Tuesday, May 5, 2009

1-8: Village Deli


Chapter 7 here ... Chapter 9 here

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I

March, 1998

The Bill Clinton sex show was in full flow and this occupied most Russian dinner table conversations for some months.

.o0o.

The holidays came around quickly - Women’s Day, Easter, the term break, winter clothes away, summer clothes laid out. The lake was thawing and was now impassable; last year’s garbage had floated to the surface and one mistake, one wrong foot and there you were - in it up to the knees.

II

May, 1998

One day, he just phoned Ksenia and said, ‘I have to see you.’ They arranged to meet at Giuseppe and he was as excited as an adolescent.

He got there well within time but she’d had the same idea and stood as he came through - simply stunning.

Eventually she asked, ‘Well, are we going to stand here all evening?’

He snapped out of it. ‘No, of course not, what are you having?’

‘Let’s order together.’

They did and then went back to the table in the other room. He couldn’t hold out and took her hand, which delighted her inside. ‘Ksusha, you are … amazing.’

She inclined her head and leant towards him. Damn it! - he just kissed her there and then in the café and she gave as good as she got.

‘Well,’ he tried to find some conversation, after they’d both reluctantly pulled away, ‘isn’t this … er… amazing?’

‘Vocabulary deserted you today?’ she smiled.

He made a ‘phew’ gesture, they collected the eats and drinks and covered what had been happening in their respective worlds.

The absence of Anya and sudden reappearances intrigued her, of course. 

‘This isn't love. This is two people, for their own reasons, not wanting to finally let go of the dream they began with. She has irons in the fire and I'm sure you're aware of that ... but so do you. I'm not an iron in your fire - I refuse. That's why I'm going home alone after this.’

'I've made my decision.  That's why I phoned you.  Don't go away.'

'I have to.  I knew you'd decided when you phoned and I'm frightened.'

'Come back and let's just sleep in the one bed or maybe just in the same flat.  You remember the first nights up north in England.  We can talk or I can hold you.  Your agenda.'

'No, we'll make love, you know we will and that will trigger off bad, not good feelings.  I told you I have trouble with relationships.'

'Then let's not have a relationship.  Let's do it as we have done - just seeing each other when we can, asking no questions.'

'You'd accept that?  Your concessions frighten me more than anything - I know you don't want that and nor do I.   Nor do I want you sleeping with her ever again if you've decided to be mine.  Plus it might take me some time.  Are you that patient?  Don't answer that - I know you're the type who gets very patient when he's in range of his target - which frightens me even more.  Look, you can see me getting nervous.'

He placed a hand on her forearm and she looked down at it. 'Then go to your home now, Ksusha, if it will take the stress away.  I've made my move.  The next call is yours.'

'No it's not, I'll be too scared and I'll need to hear you.  You call.  And stop being so gentle and understanding, because I know the other side too.  Hell, you're not even doing it to get into my pants because we've done that.  You're actually serious.'

'We don't need words.  You go away now, I'll call every few days.'

III

There’d been no more interest in the Section since that evening in January but that didn’t mean they relaxed.

Frankly, the break-in had upped the ante, especially with the deaths. Geneviève’s section had always been involved with low-level intrigue and exposure. True, it had quite often led to retribution – that type always tried it on but the Section mainly dealt with amateurs.

This was different.

Either those three who’d been at Marc’s apartment were amateurs sent by a disgruntled ‘’customer’ … or else they were not. And those who’d sent them were biding their time.

But for what?

The consensus was that, for some reason, Geneviève was certainly living a charmed life and so, by definition, was anyone else in proximity. However, the money seemed to be the connection or at least anyone prying.

It was also the consensus that the best way to test it was for Marc to visit Shadzhara.

He could leave at the end of May.

IV

Zhenya was in Moscow for the company meeting with Yulia, 27, in tow.

Ksusha had been right about her actually, he conceded - she knew her place, she was happy enough shopping while he was working and then they’d meet, eat, club a bit and get their rocks off later. There were two types of women in Russia and she was the other type.

The only cloud was that Zhenya, being in condition, eschewed the alcohol while Yulia loved the cognac. It wasn’t a major problem and they never conversed much anyway - he appreciated a woman who knew how to shut up and just make herself available.

