1-16: Monplaisir

monplaisir

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I

In St Petersburg, Hugh read from the little guide book: ‘Peter the Great had no vain ambition to overcome nature but he did make use of it. [Ivan Golikov, 1788]’

What a place, Peterhof, with its summer palace, cascades, fountains, golden statues and that magnificent canal linking the palace to the sea itself. He was gazing at the Great Cascade with a strange lady whose fair hair seemed to complement and even rise from the scene. The more he glanced across at her, the more she resembled one of these nereids, returned finally to her true home.

When she asked him about his thoughts, he told her and she cleft the mood in twain, ‘Galatea? She’s not that beautiful – I don’t know that I’d want to be compared to her.’

‘The ego of the girl – the Medici Venus then.’

‘Well, that’s better but still -’

‘I could clothe you in gold and stand you on a pedestal over there, so the world could share your beauty for eternity.’

‘Hugh, you’re sick, you know that?’ But she was stifling a smile.

.o0o.

They walked that pathway beside the canal and strolled over to Monplaisir, Peter’s seashore palace, looking out over the Gulf of Finland. Standing by the seaside balustrade, they gazed out over the gulf and at the angry little wavelets in the twelve knot breeze blowing spray their way.

She didn’t bat an eyelid but let it blow into her face, he was watching her. ‘It’s very pleasant, Hugh. It’s different.’

‘Different for you maybe but for me, this is my métier, I’m a sailor, and this scene is everything I’ve ever been, here I feel I’ve come home.’

She looked at him sharply. ‘What’s it called again?’ she asked. ‘French, isn’t it?’

‘It’s called my pleasure. Monplaisir. Moyor udovoilstviye.’

She stared at him. ‘Is it really? Do you know why I wore a dress today?’

They were near the balustrade and he just looked at her. She read his every thought and hastened to add, ‘I would not do dirt on this place or on my country. The dress is long and flowing, it will hide nearly everything we do – I’ve practised. It will still hang down behind when you lean against this railing, I’ll get you ready while your arms are around me and it will look just like any couple marking the scene.

He wasn’t sure but he leaned against the ballustrade, she moved in on such an angle that anyone coming from Peterhof proper would not see but anyone from Monplaisir itself might – they were still too early for the crowds.

She now took two mopping up cloths she’d got from the boat kitchen, handed him one and said to tuck it into his belt, the other she lifted the hem of her dress and tucked it in her knicker strap, such as it was. Now she undid him and took him out, lifted the hem of her dress again and tucked it in the buttoned bit on the bodice, she put him in, his arms were around her, hers were now around him below to disguise it further, she looked out to sea.

.o0o.

A youngish couple came around the far bend, they were curious and after they’d gone by, she looked back and gasped, then tugged on her boyfriend’s arm and suggested they try it.

.o0o.

A retired American couple came around the bend next but they did not notice – only the couple further on were less discreet so they received the ire. ‘Disgusting,’ he said. ‘Yurrup – no decency.’

.o0o.

Now it happened, she quickly grabbed her cloth, he did too and kept them there until it was well and truly over, they left them in underwear in case.

‘You’re insane.’

She now stepped out, offering her hand, he caught up to her and took it – both hands were sticky , nearly glued together, she was smiling as they walked, hand in hand, back towards Peterhof.

II

September, 2001

Frenetic was the only way to describe the start to the month.

Hugh had the semester to plan, Shaidullin had cancelled the Samara meeting, Viktor was overseas wooing this lady, Valentina returned to her regular work, Geneviève had no further purpose in Samara and was now in Shadzhara, Marc had kept to his original schedule.

He phoned Hugh and said he was in town, Hugh would put him up for some days, best not to complicate things with Dilyara’s parents, Dilyara now working in Prague.

Hugh suggested they visit Giuseppe for a meal and make it a small party, he phoned Ksenia and said there was something special going on and would she come to Giuseppe at 18:00, he was also going to phone Anya and ask if she wanted to bring her Italian?

.o0o.

He was in Italy it seemed but she’d love to come. Viktor was in America at this time.

.o0o.

They converged in dribs and drabs from 18:00 to 19:00 and each new visitor surprised someone.

At first it was only Ksenia, Geneviève, Marc and Hugh and the latter had actually arranged it that way, giving the others later arrival times. Ksenia checked out Ms Lavacquerie, Hugh checked out Ms Lavacquerie, Marc checked out Ksenia and Ms Lavacquerie checked them all out in turn.

