Tuesday, May 5, 2009

1-10: Domik



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I

It was unreal making his way home with two full plastic bags of cash, so he hailed a driver to stop and offered him well over the odds to get him to his flat.

The driver needed no encouragement and perhaps it was so outrageous that anyone would walk about the city streets with bags of money that it never occurred to the man what he had on board.

.o0o.

Everyone was ducking for cover in the crisis.

The good thing was that the Russian penchant for the dollar meant that most had shoe boxes of dollars stashed in the top compartments of their cupboards and it became a standing joke in Russia that no one had the imagination to find other hiding places - a thieves’ paradise.

Prices of food began to increase daily and there was considerable talk of him getting out of the country fast. 

II

Geneviève called Marc in for a chat and got straight down to business.

‘I’m planning the next half year and would like to know if you see yourself as part of the team, Marc.  I’ll send you on as many assignments as possible over there but I can’t do it indefinitely if we simply have no business there.’

‘You do have business in the short term, at least.  Our mutual friend, the route of the money, the people at our end who receive it.’

‘That’s the thing, Marc – it’s at our end now, not your speciality.  That’s for us to come up with.  You’ll have to make up your mind in a reasonable time.  There or here.’

‘No work for me over there.’

‘IT.’

‘Perhaps.’

‘Tell me what you see at the end of the tunnel – a light?’

He sighed. ‘Wife and work in the same place.  Difficile.’

‘You know, you’re not the only obstinate one in this.  She’s not bending either.  Surely we could all work out a compromise so that you are here at critical times and you can do your IT over there at the other times.’

‘What if you weren't in Paris, not in Russia either?  What if you were in Prague?’

A smile spread across his face.  'Merci.'

III

September, 1998

It was at the start of the new academic year that the crisis really hit home and though he'd been willing not to pester Ksusha for the last month, now he worried awfully about her and having Zhenya's number, called him.

'Took you long enough.'

'You can't push Ksusha,' he said. 'She has to want to come to you. I did call her, Zhenya, when I returned and she hung up.   I just want to know how she is and look, I know you don't have much love for me over Frederika but would you tell Ksusha I miss her terribly?  Obviously I'm in your hands on this.  Your decision.'

There was only the static of the line from the other end. Then he spoke abruptly. 'I'll tell her.'

The phone went dead.

IV

Mid-October, 1998

The crisis had spread far and wide but in France, it might be true to say it had not had as marked an effect as elsewhere.

Except in Section 37, which was dependent on the Russian conduit for its funds and as these had now dried up, as no one had been paid, things became extremely difficult.  They'd had crisis meetings, many had gone back to family homes, some had banded together in one flat and were living on savings, all were in trouble.

Their work had dried up and for the first time, it struck Geneviève how irrelevant they really were, in terms of the effect their absence had.  Essentially, people just carried on as if they weren't there.

A new strategy was required and the big three - Geneviève, Nicolette and Emma - came up with revised targets.  They were going to extend their range beyond party officials.

V

Zhenya dropped by one evening with a suggestion: ‘Join us.’

‘Pardon?’

‘Join us.’

‘Whatever for?’

‘It’s not good to be alone in Russia.’

‘It’s not good to be alone,’ says the Book of Genesis, to which Barrymore adds, ‘but oh, my G-d, what a relief.’

Zhenya countered, ‘He who is unable to live in society; or who has no need because he is sufficient unto himself, must be either a beast or a god – Aristotle.’

Hugh counter-countered with, ‘To fly from, need not be to hate mankind – Byron.’

‘We could go on for hours like this but the simple fact is that you can’t remain without protection in our society.  Protection comes in various forms.’

‘Yes?’

‘Join us. Better inside than outside.’

‘There’s that, I suppose.  Would it protect me from Frederika?’ he tried.

‘Dangerous girl for a lover, Hugh, but no friend of mine. She’s a hard girl, not a great deal of compunction. That’s why she’s expensive.’

‘She botched the job on me.’

‘Correction - she didn’t botch it. She decided against it, that’s all. But it certainly dented her reputation and she may still have to atone for it. Don’t assume she’s your friend, Hugh, even if she was once your lover.’

