It was 16:14 when the call came, he was asleep on the divan as she came through and took it.
She woke him about 17:30 and apologized for not letting him sleep any longer but she’d held off for as long as she could, they had to leave, she’d explain along the way. As this was a personal flight, to do with her family, she’d taken it upon herself, rather than through Ludmilla Valerievna, to contact his university and explain – they hadn’t been happy but what could they do?
She’d also had the nerve, she said, to pack a bag for him, knowing the clothes he liked to wear, she nodded towards the bag, he looked inside and had to admit it was all there. The buzz came through her pager, they collected their things and went downstairs.
It was a white Volga, a nice touring machine with all that legroom in the back, they climbed in with two of her cushions and two wraps and away they went.
Just beyond Raifa, now in darkness, the Volga turned down a dirt track and stopped, turning the lights off. There was silence in the car and then a sudden scuffling outside as if a creature of the night had brushed by.
The drivers changed and a youngish chap got in, the Volga backed out and once more they headed towards Nizhny Novgorod.
The car continued on into the night, snow was banked up beside the road, narrowing the lanes considerably and Ksenia watched the headlight reflect off it. Onwards and onwards they travelled until a half sentient torpor came over them.
At a small town they stopped for fuel but didn’t get out. During this time, she told him that Oleg was dead and that Georges had broken cover and shown he was the one behind the trouble – well, much of it anyway.
He didn’t ask exactly where they were going.
Later, on a barren, remote stretch, they stopped again and were all able to get out, stretch their legs and go to the bushes. Here, in the stillness of the Russian countryside, in the pitch black, knee deep in snow, the effect was a bit surreal.
Back in the car again, Hugh studied the driver’s impassive face. Did he have Oleg’s blood on his hands? Still, that wasn’t his worry.
The first new snowflakes appeared in the air just past Nizhny, town passed town, village after village passed by. The road was slushy and the noise of the tyres accentuated this. The windscreen wipers sloshed to and fro, the music played, interrupted by the inane hysteria of the two DJs.
And ever onwards the car cruised, on and on and on.
He smiled across at her, she gave a quick smile back, he reached out a hand and she clasped it in both of hers – her hands were not large, the fingers were slender but not weak. They both stared through the front window with its wipers, left and right, left and right. There was nothing else to be seen except the grassy verge slipping by.
About eight kilometres further on, they pulled off onto a parallel side road and parked behind another white Volga. She announced, ‘We change here, Bebe.’
Effects were transferred, the drivers changed and they drove back onto the main highway. Small food boxes were given to each – sandwiches, juice and an apple each.
The darkness enveloped them once more, Ksusha shuffled across, placed her cushion against his chest, rearranged her blanket around her feet and spread his blanket across her chest, covering both of them. A bit of wriggling later, she’d found a good position and almost straight away dropped into drowsiness. He looked down at her hair and dared to take some of it in his hands.
The driver took a quick glance and from his angle, Hugh could see the man smile, almost approve – he must have known Ksusha of old. After some time, Hugh dropped into torpor.
They drove on.
He awoke, stroked her hair, her eyes opened but she said nothing. With both his arms around her now, she interwined her fingers with his.
They stopped for fuel again then drove on.
The lights on the outskirts of Moscow were now visible in the distance and they took a series of turns at this point, always moving north, until finally meeting the ring road, also heading north.
Morning light started to fill the eastern horizon and Ksenia stirred first, gathering her blanket, kissing his cheek and moving back to her corner. He whispered, ‘Ksusha, I’m starting to get a feeling about our destination.’
She just smiled.
It became a certainty some time later. They were headed for Sheremetyevo 1 but they never quite reached it because a turn into a branch road led them away from the airport and who knew where to?
The driver knew and, halfway through the next village, they took a couple of turns and pulled up outside a neat little grey-stoned two storey cottage – someone’s dacha.
‘Welcome to my Papa’s dacha, Hugh.’
They went inside and soon Ksenia was au fait with what was going on out there.
Valentina Alexandrova had received the call about midnight in Nizhny and had been asked to deploy a couple of cars and inform the checkpoints in her area to allow the Volga through, to keep an eye out for Georges but to allow Safin free access and egress.
