DoppelgangsterLaura ResnickIt wasn't no surprise that Skinny Vinny Vitelli got rubbed out. I mean, hey, I'd nearly whacked him myself a couple of times. So had most guys I know. Not to speak ill of the dead and all that, but he was an irritating bastard. Vinny could pick an argument with a plate of pasta. He could piss off the Virgin Mother. He could annoy the dead—so it wasn't exactly a big shock when he became one of them.A couple of nuns taking a cigarette break found his body in an alley early one morning. He'd been done with four slugs straight to the chest. Which was a little strange, actually, because Vinny always wore the bulletproof vest he got the time he whacked that Fed. It's not what you're thinking. It was personal, not business. Vinny caught the guy in bed with his underage daughter. The vest was lying right there on the floor, and after Vinny impulsively emptied a whole clip into the guy's torso, he decided the vest was A Sign. (Did I mention he was a pretty religious guy?) See, Vinny had always been afraid of dying exactly the way he'd just killed the Fed who'd been stupid enough to take off his bulletproof vest while humping a wiseguy's seventeen-year-old daughter right there in her father's house. (Feds. They breed 'em dumb.)So Vinny picked the vest up off the floor, put it on, and never took it off since. I mean never. Just ask his wife. Well, if you can find her. She hot-tailed it straight down to Florida before the corpse was cold and ain't been seen since. She was making plans for her new life right there at Vinny's funeral, yakking on her cell phone with her real estate agent while the casket was being lowered into the ground."It's a funny thing," I said to Joey (the Chin) Mannino while the grieving Mrs. Vitelli kicked some dirt into her late husband's open grave with the toe of her shoe while telling her real estate agent she expected to be in Florida by nightfall. "Huh?" Joey didn't really hear me. He was stroking his scarred chin as he stared lovesick at the Widow Butera. She was glaring back at him. A very beautiful woman, even at forty-five, but bad news for any guy. "Give it up, Joey," I advised."I can't." He shook his head. "I've asked her to marry me."I slapped my forehead. "Are you nuts?" One of the mourners frowned at me, so I lowered my voice. "She's had three husbands, and they're all dead. Don't that tell you something?""She's been unlucky.""Her husbands have been unlucky. All three of them. So I'll lay odds that number four is gonna be real unlucky, too.""It's not her fault, Vito.""No, but being married to her is so unlucky it crosses over into dumb."Her first husband got hit just because he was having dinner with Big Bobby Gambone at Buon Appetito the night Little Jackie Bernini decided to kill Bobby and didn't feel too particular about who else he sprayed with his Uzi. That was the start of the first Gambone-Bernini war. Well, a beautiful woman like that couldn't stay widowed forever. So three years later, during the second Gambone-Bernini war, she married a hit man from Las Vegas who the Gambones brought into town to teach the Berninis a lesson. But then the Berninis brought in their own hit man from Boise to deal with him, and ain't nobody tougher than those Boise guys. So the Widow was widowed again. Then, maybe because she was tired of marrying Gambones who got whacked out, the Widow shocked everyone by marrying Bernini Butera, who was everybody's favorite pick to head the Bernini family next . . . until Joey clipped him last year. That hit pretty much ended the third Gambone-Bernini war. But from the way the Widow Butera was glaring at Joey across Skinny Vinny Vitelli's grave now, it didn't look like she had forgiven Joey for stuffing her third husband into a cement mixer in New Jersey."What'd she say when you asked her to marry you?" I asked Joey."She told me she'd rather fry in hell." He shrugged. "She'll come round."I shook my head. "Joey, Joey, Joey . . ."He gave a friendly little wave to the Widow Butera. She hissed at him. The priest, Father Michael, smiled vaguely at her and said, "Amen."So, to take Joey's mind off the Widow, I said, "Anyhow, like I was saying before, it's a funny thing.""What's a funny thing?""About Vinny.""No, no," Connie Vitelli was saying into her cell phone as she shook Father Michael's hand, "the condo's got to have an ocean view, or no deal. Understand?""Funny?" Joey said. "Oh! You mean about the vest, right?""Yeah." I shook my head when Father Michael gestured to me to throw some dirt onto the coffin. Hey, I didn't kill Vinny, so no way was I doing the work of deep-sixing