Louise was entertaining Geneviève in her new apartment in the 12ème arrondissement – she’d done herself proud. Vaulted ceilings and bay windows created the illusion of space and fluffy rugs took the chill from the polished wood floorboards.
‘I can’t come to Shadzhara for the semester, Louise.’
‘But you promised,’ she cried, collapsing onto the Ottoman.
‘I certainly said yes and I meant it at that moment but you know very well I have to go away now and then. This is one of those. This one may take some time. Something has happened.’
‘I see.’ She curled up, pouting.
‘I’m sorry, Louise but I do promise I’ll go to Paques and other stores and bring you anything you need.’
Louise said not a word.
Sarah Retton took a swig from her sportsbottle mix – water and glucose – and hit the thigh machine again – six – seven – eight – could she make nine?
She wiped her brow along with various other parts and walked across to the tri pulldown. Last for the day and she was almost ready for Russia.
In the shower, she could see the body was ready but was the mind? Carly had been working on that, on her resilience, on her fatal trust in people she read as friendly and therefore harmless. Her qualms in jettisoning bad leads if she liked them – she reflected she’d become less nice but more invulnerable. Morally – well she was fairly well without any great complexes, men swarmed like flies in the constant game of the vulnerable damsel. Didn’t they understand that a young woman who dressed in see through tops and low hipsters was not likely to be all that vulnerable? No, they didn’t see that – ever.
The arrogant smile on the man who found himself alone with her, the relaxing of his guard and the trotting out of the lines – welcome to my parlour.
When Ksenia walked into the Fitness Centre to find him, he was training. The girls at the desk immediately gave her, with bemused eyes, dispensation to go through to find him – he was over by the leg machine. He saw her out of the corner of his eye, delighted by two things: Firstly – that she’d come there just for him.
Secondly, he just happened to be on his strongest exercise, triceps and today he was shifting just short of his body weight in the close grip bench press. She trained too so she knew what was on. ‘You don’t have to do this for me, you know.’
‘I’m doing it for me.’
After it was done and he’d done his smaller wind up exercises like wrists, he showered and took her next door to the cafe without asking. ‘I have to eat immediately, have to get protein in, within forty minutes, OK?’
She knew the score with anaerobics.
‘OK,’ he concluded. ‘You’ve done what I wanted. Now I need to go to Naf Naf. There are some good shirts on sale and I need a blue one – will you come?’
She smiled. ‘I don’t want you doing this.’
‘What, buying myself a shirt?’
‘Who are you kidding? No, buying me one.’ His face fell. She continued. ‘All right, we’ll have a look and then go to the forest, right?’
There were some jeans which caught her eye but she tried to disguise it. They were bluish, moving into grey and with maroon blended in – sounded garish and awful but they were actually lovely.
Would she try them?
Of course they fitted like a glove and he was as happy as a lark when she agreed to wear them out of the shop.
They stopped off at a produkti, bought some makings and headed out of Shadzhara the other way this time, towards Borovoya Matyushina.
Ludmilla Petrova stood by her favourite window overlooking the Shadzharka River, mobile clasped to her ear, she was getting regular reports on Sharova, Jensen, Shaidullin, Seymour, Kurbova and a host of others.
This coming mission for Ksenia wasn’t all that important but she’d had to upgrade it not to arouse Ksusha’s suspicions that charity was being meted out. One thing state security did was look after its most trusted and Ksenia fell into this category – whatever else she’d done on the side, she’d never acted against state interests.
That was why the monitored call to Ksenia from Shaidullin was both puzzling and worrying.
Geneviève Lavaquerie stood on the balcony of her apartment in the 12ème arrondissement, down a tree lined and yet narrow street abutting a park, with a black wrought iron fence in a varying state of repair. Though spring had sprung, she was a worried woman.
