Baby boomer Daniel Silva, the New York Times best-selling author, is praised as a prolific writer. He started his career as a foreign correspondent and CNN newsman, and now brings his long experience with international intrigue to his many books. His newest, the 21st installment in his series of espionage novels, is The Cellist. We are happy to say, Daniel has given us a sneak peek at the first two chapters.
JERMYN STREET, ST. JAMES’S
Sarah Bancroft envied those fortunate souls who believed they controlled their own destinies. For them, life was no more complicated than riding the Underground. Insert your ticket at the fare gate, get off at the correct stop—Charing Cross rather than Leicester Square. Sarah had never subscribed to such drivel. Yes, one could prepare, one could strive, one could make choices, but ultimately life was an elaborate game of providence and probability. Regrettably, in matters of both work and love, she had displayed an uncanny lack of timing. She was either one step too fast or one too slow. She had missed many trains. Several times she had boarded the wrong one, nearly always with disastrous results.
Her latest career move appeared to fit this star-crossed pattern. Having established herself as one of the most prominent museum curators in New York, she had elected to relocate to London to take over day-to-day management of Isherwood Fine Arts, purveyors of quality Italian and Dutch Old Master paintings since 1968. True to form, her arrival was followed in short order by the outbreak of a deadly pandemic. Even the art world, which catered to the whims of the global superrich, was not immune to the contagion’s ravages. Almost overnight, the gallery’s business slipped into something approximating cardiac arrest. If the phone rang at all, it was usually a buyer or his representative calling to back out of a sale. Not since the West End musical version of Desperately Seeking Susan, declared Sarah’s acerbic mother, had London witnessed a less auspicious debut.
Isherwood Fine Arts had seen troubled times before—wars, terrorist attacks, oil shocks, market meltdowns, disastrous love affairs—and yet somehow it had always managed to weather the storm. Sarah had worked at the gallery briefly fifteen years earlier while serving as a clandestine asset of the Central Intelligence Agency. The operation had been a joint US-Israeli enterprise, run by the legendary Gabriel Allon. With the help of a lost Van Gogh, he had inserted Sarah into the entourage of a Saudi billionaire named Zizi al-Bakari and ordered her to find the terrorist mastermind lurking within it. Her life had never been the same since.
When the operation was over, she spent several months recuperating at an Agency safe house in the horse country of Northern Virginia. Afterward, she worked at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center at Langley. She also took part in several joint American-Israeli operations, all at Gabriel’s behest. British intelligence was well aware of Sarah’s past, and of her presence in London—hardly surprising, for she was currently sharing a bed with an MI6 officer named Christopher Keller. Ordinarily, a relationship such as theirs was strictly forbidden, but in Sarah’s case an exception had been made. Graham Seymour, the director-general of MI6, was a personal friend, as was Prime Minister Jonathan Lancaster. Indeed, not long after her arrival in London, Sarah and Christopher had dined privately at Number Ten.
With the exception of Julian Isherwood, owner of the enchanted gallery that bore his name, the denizens of London’s art world knew none of this. As far as Sarah’s colleagues and competitors were concerned, she was the beautiful and brilliant American art historian who had briefly brightened their world one dreary winter long ago, only to throw them over for the likes of Zizi al-Bakari, may he rest in peace. And now, after a tumultuous journey through the secret world, she had returned, thus proving her point about providence and probability. At long last, Sarah had caught the right train.
London had welcomed her with open arms and with few questions asked. She scarcely had time to put her affairs in order before the virus invaded. She contracted the bug in early March at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht and had promptly infected both Julian and Christopher. Julian spent a dreadful fortnight at University College Hospital. Sarah was spared the worst of the virus’s symptoms but endured a month of fever, fatigue, headache, and shortness of breath that seized her each time she crawled from her bed. Not surprisingly, Christopher escaped unscathed and asymptomatic. Sarah punished him by forcing him to wait on her hand and foot. Somehow their relationship survived.
