“The body would have to be in a cellar, wouldn’t it?” Jana Dvorska muttered to herself. She found the entrance to the wine cellar beneath the Mayor’s four-storey house on the central town square of Vinice. The terracotta-coloured brickwork on either side of the steps was neat and immaculate, just as she remembered the victim himself. Dvorska caught the damp, heady, sickly-sweet whiff of fermenting wine wafting up the steps towards her. She was asthmatic. This time of year was always difficult for her because the sweet damp fumes seemed to catch in her lungs everywhere she went. It was late September, and the Mueller-Thurgau vintage, usually the first grape variety to be harvested in south Moravia, was already bubbling away below. She could hear the sound coming from glass tube escape valves in the tops of fifty-litre demi-johns. At its peak, the bubbling sound could get furious and almost knock you out with fumes.
Leaving the stunned birthday party guests behind her upstairs, Dvorska braced herself, adjusted the straps of her backpack over her shoulders and started walking down into the cellar. She counted the steps down one by one to take her mind off her claustrophobia. Although warmly dressed she started to shiver. Her partner on the case was Ivan Dambersky, who had been a darn good cop back in the day, but was now off his game. Dambersky was a bit of a minimalist. His nickname for her was The Zealous Cow. Still invisible to her, Detective Dambersky shouted up:
“Looks like our Mayor finally buggered his arteries!”
Dvorska winced. She was glad no-one else could hear him. She wouldn’t want to offend the Mayor’s guests, assembled upstairs and waiting to be interviewed. Few people had much taste for the gallows humour of police investigators.
Dvorska reached the bottom of the stairs and saw the vault of the Mayor’s wine cellar with the first crop of this year’s vintage fermenting in glass demi-johns. Like many private producers with their own small vineyards, Daniel Slansky had preferred glass demi-johns to barrels. Turning to the right, she entered an ante-room, also vaulted, where the Mayor’s legendary vintage wine collection, included many purchased at auction, was stored in beautifully backlit floor-to-ceiling racks. The whole interior was a masterpiece of understated elegance, with discreet back lighting and immaculate brickwork. Four large upturned empty barrels served as tables for standing guests during wine tastings. There had been a tasting that very evening as part of the Mayor’s birthday celebrations. The sommelier who had been hired for the evening was among those upstairs waiting to be interviewed. Above the Mayor’s thriving pharmacy business on the ground floor was the three-floor maisonette, actually two separate apartments, where he lived with his second wife Barbora, their two teenage children and his widowed mother. His house was one of the oldest buildings in the town and overlooked the historic Renaissance Town hall.
Jana Dvorska walked through the ante-room into another vaulted chamber where the Mayor had entertained his guests to a seated buffet supper. This final chamber extended back about twenty paces – big enough to entertain at least couple of dozen guests at the two long bench tables on either side of it. There was more discreet modern backlighting in strips along both walls of the seating area, so Dvorska found she could see quite well.
Detective Ivan Dambersky completed his earlier thought: “Looks like the old bastard had a bit too much Parma ham and French cheese tonight!” he snorted a little too closely into Detective Jana Dvorska’s ear. He’d hardly been down there more than a minute or two. She could tell he wasn’t really taking this very seriously. Then he shambled out of the seating area and took a short tour of the archived wine shelves in the ante-room. She heard him whistle briefly at some of the valuable wines being stored there before trudging back up the cellar stairs. Jana had smelt the whiff of booze on Ivan’s breath even without turning to face him. “Just like Ivan”, Jana thought to herself, “to jump to conclusions. Lazy mind.” She almost overlooked the forensic doctor, Pavel Nemec, squatting in a corner, conducting his preliminary examination of the body.
There was certainly nothing elegant about Daniel Slansky in death. Dvorska had smelt the acrid vomit down his clothes at several paces away. The expensive shape-memory spectacles that had enhanced the Mayor’s cold stare in life were now comically askew on his face. The body of the fifty-seven year-old Mayor of Vinice was propped up on the floor against the back wall of the cellar with legs akimbo, slumping slightly to the left.
