Nicole Porter has a lot of explaining to do.
In SJ Varengo’s Cleanup Crew series, Nicole Porter ostensibly runs a company that cleans up crime scenes. The catch is that usually she and her coworkers are the ones who have caused the bloody messes in the first place.
In this episode, Scott reads to us from The Beauty of Bucharest, book 1 in the series, which finds Nicole in the titular city with her new husband, Dan …and her assassin colleagues who are on the job and ready for work.
Scott and I also talk about his most recent book, Jelly Jars, which is something of a departure for him. As a general rule, this podcast is focused on my guests’ mystery novels (obvs) but when Scott mentioned Jelly Jars in the interview I was intrigued, so I followed that thread and really enjoyed hearing about how this story came about and what it means to Scott.
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This week’s mystery author
S.J. Varengo is a married father of two adult children, living in Upstate New York. He is the author of The Cleanup Crew series, as well as his latest novel, Jelly Jars, a literary love story. In addition, he is the co-author of the SpyCo Thriller Series and is working with Crag A. Hart on the best-selling Shelby Alexander series.
Hart and Varengo are also partners in Northern Lake Audio, producers of audiobooks, and they co-host the popular literary-themed podcast, Good Sentences. Most recently they’ve launched a new website, e2books.com, to showcase their new work as well as their back catalog.
To learn more about Scott and all his books visit e2books.com
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Excerpt from The Beauty of Bucharest
Taken from Chapter 4 – Arrival in Romania
Nicole left Dan sleeping, his post-coital go-to move, and dressed quietly. She slipped out of the room with a level of stealth that would have caught him by surprise, as she normally made a show of being a little clumsy and a lot noisy at home. She thought about the vast amount of things that Dan was going to find surprising in the days… in the years ahead.
Stopping at the desk, she asked directions to the bar, named simply The Pub, and calculated that at just a little over a half-mile away, she could make it to her meeting in time if she walked briskly, an activity she found invigorating anyway, not that she wasn’t already quite energized from the lovemaking. For her, sex was a stimulant. It sharpened her senses and made her eager, either for more sex or for some other equally exhilarating activity.
As she stepped quickly along Bulevardul Regina Elisabeta, she pulled out her phone and wrote a quick text to Viktor, the local Crew handler, who would fill her in on all the pertinent details before bringing her to a place where she could gather up some firepower.
When Nicole had first begun working for the Clean Up Crew, the protocol was to bring any weapons you’d be using with you, but the world’s social climate had changed considerably since then, and boarding airplanes with a gun (or more often than not, several guns), even in checked luggage, was no longer considered a worthwhile
operational risk. Besides, the organization had grown to a size that allowed for a handler to be in just about any location, or if not there, close enough to be able to be in place in time to meet the operative who’d be doing the cleaning. And getting weapons
across land borders, especially if one knew the language, the customs, and the right palms to grease, was a lot easier than getting them past airport security.
She thought about Viktor in terms of his ability to move weapons. It was a lucrative business for him when there was nothing kicking with the Crew. In fact, most people knew him primarily as a gunrunner. Nicole certainly had no problem with
Viktor’s other line of work, as long as he was available when she needed him. And he always was.
By the time she reached The Pub, her heart rate was satisfyingly elevated, though her breathing was slow and even. She knew Viktor by sight, having worked with him in other Eastern European cases in the past, and as she scanned the bar, she saw him seated in a well-situated booth. He’d grown a beard since the last time she’d seen him, though his head was still shaved.
The bar, she quickly saw, was populated mainly by locals, and was not decorated to appeal to the tourists’ sensitivities. There were few adornments at all, save for promotional items featuring various liquors. A wooden plaque for Dr. McGillicuddy’s peppermint schnapps, with the quote “A glass half-empty is a job halfdone,” seemed the most out of place in the Romanian watering hole, and it made her smile. The bar itself was dimly lit, and looking at a pair of women seated there, she could see that this would be to their benefit. They were obviously “escorts” and had clearly been working at the “oldest profession” since it wasn’t so old. The various booths and tables were made of aged, solid, dark wood, well-worn and time-scarred by more than one person hoping to achieve the brand of immortality gained by defacing a table, the sort that lasted only until the table was replaced. From the looks of this furniture, the inscription “Vlad the Impaler was here” was very likely to be somewhere in the place. But that suited Nicole just fine. Old, nondescript, and not bustling with noisy Americans was just the sort of decor she needed.
“Hello, boss,” the handler said with a grin. She saw that there were two shot-sized glasses on the booth table. Viktor pushed one to her.
“Tuică,” he said.
Nicole picked up the glass and raised it, meeting Viktor’s, which was already held aloft.
“O treavbă rapidă,” Viktor toasted.