In June, London awakened from the lockdown. After thrice testing negative for the virus, Christopher returned to duty at Vauxhall Cross, but Sarah and Julian waited until Midsummer Day before reopening the gallery. It was located in a tranquil quadrangle of paving stones and commerce known as Mason’s Yard, between the offices of a minor Greek shipping company and a pub that in the innocent days before the plague had been frequented by pretty office girls who rode motor scooters. On the uppermost floor was a glorious exhibition room modeled on Paul Rosenberg’s famous gallery in Paris, where Julian had spent many happy hours as a child. He and Sarah shared a large office on the second floor with Ella, the attractive but useless receptionist. During their first week back in business, the phone rang just three times. Ella allowed all three calls to go to voice mail. Sarah informed her that her services, such as they were, were no longer necessary.
There was no point in hiring a replacement. The experts were warning of a vicious second wave when the weather turned cold, and London’s shopkeepers had been advised to expect more government-mandated lockdowns. The last thing Sarah needed was another mouth to feed. She resolved not to let the summer go to waste. She would sell a painting, any painting, even if it killed her.
She found one, quite by accident, while taking inventory of the catastrophically large number of unsold works in Julian’s bulging storerooms: The Lute Player, oil on canvas, 152 by 134 centimeters, perhaps early Baroque, quite damaged and dirty. The original receipt and shipping records were still lodged in Julian’s archives, along with a yellowed copy of the provenance. The earliest known owner was a Count So-and-So from Bologna, who in 1698 sold it to Prince Such-and-Such of Liechtenstein, who in turn sold it to Baron What’s-His-Name of Vienna, where it remained until 1962, when it was acquired by a dealer in Rome, who eventually unloaded it onto Julian. The painting had been attributed variously to the Italian School, a follower of Caravaggio, and, more promisingly, to the circle of Orazio Gentileschi. Sarah had a hunch. She showed the work to the learned Niles Dunham of the National Gallery during the three-hour period Julian reserved daily for his luncheon. Niles tentatively accepted Sarah’s attribution, pending additional technical examination utilizing X-radiography and infrared reflectography. He then offered to take the painting off Sarah’s hands for eight hundred thousand pounds.
“It’s worth five million, if not more.”
“Not during the Black Death.”
“We’ll see about that.”
Typically, a newly discovered work by a major artist would be brought to market with great fanfare, especially if the artist had seen a recent surge in popularity owing to her tragic personal story. But given the current volatility of the market—not to mention the fact that the newly discovered painting had been discovered in his own gallery—Julian decided a private sale was in order. He rang several of his most reliable customers and received not so much as a nibble. At which point Sarah quietly contacted a billionaire collector who was a friend of a friend. He expressed interest, and after several socially distant meetings at his London residence they arrived at a satisfactory price. Sarah requested a down payment of one million pounds, in part to cover the cost of the restoration, which would be extensive. The collector asked her to come to his dwelling at eight that evening to take delivery of the check.
All of which went some way to explaining why Sarah Bancroft, on a wet Wednesday evening in late July, was seated at a corner table in the bar of Wilton’s Restaurant in Jermyn Street. The mood in the room was uncertain, the smiles forced, the laughter uproarious but somehow false. Julian was tilted against the end of the bar. With his Savile Row suit and plentiful gray locks, he cut a rather elegant if dubious figure, a look he described as dignified depravity. He was peering into his Sancerre and pretending to listen to something that Jeremy Crabbe, the director of the Old Master department at Bonhams, was murmuring excitedly into his ear. Amelia March of ARTNews was eavesdropping on a conversation between Simon Mendenhall, the mannequin-like chief auctioneer from Christie’s, and Nicky Lovegrove, art adviser to the criminally rich. Roddy Hutchinson, widely regarded as the most unscrupulous dealer in all of London, was tugging at the sleeve of tubby Oliver Dimbleby. But Oliver seemed not to notice, for he was pawing at the impossibly beautiful former fashion model who now owned a successful modern art gallery in King Street. On her way out the door, she blew Sarah a decorous kiss with those perfect crimson lips of hers. Sarah sipped her three-olive martini and whispered, “Bitch.”
“I heard that!” Fortunately, it was only Oliver. Encased in a form-fitting gray suit, he floated toward Sarah’s table like a barrage balloon and sat down. “What have you got against the lovely Miss Watson?”
“Her eyes. Her cheekbones. Her hair. Her boobs.” Sarah sighed. “Shall I go on?”
