Begin Reading ‘Pretense’ Here

“The strong man is the one who is able to intercept at will the communication between the senses and the mind.”

Napoléon Bonaparte

Chapter 1:

A Trendy Couple

March 11th, Bratislava, Slovak Republic

It was an unusually warm day for March, and the abundance of sunlight made one feel as though spring had actually arrived. The sunshine, with its inviting warmth, gave the illusion that on such a day, nothing bad could possibly happen. The day was simply too perfect.

Passing the front desk, the couple paused momentarily for Bruce Pearce to pass the ornate brass room key, tethered by a long gold and crimson braided cord, into the upturned palm of the Front Desk Manager. Marrol’s Boutique Hotel was in every way a match for the trendy Irish couple, Bruce and Sarah Pearce, who both enjoyed the privilege of dual British and American citizenship. As they stepped out from under the the luxury hotel’s imposing edifice with its Neo-Baroque architecture and opulent interior, it seemed as though the stylish pair was simply an extension of the hotel itself. Yes, elegance personified.

Sarah Pearce’s Irish ancestry was clearly evident. Her creamy complexion, delicate hint of freckles, penetrating blue eyes and fiery red hair were only the beginning of this beguiling woman. She was stunning! Though only five foot five, four-inch heels afforded her a statuesque five foot nine inch height. Sarah flaunted a perfect figure and had the poise of a woman who may have once modeled professionally.  A small rectangular black purse in her left hand held vertically at the hip, further accentuated her height.  

Sarah certainly knew how to dress, although today she clearly wasn’t seeking public attention. A black, floppy wide-brimmed hat covered much of her face while her red, wavy hair cascaded from beneath. Designer sunglasses further shielded her from inquiring eyes. But that’s where any attempt at concealment ended. Her snug black dress did nothing to hide the exquisite proportions of an athletic physique. It’s mid-calf length, together with her stiletto heels, directed attention to a pair of beautifully toned legs. At thirty-five, heads would turn, and conversations stop when Sarah walked into a room.

At her side, her husband Bruce cut an equally striking figure with his muscular six foot two inch frame and self-confidant bearing. He wore dark sunglasses, a tailored white shirt, a black sports jacket and jeans completed by handmade Italian loafers. His fair skin and jet-black hair provided the perfect counterpart for Sarah. Bruce also gave the unmistakable impression of a heightened physical prowess and with it … the capacity to instantly respond to any circumstance—without hesitation.

Outside the Marrol, on the street side, two bellmen had already brought up the couple’s vehicles.  Without a word or, in fact, any form of acknowledgment, Bruce handed each a crisp U.S. $100 bill. Slipping into the driver’s seat of the second car, Sarah started the engine and waited for Bruce to do likewise in the lead car. As the pair of black Mercedes E300s pulled away from Marrol’s Boutique Hotel, the bellmen grinned at each other. One commented, “Now that’s what I call living!” The other nodded in agreement.  

The two cars proceeded in tandem to the popular Sky Bar & Restaurant, a short distance away. On approaching, they turned right off Paulinho onto Rigehleo Street. Just before intersecting with Hviezdoslavovo na´mestie, the parking lane ended, replaced by a large stone planter containing shrubs and flowering trees. Slowing to a stop beside the last parking space, Bruce emerged from the car and deftly collected up the safety cones which had been blocking the parking space while Sarah drove on turning right onto Hviezdoslavovo na´mestie. After depositing the cones behind the planter, he returned to the Mercedes and backed into the now available parking spot screened by foliage from oncoming traffic.

Having parked their cars in opposite directions from Sky Bar, the two walked down the street towards one other. Meeting Sarah just in front of the bar, Bruce took her right hand, in which she held the car keys, in his left as they entered the building together and rode the elevator to the top floor for a late lunch. The Sky Bar is a rooftop glass sunroom offering a breathtaking panoramic view of the Bratislava. The maître d’ was quick to confirm the ‘Pearce’ reservation and show them to their requested table along the glass wall overlooking the city and street below.

