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Character Interview: Sam Grist from Jody Gehrman’s psychological suspense novel, ‘Watch Me’

character interviews logoWe’re thrilled to have here today Sam Grist, from Jody Gehrman’s new psychological suspense novel, Watch Me. Sam is a twenty-two-year-old student living in Blackwood, Ohio. It is a pleasure to have him with us today at Beyond the Books!

Thank you so for this interview, Sam.  Now that the book has been written, do you feel you were fairly portrayed or would you like to set anything straight with your readers?

A lot of readers will no doubt write me off as a sociopathic stalker. Ladies and gentlemen of the book-reading jury, answer me this: Was Romeo a stalker? He hung out around Juliet’s balcony, watching her from the shadows. Did that relegate him to the category of literary scum? Not at all. It elevated him to the highest order of romantics. That’s me. I’m passionate. I have single-minded focus when it comes to getting what I want. If that’s a crime, so be it. I’m a criminal for love.

Watch Me CoverDo you feel the author did a good job colorizing your personality?  If not, how would you like to have been portrayed differently?

She did okay. I feel for the poor thing; I’m not an easy guy to capture.

What do you believe is your strongest trait?

My commitment to the moment.

Worse trait?

My commitment to the moment.

If you could choose someone in the television or movie industry to play your part if your book was made into a movie, who would that be (and you can’t say yourself!)?

A young Wes Bentley (circa American Beauty).

Do you have a love interest in the book?

Kate Youngblood. She’s my professor, my obsession, my world.

At what point of the book did you start getting nervous about the way it was going to turn out?

Pretty much page one.

If you could trade places with one of the other characters in the book, which character would you really not want to be and why?

Kate goes out with this guy a couple times, Raul. He’s unworthy of her. Things don’t go well for Raul; let’s keep it at that.

How do you feel about the ending of the book without giving too much away?

Disaster is its own reward.

What words of wisdom would you give your author if s/he decided to write another book with you in it?

Forget it.

Thank you for this interview, (name of character).  Will we be seeing more of you in the future?

I’m a star burning bright and hot that will not come again.

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About the Author:

Jody Gehrman has authored eleven published novels and numerous plays for stage and screen. Her Young Adult novel, Babe in Boyland, won the International Reading Association’s Teen Choice Award and was optioned by the Disney Channel. Jody’s plays have been produced or had staged readings in Ashland, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and L.A. Her newest full-length, Tribal Life in America, won the Ebell Playwrights Prize and will receive a staged reading at the historic Ebell Theater in Los Angeles. She and her partner David Wolf won the New Generation Playwrights Award for their one-act, Jake Savage, Jungle P.I. She holds a Masters Degree in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California and is a professor of Communications at Mendocino College in Northern California. Watch Me is Jody Gehrman’s debut suspense novel

www.jodygehrman.com

https://www.facebook.com/jody.gehrman

https://twitter.com/jodygehrman

https://www.youtube.com/user/jodygehrman

https://www.jodygehrman.com/blog

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Meet Gabriel Valjan, Author of ‘The Good Man’

Gabriel Valjan is the author of the Roma Series and The Company Files from Winter Goose Publishing as well as numerous short stories. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where he enjoys the local restaurants, and his two cats, Squeak and Squawk, keep him honest to the story on the screen. You can visit him at his website. He’s here today to talk about his new suspense series.
Thanks for this interview, Gabriel. Tell us about yourself.
I hide my love of dogs from my cats. English was not my first language, and I read fiction in more than one language. I was a sponsored triathlete. Cancer survivor. I weighed one pound at birth. Hearing-impaired. Ambidextrous. I went to school with Peter Dinklage.
Have you always been creative? When did you start writing fiction?
As a writer, no. I drew and painted at a young age. I read voraciously as a child, but when I did take an interest in creative writing, it was poetry. My first publication was a poem in 1989.
In this your new series, The Company Files, you move from the present Rome of your Roma Series to historical post-war Vienna. Why did you choose this particular time period?
I should state up front that I wrote The Good Man before I wrote Roma, Underground. To answer your question…History interests me. For those who don’t know, Vienna was divided into four zones, the American, the British, the French, and the Russians after World War II. Vienna would become, for a brief time, a Wild West.
It’s not the first time a city or country had been divided after a conflict. Vienna, however, bears a crucial distinction in that it became the crucible for the Cold War and the birthplace for the post-war intelligence community. Modern nation states in Europe then were designated as either friendly to US-led Western Bloc or to Soviet-led Eastern Bloc countries. There is, of course, the fun of researching the social mores of the era. Leslie in The Good Man and Bianca in The Roma Series are a half-century apart, and yet confront similar issues of survival in a man’s world.
The book is described as historical noir. For readers who aren’t familiar with this genre, can you tell us about it?
First, noir is a cinematic term. Film noir is, in my opinion, a visual display of Existentialist philosophy. The prevailing undercurrent to film noir and the crime fiction it inspired is that the Average Joe is doomed no matter what he does. He’ll make one bad decision after another, whether it’s planning a heist that goes wrong, keeping found money and unwittingly inviting the bad guys into his life, or lusting after the wrong woman. His life is a blues song. If he didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all.

Historical noir, as I use the phrase to describe The Good Man, is when characters make decisions within a certain context. The world is still morally compromised and fatalistic. The historical circumstances offer both flavour and plot device. The reader has the advantage of hindsight. November 22, 1963, for example, has only one inevitable conclusion. Genre sets the expectation, and I leave it to the reader to decide whether I abide by or violate those rules. Is there justice in the end? Does the guy get the girl?

