Many thoughts wanted to crowd into Hugh’s brain, all at the same time and the most insistent was whether his reflexes would be fast enough, at his age. Doubts gnawed and this is what had to be suppressed.
All ‘ifs’ were to be expunged.
But what if it was only some child, going to the toilet? No, all toilets were in the rooms.
What if it was one of the workers locking up late, after a relaxing few drinks downstairs?
What if -?
No one had any business there at that hour. Anyone turning the door handle now, at this hour, as was now happening in front of him, was 100% for the chop. His eyes remained rivetted on the door.
Had it opened a few centimetres more?
Yes, yes, it had.
The faintest light from the hall now crept into the room then, with inexorable deliberation, the door moved further and further ajar, painfully, slowly, silently. It moved very, very slowly.
Zhenya redoubled his own scrutiny of the balcony. Hugh had to decide where to place the shot and Zhenya could feel all this from Hugh’s back. They’d agreed the torso was the best bet, in the centre and he could try for the head with the second.
He could now see into the corridor.
A pale pool of light played on the carpet from the nightlight but there was still no sound, absolutely no sound.
Then came a slight rustle from the hall and suddenly the shadow of a form filled the doorway, something in its hand – Hugh breathed in – muzzle – trigger – phut – silhouette fell – flash of light behind Hugh – splintering glass and a groan from the balcony – form crashing backwards in the hall – both men rolled to new position – something still in Hallway’s hand – Hugh fired again, top of chest – form shuddered – another more careful shot to Hallway’s head, Zhenya now watching Hugh who swung round – balcony glass door with hole in it – crumpled form of man on balcony – all finished – all over!
Just like that.
Ksenia was now up, gun in hand, covering them. Zhenya? Well, he was smiling and Hugh was also smiling.
‘It’s him,’ hissed Zhenya.
They didn’t go into the hallway immediately and so it was hard to make much out about the body. It was wearing black leather jacket, dark jeans and high heeled boots, strange footwear for an assassin.
A ‘pencil’ lay on the floor. Hugh shuddered – what if he’d been that little bit slower? What if he’d frozen? Now came the sound of two sets of padded feet along the corridor, stopping just short of the door.
‘Zhenya?’ came the whisper. ‘Zdes Marcel, Sirozh.’
Unceremoniously, the two bears moved the body, which he now recognized as definitely a slender woman and he knew her – the same who’d given them the supper to take upstairs that evening, just a girl really. They heaved her body next door.
Marcel and Sergei returned for the man on the balcony, there was some cleaning of some marks and some bits of head from the floor in the hallway and that was that. No one had woken up in the other rooms, for the simple reason that the few guests in the hotel were at that time all on the second floor.
Marcel returned with food and tea and they realized just how hungry they really were.
The four of them left Café Delour about 01:00, Nicolette and Francine in one car, Geneviève and Marc in another.
Naturally they were not alone, a complicated schedule of following cars and friendly eyes in buildings along the predetermined route having been called on duty. It wasn’t Geneviève who’d emerged from the bathroom with Marc – she was still back at the café, coordinating from the back room. The woman beside him was the waitress they had working there who most approximated Mademoiselle – she knew the risks and appreciated the remuneration which accompanied them.
They deliberately included the ‘speedway’ past Orly as the most likely spot for an attempt at a sideswipe and a section further on where they would swing onto Avenue Marechal Leclerc should be perfect for a shot.
They reached the turnoff without mishap and now would come the test of nerves for Marc and his passenger. Although they had people at likely places, it was still a high risk operation and the only positives were that it was dark and that they were motoring at a fair rate.
In the end it was a disappointment. Nothing untoward happened.
‘I have to leave Shadzhara,’ Anya announced one evening after calling and then coming over.
‘Right, I understand.’
She smiled. ‘No, it’s a family matter – an aunt on my mother’s side in another town. I have to look after her for some time and I’m transferring there temporarily, my work I mean. That’s how families do it over here.’
‘No contact, eh?’
‘Oh I’ll contact you all right, don’t think I’d not do that, you know you’ll be on my mind.’
Hugh was silent.
She asked, ‘What was it like, you know, actually doing that at Klenovaya Gora?’
‘Frightening, you had to shut it out, the fear.’
‘And yet you ski and sail that thing on the wire.’
‘A person’s in control there.’
