It was evening before Marc quietly slipped over the side fence at the back and then into the little room beneath the stairs – Nikki was eating and sipping on tea.
She smiled at him under the single 25W bulb.
‘All right, Nikki, give.’
‘It was my mistake at first getting in the car. I knew, I had the feeling but I still got in and then the doors were locked.’
‘Modern cars do that.’
‘They do when the engine starts, the engine had not started. The registration plate was right, the number of men was right, they were French which was right but just by chance, Mademoiselle had said on the phone minutes earlier that the driver was Gerard, someone I would know.’
‘That’s still not killers.’
‘It was not right and we do it by the book, especially as we’re women and vulnerable in other ways too. We make a point of that and I knew none of them, plus they were all big men. The one beside me was sitting more in the centre, close up to me, which I did not like either and his right arm [on the other side] was still on the seat, as if he was holding something. I thought a gun but then I thought about the smell I’d noticed when I got in. I thought it was disinfectant at first and then I understood.’
‘The next part was in a rush. I just pushed him, I had to do something to start it happening while I was still in your driveway, he brought his right arm up with a cloth with that smell, the one in the passenger seat turned with a gun, I chopped his hand and it must have been his shock that I could tear his gun away with my left hand, I shot the one on the back seat in the head, shot the front passenger second, put the gun in my right hand and hit the driver over the head with the gun butt but it did not stop him, he should have unlocked and run but he thought he’d deal with me, he had to turn to grab me but I shot him in the head. That was all.’
‘Other than unlocking the doors and falling out.’
‘Were you armed?’
‘Only the knife in my bag.’
‘We can say you were carrying no weapons, you had no gun?’
‘Our Section does not require us to carry anything but some of us do.’
‘Yes. It’s not required.’
‘I think it’s safe enough for you to go to the police but we need to have Mademoiselle here. Can you sleep in here tonight?’
He kissed her quickly, rested a hand on her forearm and said, ‘Well done, Nikki, it should be all right. Are you all right, personally I mean.’
‘You’re one cool customer.’
‘I wasn’t cool inside that car, I screamed to put them off.’ Marc smiled – he knew that scream. He rested a hand on her shoulder, then was gone. Nikki rebolted the door of the cupboard.
Marc went back home and called Geneviève secure, not saying where Nikki was, even so. She was on her way with the papers.
The charter flight took off, touched down five and a half hours later and Hugh found himself settling in at Louise’s. Her connection with this level of Paris officialdom suited her down to the ground and her stocks within the university were soaring.
She’d prepared the foie gras herself, a long process, plus cured rostbif for the Englishman’s supper. The only thing not on the menu she’d work on slowly over the two day conference and complicating matters, the phone was always going to be running hot – girlfriends asking her how it was all going, calls from the hotel, calls from Ksenia and so on.
Louise was in her element. She’d done him proud, Ksenia had suggested a gift of some class from Russia, something crystal and this had gone down well too.
Pity must be an awfully big factor in relationships but beauty was the big one and there was no room to manoeuvre. If you were not one of the naturally Beautiful People, then you could not afford even one single offputting character flaw. She and he both had such flaws by the bucketful, forgiven in the Beautiful People but inevitably leading to isolation and loneliness in such people as Hugh and Louise.
Poor Louise – no doubt part of the furniture at the university, that special lack of grace must surely have produced a feeling in her colleagues of good-natured tolerance in their better hours and outright avoidance in their not so good hours.
He wondered how far that analysis was applicable to him. There was always this feeling that he had to work to keep a woman interested – the slightest letup and the woman would fade away into the night, no chance to just relax and enjoy her. This was Louise too – should she manage to land a man, she’d have to be on her very best behaviour 24/7.
‘What are you thinking, Hugh?’ asked Louise.
He told her the aspects pertaining to himself. ‘It’s difficult to have to work so hard and the moment a charismatic walks in the room, you’ve lost the person you’d been working on.’
She wanted to comment, oh she dearly wanted, but to comment would have been an admission and as she was in denial over that very thing, she’d have to keep the discussion squarely on him. ‘Some have it easy, some don’t.’
‘You find it easy of course.’
