11:25 saw Nicolette pull into the Orly carpark with Marc and go in with him. This wasn’t necessary of course but both seemed to enjoy this time together and neither was going to question the little routine.
They parted tenderly and soon he was airborne.
In Frankfurt he phoned Dilya and got no answer. No matter. He’d contact her in Shadzhara.
He grabbed a coffee and an hour later was airborne again, a five hour flight in front of him. She’d arranged to meet him at the airport – he now pictured her face and the way she’d try to contain her delight, just as he would.
Marc took a cognac and relaxed with the in flight magazine for ten minutes, before snoozing lightly, the woman two places to the right, by the window, already fast asleep.
The time in Melbourne had drawn to a close and that sad time of farewells for another year began.
Hugh took himself out to the airport this time, as it just seemed better. His stepfather, Jack, had a touch of the flu and his mother couldn’t go without him.
Check in and takeoff were fairly standard and the short hop to Sydney was done quickly. Now, so far, Hugh had had three seats by the window to himself but it was too much to hope that his luck would hold out that way.
The memory of the infamous Greyhound bus, travelling from L.A. to Vancouver, occupied his mind right now.
Basically, they’d just left L.A. that summer and all the seats had been taken, except for the one beside Hugh and another further up. At the next town, three people got on – a grossly overweight, heavy-breathing Mexican with sweaty armpits, a petite blonde and a nondescript businessman.
He’d got the blonde of course and she’d started to converse. Where was he from? She was from – and so on. They made the next town and then, suddenly she was gone and just as suddenly – wham!
The fat Mexican swung himself into the seat, squashing him against the window. The Great Blob humphed, hurrumphed, sitting bolt upright, occupying 70% of the seat and half the aisle and he stank.
Truly, he stank.
Now, in Sydney, he feared the same thing repeating itself but it turned out to be just one Thai businesswoman. Well, that wasn’t too bad.
They eventually made Bangkok and the plane changed. Now this was where the worry gripped, as he seemed to have all three seats to himself again, the next section was the eleven hour haul to London and one’s fellow passengers were critical.
First, a businessman came down the aisle and moved past.
A Chinese couple and an academic passed by.
Then he saw the grossly obese American mid-aisle, the man shot him a glance, looked at the seat number above, Hugh instinctively double-checked his boarding pass and silently died, staring ahead, waiting for that giant butt to thump down beside him but oh frabjous day – it didn’t thump down beside him – it passed further on down the aisle.
Still anxiety reigned.
Suddenly, at the very last moment, a young lady in white vest and blue jeans appeared in the aisle, cascades of dark hair everywhere, breathlessly shoving things into the luggage compartment above and the next thing he knew, he was offering the window seat, her small bottom landed beside him before he’d even had a chance of having a heart attack.
Oh thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.
She checked her boarding pass and he hoped against all hope. Please let it be so for the next seventeen hours – including the one hour stopover in Abu Dhabi – please let it be so. I’ll do anything, I promise, I’ll be good for a whole year, I’ll help old ladies across the street …
The doors closed, the plane taxied and took off.
Eureka! There was justice in this world, after all!
The essential problem now was how to seduce her. Then he stopped and had a good look at himself. WTF was he thinking?
The non-smoking sign went out and she went into action herself. Out came all the little bits and pieces for her comfort, everything was arranged as she wanted and he followed suit. Flipping through his photos to pass the time, he got bored, flung them down on the dividing seat, pushed his seat back and tried to snooze.
He opened one eye, sneaked a look at her and she was doing the same in reverse. He closed his eyes again but he’d seen the smile on her lips.
Marc remained in Shadzhara and had no plans to return to Paris. Geneviève gave him a month all up. Issue was that Dilyara had been shot and it was kept heavily under wraps, it made no local news.
The bullet had penetrated close to the heart and apparently it was a swift, unexpected movement which had saved her. She was in a critical condition for days and recognized no one.
He got to meet the family and that was an interesting cross-cultural phenomenon in itself. The major thing though was that he’d decided this with Dilya could not continue, he suspected she’d fear that, once she came out of it, he’d try to do the gallant thing. To her, the bullet would be an unnecessary complication, a threat to everything she’d tried to build with him.
He’d always visit at 14:00, once the family had had their time and so he found himself today. Taking her slender hand with the long fingers in his own larger mitt, he willed her to get better. If there was such a thing as the spirit, if there was such a thing as a patient gaining strength and solace from mere touch, then he willed it so.
