Tuesday, May 5, 2009

1-21: Mata Hari



Chapter 20 here ... Chapter 22 here

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I

Anya phoned Hugh about 18:50. Yes, he had time. Could she and Viktor come round?

He opened the door to them some forty-five minutes later, ushering them to seats but Anya went with him to help with the coffee. He opened with, ‘Ksusha is a cold-blooded killer, she has her sights set on me and you’re here to back up the charge.’

Anya didn't reply but just helped with the things.

All seated now in the front room, Viktor simply put the file before him and both he and Anya observed. The first page produced no great reaction, the next twenty or so either but the key page – 23 – caused him to blanch.  It's what she had told him and she'd not glossed over any of it.

‘She told me all of it. We discussed it. It's good to see it confirmed that she left nothing out.  She's being honest with me at this time.’

‘So you’ll desist?’ Viktor too early breathed a sigh of relief.

‘We talked it out - the danger for me, how I felt now I knew and I don't feel good, I admit that.  We talked about the middle of the forest thing too which you're prbably going to show me now.  We made a tentative pact.’

'What pact?' asked Viktor, sharply.

'Don't worry, not a death pact - quite the opposite.  She'll get over her disfigurement and I'll get over her file.  I'll not go into the fine detail.'

‘This is madness,’ Anya snapped. In her mind and in that of every reasonable, eminently practical person, it was madness.

‘Maybe it is,’ he agreed. ‘Men react in different ways to loss.’

‘What are you talking about?’ she came out with, before realizing she’d given him an opening.

‘Ksusha is real and accepts me, I also told her about my past so that gave her something to think about.  Do not think it's a done deal with her and me, either of you.  I'm not saying no to you.  I have an awful lot of thinking to do but it has to be my thinking, OK?  You did what close friends must do.  I must now do much thinking.’

There wasn’t a great deal more to be said after that and after some desultory conversation, the two visitors took their leave. In the lift down, she asked Viktor what he thought.

‘He really does believe no other woman could possibly want him and sees Ksusha as his main chance.’

‘He’s so stubborn.’

‘As we all are, Anya, as we all are.  I'm not sure he doesn't know what he's doing.  I still think we were right to show him - he needs to decide with all the data in front of him.’

'I don't like it.'

II

August, 2002

At the university, they had a visitor, proudly announced by the Dean as Sarah Retton, from London.

Why was it that when in a foreign land, one’s boss always wants to bring you together with one of your own countrymen? Perhaps this person is fine in her own right but she’s come to this city for her own purposes and you’re there for yours.

If two Brits had wanted to meet one another, they could have done that in Britain.

Perhaps that sort of attitude was a bit mean but when the Dean beamingly introduced them, it was as if two long separated souls had finally been reconciled with one another.

Well, all right, he had to be gracious and take her for a drink or a coffee.

Yes, she’d go with him for a coffee.

.o0o.

At the Pyramid he took her in – large, athletic, masses of hair, heart-shaped face; compressed vitality – a hard living version of Charlotte Church was Miss Sarah Retton, wearing a transparent shirt, no brassiere and an innocent look upon her face as if she were hardly aware of the fact. She asked if he knew of any good clubs in Shadzhara.

Why would he know a thing like that in his situation?

‘A few,’ he replied anyway, ‘Doctor Club, the Pyramid and one or two others. Steer clear of Stadion – the druggies are there and you’d have problems.’

‘Do you go to clubs?’

‘I did.’

‘And now you don’t?’

‘Currently I’m in a real mess with women. Also, there are far too many of my girls at those clubs.’

‘Your girls?’

‘From uni, yes – my students.’

‘Don’t you teach any boys?’

‘Last year I taught 115 girls and 7 boys and of the boys, four didn’t come to lessons.’

‘Not a bad life.’

‘If one is male. So, what about you? Essex girl?’

‘Is that a criticism?’

‘Sensitive, sensitive. A lot of talent’s come out of Essex over the years. What will you have, coffee, tea, beer?’

‘They have bitter?’