‘I meant what was it like to kill someone?’
‘A person about to kill you loses that aura, that thing which preserves him or her. It’s not nice but it has to be, that’s probably not what you wanted to hear but that’s how it was.’
Zhenya had just fixed himself a sandwich at Ksusha’s new flat, which had improved substantially – beds and appliances had been brought in and it was looking more homely. The two of them sat diagonally opposite one another, her watching whilst he ate.
‘Hey, d’you mind?’ he muttered. She went out to make coffee and when she returned, put it to him directly: ‘Zhenya, we’re working for opposite teams now.’
‘We’re still in the same section.’
‘Ludmilla Valerievna warned you and now I’m warning you, Zhenya,. You get any deeper into this and it’s going to come back on you, they’ll hit you, brother.’
His lip curled. ‘And you’ll do the job, sis?’
She spoke ever so quietly. ‘Do you think I can’t?’
He looked at her and something inside twitched, maybe it was his obsessive love for his sis but he believed her capable of anything and this almost turned him on. He put out a hand and touched her cheek tenderly.
‘Zhen, you’ve changed – can’t you see that? The whole idea was to have some cash on the side, not to go round as a freelance hitman for them, these guys don’t know when to stop, they sense you don’t either and it suits their book.’
‘How’s that affect you, Ksushinka?’
‘You’re the only brother I have.’ She got up to go to the kitchen again, he rested a broad hand on her wrist.
‘Sis, what do you want me to do?’
‘Just to see things more clearly.’
‘And to protect Hugh Jensen. We got him into this and now we need to keep him out of it, we owe him that much. Will you promise me never to do anything in that direction?’
‘You do care, don’t you?’
The empty vodka bottle was set at an angle of 45 degrees, embedded in solid ice, right in the middle of the path, a symbolic reminder of Old Russia.
Hugh stared at it for a while and wondered how it had got there in the first place, at that angle in particular and why no one had seen fit to remove it. Everyone simply sidestepped it and moved on. He tried once, twice, to remove it, shrugged, thought why bother and moved on – as they all had.
A girl in a purple beret and a full length, black fur coat shuffled by in her hard platform boots, a lethal combination of bubble gum and mascara. He wanted Ksenia back. Now! She said she was on a ‘mission’, she phoned every evening but he got the distinct impression she was avoiding him … maybe testing his resolve. Maybe she was having second thoughts.
The two biggest pieces of news were the blockbuster film Titanic and Viktor’s final break from Roxanna. This latter necessitated many trips to Giuseppe, many coffees consumed at Viktor’s and visits to his place for soup.
It doesn’t matter how much we know something is on the cards – when it comes, it’s a very empty feeling. And what he had not really bargained for, but should have, was that Ksusha was not there for a substantial amount of the time.
Anya had been – sure, not when she was cheating and off with someone but when she was onboard, she was fully onboard and always there. Well, it seemed that way. He wasn’t, strictly speaking, at home much of the day either but he was at night.
Ksenia had her own flat, her own life over there, she was away for up to two weeks sometimes and yes, she’d phone but it didn’t fill in the rest of the nights. What was he, a child whose hand had to be held?
He’d written a poem in his 20s and though it wasn’t particularly good, it was still true – he tried to remember it:
‘Never so alone as when we have not been alone, only when we have experienced love [some wording like that] do we then so bitterly feel the sad, severe nothing of loneliness.’
He threw himself into work – school and uni, uni and school.
One day at school, in his cupboard, there was a letter written in green ink. From the lettering slanted evenly to the right, it seemed to be the work of a senior, maybe a Class 11 – nothing extravagant, just a double side from a girl who’d been making up her mind about him over the past year.
It was pure ‘To Sir with Love’, but what struck him was the quiet, restrained script. It advised him that if he recognized who it was, to please not divulge it – she understood that it could never be between them.
A touching letter, he refolded it reverently and placed it in his inside pocket. He’d had thoughts about some of the seniors, a man would be lying to say he hadn’t but it was always thinking about the girl out of context, out of her milieu, ascribing abilities and maturity to her she did not possess.
Then, when he saw that girl with her friends, shrieking and being silly, the thoughts immediately dissipated and he got back to whatever he’d been doing.
In late January came the Paula Jones allegations – naughty boy, Bill Clinton and this occupied most Russian dinner table conversations for a month.
