Tuesday, May 5, 2009

1-17: Death on the Volga



Chapter 16 here ... Chapter 18 here

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I

Ksenia and Hugh went into the bar for pre-meal drinks, introductions were made to the Odd Couple and he noted the look of mirth on both Ksenia’s and Timur’s faces. However, they wouldn’t offer a word of explanation.

The wife was as much in the dark, although he took a wild guess.

Jane came on duty with a tub of ice cream for the molochniye cocktails, taking over from the other girl, Elena Usmanova.

Sveta Levina came in, took the microphone and announced the evening’s programme, the voice booming through the rest of the boat, Sergei Deputatov went up to the bar for milk cocktails for Kuzmin and himself and then the signal went for dinner.

As people got up to go, Hugh saw, through the flurry of legs and bodies, something very wrong – Kuzmin and Deputatov were still seated, almost comically leaning on one another. Deputatov then fell face forward on the floor.

The people who always scream screamed, the ship’s crew came from everywhere and Svetlana Dmitrievna asked everyone, microphone now switched off, to clear the room quickly and that was the last they ever saw of Kuzmin and Deputatov.

There was no announcement at dinner but it was certainly the talking point on every table. Ksusha had nothing to say, Hugh was listening to Valentina Vitalyevna on the topic and a young man she knew came over and asked if he could join their table – the restaurant below was overflowing and as he actually occupied an upper deck cabin, technically he was allowed to eat here. No one objected.

He introduced himself as Viktor Sergeyevich Bukovsky.

Strangely, the dynamics of their table now changed, with Ksusha and Hugh at one end, the young man, Valentina and children in the middle and the Zhukovs at the other end. After the last cup of tea had been drunk, they all drifted away from the dining room back to their cabins.

Ksenia said she was going to find Dima, to talk about things and interestingly, he was also looking for her. It was a good forty minutes, twenty minutes before the evening entertainment programme was due to begin, before she came back to the cabin and flopped down on the bed, putting her hands behind her head.

‘Curious, Hugh.’

‘Many curious things, girl. What did you find out that you can tell me about?’

‘The woman Alexandrova is Militsia, investigative branch; we work with her. Bukovsky is her dogsbody, sniffing here and there; Dima found out that those other two are definitely dead – one worked for Seymour, the other was above him – both now in cold storage, announcement in the theatre later.’

‘And Ksusha and Timur know each other.’

‘Ah yes. He was my lover.  You've probably woken up to that.’

‘I have.’

‘Hugh, I never said I was a saint. It’s old history and besides, I wasn't married, so what’s the fuss?’

‘He’s married.’

‘Not then, I swear.’ She rolled through 90 degrees on the bed towards him, planted a kiss on his cheek and he felt he had to develop some sort of defence against this unfair tactic.

‘So, anything else come to light?’ he asked.

II

Louise needed to visit Russia again to organize her semester in the French department and this was the time when these particular appointments were organized at the university. One thing she was sure of was that she wasn't coming alone this visit.

Hugo had been sweet and everyone else had been pleasant but she needed a French speaker to converse with and who better than her best friend Geneviève. Ms Lavacquerie had a high flying role in Paris with many young women under her but June saw the pace drastically drop off as the criminal fraternity seemed to head off on ‘vacances’.

Ms Bonnet had employed all the necessary techniques, imploring Genie, weeping uncontrollably and the like until Geneviève had acquiesced - just one week, no longer, all right?

‘Merci, merci, my very best friend - you'll love it, it’s fascinating, it’s an anachronism,’ entirely forgetting that Geneviève had visited the place more than a few times.

‘D’accord, you make the arrangements,’ replied Geneviève, as she put down her coffee cup and left for work, some matter Nicolette, her girl Friday, insisted needed to be discussed.

III

Hugh and Ksenia lay on one bunk, a tight fit and she was musing.

‘There’s the question, of course, of exactly how Deputatov and Kuzmin died,’ she reflected. ‘Seems it was the ice cream. The Jane girl removed it straight after they’d taken their cocktails – I was watching.’

‘How could they be sure that both would have cocktails?’

