The old man's gut is distended, purple veins threaded with tubes. The chest heaves, his voice is a rasp.

Angelo Fosco is dying.

A nurse puts a compress to his liver-freckled forehead as the private jet torques over Miami. All turquoise and pastel below. But Angelo don't care, he's got to get to the Bal Harbour Sheraton.

A last errand.

Fosco is president of the Laborers' International Union and he had hoped to pass the day on his deathbed. But his executive board is meeting at the Sheraton. And the Chicago Outfit, which is to say the Mafia, which is to say Fosco's real boss, roused him and strongly suggested he get their choice, John Serpico, elected as his successor.

So Fosco's gurney wheels into the hotel lobby, the union delegates shake their heads--can you freakin' believe this guy!--and it's right out of the movies until . . . Fosco croaks.

Right before the vote.

Then the union's smooth and dapper secretary-treasurer, Arthur Armand Coia, lines up the votes, sidesteps the mooks who might deprive him of consciousness, and beats out Serpico to become general president of one of the nation's largest unions. That was February 1993. In the years to come, Coia cuts a deal with federal prosecutors, cleans his union's stables, boots out a bunch of mobsters, plays kingmaker within the AFL-CIO and buddies up to President Clinton.

He gives Clinton a customized golf club; the president pens a personal note on the birth of his grandchild. His union contributes millions to the Democratic Party; the first lady flies to a Laborers conference . . .

La Cosa Nostra is not amused.

Nor is the United States Department of Justice.

A lot of Mafiosi are convinced that Coia is a double-dealing usurper intent on depriving them of their ancestral right to loot the union, an ungrateful wretch of a social climber who's turned on the goombahs who made him.

And a goodly number of federal prosecutors, congressional investigators and union dissidents are convinced that Coia is a mob puppet who should be paying rent on his reformer's tag.

Coia, in other words, is caught in an interesting confluence of shadows.

Now union and government sources say Coia could face new legal charges--perhaps this week--arising from his lease of a vintage Ferrari from a union vendor. Under the terms of a 1994 agreement that staved off a federal takeover of the Laborers, Coia faces suspension if he's indicted. And he's telling board members that means he's gone.

If that happens . . .

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney loses a charismatic ally in a labor movement aflutter with weak pulses. The Democratic Party loses a money spigot who funneled $3 million in labor donations into its coffers. And the union, depending on your perspective, loses an unlikely reformer--or finally dances free of the mob's shackles.

That's the fascination of the story, really.

Who is Arthur Coia? The lawyer who spends 30 years doing the organizational crawl through the mobbed-up coils of the Laborers? Whose father is named in federal racketeering reports and served as the union's secretary-treasurer before him? Or is he the man who eloquently champions reform and puts money into organizing the dispossessed, black, white and brown alike?

How to account for the layers of family and neighborhood and mob history, how to parse denial and motivation and take his measure?

And all those subplots . . . the Justice Department, whose prosecutorial hounds have bayed after Coia and the Laborers for years and yet is accused of going soft on Coia . . . the High Establishment Washington lawyers who assay a silver-tongued defense of him . . . and everywhere in the background that decayed hulk of a multinational business known as La Cosa Nostra.

To read the bound volumes of testimony compiled by prosecutors in the Laborers case, the monosyllabic depositions of wise guys turned snitches and worms, is to understand that the Mafia has few duchies left that jealously guard its traditions. A good mobster, it turns out, is hard to find.

But in the end, you come back to Coia. To the sins of his father and the compromises that tumbled him into the land of shadow. To the difficulty of getting out.

Sins of the Father

The easy narrative, the one favored by critics, goes like this:

Coia is his father's son.

It's not intended as a compliment. Coia's father, Arthur E., who died a month after his son assumed the union presidency in '93, ran the Laborers in Providence, R.I.

He had an eighth-grade education, shoveled sewer muck, and had a nose that looked like it'd been whacked by a plywood board. He handed out union pensions to favored city council members, had a pronounced willingness to shut the city down and was nobody's fool.

