Mystery

Chapter reveal: Dying to Tell, by Tj O’Connor

DTT Cover 800 jan 2016 copyTitle:  DYING TO TELL

Genre:  Mystery

Author:  Tj O’Connor

Websitewww.tjoconnor.com

Publisher:  Midnight Ink

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book:

In Dying to Tell, the latest mystery by award-winning novelist Tj O’Connor, Oliver “Tuck” Tucker—dead detective extraordinaire—is back for the case of a lifetime, or, rather, the afterlifetime.  

A former police detective who now solves mysteries from beyond, Tuck doesn’t appreciate just how perilous the past can be till his wife, Angel, is nearly killed and reclusive banker William Mendelson is found dead in a hidden vault.  Tuck knows there’s more to Mendelson’s murder than decades-old skullduggery. As murderers, thieves, and spies descend on small-town Winchester, Tuck joins up with Angel, old detective partners, and a long-dead grandfather still on an army mission from 1942. With the case unfolding around him, Tuck must confront haunting family secrets and the growing distance between his death and Angel’s life.  The outcome could be a killer of its own, but Tuck is set on solving this case. Dead set.  After all, some things never die…

 CHAPTER ONE

Dying is as perilous as secrets and lies. Depending, of course, on

who is keeping the secrets and who is telling the lies. Trust me, I’m

in the secrets and lies business—I’m a homicide cop. Well, I was.

Secrets and lies can lead to big problems—like murder—although

it’s not in the secrets or the lies themselves. It’s that someone always

wants to tell. The urge is like an addict needing a fix. You need to

tell—you cannot help it—you have to tell. Sometimes it’s out of

guilt. Sometimes it’s for revenge. Sometimes it’s just spite. No matter,

in the end, someone is always dying to tell.

And then bad things happen.

An auburn-haired beauty with green eyes—eyes that could hypnotize

vampires—walked down the outdoor Old Town Winchester

mall through a dusting of blowing December snow. She stopped

momentarily to adjust her long wool overcoat over her athletic legs

and curvaceous, bumpy body—a good bumpy. She looked around

the mall, twice back from where she’d come, and turned down the

sidewalk to the annex behind the First Bank and Trust of Frederick

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County. When she caught sight of me, her smile—one that normally

could charm snakes—looked more like that of a cobra ready to strike.

I ran to catch up.

No, not because I’m obsessed with vampires or snake charmers.

And no, I wasn’t stalking this classy university professor on her way to

some mysterious early morning appointment. She was my wife, but

she was on her way to a mysterious appointment—and I didn’t know

where or why. So, being the former detective I was, I followed her.

“Angel, where you going?”

“To the bank.” She reached the employee entrance door and stopped.

“Why are you following me?”

Silly question. “Because you’re going to the bank at seven in the

morning. It’s closed.”

She checked her watch. “And it’s almost seven thirty.”

“Haven’t you ever heard of banker’s hours? Who do you think is

here this early?”

She rolled her eyes—a signal that my wit or charm had disarmed

her. “I’ll explain later at home.”

“I’ll wait. We can get pancakes.”

“You hate pancakes. What’s wrong with you lately? Are you spying

on me?”

I did hate pancakes, but watching her eat steak and eggs—my

favorite breakfast—was much more painful. “Spying, no. Me?”

“I didn’t think the dead could be so frustrating.”

Oh, did I mention I’m dead? No? I’m Tuck, formerly Detective

Oliver Tucker of the Frederick County Sheriff ’s office. Now I’m just

Tuck to my friends—those living and dead. I was a hotshot homicide

detective before I went investigating noises in my house late

one night. Those noises led someone to put a bullet in my heart.

3

That was nearly two years ago. And it’s taken me that long to come to

terms with it. Sort of. It helped to catch the bastard who shot me and

put an end to his killing spree. And it helps to have my wife, Angel,

and Hercule, my black Lab, around, too. Dead and gone are two totally

different things. I’m dead, but as Angel and Hercule will tell

you—well, maybe not Hercule, he’s a dog—I’m just not gone.

“Angel, listen, I …”

The steel security door at the employee entrance door burst open

and banged against the brick annex wall. A masked gunman—a tall,

strong-looking figure dressed in dark clothes and the traditional bank

robber’s balaclava—ran from the annex, turned, and fired a shot from

a small revolver. He slipped on the sidewalk, freshly adorned with an

inch of snow, and crashed to the ground. He cursed, jumped to his

feet, and locked eyes on Angel.

“Run, Angel. Run!” I yelled.

Too late.

The gunman scrambled the three yards to us and grabbed Angel

by the arm. “Come here!” He spun her around, pulled her to him

like a shield, and faced the annex doorway.

A bank security guard emerged through the door, gun first.

“Freeze! Let her go!”

The gunman fired two shots in rapid succession. One hit the security

guard and the other slammed safely into the wall two feet beside

him. The guard grunted, staggered back, and went down, striking

his head on a stone flower planter beside the entrance.

“Angel, stay calm,” I said. “I’ll get you out of this.”

“Tuck, help me!”

I dove for the gunman and took two vicious swings trying to free

her. Both blows struck him in the face and neither caused him to

4

flinch. I struck again—lashed a kick to his knee, a jab to the rib cage.

Two more body blows.

Nothing.

“Angel, fight. You have to fight. I can’t help.”

Angel was not a timid or slight woman and she erupted like a

wildcat, taking the gunman by surprise. She twisted and fought

against his grip and nearly broke free.

“Dammit, lady, stop!” He jammed the revolved to her cheek. “Or

else.”

“Tuck,” she cried out, “help me! Tuck …”

Rage boiled over and the explosion started inside me everywhere.

A second later, my fingers tingled and my body burned from

the inside. Seconds were all I had. I lunged forward and struck the

gunman in the throat with the heel of my hand. He staggered back,

relaxing his grip around Angel. I struck two more vicious punches

to his face and followed with a kick to his midsection.

“What the f—” He released her and turned in a circle, his eyes

darting around.

I struck two kidney punches and a sharp kick to the inside of one

leg. He umphed and crumpled sideways down onto one knee. I

crushed him with a two-fisted hammer punch to the back of his neck.

“Run, Angel—go!”

She was only four or five strides from the gunman when he lifted

his revolver and took aim.

A gunshot split the air from behind us, searing a lightning bolt

through me on its way to the bank robber. It struck him in the upper

arm and spun him sideways. A second shot followed but missed him

by mere inches. The gunman was stunned but regained his footing—

his injury wasn’t stopping him. He staggered back, lifted his

5

revolver, and pulled off a shot before he ran around the rear of the

bank annex and disappeared.

“Angel?” I spun around. “Are you all right?”

Apparently, she was fine.

A tall, square-jawed, distinguished man in a heavy wool overcoat

stood beside her now. He had one arm around her, speaking slowly to

her—consoling her—and his other arm hung to his side, a black, compact

.45 semiautomatic handgun in his grasp. He looked like a younger

Clooney, but perhaps better looking. I instantly distrusted him.

“I’m fine, Mr. Thorne, really.” Angel slipped from his arm and went

to the security guard lying on the snowy ground beside the annex

door. She moved over him, checked his wounds, and tried to wake

him. “Call an ambulance. He’s been shot and is unconscious.”

Thorne—a man I’d never seen before—pulled a cell phone from

his overcoat pocket. “Right, and the police. Is Conti all right?”

“I’m not sure.” She investigated a small, thin hole over the guard’s

left breast through his blue suit coat. From inside the coat, she pulled

out a paperback book and held it up. “Agatha Christie saved his

life—Murder on the Orient Express. The bullet hit this and didn’t go

through.”

I put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her—or perhaps, to

comfort me. The rage had passed, and with it, the last of my connection

to the physical world. “Are you okay, babe? I …”

“I’m fine. Go see if anyone else is hurt inside.” She caught Thorne

eyeing her. “There may be more employees inside, right?”

“Not at this hour, no. Let’s wait on the police.”

No, I wasn’t waiting.

6

A voice beckoned me into the bank and I followed. It wasn’t a

voice—not really—it was more like someone telegraphing words

into my head: “It isn’t over, kid, follow me.”

The bank annex was dark. The faint morning light was barely

enough to cast more than a dull haze through the lobby windows. I

went through the grand lobby, down a long, dark corridor into the

executive wing. At the end of the corridor were three offices. I stopped

at the suite of William H. Mendelson, Chairman of the Board, First

Bank and Trust of Frederick County—or so said the brass plaque

below the oversized portrait of a silver-haired titan.

The voice from nowhere whispered, “Hurry up, kid. Inside.”

I followed the voice into the pitch-black office and through a

second doorway in the corner of the room—a closet, I thought—

but it was the entrance to a stairwell leading down into more darkness.

Two floors below, in a sub-basement, the stairwell opened to a

wide landing at a heavy steel security gate that looked like a prison

cell door. Beyond the gate was a small anteroom lit by a dim fluorescent

light overhead. The gate was unlocked and open and the anteroom

beyond was empty except for a small metal work table and

two battleship-gray chairs. In the rear of the room was a monstrous,

turn-of-the-century steel vault door—the nineteenth century. To my

surprise, the door was cracked open, and a sliver of eerie light from

inside the vault etched the anteroom wall.

“Inside, Oliver.” The voice was all around me now. “Go inside.”

Oliver? “Who the hell are you?”

“Just go. Quit stalling.”

I turned and found a strange man—a fellow wraith—leaning

against the anteroom wall watching me—not in a casual way, but

trying to appear casual. He had one hand in a pocket of his leather

7

bomber jacket and he tipped a baseball cap that had a big “W” on it

off his brow with the other.

“Trust me, kid. This isn’t the way it looks.” He threw a chin toward

the vault. “Go on in. I’ve done my part. Now it’s your turn.”

Inside I found the Chairman of the First Bank and Trust of Frederick

County.

William H. Mendelson always reminded me of Lionel Barrymore’s

Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. He was a starchy, arrogant

old banker who made rare appearances around town. When he

did, he never spoke, didn’t wave, and never, ever smiled. And to

those who knew him, he was never William or Bill—God, never

Billy, either. He was Mr. Mendelson—or more often, the Chairman.

Like he was Frank Sinatra or something, right?

William sat behind a square steel counting table in the middle of

the vault, facing the door. He was dressed in the same blue doublebreasted

suit he must have worn yesterday—from the smell, he’d

been here a while. A dark blood stain ruined his starched white shirt

and expensive silk tie—the result of a small-caliber bullet hole in his

heart. Both hands rested on the tabletop like he was waiting for a

sandwich—or pancakes—and they were stuck to the blackish gooey

remains of his life.

And hanging in the vault air was the heavy, pungent odor of

smoke.

The bomber-jacketed man—strangely familiar—said, “Remember,

kid, it’s not what you think.”

“Hello, William,” I said, looking at the murdered chairman. “I’m

Tuck and I’ll be investigating your murder. Perhaps you can tell

me—what should I think?”

 

 

Categories: Mystery, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

SHERLOCK HOLMES, The Missing Years: Timbuktu, by Vasudev Murthy

9781464204524_FC

Title:  SHERLOCK HOLMES, The Missing Years: Timbuktu

Genre: Mystery

Author: Vasudev Murthy

Website: http://vmurthy.blogspot.com

Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press

Purchase on Amazon

Still wondering what Sherlock Holmes was doing between his reported death in 1891 and his reappearance in 1894? All the world knew that Sherlock Holmes died at the Reichenbach Falls, tumbling over the jagged cliff in a deadly embrace with his nemesis Moriarty. But for history’s greatest detective, death was only the beginning. Rumors abounded that Holmes had been sighted advising the Japanese emperor, studying with the Dalai Lama, and protecting the president of the United States, but only Dr. Watson knew the truth. From 1891 to 1894, Sherlock Holmes was dead to the world—and having the grandest adventures of his career.

It begins when an Italian scholar travels from Venice to 221B Baker Street, to beg the help of the legendary detective. He carries an ancient parchment, written in the hand of Marco Polo himself. It is a rubbing made from a brass disc found in the libraries of Kublai Khan, and it was torn in half centuries ago to protect the world from a terrifying secret, one that, apparently, first Marco Polo, then another great traveler, the Moroccan Ibn Battuta, took dramatic steps to guard. Where, if anywhere, is its missing half? Holmes springs into action. He fakes his death at Reichenbach, and proceeds undercover to Venice. A murdered scholar, an archivist from the Vatican, British imperial politics and, of course, the dire hand of Moriarty propel Holmes and a surprised but resolute Dr. Watson, playing the roles they assumed in Morocco, on a perilous journey down the Sahara to the ancient city of Timbuktu…and beyond. In deepest Africa, Holmes will confront ruthless criminals, an ancient culture, and a staggering surprise.

CHAPTER ONE

“O thou who goest to Gao, turn aside from thy path to breathe my name in Timbuctoo. Bear thither the greeting of an exile who sighs for the soil on which his friends and family reside. Console my near and dear ones for the deaths of their lords, who have been entombed.” – Ahmed Baba

A Visitor from Italy

“Ah Watson! A merry affair there at Norwich! The constabulary in ferment, I see!”

“Indeed, Holmes. Would you call it merry though?  Six murders in two months! And not a clue in sight! One wonders why the authorities have not reached out to you yet!”

“Frankly Watson, I would prefer they did not. The answer is so obvious that I would not wish to embarrass them. However, if it pleases you, and since the loss of life is a regrettable matter, perhaps you could send a wire to the Inspector in charge – Cowley? – to interview Lazarus Smith, the village blacksmith, who very kindly took them to the scene of the crime in the second case. Ask them to inspect the attic. They are wasting their time talking to Donahue. Being Irish and ugly is not a crime.”

“Yes, Holmes,” I said, making a note.

