My second novel, ‘New Holland’, is a mystery set in St. Petersburg. It’s going to be published by Espresso Books in a few weeks’ time. Watch this space for more details; in the meantime, here’s the first chapter to whet your appetite:
St. Petersburg governor Alexey Vinogradov hadn’t been to bed for almost a week: there was a city to rebuild. The new Russia, with its new money and new decision makers, demanded chromium and glass over Imperial elegance or Communist functionality. Since the election his life had been a tense conveyor belt of meetings with Armani-clad investors in exclusive sushi restaurants or the hidden rooms of gentlemen’s clubs on Nevsky Prospekt. Once the entertainment was over, his new friends were usually happy to produce the ‘presents’ he requested to bypass most of the paperwork.
But not the Icelanders. Rocking back and forth in his office just after midnight, he felt tense as he remembered how they’d taken exception to the idea during a boat tour. They’d even threatened to cancel everything. Did they not know how things got done at the top level? Did they really think their tiny new shopping centre was so important? Perhaps they were working for a liberal newspaper or television channel.
He stared at the River Neva in the late daylight, wishing the White Nights were ending rather than starting. Every year they stopped him from sleeping but that June they were making him edgy, a rash jangling on his skin. He brushed away the thought that there was more to the Icelanders than met the eye. Hopefully when the White Nights finished the small fry would disappear, replaced by serious businesspeople – ones
who knew the rules.
He glanced at the New Holland contract. It was his number one priority for the coming weeks, a risky but fruitful deal – he was going to sell the Swedes a useless little island for a lot of money. The military had abandoned it, and most people had forgotten it existed. What did history matter if the place was dead? Only the dark shadows in the dissident population and his own circle threatened a smooth sale. He swatted a mosquito on his desk, inspecting it for traces of blood. Brushing it to the floor, he again questioned who was more dangerous. Russians loved history and
tradition, but liked to be led and could not get organised; the Leningrad People’s Resistance would not stop the deal. But the people close to him, the former diplomats and civil servants with three languages and Western ideas…did one of them know about the plan? As he scanned the secret list of names he’d written, paranoia crept through the room like a spider. Someone close, a misguided patriot or one of the Westernisers, could be plotting.
On a boat bar outside a group of students was shouting and singing. Their joy ate into him, making him even more nervous; it was time to leave. Grasping the bottle of Hine 1975 – a present from the Swedes – and trying to ignore his shaking hands, Vinogradov thought of Anya. She’d be in the usual place. A hit of passion would temporarily cloak the danger. He picked up his mobile and dialled his driver.
‘Ivan, pick me up in ten minutes.’
‘Are you going to Nevsky?’
He paused. Something made him think of Olga Andreevna.
‘No – I’m going home. My wife is expecting me.’
‘I’ll be waiting, Alexey Alexeevich.’
Alexey texted his wife and left the Smolny, examining the walls and ceiling of his office as he always did. Even under duress, he still felt in awe of the beautiful Palladian building. His bodyguard, Vladimir, was waiting in the corridor. Vinogradov slotted his hands into his pockets, avoiding eye contact.
‘I’m going to walk around the grounds, Vova, then I’m going back to the Moika. You go home.’
‘I must come with you, Alexey Alexeevich.’
‘No. I want to walk alone tonight.’
The gardens were not as spectacular as the building, though Alexey always felt sanctuary within their boundaries. He’d wanted to save the Hine for later, but he needed a drink right now. Slugging on the bottle, he turned up a flamenco track on his iPod. He leant against the railings exactly as he had done when he was a student; in those days he had been leaning on them from the street, lost in the beauty of the structure and wondering whether he would ever get to know whether the rooms inside were as wonderful.
Now he wanted nothing more than to get out – to forget the Smolniy and his office even existed. But there was no choice. New Holland. The name rattled ceaselessly through him. Could it really work? What if the Swedes discovered the truth? What if they already knew the truth? He swallowed more Hine as he considered the possibilities: serious money, prison or even death. Closing his eyes, he told himself things would be
OK. He’d be able to buy the villa in Seville next door to the Russian footballer he was friends with. He could send the children to London to do more postgraduate study, though he knew his daughter would demand Spain this time.
Should he have called Anya? No: Olga was suspicious. Once New Holland was completed he would start things with one of the other girls, though right now sex seemed a strangely scary prospect. He drank another large gulp, enjoying the dulling of his senses. Becoming heavier against the railings, he closed his eyes tighter and imagined he was a child, gardening and swimming with his grandmother at the family’s country house.
Maybe his reminiscence took over him; maybe it was the Hine or the whinnying guitar, but Alexey did not hear the car glide up behind him. He did not see the figures jump the railings, and was not quick enough to identify the hand that grabbed him. He was held firmly, and a cloth pulled over his mouth and nose by another pair of hands. His hands went numb, and he vaguely heard a clink as the bottle collided with the railings. Powerless, he was dragged him into the back of the jeep, unable to confirm which of his ghosts had finally caught up with him.