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Read a Chapter #8
Paranormal romance by Lilian Roberts
“THE COLOSSAL BUILDING in the center of St. Petersburg Square displayed an impressive architectural style with a strong Byzantine influence. The corbel arches and domes were gilded or brightly painted, giving the building a seventeenth century appearance. The walls and ceilings throughout the building were covered with decorative carved panels. The staircases leading to the upper floors were with fitted bookcases. Each door was carefully made from walnut with heavy bronze handles attached on either side. The leather upholstery for the walls was carefully selected. The carpets, the curtain fabric, and the upholstery for the furniture were imported from Europe. The furniture was exquisite, each piece made of the fashionable walnut with rich texture. Every desk, table, and bench was fretted in Gothic patterns, including lancet arches, rosettes, and trefoils. Nikola Vasilovitch, the head of Russian Intelligence, was sprawled in a huge chair behind one of those amazing desks. He held a cigar in his left hand, and his eyes were half closed.
The sun burst through the huge window on the east side of the room, creating an unusual brilliance. There were three tall, broad-shouldered men sitting on the large sofa across from Nikola’s desk, waiting in silence for their boss to speak. Rainer Heinrich and Hahn Dussel were German born theoretical physicists, both experts in creating and handling bombs. They had spied for the Russians while working in England as well as the United States. The third man on the sofa was Larue Legrand, a French born citizen who stole secret documents from the French military and passed them along to the Russians. He was an expert in penetrating and decoding secret documents and designs. Nikola was their single point of contact. He was the one they turned over secret information to, not caring whether the information harmed an individual, a business, or an entire country.
These three individuals oversaw an espionage ring with cells working throughout the world. They had central posts in Paris, Berlin, Milan, Athens, Brussels, Vienna and Warsaw.
From these cities, their spies received assignments, and then moved quietly to swap identical black bags containing important items or information. They possessed skills to uncover, steal, or forcefully take what they wanted for their own purposes, keeping the heat away from St. Petersburg. They embedded coded texts in ordinary-looking images posted on the Internet and communicated with one another using special software on their laptops. They had bombing specialists working for them, specialists who developed many types of bombs and detonated them remotely to create chaos in train stations and government buildings. The men did not care who was killed and who survived.
Nikola coughed, clearing his throat as he lit the cigar in his hand. He blew thick circles of smoke towards the ceiling. He stood up and started to pace back and forth in front of the three men. Nikola was a stocky man with thick brown hair and dark brown eyes that seemed full of anger and contempt.
“What have you got worth discussing on the International Industrial Research Laboratories?” His voice was husky and cold. He spoke in a no-nonsense tone. “I want to know the history behind this company, and why our first attempt failed so miserably.” He stood in front of the large sofa looking down on the men, grinding his teeth while waiting for an answer. They knew their boss wouldn't accept excuses. The three exchanged nervous glances. Hahn was the first to speak.
“I did a background check on IIRL after the first attempt to steal the designs. I found out that the company has roots that go back to the sixteenth century. The Gaulle family started the business, which changed names three times in the last five hundred years. The name IIRL was established during the nineteenth century, and the only heir to the business is the young Sebastian Gaulle. He’s a brilliant businessman who has established offices and laboratories around the world. He works very closely with his chief advisers at each location, however he is closest to Nathan Shilton, his chief adviser at the London headquarters. A few months ago, he hired Troy Vasser, a young Italian man, as his chief security officer for the entire company. The strange thing is that both Sebastian and Troy attend the University of Brighton while running the business.”
“And, why is that so strange?” he asked.
“Well, they both hold several degrees from distinguished universities around the world. Don’t you think that’s a bit strange?”
Nikola rubbed his chin, a puzzled look on his face. “Indeed, that is something,” “he said. “But to come back to the more important issue at hand, why did we fail last time? The documents were of the utmost
importance, and the scientists even more so. They were both within our reach, and we lost them. I had promised the prime minister that we were going to deliver, and I failed. Why did we put inexperienced people in charge of such an important assignment?” A twisted scowl appeared on his awkward face.
“Actually, Alexie Miroslav was one of our best agents, but something must have gone terribly wrong. Interpol showed up at the exact moment he picked up the briefcase that contained the documents at the museum. There’s no way anyone could’ve known the meeting place. There must be a mole among us, and that mole set them up,” Hahn said.
Nikola walked around the huge desk, and then turned to faced them. His brown eyes were cold as ice. The men shivered. They remained silent; they didn’t dare to make up a story. Nikola was skilled at detecting deception and absolutely unforgiving.
His fist slammed on the desk, making the three men jump. “The prime minister is heavily funding our group, trying to restore the prestige we deserve, but we must deliver to prove ourselves. He was furious at the scale of our incompetence. We spent huge amounts of money to get our hands on those documents, and we didn’t only fail miserably, we lost several agents because someone didn’t do their job right. I expect you three to find the mole and punish him or her in the appropriate way. If you succeed, I’m willing to forget this, but there’ll be no more failures.” His look was venous.
“I want you to go back to your offices and come up with a plan that is foolproof. There will be no miscalculations and no slip-ups because this time a bad outcome will be devastating to you three. I want you back in this office tomorrow morning to lay out your plan right here on this desk.” He slammed his hand on the top of his desk one more time.