Ludmilla Petrova had received a call and assured the man that all had been done which could have been done – everyone’s eyes were open. Trouble was that there was another little matter occupying her at this moment from Azherbaijan – some nasty customers had made it through but this difficulty also seemed to be under control.
Viktor Bukovsky received a call to phone in sick and keep his head down. The Denpasa girl received an SMS to visit asap.
The sun rose, the Dekan of Foreign Languages at Hugh’s university had Louise Bonnet visiting from Paris and she, the Dekan, had to go in early to meet her. Ms Bonnet spoke no Russian and no local language, nor did she appear to wish to. In her late 20s, she looked like something out of Yves St Laurent and they had a fair idea how she liked to spend her time.
Why on earth the French department was not dealing with her, the Dekan did not know but the Head of that Department was away, so Ms Bonnet would be left virtually alone and having to negotiate everywhere in English, which did not suit her book one bit.
The two main departments were the English and the French and though they didn’t always see eye to eye along national lines, they were all basically Russian and so it was an artificial kind of rift they sometimes aspired to.
The Dekan now had the brilliant idea of approaching the English Department to see if someone there could spare some time to entertain this French woman.
Ksenia’s father’s log cabin had a central furnace and was cosy.
Food had been brought in, the two upstairs bedrooms were real bedrooms, made up with puffy, fluffy bed linen, the living room was walled with split logs and everything had been left clean and tidy. There was no phone but it didn’t matter because she had her mobile – his had no roaming here.
Clearly, preparation had gone into this and it seemed they were preparing for hibernation, rather than just holing up for a few days.
She broached the topic over coffee.
‘I’m sorry but I have to go out now for supplies. You’ll be fine, the danger can’t start until tomorrow, we know that – he’s not in the area yet. I’ll be back in an hour, OK? Don’t open to anyone, not even to me, especially not to me. Will you light the banya?’
She was as good as her word, for almost on the stroke of nine, the sound of car doors outside announced her return, she let herself in and about two minutes later, skipped up the steep stairwell with its glowing yellow wood steps.
She was wearing her waist length, dark maroon outdoors jacket, with the light grey fur edges and her three quarter length dark navy jeans with the turn ups – he thought that colour scheme was very like his own. Anya had favoured light blues and softer colours but this girl liked the royal shades. She was barefooted and held a cup of coffee in each hand.
‘Here I am.’ She sat patiently, a short distance away from him at the end of his bunk, wiggling her feet and looking at them self consciously.
‘Banya?’ she suggested. ‘I know it’s on.’ He nodded. ‘Better we undress here,’ she advised. ‘I have a few things planned for us – would you let me do them?’
‘Is the Pope Catholic?’
‘Pardon?’ He explained and she thought it funny. ‘I’ll have to remember that one.’
In the outer room below, where the actual washing was done, he took the big soapy sponge from the tub and started squeezing suds over her back, waist, bottom and thighs, watching foamy water trickling down the inside of her thighs to the floor.
She turned round for him to wash her breasts and tummy, then he squatted down to do her calves and ankles. Re-soaping the sponge, he paid particular attention to the space between her legs, then replaced the sponge with his lips and tongue.
Not a word was spoken as he cleaned her out thoroughly, her body swaying just a little. This was one thing he always did which she liked.
They went inside the steam room proper to get the body heat up, sitting separately, adjacent to each other and she threw a ladle of water on the coals. It sizzled, throwing out steam and it was scalding.
She took his hand and led him out to the anteroom again, stood him in the middle of the wooden floor, over the slats and washed every centimetre from head to foot, paying particular attention between his legs too, which she finished off with her mouth, until she suddenly desisted and he spurted over her.
Still in silence, she washed him again, he washed it off her face and out of her hair, they ladled water, in turn, over each other’s heads then went back inside for more heat.
Half a ladle of water on, the coals sizzled and both were perspiring freely.
Looking across at her wet body, he touched each knee with his fingers, moved them apart and now found that inside her was actually cooler, a momentary haven but it had the opposite effect on her of course, her breasts were glistening wet and rock hard.