She wouldn’t have traded this place for the world, except perhaps for a cottage near Fontainebleau but that was too much to hope for – her work was here in Paris. She’d persuaded Philippe to move in with her and that was a first step, he leasing his own first apartment out but retaining the other in the 19ème arrondissement.
The cause of the worry was behind her, inside the elegant drawing room, on the coffee table and it was a handkerchief, Philippe’s handkerchief. And coming off Philippe’s handkerchief was a faint but unmistakable scent of Jean Patou Joy. She went over and moved her nose up close to it yet again.
In the circle in which Philippe moved, it could have been any one of those women, any one, it could even have been his secretary Sophie-Fleury, a femme fatale if ever there was one. But she suspected not.
Imagination is a dangerous thing when combined with suspicion but there was only one woman in her own circle whom she knew used Joy – it was a most expensive perfume of jasmine – and that was Louise. Not only that but Geneviève had met Philippe through her.
Logical, she supposed, that her tall, handsome Philippe should meet Louise from time to time but there was nothing in Louise to attract Philippe.
They went out to the forest again, the snow turning to slush now and it all becoming a bit impractical until maybe May, when the ground dried out and the trees were covered in leaves.
It was an auspicious day too because Ksenia had a mission. ‘Nizhny Novgorod, Moscow, St Petersburg.’
Hugh was immediately on guard and she saw it. ‘Yes, I’ll be meeting up with Timur. I don’t know how to say this to you but I don’t plan to sleep with him. I do plan to test the new disfigured Ksenia, I have to do this. It’s for me.’
‘Don’t go. I know what it’s about, it’s you getting in close to your quarry – you’re going to kill him.’
‘I haven’t decided that, I’ll play it as I find it.’
‘That’s not like you.’
‘Glad you said that because you’ll know there’s another motive for it. This man is an idiot in many ways but he’s also diabolically clever in others – he’ll know your ploy from old times. He’ll have a counter-ploy. This game of brinkmanship,’ he had to explain that, ‘I have a love I don’t wish to lose.’
‘Not much confidence in me, have you?’
‘Ksusha, will you listen to what I’m going to tell you now or will you close off your mind to me?’
‘Not sure if that’s the term to use. Brinkmanship has its uses, I’m no stranger to it but not when soft feelings come into it. You have this black and white idea that this is mano-a-mano and you know operational strategies better than I do but I know psychology through my work and I do not think he’ll play fair. He’s not going to kill you, he’s going to suck you into trying and you’ll be killed by another. He’s a classic coward, I know the type. Now I’ve said this, you will try to prove me wrong.’
‘I hear you, I really do but I do have my own strategy and what you just said I know about. I’m really quite clearheaded. I’ll tell you one thing now – I am going to be in real trouble for awhile, it will look as if I did something … but I didn’t. That’s between you and me only.’
Things come to light in the most surprising ways.
Anya had a girlfriend who’d gone to work in Nizhny Novgorod, still with the same airline and they often communicated, Alla had used their secure net to ask Anya about the procedure on a particular Polish customer with an unusual flight request and the details had come up on Anya’s screen.
She advised Alla on it but also noticed the name Shaidullin on the manifest and further connections from Moscow to Shadzhara. Common enough name, she supposed but still, it might be him. She thought for a minute, then called Ludmilla Petrova to ask if Shaidullin was being tracked and another thing – was he still married and living with his family?
‘Da to the first and nyet to the second, he moved out two weeks ago and doesn’t seem to have taken up with anyone else. Now my question to you, Anya – have you seen the news about the Alexandrova child? The little girl’s been kidnapped but a tip off to the militsia said a woman who fits the description of Ksenia took her, I’ll call you back if I hear anything.’
Not twenty minutes later, Ludmilla phoned Hugh, her superior in Moscow wanted her to fly tomorrow to discuss certain irregularities in her accounts, the Alexandrova child had been kidnapped, possibly by Ksenia and she now warned Hugh to be careful because something seemed to be happening on a number of fronts. He decided to contact her but they’d agreed never to call when she was on a job, especially this job. He called Anya who said she’d try and then reported that the number was switched off.