‘Deputatov enquired at the bar and the Jane girl paged the kitchen. I didn’t catch it all because of the noise in the bar.’

‘So, there’s a kitchen connection with this thing.’

‘Seems so.’

‘What’s your reading of it?’

‘It’s a bit disturbing, my reading of it.’

‘Go on.’

‘Who stood to gain or who had a motive in bumping them off?’

‘Go on.’

‘No – you tell me. Think it through.’

Hugh considered for a moment. ‘You, Dima and even me.’

‘Precisely. So expect some intense questioning from Alexandrova and Co in the not too distant future.’

‘Why the interest of the Militsia? Those two seem more a security concern to me.’

‘Again – think it through.’

‘Tip off?’

‘Hit the nail on the head again. And who would do such a thing?’

‘Someone who wants to sink us and is not too particular about knocking someone else off to achieve it?’

‘You’re doing well. To add to that, maybe they were killing two birds with one stone. I mean not only laying the blame on us, but those two needed to be bumped off anyway – something they were up to, perhaps. I know Ludmilla Valerievna did a number on Seymour some time back.’

‘You’re security – any leads?’

‘That’s one which will need to be thought through.’

‘Will your position in security help?’

‘Oh, undoubtedly, but Dima’s position won’t. And don’t forget you’re also, technically, security.’

Hugh smiled. ‘They took my building away.’

‘Doesn’t matter – you’re on the register.’

There was silence for some time, as they both thought things through. Hugh broke the silence. ‘Why would they tip off the Militsia against us when nothing could stick – security would simply set the record straight and we’d be off the hook.’

‘Yes, it’d crossed my mind too.’

‘And?’

‘In our game,’ she explained quietly, ‘everyone is double-crossing everyone and it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. The only thing you can do is watch your back, watch everyone else, think it out and be ready to act.’

‘And trust nobody?’

‘Nobody at all – not even your own girl.’

‘That’s your game, not mine. You know what I think? I think you’d never bump me off without taking yourself out as well.’

The look she gave him was curious. ‘Let’s go up to the theatre.’

IV

In Shadzhara, Anya had come down with the flu. Being on her own for once, everyone else at work and her partner in another country, it should have been idyllic – a chance for recuperation from jealousy – the bane of her existence.

Every day, he was on the mobile - where was she, who was she with and the like.

She needed to go to Aptyeka and there was a sale at the new boutique in Baumana but she generally couldn’t muster the energy to do the long, gruelling preparation she’d need and anyway, her colour was awful.

And where was Hugh?

On an idyllic cruise with the one person she didn’t want him with. Her head felt awful, her throat was raw so she turned over in bed to find a position she could stand. She brushed Lola off the bed and the kitten went off in search of food.

The mobile began the inane tune she’d taken a fancy to – damn, she’d forgotten to switch it off. Let it ring – she needed another few days. She groaned when the home phone began. They never let up, did they? They never, ever let up on her.

The mobile started again. Pushing the bedclothes aside, she grabbed at the phone and never even looked to see the incoming number. ‘Da? Da? Da?’

She collapsed back on the bed. ‘Da. No, I’m alone. Yes, in bed. I have a cold. Yes, I want to be there with you too. Yes, really. No, he’s not coming round later.’

On and on and on.

She wanted to be on a cruise. Now how could she join the cruise boat to St Petersburg?  She was so bored that she decided, on the spur of the moment, to go in to work.

V

Alexandrova and Co, now in uniform, were interviewing people one by one in the little room adjacent to the theatre. The theatre itself was packed to the rafters and everyone was skewed round talking to everyone behind them - the noise level was unbearable.

The officers were only interviewing at this point but Ksenia was pretty sure that, if they hadn’t already searched cabins, it would soon start. She tested it out by attempting to leave the roof and go downstairs, to be politely shooed back by the ship’s crew.

Who, she wondered, was doing the searching? Also, where was her gun? Also, why had the chosen method been poisoning and not a gunshot? Maybe the gunshot was coming later – in the middle of the night?

