SEATTLE -- You come in alive and go out dead.

Mafia motto, according to Aladena (Jimmy the Weasel) Fratianno

Visibly nervous, pressing his back against the door, surely Jimmy Fratianno is remembering that when he killed people for a living, he sometimes did it just like this. He lured his victims -- just as he has now been lured -- into a silent, solitary room, closed the door and then strangled them with a rope until their bodies discharged fluids and life passed from their eyes.

He wanted to meet this way: no photographers, no bodyguards, just one on one in a faraway hotel room. Still, when the door clicks behind him and his eyes dance from corner to corner, searching, it is clear that he is making an assessment -- is this a setup? Is it time now to go out dead?

"It will never stop," a calmer Fratianno says of his fear a few minutes later. He has settled in a chair, satisfied that the room contains only a reporter. "It's a Commission contract," he says -- a contract on his life, that is, put out by the organized crime families against whom Fratianno has testified during his decade-long and recently terminated career as a government witness.

Fratianno pronounces these words about the threat on his life plainly, without affectation, but after all the movies and novels and mini-series -- all the myth-making -- it is hard to take the cliche' about a "contract" seriously. It is hard, as well, to know who this aging murderer and former acting Mafia boss really is, or what he really represents -- though whatever he stands for, it is something quintessentially American.

Consider that Jimmy Fratianno has admitted strangling three men to death and shooting two others in the back of their heads, and yet recently he went on the Oprah Winfrey show to promote his second book. He has not read his second book, however, or his first, or any other book in his life. He is a celebrity, but he is in hiding. He is a murderer, but the government says he has been reformed.

During his 74 years, by his and other corroborating accounts, he has gambled at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas with its late proprietor, Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel; eaten lunch in Los Angeles with Menachem Begin and then helped steal $1 million collected for Israel at a Hollywood fundraiser; and spent 20 years in prison over three different stretches.

He has been photographed backstage with Frank Sinatra (who owes him $5,000, Fratianno claims), dodged bullets on Sunset Strip, tried unsuccessfully to blow up a house. He has extorted, philandered, autographed a book for Attorney General Edwin Meese and helped send about a dozen Mafia bosses to prison by testifying for the government.

"I'm just washed up now, you know," Jimmy Fratianno says plaintively in the airport hotel room. "I'd like to feel secure at this stage of the game."

So he has come here to tell his story and to air his complaints about the way the government has treated him. He has one thing to ask of the American people. He would like to be taken care of until he dies.

"He basically is who he is," says Nick Ackerman, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan who prosecuted one of the Mafia cases in which Fratianno testified. "If you called over to Central Casting and asked for a guy to play a former acting mob boss, he's perfect."

Fratianno still cares about his appearance, the way they care about looks in Vegas and Atlantic City. His dyed light brown hair is combed up in a pompadour, but when he turns his head, streaks of gray are visible on the back of his neck. He wears stylish tortoise-shell glasses and, on his right wrist, a wide gold band with a dramatic, centered diamond.

And then there is his voice, a throaty rasp so close in tenor and botched syntax to the Mafia routines of a thousand bad comedians that on hearing it for the first time, one can barely contain a reflexive smile.

When Fratianno becomes angry, as happens every time he considers his treatment at the hands of the U.S. government, that voice becomes animated with a powerful malice. His black eyes flash, the muscles in his neck protrude, and he delivers a tirade that rises gradually to a kind of high-pitched scream.

The source of his anger is the Justice Department's decision, disclosed earlier this year, to remove Fratianno from the payroll of the government's witness protection program, known as WITSEC. Fratianno joined WITSEC in 1978 when he traded a half-century career in crime for a new life as a professional witness, book collaborator, murder target and occasional talk show guest.

When the decision to bounce Fratianno out of WITSEC was disclosed last summer, Justice said it was necessary because "everyone is terminated from the program sooner or later" and because taxpayers had already doled out about $1 million to support Fratianno.

Fratianno vehemently disputes the $1 million figure. He says the total amount of money spent by the government during the decade he was a protected witness comes to only about $500,000. And what really stirs his ire is his belief that Justice has lied about the figure in an attempt to turn public opinion against him.

