Submissions sought. Get fresh eyes on your opening page. Submission directions below.
The Flogometer challenge: can you craft a first page that compels me to turn to the next page? Caveat: Please keep in mind that this is entirely subjective.
Note: all the Flogometer posts are here.
What's a first page in publishingland? In a properly formatted novel manuscript (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type, etc.) there should be about 16 or 17 lines on the first page. Directions for submissions are below—they include a request to post the rest of the chapter, but that’s optional.
Before you rip into today’s submission, consider this checklist of first-page ingredients from my book, Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling.
Donald Maass,, literary agent and author of many books on writing, says, “Independent editor Ray Rhamey’s first-page checklist is an excellent yardstick for measuring what makes openings interesting.”
A First-page Checklist
- It begins to engage the reader with the character
- Something is wrong/goes wrong or challenges the character
- The character desires something.
- The character takes action. Can be internal or external action: thoughts, deeds, emotions. This does NOT include musing about whatever.
- There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
- It happens in the NOW of the story.
- Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
- The one thing it must do: raise a story question.
Tony sends the first chapter of Obscurity Hides a Killer. The first 17 lines follow, and the rest of the chapter is after the break.
It was an urge which Billy Capello tried to resist, but its tugging was too great. One by one, he gnawed each fingernail, nipping small sections off then spitting them away. How long could his nervous habit satisfy him? He needed to satisfy his craving soon but doing so would be terribly risky. If he wasn’t careful it could end up being life threatening.
He dragged his skinny frame toward the soot-encrusted window of the filthy abandoned apartment he had happened to find tonight. Outside, the rain had passed, leaving the streets barren and looking somewhat dry, just a few puddles spread about, but he’d made that same mistake in the past. Looks could be deceiving, and he couldn’t afford to be deceived. He knew he couldn’t stay cooped up in here forever—not with these cravings struggling inside his body.
He ambled back toward the sagging couch with the thought of sitting down and willing his cravings away, but he knew it was no use. He had to get out. Maybe he would be lucky this time and wouldn’t be seen. Hell, he'd found this empty apartment tonight by dumb luck and hadn't been spotted. Maybe there was a little more luck left around, just for him.It would be a quick trip—just a couple of blocks down the street to the neighborhood smoke shop. He’d scoped the streets for hours already. Movement? What movement? There were barely any cars parked on the road and he’d only seen two or three drive by in the last two hours. This could be his chance to go before someone or something unknown moved. His hand (snip)
Right off the bat (cliché alert), this narrative’s first word is one of my pet peeves—a pronoun with no preceding antecedent, which means I don’t have a clue what is being written about. And the paragraph continues to withhold that information. Why? It serves no story purpose to keep the reader unaware of what the scene is about. The mysterious “it” is referred to later as “these cravings,” which is also fundamentally meaningless as we don’t know what is craved.
There’s a lot of musing and backstory and setup here, but, for this reader, little in the way of compelling story questions. By the end of the page I think I know what the craving is all about, but the only remaining story question is whether or not he’s going to get to smoke a cigarette. While the character is worried about something, that something is not included in the narrative, so the reader can hardly be expected to engage with nothing more than a desire to smoke. I would dispense with all the musing and concern and get him moving and facing a real danger that he has to deal with.
Here are some editorial notes:
It was an urge which that Billy Capello tried to resist, but its tugging was too great. One by one, he gnawed each fingernail, nipping small sections off then spitting them away. How long could his nervous habit satisfy him? He needed to satisfy his craving soon but doing so would be terribly risky. If he wasn’t careful it could end up being life threatening. What is “it?” This is one of those annoying information questions that try to create suspense but fall flat because the reader doesn’t know what the narrative is about. Here the “it” could be chewing his fingernails, which hardly sounds fatal.
He dragged his skinny frame toward the soot-encrusted window of the filthy abandoned apartment he had happened to find tonight. Outside, the rain had passed, leaving the streets barren and looking somewhat dry, just a few puddles spread about, but he’d made that same mistake in the past. Looks could be deceiving, and he couldn’t afford to be deceived. He knew he couldn’t stay cooped up in here forever—not with these cravings struggling inside his body. “skinny frame” is a break in POV. This is from the author’s point of view—Billy would not be thinking of his skinny frame at a time like this. What cravings? The “it” that we don’t know what is? Reality is created by specificity, interest is created by understanding what is going on.
