THE BUCHAREST CONVERSATIONS


(Members of the Malandanti consider their future)

He didn’t want to cause a scene at reception, but Victor Radu’s details did say he suffered from high blood pressure. They should have seen him coming. Any half decent health spa should know if a guest says they have high blood pressure they’ll walk through the door with a purple face and a short temper.

The problem turned out to be one of status. Not Victor’s status, he knew where he stood on the social ladder. The status issue concerned Dr. Rozalia Comeneci. Victor wanted to see her. She didn’t want to see him. She only wanted to see important people, and Victor, in spite of his life-threatening blood pressure, wasn’t important enough.

“Can’t you tell her I’m here?” he said at reception. He noticed the receptionist count his suitcase, his solitary suitcase.

“No. There is a procedure, Mr Radu. You’ll have your initial assessment by one of our clinicians and she will determine the most appropriate consultant for you.”

“What is Dr. Comeneci’s specialisation?”

“The liver.”

“I have a liver.”

“Is there anything wrong with it?”

“How the hell do I know? If I knew what was wrong with it I’d treat myself.”

“Your room is number eighteen. First floor. The window overlooks the tennis courts.”

Once in his room, with the window open, all Victor could hear was the throaty gulp of racquet against tennis ball, the frantic scrunch of feet on clay and the anguished grunts of the losing player. The sounds distracted him from reading his health plan.

After two hours, mooching around the gym equipment, completing two lengths of the pool and forcing down a carrot salad, he slumped into a chair on the patio of the formal gardens and gazed at the comforting mountains of Muntenia, comforting the way only friendly monsters could be.

“Mr Radu?”

The voice came over his left shoulder like a stray tennis ball. “Yes.”

“You were causing a fuss earlier? You shouldn’t confront the staff like that.”

“I wasn’t confronting them.” He stood to greet Dr. Comeneci. She didn’t look like a doctor. Most of the spa staff wore sports clothing, but Dr. Comeneci met him in her civvies, a woolen coat, reinforced by a large scarf she had to pull down with her index finger to reveal her mouth.

“You have a liver problem?”

“No. Blood pressure, lack of energy, shortage of breath.”

“The usual ailments of a man of your age,” she studied his stomach, “and size.”

“I don’t even know why I’m here. It’s all quackery.”

“It’s your money. You’re free to go. We’re not a cult.”

Perched on the roof of the world, the spa contained all the isolation of a cult’s hideaway. Crisp air, fresh air, unpolluted by everyday life. Even the late spring clouds carried themselves with a healthy bouyancy waiting for the sharpened ridges to burst them and release another refreshing downpour. “The liver,” said Victor, “supposedly the seat of pleasure, isn’t it? Didn’t the Greeks consider the liver to contain the soul?”

Dr. Comeneci had better things to talk about, but she paused at the top of the steps leading to a formal water garden. “It’s been connected to many things throughout history, Victor, but the only thing that matters is that it is connected to your metabolism.”

“But everything is connected to everything else, Doctor. Isn’t that an ancient principle we have lost in the modern age. Our ability to compartmentalise everything, to create specialists,” (Dr. Comeneci raised an aggrieved eyebrow), “no disrespect, but the older practitioners of medicine recognised our connection to the universe.”

“Yes, and they treated liver complaints with plants that were shaped like livers. You have blood pressure, Victor. Do you want me to treat you with a course of strawberry juice?”

“Of course not.”

“In that case, don’t tell me my job.” Dr Comeneci shivered and decided the evening was too cold to discuss hermetic knowledge.

When they met again, Victor was on his stomach, having his lower back pounded by a woman bigger than his cousin Bogdan who had done a bit of wrestling in his time. Dr Comeneci watched, making no attempt to hide a sense of satisfaction at the sight of Victor being beaten up. “Your liver is normally so robust,” she said drawing an outline with her finger where Victor’s liver cowered beneath his fatty armour.

“Normally? Is there something wrong with it? Has it come to the surface?”

“No.”

“You’re enjoying this aren’t you? It’s revenge for me haranguing your staff.” Victor detected the change in pressure, the heavy fists replaced by gentle fingers, the firm push of the palms of Dr Comeneci’s hands.

“Revenge is an interesting concept. I prefer the long strategy.”

“Do you? Remind me not to get on the wrong side of you. That’s if I haven’t already.”

“There’s nothing more uncivilised than the knee-jerk reaction. The primal instinct.”

