Vic Letty looked both ways before he limped inside the strip mall's Mail Boxes Etc. His gaze slid across the room. Nobody was watching. Perfect. Vic couldn't help but smile. His scam was foolproof. There was no way to trace it back to him, and now it was going to make him big-time rich.
The key, Vic realized, was preparation. That was what separated the good from the great. The greats covered their tracks. The greats prepared for every eventuality.
The first thing Vic did was get a fake ID from that loser cousin of his, Tony. Then, using the fake ID, Vic rented a mailbox under the pseudonym UYS Enterprises. See the brilliance? Use a fake ID and a pseudonym. So even if someone bribed the bozo behind the desk, even if someone could find out who rented the UYS Enterprises box, all you'd come up with was the name Roscoe Taylor, the one on Vic's fake ID.
No way to trace it back to Vic himself.
From across the room, Vic tried to see in the little window for Box 417. Hard to make out much, but there was something there for sure. Beautiful. Vic accepted only cash or money orders. No checks, of course. Nothing that could be traced back to him. And whenever he picked up the money, he wore a disguise. Like right now. He had on a baseball cap and a fake mustache. He also pretended to have a limp. He read somewhere that people notice limps, so if a witness was asked to identify the guy using Box 417, what would the witness say? Simple. The man had a mustache and a limp. And if you bribed the dumb-ass clerk, you'd conclude some guy named Roscoe Taylor had a mustache and a limp.
And the real Vic Letty had neither.
But Vic took other precautions too. He never opened the box when other people were around. Never. If someone else was getting his mail or in the general vicinity, he'd act as though he was opening another box or pretend he was filling out a mailing form, something like that. When the coast was clear - and only when the coast was clear - would Vic go over to Box 417.
Vic knew that you could never, ever be too careful.
Even when it came to getting here, Vic took precautions. He'd parked his work truck - Vic handled repairs and installations for Cable Eye the East Coast's biggest cable TV operator - four blocks away. He'd ducked through two alleys on his way here. He wore a black windbreaker over his uniform coverall so no one would be able to see the "Vic" sewn over the shirt's right pocket.
He thought now about the huge payday that was probably in Box 417, not ten feet from where he now stood. His fingers felt antsy. He checked the room again.
There were two women opening their boxes. One turned and smiled absently at him. Vic moved toward the boxes on the other side of the room and grabbed his key chain - he had one of those key chains that jangled off his belt - and pretended to be sorting through them. He kept his face down and away from them.
Two minutes later, the two women had their mail and were gone. Vic was alone. He quickly crossed the room and opened his box.
One package addressed to UYS Enterprises. Wrapped in brown. No return address. And thick enough to hold some serious green.
Vic smiled and wondered: Is that what fifty grand looks like?
He reached out with trembling hands and picked up the package. It felt comfortably heavy in his hand. Vic's heart started jack hammering Oh, sweet Jesus. He'd been running this scam for four months now. He'd been casting that net and landing some pretty decent fish. But oh lordy, now he'd landed a friggin' whale!
Checking his surroundings again, Vic stuffed the package into the pocket of his windbreaker and hurried outside. He took a different route back to his work truck and started for the plant. His fingers found the package and stroked it. Fifty grand. Fifty thousand dollars. The number totally blew his mind.
By the time Vic drove to the Cable Eye plant, night had fallen. He parked the truck in the back and walked across the footbridge to his own car, a rusted-out 1991 Honda Civic. He frowned at the car and thought, Not much longer.
The employee lot was quiet. The darkness started weighing against him. He could hear his footsteps, the weary slap of work boots against tar. The cold sliced through his windbreaker. Fifty grand. He had fifty grand in his pocket.
Vic hunched his shoulders and hurried his step.
The truth was, Vic was scared this time. The scam would have to stop. It was a good scam, no doubt about it. A great one even. But he was taking on some big boys now. He had questioned the intelligence of such a move, weighed the pros and cons, and decided that the great ones - the ones who really change their lives - go for it.
And Vic wanted to be a great one.
The scam was simple, which was what made it so extraordinary. Every house that had cable had a switch box on the telephone line. When you ordered some sort of premium channel like HBO or Showtime, your friendly neighborhood cable man came out and flicked a few switches. That switch box holds your cable life. And what holds your cable life holds all about the real you.
Cable companies and hotels with in-room movies always point out that your bill will not list the names of the movies you watch. That might be true, but that doesn't mean they don't know. Try fighting a charge sometime. They'll tell you titles until you're blue in the face.
What Vic had learned right away - and not to get too technical here - was that your cable choices worked by codes, relaying your order information via the cable switch box to the computers at the cable company's main station. Vic would climb the telephone poles, open the boxes, and read off the numbers. When he went back to the office, he'd plug in the codes and learn all.
He'd learn, for example, that at six P.M. on February 2, you and your family rented The Lion King on pay-per-view. Or for a much more telling example, that at ten-thirty P.M. on February 7, you ordered a double bill of The Hunt for Miss October and On Golden Blonde via Sizzle TV.
See the scam?
At first Vic would hit random houses. He'd write a letter to the male owner of the residence. The letter would be short and chilling. It would list what porno movies had been watched, at what time, on what day. It would make it clear that copies of this information would be disseminated to every member of the man's family, his neighbors, his employer. Then Vic would ask for $500 to keep his mouth shut. Not much money maybe, but Vic thought it was the perfect amount - high enough to give Vic some serious green yet low enough so that most marks wouldn't balk at the price.
