Her codename is Kingfisher. Her mission: to seduce and marry the most powerful man in the world.
Her codename is Kingfisher. Her mission: to seduce and marry the most powerful man in the world.
HORKY NAD JIZEROU, CZECHOSLOVAKIA, 1978
Petr Kliment held Kristína, his six-month-old granddaughter, on a patch of grass on the shore of the Jizera River. When Elena reached for Kristína, to take her away, her father kissed the baby’s chubby cheeks and bald head and spoke into her tiny ear. Elena worried he would squeeze her too hard.
‘I cannot let her go, Elenka. She is the most beautiful, best-smelling creature on the planet.’
Elena had never before seen tears in her father’s eyes.
But the car was waiting and the men inside were impatient because their bosses in Prague were impatient.
Petr Kliment was spending more and more of his time at their country home along the river south of Mladá Boleslav.
At first it was only summers but now that he no longer had to work so much he preferred to fish earlier in the spring and later in the fall. Jana, his wife, joined him from time to time. But she preferred life in Mladá Boleslav and in Prague, now that she could live the life she was always meant to lead.
It was more pleasant and more beautiful in their apartment in the upper town. Neighbors looked up at them instead of down. They could stay in hotels in Prague, even spend ten days at the Hotel Croatia in Duga Uvala. None of their friends understood what had happened with Elena, not precisely, but Mladá Boleslav was a city of gossips. Their daughter had not defected because Petr and Jana were not sent away to work camps or thrown in prison. On the contrary, Petr and Jana had entered the quiet elite of Bohemia. They shopped at the Tuzex stores and bought blue jeans and sweets with the special cur- rency reserved for party officials.
If others envied them, it did not bother Jana one bit. She had been born into a special class and now she had returned to it. As for the advantages they sought and received: this was no different than buying and selling wares on the black market, which everyone did. There were many versions of the proverb: if we are not stealing from the state, we are stealing from our children.
If they offer it, take it; this was what Jana had always believed.
Now, Elena took the baby from her father. He wiped the tears from his eyes and shook his head. ‘I am so sad, Elenka. The feeling will not go away. It gets worse and worse.’
‘Sad to see us go, tati? Kristína and I will be back soon.’
‘I want you back for good. I want them to release you from all of this.’ Her father reached out and squeezed her arm. ‘Now that you have a baby with one of them . . .’
‘With one of them?’ She smiled. ‘He is my husband. I love him. I have a very important job, designing cars, and—'
Her father walked slowly back toward the house, a new slouch in his shoulders, as though he could tell his daughter was lying.
‘Don’t worry about him,’ said Jana. ‘This work you are doing, it is very important. You are so lucky to have these opportunities. And it has made us so happy.’
Elena hugged her mother and the driver opened the back door of the Škoda 120 GLS. She had gone from knowing nothing about cars to knowing everything about them, just as her mother had transformed from a jealous nobody into the Czech version of a society matron.
‘Will you come back soon?’ her father called.
Jana rolled her eyes. ‘When you can, Elenka. Though we would love to meet your mysterious Anthony.’
Kristína was a good baby and fell asleep almost immediately as the car climbed out of the valley. It was a bumpy road, and despite being a 1978 model the suspension on the Škoda was so stiff the child bounced in her arms. Anthony would want all of the details. She could hear him telling guests at their table: ‘Russia might be a huge military force. They might be. I don’t know. Do you know? All I know for sure is this: if you can’t make a car that isn’t an utter piece of shit, how tough can you be? How tough can you really be? Based on what Elena tells me about communist cars, we should attack yesterday.’
The men in the front of the Škoda did not speak to her, which was preferable as it didn’t disturb Kristína. Besides, Elena had learned enough in the past years to see these men had no power. They knew they had no power. If they felt obliged, out of personal weakness, to fill the silence with talk of the weather or the car or the population of New York City, that was fine. But these men in the Škoda were not permitted to discuss anything of consequence.
What she had come to understand in the program was that communism as a political system was as irrelevant as capitalism. The revolution had traded tsars for party leaders. In New York almost no one moved from the bottom of the pyramid to the top. It was not entirely impossible: she had met Holocaust survivors at gala dinners, haunted people who had arrived with nothing but suitcases and had amassed great fortunes. But these survivors were rarer than wolves in Central Park. Statistically, they were insignificant. Yet this was the noblest achievement in American mythology. All of the rich people Elena now knew preferred to boast about launching themselves out of poverty than tell the truth about their fortunes. Even Anthony liked to pretend he was a ‘self-made man’, because it seemed cleverer than inheriting a profitable family business. This way, he was more American.
