Jana and Sofia were best friends in school. Sofia suffered a brutal crime at the hands of a Communist Party bigwig, whom Jana vowed to bring to justice someday. Jana is now a commander in the Slovak police force, and Sofia is a member of parliament, engaged in a scandalous affair with a married fellow MP. One day, Jana walks into her living room to find an enormous diamond dangling from the ceiling. Who has left her this gift, and what does it mean? The answer will lead her across Europe to the center of a deadly conspiracy in which Sophia has become hopelessly entangled.
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Solti had taken a chance. He was not ordinarily a risk-taker: he did not believe in tempting the fates. You could not rely on luck. Controlling events, even small ones, was the only sane way. And if nothing else, Solti was eminently sane. Which did not explain why he had joined the hash run today.
He satisfied himself for the seventh or eighth time that no one was paying particular attention to him, that his position in the hiking group was just crowded with walkers not willing to expend energy by being frontrunners in ninety-five-degree heat. Their sweat — and all of them were sweating profusely — reinforced a collective decision to go slowly. That resolve was bolstered even further by the high humidity, which added its ration of discomfort to the late afternoon air.
The Hash House Harriers, in Nepal as elsewhere, consisted primarily of people from outside their home countries taking a Saturday group run — or, in Soti's sub-group, perambulation. The line of men and women stretched toward the top of the hill as they went chugging through the irregular rice paddies and fields of excrement-scented vegetables basking in the heat. Solti's group at the rear was made up primarily of non-athletes along for the camaraderie of other expatriates who could talk or listen to English with some comprehension.
Their Saturday topics in Nepal were almost always the same: they exchanged local gossip, shared complaints about the bouts of diarrhea they had experienced, and griped about problems with corruption and the government bureaucrats who always had their hands out. To a man they all jabbered fervently of their eagerness for the monsoon, hoping it would come soon enough to dispel the heat that was making life miserable for everyone. There was also an anticipated pleasure they shared: the drinking that everybody did after the hash was over: sloe gin fizz, beer and more beer, Campari and soda. In fact, anything that was chilled and alcoholic.
Solti again wondered why he had joined the hash.
Wouldn't he have been better off at the hotel? Yes and no, he answered himself. Safer. More comfortable. But what about his mental state?
The weeks of waiting in a hotel room with only the occasional foray into the lobby were like being in prison, an experience he'd had not so long ago: agonizing in its constriction of movement and boring beyond the limits of tolerance. So Solti, surprising himself, pried his body out of its safe shelter and, at the suggestion of a desk clerk, decided to take part in an event that would provide the safety of numbers, a group of people who didn't care who Solti was as long as he showed them a modicum of courtesy in the course of the temporary bonding that the human race seems to require. He was like them, Solti thought. Monkey, ape, human — social animals all, keeping their sanity and safety through togetherness.
They crossed the mud bridge between two paddies, careful not to slip down into the water, the sweeper at the rear urging the last of the stragglers to chance the crossing. Solti was beginning to feel invigorated, even excited that he had taken the risk of participation. He would be able to tolerate the hotel room for another few days after this. Maybe he'd even come again next Saturday if the contact had not yet been made.
He looked to the top of the small hill they were climbing. At its apex there was a large elephant, its back loaded with what appeared to be palm fronds, being urged on by a mahout. The elephant intersected their path, suddenly coming to a stop, blocking the way of the runners, forcing the whole hash line to constrict as the gaps closed between the hashers, all of them impatiently waiting for the mahout to get his elephant out of their way.
Solti began to feel a vague discomfort creep through his body. The scene did not quite ring true. Why wasn't the mahout able to prod the beast on again? Why had it stopped directly in the path of the hash? Almost without intention, Solti found himself falling back toward the very back of the group, letting the stragglers pass him by as his eyes darted over the surrounding areas.
There were a few Nepalese women tending the paddy to the right side of the mud path. To his left and across the paddy was a mud wall high enough so he could not look over it. No apparent danger from the front or sides ... yet. Solti looked back. A minute or two ago, the hash had crossed a small dirt road. Now, clunking their way up the road was a pair of tuk-tuks, the ubiquitous three-wheeled jitneys with Chinese two-cylinder engines that often served as transportation for the city Nepalese. The eight-seat vehicles were struggling up the slight incline, their motors, barely larger than sewing machines, emitting an inordinate amount of noise and exhaust fumes.
Solti felt a chill radiating from his stomach. This could not be a regular run for a tuk-tuk. Maybe he would have believed one tuk-tuk, motoring out by chance into the countryside as they were completing the hash run, but not two. It was wrong. Frantically, he looked around for a safe place. The way up the hill was blocked. The tuk-tuks barred the rear. The only possible safety was through the paddies. Solti scrambled down the bank to his left, finally reaching the bottom, not even bothering to take off his shoes when he slipped into the water. As he began to slosh across the paddy, the hash sweeper yelled at him to come back. The man's voice only added to Solti's fear. He had to get away from the group, away from the tuk-tuks, away from the elephant. He was sure of it: they were looking for him.
