The crime and supernatural thriller author shares an excerpt from his second of four novels, “Mr. Moneybags.”
Retired armed-robber Essex Jones thought he wanted the quiet life. But when his old partner, Piper Gibbons, tells him her plan to steal four million dollars from the boss of a local car-theft ring, Essex has to decide if he wants to join her for one more heist. In this selection, Piper has invited Essex to lunch, a chance to pitch him her idea. Essex arrives with the intention of declining the job, but part of him misses the people that he and Piper used to be.
He told the waiter, a scrawny guy in a red polo shirt and khaki pants, that he wanted a sweet tea and a Budweiser.
“Both?” the guy said.
“I want the tea,” Essex said, “because I’m thirsty. But I’m meeting somebody here and figure I’ll want to be drunk by the end of it.”
The guy shrugged and walked off, leaving Essex to stare at the empty half of the booth.
Piggy Palooza had a cool vibe, with old, framed blues records on the walls. Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray. Concert posters, too, from their shows in Chicago and Detroit and Nashville. A Fender guitar and a bass were mounted on the back wall. There was a Gibson, too, a black hollow-body with B.B. King’s signature scribbled on the pickguard in white pen. It was almost all the way cool in here, except for a trio of neon pigs that hung over the bar, at the far end of the dining area. They cast a garish pink light, and Essex couldn’t look at them for too long without feeling a headache coming on. But what he loved most about Piggy Palooza — aside from the smells of smoked pork and brisket — were the twangy riffs that cried out from the radio. Listening to them, he wanted to pick one of those guitars from the wall.
Yeah, learning blues guitar. That would be something to do with his time, after he told Piper he still wasn’t interested in coming back.
The guy brought the two drinks, and Essex told him not to stray too far, seeing as he’d probably need more. Then he saw Piper, also wearing a red polo and khaki pants, coming out of the kitchen.
She slid into the other side of the booth and grabbed his Budweiser before he could stop her.
“Sure, you can have a sip,” he said. “Thanks for asking so nice.”
“Shut up, I need it more than you do.”
Her polo had the same trio of pigs stitched into the lapel, and he figured she was right.
“Thought you said you never got out of the game.”
“I lied,” she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
He grinned. “You on your break right now?”
She shot him a look but said, “Yes, and I can only stretch it so long, so let’s get to it.” She glanced at her watch. “Where is he?”
“One of your people?”
“He work here, too? ’Cause now I’m gonna need another, and if you ain’t gonna get it for me…”
That got him a second look. It was strange seeing her this way, all defensive about how she was making her living now. Everything about her felt off-balance. Maybe she had changed, more than he’d realized. It was clear she didn’t like it. What it felt like, she was trying to reclaim who she’d been, pushing hard for him to join her again. But that didn’t mean he wanted to reclaim who he’d been.
She downed more of the beer, then said, “Why’d you stop returning my calls, answering my texts? You know, two years ago?”
He’d been dreading this conversation.
“I wanted out. Figured I’d best not stay in touch.”
“You disappeared. You didn’t have to do that. I respected your decision.”
He sighed. “It would’ve been too dangerous, otherwise. What happened, I didn’t want to be considered your associate. Like if you’d ever got caught? I didn’t want the police to connect me to you and haul me in and press me to talk about you.”
“Would you have snitched on me?”
“Yeah, I would’ve.”
She leaned forward a little, but didn’t seem upset to hear that. More like interested to finally know the answer to a question she’d been asking herself for a while, her brow furrowing in a thoughtful expression.
“You didn’t quit,” she said. “You disappeared, Essex. And it was so easy for you to forget me.”
“Well, now you know why.”
Truth was, he hadn’t forgotten her and never would have, even if she hadn’t called him yesterday and invited him to a fake lunch. You didn’t forget Piper Gibbons.
“I’m just glad you’re here,” she said.
He shrugged and finished the Budweiser in a single gulp. Then held the empty bottle out and stared at the reflective red label that caught the light from those neon pigs.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Back then, I thought about us, too, you know it?”
She perked up. “Why didn’t we ever tell each other?”
“Simple — we wanted different things.”
She raised an eyebrow, and the smile came back. “What about now?”
He opened his mouth, starting to say that he was changing his mind about what he wanted, but she waved in the direction of the front door.
Her people had arrived.
Michael Santos is a suspense novelist and the author of three crime novels: “No Hard Feelings,” “Mr. Moneybags,” and “Mean Bones.” He is also the author of the supernatural thriller “The Nowhere Game.” After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, Michael earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. He owns a publishing imprint, Bad Cat Press.
“Ravenscroft helped to shape the way that I tell stories. I was a theater kid and spent most of my time in Upper School rehearsing with my castmates for the musicals and the drama-class plays. Now, as an author, dialogue fascinates me,” he said. “My writing style is based on the characters’ rhythms of speech, not my own, so that even the narration reads in their voices. I place characters together in scenes and then let them tell the story, as in a play. Suspense is just the context for what the novels are really about — the people. I want readers to feel so close to the characters, through how they sound, that it’s easy to ignore my presence on the page.
“I studied the great crime and horror writers to understand the techniques for creating such an effect, but that philosophy is something that I first learned from Ravenscroft fine arts. Very few places in life will help you chase your dreams like Ravenscroft. I’m grateful for my time there.”
Learn more about Michael’s books at michaelsantosauthor.com.