Like in your Roma Series, you pay particular attention to team work among your characters. What draws you to this quality?
The Good Man is the result of my love for what I call the middle period of noir fiction, the 1940s. I’m not hard-boiled as Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade from the 1920s, nor as violent as Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer in the 1950s. I envisioned a softer cynicism found in Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe.
In reading contemporary crime fiction, which I think harkens back to hard-boiled, I can appreciate the antihero and the protagonist who can’t catch a break, but I find most of it too nihilistic. While I don’t believe that Good always triumphs in real life, I found myself asking: Are we so cynical as to find value in the bleak and ultra-violent stories? Does it take visiting the darkest depths to feel better about our own lives?
Don’t get me wrong about violence and profanity. Mexican cartels are violent, but the Average Joe criminal is not that sadistic. My complaint is that there’s no glimmer of hope in a lot of contemporary crime fiction, unless it’s the razor blade on the sidewalk. Algren, Bukowski, and Fante wrote to show how the other half lived, but so did Upton Sinclair and Steinbeck. What is the point, if there’s nothing positive in the universe?
Writers have to compete with movies, with visual media, so why not work the vein of human relationships in close quarters? I’m not saying people can’t be flawed. The series Breaking Bad is a perfect example. People pushed to extremes are forced to work and trust each other, to some degree. In The Good Man, there is a triangle of characters who entrust their lives to each other. Jack, Walker, and Whittaker have a foundation – their shared war experiences – for trusting each other. Another triangle in the story is Leslie, Sheldon, and Tania: they have to prove themselves. There is history, camaraderie and debts, recognized and repaid.
Tell us about your protagonists and what makes them stand out.
Jack Marshall is the leader, principled but agile. Walker is the romantic, the fellow caught up in history’s current and unsure of his abilities. Whittaker is the doer, which doesn’t always require brains. Each man makes questionable decisions. Leslie is a woman with skills in an unappreciative world and she’s acutely aware of it. Sheldon is savvy, almost suicidal. Tania is precocious, another survivor, and a damaged soul.
Jack and Walker fought in the war together, depended on each other and owed each other something. In a life and death situation, would they choose friendship over duty?
Jack and Walker have a moment in The Good Man where they question Whittaker’s loyalty, but they extend the benefit of the doubt. Political pressure is hammering both men. Friendship and duty coexist and are in conflict with each other. The question is how long can they hold out. Jack and Walker choose Loyalty because of what they’ve experienced together. Few would understand it.
I found Walker and Leslie’s relationship sad. Does love have a place in their dangerous professions?
Their story continues in the sequels, The Naming Game and Diminished Fifth. My take on their relationship is that Leslie realizes times are changing and she is trying to hold onto her independence. The social mores of the day were especially hard on women. Women during the war years experienced a few years of financial freedom before the country asked them to return to the kitchen and home.
Leslie knows she has the credibility for a career in intelligence, but how much of that can she keep or maintain if she is perceived as ‘attached’ or ‘compromised’? I also believe Leslie is better grounded than Walker. He is trying to find his place in the world. I’m not sure Leslie can wait for him, or sacrifice what she has accomplished on her own. Their profession adds the complication that their lives are shrouded in secrecy and they must be ciphers to most people around them.
There are a number of intriguing secondary characters, like Sheldon and Tania. Were they difficult to write about? What challenges did you face getting into the mind of a vigilante and a 13-year-old Lolita-type character?
They weren’t difficult since I didn’t have to venture far to create them. As I mention in the Afterword, there were Jewish concentration camp survivors who were incensed that known war criminals were evading justice, so they became ‘vigilantes’ and hunted them down. Sheldon is a complex character and his “activities” are ambiguous, depending on your moral compass. The late Simon Wiesenthal hunted down former Nazis to have them arrested or exposed because so many escaped the courtrooms.
My opinion is that justice was selective and in the hands of the dominant player after World War II, the United States. There were businessmen and companies who benefitted from Nazi labor camps. Have a look at the I.G. Farben Trials, and note that none of the defendants was American, though Ford Motor Company, General Motors and IBM benefitted from their dark alliances with Hitler’s Third Reich.

The plot for The Good Man revolves around Operation Paperclip, where the U.S. collaborated with allies to shield former Nazis. The physicist Wernher von Braun is a notorious example. His work accelerated the U.S.’s space program. Reinhard Gehlen, another example, traded in his Nazi Army shoulder boards to become a Communist hunter. Eichmann’s whereabouts were not a complete mystery to U.S. intelligence, but it took the Israeli Mossad to defy both the U.S. and international laws to kidnap him from his apartment in Buenos Aires in order to bring him to Jerusalem to stand trial.

Tania was a wonderful creation. She’s flirtatious and, like most victims of sexual abuse, she acts precocious and manipulative. Her pedigree as a victim, however, runs deeper. As a Slav, she had dodged the Nazis, who would’ve worked her to death in the camps; had she presented herself as a refugee seeking asylum in Vienna, the Americans would’ve seen her as a Communist. There is also her ideological heritage: her father was a casualty of a Stalinist purge. She is a young girl without a country.
Were you thinking of Sheldon when you came up with the title?
Yes, but I think the question, “Are you a good man?” can be put to Jack, Walker, and Whittaker, too.
Post-war Vienna came alive for me in the story. Tell us about the importance of settings.
Context and circumstances are everything. I tried to develop the noirish aspect of time and place. I mentioned earlier that Vienna was a unique historical situation. Vienna was a playground for intrigues and for the Cold War, the silent world war. Whereas Berlin had a literal wall to divide antagonistic ideologies, hotels and landmarks designated the governing powers in Vienna.
With the War over, the Americans and British were now uneasy allies. Russia, an ally for the Americans, was now the new enemy. The bad guys, the Nazis with special insider information, became tentative allies. That the entire drama plays out in a German-speaking Austria was not lost on me. Austria, Hitler’s birthplace, while German speaking, is not Teutonic in the sense that it’s Protestant and its division into Bundesländer, or city-states, came after the dissolution of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy.
In the café scenes, I tried to capture this sense of a world that had fallen away from what Stefan Zweig called The World of Yesterday. Walker is out of his depth in not knowing the German language and Austrian culture well, and both he and Jack are also caught up in the clashes of American and European, and West with East, when they encounter Sheldon and Tania. 
What appeals to you about European settings? Have you been in the places that appear in your books?
Differences in perception and outlook. Travel and living abroad have educated me. My use of settings is more than just ‘colour’ in my novels. While I have not been to Vienna, I’ve visited Austria. I’ve travelled around Great Britain (attended graduate school there), been to France, Germany, Italy, and the former Yugoslavia. I try to illustrate and incorporate cultural differences; how people interact with each other and relate to authority. In the Roma Series, I explore the unresolved North and South divide in Italy, among other sensitive issues.
I witnessed a balance between Work and Life in Europe that does not exist in America, whether it was Ferragosto in Italy, or strikes in France by all workers to protest raising student fees in France. Americans work longer and harder and our health suffers for it. If American education and healthcare were run according to the business model of rewarding performance, then there would be true reform.
I find it morally reprehensible that, for a country of such wealth and resources, the U.S. has the worst rate for maternal deaths in the Developed World, with 26 deaths per 100,000 live births. Sense of perspective: The World Health Organization tracks 180 countries and the US ranks 137 on that list for maternal deaths. Other findings are sobering and irrefutable. Will McAvoy, a character on Aaron Sorkin’s The News Room, summarized it in his answer to the question, “Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?” You can find the clip on youtube.com
Experiencing Europe, I realized that Americans and European society are socially engineered around a different definition of ‘citizen.’ I’m not naïve: Europe is a tiered society and mobility is limited, but I think it’s disingenuous to think America doesn’t have a class society. I’m not blind to disconcerting parallels between the U.S. and Europe, such as the uncanny similarities between Berlusconi and Trump.
Americans, however, have drunk the ideological Kool-Aid and I’m afraid we are losing our standing in the world. I cited ‘citizen’ as an example, so let me provide an example of distorted logic. There were protests against Obamacare. The idea of national healthcare is still derided as ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism.’ Protestors claimed that in other systems, a patient died waiting for care.
There is no such evidence. President Obama himself said he watched his mother worry not about the ovarian cancer that would claim her life, but rather how she would pay for healthcare. I’ll set aside the obvious ignorance that Socialism and Communism are apples and oranges, but nobody has considered the European view that healthcare is a citizen’s right, and that healthy citizens are an investment in Society.
For this book, how much and what type of research did you have to do?
With any topic that is not native to your experience, research is required; it’s a matter of ethics. I had to read history books and memoirs about the period covered in The Good Man. I cited some of them in my Afterword. With respect to people who lived during that time, those I knew are dead now. I am aware that with people I knew, the material is anecdotal and subjective, the lens of history made hazy.
The Good Man tries to show decent people in terrible situations. Mistakes were made, people fooled, and terrible compromises made. There was also a consolidation of extraordinary power in individuals such as the Dulles brothers at the CIA, and J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI. The United States would see a similar nexus of power again with the Kennedy brothers.
I do believe that the CIA was founded on the noble (and necessary) premise of national security, but the nature of spy craft and politics is such that it’s a losing proposition. When governments resort to secret agencies or programs, or leverage the methods of their former enemies Hermann Göring’s propaganda and Stasi surveillance methods are alive and well then what do we have? Enemies yesterday, friends today; and friends today, enemies tomorrow. Case in point: President Reagan continued Operation Cyclone to counter the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, funding mujahedeen leaders who would later become the founding members of the extremist al-Qaeda.
In general, what do you struggle with as an author?
Visibility. It’s a struggle because there are so many books out each month.
What is a regular day like for you? Do you set yourself a minimum amount of words or hours on a daily or weekly basis?
I write in the mornings. I find that my mind is clearer and focused then. While I understand setting goals as a form of discipline, Word Counts mean nothing to me. I don’t lack discipline. The way my imagination works is that I envision a scene and I write until it is done, whether that takes one day or several days. I see writers posting daily Word Counts, and I don’t know what to make of it. Quantity over Quality? A form of humblebrag? Jack Torrance sat every day at his typewriter and typed, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy …” and look how that turned out for him.
How do you set yourself challenges and grow as an author with each new book? For example, what lessons did you learn with your first series that you now implement in this new series?  What are you discovering about yourself as a writer while writing these new series?
I challenge myself by writing in different genres. Horror. Crime fiction. Cozy mystery. Genre gets bashed as low-brow, and not as “Literary Fiction,” which I think is nonsense. Genre is like poetry. You have to know the rules, the meter, and the expectation. Break the rules after you’ve mastered them, but learn them first and appreciate their inherent challenges. The same approach applies to reading in and out of your comfort zones. I mentioned earlier that I read foreign literature. Translators have made other writers available. Read a French ‘polar’ and ‘policier’ and observe the space dedicated to describing violence and exposition. As with any foreign culture, note workplace hierarchy and formalities.
What can readers look forward to in the sequel? When is the next book coming out?
The Naming Game delivers more of the Walker and Leslie relationship. Readers will become acquainted with the turf war between the nascent CIA and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI during the Red Scare in Los Angeles.
What do you look forward to as an author in 2018?  
I look forward to reading more of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano. I hope to meet readers at conferences such as Malice Domestic, and New England Crimebake. I have not made a decision about attending Bouchercon in Florida.
What else would you like to tell readers?
If you are at a conference and know that I am there, please stop me and say hello.

