Tuesday, May 5, 2009

1-18: Mon Plaisir


Chapter 17 here ... Chapter 19 here

HOME


I

The doctor looked in on Marc, checked the chart, stroked his chin and departed.

About an hour and a quarter later, two men in overcoats came through the door and perched on the two wooden chairs.  One spoke English.  They showed their badges and then asked him about what he remembered, which wasn’t much.

During a lull in the questions, he asked a question of his own: ‘Why the police?’

‘The chicken was impregnated, at one end, with a derivative of strychnine, sir.’

‘Ah.’

‘No idea who came near your table while you were at the drinks bar?’

‘Plenty of ideas, actually.  I take it you know my profession by now and why I’m here?’  They nodded.  ‘And so you’d know I could name three or four, for starters, who’d want me incapacitated.  Maybe they wouldn’t want to kill me but they’d certainly prefer me not to have been there in that hotel.’

‘You’ll supply those names, of course?’

‘Of course.’

‘I need to tell you, M. Lacour, that the dose you imbibed is considered near-fatal in a male of your body weight.  The swift action by the hotel staff is what saved you.’

‘I’ll have to thank them.’

‘We’ll leave you to rest now – we’ll return this evening, if you don’t mind.’

II

At breakfast the next morning on the boat, there’d been some changes – gone were Viktor Bukovsky, Mikhail Kubashov, Svetlana Levina and Elena Usmanova.

A small group were seated around three tables they’d pulled together, in the officially closed bar on the upper level.  The ship’s captain had kindly allowed them access - the time was 07:22.  All had been provided with sandwiches and coffee.

Present were Valentina Vitalyevna, Paul Jacobson, the resurrected Natalia Kurbatova, Dima Storchaus, Anastasia Storchaus, Jane Kuznyetsova, Ksenia and Hugh – an interesting selection, a strange collection.

Alexandrova opened proceedings:

‘Svetlana Levina brought up those placemats on Deputatov’s instructions. It was not likely Jane would use them, as they weren’t the current crop. The second mat was impregnated with a toxin whose name I’m not even going to try to pronounce, but not by Deputatov himself. Kubashov was the guilty party, when he slipped into the bar with a message for Jane.

Jane, what was your reaction when Svetlana brought up the old mats?’

'I asked why, when we had plenty of the new ones.  Sveta then nodded her head at the pile of new mats and there were two or three left.  I was sure I'd brought some up but then realized that Sveta had said she would - that was earlier in the day.  She must have forgotten, so when she did bring the old ones up, I knew she'd remembered.  I put the old ones to one side and asked if there were any more of the new down below.'

'And?'

'I was told that Elena had accidentally spilled soup on the opened box and they'd use the old style for now, they'd salvage what they could and bring them up.'

'And of course, there was no reason to question that.  You'd never wonder how the mats had just disappeared.'

'Well - yes.'

Mr. Jensen, if you were taking two drinks over to a table, how would you do it?  Describe it to me.'

'I'd probably take the two glasses, see there were no coasters, no mats and tell my companion that I'd be back in a moment.'

'Now tell us exactly how you'd take the mats, in detail.'

'In detail.  Right, I'd probably lift one by the edge, lift a second and take both by the edge.  I'd walk over and put one in front of him and one in front of me.'

'In that order.  Having handled only the edges.'

'Yes but that was a hell of a risk, all the same.'

'Not if you knew exactly what was happening and where the toxin was on the second mat.  Because you'd put the second mat down first, in front of Kuzmin.  You'd not expect that Kubashov had been careless and that the toxin had seeped into the first mat as well  – the rest is history.’

‘Why?’ was Ksenia’s only question.

‘It all comes down to alliances. Deputatov was Seymour’s Russian partner in his business venture and it has to be admitted that the Russian certainly smoothed the way for him in a very difficult business climate for a foreigner. In the same way, Mr. Jacobson here came on this trip, among other reasons, to negotiate a partnership with Mr. Storchaus. Yes gentlemen?’

‘No deal has been agreed as yet,’ commented Jacobson, dryly.  Dima was non-committal.

‘This deal, if it goes through, would put a company which had been ailing since the death of Mikhail Safin – forgive me, Mr. Storchaus – into a very strong position in the market – far too strong for Deputatov to deal with. Ronald Seymour is not a bad man – he’s just been a bit naughty in the west - and his operation over here is fairly straightforward.

