Criminal Element Book Club, Week 1: The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer Excerpt
By Crime HQJanuary 7, 2020
We’re beginning this week with an excerpt from The Tourist. Originally published in 2009 to launch the Milo Weaver series, The Tourist hits bookstore shelves once again this month in a new paperback format. To celebrate we’re giving away 25 copies! Sign-in to the site and leave a comment on this post for a chance to win one of the 25 copies of The Tourist. Winners will be announced next week, and if you miss out on snagging a free paperback copy, you can still read along by getting a deal on the eBook for only $2.99 for the whole month of January.
The End of Tourism
Monday, September 10 To
Tuesday, September 11, 2001
Four hours after his failed suicide attempt, he descended toward Aerodrom Ljubljana. A tone sounded, and above his head the seat belt sign glowed. Beside him, a Swiss businesswoman buckled her belt and gazed out the window at the clear Slovenian sky—all it had taken was one initial rebuff to convince her that the twitching American she’d been seated next to had no interest in conversation.
The American closed his eyes, thinking about the morning’s failure in Amsterdam—gunfire, shattering glass and splintered wood, sirens.
If suicide is sin, he thought, then what is it to someone who doesn’t believe in sin? What is it then? An abomination of nature? Probably, because the one immutable law of nature is to continue existing. Witness: weeds, cockroaches, ants, and pigeons. All of nature’s creatures work to a single, unified purpose: to stay alive. It’s the one indisputable theory of everything.
He’d dwelled on suicide so much over the last months, had examined the act from so many angles, that it had lost its punch. The infinitive clause “to commit suicide” was no more tragic than “to eat breakfast” or “to sit,” and the desire to snuff himself was often as strong as his desire “to sleep.”
Sometimes it was a passive urge—drive recklessly without a seat belt; walk blindly into a busy street—though more frequently these days he was urged to take responsibility for his own death. “The Bigger Voice,” his mother would have called it: There’s the knife; you know what to do. Open the window and try to fly. At four thirty that morning, while he lay on top of a woman in Amsterdam, pressing her to the floor as her bedroom window exploded from automatic gunfire, the urge had suggested he stand straight and proud and face the hail of bullets like a man.
He’d spent the whole week in Holland, watching over a sixty-year-old U.S.-supported politician whose comments on immigration had put a contract on her head. The hired assassin, a killer who in certain circles was known only as “the Tiger,” had that morning made a third attempt on her life. Had he succeeded, he would have derailed that day’s Dutch House of Representatives vote on her conservative immigration bill.
How the continued existence of one politician—in this case, a woman who had made a career of catering to the whims of frightened farmers and bitter racists—played into the hands of his own country was unknown to him. “Keeping an empire,” Grainger liked to tell him, “is ten times more difficult than gaining one.”
Rationales, in his trade, didn’t matter. Action was its own reason. But, covered in glass shards, the woman under him screaming over the crackling sound, like a deep fryer, of the window frame splintering, he’d thought, What am I doing here? He even placed a hand flat on the wood-chip-covered carpet and began to push himself up again, to face this assassin head-on. Then, in the midst of all that noise, he heard the happy music of his cell phone. He removed his hand from the floor, saw that it was Grainger calling, and shouted into it, “What?”
“Riverrun, past Eve,” Tom Grainger said.
Learned Grainger had created go-codes out of the first lines of novels. His own Joycean code told him he was needed someplace new. But nothing was new anymore. The unrelenting roll call of cities and hotel rooms and suspicious faces that had constituted his life for too many years was stupefying in its tedium. Would it never stop?
So he hung up on his boss, told the screaming woman to stay where she was, and climbed to his feet . . . but didn’t die. The bullets had ceased, replaced by the whining sirens of Amsterdam’s finest.
“Slovenia,” Grainger told him later, as he drove the politician safely to the Tweede Kamer. “Portorož, on the coast. We’ve got a vanished suitcase of taxpayer money and a missing station chief. Frank Dawdle.”
“I need a break, Tom.”
“It’ll be like a vacation. Angela Yates is your contact—she works out of Dawdle’s office. A familiar face. Afterward, stay around and enjoy the water.”
As Grainger droned on, outlining the job with minimal details, his stomach had started to hurt, as it still did now, a sharp pain.