"My father," Coia Jr. told the the Providence Journal, "was a legend."

The senior Coia also was identified in federal racketeering reports as a business associate of Raymond L.S. Patriarca Sr., who, as it happens, was CEO of the New England chapter of La Cosa Nostra. Patriarca had a face of pure and cool menace. In the early 1960s, the FBI eavesdropped as Patriarca Sr. talked about his business strategy. Faced with competition, he explained, he found it helpful to "hit them, break legs to get your way."

As these competitors sometimes stop breathing, it became the view of federal law enforcement that an association between La Cosa Nostra and the Laborers' Union was not a good thing.

For the unions, though, a mob marriage evened the odds a bit with Providence's WASP elite. The textile and lumber barons had plummy New England accents and eating clubs and memberships at the Rhode Island Country Club, and they shared a pronounced distaste for the Catholic immigrants who, however necessary to the operation of prosperous mills and machine shops, clotted the streets with their strange customs and clangor.

Italians, local newspapers opined, were "very largely ignorant, impulsive and vengeful." Contractors stiffed them, cops beat them, courts ignored them. In 1929, the Macaroni Riots--so named when local importers hiked the price of pasta and immigrants started stoning stores--shook the Italian neighborhood of Federal Hill.

When Coia Sr., son of the Charles Street Italians, had problems with a contractor, he phoned Patriarca Sr., of Federal Hill. Thomas Hillary, who identified himself as a Cosa Nostra member and a professional criminal, was cross-examined a year ago and described what happened next:

"If Arthur Coia Sr. told Raymond Patriarca Sr. that there was a little problem, a guy wasn't hiring union guys, he was hiring scab help, we would . . . visit the guy. Me, and Fall River Dan and the Snake, and Blackjack and Bobo . . ."

It is axiomatic in Providence that when large men known only by their nicknames come visiting, an employer has a very big problem.

That cuts both ways, of course. Play with wise guys, like the Laborers and Teamsters and Longshoremen did, and pretty soon you're the fly that invites the spider to supper.

The mob cuts deals with favored contractors. The mob demands seats of honor at labor conventions. The mob beats up rival union candidates. The mob tends to view pension funds as big wads of unclaimed money and a good job as synonymous with not having to show up for work.

And when union underlings prove troublesome, the mob tends to shoot them. You take a few steps and pretty soon you can't stop falling.

Our guide at this point is the Rev. Joseph L. Lennon, an 80-year-old Dominican with the hearty handshake and incisive manner of a man expert at diocesan and secular politics. He grew up as one of 11 brothers and sisters in Depression-era Providence, blessed with wit and broad shoulders. He's a retired vice president of Providence College, he taught philosophy to young Arthur Jr., and he sits on the board of the Laborers' pension fund.

He takes a practical view of the failures of flesh and spirit.

"Sometimes you have to deal with the Devil, tolerate the bad for the greater good," Lennon says. "Providence has a tough power structure, it's the sort of place where you know all your cousins, and it's all interconnected. You tolerate a lot of things that you probably shouldn't."

Arthur Jr. grows up bathed in this duality. Adores Dad, a smart kid, college-educated, radiates ambition. He joins the union at 16. Earns a law degree, opens a firm, and he's a crown prince. So he gets some Laborers work and faces no danger of starving.

Then Coia Jr. and his father and Patriarca Sr. and his son get indicted in an insurance scam case in 1980. A judge throws it all out, eventually. The stink is bad, but no one says Coia Jr. is as close to that stuff as the old man.

So what does Coia Jr. know about his dad and Patriarca Sr.? He knows his dad as a man of integrity. He knows that in those old neighborhoods a lot of people knew a lot of people.

"If you go back to those neighborhoods, especially 80 years ago, they were close-knit neighborhoods," he says in a deposition last year. "People stuck together."