“I agree.”

“Look at the inquisitions, the persecutions, the punishment of your friends in hermetic medecine. Hounded for centuries, but they’re still here.”

“Hanging on.”

“True.” Victor’s head sank deeper into his towel. “You know, for a liver expert, you are very good at treating blood pressure.”

“Blood flows through the liver, Victor.”

“Mm.”

“Of course, a lot of ailments are in the mind. There’s something your occult practitioners never considered. They imagined ether, vapours, intangible media through which all conditions flowed, but not the neural pathways that create the aches and pains we feel.”

“I have no aches and pains now, Doctor.” Her fingers travelled around his shoulder blades. “If it were practiced today what form would it take?”

“What do you mean?”

“Occult medecine. Hermetic treatments. If you were a witch, Dr. Comeneci, what would you be doing to me now?”

“Pouring strawberry juice all over you.”

“True.”

“But, as you say, it would form one component in a larger all-connected body of knowledge. In the modern day occult practices would look like the Bamberg Killings and the Helsinki Event and the Munich Fire.”

“We live in dangerous times. All of us face the new threat.” Victor’s torso strained under the increased pressure of Dr Comeneci’s hands up and down the trough of his spinal cord. “Perhaps we should stop there, before you break my back.”

As health spas went, this one had a surprising amount of alcohol available in the lounge. Victor sat in the largest chair, studying his large brandy and looking to the distant hills through the golden tumbler.

Dr Comeneci’s voice greeted him aagin. “Almost the witching hour, Victor.”

“Does this existence reassure you, Doctor?”

She joined him, sitting down empty handed, the bar of the lounge long closed. “In what way?”

“Your profession. The certainty of your knowledge. It’s quite absolute, isn’t it?”

“No, there are still grey areas. Areas filled with your hogwash.”

“Hogwash? I was reading the news today. A business man in Germany called Moneypenny has offered a one million euro reward to anyone who can solve the Simon Frenzel murder.”

“Some people have too much money.”

“But we’d all like to know. Wouldn’t you like to know, Doctor?”

She pouted, weaved her head side to side. The closest she would come to a yes.

“Imagine that,” Victor leaned over his chair arm, “you think you’re unassailable and along comes someone who can do that. Get a body up there, eighty metres off the ground, lifting a dead man’s body like it were a sheet of paper. They struggled to get it down. Imagine trying to get it up there.” He challenged the Doctor with a raise of the glass.

“What’s your theory?”

“They had help from the Devil.”

“I thought they had help from artificial intelligence?”

“That too. But a laptop computer isn’t going to carry a body for you.”

Together they became conscious of being alone in the lounge, not alone in the social sense, but alone in the world, off the grid, unthreatened by the lampshade or the portraits of wildflowers, satisfied there was nothing unusual about the rug or the ornamental ropes holding back the curtains from the windows, satisfied they were not sat next to glass vibrating with their latent conversation, broadcasting the words to a hidden eavesdropper somewhere out there in the gloom of the hillsides, the menacing forests which looked so friendly during the day, but like werewolves changed character after dark.

“The irony is that the all-seeing eye has become digital. Made real by technology.” Dr Comeneci spoke slowly, carefully, the only sign of activity a pulsing light from the smoke alarm.

“The only way to confront an enemy like that is to be indestructable,” said Victor. He wanted another brandy, but the bar. . . . “And who is indestructible these days. Blood pressure, livers, ticking hearts and trembling nerve ends.”

Dr Comeneci offered one suggestion. “If you read the news you’ll have read about the woman who died in Rotterdam.”

“Yes.”

“And apparently she isn’t dead.”

“No.”

“What can we learn from her? Did she knowingly discover the secret of immortality?”

“She’d be a useful player in a long term strategy.”

“Yes.”

“I must admit, this spa has its advantages. After all the treatment, the pummelling and prodding, the cold showers and hot baths,” he reaised his glass and finished the final drop of brandy, ”there are remedies that still work. That still hit the spot.” He climbed out of the chair like a man who had just arrived, not ready to leave.

“Where will you go next, Victor?”

“To see a man about a sports car. Take care, Doctor Comeneci.” He left his glass on the counter top.

When the snow fell, when it fell with thick contempt for the citizens of Bucharest and covered their pavements and carriageways, the last thing people thought about were open top sportscars. Business dipped. “You can’t go for a test drive in this weather, I’m afraid.”