Yet he had to admit to himself that it was a near lifeless hand he was holding. He looked at their two hands and wondered about everything.
He had to go.
Time passed on the flight. Lunch arrived. Then, out of the blue: ‘Nice photographs. May I ask where they were taken?’
Interesting voice and he drank her in – Eurasian, sweet mercy. Not a fabulous beauty perhaps, a little battle hardened, he thought, but definitely shapely.
‘Indonesian,’ she volunteered.
Wow, he’d never met one of those and her English was great. So it should have been – she lived in England, had done for seven years.
So where was the family?
He recalled once having been on a sleeper from Madrid to Italy and he’d met a girl, Louisa – Spanish, so he’d found out. Small and severe but with a sweet face. She spoke Spanish, Italian and a little French, Hugh spoke English and a little French.
They’d decided to get out at Narbonne to sample the French cuisine and the waiter had been highly amused – two foreigners from different countries, both clearly inept in his native language and both trying to communicate in it. He’d helped them and the tip had probably helped him in return.
They’d walked and then, with the train ready to depart, had decided to meet again in Florence. She was going on a pottery course there, and he was making his way north. But he’d come back down, called her phone number and found himself ensconced in a villa on the edge of Florence.
She’d shown him round but things had not then gone quite as planned and she clearly wanted out of the situation. With her own new friends, her own agenda, he’d felt distinctly surplus to requirements. So he’d slipped away from Florence as quickly as decorum would permit, heading for Rome.
At the railway station, two Aussie girls had approached him, flabby thighs, balloon shorts and thongs. They’d wanted to drink and crash on the grass, the last thing he was going to do. The girl in the plane now was not unlike the Spanish senorita – compact, friendly in a reserved way, very good company and both up for suggestions.
They were decanted at Abu Dhabi in that terminal and Frederika, for that was her name, wandered round with him, shopping together, supping together, patiently waiting for the other.
She was a bit of an enigma – her body was quite soft, given the overall shape and the hardness of the face and hands but there was also a sharpness to her eyes, the way she looked at him, holding the gaze a fraction long and he wasn’t sure he should be flattered by it, it was almost scrutiny.
He bought a miniature Aladdin’s lamp and she considered buying one but then didn’t and regretted it later. At one point they’d drifted apart and he hadn’t wanted to go looking for her but then she’d seen him and had come over by herself.
He’d appreciated that.
Back on the plane, they now snoozed, he placed an airline pillow between her head and his shoulder, she stirred, smiled at what he’d done and let her head fall back to the pillow, allowing her thin, sinewy body to snuggle into him.
Close to London, if it could be called next morning, it all changed. Clearly her friend was on her mind and she distanced herself before getting out, even keeping two people between them in the aisle for disembarking.
He lost her completely, shrugged, and turned his attention to balancing his luggage on the escalator step on the way up. Then he saw her at the top and she seemed to be waiting for him. It was going to be a wonderful day after all.
She suddenly extended both hands and his next sensation was falling backwards, tumbling, bags, parcels, everything, over and over and over, all the way to the bottom, wind knocked out but still alive.
A few seconds later, he could feel someone crouching over him, crying, ‘No, no, are you OK? Say you’re OK.’ A hand went over his mouth and something was pushed inside, maybe a capsule.
Her voice dropped, she murmured, ‘Say goodnight, Sweety,’ then she was gone.
He spat out whatever it was and passed out.
Safin took the call. He said not one word but clicked off and called a number in Moscow.
‘It’s over. She wants cash. Usual way.’
The hospital was not the most modern. Large ward, shower curtain railings around rickety beds, small windows allowing a trickle of light into the room, flowers on the metal sideboards beside the beds.
The nurse came round and explained that this was going to be a seven day job. Only one had passed so far, so there were still six interminable ones to go. To hell with that. He had things to eat, cafes to drink, places to do.
He lay there fuming. Why couldn’t she have done it just before Shadzhara? A week off teaching would have been just the ticket. Why during the holidays? And anyway, would the little traitor still get the money for a botched job or would she have to accept a bullet as part payment?
Zhenya arrived with Lisa – did those two have something going?
He suggested Hugh postpone the trip back, Zhenya knew the travel agent in Little Portland very well, thanks to Hugh’s last flight back to Russia, he’d arrange all the documentation, the insurance and so on and Hugh wouldn’t be out of pocket.
It was on the fourth day, according to the nurse, that Dilyara’s eyelids had flickered open briefly in the morning but there had been nothing since.
