Excerpt for The Manduca Case (Irvin Vella, Virtual Investigator Book 1) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Manduca Case

John A. Bonello

Smashwords Edition

Copyright © 2017 John A. Bonello



First published under the original Maltese title Il-Każ Manduca (Irvin Vella, Investigatur Virtwali #01) by Merlin Publishers Ltd, 2015


Translated by John A. Bonello, 2017

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the author.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cover illustration by José Domingo

ISBN: 978-99957-1-103-0

Winner of the Malta National Book Award 2016

Category: Books for Children (8-12)

Prologue – Three months before in Villa Manduca

The window opened inwards with a loud bang and a strong wind filled the room, carrying with it a shower of ice-cold rain. The candle in Rita’s hand went out. She whimpered and in the darkness searched for her sister Domenica’s hand, cowering beside her. The pattering of the rain against the other windowpanes seemed to increase now that they found themselves in total darkness. A bright flash of lightning lighted up the whole room for a brief moment, enough to cast strange long shadows in the old sisters’ eyes. Domenica started mumbling a quick prayer. Rita was too afraid to do anything.

The voice that had called them to that room as soon as the electricity went out echoed again, this time louder and closer.

"Riiitaaaa! Domeeeniiicaaaa!"

The old women screamed.

"Whhhoo...who’s there? Whhhooo...whhoo are you?" Rita asked with a broken voice.

There was no reply. Instead, little bright lights flashed in the corridor outside the room. On, off and again. They heard the sound of muffled footsteps scuttling away.

"Riiiitaaa! Domeeeniiicaaaa!"

Again, the same deep rumbling voice, as if it was the angry wind calling them. More rain came in through the open window, drenching the sisters, standing there incapable of doing anything.

A loud noise. So loud their hearts skipped a beat. The unlit candle fell from Rita’s limp hand and rolled onto the wet floor.


The driver stopped the taxi directly in front of Irvin Vella’s office in Attard. Eleonora climbed down with the help of the driver and thanked him. She had already paid for the trip.

"You can leave me here, as I’m not sure how long this will take. I’ll call you when I’m done," she told him. She knew the driver well–she always called him when she needed to go somewhere, which was practically every week. On his part, the driver offered her the best possible service since she was one of his best clients. He even sent one of his colleagues whenever he could not pick her up himself.

“Call whenever you need me,” he told her as he helped her onto the pavement.

Eleonora, a seventy one year old woman, widowed for the past twenty-one years, let the driver walk her to the door of the office. She thanked him once more and waited until he went back to his taxi and drove off. The help he had offered was very welcome. Her legs were not what they had once been.

She took a few moments to catch her breath while giving a look at the metal door of the garage. By the smell of the light grey paint she could tell that the work on the office was quite recent. She rang the doorbell fixed to the wall, underneath a bronze doorplate that read ‘Irvin Vella, Virtual Investigator’ in big bold black letters.

After a few seconds, a small door within the larger frame came ajar, and she glimpsed the familiar rounded face that had been of so much help less than a month before. He recognised her immediately and opened the door all the way.

“Mrs Psaila! I’m delighted to see you again. Come in, come in.”

Eleonora walked inside and Irvin closed the door behind them. It was her first visit to his new office. A month before she had called him after finding a small advert in the newspaper and he had gone to her house himself.

Irvin’s new office was quite a cosy place, a bit shabby, but cosy all the same. He showed her inside to the far end and invited her to sit on one of two cane armchairs that looked too low for her liking.

“Would you like something to drink Mrs Psaila?”

“A glass of still water please. And call me Eleonora. It’s the name my mother gave me,” she finished with a smile.

Irvin walked to a sideboard from where he filled a glass with water, then returned and sat down in the other armchair. The cane squealed and protested under his weight. She could see that although the armchair was quite wide, he barely fit in it.

“So, how may I help you this time Mrs Eleonora? Is it Gusto again?”

She laughed. Gusto was Mrs Eleonora’s cat. With the help of his twin cousins, Luca and Laura, Irvin had managed to rescue the cat after Gusto was stolen by a jealous neighbour.

“No, no don’t worry, Gusto is safe, basting in the sun in the conservatory. This time I came here on behalf of two close friends. Or to put it better, I came here to see if you can help them–they don’t know I have sought your aid yet. If you decide to take on the job I will go and try to convince them to speak to you.”

