Tuesday, May 5, 2009

1-7: Death in the Forest


Chapter 6 here ... Chapter 8 here

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I

Aliya looked at him.

‘What planet are you living on?’ she grinned. ‘He’s insanely jealous and I’m angry with him because you and I are just friends. So far. Do you like me less now that you know about him?’

‘Not less, no. But you weren’t up front with me.’

‘I was enjoying it - I thought your attitude might change if you knew.’

‘It has changed but not necessarily for the bad. It makes things easier, actually. All right, so the thought had crossed my mind and possibly it had also crossed yours.’  There was the faintest of smiles.  ‘Do you love him?’

‘Da.  You and I can be friends, Hugh … if that’s what you want.’

‘I want but there are complications with my fiancee who went to someone else and is back and there's another lady.’

‘I think you're a bit of a playboy, Mr. Jensen.'

‘Me?  Hardly.  I find myself in complicated situations.'

'Find yourself in?'

'Yes, all right, Aliya.  Point taken.  Will we still go to the cinema?’

‘Yes please.’

They arranged a time for the evening.

II

Geneviève arrived about midday at Marc’s apartment in the 12ème arrondissement, not the leafy part but nice nonetheless and Nicolette was in the kitchen making white bread club sandwiches. Despite the breads on offer to the French, many still like the English variant or cardboard as they call it in Britain.

She let herself in, left her coat and boots by the door and made her way through to the divan, feet in fluffy slippers, which did nothing for her image as the Uberleader. They kissed and got down to business.

Nicolette went for the coffee, sandwiches, little snacks and chocolates. She curled up in the big armchair, which dwarfed her somewhat but she liked this chair and the patterned cover was warm. Marc could have done with a bit more bric-a-brac, she thought, men’s apartments were always so sparse.

‘Marc,’ reported Geneviève, ‘we virtually have the whole money linkage. There are arrangements which my paymasters have made with a clinic in Shadzhara and it’s patronized by people of, shall we say, a delicate disposition, from Europe and wishing to be out of the way in a wild, remote setting. They’re prepared to pay for this. Some of these are new businessmen to Russia and the courtesies are extended to them.

The sponsored guests are paid from Nizhny Novgorod, as you surmised and the money goes from there. However, some of it finds its way from Shadzhara to Prague, which you found our two dear friends had visited on more than one occasion. Now it gets murky, at least in my mind. I don’t see, apart from our two friends, where it goes next.

I can’t see that our Section is paid for from this clinic alone but it might supplement the cost. Why though would a Russian clinic be interested in subsidizing a French security section, even indirectly?’

‘Perhaps it’s just a general slush fund,' he surmised, ‘and some of that goes to pay for us.’

‘Perhaps.’

III

Hugh put the finishing touch, the sour cream, to the borsch and placed Viktor’s before him, which caused his face to light up.

After they’d eaten, the bowls were taken away, the coffee was brought and he became more serious but on the same old theme. ‘You have problems.’

‘Don't I know it.’

‘No, as a matter of fact, you don’t. I mean outside your harem - genuine problems.’

‘Ksenia, Zhenya?’

‘That’s the tip of it. There’s a giant building project on the cards, involving western money, Moscow money and Shadzharan regulations. You’ve no part in that but I think they want to make sure nothing fouls it up.

‘Tidy up the loose ends, you mean?’

‘Precisely.  Although again - why they'd think you could influence that in any way ... well, never mind.’

‘That’s not so good.’

‘Precisely.’

‘What should I do?’

‘Sit tight, be careful. Not much else you can do.’

‘You’re such a comfort.’ He now mentioned the door - Viktor had noticed - and how everything had been turned over. 'Nothing taken except documents.'

'Have you checked to see that nothing new has appeared that wasn't here before?'

'Ah.'

They searched.

IV

Valentina Vitalyevna Alexandrova took the call at her waterfront office on the Naberizhni bank, Nizhni-Novgorod, at 11:13, Thursday morning. It was Viktor Bukovsky.

‘Da, Viktor? Who? Speak up, I can’t hear you. One moment, pencil broke.’

She leant across in a sort of balancing act which showed her body to perfection, if there’d been anyone present to appreciate it, that is. Not bad for a mother of a toddler and a baby girl.

