At a benefit dinner in Monaco, Austrian playboy and CIA freelancer Malko Linge meets an intriguing woman, Zhanna Khrenkov, who has an unusual proposal. She will disclose everything she knows about her husband Alexei’s business, provided Malko kills Alexei’s beautiful, young British mistress. Appalled, he refuses, but then Zhanna reveals that her husband runs a ring of Russian sleeper spies operating in the United States. Naturally, Malko’s CIA handlers would love to have this information, but he feels uncomfortable killing anyone in cold blood—especially a beautiful woman.
Traveling from Vienna to London to Moscow and back, aided by his former CIA handler and sometime-lover Gwyneth Robertson, Malko strives to avoid the crosshairs of deadly assassins and—almost as dangerous—jealous lovers.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
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Monte Carlo, Monaco
For maybe the tenth time, the blonde at the end of the banquet table gave Malko the eye.
When she caught him looking back, a discreet smile lit up her face, revealing small, gleaming white teeth. But then her tablemate said something to her, and she turned her head to answer him.
Malko continued watching her. The woman was clearly interested in him. But she wasn’t alone. Her companion was a tall, gray-haired man with a strong, set face behind steel-rimmed glasses. A Protestant banker type.
Though no great beauty, the blonde was more appealing than her partner. She had a pert nose, regular features, and light blue eyes emphasized by her careful makeup. Small breasts swelled the décolletage of a well-cut ball gown. When she and her companion first sat down, Malko had noticed another thing about her: an unusually attractive ass. It was probably her best physical attribute, because her face and hair weren’t especially notable.
She was now looking insistently at him again, with the same slight smile. She was clearly trying to catch his eye.
But Malko knew that Alexandra was watching him as well. His longtime fiancée was seated farther down the table, and he quickly flashed her a loving, complicit smile. Countess Alexandra Vogel was a tigress who always slept with one eye open, and there was no point in provoking her. It was a good thing the unknown blonde didn’t have the kind of body to arouse her intense jealousy. Alexandra herself wasn’t totally faithful to Malko, but any female drawn to his golden eyes became a potential murder victim.
Actually, he wouldn’t even have noticed the blonde if she hadn’t been sending him those flirtatious glances.
Just then, Malko’s friend and host Helmut Ponickau gave him a cheerful wave from his seat, which was nearest the dance floor. Onstage above him, the vintage crooner Tom Jones was trying to liven up the stolid guests at this Red Cross Ball, a major event on the Monte Carlo social calendar.
Baron Ponickau had invited Malko and Alexandra to the fund-raising gala, along with three other couples, Italian and American. Malko found this kind of event deadly dull, but he couldn’t very well refuse, because the baron often invited him to sumptuous hunts and elegant parties at his castle in Upper Austria.
A charming man with impeccable manners, Ponickau was wellborn, rich, and as snobbish as a royal gynecologist. With the help of carefully chosen intermediaries, he had managed to obtain Monaco residency, which saved him a lot in taxes and probably explained his fondness for the principality. Malko, on the other hand, thought Monaco looked like the stage set for an operetta. It was dwarfed by skyscrapers and riddled with tunnels, its stately old pastel-colored buildings gradually being buried under new concrete.
He found himself wondering if Ponickau’s invitation had been an indirect way for the baron to spend time with the alluring Alexandra. In Vienna, it was rumored that she and the baron had had an affair during one of Malko’s many trips abroad for the CIA. Was it true? Malko was hardly blameless when it came to fidelity, so he never raised the question. Resolving that kind of ambiguity usually comes at a cost.
Now increasingly intrigued, Malko glanced at the blonde again. She didn’t look like a seductress. He tried to remember at least her first name from when they were introduced, but in vain. Ponickau had met his guests at the entrance of the Sporting d’Été de Monte-Carlo at the end of Princess Grace Avenue, near the principality’s border. They gathered in the marble hall that led to both the Privé casino and the Salle des Étoiles, where the Red Cross gala was held. Introductions were made quickly, and Malko hadn’t remembered anybody’s name. That hardly mattered. Except for the baron, he would probably never see any of these people again.
Now he was in a hurry to get back to the Hôtel de Paris for an intimate tête-à-tête with Alexandra, who looked dazzling in a cobalt blue sheath cut high on her left thigh.
Tom Jones finished his set, and a modest round of applause echoed through the ballroom.
Malko discreetly glanced at his Breitling; the evening’s torture would soon be over.
It had started with dinner, a display of pretentious neo-classic cuisine that had lasted the full two hours it took to serve the three hundred guests. This was followed by the inevitable fund-raising auction, where blasé millionaires pretended to fight over the jewelry put up for bid by the evening’s sponsors.
The winners would then bestow the jewels on their mistresses or their housekeepers.