He ambled back toward the sagging couch with the thought of sitting down and willing his cravings away, but he knew it was no use. He had to get out. Maybe he would be lucky this time and wouldn’t be seen. Hell, he'd found this empty apartment tonight by dumb luck and hadn't been spotted. Maybe there was a little more luck left around, just for him.It would be a quick trip—just a couple of blocks down the street to the neighborhood smoke shop. He’d scoped the streets for hours already. Movement? What movement? There were barely any cars parked on the road and he’d only seen two or three drive by in the last two hours. This could be his chance to go before someone or something unknown moved. His hand (snip) Aha! Is it cigarettes he wants? This seems clear here, but later it turns out that gambling is also a problem for him. Which is it? Lack of clarity pulls a reader out of a story. And we have no idea about what he is afraid of. There’s no clue as to what makes a trip to a store dangerous for this guy. If there’s no understanding of either the peril or the stakes, how can a reader become involved?
For what it’s worth.
Submitting to the Flogometer:
Email the following in an attachment (.doc, .docx, or .rtf preferred, no PDFs):
- your title
- your complete 1st chapter or prologue plus 1st chapter
- Please include in your email permission to post it on FtQ. Note: I’m adding a copyright notice for the writer at the end of the post. I’ll use just the first name unless I’m told I can use the full name.
- Also, please tell me if it’s okay to post the rest of the chapter so people can turn the page.
- And, optionally, include your permission to use it as an example in a book on writing craft if that's okay.
- If you’re in a hurry, I’ve done “private floggings,” $50 for a first chapter.
- If you rewrite while you wait for your turn, it’s okay with me to update the submission.
Were I you, I'd examine my first page in the light of the first-page checklist before submitting to the Flogometer.
Flogging the Quill © 2018 Ray Rhamey, prologue and chapter © 2018 by Tony.
My books. You can read sample chapters and learn more about the books here.
Writing Craft Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling
Fantasy (satire) The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles
Mystery (coming of age) The Summer Boy
Science Fiction Hiding Magic
Science Fiction Gundown Free ebooks.
. . . patted his pocket to ensure his cash was handy and he shook the dampness from his jacket. The apartment door whined as it opened, and he cautiously peeked into the hallway.
It was just as dark as the apartment, and his steps were measured. Right now he was sure he’d be able to hear all six legs of a fly landing on the wall. The slightest noises made him halt. His eyes picked out every shadow, every strand of light. At the stairs, he leaned over the railing. They were empty, but he knew they were prone to creak. He’d better be ready to move quickly if confronted, since each step could give him away. From experience, he knew every apartment corridor could conceal what he dreaded, and every corner could pose a new threat. His heart hammered once again; he was tired of putting himself in these situations, but he couldn’t help himself. In his mind, money could solve everything. He had tried many times to quit, but his old gambling habit had stayed with him, just like the nicotine cravings he had now.
He blended in with the wall’s shadow as he stood in the front doorway, looking out through the door's plate glass window. He mustn’t allow himself to be spotted. Slowly he eased his head toward the glass, allowing a single eye to scan the street outside. The old apartments across the street were just as dark except for a few lights shining through pulled-down shades, not enough to shine down on the sidewalk. The road remained empty. This was his chance. He had to move now, and not run. It would only attract attention he desperately did not want.
He slid out the door and down the short flight of steps. His strides were long and deliberate. Just buy a pack of smokes, then hightail it back to the apartment before being spotted. The chill in the air forced him to bundle his jacket tight to his body. If he had known he would be in a spot like this, he would have worn a darker jacket. His head swiveled left and right, like a searchlight used to warn ships in a rough sea.
The lights from the corner store illuminated the sidewalk, and for the first time that day, his heart didn’t feel like it was being squeezed. He patted his pocket once again. His cash was ready. Just a few more yards, get the smokes, then head back.
Shadows shifted across the street.
He stopped and stared. Could it have been a shade flapping from the brisk wind? He wasn’t sure, but it didn’t feel right. Should he turn around and go back? How long could he hold off his cravings?
Something in the shape of a bent arm jutted out from the shadow. That was no shade. He wasn’t alone on the street anymore. Shaken, he scrambled back towards the apartment building, all the while a legion of footsteps followed behind him.
His time of reckoning had finally arrived.
The footsteps were getting closer. There was no way he was going to make it back. Up ahead was an unfamiliar alley between two brownstones, and with any luck, it would lead to the street on the other side. He turned, and if his shoes could have left skid marks, they would’ve. He hauled ass through the alley, splashing through scattered puddles. His heart dropped when, up ahead, a massive, wet cinderblock wall stood, blocking his way. On either side of him were rows of heavy, rain-slicked metal trash containers that smelled as if they hadn’t been emptied in a month. Old plastic garbage bags and soggy, loose rubbish sat at their bases, acting as guardians. The only thing for him to do was hide, but what was the use? There was only one way out, and Charlie’s minions would catch him eventually.
