1-18: The lure of the forest

lure of the forest

Chapter 1-17 hereChapter 1-19 here

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I

Geneviève had already organized for Marc to be in London, he now contacted Hugh and suggested they meet – he had information from Geneviève affecting the planned meeting in London, which was about a meeting planned for Paris and having a seat at that meeting. The French would like to have a seat at the meeting about the meeting.

Hugh checked with Ksenia, she was amused and said to go for it.

.o0o.

He and Sarah made it to the airport mid morning, they tried to stop her but to no avail, next thing they were in the air.

.o0o.

Heathrow was then a formality, Sarah went her way and he went to the B&B.

.o0o.

Marc came through Gatwick, then came the rail link and the one bus he’d been told to take, he went to a taxi rank and was taken to the same B&B Hugh was at.

.o0o

Carly contacted Sarah. ‘Phone Hugh at the B&B, ask him to be at Garfunkels this evening at 18:30, we’ll be at a table in a corner near the kitchen.’

.o0o.

Sitting in Garfunkels were Carly, Sarah and an unnamed male in his late twenties – one of the heavy brigade.

When Hugh walked in with the instantly recognizable Marc, Carly nearly had kittens but recovered and broke into a broad smile. ‘I couldn’t have planned a better result,’ she purred, in French. ‘What on earth are the French doing here?’

The waiter brought another chair and set another place, the ttwo men sat down and Hugh spoke. ‘We’re a job lot, Marie. Where he goes, I go.’

She looked across at Marc who said, in English, ‘Where he goes, I go.’

Carly laughed. ‘Well, well, this is jolly, isn’t it? I presume you have yourself organized and two young ladies are waiting for some sort of communication later.’

‘You presume correctly,’ smiled Hugh.

‘I wonder if you’ll be smiling back in Russia, Hugh.’

Hugh deliberately avoided the reference and put in one of his own. ‘If you’re referring to clinics, Marie, that matter has been resolved. I’m referring to a commercial operation in two countries.’

She smiled. ‘That’s not going to buy you anything, you have no cards there. I should know because I went in with what I thought was a full deck and realized I had a pair of twos. They leave nothing to chance.’

Sarah had no idea what was going on but Marc had a rough inkling, from what they’d discussed earlier. Interestingly, Hugh had no idea himself, beyond the intelligence Marc had been sent. He was relieved when Carly changed to current business.

‘We’d like to make you both an offer. First, to Hugh – you’re doing low level stuff over there and though you’re K’s lover, she wouldn’t have revealed anything to you, a Brit, of great interest to us. No, it’s your advice, your ‘take’ on things which interests us – how the Russian thinks, how she thinks, we’ll even tell them that when you’ve finished in Russia, we’d like to see you back here. Both sides know the way it goes at your level – you’ll report all of this and more.’

‘Ksusha never tells me anything, for my own safety.’

‘Except on the Alexander Suvorov, yes? Now, Marc. You really did catch me by surprise but of course this was Genie’s doing – where do you fit in here? Of course we’d be delighted to cooperate with you.’

Marc smiled at the word ‘cooperate’, meaning ‘give to us’. ‘Mademoiselle, you’re well aware of the Paris conference and it would be nice if all three teams could be there.’

‘We would like to have a chat with Hugh, that was what this evening was about. Is that all right with you?’

‘Non, Mademoiselle, where he goes, I go. We are under instructions from both our sides. Even if I’d wanted, it would not be possible.’

‘Oh anything is possible over here if I’d like it to be, Marc. Still, I see both your positions and we’ll work to accommodate those. On the matter of the clinics, I can tell you that I am on the same side as you – I’ve been working to exempt certain people from the scheme, shall we say. Now, shall we eat?’

.o0o.

Next morning, there was a call from Sarah to the B&B – could they meet late afternoon?

Why not?

.o0o.

16:25 saw the three of them on the Embankment together, eating at that same little tea-room which Hugh and Lisa had visited. It was no great shakes but began a very pleasant day.

She invited them back to her apartment in Kentish Town, so he phoned Sue at the B&B and excused them, agreeing, of course, to pay for the rooms, not a problem and giving Sarah’s number to call, just in case.

.o0o.

Her apartment was done in the nouveau British way, a lot of exposed wood and snazzy decor. They fell to chatting about this and that, she showed her collection of tiny glass sculptures – the unicorn, the two dolphins and so on and dusk drew ever onwards. Too gloomy inside, she switched on the side lamp and drew the curtains.

