Read an Excerpt
Stone Barrington dreamed terrible dreams, then he jerked awake and immediately forgot them, as he always did. He was in a small room, dimly lit by a very large digital clock, which glowed red, making the room pink. The time read 9:46.
He lifted his head from the foam rubber pillow and looked about. Walls, ceiling, steel table with two chairs, steel shutter lowered over the only window. His bladder was near bursting, and he got out of bed and wobbled over to a closed door, behind it a small bathroom. He relieved himself noisily, then turned to his left to examine himself in the small mirror over the sink. Too dark. He groped for the light switch and found it, wincing in the bright light. He could only have described the image in the mirror as haggard. He splashed cold water on his face, then looked again: just the same. On the counter next to the sink were a plastic-wrapped toothbrush, a tiny tube of toothpaste, a tiny can of shaving cream, and a disposable razor. He tried the toothbrush first, and scrubbed away the fur that coated his teeth.
The beard was hard to deal with, and he wished for electric clippers. Still, he got it scraped off, cutting himself only twice. He tried the shower next, and it worked well. He used the tiny bottle of shampoo on the soap dish next to the tiny bar of soap. He used the only towel to dry himself and noticed a flesh-colored bandage on the inside of his left elbow. He ripped it off and found two tiny wounds in the vein. Then he toweled his hair dry and brushed it back with his fingers. He got into the cheap terry robe hanging on the bathroom door, noticing that the bedroom or cell, as it might be, was now lit by weak sunlight, and a dry cleaner’s plastic sleeve and a shopping bag now hung on a hook on the door. He thought he smelled food somewhere, and his stomach growled.
He walked over to the door and noticed a button on the wall next to it, with a plastic sign reading “Ring for attendant.”
Attendant? Had he been involuntarily admitted to a mental hospital? He aimed a finger at the button, but a voice stopped him.
“That won’t be necessary,” a man said.
Stone wheeled around and found a young man dressed in green hospital scrubs seated at the table, two plastic trays heaped with eggs and bacon before him.
“Would you like some breakfast, Mr. Barrington?” the man asked, indicating the other chair.
“Thank you, yes,” Stone said, taking a seat and attacking the food, which was still fairly warm. He washed eggs down with orange juice made from concentrate. “At the risk of employing a cliché,” he said, “where am I?”
The man took a mouthful of eggs, chewed for a moment and swallowed, washing it down with coffee from a foam cup. “Where do you think you are?” he asked.
“This appears to be a hospital room, and you appear to be a doctor,” Stone said, peering at the plastic name tag pinned to the man’s scrubs. “Dr. Keeler.”
“Only your second guess was good,” Keeler said, “and you cheated.”
“Funny farm? Addiction treatment center?”
“Are you insane or an addict?” the doctor asked.
“Neither. I thought perhaps you thought I was one or the other, maybe both. Somebody seems to have injected me with something in my left arm.” He took a sip of the awful orange juice.
“You are in the American Embassy, in Paris,” the doctor replied.
Stone choked on his orange juice.
“France, not Texas.”
“Thank you for making the distinction,” Stone said, coughing.
“How do you feel?” the doctor asked when Stone had recovered normal breathing.
“Fuzzy around the edges,” Stone replied.
“I’m not surprised. What’s the last thing you remember before waking up?”
Stone thought about that. “I was at a party in my home,” he said finally, “celebrating the marriage of some friends. I remember the police commissioner gave them both medals.”
“They were both police officers who had recently behaved in a courageous manner.”
“What was the date of the party?”
“Ah, the fourteenth.”
“That was four days ago,” he said.
Stone gulped. “I’ve lost four days?”
“It would appear so. You ingested or were injected with a drug called hypnotol. You may remember that it was a popular sleeping medication about eight years ago, until several people died from taking it, and some others who had taken too much suffered memory loss, usually temporary, sometimes permanent. Based on your bloodwork, I would describe the dosage you received as too much.”
“Who injected me? I assume that’s why I had tape on my arm.”
“No, that’s from drawing blood and administering an IV. If you didn’t take the drug yourself, then someone probably gave you something to drink that had been doctored. The right dosage would have made you into a sort of walking, talking zombie.”
“And destroyed my memory of the last four days?”
“Including traveling from New York to Paris?”
“A reasonable assumption.”
“How did I get to the American Embassy?”
