1-5: Decisions

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I

Marc and Dilyara had also reached a critical point in Prague – yes, she’d flown there on his and her own money, they were holed up in a hotel in the better part of town, having done the touristy things that evening, now in their room and needing to talk seriously.

He turned, ran a finger along her side to her knee and spoke quietly. ‘I can save you the time, Dilya. I’ve been burnt, I don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep, I don’t want to say ‘forever and ever’ until it really can be forever and ever. You see me as a womaniser because I’m pretty much French, I see you missing home and family – your family is strong.’

‘And I’m fiercely independent – they’d lose me if they tried to pull in the reins. But I can’t just live with you, Marc. I can get away with sleeping with you here and now but not in the long term – the community, family.’

‘Moi aussi. I’m from a Catholic family who can’t know if we use contraception or not but they would know if we were living together. What do you really want?’

She was in a slight bind. There was pressure from the family to marry and she resisted it, even though her father said there was none, but there was also her own need now, not for marriage exactly but for some sort of serious ties. Also, she was headstrong, she liked to work late into the night and get up late, she liked to do many things she didn’t want to stop.

He reminded her of the Section again and how it took a fair slice out of his life, not wanting to relinquish that because, as the only male they really trusted, those girls, he created a sort of balance, or so he was led to believe. It paid well, it was work he really enjoyed and he liked the travel.

‘In order to meet girls,’ she murmured.

‘You see, there’s the distrust which comes from not knowing me. If you really knew me, if you asked Nicolette or one of the others, if I love someone I trust, then no other girl comes into that frame, except for good company. I enjoy the company of women but that doesn’t mean bedding them.’

Dilyara accepted that and it did seem they could thrash out a formula which would work. He was coming to the same conclusion.

II

‘Ksusha, he asked, how old’s Moscow?’

‘Coming up to 850 years.’

‘And Shadzhara?’

‘About 990 years, I think, from my lessons.’

‘Touch that stone there.’ She did. ‘That stone’s 1400 years old. The Abbey is older. I can never come to terms with standing here, it just seems to me – a bit unreal.’

Suddenly he stopped. He’d been facing the steps behind and a head had appeared above the steps, a head he suspected he knew the identity of, a head which he’d noticed in various places over these few days.

She spun round, just as the head took in the scene and beat a retreat.

‘Zhenya?’

‘Da. He’s fine, he sees you’re looking after me, we’re not touching.’

III

Marc took the opportunity to send a memo by secure messager to Genevieve, who sent an encrypted file back on his next moves. He’d have to depart the next day, early.

In addition, she’d received further data on Ksenia and now passed that on too, of sufficient gravity to warrant a phone call, so he rang Hugh, first call he’d received for days and Ksenia jumped.

‘Your French guardian angel?’ she ventured once the call was over. ‘Same warning or worse?’

‘Worse. You’re highly dangerous, you stalk your prey and befriend them then, when their fears are allayed, you strike. Comment?’

‘You know this already, I’ve given you my assurance, I could guarantee you’d not get that if I had other plans.’

.o0o.

Back at the hotel, they’d reached the shower part of it, the shower jet was too narrow, yet she wanted them to shower together. As he stepped into the bath, to his absolute shock, she stepped back, moving half out of the stream to allow him some water.

‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.

‘No woman’s ever done that before – given me half the water. I’m in danger of falling in love.’

‘Don’t. Because it might be contagious and I’m not sure we’re there yet.’ Her touch was already belying her words.

IV

Zhenya was not a happy man but what could he do? On the way back on the Intercity, he felt Hugh was out of order taking his kid sister for a trek the length and breadth of Britain but perhaps Ksusha had had orders which only she’d received from Petrova, which hadn’t come out in that contact the night before.

This could mean one of two things.

Either Petrova was holding out on him or else Ksusha was. He couldn’t believe his sister would actually have fallen for this Jensen so this was going to take some sorting out. A vague feeling started to come over him that perhaps Jensen was something more than he let on.

Nah, it wasn’t possible – they had the dope on the man.

And yet perhaps that’s what Ksusha had got to. If she’d felt that Hugh may have been other than what he claimed, well, she’d play it very close and wear him like a glove, that was her method, after all. Much as he didn’t like that method, he had to own it was efficacious.