"I don't know what it was that caused them to take me off," he begins in a low, tense voice that quickly yields to fury. "It might have been the book {"Vengeance Is Mine," his second, which is sharply critical of WITSEC}. I don't know, I never read the book. I don't know -- they come up with a million dollars.

He swears violently. "Let them come man-to-man to me and show me month by month where they spend money. They can't do that! They won't do that! Believe me when I tell you! They gotta be crazy!"

The outburst continues for five minutes before subsiding. In the midst of his rage -- when he reaches the challenge, "Let them come man-to-man to me," for example -- Fratianno's capacity to murder grows palpable. The effect is chilling: Compared with, say, Oliver North's nationally televised challenge to the terrorist Abu Nidal, Fratianno's voice has the ring of truth.

Asked to respond to Fratianno's accusations, a Justice spokesman, John Russell, backs away from the $1 million number. "At first, yes, I think the figures that were given to me showed that it was either close to or more than $1 million. I think it's short of $1 million ... It's hard to figure out when you ask the Marshals Service to come up with figures ... I don't trust these figures."

Russell praises Fratianno's work as a federal prosecution witness in major organized-crime trials in Los Angeles, Kansas City, New York, Florida, Cleveland and elsewhere. "He did this country a great service," Russell says. "But it was felt that the time had come when the government should no longer pay his subsistence."

Fratianno's allies in and out of government -- cops and former prosecutors who became unlikely friends of the former mobster at the trials where Fratianno testified -- say that the decision to exile the Weasel is unfair, and bad policy as well. They argue that Fratianno's treatment will discourage other Mafia leaders from becoming government witnesses.

"The expectation was that he would be safely out of the country under an assumed identity {when his involvement with WITSEC ended}," says Jim Ahearn, who heads the FBI's Boston office and was one of the agents responsible for turning Fratianno to government service. "Unfortunately, that has not occurred."

"It's absolutely ridiculous," former prosecutor Ackerman says. "It seems to me they've got to follow through and take care of this guy. You can't just leave him to the wolves."

Moods pass rapidly over Fratianno, who in several hours reveals himself as both ancient and childlike. He shifts effortlessly from anger to whining self-pity, from helplessness to a hustler's savvy. It is impossible to be sure what Fratianno really believes. He has been conning for a long time and he knows what the people want to hear.

On the touchy topic of murder, for example, he passes off a line or two that he has often repeated. Sure, he killed a few guys, he says, but he was only following orders. And besides, the only people he ever "clipped," to use the term of art he prefers, were other gangsters -- guys who had it coming.

"When the boss tells you to do something, you do it. You don't do it, they kill you," he explains confidently. "I wouldn't kill an innocent person, no way. They tell me to kill an innocent -- I tell them to go to hell."

That his justification is contradictory escapes him. No matter. There is truth in it, too.

Consider the case of "the two Tonys" -- Anthony Trombino and Anthony Brancato -- whom Fratianno shot to death from the back seat of a car in Los Angeles in 1951.

The two Tonys were three-time losers accused of rape, robbery and murder. In the summer of 1951, when Fratianno was a soldier in the Los Angeles crime family, the Tonys began inadvisably to harass the owner of the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, in which the L.A. family had a business interest.

As Fratianno recalls it: "They robbed the Flamingo and they were bothering some guys that we were, you know, in partners with. And I told them to lay off and they didn't do it. And we just had to kill 'em."

Fratianno set the Tonys up by inviting them to join him in the armed robbery of a high-stakes card game on Sunset Strip. When the eager Tonys piled into the front seat of their car to begin the night's work, Fratianno leaned forward from the back with a .38-caliber pistol.

He shot Brancato in the back of the head six times. One of the shots apparently killed Trombino. "The way I understand, one of the bullets ricocheted and went in him," Fratianno says.

There is the slightest delight in Fratianno's expression as he tells this story, the hint of a craftsman's pride. They never caught him. For the five murders he personally committed and the half-dozen others for which he could legally have been prosecuted, they never really came close. He turned government witness because his brethren in the Mafia were after him, not because he feared a murder prosecution.