‘Right, listening. Seymour, you say? Presumably English. Who? Ludmilla Petrova? Ah, that puts it in a different light. Yes of course you must. What's Ludmilla Valerievna say about it? I see. Why does she think our hands aren't tied as well? I see. All right, I'll have a word to Sharov and you keep an eye on the Englishman.’

She rang off in that abrupt Russian manner and walked across to the window, gazing over the Volga as it flowed past as it always had and always would. Now why would Valerievna want to bring her section in? No crime had been committed as yet. No money had yet changed hands.

Was she, Valentina, meant to be preventing something maybe? LudValerievna was a deep one - it must be that she was too close to the action herself - hemmed in. Oh well, pointless speculating about that now.

There was another call. ‘Da?’ She listened to the other end for some minutes, not once interjecting and concluded, once the other end ran out of steam, ‘I see, Zhenya. Yes, I can tell you that all three departed here this morning. I don't know - about 08:00. We –’

She glanced at the receiver, put it back in its place and pondered. There was clearly something going down and a lot of people seemed to have themselves tied up in knots at this moment.

She picked up the receiver again and made three calls, one of them to her mother.

V

December, 1997

The New Year lights went up in the streets and on every major housing block; all major thoroughfares, all shops, were not just festooned with lights, but networked as well. The lights went along the edges, along the top and across and across. They were everywhere. The whole city was lit up like a thousand ocean liners and the effect was stunning.

Anya would have called it a wicked waste of the city’s resources. Viktor said that the company with the contract had connections with the government.

At school, the Christmas concert went down well. The little first graders looked as sweet and innocent and discordant as they were intended to be, the very serious teenage dancing girls, expecting to be taken very seriously, in their very serious dance routine, were entertaining and the little chap with the clarinet was the highlight.

Outside, big flakes of snow floated down and soda lamps shone yellow on crystal paths. Hugh had a feeling that if he and Anya couldn’t get back together and make it through this New Year together, that if a coolness still pervaded between them into the New Year, that if they couldn’t give to each other with abandon, then it was not likely to continue much into 1998.

It was very much the way she was thinking as well and the evening she appeared again at his door, both decided to forget the past and bend a bit to the other’s needs.

Well, it was worth a try, wasn’t it? There was a desire to make it work but could he surprise her as he once had? Somehow they’d missed that point where the first fire gives way to a deeper love which gradually replaces it. Every couple has to do that to be able to continue but he and she had separated at the very point where that crossover had begun to happen.

He'd been her bulwark and then he'd just gone for most of the summer. Not just gone but reports of him with Miss Heathrow had come back to her and she'd been mortified.

All right, let's put all that aside and see if it was still possible.

VI

It was mid-afternoon on the 2nd when Hugh finally got back to his eighth floor flat. Damn it, the lift wasn’t working again.

One hundred and two steps it was, he’d counted them, and with a full belly and a dizzy head, he crashed straight into the very sober form of Zhenya Sharov, waiting in immaculate suit and silk tie at the new metal door.

‘Zdrast’ye,’ slurred Hugh, lurching forward at the suit and tie.

‘I think we’ll dispense with the Russian, would you agree?’ sidestepped Zhenya.

‘Cuppa chai?’

‘Yes please.’

On the fourth attempt, Hugh managed the lock, occasioning a sigh from Zhenya, who passed through into the living area. Hugh indicated a chair, excused himself and visited the little room, the bathroom and the kitchen in that order.

Finally, they were seated over a nice cup of tea and cakes, prepared by Zhenya himself in the end, Hugh not being quite up to the task. Zhenya declined the cakes.

‘You’ve put on more weight than when I last saw you.’

‘So?’

‘You’re not a hard man, are you, Mr. Jensen?’

‘Come t’ ther point, Mr. Sharov.’

‘You fail to ask even the most basic questions. Are you at all interested in my background, for example?’

‘You do something at government level for a firm,’ Hugh sobered up a little. ‘You’re bigger than you say you are because you can pull strings. You’re in very good shape and clearly you work to stay that way. You’ve been a naughty boy at times and someone doesn’t completely trust you. The rest I’m not interested in, because you could be lying. You also act strangely.’

Zhenya sat, thoughtfully stroking his chin. Encouraged and sobering up somewhat, Hugh continued. ‘May I tell you a little story?’

The other nodded his assent.

‘There was a film I once saw,’ he began, ‘I can’t remember the name. There were some Eastern Europeans, wanting to escape to the West. They were approached by a group who organized such escapes and taken to a large meeting place where there were many other families, all clutching their belongings.

