Noble Rot, the novel

Book Reviews

Real-Life War in Wine Industry Sparks Explosive New Novel With More Twists Than a Corkscrew

Out this month is a new book about wine, but it's not the usual genre. Noble Rot uses real events currently souring the French wine industry as a backdrop for a page-turning, race-against-the-clock novel that anyone who loves wine should enjoy reading. As the publisher's promotional blurb states, "Open Noble Rot before you open your next bottle of Merlot. It has more twists than a corkscrew."
Click here to read the full review.

"A real eye opener! What comes across is how your experiences as a travel writer have shaped your descriptions of places and people ... You cleverly lead the reader to keep turning pages..."
Judy P. Scotland

"Loved Noble Rot from the very first page. It really moved along! A great read. Thank you very much!"
Lucy H. New York City

"This novel is a fun read. I loved how you gave depth to each character without overwriting. A smooth blend of excitement and adventure, mystery and suspense, leaving an aftertaste of satisfaction and a thirst for more!"
Travis C. Austin, Texas

"Thanks for a terrific book! I really loved it! So much, I can't wait for the next one!"
Heather W. Toronto, Canada

"I loved your book -- especially the size of the font! Thank you for thinking of us older folk."
Jady E. Melbourne, Australia

"Your writing makes the places of this world you describe so inviting and attractive."
Jeff T, Kennebunk, Maine

"I read Noble Rot during a couple of snowy days here in the city and was happy as a clam to just stay in and curl up with such a good book!"
Cathie H. New York City

Back Cover Synopsis

Noble Rot is an explosive cocktail of jealousy, revenge, sabotage, sibling rivalry, sex and blackmail inspired by real events within the multibillion-dollar global wine industry.

According to a BusinessWeek cover story Wine War, France has dominated the industry for centuries but the bouquet is now fading. The small, old world family-owned vineyards in France are struggling to survive pressed by the threat of the sophisticated know-how and slick marketing techniques of their huge new world competitors. French exports are dropping. French winegrowers' tempers are rising. Noble Rot is a fictional account of what could happen next if someone suffered a severe case of sour grapes.

Consumed by jealousy, envy and greed, the aristocratic owner of a centuries-old chateau vineyard in Burgundy plots to wreak havoc upon his archrival, a huge Californian conglomerate mass-producing the world's best-selling wines. He hires a ruthlessly efficient saboteur who sets in motion a series of clandestine attacks on the global giant that begins with the sensational disruption of a state banquet at the residence of Britain's Prime Minister.

While police on both sides of the Atlantic launch a full-scale investigation, a swift moving chain of bizarre events lead to a small-time private eye becoming inadvertently embroiled in murder and forced to hunt the deadly saboteur to clear his name. In a plot that has more twists that a corkscrew, the private eye must evade capture and race against the clock to prevent the saboteur's next strike that threatens to poison thousands around the world.

Sample Chapter


He had no idea what had happened. It was night. He was standing at the side of a narrow, paved road in a forest of towering redwood trees. It was very quiet, disturbingly quiet. The only sound was a light breeze stirring in the trees. He felt suspended in time, as if he were floating in a dream.

He was dazed, his eyes half-closed, rocking unsteadily on his feet like a groggy boxer at the end of a rugged fight.

Slowly he lifted his hands to his head in a feeble attempt to stop the dizziness, surprised by the great effort it took. His hands felt wet against his face. Looking down, he saw they were covered with blood. He wiped them against his badly stained jeans. He was shocked to see his dark blue windbreaker was torn and splattered with mud.

He tried to remember where he was and how he got there, but his mind was a muddle of fragmented images, parts of some jumbled jigsaw puzzle scattered carelessly across a board. Looking back down the road he saw the tangled wreck of a car smashed against a tree, its front end a grotesque contortion of twisted metal. A pair of perfectly matched, black skid marks snaked across the moonlit road, betraying the car's wild path to its final resting place where it now hissed dying gasps of steam.

He began to stagger slowly toward the crash when he heard the sound of a car approaching behind him. He turned toward the sound and lifted an arm to shield his eyes from the sudden brilliance of the oncoming headlights. He strained hard to make out what looked like a low, sleek convertible. It skidded to a halt a few feet from where he stood.

A young woman flung open the driver's door, stepped out and rushed toward him.

His vision blurred. He felt a wave of nausea, and thought he was going to pass out.

The woman reached his side and grabbed him to stop him falling. "Oh my God, Tony!" she said, breathlessly, glancing towards the wreck, "That's your car!" She had a soft Midwestern accent. "You look terrible! You've got blood all over you! You're hurt! Oh, my God!" Her big blue eyes swept his body, looking for the source of the blood.

He was stunned. He thought she was a total stranger, yet she'd called him by name, and her concern was obvious, warm and intimate. He pulled back, trying to get a better look at her. "Who... who are you?" he managed.

"What?" She seemed taken aback, and took a half step away from him.

"Who are you?" he repeated, swaying a little.

"Oh, no...." She groaned and looked frightened.

He said nothing. He just stared at her blankly.

"Tony, it's me," she whispered, after a long pause. She must have read the look on his face, and saw no sign of recognition there. She looked deep into his eyes searching for some acknowledgment. "Darling... you're frightening me."