The showroom of Dulescu offered warm comfort to Victor. Gheorghe Dulescu, the proprietor and owner of every grinning sportscar in the showroom, offered lukewarm enthusiasm to his first potential customer of the week.

“I am a customer,” Victor insisted.

“No, sir, please. You are a client, not a customer. A customer comes in here, buys a car and goes out again. A client enters a relationship.”

“I don’t want a relationship with you,” said Victor. “You’re not my wife.”

Gheorghe grinned and the extraordinary crowns of his teeth joined the snow in illuminating the miserable December morning. “That’s not what I mean. Take a look around, Mr Radu. Comfortable chairs, coffee, specialist tea, a place to sit and peruse the catalogues of the marques, a place to relax. There’s wi-fi. You can do business while you wait for your Ferrari 458 Speciale to be serviced.”

“Very reassuring. And do you provide the coffin they bury me in when the bill gives me a heart attack?”

“To be honest, Mr Radu, if the bill worries you there’s a Seat showroom five minutes walk from here.” Ghoeorghe grinned again and winked.

“I don’t want a Seat.”

“Of course you don’t. You want something with an animal on the bonnet.”

Victor didn’t know that.

“Let me show you.” Gheorghe looked forward to these moments when he walked amongst his stock, amongst his marques. He led Victor to a low slung sculpture of automotive art, the bonnet no higher than his kneecaps. “The bull, Mr Radu.”

“Call me Victor.”

“The bull on the bonnet of a Lamborghini represents the ranch of Don Eduardo Miura who bred Iberian fighting bulls.” Gheorghe recited a script he must have prepared earlier. “Ferruccio Lamborghini was a taurus, fixated with bullfighting, you consider all the names, Gallardo, Miura, Aventador, this car here, Mr Radu, sorry, Victor, the Aventador was named after a famous bull from Zaragoza. All the cars, all the Lamborghinis carry that courage, that grace and strength, and through the badge,” he pointed at Don Eduardo’s fighting bull, “you also take away that grace and courage.”

Victor rubbed the back of his neck. “Do I get stabbed after two hours driving it?”

“No, no,” Gheorghe reassured Victor with a firm hand on the shoulder. “Nothing so extreme.”

“I think the Lamborghini might be a little low down for me. I’m not as young as I was, you know.”

“Well,” Gheorghe headed for the bashfull Ferrari staring through the showroom window at the snowflakes. “A prancing horse perhaps. A cavallino rampante.”

“It’s a little bizarre, don’t you think, this connection between animals and mechanical objects? What are these people trying to say?”

“It’s talismanic, Victor. Talismanic. You are the warrior. You go into battle in the head dress of the deer to give you speed, or with the tail of the leopard to give you ferocity, or the feathers of a bird to give you wisdom. It’s primeval.”

“Primeval and mechanical.”

“It speaks to a deeper consciousness, Victor.” The door of the Ferrari clicked open. ”Sit inside.” Voices were hushed by the womblike interior, intimate, introspective, a world where the occupant spoke to himself even when speaking to another person. “No matter how far down the evolutionary trail we walk, Victor, we never lose our instincts. People like Enzo Ferrari knew that, all the manufacturers know that. The power of suggestion, the enhancement and acceleration of human strength through animal symbolism. With the right totem, Victor, one man can defeat many.”

Detecting a lull in the snowfall and the gritting lorries trundling through the city, Gheorghe decided to brave the blizzard and take the Ferrari out of the showroom. “Excuse me if I drive, Victor. Insurance purposes.”

“Yes, I understand. I can’t guarantee I won’t be overcome by the flighty urges of a stallion and drive us both into a lamp post. I suppose the insurance companies recognise the ease with which drivers become possessed by their new totems.”

“Ferrari F1 Berlinetta, Victor. A grand tourer, makes easy going of this thick snow.”

“How safe are we, Gheorghe?”

“Safe?”

“I was listening to a discussion on the radio recently. The onboard computers of cars can be hacked. A cybercriminal could, for example, take control of the steering or the brakes and kill us both.”

“Technically, that’s possible. But unlikely.” Gheorghe waved like a king to every child who stopped and stared at the maroon barge drifting past them. “Consider this: would you be any safer riding a bicycle?”

“Not in this weather.”

