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Killing Eve: Codename Villanelle
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Villanelle (a codename, of course) is one of the world’s most skilled assassins. A catlike psychopath whose love for the creature comforts of her luxurious lifestyle is second only to her love of the game, she specializes in murdering the world’s richest and most powerful. But when she murders an influential Russian politician, she draws a relentless foe to her tail.
Eve Polastri (not a codename) is a former MI6 operative hired by the national security services for a singular task: to find and capture or kill the assassin responsible, and those who have aided her. Eve, whose quiet and otherwise unextraordinary life belies her quick wit and keen intellect, accepts the mission.
The ensuing chase will lead them on a trail around the world, intersecting with corrupt governments and powerful criminal organizations, all leading towards a final confrontation from which neither will emerge unscathed. Codename Villanelle is a sleek, fast-paced international thriller from an exciting new voice in fiction.
The Palazzo Falconieri stands on a promontory on one of the smaller Italian lakes. It’s late June, and a faint breeze touches the pines and cypresses that cluster like sentinels around the rocky headland. The gardens are imposing, and perhaps even beautiful, but the deep shadows lend the place a forbidding air, which is echoed by the severe lines of the Palazzo itself.
The building faces the lake, and is fronted by tall windows through which silk curtains are visible. The east wing was once a banqueting hall, but now functions as a conference room. At its centre, beneath a heavy art deco chandelier, is a long table bearing a Bugatti bronze of a panther.
At first glance the twelve men sitting around the table look ordinary enough. Successful, judging from their quietly expensive clothes. Most are in their late fifties or early sixties, with the kind of faces that you instantly forget. There is an unblinking watchfulness about these men, however, which is not ordinary.
The morning passes in discussion, which is conducted in Russian and English, the languages common to all those present. Then a light lunch—antipasti, lake trout, chilled Vernaccia wine, fresh figs and apricots—is served on the terrace. Afterwards the twelve men pour themselves coffee, contemplate the breeze-ruffled expanse of the lake, and pace the garden. There are no security people, because at this level of secrecy, security people themselves become a risk. Before long the men have returned to their places in the shadowed conference room. The day’s agenda is simply headed “EUROPE.”
The first speaker is an ageless, darkly tanned figure with deep-set eyes. He looks around him. “This morning, gentlemen, we discussed Europe’s political and economic future. We talked, in particular, about the flow of capital, and how this can best be controlled. This afternoon I want to speak to you about a different economy.” The room darkens, and the twelve turn to face the screen on the room’s north wall showing an image of a Mediterranean port, of container ships and ship-to-shore gantry cranes.
“Palermo, gentlemen, today the principal point of entry for cocaine into Europe. The result of a strategic alliance between the Mexican drug cartels and the Sicilian Mafia.”
“Aren’t the Sicilians a spent force?” asks a heavyset man to his left. “I was under the impression that the mainland syndicates ran the drugs trade these days.”
“That used to be the case. Until eighteen months ago the cartels dealt principally with the ’Ndrangheta, from the southern Italian region of Calabria. But in recent months a war has broken out between the Calabrians, and a resurgent Sicilian clan, the Greci.”
A face appears on the screen. The dark eyes coldly watchful. The mouth a steel trap.
“Salvatore Greco has dedicated his life to resurrecting the influence of his family, which lost its place in the Cosa Nostra power structure in the 1990s, following the murder of Salvatore’s father by a member of the rival Matteo family. A quarter of a century later Salvatore has hunted down and killed all of the surviving Mattei. The Greci, and their associates the Messini, are the richest, most powerful, and most feared of the Sicilian clans. Salvatore is known to have personally murdered at least sixty people, and to have ordered the deaths of hundreds more. Today, at fifty-five years of age, his hold over Palermo and its drug trade is absolute. His enterprises, worldwide, turn over some twenty to thirty billion dollars. Gentlemen, he’s practically one of us.”
A faint ripple of amusement, or something approximating to it, runs around the room.
“The problem with Salvatore Greco is not his predilection for torture and murder,” he continues. “When mafiosi kill mafiosi it’s like a self-cleaning oven. But recently he has started ordering the assassination of members of the establishment. To date, his tally is two judges and four senior magistrates, all killed by car bombs, and an investigative journalist, who was gunned down last month outside her apartment. The journalist was pregnant at the time of her death. The child did not survive.”
He pauses, and raises his glance to the screen with the image of the dead woman, spreadeagled on the pavement in a pool of blood.