‘And you?’

‘As I said, you’re safer inside than outside.’

‘Where do I sign?’

He smiled. ‘If you’re serious, we can sign you up tomorrow evening. You understand, don’t you, that it’s only working for a government department – highly boring proof reading – that sort of thing - and the pay is unpredictable.’

‘No cloak and dagger?’

‘Not for you. Quite the opposite, in fact.’

‘Nationality issues?’

‘Only with your own country.’

‘I’ll do my homework on it –’

‘Viktor Igorovich?’

‘I’ll do my homework on it and we’ll meet tomorrow evening. Speaking purely selfishly for a moment - what would it take for our safety to become a little more secure - including Anya’s?’

‘No danger for her from anyone we know, if that’s what you’re asking. She's in the village with her family. As for you, I’ve already told you.’

‘Can it all be that simple?’

‘Da.’

.o0o.

The following afternoon, Viktor Igorovich was in, he was serving coffee, he was not astonished and commended the idea to Hugh. It could be in Hugh’s favour and there’d be other possible spin-offs as well.

The down side was undoubtedly the loyalty question. How did Hugh feel about his homeland? Naturally, the section would never directly place him in a position where his loyalties would be compromised - they weren’t fools.

.o0o.

That evening they came, they filled in blank forms, Zhenya translated, Hugh signed and that was that, except for the tea and torte.

.o0o.

Next day there was a bit of time to kill, so he wandered down to the Kremlin, through Spassky gate, along the tree lined lane, towards Suyembika Tower, the one where the queen allegedly threw herself out of the top tier, rather than marry Ivan Grozny, although she would have had to have been in her 60s at the time.

VI

Dilyara had recovered, she’d been invited to Paris and her family was not happy.

Firstly, there was the memory of the shooting and who was ultimately to blame.  Then there was the futility of a relationship which seemed not to be going anywhere, when there were plenty of fine local men about.  Everyone was frustrated with Dilyara.

She went, as everyone also knew she must, as the Parisian end also knew.  This time, there was a plan and it was to be put to her over dinner.  As a rule, the Section never convened in public but there was a café bar in the 12ème arrondissement which was secure enough, the proprietor an old friend and the cuisine more than satisfactory.

Present were the four interested parties at the table and another four at strategic points inside and outside the premises.

Geneviève had left it to Jules Colbert to serve up three courses and supply them with a couple of bottles of a medium quality red, leaving them to the matter at hand.

‘Dilyara, Marc is essential for the security of our section.  We only recruit slowly, from people of good families and it takes some years to put someone in place, even in a new section.  On the other hand, we know everyone here will eventually make another life and we understand this with Marc and yourself.

If we organize it that he can work here at the critical times, particularly around budget time, he can spend most of the year in Prague.'

She'd already been appraised of this and loved the idea.  'We're both very grateful.’

Geneviève looked at both of them and proposed a toast.

VII

December, 1998

The cold December blast of air swept down Amirhana and found every crevice and opening in Hugh’s jacket. He clutched his collar and pressed on. The endless panorama of people passed grimly by, all struggling against the icy foe.

He made himself a coffee once he finally got in and was about to turn in for the night when the doorbell almost stopped his heart with three sharp rings.  But it wasn't Anya.

He went to the door and looked through the keyhole, opened the chains and other bits and pieces, stood back and allowed her in.  She put an overnight bag on the floor, slipped off her shoes, found the tapechki she liked and said, 'Hello Hugh.'

He didn't stand on ceremony but took her in his arms and repeated, 'Ksusha, Ksusha,' over and over again.  She squeezed him hard and that kiss knew no boundaries, the pent-up release of so much frustration.

'I couldn't stand not seeing you, I really couldn't,' her voice cracked and he wasn't too far off the waterworks either. 

'Why so long, Ksusha, why?  I know you had to punish me but months and months?  That's like being in prison for life.  Why?

'I could ask you the same.  One phone call -'

'Where you hung up on me.'

'Yes and one message through Zhenya.  That doesn't look like wanting me.'