He’d long suspected Deputatov of cooking the books and raking off a percentage and had set Kuzmin to watch him.  Kuzmin had found the goods and we think he was doing a little chantage on Deputatov – a stupid thing to try on such a man.

So far, that’s all clear.

Kubashov, Usmanova, Bukovsky and Levina were in his pocket. Therefore, when my deputy put a pistol to her head, Miss Sharova was in very real danger of her life but then again, he knew I was right behind him. Now, suppose Natalia tells you her own story.’

Natalia Kurbatova stirred herself, drained her coffee, cleared her throat and began in a low, honeyed voice which had Hugh entranced, a point not lost on Ksenia.  ‘Ksenia Sharova didn’t know me because I’m Nizhny Novgorod based and work on corporate crime in a low level capacity in that city. Deputatov had just ‘bought’ me and assigned me to watch Paul Jacobson’s movements.

He’d given me the payroll to mind as well, afraid of the presence of Dmitri Storchaus and Ksenia Sharova on board. He knew of the impending deal with Paul and Mr. Storchaus and wanted it stopped by any means. Svetlana Levina and Viktor Bukovsky were greedy and with Deputatov and myself out of the way, they planned to go to my cabin and collect.’

Valentina took over again. ‘The impending deal between Mr Storchaus and Mr. Jacobson was even more interesting because Mr. Jacobson already had a Russian partner – and I don’t think I’m breaking confidences here – Timur Iskanderovich Shaidullin. But Natalia here had the goods on him as well and had warned Paul Jacobson.’

Ksenia chipped in. ‘Uncle Misha always had the operational ability and Uncle Dima played the political game, as Deputatov did. If you put Mr. Jacobson’s business sense and financial backing with Uncle Dima’s street cred, it’s a pretty strong outfit.’

‘Perhaps Mr. Jacobson and I could just go for a walk and let you handle it, Ksusha?’

Paul added, ‘Seems to me, Dima Evgenyevich, that things augur well for our little deal – we certainly seem to have the right people onside.’

‘Sorry to spoil the party, ladies and gentlemen,’ cut in Valentina Alexandrova, ‘but I think you must consider three other things. Firstly, Miss Sharova here. Shall you tell them or shall I, Ksenia?’

Ksusha plunged in, in her usual fashion. ‘I’m working for Ronald Edward Seymour.’

Dima’s eyes almost popped out. ‘Chor!’

‘Wait, Uncle Dima, it was only to support and protect Vitaly Kuzmin in his job on Deputatov, so there was no real conflict of interest.’

‘But still –’ Dima trailed off. He considered for a moment. ‘Anyway, you didn’t do a very good job, did you?’

‘A point that’s been mentioned to me a number of times, by a number of people.’

‘You always were a deep one, Ksusha, malyenkaya.’

‘The second point to consider is that Mr. Jacobson’s erstwhile partner is not going to take this news terribly well. In fact, he’s well aware of this deal and he’s on this boat. I’m going to ask both you gentlemen, plus Anastasia Syergeyevna here, not to take the Nizhny Novgorod excursion in an hour, when we dock. I’d prefer you to stay on board, in this bar, in fact.’

‘But,’ began Ksusha.  Dima shooshed her.

‘The third point which needs to be considered is that we think there were two more operatives in Deputatov’s pocket – one based in Shadzhara and one free lance – an Indonesian I believe.’

Ksusha nodded and Hugh almost choked but said nothing. Alexandrova observed him with interest, then asked, ‘Any more questions?’

‘I have one,’ Ksusha asked. ‘It's your mother, yes. who looks after your children when you’re on these missions?  She eats in the room.’

‘Cabin 312, down the corridor from me. And now, ladies and gentlemen, let’s go to breakfast.’

III

Ludmilla Petrova phoned Anya at work and asked if there were any indications that Timur Shaidullin was heading for Samara as well.

‘Leave it with me,’ said Anya.

About twenty minutes later she phoned back with the answer: ‘Yes.  He’s booked partly with us and his comings and ongoings are Nizhny Novgorod-Moscow, Moscow-Sochi, Sochi-Shadzhara and of course Shadzhara-Samara.’

‘Is the Shadzharan leg a necessity because of the airline flight paths or due to his personal choice?’

