When a busload of seniors from a suburban Nashville church head down the Natchez Trace on a carefree journey to The Big Easy, they are unaware that a Mafia hit squad is playing a deadly game of tag with them. All except one passenger. The man they know as Bryce Reynolds is really Pat Pagano, a World War II Medal of Honor winner and successful Las Vegas stockbroker who was lured into handling investments for a New York crime family. After his two grown sons are killed in an attack by a rival gang and his wife succumbs to cancer, Pagano decimates the mob with his testimony in federal court. He disappears, then resurfaces in Nashville as Reynolds, a retired businessman from Oklahoma. But after years of searching, an old Mafia capo tracks Pagano to the church bus en route to New Orleans.
Targeted Age Group:: Adults
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Hellbound is based on a trip I took with a church group similar to the one in the story. I added the Mafia angle and the two main characters to provide tension and an exciting plot. But the details of the bus itinerary, places it stops and the activities in New Orleans mirror the actual trip. In addition to the Mafia angle, my trip differed in the hurricane at the end. Fortunately, we didn’t encounter that one. Some of the minor characters closely resemble people on the bus. It was fun to write.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
For Bryce Reynolds/Pat Pagano, I wanted a character who had demonstrated his courage and determination, someone with close ties to Las Vegas gambling (through his father), and a sharp enough investment counselor to attract attention from the New Yorkers. The female lead has a background similar to my own in where she lived and went to school.
Moving like a hurricane ready for landfall, slow, deliberate, destruction on his mind, Boots Minelli paused at the door. With that innate sense of the totally committed, he felt the payoff almost within his grasp. After years of chasing down false trails and blundering up blind alleys, he would soon see the terror in the traitor’s eyes. The bastard who had nearly wrecked the Vicario “family” no longer had his days numbered. It was now only a matter of hours.
The thin metal pick looked like a toothpick in his beefy hands, and though he hadn’t used the gadget in years, Boots wielded the thin metal pick with the ease of a locksmith. Pulling the heavy, wood-paneled door open, he squeezed through. Not that the doorway was any narrower than normal, but Boots had the size and demeanor of a snorting bull.
In his black outfit, he could have passed for an undertaker, which wasn’t that far off the mark. He lingered in the slate-floored foyer, stared into the living room, noted the faint lemony odor of a cleaning spray. It led him to suspect the room’s tidy, vacuumed appearance was the result of a housekeeper’s recent visit. The only thing out of place was a folded piece of paper on the floor.
The effort of stooping to pick it up left him panting, mouth agape, like some dumb-ass hound he might have chased off to fetch a stick. Ridiculous, he thought. Maddening. But that was the way a lousy fate had treated him lately. A big man in his middle fifties with abundant black hair, he had a bloated face, a joyless twist to his thick, pursed lips, and a body that made him a prime candidate for by-pass surgery.
Boots unfolded the paper and tilted it toward the light from the window. A heading identified the sheet as the itinerary for Lovely Lane United Methodist Church’s “LLSS New Orleans Tour.”
Beneath that was a list of dates and times for the week, starting with Monday:
“7:30 a.m. Board Bus, Depart Lovely Lane.
“1:00 p.m. Lunch at Barnes Crossing, Tupelo, MS.
“2:00 p.m. On to Natchez, MS, to spend the night.”
The gold Rolex on Boots’ massive wrist showed not quite seven a.m. A little earlier, parked in his rental car a short distance up the quiet suburban street from the red brick ranch, he had watched the man who called himself Bryce Reynolds pull out of the driveway in a four-year-old charcoal gray Buick. If Reynolds was leaving on the church bus at 7:30, Boots had a detailed schedule of where the man could be intercepted along the way to or from New Orleans.
But Boots had worked too hard and too long to risk any slip-ups. He needed a positive ID. Shoving the paper into his pocket, he launched a quick search of the house. Three-bedrooms, two-and-a-half-baths. One of the bedrooms had been furnished as an office. He pulled on a pair of sterile gloves and began to probe about the desk with surgical precision. He found a few utility bills, brochures promoting investment newsletters, an ad for a music CD club. Mostly he spotted Post-It notes stuck everywhere. It resembled a mini-billboard jungle–reminders of bills to pay, events coming up, checklists of things to do. One note confirmed Reynolds’ plans to be on the New Orleans bus tour. He’s in his seventies, Boots thought, tends to forget things if they aren’t written down.