She brought a whisky for Hugh, a Hennessy for Marc and a Baileys for herself. Hugh asked, ‘Sarah, may I ask you an outrageously personal question?’

‘You can ask it but I can’t guarantee an answer.’

‘Why do you wear transparent shirts so that your perfect breasts drive men out of their brains? Are you teasing or does it make you feel free or what? You have this big, puzzled, innocent look on your face as if everything is perfectly normal when you know it damn well isn’t.’

She looked at him with astonishment and went red. Marc was initially shocked, then approved the technique.

She decided to answer honestly. ‘I enjoy them looking – it feels incredibly sexy that my humble body could be turning them on, I can see the lust in their eyes.’

‘Can you see it in mine?’ was Marc’s contribution.

‘You’re both attached to beautiful women, therefore you’re both attracted to beautiful women.’

Hugh’s next question had Marc agog, ‘Have you ever had sex with more than one man at a time?’ He smiled his sweetest smile at her.

She had to regain self-control but now she came over and sat on the coffee table, legs stretched either side of his. Looking straight into his eyes, she answered, ‘Yes.’

The phone rang and she languidly reached over Hugh’s head to pick up the receiver, her left breast hitting his forehead, then she snapped to attention. ‘Who? Yes, yes he is.’

She handed him the receiver, stunned actually. It was Ksusha. To her rapid questions, Hugh answered, ‘Marc. Perhaps. Straight away.’

He handed back the phone, made his apologies to her, asked if he could make a call, phoned ahead to Sue and apologized but if it was all right, could they return after all, received the confirmation and hung up.

He next phoned for a taxi and they were gone in five minutes, with profuse apologies but they were under orders.

The moment the door closed after him, she muttered, ‘Damn,’ went and knocked on the wall to the small bedroom and the film crew, who’d already got the idea, packed up, came out and took their leave quickly, heads down, smiling and looking at her strangely from the corners of their eyes.

She picked up a cushion and threw it at the phone, dislodging the receiver which kept beeping until she picked it up again, shouting, ‘All right, all right!’ then slammed it back in its place.

She called Carly.

On the way back, Marc asked, ‘Why the rush?’

‘Cameras, chantage.’

II

The suspense was telling on Ksenia who’d prided herself on her steel trap coldness in a previous life. An idea occurred to her and she phoned Anya in the evening.

‘Are you concerned about Hugh over there?’

‘What do you think?’

‘Are you alone? I mean, are you occupied?’

Anya jumped to the conclusion immediately and saw it as a good solution but she had no things ready. Ksenia ended that speculation by saying, ‘I’ll send one of our cars. K233 will be the number. We don’t use government registrations. Thirty minutes please.’

Anya liked any sort of adventure which would get her out of the flat so she raced around, putting things in her soft overnight Kelly and, in a miracle for her, was ready in thirty five minutes. Ksenia had allowed an hour.

.o0o.

The trip was almost washed out by torrential rain, myriad droplets ricocheting off broken bitumen, cars were slewing this way and that – the one she was in had a good driver.

III

The call to Hugh next morning was the surprise of the day – Carly herself.

‘Hi, Marie,’ he answered again with her real name, to see what happened – he could hear her chuckle at the other end and knew he liked the woman.

‘You go back in three days, Hugh – would you care to visit me this evening if I can promise you no skulduggery?’

‘The two of us, Marie? If you needed to take shots last night, do you still need them?’

‘Not if I’m in them.’

‘Marie, je connais qu’ils vous appelle la seductrice.’

She chuckled at his French and Marc, who’d just come downstairs, smiled to himself too. ‘I’d be honoured if you’d both be my guests – you’ll inform K and G, of course and you’ll assume that the house has been bugged, even though it won’t be. I’ll be upfront – I wish to size you up and chat to you both, off the record.’

Hugh sighed, he checked with Marc, who nodded. ‘All right, Marie, on behalf of Marc, we’d be honoured.’

Marc took the phone from him. ‘C’est Marc. Mademoiselle, we’ll make our own way to near your house and then your people can take us the rest of the way. Don’t bother with the drug, just blindfold us.’

‘I’ll call around 16:00 to give you final details.’

Hugh put in an open call to Ksusha who was delighted but also worried. Actually, open suited her book in this situation. ‘Carly is no Sarah Retton. She’ll get it all out of you and you won’t even know she’s done it, she’s a professional – this is one of the reasons we’ve always kept you low grade. The big interest for her is my psychological makeup and how well I’m doing over here, she’ll ask a lot of tangential questions that way.