The squelch of wet lovemaking in the searing heat in itself added to the piquancy and soon she was losing muscle control while he’d settled into a hard rhythm.
With the heat ever so slightly dissipating, they stopped and went out again to wash, throwing more water on the remains of the coals as they went. The washing took on a strange feel to it now, almost ritualistic, almost respectful, very, very carnal, both in a sort of daze and then they returned to the heat.
She became more and more brutal in her movements, while he marvelled at her stunning, glistening beauty.
They went out to wash again, this time she took ages over the job, a labour of love, no cutting corners, nothing said, just applying herself to the job. She applied the sponge, resoaped it, applied it and washed, resoaped it, until she reached his nether regions again, which she attended to with her long tongue, she desisted when she felt he might be peaking and let it onto her chest.
He took the same infinite care, washing deep inside, following up with his mouth and time simply stood still. Her legs began to buckle.
Then they went back into the steam, he put another half ladle on the coals, he bent her back over the wet bench and soon after, she shuddered, she crouched down to her ankles and was calm but now she urged him to give it all he had, for as long as he could and he could feel it trigger her, she’d lose power so to speak, then recover it, then lose it – he was knackered.
They emerged just before lunchtime, in robes and slippers. She prepared the vegetables and he prepared the shasliks from the jar of marinade. Still neither spoke, neither wanted to destroy the moment with a harsh voice.
Lunch was taken in near complete silence, gazing at one another.
After lunch, she spoke, suggesting they both needed an hour’s rest, maybe two, to let the food go down. The warmest room was upstairs in the A frame house, they ascended and both just fitted onto the one and a half width bed.
He covered them with the sewn sheepskin blanket and they dozed off.
Anya was driven into town for business lunch at the Pyramid.
155 roubles each for a salad, soup and meat course was cheap but any extra, like a mineral water or a glass of wine doubled the price and a dessert was about eight times the price of the whole meal.
She tuned into her Italian’s conversation again – he was holding forth about wine and she stifled a yawn. Yes, very, very interesting, she was sure, as she looked forward to the evening.
They looked in on Naff Naff on the way back and she loved a light coloured pair of jeans with a woven design down the left leg. They suited her 26 size, he said all the right things, they were handed out to him, he went to the counter and handed over his card whilst she dressed, then she came out and they drove back to her flat.
She made good suppers, Anya and her salads were the best. Laying everything out meticulously, she was annoyed when he moved one bowl to the other side of the table, she took it and put it back where it had been, then glanced at her.
The supper was a ritual as it ever had been with her, the chicken pieces were brought out at the right moment, the champagne was his job and the candles were her job. She wanted to watch an erotic Mickey Rourke, her favourite and then went, as she always did, to the bathroom for 40 minutes while he made up the bed and then sat on the end of it.
When she eventually came out, the ritual was done and she was ready for the night’s action. He was one of the patient types, adept at prolongation.
Ksenia had let him sleep until 16:00.
He woke, leapt out of bed, slipped downstairs and saw a sumptuous feast laid out on the kitchen table – fried gorbusha, red fish, sliced beef. She wasn’t so good on the salads, so they’d been bought. Still, no matter.
He apologized, ‘Izvini – ya prospal,’ an apology she waved away, as his energy levels were her business.
An elegant navy dress which swept up in two halves over her front and tied round the back of the neck accentuated her figure and her hair had been tied up so that the neck was naked, except for wisps of errant hair here and there.
She’d obviously thought it out.
He understood that this level of assiduous attention could not continue past today but there was still something awesome about the woman – she was a thinker, a calculator, Ksusha, and she was maintaining his flow so to speak, almost husbanding him, though that was maybe the wrong word.
Her beauty, entirely predictably, was always going to be heightened by these activities and it flowed over him in waves, hit him as she bent down, hit him again when she turned, hit him at whatever angle he observed her, she knew she was being carnally scrutinized, found it exquisitely pleasing and it both calmed and excited her.
Sitting at opposite ends of the table for four, he broke his silence after the dessert. ‘You are the most astounding woman, you surprise me the whole time.’
