The Turkish Airlines Airbus A319 flight from Antalya to Beirut via Istanbul was considerably more comfortable than the aging Boeing 737 out of Bosnia’s Tuzla airport, although David Somerset was hard-pressed to decide if the smell of boiled cabbage on the earlier flight was less offensive than the strange, sweaty-sock smell of the Airbus. Given that the Antalya to Istanbul leg had smelled the same, he supposed it must be from the airline’s preferred brand of industrial detergent, but that fact didn’t make his nose rebel any less. Four hours hanging around Ataturk Airport with nothing to do but read the Eric Ambler novel he’d picked up a few airports earlier hadn’t improved his temper either, even in the company of the striking Russian woman.
In a different life Katya Lavrova and he would have been enemies. Today, circumstance made them allies. Or at least like-minded individuals with a common purpose.
Somerset absent-mindedly rubbed the swollen graze on his own arm from Dedopovich’s wildly-fired shot and counted his blessings; luckier than Nate Jackson.
Somerset didn’t linger too long on the fact that the two Russians – was Andrei a Russian? – were the only two of the motley crew that he could put any trust in at all, simply because they were Russians, the opposition. Jackson and O’Neil – the American and the Ulsterman – worried him and he didn’t like being worried. Not that he trusted any of the four of them, really.
Not that he trusted anyone. Not since Prague.
To them he was an outsider, not one of Katya’s network, foisted on them by Georg Rudek, the man he and Lavrova were travelling to Beirut to question. ‘Question’ in this instance covered a wide variety of sins, although Lavrova had made it clear she didn’t want Rudek hurt unnecessarily; for Somerset, ‘unnecessarily’ was also open to fairly loose interpretation.
She and the fixer had some sort of long-standing relationship, whereas Somerset had no strong attachment to the man at all. In the past few years since Somerset had ‘gone freelance’, Rudek had found him a few jobs, none of them particularly lucrative or particularly interesting. One or two of them had even ended badly, although didn’t dwell on that fact for very long. How they ended had always been his choice, after all. No, Somerset was only interested in finding out why Dedopovich had cheated them and on who’s behalf, so that he could explain his disappointment to them.
A stewardess with badly pock-marked skin she was failing to hide under a thick layer of cheap foundation interrupted his thoughts by offering him a cup of orange juice and a packet of pistachios. He accepted with a thin, barely gracious smile before she walked on towards the rear of the plane, serving other passengers.
Katya Lavrova was sitting a few rows in front of him. He leaned slightly into the aisle, watching her brush her hair out slowly and rhythmically with her hand, no doubt pouring over some in-flight magazine, or watching a film on her tablet. He tried to decide if he found her attractive or not. She looked good in her black shift dress and opaque black tights, flouncing around Ataturk Airport wearing a belted, hooded raincoat in a startling shade of red that had attracted more than a few looks. Perhaps ‘flouncing’ was unfair. But she was in the business. and she was all business. Miss Ice, Andrei had called her. The moniker was appropriate.
Still undecided, Somerset leaned back, closing his eyes. It was already nearly 5:30; they’d be landing soon and he should get some sleep.
It was going to be a busy day.
Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport had been completely rebuilt through the 1990s, after years of strife with the Israelis, a civil war and ‘Palestinian problems’ had left the original terminal thoroughly inadequate to the job; the new centre-piece, the General Aviation Terminal, opened for business in the middle of the following decade. At 7 o’clock on this particular morning, however, the normally bustling hub was still largely deserted, with only the hundred or so people from the Turkish Airlines flight to flesh out the immigration queues. Somerset eyed the bored border official with a little trepidation. Border crossings could be so… unpredictable.
When his turn came, he handed over the Canadian passport and smiled gently when the young man looked up at him. No flicker of recognition, no glance at an alert sheet. The youth stifled a yawn, flicked to an unstamped page and hammered down with the entry Visa.
“Bienvenu en Beyrouth,” he muttered sleepily.
“Merci,” Somerset replied.