Oliver waved his pudgy little hand dismissively. “You’re much prettier than she is, Sarah. I’ll never forget the first time I saw you walking across Mason’s Yard. Nearly stopped my heart. If memory serves, I made quite a fool of myself back then.”
“You asked me to marry you. Several times, in fact.”
“My offer still stands.”
“I’m flattered, Ollie. But I’m afraid it’s out of the question.”
“Am I too old?”
“Not at all.”
She pinched his pinkish cheek. “Just right, actually.”
“So what’s the problem?”
He seemed unfamiliar with the word. Oliver’s romantic entanglements rarely lasted more than a night or two. “Are you talking about that bloke who drives the flashy Bentley?”
Sarah sipped her drink.
“What’s his name, this boyfriend of yours?”
“Sounds made up.”
With good reason, thought Sarah.
“What’s he do for a living?” blurted Oliver.
“Can you keep a secret?”
“My darling Sarah, I have more dirty secrets stored inside my head than MI5 and MI6 combined.”
She leaned across the table. “He’s a professional assassin.”
“Really? Interesting work, is it?”
Sarah smiled. It wasn’t true, of course. It had been several years since Christopher worked as a contract killer.
“Is he the reason you came back to London?” probed Oliver.
“One of the reasons. The truth is, I missed you all terribly. Even you, Oliver.” She checked the time on her phone. “Oh, hell! Will you be a love and pay for my drink? I’m late.”
“Why on earth would I want to do that? It’s so bloody boring.”
Sarah rose and, winking at Julian, went into Jermyn Street. The rain was suddenly coming down in torrents, but a taxi soon came to her rescue. She waited until she was safely inside before giving the driver the address of her destination.
“Cheyne Walk, please. Number forty-three.”
Daniel Silva’s latest international spy thriller The Cellist will be published on July 13, but you can pre-order it today from Amazon – The Cellist: A Novel (Gabriel Allon, 21).
CHEYNE WALK, CHELSEA
Like Sarah Bancroft, Viktor Orlov believed that life was a journey best taken without aid of a map. Raised in an unheated Moscow apartment shared by three families, he became a billionaire many times over through a combination of luck, determination, and ruthless tactics that even his apologists described as unscrupulous, if not criminal. Orlov made no secret of the fact that he was a predator and a robber baron. Indeed, he wore those labels proudly. “Had I been born an Englishman, my money might have come to me cleanly,” he dismissively told a British interviewer after taking up residence in London. “But
I was born a Russian. And I earned a Russian fortune.”
In point of fact, Viktor Orlov was born a citizen not of Russia but of the Soviet Union. A brilliant mathematician, he attended the prestigious Leningrad Institute of Precision Mechanics and Optics and then disappeared into the Soviet nuclear weapons program, where he designed multiwarhead intercontinental ballistic missiles. Later, when asked why he had joined the Communist Party, he admitted it was for reasons of career advancement only. “I suppose I could have become a dissident,” he added, “but the gulag never seemed like a terribly appealing place to me.”
As a member of the pampered elite, Orlov witnessed the decay of the Soviet system from the inside and knew it was only a matter of time before the empire collapsed. When the end finally came, he renounced his membership in the Communist Party and vowed to become rich. Within a few years he had earned a sizable fortune importing computers and other Western goods for the nascent Russian market. He then used that fortune to acquire Russia’s largest state-owned steel company and Ruzoil, the Siberian oil giant. Before long, Orlov was the richest man in Russia.
But in post-Soviet Russia, a land with no rule of law, Orlov’s fortune made him a marked man. He survived at least three attempts on his life and was rumored to have ordered several men killed in retaliation. But the greatest threat to Orlov would come from the man who succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president. He believed that Viktor Orlov and the other oligarchs had stolen the country’s most valuable assets, and it was his intention to steal them back. After settling into the Kremlin, the new president summoned Orlov and demanded two things: his steel company and Ruzoil. “And keep your nose out of politics,” he added ominously. “Otherwise, I’ll cut it off.”
Orlov agreed to relinquish his steel interests, but not Ruzoil. The president was not amused. He immediately ordered prosecutors to open a fraud-and-bribery investigation, and within a week they had issued a warrant for Orlov’s arrest. He wisely fled to London, where he became one of the Russian president’s most vocal critics. For several years, Ruzoil remained legally icebound, beyond the reach of both Orlov and the new masters of the Kremlin. Orlov finally agreed to surrender the company in exchange for three Israeli intelligence agents held captive in Russia. One of the agents was Gabriel Allon.