“Needless to say, it has not been possible to directly implicate Greco in any of these crimes. Police have been bribed or threatened, witnesses intimidated. The code of silence, or omertà, prevails. The man is, to all intents and purposes, untouchable. A month ago I sent an intermediary to arrange a meeting with him, as I felt that we needed to reach some sort of accommodation. His activities in this corner of Europe have become so excessive that they threaten to impact on our own interests. Greco’s response was immediate. The following day I received a sealed package.” The image on the screen changes. “It contained, as you can see, my associate’s eyes, ears and tongue. The message was clear. No meeting. No discussion. No accommodation.”
The men around the table regard the grisly tableau for a moment, then return their gaze to the speaker.
“Gentlemen, I think we need to take an executive decision concerning Salvatore Greco. He is a dangerously uncontrollable force, and beyond the reach of the law. His criminal activities, and the social havoc they entail, threaten the stability of the Mediterranean sector. I propose that we remove him from the game, permanently.”
Rising from his chair, the speaker makes his way to a side-table, returning with an antique lacquered box. Taking out a black velvet drawstring bag, he pours its contents on the table in front of him. Twenty-four small ivory fish, twelve of them aged to a smooth yellow, twelve of them stained a dark blood-red. Each man receives a contrasting pair of fish.
The velvet bag makes its way around the table counter-clockwise. When it has made a full revolution, it is passed to the man who proposed the vote. Once again, the contents of the bag are poured onto the dimly gleaming surface of the table. Twelve red fish. A unanimous sentence of death.
It’s evening, a fortnight later, and Villanelle is sitting at an outside table at Le Jasmin, a private members club in Paris’s Sixteenth Arrondissement. From the east comes the murmur of traffic on the Boulevard Suchet, to the west is the Bois de Boulogne and the Auteuil racecourse. The club’s garden is bordered by a trellis hung with blossoming jasmine whose scent infuses the warm air. Most of the other tables are occupied, but conversation is muted. The light fades, the night awaits.
Villanelle takes a long sip of her Grey Goose vodka Martini, and discreetly surveys the surroundings, particularly noting the couple at the next table. Both are in their mid-twenties: he elegantly dishevelled, she cat-like and exquisite. Are they brother and sister? Professional colleagues? Lovers?
Definitely not brother and sister, Villanelle decides. There’s a tension between them—a complicity—that’s anything but familial. They’re certainly rich, though. Her silk sweater, for example, its dark gold matching her eyes. Not new, but definitely Chanel. And they’re drinking vintage Taittinger, which doesn’t come cheap at Le Jasmin.
Catching Villanelle’s eye, the man raises his champagne flute a centimetre or two. He murmurs to his companion, who fixes her with a cool, assessing stare.
“Would you like to join us?” she asks. It’s a challenge, as much as an invitation.
Villanelle stares back, unblinking. A breeze shivers the scented air.
“It’s not compulsory,” says the man, his wry smile at odds with the calm of his gaze.
Villanelle stands, lifts her glass. “I’d love to join you. I was expecting a friend, but she must have been held up.”
“In that case…” The man rises to his feet. “I’m Olivier. And this is Nica.”
The conversation unfolds conventionally enough. Olivier, she learns, has recently launched a career as an art dealer. Nica intermittently works as an actress. They are not related, nor on closer inspection do they give the impression of being lovers. Even so, there is something subtly erotic in their complicity, and the way they’ve drawn her into their orbit.
“I’m a day-trader,” Villanelle tells them. “Currencies, interest-rate futures, all that.” With satisfaction, she notes the immediate dimming of interest in their eyes. She can, if necessary, talk for hours about day-trading, but they don’t want to know. Instead, Villanelle describes the sunlit first-floor flat in Versailles from which she works. It doesn’t exist, but she can picture it down to the ironwork scrolls on the balcony and the faded Persian rug on the floor. Her cover story is perfect now, and deception, as always, affords her a rush of pleasure.
“We love your name, and your eyes, and your hair, and most of all we love your shoes,” says Nica.
Villanelle laughs, and flexes her feet in her strappy satin Louboutins. Catching Olivier’s eye, she deliberately mirrors his languid posture. She imagines his hands moving knowledgeably and possessively over her. He would see her, she guesses, as a beautiful, collectible object. He would think himself in control.
“What’s funny?” asks Nica, tilting her head and lighting a cigarette.
“You are,” says Villanelle. How would it be, she wonders, to lose herself in that golden gaze? To feel that smoky mouth on hers. She’s enjoying herself now; she knows that both Olivier and Nica want her. They think that they’re playing her, and Villanelle will go on letting them think so. It will be amusing to manipulate them, to see how far they will go.
