The Midnight Falcon by Graham Saunders

It was not the physical pain that hurt, it was the thought that he had failed. Failed to keep the innocent child safe, only nine years in the world and already he was facing his last journey. The bullet that lodged deep in Colby Linden's shoulder was seeping dark blood across his crisp white shirt. It was a stain that he would carry for many years, marking him as a failure, culpable, untrustworthy. He could never bring himself to offer any excuse for what had happened. He should have foreseen the assassin standing in the doorway, it was his job to anticipate these things. He should have been aware of the danger lurking in the black shadows of the starkly bright north African sunlight.
The Midnight Falcon
The Midnight Falcon by Graham Saunders
There was nothing to do for the boy now, he lay still and pale, the bright sun seeming to fill his corpse with life where there was no longer any spark. Colby brushed the hair from the child's unseeing eyes with all the gentleness that the tragedy demanded. If it had been possible he would gladly have traded his own life for the boy’s. Then he made the call, his mobile phone heavy in his hands and the silence that greeted his words deafening. Finally they spoke, just practicalities, no remorse. Colby had enough remorse for the whole of Equis. "You'll have to make your own way home." They said as if he were now disowned. "We'll inform the family and local authorities, arrange transport... get him home." Around Colby's neck, worn and polished smooth, was the silver chain his grandmother had given him when he was still a child. He slipped it over his head and placed it around the boy's neck. In a moment of sublime irrationality he felt maybe it would keep the boy safe on his last journey... Colby's grandmother had told him that the chain was magic, that it would always keep him safe just as it had brought her father home safe from the trenches of a conflict that had ripped the soul out of humanity a century ago. Then he stood and turned, winced as he tried to move his arm. He could feel the warm blood running down his sleeve, dripping from his cold fingers. As he walked away from the scene of the outrage his vision was blinded by scalding tears, his emotions numbed by sadness. Then a dullness fell across his eyes; a dullness that would rob him of his bright future and leave him broken. ... There was a mood of optimism in the small east European State of Sachovia. Optimism for the future which even the threat of an approaching winter could not dispel. Among the plotters and schemers who always seem to play a disproportionate role in the politics of men, there was a sense of urgency; an opportunity to be won or lost and on this pivot the whole future of the emerging state would turn. Sachovia was a small country now long liberated from the yoke of the communist years. Suddenly the country had discovered a new self awareness and some were casting a glance to their past to re-establish the lost days of pomp and majesty. Other minds were more focused on the economic opportunities that now lay almost within grasp. Nature had been kind this year; it had been a good growing season, good rain in spring and a long hot summer had matured the feelings of optimism. The swelling Riesling grapes of the reinvigorated wine industry were ripening nicely on the vines that ribboned down the verdant slopes to the lake. The spring flowers had cropped heavily and profitably in the benign climate – The political intrigues were also blossoming and would in time reap their own harvest. As the last rays of a late summer day faded to twilight, a softness of shadow fell over the lake. The view from the shoreline across the wind-rippled water was of the Constantine Conference Centre at Alexigrad. The building, newly restored from the decay and destruction of the war, stood framed against the distant mountains; a monument to past glory. To the occupants of the black Mercedes limousine that threaded along the narrow winding road, the white painted walls and turreted towers took on an almost fairy-tale aspect in the half light. The travellers' minds were however far from the pastoral scenery, there was a palpable nervous tension that sparked across the car's hushed interior. Few words were exchanged but each man was keenly aware that they stood on the edge of a momentous decision. The journey had been long; in excess of a hundred kilometres of new motorway and another fifty of winding mountain passes that connected the Capital City of Rubansk with this once isolated retreat. Adam Prochniak had considered arranging a helicopter for a swifter journey but on reflection had decided that adopting a lower profile arrival would be more appropriate to their mission. The sight of a non-military helicopter in Sachovia, no matter how innocent, was still rare enough to attract public attention. The group were well aware that the nature of their meeting was not one to be allowed to spark public interest. For the record this was simply a long weekend retreat; a little walking, a little fishing perhaps. Some