Tuesday, May 5, 2009

1-22: Debriefing



Chapter 21 here ... Chapter 23 here

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I

The real test, Ksenia had warned, would come later and she’d advised him not to cross this woman.

Carly looked across at Marc and saw a spare framed, economically muscled family man, the wrong side of forty but very sharp, on the ball without saying much.  In Hugh, she saw a man in condition for his years, still quick of reflex, with developed upper arms, shoulders and thighs, too cavalier for his own good.

Now it was Marc’s turn for a grilling and she had to work harder with him, starting at the beginning and working forward, inserting a comment here, a question there.  It went longer than Hugh’s but did finally conclude, the end doors opened and Marc could see a table setting.

‘Dinner.’

The fish was served by Sarah and she poured the last of the white.

The sorbet followed, they relaxed and conversed some more. Course followed course, the main being a filet tornados. The shiraz complimented it and the conversation touched on cuisine.

At the cheese platter she wondered if they'd like to sit at the side table and take dessert and a demitasse of coffee there. Of course.

Sarah brought the crepes, coffee and truffles and the conversation came round to delicate matters of men and women, tastes, foibles, how they viewed a woman’s instinct and so on and so on.

Ms Retton brought more coffee and coffee crisps which they had in virtual silence and then came the awkward moment they knew had to come.  If they’d each been alone with Carly, it might have been a foregone conclusion but with the two of them there, the moment was tricky.

‘Well, gentlemen, it’s getting late.  A delicate situation, no?’

‘Clever, Marie, clever,’ Hugh nodded. ‘The implications need not be spelt out, need they?’

‘Oui, they need to be spelt out, Hugh,’ spoke Marc. ‘The implications need to be spelt out loud and clear for the record.  You are presenting us with four variants.  I shall guess that there are two rooms.’  She nodded.  ‘One contains a double bed.’

‘Queen size,’ she corrected.

‘And the other room contains a single.’

‘A double.’

Hugh was watching Marc now. ‘There is always the divan where you, Mademoiselle, were sitting this evening.’

‘Non,’ said Carly. ‘That’s where Sarah will sleep.’

Hugh laughed.  ‘This gets better and better.’

‘So,’ continued Marc, ‘Either both of us sleep with you, neither of us do or either Hugh or myself do.  If I show my principles, Dilyara and I are then targets - you know she would then be a bargaining chip.  I think you would be more interested to see how Hugh would react concerning Ksenia.  That would not only be useful for security purposes but also for your commercial interests.

On the other hand, if I did sleep with you, then I give you the basis for chantage. Remercie.  I thank you for your hospitality this evening, Mademoiselle but I am for one half of the double bed.  Bonne nuit.’

He strode past the first door and entered the second, two twin beds with linen in a neat pile at the foot and an ensuite bathroom to one side of the room.  Carly looked at Hugh and a smile played on the corners of her lips but he didn’t hesitate one second.  ‘Time for bed, Mademoiselle.  I have carte-blanche from Ksenia tonight.  I wouldn't miss this for the world.’

He allowed a most surprised Carly through the door first.

Inside this sumptuous room, which was clearly two rooms knocked into one, as tastefully as the renovators could have made them, there was indeed a Queen sized bed in the larger portion of the room but there was also a single, set perpendicularly in the smaller yet still spacious ‘alcove’.

Hugh nodded approvingly. ‘I admire you, Mademoiselle.  I say, without hesitation, that I should like to work for you.  I also reiterate what was said by Marc this evening, that you are a remarkable and beautiful woman.’

Actually, he couldn't remember what Marc had said but it sounded about right.

Carly smiled, not unkindly and more than intrigued. ‘So, Hugh, I shall go through,’ she indicated the ensuite, ‘and you might like to join Sarah outside for a nightcap.  It’s a little harsh for her to be ignored tonight.’

‘No hidden cameras and film crew, Marie?’

She smiled enigmatically, He left the room and turned right, back to the living area, where Sarah was sitting in one of the chairs, dressed more modestly in a nightdress which still allowed any touch to be immediately felt as heat on the skin. 

The moment she saw him, obviously a prearranged indicator, she got up, went to the bar and poured two cognacs, placed them on the tray, poured two black coffees as well and brought the whole over to the glass topped table before them.

‘I think we were both harsh on you, Marc and myself.  You were doing your job, it was known that neither of us like immodesty on that scale, I think it was equally well known that neither of us would fall for you like that, nor you for me and so it went the way it was predicted to.’

He paused, she simply smiled and he continued. ‘You’re at the start of your career, such as it is.  I think it’s a mug’s game but there we are.  We’ve all said the same thing - control your emotions, Sarah and you’ll get on.  I hope we meet one day on the same side.’

