Tuesday, May 5, 2009

1-15: Dacha



Chapter 14 here ... Chapter 16 here

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I

Valentina Alexandrova received the call about midnight and was asked to deploy a couple of cars and inform the checkpoints in her area to allow the Volga through, to keep an eye out for Georges but to allow Safin free access and egress.

Ludmilla Petrova received a call from region and assured the man that all had been done which could have been done – everyone’s eyes were open. Trouble was that there was another little matter occupying her at this moment from Azherbaijan - some nasty customers had made it through but this difficulty also seemed to be under control. Of course she’d keep her eye on it.

Viktor Bukovsky received a call to phone in sick and keep his head down.

The Denpasa girl received an SMS to visit as soon as she’d taken care of the Buenos Aires matter.

II

The Dekan of Foreign Languages at the university had Louise Bonnet visiting and a problem on their hands as to how to entertain her.  She spoke no Russian and no local language, nor did she appear to wish to.  In her late 20s, she looked like something out of Yves St Laurent and they had a fair idea how she liked to spend her time.

The French lecturers pleaded business, the Head of the Department was away and so Ms Bonnet was left virtually alone and having to negotiate everywhere in English, which did not suit her book one little bit.  

The two main departments were the English and the French and though they didn't always see eye to eye along national lines, they were all basically Russian and so it was an artificial kind of rift they sometimes aspired to.  Someone had the brilliant idea of approaching the English Department to see if someone could spare some time.

III

Anya was driven into town for business lunch at the Pyramid.

155 roubles each for a salad, soup and meat course was cheap but any extra, like a mineral water or a glass of wine doubled the price and a dessert was about eight times the price of the whole meal.

She tuned into her Italian’s conversation again – he was holding forth about wine and she stifled a yawn. Yes, very, very interesting, she was sure and she looked forward to the evening.

They looked in on Naff Naff on the way back and she loved a light coloured pair of jeans with a woven design down the left leg. They suited her 26 size, he said all the right things, they were handed out to him, he went to the counter and handed over his card whilst she dressed, then she came out and they drove back to her flat.

She made good suppers, Anya and her salads were the best. Laying everything out meticulously, she was annoyed when he moved one bowl to the other side of the table, she took it and put it back where it had been. He glanced at her.

The supper was a ritual as it ever had been with her, the chicken pieces were brought out at the right moment, the champagne was his job and the candles were her job. She insisted they watch an erotic Mickey Rourke, her favourite and then went, as she always did, to the bathroom for 40 minutes while he made up the bed and then sat on the end of it.

When she eventually came out, the ritual was done and she was ready for the night’s action.  He was one of the patient types and was adept at prolongation.

.o0o.

In the morning the Italian wanted again but she was already up preparing the breakfast.

No matter - the afternoon would do. She had to go in from 11:00 till 18:00, so he drove her to the airport then amused himself until just before 18:00, when he showed his ‘propusk’ and was allowed into the private carparking area.

When she didn’t appear, he locked the car and went upstairs to the office. She was still taking requests for flights and waved him to a chair. He reflected that he could never live in this place, this town. After Tuscany, it was so - well, run down.

Eventually she was ready and suggested a restaurant which she’d been to with the hockey club.

They took the long, slow airport road back and an hour later were at the restaurant. She loved the plush appointments and the important people about them but better still was the service, the attentive waiters and the five courses she ordered. He made most of the running with the conversation and she listened attentively, putting in an ‘ooh’ or ‘ah’ at the appropriate juncture, they had dessert and then it was back to the flat.

Even before the lovemaking began, little things such as the way he held his glass and sipped, the anecdotes he told, the good humour, burned into her soul.

His speciality was the way he created atmosphere with a combination of words and proximity.  Virtually enveloping her in these, he reduced the separate acts into points on a continuum so that sometimes she did not know whether he was inside her or around her.  Sounds ridiculous to say it but he could keep a deep longing in her going for fifteen minutes and then suddenly finish it off; there were many little tricks.

And all the while, his suave manner and the flow of caressing Italian language took her out of her humdrum Russian existence and made her crave the fields of his homeland.

He suggested they both get out of Shadzhara for a while but she’d used up her Year 2000 leave; she’d be able after New Year.