I was visiting Holmes after a long interval. Consequent to my marriage, our meetings had become infrequent but were always warm. My wife was away on a visit to Glasgow and I had taken the liberty of travelling to London to meet Sherlock Holmes and attend to sundry business.

We had spent the better part of the day talking about past cases and discussing the eventual fates of many notables.  The bitter January cold had seeped inside our room, and we moved a few inches closer to the fireplace that Mrs. Hudson had so thoughtfully prepared. Outside, the fog swirled and I could hardly imagine that anyone would be foolhardy enough to walk about risking life and limb. It was not an evening for profitable crime.

Holmes was stretched across the sofa languidly, violin resting carelessly on his left thigh and his right leg dangling on the floor. He was leafing through a copy of Debrett’s Peerage.

“Well, well, I see that the Duke of Beaufort studied classics at Oxford in 1875. I happen to know that he was almost rusticated for suspected plagiarism. And at about the same time, the Earl of Breadalbane played cricket there and was challenged for unsportsmanlike conduct. Two very different personalities, Watson, but both with some claim to a common experience at the same moment in time. Debrett’s say nothing about their scandals! The world is filled with strange people, eh, Watson?”

Before I could respond, he flung across a wire.

“What do you make of this, Watson?”

I looked at it.

“Why would anyone be interested in this parchment? The British Ambassador in Rome suggested I meet you urgently on a matter of utmost sensitivity. 1030 pm tonight. Grazie. Antonio Rozzi. Venice.

“An Italian travelling all the way from Venice to meet you, Holmes? Very flattering.”

“It must be very sensitive for him not to find it prudent to write. Something has happened that has made him abandon his routine tasks. He seems to be a man given to objectivity. A historian, I would wager, given the reference to a parchment. Ah, the time draws near! A carriage just outside, Watson.”

We heard the creaks of a carriage and the shuffling and snorting of horses, as they settled outside 221B Baker Street. In a few moments, we heard the sounds of someone taking the stairs quickly. Shortly, there was a polite knock.

I opened the door.

The man opposite was about my height, though stout. He was clean shaven, bald, with luxurious sideburns, and immaculately dressed. He looked quite English.  He stooped a little, was about fifty-five years old, and carried a valise.

He bowed.

“Signore Holmes? I am Antonio Rozzi from Venice.”  His accent was distinct.

“No, I am Dr. John Watson. Do come in.”

I helped him with his overcoat, while Holmes watched.

“I apologize for this late meeting,” said Antonio Rozzi, bowing to Holmes. “I had no choice.”

“You reached London this afternoon. There must have been something of interest at the British Museum that detained you for a few hours. But do sit down.”

Signore Rozzi gasped. “Che cosa! You are quite right, Signore Holmes! I visited a friend at the Chinese antiquities section. But how did you know?”  He seated himself heavily on a chair, catching his breath, valise in hand.

Holmes shrugged. “The wire was sent from the Post Office at Great Russell Street at about three in the afternoon. I would expect a historian from the continent to visit the Museum first, practically as a religious duty. “

Si, si!” exclaimed Signore Rozzi. “That is so!”

“And how may we help you, Signore Rozzi?”

“Ah Signore Holmes, a very strange situation! I met your Ambassador at Rome, Lord Dufferin, and he said that you were the best person to help me. A most vexing matter, I am afraid, si. Extremely confidential, if I may say.”

Holmes nodded. “Please proceed. Everything remains within these four walls.”

Signore Rozzi looked relieved and began.

“I am the Chief Conservator of the Venice Museum, Signore Holmes. We have a very strange situation and need your advice.”

Holmes listened patiently.

“Have you read the Bible, Signore Holmes?” Signore Rozzi leaned across and peered intently at Holmes.

“As a matter of academic interest, yes. I am not a believer per se, but the book is entertaining and has its merits.”

“In what language was it written, do you know?”

“Yes, originally in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.”

Signore Rozzi sat back, beaming. ‘Superbo! Very rare, Signore Holmes, for anyone to know this, very rare!”

“I would like to show you something very sensitive.” He opened his valise with great deliberation and carefully took out a document.

He placed it on the table and invited us to come closer.

It was a dull brown parchment with unusual faded markings. Some were in red and some were in black.

Holmes examined it very carefully against the light.

“Where is the other half?”

Signore Holmes, you are very clever! Si, this is the left half of a manuscript. The right half is missing. And it has always been missing since this came into our possession shortly after the death of Marco Polo in the year 1324.”

“The script is perhaps Aramaic, since you touched upon the matter of the Bible.  The parchment looks very old. And wait, the indentations on the paper seem to indicate the words were embossed in some way and then coloured.”

Si! Si! How correct you are! Someone has taken an impression of the text from a surface and then coloured it. Which means it is a copy.

“This manuscript is about two thousand five hundred years old, we think, pre-dating Christ. But the script is, surprisingly, not ancient Aramaic. It is not even related, as far as I know. It is Meroitic, which, sadly, I cannot read, but which I know originated in the Nile valley. Indeed there are very few scholars who can read that script. This is the reason why I visited the British Museum to meet Signore James Conway, who is such a scholar, and can read Meroitic with some effort. However, he was not available, so I shall be meeting him tomorrow.”

Holmes peered intently at the manuscript. “There seems to be some kind of a map at the bottom, perhaps. And only half of it.”

“Correct! We think so too.”

“And how may I help you? Surely this is not a treasure hunt.”

“It is much more than that, Signore Holmes.” Signore Rozzi looked grave.

“About two months ago, I started receiving strange notes in Arabic, which I happen to be able to read. Here is one. They are almost all identical.”

 

١- أعد النصف الاخر على الفور و الا عليك مواجهة العواقب

“And this means …?”

“’Return the other half immediately or face consequences’“

“To what address?”

“A post box in Casablanca, Morocco.”

“I see. And the reference is to this manuscript?”

Si, we believe so now, but we did not know about this until a month ago.

“You see, Signore Holmes and Dottore Watson, we get many anonymous letters at the Museum. People are fascinated by history and often believe that some object truly belongs to them. They ask for its return, claiming it belonged to an ancestor. We routinely ignore such letters.”

“I see.”

“But a month ago, we had an attempted burglary in the Chinese antiquities section. An alert security guard foiled the attempt and challenged the intruder, who stabbed him.  The guard described the intruder as having Arabic features. Most unfortunately, the guard passed away the next day because of his injuries.

“When I examined the antiquities, I found that everything was in order, except for the section that contained old manuscripts. We have thousands and most of them are of unknown origin. They are often trivial – they could be books of accounts or a journal of a ship’s voyage. It appeared that the intruder had just started looking there when he was surprised. However, while going through the manuscripts, I found this parchment. And I stopped.”

“A parchment with Meroitic inscriptions in the Chinese manuscripts library?”

“Yes, it was very surprising. But then again, it was not, because they were in the papers bequeathed to us by Marco Polo.”

“The great traveller,” nodded Holmes. “Well, yes, he did travel to China and would have brought back many articles of interest including manuscripts picked up along the way.”

“That is correct, Signore Holmes. The matter became a bit clearer when we saw that there was a note in the hand of Marco Polo with this parchment. Here it is.” He took out something from the valise and spread it on the table. The three of us gathered around to look at it.

“It is in Old French, so let me translate it for you.”

He read the manuscript in a halting voice.

“Many come to me, as I lie dying, asking me to proclaim that my account of my travels to China is a falsehood. I have not done so. Indeed, I have not revealed even half of what I know to Rustichello da Pisa, when we were in prison together in Genoa, since the haughty citizens of Venice have no regard for anything that goes against what they think is the truth. Let them mock at me. I go to the Heavenly Father with a clear conscience.

Oh, our ignorance! Only travel will erase it, but how can I insist?

I beg my descendants to guard this document with their lives. It has value beyond money.

I left the court of the great Kublai Khan with immense sadness. The Khan himself wept, for I was like a son to him, and he, to me, was like my father. He asked me to take anything I wished from his Kingdom, a generous offer that we accepted in small amounts. Yes, gold, paper, gunpowder, vases – these were his gifts.  You know, perhaps, that I was escorting a princess from his court to Hormuz in Persia to be wed,

But I spent time in his ancient and large library seeking books for they have great and everlasting wisdom and felt that they would have permanent value.

The many books which you see, along with this letter, are from his library, and reflect his infinite generosity to me and the Catholic Church.

I found a strange copper sheet in a dark corner of his library and became curious. It had peculiar inscriptions etched on it – they were neither in Chinese nor in any other language that I was familiar with. Yet it looked very pleasing, though out of place in the library. How is it that such a copper sheet was found in the library of Kublai Khan of China? No one had any idea as to its origin or value. I sought permission to take it because my interest was piqued. The Great Khan agreed as he could not find any use for it. For safety, I made a print of the copper sheet by pressing a sheet of paper down and then colouring the indentations created by the etches. I thus created a paper manuscript.

After the parting, about which I have written, I sat down in the ship that we had boarded at Zaitun and tried to translate the manuscript. It was impossible as I had no knowledge of this peculiar script. And yet, somehow, I felt uneasy. It was as if the letters were appealing to be read and understood.

Weeks later, we docked at the port of Calicut in India where I befriended the Zamorin of Calicut who welcomed me with great honour. We became good friends very soon and he gave me additional gifts and mourned with me for the shipmates I had lost on the way.

He introduced me to some priests of the Syrian Catholic church who seemed knowledgeable about ancient languages. Since I was concerned about the contents, I was cautious, and gave only tiny bits of the letter to them requesting them to translate it, which they attempted to do with enthusiasm, employing guesswork and experience. I then pieced the document together as best as I could.

As I learned how to read the faint letters and read out the words, I felt their impact. I will not tell you now what it was.

I took a decision to safeguard this manuscript in an unusual way for I was afraid of what would happen if someone with evil in his heart were to read it, fully understand and act on it. And so I tore the manuscript in two and requested that the Zamorin keep half of it in his custody, saying that it was a letter guaranteeing safety to those who wished to meet me in Venice. The Zamorin kept it carefully without asking questions and said that he would wait for someone to claim the letter someday.

I left directly for Persia.  I had memorized the contents of the manuscript, of course, and chanted them to myself quietly as my ship bore west. My head was full of dark, angry clouds and confusion. In a moment of extreme fear, I flung the copper sheet into the sea, as though it were on fire; I instantly regretted my action, but of course, it was too late.

We reached Hormuz and then you know the rest.

Keep this letter with the manuscript, for everyone’s safety. It is too valuable to be destroyed and yet too dangerous to be complete. Let us pray that mankind does not find the other half. It will bring infinite misery, though many will believe, foolishly, that it will be the opposite.

Marco Polo

Citizen of Venice

I was flabbergasted by this peculiar story. We sat in silence absorbing the words. Holmes puffed at his pipe and said nothing, waiting for our visitor to continue. We could hear the beat constable just outside. “We feel convinced, Signore Holmes, that the attempted burglary pertained to this document.” “What would you like me to do?”asked Holmes, after some reflection. “Visit Venice with me and help us to understand the matter better.” Holmes shook his head firmly. “We are working with conjectures. And my current engagements will not permit a trip. Why can your police not assist?” “They lack the scientific approach, Signore Holmes. More importantly, we think this requires secrecy and if we were to go to the local police, we cannot say with certainty that the matter would not become widely known, resulting in new complications. And we want to understand the mystery. Why is someone so interested in this parchment? “ “Why can you not get this document translated? Would that not help, even if partially?” “Yes, it would. This is why I visited the British Museum, as I said. And I shall do so again tomorrow. However, we think your involvement is needed. The Catholic Church worked closely with Marco Polo and sent some Sepulchral oil to the Khan on his request; there is an interesting story there that I could tell you about some day. Marco Polo was buried in the Church of San Lorenzo in Venice but his body was lost. Father Agnelli of that church is very knowledgeable about him. The Patriarch of Venice has expressly asked for your involvement after he consulted the Pope, though I must add that the decision was opposed internally at the Vatican. Though there are ancient Aramaic and demotic scholars in Rome, who could have perhaps tried to translate the Meroitic, it was felt that the matter must be kept very confidential, which is why I have brought it here. This may have ramifications beyond murder and a simple translation.”

“What kind of ramifications, I wonder.  Hmm. Perhaps I should think about it. Shall we meet again at eight tomorrow evening after you consult your friend?”

‘Si, si!  Let us hear what he has to say.”

With that, Signore Rozzi stood up, placed the documents back into his valise, bowed, and left the room quietly.

“Very interesting, Holmes,” I remarked.

“Indeed, no clear case, but an atmosphere of history and mystery. Well, let us wait until tomorrow. Meanwhile, Debrett’s beckons!”

And with that, Holmes sank back into his sofa and was shortly lost in the vagaries of British royal lineage.

 

Categories: Mystery, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Chapter reveal: The Flying Dragon, by Georges Ugeux

9781480818569_COVER.inddTitle:  THE FLYING DRAGON

Genre:  THRILLER/SUSPENSE

Author:  Georges Ugeux

Website: http://www.georgesugeux.com

Publisher:  Archway Books

Find out more on Amazon

About the Book: 

Celebrated non-fiction author Georges Ugeux delivers an intense, imaginative and intriguing financial thriller in his debut novel, The Flying Dragon.  Set against the backdrop of the high-energy, high-tension world of global finance, The Flying Dragon plunges readers deep into a world where power, greed, money, and passion can intersect in a most dangerous way.