He went across to her, took her in a warm embrace and kissed her quite deeply, which took her a moment or two to come to terms with, then she responded.

Picking up the cognac, he proposed a toast to her:  ‘To a very beautiful and soon to be illustrious secret agent.’

She picked up her glass, clinked it against his and drank off the cognac.  Carly would have to work on that handwork, he thought.  A buzzer went off on the side table and she told him that Ms Latour was ready.

Hugh went through, smiled at her propped up in her bed on the far side, he used the ensuite for some time, everything provided, then came back through to the chamber and straight into his side of the bed.  ‘You know my plan already, don’t you, Marie?  To embrace you but not to surrender.  However, we’ll have to see how I pass your test.’

‘Hugh, you really are a quaint Lothario.  We can talk for some time, can’t we.  There’s no hurry.’

II

Some worrying reports had come to Geneviève and she felt vulnerable, vulnerable for her Section.  The people above her had been benign to this point and she’d been allowed to pursue her anti-corruption campaign virtually unhindered.

In fact, it was useful to them in some ways.

What was happening now though was a gradual shut-down of her channels, of her own conduit,  nothing startling but the lifeblood of a section, information, was showing signs of drying up.  Interesting - the money was still coming in but the corrupt to expose were drying up as a resource, so to speak.

III

Breakfast was served.

‘We’ll drive to the country today, Sarah - the Safari Park. We’ll dine out and return late. You’ll make the arrangements now?’ She nodded and cleared the breakfast things.

‘Gentlemen, I have to go out for a while this morning. You can use that phone there, understanding that it’s not private. I’ll be back soon.’

She got up, they got up, she kissed them both in the Gallic manner and went to do her business. They sat down again, finished the petit pain and coffee and then wondered if things were going to get decidedly less friendly in the next two hours, what little surprises were in store?  They looked at one another.

The two Torps appeared, took their instructions from Sarah and left again. Both Marc and Hugh sent their secure reports on their pagers which, strangely, had not been taken from them for safekeeping.  Carly, for her own reasons, was obviously still observing protocol.

Now both knew the personal calls had to be made.  Hugh let Marc go first and went into the bar to fix a coffee for them.

‘Dilya?’  He dealt with some domestic matters, the fixing of the bannister, the paint for the balcony and so on.  She was clearly filling him in on the latest news as he dropped into the ‘Oui,’ ‘Oui,’ ‘Non!’ mode.

What was reassuring him no end was that she had nothing remarkable to tell him and that suited him down to the ground.  Even better - she had a guest.

‘When did she arrive?’

‘This morning.  Your Geneviève called and asked me.  She said it was wise.’

‘So - and is she there now?’

‘Having coffee beside me.  Shall I put her on?’

‘Please.’

There was a bit of conversation in the background, then, ‘Marc?’

‘Nikki, bonjour, petite. Ca va?’

‘Things are quiet, Marc.  So far all is well.’

‘Interesting move of Mademoiselle’s.  Was it your idea?’

‘Let’s say both.’

‘Will you really protect Dilya?’

‘Oui, Marc, I promise, from the bottom of my heart.’  Always the dramatist, Nikki.

‘Bon, will you put Dilya back on?  Ciao, petite Moineau.’

Hugh noted that the last words were spoken tenderly.  Marc and Dilyara conversed for some time and then he replaced the receiver. ‘Sorry it took so long.’

‘Hey, Marc.  How else could it be?’  He accepted the phone and put in his own call.  ‘Allo-e?  Da, eto ya.  I don’t know, it sounded better in Russian.  Yes, yes, I am being serious.’  He sighed.  ‘Tell me the truth, Ksusha. Are you really OK?’

‘Wouldn't you like to know?’ she said playfully and that reassured him, as the last call had done Marc, then she added,  ‘Would you like to speak with my overnight guest?’

He played the long shot.  ‘You mean Anya?’

‘That was a wild guess!’

‘No, it was your compassion.  You’ve a good heart, Ksusha.  Put her on.  Allo-e?  Anya?  Hi babe.  Ha, ha - it was logical – you two have got a thing for each other.  I’m relieved you’re there, she’d never harm you.’ He was about to say, ‘While you’re under her roof,’ but thought better of it. ‘So, how are you holding up?  Eh?  I mean - how are you? Right, right.’

‘What’s happening over there?’ asked Anya.

‘Marc and I are in Carly’s bunker right now and she’s gone out.  We’re being recorded and probably filmed, so we’re dressed decently.  She’ll return later and we’ll go to the Safari Park to see the lions and tigers.’  Suddenly, he regretted saying that because he knew how much she loved the wildlife.