She’ll also want to know how far they can go with you before we retaliate – tell her we’ll take Richard Wendell and that will stop her. As for me, you can tell her anything you know, you don’t know much, ha ha. I love you, bye.’

‘I love you too.’

Marc looked across at him, saw the tears in his eyes and now had something himself to report to Geneviève.

They went out for the day and bumbled round, doing nothing in particular.

.o0o.

They got back about 15:45 and the call came at 16:00 on cue.

Marc took it and she told him the meeting point, explaining in fine detail how they’d do it, Hugh called Ksenia and she warned him that he was beyond the Russians the moment he entered that house.

.o0o.

Their car to the meeting point arrived.

‘Zdrastvutye, Hugh i Marc, ya Oleg, ochyen priyatno.’ He stretched a large hand round and shook each of theirs in turn. ‘Vsyo normalyno, da?’

‘Zdorovo.’

The man chuckled, that reply able to be delivered either literally or tongue in cheek.

.o0o.

To their surprise, they did not head in the direction of Camlet Way where they’d expected to but turned south, in the direction of Surrey. Across the M25, they took the A3 past Woking, left the A3 at the B3001 and found themselves in a layby, where they stopped and waited.

.o0o.

Two minutes later, a silver grey Mercedes E series pulled up and two bruisers got out.

The sensory deprivation began, the drive was long and the first discernible noise was the rough driveway, also long, they felt themselves going down, as if underground, heard a door opening and in they went, the hoods came off and they removed the earmuffs themselves.

One torpedo went ahead and the other closed in behind. There, silhouetted at the inner door, was Carly.

‘No difficulties, gentlemen?’

‘None as yet, Mademoiselle.’

‘I’m going to ask you both to disrobe and go through that archway there. I’ll wait at the other end for you.’

‘This way please,’ suggested Torp 1 and they went through the archway, into a short corridor, at the end of which was Torp 2 who handed them robes and slippers.

Carly, also dressed in robe and slippers, noted, ‘In keeping with my guests.’

A girl appeared with glasses of red. These and nibbles were placed on the turned wood coffee table with the inset glassed top.

‘So, here we are. You can both phone your people any time you like – naturally you know it’s recorded, as your calls today were – I don’t want any misunderstandings. Well, what will we talk about?’

‘Your choice.’

‘As we have all night, let’s begin from the beginning, with your initial trip to Russia, Hugh.’

She was pretty thorough, meaning she let him talk, dropping in a query here, a point of information there. This was going to be pretty plain sailing she felt but still, quite a useful insight. She was awaiting his first reticence.

Marc observed while Hugh recounted his history.

Stretched out on her light leather cushioned chair, her pink robe stretching almost to her knees, he had to concede she still had a good body at what – 38, 40 years of age? Perhaps a trifle less. She wore her hair quite naturally and the sheen was not that of a 40 year old.

Perhaps 55-60 kg, compact and yet solid in the right places, difficult to judge her waist but the neckline of the robe plunged in the French manner and the sides of her breasts were exposed. There was a tan line. Nice ankles and feet, neither bullish nor ultrafeminine – they went with the whole.

‘So? Are you reassured by your scrutiny, Marc?’ she turned to him and laughed lightly.

‘You’re a beautiful woman, Mademoiselle. The majority of men – and women – would be quite envious.’

‘Ah Marc, compliments will get you everywhere. Another drink, both of you?’

‘Please.’

She tinkled a little bell and the first real shock of the evening hit both men amidships.

Sarah Retton appeared from the far room, dressed only in a shirt which reached just over her hips. She was also wearing high heels. Laboriously bending from the waist and placing, first a coaster and then the drink onto it for both of them, she flashed her sweetest smile and retired.

Both men gave a little round of applause and Carly unfazed, now turned and suggested they toast. ‘Your toast, Hugh.’

He thought and proposed ‘To Sarah’s birthday suit – may it continue to serve its purpose.’

The real test, Ksenia had warned, was coming later and she’d advised him not to cross this woman. Carly looked across at Marc and saw a spare framed, economically muscled family man, the wrong side of forty but very sharp, on the ball without saying much. In Hugh, she saw a man in condition for his years, still quick of reflex, with developed upper arms, shoulders and thighs, too cavalier for his own good.