IV

Ksenia and Hugh emerged just before lunchtime, in robes and slippers. She prepared finished the vegetables and he took the shasliks from the jar of marinade. Still neither spoke, neither wanted to destroy the moment with a voice.

Lunch was taken in near complete silence, gazing at each other, many smiles and sighs.

After lunch, she spoke, suggesting they both needed an hour’s rest, maybe two, to let the food go down. The warmest room was upstairs in the A frame house; they ascended and both just fitted onto the one and a half width bed.

He covered them with the sewn sheepskin blanket and they dozed off.

.o0o.

Ksenia had let Hugh sleep until 16:00.

He woke, leapt out of bed, slipped downstairs and saw a sumptuous feast laid out on the kitchen table – fried gorbusha, red fish, and sliced beef. She wasn’t so good on the salads, so they’d been bought. Still, no matter.

He apologized, ‘Izvini – ya prospal,’ an apology she waved away, as his energy levels were her business.

An elegant navy dress which swept up in two halves over her front and tied round the back of the neck accentuated her figure and her hair had been tied up so that the neck was naked, except for wisps of errant hair here and there.

She’d obviously thought it out.

He understood that this level of assiduous attention could not continue past today but there was still something awesome about the woman. She was a thinker, a calculator, Ksusha, and she was maintaining him. Her utter beauty flowed over him in waves, hit him as she bent down, hit him again when she turned, hit him at whatever angle he observed her and she knew she was being scrutinized, she found it exquisitely pleasing and she was calm, yet excited.

Sitting at opposite ends of the table for four, he broke his silence after the dessert.  'You are astounding, woman.  You surprise me the whole time.’

‘Are you pleased?'  He grinned at her.  'And now you need to get us the Baileys.’

He went and poured the glasses, brought them back, standing up close behind her, face close to her ear and passing her glass round to her front. They clinked, toasted and knocked it back in one hit. One tug on the waist cord, one on the bow at the neck and the dress virtually fell apart.

He moved two armchairs within a metre of each other and she caught on immediately, kneeling with one knee on each armrest.

It began again and went on into the night.

.o0o.

At one stage, she went into the kitchenette and when he called out if he could help, she called back, ‘Absolutely not.’

Through came a substantial tea of sliced meat and tomatoes, potato mash and cucumber julienne, followed by tea and berry pie - they sat munching and drinking, he on the divan, she opposite and the more he shovelled in, the more she nodded. He could see that every nuance was being noted and analysed.

Then she asked, ‘What time do you normally feel you simply must sleep?’

‘The biological clock wants me to sleep at 19:00, Russian time, through to about 01:00. That’s why I’m useless in the evening, particularly early evening. Come 01:30 though, if I’m not asleep, then I’m ready to go through to dawn.’

‘Interesting. So we’ve just entered your normal sleep time an hour ago.’

‘And you?’

‘I sleep when necessary.’ 

She calculated that he should grab three hours sleep now. First they cleared and washed everything, went up to the heated room upstairs, he climbed in first and then her - they actually dozed off for four and a half hours.

V

Viktor Bukovsky waited in the living room while Valentina put the children to bed. It had taken a little longer tonight, what with the company and the sense of drama, of something going on out there but eventually Pavel dropped off, he being the more difficult and protective of his mother’s quality time.

She made a supper and brought it through, they sat diagonally opposite one another but she was on edge, waiting for reports to come in and couldn’t relax. He helped her clear it all away to the kitchen and even gave a hand with he drying up. All done, he blocked her egress and she knew the lie of the land. She didn't complain, didn’t try to push past, didn't speak at all.

He lifted her chin and tried the lips one by one while her eyes remained fixed on the opposite wall, took her in his arms and she allowed it; he held her for two minutes this way then gave it away and in some annoyance suggested it was time for him to go.

‘Viktor, I’m sorry, things on the mind tonight, you understand. It - it wasn’t you.’

He smiled at her. ‘I know.’

With him gone, she locked up, checked the bedroom phone and went to bed.

VI

Hugh woke first about 01:20, looked over and realized he was frightened to wake her. And yet she’d insisted he do it. Touching her cheek with the back of his hand, she came awake but with eyes closed, as per her training. Opening one eye, she took in the scene and asked how he felt. He didn’t answer.

She saw he was sharp and murmured, ‘Fine.’