Had she said 'darling'? The word had soared above the others and exploded in his mind like a flare in the empty night sky. Who is this woman?

His head was hurting. He lifted his hands to his temples and held them there for a moment.

"You'd better sit down," she said, helping him toward her car, an ice blue Mercedes 240SL. Once inside, she turned on the interior lights.

"Who am I?" he asked feebly. "Where are we?"

She studied him thoughtfully for a long few seconds, then said gently, "We're near the restaurant in the woods. You know, where we arranged to meet...?"

He understood her words but they made no sense.

"Oh God, Tony, you've got to remember something!" She gazed at him pleading, almost willing him to remember.

"No." he said. "Nothing." He slumped forward elbows on knees, and buried his head in his hands.

"This is Ventana, sweetheart" he heard her say, her voice a distant murmur. "California." He shook his head slowly. It meant nothing to him.

"Tony, please! Tell me what happened! What do you remember?" He turned his head and saw that she looked as if she might cry.

He wanted to remember, if only for her sake.

"I don't know what happened... I can't remember." He felt sick. Burying his head in his hands once more, he closed his eyes and breathed deeply. She watched him silently.

After a while, he thought he had the nausea under control and the swirling turmoil in his brain slowed. Then, a dozen questions began to push to the surface like new life after rain.

What did happen? He wondered. Why did I crash? Did I loose control? Did I swerve to miss something?

But, as hard as he tried, he remembered nothing. It was causing him growing alarm; but, for the moment, he gave up the struggle.

"I'm okay now," he said without conviction. At least the dizziness had passed.

"We'll see about that," she said. "But first, we'd better get you cleaned up. You're a mess."

They drove a short distance down the road to a small park. He saw a picnic table and a pair of barbecue grills in the dim light. She stopped the car. "There's a men's room over there, see?" she pointed toward a concrete blockhouse with an entrance on either side. "See if you can get some of that blood off. The cold water might do you some good. Then we'd better think about getting you to a doctor. Are you okay? You want me to help you?" she asked, watching him step out and waver on his feet.

He felt the nausea return. "I'll be okay," he said, not at all certain he would be or that he'd reach the bathroom before throwing up. He breathed deeply again, trying to fight down whatever was in his stomach, and walked gingerly toward the building.

"I'll be right here!" she called after him.

The men's room was filthy and smelled. He thought it couldn't have been cleaned in a decade. A cracked mirror was screwed to the wall above a badly stained, grimy sink. His stomach heaved and he threw up.

He slowly lifted his head and stared into the mirror. A grim face glared back at him that he only dimly recognized. He reached up with trembling fingers and tentatively touched his swollen mouth, his nose, his cheeks, exploring his dark complexioned features as if he were studying some theatrical mask he'd just put on for the first time.

He tried one of the taps. There was a trickle of brown water at first, but then it cleared. He splashed some on his face then cupped his hand under the tap and rinsed his mouth spitting out blood. He drank a few mouthfuls of the cool water, and then pushed his wet fingers through his thick mop of curly black hair. He began to feel a great deal better.

He sat down on the broken toilet seat in the one, door less stall, and tried to marshal his thoughts.

He tried again to remember the events that led up to the wreck but it was useless. Instead, he thought about the stranger waiting outside who spoke to him so intimately. She was warm, affectionate and genuinely concerned. She called him by name, and seemed to have the answers he didn't have.

He splashed more cold water on his face then walked out of the building much more steadily than he had entered. For the first time, he took note of his surroundings. He looked up, and saw stars in a warm, clear night sky. He breathed in the fresh scent of pine, and heard the insistent trill of a thousand crickets in the trees. He'd thought that sound was in his head. Now, he recognized it for what it was.

She looked up and smiled when he opened the car door. "Well," she said brightly, "that's much better. You look halfway decent again! Feeling okay now?"

He saw her more clearly now, as if for the first time. She was a beautiful young blonde in her mid-twenties, slim, poised and well dressed. She was wearing a pale blue blouse that looked like silk, a cream mini-skirt and gold jewelry.

He sat down next to her. "Hello again," he said, and smiled back.

"You're feeling better," she said happily.

"I'm getting there. Nothing seems broken. Scratches mostly. But I still can't remember much -- before the accident, I mean. I keep trying, but nothing. I don't recognize myself, I don't recognize my name, and" he turned toward her, "I'm sorry to say, I don't recognize you." She took his hands and looked into his eyes. "That's okay, sweetheart, it'll come back. Don't push it. And don't worry; I'll look after you. But we have to get you to a doctor -- right now!" She started the car.

Tony did worry. He was very worried and felt hopelessly out of control, but too confused and dazed to put up any resistance.

"You gave this to me, you know," she announced casually, as the car began to pick up speed.

He did? He was impressed.

"After I moved in with you," she added, shifting gears.

She turned and smiled. Nothing she said could surprise him now. He just slowly shook his head.

Moments later her mood had shifted with the gears. "Okay," she started, as if she were about to run through a checklist, "What do you remember?"

