on the right and two more on the left, one on each forearm and one on each palm. Then he asked all four of them to take a turn around the island that divided the kitchen into two equal parts. Dentino and Drone performed the circuit at something approaching a dead run, and the maître d’ upbraided them. Their stride needed to be fluid, composed, they weren’t at McDonald’s, for Christ’s sake. Tucano did well, in the end just one of the flutes tipped over onto its side, but without taking the other glasses with it as it fell. Nicolas completed the round, as wobbly as if he were walking a tightrope. But in the end, he too managed to come through unscathed. The maître d’ lifted his cadaverous hand to his chin and scratched it, then he said, in a resigned tone of voice: “Again.”
Nicolas set the plates down on the island and strode over to the maître d’, who had to lift up onto his tiptoes to meet his glare. “Are we done now, vicchiarie’?” he asked, calling him “little old man” in Neapolitan. The maître d’ didn’t turn a hair, and just rose a little higher on the tips of his toes. Then he dropped down, with both heels flat on the floor.
“You’re ready” was all he said.
Copacabana knew he was running a risk, since he was a fugitive from the law, by taking part in such a prominently visible wedding, with so many guests: the rumor of his return would spread in next to no time, even though at this kind of a wedding the guests were all invited to leave their cell phones at the front table, and to use them only in the “phone room.”
While Nicolas tried on his uniform and practiced serving the various dishes, he sidled over to Copacabana, who was supervising the whole operation. He was all cleaned up. Now his hair wasn’t flying in all directions, maybe he’d even gotten a dye job. His gaze was a little more focused, but his eyes still showed that same reddish patina.
“Copacaba’, don’t you think it’s dangerous . . . in front of all these people? Letting everyone see you, I mean.”
“Even more dangerous not to let them see me, to stay hidden. Do you know what that means?”
“Adda murì fràtemo. May my brother die. That you’re a fugitive, but they already know that.”
“No, no, Nicolino . . . if you’re at a wedding and you see an empty chair at a table, what do you do?”
“I let someone sit in it.”
“Exactly, ’o zi’! Bravo. Which means that if my chair at this wedding is empty, then the guys from San Giovanni a Teduccio will have one of their people sit in it. So you tell me, what’s more dangerous, showing up at a wedding or hiding while you wait for them to come take your place?”
“You let yourself be seen to tell the Faellas, sto ccà. I’m here. This is my territory. I haven’t gone anywhere.”
“Bra’, staje imparanno. Good boy, you’re learning. I’ll come with my wife and my children, they need to see me.”
“I still think it’s dangerous . . .”
“This place is full of eyes, ’e guagliune miei are on the lookout . . . but I’m happy to see that you worry about your uncle Copacabana, that must mean I’m paying you enough . . .”
So began the beginning of the lavish party in the palace in Sorrento. Nicolas could see it all before his eyes, it was up to them to play their part as waiters, to be good actors, they’d all be performing against that brightly lit backdrop. They needed to plunge in headfirst. Get a glimpse of the world. Off they went, chop chop, in single file. There was something magical. And an expectation, a sense of expectation, that all his fellow paranzini wore on their faces, just as he did.
The celebration that followed the ceremony was lavish, and Copacabana boasted that he hadn’t overlooked a single detail in organizing the event. He liked to say that if it was only “too much”—troppo was the word he used—then it wasn’t enough. It had to go beyond troppo, because abbondanza is the twin sister of the good. Doves? By the dozen. Every course served at the banquet was to be greeted with a spectacular flight of liberated doves. Musical entertainment? The finest neomelodico musicians of the province of Naples, and for nightfall he’d arranged for a samba crew with twenty dancers. Furnishings? The hall had to be full. And Copacabana always tried to utter this word, pieno, as close as possible to troppo. “Tutto pieno, tutto troppo!” All full, all too much! Statues, chandeliers, candelabra, plants, dishes, paintings, tables. Flowers everywhere, even in the bathrooms, and they all needed to be in hues of purple, in homage to the bride. And balloons, which were to be dropped from the ceiling after every burst of doves that flew into the air. And extravaganzas of Sicilian cassatina, cakes, five first courses, five entrées, a cornucopia of foodstuffs. And last of all, a tapestry, forty feet long, that he’d found who knows where, covering a section of wall with an allegorical scene of Good Government. Copacabana had decided to place it behind the newlywed couple as a mark of their auspicious beginnings.
