Secrets of the Dead
Pristina, Kosovo – Present Day
Escaping work on a Friday afternoon was still a luxury Abby hadn’t got used to.
For ten years, work had been long days in the dark places of the Earth, listening to shattered people relive brutality on an unimaginable scale. Then evenings at a laptop in rooms converted from shipping containers, freezing or baking with the seasons, wringing all the blood and tears out of the stories until they became dry pieces of paper that would make presentable evidence for the International Court in The Hague. She never escaped. She’d lost count of the nightmares, the times she’d found herself kneeling over the chemical toilet deep in the night, desperate to purge the things she’d seen. Among the casualties over the years had been several promising relationships, a marriage, and finally her ability to care. But always, next morning, straight back to work.
Now all that was history. She’d transferred to the EU mission in Kosovo – EULEX – teaching the Kosovars how to be model European citizens. There had been war crimes in Kosovo, true, but they were someone else’s problem. She worked with the civil courts, trying to unwind the tangled questions of who owned what after the war. The Lost Property Office , Michael called it. She didn’t mind being teased. She could sleep at night.
She folded up her files and locked them away. She cleared her desk for the cleaners to come in over the weekend. Shut down, turn off, leave behind . Just before she killed her computer, she noticed a new e-mail had come in from the Director. She ignored it – another luxury. She could deal with it on Monday. It was 2 p.m. on Friday and her week was over.
Michael’s car was waiting for her outside the office. A red Porsche convertible, vintage 1968, probably the only one in the Balkans. Top off, despite the thunder clouds massing over the city. Michael revved the engine as she stepped out the door, a full-throated roar that would have made her wince with embarrassment if she wasn’t so happy. Typical Michael. She slipped into the passenger seat and kissed him, feeling his salt-and-pepper stubble graze her cheek. A couple of people coming out of the office stopped to stare, and she wondered if they were looking at the car or at her. Michael was twenty years her senior and looked it, though age suited him. There were lines on his face, but they only accentuated what was good about it: the ready smile, the devil-may-care gleam in his eye, the confidence and strength. When his hair started greying he didn’t cut it, just added a gold earring. So as not to look too respectable, he said. Abby teased him that it made him look like a pirate.
He cupped her chin and turned her head so he could see her throat. ‘You’re wearing the necklace.’
He sounded pleased. He’d given it to her a week ago, an intricate golden labyrinth studded with five red glass beads. In the centre was a monogram, a form of the early Christian X-P symbol though she’d never known Michael be religious. The necklace itself felt ancient. The gold was dark and glossy like honey, the red glass misted with time. When she asked Michael where he got it, he just gave a crooked smile and told her a Gypsy gave it to him.
From the corner of her eye, she noticed her black overnight bag lying on the Porsche’s back seat, next to his briefcase.
‘Are we going somewhere?’
‘Kotor Bay. Montenegro.’
She made a face. ‘That’s six hours away.’
‘Not if I can help it.’ He pulled out of the parking lot, past the security guard in his blue blazer and baseball cap. The man gave the car an admiring stare and threw them a salute. Among the drab rows of EU-issue sedans, the Porsche stood out like some kind of endangered species.
Driving one-handed, Michael reached down and pulled a hipflask from beside the handbrake. His hand brushed her thigh where her sundress had ridden up. He took a swig, then handed it to her.
‘I promise it’ll be worth it.’
And maybe he was right. That was the thing with Michael: however wild his idea, you always wanted to believe him. As soon as they’d escaped Pristina’s gridlock, weaving in and out of the traffic in ways even the locals – comfortably the worst drivers in Europe – wouldn’t have dared, he punched the accelerator and gave the car its head. Abby snuggled into her seat and watched the miles fly by. Roof down, they raced ahead of the wind, outrunning the storm that always threatened but never touched them. Across the Kosovo plain and up into the foothills, towards the mountains that squeezed the setting sun against the sky until it bled crimson. At the Montenegrin border a few words from Michael sped them past the customs officials.