Marc farewelled the family – it had got down to a routine by now – and took his place on a warm seat one of them had been occupying. He looked at Dilya, at the girlish outline of her face in repose and wondered why people often looked younger when asleep.
Her hands were beneath the covers so he decided to just sit in his chair and look. She was breathing evenly and the expression looked serious, not serene. It was as though she had business to attend to.
Leaning over her, he lowered his lips and touched her upper lip the way he always did. There was a definite quiver and then a rigidity which had not been there before. One eyelid opened and it was the first genuine contact for months. But did she recognize him?
She appeared not to but then the mouth, those thin lips, parted ever so slightly in what could be taken for a smile. The whole visage went back into repose and he knew the thing was done for one day.
He stayed for another hour, then took his leave, thanking the nurse on the way out.
Day Seven arrived, Hugh was discharged, he was met by Zhenya and Lisa and they all went to Blackheath, to the B&B which Lisa had booked.
They ate Chinese across the road – the Peking Duck was crisply superb, the plum sauce a treat.
They wound up festivities about nine and saw Hugh back to the B&B safely, arranging to phone the next day.
Lisa was dropped back to Kentish Town and at the last second, invited Zhenya inside, a spur of the moment decision, despite the long drawn out thinking preceding it. For his part, he’d picked her correctly as a girl who’d venture and then at the last minute, her moral gyro would reassert itself and she’d shy away from compromising herself. She adored adventure but not danger. For him, this little evening wouldn’t hurt, would it?
She made nice coffee and put out some cakes, changed into an oversized jumper and Peter Rabbit socks and he couldn’t help noticing the cultural divide. She asked about Ksenia.
‘Ksusha? Sensitive really. She felt very badly about the way our mother was treated. I think she blew it out of all proportion – it was no worse than in many families – but she saw it as her mission in life to protect someone – our mother was the logical recipient.’
‘Hugh was most impressed with how you handled everyone in that forest.’
‘Was he really?’ Zhenya allowed himself a little smile. ‘I see you have a man.’
Lisa just stared, then glanced over at the photo. ‘Yes and no. We’re apart for now. There were … issues.’
‘But you’d take him back.’
She didn’t like the way he tumbled to things. ‘I don’t know. I shouldn’t.’
‘But in the end, after much soul searching – you would.’
‘Unless something else had happened in the meantime.’
He wasn’t going to buy into this any further, not with possibilities here this night – in fact, it made things decidedly safer. It completely went over his head to what she was referring. ‘Well, I suppose I should go.’
‘At which point I beg you not to? Not tonight, Zhenya. It takes time with me.’
Next morning was too magnificent for words and in London you learn to take advantage of opportunities like that.
Hugh’s resolution to lay low and fully recuperate simply flew out the window, Greenwich demanded a stroll and anyway, there were always people on that route and there was safety in numbers.
The stroll up Tranquil Vale and onto the heath took it out of him a bit but he crossed the grass, past some sort of kite flying convention, to the A2, crossed that and went past the donkey rides, in through the main gates and down the main tract, over the ridge, past the observatory and there was Greenwich in the distance.
With half the job done, he took a breather and sat under a tree, considering it good to be alive.
Now the last stretch before the lower gate and he was across the road and into the village proper.
Ten metres ahead of him, walking into the TexMex café, was Frederika on the arm of a nasty looking bruiser. Adrenalin rising, he followed them in – her minder ordered some nachos and guacamole while she looked on.
Twenty minutes later, he found himself on the footpath leading to the riverside, a fair distance behind the two of them and the obvious question was whether either had picked up on him or else some third person had. Neither had used a mobile during this time and he had to think it all out on the move.
The two were heading down Evelyn Street now, which would bring them out on King William Walk and The Cutty Sark and there wasn’t a lot of time, plus there were too many people about. Fine to get lost in but not so fine for anything he had in mind.
What the hell did he have in mind? The insanity of it struck even him. What could he hope to achieve? To frighten her, frighten him? As if the type could be fazed. If they’d seen him already, then moves would have been made already.
That’s when he glanced down Nelson Street to the right and OK – he was paranoid but there was a female with a mobile about twenty metres away, looking at him and making no move to do anything – not shop, not go back, not go forward.
Nothing in it, he told himself. If she had been watching him, she was damned pathetic at it. However, a split second after she’d lifted the mobile to her ear, Side of Beef, the one with Frederika, had lifted his mobile to his ear.
Many thoughts raced through his brain – it couldn’t be a job on him because there’d been no heat on her since the airport and that was because he’d not described her to the police and that was fair enough because he hadn’t actually seen her do it – he just knew those hands and fingers, plus the voice.