She saw in Ksenia a stunner, more beautiful by seemingly being at peace with herself but something in Ksenia’s sharpness reminded Geneviève of a lioness and it was a moot point who was protecting who in that relationship. She saw the gleam in Hugh’s eye and the slight smile, she would have judged him a flirt except that he made no obvious moves on anyone.

Ludmilla came in next, to almost everyone’s surprise but as she was a known face now, she attracted little attention that way, except that everyone thought she looked marvellous in her navy and cream outfit, given what they knew of her reported age.

Louise arrived and they were already tucking into the pizzas by that stage. She was appalled by the food and they, in turn, were bemused by her manner.

Anya was stunning in her own light coloured outfit with the textures only the Italians seemed to achieve, she was clearly dressed from there – Ksenia and Geneviève, well Anya too, saw they were in the presence of some serious class in this company. Eyes were forever sneaking peeks at the others until the three of them laughed and the compliments began. No one else at that table was arguing. Viktor would be seriously peeved he’d missed out on this at his own eating place.

One of the girls made to bring the pizzas over and Geneviève put up a hand to stop her. Ksenia saw the ploy and when Geneviève got up to go and get hers, eyes all over the room were following those famous thighs. Ksenia saw Hugh from the corner of her eye and his jaw had dropped.

Now Dilyara walked in and stole the show. She’d been going to come in tomorrow and surprise Marc but when Geneviève of all people had honed and said what was going down, she wanted in. So here she was and Marc was so dumbfounded he couldn’t move for a few moments.

‘Er Marc,’ said Ksenia, ‘this is where you get up and kiss her like there’s no tomorrow, then introduce her to anyone who doesn’t know her.’

‘Right, right.’ Dilyara was grinning, she nodded to Anya, then she was enveloped in a bear hug and couldn’t do very much for twenty seconds. The girls behind the counter actually applauded. Hugh was nodding to himself – good, this was going swimmingly, Ksenia noted that and liked it.

There wasn’t the high fashion of the four fashionisti but she still grabbed everyone’s attention through her simplicity – safe smart jeans and designer T.

.o0o.

As the meal went on through the ice cream, the cakes, the coffee, Ksenia was waiting to see Hugh’s surreptitious glances at Geneviève or Anya but she caught him, from the counter at one stage, eyeing her instead and she suspected he was mentally undressing her, she went red.

Geneviève noted that too and found it curious. Nice, quite understandable … but still curious. Marc had eyes in one direction only, as did Dilyara.

Hugh went to the loo but didn’t come back immediately, he stood by the double glazed window with the pot plant and looked out at the tree lined street – was he hoping one of them would come through?

Geneviève was the one who came through to the bathroom, he spun around to look at her at the moment he judged she’d gone past him but she’d stopped and turned to face him too – he was caught, she was highly amused, she turned and went to the loo.

In the other room, Anya had been about to go to the loo herself and Ksenia, surprisingly, rested a hand on her arm and made that facial gesture, such that Anya sat down again. Just what was going on? Ludmilla read some security implication into it, Louise did too.

.o0o.

When Geneviève came out, it was perfectly obvious that neither had any real business remaining there, they both accepted that. ‘Hugh,’ she said in that calm, deep, sultry voice.

To say he was intrigued was an understatement. ‘I’m so pleased to have met you, Ms Lavacq … um … Geneviève.’

‘And I’m glad to have met you too,’ she smiled. ‘You have a lovely friend in there, she is very, very beautiful.’ She nodded towards the main room. ‘And happy too,’ she added.

‘Elle est une belle fille, tres jolie.’

His French amused her but she appreciated he’d tried. She then made a quick move forward, at odds with the calm in her voice, rested one hand on his forearm and there was a hell of a lot in that touch. Looking into her eyes, he couldn’t stop himself – he placed his fingers on her cheek, right out of order, outrageously so, but she made absolutely no move to pull away at all.

Then she suggested, ‘Well, shall we join the others?’

‘Oui, d’accord.’

Observing them through the two archways from the main room at that very moment was Anya. Geneviève reached conspiratorially for his arm and asked if there might be trouble.

‘No there can’t be, nothing has happened.’ He looked into her eyes. ‘Has it?’

‘Has it not?’ she replied, then, ‘no, you’re right, nothing has happened.’ She smiled that smile.