Yep, that was a much more likely scenario. All right, he could only wait now and see how it panned out, Ksusha knew he was at the end of the phone.

V

‘Da,’ Ludmilla Valerievna answered the balding former tax inspector at the other end of the line. ‘Where? I thought you already knew that – he’s gone north with her. Da, we have minders there already. They would, if they had to. Nichevo. Dosvidanye.’

Ludmilla Petrova replaced the receiver and smiled to herself. Lucky man, Gospodin Jensen, to have friends like Viktor Igorovich. Actually, she quite liked both of them. She was up with Ksenia’s news as best she could via Zhenya, he was behaving predictably and Safin was bringing enormous trouble down on both his family and himself. SNAFU she thought in the Russian vernacular.

She picked up the receiver and made another call.

VI

Two men were seated in the East-West café on Lenina, Moscow, which was anything but a café with the ersatz-period furniture and assiduous service. Kryevyetki, prawn shells, were littered everywhere and the last four emptied glasses of beer had just been cleaned away.

The girl came too close, the well fed Sergei Deputatov made a saucy comment and slapped her behind. Instead of reacting in shock and horror, as western women have been trained to do, setting in train some lucrative litigation, the girl saw this as the start of some repartee which might be turned to advantage, which might get her invited to the leisure palaces of the rich.

She responded equally as saucily and extracting her telephone number was the work of a moment.

His companion, Ronald Seymour, returned to the other matter – why Deputatov was concerning himself with some obscure Englishman who’d just been assisting a member of security.

‘I’m surprised you ask. He gets invited to dinners and luncheons and he’s a conversationalist. If even two of those people got their stories together, our task might be a little more difficult.’

‘You’re gradually coming to the point, Sergei. But you’re not there yet.’

‘He’s a very rude man, this Jensen.’ Deputatov shoved his chair back and his lips were a grim line. ‘Not so long ago, Irina was at the garage opposite Tsum, just for benzine and he was chatting to some girl in the exit path. My wife naturally gave him a little toot and instead of moving, he came up to her, quite aggressively, so she reported. She wound up the window to protect herself from his attack but she still heard what he said, and in very bad Russian.’

Seymour tried to suppress a smile – he knew the feisty Irina, Queen of Shadzhara. ‘Tell me more.’

‘He was a stupid man, making all sorts of accusations about how her husband’s car, which she was currently allowed to drive, bought her nothing, that she was lacking in common decency – and other stupidities. Then he used a word towards her which shall never be forgiven. He called her ‘Hamka’.’

Seymour was finding it immensely difficult to hold it in now. Even he knew that Hamka meant a rude and boorish woman with no culture. Deputatov went on, ‘He’s a very stupid man to make an enemy like that on the street.’

‘That’s it?’

‘No, there’s more. Weeks later, she was turning into Ostrovskovo from Pushkina and the cursed man was crossing the road, saw her and stopped her. Can you believe that? Stopped her car in the middle of the road,’ his voice rose in pitch and volume, ‘and all the traffic trying to enter that funnel as well. Then he came up to her window and said, again in terrible Russian, ‘Journeys end in lovers meetings, my sweet.’ ’

Seymour almost choked on his drink, then recovered himself. ‘What will you do?’

‘He needs the frighteners put on him, the fool.’

‘Why don’t you take a different approach, my friend? Get the dirt on him. If he goes around bedding female operatives, he’s sure to have bedded others, maybe that would be a fruitful line of enquiry. You might even sheet something home to him through his workplace.’

‘He needs to learn, that’s all.’

‘And he will. He will. But let’s be more clever about it. Now I understand how this ‘cursed man’ has incommoded you but I’m puzzled as to why you are interested in the operative he’s with.’

‘Ah, my friend, that’s another matter, it’s internal. You needn’t concern yourself with her.’

There was a finality in the tone which Seymour recognized, so they moved on to the matter of the new Megastore in Kirova.

VII

They departed fairly early for an uneventful journey to London.

First stop after Kings Cross was Charing Cross, to drop her off, then he headed for his B&B, promising to call her later. There was mail and he went downstairs to call Lisa.

‘Hugh, thank goodness you’re OK. Your friend Marc called again.’ She now conveyed her version of the same message, he thanked her profusely, thought one moment, then called Ksenia at her hotel.

.o0o.

