He had been coming to the Gerbeaud for thirty years, but he never tired of it. During the summer he liked to sit under its wide, grey umbrellas on Vörösmarty Square, enjoying snip- pets of conversation at adjoining
tables and watching life go by. It was a cozy respite from the nastiness of work. He didn’t much care whether the service was slow, the chrome tabletop wiped clean, or his espresso luke warm, he loved the tangy black coffee oozing across his tongue and the reassuring normalcy of unfolding the daily paper on its wooden holder. He savoured the familiarity.
Although pretty much everything in Hungary had changed since the advent of the “market economy,” the Gerbeaud’s sole concession to the winds of capitalism had been a steady increase in prices. The new owners had left the rest of it alone. He could still sit here as long as he wished, nursing the single espresso that cost him a quarter of a good day’s wages, and the waitresses never pushed him to reorder.
There had been a time when the manager, sleek as a young trout in her fitted black dress, had refilled his delicate china cup and hadn’t charged for it, but she had long gone to greater for- tunes in the States. Her name was Klari, now probably changed to Claire, or maybe Clara to preserve a touch of the Continent. She would have discovered by now that it cost a damned sight more than an occasional refill of coffee to buy a policeman in the so-called home of the free. Even in Budapest, bribery was no longer a bargain.
At the table beside his, a young man wearing Gucci wrap-around sunglasses, a gold Tissot watch, a collarless white shirt, and beige calf-leather pants was reading the Wall Street Journal. He was sucking on a split of champagne, surreptitiously checking his watch. Someone was keeping him waiting. He didn’t like it, but he wasn’t going to betray any anxiety. A man in Gucci wrap-around glasses couldn’t admit to being kept waiting. He seemed familiar. A long-ago police lineup? Judging from his attire, his career had blossomed since then.
It didn’t matter. The real target of Attila’s interest was near the first wide window, her back to the pastries counter and across from a frothy-haired man who also looked vaguely familiar. Her elbows were on the table and her long blond hair was dangling over an open blue file folder placed between them. Sheets of paper dropped so fast from her fingers, he presumed she was speed-reading until she came to the last sheet, which she stared at for several minutes. She closed the folder, pushed it toward her companion, and leaned forward as she talked. He listened, then produced something from his breast pocket. A picture? A passport? It was small, dark, and oblong. She palmed it so quickly that had Attila not been watching he would have missed the movement.
He scanned the room, pretending to pay equal attention to all the customers. He was pleased that neither the woman nor her companion had once looked at him.
The waitress, a country girl with short henna-red hair, was asking the Wall Street Journal man if she could take his spare chair. A group of German tourists was next in line for a table with not enough chairs. She asked in Hungarian, her hand on the chair, her meaning fairly clear, but he pretended not to understand. Playing for time, Attila thought, time to decide whether to reveal he had been waiting for someone. Without relinquishing her hold on the chair, the waitress — he must find out her name — asked, “Okay?” For emphasis, she jiggled the back of the chair, clattering its metal legs on the asphalt.
The fellow nodded without enthusiasm, swivelling his head toward the group of tourists. One of them waved and shouted “Vielen Dank.” The Habsburg Empire had self-destructed some ninety years ago, but German speakers still viewed Budapest as an anachronistic piece of Austrian territory.
At the table behind Attila’s, three elderly Hungarian women were debating the relative merits of the chestnut purée — sweet, traditional, brandy-basted — and the kugel loaf — historically more interesting, but less tasty. In the centre of the square, under the seated bronze statue of Mihály Vörösmarty, Hungary’s beloved poet, three young men in faded blue jeans were making a small drug deal. Vörösmarty was looking down as if observing the activities of the young men. The vendor pulled a plastic bag from his pocket and offered a taste. Hardly worth the effort, it was no more than ten ounces. “Be faithful to your land for- ever, oh Hungarian . . .” The great poet’s words ran around the pedestal, where a bronze phalanx of fellow Hungarians formed Vörösmarty’s adoring public. The buyer finger-tasted the coke and nodded to his companion, who would be carrying the cash. Street value of maybe a couple of thousand dollars. Small-time dealer. Attila assumed he worked the hotels on the Pest side and some of the classy apartments along the tramline. A couple of years ago Attila would have been bearing down on them. But back then they’d have already spotted him for a cop and moved the trade somewhere else. What was it about him that had changed so much in only two years?
