Something’s Mooing

Dean Hunt from Schoenhof bookstore translated this short story from Stéfan Máni for Aurélien Masson at NOIRCON 2016. Space and cost prevented its inclusion in the conference’s program.


The fjord is deep and the mountain high, the sunshine glints off the surface of the ocean. The road winds along, moves uphill and disappears in the end in the distance. There’s a thermal vapor over the asphalt; within it there’s a bright spot that’s moving ever nearer. It is a van — a white Yaris with two women inside and a little sticker from the Hertz rental-car agency in the rear window.

The women’s names are Frida and Melanie. In the trunk there are two backpacks, a cardboard box with provisions, sleeping bags and a tent.

“How far is it to…What’s the town called?” Frida asks in English. She’s at the wheel; Melanie’s in the passenger seat.

“Eskifjord-ur.” Melanie runs a finger along the map. “I’m not sure but it’s either at the next fjord or the one after it.”

“Fjord, fjord, fjord,” Frida mutters. She’s Swedish; Melanie’s from Australia. They are twenty-three and twenty-four years old and met in Edinburgh where they are studying. Except for a weekend trip to London their trip to Iceland is their first serious trip together.

“Are you sure the air-conditioner is on?” Melanie asks.

“Yes, it’s at full blast but…” Frida falls silent when a noise comes from the engine and the car begins to stutter.

“What’s going on?” Melanie asks.

“I don’t know!” Frida shifts down and steps on the accelerator but the car slows down even more, but the loss of power is so total that she is forced to stop. The engine stutters and coughs and then is stone dead.

“Is it dead? Melanie asks.

Frida doesn’t answer. She turns the key in the ignition; the starter works but the engine won’t turn over.



“What?” she asks irritated.

“Are we stopping?”

Frida raises her hands in frustration. “What does it look like to you?”

“Shouldn’t we call someone?”

Frida glances at her cell phone. “No reception. Great!”

Melanie looks out the window, up to the rugged mountain and out toward the dark blue ocean. “What are we going to do?”

Frida wipes sweat from her forehead. “We can’t wait here, we’ll roast in the heat. There must be a farm nearby. If not, we’ll just hitch a ride to Eskifjord.”

“All right,” Melanie says. They get out of the car. The silence is almost overwhelming though they can make out a heavy murmur from the ocean and subdued birdsong.

Frida ties a windbreaker around her middle. “We’ll take only the most essential things with us. Our purses, passports and something to drink.”

“Okay.” Melanie hangs her camera around her neck and sticks her toiletry bag, a packet of biscuits and two water bottles into her little backpack.

Frida walks ahead. The day before they had whiled away a few hours at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. Melanie scrolls through the pictures in her camera while she ambles along at a distance from her friend.

Frida stops. “Would you hurry up!”

Melanie looks up, then she points ahead toward the road. “What’s that?”

“What’s what?”

“The sign there. That yellow one.”

They quicken their pace; the sign is getting closer. It stands on the underside of the road and points to the gravel side road that lies down by a hill and disappears down in the lowland. The sign says: Uxavellir 1 km.”

“Is that a farm?” Melanie asks.

Frida shrugs her shoulders. “I would think so. One kilometer is not much. Shouldn’t we check it out?

Melanie looks in both directions. There is not a single car to be seen, except for theirs, which has become a little dot further in the fjord. “Yeah, we don’t have anything to lose.”

They walk off of the highway and go down a side road.

“That’s a farm,” Melanie says shortly afterwards. They look down from the hilltop, over a hayfield, a heath and marshland. The side road ends by a low knoll. On it are a few houses, white with red roofs.

“Do you see anyone?” Frida asks.

Melanie looks through the camera lens and zooms in. “No. Maybe it’s siesta time or something of the sort.”

Frida laughs. “Siesta time? We’re in Iceland, not Spain!”

Melanie smiles. “Maybe the farmer’s Spanish?”

They continue on. Down farther on the flatland an old corrugated-iron shack appears on the other side, all lopsided and awry. In front of it is a collapsed enclosure and within it there is nothing but weeds. Melanie stops to take a picture of the shack.

Frida raises her hands in frustration. “Not now! I’m going to suffocate from the heat; let’s move on.”

“Wait.” Melanie comes nearer, lowers herself onto her other knee and takes a picture from a new angle.

“We need help, don’t you think?” Frida says irritated.

“This is an odd shack, something so real,” Melanie says fascinated. “I’m going to take a quick peek inside.” Frida sighs tired-looking, so she sits down on a stone on the roadside. The sun shines right down onto her head, flies buzz amid the weeds and drops of sweat run down into her eyes. “Be quick about it, I’m dying here.”

Melanie goes into the shack, steps into shadow. Her eyes get used to the darkness. She encounters a familiar smell — her paternal uncle has a ranch not far from Perth, the seaside town she grew up in.

“This is an old stable,” she calls.

“C’mon!” Frida calls back.