Though certain Reynolds was not the man’s real name, Boots found nothing around the desk that would hint at a concealed identity. Next he turned to the family room. He found strictly masculine furniture, heavy wooden pieces informally placed. But he had an odd feeling that something was missing. Then it hit him.
Not a single photograph was displayed anywhere in the house, the mark of a man with a hidden past.
As he shifted his gaze about the wood-paneled room, Boots thought of the years of searching that had finally paid off. He finally had a current name and address for the man whose testimony at the big New York Mafia trial in the early nineties had decimated the Vicario stronghold.
Though there were no photographs, Boots noticed the walls had been decorated with paintings. They included a tranquil mountain village draped in snow, a melancholy lighthouse beside foaming breakers, a drab old grist mill amidst a fiery display of fall foliage. Boots had no taste for art, but he guessed these were real paintings, not knockoffs turned out in some assembly line operation. The traitor had money. He could afford the real thing.
Boots stared at the grist mill, but his thoughts strayed to the contact he had employed in Tennessee to dig into Reynolds’ background. There was little to be found. The man kept to himself, made no close friendships. He had bought the house in Madison, an unincorporated suburb on the northeastern side of Metropolitan Nashville, in 1995. His only slip had been a mention that he came from Tulsa.
A check in Tulsa turned up records of a Bryce Reynolds who had gone bankrupt in 1992. He started drinking heavily, and his wife left him. He disappeared from the radar screens shortly afterward. Presently he would have been in his early sixties. Boots’ source said the Madison Reynolds was likely over seventy.
The bright colors of the leaves around the grist mill slowly dragged Boots’ attention back to the painting. Then he had an idea. He walked over and pulled the frame away from the wall enough to peek in back. Nothing. He checked the lighthouse, in a smaller, vertical frame. This try rewarded him with the outline of a cutout panel.
The thump of excitement in his chest triggered a brief return of breathlessness. Boots took a moment to catch his breath then removed the painting from the wall. He pried the panel open with a pocket knife, revealing the combination lock of a wall safe. Probably an old one, he thought, put in when the house was built back in the sixties. A simple “box job.” Safecracking was a skill he had learned from a fellow student during his happily brief sojourn at a New York facility for the education of the criminally inclined, otherwise known as the state prison at Attica.
He flattened a large ear against the safe and gingerly twisted the dial. In the silence of the room, he listened to the soft click as the tumblers landed in position. He had the door open quickly. Inside lay a stack of “C notes,” crisp hundred-dollar-bills bound with rubber bands, probably a few thousand bucks’ worth. The safe also contained a handgun, but what caught his eye was a photograph and a long, thin case. He checked the picture first.
Bingo! A man and a woman, with two smiling younger men. He immediately recognized Patrick Pagano, his wife, Ellen, and their sons, Paul and Phillip. He knew what was in the case before he had it open. A star-shaped medallion with the word VALOR beneath an eagle’s outstretched wings, attached to a blue ribbon emblazoned with white stars. On the back was engraved “Sgt. Patrick O. Pagano, December 22, 1944, Bastogne, Belgium.”
The Congressional Medal of Honor. A flag-waving patriot despite his problems with the government, Tony Vicario had proudly bragged about having a Medal of Honor winner on his payroll.
Boots mustered the first genuine smile he had allowed himself in ages. He had withheld details of Pagano’s new identity from his boss until he could be certain he had the right man. Now he would tell Vicario he had accomplished the seemingly impossible.
Chester Campbell got bitten by the writing bug when he started work as a newspaper reporter while a journalism student at the University of Tennessee. That was 68 years ago. He has worked as a newspaper reporter, freelance writer, magazine editor, political speechwriter, advertising copywriter, public relations professional and association executive. An Air Force intelligence officer in the Korean War, he retired from the Air Force Reserve as a lieutenant colonel. He is the author of five books in the Greg McKenzie mystery series and two books in the Sid Chance series. He also has a trilogy of Post Cold War political thrillers. His first Greg McKenzie novel, Secret of the Scroll, won a Bloody Dagger Award and was a finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Mystery of the Year in 2003. The first Sid Chance book, The Surest Poison, won the 2009 Silver Falchion Award at the Killer Nashville Mystery Conference. He served as secretary of the Southeast Chapter, Mystery Writers of America, and is past president of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Sisters in Crime.
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