REVIEW: The Company Files: A Good Man, by Gabriel Valjan

the-good-man-by-gabriel-valjan_1Title: The Company Files: The Good Man

Author: Gabriel Valjan

Publisher: Winter Goose Publishing

Release date: December 2017

Pages: 251

Genre: suspense/espionage

Find out more on Amazon

It’s 1948, post-war Vienna. In this tale of international espionage, friends and ex-army buddies Jack Marshall and Walker are trying to gather intelligence for the Company in a time when Americans are ruthlessly trying to keep ahead of the Russians. To do so, they must sort Nazis out and question them. But a vigilante with a vendetta against former Nazis is getting to them first. Can Jack and Walker trust a vigilante killer to help them, and if yes, at what price? Add to the mix a beautiful Company analyst as well as a young Russian refugee girl who happens to be under the care of the vigilante. And at the core of it all, a rare priceless coin. As tension escalates one of them must become bait in order to unmask the traitor amongst them.

In a world of intelligence and counter-intelligence where an ally can turn into an enemy—and vice versa—at the flip of a coin, who can you trust? The Americans, the Russians, the British? Who is working for whom in this ruthless race for power?

I thoroughly enjoyed this historical noire. Valjan’s skillful and often witty prose flows elegantly through the pages. The setting is excellent and post-war Vienna comes to life during winter, especially the refugee areas with their gritty bleak streets, run-down cafes and dark cold rooms. There’s an array of interesting and well-crafted characters and the mystery accelerates at a steady pace until the very satisfying ending. In sum, I recommend this read for lovers of spy and international intrigue novels a la James Bond.

 

The Company Files: A Good Man is book one in Valjan’s new Company Files series. He also has another series of international suspense set in the present titled The Roma series. Check his Amazon author page to learn more.

First Chapter Reveal: War Eternal: Angels’ Whispers by J.F. Cain

Title: WAR ETERNAL: ANGELS’ WHISPERS
Author: J.F. Cain
Publisher: Independent
Pages: 355
Genre: Fantasy/Adventure/Romance
BOOK BLURB:

Alex Meyers, a dynamic, global entrepreneur, has an advantage that no other human has ever had: he is protected by Aranes, the Superior of the Angels. While he is skiing, he dies in an avalanche, but his all-powerful protector breaks one of the ethereal world’s most important Rules and brings him back to life. Alex falls head over heels in love with the beautiful Angel, who appears to him in human form. But she disappears just as suddenly as she had appeared.

While he searches for Aranes, Alex discovers her true identity and that he actually might be the high-ranking Celestial Abaddon, who is mentioned in the Revelations prophecy as the one who will defeat Lucifer.

The man who fate has thrust among the world’s superpowers is now living a nightmare. He wants to evade Lucifer’s pursuit, find out who he truly is and once again see the only being he has ever loved. And the only way to do it is to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Angels’ Whispers is the beginning of an epic tale set in modern times. The eternal war between Light and Darkness is at a critical turning point: Angels and Demons, invisible to mortal beings, battle for dominance in the physical world, while Guardians, Vampires and Werewolves, who live among the humans, find themselves on opposing sides in a deadly power game.

ORDER YOUR COPY:

Amazon

 

CHAPTER 1

 

In the sphere of invisible reality, where eternity’s whispers divulge primordial secrets, resided an immortal being of formidable power. Hidden behind the veil that covered timeless creation, the otherworldly entity watched the events unfolding in the world of the manifest forms. Inside a rain of pictures and sounds, her numinous perception rapidly surveyed all the important events taking place on earth at the time. Finally, her awareness stopped at a Gulfstream G650, flying at 25,000 feet above Maryland, bathed in the morning sun’s light.

Her supernatural sight penetrated the private jet unhindered. Inside the luxurious passenger cabin with the gray leather furnishing, two men sat in armchairs next to a row of round windows. Both of them were absorbed in their reading, only occasionally glancing at the streaming display of market quotes that flashed on the television across from them accompanied by the muted voice of the Bloomberg financial analyst.

The unworldly entity concentrated on one of them, Alexander Meyers.

Alex, as his few friends and associates called him, was studying an upcoming project on his laptop resting on the table in front of him. He was a physicist, and the owner of a fast-growing company supplying ecological energy, his own invention. At thirty-eight, he was enjoying global success.

He defied the rule that people with exceptional minds cannot also be equally exceptional in looks. Alex was, in a word, striking, and not simply because of his dark, expensive suit. He was tall, with a muscular, athletic build. He radiated strength and a certain magnetism that made him stand out from those around him. His dark chestnut hair, attractive face, and well-proportioned features made up a whole that deserved to be acknowledged as a prime example of male beauty, but the crowning feature was his eyes. They were the dark blue color of a stormy sea, complete with waves, formed by fine silver lines radiating outward from the pupil to the edge of the iris. Though barely visible, they were enough to lend his gaze a riveting force.

