About Me

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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Thursday, November 17, 2016

A Strange Case of Pre-death Necrophilia



By Scott Adlerberg
(196 pages)
(Broken River Books, Jan. 8, 2016)
ISBN-10: 1940885310
ISBN-13: 978-1940885315


Graveyard Love, Scott Adlerberg’s creepy novel about perversion, lust and obsession, was released shortly after New Year’s this year. It could just as easily have been slated to appear the week of All Hallows’ Eve: Adlerberg’s novel is as nightmarish a tale of conspiracy, murder, abduction and imprisonment as you are likely to run into during the time when ghosts and ghouls walk the earth and human fears come to the fore.

Best yet, except for a pair of eerie dead eyes that seem somehow to be watching the lead character at one point, there is nothing in the book that smacks of the supernatural. The real monsters shrouded within Adlerberg’s intricate plot are thoroughly human – and uniformly repellent to those of us who are more or less normal.

Bad things happen to bad people. That’s what gives the novel its chilling allure.

Kurt, the central character, is a failed writer who lives with his obnoxious, self-absorbed mother in a rural redoubt far from the city.

The mother is a harridan. A chain smoker, she constantly wafts tobacco fumes in Kurt’s face. She insults his ability as a writer, demands his constant attention and radiates hostility and bitterness.

Kurt is supposed to be working on her memoirs, but the task is unfulfilling – and possibly unfulfillable: her demands on his meager skills are voracious and when he is not plunked in front of a computer, banging out her drivel, editing it repeatedly, then throwing away passages and starting from scratch, she insists on keeping minute track of his comings and goings.

Adlerberg unfolds these details at an unhurried pace that makes the reader to feel his entrapment and unhappiness, in a way, forcing his audience to step into the shoes of his main character.  This early pacing might drive away some readers, but those who abandon the book because it doesn’t start with a gunfight, brawl or robbery will be missing a sweet payoff later.

Author Scott Adlerberg: A Fine Grasp of "The Wonder."

Everything else about Kurt we end up discovering as the novel unfolds: his alcoholism, his predilection for cult horror films, his unseemly past dalliances with women. What is made clear almost immediately, however, is the fact that he is a stalker – and not a cautious one, either.

The object of his current fascination – indeed, the only person who temporarily allows him to escape from his self-imposed confinement and the wretched personality of his mother – is Catherine Embers, a beautiful red-headed woman he has noticed visiting the rambling graveyard across the lane from his mother’s house.

He begins watching for her and following her on her nocturnal visits. He creeps near enough to hear her sobs and moans when she is inside one of the crypts on the grounds and even buys a telescope to facilitate spying on her.  

Adlerberg is particularly fine at giving the reader a spine-tingling sense of the thrill Kurt derives from his clandestine espionage, the secret pleasure of violating someone’s personal space without their knowledge.

“Being out in the graveyard to await the arrival of the red-haired woman, this was something new and mysterious,” Adlerberg writes about his stalker protagonist. “I could feel my heart racing. Despite the cold, my armpits were sweating.

“I thought, my investigation, the beginning of my probe into this woman, and saw myself as a detective:

“Report in, Kurt.

“ Two or three times a week the subject comes to the cemetery and visits a grave.
“Any idea why?

“She’s morbid.

“Seriously.

“Someone she loves has died. But she never brings flowers. Never brings anything.

“You know which grave?

“Not yet.”

(To me, this frission is what James Ellroy’s character, Fred Underhill, is talking about in Clandestine when he describes “The Wonder” that makes being a cop such a guilty pleasure. It’s a secret source of joy to anyone who has ever watched someone from hiding or slipped into their home when they are absent, and it is probably one of the primary attractions to those who follow the profession of spy or burglars).

Kurt slowly collects bits and pieces of information about his prey and his obsession with Catherine grows. Eventually he clumsily reveals himself as her admirer, and the plot begins to move more quickly.