Dvorska knew that she and Ivan had been sent round for the sake of form, because a dead mayor was by definition high profile, and of course because no-one else wanted to touch it. She wondered why they had been called out at all, so soon. The fat feminist and the misogynist: what a team. And of course Dambo, as the senior of the two, would call the shots, so her hands would be tied. Perfect. The sudden death of a rich and powerful local figure was hardly a magnet for rising-star detectives.
Slansky had been a powerful man for decades, both loathed and feared. His influence had spread far beyond this little rural wine country backwater as far as national government, and perhaps even beyond that. The Mayor was rumoured to have had his finger in just about every dirty pie there was – gambling, drugs, mafias, you name it.
Still shivering slightly despite the thick jumper and leather jacket she was wearing, Dvorska scanned the remnants of the evening’s festivities for clues, while Dambersky made a start on the witnesses upstairs. There were the usual leftovers from the buffet supper on a side table near where the body was, and then the two long tables with seating benches where the guests, around thirty or so of them, had spent most of the evening. There were candles still burning, and the remains of several carafes of wine on both tables, as well as some uncorked, labelled and expensive-looking bottles of archive wine, all open. In one corner of the cellar at the end of one of the tables, Dvorska could see where the Mayor had unwrapped some of his birthday gifts as the guests arrived and arranged them neatly for later. She squatted down to look at them: some fine Bohemia lead crystal, a pair of modern asymmetrical cufflinks with engraved bunches of grapes as motifs, a book on wine-making, a smart leather wallet, a Russian Babushka doll and a wooden framed open-fronted presentation box containing a 32 year-old vintage Sauvignon from the neighbouring village of Dolni Pastviny. Taking out her smartphone she took a couple of pictures of the presents.
“So what do you think?” Dvorska asked quietly, going up to the doctor. Pavel Nemec was already packing up his bag. “On the face of it,” answered Nemec, “I’d say the victim suffered a massive heart attack and died almost instantly. I’ll obviously need to confirm that after the autopsy.” He sounded pretty sure and matter-of-fact. She was used to his rather terse manner by now and had learned not to take it personally. She rated him. He was a real pro.
“Thanks,” she said. “If you see Dambersky, tell him I’ll be up in a minute.” Looking down at the slumped body of the Mayor, she heard the doctor’s quietly resolute footsteps walking back up to ground level.
Dvorska always liked a minute or two alone at the scene at the start of an investigation, even a cut-and-dried one like this. There was a trick to getting her brainwaves to freewheel that often helped her to see connections she might not otherwise see. So natural causes then? The high life finally catching up with the Mayor of Vinice, like Dambersky and Dr. Nemec had said? She took in the expensive casual clothes that Daniel Slansky had been wearing that evening, now soiled with vomit - no doubt induced by his heart attack. He and his wife hardly ever wore anything that wasn’t designer. This particular night he had been wearing a pair of beige Chino trousers and a pale blue Pringle sweater, which beautifully picked up the beige of the Chinos in the pattern across the top. There was no doubt that the Mayor was a snappy dresser. Snappy and almost obsessively neat. The loafers on his feet were tan-coloured, and also harmonized with the rest of the outfit, like his Pringle socks.
Out of habit when she was thinking hard, Dvorska pulled off the hairband that partially held back her unruly mop of hair, and re-arranged her loose ponytail. She scanned the ground around the body of Daniel Slansky for anything of interest. She spotted a tiny Russian doll on the floor, just a couple of feet away from the body. It must have come from inside the Babusha doll she had seen among the Mayor’s birthday presents. She would check that up later. Bending down to pick up the tiny doll, she noticed that one of the Mayor’s heels was coming out of the back of his loafer. She took out her smartphone again and took a couple of shots, then gently took the loafer off and tried to put it back on his foot.
Only from this angle, squatting down next to the body, could she see that his loafers were on the wrong feet. Dvorska felt her heartbeat skip a beat as the adrenalin surge kicked in, and took another couple of pictures. Then she stopped and thought for a couple of seconds. She knelt down, carefully removed both Slansky’s shoes, placed them in front of the feet she had found them on, left on right and right on left, and took more shots on her phone. Then she put her phone down on the floor and slowly pulled each of the socks off the Mayor’s feet, laying them neatly on the end of one of the nearby wooden seating benches alongside the tables. She took her key chain out of her leather jacket and switched on the little push-button light that she kept on her key ring. Using this she took a close look at the Mayor’s feet, not surprised to see that they were immaculately pedicured. Carefully, still holding the small light, she parted the first two toes on his left foot and then his right. There, in the soft tissue between the first and second toes on the Mayor’s right foot, she could just see a tiny puncture wound. Deftly, still holding the first and second toes apart with one hand, she patiently arranged the light in the same hand that was holding the toes, while using her free hand to open the camera on her smartphone and take several shots of the wound. She checked the quality of the shots before putting her phone back in her pocket and replacing the socks and shoes exactly as she had found them.