There doesn't seem much point in exploring the depths of Fratianno's murderous soul, either. Born in Cleveland in 1913 to a poor, hard-working, law-abiding, but apparently cruel family, he began hustling in the streets before he was 15. He was sent to prison for armed robbery at 24. In his 74 years, he has committed and endured more outrages than the average Third World dictator -- and yet none of it has sunk in.

"This is an adolescent personality," says Michael Zuckerman, the journalist who collaborated on Fratianno's recent book. (Zuckerman interviewed Fratianno extensively and did all the writing, the same method used by journalist Ovid Demaris, who cowrote Fratianno's first book, "The Last Mafioso.") "He never understood joy or hatred or what it took to take a human life."

"I don't let stress bother me," Fratianno explains. "You know, I think that's very important in a man's life, in anybody's life. Stress will age you quicker than anything. And I just try to take it easy and ..." Here he pauses and shrugs. "What can I do?"

The prime of Fratianno's life was a strange, exhilarating, horrifying time.

Released from prison in Ohio in 1945, he drifted to L.A. in search of money and warm weather. He knew a lot of Italian-born criminals from Cleveland -- the "right people," as they were called -- but Fratianno was not yet a member of any crime family. He wanted to join. He wanted to become a "made guy."

Los Angeles then was a sprawling, raucous boom town infected by the spirit of Hollywood and the promise of victory in World War II. Gambling joints and nightclubs were springing up on Sunset Strip -- neon social halls for starlets and hangers-on and soldiers home from the Pacific.

It was a good time to hustle.

Fratianno fell in with Johnny Roselli, who had been sent west by Al Capone to secure some of L.A.'s burgeoning gambling trade for the Chicago crime family. Roselli's gang tried to muscle in on Mickey Cohen, the Hollywood-connected gambling impresario who controlled most of the Strip's illicit business.

After helping to murder one of Cohen's henchmen, Fratianno was initiated into the new Los Angeles Mafia family.

"When I got made, they had a sword and a gun crossing one another on the table," Fratianno recalls. "There were maybe 70, 80 guys around -- all members. They took me in there, and the boss says a few words in Italian, and they prick your finger. They take you around and introduce you to everybody and that's it, you're a made guy."

Over the next few years, Fratianno says, the crime family's solemn code of conduct was explained to him a little at a time.

"They tell you not to use no narcotics, don't mess with nobody's wives, don't talk to no FBI man -- if you do, you gotta lie. If you give any depositions, you gotta lie. Any time you go to a grand jury, you gotta lie. You can't tell 'em that you belong."

The L.A. crime family, dubbed the Mickey Mouse Mafia by local journalists, never achieved the power or wealth of its counterparts in New York, Chicago, Kansas City, Milwaukee and other eastern cities. From the beginning, Fratianno says, the organization lacked both depth and resources.

"They didn't have nobody to kill people," he says.

That became Fratianno's niche. Even so, during its halcyon days in the late 1940s and 1950s, when it tried to force Cohen out of the lucrative local gambling rackets, the L.A. family often seemed to be a gang that couldn't shoot straight. Mickey Mouse mafiosi tried to kill Cohen a dozen times in a dozen different ways, but they could never quite get it done.

Some 40 years later, in the airport hotel room, Fratianno tells the stories of his attacks on Cohen with chuckling self-deprecation, as if he were an ex-jock who once grabbed a fumble in a big game and ran the wrong way.

Picking up in mid-tale: "When Mickey came out of that Sunset bar, we took a shot at him and missed and they hit Herbert, Neddie Herbert {who was killed}. And then there was a broad there, and they nailed her in the {abdomen}. What the hell was her name?

"Anyway, I put a bomb in {Cohen's} house and it didn't go off -- a bomb that was THAT BIG and had maybe 20 sticks in it. Dynamite. I threw it right under his bed. He went to a nightclub and I got there around 11 o'clock at night ... He got home around 2:30 and I went back and lit the fuse. Well, they shoulda put two fuses -- if they'da put two fuses, it woulda went off. I lit the one, and the sonuvabitch, it went out."

Then, this punch line:

"Cohen went to jail the second time and got crippled. Somebody hit him on the head with something. Then when he got out, we'd gotten to be friends again ... He died a natural death."

