Prologue to The Neighborhood
February 26, 1974
Middletown, New York
SISTER MARY FRANCIS took off her glasses and rubbed her tired eyes. She knew that the light provided by the forty-watt bulb in her desk lamp was inadequate and that the resulting eye strain was probably doing irreparable damage to her vision. But the use of more powerful light bulbs was a luxury that the Saint Frances Cabrini Home for Children could ill afford. The monthly financial figures on her cluttered desk were proof enough of that sad fact. Pennies counted, especially when pennies were all you had.
She heard a gentle knock on her office door and looked up from her paperwork to see the smiling brown face of her assistant.
“Yes, Sister Angelina?”
“Excuse me, but your eight o’clock appointment is here,” the young nun said with just a hint of a Puerto Rican accent. “Do you wish me to bring them in here?”
The older woman’s wrinkled face further creased with a puzzled frown. “Them? I was expecting only one person.”
“He has another gentleman with him. Is that a problem?”
“Oh no, not at all. Just call Miss Bentwick and tell her that we will be upstairs shortly, and that she’ll need to bring in another chair from her waiting area.”
“Yes, Sister Mary Francis,” the young nun said as she closed the door.
A few moments later Sister Angelina stepped back into the dimly lit room. She turned and extended her hand to indicate that someone outside should enter. Sister Mary Francis watched as an imposing figure stepped into the room, blocking the light from the hallway as completely as the moon shadows the sun during a solar eclipse. The man was smiling, but it was not a particularly pleasant smile. His eyes locked with the nun’s for a moment, then darted quickly around the room as if to make sure that no one else was there. Looking back through the open doorway he gave his head an almost imperceptible nod before stepping aside as a small, distinguished looking man entered.
He was obviously a man of means, salt and pepper hair neatly trimmed and his suit and wool topcoat clearly of the finest quality. His most distinguishing characteristic, however, was his eyes. They were dark brown, almost black, and penetrating. They didn’t so much reflect the light from the desk lamp as they seemed to absorb it.
“Sister Mary Francis, I presume?” A rich yet soft voice simultaneously indicated both charm and power.
“Yes, and you must be Mr. Giovanni.” She rose from her chair and turned in the direction of the large man who was still standing by the open door. He was looking at Sister Angelina in a way that clearly had nothing to do with her role as a servant of the Lord. “And you would be…?”
“Mr. Balducci, my, uh, accountant,” Mr. Giovanni said. “I thought he should be present.”
“Yes, of course, Mr. Giovanni.” She picked up a manila folder from her desktop. “I pulled the file on the boy you inquired about, although I am sure you will understand when I say that I cannot divulge any of its contents to you. Unless, of course, you intend to initiate adoption proceedings. Otherwise, I will simply use it to verify that this is indeed the child for whom you are searching.”
“I understand perfectly. Shall we begin?”
“No, we will actually be meeting upstairs in the office of Lucille Bentwick. She chairs the orphanage’s board of directors. As I mentioned to you on the phone, the board would have to approve any arrangements that are, you might say, out of the ordinary. Miss Bentwick was kind enough to be here tonight to represent them. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” Giovanni said with a dismissive wave of the hand. “Anything in the interest of expediency is perfectly fine with me.”
They climbed two floors in a dingy stairwell and were ushered into the better furnished and certainly more brightly lit office of Lucille Bentwick, a rather severe-looking woman with jet black hair pulled back in a bun and a dour, humorless mouth that looked as if it would shatter under the unfamiliar burden of a smile. As much as she was ashamed to admit it, Sister Mary Francis was not particularly fond of Miss Bentwick, who was as tight with the Saint Frances Cabrini Home for Children’s trust fund as she undoubtedly was with her own money.
Introductions were made as they settled in their seats. Miss Bentwick cast a doubtful look at the larger of the two men when he was introduced as Mr. Giovanni’s accountant. “Oh, are you a CPA, Mr. Balducci?” she asked.
“Naw, just a plain old everyday book-cooker,” he said with a chuckle. The big man did not seem the least bit concerned with the perplexed look on Miss Bentwick’s face, but a sharp glance from Giovanni quickly erased his cocky grin.
