You Didn't Hear It From Me: Part 1
Keep your idealism practical.
Let me start off by stating that there are innumerable things I'd rather be doing right now. Places to go, deals to see to, people to put in their place, and an empire liken-able to a huge multi-national conglomerate to run. I've never been a fan of autobiographies myself, and the thought of committing my memoirs to a medium that could readily be used against me is not the sort of thing I am wont to do.
However, I neglected to observe one simple rule: never play cards with Iiwi. Moreover, never drink and play cards with Iiwi. Redbird doesn't drink as a rule, and has no qualms about using one's weakened judgment to wheedle them into an agreement and hold them to it.
I suppose I should start at the beginning then, eh? Very well. My first memories are of gentle hills crammed with forests and untamed wilderness as far as the eye could see. I was third child hatched into a family of the last time I cared to check nine. Ours was a rather old and once highly-esteemed noble family of New Zealand; however, our line faltered as Britain's colonial tendencies began wearing off, and by my grandfather's time our family was already running into debt. Not too long before my hatching, my parents had not only lost our ancestral lands, but the manor house as well. I spent my hatchling years in the cold stone ruins of a dilapidated old castle that had never really been finished. A good deal of the walls and ceilings had caved in or fallen, and the rotting mortar holding even the best sections together did little to keep out the elements. We had, of course, no electricity or running water and very little of a floor. Moreover, there were a fair number of nights we camped out in the woodlands nearby. I couldn't have known it back then, but my family was so pathetically impoverished and in debt that the banks had seized the ruined castle as well, and occasionally sent out caretakers to make certain we were not squatting on the lands.
As we had no land to farm crops or tend animals, our daily existence consisted of hunting, foraging, and when opportunities arose begging. Suffice it to say, this sorry existence did not suit my noble blood at all. Forest paths were not all that difficult to come by, and they all eventually led to roads, which in turn meandered from town to town until finally reaching one of any number of port cities. I had seen many travelers along these roads, laughing merrily and talking of the money and opportunities to be had in such cities or those across the water, and my young mind could find no reason why I should spend my days digging in the dirt for grubs and herbs when I could spend my day leisurely tending a fishing-boat or trading goods for shopkeepers or sailors.
Ah, to be young and stupid again.
I think I was five when I finally decided to follow the road, although I can hardly be certain. I could walk and run and forage as well as my older brother and sister, fight off the wild stoats and feral cats steadily infiltrating the islands, and spend my days wandering about the woods without getting lost. To my family, I was old enough not to be helpless. To me, I was a Big Kid and could leave home and do whatever I wanted. The concept of mortality never occurred to me; nor did the actual expanse of terrain between my home and the ocean. It was a solid week before I reached a town with a view of the water, and it seemed to take forever to reach a port city itself. I was lucky enough to have picked a time of year when the weather was warm and the wild berries plentiful, for I neither fell ill nor starved any more than usual. I picked up a rusty old dagger somewhere on the roadside, wondering where it came from as I wandered through parts of the road where robber-bandits were no doubt plentiful. The scholars were right: ignorance is bliss.
How I managed to make it to the city is beyond me. Certainly, the way was clear enough and I was more than capable at finding food but not to be attacked along the way? Perhaps any bandits that saw me realized I had nothing of value and were not in the mood for an easy kill. Even so, I prefer not to think what horrible fates might have met me. It didn't bother me then, so it shouldn't bother me now - but it is, in truth, a bit like realizing you've been playing a game of high-toss with nitroglycerine.
After a few days in the port city, however, I realized that any 'opportunities' were strictly for adults. No one wanted a kid working for them not even to fetch little things or grocery orders. And foraging was useless there were too many that knew how to city-forage, and no forests for miles. I was worse off than I'd been at home. And so I did what any other able-bodied child does when they're desperate I turned thief. I was smaller and faster than the hobos and street-people, and snatching their food away was a simple enough task it was staying out of the reach of their wrath that was tricky. I started pick-pocketing drunks as well, as their dulled senses and slowed reaction times made it an easier task than picking the pockets of fully alert citizens. I slowly moved up to tourists and sailors, and busy merchants, and eventually whoever looked like they had valuables they weren't properly protecting. But by then I'd been in the city a few months, and had most of the poorer residents out for my blood. When I overheard a group of sailors talking about a ship bound for America, I decided it was time to go. America was, after all, far larger than my native island, and its cities many times the size of this one. Moving to a part of town where no one would recognize me would be much easier. I found the ship in question and smuggled myself aboard, squeezing in among the food supplies.