Melanie glances around. There’s a food trough in the middle of the shack; nearer to the door there are two stalls; at the far end, a barn. The barn is empty, except for a scattering of old hay — dry and rotted. She raises the flash of her camera up and takes a few pictures.

“What is that?”

Something brown is on the floor by the hay. It’s a sports bag. By the side of the bag is a horse’s skull and on top of it is a tea light. On the floor there are a few cigarette butts; in the hay is a bed, in which a foldout map lies and on a nail in the wall a small pair of binoculars hangs from a strap.



“Someone sleeps here.”


“There’s a bag here with all kinds of things. Someone’s putting up here in this shack.”

“Come!” Frida calls.

Melanie takes two more pictures, then she goes back out into the sunshine. “Who sleeps in a shack like that?”

Frida looks over her shoulder, as if afraid that someone were pursuing them. “I don’t know. A vagabond?”

“Maybe,” Melanie says. “Still. There’s a pair of binoculars in there, and a sports bag with someone’s stuff in it. Why would a vagabond need binoculars?”

“I don’t know,” Frida speaks under her breath and increases her pace. They’re nearing the farmstead. The dwelling stands at the top of the hill, a two-story stone house with an attic. On the other side is an enclosed garden and a T-shaped pole for hanging clothes on; on the far side a large shed, like an oversize garage. The shed is open; inside it is pitch-black but in front of it stands a blue Isuzu pickup truck.

Nowhere was any movement to be seen.

Melanie stops.

“What?” Frida asks.


“They listen closely. A dog is barking somewhere. The barking is loud and yet muted.

“He seems to be far away,” Frida says.

“Or locked in,” Melanie says.

Frida points to the wheelless pickup. “If that’s the only car, I’m afraid that we’re not going to get to Eskifjord.”

“They must have a phone here,” Melanie says.

“Where are they all?” Frida asks.

“Listen again,” Melanie says.



They listen closely again. The barking has stopped but a protracted mooing comes to their ears. Melanie points to the outbuildings. “It’s coming from there. There are cows inside. Why are they inside? Shouldn’t they be out grazing?”

Frida balls her hands in irritation. “I don’t know! Come on, we should knock.”

Melanie looks at the house, then at the outbuildings again. “You knock. I’m going to check on the cows.”


“Maybe they’re all in the cowshed,” Melanie says at the same time and heads across the farmyard.

“Yes, maybe,” Frida mutters. She looks at the house. In front the doors are locked and the curtains are drawn in all the windows.

The dog starts to bark again. He seems to be indoors. Why is he inside? What does that mean? That no one is home?

Frida goes in a semicircle around the house. On the gable that faces the shed there are other doors, maybe the doors to the laundry or something of the sort. The barking gets louder and the dog scratches the inside of the door and whines low.

“Good doggie,” Frida says. She goes back out to in front of the house, walks quickly past kitchen windows and alongside a post in front of the main entrance.

She musters up her courage and knocks on the door.

No answer.

She looks back. Melanie is nowhere to be seen. On the roof of the cowshed a raven shrieks.

Frida knocks again, only harder — there is a click and the door opens up two centimeters, as if it had a busted lock. The hairs on Frida’s neck stand up. She retreats two steps and waits between hope and fear.

Nothing happens.

She pushes on the door, opens it halfway. “Hello?” Excuse me!”

No answer.

She looks into the little vestibule, but it is dark inside.

“Hello?” Frida opens the door wide and steps overs the threshold. The dog is whining at the other end of the house. “Is anyone home?”

Melanie goes to the outbuildings. There are three doors, two smaller at each end and large doors with a sliding door in the middle. In the sliding door there are two even smaller doors. The leftmost doors are locked. Over them towers a red-painted steel beam that looks like a railway track. She tests the sliding door. It is unlocked and open up into a broad corridor.


The cows moo; that is the only answer that she receives.

Melanie shades her eyes and looks over her shoulder. Frida is still standing in front of the house, all hesitant and insecure. Why doesn’t she knock?

Melanie is more resolute. She steps over the high threshold and looks around the corridor. There is a screech, then the door closes and something slams with a clatter on the floor.


“God!” That scared the hell out of her. The door is probably askew and for that reason closed itself.

“What hit the floor? She looks around herself but doesn’t see anything. No big deal.


The cows answer with a loud mooing. On the left the door is open, on the inside it is dark. On their right the doors are locked. On the leftmost are large barn doors; they open wide onto a doorway.

Ahead is the cowshed — a long feed line with stalls on both sides and glass pipes in the ceiling.

The cows swing their tails and look at her big-eyed. In the air is a strong animal odor.

Melanie peeks into the barn. It is almost completely empty, though inside fat flies are buzzing.

The cows moo more loudly, as if they are expecting something.

“Why aren’t you outside?” Melanie asks at the same time that she goes to the first stall, then stops and slaps her hand to her mouth. “Oh, my God!”

The cows are shaking and milk is streaming from their teats; their udders are swollen and little streams of milk are running along the filthy floor; mix and become larger streams and flow in the end into that animal mess where the milk blends with piss and shit.

The feed line is empty; the cows are famished and neglected.

