Marc, again in Paris, almost burst into Geneviève’s office with the news, sporting a big grin. ‘We’ve done it, we’re in, I know who the big players are.’
If he’d been expecting some sort of pat on the back, he was sadly mistaken. Geneviève checked outside her office, saw Nicolette and sent her on an errand, drew Marc into the room and locked the door. He was more than intrigued.
Then she swung round to him. ‘All right, what do you have?’
He put in the stick then brought the details up on screen. Geneviève cast a quick eye over the flow diagram and said, ‘It must never get outside this room, Marc.’
‘Did you know this all along, Mademoiselle?’
‘Not the Russian end, of course, they’re just names but the French end – I know two of those quite well.’
‘Mademoiselle, people have died because of these people – why did you do nothing?’
‘It’s a complex matter, there are powerful reasons why I couldn’t and now we’re going to forget what we’ve seen.’
He was stunned. ‘You, Mademoiselle? You doing a cover up?’
‘Marc, you don’t understand what you’re saying – I’ll do this in my own way and I appreciate the knowledge. If you now know this, others are going to know it as well.’
‘You’re worrying me We’ve thrown everything into tracking down this conduit, you’ve sent me to Russia and back so many times, everyone knows what we were doing, I was in danger and I assumed you were too, Dilyara was almost killed. Now it seems you weren’t in danger at all.’
‘Oh but I am, Marc, I am – if only I could tell you how much and for me, Marc – there is absolutely no escape. This is death for me in an entirely different way.’
‘Speak,’ said Ksenia.
‘I’m getting concerned that the things you always used to do – that I’m stopping you doing them, having innocent pleasures.’
She looked into his eyes. ‘There is zero innocent with Parvel, I know how it must end up, I want other things far more. Therefore, this is my decision.’ She sipped on some coffee from the sidetable. ‘However, who is stopping who doing things? You told me about some things anya and you did at New Year – walk in the snow, go to the opera, go to Lenin Memorial. I can’t do those.’
‘Yes. How much do you need those things?’
‘It’s vastly more important to be with you.’
‘Well, that’s the problem you see. If the family know I’m not in Moscow, which is where I went to escape them at New Year, and especially as Olyesa is not with us this year, then I do not wish to be there but I cannot be in Shadzhara in that case. Nor can we travel – not just the expense but we will be watched the whole time. So we do have a problem – I don’t think it wise that we are at each other’s places either. Klyenovaya Gora is not safe.’
‘You have ideas?’
‘One … and you have a car.’
‘What, sleep in the car?’
‘In minus 25? Not likely. There is a way. Yulia is going to Kama Camp – the A frame huts have the heating on for New Year, only the young usually do it, it costs a heap of money. Instead of taking one hut, she’ll take two and we’ll pay the cost of one of them. There will be maybe a dozen of them and they will have the downstairs rooms, plus the whole of the other hut.’
‘Young people – group sex, gangbang.’
‘Probably but we have the top floor – there are two rooms and we’ll demand both. They can do what they want down there.’
‘Is Yulia part of this lifestyle?’
‘No, she has a boyfriend and that’s where they would retreat to – to our other room, we only need one. I would make it clear it is only a retreat, nothing else, no drinking in there, no anything else. If she agrees, we pay for her room. We can’t use section money, this is private.’
‘Not a problem, I’m happy to pay that.’
‘Because there are others downstairs, you can’t pay for them so if we split the bill in half, I’d feel more comfortable. Yulia makes all the arrangements and we’re not officially there. She will name names for each room, including ours but at the last moment, she’ll say there’s something wrong with our room and no one will be unhappy with that.’
‘Two – the camp sells it as two nights. We go down a different way, I know it – if you have your winter tyres and some chains, we will get through – we need to be out of here on the 30th.’
‘And where do we stay on the 30th?’
‘With my grandmother.’
‘Why don’t we just stay with her on the 31st?
‘She’s with the extended family. She won’t tell on us.’
‘I’d rather spend New Year with her.’