Coia Jr. lives in Barrington now, 20 miles from Federal Hill and Charles Street.

He has a lovely home called South Winds, a sprawling, peach-white place with red shingles and stout oaks and motion-detection lights and a vast lawn that sweeps down to the purple-gray of Narragansett Bay. He's survived bouts with Hodgkin's and prostate cancer, he talks of God, his kids go to the best schools.

A stand of trees separates his home from the Rhode Island Country Club. No one talks about the mob out here.

The Other Son--A Coda

Raymond Patriarca Jr. lives rent-free at the moment, courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Short and heavyset, he's the not-so-bright, not-so-courageous son of a legendary crime boss. He's supposed to run the New England Family now, but FBI tapes catch him begging big-pectoraled half-wits, in a very un-Godfatherlike way, to leave his family alone. When he's not in his cell with a view, he lives in the old neighborhood on Federal Hill. He admires Coia Sr. as a business buddy of his father's and he meets Arthur Jr. when they share an indictment. He discovers they also share an interest in breeding Rottweilers but that doesn't mean he likes the guy.

Patriarca tells the FBI that Coia Jr. is "arrogant, well educated and has been given everything." Coia, Patriarca says, "does not belong in Barrington. Coia, like himself, would never be accepted as a member in the Rhode Island Country Club. . . . Coia has forgotten where he comes from."

"Arthur," Patriarca Jr. says, "doesn't have the balls to be a mobster."

Bill and Arthur

"Dear Arthur, I've just heard you've become a grandfather. Congratulations! Thanks for the gorgeous driver. It's a work of art. Bill."

Bill Clinton, that is. Nov. 4, 1994.

Oh, baby.

Coia's on the golden roll in 1993 and 1994. He's the key vote in propelling John Sweeney into the presidency of the AFL-CIO, of which the Laborers' International is a member. He reinvigorates his union and gets a raise. (He makes $250,000.) He's chairman of a swank Democratic Party fund-raiser at the Washington Convention Center. Clinton's fund-raising chief circulates a memo that identifies Coia as one of the Democrats' top 10 donors. It feels so right.

But he's flying pretty close to the sun.

The same day the president writes him that note, a prosecutor named Paul Coffey sends a memo to the White House advising that the Justice Department plans to throw the Laborers' Union into federal receivership and to portray Coia as a "mob puppet." Soon the Republicans ask about the mobster who dines at the White House.

Now it plays as Slick Willie dancing with the Mob Puppet.

Coia's cancer returns and his father dies. Back at the union, dangerous men aren't happy. A month after the Miami vote that crowns Coia president, he has a wake for his father in Providence. A Chicago guy with a size 54 suit asks him to take a walk.

It's not a solicitous moment.

"[John] Matassa did the talking this time," Coia recalls. "He didn't like and the boys in Chicago did not like what I did by stealing and taking the presidency from Chicago."

Coia, whose hair is a wispy rumor after months of chemotherapy, looks at Matassa. "I don't care what you think about it." And he returns to the house.

Word gets back that Tony "Big Tuna" Accardo, CEO of the Chicago Outfit, is profoundly disappointed. Coia Jr. becomes concerned that bullets could interfere with his circulation and hires a couple of bodyguards.

Coia's agita doesn't impress Justice Department prosecutors. They've read Coia's depositions and newspaper quotes over the years as he bobs and weaves on the question of the Laborers and the mob: Didn't know the union was mobbed up. Didn't know about Fosco's mob connections. The accusations about Patriarca Jr. are just stuff he reads in the newspaper. Big Tuna, does that mean he's a big guy?

It's too cute. The prosecutors are ready to stake a metaphoric "Property of U.S. Government" sign outside the Laborers' marble palace on 16th Street NW.

Then Coia's lawyer walks over to the Justice Department and suggests a compromise: Let Coia reform the union. He'll hire former FBI agents and appoint an in-house independent prosecutor and give them the run of the house. If the Justice Department determines that he's not acting in good faith, they can kick him out. They can even keep investigating him.