After an awkward silence, Giovanni spoke. “I appreciate having the opportunity to meet with the two of you this evening. It was very kind of you to accommodate my schedule and agree to a meeting so late in the day.”
“We were happy to oblige, Mr. Giovanni,” Miss Bentwick said in a tone that bespoke disingenuous civility. “However, since it is, as you said, so late, perhaps you could get to the point of your visit. All I know at this time is that you may have an interest in one of our children.”
“That is correct,” Giovanni said as he uncrossed his legs and leaned forward in his chair. “You see, I have reason to believe that one of the children here is the son of a friend of mine who was tragically shot and killed during a robbery last year.”
“How unfortunate,” Miss Bentwick said. “But what about the child’s mother?”
“Well, that is perhaps the saddest part of the whole story. After the shooting she had what I guess you would call a nervous breakdown. My understanding is that she left the boy on the doorsteps of an orphanage and then just disappeared.”
“I see. And you believe she left him here? What was the child’s name?”
“Frankie is what his dad called him,” Giovanni said. “But his given name was Franco. Franco Amberni.”
He watched Sister Mary Francis looking through the file she had brought with her, and added, “The boy I am looking for is about four or five years old and, based on the timeframe of his mother’s disappearance, I would think he would’ve shown up here last summer. Late July or early August.”
Sister Mary Francis said nothing, but nodded subtly at Miss Bentwick, who then peered over the top of her black framed bifocals. “And what exactly are your intentions with regards to this boy, Mr. Giovanni? Do you wish to adopt him?”
“Oh, no. I’m not married, and my travel schedule would never allow me enough time to look after a child. No, I just want to make some arrangements for his care.”
“Arrangements?” Miss Bentwick asked. “What type of arrangements?”
“Well, I’d like to provide some funding to make sure little Frankie gets everything he needs. You know, clothes, shoes, warm blankets, whatever. And of course I would want to be notified with regards to any medical or dental needs. And I’d want him to get whatever help he needed with his schooling. A tutor, special books, anything like that. I just want to be set up as the boy’s benefactor.”
“Yes,” Giovanni said. “Frankie’s life is not off to a real good start so far. I just want to give him a chance to make it. My personal situation doesn’t make it feasible for me to raise a child personally, but I am fortunately in a position to support him financially. And, of course, I’ll come visit him often.”
Miss Bentwick leaned forward, clasping her hands in front of her. “Mr. Giovanni, your intentions are certainly admirable, but I’m afraid that the type of financial support you are proposing creates a bit of a dilemma for us.”
Giovanni’s voice took a slightly less conciliatory tone. “Oh? And how is that?”
“Well, for one thing it would create the appearance of favoritism. All of our children here are treated equally. For one of them to receive special attention would almost certainly create resentment, and might even cause some of the other children to ostracize little Franco. I don’t think our board would be amenable to such discriminatory support. I understand that the welfare of this particular child is of special importance to you, but we have to worry about all of the children.”
“Oh, I’ve already thought of that, Miss Bentwick. That’s why I would like to offer additional support that would benefit every child here. In return for your providing the, shall we say, administrative support to ensure that little Frankie is taken care of, I’m prepared to make a donation to the Saint Frances Cabrini Home for Children in the amount of twenty-five thousand dollars. To be used in whatever manner you see fit.”
Sister Mary Francis gasped and her eyes widened, but the expression on Miss Bentwick’s face remained unchanged.
“That is indeed very generous, Mr. Giovanni,” Miss Bentwick said evenly, “but I’m not sure that a one-time donation, even of that magnitude, would sufficiently balance the ongoing special treatment…”
“Oh, please pardon me for not being clear,” Giovanni interrupted. “I’m talking about twenty-five thousand a year, for as long as little Frankie is here.”
Sister Mary Francis could no longer control herself. “That would enable us to do so much more for the children! God will surely bless you for such generosity.”
Her enthusiasm died under the cold stare of Miss Bentwick, who then turned her attention back to Giovanni. “An ongoing contribution such as this would indeed make a significant difference to the Home, Mr. Giovanni, but your proposal is quite irregular and will therefore require board approval. We are meeting on Friday, and I will bring it up for consideration.”
