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by Zigeroon 

Posted: 19 June 2006
Word Count: 4133
Summary: Mafia based thriller. Orion enthusiastically picked it up. Rewrites, professional readers said no. Out with American publishers at present.

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7.30am to 3.00pm Sunday 17 April 2005: New York

Her bare feet hardly made a sound on the polished oak floor as she padded down the hallway in the early morning towards her room. She was surprised to hear Matt’s voice through the part open study door. What he said stopped her in her tracks. Like a deer in the forest, hearing the crack of a twig under the hunter’s stealthy tread, she held her breath and listened.
“She showed me how it works. I’ll explain it to you but simply it sucks money out of electronic bank accounts. We can use the system to trade with the Scaiettas, buy back the territory they stole. It will save time.”
“And she will allow this?” said Carlos, Matt’s father.

Celia moved quickly down the corridor. ‘No she bloody won’t,’ she said to herself.

She entered the room, closed the door as quietly as she could and leaned back, holding the handle, trying to prevent her fears from following her. They crept insidiously around the gap between the door and the frame, crawling over the threshold, surrounding her. She realised that she had made a mistake running here, trusting him.

It had felt so right. The warmth of Matt’s love, his parents apartment providing the friendly bolt hole where she could gather her thoughts, decide where she went from here; with Matt. As she walked over and sat on the bed the room felt suddenly cold. She stared at the wall.

She wondered if Amanda, the best friend she’d ever had, dead now, could see her and whether she would understand. As Celia pushed her hands through her thick, coarse blonde hair she believed that Amanda would not only understand but she would be cheering her on.

She looked in the dressing table mirror, holding the gaze of her blue eyes, ignoring the tanned, open, pretty face. She wouldn’t cry.

Throughout the morning she managed to avoid everybody. Before lunch, when Matt came in to say goodbye she sat on the bed, pretending to read a thick novel she had found on the bookcase. She kissed him warmly saying she hoped he and Carlos would have a good time at the basketball game they were off to see later on, after Carlos had completed some business. As soon as she heard the front door close she started to pack.

She rushed from the closet to the chest of drawers, dragging her clothes out and dumping them on the bed. “I’ve got to get out. I’ve got to get away. I don’t want to go. I want to get away.” She part sung the words, laughing out loud, close to hysteria. Why weren’t things simple?

She stopped. Panic rising inside, she sifted through the clothes already in the bag. It wasn’t there. She went back through the drawers and the closet. She stopped still. Raising her head to the ceiling she tensed her muscles. How could she be so stupid? She must have left it at the apartment. The one thing she would need. My Secret Diary, her talisman, her favourite childhood toy and hidden inside, the key, she felt physically sick.

The bedroom door opened. She turned from sorting through the clothes piled alongside the half packed, black leather holdall, wondering what she would do if he walked through the door.

She relaxed, breathing a sigh of relief as Matt’s mother shuffled into the room. Then she felt guilty at her reaction. The woman’s wrinkled face was so full of pain. Celia was unsure if it was the arthritis in Momma’s legs or maybe the sight of the holdall. Celia continued clearing the drawers and packing her bag.
“You are leaving?” said the old lady, her heavy Sicilian accent still making it difficult for Celia to understand her.
It was a simple question that Celia searched for hidden meaning. She decided it was a statement. “I have to Momma. You must understand.”

She began to talk about Matt and what she had overheard and before long she was telling Momma part of what she had been working on at MIT. It was a relief to tell someone outside of the group she had been working with, someone who didn’t want something from her. She thought Matt had understood that’s why she had confided in him. It saddened her to think he was like all the rest.