Whether as a fashion statement or to shield her face from inquisitive eyes, Sarah removed neither her hat nor her dark glasses. Likewise, Bruce elected not to take off his sunglasses. Normally, this may have appeared strange in a restaurant, but the bright sunshine streaming in through the overhead glass resulted in other patrons doing the same. The sparse conversation between the couple progressed from the art in Bratislava to their upcoming beach vacation in the Greek Isles. Bruce ordered wine, an appetizer, and lunch for two.

It wasn’t long before Miroslav Cagacikova, the Slovakian Prime Minister, arrived in a party of four accompanied by two bodyguards. The maître d’ seated them at their usual table, which was near enough to Bruce and Sarah that they could have overheard the conversation. That is if they had cared to do so, but they showed even less interest in the Prime Minister’s table conversation than in their own.

However at nearby tables, several other heads nodded periodically in agreement as patrons overheard the Prime Minister and his deputies discuss their growing concern with what they considered the EU’s heavy-handed tactics in seeking more power and control over individual countries’ internal affairs. In recent months, many Slovakians had come to view the Brussels-based EU leadership with growing unease and distrust.

Following a leisurely lunch, Bruce summoned the waiter. “I am ready for the check.”

“Can I not interest you and the lady in one of our chef’s amazing desserts? He is widely renowned in Bratislava for his masterful creations. They are indeed superb.”

“No,” Bruce responded curtly, his voice lacking any emotion whatsoever.

The waiter quickly disappeared, returning a few minutes later with the check. Bruce glanced at it and then counted out two U.S. $100 bills. Handing these to the waiter he stated, “No change is required.”

“I regret that I cannot accept U.S. dollars,” the waiter replied, “especially such large bills.”

As this was Slovakia, a country where hard currency is highly prized, the maître d’ who had been watching the couple intently from a short distance away, promptly hurried over. He interceded, “We would be pleased to make an exception to our normal rule for you.” Bruce then handed both the waiter and maître d’ crisp U.S. $50 bills, an additional tip for their accommodation. Both men smiled broadly and thanked him.

“Please bring my wife another glass of wine,” Bruce requested, as he rose to leave the restaurant. The waiter, having received the additional generous tip, was doubly appreciative, and cheerfully returned with an extra large glass of wine. Thereafter, he remained unusually attentive to the beautiful woman, now that she was alone, having been ‘abandoned’ by her husband.

Sarah lingered long over her glass of wine. It was now late afternoon, and the light was growing softer. The restaurant and bar had mostly emptied of the usual lunch customers and the after-work cocktail and evening dinner crowd had not yet begun to arrive.

Even if it had been busy, neither the waiter nor the maître d’ were in any hurry for her to leave, and although neither had ever seen the attractive couple before, both secretly hoped they would frequently return These days few patrons understood the value of gracious tipping as this couple did. And, if she remained for another hour until the cocktail and dinner crowd began to arrive, having such an alluring beauty so prominently placed would benefit business. If only she would remove the broad-brimmed hat and dark glasses, the maître d’ thought to himself. Certainly, she must be even lovelier than he imagined—or why would she shield herself so from public view? But ‘hidden’ so conspicuously, she did add an ambiance of intrigue to the establishment. Secretly, they wondered if she was a British or perhaps an American stage or movie star shying away from the paparazzi.

Sarah periodically glanced down at the street below, as if waiting for someone or something to appear. In between these glances, she mostly stared at her wine glass disregarding the few remaining patrons and the Prime Minister’s table, although the Prime Minister’s aide was noticeably cognizant of Sarah. The waiter returned to her as often as was polite, trying not to appear too conspicuous, but to his dismay, she offered him no encouragement and evidenced disinterest in his attentiveness.