It was bizarre in the countryside, awake at this hour, with total silence all around, except for the two of them. She looked at him and climbed out of bed.  Just about to go to the toilet, she stopped, turned back to him and said, 'Come.'

He wasn't sure how far he was into her bodily functions and yet this seemed important to her.  The question began to gnaw at the back of his mind - were there any limits at all?  Was there nothing they wouldn't do with each other?

Sensing his anxiety, she said, 'We only do what we're comfortable with.  We don't force each other.  We never demand, never force each other.  Only if we both want.'

He nodded and followed her into the loo.  She squatted on the bowl and as she did what everyone does everyday, she looked at him, as he was watching her.

She finished, wiped and climbed into the bath, running the tap until it was right, then washing around her nether regions, paying particular attention to the rear portion.  She climbed out, took a small jar from the shelf and they went back to the bed.

She placed the jar beside her on the floor and unscrewed the cap. 'I see your fear,' she said.  'Have you never done that before?'

'I tried but didn't manage.  I think they never had either.  Have you?'

'No.  I haven't.  I always feared the pain.  I don't think you'll hurt me though.  Let me direct it and you push when I say, as far as I say.'

She prepared herself, face down on the bed and said, 'OK.  Slowly.'

It took seven or eight minutes, then he asked, 'What does it feel like?'

'Different.  I'm not sure I like it.  Stay there though and let yourself down onto my back.'

.o0o.

They caught three more hours of sleep about 03:30 and came awake again about 06:40, which was as well because the phone call on her mobile rent the peace of the sleepy dacha. Rapid conversation finished, she put the phone down pensively and turned to him.

‘Yes, it’s started. Let’s be prepared to leave, if necessary.’

‘Explain.’

‘That was Sergei on the line.’

‘Who exactly does Georges want to take out?’

‘You, me, Sergei.’

‘How do we stop him?’

‘We don’t. Sergei has it organized.’

‘How do you feel – er – physically?’

‘A little sore, to be honest. And you?’

‘Completely knackered.’

‘Knackered?’

‘Tired, worn out.’

‘You haven't fully earned your keep yet,’ she chuckled. ‘Now, about Georges. He’s been quite clever, Hugh - not being where we thought he’d be but in the end, he can’t be everywhere. We’re going to have to sit tight and soon we’ll have to keep our hands to ourselves.  Soon we’ll need to give the lovemaking a rest, if only to stay alert.  Let’s find out then if we can just talk to each other instead.’

VII

Viktor Igorovich faced Olga across his coffee table, cognac before them. He was no drinker - he'd given that away long ago but it seemed to help in this situation.

‘Tell me about it,’ her deep voice seemed to fill the room.

‘You work all day, Olyinka and go home to your mother, at 27 years of age. You have one cat you love. You relax with colleagues by drinking a couple of beers in a beer garden. Is that enough for you? What are you looking for?’

‘A nice life, a loving partner, enough money to survive.’

‘Children?’

‘Ah.’

‘I’m not being unkind. You think you’ll eventually get me round to the idea one day. Maybe you’re not even thinking of it yet but you will. You can’t waste your vital years on me when you could be finding someone who will give you a family. I can never give you that, no matter what happens. I’ve done my fathering, I have Nastya.’

‘Have you considered it might be nice just to be with you? I have fairly simple tastes, Viktor, as you know and as long as it’s quite nice and as long as my man cares for me and respects me, as you've done, well it’s fine.’

He looked at her, realizing he wanted out but there seemed no way to get there. ‘Olya, I have women come to this flat all day for sessions, men too. If we married, where would we live? Would you live here, putting up with that in a place which was your home? I don’t have the money to go to another flat nor do I want to. The market’s right here, everything’s here. The tram is a hundred metres away.’

‘I see, Viktor. I get the idea. May I ask you why you began with me and then decided against it?’

‘It wasn't like that.’

‘Then how was it?’

‘I fell in without thinking it through. Then, when it became more serious, I had to start facing those questions. And I couldn't find the answers.’

‘Who’s talking about serious? Why can’t we just enjoy what we have?’

‘Because I can’t do that. I get further and further into a woman who cares for me and the serious questions always come up.’