‘I’ll tell her that but think about it, Bebe, she’s frail and can handle one night of us – no sex that night – but not two, plus she loves when the family gets together, she cannot understand my attitude.’
‘Our attitude. Plus it’s not safe two nights in a row.’
‘Well, that’s that. Sounds great fun, an adventure in driving. How much do you need?’ She told him. ‘That’s nothing. We need to get something superb for her when we go down, we must be well prepared.’
‘I like your attitude to our traditions.’
‘Is the Pope Catholic?’ She smiled at that.
December 30th, 2000
At the last moment, Ksenia sprung the surprise.
‘You’re not driving. At least you’ll drive to the forest with me and our gear in the boot and give your techpassport and other details to one of our people called Stas, he’ll garage your car at his double garage – in the place for garages. Someone called Peter takes us in a van and drops us at a place I know, we walk from there to my grandmother’s.
I have a series of rides which get us the next evening to Kama Camp and then the reverse on the 2nd.’
‘Do we stay inside the hut so as not to be seen?’
‘That’s the downside – yes. That is sad. Room – bathroom – room. They bring us shaslik at night. We cannot toboggan or walk on the river. We can’t even go out there with them after midnight.’
‘Yulia organizes all that. Still agree to do it?’
‘To be with you? Is -’
‘- the Pope Catholic.’
January 3rd, 2001
There had been no incidents, nothing, they’d stayed with her grandmother, delighted was she, the presents went down well, they were transferred, they stayed mainly in their room, the shaslik was brought to them, the return van was one which has supplied the local shops, they’d stopped in the forest the other side of the checkpoint, Ksenia ready to show her pass and a letter from Ludmilla saying it was special business, it had gone off well.
Would that all their plans go off the same way.
Time, as it tends to do, passed rapidly and slush time came around.
March 8th was looming and this was going to raise questions. Valentines was easy enough to ignore in Russia but Women’s Day was not. Ksenia feared the usual – that Hugh would get as slushy as the road conditions outside but he promised her he usually tried to avoid this day like the plague and she appreciated that.
He sent Anya an e-card and she responded with a beautiful floral card. Still they didn’t make contact.
He took Ksenia to Yaz for a meal and the Gruzin cuisine was to her taste. ‘Summer’s coming, lubimi – on June 7th I have to take a twelve day cruise to St Petersburg and back – it’s business. I want you to be there on that cruise. I need your company, your support and your body but I also need your professional advice and your perspective. If you wish, of course. We need to book early to get a good cabin so tomorrow or the next day we’ll have to do that – are you planning to go to Britain or Australia?’
‘Not this year. I’m not risking losing another girl.’
Carly was in Paris, meeting with Geneviève at the Section safehouse in rue de la Planche.
She conceded quite a few years to Geneviève but she could still hold her head high in any direct comparison, a point Geneviève herself conceded. They were discussing the upcoming Prague putsch.
‘I’m not at all sure, Geneviève, whether to send our girl – nice girl, hard as nails but has a problem of self control. That’s what I’d like to trade with you – one of your girls on standby, in exchange for information from us on the conduit.’
‘Ah, you know of that? Do you also know we’ve cracked it?’
‘Really? Now that’s interesting and what do you think of PLR’s involvement?’
‘That’s a direct accusation, Marie.’
‘Three people know of your real status, Geneviève and I’m one of them – has anything ever come of that? Have I ever used it as a bargaining chip?’
‘Nor would I. However, you might like to know who the Russian end really is, it won’t help you directly but it would give you leverage with the Russians.’
‘All right, let’s do that, I’ll send Natalie and you can brief her later today.’
Vitaly Vladimirovich Kuzmin, 30, received a call from his CEO, Ronald Seymour, and immediately took the Merc round to Butlerova to book two cruise tickets.
Valentina Vitalyevna Alexandrova, 37, went to the Nizhny Novgorod office of the steamship company and booked passage for herself, her mother Anastasia and two children – Pavel and Ksenia – the perfect cover for what she had to do.