It was nearing 4:00 pm when the Prime Minister’s table finished lunch and headed for the elevator with the security detail. The discourse with his deputies had been in preparation for his meeting that evening with Aleksander Dunajewski, the Polish Prime Minister. Outside, a third member of the security detail brought up the Prime Minister’s car for the short trip to the airport. Following a brief parting conversation in front of Sky Bar with his deputies and aide, Prime Minister Cagacikova and the security service detail got into the car. The driver immediately executed a U-turn and headed back down the street toward the corner.

Peering down at the street below, Sarah watched as the entourage dispersed their separate ways and the Prime Minister’s car turned around. She opened her purse, removed a black cell phone and touched the home button on the phone. The display lit up, revealing a single pre-programed telephone number on speed dial.

By now, the car approached the corner, slowing to turn left onto Rigehleo Street. As the Mercedes executed the turn, Sarah pressed the speed dial number.

An instant later, as the Prime Minister’s car disappeared from view, a bright flash of yellow-orange flame billowed out from behind the corner building down Rigehleo Street and onto Hviezdoslavovo na´mestie. In that moment, it was as if lightning had struck, but uncannily, without the anticipated loud thunderclap. For a brief space of eternity, Sarah sat breathless … then the loud rumble of a powerful explosion split the air, rattling the panoramic windows of Sky Bar. Sarah gasped, the explosion had been more violent than she expected. Quickly regaining her composure, she turned off the phone and placed it back in her purse.

At first, frozen by shock, no one else in the restaurant moved at all. They seemed like marble statues, incapable of action. But after a few interminable seconds, they came back to life, first the waiter, then the maître d’, and the few guests who only moments before had been enjoying lunch or relaxing over a drink and conversation, then finally, the two bartenders. Moments later, staff began streaming out from the kitchen, moving en masse to the window wall like a dazed herd, where Sarah sat motionless. No one spoke, they just stood there, gaping at the street below, eyes and mouths wide open, bewildered and wondering what could have happened. Out of the group, a voice said, “Do you think there’s been a natural gas main explosion under the street?” Then someone half shouted, “Call the police! … Call the fire department … and some ambulances! There must be injured people down there.”

Sarah remained seated and silent. Her gaze moved from the street below to her nearly empty wine glass. Guiding the glass to her lips in a smooth, effortless arc, she took one last sip and placed the empty glass back on the table. By now, the crowd at the window was moving in her direction along the glass wall, all straining to gain a better view of the scene below and to their left.

One of the cooks announced, “I’m going to call the police.” Although nearly everyone had cell phones, no one had thought to use one for that call. But several people, cell phones in hand, were now taking photos and video of the burning debris strewn along the street near the corner. Across the street, and from the first floor below, people began pouring out of buildings, wondering what had caused the thunderous, window-rattling boom.

Sarah knew what had happened. Prime Minister Cagacikova and his security detail were dead. She slowly rose and, for the first time that afternoon, no one noticed as she walked towards the elevator. In fact, no one noticed her at all. Alone, she entered the elevator and descended to the first floor. She walked to the women’s restroom, which was devoid of people, as was the restaurant’s entire first floor.

She opened her purse and removed the cell phone. Wetting several paper towels, she rubbed the phone clean, wrapped it in them and deposited the phone in the trash receptacle. She then washed her hands, and after using several more paper towels to dry them, placed these in the trash atop the cell phone. Looking in the mirror, she smiled, pleased with her image.

Leaving the restroom, she passed through the deserted restaurant and out onto the street. By now, the scene was teeming with people, a very few even daring to move cautiously up the street toward the corner where debris was still burning. Most, however, stayed well back, unsure of what might happen next. Sirens wailed as emergency vehicles from all directions began arriving at the scene of the explosion.

Walking nonchalantly in the opposite direction from the carnage, Sarah passed the high chain link fence, silently defending the American Embassy entrance. Four Marines stood out front cradling their M-16 rifles and looking down the street at the billowing clouds of black smoke rising from the far end of the block. For once, the alluring lady in the broad-brimmed hat was invisible to those around her, even to the young male Marines, but not to the CCTV cameras mounted on the buildings along the street. Reaching the intersection and turning the corner, Sarah slipped into a waiting black Mercedes which then drove off, vanishing into the heart of Bratislava.