So now they took the Metro to Sokol and while she window shopped and cafed, he put in fifty minutes with the weights, then they ate at a Georgian place nearby.

V

Ludmilla Petrova received the report on the Beast with grave disquiet and the report on the man she held personally responsible for the trouble – Deputatov. She could do little with Deputatov but she could very much do something about Mr. Ronald Seymour.

It was a terrible thing to think, for a woman in her position, but she half hoped that Deputatov and the Beast would slug it out and gun each other down. Things would be much simpler that way. Perhaps it was her eyes and the progressive glaucoma which put her into such a mood but there it was.

The Beast was her primary concern. What he was blackmailing her over was a minor matter but in Russia, if it suited their book, certain echelons could blow a minor matter out of all proportion and she’d be finished. And she’d only been helping her daughter find work as well – what mother wouldn’t do such things?

The Beast was a master blackmailer, Sergei Safin had been stupid enough to lock horns with him.  He’d come off second best and now he was in the Beast’s pocket.

She wondered if Mikhail Safin knew the half of it. She wondered if it would avail her to inform him. She also wondered if Zhenya would still protect Hugh if he were under conflicting orders from both his company and his section.

She wondered many things.

VI

In the late afternoon sun, Marc felt the warmth on his back as he skipped up the few steps to his outer door, slipped the coded key in, took the lift, went in and threw his things on the hall table.

He filled the coffee maker in the kitchen and flicked on the switch, before checking the answer machine in the living room.

There was one from his mother, asking him to fix the cold water tap. He’d do that tomorrow. Another from Nikki – nothing special there. One from his old schoolmate Paul, one from Dilyara.

Ah.

It was the type of angst which absence brings on and that was tough to take but he listened and the tone changed, almost bemused. ‘And you know what, Marc, that man I took the photo of was in our mini-mart round the corner but he thought I didn’t see him.’

Marc immediately phoned Geneviève and asked to go to encryption. Geneviève came to the same conclusion and Marc suggested they phone Hugh.

Nothing doing, he wasn’t on the phone. Well, could they take a chance on involving Russian security? It wasn’t precisely their affair and yet who knew? Perhaps they were right behind it. Either way, it seemed a win-win for Geneviève to at least enquire and see if she could get the girl some protection although it would involve a return favour later.

She rang her superior and asked whom the opposite number was to contact but her superior tried to dissuade her. She thought it through and contacted Marc again. Did he have any contacts over there? No?

Was Hugh reachable? No, the man had no mobile, curse him. Hold it – Marc had an idea.

Some minutes later, he contacted Geneviève again and yes, they’d struck, if not gold, then at least a strand of silver. Dilyara knew Anya’s number and he’d just phoned and asked for it as he needed to contact Hugh urgently.

Poor Dilya, she’d never make a cloak and dagger femme fatale – not one word of suspicion.

Anya wasn’t answering and then it answered but it was a woman asking in Russian. Damn. He contacted Geneviève, told her the problem and that he’d think on it.

VII

July 1998

The new registration was obtained for Hugh to stay in the country, the flight to Australia was booked, the Lewinsky scandal was rocking along quite nicely on the airwaves and there’d been a massive flood in China - the Yangtse was not a happy river, it seemed.

Hugh had tried everyone he knew for word of Anya. Either they were being tightlipped or else they genuinely knew nothing and it was quietly depressing she’d made no contact.

He went to town to look around one last time before his trip.

Baumana had changed. Once a typical dowdy street, with narrow pavements and lots of asphalt; now the city fathers had created a mall, replete with fountains, sculptures and such like. The inevitable boutiques were sprouting everywhere – Toris, with its shoes and boots, D’El, with its high end costumes and so on and McDonalds, of course, right in the middle of the mall.

But the same old music cassette stalls were still there, the same old soft toy stalls and the same Café Chai blasting discordant ethnic music into the street.

He came home and there was Ksenia at the door. 

VIII

One day, the 07.12 train for Moscow and the west set off and this time no one saw him off from the station.

.o0o.

At the other end, in Moscow, he made the connection to Domodedovskaya Station, and finally, at the top of the stairs, there was one of the students they'd entertained in London, now at university - he'd activated the connection. 