Now they were deep in the mountains. Cold air eddied around them; above, even August hadn’t dislodged snow from the peaks. Michael kept the roof down, but turned the heat on full blast. Abby found a blanket in the footwell and pulled it over her.
And suddenly there it was. The road bent around through a rocky defile and emerged high above the bay, sunk in shadows between the mountains. All Abby could see were the lights of pleasure yachts and motorcruisers, clustered around the coves and beaches that fringed it like luminous algae.
Michael slowed, then veered left. Abby gasped: it looked as if he was driving off the edge of the cliff. But there was a track, unpaved, that ended at an iron gate in a stucco wall. Michael rummaged in the glove compartment for a remote control. The gate slid open.
Abby raised her eyebrows. ‘Do you come here often?’
Through the open gate, Abby could see the flat roof of a house, ghostly white in the gathering darkness. It stood on a promontory halfway down the slope – about the only place you could put a house on this side of the bay. Across the water, Abby could see the bright glow of a town, and its outer suburbs strung all across the opposite hill. On this side, there was nothing.
Michael stopped the car on a strip of gravel outside the house. He pulled an unfamiliar key out of his pocket and unlocked the fat oak door.
Nothing in the villa’s plain exterior had prepared her for what was inside. Working in Pristina on an expat EU salary, Abby was used to living comfortably, but this was luxury on a whole other level. The floors were marble: green and pink slabs forming intricate geometric patterns. Everything seemed to have been built for a race of giants: chairs and sofas deep enough to lose yourself in, a mahogany dining table that could have seated twenty people, and the biggest television she’d ever seen hanging on the wall. Opposite, almost as big, three Orthodox saints stared out of the gold of a triple-panelled icon.
‘How much did this cost you?’
‘Not a penny. It belongs to an Italian judge, a friend. He’s letting me borrow it for the weekend.’
‘Are we expecting anyone else?’
Michael grinned. ‘Got it all to ourselves.’
She pointed to the briefcase he’d carried in. ‘I hope you weren’t planning on getting any work done.’
‘Wait until you see the pool.’
He pulled open the glass door. Abby stepped through and gasped. Behind the villa, the pool terrace stretched right to the cliff edge. A mock-classical colonnade framed three sides: fluted columns and Corinthian capitals that didn’t really fit with the rest of the modern architecture. The fourth side was the cliff, with the bay far below. In the twilight, the pool seemed to flow straight into the sea. There was no rail.
Abby heard a soft click behind her as Michael touched a switch. Recessed lights in the pool made the water glow. When Abby peered in, she saw an undersea world of nymphs and dolphins, mermaids and starfish, a seaweed-haired god in a chariot drawn by four sea horses – all picked out in a dappled black-and-white mosaic. Fine traces of light shimmered across it, so that the monochrome figures seemed to dance underwater.
More lights had come on behind the colonnade. Each alcove held a marble statue on a marble plinth: Hercules, draped in a lionskin and leaning on his club; a bare-breasted Aphrodite clutching a robe that had somehow slipped below her hips; Medea, a coil of serpents fizzing from her hair. They looked solid, but when Abby touched one she felt it tremble on its base as if a gust of wind could blow it off. She flinched.
‘Careful,’ said Michael. ‘They’re not making any more of those.’
Abby laughed. ‘They can’t be original.’
‘Every one, so I’m told.’
Dazed, Abby wandered on past the silent figures. She came to the end of the terrace and looked down. The cliff was so steep that even there she couldn’t see its base: only a froth of silver foam on the water drifting off the rocks. She shivered. The flimsy sundress wasn’t nearly enough this late in August.
She heard a bang behind her; something flew past her face, almost touching her cheek. For that instant, she was back in Freetown, or Mogadishu or Kinshasa. She gave a low scream and spun around, almost losing her balance on the unprotected cliff edge. She grabbed on to the nearest column, hugging it for dear life.
‘Are you OK?’
Michael was standing beside the pool with two champagne flutes in one hand, an uncorked bottle of Pol Roger in the other.
