1-11: Over the edge

Chapter 1-10 hereChapter 1-12 here

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I

In the heady evening, they took the lift downstairs, out of the main door, down the rough, concrete Spanish steps, tops and towels on the sunlounges, she in bikini bottom only, with towel over the shoulders for decency.

‘Race you to the other end,’ she cried and in they went. Hugh won by a head.

‘Race you to the other end,’ she cried again and she got there first. Hugh took her hand and swam her out to the centre of the pool. It was quite dark but the warm water was caressing.

Suddenly, a guy in shorts and polo T started jabbering at them in Spanish from the side of the pool. He looked official, so they swam apart, while he gesticulated for them to get out, tapping his watch.

.o0o.

Later, taking the bottle and two glasses, they went out onto the little balcony, overlooking the coastal lights of the Tenerife tourist area and sat on the plastic chairs at the plastic table.

They smiled at one another.

.o0o.

Next day, they drove to Santa Cruz, the capital, at the other end of the island and spent the morning there, buying a heap of pastries at a local shop, then onto the far side of the island, diagonally opposite the resort, to Loro Park, the wildlife sanctuary.

.o0o.

They took the road back over the top, up, up, up the winding track, ever upwards, they literally drove through the clouds and, at the summit, it was exactly like the view from an aeroplane – fluffy white clouds stretching endlessly in all directions – sheer magic, apart from the temperature, which had dipped to 13 degrees.

.o0o.

It was now down mountain passes, winding, winding, down below the cloud, back onto the return autobahn and he was pretty knackered once back at the hotel. Roof up, heater off, everything shut down and now for an aperitif.

.o0o.

The days slipped by.

On the Friday, there was to be a flamenco show and dancing afterwards, downstairs. Would she prefer to go out? No, she preferred to wear the dress she’d kept until now.

He went down to wash the car yet again, whilst she got ready, then went and had a whisky in the bar.

.o0o.

When he got back to the room, his mouth fell open.

She was wearing a long black backless dress, plunging to a curve across her bottom, then sweeping up forward past her waist into two billowing but narrowing strips, which crossed and finally tied behind her neck. A gold chain and bracelet set off the neck and brown arms. Her hair tumbled behind her shoulders. Her polished, high heel, toeless shoes compacted her toes.

He lost the power of speech – really lost it. His mouth opened and closed like a guppy.

‘Well, are we ever going to get there?’ she snapped but with a smile.

.o0o.

The flamenco was a good show but the dance floor later, when it was their turn, filled him with dread. When a flamenco number came on, Hugh grabbed a flower from a vase, put it between his teeth and strutted up and down with her. Trouble was, they all had their eyes on her.

At the end of the number, he placed the bloom in her hair, occasioning some applause from a few people around them, her cheeks reddened. An old Spaniard came up and clapped him on the shoulder – uh-huh.

.o0o.

On the last number of the evening, they danced classically close and then stepped out into the huge foyer, with its panes of sheet glass and magnificent view of the waterfront lights. One thing he realized by now was that she was no great shakes as a dancer, something she’d no doubt picked up on with him and therefore, their dancing needed to always be ostentatious or sensual. Or both.

.o0o.

They eventually took the lift back up to their room and stepped out onto the balcony, nicely imbibed. ‘So here we are,’ she stated obviously, placing her drink on the table.

He tugged at the bow which kept her dress tied around her neck and caught it as it fell. She stepped out of it in her high heels, he folded and placed it on one of the three chairs, then took down her string underwear, placing it on top of the dress.

He indicated the chair and she sat elegantly, stark naked apart from the shoes – a common motif with them, as he handed her the wine. ‘What shall we toast to,’ he asked, ‘the night?’

‘To that … and to what you’re about to do …’

He now poured his own wine ever so slowly onto her upper chest and let it fall between her breasts like a waterfall, over her ribs, filling her navel and dripping down over her bikini line, where he now knelt down and sipped as it dripped off the mound.

He started to work her, her head began to fall back and turn to one side. He worked on her for quite some time in fact, then stood and just stared at her there, doing nothing else, making no move to have her.

That had the affect of making her feel very naked and she even placed one hand over her privacy in a show of modesty, he then pushed the hand aside with his hardness inserted gently, then drove it home.

.o0o.