“I have a suggestion,” says Olivier, and at that moment the phone in Villanelle’s bag begins to blink. A one-word text: DEFLECT. She stands, her expression blank. She glances at Nica and Olivier, but in her mind they no longer exist. She’s out of there without a word, and in less than a minute is swinging into a northbound stream of traffic on her Vespa.
It’s three years now since she first met the man who sent her the text. The man who, to this day, she knows only as Konstantin. Her circumstances, then, were very different. Her name was Oxana Vorontsova, and she was officially registered as a student of French and Linguistics at the University of Perm, in central Russia. In six months’ time she was due to sit her finals. It was unlikely, however, that she would ever walk into the university’s examination hall as, since the previous autumn, she’d been unavoidably detained elsewhere. Specifically, in the Dobryanka women’s remand centre in the Ural Mountains. Accused of murder.
It’s a short drive, perhaps five minutes, from Le Jasmin to Villanelle’s apartment near the Porte de Passy. The 1930s building is large, anonymous and quiet, with a well-secured underground garage. After parking the Vespa alongside her car, a fast and anonymous silver-grey Audi TT Roadster, Villanelle takes the lift to the sixth floor, and ascends the short flight of stairs to her rooftop apartment. The front door, although faced with the same panelling as the others in the building, is of reinforced steel, and the electronic locking system is custom-made.
Inside, the apartment is comfortable and spacious, even a little shabby. Konstantin handed Villanelle the keys and title deeds a year ago. She has no idea who lived there before her, but the place was fully furnished when she moved in, and from the decades-old fixtures and fittings, she guesses it was someone elderly. Uninterested in decoration, she has left the apartment as she found it, with its faded sea-green and French-blue rooms, and its nondescript post-Impressionist paintings.
No one ever visits her here—her professional meetings take place in cafes and public parks, her sexual liaisons are mostly conducted in hotels—but if they were to do so, the apartment would bear out her cover story in every detail. In the study, her computer, a top-of-the-range wafer of stainless steel, is protected by civilian security software that a halfway skilled hacker would quickly bypass. But a scan of its contents would reveal little more than the details of a successful day-trading account, and the contents of the filing cabinet are similarly non-committal. There is no music system. Music, for Villanelle, is at best a pointless irritation and at worst a lethal danger. In silence lies safety.
Conditions at the remand centre were unspeakable. The food was barely edible, the sanitation non-existent, and an icy, numbing wind from the Dobryanka river penetrated every cheerless corner of the institution. The slightest infraction of the rules resulted in a prolonged period of shiza, or solitary confinement. Oxana had been there for three months when she was ordered from her cell, marched without explanation to the prison courtyard, and ordered to climb into a battered all-terrain vehicle. Two hours later, deep in the Perm Krai, the driver halted by a bridge over the frozen Chusovaya river, and wordlessly directed her to a low, prefabricated unit, beside which a black four-wheel- drive Mercedes was parked. Inside the unit, there was just enough room for a table, two chairs, and a paraffin heater.
A man in a heavy grey coat was sitting on one of the chairs, and to begin with, he just looked at her. Took in the threadbare prison uniform, the gaunt features, the posture of sullen defiance. “Oxana Borisovna Vorontsova,” he said eventually, consulting a printed folder on the table. “Age, twenty-three years and four months. Accused of triple homicide, with multiple aggravating circumstances.”
She waited, staring out of the window at a small square of snowy forest. The man was ordinary enough looking, but she knew at a glance that this was not someone who could be manipulated.
“In a fortnight’s time you will face trial,” he continued. “And you will be found guilty. There is no other conceivable outcome, and in theory you could be sentenced to death. At best you will spend the next twenty years of your life in a penal colony which will make Dobryanka look like a holiday resort.”
Her eyes remained blank. The man lit a cigarette, an imported brand, and offered her one. It would have bought her an extra helping of food for a week at the remand centre, but Oxana refused it with a barely perceptible shake of the head.
“Three men found dead. One with his throat slashed to the bone, two shot in the face. Not quite the behaviour expected of a final year linguistics student at Perm’s top university. Unless, perhaps, she happened to be the daughter of a Spetsnaz close-quarter battle instructor.” He drew on his cigarette. “Quite a reputation he had, Senior Sergeant Boris Vorontsov. Didn’t help him, though, when he fell out with the gangsters he was moonlighting for. A bullet in the back, and left to die in the street like a dog. Hardly a fitting end for a decorated veteran of Grozny and Pervomayskoye.”
From beneath the table he took a flask and two cardboard cups. Poured slowly, so that the scent of strong tea infused the cold air. Nudged one of the cups towards her.
“The Brothers’ Circle. One of the most violent and ruthless criminal organisations in Russia.” He shook his head. “What were you thinking, exactly, when you decided to execute three of their foot soldiers?”