They were both in agreement about going back but neither made any move to. Then he pulled himself away and indicated she should go first.

.o0o

Ksenia and Hugh got back to her flat around 22:00 after dropping Anya at her place, Marc and Dilyara at his. They couldn’t wait to get to bed, either of them.

The moment their heads hit the pillow, she said, ‘Insane day, fabulous day, you knew it would be like that, didn’t you? Always invite me to those, Bebe, please plan more of them.’

‘You liked it then,’ he smiled. She smothered him in kisses. He came up for breath and gasped, ‘Good, good. OK, you have things to say, so start saying. Do we need anything to drink?’

‘Ten minutes or so. We’ll get to you and Geneviève later too – I set that up by the way.’ He looked at her. ‘Oh yes, Bebe, I wanted to see that one play out. But later for that -’

‘How did I see the women in the group?’

‘You’ve caught me out. Go on, I want to know.’

‘You saw me at the counter undressing you, you went red.’

‘That stunned Geneviève too – I do not think she has that at home with her man.’

‘I’d agree.’

He then gave it to her verbatim – his waiting near the window, looking out, all the subtle looks, the hands on the arm, the ploys, and the bit at the end before they went back to the room. What was more, she knew he’d given chapter and verse.

‘I have anything to worry about?’

‘You might if you were Louise. Anya was quite unhappy with me.’

‘I know, I had to stop her going out there but she still got up and looked. She is good at making those faces, isn’t she?’

‘Tell me about it. But why -’

‘Let me stop you for some grammar a moment. You said ‘tell me about it’ and then went onto something else. Your intonation was different, as if you didn’t want.’

‘It’s what we say when we mean ‘I know, I know’, no response required.’

‘Ah. Continue.’

‘Why did you allow that, were you testing me, what was it about?’

‘You haven’t answered my question yet – about what you thought of us.’

He grinned. ‘All right. You were stunning, the whole room was watching you but you had serious competition there, Ksusha – that company was an echelon above the usual.’

‘Tell me about it.’ she smiled. ‘I mean that two ways – I know, plus I want you to go on.’

‘Geneviève is stunning – an amazing head of section, a femme-fatale. The French do have that chic.’

‘Except for Louise.’

‘Even Louise has some of that. Probably it’s better to say it’s Parisienne.’

‘And Anya?’

‘She was my partner, of course she has class -’

‘The arrogance of the man.’

‘Yes, but I think she’s actually improved with him.’

‘You’d admit that? Yes but that’s not a compliment to you for another reason – you did not make her beautiful, radiant.’

‘We go through a learning curve, we learn as we go.’

‘So Geneviève will get the full benefit of that?’

‘Ksusha, don’t say things like that – why would I want anyone but you? I find that disturbing, I don’t like it – you said it yourself about being radiant – do you think a man does not adore that?’

‘It’s my anxiety. I’m still anxious, you’re still anxious – a little of that is no bad thing. Could you go with her?’

‘Not with you here as my woman. There’d be no chance at all.’

‘When you came back in the room, you took Anya in your arms to calm her.’

‘Yes but that can work two ways – you’re a woman, you know this. Ordinarily, it would calm her – that’s how I used to do it. But with what I’d been doing with Geneviève, I didn’t think that would work. I was waiting for my face to be slapped.’

‘I wouldn’t slap your face – it would break it.’

‘You have a way with words.’

‘You see, Bebe, I picked up on how she ha seen that and your touch changed her, calmed her. Your hands went straight to where they’d always been and she had no hesitation either.’

‘Ksusha, there’s no mystery in that – two people learn each other – look at us in such a short space of time. Look at you and Parvel – it was so obviously a long term thing. It just goes without saying.’

‘There’s more – she would like you back or else she wants you away from me.’

‘Ah yes – but we know that is so, we know about your file and those two – Viktor I mean. I know all that but it cannot succeed.’ He saw her about to object again and said, ‘Ksusha, get it through your head that as long as you want – two weeks or twenty years – I am yours to command.’

She snuggled up to him. ‘I wish that were true.’

‘Now look, I know there’s more than was in those files, I know that people lose control, I’ve lost control and it was violent – another boy it was – there is zero result in dwelling on things like that. It’s almost inviting those things to come back – it’s not going to happen because we are very careful with each other, we say if something is not right.’