him. Not my problem, after all. "Why'd Vinny take off that vest for the first time in five years? It ain't like him. He was a religious bastard.""I think you mean superstitious." Joey's an educated guy. Almost read a book once."Okay, superstitious. Vinny always thought he'd get killed if he ever took that thing off. And, sure enough, look what happened. So why'd he take it off? It don't make sense.""You mean you didn't hear, Vito?""Hear what?"Connie was shouting into her cell phone, "Speak up! Are you driving through a tunnel or something? I'm getting tons of static!"Vinny's daughter, now twenty-two years old and reputedly still a virgin, stepped up to the grave, made a face at her father's coffin, and then spit on it."Poor Vinny," said Father Michael, who looked like he'd taken a fistful of Prozac before coming here. "He will be missed.""Not by anybody I ever met," muttered Joey.I said to Joey, "What is it that I didn't hear?""Oh! The strange thing is, Vito, Vinny was still wearing his vest when they found his body.""Huh? So how'd four slugs wind up in his chest?"Joey shrugged. "It's a mystery. No holes in the vest. No marks at all, like it was never even hit. But as for Vinny's chest . . ." Joey grimaced.While I thought about this, Connie Vitelli said, "But how big is the master bathroom?""So, Joey, you're saying that someone clipped Vinny, then put that vest back on him? For what? A joke?"Joey shook his head. "That vest never came off him, Vito.""Of course it did. How else did four bull—""The cops said the fasteners on Vinny's vest were rusted and hadn't been disturbed for years.""Jesus. So it's true what Connie said. Vinny even showered in that thing!""Uh-huh."I frowned at Joey. "But what you're saying . . . I mean, how did the bullets get past the vest and into Vinny's chest?""That's what's got the cops stumped.""And why'd the cops tell you this?" Cops don't usually say nothing to guys like us besides, "I'll get you into the Witness Protection Program if you cooperate.""I don't think they meant to tell me," Joey said. "It just sort of slipped out somewhere during the seven straight hours they spent interrogating me yesterday.""Oh, that's why you weren't at the wake."Joey nodded wearily. "I'm thinking of suing them for the emotional trauma caused by missing a dear friend's wake, as well as the stain they have placed on my good reputation." "How come they think you're the one who whacked him?" "Well, you know, I had that argument with Vinny last week at Buon Appetito.""So what?""So it turns out there were three undercover Feds in the place at the time, and they took it the wrong way when I held a steak knife to Vinny's throat and said I'd kill him if I ever saw him again.""Man," I said, sick at how unfair it all was. "You just have to be so careful these days. Watch every damn little word.""Tell me about it.""Whatever happened to the First Arraignment?" I said."Amendment.""Whatever.""I admit," Joey said, "I thought about whacking Vinny.""Sure.""Who didn't?""You said it.""But it's not like he didn't deserve it," Joey said. "Absolutely," I said as Vinny's son opened his fly and pissed on his father's grave. "So I don't see why the cops have to get so bent out of shape just because someone finally did whack Vinny.""Me, neither.""And just because I'm the last guy anyone saw threatening to kill him, the cops ruin my whole day. Now is that fair? Is that the American way?""It really stinks." I patted Joey on the back. "Just out of curiosity, did you kill him?""No. I was proposing to the Widow Butera at the estimated time of death.""Did she alibi you to the cops?""No."Women."So I wonder who did it?" I said."Could've been any one of a hundred guys," Joey said."More," I said."Yeah."The Widow Butera stepped up to Vinny's grave and looked down at it for a long moment. Then she crossed herself, glared once more at Joey, and started walking to her car. When Connie Vitelli got off the phone for a split second, Joey and I paid our respects so we could get the hell out of there. "Such a shame," Joey said politely to Vinny's widow. "Him being so young and all.""Not that young." Connie shook her head. "And I think dementia was setting in already. He was seeing things.""Seeing things?" Joey said. "Then 'dementia' probably isn't the right word, because that's when—""Oops! I gotta take this," Connie said as her cell phone rang."Wait a minute," I said. "What things was Vinny seeing? Feds stalking him? Hitters from the Bernini family coming after him?" If we knew, we might be able to figure out who'd whacked him.Connie rolled her eyes. "Himself, if you can