Tuesday, May 5, 2009

1-11: Klyenovaya Gora



Chapter 10 here ... Chapter 12 here

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I

Ludmilla Valierevna Petrova woke up, looked across at her husband, threw back the puffy duvet cover with the muted blues and creams and stepped unsteadily onto the polished wood floor.

Drawing back the drapes and wheezing, she took a dose from her puffer and reflected on what her position had bought her.

She truly was in a golden cage.

Able to afford the best health care available in the world, nevertheless she could not budge outside Shadzhara, by virtue of her very position. As the nerve centre of the section, people's lives were not exactly hanging on her in a day to day sense and yet if she wasn't in place at the most unexpected times, then it could well be a matter of life and death.

And so she’d had to rely on trusted people bringing back the required medicines from their travels, which was not too difficult - her bronchitis had developed into asthma and out there in the west, that was now a controllable malady.

Also, as a confirmed homebody, the apartment was all anyone could ask for. Two adjacent flats with the walls knocked through at strategic points and reinforced archways installed, her ‘apartment’ had balconies on both sides which commanded views the length of the river on one side and of the Kremlin up on the hill, on the other.

The greatest cross to bear was for her daughter, now approaching university age and the restrictions on her were just too impossible. She couldn't go out, she couldn’t freely socialize without her mother doing screenings of any potential suitors, she had minders following her wherever she went and this had led to a memorable showdown, once the daughter had become essentially ‘sentient’, i.e. once she’d grown up.

Vasselisa had kicked against the pricks and begun an affair with a fellow Class 10; her mother had spoken to the boy’s mother about contraception - that had been beyond the pale.

She’d thrown off the boy and had had two boys in the girls’ toilet one dance party evening which she’d had to fight her mother to attend, the result being pregnancy and the best man Ludmilla could find had been flown in to attend to it.

There had been two teachers at that school the girl did implicitly trust, who had helped ameliorate her excesses and whom she could always drop in on, to chat - they were Tatyana Alexandrovna and the Englishman but that had been some years back when they’d taught her.  The Englishman had spoken seriously about life in the west, the discarding of the Christian ethic over there and just about - well, everything really, as if she were an adult.

Now had come the question of university. Vasselisa’s grades weren’t sufficiently high to earn her a place in jurisprudence on her own merits but that wasn't down to lack of academic ability or even intellect - it was a question of lack of maturity and resentment - the chip on her shoulder.

Ludmilla's husband had asked Hugh Jensen to speak with the girl about exam technique, speaking technique and how to maximize performance, which he'd done, seemingly unaware with whom he was dealing.

It hadn't turned out to be enough by itself but it had certainly put the girl in the ballpark, from where money would do the rest. It was a risk for Ludmilla because it involved favour and left her exposed, should anyone care to exploit that. Vasselisa had been accepted to the faculty and that had been one job attended to.

The next major job was dealing with Zhenya Sharov, now displaying unmistakable signs of going off the rails.

II

When Hugh walked in to Raki, it was embarrassing.

Not only was she way too young but she wasn't even a walking vision, which might have half-excused it.  She had those girl-next-door looks, a grown up kid, an eternal child, in a setting she just shouldn't have been in - in a bar for men and couples.

It was difficult enough with Ksusha but at least she was 29 going on 39.  This one was 24, going on 14.  This was not a good sign.  He would put in the afternoon, have a beer or two and then he'd extract himself.

.o0o.

Smart cookie, he discovered over the meal. Born in this town, had gone into teaching, then into an airline agency.  She was a little bit – well – rough yet vulnerable, if there was such a thing.

On a whim, he asked her to a film at Druzhba, she acquiesced and that puzzled him. What it probably was was that they felt safe with him, that he was hardly likely to try it on and therefore they could accept with impunity. 

.o0o.

The film was some eminently forgettable horror she seemed to enjoy, she put her feet up on the seat back before her and he thought he didn't like that but soon enough they were outside again.