She stood up, placed the two chairs a metre apart, tested them for firmness, then kicked off a shoe and gingerly put one foot up on one chair, facing outwards, ‘Hold the chairs,’ then the other foot, her thighs horizontal, hands balancing on the railing.

‘Do it.’

As he gently reconnected, then thrust and thrust, she watched the guests on balconies opposite watching her and stared straight back at them, then gave them one of the greatest theatrical acts of orgasm they’d probably ever seen, the noise filling the space between the buildings.

Phones were now being used, clusters of guests milled behind the windows across the way.

‘Well,’ she puffed over her shoulder, ‘we’re saving them the cost of pay-per-view.’

.o0o.

Once he came, she climbed down, they hurried inside, there was even applause from the balconies opposite, just as a knock came on the door. He went to put on his robe but she went to the door in just her shoes and opened it wide.

The hotel official was superb.

Keeping his eyes trained on hers, he said they’d received ‘a number of’ complaints about their lewd behaviour and trusted that they would keep their enjoyment of the night within the confines of the room. Was the room comfortable? Was there anything untoward? Could room service bring them anything?

‘Si, por favore,’ said Hugh, now in his robe, bringing the menu over, they’d already discussed what to eat and which wine to go with it and they were ravenous after that.

Hugh pressed a sum, well over the odds, into the man’s hand, Ksenia stepped forward and kissed his lips. His face broke into a grin and he hurried off to take care of business.

‘Coward,’ she admonished him, as he threw off his robe and took her against the door. Her legs wrapped round him, he carried her over, far more easily now after the training, to the dresser and went to work again.

.o0o.

There was another knock on the door, he threw his robe on as she sat on the dresser, the two boys brought the eats through and set them down, Hugh tipped them profusely too as they averted their eyes from the naked lady, he thanked them, they scurried away, doffing their caps.

She kicked off her shoes and stepped onto the bed, sitting with her back to the wall whilst he brought over the napkin and spread it over her lap, then brought all the makings across, poured the wine and they tucked in.

‘Hugh,’ she said between mouthfuls, ‘if this is just a normal holiday, what would we do on our honeymoon?’

II

The 12ème arrondissement in Paris had an area near rue de Bercy where old warehouses were being renovated or knocked down and a shopping precinct was being constructed.

Naturally, as befits Paris, quite a few of the new stores were café restaurants and the locals were largely delighted by this development. Marc had picked on one to his taste, Chez Faufines, which did a consomme he was quite partial to.

The ambience was still not cosy, the renovation not fully complete and yet it was open for business at reduced prices, another factor in its favour.

III

Yulia came through to Ludmilla Valerievna and handed her a communication from Moscow. A routine trawl had brought up the names of Mikhail Grigoriev and Dmitri Shallyapin, both on the manifest of the same flight to Tenerife.

Ludmilla was puzzled. The former was an odd job hitman for Deputatov although it was impossible to prove, of course and Shallyapin was a professional from the Tomsk region. Both had reputations as fairly nasty boys, the latter connected, some years back, with Frederika Djamato.

There were many Russians, tourists and otherwise, in Gran Canares all year round, so it didn’t necessarily prove anything but still, better to buzz Ksenia and let her be aware.

IV

In Tenerife, lying on the cool white sheet of the king sized bed, he asked her, ‘You’ve heard of the Mile High Club?’

She looked at him, smiling. ‘Of course.’

‘You also know then, there are two categories of membership. The lesser category, N2, is for those who join the club when the lights are out and other people are sleeping or else it’s done in the toilet. But the star category, N1, is for people who join the club in broad daylight, with everyone watching.’

‘Are you a member of either?’

‘Sadly, no but I very nearly joined N2 on the way back to London. She was ready to, so she told me later.’

‘Anyone I know?’

He grinned. ‘Oh, you know her very well. Frederika.’

‘Ah yes. Why are you telling me this?’

‘We fly back in two days and I was just thinking that I never quite managed to get that far with her.’

She thought that through and the hook had been nicely baited. ‘But how?’

‘It depends what we wear onto the plane.’

She went red.

V

Ludmilla decided to run the names past Viktor Igorovich to see if that came up with anything.

On Grigoriev, it didn’t, on Shallyapin, it did. He was a contract man, not enormously well paid but he had a good reputation for getting the job done and his speciality was arranging untraceable accidents.

They both pondered that and then dropped into small talk about daughters, education and the cost of living.

She’d call Ksenia in the morning, not too early.