Now it was Marc’s turn for a grilling and she had to work harder with him, starting at the beginning and working forward, inserting a comment here, a question there. It went longer than Hugh’s but did finally conclude, the end doors opened and Marc could see a table setting.

‘Dinner.’

The fish was served by Sarah and she poured the white.

The sorbet followed, they relaxed and conversed some more. Course followed course, the main being a filet tornados, the shiraz complimented it and the conversation touched on cuisine.

At the cheese platter she wondered if they’d like to sit at the side table and take dessert and a demitasse of coffee there. Of course.

.o0o.

Sarah brought the crepes, coffee and truffles and the conversation came round to delicate matters of men and women, tastes, foibles, how they viewed a woman’s instinct and so on and so on.

Ms Retton brought more coffee and coffee crisps which they had in virtual silence and then came the awkward moment they knew had to come. If they’d each been alone with Carly, it might have been a foregone conclusion but with the two of them there, the moment was tricky.

‘Well, gentlemen, it’s getting late, a delicate situation, no?’

‘Clever, Marie, clever,’ Hugh nodded. ‘The implications need not be spelt out, need they?’

‘Oui, they do need to be spelt out, Hugh,’ spoke Marc. ‘The implications need to be spelt out loud and clear for the record. You are presenting us with four variants – I shall guess that there are two rooms.’ She nodded. ‘One contains a double bed.’

‘Queen size,’ she corrected.

‘And the other room contains a single.’

‘A double.’

Hugh was watching Marc now. ‘There is always the divan where you, Mademoiselle, were sitting this evening.’

‘Non,’ said Carly. ‘That’s where Sarah will sleep.’

Hugh laughed. ‘This gets better and better.’

‘So,’ continued Marc, ‘Either both of us sleep with you, neither of us do or either Hugh or myself do. If I show my principles, Dilyara and I are then targets – you know she would then be a bargaining chip. I think you would be more interested to see how Hugh would react concerning Ksenia – that would not only be useful for security purposes but also for your commercial interests.

On the other hand, if I did sleep with you, then I give you the basis for chantage. Remercie, I thank you for your hospitality this evening, Mademoiselle but I am for one half of the double bed. Bonne nuit.’

He strode past the first door and entered the second, two twin beds with linen in a neat pile at the foot and an ensuite bathroom to one side of the room. Carly looked at Hugh and a smile played on the corners of her lips but he didn’t hesitate one second. ‘Time for bed, Mademoiselle, I have carte-blanche from Ksenia tonight.’

He allowed a most surprised Carly through the door first.

Inside this sumptuous room, which was clearly two rooms knocked into one, as tastefully as the renovators could have made them, there was indeed a Queen sized bed in the larger portion of the room but there was also a single, set perpendicularly in the smaller yet still spacious ‘alcove’.

Hugh nodded approvingly. ‘I admire you, Mademoiselle – I say, without hesitation, that I should like to work for you, I also reiterate what was said by Marc this evening, that you are a remarkable and beautiful woman.’

Actually, he couldn’t remember what Marc had said but it sounded about right.

Carly smiled, not unkindly and more than intrigued. ‘So, Hugh, I shall go through,’ she indicated the ensuite, ‘and you might like to join Sarah outside for a nightcap, it’s a little harsh for her to be ignored tonight.’

‘No hidden cameras and film crew, Marie?’

She smiled enigmatically, Hugh left the room and turned right, back to the living area, where Sarah was sitting in one of the chairs, dressed more modestly in a nightdress which still allowed any touch to be immediately felt as heat on the skin.

The moment she saw him, obviously a prearranged indicator, she got up, went to the bar and poured two cognacs, placed them on the tray, poured two black coffees as well and brought the whole over to the glass topped table before them.

‘I think we were both harsh on you, Marc and myself – you were doing your job, it was known that neither of us like immodesty on that scale, I think it was equally well known that neither of us would fall for you like that, nor you for me and so it went the way it was predicted to.’

He paused, she simply smiled and he continued. ‘You’re at the start of your career, such as it is, I think it’s a mug’s game but there we are. We’ve all said the same thing to you – control your emotions, Sarah and you’ll get on, I hope we meet one day on the same side.’

He went across to her, took her in a warm embrace and kissed her quite deeply, which took her a moment or two to come to terms with, then she responded.

Picking up the cognac, he proposed a toast to her: ‘To a very beautiful and soon to be illustrious secret agent.’

