Devastated by her lover’s death in an explosion—on the same day a student was shot and killed in sleepy Bratislava after sneaking into a hotel to steal food—Jana is transferred to The Hague, headquarters of the international police force Europol.
On the flight, she encounters the dead student’s uncle—a retired magician who is determined to help Jana investigate his nephew’s death. And his help is indeed needed, as Jana faces an international criminal conspiracy that may emanate from Europol itself . . .
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The Savoy Hotel, once known as the Imperial Hotel
or the Grand Hotel when the Hapsburgs reigned in
Slovakia, was now the Carleton Savoy, part of a worldwide
chain. The new owners had retained its classic façade
so it still maintained its old majesty, satisfying the local
city officials that they had not destroyed the “spirit of
Bratislava.” This, in turn, placated most of the old residents
of the city, allowing them to continue telling their
stories about the happenings during the Hapsburg reign.
Of course, the owners of the hotel had gutted the interior
and filled it with the new amenities foreign travelers now
demand. Most of the Savoy’s aristocratic ambience had
been lost in the process.
Denis would have been happier with the old building.
Even though he was young, he was a traditionalist: unlike
other traditionalists, he accepted change as the way of the
world, particularly today. On this Friday he was looking
forward to the Royal Breakfast the Carleton Savoy provided
for its guests. The breakfast buffet, set out in the
dining room, was truly scrumptious, arrayed on a multiplicity
of tables that occupied the whole center of a huge
area, the platters of food encompassing everything the
heart could possibly desire for breakfast.
Denis was not a guest of the hotel. He could never have
afforded a room here, even for one night. Like so many
students in Slovakia and the rest of the world, Denis had
very little money. He scrimped and scrounged his way
through life, but today he was going to have a special
treat. This weekend his belt would not pinch his backbone
through a screamingly empty stomach, courtesy of
the Carleton Savoy’s Royal Breakfast.
To accomplish his mission without being discovered,
Denis had dressed up in his only suit, put on a white
shirt and tie, brushed his shoes, not forgetting to put a
little fireplace soot on the leather to conceal the scuffs.
To complete his image, he carried a large briefcase. Once
at the entrance to the hotel, Denis took on the slightly
bored look of a guest and walked through the front doors
into the lobby as if he belonged. Today, as he passed the
desk, the pretty young receptionist with the enormous
brown eyes nodded at him. Denis nodded back with a
slight smile, picking up a Slovak daily newspaper provided
for guests on one of the large, ornate lobby tables, then
walked to a corner chair next to a massive urn filled with
newly cut flowers and unfolded the paper. Denis scanned
the front page. The major headlines revealed that a loan
firm had been burglarized and two hundred thousand
euros had been stolen; the president had condemned a
contract with the foreign oil company that was to exploit
the new field found in the low Tatras; Finland’s minister of
economics had been killed in an apparent robbery; and the
Communist Party legislators were making noises about
delaying the enforcement of the new penal code. More of
the same garbage, Denis thought. He managed a chuckle
at the editorial cartoon with the U.S. pictured as an infant
giant, a baby bottle labeled with a dollar sign in one hand,
the other wiping his backside on little Slovakia.
Denis took a quick look at his watch. Mr. Fico was due
in two minutes.
Every morning, Fico, as prompt as the clock over the
desk, would hurry through the lobby, pass though the
front doors, and walk out to the sedan that was waiting
to take him to his business appointments. Fico did not
generally have breakfast, which was the reason for Denis’s
interest in him. Although the man didn’t know it, he was the
key to filling Denis’s stomach. This morning, Denis would
identify himself to the maitre d’ servicing the dining area
as guest Miroslav Fico, Room 321. Denis merely needed
to be sure that the real Fico had left before he commandeered
the man’s identity.
The elevator door beeped as it arrived on the ground
floor, and right on time, Fico, leafing through a sheaf of
papers he was carrying, bolted out and, looking neither
right nor left, went through the front doors, entered a
vehicle, and was driven out of the parking area. That was
Denis folded his paper, picked up his briefcase, and,
looking for all the world as if he belonged, casually
strolled into the dining room.
“Good morning,” he nodded to the maitre d’, making
sure to articulate clearly, “Room 321, Fico.” The maitre
d’ checked off the number and name on his guest list
and paid no further attention to Denis. The young man
selected a window table, placed his briefcase on it, sauntered
back to the multiplicity of tables laden with food,
and, picking up a plate, strolled down the row. There
was all kinds of cheeses, sausages, timbales of hot meats,
Oeufs Benedictine, Oeufs Diablo, and Oeufs Bordelaise in
hot trays, cold loin of pork with citrus fruit, baked ham,
honey-roasted bacon with peaches, three types of quiche,
tomato clafoutis, chevre infused with cognac on toasted
walnut bread, melon, berries, and exotic fruits.
