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Politics

Daughter First: Big Jim’s Game

Who will win, the father or the son-in-law? Depends on who plays dirtiest.

Illustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban

Don't miss all of Daughter, First: In part 1, we meet the Governor's daughter, Katie Mahoney Brown; in part 2, the attorney who's going to take down the administration digs into the family secrets; in part 3, the matriarch, Rosemary Mahoney, uncovers her husband's dirty business deals; in part 4, Katie's marriage begins to unravel; and in part 5, the federal prosecutor has second thoughts as she closes in on the Mahoney family.

Big Jim was enjoying his dinner alone at his desk when Tom stepped in the door.

“You look like hell,” Jim said.

Tom sad-sacked across the room, his pale-pink button-down damp at the armpits, his tie yanked loose around his neck. “Do you know how many hours they kept me in that interrogation room?”

“You must be starving.” Jim held up what was left of his KFC drumstick. “Chicken?”

Tom shook his head, dropped into the chair across from Jim’s desk. “It’s real this time,” he said. “They have us.”

No, Jim thought. They have you.

“I said as little as I could,” Tom said. “I tried to follow the script, but …”

“I know everything. I already talked to the lawyer.” Jim stared into Tom’s too-symmetrical, freakishly boyish face, with those damn freckles across his pointy little nose.

“There will be no immunity deal from this prosecutor,” Jim said, louder than he’d intended. He took a breath and forced himself to continue in a calmer voice. “No immunity deal. We knew that, we discussed that. I told you what my guys on the inside said about this Dia Morgan, whoever she is. For whatever reason, this is personal for her for. She’s out for blood, yours as much as mine.”

Jim was pleased with himself for remaining cool and composed when he’d much rather wrap his thick hands around the boy’s skinny neck and squeeze him back into submission. Tom had not, in fact, said as little as he could. He had not followed the script. He’d come undone in that interrogation room and tried to throw Jim under the bus. If not for the fact that Tom’s lawyer was on Jim’s payroll, the Feds might’ve been in Jim’s office right now.

Tom sat rigid in his chair, even in his current state of exhaustion. How did the boy manage to be so stiff and yet so floppy all at once? He was so clearly inferior to Jim’s Katie. Though, in fairness, Katie did set a high bar. Unlike snot-nosed Jim Junior, or knuckleheaded Patrick, or inconsequential Mary. Rose was a loyal wife — Jim loved her for that, and she’d been a real looker in her younger days. But, let’s be honest, she was never the brightest bulb on the porch. Katie alone was perfect.

Jim could be hard on Katie, tough on her, and it only made her stronger. He had tested her countless times, since she was just a little doll in pigtails, and she’d always come through for him. The older Katie got, the more perceptive she became, until she could intuit exactly what Jim needed from her in any situation. It had been this way between Jim and his own father, too, but Katie succeeded at making Jim proud in ways Jim never could with George.

Hell, Katie may have actually been smarter than Jim. But even when they disagreed, Katie wouldn’t dare contradict him in public. She understood family and fealty like no one else.

“I did my best,” Tom said. “But this prosecutor already knows everything. What we did with Katie’s store, how we laundered the money. She’s not going to stop until someone, maybe both of us, are behind bars.”

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Jim pushed his tray of chicken bones and cold potato wedges aside. He opened his desk drawer and pulled out the deck of cards he kept for instances such as this. “Let’s play.”

“Not now, Jim. We have to talk about what’s going to happen next.”

“Tommy boy, you need to relax.” Jim divided up the deck, urged a neat stack toward Tom.

This was Jim’s game. He’d first learned it from some old Wop at a Dorchester bar called the Golden Horseshoe while campaigning for mayor in the ’80s. The game had an Italian name Jim couldn’t remember and a complicated scoring method that took all the real fun out of it — so over time, Jim had simplified it, dismissed the rules he didn’t like, and kept the part he loved best, which was that the game was won by throwing an ace at the perfect time.

When Jim had shown this better, more populist version of the card game, which he took to calling Card-on, to his father, wouldn’t you know old George, cunning bastard that he was, quickly figured out — just as Jim had when playing the Italian — the obvious way to cheat. By the second round, Jim noticed George palming his Aces, using magic-trick-style sleight of hand to keep and hold his winning cards till just the right moment. As every good Irish son worth his salt would do, Jim let his father cheat and win every time till the day he died.

“Go on, now,” Jim said.