The journey was a long one. The ship, it seemed, was not going directly to America. We stopped over in Australia, in India, all along the African coast, and some ports in Europe before finally setting across the ocean. By then I was so sick of hard tack and apples that I would have gladly foraged for grubs, had there been any around. Failing that, I made my way out of the cargo hold and up to the ship's living quarters, feasting on leftover fish and salted pork and probably more canned vegetables than was wise, always staying out of sight of the crew. Finally, weeks after the journey began, I overheard one of the crewmembers tell another that the city of New York's skyline and the statue of liberty were just visible on the horizon. Being the overly curious idiot that I was, I waited as long as I could an hour, most likely before venturing outside to see these sights for myself.
It was, arguably, the stupidest thing I have ever done. The ship had far less cover than I had thought, and while I don't doubt I thought myself well-hidden, I was spotted almost immediately. I'd barely glimpsed the famous skyline and statue before a burly paw grabbed me and lifted me by the scruff of my neck. The captain an old otter just beginning to gray muttered something about stowaways as he turned to his crew to decide my punishment.
I've yet to figure out if it was the sort of thing most seamen do, or if this was a cruel practical joke of theirs, or even if they thought being so (relatively) close to shore gave me a reasonable chance, but the crew decided to toss me overboard. They dumped me unceremoniously over the side of the ship, laughing as I struck out towards Liberty Island the closest bit of land. I'm still not certain how I did it, but I did manage to drag myself ashore. We kiwis can swim, when we have to.
I remember staring up at the huge statue, soaked to the skin and freezing, trying to remember the name of the ship so I could track her down later and sink her. (For the curious, she was the S.S. Clifftern. I bought her a few years back, but tragically she hit some bad weather en route to San Viano and sank on a reef, taking her crew with her. A pity, really. They never did figure out why the lighthouse's lamp wasn't working
) I took the ferry back in, since no one seemed to be checking tickets.
My first months in New York are a little fuzzy. I picked up where I'd left off in terms of pick-pocketing, and used the skills I'd honed on the ship to start a nice little cat-burglar gig as well. Bigger kids taught me how to pick locks, and I taught them how to scale walls like they were trees and how to squeeze through the tiny windows people seldom locked. Occasionally, I'd serve as a gang's lookout while they were on a heist or making a delivery or something similar. I got very good at it.
My first experience with the Mob was like that. I stopped to rest on someone's stoop and happened to notice a bunch of guys with binoculars in an upstairs apartment across the street. The windows' blinds were nearly shut, and it was dark inside, but no one moved to change that. They just sat very still, peering out the window with their binoculars. I wasn't so young that I couldn't spot a stakeout when I saw one, but I was a bit curious as to why they were watching the alleyway next to me, so I melted back into the crowds and made my way over. A truck was tucked into an old loading dock, two crows leaning against it. They looked like they were waiting for someone, and they definitely weren't too thrilled to see me. But adults never suspect kids of being up to no good unless they look like they're up to no good, and I pretended to ignore them while walking as close to the opposite building as I could staying out of binocular-vision as best I could. One of the crows was smoking a cigarette, and he stopped to scowl at me when I halted in front of them.
You're bein' watched, I informed them, There's cops or somethin' in that building over there- I pointed, explaining about the binoculars. They looked at me suspiciously, but one pulled out a razor mirror and fiddled with it until he'd seen what I'd seen. They looked at me again, and I shrugged. Honor among thieves, and all. Besides, as long as those cops were up there, others were likely nearby, and that meant making my usual rounds would get me caught for sure. So if the cops were gonna keep me from doing what I wanted to do, then I was gonna return the favor. I explained this to the crows, figuring they were thieves or gang members like so many others.