“Shit!” she heard herself saying out loud, scared by the implications, and yet excited. She sat back on her heels in thought. Her life had just shifted gears. There was no going back now. Because that puncture wound meant that Daniel Slansky had been murdered. He might have suffered a heart attack, just as Dr. Nemec had said, but his death had been anything but natural. Now, her assignment to the case, along with that sleazebag Dambersky, was beginning to make sense. Someone up the food chain had decided to let her and Dambo either do such a sloppy investigation that the real cause of Slansky’s death would never come to light - or discover something they weren’t supposed to and then get chewed up by the machinery. Genius actually. But at her and Dambo’s expense.
In some perverse way, there was something almost liberating in knowing that she’d been screwed over before she’d even started. It gave her a different palette of colours to play with. And she knew, even before she got herself up off the wine cellar floor and dusted off her jeggings, that she was going to play this game. But she was going to play it her way. Perching on the end of one of the benches alongside the long tables, Dvorska took the laptop out of her backpack, transferred her smartphone photos on to the laptop, deleted them from her phone, and then also stored them on a separate USB stick, tucking it into a small zip pocket inside her jacket. She put the small Russian doll she had found next to the body into a plastic bag and popped that into the front compartment of the backpack. Then she looked at her watch. It was already past three in the morning. She thought about the witnesses upstairs, slung the backpack over her shoulders and walked back upstairs to find Dambo.
Chapter Two: On the Square
At around four in the morning, Dvorska zipped up her leather jacket against the cold and damp and stepped out of the Mayor’s house on to the cobbled town square outside. The cobbles were still glistening from a recent rainfall and there was a light autumn mist. She looked over at the dove-coloured stonework of the sixteenth-century Renaissance Town Hall, the one that appeared in nearly all picture postcards of Vinice, with its famous Romeo balcony and the ornate clock tower that had just chimed the hour.
The Mayor’s house, with its lucrative pharmacy on the ground floor and two apartments on the upper floors, stood right in the middle of a row of buildings lining one side of the town square, which was a typical middle European affair made up of terraced buildings rendered in a variety of pastel colours, all with shops and businesses on the ground floor and living accommodation on one, two or three floors above. The Mayor’s building, with its stucco work and two balconies, was by far the most imposing of them all. To one side of his house he had recently bought up a dilapidated bankrupt bargain store and converted it into a beautiful Viennese-style café and Konditorei with two luxury apartments rented out on the upper floors. On the other side of the house, incongruously to some, was the Little Vegas bar, with its sleazy clientele and slot machines. This was also Slansky’s. The two premises on either side of Slansky’s house neatly summed up the reach of the man himself, from high-end, tasteful and exclusive right down into the gutter.
Little Vegas was still open even at this hour, although when Dvorska glanced inside she could only see a couple of stalwart customers sitting quietly at the bar, and one solitary guy on the slot machines at the back. She frowned when she recalled Daniel Slansky’s connections with gambling joints – a major source of revenue for the municipal coffers – not to mention the local drug trade. Now it seemed certain that Slansky had been murdered, these avenues were going to have to be explored, and she knew she would be walking a minefield. She and Dambersky were going to have to play their cards close to their chests.
Dvorska stood still for several seconds, looking out on to the beautiful town square, taking deep breaths of the fresh air, despite its cold night edge. She needed to get the fumes of fermentation out of her lungs, and the pall of death. In spite of what she had just discovered about Daniel Slansky’s death, it suited her for the moment to play along with the appearance of a low-key, routine investigation until she could re-group herself and decide how to negotiate the obstacles that a high-profile murder investigation were going to throw in their path. There was no doubt in her mind that Dambersky would be only too happy to cut corners wherever he could, so she saw no problem there. She was also going to have to soft-pedal her reputation for pig-headed zeal if she was going to get anywhere with this investigation. Although there was no love lost between Dvorska and Dambersky, they had both just agreed upstairs that there seemed little point in keeping the witnesses up until dawn and beyond. The questioning of family members and guests could easily wait until the next afternoon after they had all tried to get some sleep. Too many guns blazing too soon would be counter-productive.