Moscow Anya he called her, looking as sweet as when they’d parted in London with her school group. Her little brother was with her and they all bussed to the elegantly appointed flat, sat on the divan, not knowing what to say and eventually settled for cards.

Later in the day, in the early dusk, Moscow Anya and Hugh went out and made contact with the other girls who’d been in London and they all went for a stroll, before the two returned for a supper of red beef borsch, chicken and rice plov, crab and mushroom salads and the inevitable vodka, toasting everyone’s health, druzhba (friendship) and other fine causes.

Hugh was given Anya’s own bedroom, she shared with her mother, and papa occupied the living room.  It was a smallish room with light coloured wood work, the soft bed was a dream after the train and sleep descended on the household.

Next day would be Sunday and he'd buy flowers from an underpass stall for her mum.

.o0o.

Sunday evening, preparations were well in hand for the final big supper and other members of the family had also congregated, the older men in ties. He had pride of place at one end of the table, the father at the other and the festivities commenced.

There was a ring on the doorbell. Anya went, then poked her head around the door and beckoned. It was Natasha, one of the London girls and so there were more shy, nervous, ‘eyes down’ greetings, again in broken English, more toasts and so it went.

.o0o.

In the morning, he was awoken by Anya shaking his shoulder.

‘Huh?’

‘What you need?’ She indicated, ‘Towel here on bed.’

‘Nothing, nothing, thanks, thanks for everything.’

Fifteen minutes later, he was in good enough condition to present himself for breakfast but to his surprise, only Vadik was left behind in the flat. Mama and Papa had both gone to work, she'd gone to the Institute, Vadik had been given copious instructions concerning breakfast, Papa would collect Hugh later for the airport.

He hadn’t thanked them adequately and he didn’t want to leave the flat this way. What could he do? He had no way to go and get a present, he couldn’t communicate it anyway to the boy, who seemed the least able to understand his faltering Russian.

There was nothing he could do.

IX

Mikhail Safin didn’t so much run a family but an organization. The company was the source of all things - the comfortable life, the wife, the children, the security, the clout to be able to adopt the patriarchal role.

He could never understand lesser men who were willing to work for peanuts or kowtow to a boss. On the other hand, some men did not have the stomach to do the things which were necessary to stay on top. Mikhail’s business was varied and could be loosely lumped under the heading ‘making money’. They sold whatever could be sold and brokered deals for banks. You wanted a deal made – they’d be your go-between.

He had no illusions about his numbers two and four - Georges, with the European name and Oleg, the Beast. The thing is, he needed them in the way, if he’d known about British history, Henry had needed his Cromwell or Elizabeth her Walsingham. Such men were necessary.

There was something with Oleg though which didn’t ring true. Still, not wise to dwell on such things as long as they didn’t personally affect him, as long as Oleg did his job and had no pretensions to power. He was keeping an eye on the man.

The number three, Dima, his brother-in-law - well he was the political half of the business. Whatever needed smoothing over, whatever channels needed opening - that was Dima’s thing. He knew where the threats would come from and how to circumvent them - he knew what was going down.  He knew how to make the threats.

The children, Sergei, Olyesa and Alina - they were all right. Sergei was in security and the girls would have to have places found for them sooner or later.

Things were OK.

This Englishman, Paul Jacobsen - he was the current concern. Realizing it was better to have a Russian connection in setting up a conglomerate over here, it was interesting how he’d latched on to Mikhail and had sent Dima to see how the firm could be of assistance.

Mikhail was astute enough to know that this was never going to sit well with Deputatov in Moscow and his English partner and it had caused a certain amount of friction so far. The actions of Mikhail’s niece and nephew in security had also been a spanner in the Deputatov works.

There was trouble brewing.

X

Hugh made London and phoned Lisa.

He got to the deli first, indulged in conversation with Sandra, then in walked the red haired picture herself. Lisa ordered a salad, he had his turkey sandwich, then cappuccinos for both. The essential question now was how best to spend their short time together.

Let’s be tourists for the day.

Capital idea. Maybe Bakerloo, Sherlock Holmes’ pretend house, Madame Toussaud’s queue, train to Leicester Square, take in a film, walk to the embankment and the little coffee house along a bit from Embankment tube station.

.o0o.