“The poor things!” Melanie is heartsick. She then hurries into the barn. Inside it there is a bale of hay. She takes up an armful of hay, goes back over the barn floor but she stops in her tracks when she steps onto something that cracks open.

She looks down. What’s that? On the floor there are pottery shards, as if something had broken, and a little farther in there is a dark spot, dark-red and glossy. Around it are coal-black flies.

Is that blood?

Melanie looks ahead toward the corridor, a confused expression on her face. Why haven’t the cows been milked?

What’s going on here?

Melanie hesitates, then tosses the hay away and runs out of the barn. Her heart is racing in her chest. She is about to take the same way out but there is no doorknob on the door.

Oh, no!

She pounds on the door with her bare palms. “Frida?”

No answer.

What is she going to do?

Melanie begins to lose her mind. She blinks and looks then to the side, to the open door and the dark chamber. She rushes forward silent, gropes inside on the wall, finds a switch and turns on a light. The chamber appears to be used for feed storage. In the middle of the floor there is a barrel full of water. The concrete floor is blue; on it lie drowned rats. Up from out of the barrel stick stiff legs in pants and shoes. Melanie screams at the top of her lungs and backs away from the doorway.

There is a dead man in the barrel.

She turns around, runs across the corridor, opens the door opposite and feels as if the blood is freezing in her veins.

Oh, God!

Melanie stares as if paralyzed into the white-painted room. Down from out of the ceiling hangs a chain with an iron hook. On the iron hook hangs a limbless human body. Under the chalk-white body is an iron tub, half-full of dark blood. In the solidified blood a human head is half-submerged — staring eyes, gaping mouth. On the floor lie legs, and bloody tools — a machete and two pointed knifes.

Frida enters the house. “Hello?”

No answer.

She creeps toward the vestibule. Why is she creeping toward it? Her heart is pounding in her chest. Ahead is a windowless room, some kind of coal. There is a black grandfather clock, a bookcase and a steep staircase that climbs up to the attic. From the clock comes a rhythmic ticking that echoes between the walls. Frida hardly dares breathe.

She is afraid but doesn’t even know why. The house is silent, except for the metallic ticking. There’s probably no one at home. Even this feeling, as if someone were lurking — that she was being observed, her every sound heard.

“Hello? Anyone?”

She looks to the left. There is a kitchen there. There is a corridor and at its end is a locked door. Behind it the dog whines low.

Frida is about to call out once more but refrains from it when her toes bump into something. She looks down. There is a roll of barbed wire on the floor. It is almost empty, just a spool made of hard plastic and one or two coils of thorny wire that twist across the floor.

At the side of the spool there is pair of work gloves, a forging hammer and a bundle with embroidery.

Frida follows the wire with her eyes; it runs into the dusky living room on the right. In the living room there is barbed wire crisscrossed, from floor to ceiling, from one wall to the other, and in the middle there is a thick coil that hangs in the air as if…

Hesitantly, she walks closer and opens her eyes wide. As if it were an insect wrapped in a spider web.

Frida gapes in wonder.

A spider web made of barbed wire?

Her eyes adjust to the darkness; she takes two steps closer but takes care not to hurt herself on the wire that stretches out from the oblong coil. What is really…?

Frida stops and catches her breath — she sees a finger, she sees a hand, then hair and a foot, an empty eye stares out from between the wires. There are drops of blood on the carpet.

Someone is there in the wires. A woman.

Frida screams, she holds her hand in front of her mouth, retreats two steps and screams again then. “Oh, God! Oh, God!”

She must get out. The dog starts to bark and up in the attic she hears a thud.

Frida stiffens with fear, grips the doorframe and looks up to the ceiling with an expression of terror.

“Moo!” Someone is walking across the attic. Someone or something that bellowed like a bull. The footfall is heavy and it is nearing the stairwell.

Frida screams for the third time, she takes off on her feet. She runs in the direction of the door.

She must get out!

“Moo!” There is a creaking high on the stairs when the thing that is mooing comes racing down them.



Image from Stacja Islandia

© Stéfan Máni 2015. Books at Gallimard.

© Translation from the Icelandic: Dean Hunt



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Stomatopoda (or the editor as killer crustacean)

I translated Ingrid Astier’s essay which honors Aurélien Masson, the editor at Gallimard’s la Série Noire imprint. While the translation was intended to appear in the proceeds from NOIRCON 2016, space and printing costs excluded it. Masson received the David Goodis Award at the conference.

“Beware in this treacherous word: To be.” — Paul Valéry.

When I think of Aurélien Masson, the first word that comes to mind is stomatopoda.

I grant you that it’s not a common word and I’ll wager it means nothing to you. Thus, the role of the writer: introductions.

