Tuesday, May 5, 2009

1-12: Setbacks


Chapter 11 here ... Chapter 13 here

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I

Marc and Dilyara had set up in Prague.  Sounds simple but it had been anything but on her side and surprisingly, on his mother's side as well.

In short, it was a mixed marriage and they'd had to go the secular way to enable it to happen, which had not gone down well with her parents - well, her father and the other males of the family and it had got so bad that she'd just put up with the final haranguing, had kissed her father, had gone to bed, Marc was with Hugh that night.

Next morning, after father had gone to work, Hugh had colelcted both, and mother and brother and had taken them to the airport.

Now they were in Sebastapolska Street, not far from Pavilon Grebovka in Prague 2 and the building had a history.  Done by Jan Santini Aichel after the style of J. B. Mathey, it had morphed into a sort of Baroque Gothic, which was definitely weird but at the same time unique, most spacious, even grandiose for a family home and once they'd sent initial pictures back to the respective parents and mother, the resistance from both those places decidedly diminished.

In fact, once it was clear it had been a civil wedding, both her father and his mother considered that that was still a redeemable situation and it was only going to start all over again when the first baby was on the way.

The question was - who was paying for this home, with it's sweeping driveway, gravel courtyard and the good condition the building was in?  the answer to that was both families, the Section and a bit extra from an unidentified source.

Who was complaining?  She was delighted, over the moon actually, he was delighted that she was delighted and Genevieve had given them settling in time to boot.  Parks abounded in the Vinohrady area - they'd certainly fallen on their feet for such a young couple.

It was almost an anticlimax when Genevieve phoned the news through, scrambled.

‘The Frenchman’s dead,’ she announced.

‘Where was he?’

‘Near Dilyara’s apartment.  He pulled a gun when he realized he was cornered.  We’ve also made progress on the conduit.  Our suspicions were correct.’

II

December 1999

On Hugh’s internet one evening, the mail ticker appeared: ‘Contact Olyesa, she’ll wait at Chai till 16:00.’

.o0o.

Just inside the entrance, around four next day, he simply called out, ‘Olyesa?’ a dozen faces looked up at him but only one came up to him.

‘Olyesa?’ he asked again more quietly.

‘Da.’

He forgot himself and said in English, ‘Did you leave a message for me?’

To his shock, she also replied in English. ‘Yes.’

She was tall, maybe 23 years old, well endowed, with golden hair, an ornate black frock, stiletto shoes, a ‘without complexes’ look to her face and not much else.

‘What do you want?’

‘To talk, but it’s too crowded here today. Do you know a pizza place on Pionerskaya, near the market?’

‘Yes, as a matter of fact.’

‘Can you be there at 11:00 tomorrow morning?’

‘But I have to … all right … I can make it.’

.o0o.

He’d agreed to collect Anya round 14:00, to spend some time together and as he drove to her place, all the electricity in the city went off.

Interesting, that - just shut down. Shops, offices, post offices, traffic lights, quite apocalyptic really.

Everywhere, vendors blocked their doorways and sat smoking on stools, arguing with bunches of customers still trying to go in to browse around, the general noise level of car horns measurably increased, the fabric was momentarily rent.

It was also Shadzharaya Yarmarka day, or giant sale.

A woman downstairs decided, on the strength of the power cut, that this was the cue to go on to the street to sell little plastic forks to passing neighbours.

There was a wedding also. Goodness, the Russians love noise. Once the convoy passed through the archway into the dvor, all hell broke loose with car horns.

Anya remarked that they were selling live porkers out of the back of a truck at Moskovsky Rinok.

‘Why didn’t you buy one? You love pets, as a rule. You have enough of them.’

‘Oh ha, ha.’

The electricity now came back on, he flicked on the computer and checked the messages with more than a trace of interest. Now there was one from an Alina.

‘Don’t see Olyesa tomorrow.’

That was it. But which Alina? The girl seemed to know him and he racked his brain. Maybe it was the one from Uni, maybe it was someone else who knew him.

.o0o.

This seemed to him now one bridge too far.  Given his situation in the city, he'd always been a sitting duck for the female who never ever presented herself with less than full warpaint on and his reputation as someone 'who would', who'd give a girl a nice time out, had got about.

But here was yet another female intrigue - and goodness, this lot loved intrigue - which he would have gone along with formerly.

