Excerpt from The Geneva Deception
‘I see wars, terrible wars, and the Tiber foaming with blood’ – Virgil, The Aeneid, Book VI, 86
Ponte Duca d’Aosta, Rome
15th March – 2.37 a.m.
The cold kiss roused him.
A teasing, tentative embrace, it nibbled playfully at his ear and then, growing in confidence, slipped down to nuzzle against his naked throat.
Eyes screwed shut, cheek pressed against the wooden decking, Luca Cavalli knew that he should enjoy this moment while it lasted. So he lay there, cradled by the darkness, the gentle swell of the river rocking him softly, concentrating on keeping the steady cadence of his breathing constant. So they wouldn’t notice he was awake.
Ahead of him, near the bow, a small pool of rainwater had gathered. He could hear it sloshing from side to side under the duckboards as the boat swayed, smell the rainbow shimmer of engine oil dancing across its surface, the heady scent catching in the back of his throat like an exotic perfume. He had a strange, uncontrollable urge to swallow, to taste the raw truth of this moment while he still could.
The momentary stutter in his breathing’s rhythmic beat was all it took. Immediately, the thin lips resting against his skin parted with a snarl, and the sharp teeth of the knife’s serrated edge bit into him savagely. He was hauled upright, eyes blinking, shoulders burning where his wrists had been zip-locked behind his back.
There were three of them in all. One at the helm, his slab hands gripping the wheel. One perched on the bench opposite, a gun wedged into the waistband of his jeans and a cigarette balancing on his lip. One hugging him close, the knife he had caressed his cheek with only a few moments before now pressed hard against his belly.
They were silent, although there was something noisily boastful about their lack of disguise, as if they wanted him to know that they would never be caught, never allow themselves to be picked out from some Questura line-up. Perhaps because of this, the longer he gazed at them, the more featureless they appeared to become, their cruel faces melting into black shadows that he imagined travelled on the wind and lived in dark places where the light feared to go.
Instead, he was struck by their almost monastic serenity. Mute, their eyes fixed resolutely on the horizon, it was as if they had been chosen to complete some divinely ordained quest. Part of him envied their solemn determination, their absolute certainty in their purpose, however base. These were not people whose loyalty could be bought or trust swayed. They were true believers. Perhaps if he’d shared their unswerving faith, he might have avoided his present damnation.
Cavalli gave a resigned shrug and glanced over the side. The river was engorged and running fast, the sharp ripples on the water’s ebony surface betraying the occasional patches of shallower ground where the current tripped and dragged against the muddy bed. Above them the streetlights glowed through the trees that lined the embankments on both sides, casting their skeletal shadows down on to the water. The roads appeared quiet, the occasional yellow wash of a car’s headlights sweeping through the gloom overhead as it turned, like a distant lighthouse urging him to safety.
Cavalli realised then that the engine wasn’t running, and that this whole time they had been carried forward noiselessly on the river’s powerful muscle as it flexed its way through the city. Peering behind them, he could see that because of this, and like some infernal, enchanted craft, they had left no wake behind them, apart from a momentary fold in the river’s dark velvet that was just as soon ironed flat again.
The gallows creak of the trees as they passed under the Ponte Cavour interrupted his thoughts. He glanced up fearfully and caught sight of the cylindrical mass of the Castel Sant’Angelo up ahead, the blemishes in its ancient walls concealed by the sodium glare of the lighting that encircled it. To its rear, he knew, was the Passetto, the corridor that had for centuries served as a secret escape route from the Vatican to the castle’s fortified sanctuary. For a moment, he allowed himself to imagine that he too might yet have some way out, some hidden passage to safety. If only he could find it.
Still the current carried them forward, steering them towards the Ponte Sant’ Angelo and the carved angels perched along its balustrades, as if waiting to hear his final confession. It was a strangely comforting thought, although as they drew closer, he realised that even this harmless conceit was to be denied him. The pale statues all had their backs to the river. They didn’t even know he was there.
Abruptly, the helmsman whistled, violating the code of silence that had been so religiously observed until now. Up ahead a light flashed twice from the bridge. Someone was expecting them.