She'd been observing too, it seemed because she now asked if he trained, he said he didn’t know where to, she said she knew a good fitness club on Ibragimova, they agreed to meet there on the morrow.

Just like that.

III

'Training!  Why?'

'Maybe I need to.'

'I suggested it and you shelved the idea.  I'm not sure I like the reasons for this.  Training - yes but why with her?'

'She knows the gym.  Would you go with me there tomorrow?'

'You know I can't.  I don't like this.  I like going down to you in the evenings to the river - you know that.  Why would you train in a gym in the summer?'

'I wouldn't.  I'll sign up and then start once I come back up to town.'

'When's that?'

'Last week of August.'

'You don't need to sign up.  You just go to a gym and pay there.'

'Not at these prices, apparently.  This deal extends into the autumn.'

'I don't like it.'  She was out of sorts.  'All right, all right, go there and check it out but you can see I'm not happy how this is going.  Remember that when I do something innocent like this as well.'

IV

14:00 saw him approaching a waiting Alisa near the entrance to the club and he took her hands because firstly he knew he mustn't kiss her and secondly, to shake hands with a woman in Russia wasn't usual.

She looked at him, blushed then took him into the club, opening the negotiations but then the bored and bemused trainer addressed Hugh.

‘Have you ever trained?’

‘No.’

‘How fit are you?’

‘Close to death. Do you cater for people like me?’

The man looked at Hugh’s ‘girlfriend’, back at him, and wondered. ‘Nu, ladno, when can you start?’

‘August?’

‘Not on this deal.  You have to do two sessions a week.’

Gulp.  He had a look at the prices on the sheet and that's how they'd done it - to get people in during summer.  This was going to be tricky with Ksusha.  He signed for the minimum.

Now to pick up some gear.

Er, did Alisa want to come into the centre, to Baumana, and help him select some training gear?

Da.

.o0o.

They bought Nike in charcoal, with deep purple and olive green trim and now he wondered about her, what she did with her time, what she liked, things he hadn't asked the first time around because they'd been over other matters.

‘Where do you shop?’ he asked.

She was surprised. ‘Anywhere.’

‘Thanks.’

‘For what?’

‘For helping me.’

She thought that a strange comment. What else had she been there for?

.o0o.

It didn't go down well.

About the only positive was that with that training, plus his work now up in town and with some weeks of his agreement still to run, they agreed he'd come up to town for work and training on the Tuesday and Thursday and just for work he suggested the Wednesday.

As she had to work Saturdays, he'd like if he could make it Saturday.  Phone calls were made, it was arranged and she felt she had some sort of influence on the thing.  She'd concede lunch with the girl some days.

V

First training day.

He felt a pillock walking onto that grey carpeted floor with all the beautiful people, except that quite a few looked not unlike him and that gave him confidence.

The trainer started him off with a heart check and he went through various routines and discovered muscles he’d never even known were there.

That was followed by a shower, a meal at the attached cafe and then he drove home, threw the dirty clothes in the wash, fixed tea and checked the answer machine.

Alisa, in that sing-song voice of hers.

She’d missed him and wanted to know how the first day had gone. He returned the call and they chatted for two and a half hours about absolutely nothing at all, finishing off with an agreement to meet at Raki after training on the Thursday, at 14:00.

He thought about Ksusha and how far this should go.  The thing was, he wasn't besotted by the girl in the least and he wanted Ksusha to know this.  He equally didn't mind Ksusha meeting people for lunch or coffee or whatever.  Surely if it were kept under wraps and was a pleasant interlude, it would be all right.

.o0o.

That evening, Ksenia listened to the voice twice on his answer machine and stabbed at her slice of apple pie with her fork.  The thing was, it really was innocuous but she knew Russian women and how they operated. 

He saw her quiet thunder and didn't want it now.  'I'm going to finish up with her.  It's not worth the effort.  If it were Anya, you might have some call -'

'I'd have less because you two have a history I now trust.  No, you go.  While you're there, ask yourself what you want with me but I'm not going to drive you away by insisting you don't go.'