Between you and the unknown, words, beings, the distant.

stomatopodaSo, I am going to bridge that gap. The stomatopoda or the mantis shrimp is a shellfish. It is thin and tough – like Aurélien Masson, who proves that strength and sensitivity mesh with the crime novel. It has a thick shell and it is true that to approach Aurélien Masson is something you earn. The crustacean is reclusive; it likes to live hidden, just out of sight. I remember when Aurélien mentioned ‘the cellar,’ the very first home for Série Noire at Gallimard. “Collections are conceived in places; they’re not hydroponic plants,” he said in his signature style that is simultaneously biting and playful. And he’s right: places and the spirit of the series function in unison. Today, Série Noire is under one roof. But for Aurélien, “the cellar is in the head.” Image from Ingrid Astier

Like the stomatopoda, Aurélien Masson draws from the depths of shadow. He makes the night his hunting ground. Like this shellfish, he is cryptic: in black dressed, blended in lines such that he can’t be made out there. And I imagine this somber silhouette bent over universes that, over the course of pages, give the sun a polishing.

Black on black. Camouflage. Truth can tremble and that is the end of the clarity.

Nevertheless, no animal distinguishes so many colors. One reads: “Each eye of the stomatopoda possesses at least a dozen photopigments [compared to three in the human eye and four in birds”]. Aurélien Masson has publishing in the blood. He knows the nuances of noir inside out. A collection is for him a family with a thousand faces, not mere clones.

From carbon to coal, including anthracite on up to jet-black, his vision can tell everything apart. A walker of abysses, he knows the flip-side of the world without judging it. The first time I met him I thought it was a teenager arriving in a provocative T-shirt, a smooth-talker, and this rock and roll side of him that could be nothing more than a cover. Hands riveted to the manuscript, he spoke.

Then he was incomparably old like the granite rocks of Mount Rushmore.

A publisher is not a reader; he sees not the line but the horizon. We fought over Quai des enfers. quai-des-enfersThis was my first novel. When I refused to throw more light on my character, the killer, Aurélien had replied with these gems: “I’m okay with grey areas but not black holes.”

After this brilliant insight, there was nothing left to do but work.

For Angle mort [second novel], we went even farther.41csjmrtm5l-_sx301_bo1204203200_

Because that is the road.

The stomatopoda enjoys three-hundred-sixty-degree of vision and I often thought that Aurélien Masson did too, though a slower version of it. He reads in writers the invisible strata of the palimpsest. Again, I think of our shellfish, which can “triangulate an object, know exactly its distance and depth.” With this vision, born of desire and audacity. Aurélien Masson likes growing with his writers.

He’s not complacent. He doesn’t like to sugarcoat. And I believe him when I hear his dry speech, without the honey and without the frills. But he does that, always, for the good of the text. For a surge to take place. A darling in the draft is often scratched out.

It is necessary to feel chosen to have been taken into the captivating legs of this predator. And do not forget that stomatopoda’s legs are “furnished with sharp spurs to impale the soft body of its prey.” Aurélien Masson abhors softness. He is a textual obsessive. He wants to feel some heat, some bone under the tooth.

cjjwbdduaaevvob-jpg_mediumHe always considered the crime novel a world with solid foundations. The crime novel is no mere mirror where the writer is reflected – and drowns herself.

The strength of the stomatopoda’s blow is such that it can break the glass of an aquarium. Its strike “delivers the equivalent power of 100 kilograms [220 pounds] in two-thousands of a second on a small surface, equivalent to the acceleration of a bullet from a pistol.”

Aurélien Masson is that bullet against the wind. He was never afraid of blasting prejudices into smithereens. Detective literature for him stems from faith.

Image: Bibliothèque Médicis

And if he carries around a lantern in broad daylight, he does it is to reveal to each his own night.

For, by spending time in one’s subterranean depths, one touches the heart, the human being.

© Ingrid Astier, from Paris, Monday 29 February 2016. Titles at Gallimard

© Translation from French: Gabriel Valjan






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States of Noir: I and II

I translated this essay from the award-winning author Dominque Manotti in honor of Aurélien Masson, director of La Série Noire at Gallimard. Part I appeared in the proceeds of NOIRCON 2016. Masson received the David Goodis Award at the conference in Philadelphia.


My arrival at the crime fiction imprint Série Noire was a story of affinities and of friendship before being a literary choice. I had already published several novels, some in the prestigious Rivages Noir collection, when I had a devastating accident, which had put my life in danger and made writing very difficult for me. A certain kind of joie de vivre in the surge of imagination and the writing had broken in me. It was necessary to recover it, and it wasn’t easy. This is when a friend had me meet Aurélien. commission_image_260_image_frHe’s a publisher who succeeds in convincing you that he chose to work with you, you personally, because he likes what you write. Really. And he goes out of his way to prove it to you. He was always available to read successive drafts, to point out weaknesses in the narrative and writing, betting on the final success, without ever doubting, or rather without ever showing that he doubted. I needed his certainties, at this moment of my life. At the same time, he knows how to be unobtrusive, how to adapt himself to his author’s choices and rhythms. Does such and such a remark not persuade me? Very well, we won’t talk about it anymore. I remain a master of my ship. Thank you, Aurélien. We are going to sail towards new adventures. (Photo credit: Thibault Stipal)


manotti-policierDetective novels (policiers) and crime novels (noir) are literary families, close yet distinct; close, because both have chosen crime as an analytical tool, a scalpel that they use to scrape down to the bone and strip bare individuals and societies. Both have wagered that the truth of a society, of an individual is said by what it does not say, its deviations or its margins. But if the tool is the same, the author’s view of the object is very different. For simplicity’s sake, in the police procedural or thriller, the investigation enables the identification of one or several troublemakers, the bad people and deviants, the different. The struggle between Good and Evil is never far off. At the end of the story, the bad one or bad ones are identified and punished, order and safety are restored; the reader can sleep peacefully. In this sense, the policier is a literature of entertainment.