She picked up her glass, clinked it against his and drank off the cognac, Carly would have to work on that handwork, he thought. A buzzer went off on the side table and she told him that Ms Latour was ready.

Hugh went through, smiled at her propped up in her bed on the far side, he used the ensuite for some time, everything provided, then came back through to the chamber and straight into his side of the bed. ‘You know my plan already, don’t you, Marie? To embrace you but not to surrender. However, we’ll have to see how I pass your test.’

‘Hugh, you really are a quaint Lothario, we can talk for some time, can’t we. There’s no hurry.’

‘We can do anything you wish. Anything.’

.o0o.

Breakfast was served.

‘We’ll drive to the country today, Sarah – the Safari Park. We’ll dine out and return late. You’ll make the arrangements now?’ She nodded and cleared the breakfast things.

‘Gentlemen, I have to go out for a while this morning, you can use that phone there, understanding that it’s not private, I’ll be back soon.’

She got up, they got up, she kissed them both in the Gallic manner and went to do her business. They sat down again, finished the petit pain and coffee and then wondered if things were going to get decidedly less friendly in the next two hours, what little surprises were in store? They looked at one another.

The two Torps appeared, took their instructions from Sarah and left again. Both Marc and Hugh sent their secure reports on their pagers which, strangely, had not been taken from them for safekeeping, Carly, for her own reasons, was obviously still observing protocol.

Now both knew the personal calls had to be made. Hugh let Marc go first and went into the bar to fix a coffee for them.

‘Dilya?’ He dealt with some domestic matters, the fixing of the bannister, the paint for the balcony and so on. She was clearly filling him in on the latest news as he dropped into the ‘Oui,’ ‘Oui,’ ‘Non!’ mode.

What was reassuring him no end was that she had nothing remarkable to tell him and that suited him down to the ground. Even better – she had a guest.

‘When did she arrive?’

‘This morning, your Geneviève called and asked me. She said it was wise.’

‘So – and is she there now?’

‘Having coffee beside me. Shall I put her on?’

‘Please.’

There was a bit of conversation in the background, then, ‘Marc?’

‘Nikki, bonjour, petite. Ca va?’

‘Things are quiet, Marc, so far all is well.’

‘Interesting move of Mademoiselle’s – was it your idea?’

‘Let’s say both.’

‘Will you really protect Dilya?’

‘Oui, Marc, I promise, from the bottom of my heart.’ Always the dramatist, Nikki.

‘Bon, will you put Dilya back on? Ciao, petite Moineau.’

Hugh noted that the last words were spoken tenderly. Marc and Dilyara conversed for some time and then he replaced the receiver. ‘Sorry it took so long.’

‘Hey, Marc, how else could it have been?’ He accepted the phone and put in his own call. ‘Allo-e? Da, eto ya. I don’t know, it sounded better in Russian. Yes, yes, I am being serious.’ He sighed. ‘Tell me the truth, Ksusha – are you really OK?’

‘Wouldn’t you like to know?’ she said playfully and that reassured him, as the last call had done Marc, then she added, ‘Would you like to speak with my overnight guest?’

He played the long shot. ‘You mean Anya?’

‘That was a wild guess!’

‘No, it was your compassion, you’ve a good heart, Ksusha. Put her on. Allo-e? Anya? Hi babe. Ha, ha – it was logical – you two have got a thing for each other., I’m relieved you’re there, she’d never harm you.’ He was about to say, ‘While you’re under her roof,’ but thought better of it. ‘So, how are you holding up? Eh? I mean – how are you? Right, right.’

‘What’s happening over there?’ asked Anya.

‘Marc and I are in Carly’s bunker right now and she’s gone out. We’re being recorded and probably filmed, so we’re dressed decently. She’ll return later and we’ll go to the Safari Park to see the lions and tigers.’ Suddenly, he regretted saying that because he knew how much she loved the wildlife.

‘Get back soon.’

‘We will, now can you put Ksenia back on please? Bye, love.’

Ksenia came back on. ‘Right, so things seem to be as we thought. Do what you have to do and then we’ll deal with your return, we have our contact times. Anything more you need to tell me?’

‘Not for now, look after Anya. Bye for now, you know I love you.’

Marc came back over. ‘It all seems a bit too good to be true, doesn’t it?’

‘I think the trouble will only begin once we’re separated, you on the way to Prague and me – when I actually get to Shazhara, possibly the day after.’