'Then we need to communicate, you and I.  I was holding back, deliberately not to push you.  I thought if I kept pestering you, you'd run from me, bring the curtain down on us.'

'You thought that?  For these months, I've been waiting and waiting and waiting, you never thought that?'

'You told me yourself that that's what you do when a man comes too close.'

'Can't you see how I've gone against my own past with you? Already?  That you have much more influence with me, that those things don't count here?'

'I do this evening but it did need this evening and us finally talking.  I'll never wait like that again.'

She just looked at him and her eyes were moist.  'All that wasted time.' Then she considered. 'Not all wasted though - I now know how I feel.'

'Yes but we can't help how we feel.  We can take measures and not see someone physically but we might still feel ... feelings.'

'Me too.'

'So are you free - in your mind?'

'Absolutely.  There's no question who I'm with.  Along comes Anya and I'll let her in, we'll eat and talk.  We'll even kiss, Ksusha.  But she will not be in my bed.'

'I can understand Anya, I can understand some other girls you've been with - I cannot accept Frederika.'

'Ah.'

'She's a killer.'

'That's what she said about you.'

'Look, I know why you had to but tell me never again with her.'

'Can you handle the truth or not?'

'Go on.'

'Can you handle it?'

'Depends on the truth .  Take your chances.  Or we part.'

'She released me from the contract, the pay-off, on the second night.'

'So it was voluntary after that.'

'I'm sorry.'

She was very quiet and he had to admit he was a little frightened. 'OK, I accept that,' she concluded. 'Probably saved you in the end.  Is it completely over with her?'

'It is.  She told me she'd never take a contract on me and if you were mine, not on you either.'  Ksenia's eyebrows went up. 'She also said she might be back in Shadzhara sooner or later, as these building projects were getting to an interesting stage.'

'They are. I'm concerned.  But go on, I want to hear this.'

'She said she'd do contracts and repeated - not on me and not on you if you were with me, unless you had one out on her.'

'All that's pretty standard.  She's put herself in danger, she's lost a lot over this, she obviously had feelings for you over there but don't count on those continuing.  More interesting to me is that she seems to like me.  That's curious.  Gratifying too.  All right, that wasn't as bad as I thought it might be - it might even be to our advantage.'

'Except for Zhenya.'

'Took the words out of my mouth.'

'Frederika told me he broods, thinks about things, let's them build up, then snaps.'

'She knows my brother.  Yes, that's how it will be.  There'll be trouble sometime, I don't know when.  Not while you care for me and look after me though, which I know you'll do anyway.  Even if we parted, I'd make sure he thought it was done nicely and he might even like that, he'd feel he had me back again. Tell me what she was like.'

'Operationally or as a lover?'

'Both.'

He spoke of her as an agent, went through the whole Greenwich thing from woe to go, she asked many questions and pondered over the answers, before saying to go on.  Finally, she was satisfied on that.  'OK, as a lover.'

'Hard, too hard for me.  I have a habit of remembering what people say -'

'Women.'

'All right and she stopped on that second night and said she didn't want this for me, that this wasn't me, not how she saw me.  She said there was love in what I did.'

'And was there?'

'You know me, I can't do it without love.'

'So you fall in love with them first.'

'You remember how it was with us.  I said I didn't want that life for her.  She asked if I was made of the sort of money she needed.  She said she wanted me to make you mine, it was best for you, best for me.'

'Did she just?  Well, well.'

'I said I was already going to do that, not on her say-so.'

VIII

January, 1999

In the plush director’s office at the new mega-complex on Bolshaya Krasnaya, Ronald Seymour’s secretary brought coffee for four.

Seated around the low table were Ludmilla Valerievna Petrova, a veritable pile of dossiers in front of her, Sergei Safin, projecting bored nonchalance but inwardly more than a little concerned, Viktor Igorovich, translator, and Seymour himself.

The secretary departed and Petrova began. ‘Certain people in my department are in your employ.’

‘No, no, not at all. A few odd jobs, that’s all.’

‘Frederika Djamato is hardly an odd job.’