Before Ksenia and to be fair, before Anya and he had become serious, then in the latter stages.  Trouble was, Ksusha was on a job in Moscow, actually the job she'd mentioned and she'd made no contact.  And the guy was an ex-lover.  How ex?  He knew that line of thinking was going nowhere.

And here was this intriguing assignation - he could behave himself, not let it go anywhere, see what happened.

He waited for a phone call from Ksenia, phoned her, no answer, he sent a voicemail.

.o0o.

Of course he went the next day - after all, what could possibly happen in broad daylight, in one of the most populous streets in the city, across the road from a market?

The answer to that was that you could end up with a knife in your shoulder, followed by a visit to a hospital and a week’s convalescence at home.

.o0o.

Anya was astounded, seated at the foot of his bed on the Tuesday evening. ‘You got a message and you just went? Why? No, don’t answer that.’

‘I don’t know. Intrigued.’

‘Any more messages?’

‘How can I know? I’ve been in bed.’

‘If you let me, I’ll check.’

‘Go ahead.’

‘Ah-ha. What’s this?’

‘What’s what?’

‘Shall I read it to you, lover?’

‘Who’s it from?’

‘Someone called Alina.’

‘Really,’ Hugh had new interest in his voice.

‘Oh, you know her, do you?’

‘She’s probably the one who e-mailed the night before. What’s she say?’

‘She says, ‘I warned you.’

III

January, 2000

Yeltsin had stepped down on New Year’s Eve and Vladimir Putin was the new President.

Ex KGB, it at least looked a reasonably positive move at this early stage and there was, generally speaking, cautious acceptance of the transition of power, thankfully bloodless and so the first test of the new democracy had been passed.

Viktor visited Hugh with his new love but they already knew one another, which didn't sit so well with him until she explained that Hugh had sent a parcel through the firm some time back and that’s how she’d made his acquaintance.

With a little laugh, Olga asked how he was and said they’d brought him fruit - tangerines and pears. Very nice and thank you. My goodness she was a honey - Viktor had done well.

‘Any idea who stabbed you, Man?’

‘I never saw the person.’ Well, technically he hadn’t - this was his form of lying.  He wanted to track those two down himself and decide where to take it from there.  It must have surprised them somewhat as well.

‘No idea of the reason? Angry husband? Jilted lover?’

Olga looked at him sharply but Hugh was grinning.  ‘I have some ideas and when I’ve got them in order I’ll put them to you and see what you think.’

‘You don't see it having any connection with your previous troubles.’

‘As I said, I never saw the person so it might be, might not be.’ Viktor looked at him curiously and didn’t believe a word of it.

IV

He might have known it would happen.

Ksenia appeared from nowhere, had a key as Anya did and now stood at the foot of his bed, gazing down dispassionately. ‘Viktor phoned and told me.  Why are you still in bed?’

‘Knife went a little deep and took out a bit of bone. Have to keep it immobilized for a week.’

She nodded. ‘Any idea who did it?’

‘Yes, I know exactly who did it but who they are in relation to my life beats me. It was two girls but whether one did it and the other didn't know or whether they were both in it, I’m not sure.’

She sighed.  'Girls, girls, girls - that's all it ever was with you.'

‘Do you want to know or not?’  She did. ‘One is called Olyesa and the other Alina – they’re obviously connected someh ... you all right?’

She’d gone pale, was trying to mask it and now made to leave, causing Hugh to ask her earnestly, ‘Don't go.  Please. I really need you.’

She sat gingerly on the bed, reached for his hand and held it in both of hers. When she dropped her eyes, Hugh fell for her again.

‘I know those two girls, Hugh. It’s too much of a coincidence that two of that name would be operating together but I have to know why.  I’m going to find out. You see, they shouldn’t be against you but for you. Either there’s been a misunderstanding or if not, then I have to warn you I shouldn’t be sitting here now.’

‘I don’t care,’ he said. ‘I finished with Alisa the day after you left, there's been no other and I'm lonely.’

‘Oh Hugh,’ she laughed nervously and stroked his cheek with her fingertips.  ‘You silly person.  You’ve got me so I don’t know which way to turn.  I have to go.  I'll be back later.’

She upped and went.

V

Viktor Bukovsky was five years shy of Valentina Alexandrova in age and frankly, she wasn’t one of these cradle snatching women - the man should be a few years in advance of her and a serious person at that.