imagerepository-ashxThe noir novel tells quite a different story, the scalpel of the crime reveals a human nature and a social machine both infinitely complex. The criminal individual is not the barbarian, the monster, the embodied Evil, he is the blood brother of the author, the reader, he speaks about them, he is not outside humanity, he is encapsulated in a set of complex and solid social relationships. He is not an isolated individual, easily ‘expunged’, but one of the cogs in a complex social machinery, one of the instruments used in the maintenance of law and order, one of the relays in the mechanisms of power. All the characters, and the reader with them, are committed ‘in a dubious fight.’ Noir is not Manichean. And, if by any chance, order is restored at the end of a crime novel, the author and the readers are aware that it’s only the temporary recovery of appearances.

This place of crime and of criminals at the heart of the functioning of our society is neither new nor a recent phenomenon. To wit, it’s enough to evoke the role of the Sicilian mafia starting in the 19th century, whom the big property owners used on the island to make complacent the landless farmers, the criminal role of the organizations in the management of the French colonies, or after that, the gangsters in the western conquest in the United States. To better understand, and finally admit, this intimacy, this alarming permeability of society to murder and criminals, it is necessary to remember the impunity of the Nazi officers and their henchmen after the war (only about fifty leaders were tried at the end the war), the collusive silence which protected them and the ease with which they converted back to being peaceful and law-abiding German citizens, or converted into American scientists; and, finally into indispensable elements of the defense of our civilization against the Soviet Union.

Thus, if the noir authors delve into history, the past, it is not for the pleasure reconstituting it, but to find facts that have resonance with the present. With a subjectivity claimed, they dive into the past to reconstitute the present, to give depth to their narratives of the present age; they are historians of the present. And reading crime novels helps us understand the particularly dark present in which we live. In these last days, the archetypal criminals are jihadists of the Islamic State. Our politicians rage against them, depicting them as monsters, their dogged persistence in claiming that they represent absolute Evil, that they are outside humanity –what they intend to be a purely symbolic measure, the withdrawal of nationality. It is counterproductive and stupid, a waste of time whose only function is to give them a clear conscience. It would be more effective to remedy immediately the multiple and structural failures within our police and intelligence agencies. The jihadists belong to humanity; we cannot do anything about it. If we want to fight them effectively, it would be better to find a way to understand how, in a universe in the process of globalization, so many of these western jihadists or Baathists are saturated with western culture and appropriate it partially to turn it against the West and build their ‘heroic narrative’. And to understand that the network of wars and powers in which they are locked in the Middle East on fire are like the Nazis who had built an orchestrated narrative that used very widely for itself the European culture of which they were children, and had created a culture for themselves through networks complicated with influences, with alliances, and power. These mechanisms are not new. And, in this story, we are not any more the representatives of absolute Good than they are representatives of absolute Evil. We are, and they are also, this Middle East on fire, captive to multiple networks, more or less ancient and mastered by wars, massacres, and alliances. If there are no ‘monsters’, let us not forget what St. Paul said, either: “There is not a righteous man, not even one” on this earth. St. Paul, the first author of the noir novel?

© Dominque Manotti Titles at Gallimard.

© Translation from French: Gabriel Valjan











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The Skeleton Code

The surgeon is to what as a satirist is to words? The answer is scalpel. The surgeon uses it to cut out disease and the satirist uses words to mock a social ill. Authors Alla Campanella and Ken Massey ridicule secrets and the extremes to which people hid them in their book, The Skeleton Code: A Satirical Guide to Secret Keeping (Morgan James Books, 2017, 205 pages).

41wwwgtkxdl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The subtitle gives the reader some expectations. Few contemporary writers work the genre of satire and when they do, they used parable or vivid imagery for the social issue they wish to address and correct. Think of Orwell and totalitarianism in Animal Farm or Cervantes and idealism in Don Quixote. The touchstone for most readers might be Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. I have given these examples because satire has range, whether it is imaginative, as in Orwell and Cervantes, or abrasive wit, as in Swift. Wit is neither humor nor Snark; it is intellect and associated with a rapier.

The Skeleton Code is not as abrasive as Swift. I’m not sure who the intended audience is for this book. The concept is unique. The writing is intelligent, informed with literary and pop culture allusions. Most of the chapters offer summaries. Some of those secrets and behaviors are cringe- worthy, depressing, but unfortunately realistic. Use the scalpel to excess, the blade becomes dull, and the patient bleeds too much from trauma and has a harder time healing. The book spent a lot of time on the types of secrets and their costs. The best chapter was The Cure and I suspect that readers will find it the most rewarding. The Skeleton Code is best read either in small doses for the humor, or when you need moral cheerleader and a road map, which you get from The Cure chapter.