‘So you drift on through the night, moving from woman to woman, never settling because of these impossible complications you’ve brought down like a mantle around your shoulders. But I don’t believe you. I know these sorts of things can be worked out if two people care enough for each other. I suspect you've ceased to care. You have your reasons no doubt and it might be that I’m just not good enough. I somehow felt at the beginning I was sufficient.’

‘Olya, Milaya.’

‘No, it’s fine, Viktor. These things happen. Thanks for everything you’ve done but I’m now very tired and I’d appreciate it if you called me a taxi.’

After she’d departed, he finished up, went to the bedroom and sat on the end of his bed for two hours, couldn’t fall back asleep, went and put the kettle on and did some ceramic painting by the little standard lamp.

For her part, she wept all night and kept her mother awake doing it. Her cat Susha came to her and that was a comfort.

In the morning, he called about 07:30; she put the receiver down but not harshly.

VIII

The process of tracking down Georges was taking longer than they’d expected and there was no real alternative but to make love in the cottage, avoiding any windows or open areas on the two floors, eating copious amounts, making love, making their way about with no lights in the evening, taking turns to sleep and making love when both were awake.

For Georges, however, he who had casually snuffed out quite a few young and not so young lives, it was a process of diminishing returns and when the end came, it was near Shadzhara and simply resulted in Sergei’s disembodied voice, on the mobile, telling Ksenia it was over.

She put the phone down, smiled and said they could go home now and when she said that, the words jarred with both of them. She caressed him. ‘We’ll go home tomorrow around lunchtime. That suit you?  I know you now like never before and I know you don't want this to end.  Me either.  Does the business with Georges upset you?’

'Well, it's not the most pleasant thing but he was a killer on the rampage.'  He thought about it. 'No, it doesn't worry me unduly.'

'Then let's go to the banya again.'

In the steamroom, he loved her muscularity when she twisted and she loved his shoulders and back.  After about ten minutes of regular love, she was straddling him, she lifted herself off and placed his thing in the other place.

'It's wet in this room, it will be fine.  Easy please.'

She let herself down carefully and reached the end, then started moving up very slowly, then down, equally as slowly.  Gradually she increased the tempo, looking into his eyes - with him looking into hers.

She climbed off and sat beside him.  'It's strange.  I like it better than last time but it's not comfortable.  It's more intense, it's hard to describe.  If we're making love normally, I can lose myself in the embrace, the kiss, the thrusting - it all fits together.

Then when we do this, it becomes artificial because it has to be carefully done, carefully arranged and I think the mood is lost.  If sex is all we want, then it's OK.  If it's passion, then it breaks the passion for me.'

'I agree. What gets me going is your body writhing, your limbs everywhere, kissing while it's going on.  This is tighter and that's nice but there's something about it I don't like too.'

'Let's leave this for certain occasions, that's if we want to.'

.o0o.

They rested for a few hours upstairs and he looked at her.  She looked at him, then ran her fingers down his cheek, behind his head and drew him into a kiss.

'Are you tired of this?' she asked.

'Physically tired but never tired of it.  It might be a long, long time until we get this chance again.'

'We can make the chances.' 

There was silence until she said, 'You ran out of liquid.'  He nodded.  'I'm surprised you didn't earlier.'

'You have enormous stamina.'

'I train, I'm an agent, remember.  I'm still this side of 30.  I should be able to.  I just wanted to know out how long you could go for, how long until you became sick of it, bored.  You're not bored at all, are you?'

'Is the Pope Catholic?'

She smiled. Was there any part you liked best?'

'All of it,' he chuckled. 'Especially the quiet, gentle moments like this. Plus when you do that with your mouth.  And you?'

'When I can see you going in and out, both ends of me. I wanted a time with us we could reflect on later, something we could always look back at and say that was special.  We have to start creating experiences with each other, so we start missing them.  Do you want to make love now?'

'That would make a change.'

IX

Marie Latour, otherwise known by her code name of Carly, was on loan from French security to the British.

She was still a fine looking woman but many had made the mistake of underestimating the toughness behind the French-Canadian femininity, which meant she was much in demand in the security field.

Latour’s speciality was recruitment and she could smell a phony a mile off, whichever language he or she chose to speak. One of the rising stars in London, Sarah Retton, was being briefed for an upcoming tour of Eastern Europe.  She was no phony but she did have issues.

Carly looked her up and down. ‘You’re seductive enough, Sarah but still a bit green and trusting and you need to assert a bit more control over yourself with the body fat.’