Without spoiling the last half of the book, suffice to say that complications follow complications for Kurt and Catherine, and the novel ends with a ghoulish twist that makes it perfect bedtime reading for a stormy winter night when rain spatters the windows in sudden clumps and fingers of wind pull at shutters and shingles.

Blogger’s Note:

This review will be that last that I produce for this blog, though I still may post occasional items about work that I have in progress, longer pieces that have been scheduled for publication or other news about my own writings. The fact is, my cancer has left me with only a fraction of my previous energy and I simply no longer have the energy to post frequently in social media, review books for this blog and post write-ups about the things I am reading. Instead I plan to spend what time I have remaining working on my own novels, novellas and short stories and trying to find homes for them.

I will continue to write occasional short – and I do stress, short – reviews at Amazon giving my reaction to hard-boiled and noir work I have read, but do not plan to do so with any regularity.  In fact, I have a thick pile of classics such as Nostromo, Crime and Punishment, Moby Dick and The Moonstone that I intend to concentrate on from here on.

So in a way, this is a final goodbye from the "Pulp Hack." I have enjoyed writing this blog and engaging in some give and take with you, my readers, but I need more some space in what’s left of my life and this is one of the easiest places to get it.  

Thanks for your readership – and thanks for your many thoughtful comments.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Spain Rodriguez Brings a Hard Urban Edge to Gresham’s “Nightmare Alley”




Nightmare Alley

Spain Rodriguez and William Lindsay Gresham

(Fantagraphics Books; 136 pages; 1998)

ISBN 1-56097-511-3





I know that I have previously raved about William Lindsay Gresham’s brilliant Nightmare Alley. This is noir of the highest quality with a wrenching twist at the end, one of the highest quality novels of its type I have been lucky enough to read.



And I also know that in reviewing Gresham’s book, I praised Spain Rodriguez’s dark and creepy adaptation. But my comments were based largely on a handful of panels from the graphic novel that were available on line, as I hadn't had an opportunity to read the entire graphic adaptation.



Since then I have bought a copy of Rodriguez’s rendering from a dealer in New York and had a chance to read it through. Now that I have had a chance to go through it thoroughly from cover to cover, I am even more impressed.

Spain Rodriguez
Spain's treatment, rendered in his stark, two-fisted style (think of his most famous creation, Trashman) is more of transcription than an adaptation. The story adheres very closely to William Lindsay Gresham's original and even quotes entire sections of the original text.



It keeps the grim, cynical tone of Gresham's masterpiece fully, right down to the last four panels, which encapsulate graphically something that is only hinted at in the original novel. But Rodriguez goes Gresham one better: he actually smooths the narrative, providing or clarifying links between the characters while maintaining the tenor and pace of Gresham's original story.

The Ten-o-One Carnival

In fact, in terms of clarity and maintaining the driving pace of Gresham’s novel, Rodriguez actually manages to improve on the original.



To recap, the story is essentially the journey of Stanton Carlisle from a penny-ante grifter and sleight-of-hand artist in a traveling carny to a top-billed spiritualist, all based on his skill at the “cold read,” a mentalist scam that involves picking up on vocal cues, visual clues and other minuscule pieces of evidence that allow him to “read” the sucker’s mind.
Stan's breakthrough as a "cold reader" (part one)
Stan's Breakthrough (Part Two)
Once he hits the top, things go wrong in a classic fashion and he finds himself facing fraud and assault charges. He goes on the run, eventually making his way back to the carnival and his ultimate degradation. 

Big Time!
 The novel is tough, dark and cynical. Carlisle falls frighteningly far in a brief period. He bungles a con involving a millionaire industrialist he sets out to scam and the flop transforms his  dream of running his own “spiritualist” church and using it to con wealthy suckers. His fantasy is transformed into a twisted nightmare of paranoid flight from the law, the same one he'd had all his life:

"Ever since he was a kid, Stan had had the dream he was running down a dark alley. Far down at the end of it a light burned but there was something behind him, getting closer, until he woke up trembling and never reached the light . . . [it was his] nightmare alley."