Thank God it was for a good cause.
Of which causes there were no shortages. The floods in Pakistan had displaced the Haiti earthquake and the Darfur massacres, which were already losing some of their cachet.
The highlight of the evening was yet to come, however: the opening of the ball by His Most Serene Highness Prince Albert II. The Prince of Monaco was escorting the tall, muscular South African swimmer he was engaged to marry.
As the orchestra was setting up, Baron Ponickau kept his eyes fixed on the adjoining table. He had discreetly slipped the Sporting concierge five thousand euros for the signal honor of being seated at the table next to Prince Albert. That way he would be one of the first people to reach the dance floor after the prince and, naturally, be photographed there.
It was a modest reward for the fifteen thousand euros the baron had paid for his table, but in the eyes of the Monégasques, proximity to the princely family was a key that opened every door.
In the ballroom, the long tables were arranged banquet style. They each had ten place settings and stretched to the back of the room.
The orchestra began playing the first notes of what was probably a waltz, and the hall held its collective breath as the prince stood up and reached out to his fiancée.
Malko gazed at the starry sky above them, revealed by the retractable roof of the well-named Salle des Étoiles.
Prince Albert and his swimmer were now whirling gracefully to the rhythm of an old-fashioned waltz.
Ponickau promptly stood up, adjusted his beautifully cut tuxedo, and—to Malko’s surprise—extended his hand to Alexandra, who was seated opposite him.
She had no choice but to accept. Malko watched her get up and felt a pang when she pressed her gorgeous body against the baron’s. His wife, Hildegard, carried fifty pounds of extra ballast, and could hardly compete.
At that point, everyone hurried onto the dance floor. Aside from the social lepers at the back tables and some doddering graybeards, everybody wanted to rub elbows with His Most Serene Highness. In an instant, the only two people left sitting at Ponickau’s table were Malko and the mysterious blonde.
Clearly feeling abandoned, she gave Malko a look so imploring, it would have melted stone.
Within moments, they were spinning around the dance floor as well. Even in four-inch heels, she was so much smaller than Malko that her blond head rested against the lapel of his tuxedo. After a few waltz steps, she looked up at him and asked:
“Are you a friend of Helmut’s?” Her voice was high and a bit grating.
“I am indeed. Are you?”
“He’s mainly friends with my husband. We often have him to our house when he comes to New York. He’s a charming man.”
“Are you American?”
She spoke perfect English but with a slight accent.
“I have an American passport, but I’m Russian. I left the Soviet Union in 1991 to come to New York. I worked as a nanny and a sales clerk before meeting my husband, Tim Bartok.”
“Is that the man you’re with, this evening?”
“No,” she said. “That’s my second husband, Alexei Khrenkov. He’s Russian too. He’s in finance.”
“So you’ve kept your first name—Zhanna,” concluded Malko, who had glanced at her place card on their way to the dance floor.
“That’s right. Please tell me about yourself.”
“I already knew that,” she said teasingly. “Helmut told me about you. You live in a beautiful castle, I hear.”
“Beautiful. . . . That’s saying a lot.”
The orchestra briefly paused, but Zhanna stayed in Malko’s arms until it resumed, playing a piece that mixed salsa and reggae. Malko had the impression that his partner’s hips were drawing closer to his. In any case, there were now so many dancers on the floor that he probably could have pulled Zhanna’s panties down without anybody noticing.
“What are you doing after the ball?” she asked.
The older guests were already beginning to slip away. In a few minutes Prince Albert would do the same.
“I’m planning to go back to my hotel.”
“Aren’t you going to the casino?”
“No, I don’t gamble.”
“Just like my husband!” she cried. “I love to gamble. I think I’ll try my favorite number at the Privé before going to bed. My husband seems very taken by his neighbor, that Italian who claims to be a princess. Would you mind coming to the casino with me for a few minutes? I hate going to places like that by myself.”
This time, her gambit was unmistakable. Their eyes met, and, as if to back up her request, the young woman briefly pressed her hips against his.
Zhanna Khrenkov didn’t appeal to him that much, so he was only slightly stirred by the move.
“I think my fiancée will want to go back soon,” he said.
“Are you sure?” Zhanna said with a mocking smile. “She seems to be having a very good time.”
And in fact, Alexandra was dancing the salsa/reggae in slow time, her body glued to Ponickau’s.
“Leave her to her fun,” Zhanna insisted as they returned to their table. “We won’t be gone long.”
Malko was trapped.
So he made his way through the dancers and set a light but possessive hand on Alexandra’s rump. Over the sound of the music, he said:
“Our friend Zhanna asked me to go to the Privé for a few moments. Want to come along?”
Alexandra’s refusal was chilly, and Malko didn’t insist. Zhanna was standing at the edge of the dance floor, purse in hand.