‘Lady, I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.’

For answer, she opened one of the dossiers, took out a paper and handed it across to him, via Safin. Seymour caught his breath but only said, ‘She’s not one of yours, lady. She’s a contractor.’

Ludmilla continued: ‘Your tax affairs appear to be in order.’

‘You’ll find no rats down that hole.’

‘There is, however,’ she continued, opening a second file, ‘a certain question which has arisen regarding the lease of the land your mega-store is now occupying.’

His ears picked up and his nostrils flared. ‘Go on.’

‘It appears that a technicality has arisen. No problem with the planning and survey departments, I assure you. No problem with the Trade Ministry either. Everything is in order and above board.’

‘Thank Heavens for that,’ he relaxed once again.

‘However, Mr. Seymour, I’m sure you’re aware that there are two authorities with jurisdiction in matters such as this – the Republic of Shadzharstan, of course but there’s also the Russian Federation to take into consideration. My immediate authority is derived from the latter.’

‘Go on.’

‘It appears that there is a complication with this property – the land was earmarked for the Immigration Ministry and as far as we can see,’ she now laid the translated copy in front of him, ‘they still have legitimate claim.’

‘That’s impossible,’ he seethed, ‘our lawyers took care of all that and no one raised objections at the time of planning.’

‘Well, of course that is so, as this technicality had not come to light at that point. But as you see from the document –’

‘Well, well, no matter. It can be adjusted. We’re all reasonable people, I’m sure. Er, how much would it come to?’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘How much would it come to? How much do you people need?’

‘Need, Mr. Seymour? We don’t need anything. We’re a branch of state security, that’s all. It’s just that the Immigration Ministry, two years ago, signed over part rights to state security,' she handed across the relevant document, translated, ‘and that’s the capacity I am in now, speaking with you.’

‘OK, give me the bottom line. You want us to suspend operations until the matter’s sorted, is that it?’

‘No, Mr. Seymour, the land must be vacated by March next year.’

‘What!’ he expostulated. ‘You can’t do that – the Trade Ministry won’t stand for it – they were the ones who coaxed us here in the first place.  One moment.’

He pushed the intercom and told Asya to get the Trade Ministry. There was silence in the room, Seymour drumming his fingers on the glass table top.

There was a buzz. ‘Minister for you, Mr. Seymour.’

A conversation ensued in English, which Viktor Igorovich, but no one else, followed. Eventually the phone was put down and an ashen faced CEO turned to Ludmilla Petrova.  ‘What is it you want?’

‘I’ve already stated that. The land must be vacated by March next year. The FSB needs the property.’

‘But surely you could find another property nearby. We can help. We can secure you a nice spot overlooking the river just across from here – I know it’s up for grabs. Damn it, woman,’ he dabbed his forehead with his handkerchief, ‘let’s come to an arrangement on this. There’s infrastructure here and stock has already been ordered.’

‘Oh yes, the road transports from Moscow. They’re currently held up just outside Nizhny Novgorod – some technicality over paperwork, I believe.’

The man went silent. She continued.

‘There’s one other little matter, Mr. Seymour. It seems that in your own country, you’ve also been having a spot of bother,’ she passed the relevant document to Safin, who laid it in front of him, ‘and the bona fides of any foreigner allowed to trade within the borders of our Federation must necessarily be established beyond doubt.’

Seymour sat, ashen faced, dwarfed by the sumptuous armchair. ‘That was never proven,’ he muttered quietly.

Petrova continued. ‘However, you’ve made a more than generous offer to assist us in finding another property for our department,’ he suddenly sensed the bottom line, sat up straight and she went on, ‘but it would require great co-operation from both parties.’

‘Name it.’

For reply, she opened another dossier, passed it to Safin and he passed it across. Seymour picked up the summary sheet and nodded. ‘There’s quite a smorgasbord of requests here, Ludmilla Valerievna. Some of them are big asks, some of them surprise me – they’re small stuff.’

‘It would smooth the waters somewhat if you could desist from the culling of our population and restrict yourself to the good work of setting up this joint venture which will bring untold prosperity to your company and to our city and state. Could you perhaps pass that along to your Moscow partner?’