His life had become an hourglass, and the sand was running out, grains slipping away. He knew nothing would stop Charlie’s men from finding him. He pinned his back against an old metal door embedded in the brownstone, and with nowhere to run, he stood as still as he could, shivering from the frigid air seeping beneath his jacket and through his T-shirt. His toes were numb from running through Brooklyn’s rain-soaked puddles. Now he stood in a disgusting pool of freezing runoff water. Before he could catch his breath, the clouds opened up once again. How could things get any worse?
He kept his eyes glued on the sheen covering the rain-soaked alley, a product of the streetlights situated near the alley's entrance. How soon would he catch a glimpse of the first shadow from the four avengers? He’d never been so scared. What were they going to do to him? Would it be a slow death, or something so quick that he wouldn’t be able to react? What would it feel like to be dead? His whole life was in shambles, and it didn’t have be that way, but it was the way he had gambled with it. This time, he was going to lose much more than the money Charlie had spotted him.
His eyes beheld the first shadow, and then, one by one, the others appeared and grew larger as they neared him. His Adam’s apple pulsed, his mouth was a desert, and he was sweating. On top of it all, he had to pee, bad. “God help me,” he prayed to himself as he tried his best to blend his thin body into the door. His mind drifted back to his death scenarios, which scared him more than dying itself. Would it be two bullets, ‘tap-tap,’ in the back of the head? Would they humiliate him and tell him to fall to his knees and beg for mercy before they pointed the barrel at his forehead and squeezed the trigger? Maybe, just maybe, if they weren’t in much of a hurry, and since there were no witnesses, deep stab wounds might be the way to do away with him. He didn’t want the pain to last any length of time. Why hadn’t he paid back that five large in the two weeks he had promised?
That boxing match he had placed Charlie’s money on was supposed to have been a sure thing. He'd known the boxer, the trainer, and the ref. How ‘Tugboat’ Harrison had let that wimpy, no-talent Kenny Culligan knock him out in the sixth round was too coincidental, and he was sure he'd been set up. But it was too late now. Charlie didn’t care about the fight, only about his cash. Billy was a sucker, and now he was about to get his comeuppance.
Footsteps splashed in the alley’s puddles. His heart thumped faster. Would he ever see his silky-haired Constance again? What would happen to her once he was gone? Would Charlie send his gang after her? She had a gun, but would she be able to use it against them? She had warned him time and time again about his gambling, that one day it would get him into more trouble than he could afford. Now her haunting words had come true. She had believed he could do much better, so why hadn't he listened to her? He knew he had a problem, but he also believed he was lucky. The lure of easy money had always called to him like a desperate lover.
It didn’t matter now. His chest rose and settled like bellows igniting a hearth as he shivered, not from the cold but from fear.
Four thugs appeared in front of him. Trapped, he began speaking with his most pleasant voice and tried being cordial, but he couldn’t stop it from wavering. Not a single smile crossed any of their faces. They were purpose-driven and said nothing. Pleas for his life spilled from his mouth without any forethought. He even clasped his hands together, praying to his oppressors to give him a break.
Something dark rushed from the shadows to his left.
There was a bright flash and a burst of pain.
He found himself on the ground, breathless. He had barely inhaled before his eyes caught a glimpse of their shadows closing in. This was it.
Blinding light accompanied each blow to the head and face. Their pointed shoes felt like dull knives attacking his back and sides. The disgusting water splashed into his mouth as he writhed on the ground. One of them lifted him back up like a storefront dummy and socked him flat in the gut. Air exploded from his body, and he lurched forward. He felt his insides imploding. Fists began battering his back, and stabbing pains shot through his rib cage. Trying to catch his breath was a lost cause. His end was near. He coughed up something that tasted as bad as it smelled. Then his legs were swept from beneath him, and he slammed onto his back. Someone gripped his right leg and held it down tight. He had no more strength to struggle. His entire body throbbed as though he’d just been tossed from a window down onto the street below. He heard a sharp snap, and he let out a shriek. His world darkened as he drowned in a sea of pain. His brain blossomed into wildfire, but through it all, his ears picked up a second snap, and he prayed someone would just ‘tap-tap’ his head.
Billy’s world vanished.