‘Could be that it’s also his choice but yes, it is the only logical way to complete that trip.  I phoned my colleague in Nizhny Novgorod and she says a girl came in to book it for him and didn’t want the Shadzharan sector but then said it didn’t matter.  The man had business there too.’

‘The girl – any description?’

‘Medium height, athletic, fair hair, had some Shadzharan intonation on some words.’

‘Anya, that’s invaluable.  May I call you again?’

‘Always a pleasure, Ludmilla Valerievna.’

‘If there are any cancellations by any of those parties, would you phone me about those too?’

‘Of course.’

Khorosho, thought Anya.  That cooks Ksenia’s goose.  She wasn’t sure, mind but she thought Ludmilla Valerievna might draw the same conclusions that she had.  She was looking out for Hugh, half from love but the other half from the keen sense she felt of right and wrong and … well … love.

IV

Later, in the cabin, preparing for the Nizhny excursion, Hugh asked Ksenia the question which had been on his mind. ‘Was Deputatov behind the attacks on me over the last few years? If so, why?’

‘Hugh, there are things I wish I knew but the answer is largely – yes. There were certain people in his pocket.’

‘Sorry to say it - Zhenya?’

‘And another one I know too. I had good reason to be against this Deputatov.’

‘And Frederika Djamato?’

‘Of course. She’d been his lover. By the way, Hugh – she’s in Russia now, in Moscow.’

Hugh was silent. Ksusha asked, curiously, ‘You still have something for her?’

Hugh considered for a minute, then replied, ‘No – no, I don’t think so now.’

‘She’ll contact you sooner or later.’

‘What do you want me to do?’

‘Meet her only in a very public place.’

‘You mean the nightmare still isn’t over?’

‘Perhaps not. We’re –’

‘I know – you’re watching. But let’s come back one more time to the original, the all-consuming and never-ending question – why me?’

‘Can’t you see it, Hugh?  We were using you, as I’ve already admitted to you, and Deputatov knew full well the connections between Zhenya, myself, Uncle Misha and so on.  You were seen as a courier who was either assisting Uncle Misha’s business or else assisting security to hamper him or whatever.

Deputatov didn’t know exactly, which annoyed him; you were an insect in his eyes and therefore could just be swatted. Didn’t turn out that way, of course, so he developed a bit of a thing about you. The bottom line is that no one really knows what you’re up to beneath that demure exterior and no one really knows how you survive.’

‘Don’t jinx it.’

‘Well, that’s my conjecture. How can I know exactly?’

The boat docked at the port facility on the long, sloping, green grassed bank of Nizhny Novgorod and most of the passengers went off for their excursion.

V

Carly was at Marc’s bedside and he was looking better than had been described to her by phone.

‘Lucky break, Marc.  I have no jurisdiction with the local authorities but I’ve done a bit of independent checking with hotel staff.  They’ve all been quizzed and were reticent to speak but one of the girls bringing the food to the bains marie mentioned her own colleague hovering a bit longer near that table.

I’ve no way of confirming whether she’s a pathological liar or an honest girl, whether she is jumping on the bandwagon or whether she genuinely saw this.  It seems to me the chances of pinning this on anyone are small and as you seem to be recovering anyway, the police will be loathe to pursue it unless you press charges.’

‘I won’t be doing that.’

‘I’ve deputized in a way for you since you went down but you understand I have my own programme.  The trouble is that we have a surfeit of villains, all concentrated in the one hotel.  I sometimes think that one bomb …  well.’

‘Oui, Marie, we’ll have to put that one down to experience, I suppose.’

‘Will you go back to the hotel or back home?’

‘To the hotel.  I’ll finish the assignment.’

VI

Timur Shaidullin spent the bulk of the afternoon planning the demise of Paul Jacobson, whilst everyone was roaming the market and sights of Nizhny Novgorod. Yekaterina Shaidullina and baby Guzel were shopping.

Shaidullin turned to the woman who had somehow escaped Valentina Alexandrova’s net and asked, ‘So they haven’t signed yet, you say?’

‘They plan to do it in St Petersburg, where Jacobson can contact his backers in a conference call.’

‘I see.’

‘What do you propose?’

‘It must be an accident, for sure. Sliding down a greased step or something like that.’

‘He won’t go anywhere alone, with you knowing he knows you know.’