‘Oh, nice.’  She’d been compared to Charlotte Church in looks and no one had said she was fat.  At least, not in her early days.

Carly looked at her. ‘You’re also not in control of your anger; you’re one of the best at Box 850 but there’s still some way to go. There’s time but not too much.’

X

January, 2001

Amongst the pile of messages awaiting Hugh by e-mail and telephone was one from his Head of English at the university.

This was such a rarity that he knew he’d have to go in straight away.  He took a car from the road this time, not intending to stay long and soon he was in her office.

She was pleased and truth was that he was too.  She asked, ‘Do you know any French?’

‘J'ai oublie, Diana. I've forgotten most of it.’

‘Good, that'll be enough for this. I'll give you her number. Her name’s Louise. I'll call her now and tell her to expect a call from you, all right?’

‘Stop, stop.  Diana, you may or may not be aware but I have a new love now and this takes up all my available time.’

‘Hugh, do it for me?  Please?  She’s not in Shadzhara long.’

He made the call. ‘Louise? Je m’appelle Hugo Jensen. Je suis anglais.’

She giggled at the other end at the bleedin’ obvious. Then she launched into a torrent of French of which he picked up about every fourth word.

‘Lentement, lentement, belle fille, s’il vous plait. Je parle seulement un peu de francais, vous comprenez. Let’s meet tomorrow - what are you doing about midday?’

As many French will do if the other first tries their language, she was now prepared to answer in English and also like many French, she knew it very well. Ho hum, at least he could practise his French with her. They agreed to meet at Giuseppe, as she already knew the place.

.o0o.

He explained it all to Ksenia and interestingly, she knew about this Louise.  Yes, he had to do this.  Well, not had to but it would help them if he did.  'Try to arrange some sort of meeting where we can all go and meet her.  She'll be flattered and I want to get a good look at her.'

XI

Midday saw him there before Louise and anxiously waiting. Fifteen minutes later she waltzed in, fashionably late, dressed classically in the de rigeur close-cut jacket and jeans and determined to impress, which she did with the local girls but it amused him. He did the kissy kissy and then they got down to ordering Italian which was the second best food in her book.

The first difference between the west and here now became painfully obvious - she didn't exactly order the most expensive dishes, it was about right for Paris but for here it was exorbitant and the waitresses thought the Englishman had to be on the make.

She seemed relieved and happy to chat, in French of course - so that’s what they did until the crepes and ice cream and she wasn't impressed by the Russian crepes.

Unmistakably French in her jawline, with what he’d describe as ‘plush’ lips, bulbous being an ugly word, her big eyes which the French practise at being wide-open and innocent, the light white zip-necked trenchcoat with the belt carelessly buckled, hands in pockets and standing at that gorgeous angle the French have perfected and in general, oozing ‘expensive chic’, she could have been highly alluring, except for one thing – she tried too hard.

Too intense was Louise, too into herself, something apparent from the very first moment. 

He didn’t have much of a clue where to take her really, not being local and she’d probably already done the major spots, so he thought maybe the round of the boutiques was more her thing.

One place he did take her was Paris, where they had catalogues through which you could order ‘Paris fashions’ and that gave her a real laugh, particularly when she tried to converse with the shopwoman in French. So here was a situation of her speaking French, Hugh thinking it out in English, converting it into Russian and delivering the message to a local speaker.

They had some afternoon tea, of the purely Russian variety, at the new Maestro and there he warned her he’d have to get back to his main project - Ksenia. She’d like to meet this Ksenia. Now that would be something.

He made some calls, asked if the next day at 14:00 would be OK, at a place called Olympia, he took her back to her hotel, went home and that was that.

XII

Sarah Retton finished her training, took a shower, then drove the half kilometre to the office, where Carly was waiting.

‘Sit down, Sarah.  We’ve been asked for help from the French side and that involves you in Eastern Europe.  You know this already.  You also know that I consider you’re not ready.  It’s your emotions, your sudden anger.  If it hadn’t been for your exemplary test results in the other areas, we wouldn’t have been able to keep you on.

Sarah, listen.  There’s nothing on your record about this – it’s between you and me so far but you have to work very, very hard, between now and your departure, to learn set responses to provocative situations.  If someone told you you’d been putting on weight, what would your response be?’