In Moscow, in Prague, she thought, at least they were honest.
There was only one way to reach the top of the pyramid. You had to be born there and you had to follow the party rules.
Or you did what she had done.
They parked in front of the Inter-Continental Hotel in the spot reserved for taxis and official hotel vehicles.
With Kristína in her arms, Elena walked through the busy but almost silent lobby and into the elevator. A short, plump, middle-aged woman with rosy cheeks greeted them with a curtsy as the elevator door opened into the rooftop restaurant.
‘Mrs Craig? I am the nurse assigned to you for your upcoming meeting. I am honored to take care of baby Kristína so you can focus on the discussion.’
The nurse reached for the baby. ‘Do not worry, Mrs Craig. I will remain on this floor, within sight. If Kristína awakens, I will feed her.’
While the lights were on and a small team of waiters and waitresses stood at attention in the middle of the restaurant, there seemed to be no customers. The maître d’hôtel silently led Elena to the corner table overlooking the Vltava River and the palace.
No, there were two customers.
Sergei stood first. Then, more cautiously, the man next to him stood up. In the special program at the university, not far from here, some of her ‘professors’ had cultivated this look over the course of their careers. The man next to Sergei was blank. He revealed nothing. She could not tell if he was happy or sad, impressed or disappointed, thrilled or bored.
Yet his eyes were on her and it made her feel like she often felt: that her inner secrets had been revealed. They knew. They knew she hated what all of this had done to her father, who would never be impressed by her clothes or the photographs of her apartment in New York, of her houses on the water, her vacations, her famous friends. She could not fool her father and she could not fool this man.
‘I am Aleksandr Mironov.’ The man’s hand was white and faintly moist.
‘Sergei has told me quite a story about you and your impressive husband. Please sit.’
She did, and a waiter arrived with a bottle of champagne. He popped it and poured it in their flutes. At the same time, a waitress arrived with crackers and a black paste–tapenade.
Mironov did not take his eyes off her.
If they were going to execute her for a transgression, Elena assured herself, they would have met her on the shore of the river where no one could see them, not in a brand-new restaurant full of waiters and waitresses. They would not waste champagne on a woman they planned to murder. They were giving her champagne and tapenade because they knew it had hurt her to leave Strasbourg and Montreal. Perhaps a hot tray of escargots was on its way, with some baguette and some Alsatian choucroute. For another woman in the program, another swallow, it might have been a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino and bruschetta, or bangers and mash with an English stout.
The hot afternoon was transforming into a long, warm evening. Some of the windows were open and a breeze blew through the restaurant. With it came the voices of families, of children walking along the river or on the distant bridge. Elena looked back to ensure the nurse and Kristína were still there.
Sergei lifted his flute. ‘To Elena Craig.’
‘Thank you.’ She lifted her flute.
‘To Anthony Craig,’ said Mironov.
They drank. No music was playing in the restaurant, one of the reasons why Elena felt so strange. It was not just the quiet and the formality, the distant nurse and her baby. Invisible ants crawled over her body whenever Mironov looked at her, and it seemed he could not look away.
‘Tell me about Craig,’ said Mironov.
‘But Sergei already told you about him.’
‘Sergei has never met the man. I want to hear it from you.’
It was not the first time Elena had reported to the KGB, but this was different. This was not official. Sergei and this man Mironov were not leaders, not yet. They were plotters. Neither of them took notes or made her feel like she would be punished if she made an error.
Still, she tried to be as precise as possible, and to focus on what Sergei and Mironov wanted to hear: that she had never met a man more confident yet so lacking in confidence. He was the most ambitious, least disciplined man in New York. There were no secrets with him. He said aloud every thought that arrived in his brain, to anyone, and a good number of these thoughts were lies. He was vengeful yet he forgave easily. All you had to do was praise and flatter him.
‘What do his peers think of him?’ said Mironov.
It hurt Elena to say what she was about to say. ‘They find him inferior, a crass and boastful arriviste. He received money from his father, who was also an arriviste. He married a dumb blonde from Czechoslovakia who can’t even speak decent English. Anthony thinks his audience, the market for his products, is a cadre of wealthy and powerful men, aristocrats. But he is wrong. The men who buy his cars are hopeless strivers.’
‘Does he know this?’