On the other hand, Bukovsky was personable and - well, it had been a long time now. The thought ran through her mind as he delivered another report one evening. It was entirely unnecessary for him to do this - he could have waited until morning but she’d initiated the demand and he was in no position to refuse. Nor did he wish to.

Behind this obvious agenda was another. His superior in intellect, she suspected that not all was above board with Viktor - a couple of speculations had come to her attention and she sniffed a certain propensity to take the easier way out. For his part, he needed to be close to the power base.

Her religious scruples were also playing on her mind.  There were the children and whether she could ever be serious about Viktor. She felt that it might be all right Above if she seriously intended taking a stepfather for the children but what about simple emotional release?

As he went to leave, she accompanied him to the door and momentarily stood between him and his exit. Then she stepped away and he departed.

He thought about that moment as he drove away while she shut the moment of weakness out of her mind.

VI

She was lying beside him.

'Things can get a bit ... dislocated.  Alina's not all there in the head and Olyesa - well, it's best not to get involved with her.  You're a curiosity to us.  I think that, as more and more foreigners come into Shazhara, the novelty will wear off but it won't with me.  Does it hurt a lot?'

'If I lie on the other shoulder, it's OK.  The pain goes down into the chest when I move it the wrong way and then I can't breathe.  It'll be better in a couple of weeks.'

'Does it hurt when I hold you?'

'I don't know yet.'

She quite gingerly lay side-on herself in front of him and placed an arm over his, he winced and she gave that away.  'Poor,' she said and he knew the transliteration meant 'poor thing'.  'If I lie against you, is that all right?' 

It was and she resumed the conversation.  'The two of them got it wrong but I'm watching them now and they know it.  I told them you were my man and if either of them tried anything to hurt you, I'd kill them.'

'You told them I was your man?'

'You heard me.'  She looked away.

'Just when I want to leap on you and make love, I can't.  Would you nip downstairs and get some cognac or whatever?  Money's on the table.  We need to toast.'

'You have whisky.'

'I didn't think you'd like it.'

'I do.'

'Whisky drinking woman - not sure I like that,' he smiled.  'You know where it is.'

She went and poured two, came back and put them on the side table.  Talk first, toast second.'  She now spoke quietly to him.  'You need to be very sure what you're getting into because once I let myself become emotionally dependent, which I will, then I expect you will no longer be playing for Team Hugh and not even for Team Ksenia.  You'll be playing for Team Hugh and Ksenia.

Not team Hugh and sometimes Ksenia, sometimes Anya, sometimes Alisa, sometimes whoever comes along.  It's Team Hugh and Ksenia.  If you can't do that, then we can't go on because I'm not having casual affairs with you. Nor will I put up with you having them with other women.  There's a certain amount I'll take in the course of my work, your work but our arms and lips are for each other.

You'll kiss other women but there are kisses and kisses.  There's a quick kiss of affection and then there's a kiss of wanting more.  With Anya, there's every reason to kiss with affection - I'm not a monster and if I tried to stop this, I'd lose you.  A kiss with Alina though, a real kiss, which she would start - you'd lose me.  No questions, no second chances - it would be over.  You see, you have no reason with her.

Key decisions are always taken by both of us, after talking.  If one of us is away, we wait.  If we have to decide, we do it as we think the other one would want it.  I don't expect you to pay for my clothes and other things I like and also need, as a woman but I also don't think I can spend all my money on myself.  There's some money I'll keep for myself but most of it is ours.

I'm not extravagant - look at me - but I do need to keep up an image for my work ... and for you ... and for me.  I take a long time at the mirror in the morning.  As you get older, some medical questions might come up.  I won't be walking out on you but if you can't make love, if you are totally incapacitated, then you must make that decision yourself.  I think I can trust you to do that. If I'm incapacitated, if something seriously changes, then I won't ask you to stay.

In our work, we give each other as much freedom as we need.  If that freedom means I sleep with someone, then you must leave me.  Same in reverse.  I don't want to know which women you take out to dinner, as long as it had a genuine purpose and you need to explain that to me because I don't know everyone from your past.

You're not my dog, my slave, running around after me.  Same in reverse.  I'll cook for you and all that because firstly, I want to and secondly, it's our way in Russia.  I think you already accept this.  I don't want you thinking you have to give me a life of luxury but I would like you to surprise me sometimes - that's one of the main reasons I want you.