They had only to cross the narrow Sporting d’Été hall to reach the Privé, where they showed their identification. Because Monaco followed French law, you had to show ID before being allowed into a casino. Zhanna pulled out a blue American passport, and Malko presented his purple Austrian one.
Entering the casino, he was surprised to find the room nearly empty. Half the roulette and blackjack tables were already covered in green baize.
A gambling hell-hole, it wasn’t.
Zhanna came back from the cage with a handful of chips.
“Come on!” she cried gaily.
In the next room, which was somewhat livelier, she went to the roulette table and slapped two five-hundred-euro chips firmly on number 24.
“There! I hope you bring me luck!”
Alas, that wasn’t the case.
The croupier raked off Zhanna’s bets five times in a row. With a resigned sigh, she put her last two chips on 24 again.
Miraculously, after bouncing around a little, the ivory ball came to rest on 24.
“Harasho!” she cried in the classic Russian phrase as she briskly scooped the seventy-six chips into her purse.
“Let me buy you a glass of champagne,” she said, making her way to the bar. “You really did bring me luck. I usually never win.”
But when the bartender reached for an open bottle of champagne, she stopped him.
“No, I want a fresh bottle!” To Malko, she said, “What do you recommend?”
“Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé 2004,” he told the bartender while stealing an anxious glance at his watch. They had left the Salle des Étoiles twenty minutes earlier, and Alexandra was probably fit to be tied—for no good reason!
The Taittinger cork gave a joyous pop! and he and Zhanna toasted each other.
“Nasdarovie!” he said.
“You speak Russian?”
“Da, kanyeshna,” he said with a smile.
“I like you more and more,” she purred, sipping her champagne.
“I don’t want to keep your husband waiting,” he said cautiously.
“Davai, then!” she cried, leaving a five-hundred-euro chip on the counter.
Their table in the Salle des Étoiles was now practically empty, as was the rest of the ballroom. Of their party, only the American couple and the two Italians remained.
“Helmut left with his wife and Prince Linge’s friend,” said the American. “He took Alexei along, too.”
Malko frowned. Alexandra must be in a rage, he thought. But Zhanna gave him no time to say anything.
“Where are you staying?” she asked.
“At the Hôtel de Paris.”
“So am I.”
“I’ll call us a taxi.”
“Don’t bother,” she said. “Our car must still be in the lot, since Alexei went with Helmut. I’ll drive us back.”
Malko didn’t argue. After saying good-bye to the two other couples, he and Zhanna headed for the Italian restaurant that led to Jimmy’z, the famous Monte Carlo nightclub with a garage on the heliport for the club’s patrons.
The parking valet came running the moment he spotted Zhanna.
“I’ll bring your car right away, Madame Khrenkov!”
“Where is it parked?”
“On the right over there, just beyond the hedge.”
“Give me the keys. I’ll get it myself.”
Bowing so low he was practically spread-eagled, the valet yelped with joy when Zhanna gave him a five-hundred-euro chip in exchange for the car keys.
Malko followed her across the open space and past the low hedge along a VIP parking area filled with Rolls-Royces, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and a lone Bugatti. Zhanna got into a gray Bentley coupe.
Malko climbed in as well, but Zhanna didn’t start the engine. She gave him a meaningful look and quietly said:
“I very much enjoyed meeting you.”
“The pleasure was mutual.”
Smiling enigmatically, she suddenly brought her face close to his.
Only a boor would be so rude as to not at least give the young woman a good-night kiss, a quick peck without any romantic implications. Their lips touched chastely for an instant, but then the young Russian started kissing Malko in earnest, her little tongue probing for his. At the same time she grasped the nape of his neck, as if to keep him from pulling back, and the kiss became deeper. It was a real movie kiss, like the one Grace Kelly shared with her lover in Dial M for Murder.
This burst of apparently sincere passion aroused Malko’s libido. Alexandra’s going to be angry anyway, he thought, so she may as well have a reason for it.
But when he put his hand on Zhanna’s thigh, she pulled away, breathless.
“I find you enormously attractive,” she said, her eyes shining.
The kiss seemed the logical extension of their flirtatious glances over dinner.
The Bentley’s engine purred to life and Zhanna switched on the headlights. She drove out onto Princess Grace Avenue. There was still a lot of traffic, and they moved at a snail’s pace.
Without looking at Malko, she abruptly said:
“I’d like to see you again.”
This was an unexpected development. Malko glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. Zhanna’s public persona was proper and self-effacing; she was no sex kitten. Still waters run deep, he thought.
Malko hadn’t moved when she spoke again, quietly.
“Don’t get too close to me. I think we’re being followed.”
Malko’s pulse speeded up.
“My husband is very jealous.”