Baby boomer Daniel Silva is one of the most praised and prolific writers alive. He is a New York Times best-selling author who started his career writing news reports as a foreign correspondent. Now, he brings his long experience covering international intrigue to his books. His newest, the 19th installment in his series of espionage novels, is The New Girl: A Novel (Gabriel Allon). Thanks to Daniel, BoomerCafé gives you an early look at its opening chapter.
Part One – Abduction
It was Beatrice Kenton who first questioned the identity of the new girl. She did so in the staff room, at a quarter past three, on a Friday in late November. The mood was festive and faintly rebellious, as was the case most Friday afternoons. It is a truism that no profession welcomes the end of the workweek with more anticipation than teachers—even teachers at elite institutions such as the International School of Geneva. The chatter was of plans for the weekend. Beatrice abstained, for she had none, a fact she did not wish to share with her colleagues. She was fifty-two, unmarried, and with no family to speak of other than a rich old aunt who granted her refuge each summer at her estate in Norfolk. Her weekend routine consisted of a trip to the Migros and a walk along the lakeshore for the sake of her waistline, which, like the universe, was ever expanding. First period Monday was an oasis in an otherwise Empty Quarter of solitude.
Founded by a long-dead organization of multilateralism, Geneva International catered to the children of the city’s diplomatic community. The middle school, where Beatrice taught reading and composition, educated students from more than a hundred different countries. The faculty was a similarly diverse lot. The head of personnel went to great effort to promote employee bonding—cocktail parties, potluck dinners, nature outings—but in the staff room the old tribalism tended to reassert itself. Germans kept with other Germans, French with French, Spanish with Spanish. On that Friday afternoon, Miss Kenton was the only British subject present other than Cecelia Halifax from the history department. Cecelia had wild black hair and predictable politics, which she insisted on sharing with Miss Kenton at every opportunity. Cecelia also divulged to Miss Kenton details of the torrid sexual affair she was having with Kurt Schröder, the Birkenstocked math genius from Hamburg who had given up a lucrative engineering career to teach multiplication and division to eleven-year-olds.
The staff room was on the ground floor of the eighteenth-century château that served as the administration building. Its leaded windows gazed across the forecourt, where presently Geneva International’s privileged young students were clambering into the backs of German-made luxury sedans with diplomatic license plates. Loquacious Cecelia Halifax had planted herself next to Beatrice. She was prattling on about a scandal in London, something involving MI6 and a Russian spy. Beatrice was scarcely listening. She was watching the new girl.
As usual, she was at the hindmost end of the daily exodus, a wispy child of twelve, already beautiful, with liquid brown eyes and hair the color of a raven’s wing. Much to Beatrice’s dismay, the school had no uniform, only a dress code, which several of the more freethinking students flouted with no official sanction. But not the new girl. She was covered from head to toe in ex- pensive wool and plaid, the sort of stuff one saw at the Burberry boutique in Harrods. She carried a leather book bag rather than a nylon backpack. Her patent leather ballet slippers were glossy and bright. She was proper, the new girl, modest. But there was something else about her, thought Beatrice. She was cut from different cloth. She was regal. Yes, that was the word. Regal . . .
She had arrived two weeks into the autumn term—not ideal but not unheard of at an institution like Geneva International, where the parent body came and went like the waters of the Rhône. David Millar, the headmaster, had crammed her into Beatrice’s third period, which was already two pupils on the heavy side. The copy of the admissions file he gave her was gossamer, even by the school’s standards. It stated that the new girl’s name was Jihan Tantawi, that she was of Egyptian nationality, and that her father was a businessman rather than a diplomat. Her academic record was unexceptional. She was deemed bright but in no way gifted. “A bird ready to take flight,” wrote David in a sanguine margin note. Indeed, the only noteworthy aspect of the file was the paragraph reserved for the student’s “special needs.” It seemed privacy was of grave concern to the Tantawi family. Security, wrote David, was a high priority.
Hence the presence in the courtyard that afternoon—and every afternoon, for that matter—of Lucien Villard, the school’s capable head of security. Lucien was a French import a veteran of the Service de la Protection, the National Police unit responsible for safeguarding visiting foreign dignitaries and senior French officials. His final posting had been at the Élysée Palace, where he had served on the personal detail of the president of the Republic. David Millar used Lucien’s impressive résumé as proof of the school’s commitment to safety. Jihan Tantawi was not the only student with security concerns.
But no one arrived and departed Geneva International quite like the new girl. The black Mercedes limousine into which she slipped was fit for a head of state or potentate. Beatrice was no expert when it came to automobiles, but it looked to her as though the chassis was armor plated and the windows were bulletproof. Behind it was a second vehicle, a Range Rover, containing four unsmiling brutes in dark jackets.
“Who do you suppose she is?” wondered Beatrice as she watched the two vehicles turn into the street.
Cecelia Halifax was bewildered. “The Russian spy?”
“The new girl,” drawled Beatrice. Then she added dubiously, “Jihan.”
“They say her father owns half of Cairo.” “Who says that?”
“Veronica.” Veronica Alvarez was a hot-tempered Spaniard from the art department and one of the least reliable sources of gossip on the faculty, second only to Cecelia herself. “She says the mother is related to the Egyptian president. His niece. Or maybe his cousin.”
Beatrice watched Lucien Villard crossing the forecourt. “Do you know what I think?”
“I think someone is lying.”
And so it came to pass that Beatrice Kenton, a battle-scarred veteran of several lesser British public schools who had come to Geneva looking for romance and adventure and found neither, undertook a wholly private inquiry to determine the true identity of the new girl. She began by entering the name JIHAN TANTAWI in the little white box of her Internet browser’s default search engine. Several thousand results appeared on her screen, none corresponding to the beautiful twelve-year-old girl who came through her classroom door at the beginning of each third period, never so much as a minute late.