Rodriguez doesn’t simply replicate the story in his artwork; he actually punches the narrative up, and the stark chiaroscuro graphics he uses to illustrate the tale are perfect given the dark and grim nature of Gresham’s story.



One of the things that makes Nightmare Alley so memorable is Gresham’s deft use of carny slang in creating his narrative and giving a voice to his characters. Rodriguez is faithful to Gresham’s rolling show lingo, using it throughout his adaptation, but adding a visual element to the dialog that helps the reader understand obscure and little used terms like mitt camp, rube, be cool, spook racket.



Sadly, Fantagraphic Books tells me that Spain’s Nightmare Alley is now out of print, but copies can be found for sale by collectors in a variety of locales. If you are a noir fan – or simply like a solid piece of graphic story-telling – you should add this to your library.












Monday, October 31, 2016

Just Desserts



Sometimes a Halloween Treat 
Can turn out to be nothing but a bit of 
trickery; Sometimes the finest meals
Can leave you wanting something that's
a little more . . . familiar . . .



 By William E. Wallace

 The ’99 Crown Victoria might as well have been a coroner’s wagon considering that its passengers were mostly dead or dying. Louis Padrano in the back seat hadn’t taken a breath in twenty minutes. Mickie "Click" Kelly was sprawled in front, the gurgling rasp in his lungs making it clear he’d soon join Padrano.
As for the driver, Sal Lunardi, a nine-millimeter slug was wedged in the meaty part of his bicep and his life’s blood was spilling out of it so fast that it made his head spin. If the slug had hit the big artery in his upper arm, he’d already be dead.

 Kelly struggled for air as life pumped from his chest.

"Sal," he croaked, "paper in my coat: my family's home address. Take me there, please, dead or alive. They'll know what to do."

"Sure, Click," Lunardi said, groping through his mortally wounded partner's jacket with one hand. He pulled out the wad of paper and glanced at it. The address was in Clifton, a town of about 30,000 people an hour south.

"Who do I talk to there?" Sal asked, stuffing the note in his own pocket.

"My ma," Kelly said. "Her name’s Bronagh. She knows what I do. Promise?"

Lunardi watched his partner tremble. Click's teeth clattered uncontrollably and his eyes were filmy with shock.

"You got it, man," Lunardi said. "But just hang in, okay? You're gonna be fine."

It was a lie and both of them knew it. Click would soon be as dead as St. Dominic Savio; a good deal less innocent, perhaps, but just as dead.

Despite the pain from his arm, Sal gritted his teeth and forced himself to watch the white line disappear under the Ford while he relived the evening's disaster in his mind.

The underboss Angelo Carlotti had sent him, Kelly and Padrano to crash a meeting with Ricardo Cortez, a Mexican Mafia soldado with control over the Tijuana Cartel’s assets in California.

The subject of the conference was control of Harbor City, the crown jewel of organized crime in the Golden State. The city’s merchants were openly extorted by gangsters and cops, drugs were sold everywhere and much of the town was a red light district catering to perversions the Marquis de Sade could only have imagined.

Cortez was already handling Harbor City’s Mexican brown, cocaine and crystal meth, but he wanted the rest of the action, too. The problem was, Carlotti had already glommed two-thirds of Harbor City, including all the whore houses. Carlotti called the sit-down to keep the territorial dispute from ending in open warfare but Lunardi and his compares were supposed to raid it and leave Cortez dead.

That was the plan Carlotti explained to Dom, anyway.

But both knew the only thing keeping Carlotti and Cortez from simply dividing the vice action in Harbor City was Alphonso Romano, the godfather in San Francisco. If Romano's people were out of the picture, Carlotti could do whatever he wanted.

And Romano’s people were Lunardi, Padrano and Kelly.