She looked away, her expression disdainful.
“It’s just as well the police found you before the Brothers did, or I wouldn’t be talking to you now.” He dropped his cigarette end on the floor and trod it out. “But I have to admit it was an efficient piece of work. Your father taught you well.”
She glanced at him again. Dark-haired, medium height, perhaps forty years old. His gaze was level and his eyes were almost, but not quite, sympathetic.
“But you neglected the most important rule of all. You got caught.”
She took an exploratory sip of her tea. Reached across the table, took one of the cigarettes, and lit it. “So who are you?”
“Someone before whom you can speak freely, Oxana Borisovna. But first, please confirm the truth of the following.” He took a folded sheaf of papers from his coat pocket. “Your mother, who was Ukrainian, died when you were seven, of thyroid cancer, almost certainly as a consequence of her exposure to radiation following the Chernobyl reactor disaster twelve years earlier. Three months after your mother’s death your father was posted to Chechnya, at which point you were taken into the temporary care of the Sakharov orphanage in Perm. You spent eighteen months at the orphanage, during which time the staff noted your exceptional academic skills. They also identified other traits, including habitual bed-wetting and a near-total inability to form relationships with other children.”
She exhaled, the smoke a long grey plume in the cold air, and touched the tip of her tongue to a ridge of scar tissue on her upper lip. The gesture, like the scar itself, was barely perceptible, but the man in the coat saw it, and noted it.
“When you were ten your father was seconded again, this time to Dagestan. You returned to the Sakharov orphanage where, after three months, you were discovered setting fire to the dormitory block, and transferred to the psychiatric unit of Municipal Hospital Number 4 in Perm. Against the advice of your therapist, who had diagnosed you as suffering from a sociopathic personality disorder, you were returned home to your father. The following year you commenced your studies at Industrialny District secondary school. Here, once again, you won praise for your academic results—particularly for your language skills—and once again it was noted that you made no attempt to make friends or form relationships. Indeed, it’s on the record that you were involved in, and suspected of instigating, a number of violent incidents.
“You did, however, form an attachment to your French teacher, a Miss Leonova, and became extremely agitated when you learned that she had been subjected to a serious sexual assault while waiting for a bus late at night. Her supposed assailant was arrested but later released for lack of evidence. Six weeks later he was discovered in woodland near the Mulyanka river, incoherent with shock and blood loss. He had been castrated with a knife. Doctors succeeded in saving his life but his attacker was never identified. At the time of these events you were approaching your seventeenth birthday.”
She trod out her cigarette on the floor. “Is this leading anywhere?”
He almost smiled. “I could mention the gold medal you won for pistol shooting at the University Games in Ekaterinburg. In your first year as an undergraduate.”
She shrugged, and he leaned forward in his chair. “Just between ourselves. Those three men in the Pony Club, what did you feel when you killed them?”
She met his gaze, her expression blank.
“OK, hypothetically. What might you have felt?”
“At the time, I might have felt satisfaction at a job well done. Now…” She shrugged again. “Nothing.”
“So for nothing, you are looking at twenty years in Berezniki, or somewhere similar?”
“You brought me all the way here to tell me that?”
“The truth, Oxana Borisovna, is that the world has a problem with people like you. Men or women who are born, as you were, without a conscience, or the ability to feel guilt. You represent a tiny fraction of the population at large, but without you…” He lit another cigarette, and sat back in his chair. “Without predators, people who can think the unthinkable, and act without fear or hesitation, the world stands still. You are an evolutionary necessity.”
There was a long silence. His words confirmed what she had always known, even at her lowest ebb: that she was different, that she was special, that she was born to soar. She stared through the window at the waiting vehicle, and the guards stamping their feet in the snow. Again, the tip of her tongue momentarily probed her upper lip.
“So what do you want from me?” she asked.
Konstantin told her, sparing no detail of what was to come. And listening to him, it was as if everything in her life had led to that moment. Her expression never flickered, but the thrill that ripped through her was as avid as hunger.
Over Paris, the light is fading. From a drawer in the desk in her study, Villanelle takes a new, boxed Apple laptop, and unpacks it. Soon she is connected to a Gmail account and is opening a message whose subject heading is Jeff and Sarah—Holiday Pics. There are two paragraphs of text, and a dozen JPEG images of a couple exploring tourist sites in and around Cairo.
We’ve had the best time ever. Pyramids amazing, and Sarah rode a camel (see attached pics)! Back on Sunday, landing 7.42, should be home by 9.45. Best wishes—Jeff.