“I’m sure this Sebastian Gaulle has family or loved ones. I want you to set up surveillance and find out exactly who is most important to him. Use any means necessary to convince him that cooperating with us is his only option. We’ve got to have the IIRL documents and designs. I don’t give a shit how you go about it. It’s one of the most important items on the agenda, and I want to have a firm plan on how we are going to accomplish this by tomorrow.”
The men took deep breaths after Nikola finished, and then summoned the strength to get up and walk out after promising they’d be there first thing in the morning.
Their faces were tense, but showed a small sign of relief as they stepped outside the building. Nikola’s crazy stare, full of bitterness and hostility, had terrified them.
Nikola was the kind of man that had no conscience, no scruples, and who thought anyone outside Russian Intelligence was a potential enemy. He thought of outsiders as objects, not human beings. Making a commitment to work for him was a life sentence with no outs, no alternatives.
They knew they lived in a frantic world, and they were products of their own trials and tribulations. They used fear and torture to get power. Nikola was like a live grenade ready to go off in a matter of seconds. By the time anyone realized that being part of this group was a mistake, the only way out was the morgue. The three criminals walked silently to the car and piled in. Rainer pushed on the gas as Hahn let out a long sigh of relief.
“What the hell was all that about?” Larue screamed from the back seat.
“I guess Nikola didn’t receive the proper thank you gift from the Prime Minister and he’s holding us responsible for sending Alexie over there to do the job,” Rainer said abruptly.
“I don’t remember you negotiating with anyone on this assignment,” Hahn said, bemused.
“Hell…I know that, and he knows that. I never met Alexie, and never had anything to do with the last assignment. It was all his doing, and now he is throwing the blame on us. If it had been a great success he would have taken all the glory and praise, but since it was a total failure he’s got to blame someone else.” He let out a loud growl and cursed angrily.
“You mean us?” Larue said.
“Yes, us, and we'd better come up with a better plan,” he said, and cursed under his breath again as he stared straight ahead. The three men pondered failure and tensed up absentmindedly. Rainer felt anxiety spread across his body. Fear made him shiver. He, more than the other two, was familiar with Nikola's response to failure.
“He wouldn’t really hurt us, would he?” Larue’s voice was filled with anguish.
“Listen, Larue, I’ve worked for that son of bitch for fifteen years, and he shows absolutely no mercy. I think he would execute his own mother if he had to. He has no soul. He is the real d’yavol.”
The car moved down the busy streets without another word spoken until the men arrived at their destination, a building located on the south side of the Neva River about five kilometers from headquarters. They climbed out of the car and walked towards the entrance, moving through the revolving glass door and stopping inside the huge lobby.
Rainer turned to face Larue and Hahn gazing at them for a short moment. He took a deep breath and ran his tongue over his dry lips with a twinge of annoyance.
“I think we should take this to the conference room and put our heads together. Whatever plan we come up with will have to be strong, foolproof, no nonsense. Our lives depend on the outcome.” He turned and walked into the elevator. He hit the button for the fourteenth floor. They rode the elevator in absolute silence. The doors opened into a large, elegantly decorated corner office. Two glass walls provided an amazing view of the river and the city below. Rich mahogany paneling covered the other walls. An antique sofa covered in gorgeous designs and two beautiful antique chairs sat on the opposite side of the room from where they entered. Huge flowerpots occupied each corner of the room, and an awesome mahogany desk sat right in the center. Stylish curtains in dark blue silk with decorative valences and gold trim complemented the accessories on the small tables next to each chair. The curtains were held open on either side of the glass walls by gold handles.
A very beautiful young lady sat behind the desk talking on the phone and taking notes while a couple of guests waited to meet with someone on that floor. The woman looked up as the elevator doors opened. She put down the receiver and gave the men a delighted smile.
“Hello, Mr. Heinrich,” she said, in a soft voice. Rainer met her gaze and returned her greeting with a wide smile on his face. It was clear to everyone from his smile that he was happy to see her. He approached the desk and laid his hand on top of the young woman's hand, his eyes never leaving her beautiful green ones. His voice transformed into something surprisingly tender.
“Georgiana, could you please bring some coffee to the three of us in the conference room?”
She nodded, never losing her beautiful smile as she turned bright red from the excitement of his touch. She had been his secretary for six months. He knew that she had feelings for him and they were both single, but despite their mutual attraction he hadn’t said or done anything to cross the professional line. He shook his head, remembering that he was in the middle of an important assignment here; he couldn’t lose focus, not for one moment. He suddenly turned and walked down the long, narrow hallway with Larue and Hahn on his heels. They passed several offices on the way including his. He stopped at the end of the hallway in front of a door with the sign, “Intelligence Security Services Conference Room,” and flung the door open.
“I’ve an idea,” said Larue as soon as they'd entered the room.
Rainer took a seat and motioned for them to sit. “Let me hear it,” he said eagerly.”
“How about talking to Jorrit Van Cleef in Brussels? He’s an expert in administering malware to a company's main systems. He can make those systems vulnerable to access, and get a hold of vital information. Or he could take control of their browsers and monitor their activities.”
“Can he do that?” Rainer asked, curiosity piqued.
“He sure can, he can infest their system with a virus that would create chaos in their company. I’ve seen him do it before.” His eyes were filled with excitement.