VI

They took the Megane on its last run in the opposite direction, north-west from Playa de las Americas, past Las Chozas towards Santiago del Teide, enjoying stunning views to the left, down to the ocean. That required first breakfast and out early.

She was driving and the wind blowing her hair back spelt freedom for them both until they approached Tanaimo, after which it got a bit tricky with the hairpin bends, climbing, climbing and he could see she was losing her enjoyment of the drive.

‘Ksusha, pull over in the next gravel area and I’ll take care of the boring bit so you can get a bit of the view on the other side. When we come down off the mountain, I’ll hand the wheel back.’

She pulled in and the crunch of gravel under tyres complemented the freshness of the air.

.o0o.

Some kilometres further on, he pulled over at another gravelled area to allow the dark blue Alfa behind to go past, which it duly did and now came the grind to Santiago, noting that the Alfa was also pulling out of a gravel area a bit further on.

.o0o.

At Santiago, they stopped for a coffee and pastries at a little place on the main thoroughfare and the car was glad of a breather after that haul.

She looked radiant to his eyes and that was all that mattered, he took her hand across the table but now she went a little too quiet and he looked at her quizzically.

‘Hugh, did you notice anything unusual on this drive?’

One thing both of them had was the desire to cut straight to the chase every time and that was the spirit in which she’d asked the question.

‘Blue Alfa?’ he ventured.

‘Ah, so you noticed too. I’m glad of that.’

He cut to the chase again, throwing over his wallet. ‘Check the cards, the visitnis. In the middle is one called Ford Four Car Club.’

She found it. ‘So?’

‘Do you remember when we came back from the Saltersgate, travelling down that hill?’

‘Ah, so you’re telling me you can drive.’

‘Just allaying some fears on your part. Now, are you armed and don’t spin me a tale.’

‘No, this was a private trip, it wasn’t worth it with airline security. I have to improvise.’

‘All right, just so I know the lie of the land. I can’t afford you telling me lies now if we’re going to stay alive. Are you sure you don’t want to change that story?’

‘Hugh, I have no weapon.’

‘Fine, fine. Are you ready to go?’

‘Wait.’ She made a call, speaking in rapid Russian, full of greetings at the beginning and then obviously getting down to business.

She eventually got off her mobile and said, ‘Drive for Buenavista del Norte, we have someone there, an ex officer who’s retired with his wife in a house on the hillside. He still has security measures in place and we only have to get there alive.’

Hugh left a lavish tip and then asked the English proprietor if she knew of a vantage point from where they could look down on the street without going out the front. They thought there could be a jealous boyfriend on their tail and it might be an idea to not go out the front door.

She led them through the staff exit, up the stairs and to her office, from where they had a good view up and down the section of road they were on, before it curved round the corners at each end. Ksenia touched his arm and he saw the Alfa as well, a short way back from where they were headed next, parked in a line of cars and presumably with eyes on their Megane.

‘You have a young lad serving downstairs. Could he drive our car round to another approach road to Buenavista del Norte and we’ll stock up a bit on supplies for the journey in the meantime?’

The woman nodded, took Hugh’s keys and went downstairs.

It took five minutes but they saw the passenger in the Alfa alert the driver and they seemed puzzled. They indicated and pulled out, supposedly following the Megane but must have lost it because they came back up the road and then, a few minutes later, back down again.

Minutes later, they went back up again, turned the Alfa and parked once more, waiting.

The proprietor said the car was in their yard at the back. They went down with her to stock up, as promised, thanked her and went out to the car, deciding to leave the top down for 360 vision.

He looked at the map. ‘Nineteen kilometres.’

‘No, not that far. I lied in there, in case we were heard. We’re actually going to Carnizal Bajo, a left turn halfway along. Ludmilla’s friend lives there, overlooking the sea – it’s a good redoubt. And I really don’t have a weapon although I will have when we get there.’

He took her in his arms now and kissed her as if they were parting forever. She was confused. ‘Hugh, it’s not that dramatic, you know.’

‘Yes it is. Let’s go.’

It was a B road and though they fairly shot out of that yard, nearly colliding with a bread van, the traffic was virtually non-existent once outside the town, they dipped and were into the hairpin bends running across the Alto ridge, forcing him to draw on his rally experience and placing him under duress.