The holidays came around quickly – Women’s Day, Easter, the term break, winter clothes away, summer clothes laid out.
The lake was thawing and was now impassable. Last year’s garbage had floated to the surface and one mistake, one wrong foot and you were in it up to the knees.
For the first time in Russia, he felt himself to be a fish out of water – he knew these familiar sights but without being immersed in people, they were just some landscape not his own. He wasn’t sure what landscape was his own any more, truth be told – perhaps that’s what happens when you’re forever on the move, a few years here, a few years there.
Ksenia was away too long, too often and the only good thing was that she phoned him often, had to have been racking up a huge bill. Of Anya, there as only occasional news.
One day, he just phoned Ksenia and said, ‘I have to see you, I can’t stand this anymore.’
‘You saw me two evenings ago.’
She was there in thirty minutes – it was the middle of a day when there weren’t many lessons.
‘I know all about our agreement, that you must not be crowded, that I must not start clinging …’
‘We never agreed that.’
‘Not in as many words but I know you detest the idea of a hunter and his prey, having all your exits cut off, not being able to move or breathe … plus you adore your new flat. I know all that. I also love having time to myself but the question is – how much time? It’s probably different for everyone.’
He was waiting for her to tear that to strips but she did not. ‘I feel the same thing. Have you thought I might be sitting in that flat because I bought it and must love it to bits or I feel I’ve failed? And I don’t want to give you the idea you can just see me because I’m frightened of the hunter/prey thing but not you the hunter – me the hunter. Yes, I see you did not think of that.’
She took a sip of coffee.
‘You see, I’m terrified of consuming you, of you being put off, of you backing away. Of rejection. I know you say to me now that that’s rubbish. You haven’t asked me once how many times I’ve had sex with other men in those five trips I’ve had. You want to know? None! That’s what you’ve reduced me to and I can’t do my job. It’s fine with LudValerievna – she puts me onto non-contact work but it was the contact work I was best at. Look at you.
But now I myself can’t do it. And then I miss you like hell and want to talk to you right then. But if you allow that to happen – me to call all the time – then you will feel you can call me all the time and often I’m working and I don’t mean men. You’ve made all this happen.’
‘Do you hate me?’
She just looked at him. ‘No. No, Bebe, no I don’t. I just hate feeling this way, the pain.’
‘Then we make rules, Ksushinka, we actually talk like this and make limits for each other. I can take you being away two weeks if I know you’ll call maybe four times in that time, then I must see you when you return. And when you’re here, I know you must have space and anyway, I work and am often tired, especially on Tuesdays -’
‘I don’t call you every night because I’m worried you’ll think I’m checking and because it kills me not to have you there. I go to the hotel bar where I am and drink on the nights I don’t phone. I’m not very good at all this.’
‘And you think I am?’
‘You’ve not once been to my flat and have never asked. Every time, it’s me who comes here and you never question what I’m hiding there. Maybe I have other men there when you’re not there.
I want you to see my flat, I’m proud of it. Come now, come right now. Pack a bag, I’ll help you, and come right now. You’ll go to work tomorrow from there.
There’d been no more interest in Section 37 since that evening in January but that didn’t mean they’d relaxed.
Frankly, the break-in had upped the ante, especially with the deaths. Geneviève’s section had always involved low-level intrigue and it had quite often led to retribution – but the Section mainly dealt with amateurs.
This was different. Either those three who’d been at Marc’s apartment were amateurs sent by a disgruntled ‘’customer’ … or else they were not and those who’d sent them were biding their time.
But for what? The consensus was that, for some reason, Geneviève was certainly living a charmed life and by definition, so was anyone else in proximity. However, it did seem that attention was being meted out to anyone with the temerity to get onto the trail of the money.
Marc needed to visit Shadzhara again, he could leave at the end of May.
Ksenia opened her first door, then her second and third, they stepped inside and she’d done it so well – parquet floor, everything clean and modern, white goods here and there, he nodded and she’d been looking for that nod.
‘Very nice, very nice indeed.’
She immediately led him to the far end of the flat, on the right – there’d been the kitchen on the right, then what she used as her living room, then diagonally opposite on the left was a third room, between that and what he assumed was her bedroom was the toilet and bathroom.
He followed her into her room and she said, ‘No one comes in here, not Zhenya, not even my friends.’