IV

Geneviève was preparing to visit Lille, she’d packed and was awaiting the car.

Out of the corner of her window, she saw four men moving swiftly towards her door, which didn’t alarm her any because they were her boys and she knew the pack drill very well.

Grabbing her bag, she waited in the hallway, they went through the routine, they came in, saw her and all went to the bed room, through the wardrobe and down, through two intervening doors to the rear yard door, out into the Audi; a section of the back fence was raised and they sped off, the fence returning to its position automatically.

She was stretched across the padded footwell at the back, a long cushion was on top of her and Michel lay on top of that. Stefan lay the other way round on the seat proper, weapon at the ready and Paul drove the car. Jean had taken care of matters back at the apartment.

.o0o.

It was a long drive and Geneviève became aware that they were on route two, which actually meant a pleasant day in the country. They stopped in the layby as arranged and swapped vehicles, pulled onto the main road again and settled down for the long haul.

An eternity later the car pulled into a gravel driveway, stopped about half a kilometre on, they all got out, went to the side of the farmhouse and skipped down the cellar steps into a plush living area.

Francine came forward and the two women embraced. ‘Now, tell me about it,’ ordered Geneviève.

V

On the flight back to Paris, Marc was well aware the trouble would come soon after he landed. Clearly, Nikki would not be there to meet him and so he hoped it would be a familiar face. If it was one of the men, he’d decided, he would not go with him.

The way it would probably be done though was not like that, most likely an airport official would ask him to step into a room and that’s how they would get him away, it had been done that way with Marietta, poor soul.

.o0o.

He landed, collected his bag, went to go through the green channel and was stopped. Precisely as he’d feared, escape was not going to be possible on foot at Orly, they had all bases covered, so there was nothing for it but to go with the man. As the official ushered him into the room, he stopped, hearing a commotion further up the walkway which had brought them there and it was Geneviève herself, flanked by two strong-arm boys, Michel and Stefan. The official read it correctly and tried to move Marc through but he held his ground until the three reached him.

‘Don’t even think about it,’ she threatened, presenting a document to his face. ‘We are taking this passenger now and we do not expect to be hindered.’

A man appeared from within the room, short, wizened and immaculately dressed. ‘I fear you are mistaken, Mademoiselle.’ She showed the document but when he went to take it, held onto it tightly, he smiled and stepped back. ‘This time, Mademoiselle, this time only.’

Geneviève and the two men then escorted Marc back to customs and through to the carpark, flanking him all the while. They got in the Audi and drove back to Paris.

‘De Marchant,’ explained Geneviève. ‘You don’t want to know, he’s many degrees above me and could have bluffed but the warrant was legitimate, from the prefecture. It’s not over, Marc, I’m afraid they’ll try to take you out of the game now. It’s time you understood – that lovely apartment of yours in Prague, it will need to be either sold or kept as a retreat. As you do not possess the resources to run both it plus your Paris apartment, you must return to Paris. All of our apartments here are being upgraded, including yours.

Earlier, Marc, it was your choice where you stayed, where you made your life but I’m afraid it no longer is. Desole. I wish it were otherwise.’

‘Do you, Mademoiselle? Do you?’

VI

Hugh had been back in Ksenia’s flat for a day. They’d not referred to the debriefing but knew it had to be today, no holding it off any longer.

She explained it painstakingly.

‘I’ll accompany you to the actual room. My authority extends that far and I will have two operatives with me. There will be soft, hard, soft. They can shout and stamp all they like but this protocol allows nothing else.’

Ksenia continued. ‘Whatever happened over in Britain, don’t try to play the hero here, cooperate in every way, supply what they want, do this and it might be all right. The way they will move to the hard is that they will pretend not to be satisfied with your last answer and will demand you answer them an impossible question which no one could answer.

You’ll be taken roughly into the next room and put in a chair. I don’t really know in which way it will be done but they do know they can’t physically touch you although it will seem they can. Remember, they’re not permitted to actually touch your body. These things are incredibly bureaucratic and involve the filling in of forms. I know what yours says. So be brave.’

.o0o.

On the way to the place, Hugh prayed hard. He prayed that he might be delivered and apologized that he’d not been more assiduous in giving thanks previously but always seemed to pray only when he needed help, he’d try to amend that later, if there was a later.

They moved off Esperanto, onto a road which was now on the far side of the town where Hugh had never been – this was obviously an older section, with the little bungalows in a row down leafy streets with broken up asphalt surfaces. It really was the original town and if he hadn’t been so petrified, he might have enjoyed it.