Immediately the engine kicked into life as the helmsman wrestled control from the current and steered them towards the left-hand arch. The two other men jumped up, suddenly animated, one of them readying himself with a rope, the other tipping the fenders into place along the port gunwales. As they passed under the arch, the helmsman jammed the throttle into reverse and expertly edged the boat against the massive stone pier, the fenders squealing in protest, the rattle of the exhaust echoing noisily off the vaulted roof. He nodded at the others and they leapt forward to secure the boat to the rusting iron rings embedded in the wall, leaving just enough play for the craft to ride the river’s swell. Then he switched the engine off.
Instantly, a bright orange rope came hissing out of the darkness, the excess coiling in the prow. The helmsman stepped forward and tugged on it to check it was secure, then found the end and held it up. It had already been tied into a noose.
Now, as he understood that there was to be no last-minute reprieve, that this was how it was really going to end, Cavalli felt afraid. Desperate words began to form in his mouth, screams rose from his stomach. But no sound came out, as if he had somehow been bound into the same demonic vow of silence that his captors seemed to have taken.
Hauling him out of his seat, the two other men dragged him over to where the helmsman was loosely looping the surplus rope around his arm, and forced him on to his knees. Cavalli gave him a pleading look, gripped by some basic and irrational need to hear his voice, as if this final and most basic act of human communion might somehow help soften the ordeal’s cold, mechanised efficiency. But instead, the noose was simply snapped over his head and then jerked tight, the knot biting into the nape of his neck. Then he was silently lifted to the side and carefully lowered into the freezing water.
He gasped, the change in temperature winding him. Treading water, he looked up at the boat, not understanding why they had tied the rope so long, its loose coils snaking through the water around him. The three men, however, hadn’t moved from the side rail, an expectant look on their faces as if they were waiting for something to happen. Waiting, he realised as he drifted a few feet further away from the boat, for the current to take him.
Without warning, the river grabbed on to him, nudging him along slowly at first and then, as he emerged out from under the bridge, tugging with increasing insistence. He drew further away, the rope gently uncoiling in the water, the steep angle of the cord where it ran down from the bridge’s dark parapet getting closer and closer to him as the remaining slack paid out.
The rope snapped tight. Choking, his body swung round until he was half in and half out of the water, the current hauling at his hips and legs, the rope lifting his head and upper body out of the river, the tension wringing the water from the fibres.
He kicked out frantically, his ears flooding with an inhuman gurgling noise that he only vaguely recognised as coming from him. But rather than free himself, all he managed to do was flip himself on to his front so that he was face down over the water. A few seconds later, the soft cartilage in his neck collapsed with a crunching noise and his lungs began to fill with blood.
Slowly, and with his reflection staring remorselessly back up at him from the river’s dark mirror, Cavalli watched himself hang.
‘The die has been cast’ – Julius Caesar (according to Suetonius, Divus Julius, paragraph 33)
Arlington National Cemetery, Washington DC,
17th March – 10.58 a.m.
One by one, the limousines and town cars drew up, disgorged their occupants on to the sodden grass, and then pulled away to a respectful distance. Parked end-to-end along the verge, they formed an inviolable black line that followed the curve of the road and then stretched down the hill and out of sight, their exhaust fumes pinned to the road by the rain as they waited.
A handful of secret service agents were patrolling the space between the burial site and the road. Inexplicably, a few of them were wearing sunglasses despite the black clouds that had sailed up the Potomac a few days ago and anchored themselves over the city. Their unsmiling presence made Tom Kirk feel uncomfortable, even though he knew it shouldn’t. After all, it had been nearly two years now. Two years since he’d crossed over to the other side of the law. Two years since he’d teamed up with Archie Connolly, his former fence, to help recover art rather than steal it. Clearly it was going to take much longer than that to shake off instincts acquired in a lifetime on the run.
There were three rows of seats arranged in a horseshoe around the flag-draped coffin, and five further rows of people standing behind these. A pretty good turnout, considering the weather. Tom and Archie had stayed back, sheltering under the generous spread of a blossoming tree halfway up the slope that climbed gently to the left of the grave.
As they watched, the ceremony played out beneath them with a carefully choreographed martial beauty. The horse-drawn caisson slowly winding its way up the hill, followed by a single riderless horse, its flanks steaming, boots reversed in the stirrups to symbolise a fallen leader. The immaculate presenting of arms by the military escort, water dripping from their polished visors. The careful securing and transport of the coffin to the grave by a casket party made up of eight members of the 101st Airborne, Tom’s grandfather’s old unit. The final adjustments to the flag to ensure that it was stretched out and centred, the reds, blues and whites fighting to be seen through the tenebrous darkness.