He looked around and another side of her became apparent – on every sill, cupboard top, every space were soft toys. He’d seen this before with young Russian women, they never saw it as childish or anything like that but it was a bit disconcerting for a lover.
‘Take your clothes off in front of me,’ she said. He did and it was not warm in the room, despite the central heating radiators still being on, yet her scrutiny had him standing to attention. Still clothed herself, she reached out and took it in hand, looking into his curious eyes, then she dropped to her knees and was at it with a frenzy, no preliminaries.
She paused to say, ‘Let it go over the floor, I always want to remember it there on the floor,’
She enveloped him again with slow strokes and kept on at it until the inevitable happened, he didn’t want to stain that beautiful floor but she now, garbled, mouth still full, ‘I want this.’
And it did spill over.
She then led him to her bed with that beautiful quilt and told him to get in, she followed. ‘Do not treat this bed like a precious thing. You are in here to make love to me and that’s the only purpose for this bed – for you to make love to me and on nights I’m here alone, you are still in here.’
They came out of the shower, she indicated which towel and asked him to put the tea on, he’d find snacks in the fridge.
‘That’s better,’ she said, coming into the kitchen/dinng room, hair up in her towel, still naked because the heating had kicked in. It was not the state central heating, this was individual and it was costing her money.
‘Clothes off, Bebe.’ She waited until he was naked again. ‘You can put out the crab salad too, you’ll find where everything is.’ She sat down at the table and let him prepare the snack meal, this obviously being something important to her, she seemed to be on some sort of high.
Eventually it was set out on the table, on the new tablecloth from her second top drawer. She sat there still, he sat and they ate with gusto, it was washed down by tea and then she just got up, squeezed in between the table and the wall and lowered herself onto him. ‘I want it over this seat.’
‘Good,’ she said, having achieved that. She climbed off and indicated for him to follow her into the living room with the sheepskin rug.
‘No, Ksusha,’ he said, ‘It will mess the rug up,’ he said, ‘you won’t get it out, do you want that?’
‘Yes, I want you in every room.’ She now went down on her haunches and waited. Issue was, there were two entrances and the thought briefly crossed the mind – he chose the right one, reflecting how malleable the female was.
It finally finished in the bath, the third room a bit bleak so they’d not spent much time in there, except against the wall. The bubbles still glistened on the bath water and she observed, ‘That was good.’
‘And I know you’re much happier and calmer if you’ve been made love to.’
‘What woman isn’t? But whoever comes here now, whoever visits, especially Zhenya, you’re in every room. You don’t know how important this was for us. If I ever get ideas, even for a moment, about some man, he would have to do it where you have come. Am I insane?’
‘Yes but with logic. You always assume I’m sane too but I’m not.’
‘To have me, you couldn’t be.’ She thought for a moment. ‘You work tomorrow and I know you like to be fresh. What say we go and watch a film at Druzhba, then have a nice meal out, then come back and maybe think of something to do,’ she smiled, ‘then sleep by 23:00?’
‘Sounds a good plan to me.’
‘Are you happier with me now?’
‘That’s not the question – I’m always happy with you but am I calmer and not as stressed – well yes, of course.’
‘Good, let’s get ready.’
They let themselves back in after that itinerary, he realized he’d left his notes for tomorrow at home, he’d just have to ad lib. Actually, he couldn’t. No matter, he’d taxi to his place and then into town.
‘Ksusha, everyone was looking at you.’
‘They were looking at us. Looking at a happy girl you made happy today. It comes through in how someone looks. That’s why I was more attractive.’
Zhenya was in Moscow for the company meeting with the new girl, Yulia, 27, in tow.
Ksusha had been right about her actually, he conceded – she knew her place, she was happy enough shopping while he was working and then they’d meet, eat, club a bit and get their rocks off later. There were two types of women in Russia and she was the other type.
The only cloud was that Zhenya, being in condition, eschewed the alcohol while Yulia loved the cognac. It wasn’t a major problem and they never conversed much anyway – he appreciated a woman who knew how to shut up and just make herself available.
So now they took the Metro to Sokol and while she window shopped and cafed, he put in fifty minutes with the weights, then they ate at a Georgian place nearby.
