1-6: Death in the forest

death in the forest

Chapter 1-5 hereChapter 1-7 here

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I

The bell went, Hugh opened two doors, then peeped through the third, opening it and ushering her in. She was as devastating as ever, he really had forgotten how devastating.

He knew her tipple, what salads she liked, what nibbles – they were on the table and she saw them there, through in the main room. She smiled, he took her jacket and hung it up, she removed her boots and donned tapechki, then going through. He handed her a glass and they both sat, politely.

‘So, she returned, did you sleep with her?’

Opening gambit, straight to the point. He looked at her and the whole question of whether she had the right arose. She did have the right he concluded. ‘No, we didn’t. She came here when Dilyara was hit, she was shaken up, we embraced, kissed, she didn’t stay the night, we went to Giuseppe’s and I made clear that for me, it was simple – does a woman I’m keen on want only me, sexually and to make her life with me … or am I just at the top of a list of men? Because I won’t accept the second at all. That’s what I have to be sure of.’

‘That’s fine, Hugh, but it cuts both ways – were you and I faithful in the north of England?’

‘You were, I wasn’t.’

‘Thank you but I accept my share of the blame. You see, that’s my issue too with you, what you just said. I must be quite sure of that and then I don’t think you’ll have any worries about my faithfulness and loyalty.’

‘Your job?’

‘Yes, that’s the big question – my job has involved that but so has Anya’s – she has to look after VIPs … or didn’t you know that? If you were serious, I would speak to my boss about that very thing.’

‘Would you leave that work? I’m certainly not asking you to, I’m only asking for interest’s sake.’

‘Honestly? I love the work, the travel, the task, ‘being someone’ and I’m not sure I am mentally able to be just your man. I believe I can but that’s not enough for you, I know that.’

‘It could well be enough, the big issue is if I’m enough. This is not to do with your mental issues, it’s whether I have enough in me for you to want to bother.’

‘I have to go away, it’s a ‘mission’ as you call it. Who will you be sleeping with?’

‘Only you. Not Anya. Not until you’re back and we’ve analysed your ‘mission’ and how you feel after that.’

‘Then you are serious.’

‘I’m very serious. We have to try, you and me, this is how I’m thinking but I’m not sure I can take you sleeping with men. I’m not asking you not to, you know that but if you must, then tell me. You’ve been very honest so far.’

‘I’ll be phoning you here whenever I can, mainly at night but this is not checking up on you, it’s because I don’t like to think of you being alone and unhappy. Tell me not to phone and I won’t.’

‘Please phone.’

‘Do you want me here tonight? I go tomorrow.’

‘What do you think?’

.o0o.

It was about 23:00 that Anya called, how was he?

‘Anya, Ksusha’s here tonight.’

There was the sound of silence, then of a handset being dropped and then a scrambling to put it back in its holder and those sounds killed him, really killed him, Ksenia knew it, he’d just shut off his future there.

‘Phone her, not tomorrow but in two days. If she won’t talk to you, then leave it, I won’t be away all that long. Just keep your phone on, OK? If she will talk, then there is pressure on you to sleep with her, whatever she says. You spoke of my honesty – I believe you will be honest about this too. Now let’s get to bed, I need your arms tonight.’

II

December, 1997

There are things you can do and things you can’t. This one was close to the ‘can’t’ but still within the ‘can’. She was a 5th year student and in that year, they had personal tutors – the way it worked was he or she approached someone to be what they called ‘rukavoditel’ or mentor.

He’d had a few of these but not many. The critical difference was that the rukavoditel was a private tutor, he did not mark her, give her a grade, he prepared her for a commission on which he was not.

Her name was Aliya.

Because they were mature students, the tutorials could be anywhere – usually not at a hotel or cafe but they could be. They could be at her home or his. The only stipulation was that it was an open thing for obvious reasons.

Near her home there was a hotel for foreigners mainly and this hotel was around the corner from Viktor Igorovich’s place. Thus he arranged to see her in the foyer of Gostinit’sa Regina, here he now was, there she was and she was drinking mineral water. They did the work, he gave her her times and dates, she was ready to go home, on foot, he offered to walk her.

‘Not the whole way.’

He understood and she took his arm – this was something new to him and he liked it. She knew where they should stop but the thing was – it was right on the corner of Viktor’s house and what he had forgotten was that Viktor went out at this time to the corner shop, didn’t he and now, returning from the shop, he saw the two of them, didn’t he?