Seymour grunted his acquiescence.

IX

March, 1999

Puddle time had started, the long thaw. Too cold to remove the jacket but too warm to keep it on. Gradually the days got warmer. People began to lighten up, the mood perceptibly changed.

.o0o.

The May Day holiday weekend appeared before they knew it.

Families, dogs, cats, picks, shovels, baskets, bags, all crowded into overflowing Ladas and Volgas, heading for dachas, to open up for the new season, to plant, sweep, cook and so on.

Hammers banged, people could be seen leaning on shovels, rugs were beaten, dust flew everywhere. Sometimes it seems more sensible in Russia to measure the year from May 1st and to see it as a cycle, with New Year stuck half way along.

On the following Monday morning, at school, halfway through Lesson 5, a little girl came to the classroom and called Hugh downstairs to the office. There was a phone call. Muttering under his breath, he went down and took the proffered receiver.

‘Hello?’ It was his step brother, from Melbourne. Hugh tensed up, half suspecting his mum was seriously ill and he’d have to go out there pretty quickly. His step-brother came straight to the point.

‘I have to tell you that your mother passed away this morning.’

The world ceased turning.

.o0o.

Documents at UVIR, the trip to London, the Singapore Airlines flight to Melbourne, the anguish, the things which had to be taken care of, the return – the pain simply shut out any memory of this time.

His mind went completely blank.

He’d not talk about it, not refer to it again, neither forgive himself nor chastise himself, he prayed constantly, perspectives all changed, views of women changed.

He blocked the whole thing out.

X

June, 1999

Ronald Seymour was in Moscow, discussing plans for the new megastore in the light of the ongoing crisis.

Due to exchange rate adjustments, the question was not the affordability of the project - it was now infinitely more affordable in pound terms - but the security of the venture. The meeting with Ludmilla Petrova had shaken his confidence in Russian promises to honour agreements. Capital had flown from Russia and he was one of the few westerners left standing.

Naturally it was not just his Russian partner who was anxious that things be smoothed over - the Trade Ministry also had an opinion on the matter. Obstacles to the megastore were not going to be tolerated.

‘Have you ever been through anything like this crisis before, Ronald? I don’t expect it's like this in the west.’

Seymour smiled and recounted his experience on the dole a decade ago, which had been the catalyst to begin his own business. ‘For me personally, going for the first time onto the dole wasn't particularly great but it was far worse for others. There were often weeks when the money simply ran out. I never got to the dogfood and rice stage but it was pretty severe, the belt tightening and so on and I'd eat one meal a day, with half a loaf of bread for the rest of the day. It was survivable.’

‘In Britain?'

‘Why do you assume that things can't be bad in Britain? Have you never heard of rationing? The poor are everywhere but it's just that no one looks at them. As I say, for me it wasn't so great but for some it must have been like hell. Especially for anyone who'd fallen from a great height.’

‘Such as?’

‘Standing in the dole queue one day, along with all the West Indians, the unemployable and the others, waiting for the Gyro cheque, I glanced over at another queue and there was a man, taller than the rest, hair carefully groomed and immaculately dressed - a former businessman in my book. What must have been going through his mind? What a fall! Fifty years old, if he was a day.’

‘What did you do to pass the time?’

‘Visit friends, always after meal times, so as not to be thought of as freeloading, but early enough to be offered remnants of pies, cakes etc. They understood and never spoke of it. I kept one tiny room, one small sink, one cupboard, one bed, one wooden chair, with a communal bathroom upstairs, phone upstairs too, which only accepted the old ten Ps.

I kept the room spotless.

I went down the street each morning, past my beautiful, largely unused Morgan, past the garden centre, past the cricket ground. If it was Friday, I’d continue on to Marks and Sparks’ food store, where I’d lash out on ready to heat meals – meat pies, vegetable dishes, bread and butter puddings and then I’d also buy fresh fruit, only the best quality.

It was always the last of my money but it felt great being at the checkout counter, rubbing shoulders with the blue rinse set. I was never in rags, always dressed.'

