1-14: Death on the Volga

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I

Hugh approached Dima and wife.

‘Izvinitye – you know this Deputatov well?’

Dima had a curious look in his eyes and asked if Hugh also knew him. Hugh said yes – the guy was his old enemy and had tried to kill him – was probably still trying. Dima’s eyebrows went up and he asked, ‘Have you spoken to this man?’

‘I sat with him and we spoke at the chamber music.’

Dima was perplexed. ‘Listen, my friend, that man has reason to bear us both ill will. Many of his current troubles are our doing. Keep your distance and don’t get into anything with him. I know what I’m talking about.’

‘Right, right,’ agreed Hugh and left them to it. He could have gone back to the bar but he preferred to do a circumnavigation of the deck.

Going up the starboard side, he went round the bow but stopped short of the port railing, hearing intense voices on the deck below and realizing he was slightly aft of and above the kitchen. He had to admit to being curious what the kitchen maids looked like.

The purser was chatting to one of the kitchen staff, a woman of maybe … well … late 20s really … and beside them was the boat’s MC. Something had obviously got into them because they were raising their voices, the MC was saying ‘shhh’ all the time, they’d quieten down and then it would rise again.

He could see them through a gap in the deck, he scrutinized the kitchen girl most because she was quite dishevelled – her hair was hanging down in strands, as if she hadn’t washed it for a week and he couldn’t help thinking that if she were preparing their food – uggh.

She put one hand up to push the hair back and her fingernails were uneven and he couldn’t tell but they even looked a bit dirty. Her legs had sores over the lower half and one or two on the calf but she dressed modestly, in a utilitarian working frock. She was wearing plimsolls in which the left toe had gone through the canvas.

What was upsetting was that she had the makings of prettiness. Her face was classic slav, the way she held herself was also typical and her body was shapely. It was as if they’d taken a pretty girl and given her to a stylist, with orders to uglify her as far as humanly possible. She was smoking like a chimney.

He completed his circumnavigation and returned to the bar, ordering two drinks. A voice to his left, in Russian, employing a fair bit of the vernacular which he happened to have a smattering of himself, addressed him. ‘You’re remarkably lucky, Druk.’

‘U myenya yest krisha,’ he replied and Deputatov noted he was well-versed, our Gospodin Jensen. The concept of a protective roof or umbrella was indeed the necessity which had kept him alive so far.

‘Do you usually marry your krisha?’

‘You’re well informed too,’ Hugh replied. ‘We’re not married yet.’

‘You insulted my wife – three times.’

‘’And have been under threat of death ever since. I never had the chance to apologize.’

‘Apologize?’

‘Da, I’d like to apologize to her personally but as she did not come on the cruise with you, that’s not possible. I’d like you to convey my apologies to her.’

‘You think it’s that simple, that your words make it all right?’

‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I’m apologizing, sincerely and wish it had never happened, as people have died over it.’

‘You understand your actions, do you?’

‘Da.’

‘Well, well, I’ll inform her. Do you have any influence over your partner?’

‘Some, not on key matters. She’s a dangerous woman.’

How it would have continued no one knew as Ksenia came around the bow at that moment, took in the scene and clearly intended that he follow her. What passed for a smile played on Deputatov’s lips as he murmured, ‘The mistress has called.’

Now that was red rag to a bull for a Russian and the redness in Hugh’s cheeks showed the man how much of their culture he’d imbibed – a foreigner would not have understood the unforgivable insult in such words. Deputatov, unfazed, added, ‘Uzhe, ti na polovina Russki.’ You’re half Russian already.

‘Ti?’

‘Vi.’ Then, after a near interminable time, ‘Sorry.’

‘Davaitye na ti.’ Let it be so. He took his leave and went back to the cabin.

.o0o.

‘You can stop the lecture already, Ksusha, before you begin. He was testing me out and so was I testing him.’

He proceeded to give it in minute detail, the precise Russian used, quite critical in this matter, with her asking questions at certain points.

‘Actually, Hugh, I still say you shouldn’t have but you might have got a result there – the apology was amazing. What made you think of that?’

‘These things just enter the head and if not useful, go out again, the useful ones stay. This one seemed useful. He also wanted to know my level of immersion in the culture.’