She saw the trap too late. ‘Hugo …’ She lapsed into silence, then had a second attempt. ‘Hugo …’
He helped out. ‘What is ‘beautiful’ anyway, Louise? Confidence in your own beauty? Knowing you can walk into a room and eyes will turn your way for the right reasons? You know I turn eyes in Shadzhara but that’s because I’m different to a native, that’s all it is – suddenly the girl wants to speak English with me, it’s never anything deep and real.’
‘Non, people want to speak with you because you’re interesting … and you’re pleasant to look at – look at Depardieu, he’s no great beauty. It’s so much easier for a man – the man can look quite plain and yet he’s very attractive to a girl. A girl though – she must be beautiful … or nothing.’
‘Louise, maybe a girl’s beauty arises from her nature showing through her physical features – pardon for saying this in front of a lady but bitches are not beautiful, no matter how pretty their shells are. The issue becomes her herself – her nature, her simplicity, her elegant dress sense and her smile, never forget the smile, the smile says that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. These things are all important.’
She opened her mouth to reply but any reply would have put her in it. He was indirectly criticizing her for all those criteria she knew she did not measure up on and she’d made a big effort for him this evening too, it was so unfair. ‘Hugo … dressing beautifully and grooming make a girl feel good in herself, they give her great confidence that all is right, that no blemishes will be seen by someone looking at her closely.’
‘Your dress sense and your grooming are so gallic, so beautiful to the eye but I’d like you to relax more. The canvas is already in place and the wash has been applied, now it only needs the brush stroke of a relaxed person, a happy soul, to add piquancy to the whole picture. You would then take Paris by storm, without even trying to.’
She was stunned. She wanted to go into it, desperately wanted to pursue this topic but her pride could not allow it.
The doorbell now ringing was not loud but it may as well have been a klaxon in its effect on both of them. She checked the wall clock, frowned and went to the eyehole.
Damn. The one person she did not want.
Geneviève came through and removed her shoes, announcing she just happened to be passing and knew Hugh was here, she’d just flown in from Prague – could she just say hello and then wouldn’t disturb them any further?
Louise seethed but knew there was no choice.
Then she gasped as Geneviève pulled one of the oldest tricks in the book, a coquettish Section trick at that, dropping her eyes momentarily on seeing Hugh, acting confused then glancing up to see the effect she’d created.
Damn the woman.
Geneviève asked a few unimportant things about how he’d settled in, complimented Louise on her new décor, with Hugh chorusing her words, damn their condescending manner, and then took her leave, to Louise’s palpable relief.
Hugh immediately went up to her and kissed her deeply, to her shock. ‘This is what I’m talking about, Louise,’ he said quietly. ‘You were angry that Geneviève was here and pulled that trick on me.’
‘You knew that trick?’
He laughed. ‘Bien sur, it’s all part of the game – but why so annoyed, pourquoi? If you are a beauty yourself – and you are – then why should her entrance be a problem? Confidence, Louise, believing in yourself.’
‘As you do?’ she half-mocked. ‘Do you think women find you attractive?’
‘Most don’t give me the time of day as they pass me by – it’s only after they’ve given me a chance that they start to change their minds. I know I’m not beautiful but it doesn’t stop me kissing you, hoping that you won’t push me away.’
‘But how can you be confident of that?’
‘I think you’re curious and you will allow that much.’
The thing which concerned him was that it obviously didn’t register in Louise’s mind that he was taken, his woman was in Paris now and if he were a halfway decent person, he would not even think for a second about sexual matters with Louise.
But Louise clearly didn’t see things that way. And he was susceptible to the female in general – not a good trait.
Ksenia lay back on her bed – yet another hotel room, she reflected. Conference indeed – what on earth was she doing here in Paris alone and the one who’d brought her here was shacked up with some French girl two kilometres away?
She got up and went to the window, standing to one side from sheer habit and looking down below at all the people bustling by, cars bumper to bumper and things happening out there, things she couldn’t share in. And what could she share in? Hugh’s phone call to her which she simply had no choice but to wait for.
She was dressed to the nines, she was made up and no one came. Well, to hell with that. She slipped out of her room and downstairs, slipped the doorman – actually a heavy type – an exorbitant amount, said she’d be one hour exactly, how could she get back in?