Momma Pagianatelli nodded her head slowly as though she had heard it all before in many different ways. Her long grey hair, pulled back from her face and wound into a tight bun, flashed silver in the light from the open bedroom window. She smiled, her twinkling large brown eyes echoing the joy in the eyes of the beautiful young woman that had looked out from the family photographs Matt had proudly shown Celia two nights ago. Only two nights, and now Celia knew she had to get away.
“Where will you go?” said Momma, not questioning what she had been told.
“I don’t know,” said Celia, then, “Home. I think I’ll go home first, I told my parents I was going to fly over tomorrow anyway, then on into Europe. I have friends in Spain.”
“Will you stay in touch?”
“Not with Matt or his dad, not for now anyway,” she said. The old woman nodded again. “With you though. I would like to stay in touch with you.” Celia took a mobile phone out of the holdall and held it out to the woman.
“How do you know if I can use one of these things?” Momma said with a chuckle.
“I think you can,” said Celia, smiling at her. They held each other’s gaze, a silent understanding. “This is my number.”
The old lady took the small piece of paper, smiling in return. “Should I remember it, then eat it?”
“Something like that,” said Celia taking the woman’s careworn hands in her own, holding them tenderly. The mobile phone rested like a bible inside their collective grip. “I have to do this to save Matt from himself. I love him so much.”
“He’s a good boy.”
“He’s lovely, that’s why I have to get away. I know he’s got the best intentions. I know he wants to help Carlos but he doesn’t understand, nobody does. I did it for my friend, Amanda, no one else,” she found herself becoming angry. “Who does Matt think he is, anyway? He doesn’t own me, I don’t have to buy into Carlos’ past like he has and if he wants a future it’s got to be ‘us’, together, not what I can do for him.” She was furious with herself for letting Momma see her pain.
“They will be some time at the basketball game,” Momma said wiping at the tears in her eyes.
“If I don’t go now, I won’t have the strength to leave and things will happen that will destroy us. I don’t want that to happen Momma,” Celia said, trying to comfort Momma but sounding petulant. “Oh God, I wish I could tell you why.” She reached out and hugged the older woman.

Momma smelt of lemons. Arnie Openfer’s favourite aftershave smelt of lemons. Arnie Openfer, Special Operations Director of the Drugs Enforcement Agency. The bastard. He would smell of something else now though. It was brown and it was flying off the fan at an ever-increasing rate. At least one thing had gone right.
“I don’t have to know why. The only thing that matters to me is that you are doing it for Matt. The games they play are of no concern to me,” Momma said, and paused, wondering if she should go on. Matt should have trusted this beautiful girl with the whole truth not some cowardly lie trying to cover up what he intended to do.

Celia’s attention was half on the small TV sitting on a round table in the corner of the room. As she watched the thousandth re-run of the main news story of the day a thought struck her.

The TV pictures showed an American coastguard cutter searching through the floating detritus of an airplane that had crashed out of Kennedy, bound for Heathrow. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? It would be perfect. Running home or to Europe wouldn’t achieve anything. They would find her easily.
Grinning at Momma she said. “I’m going to kill myself.”
“That is too much Celia. Nothing is that bad, child. You mustn’t think this way.” She crossed herself automatically, uttering a quiet Hail Mary under her breath.
Celia laughed. “No, not really. The plane crash,” she said, pointing at the screen. “The plane out of Kennedy Airport bound for Heathrow. I’m going to book myself on that plane.”
“You can do this?”
“Oh, yes,” said Celia. Her smile was cold. It made Momma Pagianatelli shiver. How could a woman, so full of life, be so callous? Celia’s death would protect Matt though. Confused thoughts of loyalty and a fierce desire to protect her family rushed around her. God forgive me for thinking these thoughts. They are bad, they are a sin; they are necessary. She said another Hail Mary.
“Will it take you long?”
“No, not too long. I’ve done it before.”
Momma looked at her in amazement. How could people do these bad things so easily? She shook her head. She would never understand the world. It had changed so much. “You’ve time for coffee,” she said. It was a polite order rather than a question, buying her precious time. Not for Matt or her husband, but for herself, she had to tell Celia why Matt had changed. It mattered to her that Celia should understand, even if Matt had lost his senses.