‘And your confidence – not badly done. But if he’d dropped into deep jargon, you’d have been lost and made to look a fool, he could insult you easily and you’d never have known. He still might have and you didn’t pick up on it – a particle here, an inflexion there – you don’t know Russian to that extent. At least, you know it well but not in games with a dangerous native who has a brain and wishes you ill.’

‘I told him you were dangerous.’

‘Did you now? And if he had insulted you and you’d picked up on it, how would you have reacted?’’

‘I’d have said, ‘A chom bazar? Poshall von.’

She almost choked. ‘You’d have said that to Sergei Deputatov? Demanded what the hell he was saying and then told him to fuck off? You really do like living dangerously, don’t you?’

‘Who’s my fiancee?’

She grinned. ‘Fiancee eh? Ladno, ladno, Cool it though, lover boy. Please? For your safety and mine?’

‘Your wish is my command.’

‘Your mistress calls, eh?’ He looked at her evenly.

There was still some time to go to the meal and as there was no entertainment upstairs, they’d have to make their own. She looked down at the bunk. ‘Very narrow.’

‘Possible. It’s been done before.’

.o0o.

Sergei Deputatov had four people in his own cabin, currently giving them their final instructions. They understood, the wheels were now in motion and they departed.

Deputatov reflected on that scene earlier. Casual apology – the man thinks a casual apology is all that’s required. Amateur.

There was a tap on the door, he beckoned her to enter, well aware who it was. She looked a mess but he put that down to her kitchen work, he pulled out a roll of notes, peeled off the required number and slapped them down on the table.

She began to disrobe.

II

Ksenia and Hugh went into the bar for pre-meal drinks, he did the introductions to the Odd Couple and noted the look of mirth on both Ksenia’s and Timur’s faces. However, they wouldn’t offer a word of explanation. The wife was as much in the dark, although both Hugh and she took a wild guess.

Jane came on duty with a tub of ice cream for the molochniye cocktails, taking over from the other girl, Elena Usmanova.

Sveta Levina came in, took the microphone and announced the evening’s programme, the voice booming through the rest of the boat, Sergei Deputatov went up to the bar for milk cocktails for Kuzmin and himself and then the signal went for dinner.

As people got up to go, Hugh saw, through the flurry of legs and bodies, something very wrong – Kuzmin and Deputatov were still seated, almost comically leaning on one another. Deputatov then fell face forward on the floor.

The people who always scream screamed, the ship’s crew came from everywhere and Svetlana Dmitrievna asked everyone, microphone now switched off, to clear the room quickly and that was the last they ever saw of Kuzmin and Deputatov.

.o0o.

There was no announcement at dinner but it was certainly the talking point on every table. Ksusha had nothing to say, Hugh was listening to Valentina Vitalyevna on the topic and a young man she knew came over and asked if he could join their table – the restaurant below was overflowing and as he actually occupied an upper deck cabin, technically the man was allowed to eat here, no one objected.

He introduced himself as Viktor Sergeyevich Bukovsky.

The dynamics of their table now changed, with Ksusha and Hugh at one end, the young man, Valentina and children in the middle and the Zhukovs at the other end.

.o0o.

After the last cup of tea had been drunk, they all drifted away from the dining room back to their cabins.

Ksenia said she was going to find Dima to talk about things and interestingly, Dima was also looking for her. It was a good forty minutes, twenty minutes before the evening entertainment programme was due to begin, before she came back to the cabin and flopped down on the bed, putting her hands behind her head.

.o0o.

‘Curious, Hugh.’

‘Many curious things, girl. What did you find out that you can tell me about?’

‘The woman Alexandrova is Militsia, investigative branch, we work with her. Bukovsky is her dogsbody, sniffing here and there, Dima found out that those other two are definitely dead, both now in cold storage, announcement in the theatre later.’

‘And Ksusha and Timur know each other.’

‘Ah yes – he was the second lover, now married. You’ve probably woken up to that.’

‘I have.’

‘Hugh, I never said I was a saint, it’s old history, I told you about both, all of it, and besides, I wasn’t married, so what’s the fuss?’

‘Did I make a fuss?’