Still - and this surprised Vic at first - only about ten percent responded. Vic wasn't sure why. Maybe watching porno films wasn't the stigma it used to be. Maybe the guy's wife already knew about it. Hell, maybe the guy's wife watched them with him. But the real problem was Vic's scam was too scattershot.
He had to be more focused. He had to cherry-pick his marks.
That was when he came up with the idea of concentrating on people in certain professions, ones who would have a lot to lose if the information came out. Again the cable computers had all the info he needed. He started hitting up schoolteachers. Day care workers. Gynecologists. Anyone who worked in jobs that would be sensitive to a scandal like this. Teachers panicked the most, but they had the least money. He also made his letters more specific. He would mention the wife by name. He would mention the employer by name. With teachers, he'd promise to flood the Board of Education and the parents of his students with "proof of perversion," a phrase Vic came up with on his own. With doctors, he'd threaten to send his "proof" to the specific licensing board, along with the local papers, neighbors, and patients.
Money started coming in faster.
To date, Vic's scams had netted him close to forty thousand dollars. And now he had landed his biggest fish yet - such a big fish that at first Vic had considered dropping the matter altogether. But he couldn't. He couldn't just walk away from the juiciest score of his life.
Yes, he'd hit someone in the spotlight. A big, big big-time spotlight. Randall Scope. Young, handsome, rich, hottie wife, 2.4 kids, political aspirations, the heir apparent to the Scope fortune. And Scope hadn't ordered just one movie. Or even two.
During a one-month stint, Randall Scope had ordered twenty three pornographic films.
Vic had spent two nights drafting his demands, but in the end he stuck with the basics: short, chilling, and very specific. He asked Scope for fifty grand. He asked that it be in his box by today. And unless Vic was mistaken, that fifty grand was burning a hole in his windbreaker pocket.
Vic wanted to look. He wanted to look right now. But Vic was nothing if not disciplined. He'd wait until he got home. He'd lock his door and sit on the floor and slit open the package and let the green pour out.
Vic parked his car on the street and headed up the driveway. The sight of his living quarters - an apartment over a crappy garage - depressed him. But he wouldn't be there much longer. Take the fifty grand, add the almost forty grand he had hidden in the apartment, plus the ten grand in savings...
The realization made him pause. One hundred thousand dollars. He had one hundred grand in cash. Hot damn.
He'd leave right away. Take this money and head out to Arizona. He had a friend out there, Sammy Viola. He and Sammy were going to start their own business, maybe open a restaurant or nightclub. Vic was tired of New Jersey.
It was time to move on. Start fresh.
Vic headed up the stairs toward his apartment. For the record, Vic had never carried out his threats. He never sent out any letters to anyone. If a mark didn't pay, that was the end of it. Harming them after the fact wouldn't do any good. Vic was a scam artist. He got by on his brains. He used threats, sure, but he'd never carry through with them. It would only make someone mad, and hell, it would probably expose him too.
He'd never really hurt anyone. What would be the point?
He reached the landing and stopped in front of his door. Pitch dark now. The damn lightbulb by his door was out again. He sighed and heaved up his big key chain. He squinted in the dark, trying to find the right key. He did it mostly through feel. He fumbled against the knob until the key found the lock. He pushed open the door and stepped inside and something felt wrong.
Something crinkled under his feet.
Vic frowned. Plastic, he thought to himself. He was stepping on plastic. As though a painter had laid it down to protect the floor or something. He flicked on the light switch, and that was when he saw the man with the gun.
Vic gasped and took a step back. The man in front of him looked to be in his forties. He was big and fat with a belly that battled against the buttons of his dress shirt and, in at least one place, won. His tie was loosened and he had the worst comb-over imaginable - eight braided strands pulled ear to ear and greased against the dome. The man's features were soft, his chin sinking into folds of flab. He had his feet up on the trunk Vic used as a coffee table. Replace the gun with a TV remote and the man would be a weary dad just home from work.
The other man, the one who blocked the door, was the polar opposite of the big guy - in his twenties, Asian, squat, granite muscular and cube-shaped with bleached-blond hair, a nose ring or two, and a yellow Walkman in his ears. The only place you might think to see the two of them together would be on a subway, the big man frowning behind his carefully folded newspaper, the Asian kid eyeing you as his head lightly bounced to the too-loud music on his headset.
Vic tried to think. Find out what they want. Reason with them. You're a scam artist, he reminded himself. You're smart. You'll find a way out of this. Vic straightened himself up.
"What do you want?" Vic asked.
The big man with the comb-over pulled the trigger.
Vic heard a pop and then his right knee exploded. His eyes went wide. He screamed and crumbled to the ground, holding his knee. Blood poured between his fingers.
"It's a twenty-two," the big man said, motioning toward the gun. "A small-caliber weapon. What I like about it, as you'll see, is that I can shoot you a lot and not kill you."
With his feet still up, the big man fired again. This time, Vic's shoulder took the hit. Vic could actually feel the bone shatter. His arm flopped away like a barn door with a busted hinge. Vic fell flat on his back and started breathing too fast. A terrible cocktail of fear and pain engulfed him. His eyes stayed wide and unblinking, and through the haze, he realized something.
The plastic on the ground.
He was lying on it. More than that, he was bleeding on it. That was what it was there for. The men had put it down for easy cleanup.
"Do you want to start telling me what I want to hear," the big man said, "or should I shoot again?"
Vic started talking. He told them everything. He told them where the rest of the money was. He told them where the evidence was. The big man asked him if he had any accomplices. He said no. The big man shot Vic's other knee. He asked him again if he had accomplices. Vic still said no. The big man shot him in the right ankle.
An hour later, Vic begged the big man to shoot him in the head.
Two hours after that, the big man obliged.