Sitting out on the chairs at the front of the little coffee house, it was a bit chilly in the shade in her floral patterned dress, minus cardigan. Still, she managed to drop a surprise: ‘Zhenya wants to talk to you.’

‘He’s in London?’

‘Britain anyway.’

‘The man gets around.’

‘Or else follows you. Maybe he doesn’t have a life of his own.’

‘No, Lisa, to be fair, I think his proximity means protection.’

Accepting her mobile, the call was put through and they arranged to do the Deli again on the morrow – same time.

XI

Viktor hadn’t been in the tax police for nothing and soon had Anya’s number, Hugh’s B&B number and Marc’s.

Operating on a need to know system, he didn’t divulge these when he phoned Ludmilla Petrova to ask her whether she knew anything of a Frenchman whose description he now gave.

Ludmilla was non-committal at first but as she gleaned what Viktor was up to, she opened up a little more and admitted they were watching a Frenchman but not for any special reason. She was most interested in the possibility of the danger he presented and yes, she’d get onto it.

Now it was her turn. Who was interconnected in all this? Section 37? Really? More than interesting. Mr. Jensen too? Well, she could have guessed that. Any of her own people? No? Khorosho.

They rang off and Viktor felt that that was about all he could do for the nonce.

XII

Next morning, one turkey sandwich and cappuccino had been disposed of before the door darkened with the unmistakable form of Zhenya and there they were again, seated awkwardly on those white, wrought iron, garden chairs, conversing as if they’d never parted.

‘Is Ksenia in – er – London?’

Zhenya grinned. ‘Sorry to disappoint you – she’s in St Petersburg. Anyway, you’ve shown remarkably little interest in her these last few days.’

‘She has to make her own mind up, I can't pressurize her.  I phone, she has visited a couple of times.  You know your sister - she can't be pushed.’

‘She can - if it's done right.’

'Then when I get back, you'll teach me.'

Now Zhenya dropped his customary bombshell – Hugh was in danger again.

‘Don’t you have anything else to say? Look, I’m off to Australia –’

‘No,’ Zhenya quickly retorted, ‘that’s what I’m here to tell you - you have to stay in London. I can’t protect you adequately outside London.’

‘The crocodile can’t protect his supper away from the river?’

‘Do you think you’re my only concern?’

‘Who else is your concern?’

‘Your Anya.’

Not a muscle moved in Hugh’s face. ‘Good one, Zhenya, nice card you just played. Pity you can’t support that statement.’

The man reached into his inside pocket, drew out what looked like a photograph and handed it across to Hugh. It was a photograph of Yelabaga, birthplace of the painter Shishkin, a bit over 200 km from Shadzhara.

In the centre of the pic, near the memorial, looking out over the valley, was his Anya or ex-Anya, in leather jacket and jeans and she was speaking with a Russian, about twenty five, in regulation black outfit, with longish, unruly fair hair, quite athletically built, quite solid in fact. It was impossible to tell her mood from the photo but she didn’t seem too animated and didn’t really seem to know him.

Maybe it was a casual acquaintance.

‘So?’ Hugh enquired.

‘You’re learning,’ smiled Zhenya. ‘Try this one,’ he added, as he reached in for another photograph and handed it across.

‘Who’s this guy anyway?’ Hugh was puzzled. It was the same man from the first photograph, on his own this time, but in a different situation - some sort of officer with pips on his shoulder epaulettes.

By way of reply, Zhenya reached into his briefcase and produced a report in a plastic folder. It was a political dossier, in Russian. ‘Just give me the summary, Zhenya.’

‘Name: Sergei Safin, ranking officer and working for a rival company to mine.’

‘To yours?’

Zhenya smiled. ‘Yes – rival to my company. I’ll save you that question.’

‘What must I do?’

‘Stay in London.’

‘I can’t, I told you, I’m on my way to Melbourne, to see my mother.’

‘Listen my friend, you might not even make it that far. Or if you do, it’s probably just a matter of time. I can protect you here - I can do nothing out there.’

Zhenya’s face was crying out for a brick to be thrown at it. ‘I’m going to Australia, Zhenya. Is my ex-girlfriend safe enough?’

Zhenya breathed, ‘Ex-girlfriend?  I can’t guarantee it but she’s probably safe enough, at least from this game. But I knew you’d go because you’re a stubborn bastard, like all people of limited foresight.