“Let me see if I get this right. You have two friends who need help. And you came to me to see if I can help them without their knowledge?”

“Exactly. You see, they are extremely reserved people.”

“And what kind of help would they need?”

Eleonora rummaged around in her handbag until she took out a small brown envelope. From within this she took out a piece of folded yellowish paper and placed it in Irvin’s hand.

The young investigator opened it and took a moment to read the message within. It was written with letters cut out from some old newspaper. She waited as he read it twice, then a third time, going slowly over every word. At last he looked at her.

“This is clearly a letter of intimidation. Why didn’t they go to the police with this?” he asked.

“They couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. The way they got that letter, and some other recent events that happened to them were, what’s the word, out of the ordinary. They don’t wish to involve the police in this as they don’t believe that the authorities can help them.”

For a long moment, Irvin stared at her, his face showing complete incomprehension.

“Could you explain more? This letter says that the Manducas have until midnight of next Monday to get out of the villa. Why this particular date?” he asked at last.

“Look Irvin, myself I’m not entirely sure what’s going on in there. Both sisters are very secretive about the whole business. And although they’re my best friends, I don’t feel comfortable to pry in their affairs. I came to you because I am extremely concerned about them and their safety. I know only what I’ve told you so far, and I managed to learn about the letter by pure chance. They mentioned it while we were having tea and after some insistence from my part they showed it to me. Later I asked them if I could keep it for a little while and here I am.” Eleonora took a sip of water, then went on. “Would you be interested in helping them? Perhaps they would be willing to tell you the whole story. If you agree, I could go to them immediately and convince them to meet you.”

Irvin took his time to think about the proposal, reading the letter again, while Eleonora quietly sipped the water. In the end, he agreed to meet the Manducas. Eleonora was really happy at this and asked if she could use his telephone from which she called the taxi.

“Wait for my call,” she told Irvin on her way out.

2 Irvin Vella’s diary - Wednesday 18 March, entry #01

A ray of sunlight was coming in through the small window, straight onto the letter lying open on my desk. There was no need to pick it up again to know what was written within. I knew every word by heart. Every time I closed my eyes I could see each letter, carefully cut out of old newspapers and glued onto the yellowing paper. That date, the ultimatum given to the Manducas was haunting me. I felt like being in a race against time. And I couldn’t think straight, which frustrated me. I was on edge, and the excitement kept me from thinking clearly.

The telephone remained silent. I had been staring at it, waiting for it to ring, since Mrs Eleonora left. But silent it remained, taunting me.

I paced to and fro within the small space of my brand new office under the intense gaze of Humphrey Bogart, looking at me from his black and white portrait on the wall by the window. It had taken effort and hard work to set up that office, with great attention to every detail, so that everything was how I had seen it in my head.

A cabinet at the far end held a selection of favourite books, spread between two shelves. These had become my bible over the last twelve months. On another shelf beneath the books I had a stock of different beverages and glasses for my clients and in the doors underneath there were also some snacks; biscuits, crackers, and of course, Spintzies, my all time favourite cheese flavoured snack

On the shelves on both ends of the cabinet, two spider plants climbed down towards the floor. I had planted them myself, strictly following the Feng Shui principles, an ancient Chinese science that helps you create balance in your dwelling. Whenever I looked at those plants my eyes seemed to relax.

In front of the cabinet, upon a rich soft carpet of probable Persian origins, I had placed two cane armchairs with rust coloured cushions and a matching low coffee table with a clear glass top. It was on those armchairs that I met Mrs Eleonora in the morning. Eleonora Psaila, my second client. She came to talk to me about what I was hoping would be my third job, a case involving two Baronesses from Rabat.

After a quick background check I discovered that the old sisters were the daughters of the late Baron Manduca. Mrs Eleonora asked me if I could help them in finding who was threatening them and why. That was all she told me, apart from showing me the unsigned letter received by the Manducas, now laying on my desk.

Two large cheese plants in stone pots separated the sitting area from my beloved mahogany desk. I spent hours everyday sitting there, studying. It was a unique piece of antique furniture, well built and well preserved. I kept very few items on top of the polished surface; a genuine antique black telephone, my laptop, a black desk organizer for my pens and pencils and a bronze post office lamp with green shade. Currently, neatly stacked to one side, lay the course material for the diploma I was doing by correspondence with a renowned British university. I longed for the day when I finally finished the course and could apply for a private investigator license.