Ludmilla Petrova received the report on the Beast with grave disquiet and the report on the man she held personally responsible for the trouble – Deputatov. She could do little with Deputatov in Moscow but she could very much do something about Mr. Ronald Seymour.
It was a terrible thing to think, for a woman in her position, but she half hoped that Deputatov and the Beast would slug it out and gun each other down. Things would be much simpler that way. Perhaps it was her eyes and the progressing glaucoma which put her in such a mood but there it was.
The Beast was her primary concern. What he was blackmailing her over was a minor matter but in Russia, if it suited their book, certain echelons could blow a minor matter out of all proportion and she’d be finished. And she’d only been helping her daughter find work as well – what mother would not do such things?
The Beast was a master blackmailer, Sergei Safin had been stupid enough to lock horns with him, he’d come off second best and now he was in the Beast’s pocket. She wondered if Mikhail Safin knew the half of it. She wondered if it would avail her to inform him. She also wondered if Zhenya would still protect Hugh if he were under conflicting orders from both his company and his section.
She wondered many things.
In the late afternoon spring sun, Marc felt the warmth on his back as he skipped up the few steps to his outer door, slipped the coded key in, took the lift, went in and threw his things on the hall table.
He filled the coffee maker in the kitchen and flicked on the switch, before checking the answer machine in the living room.
There was one from his mother, asking him to fix the cold water tap. He’d do that tomorrow. Another from Nikki – nothing special there. One from his old schoolmate Paul, one from Dilyara.
It was the type of angst which absence brings on and that was tough to take but he listened and the tone changed, almost bemused. ‘And you know what, Marc, that man I took the photo of was in our mini-mart round the corner but he thought I didn’t see him.’
Marc immediately phoned Geneviève and asked to go to the encryption. They hung up and went to safe talk. Geneviève came to the same conclusion and Marc suggested they phone Hugh, he had a new mobile. ‘You call him, Marc.’
He did and the phone rang as Ksenia was astride him at his flat, she never even stopped rotating her pelvis while Marc spoke, she did stop when he handed the mobile to her, English the medium of language. ‘Yes, yes we know, yes I think so, I’ll have to make a call, yes we’ll call back.’
She clicked it off and handed him the mobile, went over to her own jacket and got her own phone out, a long conversation took place, he went to the bathroom, she appeared, still talking, handed him his own phone, then clicked off her own.
‘OK, phone Marc and give him the number I’ll tell you, don’t write it down, his chief is to phone mine.’
He did just that, she said the number, the phone clicked shut, ‘Good,’ she said, ‘that’s all we can do, us lowly paeons.’
They had another bath.
The new registration was obtained for Hugh to stay in the country, the flight to Australia was booked, he’d kept Ksusha up on this since late April and she actually understood people going away for awhile. Still, it was going to be interesting how she handled it, how he would.
The Lewinsky scandal was rocking along quite nicely on the airwaves, Ksusha appreciating the woman’s method and there’d been a massive flood in China – the Yangtse was not a happy river, it seemed.
Anya had checked in from time to time and he felt it best she not be disturbed further, today he looked around the old town one last time before his trip.
Baumana had changed. Once a typical dowdy street, with narrow pavements and lots of asphalt; now the city fathers had created a mall, replete with fountains, sculptures and such like. The inevitable boutiques were sprouting everywhere – Toris, with its shoes and boots, D’El, with its high end costumes and so on and McDonalds, of course, right in the middle of the mall.
But the same old music cassette stalls were still there, the same old soft toy stalls and the same Café Chai blasting discordant ethnic music into the street.
This was now the last night with Ksusha, at her flat. She was going away tomorrow herself, he the following day.
‘I could have put it back a day,’ she admitted, but I couldn’t stand seeing you go away from me like that. Call it selfish but I wanted you seeing me off instead.’
‘I call it protecting yourself.’
‘I know you’re terrified I’m going to have sex with some man, maybe from my past, but it cuts both ways you know. You’re also going somewhere where old flames will come out and what then? You control it very firmly, you never say a word but I know what you’re thinking. I think nothing will happen but let’s say it did – let’s say we forgot ourselves. We come back and we admit what happened, we tell the other. I want to go with you next time, meet your parents but you did not invite me this time.’
He opened his mouth, closed it. He opened it again. He was stuck for words. She looked at him. ‘Ksusha, I – I don’t know what to say, I just thought, with you being security, that you would have to be here or in Britain or something. If I’d thought for one moment -’
‘If you’d thought for one moment. Yes.’