‘It wouldn’t matter. They can all break their necks as far as I’m concerned.’

‘I have some acid spray.’

‘Won’t do the job.’

‘It will, if he’s coming down the stairs after me and I turn around and spray.’

‘Why would he go with you anyway?’

‘I’m his protector, aren’t I? That’s why I came on this trip in the first place. When he himself wants to do something – go up top, go to dinner, anything, I’ll have to go before him, for safety.’

‘It might work, Natalia.’

VII

Carly looked in the mirror and was pleased with the effect.  The hotel room in Prague had those low energy bulbs which didn’t allow you to see yourself properly but from what she could see, it was up to scratch.

She pulled her door to and went downstairs.

The table was in the corner and the four men were already there.  One was a Frenchman, Pierre le Roux, just into his forties, suave, handsome and an absolute bastard by the look of him.  One was Artur Zhutkov, an older specimen, well fed, medium height, balding and clearly accustomed to people doing his bidding.  He was a reticent sittee at this table.

The third man was a Czech, tall, gaunt, with swept back, greying hair which put him in his late fifties.  The fourth was the pick of the crop, Miles Harper, mid-forties and a self-made man, with an icy stare which fixed you in its grip.

They stood up as she approached and Harper helped her to her seat.

She started straight in.  ‘Gentlemen, all of you are involved in the purchase of clinics across Europe, two of you are the principals and two are representing other interests.  We need not go into the purpose of these clinics, as it involves the security forces of the western nations and I believe you’ve had overtures from the east as well.’

No one commented.

‘I’m just a humble functionary, a security service head but I also represent a group of people who have an interest in your clinics.  You already know who they are and the fact that I’m even able to sit with you four here this evening shows that you well know the influence of my people.’

‘What percentage are you looking at?’ asked Zhutkov.

‘No percentage.  We don’t want open warfare, we don’t need a cut.  We need to know that we’re not being infiltrated by your graduates. That’s all.  All of you know where Europe is headed, America is onside with this as well but we must be sure our agents are our own.’

‘That’s all?’

‘That’s all.  Need I detail to you what might occur if you don’t comply?  Does the name Jacques de Molay ring a bell?  The principals and the operation will not be touched if you comply, those already turned and who are known will be left in place but no new infiltrations, no more sleepers please.’

‘Sounds reasonable,’ said Harper.

‘No it doesn’t, it’s outrageous,’ growled the Czech.

Harper swung round to him.  ‘No, it sounds eminently reasonable.’  He looked into the other man’s eyes, then back at Latour. ‘I think we can accommodate that request.’

The other two nodded, Marie stood up, the men stood up and she went back upstairs.  Three of the men sat down but the Czech buttoned up his jacket and walked out.  The others looked at each other and le Roux spoke.

‘She has the backing.  Believe me.’

‘I took that as read,’ muttered Zhutkov.  ‘It doesn’t alter the structure any.  We just lay off their sphere of influence.’

‘Really?’ asked le Roux.

‘No, not really,’ smiled Zhutkov.  ‘The question now is who will deal with our Czech friend?’

The voice at the end of the encrypted line asked Marie, ‘Did they see reason?’

‘They said they did.  It buys you time, at least.’

VIII

Valentina Alexandrova switched off the equipment and looked around at the assembled group in her cabin. Dmitri wasn’t satisfied. ‘What if he’s suspicious of why we let Natalia go ashore?’

‘Oh, I think he will be,’ she replied.

‘Well?’

‘He’ll let it proceed but he’ll tip someone off and she’ll be caught red handed.’

‘And what does that achieve for him?’

‘Removes Mr. Jacobson’s protection and before someone else can fill that role, he’ll strike.’

‘How?’

‘Greased step, perhaps? We have the cassette – we only need to prove the other and that should be sufficient for the court.’

‘I don’t like it,’ chipped in Ksenia. ‘It leaves Paul exposed.’

‘I’ll take that risk,’ he replied.

‘No.’  Hugh entered the discussion. ‘Valentina Vitalyevna, Natalia Vitalievna, may I have a word in private?’

They stepped over to one side and conversed earnestly.

Alexandrova indicated to her offsider, who’d just come on board, to come across to them.  The man understood what she told him, went away and then returned, handing Hugh a cassette.