The telephone rang. It startled me, even though I had been expecting it to ring. Perhaps because it did not ring as often as I wished. These were hard times.

I did not answer immediately but let it ring three times. It was indeed the call I had been waiting for.

After the call ended I opened the door that led into the house and putting my hand next to my mouth to make myself heard, I called my mother.

Mum, I’m going out on business!”

I didn’t wait for her reply. A prospective new case had come my way, and that needed my full priority.

3 Marthese Vella

She waited five long minutes after Mattheus went out. Although he insisted in being called Irvin, Marthese still called him Mattheus, the birth name she had given him.

Duster in one hand and broom in the other she opened the interconnecting door to the garage and went in.

“If only he would remember to turn off the lights,” she grumbled to herself. “It’s not that he’ll break his fingers or anything. If his father finds out …”

Mattheus’s father was a man obsessed with the electricity bill. He simply hated any kind of illumination other than the sun and moon, and was always turning off every switch he came across, even if someone was enjoying the light. Marthese complained about this habit of his, especially if she was the victim of his obsession. But then, behind his back, she did the same.

She started cleaning the office. This was a chore she had to do furtively whenever her son was not there. From the moment he had taken over the garage, he wouldn’t let anyone in unless he was there. Well, anyone except Luca and Laura, her sister Mary Grace’s children. It had been six months since her sister had come back from Canada with her three children after losing her husband in an accident on the workplace.

Luca and Laura, eleven year old twins, were Mattheus’s only friends. They spent any free time they had with her son. Now that was something, thought Marthese, two children busier than adults. Ballet, music lessons, drama, Maltese private tuition, table tennis training, catechism. She had already told Mary Grace that all those activities were too much but her sister was too stubborn. She had been offended by the comment but Marthese didn’t care. Let her be offended, she thought, I’ll tell her again.

Within a few months, the twins were already speaking fluent Maltese, unlike their older sister Monica who simply refused to utter a single word in her parents’ native language.

Luca and Laura spent long hours at their aunt’s house, mainly because both their mother and sister didn’t come home until late every evening. Mary Grace worked long hours in a hotel, while Monica, who was nineteen, exactly the same age as Mattheus, was in university in the morning and worked part-time in the evening. They needed the extra income to get by.

The kids usually slept over every Friday. Laura made use of the spare bedroom while Luca slept on a foldable bed in Mattheus’s room. Then on Saturday morning, they would go directly to their lessons and come back in the afternoon for a couple of hours until Mary Grace picked them up on her way from work.

Marthese greatly enjoyed their company, especially on Saturday afternoons when they sat with her in the kitchen. Although recently they preferred having tea and biscuits in Mattheus’s office. Both of them were fascinated by the fact that he was studying to become an investigator.

At first, she had thought that her son’s inkling to convert the garage into an office was another of his crazy ideas, something that would eventually die out. Once he had been resolute in opening a comic book store in that same garage. He had spent a whole month planning, dreaming and making connections. Then all of a sudden, the whole idea evaporated and was never mentioned again.

However, it seemed he was taking this investigation business seriously.

She pondered all this as she dusted the mahogany frames that like every other thing in that makeshift office had been stolen from her house. He had replaced the flowery prints. In one, there was now a certificate obtained from a Security school, while in the other he framed the license of a private guard obtained from the Commissioner of Police. It was not the license he wanted, that of a Private Investigator, but at least it was a good start. If he had managed to attain that qualification, he could certainly obtain others. And while she never told him anything, she was proud of her son for having obtained that license.

He had been so disappointed when he failed the physical for the entrance into the Police academy. For fifteen days he had refused to eat, losing so much weight that Marthese had been very afraid that something bad might happen to him.

Then he had discovered the course for a private guard and went for it with all his will. And his appetite came back. Now he had started a new course and Marthese prayed that her son would manage to get the results he desired.

She went around the desk, a piece of junk her husband had hoarded from some ministry office where he used to work some ten years before. She dusted the green shaded lamp her son had bought over the Internet, then the closed laptop and finally the books and papers arranged in a neat pile. She noticed how Mattheus was making an effort to keep his office tidy, unlike his own room, which was always a mess.