He thrust his hands into his jacket pockets, stared ahead through the windshield, sat back and tried again to think of the events before the crash. His right hand closed around a firm, square shape in the pocket. He pulled out a brown, calfskin billfold and opened it curiously. That same face he'd seen in the bathroom mirror looked up at him from a small colored photo on a New York driver's license. He slipped the ID out of its transparent sleeve and stared at the name: Antonio Sloveno. "So this is me?" he asked, showing it to her, his voice expressing disbelief.

"It was this morning," she laughed.

He looked back at the license. Below the bold ID number was an address in New York City and a date of birth: 07/07/62. It stated his sex was male and his height was 5-11. He searched the rest of the wallet. He found a fistful of credit cards, a membership card for a hotel and casino, dollar bills and a few business cards.

"What kind of name's that anyway, Sloveno?"

"It's a great name!" she said. "Don't knock it. It'll be mine too pretty soon, don't forget." She laughed again.

Another revelation. But he decided to let that one pass too. Within minutes, they reached a stand of sparse cypress trees marking the entrance to a driveway. They passed through open wrought iron gates set in a high, red brick wall. To his right was another high wall densely covered with dark green ivy. To his left, he had an impression of a vast expanse of lawn dotted with tall trees, dark clumps of bushes and flowerbeds. Several hundred feet directly in front of him was what looked like a multi-car garage. To the left of that stood a huge, white mansion brilliantly lit by in-ground floodlights, and beside it behind a low wall, a raised terrace bathed in yellow lamplight.

The driveway swept left in a graceful arc past the garage to a graveled forecourt half the size of a football field in front of the house. A flagstone path, marked by low domed lights shaped like mushrooms, led from the forecourt to the terrace.

She drove up to the house that seemed all the more impressive as they drew nearer. A flight of broad, brick steps led up to a covered porch, its flat roof supported by four round, white pillars. A huge, glass light hung from the porch ceiling illuminating the imposing entrance.

She parked and turned off the motor. "Why don't you wait here," she told him, stepping out of the car, "while I make sure he can see us."

He grabbed her arm and pulled her back inside. "Wait a minute! Not yet..."

"It's okay, Tony. Really it is. Let me go... Please?"

"No," he said emphatically. "Look, I feel like I'm sleepwalking, like I'm in some other space. I'm not up for meeting anyone, not like this. Think about it. I don't know who I am, where we are or what the hell we're doing here. I need answers first, and you seem to have them."

She sighed and got back in the car.

"I told you," she began, in the gentle tone of a mother to a child, "we had to get you to a doctor. Well, this is where the doctor lives...."

"Yes, but where is this? Where are we?"

"We're in Carmel... California."

"Okay, so why here? I mean, why a doctor out here? Why not a hospital? Who is this guy? Do you know him?"

"His name's Michael, Doctor Michael Gross. He's a friend of yours." She thought for a moment, then added, "Actually, he's more than that, a partner of some sort, I think. I don't know, really, I'm not sure." Her voice trailed off. "Anyway, that's where we are." She made it sound final, but he still wasn't satisfied.

He remembered the license in his wallet. "But I live, I mean, we live in New York, don't we? So, what are we doing in California? And why do I have a partner here and not there?"

"We move around a lot," she said vaguely. "Now, will you let me go, please? Let me get help, Tony." Again, her face showed concern.

"What do you mean, 'move around a lot'?" he pressed.

"Look, let me go and see the doctor. I'm sure he'll fix you up quickly. Then it'll all come back to you. Tony, please...." she urged.

"Okay, in a minute. But something else...." He'd already been wondering what he was doing with a fiancee who drove a Mercedes, now he had a partner who lived in a palace. "What do I do for a living goddamnit? Am I a doctor, too?" If he was, he had to be a hell of good one, he thought, judging by the car she was driving that he was supposed to have given her.

She sighed again, a little gasp of air that implied impatience. "No, you're not," she said. "I don't know what you do exactly. You arrange things, fix things, you know, deals." She was being vague, and he didn't like it. He felt starved for facts, he wanted details; something, anything, that might jump-start his memory bank.

"What kind of deals?" he persisted.

"I don't know," she said again, in a flash of irritation that surprised him. "You never tell me, so I've stopped asking. But no more questions, not now."

She must have realized he still wasn't ready to let her go because she didn't try to leave. Her voice returned to a more gentle tone. "All right," she said thoughtfully, "you're smart, street-smart. You've got plenty of money. You travel the world. And," she squeezed his arm, "you're great in bed." She laughed again.

He liked that, and smiled. "Well, in that case, " he joked, "maybe it's time I knew your name."

"I'm Laura," she said, smiling back at him. Then she added in a singsong voice, "Laura Bradley, how do you do?" She was being capricious, but when she realized the name meant nothing to him, her tone changed again. "Tony, I'm so worried about you."

He felt her concern, but he just didn't want to face another mystery friend right now. He made one last effort. "Couldn't we do this tomorrow? Maybe, I'll even be okay in the morning."

"No," she said. "I'm going... Now!" She slid from his grasp. As she did so, he couldn't help but notice her slim, shapely legs as she swung them out of the car.

He watched her gracefully walk away, her tall, hourglass figure silhouetted against the backdrop of the brightly lit mansion. For a moment, the idea that he was supposed to be living with her thrilled him, but he'd swear he'd never seen her before in his life.