I don't want any grandiose plans.  I love my flat, you have your new flat and I like it by the way, we'll live between the two.  You need this flat for clients, I need mine for that too, from time to time.  One day we might buy a third and that would become ours, with the other two for our children.  That's all we need to provide for them - they can do the rest themselves, if they're grown-up.

If we have two children, one, none, that's what we both want.  I'll keep taking the pill or go off it and you'll use condoms but I don't like them - I prefer to feel you there.  When my grandmother gets too old, she might have to come and live with us and if so, you need to decide now about us getting that third flat, with three rooms.  Every family in this country looks after their old people.

I don't want our relationship to be a burden.  If you will be responsible and won't always be trying to escape, same with me, then that's good.  We keep the romance, even after all the little things you don't like me doing and that I don't like you doing.  I don't, once I have your agreement now, plan to suddenly start making demands I wasn't making before.  I want a happy you, not one who wants to escape me.  I'm not a dragon.

I've seen too many girlfriends marry and suddenly what the two of them had disappears and all there is left is jobs and tasks and responsibilities.  I want the fun, the romance, the pleasure, to continue and why shouldn't it?  If you're offered a job in Britain and it's a big step up, an important job, and if I can't leave here, then we compromise.  If it means more than four days apart in a week or more than one month in three, then one of us changes, stops or else we part.

I don't have to live in Russia but I can't stay away for long.  You seem to be able to live away from home longer than me.  We'll compromise on this.  I want us to be reasonable with each other.  Do you think I've been reasonable so far?'

'It's exactly as I want it.'

'That will stay the same.  When you say yes to me in a minute, if you do, then I don't want you thinking you've got yourself into jail.  There is nothing hidden which has not been spoken of now.  Please tell me right now if there is some reason you can't go ahead.  It's best I know now and we can finish before we start, do our crying and get on with our lives.  I need the truth now because if it comes out later, Hugh, I will leave.  Make no mistake about that please - I will leave, even if I adore you.  I'd expect the same from you.'

'Speak with Anya - she knows all, I had many checks done on me, including by the FSB, I'm a known known.  There are no hidden children or wives or whatever.  There's much I've done wrong over my life and you'll get to hear it.  It doesn't affect this.  Sexually, you already know.  You've seen my habits, I've seen yours.'

'Then if you agree with all this, despite my past record, I think we have a chance, Hugh.  The only thing I can imagine is that you might fall out of love with me if I behave nervously with you but I'll try not to.  Many women don't even try.  I want you to try very hard to understand - always let me explain.  Please.'

'All right, Ksusha, all agreed.  Marriage?'

'Frightens me but we're a marrying nation.  Do you want?'

'My faith says I must.  Personally, I'm easy about it.'

'Let's plan to do it but let's be fiances for just some more time, to see how we manage together.  Then I'll marry you, I won't keep putting it off.  Once I think it really is good with us, that it's stable, then we'll do it.  Will you accept that?'

'Yes, fine.'

'Shall we toast now?'

'There's one more thing I need to know.'

'Yes?'

'I think you know.'

'I see.  All right, we have to decide about this.  I've already said I'll marry you, that I love you.  Do you think I would have?'

'I don't know.  Farewell gesture.'

'Are you going to do this every time I go away or are you going to rely on me loving you?  I suspect you have trouble trusting to love.  which is strange because you do a lot of work to get the girl.'

'I've been burnt a few times.'

'Those were wrong choices.  By chance, you've made the right choice this time.'  She smiled.

Glasses in hand, he asked, 'Will you, Ksenia Sharova, be my life partner?'

'Yes.  Will you be my man?'

'Yes.'

'Let's toast.'

They clinked the glasses, knocked back the tipple, put the glasses down and found a way to make love.

.o0o.

In the morning, it was one of the happiest days of his life to see her wake up with a smile on her face and a sort of bounciness to her.  He told her that and, carefully avoiding placing strain on his shoulder, she responded with a kiss.

Now she got down to business.  'I don't know what it was about Olyesa and Alina and they sure weren't telling me, so I'd like you to go ahead, as you would have - agree to see them, go along with them and please, Babe, tell me what happened.'

.o0o.

He finally ran Olyesa down in Chai and physically cornered her at one of the tables so she couldn’t just get up and run. Straddling the chair between her and egress, he demanded, ‘Why was I knifed?’

She sat silently, inwardly fuming. Then, in a very considered way, in English, she replied, ‘Because you’re a foreigner.’

‘You don’t like foreigners?’