He’d wanted her sure she’d finished the job, assuming she’d get out of London. Why was she still here then? Perhaps she’d enquired – mortuary etc. and having drawn a blank, had then tried hospitals.
Either way, his own manner had now alerted that girl and she’d now communicated a description to Side of Beef, so he had to assume they were preparing for him. What a mess. If he withdrew, she’d know he was not only alive but not 100% and possibly scared, so she might track him down.
There was one more thing.
Hugh was carrying a flickknife in his holdall, a ceramic job given him by Zhenya and he kept it in his undies, didn’t he? The only defence he had was that knife and his mind now worked overtime how to use it to get rid of her, without actually killing her.
Number one, he’d have to get her alone and number two – he’d have to get in close and press the point into her side or whatever. Then what? The moment he didn’t knife her, she’d know he was as soft as he seemed and that might be the end. Therefore he had to knife her.
Ah, hang on. Thoughts came into his head. He thought he knew how he could do this.
Ludmilla Valerievna was more than surprised when the one she considered her opposite number, though hardly in a section such as she administered, agreed to fly to meet her. Ludmilla had taken it as read that the queen never leaves the hive but clearly the French did things differently, at least in Section 37.
She began to wonder if Geneviève was high enough to deal with and whether it might not be better to concentrate on the woman’s superior. Then again, there’d never been any suggestion that Geneviève was anything but the head – yes, the meeting would go ahead.
It was agreed that they’d meet at Borovoya Matiushina, the riverside resort, at the dacha of one of her friends. It was defendable from both water and the road and flanked by other houses but best of all, it was built like a bunker during the cold war.
When Geneviève and entourage were dropped at the military drome, a hovercraft collected her and took her downstream to the appointed residence. Marc was already inside.
The luncheon was traditional and ritualized – both Russian and local cuisine – she enjoyed the Moldavian red and gorbusha fish the best.
She came clean on their original aim of following the cash trail and gave as close to an honest account of how far they’d got. Ludmilla spoke of rival companies, of the clinic outside Shadzhara and of attempts to set operatives against one another. There didn’t appear to be any specifically jihadi thing in this nor any anti-Russian thing. It all seemed a commercial matter in the end.
Still, they’d keep an eye on things.
It had been a worthwhile discussion.
Ksenia returned from St. Petersburg with her brother overseas, Hugh also overseas and Ludmilla having entertained French intelligence.
It wasn’t any of her business, any of it, until a colleague told her the Denpasar girl had flown to London with Ksenia’s so-called ‘protégé’, as they described Hugh. She knew he’d done some reckless things but this just took the biscuit, she contacted Zhenya immediately and was relieved he was onto it.
Fretting, walking up and down the corridor – she hated this, she hated what he was doing and hated her own feelings about him doing it. It was time to play one of her reserve cards – she knew Anya’s mobile number and as hers was unknown to Anya, the chances were she’d answer.
That’s exactly what happened and to say Anya was shocked was an understatement. When she heard that he’d gone to London with a killer, fear for Hugh and anger vied for precedence. ‘Not a nice feeling, is it, Ksenia?’
‘No, it’s not.’ Ksenia was direct and asked for Lisa’s number. Anya would phone. No, it was her job this time, as Anya well knew, as Hugh didn’t know she knew Anya’s number. Anya saw the force of that and then thought it might be good anyway if Ksenia learnt the hard way what it was like to be with Hugh – the uncertainty, the way he went with women. Let her have the worry and humiliation for once. Utter fool the man was.
She gave the number, Ksenia thanked her and called Lisa. To say Lisa was shocked and appalled was an understatement but what she couldn’t understand was that if Ksenia’s brother was seeing her, why Ksenia couldn’t have got the number from him, rather than through Anya. How was Anya, by the way?
Ksenia simply hadn’t known he’d made contact with Lisa, so how could she have asked her brother for the number? Now she knew, Lisa was to get onto him immediately after this call and get him onto it.
It happened rather quickly and surprised both.
Firstly, Hugh did lose sight of them around the corner of the College Approach. When he went round the corner, there was Frederika ahead but no Side of Beef.
Then he saw the slightest outline of a calf through a typical London architectural quirk. Porches did hide people but stonework had slight gaps in places and this showed someone was on the porch – could have been anyone but the jeans were at least the same. Logical too – he comes around the corner, Side of Beef is on the first porch, he sees her walking on ahead and follows. End of story.