Listen, Hugh, it will happen like this, most likely. Someone you know will approach you and you’ll go with her, at her suggestion. Then at some point, she’ll find an excuse to slip away for a moment. That will be it. Don’t make friends with young ladies. That’s your Achilles Heel. That’s how we did it-’

‘Ksusha?’

‘But for now, ‘he continued, ‘stay close to your Lisa and try not to take a bullet.’

‘You’re a comfort, Zhenya.’

He once more smiled that brickable smile of his. ‘Here’s my mobile and a bundle of U.S. notes, for emergencies. Take my mobile, don’t argue. There are instructions here for logging onto the net in Melbourne. Give it back to me when you come back.’ He proferred the bundle and Hugh involuntarily took it.

‘You just made a major mistake,’ Zhenya was using up his quota of smiles for the day. ‘You were just seen taking money from me.’

He was livid but far from reacting, Zhenya continued in the same tone, ‘Look at your face! It reduces your effectiveness. You couldn’t neutralize me at this moment, even if your life depended on it.’

‘Continue,’ he said, evenly.

‘That’s more like it!’ Zhenya concluded with a flourish and a smile. ‘Good luck, don’t lose my mobile and I’ll see you in Shadzhara, if you’re still alive.’

He didn’t rise to it. He paid the stupendous bill at the counter which they’d been progressively building up, nodded goodbye, then decided to be a little more gracious and extended his hand. Zhenya’s grip was strong and firm, a wiry sort of strength, rather than the strength of a bull.

‘One last piece of advice, Hugh. For now, I’m your friend but next time, who’s to say I haven’t been given new orders? I’d hate to do it, of course, but I’d do it, you can be sure. Take care.’

And he was gone, the extraordinary man with far too much Le Carre on his reading list. Or was he the consummate professional?

He flew to Melbourne without mishap.

XIII

The news was first phoned through by Viktor to Marc who wasn’t greatly surprised that the former had the number.

The Frenchman had been seen about again but had observed someone he’d seemed to recognize and had slid into oblivion. It was one of Ludmilla’s people who had been observing him and that raised questions about just who this Frenchman really was.

Well, Marc was ready to fly to Shadzhara anyway on Thursday so that might tip the balance one way or the other. Geneviève called, they went to encryption and she listened in silence. She immediately brought the flight forward – could Marc be ready by the next morning?

D’accord.

.o0o.

11:25 saw Nicolette pull into the Orly carpark with Marc and go in with him. This wasn’t necessary of course but both seemed to enjoy this time together and neither was going to question the little routine.

They parted tenderly and soon he was airborne.

In Frankfurt he phoned Dilya and got no answer. No matter. He’d contact her in Shadzhara.

He grabbed a coffee and an hour later was airborne again, a five hour flight in front of him. She’d arranged to meet him at the airport - he now pictured her face and the way she’d try to contain her delight, just as he would.

Marc took a cognac and relaxed with the in flight magazine for ten minutes, before snoozing lightly, the woman two places to the right, by the window, already fast asleep.

.o0o.

Shadzhara was a pain with its baggage retrieval so he always travelled with only his largish cabin bag when he went there. Thus he was through and out of the gate before any of the others but of Dilya, there was no sign.

He skipped up to Anya's office, to be told she was working from home - no they couldn't give him the number.  One of the ladies said she was actually in Shadzhara this day because her friend had been shot and she was at the hospital.

A sinking feeling came over him.  'Do you know this friend's name?'  The lady went all shy again and Marc had had enough.  Taking out all he had on Dilya - photo, letters, address book - he showed the lady who he was and that he was sure it was his Dilya in hospital.

She told him to wait there, went next door and phoned.  

When she came back, she told the other two she'd be two hours, asked Marc to go with her, went downstairs and actually drove him straight there.

XIV

Hugh’s mother was not too much the worse for wear but frail, yes distinctly old and frail now. The prevailing opinion in the family about his gallivanting around the world, leaving his mum to someone else to look after, had made him somewhat of a pariah with the stepbrothers and sisters.

In earlier years he’d quizzed his mum about it and tried to detect any sign that she felt the same way. She’d taken the point of view that you have to do what you have to do. It had always been her own way and yet – she’d have to have missed him a hell of a lot, as any mother would have.