She watched his feet alternately throttle and brake, hands ten to two on the wheel and eyes checking the mirrors the whole way, changing down just as he approached a corner, lightly braking then powering through, juggling the centrifugal force against the loose gravel on the verges and concentrating. Ksenia realized that her life was in his hands and that was not a position she liked to be in. He was relaxing now, into a rhythm – better to shut up and let him drive, she could look around and see if there was any sign of the Alfa.

There was and they knew where the Megane was, probably most surprised that it was hurtling down that B road at that pace and forcing them to up their game.

‘The problem,’ he shouted across the wind and engine noise, ‘is that we’re driving on the right, which means we’re on the outside of the mountain. That’s tricky.’ He changed down and took a bend.

Suddenly there was what they hadn’t wanted, a couple of tourists gawking at the view and he was about to overtake them when he decided instead to draw up alongside, the woman of about sixty wound down their window and he rapidly explained that his girl’s jealous ex-boyfriend was on their tail down this road. Ksenia now leant over and pleaded with the couple that if they could momentarily block the road, she would be eternally grateful. There were crocodile tears in Ksusha’s eyes, which Hugh noted for future reference.

‘Leave it with us, honey,’ drawled the woman, a determined look on her face.

‘Thank you, thank you,’ said both Ksenia and Hugh, as they overtook the Seat and took the next bend. Ksusha smiled and playfully punched Hugh’s arm in appreciation, turning to see the progress of the Alfa, which had clearly made ground but was about to lose it again. They heard the blare of a car horn from behind them, which seemed to go on and on – their new friends appeared to be quite slow on the uptake, he chuckled.

.o0o.

Now about a kilometre from the turn off, according to his navigator, he suddenly saw what he was looking for. By a fortuitous coincidence, a turn left looked to take them in a 270 degree upwards loop into a small flat area but they couldn’t see properly because it was covered by a long expanse of green plastic sheeting, used to provide a wind break presumably for some sort of crops growing there.

Hugh jammed on the brakes, pulled on the handbrake and wheelied up onto the track, bringing them up to a flat area where they handbrake-turned again and faced the way they’d been driving. They couldn’t see anything but knew the Alfa must have gone past and this was where Ksenia was pleased but then flabbergasted.

Instead of relaxing and breathing a sigh of relief, Hugh was on edge and seemingly ready to make a move. ‘What are you doing?’ she cried.

He didn’t answer but seemed to be counting down.

Then he put the car in gear and slipped gingerly back down to the main road, cruising well within himself and listening all the while. ‘Listen for the Alfa,’ he asked.

‘Hugh,’ she half whispered, ‘we were safe up there and you’ve squandered the tactical advantage.’

‘No, Ksusha, we weren’t safe, please do as I ask.’ The note in his voice made her look at him sharply. ‘Did you see their faces back in Santiago del Teide? Did you recognize either of them?’

‘Da, one was Shallyapin, you don’t know him.’

Hugh continued to drive within himself and then they saw their friends overtaking someone on the far hillside but the problem was that they were also seen, the Alfa stopped at the next bend and turned to face up the hill.

‘How far’s the turnoff?’

‘Before we reach the Alfa.’

He nodded and kept driving. On the last bend before coming out on the Alfa, he stopped and asked her to climb over the back and lie in the footwell. When she made to protest, he was sharp with her about it. ‘One of us has to still be alive.’

She scrambled over and he prepared, releasing the bonnet hood, jumping out and opening it to its highest position, which still gave him a sliver of a gap to view the road through. Jumping back in, he slid down in the seat as far as he could and still just see through that slot, he put the car in gear, came round the bend and headed straight at the Alfa.

Realizing the Megane was upon them, they tried to jump from the Alfa too late, the Megane’s bumper hit the the driver’s half-opened door, the Alfa skidded on the gravel, he put his foot flat to the floor and over it went, as he swung the wheel and nursed their car back onto the road, turning on the gravelled area at the next bend.

He got out and closed the hood – it didn’t close flush now at the edges but he managed to jam it closed all the same.

She now got up and climbed back over to the front, in shock, he pulled onto the road, just in time to see their friends drive past and they both waved.

‘We’ll need to file a report with the police. The Alfa skidded on a loose piece of gravel and span round, unfortunately we hit it – there’ll be paint on the body – we over-ran your friend’s place because we’re new to Tenerife, we’re terribly stressed about the whole thing.’

‘And our friends we cheerfully waved to?’