'I'll go to her and part.'

VI

There was something about meeting a woman in a public place, something spicy in it, which is what Ksusha no doubt fully realized.

Alisa and he drank some beer and chatted about this and that, they ate and he said he hadn't brought the car because he knew he'd be drinking, then he walked her out to the road, hailing a car to Dyesyatimicrorayon, her home.  Both sat in the back.

No sooner had they reached Karl Marxa than she suddenly turned around on the back seat and straddled him, her blue skirt riding up, she forced her lips down onto his with no intention of coming up for air.  This is exactly as it happened and he had no idea where it was going.

The driver stared fixedly ahead and just drove.

He pulled away after about a minute, which was difficult because his head was pinned to the backrest and he’d almost died of asphyxiation. Actually, he was frightened and that was the honest truth and worse than that was that he felt so ... inadequate to a highly charged bundle of energy like this who seemed to know exactly what she wanted.

Plus she smoked. Not at this moment, of course, but she was a smoker nonetheless and he - he just couldn’t do it with her because the smokiness was choking him.

He looked up at her face - an absolute honey of a face - and then he glanced down at her thighs across him and those thighs brought ignoble thoughts to mind – but still he couldn’t kiss her - she was just too bouncy and energetic and he just couldn’t.

He couldn’t.

He had to.  He honestly had to.  He tried but now she was dropping into that familiar and frightening point where it's on.  He pulled out again and made slight movements with his hands to sit her beside him.

She did.

When they came close to her house, she jumped out, adjusted herself, smiled, leaned in, kissed him one last time and said she’d call him later. Then she walked a few steps, turned, stood and waved.

He waved back as the driver asked him where he wanted to go. He wasn’t sure. He asked the guy to wait while he used a wall phone nearby, called Viktor and was lucky enough to catch him with a cancellation.

.o0o.

His plight was met with a bemused smile but no surprise and then Viktor placed a large envelope on the coffee table. Hugh took out the contents - photos, black and whites, and that was the surprise.

One was of him going into the building where he’d worked until recently.  No big deal.

The next one floored him. It was his Ksusha. And what was she doing? Also going into the building where he'd worked.

The next was of a woman he vaguely remembered seeing once, chatting to Anya near the Shishkin Memorial at Yelabuga.

After he'd digested this, he looked at the next. It was of a golden haired man chatting to Anya at the same place, but clearly on a different day – the sky was cloudier.

‘So?’

‘Look more closely at the one of your Ksenia.’

He scrutinized more closely. ‘What am I meant to be looking for?’

‘Look at the doorway she’s walking through.’

‘Well, I’ll be –’   It was the Side-of-Beef.  It was Georges.  He explained Georges.  ‘I don’t understand any of this.’

‘Nor do I.’

‘And how did you come by these?’

‘Guy I know in a different section, keeping an eye on the people you see in the prints.’

‘And?’

‘Might be better if you and Ksusha left town for a little while.’

‘Again?  Is it ever going to end, Viktor?  I joined your security so this sort of thing would stop.’

‘Yes, you did.’

‘And it hasn’t stopped.’

‘No.’

Hugh sighed. ‘Anyway, Anya’s not in Shadzhara.’

‘She’s back from Italy but she'll have to be kept out of it this time.  I took the liberty of calling her.  She didn't say a lot but I think her heart might be in Italy for now.’

His mind was reeling. ‘Take my car, you think?’

‘Oh no. You’ll be collected from here soon, my friend will take you to your place while you get some things reasonably quickly and then on to Mariel.  Ksenia will join you later.  No heroics this time – just to have a rest.’

‘A rest? Everyone will be watching everyone else who’ll be watching us.’