There were a great many tables, and Nicolas was just heading out to serve. Everything was under control. There was the table where White was sitting, with Orso Ted, Chicchirichì, and all the guaglioni of Copacabana’s paranza who were running the street markets and learning how to run the stadium. There were lots of them and they were always higher than hell. They weren’t much older than Nicolas and his gang. There was the table where Drago’ and his family were sitting. Given that he was a cousin of the bride, he was sprawled in his chair, enjoying the spectacle of his friends all busy serving tables. His jacket was askew, as was his boxer’s nose, and the knot on his tie hung loose as he rejected every dish, sending back one after another, with critiques befitting a five-star chef.
Then there was the reunion with Alvaro, who’d been given a special prison furlough to take part in the wedding. A marginal guest, who hadn’t even been given a seat at the table. He was outside with the others, playing cards on the hoods of the parked cars. Nicolas would bring him the various dishes, and all he’d say was: “Bravo, bravo!”
The wedding followed its rhythms. Slow and fast. Then faster still, then very, very slow, like molasses, sticky and adhesive.
“Now here comes the elevator of sensuality,” Briato’ whispered to Nicolas, as he was stepping out of the kitchen with an armful of dishes.
“You’re sex disguised as a woman,” Drone whispered as well, into Nicolas’s other ear. Maraja lengthened his gait and walked into the dining room. If he’d remained there, he’d have dropped several platesful of pennette al salmone with lumpfish caviar.
They had a long evening still ahead of them. There was another singer to be heard from, and then the samba dancers were scheduled to make their entrance. A group of guests, standing on their chairs, were shouting the title of the neomelodico singer’s most popular song while waiting for him to take the stage. From behind a curtain, which like so many other items at that wedding was in a shade of purple, burst Alvaro, instead of the neomelodico. He was moving at a run, his comb-over flopping to one side. He made straight for Copacabana’s table: “The cops! Get out, get out!” and then he vanished, heading straight back where he’d come from, hitting one of the guests who was standing on his chair and knocking him flat to the floor. The comic effect died away quickly. Twenty or so plainclothes police officers burst into the room from four different entrances, to block all escape routes. Something must have gone astray in the surveillance system, perhaps Copacabana had overlooked one of the security cameras, or else the carabinieri had received a tip and had come over the roofs, eluding the eyes of the lookouts. Alvaro must have noticed them between one hand of cards and the next. While the carabinieri were passing between the tables and the murmuring of the guests rose over the silence that had fallen the minute the officers burst into the room, Copacabana slid over to the podium, and with a glance signaled to the drummer to move away from his instrument so he could take his seat. He sat there, drumsticks in hand, watching the policemen as they arrested a couple who belonged to the Faella clan. Arms were jerked, voices raised shrilly, threats uttered. The usual script, with the usual finale: handcuffs. The couple had a small baby, and they entrusted the boy to none other than Copacabana’s wife: a kiss on the forehead to the newborn and they were gone. They put the baby in the woman’s arms without a word. Micione, who had been sitting until that moment with his arms crossed, suddenly leaped to his feet and said: “A hand for the inspector, he wants to wind up in the newspapers, which is why he’s come to interrupt my wedding.” They all started clapping, even the married couple with their arms locked with the carabinieri made one last effort at jerking away from their grip so they could clap their hands. They went straight to their targets, the carabinieri did, they didn’t even ask for identification. Then they grabbed another couple of people who had violated the terms of their house arrest to take part in the wedding. In the meantime, Copacabana was starting to convince himself that maybe they hadn’t come for him, that there were much more appetizing fish than him to fry at that wedding. He set down his drumsticks and allowed himself to catch his breath.
“Sarnataro, Pasquale, what are you doing, freelancing as a drummer these days?” The inspector was making his way through the guests, and he gestured to two of his men to approach the stage; it wasn’t even necessary to give them any further instructions.
While he was lying there immobilized on the floor, with a carabiniere’s knees in the middle of his back, Copacabana turned to Diego Faella and said: “ ’O Micio’, don’t you worry. By the time your baby’s ready to be baptized, I’ll be back.”