‘Get back soon.’

‘We will.  Now, can you put Ksenia back on please?  Bye, love.’

Ksenia came back on.  ‘Right, so things seem to be as we thought.  Do what you have to do and then we’ll deal with your return.  We have our contact times.  Anything more you need to tell me?’

‘Not for now.  Oh yes, I chose to sleep with Carly last night. Look after Anya.  Bye for now, you know I love you.’

‘And I love you.’  Anya glanced across at her and noted the soft voice.

He hung up and Marc came back over.  ‘It all seems a bit too good to be true, doesn’t it?’

‘I think the trouble will only begin once we’re separated, you on the way to Prague and me - when I actually get to Shazhara, possibly the day after.’

'Now, about Carly last night,' grinned Marc, 'I'm ready to hear everything.'

IV

Geneviève was preparing to visit Lille, she’d packed and was awaiting the car.

Instead, out of the corner of her window, she saw four men moving swiftly towards her door, which didn’t alarm her any because they were her boys and she knew the pack drill very well.

Grabbing her bag, she waited in the hallway, they went through the routine, they came in, saw her and all went to the bed room, through the wardrobe and down, through two intervening doors to the rear yard door, out into the Audi; a section of the back fence was raised and they sped off, the fence returning to its position automatically.

She was stretched across the padded footwell at the back, a long cushion was on top of her and Michel lay on top of that.  Stefan lay the other way round on the seat proper, weapon at the ready and Paul drove the car. Jean had taken care of matters back at the apartment.

It was a long drive and Geneviève became aware that they were on route two, which actually meant a pleasant day in the country.  They stopped in the layby as arranged and swapped vehicles, pulled onto the main road again and settled down for the long haul.

An eternity later the car pulled into a gravel driveway, stopped about half a kilometre on, they all got out, went to the side of the farmhouse and skipped down the cellar steps into a plush living area.

Francine came forward and the two women embraced. ‘Now, tell me about it,’ ordered Geneviève.

V

On the flight back to Paris for his debriefing, Marc reflected that the trouble would come soon after he landed.  Clearly, Nikki would not be there to meet him and so he hoped it would be a familiar face.

If it was one of the men, he’d decided, he would not go with him.

The way it would probably be done though was not like that.  Most likely an airport official would ask him to step into a room and that’s how they would get him away.  It had been done that way with Marietta, poor soul.

He landed, collected his bag, went to go through the green channel and was stopped.  Precisely as he’d feared.  Escape was not going to be possible on foot at Orly, they had all bases covered, so there was nothing for it but to go with the man.

As the official ushered him into the room, he stopped, hearing a commotion further up the walkway which had brought them there and it was Geneviève herself, flanked by two strong-arm boys, Michel and Stefan.  The official read it correctly and tried to move Marc through but he held his ground until the three reached him.

‘Don’t even think about it,’ she threatened, presenting a document to his face.  ‘We are taking this passenger now and we do not expect to be hindered.’

A man appeared from within the room, short, wizened and immaculately dressed.  ‘I fear you are mistaken, Mademoiselle.’  She showed the document but when he went to take it, held onto it tightly.  He smiled and stepped back.  ‘This time, Mademoiselle, this time only.’

Geneviève and the two men then escorted Marc back to customs and through to the carpark, flanking him all the while.  They got in the Audi and drove back to Paris.

‘Francois de Marchant,’ explained Geneviève.  ‘You don’t want to know.  He’s many degrees above me and could have bluffed but the warrant was legitimate, from the prefecture. It’s not over, Marc.  I’m afraid they will try to take you out of the game now.

It’s time you now understood.  That lovely apartment of yours in Prague – it will need to be either sold or kept as a retreat.  As you do not possess the resources to run both it and your Paris apartment, you must return to Paris.  All of our apartments here are being upgraded, including yours.

Earlier, Marc, it was your choice where you stayed, where you made your life but I’m afraid it no longer is.  I think you might return to Prague but not at this time. Desole. I wish it were otherwise.’

VI

Hugh had been back in Ksenia’s flat for a day.  They’d not referred to the debriefing but knew it had to be today, no holding it off any longer.

She explained it painstakingly.

‘I’ll accompany you to the actual room.  My authority extends that far and I will have two operatives with me.  There will be three phases, the soft, the hard and the soft again.  They’ve already conceded enough by allowing me to brief you here but it’s of no consequence.  If you have any sensitive information, it will be extracted one way or the other.

Whatever happened over in Britain, don’t try to play the hero here; cooperate in every way.  Supply what they want.  Please do this and it might be all right.  The way they will move to the hard is that they will pretend not to be satisfied with your last answer and will demand you answer them an impossible question which no one could answer.