The Justice Department accepts and Republicans loose a wolf's howl. Over the next year the Republicans subpoena 120 notes sent back and forth between the White House and Coia. They show that Clinton, the Democratic National Committee and White House counsel Harold Ickes know of concern about Coia's alleged mob connections. They unearth a note that Hillary Rodham Clinton's speechwriter writes about her impending speech to the Laborers: "They are mob."

Now the narrative is so airtight: Prez Cut Deal With Mobbed-Up Leader to Prevent Federal Takeover. Congressional Republicans hold a hearing in late 1997, and call Coffey, a veteran prosecutor of unquestioned integrity who has stalked La Cosa Nostra for three decades. The Republican congressmen throw him the question, a lollipop.

Is Coia a Mob Puppet?

Coffey frowns. He's watched for two years as Coia makes good on his bargain, as he reorganizes mobbed-up locals and kicks out 115 mob-connected guys, including many friends of Coia's father.

"That's what I said, but the jury's out today," Coffey tells the congressmen. "The interesting thing about Coia is that he's the first guy to come to the government and say, 'It ain't true [that I'm a mob puppet] and I can prove it's not true by ridding the union of organized-crime influence.' "

A year passes. November 1998. The independent union prosecutor, Robert Luskin, using a reform process established by Coia, files papers charging another Laborers official with "knowingly permitting organized crime members" to influence the union.

But this time his target is Arthur Coia.

Rob a Bleeping Bank

Nino Cucinotta sweats, yells, stands and pounds a table and holds his head like it hurts so bad. He weeps like a baby.

Cucinotta is a retired Mafia killer who several years ago took up a long-term tenancy in the federal pen. He's testifying that Coia is mobbed up, that his reformer's rep is a fraud. If he's right, Coia's gone from the union.

But Cucinotta is a piece of fast-unraveling string.

The witness tells the union hearing officer he drove the Providence mob boss to meet Coia each week. Then he says he took a big whack on the head and can't remember anything about anything. Cucinotta says mobsters inducted him into La Cosa Nostra against his will and he's just a humble butcher. Then, with an authorial eye for detail, Cucinotta describes killing two guys.

What did you do that night, the prosecutor asks in the manner of a man who doesn't want to hear the answer.

"That night, somehow, I hurt a couple of people with a gun."

Did you kill them?

"Well, they both ended up dead . . ."

Two more wise guys and wannabe star witnesses testify before the union's independent hearing officer. Their accusations unspool wildly, everything contradicts everything else. FBI and Rhode Island State Police surveillance tapes, for instance, show no evidence that Patriarca Jr. met regularly with Coia at his office.

Coia, in other words, does not appear to be in great legal danger.

What is left is a portrait of late-20th-century mob life in a dusty outpost of the decaying Cosa Nostra empire. The days are past when an ebullient thug could proclaim, as Boston mobster Gennaro Anguilo did for FBI tapes in the 1970s: "I wouldn't be in a legitimate business for all the money in the world."

This is the scene in 1980: The New England boss of bosses, Patriarca Sr., is reduced to living in an apartment over the New Brite Dry Cleaners, sharing a bedroom with that future Mafioso, Thomas Hillary, who is like a son except he's Irish so he can't take over the Family. You've seen the movie.

Patriarca Jr. is living in the old man's house, but the FBI is always following him around and bugging his house and it's giving him the shakes. The quality of the Cosa Nostra foot soldiers, which is iffy, bugs him, too.

He reviews his troops and who's he got? Guys like Cucinotta, a butcher who sometimes forgets to go to work. Cucinotta is low on cash, so one day his friends say, follow us. They walk to a Federal Hill restaurant, burn his finger, mix his blood with their blood and that's that. Now he's a mobster. After that, Cucinotta recalls, "we sit down and start eating and drinking . . ."

So what next, wise guy?