And Aliya iwas a demonstrative girl, it was very public, she held his forearms and gave him a peck on the cheek, he had to give her a peck in return, then off she went.

Viktor counted to ten, then called out.

.o0o.

‘How old is she?’ was his first question over coffee.

‘23.’

‘So what are you doing with her?’

‘Company.’

‘What are your intentions?’

‘I don’t have any.’

‘Anya? Ksenia?’

‘Don’t rub it in.’

‘This Aliya – what conversation would someone that age have to offer?’

‘Plenty. We get along well.’

Viktor smiled. ‘I see only misunderstanding and someone getting hurt – you could get very hurt.’

‘Yes man, point taken. Tell me how you see the Ksenia-Anya thing.’

‘Well, I think you were a bit quick going north with Miss Heathrow when Anya was still technically your fiancee but it did seem to be on its last legs from what I could observe. You got my messages about Ksenia so there’s not much point me repeating those.’

‘Aliya wants to go over some documents for America tomorrow at my place … she’s going over there to live.’

‘Your place. Be careful – there are people who’d like to use that against you.’

‘How are you holding up?’

‘There are good nights and bad nights.’

‘Come round for soup tomorrow.’

‘You know, I might just do that,’ he smiled. ‘When’s she coming?’

‘In the morning. You come about 13:00 – can you make that?’

.o0o.

Back at his house, the slow lift door creaked open then, near his own door, in the darkness, the light bulb on his floor having been removed by someone who’d obviously needed it for his own flat, he became aware that something was amiss.

The situation had clearly moved on – the door stood at an angle, as a result of having been torn half off its hinges. Everything in the living room had been turned over.

All the technica was still there, surprisingly, but many documents were gone – very interesting but at the same time, sickening. He drove a four inch nail through the door to seal it for the night then crashed onto the divan.

III

Marc departed Shadzhara, promising profusely to get back quickly, he’d phone almost nightly.

.o0o.

Nicolette collected him from Orly, he threw his things in the back and reported to her along the way. Looking across and glad someone else was driving, he could take her in, the way she vehemently rubbed the window with her glove to clear the fog. Planes, he thought to himself, have this foreshortening effect in that you can be in a Russian milieu one moment and a few hours later, you’re with an entirely different ethnicity.

He smiled at Nikki.

‘Qu’est-ce que c’est?’ she smiled back, then looked at the road again, the smile still playing on her lips. Beautiful lips too, he thought to himself. This was the sort of woman he should have been involved with and yet he hadn’t done a lot with his own countrywomen – maybe it was temperament.

He gazed through the side window at the boring grass verge flashing by and began to reflect that one land was much the same as another in some ways. Trees are trees, grass verges are grass verges and women are women. Then he realized this was all rubbish.

On an impulse, he reached for Nikki’s right hand, took the fingers to his lips and kissed the back of them, causing Nicolette to look across at him curiously.

He gave her back her hand and only spoke again once they’d reached rue de Rivoli, with its hundreds of bicycles in a row and wrought iron chain fences behind them, the tall buildings the other side of the cobblestoned path.

Nicolette swung the car into the carpark of one of their favourite watering holes, without even asking him and without him even querying it.

She skipped along in front of him but then waited for him to open the first door, the rituals now completed, finding themselves sitting at a low table, asking him to tell her the whole story.

She wasn’t leaving this place until he did and already outside, dusk was falling.

IV

The next morning, about 10:35, there was a knock on Hugh’s brand, spanking new door he’d bought at 08:00 on the dot and had carried back home on his shoulder and if you’ve ever tried that, it’s not easy.

He checked out who it was through the spyhole – Aliya – and she had packets.§ She came through, put the packets down and took off her boots. ‘I’ve been talking with my grandmother. She was appalled at the things you said you didn’t have.’

Out came a green and white bed cover which she said her grandmother didn’t need any more.

‘I only said I was thinking of getting one,’ he protested.

‘Look at the end of your bed.’

It was clear, under the layers covered by the bedspread, that he had no underlay. ‘Right, let’s put it on. Now, you must decide. Predominantly green up or green down?’ He didn’t know what she was talking about. ‘You have to put the underlay down one way only – ever.’

‘Er- green up, white down.’

‘Good, now these.’ Out came a box and inside were two fine-edged bone coffee mugs.

‘You bought these?’

She ignored that and brought out little bits and pieces for his comfort while he just gazed at her, not knowing in the least how to respond. ‘I’m overwhelmed,’ he said quietly.