Dvorska walked across to the parking lot on the other side of the square and got into her battered old Skoda 120. She didn’t give a toss that it looked uncool. Especially not now when she put the key in the ignition on a cold, damp night and it started straight away. She drove out of the square, and straight up the hill out of town. She had some serious thinking to do and decided to spend the next few hours at her weekend cabin. One of the reasons she loved her old Skoda was that it had the engine at the back and it was really stable on slippery rural roads in winter, like the bumpy track she was driving up now through the nearby forest. When there was ice and snow on the steep roads she had seen Audis and BMWs come to grief on roads that her Skoda had no trouble on at all, as long as she could maintain a decent speed on her uphill drive.
Ten kilometres later, Jana Dvorska parked her car in the bumpy, gravelly driveway leading to her modest one-up, one-down wooden cabin with its little veranda. She made sure the handbrake was on securely, shut the car and unlocked the cabin door holding the little light she kept on her keychain. Switching on the table lamp on a small wooden dresser just inside the door, she put her keys on the tray she kept there, and walked over to the wood burner. She always left logs and kindling there ready to light. She found a couple of tabs of newspaper sticking out from among the kindling and lit them with her lighter. Within seconds the fire was burning and she closed the glass door of the stove.
The first task accomplished, Dvorska moved to her kitchenette and retrieved a bottle of vintage home-made Slivovitz brandy and two lead crystal shot glasses she had inherited from her grandmother. She put them on a metal tray and, despite the cold, turned the lamp off indoors and took everything out on to the veranda, where she had a seating area. It was a moonlit night.
She sat down and looked down over the sloping, forest-covered hillside with its mixed deciduous and coniferous trees. She drank in the pine-scented air and the palpable stillness of the forest night. One of her favourite moments was waking up after a night spent here and smelling the pine-scented air from her attic bedroom.
Dvorska poured herself a shot of the ten year-old Slivovitz brandy and swallowed it, feeling the refined, well-aged fire of its warmth as it went down. She breathed out heavily, seeing the mist of her own warm breath in the night air. She was just about to pour herself a top-up when she heard the sound of another car groaning its way uphill through the dark forest. Soon she heard the crunch of steps coming from the driveway to her cabin. She could see the faint, random hither and thither movements of a flashlight among the trees. She waited. In a few seconds Ivan Dambersky emerged into the clearing, wheezing. Although still only in his early thirties, he was visibly out of shape.
“Well now, what have we here?” said Dvorska with her first and last grin of that day.
“You said we need to talk,” he said, still struggling for breath.
“What I meant was, I need to talk and you need to listen.”
“No surprises there then,” said Dambersky. Stepping on to the veranda, he walked straight past her into the kitchenette and poured himself a beer as long as the week before payday.
When Dambersky and Dvorska went back to the Mayor’s apartment the next day to interview his widow Barbora, they found her in an agony of displacement activity, folding and re-folding piles of laundry, shifting them from one shelf or cupboard to another. Despite her recent loss she was immaculately dressed and was wearing quite heavy make-up. There was no sign of the two teenage children, so Dvorska filed that avenue of enquiry away in her mental ‘to-do’ list.
“We realize this is a very difficult time for you, but we do need to ask a few routine questions,” Dambersky said, predictably but soothingly. Dvorska had to admit he still came over like a pro, however ragged at the edge he might seem to her.
“What do you need to know?” Barbora asked wearily, almost distractedly.
Dambersky went in to his line of questioning obliquely: “Could you just confirm for us how many guests you had in the cellar last night?” he asked as neutrally as he could.
“Twenty-nine, plus my husband, myself, grandma and the children, so that makes…. thirty-four altogether.”
“Thank you, that’s what we thought,” answered Dambersky, noting it down.
“And could you just go over how you discovered …. that something was wrong?” Dambersky asked discreetly.
