Chapter 15 here ... Chapter 17 here
Vitaly Vladimirovich Kuzmin, 30, received a call from his CEO, Ronald Seymour, and immediately took the Merc round to Butlerova to book two cruise tickets.
Valentina Vitalyevna Alexandrova, 37, went to the Nizhny Novgorod office of the steamship company and booked passage for herself, her mother Anastasia and two children – Pavel and Ksenia - the perfect cover for what she had to do.
Dmitri Evgenevich Storchaus, 53, sent his secretary to book tickets for his wife and himself. He wanted a private suite. The secretary phoned him from the office and said they’d been taken. A conversation ensued, the secretary got the contact number of the couple who’d booked the suite and it was a matter of three hours and considerable cash inducement before Dima had secured it. He had no idea Ksusha was to be aboard as well.
Elena Renatyevna Usmanova, 19, had secured her passage as scullery maid, which would doubtless keep the wolf from the door, at least for this summer, but the prospect of further reward beyond her dreams, should she succeed in her other task, excited her greed. She grinned at herself in the mirror. Yes, a risky business indeed but that wasn’t going to dissuade her. Oh, no.
Svetlana Dmitrievna Lyevina, 26, was ready, almost. She was aerobics instructor, MC, disco organizer and just about everything else on the trip. On this particular trip, she had one extra little function, an unpalatable one but she really had little choice, did she?
Evgeniya Romanovna Kuznyetsova, 24, liked being called Jane, which the foreigners usually did call her, in her capacity as barmaid. Not a lot of cash but she knew how to weasel more out of them with assiduous service and, well – a few other little things. She hoped this cruise would be as lucrative as last July’s. The man had been a complete fool to leave himself open like that anyway.
For Sergei Ivanovich Deputatov, 59, this trip would give him a brief period incognito while he regrouped and considered what to do about the disaster his operations had suffered. When they got stuck into you, they never stopped until they had your blood. He could regroup on the boat in relative obscurity.
Paul Joseph Jacobson, 43, was being sent on the cruise as a reward by the Trade Ministry for his company’s decision to invest in the Volga region. He knew little about what was in store but was assured there’d be ample entertainment. He hoped so and he was also gratified that Natalia Vitalievna Kurbatova, 29, would be his guide. He wondered if she was married.
‘So, Ksusha, have you put it to Mr. Jensen?’
Ludmilla Petrova sipped her tea and nodded. ‘Kho-ro-sho. That leaves one major difficulty.’
‘Da - ti, Ksusha.’
Petrova leaned across the kitchen table and clasping Ksenia's hand, said, ‘Of course I know about Seymour.’ She felt Ksenia’s hand tighten.
‘H –how did you know?’
‘Ksenia, Ksenia. Anyway, it’s a straight business proposition. If your loyalty is primarily to Seymour and if your task includes damage to either Valentina Alexandrova or Mr. Jensen, then I shan’t send you. Simple as that. If you double-cross the section, you know the result of that too. Money does not always buy protection in your position.’
The other woman had spoken so quietly and with such assurance and Ksenia knew the inside of those little cabinets well enough to shudder down the length of her body.
Ludmilla continued, ‘I’m not threatening you, not in the least. I’m trying to maintain our best operative in peak condition for the good of her country. If she has a little business on the side for her own personal reasons, then as long as no damage results from that, it’s fine.’
‘I wouldn’t hurt Hugh for anything in the world and I don’t know the other woman. It’s a protection job, that’s all. That will become apparent. I need to find out, confirm a few things and this way I do it and get paid at the same time.’
Anya phoned Hugh on May 14th and suggested they meet.
They went to Druzhba to take in the new Leonardo de Caprio film ‘Beach’ but it annoyed him the way Virginie Ledoyen just dropped her own guy and went with Leonardo de Caprio.
‘It’s just a film, Hugh.’
‘Maybe. How’s your Italian?’
‘Oh, so-so. He won’t leave his wife.’
‘So what’s new?’ He saw her face fall. ‘Sorry, Anya, I take it back.’