Stumbling through the muddy water, Solti glanced back at the tuk-tuks. Both jitneys had pulled to a stop with a ragtag group of Nepalese piling out, the men carrying an assortment of weapons from shotguns to AK-47's. One of the men even brandished a sword, another a long-handled ax. They began trotting up the hill.
Solti swiveled around to face uphill. The elephant and his mahout had been joined by more Nepalis, all armed like the group below. They began coming down the path.
Ambush! Solti tried to believe the armed groups were here to kill other members of the hash. Then he considered another possibility: Maybe they were just robbers? Maybe they were diehard Maoists down from the surrounding mountains, bringing their brand of organized terror to the people in the valleys below? Solti shook off these notions as fantasies. He was here, they were here, and every instinct he had screamed at him that he was their target.
His breath came in gasps as he tried to go faster, hoping against hope that the men wouldn't see that he had broken away from the line of hashers. If he could get across the paddy and hide behind the dirt bulk of its enclosing side, he might make it.
Solti reached the wall of the paddy, frantically scrambling up on his hands and knees, finally reaching the top lip.
Three Nepalese were waiting for him. The man carrying the kukri didn't hesitate for a second. He thrust the long, curved knife through Solti's belly. Solti looked down as the man pulled the knife out, his life spilling out, following the knife. It didn't hurt. Solti was numb with the thought that he was going to be dead very soon.
One of the other Nepalese men carried an old pump-action shotgun. He pumped the slide once and then fired across the few feet separating them. Solti's body was catapulted back into the paddy below. The gunman took his time, surveying Solti, now half-submerged in the muddy water, then descended, put the shotgun muzzle close to Solti's head, and fired a last shell, blowing Solti's head apart.
The man looked down at the body, now satisfied, then made his leisurely way up the embankment to join the other two. The third member of the trio was a woman, her hair covered in the Moslem style, wearing sunglasses. The name she used was Rana, a common enough name in Nepal. Rana pulled a red bandanna from a recess of her sari and waved it in the air, yelling something in Nepalese at both armed groups on the hill. She waited to make sure the bands of men had seen her signal, nodding as the men piled into the tuk-tuks, driving away. The uphill group disappeared the way they had come, the elephant the last of the party to lumber over the crest of the hill and vanish.
A second later, the killers trotted away, disappearing behind an abandoned farmhouse.
The survivors of the hash told the authorities various distorted stories of what they had seen or heard. The Nepalese police, not very efficient in any case, put it down as an unsolved crime, gathered Solti's belongings from his hotel room, and had the hotel staff wrap and ship them back to the home address Solti had left at the registration desk. When the belongings arrived at the European destination listed on the package, nobody living there had ever heard of Solti. Rather than take the trouble of returning it to the post office, the residents stored the package in a corner of their small basement. They did not open it to look inside. It might appear dishonest. After all, someone might come to claim the package, and they had their reputations to uphold in the neighborhood.
In a week, they forgot about it. In Nepal, the monsoon rains began.CHAPTER 2
Sofia, Jana Matinova's old chum, called Jana from Transparency in Government, the anti-corruption organization. Sofia had helped set up a chapter in Slovakia three years earlier. They had not talked for some time, not because of any animosity but because each of them had set off in the world in a different direction that required very separate activities, both professionally and socially.
Sofia had assumed she would find the right path for herself, but it had taken her a little longer than Jana, who was now a commander in the Slovak Police. Sofia had first gone with a bank, then a statistical information firm doing corporate analysis, followed by a freelance interpreter's job for the expatriate business community, loathing each job in turn. But her latest work had opened a door to vast opportunities.
After a few weeks of studying the issues, Sofia had started out with a bang, calling a news conference to deride the government's award of a building contract to a firm whose head was not only related to a cabinet minister, but a heavy contributor to the present government. Even worse, one of the school buildings that the man had constructed was already beginning to crumble, due to the inferior concrete used in the construction. The story was broadcast on all the television networks and headlined in the newspapers. Even the United States took notice, and Sofia was called in by the American ambassador to Slovakia and publicly commended for her action in revealing the corrupt practice.
That was only Sofia's first step. Sofia called for reform, not only in government procurement, but in government accounting procedures, for filing property and financial statements by all civil servants and the passage of freedom-of-information laws. She sponsored citizen hotlines to encourage the reporting of corrupt activities and criticized licensing practices that resulted in enormous payoffs being required to obtain business permits. Then she went after the government as a whole. Sofia's demands called for a massive overhaul of the electoral process and a total review and reform of the way government departments did business.