Hugh then spoke up, within the hearing of the others: ‘I'll go ashore now – make sure you can hear the conversation. Make sure you bug the Shaidullin room too and do it subtly. They’ll be back soon.’

‘What are you going to do?’ asked Ksenia.

‘You’ll hear it on the receiver.’

Fifteen minutes later, Hugh was stepping down the gangplank, in the direction of the market he’d been once before with his former love. He found Katya in a boutique and suggested a coffee.

Seated at an outdoor table, opposite Mrs. Shaidullin and the baby, he did a terrible but necessary thing – he let her in on the whole story. When Katya jumped up in anger, he insisted she sit down again and, shocked by his sudden change in mood, she did so.

Hugh presented it that he wanted to prevent a tragedy – not arrest someone - which was true really. He begged her to dissuade her husband. Choking back tears, she sobbed, ‘You have no proof; it’s all surmise.’

Hugh then handed her his PS and asked her to press the play button.  She did so, muttering, ‘Nyet, nyet,’ at intervals, tore the headphones off, threw the PS on the table, stood up with her child and left.

Hugh said to no one in particular, ‘Well, Valentina Alexandrova and company – I hope  that cabin is bugged.’

Then he had a coffee.

Both Hugh’s and Natalia’s wired conversation had boomed through the closed bar at sufficient volume to ensure an excellent cassette copy. Valentina Alexandrova had then hastily written up transcripts in freehand, on A4, and eight people in the bar had signed to the effect that it was an unexpurgated and true copy of what they’d heard.

It was still not enough, of course.  Drinks were ordered from the kitchen, the toilet was visited by some but hurriedly, as no one wished to miss the next part and the waiting game began.

The dull hiss through the speakers now erupted into angry conversation.

Man:  What? What?

Now followed a woman’s voice, clearly Katya’s, haranguing him with Hugh’s story, he telling her to be quiet and then:

Man:  Katya, shut it.  The place could be bugged.

Katya:  How could you?  You promised you’d left Deputatov.  You said there wasn’t going to be any more killing.  You’re a liar and a … killer.

Man:  Katya, this is all a set up by people who want to see me dead.  That was an innocent conversation with Natalia.

Katya: Then how do you explain: ‘It might work, Natalia?’

Man:  I was going along with her.  She was the one who organized it all with Deputatov.  I was trying to find out her plan and I was then going to step in and prevent it.

Katya:  You’re a liar, Timur.  You’ve always been a liar – [muffled voice now, as if she was being prevented from speaking, then she becomes clear again] – get your hands off me, you beast.  You were going to kill that man.

Shaidullin:  You’re talking rubbish.  I was going along with her, I told you.  Keep your voice down.

Katya:  Then what about: ‘It must be an accident, for sure. Sliding down a greased step or something like that’?

Shaidullin:  I told you, I was going along with her, to see what she did, what she wanted.

Katya:  For whom were you going along with her?  Who were you working for?

Shaidullin:  For security.  Ksenia Sharova, if you must know.

Katya:  You’ve been seeing her?

Shaidullin:  Yes.

Katya:  You told me you were finished with her.

Shaidullin:  I was doing this job, that’s all. [sound of someone leaving the cabin and then tears].

IX

Marie flew to Paris and met with Geneviève’s superiors in an apartment overlooking Bois de Vincennes.

‘The clinics will remain independent for now but I fear they’ll be swamped in the coming years.  Market forces.  There’s a strong protectionist instinct in France and Russia which will see them survive but it hampers the expansionary vision of Europe.  I think pressure will be brought to bear on you if my people decided to swap horses midstream.’

‘What of the investigation by Section 32?’

‘It can’t discover any more than it knows already.  It knows they exist and some of the players but that’s about all.  It’s brief is basically to expose men with their pants down so their work will be cut out for them in the coming years.’

X

Valentina Alexandrova’s and all other eyes turned to Ksenia who gathered herself and then spoke.

‘I saw him when I was last in St Petersburg and no, we didn’t make love, not for Katya Vitelievna but for Hugh.  Hugh had no claim on me then but still I didn’t want.  I don’t have married men anyway, after what my father did. He pushed me though.

What you need is proof that I wasn’t colluding with him.  I don’t have that.  Hugh and my superior in the section can vouch for my movements since St Petersburg.