He got up and bought her some kryevyetki, not heated, some popcorn, a Millers and the little cake thing she liked – Medallion, he thought it was called, a Lavazza for himself with the pistachios and they held hands.
In the theatre, the hooligan came out in her as it always had and which he adored in her - she kicked off her shoes and put her bare feet up on the seat in front. That put her thigh next to his arm and he couldn’t stop himself running his hand down that thigh, which might have been the underlying idea anyway. At least she didn’t react negatively. When the feet were eventually taken down, to get some circulation going, she took her arm off the seat rest between them and asked if he wanted to put his arm there.
Never before had she been so accommodating. She pulled his hand down towards her lap and held it there.
‘Do you remember my massages?’ he asked.
‘You don’t remember?’
‘No, you’re not going to. I won’t be able to stop and you know it.’
‘Promise I’ll stick to your calves.’
‘That’s the worst.’
After the film, in the car near her flat, he reflected that it had been a long time since this had happened. He went to get out, to go around to open her door but she put a hand on his arm.
‘This cruise, Hugh, with Ksenia. I don’t like it.’
His eyebrows went up and she hastened to add, ‘I think she’s dangerous and Viktor agrees. I don’t think you know some of the things she’s done. She might have had a hard time in her life but there’s something in the types of things she did and the way she did them which are to do with her character and not just something from the past.’
‘I’m aware of that and I do take the point. She’s even warned me. They were quite excessive and even cruel.’
‘She told you about that?’
‘Yes. She’s warned me of her cruel streak but of course, that's a good move. It's been done before. I'm under her spell, as I was under yours and she made sure, sexually, that I knew what I was in for there if I stayed with her - she's more real world than you. You're unique. Shall I stop or go on?’
'Go on, of course.'
'With you, Anechka, there were so many little things - your mannerisms, obviously your beauty, 'she blushed, 'the way you blush,' she blushed some more, 'the feel of you in my arms, the way we went everywhere, our history, your family - many things, all in together.
She has a lot going for her, enough to get me besotted, obsessed. But there are these other factors - she's security and has to be hard for that, there's her family line through people like Zhenya and that's a worry, her voice and the way she speaks is much harder than yours but you're not weak inside either and then there is this behaviour on file.
The lashing out, the explosions - those I can take and minimize - you were known to lash out too. The cruelty I wouldn't put up with. Some men might, I wouldn't. It's this cruelty I've looked at the most, looking for any signs at all.
Of course she's going to be on her best behaviour because she wants it to work with us. However, people can't hide their character for long. My nervousness, as you put it, came through early and your ... er ... characteristics did too. So if she has that small smile at the corner of the lips, the sneer of cruelty, it would have come through.
I've heard things from others, in particular the killer Frederika who had no reason not to tell the truth. I heard many worrying things about Ksenia from her but this cruelty didn't come up. Lisa didn't read her that way and don't forget she was running around with Zhenya over there for a while.
You don't want to hear about the sex but even there, lovers give themselves away, show themselves in the way they lie, move, the way they think, react to the sex, the words they choose.
I never get this cruelty coming through. Yet it's in her report. It might have been a lie to make her seem worse but perhaps there was some truth in it. If there was, then it seems only to have been in what she did to someone hurting her mother. I'm not her mother but I feel I'm the next person she's loved for any length of time after that.
All the information I can gather on the mother says it was a crazy accident, that she hated the alcohol and had to drink to be sociable on the boat with her husband, she went on deck and that was that. I can see where Ksenia placed the blame. You would too because you and your mother are inseparable - Russian women are like that.
I think everyone her cruel streak is when she thinks someone has been dishonest, cheated her, hurt someone she loves. She tells me though that it's more, that she can suddenly get angry and she will warn me if there's something on her mind. with me there, she won't brood as much.
You and Viktor think I'm besotted and I am but I'm also not so besotted that I'm not careful, I'm not completely blind. She knows that every question raised in that file needs to be answered. She's doing a very careful evaluation of me too, finding things out, asking.
She never defends herself unless one point here or there is just not true. For example, she admitted she was down there as a psychopath. She didn't have much choice, I agree.