After Momma left her to go to the kitchen, Celia pulled the curtains to block out the bright sunlight, placed her laptop on the bed and lifted the screen. She plugged her mobile phone into the side and switched the laptop on. It came to life silently. She flexed her fingers and laid them on the keyboard.

Her fingers had a life of their own, dancing and prancing over the keys. Hacking into the airline company’s computer reminded her of the long evenings spent in Amanda’s room, before they had both gone to college; her to Cambridge, Amanda to Oxford. Accessing the booking software, placing themselves on a plane to Jamaica or San Francisco or Moscow. Exotic, exciting places that held the dark secrets of late adolescent dreams, adventures that you couldn’t have in boring old Hove.

Her and Amanda’s all absorbing love affair with the computer had probably stunted their respective social skills. They hadn’t noticed though, they had each other. Nothing else mattered other than developing their understanding of computer hacking and daring each other to go further and further, seeing how far it could take them into the shadowy virtual world where you could be anybody you wanted. They had toyed with becoming ‘Black Hat’ hackers, the dark side of the force, but had not had the courage to go too far down that route.

Although they had received the airline tickets to their chosen destinations through the post they had never plucked up the courage to fly on one of their ‘free’ holidays. They had gone to Gatwick Airport one time and listened as their names had been given out over the airport sound system. “Would Celia Whittaker and Amanda Jackson please go to book-in desk…” She was surprised the airlines never realised that the same two people kept failing to turn up to board their flights. Perhaps they did.

Amanda and Celia had sat, heads down, staring at the melted chocolate patches on their cappuccinos on the coffee bar table in front of them, embarrassed by the belief that everybody around them knew who they were and what they had done. Worried that the airline had discovered them inside their computers and were waiting, with the police, to take them into custody.

She burrowed into the NY Airline’s systems amazed that the airline hadn’t bothered to protect the unfortunate plane’s itinerary from hackers working on behalf of unscrupulous newspaper reporters to chase down the human side of the story. Families destroyed, people who did not take the flight because of a premonition as they walked through the airport, lovers whose partners would not be coming home. The stories were the same, the names different. How strange that tragedies are so repetitive, she thought.

The screen filled with details of the passengers on Flight NY7359. She selected a seat in the middle of the plane and punched her details in, credit card payment made just before the flight. She then introduced a little piece of software to confuse the main program so that it wouldn’t be exactly sure she had been on the flight.

She went on to access the passenger manifest, most likely inputted in a back office. The paper record on the plane was lost. The paper record on the boarding gate would show a deficit of one. It had happened before. By the time they had sorted it out she would be gone.

She shut the laptop down, sat back and was instantly filled with guilt and remorse. Was killing herself and running justifiable? Perhaps she was panicking for no reason. She had heard Matt and Carlos though. Talking about her as though she was an object, a tool, something to be used and disposed of after use. Thrust aside, purpose achieved.

If she left, disappeared, then there was just a chance that Matt would come back to her, and they would go back to how it was before. She felt like crying. Deep inside her heart she knew it was futile. Nothing changed then went back to how it was before. Yet, she knew she had to try. He couldn’t be allowed to stop her, side track her from why she had created the software in the first place. Arnie Openfer had tried to change the rules of the game and he knew that she wouldn’t play it his way. Matt had to learn the same lesson.

She slid the laptop into its’ travel case. She felt like a little girl, lost and alone, frightened, like the time she had stomped off at Euro Disney when her parents had refused to allow her to have a second ice cream. She had turned round to see if they were following, all she saw were the milling crowds and no friendly faces.

Celia picked up the holdall by the shoulder strap and hefted it onto her shoulder. “A quick coffee would be all right,” she said to herself, checking the thin gold watch on her wrist; not wanting to refuse Momma’s offer. Not too long though, if Matt and Carlos came back before she left, Matt might still be able to persuade her to stay.