‘You can feel from my body now, can’t you, that it’s so much better now.’

‘Yes – why on earth would I want that to change?’

‘If I allowed you to go to Paris, say for a couple of weeks, would you go?’

‘Genevièves will arise, Genevièves will fade away, she said to me, ‘You have a lovely friend in there, she is very, very beautiful.’ Then she said, ‘And happy too.’

‘She said that?’ She really didn’t know how to react. In the end, the only thing she could think of was to make love.

III

Late November, 2001

Viktor Igorovich was back, he’d had his old security chums over for a knees up and one of them had told him something very curious about Frederika.

Not only was she in Russia but she was coming to Shadzhara, the question was why and so Viktor called a summit meeting with Ksenia, Anya and Hugh.

They arrived at Viktor’s separately.

.o0o.

‘I think to kill,’ Ksenia was first to answer that question, over the coffee. ‘She’s a cold blooded killer and enjoys it. I’m a cold blooded killer too but I hate it. If my lover died, I’d rather die too.’

‘And the other way round?’ asked Anya.

‘Hugh and I have already discussed that question, siad Ksenia quietly. ‘This thing was ordered from Shadzhara, not Moscow – the contract makes no strategic sense, it just seems that way to me. It seems to me to be about settling old scores. If I had to guess, then I’d say she’s coming to take out both Hugh and me.’

‘There has to be money involved somewhere,’ put in Hugh. ‘Frederika doesn’t work for free.’

‘No, she doesn’t, so who’s paying her? There is another scenario of course, more elaborate, and that is that Frederika herself is being set up for a hit.’

‘Why?’ asked Anya.

‘Old scores, knows too much, there are a dozen reasons. It’s possible she has something for Hugh and plans to protect him, rather than kill him.’

‘Protect him from whom?’

‘From me, for example. I know both of you would not put it past me but I say this – it does not depend on my past behaviour in the least.’

They lapsed into silence and then, in the midst of that silence, the phone rang like a klaxon. Hugh looked at his watch – 20:24. He whispered to Viktor, ‘I re-routed my calls to your second phone, as we agreed.’

‘Well,’ demanded Anya, ‘aren’t you going to answer it?’ Viktor nodded to Hugh, who did an ‘Allo-e’ in the Russian manner.

‘Hugh, hi, how are you?’ her hard voice instantly recognizable.

‘Fine Frederika, long time no hear.’

Her reply was barely audible to those present.

‘Of course, but I work tomorrow, can’t get out of it. How would you like to meet at the Baumana McDonald’s in the afternoon – maybe about 16:00? You know Baumana?’

Hugh replaced the receiver.

‘Of all the nerve,’ commented Anya.

‘Well, well, well,’ commented Ksenia.

‘So now, ladies and Viktor,’ requested Hugh, ‘what do you think? To go or not to go?’

IV

Deep inside her, deep in the forest, on the blanket, she was at rest in a manner of speaking.

Then she suddenly stopped, took his face in her palms and said, ‘What I fear is that, having made love to Frederika, you’ll approach her as if her fondness for the memory will stop her.’

‘You mean tomorrow?’

‘No, the day coming up when she goes back – whenever that day is, that’s when it will happen.’

V

He arrived early at McDonald’s, ordered a McChicken Meal and took it upstairs – Frederika was already there. The inevitable mutual scrutiny took place and the mutual compliments. She stood out among the Russians.

After the desultory conversation, they got down to business. The gist of her tale was that she’d been approached to do a bit of free lance business – Hugh himself, in fact. She hadn’t accepted that but had accepted the second offer and so here she was.

Who had ordered it?

Of course she didn’t know, these things are never done directly, she said. Anyway, she was staying at the ‘Regina’ and had a train ticket to Moscow for the following evening. Call her please. It was good to see him again.

He now touched on their time together and she said that time goes quickly. She took her leave.

He just sat there, thinking it through. Right, so there were a number of possibilities. Firstly, that Frederika was going to do it anyway and had simply been sizing him up. Supporting this was her contention that ‘these things are never done directly’ and ‘time goes quickly’.

Next most likely, as Ksusha herself had hinted, was that she herself was being set up as a target by someone and planned to turn the tables.

.o0o.

He asked Anya over for supper and put it to her, over the dessert, ‘How do you read this?’