‘Yes, Jim but not as we know it. Try the Baltica - the draught here’s not so bad either. I’m behind the wheel and can’t drink – it’s zero tolerance on the road – but I’ll have a sip of yours and a coffee. One moment.’

He indicated to Lena what he needed, she suggested the cakes, and so they went up and selected, then Sarah went to the bathroom. Lena came back up to him with a knowing look in her eyes.

‘Priye’kala iz Lo’ndona,’ he explained.

Sarah returned; the makings arrived. ‘Nice place, Hugh – may I call you Hugh?’

‘There’s not much else you could call me.’

‘Professor?’ she smiled.

‘Er, don’t make too much of that, Sarah - I’m trying to play that one down.’

‘Why, it’s prestigious.’

‘For some, for some.’

‘When were you last in London?’

‘A while ago.  I forget.  But I have to go back there to sort out some bank business and visit some people and I have to do it soon.’

‘Come back with me – just for the company,’ she quickly added.

‘When do you leave?’

‘In five days.’

They chatted about things far longer than she’d intended and she had to get back to the Dekanat to discuss details, so he paid up and dropped her back.

III

Anya had some leave due to her and was thinking of where to take it.

It occurred to her that Prague was as good as any, a short hop down there, she could head over to Italy if necessary, she could visit the pregnant Dilyara and reminisce over old times though she’d never been one for nostalgia, Anya.

.o0o.

Phone calls were made, arrangements were made and she flew there, to be picked up at the airport and whisked off to the love nest.

She realized very soon into the stay that all sorts of negatives can rear their ugly heads.

For a start and very selfishly, she was used to things being ‘just so’ at home.  She and her mother had their routines and didn’t cross one another or get under each other’s feet, the food in the fridge was the type she liked and the TV programmes, on the rare occasions they were on, were the ones she liked to watch.

Now she was in the home of a girl as strong minded as herself, who had everything ‘just so’, the way she liked it and didn’t take kindly to that being altered.

The second thing was that, as the reminiscences got into full swing, not all the memories were good.  There were times of friction, long forgotten, that now came out of the closet and they realized that, though they’d been schoolmates and ostensibly friends, there were many unresolved issues which had lain dormant for a long time.

The third problem was that of space in the huge house.  There was more than enough but sometimes, there's never enough.

Lastly, other people’s mannerisms and habits eventually pall and even little things, like the way a cup is placed on a table or the way a person laughs at a joke that can really play on the nerves.

So the veneer was kept up but deep down, both were not going to bitterly regret when the long-awaited reunion had finally run its course.

IV

When Hugh went to Ksenia’s late in the evening, she provided two beers and tackled the question with him obliquely. ‘Any visitors today?’

He broke out into a smile and kissed her with passion. ‘What was that for,’ she smiled nervously.

‘Because you care. Yes, Viktor and Anya showed me a file and yes, I saw page 23 and no, you’re never to revenge yourself on them for that. They did it because they care.’

‘I – er – told you, didn’t I?   I lost control.’

‘It’s old news, darling.  We have our pact.  Do you still hold to that?’  He took the cap off his beer.

She looked at him. ‘Why the hell couldn’t you have come to me before – all of – that?’

‘Never works that way. We play with the cards we’re dealt. Now, are you strong enough to hear some not so good news?’

‘Must I?’

‘Sometime in the next five days.’

‘All right, tell me.’

‘An Englishwoman appeared at uni today and I had the job of welcoming her.’

‘Meaning?’

‘Pyramid, coffee, talk.’

‘So?’

‘She asked me to come back to Britain with her in five days and she was serious.’

‘How so?’

‘I said yes and she just accepted that.  That I would do that, dropping my own family as far as she knew, not being there for the start of a new academic year, just upping and going.’

‘I take it she’s not ugly.’

‘About twenty-three, with big breasts, complete with hard nipples, showing through a transparent shirt.’

Ksenia sighed. ‘I’m not sighing because you’re susceptible because you’ve never gone for that type.  I’m sighing because I know who she must be.  They’re getting to me through you.’

‘Do you know it for sure?’

‘Pretty much, she sounds British security.’

‘I think they’ll make contact with me in London. I need Ludmilla Valerievna’s advice.’