Dmitri Evgenevich Storchaus, 53, sent his secretary to book tickets for his wife and himself. He wanted a private suite. The secretary phoned him from the office and said they’d been taken. A conversation ensued, the secretary got the contact number of the couple who’d booked the suite and it was a matter of three hours and considerable cash inducement before Dima had secured it. He had no idea Ksusha was to be aboard as well.
Elena Renatyevna Usmanova, 19, had secured her passage as scullery maid, which would doubtless keep the wolf from the door, at least for this summer, but the prospect of further reward beyond her dreams, should she succeed in her other task, excited her greed. She grinned at herself in the mirror. Yes, a risky business indeed but that wasn’t going to dissuade her. Oh, no.
Svetlana Dmitrievna Lyevina, 26, was ready, almost. She was aerobics instructor, MC, disco organizer and just about everything else on the trip. On this particular trip, she had one extra little function, an unpalatable one but she really had little choice, did she?
Evgeniya Romanovna Kuznyetsova, 24, liked being called Jane, which the foreigners usually did call her, in her capacity as barmaid. Not a lot of cash but she knew how to weasel more out of them with assiduous service and, well – a few other little things. She hoped this cruise would be as lucrative as last July’s. The man had been a complete fool to leave himself open like that anyway.
For Sergei Ivanovich Deputatov, 59, this trip would give him a brief period incognito while he regrouped and considered what to do about the disaster his operations had suffered. When they got stuck into you, they never stopped until they had your blood. He could regroup on the boat in relative obscurity.
Paul Joseph Jacobson, 43, was being sent on the cruise as a reward by the Trade Ministry for his company’s decision to invest in the Volga region. He knew little about what was in store but was assured there’d be ample entertainment. He hoped so and he was also gratified that Natalia Vitalievna Kurbatova, 29, would be his guide. He wondered if she was married.
Those names were to become important.
‘So, Ksusha, have you put it to Mr. Jensen?’
Ludmilla Petrova sipped her tea and nodded. ‘Kho-ro-sho. That leaves one major difficulty.’
‘Da. Ti, Ksusha.’
Petrova leaned across the kitchen table and clasping Ksenia’s hand, said, ‘Of course I know about Seymour.’ She felt Ksenia’s hand tighten.
‘H –how did you know?’
‘Ksenia, Ksenia. Anyway, it’s a straight business proposition – if your loyalty is primarily to Seymour and if your task includes damage to either Valentina Alexandrova or Mr. Jensen, then I shan’t send you, simple as that, if you double-cross the section, you know the result of that too. Money does not always buy protection in your position.’
The other woman had spoken so quietly and with such assurance and Ksenia knew the inside of those little cabinets well enough to shudder down the length of her body.
Ludmilla continued, ‘I’m not threatening you, not in the least, I’m trying to maintain our best operative in peak condition for the good of her country. If she has a little business on the side for her own personal reasons, then as long as no damage results from that, it’s fine.’
Ksenia spoke. ‘I wouldn’t hurt Hugh for anything in the world and I don’t know the other woman – it’s a protection job, that’s all, that will become apparent. I need to find out, confirm a few things and this way I do it and get paid at the same time.’
Anya phoned Hugh on May 14th and suggested they meet.
They went to Druzhba to take in the new Leonardo de Caprio film ‘Beach’ but it annoyed him the way Virginie Ledoyen just dropped her own guy and went with Leonardo de Caprio.
‘It’s just a film, Hugh.’
‘Maybe. How’s your Italian?’
‘Oh, so-so. He won’t leave his wife.’
‘So what’s new?’ He saw her face fall. ‘Sorry, Anya, I take it back.’
He got up and bought her some kryevyetki, not heated, some popcorn, a Millers and the little cake thing she liked – Medallion, he thought it was called, a Lavazza for himself with the pistachios and they held hands.
In the theatre, the hooligan came out in her as it always had and which he adored in her – she kicked off her shoes and put her bare feet up on the seat in front. That put her thigh next to his arm and he couldn’t stop himself running his hand down that thigh, which might have been the underlying idea anyway. At least she didn’t react negatively. When the feet were eventually taken down, to get some circulation going, she took her arm off the seat rest between them and asked if he wanted to put his arm there.