He slipped back around the block but that was only going to bring him to that girl again. At the corner of Nelson Street he paused, just out of sight and peered through a gap in some balusters, nothing there, no time to wait, down Nelson Street, weaving through people, into King William Walk, danger at the College Approach, first bit of luck – both of them near that porch in the distance, deciding whether to double back probably.
They now turned and headed for the Cutty Sark or the riverboat – ah, they were going on the riverboat. He arrived and bought the return ticket, four minutes to wait, stayed out of sight.
At the last moment, it was up the gangplank, show the ticket, go inside and there she was on a seat to the left side, side of beef on the other side of the boat, looking nonchalant, quite a crowd on board. He slipped in beside her, ‘Frederika, darling, long time no see, we’re sitting together I see. Any move at all and the knife goes in you. Think through why this is my only choice. Did you hear about the unfortunate car which went over the edge in Tenerife?’
She nodded, he’d made his point about Tenerife, she could feel the knife, she suspected the type and stared straight ahead, impassive, which was the most unnerving part. Side of Beef now caught the scene but a gesture from her meant he subsided, watching like a hawk.
‘All right Sweety,’ Frederika broke her silence. ‘I don’t doubt you’d do it, not after Tenerife, but what do you hope to achieve here and now? Let’s think ahead. The boat ride finishes. And then?’
‘You and I go for a little walk. Do you speak Russian?’
‘Some. Why Russian?’
‘Call him and give me your mobile.’
She reached into her bag and ever so slowly drew out the phone, punched the number two and gave him the phone. He conversed with the man in Russian, heavy with street jargon – mightily surprised over there but she could not understand that sort of language, she did however pick up on Zhenya and Ksenia and those were two names she recognized in that combination. She was starting to reassess this Jensen now but she’d still wait.
Side of Beef closed his phone and kept watching, she now tried to factor it in. ‘Handbag please, Frederika – give it here.’
‘When the boat reaches the other bank to the Tower, there are not many people there. Your man will leave without you, others leave, one inch of the knife goes through your side, no further, I take your bag and leave. They catch up with me, I tell them everything. Give me your bag.’
She slid it over and he flung it through the window into the river. ‘Oh great, you’ve just sealed your doom, Jensen.’
His silence now unnerved her just a little, she had to sort out whether he could do this thing or it was all bluff. He knew about Ksenia, maybe she’d hardened him.
At the little stop on the left bank, just before Tower Bridge, Frederika’s henchman suddenly got up and left the boat, glancing across at the two of them as he went. She began the verbal counterattack.
‘You have nowhere to run, honey, nowhere to hide, not here, not in Russia and not in Australia. You can’t kill. I don’t mean that you’re not brave enough – I mean you have scruples.’ She paused before continuing. ‘But I don’t have scruples. Think about my family situation in the village outside Denpasar, think about our combined income. What do you think girls do to bring home the money to the family? Not me, though, I took a different course and that’s called necessity. I’m good, I get the job done, if I stuff up, I make reparation later, I don’t like loose ends.’
The boat tied up at the Tower. They alighted and walked up the gangplank together, Siamese twins.
Said he, ‘We’re going for a little walk up near those office buildings. You need to assess my recent form, sweetie, lamb chops.’
She nodded. He had the moves and had countered a couple of hers so far. He’d been trained.
Now they were up near Mincing Lane and the time of day was such that people would be in their offices, the tourists were far away, a foreign couple who’’d been strolling along behind them now turned off and suddenly, passing a concrete buttress, she swung away from him, reached down, whipped out what he assumed was a Beretta and stood, feet apart, pointing it straight at his chest.
He saw the end. Why, he didn’t know but a sudden wave of nuttiness swept over him. ‘Stop! I haven’t eaten this morning – let’s at least eat before you kill me.’
She stared at him, her thin lips, her eyelids, not even flickering. She lowered the pistol and muttered, ‘What the hell. Let’s go to McDonalds. You’re buying, you threw my cards away.’
It was surreal sitting there eating McChicken Meals and ice cream desserts with a woman who’d now twice tried to snuff his life out but then again, he’d nearly done for her once. ‘Is it over now?’
‘No, I’m afraid not, not for you. It’s over for me though with you and for Georges, whom you met. We both stuffed up. It won’t be on this trip, you can be sure.’
‘Emotionally involved with the target, can’t be done. Rule number one – it happens.’
Hugh looked at her. ‘Really?’