Both my home phone and mobile have records and I can save you the time now – there’s no call to Shaidullin on them.  I could have used another phone, the phone of a friend.  Yes, that is possible.

But look at my motivation.

I was employed by Seymour to protect Kuzmin.  Seymour was acting in this against Deputatov.  That puts Timur and me on opposite sides.  I was employed by my section to nail Timur. Valentina Vitalyievna, phone my chief and confirm this.  I’m even going to a meeting with him next week which she knows of, as she ordered it.’

Alexandrova left the bar, only to return a few minutes later with a nod towards Ksenia.  ‘Da, it’s so.’

Hugh had been whispering to Dima Storchaus, who now spoke up.  ‘It seems to me we have much circumstantial evidence here but a good lawyer will still get him released. Valentina Vitalyievna, put the wire on me, I’ll find him and have a few words.’

Dima found Shaidullin at the starboard railing of the boat and, leaning over, explained a few home truths about unfortunate accidents which sometimes befell wives and daughters of nasty people in this country, should anything nasty happen to any one special.

Shaidullin did not protest but kept his silence.

Then Dima dropped into a kindly voice and suggested the man just leave it - branch into something else less fatal.  Did Shaidullin comprehend?

The only recording of Shaidullin’s voice was a grunt. Dima estimated Hugh would get about two years protection out of it all.

The man was brought in, Valentina Alexandrova now went through the whole story,  played all the recordings and showed the countersigned documents. Naturally, she hadn’t been able to get Shaidullin to countersign but it was the best that could have been hoped for, short of prosecution.

XI

Prague is a beautiful city and home to Marc but he'd had to stay at the hotel to keep Dilya out of it.

Geneviève got him on a secure line and told him to make for Frankfurt in eight days, then Shadzhara, to join her.  She’d arrange the tickets.

There are a number of things we’re looking into just now and they won’t be compromised as long as you and I don’t meet until Shadzhara.'

XII

Timur Shaidullin was kept in a separate cabin until he and his wife departed at Nizhny Novgorod.  The dancing that evening went long into the night.

.o0o.

There are moments you remember forever, scenes you replay in your mind.

In St Petersburg, she'd been dressed in a light maroon and navy, off-white, pleated floral frock, with a pair of flat pumps on her feet, her hair tied up at the back and she'd looked devastating, with that light, springy walk and femininity.

Hugh had read from the little guide book: ‘Peter the Great had no vain ambition to overcome nature but he did make use of it.  [Ivan Golikov, 1788]'

What a place, with its summer palace, cascades, fountains, golden statues and that magnificent canal linking the palace to the sea itself. He’d been here before, with Anya, and now, this time, he was gazing on the Great Cascade with a strange lady whose fair hair seemed to complement and even rise from the scene.

The more he'd glanced across at her, the more she'd resembled one of these nereids, returned finally to her true home. When she'd asked him about his thoughts, he'd told her and she'd cleft the mood in twain, ‘Galatea? She’s not that beautiful – I don’t know that I’d want to be compared to her.’

‘The ego of the girl. The Medici Venus then.’

‘Well, that’s better but still -’

‘I could clothe you in gold and stand you on a pedestal over there and then the world could share your beauty for eternity.’

‘Hugh, you’re sick, you know that?’  But she'd been stifling a smile.

They'd walked that pathway beside the canal and strolled over to Monplaisir, Peter’s seashore palace, looking out over the Gulf of Finland. Standing by the seaside balustrade, they gazed out over the gulf and at the angry little wavelets in the twelve knot breeze blowing spray their way.

She didn’t bat an eyelid but let it blow into her face.

He was watching her.

‘Any other girl would be covering her face and complaining that I brought her here.’

‘It’s very pleasant, Hugh. It’s different.’

‘Different for you but for me - this is my métier. I’m a sailor, and this scene is me and everything I’ve ever been. Here I feel I’ve come home.’

She'd looked at him sharply. ‘What’s this called again?’ she asked. ‘It’s French, isn’t it?  You know what it means? I can’t remember.’

‘You really want to know?’

‘Yes.’

‘My pleasure. Mon plaisir.  Moyor udovoilstviye.’

She'd stared at him.  'Is it really?  Do you know why I wore a dress today?'

'Oh my goodness.'

'And as there was no one within sight when we came round the corner, I estimate that gives us about three minutes.  Stand behind me.'