‘Were you trying for jobs?’

‘Was I trying for jobs?’  He gave a short laugh.  ‘Of course. I had no washing facilities, yet one had to be freshly laundered, with pressed jacket and trousers for any interview. Job hunting necessitated phoning and the phone only accepted the old 10ps, as the landlord was too mean to put in a new phone.

I’d buy old 10ps off the landlord, when he came round without fail on rent day. He’d unlock the phone tray, take out the worthless ten P tokens and give me some in exchange for real money. With the eight I had, I’d phone a firm and ask to speak to HR.

‘Please hold the line, I’ll see if he’s in, Mr. Seymour,’ and she’d be gone, replaced by piped muzak. 10p gone, 20p, 30p, I knew I couldn’t phone again until next Friday. Great fear, as I could hear the coins methodically and inexorably clank into the empty tray. 60p gone and the woman came back to the phone.

‘I’m sorry, Mr. Seymour but they're all in a meeting just now. Could you call back?’ Perfectly reasonable request from an employed person on her employer’s phone but I just wanted to scream, ‘No I bloody well can’t! You’ve just taken my last 80 pence and I’m now stuffed until next week.’

But how could I ever hope to communicate something like that to somebody like that? She’d never, never be able to understand, until one day she, herself, fell on hard times, Heaven forbid. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

The golden rule, of course, was that they’re not going to employ an unemployed person. Hard luck stories never wash. They want an energetic but calm, respectably dressed and well groomed young guy with confidence and credentials. Tell me how you can be any of those things on the dole? It’s the Catch 22 of the employment business.’

‘But you got a job in the end.’

‘In the end, it came. I was in the north of London and they were in Luton. Every morning, I’d get up at five thirty and I’ll always remember that wet, black railway station.’

The Russian replied, ‘I’m not making light of that in any way but can you imagine some of the privations people have had to put up with over here?’

‘I’ve seen documentaries about the food queues.’

‘That’s not a problem today. The problem today is that there are just no support systems. Someone gets sick and if he doesn’t have an extended family, he dies. There’s no system to catch him. None. I love my country but there are aspects which are impossible, that just don’t add up. That's why I do what I do. That's why no one is going to stand in the way of that.’

‘Point taken. For most in Britain, it’s not life or death and it’s just little nuisances which get in the way.’

‘Example?’

‘Have I told you about ‘The Wrong Kind of Snow’?

‘I’m listening. Top up your glass - one moment. Right - all ears.’

‘Terry Worrall – that was his name. The railways had just spent enormous sums buying, bringing in and paying experts to set up snow clearing equipment from Denmark. If the Danes could do it, so could we.’

Seymour paused to sip the coffee and made appreciative noises.

‘So, the snow came – it bucketed down and the land was smothered. Out came the equipment to clear the lines, so the commuter trains could get people to work, but horror of horrors – it didn’t work. There was total mayhem on the trains, on the roads, everywhere - good old British mayhem.

That evening, the talk shows and current affairs programmes were inundated with angry people. Terry Worrall, the British Rail spokesman, was dragged into the studio. ‘You’ve just bought hideously expensive snow clearing equipment, you assured us it would work - and so on. What on earth is the matter with you people?’

‘It was the wrong kind of snow,’ was his defence. Seymour's face was creased with a smile and it was not a pretty sight.

‘That line’s now gone down in British folklore. Every person over 15 could quote you that line and the poor man became the laughing stock of the country overnight. Another time the trains stopped and you know what explanation they gave? Leaves on the line!’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Leaves – from trees – there were leaves on the railway line so the trains didn’t work.’

The Russian felt he could understand life in Britain.

XI

Hugh got back to Russia and split his time between his main work in town and the little village where his ‘state work’ was done. A bus also brought him home. It didn’t leave much time for socializing and maybe it was time to start thinking about buying a car.

He was racked with guilt over his mother, for abandoning her like this.

When Ksenia came back from her field trip, she spent much time in the unaccustomed role of offering personal support but as she was one of the sources of angst in the first place, it was tricky.  Plus the reason he was over here and not with his mother had now moved on - it seemed to negate everything.