They were told the price, an exorbitant amount by eastern European standards, and those that could afford it paid and became a little cell of refugees.

The next part of the film showed a guide leading them into a cavern, through the mountain, to freedom on the other side. Step by step, in single file, they made their way along until they came to a narrow ledge over a precipice. It was very dark at this point. The guide told them all to be careful because of the precipice and suggested they hang onto the railing on their left.

Our hero caught a glimmer of this ‘railing’ when somebody struck a match. It was no railing - it was an electric wire. He shouted not to touch it, there was a fracas, shots were fired, the guide was pushed against the high voltage wire and immediately went up in smoke.

After it was all over and the baddies were all killed, someone lit another match and revealed a cavern nearby, full of skeletons. There never had been a route through the mountain.  I trust no one.’

‘Understood, Mr. Jensen. And now, may I, in turn, let you into a little secret?’ Hugh nodded assent. ‘Certain elements have got it into their heads that you’re an obstacle and this time they’ve lumped me in with you. I can’t say I’m flattered by that but we’ll let that pass. We have two choices, as far as I can see. Firstly, the three of us go, this evening, to a place of safety -’

‘Three?’

‘Ksusha as well.’

‘Ksusha. I see. Or else?’

‘There is no else.’

‘I see.’

‘Hugh,’ Zhenya dropped onto the 'ti' basis, ‘you only have my word for it and it’s fine if you tell Viktor Igorovich and your girl. I want this thing above board. It’s the old story again - get them into the open and they’re easier to deal with.’

‘What do they want?’

‘The Russian who assists the head of the rival firm has really taken a set against you. I’m sure the break-in was to uncover dirt on you. Did you find anything missing?’

‘A few documents.’

‘Can they incriminate you?’

‘Not in the least. They were financial statements and love letters.’

‘The thing is, I’m not sure how serious these people are. I’m sure they’d kill me - they have to. Ksusha too, maybe. That’s our game. With you, I think they’ll just try to terrify you. They can, you know, if they want to - you do understand that, don’t you?’

‘So what do you suggest?’

‘Contact your people, so that it’s crystal clear that you’ve gone with us, then I’ll collect Ksusha and we’ll go out of town, the three of us. Do you know of Klyenovaya Gora?’

‘But that’s an impossible place to hide. The forest’s perfect for sniping. It could be put down to hunters making an error of judgement.’

‘It could and that’s why we think it will be attractive to them. Give themselves a sporting chance and finish the job before the end of winter. We think they’ll go for it.’

VII

Marc was pouring Geneviève another coffee when he first heard the sound which shouldn’t have been present.

Geneviève heard it too, reached into her bag for a pen and notepad and scribbled a few words and a question mark.

He responded with three names, she nodded and took a device from her bag, a glorified pager, clicked on the numbers, put the pager away and wrote that they needed to continue talking about something, anything, for ten more minutes.

‘Mademoiselle,’ asked Marc, apropos of nothing, ‘do you think you’ll take those two new girls or do you think they’ll need further training?’

‘Oh, I think they’ll need another couple of months, especially Magda.’

Marc frowned and then tumbled to it. ‘Oui, that one needs to handle a firearm better for a start.’ They were uttering inanities now.

‘Coffee, Mademoiselle?’

Both had their sidearms at the ready.

It couldn’t have been more than three minutes before they heard a phttt, another phttt and two thuds outside. Still they didn’t move until the pager went again. That still didn’t mean they were out of the woods, only that two of the assailants had been taken out and there were usually three on a team.

‘Jean’s coming up with Paul,’ Geneviève said, Marc merely nodded and went to the door. The screen showed both their visitors’ faces, he pressed the button and let them in, then she and he went to the kitchen and let the boys get on with their jobs.

.o0o.

Jean and Paul came out about eight minutes later, there’d been no one else inside but there had been three others outside.   All had been accounted for.  Jean handed her a mobile belonging to one of the deceased, indicating she should look at the numbers.

Her eyes nearly popped out, she nodded and muttered to herself, snapped out of it and asked them to clean up.

Marc had his overnight bag ready on the sidetable in the front room - he and she departed.

VIII

The idea of what Klenovaya Gora really entailed had sunk in.

‘The only snag is that I’m not a professional, like you,’ said Hugh. ‘Also, as you pointed out, I’m not in condition.’