By the time he reached Clifton, Lunardi was certain that he and his crew had been set up by Carlotti to get them out of the way.



***



About fifteen miles from Clifton Lunardi heard a rattling wheeze he recognized as the sound of The Irishman taking his last breath.

Click’s death left Lunardi chauffeuring a pair of stiffs. Sal could dump the two dead men alongside the road, but he’d made a promise to Kelly and he intended to keep it. In addition, he was bleeding too much to make it to San Francisco and he damned sure couldn't go back to Harbor City. The only thing waiting for him there was a bullet.

The address Click gave him in Clifton was a three-story gingerbread Victorian that had probably been built in the nineteenth century when lumber was the main industry. He parked the Crown Victoria in front while he knocked on the door.

Sal had been expecting a square-jawed washer woman type, but Click's mother Bronagh was slim and petite with straight black hair that fell to her waist. Her blue eyes were so pale she looked blind from across the room. Her skin was like fine China, the kind you only break out for special guests.

"Mrs. Kelly?" Sal said uncertainly. "My name is Lunardi. I worked with your son and we ran into some bad luck. I'm afraid he's dead."

Her face registered anger, though she didn’t seem surprised at the news. "Shite!” she muttered, keeping her voice low. “So where’s his body, then?"

Sal motioned toward the car. "The passenger seat," he said. "You may not want to see him . . . like this," he added weakly.

She snorted, her delicate nostrils flaring. "Bollocks. Our family’s been at war since the 17th Century,” she said, the lilt of her words marking her as a Gael as surely as the pale green Celtic harp and wreath tattooed on her right arm. “We’ve stacked up corpses like firewood in our time. For the Kelly family, death holds neither mystery nor horror. As we are, they once were; as they are, we will be."

Crossing her arms under her small breasts, she moved to the car and opened the door. She put her hand on Click and said some quiet words in a language Sal guessed was Gaelic, since the Kellys had emigrated from Ireland when Mickey was three.

By the time she had finished, a heavy-set girl with matching black hair and a redheaded man who looked like an older, meaner version of Click appeared on the porch. Bronagh crossed herself and returned to Sal.

"We've a place for him in the cellar," she said. “The other fella, too.”

"Thanks, Mrs. Kelly," he said. "I appreciate it."

"You can call me Bronagh,” she said. “Most do. Click said your name is Salvatore. That’s ‘Savior’ in Italian innit? Are you a savior Mr. Salvatore?”

Sal winced. “I wasn’t able to save Click, I’m afraid.”

Bronagh’s eyes were frosty, her jaw as hard as alabaster. “He was a sweet lad, but he walked a narrow path,” she said. “Nevertheless, he thought very highly of you. I thank you kindly for bringing him home to his family."

Lunardi inclined his head. He felt a little faint.

She nodded at the girl. “Mr. Lunardi, this is my daughter, Caitriona, and my son over there is Seamus. You, Click and the other man seem to have been rather unlucky. I can see you've taken a bullet yourself. Give your keys to me. After the dearly departed have been taken from your car, Seamus will pull it 'round to the rear and hide it in the carriage house. We'll decide what to do with it later. As for you, you'd best come inside and sit down before you fall down."

She gave him a grim smile as she took his hand and led the way.

"We've no objection to assisting the dead," she said. "But we'd prefer the quick would make their own way."



***



Inside, Mrs. Kelly had Sal strip to the waist so she could examine his shoulder wound. “It’s nasty," she said, her lips pursed, “but I’ve seen worse. Cait, get my stitchery If you’d be so good.”

The girl disappeared momentarily. When she returned she carried a wicker basket. Sal was surprised to see it actually contained sewing supplies.

The black-haired woman held Sal’s arm up against the fading light from the window and as he grunted with agony she gingerly felt the flesh under the bullet hole. She picked up a small-bladed knife and twisted her head, signaling her daughter to pay heed.