‘’We didn’t want to upset them and drag them into it. We were heading back up the hill to get to your friend’s place as quickly as possible to report it, not knowing local customs.’

She just stared at him until they reached the turn-off.

.o0o.

The communication channels were running hot to Russia and from there to other places, even Paris, as the two of them sat in light wicker armchairs, sipping on tea, having told their tale.

‘A bit ruthless, your friend,’ Arcady Panov said to Ksenia.

‘I’m still in shock,’ she admitted. Turning to Hugh, she said, ‘I’d never in a million years have expected you to do that. Putting me in the rear footwell too. To kill them like that. I’m … well, I hadn’t read you that way.’

‘Why not?’ he answered. ‘They were gunning for a key operative – my girl. Just seemed logical. Besides, you remember Klyenovaya Gora – if we’d stayed up on that ridge, it wouldn’t have solved anything, they’d have returned, but this way, we sent a message.’

‘Logical maybe but not what I would have expected.’

‘You’ve said that already, my love.’

‘All right,’ said Arcady, ‘I’ll return the Renault, adjust the difference and Ludmilla can take care of how far I’m out of pocket. We’ll deal with the police today but you might have to come back for the enquiry.’

Ksenia nodded spasibo and sipped on her tea. Arcady put out two glasses and a half-full bottle of vodka.

VII

They missed breakfast and very nearly missed the plane but it did take off with them seated just behind the wing and they settled into the flight, reading the magazine, eating the light lunch and then snoozing a little.

They checked out the passengers in the middle row and closest to them was a young woman of about twenty five, Russian, and her boyfriend, a little older. Well, they’d probably understand. The moment came and Hugh climbed over to the window seat. They put the blue green cabin blanket over them and she turned to face the aisle, as if to snooze on the cabin pillow. The mechanics of it were actually quite straightforward, no fuss at all.

.o0o.

It must have been an involuntary gasp or something because the girl opposite, who’d been just a little suspicious before, now tapped her boyfriend and both surreptitiously glanced across, saw Ksenia’s eyes momentarily close and Hugh’s equally feigned grimace.

The girl looked at her boyfriend appealingly, he turned away in disgust and picked up his in-flight magazine but she stared straight ahead of her, bright red, every so often glancing out of the corner of her eye.

Five minutes later, Ksenia went to the little room, Hugh picked up his in-flight magazine and read an interesting article on African pygmies. When she returned, the girl opposite shot her a knowing look and Ksenia casually asked her, ‘Would you like a turn?’ nodding towards Hugh.

‘Ksenia!’ hissed Hugh, as she sat down again and he pushed the button to get two brandies. The girl didn’t seem all that keen.

VIII

Ludmilla caught Ksenia at home and invited herself over. Over chai and pirok in the kitchen, she asked, with a smile, ‘How was the trip?’

‘It was wonderful. I never realized how much I needed a holiday.’

‘I’ve offered before.’

‘I know but there seemed little point then.’

‘Hugh?’

‘Fine, fine.’

‘Are you going to open up to Aunty or not?’

‘It’s been some time since you said that,’ Ksenia smiled. ‘Well yes, he was excellent but I still feel he’s a bit too gentle.’

‘He was gentle with that Alfa Romeo – yes, I see what you mean.’

‘Yes but he did that out of love.’

‘He might humanize you.’

She shot her boss a sharp glance. Then she owned the validity of the comment. ‘Possibly. Doesn’t matter anyway because he’s mine and I love him.’

‘Are you his?’

‘More than before. Why did you really want to see me, Ludvalerievna?’

‘There are two things, Ksenia.’ Oh dear, she’d used the name rather than the diminutive. ‘One is the lovemaking on the balcony. You are an operative, you don’t draw attention to yourself.’

‘I know, I know, I realized after I did it.’

‘But you didn’t want to break the mood.’

‘Something like that.’

‘Second thing is – you can’t stay in the field forever, you know.’ Ksenia shot her another look. ‘You have some years in you yet but not all that many – don’t forget that I was where you are now.’

Ksenia did not like where this was leading one bit so she changed the topic but Ludmilla’s shot had found its mark. Ludmilla laid off for now.

IX

Sergei Safin had been kept waiting for forty minutes and he didn’t like this sort of thing at the best of times.

When he was eventually granted the interview, it was to enter a sumptuous office overlooking the Moskva.