‘Too much western influence in our country.’

‘I actually agree but why did you learn English then?  You speak it very well.’

‘Because I must learn it, if I’m to survive. These are the new realities. That’s all.’

And it was all. Not one more word could he extract from her. She got up and pushed against his leg until he pulled it back and let her out.

At home that evening, there was a message waiting from her. ‘I was rude, I’m sorry. Can you be at Chai tomorrow at 16:00?’

.o0o.

On the morrow, she was there before him.

‘Have you eaten?’ he asked, expecting a refusal.

‘I’d like tre’ugolniki and blini with tvorak.’

He ordered for her and for himself and took in her features. The down side of Olyesa was her obvious hardness and she fell into the trap so many hard women fall into - they feel the shell is all that requires attention, that expensive clothes and make-up are all that is necessary to seduce and that it’s absolute bollocks that beauty is a person’s personality showing through her features, not the features themselves. He was less than impressed.

When they eventually sat down to eat, he was direct. ‘Why did you knife me?

She only smiled. ‘That was Alina.’

‘But you knew about it.’

‘I knew.’

‘Why did she knife me?’

‘Why don’t you ask her yourself.’

‘How can I ask her, if I’ve never met her?’

‘Oh, you’ve met her all right,’ she grinned.

‘Why did Alina warn me not to see you?’

‘She warned you?’ Sharp intake of breath.

‘You didn’t know?’

‘Look, I was there in the pizzeria, waiting. I heard the noise. I stayed in there with the others. I left later.’

‘Why did she knife me?’ No reply. ‘It’s a simple enough question–’

‘She thought you were doing bad business.’

‘What business?’

She reached into her bag and brought out a dog eared photo. She paused a moment, showed it to him indifferently, then put it back in the bag. It was a glossy of herself and a rather gross man in an equally gross pose.

‘You did that? Why?’ Hugh was in genuine shock.

She shrugged. ‘He’s number four in my father’s company but he’s not a nice man. They call him the Beast - he was threatening my father. My brother thought it was the only way to stop him – to blackmail him. Alina took the photo.’

‘Alina?’

‘Our sister.’

‘Why did she think I had anything to do with it?’

‘That’s Alina. She gets mixed up, she hears part of a story and acts impulsively. The Beast said you were behind it but then I made her see she was wrong and now she wants to apologize but she’s too shy. Would you like to meet her?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why? To hurt her?’

‘Of course not, just to talk with her.’

‘OK, she’s coming through the door now.’

Hugh swung around. It was Alina from 402, grinning foolishly; she raised her hand and wiggled her fingers in greeting, an apologetic gesture on her face.  Moving up to them, she sat beside her sister.

‘You!’

‘Sorry.’

Olyesa now asked, 'How true is it that Ksenia Sharova is your girlfriend?'

'She's not my girlfriend.'

'There, you see,' said Alina, triumphantly.

'She's my fiancee, soon to be my wife.  She also told both of you that if you hurt me again, she'll kill you.  Do you think, from what you know of her, that Ksusha keeps her word?'

The two of them visibly paled, made excuses and left.  Now wasn’t that interesting, he thought.

.o0o.

It was Alina who made the next move, phoning next day. Hugh asked her where she’d found the number. She wouldn’t say. OK, she’d tell him if they could meet, say, at Giuseppe.

.o0o.

As if the conversation had continued uninterrupted, her opening line next day was, ‘From Olyesa. I don’t know how she got it.’

‘Who took the photo of Olyesa?’

‘Me.’

‘You think it’s beautiful?’

‘It’s life, it happens all over the world.’

‘But is it beautiful?’

‘Next?’

‘Why knife me?’

This time it stopped her. ‘I hated you. Olyesa said you were working for Zhenya.’

‘Whoa – I can’t see your dust.  Zhenya Sharov?’

‘His sister works for my Papa.’

‘What!   You mean Ksenia, right?’  She nodded.  He internalized that, then asked, ‘But how does that connect me with the – er – photo?’

‘Another man said you ordered it.’

‘Named?’

‘Georges.’

‘But Olyesa said that The Beast told you I was involved.’ No response. ‘OK – what about the man in the photo – the Beast –’

‘How do you know what he's called?’

‘Have you forgotten Ksenia?’

‘Er - yes.’

‘Where is The Beast in all of this?’

‘Oleg?  He’s in Moscow.   I – I put a knife in him.’