“A quick job, indeed,” Nicole responded, taking a sip of the strong plum spirit. Viktor smiled, seeing that she drank properly, not pouring it down as the shot glass would suggest. Tuică was always sipped. As she set the glass down on the table’s uneven surface, Viktor powered up a tablet and turned it to face her.
“This is your target. His name is Bogdan Grigorescu. This picture is a year old and is the most recent known image of him. In the past twelve to fourteen months, as his activity level has increased, his public appearances have drastically decreased. The stuff he’s been doing lately has drawn the sort of attention a dealer in flesh is happy to avoid.”
Nicole looked at the man and had to suppress a laugh. He was almost a cartoon caricature of evil, from the shaved head and black turtleneck, to a rather nasty scar in an uncomfortable proximity to his left eye. She’d dealt with the slime that trade in human life before, but never one who so looked the part.
After she’d had time to commit the face to memory, Viktor said, “Swipe left.”
The next image was of a tall woman in her early thirties. She was dressed entirely in black leather and wore darkened glasses that made it impossible to determine her eye color. The shade of her hair was not a mystery. She wore it in a short style that Nicole would have dubbed “cute” had it not been growing on the head of a woman who looked like she would as quickly kill you as tell you where to buy a good cup of coffee. Also it was a bright, metallic blue. The third color in the composition was the brown wooden stock of an assault rifle in her hands.
“She’s obviously less concerned about being spotted,” Nicole observed. “She cuts quite a figure.”
“That is Ileana Gabor, Bogdan’s chief of security. You are correct in assuming she is not concerned about being noticed. She makes sure to be seen, although generally without the AK, on a regular basis. Her movement is a message to any who would doubt
that Bogdan is very much still active, still the man to deal with when one needs a human being for whatever purpose.”
“None of them wholesome.”
“Rarely, if ever,” Viktor conceded.
“How recent is this picture?”
“This is actually from the same time as the picture of Bogdan. On those rare occasions when he is seen, she is invariably by his side, and it is then that you will see her openly carrying her rifle. There is no misinterpreting her message. Get too close to Bogdan Grigorescu, and you will die.”
“So I’ll no doubt have to deal with her before I take care of Bogdan.”
“I see no other likely scenario. Swipe again.”
Nicole did and caught her breath as an image of one of the most beautiful women she had ever seen, and for a woman as attractive as Nicole to be floored by another’s appearance, it would have to have been. The picture was obviously professionally taken.
“A model?” Nicole asked.
Viktor shook his head. “No. Not a model. The model. That is Ana Albu.”
“I’ve heard the name.”
“The plan was for the world to have heard it by now, but just as she was poised to move from being the most famous female face in Romania to being the face everybody on the planet wanted to see, she dropped out of sight.”
“What does that have to do with my assignment?”
“We are 99 percent sure she has dropped out of sight because Bogdan has her.”
Nicole looked up from the tablet in surprise. “He doesn’t think he can move someone that well-known, does he? Just how cocky is this guy?”
“He’s never missed a beat, never suffered a setback. Aside from that scar on his face, which legend says he obtained in a knife fight at age ten, he’s never been touched. Yes, Nicole, he’s quite confident that he can get her into the hands of a very wealthy buyer.”
Nicole frowned. “I don’t like these sorts of complications. I was ready to put one into his bodyguard, then three or four into him. I wasn’t expecting to have to rescue a damsel in distress.”
“Officially, you don’t,” Viktor said, a grim tone in his voice.
“You know me too well to know that I won’t do what I can for her now that I’m aware.”
“That’s why I told you. I’m that kind of bastard.”
“What makes you think he’s got her? Couldn’t she just have crumpled under the pressure of the move her people were trying to make? The vault from top hometown girl to international super-model is no small leap. Or what about drugs? Could she
“She’s quite public about her commitment to a clean lifestyle, so probably not that. And among the modeling community, she is known as “The Steel Queen,” for the strength of her will and drive, making a breakdown unlikely as well. No, we’re almost certain he has taken her for two main reasons. As public a profile as Ileana has kept, since Ana’s disappearance, she hasn’t been seen either, leading us to suspect that Bogdan has tightened security. Also there’s this…” Viktor reached to the tablet and swept Ana’s head shot away, replacing it with a wide angle shot of an outdoor scene.
In its original resolution it appeared to be a sizable crowd of people with a hole in the center of the group, but as Viktor zoomed in, Nicole could see that in the center of the hole was a jumble of lights and cables and support staff surrounding a photographer and Ana Albu dressed in clothing that was at the same time very alluring and very inappropriate for the weather conditions. Even in the photo, Nicole could see a set to Ana’s eyes that made the origin of her nickname easy to understand. The onlookers were watching the photo shoot the way a mob in Brooklyn might congregate around a particularly entertaining hobo fight.
