Daniel Conte has just come from the American Embassy in Vienna, where he reviewed information on a missing Russian plutonium pit. The sky is threatening and he takes shelter in the Palais Liechtenstein.
Conte thrust his hands in his overcoat pockets and hurried along Boltzmanngasse towards the U-Bahn station. A towering bank of thunder clouds had built up in the south-east over the Danube and a gusting wind was blowing what was left of the Autumn leaves erratically down the cobblestone street. Lighting slashed through the cloudbank and the rumble of thunder reverberated through the narrow streets.
Conte didn’t want to get soaked. He had too few clothes to fall back on. He turned down Strudlhofgasse, practically running now. Dead ahead was the Liechtenstein Museum. He made it to the entrance just as the deluge slammed down out of the lightning lit sky.
The Palais Liechtenstein had seen better days. The Baroque palace, still owned by the Liechtenstein family, had been opened to the public and displayed, among other things, their private art collection, but they didn’t appear to be putting a lot of money into maintaining the magnificent, old building. Still, it had a kind of grand decadence about it.
Conte checked his overcoat and climbed to the second floor where there was a small coffee bar. On the way up he passed an oversized photorealistic portrait of a young woman. The painting was so large it covered the entire wall over the landing. Conte could make out the fine fuzz on the woman’s cheeks. Her eyes seemed to follow him as he turned up the steps. Kaitlyn’s face, her lovely eyes and soft lips, came suddenly into his mind.
There were only a few people in the coffee bar. He sat at a small, round table, wrought-iron legs and marble top, sipping his mélange and occasionally glancing at his watch.
“May I join you?”
Conte looked up at a woman trying to balance a small silver tray with a coffee and some sort of pastry, while lugging a soft-sided leather briefcase. There were scattered raindrops on the case. She had her left shoulder elevated to prevent the strap holding her handbag from slipping, giving her otherwise attractive body a somewhat deformed aspect.
Conte rose quickly and held her chair for her. “Please,” he said.
She smiled, and went about placing her tray and arranging her belongings. Once she was settled she glanced over at Conte and said, “Beastly weather.”
Conte watched her and marveled yet again at how women seemed so adept at lugging purses, briefcases, shopping bags, and often children without seeming to miss a beat. It was something he’d noticed about his wife, who, determined to maintain her career, had managed to ferry their two kids here and there, while doing all the things required of a mother, and a professional woman.
Glancing again at his watch, Conte said, “I hope the rain lets up soon. I’m really not dressed to go out in it.”
The woman took a sip of her coffee. “Are you here for the exhibit?” Seeing the puzzled look on his face, she continued, “They are hosting a special exhibit of erotic art. It’s been so popular they’ve decided to stay open today.”
Conte shook his head. “No, just came in out of the rain.”
The woman wore a knit wool skirt, long-sleeved, white cotton blouse, open at the neck to show ample cleavage, a casual blazer, and a brilliant orange, silk scarf. Several gold bracelets slid along her wrist as she raised her cup to her lips, glancing under her eyebrows at Conte.
“I made a special point of coming by, though I’ve been earlier in the week. You really shouldn’t miss it, you know.”
She pronounced ‘been’ like ‘bean,’ and her ‘A’s, aah -- aspects of an upper class English accent -- but her speech was somewhat wooden and she rolled her ‘R’s. There was the remnant of a ‘V’ sound in her ‘W’s.
Conte smiled and nodded, wondering briefly where she’d learned her English.
The woman took a bite of her pastry, something with a flaky crust covered in powdered sugar, and then dabbed at the corners of her mouth with her paper napkin, careful not to smear her cherry-red lipstick.
“I know a little something about erotica. Would you like me to show you around?” The rolled ‘R’s and the remnant ‘V’ a bit more pronounced as she said this.
Conte had a difficult time reading the expression on the woman’s pale, attractive face, but not her meaning. “That’s very kind of you, but I’m afraid I have to be going.”
The woman watched Conte as he rose from the table. “You’ll be soaked. Perhaps we can share a taxi. Where are you staying?”
“I can get to my place quite easily via the U-Bahn,” Conte said. “But thanks anyway.”
The woman raised an eyebrow. “Ah, too bad,” she said.