The first two weeks were uneventful and he did the usual round of friends, gradually falling back into the Aussie domestic lifestyle. He ate his steamed Dim Sims with Soy Sauce, his Chiko Rolls, the Vegemite sandwiches and Cherry Ripes and was now heavily into the driving of mother up to Arthur’s Seat, with its chairlift and other places of interest.

She loved a drive in the country, his mum, and if it meant up a steep hill with a restaurant at the top, where they could consume Devonshire Teas, looking out over the purple bay vista below, so much the better.

With his mum, any trip was OK, as long as there was an ice cream somewhere along the route and ice cream places had proliferated in recent years, from Baskin Robbins to the little place in Sorrento which had always served a variety of flavours in a cone for as long as he cared to remember.

XV

Ronald Seymour was a close-cropped, chisel jawed specimen who would always look as if he resided on the shady side of the law, which was unfortunate because most ‘businessmen’ tried to project the opposite image.

He sipped his merlot at Garfunkels and mobiled Deputatov in Moscow.

‘Hi. A little bird told me that a certain merger is being planned next summer. The two parties are apparently taking a cruise and they'll thrash it out there.’

Soft cursing could be heard at the other end.

How sure? Very. Yes, we'll have to, won't we? Who? Don’t worry about him - we have someone in London and one at the other end too.’

Deputatov clicked his mobile off.

XVI

The time in Melbourne had drawn to a close and that sad time of farewells for another year began.

Hugh took himself out to the airport, as it just seemed better. His stepfather, Jack, had a touch of the flu and his mother couldn’t go without him.

Check in and takeoff were fairly standard and the short hop to Sydney was done quickly. Now, so far, Hugh had had three seats by the window to himself but it was too much to hope that his luck would hold out that way.

The memory of the infamous Greyhound bus, travelling from L.A. to Vancouver, occupied his mind right now.

Basically, they’d just left L.A. that summer and all the seats had been taken, except for the one beside Hugh and another further up. At the next town, three people got on – a grossly overweight, heavy-breathing Mexican with sweaty armpits, a petite blonde and a nondescript businessman.

He’d got the blonde of course and she’d started to converse. Where was he from? She was from - and so on. They made the next town and then, suddenly she was gone and just as suddenly – wham!

The fat Mexican swung himself into the seat, squashing him against the window. The Great Blob humphed, hurrumphed, sitting bolt upright, occupying 70% of the seat and half the aisle and he stank.

Truly, he stank.

Now, in Sydney, he feared the same thing repeating itself but it turned out to be just one Thai businesswoman. Well, that wasn’t too bad.

.o0o.

They eventually made Bangkok and the plane changed. Now this was where the worry gripped, as he seemed to have all three seats to himself again, the next section was the eleven hour haul to London and one’s fellow passengers were critical.

First, a businessman came down the aisle and moved past.

A Chinese couple and an academic passed by.

Then Hugh saw the grossly obese American mid-aisle; the man shot him a glance, looked at the seat number above, Hugh instinctively double-checked his boarding pass and silently died, staring ahead, waiting for that giant butt to thump down beside him but oh frabjous day - it didn’t thump down beside him - it passed further on down the aisle.

Still anxiety reigned.

Suddenly, at the very last moment, a young lady in white vest and blue jeans appeared in the aisle, cascades of dark hair everywhere, breathlessly shoving things into the luggage compartment above him and the next thing he knew, he was offering the window seat and her small bottom had landed across him before he’d even had a chance of having a heart attack.

Santa Claus - thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.

She checked her boarding pass and he hoped against all hope. Please let it be so for the next seventeen hours - plus the one hour stopover in Abu Dhabi – please let it be so. I’ll do anything, I promise. I'll be good for a whole year. I'll help old ladies across the road …

The doors closed, the plane taxied and took off.

Eureka! There was justice in this world, after all!

The essential problem now was how to seduce her. Then he stopped and had a good look at himself. WTF was he trying to do? He shelved that idea and decided just to spend the time ... er ... circumspectly.

The non-smoking sign went out and she went into action herself. Out came all the little bits and pieces for her comfort, everything was arranged as she wanted and he followed suit. Flipping through his photos to pass the time, he got bored, flung them down on the dividing seat, pushed his seat back and tried to snooze.