‘Right,’ she said, taking things to the kitchen, ‘I don’t have a lot of time now but I’m free at 16:30. Are you?’ She caught his hesitation and asked, ‘Did I say something wrong?’

‘You didn’t but there are issues. Do you want me to tell you?’

‘If there are issues, you very much need to tell me.’

‘This friendship with you is lovely, you know I’ve got feelings for you, it doesn’t threaten you and doesn’t threaten me, so it’s OK. Am I right so far?’

‘Da.’

‘I haven’t tried to take it to the next step and neither have you. A lot of people won’t accept just a friendship between you and me, even just being seen together and I have to tell you that some people wonder why I want a friendship with you.’

She laughed, knowing the whole story before he’d even articulated it. ‘Many of my friends wonder, Mr. Jensen, if you’re not a middle-aged man trying to take me away from my young boyfriend.’

‘Boyfriend?’ he asked.

Aliya looked at him, smiling. ‘What planet are you living on? He’s insanely jealous and I’m angry with him because you and I are just friends. So far. Do you like me less, now you know about him?’

‘Not less, no. But you weren’t up front with me.’

‘I was enjoying it – I thought your attitude might change if you knew.’

‘It has changed but not necessarily for the bad, it makes things easier, actually. All right, so the thought had crossed my mind and possibly it had also crossed yours.’ There was the faintest of smiles on her lips. ‘Do you love him?’

‘Da. You and I can be friends, Hugh … if that’s what you want.’

‘I want but there are complications with my fiancee who went to someone else and wanted to come back and see if we could start again and that’s complicated by another lady.’

‘I think you’re a bit of a playboy, Mr. Jensen.’

‘Me? Hardly, I find myself in complicated situations.’

‘Find yourself in?’

‘Yes, all right, Aliya. Point taken. Will we still go to the cinema?’

‘Yes please.’

They arranged a time for the evening.

V

Geneviève arrived about midday at Marc’s apartment in the 12ème arrondissement, not the leafy part but nice nonetheless and Nicolette was in the kitchen making white bread club sandwiches. Despite the breads on offer to the French, many still like the English variant or cardboard as they call it in Britain.

She let herself in, left her coat and boots by the door and made her way through to the divan, feet in fluffy slippers, which did nothing for her image as the Uberleader. They did their Gallic kiss and got down to business.

Nicolette ended up bringing through coffee, sandwiches, little snacks and chocolates. She curled up in the big armchair, which dwarfed her somewhat but she liked this chair and the patterned cover was warm. Marc could have done with a bit more bric-a-brac, she thought, men’s apartments were always so spartan.

‘Marc,’ reported Geneviève, ‘we virtually have the whole money linkage. There are arrangements which my paymasters have made with a clinic in Shadzhara and it’s patronized by people of, shall we say, a delicate disposition, from Europe and wishing to be out of the way in a wild, remote setting. They’re prepared to pay for this. Some of these are new businessmen to Russia and the courtesies are extended to them.

The sponsored guests are paid from Nizhny Novgorod, as you surmised and the money goes from there. However, some of it finds its way from Shadzhara to Prague, which you found our two dear friends had visited on more than one occasion. Now it gets murky, at least in my mind. I don’t see, apart from our two friends, where it goes next, here in Paris, I mean.

I can’t see that our Section is paid for from this clinic alone but it might supplement the cost. Why though would a Russian clinic be interested in subsidizing a French security section, even indirectly?’

‘Perhaps it’s just a general slush fund,’ he surmised, ‘and some of that goes to pay for us.’

‘Perhaps.’

VI

Hugh put the finishing touch, the sour cream, to the borsch and placed Viktor’s before him, which caused his face to light up.

After they’d eaten, the bowls were taken away, the coffee was brought and he became more serious but on the same old theme. ‘You have problems.’

‘Don’t I know it.’

‘No, as a matter of fact, you don’t, I mean outside your harem – genuine problems.’

‘Ksenia, Zhenya?’

‘That’s the tip of it. There’s a giant building project on the cards, involving western money, Moscow money and Shadzharan regulations. You’ve no part in that but I think they want to make sure nothing fouls it up.

‘Tidy up the loose ends, you mean?’

‘Precisely. Although again – why they’d think you could influence that in any way … well, never mind.’

‘That’s not so good.’

‘Precisely.’

‘What should I do?’

‘Sit tight, be careful – not much else you can do.’