Alex looked up at the man opposite him reading a lengthy document.

Four years older than Alex, David Carson was also an attractive man–blond, with blue eyes, but with a calmer strength about him. There was something about his face: an interesting clash between transparency and mystery that made it impossible for even the most perceptive observer to discern his intentions. A successful attorney and the chief legal advisor in the company, he was the person closest to his boss who enjoyed something that Alex did not offer easily: his trust.

The two of them had met at MIT, when Alex was a freshman and David was there for his graduate degree in technology and environmental law. Neither had any family. Only Alex had some distant relatives, scattered around the States, with whom he had no contact. As the oldest and undeniably more mature of the two, David had from the beginning assumed the role of big brother to his wild, but brilliant, young friend, who had challenged social and academic conventions and flustered his physics professors with his startling ideas and cutting-edge theories. Despite their different characters, they also shared enough attributes to have formed a special bond over their many years of friendship. They confirmed the saying “strength in unity”. They were a powerful pair that the business world regarded with a mixture of envy and respect.

“So, what do you think?” Alex asked David.

David rested the folder on the table and loosened the knot on his tie. Even after so many years of having to wear a suit for work, he had still not grown used to the constriction around his neck. Ties were one of the rare annoyances for this man with an otherwise enviable self-control.

“The bill clearly leaves you room to maneuver as you want,” he declared.

Alex nodded with an expression that indicated he was not expecting a different answer.

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“I’m sure you are. It’s not easy to dodge your competitors’ obstacles.”

“I’m taking advantage of their own loopholes,” said Alex indifferently.

For him it was only fair to turn his competitor’s weapons against them rather than on the defenseless. So he had no qualms about taking advantage of anything he could find in the law that he could use in this open warfare.

David refrained from reminding his friend that first and foremost, they should be fair to themselves, and perhaps approach the subject from a different angle.

“So, other than work, what else is going on? Have you made plans to see Claire?”

Alex began to rifle irritably through the papers spread out on the table. It was his usual reaction when a discussion turned to personal matters. When he was away from his office—although he managed to convert anywhere he was into his workplace—he always found a way to show that he had better things to do. But that day, his reaction was not enough to discourage David’s persistence.

“Is that your answer?” David pressured him.

“Why should I see her?” Alex asked, setting aside a thick sheaf of papers bearing the US Energy Department’s logo.

“I don’t know, is there any other reason than wanting to be together?”

“I’m not interested,” replied Alex with an expression that implied he was not willing to discuss the matter any further.

“Here we go again!” David leaned forward, trying to catch his friend’s attention. “You have to do something with your life.”

Alex looked up from the pack of diagrams he was sorting, his eyes grave.

“My work is my life. Besides, romance is overrated.”

“But necessary,” David shot back. “You can’t always be alone.”

“I’m not alone all the time. Here we are.”

“The small breaks you take to meet your biological needs don’t meet your emotional needs,” his friend insisted with calm certainty.

Alex lowered his gaze again to the papers in front of him.

“It’s enough for me.”

“It doesn’t look like it.”

“I’m not one for excessive displays of emotion.” He pulled out a diagram from the pack, leaned back and pretended to study it. “People are, for the most part, a disappointment. The only thing they’re interested in is catering to their psychological and material needs. Most don’t even know the basics about themselves.”

“Not everyone is the same,” David argued. “I think Claire is quite emotionally mature, and also very much in love with you.”

“That’s the problem,” admitted Alex. “I can never return her feelings. So it’s better if I break it off while it’s still early.”

David gave him a searching look.

“Are you trying to protect her or get rid of a burden?”

“Let’s just say that it’s a choice where we both end up winning.”

“Or losing,” David added.

“There is no reason why I should stay in a relationship that doesn’t give me what I want,” replied Alex with a tone that betrayed him being annoyed by the subject matter.

“And what is it that you want?”

Alex tossed the diagram onto the table.

“I know what I want, and maybe one day I’ll find it,” he said with a slight melancholy in his gaze.

At one time, there had been no “maybe”. But after years of fruitless searching he had realized that even charismatic individuals weren’t immune to the rule that “you cannot have it all”.

David gestured towards the window next to them.

“Look outside, maybe you’ll find what you’re looking for there.”

“What do you mean?” Alex scowled.

“That you might be able to find the woman of your dreams up here, because a being such as the one you imagine may not even exist on Earth,” David replied. “Or, wait,” he raised his palm to stop his friend who was about to protest. “Maybe the invasion of an alien race would solve your problem, or a custom-made robot.”

“In that case, I’ll order one for you, too,” Alex shot back. “It seems that you’re not faring any better.”

David shrugged.

“I’ve reconciled myself to it, whereas you haven’t. It’s obvious that you’re lacking something.”

Alex bypassed the comment.

“All this because I don’t want to take Claire with us this weekend?” he asked suspiciously.

“What are you going to do on your own in Aspen?”

“Ski, obviously.”

“You don’t ski, you attempt suicide,” David said with a pointed look, and then went on in an attempt to change his friend’s mind: “I was thinking that if Claire came with us, you’d be polite enough to stay with her and I wouldn’t have to fly around in a helicopter, scouring the mountains and canyons searching for you. Besides, she’s very pleasant company; she’ll help you to relax.”

His elbows resting on the armrests and his fingers interlaced, Alex pensively regarded David.

“Can you tell me what’s got into you?” he asked calmly. “You’ve been getting into my personal life more and more lately.”

“I see you becoming increasingly isolated, and that isn’t helping you at all,” David explained in the same tone.

“I find solitude immensely constructive.”

And very dangerous, thought David. He knew that the minds of people with high IQs worked differently from other people’s, which made them vulnerable to psychological disorders. There had been many cases where distinguished scientists, philosophers and artists had become victims of their intellectual singularity, which had destroyed their lives. Alex had for months been showing such symptoms and David, having noted the change, kept on inventing various excuses to be close to him. Through activities and ideological debates, he tried to limit his friend’s introversion and preserve his intellectual equilibrium. And he had a very serious reason for doing this.

Alex unlaced his fingers and sat up.

“Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to focus on my work. The contract we’re after is very important,” he said, putting an abrupt end to the conversation.

He opened a file with statistical data on his laptop and immediately became engrossed. Once he had decided something, no one could change his mind.

David realized that there was no point in continuing to pressure his stubborn friend. He turned away, and his gaze became lost in the vast sky outside the airplane window.

“I’m not worried about that. In business, you seem to be more favored than anyone,” he said, giving up on trying to change Alex’s mind.

Unlike the dead ends in his private life, Alex’s professional life boasted many successes. His company was growing beyond all expectations. In ten years he had succeeded in becoming one of the major players in the energy industry, a fact for which he was highly resented by his established competitors, who vainly struggled to arrest his growth.

Alex did not reply. The project he was going to Washington for was important, of course, but right now he was using it as an excuse to avoid any further analyses of his love life, or rather its non-existence. Not that he considered it a strictly private matter. Other than his personal moments that he kept to himself, he shared everything else with David. It was just that he didn’t want to poke at his only existential wound. He had never been able to fall in love like other people did. He had never touched or looked at a woman in the way that many of them touched and looked at him. This significant experience was so foreign to him, it was as if he carried a curse.