believe it.""Huh?""The day before Vinny died, he came home in a cold sweat, babbling about how he had just bumped into the spitting image of himself on the street outside Buon Appetito. The guy was even dressed like Vinny. Right down to the bulletproof vest. Go figure." Connie shrugged off the idea that her husband's perfect double was out there somewhere and added, "Now I've really got to take this call. Thanks for coming, fellas." She turned away and said into her cell phone, "Hello? Oh, good! Thanks for getting back to me today. Yes, I'll be out of the house by tonight, so put it on the market right away.""So Vinny was losing his mind," I said.Joey nodded towards Connie and the kids. "And you're surprised by this?""No, I guess not." Which is why I didn't think any more about it. Not then, anyhow. Not until three days later, which was when a dinner-and-dance cruise accidentally found Johnny Be Good Gambone's body floating in the Hudson River. "But it can't be Johnny," I said to Joey Mannino when he told me about it."It is. Positive ID, no doubt about it.""No, it can't be, because—""Vito, pull yourself together," Joey said. "Two of our guys dead in one week. We're going to the mattresses.""It can't be Johnny, because I saw him alive at the same time they were fishing that corpse out of the river.""It must be the Berninis doing these hits. Who else would have the nerve? Those bastards! Well, if they want another war, we'll give them another w—" "Joey, are you listening to me? I'm telling you, whoever they found in the Hudson, it wasn't Johnny Gambone, because I had dinner with him last night!"Joey stared at me. "Are you losing your mind, too?""No! They're just putting the wrong name on the corpse."But when we showed up at the mortician's to inspect the body, I saw there'd been no mistake. That was Johnny Gambone lying on that slab, no doubt about it. Who else in the world had a purple tattoo of a naked broad on his shoulder with the word "Mom" written across it?"So you're not still denying that's Johnny?" Joey prodded."Couldn't be anyone else, but . . .""But?""But, I'm telling you, I was having dinner with him that evening. We talked about Vinny's death. Johnny told me that, no matter how much we hated Vinny, it was our job to find out who'd clipped him, because we can't just let people go around killing made guys without even asking first. Especially not our made guys.""Vito, that's impossible. According to the cops, Johnny had already been dead for thirty-six hours by the time you had dinner with . . . with . . .""Something's not right," I said.And whatever was not right became even more wrong a couple of days later when Danny (the Doctor) Bardozzi, best known for chopping up four members of the Gambone family and passing them off as ground ostrich meat at an East Village restaurant which went out of business soon after Danny was indicted, was found dead.I know what you're thinking, but we didn't do it. We didn't even know who did it, just like we didn't know who'd clipped Johnny and Vinny. We were knee-deep in bodies by now, and we had no idea who was stacking them up."And the waythe doctor was killed," Joey told me as we walked along Mott Street, "is really strange.""You mean compared to the normal way Vinny was killed, with four bullets pumped into his chest and not a scratch on the bulletproof vest he was wearing at the time? Or the normal way Johnny Gambone was found floating in the river while I was watching him eat linguine and bitch about his indigestion?" Okay, I was feeling irritable and got a little sarcastic.Joey said, "Listen, Danny showed up at Bernini's Wine and Guns Shop in a panic, armed with two Glocks and a lifetime supply of ammo, and locked himself in the cellar. There's no way in or out of the cellar except through the one door he'd locked, and—because Danny was acting so crazy—there were a dozen Berninis standing right by that door trying to convince him to come out.""And?""Next thing they know, they hear a few shots go off. So they break down the door and run downstairs. Danny's alone. And dead." Joey grimaced. "Shotgun. Made a real mess.""But you said he had two Glocks.""That's right. And, no, there wasn't a shotgun down there. Not before Danny locked himself in . . . and not when the Berninis found him there.""Then it wasn't a shotgun. He blew his own head off with a Glock.""No. His guns hadn't even been fired, and there was buckshot everywhere. Just no shotgun.""In a locked cellar with no windows and no other door? That's impossible.""Like it was impossible for you to be eating dinner with a guy whose two-day-old corpse