Two minutes later, there was a call to Anya and it was Ksenia. What did Anya want? Anya spoke of the Alexandrova child, of Ksenia’s name being used, of Shaidullin’s flight path and of Ludmilla’s own trouble. Ksenia swore at the other end and asked if Hugh was at home.
She replied that she’d called him earlier there and Ksenia now clicked off.
Twenty seconds later, there was a call to Hugh’s landline from Ksenia, warning him to get out of the flat and go to either her friend Yulia’s place or to Anya’s. She’d possibly phone at any hour of the night or day, depending on developments, there appeared to be things happening. She also said it might be an idea not to go in to work tomorrow.
Anya called to suggest Hugh phone Viktor, to put the scenario to him. In a cold voice, Viktor asked if the e-mails to his woman in America had been necessary.
‘What e-mails? I know nothing of any e-mails, all right, forward them to me.’ The call ended abruptly. Hugh scratched his head and reflected that whatever was going down, it was much too much all at once.
He switched on the computer and checked the e-mails. There, in his inbox, were forwarded copies of mails which only he could have sent, with his header data, written in his style of banter and very, very critical of Viktor and what he was up to in Shadzhara with women.
He called Anya and asked her to drive over to his place, yes, it was urgent.
She was there in twenty minutes. He showed her the emails, she read one of them through and asked, ‘Why did you do it?’
‘Well, they’re faked, of course, aren’t they?’
‘They look quite real to me.’
‘They look quite real to me too but they’re not, I recognize the style and there are definitely expressions I use but I never sent any of these. One minute – I think I can access this.’
He fiddled around in his Bat files for sometime and finally came up with an e-mail he’d sent two months ago, containing two of the key insults which he’d supposedly sent to Daniella.
They were in an e-mail to Viktor himself over there, at Daniella’s address, yes, and it was banter between the two of them about the women over there in general. Someone had extracted these and when put together with other extracts to create a new e-mail, sent to Viktor’s woman at the same address, it had had the desired effect. Very clever.
‘Anya, to prove this, I’ll stay back from the computer and you go into my ‘send’ folder now. Check if I’ve sent any e-mails to that address in the last week. She did so and dammit, there were three. She opened them one by one and they were identical to the ones Viktor had forwarded. This looked bad.
‘Let me see those,’ he said.
‘Don’t touch them, Hugh. You’re going to trash them.’
‘That’s the last thing I’m going to do, I want them preserved. Give me two minutes and watch me like a hawk, that’s all I ask.’
He scoured the top e-mail and then he found it in the header. ‘Vot!’ he almost shouted.
‘Come over here, my love, and look at this,’ he said, stepping back from the computer. ‘Look carefully at the date of creation – there is none. Now look at any regular header. Check any e-mail you like.’ She didn’t need to be invited twice. ‘Look at the date of creation on the regular mails, Anya.’
She did and said, ‘Well, I never.’
Hugh slowly released his breath. ‘Do you understand what’s been done?’
‘Now you have to contact Viktor please, on your mobile,’ asked Hugh, ‘he won’t take my call and please explain it to him. Meanwhile, I’ll send him copies of these original e-mails to jog his memory.’
She got on the phone, he set to work also.
Within fifteen minutes, there was a most apologetic call from Viktor to his line. ‘But what it means, Man,’ said Hugh, ‘is that someone has hacked my computer. I’ll email Daniella and set it straight from this end but you, I think, might have some problems.’
After they’d hung up, he asked Anya how she read it. ‘Someone is trying to get at you and they’ve gone through Ksenia and through your best friend.’
He told her about Ludmilla.
‘There you are, you see. Actually, it’s almost too obvious.’
The Alexandrova child was recovered unharmed, Ksenia had been exonerated but Ludmilla Petrova, on the other hand, really did have troubles.