The shortening of breath and narrowed eyes was the answer to that.

‘I’d like you to spend one session a day now with Ian Hayes and he’ll sort this out with you.  It’s his field.  You agree to this?’

‘Don’t have much choice, do I?’

‘Not really.’

XIII

Ksenia met him outside Olympia with its charcoal grey facade and she looked pure class.

Beautifully cut white and light-grey fur jacket sitting on her hips and gathered at the waist, dark charcoal, ribbed, ultra-tight stretch jeans, just short of a length, black suede stiletto boots with accessories and the whole capped off by a fur beret matching the rest of the ensemble.

She was simply a marvel when she pulled out all stops and he licked his lips.

Her face was very lightly made up, the pomada [lipstick] was a light, wet pink, the brows were almost untouched or so it seemed and her simplicity was almost French in itself.

His dropped jaw was all the confirmation she needed for now but Louise was to be the big test.

It was minus seven, the sun was out so they stayed out for five minutes waiting for Louise then went inside, left the gear at the garderobe and stepped through to organize the table, which was quite a job as the New Year's rush had begun, shoppers were dropping into cafes and the roads were getting clogged.

‘Don’t forget I've asked Viktor to come too,’ he reminded her.

‘I haven't forgotten,’ she smiled, in really fine form today, our Ksenia.

First through the double doors was Viktor, dressed down in black jeans, polo T, with a similar balding pate to Hugh and his own jaw dropped at the sight of Ksusha.

No sign of Louise, so Hugh borrowed Ksusha’s mobile and called, just as the Sesame Street big bird walked in, way over the top for a meeting like today.  The humungous, fur-lined coat was shed and the light-blue velour jacket over the bone skirt was better on Louise.

Viktor was stunned, Ksenia relaxed and Louise did not appreciate her rival relaxing so quickly. The two women did the kissy thing and Viktor demanded equal time.

They ordered and settled back with drinks. Clearly the common language in this company had to be English, which even Louise conceded, though Hugh dropped into French along the way, which she appreciated.

Ksenia wasn’t particularly interested in the proceedings, now she’d won the first round but Viktor dropped compliments on Ksenia from time to time, with apologies to Hugh. Ksenia was amused and saw how Hugh might have lost out if she’d been an egotist, which she wasn’t.  Russian compliments had never really cut it for her although Viktor was quite a fine specimen of her country’s manhood.

So, there was the bizarre quadrille.  Louise had eyes for the muscly Viktor, he had eyes for Ksenia, Hugh had eyes for Ksenia but was stuck with entertaining Louise who resented Viktor’s eyes on Ksenia and Ksenia, though flattered by Viktor’s eyes, was determined to make eyes at Hugh.

This was the sort of thing Ksenia did which set her above all other mortals, at least in his eyes.

.o0o.

The meal was OK, quite pleasant and Viktor was first to go, minus car, so he couldn’t give Louise a lift. Ksenia wanted to talk to Hugh but conceded it was more gentlemanly if they met in the evening. Hugh was to drive her to the stop nearest her work and then Louise back to the hotel.

Trouble was - what to do with Louise now? She solved the problem herself by saying there were a few things she had to do, calls to make and so on.

She’d drop into the uni.

Ksenia got out at the stop with a wry smile and fluttered her fingers goodbye. Louise got down to business. ‘Votre amie est une plus belle fille, Hugo but she frightens me a little. She stays too quiet. Viktor I like. He’s very attractive.’

‘Ma plus belle fille is a very dangerous woman, Louise.’

.o0o.

19:25 saw Ksenia come home.

He was busting to know what she'd thought of the day’s doings; she could see this in his expectant look and was flattered. ‘You thought there was something happening with Viktor and me, didn’t you?’  she grinned. ‘But then you relaxed when I made eyes at you and angered everyone else.’

He didn’t reply and she went on. ‘Let’s go to bed to talk, it’s chilly.  I've eaten - have you?  Good - give me fifteen minutes.’

In bed, she spoke to the ceiling.

‘Actually, you were right and you were wrong about Viktor and me.  He can definitely charm a woman and the thought ran through my mind to exchange numbers and call later this evening. He’s the type who’d be in it too although he might stop short of having another man’s woman. It would be an interesting experiment.