Attila had been hunched over his table, a broad-shouldered, greying man, balding on top, overweight, ham-fisted, thick- necked, his shirt collar and jacket both too tight. He straightened his back when the young dealer glanced at him, mildly suspicious, but then the dealer palmed the money and handed over the merchandise without a second look at Attila.
The man with the Wall Street Journal examined his bill, counted some forints into the tray, and stood up to leave. His pants, caught in the wedge of his ass, stuck to his thighs. He must have gained weight since he bought them, Attila thought with some satisfaction. Anyway, it was too warm for leather pants.
His attention was caught by a young woman, her red hair flying, her light-blue summer dress swinging, and her slender white heels flying over the paving stones as she ran toward the Gerbeaud. She lifted her long legs over the silk rope barrier, straddling it for a second, her cotton skirt billowing around her, offering a glimpse of her white cotton panties, then she was wrapping her arms around the sweaty young man with the calf skin caught between his buttocks. “Jancsi,” she called him, her voice soft as the inside of her thighs.
“Where the hell have you been?” he demanded. Obviously, although the days of swooning over Westerners were long gone, he still thought it stylish to sound foreign.
The woman by the window glanced at the gilt-framed mirror above her companion’s head. She adjusted her silk scarf, flicked her hair over her shoulder, then made that little moue that some women make when they are checking their makeup. She stood up with her weight on her palms flat against the table. Attila figured she was probably still exhausted from her flight and the long drive from Vienna, but she recovered quickly and walked out fast, her dress clinging to her legs, a leather handbag dangling from her arm. She was pretty, although a little older than pretty warranted, and her bare arms and long legs showed the kind of muscle earned by regular workouts. Her erstwhile companion stayed at the table, sipping coffee and digging into the large serving of chestnut purée that had sat there ignored for the past twenty minutes. He was no longer only vaguely familiar. The narrow forehead under the froth of hair. He ran a posh art shop on Váci Street. Attila had paid him a visit about ten years ago. The man had been caught with some stolen primitive art. Indian. He couldn’t remember what the outcome was, except that this man had somehow got away with it.
Attila laid his change on the tray and followed her across the square, past Vörösmarty’s statue, the McCafé, the Hard Rock Café, the exorbitantly expensive clothing stores, down to the Danube, where his quarry was marching past the souvenir vendors with only an occasional glance at the river. Although she did pause for a moment to survey Gellért Hill in all its spring glory, she was not behaving like a tourist. A tourist would have stopped at the Shakespeare statue outside the Marriot Hotel and read the words on the brass plaque.
He kept at a distance as she crossed to Buda over the Szabadság Bridge and walked around the periphery of a small square (why the hell was it under construction again?) to the Gellért Hotel.
She had chosen the Gellért less for its old-world charm than for its several entrances. She preferred the small rooms at the back. They didn’t offer the view of the Danube for which the hotel was known, but they were adequate. A single bed, a narrow desk, a phone, two shelves, a hanger for clothes, and a safe. She preferred no fuss and not too much cleaning. Maids came only early in the morning for light cleaning and bed making. The view was of the side of Gellért Hill where, late at night, noise makers cavorted and played music and lovers had open-air sex.
Helena had been here before but with different hair, a different name, and a man she had liked more than she wanted to. He had booked a suite at the front of the hotel, ordered flowers, and they had danced to lackadaisical gypsy music in the dining room. She didn’t like dancing to gypsy music, but that was not the reason they broke up. She had not been ready for a long- term relationship. She was struggling with too much unresolved anger and a couple of persistent ghosts. The ghosts still refused to go quietly, but she had almost managed to master her rage. But Robert was no longer waiting.
She opened her black canvas holdall and arranged her clothes over the bedcover: black pants, a grey woollen sweater, black T-shirt, a black hoodie, faded black Nike running shoes, thin skin-coloured pantyhose, a short white cardigan, a small- brimmed foldable hat, five cell phones, black leather gloves, dark-rimmed glasses, a long pearl-grey linen jacket with a high collar, a raincoat, a cross-strapped navy bathing suit, four passports, a clear plastic bag containing a black wig with a fringe and a light-brown one, a small Revlon makeup case, a vial of face cream, the photograph Kis had given her, a foldable flash light, wire cutters, a pocketbook, a Nikon Coolpix 16MP, a suede sheath containing a long-handled straight knife with a thin blade, a snub-nosed SwissMiniGun with six bullets.
She put the wigs and passports into the safe.