 

Chapter 2:

As If Nothing Had Happened

Arriving back at Marrol’s Boutique Hotel, Bruce instructed the bellman to have the car ready the following morning at 10 am sharp. The couple proceeded directly to their luxury suite, pausing only momentarily at the front desk for Bruce to retrieve their room key. Sarah immediately changed into workout clothesa smart-looking outfit she had purchased from Athleta, the fashionable U.S.-based women’s casual clothing purveyor. Her scoop-necked, neon-green tank top formed a bright contrast to black workout shorts with reflective white side stripes. Tying her hair up into a ponytail and donning running shoes, Sarah was quickly off to the Marrol’s Fitness Centre.

Meanwhile, Bruce arranged a private dinner from the restaurant for two that evening on the hotel’s romantic Summer Terrace. Although it had been an unseasonably warm spring, Bruce knew that with the setting sun the air would cool, and he instructed the staff to have three propane heaters ready and lit at 7:45 pm sharp, in preparation for their arrival. Then he left the hotel, returning thirty minutes later with a single parcel under his arm.

Sarah began her workout with stretches, then weights and finally twenty minutes on the treadmill, running at a fast pace. She didn’t enjoy public gyms, but fortunately this evening the Fitness Centre was deserted. Finishing at 6:30 pm, Sarah had timed her workout routine to perfectly coincide with her appointment at the Jasmine Spa, located within the hotel. At 7:20 pm she returned to the room where Bruce waited. She showered and dressed for dinner. They left the room at precisely 8:05 pm.

Bruce wore formal Black Tie attire, and Sarah was resplendent in a strapless, shimmering azure dress, which brilliantly contrasted with her brilliant red hair and accentuated her figure. Framed by a pearl choker and matching drop earrings, her hair flowed dramatically down her back in cascading waves.

At the Marrol Hotel, the Restaurant Houdini’s motto: The Magic of Wine, The Art of Taste is manifested by an extraordinary wine list and sumptuous cuisine. The dinner, which had been pre-selected by Bruce, began with oyster soup as the first of five courses. Three different wines graced the successive dishes, with a lemon sorbet palette cleanser preceding the fish-plate third course. The round table was romantically lit by six candles in hurricane sconces; a broad swan-shaped Waterford lead-crystal vase playfully reflected the candles’ dancing flames. Brimming with fresh flowers, the arrangement furnished a riot of color amid the soft candlelight, filling the night air with the intoxicating allure of roses, gardenias, and ambrosial jasmine. Two waiters attended the couple as they dined privately in a secluded corner of the Summer Terrace.

Although the day’s warmth had faded with the sunset, the evening remained unusually pleasant for so early in the year. This, together with the three propane heaters, kept Sarah comfortable, despite the fact that she wore only the gossamer blue dress. But as they awaited dessert, the air chilled, and she began to shiver. Rising from his chair, Bruce removed his jacket and placed it tenderly around Sarah’s shoulders. As he sat down, the pieste de resitance appeared table-side with a flourish in the form of two brightly flaming Creme Brulées, complimented by steaming caffè lungos, over which they lingered long.

Sarah’s thoughts turned to their upcoming vacation in the Greek Isles, only a few days hence. Again, she reminded Bruce that she just wanted this contract to be over and the two of them to get away together … alone. And that there was nothing appealing about a luxurious beach villa on the Greek coast with an unsavory ‘third-wheel’ tagging along. Couldn’t Bruce do something to alter this?

“No,” he reminded her. They had been over this ground multiple times before. The client had carefully planned and specified every detail of the contract, and Sarah knew the terms. He reached across the table and touched her face gently. Raising her chin, he looked into her eyes, “When this is over, we’ll make an unscheduled stop in Milan so that you can enjoy a bit of extra spring shopping.” With that promise, Sarah’s face brightened.