Instead of responding, Ksenia thought hard for a minute. ‘All right, you must go. We need this to happen, to draw them out and see what they do.  It works both ways - you will have been inside and can report that to me when you get back. You do understand, though, that when you return you’ll have to be de-briefed.’

‘Stop, stop.  One thing at a time. You’re sending me off with this girl?’

‘She’s not a girl.  She’s a trainee agent Carly would have sent and she’s meant to be learning on the job.  The real reason is that the Brits want a place on the board, a stake in the game and this is one way in.’

‘You mentioned debriefing. Who’ll do that?’

‘Me.  Don’t you understand, Hugh, Ludmilla Valerievna’s now retired and she’s handed over the day to day running to me?’

‘What!’

‘You really are messing with a dangerous girl now, aren’t you?’

He was stunned. His jaw dropped open. ‘But that means they’ll take me the moment I land at Heathrow.’

‘Doesn’t work that way, Hugh. They have to play ball – we have détente now. No, you’ll go and when you return, we’ll debrief you.’

‘I don’t know if I like the sound of that - electrodes on the genitals?’

‘There won’t be any of that.  I’ll speak with your Dean and postpone your start a couple of weeks.’

V

Marc had had that long, encrypted conversation with Geneviève, the general theme being that he had been less than impressed with the Retton girl.

Geneviève explained that the girl was on work experience, that she was raw and needed time.  Marc retorted that Geneviève obviously hadn’t seen Sarah. ‘Honestly, it’s like they sent a caricature of Mata Hari.  They must realize this.’

‘Oh it could be anything – some VIP’s daughter, someone Carly feels a protective interest in – there are any number of reasons.  I have to confess, I’d like to fathom Carly’s mind and see just what she’s up to. Let’s see what Ksenia makes of her.

'Well, she’s in Russia now.  Hugh called me earlier and I told him what I felt.  Seems he took a different approach and is going back to London with her on Friday.’

‘Is he now?  What’s Ksenia up to?  She’s putting Hugh in danger, doing that.’

‘I thought there was détente now.’

‘In a manner of speaking.  Of course they’re going to be suspicious and their methods are not pretty.  When he returns, the Russians are then going to put him through it and no beg pardons.

‘He said Ksenia would do that.’

‘Marc, what if someone in Moscow decides that’s not enough?  What if they decide an impartial debriefing is necessary?  Do you see what I mean?  They’ll keep her at a distance while they do it.’

‘But that will alienate her.’

‘Russian bureaucracy is not really interested in the nuances of personal relationships.  There are many waiting to take her place.  Hugh could be walking into some of the nastiest experiences of his life.  Anyway, why phone you about that?’

'He wants me with him.'

'Does he now?  With not the least protest, Ksenia allows her personal partner to accompany an agent of another country’s security into the open arms of a third service. Yes, you really must be there, Marc.'

VI

Sarah Louise was ready, he had his exit visa and the other documentation ready - now came the hated trip to Moscow.

How he detested the Moscow attitude to foreigners, the attempts to relieve them of huge portions of cash before they departed, both legally and illegally and most of all, he detested that, despite his quite reasonable grasp of the Russian language, they chose to ignore that and speak in pidgin-English, thereby establishing the respective roles as fleeced lamb and wolf.

He’d ignore that himself and insist on conversing in Russian.

On the Shadzharni train, which was economically and practically more viable than the plane, he warned her about his snoring and asked whether she slept well. She didn’t but she’d have sufficient beer to achieve the result.

Then they got down to the business of the transfer from Shadzharnsky Voksal to the airport. ‘Forget the Metro – we’ll be accosted. There’s a guy with a Volkswagen who used to ply the train platform – I’ll look for him. He won’t rip us off.’

‘How will you find him?’

‘If he’s there, he’ll find us. The airport itself’s the problem. Your documentation may be OK in your eyes but they’ll find something wrong and milk you of your cash. You should have about two hundred dollars to cover it.’

‘But that’s outrageous.’

‘That’s Russia. No, it’s not Russia at all – it’s Moscow. Different other animal altogether. Russia itself is nice.’