He told her the special knock on the door, he would still be on duty.
Out in the lane, she looked left where she’d seen a cafe bar and there it was, some thirty metres away, she crossed the road and went in.
There were looks of admiration but one man in particular jumped up, smoothed himself down and came over to her.
‘Vodka Martini, Mademoiselle?’
‘Just vodka, je suis Russe.’ He smiled at that and snapped his fingers, a waiter came over and took his order – cognac for him. ‘You have me at a disadvantage, Monsieur.’
‘A thousand apologies,’ he protested. ‘Denis le Febvre,’ he showed her ID, French security, one of the delegates for tomorrow. Well, surely this would come under the heading of détente, let’s see what happened. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her minders who’d rushed to the bar had now slowed and entered normally, reporting her every move and a fairly agitated conversation was going on.
She smiled that killer smile she kept in reserve and Denis caught it full blast. What he couldn’t have caught was that she never went anywhere with men who approached her – she’d enjoy this for the moment but all the while she was glancing sideways at her own people.
It turned out innocuous in the end, she promised to look out for him, she allowed her minders to escort her back and there was no need for special knocks or any more cash.
Hugh caught her on his third attempt to call.
Francois de Marchant looked out over the Bois de Vincennes, from his light grey parquet floor, the glass table and chairs and the 21st century decor behind him.
He felt the forest out of place in his conception of the Paris landscape – better a sombre field in muted greys and pale greens, better cleanliness and order than that unsightly and disorganized tangled mess of root and branch. He glanced at his masterpiece on the wall with the discreet lamps highlighting his exquisite taste – give him fractal landscapes please and save him from any form of impressionism.
He wandered across to his desk phone and pressed the button. Presently he was connected and lifted the receiver to his ear.
‘Oui, I did ask you to call – little problem, it seems, maverick women going to sign all manner of accords tomorrow.
Oui – SAC Novalis, de Leet and Pasus Basel.
Yes, that serious. No we can’t and that’s the problem – foot in both camps. Geneviève is fine, we’ve let her return for the conference. What do you wish us to do? I see. No, I agree – accords are just pieces of paper. Le Febvre? Working on it, I believe.’
The events of Conference Day swept all interpersonal matters aside and the plenary went smoothly, the first session took place and then came lunch.
K was entertained by French and other security people, it was their big day and they were going to extract the most from it – good luck to them, Hugh thought. Good luck to Ksusha too – Ludmilla had never done this, more was the pity.
Ksusha must have said something because the table where he was lunching with Louise and Genie was now swamped by people wanting to hear from the ‘architect’ of the conference.
No, no, Hugh self-deprecated, it was a security affair – he was just a bystander.
Eventually Ksusha and Hugh found themselves facing one another in the foyer and he congratulated her on the success so far. ‘But Ksusha, no racing off to bars because you’ve been neglected by your beau.
You do know that Denis of yours, don’t you, who he is?’
‘We’ll talk this evening – you know there’s a dinner, after that we’ll get some time.’
She turned, went back for the afternoon sessions and it was 17:20 before Hugh knew what had become of her.
When he saw her next, she was in the custody of the French and something was going on. As he approached, Geneviève saw him, broke off from the group and took him to one side.
‘K is being questioned about the death of a delegate last evening, it’s a diplomatic nightmare. She apparently met with this man le Febvre in a bar.’
The colour drained from his face. ‘What will happen?’
‘No one actually knows, the protocols are unclear because they were arranged hurriedly and there is no precedent for such a conference.’
‘There’ve been security conferences before.’
‘Oui but not at this level and between these two countries.’
‘You mean at such a high level?’
‘Non, the opposite – at such a low level, there is no direct government involvement in this, except for diplomatic immunity, it’s a sideshow, Hugh – if it was at government level, then the matter would have been resolved.
The difficulty at the moment is keeping the Surete out of it. As I say, it’s a nightmare.’
She went over and demanded custody of K. Seemingly the highest ranked French official in the room, they had little option but to let Ksenia go with her, she immediately arranged for her people to get K to her apartment, which did have diplomatic standing for the duration of this conference and gave K an out if she really wanted – they would have to release her into Russian custody.