‘You’re such a comfort.’ He now mentioned the door – Viktor had noticed – and how everything had been turned over. ‘Nothing taken except documents.’

‘Have you checked to see that nothing new has appeared that wasn’t here before?’

‘Ah.’

They searched.

VII

Valentina Vitalyevna Alexandrova took the call at her waterfront office on the Naberizhni bank, Nizhni-Novgorod, at 11:13, Thursday morning. It was Viktor Bukovsky.

‘Da, Viktor? Who? Speak up, I can’t hear you. One moment, pencil broke.’

She leant across in a sort of balancing act which showed her body to perfection, if there’d been anyone present to appreciate it, that is. Not bad for a mother of a toddler and a baby girl.

‘Right, listening. Seymour, you say? Presumably English. Who? Ludmilla Petrova? Ah, that puts it in a different light. Yes of course you must. What’s Ludmilla Valerievna say about it? I see. Why does she think our hands aren’t tied as well? I see. All right, I’ll have a word to Sharov and you keep an eye on the Englishman.’

She rang off in that abrupt Russian manner and walked across to the window, gazing over the Volga as it flowed past as it always had and always would. Now why would Valerievna want to bring her section in? No crime had been committed as yet. No money had yet changed hands.

Was she, Valentina, meant to be preventing something maybe? LudValerievna was a deep one – it must be that she was too close to the action herself – hemmed in. Oh well, pointless speculating about that now.

There was another call. ‘Da?’ She listened to the other end for some minutes, not once interjecting and concluded, once the other end ran out of steam, ‘I see, Zhenya. Yes, I can tell you that all three departed here this morning. I don’t know – about 08:00. We –’

She glanced at the receiver, put it back in its place and pondered. There was clearly something going down and a lot of people seemed to have themselves tied up in knots at this moment.

She picked up the receiver again and made three calls, one of them to her mother.

VIII

The New Year lights went up in the streets and on every major housing block. All major thoroughfares, all shops, were not just festooned with lights, but networked as well. The lights went along the edges, along the top, across and across. They were everywhere. The whole city was lit up like a thousand ocean liners and the effect was stunning.

Anya would have called it a wicked waste of the city’s resources. Viktor said that the company with the contract had connections with the government.

At school, the Christmas concert went down well. The little first graders looked as sweet and innocent and discordant as they were intended to be, the very serious teenage dancing girls, expecting to be taken very seriously, in their very serious dance routine, were entertaining and the little chap with the clarinet was the highlight.

Outside, big flakes of snow floated down and soda lamps shone yellow on crystal paths. Ksenia had reappeared a week and a half ago and that night was feverish – they’d both held out until then, he’d met up with Anya at McDonald’s the day before and she’d been very hurt.

The biggest story he had to tell Ksusha was about Aliya, and Ksusha thought it funny. Different kettle of fish was Ksusha – she was looking better and better in his eyes but then there was her file, wasn’t there?

IX

It was mid-afternoon on the 2nd when Hugh finally got back to his eighth floor flat from a visit to Ksusha’s new place. Damn it, the lift wasn’t working again.

One hundred and two steps it was, he’d counted them, and with a full belly and a dizzy head, he crashed straight into the very sober form of Zhenya Sharov, waiting in immaculate suit and silk tie at the new metal door.

‘Zdrast’ye,’ slurred Hugh, lurching forward at the suit and tie.

‘I think we’ll dispense with the Russian, would you agree?’ sidestepped Zhenya.

‘Cuppa chai?’

‘Yes please.’

On the fourth attempt, Hugh managed the lock, occasioning a sigh from Zhenya, who passed through into the living area. Hugh indicated a chair, excused himself and visited the little room, the bathroom and the kitchen in that order.

Finally, they were seated over a nice cup of tea and cakes, prepared by Zhenya himself in the end, Hugh not being quite up to the task. Zhenya declined the cakes.

‘You’ve put on more weight than when I last saw you.’

‘So?’

‘You’re not a hard man, are you, Mr. Jensen?’

‘Come t’ ther point, Mr. Sharov.’

‘You fail to ask even the most basic questions. Are you at all interested in my background, for example?’

‘You do something at government level and for a firm,’ Hugh sobered up a little. ‘You’re bigger than you say you are because you can pull strings. You’re in very good shape and clearly you work to stay that way. You’ve been a naughty boy at times and someone doesn’t completely trust you. The rest I’m not interested in, because you could be lying. You also act strangely.’