“We don’t want to destroy any of their documents, we need that information,” Rainer said.
“The spyware he uses isn't a virus that spreads and destroys their documents. It installs software that explores security holes and packs them with user-installed software.”
“I don’t understand what you mean,” he said.
“In simple words, he’ll install a malicious program to their main system that is completely concealed, a program capable of defending itself against removal, and that'll allow him to gain administrator access, therefore gaining access to passwords and other sensitive information in the system.”
Rainer got up from his chair and put his hands behind his back. He paced back and forth without saying a word. He finally stopped in front of Larue.
“Are you sure he can do that?”
“I know he can. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes.”
“All right then, I like it. We’ll go with that, but let's have a backup plan in case something goes wrong. Do we agree? We don’t want to take any chances at all.” Hahn looked at Larue and asked, “How is that going to help us?”
“He’ll take control and monitor their system, get complete access to every piece of information they own, including the details on the documents that Nikola wants to get his hands on.”
“All right, let's move to the backup plan,” Rainer said impatiently.
“What do you suggest?” Larue asked.
“I want tight surveillance on Sebastian and his family if he has one. I want to find out who are the people that mean the most to him. I want a detailed daily schedule for his and his family’s activities. I want photographs documenting where they go on their daily routine.”
Rainer dragged in a deep breath, and then started pacing again. A moment passed in silence. He finally stopped pacing and glancing at the two men still sitting at the conference table, he said, “If Jorrit’s plan doesn’t work, we’ll have to set in place a logical strategy that will terrorize Gaulle’s family and force him to surrender the documents.”
“Hahn and Larue merely nodded, but their heads remained filled with fretfulness. What did they really know about Gaulle and his family? What if they failed again? The fear of Nikola’s retaliation was enough to cause panic throughout their bodies.”
Read a Chapter #7
Historical fiction by Erika M Szabo
Madeline had a happy, carefree early childhood until she became aware of her surroundings around age six and started listening to stories of the older girls about what’s was going on in the salon and on the second floor. In her childish mind, she associated the sound of music and laughter she’d heard every night, with happiness. But soon she learned that a lot of emotions could be faked and under the happy exterior people hid pain, suffering, and despair.
Madeleine had to learn to fake obedience after a few serious and painful beatings by her mother when she questioned life in the brothel and dared to show her rebellious side. “I hate to beat you, but it’s your fault. Your restless heart gets you in trouble all the time!” Marie would often shout at the young girl. “You must do as I say and be a good girl.”
Marie rarely visited the third floor, she left raising her son and daughter to the older courtesans who were in charge of the children. She didn’t display much emotion toward her children, other than disciplining them if the nannies complained, during her short visits. She mostly ignored her short stature, stocky boy, and treated Madeleine as if she was valuable property.
As a teenager more aware of her situation, Madeleine considered herself to be lucky compared to children of poor families who often went hungry and wore hand-me-down clothes. She always had enough food, pretty dresses, and a comfortable, warm room, yet she loathed her mother’s lifestyle of entertaining many different men every night. Although she’d been thankful for her comfortable life, she’d felt the degrading side glances from even the poorest people when she accompanied the servants to the market or visited a dress shop or bakery.
She was also lucky to be educated, unlike most girls in the early 1700s, even the daughters of rich families. Claudine hired private tutors to teach the children to read and write as well as useful knowledge of history, politics, fashion, and art. Necessary knowledge that the courtesans used to entertain their more sophisticated guests. The girls also had a music and dance teacher. The more dexterous children learned to play the harp and piano, others played flute and other instruments that didn’t require fine movement of their fingers.
Madeleine’s bright mind absorbed everything faster than a thirsty sponge. The middle-aged plain-looking spinster, who was in charge of the education of the children, had been delighted by her eagerness to learn and gladly taught her everything she knew. The teacher’s father was a physician, and her grandmother taught her the use of medicinal herbs. She was happy to give Madeleine extra lessons. Moreover, she gave lessons to the bright girl in English and Spanish as well. “You never know where your restless heart will take you in life. You might find it useful to understand other languages,” she told her, and Madeline happily agreed, eager to learn everything she could teach her.
By the time she was fourteen, Madeline knew how to set broken bones, which knowledge proved to be useful, to the delight of Madame Claudine, with a household of rowdy boys getting into fights all the time. The young girl had saved a lot of money for Madame Claudine by treating common respiratory and digestive ailments of the members of the house, money otherwise would’ve been spent on doctors and healers.
Madeleine’s slender figure, the charming porcelain smooth complexion of her oval face, and striking blue eyes drew many admiring glances. On her fourteenth birthday, the cook baked her a cake, and everyone gathered in the kitchen to wish her a happy birthday. Am I happy? No! I want more! I deserve more! Bitter thoughts swirled in Madeline’s mind as she blew the candles on her birthday cake. I want a better life. I want to be respected just like other people who weren’t destined to live in brothels.
Claudine gave the beautiful young girl a calculating look and motioned to the girl’s mother to follow her out of the kitchen. Madeleine noticed the silent exchange between the women and having a foreboding feeling, excused herself to use the bathroom. She tiptoed after the pair to the sitting room. Hiding behind the half-closed door, she listened to their hushed conversation.