Ksenia was well aware that this was no ordinary apartment, it would have all sorts of measures and escape routes.
It was about 21:00 when Geneviève appeared and the bevy of Russians and French in the living room seemed completely at odds with the décor. They all retired now to their respective holding positions downstairs and a mini-conference ensued over coffee.
Geneviève spoke. ‘You’re here on sufferance for the moment, Ksenia Vladimirovna. Are you willing to tell me if you killed him?’
‘I didn’t kill him.’
‘What the hell were you doing? What were you thinking, girl?’
Ksenia did not resent this for one moment – the move to the familiar manner was actually a relief. ‘He came up and announced himself.’
‘How did you get past our security and get to the bar?’
‘Ksenia, you really need now to give me chapter and verse, exactly as it happened so that I can keep those people off me. You hve immunity but the damage would be incalculable to what we’re trying to achieve. Please help us, help me.’
‘Going to the bar was stupid, I know that but I was so frustrated there. Everyone else was out and about, meeting, I had a phone call with Hugh. I can have those in Russia. I’m sorry.
All right, I recognized the name le Febvre from the communication your Marc received which led to the events in Britain. He had no way of knowing I’d come downstairs but he was ready in case I did.’
‘To compromise me, which he did.’
‘To lead him back to my room, drug him and go through his things – papers, phone numbers, sim card. Don’t forget, I’m not that long out of field work.’
‘So you did not kill him, you say? He did not, in fact, come back to your room, try to have sex with you, you did not then lose your temper and kill him?’
‘Ask my minders, the people who spoilt my party.’
‘I did. They clear you. Did you in fact have any weapons on you at all?’
‘You will take my key to my room now, which I give you freely, your people will go through my room – I allow this now. Here they are.’ She put them on the table. ‘Now, is this room secure, no one will come in?’
‘Not in the least. It is my home.’
‘Good.’ She then proceeded to take every item of clothing off and put them on the table. Geneviève saw again what a truly magnificent specimen she was. Then, naked, she opened her handbag and poured everything onto the sidetable.
Clearly, I’ll not allow you to examine the phone data nor will I explain my cards but the rest you can see. No weapon. It was a condition of my being here.’
‘You’ve acted in an exemplary manner, Ksenia. Most impressive and you’re a very beautiful woman too, which I’ve said once before.’
‘You’re not too bad yourself, Geneviève. Hugh is most impressed by you.’ She smiled.
There was a call. ‘Oui. Oui? Send him up. Do you wish to dress?’
‘Who is it?’
‘No, I’ll stay like this.’ Geneviève looked to the ceiling and sighed. There were noises, he knocked on the door and came through, then grinned when he saw the scene. ‘She’s lively, my wife.’
‘Wife?’ asked Geneviève.
‘Oh, slip of the tongue. May we have some moments? Is this recorded in here?’
‘It’s the one room which is not, the others are.’
Geneviève went downstairs to field the questions.
They looked at each other a few moments and she explained. ‘I was really lonely, cut off, Hugh. I wanted this man to fuck me, it’s been so long since something clandestine, exotic happened, but once again, I couldn’t do it to you. He was so obviously wrong though, so obviously there on that off chance.’
‘They’re saying you killed him.’
‘No, I was taken from the bar by my minders. Don’t tell me where he was killed or how. I don’t know, don’t want to know and I need that innocence established.’
‘You have no idea about it at all?’
‘None and if you do, don’t tell me one thing.’
Geneviève came through and saw them in each other’s arms. ‘I was listening at the door, obviously. There are no bugs in here, that much is true. I didn’t say anything about not listening at doors.’
‘Listen, Geneviève, I don’t know how he was killed, I don’t want to know. Don’t tell me.’
‘I believe you because our two boys swear they escorted you back to the room and watched the door and another two watched your window from the next balcony along. Now, if you two would like to make love, feel free. It’s unusual but then again, you two are unusual.’
‘Is Hugh allowed to come back to my room?’
‘No. Nor is it wise for you to go to Louise’s – it’s not very complimentary.’
‘Then thank you.’ She lifted a thigh to his hip and it was on. Geneviève was not shocked, she only wished her Philippe would be so responsive. She closed the door behind her and went downstairs.