Fifty-five minutes later, he was in her hotel room, whisky miniature in his hand and with a startled woman facing him.

‘Yes Hugh?’ She was a mix of curiosity and nerves.

‘My French friend as you know him, Marc, got back to me again about some further information on you. The message was that if a girl called Ksenia was to approach me, not to have anything to do with her.’

Her lips went dry and she said, too casually, ‘Well, you’ve already told me that.’

‘No, this message included extracts from her personnel file.’

There was a definite involuntary intake of air. ‘Oh?’

‘Apparently the woman is a psychopath who lures lovers to far away places and then her henchmen do the rest, a slight variation on what you told me.’

She opened her mouth once or twice but nothing came out. Finally she said: ‘Hugh, why did you come here now to tell me this? Whatever I tell you now, you’re going to doubt.’

‘Unless I’m not too sane myself, of course, in which case I’d have a fair idea what was the truth and what was not. Speak to me. This is why I’m here.’

She looked down at the floor. ‘There are truths and untruths all tied in together. Yes, there’s a file on me, a long one. And yes, that’s how I do it, but only on legitimate targets – I’d never let one of them get as far as you did, as feelings start to come into it. I work for my country, I’ve never been freelance and I never would. Plus, executions have never been my thing.’

‘So you’re not a psychopath, after all?’

‘Oh, I’m a psychopath all right. That’s on the record.’

VIII

Marc Lacour had to attend to business most of the day and part of that business was to visit the Pedagogical University, where Geneviève’s Parisienne friend, Louise Bonnet, had been seconded to the French department for a month.

They met up and he took her for a drink to the Hotel Shadzhara, across Pushkina in the centre.

He realized two things with Louisa – she was a bit of a blabbermouth and it was common knowledge that she opened up more when bedded at the time. Therefore, men tended to get more secrets out of her than women.

The downside was that, though she was well dressed and not unpersonable to look at from a certain angle, her manner put the average male off, if not at first, then as time went on. She knew this and it made her try that much harder, which was precisely the wrong thing to do in her case.

So he had this before him now. She wasn’t working for any section he knew of and yet the university back home was sending her over here, on a French salary, several times a year.

Now, her calibre was hardly world-shattering and there didn’t seem, to him, any necessity to send her on these regular trips. He wanted to find out but didn’t want to bed her.

IX

There was silence for the space of two and a half minutes in Ksenia’s room whilst he thought out how to reply to that bullet. She waited patiently, it had been a good shot and her nerves were abating.

‘You come out and … tell me … you’re a psychopath?’ was all he could manage. ‘I have to admire your spirit … that’s the sort of thing I’d say.’

‘I didn’t mean it like that. I meant it was on the record.’

‘Ah, so what you’re saying is that someone put it on your record but it’s actually a distortion?’

‘That’s what I’m saying. But there is also truth in the reports. I do have a psychological file from my childhood – a family matter – but you only have to read it to see it has nothing to do with my work. If it did, I would not be working there. We’re a bureaucracy and they don’t employ people without medical ‘spravka’ – a clean bill of health.’

‘Can you tell me anything about the childhood problem?’

‘I have trouble forming relationships. On the rare occasions I do, I can’t maintain them.’

‘Where does that leave you and me?’

‘That rather depends on you, on your actions – I do have trouble forming relationships, I thought this time it was … possible … if we took it slowly.’

‘If you want, Ksusha, I’ll stay and hold you all night but I’ll need to phone the B&B.’

She nodded, he phoned.

.o0o.

In the check-in queue, she bumped him again but this time he held onto his cabin bag.

‘You’re learning,’ she smiled.

.o0o.

In Moscow, after they’d been through the processing, certain observant people didn’t know what to make of it when she pushed him hard against a wall, locking her lips onto his in shark feeding frenzy for two minutes. He forced her onto a bench and pinned her with his body between her legs, then they separated and sat up, demurely, as authorities thought of intervening but then didn’t, observers were gobsmacked that Ksenia Sharova was putting up with this sort of handling.

They went out to the waiting car, introductions were effected and off they went to Domodyedova.

.o0o.

In the middle of the main concourse at Domodyedova, she once again attacked him for the benefit of the Watchers, this time lifting her thigh high to his waist, her arms around his neck, he gripped the thigh and leaned back, she jumped up and wrapped her legs around him, which had people goggle-eyed, he let her down and they locked hungrily in a long, drawn-out kiss, before disengaging and there were genuine tears between the two of them – that much was clear to all.