Purchase links: Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

I received this book free from Pro Book Marketing. I was not required to write a review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


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Excerpt from Man of Honor

There was another smile, the scrape of tines, and a pause.

“I also know that your father left you and your mother.”

Though he squirmed in his chair, Alessandro tried to not feel humiliated by that truth. He had learned from his father that men were either wolves or sheep, and this man was a predator sizing him up. Was he, Alessandro Monotti, a threat to this man? The man’s knife and fork remained intent on his meal. Alessandro shivered at an unexpected breeze. Wolves hunt in packs, but few know that wolves are cannibals, that they find other dogs delicious, and that they eat their prey alive. The alpha male always ate first.

“Relax, I know many things about you; it is my business to know things. I know, for example, that you like to test boundaries. I also know that you have a vicious temper.”

“Vicious?” The inflection in his voice betrayed him. How did he know?

“School records – I had a look at your file. You like getting into fights.” He wiped the edge of his knife against the tines. “I admire that.”

“You admire that I get into fights?”

“It shows that you have a mind of your own, though one should learn to balance thought and feeling. This moving around, the life of a military brat – how do you feel about that?”

The man was on the hunt. He had a scent in the air. Alessandro said nothing. He waited. The man cut and ate, cut and ate another piece of stuzzichini.

“What does she have to say about that, about her husband leaving her alone to support a son?”

“That’s between them, sir.”

“Is it? You don’t think that you deserve even a modicum of respect?”

The man’s eyes examined him the way a teacher did with a slow student. More than just the correct answer was in the balance.

“I’m just a kid, sir. I haven’t had a chance to earn respect.”

“Then decency then, and honor,” the man said. “Men are supposed to have honor. You’re a young man.” He paused to drink some wine. “Your father left you to take care of your mother. Where is the honor in that? Furthermore, he disrupts his son’s education and has him enroll in another school far away from his friends. That’s no life.”

Their eyes met. The man reached for his glass of white wine again. The glass sweated in his hand. Alessandro had intended a smart reply, but the words came out wrong.

“I’ll make friends.”

“Which is why I thought that we should get to know each other. You need at least one friend. I’d like to be that friend. You’re a long way from the Arno, Alessandro Monotti. In case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t Florence, this isn’t your Santa Maria Novella.”

“I’m impressed that you knew my neighborhood. What is it that you want in your friendship with me?”

“You’re straight to the point – another trait I admire about you.” The fork and knife came to rest on the rim of the plate. “It’s not so much what I want, but what I can offer you. I’d like for you to know that you have a home here and that I’m your friend.”

“You’re recruiting me then?”

“And I thought I was being subtle,” the man said.

Excerpt with permission from Winter Goose Publishing, 2016.





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Excerpt from Corporate Citizen (Roma Series Book 5)

CC-front“Is this Mr. DiBello?” said a woman’s voice through the long-distance connection.

“This is he,” Gennaro answered.

Bianca raised her eyes at hearing him speaking in English. She had just come into the room with their afternoon drinks. She was even more concerned that the call had come to Gennaro’s cell phone and not the house phone. They were apartment sitting for their friend Claudio Ferrero, La Stampa’s top investigative journalist, who was on assignment. This call also threatened their afternoon ritual of talks out on the balcony where they enjoyed the sights below of San Salvario, the neighborhood near Turin’s city center. Gennaro was motioning for her to come over and eavesdrop.

“What can I do for you?” he asked the caller.

“Not for me, Mr. DiBello. I’m calling on behalf of your friend, Diego Clemente. He asked me to dial your number for him. It’s not easy dialing Italy from a hospital phone.”

“Hospital?” Gennaro said, alarmed. His eyes flashed his concern to Bianca.

“I’m a nurse at MGH and he’s my patient. MGH is Mass General–”

“Hospital in Boston,” Gennaro stammered. “I know that. Scusi – I mean I’m sorry for interrupting you, but is Diego alright?”

“He took a fall at home and broke his hip,” the woman seemed to sigh, “slip rugs are dangerous, you know. He can tell you the rest himself. There isn’t much time.”

“Wait, please. Much time?” Gennaro asked, confused. “I don’t understand.”

“He’s due for surgery and I’ve started his IV. I’d say that you have about ten minutes before happy hour.”

Gennaro said, not understanding to Bianca. “IV…and ‘happy hour.’”

Bianca bared her forearm and explained in Italian: “Medication; probably anesthesia.”

The voice on the phone said, “I’ll hand over the phone to him so you two can talk.”

“Thank you, Nurse.”

“You’re welcome.” Gennaro heard the phone shuffle and heavy breathing. The connection improved. Gennaro and Bianca heard the pull of the curtain. “Diego?”