‘You’re in reasonable nick for this – you walk most places. Call your people.’

Zhenya noted he didn’t call Anya but a girl called Aliya. Next came Viktor who wanted to speak with Zhenya, which they did, in rapid Russian, for quite some minutes.

When Zhenya gave Hugh the phone again, Viktor spoke English at the other end. ‘Of course I don’t like it. I think they’re putting you in danger unnecessarily and there could be more to this than he says. On the other hand, if he’s right, and if both are getting out of town, it might be best if you’re not alone.’

‘What if I stay with Anya?’

‘Or even with me. No, it wouldn’t help because, as Sharov says, it would be attractive to take the three of you at once, I think. They’d either postpone it or hit you while you move from one flat to another.’

‘So what do you suggest?’

‘I think you’re reasonably well covered in this matter – Zhenya intimated the level of cover you’d have. If you followed instructions and had a final e.t.a. back in Shadzhara, which we’ll agree on now, after which we’d mobilize to try to find you, it should be all right.

The benefits would be that if the siblings succeed, it should get the others off your back for quite some time, if not once and for all. And if it didn’t do that, then maybe we should be looking a little closer to home for the culprits. Shall I call Anya and say you've gone?  You'll not want to put her in danger like that.’

.o0o.

The whole business was concluded, Hugh was collected by Zhenya’s driver, plus himself in the back, they collected Ksenia who sat in the front beside the driver and on the way, Zhenya explained the intricacies of the Makarov.

.o0o.

The Volga’s headlamps pierced the pitch blackness of the forest road as they finally found themselves cruising the last hundred metres down floodlit Alla Avenue, as Hugh called it.

In the foyer of the hotel, some minutes later, the woman was still at the desk. Surrendering their passports, they took their luggage to the third floor and occupied a four bed room. Bags were deposited, things put away, all the necessaries were done, then they went downstairs, ambitiously, to find something to eat at this hour.

The dining area was closed, of course, but Zhenya managed to negotiate something with the kitchen staff and soon after, plates of potato and meat and cups of tea appeared, which then went upstairs.  He was fairly sure they’d not be in great danger until the morrow but just in case, they took it in turns to stand watch through the night.

His gun remained on the table, at hand.

IX

Geneviève, Marc, Nicolette and the tall, dark Francine, Miss Fashion herself, sat around a wrought iron table in Café Delour, sipping on cafes noirs.

‘Expensive warning to give,’ ventured Francine.

‘I don’t think it was a warning,’ corrected Geneviève. ‘They were there to burgle the place.’

‘While you two were there.’

‘Incompetents or something else.’

Marc spoke. ‘It could have been to test out our capabilities for the real hit. If they’d found any material and had got away with it, it would have been a bonus.’

‘Expensive test for them,’ Francine repeated.

‘Yes but they weren’t to know we were organized to that extent and they don’t care about five minor agents.’

‘That’s what worries me,’ added Geneviève. ‘Next time they’ll be far more careful.’

X

Next morning, at Klenovaya Gora, the three of them were confronted with a delight - there’d been a late overnight snowfall and snow now hung glistening on every tree and on every lamppost on the entrance road; the forest pathways just beckoned to be walked on.

The temperature was hovering around ten below, the sun had struggled out but was now giving way to another cloud chock full of snow.

In Russian terms, that meant the day was going to be superb.

A car arrived and Zhenya welcomed his mate Valerie with a warm handshake. It seemed to Hugh this one was also a handy customer, sporting the stock cheeky smile of the Russian who’s sure of himself.  He reached into the boot and brought out a small but heavy rucksack for each of them and for himself, locked the car and both slipped into the kitchen, reappearing thirty seconds later with four small packs of food and a worried expression. It seemed the woman had seen three visitors come into the hotel quite late - serious people in her opinion.  The chef had just reported that all three were currently tucking into their food in a room adjacent to the dining area.

The moment they put their food packs in the rucksack, it was clear to Ksenia and Hugh what this was about.  Inside, apart from water and a medical bag, were two soft cases but one feel showed the contents were anything but safe.

Valerie grinned and nodded for them to go over to a space away from the hotel but not yet near the forest.  He squatted down and they did too.  Zhenya said to keep an eye over the heads of the others.  Valerie now told them, in words only, no demonstration, how to unfold and lock into place their K6-92/Borz SMGs and now went into the finer points - how to rapidly change magazines, most effective breathing and aiming.