Alexandrova and Co had the girl Lena with them at this moment. ‘And you say that Evgeniya Romanievna called down for ice cream for Mr. Deputatov and it was then sent up. When the call came to the kitchen, was it on a handset or could the whole room hear it?’

‘Handset.’

‘Who took the call?’

‘Chef Povar.’

‘Does he usually take the call?’

‘She.’

‘Name?’

‘Natalia Djavdyetievna Ibragimova. No, she doesn’t. It’s usually Chulpan or Ira.’

‘Full names?’

‘Chulpan Rashatievna Shaihullislamova and Irina Vladimirievna Petrova - they’re the senior kitchen staff. Natalia Djavdyetievna just happened to be walking past, that’s all.’

‘If she’d taken a call about ice cream, would she normally give the phone to someone else?’

‘She wouldn’t normally take the call.’

There was an interruption, as one of the ship’s crew came in with a message. Valentina Alexandrova listened intently, then turned and dismissed the girl: ‘Thank you, Elena Renatyevna, that’s all for now.’

‘What is it?’ asked Bukovsky.

‘Gun just found – Cabin 304.’

‘The Englishman and the blondinka?’

‘Da – so let’s have them in next.’

Hugh and Ksenia filed in and found a spare seat each – the young man propped by the window. The gun was sitting on the table in front of Ksusha and her eyes had been on it from the moment she’d entered the room.

‘Recognize it?’ asked Valentina Vitalyevna.

‘Naturally,’ replied Ksusha, surprising her interrogator, ‘it’s mine.’

‘Oh is it just and why would you have such a thing on this boat?’

Ksusha rummaged in her handbag and slapped her credentials on the table. Alexandrova picked the document up, turned it over and handed it back. ‘All right, so how about you tell me just what you’re doing here, which would necessitate you having a gun?’

For the first time Ksusha was a little taken aback. ‘I just showed you.’

‘Yes, you’re security all right but why the gun?  You’re not on a mission ... are you?’

'That’s classified.’

The other sighed a deep sigh. ‘We have to go through all that, do we? All right, Ksenia Vladimirovna, that’s all for now until we’ve checked out your bona fides for this trip.’

Ksenia was reluctant to leave.

‘Well?’

‘My gun?’

‘Yes, the moment you’re cleared it will be returned to you. Anything more for now?’

‘No.’ She turned to Hugh, smiled, then departed.

‘Now Mr. Jensen, suppose you tell me the story of how you came to know this young lady.’

‘It would take a book.’

‘We have all the time in the world. I’m listening.’

VI

‘Mademoiselle, are you crazy? You know the rule about Head of Section.’

‘Is that the urgent topic you had for me, Nikki?’

‘Non but it’s more important.  What are you thinking of - going to Russia?’

‘It draws them out, Nikki, gives them too good a target to pass up, exposes the courier, exposes the heads and I need to go for personal reasons as well.’

‘To confront your demons?’

‘Only you, Carly and PR know of that.  Let’s leave it unsaid.  Look, I understand your concern but I won’t be going into this unmonitored.  We’ll have everyone on call.  The Russian end is primed too.  They have a little situation on their hands just now but they’ll deploy resources by the time we fly.’

‘Do you want me there?’

‘I want but you know you’ll have to be section chief in my absence.’

‘And Marc?’

‘He’ll be with me.  Any problems with that?’

‘Non, non.’

But she’d said it just a little too quickly.

VII

Hugh started from the beginning and left nothing out. Towards the end, the ship’s officer came in again and whispered something to the investigator. She replied.

Three minutes later, Ksenia returned, the gun was returned to her and they were both allowed to leave.  Back in their cabin again, Hugh quizzed her about it and she shrugged. ‘I’m as much in the dark as you are.’

‘What do you mean? You have your gun back.’

‘Oh Hugh, don’t you realize – I’m not on any mission – there’s no call for me to have that gun here.’

‘So why was it returned?’

‘Good question. Ludmilla Valerievna must have backed up my story or else they’re giving me enough rope to hang myself.’

‘So why the gun in the first place?’

‘I was wondering when you were going to ask that. I am on a mission but for Ronald Seymour.’