The Flying Dragon introduces protagonist Victoria Leung, a beautiful, brilliant, fearless, and highly accomplished financial fraud investigator.  Responsible for taking down Sun Hung Kai Properties’ Kwok Brothers, a real estate empire, Victoria not only established herself as a formidable talent, but earned the nickname “The Flying Dragon” in the process. When she leaves the fraud department of the Hong Kong Police, Victoria accepts a position as a senior detective at Pegasus, an international security firm based in London.  The Pegasus job affords Victoria much-needed freedom, but that calm is shattered when Victoria receives an urgent message from her close friend Diana Yu. It seems Diana’s ex- boyfriend Henry Chang is in danger.  Henry’s co-worker, Bertrand Wilmington, head of the derivative trading desk of a global bank, has fallen from a window of the twenty-second floor trading room.The Hong Kong Police Force quickly concludes that the death was a suicide, but is there more to this story than meets the eye? Henry Chang thinks so—and knows that if anyone can find answers, it’s Victoria, the Flying Dragon herself. Hong Kong and Mainland authorities are unsuccessful in cracking the case, but Victoria uses her expertise to discover key clues. And Victoria, a dogged, tough, tenacious investigator, won’t back down until she gets answers. As she races to piece together the puzzle of what really happened, Victoria is swept up in a world of danger, deception, and deadly consequences.   Can she extricate herself from this perilous web of arrogance, power, money and greed? Will she expose the corruption and bring down a financial giant?  Or will time run out? The clock is ticking….

Chapter 1 

The crowd around the Hong Kong Arts Center seemed happy as they streamed out of the concert by talented Chinese pianist Yuja Wang. They enthusiastically shared their impressions about her beauty, musicality, and talent. Some of the patrons had seen videos of Yuja Wang playing Chopin at the age of six. Victoria Leung was so in sync with the music she had played tonight: Schubert’s impromptus. She also felt so close to the pianist, who commanded the keyboard and seemed on the verge of tears when the third impromptu moved from lightness to depth and passion. At twenty-seven, Yuja Wang was one of the best-known pianists of her generation and now lived in the United States. She had the same drive, intensity, and grace as Victoria herself.

The Center’s superb architecture had always given Victoria pleasure. It was modern without ostentation, and its acoustics were close to perfect. Over the years, classical music had increasingly been a source of inspiration in the Chinese world, and the public was ecstatic. For a Chinese pianist to reach this level of excellence and artistry was a source of pride.

Since she had left the financial fraud department of the Hong Kong Police Force, Victoria Leung had enjoyed the freedom attached to her new status of senior detective at Pegasus, an international firm headquartered in London. She intended to fully enjoy this period of her life. Having a family was not on her agenda. Like most thirty-six-year-old women, though, she was starting to give it some thought. Her biological clock inexorably ticked. She knew it. But at the same time, she didn’t know what to do about that reality.

Victoria was an assertive and attractive young woman well aware of the impact she had on the male-dominated financial world of Greater China. She had initially faced difficulty demonstrating her leadership and competence, partly because of her good looks, femininity, and youth. She had learned to turn these qualities into assets that she used subtly and wisely. While she remained vulnerable to some aggressive behavior from male colleagues, she knew how to garner respect. Her body was slim and strong; she exercised regularly. She liked having the freedom to wear dresses and skirts rather than a police uniform. But what struck everybody who met her was the power of her demeanor and her smile, which revealed her complexity.

 

++++

 

Wearing a short red dress, Victoria drank her green tea as she peered through the glass of her office windows into the Hong Kong morning: Kowloon Bay on one side and the old British Empire buildings and parks at the center of Hong Kong on the other.  The traffic was penetrating and created an impression of energy and intensity. Hong Kong was not a city for the fainthearted.  Victoria was an early bird, and relished the atmosphere of the office before anybody else was in. She was in control and serene.

Victoria looked down at the document on her desk:

Henry Chang is in danger. I urgently need to meet you. Meet me at 9:00 a.m. at the Mandarin Oriental for coffee.  I desperately need your help. —Diana Y. 

Victoria was stunned. For Diana Yu to send such a dramatic message was unusual.  Henry Chang was Diana’s former lover until he broke it off and publicly humiliated her. Now, Diana was asking Victoria to help the bastard. It didn’t add up. Did Diana still have feelings for him? Victoria hoped not, but it was the only explanation that made sense.

She sighed. If it had been Chang asking, Victoria would have said no. But Diana was a dear friend. If she was willing to swallow her pride and ask for help, then the least Victoria could do was find out why.

Diana Yu and Victoria had started together at the Hong Kong Police Force. Soon after, Henry Chang became Diana’s boyfriend. While she had given the relationship all she had, she was never sure whether Henry was playing or being earnest. Unexpectedly, after they had dated for a year, he dropped her for a Hong Kong socialite, Helena Lee. He then became head of the fixed-income department of the Bank of Hong Kong and Shanghai, or BHS.

The breakup had been particularly painful for Diana since Henry had been cruel enough to do it publicly at a 2012 New Year’s party.

Diana was now reaching out through a confidential police cable; whatever had happened to Henry must have been fairly dramatic. The Wan Chai Police headquarters was close to Hong Kong Central and near the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

 

 

Categories: Mystery, Thriller, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Chapter reveal: Karma’s a Killer, by Tracy Weber

Title: KARMA’S A KILLER

Genre: Mystery

Author: Tracy Weber

Website: www.tracyweberauthor.com

Publisher: Midnight Ink

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book:

A fun, fresh, feisty new mystery featuring Seattle yoga teacher Kate Davidson and her trusty canine companion Bella, Karma’s a Killer is a taut tale with more twists and turns than a vinyasa yoga class.   In this charming, clever and utterly captivating cozy mystery, Kate Davidson discovers that when it comes to murder, there’s no place like om. 
When she agrees to teach doga—yoga for dogs—at a fundraiser for Dogma, a local animal rescue, Kate believes the only real damage will be to her reputation. But when an animal rights protest at the event leads to a suspicious fire and a drowning, a few downward-facing dogs will be the least of Kate’s problems… The police arrest Dharma, a woman claiming to be Kate’s estranged mother, and charge her with murder. To prove Dharma’s innocence, Kate, her boyfriend Michael, and her German shepherd sidekick Bella dive deeply into the worlds of animal activism, organizational politics, and the dangerous obsessions that drive them.   And if solving a murder weren’t complicated enough, Kate will also have to decide whether or not to reconcile with the estranged mother who abandoned her over thirty years ago.  Not to mention having to contend with an almost-bankrupt animal rescue, a cantankerous crow, an unwanted pigeon houseguest, and a rabbit in a doga class. What could possibly go wrong?

CHAPTER 5

The shouts that drowned out Maggie’s words were impassioned, if a little misguided.

“Break down the cages!”

“Close the dog warehouses!”

“Animal ownership is slavery!”

Over twenty people, all wearing black shirts with orange flame insignias, cut a swath across the grass, waving picket signs and yelling at top volume.

Two teenage girls held onto opposite ends of a banner that read “Humans for Ethical Animal Treatment. Turn up the HEAT!”

Raven—the younger woman I’d seen arguing behind the paddle boats earlier—marched next to them holding a sign in one hand and a leash attached to the neck of a handsome, thirtyish, olive-skinned man in the other. Eduardo, I assumed. I shaded my eyes with my hand and examined the object of the two women’s confrontation.

Even from a distance, I could understand his appeal. With broad shoulders, deep cocoa eyes, and wavy black hair that curled under his ear lobes, this man would easily make more than one woman’s heart go atwitter. His one glaring fault was the sandpaper-thick layer of dark stubble covering the lower half of his face. No amount of shaving would keep that beard-in-the-making under control. Even thinking about it made my skin itch.

His dark leather jacket and matching motorcycle boots contrasted hypocritically with the sign that he carried: “Animals Are Sentient Beings, Not Possessions!” His face wore a trapped, agonized expression, though that might have been part of the show.

I scanned the area behind him, looking for Dharma and Goth Girl. I didn’t see either.

The dog walkers stopped talking, stared at the ruckus, and scowled. No one seemed to be having fun anymore, which was probably the protestor’s intention. A short, rail-thin young woman stomped away from the picket line, knocked a hot dog out of a child’s hand, and yelled, “Meat is murder!”

Michael pulled out his cell phone. “That’s it. I’m calling the police.”

Maggie closed her eyes and sighed. “I can’t believe she’s actually going through with this.”

“You know one of them?” I asked

She shuddered, but her eyes never left the protesters. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter. Sally, take Mrs. Abernathy to the pet first aid tent and …”

Her voice trailed off. She glanced left and right. “Where on earth did Sally go?”

The Bunny Lady wrinkled her nose, ill humor back in full force. “Sally left a few minutes ago, which is exactly what I should have done. You obviously don’t have control over this fiasco.” She slipped the rabbit into her bag and stomped several feet away before turning back to spit out two final sentences. “Don’t bother cashing that check I gave you earlier. I’m putting a stop payment on it as soon as I get home!”

Maggie cradled her face in her hands. “Can this day get any worse?”

She shouldn’t have asked.

The words barely escaped her lips when Dale’s head jerked up. “Do you smell that?”

I did. I would have recognized that smell anywhere. Gasoline.

I heard a loud swoosh, punctuated by a louder explosion. New, significantly more frightening, words rang out across the field.

“Fire! Somebody help! The garbage cans are on fire!”

Dale’s face turned as white as his beard.

“Oh no! The goats!”

Michael and Maggie ran toward the registration desk, while Dale, Bandit, and I tore off to the petting area. Picketers and dog walkers scattered in every direction.

By the time we rounded the corner, the fire was already spreading. Hot yellow flames licked from the recycle bins to the loose hay surrounding the petting area. Within seconds, the entire line of straw bales had ignited, creating a flaming, Hades-like fence.

The teenage volunteers had already rushed the children outside the fenced area, but the goats were still trapped, huddled together in the corner farthest away from the fire. Michael skidded to a stop behind me and blasted the straw bales with an extinguisher, but the fire was spreading too fast. He may as well have been spraying the Towering Inferno with a garden hose.

Dale tossed Bandit’s leash to a gawker. The blond volunteer held the gate open while his brother, Dale, and I scrambled inside. Michael kept spraying the extinguisher, holding the flames back as best he could.

The goats refused to move.

“Force them to the entrance,” Dale yelled.

I channeled my inner Goth Girl, waved my arms, and yelled. “Go you stupid goats! Run! Get out of here!”

The three of us screamed and clapped and pushed and stomped, until the terrified animals bolted from the enclosure and charged into the park, straight past the onlookers, who were too transfixed by the flames to do anything but watch.

Dale gathered the final fear-frozen spotted kid in his arms and carried it away from the flames. Sirens wailed in the distance.

“Get the truck,” he said to the blond teen. He handed the baby goat to the other.

It seemed like a century passed, but it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes before firemen started dousing the area with cold water. Dale kept a watchful eye on his skittish herd, huddled several hundred feet away. A few people broke off from the crowd and tried to approach them. “Stay back!” Dale yelled. “Just block them from the road. And for lands sake, don’t chase them.”

Michael came up behind us. “Shouldn’t we try to round them up somehow?”

Dale’s expression was grim. “They’re too riled up. Give them a few minutes to calm down. They’ll come to me.” His voice didn’t sound confident.

The blond teen drove a livestock truck onto the field and parked. He jumped out of the cab, opened the back, and pulled down a wide ramp. Dale grabbed a metal pail from inside and filled it with grain from a five-gallon bucket.

“Hope this works,” he muttered.

Categories: Mystery, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Chapter reveal: Casey’s Last Chance, by Joseph B. Atkins

casey'slastchance800pxTitle: Casey’s Last Chance

Genre: Mystery

Author: Joseph B. Atkins

Website:

http://www.laborsouth.blogspot.com

www.sartorisliterary.com

Publisher: Sartoris Literary Group

Purchase on Amazon 

About the Book: Tough, gritty, and atmospheric, Casey’s Last Chance unfolds against the backdrop of a treacherous, race-torn 1960s South that’s ready to explode with civil rights workers challenging an organized resistance itching for combat. The central character, Casey Eubanks, is a small-time North Carolina hustler on the run after an argument with his girlfriend Orella leaves his cousin dead. A crony steers him to a big operator in Memphis, Max Duren, a shadowy former Nazi with a wide financial network. Duren hires Casey to do a hit on labor organizer Ala Gadomska, who is stirring up trouble at one of Duren’s mills. Things go wrong, and Casey’s on the run again, this time from Duren’s goons as well as the cops. Enter Martin Wolfe, a freelance reporter investigating Duren’s operation. He tries to solicit Casey to help him and FBI agent Hardy Beecher bring Duren down. Casey dumps Wolfe, steals his car, and returns home to Orella. A bloody shootout with a Duren goon, however, convinces Casey to join Wolfe and Beecher. It’s Casey’s last chance. The three take off back across the South to execute a plan to destroy Duren. Everything works until the explosive end…but will anyone emerge unscathed?

CHAPTER 1

July 1960 …

The night sky broke just as the Greyhound crossed the Tennessee line. Down came a blinding deluge that forced cars and trucks off to the sides of Highway 72 and under the shelter of the overpasses, but not the Memphis-bound bus that carried Casey Eubanks. He stirred through the troubled sleep that overtook him after the stop in Decatur, and stretched his arm across the newspaper in the seat next to him. He heard none of the rain that beat against the windowpane, only Clyde Point’s voice in his dream.

This is your last chance, Casey Eubanks.

The bus braked to make the left onto Union near downtown. It was a half-hour early.

I’m already way out on a limb talking you up to my boss like I did. He’s telling the Big Guy, the Big Mahah, you’re the right man for the job, but are you man enough to take the job?

Casey woke to the lights leading up to the crest of the hill where Union crosses Front and then descends toward the Mississippi River. People huddled in doorways and under awnings. As the bus pushed through the sheets of rain, he spotted two platinum blondes at the entrance of an open garage. Their lips worked feverishly as they stabbed the air between each desperate drag of their cigarettes.

He could still hear Clyde’s voice.

You get a new life, a new identity, the cops off your back, plenty of cash in your pocket, and maybe, someday, that pool hall you used to tell me was your big dream. And you get to forget the woman who put you in this mess.