“A kindly taxi driver picked you up at the airport but couldn’t understand what you were saying, and when you passed out, he went through your wallet.” He got up, went to the door, and returned with the shopping bag that had been hanging there. He reached into the bag and came up with a zippered plastic sack containing what Stone recognized as the normal contents of his pockets, including his passport and wallet, and emptied it onto the table. Keeler opened the wallet, removed a card, and handed it to Stone. It read “Holly Barker, Assistant Director of Intelligence.”
“That got the attention of a marine guard at the front gate.” He handed Stone a CIA ID with his picture on it. “So did this.”
“Ah,” Stone said.
“We’ve been unable to reach Ms. Barker,” Keeler said. “She is away from her office at some sort of retreat.”
“Retreat? That doesn’t sound like Holly.”
“In any case, once we had made you as comfortable as we could here and sent your blood for analysis, someone typed your name into a computer and came up with a very interesting CIA file that identified you as a consultant to the Agency, hence the ID card.”
“That is correct,” Stone said.
“And you are also an attorney with the New York law firm of Woodman & Weld?”
“Do you have any idea why you came to Paris? Had you been planning a trip?”
“No, I had not, and I have no idea why I came here.”
“You had a first-class, round-trip ticket on Air France,” Keeler said, “with two baggage claim stubs but no baggage. We’re checking into that now.”
“Thank you. Why do you have a room like this in an embassy?”
“It’s actually in that part of the building dedicated to the intelligence services. Sometimes we have . . . guests.”
“The clothes you were wearing have been cleaned and pressed. Why don’t you get into them, and I’ll introduce you to some other people here.” He got up and left the room.
Stone got dressed.
Dr. Keeler returned to the little room. “Come with me,” he said. Stone got into his blazer and followed.
They walked down a corridor, then into a large room divided into cubicles where men and women were at work. There seemed to be an unusually large number of monitors on their desks. They passed half a dozen glassed-in offices, then stopped at a closed door. Keeler rapped on it, then looked up at the ceiling, where a camera peered back at him. The door made a clicking noise and Keeler opened it.
They stepped into a large, comfortably furnished office where a man in his mid-forties with thick, graying hair spilling into his eyes was talking with a man and a woman. Stone reflexively appreciated that the woman was in her mid-thirties and quite beautiful.
“Mr. Barrington,” Keeler said, “this is Whit Douglas, our station chief. The lady is Rose Ann Faber, our chief of analysis, and the other gentleman is Richard LaRose, who does God-knows-what around here.”
Stone shook their hands, and the group moved to a seating area with a sofa and some comfortable chairs.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Barrington?” Douglas asked.
“It’s Stone, please, and I’m feeling reasonably well, I guess, sort of jet-lagged.”
“It’s the drug,” Keeler said. “Your state of consciousness for the past few days would have prevented jet lag.”
“Have I really been unconscious for four days?”
“No,” the doctor said, “as I mentioned before, you were walking and talking for part of the time. You probably weren’t drugged until the day before yesterday.”
“Why do you say that?” Stone asked.
“You would have had to be reasonably sober in order to make the decision to travel to Paris, not to mention getting through security and onto an airplane.”
“But I can’t remember getting on the airplane.”
“The drug has obliterated four days of your memory,” the doctor explained, “which may or may not return. The obliteration need not occur at the time of receiving the drug—it can work backwards and erase earlier memory, too. There have been cases where people have lost several weeks.”
“We hope your memory returns,” Whit Douglas said, “because we want to know how a consultant to the Agency happened to get ahold of a giant Mickey Finn, and we want to know why.”
“So do I,” Stone replied.
“Do you remember talking to anyone on the airplane?”
“I don’t remember being on the airplane,” Stone said. “If my memory returns, when will that start happening?”
“At any time,” Keeler said. “You could start getting flashbacks immediately or in a couple of days. If you don’t get anything back in that time, you’re probably faced with the permanent loss of those four days.”
There was a rap at the door. Douglas pressed a button on the coffee table and let in a young man, who walked across the room, Stone’s airline ticket in his hand. “Mr. Barrington, we’ve found your luggage. It was in the tank at De Gaulle.”
“A pressure chamber that limits the effect of an explosion. The airlines get nervous these days when there’s unclaimed baggage. Would you like the bags sent to your hotel?”
Stone thought about it. “I don’t know if I have a hotel.”
“Where did you stay the last time you were in Paris?” Douglas asked.