Zhenya sat, thoughtfully stroking his chin. Encouraged and sobering up somewhat, Hugh continued. ‘May I tell you a little story?’

The other nodded his assent.

‘There was a film I once saw,’ he began, ‘I can’t remember the name. There were some Eastern Europeans, wanting to escape to the West. They were approached by a group who organized such escapes and taken to a large meeting place where there were many other families, all clutching their belongings.

They were told the price, an exorbitant amount by eastern European standards, and those that could afford it paid and became a little cell of refugees.

The next part of the film showed a guide leading them into a cavern, through the mountain, to freedom on the other side. Step by step, in single file, they made their way along until they came to a narrow ledge over a precipice. It was very dark at this point. The guide told them all to be careful because of the precipice and suggested they hang onto the railing on their left.

Our hero caught a glimmer of this ‘railing’ when somebody struck a match. It was no railing – it was an electric wire. He shouted not to touch it, there was a fracas, shots were fired, the guide was pushed against the high voltage wire and immediately went up in smoke.

After it was all over and the baddies were all killed, someone lit another match and revealed a cavern nearby, full of skeletons. There never had been a route through the mountain. I trust no one.’

‘Understood, Mr. Jensen. And now, may I, in turn, let you into a little secret?’ Hugh nodded assent. ‘Certain elements have got it into their heads that you’re an obstacle and this time they’ve lumped me in with you. I can’t say I’m flattered by that but we’ll let that pass. We have two choices, as far as I can see. Firstly, the three of us go, this evening, to a place of safety -’

‘Three?’

‘Ksusha as well.’

‘Ksusha. I see. Or else?’

‘There is no else.’

‘I see.’

‘Hugh,’ Zhenya dropped onto the ‘ti’ basis, ‘you only have my word for it and it’s fine if you tell Viktor Igorovich … and even your Anya,’ he let that point sink in, ‘I want this thing above board. It’s the old story again – get them into the open and they’re easier to deal with.’

‘What do they want?’

‘The Russian who assists the head of my firm has really taken a set against you, which has made me suspect in their eyes. I’m sure the break-in was to uncover dirt on you. Did you find anything missing?’

‘A few documents.’

‘Can they incriminate you?’

‘Not in the least. They were financial statements and love letters.’

‘The thing is, I’m not sure how serious these people are. I’m sure they’d kill me if they had to, Ksusha too maybe – that’s our game. With you, I think they’ll just try to terrify you … and they can, you know, if they want to … you do understand that, don’t you?’

‘So what do you suggest?’

‘Contact your people, so that it’s crystal clear you’ve gone with us, then I’ll collect Ksusha and we’ll go out of town, the three of us. Do you know of Klyenovaya Gora?’

‘But that’s an impossible place to hide, the forest’s perfect for sniping. It could be put down to hunters making an error of judgement.’

‘It could and that’s why we think it will be attractive to them. Gives them a sporting chance to finish the job before the end of winter, we think they’ll go for it.’

X

Marc was pouring Geneviève another coffee when he first heard the sound which shouldn’t have been present.

Geneviève heard it too, reached into her bag for a pen and notepad and scribbled a few words and a question mark.

He responded with three names, she nodded and took a device from her bag, a glorified pager, clicked on the numbers, put the pager away and wrote that they needed to continue talking about something, anything, for ten more minutes.

‘Mademoiselle,’ asked Marc, apropos of nothing, ‘do you think you’ll take those two new girls or do you think they’ll need further training?’

‘I think they’ll need another couple of months, especially Magda.’

‘Oui, that one needs to handle a firearm better for a start.’ They were uttering inanities now.

‘Coffee, Mademoiselle?’

Both had their sidearms at the ready.

It couldn’t have been more than three minutes before they heard a phttt, another phttt and two thuds outside. Still they didn’t move until the pager went again. That still didn’t mean they were out of the woods, only that two of the assailants had been taken out and there were usually three on a team.

‘Jean’s coming up with Paul,’ Geneviève said, Marc merely nodded and went to the door. The screen showed both their visitors’ faces, he pressed the button and let them in, then she and he went to the kitchen and let the boys get on with their jobs.

.o0o.

Jean and Paul came out about eight minutes later, there’d been no one else inside but there’d been three others outside. All had been accounted for. Jean handed her a mobile belonging to one of the deceased, indicating she should look at the numbers.

Her eyes nearly popped out, she nodded and muttered to herself, snapped out of it and asked them to clean up.