‘This is terrible. I feel so low.’
‘Yes, as I intended you to. Now you’ve felt low, you can forget it. Don’t you think I was capable of saying something these two months? All the same, next time I’d like to be with you. Would that wreck your plans?’
‘Are you insane? Wreck my plans? It would make them. I’m cursing I didn’t ask you.’
‘Then I’m satisfied for now. Let’s get some sleep though.’
‘You don’t want to make love?
‘Yes, tomorrow morning, with energy. Just hold me for now.’
Next morning’s strenuous session before her 11:00 departure was the stuff of dreams but even better was the discussion after it.
‘How do you see sex between us?’ she asked, lying in his arms.
‘A very important way for us to express how we feel when words won’t do.’
‘Did you rehearse that?’
‘I’ve thought it through many times, I’ve had much time away from you to do it. And you?’
‘I don’t want to just be a receptacle for your fluid, somewhere to pump your penis. To you, every centimetre of me is to explore, touch, lick, which means I need to be quite careful of myself and though it always ends up with me as a receptacle, that is what I offer you out of love, not what you assume is your right. That’s how I want it. You’ve obviously learnt from somewhere to lead but also to allow me what I want, you almost always wait until that last moment for my nod and then you do it, but sometimes you haven’t waited, and that’s good too. Nor do you analyse when I like that – don’t analyse it. It should be a dance, not something brute.’
‘Sometimes women like brute, it takes responsibility away from them for the dirty thing going on.’
‘You see what we do as dirty?’
‘The opposite, which is why I explore every part of you. Am I powerful enough for someone who is used to Russian men?’
‘You have funny ideas of my lovers – they’re not that many. Some of them were brutes but only a few. Anything you lack in power you make up for in energy – it will do me, thank you. This sort of discussion is pointless – you can see it’s good, so why analyse it further?’
‘I’m going to miss you very, very badly. And I’m going to save you the question – Anya is over from this time, except as a friend, it is you or no one now.’
She squeezed him half to death.
Ksenia had been seen off, she didn’t want him accompanying her because he wasn’t allowed near the offices, so they’d had a strenuous session, she’d told him he had all day to clean himself up and had been in the bathroom for an hour.
She came out, grabbed her things, kissed him and was gone.
And now, today, alone, he took the 19.12 train for Moscow and the west.
At the other end, in Moscow, he made the connection to Domodedovskaya Station, and finally, at the top of the stairs, there was one of the students they’d entertained in London, now at university – he’d activated the contact.
Moscow Anya he called her, looking as sweet as when they’d parted in London with her school group. On the way to their flat, he bought some flowers for her mother.
Her little brother was with her and they all bussed to the elegantly appointed flat, sat on the divan, not knowing what to say and eventually settled for cards. The parents came home later, small gifts and flowers were given.
In the early dusk, Moscow Anya and Hugh went out and made contact with the other girls who’d been in London and they all went for a stroll, before the two returned for a supper of red beef borsch, chicken and rice plov, crab and mushroom salads and the inevitable vodka, toasting everyone’s health, druzhba (friendship) and other fine causes.
Hugh was given Anya’s own bedroom, she shared with her mother, and papa occupied the living room. It was a smallish room with light coloured wood work, the soft bed was a dream after the train and sleep descended on the household.
Preparations were well in hand for the final big supper and other members of the family had also congregated, the older men in ties. He had pride of place at one end of the table, the father at the other and the festivities commenced.
There was a ring on the doorbell. Anya went, then poked her head around the door and beckoned. It was Natasha, one of the other London girls and so there were more shy, nervous, ‘eyes down’ greetings, again in broken English, more toasts and so it went.
In the morning, he was awoken by Anya shaking his shoulder.
‘What you need?’ She indicated, ‘Towel here on bed.’
‘Nothing, nothing, thanks, thanks for everything.’
Fifteen minutes later, he was in good enough condition to present himself for breakfast but to his surprise, only Vadik was left behind in the flat. Mama and Papa had both gone to work, she’d gone to the Institute, Vadik had been given copious instructions concerning breakfast, Papa would collect Hugh later for the airport.