‘Are you pleased?’ she asked, he grinned. ‘And now you need to get us the Baileys, Bebe.’
He poured the glasses, went behind her, face close to her ear and passed her glass to her front. They clinked, toasted and knocked it back in one hit. One tug on her waist cord, one on the bow at the neck and the dress virtually fell apart.
He moved two armchairs within a metre of each other and she caught on immediately, kneeling with one knee on each armrest.
It began again and went on into the night.
At one stage, she went into the kitchenette and when he called out if he could help, she called back, ‘Absolutely not.’
Through came a substantial tea of sliced meat and tomatoes, potato mash and cucumber julienne, followed by tea and berry pie – they sat munching and drinking, he on the divan, she opposite and the more he shovelled in, the more she nodded. Every nuance was being noted and analysed.
Then she asked, ‘What time do you normally feel you simply must sleep?’
‘The biological clock wants me to sleep at 19:00, Russian time, through to about 01:00. That’s why I’m useless in the Russian evening, particularly early evening. Come 01:30 though, I’m ready to go through to dawn.’
‘Interesting. So we’ve just entered your normal sleep time an hour ago.’
‘I sleep when necessary.’
She calculated that he should grab three hours sleep now. First they cleared and washed everything, went up to the heated room upstairs, he climbed in first and then her – they actually dozed off for four and a half hours.
Viktor Bukovsky waited in the living room while Valentina put the children to bed. It had taken a little longer tonight, what with the company and the sense of drama, of something going on out there but eventually Pavel dropped off, he being the more difficult and protective of his mother’s quality time.
She made a supper and brought it through, they sat diagonally opposite one another but she was on edge, waiting for reports to come in and couldn’t relax. He helped her clear it all away to the kitchen and even gave a hand with he drying up. All done, he blocked her egress and she knew the lie of the land. She didn’t complain, didn’t try to push past, didn’t speak at all.
He lifted her chin and tried the lips one by one while her eyes remained fixed on the opposite wall, took her in his arms and she allowed it, he held her for two minutes this way then gave it away and in some annoyance suggested it was time for him to go.
‘Viktor, I’m sorry, things on the mind tonight, you understand. It – it wasn’t you.’
He smiled at her. ‘I know.’
With him gone, she locked up, checked the bedroom phone and went to bed.
The flat in the leafy area by the river was perfect for Dilyara, she had work, she had Marc, she felt safe – why she should feel safe in Prague and not at home or in Paris, she didn’t know but she did and no one dissuaded her on that.
It was late, she was a late owl but he wasn’t and now, for him to come back from the bathroom and not climb into bed as usual but to climb over her was rather nice – what’s more, he’d brought some of the demon liquor, he set it down on the sidetable and began with the back of her ear, then to her neck, she let him work his way down but he knew the secret of Dilyara – what he called the wildcat.
Suddenly she attacked, almost vampiring his neck, clamouring over his equipment and ramming down hard, over and over, facing him, facing away, he now took over.
‘You’re happy in Prague, I’m happy you’re happy.’
‘Can we stay here though?’
‘Why not? I have my routine, to Paris and back, you come with me when I go back to your home, it works.’
‘For how long?’
‘Do not ask these things, Dilya, they have a way of stopping something – just enjoy them for now.’
‘Oh I am.’
Hugh woke first about 01:20, looked over and realized he was frightened to wake her. And yet she’d insisted he do it. Touching her cheek with the back of his hand, she came awake but with eyes closed, as per her training. Opening one eye, she took in the scene and asked how he felt. He didn’t answer.
She saw he was sharp and murmured, ‘Fine.’
It was bizarre in the countryside, awake at this hour, with total silence all around, except for the two of them. She looked at him and climbed out of bed. Just about to go to the toilet, she stopped, turned back to him and said, ‘Come.’
He wasn’t sure how far he was into bodily functions and yet this seemed important to her. The question began to gnaw at the back of his mind – were there any limits at all? Was there nothing they wouldn’t do with each other? He wasn’t all that sure he liked this idea.
Sensing his anxiety, she said, ‘We only do what we’re comfortable doing, Bebe, we never demand, never force each other but we keep challenging. I need to know your limits, you need to know mine.’