‘What!’ So Anya had been right, after all.

‘Yep, I was assigned to guard Kuzmin.’

‘Why?’

‘Seymour had reason to believe Kuzmin was going to be bumped off.’

‘You did a good job protecting him. And Deputatov?’

‘I know nothing of his demise. State problems, I think. That’s Uncle Dima’s field.’

‘Yes but the killings were a two-in-one job.’

‘Well yes – they seem that way but we don’t know everything, do we?’

‘Why was your gun stolen, then returned?’

‘Perhaps the one who took it to Valentina Vitalyevna knows more than he’s telling.’

‘Why don’t you front her about it, explain all, take her into your confidence? It might get you inside the investigation.’

‘You never cease to surprise me, Hugh. That’s exactly what I plan to do.’

VIII

Anya went back to work and in the normal run of reservations, noticed three names which caused her to call Ludmilla Petrova.

‘It might be nothing but it seemed a bit unusual to me.  Do you know of any reason Geneviève Lavacquerie is coming to Russia?’

‘We might.  Thanks for that, Anya.’

‘That’s not all.  They’re flying with two other French people – Marc, whom we know and a girl called Louisa.’

Ludmilla chuckled at the other end.  ‘Da, Anya, we know about that too and thanks.  We do appreciate it.’

‘Do you also know that the girl who tried to kill Hugh has a ticket reserved for Shadzhara?  And then on to Samara?’

‘No indeed.  Could you send me the details?’

‘Doing that … now.’

‘Thanks, Anya.  How are you, by the way?’

‘Getting over a cold.’

‘I can hear it in your voice.’

IX

Valentina Alexandrova was not surprised to see Ksenia and offered her a seat. She brought out a bottle of good cognac and two glasses.

It was 23:17.

She opened with, ‘Didn’t do a very good job with Kuzmin, did you?’

Ksusha didn’t bat an eyelid. ‘No.’

‘You have a specific suspect in mind, Ksenia?’

‘Three of them – a girl working in the kitchen, Elena Renatyevna Usmanova, the barmaid, Evgeniya Romanievna Kuznyetsova and Mikhail Sergeivich Kubashov, who did the room checks.’

‘Three of the ship’s crew did the room checks.’

‘Alone or together?’

‘Go on.’

‘My gun was stolen soon after we boarded.’

‘Kubashov, you think?’

‘Or a semi-professional – the locks aren’t too difficult.’

‘Were you instructed to kill?’

‘My brief was to protect – I was free to act on my own discretion on that.’

‘Any thoughts on the whole thing?’

‘Maybe I was prevented from getting in the way of the real plan.’

‘Which was?’

‘To knock off both together, as actually happened.’

‘So they knew of your mission. Someone gave them the lowdown. Someone in security?’

‘No, I was working for Seymour.’

‘Ronald Seymour?’

‘Yes.’

‘So your gun –’

‘That’s right.’

'Thank you.'

X

Anya called Ludmilla again.

‘Sorry to trouble you, Ludmilla Valerievna but two other pieces of information might interest you.’

‘Da?’

‘Sergei Safin is booked on the same flight as Ms Djamato and also has an onwards reservation for Samara.’

‘Thanks, Anya.’

‘There’s something else.’

‘Da?’

‘Ksenia is flying back from Samara early next week but there is no record of her flying there in the first place.’

Ludmilla gave a low whistle. ‘That’s invaluable, Anya.  And thank you once again.’

XI

Alexandrova breathed out slowly. ‘Can’t say you haven’t been honest, Ksenia - I can tell you that the rest checks out as well. Would you help us or is that not done in security?'

‘If you don’t think I’d compromise your investigation in any way.’

‘I think we’ll need your input before long. What do you see as the next move?’

‘Oh there’ll be something soon, I’m sure of it.’

‘So am I. Probably might have been tonight if your gun hadn’t come back to you.’

‘May I ask if anything significant was found in the room checks?’

‘A great deal of money was found in Natalia Kurbatova’s cabin and left untouched, where she thinks it’s hidden.’

‘Services rendered to Paul Jacobson?’

‘Not that amount.’