He glanced along the other lanes and saw that Katya had already passed through. He picked up the leather case he’d bought on his last trip to Florence with his left hand and buttoned his suit jacket with his right while he walked, calmly, through the still largely white décor of the baggage claim area and up the escalator to the small duty-free lounge just before the arrivals hall. Katya was already there, looking at sunglasses and wearing that red coat again. He brushed past her towards the spirits and selected a bottle of Russian Standard vodka. He glanced back at her, holding the bottle up a little. She shrugged noncommittally, moving on to a collection of silk headscarves.
He drifted around, wondering if there was anything better, but he’d picked up the taste for it in the bar of the Holiday Inn in Moscow’s Simonvsky district a few years before, having only really tried Smirnoff and Stolichnaya elsewhere. Settling on his first choice, he wandered to the checkout and paid with a US$20 bill; by the time he’d stuffed the bottle into his case, she had already exited to the main terminal building with her own purchases. He followed and, having lost sight of her, looked for the shuttle-bus terminal and strolled outside. He found her again, standing in the queue, looking unaffected by the heat and humidity that was already starting to build, comprehensively disinterested in his approach.
“You look ridiculous in that tie,” she muttered, speaking around the squat, fat Arab businessman in the gaudily checked Brioni suit that stood between them. He shrugged his eyebrows and rubbed the stubble on his chin. He was looking forward to a shower and a shave. He straightened the knot of his dark blue, knitted silk tie.
Katya was checking her phone.
“Takaya Suites Hotel, near the Waterfront,” she told him in quiet tones. He nodded silently, glancing to see if the Arab was paying any attention. Did he recognise him? Had he seen him before?
“O’Neil doesn’t know and he is distracted by… other concerns.” Somerset grunted. The two large men with the car-boot full of military hardware; another problem waiting for them when they got back to the former Yugoslavia. His mood was not improving.
“I’m assuming you know where we’re checked in?” She nodded. “And your baklava? Did you pick some up?”
“In Ararat, while you were reading,” she smiled thinly. “The Herald Tribune, no less. Such an international traveller, Mr. Somerset.”
“Always interested in what’s going on at home. It’s not as if you can trust Fox News.”
“And yet you travel on a Canadian passport.”
“We’re practically the same nation. Sisters.”
“But speak with English accent.” He looked pointedly at her, wondering what her next observation might be, but she was waiting for him to say something. He turned away sharply.
“I think this is our bus,” he said, bluntly changing the subject. She studied him curiously, but he wasn’t giving anything else away.
The heat of early afternoon was beginning to assert itself, but Somerset had swapped the heavy navy worsted wool suit he’d worn from Bosnia for a lightweight merino sharkskin in a medium grey shade, a white Sea Island cotton shirt and a pair of black monk-strap shoes, hiding from the sun under a Kronenbourg-branded blue and white parasol in a quayside café, nursing a double espresso served in a plain white cup. He’d left his tie in the room as a concession to the climate while the cool shower and promised shave had done him the world of good. He felt awake and refreshed. The thin black wire of a handsfree ran from his left ear, leaving him free to stretch out while he gazed over the landscape of yachts in the marina.
“Found him?” he asked.
“He is definitely here,” Katya replied, “but I do not know in which room. Yet.”
“Use your womanly charms on the desk clerk,” he advised, smiling to himself, picturing her tossing her hair indignantly. Then again, she was wearing the headscarf she’d bought at the airport. Maybe she flared her nostrils when she was annoyed if she couldn’t toss her hair.
“How did the shopping trip go?” she asked. She was, she claimed, sitting in a street café across from the reception and main lobby of the Takaya Suites, no doubt nursing a mint tea and pretending to read the local edition of Vogue or something.
“Very well. The Ace Hardware in Joubieh had just about everything except a hold-all. I’ll pick one up somewhere near here.”
“Are you on waterfront?” she asked.
“Enjoying the view,” he confirmed.
“Ogling young women in swimming costumes, yes?” she chided.
“Actually, I’m not sure that some of them qualify as ‘costumes’, " he commented. “Dental floss, perhaps…”
She snorted, either derisively or to stifle a laugh. He still couldn’t decide if he found her attractive or not. Not that it mattered, it just felt important to be certain about some things.
“What did you buy?” she asked after a pause.