Denis viewed them all, just to be sure he didn’t miss
anything, then walked to the other side of the tables. He
eyed the stewed chicken with chestnuts and ginger, buckwheat
pancakes, gravlax, all types of rolls overflowing their
bins, four types of fresh-baked muffins, and maple pecan
waffles. It went on and on, truly a royal banquet. For a
simple student, the array was mind-boggling. He decided
to ignore most of it and focus on what he liked.
Denis decided his first course was to be simple. Initially,
eggs, scrambled. Then fruit. Then a side dish of cereal,
bacon, of course, and fresh rolls, and maybe just a bit
of sweet cake to treat his palate. At the last minute, he
decided to also have a few slices of sheep’s milk cheese and
a pair of sausages. His second and third trips would entail
very little eating but a lot of filling his briefcase with food
enough to take him through the next few days.
Denis sauntered to the window table where he had left
his case and seated himself facing out the picture window
looking toward the greenery and fountains, and an almost
180-degree panoramic view of Hviezodoslavovo Square.
He set his dishes on the table, placed his napkin on his lap,
then took his first forkful of eggs. They were delicious,
mixed with some ingredient that Denis couldn’t identify
which made them smoother and moister than normal
As he ate, Denis watched the pedestrians outside the
building. Beyond the hotel, people were scurrying to
work, many coming from the direction of the Nový Most
bridge, others from that of the baroque National Theater
on the opposite side of the square, all busy ants going
about their morning activities in Bratislava’s Old Town.
Denis felt wonderful, momentarily the lord of all he surveyed,
pretending to wealth he didn’t have, eating a leisurely
breakfast while everyone raced to jobs. If it weren’t
for the final exams at the university next week, it would be
a perfect moment to be alive.
Outside, a man approached the window. The figure
in a bulky black overcoat filled Denis’s vision. The man’s
eyes were hidden by dark glasses, but there was no doubt
that he was looking directly at Denis, examining him as if
he were some type of small caged animal. For a moment,
Denis felt a surge of anxiety, wondering if his fraud had
been detected, then decided that it must be something
else; the man was not dressed as a member of the hotel
staff. Denis smiled, trying to appear friendly, wondering
why the man continued to stare at him through the
Make him happy, Denis thought. It was morning and all
was right with the world, Denis told himself. Today, inside
the restaurant, he was a star. And, this morning, he even
had an audience. It was a good time for him to perform a
little sleight of hand.
Denis pulled a coin out of his jacket pocket, an American
quarter. He picked up his napkin with his left hand, waved
it in the air, and then covered the twenty-five-cent piece
with the napkin, holding it so that the quarter was visible
under the white cloth. Denis then bit through the cloth,
into the quarter, twisting the coin with his teeth. Under
the cloth the coin looked as if it had been bent in half.
Denis went through the process again, this time reducing
the coin obscured by the cloth to one-fourth of its size. He
then whipped the napkin off the cloth, showing that the
coin had indeed been bent in half, then half again. After
a quick pause, Denis whisked the napkin over the coin,
furiously rubbed the coin beneath the cloth, and then took
the coin out. It had been restored to its original shape.
Denis looked cheerfully at the man outside the window
for a response. The man was scanning what appeared to
be a photograph through his dark glasses. The magic-coin
act had not interested him. Denis felt like a failure; he told
himself that some people are hard to entertain.
The man pulled a small automatic from his pocket and
pointed it at Denis. Denis got out one word, “No!,” when
the man began firing. Five bullets pierced the window.
The thick glass did not shatter, but the bullets left holes
in the window, each surrounded by the slightest spidering.
All of the bullets hit Denis. He was dead after the second
slug hit him. The other shots had been fired as insurance.
The coin and napkin that Denis had used for his magic
act slipped to the floor. The murderer pocketed his gun
and quickly walked away, mixing with the passersby.
People outside the hotel who’d heard the shots milled
around anxiously; but in the huge space fronting the hotel,
the gunshots had reverberated and it was not clear where
they had come from.
The murder, and the murderer’s escape, were over
before anyone noticed that Denis, still sitting at breakfast,
was dead. Aside from a few forkfuls of eggs, the young
man had not eaten his royal meal.
Jana Matinova was sound asleep after a night of investigating
a barroom brawl that had resulted in the deaths
of two men and one dog. The bar’s manager had ordered
the dog’s owner to remove his dog. The man refused. The
manager tried to pull the dog out by his collar. The dog bit
him. The manager lost his temper and hit the dog over the
head with a bottle, killing it. With that, the dog’s owner
attacked the manager with a knife, the manager used a
broken bottle as a weapon, and before long both men were
dead, one from stomach and lung wounds and the other
from a severed artery.