He nodded and followed her into the loo. She squatted on the bowl and did what everyone does everyday, she looked at him as he was watching her.
She finished, wiped, flushed and climbed into the bath, running the tap until it was right, then washed the entire nether region, paying particular attention to the rear portion. She climbed out, took a small jar from the shelf and they went back to the bed.
‘I see your fear,’ she said. ‘Have you never done this before?’
‘I tried but didn’t manage, I think she never had either, my first wife. Have you?’
‘No, I haven’t, I’ve never let them. I always feared the pain but don’t think you’ll hurt me though. If you let me direct it …’
It began and after seven or eight minutes, he asked, ‘All right so far?’
‘Different, not sure I like it, keep pushing further until I say stop.’
She said stop soon after and even withdrawing had to be carefully done. ‘Not sure,’ she said. ‘Let’s leave that one for now. Shall we wash?’
They caught three more hours of sleep about 03:30 and came awake again about 06:40, which was as well because the phone call on her mobile rent the peace of the sleepy dacha. Rapid conversation finished, she put the phone down pensively and turned to him.
‘Yes, it’s started. Let’s be prepared to leave, if necessary.’
‘That was Sergei on the line.’
‘Who exactly does Georges want to take out?’
‘You, me, Sergei.’
‘How do we stop him?’
‘We don’t. Sergei has it organized.’
‘How do you feel – er – physically?’
‘A little sore, to be honest. And you?’
‘Tired, worn out.’
‘You haven’t fully earned your keep yet,’ she chuckled. ‘Now, about Georges. He’s been quite clever, Hugh – not being where we thought he’d be but in the end, he can’t be everywhere. We’re going to have to sit tight and soon we’ll have to keep our hands to ourselves. Soon we’ll need to give the lovemaking a rest, if only to stay alert. Let’s find out then if we can just talk to each other instead.’
The process of tracking Georges down was taking longer than expected and there was no real alternative but to make love in the dacha, avoiding any windows or open areas on the two floors, eating copious amounts, making their way about with no lights in the evening, taking turns to sleep but it was cramping their style so to speak.
For Georges, however, he who had casually snuffed out quite a few young and not so young lives, it was a process of ever-decreasing circles and when the end came, it simply resulted in Sergei’s disembodied voice, on the mobile, telling Ksenia it was over.
She put the phone down and said they could go home now and when she said that, the words jarred with both of them. ‘We’ll go home tomorrow around lunchtime. That suit you? I know you don’t want this to end, nor do I. Does the business with Georges upset you?’
‘Well, it’s not the most pleasant thing but he was a killer on the rampage.’ He thought about it. ‘No, it doesn’t worry me unduly.’
‘Then let’s make up the banya again.’
She wanted to try it one more time – you know – that. She thought it best he lie down on the bench and the wet heat inside the room would ease it. She wanted to be the one doing the sliding.
She worked at it for some time, bit by bit and it was almost all there but she wasn’t sure and withdrew.
‘There’s something artificial in that. It’s like deliberately doing something but it doesn’t come naturally. Mouth, the other way, don’t even have to think about it but this is almost, ‘Look what we’re doing here.’ I’m not dead against but maybe we’ll just leave it off our list. Which brings me to the last item we haven’t tried.’
‘I was going to just try that on you and see what happened.’
‘There’s a thing I have about elasticity. That should suit you because you’re not huge but you use it well. If you did this often enough -’
‘You needn’t say it. You want the once?’
‘Just like that?’
‘No, we’d have to have been at it for some time, get prepared.’
‘All right, so ‘get at it’.’
When she felt him start, there was the barrier of course, the ridge and she wasn’t sure but then he got it past the barrier and the problem was getting it out again.
This took a minute or so, then she said, ‘Think we might shelve that one too for now. Are you going to find normal boring again?’
‘There are many ways normal can be done.’
‘Yes, there are.’
They rested for a few hours upstairs and he looked at her, she looked at him, then ran her fingers down his cheek, behind his head and drew him into a kiss.
‘Are you tired of this?’ she asked.