When the desk was done, she went towards the cabinet at the far end to dust the shelves. And nearly stumbled on the old ragged carpet that she thought she had thrown away over fifteen years before.

“This still exists?” she exclaimed to the empty room. “Why does my husband never get rid of anything!”

Carrying on to the cabinet, she immediately spotted a familiar bottle of liquor, still sealed. It dated back to her marriage, and since neither she nor her husband fancied alcoholic drinks, it had remained unopened.

“So he’s taken even this now,” she murmured. “He’ll soon dismantle the whole house.”

The telephone on the desk started ringing. Marthese forgot all about the bottle and walked over to answer.


"Hello? Is that Irvin Vella’s office?" an oldish voice asked.

"No," she replied.

"Oh, it’s a wrong number then. Apologies Madame," he said and cut short the call, before Marthese could explain that the garage belonged to her and that her son’s name was actually Mattheus.

"Oh well, he can call again if he wants!"

And she went on dusting.


In his job as a bus driver, Charles met hundreds of people everyday. Most faces he forgot, but some really sticked in his memory. Like the friendly, fat young man that frequently boarded the bus from Attard. He liked him, but he also wanted to tell him to do something about his weight. Every time he saw him, he found himself remembering a character from one of his favourite series when he was young. Always smartly dressed like Perry Mason on his way to court.

Charles switched on the indicator and maneuvered bus number 205 towards the pavement where he stopped directly in front of the bus shelter. The door opened with a hiss of hydraulic and the young man pulled himself up using one of the handrails. In his other hand he held a small postman’s satchel he always carried around. The vehicle shook for a moment with the added weight.

As the young man passed by, the driver nodded at him, but it seemed he was too distracted and didn’t notice. He walked towards the back and squeezed into the first vacant seat he found. Charles drove the bus back into the traffic on their way to Rabat. He sneaked a look in the mirror and saw the young man slip a hand inside his satchel, take out a biscuit and nibble it. The driver smiled and drove on.

5 Irvin Vella’s diary - Wednesday 18 March, Entry #02

It took twenty minutes to get to Rabat, eight of which I spent waiting for the bus. Then after I hopped on, I got so lost in my thoughts that I cannot recall the rest of the trip at all. I kept contemplating what kind of story should I come up with about myself – on the phone, Mrs Eleonora had been adamant that I shouldn’t reveal my true identity to the persons at the service of the Baronesses. They didn’t want them to know I was an investigator, so as not to alarm them. She told me I could say that I was her nephew and that I was doing research for an assignment on Maltese aristocracy.

And there was also something else on my mind–the anonymous letter with that ultimatum. I still knew nothing about these people, but I could assume that the date had a special meaning to them.

Those were the thoughts that engrossed me all the way to the Manduca residence. I remembered too late that I hadn’t even thanked the bus driver who was always nice to me.

Putting up the collar of my blazer against the chill, I started towards the address given to me by Mrs Eleonora, my hands in my pockets.

It was easy to find. The house Baron Manduca had built stood out among the other ‘normal’ residences in Borg Olivier Street. It felt like it belonged to another day and age, with a rich architecture that spoke of a time gone by.

The huge gate, with 'Villa Manduca' written at the top, stood closed. From between the bars I could catch a glimpse of the main building, set behind a wide front garden full of flowers and plants. The garden seemed to continue to both sides of the main building. Two staircases spiralled and met one another in front of the villa’s main entrance. There were two other small doors, one to each side of the main one, but by the look of them they hadn’t been opened for a while. On the first floor, five large windows looked down menacingly over the front garden. Two of those windows had the louvers ajar. The others looked completely shut.

A modern looking intercom had been recently fixed to one of the limestone columns, eroded by time and wind. It didn’t belong there. I pressed the small button and waited. After a few moments there was a humming noise, then a louder humming which I assumed was someone asking who it was. I placed my mouth against the microphone.

Vella, Irvin Vella,” I said, and the humming ceased.

I had chosen the name Irvin for a reason (I had absolutely nothing against Mattheus, unlike what my mother thought). I wanted my initials to be a V and an I – which could also stand for ‘Virtual Investigator’. The definition of Virtual given by Google is: ‘Almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition.’