‘That’s the general idea. Can you still phone that girl at Telekompaniya Efir?  Having a van and a journalist at the hotel would certainly help.  From my end, certain people will place phone calls to all the usual suspects like Deputatov, to the effect that a very public event is going down at Klyenovaya Gora.

Anya has already mobilized her friend at the newspaper - she's done that much for you.  All of this won’t necessarily keep you alive but it will make the culprit very, very visible.’

.o0o.

'There's not a lot happening right now at work, ' said Ksenia, once they were settled in for the night at the resort, 'but there are field projects coming up - two you need to know about.  One is to meet a current but intermittent lover in Moscow who moves me enough to make the time a pleasure but not enough to try to capture for life.  The other involves a man in Nizhny Novgorod who was a lover, is now married but there's still something there.

How was your meeting at Raki?  The truth please.  I can't say there won't be consequences but it's better I know - if you're strong enough.'

He bit the bullet and told her all of it.  'I've planned to meet her one last time at Raki and let her down.  I don't know how to do it but I plan to do that.  I'd planned that before you told me of the projects.'

'I'll accept that.  And you can also accept how it will be with me on those projects.  If it's not, I shan't lie to you but tell you when I get back.  It's in my interests for our future if I can resist.  We might have a happy future then.  I think if you can do this at Raki, then I'll do all in my power in turn.  I don't mean blackmail but just how my mood will be. Is that fair?'

He made love to her.

.o0o.

Next morning, the first thing she said was, 'We didn't eat.'

He'd always loved that practicality about her.  They did their things, dressed and went downstairs, the first down today.  The woman brought kasha, sausages, bread and tea and finally they got onto the situation which had brought them here.

'The difference,' she said, is that we're trying to prevent anything happening this time, hence the press.  Last time we were trying to draw them out.  We have people all over, quite visible but there is also someone who wants us dead.  Or maybe just you dead.  Might be the Denpasar girl's doing but I think she'd come and do it herself.

Might be closer to home - maybe Moscow.  There don't seem to be any deals going on now, none at a delicate stage, so it might just be revenge.  There's only one in Moscow who'd want that enough but it might be Georges too - for London.'

'I saw a photo with you and him at my old workplace.'

'Ah, did you?  Shan't ask.  Expect that's Viktor's contacts.  Yes, I was there, many times but that time I was staying close to Georges.  Do you remember how I do it?  Remember the north of England?'

'You slept with him?'

'Not in the least - just stayed close enough to realize it wasn't him ... who ... er ... did  ... that ... at your old workplace.  These are the games we play - life and death but still games.  This is why we're here.  It's a good place to analyse things in the open.  Let's go for a walk.'

.o0o.

On the way past the raised observation platform by the lake, he saw a figure he recognized from one of the photos.  'Ksusha, look over there, across the lake.'

'Who do you mean?  Vitali or Ludmilla Vladimerievna?'

'So that's her, is it?  Yes, I mean her.  Are you all right?'

She clearly wasn't but recovered and turned to him. 'I saw someone else who shouldn't be here.  I really think I now know who the problem is but it's going to be quite tricky to nail him - it's a him.  I need my brother's advice.'

She took out her mobile and made the call. ‘Where are you?  Sorry - I didn’t quite catch it. There's interference.  I'll call you back.’

She indicated for them to climb the hill and took to the slope like a mountain goat, with him struggling to keep up.  At the top, she tried again but there were still fade outs interfering with the reception.

‘In the country, Zhenya, with Hugh.’

‘With Hugh?’

‘Listen to this,’ she murmured and put the mobile to his ear. The static was awful but it wasn’t only the static - there was a strange sort of whooshing noise in the background.
‘Sorry, Brat,’ she said, ‘line is really bad. Where are you?’

‘Shadzhara. What do you want?’

She turned the mobile so it wouldn’t receive, then back again, apologized into it, turned it away again, it clicked off, they came down off the hill and made their way back to the hotel.

That raises more questions than it answers,’ she muttered over tea and sweets.  'I'm certain we're safe here.  Let's just enjoy today and tomorrow.'

