Tuesday, May 5, 2009

1-19: Ambush



Chapter 18 here ... Chapter 20 here

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I

Late November, 2001

Viktor Igorovich was back, he’d had his old security chums over for a knees up and one of them had told him something very curious about Frederika.

Not only was she in Russia but she was coming to Shadzhara.  The question was why and Viktor called a summit meeting of Ksenia, Anya and Hugh.

They arrived at Viktor's separately.

.o0o.

‘I think to kill,’ Ksenia was first to answer that question, over the coffee. ‘She’s a cold blooded killer and enjoys it - a Black Widow. I’m a cold blooded killer but I hate it. If my lover died, I’d rather die too.’

‘And the other way round?’ asked Anya.

Ksenia didn’t reply, looked at Anya narrowly, then went on. ‘This thing was ordered from Shadzhara - she phoned here from Moscow. The contract makes no strategic sense, it seems to me.  It seems pure spite, taking out rivals and settling old scores. If I were to put myself into her shoes, which my mind can do to an extent,’ Hugh glanced at Anya, ‘then I’d say she’s coming to take out all three of us.’

‘There has to be money involved somewhere,’ put in Hugh. ‘Frederika doesn’t work for nothing.’

‘No, she doesn’t, so who’s paying her? There is another scenario, more elaborate, and that is that Frederika herself is being set up for a hit.’

‘Why?’ asked Anya.

‘Old scores, knows too much, there are a dozen reasons. It’s possible she has something for Hugh and plans to protect him, rather than kill him.’

‘Protect him from whom?’

‘From me, for example. Maybe I plan to take him out, on the orders of my cousin or as revenge for my brother.  I know you both would not put it past me.  Hugh knows exactly though.’

They lapsed into silence and then, in the midst of that silence, the phone rang like a klaxon. Hugh looked at his watch – 20:24.’

‘Well,' demanded Anya, ‘aren’t you going to answer it?’ Viktor nodded to Hugh, who did an ‘Allo-e’ in the Russian manner.

‘Hugh, hi, how are you?’ her hard voice instantly recognizable.

‘Fine Frederika, long time no hear.’

Her reply was barely audible to those present.

‘Of course, but I work tomorrow. Can’t get out of it. How would you like to meet at the Baumana McDonald’s in the afternoon – maybe about 16:00? You know Baumana?’

Hugh replaced the receiver.

‘Of all the nerve,’ commented Anya.

‘Well, well,’ commented Ksenia.

‘So now, ladies and Viktor,’ requested Hugh, ‘what do you think? To go or not to go?’

II

Hugh arrived early at McDonald’s, ordered a McChicken Meal and took it upstairs - Frederika was already there. The inevitable mutual scrutiny took place and the mutual compliments. She stood out amongst the Russians.

There was no kiss.

After the desultory conversation, they got down to business. The gist of her tale was that she’d been approached to do a bit of free lance business – Hugh himself, in fact. She hadn't accepted that but had accepted the second offer and so here she was.

Who had ordered it?

Of course she didn’t know, these things are never done directly, she said. Anyway, she was staying at the ‘Regina’ and had a train ticket to Moscow for the following evening. Call her please. It was so good to see him again.

He now touched on their time together and she said that time goes quickly.

She took her leave. 

He just sat there, thinking it through.  Right, so there were a number of possibilities. Firstly, that Frederika was going to do it anyway and had simply been sizing him up.

Next most likely, as Ksusha herself had hinted, was that she was being set up as a stool pigeon by someone who was going to take her out of the game – that someone being Ksusha.  Anya had a feeling that it might be a swansong and Ksenia would take him as well.

They had until the following evening to find out.

.o0o.

He asked Anya over for supper and put it to her, over the dessert, ‘How do you read this?’

‘One’s a proven killer and the other I don’t trust an inch.’ She became very serious and lowered her voice. ‘I don’t know what passed between Ksusha and you on that cruise but it’s too late to worry about it now. She might be your friend.’

Hugh gazed across at her. ‘We got out of touch with each other, didn’t we, love?’ he said. ‘We lost it, you and I.’