PS please note Sarah’s new email SMPrice88307@gmail.com
Ignoring the letters and words Villanelle extracts the figures. These make up a one-time password, which enables her to access the compressed data embedded in the innocent-looking JPEG images. She remembers the words of the Indian systems designer who taught her covert communication: “Encrypted messages are all very well, but even if they’re completely unbreakable, they attract attention. Much better to ensure that no one suspects the existence of the message in the first place.”
She turns to the photographs. Because they’re highly detailed, with excellent resolution, they can carry a substantial data payload. Ten minutes later she has extracted all of the concealed text, which she combines into a single document.
A second email headed Steve’s mobile has a briefer message, just a single phone number, and six JPEG images of an amateur football game. Villanelle repeats the earlier process, but this time extracts a series of photographic portraits. They are all of the same man. His eyes are dark, almost black, and the set of his mouth is hard. Villanelle stares at the pictures. She has never seen the man before, but there’s something in his face that she recognises. A kind of emptiness. It takes her a moment to remember where she’s seen that look before. In the mirror. In her own eyes. The text document is headed Salvatore Greco.
One of the unique attributes that recommended Villanelle to her present employers was her photographic memory. It takes her thirty minutes to read the Greco file, and when she has finished she can recall every page as if she were holding it in front of her. Culled from police files, surveillance logs, court records, and informers’ statements, it is an exhaustive personal portrait. All things considered, though, it is frustratingly brief. A timeline of Greco’s career to date. An FBI psychological profile. A breakdown, in large part hypothetical, of his domestic situation, personal habits and sexual proclivities. A list of properties held in his name. An analysis of his known security arrangements.
The portrait that emerges is of a man of austere tastes. Pathologically averse to public attention, he is extremely skilled at avoiding it, even in an era of mass communication. At the same time his power stems in large part from his reputation. In a region of the world where torture and murder are routine, Greco’s ferocity sets him apart. Anyone who dares to stand in his way or question his authority is eliminated, usually with spectacular cruelty. Rivals have seen their entire families shot, informers discovered with their throats slashed and their tongues drawn out through the gaping wounds.
Villanelle looks out over the city. To the left, the Eiffel Tower is silhouetted against the evening sky. To the right is the dark mass of the Tour Montparnasse. She considers Greco. Sets his personal refinement against the baroque horror of his actions and commissions. Is there any way she can turn this contradiction to her advantage?
She re-reads the document file, scanning each sentence for a possible entrée. Greco’s principal residence, a farmhouse in a hill-village outside Palermo, is a fortress. His family lives there, protected by a loyal and vigilant team of armed bodyguards. His wife, Calogera, rarely leaves home; his only daughter, Valentina, lives in a neighbouring village, where she is married to the oldest son of her father’s consigliere. The region has its own dialect and a history of obdurate hostility to outsiders. Those whom Greco wishes to meet—allied clan members, prospective associates, his tailor, his barber—are invited to the farmhouse, where they are searched, and if necessary disarmed. When Greco leaves home to visit his mistress in Palermo, he is invariably accompanied by an armed driver and at least two bodyguards. There appears to be no predictable pattern to these visits.
One document in particular, though, interests Villanelle. It’s a five-year-old press cutting from the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reporting a near-fatal accident sustained by one of the paper’s own journalists in Rome. According to Bruno De Santis: “I was coming out of a restaurant in Trastevere when a car came racing towards me on the wrong side of the street. The next thing I knew, I was in hospital, lucky to be alive.”
De Santis’s none-too-subtle suggestion is that this attempt on his life is the consequence of a piece he wrote for the Corriere a month earlier, about a young Sicilian soprano named Franca Farfaglia. In the piece, he criticised Farfaglia for having accepted a donation towards her studies at the La Scala Theatre Academy in Milan from Salvatore Greco, “the notorious organised crime boss.”
It is a brave and perhaps foolhardy piece of journalism, but Villanelle is not interested in De Santis. Instead, she wonders what inspired Greco’s generosity towards Farfaglia—not that he couldn’t afford an infinity of such gestures. Was it a love of opera, the wish to help a talented local girl to achieve her potential, or an altogether more basic desire?
An Internet search produces a wealth of images of Farfaglia. Commanding in appearance, with proud, severe features, she looks older than her twenty-six years. Several of the images reappear on the singer’s own website, where there’s a history of her career to date, a selection of performance reviews, and her schedule for the next few months. Scrolling through the engagements, Villanelle pauses. Her eyes narrow, and she touches a fingertip to the scar on her lip. Then, clicking on the hyperlink, she brings up the website of the Teatro Massimo in Palermo.
- Praise for Killing Eve: Codename Villanelle
- On Sale
- Sep 11, 2018
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Mulholland Books