good food and like-minded company to relax with before the start of the political year. The Conference centre offered a measure of luxury, the absolute discretion of the staff was a given. Away from prying cameras and eavesdropping microphones, the clandestine group of politicians arrived quietly and settled themselves into what had once been the magnificent Winter Palace. A monument built by Alexandra of Sachovia over three hundred years earlier. Since the untimely death of Gregori Kashinka ostensibly from a sudden illness, there was only one remaining descendant of Alexandra known to be still living. The Bolsheviks had been merciless in hunting down the heirs of their fallen ruler and only one family had survived in exile. A family now reduced to just one child of thirteen. As a sudden flurry of sharp wind snapped foam up from the lake edge, a flight of Greylag geese lifted into the darkening sky and noisily rode the currents of the warm air that rose from the water. For the assembled men such scenes of tranquillity escaped their notice. It was time to talk of treason; it was time to confront the dark malevolence of assassination. "You are absolutely sure that the room has been swept." Edward Waleski asked. He turned his gaze away from the view of the lake that was fading into a misty grey as the light faded. He had been focussed on the twinkling lights on the far shore. The distant hamlet of Zurmach huddled low beside the lake, sparkling under a clear starlit sky. He wondered if it really was an hour and a half away by car to the vineyards across the lake. Out here in this wilderness, time and distance seemed to have lost all their meaning. Stanislaw Pejic looked up from his notes. He was head of party security and took the question of the room's status as an explicit insult to his competence. "For the sake of Christ man come and sit down. We need to get this meeting under way. Nothing that passes between the four of us will go any further than this room. I need not remind you that our lives may well depend on that; the veneer of civilized democracy that has been stitched together in Sachovia is still gossamer thin. I need not remind you that absolutely no notes written or otherwise recorded will be taken during our meetings. So take care to commit to memory everything that we agree on." Waleski nodded then raised his hand by way of fleeting apology and took his seat at the waxed and age-darkened oak table. Polishing the lenses of his glasses, that he had specially made while taking a brief sabbatical in Paris, he considered once again how vulnerable his position was. He had absolutely no wish to ruffle anyone's feathers... Not until he could engineer sufficient support of others to bolster his own claim to the position of Party Leader. Walenski was a patient man but he lacked the true killer instinct to rise any higher in the party's hierarchy without the assistance of someone much more ruthless. Such people were not unknown to Edward Waleski and he was not without resources but he did not yet realize that time was not on his side; he was not the only party member with his eyes on the leadership. "We all know the reason for our meeting." Tomasz Cichowski said rather unnecessarily. A quiver of nervousness took the composure from his normal self confident baritone voice. "Unless we take action soon the child will be returned to Sachovia and our hopes of ending this ridiculous push to re-establish the monarchy will be dashed. That rotting carcase should have ended with the Bolshevik revolution. There is simply no place for a monarchy in modern Europe." He was of course preaching to the converted. Even so Waleski muttered an agreement and added his perennial view of being unconvinced that this child could possibly be the legitimate heir to the throne of Sachovia. Even if such a throne could still be thought to exist after nearly a century of communism had bridged the old days to the present. "We know your views on the matter Edward... The fact remains that there is a huge swell of public opinion in favour of returning the Monarchy to Sachovia. Even our esteemed Prime Minister poor naive Boris Koch has been swept along with the enthusiasm. We cannot allow him or his party to continue in power. A return to a monarchy would be an unmitigated disaster for the country. Even the damn Americans are in accord with us on that." "The Americans have no power to influence our sovereign State Adam... As well you know." "The Americans have more subversive leverage than you may realise Tomasz, but you are right they will offer us no support unless we can absolutely 'resolve' her claim to the throne." "Does she even want to be Queen?" Edward asked. "Almost certainly not but as the last surviving member of the Kashinka dynasty, little Natasha has little choice in the matter. The monarchists, for which you can read 'the government', have chosen to sacrifice her freedom for what they see as the good of Sachovia." Edward poured himself a glass of water and looked into the eyes of his co-conspirators. "I have to admit to qualms about..." He hesitated to