“It’s time, Marie,” Claudine said tapping the handsome woman’s arm. “You’re still desirable, but soon will be reaching the age when men would request your services less and less. It’s time for your daughter to be groomed, and when the time comes, to take your place.”
“But what will become of me?” Madeleine heard her mother’s sob. “I don’t have enough money saved, and I have nowhere to go.” Marie cried out.
“Don’t worry about that!” Claudine softly murmured. “The cook is getting too old and soon will retire, you can take her place. Start working with her a few hours a day for now and learn how to run the kitchen.”
“Thank you! You’re so good to us,” Marie sobbed.
“Eventually, when the time comes, Madeleine can take your place,” Claudine spoke. “The two of you can save up enough money in a few years to buy a nice house in the countryside. You’ll see!” she promised.
“What’s your plan?” Marie asked, with hope in her voice.
“Well, I’ll put the word out among our regulars that her virginity is for sale. We’ll sell her to the highest bidder with a contract that will assure his patronage for at least four years and secure a monthly income for her. When she turns eighteen, if her patron decides to take a younger girl, she can take your place to entertain guests.”
“How much would I get from the sale of her virginity?” Marie’s calculating side surfaced.
“You’ll get half of the price, and two-thirds of her monthly income.”
“Sounds good.” Marie agreed. “When will it happen?”
“As soon as I’ll find a suitable patron.”
Madeleine heard the rustling sounds of their skirts as the women stood up after agreeing on the deal. They would sell me like cattle, to the highest bidder. Boiling anger made the bile rise to her throat. She turned and ran upstairs to her room where she sobbed her despair into her pillow. Is that it? She cried without words, in her mind. Am I to become a courtesan just like my mother? No! I rather die! Feeling desperate, she’d cried herself to sleep.
After a short, restless sleep, she weighted her options with a clearer and more rational mind. At the tender age of fourteen, she’d been forced to age years within a short few hours.
Read a Chapter #6
Paranormal thriller by Lorraine Carey
The alarm went off at 5:00 am. Brandt leaned over and gave me a peck on the cheek. “Don’t get up, babe. I’ll grab a coffee on my way up to Cleveland. See ya round 6:00 tonight.”
I tried to lie there and go back to sleep but couldn’t. I was too excited to get my car as well as my freedom back. I also worried about Brandt and what his duties were with this Mike Gadson guy. I threw on my robe and headed into the kitchen to brew a cup of coffee. I wanted to call Mother but was aware of the two-hour time difference. I decided to have one cup, cruise social media, then give her a call.
As I perused over the Lakewood School District site, I noticed an ad for a homeschool teacher. This would be perfect! I needed to get all of my documents in order and send them off. Being temporary was perfect, as I wasn’t sure how long Brandt and I would be here.
The doorbell rang just as I was finishing up my call with Mother. It was the man with my car. I realized I still had my robe on but had no time to change.
And there it was—a shiny new silver Nissan in the driveway! The customer service man entered with one paper for me to sign. He had the dealership van waiting for him outside. I thanked him and stood in the doorway admiring my new ride.
The frigid February air didn’t stop me from running outside to take a picture of my new ride. I shot it off to Brandt with a good luck message.
I rummaged through my few pieces of workout gear and then decided to head over to Mosquito Lake to get in a good run. I punched in the address to my dash navigator and was ready to roll. Being 9:30 am, few cars were on the road. I had missed the rush hour—however small that was for Cortland. I headed up Interstate 5 and was there in no time. My heart pounded with anticipation. I couldn’t wait to get back to what I loved. The parking lot was pretty much empty except for two cars and a pickup. Shades of my last run in Sherman crept through my mind—no mysterious cars. This felt different—safer.
The air was crisp and smelled like pine. I picked up my pace, knowing I’d soon be losing this hoodie after a good sweat. The lake was beautiful. Most of the trees were still bare being late February, but a few still had sparse crimson leaves on them. The lake wasn’t frozen, but the morning sun cast an icy shadow over it making it look like a huge shimmering sheet of ice. My breath was getting heavy as I rounded the first corner of the lake. I glanced at my Fit Right watch delighted to see I had already done two miles and my heart rate was 110. Not bad for being out of shape.
I spotted a park bench and stopped for a minute to pull off my hoodie and sip my water. Just as I set my water down, I heard birds cackling above. Oh no! Here we go! I watched them circle above me, trying to figure out if they were crows. Sure enough, they were. They looked a bit like ravens, but I knew ravens were rare in this part of Ohio. I resumed my run trying to ignore their caws. I received no message from them and finally realized they were simply plain crows. I reasoned I had most likely lost my intuitive connection with animals—one I’d greatly miss.
After another half hour, I was spent and headed back to the car. There was only one car left when I returned. I had no feeling of dread or fear. Maybe this was the place I’d come to love and feel safe again?
I clicked my phone back on. I had a message from Brandt. All was well and he’d be home by 6:00. It was10:30. Still being early, I decided to head to the market to get something for dinner, and then home to work on my resume for the homeschooling job.
Heading home from the market I thought about Marta, Nina Santos’s sister, and how proud she’d be of me for staying on my healthy eating track. I picked up organic asparagus, chicken and wild rice for dinner. Since Auntie informed me the Sisters were still keeping an eye on me, I hoped they’d report to Marta that I was doing well.