Marc had his overnight bag ready on the sidetable in the front room – he and she departed.

XI

The idea of what Klenovaya Gora really entailed had sunk in.

‘The only snag is that I’m not a professional, like you,’ said Hugh. ‘Also, as you pointed out, I’m not in condition.’

‘You’re in reasonable nick for this – you walk most places. Call your people.’

Zhenya noted he didn’t call Anya but a girl called Aliya. Next came Viktor who wanted to speak with Zhenya, which they did, in rapid Russian, for quite some minutes.

When Zhenya gave Hugh the phone again, Viktor spoke English at the other end. ‘Of course I don’t like it. I think they’re putting you in danger unnecessarily and there could be more to this than he says. On the other hand, if he’s right, and if both of them are getting out of town, it might be best if you’re not alone.’

‘So what do you suggest?’

‘I think you’re reasonably well covered in this matter – Zhenya intimated the level of cover you’d have. If you followed instructions and had a final e.t.a. back in Shadzhara, which we’ll agree upon now, after which we’d mobilize to try to find you, it should be all right.

The benefits would be that if the siblings succeed, it should get the others off your back for quite some time. And if it didn’t do that, then maybe we should be looking a little closer to home for the culprits.’

.o0o.

The whole business was concluded, Hugh was collected by Zhenya’s driver, plus himself in the back, they collected Ksenia who sat in the front beside the driver and on the way, Zhenya explained the intricacies of the Makarov.

.o0o.

The Volga’s headlamps pierced the pitch blackness of the forest road as they finally found themselves cruising the last hundred metres down floodlit Alla Avenue, as Hugh called it.

In the foyer of the hotel, some minutes later, the woman was still at the desk. Surrendering their passports, they took their luggage to the third floor and occupied a four bed room. Bags were deposited, things put away, all the necessaries were done, then they went downstairs, ambitiously, to find something to eat at this hour.

The dining area was closed, of course, but Zhenya managed to negotiate something with the kitchen staff and soon after, plates of potato and meat and cups of tea appeared, which then went upstairs. He was fairly sure they’d not be in great danger until the morrow but just in case, they took it in turns to stand watch through the night.

His gun remained on the table, at hand.

XII

Geneviève, Marc, Nicolette and the tall, dark Francine, Miss Fashion herself, sat around a wrought iron table in Café Delour, sipping on cafes noirs.

‘Expensive warning to give,’ ventured Francine.

‘I don’t think it was a warning,’ corrected Geneviève. ‘They were there to burgle the place.’

‘While you two were there.’

‘Incompetents or something else.’

Marc spoke. ‘It could have been to test out our capabilities for the real hit. If they’d found any material and had got away with it, it would have been a bonus.’

‘Expensive test for them,’ Francine repeated.

‘Yes but they weren’t to know we were organized to that extent and they don’t care about five minor agents.’

‘That’s what worries me,’ added Geneviève. ‘Next time they’ll be far more careful.’

XIII

Next morning at Klenovaya Gora, the three of them were presented with a delight – there’d been a late overnight snowfall and snow now hung glistening on every tree and on every lamppost on the entrance road; the forest pathways just beckoned to be walked on.

The temperature was hovering around ten below, the sun had struggled out but was now giving way to another cloud chock full of snow.

In Russian terms, that meant the day was going to be superb.

A car arrived and Zhenya welcomed his mate Valerie with a warm handshake. It seemed to Hugh this one was also a handy customer, sporting the stock cheeky smile of the Russian who’s sure of himself, he reached into the boot and brought out a small but heavy rucksack for each of them and for himself, locked the car and both slipped into the kitchen, reappearing thirty seconds later with four small packs of food and a worried expression. It seemed the woman had seen three visitors come into the hotel quite late – serious people in her opinion. The chef had just reported that all three were currently tucking into their food in a room adjacent to the dining area.

The moment they put their food packs in the rucksack, it was clear to Ksenia and Hugh what this was about. Inside, apart from water and a medical bag, were two soft cases but one feel of the cases said the contents were anything but safe.

Valerie grinned and nodded for them to go over to a space away from the hotel but not yet near the forest. He squatted down and they did too, Zhenya said to keep an eye over the heads of the others. Valerie now told them, in words only, no demonstration, how to unfold and lock into place their K6-92/Borz SMGs and now went into the finer points – how to rapidly change magazines, most effective breathing and aiming.