‘I think so, in his secret heart. Yes.’
‘And it hurts him?’
‘His pride is everything.’
Mironov dipped a cracker in tapenade and noisily ate it. ‘Remember always that a wise man walks with his head bowed, humble like the dust.’
‘I don’t understand.’
Sergei laughed. ‘Elena, you must understand. Aleksandr is no fan of America. But there is a television show, Kung Fu.’
‘It’s on reruns.’
‘Aleksandr likes it very much. He quotes liberally from it.’
‘I study ancient fighting systems.’ Mironov’s face was an odd color in the light of dusk. ‘I’m an actual kung fu master.’
Elena did not know what to say to that, so she took some tapenade. The waiter returned to fill their flutes, his hand trembling.
Sergei coughed to announce his intention to speak. ‘Tell Aleksandr more about the quality of your Anthony’s ambitions.’
‘If the right person tells him he ought to do something, ought to make something, he will do it.’
Mironov dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. ‘Who is “the right person”?’
‘Someone he admires,’ said Elena. ‘A successful capitalist, someone with “old money”. The CEO or the chair of a media enterprise: for a man like this he would do anything. Give up the bearings and automobile businesses and go wholeheartedly into the manufacture of toilets. If the owner of the New York Times were to befriend him and call him a titan of business, a genius, and tell him to make toilets, I believe Anthony would do it.’
‘Is he unfaithful?’ said Mironov.
‘He is the most unfaithful man in America.’
‘Is there a risk he will leave you?’
Sergei interjected. ‘Elena can handle him. She will not divorce him. This is a partnership, a business partnership, more than a marriage.’
Elena was now on the design team for the line of Craig cars that would launch in 1980. She had chosen the exterior colors and crafts for all the interiors. The Craig Swift, the upcoming ‘woman’s car’, was based eighty percent on her designs, inside and out.
But it was not entirely true, what Sergei had said. Anthony had romanced her in the beginning. He had taken cross-country ski lessons and had traded a vacation in the Caribbean for a cold week in Colorado. Despite his infidelities he was loyal, in his way, and proud of Kristína, though he rarely saw her.
Anthony and Elena had found excuses not to make love. ‘Nothing suggests the CIA or FBI have any idea about you. Not from our end. At least the files we can access.’ Mironov looked at Sergei and back at her. ‘Have they ever approached you, Mrs Craig?’
‘I know you are an intelligent and capable woman,’ said Mironov, continuing to study her. ‘But you have to play dumber than you have, as things progress.’
‘You are Czech. Craig married you because you are beautiful, not because you are smart. You are a “trophy wife”, an aesthetic consideration, the status symbol of a rich man.’
‘It does not have to be so. In America, women—’
‘If you are too smart, Mrs Craig, and everyone knows him to be stupid . . .’
‘I don’t think they do.’
‘Never interrupt me.’ Still there was no anger in his eyes. ‘Never.’
Elena did not understand what was happening.
‘I am sorry, Mrs Craig. This is probably difficult for a woman of your age and intelligence, living in New York City, to hear: but we are only interested in your husband. And we are patient. He has enormous potential for us and we will not jeopardize it for any reason. Do you understand?’
Elena looked at her champagne, at the bubbles. What did he mean by ‘we’? This man was a non-entity in the KGB, like Sergei. Young and mean and, so far, powerless. This was not even a real meeting. A champagne bubble popped out of the flute and fizzed on her hand. She wanted to be away from this place. She wanted to tell Anthony, so he could . . . no, there was nothing he could do. Besides, if she confessed, Anthony would see only the risks to himself, to his reputation.
There was no running from Moscow Center, no running from Sergei and this new man, Mironov. There was not a village in the jungles of South America where they could not find her and destroy her, let alone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She would die of a drug overdose, a heart attack, a car accident.
Her parents would be eliminated. Kristína.
‘Tell us, Mrs Craig, about our plans as you understand them.’ Mironov filled her flute and his, and he did not fill Sergei’s. ‘Be frank with us. Tell us why you are in New York, married to this buffoon, where you intend to take him.’
Despite the champagne her mouth was dry.
‘Kingfisher,’ Mironov said, sternly. ‘We are waiting.’
The Kingfisher Secret is published on the 18th October 2018 and is available to pre-order now.
From bold debuts to multi-narrative epics, we celebrate the three Penguin books in the running for 2018’s prestigious prize. And make sure you read on for the four additional titles that made the longlist, too.