You’ll be taken roughly into the next room and put in a chair.  I don’t really know in which way it will be done but they do know they can’t physically touch you although it will seem frighteningly close to it.  Remember, they’re not permitted to actually touch your body.  These things are incredibly bureaucratic and involve filling in of forms.  I know what yours says.  So be brave.’

On the way to the place, Hugh prayed hard.  He prayed that he might be delivered and apologized that he’d not been more assiduous in giving thanks previously but always seemed to pray only when he needed help.  He’d try to amend that later, if there was a later.

They moved off Esperanto, onto a road which was now on the far side of the town where Hugh had never been.  This was obviously an older section, with the little bungalows in a row down leafy streets with broken up asphalt surfaces. It really was the original town and if he hadn’t been so petrified, he might have enjoyed it.

It was swift.  The way the officials shifted in demeanour from the purely bureaucratic near the outer door to the more menacing as they reached the centre of the house was unnerving, as it was meant to be.  Inside the room, there were two chairs and that was all. A small window behind permitted all the light through they were going to get.

Ksenia stayed outside, he took a seat, as a middle-aged man with a domed Russian forehead and typical beefy features came through and sat down opposite him.  The questions started softly and surprisingly to Hugh, continued that way, although they were very curly questions.  The man went into Hugh’s whole history, his foibles, his failures, his successes, the whole thing.

Then came the impossible question and as Ksenia had predicted, the man’s manner changed, he shouted and two uniformed officials came through, grabbed him by the arms and forced him out of the room to the next one down the corridor.

This room was nasty.  It had white tiles up to about seven feet, with a ten feet high ceiling and it was empty, except for a gurney and a metal table beside it. The gurney was in three parts and had been folded into a sitting position.  He was forced onto it and strapped into position, still clothed, he noticed.

Two young women in uniform came through and they were beautiful, one auburn and one fair haired but they didn’t smile, just put some instruments on the metal table, then departed.

Hugh felt very much like doing wee and had to hold himself together.

Now came the waiting, the silence, except for conversation he did not follow outside the door; people went back and forth out there and suddenly a woman came through.  She summed up everything Hugh felt about evil because she did not look evil at all.  She had a lovely jaw and fair hair, was in her mid-thirties, of medium height, slim and her uniform fitted her a treat.

She didn’t inspire any fear but instead, some sort of hope.  Surely she’d spare him.

The fundamental error most males make with women was now starkly revealed.  Why men believe that because a woman is beautiful, she is also innocent, kind and interested in his welfare is one of the enigmas of inter-gender relations.  How many times in history had it been shown that nothing could be further from the truth?

She came across to him, taking a contraption from the lower tray of the trolley and fixing it behind him, expanding it overhead and then he realized it was to keep yis head in place.  She lowered it to his skull and it was metal.

Then she began to speak in faltering English.  ‘I am going to ask you the question once again, Mr. Jensen, the question my colleague asked.’

She asked, there was no answer he could have given because he did not know either of the people she mentioned, as he’d explained to the man in the other room and now she switched on what seemed like a power tool, she held it for him to see and it was a drill.

At this moment, there was some sort of commotion at the door, Ksenia’s voice snapped at her, there were now other people in the room, he heard the sound of a woman’s heels leaving, the head restraint was taken off and the two men unstrapped him.

Ksenia was standing near the door, barely in control of herself.  The four of them swiftly left by the corridor and went through the front office, Ksenia pausing to slap some papers down on the administrator’s desk, the top copy which she rapidly scribbled a signature on and then they were gone.

He sat in the back with one operative, the other drove and Ksenia was in the front passenger seat.

VII

Geneviève nodded to Francine.  ‘It means it’s almost that time again, doesn’t it?’

‘Oui, Mademoiselle.  Why can’t you free yourself from them?’

‘No one does that, Francine.  We all have patronage of some kind.  It does not affect the Section.  In fact, it ensures our continuation.’

‘Mais -’

‘You’re idealistic, Francine.  It doesn’t work that way.  All right, I’ll have to go to him of my own free will.’

VIII

‘Viktor had secured an agreement from the man,’ explained Ksenia, most apologetically, ‘the same one who had let him take the documents about me, that you were to be interrogated under a particular protocol which allowed some things but not others.  That was why I assured you that you weren’t to be damaged.’

Hugh looked across at her on the bed and asked her to continue.

‘This man obviously changed his mind.  While you were in the room with that woman, I went to the front desk and thought I’d take up the dossier with your name paper-clipped at the top.  That’s where I saw the protocol had been changed.  That’s why I came into the room and took you away.’