She slipped out of her dress, untied the blue silk scarf, placed the slingback shoes next to the door, and pulled on the black pants, the T-shirt, and the hoodie. She removed her blond wig and laid it, its tendrils trailing, on one pillow and pushed the second pillow lengthwise under the covers. From a short distance, it looked like a figure lying knees up, face to the wall.
Her own hair was light brown with a few grey streaks, cut short and soft on the sides, bristly on top. She used a dollop of gel to make it lie flat. Standing in front of the mirror, she removed the blue eyeshadow and thick lashes and peeled off the thin plastic strip over her upper lip. She selected a dark purple lipstick from her collection of makeup pencils and dabbed it on her lips. Her reflection showed an almost middle-aged woman who didn’t much care about her appearance. She packed the flashlight, the handgun, the wire cutters, and the camera into her backpack and pulled on the pair of frayed running shoes.
She picked up the slingbacks and left the room, dropping the shoes at the last moment as she pulled the door closed so they would be just inside the door. She hung the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door handle.
She took the back stairs next to the wrought-iron elevator that ferried guests down to the hotel’s famous Turkish baths. She showed her plastic key-card to the attendant, went through the baths’ exit between the two stone Grecian figures, and walked down toward the river.
The tall heavy-set man she’d noticed in the Gerbeaud was standing at the tram stop, leaning against the ticket machine, frequently glancing into a paperback book while observing the Gellért’s main entrance. He looked at her for only a fraction of a second as she stepped over the tram tracks. She was sure he had not recognized her. He didn’t seem very committed to his task. Perhaps he was a retired policeman. She had seen dozens of them all over Prague, Bratislava, and Berlin, even in Warsaw, although not so many there. Most of the old Polish police and security men had long gone to villages where they would be harder to identify. She had tracked one of them a few years ago. It had not been easy. He was now farming potatoes near Częstochowa. Back in the 1980s, he had been high up in the Ministry of Public Works. He had taken a ten-by- twelve-cm Leonardo da Vinci drawing as payment for keeping an informer out of jail. Her job had been to recover it.
The Poles were less forgiving than the Czechs, Slovaks, and the Hungarians. In Budapest, beneficiaries of the Communist era didn’t need to hide. That made it easy to find people. Unless they were dead.
Géza Márton had left here in 1956 after the failed Hungarian Revolution. Had he returned recently, he would know whom the system still protected and who could still do him harm. But then he wouldn’t need her services.
She ran along the river, taking long strides, pumping her arms, and slowly settling into her usual energetic jog. Although the sun had almost set, it was light enough to see the street signs, and the air was warm. In Toronto, there had still been snow on the ground, it was getting dark at 7:30 p.m., and the few early birds perched in the desolate trees in the Mártons’ garden had seemed stunned. The house was on a low hill, with the garden sloping down to more trees and bushes in the valley below. Géza was proud of his Georgian red-brick house with its tall bay windows, its white pillars flanking the entrance, and delighted with his young white oaks, his sugar maples, his spectacularly green rhododendrons, and his long sloping lawn — still brownish in April — that ended at the ravine.
He had been pleased to show off his paintings, the nine quasi-Impressionists, a couple of almost Picassos, a possible Max Ernst, and a Watteau. Over the wide wooden staircase to the second floor, there had been a Rubens drawing of a nude, a Cellini, a Degas, and there were more paintings in the study, although Géza had saved the best for the master bedroom: an early Van Gogh, which he may have bought from her father, Simon. At their initial meeting, he had insisted she see it.
Géza Márton had made most of his money in Vaughan, a town just north of Toronto, but he didn’t want to live there.
Rosedale was a sedate, leafy, midtown neighbourhood, a long way from the subdivisions of Vaughan, where immigrant families lived cheek by jowl with their fellows and could hear every altercation, every lovemaking, child’s cry, and dog bark on either side of their new homes.
He said this place reminded him of his family’s old home in the Buda Hills and that walking through the front door made him feel that he was entering his own small country. Helena had wondered whether his English wife had added her own touches to the décor or just allowed him to recreate a childhood dream.
At Bem József Square, she turned up Fekete Sas Street and started to climb Rózsadomb. She was relieved to find that there were few cameras on the hydro poles on this street, the surveil- lance that was so ubiquitous on the Pest side seemed lax in the Buda neighbourhoods. She walked on, savouring the smell of the early acacia blossoms, the broad chestnut trees with their candle-like flowers, the shaded garden homes of the wealthy burghers and politicians who had managed to make money and keep it.