Luck Has a Name
The next time Billy’s eyelids fluttered open, he squinted; his first thought was a wish that someone would switch off those damn fluorescent lights. A series of strange, soft sounds caught his attention. He turned his head left, and a sharp pain ripped through his head, deep into his neck and shoulders. He winced, then stopped to catch his breath.
When he reopened his eyes, an ominous assortment of monitoring equipment came into view, and his first thought was that he must have become Frankenstein’s monster. His eyes shifted toward the IV bag suspended on a chrome-plated pole next to the stack of equipment. The clear fluid dripping into the long, thin tube sticking into his forearm was the lightning bolt keeping him alive. The thick curtains were drawn tight. What time was it? The flat screen monitor atop the equipment rotated through a series of numbers he didn’t understand. How could his life be reduced to numbers on a screen?
It soon dawned on him that he wasn't dead. Somehow, through a crazy act of God, he was still alive, and in a hospital. His last memories involved only pain. What was on the other side of the room? A doctor? A pretty nurse, he hoped? He prepared himself to turn his head back to the right. He squeezed his eyes shut and tensed his muscles. Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! He grunted the entire time he moved his head.
Once the stabbing pain subsided, he opened his eyes again. One of those small rollaway tables sat just at the edge of the bed. Man, it would have been great to see some food sitting on top. Behind it hung a white nylon curtain supported on rail-like tracks. Now that he’d examined the laboratory, he lifted himself onto his elbows to get a glimpse of the monster himself.
It was a huge mistake.
He gritted his teeth and winced, then flopped back down and released a groan that reached both heaven and hell. His ribcage felt like it was splitting. The pain he’d initiated wouldn’t stop. Its insidious arms reached from the depths of his chest and triggered every nerve ending all the way down into his legs and feet. With each pant, the pain intensified, and he felt himself slipping from consciousness again. He fought against it by keeping his eyes shut and meticulously controlling his breathing, but he knew he didn’t have a chance in hell at winning the battle. In a matter of seconds, everything went dark.
When he reopened his eyes, a man with stringy brown hair and a white lab coat stood over him, holding a clipboard. How long had he been out, and was this guy his doctor? From what he could see, the guy was much too young to be anyone’s doctor, unless he was some Doogie Howser clone. In any case, he wanted meds for the pain, and he hoped this guy would help him out.
“Hey, you. Hey, can you get me something for the pain? I’m hurting all over.”
“Hello, Mr. Capello. I’ll let your doctor know you need something for the pain. Let me write down these numbers first.”
“What do those numbers mean, anyway? Am I going to be okay?”
From the expressionless look on lab coat guy's face, he knew he wasn’t going to get a word out of him.
“I really can’t say. Only the doctor can tell you that. Would you like to speak to him when he’s available?”
“Sure. I wanna speak to him. Say, where am I and how did I get here?”
“I’ll let the doctor give you that information.”
What a pantload! He knew lab coat guy knew something, but hospital protocol came first for him. Who cared? All he wanted to know was if he was going to recover. Hell, he was glad he'd even woke up from his savage beatdown at all. Eventually, lab coat guy smiled at him and left the room. Good riddance. Billy lay there trying not to fidget too much, but pain pulsed all over his body. Where was his doctor with those meds and some water?
Thirty minutes passed, and still no doctor. What was he doing, going back to school to get his degree? There was more moisture in the desert than in his mouth at that moment. He’d survived his beatdown, but it looked like he’d never make it through his recovery.
Finally, the door to his room opened, and in stepped a guy in his mid-fifties, wearing black-framed glasses, a bushy grey mustache, and carrying the clipboard. Behind him was the original man, carrying a tray of something he didn’t recognize at the time. Billy barely moved his head as the older guy stepped closer to the bed. He heard the lab coat guy set the tray on the rollaway table.
“Hello, Billy. I’m Dr. Kline. How are you feeling?”
“Well, doc, I’d be feeling much better if you could make all this damn pain go away. I feel like a used tennis ball from the last matches at Wimbledon.”
“Alright, Billy. Let me up your dosage of morphine a bit.”
“Morphine? Did you say morphine? Aw, doc, don’t be stingy. I’m hurtin’ real bad. Why don’t you double…no, triple the dosage?”
“I don’t think so, Billy. That just may kill you.”
“Yeah, but what a way to go!” Billy smiled.