VII

September, 1999

Over coffee, after he’d spoken of the morning’s doings, Viktor slapped another envelope on the table. Two more photos. The first of Ksusha again, near the entrance to his office building with the Petrova woman and with an unidentifiable figure of a man.

‘See anything unusual in that one?’

‘Ksusha and the section chief -’

‘Ludmilla Petrova.’

‘Yes. And the man?’ asked Hugh.

‘Works for a company Ksenia does odd jobs for.’

‘Ksenia? A different company?’

‘Yes.  The man’s referred to as The Beast and he’s not all that interesting – makes a lot of money, stabs people in the back, that sort of thing.  Life must be wonderful for him.  But word is he’s the one playing games with you, along with the Side-of-Beef, as you call him and they both have an indirect connection with both Zhenya and Ksenia.’

‘But they've protected me on more than one occasion.’

‘There’s also another man connected with the Beast and he also works with Ksenia - called Sergei Safin.’

‘Describe him.’

‘Long hair, fair-golden colour, tall, strong, good-looking in a film star way.’

‘The one from Yelabuga?’

‘Yes. The question is how to force the issue, to bring one of them out into the open.’

‘What say a letter, in bad Russian, is sent to the Beast, with the photos of Side-of-Beef and himself, telling him they're now exposed and that other photos of their doings were now being sent to Ludmilla Petrova, the Federal Attorney-General and the British Embassy?  I’d leave my briefcase there, accidentally on purpose.’

‘Suicide for you - who’s to say they were doing anything wrong anyway?   On the other hand, they might not like their association brought into the open like that.  It would cause greater scrutiny.’ 

‘If you were the Beast, whom would you send?’

‘I'm not completely sure. There are literally hundreds or even thousands of street people he could use but, on the other hand, the man is fond of poetic justice, as he sees it. He might even send one of your former protectors.’

‘Who is now in his pocket?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why not Safin?’

‘He has Safin over a barrel but the man’s loyalty is suspect. Money is better than fear with him.’

‘All right, I think I see my way clear. But I’m going to have to bring both siblings into it.’

‘Why?’

‘Poetic justice.’

'Are you up to this?  It must be a shock.'

'Have to be, don't I?'

VIII

Viktor had Olga over for the evening but the complication was that his fourteen year old daughter by his first wife was also over, brushing up for her physics exam scheduled for the first week back in September.

He couldn't exactly get rid of his daughter and Anastasia was savvy enough to know what was going down so it was Olga who solved the problem by asking Viktor to take care of the coffee while she helped Nastya.

It worked and also reassured Viktor in the process. From something in Olga’s manner, Nastya got the idea that they weren’t yet an item and so when her mother called and asked why she hadn’t come back yet, she then felt free to take the taxi Viktor ordered.

There is a device in the Russian language where you use the diminutive, say ‘Olya’ but also retain the more formal ‘vi’, the respectful ‘you’ and it solves most of the problems of interraction. Viktor had taught it to Hugh and it was certainly effective; even right up to lovemaking, it assured the woman that it was all being done with great respect and yet affection.

It treated the relationship a bit like Queen and courtier and most women appreciated the device, allowing her the final say as to when the two of them might eventually drop into ‘ti’.

So it was here and Viktor was nothing if not a chivalrous rogue. He knew what he was about, she knew he knew what he was about and her progressive surrenders were like the steps of a dance.

Even in coition she retained her attire, her modesty and her dignity. She did not stay overnight but what did remain in that flat afterwards was her light perfume, her freshness all over him and his desire for more.

As she’d intended it to be.

IX

The two incidents occurred in Paris on the same morning.

Dilyara had been to boulevard San Michel without any real intention of buying.  Engrossed, she wasn’t too engrossed, on leaving Aujourdhui with a pair of black sandals in her big bag, to fail to notice a car pull out from the curb thirty metres from her. 

