The discovery of a woman close to death in a city basement sends Bucharest police officers Anton Iordan and Sorin Matache on a complex chase through the city as they seek to identify the victim. As they try to track down the would-be murderer, they find a macabre trail of missing women and they realise that this isn’t the first time the killer has struck. Iordan and Matache hit one dead end after another, until they decide they’ll have to take a chance that could prove deadly.
Never had the heat been as overpowering as it was that summer. Every TV channel carried one heatwave warning after another, dotted with orange flags and sometimes red, as the weather map of Romania looked increasingly like an incandescent stream of lava flowing towards the Black Sea.
At least, that’s what Commissioner Anton Iordan felt.
He reached for the air conditioning remote control, determined to crank the temperature down at least two or three degrees more. Guessing what was on his mind, Chief Inspector Matache cleared his throat.
‘Boss, it’s not advisable to have a temperature difference higher than five degrees between indoors and outside. Right now it’s twenty-five degrees in here and almost forty outside…’ he said leaving his sentence unfinished.
‘You’re right again, Sorin,’ Iordan said with a sigh. ‘I must be getting old, aren’t I? I’ve never complained about the weather before. But this summer – and to think it’s already late August.’
The young inspector was someone who took care of his appearance. He had managed a short seaside break in July, and thanks to his dark complexion he had acquired a uniform tan that highlighted his green-flecked brown eyes. A casual white shirt contributed to the suave look he was trying to cultivate, along with exercise and careful attention to his diet.
At the other end of the scale, Commissioner Iordan had started leaving his shirt untucked in a vain attempt to hide the belly that had lately made him wince every time he had to stoop to tie his shoelaces. He had taken to going to the gym, aiming for three sessions a week, but rarely managed to keep to it. Often, his caseload kept him at work late into the night; and once at home he could never resist the culinary temptations his wife laid out before him.
The Commissioner sighed deeply. Right now, he could have done with a generous tomato salad with grated cheese on top, cold, straight from the fridge, washed down with a bottle of beer. Actually no, beer didn’t go well with a tomato salad. At home, it would most likely be a plate of stew, heavy on the meat, a dish that would go well with a beer, maybe even two.
The marks the passing years left on him weighed on his mind. First it had been the grey sprouting at his temples, followed by his skin loosening, the need for reading glasses and waking up frequently in the night.
Marital disputes sparked by the children’s behaviour and their mother’s over-indulgent attitude had begun to irritate him. He wouldn’t admit even to himself that his own work schedule or the minimal time spent with his family could be a contributing factor. And then, to top it all, there were the thoughts that tormented him; the sweetness of another woman who wanted him, tempted him, took pleasure in every moment they spent together. He had never experienced such delight before. He found himself basking in the joy of this new and secret relationship, and reminded himself that actually he had not yet turned fifty.
‘Boss, I’m done with the reports on the kidnapping case,’ Matache said, handing him the printed sheets. ‘Would you like to go through them?’
The Commissioner glanced over them, signed each sheet at the bottom and handed them back.
‘That was a pretty screwed-up case,’ he finally muttered.
His deputy nodded. He could hardly wait to have a couple of days off at the end of August. He hadn’t made any plans, so he would probably spend an evening in a club, and then all Saturday in bed, then on Sunday … but whose bed? he asked himself, smiling, making a mental list of all the girls he could invite out for a drink.
‘You’re pretty keen to get away, or is it just me?’ Iordan asked, taking him by surprise.
‘Kind of, I guess. I must admit, I’m not tired after that last case but I can’t help feeling the frustration building up. No matter what I do, these low-lifes always keep on showing up from nowhere.’
‘Don’t worry, you’ll be used to it by the time you have twenty years of service behind you,’ Iordan said with a sardonic look on his face. He considered Matache a hard-working, respectful lad, yet sometimes his painstaking attention to fine detail and the speed with which he could arrive at the right conclusion took him by surprise.
‘Do you need the car until Monday?’ Iordan asked.
‘I kind of do, as…’
‘That’s fine, you don’t need to tell me more. Just remember to fill the tank so we don’t have to answer any questions.’