He thought she'd go up the steps to the front door. But she ignored them. Instead, she took the path leading to the terrace at the side of the house. Why had she chosen to go that way? Tony wondered.

Instinctively, he glanced at his left wrist, where a watch was partially hidden beneath his sleeve. It was an expensive-looking gold Rolex, the brand stamped on its face and bracelet. It showed the hour was after 11:00.

Suddenly his instincts shifted into high gear. Something was very wrong. There were no other cars parked on the forecourt and no sounds coming from the house, so it was reasonable to assume the doc was not entertaining. Yet at this late hour the mansion was fully lit. Why? Could it be they were expected? If so, when was the doc alerted that they were coming? She had a cell phone in the car but he hadn't seen her use it.

He eased open the car door. Quietly pressing it closed behind him, he slipped out. He thought of following her across the gravel, but feared they might hear the crunch of his feet on the stones. So, he stepped lightly behind the floodlights and on to the lawn. Bent low, creeping through the shadows of the moonlit pines, cedars and ornamental shrubs, he moved stealthily to the far edge of the grass.

The terrace, lit by small lights pinned to the side of the house, was now a hundred feet directly in front of him, several feet above ground level. Its contours were marked by a low, white wall set every few feet with what looked like candles encased in pyramids of glass. It was a huge, outdoor patio, large enough to contain a swimming pool he guessed, although all he could see were a couple of green-and-white striped umbrellas poking up above the wall. Below the wall, sloping down to the lawn was a thick bank of red, pink and white impatiens dimly lit by the overspill of the lights.

Crouched in deep shadow, he surveyed the ground between him and his objective, mentally plotting each step of his course, before he slowly edged forward until he was within earshot.

Now, hidden behind a Douglas Fir at the edge of the lawn within feet of the steps up to the terrace, he could smell the ocean and hear voices. But the words came in fragments and phrases, rising like spray between the thunderous crash of waves against rocks. Laura's voice sounded urgent, almost angry. The man's was deep, and defensive. From their tone and the few words he could hear it was evident this was more than a discussion about an evening house call. He had to get closer to hear more clearly. To do so would place him in the light, but he would still be below the wall and out of sight. Deciding to take the chance, he moved forward.

Almost instantly, his foot scraped against something on the gravel.

Damn! Someone had carelessly left a hand gardening fork lying at the edge of the walkway. He had no choice now but to step out of hiding to join them on the terrace where their conversation had stopped abruptly.

He saw a shimmering free-form pool lit from the sides, and beyond it a dark expanse of white-capped ocean. There was a row of white lounge chairs on the ocean side of the pool and matching tables and chairs beside the house. Beside one of the tables, a few steps from open French doors, Laura and the man he assumed to be Doctor Michael Gross turned his way.

The doctor was wearing a dark blue blazer, open-necked white shirt and white slacks. He was tall, thin and elderly. He held out a hand, his deeply tanned face wearing a wide smile. "Tony! Wonderful to see you again! But my, my, you have been in the wars, haven't you? Better let me take a look at you."

Tony, prepared for another complete stranger to recognize him, decided to go with the flow. Gross put an arm around him and led him through the French doors, leaving Laura beside the pool. They entered a spacious living room decorated in muted earth tones. Arrangements of yellow and purple cut flowers gave the room a fresh smell and a feminine touch. A glowing log fire added warmth to the comfortable ambiance.

The doc nodded toward a recess to their right where a small lounge area had been built into bay windows that overlooked the lawns. "Get comfortable over there," he said casually, "while I fetch my kit."

Tony sat on an elegantly curved tobacco brown-and-cream striped sofa and waited for Gross to return. Looking around the room, taking in the luxurious furniture, handsome oil paintings and expensive accessories, he wondered just what kind of "deals" he and the doctor had going that generated such opulence.

There were three stacks of oversized books on the glass coffee table in front of him. Glancing at their titles, he noted their subjects were the California coastline, shore birds and sea life, and they looked like they'd never been opened.

Gross returned carrying a black Gladstone bag. "Okay, let's get started," he said, grabbing a chair and sliding it over. "Move those books off the table, would you? Just put them on the floor there." He sat down and bent over to open the bag at his feet. Tony noticed the man's thin silver hair barely covered a tanned bald spot.

"Doc, Laura said we're partners. The way I am right now... well, I've got to ask: Just what kind of partners are we?"

"Partners in crime, maybe, huh?" The doc laughed and winked. "Not now, my boy, not now," he said more seriously. Let's get a good look at you, first. Why don't you take off your sneakers, strip to your shorts, and lie down on the sofa there."

Tony began to undress while Gross removed a few instruments, cotton balls and a bottle from the bag. He placed them on the table. "We have -- how shall I put it? -- special interests, you and me, and you have work to do. So, let's see if you're up to it, shall we? Now, we know you're suffering from loss of memory. Anything else? Any localized pain? Your head hurt?"

Tony had a dozen questions racing through his mind about those "special interests," but he kept them to himself for now, answered the doc's queries and allowed him to tend to his battered body.