“Get me the clear that Seamus stilled from the last of the single-row, Cait. Step lively, girl.”

The girl fetched a squarefaced bottle of liquor so pale that it looked like water. When Bronagh uncorked it, the pungent aroma of alcohol drifted through the room. Whatever was in the bottle was strong enough to make Lunardi’s eyes water.

She poured a little into the gaping hole in Sal’s arm, then dipped the knife blade into the liquor and made a little cut directly on the other side of his bicep.

“This will hurt, I’m afraid,” she said, dipping a long metal knitting needle into the bottle and shaking off the excess. “Can’t be helped, though.”

With a grunt she pushed the needle into the hole and put her weight into a downward thrust until it punched through, pushing the slug out the other side.

There was a thunk as it hit the floor.

It was the last thing Lunardi remembered before he blacked out completely.



* * *



The sky was foggy and tinged with chill when Lunardi woke up the next day. He stumbled downstairs feeling dull-witted and yawned his thanks as Click’s mother filled a mug with strong tea and set it in front of him.

“Hungry?” she asked.

He drank a slug of the brew and nodded. “Starving!” he said. “Last time I ate was breakfast yesterday.

She filled a bowl from a lidded saucepan on a back burner and put it in front of him with several slices of dark bread and a spoon. “Sláinte,” she said.

In the light of day, Lunardi could see the mixture was meat, carrots, potatoes and turnips that had been cooked for hours in a brown gravy.

“This is just delicious,” he said, wolfing down the spicy stew with a soup spoon. “What is it? Pork or something?”

She smiled and he noticed her teeth were small and even, but came to a slight point.

“Something,” she said. “It’s an old family recipe, though it’s probably too fatty to be popular in today's modern world. I’m glad you like it.”

Lunardi put two bowls of the delicious concoction away like a starving man, wiping up the last of the sauce with bread. The bread tasted particularly good to him, dark and nutty like pannetonne, the Christmas treat his nonna made every year, only without the dried fruit and not so sweet. He dipped chunks of it in his tea to finish his meal, thinking that the slurs he’d heard about Irish cooking seemed to be as wrongheaded as the American belief that every Italian was a Mafioso.

Just the ones he knew, he thought.

As she poured fresh tea, she sat down opposite him and slung her arm over the back of her chair. “If you don’t mind sharing, how did Mickey come to die?” she asked.

He took a breath and released it in a weary sigh. “Our immediate boss Mr. Carlotti sent us to settle up with a rival, but our target had been tipped off. We walked straight into a trap. The shooting started before we even got our guns out.”

“Sounds like your boss isn’t to be trusted,” she said.

“I’ll say,” Lunardi laughed grimly. “The sonofabitch set us up. Seems to me he planned to take the three of us out all along.”

“Why do you say that?”

He shrugged. “The set-up was all wrong. You want to kill one guy, you don’t send three people -- if your shooters are worth a good goddamn in the first place, one’s enough. And you don’t do it at a sit-down announced ahead of time. That gives the guy time to get his own crew together and shoot back. With one shooter? He sets the time and place where it happens.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Sounds like you have some experience at this sort of thing,” she said.

Lunardi shrugged again. “Been doing it for twenty seven years,” he said. “But I got sloppy this time, let somebody else set things up. Big mistake. Two men got dead behind it. Like I said, I never should have trusted Carlotti in the first place,” he added, his face grim.

She sipped tea thoughtfully. “So how do you mean to atone for your error?” she asked.

Lunardi smiled. “I’m going back to Harbor City and whack Ricardo Cortez. But this time I’m going to do the job right. And I’m also going to do Carlotti, the guy who set us up.”

“While you’re busy killin’ these folk, would you be willing to do a mother a favor?” she asked, looking up at him innocently through eyelashes so long they seemed to nestle on her cheeks.

“What’s that?”

“When you’ve settled with them, would you be so kind as to bring their bodies back here?”

Lunardi was surprised at the request.