Never before had she been so accommodating. She pulled his hand down towards her lap and held it there.
‘Do you remember my massages?’ he asked.
‘You don’t remember?’
‘No, you’re not going to, I won’t be able to stop and you know it.’
‘Promise I’ll stick to your calves.’
‘That’s the worst.’
After the film, in the car near her flat, he reflected that it had been a long time since this had happened, he went to get out, to go around to open her door but she put a hand on his arm.
‘This cruise, Hugh, with Ksenia. I don’t like it.’
His eyebrows went up and she hastened to add, ‘I think she’s dangerous and Viktor agrees, I don’t think you know all the things she’s done. She might have had a hard time in her life but there’s something in the types of things she did and the way she did them which are to do with her character and not just something from the past.’
‘I’m aware of that and I do take the point, she’s even warned me they were quite excessive and even cruel.’
‘She told you that?’
‘Yes. She’s warned me of her cruel streak but of course, that’s a good move, it’s been done before. I’m under her spell, as I was under yours and she made sure in Moscow, sexually, that I knew what I was in for if I stayed with her – she’s more real world than you. You’re unique. Shall I stop or go on?’
‘Go on, of course.’
‘With you, Anechka, there were so many little things – your mannerisms, obviously your beauty,’ she blushed, ‘the way you blush,’ she blushed some more, ‘your good heart, the feel of you in my arms, the way we went everywhere, our history, your family – many things, all of it in together.
Ksenia has a lot going for her, enough to get me besotted, obsessed but against it are these other factors – she’s security and has to be hard for that, there’s that family of hers and that’s a worry. She speaks in a harder way than you – you’re girlish and soft.’
‘You’ve had lots of sex then.’
‘Strange question – you and the Italian, Ksenia and I. Yes, there’s been a lot.’
‘I see. Is she faithful?’
‘It’s been tested once – twice actually. No, three times.’
‘Make up your mind.’
‘First test was a man I saw her with in Giuseppe -’
‘You saw her in Giuseppe? Then you -’
‘I was with a girl named Liya.’
‘I saw Liya quite a lot but never did anything with her.’
She was quiet on that. ‘And the second and third?’
‘She always went to Moscow at New Year, she told me about it, I said it was her choice.’
‘More than you did for me.’
‘I was too besotted by you, it wasn’t healthy.’
‘You saying this – you never cease to amaze me.’
‘I always got the impression that you didn’t see me as your future. You weren’t very faithful.’
She opened and closed the mouth. Then opened it again. ‘I was looking for other things, there were so many offers, so many chances, you made it too easy as well. I couldn’t see where we were going and we were having those fights.’ She paused a few moments. ‘You still love me … don’t you?’
‘Yes. Always will.’
‘But you’ll stay with her.’
‘For now … yes.’
‘Would you still make love to me?’
‘There’s nothing I want more at this moment, having touched you again.’
‘It’s not impossible.’
‘Yes it is. You have him. Plus I’m not losing two girls. To lose one was bad enough, it was a nightmare.’
She sighed, but not over his reticence.
Paul Jacobson was making last minute arrangements about communication with his backers during the cruise. He’d established that he’d make contact at certain points along the way.
Natalia Kurbatova was Paul’s official interpreter and general business adviser in Russia and a personable woman she was too. For her part, she thought she might be onto something good here. The man was obviously a go-getter and nice to boot. She felt she’d really like him to succeed but equally, she knew there’d be considerable problems arranged for him before long. She wondered if he was married. He’d need a business partner and not the one he’d currently hooked up with – that man would bleed him dry but he couldn’t say that to Paul – that was exceeding her brief, wasn’t it?
On the other hand, there was Dmitri Storchaus. Now, if she could somehow bring those two together, their mutual interests might both be served and she felt better about Paul being under his influence than Shaidullin’s.
Viktor Igorovich had taken up an American offer from late May for a period of three months, flying into Chicago and from there to Des Moines.