‘Do you hate Moscow so much?’

‘Perhaps hate is too strong a word – I’ve just had some terrible experiences there. The airport is the worst. Would you let me see your documentation – the visa? You don’t have to but I might be able to detect any difficulty and help circumvent it. It’s up to you.’

She hesitated but not for security reasons – it was that it let him know certain personal details. Also, the photograph was appalling. She handed it to him.

‘Stamp on photo OK, period of stay, ‘dor’ in Russian. OK, here’s the problem. See this ‘dor’ here? That means when you can depart up till.’

‘But that’s tomorrow.’

‘You’re very lucky. If there’d been even the slightest delay until the next day, it would have cost you big, plus you would have wasted the day finding Commissions to pronounce on you and would have had to go to the Embassy and so on. Last time, it cost me $600 and I made the flight with ten minutes to spare. They love seeing foreigners squirm.’

‘But why? We bring money to their economy.’

‘What’s that to them? There are two types of Russians, just as there are with us. One type - the ones we’re used to and the others - these, out in the public, unprotected sphere. They’re all in league – the bank girl, the criminals, the officials, all of them. It’s a big money-spinner.’

‘How can you circumvent it?’

‘Partly by speaking Russian although it doesn’t work so well because it cuts them to one tenth of their fleecing power.’

He waited for her to ask him what that meant and when she didn’t, he remembered, with a shock, that he had with him a fellow-native speaker. He hoped he wouldn’t keep asking her, ‘Do you understand?’ after each difficult phrase.

He returned the visa and she also asked him to check her travelling card and a few other things. They’d taken care of it, all right – there was nothing untoward he could see.

‘Sarah?’

‘Yes.’

‘It’s so good to be able to speak English with a native again.’

She laughed and poured them both another beer.

VII

Marc finally cracked the message from the Russians to Paris which his friend Jean had passed on to him and it might have been better that he hadn’t cracked it.

Listed as an occasional patient was Geneviève.  He put that one on the back burner as he’d suspected something of the kind but as it didn’t seem to affect their operation any, it could be left to one side for now.

Apparently she’d been checking patient lists herself, according to Zhutkov and had missed three names she might have been interested in – a girl called Claudette, Marc Lacour and Hugh Jensen.  She’d missed them because the first had been added to a different list and the other two had yet to be added at all.

Now this last news needed to be attended to immediately but what would Mademoiselle’s reaction be?

He called encrypted.

Very soon afterwards came the reply that Marc was to fly to London the next morning; Geneviève would arrange the flight, collection and introductions; all would be with him by tomorrow morning, including his assignment.

He slipped upstairs, lay beside Dilyara and told her he was going to London next day.  She fell back to the bed and stared at the ceiling.

‘For how long?’

‘For as long as it takes.  Desole.’

‘What’s it about?’

‘To protect Hugh and for him to protect me.  We’re both in someone’s sights.  Just to be there, taking part.’

‘They’re trying to kill you, you mean?’

‘Non, not this time, it’s an interrogation, masquerading as a social invitation.’

VIII

Hugh and Sarah made it to the airport mid morning and while waiting for the flight, he stepped into the phone area and put a call through to Ksenia. It was a more subdued man who returned to Sarah Retton, announcing, ‘Not long now and then the nightmare can begin.’

‘You’re so cynical.’

The time came; the authorities tried, oh yes, they tried to cause problems but he knew enough Russian and knew the procedure and they couldn’t prevent him, nor her, on any legal grounds. With bad grace on the part of officialdom, they got through the vortex and were soon at Heathrow.

This is where they parted, she to her people and he to the B&B, promising to meet again after two days. He took the train to Blackfriars, all the old haunts were visited, even revisiting Baker Street on a whim and meeting Sherlock for the umpteenth time, then returning by boat via Greenwich, alone this time and so, down into the village.

He dropped into Sandra’s but she wasn’t there – some other woman was there who didn’t know him from Adam, and he didn’t even ask. The menu was different but basically followed the old lines - he had a tikka sandwich and tea. Maybe not such a good idea to revisit old haunts – it often caused more pain than pleasure.