While preparing dinner, I glanced out the kitchen window at a small red fox that was out by the edge of the property line. He looked almost fake, like one of those statues for the yard. I dried my hands, threw on my hoodie. I wanted to get a better peek at him. I didn’t want to scare him off, so I went outside the front door, staying light on my feet as I padded around to the backyard. He noticed me right away, and I froze when I reached the back patio. He inched closer as if he wanted to come my way. I wasn’t going to move. I had the sense that he wanted to communicate with me. I watched his eyes, deep and chocolatey brown that they were. ‘All is not as it seems,’ was the message coming through. I crouched down to his level, calling him over to me. He turned and ran back toward the woods.
Hmm, now how about that? His message rang loud in my mind as I headed back into the house. I sat on the sofa and closed my eyes, trying to decode this message. I saw him again in my mind’s eye. I recited his message aloud. “All is not as it seems” Hmm . . . I still had it! And I was grateful for this gift.
I had to wonder if this was intended for Brandt, or me? Either way, something was up. It was no surprise the way my life was going these past few years. What really had me was the fact that I was able to communicate with him. I wondered why I wasn’t able to do this with the crows at the lake. The thought of dinner brought me back to the reality of my kitchen duty.
While dinner was cooking, I completed the application for the homeschool teacher assignment. Now it was a waiting game. It was almost 4:00. I wanted to shower and put something nice on for Brandt. Knowing this was a special day for him, I knew what he’d like, but I had no desire to serve him dinner in fancy lingerie. There were still serious questions to be answered: How did his day go? What did he have to do? Just what exactly did the fox’s message mean? Hopefully, I’d get the first two questions answered this evening. As for the fox’s message, I’d keep that to myself for now. I had some vague knowledge of its symbolism, according to Native American beliefs, as representing the practice of negative energy and sorcery. But like the coyote, he was also regarded as a Trickster, therefore, messages could be more complex. I’d dig into this deeper in the next few days.
My phone was pinging shortly after I jumped out of the shower. I had four new emails, one being from the Lakeview School District. That was fast! I couldn’t help but wonder if one of the Sisters had arranged this. It seemed too odd. I had an interview tomorrow for the homeschool teaching position. I did my little happy dance right there in my towel. I ran into the closet, searching for the appropriate attire. I did have a few nicer dresses I’d saved from my previous teaching days. I pulled out a navy blue, knit, knee-length dress and black pumps. Yep, this would work.
The smells of dinner wafted from the kitchen. I went to check on the chicken parm and started to boil the wild rice. Brandt would be home in an hour. I felt excited as my mood lightened with the promise of a new job. I rummaged through my lingerie drawer for a special outfit to wear at dinner. Damn! I really needed to go shopping. Not much there but a few pieces I’d picked up in Sherman. A red lace teddy seemed appropriate for a celebratory dinner. I think I’ll scope out that mall over in Warren after the interview tomorrow. I wouldn’t need more career wear if I was going to be a homeschool teacher, but I surely needed new jeans and tops, let alone more outfits to tantalize Brandt.
Just as I was taking the chicken out of the oven, Brandt walked in. He had a big smile on his face. I wasn’t sure if it was due to his first day or seeing me cooking in next to nothing. I ran to give him a big hug. “Well, how’d it go?”
“It was good. Better than I expected,” he added, setting his briefcase down on the hall table. “Mmm, something smells good.”
“It’s your favorite. Go get comfortable. Dinner will be ready in fifteen. I can’t wait to hear about your day.”
I watched him saunter down the hallway. Hmm, that’s odd. He didn’t mention how I looked. He’s usually ready to jump all over me. It must be nerves or stress from his new job. I didn’t want to pressure him too much, but I was curious.
Brandt sighed as he plopped down in his chair. He was tired. “It looks wonderful, Dani, and so do you, by the way. I hope you didn’t make dessert, as I’m planning on devouring you.”
“Well, that can be arranged.” I served him first then sat down.
Brandt dug into his meal. I watched him eat as though he hadn’t eaten in days. “Didn’t you get lunch?”
“No time. I was in meetings all day. Lots to catch up on.” He took a few swigs of iced tea. “I know you’re anxious to hear all the details, Dani— I’m still learning myself. I had an IT man there to help me with data and security clearance stuff. He’s teaching me the routine I’ll need to follow prior to all of Mike Gadson’s meetings. This guy’s big time. By the way, I have to go back up to Cleveland tomorrow, too.”
“Yes. It won’t be like this forever. For now, I need to make good money and buy us some time.”
I listened with high interest. “Will you just sit at a desk all day, or have to accompany this Mr. Gadson on trips?”
“It’s going to be a little of both. He knew I was a bodyguard so he’s utilizing that skill as well.”
“I take it you’ll be gone out of town at times?” I pried.
“Yes, but it’ll be once or twice a month at the most. Don’t worry, Dani. I wouldn’t leave you alone for more than a few days.”
Silence took hold of me. Somehow the news of my job interview seemed to pale with his announcement. I picked at my food as my head swirled with more questions. I didn’t want him to think I wasn’t happy or interested.
We finished dinner, and Brandt helped me load the dishes in the dishwasher. I poured us each a glass of wine. We headed to the large, overstuffed sofa in the living room.
