Everybody needs an outlet. Crooks aren't any different. I once knew a hitman who loved to collect stamps. Most violent guy I ever knew, but he was as delicate as a surgeon when it came to those little pieces of paper. He always wore a dust mask and latex gloves, the whole nine yards, whenever he handled his stamps. Someone once made fun of him for the hobby. The smartass soon regretted it, as the hitman took an entire book of stamps and made the guy eat them all. And you thought licking stamps was awful? Other guys do other things. Mob capo Gary Gigliello is known to play in like a dozen fantasy sports leagues, most of them with teams ran by other wiseguys. It's only natural in a career where you have a ton of downtime between jobs.
I was currently in that downtime portion. After bilking Sean Dunmoore out of over half a million dollars, I decided to lay low for a while. I mean, the money alone would ensure that I didn't need to do another hustle for at least a few years. I'd still pull a con before the money ran out, but the money meant that I could afford to be picky about the mark and the con. So that explained why I was currently in the middle of the Lamplighter's mystery section.
So my thing is books.
I love them. I know I haven't opened up much about my past. That's more of a choice on my part instead of poor storytelling. When I was growing up, books were the closest thing I had to actual school. I never went to school thanks to my mom. I followed her around the country as she went from one scam to another, always with another man I was told was my uncle. One of those uncles, short-con grifter named Chicago Mo, taught me to read when I was seven. "Books are how you escape," he told me with a wink. A pissed off crooked cop broke both Mo's kneecaps the next day.
He was right, though. Those books were how I got away from the harsh reality that was my mom and I outrunning cops, crooks, and anyone else she happened to have irked at that particular time. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were better companions than Chicago Mo and One-Thumb Dave that's for sure. And it was from books that I learned about different people -- both real and fictional -- and different places and different experiences. When I was a teenager I found history books and poetry.
I was fifteen when I discovered crime fiction and really fell head over heels. The classics like Chandler, Hammett, and Christie were amazing, but there was also the new giants like Elmore Leonard, Ellroy, Connelly, and Block. Shortly after discovering all these works I announced to my mom that I wanted to be a detective. She slapped me so hard I could taste color for the next few days. The slap ended that notion for the most part. I think that's why I enjoy my side business of private eye for crooks so much.
Mom killed my law enforcement notions, but not my love of books. I still make time to read during the middle of jobs. I always have a fiction and a non-fiction book I'm rotating between. Right now I've got Slayground by Richard Stark and Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland on my nightstand. I was close to the end with both books, which is why I was back at the Lamplighter with some of that Dunmoore money burning a hole in my pocket.
"That can't be all of it?"
"It's books, Milo. I make enough to feed my family, but that's it. I'm not exactly rolling in it."
The sound of argument a scant aisle away drew me from whatever mystery Hercule Poirot was in the middle of to my own. I peeked around the corner and saw Saul, the Lamplighter's owner, pressed against a shelf of books while a taller man crowded him. I assumed the taller man was Milo. He wore a black suit with a white shirt and no tie. I put his height at about six one, an inch above myself, but plenty of room to tower over tiny Saul. His swarthy complexion and thick eyebrows put him as either Mediterranean or Easter European. Milo had a thick finger in Saul's face. Both men were too engrossed in their conversation to notice me, but I still backed up out of sight.
"Have the rest of my money or I will burn this goddamn place down. Paper books make the best kindling, Saul. Remember that."
A loud smack cut through the air. I heard Saul gasp, followed by Milo's heavy footsteps as he walked away towards where I had been earlier. I waited a good thirty seconds before turning the corner. Saul was on his feet, but on the verge of tears. A large red welt was already forming on his right cheek.
"Jock," he said in a voice that was too high and too full of false enthusiasm. "How are you today, sir?"
"Saul, who's Milo?"
"You heard that?" Saul was back on the verge of tears. "He is... no one."
"He's either an extortionist or a loan shark, Saul. Which is he?"
Saul started to weep. On instinct, I put an arm around his shoulder and let him lead me to the back room. It was there that he told me the story.
"I needed money, Jock. To open this place with. The bank wouldn't give me a loan. A bookstore was a bad investment, they said. It was too risky to borrow the cash."
"So you went to Milo," I said with a nod. "And he gave you the cash no problem."
"Yes," Saul said with a sob. "He gave me all I needed, he said he loved books too and he wanted to help out a fellow Armenian. I didn't know..."
I frowned. "The interest. That's how these guys get you. What's the interest?"
"Too high! It's so high, I'm still just paying off the interest after five years in business. And business has been slow, Jock. The past two months I haven't been able to afford to pay Milo and provide for my family. He's been coming by. Today was the first time he threatened to burn the store down, the first time he hit me."
I thought of this store catching fire. All these books, all these stories and people and different worlds that are within their covers. All of it turned to cinders and ash. I thought about it. And I found that the thought made me mad. The maddest I've been in a long time. And when I get mad, I start to scheme.
"Saul. Tell me all that you can about Milo. I think I may have a way to save the store and get him off your back."