say the words. "Killing an innocent child..." "Really Edward... you need to grow some balls, this is not a tea party we are engaged in." "Yes yes, I know all that Tomasz. Indeed on an intellectual level I am persuaded by the greater good argument... Its just... " He found it difficult to make his case without sounding weak and continued on a different tack. "In any case I have two questions." He rose from his chair and moved to the window. "Firstly do we still know where the child is with any certainty? And secondly where does Moscow stand on this? We cannot allow ourselves to slip out of favour with the Kremlin." Prochniak made a pyramid with his fingers and tapped his index fingers against his lower lip. After what might be considered a somewhat sinister pause he answered slowly and deliberately with the quiet self-assurance of a man familiar with being in control. "I have..." He said pausing for emphasis. "Someone whose identity I can not reveal, but who has a measure of access to Natasha Kashinka; our problem is not in locating her but in resolving what must be done with her. As for the Russians I have a commitment from a most senior level that they will not involve themselves in our internal politics. Indeed they are of a mind to be supportive of our Republik party should it win power in the next election. You must remember that Sachovia unlike the Black Sea states, has no strategic importance for Russia – not unless we make unwise approaches to join NATO. As you know this is an action which our party has made commitments not to pursue should we win the election. I also need not remind you that if the monarchy is re-established then the chances of our success in the elections will be much diminished." "Yes we all understand that Adam... So if we can discount interference from Russia, then why not just have Kashinka quickly and quietly killed and put a rapid end to this once and for all." "I wish it were that easy Edward... Unless Kashinka's death can be seen to have absolutely no connection with the Republik Party, our legitimacy would be threatened. The people, in their simple way, want their Queen. The Republik party needs to be seen to join the country in mourning her loss... Should that 'unfortunate' event unfold." "So how, in your view, can we engineer such an outcome Chairman Prochniak." Stanislaw Pejic asked over the rim of his reading glasses. "That, my friend, is exactly why I have invited you to this little weekend retreat. Gentlemen, if you are in agreement, I propose we consider the best way to precipitate the 'accidental' death of Natasha Kashinka – before she is returned to Sachovia – before she becomes Queen... To that end I have spent many hours considering how we might arrange an untimely end for the child. An end which would appear to have its origins in a foreign regime with no political interest in Sachovia, her death would be seen as unfortunate collateral damage. If you agree with my proposal, and its outcome is successful, then we may join our countrymen in expressing outrage and grief at the loss of our dear queen. And Sachovia's anger will be focussed overseas well away from the Republik party." "Bravo..." Called Stanislaw Pejic. "You seem to have worked out a solution without needing our input at all. Please tell us more, the suspense is killing us..." The rather sarcastic note did not escape the chairman's notice but he chose to ignore it for the moment and with a smile of self satisfaction Adam Prochniak began the careful explanation of his skilfully constructed duplicity... ... In London, within a week of the Sachovia meeting having drawn to a satisfactory conclusion, Colby Linden, at 42 still nearly handsome in a rugged slightly disreputable way, was feeling out-of-sorts. It was nothing specific just a general malaise. He knew without too much introspection that the lack of stimulation from his job was the probable cause. He still worked for Equis, the renowned city based security firm. Equis was a company which dealt with all aspects of security from the mundane installation and monitoring of alarm systems, the escorting of vulnerable goods and personnel, the settlement of hostage situation to the provision of close protection officers. All aspects of security were undertaken by Equis Security. Established in the sixties by Anthony Freeman, Equis had grown exponentially until it had risen to the premium company in Europe to deal with in its specialist arena. On the retirement of Anthony Freeman, his daughter Jane had taken the role of chairwoman and she had continued the growth and reputation of Equis. Colby had been set on course for a stellar career at Equis and it was not until a little before Jane would take the reins of the company that things went wrong. The media gleefully called it 'The Khan Debacle' and Colby was held personally responsible for the death of the young son of a wealthy Saudi businessman during an intrepid, if ill advised, rescue attempt. Not only was Colby held to be culpable due to negligence but it was rumoured that he had accepted a financial incentive to place the child