‘Physically tired but I’d never never tire of you doing these things with me. It might be a long, long time until we get this chance again.’
‘We can make our chances.’ There was silence until she said, ‘You ran out of liquid.’ He nodded. ‘I’m surprised you didn’t earlier.’
‘It does replenish you know. You have enormous stamina.’
‘I train as you know, I’m an operative, remember, I’m still this side of 30, I should be able to. I just wanted to know how long you could go for, how long until you … couldn’t, didn’t want.’
‘Is the Pope Catholic?’
‘Ah yes. Good, good.’
‘Is it enough for you?’
‘It became so last night. This is just bonus time today. What part did you like best?’
‘When we physically join up in some way, even your hand on me – just the physical contact, all of it, plus quiet, gentle moments like this. And you?’
‘I like those but also when I can see you going in and out, working hard on me. Do you want to make love again?’
‘Why not? Just for a change.’
‘I like your humour too. Usually.’
Amongst the pile of messages awaiting Hugh by e-mail and telephone, now they were back home, was one from his Head of English at the university.
This was such a rarity that he knew he’d have to go in straight away, he’d need to work today, three ‘pairs’, not too bad.
His Head of English was pleased and truth was – he was glad to be back, they discussed where things were, academically. Fine. She asked, ‘Do you know any French?’
‘J’ai oublie, Diana. I’ve forgotten most of it.’
‘Good, that’ll be enough for this, I’ll give you her number – her name’s Louise, I’ll call her now and tell her to expect a call from you, all right?’
‘Stop, stop. Diana, you may or may not be aware but I have a new love now and this takes up all my available time.’
‘Hugh, do it for me? Please? She’s not in Shadzhara long.’
He made the call. ‘Louise? Je m’appelle Hugo Jensen. Je suis anglais.’
She giggled at the other end at the bleedin’ obvious. Then she launched into a torrent of French of which he picked up about every fourth word.
‘Lentement, lentement, belle fille, s’il vous plait, je parle seulement un peu de francais, vous ne comprenez pas? Let’s meet tomorrow – what are you doing about midday?’
As many French will do if the other first tries their language, she was now prepared to answer in English and also like many French, she knew it very well. Ho hum, at least he could practise his French with her. They agreed to meet at Giuseppe, as she already knew the place.
He explained it all to Ksenia and interestingly, she knew about this Louise. Yes, he had to do this, she’d expect a full report. ‘Try to arrange some sort of meeting where we can all go and meet her, she’ll be flattered and I want to get a good look at her.’
‘I’m getting a bad feeling about this one – Diana wants to offload her, you don’t seem threatened at all, what is it with this one?’
‘Marc mentioned her – doesn’t quite know how to go about things, not completely social but tries to be. Yet they think she may be up to something – can’t see how we can help but that’s a bit beyond my level – LudValerievna might have something in hand, I don’t know. Let’s just do our stock look at her and we’ll report. Uh, I’ll report, you’re not section.’
Marie Latour, otherwise known by her code name of Carly, was on loan from French security to the British.
She was still a fine looking woman but many had made the mistake of underestimating the toughness behind the French-Canadian femininity, which meant she was much in demand in the security field.
Latour’s speciality was recruitment and she could smell a phony a mile off, whichever language he or she chose to speak. One of the rising stars in London, Sarah Retton, was being briefed for an upcoming tour of Eastern Europe. She was no phony but she did have issues.
Carly looked her up and down. ‘You’re seductive enough, Sarah but still a bit green and trusting and you need to assert a bit more control over yourself with the body fat.’
‘Oh, nice.’ She’d been compared to Charlotte Church in looks and no one had said she was fat. At least, not in her early days.
Carly looked at her. ‘You’re also not in control of your anger, you’re one of the best at Box 850 but there’s still some way to go. There’s time but not too much more.’
Midday saw Hugh there before Louise and anxiously waiting.
Fifteen minutes later she waltzed in, fashionably late, dressed classically in the de rigeur close-cut jacket and jeans and determined to impress, which she did with the local girls but it amused him. He did the kissy kissy and then they got down to ordering Italian which was the second best food in her book.
