You would think that after being kidnapped, beaten senseless and nearly murdered by a ruthless gang of Serbian jewel thieves, I’d have the good sense to stay away from anything remotely redolent of danger, but you would be wrong.
After the gang let me go—well, left me bound and gagged and tossed on the side of a treacherous mountain road in the middle of the night—I thought I might die anyway.
“Go back to America,” one of the thugs whispered in my ear, his scratchy voice and garlicky breath enough to put me off shrimp scampi for a long time. “Leave the Czech Republic, Mr. Donahue, and don’t ever come back.” His take on a fond farewell before opening the van’s door and rolling me out onto the road.
I hadn’t heard my name pronounced with such venom or menace since the fourth grade bully called me out in the schoolyard after I glued his lunchbox shut. My gag prevented me from explaining that I now lived in England, not America, but I got his message loud and clear. As loud as the bells and whistles on a slot machine announcing a really big payoff.
My face hit the roadway first, sliding along loose gravel, and felt like some deranged barber was intent on shaving off my skin as well as my beard. When I stopped rolling I tried to catch my breath, took in a lung full of air and realized it was freezing. My torn white dress shirt and black pants—the remains of the clothing I was wearing when the gang grabbed me—were not exactly the best options for a midnight stroll through the forest.
As if the temperature weren’t enough it was also pitch-black, no moon or stars to give me even a glimmer of what was in front of, or behind me. Eventually, I stood and stumbled along, hoping a wild animal looking to nibble on a tasty gambler as a midnight snack wouldn’t attack me.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, I managed to untie myself and remove the gag. I heard the rumble of a cranky engine in the distance, and when it got close enough I flagged down a farm truck making an early morning run down the mountain. The driver of the truck, obviously abandoning any good sense he might have had, aimed his thumb toward the back and muttered something that sounded vaguely like Prague.
Good enough for me. Sitting among his cabbages, I had time to reflect on my situation and on Marina, the woman who had first ensnared me, then ultimately saved me.
It had all started a little over a month ago in Venice where I was touring the city’s top casinos, trying to break the bank at each one.
I’m Nick Donahue, citizen of the world, gambler by trade. Blackjack is my game. The odds favor the player at least slightly, or so I’ve learned over the years. I travel from casino to casino, mostly in Europe where I seem to have developed a reputation as a polished and sophisticated player. If you’re thinking James Bond, get over it. It’s not all Chemin de Fer, vodka martinis and gorgeous women throwing themselves at me. At least it wasn’t until Marina.
“Buona fortuna,” she purred into my ear as she leaned over my shoulder, her breast brushing my arm, and placed five hundred euros next to mine on the green baize of the high stakes table at the Palazzo Ducale Casino. I had a Jack in the hole and pulled an up card of ten. The dealer had a ten showing and flipped over a four. He had to draw. Poor guy, it was an eight, which meant I won. And so did she. “Grazie,” she licked her lips as she swept up her winnings and drifted off into the Venetian night in a cloud of perfume that made me want to inhale forever.
A few more hands and it was time to cash in. I’d had a good run and was up more than fifteen thousand euros. “For the boys,” I said, and knocked two hundred-euro chips on the edge of the table and tossed them to the dealer, ignoring the scowl of the pit boss who tried to make me feel like I was stealing from his personal bank account. Amateur. I’d been stared down by better men than him, including my mother. I finished the scotch I’d been drinking and left the casino. In the lobby the lift pinged open and carried me to the penthouse suite the management had so graciously comped. A “Do Not Disturb” sign hung on the doorknob. I hadn’t placed it there. Two fingers and the door swung open. There she was, in my bed, the terry robe from the bath wrapped around her, looking even more luscious than she had in the casino.
“Ciao, bello.” Her voice was smooth as silk as she got up slowly, a flash of long, tanned legs diverting my attention. She reached for a bottle of Cristal that was already open and chilling beside her. “Per te.”
I wondered briefly if the management had comped her, too. Their way of distracting me from my game. She rose from the bed and crossed to me slowly, the robe moving with her, revealing tantalizing glimpses of the tanned body beneath. She lifted her face to mine and waited for me to kiss her. I did, and all thoughts of the management were quickly forgotten.
During the night, I discovered the lady spoke perfect English, even if the words we used were not necessarily part of polite conversation. When I awoke shortly after dawn she was gone, a folded piece of the hotel’s stationery standing in for where her head had rested on the pillow. “Meet me at 2 at Il Nino” was all it said. My favorite ristorante in Venice. Not only had she seduced me—it hadn’t been hard—but she also knew more about me than I liked. I folded the note and wondered if it was my rugged good looks or something else that was piquing her interest.
Il Nino tilted toward the water on a small, side canal in the Cannaregio section where Venice’s hoards of tourists rarely ventured. That was fine with Nino. He didn’t want or need them and stationed a snarky looking waiter by the entrance, who discouraged i touristi with a barked out “chiuso” in a tone that sent them scurrying down the cobblestone fondamenta faster than a ratto avoiding the city’s pest control brigade.
An intimate place with a discreet management, Il Nino had its regulars who appreciated the privacy as much as the food. Apparently, Marina was now one of them, if the bevy of waiters hovering at her table like seagulls waiting for scraps were any indication.
“Hello, there. Nice to see you again.” I slid into the seat opposite hers and gave the staff my best “screw off” smile.
Her soft laugh tinkled through the dining room as she cupped my chin in her hand and squeezed it the way a maiden aunt does to a small nephew. “No need to be jealous, Nick, we were just talking.”
“It seems I’m at a disadvantage,” I replied. “You know all about me.” I ticked the items off on my fingers. “Who I am. Where I gamble. Where I’m staying. What I like to do in bed. Even my favorite restaurant.” My eyes took in the room. “And I, on the other hand, well, I still don’t know your name.”
She lifted one eyebrow. “Oh, I think you learned a few things about me last night.” She laughed then continued, “I’m Marina. Marina Pietro.”
I sat back and gave her my best poker face while I considered the facts. I’d thought about why she’d come into my bed—I’m not that irresistible. I’d known right away that she wasn’t a hooker, but she had to have had a reason. I was trying to decide whether or not to challenge her. Pietro was as common in Italy as St. John in England, or Smith in the States. I decided to let it go for now. “Okay. Marina Pietro it is. Now that we got that out of the way, why don’t you tell me what it is you want with me?”
And she did.