He opened one eye, sneaked a look at her and she was doing the same in reverse. He closed his eyes again but he’d seen the smile on her lips.

XVII

Marc remained in Shadzhara and had no plans to return to Paris. Geneviève gave him a month, all up.

The bullet had penetrated close to the heart and apparently it was a swift, unexpected movement which had saved her. She was in a critical condition for days and recognized no one.

He got to meet the family and that was an interesting cross-cultural phenomenon in itself. The major thing though was that he’d decided this with Dilya could not continue. He suspected she’d fear that, once she came out of it, he’d try to do the gallant thing. To her, the bullet would be an unnecessary complication, a threat to everything she’d tried to build with him.

He always visited at 14:00, once the family had had their time and so he found himself today. Taking her slender hand with the long fingers in his own more bony mitt, he willed her to get better. If there was such a thing as the spirit, if there was such a thing as a patient gaining strength and solace from mere touch, then he willed it so.

Yet he had to admit to himself that it was a near lifeless hand he was holding. He looked at their two hands and wondered about everything.

He had to go.

XVIII

Time passed on the flight. Lunch arrived.

Then, out of the blue: ‘Nice photographs. May I ask where they were taken?’

Interesting voice and he drank her in - Eurasian, sweet mercy. Not a fabulous beauty perhaps, a little battle hardened, Hugh thought, but definitely shapely.

‘Indonesian,’ she volunteered.

Wow, he’d never met one of those before and her English was great. So it should have been – she lived in England, had done for seven years.

So where was the family?

Back in Denpasar.

Hugh recalled once having been on a sleeper from Madrid to Italy and he’d met a girl, Louisa - Spanish, so he’d found out. Small and severe but with a sweet face. She spoke Spanish, Italian and a little French; Hugh spoke English and a little French.

They’d decided to get out at Narbonne to sample the French cuisine and the waiter had been highly amused - two foreigners from different countries, both clearly inept in his native language and both trying to communicate in it. He’d helped them and the tip had probably helped him in return.

They’d walked and then, with the train ready to depart, they’d decided to meet again in Florence. She was going on to a pottery course there, and Hugh was making his way north. But he’d come back down, utilized her phone number and found himself ensconced in a villa on the edge of Florence.

She’d shown him round but things then had not gone quite as planned and she clearly wanted out of the situation. With her own new friends, her own agenda, Hugh had felt distinctly surplus to requirements. So he’d slipped away from Florence as quickly as decorum would permit, heading for Rome.

At the railway station, two Aussie girls had approached him, flabby thighs, balloon shorts and thongs. They’d wanted to drink and crash on the grass, the last thing he was going to do.

The girl in the plane now was not unlike the Spanish senorita – compact, friendly in a reserved way, very good company and both up for suggestions.

They were decanted at Abu Dhabi in that terminal and Frederika, for that was her name, wandered round with him, shopping together, supping together, patiently waiting for the other.

She was a bit of an enigma - her body was quite soft, given the overall shape and the hardness of the face and hands but there was also a sharpness to her eyes, the way she looked at him, holding the gaze a fraction long and he wasn't sure he should be flattered by it.  It was almost scrutiny.

He bought a miniature Aladdin’s lamp and she considered buying one but then didn’t and regretted it later. At one point they drifted apart and he didn’t want to go looking for her but then she’d seen him and had come over by herself.

He appreciated that.

Back on the plane, they now snoozed; he placed an airline pillow between her head and his shoulder, she stirred, smiled at what he’d done and let her head fall back to the pillow, allowing her thin, sinewy body to snuggle in against him.

.o0o.

Close to London, if it could be called next morning, it all changed. Clearly her friend was on her mind and she distanced herself before getting out, even keeping two people between them in the aisle for disembarking.

He lost her completely, shrugged, and turned his attention to balancing his luggage on the escalator step on the way up. Then he saw her at the top and she seemed to be waiting for him. It was going to be a wonderful day after all.

‘Frederika!’

At the top, she suddenly extended both hands and his next sensation was falling backwards, tumbling, bags, parcels, everything, over and over and over, all the way to the bottom, wind knocked out but still alive.