As the trumped up charges against the others fell away one by one, a double effect was created – it gave added protection to the victims, and it damned Shaidullin himself. Unfortunately, the charge against Ludmilla Petrova stuck. This was in great part due to elements in the service having long sought her blood and now, having her head presented on a platter, they weren’t about to sew it back on.
The woman now found herself friendless and in grave need of support.
Ksenia had ditched her mission and returned to Shadzhara. She, Anya and Hugh met at Viktor’s pad and thrashed it all out. It was a golden opportunity to repay some of the loyal support and even if it failed, Viktor couldn’t see how anything but good could come of it.
‘Leave it with me for 24 hours,’ he urged, ‘and we’ll put together a defence.’
Ksenia herself had forces to summon and a pretty formidable team would gather to fly to Moscow to confront the Commission set down to hear her case on Friday the 8th.
The collapse of the case against Ludmilla Petrova could not have been any other way, Viktor had been offered the assistance of a pretty high-powered attorney from Moscow, an old mate, one commission member had shown himself to be the driving force behind it, apart from Shaidullin and he was soon after on charges – yet another sworn enemy they could have done without.
Ksenia and the eternally grateful Ludmilla met in Cheboksari at a run down eatery and they covered a lot of ground before the inevitable topic of Ksenia’s operational future arose. ‘Ksusha, I’m stepping down, this business has shaken me up.’
‘I prefer the field work.’
‘You just jumped three steps.’
‘I prefer the field work.’
‘Ksusha, think more clearly – did you think I ever had anyone else in mind?’
‘I’m still good – there are always ups and downs in our business.’
‘Won’t you give back to the youth what you were given in your own youth?’
Ksenia sat fuming, biting her lip but Ludmilla Valerievna was in no doubt that Ksenia could read the writing on the wall, this level of politeness usually indicated an offer she couldn’t refuse and Petrova was not in the habit of wasting even one unnecessary word. Ksenia knew that full well.
Ludmilla Valerievna continued, ‘We’ll need to put in seven or eight hours a week on procedural aspects and communications, starting next week, the whole process should take five to six months.’
‘When are you considering retiring?’
‘When you’re trained.’
‘Now to Hugh Jensen.’
‘State your intentions.’
‘I wasn’t aware that private relationships came under the brief of the section.’
‘For field operatives they’re not as critical, beyond the usual procedural checks. But this is a section head we’re discussing here and that’s a different ball game.’
‘You know we’re fiancees.’
She was becoming more and more irritable – even agitated – and Ludmilla Valerievna considered enough groundwork had been laid for one session – she steered the conversation to the morrow’s doings.
Carly had put Sarah through a gruelling psychological routine and pronounced her ready.
‘You’ll be stopping off at Prague to start with and meeting up with Marc Lacour, your assignment will be given to you there, it involves going to Russia and basically the whole thing is just fact finding plus one other task. We want you as a player on the board. There’s a French Russian connection now and we want to know what level they’re cooperating on. Any questions so far?’
Ksenia looked at Hugh and had a gleam in the eye which meant she’d either had a brainwave or she saw a solution. He demanded she spill it.
‘There’s a way around us being married – we create a new designation, I can’t tell you Ludmilla’s or mine at this moment and we write the rules on it. The functions which need Ludmilla at home would be taken by Yulia.’
‘But that keeps her at home. Me marrying you condemns that girl to staying in her flat.’
‘No, she’d move to a better place, state provided, with security – my flat, though I bought it, was fitted with these things – and believe me when I say that Yulia does like status and the salary which goes with it. For a while, she’d be fine.’
‘We’ll decide that when it comes. Plus there’s another matter.’
‘How did you know?’
‘Logical – he’s the part of the puzzle still left unsolved.’
‘I’d never kill him, not like that but I’d put him in a position where he might draw on me. That’s a different matter.’
