Excerpt from Absolute Friends by John Le Carre, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Absolute Friends

By John Le Carre

Absolute Friends
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2004,
    464 pages.
    Paperback: Nov 2004,
    464 pages.

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This evening it's a genial building contractor from Melbourne and his wife Darlene who need to explain to Mundy that their daughter Tracey did this very same tour way back in the winter, with the self-same travel company, would you believe it? And had just loved every minute of it - maybe Mundy remembered her, because she sure as hell remembered the big tall Pom in the Bowler Hat! Blond girl, freckles and a ponytail, boyfriend a medical student from Perth, plays rugby for his university? And it is while Mundy is putting on a show of hunting for Tracey in his memory - the boy-friend's name was Keith, the building contractor confides, in case it's any help - that he feels a hard small hand encircle his wrist, turn it palm upward, insert a folded note and close his fingers over it. In the same moment, out of the corner of his eye, he glimpses Sasha's beret disappearing into the crowd.

"Next time you're in Melbourne, right?" the Australian building contractor yells, tucking a card into the pocket behind Mundy's Union Jack.

"It's a date!" Mundy agrees with a cheery laugh, and deftly palms the note into a side pocket of his jacket. It is wise to sit down before you start a journey, preferably on your luggage. The superstition is Russian but the axiom originates with Nick Amory, who is Mundy's longtime advisor in matters of self-preservation: If something big is in the air, Edward, and you're part of it, then for pity's sake curb your natural impetuosity and give yourself a break before you jump.

The Linderhof's day is over, staff and tourists are hurrying towards the parking lot. Like a benign host, Mundy hovers on the steps bestowing multilingual benedictions on his departing colleagues. Auf Wiedersehen, Frau Meierhof! Still haven't found them then! He is referring to Iraq's elusive weapons of mass destruction. Fritz, tschüss! Love to your dear lady! Marvelous speech she made the other night at the Poltergeist! - our local culture and debating club where Mundy occasionally goes to let off political steam. And to his French and Spanish colleagues, a married male couple - Pablo, Marcel, we'll commiserate together next week. Buenas noches, bonsoir, the both of you! The last stragglers disappear into the twilight as he withdraws into the shadows of the western prospect of the palace, immersing himself in the blackness of a stairwell.

He stumbled on the place by luck soon after he took up the job.

Exploring the castle's precincts one evening - a moonlight concert is to be held in the grounds and, Mustafa allowing, he has a mind to stick around and hear it - he discovers a humble basement staircase that leads nowhere. Descending it, he meets a rusted iron door, and in the door a key. He knocks and, hearing nothing, turns the key and steps inside.

To anyone but Mundy, the space he enters is no more than a grubby plant room, a dumping ground for watering cans, old hoses and ailing plants. No window, just a grille high in the stone wall. Air heavy with the stink of putrid hyacinth and the rumblings of a boiler next door. But to Mundy it is everything Mad Ludwig was looking for when he built the Linderhof in the first place: a sanctuary, a place of escape from his other places of escape. He steps back outside, relocks the door, puts the key in his pocket and for seven working days bides his time while he mounts a systematic reconnaissance of his target. By 10 a.m., when the castle gates open, all healthy plants in the public rooms have been watered and unhealthy plants removed. The plant contractor's van, a flower-painted minibus, leaves the grounds at 10:30 a.m. latest, by which time ailing plants have been consigned to the plant room, or to the van for hospitalization. The disappearance of the key has raised no eyebrows. The lock has not been changed. It follows that from eleven every morning the plant room is his private property.

Copyright © 2004 by David Cornwell

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