Hugh felt sick in the stomach. ‘You’re saying that she was going to use that thing on me?’

‘No, they wouldn’t have at that point; that was just softening you up.  But then they’d drive you to another part of town and that would be the real thing. I told you I’d protect you and I did.’

‘And not a moment too soon.  What if you hadn’t been there with me?’

‘If I hadn’t been there with you, you wouldn’t have gone overseas, as I would not have let you, the exit and entry visa would have been refused you, so I was always going to be near.’

He thought that through, accepted it but then said, ‘I can’t come to grips with the idea that such a pretty lady as that last one with the drill could be so evil that she would allow that to happen.’

She looked into his eyes.  ‘Now you know how it brutalizes us, how it makes us complacent to the suffering of others, it’s just a question of degree how far you’ve gone along that road. That’s why I looked carefully into your mind after you’d sent that Alfa over the cliff without the least mental anguish.  I don’t mind saying now that I want out, I don’t like Ludmilla’s role.  We both saw her as kindly but you do know that she has authorized these protocols before.  She had to do it, as they were very dangerous people who were being held.’

‘But I wasn’t.’

‘No but you became part of something no one could have foreseen.  You and I were never meant to become as we are now.  You yourself moved the story along with actions which had people wondering.  Let’s leave it now and just enjoy what we have together, while we still have it.’

‘While we still have it?’

‘Da.  This thing is not over yet. I don’t mean you’ll go back.  Not at all. You see, to be at that place with you, I left my post and they’ll report that about me.  It’s a dog-eat-dog game, ours.  They want me out, Ludmilla needs me there to protect her from them, Viktor and Anya would like me not to be in your life – only you still want me to be here.’

The last was left as a question and he answered the only way he knew, beginning with an embrace.

IX

October, 2002

Geneviève phoned Hugh directly, at his home and in person.

‘Geneviève,’ was all the reply he could make and he knew, deep down, that he had a problem with his feelings for her.  She’d also gathered that and felt a certain affection for him, flattered by his difficulties with her.

‘Oui, Hugh. How do you feel K would react to coming to Paris?’

‘Her emotional reaction would be very positive.  She feels trapped in her new role and would love to escape for a short time.  That’s her emotional reaction.  Her professional reaction would be that it is not possible.  You can understand why.’

‘Oui but we might be able to arrange it, non?  We might be able to give her some protection.  I can certainly do that when she crosses into French airspace.’

‘The problem comes before that.  Her superiors will be the stumbling block and there are people out to destroy her.  Even this phone call adds to her woes.’

‘Oui, Hugh and that is why I am asking.  Put it to her please.’

Ksenia was actually in the room at that very moment.  To her enquiring look, he said, ‘Come with me for a short trip to Paris. We’ll stay in a lovely hotel I know on rue de Bercy and those French girls will have to negotiate their way around your presence in Paris. I’m deadly serious. I need you more than I can say right now.’

‘I’m K and K doesn’t travel – that was one reason I didn’t want the job. If I went with you, I'd adore it, but then my de-briefing would be entirely different to yours.  Would you walk in and save me then?’

‘What if we could guarantee you diplomatic immunity? What if it was set up as a security conference - you know the sort of thing - detente, cooperation, security partnerships and so on?  You’d travel through channels and return through channels.’

‘How?’

‘Let me speak to the Minister – you know I work with him.  He’s doing these things all the time. If you tried to travel as someone ordinary, you’d not be able.  But if you travelled as some other letter, M or P or something, a known factor, not attempting to shield who you are, then you’d travel under escort and couldn’t be touched.  You’d create a new role and put Yulia or someone else in as K.  I’ll make the arrangements with the Min.’

Her eyes were creased with laughter, not unkind laughter. ‘You, Hugh Jensen, a minor cipher clerk and an Englishman, will make arrangements, at inter-governmental level between Russia and France for the head of one of our security services, to visit one of theirs? Hugh, I truly love you. Go on, Mr. Arranger – let’s see what you can do.’

He was on the phone for an hour and a half to Paris and London and arranged a session with the Minister the next day where he’d spring that part on him.

.o0o.

The Minister himself, next day, was quite amused by the idea and promised to phone a few colleagues. Yes, it might be a bit of fun to delve into another Ministry’s affairs.

The upshot was that a security conference was arranged within Dauphin University, Ksusha would be obliged to stay at a hotel yet to be designated, Hugh would stay with Louise and he’d be included in the official tour of the city as Ksenia’s interpreter, not that she needed it, along with Louise.

There’d be no publicity and security would be tight.