The boys had stood frozen to the spot, watching the scene, their trays still shaking in their hands out of fear. “You see? I told you it was a dumb move to appear in public like this,” Nicolas told Agostino. The police sweep was over but the party continued. The show must go on, the bride demanded it. This was her day, and those arrests weren’t going to be enough to ruin it. And so Nicolas and the others resumed their duties, as if nothing had happened. Finally the last singer came on, followed by the dancers. But at midnight it was all over. The atmosphere was spoiled, and anyway the newlyweds had to get up early. An airplane to Brazil awaited them: Copacabana had even taken care of their honeymoon, they would be staying in his hotel.
The young waiters went to change clothes in the kitchen. It was time to get out of these duds and get their pay. They’d sweated for it. Nicolas, in particular, was disenchanted. Pomp and circumstance, no doubt. Wretched excess, for sure. Power. Lots and lots of power. But he’d been expecting silver serving trays piled high with cocaine, and instead he’d had to look on as burlap sacks picked up in some antique shop somewhere were passed around, requesting donations from the wedding guests for the families of men serving time. Those sacks clanked and rustled, Nicolas could hear them whenever he walked past, and he personally was tempted to just grab them and run. Instead, that evening they pocketed not a single penny—no salary and no tips. They left carrying only the bombonières full of favors—in this case, the bombonière was an enormous stuffed blowfish, complete with spikes. The reason for choosing blowfish as a gift bag was a mystery to one and all. Still, Nicolas decided to take it home as proof that he’d done the evening’s work, to allay his father’s mistrust— unlike his mother, Nicolas’s father hadn’t believed him when he’d said he was going to be working as a waiter.
After all, it was still early. Nicolas, Dentino, and Briato’ joined up in the back room, which really never closed, not even at Christmas. There was the whole array of the Capelloni, White, Carlito’s Way, Chicchirichì, Orso Ted, and Selvaggio. Alvaro was there, too, and no one had seen him since the roundup. He wanted to say so long to everyone before going back to prison.
“Alva’, did you come back to give us our salary?” asked Nicolas. With Copacabana in Poggioreale, things had become complicated for them, but Nicolas wanted his money. They were being paid a hundred euros apiece for twelve hours of work. If they’d been selling hash, they would have earned ten times as much.
“What are you doing, an honest day’s work? An asshole’s day’s work?” asked White. He was still high out of his skull, and he was clinging to the foosball table.
“’Overo è,” Dentino said. “True enough.”
“Anyone who works is an asshole.”
“Ah, because we don’t work from dawn to dusk?” Briato’ broke in.
“We’re always out on the streets, on our motor scooters. But what we do isn’t work,” said Nicolas. “Work is for assholes, and for slaves. And in three hours of work we make what my father earned in a month.”
“Well, that’s not really true,” said White.
“But it will be,” Nicolas promised. He was really talking to himself, and in fact no one paid any attention to him, in part because their attention was now focused entirely on White, who was lining up a tidy grid of lines of coke on the side of the foosball table.
“You want a snort, guagliu’?” asked White.
Nicolas and his friends were gazing in enchantment at the powder. This certainly wasn’t the first time they’d seen it, but it was the first time they’d seen it so openly available. They just needed to take a step, lower their heads, and snort it up.
“Grazie, brò,” said Briato’. He knew what he needed to do, and so did the others. They stood in line, each waiting his turn, and took part in the banquet.
“Come on, Alva’, you have some, too,” said White.
“No, no, no, no, what is this filth? Plus, I need to get back.”
“Don’t worry about it, we’ll give you a ride; come on, it’s late.”
White had his black SUV parked outside. It looked like he’d brought it straight over from the dealership. Nicolas, Dentino, and Briato’ had been invited to join the crew, and they accepted gladly. Their exhaustion had been completely swept away by that first snort of coke. They felt euphoric, ready for anything.
White kept an arm around Alvaro’s shoulders. “So you like this car?” and Alvaro replied, “Yes, sure!” and he got in front. The boys crowded in the back.
The SUV was sailing along smoothly. White drove with precision, impeccably even though he was loaded, or maybe precisely because he was loaded. The road that led to Poggioreale wound through the lights that reminded Nicolas of novaed stars that he’d once seen in his science textbook. Then it happened.