There's one last point. I need an unusual lover - you were that -'
'I don't see myself as unusual.'
'That's fair - in your eyes. But my eyes have come from another country and see you as highly exotic, different, exciting, intoxicating - I can't help that.' She was blushing again. 'You're also so open and honest in some ways - not in others - and I believe most things you tell me but not about your lovers. She's open too. She also wants me and that's a big factor. She actually does - it comes through in the lovers' touch and you know all about all that.
I need it to be challenging to stay together and I need the space she gives me. Of course, giving your lover space, in your book, is to be with another -' he waited for her to argue but she didn't, 'and we're currently discussing these things, she and I. She's already pulled out of one chance she had with someone close to her in Moscow. I do hear what you say and I'll keep it in mind.'
'Long answer,' she smiled.
'You did say 'go on' and I think you needed to know in your mind where this thing was. I know when you care for someone, you stay caring for them forever.'
She rested her hand on his forearm.
Paul Jacobson was making last minute arrangements about communication with his backers during the cruise. He’d established that he’d make contact at certain points along the way.
Natalia Kurbatova was Paul’s official interpreter and general business adviser in Russia and a personable woman she was too. For her part, she thought she might be onto something good here. The man was obviously a go-getter and nice to boot. She felt she’d really like him to succeed but equally, she knew there’d be considerable problems arranged for him before long. She wondered if he was married. He’d need a business partner and not the one he’d currently hooked up with - that man would bleed him dry but he couldn’t say that to Paul – that was exceeding her brief, wasn’t it?
On the other hand, there was Dmitri Storchaus. Now, if she could somehow bring those two together, their mutual interests might both be served and she felt better about Paul being under his influence than Shaidullin’s.
There were going to be many players in this next little drama and she needed to write them all down, just to try to keep up to speed with what was happening.
Viktor Igorovich had taken up the American offer from late May for a period of three months, flying into Chicago and from there to Des Moines.
Hugh saw him off at home as he wished to spend his last moments at the airport with family. They sipped on coffee, spoke of this and that and promised to email one another. Hugh favoured emails for communication, on the grounds that you could collect your thoughts better and edit out the unnecessary.
Viktor, on the other hand, and in common with most Russians, preferred the phone, the spoken voice, the assurance that actually speaking with someone gave. Conversation was a necessary part of a relationship to him. He’d phone from time to time.
It didn’t take long to become part of the academic community at Columbus, there being a genuine desire to know as much as possible about what life was really like behind the iron curtain.
He'd heard about 'stay after school' but this was a woman in her late 30s.
In the evening, after he'd gone back to Ksenia's flat after work, it being her free day and over the chicken and salads, Hugh got down to one issue that had been on his mind.
'What's the feeling now of the authorities to one of their operatives being so close to a foreigner? Does it compromise you in their eyes? What's their view on me? Did Moscow and Georges alter that?'
She looked across at him. 'It helps that you've already signed on as a foreign legionnaire but they're still going to be highly suspicious. Eyes are certainly on you, Babe. It probably affects my promotion but as I don't want promotion anyway - I like the field work - it doesn't mean a lot to me. I think I mentioned this to you.
The service is both pragmatic and summary. While it thinks you're of use, it tolerates you and don't expect more than that - security is one of the most patriotic sections of society. If and when it considers your usefulness has come to an end, you'll be sent home and that splits us because they won't allow me just to emigrate with you, not even if we're married.
If we marry and you stay here, that's another matter. You have rights then and you can look at the question of citizenship, if you wanted. We've discussed this.'
'It would be what we both wanted.'
'Yes, of course. Takes some getting used to, that. So, it's not all bad, not all good. For now, you're useful on this upcoming boat trip. I can't tell you more but you'll know it once we embark. My period's started too.'
'Do you fear women's periods?'
'Depends on the woman. In your case, I don't know. Should I?'
'Have you ever made love to a woman during it?'
'With my first wife. Once.'
'How did it feel? I don't mean just physically.'
'It was strange. I wasn't sure about all that coming down and surrounding my thing, coming over me outside her, you know. She had a heavy flow too. For her it was quite sensual, she was ... heightened by it. I had no moral qualms.'