What Mr. Jensen had to understand though was that he had no official standing, so when the question of accreditation came up, he’d be restricted. It was all well and fine Ms Sharova wishing him to be present but he lacked the status to be there, except as her pomoshnik but why would a Russian security chief have an English pomoshnik?

These matters needed to be resolved, not least with the British.

X

Marc broke the news to Dilyara and assured her it would be for a short while only in Paris.  She didn’t believe him.  He put her straight.

‘Mademoiselle certainly thinks it will be forever, I know that but it’s not going to be.  We would have to leave this house but there was one on Voronetska you said you liked.  I found out it was an upstairs, downstairs - two flats.  I could afford the top flat.  There's the online shop, you know that, the musical instruments and it's doing quite well. I’ll leave the Section if we are made to stay there. I shall explain this to Mademoiselle.’

She was delighted that he’d now come out and said that.  ‘But security, Marc.  I have a child inside me and I will not threaten our child, even if it means Paris forever.’

He looked at her and thought that over.

Nicolette came downstairs with her bags and Marc moved up to her, taking her in his arms. ‘Nikki, petite, I want you to do a special thing for me, for us.’  She nodded. ‘I want you to convince Mademoiselle that we should stay here and that she must upgrade the security to protect us.  Present it that this can become one of our safehouses out of the country or a retreat for the section.’

‘D’accord, Marc.  I’ll see what I can do.  It was lovely here these last few days.  I think we all need a break from time to time.  And don’t worry about me, Marc, about you and me, I mean.’

He kissed her and Dilyara was not in the least concerned.  She saw, in that kiss, the reassurance she’d needed.

He took Nicolette down to the car which had just pulled in below and put her bags in the boot.  She got in, the locks clicked into place, there was the sound of gunfire, the locks were undone, Nicolette threw open the door and half fell out, flecks of blood over her white blouse.

Marc ran to her and hurried her, half dragged her, back inside, Dilyara watching in horror from her living room window.

XI

November, 2002

The charter flight took off, touched down five and a half hours later and Hugh found himself settling in at Louise’s. Her connection with this level of Paris officialdom suited her down to the ground and her stocks within the university were soaring.

She’d prepared the foie gras herself, a long process, plus cured rostbif for the Englishman’s supper. The only thing not on the menu she’d work on slowly over the two day conference and complicating matters, the phone was always going to be running hot - girlfriends asking her how it was all going, calls from the hotel, calls from Ksenia and so on.

Louise was in her element.

She’d done him proud and as they conversed, he couldn’t help thinking she was in the same boat as him - without that magnetism to pull in and hold onto a partner through sheer drawing power and therefore other things had to come into play - either a happy disposition, kindness, an interesting outlook, an interesting life perhaps. Even sheer energy - all of these would hold a partner for some time but not forever.

Pity must be an awfully big factor in relationships but beauty was the big one and there was no room to manoeuvre.  If you weren’t one of the Beautiful People, which Louise was so desperately trying to be, then you could not afford a single offputting character flaw on top of that.  She and he both had such flaws, forgiven in the Beautiful People but inevitably leading to isolation and loneliness in such people as Hugh and Louise.

Poor Louise - no doubt part of the furniture at the university, that special lack of grace must surely have produced a feeling in her colleagues of good-natured tolerance in their better hours and outright avoidance in their not so good hours.

He wondered how far that analysis was applicable to him.

Always this feeling that he had to work to keep a woman interested - the slightest letup and the woman would fade away into the night. Not one chance to relax and enjoy it. Yes, he ‘had’ Ksusha and yet what did he have? Something had also stopped Anya from tying the knot, she’d had second thoughts and something kept worrying Ksusha about him too - when would any woman ever feel he was the right person for her?

‘What are you thinking, Hugh?’ asked Louise.

'Just feeling sorry for myself. Some people have it easy, some don't. You find it easy?’

She saw the trap too late.

‘Hugo ...  She lapsed into silence, then had a second attempt. ‘Hugo ...’

He helped out. ‘What is ‘beautiful’ anyway, Louise?  Confidence in your own beauty?  Knowing you can walk into a room and eyes will turn your way for the right reasons?  You know I turn eyes in Shadzhara but that’s because I'm so different to a native. Suddenly the girl wants to speak English with me. Always externals, never anything deep and real.’

‘Non, people want to speak with you because you’re interesting. And you’re pleasant to look at - look at Depardieu, no great beauty.  It’s so much easier for a man - the man can look quite plain and yet he’s very attractive to a girl. A girl though - she must be beautiful or nothing.’

‘Louise, maybe a girl’s beauty arises from her nature showing through her physical features.  Pardon for saying this in front of a lady but bitches are not beautiful, no matter how pretty their shells are. The issue becomes her herself - her nature, her simplicity, her elegant dress sense and her smile - never forget the smile. The smile says that she doesn’t take herself too seriously.  These things are all important.’