On those seats he envisioned Ksusha, Zhenya and Lisa. On the boat he was with Frederika again. Later, back at the B&B, he called Ksenia on the hall phone and all he could think to say was, ‘Ksusha, I’m so lonely without you.’

‘Please take care, Hugh. I love you.’

Hugh put the receiver down at his end and had to have her with him right now.

He went to bed.

IX

Marc caught the afternoon flight and after Gatwick was negotiated, the rail link and the one bus he’d been told to take, he looked around for the requisite car, exchanged the predetermined pleasantries and was taken to the same B&B Hugh was at.

Trouble was, he’d missed the man by half an hour.  All he could do was settle in, sit tight and wait.

He didn’t have too long to wait – Hugh had only been out for a spot of late lunch at the Deli.  If he was surprised to see Marc, he didn’t show it but asked if he fancied a bite to eat. 

They organized themselves and skipped down the stairs, thence back to the Deli. Marc brought him up to speed on the implications of being on that list and they began to map out their strategy.  Hugh asked, ‘Does Ksenia know?’

‘Non, it wasn’t secure to contact her.  You’ll need to tell her during your regular contact.  Mademoiselle thinks the British are more interested in seeing how they can use you and now I’m here, possibly me as well.  Our problems will be during the journeys themselves, she thinks.’

‘Phew.’

‘Oui, not too pleasant, n’est ce pas?’

‘Seems to me, Marc, that we’re each other’s personal security right now until we’re back in a safe place.  I think it’s fair to say our lives are never going to be secure again whilst this clinic plan is active and that seems to me to be for the next few years.  So we’d best get used to it.’

‘All right, let’s run through what we do in each situation.’

X

Sarah Retton got off the scrambled messager and pondered.

There was something which didn’t add up here. Their information was that he was some kind of minor clerk in a proof-reading section but the man’s approach seemed to belie that. Maybe there was something they didn’t know. Maybe he was trying to play out of his league. And yet he seemed to be hot with K.

Carly made contact again.  ‘Ask Hugh to be at Garfunkels this evening at 18:30; we’ll be at a table in a corner near the kitchen.’

She made the call.

XI

Ksenia was feeling low.

She wasn’t coping with the demands of her role and though Ludmilla was at hand, this was also a pressure, a scrutiny.  One sticking point was that Ludmilla would not have sent Hugh to Britain, for the simple reason that he had to return to Russia and face a hostile reception.

The chances of her conducting the debriefing herself were small and now she saw the horror ahead.  The only way to avoid it was to ask Hugh to stay over there but that separated them forever, of course.  As K, she was Shadzhara bound.

There was a second, separate problem in Ufa and that involved her deploying agents in a tricky operation with people she called ‘easterners’.  This was what Ludmilla had learned to live with, this constant pressure, situations arising out of nowhere and Ksenia wanted no part of it.

Hugh and Marc were walking into a potential trap over there – the file on Carly showed she was connected to the money, as well as to state security and all that was going to save either of them from unpleasantness was Latour’s connection with Geneviève Lavacquerie and her desire to forge a connection with K.

XII

Sitting in Garfunkels were Carly, Sarah and an unnamed male in his late twenties – one of the heavy brigade.

When Hugh walked in with an instantly recognizable Marc, Carly nearly had kittens but recovered herself and broke into a broad smile.  ‘I couldn’t have planned a better result,’ she purred, in French. ‘What on earth are the French doing here?’

The two men sat down and Hugh spoke, in French.  ‘We’re a job lot, Marie.  Where he goes, I go.’

She looked across at Marc who said, in English, ‘Where he goes, I go.’

Carly laughed.  ‘Well, well, this is jolly, isn’t it?  I presume you have yourself organized and two young ladies are waiting for a communication sooner or later.’

‘You presume correctly,’ smiled Hugh.

‘I wonder if you’ll be smiling back in Russia, Hugh.’

Hugh took a wild stab. ‘If you’re referring to clinics, Marie, that matter has been resolved to our satisfaction though maybe not to the girls.’