‘Really. If I’d been in for the kill, you’d not be talking to me now. I had to assess you – not bad at all. But I have a little piece of advice for you, Hughie, darling,’ she added in a sincere voice, ‘you were never in any position to escape. You sussed out Georges and dealt with him on the boat, you did well but you didn’t see Malik – though you did see Riya.’
‘Riya was the girl in Nelson Street who phoned Georges?’
‘’Yes. Malik was always behind you, he played ghost today. When you turned around, he faded, when you turned away, he followed. It did shock me that you were still alive – Riya’s description was definitely you and both of them are good.
‘But why was I your contract? I’m nobody.’
‘Do you mean today? You weren’t, I told you. I have that heat around me all the time in public. Or do you mean the original job? No one ever knows, your contact calls, you accept or not. Money’s wired later.’
‘I’m just stunned that you could sleep with me – in a way you did – and then that.’
‘I’m a professional. That was arranged – the seat and so on.’
‘Was Zhenya tied up in that hit?’
‘Zhenya? Not that I know of, it seemed a Moscow job but that’s speculation.’
‘It was his knife I used, not the usual.’ She didn’t bat an eyelid. ‘You and Zhenya? Now that one I had not factored in. Thank you. So it would have been mass slaughter – you by us, us by Zhenya. And of course he’s around now.’ She licked her lips. ‘He’s crazier than me, Hugh. No, correction – he’s crazy, I’m just cold.’
He told her about Klenovaya Gora.
She was interested, particularly in how it was done. ‘You’re going to cost me now. I can’t afford loose ends but I can refuse, I’ve done it before, not often, Hugh. You and me here now will confirm emotional involvement and it would help if we had an affair now. I mean that we appear to – good for me, keeps me happy too and safe for you. They won’t send someone else while I’m near you and Zhenya’s near me.’
‘What kept me alive?’
‘At the airport, I saw Zhenya and wondered, I couldn’t go back down to you and make sure. I thought you were dead. I’m slipping up. Then I felt you might not be and checked hospitals after morgues. I was showing myself, just to see the lie of the land.’
‘Dangerous with Zhenya on the loose.’
‘Yes it is but he has no contract on me, it would do him no good.’
‘Who’s more dangerous – him or my girlfriend?’
‘Girlfriend? I’m not up on that one.’
‘Girlfriend?! That killer! You’re insane.’
‘You not saying anything to the authorities – that puzzled me and I was grateful, I had to find out what that was about.’
‘Let’s go. If we’re having an affair, we’d better get on with it.’
‘How about a film now in Leicester Square, we’ll work it out from there?’
Later, he took her back to Blackheath to occupy the room opposite him on the upper floor – Susan was glad of the extra income for five days.
They went to the Chinese and he recommended the Peking duck, which she was not averse to, even if the Chinese were not the flavour of the month back home. The cuisine was broad enough for her tastes and seated at a double table by the wall, as distinct from the multi-place tables dominating the room, they were in a perfect position to observe Zhenya and Lisa coming in on the upper level.
Frederika grinned a Cheshire grin and waited for the inevitable recognition from Zhenya who, in terms of their current contractual obligations, should have been on the same side as her but what his game was now she was not sure of and she only went with certainties. For all she knew, he might prove a handful very, very quickly.
Actually, it was Lisa who recognized Hugh first, she was about to say, ‘Giving the blondes a rest, Hugh?’ when Zhenya suddenly caught sight of her, swore under his breath, grabbed Lisa’s arm and hurried her from the restaurant forthwith.
Frederika chuckled. ‘That shook him up. Did you see his eyes?’
‘What did that signify?’
‘He’ll be in a sniper position somewhere opposite when we emerge. You’ll have to block me, Hugh, unless you want the dead body of a girl to drag back to the B&B – he likes headshots, Sharov. If he gets the idea though that you’re protecting me, it will sow doubts in his mind that he’s missed some new development, some new directive, as he can’t possibly have guessed about all this today.
He’ll then follow us back and try to get you aside.
Put me inside the B&B and then wait for his girl and him. Do you know her? He’ll explain the mortal danger you’re in with me and you can tell him I tried to kill you today but decided not to at the last moment.
Then he’ll relax because he knows the game – that once we’ve refused, that’s an end to the matter this time – it will reassure him more than anything else you can say, he’ll also probably tell you what you have on your hands. You understand what to do?’
It panned out exactly as Frederika had predicted and when Zhenya saw Hugh ostentatiously, symbolically, protecting her face with one of the restaurant menus, he followed them back, saw Hugh blanket Frederika with his body and let her slip into the B&B – he was mightily puzzled.