‘Why do you think bad things of me all the time?  I’m all at sea, really, and trying to find a port to come home to.’

Thoughts flew back to two girls coming through those Debenhams double doors. But now one of those girls had disappeared out of his life and the other was someone else’s.

He looked at her thoughtfully and wanted it all to go back to where it had been but in that instant, he knew it would have ended the same way, whichever permutation had occurred.

He took her in his arms and she rested her head against his chest.  'Anya, what do you really want?'

'For my Italian to take me seriously, to take me as his.'

'I told you about that.'

'I know but you asked me what I wanted.  I know what you wanted to hear but I can't give you that.'

'You don't want Ksenia with me and you don't want to be with me yourself.  You wish for me to be alone.'

'I do want you with me but maybe not the way you think.  You're very important in my life.  You also come back to me so easily.  You kiss me without ever thinking whether you  have the right to, whether I want it or not.  You don't even check that with me.  You're lucky I do and I always will.'

He lifted her chin and kissed her on the lips.  She paused and allowed it to deepen, they stood like that, doing that, for maybe a minute and then she slowly withdrew.  'That's what I mean,' she breathed.

'Yes, I know.'

'How can you do that, if she is your woman?  How could you make eyes at That Frenchwoman at Giuseppe if Ksenia is your woman?'

'I didn't make eyes at Giuseppe.  I remained near a window, knowing she was coming back out, just to talk to her and there was suddenly something there.  She and I pulled away and I told Ksenia all of it later.'  He repeated the exact conversation with Geneviève.

'I worry about Ksenia - that if she finds some happiness, that she knows it can't last and so she might -'

'Yes, it's been through my mind too.  Look at it this way - I've had a varied life.  I had you and lost you.  I have Ksenia - that might be enough for me.  I'm not sure I'd mind going at this point, while it's still good with her.  Perhaps she thinks the same way.'

'That's so selfish.  What about my need for you?'

'Yes, there is that.'

III

Ksusha called.  She’d had a thought and had contacted Ludmilla Valerievna with it.  One of Sergei’s and her mutual friends drove a Megane. 

She’d put it to Ludmilla and it had checked out.  Not only did he drive one but he worked as a taxi driver.  The reason it hadn’t come up was that he didn’t drive for the Megane company but for a general taxi firm and it was their number on the side, no doubt.

He’d gone missing and had failed to report in for work. The Russian equivalent of an APB had now gone out and it seemed to have been narrowed to the Borovoye Matyushina region, not an impossible drive from the airport.

That put it in the category they were looking at, as there were clinics down that way and many swanky summer houses.  Looked at from another angle though, it was all a bit obvious.

Ksusha hadn’t dwelt on it but the connection with Sergei also brought up the question of her loyalty and that of Sergei's.  If the latter was suspect, then whether Georges really had been eliminated last winter was also suspect.  There was only Sergei’s word for that, the doctor who signed the death certificate having not been required to appear and testify; just the certificate itself had been scrutinized.

So, all at once, loyalties had been thrown back on the table for scrutiny, loyalties which had been taken for granted up till now.

IV

Frederika lay on the bed in her hotel room and hoped she’d intrigued him enough. She was running out of time, it was true and it was going to be tricky, this double cross.

All the players were accounted for except this Anya. Frederika didn’t know how to factor her in. Ksenia was as plain as day – she was doing her own double cross. Safin was also as plain as day. Hugh was hopefully under the influence of Ksenia and that would make it easier.

She thought that, unless something presented itself later this night, then early tomorrow evening, before the train, had to be the time, banking on their preference for a crowded place - she’d never try it on there, would she?

There was a slight thrill to it all and she knew that feeling - that thrill.

V

Ksenia switched off her mobile, not wanting emotional complications with Hugh at this stage, and lay back on her bed. She’d made her report and factored Anya out. Frederika? Had Hugh made a direct connection with her, the fool? If he had, it would be his last act on this earth.

There were going to be deaths.  No one was stepping in to prevent this thing and yet all authorities knew of it. That a civilian, Hugh, could be in the middle of that mix angered her.