He hadn’t thanked them adequately and he didn’t want to leave the flat this way. What could he do? He had no way to go and get a present, he couldn’t communicate it anyway to the boy, who seemed the least able to understand his faltering Russian.
There was nothing he could do.
Mikhail Safin didn’t so much run a family but an organization. The company was the source of all things – the comfortable life, the wife, the children, the security, the clout to be able to adopt the patriarchal role.
He could never understand lesser men who were willing to work for peanuts or to kowtow to a boss. On the other hand, some men did not have the stomach to do the things which were necessary to stay on top. Mikhail’s business was varied and could be loosely lumped under the heading ‘making money’. They sold whatever could be sold and brokered deals for banks. You wanted a deal made – they’d be your go-between.
He had no illusions about his numbers two and four – Georges, with the European name and Oleg, the Beast. The thing is, he needed them in the way, if he’d known about British history, Henry had needed his Cromwell or Elizabeth her Walsingham. Such men were necessary.
There was something with Oleg though which didn’t ring true. Still, not wise to dwell on such things as long as they didn’t personally affect him, as long as Oleg did his job and had no pretensions to power. He was keeping an eye on the man.
The number three, Dima, his brother-in-law – well he was the political half of the business. Whatever needed smoothing over, whatever channels needed opening – that was Dima’s thing. He knew where the threats would come from and how to circumvent them – he knew what was going down.
The children – Sergei, Olyesa and Alina – they were all right. Sergei was in security and the girls would have places found for them sooner or later.
Things were OK.
This Englishman, Paul Jacobsen – he was the current concern. Realizing it was better to have a Russian connection in setting up a conglomerate over here, it was interesting how he’d latched on to Mikhail and been sent Dima to see how the firm could be of assistance.
Mikhail was astute enough to know that this was never going to sit well with Deputatov in Moscow and his English partner and it had caused a certain amount of friction so far. The actions of Mikhail’s niece and nephew in security had also been a spanner in the Deputatov works.
There was trouble brewing.
Hugh made London and phoned Lisa.
He got to the Blackheath deli first, indulged in conversation with Sandra, then in walked the red haired picture herself. Lisa ordered a salad, he had his turkey sandwich, then cappuccinos for both. The essential question now was how best to spend their short time together.
Let’s be tourists for the day.
Capital idea. Maybe Bakerloo, Sherlock Holmes’ pretend house, Madame Toussaud’s queue, train to Leicester Square, take in a film, walk to the embankment and the little coffee house along a bit from Embankment tube station.
Sitting out on the chairs at the front of the little coffee house, it was a bit chilly in the shade in her floral patterned dress, minus cardigan. Still, she managed to drop a surprise: ‘Zhenya wants to talk to you.’
‘He’s in London?’
‘That man gets around.’
‘Or else follows you. Maybe he doesn’t have a life of his own.’
‘No, Lisa, to be fair, I think his proximity means protection.’
Accepting her mobile, the call was put through and they arranged to do the Deli again on the morrow – same time.
Viktor already had Ksenia’s number, Hugh’s B&B number and Marc’s.
Operating on a need to know system, he didn’t divulge these when he phoned Ludmilla Petrova to ask her whether she knew anything of a Frenchman whose description he now gave.
Ludmilla was non-committal at first but as she gleaned what Viktor was up to, she opened up a little more and admitted they were watching a Frenchman but not for any special reason. She was most interested in the possibility of the danger he presented and yes, after he’d told her, she’d get onto it, they already had really.
Next morning, one turkey sandwich and cappuccino had been disposed of before the door darkened with the unmistakable form of Zhenya and here he was seated awkwardly on a white wrought iron garden chair, conversing as if they’d never parted.
‘Is Ksenia in – er – London?’ asked Hugh.
Zhenya grinned. ‘Sorry to disappoint you – she’s in St Petersburg. You’re doing good things for her, I may have been wrong about it and that’s why I’m looking after you too.’
‘Yes but your boss is the one who wants me dead and you’re his agent.’
‘Yes but I’m also section. For me to do that would be my last act in Russia. Better to obey my section chief and Ksusha, especially Ksusha. He knows that.’ He took a sip of coffee. ‘You’re booked for Australia,’ Zhenya got down to it, ‘that’s what I’m here to tell you – you have to stay in London, I can’t protect you adequately outside Europe. Two people have been activated and I’m risking my life telling you this – one is a foreign woman they use, but there’s another too.’