Jana considered not answering the phone when it rang,
but commanders of the Slovakian police are required to
pay attention to their phone calls, so she eventually picked
it up. “Be quick with whatever it is you have to tell me,”
she said. She had been dreaming of her lover, Peter Saris,
and resented the interruption.
“Commander Matinova, it’s Warrant Officer Seges.”
She did not like to hear from her warrant officer during
office hours, much less when she was in a deep sleep.
She checked her alarm clock; she’d managed to get exactly
an hour and a half of sleep. Jana was about to launch into
a diatribe when she realized that Seges was aware she’d
worked all night. One thing he knew, under these circumstances,
was not to call unless it was urgent.
“The prime minister has been assassinated, I take it,”
“No, but there’s been a murder.”
“So, assign two of the senior men.” There was a procedure
for such events. Jana was still in the grip of sleep
and could not remember who was on duty at the moment.
“There’s a duty roster. You should know who to assign.”
“Commander, Colonel Trokan asked me to call you.”
She sat up in bed. It couldn’t be a simple murder if
Trokan wanted her on the case.
“Who was killed?”
“From what our patrol people said, a student.”
“From a well-known family?” She swung her legs from
under the covers and sat on the edge of the bed.
“One student killing another?”
“I don’t think so, Commander. I was told it looks like a
That jolted her awake.
“Where did it happen?”
“At the Carleton Savoy.”
A professional killing at the Carleton. Now it made
sense. The colonel was a canny man who carefully watched
his back; he would want her to supervise this case. It
would make the news. And whenever there was big money
involved, as there was with this hotel, the management
would want assurance that the police thought enough of the
seriousness of the situation to attach a senior officer to lead
“Send a team to the site.”
“They’re already there.”
It wasn’t like her warrant officer to be this efficient. He
was too lazy and inept. But, she guessed, even Seges recognized
the need to appear competent on a case like this.
“I’ll be there,” she growled into the phone, then hung up.
Thirty minutes later she walked through the front door
of the hotel.
The dining-room staff huddled at two tables in the corner,
as far away from the murder victim as they could get
and still be in the room. Several guests occupied another
corner. They were being selected and questioned one by
one in the atrium area by the investigators from Jana’s
Jana nodded to her men. One of them, Benco, began
to approach her. Jana gestured him back to the witness
he was questioning. She surveyed the room, the table at
the window where the body was still being examined and
photographed, then focused through the windows on the
area fronting the restaurant.
A perimeter of barriers had been set up outside to keep
the gawkers away. Canvas, quickly supplied courtesy of the
hotel, had been stretched high enough to block both the
window in front of the body and the immediate area around
it. They didn’t want people to see a corpse inside the dining
room. Bad for business.
Jana walked to a table next to the body, where Elias,
another of Jana’s investigators, was seated listing the contents
of the dead man’s briefcase as well as the items that
had been taken from his pockets.
“Commander,” he nodded at her. “The kid’s name was
Denis Macek, a student at the Polytechnic University.”
He slid the decedent’s student ID over to her. Jana studied
the picture of the young man in the left-hand corner of
the laminated card, then put it down. Not much else, not
even a book in the briefcase. Just waxed paper peeping out,
apparently lining the case. She fingered the paper. “This
is the first time I’ve seen a male student who took such a
thing as cleanliness at all seriously.” She sighed. “I guess I
have to go pay my respects to the dead.”
“Good morning, Denis,” she murmured to the body as
she started examining it. “I’m truly sorry you find yourself
in this position. I grieve for you. If you’d lived, you might
have gone on to raise a family and do great things.” She
glanced around and saw their photographer sitting in a
chair, munching on a celery stick he had purloined from
the food tables, which were still set up. “Have you got all
the photographs you need?”
He wiped his mouth. “Yes, Commander.”
Jana looked at the holes in the window next to the dead
student. “Did you get close-ups of the area in the window
penetrated by the bullets?”
“Of course, Commander.”
She checked the floor under the dead youth. A napkin
and what looked like a coin barely protruded from beneath
the decedent’s shoe.
“These items as well,” she instructed the photographer.
Jana moved the victim’s foot slightly to reveal the coin.
She signaled the photographer to take a few more photos
and then picked up both the coin and the napkin.
She moved around to the other side of the table to face
the dead youth. For a student, he was all dressed up. It
was neither Sunday nor a holiday. Students were rarely
attired the way he was unless forced to by their parents
or by other pressing circumstances. Jana slipped on a pair
of plastic gloves and looked closely at the bullet holes in
the window, checking the angle of the shots as well as she
could, even feeling the holes to check their paths through
the glass. A close pattern, which meant an individual who
knew how to handle a pistol. A professional.