“I need you to do some digging for me,” Hunter said, ignoring her. “You remember the Greek prince who was found strung up at Sandhurst?”
“Sure. Achileas. The suicide. Hunter, you aren’t seriously telling me you’re working on a story right now? Because . . .”
“I don’t think it was suicide,” Hunter interrupted her. “There’s a senior officer at Sandhurst, Major General Frank Dorrien. I need you to find out anything you can about him.”
Sally paused. “You think this Dorrien guy murdered Prince Achileas of Greece? Are you on drugs?”
“Just look into it,” Hunter said. “Please.”
“Tell me where you are and I’ll think about it,” said Sally.
“Thanks. You’re an angel.”
“Hey, I didn’t say yes! Hunter?”
“You’re breaking up.” He started making ridiculous, crackling noises down the phone.
“I am not breaking up. Hunter! Don’t you dare hang up on me. I swear to God, if you hang up now I’m gonna call the CIA right this minute and tell them about this call. Every word. And then I’ll run the story in tomorrow’s Times.”
“No you won’t,” said Hunter.
He hung up.
Sally Faiers sat naked in her hallway for a long time with the phone in her hand.
“Fuck you, Hunter Drexel,” she said aloud.
You ripped my heart out. You utterly betrayed me. And now you expect me to sit on the biggest story of my career, and quietly go out and do your dirty work for you on some wild-goose-chase, bullshit story at Sandhurst?
“I’m not doing it,” Sally shouted down the empty hall of her flat. “Not this time.”
But she already knew that she would.
HUNTER HUNG UP THE pay phone and stepped out into the howling wind.
How he wished he were in London with Sally! Preferably in bed. He found himself getting hard at the thought of her. Those legs. Those phenomenal tits . . . What had possessed him to leave her in the first place?
She’s right, he thought. I am an asshole.
He looked around him miserably. Up and down the litterstrewn street, poorly dressed people dived into ugly concrete apartment buildings or offices or cafés, anything to get out of the cold. The few poor souls forced to wait at bus stops huddled together miserably, like sheep en route to the abattoir, stomping their feet and smoking and clapping their gloved hands together repeatedly against the bitter weather.
Romania was a beautiful country. But Oradea, the city where Hunter had spent the last three days, was a dump, full of abandoned, communist architecture and depressed, unemployed people. The hospitals were stuffed full of abandoned children, and filthy Roma families roamed the streets like animals, some of them actually sleeping on top of mounds of rubbish, left to rot or freeze or drink themselves to death.
If Romania’s a supermodel, Hunter thought, Oradea is the pimple on her ass. There was none of the beauty of Transylvania here, none of the sophistication of Bucharest. No sign anywhere of the much talked about economic revival. Wherever Romania’s EU millions had been spent, it wasn’t here. Oradea felt like a forgotten city. But that made it perfect for Hunter Drexel. Right now Hunter needed to be forgotten. No one would look for him here.
Not that there was no money to be found in Oradea. In the Old Town, along the banks of the Crişul Repede river, a few magnificent mansions, relics of the pre-communist days, had been reclaimed by wealthy private owners. Stuffed with fine art and priceless antiques, their formal gardens lined with lavender bushes and neatly clipped hedges, these homes glittered like stars in an otherwise pitch-black sky, sparkling incongruously like newly cut diamonds dropped in a pile of manure. Their owners were mostly native Romanians, gangsters, corrupt local government officials, and a smattering of legitimate businessmen, some returning to their hometown now after years of exile abroad.
It was in one of these houses that Hunter was staying. Its owner, a property magnate by the name of Vasile Rinescu, was a keen poker player and a friend of sorts.
“If you’re here to play, you’re welcome,” Vasile told Hunter, when the latter had arrived, shivering and desperate, on his doorstep. “I don’t know about blood, but poker is definitely thicker than water.”
“Thank God for that,” said Hunter.
“I’m hosting a game this Saturday as it happens. Some very interesting players. High stakes.”
“Good,” Hunter said. “I need the money. I’m . . . in a bit of a tight spot right now.”