‘Where? When? How?’
‘He’s invited me to discuss it all, to make up and everything will be OK.’
‘I think you’re actually susceptible to that – I know when a woman is, you’re a bit like that with me, but for different reasons.’
She considered and that was the difference, if differences there were, between two women – not necessarily better but she did consider, instead of leaping at something. ‘All right, as that’s an operational observation, it’s fair. Yes, to a point – yes. There are limits. He’s past that limit, even if he turns it on.’
‘No, here, he’s coming here, he’s taking a flat in an outer suburb, there’s a place we used to eat – he’ll take me there again. I want you nearby to observe anything out of the ordinary – don’t use the phone but use one of our pagers – it vibrates slightly but continuously in the pocket, it makes no sound.’
Sarah Retton shook Marc’s hand and was invited inside.
The apartment was chic, in a good part of town as far as she could see and she now met the lovely Dilyara, newly pregnant and obviously enjoying the love nest.
Sarah took a seat on the divan and was asked if she’d eaten. She had. Did she want coffee? Yes please. It was brought. With Dilyara in one seat opposite and Marc in the other, she opened her bag and handed the documents to him.
He skimmed through them and was satisfied, naturally he’d verify that with Geneviève later. ‘So you’re here for field experience, Sarah?
‘The British obviously feel a bit left out of things in Europe these days,’ he joked and noted that she was not amused. First black mark – certainly not easy-going. ‘You’re obviously very fit by that bulk you’re carrying – do you train?’
Her eyes narrowed and he had the distinct impression she was about to attack. Second black mark – easily provoked. It had not been a good start.
Her recent training now kicked in, she got herself under control and was even cordial in her reply, to which Marc said, ‘I’ve given you two tests so far and you’ve failed both.’
Her shoulders slumped.
His voice was kind. ‘You were sent here because I was not likely to use your weaknesses against you but in a real situation, every crack, every crevice will be exploited. I’m sure Carly told you this.’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘You must be tired and might want to get organized upstairs. Dilyara will show you where everything is.’
They went upstairs.
‘Timur,’ she smiled.
He rose from his seat at the cafe and took her hand in his. ‘How can I ever apologize enough for what I did? The madness of it – it took Moscow to make me see it, I’m a slow learner.’
‘And now you’ve learnt?’
‘I hope so.’ That was a clever move, if it was just a move, that was humble. ‘I’ve taken the liberty of ordering to save time – I know your favourite here and they still have it, same chef povar.’
He was using the best butter, really laying it on and thought she’d see how it played out.
‘I assume you’ve brought … Hugh.’
‘No, not for this. Don’t refer to him again, let’s just talk about us, about Katya, about the children, about your future as you see it.’
He’d negotiated the traps well and she’d negotiated his – why had she really agreed to see him?
‘Curiosity, to see if it was still possible -’
‘You’ll come back for coffee?’
He exulted inside and was now in two minds – he was always going to see if it were possible and if so – well, who knew but if not – well, he had certain things in place. He called for the bill, then they made their way out to his car, there was a phut and Shaidullin dropped where he stood, Ksenia diving for cover and pulling out the pistol behind the car, waiting.
But nothing came, no one, except for members of her team who took over Shaidullin, she herself refusing to be attended to, just wanting to get out of there.
She came out of the dingy police station, her ‘people’ above having done the necessary, much to the chagrin of the force, and now felt she could phone him.
‘I’ll make my own way to Yaz, meet me there. Say … twenty minutes.’
Over a dessert, while he wolfed down shaslik, over her Irish coffee and his red wine, she explained the meal, what had been said, how she’d felt ambivalent but then he’d given himself away – the idea of Katya just not fitting into the evening’s programme, the idea of his children not being those he wanted to refer to.
She was still line ball on him on exiting the place but would not have gone back with him – she’d seen the close-in gun, that’s what had clinched it. At least, it was clinched already but that really clinched it.’