I sat on his lap and wrapped my arms around his neck and locked eyes with his. “I’m happy as long as you’re happy. I have something to tell you.”
“Let’s hope it’s good news.” His eyes sparkled.
“It is! I have a job interview tomorrow for a homeschool teaching position with the Lakeview School District.”
“Well now! That’s another reason to celebrate.” He picked up his wine glass, ready for a toast.
“I haven’t gotten the job just yet. It was very weird, though. I submitted my resume before I hopped in the shower. A reply came within a half hour.”
“Not very odd, Dani. You do have great qualifications, not to mention a great ass.” His hand traveled down over to my backside, giving me a light slap on the butt. It was right where my V tattoo was. It burned slightly causing me to flinch.
“I don’t believe that’s one of the qualifications.” I melded my body into his and my hormones were in high gear once again. My teddy was on the floor in no time. We never made it off the sofa.
Brandt was carrying in a few black bags into the closet as I stepped out of the shower. They looked like gun cases. I trailed him, still in my towel. “What is that?”
“This is my magic, Dani. You have yours.” He placed the two black holsters on the top shelf.
“You know how I feel about weapons.” I stood there with my hands on my hips.
“Yes, I do. And must I remind you that if my men didn’t use weapons at the Sherman compound, you and I would not be standing here tonight.” Those turquoise eyes echoed a passion—one very different from mine.
I swallowed hard before responding. “I appreciate your honesty. I’m sorry I snapped at you. I’m just—well, leery of what we’re facing. I’m done with all of this.”
“I understand, but I don’t think we’re out of the woods just yet. And by the way, I need these guns to do my job. I have a very high profile man to guard, as well as a beautiful woman to protect.”
Once again, he had me. I always felt safe with him and believed what he said. I liked the fact that he felt he needed to protect me, but I also knew in the back of my mind I was a big girl now and was capable of protecting myself—or at least I thought so. Who else was capable of saving souls at the risk of losing their own?
Read a Chapter #5
Mystery by P.J. Mann
Remaining alone in the apartment, after Luciano and Giulia left, Maurizio walked toward the couch, waiting for the forensic team to reach the apartment from the garage to continue their search.
He started to analyze some details of the crime, beginning with the discussion he had with the two closest people to the victim. The ex-wife, although she was the one to have a good motive, has a bulletproof alibi, the son didn’t have any apparent reason to kill his father, he ruminated. He remained to live with him after the divorce; if there was resentment or desire to revenge for the offense to his mother, he would have also decided to stay with her. Yet, we need to confirm his alibi being close to the crime scene.
He shuffled on his feet, as he finished writing in his notebook his first impressions. The door opening forced him to return from his thoughts, and Forensic Inspector Leonardo Romizi, leading the forensic team that reached the place, entered the apartment, glancing around. “You haven’t touched anything, have you?” he asked, noticing Maurizio’s hands not wearing the mandatory latex gloves.
“I was here writing in my notebook; I think I’ve done my work long enough to remember that detail.”
Forensic Investigator Romizi shrugged, “Just checking.”
“What are your first impressions? Is there anything interesting about the way Mr. Calvani was murdered?” Maurizio strolled toward Leonardo, placing the notebook in his pocket.
“Yes, and everything seems to point at a case that won’t be easy to solve. He was killed with a single shot to the head from a very close range. We found only one shell, meaning that the gun wasn’t a revolver,” he said, raising the clear-sealed bag which contained it. “We will have to perform the ballistic models to see from which position he was shot, whether the assassin was waiting for him in the car or outside of it. There are so many points on the dynamic that need to be clarified, and hopefully, the surveillance camera installed will for once be helpful to get more information about the killer.”
The rest of the team started to collect samples and items from the apartment, particularly from the studio, where Claudio was running part of his business life.
Suddenly an elderly woman in her sixties arrived, peeking from the door, hesitatingly looking around. “Ma’am!” Maurizio exclaimed, pacing toward her to avoid having an intruder. “This place is restricted now. You can’t come inside.”
“I’m sorry, but I live here on this same floor. You can’t pretend people won’t get interested in what’s going on here,” she protested, exiting the apartment. “What happened? Did you find the man dealing with drugs?”
Narrowing his eyes, trying to understand whether there was something to extract from her question, he walked her to a corner of the stairs. “Mr. Calvani was found dead this morning. Have you heard anything that can help us?”
The woman gasped, bringing a hand to her mouth. She could have guessed everything except something serious like a murder. “Detective, do you think there’s a murderer who can threaten all of us?”
“No, I’m certain this was connected directly to Mr. Calvani. You can be sure nobody is after any of the other residents in this building. But if you heard any noise, something strange, please don’t keep it for yourself, every piece of information can be vital, even the smallest,” he insisted, knowing she could have been the right person who keeps track of every move the people living on the same floor make, if not in the whole block.
“I am a person who minds her own business. I don’t put my nose in issues that don’t concern me,” she said proudly, inflating her chest. “Nevertheless, this morning, I heard Mr. Calvani returning later than usual. When he comes back in the night, the slightest noise echoes like a peal of thunder, and I got awakened by the slamming of the door.”
“Hmm... how did you know it was Mr. Calvani and not his son or someone else?” He knew the answer, but he always loved to tease a bit with those I-mind-my-own-business people who always know everything about everybody. In many cases, they were intrusive presences, but when a crime is committed, they could be a blessing for the Police. They are sometimes better than a surveillance camera because they hold information nobody else knows.