If the one immutable law of existence is to exist, then does that make the opposite some sort of crime?
No. Suicide-as-crime would require that nature recognize good and evil. Nature only recognizes balance and imbalance.
Maybe that was the crucial point—balance. He’d slipped to some secluded corner of the extremes, some far reach of utter imbalance. He was a ludicrously unbalanced creature. How could nature smile upon him? Nature, surely, wanted him dead, too.
“Sir?” said a bleached, smiling stewardess. “Your seat belt.”
He blinked at her, confused. “What about it?”
“You need to wear it. We’re landing. It’s for your safety.”
Though he wanted to laugh, he buckled it just for her. Then he reached into his jacket pocket, took out a small white envelope full of pills he’d bought in Düsseldorf, and popped two Dexedrine. To live or die was one issue; for the moment, he just wanted to stay alert.
Suspiciously, the Swiss businesswoman watched him put away his drugs.
The pretty, round-faced brunette behind the scratched bulletproof window watched him approach. He imagined he knew what she noticed—how big his hands were, for example. Piano-player hands.
The Dexedrine was making them tremble, just slightly, and if she noticed it she might wonder if he was unconsciously playing a sonata.
He handed over a mangled American passport that had crossed more borders than many diplomats. A touring pianist, she might think. A little pale, damp from the long flight he’d just finished. Bloodshot eyes. Aviatophobia—fear of flying—was probably her suspicion.
He managed a smile, which helped wash away her expression of bureaucratic boredom. She really was very pretty, and he wanted her to know, by his expression, that her face was a nice Slovenian welcome.
The passport gave her his particulars: five foot eleven. Born June 1970—thirty-one years old. Piano player? No—American passports don’t list occupations. She peered up at him and spoke in her unsure accent: “Mr. Charles Alexander?”
He caught himself looking around again, paranoid, and gave another smile. “That’s right.”
“You are here for the business or the tourism?”
“I’m a tourist.”
She held the open passport under a black light, then raised a stamp over one of the few blank pages. “How long will you be in Slovenia?”
Mr. Charles Alexander’s green eyes settled pleasantly on her. “Four days.”
“For vacation? You should spend at least a week. There is many things to see.”
His smile flashed again, and he rocked his head. “Well, maybe you’re right. I’ll see how it goes.”
Satisfied, the clerk pressed the stamp onto the page and handed it back. “Enjoy Slovenia.”
He passed through the luggage area, where other passengers from the Amsterdam-Ljubljana flight leaned on empty carts around the still-barren carousel. None seemed to notice him, so he tried to stop looking like a paranoid drug mule. It was his stomach, he knew, and that initial Dexedrine rush. Two white customs desks sat empty of officials, and he continued through a pair of mirrored doors that opened automatically for him. A crowd of expectant faces sank when they realized he didn’t belong to them. He loosened his tie.
The last time Charles Alexander had been in Slovenia, years ago, he’d been called something else, a name just as false as the one he used now. Back then, the country was still exhilarated by the 1991 ten-day war that had freed it from the Yugoslav Federation. Nestled against Austria, Slovenia had always been the odd man out in that patchwork nation, more German than Balkan. The rest of Yugoslavia accused Slovenes—not without reason—of snobbery.
Still inside the airport, he spotted Angela Yates just outside the doors to the busy arrivals curb. Above business slacks, she wore a blue Viennese blazer, arms crossed over her breasts as she smoked and stared through the gray morning light at the field of parked cars in front of the airport. He didn’t approach her. Instead, he found a bathroom and checked himself in the mirror. The paleness and sweat had nothing to do with aviatophobia. He ripped off his tie, splashed water on his cheeks, wiped at the pink edges of his eyes and blinked, but still looked the same.
“Sorry to get you up,” he said once he’d gotten outside.
Angela jerked, a look of terror passing through her lavender eyes. Then she grinned. She looked tired, but she would be. She’d driven four hours to meet his flight, which meant she’d had to leave Vienna by 5:00 a.m. She tossed the unfinished smoke, a Davidoff, then punched his shoulder and hugged him. The smell of tobacco was comforting. She held him at arm’s length. “You haven’t been eating.”
“And you look like hell.”