‘Pardon?’

‘I put a knife in him.’

‘You’re a real terror, Alina. Aren’t you afraid he’ll come after you?’

‘Yes, he said he’s going to kill me when he gets better.’

‘You like going around knifing people, don’t you?  Aren’t you afraid for your life?’

‘My brother says that Oleg won’t even get into Shadzhara alive.’

‘Your brother Sergei, you mean? And what’s your name, may I ask?’

She was surprised. ‘Alina.’

‘No, no – your familiar?’

‘Safina, of course.’

Hugh felt enough was enough - time to take his leave.

.o0o.

Ksenia loved the new flat, she'd furnished it on her own and when he came back from those madams, she listened to his account and laughed in places.

'I need to tell you now about something else.  In this country, a member of security shouldn't have anything to do with a foreign national.  At a minimum, you should consider taking Russian citizenship, marrying me or both.  That would ease the pressure on me.

While I'm doing field work, it doesn't much matter but the service is bureaucratic and LudValerievna has told me that various doors have closed to my career path.  I don't care about a career path as I enjoy what I do but she cares about it and is on at me about you.

She hasn't asked me to drop you but she says I have to take measures and I've told you those.  What is not good is that there were enemies I already had but because of my results, they couldn't do much to me.  Now, with you, they have the ammunition they need and they're doing everything to hurt me.  Georges and Sergei are part of that, plus the Beast and Deputatov in Moscow. 

We're building a quite large folio of enemies, Babe and they're pooling their resources.  From the moment I dragged you into this, I've been trying to get you out of it but it just keeps getting more and more complicated, like quicksand.

My brother was never part of them - he just went rogue.  These ones though want to place a girl they have in mind as a key agent, with a view to her taking over once LudValerievna retires, which is not so long from now.  If I'm appointed to this position, then it puts both you and me in great danger.

Things never stand still.  I want you to know that if I ever have to choose between you and my future, I'll choose you.'

He kissed her for that and the sound as their lips parted was sweet.

VII

March, 2000

Vladimir Putin was asserting his authority and the power of the oligarch was being broken, Berezovsky was in hiding overseas, the eastern problem had reared its head again and it was all a bit much for most people to fathom.

Shadzhara had started to build.

Chistopolskaya had become like a narrow super-highway, the pontoon bridge whipped people into town in less than twelve minutes on a good day and the building was leaping ahead in what had been former swamps.

The underground was under construction, boutiques were springing up all over the place and prices were rising. Petrol had shot up to eight roubles a litre! Hard to credit what had gone wrong.

The street bazaars had been swept away and people now had to go to the central markets.

An incident now occurred that threatened to derail Ksenia and Hugh.  Essentially, it was time to renew the passport itself, not the registration and he needed to go to Moscow.  Kse ia thought of going but as she'd just come back from there, more or less, she was less inclined.

How long?  Should be a one day affair, with a day each side for travel.  Train was the answer.

He deposited the documents, was told to come back later and went for a wander.

Down by the riverbank, there was a little walkway past some older but still fairly swish balconied apartments and there were some green benches near that walkway. He flopped down on one of them, not a soul about and looked through his notes.

Sometime later, a girl placed her bottom on the other end of the bench. She also seemed to have some business at the consulate. The jaw and cheek bones said she was Russian but the jacket, hat, sneakers and jeans said American. He glanced sideways - she had to be Russian, she was also small and that was dangerous.

Dasha, she was called, from Krasnoyarsk. A real Siberian. But with Ukrainian blood. Really? She was here to collect her visa and was flying tomorrow for London. Cutting it a bit fine, didn’t she think?

‘I have to go back to the consulate at three,’ she commented.

‘Really? So do I. Why don’t we go together?  We could go for a walk now, I'll buy you a coffee and then we'll get back well within time.’

She looked at him.  ‘OK.’

And that's how these things start.  Russians are so literal in some ways and not in others.  Having a coffee meant just that at this hour but if it had been late evening, it would have meant something different.

The point was, this girl had just upped and gone with him and she was ravishing, causing all sorts of issues for him and she knew it.  Among her countrymen, whom she would find more physically attractive, she would be ordinary, just Dasha, one of many but to him now, she was like a queen ... well maybe a princess and an ordinary Russian girl is not averse to such things.

The greatest danger was that she was like a smaller, lighter version of Ksenia - same walk in fact, same trainers, same colours but a lighter voice.  He was in danger, unless she did something to kill it.