Next Beatrice searched the various social media sites but again found no trace of her student. It seemed the new girl was the only twelve-year-old on God’s green earth who did not lead a parallel life in cyberspace. Beatrice found this com- mendable, for she had witnessed firsthand the destructive emotional and developmental consequences of incessant tex- ting, tweeting, and sharing of photographs. Regrettably, such behavior was not limited to children. Cecelia Halifax could scarcely go to the loo without posting an airbrushed photo of herself on Instagram.
The father, one Adnan Tantawi, was similarly anonymous in the cyber realm. Beatrice found a few references to a Tantawi Construction and a Tantawi Holdings and a Tantawi Development but nothing at all about the man himself. Jihan’s admissions file listed a chic address on the route de Lausanne. Beatrice walked by it on a Saturday afternoon. It was a few doors down from the home of the famous Swiss industrialist Martin Landesmann. Like all properties on that part of Lake Geneva, it was surrounded by high walls and watched over by security cameras. Beatrice peered through the bars of the gate and glimpsed a manicured green lawn stretching toward the portico of a magnificent Italianate villa. At once, a man came pounding toward her down the drive, one of the brutes from the Range Rover, no doubt. He made no effort to conceal the fact he had a gun beneath his jacket.
“Propriété privée!” he shouted in heavily accented French.
“Excusez-moi,” murmured Beatrice, and walked quickly away.
The next phase of her inquiry commenced the following Monday morning, when she embarked on three days of close observation of her mysterious new student. She noted that Jihan, when called upon in class, was sometimes slow in responding. She noted, too, that Jihan had formed no friendships since her arrival at the school, and had made no attempt to do so. Beatrice also established, while purporting to lavish praise on a lackluster essay, that Jihan had only a passing familiarity with Egypt. She knew that Cairo was a large city and that a river ran through it, but little else. Her father, she said, was very rich. He built high-rise apartment houses and office towers. Be- cause he was a friend of the Egyptian president, the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t like him, which was why they were living in Geneva.
“Sounds perfectly reasonable to me,” said Cecelia.
“It sounds,” answered Beatrice, “like something someone made up. I doubt she’s ever set foot in Cairo. In fact, I’m not sure she’s even Egyptian.”
Beatrice next focused her attention on the mother. She viewed her mainly through the tinted, bulletproof windows of the limousine, or on those rare occasions when she alighted from the car’s backseat to greet Jihan in the courtyard. She was fairer complected than Jihan and lighter haired—attractive, thought Beatrice, but not quite in Jihan’s league. Indeed, Beatrice was hard-pressed to find any familial resemblance whatsoever. There was a conspicuous cold- ness in their physical relationship. Not once did she witness a kiss or warm embrace. She also detected a distinct imbalance of power. It was Jihan, not the mother, who held the upper hand.
As November turned to December, and the winter break loomed, Beatrice conspired to arrange a meeting with the aloof mother of her mysterious pupil. The pretext was Jihan’s performance on an English spelling and vocabulary test—the bottom third of the class but much better than young Callahan, the son of an American foreign service officer and, purportedly, a native speaker of the language. Beatrice drafted an e-mail requesting a consultation at Mrs. Tantawi’s convenience and dispatched it to the address she found in the admissions file. When several days passed with no reply, she sent it again. At which point she received a mild rebuke from David Millar, the headmaster. It seemed Mrs. Tantawi wished to have no direct contact with Jihan’s teachers. Beatrice was to state her concerns in an e-mail to David, and David would address the matter with Mrs. Tantawi. Beatrice suspected he was aware of Jihan’s real identity, but she knew better than to raise the subject, even obliquely. It was easier to pry secrets from a Swiss banker than Geneva International’s discreet headmaster.
Which left only Lucien Villard, the school’s French-born head of security. Beatrice called on him on a Friday after- noon during her free period. His office was in the basement of the château, next door to the broom closet occupied by the shifty little Russian who made the computers work. Lucien was lean and sturdy and more youthful-looking than his forty-eight years. Half the female members of the staff lusted after him, including Cecelia Halifax, who had made an unsuccessful run at Lucien before bedding her sandaled Teutonic math genius.
“I was wondering,” said Beatrice, leaning with feigned nonchalance against the frame of Lucien’s open door, “whether I might have a word with you about the new girl.”
Lucien regarded her coolly over his desk. “Jihan? Why?” “Because I’m worried about her.”
Lucien placed a stack of papers atop the mobile phone that lay on his blotter. Beatrice couldn’t be sure, but she thought it was a different model than the one he usually carried.
“It’s my job to worry about Jihan, Miss Kenton. Not yours.”
“It’s not her real name, is it?”
“Wherever did you get an idea like that?” “I’m her teacher. Teachers see things.”
“Perhaps you didn’t read the note in Jihan’s file regarding loose talk and gossip. I would advise you to follow those instructions. Otherwise, I will be obliged to bring this matter to the attention of Monsieur Millar.”
“Forgive me, I meant no—”
Lucien held up a hand. “Don’t worry, Miss Kenton. It is entre nous.”
Two hours later, as the hatchlings of the global diplomatic elite waddled across the courtyard of the château, Beatrice was watching from the leaded window of the staff room. As usual, Jihan was among the last to leave. No, thought Beatrice, not Jihan. The new girl . . . She was skipping lightly across the cobbles and swinging her book bag, seemingly oblivious to the presence of Lucien Villard at her side. The woman was waiting next to the open door of the limousine. The new girl passed her with scarcely a glance and tumbled into the backseat. It was the last time Beatrice would ever see her.