She rolled through 90 degrees on the bed towards him, planted a kiss on his cheek and he felt he had to develop some sort of defence against this unfair tactic.

‘So, anything else come to light?’ he asked.

III

Louise needed to visit Russia again to organize her semester in the French department and this was the time when these particular appointments were organized at the university. One thing she was sure of was that she wasn’t coming alone this visit.

Hugo had been sweet and everyone else had been pleasant but she needed a French speaker to converse with and who better than her best friend Geneviève. Ms Lavacquerie had a high flying role in Paris with many young women under her but June saw the pace drastically drop off as the criminal fraternity seemed to head off on ‘vacances’.

Ms Bonnet had employed all the standard techniques, imploring Genie, weeping uncontrollably and the like until Geneviève had acquiesced – just one week, no longer, all right?

‘Merci, merci, my very best friend – you’ll love it, it’s fascinating, it’s an anachronism.’

‘You forget that I have been there many times. You make the arrangements, Louise,’ replied Geneviève, as she put down her coffee cup and left for work, some matter Nicolette insisted needed to be discussed.

IV

Hugh and Ksenia lay on the one bunk, a tight fit, he behind her, arms around her and she was musing.

‘There’s the question, of course, of exactly how Deputatov and Kuzmin died,’ she reflected. ‘Seems it was the ice cream – the Jane girl removed it straight after they’d taken their cocktails – I was watching.’

‘Anyone else have a cocktail?’

‘No one.’ She was emphatic.

‘How could they be sure that both would have cocktails?’

‘Deputatov enquired at the bar and the Jane girl paged the kitchen. I didn’t catch it all because of the noise in the bar but I’m sure the name was mentioned.’

‘So, there’s a kitchen connection with this thing.’

‘I’d say definitely.’

‘What’s your reading of it?’

‘It’s a bit disturbing, my reading of it,’ she said.

‘Go on.’

‘Who stood to gain or who had a motive in bumping them off?’

‘Go on.’

‘No – you tell me. Think it through.’

Hugh considered for a moment. ‘You, Dima and even me.’

‘Precisely. So expect some intense questioning from Alexandrova and Co in the not too distant future.’

‘Why the interest of the Militsia? Those two seem more a security concern to me.’

‘Again – think it through.’

‘Tip off?’

‘Hit the nail on the head again. And who would do such a thing?’

‘Someone who wants to sink us and is not too particular about knocking someone else off to achieve it?’

‘You’re doing well. To add to that, maybe they were killing two birds with one stone. I mean not only laying the blame on us, but those two needed to be bumped off anyway – something they were up to, perhaps. Ludmilla Valerievna did a number on Seymour some time back.’

‘You’re security – any leads?’

‘That’s one which will need to be thought through.’

‘Will your position in security help?’

‘Oh, undoubtedly, but Dima’s position won’t. And don’t forget you’re also, technically, security.’

Hugh smiled. ‘They took my building away.’

‘Doesn’t matter – you’re on the register.’

There was silence for some time, as they both thought things through.

Hugh broke the silence. ‘Why would they tip off the Militsia against us when nothing could stick – security would simply set the record straight and we’d be off the hook.’

‘Yes, it had crossed my mind too.’

‘And?’

‘In our game,’ she explained quietly, ‘everyone is double-crossing everyone and it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. The only thing you can do is watch your back, watch everyone else, think it out and be ready to act.’

‘And trust nobody?’

‘Nobody at all – not even your own girl.’

‘That’s your game, not mine. You know what I think? I think you’d never bump me off without taking yourself out as well. You’d do it, you’d kill me, but you’d go too.’

‘What an extraordinary thig to say. It might have been once – no more, I told LudValerievna that. Let’s go up to the theatre.’

V

In Shadzhara, Anya had come down with the flu. Being on her own for once, everyone else at work and her partner in another country, it should have been idyllic – a chance for recuperation from jealousy – the bane of her existence.

Every day, he was on the mobile – where was she, who was she with and the like.

She needed to go to Aptyeka and there was a sale at the new boutique in Baumana but she generally couldn’t muster the energy to do the long, gruelling preparation she’d need and anyway, her colour was awful.