Asked one of the Russians, ‘May we speak to our delegate and our security man?’
‘I’m sorry, they’re currently engaged in conference in an upstairs room. They will be some time.’
The Russians fully understood and settled in for a fair wait.
In the forest, as the light faded and the trees became gloomy at the edge of the clearing, it was almost time to go. They’d finished the desserts and he suddenly asked her a strange question, out of the blue. ‘Did you ever get into trouble for going to Paris?’
She looked hard at him and spoke quietly. ‘Nyet. You know it was a huge success … officially, that is.’
‘I know but still.’
‘Hugh, that’s perceptive.’ She giggled. ‘Do you really want to know what happened?’
‘I’m not K any more.’
‘I’m not K, I gave it up after I came back from the conference. How do you think I’m now allowed to the forest with you?’
‘Whoa. Stop. Then who the hell are you?’
‘I’m Ksenia,’ she answered, like a girl.
‘You know what I mean.’
‘You’re going to love this – I’m the English X, the Russian ‘khe’. You know, Miss X. Well, we thought it was good anyway.’
‘And what is khe?’
‘She has a roving commission for the service, she’s meant to be above K but the two are separate arms now and so it’s not clear really.’
‘You know my next question – is there now a K?’
‘Well, there has to be – Yulia of course, as we knew long ago.’
‘She’s so young.’
‘Ludmilla Valerievna is helping her for one year. Look, Hugh, it was clear I wasn’t cut out for it, Yulia’s excellent and willing to learn, she’s more conservative than me and more cautious, quite ambitious, whereas I couldn’t care less for that sort of thing.
LudValievna saw it and agreed it was best. Oh I’m still reporting for duty but I get the juicy jobs again, the difficult ones. They both tap into my supposed expertise.’
‘So that’s why the buoyant mood lately?’
‘Well, that and you, I really do love you, you know.’
‘Ditto – you know, I’m really so happy it worked out that way for you, I seriously am.’
‘I believe you really mean that.’
‘It’s getting cold, Ksushinka. Let’s go.’
She sighed and conceded that all good things had to end.
It had taken months for the result of the investigation into the killings at Marc’s home to come through.
There’d been obstruction at every level from two government policing bodies, all the while trying to pin murder on Nicolette.
It had been argued that she’d simply got into the car with a weapon and shot two officers but as she’d had no prior whatsoever in such matters, she had no gun and it was the type used by such men, and as it was ludicrous that she would have bothered herself with three such men unless they were threatening her, the case against her was not proved.
Dilyara fully believed it had been Geneviève who’d engineered the whole thing, just to get her to agree to go to Paris, which they’d now done and Marc had had no luck in assuring her that Geneviève would never, ever have been capable of such a thing, nor did she have any time due to the Ksenia drama.
‘It’s not long now, Marc. I’m not sure I want to have the baby in Paris, I’ve told you that many times. I know you’re being quiet about it because you’d like him to be French but I’m not sure I want that. Maybe not even in Shadzhara. Why can’t we have the child in Prague?’
‘Do we want him to be a Czech? What real connection do we have with the place? Why not American? Canadian? Australian?’
‘My family will want me back home for it. They’re quite traditional that way. You must at least consider that, it’s an important matter, nationality, for a child.’
‘I know, I know. Don’t forget my connection with Britain either. We’d better get onto the internet and find the situation about the countries on our list.’
‘Well, let’s do it soon.’
One evening at Ksusha’s, Hugh met the lovely Yulia. There’d been a scare over a delegation from Iran – one of the delegates had gone missing from a swimming session.
The man had been dropped off at the pool at his insistence, some sort of fitness fanatic and he’d had only his own security detail on hand. They’d stated that he’d gone into the changing rooms but had never come out.
Now this was not really K’s affair – local militsia could handle it and yet, the very fact that it had been a diplomatic disappearance, well, they’d been reluctant to touch it and word had come from above that K should investigate.
She’d sent people and nothing had come up. She knew it was late but could Ksusha help her, pretty please? Hugh noted she was dressed more powerfully than the last time he’d seen her but would never cut it as an austere, soviet type bureaucrat. She was too voluptuous and her old manner, her carriage had not been lost.