He walked up, opened both palms in a ‘WTF’ gesture, shaking his head, then began to explain to Hugh about how dangerous the woman was, Lisa was far more unforgiving. ‘We came to protect you, Hugh but if you’re going to hob-nob with your executioner, then I throw up my hands and give up.’
He took those hands, ‘I have to stay friendly with her, Lisa, so she doesn’t complete the contract. She has to stay close to me to justify to herself and to them why she didn’t. This is protection in itself.’
She looked doubtfully at Zhenya but he was nodding. ‘Da, that’s true. Let’s go up and see her – I’ll go first.’
Lisa was more reticent but as the victim himself didn’t seem too fazed by the idea, she shrugged and followed them both. Susan came out, greeted them and advised about visiting hours – it was a family house, after all – and they all agreed. Plus, they all seemed respectable enough.
At the head of the stairs, Zhenya told them both to lie on the stairs, beneath the lowest angle of a shot and he asked Hugh, with a gesture, which room she was in – the one to the left. Suddenly, Zhenya burst into the room on the right, pistol pointed with both hands straight at the head of the rigid, upright form of Frederika, also pointing her Beretta with both hands back at him.
After a few moments, both grinned, lowered their weapons and Zhenya called in the others. ‘Well, Frederika, who’d ever have thought it?’
‘Zhenya,’ she acknowledged, still not completely at ease. ‘Does this mean that all bets are off?’
‘I suppose it does for now,’ he replied.
‘Good,’ and she put away her weapon, an article of trust in him and he did the same. ‘I’ll be holed up here five days, until Hugh goes back. You know he’ll be safe, don’t you?’
Zhenya nodded, even shaking her hand, indicated their departure to Lisa who didn’t know if she was coming or going and they left with a final, ‘We’ll look in again tomorrow.’
Left to themselves, Hugh and Frederika had coffee and biscuits and poured a little of the Baileys she now took from her pack.
She spoke of Bali, where her family lived, handy for trips overseas, of the village mentality, of how she’d had to get out of there and of how a passing Brit had rescued her. Strangely, it was no tale of vice and prostitution and naughty foreigners. She’d been a good girl and quite modest. Hugh could believe that.
Frederika was sexy in herself, undeniably so, she didn’t dress immodestly, she dressed for comfort and with a modicum of style. Her colours were quite light, including her jeans, and it threw her swarthy features into sharp relief. She favoured whites and blues, her dark locks tumbled over the light coloured fabric and her slender hands were hard, with a suggestion of length in the nails and a pinkish hue of polish.
Frederika was OK – that is, if she didn’t happen to be a cold-blooded killer.
‘I’d like something better for you than this life,’ he started.
‘Are you going to offer that kind of money?’ He lapsed back into his chair in silence. ‘Don’t try to dissuade me that way. There’s only one way you could succeed and I know you can’t do it. I think you’re Sharova’s lover and if brother knew you and I were doing anything, that would be curtains.’
‘So let me get this right – if I don’t fuck you now, you’ll complete your contract but if I do, they’ll do for me.’
‘Something like that. Why didn’t you try it on the plane?’
‘I knew there was someone holding you back. If we’d done that on the plane, I could never have killed you.’
‘Would you have let me?’
‘Oh yes, I’d have let you. I’ve always wanted to join the Mile High Club – exciting in the exit row.’
He smiled and made a mental note for future reference.
Zhenya woke up on the divan and reflected on the previous night.
Interesting indeed, he smiled to himself, as he jumped up and went to the bathroom, passing Lisa heading for the kitchen.
Having stashed his things in his bag, he went to the kitchen and straddled a stool. She was feeling a bit confused but laid out a good breakfast. ‘So, Zhenya,’ she finally looked him in the eye and made light of it, ‘Are you going to make an honest woman of me?’
He didn’t understand the expression but understood the import and guffawed. ‘I told you I can’t settle.’
‘Maybe it’s time you did.’
‘You don’t understand. My job takes me here, there, everywhere, at a moment’s notice. No woman’s going to stand for that.’
‘How do you know? Some might quite like the lifestyle.’
He glanced at her. ‘You don’t know me. I can be dangerous.’
‘I know – I can see it and that’s exactly why you need a woman to keep you straight – you don’t frighten me.’
He gazed at her with new eyes and gave it more than a moment’s thought. She cut across his thoughts. ‘Hugh and that woman – what do you think?’