Maybe she should take out Frederika first and uncomplicate the steps of this dance. Wouldn’t be hard – she knew Frederika’s number in the hotel and could find a vantage point in the trees.

There were going to be deaths.  The question was - whose?  With all the snipers in the world, there were still enough unpredictables in a double double-cross that someone was going to die, maybe two.

She was fatalistic about it.  If her time was up, it was up.  It had been wonerful with Hugh but how long could this have been sustained for?  If one of them came out of it, they'd move on.  In a sense, she was glad there was Geneviève, that was a chance for him.  If it was her still alive, then she'd escaped showing her true self to him, something she was absolutely determined he'd never see and looking at his attitude towards her and his manner, though she'd seen he could spring to violence on an enemy, she knew he'd never let her pressure valve build up steam - he'd always allow it to cool down.

She was frightened of the future and the coward in her wanted it not to arrive, hence her fatalistic thoughts.  But she also wanted what they had never to die.  That was cognitive dissonance and she wasn't very good with cognitive dissonance.  She'd take tomorrow as a sign.  If they were still together, then that was intended and she'd not hold back.

VI

Sergei Safin was ready for the morrow. He’d just put down the phone and Ksenia’s report had been encouraging.

He checked his SR-1 Vektor and the Makarovs he’d prepared for Frederika and Ksenia but he was thinking maybe the old PSS with the SP-4 slug might be better for the close range work. It was a girl’s weapon anyway. Useless over three metres but the target was likely to be far closer than that, wasn’t she?

He allowed himself a tight grin and poured himself another tipple. So, not much more could be done now. He wondered how Ksenia was progressing and hoped Frederika wasn’t out roaming but there’d been no report.

It was going to be split second tomorrow, that was a given. He hoped he was still sharp enough.  The girl who’d been kidnapped should distract the French end and Ludmilla long enough to allow tomorrow to happen.

He went through the plan one last time and each link held firm.

VII

The next morning was crisp outside. Some birds hit the window pane as Hugh left to collect Anya.

Safin was up early and called on the two women separately, as planned.  Marc had stayed at Hugh’s place; the bulk of the day inexorably passed and there was nothing of note to speak of.

Interestingly, in the web of deceit and intrigue, one thing crystal clear to all parties was that nothing of import was going to happen till around 18:00.

Then it would probably be over in less than a minute.

A phone call from Viktor around 16:00 complicated the issue. He was coming round to Hugh’s forthwith.   Fine, he could join Anya and himself.

The phone went - Frederika. Why hadn’t he phoned? She’d waited in last evening and now only had a few hours left in Shadzhara.

Could they meet? They could? Oh good. Where? The Railway Café? Yes, she knew it. 18:00?  Fine, she’d be there.

Ksenia called twenty minutes later. She’d just heard Frederika had a tiny weapon for close range.

Viktor arrived shortly after these calls and analysed them.  Frederika had a PSS most like. Safin had to be in it somehow – sniper? But on whom?

When Anya went downstairs for supplies, the question of her now arose and as Viktor pointed out - she wasn’t any part of this and there was her family to consider.

‘Anya will not be allowed within range but I can’t very well stop you.  There's no law in the land to say you must be there this evening and no idea of chivalry comes into this either. We’ll have people there but that’s not going to help in a split second and do you have the reflexes for this?’

That's how it was left when she came back up, with Hugh deep in thought and fully in agreement that she was going to be kept out of it. They had the supper and she was good at the makings, so they lost themselves in this for a time.

.o0o.

Eventually it was approaching 16:00 and the decision had to be made. Viktor’s people would certainly do their stuff – he’d called in some old favours - but there was always the worry of Frederika’s close-in pistol and any player not yet accounted for. It only needed that split second and Hugh would be dead. He was not a professional. Viktor conceded he now had experience but not enough for this game.

‘I hear all of that, Man,' said Hugh, 'and I see good reason not to go. There appears to be more than Frederika in this equation. But I don’t think there are any more players than Safin and Ksusha. It seems to concern those three and myself.  Marc might be connected but I really think that’s another issue here, a red herring.