Zhenya apologized for giving them Chechyen weapons but they'd need to leave these by the deceased and take the enemy's own weapons.

They'd been careful to use only Makarov 9x18 ammunition and there were plenty of clips in each bag.  The weapons would puzzle security though because nobody sane used Borzes within Russia.  Zhenya and Valerie  were using OTs-02 Kiparises which gave greater accuracy in semi-automatic and greater effective range, so they'd be for the longer shots, then disassembled again.

Ksenia's and Hugh's jobs, therefore, were to be to watch their hilltop - range about 20 metres. Their Makarovs were inside their jackets if they needed them.

The company took Marchroute 3, a lovely walk which would take them down the slip road from the hotel, across the main road T junction at the end and into the forest on the other side.  In line, four figures crossed the road and tramped into the forest along the narrow path, in warm fur jackets, hats and gloves.

Instead of continuing on towards the lake, they swung sharp left and headed up a relatively steep hill where the teachers had late-collected mushrooms in October.  They unzipped their rucksacks, took out their weapons and familiarized themselves.  Zhenya indicated to Hugh that this weapon had been remachined for silencers and to attach his now.

Crouching down in various places at the top of the hill within line of sight, they settled into waiting mode, Zhenya indicating for all to be alert and silent.

.o0o.

A family passed by on skis, on the way to the lake, obliterating most of the tracks they'd made and the steadily falling snow did the rest – great flakes now touching the face and lips and having to be spat away.

Good. That might complicate the enemy’s plans.

.o0o.

Twenty three minutes passed, cold, legs cramped, with snowflakes insinuating their way down the necks of jackets and in through sleeves but none dared move or even breathe.

It was a slow time, where enormous patience was the order of the day, things had to be allowed to occur in their own way and yet they were all chafing at the bit.

.o0o.

Zhenya froze, everyone else froze as well and it started.

Silently, oh so silently, in this silent forest, the dull scrape of skis came to their ears, then eventually, a man in a tight fitting olive winter suit appeared below, then another and another, in line, three altogether.  They appeared to be unarmed but it was three fit men with no fishing tackle for holes in the ice, no weapons and no anything which actually gave them away.

Zhenya indicated the weapons would be inside their jackets.

The first continued along the path towards the lake, the second also continued but Zhenya indicated that the guy would double back to the other side of their little hill and come over the top, that Ksusha was to watch the centre and right section of the hilltop, Hugh the centre and left.  The third man turned and went back but Zhenya expected him to climb a tree somewhere and take in the whole scene - he'd be Zhenya's man.

They’d clearly expected the company had gone deeper into the forest, closer to the lake.

In that almost electric silence, charged with foreboding, even the heartbeat became a distraction and the comparison between the professional and the amateur here was thrown into sharp relief.

Number Two seemed to make no move to come over the top. With shooshing hand signals, Zhenya urged infinite patience and they simply settled down to wait.

It was an eerie. eerie feeling and the hollow silence continued in the forest, except for the occasional lump of snow falling from a branch to the ground.

.o0o.

Still they waited.

And then they waited some more.

Hugh heard Zhenya moving, perhaps stretching a leg, Ksenia was absolutely silent.

.o0o.

A little under forty minutes passed.

Suddenly, Zhenya made a decision, spun round facing the path below, peering at something beyond it; his two hands simultaneously aimed, the silenced weapon gleamed long and sleek; they heard a disturbance in one of the trees and then vaguely caught a glimpse of a form slipping from the branches and thudding to the snow below.

In the blink of an eye, one man’s soul had been separated from his body.

Zhenya stepped back behind the foliage, glancing about all the while, his face a study in concentration. Valerie now appeared from the direction of the lake – took in the slumped body, glanced over in their direction and stood transfixed, head moving through 180 degrees.

He suddenly took aim, seemingly at Hugh, and in a flash, Hugh saw the end of life; there was a crack, a thud behind him over his shoulder, then a wild flurry, like an animal taking flight. Zhenya relaxed, asked for Hugh's weapon, slid and shuffled down the remaining few metres to the path, plunged through the snow to the deceased, left the Borz, picked up the man's weapon, curious about it and joined his friend, also quite intrigued.