From the driver’s expression and from his trajectory, even if all was innocent, it would have left her less than half a metre but now his trajectory curved in as a ball does and she knew she was gone.  Presence of mind had her leaping onto the bonnet of the parked car to her left but her right leg was still poking out at the point of impact then, as the car swerved off to make his escape, the impact dragged her down the side of the parked car and her head caught the mudguard.

The second incident was when Geneviève went for her regular budgetary session with her superiors in rue de Montmartre but had an urgent call from Marc not to attend.  ‘Plead anything but don’t go.’

She knew better than to ignore that and took steps accordingly, rehearsed steps which would see her cocooned for twenty four hours in a safehouse.  She was quite well aware that it had been Marc’s little hacking operation which had discovered that and she came to an immediate decision.

X

Hugh waited and waited for the inevitable Zhenya, though he wasn't the main issue in this.

He visited neither that day nor the next. Two days later he finally visited, in the evening. Even the knock on the door was strangely familiar.

‘Come in Zhenya, come in … tea?’

‘Thanks, no, not this time.’

‘Please.’ Hugh indicated a seat. Zhenya sat down on the divan by the window.

‘I’ve come to return your briefcase.’

This was obvious. Hugh said nothing but took it and placed it by the cupboard. Zhenya was relaxed, even bemused.

‘Zhenya, there are some puzzling things I really have to ask you. Do you mind?’

‘Fire away,’ he urged, in the perfect vernacular. Hugh decided to risk all.

‘After Ksusha phoned you, she phoned her parents on the way back to the hotel and the signal was good but with you, it was - as you remember.’

‘Da?’

‘Well, there was this whooshing sound in the background we couldn’t identify but now Ksusha thinks she has it.'

‘Da?’

‘Well,’ continued Hugh, matter-of-factly, looking straight into Zhenya’s eyes, ‘what if you hadn’t been in Shadzhara at all, as you said you were but were actually at Klyenovaya Gora all along and the whooshing sound in the background was the sound of the klooch - ’

He got no further. Zhenya had already swung down, whipping a syringe from a holder above his left ankle. He took two strides, there was a cracking of glass, he stopped short, mouth at a stupid angle and something oozed red from his forehead, dripped to his nose and from there onto his clothes.

He collapsed to the floor like a sack of spuds.

There were no further words, there was no emotion; Hugh just stared and all he could think of was that cleaning the rug was another bloody expense he could well have done without.

.o0o.

Four minutes later, the ring on the doorbell came, he went to open it, Ksenia walked through to the living room and asked him to leave her for some time.

He closed the connecting door and went to the kitchen. As he sat on a stool, he could hear her weeping in the next room for about twenty minutes. Then she stopped and came out, apologized for taking one of his handkerchiefs and they both sat on the stools, not saying a word.

Finally she spoke. ‘It was lethal, that stuff he used.’

‘You knew of it?’

‘I knew of it.’

She made the calls.

.o0o.

Three men came; one came back into the kitchen and asked if they could use the Stinol refrigerator packing case folded on the balcony; Hugh wandered back into the living room after they’d huffed and puffed out of the front door and into the lift; the mat, the stains and Zhenya - all were now gone.

.o0o.

They went to Yaz Bar, ordered beers and she just stared straight ahead.

‘Why so final?’ he asked. ‘Why not a tranquilizer?’

‘Zhenya was always nervni but he could control it with great effort. When he couldn’t, he took Mergalon and never told anyone but there was one thing which drove him apoplectic and that was if anyone came near me. He was fiercely protective. That’s why I kept my lovers secret from him – waiting till he was away and then putting in a phone call. There are those who’d accept those terms.

With you though – it was completely open and he had great trouble handling it. He called me a whore and you a male whore and other things worse than that. But in his eyes I couldn’t have been a whore, you see. In his eyes I’d had no lovers, so how could I be a whore when I went with my first real lover to the north of England?