Over to one side, observing all this, were the unsmiling eyes of brother Zhenya. How the fuck had this happened?

.o0o.

At the other end of the flight Hugh took a taxi to his own flat and did not try to call Anya. Instead, he called Liya and arranged to meet her the coming Thursday, 16:00, at Giuseppe.

X

As they lay on the divan in the living room later, with MTV in the background, Marc told Dilyara about Louisa. Dilyara had something to add. ‘I think she’s the one usually hanging around Pushkina with that tall Frenchman.’

‘What tall Frenchman?’ Marc asked with a start.

‘I don’t know – tall, coiffed hair, good looking.’

A thought started to form in his head but it was so ludicrous, he put it to one side. ‘If you see those two again and you think there’s anything I … er … should know … a better description would help for a start.’

‘I’ll do better than that – I’ll get a photo of the two of them – from a distance of course.’

‘You be careful.’

She grinned and flicked her dark hair back over her shoulder. ‘Are you planning to take me back to Paris or are we looking at Prague?’

He caught his breath. ‘Didn’t we discuss that? What do you want?’

‘To go with you, wherever you are, to be within ten kilometres of you, knowing I could be there when you wanted me.’

‘You’re pretty independent, Dilya. Do you really want that?’

‘As far as I can see, for now – yes. I know we have to spend some time in Paris, we have to get Genevieve used to us being in Prague.’

XI

A few minutes before midnight the Wednesday after they’d returned, Ksenia called him. ‘I’m assuming you haven’t called her and you’re feeling alone. I’d – I’d like to see you.’

He knew that had cost her to say – he’d be there in thirty minutes.

‘No,’ she said. ‘I’ll come to you.’

.o0o.

Thirty minutes later, she was with him, sipping on a coffee. ‘So, Mr. Jensen, no contact at all?’

‘Incommunicado, I haven’t seen her and that’s that. I do have a meeting tomorrow with her friend Liya, at Giuseppe. She might not know I’m here.’

‘Of course she knows. No girl would simply not keep tabs on where her man was. Are you strong enough to walk away if you have to?’

‘I’m confused.’

‘I knew you would be. Back home, it had to be like that. When you see her, it will be even more confusing.’

‘She doesn’t operate like a normal woman. She’s incapable of looking after herself. She thinks she can but she was spoilt as a child. She could just appear at any time, as if nothing had ever happened.’

‘And you’d allow this? I don’t like being used.’

‘That’s fair and it must be sorted with her right now. Let me see what Liya says tomorrow first.’

‘I also have a feeling, Hugh, that you might have a few problems soon – of a different kind.’

He smiled. ‘Ah, Ksenia – my stormy petrel – I might have known. You ‘have a feeling’, yes?’

‘Didn’t put that very well, did I? Not from Zhenya, nor from me.’

‘I’m all ears. Tell your tale, I’m all ears.’

‘I don’t know all the details but you’ve offended a large Moscow businessman who deals with foreign companies setting up over here, I really don’t know what you’re supposed to have done. He also knows of your connection with Zhenya and me and wonders what you’re up to. That’s it. I’m sorry because I wanted us to have a clear run … for you and me to just think about each other.’

We do have a clear run. She can’t just turn up now. I’m going to see what tomorrow brings, then call her and it will be talked out.’

‘That’s a quantum shift … if I can believe it.’

XII

Marc flew back to Paris with Dilyara.

At the airport, Nicolette had the car and so the Section knew all about it within the hour.

Claudette had been the one who’d come to the party with her agreement to put Dilyara up for a nominal rent for six months. Also, wwith Louisa’s connections at the university, with Dilyara’s academic pedigree, it was not going to be an impossibility. That would give the two of them plenty of time to see if it could be made to work and they’d work on Genevieve in the meantime.

There was one other matter and it was the photograph Dilyara had promised. She’d taken it from a shop door and had duly passed it on to Marc who’d done a double take.

That evening the Section threw a welcoming dinner for Dilyara, the photo was passed to Genevieve who viewed it, placed it inside her copy of Troilus and Cressida in the bookshelf and didn’t refer to it again.