Casey had been to Memphis before—when the sidewalks swelled with uniforms, drunk, swaggering GIs forcing the black zoot-suiters spilling off Beale Street to move to the side. He’d come with an AWOL high roller from Fort Bragg who promised to back him in a nightlong set of three-cushion, one-pocket, and straight pool at $200 a match. The high roller disappeared after he lost the second round of one-pocket, and the last thing Casey remembered was getting his head split open with a blackjack. He woke the next morning at the bottom of the levee, the Mississippi River to one side and Cotton Row to the other.

He climbed off the bus, groggy and in a bad mood.

Do it right, and both you and me reap the rewards.

He wanted his hotel room and his bed. Other than a few travelers and a Commercial Appeal hawker, the station was dead. He stopped to buy a paper. CUBAN STREET FIGHTING read one headline. His eyes moved across the page. KENNEDY OUTLINES PHILOSOPHY ON LABOR. He turned to the pages inside—EXOTIC DANCER OPENS AT THE SULTAN CLUB—then flipped from front to back, and back to front again. No news about the killing of Bux Baggett in Jonesboro, North Carolina, the woman who caused it, and the curly-headed fool who did it and who’s on the lam, a hustler and pool shark with a tattoo of Rita Hayworth on each arm.

Your last chance, Casey Eubanks.

Casey stood at the station entrance and checked out the street. The rain had subsided. Streams of neon red and yellow reflected off the pavement. The blondes were walking eastward, their heads side-by-side under a parasol, still gesturing with their cigarettes.

In the glass window to his right, just close enough to catch the corner of his eye, he saw another fake blond, himself, an alien named James Thompson, the burial insurance salesman who’d snatched his body back in Phenix City. He studied his new self, the dyed hair, the oversized gray suit Clyde Point had given him. For a moment he felt as if he were high. High on reefer. Like the time he dropped his favorite cue stick and watched it slither across the pool table. He knew it was no snake, but he never touched that stick again. Never even looked at it.

He thought of the woman who put in the dye, the scowl in the bathroom mirror, the stubby fingers that dug through his hair like grub worms.

“Curly, you gonna look weird as hell as a blond,” she’d told him. “You too dark to be a blond.”

He stepped out into the steam and made his way up Union, past the golden glow of the Peabody Hotel, through the airless night, when it’s a struggle even to breathe, toward what Clyde called a “little, easy-to-miss street named November 6,” where he’d find his hotel.

What he found was an alley lined with trashcans and fire escapes. At the far end of it was a neon sign: Hotel Paris. The alley served the side door exits for every building on it except the hotel itself, four stories of stacked brick, a lean-to with nothing to lean to. It was just wide enough for three windows on each of the three floors above the lobby. As he walked toward the hotel on the oily strip of tar and asphalt, he heard the scramble of claws against the pavement.

Casey jumped the puddle in front of the entrance and opened the door. Inside was a stretch of darkness broken by a lone bulb hanging over the counter at the other end of the lobby. A clerk in a navy blue shirt and dark pinstriped vest scribbled on a notepad. A young guy, early twenties. A cigarette dangled from his lips as he stopped to hum a few notes before jotting something down. Nearby was a black vinyl couch. On the wall behind it hung a photograph of a city boulevard on an overcast day—no people, no cars, only deserted sidewalks and empty cafés. A Swastika hung from the roof of a building. Beneath the photograph, in gold letters, was Champs Elysées, Paris, 1941.

An overhead fan buzzed. By the couch was an unlit stairway. You been a small-timer all your life. Now you get to play in the big leagues. The big leagues. A bus ticket to a cheap flophouse in a back alley.

He approached the counter.

“Name?” the clerk asked, ashes dropping from his cigarette onto his notepad. He blew them off to the side.

“James Thompson.”

The clerk checked his ledger and reached below to grab a chain with a single key. He dangled it in the air. “Welcome to the Hotel Paris,” he said, dropping the key into Casey’s open palm. “Suite 13. Your lucky number. Bathroom’s at your end of the hall.”

 

He flipped the light and climbed the stairway to the third floor. The kid was right. His suite was next to the bathroom.

Categories: Crime, Mystery, Suspense, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Chapter reveal: Butterfly Waltz, by Jane Tesh

Butterfly_C1_2Title:  BUTTERFLY WALTZ

Genre:  Fantasy

Author:  Jane Tesh

Websitehttp://www.janetesh.com

Publisher:  Silver Leaf Books

Purchase at Amazon

When he helps his friend Jake Brenner, a tabloid writer on the hunt for a big supernatural story, Des Fairweather is swept up in a world of mystery and intrigue.  Despite his skepticism of the validity of the stories Jake is seeking, Des reluctantly accompanies Jake on his latest adventure—all with the promise that Jake can help Des secure an audition with the city symphony, a break Des desperately needs.

When Jake’s search takes the two out to the country to investigate an unusual phenomenon at the Snowden estate, Des encounters a startlingly beautiful young woman who claims to be magical.  That young woman is Kalida, a mysterious creature who has escaped from the people of the Caverns and renounced their evil ways.  But when Kalida is discovered, her people will stop at no end to get her to return to their world. Will Des be able to cast aside his fears in order to save Kalida….before it’s too late?

A mesmerizing tale that blends music, mystery and magic, Butterfly Waltz charms with its enchanting storyline and compelling characters. Resplendent with adventure, intrigue, and the allure of the supernatural, Butterfly Waltz is delightful.

 CHAPTER ONE  

The music was clearer.  It had been the faintest whisper, the tune barely discernible.  The theme grew familiar, a soft, beckoning tune, a waltz of lilting melancholy.

Kalida woke, smiling.  Traces of the dream music hung about the dark room, brightly colored ribbons of sound.  For several moments, she savored the melody, but her smile faded with the music.  She would have to decide soon.

She folded back the rose-colored sheets, removed her bedclothes, and slipped into her gown.  Her long black hair glittered as she ran her comb down its length.  Faint sunlight picked its way delicately through the forest and bathed the small room in pearly light.  Another beautiful day waited outside.

Kalida took an apple from the blue glass bowl on her small table and sat down on the little bench outside the doorway of her home.  She gazed at the silent wood.  Small birds flickered from tree to tree.  A few butterflies danced above the wildflowers that grew in the grove.  Bright colors, sunshine, butterflies—these things were alien to her nature, but she had grown to love them.  Alone with time to think, she had decided her people, the people of the Caverns, had been wrong about so many things it was impossible to count them.

The Caverns.  To think of them was to be back within the dark hallways of cold stone, the only sound the rustling of her gown on the smooth floor, while all around, silver eyes and ruby eyes cast secretive glances full of malice as they studied the rules, the dark etiquette that bound all to the Legion.  Conquer and destroy.  That was the only way.  How many worlds had she seen blown to ashes, how many beings had she heard crying out in despair?

She had been part of the destruction.  She had flown with her people, but always reluctantly, as if there were something else just beyond her reach, something different.  She could trace her discontent to the Leader’s celebration, the night she first heard music.

As a small child, she had watched in awe as the veterans of the Legion received honors at victory celebrations.  The leader she first remembered was a dark-eyed man as rough and sharp as a stalactite, who called the young ones up for a better look.  With their transforming skill, members of the Legion re-enacted the battle.  Young Kalida, thrilled by the sights and sounds, longed to be a part of it all.  Everyone clapped until sparks flew from their hands.  But one celebration night had been different.

That night, a great whispering filled the tunnels.  Kalida heard a man say, “Some new entertainment.  The Lady has brought an Andrean man to the celebration.  We’ll have some fun.”

The Lady was the title of their Leader, a harsh, demanding woman who rarely held celebrations.  Kalida followed the others to the Hall.  The Andrean man stood in the center.  He didn’t seem worried or afraid.  He wore tattered clothes and boots.  An odd-looking instrument was slung over his back.

More whispers.

“They say his brother joined the Legion.”

“How would The Lady allow that?”

“What is that thing on his back?”

“Is he going to sing?”

“Sing?” Kalida said.  “What do you mean?”

Her companion grimaced.  “You’ll see.”

Kalida stared at the man.  “But isn’t The Lady mounting a massive campaign against the Three Worlds, Trieal, Andrea, and Fey East?  What’s this Andrean man doing here?”

“I told you.  You’ll see.”

At last, The Lady appeared, accompanied by her latest creation, a creature in the shape of an eerily beautiful child.  She sat down in her stone chair with the child beside her and introduced the man. “This is Raven.  Don’t stare, child.  He’s here to sing for you.  He is always welcome.”

“But isn’t he an enemy?” the child asked.

“Under usual conditions, yes, but his brother enjoyed a brilliant if rather brief career with us, and therefore we admit Raven to our social gathering out of pity, shall we say?”

The man looked at her without expression.  “My brother’s choice to join you shamed my family, but his music will live long after you are gone.”

The Lady gave a short laugh.  “Very good.  Sing now.  I want my people to hear what you call music.  It will give them another reason to eradicate your race.”

“Whatever you wish.”

Kalida listened, fascinated, as the melody pierced the darkness of the Hall.  The members of the Legion groaned and cursed at the sound.  Her companion gave her a curious glance, so she winced, as if the sound hurt her ears as well, but it didn’t.  It intrigued her.  It made pictures in her mind of things she had never imagined.

“Love will find me,” the man sang.  “Love green and golden.  I’ll not turn from you, nor change all the while.  Safe in the magic of your smile.”

She wanted to hear more.

But there was no more music from the Andrean man.  After the celebration, he was taken away.  She never saw him again, which made her moody, not an unusual emotion among the Cavern-born, so no one suspected she had changed.  Over the years, she saw Leaders come and go, but never wanted to be one.  Her acquaintances were puzzled by her lack of ambition, but Kalida hid her growing unease.  She could not forget the alien man or his song.  Quite unexpectedly, she found a way out.

In one wild moment of rebellion, she fled the Caverns to Andrea, hoping to find the man.  She flew to the woods near Traditional City, planning to take animal form to avoid detection.  In the woods, she fell through a blaze of light, fell to this world.

Escaped.

That first morning, when the golden sun touched the lush green grass, she couldn’t keep her eyes off the color.  What was it?  Light she knew, and shadow, but this deep rich hue that colored the grass and the moss and the leaves intrigued her.  She knew red and black and white, silver and gray, colors of the Caverns.  Yellow and gold were rare, but she had golden eyes, or so everyone said.  This alien shade, though, calm and deeply satisfying, she had seen only once, on the tattered clothing of the man who played music so many years before.

Green.

She could sit in the grass for hours, reveling in new colors, even the rich browns of the earth and trees.  Everything spoke of life and growth and energy.  Exploring beyond the new forest, she discovered a large white house and watched the people who lived there.  She learned the names of colors from Mister Snowden as he taught his children in the garden.  She learned that the world was called Earth, and there was no magic here.

For a while, she didn’t need magic, just sunlight and birdsong and new colors.  Then disturbing dreams began, dreams of night flying, her hair streaming behind in the cold wind as she swooped down on cities like a bird of prey, touching the tallest towers and watching them burst into flame.  She would wake, trembling with fear and desire.  She thought her people would be unable to track her to this world, yet she saw misshapen shadows in the trees and heard harsh sounds haunting the night.  Had her people found her?

She thought of the bottle in the back of her cabinet and a shiver went through her.  No, don’t back down now, she told herself.  But how much longer can you live like this, lonely,  friendless, purposeless?  She shivered again.  She knew exactly how much longer.

She couldn’t eat.  She spent the day sitting in the doorway.  Light shone through the little bottles of potions on the window ledge: pale lavender, rich violet, amber, blue, and red.  The day itself was green and gold, so unlike the days of her childhood, which had been filled with fierce red light and the cold dark silence of the Caverns.

I am not like that now, she thought, as the sunlight faded and the colors died.  Night was the time she liked best, but this night, the darkness closed in around her.

Do I really want to do this?  Why put it off?  Drink the potion and be done with it.  The music was a dream, nothing more.  Drink the potion.  Who knows what other worlds lie beyond death?

Tomorrow.

*                      *                      *

“Tomorrow?”  Desmond Fairweather stared at his friend Jake Banner in astonishment.  “I can’t go anywhere tomorrow.”

Jake beamed, undaunted, hands outspread as if he’d caught a record-sized fish.  “This is it, Des, the big story.  Actual reports of talking flowers.  You know you can’t pass this up.  I know you can’t, and I’m staying here till you agree.”

A grand piano dominated Des’s sparsely furnished apartment room.  Jake perched on the piano bench, slicked back his hair, and gave the impression of settling in for the day.  His neon green shirt and pink tie created a jarring combination that made Des’s eyes ache as he glared at his friend.  His last student, Melissa, a giggly seventeen-year-old, had just left, after a thorough and determined massacre of her Scarlatti lesson, and he was still waiting for his head to clear.  With an impatient gesture, he pushed his dark hair out of his eyes.

“Not another of your harebrained stories for the Galaxy.” He moved a stack of sheet music out of the way before Jake’s elbow toppled it over.  “It’ll be a fake like all the others.”

“A fake?” Jake’s blue eyes widened.  “None of the others were fake.”

“I’m not going to argue with you,” Des said, “and I’m certainly not going to go chase talking flowers.”

“Aw, come on.  It’ll be fun.”

“Fun for you, you mean.”

“The owner happens to be a beautiful young lady,” Jake said in his most wheedling tone.

Des motioned wildly to the crumpled balls of paper littering the floor around the piano.  “Do you see all this?  I’m trying to compose.  I’ve told you I don’t want to travel all over the country tracking down old magic.  I don’t believe in old magic.  I don’t believe in new magic.  I don’t believe in magic of any sort.”

Jake kept his grin.  He twiddled a few piano keys and fiddled with the metronome.