“Come,” he said, “let’s go upstairs before you catch a chill. The night air is becoming quite cool.”

Rising from the table, Bruce put his arm around Sarah, and together they strolled slowly through the Summer Terrace, enjoying the early flowers and fragrant night air. Then, taking their leave, they returned to the room.

The room was spacious, the best accommodation the Marrol offered, comprising a luxurious living room, a large bedroom, and bath, all elegantly decorated with careful attention to every comfort and detail. On the round table, a Murano Italian vase overflowed with another immense bouquet. The gold embroidered bedspread had been turned down. On it, a box of world renowned Du Rhône chocolates, specially ordered by the Marrol from Geneva, Switzerland at Bruce’s request. A single red rose on each pillow completed the effect. The lights throughout the room were on, but Bruce moved quickly to dim them. Sarah walked over to one of the large windows and gazed out through the sheer curtain, at the glittering city lights while Bruce moved silently around the room lighting candles.

Approaching her from behind, he removed the dinner jacket which still hung over her shoulders and placed it on the back of a chair. Lovingly, he caressed her neck and then led her away from the window. Slowly unzipping her dress, he let it glide effortlessly to the floor. She turned to face him, but he spun her around again and unhooked her bra, then let it fall, as he had done so many times during their six years of marriage.

❈ ❈ ❈

March 12th, Morning

Bruce awoke before Sarah. The early morning light was already streaming softly through the sheer curtains, creating a translucent aura. He sat up, swung his legs over the side of the bed about to stand, but then turning back, gazed at Sarah. She was in a deep sleep, her head cradled by the pillow, on her face an expression of such peace he couldn’t help but lean back over her to kiss her cheek. She looked so lovely to him, almost angelic. He could only but marvel at her beauty. In fact, she seemed to him at that moment to be more beautiful than ever before, even more so than when they had first met … or the day they had married.

He rose out of bed and moving about the room silently, quickly donned his jogging suit, running shoes, baseball cap, and sunglasses. Turning to take one last fleeting look at Sarah’s face, he left the room quietly, closing the door behind him. Downstairs, he strode rapidly through the front lobby and out into the sunshine for his morning run.

Sarah awoke sometime later. As sleep departed, she thought of the previous night. What a wonderful time they had enjoyed together. Then sitting up in bed, she felt her head begin to reel. The sudden dizziness made her drop back onto the pillow. Too much wine, she thought. No … way too much wine! Oh, but it was worth it. Oh yes, so very worth it!

Laying there for some minutes, Sarah dreamily reveled in her thoughts of the prior night. How she wished they could begin it all over again this morning, but she knew they had a strict timetable which needed to be kept. Yet, the bed was so warm and comfortable and, as long as she laid still, her head seemed to float softly, adrift on a tranquil sea. Slowly, she forced herself up and out of bed. She made her way to the shower, desperately needing to be revived.

About 8 am, Bruce returned to the Marrol. Stopping at the front desk, he requested his bill. Reviewing it, he inquired, “Has this morning’s breakfast, which I pre-ordered from room service yesterday, been included?” The front desk manager confirmed that it had and showed him the line entry. “Excellent!” Bruce replied. He told the manager to close out his bill as he would be leaving at 10 am. “And we’ll have your car out front promptly at 10,” one of the bellmen added politely. Bruce did not respond.

The front desk manager handed Bruce his copy of the bill and the couple’s passports. Paying the bill in U.S. dollars, Bruce then quickly moved through the lobby, up the elevator, and into the room. “Good morning!” he exclaimed exuberantly in a loud and overly cheerful voice to Sarah who, still in a fog, was trying to finish dressing.

“Not so loud!” she whispered, “I have a wee bit of a headache this morning.”

“I can’t imagine why?” Bruce boomed, as a wry smile spread broadly across his face. Sarah said nothing, but shook her head slowly and stuck out her tongue at him. Bruce passed by her, delivering a sharp smack of his hand against her backside.

