The Convert’s Song

Title: The Convert's Song
Published by: Mulholland Books
Release Date: January 7, 2016
Pages: 336
ISBN13: 978-1444785531
Buy the Book: AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieBoundAmazon Audio


His hazardous stint in U.S. law enforcement behind him, Valentine Pescatore has started over as a private investigator in Buenos Aires. Then he runs into a long-lost friend from his childhood in Chicago: Raymond Mercer. Back in the day, Raymond was a smooth talker, a drug dealer and a charismatic, troubled singer. Now he says he has cleaned up his act and converted to Islam. But days later, a terrorist attack kills hundreds, and suspicion falls on Raymond---and Pescatore.
Angry and bewildered, Pescatore joins forces with Fatima Belhaj, an alluring French counterterror chief. They pursue the enigmatic Raymond into a global labyrinth of intrigue. Is he a terrorist, a gangster, a spy? Is his loyalty to Pescatore genuine, or just another lethal scam?
From the jungles of South America to the streets of Paris to the battlegrounds of Baghdad, The Convert’s Song leads Pescatore on a race to stop a high-stakes campaign of terror.


"The Convert's Song is that rare thing, a rousing thriller with heart and heartbreak. . . . An affecting drama of human ties, raising big themes of loyalty, obligation, loss and love. . . . [Rotella's] prose is vivid and precise, his sense of setting sharply illuminating. . . . He's also a thoughtful writer, treating the loaded topic of Islamic terrorism with commendable subtlety…A skillfully layered thriller."
―Steph Cha, Los Angeles Times

"I read like a zealot, following Valentine as fast as I could into the thick of Argentina's criminal justice system and into the thicket of international terror. . . . The story got me in a chokehold as the characters grew more and more complex and Rotella's style thickened and boiled and bubbled. Valentine: when the bullets fly and the bombs go off, this is a guy you want by your side."
―Alan Cheuse, NPR

"Excellent . . . Rotella ratchets up the action with an absorbing look at international politics."
―Publishers Weekly (starred)

"The Convert's Song is a revelation. Sure, it's a smart, gripping thriller that will have you turning the pages at high speed. But it's also a deep, emotionally resonant story of identity, friendship, and faith. . . . I loved it."
―Ivy Pochoda, author of Visitation Street

"The Convert's Song hooked me from its opening scene and kept me hooked to the very end. Sebastian Rotella has written a novel filled with suspense and intrigue, as well as real-world insights into those who commit terrorist acts and those who try to stop them."
―Ron Rash, author of Serena and The Cove


Garde à vue.

   He hadn’t come up with a good translation yet. “Police custody” fell short. After twelve hours, he had a solid understanding of the term. French law gave the police up to four days to interrogate terrorism suspects. No defense attorneys. No prosecutors. Just cops firing questions around the clock. Although they hadn’t thumped anybody, he believed this was just chiefly because they didn’t need to: their information was too good. Still, garde à vue was a world of shit in which you did not want to live. French law enforcement did not pussyfoot around with terrorists.

   …It was evening. An investigator placed another cup of coffee in front of Pescatore… Pescatore sat at a back table in the chilly underground room. The officers sat or stood near the one-way glass facing onto the empty interrogation chamber. They swilled coffee, reviewed documents, talked on phones, and worked on laptops.

   …A door opened on the far side of the interrogation room. Two uniformed officers, a man and a woman, brought in Souraya. They sat her down at the table. She was not handcuffed.

   Although Souraya was Moroccan, her complexion was lighter than Belhaj’s. Her features were sharper. Under the smock-like garment, her shoulders were high and slender. Her long disheveled black hair swirled around eyes full of fury. There were rings under the eyes; she hadn’t slept since the rude awakening of the arrest. Her face was dominated by a wide and sullen mouth. Pescatore remembered Raymond calling her a princess and a lioness.

   Addressing her guards and the unseen watchers, Souraya demanded her head scarf.

   “It is shameful that you leave me uncovered this way,” she said, her strident delivery no doubt polished in university halls and street protests. “It is a violation, a humiliation. You trample my most basic human rights.”

   …Belhaj arrived. She passed Pescatore and the investigators and went into the interrogation room. The guards exited, leaving the two women alone. Belhaj’s entrance rattled Souraya. She watched in consternation as Belhaj put a folder on the table. Belhaj removed her leather jacket and draped it methodically on the back of a chair. She wore a tight pullover shirt, jeans tucked into boots. Her gun and badge flanked her metal belt buckle. She took her time lighting a cigarette.

   “Now we are going to see something,” an investigator said…

   Souraya spoke rapidly in Arabic.

   “One speaks French here,” Belhaj said.

   Souraya switched to French and raised her voice. After some back-and-forth, Pescatore caught the gist. Souraya refused to believe that the DCRI employed a female North African-looking investigator. She suspected that Belhaj was really a Moroccan intelligence officer, an interloper brought in under false pretenses to grill her. Souraya turned to the glass to appeal to the spectators again.

   “This Moroccan spy has no jurisdiction here. We are in France. I have my rights!”

   “Very amusing.” Belhaj shook her head. “A terrorist who wants to destroy France, who despises everything about France, and now she has rights. Because she is in France. I have news for you, Souraya. I am a commander of the French police. Look at the badge. Yes, I am Moroccan too. But I am nothing at all like you. I am not a pathetic fanatical slave. I smoke, I drink, I give orders, I do what I please. And my job is to fuck you up.”

   Belhaj sat. She crossed her legs and puffed smoke. Souraya stared at her balefully.

   “Where is your husband?” Belhaj asked. She used the familiar tu form.

   “I have nothing to say to you.”