Des snatched it out of his hands.  “Will you go away?”

Jake leaned back against the piano as if he found it the most comfortable spot in town.  “How’s the cash flow at Chez Fairweather?  Paid this month’s rent yet?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Talked to Sylvia yesterday.  She says she’ll recommend you for that symphony thing.”  He glanced up, eyes crinkling with amusement.

Des found it hard to speak.  “Are you talking about symphony auditions?”

“Sure.”

“She can do that?”

“Just call her up.”

Des took a deep breath to steady himself.  Jake’s reliability was questionable, but his sister Sylvia had important connections with Parkland’s music community.  “Did she get on the Arts Council Board?”

Jake swung around on the bench.  “Get on?  Pal, she’s the new president.  She’ll be happy to set things up for you, chum.  That is, when we get back from our little day trip.”

“Day trip?”

“To the land of talking flowers.”

Des gave Jake a narrow-eyed glare.  “Damn it, Jake, that’s blackmail.”

Jake shrugged.  “Hey, you do me a favor, I do you a favor.”

“I won’t do it.”

“Okay.  I guess you like living in such splendor.”  He played a loud version of “Chopsticks.”  “This thing needs a tune-up.”

Des closed the piano, sorry he missed Jake’s fingers.  “I’ll just call Sylvia and ask for her help.”

“Uh-uh, doesn’t work that way.  This is a package deal.  You help me get a story, and Sylvia will smooth the way for you, get you a good time slot or whatever.  Sounds pretty reasonable to me.  You want as many things going in your favor as possible, right?”

Des sighed.  Dealing with Jake always gave him a headache. “If I go watch you make a fool of yourself, will you leave me alone?”

“Of course.  Won’t take a minute.  We ride out, hear the flowers, record them.  I get definite proof of magic, old Basil down at the Galaxy is happy, I’m happy, and you get your audition and leave this lovely roach condo you call home.”

Des slumped in his one chair and regarded his friend, wondering how Jake managed to be so damned cheerful all the time.  He was right, though.  The apartment was dismal: a tiny grubby kitchen, an even smaller bathroom, and this room, full of piano.  Giving piano lessons wasn’t the most lucrative of careers, but he had made the decision to move out, to try his luck.  A successful audition with the prestigious city symphony could be the break he was looking for.  What he wasn’t looking for was talking flowers.  “I still don’t see why I have to go.”

“Why, pal, you’re the best,” Jake said.  “Critters just flock to you.  Haven’t you noticed?  You have a definite affinity with the Other World.”

“I do not.”

“Must be those big soulful green eyes.”

Des heaved himself out of the chair and gathered the papers off the floor.  “Will you get out of here?  I have work to do.  Real work.”

Jake reached the door.  “I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning at six.”

“Six?  Why so early?”

“I wanna be there when the dew dries.”

Des made a lunge, but Jake eluded him, laughing, and was out the door and gone.  Muttering under his breath about unwanted guests, Des bent to pick up more papers and caught sight of his reflection in the one small window.  Soulful green eyes, indeed.  Did Jake think he’d fall for that line?  Yes, his eyes were green, his hair dark and unruly, and his expression serious, just like his father’s, in fact, so much like his father’s he was afraid he might meet the same tragic fate.  Now there was a story Jake could appreciate, a story full of magic.

Magic.

What if—no, he dared not try.  He had made his decision.  He had given up the family home and the family fortune, so he had given up the family curse, as well.  He prayed he had.

Wouldn’t a little magic make things easier, though?  A better place to live, a better job, even that symphony position?

He shuddered and tried to suppress the memories.  Make things easier. Isn’t that what his father wanted?  Look what happened to him.

No, don’t look.

Categories: Fantasy, Mystery | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Chapter reveal: Chickenhawk, by Arnaldo Lopez Jr.

arnaldo 2Title: Chickenhawk

Genre: Thriller

Author: Arnaldo Lopez Jr.

Publisher: Koehler Books/Café Con Leche books

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book:

Chickenhawk is an urban crime fiction novel that showcases New York City’s diversity, as well as the dark side of race relations, politics, sexuality, illness, madness, and infidelity. Eddie Ramos and Tommy Cucitti are Manhattan North Homicide detectives after a serial killer that manages to stay below their radar while the body count keeps climbing in a city that’s turning into a powder keg.

CHAPTER 1

ABE LOOKED AROUND the premises nervously. He didn’t like spending so much time with a customer. Earlier on, he had nearly bolted out of there when a patrol car, siren hooting and warbling, slowly moved up the street. He watched quietly as the strobed reflection of the car’s flashing lights alternately colored the facades of the surrounding buildings a vivid shade of red. Then white. Then red again. The colors bounced off the

windows of the nearby skyscrapers in blinding explosions of refracted light, spilling like spent fluid along the naked girders around him, disappearing then reappearing further away as they receded.

Abe nodded in the direction of the lights. “Don’t worry man,” he said. “That’s the last time they’re gonna come around tonight.”

The customer nodded in understanding. The police considered Abe and his fellow hustlers little more than pesky annoyances, lowlife perpetrators of victimless crimes who rarely even had the nerve to pick an occasional pocket. The well-heeled residents of this part of Midtown Manhattan, however, were not quite so forgiving. They convinced the local merchants to join them in demanding an increase in police surveillance in the area.

Not long after that, cops from the nearby precinct were assigned to make at least three nightly trips up Lexington Avenue from Fifty-First to Sixty-Eighth Streets, rousting and occasionally even arresting the young male prostitutes who worked the strip

2 C H I C K E N H A W K

and catered to the desires of the mostly suburban, married businessmen who comprised the bulk of their clientele; some of whom hailed from as far away as Connecticut.

Abe worked his hand feverishly, focusing on his customer’s now flaccid penis with disdain. Man, this is ridiculous, he thought as he gave the penis a shake, scattering droplets of semen and saliva into the night. If this guy’s dick doesn’t get hard again

in another few seconds, I’m just gonna tell ‘im to forget it. I mean, damn—I already sucked him off once! Abe again studied the expensive looking material that framed the limp penis in his hand before returning it to his mouth, This guy is gonna have to pay me something extra just for wasting my time, he thought. What made him think he could go twice anyway?

He let the still soft penis slip out of his mouth. A viscous strand of saliva, glistening like spider’s silk covered in morning dew, still connected Abe to his customer’s stubborn member.

Abe plucked the string of saliva and it collapsed into a fine mist.

He sighed agitatedly and made as if to get up. His customer stopped him by placing a strong but gentle hand on his shoulder.

“No, don’t get up,” he said.

Abe’s new denim pants creaked as he settled back down on his knees. The voice didn’t sound threatening or even particularly demanding. His customer had a deep, rich baritone voice, the kind that made you think of overstuffed leather chairs, mahogany bookcases, and giant oak desks. Clearly it was the voice of a wealthy and powerful man. Abe wished he had been blessed with a voice like that. If he had been, Abe could have

easily been an actor or a singer. Instead, he was just another homeboy giving blow jobs to rich guys from “The Island” at thirty bucks a pop. That was his reality.

“Keep doing what you’re doing,” that voice said. “It feels really good.”

Abe dismissed the thoughts he was having moments before and shrugged. “I don’t care how good it feels to you man,” he said. He winced at how high and whiney his own voice sounded.

“It’s taking you too fuckin’ long. I’m either gonna catch a cramp or the fuckin’ cops are gonna bust us.”

Abe flinched in surprise when his customer raised an immaculately manicured left hand. The gold ring on the third finger flashed cold fire as his hand settled on Abe’s head. Long, thick fingers lost themselves in the thick mat of tousled black curls, then gently extricated themselves. The man stroked Abe’s hair. It drove Abe crazy. He hated when they did that.

Finally, Abe felt the penis in his hand stiffen. “About fuckin’ time,” he muttered to himself.

“Ah yeah,” the customer groaned with a contented sigh. “I knew you could get it up for me again, you little cocksucker, and I do mean that literally.”

Abe didn’t like anyone calling him names.

“You little spic bitch,” the man with the rich voice continued softly. “You love sucking white cock, don’t you?”

That was the last straw for Abe. He sprung to his feet. “Man, fuck this shit,” he whispered harshly, his anger tempered by the prospect of being detected by the police. He’d had enough and couldn’t stomach this asshole any longer.

The man with the great voice just stood there, a bemused expression on his face, and watched Abe’s reaction and growing anger. His now fully erect penis pointed at Abe’s chin like an obscene divining rod. He crossed his arms and thrust his hips forward in an exaggerated motion. His penis bounced up and down, and swung in circles as if held up by an invisible wire.

“Come on Pancho,” he said, making that great voice ugly now. “Or do you think I should save some for your mamasita, huh? I bet she’s the one who taught you how to suck cock! Or maybe it was your papasita? Is that it Pancho?

Abe charged at the man with a roar burning in his throat.

His rage could no longer be contained, police or no police.

Then a sudden move that Abe did not see coming. It was a blur and before he had a chance to react, it was too late. Abe saw his customer pull a gun from under his jacket. So many thoughts ran through his mind at once. It’s huge. Black. A revolver. The barrel is impossibly long, it can’t be real…

Reality was a sledgehammer jolt of shock and pain as the gun’s barrel was shoved into Abe’s mouth—gouging lips and splintering teeth. Abe tried to pull his head back, but the other man gripped the back of his neck and kept feeding him the gun.

He tried to scream but nearly gagged on his own blood. The only sound he managed to make was a gurgling cough.

4 C H I C K E N H A W K

“Ah, you like that, don’t you?” It was the rich man’s voice again. “Tell you what,” he continued. “You’re going to give my friend here,” indicating the gun he was holding, “the best goddamn blow job of your miserable life.” The man moved his face closer to Abe’s, almost whispering in his ear. “Only this time,” he said. “You—better—hope—it—doesn’t—cum!

Abe squeezed his watering eyes shut, tears searing twin rivulets of molten fear down his quivering face. He could feel the gun’s barrel slide back and forth in his mouth, mimicking the act of fellatio. Ice-cold shards of pain shot through his body as the gun barrel rubbed against the newly exposed nerves of his shattered teeth.

“That’s it now. Oh-h, you’re doing a wonderful job. Good. Good.”

More tears welled up in Abe’s eyes and coursed down his cheeks. His mind was a hodgepodge of frantic thought.

This fuckin’ guy’s crazy! How can I get outta this? Who is this guy? Maybe I can snatch the gun away! Why me? What will mom and pop think when the cops tell them how I died?

Oh shit! Oh shit! OH SHIT! Oh my God, I’m gonna fuckin’ die! Abe pressed his eyes shut and felt more hot tears run down his face where they mixed with the clear mucus that was now running freely from his nose.

Then, the in and out motion of the gun barrel stopped. It was the most frightening moment of Abe’s young life. He literally wet his pants.

Abe waited. A heartbeat. Two. Three. He opened his eyes.

The crazy man with the beautiful voice was staring at him. His eyes were terrible to look at. Empty.

“I’m cumming.”

The man with the rich voice pulled the trigger on the big, old revolver. The tension of the pull. The sudden release of the hammer. The smell of burnt gunpowder. It was all familiar to him now, but he still jumped at the gun’s loud report.

The slug pierced the boy’s soft palette, drove neatly through his brain, and then flattened somewhat on impact with the inside of Abe’s skull. It exited the back of Abe’s head, compressed almost to the diameter of a nickel, and created a wound on its

way out big enough for a man to put his fist through.

The boy fell back, his knees still bent, a spray of blood and brain tissue that had erupted from his now shattered head soiled the fence behind him.

The killer slowly lowered his still smoking gun. He turned and started to walk away, then stopped.

The trembling started in his knees and worked its way up to his shoulders and arms. Soon he shivered so violently his teeth chattered. Every hair on his body stood painfully on end. His eyes watered uncontrollably and distorted his vision. Then, just as suddenly as it started, the episode ended. A monstrous headache remained in its wake.

The killer whipped around, eyes wild, face shiny with sweat. Shakily, he aimed his gun in the direction of the youth he’d just murdered.

“You sonofabitch!” He yelled. “You gave me this shit! But if I have to die, you’re going to die—all of you bastards are going to die! You hear me? Hear me?”

He thumbed back the hammer of the gun. The long, black barrel telegraphed the trembling in his hand. He stood that way for several seconds as light drizzle fell to earth and the rage melted from his eyes. He sniffed and lowered the gun, simultaneously easing the hammer back into place.

A brief coughing jag shook him then. It was a wet, roiling noise that bubbled up from the depths of his sickened lungs. He cleared his throat, hawked, and spat out a thick wad of greenish phlegm. Then, shoes crunching on broken glass and gravel, he left the construction site and the scene of the murder.

Eyes darting to and fro, he took pains not to be seen. He stayed in the shadows and mentally cursed the bright lights that almost seemed to increase in incandescence at his approach. He tucked the gun into his waistband and headed for the darkened

subway entrance at 53rd Street.

This entrance to the subway used to be closed at night, and so was a popular meeting place for the young male prostitutes who plied their trade here. Now that the entrance was open around the clock, business had to be conducted a bit more discreetly,

such as construction sites, under stairwells, the freight or delivery bays of some of the older buildings and department stores, and, of course, inside hastily parked cars.

The subway entrance remained the primary meeting place, however, where deals were made, prices quoted, and acts performed.

He walked down the subway steps and entered the station, the bright fluorescent lights hurt his eyes after the relative darkness of the night outside. He hunched down into his jacket, hands in pockets, and looked around furtively.

He walked quickly past the token booth and stole a glance in its direction, avoiding the bored glances of the workers inside, and continued walking toward the opposite stairway. He mounted the steps two at a time until he was back outside. By exiting through this stairway, he was now about a block away from where his victim’s corpse lay growing cold and stiff on the ground.