‘One’s a proven killer and the other I don’t trust an inch.’ She became very serious and lowered her voice. ‘I don’t know what passed between Ksusha and you on that cruise but it’s too late to worry about it now, she might be your friend.’

Hugh gazed across at her. ‘We got out of touch with each other, didn’t we, love?’ he said. ‘We lost it, you and I.’

‘Why do you always think bad things of me? I’m all at sea, I’m trying to find a port to come home to, despite what you see but I don’t think you and me again is a very good idea, not at this moment. Time passes quickly though.’

He looked at her thoughtfully and wanted it all to go back to where it had been but in that instant, he knew it would have ended the same way, whichever permutation had occurred. He took her in his arms and she rested her head against his chest. ‘Anya, what do you really want?’

‘For my Italian to take me seriously, to take me as his.’

‘I told you about that.’

‘I know but you asked me what I wanted, I know what you wanted to hear but I can’t give you that.’

‘You don’t want Ksenia with me and you don’t want to be with me yourself. You wish for me to be alone.’

‘I do want you with me but not the way you think – you’re still important in my life. You also come back to me so easily, you kiss me without ever thinking whether you still have the right to, whether I want it or not, you don’t even check that with me. You’re lucky I do want it and I always will.’

He lifted her chin and kissed her on the lips. She paused and allowed it to deepen, they stood like that, doing that, for maybe a minute and then she slowly withdrew. ‘That’s what I mean,’ she breathed. ‘How can you do that, if she is your woman? How could you make eyes at that Frenchwoman at Giuseppe, if Ksenia is your woman?’

‘She set that up, she had to know. But she spoke of you in my arms too.’

‘Oh?’

‘She spoke of how easily our arms went to the same place we were used to, as if we’d not been apart.’

‘Did she? Was she upset?’

‘She was anxious – she knows everyone is against her.’

Anya was going to think that one through.

VI

Marc flew in late and Hugh was there to pick him up. On the way back, he spoke of the meeting with Frederika and how this thing was coming to a head either tomorrow or the next day. ‘I might be dead after that -’

‘Don’t talk like that.’

‘Marc, I need a trustee for my will – Viktor’s a beneficiary, so I can’t ask him. It would be straightforward, all on paper, addresses, phones etc.’

‘Ksenia?’

‘Beneficiary, same with Anya. Your fee would come from the estate as a percentage.’

‘I don’’t need a fee.’

‘Yes you do or it could be challenged and I don’t need complications from beyond the grave. Will you?’

‘’You know I will, just have it all in one place and then it can be done quickly. But I don’t think it’s needed.’

‘It would be a weight off my mind, that’s all.’

So, all at once, loyalties had been thrown back on the table for scrutiny, loyalties which had been taken for granted for now.

VII

Frederika lay on the bed in her hotel room and hoped she’d intrigued him enough, she was running out of time, it was true, and it was going to be tricky, this double cross.

All the players were accounted for except this Anya – Frederika didn’t know how to factor her in. Ksenia was as plain as day – she was doing her own double cross. Safin was also as plain as day. Hugh was hopefully under the influence of Ksenia and that would make it easier.

She thought that, unless something presented itself later this night, then early tomorrow evening, before the train, had to be the time, banking on their preference for a crowded place – she’d never try it on there, would she? There was a slight thrill to it all and she knew that feeling – that thrill.

VIII

Ksenia was at her place, Hugh with Marc at his. She phoned and said she thought best alone, she was going to think it through and report on the morrow. Thee were far more than Hugh and her in this and she had to have everyone covered.

IX

Sergei Safin was ready for the morrow. He’d just put down the phone and Ksenia’s report had been encouraging.

He checked his SR-1 Vektor and the Makarovs he’d prepared for Frederika and Ksenia but he was thinking maybe the old PSS with the SP-4 slug might be better for the close range work. It was a girl’s weapon anyway. Useless over three metres but the target was likely to be far closer than that, wasn’t she?

He allowed himself a tight grin and poured himself another tipple. So, not much more could be done now. He wondered how Ksenia was progressing and hoped Frederika wasn’t out roaming but there’d been no report.

It was going to be split second tomorrow, that was a given. He hoped he was still sharp enough. The girl who’d be kidnapped, Yulia, should distract the French end and Ludmilla long enough to allow tomorrow to happen.

He went through the plan one last time and each link held firm.

X

The next morning was crisp outside. Some birds hit the window pane and everyone was lying low.

.o0o.

