The Charmers - Elizabeth Adler

Part I

The Present


Antibes, South of France

The Boss, as he was called by everyone, even those that did not work for him and merely knew his reputation, strode purposefully past the seafront terrace bars until he came to the one he favored, where he pulled a chair from a table in the third row back, closest to the building. He always liked to face the street, the crowds, the other customers, keep his back against the wall, so to speak. Backs were vulnerable, his particularly so.

Despite the heat he was comfortable in white linen pants and a blue-and-white-print shirt, sleeves rolled up over his muscular forearms. His watch was neither gold nor flashy, though it was certainly expensive.

The chairs were small for a man his size, big, built like a wrestler. Most chairs were, except of course for the ones specifically crafted for his many homes. He was a man who liked his comforts, and coming from his background, who could blame him? Though you could blame him for the way he’d gone about getting them.

The waiter recognized him. Smiling, obsequious, linen napkin draped over an arm, and tray in hand, he inquired what his pleasure might be.

Lemonade was the answer. The Boss did not drink liquor, not even wine in this wine-growing country. The estates around St. Tropez in particular produced a benign, gently flavored rosé that slid down comfortably with a good lunch of lobster salad, or with the crisp and very fresh vegetables served raw with a house-made mayonnaise dip. They crunched between the teeth and had the added benefit of making the eater feel virtuous at not having had the hearty sandwich on the delicious locally baked bread many others were tucking into.

The lemonade came immediately, along with a bowl of ice and a spoon so he might help himself, decide how cold he wanted it, how diluted. He took a sip, and nodded to the waiter, who asked if there would be anything else. The waiter was told that there was not, but that he was expecting someone. He should be shown immediately to the table.

The Boss’s original Russian name was Boris Boronovsky, which he had changed some time ago to a more satisfactorily acceptable European Bruce Bergen, though he looked nothing like a “Bruce.” He had a massive build, exactly, he had been told, like that of a Cossack from the Steppes: mighty on a horse, saber in hand, ready to take on the enemy. Yet his face was lean, with craggy cheekbones and deep-set eyes, lined from a lifetime of scouting for danger, which was all around. In his world it was anyway. And now at the international property level where land was fought over for the millions it would bring, that danger was ever-present. He knew always to look over his shoulder.

The Boss certainly took on the enemy, though not in an overtly aggressive fashion. He was more discreet, more subtle, more specific in his methods. He had always known, even as a child growing up—or more like existing—in the cold cabin outside the town of Minsk in Belarus, that he was destined for better things. No forest cabin for him, no logging trees, risking life and limb with a power saw; no dragging great lumps of wood still oozing sap onto a tractor so old it no longer functioned and was pulled instead by two donkeys with long faces like biblical animals in Renaissance frescoes. There was just something about those donkeys that made Boris think that, like in the paintings, they should have golden halos over their heads. Sometimes there was an