“Two very nice shirts from a Thomas Pink I didn’t expect to find,” he said brightly.
She sighed. “I am sure that they will be very useful.”
“I managed to get a pair of overalls, along with various other items of cutlery, assorted tools, lengths of lead pipe….”
“… sharp stones, pointed sticks…”
He paused to watch a tanned, toned, twenty-something brunette in a dark green bikini dive off the edge of a 40-foot Sunseeker yacht into the turquoise waters, her motion a graceful arc as she slipped under the surface. He lifted the espresso cup between forefinger and thumb, sighing.
“Hello?” she asked after a moment.
“Sorry, distracted. Anyway, two new shirts. It’s almost impossible to get sizeable quantities of blood out of cotton, so since I might have to throw a shirt, I took the chance to get something of decent quality to replace it. Seeing that we’re here anyway.”
“It is important to have priorities,” she muttered, a little bewildered. “How did your meeting with the gentleman from Baqaa work out?”
“Oh, you’ll be pleased. A couple of ex-Syrian Army PSMs re-chambered for 7.65mm. Nice and concealable, I’m sure it’ll be second nature in your experienced grip.”
“Not quite a Walther PPK, though, Mr. Somerset-David-Somerset.”
“Please stop. You’re cracking me up,” he said drily. They were both silent for a long moment.
“So assuming we know where to pick him up,” he asked, “when do you advise it?”
“Always liked talking to people at 3:30am, they are rarely at full ability at that time,” she said, suddenly the complete professional. “My babushka called it the ‘hour of the wolf’.”
“She sounds like a wonderful role model. Can we wait that long?” he asked.
“Probably no,” she conceded.
“So what’s your plan?”
“Most likely will ring the hotel from a payphone, under a made-up name, ask to be put through to our friend before visiting in person. Our friend will recognise me, so if he answers I hang up; if no answer I hang up anyway. But better if I can get the room number before visiting the hotel. Then Kalina shall visit the hotel, and if necessary will flirt with the no doubt handsome young man at reception to find out what our friend’s current status is.”
Somerset took a moment to digest all of this.
“And where do I fit in, again?” he eventually asked.
“Kalina should introduce herself to our friend first,” she carried on. “You might panic him with your bag of home improvement tools and expensive English gentleman’s clothing.”
“Well, we wouldn’t want that,” he admitted. “And then I show up to convince him it’s in his interests to be…?”
“Co-operative,” she finished. “We have a saying: ‘Tell us or we jab your eye with a burning stick is a question you can only ask twice’. Try to remember that please.” He barked a laugh at her, genuinely amused.
“We have a saying too – ten fingers, ten toes, more than enough for Twenty Questions,” he replied.
“Well try to resist the urge to play ‘ten pink fingers hanging from a wall,’ Somerset. Georg is a friend.”
“Fair enough. I’m going back to my room, to sort out my gym bag, and then maybe go for a swim,” he told her.
“I am very jealous,” she sighed deeply and stereotypically Russian. “I brought my costume all this way. I do enjoy roof-top pools in exotic cities.” She paused a beat, before telling him: “No talking to scantily-clad young socialites, Somerset.”
“I’ll save you a lounger,” he retorted, and hung up.
In the end it took him an hour to get back to the hotel room after he’d bought a cheap Adidas sports bag. He spent half an hour wandering around the waterfront boutiques, lingering at shop-windows, watching the reflections of milling throngs of tourists and socialites. As he passed a boutique selling Hermes, he popped inside, glancing out the window to see if anyone was waiting for him, or had doubled back. No-one did. He wandered around and, spotting a headscarf that he thought she might like, bought it for her, partly because it legitimised his reason for being here and partly because he wanted to.
When he finally decided to leave, he took a bus heading away from the city centre towards the Syrian city of Homs. He counted stops and got off at the seventh, crossed the road and walked back one stop. He took the next bus back into town, getting off two stops before his original point of departure and walked for 15 minutes to another route, repeating the process towards the south of the city, before eventually picking up an airport shuttle bus to the hotel he and Lavrova were staying in.