“What are you going to do with them?” he asked.

 “I’m not able to avenge Mickey’s death myself,” she said. “But we have a tradition of disposing of our enemies in the Kelly clan that goes back to the Seventeenth Century. You bring me their corpses and I’ll do the rest.”

As she spoke, her voice was as cold as black ice on a country road and there was an inhuman gleam in her eye. Sal remembered reading somewhere that the Irish were descended from some of the most barbaric people in Europe – fierce nomads who were painting themselves blue and living in caves when his own forebears were building a global empire. Sal suppressed a shudder. At that moment Bronagh Kelly seemed a woman capable of almost any sort of cruelty. He hated to think what sort of 300-plus year old vengeance she might have in mind.

Instead, he mulled over her request. Carting a pair of bodies down the Northern California coastline didn’t appeal to Lunardi much. On the other hand, that was exactly what he had done less than 24-hours ago after the shootout in Harbor City.

“Do you think you can find a van for me to use?” he asked finally, pouring another cup of tea.



***



It took Lunardi three hours to find Carlotti in Harbor City but only 30 minutes to find out where Cortez was hiding: a box knife is good for extracting information. When he was done, Sal put Carlotti’s severed fingers and left eye in a zipper bag and tucked them under the underboss’s corpse in the back of the van; he didn’t know what sort of ritual Bronagh planned, but he wanted to make sure she had all the pieces she needed.

He located Cortez at the second place Carlotti had mentioned. The drug dealer  wasn’t expecting another attack so his five Mexican Mafia gunmen were playing cards on the ground floor of a warehouse near the waterfront when Sal caught up to them with a Colt M4 submachine gun. Two fifty-shot magazines left the gunmen strewn in steaming pools of their own blood and shit.

Afterward, Lunardi worked his way through the warehouse with a full magazine, clearing each room as he went, military-style.  When he finally located Cortez, the drug dealer was hiding under the sink in the bathroom, kneeling in a puddle of his own piss. Lunardi ripped him to pieces with two bursts of 5.56 millimeter slugs, then finished him with a shot through his forehead.

When he had shrouded Cortez’ body in a vinyl bag and nestled it into the rear of the van next to Carlotti’s, Sal used the phone in the warehouse to call Romano in San Francisco and tell him what had happened.

“Come back home then,” the elderly don said. “We’ll be taking down the rest of Carlotti’s outfit and I know you’ll want to have a hand in settling up for Louis and Click.”

“OK, but I can’t say exactly when I’ll get there,” Lunardi replied. “First I have an errand to take care of up here.”

“What’s that?” Romano asked.

“Click’s mom asked me to bring the bodies’ of Carlotti and Cortez to her on my way back,” he said.

“What does she want with those two assholes?” Romano asked. “I could see cutting or strangling them if they were still alive, but there doesn’t seem to be any point with them dead.”

“I dunno, boss,” Lunardi said. “All I know is, I promised her I would do it, just like I promised Click I would take his body to her. I owe her that much.”



Lunardi covered the bodies of Cortez and Carlotti with a tarp and used back roads to drive back to Clifton, staying well within the speed limit and keeping his eyes peeled for cops all the way. When he reached the Kelly house, he was exhausted and the pain in his arm was excruciating.

Bronagh had her son and daughter get the bodies out of the van while she led Sal up the stairs and helped him climb into the freshly made bed. He was asleep in seconds.

He didn’t even wake up when she stripped naked and climbed under the covers beside him. When she wrapped her lithe body around his and began to stroke him between the legs, he thought it was just a dream.





***



On waking, the Kelly house was full of the sweet, charcoal aroma of roasted meat. It reminded him of the spiedini that his family prepared when he was a kid – chunks of pork, spit roasted over an open fire until they glistened and sizzled with paralyzing goodness.

He glanced at his wristwatch and saw it was a little after noon. He’d slept nearly eighteen hours.