Hugh saw him off at home as he wished to spend his last moments at the airport with family. They sipped on coffee, spoke of this and that and promised to email one another. Hugh favoured emails for communication, on the grounds that you could collect your thoughts better and edit out the unnecessary. Viktor, on the other hand, and in common with most Russians, preferred the phone, the spoken voice, the assurance that speaking with someone gave conversation was a necessary part of a relationship to him, he’d phone from time to time.
It didn’t take long to become part of the academic community at Columbus, there being a genuine desire to know as much as possible about what life was really like behind the iron curtain. According to his email, he was paraded about like an exhibit, addressing a number of mature aged gatherings, including correspondence students. On the first Thursday, he’d answered a final question on Moscow at just such a gathering and was surprised the questioner remained behind afterwards.
He’d heard about ‘stay after school’ but this was a woman in her late 30s.
They’d had the post-mortem over Anya, he’d told everything which had been done and said and she even felt some sympathy. However, there was another issue he brought up.
‘What’s the feeling now of the authorities to one of their operatives being so close to a foreigner? Does it compromise you in their eyes? What’s their view on me? Did Moscow and Georges alter that?’
She looked across at him. ‘It helps that you’ve already signed on as a foreign legionnaire but they’re still going to be highly suspicious – eyes are certainly on you, Bebe, yes It probably affects my promotion but as I don’t want promotion anyway – I like the field work – it doesn’t mean a lot to me, I think I mentioned this to you.
The service is both pragmatic and summary – while it thinks you’re of use, it tolerates you and don’t expect more than that – security is one of the most patriotic sections of society. If and when it considers your usefulness has come to an end, you’ll be sent home and that splits us because they won’t allow me just to emigrate with you, not even if we’re married.
If we marry and you stay here, that’s another matter, you have rights then and you can look at the question of citizenship, if you wanted.’
‘It would be what we both wanted.’
‘Yes, of course. So, not all bad, not all good. My period’s started too.’
‘Do you fear women’s periods? We’ve never made love during one.’
‘Depends on the woman – in your case, I don’t know. Should I?’
‘Have you ever made love to a woman during it?’
‘With my first wife. Just the once.’
‘How did it feel? I don’t mean just physically.’
‘It was strange. I wasn’t sure about all that coming down and surrounding my thing, coming over me outside her, you know. She had a heavy flow too. For her it was quite sensual, she was … heightened by it. I had no moral issues, it was just that it felt not so good.’
‘You could go in the other way.’
‘Seems a bit artificial to me, doing it just to prove a point. If you want, then as usual, I will.’
‘I don’t need you to – I was just wondering. You’re not comfortable and I don’t want that.’
Viktor had heard some things on the grapevine but as he was in America and as he was fully occupied just now, it took him some days to get to it.
He knew how to contact Ludmilla Valerievna from America, it was no big deal in the year 2000, so he did just that. ‘My concern,’ he said, after all the preliminaries had been done, ‘is that Mr. Jensen comes back alive from this venture.’
‘Yours and mine, Viktor Igorovich, yours and mine. It’s to our advantage to avail ourselves of this man’s assistance at this time, I shan’t pretend this is going to be risk free but I do believe that with the two of them working together – and I do think they will – their chances are multiplied.’
‘This is not his natural work, LudValerievna. This requires training he does not have.’
‘I appreciate your concern and it’s a good friend he has in you but I assure you we’re watching like hawks, I shall be on call the whole of the time.’
‘May I ask you a question, LudValerievna?’
‘Do you think that this … collaboration … will bring them closer together? So close that they become man and wife?’
‘That’s peering into a crystal ball, Viktor Igorovich – they’re much closer at this moment than anyone actually thinks.’
‘That’s as I feared.’
‘I’ve seen the file.’
‘Ah. May I ask how?’ Viktor mentioned a name. ‘Ah,’ she repeated. ‘I don’t think that that issue is relevant any more, seriously. They’ve both talked it out and I’ve talked with her, as part of a free-ranging discussion regarding her future.’