She found the house easily. It was set back from the street; a low stone wall enclosed the front garden. Roses climbed over its wrought-iron gate. The single camera on the nearest utility pole was angled to survey the other side of the street. A tall stone fountain stood in a pond at the centre of a grassy knoll to the left of the driveway, and four white-painted, wrought-iron chairs and a table were arranged near it. The house was dark except for one bevelled window with wooden foldout shutters near the front door. Two tall ceramic pots flanked the oak door. To the side, the garage door was open, and inside was a turquoise 2014 S-Class Mercedes Benz sedan with white wheel rims and grey-tinted windows. Its body shone. A camera positioned under the roof overhang was aimed at the garage entrance. Easy to avoid if you were not interested in the Benz.
From where she stood, she could see the electrical box on the inside wall of the garage, next to a door to the house.
Pretending to look for street numbers, she waited for a noisy couple to pass. They were competing with each other to finish a story that made them both hiccup with laughter. When was the last time she had laughed like that?
The stone wall was easy to step over. Keeping low to the grass, she crossed the yard and stopped behind the fountain to look into the lighted room. Even from this distance, she could see tall bookcases, a wide desk facing the garden, a straight- backed, unpadded chair. As she crept closer, she saw a thick rug running the length of the room and a man with his back to her, talking to someone through an inner door.
He had a strong voice. Through the open window, she could hear his tone, if not the words themselves. Imperious. Annoyed. Demanding.
He turned to a bookcase, picked up a book, and stood it upright with the others. He half-turned to the window. He was tall, broad-shouldered, erect, with short white hair, a long neck, a protruding chin, and a high forehead. All he seemed to have in common with the man in the photograph Géza Márton had shown her was his bearing. The rest must have changed with age. Márton had guessed that the man would be in his late eighties, and he could have lost much of his brawn and his bull neck. Certainly his hair would have turned white. Or this was not the right man. Yet Géza had been so certain.
A woman entered the room, carrying a round tray with an open decanter and one glass. She could be a servant, but that was unlikely because she was dressed in a well-cut blue suit with large golden buttons, a frilled blouse showing at the neck. He must have married again in the years since Gertrude had left. Perhaps it had not occurred to the Mártons that such a man would marry twice. Still, they do. And the women seem not to mind that their men are monsters. Even Lavrentiy Beria had a wife. The infamous head of Stalin’s secret police was not only a murderer, he was also a sexual sadist, yet his Nina stayed faithful. She enjoyed the material rewards he offered: the Georgian silver, the antique jewels, the purloined Rembrandts and huge Tintoretto that had graced their living room. She had been reluctant to part with any of it.
The man poured from the decanter as he riffled through papers on his desk, casually, distracted, as if he was making sure something was there but was not interested in reading it. He played with the point of a silver letter opener, then replaced it exactly where it had been, an inch to the right of his leather- bound diary. His hands were thin with long fingers, not the massive meat-hooks Géza had mentioned.
The phone rang, a clear metallic tone. He pressed a button on the receiver and listened. His lips did not seem to move, and she did not hear what he said.
It was 7 p.m. They would be gone in less than an hour.
She stepped back over the wall and continued up Fekete Sas Street, past a block of flats and other sizable houses, to a tiny park. There were a couple of benches, a sandbox, and some downtrodden grass. She sat on a bench and watched the small children playing with their mothers, the dogs cavorting on the grass near the one-way entrance, then took out her well- thumbed copy of the Aeneid.
The Benz rounded the corner a little too fast, tires whining as it turned onto Margit Boulevard, on its way to the Margit Bridge and on to Pest and the Hungarian State Opera House.
She waited another five minutes, glancing up from the book at cars passing, in case they had forgotten something and returned. At 8 p.m., she pulled the hood over her head, covered her mouth with the scarf, and returned to the house. The shutters were closed. She scanned the wall with her flash- light, once, then edged her way to the garage, keeping to the side closest to the house. Just outside the camera’s range, she unlocked the garage door with a twist of the knife, then cut the four electrical cables with the wire cutters and pried the connecting door open with her knife. It was too easy. Inside, she disconnected the alarm just as it began its loud whine.
She had calculated that it would take a car fifteen minutes to get here from the Pest police station. She would hear the siren. She had to be fast.