At this point in time I could be nothing else than virtual, not until I managed to get my hands on that diploma certificate. The course I had just started took about sixteen months to complete. It was a self-paced course, so I had the luxury of being flexible about it. However, I hoped to get it done as quickly as I could, since my future as a Private Investigator depended on it. With my diploma, I could then apply for an official P.I. license from the Commissioner of Police. And until I got that official Private Investigator title I didn’t want to even pretend I was one–let alone that pretending was also illegal, and I absolutely did not want to break the law and start my career on the wrong foot.

So for the time being, I was happy calling myself a Virtual Investigator.

When the time came, I would go back to court and this time change my surname from Vella to Pace. And that would be how I would introduce myself to my future clients: Pace Irvin, Private Investigator. It had a nice ring to it. I loved it. And it suited me.

Perhaps for many people a name is just a name, but for me it meant more than that. It was a visiting card. Part of the business.

As for the reason I chose Irvin and not some other name, I must say that I was inspired from a favourite author’s surname: Erin Irvin, author of fantasy novels. I simply loved her vampire stories.

A minute or maybe more went by until a limping man appeared from around the side of the house. He looked quite old, thin as a reed, his back slightly curved. A tangle of white hair covered his wrinkled head to his shoulders. He was wearing a dungaree tucked in yellow boots smudged with soil. The words ‘gardener’ were written all over his attire. I asked him just the same and his reply was a kind of bark which I took for a yes.

He opened the gate and I followed him along the path towards the house. When we got there, the gardener made a gesture for me to go up the spiral stairs to the main entrance, then he disappeared again round the corner from where he had emerged.

Obediently, I climbed the few steps until I was standing in front of the dark red door. It stood ajar. Inside there was another glass-paned door. I opened this and came face to face with a woman who immediately gave me a bright smile.

Mr Vella I presume,” she told me in a strong voice. “Please follow me, the Baronesses Manduca are expecting you.”

Judging by her attitude and the way she was dressed I assumed she was the housekeeper. At first glance she looked like forty, but a second, closer look convinced me she was more like fifty. She had a very pale complexion with dark black hair held in a tight bun.

I walked behind her through a wide and dark entrance hall. Tall metal stands with some dark green plants stood to either sides against the walls. Frescoes on the high ceiling showed the victory of the Knights of Malta over the Ottoman Empire in the Great Siege of Malta. Right in the middle of this painting, the coat of arms of the Manduca lay proud with two lions holding a king’s crown, above which was a dagger with a snake entwined around it–a clear indication that the Manducas were direct descendants from that period of Maltese history. It reminded me a little of the logo on the Rexoguard disinfectant bottles.

To the left and right of the hall, behind silk curtains, I spotted two closed doors. We passed these on our way inside, towards the back of the house. The place was huge. And cold. I could feel the chill coming up through the old painted tiles and going right through my shoes.

A ray of yellow sun drifted down through a skylight to brighten up a wide spiral staircase. This led both upwards to the first floor and also downwards, probably towards the basement.

A sweet scent filled the air throughout the house.

The housekeeper led me on through an arch held by two huge marble columns into a dining room overlooking the largest private gardens I had ever seen.

Seated at one of those long long tables I had only seen in movies, were two very old women. I could see the resemblance to each other at first glance, even though one was thinner than the other. Their hair was completely white, tied in a bun, same as the housekeeper’s.

They stood up and welcomed me. Their clothes were simple, without any adornments. One of the sisters, the plump one, wore reading glasses dangling from a black cord around her neck. I noticed the small bible she had been reading open on the table in front of where she had been sitting.

Mrs Eleonora was not there. I thought I would find her there to make the introductions.

Good afternoon ladies,” I said as I stood there being scrutinized by the two sisters. I wondered whether I should address them as Baronesses, but they didn’t seem to mind.

Come young man, don’t be shy,” the thin one told me. I wasn’t shy at all, and I approached them.

Anna, can you see what the gentleman here would like to drink?”

This was the plump one, addressing the housekeeper who had been standing behind me. Anna came closer.

What would you like to drink Mr Vella?”

A soft drink please,” I told her.

She made a face.

I’m sorry but we don’t have any soft drinks. I can offer you normal or herbal tea, coffee or water.”

A normal tea, with milk then.”

She took off immediately.

I turned my attention back to the sisters and looked at them expectantly, wanting to know what kind of help they required. They had re-seated themselves.

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