He shrugged as she yawned into the back of her hand.
“You going to make it?” he asked.
“No sleep last night.”
Angela got rid of the smile. “Still gulping amphetamines?”
“Only for emergencies,” he lied, because he’d taken that last dose for no other reason than he’d wanted it, and now, as the tremors shook through his bloodstream, he had an urge to empty the rest down his throat. “Want one?”
They crossed an access road choked with morning taxis and buses heading into town, then followed concrete steps down to the parking lot. She whispered, “Is it Charles these days?”
“Almost two years now.”
“Well, it’s a stupid name. Too aristocratic. I refuse to use it.”
“I keep asking for a new one. A month ago I showed up in Nice, and some Russian had already heard about Charles Alexander.”
“Nearly killed me, that Russian.”
She smiled as if he’d been joking, but he hadn’t been. Then his snapping synapses worried he was sharing too much. Angela knew nothing about his job; she wasn’t supposed to.
“Tell me about Dawdle. How long have you worked with him?”
“Three years.” She took out her key ring and pressed a little black button until she spotted, three rows away, a gray Peugeot winking at them. “Frank’s my boss, but we keep it casual. Just a small Company presence at the embassy.” She paused. “He was sweet on me for a while. Can you imagine? Couldn’t see what was right in front of him.”
She spoke with a tinge of hysteria that made him fear she would cry. He pushed anyway. “What do you think? Could he have done it?”
Angela popped the Peugeot’s trunk. “Absolutely not. Frank Dawdle wasn’t dishonest. Bit of a coward, maybe. A bad dresser. But never dishonest. He didn’t take the money.”
Charles threw in his bag. “You’re using the past tense, Angela.”
“I’m just afraid.”
Angela knitted her brows, irritated. “That he’s dead. What do you think?”
She was a careful driver these days, which he supposed was an inevitable result of her two Austrian years. Had she been stationed in Italy, or even here in Slovenia, she would’ve ignored her turn signals and those pesky speed limit notices.
To ease the tension, he brought up old London friends from when they both worked out of that embassy as vaguely titled “attachés.” He’d left in a hurry, and all Angela knew was that his new job, with some undisclosed Company department, required a steady change of names, and that he once again worked under their old boss, Tom Grainger. The rest of London station believed what they’d been told—that he had been fired. She said, “I fly up for parties now and then. They always invite me. But they’re sad, you know? All diplomatic people. There’s something intensely pitiful about them.”
“Really?” he said, though he knew what she meant.
“Like they’re living in their own little compound, surrounded by barbed wire. They pretend they’re keeping everyone out, when in fact they’re locked in.”
It was a nice way to put it, and it made him think of Tom Grainger’s delusions of empire—Roman outposts in hostile lands.
Once they hit the A1 heading southwest, Angela got back to business. “Tom fill you in on everything?”
“Not much. Can I get one of those smokes?”
“Not in the car.”
“Tell me what you know, and I’ll fill in the rest.”
Thick forests passed them, pines flickering by as he outlined his brief conversation with Grainger. “He says your Frank Dawdle was sent down here to deliver a briefcase full of money. He didn’t say how much.”
She nodded at the road.
Charles continued: “He was last seen at the Hotel Metropol in Portorož by Slovenian intelligence. In his room. Then he disappeared.” He waited for her to fill the numerous blank spots in that story line. All she did was drive in her steady, safe way. “Want to tell me more? Like, who the money was for?”
Angela tilted her head from side to side, but instead of answering she turned on the radio. It was preset to a station she’d found during her long drive from Vienna. Slovenian pop. Terrible stuff.
“And maybe you can tell me why we had to learn his last whereabouts from the SOVA, and not from our own people.”
As if he’d said nothing, she cranked the volume, and boy-band harmonies filled the car. Finally, she started to speak, and Charles had to lean close, over the stick shift, to hear.
“I’m not sure who the orders started with, but they reached us through New York. Tom’s office. He chose Frank for obvious reasons. Old-timer with a spotless record. No signs of ambition. No drinking problems, nothing to be compromised. He was someone they could trust with three million. More importantly, he’s familiar here. If the Slovenes saw him floating around the resort, there’d be no suspicions. He vacations in Portorož every summer, speaks fluent Slovene.” She grunted a half-laugh. “He even stopped to chat with them. Did Tom tell you that? The day he arrived, he saw a SOVA agent in a gift shop and bought him a little toy sailboat. Frank’s like that.”
