Professional killings aren't common in Bratislava. Could the two deaths be connected? Before Jana can even begin investigating, she is transferred to The Hague, headquarters of the international police force of Europol. On the flight, she encounters a retired magician who turns out to be the dead student's uncle. He wants to help Jana investigate his nephew's death. And his help is needed, as Jana is soon confronted with an international conspiracy emanating 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 scrambled eggs.
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 window.
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 professional assassination.”
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 the investigation.
“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 division.
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.