Until he had turned thirty-five, he had subconsciously covered this lack with some short-lived excitements, and each time he had hoped that something would change. But despite all his efforts, this tactic had not borne any fruit. Disappointed, he had accepted his emotional inadequacy and had gradually withdrawn into himself. In the last three years he had made very few, reluctant efforts to form a relationship and, despite what he said, he knew very well that no one else was to blame for his inability to love. Something inside him stopped him from giving himself wholeheartedly. An indefinable barrier kept him shackled in the torment of loneliness.

The two men exchanged very few words until the private jet landed at Reagan National Airport in Washington half an hour later. A black Mercedes was waiting to take them to 1000 Independence Avenue, the headquarters of the US Department of Energy.

When they arrived, David remained in the lobby. Alex, accompanied by a member of staff, went up to the third floor and entered a conference room. The committee that was to examine his proposal was waiting for him there: four men and a woman, all over fifty, were sitting around a large, oval table, with folders open in front of them. He greeted them civilly and went to stand across from the committee chair, who was sitting at the one end of the table. Before taking a seat in the black leather chair behind him, he rested his briefcase on the table, removed a folder from inside, then closed the briefcase and put it on the floor.

“We’re ready to hear your proposal, Mr. Meyers,” said the committee chair and gestured for him to start.

In a clear, energetic and engaging presentation, Alex offered the data analyzing the comparative advantages of his proposal and also highlighted the irreversible ecological destruction caused by the widespread use of petroleum and other fossil fuels. He continued about the dangers of nuclear energy: radioactive waste and the residues of nuclear accidents remained intact in nature for hundreds of years, condemning millions of people to death from incurable diseases.

The committee chair, the woman and another man were listening carefully; the other two looked bored and indifferent.

Alex entered the last stretch of his presentation:

“In the last few years my company has invested millions of dollars in research and development in alternative energy sources, and I believe the result has vindicated these efforts. My proposal revolutionizes the energy sector and provides access to cleaner and cheaper energy to more consumers than we thought possible.”

Frank Brenner, one of the two men who seemed to be against the proposal, smirked.

“Let’s talk business, Mr. Meyers. We all know that your company’s primary interest is to make a profit.”

Alex heard what Brenner really intended to say: “Don’t pretend you’re interested in protecting the planet. We’re not so stupid as to believe you.” Alex could see that some committee members already had suspicions about him. He had no such suspicions; he had facts. He had reports—a necessary business tool—that Brenner supported the interests of a major oil corporation. So was not surprised.

“I won’t disagree, but for me profit and innovation must go hand in hand.”

“Mr. Meyers is not obliged to defend his intentions,” the man sitting next to Brenner remarked sharply. “This proposal has many advantages we need to seriously consider.”

Alex watched as these two rivals sized-up each other. What would be their next move?

Another member of the committee, who worked behind the scenes for one of Alex’s competitors, entered the discussion:

“Exactly what advantages?” he asked, his baffled expression implying that he, for one, couldn’t see any.

The woman sitting next to him found it difficult to conceal her displeasure. People who sold out without caring about the future, not even their children’s, disgusted her. Unfortunately, she had no proof that would help her throw Brenner and him off the committee.

“Advantages for whom? For the planet, people or your shareholders?” she asked back with undisguised frostiness.

Alex intervened, rescuing the man who had opened his mouth to protest. A dispute between the members could cause the committee to issue no decision at all, and that would not serve his purpose.

“We all know that energy resources are not inexhaustible, and every day we have more and more protests against the environmental pollution caused by other forms of energy. If we also take into account the current economic crisis, the one hundred thousand new jobs created for this project would be good publicity for your party and you. And from what the opinion polls show, you really need it.”

“You have quite an aggressive strategy,” said Brenner, his sarcastic tone barely hiding the hint of a threat.

“I thought we were talking business,” Alex retorted in the same tone.

“This meeting is not the place for personal confrontations,” the chairman intervened, glancing sharply at his colleague.

He made no comment to Alex; he thought it only reasonable that he would react that way to Brenner’s insulting behavior. He did not wheel and deal with high-ranking officials and political leaders and he had the moral right to put the sell-out in his place.

In the short, but tense, silence that followed, a high-frequency sound began to penetrate Alex’s head, becoming louder and louder. Without betraying the slightest disturbance, he discreetly pressed his left ear, trying to stop the noise.

The vibrations in the room were changing their frequency constantly, influenced by the entrance of a supernatural being in the material plane. Suddenly, a pulsating cloud of light began to take shape behind the committee chair, quickly condensing into a female form. Those present would have been shocked had they been able to see the otherworldly entity that appeared—a presence visible only to Brenner’s eyes, or rather the eyes of the being hidden inside him. Making sure that no one was watching him, he turned to look at her. For fractions of a second his eyes glowed red with a burning hatred, and then immediately returned to their normal color.

A radiant, silvery blue aura surrounded the transcendental being’s ethereal body, extending around her in gentle undulations. A cascade of long strawberry blonde hair framed her exquisite face, accentuating her strange-colored eyes. They were neither light blue, nor gray, nor white, but a blend of all three colors that gave her irises a shade that was rare even for the world from which she came. She wore a long, ice blue dress and an ice blue overcoat that flared out at the elbows and hips. It was fastened at the chest with two platinum chains linked to four facing buttons. Her compelling presence exuded gentleness and power, as she stood there serenely in all her majesty, emitting the resplendent light of her sublime nature. She was not just any Angel. She was Aranes, the Superior of the Angels.

Coolly, she cast Brenner an expressionless glance before leaning over the chair’s shoulder.

“Oscar,” she whispered in his ear, “this is not just the same old, everyday decision. Humanity’s future depends on it as well as the planet that was created for its prosperity.” Your responsibility goes beyond the office you hold. Your decision must be in the interest of life.”

She said nothing more, but remained standing behind him, keeping him within the positive influence of her aura. Meanwhile, she was scanning Alex’s aura. He had perceived the disturbance caused to the invisible cosmic force energies from her entrance in the material field, yet he was not sure what caused it. However, he did not miss the committee chair’s brief startled expression and he was looking at him with discreet curiosity.

The chairman never understood why memories of his childhood awakened in his mind. Of the days when he played naked with his friends under the sun without giving a thought to ultraviolet radiation, or when he cupped his hands to drink water from a nearby spring without caring about bacteria or poisons. When his gaze did not stumble on the gray walls of enormous apartment buildings, but got lost in varicolored horizons, and the air he breathed was neither smoggy nor polluted with carbon and sulfur dioxide. Of those days when he never felt the suffocating fear he now felt about his children’s future, and the future of the twin grandchildren that his daughter had brought into the world a few months ago.

The committee chairman snapped back to reality, wondering at the sudden awakening of his conscience, of the sensitivity which he thought had faded with the passing of his youth and his entry in the tough adult world. His decision was not merely made, it dominated his entire being.

He leaned forward and spread his hands on the table.

“It seems that mine is the deciding vote,” he said, looking at his subordinates one by one. “Personally, I believe that the proposal has a number of features that are hard to ignore.” He turned to Alex: “I like it, Mr. Meyers. I’m going to support it.”