The mobile began the inane tune she’d taken a fancy to – damn, she’d forgotten to switch it off. Let it ring – she needed another few days. She groaned when the home phone began. They never let up, did they? They never, ever let up on her.

The mobile started again. Pushing the bedclothes aside, she grabbed at the phone and never even looked to see the incoming number. ‘Da? Da? Da?’

She collapsed back on the bed. ‘Da. No, I’m alone. Yes, in bed. I have a cold. Yes, I want to be there with you too. Yes, really. No, he’s not coming round later.’

On and on and on.

She wanted to be on that cruise – now how could she join the cruise boat to St Petersburg? She was so bored that she decided, on the spur of the moment, to go in to work.

VI

Alexandrova and Co, now in uniform, had switched to interviewing people one by one in her own cabin. The theatre itself was packed to the rafters and everyone was skewed round talking to everyone behind them – the noise level was unbearable.

Alexandrova was only interviewing at this point but Ksenia was pretty sure that, if they hadn’t already searched cabins, it would soon start. She tested it out by attempting to leave and go downstairs, to be politely shooed back by the ship’s crew. Who, she wondered, was doing the searching? Also, where was her gun? Also, why had the chosen method been poisoning and not a gunshot? Maybe the gunshot was coming later – in the middle of the night?

Alexandrova and Co had the girl Lena with them at this moment in her cabin. ‘And you say that Evgeniya Romanievna called down for ice cream for Mr. Deputatov and it was then sent up. When the call came to the kitchen, was it on a handset or could the whole room hear it?’

‘Handset.’

‘Who took the call?’

‘Chef Povar.’

‘Does he usually take the call?’

‘She.’

‘Name?’

‘Natalia Djavdyetievna Ibragimova. No, she doesn’t. It’s usually Chulpan or Ira.’

‘Full names?’

‘Chulpan Rashatievna Shaihullislamova and Irina Vladimirievna Petrova – they’re the senior kitchen staff. Natalia Djavdyetievna just happened to be walking past, that’s all.’

‘If she’d taken a call about ice cream, would she normally give the phone to someone else?’

‘She wouldn’t normally take the call.’

There was an interruption, as one of the ship’s crew came in with a message. Valentina listened intently, then turned and dismissed the girl: ‘Thank you, Elena Renatyevna, that’s all for now.’

‘What is it?’ asked Bukovsky.

‘Gun just found – Cabin 304.’

‘The Englishman and the blondinka?’

‘Da – so let’s have them in next.’

Hugh and Ksenia were brought down, they filed in and were given a chair each – the young man propped by the window. The gun was sitting on the table in front of Ksusha and her eyes had been on it from the moment she’d entered the room.

‘Recognize it?’ asked Valentina Vitalyevna.

‘Naturally,’ replied Ksusha, surprising her interrogator, ‘it’s mine.’

‘Oh is it just and why would you have such a thing on this boat?’

Ksusha rummaged in her handbag and slapped her credentials on the table. Alexandrova picked the document up, turned it over and handed it back. ‘All right, so how about you tell me just what you’re doing here, which would necessitate you having a gun?’

For the first time Ksusha was a little taken aback. ‘I just showed you.’

‘Yes, you’re security all right but why the gun? You’re not on a mission … are you?’

‘That’s classified.’

The other sighed a deep sigh. ‘We have to go through all that, do we? All right, Ksenia Vladimirovna, that’s all for now until we’ve checked out your bona fides for this trip.’

Ksenia was reluctant to leave.

‘Well?’

‘My gun?’

‘Yes, the moment you’re cleared it will be returned to you. Anything more for now?’

‘No.’ She remained where she was.

What? What, Ksenia Vladimirovna?’

‘Hugh needs an intepreter.’

‘Will you please stop holding his hand everywhere you go? He speaks perfectly adequate Russian for these questions and if he’s stuck, we’ll send for you. I also speak English.’ She said the last one in English.

Ksenia turned to Hugh, smiled, then departed.

‘Now Mr. Jensen, suppose you tell me the story of how you came to know this young lady.’

‘It would take a book.’

‘We have all the time in the world – I’m listening. When your Russian falters, I can help you in English, as I indicated.’

VII

‘Mademoiselle, are you crazy? You know the rule about Head of Section.’