‘He’d have waited until you were in the car, and the car out of the carpark.’
‘Why not leave it in the side hollow in the door?’
‘To answer that, let me ask you one – did you see the skip, the place they put the restaurant rubbish in – a big, square bin? It was to the side of the cafe door, in the darkness.’
‘Vaguely … oh my goodness.’
‘Did you ever wonder why he parked over that side, which necessitated a walk to the cafe door, when there were many car spaces closer? Did you see the one coming out of the cafe behind him?’
‘Tell me you weren’t there -’
‘I wasn’t there. You about ready to go home?’
‘We can’t, I’m waiting for our driver now.’ There was silence. Then she said, ‘All that bullshit in the cafe – and I fell for it.’
‘I’d have been the same.’
The best part of the morning was spent on the computer, Marc showing Sarah a few of the tricks he’d picked up but it was clear her heart was not in this sort of thing.
He was coming to the conclusion that she saw intelligence work as spy v spy and femme fatales. The grind, the hardworking side of it had obviously not sunk in.
He kept her at it for a little longer, then they had lunch.
In the afternoon, he took their Golf and showed her over the town while she saw this as her first opportunity to try the femme fatale.
Marc wondered why the Brits had sent this one and then he tumbled to it – her game might well be the forlorn damsel who was ‘not a very good spy’ but everyone was sympathetic and helped her out in her hour of need. No doubt there were some who might fall for that bombshell magnetism but Marc wasn’t one of them.
He rephrased the question to himself – not why they had sent her but why to him?
In her own eyes, this had clearly not been a good start. Perhaps she should have shown more interest in the computer, perhaps she shouldn’t have been so bored the whole time. It all seemed a bit stupid to her, the trip, the mission, the testing.
What she really wanted right now was a Southern Comfort and coke, eight of them, a large video screen and the parry and repartee of the gang. Gawd, what was she doing here with this prat?
She smiled weakly at him and he decided that he could stand no more than another day with her. He’d book the flight to Russia himself and Geneviève could sort out the fine details.
They were both long back, all sorts of threats a long distant memory, he was back at work, preparing for the new semester, she was back at her work.
At the university, they had a visitor, proudly announced by the Dekan as Sarah Retton, from London. Why was it that when in a foreign land, one’s boss always wants to bring you together with one of your own countrymen? Perhaps this person is fine in her own right but she’s come to this city for her own purposes and you’re there for yours. If two Brits had wanted to meet one another, they could have done that in Britain.
Perhaps that sort of attitude was a bit mean but when the Dekan beamingly introduced them, it was as if two long separated souls had finally been reconciled with one another. Well, all right, he had to be gracious and take her for a drink or a coffee.
Yes, she’d go with him for a coffee.
At the Pyramid he drank her in – large, athletic, masses of hair, heart-shaped face, compressed vitality – a hard living version of Charlotte Church was Miss Sarah Retton, wearing a transparent shirt, no brassiere and an innocent look upon her face as if she were hardly aware of the fact. Plus she had a certain laziness about her, a bored expression. She asked if he knew of any good clubs in Shadzhara.
Why would he know a thing like that? ‘A few,’ he replied anyway, ‘Doctor Club, the Pyramid and one or two others. Steer clear of Stadion – the druggies are there and you’d have problems.’
‘Do you go to clubs?’
‘And now you don’t?’
‘There are far too many of my girls at those clubs.’
‘From uni, yes – my students.’
‘Don’t you teach any boys?’
‘Last year I taught 115 girls and 7 boys and of the boys, four didn’t come to lessons.’
‘Not a bad life.’
‘If one is male. So, what about you? Essex girl?’
‘Is that a criticism?’
‘Sensitive, sensitive. A lot of talent’s come out of Essex over the years – what will you have, coffee, tea, beer?’
‘They have bitter?’