The car as it slams on its brakes and then swerves at the last minute and plows down a dirt road. Then another jerking halt, even more decisive, and the car slams to a stop. The three of them sitting in the back have to throw up their arms to protect themselves, to keep from banging against the seat backs. When the recoil whips their bodies back, they all glimpse in a flash White’s arm stretching out, a pistol that appeared out of nowhere gripped in his fist, his index finger squeezing twice. Boom boom. Alvaro’s head looks like a balloon popping: a shard of cranium sticks to the car window, another scrap on the windshield, and the body flops over as if the soul had just fled.
“Oh, but why?” asked Nicolas. In his voice, more than alarm, the urgent need to know. Dentino and Briato’ sat there, hands still clapped over their ears, eyes staring straight at the same gooey mass splattered onto the steering wheel, but Nicolas was already capable of reacting. He still had his brain, anyway, and it was working overtime. He wanted to understand the reason for Alvaro’s execution, what transgression had led to his death, and what it meant that White had brought them along for the ride, whether this was more of a test, an honor, or a warning.
“Ll’aggio fatto pecché me l’ha ’itto Copacabana.” He did it because Copacabana had told him to.
Now the lights had changed color, they’d taken on a purplish tinge, similar to the theme of the wedding. White ought to have brought along the Capelloni to give him a hand with the passenger, but instead that was their job now. Because they were guaglioni, minors with no criminal records, nobodies?
“But when did he tell you?”
“He said: Give my regards to Pierino, the one who sang best tonight. When he was arrested, that’s when he told me.”
“But when did he tell you?” Nicolas asked again. All that had reached him of White’s response had been the sound of it, not the meaning.
“Quando l’hanno arrestato, te l’aggio ritto. Damme ’na mane, ja’, levammo sta schifezza ’a ccà.” His response came brusquely. When Copacabana was arrested, like I told you. Now help me get this filth cleaned up. The blood that had soaked the car roof dripped onto the now-empty seat. Both Dentino and Briato’ kept their hands up even after the SUV took off with a jerk and retraced the route to the club, until they were finally in the back room again. White had driven just as confidently as a short while before, and the kids paid no attention to his ranting, his assurances that Alvaro would be given a proper funeral, they weren’t just going to dump his corpse somewhere, and how they were going to have to get reorganized now that Copacabana had been taken in. Everything needed to be thought through, adjusted, and White kept talking. He talked and talked and talked. He never stopped, not even when he slammed on the brakes for a stop sign and Alvaro’s corpse, in the trunk, rolled forward and the impact made a thud that drowned out his words for a fraction of a second.
When they got to the back room they parted ways without a word, each climbing onto his own motor scooter and heading home. Nicolas sailed along on his Beverly at a cruising speed that allowed him to let his thoughts roam more freely than usual. He kept the motor scooter in the center of the road with one hand on the handlebars, while with the other hand he toked on a joint that White had offered him before he, too, vanished into the night. What was going to happen now? Would they go on dealing? For whom? The smell of the sea wafted into the streets and, for a moment, Nicolas even thought about forgetting it all and just going to take a swim somewhere. But then the blinking yellow traffic lights brought him back to his Beverly and he revved the engine to get through an empty intersection. Alvaro counted for nothing, he’d met an ugly fate, but after all, his destiny had been predetermined; Copacabana, though, had been caught like an ordinary guaglione, and hadn’t even bothered to react, simply hiding behind a drum set. Lots of talk, lots of words. Albania, Brazil, bucketsful of money, fabulous wedding celebrations, and then he’d wound up just like any other loser, like any old ordinary mariuolo. No, Nicolas wasn’t going to end up like that. Better die trying. Wasn’t it Pesce Moscio who’d had that phrase of 50 Cent’s tattooed on his forearm, Get Rich or Die Tryin’?
Nicolas revved his scooter again, and this time the fumes of the exhaust covered over the smell of the sea. He took a nice deep breath and decided that the first thing he needed to do was get hold of a pistol.
Excerpted from The Piranhas: The Boy Bosses of Naples by Roberto Saviano, published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar. Copyright © 2016 by Roberto Saviano. English language translation © 2018 by Antony Shugaar. All rights reserved.