‘Didn’t mean to scare you. I thought we could celebrate.’
Celebrate what? Abby leaned back against the column and clung on, her heart still pounding. The night breeze blew the gold necklace against her throat and a mad thought struck her. Was he going to propose?
Michael poured the champagne and pressed a glass into her trembling hand. It slopped over the rim and dribbled down her fingers. He put his arm around her shoulders and drew her to him. Abby sipped her drink; Michael stared out to sea as if looking for something. The last crack of sunlight made a rim on the horizon, then vanished.
Michael fetched a cool-bag from the car, and soon the house was filled with the smells of frying garlic, prawns and herbs. Abby drank and watched him cook. The champagne didn’t last long. A bottle of Sancerre appeared from the cool-bag, and that quickly went down, too. Abby found a switch to turn on the terrace heaters, and they ate outside by the pool. She dangled her bare legs in the water, while light rippled off the colonnades and stars pricked the sky.
The food and drink began to unwind her. When the evening cooled, Michael lit the fire in the living room, and they sat on the sofa watching the stars over the bay. Abby curled up like a kitten with her head on his lap, eyes half-closed as he stroked her hair. You’re thirty-two , a small voice chided her, not seventeen . She didn’t care; she liked it. With Michael, she had no responsibilities. He made life easy.
Much later – after the second bottle of wine had emptied, after the town across the bay had gone dark and the fire had died to embers – Abby pulled herself off the sofa. She swayed; Michael rose and held her, surprisingly steady considering how much he’d drunk.
She wrapped her arms around him and kissed his neck.
‘Shall we go to bed?’ She was drunk, she knew, and it felt good. She wanted him. She began fumbling with the buttons on his shirt, but he ducked out from under her embrace and spun her around.
‘You’re insatiable,’ he scolded her.
He steered her to the bedroom and unclasped the necklace, then eased her down on to the bed. Abby tried to pull him on top of her, but he stepped back.
‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m not tired.’
‘I’m not tired either,’ she protested. But it was a lie. By the time he’d kissed her goodnight and closed the door, she was asleep.
The cold woke her. Lying on top of the sheets, still in her sundress, she could feel an air-conditioned chill blowing across her skin. She rolled over, looking for Michael’s warmth, but didn’t feel him. She groped her way across the wide bed until she touched the far bedside table.
The bed was empty.
She lay there a moment, trying to get her bearings in the unfamiliar room. She looked for light, but saw nothing. All she could hear was the hum of the air conditioner and the tick of the bedside clock. Its luminous hands showed 3.45 a.m.
And then something else – a murmuring voice. She listened, trying to grasp the sounds of a strange house. Was it two voices – some kind of conversation? Or maybe it was just the waves breaking on the rocks.
It’s the television . Michael must have fallen asleep watching it. Now that her eyes had adjusted, she could see a dim blue light flickering in from the hallway.
Still sluggish from sleep and alcohol, she wondered what to do. Part of her said she should leave him there, let him wake up stiff and alone. But the bed was cold.
She got up. Barefoot, she padded down the hall to the living room. The enormous television played on the wall, filling the room with its diode-blue glow; half a dozen cigarette butts lay stubbed out in a silver ashtray. The leather sofa bore a deep impression where Michael must have been lying.
He wasn’t there now. And the television was muted.
So what did I hear?
A gust of air blew in the smell of the night: jasmine and fig and chlorine. Out in the courtyard, the lights were still on. The door stood open. Through it, she could see Michael standing by the pool smoking another cigarette. The briefcase that had been in the car sat on a metal table beside him, the lid raised. A man in a white shirt and black trousers was examining the contents.
Abby stepped out into the courtyard, still unsteady from the alcohol in her system. Just over the threshold, her bare foot kicked against something unseen in the shadows. She yelped with pain and surprise. The empty champagne bottle rolled across the paving and dropped in the pool with a splash.
Two heads snapped up and stared at her.
‘Am I interrupting something?’
‘Go back inside!’ Michael shouted.