The thing is, trouble has followed me round for quite a long time and I really do need to know who's gunning for me.  I have a hunch who ordered Frederika onto me and if I survive, that will be explored.  Oleg's Zhenya's and Georges' passing stopped nothing.  If I don't go this evening, I'm sure it's just a question of time, when I have no chance - coming home one evening and so on.  I can't keep living under that threat.’

'You could leave the country.'

'I could but there's a woman I love. In the end, these are the things which count.  Love might be foolish, I could end up betrayed but compared to saving my own skin - I have to do this.  My attention will be on Frederika the whole time, each of her hands, how she feels, what she is wearing, how she's walking, if she falls against me, all of that.  I can't do that plus watch the others.  If someone else has it in for me, then I'm relying on the observers.'

.o0o.

17:10.  It was time.

Various parties drove to the general area and took up positions.

Hugh’s car stopped on the path outside the café and three tall men appeared from nowhere, crowding his door. He got out and was shepherded to the café door.

Inside, there was a barman, also two waitresses, a guy and his girlfriend in the middle of a shaslik and then there was Frederika, over by the far table, her lap covered by the table cloth. Hugh walked up behind her, put his arms round her neck and embraced her.

There seemed no weapon below the cloth but there was still her handbag to consider. She was sitting facing the door, so Hugh would need to sit with his back that way. He did so, both in order to keep his eye on the kitchen and also to allay her further suspicion.  He was pretty confident about those across the road.

‘Frederika, put the bag on the table, at the far end.’

She slowly reached for it and placed it where he’d asked. Her eyes were fixed on his and he’d seen that look before.

‘You’ve eaten already?’ he asked.

‘No, I waited for you. We have about thirty minutes, then I’ll have to go across to the train.’

The waitress came up and Hugh recognized her as a regular. She took their order for steak and for shaslik with salad. He asked if they could hurry it up because of the time.

She said they’d try.

‘So, Frederika, here we are.’

He looked at her in greater detail now. Life had not treated her terribly well and her face was close to haggard – a tragedy in one so young. ‘Have you enjoyed Shadzhara? What did you see today?’

She was looking at him evenly, summing him up. He kept wanting to glance at the kitchen entrance and then stopped himself. Interesting, she thought. She went with the idea that there’d be back up for him outside. Then again, he always had been a maverick.

‘It’s sure good to see you again Hugh. It’s been a very long time.’

A smile played on her lips but something very emotional was going on inside her. Was she scared?

.o0o.

The food came and they both tucked in and polished off their dishes, like real trenchermen.

‘Do you like it here in Shadzhara, Hugh?’ she ventured, eyes still rivetted on him.

‘There are some definite pluses.’

‘Anya?’

‘Yes.’ He thought that not to mention Ksusha might be a plus in this situation.

Everything was being weighed in the balance and evaluated. Everything had to be just so and she was scanning for any nuance, anything which might alter the balance of the coming events. It was almost as if there was no pretence any more - the conversation was so far beyond normal that it couldn’t be retrieved.

Finally the moment arrived. ‘Hugh, it’s time to catch the train. Would you see me across?’

‘That’s exactly what I’d planned to do - what both of us had planned.  Yes?’

She caught her breath at that. She was either nervous or high. That was it, wasn’t it? She was high on what she was about to do.

Now he could see the sardonic cruelty in the mouth, the cold, mocking eyes. He could even have made love to her now and it would have been indescribable, he was sure. That she had a hit in progress was never in doubt in his mind and yet he still wasn’t totally convinced he was the target – at least not from her.

He also had to bear in mind the other factor in the equation – Ksusha. He couldn’t believe she was in the same killer class as this one and yet – why not? Look at her job on Zhenya. But then again, look at the job he’d done himself at Klenovaya Gora. Was he a cold-blooded killer?

He said to her, ‘You remember London, Frederika - the B&B?’

‘Of course.’

‘Any feelings about that?’

‘It was a lovely time, Hugh.’  There was no emotion behind the words.

They now moved towards the door and Hugh stayed behind her. One of the three beefy boys now came through the door, demanding to be fed. The waitresses began a haranguing conversation with one of them but Frederika was already through the door, with Hugh close behind.