“Hey!” she exclaimed as she jumped, “What was that for?” Bruce continued toward the shower without responding.

Breakfast was delivered promptly at 9:00 am. It included oatmeal with cinnamon and honey for Bruce and plain yogurt for Sarah, along with a medley of fresh berries to garnish both, hot croissants with jam and a pot of strong black coffee. But as they had a big day ahead, he had also ordered two omelettes, which came with whole wheat toast and a rasher of thick bacon, slightly crispy, the way he liked it.

“How many are coming for breakfast?” Sarah inquired facetiously.

“Breakfast is the power that fuels the day,” he responded, using a line he had spouted frequently in the past.

“I don’t feel like being fueled this morning. More like finding a hole somewhere to crawl into and hide.”

“You obviously need to repent of your wild ways,” Bruce replied cheerily.

“But one requires a soul in order to repent,” Sarah retorted. They both laughed.

Sarah wore another of her casual Athleta outfits. It was a brand which she frequently ordered online. She loved the way their clothing fit and moved with her body, as well as the youthful, athletic look. Sarah worked hard at keeping herself in top condition and believed that her clothing should reflect that vitality. She felt empowered when she looked in the mirror. Virtually all of her workout and casual wear came from the company’s website, as their clothing accentuated her form and greatly pleased Bruce as well. The arrival of each new parcel delighted Sarah. She always knew there would be compliments from Bruce and often more waiting whenever she modeled FedEx’s latest delivery.

As for her other togs, almost everything originated in Italy, where she loved to shop. Milan and Rome were her favorites, although she liked the shopping in Milan best. Each year, they would take several excursions to Italy so that Sarah could shop. On fine sunny days, Bruce frequently camped out in a nearby café to read, while she flitted from one exclusive shop to another, indulging her consumeristic desires.

Bruce never said a word about the expense; in fact, he was in her mind the perfect husband, willingly ‘aiding and abetting’ these shopping sprees. If it made her happy, and Bruce did love the clothes she bought and the way she looked in them, then he was happy. She would emerge from a shop, bags, and parcels in hand and park them on the chairs next to Bruce in the café, where he patiently awaited her return from each foray, enjoying the weather and occasionally people watching. On a particularly good shopping day, he might hail an Uber to come collect the growing heap of packages and deliver them to their hotel. He hated carrying anything unless absolutely necessary.

Their ample breakfast concluded, Bruce picked up the backpack he had acquired and filled for Sarah the previous afternoon. He lifted it onto her shoulders; she snapped the strap buckle in place around her waist. Turning, she wrapped her arms around him and kissed him as he embraced her. Holding her for a moment, he then released her. Bruce opened the door for Sarah, and she stepped out into the hallway. It was 9:50 am.

Entering the empty elevator, she descended to the lobby. Exiting, she paused along the wall of the hallway adjoining the Marrol’s lobby. An elderly couple strolled arm-in-arm past a well-dressed, middle-aged businessman who appeared to be waiting for someone. Moments later, an attractive young woman rounded the corner. The businessman smiled and greeted her with a kiss on each cheek; the two headed toward the front doors. No one else seemed to be around. Sarah hesitated a moment, looking in the direction of the front desk, where a hotel manager was standing, looking back in her direction. She waited several seconds more and then, like a stealthy cat, silently slipped out of the hotel’s rear entrance.

Waiting precisely ten minutes following Sarah’s departure, Bruce checked his phone for the driver’s progress, then left the room, with two roller suitcases in tow. Once in the lobby, he noticed a gathering of hotel employees and three policemen, two uniformed and one in plain clothes, directly across from the front desk. As far as he was concerned, plain clothes police might as well wear uniforms, as he could instantly spot them, even at a distance.

Bruce walked across the lobby straight toward them and then, turned suddenly, in a pronounced maneuver he knew would draw their attention and approached the front desk. In a voice just loud enough for the group to overhear, he asked, “Has an Uber arrived for me yet?”