She narrowed her eyes and simply replied, ‘I see.’  She chose her words carefully. ‘I suppose you’re not referring to the cordial détente between Britain, Russia and France.’

He looked her straight in the eyes. ‘No, Marie.  I’m referring to a commercial operation in two countries.’

She smiled. ‘That’s not going to buy you anything.  You have no cards there.  I should know because I went in with what I thought was a full deck and realized I had a pair of twos.  They leave nothing to chance.  Anyway, I was referring to your debriefing.’

Sarah had no idea what was going on but Marc had a rough inkling, from what they’d discussed earlier.  Interestingly, Hugh had no idea himself, beyond the intelligence Marc had been sent.  He was relieved when Carly changed to current business.

‘We’d like to make you both an offer. First, to Hugh. You’re doing low level stuff over there and though you're K’s lover, she wouldn’t have revealed anything to you, a Brit, of great interest to us. No, it’s your advice, your ‘take’ on things which interests us. How the Russian thinks. How she thinks. We’ll even tell them that when you’ve finished in Russia, we’d like to see you back here. Both sides know the way it goes at your level. You’ll report all of this and more, I’m sure.’

‘Good because you’d be aware that Ksusha never tells me anything, for my own safety.’

‘Except on the Alexander Suvorov, yes?  Now, Marc.  You really did catch me by surprise but of course this was Genie’s doing.  Where do you fit in here?  Of course we’d be delighted to cooperate with you.’

Marc smiled at the word ‘cooperate’, meaning ‘give to us’.  ‘Mademoiselle, you are well aware how Section 32 operates and how much I have in the head to reveal.’

‘Yet you know of the clinics and still Geneviève released you to come here.  Interesting.  So I’m going to come clean.  That revelation now has told me a lot about certain parties – you never intended that but I thank you just the same.  We would like to have a chat with Hugh, that was what this evening was about.  Is that all right with you?’

‘Non, Mademoiselle.  Where he goes, I go.  We are under instructions from both our sides.  Even if I’d wanted, it would not be possible.’

‘Oh anything is possible over here if I’d like it to be, Marc.  Still, I see both your positions and we’ll work to accommodate those.  On the matter of the clinics, I can tell you that I am on the same side as you.  I’ve been working to exempt certain sections from the scheme, shall we say. Now, shall we eat?’

XIII

Dilyara phoned Anya, who phoned Viktor, who phoned Ksenia, who phoned Ludmilla.

Anya was all for going to London the next day.  Where personal safety was concerned, all relationship breaches were irrelevant and she’d become a tigress in defence of her own, that list including Hugh.

Viktor and Ksenia both saw it as an added complication which would endanger Anya herself and the operation as well.  No one thought it a good move.

Viktor asked Ksenia about after Hugh returned and both knew precisely what he was driving at.  She bent a little, mentioned the name which had released the documents on her to Viktor and he said he’d see what he could do.

XIV

Next morning, there was a call from Sarah to the B&B – could they meet late afternoon?

Why not?

16:25 saw the three of them on the Embankment together, eating at that same little tea-room which Hugh and Lisa had visited. It was no great shakes but began a very pleasant day.

She invited them back to her apartment in Kentish Town, so he phoned Sue at the B&B and excused them, agreeing, of course, to pay for the room, not a problem and giving Sarah’s number to call, just in case.

.o0o.

Her apartment was done in the nouveau British way, a lot of exposed wood and snazzy decor. They fell to chatting about this and that, she showed her collection of tiny glass sculptures – the unicorn, the two dolphins and so on and the dusk drew ever onwards. Too gloomy inside, she switched on the side lamp and drew the curtains.

She brought a whisky for Hugh, a Hennessy for Marc and a Baileys for herself.  Hugh asked, ‘Sarah, may I ask you an outrageously personal question?’

‘You can ask it but I can’t guarantee an answer.’

‘Why do you wear transparent shirts so that your perfect breasts drive men out of their brains? Are you teasing or does it make you feel free or what? You have this big, puzzled, innocent look on your face as if everything is perfectly normal when you know it damn well isn’t.’

She looked at him with astonishment and went red.  Marc was initially shocked, then approved the technique.