was floating in the Hudson River at the time?""We're in trouble," I said. "We've got something going on here that's bigger than another war with the Berninis.""That's what they think, too.""What? You mean they ain't blaming us for Danny's death?""How could they? I just told you what happened. They know we're not invisible, and neither are our guns. In fact, they knew something strange was happening even before we did, because they knew they didn't kill Johnny Gambone.""We've got to have a sit-down with the Berninis.""I've called one for tonight. At St. Ignazio's. I gotta have dinner at my mother's in Brooklyn first, but I'll be there." St. Ignazio's was dark and shadowy, lit only by candles. The whole place smelled of incense and lingering perfume . . . The Widow Butera's perfume, I realized, as I saw her kneeling before a statue of Saint Paula, patron saint of widows. Father Michael and two guys from the Bernini family were waiting for me in an alcove on the other side of the church. "Is Joey here yet?" I asked the Widow Butera."What do I care? What do I care about any of you fiends?" She rose to her feet and came towards me. "I hate you all! Every single one of you! I spit on you! I spit on your mothers' graves!""So you haven't seen him?"She shook her fist at me. "Stay away from me!""Hey, I'm not the one trying to make you a widow for the fourth time. So don't yell at me, sister. And . . ." I frowned as wispy white things started escaping from the fist she shook at me. "Are those feathers? Whatever happened to praying with rosary beads?"She made a really nasty Sicilian gesture and stomped towards the main door in a huff just as Joey entered the church. The poor guy's face brightened like he'd just met a famous stripper.He asked her, "Have you thought any more about my proposal? I mean, take all the time you need, I just wond—""Get out of my way!" she shrieked. "Don't ever come near me again! Don't even look at me!""Maybe we'll talk later?" Joey said to her back.She paused to look over her shoulder at him. "Amazing," she said in a different tone of voice. Then she left."You're late," I said to Joey."Sorry. Couldn't be helped.""Gentlemen," said Father Michael, smelling strongly of sacramental wine as he came close to us, "the Berninis are eager to begin this summit, so if you—""Summit?" I repeated."Sit-down," said Joey."Oh.""So if you'll just take your seats . . .""You're fucking late," said Carmine Bernini. He was Danny (the Doctor) Bardozzi's cousin by marriage, and also the world's biggest asshole."But we haven't been waiting too long," added Tony Randazzo. He was a good-looking kid who'd been a soldier in the Bernini family for a few years. A stand-up guy, actually, and I'd let him date my daughter if I didn't think I'd probably have to kill him one day. "Would anyone care for some chips and dip?" Father Michael asked. "Maybe some cocktails?""We ain't here to fucking socialize," said Carmine."Don't curse in church," said Joey."Well, please fucking excuse me."Like I said—the world's biggest asshole. "Never mind the refreshments, Father," I said. "This'll just take a few minutes." I looked at Carmine. "Let's lay our cards on the table."So we did. And what these guys told me about Danny Bardozzi's death got my full attention."He said what?" Tony said, "Danny came into the shop that day and said he'd just seen his perfect double, his spitting image.""His doppelgänger?" said Father Michael."Yeah, his doppelgangster," said Carmine. "He was fucking freaking out. In a cold sweat, shaking like a virgin in a whorehouse, babbling like a snitch with the Feds. Scared out of his mind.""Because he'd seen this doppelgangster?" I said."Yeah. He said it meant he was gonna die.""He was right," I said. "But how did he know?""Perhaps he knew that, traditionally," said Father Michael, "seeing your doppelgänger portends your own death.""No shit?" said Carmine."No sh—Um, yes, really," said Father Michael. "But we got more than people pretending their deaths here, Father," I said."No, portending," the priest said. "Seeing your doppelgänger is, in popular folklore, a sure sign that you're going to die.""Weird shit," said Carmine."Even weirder," I said, "Danny ain't the only one around here who's seen a doppelgangster." I told them about Skinny Vinny telling Connie he'd seen his own perfect double the day before he died."Johnny Gambone did, too!" said Father Michael, swaying a little. "My God! I didn't realize . . ." He wiped his brow. "Just a few days before his body was found, Johnny told me after Mass that he'd seen a man who looked very much like himself, dressed