Gross took cotton and soaked it with liquid from the green bottle on the table. It stung as he gently applied it to the cuts and bruises on Tony's mouth and face. He then took a slim instrument shaped like a pen and shone a narrow, intense beam of light into each of Tony's eyes. Tony got a close up view of the man's deeply lined face, watery gray eyes, black, shaggy eyebrows and long, aquiline nose. The doc peered inside Tony's ears, and then carefully searched his scalp. He grunted, as if satisfied there was no serious damage there.

"Sit up," he commanded.

Gross pressed his hands gently against Tony's rib cage then his fingers traced his spine, feeling carefully along the bone structure. Finally he clamped a stethoscope to his ears, and with his head to one side listened to Tony's heart and lungs.

"So what's the verdict, doc?" Tony asked, reaching for his clothes. Gross folded the stethoscope and returned it to his bag. Well," he said, pinching the bridge of his nose the way some do after hours of tedious close-up work, "you're in fine shape overall, fine shape, very fit, a few cuts to be sure, but they'll heal quickly. Nothing broken. That's good...."

"But what about the memory loss? Is it serious?"

"No, I don't think so. We'll see, time will tell. We'll watch it, but -- most likely? Concussion and amnesia, I'd say, not uncommon under the circumstances. Your skull's not fractured, a little swelling but no serious damage I can see. Just take it easy. Get plenty of rest." He started to rise from the chair. "Now, shall we rejoin Laura and give her the news?"

"Wait," Tony replied catching the doc's arm and pulling him back down in the chair, "before we do, I'm asking again, doc, what exactly are our special interests?"

"Oh, you're in good enough shape for that sort of thing, my boy. No problem."

"Right, but what exactly is that sort of thing?" Tony snapped. The man was being irritatingly vague and Tony was quickly growing to dislike him for it.

Gross looked uneasy and again tried to stall any discussion on the subject. "Plenty of time for that later, right? Now, come on, let's go out to Laura, shall we?" He slapped both hands on his legs to emphasize he was having no more of that kind of talk, and rose out of the chair again.

Tony was relieved that whatever was wrong with him seemed to be temporary, but felt the weight of that concern had now been replaced with another. What business did he have with this man that he'd felt necessary to keep from Laura, and why was it a subject his so-called "partner" wanted to avoid? Tony began to get dark suspicions but wasn't sure how best to confirm them. He thought about beating it out of the man, but again decided to let it go, for now, until he could think more clearly.

He watched Gross walk over to a wicker basket beside the fireplace, select a log and toss it on the fire. The man was suave, his movements easy and smooth. But Tony sensed something beneath the polished veneer that somehow didn't fit with the man or his surroundings. He was hiding more than it appeared, Tony was certain.

They walked out to the terrace together. A soft breeze was blowing in from the ocean. It was cool, but not unpleasant. Laura had been sitting at one of the tables gazing across the pool, apparently in deep thought. She turned and jumped to her feet when she heard them coming.

"Is he okay, doc? Will he be all right?" Her concern was obvious.

"Don't worry. He'll be fine, nothing alarming," the doc assured her. "I've told him to get some rest. Make sure he does, okay? Now, time for a drink, I think. What do you say, Laura? Care to join me? No rum and coke for you tonight Tony, something soft I think, but how about you, my dear?"

Clearly, drinks with the doc were customary.

Laura asked for a Kir Royale, and seemed in no hurry to leave, unlike Tony who was forming a long, ever-growing list of questions and was anxious to take Laura somewhere, anywhere to get some answers.

Although she saw him hesitate, she patted a chair suggesting he come and sit down next to her. Realizing that without her he had nowhere to go and no means of getting there, he obeyed reluctantly. The doc returned inside the house.

Tony took the chance to whisper urgently "Laura, can't we get out of here... go somewhere and talk? Now!"

"Tony, darling, we can't leave," she replied quietly. "The doc's being so... accommodating. Let's have a drink, relax, and we'll leave soon, okay? He is your friend, you know. We should stay just a little while longer."

"There're too many things that don't...." Tony began, but stopped when Gross returned with a tray of drinks, passed them around and sat down beside them.

Tony took a cautious sip of a cloudy, yellow liquid that tasted sweet and tangy, and listened to them exchange small talk. The doc was describing some art show he'd visited in Monterey a few days earlier and the excellent dinner he'd enjoyed afterwards at a place called The Sardine Factory on Cannery Row.

Tony tuned out of their conversation, listening to the rhythm of the sea and letting his mind drift like flotsam on the waves. He began to fidget with his drink stirrer, moving the ice cubes around absently.

After a while, he became aware that the doc's idle chatter had long since passed the requirements of a genial host. With sudden clarity he realized Gross was stalling for time, holding them there, delaying their departure, buying time... for what? He remembered Gross had thrown another log on the fire. Did he expect more visitors? Again, his senses went on alert.

"Come on, Laura, we're leaving," he said brusquely, sliding back his chair and standing up. He expected Gross to stop him, and he did.

"No need to rush off...." he began, but left the sentence unfinished, cut short by the sound of a car approaching across the graveled forecourt. Gross looked relieved.

"A bit late for visitors," Tony said wryly. "Or do they know this is an all-night bar?"

They both ignored him and moved to the edge of the terrace wall. Tony watched Laura for any clue she expected the newcomers, but she appeared as surprised and curious as he did.