She opened her mouth to reply but any reply would have put her in it. He was indirectly criticizing her for all those criteria she knew she did not measure up on and she’d made a big effort for him this evening too. It was so unfair. ‘Hugo ... dressing beautifully and grooming make a girl feel good in herself.  They give her great confidence that all is right, that no blemishes will be seen by someone looking at her closely.’

‘Your dress sense and your grooming are so gallic, so beautiful to the eye but I’d like you to relax more.  The canvas is already in place and the wash has been applied.  Now it only needs the brush stroke of a smile, a relaxed person, a happy soul, to add piquancy to the whole picture.  You would then take Paris by storm, without even trying to.’

She was stunned.  She wanted to go into it, desperately wanted to pursue the topic but her pride could not allow it.

The doorbell now ringing was not loud but it may as well have been a klaxon in its effect on both of them. She checked the wall clock, frowned and went to the eyehole.

Damn. Just the person she didn’t want.

Geneviève came through and removed her shoes, announcing she just happened to be passing and knew Hugh was here - could she just say hello and then wouldn’t disturb them any further?

Louise seethed but knew there was no choice.

Then she gasped as Geneviève pulled one of the oldest tricks in the book, a coquettish Section trick at that, dropping her eyes momentarily on seeing Hugh, acting confused then glancing up to see the effect she’d created.

Damn the woman.

Geneviève asked a few unimportant things about how he’d settled in, complimented Louise on her new décor, with Hugh chorusing her words, damn their condescending manner and then took her leave, to Louise’s palpable relief.

Hugh immediately went up to her and kissed her deeply, to her shock. ‘This is what I’m talking about, Louise,’ he said quietly.  ‘You were angry that Geneviève was here and pulled that trick on me.’

‘You knew that trick?’

He laughed. ‘Bien sur, it’s all part of the game.  But I didn’t like you being annoyed - pourquoi?  Why were you annoyed with Geneviève?  If you are a beauty and you are, why should her entrance be a problem?  Confidence, Louise, believing in yourself.’

‘As you do?’ she half-mocked. ‘Do you think women find you attractive?’

‘Most don’t give me the time of day as they pass me by.  It’s only after they’ve given me a chance that they start to change their minds.  I know I’m not beautiful but it doesn’t stop me kissing you, hoping that you won’t push me away.’

‘But how can you be confident of that?’

‘I think you’re curious.’

XII

Ksenia lay back on her bed - yet another hotel room, she reflected. Conference indeed - what on earth was she doing here in Paris alone and the one who’d brought her here was shacked up with some French girl three kilometres away?

She got up and went to the window, standing to one side from sheer habit and looking down below at all the people bustling by, cars bumper to bumper and things happening out there, things she couldn’t share in. And what could she share in? Hugh’s phone call to her which she simply had no choice but to wait for.

Well, to hell with that. She went to the mirror, blanched at the scars and lines, set her jaw, made sure the hair was just so, chose a sensual, evening lipstick and let the door lock behind her as she headed for the lift. At the end of the passage she ran slapbang into conference security - two of them with their earpieces and wire mikes and it was clear she was going nowhere without them. Her own people were no doubt in the bar below and now she indicated she wanted to go down and see them.

They stood back, then followed her to the lift at a discreet distance, pausing when she paused and folding their hands in front of them. Curse them, she thought but she was now determined to go ahead.

The waiting was interminable but finally the lift arrived, hushed open and they all piled in. Another eternity while the door closed and then it was downstairs for a jolly time.

It was fairly busy in the main bar but the exclusive sidebar seemed to be for prearranged small parties and she felt out of place.  A Frenchman left his stool in the main bar and approached her. What would she like to drink? For no reason at all, as she didn't even like it as a rule but wanting to assert some sort of connection with home, she answered, seductively, 'Vodka.'

‘Vodka Martini, Mademoiselle?’

‘Just Vodka. Je suis Russe.’ He smiled at that and snapped his fingers. A waiter came over and took his order - cognac for him. ‘You have me at a disadvantage, Monsieur.’

‘A thousand apologies,’ he protested. ‘Denis le Febvre,’ and he showed her ID. French security, one of the delegates for tomorrow. Well, surely this would come under the heading of détente. Let’s see what happens.  Out of the corner of her eye, she could see her minders reporting her moves and a fairly agitated conversation was going on.

She smiled that killer smile she kept in reserve and Denis caught the full blast. What he couldn’t have caught was that she never went anywhere with men who approached her. She’d enjoy this for the moment but all the while she was looking for her own people, indicated to N2, he and his colleague came over and they all went upstairs again.