In short, she was way too sexy for the role.
Ksenia excused herself and took Yulia through to the living room, where they were tucked away for over two hours.
When they eventually came through again, Ksenia had a worried look and Yulia nodded to Hugh, dressed and left quickly.
‘Do you think it will be all right?’ he asked.
‘I think I know where he is, it seems a little bit of Iranian politicking here, positioning themselves for the discussions tomorrow – the main thing’s for Yulia to find him before they announce they’ve recovered him.
‘Do you think she’s good enough for the job?’
She sighed. ‘I want her to be, for obvious reasons, I fear she’s not, she doesn’t seem to have the – the –’
‘The insight? Second sight?’
‘She doesn’t seem to distrust enough.’
Viktor and Gulya flew to Cyprus for a holiday. They stayed at the Holiday Inn in Limassol and went on the excursions.
She wanted to visit the Holy Land, one of the side excursions and so they took the boat across, just as rockets began to rain down on Northern Israel and security was tightened in the Gaza and on the West Bank.
The road up from Jerusalem, after they’d taken in the wailing wall and the Temple Mount made Viktor feel like one of the ancients, except in an airconditioned bus.
Gulya pointed out the Jezre’el Valley and Har Megiddon in the distance, to which he joked, ‘The end of the world is nigh.’
They took in Nazareth and Bethlehem but Tel Aviv did not fit the schedule they’d bought.
Before they returned to Cyprus, they did their souvenir buying. They bought for his mother, sister, ex-wife and daughter and she bought for the three closest to her. Now came something for her best friend Tanya and a couple of work colleagues.
That left Hugh, Anya and Ksenia – he wanted to make the gifts inspiring, with a message. For Hugh, they decided on a statuette of Solomon, in the hope he’d make wise decisions.
They had a laugh about a statuette of Jezebel for Ksenia but Gulya flatly refused to allow it. They chose a Rachel for her.
For Anya, it would be Sarah, in the hope that she’d find a husband and have a family some time.
Marc phoned Hugh from Paris. Dilyara had had a baby girl they’d named Dilyara, weight 3.2 kg, both in rude health.
Congratulations and best wishes poured in from friends and family, Ksenia sent money to Geneviève and asked her to buy the bedding and bassinet with it.
Well, that was one worry over.
The phone rang at Nicolette’s flat mid-evening.
She was putting a piece of ham croissant in her mouth at the time and only half concentrated on the message. It was Guillaume, asking her to be ready to go to Mademoiselle’s for an urgent meeting on the accords.
Sighing, she finished the croissant, looked at the hall mirror, pulled out and applied a little more pomada, locked up and went downstairs.
In the back of the car she put a call through to Geneviève but got no answer.
She tried the mobile.
She tried the secure device.
Nothing. OK, she thought, she’d try Francine.
‘Oui, Nikki? You too? I’ve been trying to catch her for the last hour. So has Nadine. Where are you?’
Nicolette maintained her silence and Francine immediately put two and two together. ‘Tell me, oui or non, are you at home?
‘Are you in a car?’
‘Are you being driven?’
‘Let me see, by Michel?’
‘Oui. I have to see Mademoiselle about the accords. She called Guillaume.’
‘But Nikki, he doesn’t … ah, I see. All right, leave it to me.’
‘Right, I’ll see you tomorrow.’ She shut the mobile off and rested her back against the backrest, gazing out of the window.
They arrived in good time and immediately she got out, Guillaume sped off. Nikki turned towards the apartment block but instead of going in, she ran towards a blue Volvo and jumped into the passenger seat through the held-open door.
The Volvo tore off down the road and cornered at a terrific rate, only slowing down once they’d hit rue de Bercy. Nicolette stared straight ahead but asked Francine, ‘Alors. What happened?’
‘You broke protocol, Nikki.’
‘I know, I know. But we don’t expect –’
‘We never do – don’t you know that from Prague?’
‘That wasn’t protocol.’
‘Sorry, you’re right, it wasn’t. But you know what I mean.’
‘She was sent on an emergency call to save you at Marc’s apartment. Apparently you’d fallen and broken your leg. Guillaume made the call. She’s down at Fontainebleau now.’