'No feeling that I didn't want to. It wasn't a moral issue with me. I didn't feel she was dirty or unholy or any of that. It was just the stickiness of it all, the way it dried on me, the way we had to wash. It was OK but I wasn't delighted by it.'
'You could go in the other way.'
'Well yes. It seems a bit artificial to me, doing it to prove a point. If you tell me it's the most wonderful thing and we must, then I'll do it.'
'I have no real opinion. I don't need you to - I was just wondering. I know you're not comfortable and I don't want that.'
'We could try once.'
Viktor had heard some things on the grapevine but as he was in America and as he was fully occupied just now, it took him some days to get to it.
He knew how to contact Ludmilla Valerievna from America, it was no big deal in the year 2001, so he did just that.
'My concern,' he said, after all the preliminaries had been done, 'is that Mr. Jensen comes back alive from this venture.'
'Yours and mine, Viktor Igorovich, yours and mine. It's to our advantage to avail ourselves of this man's assistance at this time. I shan't pretend this is going to be risk free but I do believe that with the two of them working together - and I do think they will - that their chances are multiplied.'
'This is not his natural work, LudValerievna. This requires training he does not have.'
'I appreciate your concern and it's a good friend he has in you but I assure you we're watching like hawks. I shall be on call the whole of the time.'
'May I ask you a question, LudValerievna?'
'Do you think that this ... collaboration ... will bring them closer together? So close that they become man and wife?'
'That's peering into the crystal ball, Viktor Igorovich. They're much closer than most people give them credit for - even now.'
'That's as I feared.'
'I've seen the file.'
'Ah. May I ask how?' Viktor mentioned a name. 'Ah,' she repeated. 'I don't think that that issue is all that relevant any more. They've both talked it out and I've talked with her, as part of a free-ranging discussion regarding her future.'
'You showed her the lie of the land?'
'Yes but not in the way you think. There was no iron fist in the velvet glove. There was just a velvet glove. Well ... maybe a wooden hand,' she smiled. 'I don't feel that you'll have anything to fear, on this trip at least, from that direction. They might have trouble from a couple of the guests but Ksenia is well aware of the danger to both of them and will brief Hugh when they get on board.
This little holiday, once the business is concluded, might be the filip they've both been looking for, the break they both needed. It will be the first time they've had time together unstressed. I'd be interested to know the result of that.'
'As would I. Thanks for your time, LudValerievna.'
'Pleasure. Call me if something comes up. I'll do the same for you.'
Viktor heard the click at the other end, he looked at the receiver and carefully replaced it, stroked his chin and thought things through. He had a client in five minutes.
Natalya Kurbatova met Paul Jacobsen at the station, they went to the car she'd hired for the purpose and were soon in the centre of town. She took him to the restaurant at the top of the pyramid and asked if he wanted the set menu or a la carte.
He asked what she recommended and she answered, quite honestly, 'It depends which day. If you would like to try domestic Russian cuisine, then he set menu is for you. If you want international - normal food for you, then the a la carte is the way.'
'Oh, I want the domestic specialities, naturally. Do you have preferences re the wine or will you leave that to me?'
'I'll leave it to you but a martini would be nice to start. Sorry to be so forward. They do a nice one here.'
'Not a problem. It's always best to know without beating around the bush.'
'Around the bush. Not coming to the point. It's best to come to the point.'
'Ah.' She took him in in more detail now. He certainly wasn't fat but he equally wasn't undernourished. She'd found businessmen of his type either fit as fiddles or running to seed. He, she thought, tried to keep in shape but probably couldn't spare all that much time. He had an air of busy-ness about him. He had kind eyes, maybe too kind for someone in this game.'
He toasted their success and said he sure appreciated her doing this, which was a bit unnecessary, as he was paying her. Gazing across, he saw a very beautiful woman in her thirties, maybe 5' 5”, with big hair and a solid enough body, curving and protrduing in all the right places. He liked her accent when she spoke English.
'Right, Natalya, what say you fill me in on what's going down on this trip. Fill me in on the opposition, take your time. I need to know what we're up against.'