XIII

Liya and Hugh had a good relationship in their own right, both comfortable with the other, both happy to use the other to achieve their own ends, with the other’s consent so to speak. It never went anywhere – just a pleasant interlude with a fair amount of laughter, he was at his most outrageous with her and she liked it.

‘Does Anya know you’re with me?’ was his first question to her, after the first slice of pizza had gone down the hatch.

‘I don’t know. I haven’t called her.’

‘Not good enough, Liya. You introduced the two of them.’

She was shocked he knew this much, Anya never could keep her trap shut but when had she had a chance to tell him? ‘Look, Marat fell head over heels for her, just as you did. That’s all. She’s flattered by it all. It was only ever you two for so long and you never even had time for me,’ she cried mock tears. ‘Tell me about London.’

‘In a minute, Liya – promise. I have to get this issue finished first.’ Good, he had the guy’s name. ‘This Marat works at Dvoretz Sporta, doesn’t he?’

‘How on earth do you know that?’

He didn’t but it stood to reason in the context of what both had said so far. ‘How do you read the situation?’

Liya paused and chose her words carefully. ‘In the hockey season, she wants to attend matches.’

‘I see.’

‘I think you might have a problem on your hands, at least for now. She still talks about you the whole time though – so you’ve not lost her altogether. Maybe she needs both of you.’

‘Over my dead body.’

‘Tell me about London.’

He did, including the part about the north, which had her open-mouthed. He knew that would be passed on and he left none of it out.

XIV

The first four days had rushed by in Paris and Dilyara had found some haunts she liked, in particular Café Toulouse on rue du Jardin, in the 11ème arrondissement.

She’d done the mainstream shopping on Haussmann and the Champs-Élysées and was starting to radiate outwards from there. Paris didn’t faze her in the least, there was always a gallant who’d accompany her, her looks exotic, even for the French – it wasn’t half bad.

Marc was round often enough, Claudette was busy but popped in to see that all was well, there was the television when she was tired, it was fine. She had some nice things now to wear and her three hours at the university were a doddle.

And yet she wasn’t happy. There it was. She’d known the lie of the land before she’d even arrived, it was no more nor less than she’d been briefed on and yet she was already restless.

XV

Hugh agreed to drop Liya at her place on Ibragimova but now she changed her mind and wanted to go back to Dvoretz Sporta, they hailed a car and went down Chernoshyevskovo.

On the corner of Profsoyuznaya, in broad daylight, there were his Anya and some man who seemed very much to fit the description of this Marat, both hitching a lift.

Liya told the driver to drive on but he told the man to stop and as he offered more roubles on top, that’s what now happened. She put out a restraining hand but he said, ‘Don’t worry.’

He walked quickly up Chernoshyevskovo. Anya saw him first, said something to the man and came towards him, desperate to avoid a scene.

‘Hugh.’

‘Is that him?’ She didn’t answer. He persisted. ‘And you’re at work today, my love?’

‘I am working – I always come into town on a Thursday and he agreed to have lunch – that’s all.’

‘Come with me now, Anya.’

‘I can’t. That would be rude.’

He counted to ten in his head, turned and stumbled back down to the car. Once inside, he said to Liya, ‘He’s nothing special.’

She didn’t comment and tried to suppress a smile. They drove down to the sports palace, he went round, opened the door and she got out. ‘Will you see me tomorrow?’ he asked.

‘After this?’

‘Especially after this.’

‘Hugh I’m not going to be your spy and I’m not going to take the place of Anya.’

‘Have I asked you to? Do you think I don’t know about your love life? Your guy is away, I really need you to talk to, to talk things through, to laugh a bit. Please, Liya.’

Again she was shocked he knew this much but she was flattered by his manner. ‘I’m free at 16:00. Can you be?’

‘Giuseppe again?’

‘I like pizza.’

‘All right, 16:00 tomorrow. I’ll bring a car here.’

‘I’ll come out to you.’

He was using Liya but he liked her a hell of a lot too. The thing with Anya was nauseating but first he had some questions to ask himself. He knew Liya wanted to talk things out too, she always did.

XVI

September, 1997

The inevitable first of September came around and the major news was Diana’s Paris crash a few days back. All sorts of theories swirled round staffrooms, cafes and on Russian TV. It was the occult, she’d been the moon goddess, it was Charles who’d ordered it, it was Phillip, there were so many anomalies, there was deep shock.

