Prologue to The Geneva Option, a thriller set in and around the UN, by Adam Lebor.
The wind rose and fell through the airshaft, roaring so loudly it seemed the building was breathing.
Olivia de Souza held her right hand out over the void. Her fingers were steady as she felt the draught rush up against her palm, whisking the smoke from her cigarette away. She loved the still of the early morning, standing on the narrow maintenance balcony, staring into the darkness below where dust and secrets gathered. The United Nations Secretary General’s staff meeting started in two hours, at 9.00am. Until then, this was her special time, shared with no-one.
But today her sanctuary on the 38th floor brought her no peace. She picked a sliver of rust off the railing, flicked it over the edge and watched it vanish, her lips pressed tight with worry. She had sat up half the night, lighting one cigarette after another and staring into the grey haze as she turned things over and over in her mind. She had to talk to somebody but there was only one person she could trust - a colleague, perhaps even a friend now – who was on mission but due back tomorrow. She could wait one more day.
Like many middle-aged women working in the Secretariat building, Olivia was a UN widow. After twenty years she was still addicted to the adrenalin rush, the glamour and proximity to power, and all for the cause of humanity’s greater good. She would have liked to have been a diplomat herself and, of course, to have had a family of her own. But there were few enough opportunities for an orphan from the slums of Managua. She had made her choices and a good life for herself. Even her detractors, the ones who whispered to each other that the world’s most powerful diplomat should have his affairs arranged by someone more, as they said, ‘presentable’, than a short, dark, Nicaraguan spinster, admitted she was loyal, dedicated and supremely efficient.
A light switched on and off in one of the rooms nearby and she turned around to look. Who was wandering around the 38th floor at this time in this morning, she wondered. It must be one of the cleaners. Nobody else from the SG’s office came in this early. He had not continued his Korean predecessor’s habit of starting the workday at 8.00am.
The building itself was slowly waking up. Olivia shivered and pulled her coat around her as the heating system hissed and sputtered. The UN’s New York headquarters was of pensionable age and showing it. Condensation dripped off the inner windows that were crusted with decades worth of dirt. The airshaft’s panels were peeling away, revealing grey slabs of asbestos underneath. The concrete was fissured with tiny cracks. The balcony gently vibrated as the service lift stopped and she stepped away from the edge. A notice on the low railing declared: “Maintenance Staff Only: Do Not Gather or Loiter”.
She stifled a yawn and tried to put her worries aside, thinking instead about her dinner date last night, the second in a week, and how hopeful his eyes had looked as his hand slid across the table to hers. It had been a long time, such a very long time. He had asked her to keep their rendezvous secret for now, which made it even more romantic. What did he see in her when he could have his pick of his department, if not the building? He even promised to come to the Latino orphanage on 155th Street with her this weekend to help deliver the toys and food. His fingers were long and slim and it was all she could do not to grip them as hard as she could.
The door to the balcony opened. Olivia turned, smiling with pleasure and surprise, her heart pounding at the sight of him.
He stared at her, his eyes alive with excitement as he walked towards her. “I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I can’t stop thinking about you.”
She trembled like a teenager on a first date. “Me too.”
“I am so happy to see you,” he said, his voice warm and reassuring. He moved closer and she breathed in the familiar smell of his lemon cologne.
Her smile wilted as a question formed in her mind. “But how did you know I...”
“Shhh,” he said, and she felt the latex glove hard against her lips.
He slammed her against the railing, his hand clamped over her mouth. She jammed the burning cigarette end into the base of his neck. He gasped and gritted his teeth with the pain, knocking her hand away and trying to punch her in the stomach. She swerved sideways and the blow glanced off her ribcage as she flailed wildly at his face, raking her nails across the base of his neck, jabbing at his eyes.
She kicked his shin, digging her heel into the bone and scraping it hard down his leg. He yelped in pain, swore and she felt his grip loosen. She slipped out from under him and tried to grab the door but he snatched her arm again and held his hand flat against her face, pushing her hard against the railing with his body. He gripped her wrists together with one hand, grunting as he forced his weight on her and clamped her mouth and nose shut with his thumb and forefinger, twisting the cartilage, bending her backward at the waist. The metal bar of the railing dug into her spine and the pain lanced like knives through her.
The sky spun, the walls rushed back and forth and the terror soared inside her. She tried to cry out but she could barely breathe. He worked diligently until suddenly she was flying, and there was nothing left to fight against.
The Geneva Option is available to buy, here.