The two became more tense when they looked in the direction of the lake. Beckoning Ksenia and Hugh down the hill, they put the plan.  N3 was dead, N2 was wounded quite badly but they'd  not go looking for him, N1 was the issue.  Valerie hadn't seen him in the least.  For someone at that level, it was no longer safe for Ksenia and Hugh - they were to return to the hotel via the forest, keeping just below the top of the ridge.

 Zhenya and his mate would stay in the forest for a while and try to nut out what N1 was up to.

.o0o.

At the hotel, just before 17:00, the family from the morning returned, from a different direction. It was now quite dark outside.

.o0o.

About 19:00, the lone figure of Zhenya materialized from the forest near the hotel, went inside and straight upstairs to them. To their enquiring glances and tucking into a meat sandwich, he mumbled to the effect that his friend hadn’t made it.

They’d tracked N2 and put him out of his misery, exchanging weapons, but they hadn’t reckoned on being stalked by Number Three. Valerie had caught an unexpected bullet in the back, Zhenya had then lost Number Three and the man was now at large.

He now sized Hugh up. ‘Done any weapons training?’

‘Military. Basic weaponry.’

‘Khorosho.’ It wasn’t strictly the weaponry that was the issue, it was the other training which was going to count – the ability to confront fear. They spoke about this and when Zhenya saw that Hugh knew the principles, he relaxed a little. The thing was that in order to stay alive in this business, you had to be a little crazy – you had to ignore consequences completely. The enemy of safety was ‘What if?’

At least, ‘What if?’ was fine when planning tactical responses but had no place outside of that. Everybody feels fear but the professional fears fear. That is – he fears its well documented consequences enough to first violently suppress it, then to ignore it.

It was agreed that they’d sleep in turns through the night - two on and one off, and of the two on, one would watch the balcony and one the door. Help was out there, of course, insinuated into the fabric of the hotel and its surrounds but the critical point would be those first moments of contact. All the support in the world was not going to help in that time frame. It had to be that way, to entice the man enough to try it on.

Zhenya now fished the two weapons out of his backpack and screwed them together.  The best way to describe them was that they were like long pencils, superlight, with apologies for a butt, silenced - they were sniper weapons, using only 22s but they'd be enough.  These weapons had been designed and built by someone in Russia - they were specialized.

Zhenya showed their pros and cons, then gave one to his sister.  There was plenty of ammunition in thin magazines in his rucksack.  He noticed that it took five rounds and was semi-auto only - so more a be-safe sniper than a sure-shot.  Perfect for their situation.

Hugh slept first and this was really for the other two to observe if he could. He could and the snoring began. Zhenya shoved him in the back and he just drowsed after that. Some meat, wine and bread was still at hand; Ksenia and Zhenya sat on the floor, to one side of the room, back to back.

‘Will he come?’ Ksenia whispered over his shoulder.

‘They’ll come,’ was the reply.

.o0o.

Two hours passed. At one o’clock, Zhenya took his break and went out like a light – a great compliment to the company. Hugh and Ksenia sat back to back and it was the first real bodily contact in a long while. If he enjoyed the feel of her behind him, he hoped it was reciprocated. It seemed to be because she began to move her back in a circular motion against his.

‘Ksusha,’ he whispered, ’if you don’t stop that, I’m going to have to make love to you right now.’

He could feel her laughing inside, as she whispered, ‘I’m exercising, Hugh.’

XI

The four of them left Café Delour about 01:00, Nicolette and Francine in one car, Geneviève and Marc in another.

Naturally they were not alone, a complicated schedule of following cars and friendly eyes in buildings along the predetermined route having been called on duty. It wasn’t Geneviève who’d emerged from the bathroom with Marc – she was still back at the café, coordinating from the back room. The woman beside him was the waitress they had working there who most approximated Mademoiselle - she knew the risks and appreciated the remuneration which accompanied them.

They deliberately included the ‘speedway’ past Orly as the most likely spot for an attempt at a sideswipe and a section further on where they would swing onto Avenue Marechal Leclerc should be perfect for a shot.

They reached the turnoff without mishap and now would come the test of nerves for Marc and his passenger. Although they had people at likely places, it was still a high risk operation and the only positives were that it was dark and that they were motoring at a fair rate.

.o0o.

In the end it was a disappointment.  Nothing untoward happened.