Another moment passed, and more ruffling sounds. Gennaro and Bianca huddled closer around the phone as Clemente spoke, “Slip rug, col cazzo.” Clemente had learned some Italian, but only the choice words. “That’s some hell of a story, from Mason Street to MGH and now a hip-replacement. Jesus, I can feel the drug working its way up my arm already.”

“You’re making no sense, Diego.”

“Gennaro, please listen to me, since I don’t know how fast Nurse Ratched’s cocktail will work.”

“Less than ten minutes. I’m listening.”

“Thanks. My head feels light. Damn.”

“Wait — where’s your wife? You shouldn’t be alone in a hospital.”

“My wife passed away. Look, Virgil showed me the apartment, the dead girl, and it’s a real mess, a real setup, and my life is going to hell. To hell, you understand, Gennaro, in a boat, hole in the bottom, and toothpicks for oars.” The voice was Diego irritated, in hyper mode.

“Slow down, Diego. I’m sorry about your wife. Why didn’t you tell me?”

A deep, relaxed sigh. “I didn’t want to trouble you. What could you’ve done? Send me a Mass card? You’ve been through it yourself.”

Gennaro’e eyes turned downward. He remembered Lucia. “But still, Diego. I’m your friend. Friends do something, and I don’t mean send you the latest self-help manual on grief.”

Bianca swatted his arm, “No time for sarcasm,” she said.

“I couldn’t help myself, he told her in Italian.

“Hello? Help me then.” Diego

“First, I need to understand what you’re telling me,” Gennaro said. “Who is Virgil?”

“I wish I knew, Gennaro. I wish I knew. I think Virgil is one of Farese’s people.”

“Farese?” The name, as it came out of Gennaro’s mouth, made Bianca’s eyes widen.

U.S. Attorney Michael Farese was a chameleon of a character, changing colors when he worked for the Department of Justice, when he handled diplomatic requests for the State Department, and when he worked for the CIA, as they thought he might have been after their last run-in with him during their investigation of the Camorra in Naples.

“Diego? Concentrate. Why do you think Farese?”

“That doesn’t matter. She’s dead and he’s dead.”

“Who? Who is she? Who is he?” Gennaro asked. His voice almost cracked.

“Norma Jean. She had such nice lingerie, too, and that son of a bitch was in such a nice bed.” Clemente’s voice was almost singing as he was speaking. The wonders of pharmacology.

Gennaro rubbed his eyebrows. He was frustrated. “Diego, stay with me. Who is Norma Jean? Who was in the bed?”

“Marilyn Monroe was a sad girl.” Diego giggled.

“He’s giggling,” Gennaro said to Bianca.

“Oh, it’s a party line!” Diego almost shouted. “Who else is there?”

“Bianca,” Gennaro announced. “She is staying with me.”

“You naughty boy,” Diego said. “Put her on, please.”

“Here,” Gennaro handed his cell phone to Bianca. “Talk to him. I think the medication has gotten into his brain.”

Bianca seized the phone. “Clemente, this is Bianca,” she said, hoping that using the man’s last name would snap some momentary sense into the man’s head. “Forget about Marilyn Monroe. Who is dead?”“Marilyn, of course. Somebody murdered her,” Diego answered.

“Marilyn, of course. Somebody murdered her,” Diego answered.“That’s right, but who is in the bed?”

“That’s right, but who is in the bed?”

“James Guild, former special agent, FBI, scourge of my loins.”Bianca put her hand over the receiver and repeated, “Guild is dead.”

Bianca put her hand over the receiver and repeated, “Guild is dead.”

“Porca puttana.” Gennaro stepped in closer to the receiver. “What happened, Diego?”

“Hell if I know. Virgil gave me the tour of hell. I got nice slippers, though. He had a needle in his arm.”“Virgil had a needle in his arm?” Bianca asked.

“Virgil had a needle in his arm?” Bianca asked.Clemente became belligerent. “I just told you Guild had a needle in his arm. He was in that expensive bed. I saw it. No gun, too. Norma was out in the living room. He was in her bedroom. Nice bed, and what a nice view, and did I tell you what a beautiful kitchen she had?”

Clemente became belligerent. “I just told you Guild had a needle in his arm. He was in that expensive bed. I saw it. No gun, too. Norma was out in the living room. He was in her bedroom. Nice bed, and what a nice view, and did I tell you what a beautiful kitchen she had?”Gennaro asked, “I couldn’t hear that last part. What did he say?”

Gennaro asked, “I couldn’t hear that last part. What did he say?”“Nice kitchen,” she said in English “He’s getting delirious.”

“Nice kitchen,” she said in English “He’s getting delirious.”“I’m not delirious,” Clemente yelled. “I’m serious! Oh, that rhymes.”

“I’m not delirious,” Clemente yelled. “I’m serious! Oh, that rhymes.”

“Please focus, Clemente,” Bianca said.

“I saw it. I saw the computer. My life, your life…it all goes to shit.”Bianca, trying a soothing voice, said, “You saw a computer. What did you see, Clemente?”

