The Last Temptation

Chapter 1
Blue is one colour the Danube never manages. Slate grey, muddy brown, dirty rust, sweat-stained khaki; all of these and most of the intermediate shades sabotage the dreams of any romantic who stands on her banks. Occasionally, where boats gather, she achieves a kind of oily radiance as the sun shimmers on a skin of spilled fuel, turning the river the iridescent hues of a pigeon's throat. On a dark night when clouds obscure the stars, she's as black as the Styx. But there, in central Europe at the turning of the new millennium, it cost rather more than a penny to pay the ferryman.

From both land and water, the place looked like a deserted, rundown boat repair yard. The rotting ribs of a couple of barges and corroded components from old machinery, their former functions a mystery, were all that could be glimpsed through the gaps in the planks of the tall gates. Anyone curious enough to have stopped their car on the quiet back road and peered into the yard would have been satisfied that they were looking at yet another graveyard for a dead communist enterprise.

But there was no apparent reason for anybody to harbour idle curiosity about this particular backwater. The only mystery was why, even in those illogical totalitarian days, it had ever been thought there was any point in opening a business there. There was no significant population centre for a dozen miles in any direction. The few farms that occupie the hinterland had always required more work to make then profitable than their occupants could provide; no spare hand there. When this boatyard was in operation, the workers haci been bussed fifteen miles to get to work. Its only advantage was its position on the river, sheltered from the main flow by a long sandbar covered in scrubby bushes and a few straggling trees leaning in the direction of the prevailing wind.

That remained its signal selling point to those who covertly used this evidently decaying example of industrial architecture from the bad old days. For this place was not what it seemed. Far from being a ruin, it was a vital staging post on a journey. If anyone had taken the trouble to give the place a closer look, they would have started to notice incongruities. The perimeter fence, for example, made of sheets of prefabricated reinforced concrete. It was in surprisingly good repair. The razor wire that ran along the top looked far more recent than the fall of communism. Not much to go on, in truth, but clues that were there to be read by those who are fluent in the language of deviousness.

If such a person had mounted surveillance on the apparently deserted boatyard that night, they would have been rewarded. But when the sleek black Mercedes purred along the back road, there were no curious eyes to see. The carj halted short of the gates and the driver climbed out, shivering momentarily as cold damp air replaced the climate controlled environment. He fumbled in the pockets of his leather jacket, coming out with a bunch of keys. It took him a couple of minutes to work his way through the four unfamiliar padlocks, then the gates swung silently open under his touch. He pushed them all the way back, then hurried back to the car and drove inside.

As the driver closed the gates behind the Mercedes, two men emerged from the back of the saloon. Tadeusz Radecki stretched his long legs, shaking the creases out of his Armani suit and reaching back into the car for his long sable coat. He'd felt the cold as never before lately, and it was a raw night, his breath emerging from his nostrils in filmy plumes. He pulled the fur close around him and surveyed the scene. He'd lost weight recently, and in the pale gloom cast by the car's headlamps the strong bones of his face were a reminder of the skull beneath the skin, his darting hazel eyes the only sign of the vitality within.

Darko Krasic strolled round to stand beside him, angling his wrist up so he could see the dial of his chunky gold watch. 'Half past eleven. The truck should be here any minute now.'

Tadeusz inclined his head slightly. 'I think we'll take the package ourselves.'

Krasic frowned. 'Tadzio, that's not a good idea. Everything's set up. There's no need for you to get so close to the merchandise.'

'You think not?' Tadeusz's tone was deceptively negligent. Krasic knew