The first difference between the west and here now became painfully obvious – she didn’t exactly order the most expensive dishes, it was about right for Paris but here it was exorbitant and the waitresses thought the Englishman had to be on the make. She seemed relieved and happy to chat, in French of course – so that’s what they did until the crepes and ice cream and she wasn’t impressed by the Russian crepes.
Unmistakably French in her jawline, with what he’d describe as ‘plush’ lips, bulbous being an ugly word, her big eyes which the French practise at being wide-open and innocent, the light white zip-necked trenchcoat with the belt carelessly buckled, hands in pockets and standing at that gorgeous angle the French have perfected and in general, oozing ‘expensive chic’, she could have been highly alluring, except for one thing – she tried too bloody hard.
Too intense was Louise, too into herself, not genuine, something apparent from the very first moment.
He didn’t have much of a clue where to take her really, not being local and she’d probably already done the major spots, so he thought maybe a round of the boutiques was more her thing.
One place he did take her was Paris, where they had catalogues through which you could order ‘Paris fashions’ and that gave her a real laugh, particularly when she tried to converse with the shopwoman in French. So here was a situation of her speaking French, Hugh thinking it out in English, converting it into Russian and delivering the message to a local speaker.
They had some afternoon tea of the purely Russian variety at the new Maestro and there he warned her he’d have to get back to his main project – Ksenia. She’d like to meet this Ksenia. Now that would be something.
He made some calls, asked if the next day at 14:00 would be OK, at a place called Olympia, he took her back to her hotel, went home and that was that.
Sarah Retton finished her training, took a shower, then drove the half kilometre to the office, where Carly was waiting.
‘Sit down, Sarah. We’ve been asked for help from the French side and that involves you in Eastern Europe. You know this already. You also know that I consider you’re not ready – it’s your emotions, your sudden anger. If it hadn’t been for your exemplary test results in the other areas, we wouldn’t have been able to keep you on.
Sarah, listen, there’s nothing on your record about this – it’s between you and me so far but you have to work very, very hard, between now and your departure, to learn set responses in provocative situations. If someone told you you’d been putting on weight, what would your response be?’
The shortening of breath and narrowed eyes was the answer to that.
‘I’d like you to spend one session a day now with Ian Hayes and he’ll sort this out with you, it’s his field. You agree to this?’
‘Don’t have much choice, do I?’
‘Not really … not if you want a career.’
Ksenia met him outside Olympia with its charcoal grey facade and she looked pure class – would she ever look anything different?
Beautifully cut white and light-grey fur jacket sitting on her hips and gathered at the waist, dark charcoal, ribbed, ultra-tight stretch jeans, just short of a length, black suede stiletto boots with accessories and the whole capped off by a fur beret matching the rest of the ensemble.
Her face was very lightly made up, the pomada [lipstick] was a light, wet pink, the brows were almost untouched or so it seemed and her simplicity was almost French in itself. His dropped jaw was all the confirmation she needed for now but Louise was to be the big test.
It was minus seven, the sun was out so they stayed out for five minutes waiting for Louise then went inside, left the gear at the garderobe and stepped through to organize the place, which was quite a job as the New Year’s rush had begun, shoppers were dropping into cafes and the roads were getting clogged.
‘Don’t forget I’ve asked Viktor to come too,’ he reminded her.
‘I haven’t forgotten,’ she smiled, in really fine form today, our Ksenia.
First through the double doors was Viktor, dressed down in black jeans, polo T, with a similar balding pate to Hugh and his own jaw dropped at the sight of Ksusha.
No sign of Louise, so Hugh called, just as the Sesame Street big bird walked in, way over the top for a meeting like today. The humungous fur-lined coat was shed and the light-blue velour jacket over the bone skirt was certainly better on Louise.
Viktor was stunned, Ksenia relaxed and Louise did not appreciate her rival relaxing so quickly. The two women did the kissy thing and Viktor demanded equal time.
They ordered and settled back with drinks. Clearly the common language in this company had to be English, which even Louise conceded, though Hugh dropped into French along the way, which she appreciated.