She pulled out her notes from her satchel and began.
Saturday the 7th arrived and they agreed to meet at Ryechnoi Port – no need to pick her up – she’d be running around and there were people to see and discuss it all with. Sounded reasonable. He was travelling fairly lightly – just his green wheelie case and he’d organized a lift with his neighbour.
Then, there she was – very sporty in her light pink blouse, light blue jeans and white trainers, matching sportsbag, hair free, open neck and with a little bauble halter chain - she looked so compact.
As he approached, her face broke into a smile.
Once through the registration and having deposited their things in their cabin, they grabbed a good table in the bar and Hugh went over to order.
‘No orders until the ship sails, I’m afraid, sir.’
Hugh glanced at her name, Jane, and asked if they might have a couple of cokes and some nuts and they’d settle when the ship sailed. She acquiesced and he called across to Ksusha, ‘You want coke and nuts?’
‘Just the coke.’
Seated at the table, he toasted their trip.
Natalya Kurbatova guided her charge to the bar and he was gratified to see a fellow foreigner, came over immediately, introduced himself and acknowledged Hugh’s girl. The two ladies acknowledged each other. It was all very chummy and as they sat down, Hugh whispered in Ksusha’s ear, ‘You want to sit with them or do you want to get out of here?’
‘It’s fine,’ she replied, ‘for now, of course.’
Paul Jacobson went up to the bar, now open for orders and called to Hugh, ‘What’s your poison?
Hugh hadn’t heard talk like that for years and grinned. ‘Whisky.’
‘You really are an American, aren’t you? Yep, whisky sour and for Ksusha?’
‘Cognac also,’ Natalia answered his questioning glance.
‘So what do you do, Hugh?’ he asked when he’d finally brought the drinks and nibbles across.
‘I’m at the university,’ he chose to reply. ‘And you?’
‘I’m in the supermarket business – we’re setting up in the Volga region - this trip’s a little teaser for us – well, for me, I suppose. Ever been in business?’
‘I was in screen printing for awhile.’ Ksusha glanced across at him.
‘Yeah, what happened?’ asked Jacobsen.
‘I went overseas.’
At this moment, Dima Storchaus and wife Anastasia Sergeyevna waltzed in, caught sight of Ksenia and Hugh and did a double take. The ladies shook hands and Dima allowed himself a big hug with Ksusha.
She whispered something to him in Russian and he reddened, turned to Hugh and uttered an apology. Hugh invited them to join the table. They accepted but when Hugh went up for a round, Dima insisted on paying for the next drinks.
They went up to the bar together and, in Russian, Dima asked how the hell he came to be on a boat trip with Ksusha. ‘She asked me,’ Hugh replied and Dima clapped him on the back. Things were looking up.
Others were now pouring into the bar in twos and threes, sometimes a larger party, and Ksenia was beginning to feel a bit crowded. With abject apologies, Hugh excused them both, to her intense relief, and they departed, knowing glances being exchanged between Storchaus and Jacobson, who’d already hit it off.
Outside, she fairly sprinted up the steps to the roof deck and let the river breeze flow through her golden hair, cavorting round and round like a child, grabbing Hugh’s hands and spinning him round too. Then she pulled him towards her and kissed him deeply. ‘Hugh, I’m sorry, it was too much in there.’
‘What are you apologizing for? I felt the same.’
She needed to go below for a little while – would he wait for her here? Of course. Paul came out on deck with his wife and walked across. ‘Where on earth did you find her?’ he asked. ‘Are they all like that?’
‘No, this one’s unique but there are some mighty good ones, all the same.’
Suddenly, Ksusha’s head appeared from the stairwell and all the joy had been wiped off her face. Hugh quickly made his apologies and went below.
She didn’t reply but took him to their cabin, unlocked it and he gasped. Their bags had been turned over – all the contents spread over table, floor and in the bathroom.
Marie Latour’s next stop was Frankfurt, where she met her counterpart, Karl Dessler.
He was more forthcoming. ‘There’s an operation going on across Europe and including Russia, of using clinics to produce certain types of agents.’