The answer was that he’d always known, on the law of averages, that it could not have been as I’d presented it to him but to accept as a fact that I had had lovers would cause a psychological jolt he couldn’t face and so he lived in this half-worshipping state, elevating me far above what any girl in my situation could possibly have been.

At Domodyedova, when we did that lovemaking, he had to confront it and he determined we were to be punished. You know of honour killings?’

‘Eastern, yes, but you’re Russian.’

‘In his case, it was all the same.  He couldn't do this overtly because we live in a society where women do have lovers and men too - if he did anything, it would be the end for him.  So it grew inside him and I know he felt mad love for me but also no respect.  He wanted me for himself, but as sobaka na senye - the dog sitting on top of the haystack and not letting anyone else near it.’

'Ah, we have 'dog in a manger''

‘So I had to force the issue.  I was the one who had material sent to your Viktor, he phoned me and I suggested we go to Klyenovaya Gora.  Do you know why it had to be us?'

'I've a fair idea.  To send him over the edge.'

'Zhenya now had a double betrayal from you - you'd fucked his sister and that's what he was most concerned with, not with the caring and love - and you'd also done dirt on me by fucking Frederika.  The payment by the firms he works for cancelled each other out.  One firm wanted this, one wanted that.  That also sent him crazy.  My father went that way and I recognized the signs.'

'You killed him too?'

'Be careful suggesting something like that to me.  Not in that way, no, I didn't.  But it messed my mind all the same.  Zhenya was beyond reason and he'd gone into a dangerous mode.  If anyone knew him, it was me.  If anyone was to put him out of his misery, it would be me.  He'd even accept it from me, in a strange way.  He knew there was not long to go, in his head he knew it.  I think he knew it would be me who ended it.  I once suggested it might and he was thoughtful about that at the time.'

'Did he want you as a lover?'

'Yes.  And that made it worse because, despite everything else, we were brought up traditionally, in many ways.  He knew he couldn't even think of such a thing but I knew he wanted me and even as a girl, I never let him see me naked and maybe that also caused the problem.  It built up.'

'The things we do in our lives.'

'Yes.'  She added, ‘I’ll be fine, Hugh. There’s no more to this – I’m not a suicide waiting to happen. I’ll do this my way, I'll come back to you, but not for some days, I need time to myself.’

'Your state of mind?'

'What do you expect?' she snapped, then apologized and laid a hand on his forearm. 'Can you stand me touching you?'

'Let's get this straight - you've just saved my life.  I know you had to do it, I think all three of us knew.  It will take time, Ksusha - I'm here if you need me, not far away if you don't.'

'I have to do family things.  I have to do them alone.'

'No argument from me.  I'm simply here if you need.  I don't know if it's appropriate or if it's not but you know I love you.'

'I know.'  She wanted to speak more on her brother. 'When I saw him in my sights, I moved it sideways and had you in my sights.  The thought crossed my mind.'

'Do you expect me to be shocked?  That was your brother.  He was your job, as I am.  Also, I'm not so enamoured of life that I'd be appalled to lose it.'

She looked at him.  'Really?'

'Ksusha, you go and do as you must and then come back to me, if you still want.'

'Come with me.'

'OK.'

'No you can't.  I have to do this alone.'

She came to his arms and rested her head on his shoulder. 

Then she was gone.

.o0o.

He went to the balcony and watched her walk away until she was obscured by the corner of a housing block.

Coming back inside, he reached for the phone to call Anya, then didn't.  He reached for it again to call Alisa, then didn't. 

He then called Liya.  Safest way.

She wasn't there.  He called Aliya, it rang but he put the phone down. What if the boyfriend answered it?

It was a bit chilly outdoors today so he put his autumn gear on, locked the flat and went downstairs.

.o0o.

Truth was - the city was good with company, excellent in fact but for a man alone, not to be recommended.  Apart from being accosted as a foreigner and therefore as a source of money, the type of female likely to come up to you was also not to be recommended, except for the waitresses who'd usually been vetted and who were generally nice people.