The major problem is my own ego, which matches his - and yours for that matter. He might not have liked my answer today.’

‘Your body language, you mean.’

‘He thinks his charm failed to work - actually it worked very well and he’s definitely in the back of my mind. You know I wouldn’t let him get to first base.’

That relieved him more than he could say.  ‘Louise?’

‘Sad case. Tries too hard. Looked quite good but I felt sorry for her - like a fish out of water in this town. It was nice that you spoke a bit in her language. I wouldn’t mind betting she doesn’t have a regular boyfriend but she claims she does. She knew she couldn’t get you away from me but her eyes were for Viktor anyway.  She’s the type who always goes for the main visible chance and misses the gem in the corner.’

‘I thought I did a good job ignoring you today.’

‘Oh, you did to a point but then I saw you stealing looks at me. It was a lot of fun.’

‘What else did you glean from it?’

‘Glean?’

‘Get out of it.  What conclusions did you come to?’

‘That Viktor is a careful man who keeps his own counsel and one I’ll have to watch.  He’d like to conquer me but I’m not sure he approves of me with you - it could well be my dossier to blame there. He’s not wrong either. Let me ask you a question - would you marry Frederika?'

‘You’ve got to be kidding – she’s a killer.’

‘So am I, Hugh.  Never forget that.  I’ve killed before and that’s what worries Viktor Igorovich.  He does care for you.’

‘Would you kill me if you were ordered?’

‘Absolutely not.  Look, changing the topic, we need to talk about New Year.’

'Right - talk.'

'There've been people I've known - men.  One of them was in Nizhny Novgorod and one in Moscow - there've been others but these two need to be mentioned.  I've already spoken of them to you, haven't I?  Well, New Year is close now.  The Nizhny one got married and I discovered he wasn't so nice, so he's off the list, just so you know. 

It's the one in Moscow I still have thoughts about and I get excited towards New Year because I used to spend it there ... with him.  This is an issue now, Babe because he knows nothing of you and me, my trip has been prearranged and he has things planned.  That wouldn't matter, except -'

'You have feelings.'

'I do.  I'm inclined to cancel it - if I cancel something, it stays cancelled - and yet I do have this desire to say goodbye.  The problem is that he does have a way around me and if I go, I might want that once a year but I can't ask you for that and I wouldn't want to do that to you anyway.

I'm only telling you this so you know what's going on in my mind.'

He sighed.  'You do as you feel you have to.'

XIV

Marc almost burst into Geneviève’s office with the news, sporting a big grin.  ‘We’ve done it.  We’re in.  I know who the big players are.’

If he’d been expecting some sort of pat on the back, then he was sadly mistaken.  Geneviève checked outside her office, saw Nicolette and sent her on an errand, drew Marc into the room and locked the door.  He was more than intrigued.

Then she swung round to him.  ‘All right, what do you have?’

He pulled off the back of the bloc, put in the hard drive then brought up the details on screen.  Geneviève cast a quick eye over the flow diagram and said, ‘It must never get outside this room, Marc.’

‘Did you know this all along, Mademoiselle?’

‘Not the Russian end, of course; they’re just names but the French end – I know two of those quite well.’

‘Mademoiselle, people have died because of these people.  Why did you do nothing?’

‘It’s a complex matter.  There are strong reasons why I couldn’t and now we’re going to forget what we’ve seen.’

He was stunned. ‘You, Mademoiselle?  You doing a cover up?’

‘Marc, you don’t understand what you’re saying.  I’ll do this in my own way and I appreciate the knowledge.  If you now know this, others are going to know as well.’

'You're worrying me now.  We've thrown everything into tracking down this conduit, you've sent me to Russia and back so many times, everyone knows what we were doing, I was in danger and I assumed you were too.

Now it seems you weren't in danger at all.'

'Oh but I am, Marc.  If only I could tell you how much and for me, you know - there is absolutely no escape.'

XV

It was a measure of Ksenia’s closeness to him now that she'd cancelled her Moscow New Year.

Hugh wasn't all that sure she should have done because the regret might be worse than the going, in terms of their current relationship.

She assured him it wasn't going to be an issue.  If it might have been, she'd have gone.

Anya spent hers in Tuscany, Louise had gone back to Paris, Marc was also there, Dilyara spent hers with her family and Viktor with his.