“I like his style.”
Angela’s look suggested he was being inappropriately ironic. “It was supposed to be simple as pie. Frank takes the money down to the harbor on Saturday—two days ago—and does a straight phrase-code pass-off. Just hands over the briefcase. In return, he gets an address. He goes to a pay phone, calls me in Vienna, and reads off the address. Then he drives back home.”
The song ended, and a young DJ shouted in Slovenian about the hot-hot-hot band he’d just played as he mixed in the intro to the next tune, a sugar-sweet ballad.
“Why wasn’t someone backing him up?”
“Someone was,” she said, spying the rearview. “Leo Bernard. You met him in Munich, remember? Couple of years ago.”
Charles remembered a hulk of a man from Pennsylvania. In Munich, Leo had been their tough-guy backup during an operation with the German BND against an Egyptian heroin racket. They’d never had to put Leo’s fighting skills to the test, but it had given Charles a measure of comfort knowing the big man was available. “Yeah. Leo was funny.”
“Well, he’s dead,” said Angela, again glancing into the rearview. “In his hotel room, a floor above Frank’s. Nine millimeter.” She swallowed. “From his own gun, we think, though we can’t find the weapon itself.”
“Anyone hear it?”
She shook her head. “Leo had a suppressor.”
Charles leaned back into his seat, involuntarily checking the side mirror. He lowered the volume as a woman tried with limited success to carry a high E-note. Then he cut it off. Angela was being cagey about the central facts of this case—the why of all that money—but that could wait. Right now he wanted to visualize the events. “When did they arrive at the coast?”
“Friday afternoon. The seventh.”
“Frank, no. He was too well known for that. Leo used an old one, Benjamin Schneider, Austrian.”
“Next day, Saturday, was the trade. Which part of the docks?”
“I’ve got it written down.”
“Frank disappears . . . ?”
“Last seen at 4:00 a.m. Saturday morning. He was up until then drinking with Bogdan Krizan, the local SOVA head. They’re old friends. Then, around two in the afternoon, the hotel cleaning staff found Leo’s body.”
“What about the dock? Anyone see what happened at seven?”
Again, she glanced into the rearview. “We were too late. The Slovenes weren’t going to ask us why Frank was buying them toys. And we didn’t know about Leo’s body until after seven. His papers were good enough to confuse the Austrian embassy for over eight hours.”
“For three million dollars you couldn’t have sent a couple more watchers?”
Angela tightened her jaw. “Maybe, but hindsight doesn’t do us any good now.”
The incompetence surprised Charles; then again, it didn’t. “Whose call was it?”
When she looked in the mirror yet again, her jaw was tighter, her cheeks flushed. So it was her fault, he thought, but she said, “Frank wanted me to stay in Vienna.”
“It was Frank Dawdle’s idea to go off with three million dollars and only one watcher?”
“I know the man. You don’t.”
She’d said those words without moving her lips. Charles felt the urge to tell her that he did know her boss. He’d worked with him once, in 1996, to get rid of a retired communist spy from some non-descript Eastern Eur o pea n country. But she wasn’t supposed to know about that. He touched her shoulder to show a little sympathy. “I won’t talk to Tom until we’ve got some real answers. Okay?”
She finally looked at him with a weary smile. “Thanks, Milo.” “It’s Charles.”
The smile turned sardonic. “I wonder if you even have a real name.”
Their hour-long drive skirted the Italian border, and as they neared the coast the highway opened up and the foliage thinned. The warm morning sun glinted off the road as they passed Koper and Izola, and Charles watched the low shrubs, the Mediterranean architecture, and the ZIMMER-FREI signs that littered each turnoff. It reminded him just how beautiful this tiny stretch of coast truly was. Less than thirty miles that had been pulled back and forth between Italians, Yugoslavs, and Slovenes over centuries of regional warfare.
To their right, they caught occasional glimpses of the Adriatic, and through the open window he smelled salt. He wondered if his own salvation lay in something like this. Disappear, and spend the rest of his years under a hot sun on the sea. The kind of climate that dries and burns the imbalance out of you. But he pushed that aside, because he already knew the truth: Geography solves nothing.