"Friends of ours, I think, dear boy," Gross said, looking toward a black convertible, its roof down and its occupants, two men, now clearly visible in the lights flooding the front of the house.

Here we go again, Tony thought. He glanced at Laura who seemed to read his mind. "We can't go now," she whispered hurriedly. "We know these people. But, don't let on about, well, you know -- your memory loss thing. Just try and act normal. Promise?" She touched his arm lightly, an intimate gesture that somehow seemed to reassure him. "Trust me. Say as little as possible. Leave it to me."

The two men were approaching along the flagstone path. One was short, carrying a black briefcase. The other, tall, huge and bulky, loomed behind like a giant shadow.

The first man reached the top of the steps to the terrace. "Ciao, Doctori," he said, not looking at Gross, but toward Tony and Laura.

"Franco! Franco Mari!" Gross said, grinning broadly and extending his hand. "What happened, my friend? Did you get lost?" They shook hands. "Never mind, never mind," Gross continued expansively, "it's good to see you! Been a long time!"

Although small in stature, Franco was fit and trim. His face was tanned and his long black hair neatly swept back in a ponytail tied with a black velvet ribbon. His clothes were tailored and expensive. He looked confident and comfortable with his well-groomed image.

"You have company," he said, turning to the pair beside the terrace wall. "Didn't expect to find you two here.... How've you been, Tony?" he asked, approaching him. His English was excellent, only slightly tinged by an Italian accent.

Tony looked searchingly into the man's dark eyes but recognized nothing about him. He shook his hand but, uncertain what to say to a friend who was a stranger, he said nothing. He simply nodded.

If Franco was puzzled by Tony's less than enthusiastic greeting, he didn't show it. He held Tony's eyes for a moment then turned to Laura. "And the beautiful Laura," he said, bowing to kiss her outstretched hand.

"Franco...." Laura said bleakly, barely acknowledging his greeting.

"Always a pleasure," he purred, then turned his attention back toward Tony. "So what happened to you, huh? You look like shit." Although the last word sounded more like 'sheet', Tony understood well enough, and was about to let it be known he thought the new arrival was a horse's ass with a tail to match, when the doc suggested they move into the house.

"Come on, let's fix you a drink," Gross said, putting an arm around the new arrival as he had Tony. "You too, Yuri," he said absently over his shoulder to Franco's companion.

Yuri Kaplunov looked like a Russian body-builder. He was an intimidating giant of a man, well over six-foot-six, strong and athletic. He wore black pants, a black silk shirt and a black leather jacket that did little to conceal his bulging muscles. Even his features were black, his dark eyes, short-cropped hair, bushy eyebrows and the small triangle of beard on his chin. Everything about him was dark and sinister. He'd been virtually ignored by everyone since he arrived and had said nothing seemingly content to be in the shadow of Franco's charisma. Silently, he stepped in behind his boss, his wide girth completely shielding the smaller man's back. His frame stooped to pass through the French doors into the house.

Tony wondered who Franco was and what was in the briefcase that warranted such protection but he didn't want to wait to find out.

"Laura, let's go," he muttered even more certain it was time to leave. "I don't like this. Let's get out of here."

"We can't go now," she whispered. "We mustn't. Trust me. You're a part of this."

"I'm a part of what?" he whispered back hotly. "For God's sake, Laura, what's going on? And who the hell are these guys?"

She shook her head, and furtively signaled don't ask! She took his arm and led him firmly into the living room.

Gross was standing behind a curved, marble-topped bar in a recessed bay opposite the one where Tony had been treated earlier. He was setting up glasses and filling a bucket with ice. Franco was already settled comfortably in one of a pair of cane chairs near the open fire. Yuri was sitting stiff and erect in the other and looked about as uncomfortable as a rock climber at a croquet tournament, Tony thought, who sat with Laura on a sofa facing the newcomers.

"Same as usual, I assume, Franco?" Gross said from the bar, setting a bottle of Grappa on the counter. "You too, Yuri, huh? Coke?" It seemed he'd already prepared fresh drinks for Laura and Tony.

"Of course," Franco replied. Yuri's head nodded slowly up and down in agreement.

Franco settled back comfortably in his chair and pulled out a gold cigarette case and lighter. "So," he said, after lighting up and exhaling a stream of smoke, "What happened to you, Tony, huh? You okay?"

"Sure, I'm fine." Tony said, trying to sound casual.

Gross came over and set down their drinks on a glass coffee table between them, returned to the bar for an ashtray, then sat down in an armchair next to the sofa. They each reached for their glass.

"You're still good for tomorrow, yes? No problems?" Franco continued.

What about tomorrow? Tony thought, his mind suddenly racing. He looked quickly at Laura about to say, 'I'm going to tell them the truth, or forget it,' but Laura's look was full of such pleading, he stopped himself.

"Eh, sure, sure. It's just that I'm feeling, I don't know, tired... not myself," Tony explained lamely. "I'll be okay." He took a sip of his drink.

"Good," Franco nodded, exhaling another smoke stream. He glanced at Yuri and nodded as if assuring him all was well.