A moment later there was the soft sound of a car door being closed, an engine turning over, and a car  being driven away into the night. The sidewalk was deserted.

Categories: Crime, Mystery | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

The Black Song Inside by Carlyle Clark

The-Black-Song-InsideTitle: The Black Song Inside
Author: Carlyle Clark
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Pages: 435
Language: English
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Format: Paperback, Kindle, Audiobook

Purchase at AMAZON

Atticus Wynn and Rosemary Sanchez, newly engaged private investigators, have seen the dark and violent side of life. Nothing, though, has prepared them for an explosive murder investigation that threatens to tear their relationship apart as they struggle to solve a case that could leave them in prison or dead.

Atticus’s manipulative ex-girlfriend bursts back into their lives wielding a secret about Rosemary’s family that she exploits to force the couple into investigating the execution-style slaying of her lover. The case thrusts Atticus and Rosemary headlong into the world of human trafficking and drug smuggling, while rendering them pawns in Tijuana Cartel captain Armando Villanueva’s bloody bid to take over the cartel.

The Black Song Inside is a vivid crime thriller rife with murder and madness, melded with gallows humor and the heroism of two flawed and compelling protagonists who, if they can save themselves, may learn the nature of redemption and the ability to forgive.

Excerpt:

BARTOLO AGUILAR SQUATTED beside a rutted dirt road in the Anza-Borrego Desert, two hours east of San Diego, and savored the emotional and spiritual insanity of the woman who was watching the dying girl spasming in the sand, gurgling and frothing, her bloodshot eyes rolled up in her head so that they looked like a pair of crimson moons.

Bartolo favored dawn in the desert for these birthings. Dusk would work, but there was nothing like the biting crispness of daybreak, the dark sky marbled with orange light, the desert awash in the smoldering winds sweeping off the mountains–like amniotic fluid, bathing all three of them in the warm righteousness of the womb: the unknowing convert, the sacrifice, and of course himself, the man of God.

That this dying birthing had been not the result of careful choice on his part, but rather a fortuitous order from his current employer, Armando Villanueva, made it no less sacred. The Tijuana Cartel captain hadn’t ordered the birthing nor was he aware of Bartolo’s faith; Villanueva just wanted a problem to disappear. He would be furious to discover Bartolo, on divine impulse alone, had brought the woman to witness. Villanueva didn’t understand that the will of the Lord came before worldly duties.

Bartolo had founded his own religion according to three words on an aged and scorched parchment he had carried every day since discovering it squirreled away in an ancient hut next to a jungle-shrouded temple, just before he and his comrades roped the shack’s occupant, a wizened shaman, to his cot and set the hut ablaze. Now, decades later, Bartolo Aguilar was the sole surviving member and self-anointed High Priest of the Church of the Aloned, and it was baptism time.

The dying girl was nothing as a person but everything as a sacrifice, a vessel whose perfect suffering could draw into the light that which hunkered in the shadows of the woman’s soul, of everyone’s soul. The girl wasn’t even worthy of being a floor scrubber in his congregation. She was just another throwaway who’d fooled herself into thinking that a high school dropout, who couldn’t even handle the pressures of the fast-food industry, could earn the respect of drug cartels by allowing herself to be exploited in perhaps the world’s highest-risk, lowest-reward job: drug mule “swallower”.

Her belly held twenty condoms filled with highest-grade heroin. Had she made it to the drop, they’d have given her laxatives and waited until she shit out fifty thousand dollars worth of product, and then paid her only five hundred. But one of those condoms had ruptured. Maybe her stomach acid had eaten through it. Maybe the guy who filled the condoms had been tripping on his own product and fucked up. Didn’t matter. Not to Bartolo. Not to the guy who loaded the condoms. Not to the man who ran the whole thing. Not even to the girl–now.

So the girl didn’t count. Was she Aloned? Certainly, but she had started near the bottom. Died at the bottom. A little tumble like that didn’t warrant membership. To sit in the pews in the Church of the Aloned, you must have tasted the dizzying heights of the exalted, been respected and admired, yet have cast it all away for the basest of reasons, which were, as far as Bartolo was concerned, the hidden truths of everything. Hidden that is, until Bartolo came striding into your life, clutched the nape of your neck, and forced you to stare long and deep into the mirror to see what you could do. Would do. Will do. Are doing. Have done.

The woman was in that most precarious of moments. She was doing nothing to help the girl. That the girl couldn’t be helped was both the least and most critical element.

“She’s dying,” the woman said again, her hands tucked under her armpits as if she were cold despite the ninety-degree desert morning, her feet shifting as if she had to urinate.

“A cock-sized hit of heroin will do that to you,” he said, his voice quiet but ragged, like the sound of saw cutting bone behind a closed door. He stood up, wiped his wet and grimy face with a black-and-white checkered bandanna, and adjusted his sweat-darkened cowboy hat.

“I only came with you because you said there was a way to help her. So what do we do? Why not take her to a hospital. We have to do something.”

“She’s got enough pure H in her now to kill a fucking rhino. There’s a drug you could give her that might counteract that, but I don’t have any. There’s nothing to do but wait until she dies, and then we cut the rest of the product out of her belly.”

“You don’t know that. You’re not a doctor.”

“You can always call 911.” He stepped back and leaned against his white pickup, thick arms crossed over his barrel chest, the old truck creaking with his added bulk.

“Like you’d let me.”

“Sure, I would. I wouldn’t stick around after, of course. You might as well, though. You use your cell phone, and they’ll know you were here anyway. When someone dies during the commission of a felony–your felony–that’s first-degree murder. You ready to ride the needle when it wasn’t even your fault? For a girl who’s going to die anyway?” He let that sit out there for a while.

It’d be easy to reel the woman in later. Give her a few news stories about mules who had survived. Hell, maybe it would be easier than that. The girl might survive the overdose, only to die of dehydration alone in the desert. If the woman saw that story, he would fucking own her. Perhaps she would be his first acolyte. It was time to branch out anyway. Why not start with a pretty woman like this one was? On the outside, anyway. Ugly inside now. A perfect match. The things they could do together. But first they needed to cherish this moment. Worship the girl’s birthing.

“Bullshit. You’d never let me call 911,” the woman said. “You’d be afraid that I’d . . .” She balled her fists and finally looked him in the eye. “That I’d tell them about you.”

He shook his head slowly, grinning when she looked away–probably unable to bear seeing her twin, miniature, distorted selves in his mirrored sunglasses. “I got ten guys,” he said, “All solid citizens, who’ll swear I was chasing tail with them down in Mexicali.”

“You still wouldn’t take the chance.”

“Bigger chance they’d do something to you. For a nothing like the girl, as long as it looks like what it is, they’ll sleepwalk through the motions, then head to the bar early for beers and baseball. That’s why we’re going to wait awhile after she dies to cut her open. So there’s no doubt it was the drug that killed her. But, for someone like you, they’ll break out all the CSI forensics shit to find you. Maybe try to make it go federal. Not worth the risk. Don’t pretend like you haven’t thought of that.”

She flinched. “Wha . . .what do you mean?”

“You see the girl is suffering; you know we aren’t going to do anything.” He patted the pistol in his waistband. “And you haven’t asked about this, because you know the difference. Now we can walk away from it, and only we know that we were ever here. If we put her out of her misery, that’s not manslaughter. It’s murder. No statute of limitations. The rest of your life waiting for the knock on the door. Let’s get it flopping around on the table. She’s going to die, and we ain’t gonna do shit about it.”

“You fuck! You fuck! You fuck! You lied when you told me there was something I could do for her just to get me out here, you twisted freak.”

“No, you’re doing something for her right now.” The priest’s voice deepened and thrummed as though he spoke in synchronicity with something dark and unseen; his westward gaze seemed to stretch beyond her, chasing the darkness around the rim of the world as it fled the rising sun. “You are bearing witness to her end. You are grieving for the loss of her. Is that not doing something for her? Would it be better to let her die out here alone and unmourned with no one to remember? Now, she will be remembered, won’t she? That is something I have given unto you for her. She will be as much in your thoughts as any child from your womb. She will have a mother who wakes screaming with the vision of her lost child still floating before her eyes in the darkness. What better homage to a dead child than a mother’s endless grief?”

The woman gaped at him. “What are you?”

The priest shook his head, his gaze returning to normal, his voice again seeming harsh and whispery and human. “Look, this is just one shit day. You put it behind you. You make up for it by doing good. What good can you do rotting in prison? What good will going to prison do for all the people who look up to you? Trying to do what would make you feel better would just be selfish on your part. You need to look at the bigger picture here. You’ve got to suck it up and do the hard thing.”

Bartolo stopped, luxuriating in the words he would say next, which even now seemed almost like a caress in his throat. A revelation. He now knew who should be his acolytes. Who knew the greatest height of human purpose? Mothers. How easily that purpose could be diverted? Perverted? Bent to the will of the Church of the Aloned? That had to be why the Lord had inspired him to bring the woman, so he would come to just that epiphany. Mothers would be the foundation of his church.

His body alive with zeal, words rolled out–not from him, but from the one true God using him as He should use his prophet–fashioning a lifeline that was a noose around the neck of her old self. “So the question is,” he said, “are you going to throw away a whole life and reputation, and all the goodwill you’ve built up, just so you can feel better? Think of your children.”

The woman collapsed into the sand, sobbing.

How he loved these rare moments when God spoke through him and blessed his desire to step free of the roles society forced him into–to speak the stark truth and watch the comprehension of it rip away the flimsy masks of humanity that society demands people wear.

In these quickening moments, when the convert was accepting the baptism, washing her old self away with the burning tears of the Aloned, he thought of the truth he’d first learned from the old map he’d carried next to his heart as a child soldier for the FARC rebels in the jungles of Colombia. The very same map he carried now.

After a day of dog-trotting through the jungle, or machine-gunning villagers, or dismembering refugees, or beating a man unconscious only to wake him up with a pail of fetid swamp water and start over, or being forced to hold girls down while older boys grunted and thrust atop them, he would sneak away with his penlight–careful to keep his tears, blood, and sweat off the yellowed and wrinkled parchment–and study the ancient map.

Those sessions, hunched in darkness, swarmed by mosquitoes and the cries of the damning and the damned, were when he founded the Church of the Aloned with the certainty that, like the prophets of old, the suffering he’d felt and inflicted had revealed to him searing truths of human instinct that were his burden and privilege to share.

The exquisite nautical and geographical details the long-dead cartographer had so painstakingly sketched held no appeal for him. What riveted him was what the man had scrawled on the other side of the line that marked the end of the known world: Beyond Here Be Monsters.

It was the child soldier Bartolo Aguilar, alone, his body wracked with sickness and exhaustion, his physical and spiritual suffering forging him into something new to the world, who realized the ancient cartographer had inserted an extra word that rendered the whole phrase backward.

Now, immersed in the languid heat of the coming day, ensorcelled by the brilliance of the orange-fingered dawn spreading across the lightening sky, Bartolo looked first at the dying girl, then the weeping woman, and finally, nodding, studied himself in the side mirror of his pickup, his face a blank shadow, his head haloed by the rising sun. Not Beyond Here Be Monsters, but simply Here Be Monsters.

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First Chapter Reveal: Hitler’s Silver Box, by Allen Malnak

ATT00002Title: Hitler’s Silver Box
Author: Allen Malnak
Imprint: Two Harbors Press
Page Count: 328
Price US: $16.95
Genre: historical thriller

Novel’s WEBSITE

Purchase the book on Amazon and B&N.

A modern day historical thriller set in Chicago, begins with an elderly bookseller and Holocaust survivor, Max Bloomberg, being brutally murdered in his own home by a trio of thugs. Max’s closest relative, Dr. BRUCE STARKMAN, chief ER resident at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital is shocked when he learns his Holocaust survivor uncle is dead—his body already cremated, a violation of Uncle Max’s Orthodox Jewish views. A change in the will shortly before Max’s death provides a clue, allowing Bruce to find a hidden journal in Max’s handwriting detailing his uncle’s ordeal some fifty years before, during which Max is ordered by a Waffen SS Colonel to craft a silver box which is to be a birthday present for Hitler. The silver box contains a document written by Nazi leaders, which if discovered will lead to a worldwide Nazi resurgence. Max manages to hide the birthday gift after a strafing run interrupts their journey to Berlin to present the box.

Bruce decides to try and find the box and to solve the mystery of his Uncle’s untimely demise. He and a gorgeous Israeli female companion are followed by the thugs, who turn out to be present day Nazis intent on reviving the Reich.

The novel leads from Chicago to Paris to Prague in swift, hair-raising turns. And the novel concludes with a nearly heart-stopping climax.

The full journal of Max Bloomberg is included in the book and alone, is worth the cover price.

————————————–

PROLOGUE

Moscow: Wednesday, October 12, 1994

Daylight was fading on the late autumn day as Vasilevich made his way up from the subway and plodded the five blocks to his modest apartment in the Petrovka district.

The file clerk took the rattling elevator to the tenth floor, unlocked the heavy door, and began peeling off his coat. He momentarily wondered why there was no pleasant odor of shchi, his wife’s delicious cabbage soup, when out of the corner of his eye he noticed a tall stranger holding a handgun.

He carefully raised his hands and turned to face the man, forcing himself to move slowly and keep his breathing even. It was probably just a robbery, not unusual with the soaring number of drug addicts in Moscow. He’d give the man what money he had, and probably be fine.

But the intruder was too well dressed, too clean to be an addict. He waved his weapon and placed a finger over his lips. “Put down your hands and sit.” Passable Russian, but with a heavy German accent.

Vasilevich sank slowly into a large armchair in a corner.

“I’m not here to harm you,” the man said, “but don’t provoke me. You are Danislav Vasilevich, and you work for Rudolph Pikhoia?”

Vasilevich’s mouth became dry, and he had trouble forming the words. “Who are you? Where’s my wife? What do you want?”