It’s fair to say it cast a pall over the opening of the new academic year.

.o0o.

On September 14th, Hugh was due to begin at the Pedagogical University – speaking practice was his brief, just a few pairs a week, 80 minutes each. The groups were numbered roughly according to ability, 401 generally regarded as the best and 406 the least able to converse in English.

By the 15th, he’d already learnt not to arrive during a break because there’d be up to 700 girls and about 15 boys coming down the stairs while he was trying to swim upwards. So he arrived near the end of the last ‘pair’ and waited in the main foyer on the fourth floor. He had 402 today.

A girl came up and introduced herself as Alina, said he was teaching her the next pair and asked him about Britain and sundry things. He took her in – tall and dark, pretty, lovely voice.

XVII

Dilyara knew what the problem was – this was Marc’s métier here in Paris and hers was back there, Prague was neutral, as he well knew.

As she exited C&A on boulevard Haussmann, she sighed, determined to speak with him that evening, already knowing the response.

A dark navy Peugeot 406 swung round from rue Charras and instead of slowing at the zebra crossing with her on it, it actually sped up, hit her before she had the slightest chance to even register surprise and sped off down Haussmann.

XVIII

Another heated three way conference at the kitchen table in Zyelornilyes was in full fury – Safin had changed his stance on his younger sister. What an amazing stroke of luck that Alina was in one of the Englishman’s groups.

Olyesa was having none of it. ‘O chom bazar – what the hell are you talking about! Blin!’

‘I think Alina should see a bit of him, perfect.’

‘Look, you fool – you don’t know when to stop, you don’t know when not to use people, that they might resent it, you’re completely amoral – you use anyone for your own ends, Sirozh.’

He looked to the sky and made circular movements with his hand which caused the blood to rush to her brain. ‘You do this, Sirozh and I’ll tell Papa the lot – the photos, Oleg, the lot. You’ll have to take me out to stop me – I believe you’d do it too if your masters told you to.’

‘Don’t be stupid,’ he muttered, got up and left.

Alina gazed on, thoughtfully.

XIX

In the early evening, seated at the low table in the middle of his living room, Viktor was on edge. He set down his coffee cup, sat slightly forward on the chair, hands clasped between his knees but couldn’t begin.

‘Tell me,’ Hugh invited.

‘It’s Roxana. We’ve split.’

‘Oh man, so sorry. Seems to be the season for it. Tell me what you can.’

Roxana’s prospects at the bank improved, I suppose she was increasingly called to Moscow, then when she’d come back, she’d have to host dinners and meetings almost constantly. I was proud of her, you know that but there are limits – surely you’d agree with that, Man – and then something happened which brought back all the old suspicions – a defensive answer to an innocent question, I swear, which she interpreted as a probing question.

Whenever she had a meeting in Ulitsa Shadzhara, it seemed to happen. So I broke my rule and went there. To that restaurant. There was no meeting. We had it out on the phone and I didn’t play it cool. I asked her straight out why she’d lied.’

‘Yes.’

‘She blustered and tried to turn it on me that I was so suspicious. I know I was and she had reasons to leave me over that alone. She decided to tough it out – seemed to want it to continue but for what?’

‘I have to say, the thought had crossed my mind. I’m sorry. I had a talk with her one day.’

‘Oh?’

‘There you go, you see. I don’t mind but you have to see she’s got you on edge and has done for sometime, it hasn’t been right since that first time you went to the restaurant.’

‘It wasn’t the first time.’

‘Whatever. The thing is, I’ve been in this position too, the suspicion starts and if you don’t clear the air completely with her at the time, you have to pack it in there and then.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Nor can I as a rule. By the way, are you willing to risk letting me make the coffee?’

He smiled a weak smile. ‘Let’s find out.’

Hugh got up, paused and said, ‘Just sit there a few moments and then I’ll poison you.’

When he brought back the coffee, Viktor wanted to change topics.

‘I’ve been making a few inquiries but only one of the replies matters. There’s a conflict between two foreign firms – Zhenya Sharov is aligned with one of the companies and his sister appears to be too. On the other hand, there’s word that he has moved to a rival firm, so automatically, that aligns you with her and together with a number of things you seem to have done of your own volition, the other side has you on the general list for elimination.’

‘Your suggestion?’