She decided to answer honestly. ‘I enjoy them looking – it feels incredibly sexy that my humble body could be turning them on – I can see the lust in their eyes.’

‘Can you see it in mine?’ was Marc’s contribution.

‘You’re both attached to beautiful women.’

Hugh’s next question had Marc agog, ‘Have you ever had sex with more than one man at a time?’  He smiled his sweetest smile at her.

She had to regain self-control but now she came over and sat on the coffee table, legs stretched either side of his. Looking straight into his eyes, she answered, ‘Yes.’

The phone rang and she languidly reached over Hugh’s head to pick up the receiver, her left breast hitting his forehead, then she snapped to attention. ‘Who? Yes, yes he is.’

She handed him the receiver, stunned actually. It was Ksusha. To her rapid questions, Hugh answered, ‘Marc.  Perhaps.  Straight away.’

He handed back the phone, made his apologies to her, asked if he could make a call, phoned ahead to Sue and apologized but if it was all right, could they return after all, received the confirmation and hung up.

He next phoned for a taxi and they were gone in five minutes, with profuse apologies but they were under orders.

The moment the door closed after him, she muttered, ‘Damn,’ went and knocked on the wall to the small bedroom and the film crew, who’d already got the idea, packed up, came out and took their leave quickly, heads down, smiling and looking at her strangely from the corners of their eyes.

She picked up a cushion and threw it at the phone, dislodging the receiver which kept beeping until she picked it up again, shouting, ‘All right, all right!’ then slammed it back in its place.

She called Carly.

On the way back, Marc asked, ‘Cameras, chantage?’

'Oui.'

XV

The suspense was telling on Ksenia who’d prided herself on her steel trap coldness in a previous life.  An idea occurred to her and she phoned Anya in the evening.

‘Are you concerned about Hugh over there?’

‘What do you think?’

‘Are you alone?  I mean, are you occupied?’

Anya jumped to the conclusion immediately and saw it as a good solution but she had no things ready. Ksenia ended that speculation by saying, ‘I’ll send one of our cars.  K233 will be the number.  We don’t use government registrations.  Thirty minutes please.’

Anya liked any sort of adventure which would get her out of the flat so she raced around, putting things in her soft overnight Kelly and, in a miracle for her, was ready in thirty five minutes.  Ksenia had allowed an hour.

The trip was almost washed out by torrential rain, myriad droplets ricocheting off broken bitumen, cars were slewing this way and that - the one she was in had a good driver. 

Young guy in his early thirties.

XVI

The call to Hugh next morning was the surprise of the day - Carly herself.

‘Hi, Marie,’ he answered with her real name, to see what happened. He could hear her chuckle at the other end and knew he liked the woman.

‘You go back in three days, Hugh. Would you care to visit me this evening if I can promise you no skulduggery?’

‘The two of us, Marie? If you needed to take shots last night, do you still need them?’

‘Not if I’m in them.’

‘Marie, je connais qu'ils vous appelle la seductrice.’

She chuckled at his French and Marc, who’d just come downstairs, smiled to himself.  ‘I’d be honoured if you’d both be my guests – you’ll inform K and G, of course and you’ll assume that the house has been bugged, even though it won’t be. I’ll be upfront - I wish to size you up and chat to you both, off the record.’

Hugh sighed. He checked with Marc, who nodded. ‘All right, Marie, on behalf of Marc, we’d be honoured.’

Marc took the phone from him.  ‘C’est Marc.  Mademoiselle, we’ll make our own way to near your house and then your people can walk us the rest of the way.  Don't bother with the drug.  Just blindfold us.’

‘I’ll call around 16:00 to give you final details.’

Hugh put in an open call to Ksusha who was delighted but also worried.  She made a decision to speak openly on the phone.  ‘Carly is no Sarah Retton, Hugh. She’ll get it all out of you and you won’t even know she’s done it, she’s a professional. This is one of the reasons we’ve always kept you low grade. The big interest for her is my psychological makeup and how well I’m doing over here. She’ll ask a lot of tangential questions that way.