Yaz was for couples, Cafe Chai was for the Russians themselves, as distinct from foreigners, not officially of course, but usually only Russians went there. It was the Russian equivalent of an American diner.  Raki was out for obvious reasons of recent memory, Giuseppe seemed the only alternative he knew. 

He went for the car.  On the way he thought he might go and see this Marat, a fellow reject but then gave it away as a stupid idea.

.o0o.

Giuseppe was pretty empty for some reason but he ordered his pizza c'myasom, took a cappuccino and sat at the table for two over to the side.  The waitresses were new and he didn't know them.  Not only that but he wasn't sure about two of them who were sniggering about something and looking over at him.

As if he needed this at this time. 

.o0o.

The pizza name was called in that 'couldn't care less' voice - usually the girl brought it to him - he went up, smiled, she didn't even acknowledge him but went straight back to her nattering with the other one, he took cutlery and the pizza to his table and decided not to rush but all the same - to eat up fairly quickly and get out of there.

They were probably hoping the same.

Two of his students came in, saw him and came over, there was some repartee with one while the other joined the growing line for pizzas - nice girls but nothing much to converse about with them.

He did finish up and went out with purpose, as if he had somewhere he had to be.

XI

In Nizhny Novgorod, Valentina Alexandrova put Pavel and Ksenia to bed, tidied up and did some ironing. Viktor Bukovsky, her deputy, was coming over to drop off the Shaidullin report and she was awaiting the phone call right now.

It was tough without Pavel around. They’d tried to patch it up some years back and little Ksenia was meant to be the means of making things right.

Valentina did not absolve herself of blame – she’d given as good as she’d got, at least until he’d gone back to the bottle and that was the signal to get out of the flat for good, with her child and baby.

She couldn’t be doing with that sort of thing in her position but when he’d been hit by the tram, she’d gone to pieces.

Now she had her two children as a reminder of the good times with him and Viktor Bukovsky about to come round with his report.

XII

October, 1999

Life had become bizarre.

The Second Chechen War had begun in earnest and the Brits, as usual, had somehow got behind the wrong side and backed a bunch of drug-running warlords - this dominated the news.

Hugh had a new flat.  Ksenia had obviously had a word with Ludmilla who had friends in the real estate line. He'd retired from the school but was both at the university and doing his state work, pretty well worn out and into this now came a phone call from Alisa. 

‘Why haven’t you contacted me?  I’ve been waiting.’

‘I’ve had ... issues.’

‘Can we meet?’

‘Yes, Raki, 17:15?’

.o0o.

All the way in there, he knew that when Ksenia returned, he had to be unencumbered. 

When he saw her, expectantly, he knew it would be the toughest thing he'd had to do.  She'd done nothing wrong, now he had to end it, not a role he was used to.

He asked her to come out to the grassy bank outside, inside was too claustrophobic. She had a most uneasy feeling and probably knew already. 

He told her about the complications, about Anya, about Ksusha, about how he was in danger and they had to get out of town, about how he should never have kissed her, Alisa but she was so kissable. 

The weak sun shone at an angle to them through the buildings across the road but it didn't warm them.

'You - you don't want me.'

'I do.  I still do.  I wasn't playing games.  I'm not free to do as I wish.  It all came down on me.  If I was free, we wouldn't be having this now, we'd be in there drinking.'

It was all so reasonable, she wanted to scream, to throttle him, she turned and stormed off. 

About the end of the grassed area, she stopped, turned, saw him still sitting there and walked back.  He got up to meet her.

'I'm sorry,' she opened. 

'No, don't be, I'm the one who has to be sorry.' They simply fell into a kiss, she disengaged, smiled weakly and walked away again. 

This time she did not return.


He sat on the grass for some time, picking blades of grass, feeling low.  He had no idea she was watching him from a distance.

Chapter 10 here ... Chapter 12 here

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