Hugh caught her on his third attempt to call.

XIII

Francois de Marchant looked out over the Bois de Vincennes, from his light grey parquet floor, the glass table and chairs and the 21st century decor behind him.

He felt the forest out of place in his conception of the Paris landscape - better a sombre field in muted greys and pale greens, better cleanliness and order than that unsightly and disorganized tangled mess of root and branch. He glanced at his masterpiece on the wall with the discreet lamps highlighting his exquisite taste - give him fractal landscapes please and save him from any form of impressionism.

He wandered across to his desk phone and pressed the button. Presently he was connected and lifted the receiver to his ear.

‘Oui, I did ask you to call. Little problem, it seems. Maverick women going to sign all manner of accords tomorrow. Oui - SAC Novalis, de Leet and Pasus Basel.

Yes, that serious. No we can’t and that’s the problem - foot in both camps.   Geneviève is fine.  We’ve let her return for the conference.  What do you wish us to do?  I see.  No, I agree - accords are just pieces of paper.  Le Febvre?  Working on it, I believe.’

XIV

The events of Conference Day swept all interpersonal matters aside and the plenary went smoothly, the first session took place and then came lunch.

K was entertained by French and other security people - it was their big day and they were going to extract the most from it - good luck to them, Hugh thought. Good luck to Ksusha too - Ludmilla had never done this, more was the pity.

Ksusha must have said something because the table where he was lunching with Louise and Genie was now swamped by people wanting to hear from the ‘architect’ of the conference.  No, no, Hugh self-deprecated - it was a security affair - he was just a bystander.

Eventually Ksusha and Hugh found themselves facing one another in the foyer and he congratulated her on the success so far.

‘We’ll talk this evening - you know there’s a dinner.  After that we’ll get some time.’

She turned, went back for the afternoon sessions and it was 17:20 before Hugh knew what had become of her.  When he saw her next, she was in the custody of the French and something was going on.  As he approached, Geneviève saw him, broke off from the group and took him to one side.

‘K is being questioned about the death of a delegate last evening.  It’s a diplomatic nightmare. She apparently met with this man le Febvre in her room.’

The colour drained from his face.  ‘What will happen?’

‘No one actually knows.  The protocols are unclear because they were arranged hurriedly and there is no precedent for such a conference.’

‘There’ve been security conferences before.’

‘Oui but not at this level and between these two countries.’

‘You mean at such a high level?’

‘Non, the opposite.  At such a low level.  There is no government involvement in this, except for the diplomatic immunity for the passage to and from the conference.  If it was at government level, then the matter would have been resolved.  The difficulty at the moment is to keep the Surete out of it.  As I say, it’s a nightmare.’

She went over and demanded custody of K.  Seemingly the highest ranked French official in the room, they had little option but to let Ksenia go with Geneviève who immediately arranged for her people to get K to her apartment, which did have diplomatic standing.

It was about 21:00 when Geneviève appeared at her apartment and the bevy of Russians and French in the living room seemed completely at odds with the décor.  They all retired to their respective holding positions downstairs and a mini-conference ensued.

Geneviève spoke. ‘We have an almighty problem and you’re here on sufferance for the moment, K.  Are you willing to tell me if you killed him?’

‘I didn’t kill him.’

‘What was he doing in your room?’

‘He came to the door and knocked, announcing himself.’

‘He got past our security?’

‘Obviously that or else he bribed them.’

‘We’ll follow that up.  And then?’

‘I let him in, poured two drinks but drugged his. Soon he was snoring.  I phoned two of our people who came and took him to the foyer.’

‘Do you have the drug?’  She opened her handbag, took out the phial and handed it over to Geneviève who asked, ‘Why?  What was the purpose of letting him in?’

‘I recognized the name from the communication your Marc received which led to the events in Britain.  He had no way of knowing I’d come downstairs but he was ready in case I did.’

‘His purpose?’

‘To compromise me, which he did.’

‘Your purpose?’

‘To drug him and go through his things.  Papers, phone numbers, sim card.  Don’t forget, I’m not that long out of field work.’

‘So you did not kill him, you say?  He did not, in fact, try to have sex with you, you did not then lose your temper and kill him?’

Ksenia looked dispassionately at Geneviève.


‘And how could anyone know if I killed him or not?  If it was just him and just me, how would anyone know what took place?’  Geneviève conceded that point and was sure it was a beat up. Ksenia continued.  ‘How could anyone know how he is supposed to have died?  I gave him enough to sleep, not to kill him.’


Chapter 21 here ... Chapter 23 here

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