On this side of the desk was a woman who seemed to be part of the team and yet not. She was less than respectful to the obese man on the other side and looked expensive, garish, overdressed. This was the wife – he was sure of that. The fingers adorned with thick gold rings were further testimony to that.

‘Ah, Sergei Mikhailovich, this is my wife Irina.’

‘Ochyen priyatno.’ She nodded her acknowledgement.

‘Sergei, my wife needs a driver.’ Deputatov saw the falling face and smiled. ‘Not just any driver. A driver with eyes, ears and the ability to make quick decisions. A man who will do what’s necessary.’

The light dawned in Safin’s eyes and Deputatov nodded approvingly. ‘Then we understand one another. Now, here is what I need you to do.’

X

November, 2000

America was in the grip of a Florida furore over Dade County votes. Was Bush President? Was Gore? Courts were convened and pronounced; other courts were convened and revoked the judgement. Russia was bouncing back on the strength of oil and gas, determined not to let something like that happen again.

Hugh’s weight training was starting to bear fruit and Viktor Igorovich was delighted to see the expanding shoulders and thickening arms.

His advice was firstly – keep it regular, even if you don’t feel like it. Second – always press a little bit harder than you thought you could. Third – don’t expect any demonstrable size difference for two months.

Hugh had started going to a solarium but that only burnt his buttocks, totally unprepared as they were for the first ever ray attack on their existence. Gradually the tan came on and the result was adequate.

XI

Ksenia and Ludmilla Valerievna were in conference again.

Safin had been seen driving Deputatov’s wife and that made him a euphemism for a killer. All Deputatov’s ‘drivers’ were multi-faceted and unprincipled. That put Safin more directly on the opposite side to his family than just working for a rival boss and he seemed to be going the way of Zhenya.

He also had the capacity to blackmail Ludmilla herself and the connection with Timur Shaidullin in Nizhny Novgorod was a further worry. Deputatov’s main assassin, Djamato, was also in Russia now it seemed and something was brewing.

‘I’ve been scratching around,’ said Ksenia and the only thing I can see is it’s related to this Paul Jacobsen whom I know Mikhail is talking to.’

‘And?’

‘It’s a large deal and would put him in opposition to Deputatov and Seymour. Jacobsen has the money but no infrastructure or contacts, Mikhail has the things Jacobsen needs. Deputatov has made a play for him and wants to include him under his umbrella but the man’s no fool and has done his homework, according to Timur.

He’d have more leverage, Jacobsen, by going the Mikhail route. Sergei going completely over to Deputatov has altered the equation and I don’t think my brother realizes he’s now a marked man. Djamato in Russia is always a worry and someone’s to be hit for sure- I think I know one who will be ‘completed’.’

‘Ponyatno, Ksenia. There’s something else though – the Parisian connection. There’s money pouring down that conduit and it has some connection with Geneviève Lavacquerie’s section funders, together with Deputatov, Shaidullin and one or two others we haven’t identified yet, big players at our end, possibly under government patronage, possibly a maverick operation.

Somehow, sanatorii come into this – the medical clinics. Either it’s a commercial operation or these clinics are being used for some purpose, maybe medical – they could be training centres. The one who seems to know about these, surprisingly, is Hugh Jensen. You remember you told me what he said to you about the way the world is run – that puts him in danger. Well, more than he has been in.’

‘There’s another issue too, LudValerievna. Hugh was briefly seeing my sisters,’ Ludmilla stifled a smile, ‘and this has brought him to Oleg’s attention plus Sergei’s – he makes out he’s a political innocent, Hugh but he’s anything but, either by design or accident. Georges, as we know, is connected to Deputatov and is playing a double game, we know from Hugh that Georges was with Frederika in London.’

‘Which ones are in such key positions that if we could take them out of the equation, the situation would stabilize?’

Ksenia looked closely at Petrova. ‘All of them but I’ll play fair – Deputatov is the key man, then on a lesser level – Sergei and of course, Hugh.’

‘You’ve forgotten someone else, Ksenia.’

‘Oh yes?’

‘Yourself. I think we need to get planning.’

XV

Marc had a pressing invitation to stay with Hugh anytime he came to Shadzhara and he decided to take him up on it this time. Hugh met him at the airport and they did the return trip in less than an hour, apart from stopping off at a café along the way for supper.

