I've decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month this year. I've been working on games for all of 2011 and this has proven to be a wonderful break. I don't have to consider, "How will the players use this?" or "How can I balance this with that?" Really, it's been a lot of fun. And the writing is fast-fast-fast. I've been burning through this thing and I'll be posting the chapters as I go.
I wanted to write something "non-magical." That is, something that wouldn't fit on the science fiction/fantasy shelf. So, I decided to write a crime novel. I like fantasy novels less and less these days. I'm reading too much Stark and Palahniuk and Ellroy and Burroughs and writers who don't view massive page/word count as a virtue.
I have a goal with this book: "Write like a shotgun blast. Immediate, deafening. And make the outcome painful and bloody." Also, I want the opening line of every chapter to be a barbed hook in the eye: you can't look away. And with that in mind…
When Paccini turned around, the masked man put a gun in his face, grabbed him by the collar and twisted until Paccini could barely breathe.
Vincent Paccini was in his blue leisure suit. It did not compliment his figure. He was a soldier in the Bonanno Family running one of those loan shops you see when you get off the freeway. He wasn’t too bright, and he knew it, but he appreciated the trust Anthony Bonanno gave him by putting him in this place. And now, there was a masked man pointing a silenced pistol at his face.
“Oh, shit,” he said.
“Money,” the voice under the mask said. The voice was low and rough, like it was speaking through a thousand cigarette filters.
Paccini just swallowed. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. “Who owns this place.”
The masked man nodded. “Bonanno,” he said. Then, he said, “Money.”
“It’s all in the safe,” Paccini said. “I can’t open that.”
The masked man shook his head. “Poker money,” he said.
Well, shit. He knew about that. Not that Paccini kept it much of a secret. He assumed the cops who were on the take and the reputation of the Bonanno Family would protect him from something like this.
Paccini tried taking a step back, but the masked man held him tight by the throat. He tapped the silencer against Paccini’s forehead.
“Money,” he said again. “Won’t ask again.”
Paccini finally nodded. He felt all the bravado flood from his shoulders. “In the back,” he said. “I’ll show you.”
Paccini saw the digital clock read 3:34 AM. The store was open twenty-four hours and he was the only one here. Again, assumed protections. But here he was, all alone, with a gun against the back of his head and a pile of slowly cooling mess in his pants. The poker game got out just twenty minutes ago and all the other guns had gone home for the night. Paccini won big and was making plans for how to spend it. All those plans were as useless as that protection he was promised.
The table in the back of the shop had three piles of cash. The masked man threw a black garbage bag on the table. Paccini knew what to do. He picked up the money and put it in the bag. The masked man stayed behind him. The barrel never moved from the back of Paccini’s head.
“That’s it,” Paccini said. “That’s all there is.”
Paccini felt the butt of the gun hit him on the side of the head. “Don’t lie,” the masked man said.
Paccini cursed again. The sonofabitch knew everything. How did he know so much?
“Now,” the masked man said. Paccini’s head started to ache.
“You hit me too hard,” Paccini said, pretending to sway. He felt a foot kick out his right knee while the hand on his collar pulled. He fell to the ground, his collar squeezing his neck.
“Now,” the voice said again. Paccini noticed it was higher pitched now. The masked man was getting nervous. Or maybe impatient. Paccini was dumb, but he was smart enough to know that was something he did not want.
“Okay! Okay!” he shouted. “Behind the clowns!”
There was a black velvet painting of two clowns: one happy and one sad. The masked man pulled him up by the collar and let Paccini over to the painting. Paccini pulled it off and turned it over. The painting had a false back and a small space. Thick bundles of cash rested there.
“Bag,” the voice said.
Paccini started to cry. This was his private skim. He had spent all year building it up. Fifteen thousand dollars. It all went into the garbage bag, one pack at a time.
When Paccini was done, the voice said, “Put your hands behind your back.”
Paccini nodded. At last, some good news. As he felt cuffs fit over his wrists, he knew the masked man wasn’t going to kill him. With his wrists bound, the masked man threw him to the ground and tied his feet. Then, he felt the masked man lift his feet and felt another rope tie his wrists and ankles together.
“Stay,” the husky voice behind the mask said. The masked man lifted the black garbage bag and left out the front door. Paccini watched him. When he heard the bell ring, telling him the masked man was out the door, he kicked hard to get to the door to the storefront.
He kicked hard enough to pull his left shoulder out of socket. But he got to see the car pull out of the parking lot. And he got the license plate.
About an hour and a half earlier, Joe Wilson was asleep in bed. He felt an itch on his face and he scratched it. His body sensed something moving beside the bed. Behind his eyelids, he sensed light. He opened his eyes and he saw the same masked man Vinny Paccini saw, pointing the same gun at his face.