They offered me five dollars for a favor, and I gladly took the money, went across the street, and knocked on the cops' hideout's door. Nick and Nack said to say hi, I told them, as the crows waved and got back into their truck. The cops were so busy scrambling around as pair drove off that I slipped away easily.
I ran into Nick and Nack a lot after that. They were brothers, and they liked to use me as a lookout and messenger. I met Don Peoci through them but that's a long story, and not one I said I'd tell you, Redbird. The Don didn't like the thought of using a kid at first, until Nick and Nack made him realize what I'd learned a while ago: no one suspects a six-year-old. I figured out what they were easily enough, but it was easier work than pick-pocketing, and I could still do that and cat-burgle all I wanted.
I stopped pick-pocketing as I got older by the time I was 8, I hardly did it anymore, and by 10, I made enough running odd jobs for Don's guys and night-prowling that I wouldn't do it at all, unless the guys wanted a diversion. Mostly, I kept up with it just enough to stay in practice. Things really picked up once I hit my teenage years, though. I started getting bigger jobs the guys would ask me to hit specific places for specific items, and they trusted me enough to deliver part of the day's gambling proceeds to the boss himself. At fifteen, not only was I a money-runner, but I also got to make the protection rounds, deliver the shipments of smuggled cigarettes, and set people up for hits. I got a few chances to be the hit man myself, but I tell you now, I preferred letting others do that sort of thing. I liked the power of command and the respect I got from those afraid of what I was capable of but a maiming was as far as I'd go if I wasn't defending myself. I didn't want to be a simple thug. Besides, that sort of thing usually got you on the bad side of the cops and the other Families, which was an excellent way to get yourself a one-way trip to the bottom of the Hudson.
Anyway, when I was seventeen, we went after this dirty cop. He'd let us in on what his fellow officers were planning and even warned us about a few pending busts, all for a price but then he got greedy. He wanted money in exchange for his silence. I think he wanted to retire early Internal Affairs and his friends were getting suspicious, and he was off most of the details that we wanted to know about. Don Peoci wasn't the type of person to rent what he could buy, so to speak, and he decided we should 'convince' the man that it was in his best interests to stop asking for money. That didn't go so well. Oh, we beat him up pretty good, but he kept coming back for more, and one of my fellow wiseguys decided to see if a bullet or two made him change his mind. It did but not in a good way. The guy ran into the streets, screaming everything he knew about Don's business and everyone involved to anyone who would listen. Stupid kids that we were, we ran after him. It was dark out, and raining, but a fat man in uniform running down the street screaming that he was being murdered tends to attract attention, even in New York. We were acting on instinct at that point, not really following any set plan, and when the ferret that had shot him pulled his gun again, our resolve faltered. This was murder in the streets, after all. Hardly professional, and incredibly stupid.
By then the fat cop was so tired he couldn't run anymore, so he charged us instead. Gus fired, but the guy was still alive when he hit us, and wrestled the gun away from the ferret. It was more of a rout then than anything else, but there were still bullets in that gun, and we weren't about to turn our backs on it. We grappled with him for it, and were in fact still trying to reclaim it when a squad car turned the corner and saw us. Gus took off, the coward, as did Mikhail, our Russian thug, but the rest of us stood our ground. The fat guy swung his head around as the cops hit their siren, and we used the distraction to give the gun one final pull. It went off, hitting the guy in his throat, and the momentum sent him flying towards the police cruiser. They didn't have time to stop, and slammed into him, bouncing him off the windshield and then running him over. I think the shock of that hit us just as bad as it did the cops in the cruiser, because we stood there like idiots for a few seconds before it occurred to us to run and it occurred to them to chase.
Accomplished mobsters that we were, we were able to shake them without any real trouble. No, no, the real trouble came from the public outcry that a cop had been, in the words of the media 'brutally beaten and murdered in the streets of his own neighborhood by the bloodthirsty Mob.' It wasn't safe to go out in public unless you knew damned well that no one would see you even the other Families were upset with Don Peoci for the pressure everyone was now under. Between a police crackdown and the other Families calling for blood, Peoci did the only thing he could to help us.
He sent us to Italy to wait it out.