in a vulnerable position. A brief action brought by the boy's family could present no real evidence to substantiate the claims against him. Indeed there was no evidence as the events as presented by the media were a complete falsehood. The case against Equis and by definition Colby Linden was readily dismissed but he nonetheless became the scape goat for the affair and was quietly and systematically edged out of public sight by Equis. "Can I get you another?" Colby asked. He was not a man who normally sought solace in the bottom of a glass but sometimes a little softening of the edges was unavoidably required. Penny hesitated just slightly too long which put Colby a little ill at ease with his companion. Eventually She responded. "You may Colby, but I hope this is not going to cost me more than I'm willing to pay." She slipped a loose strand of hair back behind her ear. A soft, pink rather engaging ear Colby noticed. "Penny, I would never consider trying to buy my way into your affections; not for the price of a vodka and tonic in any case." He brushed his fingers across her cheek in a genuine attempt at affection. Penny smiled and slid her glass across the table. No longer married she twisted the third finger of her left hand that had once been imprisoned by her wedding ring. It was nothing more than a habit, a reflex action but Colby could not help noticing. He was trained to be observant. Colby had been trying to get her to accept his offer of a drink for months now. In a moment of self sacrificial pity or possibly just weariness she had finally capitulated; how much further she would let the evening go remained for the moment undecided. Her eyes scanned across his still athletic frame as Colby made his way to the bar. Many men of Colby's age would have sunk into a softly corpulent middle age by now. Colby had somehow kept himself fit, quite fit actually. To Penny's eyes there was no doubt that he was handsome; dangerously so, but his physical attraction was tempered by a shabbiness that spoke of yesterday's man and what she understood to be a seriously flawed personality. As personal secretary to Jane Freeman, she had access to his file. What she found there, at least in recent years, did not make a compelling case in favour of the man's character. He appeared to have a shadow over him and as a result had been sidelined from the elite team of agents into a rather secondary support role, a desk jockey. What surprised her was that Colby seemed to have accepted this as if it were all he now deserved. Following the publicity surrounding his botched mission in securing the safety of the Saudi heir, a pall had been cast over the whole of the Equis organisation from which it had only in the past few years fully emerged. Penny considered Colby rather lucky to have kept his job with Equis at all. On consideration as she watched him, not quite flirting, with the rather obviously buxom bar maid, she resigned herself to keeping Colby at arms length. He was just too dangerous a proposition to risk getting involved with despite the obvious attractions that rather urged her in a different direction. By the time Colby had extricated himself from the wayward barmaid and juggled his way back to the table with a vodka and tonic and a half of lager. He saw to his dismay that Penny's seat was empty. She had left leaving behind her just a slightly warmed leather chair and a hint of Chanel Number 5. Chapter 2 On a warm September afternoon Valentina Gussev made her entrance to the foyer of the Equis Security offices. "May I be of assistance?" the receptionists asked with a deferential smile. "I hope so." Valentina returned the smile with a softness that may have betrayed a slight nervousness to a keen observer. "I have an appointment with a Henry Powell for two thirty... If you could let him know that I have arrived." Her English was impeccable, maybe the slightest of accents, possibly Scandinavian Anna thought. With blond hair and blue eyes she certainly had the caricatured look of an attractive Scandinavian woman. "One moment..." She tapped briefly at the keyboard of her computer. "You are Miss Gussev?" She asked. "Yes I am." Valentina replied. with a genuineness that offered no glimpse of the harshness of life she had endured in recent years. "If you could take a seat in the visitor's lounge I will tell him that you are here." Henry Powell had been with Equis for five years and was a competent if unexceptional manager. It took him three minutes to appear, slightly out of breath, at the glass doors to the comfortably elegant visitor's lounge. Valentina was perched on a leather chair and Henry thought he could detect a nervous tension emanating from the woman. He held out his hand in greeting and escorted his visitor via a brief lift ride into a bright office that caught the afternoon sun. Powell twisted the blinds to allow a softer light to fill the room. "Can I offer you tea or coffee?" There was a pause before Valentina replied as if she were unaccustomed to such pleasantries. "Maybe a little water." She finally said. "Of course... Please take a