Alex nodded. If he felt vindicated, it did not show on his face. He had learned to hide his feelings so as not to reveal aspects of his character that would make it possible for someone, especially his competitors, to predict his reactions. And, when he achieved a professional victory, he thought it foolish to provoke his enemies without reason by smiling complacently.

Brenner and the other member who had opposed the proposal closed their folders with a measure of disappointment. The woman and her like-minded colleague smiled, pleased with the decision.

Aranes slowly crossed the room and went to stand behind Alex’s left shoulder. As expressionless as he, she let her gaze sink into Brenner’s eyes. A dark energy, like a cloud of smoke, began to come out of the man’s body. A few moments later, behind his back, the energy took the insubstantial form of another entity: Asmodeus.

The Archdemon of Eregkal was tall and muscular. Long black hair framed his harsh, sharply angular face and fell freely over his shoulders. He wore dark pants tucked inside his high black boots, a long coat, and elbow-length gloves, all in black leather. His dark aura whirled around him, betraying his irritation at the confrontation’s outcome.

With the arrogance of Demons, who are unwilling to admit defeat, he calmed his aura and winked at Aranes.

“Good work, Princess. Enjoy it while it lasts.”

The Superior of the Angels watched impassively as Asmodeus disappeared, taking with him his strong negative influence. The dominance of the positive celestial energy changed the atmosphere in the room. The humans felt better, except for Brenner, who seemed somewhat dazed.

Aranes rested her hand on Alex’s shoulder as he collected his papers.

“You did it, Alex,” she said softly.

He heard her gentle, unearthly voice and felt an inexplicable wave of warmth pass through him. He went completely numb. For a brief moment, he stopped gathering his papers and held his breath.

The Angel moved away from him and, as she had done countless times before, observed him with interest, thinking how special he was. Humans couldn’t hear the voices of Ethereals or sense their presence, unless an entity wanted to communicate with them—something that happened rarely and only to spiritually advanced individuals who had dedicated their lives to full knowledge of the transcendental. But Alexander Meyers was a prominent scientist and businessman, the epitome of rationalism, and his inner explorations always had objective facts as their starting point. Yet he felt her presence and heard her voice, even though she had not intended it. Why did this happen?

Alex recovered and closed the folder. He shot a quick glance at the people present. They were all gathering their own papers and, thankfully, no one had noticed his momentary confusion. If over the weekend there circulated a rumor on the ever-wakeful market that he had some mental problem—and Brenner would be more than willing to spread it—then on Monday, as soon as Wall Street opened, his company’s stocks would begin to slide. He picked up his bag from the floor and rested it on the table. He opened it, threw in the folder, said a polite goodbye and left the room.

Aranes watched him leave, understanding that this was not over, but rather the beginning of something. But neither could yet fully understand what that could be.

About the Author

J.F. Cain is a writer with a restless mind who spent years of her life reading and traveling. But of all the places she has been to, her favorite is a house in the mountains where she can focus on her writing. She is a seeker of knowledge who transcribes the results of her studies in her books. Her favorite pastime –other than reading and writing- is scouring libraries. However, she has lately convinced herself that she enjoys shopping just as much, as well as spending time with family and friends –the few that can still tolerate her frequent and extended periods of absence.

Her latest book is War Eternal: Angels’ Whispers.

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Character Interview: James Coppi from AA Freda’s coming of age military romance ‘A Police Action’

A Police Action Cover jpegWe’re thrilled to have here today James Coppi from AA Freda new coming of age Vietnam era love story, A Police Action.  is a 21-year-old soldier originally from New York City, New York now serving in the U.S. Army

It is a pleasure to have him with us today at Beyond the Books!

Thank you so for this interview, James Coppi.  Now that the book has been written, do you feel you were fairly portrayed or would you like to set anything straight with your readers?

There is nothing to set straight. I believe the author captured accurately both my personal thoughts and the events that occurred during my Vietnam tour of duty.

Do you feel the author did a good job colorizing your personality?  If not, how would you like to have been portrayed differently?

I was a confused young man at the start of this story. Wandering aimlessly through life. As many young people were in the late 1960’s. There was a sense of duty but also for the first time, a distrust of the government officials running this country. The author captured my confusion as I tried to sort these new norms. Being poor and an immigrant further added to my tangled state of mind.

Meeting a beautiful young lady from Texas, who is just as confused and mixed-up as I am added to my morass. It forced me to come to terms with growing up and facing the reality of life.

What do you believe is your strongest trait?

The ability to handle any problem that comes my way.

Worse trait?

The destructive nature of my personality. Leading me to drop out of school and doing drugs.

If you could choose someone in the television or movie industry to play your part if your book was made into a movie, who would that be (and you can’t say yourself!)? Hmm, a good question. Maybe a young Tom Cruise.

Do you have a love interest in the book? Samantha Powers from Lorenzo Texas. A mixed-up and beautiful nineteen-year-old who had the unfortunate luck of getting pregnant on the first time she had sex. Not my child, incidentally.

At what point of the book did you start getting nervous about the way it was going to turn out?

On the flight home from Vietnam. It appeared to me that I was headed right back to New York City to my aimless and shiftless lifestyle. There appeared to be no future in my life.

If you could trade places with one of the other characters in the book, which character would you really not want to be and why?

Sergeant Camby. He epitomizes everything I despise in life. A fool who really doesn’t know how stupid he is. Life is only about himself. Couldn’t care less about anyone else.

How do you feel about the ending of the book without giving too much away?

The ending came out perfect. I finally was able to settle down my inner demons and face life. Living finally made sense to me.

What words of wisdom would you give your author if s/he decided to write another book with you in it?

Make sure that I turn out the way you imagined I was when you left off in this book. Don’t let me regress back to where I was at the start of the saga.

Thank you for this interview, James Coppi. Will we be seeing more of you in the future?

Yes, I’m told that there are at least two sequels.

//////////////////////////////////

AA Freda is an award-winning author. He’s written several novels with a third to be released in the first half of 2018. His first novel, Goodbye Rudy Kazoody, an award winner, is a coming of age work about a group of teenagers growing up in a New York City neighborhood during the early 1960’s was acclaimed by the critics. His second piece and just released, A Police Action is another coming of age story about two confused young adults caught up during the free love and Vietnam era of the late 1960’s. The inspiration for his books are always his lifelong experiences and people he’s met along the way.

angelo-photo_2Freda was born in Italy but grew up in New York City and now resides in Easton, CT, a suburb of New York City that offers him a tranquil environment that allows him to keep his finger on the pulse of the city he loves so much. A graduate of Bernard Baruch College at the City University in New York, he has served as an adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC. Freda also served in Vietnam the subject matter of A Police Action. In addition to writing, in his spare time, Freda enjoys fishing, hiking, climbing and shooting pool.

First Chapter Reveal: A Wanted Man by Robert Parker

A Wanted Man

Title: A WANTED MAN
Author: Robert Parker
Publisher: Endeavour Press
Pages: 307
Genre: Crime Thriller

It’s down to fathers and fatherhood.

Ben Bracken, ex-soldier, has just got out of Strangeways.

Not by the front door.

With him, he has his ‘insurance policy’ – a bag of evidence that will guarantee his freedom, provided he can keep it safe – and he has money, carefully looked after by a friend, Jack Brooker.