The doctor inserted the needle into one end of a Y-shaped tube at the base of the IV bag and pressed the plunger. Billy wanted to see the liquid enter his veins, but it was colorless. Seconds later, a chill ran up his arm toward his shoulder with fantastic speed. He held his breath, anticipating and fearing what was to happen next. As if a switch had been flipped, Billy felt himself perched at the edge of ecstasy. Each time he blinked, it tickled, and it made him smile.
“Billy, how do you feel now?”
“Oh, great, doc. Just great.”
“Good. That should last a nice long while. You may even fall back asleep.”
“Damn, I sure hope not. Dis is too good to waste.” He heard himself slurring his words. "Hey doc, can I get some wadder? My radiator is bone dry.”
“Sure.” The doctor looked at the male nurse and said, “Jeffrey, bring the patient a cup of water and get a straw.”
“Gee, thanks, doc. Hey, where am I, and am...am I going to be okay?” Billy’s head was swimming in a morphine-shrouded sea of sunshine, but he stayed coherent.
“You’re in Brooklyn Hospital. Apparently, some homeless people found you laying in an alley. You were beat up pretty bad.”
“Yeah, those boys worked me over really good. I don’t remember anything after that.”
“An ambulance brought you here Tuesday night.”
“What?” Billy tried to sit up, but there wasn’t enough morphine in the world to halt the pain that shocked his body. “Aww, doc. Damn, that hurt.”
“Try to lay still, Billy. You were pretty banged up; seven ribs were cracked, both shins were fractured in multiple places, and there’s a hairline fracture of your left upper arm. You’re going to be with us a while.”
“That’s all they did? Gee, why didn’t they just take my dick and call it a day? Where’s that water?”
Just then, Jeffrey returned with the water and placed the straw in Billy’s mouth.
The doctor resumed speaking. “Billy, the fractures in your shins were severe. You were lucky none of the sharp ends ruptured your arteries. We had you in surgery that first night and reset your bones. For them to heal properly, we used a bone graft on both legs.”
Billy frowned. “Hey, where did you get the bone stuff from? You didn’t take one of my ribs, did you?”
“No, nothing like that. We keep a supply of ground cadaver bones for difficult procedures.”
Billy’s eyes widened. “Cadaver bone? Like bones from dead people?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Aw, you’re jokin', doc, right? You’re tellin’ me my leg bones are being held together with dead people?”
“Yes, they are.”
Although his pain had lessened, he didn't feel very lucid at the moment. “I can’t catch any diseases from those dead people, can I? I mean, I won’t see any side effects.”
“Trust me, my boy, it was the only way we could save your legs.”
“Alright, doc. I guess it’s too late now anyways. Gee, I’m starting to get sleepy. I don’t want to sleep through this incredible buzz.”
“That’s just what I want you to do, Billy, so your bones can start to mend themselves.”
“Damn! What a colossal waste.” Billy’s eyes slowly shut, and the doctor led Jeffrey from the room with the tray.
Every day since his last surgery, Billy wondered if something was wrong with his legs.
He’d stare down at his two white casts periodically whenever that strange tingling sensation started. On more than one occasion, he had brought it to the attention of Dr. Kline, but the good doctor’s expression never changed, and neither did his message. Each time, the doctor told him the tingling was due to his bones healing, but Billy knew better. How could you feel your bones mending themselves? What type of answer was that?
When he was fifteen, he'd fallen off his bike and broken his right arm. All the time it was confined in the cast, the only uncomfortable feeling he had had was when his skin started itching, and he couldn’t reach in there to scratch it. Feeling the bone heal? What a ridiculous answer. Billy was no fool, and he wondered if the good doctor, with his stoic demeanor, was keeping something from him.
But that wasn’t the only thing strange about his hospital stay. For the past week, as he'd lain on his back wishing he could leave that place, a reoccurring nightmare had visited him every night: he was on a mission inside some small, dark store, carrying a gun, but that was all he could really remember after he awoke. Why was he having the same dream, and what did it mean? He wasn’t that tough, and he didn’t own a gun. If he had had the balls to own a gun, Charlie’s boys would have been history, and he wouldn’t be confined to that damn hospital bed with tingling legs.
One day, during the last half of his second week in the hospital, he awoke to see his sweetheart, Constance, sitting at his bedside. Her angelic face, with those lovely hazel eyes, high cheekbones, and silky raven hair, dissipated any anxiety he might have held onto. When she smiled, life flooded the room, immediately elevating his mood. She was his drug, his Novocain. Not once did she say ‘I told you so.’ It was like she already knew that he knew. Their conversation started slowly, and then she leaned over the bed and gave him a deep kiss, letting her soft hair fall onto his face and neck. He longed to hold her, inhaling her sweet perfume he loved: Obsession. In his olfactory daze, he accidentally moved his broken arm, winced, and then released a small moan. The stabbing pain whisked him from the gates of heaven back down to reality.