“At the Bristol, but I didn’t like the location, so I don’t think I would have booked in there.”
“Can we book a room for you somewhere?”
“Okay, how about the Plaza Athénée?”
Douglas nodded to the young man, and he left.
Stone dug out his iPhone. “I should call my secretary,” he said. “Maybe she can help with the memory.” His phone was dead.
“Use the one on my desk,” Douglas said. “Give the operator the number.”
Stone did as he was told, and Joan, his secretary, picked up the phone.
“Woodman & Weld,” she said. “Mr. Barrington’s office.”
“Hi, it’s Stone.”
“Well, where the hell have you been? Your hotel said you never checked in, Dino’s on his honeymoon, and Holly has vanished.”
“What hotel is that?”
“The Plaza Athénée. That’s where you said you were staying.”
“I had to make a detour,” Stone said. “Listen, I need your help. Describe to me what I did between Dino’s engagement party and right now.”
Joan thought this over for a moment. “You want me to tell you what you were doing?”
“Exactly. Pretend I don’t know.” Stone pressed the speaker button so the others could hear.
“All right, you got to your desk late the day after the party, then you had lunch with Bill Eggers and had a meeting at the firm, then you got back here around five, and I went home.”
“How about the next day?”
“The same, pretty much. With Dino gone and Holly moved out, you didn’t have anybody to play with.”
“And the day after that?”
“You got a call from somebody in the middle of the afternoon, then said you were going to Paris for a few days. An envelope arrived by messenger with a first-class, round-trip ticket on Air France, and a note saying a car would pick you up at seven that evening. There was no return address on the envelope. You were due into Paris at nine the next morning.”
“Did I see anybody in my office?”
“Did anybody call that you didn’t know?”
“No, but I was in the ladies’ when the afternoon call came, and you picked up.”
“Can you think of anything else? What did I do in the evenings?”
“Like I said, you didn’t have anybody to play with, so I guess you dined at home alone.”
“Thanks, we’ll talk again later.” Stone hung up and went back to the sofa. “Not much help, huh?”
“Rose Ann,” Douglas said, “find out who called Stone’s office in the afternoon day before yesterday.”
Stone gave her his business card, and she went to the phone on Douglas’s desk, then returned. “They’ll have it in a few minutes,” she said.
The phone rang, and Douglas picked it up and listened, then hung up. “You’re booked into the Plaza Athénée. They were expecting you yesterday. We got you an upgrade.”
“Thank you,” Stone said. “There’s something missing.”
“My briefcase. I always travel with a briefcase.”
Douglas got up. “Oh, I forgot.” He walked behind his desk, came back with Stone’s briefcase, and handed it to him. “We couldn’t open it. Three zeros didn’t work.”
“The CIA couldn’t get into a briefcase?” Stone said. “What’s the world coming to?” He unlocked the briefcase and opened it. “Euros,” he said, holding up a thick envelope containing a stack of notes secured by a rubber band.
“That reminds me,” Douglas said. “We gave the cabdriver a hundred.”
Stone extracted a hundred-euro note from the stack, handed it to him, then put the rest into his inside pocket with his passport. “Nothing unusual in the case,” he said. “My iPad and charger, some stationery, no business papers.” He closed the briefcase.
“Well, we won’t keep you,” Douglas said, rising.
Stone got to his feet and shook hands with everybody.
“We’d like to know if and what you start remembering,” Douglas said, handing him a card. “That’s my direct line and cell number. Doc, will you walk him to our side entrance? There’s a car and driver waiting for you there, Stone.”
“Thank you, Whit, and I thank all of you for taking me in.”
Keeler led him on a short walk to an exterior door and opened it for him. “The car’s through there,” he said, waving Stone through the door and pointing at the walkway to a wrought-iron gate. “Right down the garden path. Call me if there’s anything I can do for you.”
The driver delivered Stone into the hands of a doorman at the Plaza Athénée who directed him to the front desk, where a man in a dark suit greeted him. “Good morning, Mr. Barrington,” he said. “We were concerned about you when you didn’t turn up yesterday.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Stone said. “I was unavoidably detained, and I couldn’t call.”
The man nodded and handed Stone an International Herald Tribune. “Would you like a paper delivered every day?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“And how long will you be with us?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll have to let you know.”
“That will be fine. Your suite is ready.”