   Belhaj took a thoughtful drag of the cigarette. “I just met his Argentine girlfriend in Buenos Aires. You know her? Florencia? Fat, old, grotesque. Still, she must do something better than you. He can’t get enough of her. He was over there fucking her a few weeks ago. Before the attacks. He sings to her. ‘Sophisticated Lady.’ Isn’t that romantic? Does he sing to you?”

   “I have nothing to say,” Souraya snapped. But the mention of Florencia had hit a nerve. Her eyes smoldered.

   “Perhaps my colleagues were reluctant to spell things out,” Belhaj said. “Let me explain your situation. From a preliminary look at the evidence, e-mails, credit cards, et cetera, it is clear that you had prior knowledge of the plot in Buenos Aires. You helped your husband buy plane tickets on the Internet. Those facts in and of themselves constitute terrorist conspiracy in the murders of two hundred people, including two French citizens. Which means, Madame the lawyer, Madame the terrorist, that you are fucked.”

   Pescatore had never heard her speak so crudely and brutally. She exuded contempt. She was transformed.

   “Nonsense,” Souraya said.

   “You know the law. There is no question we have enough evidence to hold you for trial. A case this complex, international angles, procedure and paperwork, that means four years in pretrial detention. The number of victims increases the chances of a conviction and a long sentence. If by some remote chance you are acquitted, that’s fine: we deport you to Morocco. You are high on the wanted list of the Mukhabarat. They can’t wait to get hold of you. They will hang you upside down by your feet to drain the stupidities out of your head. And that will be just an amuse-bouche.”

   Souraya folded her arms. She repeated her demand for the head scarf. Belhaj got up and paced, her boots loud.

   “Enough crap about the head scarf,” she said. “Wipe yourself with the head scarf. You are a repugnant hypocrite. You pretend to fight for your brothers and sisters in the banlieue. Look at the palace you live in, that stuck-up neighborhood. Pure bourgeois Western decadence. Financed by filthy sinful drug money.”

   “Don’t you dare judge me.”

   “Natural human weakness, I suppose. You grew up in a stinking slum in Casablanca. Now this man showers you with money. Fine. But don’t call yourself an Islamist. Look at how you raise your sons. Pop music, Disney, Batman!”

   “I am entitled to provide the best for my sons. They must learn how to live in the West, even if they are not of the West. That is the path to true resistance.”

   A ripple of reaction went through the investigators. Belhaj had broken through, elicited a response. She dropped her cigarette and ground it beneath her boot as if it were Souraya’s face. She laughed savagely.

   “Is that how Raymond justifies it? Is that what you tell yourself? You deluded fool. Manipulated first by the Moroccan barbus, then this phony American Islamo-gangster playboy. You disgust me. The way you got rid of your first husband. You remember him, no? Bilal? The one who blew himself up in Afghanistan?”

   “Bilal is a glorious martyr. You are not fit to utter his name.”

   “A martyr. A cuckold! Raymond played that boy like a violin. He sent him to die. The guilt must eat you alive.”

   “Shut up!”

   Belhaj stalked up to the table. It looked for a moment as if she was going to slap the prisoner. Souraya reared back. Belhaj opened the folder on the table. She took out a paper: a printout of a color photo.

   At the sight of the photo, Souraya let out a wail of anguish and revulsion. The sound echoed in the small room. She turned away, shaking violently, weeping. Pescatore thought for a moment that she would throw up. He saw the officers around him leaning forward.

   Belhaj waited for the woman’s lament to subside. She let the impact sink in, the silence gather.

   “Yes, it is his head,” she said softly. “That happens with kamikazes. The body disintegrates, the head flies off intact. Poor Bilal. So pathetic, so inept. His bomb vest malfunctioned. It was a partial detonation, too weak to kill the American soldiers he attacked. Their only injuries came from the spray of his bones and flesh.”

   “Liar!” Souraya sobbed. She wiped her eyes and nose. “He killed five infidels.”

   “No. Raymond deceived you. He told you that to make you feel better. I read the dossier. I have a news story. Voilà. ‘No fatalities except failed bomber.’ Your martyr’s fiasco rated a few paragraphs. As meaningless as his life. Raymond must have had a good laugh. And of course, infidelity breeds infidelity. You cheated on Bilal. Raymond cheats on you.”

   Souraya was rigid and livid. Her Medusa-like shock of hair gave her the look of a madwoman.

   “Where is Raymond?” Belhaj asked. “What is he plotting? What are the targets?”

   “You are wasting your time.”

   “No. It is you whose time is running out.” Belhaj walked around the table. She stood behind Souraya, uncomfortably close. She reached over her to pull another photo from the folder.

   “Your boys,” Belhaj hissed in her ear. She put her hands on Souraya’s shoulders, a sarcastic caress. The woman shook her off, tendons and veins bulging in her neck. “Valentín and Ramón. Not Muslim names. But very cute.”

   “They have Muslim names,” Souraya said in a strangled voice, as if speaking against her better judgment. “Seifullah and Ayman.”

   “But Raymond gives the orders in your house,” Belhaj retorted. “And they respond to the names he gave them. Take a good look at your boys, Souraya. I have made it my personal mission to ensure you never see them again.”

   Belhaj walked back around the table. Her voice grew colder. Each word was like a blow.

   “Never again. You are an unfit mother: a murderer, a terrorist, a drug trafficker, a money launderer, a monster. You are going to prison. Your husband too, if he lives. I have already conferred with the family services agency. We need to split the boys up, of course. Easier that way. We are looking for foster families to take immediate custody. I think nice Jewish families would be best, don’t you? With time and effort, the right cultural—“

   “Dirty whore!”

   Souraya erupted. She shot to her feet and charged around the table.


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