‘Vary your routines for some time, come home at different times. I can’t give you any better advice just now but I’ll keep enquiring and tell you if I come up with anything more.’

.o0o.

Hugh got back to his house, went through to the padyezd, pushed the button and heard the whoosh of the lift, it clanked open and he was on the way up. The lift stopped at his floor with that echoing clash of steel, the double doors opened and there was Anya in front of him.

‘You have a key – why didn’t you go in?’ he asked.

‘I wasn’t sure,’ she dropped her head.

‘Come through.’

She went through and noticed her own tapechki on the floor with the others. ‘Are these slippers for when I returned?’

‘Need you ask?’

‘Let’s get the tea together quickly because I need to tell you something.’ She busied herself, made it more quickly than he could have and they went through to the living room. She looked at him and he disliked himself for simply taking her into his arms.

She must have known, hoped he would do it.

When they came out of it, she said, ‘I wasn’t sure you’d ever do that again. Listen, anything about you and me needs to be put on hold, Dilyara was hit by a car in Paris.’

‘Marc never called me.’

‘I can’t blame him, I’m devastated too, her mother just called me. She’s not dead but she’s a mess and Hugh – the police are saying it was no accident.’

XX

Marc did call from Geneviève’s the following evening while Viktor was supping on Hugh’s soup concoction and pronouncing it exquisite.

Hugh listened for some time then responded, ‘Right, Marc, when do you fly in? Uh huh. Her parents will collect you, you say? Fine. Call me again when you get here.’

He turned to Viktor. ‘They’re coming back to Shadzhara.’

.o0o.

Marc put the receiver back and turned to Geneviève. ‘I keep asking the same thing. Why her? Me – yes. You – yes. Why her?’

‘Has to be a family connection, Marc. Hugh isn’t close enough and there was no suggestion there was anything going on there. Who does it hurt? I think it was for you.’

‘I think so too, which means we’re getting close but this is … inexcusable … hitting an innocent like that. Don’t forget you hold that photo, Mademoiselle.’

She went across to her window in her characteristic way and gazed down on the street below. ‘Oui, Marc, it could well be that, I think we shouldn’t confuse the Hugh business with Dilyara. They’re two different matters.’

He looked at her more closely, a classic beauty, Geneviève, quite Gallic in her face and manner and though fashion was not her second name, as with say, Francine, she knew how to appear simply elegant, the perfect head for such a Section, with the calm ruthlessness to go with it, plus a touch of vulnerability to round it off. Even though she did not exude any particular menace, no one would wish to cross Geneviève, not even her backers.

XXI

Anya phoned mid-afternoon, he mentioned that Viktor was with him, he passed the phone across and Viktor spoke respectfully and politely, before handing it back. He was uncomfortable, he felt he had to be on his way and wasn’t to be persuaded.

.o0o.

Twenty five minutes later, there was a knock on the door, he answered and in walked Anya, she kicked off her shoes, donned the tapechki and went through to the living room where he’d reset the place. He’d even gone downstairs with Viktor and picked up a couple of the salads he knew she liked, although obviously not from the shop she liked.

‘Well, lubimaya maya,’ smiled Hugh, once they were settled down to converse, ‘tell me about you, me, us.’

‘You first.’

‘Ladies first.’

Anya looked at him from her chair, he looked at her, both were testing out the atmosphere, shadow boxing. She probably felt she had a right to expect he’d listen, no matter what she’d done, as he always had before and he probably felt he could just make love to her now as she’d never been able to stop before if it was approached the right way.

They both knew these things. He asked her to say how she saw things, it was amazing how cordial it all was. She sighed: ‘It couldn’t have worked with him – he was too submissive, you know me.’

‘How could you agree to sleep with someone else when we were fiancees?’

‘What! You can talk! We kept postponing it and postponing it and just when you had me at your mercy, you went off to Australia.’ She knew that wasn’t going to cut it, so she added, ‘Look, Liya introduced us, you know that already, I was on my own, I was seriously annoyed but still I did nothing the dutiful fiancee shouldn’t have. Slowly though, with no you and with him such a nice guy … well, that’s all I’m going to say.’ She sighed again and asked him, ‘What’s with you and her?’

‘’There are definitely feelings, frighteningly so, plus she’s made it clear that she and I can’t be an item unless it’s well and truly over with you and me.’