.o0o.

Ksenia stayed outside, he took a seat, as a middle-aged man with a domed Russian forehead and typical beefy features came through and sat down opposite him. The questions started softly in English and surprisingly to Hugh, continued that way, although they were very curly questions – the man went into Hugh’s whole history, his foibles, his failures, his successes, the whole thing.

Then came the impossible question and as Ksenia had predicted, the man’s manner changed, he shouted and two uniformed officials came through, grabbed him by the arms and forced him out of the room to the next one down the corridor.

This room was nasty, it had white tiles up to about seven feet, with a ten feet high ceiling and it was empty, except for a chair with restraints.

Two young women in uniform came through and they were beautiful, one auburn and one fair haired but they didn’t smile, just put some instruments on the metal table, then departed.

Hugh felt very much like doing wee and had to hold himself together.

.o0o.

Now came the waiting, the silence, except for conversation he did not follow outside the door, people went back and forth out there and suddenly a woman came through. She summed up everything Hugh felt about evil because she did not look evil at all. She had a lovely jaw and fair hair, was in her mid-thirties, of medium height, slim and her uniform fitted her a treat.

She was evil.

She came across to him, eyeballing him, then began to speak in faltering English. ‘I am going to ask you the question once again, Mr. Jensen, the question my colleague asked, if you do not answer, then we will move to something unpleasant.’

At this moment, there was some sort of commotion at the door, Ksenia’s voice snapped at her, there were now other people in the room, he heard the sound of a woman’s heels leaving, he was unstrapped.

Ksenia was standing near the door, barely in control of herself. She and the three men swiftly left by the corridor and went through the front office, Ksenia pausing to slap some papers down on the administrator’s desk, the top copy which she rapidly scribbled a signature on and then they were gone.

He sat in the back with one operative, the other drove and Ksenia was in the front passenger seat.

VII

Geneviève nodded to Francine. ‘It means it’s almost that time again, doesn’t it?’

‘Oui, Mademoiselle. Why can’t you free yourself from them?’

‘No one does that, Francine, we all have patronage of some kind, it does not affect the Section, in fact it ensures our continuation.’

‘Mais -’

‘You’re idealistic, Francine, it doesn’t work that way.’

VIII

‘You were to be interrogated under a particular protocol which allowed some things but not others. That was why I assured you that you weren’t to be damaged.’

Hugh looked across at her on their bed at her place – she’d insisted it was ‘their’ bed – and asked her to continue.

‘While you were in the room with that first man, I went to the front desk and thought I’d take up the dossier with your name paper-clipped at the top. I didn’t see it at first but then I looked further through the sheets and saw that the protocol had been changed. That’s why I came into the room and took you away.’

Hugh felt sick in the stomach. ‘You’re saying that they actually had something else planned?’

‘You would have gone to a different address.’

‘What if you hadn’t been there with me?’ He was shaken.

‘But I would have been. The only reason you were being debriefed at all was because, technically, I sent you. So, the two things go together. They knew very well they could do nothing but someone amended that protocol and you can be sure I will find out who.

You see, there’s a basic principle here – we don’t do anything nasty to our own operatives, otherwise no one would go overseas. The only reason for this one now was you were talking to British and French intelligence.

You had the X-Ray, you had the general medical – all of our people have that when they return, it’s nothing. The extra was because of Carly.’

He thought that through, accepted it but then said, ‘I can’t come to grips with the idea that such a pretty lady could be so evil.’

‘This woman you call pretty – she’s a sick person to put up with that work or else she was traumatized some time ago and has to do it.’

She looked into his eyes. ‘Now you know how it brutalizes us, how it makes us complacent to the suffering of others, it’s just a question of degree how far each of us has gone along that road – that’s why I looked carefully into your mind after you’d sent that Alfa over the cliff without the least mental anguish. I don’t mind saying now that I want out and I don’t relish Ludmilla’s role – we both saw her as kindly but you do know that she’s authorized these protocols before, she had to do it, as these were very dangerous people who were being held.’

‘But I wasn’t.’

‘No but you became part of something by becoming involved with me.’

‘If you’re the head, doesn’t the head have to remain in her secure home?’

‘Ludmilla Valerievna had to but when they split the roles, Yulia was the one with the secrets and the power to order people into this file or that. I’m still in the field, but overseeing protocols and reviewing, inspecting – I move around. This was part of that. It’s not the old work but I still move around. I’m technically over her but she does have the power to put me in a file.’