Bianca, trying a soothing voice, said, “You saw a computer. What did you see, Clemente?”

“Black, black background,” Diego’s voice was now sputtering.

In a coaxing tone and hoping for more details, Bianca asked, “What else did you see?”

“Big, big.” More sputtering. Bianca closed her eyes.“Big red R!” Diego said triumphantly.

Bianca and Gennaro understood what they had heard: black background and red R.

She said softly, “Fuck me.”

“Lingerie?” Clemente asked. Bianca handed the phone back to Gennaro. She put her hands to her temples, rubbed them. She thought of Boston, the Sargent case, Nasonia Pharmaceutical, and the body count.

“Diego, this is Gennaro again. We’re coming to Boston.”

“That would be nice. Somebody should feed the floor people. I feel sleepy now,” Clemente said, mewing. Gennaro stared at his phone before he put it to his ear again.

“Get some sleep, Diego. We’ll be there as soon as we can.”

Gennaro heard more purring and then the cacophonous drop of the receiver on the floor on the other end. He ended the call on his cell phone.

“Did he say anything else?” Bianca asked.

“He said someone should feed floor people. I think he has cats.”

“How do you know he has cats?” she asked.

Blame it on hanging around Silvio.” Bianca didn’t question the logic. Silvio was a translator, Farese’s interpreter, their friend, member of the team, and lately, animal whisperer.

“We should go to Boston,” Gennaro said.

“He saw the red R.”

“I know. You should call Dante.”

“Do I really have to?” she asked.

“Yes, and you have to tell him.”

“Which part? Clemente and Guild, or that Clemente saw the red R.”

“Doesn’t matter. Tell him everything,” Gennaro said. “It adds up to the same.”

Red R meant Rendition.

Excerpt published with permission from Winter Goose Publishing

Available 5 October 2016

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Excerpt from Two Warriors

He had the AC on. He waited for his chance to claim his spot on the highway. He had the radio on. Retro song. He heard the Spanish word colitas in the lyrics. He thought of the language he hadn’t spoken in years. The lilt of her Spanish lived inside his head. Music opened a door that he didn’t want to enter right now. Papà was gone. She was gone. His eyes burned. He had to change the station.

The drive, this embryonic sac of life inside a mechanical beast, would last only so long. He’d have to open the door and take on reality soon. For now, though, for now he’d enjoy the reverie, something on the radio.

The news reported an earthquake in México City. Thousands were missing, feared dead. He heard it in the reporter’s voice. Farrugia deplored this morbid fascination with natural disasters. He heard 8.1 on the Richter scale and the geologist’s analysis. He was thinking concrete and dust. He was thinking Guadalajara cartel, pesos and dollars, cocaine and guns. Those things never slept or died. He turned to another station.

A Ramazzotti tune hurled him back in time. The singer, popular with southern boys such as himself, came from a working-class neighborhood. Ramazzotti had Rome and he, Isidore Farrugia, had San Luca of the Sticks. Different places, but they both shared the same nihilism. He turned the dial again.

He settled into some American music. The synth sounds of Duran Duran recalled parties off the base. Girls with glossed lips and guys with outrageous hair. The synthesizer made its appearance again, rolling in this time with Sting’s breathy ditty about a possessive lover, or was it his homage to Orwell? Never mind. He listened to it anyway.

Madonna made him think of music videos. Video Music, the music channel, was the trend for kids now. He’d see them huddled around a television set, eating up Berlusconi’s programing. Dallas and Dynasty—shows RAI stopped televising after three episodes because of their alleged corruptive power. And he hadn’t forgotten how odd, how cool it was, to have commercials interrupt movies. So fashionable, so chic and cool, so very American. So not RAI.

The sea came into view on his right. Blue raced parallel to the car. The Strait of Messina threatened ahead. He thought of the earthquake he had heard about earlier on the radio. Messina was known for seismic activity. “It could have happened here,” he said to himself.

Soon, he’d see the two rock formations. Homer had sung of Scylla, who ate men and dolphins alike. Scylla had been born a nymph. Glaucus, a fisherman, had fallen in love with her, but had made a terrible mistake; he complained about his unrequited love to Circe. The witch’s brew transformed the attractive girl into a hideous monster with six heads. She raged against the sea from her home in the cliff.

Across from her, there was Charybdis. She was the dutiful and loving daughter of Poseidon. She rode the tides like a California surfer for her father in his war against Zeus. Women always paid the price for men. Zeus exiled her to a cave, to live under a fig tree. Three times a day she’d drink in the sea, ships and sailors with it. Farrugia could hear his old chum Corrado now.

There’s an abundant poetic metaphor for you, Isidò. The Strait of Messina is nothing more than a blue vein between Italy and Sicily. Things are not what they seem, though, because neither blood nor veins are blue. No, they are not. Any kid in elementary biology could tell you that, but we forget what we’ve learned in school. It’s all an illusion. Blood is blood and blood is always red, even when it is starving for breath. Farrugia admitted it; he preferred poetry to science.

Excerpt with permission from Winter Goose Publishing, 2016.


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