Rejected by the army, disowned by his father, and any hopes of parenthood long since shattered, Ben has no anchors in his life.

No one to keep him steady.

No one to stop his cause…

The plan: to wreak justice on the man who had put him in prison in the first place.

Terry ‘The Turn-Up’ Masters, a nasty piece of work, whose crime organisation is based in London.

But before Ben can get started on his mission, another matter is brought to his attention: Jack’s father has been murdered and he will not rest until the killers are found.

Suddenly, Ben finds himself drawn in to helping Jack in his quest for revenge.

In the process, he descends into the fold of Manchester’s most notorious crime organisation – the Berg – the very people he wants to bring down…

This action-packed and fast-paced story will keep you turning the pages. Manchester is vividly portrayed as Ben races around the city seeking vengeance.

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Chapter One:

My two years in prison ended just how they started – with a stabbing. As soon as Craggs drove the makeshift dagger into Quince’s belly and the recreation room filled with prison staff waving batons, I was moving. I knew they would arrive quickly, and I knew that the door would swing shut just slowly enough for me to slip through. The place erupted in noise and violence, but I didn’t look back. I haven’t done since.

Now, I am running. I can feel my mind bathing in the electric warmth of adrenaline. People are looking at me from a bus waiting at the traffic lights and I try to rein in my stride just a touch. If only they knew what I knew, they might understand why I can’t adopt a more leisurely pace. I need to keep moving.

Hello, Manchester, it’s me, Ben Bracken. I am back. It’s nice to see you, my adopted home town. I’m just sorry it’s under circumstances like these.

I’m arrowing right into the heart of the city, right into the bustling centre, with the sole intention of hiding in the urban congestion. I’m familiar with the city, its quirks, crevices and people, and I know just what to do when I get in there.

The suit I wear, a gigantic, ill-fitting grey coverall of stinking, sweat-soaked canvas, was the chief warden’s only moments earlier. As is the shirt, which will soon be dripping with both our sweat, at this rate. I took both from him as I left the prison – I couldn’t very well come out in my prison issues – and left him there on the steps of the prison in his underpants. He is such a nasty, vile shit of a man. He absolutely deserves it.

He shouldn’t be bothering me for a while, which is thanks in full to the contents of the only item I carry, hanging off my shoulder: a tattered green duffel bag. I can scarcely believe what is inside, but as insurance policies go, this one is ironclad. And I know that as long as it is safe, I am safe with it.

I cross the road and head north towards the Printworks, an entertainment oasis from where I can easily head to my destination, the Northern Quarter. But first, I need to make a call. And the Printworks has a bank of payphones.

It is mid-afternoon, just about 3:45, I think. Thursday. Cold, late October. The city has that quiet afternoon throb about it. The long-lunchers have all gone back to work

by now, hiding boozy excesses on their breath with too much gum, and the early leavers haven’t quite summoned the courage to sneak for the door just yet.

It feels so good to walk on these streets again, for so many reasons. It is a surrogate home now, and after all the travelling it’s still one of the only places on earth where I feel comfortable. I was sent overseas as a soldier, one of Her Majesty’s loyal hounds, setting right the wrongs others had perpetrated against human rights and democracy. A ten-year career mainly stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan saw me reach captain. I was the pride and joy of my family, the ‘Toast of Rawmarsh’ they used to call me back in my home village in Yorkshire. Such memories become more vague all the time. Then I had to make a very difficult choice, which was my undoing. I was cast out, ripped of my purpose, medals and duty, viewed as scum by my peers, dishonourably discharged and sent home in disgrace – and hated by the society I gave everything to protect.

That same society changed a lot in the decade I was away fighting for it, and now I barely recognise it. It now strikes me as an ideal dining out on its rich history. Yet somehow my sense of duty remains. I can’t help it. I don’t believe in My Great Britain anymore, nor even trust it to do the right thing for the people on her shores… But it’s like we were married, Britain and I, long since divorced – yet I’m still inexplicably devoted to my bitch of an ex.

The Printworks is just ahead. I cross the street again, bobbing between the cars, and head in via a side entrance. The Printworks, once the largest printing house in Europe, is now a cavernous converted warehouse, filled with bars, restaurants, cinemas, and a bank of cash machines and payphones. I head straight to the nearest phone and check the pockets of the suit. Two twenty-pence pieces and a ten. Perfect. Thanks, guv’nor. Picking your pocket felt damn good. I know I could call the number reverse charge anyway, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying getting one over on Chief Warden Harry Tawtridge just one last time.

I dial the number I’ve committed to memory for this very moment. Three rings, then the call is answered not with words, but with silence. I know he is there, though. Bob ‘Freckles’ Froeschle got out three weeks before me, although his exit carried Her Majesty’s consent. This moment was rehearsed, and I feel a buzz at putting our prep into practice.

‘The package will be there from midnight tonight, and I’ll cover it with you as agreed,’ I say. ‘Thank you. I am grateful.’

I hang up. Job done. The insurance policy is almost there. The last strand of the escape plan executed to perfection. I am pleasantly surprised. I’m used to responding to instructions ordinarily with violence. Not this time: I’d used my brains and hadn’t laid a finger on anybody myself. I’m inwardly pleased, which is a damn sight better than the bitterness and anger I was stuck with before.

I know I shouldn’t but I find myself popping another coin. I dial again from recollection, having called Kayla’s house countless times when I was on leave. Before prison, before everything changed.

A voice answers, but it is not Kayla, it is a young boy. ‘Hello?’ he says, not a care in the world.

‘Joshua?’ I say.

‘Yeah, who’s that?’ he replies, playing along. I can feel myself ready to bottle it. So much for being ruthless and decisive.

‘Tell your mum it was Uncle B. Tell her, Uncle B sends love to you all, that includes you, Joshua. And tell her I’m going to do my best.’

‘Umm, ok.’
What the hell am I doing?
‘Bye, pal,’ I say, before hanging up. I wish I had more in me to say, but I don’t know

how to say it.
I owe that family so much, more than they will know, but I also know that hearing

from me will hurt. It was a selfish gesture to call, damn it all. But they need to know I’m thinking of them. Of him – of Stephen, the man I killed. Joshua’s father and Kayla’s husband. Because if I forget about them, none of what I broke out to achieve will mean anything.

I leave the booth and crack on with something I’m far more comfortable with.

I see a bar opposite, Waxy O’Connors. An Irish bar. I would bloody love a pint, perhaps a cold pint of Guinness. I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol in twenty months now – the length of my stay in Strangeways. I could easily pop in for one, and head into the Northern Quarter after, but my remaining thirty pence probably wouldn’t get me much in there save for a bag of pork scratchings, and I’m almost gagging in this filthy suit anyway.

I use the front exit of the Printworks, passing the Big Issue sellers, and head left, up towards the Northern Quarter. Within a couple of moments, I’m running again, inhaling

the cold, grey air that only Manchester ever really seems capable of providing. It’s like an elixir and I gulp it down.

Between a pair of streets I see the entrance to an alleyway that I recognise. Above the mostly garish shop fronts, the second floors of the buildings are still all set perfectly in the 1940s. It gives the Northern Quarter away immediately: Manchester’s little piece of Manhattan. Movie crews come in to shoot period-set New York films here because it’s cheaper, and it’s a nice little corner you can always head to for a warm welcome, a cold beer, and a good atmosphere.