She propped and offered her elbow to be taken – they were to walk over to the train, arm in arm, according to her agenda. He offered his arm instead, she laughed, took it and he could feel her bony strength. ‘Old times, Frederika. I won’t throw your handbag in the river this time.’

She didn’t reply. She was walking evenly, closely and expectantly now, no shadow of a doubt about that, almost padding along on those feet. He asked, ‘Will you take me out first or second?’  She glanced at him sharply and he answered her glance. ‘Oh yes, love, everyone knows about your PSS.’

She was so far into her mental preparation by now that he couldn’t distract her. He tried again, ‘Whatever you’re about to do, Frederika, Blackheath will always remain for us.’  She caught her breath, glanced and saw that he was gazing at her with affection and sympathy.

Damn him, she thought. They started to cross the road.

Suddenly a Passat pulled out from the kerb to the left and squealed past them, window down, two metres from a parked Volvo off to the right. Hugh saw a red beam from the Volvo, Frederika whipped out her pistol and fired at the Volvo passenger but too late, three cracks from different places and Frederika dropped like a sack of potatoes and he did too – excruciating upper arm - but he’d heard two other people’s cries as well, on the right.

Four shots - that was it – all over.

VIII

Early December, 2001

Strangely, the first visitor to the convalescing Mr. Jensen was Louise and she wasn’t alone.  She had Geneviève with her.

In French, Louise began, ‘Ah, what has happened to you, Hugo? Come to France, come for one year – I’ll arrange everything. I have a little gift to cheer you up.’

The gift was sweet - a ribbon tied wooden box of truffles and he thanked her for it but it had come from both of them.  While he concentrated on the garrulous but basically nice Louise, it was the quiet scrutiny by the other woman that had him entranced.

He glanced across at her and she smiled back at him, in a kindly manner, he thought.

Anya phoned and said she’d be there ten minutes later, which she was.  She was entirely unprepared for the plumed Louisa to usher her in with her bag of mandarins and half litre of kefir.

Louise, as ever, was on the move, Geneviève had barely had time to say hello and that was the end of the French contingent.

Anya laughed that old laugh.  ‘Don’t be like that,’ Hugh admonished, ‘Louise is all right.’

‘The other one is all right too?’ she smiled.

Hugh ignored that and put to her the question on his mind. ‘I asked the staff here and they either didn’t know or weren’t telling me.   Give me the news straight out, with no umming and ahhing.  How’s Ksusha?’

‘Alive, Hugh, in hospital.’

‘She was shot then.’

‘Yes. I came to you first.’

‘Well, I’ll visit her later.’

‘You won’t be visiting anyone today. Tomorrow maybe.’

He sunk back to the bed.  ‘Will you take her a message – tell her I’m alive?’

‘She already knows.’

‘I see.’  He took Anya’s hands in his and looked into her eyes.  ‘Why are you here?  You have your own man, we’re apart and still you’re here.’

‘Hugh.’

Tears appeared at the corner of her eyes and he realized he’d said something cruel.  ‘Sorry. Tell me about what actually happened,’ he asked.  ‘I was there but didn’t see much, you’d appreciate.’

Her cheeks coloured with anger. ‘I didn’t see much either - I’m going to kill Viktor.’

‘No, kill me because I asked him to keep you out of it.’

‘You did?’  She thought about it, couldn’t think of what to say, he saw the wheels turning in her brain, then she just said, ‘Hugh.’

‘Well, are you going to tell me or not?’

In Anya’s eyes, the story was pretty straightforward, once you understood who was paying whom and what each player’s motivation had been.  Ludmilla had told her the likely scenario had been like this:

Frederika had been commissioned by Shaidullin and, having lost his mentor and his means of livelihood, it must have cost him deep in the purse to take out Hugh for his part with Katya, and to take out Ksenia for her betrayal. So that was simply revenge.

However, Frederika had been pondering whether to refuse the Hugh commission or not – at least, this is what Anya could gather. But to decide that, she had to judge Hugh’s attraction for her, personally and that meant a night together. When that hadn’t materialized, she’d left it until the last moment to decide, during the café meeting.