In the process, with an energy that astonished everyone who knew her, Sofia traveled all over the country, meeting with groups of people, manufacturers and regional representatives of government, attending international conferences and becoming a major figure in Eastern Europe in the anti-corruption fight. Everyone was aware of her; everyone in Slovakia admired her.
Through it all, Sofia and Jana had maintained their friendship. They saw each other less, they telephoned less frequently, but they retained the feeling they'd had for each other since they had been children. To each of them, the other was the same person who had seen a friend through the powerless years of childhood, through the hard teen years, and finally into adulthood.
Today began another chapter.
Sofia's voice on the telephone was excited, urging Jana to meet her for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant they both liked on Laurinska, halfway between them, almost in the exact center of Bratislava. Sofia assured Jana she had something of great importance to discuss and needed Jana's input.
Jana tried to put her off until the evening, but Sofia was so enthusiastic, so insistent that Jana agreed to meet her at noon.
Jana generally did not eat lunch, instead snacking on one thing or another that she brought from home. Today, when she finally queued up in the line outside, she was ravenous and glad she had come. The restaurant served a limited numbers of items, cafeteria style. The servers, on the other side of the counter, plopped large portions of the food on customers' plates when they went by, portions that would satisfy much larger people than Jana. It was not gourmet food, but pleasant enough, and cheap by any standard, so for a police officer it was a good place to eat.
As usual, Sofia was late when she joined Jana in line. A number of people who recognized her from her coverage by the media murmured encouragement to Sofia; one woman even insisted on shaking her hand. Sofia was patient, finally breaking free of her admirers to hug Jana and, still breathless from racing to the restaurant from a meeting that had run on and on, apologized, as she always did, for being late.
"I'm sorry; more than sorry."
"I accept your expression of remorse," Jana said, a smile on her face. "True friends are required to accept apologies."
"Even police officer friends?"
"Particularly police officer friends."
They hugged again; then Sofia got right to the point. "I'm so happy, Jana. I think I may be starting on an incredible adventure that will bring me the job of my dreams. A new profession."
Jana was shocked that Sofia was even thinking of leaving work she was so good at and which she obviously enjoyed. "I thought you already had the job of your dreams. You told me on the phone only this morning how wonderful it was, how satisfied you were when you went home. It's what you're good at."
"I am, I am, Jana. But, if you look at it right, this new job is really an extension of what I'm doing now. I've already talked to other people at work. I even spoke to the people at international headquarters in Berlin, and they all gave me the go-ahead. In fact, they urged me to do it. Of course, I won't be able to keep working at Transparency. It would be a conflict of interest. But if I want to come back, the job will probably be waiting for me."
"Okay." Jana tried to keep an open mind. "Here I am, your old friend Jana, the arbiter of all things good for Sofia, waiting with hope in my heart and open arms for your glad tidings. So, what's the new job, Sofia?"
"Jana, I've been asked to campaign in the general election for the reform coalition. They've promised me a position on the slate. If we get enough votes I'll become a member of parliament." She stared at Jana, waiting for approval, her face lit up with excitement. "It's a tremendous leap up, an opportunity to be involved in something even more important, a job that will allow me to make changes directly in the way the government does business. I can be a real advocate for the people."
Jana thought it over. It was not all that hard for her to follow Sofia's logic and to understand Sofia's enthusiasm. The present government was far from wonderful. It was crooked, led by a man who was a dangerous demagogue. His secret police used strong-arm tactics and were becoming even more extreme. A change would be a good thing. Even so, Jana's main concern was her friend and her friend's future: would Sofia's move into politics benefit Sofia?
"You've never talked to me before about wanting to be a politician."
"Jana, what I've been doing over the last years is political."
"Wrong," said Jana. "Now you're your own master. You don't have to answer to the voters. You don't have to kowtow to a political party. You don't have to consider expediency and make compromises."
"Jana, I've examined all the arguments for and against."
"That's the right start."
"I'll tell you something I've never told even you. This has always been my secret dream. I pushed it back into a corner of my mind. I never thought that I could get there. Inside, I always see a powerless person in my mirror. How could a powerless woman become a member of the National Council of the Slovak Republic? How could I become a person who people look up to? That Sofia in my mirror could never be a member of parliament. Then, like a gift from the gods, it's offered to me on a silver platter."
"If the party wins."
"Why shouldn't the party win? This regime of criminals is ready to crumble. The people are turning against it. I can help the slate. They want the people to know that there are reformers in the party. I've been working for Transparency; I'm well known as a speaker for truth, so I'm perfect for them. It is a great fit."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dark Dreams"
Copyright © 2009 Michael Genelin.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
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