The snowfall stopped. The heavy grey roof over Bucharest eased as the Ferrari left the city and passed along a smooth black ribbon of asphalt, stopping at a large hotel, the snow scraped clear of the walls and entrances, the hotel lights dressing the building like mid-winter jewels. The restaurant was open for lunch and Gheorghe asked for a table. “Away from the windows, please.”

Blowing on his dumpling soup, Victor said, “How would you deal with an enemy who had the power to take control of your totem?”

“Good question.”

“There you are, rushing into battle, leopard’s tail flying out behind your head and you discover your enemy has its own battalion of leopards. Claws sharpened, teeth gnashing, and,” he swallowed his soup, “not only that, your enemy is up in the trees, sitting on their arses and letting the leopards get on with the dirty work down below.”

“It’s a vivid picture.” Gheorghe couldn’t eat his pate quick enough. “But let’s for a moment consider who that enemy might be and what method they use to control those animals. What you’ll have is a variation of the familiar. An army of conscripts will be untrained, reluctant, unsure about what they’re doing. They’ll need every move and ploy explaining to them. Do this, then do that, then when you’ve done that do the other, over and over, throughout the battle. They might as well come down from the trees and do the job themselves.”

On Gheorghe’s plate a line of toasted bread fingers waited to be smeared with pate. Victor knew (instinctively) the analogy Gheorghe was about to use. “Soldiers,” (correct), “a regular army needs its supplies, needs its logistics, its lines of communication, a whole industry of support to maintain its effectiveness. And even then they become battle weary because they have to do everything.”

First course finished the bill wouldn’t arrive for another hour, so Victor raised the issue of mercenaries. “They’re the worst enemy aren’t they?”

“Yes and no. Mercenaries will always fight for the highest bidder, which of course means the highest bidder can be outbid. The difficulty is the negotiation. In the heat of battle when you come broken nose to broken nose with your wealthy adversary what do you do? Ask him if he accepts American Express?”

Possible scenarios and solutions came and went with each component of the meal. A treasure map, an IOU, a smattering of dead bodies left at crossroads, promises, appeals to reason. Victor rubbed the spinach and rosemary sauce from his lower lip. “We’re assuming the fighters do the negotiations. That wouldn’t really happen though, would it?”

“Of course.” Gheorghe spread out his arms. “Of course, you’re right. You would use an intermediary.”

“An individual both sides trust.”

“Yes.”

Victor’s meal filled him and he was glad Gheorghe had to drive the Ferrari. They left the restaurant and entered the increasingly dim afternoon light. The temperature would plunge soon, the road surface freeze and Victor knew horses had trouble with hard surfaces. Surrounded by the snowy curtains of the trees, he remembered his conversations with Dr Rozalia Comeneci.

“The other concern, of course, is the reliability of mercenaries in the long term. If you are adopting a long term strategy you don’t want to be fighting alongside people who could change their allegiance in the second week.”

“Very true.” The Ferrari rumbled away from the hotel. The voice of the tyres altering as the road surface changed. “In battle they are fearsome. In war utterly unreliable.”

“And the most unreliable would be indistinguishable from the trustworthy. How would you know the difference? They’re not colour coded, are they? Green hats for trustworthy mercenaries, red hats for the difficult ones. You say the wrong thing to the wrong person and you alert the whole lot.”

Gheorghe didn’t answer. The conditions taxed his concentration as much as Victor’s questions. He sat close to the steering wheel all the way back to Bucharest, crept over the threshold of the showroom and paused for a moment after turning off the engine.

“So, Victor, I suppose the important question now is . . . do you want to buy this car?”

Victor didn’t buy the Ferrari, or the Lamborghini, or even a Seat. On a bright Monday in April he parked his Audi in a sidestreet in Targoviste and found the entrance to the Orchestra Filarmonicii. Inside the building the paint was still wet, the smell overwhelming.

“How do you rehearse in this stink?” he said to the conductor.

“We don’t. Can I help you?”

“Yes, I’m looking for Mirela. . . .” He felt his face flush as he put down his briefcase and rummaged through his pockets for the business card with his client’s name.

“She’s over there.” The conductor pointed his baton at a young woman closing a violin case.

“Thank you.” Before he could find the business card Victor introduced himself to Mirela.

“I thought you weren’t coming,” she said glancing over Victor’s shoulder at the conductor still watching them. She lowered her voice. “Can you help me?”

“I wouldn’t be here otherwise. I couldn’t find anywhere to park.”