Who could say but it would seem logical that she would first take out Ksenia, then the unarmed Hugh if she still wanted. Safin had only ever been motivated by money but in this matter, he'd not be paid by anyone. His sniper rifle was trained on Hugh and it was some sort of revenge she didn't understand herself.  He probably thought Frederika would vacillate on Hugh but would definitely take out Ksenia, so his weapon was therefore on the man.

Ksenia was on an official assignment to disable Frederika, whom they were sure was gunning for both herself and Hugh. But when Ksenia learnt that Safin was supplying the weaponry and after she reasoned that Shaidullin was behind this – easily verifiable via bank accounts - it was family business once again to take out Sergei, for knowingly supplying Frederika with the weapon which was to kill her, Ksenia. Also, she was sure Safin would try to take Hugh out himself.

Her first shot, therefore, had to take out Safin and her second was for Frederika. She'd assumed Frederika's first shot would be for her and so a section sniper was in place to incapacitate Frederika the moment she made any move whatever with a weapon.  But he was a split second to slow.  Simple thing and now she was disfigured for life.

Viktor hadn’t been anywhere near. He’d risked Anya’s eternal displeasure by physically preventing her from getting out of the car, a short distance from the action, until the firing had stopped. This was at the request of the parents, who knew all about it from Viktor Igorovich anyway and at his request.

Now it only remained for Hugh to visit the wounded Ksenia – even Anya recognized this - but not today. She'd collect him the next morning.

IX

It was a very brief visit.

Propped up in bed, one eye covered, her cheeks pockmarked, Ksenia tried to smile. ‘What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be shot.’

He hobbled over and kissed her forehead, where he could find an undamaged bit, and Anya followed suit. ‘Two lovers at one time – I’m so lucky today.’

There was obviously so much to discuss but Anya's presence - and she showed no sign of taking the hint, plus she had to take Hugh back - meant the visit was curtailed.  They both had time.

.o0o.

Ksenia went home in two days and called in Yulia to help her and for companionship.

‘I can’t deal with Hugh yet so if he calls, Yula, you talk to him and explain I need space for a short time.  Just stay with me, all right?’

‘Of course.’

‘What am I going to do?  My livelihood has gone.’

‘Ludmilla Valerievna is not going to lose you like that.  You’re a key member of the team - she relies on your assessment of a situation.’

‘We both know she’s going to gently push me into a desk job and then she’ll want me to take over from her.  I can’t stand it.  The field was always my thing.’

‘How old are you now?’

‘You know I had my thirtieth the day of the shooting.’

‘Does Hugh know?’

‘I’ve never told him.  I don’t know his either.  It’s not important, especially not this one.’

‘At what age should an agent retire from field work, Ksusha?’

‘When she ages and I’m not old enough.  I’m way ahead of you.’

‘Thirty-one or two, when the reflexes slow down, Ksenia.  You know that very well.’

‘Hold me, Yula, I need to be held.’

X

Marc phoned from Prague, Hugh was now home, mostly in bed, Dilyara was well and they were thinking family.

‘How’s Geneviève?’

He chuckled. ‘Last I heard, fine.  How are you?’

‘You mean you've not heard?’

‘Heard what?’

‘You do know about Ksenia, don’t you?’

‘No, what?’

He told the whole business and was amazed Anya hadn't phoned Dilyara but then again, why would she about this matter?

‘So sorry about Ksenia.  She has to know it doesn’t matter.’

‘Well, it does matter to her.  Her livelihood has now gone, the femme fatale is no more, at least in her eyes.’

‘Yes.  Sorry about you too - are you all right?’

'Well enough.'

They got onto other matters.

XI

Mid-December, 2001

Hugh was now out of bed and behind the wheel again, albeit gingerly.

‘Have you ever considered,’ asked Viktor Igorovich, over a fine coffee and cream, ‘why this craziness has kept following you around? I mean, even after Safin has gone and Shaidullin has been discredited?’

‘I have. I even thought it might have been Anya for awhile. It was never a profitable speculation because I could never come to any conclusion.’