The phone went at Hugh’s place – Frederika – why hadn’t he phoned? She’d waited in last evening and now only had a few hours left in Shadzhara. Could they meet? They could? Oh good. Where? The Railway Café? Yes, she knew it. 18:00? Fine, she’d be there.

.o0o.

Ksenia called twenty minutes later. She’d just heard Frederika had a tiny weapon for close range. He reported on the conversation.

.o0o.

Viktor called. What they’d agreed still held and Anya was at his place.

.o0o.

17:20. Various parties drove to the general area and took up positions.

Hugh’s car stopped on the path outside the café and three tall men appeared from nowhere, crowding his door. He got out and was shepherded to the café door.

Inside, there was a barman, also two waitresses, a guy and his girlfriend in the middle of a shaslik and then there was Frederika, over by the far table, her lap covered by the table cloth. Hugh walked up behind her, put his arms round her neck and embraced her.

There seemed no weapon below the cloth but there was still her handbag to consider. She was sitting facing the door, so Hugh would have had to sit with his back that way. He did so, both in order to keep his eye on the kitchen and also to allay her further suspicion.

‘Frederika, put the bag on the table, at the far end.’

She slowly reached for it and placed it where he’d asked, her eyes were fixed on his and he’d seen that look before.

‘You’ve eaten already?’ he asked.

‘No, I waited for you,’ she said in a very low voice, ‘we have about thirty minutes, then I’ll have to go across to the train.’

The waitress came up and Hugh recognized her as a regular. She took their order for steak and for shaslik with salad. He asked if they could hurry it up because of the time. She said they’d try.

‘So, Frederika, here we are.’

He looked at her in greater detail now. Life had not treated her terribly well and her face was close to haggard – a tragedy in one so young. ‘Have you enjoyed Shadzhara? What did you see today?’

She was looking at him evenly, summing him up. He kept wanting to glance at the kitchen entrance and then stopped himself. Interesting, she thought. She went with the idea that there’d be back up for him outside as well, then again, he’d always been a maverick.

‘It’s sure good to see you again Hugh. It’s been a very long time.’ A smile played on her lips but something very emotional was going on inside her. Was she scared?

.o0o.

The food came and they both tucked in and polished off their dishes, like real trenchermen. ‘Do you like it here in Shadzhara, Hugh?’ she ventured, eyes still rivetted on him.

‘There are some definite pluses.’

‘Ksenia?’

‘Yes.’

Everything was being weighed in the balance and evaluated. Everything had to be just so and she was scanning for any nuance, anything which might alter the balance of the coming events, it was almost as if there was no pretence any more – the conversation was so far beyond normal that it couldn’t be retrieved.

Finally the moment arrived. ‘Hugh, it’s time to catch the train, would you see me across?’

‘That’s exactly what I’d planned to do – what both of us had planned. Yes?’

She caught her breath at that. She was either nervous or high. That was it, wasn’t it? She was high on what she was about to do.

Now he could see the sardonic cruelty in the mouth, the cold, mocking eyes, he could even have made love to her now and it would have been indescribable, he was sure. Suddenly he thought that saying that might do something to alter the balance, so he told her and it did throw her momentarily.

.o0o.

They got up, gathered their things and moved towards the door, Hugh slightly behind her. One of the three beefy boys now came through the door, demanding to be fed. The waitresses began a haranguing conversation with one of them but Frederika was already through the door, with Hugh close behind.

She propped and offered her elbow to be taken – they were to walk over to the train, arm in arm, according to her agenda. He offered his arm instead, she laughed, took it and he could feel her bony strength. ‘Old times, Frederika. I won’t throw your handbag in the river this time.’

She didn’t reply. She was walking evenly, closely and expectantly now, no shadow of a doubt about that, almost padding along on those feet. He asked, ‘Will you take me out first or second?’ She glanced at him sharply and he answered her glance. ‘Oh yes, love, everyone knows about your PSS.’

She was so far into her mental preparation by now that he couldn’t distract her for more than a moment. He tried again, ‘Whatever you’re about to do, Frederika, Blackheath will always remain for us.’ She caught her breath, glanced and saw that he was gazing at her with affection and sympathy.

Damn him, she thought. Damn him. They started to cross the road.