The pastoral wasn't Ksenia's forte but she did a damned fine job of it and he appreciated her greatly.  They were both busy anyway during the day and that was a blessing.  A relationship not based on sex but on mutual support now played on her mind more and more and the ghost of an idea flitted in and out of her mind.

A child.

Then she'd dismiss it and concentrate on what she working on at the time.  The idea flitted in and out quite a bit now.

.o0o.

His state work was done in an old building but the cream-coloured stone façade belied the building’s age.

There was one entrance to the right and then a corridor immediately ran to the left; at the end was a security door and inside, the rooms ran back in the direction of the entrance. Katya, the secretary, was at the first desk, then there were two other desks along the long wall to her left [the visitor’s right]. The far one was Hugh’s.

Beyond these desks was a door, by all appearances leading to a janitor’s room but Hugh had never seen behind it. At the end of the office, in the middle of the short wall, was ‘The Door’, the one leading through to the Big Brass. Hugh had also never been in there.

He would sit at his desk, chatting to Katya whenever he could, did his nominal three hours, qualified for his government pay which he hadn’t as yet received for two months and this was how summer came on.

XII

Summer did come on, the academic year closed out and precluded nights in the city in either flat, so the alternative was either for them to stay at a camp or else to go abroad.

He bought a maroon coloured Lada 10 and decked it out with two spoilers, side panels, alloy wheels, wide tyres, stabilizer bar, Monroe shockers, a fat leather steering wheel and a leather gear knob. Everything to enhance that car was bought and the whole thing still only cost 150 000 new roubles - about $4500.

Secondly, he took a little ‘domik’ or hut at Zyelyoni Bor - an ex-Soviet summer leisure camp not all that far by car from his work.   The plan was for Ksenia to come down for the swimming in the evening, stay overnight and go back next morning.  He'd have all the food in situ, apart from what she brought fresh from town.

The administrator, a well-fed woman named Zoya, beamed as she saw that the westerner had found it all to his liking. He beamed too because it was all going to cost the ludicrously small sum of 90 roubles a night, as against 540 roubles at Camp Volga.

So, there it was - the cool forest, a three roomed cabin within walking distance of the amenities and the river.  The car would get him to work every morning after taking Ksenia to the direct bus stop to town.  She was a lady who liked her comforts at home and Zyelyoni Bor was old Soviet and frankly, a bit run down but she wasn't one to turn up her nose if it meant a swim and barbecue.

They cleaned the place out and had it liveable, the spot on the river bend had swifter flowing water and was seemingly less polluted, there was a shop.  He said they could go to the Volga Camp if she wanted but she saw that as a waste of money on something only marginally more civilized and too packed with humanity for her liking. 

Besides, this had more real forest - the domik was under the trees - and now he discovered just how attached to the forest she was.  It hadn't been the Volga she'd wanted - it was the forest.  He'd pick her up at the bus stop and take her to the camp and all the stresses and strains would dissipate as they went up and down that undulating road, finally making it to the barrier and being allowed through.

She'd take her swim, then they'd take the hamper and go walking into the forest, finding nice places to sit and relax.  Well ... and make love too.

.o0o.

After he took her to the bus stop each morning, sitting with her until the bus came, windows wound down in that wonderful morning forest cool, with those smells, the forty minutes cross country to work took in a general store where he'd buy breakfast, eat it in the car and then arrive mid-morning.

.o0o.

One Thursday, he locked the car, slid his plastic ID in the slot of the device on the door, received the confirmation but nothing happened, no click as usual. He tried again. No result.

Strange.

Maybe they’d changed the code or else the card had lost its magnetism. He tried one more time with no result and realized he’d have to wait till the first person arrived. On a whim, he pushed at the door and it swung open.

Strange again. This was meant to be a secure establishment.

The corridor was dark and the light bulb had obviously blown. Making his way down the corridor, he reached the office door and found it also open. Poking his head through, then pulling it out again, he looked back down the corridor and suddenly felt quite uneasy.