“Look,” she said, pointing at the door on the other side. “Here is Bruna’s apartment. She’s a friend of mine and lives alone. She’s not used to going out for clubs,” Her finger moved to another door. “There, lives the Magliani’s family. They go to work early, and they have two toddlers, so if they were going somewhere at that time of the night, they would have been together for some emergency.”
Maurizio’s face lightened, amused, “Yes, but it could have been Luciano, the son of Mr. Calvani...”
“No-no-no. No, sir!” She shook her head, closing her eyes. “The boy is going to university and goes to sleep early. He was listening to music and then switched on the TV, so he wasn’t the one who returned at the wee hours in the morning.” She got closer to Maurizio as to avoid being heard by indiscreet ears. “He came home at three o’clock, but after a few minutes, he got out once again, after receiving a phone call. I thought he was going to the apartment of the new girlfriend because he didn’t come back, but now that you tell me he’d been murdered...” She signed herself, pursing her lips. “Shall God have mercy on his soul.”
Maurizio remained silent for a moment, and things started to make sense.
If he received a call, it might be possible it was the assassin. Immersed in his thoughts, he drifted back in the apartment, leaving the woman waiting on the corridor. He came in, took off his jacket as the telephone rang... He walked once again outside the door.
Whoever called him asked him out with a whatever excuse, yet this implied his intention was to be back within a few minutes, without going anywhere specific; otherwise, he would have brought the jacket with him. I need the telephone and the call log of the last few months, but particularly last night.
He glanced at the woman who remained to observe the coming and goings of the detective from the apartment.
“Mrs....” Maurizio hesitated.
“Moretti, Berenice Moretti,” she replied, almost standing at attention.
“Mrs. Moretti, I wish to have you available for any questions I might have about what you remember of the previous night,” he commenced, hoping not to be too intrusive into the life of a bystander.
“If you fear I might miss any detail, I wish to inform you that I have a perfectly functioning memory, and I won’t forget anything, but if you prefer to question me right away, I’m more than available when it comes to serving justice.”
“I need to take care of some other details, but I might come back this afternoon if you don’t mind,” he proposed.
“Well, I’m a bit busy today, but if you come after four in the afternoon, you will certainly find me here. I will brew coffee,” she winked.
“How can I refuse to have a cup of coffee?” He chuckled sarcastically.
He returned to the apartment and looked around, searching for Forensic Investigator Romizi, “Leonardo!” he called.
“Found anything interesting?” Leonardo arrived from the bedroom.
“Maybe, one of the neighbors has heard Mr. Calvani returning this morning. According to her testimony, he had a call that forced him to return to the car. I’m going now to the precinct trying to make sense out of those preliminary information bits and brainstorm,” he replied, starting to create a list of things to do in his mind before returning there to question Mrs. Moretti. “This afternoon, I’ll come here again to ask some questions, but particularly I want to know something from the person who holds all the information about the entire neighborhood.”
“Perfect, we’re almost finished here. We might return tomorrow after having analyzed the data we’ve obtained. Do you have the keys to this apartment?” he asked.
A grimace contorted his face. “I’ll have to ask the son.”
Leonardo grinned from ear to ear, “Or maybe we can use these ones,” he said, swinging the keys in the air. “These were in Mr. Calvani’s pocket.”
There had always been a mocking relationship between Maurizio and Leonardo, that started since the day they met. Their friendship was founded on a solid basis, but they always felt the need to remind each other of their flaws; like in a marriage, that was the way to keep the relationship alive and interesting.
“Well, good to know you won’t be left outside. I’m going to my office anyway, and I’ll be waiting for your report this evening.”
He turned on his heels and left the apartment without waiting for a reply. As he was outside, he scanned the road. Parioli was one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Rome, and he believed its residents would be shocked by a murder.
Of course, this could have happened anywhere, but in this case the victim is a person with high visibility in the community. Moreover, the brutality of the crime is rather to be expected in poorer zones of the capital, where people can’t afford the costs of private security.
The victim wasn’t a saint and depending on who you ask, you might get different answers. According to Ms. Martini, and supposedly those around her, Claudio Calvani was a perfect jerk, who cheated on his wife. Others might have described him as a sympathetic, funny, and easy-going person – nevertheless, not a criminal or a violent man. He lit a cigarette, still glancing around, searching for some other clues to be investigated so to reconstruct the last day of Mr. Calvani’s life, as well as the happenings in the last three to four years.
Something told him the divorce might have some connection with the murder. The first hypothesis could be jealousy, but his wife wasn’t in the city at the time he got killed, and she would have been the most accredited person to have a jealous reason to kill. Another can be the girlfriend, perhaps she thought he was still in love with Ms. Martini, but in this case, I suppose she would have killed Mrs. Martini. Why kill him? Maybe she found out he was also seeing other women, and the only way to have him for herself was to kill him?
He threw the cigarette away and walked to the car; he needed a plan to follow, and from the details he would have gotten time by time, he hoped to reach the solution of the mystery.
As he arrived at the office, he shut the door behind him and hoped nobody would disturb him. That was a mere hope because he already knew that having the door closed was a clear invitation for the entire precinct to come in and ask him questions.