She leaned back and gazed at the cast on his arm with concern. He managed a small smile through the pain to reassure her that he was alright, and she took her seat. He longed for her to be closer, but his body wasn’t ready yet.
She muttered she’d seen a nurse friend of hers, Rebecca Townsend, down at the reception desk on his floor. He watched her nose crinkle when he mentioned the morbid details of the cadaver bone used to repair his legs. He wanted to laugh at her expression, but contained it, and instead asked if her receptionist friend could find out the source of the material. Constance raised her eyebrows at the unusual request. A better explanation was needed, but what convincing lie could he concoct quickly?
Seconds ticked by as she continued staring with questioning eyes, but nothing came to mind. There was no lie good enough to conceal what she wanted to know. He pulled his eyes away from her face and looked down at his legs. He opened his mouth, and the truth flooded out.
In a sorrowful tone, he said, “Constance, this is the first time I’ve ever even heard of a procedure like this.” That was it. He had to continue with the truth. “I just really want to know where the bone material came from, because I think it’s causing me to have the worst recurring nightmares I’ve ever had.”
His eyes returned to her face. Her eyebrows had fallen, and she presented a small smile. He knew his request was quite unusual, but it was based on curiosity. He knew she loved it whenever he took his head away from street life and shifted it toward anything slightly educational. She believed he had plenty of wasted intelligence and had tried on numerous occasions to get him to use those talents. She nodded her head, rose, and kissed him on the forehead. Her hair and perfume consumed him once more, and he shut his eyes, allowing himself to be swept away again. She stepped out of the room, leaving the door partially open.
Once she was gone, he stared up at the ceiling. What made him think the doctor was keeping something from him? Had it been his robotic demeanor when he'd entered the room the first time? Sure, he was soft spoken, but he hadn't mentioned anything sinister. Was it the fact that the doctor had explained the procedure for his legs? How many doctors have ever told anyone they had used foreign bone material to help you get better? None he knew of. Maybe Billy was just plain scared of having something foreign in his body. He supposed that, if he knew where the bone material came from, he could make up his mind if it was related to his recurring dream.
After ten minutes, Constance tapped softly on the door and entered. He took her inquisitive look to mean she’d gotten the information. She moved slowly to the chair beside his bed and pulled it close before sitting down, swinging her hair away from her face as she sat back. With such dramatic gestures, it could mean she’d discovered something good. She gripped his hand and moved closer, something he hadn't expected.
In a casual voice, she whispered that the bone graft material was acquired from death row inmates who had donated their bodies to science.
His heart sank and a cold chill rolled over him.
Just then, someone else rapped on Billy’s door then pushed it open. He didn’t recognize the guy standing there goosebumps sprang forth. It had to be another of Charlie’s gang coming to finish off the job. This time, both him and Constance would get it. He couldn’t breathe. The guy’s steely star was like a sharks; no blinking and unflinching. Then the guy spoke,
“Billy. Billy Capello?”
“Y…yes. Who are you? What do you want?” Billy could feel Constance’s hands turn cold.
“I’m Detective Ryan Winters. I heard about what happened to you. Looks like Charlie’s gang worked you pretty good.” He reached in his pocket as the stepped inside the room and flashed his badge to Billy and Constance.
“How did you about Billy?” Constance asked.
“I’ve been trying to get Charlie and his gang for a long time. One of the nurses down at the reception desk keep me informed.”
“Do you mean Rebecca?” Constance screeched.
“Yeah. Do you know her?”
“Yes. We’ve been friends for a long time.” Then she turned and stared down at Billy and asked, “Billy, did Charlie and his gang do this to you? Where in trouble with him?’
Billy didn’t want to answer. He felt low enough, and conceding that his current lifestyle almost led to his death was devastating, so he chose to remain silent.
“Come on, Billy. Talk to me. We both know Charlie was behind this. How much money did you owe him?” Billy turned away.
“Billy, if Charlie did this, tell the detective. He can go have them arrested for assault or something.” Billy didn’t flinch.
“Alright. All I’m trying to do is help you,” the detective said, his voice bathed in disappointment. “Since you help me get him off the streets, he’ll be out there once you’re healed, and if you still owe him money, he’s gonna come after you again, only this time you might not live through it. Come on, Billy. Help me out.”