‘You showed her the lie of the land?’
‘Yes but not in the way you think – there was no iron fist in the velvet glove. There was just a velvet glove. I don’t feel that you’ll have anything to fear, not on this trip at least, from that direction. They might have trouble from a couple of the guests but Ksenia is well aware of the danger to both of them and will brief Hugh when they get on board.’
‘Thanks for your time, LudValerievna.’
‘Pleasure. Call me if something comes up. I’ll do the same for you.’
Viktor heard the click at the other end, he looked at the receiver and carefully replaced it, stroked his chin and thought things through. He had a client in five minutes.
Natalya Kurbatova met Paul Jacobsen at the station, they went in the car she’d hired for the purpose and were soon in the centre of town. She took him to a Gruzin restaurant and asked if he wanted the set menu or a la carte.
He asked what she recommended and she answered, quite honestly, ‘It depends which day. If you would like to try domestic Russian cuisine, then he set menu is for you. If you want international – normal food for you, then the a la carte is the way.’
‘Oh, I want the domestic specialities, naturally. Do you have preferences re the wine or will you leave that to me?’
‘I’ll leave it to you but a martini would be nice to start. Sorry to be so forward. They do a nice one here.’
‘Not a problem. It’s always best to know without beating around the bush.’
‘Around the bush. Not coming to the point. It’s best to come to the point.’
‘Ah.’ She took him in in more detail now. He certainly wasn’t fat but he equally wasn’t undernourished. She’d found businessmen of his type either fit as fiddles or running to seed – he, she thought, tried to keep in shape but probably couldn’t spare all that much time, he had an air of busy-ness about him, he had kind eyes, maybe too kind for someone in this game.
He toasted their success and said he sure appreciated her doing this, which was a bit unnecessary, as he was paying her. Gazing across, he saw a very beautiful woman in her thirties, maybe 5′ 5”, with big hair and a solid enough body, curving and protruding in all the right places. He liked her accent when she spoke English.
‘Right, Natalya, what say you fill me in on what’s going down on this trip, fill me in on the opposition, take your time. I need to know what we’re up against.’
She pulled out her notes from her satchel and began.
Saturday the 7th arrived and they agreed to meet at Ryechnoi Port – no need to pick her up – she’d be running around and there were people to see and discuss it all with. Sounded reasonable. He was travelling fairly lightly – just his green wheelie case and he’d organized a lift with his neighbour.
Then, there she was – very sporty in her light pink blouse, light blue jeans and white trainers, matching sportsbag, hair free, open neck and with a little bauble halter chain – she looked so compact.
As he approached, her face broke into a smile.
Once through the registration and having deposited their things in their cabin, they grabbed a good table in the bar and Hugh went over to order.
‘No orders until the ship sails, I’m afraid, sir.’
Hugh glanced at her name, Jane, and asked if they might have a couple of cokes and some nuts and they’d settle when the ship sailed. She acquiesced and he called across to Ksusha, ‘You want coke and nuts?’
‘Just the coke.’
Seated at the table, he toasted their trip.
Natalya Kurbatova guided her charge to the bar and he was gratified to see a fellow foreigner, came over immediately, introduced himself and acknowledged Hugh’s girl. The two ladies acknowledged one another, it was all very chummy and as they sat down, Hugh whispered in Ksusha’s ear, ‘You want to sit with them or do you want to get out of here?’
‘It’s fine,’ she replied, ‘for now, of course.’
Paul Jacobson went up to the bar, now open for orders and called to Hugh, ‘What’s your poison?’
Hugh hadn’t heard talk like that for years and grinned. ‘Whisky.’
‘You really are an American, aren’t you? Yep, whisky sour and for Ksusha?’
‘Cognac also,’ Natalia answered his questioning glance.
‘So what do you do, Hugh?’ he asked when he’d finally brought the drinks and nibbles across.
‘I’m at the university,’ he chose to reply. ‘And you?’
‘I’m in the supermarket business – we’re setting up in the Volga region – this trip’s a little teaser for us, well, for me, I suppose. Ever been in business?’