She placed her bag down by the front door of the apartment. She held the laptop as though her life depended on it. Walking through the neat living room, chintz covered sofas, pictures of family on the walls amongst the religious portraits, she realised, probably for the first time, that what was happening to her was real and her life did depend on what the computer contained, and Matt’s; his future and their happiness. She felt tears stinging her eyes, her stomach felt hollow, the muscles of her legs, shaky. The trouble was, she thought angrily, her life and Matt’s future no longer ran on the same path.

Momma Pagianatelli fussed inside the white-faced wall cabinets, placing white china mugs on the grey slate work surfaces, lifting a milk carton out of the massive fridge that Celia had come to understand were a standard size in American kitchens. In ordinary domestic activity Momma sought the right words.

Celia sensed that the old woman wanted to say something important. Momma debated long and hard with herself. Her husband, Carlos, would not want her to say anything, it was ‘man’s business’, he would say, ‘women should know their place.’ She blew out her cheeks, air exploding from her mouth. What did he know? He was a man; he could not be expected to understand a woman’s reasons for what she did. It had always been so. She could feel Celia watching her intently.

Momma took her time removing the fresh ground coffee from the grinder and filling the polished steel percolator. Once it had infused she poured a thin stream of rich brown liquid into two mugs, motioning for Celia to sit down opposite her. Celia, agitated, wanted to check the time. Momma sat down slowly, her movements stiff, smoothing her white trimmed, black dress, took a sip of scalding hot coffee, breathed deeply upon the earthy aroma and began speaking.
“We are not Matt’s parents,” she said. Celia looked at her, wide eyed and tried to speak. Momma held up her hand. “Please let me speak Celia, I know it is a shock. If we have time then ask me questions.”
Celia nodded, reaching for her mug, seeking something solid for her shaking hands to hold on to.
“Matt’s mother, Maria, and father, Gianfranco, and sister, Louisa, were killed in a war over territory between two Mafia Families here in New York. The Collazzo’s, Matt’s father was the Don, the leader of that Family, and the Scaietta’s. It was vicious. A battle to the death.” She stopped. Her mind stalled, seeking a way round the violent images that assailed her. Never open the locked cupboards of your bad memories, old woman. “Before he died, Matt’s father came to us and asked us, ‘asked us,’ not ordered, if we would look after Matt and Louisa.” She stopped, tears slowly rolling down her face, following the paths of her wrinkles. She wiped at them absently. She whispered, “He couldn’t find Louisa. She never came home from school.” She was silent for a while then picked up the thread of what she was trying to say. “Gianfranco knew he was going to be killed. Gianfranco asked us that, when Matt began to ask questions about his past, his family, we did not tell him about his true father and what he was. Gianfranco did not want his son to live the same life that he had, the life that had been chosen for him by his father.

We moved many times until we felt safe, until Scaietta’s men, the men who took over the Collazzo’s territory, stopped trying to hunt us down, find out if Matt was a Collazzo. We lost all our friends. To remain safe we had to break ties with all our family. My beautiful, foolish, husband, Carlos, couldn’t, he could not break faith with the remains of the Collazzo’s it was the only family he had ever known.

The men meet regularly, fathers and sons, and reminisce and dream of the return of the Collazzos. What you have created Celia, my child…you are their one and final hope. This is why I help you. I want it to end,” she paused again, side stepping the dreadful memories that threatened to silence her. “But it never ends. We Sicilians, we carry the hatred with us, to the grave, and beyond. Who knows what happens in heaven,” she chuckled, crossing herself superstitiously. “Or hell. We will all know, too soon.” She paused, studying Celia’s face, not registering the details, lost in her thoughts. “My husband, he was once a great man, in his own way. He had a special skill. He had no fear of anything or anybody, but people were frightened of him.”
“Were you frightened of him?”
“A little.” Momma shuddered as other memories slithered into her mind. “Sometimes a lot.”
Celia reached out and squeezed Momma’s wrinkled hand. “Matt frightened me with what he said.”
“I could see that. Your eyes, it’s always in the eyes.”
“I can’t believe he wants to use me in that way.”
“It is a curse, for a man, not knowing his real father. He can be told about his father by others, close friends, the ones who knew the real man. The sadness is that the son will never know, really know, the true essence of his absent father, the demons that drove him.”
“Matt’s father’s demons, were they to do with his family?”