IX

October, 2002

One night, Geneviève phoned Hugh directly, at his home and in person.

‘Geneviève,’ was all the reply he could make and she was surprised and happy he had used her name like that.

‘Oui, Hugh – how do you feel K would react to coming to Paris?’

‘Her emotional reaction would be most positive, her professional reaction would be that it is not possible.’

‘Oui but we might be able to arrange it, non? We might be able to give her special protection, I can certainly do that when she crosses into French airspace.’

‘The problem comes before that. Let me contact her and ask her, phone me again in 20 minutes.’

He hadn’t told her that Ksenia was actually in the room at that very moment. He told her the lot. ‘Geneviève can guarantee protection in French airspace, I can get you protection from the Russians and anything inbetween they’d have to shoot the plane down.

‘You get me protection?’ Her face was creased with laughter. ‘How?’

‘Let me speak to the Minister I work with, he’s arranging such things all the time. If you tried to travel as K, you would not be able, but under a different designation, under escort, it might be possible. Let me speak with him at least.’

She was not grinning maliciously, she really wanted to know how. ‘You, Hugh Jensen, a minor cipher clerk and an Englishman, will make arrangements between Russia and France for the head of one of our security services to visit one of theirs? Hugh, I truly love you. Go on, Mr. Arranger – let’s see what you can do.’

.o0o.

Geneviève returned the call and he said it might be positive but they had to speak with various people higher up – phone back in three days at the same time of evening.

.o0o.

The Minister himself, next day in his English lesson, was quite amused by the idea and promised to phone a few colleagues – yes, it might be a bit of fun to delve into another Ministry’s affairs.

.o0o.

Two days later, a security conference was arranged within Dauphin University, Ksusha would be obliged to stay in secure premises, Hugh would stay with Louise and he’d be included in the official tour of the city as Ksenia’s interpreter, along with Louise.

What Mr. Jensen had to understand though was that he had no official standing, so when the question of accreditation came up, he’d be restricted. It was all well and fine Ms Sharova wishing him to be present but he lacked the status to be there, except as all pomoshniki were restricted to certain areas.

X

When Carly heard about what had happened, she was also creasing herself with laughter but she made damned sure the British were going to be there, all the same.

XI

Marc broke the news to Dilyara and assured her it would be for a short while only in Paris. She didn’t believe him. He put her straight.

‘Mademoiselle certainly thinks it will be forever, I know that but it’s not going to be. This is our home here, this is what we built and she’s going to have to accept that, I’ll leave the Section if we are made to stay there.’

She was delighted that he’d now come out and said that.

Nicolette came downstairs with her bags and she’d heard Marc’s ultimatum. ‘Do not forget my position – I will make her understand, have no fear of that. Thank you for everything these days I’ve stayed under your roof. Marc moved up to her, taking her in his arms. ‘Bye for now, take care. And thank you fo coming here.’

He took her bags and her down to the car which had just pulled in below and put her bags in the boot. She got in, the locks clicked into place, suddenly there was the sound of gunfire, the locks were undone, Nicolette threw open the door and half fell out, blood over her white blouse.

Marc raced out to get her back inside, Dilyara watching in horror from her living room window but there was no need – the driver and the other two were quite dead with bullets to their brains, slumped at all angles.

.o0o.

Nicolette bathed and dressed quickly in gear Dilyara had pulled from her pack and then repacked the rest, she was bundled downstair the backstairs and saw she’d have to climb a ladder and drop down the other side in the neighbour’s yard, a woman came out and hurried her inside.

.o0o.

Not five minutes later, the local police arrived, saw all and demanded to know where Mlle Vasseur was.

‘She just left, ran, she’s no doubt hiding somewhere.’

‘Why would she do that?’

‘It would be misinterpreted or else you would also be assassins. She must appears sometime, so keep your eyes open.’

‘We will look at your place now, Monsieur.’

‘Your warrant?’

‘So, it’s like that is it?’

‘No, I just asked. Feel free – go anywhere you like.’

The leader looked at him, then ordered his offsiders to spread out and check all nooks and crannies.

.o0o.

‘If she reappears, you are to report to us immediately -’

‘Your contact details please?’

The man was mollified somewhat. He scribbled them and gave them to Marc. ‘We’ll expect your call.’

Chapter 1-17 hereChapter 1-19 here

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