Yuri made no sound or movement in acknowledgement, confirming Tony's suspicion that the brute's communication skills had received far less attention than his body. He ignored everyone except Tony who he fixed with an unblinking stare.

For a few minutes, Franco, Gross and Laura exchanged conversational pleasantries while Tony watched and listened grateful to be left out of it. But then their attention suddenly switched back to him.

Franco put down his empty glass. "All right, Tony, let me have a word with the doc in private for a moment, then we'll take a run over to your place... okay?" He stood up.

It wasn't okay, but Tony got the distinct impression that whatever else he may have planned for the remainder of the evening, he could forget it. He was going with them. He looked at Yuri whose grim eyes suggested he'd love the opportunity to persuade Tony if he thought otherwise.

"Fine," he said. "With Laura, right?" He wanted her with him. She was his one link to sanity.

"You want to involve her in this?" Franco replied, sounding both angry and surprised.

"No, no, of course not," Tony corrected hurriedly. "I wasn't thinking." He put his hands to his head. "I'm all banged up.... Can't think straight.... Feel like I've got a bad hangover."

Franco laughed, seeming to accept the explanation.

Gross stood and motioned for Franco to join him as he walked through a door into another part of the house. With a last glance in Tony's direction, Franco picked up his briefcase and followed Gross out. Yuri silently went after them.

"I can't keep this up, Laura," Tony said, as soon as they'd gone. "This is crazy. Who are these jokers?"

Laura leaned toward him and gently touched his arm. "I wish I could help, darling, but I've no idea what you all get up to, and, believe me, I don't want to. But I do know enough to sense it'll get nasty if they think anything's wrong. You've got to go along with them. Play it by ear. Do your best, for me, for us."

"But this is insane. You really want me to go with them? Are you out of your mind?" Tony was almost six feet, slim and in relatively good shape, but he had no intention of going for an evening drive with those two. "Have you seen those guys?" he said.

"They're your business associates, Tony."

"Maybe," he said. "But I don't like it. I'm out of here. Are you coming or not?"

"Tony, please don't make trouble. You'll regret it. I know you will. You've got to go along with them, act normal. They can't think anything's wrong. If they do... I don't know... I'm afraid of what they might do. If they think you've become a liability, a bad risk, God knows what they're capable of doing. Just go with it, please? For my sake?"

The three men returned.

"Please?" she implored, squeezing his hand.

Reluctantly, he nodded agreement. Not for her sake, but for his own. Despite his misgivings, he realized that going with them might be the quickest route out of this tangled mess.

"Tony, you ready?" Franco asked, "Let's go." He turned to Yuri, "Start the car," he ordered. "We're leaving." He shook the doc's hand. "Ciao, doc, we'll talk again."

Gross nodded agreement. "Call me... I'll show you out."

They all walked onto the terrace where Gross said goodbye. "I'll wait to hear from you," he said behind them as Tony and Laura followed Franco down the steps toward the car.

I should be certified, Tony thought. I'm leaving for God knows where with a silk-suited horse's ass and a muscle-bound commando, because a woman I'm not sure I've ever met tells me I should. I must be sick.

Laura embraced him before he climbed into the back seat of a black Mercedes convertible. "See you soon," she smiled lovingly. Tony wasn't so sure.

They drove out of the driveway, turned right past the stand of cypress trees, and sped down the road. Tony glanced at his watch. It was past 1:00. It felt even colder now, especially with the roof down. He guessed they had to keep it down or Yuri would be forced to drive like a hunchback. Still, hurtling along in an open car had its advantages, he thought. It made talk difficult without shouting, and that prevented Franco asking any more awkward questions.

Seven minutes later they came to a cluster of buildings; the farthest of which was a motel. Yuri swung the vehicle off the road and pulled up at the back of it, more dimly lit than the front. Tony counted maybe twenty doors in a row, each with a number and a parking spot. They stopped outside number 39, at the end of the row.

Now what?

"Okay," Franco commanded, "everyone out."

Tony got out obligingly and stood there, uncertain what to do next. This was what they called his place? A motel?

"The key?" Franco asked, resting the briefcase at his feet.

Key? Tony felt a swell of panic. What key? He fumbled in his pants' pockets, nothing.

Franco tapped his foot impatiently. "Hurry, amice! You want to keep us here all night? We've got to get outta the light." He scanned the row of cabin doors, perhaps expecting one to burst open at any moment, its occupant angered by the commotion in the middle of the night.

Tony patted the sides of his jacket and felt a hard clump he hadn't noticed before.

"Come on...." Franco urged.

Tony ripped out a thin piece of plastic with a key dangling from it. Franco grabbed it and tossed it at Yuri. "Better have him check, huh? Can't be too careful."

Yuri turned the key and gently pushed the door open a couple of inches. What did they expect, Tony thought, a bomb? A hidden attacker lurking behind the door? The way Yuri was behaving, Tony half-expected him to pull out a gun, but he didn't. He swung the door wider slowly, keeping his back pressed flat against its surface reducing the size of the target his huge bulk presented. He paused for a moment then glided swiftly into the dark interior.

Tony went to follow him, but Franco held him back. "Wait!" he said. "We must be sure."

They stood outside for a few seconds until the room was suddenly illuminated. Yuri had turned on the lights, returned to the open door and now motioned them forward.