He said, “We can’t do this unless you tell me the rest.”
“What rest?” She spoke as if she had no idea.
“The why. Why Frank Dawdle was sent down here with three million dollars.”
To the rearview, she said, “War criminal. Bosnian Serb. Big fish.”
A small pink hotel passed, and then Portorož Bay opened up, full of sun and glimmering water. “Which one?”
“Does it really matter?”
He supposed it didn’t. Karadžic´, Mladic´, or any other wanted ic´—the story was always the same. They, as well as the Croat zealots on the other side of the battle lines, had all had a hand in the Bosnian genocides that had helped turn a once-adored multiethnic country into an international pariah. Since 1996, these men had been fugitives, hidden by sympathizers and corrupt officials, faced with charges from the UN’s International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Crimes against humanity, crimes against life and health, genocide, breaches of the Geneva conventions, murder, plunder, and violations of the laws and customs of war. Charles gazed at the Adriatic, sniffing the wind. “The UN’s offering five million for these people.”
“Oh, this guy wanted five,” Angela said as she slowed behind a line of cars with Slovenian, German, and Italian plates. “But all he had was an address, and he demanded the money up front so he could disappear. The UN didn’t trust him, turned him down flat, so some smart young man at Langley decided we should purchase it ourselves for three. A PR coup. We buy ourselves the glory of an arrest and once again point out the UN’s incompetence.” She shrugged. “Five or three—either way, you’re a millionaire.”
“What do we know about him?”
“He wouldn’t tell us anything, but Langley figured it out. Dušan Maskovic´, a Sarajevo Serb who joined the militias in the early days. He’s part of the entourage that’s been hiding the big ones in the Republika Srpska hills. Two weeks ago, he left their employ and contacted the UN Human Rights office in Sarajevo. Apparently, they get people like him every day. So little Dušan put in a call to our embassy in Vienna and found a sympathetic ear.”
“Why not just take care of it there? In Sarajevo?”
The traffic moved steadily forward, and they passed shops with flowers and international newspapers. “He didn’t want to collect in Bosnia. Didn’t even want it set up through the Sarajevo embassy. And he didn’t want anyone stationed in the ex-Yugoslav republics involved.”
“He’s no fool.”
“From what we figure, he got hold of a boat in Croatia and was going to wait in the Adriatic until 7:00 p.m. on Saturday. Then he could slip in, make the trade, and slip out again before he’d have to register with the harbormaster.”
“I see,” Charles said, because despite his returning stomach cramps he finally had enough information to picture the various players and the ways they connected.
“Want me to take care of the room?”
“Let’s check the dock first.”
Portorož’s main harbor lay at the midpoint of the bay; behind it sat the sixties architecture of the Hotel Slovenia, its name written in light blue against white concrete, a surf motif. They parked off the main road and wandered around shops selling model sailboats and T-shirts with PORTOROŽ and I LOVE SLOVENIA and MY PARENTS WENT TO SLOVENIA AND ALL I GOT . . . scribbled across them. Sandaled families sucking ice cream cones and cigarettes wandered leisurely past. Behind the shops lay a row of small piers full of vacation boats.
“Which one?” asked Charles.
He led the way, hands in his pockets, as if he and his lady-friend were enjoying the view and the hot sun. The crews and captains on the motor-and sailboats paid them no attention. It was nearly noon, time for siestas and drink. Germans and Slovenes dozed on their hot decks, and the only voices they heard were from children who couldn’t fall asleep.
Forty-seven was empty, but at forty-nine a humble yacht with an Italian flag was tied up. On its deck, a heavy woman was trying to peel a sausage.
“Buon giorno!” said Charles.
The woman inclined her head politely.
Charles’s Italian was only passable, so he asked Angela to find out when the woman had arrived in Portorož. Angela launched into a machine-gun Roman-Italian that sounded like a blast of insults, but the sausage woman smiled and waved her hands as she threw the insults back. It ended with Angela waving a “Grazie mille.”
Charles waved, too, then leaned close to Angela as they walked away. “Well?”