‘We’re going there now?’
‘Oui. The boys will take care of Guillaume.’
Nicolette looked across at Francine – tall,with pretensions of being a fashion model, a bit highly strung and inclined to be a bit too serious for comfort. She’d been Nikki’s partner for a while now and Nikki had had no complaints.
There was no better friend than Francine.
The drive south of Paris in the late evening was pleasant, just the gradually diminishing traffic after Orly and sections of open road. There was silence in the car but the two women found comfort in each other’s company and the passing scene either side of the road.
Rain began to fall, just a little drizzle and the wipers were on slow.
Nikki spoke. ‘Can’t believe I fell for that, Francine. Must be getting old.’
Francine guffawed. She loved Nikki, her dramatic gestures and her fears. ‘I might have done that too. Interesting that Mademoiselle didn’t phone you herself.’
‘There’s bound to be a reason, let’s wait for Fontainebleau.’
About forty minutes later, Francine pulled into the carport and the automatic grid closed behind her. They went inside and there was Geneviève, who hugged Nicolette to her.
‘That was the second kidnap attempt, Moineau. They weren’t going to kill you after all – but we’ll keep that to ourselves.’
Ksenia and Hugh drove back in high spirits from yet another late Sunday afternoon forest session and high spirits tended to make her do outrageous things.
Fine day it had been, not particularly warm and they’d made the most of it.
It began back at the car, when she asked him to swap coats. She was naked underneath hers, as usual, bar the boots and his swamped her, while hers almost did up at the front. The thing was, his was fur on the inside, as men’s jackets tend to be and hers was fur on the outside, as women’s jackets are.
So the error was glaring.
They’d stopped off to pick up the makings of supper from a little shop they knew along the way, as the setting sun was reflecting red off the windows of the passing houses.
The woman behind the counter was officious and coarse, the customers as bovine as the meat they were buying. Their supposed error with their jackets cut no ice with her, thinking them both smarta***es of the first degree – fancy living with her more than a few days.
At about the same time, woman’s husband came through, standing in the doorway to the backroom, one of the male customers said, ‘Don’t you think you have the wrong jacket on, krasotka?’
That was Ksusha’s opening and she made a big deal about taking hers off and standing there in her boots, handing it to him, while she undid the one on him. The customers, to a man and a woman, including the woman’s husband, were staring, goggle-eyed.
Now correctly attired and zipped up, the man came forward to serve her. She thanked him sweetly and took the goods.
For personal security reasons, they always dropped the car off at the carpark together and walked back together, so it was dusk by the time they made it to her flat.
She heaved the baskets into the kitchen, onto the bench, still chuckling and he put his gear in the living room.
‘I’m going to change,’ she called out. ‘Can you put the water on for the soup?’
After about seven or eight minutes, she still hadn’t returned so he called out to her, over the bubbling water. Obviously, she hadn’t heard him. Sighing, he switched off the gas and strolled down to her bedroom, saw her crumpled on the floor, convulsing, dry retching and then saw why.
He had to use all his strength to lift her to the living room, where she collapsed to the floor again.
He went straight to the drawer, took the Makarov, put in a magazine and proceeded to check every cupboard, every crevice in the place.
He went into that room again, pulled the bedclothes back and saw the whole gruesome tale. The head of one of her childhood dolls had been placed at a comical angle on her pillow but the naked, headless body in the bed was for real.
Hugh knew instantly who it was, from the bust and hands.
Himself retching, he went back to the kitchen, ordered a taxi then returned to Ksenia, holding her close, she was lifeless, not even rigid but lifeless. Her head lolled to one side, letting out a low moan which knew no ending. She then managed to pull herself together enough to ask if it was a taxi he’d ordered.
‘Cancel it. Bring me my pager.’ She ordered one of her own people. Then she collapsed again, Hugh keeping the rag doll head and upper body near vertical.
It seemed an eternity but when the bell came in the pre-arranged sequence, she stumbled out of the flat, handing him the keys and he locked it behind him. The driver was trained for these situations and asked who was going to tell him where to go.
Hugh gave him his address.
It took them the usual twenty minutes to get there but Hugh’s flat required the lift and they had to wait a seemingly interminable time for it to come down from the fourteenth floor.