‘Yes, Jane but not as we know it – try the Baltica – the draught here’s not too bad either. I’m behind the wheel and can’t drink – it’s zero tolerance on the road – but I’ll have a sip of yours and a coffee – one moment.’
He indicated to Lena what he needed, she suggested the cakes, and so they went up and selected, then Sarah went to the bathroom. Lena came back up to him with a knowing look in her eyes.
‘Priye’kala iz Lo’ndona,’ he explained.
Sarah returned, the makings arrived. ‘Nice place, Hugh – may I call you Hugh?’
‘There’s not much else you could call me.’
‘Professor?’ she smiled.
‘Er, don’t make too much of that, Sarah – I’m trying to play that one down.’
‘Why, it’s prestigious.’
‘For some, for some.’
‘When were you last in London?’
‘A while ago, I forget. But I have to go back there to sort out some bank business and visit some people and I have to do it soon.’
‘Come back with me – just for the company,’ she quickly added.
‘When do you leave?’
‘In five days.’
They chatted about things far longer than she’d intended and she had to get back to the Dekanat to discuss details, so he paid up and dropped her back.
Anya had some leave due to her and was thinking where to take it.
It occurred to her that Prague was as good as any, a short hop down there, she could head over to Italy if necessary, she could visit the pregnant Dilyara and reminisce over old times although she’d never really been one for nostalgia.
Phone calls were made, arrangements were made and she flew there, to be picked up at the airport and whisked off to the love nest. She realized very soon into the stay that all sorts of negatives can rear their ugly heads.
For a start and very selfishly, she was used to things being ‘just so’ at home. She and her mother had their routines and didn’t cross one another or get under each other’s feet, the food in the fridge was the type she liked and the TV programmes, on the rare occasions they were on, were the ones she liked to watch.
Now she was in the home of a girl as strong minded as herself, who had everything ‘just so’ the way she liked it and probably wouldn’t take too kindly to that being altered.
The second thing was that, as the reminiscences got into full swing, not all the memories were good. There were times of friction, long forgotten, that now came out of the closet and they realized that, though they’d been schoolmates and ostensibly friends, there were many unresolved issues which had lain dormant for a long time.
The third problem was that of space in the apartment. There was more than enough for a couple and baby, even for two babies but not for three adults and their needs.
Lastly, other people’s mannerisms and habits eventually pall and even little things, like the way a cup is placed on a table or the way a person laughs at a joke, can really play on the nerves.
So the veneer was kept up but deep down, both were not going to bitterly regret when the long-awaited reunion had finally run its course.
Time had moved on.
It was at Ksenia’s place after work that he came out with, ‘Are you strong enough to hear some not so good news?’
‘All right, tell me.’
‘An Englishwoman appeared at uni today and I had the job of welcoming her.’
‘Pyramid, coffee, talk.’
‘She asked me to come back to Britain with her five days from now and she was serious.’
‘I said yes and she just accepted that. That I would do that, dropping my own family as far as she knew, not being there for the start of a new academic year, just upping and going.’
‘I take it she’s not ugly.’
‘About twenty-three, with big breasts, complete with hard nipples, showing through a transparent shirt.’
Ksenia sighed. ‘I’m sighing because I know who she must be – they’re getting to me through you.’ She thought hard for a minute. ‘All right, you must go, we need this to happen, to draw them out and see what they have to say to you. You do understand, though, that when you return you’ll have to be de-briefed. This will not be an issue if I arrange it or Ludmilla, even Yulia. So by the time you go, I have to be certain of that. If I’m not, you won’t be going.’
‘Stop, stop,’ said Hugh. You’re sending me off with this girl? Just like that?’
‘She’s not a girl, she’s a trainee agent Carly sent and she’s meant to be learning on the job. The real reason is that the Brits want a piece on the board, a stake in the game and this is one way in.’
‘How can you be so sure about the debriefing or me not going?’
‘Don’t you understand, Bebe – Ludmilla Valerievna’s now retired and she’s handed over the day to day running to me.’