Yawning, he dragged himself out of the Kelly’s spare bed and splashed cold water in his face to wake up. Somewhat revived, he put on his shirt, shoes and socks and found his way down the stairs, still tying his necktie.

The table in the dining room groaned under the weight of food: whatever sort of ritual Bronagh was planning obviously involved a celebratory feast. There was more of the cake-like bread, carrots, peas, mashed potatoes and a gravy boat full of thick brown sauce so rich the fat was already starting to separate from the solids. Two large garlic-studded roasts were arranged in the middle of the table, glazed to a rich brown that charred their fat and rind of skin.

Salvatore’s mouth watered. He’d put nothing in his stomach since his “hunting” expedition in Harbor City. He was ravenous enough to eat room-temperature road kill.

“I imagine you’ll be getting’ back to San Francisco today,” Bronagh said, entering the room in a long-sleeved black crocheted dress that dusted the floor. “That’s a long drive on an empty stomach. It seemed you might like a decent meal before you leave.”

He inhaled deeply and his eyes rolled back in his head. “Christ that smells good!” he said. “I’m starved. But isn’t it a little early to eat the major meal of the day?”

 “When you work the land, you usually eat the main meal at lunchtime,” she said.

Almost as if they’d been called, Caitriona and Seamus entered from different parts of the house. Bronagh clasped their hands and Dominic found himself holding the girl’s in his left and her brother’s in his right.

Bronagh’s head inclined and she said a brief blessing in what sounded like the same language she had used at Click’s side two days before. She finished in English, though, and it sounded something like this:



Bless us, God,

Our food and our drink.

As you redeemed us

and delivered us from evil,

You let us share in this food,

So may you let us share in eternal life.



Bronagh seated Sal at the head of the table and asked him to carve and serve. They set to with enthusiasm, quickly making mounds of the food disappear. It was one of the best meals Sal had ever tasted.

“So what’s the occasion?” Sal asked as he took seconds and spooned gravy over the food on his plate.

“What do you mean?” Bronagh asked, cutting a small piece of meat and putting it into her mouth.

“You folks don’t have a meal like this at noon every day, do you? How the hell can you afford it?”

She smiled. “No, we only eat meals like this on special occasions, like the death of an enemy,” she said. “Doesn’t that seem like something worth commemorating?”

“You mean Cortez and Carlotti?” he asked, working his way through meat, potatoes and gravy. “I suppose so. So what’s the roast we’re enjoying here as we celebrate their deaths?”

Her smile widened. “Cortez and Carlotti,” she said brightly.

Sal, caught in mid-chew, stared at her.

She sipped water from a crystal goblet. “I told you we’d had this tradition since the 1600s,” she said. “We were Ulstermen and our lads fought on the side of Hugh O’Neill – may he sit at the Lord’s right hand – against the English.”

“The English wasted our homes, burned our fields and killed our cattle. But people have to eat, Mr. Lunardi, even in the midst of war. So we Kellys ate what we could forage.  When there was naught to forage, we ate the bodies of our fallen enemies -- and sometimes, each other.”

“The practice continued through the great famine of the 1800s, the An Gorta Mór, when more than a million people died of starvation,” she added. “And it continues right up until the present day.”

Sal put down his flatware, staring at his nearly empty plate. The color had drained from his face leaving it as pale as the mashed potatoes.

“Are you all right, Mr. Lunardi?” Bronagh asked with concern.

“I’d like to get back to the Bay Area while it’s still light out,” Sal mumbled as he pushed his chair back and stood unsteadily. Dropping his napkin on the table, he added, “Thanks for everything, ma’am. I hope you’ll excuse me.”

She shrugged and resumed eating. “Suit yourself, Mr. Lunardi. Suit yourself.”

As he reached the door, she called after him: “Are you certain you don’t want me to pack some of this roast to take with you?”

Lunardi ran for the Astra, barely able to hold back the bile rising in his throat.











End