‘I was in screen printing for awhile.’ Ksusha glanced across at him.
‘Yeah, what happened?’ asked Jacobsen.
‘I went overseas.’
At this moment, Dima Storchaus and wife Anastasia Sergeyevna waltzed in, caught sight of Ksenia and Hugh and did a double take. The ladies shook hands and Dima allowed himself a big hug with Ksusha.
She whispered something to him in Russian and he reddened, turned to Hugh and uttered an apology. Hugh invited them to join the table. They accepted but when Hugh went up for a round, Dima insisted on paying for the next drinks.
They went up to the bar together and, in Russian, Dima asked how the hell he came to be on a boat trip with Ksusha. ‘She asked me,’ Hugh replied and Dima clapped him on the back. Things were looking up.
Others were now pouring into the bar in twos and threes, sometimes a larger party, and Ksenia was beginning to feel a bit crowded. With abject apologies, Hugh excused them both, to her intense relief, and they departed, knowing glances being exchanged between Storchaus and Jacobson, who’d already hit it off.
Outside, she fairly sprinted up the steps to the roof deck and let the river breeze flow through her golden hair, cavorting round and round like a child, grabbing Hugh’s hands and spinning him round too. Then she pulled him towards her and kissed him deeply. ‘Hugh, I’m sorry, it was too much in there.’
‘What are you apologizing for? I felt the same.’
She needed to go below for a little while – would he wait for her here? Of course. Paul came out on deck with his wife and walked across. ‘Where on earth did you find her?’ he asked. ‘Are they all like that?’
‘No, this one’s unique but there are some mighty good ones, all the same.’
Suddenly, Ksusha’s head appeared from the stairwell and all the joy had been wiped off her face. Hugh quickly made his apologies and went below.
She didn’t reply but took him to their cabin, unlocked it and he gasped. Their bags had been turned over – all the contents spread over table, floor and in the bathroom.
‘Haven’t yet checked,’ said Ksenia. ‘I’ll do that while you go for the Purser.’ He was already out of the door.
The Purser arrived, closed the door behind him when he saw the mess and asked the same question as Hugh.
‘No,’ she replied. ‘Nothing missing. Mr. Jensen hasn’t had a chance to check his yet.’
‘How secure are your locks?’ asked Hugh.
‘If you mean has this happened before – never. I think the locks are fairly secure – not to a professional, of course.’ Making all the right noises, the Purser took his leave. Of course they’d keep mum about it for now, at his request and they’d report in detail later. He promised to change the lock immediately – there was a ship’s handyman on board.
The moment the door closed, Hugh asked, ‘Was that true – that nothing was missing?’
‘You’re learning about me, aren’t you, babe?’ she commented. ‘My pistol’s gone and one box of rounds.’
‘Planned to murder me in my sleep, did you?’
They started the cleanup in the cabin – he wasn’t missing anything he’d noticed, all his money had been on him in the bar. ‘I think we have to put it out of mind. Let’s not dwell.’
‘You’re telling me?’
‘It’s about time for lunch, you hungry?’
‘Ah, I see what you mean, give me a few minutes.’
They were allocated places at the upper deck restaurant, seated with Vitaly Kuzmin, Valentina Alexandrova, young Pavel, little Ksenia, Anastasia Borisovna [the children’s grandmother] and a middle aged couple from Moscow named Zhukov – they had to have been the butt of endless jokes over that – it must have driven them mad.
Hugh was glad in a way that there were no foreigners at the table – he liked all Russian company and being the only foreigner – that suited him just fine. Taking in his dinner companions over the soup and salad, he noted the reticence of Kuzmin and how the man watched everything closely, how he looked at Ksusha, not in a leering way but as a specimen if that were possible.
The man was vaguely unsettling and it was the first thing Ksusha commented on back in their cabin after they’d eaten.
A knock on the door indicated the arrival of the handyman and his offsider – they took the best part of fifteen minutes. After the job had been finished and they’d gone, he asked, ‘Ksusha, are we on the same side – officially, I mean?’