‘Is that the urgent topic you had for me, Nikki?’

‘Non but it’s more important. What are you thinking of – going to Russia?’

‘It draws them out, Nikki, gives them too good a target, exposes the courier, exposes the heads and I need to go for personal reasons too.’

‘To confront your demons?’

‘Only you, Carly and PR know of that. Let’s leave it unsaid. Look, I understand your concern but I won’t be going into this unmonitored, we’ll have everyone on call, the Russian end is primed too. They have a little situation on their hands just now but they’ll deploy resources by the time we fly.’

‘Do you want me there?’

‘I want but you know you’ll have to be section chief in my absence.’

‘And Marc?’

‘He’ll be with me – any problems with that?’

‘Non, non.’

But she’d said it just a little too quickly.

VIII

Hugh started from the beginning in as good a Russian as he could muster and left nothing out. Towards the end, the ship’s officer came in again and whispered something to her. She replied.

.o0o.

Three minutes later, Ksenia returned, the gun was returned to her and they were both allowed to leave. Back in their cabin again, Hugh quizzed her about it and she shrugged. ‘I’m as much in the dark as you are.’

‘What do you mean? You have your gun back.’

‘Oh Hugh, don’t you realize – I’m not on any mission – there’s no call for me to have that gun here.’

‘So why was it returned?’

‘Good question. Ludmilla Valerievna must have backed up my story or else they’re giving me enough rope to hang myself.’

‘So why the gun in the first place?’

‘I was wondering when you were going to ask that – I’m on a mission all right but for Ronald Seymour.’

‘What!’ So Anya had been right, after all.

‘Yep, I was assigned to guard Kuzmin.’

‘Why?’

‘Seymour had reason to believe Kuzmin was going to be bumped off.’

‘You did a good job protecting him,’ he grinned unnecessarily. ‘And Deputatov?’

‘I know nothing of his demise – State problems, I think. That’s Uncle Dima’s field.’

‘Yes but the killings were a two-in-one job.’

‘Well yes – they seem that way but we don’t know everything yet, do we?’

‘Why was your gun first stolen, then returned?’

‘Perhaps the one who took it to Valentina Vitalyevna knows more than he’s telling, perhaps it was her and she wanted to test the connection with our HQ.’

‘Why don’t you front her about it, explain all, take her into your confidence? It might get you inside the investigation.’

‘You never cease to surprise me, Hugh. That’s exactly what I’d planned to do.’

IX

Anya went back to work and in the normal run of reservations, noticed three names which caused her to call Ludmilla Petrova.

‘It might be nothing but it seemed a bit unusual to me.’

‘Thanks for that, Anya.’

‘That’s not all. They’re flying with two other French people – Marc, whom we know and a girl called Louise.’

Ludmilla chuckled at the other end. ‘Da, Anya, we know about that and thanks.’

‘Do you also know that the girl who tried to kill Hugh in London has a ticket reserved for Shadzhara? And then on to Samara?’

‘No indeed. Could you send me the details?’

‘Doing that … now.’

‘Thanks.’

X

Valentina Alexandrova was not surprised to see Ksenia and offered her a seat. She brought out a bottle of good cognac and two glasses.

It was 23:17.

She opened with, ‘Didn’t do a very good job with Kuzmin, did you?’

Ksusha didn’t bat an eyelid. ‘No.’

‘You have a specific suspect in mind … Ksenia?’

‘Three of them – a girl working in the kitchen, Elena Renatyevna Usmanova, the barmaid, Evgeniya Romanievna Kuznyetsova and Mikhail Sergeivich Kubashov, who did the room checks.’

‘Three of the ship’s crew did the room checks.’

‘Alone or together?’

‘Go on.’

‘My gun was stolen soon after we boarded.’

‘Kubashov, you think?’

‘Or a semi-professional – the locks aren’t too difficult.’

‘Were you instructed to kill?’

‘My brief was to protect – I was free to act at my own discretion on that.’

‘Any thoughts on the whole thing?’

‘Maybe I was prevented from getting in the way of the real plan.’

‘Which was?’

‘To knock off both together, as actually happened.’

‘So they knew of your mission, someone gave them the lowdown. Someone in security?’