From his vantage point, Tom recognised a few of the faces sheltering under the thicket of black umbrellas, although most were strangers to him and, he suspected, would have been to his grandfather too. That figured. Funerals were a useful networking event for the DC top brass – a chance to talk to the people you normally couldn’t be seen with; a chance to be seen with the people who normally wouldn’t talk to you. Deals were done, handshakes given, assurances provided. In this city, death had long been the life-blood of back-channel political compromise.
There was perhaps, Tom suspected, another, more personal reason for their presence too. After all, like them, Trent Clayton Jackson Duval III had been an important man – a senator, no less. And as such it was in their shared interest to ensure that he got a proper send off. Not because they cared about him particularly, although as a war hero, ‘Trigger’ Duval commanded more respect than most. Rather because they knew, as if they were all party to some secret, unspoken pact, that it was only by reinforcing these sorts of traditions that they could safeguard their prerogative to a similarly grand event when their own time came.
‘Who’s the bird?’ Archie sniffed.
In his mid-forties, about five foot ten and unshaven with close cropped blonde hair, Archie had the square-shouldered, rough confidence of someone who didn’t mind using their fists to start or settle an argument. This was at odds with the patrician elegance of his clothes, however; a three-buttoned, ten-ounce, dark grey Anderson & Sheppard suit, crisp white Turnbull and Asser shirt, and woven black silk Lewin’s tie hinting at a rather more considered and refined temperament. Tom knew that many struggled to reconcile this apparent incongruity, although the truth was that both were valid. It was only a short distance from the rain-lashed trestle tables of Bermondsey Antiques Market to Mayfair’s panelled auction rooms, but for Archie it had been a long and difficult journey that had required this expensive camouflage to arrive undetected. As for Archie himself, Tom rather suspected that he deliberately played off the contradiction, preferring to keep people guessing rather than pin him down to one world or the other.
‘Miss Texas,’ Tom answered, knowing instinctively that his eye would have been drawn to the platinum blonde in the front row. ‘Or she was a few years ago. The senator upgraded after meeting her on the campaign trail. He left her everything.’
‘I’ll bet he did, the dirty old bastard.’ Archie grinned. ‘Look at the size of those puppies! She’d keel over in a strong wind.’
The corners of Tom’s mouth twitched but he said nothing, finding himself wondering if her dark Jackie O glasses were to hide her tears or to mask the fact that she had none. The chaplain started the service.
‘You sure you don’t want to head down?’ Archie was holding up a Malacca-handled Brigg umbrella. A gold identity bracelet glinted on his wrist where his sleeve had slipped back.
‘This is close enough.’
‘Bloody long way to come if all we’re going to do is stand up here getting pissed on,’ Archie sniffed, peering out disconsolately at the leaden skies. ‘They invited you, didn’t they?’
‘They were being polite. They never thought I’d actually show. I’m not welcome here. Not really.’
The empty caisson pulled away, the horses’ hooves clattering noisily on the blacktop, reins jangling.
‘I thought he liked you?’
‘He helped me,’ Tom said slowly. ‘Took me in after my mother died, put me through school, recommended me to the NSA. But after I left the Agency … well. We hadn’t spoken in twelve years.’
‘Then tell me again why the bloody hell we’re here?’ Archie moaned, pulling his blue overcoat around his neck with a shiver.
Tom hesitated. The truth was that, even now, he wasn’t entirely sure. Partly, it had just seemed like the proper thing to do. The right thing to do. But probably more important was the feeling that his mother would have wanted him to come. Expected it. To him, therefore, this was perhaps less about paying his respects to his grandfather than it was a way of remembering her.
‘You didn’t have to come,’ Tom reminded him sharply.
‘What, and miss the chance to work on my tan?’ Archie winked. ‘Don’t be daft. That’s what mates are for.’
They stood in silence, the chaplain’s faint voice and the congregation’s murmured responses carrying to them on the damp breeze. Then, as the service droned mournfully towards its conclusion, a man stepped out from the crowd and signalled up at them with a snatched half-wave. Tom and Archie swapped a puzzled look as he clambered up towards them, the leather soles of his alligator-skin shoes slipping on the wet grass.
‘Mr Kirk?’ he called out hopefully as he approached. ‘Mr Thomas Kirk?’