Over the years, Fratianno barely scratched out a living. He was present for the founding of modern Las Vegas in the late 1940s, but his L.A. family was about the only major organized crime group that failed to secure a profitable ownership interest in one of the new casinos there.

"Vegas was our town," Fratianno laments. "We just never could get lucky up there."

"Frankly, {Fratianno} was not a very successful member of the Mafia," says Denny Walsh, a reporter for The Sacramento Bee who has tracked West Coast organized crime figures for years. "His career as a criminal is noteworthy more for its failures than for its accomplishments. He always had these great schemes, but very seldom did they pay dividends."

The end has played out in a way Fratianno would never have predicted.

Dogged everywhere he went by newspaper headlines that labeled him "the Mafia's West Coast Executioner," Fratianno had trouble finding legitimate work in California after 1960. In and out of prison, up and down the coast, he scammed and schemed and every so often helped to clip one of his rivals.

In the late 1970s, following his third stretch in prison, the murder of his close friend Roselli and some jostling inside the L.A. crime organization, Fratianno was made acting boss of the L.A. family. He also became the target of a murder contract.

"I found out that two guys were trying to kill me," he says. He attributes their motivations to jealousy arising from his ascendance in the L.A. family, his friendship with the late Roselli and his extensive contacts with Mafia members on the East Coast.

Frightened and under pressure from federal agents, Fratianno made his historic decision to turn state's evidence. In his early debriefings, he solved for prosecutors a dozen murders dating back 30 years and identified every major Mafia leader in the country. For the government, the bounty was unprecedented. For Fratianno, it wasn't a bad deal either -- he served only about a year in prison before traveling the country as a prosecution witness.

After all his troubles with WITSEC, Fratianno says now that he regrets his decision to join the program. Some of that may be posturing -- part of his enduring hustle -- but it is clear, too, that he is angry he cannot now retire in comfort and security.

"You know, what I did for {the government} and lived by myself all these years, away from my family, they don't appreciate that. And I did it to be safe, you know," he says. And then, bitterly, without irony: "There's no loyalty with the government."

Nor, of course, is there much loyalty with the Mafia anymore, as Fratianno and others after him have demonstrated. Because of Fratianno's cooperation, says former Mafia prosecutor David Helfrey, "the code of silence is broken and there's no retribution for it."

At least, not yet. Fratianno professes to be concerned, but not overburdened, by the contract on his life.

"I play it pretty cool. I don't go to bars. I don't go where there's a lot of people," he says. "You gotta be careful."

His only asset, according to Zuckerman and others who know him well, is a modest, secluded home in an undisclosed location. Zuckerman thinks Fratianno has about $40,000 in the bank, but no real income other than Social Security. He recently lost more than $70,000 in a failed car dealership venture with a relative. He is supposed to share in the profits of his new book, but none have been forthcoming so far.

"Now, the government says, 'He's got money -- he's got money to take care of himself,' " Fratianno says. "It's {expletive}."

The FBI's Ahearn contends that the threat on Fratianno's life "is as serious now as it was in 1977. I think that he is still a shining example to the LCN {La Cosa Nostra, or Mafia} of somebody who went our way ... It would be a real victory for the underworld should they ever successfully seek retribution against Jimmy."

Caught between the mob and the government, between his past and his future, Fratianno remains a panoply of contradictions. There is about him the dignity of myth and the banality of real life. He is at once a Mafia celebrity, a retired don targeted by a murder contract and a commonplace, bitter pensioner in a financial squeeze.

He is still hustling, always trying to make a few bucks off an infamous name. "Now, my wife is gonna write a book on her past, living with me," he says, apropos of nothing in particular. "I hope you mention that in your paper ... She'll write a good one -- how they treated her and all that. Treated her like a dog."

But at least he doesn't confuse reality with the Hollywood version. Asked about the confluence of his life and the fictional world of Mario Puzo's "The Godfather," he only laughs.

"It ain't even close," he says. "That's all {expletive}. You know, this guy Puzo knew somebody who told him some things. But it ain't even close."

Why not?

"They dramatize it. Too many killings," Jimmy Fratianno says.