“Look here,” Viktor said, panning the picture with a drag of his finger. About ten feet back from the leading edge of the crowd was a very distinctive metallic blue head of hair.
“Ileana was at the photo shoot,” Nicole said.
“Either her or another six-foot-tall woman with electric blue hair.”
“I don’t imagine there are a surplus of those.”
Viktor shook his head.
“Shit. Okay. So I have a target that no one ever sees. I have a secondary target that is often seen, but I’d venture to guess rarely in the same place twice. Am I right?”
Viktor nodded. “She makes appearances all over the city. Clubs, museums, the ballet. None of it does us any good in locating Bogdan.”
“Except that when she’s done watching Petrushka, she’s going to head back to wherever the worm is holed up.”
“And ‘holed up’ is a term you need to use loosely. Just because no one sees him doesn’t mean he’s lying low in a hovel somewhere.”
“Oh, I’m confident that he’s quite comfortable. So the visible bodyguard, the invisible son-of-a-bitch, and the Beauty of Bucharest who has been missing for how long?”
“She was last seen at an outdoor photo shoot just over six months ago.”
“Even still, there’s a very good chance she’s still in Romania. A sale this high profile will be done with excruciating caution. Bogdan may be trying to play a few deep-pocketed bidders against each other as well, and getting the price to the figure he has in mind could take some time.”
“Do you think he would keep her in Bucharest?” the handler asked.
“I would,” Nicole answered. “If I were already underground… term used loosely, lower your eyebrow… and I’m comfortable that no one is likely to stumble upon my hidey-hole, I’d keep her close, and I’d keep my blue-tressed pit bull chained up by her side.”
“Then maybe your complication won’t be so complicated,” Viktor offered hopefully.
Nicole thought about all the intel she’d received, and after a few more moments of rumination, her expression changed. Viktor saw her move from angry and groping for direction to being focused and something that almost looked like satisfied. “You know, Viktor, I wasn’t happy with this assignment, and I’ll tell you why.”
The handler took a sip of tuică and looked at her with intense concentration.
“This was going to be largely a symbolic cleaning. We weren’t hired by the mother of some kidnapped teen. That would have been another, better matter altogether. No, we were called by a friend of a friend of a friend of the government, who wanted to make a statement. But killing Bogdan Grigorescu isn’t going to stop human trafficking in Romania. Some other slimy fucker will gladly jump into his place, probably even before the blood has had time to dry on the ground.”
“Clean Up Crew does not let blood dry. They are on the scene as soon as the police take down the tape,” Viktor joked.
But Nicole didn’t laugh. “Do you know how many women are traded across international borders annually?”
Viktor shook his head. “No.”
“Between 600,000 and 800,000. Most, as many as 80 percent, are female, and of those, half are children. Children, Viktor, because there are that many sick people in the world willing to buy a human being for their perverse pleasure. So my one kill was not going to make a dent in the problem. But it was going to deliver a message, and that was going to be ‘If you get too good at something this bad, you’re going to pay for your success with your life.’”
“It might have to happen a few times for there to be any impact felt,” Viktor speculated.
“It would have to happen a million times,” Nicole spat. “It would have been a symbolic kill, and I would have taken little satisfaction from it.” She swiped the screen in the opposite direction and brought Ana Albu’s face back into view. “But now, as much of a crappy twist to the job as she presents,” she said, pointing to the flawless woman, “it’s a tiny bit less of a gesture. It’s a little less about show.”
“Only a little?”
“Out of 800,000? Yes, one person, even one as poised to take on the world as she, is insignificant. Bogdan alone probably has a hundred other slaves in his sphere of filth at any given time. Maybe a great many more. If I can find Ana, though, to me it will feel less empty.”
“I hope you do, then,” said Viktor.
Nicole smiled at him. It was a sad smile. “I think you hoped I would when you added her picture to the briefing material,” she said. “But no matter. She’s in the mix now. So no one’s seen this pig for a year. Any ideas where I might find him?”
“You’d expect me to laugh and say, ‘If we knew that, he’d already be dead.’ Right?”
“Well, you’re right. So, ha ha ha. There’s the laugh. We don’t know where he is. But we think our feet on the street have narrowed the list of possible locations to six or so.”
“Half-dozen, huh? That’s workable.”
“None of them are going to be easy to surveil, and all are virtually impenetrable.” He spun the tablet around so that it faced him and did some quick tapping on the screen.
“The list is in your email; encrypted, of course.”
“Of course. All right, then. I’ll start working the locations as soon as we take care of the little matter of things that make loud noises.”
“And devices to make them less loud. Follow me,” Viktor said, closing the tablet’s leather cover and slipping it into a small satchel.