Short and worryingly overweight, he wore a large pair of tortoiseshell glasses that he was forever pushing back up his blunt nose. Under a Burberry coat that didn’t look as though it had fitted him in years, an expensive Italian suit dangled open on each side of his bloated stomach, like the wings on a flying boat, its pockets distended from being overfilled with loose change and assorted pieces of electronic equipment.
‘I recognised you from your photo,’ he huffed as he drew closer, sweat lacquering his thinning blond hair to his head.
‘I don’t think …?’ Tom began, trying to place the man’s sagging face and bleached teeth.
‘Larry Hewson,’ he announced, his tone and eagerly outstretched hand suggesting that he expected them to recognise the name.
Tom swapped another look with Archie and then shrugged.
‘Sorry, but I don’t …’
‘From Ogilvy, Myers and Gray – the Duval family attorneys,’ Hewson explained, almost sounding hurt at having to spell this out. ‘I sent you the invitation.’
‘Oh,’ Tom nodded, flashing Archie a meaningful look.
‘What do you want?’ Archie challenged him.
‘Meet Archie Connolly,’ Tom introduced him with a smile. ‘My business partner.’
Below them, the chaplain had stepped back from the casket, allowing the senior NCO and seven riflemen to step forward and turn to the half right, their shoulders stained dark blue by the rain, water beading on their mirrored toecaps.
‘Ready,’ he ordered. Each rifleman moved his safety to the fire position.
‘It’s a delicate matter,’ Hewson said in a low voice, throwing Archie a suspicious glance.
‘Archie can hear anything you’ve got to say,’ Tom reassured him.
‘It concerns your grandfather’s will.’
‘Aim,’ the NCO called. The men shouldered their weapons with both hands, the muzzles raised forty-five degrees from the horizontal over the casket.
‘His will?’ Archie asked with a frown. ‘I thought he’d left the lot to Miss 32F down there?’
Each man quickly squeezed the trigger and then returned to port arms, the sharp crack of the blank round piercing the gloom, the echo muffled by the rain. Twice more the order to aim and fire came, twice more the shots rang out across the silent cemetery. Hewson waited impatiently for their echo to die down before continuing.
‘The senator did indeed alter his will to ensure that Ms Mills was the principal beneficiary of his estate,’ he confirmed in a disapproving whisper. ‘But at the same time, he identified a small object that he wished to leave to you.’
A bugler had stepped forward and was now playing Taps, the mournful melody swirling momentarily around them before chasing itself into the sky. As the last note faded away, one of the casket party stepped forward and began to carefully fold the flag draped over the coffin, deliberately wrapping the red and white stripes into the blue to form a triangular bundle, before respectfully handing it to the chaplain. The chaplain in turn stepped over to where the main family party was seated and gingerly, almost apologetically it seemed, handed the flag to the senator’s wife. She clutched it, rather dramatically Tom thought, to her bosom.
‘I believe it had been given to him by your mother,’ Hewson added.
‘My mother?’ Tom’s eyes snapped back to Hewson’s, both surprised and curious. ‘What is it?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know,’ Hewson shrugged as the ceremony ended. The congregation rapidly thinned, most hurrying back to their cars, a few pausing to conclude the business they had come there for in the first place, before they too were herded by the secret service agents towards their limousines’ armour-plated comfort. ‘The terms of the will are quite strict. No one is to open the box and I am to hand it to you in person. That’s why …’
‘Tom!’ Archie interrupted, grabbing Tom’s arm. Tom followed his puzzled gaze and saw that a figure had appeared at the crest of the hill above them. It was a woman dressed in a red coat, the headlights of the car parked behind her silhouetting her against the dark sky in an ethereal white glow.
‘That’s why I sent you the invitation,’ Hewson repeated, raising his voice slightly as Tom turned away from him. ‘I’ve taken the liberty of reserving a suite at the George where we can finalise all the paperwork.’
‘Isn’t that …?’ Archie’s eyes narrowed, his tone at once uncertain and incredulous.
‘Otherwise I’m happy to arrange a meeting at our offices in New York tomorrow, if that works better,’ Hewson called out insistently, growing increasingly frustrated, it seemed, at being ignored. ‘Mr Kirk?’
‘Yes …’ Tom returned the woman’s wave, Hewson’s voice barely registering any more. ‘It’s her.’