Zhenya apologized for giving them Chechyen weapons but they’d need to leave these by the deceased and take the enemy’s own weapons.

They’d been careful to use only Makarov 9×18 ammunition and there were plenty of clips in each bag. The weapons would puzzle security though because nobody sane used Borzes within Russia. Zhenya and Valerie were using OTs-02 Kiparises which gave greater accuracy in semi-automatic and greater effective range, so they’d be for the longer shots, then disassembled again.

Ksenia’s and Hugh’s jobs, therefore, were to be to watch their hilltop – range about 20 metres. Their Makarovs were inside their jackets if they needed them.

The company took Marchroute 3, a lovely walk which would take them down the slip road from the hotel, across the main road T junction at the end and into the forest on the other side. In line, four figures crossed the road and tramped into the forest along the narrow path, in warm fur jackets, hats and gloves.

Instead of continuing on towards the lake, they swung sharp left and headed up a relatively steep hill where the teachers had late-collected mushrooms in October – mighty handy that the snow was falling softly but continuously. They unzipped their rucksacks, took out their weapons and familiarized themselves, Zhenya indicated to Hugh that this weapon had been remachined for silencers and to attach his now.

Crouching down in various places at the top of the hill within line of sight, they settled into waiting mode, Zhenya indicating for all to be alert and silent.

.o0o.

A family passed by on skis, on the way to the lake, obliterating most of the tracks they’d made and the steadily falling snow did the rest – great flakes now touching the face and lips and having to be spat away.

Good. That might complicate the enemy’s plans.

.o0o.

Twenty three minutes passed, cold, legs cramped, with snowflakes insinuating their way down the necks of jackets, even inside hoods and in through sleeves but none dared move or even breathe.

It was a slow time, where enormous patience was the order of the day, things had to be allowed to occur in their own way and yet they were all chafing at the bit.

.o0o.

Zhenya froze, everyone else froze as well and it started.

Silently, oh so silently, in this silent forest, the dull scrape of skis came to their ears, then eventually, a man in a tight fitting olive winter suit appeared below, then another and another, in line, three altogether. They appeared to be unarmed but it was three fit men with no fishing tackle for holes in the ice, no weapons and no anything which actually gave them away.

Zhenya indicated the weapons would be inside their jackets.

N1 continued along the path towards the lake, N2 also continued but Zhenya indicated that the guy would double back to the other side of their little hill and come over the top, Ksusha was to watch the centre and right section of the hilltop, Hugh the centre and left. N3 turned and went back up the path but Zhenya expected him to climb a tree somewhere and take in the whole scene – he’d be Zhenya’s target.

The three clearly expected the company had gone deeper into the forest, closer to the lake but that one might have stayed back here. In the almost electric silence, charged with foreboding, even the heartbeat became a distraction and the comparison between the professional and the amateur here was thrown into sharp relief.

N2 seemed to make no move to come over the top. With shooshing hand signals, Zhenya urged infinite patience and they simply settled down to wait. It was an eerie. eerie feeling and the hollow silence continued in the forest, except for the occasional lump of snow falling from a branch to the ground.

.o0o.

A little under forty minutes passed.

Suddenly, Zhenya made a decision, spun round facing the path below, peering at something beyond it, his two hands simultaneously aimed, the silenced weapon gleamed long and sleek; they heard a disturbance in one of the trees and then vaguely caught a glimpse of a form slipping from the branches and thudding to the snow below.

In the blink of an eye, one man’s soul had been separated from his body.

Zhenya stepped back behind the foliage, glancing about all the while, his face a study in concentration. Valerie now appeared from the direction of the lake – took in the slumped body, glanced over in their direction and stood transfixed, head moving through 180 degrees.

He suddenly took aim, seemingly at Hugh, and in a flash, Hugh saw the end of life, there was a crack, a thud behind him over his shoulder, then a wild flurry, like an animal taking flight. Zhenya relaxed, asked for Hugh’s weapon, slid and shuffled down the remaining few metres to the path, plunged through the snow to the deceased, left the Borz, picked up the man’s weapon, curious about it and joined his friend, also quite intrigued.

The two became more tense when they looked in the direction of the lake. Beckoning Ksenia and Hugh down the hill, they put the plan – N3 was dead, N2 was wounded quite badly but they’d  not go looking for him, N1 was the issue – Valerie hadn’t seen him in the least.  For someone at that level to say that, it was no longer safe for Ksenia and Hugh – they were to return to the hotel via the forest, keeping just below the top of the ridge.