One of the bellmen, standing beside the front desk responded, “An Uber driver pulled up just a moment ago and is waiting outside the front door. Is he here for you?” 

“Yes,” said Bruce and with a smile handed the bellman a €5 note and walked through the door into the waiting Uber BMW.

❈ ❈ ❈

The Police

The police had arrived at the hotel at 9:55 am. There were three of them, two uniformed officers and a Detective Inspector. Earlier that morning, after investigators had confirmed overnight that the blast resulted from a high explosive charge which had been placed in a Mercedes 450 automobile parked at the corner of Rigehleo Street and Hviezdoslavovo na´mestie, the police had begun fanning out across the city to canvas all of the hotels. At the Marrol, the police first questioned the manager on duty, followed by the hotel’s General Manager. They explained that they were there to interview the entire guest service staff, inquiring whether anyone had seen or heard anything unusual that might shed light on the previous day’s assassination of the Prime Minister and his security detail.

The General Manager said that he completely understood the need for police inquiries. He offered the total cooperation of the hotel staff if they could in anyway be of assistance in solving this horrific crime, an act which had rocked the nation. “Such a nefarious deed certainly needs to be solved quickly and the perpetrators executed!” The General Manager continued to affirm that he fully supported the current government and Prime Minister Cagacikova and that he too, like many of his fellow Slovaks, was deeply concerned by what they saw as the EU’s growing overreach.

At 11 am, the police were just finishing their interviews, having failed to obtain any useful information helpful for the investigation, when an officer from Interpol, Marek Farkas, arrived with his deputy. The name ‘Farkas,’ means ‘The Wolf.’ Marek was a shrewd, highly professional man, in his late thirties, and already well-experienced, who in his relatively brief career, had participated in a number of successful high-profile investigations across the continent.

Why he selected the Marrol as the hotel to visit that morning is unknown. Possibly, it was mere chance, pure instinct, or possibly, something in his keen insight told him that this was the place to be. However it happened, he was there now to supervise the local police as they concluded their interviews of the hotel staff.

Marek addressed the Detective Inspector. “What have you learned here thus far?”

“Nothing of value sir, I’m afraid,” he responded.

“No, nothing at all,” they responded almost in unison, shaking their heads solemnly.

“Nothing at all?” Marek repeated.

“No, sir,” they responded again, with even more enthusiastic animation.

“Who has checked out of the hotel this morning?” Marek asked the manager.

“A family with two small children,” the manager replied.

“How long had they been guests here?”

“More than a week,” said the manager. “They were from Italy,  traveling through Europe on a holiday sightseeing tour.”

“Anyone else?” Marek pressed.

“An elderly couple from the U.S. celebrating their anniversary. No one else.”

Marek walked outside and then back in again. “How long has that black Mercedes been parked out front?”

One of the bellmen answered him, “That belongs to the society couple, very special people. They ordered it to be out in front and ready for them at 10 am sharp.”

“It’s now 11:10 am, why haven’t they come for it yet?”

The bellmen looked at each other and grinned, “If you saw her, the redheaded wife, you’d know why they are still in their room.”

Marek ignored their enthusiasm. “How long are they staying?”

“Oh yes, I forgot to mention, they are leaving today also,” responded the manager.

“Isn’t it already past your checkout time?” asked Marek.

“Yes, but they have already checked out. I mean, Mr. Pearce went jogging early this morning and paid the bill when he returned, before going up to his suite.”

“Did he also pick up their passports?” Marek asked.

“He did indeed.”

“And neither of them has come down since?” Marek continued.

“No,” they all responded, shaking their heads in unison yet again.

Marek turned to his deputy, “Go outside and run the license plate on the Mercedes. And do it quickly!” The deputy disappeared through the hotel’s front entrance. Marek focused his attention back to the local police and asked more questions of them. Then turning to the front desk manager, he inquired, “You say the couple checked out and collected their passports earlier this morning?”