Tom exhaled a defeated breath, ran his bony fingers through his wispy hair, and then reluctantly threw down a card.

\*\*\*

The first time Katie brought Tom home to meet Jim, Jim had made the boy play — somewhat against his will, like now. Katie kept an encouraging hand on Tom’s back while Jim explained the simple rules. “I throw a card, you throw a card. We’re flipping for matches. If you throw a match, you take those two cards. No match, the cards accumulate in a pile. Only an ace takes the whole pile.”

A delicate flush had colored Tom’s anemic baby face. He seemed confused, like someone had told a joke he wasn’t sure was a joke. “So it’s just a game of chance,” he said.

“No,” Katie corrected him, with her flawless blend of gentility and forcefulness. “It’s a game of skill.”

Tom had capitulated that night — they played. But when Jim threw down his game-winning ace, Tom squinted his beady little eyes. The boy was meek, but he wasn’t stupid. He opened his thin-lipped mouth to protest but hadn’t had the chance to squeak out the first sound of accusation before Katie silenced him with one pointed look.

Jim’s Katie, his shark.

She’d smiled brightly for her father and said to Tom, “Daddy always wins.”

Tom had adjusted his expression then, to complement Katie’s angelic obedience. This was the moment Jim knew for sure that Katie had finally chosen the right man. Tom was tamable, trainable. He could be trusted to yield to Katie’s authority.

Over the years, Jim was proven correct. Tom stayed in line and propped Katie up as she propped up Jim. This was the dynamic he could always count on — that he was counting on now.

But what if he’d underestimated the boy?

\*\*\*

“We really need to talk about the plan,” Tom said now, irately flipping cards onto Jim’s desk. His usual docility had been replaced by a smoldering defiance that was making Jim nervous.

“I think we need to reevaluate,” Tom continued. “Get Katie over here and go over all this with her, make sure we can keep her out of it.”

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“Don’t you worry about Katie,” Jim said. As if Tom knew the first thing about how to protect his daughter. As if she, with her brilliant mind and iron will, needed him to.

Of course it would all come down to Katie. Tom must see that. How polite, universally admired, impeccably bred Katie — whose testimony would be verbal gold — would decide everything.

“This is no time to fall apart on me, Tommy,” Jim said, keeping his eyes on his cards. “You knew from the beginning that we all had a role to play. You knew what you were signing on for when I made you my top adviser.”

“You mean advisers,” Tom said. “Katie and me.”

Jim didn’t appreciate the aggression in Tom’s voice just then. He raised his eyes to stare the boy down. “Katie is an informal adviser. You’re the only one with the official title, my friend. Are you forgetting how this all started, with Wychmere? How you suddenly came alive with a million ideas of how to move the money around, how to sidestep every rule and regulation? That was all you. I’d never seen you so lit up.”

“I did all of that for you,” Tom shot back. He rose out of his seat and lunged forward.

Jim would not flinch. “No.” He shook his head. “You did it because all you could see was green.”

“You know what? I’m done with this.” Tom chucked all his cards down onto Jim’s desk. “I’m tired of always letting you win.”

Jim leaned back in his big, throne-like chair, procured his ace seemingly from thin air, and flicked it forward into Tom’s flaccid face.

Tom remained still, closed his eyes, and reopened them. “I can’t go to prison, Jim. I won’t.”

“You’re talking now like an innocent man,” Jim said, crossing his arms over his chest. “And you’re not.”

“Neither are you,” Tom said.

Jim forbade himself from showing an ounce of fear, even as his heart raced.

“Maybe you’re right.” Jim reached for the receiver of his desk phone. “Maybe it is time we brought Katie in here.”

Tom fumbled for his cell.

They both started dialing. Katie would never side with Tom, would she? If Tom forced her to choose, if he refused to roll over?

Jim’s Katie, his shark. Did she have it in her to betray him?

No. No way. The Mahoneys were a clan, a dynasty. And Katie was a Mahoney, through and through. She worshipped Jim just as Jim had worshipped his own father, with unshakable devotion and a steely determination to please. Katie only saw the best in Jim, always.

“Katie’s my wife.” Tom brought his phone up to his ear.

Jim listened for a ring. “She was my daughter first.”

The story continues: read part 7.

Thanks to Instagram user @kellykcarroll for the Golden Horseshoe detail and @kjc_ham for naming the card game.

Camille Perri’s new novel, When Katie Met Cassidy, is available for preorder now.