For his generosity, Orlov received a British passport and a private meeting with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. He then embarked on an ambitious effort to rebuild his lost fortune, this time under the watchful eye of British regulatory officials, who monitored his every trade and investment. His empire now included such venerable London newspapers as the Independent, the Evening Standard, and the Financial Journal. He had also acquired a controlling interest in the Russian investigative weekly Moskovskaya Gazeta. With Orlov’s financial support, the magazine was once again Russia’s most prominent independent news organization and a thorn in the side of the men in the Kremlin.
As a consequence, Orlov lived each day with the knowledge that the formidable intelligence services of the Russian Federation were plotting to kill him. His new Mercedes-Maybach limousine was equipped with security features normally reserved for the state cars of presidents and prime ministers, and his home in Chelsea’s historic Cheyne Walk was one of the most heavily defended in London. A black Range Rover idled curbside, headlamps doused. Inside were four bodyguards, all former commandos from the elite Special Air Service employed by a discreet private security firm based in Mayfair. The one behind the wheel raised a hand in acknowledgment as Sarah alighted from the back of the taxi. Evidently, she was expected.
Number 43 was tall and narrow and covered in wisteria. Like its neighbors, it was set back from the street, behind a wrought-iron fence. Sarah hurried up the garden walk beneath the meager shelter offered by her compact umbrella. The bell push produced a resonant tolling within, but no response. Sarah pressed the button a second time, with the same result.
Typically, a maid would have answered the door. But Viktor, a notorious germophobe even before the pandemic, had slashed the hours of his household staff to reduce his odds of contracting the virus. A lifelong bachelor, he spent most evenings in his study on the third floor, sometimes alone, often with inappropriately young female company. The curtains were aglow with lamplight. Sarah reckoned he was on a call. At least, she hoped he was.
She rang the bell a third time and, receiving no answer, laid her forefinger on the biometric reader next to the door. Viktor had added her fingerprint to the system, no doubt with the hope their relationship might continue after the sale of the painting was complete. An electronic chirp informed Sarah that the scan had been accepted. She entered her personal passcode—it was identical to the one she used at the gallery—and the deadbolts snapped open at once.
She lowered her umbrella, twisted the doorknob, and went inside. The silence was absolute. She called Viktor’s name but there was no reply. Crossing the entrance hall, she mounted the grand staircase and climbed to the third floor. The door of Viktor’s study was ajar. She knocked. No answer.
Calling Viktor’s name, she entered the room. It was an exact replica of the Queen’s private study in her apartment at Buckingham Palace—all except for the high-definition video wall that flickered with financial newscasts and market data from around the world. Viktor was seated behind his desk, his face tilted toward the ceiling, as though he were deep in thought.
When Sarah approached the desk, he made no movement. Before him was the receiver from his landline telephone, a half-drunk glass of red wine, and a stack of documents. His mouth and chin were covered in white foam, and there was vomit on the front of his striped dress shirt. Sarah saw no evidence of respiration.
“Oh, Viktor. Dear God.”
While at the CIA, Sarah had worked cases involving weapons of mass destruction. She recognized the symptoms. Viktor had been exposed to a nerve agent.
In all likelihood, so had Sarah.
She rushed from the room, her hand to her mouth, and hurried down the staircase. The wrought-iron gate, the bell push, the biometric scanner, the keypad: any one of them could have been contaminated. Nerve agents were extremely fast acting. She would know in a minute or two.
Sarah touched one final surface, the knob on Viktor’s leaden front door. Outside, she lifted her face to the falling rain and waited for the first telltale rush of nausea. One of the bodyguards clambered from the Range Rover, but Sarah warned him to approach no closer. Then she dug her phone from her handbag and dialed a number from her preferred contacts. The call went straight to voice mail. As usual, she thought, her lack of timing was impeccable.
“Forgive me, my love,” she said calmly. “But I’m afraid I might be dying.”
Daniel Silva’s The Cellist: A Novel (Gabriel Allon Book 21) is now available for order on Amazon.