‘Fool to bring it on the boat unless –’

‘Exactly, unless she was the paymaster.’

‘Little point putting it into the bank accounts of three soon to be dead people.’

‘We’re thinking along the same lines.’

‘Jane Kuznyetsova?’

‘Touching up rich foreigners, nothing more. She knew nothing about the ice cream, I’m sure.’

‘So, everyone’s identified then?’

‘I didn’t say that. You see, it took three to do the job – one to prepare the ice cream, one to bring it upstairs and one to take it to Kuzmin. I’ve reason to think Usmanova was the first, Kubashov was the second – and the third – Deputatov himself.’

‘He knew something of Kuzmin’s purpose?’

‘What purpose?’

Ksusha was silent. Valentina Vitalyevna continued. ‘You can’t answer that because it implicates your benefactor, doesn’t it? And shows you had the same target that he did.’

Ksusha remained silent.

Valentina Alexandrova was relentless. That was her speciality.

‘Same target as Kuzmin, Ksenia, except that you had a second commission from Ludmilla Valerievna Petrova, didn’t you?’

Ksusha continued to remain silent. ‘Did she have good reason to believe that Mr. Jensen was in danger?’

‘The best.’

‘Which puts your other colleague in something of a bad light, doesn’t it?’

‘Ludmilla Valerievna?’

‘You know that’s not to whom I’m referring.’

Ksenia went back to being silent. Alexandrova changed the topic. ‘I imagine, Ksenia Vladimirovna, that altruism doesn’t come naturally to you.’

‘That’s enough – I see where this is going.’

‘So let’s get back to the business in hand, Ksenia.’ Valentina Alexandrova looked long and hard at her.  ‘Usmanova and Kubashov are both in custody, pending an official investigation and the loose ends seem to have been nicely tied up.’

‘Except?’

‘There was something else we found. In Kubashov’s wallet there was a drink coaster – and on the back was a time – 01:30. Those drink coasters are not current, not from this year’s cruise supply. One person has a small stack of them in her cabin. Why would Kubashov have to remember a simple time that way?’

‘Because it’s not a time.’

‘Right and the combination lock in question is on the suitcase of Natalia Kurbatova. It’s her combination lock. And inside her case is chloroform in a bottle.’

‘A set up?’

‘Possibly or else very confident she’d never be found out. But again – why couldn’t Kubashov remember a simple combination like that?’

‘Because he’s either stupid or else he wanted to implicate the woman with the drink coasters - Sveta Levina?’

‘Perhaps.’

‘And the chloroform is for tonight? Someone is going to lure the victim to the edge, maybe at the back of the boat and a second person –’

‘That’s the scenario that had crossed our minds. We’re starting to get the idea that there is a second agenda on this boat, quite separate from Mr. Kuzmin and Mr. Deputatov and that the original rogues are entirely separate from this second operation.’

‘And the intended victim?’

‘Your guess is as good as mine. Stay in touch, Ksusha.’

XII

Marc skipped down the broad stairs from his hotel room and made for the Excelsior Restaurant.  This evening there was a smorgasbord for the plebs while the nobs had their banquet elsewhere on the premises.

He took his tray and a plate and soon had the chicken, potato noisettes, julienned greens and tomatoes piled up but he couldn’t take a drink as well, so he went across and secured a two person table, left the plate there and returned for the drink, the mini coffee pot and cup.

Halfway through the chicken he felt unwell and was appalled.  It was meant to be one of the top places in Prague.  As it was a smorgasbord, there were no waiters, so he took himself off to the stairs, decided he couldn’t climb those, went to the lift instead, made it up to his room but his condition was deteriorated even further and the cramps were now fierce.

He just made it to the phone, told reception to send medical help, crumpled up on the floor and the phone receiver clattered to the floor after him.

XIII

At 12:12, Hugh suddenly asked, ‘Ksusha?’

‘Yes?’

‘Why would Deputatov, an important man and the senior of the two, have gone up to get a milk cocktail for the younger man?’

Ksusha thought for a moment. ‘It's a possibility.’