Stone followed the bellman, who carried his briefcase, to the elevator, then to the top floor. The suite was larger than he needed and filled with sunlight. There were French doors leading to a terrace.
The bellman handed him his briefcase. “You have no other luggage, sir?”
“It’s being sent from the airport,” Stone said.
“We’ll see that it’s delivered immediately upon arrival.”
The doorbell rang, and Stone opened it. Another bellman stood there with his two cases on a luggage cart. Stone directed him to the dressing room.
“Would you like anything pressed?” the man asked as he set down the bags.
“Let me see.” Stone opened the two large cases and found that everything had been removed, then stuffed in haphazardly. “Please have everything pressed but the underwear and socks,” Stone said, removing suits. He noted that he was traveling with a dinner jacket, something he only did if some event at his destination would require it.
“We’ll have everything back as soon as possible,” the man said. Stone tipped both bellmen and closed the door behind them, then he got his charger from his briefcase and plugged in his iPhone. He sat down and had a look through the Trib; all the news was fresh to him. He called the front desk and asked if they had any old Tribs and was told no. He had just sat down again when his phone buzzed. He went to the desk, picked it up, and sat down. He didn’t recognize the calling number.
“Stone? It’s Holly.”
“Oh, hello. I was told you were at a retreat and couldn’t be reached.”
“I’m at a conference of department heads, at our training facility, the Farm,” she said. “They made us turn in our cell phones, but somebody brought me a message from Whit Douglas in Paris, and he told me what had happened to you.”
“Good, that saves me from having to explain it again,” Stone said. “I’m afraid I don’t know any more than he told you.”
“No memories have returned?”
“Not yet. Can you help?”
“No. When I left you that morning I went straight to my apartment and left my luggage, then went to my office and was summoned to Fort Peary, in Virginia.”
“Wait a minute, you moved your things into your apartment? Did we have a fight or something?”
“No, but it was intimated to me from the top that Langley would feel more comfortable if I weren’t shacking up with you.”
“That was very narrow-minded of them.”
“Well, we’re getting a lot of attention from the press since the thwarted bombing, and they didn’t want photographs of me arriving at or leaving your house at odd hours.”
“What’s happened in that regard since I last saw you?”
“Well, all hell broke loose in the press,” Holly said. “I only escaped the reporters because I ran back to the office immediately after Viv and I dealt with the perps, so she got all the attention, which was just fine with me and with Langley, too. They don’t like our names appearing in the press under such circumstances. They’re giving me the Intelligence Star medal, but then I have to give it right back. The Agency calls these decorations ‘jockstrap medals’ because we never get to wear them.”
“How are you feeling after your ordeal?”
“I don’t remember an ordeal, so I guess I feel okay.”
“When are you coming home?”
“I don’t know. Before I do, I’d like to at least know why I’m here.”
“We’d like to know that, too. We don’t like people associated with the Agency being drugged. I don’t know how you escaped being interrogated by somebody, or even tortured.”
“Now, there’s a pleasant thought—that somebody might want to torture me.”
“Well, maybe not, since they didn’t. This whole thing is baffling.”
“Tell me about it,” Stone said wryly.
“Listen, I’ve got to get to my first meeting of the day. Oh, by the way, the president has made the appointment of Lance Cabot to succeed Kate Lee. Hearings start tomorrow.”
“I’ll look for them on TV.”
“Don’t bother. They’ll be public only long enough for the press to get some shots. Everything else will be in closed sessions.”
“Okay, I won’t bother.”
“You’re sure you don’t remember anything yet?”
“Not yet. Oh, when I opened my luggage I found a tuxedo, which I thought was odd, since I don’t travel with one unless I know I’ll need it.”
“I guess you must have missed the party, then. Gotta run. I’ll be back in the office in a couple of days if you need to reach me.”
They said goodbye and hung up. Stone sat at the desk, staring into his briefcase. He didn’t know what to do; he had no business to conduct in Paris; he had no social events to attend; he didn’t know anybody in Paris, except the people he’d met at the embassy earlier. He was hungry, though, so he ordered a sandwich from room service, then he phoned Woodman & Weld’s managing partner, Bill Eggers, with whom he was supposed to have met three or four days ago. Maybe Bill could shed some light on why he was in Paris.
“Mr. Eggers’s office,” the secretary said.
“Hi, it’s Stone. Is he in yet?”
“No, and he won’t be.”