“It was just after two, and quite a few people had already gone home, so Daniel invited the ten or so people who were left to come up here to the apartment for a final nightcap. He had an old single malt he wanted to share on his birthday and it seemed like a good moment.” Barbora gazed into space for a second or two, looking a little dazed.
“So then what happened?” Dambersky went on, gently.
“Daniel said I should take everybody upstairs while he started carrying up his birthday presents. He said he’d be up in a couple of minutes.” Barbora stopped.
“I came upstairs with everyone else, and got the whisky and the glasses out. After about five minutes he still hadn’t come up, so I….. so I went back down to the cellar. And then I saw him. At first I thought he’d just nodded off, although it seemed strange that he was sitting on the floor, but then I saw he was in a strange position, so I called his name, and he didn’t move, so I went up to him and tapped him on the shoulder. That was when I noticed the vomit down his front. When I tapped him on the shoulder he just slumped to one side.” Barbora was white from the effort of keeping it together.
“Thank you,” said Dambersky. “And you’re absolutely sure that everyone else came upstairs with you? Nobody stayed down in the cellar with your husband?” Barbora Slanska shook her head.
“Thank you. I just needed to establish where everyone was at the time. I don’t think we’ll need to be troubling you any further for the time being.”
Dambersky closed his notepad and glanced over at Dvorska, who had been standing quietly nearby.
“We’ll be going now then,” said Dambersky, and turned to leave. This seemed to be the cue for Dvorska to take over.
“We realize you’ll be wanting to make funeral arrangements,” she said to Barbora, “but in the event of an unexpected death like this there does need to be an autopsy and so on. “We’ll try to keep things as simple and straightforward as we can,” she said, smiling sympathetically at the Mayor’s widow.
“Anyway, we mustn’t keep you. Thank you for your time.”
She turned as if to go and then turned back to look at Barbora, hesitating for a moment.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but where do you get your nails done? They’re really lovely!”
“Oh!” said Barbora, with a smile. “I go to Studio Krasa opposite the art gallery near the station. A girl called Katja does them. She’s really good.”
“Thanks,” said Dvorska. “My nails are such a mess. I really must do something with them. Anyway, we’ll be in touch as soon as we can. Our sincerest condolences,” she added, before following Dambersky down the stairs to the ground floor.
Dambersky had already gone out of the family entrance of the building, adjacent to the pharmacy, on to the cobbled street outside, and was lighting up a cigarette while he waited for Dvorska.
“What do you think?” she asked him.
“She seems a bit over-controlled,” said Damborsky. “And I didn’t like the fact that the kids weren’t there. We deliberately waited until they’d be back from school.”
“That’s what I thought,” said Dvorska. “And there’s something else.”
“If Slansky was murdered – executed – then how did the perpetrator or perpetrators know they would be able to get him on his own for long enough to do the deed?”
“Good point,” said Dambersky. “But if this was an execution there’s no way they would have left something like that to chance.”
“Exactly,” said Dvorska, looking thoughtful. “So where does that leave us?”
“I reckon it leaves us either with at least one perpetrator who was a guest at the party last night, or with an accomplice who was.”
“Yes, otherwise they couldn’t have pulled it off. And if that puncture wound means what I think it means, this was a planned, professional hit.”
“At this moment,” said Dambersky, “it’s starting to look like whoever did this had inside help. And my gut feeling is that this a family with a lot of skeletons in its cupboard.”
“Right,” agreed Dvorska. “So what’s next?”
“We keep digging,” said Dambersky. “Personally I wouldn’t mind having a word with the Pharmacy staff before they close up,” said Dambersky, looking into the store window of the Slanskys’ pharmacy. “I’m sure some of them will have had their ears to the ground. Might be able to pick up some leads there.”
“Very dedicated of you,” said Dvorska with a little more irony than she intended. “I think I’m going to call it a day. After that long night.”
“Going home so soon, Oh Zealous One?” quipped Dambersky sardonically.
“Mmm,” answered Dvorska. “Actually I thought I might treat myself to a manicure.”
Dambersky darted Dvorska a glance intimating that only a woman would think of having her nails done when they were investigating a suspicious death. Which was exactly what she wanted him to think.