The door of the rehearsal room slammed when the conductor left them alone. The space had a lot of reverberation, the echo lingering.

“No microphones?” said Victor.

Mirela shook her head and sat down next to an empty music stand.

“Must be quite exciting to be part of a new orchestra.”

“The first in Targoviste.” Mirela spoke to her knees.

“Good. When will your first performance be?”

She shrugged. “For me, there won’t be a first performance if you can’t help me.”

“You can play without insurance, can’t you?”

“No. The orchestra doesn’t insure our instruments, that’s our responsibility and they won’t let you play unless you’re insured.” She was reluctant to open the case again, but after gentle insistence she revealed the violin to Victor, placing it on her lap like a sleeping baby. “It’s an Amati, a Grand Amati. I prefer the sound to Stradivarius. It’s stronger, more assertive,” she paused, “but I don’t feel very assertive at the moment.”

“I wouldn’t feel too good either, walking around with an uninsured violin. But it’s possible. Five hundred thousand euros we can do.” Victor smiled.

Mirela smiled back, a weak smile displayed with enormous effort. “It’s not the insurance, Mr Radu.”

“Please, call me Victor.”

“It’s not the insurance, it’s being turned down, constantly turned down. It’s as if they know who I am.”

Something about the door to the rehearsal room disturbed Victor, as if it were designed to accommodate several people with their ears pushed against the other side. He pulled his chair a little closer to Mirela. “I don’t understand.”

“They discriminate against me. When the salesmen come to see me they always get round to talking about religion. They think I should be a Catholic or at least Orthodox, but I’m not and my reluctance . . . tips them off.”

“I see.”

“These are dangerous times, Victor.”

“All the more reason to make sure your violin is insured.

“Yes. I suppose it’s nothing knew. It’s been going on for four hundred years. At least they don’t burn us at the stake any more. They turn us down for insurance. They hit us in modern ways.”

“I can process the paperwork very quickly. Within seven days. Do you have somewhere safe to keep the violin?”

“It’s safe so long as it’s near me. If it goes I go with it. They watch me all the time, Victor.”

“How do you know?”

“Instinct. I can tell when I speak on the phone. Any phone. I notice the cars parked outside my apartment. People don’t sit in their cars all night unless they’re watching you. When I played in the quartet at music school I noticed figures in the audiences, the same figures would show up to every performance. They weren’t with the other players, they were watching me, intensely. I ignored them, but I knew they were there.”

“Has anyone ever approached you?”

“No.”

“Has your apartment been disturbed?”

“No.”

“I sometimes get the feeling I’m being watched, but like you, nothing’s happened yet.”

“Even the oboe player looks at me all the time.”

“I don’t like it in here, Mirela. Let’s go for a walk.”

No one tumbled through the door when Victor opened it and they both stepped into an empty corridor. Outside, he scanned all the cars for lingering occupants, he scanned pedestrians for suspicious looks, glanced at the windows of first floors for snoopers and lifted blinds, blinking curtains.

“Paranoia is a weapon, Mirela. Not as effective as a bullet, but debilitating. Your adversary gains a lot from a little investment.”

“A bit like an insurance premium, I suppose.”

Victor chose not to agree.

“You didn’t say what the premium would be.”

“For a half million euro violin, maybe fifteen thousand euros, spread over ten months. Can you afford that?”

“Not really, but it’s a tenth of the other quotes. Why is it so low?”

“We’re not like other insurance brokers.” He paused at a news stand. The front page of a magazine had dates for Toten Herzen’s Malandanti world tour. They were coming to Bucharest. “I wonder how much insurance they pay?”

“Apparently, Susan Bekker’s guitar is priceless.”

“Really.” Victor walked on, but stopped. “How do you know that?”

Mirela’s smile was the first genuine smile he had seen. “My sister told me. She prefers their music to mine. Can you wait a moment?” She leaned across the magazines and asked the kiosk vendor, “Do you have any lighters?”

“No.”

“No? You sell cigarettes.”

“Yes, I know, but I don’t sell lighters. I sell magazines, but I don’t sell reading glasses.”

His answer made sense, an alternative logic, but his inability to sell came across as a refusal. Mirela’s eyes began to fill. “You’re doing this on purpose.”

“What?”

Victor stepped in and pulled Mirela away. “If he doesn’t sell lighters it’s because he doesn’t sell lighters, not because you’re a . . . you know.”