“She got here Saturday night. There was a motorboat beside theirs—dirty, she tells me—but it left soon after they arrived. She guesses around seven thirty, eight.”
After a couple more steps, Angela realized Charles had stopped somewhere behind her. His hands were on his hips as he stared at the empty spot with a small placard marked “47.” “How clean do you think that water is?”
“I’ve seen worse.”
Charles handed over his jacket, then unbuttoned his shirt as he kicked off his shoes.
“You’re not,” said Angela.
“If the trade happened at all, then it probably didn’t go well. If it led to a fight, something might have dropped in here.”
“Or,” said Angela, “if Dušan’s smart, he took Frank’s body out into the Adriatic and dropped him overboard.”
Charles wanted to tell her that he’d already ruled Dušan Maskovic´ out as a murderer—there was nothing for Dušan to gain by killing a man who was going to give him money for a simple address with no questions asked—but changed his mind. He didn’t have time for a fight.
He stripped to his boxers, hiding the pangs in his stomach as he bent to pull off the slacks. He wore no undershirt, and his chest was pale from a week spent under Amsterdam’s gray skies. “If I don’t come up . . .”
“Don’t look at me,” said Angela. “I can’t swim.”
“Then get Signora Sausage to come for me.”
Before she could think of a reply, Charles had jumped feet-first into the shallow bay. It was a shock to his drug-bubbly nerves, and there was an instant when he almost breathed in; he had to force himself not to. He paddled back to the surface and wiped his face. Angela, on the edge of the pier, smiled down at him. “Done already?”
“Don’t wrinkle my shirt.” He submerged again, then opened his eyes.
With the sun almost directly above, the shadows beneath the water were stark. He saw the dirty white hulls of boats, then the blackness where their undersides curved into darkness. He ran his hands along the Italian boat at number forty-nine, following its lines toward the bow, where a thick cord ran up to the piles, holding the boat secure. He let go of the line and sank into the heavy darkness under the pier, using hands for sight. He touched living things—a rough shell, slime, the scales of a paddling fish—but as he prepared to return to the surface, he found something else. A heavy work boot, hard-soled. It was attached to a foot, jeans, a body. Again, he fought to keep himself from inhaling. He tugged, but the stiff, cold corpse was hard to move.
He came up for air, ignored Angela’s taunts, then submerged again. He used the pilings for leverage. Once he’d dragged the body into the partial light around the Italian boat, through the cloud of kicked sand, he saw why it had been such a struggle. The bloated body—a dark-bearded man—was rope-bound at the waist to a length of heavy metal tubing: a piece of an engine, he guessed.
He broke the surface gasping. This water, which had seemed so clean a minute before, was now filthy. He spat out leakage, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. Above him, hands on her knees, Angela said, “I can hold my breath longer than that. Watch.”
“Help me up.”
She set his clothes in a pile, kneeled on the pier, and reached down to him. Soon he was over the edge, sitting with his knees up, dripping. A breeze set him shivering.
“Well?” said Angela.
“What does Frank look like?”
She reached into her blazer and tugged out a small photograph she’d brought to show to strangers. A frontal portrait, morose but efficiently lit, so that all Frank Dawdle’s features were visible. A clean-shaven man, bald on top, white hair over the ears, sixty or so.
“He didn’t grow a beard since this, did he?”
Angela shook her head, then looked worried. “But the last known photo of Maskovic´. . .”
He got to his feet. “Unless the Portorož murder rate has gone wild, that’s your Serb down there.”
Charles cut her off before she could argue: “We’ll talk with the SOVA, but you need to call Vienna. Now. Check Frank’s office. See what’s missing. Find out what was on his computer before he left.”
He slipped into his shirt, his wet body bleeding the white cotton gray. Angela started fooling with her phone, but her fingers had trouble with the buttons. Charles took her hands in his and looked into her eyes.
“This is serious. Okay? But don’t freak out until we know everything. And let’s not tell the Slovenes about the body. We don’t want them holding us for questioning.”
Again, she nodded.
Charles let go of her and grabbed his jacket, pants, and shoes, then began walking back up the pier, toward the shore. From her boat, her chubby knees to her chin, the Italian woman let out a low whistle. “Bello,” she said.
Copyright © 2020 Olen Steinhauer.
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