‘You expect me to comment?’
‘No,’ he sighed.
‘Good.’ She lay back on the bed. ‘But I’m going to comment anyway.’ She rolled over to face him and rested her chin in her hands. ‘I’m not against you on this trip, quite the opposite. I didn’t do the trashing of the cabin –’
‘I never suggested –’
‘- although I’m quite capable of something like that. I lost my pistol, which I always take with me wherever I go.’
‘How do you get away with it?’
‘You keep forgetting who I am.’
Geneviève had already lent Natalie to the British but thought it best that Marc also attend the Prague conference, not so much to gather what was going on – they knew that – but to see who was talking to whom.
The conference, on the theme of Emerging Microwave Technologies – a Second Look, was packed and delegates were within a heavy security cordon, peripheral interested parties such as security forces kept at a distance. It hardly mattered as most knew the lie of the land anyway and all were there to check out their opposite numbers and any new talent on the block.
The trouble with remaining obscure and propping up the bar was that every other interested party had the same idea and Marc was bemused to find one of the Russians on his list observing him.
Marc tugged at an imaginary forelock and the man slipped away.
It was all very well for Ksusha to bounce out of bed next morning and sprint up to the upper deck for her aerobics class but he chose instead to attend the chamber music at the front of the boat.
The news had also filtered through, even to the boat, that Tony Blair’s Labour Party had won again – they were calling it the ‘quiet landslide’ and so it was five more years of Labour, so it seemed.
In the red carpeted room, with windows overlooking the bow and the river panorama ahead, perched on a foldable chair near the back where practically everyone else was also trying to sit, leaving the majority of the regular seats at the front and sides empty, he took in the company.
Valentina Alexandrova was there with her children, there were other mothers, surprisingly he spotted Jane the barmaid, presumably in her free time but then he realized the true situation, as she was sitting beside Paul Jacobson, inclining her head at intervals to drink in his pearls of wisdom.
Over to the left, if he craned his neck, he could see Nastya Storchaus. There was no sign of Kuzmin, nor Jacobson’s guide. The rest he didn’t recognize. He himself was seated beside an ageing, immaculately dressed bigwig, maybe in his late 50s.
Hugh addressed the man in Russian in a break between movements. Initially hesitant, his neighbour then introduced himself as Sergei Ivanovich Deputatov, and that was all they had time for.
Towards the end of the performance, Ksusha poked her head in, saw his company and gesticulated for him to leave.
‘Do you know who that man was you were sitting with?’
‘You do know what he is, don’t you?’ she cried.
‘Of course. He’s the one trying to kill me.’
‘Come to the bar with me.’
He dutifully followed and bought the drinks. ‘Hugh, does he know your name?’
‘Yes. He was reading me, I was reading him.’
‘Give me thirty minutes now and I’ll be ready for dinner, all right?’
He nodded. ‘I’ll prop up the bar here. Might be instructive.’
With the afternoon drawing to a close and hunger beginning to gnaw, many people started drifting into the bar and Hugh, always a keen observer of both people and trifles, was well placed to take in most of the action. The biggest shock was the appearance of the Odd Couple, with baby in bassinet, and they immediately recognized him too – at least she did.
All those years and they’d never actually met. Timur Iskanderovich Shaidullin and wife Ekaterina Mikhailevna – so he’d finally learned their names – plus baby Guzel’. They had a thousand things to chat about – how Shadzhara had changed, their family situation, their move to Nizhny Novgorod and so on – all in Russian of course.
Dima came in with his wife and noted Hugh was not with Ksusha but with the Odd Couple. Vitaly Kuzmin had taken Hugh’s cue and had established himself in one corner, drink in hand, observing all and sundry – he acknowledged Hugh’s glance now.
Deputatov came in and immediately Dima turned away. Then, at a convenient moment when Deputatov had gone up to the bar, Dima took his wife’s arm and slipped out of the room.
This was too much for Hugh, who watched Deputatov for a minute, then excused himself and went looking for Dima and wife. He found them on the second deck, looking over the railing at the river.