Momma reached over to pat Celia’s arm, her hand rested on the laptop. Celia pulled the computer closer to her and looked around. Could the old woman be trying to take it from me, she wondered, then cast her doubts aside. But she could be; no she couldn’t; she could. Celia’s fears for Matt were confused with what she had come to realise the software on the laptop was worth, to Matt, to the Mafia, to the Government. What had she done? Matt. It was Matt, Matt, Matt. His love, she had to preserve his love, it was the only thing that might save him from becoming like Carlos.

He wasn’t the only reason. She had run from Openfer and what he wanted her to do. She had come here, to Matt’s home for protection. She hadn’t found it. She became aware of Momma still talking.
“The Family was everything to Don Collazzo, it had been since his father had groomed him to head the Collazzo Family, the sixth Family of New York. The demons that drove Matt’s father were dark. Things that a college boy like Matt should never have had to know about but Matt insisted in knowing the truth and Carlos, my stupid husband, God bless him, told him. Overloading his imagination with stories that were dressed up, the reality taken away,” she took Celia’s wrist and looked at her watch. “The one way a fatherless son can know his father is to do what his father did, stand in his fathers shoes, make the same decisions, fight the same battles. That’s what your research means to Matt. He doesn’t see his use of what you have created as using you, he only sees it as a way of understanding his father.”
“It’s not a good enough excuse. It doesn’t justify what he intends to do,” said Celia trying to overcome the unreality of the discussion. Yesterday morning Matt had been a fellow post grad student, an ordinary boyfriend. Now he was the son of a dead Mafia boss.

She wanted to go back two weeks, back before she had told him what her research would achieve. How was she to know that he would try and turn that knowledge into something that could destroy the perfect love she believed they had found in each other? Matt had said he loved her. They had each other; surely that was enough? It was so unfair.

Her mind raced. She had to get away. Remove the temptation. Save Matt from himself. Think. Contact Chas Jackson, family friend, mentor and her team leader, tell him what had happened. Tell him the truth. Tell him how stupid she’d been. She needed help. It was too big to cope with alone. Mafia? Weren’t they the one’s that they were supposed to be destroying? She had played her part. Provided them with the system to steal from The Mob’s bank accounts, bring them to their knees. Now Openfer wanted to pay the money back? Why? What for? It didn’t make any sense. She couldn’t allow that. Wouldn’t allow it. It wasn’t what she had agreed to do. She felt isolated.
“In Matt’s eyes the end justifies the means,” said Momma, bringing Celia back to the present.
“And in yours?”
“I have never wanted him to follow that path,” Momma said, her already wet eyes filling with tears. “He wanted to start up a computer empire to rival Microsoft, he had big ideas. Now his ideas are beyond his dreams, he wants to resurrect the dead.” She rubbed at her eyes, cursing herself for being such a silly, sentimental old woman; acting like a mother.

Celia stood up, reached over and cuddled her, the laptop banging into the old woman’s back. Momma winced, biting her lip as the impact exploded the arthritis that riddled her body. The impact of the laptop was loaded with all her fears for Matt.
“Please call me,” said Celia.
“I will,” said Momma She picked up the mobile from the tabletop and put it in the pocket of her dress. “I’ll hide it. They will never know I am wired.” She chuckled, pleased that she could remember some of the words that Matt used.

Celia stood up. Momma walked stiffly round the breakfast bar and put her arms around Celia, holding her tight. “Don’t let them find you,” she said. “Stay dead.”