At the flat, Hugh gave him a key again and he could log in on the PC too. Next day they’d sort out the kind of food he needed – there was a nice shop, Bahetlye and Hugh preferred to buy what they were actually going to eat rather than guessing at it.

They brought each other up to speed on the politics, the relationships and the implications. For his part, Marc asked Hugh if he could explore, through Ksenia, two names he now handed over. That might tell a lot about the identity of the bigger players who were still in the background at this end and through that, hopefully the players at the Parisian end.

XII

Viktor had been a tower of strength for Hugh over the length of their friendship but he was a little more averse to accepting assistance in return. Part of that was his demeanour and partly the necessity of admitting there was a problem in the first place.

He’d said a number of times that if he was going to speak of a personal matter, it would be to Hugh. Now he did have such a matter and Hugh visited him on Pionerskaya.

Seated, forearms resting on thighs and hands clasped together, head down, it was pretty obvious what was going down.

‘Olya?’

‘Da.’ Hugh waited patiently. Viktor opened, ‘We haven’t split but it’s not far away. The problem’s with me, I don’t know – there has to be some spark and when there’s not, well is it worth the effort?’

Hugh continued to say nothing.

‘It sounds stupid but when a woman phones, if I can instantly pick her voice in the first two words, then that is a possible relationship. With Olya I can’t do that – there’s something very – ordinary in there. I’m not explaining it well.’

‘Anything specific?’

‘No, that’s the thing. She’s been excellent and I’ve tried to be good with her but it just doesn’t seem to have direction. Perhaps it’s the conversation – her world and mine differ so and we find ourselves having to try to converse.’

‘Better you know now.’

‘Better I’d known earlier.’

‘You wouldn’t have known earlier. No, this is a good time to cut it, if it really is that way – are you sure she feels that way too?’

‘Oh no, that’s the problem – she wants it to continue.’

‘Ah … come for soup tomorrow.’

XIII

Liya was wearing a dark green, one-piece jumpsuit, zipped from a modest black halter neck to just above her crotch and his eyes were rivetted – whether it was deliberate or whether she just thought it fashionable, he wasn’t going to say.

‘Hugh,’ she smiled. He brought out the makings for a light supper. ‘This is a pleasant surprise.’ She got straight down to it. ‘I’m worried about Anya – she seems down and we should try to help.’

‘Go on.’

‘She still talks about you.’

She came up and put two hands lightly on his shoulders. He stood there and thought about that zip, fighting himself, then pulled away.

‘I’ll drive you where you need to go.’

‘Giuseppe?’

‘I never tire of it either – let’s go.’

.o0o.

Any pleasure which might have been from the pizzas and champagne was killed by the sight of Ksenia with some man, a personable looking cove but also one full of his own charm. They obviously knew one another which is not to say that anything was going on … but they … knew one another.

Liya picked up on it, she hadn’t met Ksenia, she was stunned by her and determined that this was the quality of female Hugh would chase and now she made the most of doing the revenge thing. Them both having ordered and sat down, with champagne which didn’t help, Liya now leaned across, put her hand on his arm and with the other, started to undo her zip.

‘No, don’t … please, Liya.’

He realized what she may have been working at getting him back with Anya and whatever was to be said for and against the idea, this was clearly not the way it could ever be achieved.

XIV

‘All right,’ said Hugh, ‘let’s be having it.’

‘The only sexuality involved was your girl’s. You start.’

‘You’ll notice I did not make anything of you and him, though naturally I’d like to know, as you know him very well, an easy familiarity. As for Liya, she misunderstood the situation and I suspect she’s trying to get me back to Anya.’

‘Oh?’

‘Nothing has changed with you and me. End of.’

‘She was with her Italian over there,’ said Ksenia, ‘we know where, she was staying with him – I wouldn’t shed too many tears. On the other hand, me being with Parvel today might drive you back there.’

‘How far is he ex this one?’

‘You’re too clever for your own good, Bebe … but it’s a question you’re entitled to an answer on. He’s the lover from Moscow, yes. You see, I cancelled the Moscow trip because I knw what would happen. So he invited himself here and was testing the waters.

I’m not going to lie, I missed him, missed his touch, knew I could go no further now and that’s why I chose Giuseppe, even half hoping you’d bring someone. And yes, he’s staying there, I suggested it, in a room through that door and yes, I would have gone to his room and no, I don’t think I would have let him, even though he does have a way with his touch. I definitely didn’t after you arrived – maybe it was meant to be like that. He’s gone back to Moscow this evening.’