He sat down at his desk, and for a couple of minutes, his eyes stared at the door, holding his breath, waiting for the first officer knocking or rushing in, with the most impossible issue.
Nothing happened, and with a surprised grin, he switched on his computer, as the most surreal feeling of something not going the way it should, grabbed his mind. Despite this detail, he started to write a plan. That was the way he worked. Without a starting list, he was completely stuck into the vortex of the thousand questions swirling in his mind. A list of priorities was a way to put his thoughts into a precise order.
A couple of hours went by and raising his glance to the clock on the other side of the room, he had the confirmation that the world had finally stopped, and a catastrophic event was on its way.
“Two hours...” he muttered, surprised. “The door has been closed for two hours, and nobody knocked! Either everybody is dead, or they’ve learned the meaning of it.”
He stood up and keeping the most religious silence, he tried to focus on the noises from the corridor and the other offices. Indeed, it sounded like work was going on regularly, but nobody had anything to ask.
“Then, there’s nothing else to do but to acknowledge that my colleagues understood, after 9 years that when my door is closed, they need to keep themselves out of my sight.”
An amused smile relaxed his face, smoothing the creases on his forehead, and returned to sit at his desk. Glancing at the list he wrote and the comments at the side of each point, he considered himself satisfied, and after having the sheet printed, he went to pay a visit to his old friend Leonardo. The first point on his list was to obtain the data to be extracted from Claudio’s mobile phone. He knew before he would have been granted access to it, a full scan of the fingerprints, organic material, and any residue that could have given an idea of the places the phone has visited, was required.
Coming outside the room felt like being immersed once again in the world, after endless confinement in solitude. With a grin, he peered around with the same expression of a man who returned to a place he hadn’t visited since his childhood.
“I was expecting you to arrive earlier,” Leonardo observed, seeing Maurizio appearing from the laboratory door.
“Something happened since I returned this morning. I could finally work without being disturbed. I’m not used to this, and a couple of hours were spent going through the preliminary data,” Maurizio explained, still failing to believe that miracle that happened. “This means I have my list, and I’m going through the points on it. So, you found the telephone in Mr. Calvani’s pocket? When will I have the chance to go through it?”
“You won’t need that,” Leonardo grabbed a folder from the desk. “Here’s the call log and the preliminary results of the general analysis performed on its surface. For a more detailed one, or to have my permission to hold the mobile phone with your grubby hands, you’ll need a couple of days.”
Maurizio grimaced at him, and grabbed the folder, snapping it from Leonardo’s hands. “I guess this can be enough for the moment. Do we have any other details?”
“Not yet, the coroner is working to establish the time of death, trying to extract as much information as possible on the body of the victim. We’re working on the possible weapon, analyzing the shell we’ve found, and on every trace, we can find on the car. I will send you the preliminary report this afternoon before leaving. I can’t go any faster. These things require time and patience if you want to have something that is even closely reliable.”
Maurizio lowered his gaze eyeing the folder he got. For every murder case he predicted the onslaught of a lot of headaches and sleepless nights. Story of my life…
Glancing back at Leonardo, he sighed. “There’s still much to do, so better to get started at least from something. I’m going to check those call-logs and try to find who the girlfriend is and have her interrogated.”
The girlfriend was probably the last person to see him alive, and her testimony could give information about the last hours of his life. The mysterious call was also of crucial importance because that was coming from the killer.
Maurizio sat down at his desk, hoping to still enjoy the blessings of being left alone for the rest of the day.
“So, let’s see what number called him last,” he muttered, opening the folder. He was surprised to see that whoever compiled the log, also cared to make a search of the most important numbers, and the last one was completely inconclusive as it belonged to a Russian prepaid sim card. He took note of that number and continued checking the log.
“This is a number I might call, it belongs to a Madlen Fazekas,” he said, getting on his feet. “Here, there’s also her address, so rather than give her a call, I might want first to see whether she’s home at the moment. I bet she’s the girlfriend.”
Grabbing his jacket, he paced out of the precinct, determined to reach her home, and perhaps also gathering some information about her from her neighbors. The apartment was located in a prestigious location. Maurizio remained open-mouthed as he parked the car outside the building. I’ve chosen the wrong profession. He walked to the entrance and searched on the video intercom her name.
“Hello,” a seductive female voice answered.
For a moment, he found himself surprised by her deep and warm tone; one he wasn’t expecting to answer the interphone.
“Good afternoon, this is detective Scala. Am I speaking with Ms. Madlen Fazekas?” His voice was a bit shaky as he hesitated to ask, still caught off-guard by her tone. A short pause of silence fell between them as if she were expecting a call from the Police or had too many reasons to be afraid.
“Y… yes, that’s me...” she finally answered in a lower tone of voice.
“Ms. Fazekas, would you please open the door? I need to have a chat with you about Mr. Claudio Calvani.”
A familiar buzz and the clicking of the lock of the main door informed him she agreed to meet him. “I live on the fifth floor,” she replied with an apprehensive shade in her voice. He walked inside the hall of the building and reached the elevator. He wasn’t sure whether it was normal for a stripper to be able to afford to live in such a building; he had no certain idea of the price to buy or rent one apartment there, but he knew for sure it was out of his reach.
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