PAYBACK
SNEAK A PEEK

PROLOGUE
Ten Weeks Before

 

I remember when I first had the urge to kill someone. Not just anyone, mind you. After all, I’m not capricious. Or uncouth. I’m just . . . me.

To be sure, my deadly urges were not the first of my social . . . anomalies, you might say, but they were, no doubt, a natural and foreseeable evolution of my earlier . . . irregularities.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, something I often do. Digressing, you might say. Allow me to rewind and start at the beginning, at least as I know it. Hmm, rewind. I like that word because, at the end of the day, that’s what we’re talking about, how I’m . . . wound. Hah! I am dark and stormy even if the night wasn’t.

I was probably always the way I am. I just didn’t know it. I’d always thought it was them. Until it finally dawned on me. I was the one who was . . . different, don’t you see? Who are . . . them, you ask? That’s easy. Them is everyone. Everyone other than me.

To make things better, to fix things, I had to change . . . me. Not them. I had to change the way I was wired. The way I was wound. Don’t you see?

But how, you ask? It’s okay that you ask, because I asked too.

And so I did some research. I read some books. Actually, I read a lot of books. What I learned, according to all the shrinks, was that a good way to change, to fix myself, would be by writing things down. About me. Reflecting about myself. Sort of keeping a diary. This made sense to me too.

But if writing would help, why stop at writing about myself? After all, I’m not all that interesting. Writing about me was boring. Instead of dwelling on me, I decided I would dwell on others. I would write about . . . them. That way, I could become . . . like them.

But I didn’t know many others. Actually, I really didn’t know any others. At least not well. So I decided I would simply make them up. In my mind. I would write fiction. I would . . . become a novelist.

And so I began writing about others. Others I wanted to be like. Others I wanted to . . . like me.

I thought it was going to make a difference. In me. For me. Don’t you see? A huge difference. But it didn’t. Not at all. Why? I don’t know. You have to ask them. But you had better not dally.

 

CHAPTER ONE
Eight Weeks Before

 

Eloise Brooks had planned the evening very strategically. Dinner at their favorite restaurant with her husband, Cyrus, and their two closest friends, Frank Lotello and Leah Klein Lotello, ostensibly to celebrate the Brookses’ fifty-fifth anniversary, but actually to spring a surprise on Cyrus in a setting where it would be difficult for him to object. He was the only one at the table who had no idea what was coming.

Knowing Cyrus as she did, Eloise sensed the timing was right. After a distinguished 35-year career as a U.S. District Court Judge, Cyrus had voluntarily stepped down from the bench and retired about ten years ago. But retired was a weak euphemism for what still drove Cyrus. He remained passionately committed to the law, in one form or another.

And therein lay the problem, Eloise’s not Cyrus’s. Both on the bench and off, Cyrus was constantly finding himself in life-threatening situations, especially after he and homicide investigator Frank Lotello became so close. Cyrus seemed to relish all the danger, but Eloise did not.

Fortunately, as only Eloise really knew, Cyrus did have other interests: music, dance, and writing—to name just a few. But he couldn’t sing or dance, and his few attempts at writing a novel ended unsuccessfully. Infinitely patient and disciplined when it came to matters of the law, and the heart, he lacked both when it came to his attempts to become a novelist.

But Eloise was not about to give up, especially as she observed Cyrus recently exhibiting some degree of restlessness. When Cyrus was a highly renowned jurist, people listened to him, looked up to him, admired him. His confidence and self-esteem were at a high. Once he stepped down from the bench, the attention visited on him diminished considerably. Sure, he was still respected, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t as noticeable. His self-esteem understandably waned. It was only natural. She knew what the problem was. Cyrus was overcompensating, seeking to hold onto his recognition and standing. He couldn’t say or admit that, and she couldn’t raise it to him. He was proud. It would hurt him terribly to confront any of this.

But there were other ways. It was time to strike. “Happy Anniversary, dear,” Eloise said, handing the previously concealed envelope to Cyrus.

Cyrus’s face scrunched up as he stared at the envelope in mock discomfort. “I’m afraid you caught me unawares,” he said.

“Oh, just open the envelope,” Frank said to Leah’s laughter.

“Hmm,” Cyrus responded, “now I’m as curious as I am suspicious. Why do I feel like I’m the only one at the table who doesn’t know what’s coming?”

He opened the envelope and removed a brochure announcing a one-week writers’ retreat named Thriller Jubilee to be hosted by TITO, The International Thrillers Organization, at Hotel Marisol on the “sun-bathed” island of Punta Maya off the coast of Spain. “What, pray tell, is this?” Cyrus asked.

“We’re all going, the four of us, eight weeks from today,” Eloise answered.

“It’s time for you to learn how to write one of those novels you’ve always been starting but never finishing.”

“In eight weeks? That’s impossible. My desk is piled high with pending chores. Besides, I’m not a writer. And my fair skin will never hold up for a week in all that sunshine.”

“Nothing on your desk that won’t keep, and who says you’re not a writer?” Eloise countered. “And you’ll use sunscreen like everyone else. Only now you’ll be able to stalk imaginary murder and mayhem instead of the real-world murder and mayhem that always seems to stalk you, and how to write about judges and lawyers instead of being one. With all the stories in your head, you’ll soon be writing with the best of them. You just need a little encouragement.”

“Well, even if we assume I agree to this boondoggle, who or what the hell is TITO, and how do our dear friends Frank and Leah fit into all this?”

Leah had the answers to Cyrus’s last two questions. “When Eloise showed me the brochures, I figured if you were in, Cyrus, so were Frank and I. We haven’t had a vacation in I don’t know how long. Besides, we have to be there to witness and support your nascent writing adventure. And Eloise will need someone to keep her company when you’re off in all your classes. Knowing you as I do, I did a little research. TITO is headquartered in New York and is the largest and most prominent thriller organization in the world. It has a membership in excess of 10,000 thriller writers, readers, promoters, and fans. It’s the real deal.”

Frank looked at Cyrus and smiled. “No point fighting it, Judge. Sometimes you just have to let go and live to fight another day.”

“Well, maybe just to accommodate the three of you. If they offer singing and dancing classes as well, I can cover my entire bucket list in one fell swoop.”

Eloise ignored his attempted diversions. “It’s settled then,” she said to Cyrus victoriously. I’m so looking forward to you not getting into trouble for a change. After all, what could possibly go wrong at a writers’ conference?”

* * *

“Writing is just a thin version of doing,” Brooks said to himself, as they shared a scoop of raspberry sorbet delivered to their table with four spoons. How much harm could two small bites do to my waistline? Truth be told, genuinely learning how to write a credible novel would probably be great fun, especially if anyone might actually want to read it. Besides, he knew, how could he possibly say no to Eloise after she went to all of this trouble and got her hopes up about taking him in this safer direction? “Safer?” Pshaw! Just so long as everyone knows I’m only doing this for Eloise and not for myself.

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