Life’s tough for a Gypsy cop in Budapest. The cops don’t trust you because you’re a Gypsy. Your fellow Gypsies, even your own family, shun you because you’re a cop.
The dead, however, don’t care. So when Balthazar Kovacs, a detective in the city’s murder squad, gets a mysterious message on his phone from a blocked number, he gulps down the rest of his morning coffee, grabs his police ID and goes to work. The message has two parts: a photograph and an address. The photograph shows a man lying on his back with his eyes open, half-covered by a blue plastic sheet. The address is 26, Republic Square, the former Communist Party headquarters and once the most feared building in the country. But when Kovacs arrives at Republic Square, the body has gone…
Kovacs’ investigation will take him deep into Budapest’s shadows, an underworld visitors never get to see: the gritty back alleys of District VIII; the people smuggling networks around Keleti Station; the endemic corruption of a country still haunted by the ghosts of history. And when the leads point to the involvement of his brother Gaspar, the city’s most powerful pimp, Kovacs will be forced to choose between the law and family loyalty.
PRAISE FOR ADAM LEBOR
“Gripping and atmospheric.” CHARLES CUMMING
“LeBor writes fiction with the scrupulous focus of the journalist … the world he creates is driven by the sharp edge of reality.” ALAN FURST
“A page-turning thriller.” IRISH TIMES
Republic Square, Friday 4 September, 9.45 a.m.
The body was gone.
Balthazar Kovacs stood in the middle of the lot and scanned his surrounds again. The ground was covered with smashed bricks, broken slabs of concrete shot through with rusty metal spars, and jagged lumps of plaster. Flies buzzed over a pool of greasy, stagnant water, the remains of a party nearby: blackened wood, an empty condom packet and a quarter-full plastic bottle of Voros asztali bor, red table wine that rarely saw a table. Charred sheets of typewritten paper, yellow with age, and mouldy books were scattered among the rubble. The only thing left standing was the lower part of the back wall, covered with graffiti.
He picked up a large black hardback book. Its binding was cracked and the pages were curled, but the embossed gold letters on the front were still legible: Proceedings of the 26th National Congress of the Communist Youth Organisation, 1983. He leafed through the stiff pages, filled with photographs of earnest youngsters in big collared shirts and wide flares, standing proudly under the banners of Marx, Engels and Lenin, between long articles about the role of youth in building Communism.
He put the book down, feeling the sweat drip down the back of his neck. A peaceful September Friday morning in the backstreets of Budapest, although the temperature already felt like it was off the scale. Birdsong sounded from the trees. A woman in her sixties walked by in a pink leisure suit, cigarette in one hand, yapping terrier on a lead in the other. Children’s laughter carried across the park from the playground. There was a new opposition billboard, he saw, covering two storeys of the side wall of a nearby apartment building. ‘Kirugjuk a komcsikat! let’s kick out the commies!’ it proclaimed above a photograph of the prime minister, his cabinet and business allies bedecked in red flags and linked together in a spider’s web.
The SMS had arrived at 9.05 a.m., in the middle of his first cup of coffee. There were three words: 26 Republic Square, and a photograph. So he was in the right place. But where was the dead man? The photograph showed a thin, brown-haired male, in his late twenties or early thirties. He lay on his side, half-covered with bricks and dust, either dead or unconscious. If he was dead, which seemed likely as his eyes were open, had he been killed here, or brought here? The covering seemed a botched job, as though someone had been interrupted.
Balthazar glanced at the half-demolished wall, stepped closer. It was definitely the same wall. The graffiti was so fresh that the spray paint was still shiny. ‘Bevandorlok haza’, it declared, ‘Migrants go home’, next to a picture of a man wearing a headscarf, hanging from a tree. The tree had been skilfully rendered, its trunk gnarly, black branches spreading like veins. A red tongue lolled from the mouth of the hanged man, his eyes bulging. Three letters underneath, painted in red, white and green, the colours of the Hungarian flag: MNF. Magyar Nemzeti Front, Hungarian National Front.
He took another step and bent down to peer at the ground. There were track marks in the dust, as though a heavy weight had been dragged through the dirt. He took out his telephone and quickly shot a video of the scene, panning from side to side, zooming in on the place where the man had been, then snapped a panorama of several still shots. He slipped the handset back into his pocket when something caught the edge of his vision, glinting in the morning sunshine. He knelt down and looked harder. A SIM card, large, old-fashioned, half covered in dust. He peered inside his shoulder bag: one evidence bag left, and a pair of tweezers. He used the tweezers to pick up the card, dropped it into the bag and stood still for a moment while he pondered his next move.
ADAM LEBOR is a veteran foreign correspondent who has covered Hungary and eastern Europe since 1990. He is the author of thirteen books, including Hitler’s Secret Bankers, which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize and City of Oranges. He writes for the Economist, Financial Times and Monocle. He divides his time between Budapest and London. Adam LeBor is available for interview.