Back in his room, he removed all the packaging from his purchases – a Stanley knife, about 10m of 2-core copper flex, two six-inch iron nails, three insulated screwdrivers, a 2m x 2m plastic sheet, a small butane torch, duct tape, cable ties, a tow-rope and a packet of latex gloves, before wrapping the heavier objects in the hand-towels from the bathroom, stuffed the whole lot in the Adidas bag and dropped it at the end of the bed. He laid out a clean shirt, then stripped, hanging his suit on the back of the bathroom door. He revelled for a moment in being naked, a catharsis from the masks he wore in public. He considered a cool shower but instead pulled a couple of innocuous looking items from his case and slipped them into his inner jacket pocket, humming a long-forgotten tune to himself as he did so. Then, he stepped into his swim shorts and a pair of canvas shoes, grabbed his phone and his room key and headed for the pool to wait for Lavrova’s summons.
Katya could slip into Kalina as easily as she could the cream-coloured DKNY safari jumpsuit and three-inch flesh-toned heels she had selected as her outfit du jour. It was as if Kalina was the outfit, right down to the pulled-marginally-too-low asymmetric zip and the one-too-many chunky bangles on her wrist. The head-scarf she’d bought at the airport was Kalina’s only concession to the Muslim sensitivities of the city, a concession very few other European women seemed to care about. The bare skin of her lower legs and forearms would definitely have brought her trouble in some of the neighbouring states.
She leaned over the desk towards the neatly dressed, trim young man in the dark-framed heavy spectacles, showing just a hint of cleavage and smiling generously. He seemed quite pleased with the attention, to the point of being incredibly disappointed when Room 513 didn’t answer the call he’d put through. He turned to her, apologies already written across his handsome young face.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Rudek, but your husband is not answering his phone,” he told her. She smiled graciously. She already knew the room number, charming it out of the same young man over the phone half an hour before, posing as a Georg’s suspicious wife trying to catch him in the act of cheating. The young man had been sympathetic and co-operative, particularly after she implied that she might be seeking solace from a new friend afterwards. She glanced at his badge to remind herself of his name, which he’d already taken pains to tell her. Twice.
“Do you know if he’s in his room, Mahmoud?” she asked. “Has he gone out, picked up any messages?” Mahmoud made an examination of his screen, already shaking his head.
“I’m afraid not, Mrs. Rudek,” he said. He coughed discretely into his hand. “Mr. Rudek did come back very late last night, so he may not wish to be disturbed.” She frowned.
“I see. Well, thank you Mahmoud. I think I’ll wait a while and see if he comes downstairs,” she replied. “Would it be OK if I sat in the bar?” she asked, throwing a glance towards it.
“Of course, Mrs. Rudek,” Mahmoud spluttered, eager to be of assistance. “Is there anything I can get you?”
“A pot of mint tea and some nibbles,” she smiled. “And charge them to my husband’s room.” She wandered over to the bar, conscious of Mahmoud’s eyes on her back. She thumbed the touchscreen of the phone, leaving Somerset a message in the drafts folder of the free email account they’d set up for this trip.
“Room 513. Come immediately.”
Thirty minutes later Somerset arrived. He walked straight through the lobby, hold-all in hand, neither acknowledging her nor looking in her direction. He noted the cameras in the lobby and kept his head bowed, keeping his Wayfarer sunglasses on. He reached the bank of lifts and pressed the call button; an elderly couple – Germans, he guessed – were already waiting. He smiled at them, hearing the click of Katya’s heels on the marble floor behind them. The lift arrived with a chime and the four of them got in and turned to face the door, Somerset and Katya still ignoring each other. The German pensioners got off on the third floor, shuffling politely past Katya, all smiles and pleasant nods. She barely acknowledged them, stepping back but not looking at Somerset as the lift set off again.
“You look naked without your tie, Somerset,” she admonished him; he was already pulling the second of the squat black PSMs and a spare magazine from the hold-all; she quickly secreted them into the pockets of the safari suit. He turned back to face the door again when the lift chimed for the fifth floor.
“You wish,” he said without smiling. He followed her out, sending the lift to the seventh floor as he did so.
They found 513 a few metres from the lobby, an anonymous door with an electronic lock and a spy-hole. The “Do Not Disturb” sign hung from the handle.