XVI

March 2001

Time, as it tends to do, passed rapidly and slush time came around.  It had been basically work, lessons, food shopping, domestics, sleep, work and so on.

March 8th was looming and this was going to raise questions.  Valentines was easy enough to ignore in Russia but Women’s Day was not.  Ksenia feared the usual – that Hugh would get as slushy as the road conditions outside but he promised her he usually tried to avoid this day like the plague and she appreciated that.

He sent Anya an e-card and she responded with a beautiful floral card. Still they didn’t make contact.

He took Ksenia to Yaz for a meal and the Gruzin cuisine was to her taste. ‘Summer’s coming, lubimi - on June 7th I have to take a twelve day cruise to St Petersburg and back – it’s business.  I want you to be there on that cruise.

I need your company, your support and your body but I also need your professional advice and your perspective.  If you wish, of course. We need to book early to get a good cabin so tomorrow or the next day we’ll have to do that. Are you planning to go to Britain or Australia?’

‘Not this year.  I’m not risking losing another girl.  To be fair to Anya though, if mum had still been with us, I'd have gone but two weeks in total.  If I'd still been with Anya, it would have been the same.’

XVII

Carly was in Paris, meeting with Geneviève at the Section safehouse in rue de la Planche.

She conceded quite a few years to Geneviève but she could still hold her head high in any direct comparison, a point Geneviève herself conceded. 

They were discussing the upcoming Prague putsch.

‘I’m not at all sure, Geneviève, whether to send our girl.  Nice girl, hard as nails but has a problem of self control. That’s what I’d like to trade with you – one of your girls on standby in Prague, in exchange for information from us to you on the conduit.’

‘Ah, you know of that?  Do you also know we’ve cracked it?’

‘Really?  Now that’s interesting and what do you think of PLR’s involvement?’

‘That’s a direct accusation, Marie.’

‘Genie, three people know of your status and I’m one of them.  Has anything come of that?  Have I ever used it as a bargaining chip?’

‘Non.’

‘Nor would I.  However, you might like to know who the Russian end really is.  I know you know the names but I'm not sure you know of their significance. It won’t help you directly but it would give you leverage with the Russians.’

‘All right, let’s do that.  I’ll send Natalie and you can brief her later today.’ 

XVIII

April, 2001

This arrangement of groups at university, using a three number code, made it fairly easy to know whom one was dealing with.  Not just with the first number, indicating the course or year level, but the next two numbers were vital.

Thus, 4th course, his core year, would have 401 - the high achievers, prima donnas, the darling flagship of the year level, 402 - the spill-over from that, then 403/404/405 - who could be anything.  There'd be bright students in there, dead losses, although not too many and generally - they were middling.

Then came what he considered the fun end of the spectrum, the 06 group.  These were the 'barely made it to uni' lot, those who weren't so hot on English as a rule but they were generally quite fun.

And it was often this group which took a shine to him, to the extent of inviting him to the forest with them, plus their regular 'head of group', a lecturer.

And this is what they did this lesson - invited him to the forest for a picnic, the snow having just about gone except for some outcrops here and there.  Still cold, it was bearable.

So there they all were, with hampers, with smiles on the face and they took the elektrik, which explains the nature of the train.

.o0o.

Midway between stations, the train actually stopped and they got off - this was obviously a place with many dachas and this had been prearranged.

They tramped through the forest until they came to a dacha, a small, one roomed hut and in they went.  He and one of the girls made the barbecue, the food was prepared and eventually, was eaten and some liquid drunk.

The thing he had not counted on was when they all crammed in the hut after it had all been cleared up, the train wasn't due for awhile and he found himself in a tangle of bodies, which had obviously been their intention and they were observing his reaction.

It was now it struck home that the teacher was about 26 and the girls were - he did a quick calculation - 19 and 20.  Call him a liar, say he knew all along but he honestly had not seen the level of danger until this moment.  The presence of the teacher was the security but even so - it was an amazing situation.

Too vivacious, anything might have happened at that moment but then the teacher called for the trek back.

University didn't often impinge on his private life and other work but this was one of the days it most certainly did.


And he found himself liking one of them very much, a feeling obviously reciprocated.  He made a mental note not to get caught in something like this again.


Chapter 14 here ... Chapter 16 here

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