‘Also, how did he know which was which – I mean, which was the poisoned one? I know both were poisoned but-’

‘No, I know exactly what you’re driving at. I have to think.’

Some minutes passed.

‘Any luck?’ he asked.

‘The cocktails. Either the one he thought was spiked, or else the other, was on a non-standard coaster – one of last year’s.’

‘But the ice cream is in bulk. If the poison was in the drum, then how could one cocktail be clean and one deadly?’

‘Because it wasn’t – er – wait – it wasn’t in the ice cream at all. It was on the coaster itself.’

‘Then why would it be allowed to circulate that it was in the ice cream?’

‘To lull the spiker into thinking he or she was safe. And don’t forget – most of the boat believes it was a mistake – something toxic in the ice cream. As no one else was sick on board, as they’ve insisted on reiterating, then it had to have been that batch of ice cream, didn’t it? Hence - no panic.’

‘So Valentina Vitalyevna knows more than she’s told you.’

‘Yes,’ answered Ksusha wistfully, ‘it certainly begins to look like it, doesn’t it?   I think I might pay her another little visit.’

‘Mind you don’t kill her, now.’

She gave him another of those looks.

XIV

Two people were leaning over the railing on the lower deck, near the bow, blowing smoke rings towards the water. It was 12:17 and the steamer continued to thrust itself through the chop, the white bow wave whooshing past just below them, lit by lights from the kitchen.

The man turned to the young lady and asked, ‘You trust Kubashov?’

‘For now.’

‘So?’

‘Can’t get near him yet. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it.’

They continued to blow smoke rings.

‘The blondinka and the Englishman?’ asked the man.

‘They’ll take the fall.’

‘Be careful. The girl’s a viper.’

‘And the Englishman?’

‘Don’t underestimate him. He likes people to think he’s a passive philanthropist but he took out two people in Tenerife. He’s sharp enough and can be ruthless. They make a good couple.’

She smiled up at his handsome face. The water continued to rush past below them.

XV

Marc woke up in hospital, he didn’t know which hospital but it was clean and he was in a room with one other patient.

The aching in his stomach was beyond bearing but it was not the same pain as that of the hotel room – this was a duller aching.  He gathered they’d pumped his stomach and there was not much he could do but curl up into just the right position to allow some respite.

A nurse came through the door with water and tablets and he never questioned it but took the five of them at one time, washing them down and then groaning.  The woman didn’t seem to know either French or English but she smiled and patted the bedclothes in a ‘just so’ manner before slipping out of the room.

Marc was losing valuable time at the conference.

XVI

At 12:33, the last drinks had been ordered.

Dima Storchaus, Paul Jacobson, Ksenia and Natalia Kurbatova were seated in the bar, with something a little stronger than milk cocktails in front of them.

Their conversation reflected the changing general mood on the boat that the official explanation was rubbish, that if the truth had been told, the others would have panicked and that something else would happen before long – maybe this night.

The interviews had long finished and the majority had turned in for the night – only a few of the younger folk were braving the fresh night breeze on the upper deck to the thump, thump, thump of the disco beat. The events of earlier in the evening had certainly put a dampener on things.

.o0o.

At 01:52, Ksenia had failed to find Valentina Alexandrova anywhere, five other people were not in their cabins either and she went out and leaned over the back of the boat, in time to see a pretty woman silently thrown overboard from the lower deck.

It was Ksenia who pointed her pistol and shouted first and in the next instant another pistol was clapped to her head and Viktor Bukovsky ordered her to put down her weapon, which he pocketed, he then marched her down the starboard deck from where Valentina Alexandrova marched her straight to her own cabin. Dima and Hugh rushed round from the port deck to the stern of the boat but they could see nothing through the murky night.

They then went straight to Alexandrova’s cabin as well. It was fairly crowded inside.

Ksusha was seated over by the window, Valentina seated to one side, the pistol on the table in front of her, ready to grab instantly. At the entrance of the others, she relaxed somewhat.

Ksusha was bemused. ‘I threw the woman off the boat from the lower deck, without the slightest sound, with a gun in one hand, while I was on the upper deck?’