“Yes, I do know. It happens all the time. In the shops people refusing to sell things to me. They always say they’re out of stock, or they don’t stock what I want.”

“It’s not uncommon for shopkeepers to run out of stock.”

Mirela gripped the violin case. “You are who you say you are, Victor?”

“I hope so. My wife will be in for a shock if I’m not.”

Their conversation battled with the volume of the traffic and when they stopped at an alfresco cafe they battled with the chatter of customers – not clients – spread across the pavement. “There is a way of beating paranoia though,” said Victor sitting down with a menu.

Mirela placed the violin case on the table and then placed her hands on the violin case.

“When the Ottomans threatened to over-run Muntenia in the spring of 1394 Mircea the Elder struggled to gather an army strong enough to take on the invaders. He was a slippery ruler, not like Vlad, Mircea wasn’t too keen on eating his lunch beneath impaled enemies. His indecisions led others to conspire against him. There was a power struggle and Mircea became convinced he was surrounded by spies. The only ally he could trust was Sigismund of Hungary who had returned from the siege of Nicopolis.

“He brought with him all kinds of looted stuff and Mircea saw an opportunity. Everywhere he went he would carry something small, looted from the Ottomans, small enough to conceal on his person. And he would leave these items in places where they would eventually be discovered and people would think, hang on, this is Ottoman, what’s it doing here. Within a month the rumours spread that there were Ottoman spies in the area, clumsy and a bit incompetent, it has to be said, but the evidence was there. Of course it was there, Mircea was the one leaving all this stuff lying around.”

Two espressos arrived. Victor kept quiet until the waitress left them. “Has she gone?” he whispered. Mirela nodded. “Eventually, a delegation met him and asked if he knew the area was over run by spies? He thought it was a possibility. They were impressed by his calm, his reassurance, his unflapability, and faced with the real enemy, Mircea was able to form a sort of coalition. My enemy’s enemy is my friend. Mircea’s enemies joined him when they thought the Ottomans were at the gates.”

“Is that a true story, Victor?”

“Whether it is or isn’t, the point is that our enemies must also have enemies.”

“Yes.” She used the espresso as a device to mirror her concerns, the cup rising towards her mouth as she prepared to speak. “But what happens when the enemy is gone? You’re stuck with your enemy’s enemy. . . .” She almost drank, but the question stopped her. “And. . . .”

“Gives you time to soften them up.” Victor grinned. “Mircea eventually signed a peace accord with the Ottomans, so he was no chump.”

The waitress reappeared and stood in front of Victor. “Would you like anything else, sir?”

“No, thank you.” Off she went.

Mirela’s cup hit the table. “You see that, she ignores me.”

“You don’t look like a rich old man. Think about it.”

“But I’m the one with the half million euro violin.” She probably didn’t know how fondly she stroked the case.

“The people who are watching you, who do you think their enemy would be?”

Mirela took such a long time answering Victor ordered another round of espressos. He didn’t like drinking so much coffee; his palpitations were one of the conditions that drove him to Dr. Rozalia Comeneci’s spa in the first place. When Mirela finally answered he wished he hadn’t asked.

“My enemy’s enemy,” she said to the violin case. “Vampires.”

From the cafe to the car and from the car back to his home outside Bucharest, Victor mulled over Mirela’s choice of enemy. It was no idle selection and he felt slightly manipulative as if his tale of Mircea had subliminally determined Mirela’s choice. Muntenia and Vlad: the 15th Century ruler retreated to Targoviste; the town was no stranger to vampires.

And the vampires were out in force at the mountain spa of Dr. Rozalia Comeneci. They called it a fundraising event, a musical performance with proceeds going to local charities, but the networkers were there, the salesmen were there, the society ladies extending their contacts were there. Even Gheorghe Dulescu was there along with three examples of his inventory.

“Porsche Cayman GTS,” he said fiddling with his cufflinks.

“There’s no animal on the bonnet,” Victor said.

“Look closely.” Gheorghe’s fat index finger settled on the Porsche badge, the crest of Stuttgart and the prancing horse.

“Ah, yes. Of course.”

“Mercedes-Benz AMG GTS. . . .”

“Are they all called GTS, Gheorghe?”

Before he could answer his phone rang. “I’ve got a signal. Excuse me a moment, Victor.”

The wandering salesman had an audience. Victor and Dr Comeneci studied him, hand in pocket, flamboyant footsteps, adjusting the knot of his tie as he spoke.