“Yes,” the manager responded. “I believe it was about 8 am before I took my morning espresso.”

“You didn’t by chance take a copy of their passports, did you?” Marek inquired.

“Of course. Indeed, we do so with all of our international guests,” the manager stated, his face brightening slightly. Turning to the woman from the back office, he asked her to retrieve the photocopies.

“How long did they stay? Marek asked.

“Only two nights,” the manager answered, “but we all hope they will return often.”

Just then, Marek’s deputy reappeared and walking over to Marek whispered to him, “The Mercedes plates are not in the database, and there is a report of two black Mercedes 450s having been stolen from a Mercedes dealership across the border four days ago.”

Marek turned back to the front desk just as the woman appeared with the two passport copies. Taking the copies, he told the manager to come with him and bring the room key. He directed his deputy and the three local policemen to follow. With his puzzled entourage in tow, Marek went up the elevator and down the corridor to the couple’s luxury suite.

The manager knocked lightly on the room door. After a few moments, he knocked again, this time calling out, “Mr. Pearce, are you there?”

After a moment, Marek pushed him aside and pounded loudly on the door. No response. Marek took the key from the manager and opened the door.

The room was empty. No luggage. Nothing.

Marek hurriedly conducted the group back downstairs. He turned again to the Marrol’s lobby employees and said, “Now think! Think very hard! Who else did you see leaving the hotel this morning?”

After a moment, the manager said he had caught a brief glimpse across the lobby of a young woman in jogging attire, who left through the exit on the far side of the hotel. “What did she look like? demanded Marek.

“She was slim, wearing athletic clothing, a baseball cap, and sunglasses.”

“What color was her hair? asked Marek.

“I’m not sure, sir,” said the manager. “She had on a hat, as I said, with a backpack on her back. She was all the way on the far side of the lobby, near the elevator, and I only had a fleeting glimpse of her … but maybe … red … yes, I believe her hair may have been red.”

Trying to conceal his growing impatience, Marek, turned to the bellmen. “Did you see anyone else leave?”

“No, they both replied. No one other than regular guests who are still staying here.”

Then one of the local police officers said, “I did see someone else when we first began interviewing hotel employees here in the lobby.” Looking at the other two policemen, he said, “Don’t you remember? There was that airplane pilot in uniform who came into the lobby pulling two flight bags. He was quite tall. He stopped at the front desk, didn’t he?”

Marek turned once again to the front desk manager. “Did a uniformed pilot come to the front desk?”

One of the bellmen answered, “Yes, he inquired whether an Uber driver had arrived for him. I told him ‘yes,’ and he gave me a €5 note. But it wasn’t the husband of the couple. The airplane pilot was clean shaven and had sandy colored hair.”

“What color were his eyes,” asked Marek.

“I’m not certain,” replied the bellman, “He was wearing those aviator mirror sunglasses ….”

“And pulling two flight bags? asked Marek.

“Yes,” said the bellman as the other bellman nodded in agreement.

“Tell me, now, how often have you seen an airline pilot with two flight bags? Don’t they normally have one piece of luggage and a pilot’s flight case?” That seemed right to them all, and they nodded in agreement. Turning once again to the manager, Marek asked, “Do airline crews normally even stay in this hotel?”

He thought a moment and then answered, “No, they don’t. This is a boutique hotel, for high-end guests.”

Did you have any flight crews staying here last evening?

The manager thought again, then replied “No,” and he couldn’t remember the last time an airline crew had been booked to stay there. Once again, the others agreed.

Marek turned to his deputy, who shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “What about the passport copies, do you think they’ll be of any use?” he asked Marek.

Marek looked down at the two sheets of paper he was still clutching tightly in his left hand. “Their passports are undoubtedly forgeries, just as surely as the Mercedes is stolen.”

End Chapter 2.

  PRETENSE, the first book in the trilogy is now available in pre-release on Amazon.

  

Full release coming in August with availability through the full range of independent bookstores and online book retailers.

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