‘Who did it then? There was a woman and a man, the woman seemed mightily like you, the man was taller but not large and had a dark cap and black, three-quarter, light leather jacket.’

‘So who on the boat looks so like me that she could be mistaken for me?’

Hugh murmured, ‘Not Sveta Levina?’

‘If you two have finished,’ interrupted Alexandrova, ‘may I do this my own way?’

‘While we sit here, the culprits are fading back into the woodwork,’ commented Ksenia.

‘You don’t believe that for one moment, do you? Of course Levina and Jacobson were observed.’

‘So why are we all sitting here?’

‘Waiting for notification that Natalia has been fished out of the water and is alive and kicking. Well, not exactly kicking – she'd had a pretty heavy sedative administered.’

‘And her cash stash?’

‘That’s the key, isn’t it?’

.o0o.

At 02:15, a call came through on the mobile. Valentina Alexandrova listened impassively, shut off the mobile and announced, ‘She’ll be OK. They got her – she was face up, thank goodness.’

‘So if you have it all taped, why the pistol to my head?’ demanded Ksusha.

‘Can’t you guess?’ returned the other.

‘Someone had to see that you suspected me?’

The other smiled and the penny dropped. ‘Ksusha, you can close my blind now. No one need observe us any more. But drop your voice, all the same.’

Ksenia reached round and pulled down the blind, then pulled the curtains as well. She asked Valentina, ‘Where’s the cash now?’

‘Same place. No need to shift it yet, with Natalia Kurbatova dead and gone, as far as they know. Think for one moment – who knew of the stash?’

Ksenia went red. ‘You’re accusing me again?’

‘Ksusha, think more clearly. And keep your voice down.  Who?’

‘Bukovsky.’

‘And the Levina woman. No great mystery.’

‘My money was on Jacobson,’ murmured Dima.

‘Stick to business affairs,’ retorted Ksenia and Dima smiled. It was all getting very chummy.

There was a knock on the door and Bukovsky poked his head in. ‘Any progress?’

‘I think so,’ replied Alexandrova. ‘Viktor, we’re going to shut this down for the night. We can pick up Jacobson in the morning and I’m going to keep Ksenia Vladimirovna here overnight – sorry Mr. Jensen. Why don’t you turn in, Viktor? You look done in, we all are.  I need bed.’

Ksenia asked for an explanation the moment they were gone.

‘Promise I’ll tell you in the morning.’

‘I still have a loaded gun.’

‘Yes.’

‘You’re quite a woman, Valentina Vitalyevna.  Tell me one thing though – do you think it’s over now?’

‘Do you?’

‘It’s like one of those stories where people die off one by one and then there are two left at the end.  Only the villain is neither.’

‘I think you know that one of the villains is still at large.  As I said just now, I’ll tell you in the morning.  Now let’s get some sleep.’

She went to check on the children.

XVII

Hugh stretched out on the narrow bunk and reflected in a way he hadn't since the first train had pulled out of Moscow on the way to Shadzhara, all those years ago.

In his eyes, it didn't much matter, until you got too old, where you were, where you lived.  The essential thing was to be somewhere you were appreciated in your work and in your relationship.  All the rest followed.

He placed his hands behind his head and reflected some more.

Here he had respect and love and out there?  Back in his own land?  He'd have to start all over again and your own country was where you had least respect accorded you.

So, he thought some more, he was stuck.  Not only stuck in Russia until someone changed a rule or took exception to him but stuck with Ksenia too.

No, he wasn't stuck.  He'd engineered this after her own piece of engineering in Britain had achieved its result.  He wanted this now, with her and he thought she did too.  She'd more than settled for him - she had her own ideas for them.  Yet she had those misgivings brought on by her temperament and past behaviour and she was terrified to hurt him.

She clearly wanted this thing with him.

He needed her in his arms now.

.o0o.

Ksenia was uneasy about him being in his cabin alone.  He wasn't a baby but she suspected he might be one of the main targets, after her.

The realization came back again, impinged on her brain, that it was not just for his protection she was uneasy.


She actually needed his arms now.


Chapter 16 here ... Chapter 18 here

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