The light was the first consideration. Dammit, the switch didn’t work. Also, there was a musty smell from somewhere as well, a smell he couldn't recall.

He knew Katya kept matches in the lower drawer and soon there was a light of sorts. The janitor’s door was slightly ajar so that was the first place to check and janitor’s room it was not, being quite large, carpeted in the middle, with no desks and there was an appalling stench he couldn’t pinpoint.

The match went out. At that moment, he could faintly make out a noise in the corridor and then someone came into the front office. The guy also clearly felt he wasn’t alone because he paused and Hugh could hear a safety catch being clicked back. He dared not breathe.

The door opened wide and Hugh saw him for an instant silhouetted in the doorway, and then he was inside the room, shining a torch in Hugh’s face. In accented English, he ordered, ‘Go home, my friend. There’s nothing for you here.’

Hugh fought paralysis. ‘But you’ll shoot me,’ was all he could say.

‘Go,’ the man grunted. Then he relented and added, ‘There’s nothing here for you, Mr. Jensen.’ Hugh’s heart missed a beat.

‘Why won’t you shoot me?’ insisted Hugh.

‘Mr. Jensen, please go - now!’

Hugh needed no further prompting. He turned and walked, waiting for the bullet, which didn’t come. The second man in the corridor didn’t shoot him either. The two guys changing the door also left him alive.

He simply walked out into the sunlight, went to his car and drove the 50 km to Giuseppe. Slumped in a chair, the girl brought the pizza but he couldn’t eat more than one slice so he asked her to put it in a plastic takeaway packet.

.o0o.

Time to visit Viktor Igorovich and it was more than fortunate he did, as Viktor had an interesting visitor, none other than Zhenya Sharov and the two men were in agreement over one thing – Hugh had to forget anything had ever happened.

‘What are you talking about? I’ve just been to work –’

‘No you haven’t,’ put in Zhenya.

‘Ah,’ the penny dropped. After almost a minute looking from one to the other, he asked, ‘Zhenya - so am I – er – technically – employed any more?’

‘Of course you are. We’ve been trying to contact you today to tell you that your place of work has changed – but of course you have no ‘sortovi’ telephone and it was impossible to get to you in time.’

‘Just that.’

‘Just that.’

‘They tried to contact the administrator but she stayed up in the centre overnight and hadn’t returned by the time you’d left,’ explained Viktor.

To Hugh’s bewildered look, Zhenya added, ‘Just leave it, Hugh. All right?’

‘Let’s go to Giuseppe, Man.’

‘Ladno.’

.o0o.

Afterwards, he dropped Viktor home, then looked in at his own flat to see if all was in order. Surprisingly, given what he’d come to expect, it was in order. There were quite a few messages on the answer machine so he vacuumed first, ran a cloth over the benches and bath, made a coffee and took out the biscuits, then settled down to the calls.

One intrigued him. It was from someone called Alisa and the voice was familiar.

He perched on the end of the divan, chin in hands and reflected on it, then got up to put the car away in the secure carpark down the road he'd paid a fortune for a place in. 

When he got back, a new call had come through and it was from this Alisa.  He called Ksenia and said he'd stay the night in town.

XIII

The reason Viktor worked through the summer was that his flat was in an old part of town virtually smothered by tall trees with extensive foliage which had had thirty years to grow to the height it had. His flat was at least 12 to 15 degrees cooler than the outside air and his little flow-through window system helped that along as well.

So business clients came to him fairly regularly and one who was of considerable interest was a girl called Olga. Twenty three, she already headed the city filial of DHL; she was also intelligent, tall, spoke good English and was a stunner, therefore fulfilling many of the criteria Roxanna had had, apart from her age.

XIV

'Let me save you the trouble, Ksusha,' he told the disembodied voice at the other end in their second call of the evening.  'It was a girl called Alisa, worked with Anya as a partner to the airline.  She left a message on the machine and phoned a couple of hours ago now.'

'I can guess.  And you've arranged to meet her.  Where?  Giuseppe?'

'Raki.  Tell me not to go.'


'That's entirely up to your conscience.'


Chapter 9 here ... Chapter 11 here

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