Zhenya reached into his briefcase and produced a report in a plastic folder. It was a political dossier, in Russian. ‘Just give me the summary, Zhenya.’
‘Name: Sergei Safin, ranking officer and working for our company.’
‘Safin – Safina,’ commented Hugh, Zhenya nodded. Asked Hugh: ‘What must I do?’
‘Stay in London.’
‘I can’t, I’m on my way to Melbourne to see my mother, I have no choice, even if I never get there. Tell me three things – is Ksusha safe enough, is Anya and are you yourself?’
Zhenya smiled, ‘I’m your concern? Well that’s nice. Yes, those two are safe enough, I’m not though. And nor are you. Listen, Hugh, it will happen like this, most likely – someone you know will approach you, probably female in your case, and you’ll go with her, at her suggestion, then at some point, she’ll find an excuse to slip away for a moment. That will be it. Don’t make friends with young ladies, that’s your Achilles Heel, that’s how we did it -’
‘But for now, ‘he continued, ‘stay close to your Lisa and try not to take a bullet.’
‘You’re a comfort, Zhenya.’
He smiled that brickable smile of his. ‘Here’s a bundle of U.S. notes, for emergencies. Take my mobile, don’t argue, use it instead of yours. There are instructions on it for logging onto the net in Melbourne, give it back to me when you come back.’ He proferred the bundle and Hugh involuntarily took it.
‘You just made a major mistake,’ Zhenya was using up his quota of smiles for the day. ‘You were just seen taking money from me.’
He was livid but far from reacting, Zhenya continued in the same tone, ‘Look at your face! It reduces your effectiveness. You couldn’t neutralize me at this moment, even if your life depended on it. Good luck, don’t lose my mobile and I’ll see you in Shadzhara, if you’re still alive.’
Hugh didn’t rise to it, he paid the stupendous bill at the counter which they’d been progressively building up, nodded goodbye, then decided to be a little more gracious and extended his hand. Zhenya’s grip was strong and firm, a wiry sort of strength, rather than the strength of a bull.
‘One last piece of advice, Hugh. For now, I’m your friend but next time, who’s to say I haven’t been given new orders? I’d hate to do it, of course, but I’d do it, you can be sure. Take care.’
And he was gone, an extraordinary man with an overdose of Le Carre in his soul. Or was he the consummate professional?
He flew to Melbourne without mishap.
Hugh’s mother was not too much the worse for wear but frail, yes distinctly old and frail now. The prevailing opinion in the family about his gallivanting around the world, leaving his mum to someone else to look after, had made him somewhat of a pariah with the stepbrothers and sisters.
In earlier years he’d quizzed his mum about it and tried to detect any sign that she felt the same way. She’d taken the point of view that you have to do what you have to do. It had always been her own way and yet – she’d have to have missed him a hell of a lot, as any mother would have.
The first two weeks were uneventful and he did the usual round of friends, gradually falling back into the Aussie domestic lifestyle. He ate his steamed Dim Sims with Soy Sauce, his Chiko Rolls, the Vegemite sandwiches and Cherry Ripes and was now heavily into the driving of mother up to Arthur’s Seat, with its chairlift and other places of interest.
She loved a drive in the country, his mum, and if it meant up a steep hill with a restaurant at the top, where they could consume Devonshire Teas, looking out over the purple bay vista below, so much the better.
With his mum, any trip was OK, as long as there was an ice cream somewhere along the route and ice cream places had proliferated in recent years, from Baskin Robbins to the little place in Sorrento which had always served a variety of flavours in a cone for as long as he could remember.
This was an invaluable time now and he had to maximise it. He had to bring Ksusha next time. It would have been Anya but there it was.
Ronald Seymour was a close-cropped, chisel jawed specimen who would always look as if he resided on the shady side of the law, which was unfortunate because most ‘businessmen’ tried to project the opposite image.
He sipped his Merlot at Garfunkels and mobiled Deputatov in Moscow.
‘Hi. A little bird told me that a certain merger is being planned next summer. The two parties are apparently taking a cruise and they’ll thrash it out there.’ Soft cursing could be heard at the other end.
‘How sure? Very. Yes, we’ll have to, won’t we? Who? Don’t worry about him – we have someone in London and one at the other end too.’
Deputatov clicked his mobile off.