‘I see.’

‘I hate this between us, I really hate it.’

‘My jealousy?’

‘No, your hurt. Mine too – I hated seeing you with her. Easy familiarity was the term you used. If you’d been chatting up some girl, I’d have laughed. But not when you knew her well … and that’s how it must have been for you too with me, doubly so because I organized for him to be here. I hae no answers, it’s a new thing for me to have to control what I do.’

‘Do you want your freedom, do you want to call an end to us?’

‘Are you insane? See, that’s the side of things I don’t handle well and that’s where my file comes in. You see, he came all that way from Moscow to see me and I was being friendly but I was working out a way not to – I was working up to telling him we couldn’t anyu more and that was going to kill me. And then if I’d come home and you’d been difficult about something, I’d have plunged into a shocking mood.’

‘Am I allowed to say what I’d have done?’

‘Yes.’

‘If you’d done that – plunged – I’d have said, ‘OK, let’s have it, tell me what it is. You would then have either said, ‘Nothing,’ but you hate lies, so you would have told me. And I would have said, ‘Go to him, sort it out, find out what you want.’ ’

‘You’d do that?’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s so sweet, it’s why I love you but you see, the danger was not any sort of relationship – the danger was just sex, which I know is N1 on all men’s lists of things they won’t put up with. They’ll tolerate an ex-relationship, a partnership but not just sex with another man. We’re the opposite – we’ll tolerate the sex sometimes if you do it, maybe even with this Liya … but never something soft with another woman. And you had something soft with this one. So you think you’re all innocent and it’s OK because you didn’t bang her but for me, I don’t like the easy relations.’

‘Men and women, Ksusha, it’s not changed in thousands of years.’

‘I want nothing from outside coming in and destroying us. If we do it – if you get so sick of me or I do of you – that’s one thing. But not anyone from out there coming in and threatening us.’

‘Same.’

XV

December, 2000

Olyesa Safina was hit by a dark blue Mercedes in Moscow. She’d been crossing a road at Kitai Gorod and hadn’t seen the car coming. The funeral had been a closed affair but Hugh heard later that day, from Ksenia, that Alina had been inconsolable.

‘You’ll have to be careful, Hugh. No one can find her. We’ve tried everywhere. Stay at my place. There’ll be protection for both of us there.’

‘Tell me about Olyesa.’

A tear came to her eye. ‘She had no real enemy. You do, I do, Misha does. If something happens to us, it’s bad but it’s predictable. With Olyesa, we’re mystified.’

‘They could fire through your windows, lob in a bomb.’

‘Not really. From my bedroom and from the living room and kitchen, what do you see?’

‘Nothing – the road below, fields on the other side.’

‘They’d be firing upwards from the road, anyone in the fields is on private property and can be accosted, it was designed to be that way.

We have our people either side of me as neighbours and the grandmothers below are paid by us to sniff any trouble. If I’m in danger, it’s from the Deputatov types, not from elements in the service, it will be a friendly face who eliminates me, I’ve sometimes thought possibly you.

We’re as safe in my flat as we would be anywhere else. I’ll come to you now in one of our cars. Go to the produkti below and stay in there. Don’t go with anyone else – this is the registration, you have a pen?’

.o0o.

Forty minutes later, having shopped in the produkti and now in her flat, they made lunch together.

He loved her, he loved making the lunch with her but he’d always had this thing against being home in the middle of the day. He’d never been able to get his head around daytime television, the lightness of flats during the day – he always felt he should be out working at this time.

And there was university. They knew the score, they knew he was a protected species but still, they had a right to his services and he was, quite patently, not delivering consistently enough, he himself was unhappy not to be there. He liked the routine, preparing, putting in his hours, also going across the road to do his work with the Minister, going to the Pyramid Cafe after.

This here was far too unstable and while it was fine for Ksenia to act this way, to go here, there, everywhere, he didn’t have the right in this country to be making his own rules. He tried to explain that to her that there were limits, she fully understood and apologized. She understood that his type of business required consistency and reliability and it was one of the key things in him that had attracted her.

‘It’s a test for us at this moment, Bebe, it won’t be forever.’

‘Anything good on?’

She went for the magazine and came back, thumbing through it. ‘Hmmm – travel show -’

‘That will do.’

Chapter 1-10 hereChapter 1-12 here

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