Ksenia wasn’t particularly interested in the proceedings, now she’d won the first round but Viktor dropped compliments on her, Ksenia from time to time, with apologies to Hugh. Ksenia was amused and saw how Hugh might have lost out had she been an egotist, which she wasn’t. Russian compliments had never really cut it for her although Viktor was quite a fine specimen of her country’s manhood.
So, there was the bizarre quartet – Louise had eyes for the muscly Viktor, he had eyes for Ksenia, Hugh had eyes for Ksenia too but was stuck with entertaining Louise who resented Viktor’s eyes on Ksenia and Ksenia, though flattered by Viktor’s eyes, was determined to make eyes at Hugh.
This was the sort of thing Ksenia did which set her above ordinary mortals in Hugh’s eyes. H whispered this in her ear and she went red.
The meal was OK, quite pleasant and Viktor was first to go, minus car, so he couldn’t give Louise a lift.
Ksenia wanted to talk to Hugh but conceded it was more gentlemanly if they met in the evening – Hugh was to drive her to the stop nearest her work and then Louise back to the hotel.
Trouble was – what to do with Louise now? She solved the problem herself by saying there were a few things she had to do, calls to make and so on. She’d drop into the uni.
Ksenia got out at the stop with a wry smile and fluttered her fingers goodbye. Louise got down to business. ‘Votre amie est une belle fille, Hugo but she frightens me a little, she stays too quiet. Viktor I like – he’s very attractive.’
‘Ma belle fille is a very dangerous woman, Louise. In Italian, she’d be called una rosa pericolosa*. So is Viktor as a man.’
19:25 saw Ksenia come home.
He was busting to know what she’d thought of the day’s doings, she could see this in his expectant look and was truly flattered but held it well within, in line with her training. ‘You thought there was something happening with Viktor and me, didn’t you?’ she grinned. ‘But then you relaxed when I made eyes at you and that angered everyone else.’
He didn’t reply and she went on. ‘Let’s go to bed to talk, it’s chilly. I’ve eaten – have you? Good – give me fifteen minutes.’
In bed, she spoke to the ceiling.
‘Actually, you were right and you were wrong about Viktor and me. He can definitely charm a woman and the thought definitely ran through my mind to exchange numbers and call later this evening. He’s the type who’d be into it too although he might stop short of having another man’s woman. It would be an interesting experiment.
The major problem is my own ego, which matches his – and yours for that matter – he might not have liked my answer today.’
‘Your body language, you mean.’
‘He thinks his charm failed to work – actually it worked very well and he’s definitely in the back of my mind. You know I wouldn’t let him even get to first base. Anya might though.’
Ouch, that one hurt. ‘Louise?’
‘Sad case, tries too hard. Looked quite good without the jacket but I felt sorry for her – like a fish out of water in this town, it was nice that you spoke a bit in her language. I wouldn’t mind betting she doesn’t have a regular boyfriend but she claims she does. She knew she couldn’t get you away from me but her eyes were for Viktor anyway – she’s the type who always goes for the main visible chance and misses the gem in the corner.’
‘Ah, best butter.’ He had to explain that one and then: ‘I thought I did a good job ignoring you today.’
‘Oh, you did to a point but then I saw you stealing looks at me, it was a lot of fun.’
‘What else did you glean from it?’
‘Get out of it. What conclusions did you come to?’
‘That Viktor is a careful man who keeps his own counsel and one I’ll have to watch. Professionally, Bebe, professionally.’ She sighed. ‘He’d like to conquer me as I’ve said but I’m not sure he approves of me with you – it could well be my dossier to blame there, he’s not wrong either. Let me ask you a question – would you marry Frederika?’
‘You’ve got to be kidding – she’s a killer.’
‘So am I, Hugh, never forget that. I’ve killed before and that’s what worries Viktor Igorovich, he does care for you.’
‘Would you still kill me if you were ordered?’
‘Absolutely not, I never would have either. Look, changing the topic, we need to talk about New Year.’
‘Right – talk.’
‘I used to spend it in Moscow … with Parvel.’
He went deathly silent and possibly white too, his breathing quickened.
‘I’ve cancelled it. I’m spending it with you unless you have other plans.’
‘I have no other plans but I do need to say some things.’