‘I don’t like it.’ His voice became grimmer. ‘He should stick to one woman.’
He thought for a moment and then repeated. ‘He should stick to one woman.’
‘I’m going to be really unfair to you, Hugh. First thing to decide is if you can believe anything I say at all – yes, I’m checking out your thinking processes for next time, if there is one. That’s why I did the business of Zhenya in my room – well, your room. This room – you know what I mean. So if you know that, then you might make love. Will I kill you after we make love?’
‘No, because they’ll come after you.’
‘Correct, until the day I come after them, but that’s not going to happen while they’re useful to their people. But you can only be sure I won’t do anything if we make love. I’ve told you I wouldn’t anyway but if I was edgy … well.’
‘You call it what you like, I need a soft … I was going to say ‘a soft touch’ but I don’t mean that. I need the feel of softness now and then … and this is now.’
‘Yes I am. I tell you one thing – I’m no black widow.’
Ksenia returned to Shadzhara and briefed Ludmilla Valerievna about the Stephen Morgan push into St Petersburg. So far it appeared to have nothing whatever to do with Deputatov but did have a lot to do with Yevgeny Usmanov and that was not something anyone wanted to get tangled up in.
‘You look tired,’ were Ludmilla’s concluding words. ‘More than usual. What’s on your mind?’
Ksenia was seated the other side of the discoloured wooden table on one of the rickety chairs the service still had to endure and now she drew herself up and fixed her superior with a not unkind look. ‘Zhenya, of course.’
‘I don’t suppose it’s his safety you’re concerned with?’
‘It is and it isn’t. Like you, I’m concerned how far he’s in with this company and whether he sees beyond tomorrow. I’m more concerned about you, Ludmilla Valerievna because if you can’t hold him in the section, he won’t be held at all and he’ll go over to them, as his first loyalty.’
‘Putting him at odds with you, Ksusha?’ she asked. Or not?’
Ksenia paused one moment and answered, ‘You need have no fear on that score, as long as I’m not the one sent after him. But it’s more than that, isn’t it?’
Petrova did not smile a reassuring smile but she did lean forward in her chair. ‘Ksusha, you’re the best insinuator we have. Zhenya is the most capable hound we have – he has this knack of finding out the truth very quickly and he’s a wizard in a tight place.
Look at me, Ksenia Vladimirovna. My superiors depend on me running a tight section. That’s all there is to it. I have no deadly plans, neither of you is in a T23 but I have to tell you that Zhenya is in a P18. You must understand that. Go home, KsenVladmirvna. Get some rest.’
It was the next London morning in the B&B, they’d transferred to ‘her’ room during the night because it was more pleasant.
‘The way you made love to me,’ said Frederika, ‘made me feel bad. We’re both cowards, Hugh. I was going to not do it because I do fear what they’ll do, those two. You weren’t going to because you fear them too. You also fear me and I’m going to admit that does something for me.’
‘And then we suddenly did.’
‘And then we suddenly did and I felt … special. You’re not very good at just having sex, are you?’
‘It’s not really my thing.’
‘My reading of Zhenya is that he’ll mind on one hand because you’re cheating on his sister but on another, he’ll be glad to get you away from her. She though – she’s not going to be happy and I wouldn’t want to be you and I wouldn’t want her anywhere near me either after that. Do you really know what you have on your hands there?’
‘I saw the file.’
‘There you are. Unless neither of us tells anyone. Or do you have a death wish?’
‘I have a problem. Would you call Ksenia honest?’
‘Oh yes, that’s one of her flagship characteristics.’
‘What if I told you that our relationship is based on total honesty – if she found out we had made love, she might see the strategic reason. If I lied, then that would be the end of me.’
She nodded. ‘Yes. Yes it would. Yes, you must tell her.’
They got ready and went and saw the sights again, even taking the boat trip once more for some peculiar reason.
Zhenya flew back the day before Hugh and was soon sitting at the kitchen table, sipping coffee. He knew his sister was fishing, he was incensed with Jensen and was going to drop him in it. It only took her first lightly probing question. ‘How did it finish up with Hugh and Frederika?’
‘He was fucking her all week.’ He saw her shoulders slump, ignored it and asked, ‘Any more coffee, Ksush?’
‘You have two hands.’ She swept out of the room and he nodded to himself. Good, he’d done for that bastard. Then she swept back in and asked, ‘How do you know for certain they did?’
^ There really was a Frederika on that flight, they did snuggle up and go about together but she’d be horrified that I’ve turned her into a killer, hope she never reads this.