The intruder waved his hand in a calming manner and spoke softly. “It’ll be better if you just listen and answer my questions. Then, perhaps, I’ll answer yours.”

Vasilevich took a deep breath to try to calm himself. Something strange and deep was going on here, but it left him with no choice but to obey. He lifted his chin. “Director Pikhoia is the chairman of the State Archival Service of the Russian Federation. While I work in the archives office, I’ve only met the director once. I’m just a clerk … a clerk. You must need someone higher up.” Knots formed in his stomach, and a wave of nausea hit. “Please, where’s my wife?”

The stranger smiled. “Svetlana is a lovely young woman. Don’t worry. No harm will come to her. Not if you pay attention to what I want.”

The gunman knew her name. And his. And where he worked. What were they doing to her? Vasilevich stood and took a step toward the armed man. “If you harm her … .”

The intruder waved the automatic again and said in an almost-kindly manner, “Sit back down and listen. My needs are simple. We know you have access to many German documents from what you Russians still call the Great Patriotic War.” The man pulled out a small notebook. “They are kept in the … Central State Special Archive, division 14B, room 2.” He returned the notebook to a pocket. “We need a small amount of information. If you obtain it without letting anyone know what you have done and deliver it to me, you’ll have enough rubles to enjoy a nice seaside vacation. With your wife.”

“My Sveta. You’ve not harmed her? Please don’t. She’s … very sensitive.” He heard a quiver in his voice but was beyond embarrassment.

“The Soviets captured a camp in the Czech Republic called Theresienstadt.”

“I mostly file old documents. I’m able to read some German, but I usually only read enough to get an idea of the contents, so the papers can be properly classified. Our great Soviet armies liberated a number of concentration camps. I can’t remember hearing that name before. Frankly, I’ve never paid much attention to what happened such a long time ago.”

“That’s not important. The Soviet NKVD grabbed many records from the camps, and we’ve discovered these documents are now in your Archives of the Russian Federation. We need you to find certain information and bring it to us. Quickly. You must start your search tomorrow.”

The Russian shook his head and was on the verge of tears. “Not easy. We need special permission to enter areas we aren’t assigned to.”

The German’s face registered no emotion. “I’m sure you can deal with that. I don’t want to spell out what will happen if you fail. Listen carefully now. No notes. Nothing ever in writing, except copies of the information I need. Back in 1945 an SS Colonel Steinhauser had a prisoner make a silver box while in Theresienstadt. I must know the name of that silversmith. It has to be in the archives here. My countrymen kept excellent records. I need any and all information about this prisoner. Everything. Understand?”

“But, what if—?”

The German speaker didn’t allow Vasilevich to finish. “Better you should not think of that.”

The man reached into his pocket and handed the Russian a cellular phone. “Tomorrow at this time, I’ll call you. Let the phone ring without answering. Then go at once to the Cafe Gallery. You know the place?”

“I know where it is. Not far from here.” He frowned and shook his head. “Never been there. Too expensive a restaurant for people like us.”

The intruder handed the young Russian a small stack of rubles. “Order a meal and start to eat. Sit near a window. While you’re eating, I’ll call you again. If you have the information, simply say ‘I’m busy.’ Otherwise, just say, ‘You have the wrong number.’ Better that you be busy. Understand?”

Still shaking and still sick to his stomach, Vasilevich simply nodded.

“I’ll give you instructions about delivery tomorrow. Remember, not a word to anyone if you want your lovely Sveta back home unharmed. Now sit on the floor and face away from the door.”

Unable to think of any other response, Vasilevich obeyed.

As the German opened the door, he murmured, “Remember, your wife’s life is in your hands. We have informers everywhere, so don’t do anything you’ll regret.”

And he was gone.

A few minutes later, just as he calmly exited the building, a shiny black Mercedes pulled up alongside. He jumped in before the car came to a full stop, and was whisked away.

“And so, Gerhard, did it work out?” the driver asked in German. “Can he do it?”

Gerhard nodded. “Your information on the archivist was correct. I think it’ll work.”

“Suppose he does obtain what we need to know about that Jew,” the driver went on, “how do we handle him and his woman, after we get it?”

“No question about Herr Vasilevich. He has to be erased. An accident. Can you arrange it?” His contact had better be able to, or of what use was he?

“Shouldn’t be a problem. And the lady?”

“That depends. Did she see or hear anything? Has she been touched by your people? You know what I mean.”

“Absolutely not. She was blindfolded and kept isolated. Given food and water. No one has spoken to her, except a few whispers. We even made her wear earplugs. She has a little bell she can ring with her fingers if she needs to use the facilities.”

Gerhard’s expression conveyed indifference. “In that case, no matter how this turns out, just take her somewhere, give her a few thousand rubles, and turn her loose. She’s young and pretty. She can still have a life.”

You’ve entered a different world from the one you knew. At home, we planted gardens. Here we only plant the dead.

Max Bloomberg’s journal

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

“I trust these ruffians didn’t harm you, Herr Bloomberg, and the bindings aren’t too tight?”

The tall, well-dressed man projected civility, even benevolence. He was perhaps thirty and handsome in a craggy-faced, broad-shouldered, athletic sort of way. Unlike the cracked and dirty fingernails of the others, the smiling man’s nails were professionally manicured. Speaking in fluent German, he seemed sincerely apologetic that his prisoner, whose arms were securely bound to his leather armchair with clothesline, was being inconvenienced.

Max Bloomberg understood every word, though he hadn’t used his native language in decades. If only he could get a grasp on what was happening here. The men must have crept in during the middle of the night and deftly disconnected the security system. They seemed well-armed, although Max understood little concerning firearms—except the ones that had been pointed at him by guards herding him and his fellow Jews into boxcars, herding them off boxcars, herding them through “processing” at the camp.

But that had been eons ago. Max closed his eyes, squeezing them tight to push away the memories. He opened them, blinked a few times, and glanced around. The home invaders had drawn the drapes before turning on the table lamp. Not amateurs, any of them, he supposed. It occurred to Max that the two rough men who accompanied the well-spoken, well-groomed, well-dressed man relished their work. He’d seen too much brutality not to recognize when someone enjoyed delivering pain.

Glancing toward his accomplices, the elegant interloper continued, “I told them not to gag you, but if you cry out, well, as they say in America, all bets will be off.” The stranger switched to English with only the faintest hint of a German accent. The man almost sounded Jewish, with a few Yiddish phrases thrown in, though Max considered that was probably an act, an attempt to ingratiate himself.

The intruder still spoke softly, but his almost coal-black eyes bore into Max Bloomberg’s own like steel daggers. There was something familiar about the man’s manner, something Max couldn’t help but recognize. He’d seen eyes such as these before—the color was of no importance. He’d heard voices such as this one long ago—the words didn’t matter. The words soothed and the lips smiled, while the hands choked the very life from your throat.

But, how could this fellow possibly know Max? Though he’d encountered the type, Max had never seen this particular man before. And this incident couldn’t be connected to what had happened so long ago. Not possible.

Since Winston, Max’s companion cocker spaniel, had recently died, Max lived alone in this two-story Georgian in River Forest, an affluent western Chicago suburb. Head throbbing, Max found concentration difficult. He’d been having trouble sleeping since finding Winston’s small body sprawled lifeless in the backyard. How long ago was it that his beloved Winnie had died? A week? Two? Max had taken a Seconal only an hour before the rough men, on the German’s orders, had dragged him—an old bookseller, not a rich man—out of bed and down to the small den that served as his library. Now they sat or stood among his treasured books, books Max had accumulated throughout his career and cared for like dear friends, though they had little monetary value. Were these devils here just to rob him? Could he be that lucky?

The other two men were each shorter and not nearly as well dressed as the German. They’d held handguns of some kind when they’d stormed into the bedroom, but the weapons were now out of sight. Standing almost like soldiers at attention on either side of Max, they stared at their leader as if awaiting orders.

A hint of a smile once again crossed the tall intruder’s face. “Bitter cold and snowing tonight. Mind if we light a fire in your beautiful fireplace? Make the room cozy, yes?”

Max didn’t answer.

The heavyset man standing to his left, wearing an old Navy peacoat, said, “Come on, we don’t have time for fuckin’ around. Let’s get on with this shit.”

An American with a hint of a Southern accent. Unusual here in Chicago. As he spoke, “Peacoat” played with a roll of quarters, tossing them from one hand to the other, sometimes grasping the roll tightly in his massive right fist.

The German held his left hand up, palm outstretched. “Now, now. Let’s be civilized, shall we?” He crossed his arms and nodded. “Perhaps—hmm—perhaps, we can even put the heat to some good use. Very good use. Verstehen?”

A pile of dry kindling was stacked in the fireplace.

The man on Max’s right, wearing a worn sheepskin bomber jacket, moved to the fireplace and nodded as well. “Yeah, Ich verstehen.” No southern accent, but not a German speaker, either. “I’ll need some newspaper to light the fire. Or something.”

The leader glanced at Max. “Our good friend won’t mind if we take a few of his old Jew books to use. That’s what they were made for, don’t you think?” Without waiting for a response, he continued, “Remember those good old days when the Führer burned all the Jew books, old man?” The tall stranger’s voice deepened, the tone no longer benevolent.

“Sheepskin” snatched several of the oldest books with Hebrew on the covers and ripped them into chunks, tossing the pieces onto the fireplace with the tinder and the wood. Although he couldn’t make out the titles, Max had placed each book in its slot so often he knew exactly the ones chosen. One was a siddur, a prayer book considered holy to Orthodox Jews. If such a sacred book accidentally fell to the floor during a religious service, the owner would instantly retrieve it, treating it as gently as one would an injured child, and plant a kiss on the cover. Tears filled Max’s eyes.

Soon, they had a blazing fire. The leader nodded to his henchmen. “Bring him closer. Careful not to mark this beautiful floor.”

With Max still bound securely, Peacoat and Sheepskin dragged the chair across the waxed parquet floor, only stopping when the well-spoken German motioned for them to do so. Now Max was so close to the fireplace his bare feet began to feel uncomfortably warm, although he didn’t yet feel any pain.

The German stared hard into Max’s eyes. “You know what we want. So, tell me where the box is. Hmm? Then, we go. We know all about you. You’ve hidden long enough, old man. Too long.”

Max shook his head. “No idea what you’re talking about.”

His aching head began to clear. He kept the rest of his words inside himself. He wasn’t crazy. Something had been going on around him in recent weeks. My God, after all these years. How? How’d they find him?

Max tried to lift his right arm, but was only able to raise his index finger. Pointing it as best he could. “Get out of my home! Now!”

He felt like screaming for help, but knew no one could possibly hear him. The closest house was perhaps fifty yards away, and the windows would be shut during the freezing weather. His house was modest—one of the least expensive on the block—but it occupied a quarter-acre corner lot, carefully landscaped with Northern Accents rose bushes as well as tall red oaks and American elm trees.

He tried to study the men, so he could describe them to the police, but they had handled him roughly when they’d forced him out of bed, and he had difficulty focusing. His heart was pounding. Did that mean the drugged feeling from the sleeping pill was wearing off, or was he becoming even more frightened?

The German simply stood there, allowing Max’s helplessness to sink in. “Oh, you’ll tell me whatever I want to know. Perhaps time has caused you to forget the methods we can use on you Jew bastards? You’ve forgotten the camps?”

Heaven forbid, the camps. That was going back over fifty years. Before these evil men were even born. What could they know about the camps? Only stories they’d read. Max knew—really knew. And, sometimes in the dark, alone at night, his flesh bathed in a cold sweat, he only wished he could forget.

In the next instant, it came to him. His dog, Winston. That was what had happened to his sweet little friend.

“You, you rotten, filthy Nazis. You killed my beautiful little Winnie.”

Now, for the first time, Max began to sob. He became even more short of breath as his chest tightened, and he began to wheeze. Prayers came automatically to his mind. Please, dear God, no time for my emphysema to act up. I’m choking.

He tried to take in deeper breaths, but it didn’t seem to help. If only he had the inhaler with him. But that was still atop his bedside table.

Ignoring Max’s comment and grief, Peacoat lit a Camel, flicking the old-fashioned kitchen match with his thumbnail near his prisoner’s face. The sulfur smell caused Max to cough, and the tightness in his chest increased. The room began to spin as his breathing became ever more labored.

“Go in the kitchen,” the German said. “Get a dish for those ashes, so you don’t leave a mess. No cigarette butts left behind. Verstehen?”

The leader had just confirmed what Max already suspected, since the men wore neither masks nor disguises. When they left, there would be no evidence of their crimes. Alive, Max would be evidence.

Resigned to his fate, Max turned his thoughts to his nephew, Bruce. If Bruce were half as smart as Max knew him to be, he’d find what Max had left for him.

Max silently thanked God he’d been suspicious. And that he’d carefully shredded his notes after finishing the detailed review of exactly what had happened to him so long ago. He had never spoken of it, even to his closest friends or family. But when he finished the journal, he’d hidden the document and left a clue for Bruce, should Max’s worst fears be somehow realized.

The German put his hands on Max’s shoulders and shook him, almost gently. “You haven’t answered. Where’s our box?”

Shortness of breath made speaking nearly impossible “Why … why are you here? Take what you want … leave. I just sell … a few old books.”

Peacoat laughed. “Look who’s asking questions now.” He turned toward the leader. “Better let this Jew vermin know who’s running the show. Before you know it, he’ll be ordering us around. And you’ll probably click your heels and say, ‘Yes, sir, your honor!’ That’s what guys like you are trained to do.”

The leader ignored Peacoat and tapped his right index finger on Max’s head. “Pay attention. I’m running out of patience, and, as you see, my friends here are not as pleasant as I. I must have that box and its contents. Then we’ll leave, and you can get on with your miserable life. You mean nothing, the box everything.”