“Thank you, Miss Bentwick. That’s all I can ask.” He placed a business card on the desk. “I thank you both for your time this evening. Please call me at this number if I can answer any questions or otherwise help you prepare for the board meeting on Friday.”
“I do have one other question,” Miss Bentwick said. “You said that you would continue the twenty-five thousand dollar per year donation for as long as Franco is here. What happens in the event that he is adopted?”
Giovanni hesitated for a moment, looking first at Sister Mary Francis, then at Miss Bentwick. “Well, that’s another condition of my proposal. I don’t want Frankie to be adopted, nor do I want him to be placed in a foster home. I want him to stay here until he turns eighteen.”
An expression of undisguised incredulity crept across Lucille Bentwick’s face. “Do you mean to tell me that you would put a condition on your proposal that would preclude this boy even having a chance of a normal childhood? I must say that I find that to be quite astonishing.”
“But Miss Bentwick,” Sister Mary Francis said, “a child of Franco’s age has only a remote chance of adoption. Everybody wants little babies. It would be highly unlikely that…”
“That is not the issue,” Miss Bentwick said abruptly. “There’s the principle to deal with, and I don’t mind telling you that I find it to be somewhat disturbing. I will take your proposal to the board, Mr. Giovanni, but I am afraid I will have trouble supporting it.”
“But Miss Bentwick,” Sister Mary Francis started to plead, “we should at least consider…”
“I will handle the board, Sister Mary Francis,” Miss Bentwick interrupted. “Your current assignment, which is at the discretion of the board, is to manage the operations of this home to the best of your ability with the funds available.”
She then turned her attention back to the two men. “Mr. Giovanni, Mr. Balducci, it’s getting late. If we are finished here, Sister Mary Francis will see you out.”
Giovanni stood and extended his hand across the desk. “Thank you again for your time, Miss Bentwick. And please give my proposal your most serious consideration. I believe it would do a lot of good for a lot of children.”
Sister Mary Francis escorted the two men downstairs and to the front door. The wind outside was howling fiercely, blowing the snow that had fallen the previous night across the recently shoveled walkway. Before stepping outside into the frigid night air, Giovanni pulled his cashmere gloves out of his pockets and turned up the collar of his heavy wool topcoat. He offered his hand to the nun, and spoke softly. “I hope I can count on your support, Sister Mary Francis.”
“If I were allowed to attend the board meeting, I would give your generous proposal a heartfelt endorsement,” she said in a hushed voice. “Unfortunately, I am only an alternate board member. As long as Miss Bentwick is able to attend, I’m not invited.”
Giovanni smiled. “Perhaps Miss Bentwick will be more favorably disposed towards my proposal once she has a chance to sleep on it.”
She sighed. “I believe it would take a miracle to change her mind.” She looked down the dark hallway toward the infant ward. “We could do so much with that funding. So very much.”
Giovanni gave her hand a final squeeze before donning his gloves. “I’m the last person who should be saying this to you, Sister Mary Francis, but don’t lose faith. Sometimes these things just have a way of working out.”
The two men stepped outside and started walking slowly and carefully across the snowswept walkway. Their shoes crunched loudly on the ice and snow, and they had to move in measured steps to avoid slipping. When they approached the black Cadillac, Balducci opened the rear passenger side door for the smaller man. Before climbing into the car to escape the freezing wind, Giovanni cast a thoughtful glance at the snow-covered grounds of the orphanage.
“It really gets cold up here in the Catskills,” he said. “I imagine the roads can get pretty treacherous.”
“Don’t worry, boss,” Balducci said. “I’ll drive real carefully.”
“Oh, I’m not concerned about us, Tony. I was thinking about Miss Bentwick. A high-strung woman like that could get herself all worked up and in a hurry, and have a serious accident on these icy mountain roads.”
Now Balducci understood, and he smiled. “I think you’re right, boss. You’re absolutely right.”
Giovanni climbed into the car and settled back in the soft leather seat. His plan was finally underway, and he knew that its successful orchestration would require diligence and patience. There would be many obstacles, but obstacles did not worry Giovanni. He was a supremely confident man.
He looked up at Balducci, who was about to shut the car door. “And Tony, before Friday. Capisce?”