Tony was about to ask, "Does that guy ever speak?" But stopped himself doing so. He was supposed to know.

Franco signaled for Tony to go in first then followed.

It was a typical motel room; a queen-sized bed, two armchairs, a large TV on top of a bureau, a pants press. Tony quickly scanned the room for some trace of his past, but saw nothing immediately memorable.

"What's a matter, Tony?" Franco asked. "You have a problem?" He placed the briefcase on a shelf in the closet.

"Hey, it's nothing," Tony replied quickly, covering his doubts that he'd ever seen this room before. Nodding toward the open bathroom door, he added, "Thought I'd left that light on when I left, that's all."

"Yeah? Well, I guess not," Franco said. He made himself comfortable in one of the room's two black plastic chairs. "You got something to drink in this place?" He looked around hopefully.

"Nothing you'd drink," Tony guessed, wondering why Yuri remained standing at the door.

"Never mind," Franco shrugged. "Forget it. We're not staying. Just want to be sure you're safe for the night."

"Sure, well, thanks for the ride," Tony said, hoping they'd leave, but Franco wasn't ready to go yet. Apparently, he had instructions to give.

"We don't know when he's getting here," he began in a let's-get-down-to-business tone, "so just stay put. Stick around until he does, okay?" He looked at his watch. "He won't be early, so get some rest. You look like you need it. No names," he continued, "he doesn't want to know yours and he sure as hell doesn't want you to know his."

"So how much does he know about me?" Tony asked, hoping the answer might fill in a few more blanks in his memory.

Franco thought for a moment, then said, "He knows you're good, the best. An expert. You have connections. And he knows you're trouble if crossed. He's running a big risk, and he's scared. He'll want to finish fast, so you should get a good deal."

So, I'm a professional, Tony thought, and possibly dangerous. But a professional what? And who am I meeting, why and when?

He knew he couldn't ask such questions, as much as he was burning to know the answers. He had to keep faithful to the role he was being obliged to play. He wanted to trust Laura and needed her as an ally, and she had urged him to go along with these guys for her sake. And it seemed the only course he had open, handicapped by his loss of identity. So, although he realized he was slipping deeper and deeper into a mystery over which he had no control, he made no challenge.

Perhaps seeing Tony deep in thought, Franco assured him. "Hey, everything will be okay, you'll see," he said. "But if he gives you grief, get rid of him." He got up from the chair and moved to the door. "Let him know they're plenty more fishes like him out there."

Did he mean kill him or simply tell him to get lost?

Yuri opened the door, stepped out and looked around. Tony strained to see pass the dim light outside into the pitch black beyond. He saw nothing and heard only the sound of ocean surf in the distance.

Franco paused in the doorway. "Ciao," he said, and was gone. Moments later, their car pulled away.

Tony's first instinct was to get out of the motel room and disappear fast. He looked in his wallet. He had plenty of cash, but where would he go? And how far would he get before they caught up with him?

He remembered the briefcase, and went over to the closet where Franco had placed it. On the clothes rack were several shirts monogrammed A.S. and three suits that looked expensive. Several silk ties hung on a hanger. There was a blue duffel bag at the foot of the closet and two pairs of Gucci loafers, black and brown. He took down the briefcase, carried it over to the bed, sat down and popped the twin brass clasps. It was full of cash, neat bundles of fresh dollar bills -- tens, twenties, fifties and hundreds -- and a gun.

He slammed the case shut, and instinctively scanned the room needlessly concerned his actions were being watched, his mind racing with new possibilities presented by a small fortune in cash and a weapon.

He reopened the case cautiously. Studying the gun more closely, he saw it was a small caliber Smith & Wesson fitted with a silencer and loaded. He held it in the palm of his hand; it felt well balanced and so comfortable and familiar he wondered if he had used one before.

He placed the gun in the drawer of the bedside table.

Then he re-examined the bundles of cash. He thought there must be hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars in the case, enough to get far away for a long time. Again, he thought of escape but he didn't have a car. He could call a cab to take him to a city, but it was the middle of the night and the motel seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Besides, the cabbie would put anyone following him directly onto his tail; even if he bribed the man to keep quiet, they'd probably bribe him more, or even beat it out of him.

Besides, he reasoned, they probably have the place staked out. They must have someone watching him. It's unlikely they'd leave him alone with bundles of cash and a gun without some sort of insurance. Anyway, he needed to rest before he did anything else. Then he needed to think and plan a way out of this mess, not bolt in a panic.

He fell back on the bed and went over the events of the last few hours. He thought about Laura, his fiancee, Gross his partner, and Franco and Yuri, his associates; how he'd become involved in some conspiracy that was to be set in motion tomorrow. A deal that involved a man with no name, a large amount of cash and the need for a lethal weapon.

Eventually, he grew too tired to think any longer, his body ached and his mind slowed. Confused, hurt and weary, he pulled off his dirty and stained clothes and tossed the whole pile in a heap at the bottom of the closet. Naked, he climbed gratefully into bed and turned off the lights. His last, troubled thoughts were a jumble of anxieties about the next twenty-four hours.

How To Order Noble Rot

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Noble Rot ISBN 1-889534-75-7
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