‘And yet, one by one, the suspects get fewer and fewer and the craziness continues.’

‘Continued, past tense. It will be interesting now to see if it stops.’

‘For the sake of argument – if Frederika were actually the good person in this then who would have been the villain? Don't forget she didn’t gun for you first.’

‘Very good question.  Now another one – tell me about America.’

‘Well, most of it you know of via email but I suppose you mean the personal side?’  He paused and Hugh smiled.  ‘Right, well I have news for you, Man.  I’m going back there and I might be marrying.’

‘Whoa!  Hey, that’s great.  Full description please.’

‘Thirty-eight, two daughters, one thirteen and one eight, long divorced, grandpa and granddad live in, lots of extended family.’

Hugh kept a poker face and said, ‘Well, you know what you’re doing, you and –’

‘Daniella.’

‘Nice name.  Look, I’ll be devastated to see you go.  We don’t meet all that regularly but the fact that you’re here is important.’

‘Ditto.  I’ll be back each year, two or three times, to see family so it’s not the end.’

‘All the very, very best, Man.’

.o0o.

He met Anya at the Pyramid and she was speculating too - about the future.

‘I really think you need to get out of this country, it’s going to kill you.  Slow or fast, it doesn’t much matter, but inevitably it will. As long as you persist in staying, you’re vulnerable. Your character’s not right for staying here and you need constant protection.

All people who live here are simply trying to survive in a hostile environment; there’s no place for compassion and they’re going to carry you right along with them. I don’t think Ksusha’s right for you either and if she chose to hurt you, she’d really damage you, as I keep saying. With me, it was always just words.’

‘You’ve been right too many times.’

'But sometimes not as well?'

He looked at her.  'I wish you'd loved me.'

'I do love you.'

'You know what I mean.'

'Have you ever thought the issue might be inside me - nothing to do with you?  Have you ever thought I didn't know what I had but thought I wanted someone different and now I have someone different, I need someone different?'

'I see.'

'Have you thought why I was even available to you all those years ago?  Let's not go over old issues like that.  Let's talk about what I'm going to do now and what you're going to do now.'

'Dilyara's baby - does that have an effect on you?'

'Yes.'

There was silence for a short time.  Neither could think what to say. 

She did eventually. 'She'll have your baby.'

'Is that a question or a statement?'

'Both.  I really am worried for you.'

He took her in his arms and held her close.

XII

Timur Shaidullin had thought it over for weeks.

His priority list had had to be redrawn, given the events at the station and his financial loss. Still, he hadn't had to pay Frederika her second half after all so he was in a more benevolent mood.

At the head of the list to be eliminated were Valentina Alexandrova, who’d blighted his life, together with Natalia Kurbatova, who’d come back from the dead and had blown his cover, Ksenia Sharova, the former lover and traitress who’d colluded to destroy him and now his wife Katya who’d become unreliable and had threatened him with exposure.

On the list to be discredited were Ludmilla Petrova, Viktor Igorovich, Valerie Stepanov, Konstantin Mishkin and Pavel Denisov in Nizhny plus Hugh Jensen. He'd been downgraded.

The essential element in the removal of these people was ‘plausibility’. For example, Jensen’s Head of English, Habibullina had several rivals and it should be relatively easy to introduce an issue which would divide them to the point of discord.

Ludmilla Petrova was easy because of her little act of nepotism and Jensen was easier still because of his predilection for the ladies. Once the protective screen had been removed, it would be relatively easy to move in for the kill.

Alexandrova had been the sticking point, with her white-as-a-sheet record and family history but an idea had suddenly come to mind. If her little girl was kidnapped and a ransom demanded by Sharova, the father would come into it and all sorts of good things might result.

It might just work. It was to be timed for mid to late March.

XIII

January 2002

Hugh had finally been allowed to visit and the lovely Yulia had obviously been a great help.  Discreet, she slipped out of the door to do some shopping at the store below.

'Come to Giuseppe,' he said to her.

'No.'

'Come for a walk in Gorky Park.'

'No.'

'Come to the forest.'

This one had her swaying.  'You do the shopping - the salads, the shaslik.'

'Yes, I'll do it.  No one will see you.'