“Oh, well,” she began sardonically, “time to go back to Bosnia. Georg does not want to be disturbed.”
She knocked. No response. She knocked again, harder this time.
Still no response. Third time harder still.
She turned to Somerset for some encouragement, only to see him fishing inside his jacket for a white-barrelled dry-board marker pen.
“Are you planning on leaving him a note, Somerset?”
He gave her a withering look as he thumbed the lid and, feeling the underside of the lock mechanism, jammed the nib into a small recess. She frowned, puzzled, until the indicator light flashed green and the lock popped with a click. He pulled the handle down quietly. If she was impressed, she didn’t show it.
“Ladies first,” he indicated. She sighed and pushed the door open, stepping inside.
“Georg? Georg are you there?” she called softly. “It’s Kalina.” Somerset reached behind him to his waistband and thumbed the safety on his own PSM to the ‘off’ position.
She flicked the switch and the softly diffuse illumination from the room’s two standard lamps came on, revealing the sitting-room of a small suite; Katya took a few steps into the room, before waving urgently for Somerset to follow her in. Suddenly all tense energy and swift movement, he dropped the bag inside the doorway and pushed the suite door carefully and quietly closed with the edge of his shoe, bringing his pistol to a Weaver stance to slip past her into the centre of the room. The curtains were drawn, blocking out most of the bright daylight behind them, only a little leaking into the room around the edges. On the coffee table he could see an empty bottle of Taittinger Blanc de Blancs upturned in an ice bucket, two used glasses next to it. White powder was scattered across the glass surface, the remains of an unused line betraying its nature. There was an odd smell in the room, a sweet, coppery tang that he immediately recognised and which must have triggered her alarm, as through the half-opened bedroom door, he saw a familiar yet somehow wrong shape hanging in the middle of the room.He forced himself to ignore it, scanning the living room from behind his PSM, before moving to the bedroom door, following Katya’s hand gestures. He noted the pair of brown Italian men’s loafers by the coffee table, covering the space as she moved as silently as him to the bathroom.
He pushed the bedroom door open further with the muzzle of his pistol and peered inside.
A naked body hung from the cross-bar of a four-poster bed, ankles tied together, so that it was trussed and suspended by its folded knees. A slight breeze from the seafront stirred the net curtain, diffusing the strong sunlight except where a long strip had been cut from it; Somerset saw it tied around the dead man’s ankles. Otherwise he was hanging limply, arms below the head, the loose muscle and belly fat slipping down into his chest, penis pointing flaccidly towards his chin, the dark pubic hair in stark contrast to the almost alabaster skin. The face was obscured by dark, dried blood and the bed was coated liberally with it.
The corpse of Georg Rudek swayed gently in the breeze from the open window.
Somerset took the whole thing in coolly and analytically. He had seen things like this before; hell, he had left scenes like this before.
But still, something nagged at the back of his mind…
Behind him, Katya stifled a scream. He spun to look, gun-hand coming up reflexively, but she was alone, staring at the abattoir that the bedroom had become. The colour had drained from her face, and she looked like her knees were about to give out. He grabbed her upper arm roughly, quickly steering her into a sofa, then raided the fridge for two miniatures of Absolut vodka, dumped them in a glass with some ice and forced her to drink it.
As she sipped from the glass, shivering, he slipped on a pair of the disposable latex gloves to cut Georg’s ties; struggling to support the dead weight, he lowered the corpse onto the bed, before covering him with the blood-stained duvet. A quick scan of the room revealed nothing more than a few personal effects. He walked back into the living room.
She looked a little steadier as he pulled the bottle of Russian Standard from the Adidas sports bag and took a long swig directly from the neck. He offered her a top-up, but she shook her head.
“Spasibo, Somerset,” she murmured. “I have seen death before, even messy death. But Georg? He wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’d sell a flyswatter and DDT to you, but at the same time be trading plane tickets to the fly.” Somerset said nothing, hovering. She drained the glass, looked around the room. He could see her retreat behind a wall of professionalism as she started to issue orders again.