‘Of course I will,’ the young man promised, quickly pocketing the keys to the departmental car.
‘Isn’t it a bit early?’ asked Iordan, checking his watch.
‘It is, but the overtime from the last case…’
‘You know what? You’re right, let’s go,’ Iordan decided, clicking off the air conditioning.
The Second Sector police station gave every indication of being deserted. There might be people lurking behind closed doors, hiding from the heat, but the front desk had been closed for more than two hours. On their way to the car park, they could feel their feet sinking into the melting asphalt underfoot.
Iordan waited for a few moments before driving past the barrier. At four o’clock on a Friday afternoon Mihai Bravu Boulevard would be like any other main street in Bucharest, swarming with a multi-coloured assortment of overheated cars. He headed for Drumul Taberei, determined not to let his temper get the better of him at least until they reached Callatis Alley where Matache would drop him off.
‘These people are among the lucky ones, Sorin. There are still some trees here, but in other areas it’s terrible,’ Iordan said, waving a hand at the old buildings lining the street.
‘You know, at my place…’
‘Your place meaning your rich guys’ estate, Sorin?’ Iordan teased, unable to help himself.
‘It’s not exactly a millionaires’ playground. Most of them are pretty much my age. They have mortgages to pay, they…’
‘They were given a helping hand by their grandparents,’ the Commissioner interrupted.
Matache thought better of replying. After his own grandparents had died, his parents had sold their house and land, and had given him most of the money from the sale for a down payment on a small house in Băneasa. The balance was on a thirty-year mortgage. Twice a year, at Easter and then at Christmas, his mother would give him the equivalent of a month’s repayment as a present.
‘What I meant was that one Saturday all my neighbours got together to plant trees,’ he said.
‘No offence intended. It just amuses me that my family of four are living in a two-bedroom apartment while you live by yourself in a place that’s the same size,’ Iordan said.
‘There are still some vacant places,’ Matache said. ‘Four bedrooms on two floors.’
‘Yes, thanks for nothing. What I’d get for my place would barely cover the down payment on one of those houses.’
After the Revolution, tenants living in state-owned housing had been given the opportunity to buy their apartments. When he had joined the police, Anton Iordan had been given a two-bedroom place, even though he had been a single man back then. There must have been some mistake in the paperwork and he had informed his superiors that something had gone wrong. In that troubled period, when democracy had been an entirely new concept for Romanians, the mistake had remained uncorrected.
For more than six months, convinced that he would be told to move elsewhere, he hadn’t dared to unpack his belongings. That was until his boss at the time had told him to enjoy what he had been given and stop making waves. A year later the purchase papers had dropped through the letterbox, giving him the opportunity to buy the place.
Iordan hadn’t been in any hurry to get married. Turning thirty, at his mother’s insistence, he decided it was time to propose to his girlfriend. She represented the most stable relationship he had ever been in, and neither his family nor hers had been able to accept the idea that they wouldn’t get married sooner or later. He had let himself go with the flow, fathered two children, took them to daycare and kindergarten, changed nappies, rocked cradles and did the school run. As Darius went to college, his father had allowed him a greater level of freedom and soon regretted it as the boy surrounded himself with dubious acquaintances, started smoking, drinking and dabbling in some of the milder drugs, all of which shattered the domestic peace and quiet that he had become used to. Meanwhile, his daughter Miruna had taken advantage of the tense atmosphere at home to get into the habit of increasingly frequently asking for money for clothes and makeup.
Then Andreea had made an appearance in his life, and his world had been rocked to its foundations, alternately lifting him to new heights of delight and down to the depths of despair, with hardly a moment between one extreme and the next.
‘Boss, we’re here,’ Sorin said, waking Iordan from his thoughts.
‘Thanks. See you on Monday morning, same time, same place,’ Iordan said over his shoulder, heading for the narrow alley leading to the block of flats where his apartment and family were waiting for him.
‘I’ll be there,’ his deputy assured him, in a hurry to get home and take a shower after the heat of the day.
Thank you, Teodora Matei and Love Books Group