He should have argued, should have worried about whether this would bring the wrath of some sort of fate down on them.  Instead, he stood behind, reached down and parted her and there they were.  His arms went around her and she gripped those arms.

A youngish couple came around the far bend and she said 'nye vazhno', it didn't matter but as it had already happened inside, it did matter and she conceded that.  His was the messier problem, handkerchiefs took care of that, the couple saw it and looked at the palace itself, quickly entering the grounds, he zipped up and stood beside her, she placed her hand on his and then, in a most un-Ksenia-like gesture, put an arm around him and placed a kiss on his cheek, then when he turned to her, on his lips.

'Thank you.  This was perfect.'

.o0o.

They crammed as much living as they could into the next few days now - safe to say that for 70% of their remaining time, they were never more than two metres away from one another. Both practical people, they knew it had to be now or never.

Seven days later, the boat docked in Shadzhara, she had to work, he had to work, it was back to the grind.

XIII

September, 2001

Frenetic was the only way to describe the start to the month.

Hugh had the semester planned, Shaidullin had cancelled the Samara meeting or at least had rescheduled it, unbeknowns to them, Viktor was overseas, wooing this lady, Valentina had returned to her regular work, Geneviève had no further purpose at Samara but did visit a number of places here and in Nizhny Novgorod, then met up with Marc who’d kept to his schedule.

Marc phoned Hugh and said he was in town.

Hugh suggested they visit Giuseppe for a meal and that they make it a party. He then phoned Ksenia and said there was something special happening and would she come to Giuseppe at 18:00?  He phoned Anya and said she might be interested too.  Did she want to bring the Italian?

He was in Italy.  Right.

.o0o.

They converged in dribs and drabs from 18:00 to 19:00 and each new visitor surprised someone.

At first it was only Ksenia, Geneviève, Marc and Hugh and the latter had actually arranged it that way, having given the others later times to arrive.  Ksenia checked out Ms Lavacquerie, Hugh checked out Ms Lavacquerie, Marc checked out Ksenia and Ms Lavacquerie checked them all out in turn.

She saw in Ksenia a stunner, more beautiful by being seemingly at peace with herself but something in her sharpness reminded her of a lioness and it was a moot point who was protecting whom in that relationship.  Her fiance, Hugh – he was more of an enigma.  He seemed too soft in manner for such a woman but she progressively revised that judgement as she heard the tales.  She saw the gleam in the eye and the conspiratorial smile at the edge of the lips and would have judged him a flirt except that he made no obvious moves - except on Ksenia.

Ludmilla came in next, to almost everyone’s surprise but as she was a known face, she attracted little attention that way, except that everyone thought she looked marvellous in her navy and cream outfit, given what they knew of her reported age.

Louise arrived and they were already tucking into the pizzas by that stage.  She was appalled by the food and they, in turn were amused by her manner.  She and Geneviève did the ritual embrace; Geneviève went up with her to order something half decent.

Hugh tried hard but his eyes couldn’t help but follow Geneviève over to the counter and what was worse, Geneviève was well aware of what her famous thighs were doing to the men but it was the women she’d hoped to impress.  Ksenia was watching Hugh from the corner of the eye and made a mental note but then he turned back to look at her and she looked down.

Anya now came in, at her compact best and immediately went up to order but Hugh had already bought her usual champagne, the silver label, as he'd seen her coming, another point Ksenia noted for future reference.  She and Hugh embraced and then Marc and her.

As the meal went on, the ice cream and cakes, the coffee, Ksenia was waiting to see Hugh’s surreptitious glances at Geneviève or Anya but she caught him, from the counter, eyeing her instead and if to her shock, mentally undressing her. 

Geneviève noted that too and found it curious with his own woman.

Hugh went to the loo but didn’t come back immediately. He stood by the double glazed window with the pot plant and looked out at the tree lined street.  It all seemed to be going well next door.

Geneviève came through to the ladies bathroom, he spun around at the moment he judged she'd gone past him but she'd already stopped and turned to face him - he was caught.  She was highly amused, turned and went to the loo.

.o0o.

When she came out, it was perfectly obvious that neither had any real business remaining there, they both accepted that and she said, 'Hugh,’ in a calm, deep voice.

To say he was intrigued was an understatement.  'I’m so pleased to have met you, Ms Lavacq … um … Geneviève.’