Two teenage girls got out and they got in, the three of them.
On his landing, he handed Ksenia to the driver and opened his door, taking out the Makarov and beginning the recce of the flat. Nothing in toilet or bathroom, nothing in the kitchen, noth –
Oh yes there was. He rushed to the door and told the driver to get her down to the car quickly. She began to protest, Hugh locked up and they got her downstairs, once in the car he handed the driver his keys.
On the road, with the man maddeningly keeping exactly to the speed limit and observing the highway code, as per standing orders, they were only barely into the countryside when Ksenia slowly got a grip.
She took in the situation, knew the route implicitly, knew what was happening and accepted it.
The driver had made quite a few calls on his secure device and now pulled off into a road leading to a field, his headlamps showing the narrow, bumpy way between two wire fences.
There was a light aircraft waiting in the distance, the lights were on and the moment they pulled up, the two got out, minus even a kitbag and stumbled across to the plane.
The pilot acknowledged them, checked the IDs, nodded again and they climbed into the back, Ksenia first.
Hugh didn’t even want to think of the takeoff without landing lights so all he could do was trust the seat of the pants flying ability of the pilot.
The man made a good take-off and soon they were airborne, the two engines making a hell of a racket and the wind buffeting the sides, causing the plane to rock slightly from side to side.
Hugh shut everything out and held Ksenia close, she did the same.
They landed at what had to have been one of the old, soviet style, green summer camps but this one had a landing strip and was lit. The instant they landed, the lights all went out and the pilot taxied by feel.
At a large building which seemed to be the hangar, the doors opened and the plane went inside, finally pulling up, the pilot shutting down the engines. Someone opened the door and first Hugh, then Ksenia, alighted.
They headed towards the only room with a light and were surprised once they went in.
It was not what you would have called plush but it was certainly homelier than a hangar and contained a double bed, bed linen, a walk in toilet bathroom complekt, a galley area with fridge and cooker and a couple of armchairs, all fairly modern and new. Someone with taste had obviously done the décor.
Now, for the first time, away from it all, they knew the unwinding would start and in that was the danger.
The pilot and one other indicated that their quarters were down the hallway, that neither Hugh nor Ksenia were to make any outside contact, either coded or uncoded and that they would have a visitor next morning. The pilot suggested they try to get some sleep. Did they need sedatives?
Hugh thought of being macho but then said da, it might be an idea. The pilot took a packet from the cupboard.
Now they were alone.
They looked at one another, Ksenia thought of cuddling but then decided against it, having pulled herself together and wanting to show Hugh she had.
She asked, ‘Did you see it? At my flat, I mean?’
‘I take it what you saw at your flat was the other part of her?’
‘Da. It was Yulia.’
Early June, 2003
When it was deemed safe, they flew back and it was clear that this type of thing, the wanton killing, had to end. The only hope to stay the hand of the hidden power was to go totally public and have some sort of international security conference with the press and such like in attendance.
‘We have to get this summit in by the time of the dead season,’ said Ksenia on the conference line. ‘Nothing happens in July and August here.’
In Paris, Geneviève concurred. ‘We would like it nearer the end of June.’
Carly agreed, as did the Czech, German and Spanish heads of sections. One thing they were all agreed upon was that the solution was to train and appoint a duplicate M, K or whatever to take over at home, should conferences like this need to take place.
‘I’m sorry to bring it up,’ said Carly, ‘but you lost K because she was lured out of the citadel. Also, there was no active line between the two of you, I believe a similar thing happened with the deputizing Mademoiselle. I’m not criticizing you without taking it upon myself – I’ve done it too in the past.’
Ksenia conceded the point. ‘We really must have one visible, mobile, secure, official head of section to speak for the section but not be au fait with day-to-day, then an operational head immediately below this person, always in situ, both replaceable by someone else.’
‘Seems to me,’ put in the Czech, ‘that it’s fine us all agreeing amongst ourselves but this does not include those who actually perpetrated the outrages.’
‘All right,’ concluded Ksenia, ‘we need to arrange our own diplomatic immunity with our governments before we fly and use our national carriers to fly in. Where’s our conference to be?’