Zhenya and his mate would stay in the forest for a while and try to nut out what N1 was up to.

.o0o.

At the hotel, just before 17:00, the family from the morning returned, from a different direction. It was now quite dark outside.

.o0o.

About 19:00, the lone figure of Zhenya materialized from the forest near the hotel, went inside and straight upstairs to them. To their enquiring glances and tucking into a meat sandwich, he mumbled to the effect that his friend hadn’t made it.

They’d tracked N2 and put him out of his misery, exchanging weapons, but they hadn’t reckoned on being stalked by N1. Valerie had caught an unexpected bullet in the back, Zhenya had then lost N1 and the man was now at large.

He now sized Hugh up. ‘Done any weapons training?’

‘Military. Basic weaponry.’

‘Khorosho.’ It wasn’t strictly the weaponry that was the issue, it was the other training which was going to count – the ability to confront fear. They spoke about this and when Zhenya saw that Hugh knew the principles, he relaxed a little. The thing was that in order to stay alive in this business, you had to be a little crazy – you had to ignore consequences completely. The enemy of safety was ‘What if?’

At least, ‘What if?’ was fine when planning tactical responses but had no place outside of that. Everybody feels fear but the professional fears fear. That is – he fears its well documented consequences enough to first violently suppress it, then to ignore it.

It was agreed that they’d sleep in turns through the night – two on and one off, and of the two on, one would watch the balcony and one the door. Help was out there, of course, insinuated into the fabric of the hotel and its surrounds but the critical point would be those first moments of contact – all the support in the world was not going to help in that time frame. It had to be that way, to entice the man enough to try it on.

Zhenya now fished the two weapons out of his backpack and screwed them together. The best way to describe them was that they were like long pencils, superlight, with apologies for a butt, silenced – they were sniper weapons, using only 22s but they’d be enough. These weapons had been designed and built by someone in Russia – they were specialized.

Zhenya showed their pros and cons, then gave one to his sister. There was plenty of ammunition in thin magazines in his rucksack. He noticed that it took five rounds and was semi-auto only – so more a be-safe sniper than a sure-shot. Perfect for their situation.

Hugh slept first and this was really for the other two to observe if he could. He could and the snoring began. Zhenya shoved him in the back and he just drowsed after that. Some meat, wine and bread was still at hand, Ksenia and Zhenya sat on the floor, to one side of the room, back to back.

‘Will he come?’ Ksenia whispered over her shoulder.

‘They’ll come,’ was the reply.

.o0o.

Two hours passed. At one o’clock, Zhenya took his break and went out like a light – a great compliment to the company. Hugh and Ksenia sat back to back and it was the first real bodily contact in a long while – if he enjoyed the feel of her behind him, he hoped it was reciprocated. It seemed to be because she began to move her back in a circular motion against his.

‘Ksusha,’ he whispered, ’if you don’t stop that, I’m going to have to make love to you right now.’

He could feel her laughing inside, as she whispered, ‘I’m exercising, Hugh.’

.o0o.

Hugh woke Zhenya about 03:00 and one glance showed that not a great deal had happened. The meat, wine and bread were finished, but it didn’t matter, as they’d consumed enough for one night. Zhenya whispered that if it was going to happen, it would happen on this watch – he felt and re-felt the stock of his weapon and waited.

He was covering the balcony, Hugh the door – the feel of the other’s tightened back would be the alert.

They now settled into a relaxed yet vigilant mode, Zhenya reassured by what he felt in the other’s back, just as Hugh felt reassured by his partner.

Ksenia had finally dropped off.

.o0o.

A little before five, Zhenya felt Hugh’s back stiffen. The door handle had turned, almost imperceptibly. Hugh caught his breath and a great tightness constricted his chest. Zhenya glanced behind him, then again at the balcony, like a cobra, coiled, ready to spring.

Hugh went over and over it in his brain – breathe out normally and start the pressure, fractionally raise the muzzle of the weapon and aim perfectly as you breathe in again, fire and in the same instant, both men must shift body position to avoid the counter shot. No thinking or rationalizing was required, just following the drill.

_______________________________

§ One of the pleasures in writing this book is when I sometimes take a real person, use her real name and write the events just as they really occurred. There really was an Aliya, we did get close, she did come with all those things from home, we were seen by Viktor near his place, she did walk holding my arm and she did have that young boyfriend.

_______________________________

Chapter 1-5 hereChapter 1-7 here

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