Damn. The beer popping into my head again. I wasn’t expecting to only be out of the nick for twenty minutes and already be thinking about having a beer. But it signified freedom to me when I was inside, and I certainly have that freedom now. I’ll get my chance. Besides, I’m nearly there. Church Street.

The street is very quiet, and a scrappy alley cat slinks along the pavement, pausing to look at me with that look all cats give humans: how’ve you managed to get this far with just one life compared to my nine? It leaves me to it and I walk up to the glass doors of an apartment complex nestled between two businesses. I call up to the fifth-floor flat I have been to only once before.

A female voice answers. ‘Hello?’

‘It’s an old friend. Last time I saw you, you were in your nightclothes,’ I say, keeping an eye on the street.

The intercom is quiet for a moment, presumably while a decision is being made. I hope she recognises either my voice or the occasion I was alluding to. She should do.

‘Please come straight up,’ she says.

The door buzzes open, and I enter and head for the lift. I am not expecting anyone to be looking for me, at least not quite yet, but I don’t want to stay here long. I’m convinced I’ll be ok, and my previous captors will leave me to it, because it is simple: if they reveal I’ve escaped, I break out my insurance plan. The authorities would come crashing down on that prison like a ton of bricks, and the disgraceful, corrupt management of that facility would be dragged into the light. So I would imagine that for all intents and purposes, Ben Bracken is holed up in his cell, patiently living out the remaining fifteen years of his sentence.

Fifteen years – that should be enough time to get more than a few things done.

It’s heartening to know that nobody will be looking for me, but still, taking care keeps you alive. Care means I should keep this visit fairly brief. Especially while I still carry the damn insurance policy under my arm.

The flat’s at the end of the corridor, and the door is ajar. I knock and push it open a touch.

‘Hello?’ I call out.

The door is slowly pulled open, to reveal a beautiful woman staring at me, her eyes filling a little, her hand creeping up to cover her mouth. She has shoulder-length brown hair, eyes wide as side plates and browner than melted chocolate, and I instantly recall the last time I saw her. Bruised, frightened, and in a very bad way. Her name is Freya, and last time I saw her, I saved her life.

‘I stink. I really smell bad,’ I say, holding my hands up, but she is on me before I can say anything else.

‘Ben,’ she whispers, throwing her arms around me. I’d been nervous about what welcome I might receive, but that has been quickly put to bed.

‘I’m sorry for dropping in out of the blue,’ I say, hugging her back. I’m genuinely glad to see her. We both went through a lot that day, and we haven’t seen each other since I sent her scampering down an emergency staircase in her nightie.

‘What the hell are you wearing?’ she asks, wrinkling her nose and smiling.
‘You don’t like it? It’s always a bit hit and miss when you buy suits off the rail.’ She lets me go, and we enter the apartment. It is as nice as I remember – warm wood

floorboards under an open living space, bare brick walls, and vast floor-to-ceiling windows, which overlook the low rooftops unique to this end of town. If I ever were to settle down anywhere, it would be in a place like this.

‘Tell me to get stuffed, or whatever you like, but I wondered if I could trouble you for a change of clothes, fifteen minutes internet access and, if you are feeling especially generous, a shower?’

Freya smiles and dabs at the corner of her eyes with the sleeve of her dark jumper. ‘Of course,’ she replies.
I love seeing her like this – doing well, and safe. Then, I notice a glitter on her hand

that makes me catch my breath.
‘The wedding ring… You and Trev?’
‘Yes,’ she says, looking at the ring. ‘After what happened, we… didn’t see any reason

to wait anymore.’

I find myself beaming. Everything I did, and the reasons I had for doing it, has been justified. I feel new strength – new steel in my resolve. I feel reinvigorated.

‘We wanted to invite you,’ she says softly.

‘Don’t be daft – I can be tough to pin down.’ I smile. ‘I’m thrilled for you both. Were you ok after what happened?’

She sighs, looking pensive, but she retains the slight fundament of a smile.
‘Yeah. It took some time, but we both got there.’
‘That’s great, Freya. I mean that.’ I need to get down to it. I’d love to reminisce but

with any luck there’ll be less pressing times. ‘Freya, I’ve just got out of prison – kind of. I don’t believe that anyone is after me, but I don’t want to put you in a difficult position – and I already have, just by being here. I need to keep moving but I need help, and yourself and Trev are my best bet. I’m afraid I’m not supposed to be out of prison. But I am. And I don’t want it to come back to bite you.’

Freya takes a step towards me and puts a hand on my shoulder. That warmth again.

Trev is a lucky man, but it was nearly so different. Two years ago, he got home late from his IT job to find the apartment ransacked and Freya missing. A nasty piece of work called Keith Sinfield was running a child sex ring from a flat in the biggest high- rise at the other end of the city, and by accident his laptop, from which he conducted the whole operation, ended up in Trev’s possession. Sinfield kidnapped Freya to force the return of the laptop.

Trev called me. Truth be told, when the phone rang I was being sick into a bin at a crummy budget hotel on the other side of town, on the bottom end of a self-pity bender, but I helped get her back. It was a messy one.

‘After what you did for us, we will do anything we can to help.’ She turned me and gave me a little push. ‘Hit the shower, and I’ll get some of Trev’s clothes together. He’ll be home soon after five, so if you can wait that long, please do, he’d love to see you. Bathroom’s second door back there. We owe you our lives, Ben.’

I have spent what feels like a lifetime undertaking grim tasks and never getting a word of gratitude in return. Receiving it now renders me awkward, overwhelmed and grateful.

Freya leaves me to it, and I head for incredible luxury: a real, private shower, in freedom. Such a simple thing, but a signifier of so much. It feels like a new dawn, a symbol: to wash away my previous life, all its mistakes and sadness, and start afresh.

About the Author

Robert Parker

Robert Parker is a new exciting voice, a married father of two, who lives in a village close to Manchester, UK. He has both a law degree and a degree in film and media production, and has worked in numerous employment positions, ranging from solicitor’s agent (essentially a courtroom gun for hire), to a van driver, to a warehouse order picker, to a commercial video director. He currently writes full time, while also making time to encourage new young readers and authors through readings and workshops at local schools and bookstores. In his spare time he adores pretty much all sport, boxing regularly for charity, loves fiction across all mediums, and his glass is always half full.

His latest book is the crime/thriller, A WANTED MAN.

WEBSITE & SOCIAL LINKS:

WEBSITE | TWITTER | FACEBOOK

Review: Mama Graciela’s Secret

Urban Book Reviews

Synopsis:

Local customers (including stray cats!) come from all over the island to enjoy her secret recipe. But when the Inspector discovers that MamA secretly caters to so many cats and he threatens to close her tiny restaurant, MamA must come up with a plan to save it–and all of the animals she loves.

Rating: 5-stars
Review:
Mama Graciela’s Secret by Maya Calvani is a beautiful engaging story. The pages are wonderfully illustrated to match every scene. This is definitely a story for children and adults alike. Animal lovers will love Mama Graciela and her effort to save the cats that come to her restaurant. I found entertaining, sweet, and educational.


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