Vasile laughed. “We may be a backwater, but we do watch the news here, my friend,” he told Hunter. “The whole world knows about your ‘tight spot.’ ”
A look of panic crossed Hunter’s face.
“Don’t worry.” Vasile clapped him on the back. “My friends are discreet. No one’s going to turn you over to the CIA, or Group 99. Unless of course you lose, and you can’t pay. In that case they’ll turn you over to the highest bidder.”
“Once they’ve finished torturing you.”
“Gotcha.” Hunter grinned. “I guess I’d better not lose then.”
“I would try very hard not to,” said Vasile. He wasn’t smiling.
Hunter didn’t lose. After three days at Vasile’s, enjoying the first home-cooked meals and hot baths he’d had since he was kidnapped in Moscow, he’d managed to win enough money to fund at least another month on the run.
Keeping one step ahead of the Americans, Hunter realized now, would be the easy part. It was Group 99 that worried him, in particular Apollo. The sadistic guard was bound to view Hunter’s escape as a personal humiliation, one that he would stop at nothing to avenge. If Hunter so much as glanced at a computer, Apollo would find him. That meant no emails, no credit card, no cell phone, no rented car, no flights, no electronically traceable presence of any kind. From now on, until his story was finished and in print all around the world, Hunter must live entirely under the radar.
Luckily, poker provided the perfect opportunity to create this new, cash only, invisible version of himself. Poker players were natural secret keepers, with an inbuilt sense of loyalty towards one another. Through poker, Hunter had “friends” like Vasile Rinescu scattered all across Europe. He could flit from safe house to safe house, earning enough to live, and work on his story between games. Of course, without a computer or a phone, research would be tough. He couldn’t do this without Sally Faiers’s help. But he knew Sally would help him.
She may not trust me as a man. But she trusts me as a journalist.
She knows this is big.
Once he’d published his story—once the truth, the whole truth about Group 99, was finally out there—he would turn himself in to the Americans. He’d have some explaining to do, of course. But then so would a lot of people.
Wrapping his scarf tightly around the lower half of his face, Hunter headed across the bridge to the mansion.
Vasile Rinescu had been a wonderful host, but his friends were getting tired of losing.
Tomorrow Hunter would move on.
JEFF STEVENS EYED THE girl sitting at the end of the bar.
He was at Morton’s, an exclusive private members club in Mayfair, and he had just lost heavily at cards. But something about the way the lissome blonde returned his smile gave him the feeling that his luck was about to change.
He ordered one glass of Dom Pérignon 2003 and one glass of Perrier and crossed the polished parquet floor to where she was perched, her endless legs dangling deliciously off the end of a taupe velvet barstool. She was in her early twenties, with high cheekbones and the sort of glowing skin that only youth could produce. If her silver dress got any shorter it would be in clear contravention of the sales descriptions act.
In short, she was Jeff’s kind of girl.
“Waiting for someone?”
He handed her the flute of champagne.
She hesitated for a moment, then accepted, locking her dark blue eyes on Jeff’s gray ones.
“Not anymore. I’m Lianna.”
“Jeff.” Jeff grinned, mentally calculating how many minutes of flirting he would have to put in here before he could take Lianna home with him. Hopefully no more than fifteen. One more drink. He had a big day ahead of him tomorrow.
Jeff Stevens had been a con artist for as long as he could remember. He’d learned the basic skills of his trade as a boy at his Uncle Willie’s carnival, and they’d taken him all over the world, to places more dazzlingly glamorous and terrifyingly dangerous than the young Jeff had known existed. With his sharp, inventive mind, easy charm and devastating good looks, Jeff had quickly risen to the very top of his “profession.” He had stolen priceless paintings from world-famous art galleries, relieved heiresses of their diamonds and billionaire gangsters of their property portfolios. He’d pulled off jobs on the Orient Express, the QEII and Concorde, before that airliner’s tragic demise. Working with Tracy Whitney, in the heyday of his career, Jeff had pulled off some of the most audacious and brilliant heists ever accomplished in a string of cities across Europe, always targeting the greedy and corrupt, and always managing to stay one step ahead of the hapless police as they tried and failed to link him or Tracy to any crime.