“I don’t think a short term strategy is a good idea,” Victor said. “It’s too risky, requires too much initial investment and we don’t know who would be alongside us. We need to build trust.”

“I’m glad you agree. We can learn from these mountains.”

Victor didn’t like it when Dr Comenci became esoteric. “We’ve been around for four hundred years, maybe not as long as the mountains, but I know what you mean.”

Gheorghe’s smile was that of a successful sale. “Another happy customer,” he said.

“I thought you only had clients?” said Victor.

“That’s the speech I give to all potential customers, Victor. Now that I know you’re not going to get your wallet out, you’re a customer.”

“Thank you.”

“Do you agree on the long term approach?” said Dr Comeneci.

“Yes,” said Gheorghe. “And no mercenaries. Intermediary perhaps, but no mercenaries.”

They would have discussed names, but the musicians gathered for the main event were moving into position. The summer evening, with a chorus of birdsong and weaving tree tops, filled with a gentle cacophony of tuning instruments. The Orchestra Filarmonicii would be ready as soon as the last guest sat down. Mirela looked for Victor and smiled when she noticed him glancing up from his concert programme. Dr Comeneci, the evening’s host, sat on the front row next to Gheorghe Dulescu, the programme sponsor. The music began.

They played through a sudden brief unexpected light summer shower. Only Gheorghe pulled up his jacket collar, but the rain had stopped by the time he had rolled his programme to put it in his pocket. He checked the cloud, but stopped when Dr Comeneci elbowed him and winked.

At the interval, the audience separated, some to the bathroom, others to continue their deals and networking and take a closer look at the sports cars. Dr Comeneci waited for Mirela to get away from well wishers (she was glad to escape the attention) and led her inside the spa building. They passed through the dining room, climbed the glazed stairs and walked alongside the gym equipment, silent now, the machinery turned off. A smaller staircase took them to the third floor and darker lighting, a corridor and a room at the end, the door ajar, Gheorghe and nine others standing around a circle added to the pattern of the floor tiles. Victor followed them in and closed the door behind him.

The candlelight stifled recognition, but Dr Comeneci’s voice was familiar to everyone present. “Let’s keep this brief. The programme restarts in fifteen minutes. We have agreed on a long term strategy, yes.” The other twelve agreed. “Our existence was not an overnight success. Four hundred years is a long time, we can’t expect to recreate what we had in a few months or even a few years, but we do have the advantage of structures in place, of resources readily available, and an insight into who our enemy is,” She looked at Mirela, “and some of the things even they fear.

“We have agreed to avoid mercenaries and opportunists in our struggle and one name demands further investigation. She was one of us, but if the rumours are true she is now everything and nothing. I suppose it’s a question of who gets to her first. But that’s a detail. This isn’t the time.

“We owe it to Eleanor, our first coven leader, to bring Bucharest back together and from there re-establish the wider network. It can work again, we know our enemy, their strengths and weaknesses, you all know what to do. This is the first and last time we will ever meet like this. Victor will be our ambassador from now on. He will inform you of the protocols. Thank you for coming, take care and enjoy the rest of the programme.”

They left the room at intervals, in ones and twos, wandering off to inspect the wetrooms and the massage beds and the views from the balcony of the health centre. Victor invited Mirela to walk with him and Dr Comeneci. He noticed for the first time she was carrying her violin.

“Is that the same Amati?”

“Yes.”

“Do you take it in the shower with you.”

“Victor, don’t be personal,” said Dr Comeneci. “Mirela, when you met Victor you mentioned your sister.”

“Did I?”

“You said she was also a musician. A pianist.”

“She plays the piano, but she prefers the guitar.”

“Okay. That’s even better. If we can’t persuade Frieda Schoenhofer to help us we had a contingency plan.”

“Oh, yes.”

“Another intermediary. Someone who’s not afraid to take on a challenge.”

“My sister loves a challenge. She hates being idle and at the moment she’s idle.”

Victor spoke. “You didn’t tell me her name.”

“Funny you should ask, Victor,” Mirela said. “Her name’s Victoria, but she prefers Ria.”

The second half of the programme accompanied and complemented the change in light, the evening mood settling like peace of mind over a once troubled individual. Mirela played the violin with grace and precision and Victor wondered if her sister, if Ria, would play the programme with the same controlled accuracy.

If she was needed, of course.