.o0o.

Just before 15:00, having been right along the embankment and into various alleyways with shops, with her buying presents for those she was meeting in London, they were back and she stepped up to the counter, so politely. But her visa wasn’t ready.

He collected his passport and then she stepped up again.

No, it still wasn’t ready. More waiting but he would have waited hours for her.

The consular official raised one eyebrow.

Dasha was surprised too. She asked if he wasn’t too busy. No, his train didn’t leave until 19:28.

Silence.

He ventured: ‘If you’re too busy –’

No, she wasn’t too busy; she had things to do later but they could wait a little. Her feet were stepping up and down impatiently. ‘I’m not very patient. I don’t like to wait.’

‘I can see that; I don’t like to wait either.’

Finally her visa came and when her eyes met his expectantly, waiting for the next move, a thrill ran right through him.

He took her to Okhotny Ryad complex and the joke was that he was showing a native Russian the sights of her own capital. She walked very close, light on her feet but she kept up, she had all day.

No, she wasn’t into food. Why? Her figure. Oh yes? She was so svelte, she could had eaten five cream cakes and not put on an ounce.

She liked looking at the classier shops but wanted more little gifts. Great, here was a vehicle at last. They explored Okhotny Ryad and drew a blank so he took her to GUM, with its rude, know-nothing-about-anything-except-my-own-stall vendors. She found what she wanted and was happy, her lips broadening into a massive smile.

They went back to Alexandrovsky Sad, drinking coffee and juice, watching the multi-jetted, arcing fountain from the carved stone horses. Maybe she could stay with him until five, she decided. Then it was time to go their separate ways, on separate Metro lines but each with the other’s details on slips of paper.

At the entrance way to Biblioteka imena Lenina, he finally took her hand, as small and light as it was, gently shook it, then raised it and kissed it. Through the turnstile she went, turning and pausing, with a wide mouthed smile, waving goodbye.

Damn it, he was in love.

.o0o.

There’d been no ‘lux’ carriages this time so he’d had to settle for a couchette.  At first there’d been a mother and son as his travelling companions. Then, in had come Joe Cool, in leather jacket and dark sunglasses but with an ordinary black vinyl travel bag like his own.

Joe slapped his bag on the opposite bunk, together with two bottles of beer and various other items. When the train pulled out, he began his spiel. Standing up, he shot Hugh a personal question then turned to the woman, who was clearly impressed, though non-committal.

Lastly, finding a willing listener in the boy, he sat down and announced he was an airline pilot, stationed in Pakistan.

‘Tell me about it,’ asked the boy, in awe.

‘Well, Andrei, we airline pilots have to do some dangerous things you know, but it’s an exciting life.’

‘How low to the ground can you fly?’

‘If we have to, about nine metres.’

He was about thirty, with long, dark, curly locks and Hugh let him have the floor. On his own bunk, he opened up a little plastic salad container and was about to eat supper when the boy below tore himself away to tell him it was OK to come down and eat at the table; he’d make room. Nice kid but the invitation was politely declined.

He must have drifted off because the next thing he remembered was little Andrei tugging at his arm, saying, ‘Mr. Hugh, here’s station Vekovka, it’s very interesting. Maybe you want to buy something?’

.o0o.

He'd been up to something else too, had Hugh.

That evening, Ksenia having got to his place, Hugh went across to the writing desk and extracted an airline ticket and a voucher.

‘What are those?’ she asked, knowing full well.

‘One’s an airline ticket for myself to Tenerife.  The other is a voucher.  I’ve prepaid for the voucher but I need the passport details of the passenger.’

She folded her napkin and looked at the details. Two tickets to Tenerife, one week at a four star, on the beach.

‘Why?’

‘When was the last time you went on a non work-related holiday, just for relaxation?’

That one struck home. She just looked at him, not knowing how to respond.

'You got those in Moscow?'

'Had some spare time while my companion shopped.'

'Companion.'

'You said that if there was nothing in it, you didn't want to hear.  Do you want to hear it or not?'

'You bastard, you know I do.  Go on.'

He told her about Dasha, how he'd met her, what they'd done but did leave out that he'd temporarily fallen in love with her.

'Did she look a bit like me?'

'How do you know?  Were you in Moscow again?'


She sighed. 'I just had a feeling.  I'll take it as a compliment.'


Chapter 11 here ... Chapter 13 here

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