A few seconds later, he could feel someone crouching over him, crying, ‘No, no, are you OK? Say you’re OK.’ A hand went over his mouth and something was pushed inside, maybe a capsule.

Her voice dropped, she hissed, ‘Say goodnight, Sweety,’ then she was gone.

He spat out whatever it was and passed out.

XIX

Safin took the call. He said not one word but clicked off and called a number in Moscow.

‘It’s over. She wants cash. Usual way.’

XX

The hospital was not the most modern.

Large ward, shower curtain railings around rickety beds, small windows allowing a trickle of light into the room, flowers on the metal sideboards beside the beds.

The nurse came round and explained that this was going to be a seven day job. Only one had passed so far, so there were still six interminable ones to go.

To hell with that. He had things to eat, cafes to drink, places to do.

He lay there fuming. Why couldn’t she have done it just before Shadzhara? A week off teaching would have been just the ticket. Why during the holidays? And anyway, would the little traitor still get the money for a botched job or would she have to accept a bullet as part payment?

Zhenya arrived with Lisa – did those two have something going?

He suggested Hugh postpone the trip back; Zhenya knew the travel agent in Little Portland very well, thanks to Hugh’s last flight back to Russia; he’d arrange all the documentation, the insurance and so on and Hugh wouldn’t be out of pocket.

He acquiesced.

XXI

It was on the fourth day, according to the nurse, that Dilyara’s eyelids had flickered open briefly in the morning but there had been nothing since.

Marc farewelled the family – it had got down to a routine by now – and took his place on a warm seat one of them had been occupying. He looked at Dilya, at the girlish outline of her face in repose and wondered why people often looked younger when asleep.

Her hands were beneath the covers so he decided to just sit in his chair and look. She was breathing evenly and the expression looked serious, not serene. It was as though she had business to attend to.

Leaning over her, he lowered his lips and touched her upper lip the way he always did. There was a definite quiver and then a rigidity which had not been there before. One eyelid opened and it was the first genuine contact for months. But did she recognize him?

She appeared not to but then the mouth, those thin lips, parted ever so slightly in what could be taken for a smile. The whole visage went back into repose and he knew the thing was done for one day.

He stayed for another hour, then took his leave, thanking the nurse on the way out.

XXII

Day Seven arrived, Hugh was discharged; he was met by Zhenya and Lisa and they all went to Blackheath, to 51 Lea Terrace, which Lisa had booked. They ate Chinese across the road - the Peking Duck was crisply superb and the plum sauce was a treat. They wound up festivities about nine and saw Hugh back to the B&B safely, arranging to phone the next day.

Lisa was dropped back to Kentish Town and at the last second, invited Zhenya inside, a spur of the moment decision, despite the long drawn out thinking preceding it.

For his part, he’d picked her correctly as a girl who’d venture and then at the last minute, her moral gyro would reassert itself and she’d shy away from compromising herself. She adored adventure but not danger.  For him, this little evening wouldn’t hurt, would it?

She made nice coffee and put out some cakes, changed into an oversized jumper and Peter Rabbit socks and he couldn't help noticing the cultural divide. She asked about Ksenia.

‘Ksusha? Sensitive really. She felt very badly about the way our mother was treated. I think she blew it out of all proportion - it was no worse than in many families - but she saw it as her mission in life to protect someone - our mother was the logical recipient.’

‘Hugh was most impressed with how you handled everyone in that forest.’

‘Was he really?’ Zhenya allowed himself a little smile. 'I see you have a man.'

Lisa just stared, then glanced over at the photo.  'Yes and no.  We're apart for now.  There were ... issues.'

'But you'd take him back.'

She didn't like the way he tumbled to things.  'I don't know.  I shouldn't.'

'But in the end, after much soul searching - you would.'

'Unless something else had happened in the meantime.'

He wasn't going to buy into this any further.  In fact, it made things decidedly safer.  'Well, I suppose I should go.'

'At which point I beg you not to?  Not tonight, Zhenya.  It takes time with me.'

XXIII

14:00 saw Marc once again at her beside and her eyes were open. He took her hand,  she smiled and at that point, he understood that the only way to keep her safe was to remove himself from her.  For good.

Trouble was, he now knew he could never do that.  


Chapter 7 here ... Chapter 9 here

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