She examined the windows for separate alarms and found none. She wedged open the door to his office and surveyed the tidy desk, the letter opener, the orderly bookcases, the round tray still there on the round side table, his crystal tumbler with a trace of his evening drink. His study opened onto a hallway lined with sepia photographs of men and women in formal dress, the women wearing gloves and cradling bouquets. There was a framed portrait of the man in a dark suit, hat sitting low on his head, the rim shading his forehead, dark glasses, hands folded in front, still the long, thin neck and long fingers.
There were a few small paintings: an early Poussin, a Raphael with angels and a blue Madonna, something that looked like an Arshile Gorky — a sad-eyed women with scarf — a large, early Monet of boats in shimmering water, and an early Picasso drawing. A dark Velázquez of two overdressed, expressionless children in a chocolate-coloured frame hung above the bar in the dining room. On either side of the door, there were four small paintings by Lajos Kassák that she recognized only because she had seen a collection of his forgettable abstracts at a recent Museum of Modern Art exhibition of Hungarian artists banned during the Communist years.
The painting Géza Márton had described was in the living room, hanging over a long, florid sofa. It was six feet long and four feet high. She felt its presence even before her flashlight found Christ’s face. It was the sheer size of the gilded frame and the figures blending into the dark resin background. The small grey donkey in the centre left seemed to have been out- lined with a brush handle or a sharp palette knife. There were dabs of white and yellow on the faces of the figures looking up at the man on the donkey. The paint was laid on thick and heavy, the artist having used both a palette knife and his fingers where the figures blended into the sombre background. It was a very physical painting, with its big figures, his style freed from his times’ constraint of mirroring every detail. Palma il Giovane had talked of Titian’s vigorous underpainting, the reds, blacks, and yellows, and of his predilection for using a palette knife.
Thin shafts of blue and white emanating from a magenta cloud lit up the back of Christ’s head. His face was just a suggestion of browns and ochres and his eyes were deep holes. His muddy, sandalled feet were scraping the ground. There were splashes of red on his neck and ankles, as if to prefigure the Crucifixion. In contrast to Christ’s purple robe, the ones worn by the men following him were dirty white. Some were holding their arms aloft, their faces shiny with sweat and anticipation. Two women were laying palm fronds on the uneven path in front of the donkey. Mary Magdalene, walking ahead in her signature green gown, looked out of the painting. Her bright eyes and pink-and-white face made her seem at once beatific and accusatory. Another upturned face and a dash of blue by the donkey’s flank depicted the Virgin Mary. Incongruously, two small spaniels in the bottom right-hand corner gazed upward, as if expecting treats. The artist had taken great care in detailing their fur.
It could be a late work, perhaps as late as 1570, when Titian was well into his eighties. There was a hurried, sketchy quality to some of the figures. It was reminiscent of The Death of Actaeon, but the stormy sky may have been finished by one of his workshop students, perhaps Polidoro da Lanciano, although she doubted Polidoro would have completed any of the late works. Titian hadn’t finished putting on the varnish, but in his final years he often left the varnish off parts of his paintings.
Alternatively, it could be a study for an early work, a mere sketch, something intended for Philip II, who liked both religious paintings and detailed nudes posing as naiads or some other mythological women who cavort about naked.
There was no signature.
Without the right equipment, it was hard for her to tell whether it was a Titian or a good forgery. She had used chromatography and a spectrometer to analyze the paint of a Rubens in St. Petersburg and had determined that it was a late copy. Another time, she had established that a beautifully executed Raphael at the Borghese was an exquisite reinterpretation by the Dutch master-forger, Han van Meegeren. That man could redefine genius. He could imitate the style of any artist, and it would take years of technical examination to identify which paintings were his. She had studied Titian and read all extant documents about his work. There was no mention of this particular painting.
She took photos from all angles, then close-ups of details, shining her flashlight on each part of the painting.
When she was done, she knocked over the bottle of whisky and the glasses on the sideboard, tucked the silver cigar box under her arm, broke the window by the front door, pulled the hood over her face, and left.
It had taken her eleven minutes.
No serious police officer would be convinced by her efforts to stage a break-in, but the smashed window and missing box would offer an easy diagnosis, and experience told her that one should never overestimate the police.
She walked back to the little park, dropped the cigar box in the garbage bin next to a man sleeping on a bench, listened to the sirens of police cars climbing the hill from the river, did a few stretches against the other bench, then loped back to the hotel.