At that second, the fire crackled and flared, and Max felt a burning sensation in his feet. He did his best to pull them back. His eyes closed for an instant, and he silently prayed. Please, dear God, let me be strong. This may be the last favor I ask.

Max leaned forward as if to whisper something. The German leaned in toward him.

Max spat into his interrogator’s face.

The German straightened, snatched a silk handkerchief from his pocket, and without uttering a sound, carefully wiped the sputum from his cheek. At almost the same moment, with the rolled coins clutched in his right fist, Peacoat punched Max on the left side of the head, knocking him and the chair onto the floor. Max let himself go limp. The pain in his head was excruciating, but he didn’t cry out.

“Pick him up and cut out that kind of thing!” the tall German shouted. “Leave that to me. You’ll kill the old Jew before we get him to tell us what we need to know.”

As the two men lifted the chair along with the apparently semiconscious Max, the German carefully removed three fluid-filled syringes from the side pocket of his cashmere topcoat and laid them on a little table. Max began to groan. The German strolled to a nearby armchair, removed his coat, and folded it over the chair back. He dragged the chair close to Max, who was thinking desperately, trying to dream up some way out of this. Through half-open eyes, Max watched the German sit down and cross his legs.

After a moment, Max slowly opened his eyes and blinked a few times. He shook his head, acting as if he were still trying to clear his mind. His whole body throbbing, he needed a few minutes to figure out if he had any options. From previous experience though, he knew these types wanted people to grovel, to be frightened out of their wits.

Max took a deep breath, sucking in as much air as possible. “Please, don’t hit me again,” he whispered. “I’ll tell you.”

“Speak up,” the German urged.

“Those papers. Burned ’em. In the woods. Didn’t … didn’t make any sense to me. That’s the truth.” Max looked the interrogator in the eyes without blinking. “They important?”

The German nodded. “Sure. And the silver box? What did you do with that?”

“Box? Oh, the box.”

“You know exactly what I mean. You made it. Called yourself a silversmith back then. Where is it?”

Max didn’t hesitate. “Melted … melted it down. Sold the silver.”

Peacoat stepped up to Max and waved his clenched fist, the roll of coins still in it. “You’re a filthy, fucking liar.” He turned toward the leader. “You going to let this piece of shit get away with this nonsense? Look! Let me at him. Leave the room, if you need to. Just give me ten minutes. Probably won’t take that long.”

“Patience, patience.” The German waved his hand. “Now, do me a favor. Take a deep breath and sit down.” Then the German whispered just loudly enough for Max to hear, “We do only what we have to in order to get what we need. Yah? After all, we are not animals. So.”

Peacoat stared hard at his leader, shook his head, and frowned. “Talk. Talk and experiment! That’s what you’re best at. The way you’re going at it, we’ll be here all fuckin’ night. My way will be lots faster. You’re too damned smart. And you know what? That makes you too damned soft.”

“And you never learn how to follow orders. So, shut up and maybe we’ll all learn something besides how strong you are and how brave when your victim is an old man, tied up and helpless, hmm?”

The German picked up one of the syringes. “So. Let us begin.”

Categories: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Political Thriller, Suspense, Thriller | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Threading the Needle, by Gabriel Valjan

ThreadingtheNeedle_3D-523x600Title: Threading the Needle

Author: Gabriel Valjan

Publisher: Winter Goose Publishing

Genre: Mystery/suspense

Purchase THREADING THE NEEDLE on Amazon / B&N

Milan. Bianca’s curiosity gets a young university student murdered, but not before he gives her a file that details a secret weapon under development with defense contractor Adastra. Guilt may drive her to find justice for the slain Charlie Brooks, but she is warned by the mysterious Loki to stay away from this case that runs deep with conspiracy. Bianca must find a way to uncover government secrets and corporate alliances without returning Italy to one of its darkest hours, the decades of daily terrorism known as the “Years of Lead.”

ROMA SERIES: Book 3

Threading the Needle

-Gabriel Valjan

L’Italia è l’antica terra del dubbio.

Italy is the ancient homeland of doubt.

—Massimo D’Azeglio

1

 

This was a bad idea from the start.

Isidore Farrugia sat in a car, watching Bianca from across Via Manzoni. He was off-duty, out of his jurisdiction, and doing the best and worst of all possible things: doing a favor for a friend.

But his gut was telling him this was a bad, bad idea.

She said that she had to meet someone with information, someone who wanted to meet her in person. Not good. Bianca had explained that in the past her drop-offs were anonymous and in public places. A postal box. A newsstand. Never face to face. The ideal was through the computer. Remote and anonymous.

None of them could forget Loki. None of them had forgotten Rendition.

Bianca wouldn’t say what the information was and when Farrugia asked, all she said was that her contact was a man. He didn’t ask her how she knew. Farrugia knew better than to expect a straight answer from a woman. The female brain was wired differently, processing nuances below masculine capability, and the female heart was attuned to the unknown frequency of feminine intuition.

She ordered something from her table outside.

Nobody seemed suspicious.

The waiter delivered her drink. She had ordered something sweet. Rabarbaro? Women and their sweet drinks.

Two university-age kids were sizing her up for flirtation.

Her contact, she said, did not know what she looked like. If this someone was expecting an American in jeans or some gaudy ensemble that American women thought was fashion, then he would be in for a surprise. Bianca fit into Milan with her Aspesi turtleneck, Alessandra Colombo leather jacket with the rose-accent, ruffle fringe, and a pair of Tod’s. He saw that she sensed the two amateur Casanovas, turned her head and dismissed them. Quite remarkable, since she was wearing sunglasses.

That must be him.

Definitely an American. Down the block, about to turn the corner onto Via Manzoni.

He was walking fast, hands in pockets. No messenger bag, no bag at all, so maybe this wasn’t him, despite what Farrugia’s gut was saying. A few meters behind him, two other men followed. Matching camel jackets, matching haircuts. The man in front peered over his shoulder.

This must be him. Farrugia knew that worried expression.

Bianca hadn’t seen him yet. No time to call her cell. Her contact was early-twenties, handsome with a nice navy jacket, although from the looks of him he’d had little sleep for a few nights. He glanced again over his shoulder.

The other two behind him picked up their pace. It was definitely him.

This was a bad idea from the start.

Farrugia opened up the car door. The car was a small rental and climbing in was like putting a sardine back into the metal tin. No typical American could fit in that automobile, and he knew the stubborn strip of fat around his midsection was what made his extraction an act for Houdini or Chaplin. The next risk was crossing the street and not getting killed by a real car or grazed by an angry Vespa.

The two tails on Bianca’s man had that experienced stalking gait. Several notches up from street vermin. Farrugia was thinking contract killers, possibly with a military background. Hair was short and they weren’t neo-Nazis. They were lean, looked foreign, and moved with precision. A career soldier’s walk was never erased from neurological memory. Their jackets were relatively short, so that might mean no shotgun, unless one of them had a sawed-off for the maximum amount of spray while his partner had the handgun for the final shot, usually to the head. Farrugia thought all of this in the seconds it took to negotiate one car horn and one silent obscenity from behind fast-moving glass.

He was on the divider in the middle of Via Manzoni when Bianca saw him.

She stood up and both their eyes drifted to the fast-walking man. Farrugia had hoped she wouldn’t do that. That is, stand up. Everybody knew everybody now.

The two men were almost there. His Beretta Raffica was ready.

The contact walked up to her, turned her shoulders so her back was to his two trackers. Air-kiss to her right cheek, air-kiss to her left. Pause. His hands slid down her hips. He said something to her, kissed her on the lips, then ran inside Bar Gadda.

What the . . .

The two in pursuit graduated from walk to run. They got into the bar before the door closed. Farrugia unzipped his jacket and withdrew his gun. Instinct. He didn’t think about the traffic after the divider. He ran. There was a squeal of rubber. Farrugia realized that he still had functional legs when he reached the pavement’s gray flagstones. Horns blared behind him, but he focused on the commotion inside the bar in front of him.

He slid through the door, eyes searching, and out of reflex said, “Stay calm. I am Commissario Isidore Farrugia.” The customers couldn’t have cared less once they saw the Beretta. Their eyes and a few of their arms pointed the way out back. With his adrenaline flowing as it was, he wouldn’t remember much of what he saw, but would always remember the old lady crossing herself and calling upon the saints and the Virgin. He did the same in his mind.

A restaurant kitchen was always a well-lit trap for a confrontation. Cops and bad guys. Rats or roaches and the health inspector. Illegals and Immigration Services. The Albanians and the Romanians made way for him and pointed. The broken plates crinkled as he stepped on the shards. The chef looked scared with a huge knife in his hand. Farrugia was trying not to look frightened with the pistol in his. Almost thirty years as a cop, pension calculations and the whisper of mortality moved through his head. The Beretta had two settings: three-round burst or single fire. His was set to single fire, and each round would count.

Ahead he spotted the streak of navy blue and then camel. Hunted and hunter. Then the metallic slam of the back door flung open to crash against a hard wall. There was some indistinct yelling. Farrugia’s eyes took it all in while he calmed his heart down with deep belly breaths and moved through the kitchen. His belt was tight. He promised himself that he would lose the stomach if he lived through the day.

The busboy on Farrugia’s right said, “Vicolo cieco.”

Dead end. That door would make him an easy target for two potentially armed men on the other side. He approached the door. He peeked through the sliver of light, since the door had returned home on its hinges. The busboy was right. A wall a few meters to the left, a large, fragrant metal dumpster against it, left you with no choice but a hard right turn and a fast run down an indeterminate alley out to Via Manzoni.

The American didn’t know that. He had turned left. Arms and legs appeared and Farrugia heard pleading.

The saints might not help him, but the Virgin had always been kind. He gripped the gun, breathed in, and trusted his eyes and trigger finger to think for him. In through the door and outside.

Too late.

Man One fired a single shot into the American’s chest. Man Two fired the headshot. Farrugia faced two automatics now turned on him, and the only thing he could do was resort to his lame academy training.

“Police. Put your weapons down.”

In this two-against-one dialogue their likely reply is to shoot him, knowing that at his fastest he could wound only one of them.

A choked siren, the screech of one blue-and-white cop car, its silent blue twirling lights now blocked the alley from Via Manzoni. Farrugia saw the first man’s eyes look leftward again. No weapons had gone down. No concession. Farrugia was the apex of the triangle with his gun, and these two were the base angles pointing theirs at him. Unequal . . . unlikely he’d survive if they shoot.

The car doors down the alley opened and closed. There was a squelch of walkie-talkie exchange. The siren lights played like a rave-party color on the walls.

Farrugia repeated himself. “Weapons down.”

Another leftward look. The second man lowered his gun. Farrugia almost breathed.

The gun went off.

The first man had shot the second in the head and, as Farrugia was about to step forward and pull his trigger, put the barrel into his own mouth.

The two cops walking down the alley stopped when the shot went off.

 

Four gunshots can have a way of ruining a drink. Four.

The orange zest, the hypnotic cardamom and the other curatives in Bianca’s drink suddenly turned sour. Two shots might be a matter of syntax, like a judicious comma and then the full-stop period. Or they could be a call-and-response exchange. But the second set of shots, Farrugia, her contact, and two suspects made four men.

One of those shots may have been for Farrugia.

She had to know before the other cops came. There were already sirens in the distance, she couldn’t tell whose. Here in Milan, ambulances and police cars sounded the same to her, like the European starling with their “nee-nah nee-nah” through the ancient streets. But within minutes Via Manzoni would be covered with screaming sirens, the smell of rubber, bright lights, a cacophony of voices, a multitude of colors, and every type of police, from authoritative uniform to the suited support staff to process the crime. There would be tape to cordon off the bodies, tape to section off each part of the bar and the path to the denouement in the alley, and tape to identify the section where the witnesses had been herded off for questioning.

She was worried about witnesses recalling the American embracing a woman. She was worried whether any surveillance cameras in the shops or on top of the traffic lights might have recorded Farrugia’s transit across the street, his momentary interest in the future victim. She was worried whether any surveillance cameras had captured her.

But she was most worried about Farrugia.

Down the street, a man in an eco-fluorescent uniform and ear protection was spray-cleaning the sidewalk with pressurized water from his l’agevolatore, a moveable, jointed steel arm on top of a truck. A policeman ran down the street and asked him to stop his work. The streets can remain dirty for a few more hours for the sake of preserving the crime scene. The imposing l’agevolatore stopped. The water stopped. Everything stopped.

She had to move.

Navy-blue cars with red pinstripes—the carabinieri—began to arrive as she cut through the crowd. She expected to see women making the sign of the cross and men bypassing the five wounds of Christ to simply kiss their thumbs as a way of kissing the Cross of Christ and acknowledging death. She had seen Italian-Americans do that thousands of times back home. Not here in Milan. She heard murmurs of inquiry, exchanges of speculation, and the confident assertion from someone that three men were dead. She flowed with the crowd to the open mouth of the alley, her head bowed in respect.

She saw Farrugia.

He was speaking to someone from the Omicidi, the Homicide Squad. He was visibly unnerved, but unharmed. She surprised herself by saying, “Thank God.”

There’s was a smaller crowd moving out of an old-style carrelli on Line One, a street tram like the ones in San Francisco. The street was blocked off at both ends.

She needed to call Dante.

She decided on the nearby metro, the Montenapoleone stop. That would lead her anywhere that was away from the noise, away from detection. She would have a chance to think, collect, and determine what was on the jump-key he had slipped into her pocket during that surprise kiss.

She would never forget that—not so much for the kiss, or that he was handsome and kissed well. But that he was young, terribly young, and now dead.

 

Threading the Needle
COPYRIGHT © 2013 by Gabriel Valjan
Excerpt appears courtesy of Winter Goose Publishing

Categories: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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