Wilson turned to look at his wife, Marjorie. She was thin with silver in her black hair. Thirty years ago, she was a beauty that could set ships sailing. Now, at fifty, she could still stop men in their tracks. In the thirty years since they were married, Joe Wilson never found a single reason to raise his voice to her. And now, he realized that he had not been frightened until he saw her lying still beside him. He saw the clock on the bedside table. It said “2:04 AM.”
Marjorie was still asleep, breathing deeply. Too deeply. He looked back up at the masked man with the silenced pistol. “Please,” he said. “Don’t hurt her.”
The masked man shook his head and held up a small bottle. Wilson didn’t need his reading glasses to see the label. He said the word.
“Chloroform,” he said. The masked man nodded.
Wilson asked, “What do you want?”
The masked man said, in a voice low and rough, “Money.”
Wilson blinked. “Money? I don’t have any money in the house.”
The masked man pointed his pistol at Marjorie.
“No!” Wilson almost screamed. He raised his hand, but then brought it back quick when the masked man pointed the pistol back at him. He held his hands together: a sign of complete subjugation.
“Please,” he said. “I’ll do what you want. I won’t argue. I’m too old to fight.”
“Money,” the masked man said.
Tears were in his eyes now. He shook his head. “I told you, we don’t have any money in the house.”
“Mob money,” the masked man said.
That cooled Wilson’s blood down quick. He knew about Bonanno’s loot stashed in the basement. He had to think quickly. He could not give this man the money. If he did, Bonanno would kill him.
No, that was wrong. He would kill Marjorie first. Cut her to pieces and make Wilson watch. Then, he would throw the pieces in a shallow grave and bury Wilson in there with the pieces. Bury him alive. That’s what Bonanno told him would happen if he lost the money.
“You don’t understand,” he said to the masked man. “If you take that money, my life… my wife… they’ll kill both of us.”
The masked man shook his head. He reached into a pocket and took out a ring. Wilson recognized that ring. He had seen it before.
“Oh my God,” Wilson said. He looked from the ring back up to the masked man. “This isn’t a robbery, is it?”
The masked man looked like he was thinking about that for a moment. Then, he shrugged.
Wilson was a lawyer, not a dumb thug skimming a legitimate loan sharking operation. This was not a random robbery. The man knew what he was looking for. He knew exactly where it was and exactly how to get it. And he brought along that ring. The masked man knew he would have to show it to Wilson. And when he did, the masked man also knew Wilson would do exactly as he was told.
“All right,” Wilson said. “I’ll take you to the money.”
The masked man lowered the pistol as Wilson climbed out of bed, his old bones creaking. Wilson gestured at the masked man’s hand. “Thank you,” he said. The masked man didn’t say anything.
They walked downstairs to the first floor and then through the door in the kitchen to the basement. It was almost cold down here. Wilson reached up and pulled the chain that turned on the light.
His feet were chilled by the cold, concrete floor. He kept meaning to install carpet, but one thing or another always got in front of that. Wilson walked to the pile of boxes in the corner. He picked up the first, second and third box. When he got to the fourth, he pulled it off the pile and opened it. Inside was a black medical bag.
“It’s in there,” he said to the masked man.
The masked man gestured with his pistol. Wilson backed up.
The masked man put the pistol within easy reach on one of the boxes and lifted the bag. He opened it and looked inside.
Wilson knew exactly how much money was in there. Fifty thousand dollars. Fifty thousand twenty-five hundred seventy-two dollars. He counted it three times since Bonanno gave it to him. Ten percent of it was his if he kept it for six months.
“That’s it,” he said to the masked man. “There’s no more.”
The masked man closed the bag. He gestured with the gun toward the stairs.
“You can leave now,” he said. “We don’t have anything else.”
The masked man gestured toward the stairs.
Wilson nodded and walked, but he kept talking. “I don’t have any problem with you,” he said. “And when they find out the money is gone, they’re probably going to kill us. You don’t have to go to the trouble.”
Wilson reached the top of the stairs and turned into the kitchen. He kept talking. “If you kill us, the police will be looking for you. It’s smarter to let Bonnino and his boys try it. The cops will be looking for them instead.”
Up to the second floor now. His wife’s drugged, heavy breathing. “Please,” he said. “We haven’t seen your face and we have no idea who you are.” He started crying. He didn’t want to, but he couldn’t help it.
“Please,” he said. “Just don’t hurt Marjorie. She’s been drugged this whole time.” He was stammering now. “You can do what you want to me, just don’t hurt my Marjie.”
He stood there waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. He found the courage to turn around and look. There was no one behind him.