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Comments by other Members

Lammi at 16:00 on 19 June 2006  Report this post
I don't normally read thrillers, so I may well not be qualified to comment on work in this genre. I do read an awful lot of novels, though, and I write them, so I'm coming at your work from that angle.

You certainly create a feeling of menace, and there's that sense of being drawn into another world as I'm reading, which is good. However, I did find it a little tricky to follow the plot. I think some of my confusion was caused by paragraphing and line breaks, in that sometimes you indicate new paragraphs by leaving a line and sometimes not. So when I got, for instance, to the line about Momma smelling of lemons I thought maybe we'd changed scene, and the mention of a new and unexplained character added to this. Additionally, there are a lot of characters introduced in a small space of time, and that can be tricky for a reader who's trying to get his bearings.

Some typos I noticed:
- 'I'll explain it to you, but, basically, it sucks money...'
- his parents' apartment
- Repetition of 'stopped' ('stopped still' is tautology, surely?)
- '...and hidden inside, the key. She felt physically sick.'
- 'She thought Matt had understood, that's why she had...'
- '...eyes of the beautiful young woman who had looked out from...'
- In the exchange between the two women there's a lot of smiling going on. Some of the smiles need to be cut to avoid repetition.
- '...no one else." She found herself...'
- 'How could a young woman so full of life be so callous?'
- 'She slid the laptop into its travel case.'
- She had turned to see if they were following; all she saw...'
- 'Not too long, though; if Matt and Carlos came back...'
- The sentence beginning 'Walking though the neat living room' is very long and complicated. Can you break it into two?
- Where Momma tells Celia about Matt's past, there are a lot of sentences beginning the same way, with 'She'. Can you break the pattern up more?
- I feel in general the dialogue could be snappier; let more utterances stand by themselves, without explaining the emotion or action behind it.

Two lines that stood out: 'How strange that tragedies are so repetitive, she thought'
'In ordinary domestic activity Momma sought the right words'.
Those are beautifully-turned.

Lammi at 09:34 on 20 June 2006  Report this post
Just looking, too at this paragraph near the end:

Celia stood up, reached over and cuddled her, the laptop banging into the old woman’s back. Momma winced, biting her lip as the impact exploded the arthritis that riddled her body. The impact of the laptop was loaded with all her fears for Matt.

You need to take out the repetition of 'impact', I think, and there's an awkward half-rhyme in 'cuddled' and 'riddled' coming so close together.

Zigeroon at 14:47 on 20 June 2006  Report this post

Thanks very much for your comments. I am still editing this one on the basis that something might come of it so your input is very useful. Thanks for your time.


Y-not at 19:00 on 22 June 2006  Report this post
Hi there.

I thought the strength of this was in the writing rather than the plot, if this story is self-contained, i.e. a one-off. I say this because there are several things that happened before that aren't fully clear. So we don't always fully understand the depth of feeling and the motivations. A bit more on the characters mentioned in passing, for instance, like Openfer. Also, do they still in this day and age have genuine Sicilians in the Mafia families? I don't know- they may do, but I thought that was earlier in the 20th century.

Sorry - not too much time to elaborate - hope you agree that criticism is more valuable than undiluted praise, even if something is very good!!

The pluses for me were enjoyable dialogue, and the old lady was nicely portrayed.



Zigeroon at 09:15 on 03 July 2006  Report this post

Hi. Thanks for that, been away hence the delay in response.

Yes there are still Sicillians in the Mafia. The perceived belief is that the Mafia are a spent force, nice PR but not true and the chaps on the sunny island of Sicily still wield control.

This was the first chapter of a novel picked up by Orion for a heady but unfortunately brief flurry of rewrites and then professional readers said 'No, we cannot make him an offer he can't refuse.'! Saved me making the wrong decision!!!

Thanks again for your time.


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