‘No, I was working for Seymour.’

‘Ronald Seymour?’

‘Yes.’

‘So your gun –’

‘That’s right.’

‘You’re being quite honest.

XI

Anya called Ludmilla again.

‘Sorry to trouble you, Ludmilla Valerievna but two other pieces of information might interest you.’

‘Da?’

‘Sergei Safin is booked on the same flight as Ms Djamato and also has an onwards reservation for Samara.’

‘Thanks, Anya.’

‘There’s something else.’

‘Da?’

‘Ksenia is flying back from Samara early next week but there is no record of her flying there in the first place.’

Ludmilla gave a low whistle. ‘That’s invaluable, Anya. And thank you once again.’

XII

Valentina breathed out slowly. ‘Can’t say you haven’t been helpful, Ksenia – I can tell you that the rest checks out as well. Would you help us or is that not done in security? I have a feeling three heads will be better than two on this.’

‘If you don’t think I’d compromise your investigation in any way.’

‘I think we’ll need your input before long – what do you see as the next move?’

‘Oh there’ll be something soon, I’m sure of it.’

‘So am I – probably might have been tonight if your gun hadn’t come back to you.’

‘May I ask if anything significant was found in the room checks?’

‘A great deal of money was found in Natalia Kurbatova’s cabin and left untouched, where she thinks it’s hidden.’

‘Services rendered to Paul Jacobson?’

‘Not that amount.’

‘Fool to bring it on the boat unless –’

‘Exactly, unless she was the paymaster.’

‘Little point putting it into the bank accounts of three soon to be dead people.’

‘We’re thinking along the same lines.’

‘Jane Kuznyetsova?’

‘Touching up rich foreigners, nothing more. She knew nothing about the ice cream, I’m sure.’

‘So, everyone’s identified then?’

‘I didn’t say that. You see, it took three to do the job – one to prepare the ice cream, one to bring it upstairs and one to take it to Kuzmin. I’ve reason to think Usmanova was the first, Kubashov was the second – and the third, as we know – Deputatov himself.’

‘He knew something of Kuzmin’s purpose?’

‘What purpose?’

Ksusha was silent. Valentina Vitalyevna continued. ‘You can’t answer that because it implicates your benefactor, doesn’t it? And also shows you had the same target that he did.’

Ksusha remained silent.

Valentina Alexandrova was relentless, that was her speciality.

‘Same target as Kuzmin, Ksenia, except that you had a second commission from Ludmilla Valerievna Petrova, didn’t you?’

Ksusha continued to remain silent. ‘Did she have good reason to believe that Mr. Jensen was in danger?’

‘The best.’

‘Which puts your other colleague in something of a bad light, doesn’t it?’

‘Ludmilla Valerievna?’

‘You know that’s not to whom I’m referring.’

Ksenia went back to being silent. Alexandrova changed the topic. ‘I imagine, Ksenia Vladimirovna, that altruism doesn’t come naturally to you.’

‘That’s enough – I see where this is going.’

‘So let’s get back to the business in hand … Ksenia.’ Valentina Alexandrova looked long and hard at her. ‘Usmanova and Kubashov are both in custody, pending an official investigation and the loose ends seem to have been nicely tied up.’

‘Except?’

‘There was something else we found. In Kubashov’s wallet there was a drink coaster – and on the back was a time – 01:30. Those drink coasters are not current, not from this year’s cruise supply. One person has a small stack of them in her cabin. Why would Kubashov have to remember a simple time that way?’

‘Because it’s not a time.’

‘Right and the combination lock in question is on the suitcase of Natalia Kurbatova. It’s her combination lock. And inside her case is chloroform in a bottle.’

‘A set up?’

‘Possibly or else very confident she’d never be found out. But again – why couldn’t Kubashov remember a simple combination like that?’

‘Because he’s either stupid or else he wanted to implicate the woman with the drink coasters – Sveta Levina?’

‘Perhaps.’

‘And the chloroform is for tonight? Someone is going to lure the victim to the edge, maybe at the back of the boat and a second person –’

‘That’s the scenario that had crossed our minds. We’re starting to get the idea that there is a second agenda on this boat, quite separate from Mr. Kuzmin and Mr. Deputatov and that the original rogues are entirely separate from this second operation.’