‘Ah, so she’s serious then.’

‘She doesn’t know what she is or where she is, it’s new to her – she’s used to a different type.’

‘Don’t I know it. She’ll tire of your type, then come back, tire, come back. Maybe it would be all right. But I’m here now and I’m hungry.’

‘Let’s talk at Giuseppe, over a pizza and champagne.’

She nodded and he called a cab.

.o0o.

The Unusual Couple were there again, they must have lived there. She had on a different outfit this time but the formula was the same – elegant boots, simple jumper, gold chain but the hair was shorter, done in a certain style and the earrings were long and straight this time.

Her face was a little more blemished and she showed signs of being careworn. Life was beginning to impinge on those two, that much was clear.

Anya told him the latest on Dilyara, that Marc was staying there, that she had broken ribs and tibia but was otherwise all right, that she was in deep depression as well. She had the news on Liya and her new beau, also a hockey player and they both smiled.

With the news exchanged, it was now a question of getting down to it.

‘You, Anya, could have anyone you want, except for two things – you’re definitely unusual, that’s for sure but I’m a strange person myself and not everyone would want what I am. You would not be without a partner for long but I could easily end up alone and stay that way, you wouldn’t. I’m not a pretty girl. But I could end up with someone by chance, someone good. Ksenia has a problem – her work brings her into contact with the worst kind, she doesn’t see too many good men.’

‘Is there such a person?’

‘I think so. I think there are faithful women, faithful men.’

‘That’s your definition of ‘good?’

‘It’s one of the key factors, yes. It’s part of loyalty and I am loyal to those loyal to me.’

‘What’s the difference?’

‘Faithful is sexual, loyal is in general.’

‘What do you want?’

‘I don’t know. I love you, I want you, but there’s also someone expecting me to treat her honestly. If you’re saying ‘here I am’, then I must let her down and say goodbye. I want to be sure I’m not just someone’s game, someone’s fool. People need to be honest about these things … do they want this person … or are there some reservations about that?’

‘You could still see yourself marrying me?’

‘Of course, if I could be sure you really were my girl.’

‘You don’t want me back.’

‘How can you possibly conclude that from what I just said? I’ve had a bad shock, I’m not going to blindly make decisions this time.’

‘You think she would be faithful, loyal?’

‘I don’t know – she hasn’t done this before, it’s a new thing in this particular way. For me, it’s simple – does she want only me, sexually and to make her life with … or am I just the top of a list of men? Because I won’t accept that at all. That’s what I have to be sure of.’

XXII

Dilyara’s parents had eventually returned to the forest, the brother was off on one of his jaunts to another town with his young lady, Dilyara had come home for now and finally Marc had some time alone with her.

‘I want to talk,’ she started and raised her hand. ‘No, don’t stop me and say it’s too early and so on. Let’s talk, Marc.’ He nodded. ‘I love you.’

He nodded again, then realized he was meant to respond. It took a full minute before he answered, ‘Moi aussi. Je t’aime,’ the minute was not because he didn’t, it was just that he saw so many obstacles.

There were tears in her eyes over that silent minute – he hadn’t done it well. She lay there and he sat in silence for a while, made all the worse by the clock ticking on the mantelpiece. There seemed few words which hadn’t already passed between them.

She broke the silence. ‘You’ll fly back to Paris, won’t you?’

‘Oui.’

‘And marry some French girl.’

‘Non. Je t’aime.’

‘I make life hard for you, don’t I?’

‘My work is taking up all my time, my heart is with you 24/7.’

‘It must be Prague.’

‘Yes, I know it must.’

‘When will you fly back?’

‘In two days.’

XXIII

November, 1997

The late autumn chill was upon the city but still no snow. It was bleak and dismal, with only bitter, grey, clear skies overhead and the trees just seemed to wither up and die. The October 27th stock crash seemed to be consuming the outside world but hadn’t fully impacted Shadzhara yet.

.o0o.

Days later, the sky whitened, a good sign, a few flurries drifted down and became slush, the skies cleared again to a lifeless grey then, one morning, Shadzhara saw heavy, dumping drifts, the air was white, the birds became disoriented and hit glass window panes, everyone rugged up and winter was again upon Russia.

Ksenia phoned, could she come round?

Chapter 1-4 hereChapter 1-6 here

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