“Can I reach him on his cell?”
“I’m afraid not. He’s fishing or shooting moose or something in the wilds of northern Maine and can’t be reached.”
“I’m in Paris. Ask him to call me when he returns.”
“That won’t be until the end of next week.”
“Never mind, then.” Stone hung up.
He was eating forty-five minutes later when he heard the doorbell, and an envelope was slid under his door. He put down the sandwich, opened the door—nobody there—then closed it and picked up the envelope. His name was written on it in beautiful calligraphy, but there was no return address. He opened it and extracted a card.
Dinner is at eight o’clock this evening, black tie. A car will call for you at your hotel at seven-forty-five. The same calligraphy, but it was unsigned. The paper appeared to be expensive.
Stone went back to his sandwich, but the phone rang, and he had to get up again. “Hello?”
“Stone, it’s Amanda Hurley. How are you?”
“Very well, thank you.” Who the hell was Amanda Hurley?
“From the plane, remember?”
“Are we still on for dinner tomorrow night?”
“I’ve booked a table for us at Lasserre, on Avenue Franklin Roosevelt. Do you know it?”
“I went there once some years ago.”
“Is that all right, then?”
“I’ve got to go somewhere for drinks first, so I’ll meet you there at eight-thirty.”
“The table is in your name. See you then.” She hung up.
Stone went back to his sandwich, reflecting that he was now attending a dinner party at an unknown place with unknown people, then having dinner with a woman he couldn’t remember.
His calendar was filling up.
Stone tied his black bow tie and began filling his pockets with the detritus that travels with every man: wallet, cash, keys, cell phone, linen handkerchief, comb—the works. He stopped when he picked up the envelope containing the stack of euros from his briefcase, took them out and counted them. Apart from the €100 used to pay his taxi from the airport, it was mostly €200 and €500 notes. It came to €20,000, less the €100 for the cabdriver. He was shocked; he would never travel with that much cash; what were credit cards for? He locked the stack in the safe in his closet and got into his jacket.
Ten minutes later he was standing in front of the hotel when a black Maybach, the Mercedes-built limousine, glided to a halt. The doorman tapped on the passenger-side window. “For Mr. Barrington?” He got his answer, then opened the rear door for Stone.
“Good evening, Mr. Barrington,” the driver said.
“Good evening.” He didn’t ask where they were going or who his host might be; after all, he was supposed to know. The car moved silently down the street, and he made himself comfortable in the large, reclining seat.
Nearly half an hour later the car was in the Bois de Boulogne, the forested park on the outskirts of Paris, more than twice the size of New York’s Central Park. They passed a couple of women standing next to parked cars.
“Damsels in distress?” Stone asked the driver.
“Hardly, sir, they are prostitutes, what you call in America ‘hookers.’ The authorities keep trying to root them out, but they always spring up again, like weeds.”
“Ah,” Stone said, not knowing what else to say.
Shortly, they turned into a drive lined with flower beds on each side, and a couple of hundred yards later drew to a halt before a large, handsome, and well-lit house. A servant, dressed as an eighteenth-century footman, opened Stone’s door and showed him into the house.
A butler greeted him. “Mr. Barrington, I presume?”
“Yes,” Stone replied.
“One moment, please.” The butler let himself through a set of double doors, leaving Stone alone for a moment.
A stack of mail rested on a hall table, and Stone took the opportunity to glance at it. Everything was addressed to M. Marcel duBois.
The butler returned. “This way, please, Mr. Barrington.” He led the way down the hall to another set of doors and preceded Stone into the room. “Mr. Stone Barrington,” he announced to the group of a dozen or so people arrayed about a large, two-story, richly paneled library.
A handsome, white-haired man of sixty-something broke away from the pack and came toward Stone, his hand extended.
“Ah, Stone,” the man said, grasping his hand warmly. “So good to have you in my home.”
“Thank you for having me, M’sieur duBois,” Stone said.
“Please, it’s Marcel. We are all on a first-name basis here.”
“Thank you, Marcel.”
DuBois clapped his hands for silence. “Everyone,” he said, “this is M’sieur Stone Barrington, who is visiting from New York.” DuBois led him around to various groups, introducing him. It was an international group—French, Italian, British, and one or two accents Stone couldn’t place, and he couldn’t register all the names, except one. She had nearly white-blond hair and was a very tall woman in her high heels, taller than Stone, who was six-two. Her name was Helga Becker, and he was determined to remember that. She was wearing a strapless black dress, and Stone tried to pry his eyes from her décolletage.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Stone,” Helga said. “I’ve heard so much about you.” German, he figured, from her name and accent.