Suddenly a Passat pulled out from the kerb to the left and squealed past them, window down, two metres from a parked Volvo off to the right. Hugh saw a red beam from the Volvo, Frederika whipped out her pistol and fired at the Volvo passenger but too late, three cracks from different places and Frederika dropped like a sack of potatoes and he did too – excruciating upper arm – but he’d heard two other people’s cries as well, on the right.

Four shots – that was it – all over.

XI

Early December, 2001

Strangely, the first visitor to the convalescing Mr. Jensen was Louise and she wasn’t alone, she had Geneviève with her.

In French, Louise began, ‘Ah, what has happened to you, Hugo? Come to France, come for one year – I’ll arrange everything. I have a little gift to cheer you up.’

The gift was sweet – a ribbon tied wooden box of truffles and he thanked her … but it had come from both of them. While he concentrated on the garrulous but basically nice Louise, it was the quiet scrutiny by the other woman that had him entranced.

He glanced across at her and she smiled back at him, in a kindly manner, he thought. Anya phoned and said she’d be there ten minutes later, which she was.

.o0o.

She was entirely unprepared for the plumed Louisa to usher her in with her bag of mandarins and half litre of kefir. Louise, as ever, was on the move, Geneviève had barely had time to say hello and that was the end of the French contingent.

Anya laughed that old laugh. ‘Don’t be like that,’ Hugh admonished, ‘Louise is all right.’

‘The other one is all right too?’ she smiled.

Hugh ignored that and put to her the question on his mind. ‘I asked the staff here and they either didn’t know or weren’t telling me – give me the news straight out, with no umming and ahhing. How’s Ksusha?’

‘Alive, Hugh, in hospital.’

‘She was shot then.’

‘Yes, I came to you first.’

‘Well, I’ll visit her later.’

‘You won’t be visiting anyone today. Tomorrow maybe.’

He sunk back to the bed. ‘Will you take her a message – tell her I’m alive?’

‘Ludmilla did that. I’ll go there if you want but Ludmilla has been with her today.’

‘Well, may I speak with her?’

‘Hugh, I’m not preventing you but she’s not well and they’re keeping her sedated. She’ll live, as I said.’

‘I see.’ He took Anya’s hands in his and looked into her eyes. ‘I love you.’

‘Hugh.’

Tears appeared at the corner of her eyes and he realized he’d said something cruel but didn’t really know what. ‘Tell me about what actually happened,’ he asked. ‘I was there but didn’t see much, you’d appreciate.’

Her cheeks coloured. ‘I didn’t see much either – I’m going to kill Viktor.’

‘No, kill me because I asked him to keep you out of it.’

‘You did?’ She thought about it, couldn’t think of what to say, he saw the wheels turning in her brain, then she just said, ‘Hugh.’

‘Well, are you going to tell me or not?’

In Anya’s eyes, the story was pretty straightforward, once you understood who was paying whom and what each player’s motivation had been. Ludmilla had told her the likely scenario had been this:

Frederika had been commissioned by Shaidullin and, having lost his mentor and his means of livelihood, it must have cost him deep in the purse to take out Hugh for his part with Katya, and to take out Ksenia for her betrayal. So that was simply revenge.

However, Frederika had been pondering whether to refuse the Hugh commission or not – at least, this is what Anya could gather, but to decide that, she had to judge Hugh’s attraction for her, personally and that meant a night together. When that hadn’t materialized, she’d left it until the last moment to decide, during the café meeting.

Who could say but it would seem logical that she would first take out Ksenia, then the unarmed Hugh if she still wanted. Safin had only ever been motivated by money and it was Shaidullin’s money which had Safin there, to make sure that if Frederika did backslide, he’d do the job. Hence his rifle trained on Hugh but he had a second shot for Ksenia. Or Frederika, whichever was necessary.

Ksenia was on an official assignment to disable Frederika, whom they were sure was gunning for both herself and Hugh. But when she saw that Safin was supplying the weaponry and after she reasoned that Shaidullin was behind this – easily verifiable via bank accounts – it was family business once again to take out Sergei from the Passat, for knowingly supplying Frederika with the weapon which was to kill her, Ksenia, plus Hugh. She was sure Safin would try to take Hugh out if Frederika didn’t and then his second shot – who knew?

Ksenia’s first shot, therefore, had to take out Safin and her second was for Frederika. She’d assumed Frederika’s first shot would be for her and so a section sniper was in place to incapacitate her the moment she made any move whatever with a weapon.