“We need to be careful, Somerset. We must remove our fingerprints here. And find out what killed him,” the last few words catching in her throat. Somerset nodded and wandered into the bathroom, dropping the vodka bottle into the hold-all as he went. A moment later he stepped out, a packet of moist wipes in his hand.
“Fingerprints.” He tossed the packet to her and pointed to the light-switch and the minibar, while he wandered into the bedroom, careful to close the door behind him.
He pulled away the duvet and examined the body of the dead fixer. There, on the neck, a small slash about two, maybe three inches long. Not fatal on its own, but hung upside down it would bleed him out in thirty minutes, maybe forty-five. A slow, lingering death, yes, but then again he probably went into shock fairly quickly. He tossed the duvet back over the corpse and looked around the room more carefully. On the bedside table was an unopened condom. Georg’s suitcase and briefcase in the wardrobe, unmolested, unlocked. Somerset rifled the contents, pulling out his passport, the only form of physical ID there. Nothing else of interest. He pocketed the passport and returned the case to its original place.
Somerset walked out the bedroom window onto the balcony. He looked down to four identical balconies beneath him and three above. It was certainly a viable escape route, if not an easy one. The whole set-up was bothering him, badly. An awful lot of effort for a simple kill. He couldn’t place it yet, but there was definitely a familiar feeling about this tableau. What was it?
Back in the living room, Katya held up the mangled remains of an iPhone. He looked at it curiously: the glass on both sides had shattered and fractured, but the metal frame holding it together was bent nearly in half. He gave her a quizzical look.
“I found this in the toilet,” she told him, not bothering to explain why she was looking in the toilet. “And there is lipstick on one of the champagne glasses.” She pointed at the coffee table.
“Georg’s?” he asked. She scowled at him. “You knew him better than me,” he said, shrugging. “Far be it from me to judge anyone.”
She shook her head at him as she slipped them into separate sanitary bags and added them to the contents of the hold-all.
“Fingerprints,” she intoned. “We may pick up a few from the glass or the phone.”
He pointed at the two empty miniatures bottles and the glass Katya had used.
“Best take those as well, then,” he said. “So no-one picks up ours.” He looked around the room again before sighing heavily.
“Ok,” he breathed. “Time to leave.”
They slipped silently out of the room and Katya pointed down the corridor away from the lifts.
“Service staircase,” she informed him. “Let’s avoid the lobby this time.” They clattered down the metal staircase and through a fire exit on the ground floor, which led into an access road, little more than a gap between the hotel and its neighbouring building. The sun was too bright, the humidity far too oppressive. She took a moment to adjust her sunglasses while he put his on. He retrieved the Hermes scarf from the bag, still folded in the orange gift box.
“A little present,” he said. She looked at him with an expression he’d never seen on her before, a look both grief-stricken and grateful at the same time, but she quickly dipped her head to stare at the ground, slipping on her aviators to hide her eyes before she swapped scarves.
“I think I want to get drunk now, Somerset. Really drunk,” she confirmed. He nodded.
“I know just the ticket,” he said softly.
The shutter of professionalism came down over her again.
“We need to see the CCTV footage, see who Rudek came back with last night,” she stammered. Rudek now, not Georg any more. Another ghost. “The boy on reception thinks I’m his wife, so it shouldn’t be a problem.”
“If you’re sure,” he cautioned her. “But. You’re bringing a lot of attention to a man who’s going to be found dead in a few hours. ‘Do Not Disturb’ won’t hold back the hordes forever.”
“Yes, but they will be looking for his wife, who wears a headscarf and large sunglasses on security cameras. And all Mahmoud will remember of me are these,” she growled, pulling the zip back down angrily to reveal her cleavage again. His expression was skeptical, but he kept his eyes on his own dim reflection in her sunglasses.
She looked thoughtful for a moment, before saying “It is not a good idea is it?”
“No,” he said, evenly. If she really wanted to do it, he’d help her; revenge was something he understood. But she shook her head.
“Let’s get back to the others.” He nodded agreement.
He hooked his arm and she slipped hers through it, walking back out onto the street, just another happy tourist couple.
Somerset, though, had remembered what seemed so familiar about the way Georg Rudek had died. Somerset was not a happy man.