Billy turned gazed at Constance with affection then gave a defiant eye to Detective Winters. The detective dropped his head, turned, and stepped out of the room. Billy could see disappointment embedded in Constance’s face.
After his wounds had healed, Constance let Billy move into her apartment in the city, and, since he was a capable cook, he spent much of his time in the kitchen preparing her dinner while she was at work. Wednesday night, after an enjoyable light-hearted supper, they retired to her living room to binge on one of their favorite shows: How to Get Away with Murder. She lay snuggled up under his arm while he sat back with the remote perched on the arm of the couch, his feet propped up on the coffee table. It was one of the few times she let him get away with such a bad habit. He hadn’t heard from Charlie since his goons had worked him over, and, oddly enough, he never gave them a second thought anymore. Tonight it was all about spending time with his sweetheart, especially since she had the next day off from work. He owed her that much, and more.
That night Billy and Constance enjoyed a nice romp between the sheets, and then both drifted off to sleep.
Billy awoke early Thursday morning, sweating and panting. He’d had that nightmare again. He glanced over at Constance. She shifted positions but didn’t wake up. Then he felt it again—that tingling in his legs which he hadn’t felt since he’d left the hospital.
He laid back down and faced the clock. Its second hand swept past the numbers at a steady pace, and watching the minutes pass by eventually put him back to sleep.
Friday, Billy reveled at how well Constance treated him since his homecoming. She even bought him a new brown windbreaker since is old coat was destroyed. To pay her back for all of her support and affection, he stayed out of trouble and was quitting gambling, at least for the time being. His urge for a quick buck had been lost while he was laid up in the hospital, and earlier in the week, he’d found an excellent little side job slinging fish in a fish market off of Clarkson Avenue. It would bring in just enough money to put down on his hospital bills. Constance offered him a chance to live with her permanently, but his stubborn pride wouldn’t let him do it. Nevertheless, he appreciated the fact that she was always there to help, especially when his money ran short because of his bills.
That afternoon, while sitting on the couch eating a grilled cheese sandwich, Constance's home phone rang. He wiped his greasy fingers on a napkin and looked to see who was calling. The phone number was unfamiliar, but he answered it anyway. It was probably his sweetheart calling to check up on him and just say hi.
“Hello,” Billy said.
“Billy boy, how are you? How are you feeling?”
It was Charlie.
Was this a trick question? Should he tell him the truth, that he felt fine, or lie, stating that he was still in a lot of pain? It was a cruel question, and Billy would have enjoyed hanging up on him, except for the fact that he might send his mob once again.
“Ah, that’s good. I’m glad you’re okay.” Billy was taken aback, then listened further. “Billy, I think I have a soft spot for you. Don’t ask me why, but I do. When are you gonna get me my five Gs?”
Billy’s hands became sweaty and his voice became non-existent; his lungs were paralyzed.
“Billy? Billy, are you still there? You’d better be. When are you gonna bring me my damn MONEY?”
Billy squeaked, “I’ll g-g-get it to you t-t-tomorrow,” knowing full well that there was no way in hell he was going to have Charlie’s money that soon.
What was he going to do? If Charlie’s men made a reappearance, they would be the last people he’d ever see. He wanted to hang up and run far away, but dared not to.
Charlie's voice dropped to a whisper when he said, “Look here, Billy boy. You have until six PM tomorrow. Got it?”
The phone slammed down, and he pulled it from his ear. Five thousand dollars in twenty-four hours. He wanted—no, needed a plan, but couldn’t put together a coherent thought. His eyes darted all around Constance’s apartment. He searched for anything that could help him, but found nothing.
His world had collapsed once again in an instant
Billy lifted his head when he realized that Charlie had called Constance’s home phone number. How had he gotten her number, and how had Charlie known he was there at that particular moment? There had to be a spy somewhere, relaying his movements to his nemesis. He hopped from the couch and approached the window that faced the street below. He stood next to the wall beside the window and peeked. On the street below, cars cruised by, and the few people walking paid no attention to anything above their heads. Across the street, no one stood in the doorways spying on him with binoculars. Then again, what did he expect to see? Someone so obvious, easy to spot? He turned his attention to the other brownstones and apartments across the street. He could only see reflections in the glass, which could easily hide prying eyes. If he stayed, he could put Constance in danger, and he wouldn’t allow himself to do that. She didn’t deserve to be hurt. He had to leave. If only he had the courage to stand up to Charlie and his boys.