Viktor hadn’t been anywhere near. He’d risked Anya’s eternal displeasure by physically preventing her from getting out of the car, a short distance from the action, until the firing had stopped. This was at the request of Hugh but it had also been from her parents.

Now it was vital for Hugh to visit the wounded Ksenia – even Anya recognized this – she went and filled in copious amounts of paperwork, brought it back to sign, he was prepared for the journey, she drove him to the hospital in his own car.

.o0o.

Propped up in bed, one half of her face covered, he tried to smile. ‘What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be shot.’

He walked over, his legs fine and kissed her left cheek and Anya followed suit. ‘Two lovers at one time – I’m so lucky today.’

.o0o.

He went home this day, she went home the next.

XII

Mid-December, 2001

Timur Shaidullin had thought it over for some weeks.

His priority list had had to be redrawn, given the events at the station and his financial loss. Still, he hadn’t had to pay Frederika, so he was in a more benevolent mood.

At the head of the list to be eliminated were Valentina Alexandrova, who’d blighted his life, together with Natalia Kurbatova, who’d come back from the dead and had blown his cover, Ksenia Sharova, the former lover and traitress who’d colluded to destroy him and of course his wife Katya who was now a constant threat.

On the list to be discredited were Ludmilla Petrova, Viktor Igorovich, Valerie Stepanov, Konstantin Mishkin and Pavel Denisov in Nizhny plus Hugh Jensen – he had now been downgraded to show Timur’s disrespect and disdain.

The essential element in the removal of these people was ‘plausibility’. For example, Jensen’s Head of English, Habibullina had several rivals and it should be relatively easy to introduce an issue which would divide them to the point of discord.

Ludmilla Petrova was easy because of her little act of nepotism and Jensen was easier still because of his predilection for the ladies. Once the protective screen had been removed, it would be relatively easy to move in for the kill.

Alexandrova had been the sticking point, with her white-as-a-sheet record and family history but an idea had suddenly come to mind. If her little girl was kidnapped and a ransom demanded by Sharova, the father would come into it and all sorts of good things might result.

It might just work. It was to be timed for mid to late March.

XIII

Ksenia decided to front him with her full disfigurement straight away. She’d insisted they have a week away from each other, this was now over, he was at her flat door after phoning in the morning.

She opened the three doors, he smiled at her move and asked, ‘Which bit am I allowed to kiss?’

‘You still want to kiss me, do you?’

‘My question first – which bit is not as painful and so I can kiss that?’

‘Go away, Hugh.’

‘No. Last time I checked, you were my woman, so no, I am here now.’

‘You’re deliberately ignoring THIS!’ She pointed at her scars and she was in high dudgeon. They’d never had this before and so he stepped forward and took her in his arms but she broke away and pushed him hard, so that he fell over on the floor, hitting the shoulder.

She was down on her knees crying, stroking his cheek. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ he thought – not a bad result in exchange for a bit of pain. ‘Can you get up, can you make it to bed?’

He moved onto his knees, she went to offer her hand to get up and he said, ‘Better I do it. Prepare the bed.’ She scuttled off to do that.

He knocked and went into her room, the cover was back, he gingerly got in and found a reasonable place on the other side. She stood there. ‘Please get in, I’m not well.’

The two things were not related in any way and she thought them funny. She sighed, kicked off her tapechki and climbed in.

‘Well, here we are, Bebe. I want to know the literal truth about your feelings for me now, not some pap you give me to make me feel better. There is one thing I do NOT want and that is sympathy or you staying with me because of duty or because you feel sorry. I don’t need it – I am Ksenia.’

‘Have you finished?’

‘Yes.’

‘For a start, I don’t make love to your face, only your mouth. The rest looks like it works fine. I kiss the parts of your face that I can now, the others later as you recover -’

‘Recover? Haven’t you woken up yet? I’m scarred for life.’

‘I know that, I know all about Ludmilla and she will try to put you on other duties but I don’t think she can -’

‘Why not? How would you know?’

‘Anya saw some flight manifests and Shaidullin had flights coinciding with them -’

‘It was my 30th birthday the day of the shooting.’ He collapsed back on the bed.

She looked across and thought he was overdoing it but now she realized he was having trouble breathing. Actually, he was.

‘You really are in shock, aren’t you. I’m making tea now, I’ll bring it here. Don’t argue, get your breath back.’

Chapter 1-15 hereChapter 1-17 here

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