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Helga,” he replied, “and I hope you’ve not heard too much.”
She laughed, a low sound, and flashed perfect teeth. “Not nearly enough,” she said.
Stone now noticed that all the women were dressed in black, though not all in the same style. Somehow they and the men, who were in black, as well, gave the elegant surroundings even more elegance. “Did you and all the other women collaborate on your evening wear?” he asked.
“Ha. No, our invitations specified black. Every woman has a black dress, after all.”
“Do women not see that as an infringement by their host on their right to choose their own colors?”
“With any other host, perhaps, but not with Marcel. He is in every other way too kind. You are a New Yorker, Marcel said. What is your business there?”
“I am an attorney-at-law,” Stone said. “Pretty boring.”
“That depends on how you practice the law,” she said. “I shall not judge you too harshly until I know you better.”
“I’ll look forward to your judgment,” Stone said.
“Have you seen the car yet?”
Stone nearly asked her what car but caught himself. “Not yet.”
“I have a feeling we may have a look at the Blaise before the evening is over.”
A tiny bell rang in Stone’s head. He had read about this car but not seen any pictures. It was the creation of a wealthy Frenchman who had racing teams, and that must be his host.
Stone chatted idly with other guests but contrived to stay near Helga. She seemed comfortable with that.
“Are you here alone?” Stone asked her when he got the chance.
“No, I am with you,” Helga replied. “I believe that Marcel has . . . how do you say? ‘Fixed us up.’”
“How very kind of Marcel,” Stone said.
She gave him her most dazzling smile. “Yes,” she said, “how very kind of him.”
A man taller than both Helga and Stone, Mediterranean-looking, with black, slicked-back hair, approached them. “Buona sera,” he said. “Good evening.”
Italian, Stone assumed, and he watched as the man expertly began to divert Helga’s attention from Stone to him. Helga did not respond as he perhaps would have liked and pointedly included Stone in their conversation. Soon, he wandered in search of more amenable prey.
“Italians!” Helga said with a snort. “Unstoppable!”
“And yet,” Stone said, “you stopped him.”
“Discouraged, perhaps,” she replied. “I think you will be better company.”
“I’ll do my best,” Stone replied.
Then from behind him the butler announced half a dozen other people, and for Stone, one name stood out, one he had heard earlier in the day.
“M’sieur Richard LaRose,” the butler said.
LaRose’s eyes passed slowly over the crowd, not pausing to recognize Stone. His appearance was distinctly different from the other men in the room: his tuxedo was not custom-made, but perhaps rented, draped on his thin frame as if on a hanger; his shirt collar was half an inch too big; his bow tie a clip-on; and his haircut of barber-college quality. Still, he seemed oddly at ease in the group, chatting easily with whoever came to hand.
Stone took LaRose’s lack of attention to him as deliberate and did not go out of his way to greet the man. He thought he must surely be here in his professional capacity.
Finally, LaRose was handed off by an uninterested knot of people to Stone and Helga. Stone introduced them both; LaRose spoke a few words to Helga in a language he did not recognize, then returned to English.
“Your Swedish is very good, Mr. LaRose,” Helga said.
“Thank you. I spent some time in our embassy there.”
“Are you a diplomat?”
“I am the commercial attaché at our Paris embassy,” he replied, glancing at Stone as if to see if he caught his drift.
“What does that mean?” Stone asked, as if he were really interested.
“It means that I work to promote commerce between the United States and the country in which I am serving,” LaRose replied smoothly.
Helga looked across the room and spotted a woman waving at her. “Please excuse me for a moment,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
“Richard,” Stone said quietly, “if you’re going to mix with this crowd, ostensibly on embassy business, you should find yourself a good tailor at once.”
“You have a point,” LaRose said. “I was unprepared for the invitation and had to rent this suit. Can you recommend a tailor?”
“Charvet is very good, if your employer is paying.”
“They’ve offered me a clothing allowance, but I haven’t taken advantage of it.”
“Tomorrow would be a good time,” Stone said. “European tailors work at a deliberate pace. Charvet makes shirts and ties, as well.”
“The people with whom I mixed at my previous postings were not so demanding,” he said. “What clothing should I have made? It’s a serious question.”