the same, even bearing the same tattoo—but nowhere near as handsome.""He always was a vain sonofabitch," said Carmine."So he saw his double, too, then," I said. "All three of these guys died after seeing their doubles.""And died in such strange ways," Tony added. "Yes," said Father Michael. "Almost as if meeting the doppelgänger doesn't just presage death, it actually curses the victim, making him utterly defenseless against death when it comes for him.""So once you see this fucking thing, that's it?" said Carmine. "You're as good as whacked?""That would explain how bullets somehow got past or around Vinny's vest," I said."And how someone walked past all of us without being seen," said Tony, "and got through a locked door to kill Danny.""So we're dealing with . . . what?" I said. "Witchcraft? Some kind of curse? The Evil Eye?""It's some weird fucking shit," said Carmine.Father Michael fumbled behind the skirts of the shrine of the Virgin and pulled out a bottle of wine. He uncorked it, gulped some down, and then said, "Black magic. What else could it be?""Fucking creepy.""And whoever is doing it is damn good," I said. "I had dinner with Johnny Gambone's doppelgangster and didn't even know it wasn't the real guy.""But no one has seen Vinny, Johnny, and Danny since they were found dead, right?" said Father Michael. "I mean . . . no one has seen their doubles since then?"I hadn't even thought about that. "No," I said. "That's right. The last time I saw Johnny's double—the last time anyone saw it, as far as I know—was before his body was found." "So . . ." Father Michael took another swig. "So whoever is doing this sends a doppelgangst . . . doppelgänger after the victim to curse him with inevitable death. And then, after the victim is dead, the perfect double continues carrying on the victim's normal life until the death is discovered.""And then what?""Then it . . ." Father Michael shrugged. "It probably disintegrates into whatever elemental ingredients it was originally fashioned from.""So if you hid the fucking body well enough, it would be years before anyone even knew you'd made the hit. Hey, this black magic is some fucking great stuff! If I could learn to do it—""Whoever has learned to do it," I said, "is out to kill all of us. Get it? We've got to stop him before we're all dead!""Vito's right," said Joey. "We're all in danger."My cell phone suddenly rang, making us all jump a little. (Hey, if you thought someone was about to kill you that way, wouldn't you be a little jumpy, too?) I pulled the phone out of my pocket. "Hello?""Vito?" said Joey at the other end. "I'm coming from my mother's, and I'm still in Brooklyn. Stuck in traffic. You'd better start the sit-down without me. I'll get there as soon as I can."My blood ran cold as I stared at the Joey sitting here with me, absently stroking his chin the way the real one often did. Choosing my words carefully, I said, "Seen anything strange lately?""Huh?""Anyone familiar?""Well . . . my mother, obviously.""No one else?""What are you talking about?""Okay, good," I said with relief. I liked Joey, I'd miss him if he was the next one to die. "Listen to me very carefully. Stay right where you are. Call me back in an hour.""But Vito—""Just do it!" I hung up."Who was that?" asked Joey.I jumped him, took him to the floor, and started banging his head against the stone. "Vito!" he screamed. "Vito! Stop! What are you doing? Ow!""Vito!" cried Father Michael "Stop!""Fucking maniac," said Carmine."Thought you'd get Joey Mannino, did you?" I shouted at the doppelgangster. "Well, think again, you bastard!""This is one of them?" the priest shrieked. "Yes!" I kept banging its head against the floor. "And it's gonna tell me who's behind these hits!"Its eyes rolled back into its head, it convulsed a few times, and then its head shattered like dry plaster. "Whoa!" said Tony. I looked down at the mess. Nothing but crumbled dust, lumps of dirt, and feathers where the thing's head had been. Then its body started disintegrating, too."I think you whacked it, Vito," said Tony.Father Michael poured the whole rest of the bottle of wine down his throat before he spoke. "Well . . . I guess this means that Joey is safe now?""Not for long," I said. "Whoever did this will make another one the moment he knows this one has been . . . Wait a minute!""Vito? What is it?" said Tony."Maybe it's not a he," I said."Huh?""Think about it! Who would hit the Berninis and the Gambones? Who hates both families that much? Who wants all of us dead?""You saying the fucking Feds are behind this?""No, you asshole! I'm saying the one person