XII

Hugh woke Zhenya about 03:00 and one glance showed that not a great deal had happened. The meat, wine and bread were finished, but it didn’t matter, as they’d consumed enough for one night. Zhenya whispered that if it was going to happen, it would happen on this watch - he felt and re-felt the stock of his weapon and waited.

He was covering the balcony; Hugh the door. The feel of the other’s tightened back would be the alert.

They now settled into a relaxed, yet vigilant mode, Zhenya reassured by what he felt in the other’s back, just as Hugh felt reassured by his partner.

Ksenia had finally dropped off.

.o0o.

A little before five, Zhenya felt Hugh’s back stiffen. The door handle had turned, almost imperceptibly. Hugh caught his breath and a great tightness constricted his chest. Zhenya glanced behind him, then again at the balcony, like a cobra, coiled, ready to spring.

Hugh went over and over it in his brain - breathe out normally and start the pressure, fractionally raise the muzzle of the weapon and aim perfectly as you breathe in again, fire and in the same instant, both men must shift body position to avoid the counter shot. No thinking or rationalizing was required, just following the drill.

Many thoughts wanted to crowd into his brain, all at the same time and the most insistent was whether his reflexes would be fast enough, at his age. Doubts gnawed and this is what had to be suppressed.

All ‘ifs’ were to be expunged.

But what if it was only some child, going to the toilet? No, all toilets were in the rooms.

What if it was one of the workers locking up late, after a relaxing few drinks downstairs?

What if -?

No one had any business there at that hour. Anyone turning the door handle now, at this hour, as was now happening in front of him, was 100% for the chop. His eyes remained rivetted on the door. Had it opened a few centimetres more?

Yes, yes, it had.

The faintest light from the hall had now crept into the room then, with inexorable deliberation, the door moved further and further ajar, painfully, slowly, silently. It moved very, very slowly.

Zhenya redoubled his own scrutiny of the balcony. Hugh had to decide where to place the shot and Zhenya could feel all this from Hugh’s back. Reasoning from Hugh’s army days dictated that the torso was the best bet, in the centre and he could try for the head with the second.

He could now see into the corridor.

A pale pool of light played on the carpet from the nightlight but there was still no sound, absolutely no sound.

Then came a slight rustle from the hall and suddenly the shadow of a form filled the doorway, something in its hand - Hugh breathed in - muzzle - trigger, phut - silhouette fell - flash of light behind Hugh - splintering glass and a groan from the balcony - form crashing backwards in the hall - both men rolled to new position - something still in Hallway’s hand - Hugh fired again, top of chest - form shuddered – another more careful shot to Hallway’s head, Zhenya now watching Hugh who swung round - balcony glass door with hole in it - crumpled form of man on balcony - all finished - all over!

Done!

Just like that.

Ksenia was now up, gun in hand, covering them. Zhenya? Well, he was smiling and Hugh was also smiling.

‘It’s him,’ hissed Zhenya.

‘N1?’

‘Da.’

They didn’t go into the hallway immediately and so it was hard to make much out about the body. It was wearing black leather jacket, dark jeans and high heeled boots, strange footwear for an assassin.

A ‘pencil’ lay on the floor. Hugh shuddered - what if he’d been that little bit slower? What if he’d frozen? Now came the sound of two sets of padded feet along the corridor, stopping just short of the door.

‘Zhenya?’ came the whisper. ‘Zdes Marcel, Sirozh.’

Unceremoniously, the two bears moved the body, which he now recognized as definitely a slender woman and he knew her - the same who’d given them the supper to take upstairs that evening, just a girl really. They heaved her body next door.

Marcel and Sergei returned for the man on the balcony; there was some cleaning of some marks and some bits of head from the floor in the hallway and that was that. No one had woken up in the other rooms, for the simple reason that the few guests in the hotel were at that time all on the second floor.

Marcel returned with food and tea and they realized just how hungry they really were.

XIII

‘I have to leave Shadzhara,’ Anya announced.

‘Right, I understand. We could go to Cyprus again or somewhere else.’

She smiled. ‘No, it’s a family matter. It’s an aunt on my mother’s side in another town. I have to look after her for some time and I’m transferring there temporarily, my work I mean.  That's how families do it over here.’

‘No contact, eh?’

‘Oh I’ll contact you all right. Don’t think I’d not do that. You know you’ll be on my mind every day.’

Hugh was silent.

She asked, ‘What was it like, you know, actually doing that at Klenovaya Gora?’