Raymond Patriarca Sr. instructs Cucinotta to clean his apartment, take out the garbage, walk the dogs and scoop their poop, too. Raymond Jr. tells him to pick up Tampax for his wife.

Cucinotta asks Patriarca Jr. about getting one-a those no-show jobs. There's a call made to the Laborers and they give him a five-day-a-week job as a traffic flagman. The pay's terrible and they actually expect him to work.

Do you know how embarrassing that is? He and another gangster go ask the boss: "How are we going to live?"

"Go rob a [bleeping] bank," Patriarca Jr. replies. "[Bleeping] go and rob a [bleeping] bank."

This confuses Cucinotta. Some days, already, he can't remember his way home, he stops and cries in the car. He's depressed, he's seeing a shrink.

"We're [bleeping] gangsters, we can't even eat, we can't even put gas in the car and your answer is to go rob a [bleeping] bank?

"I mean, what's that?"

The case against Coia offers days and days of this stuff, as prosecutor and defense probe the witnesses' stories. Made guys, the creme de la mobster creme, talking about petty hustles and dealing drugs and dressing up as cops and trying to steal money out of precincts. Nobody has cash, everyone keeps getting arrested. A bummer.

In the end the hearing officer, Peter P. Vaira, says the witnesses are truth-challenged and finds no evidence Coia is mob-connected. But he fines Coia $100,000 for an apparent conflict of interest for accepting a car lease from a car dealer who had a union contract. This dealer, as it happens, was friendly with Raymond Patriarca Sr.

Family History

The letter to union members is a crisp, elegant break with the past. Evasions no longer serve. This union has La Cosa Nostra blues.

"The reasons for . . . past denials are unclear. Perhaps union leaders have been motivated by fear. More likely, they have acted out of a sense of toleration born of ignorance. 'Those guys aren't really bad,' they tell themselves, 'you just have to know how to play ball with them.' "

"There is no reason to deny its presence, the mob has been a corrupting influence . . . in many unions, including LIUNA."

Coia writes this column in the Laborers magazine in 1995, and the effect is not unlike a man psychoanalyzing himself. It's that duality all over again. Insist on reckoning with the corrupt past; and insist, elsewhere, on the iron integrity of your fathers.

Coia is, like many of his Laborers' generation, a professional. He wears fine suits with French cuffs, builds model training centers, holds management-labor seminars and pushes aggressive organizing of the dispossessed.

But the doors on those family closets keep flapping open. And no one can figure out how to deal with the shadows inside.

Not everyone buys the duality story line. Union reformers, and a posse's worth of federal prosecutors, are convinced Coia is corrupt or infinitely cynical or both. He reads the prevailing winds, sees a chance to get the goombahs off his neck, and plays ball with the Justice Department. End of story.

Or not.

Maybe the Justice Department pushing and the desire of a man to leave the mob behind are two rivers coming together. Maybe Coia convinces himself he didn't know the truth, and that he would have done things differently if he had known it. Maybe half-truth sustains us.

"It's hard to come to terms with life," says Lennon, our expansive Dominican father. "You might say he was friendly, because of his father, with the people he bounced. It took courage to put the finger on them."

And now . . .

Rumors that the Justice Department intends to indict Coia for the Ferrari lease run through the union like mice on speed. It could happen as soon as this week.

A tearful Coia, sources say, is warning his executive board to cast about for a successor.

There are the usual pretenders, and unlike the old days they probably aren't in danger of getting bones broken anymore. But you can get short odds on Armand Sabitoni, a Laborers board member who happens to be Coia's longtime friend and former law partner.

You will not be surprised to learn that Sabitoni's father, Mondo, was a Laborers official. Or that Mondo Sabitoni did business with Raymond Patriarca Sr. Who was CEO of La Cosa Nostra of New England.

So you see, the sins of the fathers could make it interesting all over again for the laborers. As Coia says with the determination of a believer: "From the shadows, we see light."