Then, it started again. First as a small tickle—then, it snowballed into out-and-out pain. His shins were on fire, and he dropped to the floor, embracing them, pulling his knees close to his chest. He could barely quell his urge to scream as he rolled from side to side on his back. That damn doctor had lied; there were side effects. Through squinted eyes, he saw daylight shining through the window. As his head rolled to the side, the bottoms of the curtains came into view, followed by the carpet fibers. Then everything went dark.
Billy released his legs and straightened them as he lay on his back staring at the ceiling.
There was no more pain.
And then there was no more Billy.
The man lying on the floor turned his head left, then right. He recognized where he was and stood up. He tugged on his clothes, straightening them out, then gazed around Constance’s apartment. With a stony face, he entered Constance’s bedroom, opened her closet door, and began searching. He opened boxes, felt up her clothes, shifted items on the floor and shelves. It wasn’t there.
He left the closet and turned to her dresser. One by one, he shuffled her underwear and delicates aside. It wasn’t there, either. Her nightstand was next. Pill bottles, tissues, lipstick, nail files, and combs were shoved aside. Nothing. He glanced over at her pillow and lifted it. There it was. He tossed the pillow aside, grabbed it, and popped the clip. It was a full magazine. He pulled the slide back a bit; one was in the chamber. He slid the gun his pocket and walked out to the living room.
He picked up Constance’s phone and checked the last number that had called. He pressed re-dial. The ringer sounded, and someone answered.
“Is this Charlie?”
“Who wants to know?”
“Do you want your five grand?”
“Ha! Billy, is that you?”
“Do you want your five grand?”
“You’re damn right I do. What? You have it already?”
“Where do you want me to bring it?”
“Billy boy, you sound a little different. What did you do? Knock over a bank or somethin’?”
“Where do you want me to bring it?”
“Hey, Billy boy. Quit being so serious. I’m just bustin’ your balls. Bring it over to Sal’s off of Flatbush and Avenue R. Oh, and Billy boy, don’t fuck with me. You hear me? Don’t fuck with me. If you give me my money, I won’t bother you again. I’ll always welcome your business.”
“Fine. I should be there within the hour.” Billy hung up the phone and slipped on his windbreaker.
He turned to look at the television. The local news was playing. He smirked, then left the apartment, closing the door behind him.
Billy stood at the corner of Flatbush and Avenue R and spotted Sal’s Bar and Tavern across the street. A skinny guy wearing a tan windbreaker stared in his direction, then entered the bar. Billy strolled across the street without flinching while cars slowed for him as they approached. Back on the sidewalk, he took his time as he neared Sal’s door. He pushed on the wooden door and stepped inside.
He stopped and held the door open for a second or two, filling the tavern with daylight, then released it. When his eyes adjusted to the subdued lighting inside, he took a seat at the bar in a dark corner by the door. Still stone-faced, he held a staring session with the other patrons sitting at the bar and won. He turned to the bartender, whose face was drained of blood. The bartender approached with slow, timid steps.
“What’s your pleasure?”
“Did you say Scotch,neat?”
“Get me my damn drink.”
With smooth efficiency, the bartender grabbed a highball glass and the famous green bottle of Cutty Sark from the shelf. He’d poured that drink many times before and always hated it. Within ten seconds, the bartender had placed the drink in front of him without asking him to pay for it then stepped back. Billy saw how the bartender stared, eyes wide like he’d seen a ghost. If Billy said “Boo,” the rotund little man would have probably fainted.
Billy took a couple of sips as he looked past the patrons sitting at the bar. A booth in the rear caught his attention. Fat Charlie was there, sitting with his gap-toothed smile. The piece of shit was speaking with his boys, laughing and drinking, and occasionally getting loud.
He took a couple more sips from his drink, then set the glass down.
He reached into his pocket, pulled the semi-automatic pistol out then let his hand fall to the side. Charlie’s gap-toothed smile irked him. He stood up and took his time approaching the booth.
One of Charlie’s men spotted him as he approached. Other guys at the table pointed and started laughing. Billy stopped five feet from them and stared directly at Charlie.
“Billy boy! Ya made it. Where’s my damn money?”
Billy raised the gun and pulled the trigger.
A bullet struck Charlie right in the gap between his teeth. A second one hit him in the forehead. He continued pulling the trigger until Charlie, and his crew, were dead.
He turned and walked back to his seat in the dark corner while the rest of the patron fought their way through the door. The bartender stuck his head above the bar just enough to see as Billy sucked down the last of his scotch, turned, and walked out.