She’ll also want to know how far they can go with you before we retaliate. Tell her we’ll take Richard Wendell and that will stop her.  As for me, you can tell her anything you know.   You don’t know much, ha ha.  I love you. Bye.’

‘I love you too.’

Marc looked across at him, saw the tears in his eyes and now had something himself to report to Geneviève. 

They went out for the day and bumbled round, doing nothing in particular.

.o0o.

They got back about 15:45 and the call came at 16:00 on cue.

Marc took it and she told him the meeting point, explaining in fine detail how they’d do it - hood, ear plugs, the lot. Same the following morning.  He called Ksenia and she warned him that technically, he was beyond the Russians the moment he entered that house. He should have a light meal first.  Marc had already contacted Geneviève and had had similar advice given him.

They went up to the taxi rank, allowed three to go first and caught the fourth. Pretty pointless, as the cabbie opened with: ‘Zdrastvutye, Hugh i Marc. Ya Oleg. Ochyen priyatno.’ He stretched a large hand round and shook each of theirs in turn. ‘Vsyo normalyno, da?’

‘Zdorovo.’

The man chuckled, that reply able to be delivered either literally or tongue in cheek.

To their surprise, they did not head in the direction of Camlet Way where they’d expected to but turned south, in the direction of Surrey.  Across the M25, they took the A3 past Woking, left the A3 at the B3001and found themselves in a layby, where they stopped and waited.

Two minutes later, a silver grey Mercedes E series pulled up and two bruisers got out. The sensory deprivation began, the drive was long and the first discernible noise was the rough driveway, also long, they felt themselves going down, as if underground, heard a door opening and in they went, the hoods came off and they removed the earmuffs themselves.

One torpedo went ahead and the other closed in behind. There, silhouetted at the inner door, was Carly.

‘No difficulties, gentlemen?’

‘None as yet, Mademoiselle.’

‘I’m going to ask you both to disrobe and go through that archway there. I’ll wait at the other end for you.’

‘This way please,’ suggested Torp 1 and they went through the archway, into a short corridor, at the end of which was Torp 2 who handed them robes and slippers.

Carly, also dressed in robe and slippers, noted, ‘'In keeping with my guests.’

A girl appeared with glasses of red.  These and nibbles were placed on the turned wood coffee table with the inset glassed top.

‘So, here we are. You can both phone your people any time you like. Naturally, you know it's recorded - I don’t want any misunderstandings. Well, what will we talk about?’

‘Your choice.’

‘As we have all night, let’s begin from the beginning, with your initial trip to Russia, Hugh.’

She was pretty thorough, meaning she let him talk, dropping in a query here, a point of information there. This was going to be pretty plain sailing she felt but still, quite a useful insight. She was awaiting his first reticence.

Marc observed while Hugh recounted his history.

Stretched out on her light leather cushioned chair, her pink robe stretching almost to her knees, he had to concede she still had a good body at what - 38, 40 years of age? Perhaps a trifle less. She wore her hair quite naturally and the sheen was not that of a 40 year old.

Perhaps 55-60 kg, compact and yet solid in the right places, difficult to judge her waist but the neckline of the robe plunged in the French manner and the sides of her breasts were exposed. There was a tan line. Nice ankles and feet, neither bullish nor ultrafeminine - they went with the whole.

‘So? Are you reassured by your scrutiny, Marc?’ she turned to him and laughed lightly.

‘You’re a beautiful woman, Mademoiselle. The majority of women would be quite envious.’

‘Ah Marc, compliments will get you everywhere. Another drink, both of you?’

‘Please.’

Carly tinkled a little bell and the first real shock of the evening hit both men amidships.

Sarah Retton appeared from the far room, dressed only in a shirt which reached just over her hips.  She was also wearing high heels. Laboriously bending from the waist and placing, first a coaster and then the drink onto it for both of them, she flashed her sweetest smile and retired.

Both men gave a little round of applause and Carly unfazed, now turned and suggested they toast. 'Your toast, Hugh.'

He thought and proposed ‘To Sarah's birthday suit - may we soon experience it in its natural glory.’


'Now Hugh,' admonished Carly.


Chapter 20 here ... Chapter 22 here

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