‘No news there. It’s been going on since the 50s and earlier. Estabrooks, Marchetti, Scapitz, Frey – it’s old news.’
‘I wonder how far you think this has infiltrated into the intelligence community in the constituent states in Europe?’
‘Is it any of our business?’
‘It is if one of the chiefs you deal with is compromised.’
‘Russia, Prague and Paris are the focal points, it seems. You have someone in Prague? We’ve sent ours already.’
‘I should say it’s going to be like Beirut there during next week.’
‘Perhaps you’d like to see this, Marie.’
They got up and went into the next room.
‘Haven’t yet checked,' said Ksenia. 'I’ll do that while you go for the Purser.’ He was already out of the door.
The Purser arrived, closed the door behind him when he saw the mess and asked the same question as Hugh.
‘No,’ she replied. ‘Nothing missing. Mr. Jensen hasn’t had a chance to check his yet.’
‘How secure are your locks?’ asked Hugh.
‘If you mean has this happened before – never. At least, not while I've been employed on these boats. I think the locks are fairly secure – not to a professional, of course.’
Making all the right noises, the Purser took his leave. Of course they’d keep mum about it for now, at his request and they’d report in detail later. He promised to change the lock immediately - there was a ship’s handyman on board.
The moment the door closed, Hugh asked, ‘Was that true – that nothing was missing?’
‘You’re learning about me, aren’t you, babe?’ she asked, chewing gum.
She made up her mind. ‘My pistol’s gone and one box of rounds.’
‘Planned to murder me in my sleep, did you?’
They started the cleanup - Hugh wasn’t missing anything he’d noticed. All his money had been on him in the bar. ‘I think we have to put it out of mind. Let’s not dwell.’
‘You’re telling me?’
‘It’s about time for lunch. You hungry?’
‘Ah, I see what you mean. Give me a few minutes.’
They were allocated places at the upper deck restaurant, seated with Vitaly Kuzmin, Valentina Alexandrova, young Pavel, little Ksenia, Anastasia Borisovna, their grandmother and a middle aged couple from Moscow named Zhukov – they had to have been the butt of endless jokes over that - it must have driven them mad.
Hugh was glad in a way that there were no foreigners at the table – he liked all Russian company and being the only foreigner – that suited him just fine. Taking in his dinner companions over the soup and salad, he noted the reticence of Kuzmin and how the man watched everything closely, how he looked at Ksusha, not in a leering way but as a specimen if that were possible.
The man was vaguely unsettling and it was the first thing Ksusha commented on back in their cabin.
A knock on the door indicated the arrival of the handyman and his offsider - they took the best part of fifteen minutes. After the job had been finished and they'd gone, he asked, ‘Ksusha, are we on the same side – officially, I mean?’
‘You expect me to comment?’
‘No,’ he sighed.
‘Good.’ She lay back on the bed. ‘But I’m going to comment anyway.’ She rolled over to face him and rested her chin in her hands. ‘I’m not against you on this trip. Quite the opposite. I didn’t do the trashing of the cabin –’
‘I never suggested –’
‘- although I’m quite capable of something like that. I lost my pistol, which I always take with me wherever I go.’
‘How do you get away with it?’
‘You keep forgetting who I am.’
Geneviève had already lent Natalie to the British but thought it best that Marc also attend the Prague conference, not so much to gather what was going on – they knew that – but to see who was talking to whom.
The conference, on the theme Emerging Microwave Technologies, a Second Look, was packed and delegates were within a heavy security cordon, peripheral interested parties such as security forces kept at a distance. It hardly mattered as most knew the lie of the land anyway and all were there to check out their opposite numbers and any new talent on the block.
The trouble with remaining obscure and propping up the bar was that every other interested party had the same idea and Marc was bemused to find one of the Russians on his list observing him. Marc tugged at an imaginary forelock and the man slipped away.
It was all very well for Ksusha to bounce out of bed next morning and scramble up on the upper deck for her aerobics class but he chose instead to attend the chamber music at the front of the boat.
The news had also filtered through, even to the boat, that Tony Blair's Labour Party had won again - they were calling it the ‘quiet landslide’ and so it was five more years of Labour.