'You didn't have to say that.'

'Yes I did. I'm not going to say don't be silly because I know it's one of the worst things ever.  I am going to say that I'm here.'

'Why?'

'You know why.'

'The shame is more than I can bear.  My whole career path.'

'You had three, four years left in you and security would have made you take a senior role, keeping you for special assignments. What's happened is that it's been moved forward by a dead woman.  Life-altering events happen, Ksusha.  You haven't lost me but you're on the edge with your mind.  I want you to look forward, not stay bitter over what can't be changed.  I know you're a practical woman and you know you must.'

'What's in it for you?  What do you want with me?'

'I beg your pardon,' he said with an edge to his voice which made her look up sharply, 'I thought we had some sort of understanding.'

Her voice rose until she was fairly shouting.  'Had, had an agreement.  Go away, Hugh, leave me.  It was nice idea while I  was still ... me.'

'Look at me,' he commanded.  'Tell me now to get out of your life and never come back.  I'll walk out of that door and you need never see me again.'

She deflated and yet he feared he might have pushed her over the edge.  She mocked.  'Now it's the pity thing with you.  You'll stay because you promised, Hugh never breaks his promises, ho hum.'

'Ye-run-dah.  Utter bollox, as we say in English.  Listen, I don't mind how long this takes - years if necessary - but don't ever tell me my own motivation.  I know my motivation and not only that, I don't tell lies.'  She looked up at him sharply again - she kept having flashbacks to the Alfa tipping over the edge of the cliff it quietened her.  It didn't calm her but she became quieter.

'Hugh, I was thirty on the day of the shooting.’

‘Sh-t!  You never told me anything.’

‘You never asked.  Birthdays don’t matter, Hugh.  Not for me.  I’m scared.  I know one life and it’s gone.  The first time I try my beauty on a man and he shies away because of these scars, I’ll die inside.  No, let me finish.  You see, I’ll start to resent that all I have is you, the only one who’ll accept me.  I was happy to have only you when I knew I could get most men but now I can’t, I resent you.  I’m being unreasonable, aren’t I?’

‘Yes and no but how could you be anything else, under these circumstances?  And all those men you say you could have had - you could have had them for one night stands, brief affairs.  I was one of the few who'd take the whole package while you were still you, as you put it.  And I want the whole package now.  That's what I signed up to with you and I gave away a lot of my life for this.  I went through that thing with Frederika because I thought I was yours.  There's more than just you in this, Lubimaya  Come on, let's go to the forest.  I'm getting hungry.’

She smiled for the first time in days at that performance.  Didn't convince her but she wanted to be out of here, with him.  'Let me write a note.  Yulia has a key.'

.o0o.

Walking down the snow covered track in the middle of the forest, he stopped to gather some sticks. Putting one upright in the snow, in the middle of the path, he drew a line across the track some five metres back and handed her a stick.

‘Know what you have to do?’

She smiled, crouched down and flung the stick. It twirled in the air in a low trajectory and sliced the upright in two.

‘Know how to kill a game, don’t you?’ He took a thicker stick, reasoning that what he couldn’t do with accuracy, he would do with firepower. He flung the thing, it curled twice, the end caught the upright and whipped it out of the ground.

‘Effective,’ she said. ‘The way you did it, you used a lot of energy to incapacitate it and it might still come back at you later. I chopped mine in half.’

‘The lesson is not lost on me.  Picnic time.’

‘Let’s go deeper into the forest.’

She ran down a small track with the two car rugs and he followed with the basket, powder spraying from the branches they were brushing aside and with deep snow beneath their feet.

When they came to a clearing, she laid her rug down.  He went to pick up the basket. 

‘Leave it,’ she commanded.

‘Ah.'  Her first move was to lie down but his coat was better below them, so he lay on the rug, in his coat and undid both it and his belt, leaving her to do the rest.


When she sat across his hips and drew the second rug around them like a canopy, he understood she’d come out on this minus ten day in coat, hood, scarf and boots.  That was all.  She'd always dreamed up ways of sending him over the edge.


Chapter 18 here ... Chapter 20 here

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