who hates both families equally is behind this!" I grabbed a handful of the crap that had been Joey's doppelgangster a minute ago and waved it at these guys. "Feathers!""Vito, this is a very serious accusation," said Father Michael, slurring his words a little. "Are you absolutely sure?""Huh?" said Tony."Just fucking follow him," said Carmine as I ran for the same exit that the Widow Butera had taken. I kicked in the door of her apartment without knocking. I'd figured out her scam by now, so I expected the feathers, the blood sacrifices, the candles, the chanting, and the photos of Bernini and Gambone family members. I just didn't expect to see my own perfect double rising out of her magic fire like a genie coming out of a lantern. I pulled out my piece and fired at it. "Noooo!" screamed the Widow Butera. She leapt at me, knocked my gun aside, and started clawing at my face. "Kill it! Kill it!" I shouted at the others.Carmine said, "I always wanted to do this to you, Vito," and started pumping bullets into my doppelgangster while I fought the Widow. Father Michael ran around the room praying loudly and drenching things in holy water. Tony took a baseball bat—don't ask me where he got it—and started destroying everything in sight: the amulets and charms hanging everywhere, the jars of powders and potions stacked on shelves, the cages containing live chickens, and the bottles of blood. My perfect double shattered into a million pieces in the hail of Carmine's bullets, and the pieces fell smoldering into the fire. Then Tony kicked at the fire until it was scattered all over the living room and started dying."It's a fucking shame about the carpet," Carmine said as chickens escaped the shattered cages and started running all over the room.". . . blessed are thou, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb . . ." Father Michael was chanting."What else can I break? What else can I break?" Tony shouted."I'll kill you all!" the Widow screamed. "You're all dead!" "Too late, sister, we're onto you now. You've whacked your last wiseguy," I said as she struggled in my grip."Three husbands I lost in your damned wars!" she screamed. "I told them to get out of organized crime and into something secure, like accounting or the restaurant business, but would they listen? Noooo!""Secure? The fucking restaurant business? Are you kidding me?""The Berninis and Gambones ruined my life!" the Widow Butera shrieked. "I will have vengeance on you all!""Repent! Repent!" Father Michael cried. Then he doused her with a whole bottle of holy water."Eeeeee!" She screamed something awful . . . and then started smoking like she was on fire.I'm not dumb. I let go of her and backed away.The room filled with smoke and the Widow's screams got louder, until they echoed so hard they made my teeth hurt . . . then faded. There was a dark scorch mark on the floor where she'd been standing."Where'd she go?" I said."She'll never get her fucking security deposit back now," said Carmine, looking at the floor. Tony added, "No amount of buffing will get that out.""What the hell happened?" I said, looking around the room. The Widow had vanished.Father Michael fell to his knees and crossed himself. "I don't think she was completely human. At least, not anymore. She had become Satan's minion.""Huh. I wondered how she kept her good looks for so fucking long.""That's it?" I asked Father Michael. "She's just . . . gone?" He nodded. "In Hell, where she belongs." After a moment, he added, "Mind you, that's only a theory.""Either way," I said, "I'm kinda relieved. I know we couldn't just let her go. Not after she'd hit three guys and tried to hit me and Joey, too. But I really didn't want to whack a broad.""What a fucking pussy you are, Vito.""Carmine, you asshole," I said, "the sit-down was successful. We found out who's behind these hits, we put a stop to it, and there ain't gonna be no new war. So now get outta my sight before I forget my manners and whack you just for the hell of it.""Did I mention how much fun it was pumping a whole clip into your fucking doppelgangster?"My cell phone rang, making Father Michael jump."Damn." I knew who it was even before I answered it. "Hello?""Vito," said Joey, "I've been sitting here in my car, not going anywhere, just like you said, for a whole hour. Now do you want to tell me what the hell is going on?"I looked at the scorched spot the Widow had left in the floor and tried to think of the best way to break the news to him. "So, Joey . . . would you still want to marry the Widow Butera if you knew she'd been trying to whack you and everyone you know?"