In the red carpeted room, with windows overlooking the bow and the river panorama ahead, perched on a foldable chair near the back where practically everyone else was also trying to sit, leaving the majority of the regular seats at the front and sides empty, he took in the company.
Valentina Alexandrova was there with her children, there were other mothers; surprisingly he spotted Jane the barmaid, presumably in her free time but then he realized the true situation, as she was sitting beside Paul Jacobson, inclining her head at intervals to drink in his pearls of wisdom.
Over to the left, if he craned his neck, he could see Nastya Storchaus. There was no sign of Kuzmin, nor Jacobson’s guide. The rest he didn’t recognize. He himself was seated beside an ageing, immaculately dressed bigwig, maybe in his late 50s.
Hugh addressed the man in Russian in a break between movements. Initially hesitant, his neighbour then introduced himself as Sergei Ivanovich Deputatov, and that was all they had time for.
Towards the end of the performance, Ksusha poked her head in, saw his company and gesticulated for him to leave.
‘Do you know who that man was you were sitting with?’
‘You do know what he is, don’t you?’ she cried.
‘Of course. He's the one trying to kill me.’
‘Come to the bar with me.’
He dutifully followed and bought the drinks. ‘Hugh, does he know your name?’
‘Yes. He was reading me. I was reading him.’
‘Give me thirty minutes now and I’ll be ready for dinner, all right?’
He nodded. ‘I’ll prop up the bar here. Might be instructive.’
With the afternoon drawing to a close and hunger beginning to gnaw, many people started drifting into the bar and Hugh, always a keen observer of both people and trifles, was well placed to take in most of the action. The biggest shock was the appearance of the Odd Couple, with baby in bassinet, and they immediately recognized him too – at least she did.
All those years and they’d never actually met. Timur Iskanderovich Shaidullin and wife Ekaterina Mikhailevna – so he’d finally learned their names – plus baby Guzel’. Hugh went over and sat with them. They had a thousand things to chat about – how Shadzhara had changed, their family situation, their move to Nizhny Novgorod and so on – all in Russian of course.
Dima came in with his wife and noted Hugh was not with Ksusha but with the Odd Couple. Vitaly Kuzmin had taken Hugh’s cue and had established himself in one corner, drink in hand, observing all and sundry - he acknowledged Hugh’s glance now.
Deputatov came in and immediately Dima turned away. Then, at a convenient moment when Deputatov had gone up to the bar, he took his wife’s arm and slipped out of the room. This was too much for Hugh, who watched Deputatov for a minute, then excused himself and went looking for Dima and wife. He found them on the second deck, looking over the railing at the river.
‘Izvinitye – you know this Deputatov well?’
Dima had a curious look in his eyes and asked if Hugh also knew him. Hugh said yes – the guy was his old enemy and had tried to kill him - was probably still trying. Dima’s eyebrows went up and he asked, ‘Have you spoken to this man?’
‘I sat with him and we spoke at the chamber music.’
Dima was perplexed. ‘Listen, my friend, that man has reason to bear us both ill will. Many of his current troubles are our doing. Keep your distance and don’t get into anything with him. I know what I’m talking about.’
‘Right, right,’ agreed Hugh and left them to it. He could have gone back to the bar but he preferred to do a circumnavigation of the deck.
Going up the starboard side, he went round the bow but stopped short of the port railing, hearing intense voices on the deck below and realizing he was slightly aft of and above the kitchen. He had to admit to being curious what the kitchen maids looked like.
The purser was chatting to one of the kitchen staff, a woman of maybe ... well ... late 20s really ... and beside them was the boat's MC. Something had obviously got into them because they were raising their voices, the MC was saying 'shhh' all the time, they'd quieten down and then it would rise again.
He scrutinized the kitchen girl most because she was quite dishevelled - her hair was hanging down in strands, as if she hadn't washed it for a week and he couldn't help thinking that if she were preparing their food - uggh.
She put one hand up to push the hair back and her fingernails were uneven and he couldn't tell but they even looked a bit dirty. Her legs had sores over the lower half and one or two on the calf but she dressed modestly, in a utilitarian working frock. She was wearing plimsolls in which the left toe had gone through the canvas.