‘I'm glad to have met you too,’ she smiled. ‘You have a lovely friend in there.  She is very, very beautiful.  And happy too,’  she said pointedly.

Hugh nodded too.  ‘Oui, elle est une belle fille, tres jolie.’

His French amused her but she was appreciated he’d tried.  She then made a quick move forward, at odds with the calm in her voice, rested one hand on his forearm and there was a hell of a lot in that touch.  Looking into her eyes, he couldn't stop himself - he placed his fingers lightly on her cheek and she made no move to pull away at all.

Then she suggested, ‘Shall we join the others?’

‘Oui, d'accord.’

Observing them through the two archways from the main room at that moment was Anya, goggle-eyed and none too happy.  Insofar as someone at that distance could look into someone else's eyes, she looked into his and the accusation was clear.  She disappeared.

Geneviève was taking it all in, she reached for his arm again to stop him and asked if there might be trouble.

'No, there can't be.  Nothing has happened.'  He turned and looked into her eyes and she looked back.  'Has it?'

'No,' she replied, 'nothing has happened.  Let's go back.'

They were both in agreement about going back.  Neither made any move to.  This surprised him more than anything else about her.  Her reputation as a head of a section surely meant she'd be a decisive, almost blunt person.  She was neither of those things, he saw it, she saw that he'd seen it and she went very red.

'Geneviève, if we don't return, there really will be trouble - not with them but between us.' 

She nodded and they went back.

They saw it had got to the ice-cream phase and Ksenia had actually bought for the two of them, they went up and he bought coffee for three.

They brought them back and sat down in the middle of a discussion about matters European but eyes were glancing at Geneviève and Hugh and Anya was doing the glaring at Hugh bit - overdoing it as a matter of fact.  He sighed and went around to her to kiss her cheek but she was having none of that and turned her head away. 

Ksenia was amused as he resumed his place, she got up and put the napkin down on the table, went up to Anya and suggested they go to the bathroom themselves.  To this, she first thought about it and then acceded and off they went.

Louise was asking in French about what Geneviève and Hugh had actually done, which Marc and to a lesser extent Hugh could follow, they francophones got the predictable answer, Ludmilla was watching it all with great interest, she asked Hugh some questions in Russian about the Volga trip, fairly innocuous but it had Marc half listening to that and to the French conversation as well.

'Anyone want to talk in English?' suggested Hugh.

'Nyet,' smiled Ludmilla, to which he replied, 'Izvenitye,' and asked her, in Russian, if he could top up her champagne glass.  She smiled, he asked the others and they said they'd like some more ice cream, so that took him away, just as Ksenia and Anya returned and she seemed a happier bunny now.  She even looked at Hugh, shaking her head ... but with a smile.  That could have meant, 'You're for it later,' or it could have meant that Ksenia had set her straight.

XIV

Ksenia and Hugh got back to his flat around 22:00, after various people had been dropped off.

The moment their heads hit the pillow, she said, ‘Anya told me about your non-conversation with Geneviève near the bathroom. Need I worry?’

'Do you want the truth?  Really want it?'

'Yes and only the truth, whatever it costs me.'

He described it in fine detail - the waiting by the windowbox, the turning around, the nuances, her hand on his arm, the fingers on her cheek, the agreement to go back to the main room after they'd agreed nothing had happened.

‘If I allowed you to go to Paris for a couple of weeks, would you go?’

‘No.  We'd make love.  It's the same as your man in Moscow - you knew that would happen, that I would be all right with it but you didn't need the complication.'

'Would that happen if you and Anya went away together?'

'She wouldn't go.  It might happen if she went but it would be fraught, she'd find fault, I don't think it would be right.  And with her attitude this evening, no, I don't think there's any point to the exercise.'

'Geneviève is very beautiful.'

'So are you.  Do you want to know what she said about you?'

'Obviously.'

'She said, 'She is very, very beautiful.'  Then she added, in a meaningful way, as a warning to me, 'and happy too'.' 

'She said that?'

'Yes.  I don't want that, Ksusha and Geneviève knew right from wrong.  She can break a man's heart.  She's not breaking mine.  That's your job.'


She really didn't know how to react.  In the end, the best way was to make love.


Chapter 17 here ... Chapter 19 here

HOME

No comments :