‘Frightening. You had to shut it out, the fear.’

‘And yet you ski and sail that thing on the wire.’

‘A person’s in control there.’

‘I meant what was it like to kill someone?’

‘A person about to kill you loses that aura, that thing which preserves him or her. It’s not nice but it has to be. That’s probably not what you wanted to hear but that’s how it was.’

‘I see.’

XIV

Zhenya had just fixed himself a sandwich at Ksusha’s new flat, which had improved substantially - beds and appliances had been brought in and it was looking more homely. The two of them sat diagonally opposite one another, her watching whilst he ate.

‘Hey, d’you mind?’ he muttered. She went out to make coffee and when she returned, put it to him directly: ‘Zhenya, we're working for opposite teams now.’

‘We're still in the same section.’

‘Ludmilla Valerievna warned you and now I’m warning you, Zhenya,. You get any deeper into this and it’s going to come back on you. They’ll hit you, brother.’

His lip curled. ‘And you’ll do the job, Sis?’

She spoke ever so quietly. ‘Do you think I can’t?’

He looked at her and something inside twitched. Maybe it was his obsessive love for his sis but he believed her capable of anything and this almost turned him on. He put out a hand and touched her cheek tenderly.

‘Zhen, you’ve changed – can’t you see that? The whole idea was to have some cash on the side, not to go round as a freelance hitman for them. These guys don’t know when to stop. They sense you don’t either and it suits their book.’

‘How’s that affect you, Ksushinka?’

‘You’re the only brother I have.’ She got up to go to the kitchen again. He rested a broad hand on her wrist.

‘Sis, what do you want me to do?’

‘Just to see things more clearly.’

‘That all?’

‘And to protect Hugh Jensen. We got him into this and now we need to keep him out of it. We owe him that much. Will you promise me never to do anything in that direction?’

‘You do care, don’t you?’

XV

February, 1998

The empty vodka bottle was set at an angle of 45 degrees, embedded in solid ice, right in the middle of the path, a symbolic reminder of Old Russia.

Hugh stared at it for a while and wondered how it had got there in the first place, at that angle in particular and why no one had seen fit to remove it. Everyone simply sidestepped it and moved on. He tried once, twice, to remove it, shrugged, thought why bother and moved on - as they all had.

A girl in a purple beret and a full length, black fur coat shuffled by in her hard platform boots, a lethal combination of bubble gum and mascara. He wanted Anya back. Now!

The two biggest pieces of news were the blockbuster film Titanic and Viktor’s final break from Roxanna. This latter necessitated many trips to Giuseppe, many coffees consumed at Viktor’s and visits to Hugh’s place.

It doesn’t matter how much we know something is on the cards - when it comes, it’s a very empty feeling.

He threw himself into work - school and uni, uni and school.

.o0o.

One day at school, in his cupboard, there was a letter, written in green ink.  From the lettering slanted evenly to the right, it seemed to be the work of a senior, maybe a Class 11 - nothing extravagant, just a double side from a girl who’d been making up her mind about him over the past year.

It was pure ‘To Sir with Love’, but what struck him was the quiet, restrained script. It advised him that if he recognized who it was, to please not divulge it – she understood that it could never be between them.

A touching letter, he refolded it reverently and placed it in his inside pocket. He’d had thoughts about some of them, a man would be lying to say he hadn’t but it was always thinking about the girl out of context, out of her milieu, ascribing abilities and maturity to her she didn’t possess.

Then, when he saw that girl with her friends, shrieking and being silly, the thoughts immediately dissipated and he got on with whatever he’d been doing.

Anya had gone for the nonce and she'd never have gone without him if they'd been still betrothed, family or no family.  He had to realize what was going on here.  She was keeping him nearby on the shelf, just in case, he'd always accepted her back but each time she'd reappeared, apart from the lovely New Year they'd had, a little bit more had been lost.

She'd gone off with this Marat to find herself, that indicated that there were problems for a reconciliation - they mustn't keep using each other that way.  If there were a choice, which there wasn't, which would he go with?  His heart was with his Anya for obvious reasons but a possible future was with Ksenia whom he was sure he'd fall in love with.


It wasn't fair of him to keep her at a distance and not only that - it was poor strategy to boot.  There was only a certain time she'd leave the door open.  He needed to make his move. 
 

Chapter 6 here ... Chapter 8 here

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