He sounded desperate, but she still didn’t get it. She took two steps forward, into the glow of the pool light. Offering herself up. The man in the white shirt reached behind his back. When his hand reappeared, a black pistol gleamed in his grip.
That was the last thing she remembered clearly. Everything afterwards was blurred and fragmented. Michael knocking the man backwards, so that the shot went wild; the table toppling over; the briefcase spilling its contents across the tiles. If she saw what was inside, it didn’t register. She sprang away, slipped on the smooth tiles and fell.
The water hit her hard. She flailed and went under; she tasted chlorine at the back of her throat and gagged. The sundress wrapped her like a shroud.
She broke the surface and kicked to the side. From the floor of the pool, soft-lit sea nymphs beckoned her to join them. She put her bare arms on the side and hauled herself out.
Sprawled on the poolside, she saw it all from ground level. The scattered briefcase and overturned table; the marble gods looking down on her. And at the far end of the terrace, two men locked in a struggle over the abyss. Michael threw a punch that didn’t connect; his opponent grabbed his arm and jerked it back, spinning him around to face the cliff. They stood there for a second like two lovers staring at a sunset. Then, with a brusque motion, the man kicked out Michael’s feet and pushed him forward. Michael flailed and stumbled. He tried to regain his balance and almost succeeded, teetering on the edge like a broken-winged bird. His impatient assailant moved in for the kill, but it wasn’t necessary. Without a sound, as if the life had already left him, Michael flopped over the edge and vanished.
Abby screamed; she couldn’t help it. The man heard her and turned. All his movements were precise, unhurried. He’d dropped the gun in his struggle with Michael – now he picked it up. He checked the slide and the magazine. He ejected the cartridge in the chamber and reloaded.
Abby pulled herself off the ground The wet dress clung to her body, dragging her down. She had to escape – but where? To the car? She didn’t know where Michael had left the keys. She didn’t even have time to get back to the house. The intruder was walking along the side of the pool, gun raised. She hurled herself into the colonnade as the next shot went off. Stone cracked; something shattered.
She crouched low and ran down the back of the colonnade, ducking between the columns and the statue plinths. It was like being in a shooting gallery – except the man wasn’t shooting. Had he run out of bullets?
She reached the end of the colonnade and paused. A marble Jupiter towered over her, a lightning bolt clenched in his fist. Measured footsteps approached.
With a sickening shock, she realised why he hadn’t bothered shooting. She was trapped in a corner with nowhere to go. She cowered behind the base of the statue. The footsteps stopped.
The silence was worst of all.
‘What do you want?’ she called.
No answer. Water dripped off her sodden dress and pooled around her feet. What was he waiting for? She had thought she knew what it was like to face death. She’d heard the stories a thousand times and recorded them diligently. But the people who’d lived to bear witness had been survivors. Some had run when the killers came; others lay rigid in the killing fields and played dead, sometimes for hours, while their families and neighbours died around them. They never gave up.
She had one chance. She pushed off on the plinth, jackknifed up and spun around, throwing her entire weight against the statue. It wobbled, tottered and fell. The god crashed down and smashed into pieces. The gunman leapt back, losing his balance.
Abby was already running. She crossed the last few yards of the terrace and dived back inside the house. On the wall, the giant TV screen played its rote images of war and revenge, oblivious to the real horror in front of it.
But the gunman had recovered too fast. The first bullet shattered the window behind her. The second tore into her shoulder, spinning her around. She saw him stepping through the broken window, gun raised.
‘Please,’ she begged. She wanted to run, but her body had failed her. ‘Why are you doing this?’
The man shrugged. He had a black moustache and a mole on his right cheek, sprouting hairs. His eyes were dark and hard.
Her last thought was of a witness she’d interviewed years ago, a grey-haired Hutu woman grinding meal in a jungle camp somewhere between Congo and Rwanda. ‘You never gave up,’ Abby had told her in admiration, and the woman had shaken her head.
‘I was lucky. The others were not. That was the only difference.’
The man raised the gun and fired.