‘And the intended victim?’

‘Your guess is as good as mine. Stay in touch, Ksenia.’

XIII

Marc skipped down the broad stairs from his hotel room and made for the Excelsior Restaurant. This evening there was a smorgasbord for the plebs while the nobs had their banquet elsewhere on the premises.

He took his tray and plate and soon had the chicken, potato noisettes, julienned greens and tomatoes piled up but he couldn’t take a drink as well, so he went across and secured a two person table, left the plate there and returned for the drink, the mini coffee pot and cup.

Halfway through the chicken he felt unwell and was appalled. It was meant to be one of the top places in Prague. As it was a smorgasbord, there were no waiters, so he took himself off to the stairs, decided he couldn’t climb those, went to the lift instead, made it up to his room but his condition was deteriorated even further and the cramps were now fierce.

He just made it to the phone, told reception to send medical help, crumpled up on the floor and the phone receiver clattered to the floor after him.

XIV

Louise was finally ready, hopeful they’d allow that amount of luggage and bags – if they were men, she’d manage it. She was licking her lips – the payoff was about to come in big time and she only needed guide it along.

She wondered if Viktor was available – she’d work on that one. She wondered if they could have a meal as they did last time.

She wondered many things.

XV

At 00:12, Hugh suddenly asked, ‘Ksusha?’

‘Yes?’

‘Why would Deputatov, an important man and the senior of the two, have gone up to get a milk cocktail for the younger man?’

Ksusha thought for a moment. ‘You’re right you know – why indeed?’

‘Also, how did he know which was which – I mean, which was the poisoned one? I know both were poisoned but-’

‘No, I know exactly what you’re driving at, I have to think.’

Some minutes passed.

.o0o.

‘Any luck?’ he asked.

‘The cocktails. Either the one he thought was spiked, or else the other, was on a non-standard coaster – one of last year’s.’

‘But the ice cream is in bulk. If the poison was in the drum, then how could one cocktail be clean and one deadly?’

‘Because it wasn’t – er – wait – it wasn’t in the ice cream at all – it was on the coaster itself.’

‘Then why would it be allowed to circulate that it was in the ice cream?’

‘To lull the spiker into thinking he or she was safe. And don’t forget – most of the boat believes it was a mistake, something toxic in the ice cream. As no one else was sick on board, which they’ve insisted on repeating, then it had to have been the ice cream, didn’t it? Hence – no panic.’

‘So Valentina Vitalyevna knows more than she’s told you.’

‘Yes,’ answered Ksusha wistfully, ‘it certainly begins to look like it, doesn’t it? I think I might pay her another little visit.’

‘Mind you don’t kill her, now.’

She gave him one of those looks.

XVI

Two people were leaning over the railing on the lower deck, near the bow, blowing smoke rings towards the water. It was 12:17 and the steamer continued to thrust itself through the chop, the white bow wave whooshing past just below them, lit by lights from the kitchen.

The man turned to the young lady and asked, ‘You trust Kubashov?’

‘For now.’

‘So?’

‘Can’t get near him yet. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.’

They continued to blow smoke rings.

‘The blondinka and the Englishman?’ asked the man.

‘They’ll take the fall.’

‘Be careful, the girl’s a viper.’

‘And the Englishman?’

‘Don’t underestimate him, he likes people to think he’s a passive philanthropist but he took out two people in Tenerife. He’s sharp enough and can be ruthless. They make a good couple.’

She smiled up at his handsome face. The water continued to rush past below them.

XVII

Marc woke up in hospital, he didn’t know which hospital but it was clean and he was in a room with one other patient.

The aching in his stomach was beyond bearing but it was not the same pain as that of the hotel room – this was a duller aching. He gathered they’d pumped his stomach and there was not much he could do but curl up into just the right position to allow some respite.

A nurse came through the door with water and tablets and he never questioned it but took the five of them at one time, washing them down and then groaning. The woman didn’t seem to know either French or English but she smiled and patted the bedclothes in a ‘just so’ manner before slipping out of the room.

Marc was losing valuable time at the conference.

Chapter 1-13 hereChapter 1-15 here

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