‘You’re really messing with a dangerous girl now, aren’t you?’
He was stunned. His jaw dropped open. ‘But that means they’ll take me the moment I land at Heathrow.’
‘Doesn’t work that way, Hugh – they have to play ball, we have détente now. As I say, I’ll establish how much say I have over you on your return. If I’m not 100% happy about that, you’re not going. If you do go, I’ll speak with your Dean and postpone your start a couple of weeks.’
‘Oh she’s going to be really delighted by that, especially when she knows the reason.’
Marc had a long, encrypted conversation with Geneviève, the general theme being that he had been less than impressed with the Retton girl.
Geneviève explained that the girl was on work experience, that she was raw and needed time. He retorted that Geneviève obviously hadn’t seen Sarah. ‘Honestly, it’s like they sent a caricature of Mata Hari – they must realize this.’
‘Oh it could be anything – some VIP’s daughter, someone Carly feels a protective interest in – there are any number of reasons. I have to confess, I’d like to fathom Carly’s mind and see just what she’s up to – let’s see what Ksenia makes of her.’
‘Hugh is going back to London with her on Friday.’
‘Is he just? What’s Ksenia up to? She’s putting Hugh in danger, doing that.’
‘I thought there was détente now.’
‘In a manner of speaking. The trouble is, with not the least protest, she allows the personal partner of a currently operative head of security to accompany an agent of another country’s security into the open arms of their service. Of course they’re going to be suspicious and their methods are not pretty. Also, when he returns, the Russians are then going to put him through it and no mistake.
‘He said Ksenia would do that.’
‘Marc, what if someone in Moscow decides otherwise? What if they decide an impartial debriefing is necessary? Do you see what I mean? They’ll keep her at a distance while they do it.’
‘But that will alienate her.’
‘Russian bureaucracy is not really interested in the nuances of personal relationships, there are many waiting to take her place. He could be walking into some of the nastiest experiences of his life.’
Sarah Louise was ready, he had his exit visa and the other documentation ready – now came the hated trip to Moscow.
How he detested the Moscow attitude to foreigners, the attempts to relieve them of huge portions of cash before they departed, both legally and illegally and most of all, he detested that, despite his quite reasonable grasp of the Russian language, they chose to ignore that and speak in pidgin-English, thereby establishing the respective roles as fleeced lamb and wolf.
He’d ignore that himself and insist on conversing in Russian.
On the Shadzharni train, which was economically and practically more viable than the plane, he warned her about his snoring and asked whether she slept well. She didn’t but she’d have sufficient beer to achieve the result.
Then they got down to the business of the transfer from Shadzharnsky Voksal to the airport. ‘Forget the Metro – we’ll be accosted. There’s a guy with a Volkswagen who used to ply the train platform – I’ll look for him. He won’t rip us off.’
‘How will you find him?’
‘If he’s there, he’ll find us. The airport itself’s the problem. Your documentation may be OK in your eyes but they’ll find something wrong and milk you of your cash – you should have about two hundred dollars to cover it.’
‘But that’s outrageous.’
‘That’s Russia. No, it’s not Russia at all – it’s Moscow, different other animal altogether. Russia itself is nice.’
‘Do you hate Moscow so much?’
‘Perhaps hate is too strong a word – I’ve just had some terrible experiences there – the airport is the worst. Would you let me see your documentation – the visa? You don’t have to but I might be able to detect any difficulty and help circumvent it. It’s up to you.’
She hesitated but not for security reasons – it was that it let him know certain personal details, also, the photograph was appalling. She handed it to him.
‘Stamp on photo OK, period of stay, ‘dor’ in Russian. OK, here’s the problem. See this ‘dor’ here? That means when you can depart up till.’
‘But that’s tomorrow.’
‘You’re very lucky. If there’d been even the slightest delay until the following day, it would have cost you big.