What was upsetting was that she had the makings of prettiness. Her face was classic slav, the way she held herself was also typical and her body was shapely. It was as if they'd taken a pretty girl and given her to a stylist, with orders to uglify her as far as humanly possible.
She was smoking like a chimney.
He completed his circumnavigation and returned to the bar, ordering two drinks. A voice to his left, in Russian, employing a fair bit of the vernacular which he happened to have a smattering of himself, addressed him. 'You're remarkably lucky, Druk.'
'U mnya yest horoshuyu krishu,' he replied and Deputatov noted our Gospodin Jensen was well-versed. The concept of a krisha, a protective roof or umbrella, was indeed the necessity which had kept him alive so far.
'Do you usually marry your krisha?'
'You're well informed,' Hugh replied. 'We're not married yet. She is but one of my krish.'
'You insulted my wife - three times.'
'And have been under threat of death ever since. I never had the chance to apologize.'
'Da, I'd like to apologize to her personally but as she did not come on the cruise with you, that's not possible. I'd like you to convey my apologies to her.'
'You think it's that simple, that your words make it all right?'
'For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I'm apologizing, sincerely and wish it had never happened, as people have died over it.'
'You understand your actions, do you?'
'Well, well. I'll inform her. Do you have any influence over your partner?'
'Some. Not on key matters.'
How it would have continued no one knew as Ksenia came around the bow at that moment, took in the scene and clearly intended that he follow her. What passed for a smile played on Deputatov's lips as he murmured: 'She has called.'
Now that was red rag to a bull for a Russian and the redness in Hugh's cheeks showed the man how much of their culture he'd imbibed - a foreigner would not have understood the unforgivable insult in such words. Deputatov, unfazed, added, 'Uzhe, vizhu, ti na polovina Russki.' You're half Russian already.
'Vi.' Then, after a near interminable time: 'Sorry.' But he wasn't.
'Davai na ti,' said Hugh. 'Let it be so.' He took his leave and went back to the cabin.
'You can stop the lecture already, Ksusha, before you begin. He was testing me out and so was I.' He proceeded to give it in minute detail, with her asking questions at certain points.
'Actually, Hugh, though I still say you shouldn't have, you might have got a result there. That apology was amazing. What made you think of that?'
'These things just enter the head and if not useful, go out again. The useful ones stay. This one seemed useful. He also wanted to know my level of immersion in the culture.'
'And your confidence. Not badly done. But if he'd dropped into deep jargon, you'd have been lost and made to look a fool. He could insult you easily and you'd never have known. He still might have and you didn't pick up on it - a particle here, an inflexion there. You know Russian but not to that extent. It was dangerous, although he's well aware, as a foreigner, as you wouldn't know his jargon, it would be hollow satisfaction. If he'd done that, how would you have reacted?'
'I'd have said: 'Poshall von.'
She almost choked. 'You'd have said that to Sergei Deputatov? Told him to fuck off? You like living dangerously, don't you?'
'Who's my fiancee?'
She grinned. 'Ladno. OK. Cool it now though. Please? For me and for your safety?'
'As you wish, love of my life. Anyway, Ksushinka,' she grinned at this further immersion in the culture of endearing diminutives,' I'd never have said that to him. I'd have said to him what I did. Polite respect till the end, even to the enemy. It's how I've done it most of my life.'
There was still some time to go to the meal and as there was no entertainment upstairs, they'd have to make their own. She looked down at the bunk. 'Very narrow.'
'Possible. It's been done before.'
Sergei Deputatov had four people In his own cabin and he was currently giving them their final instructions. They understood, the wheels were now in motion and they departed.
Deputatov reflected on that scene earlier. Casual apology - the man thinks a casual apology is all that's required. Amateur.
There was a tap on the door, he beckoned her to enter, well aware who it was. She looked a mess but he put that down to her kitchen work. He pulled out a roll of notes, peeled off the required number and slapped them down on the table.
She began to disrobe.
Chapter 15 here ... Chapter 17 here