“Half a dozen suits, a dozen shirts, not all of them white, and, by all means, a tuxedo. Then a navy blazer and a couple of tweed jackets for less formal occasions.” He looked down. “And shoes, though they need not be custom-made. Try Berluti.”
LaRose was taking notes on a jotter. “I’m grateful to you,” he said. “My only other avenue of advice would be the ambassador, but he’s too far above my pay grade.”
“And find somebody who has a good haircut and ask him where he got it.”
“Good idea,” LaRose said, making a note. “I’ve been cutting it myself.”
“What are you doing here, Richard, if I may ask?”
“It’s Rick, and I’m here on business.”
The butler’s voice rang out. “Ladies and gentlemen, my lords and ladies, dinner is served.”
The group began streaming out the doors and across the hallway to the dining room, where a long table had been elegantly set. Stone estimated twenty-four chairs. He found his place card near the center, next to his host, and a moment later, Helga took his other side. “I’m sorry to have stuck you with that rather strange gentleman,” she said. “There was someone I just had to speak to. Who was that man?”
“Richard LaRose, commercial attaché at our embassy. He was more interesting than you might have thought.”
“He was dressed rather oddly.”
“His luggage was lost, and he had to make do.”
“Ah,” she said, nodding. “His Swedish was commendable, though. I don’t think he could have learned it simply by working in the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm.”
“I imagine he went to a rather good language school,” Stone said.
“I suppose the State Department has such a school,” Helga said. “That hadn’t occurred to me.”
It hadn’t occurred to Stone that Helga was Swedish, not German.
“Are you from Stockholm?”
She shook her head. “From a small town north of there, on the Baltic.”
“Do you live permanently in Paris?”
“My legal residence is in Monaco, for tax reasons, but I keep a flat here in a hotel.”
“What do you do, Helga?”
“I was married for a living for some years. Now I’m divorced for a living.”
Stone smiled. “Congratulations.”
She shrugged, emphasizing her cleavage. “The work suits me.”
The waiter poured Stone some white wine, and he caught sight of the label: Le Montrachet, with ten years in the bottle. He sipped it, rolled it on his tongue.
“Do you like the wine?” Marcel duBois asked.
“As we say in New York, ‘What’s not to like?’ Le Montrachet would be my favorite white, if I had it often enough to remember.”
“The secret to drinking good wine is to buy it on release, or in futures, then lay it down until it’s ready to drink. You can save hundreds of dollars a bottle by doing that.”
“Very good advice,” Stone replied. “I have a cellar in my house, but I’m a bit slapdash about stocking it on any regular basis.”
“Then you are condemned to drink wines of the second and third rank,” duBois said. “Find yourself a good wine merchant in New York and place some standing orders with him.”
“Perhaps you’re right. I’ll mend my ways.”
DuBois laughed. “I hope so for your sake.”
“Marcel, I’d like to thank you for seating me with Helga. She’s absolutely spectacular.”
“There was a time when I would have thought it dangerous to introduce you to her, but now she’s happily and profitably divorced, so she’s no longer a threat to your net worth, though perhaps to your liquidity.”
Stone laughed. “Was she really so predatory?”
“She arrived in Stockholm from some rural village and knocked the town on its ass, as you Americans would say. She attracted the industrialist son of a very big industrialist father, who had the grace to die in his sixties and leave the boy a very large fortune, comfortably tucked away in various tax havens. When she’d had enough of him and requested a divorce, he was reportedly so grateful to her for establishing his reputation as a ladies’ man that he wrote her a very large check as a farewell gift—rumor has it for forty million euros, which hardly dented his fortune.”
“An enterprising woman,” Stone said. There was a tap on his shoulder, and Stone turned to find Helga looking at him curiously. “Are you two talking about me?”
“Only in the most admiring terms,” Stone replied.
A waiter heaped a large portion of beluga caviar on their plates, ending their conversation. Stone observed that the table was much quieter while the diners contemplated their good fortune.
They were served three more courses after the caviar, and Stone had to restrain himself. Then, just when he thought the dining was over, footmen with large trays of cheeses appeared. He accepted a chunk of Pont l’Évêque and found it to be à point. A decanter of port was passed from his right; he poured himself a glass and passed the decanter on to his host. He sniffed and sipped. “Mmmm,” he said to duBois, “what is it?”