seat." Powell filled an expensive looking crystal glass from the water cooler and handed it to Valentina before taking his seat. "Now how may Equis help you Miss Gussev?" Valentina sipped the cold water. "Before I say any more I need your absolute assurance that what I am about to tell you will be held in the strictest confidence." "That goes without saying Miss Gussev." "Well it would be nice to hear you say the words." Valentina offered him her most brittle of smiles. There was possibly shyness in the smile but behind it a glimpse of a steel core that made Powell reconsider his initial opinion of the woman. "Well of course you have my word that your business will be held in the strictest confidence, as is the case with of all our clients." "I have done my research into your company and would not be here unless I was inclined to believe that Mr Powell. I represent the government of Sachovia and there is a delicate mission we wish to engage your firm's assistance in undertaking." "In what way can we help in this mission?" "I do not know how familiar you are with the internal politics of Sachovia. I suspect you have scant knowledge of my country, but there is a popular move to re-establish a constitutional monarchy which my government is inclined to support. The heir to such a monarchy, and there is only one clearly identifiable surviving heir, is in exile. A direct descendant on her grandmother's side, she has been kept safe by the government in secret since the death of her elder brother. Many believe that her brother was poisoned by the anti-monarchists but the official story revolves around a fatal illness. We need to bring the child safely back home to Sachovia. In a country such as yours that would represent no problem, but for my homeland... Let's just say that the niceties of democratic ways have yet to be fully rediscovered. There is a powerful faction, supported in part by the opposition party that does not want to see the return of the monarchy. They are rather fanatical in their beliefs and we feel that an open return would be met by a concerted attempt on the girl's life." Powell's eyebrows were raised a notch by the revelation. "I see, this sounds to be quite a complicated situation." "Yes, complicated on many levels. As monarchists there is only one chance – if Natasha Kashinka is assassinated then the links to the old dynasty would be lost forever. Short of inventing a new royal family, which seems preposterous, our hopes for re-establishing a monarchy would be lost for ever." "Your story is fascinating Miss Gussev... So I assume you are looking for a group of close protection officers to escort the child to Sachovia." "We would prefer to keep the operation very low key; we were thinking more along the lines of a single escort travelling incognito. We cannot risk the opposition becoming aware of what we intend. Once the princess is back home we feel that the people will rise to her support and we believe that the opposition to the monarchy will then evaporate. No party with political ambition would then risk an open attack once she was fully established back in Sachovia." "Until then you feel she would be a vulnerable target." "Very much so... The child is barely thirteen and would not have the resources to take care of herself. Sachovia, as you will know, is only recently independent and still recovering from a debilitating war, we do not have the capacity to undertake this mission without expert professional help." "I fully understand your position." Powell nervously adjusted his tie. "The fact is... I find myself a little out of my depth with an enterprise such as the one you have outlined. If you will permit me... I would like to take advice from a senior director." "As you wish Mr Powell." "If you could excuse me for just one moment." Powell left the client in his office, paced across the hallway and tapped on Derek Penfold's door. "What is it Henry? You look rather flustered." Henry quickly told him the gist of what his visitor had said. "OK Henry you did the right thing... This is a job for Jane I think." He picked up his phone and spoke to the company chairwoman in rather hushed tones. "Yes... in Henry's office... OK." Derek put down his phone and turned back to Henry. "She's coming down, you'd best go back and wait with the client. Jane Freeman rode the lift down and emerged in the lobby of the sixth floor opposite Henry Powell’s office. Best described as petite, Jane Freeman stood five feet four in her tallest heels and weighed as much as a bag of sparrows. It would be a mistake however to consider this to suggest that she was in any way frail. She wore a dark grey trouser suit and her hair was tied back in a simple short pony-tail. She tapped on the door as a courtesy and entered. "Hello Miss Gussev..." Jane clasped the hands of the woman who sat cross-legged with an air of being removed from her comfort zone. "I'm Jane Freeman, the chairwoman of Equis; the undertaking you have outlined is well within our capability but Henry was right in seeking advice for something with such a political frisson." Jane turned a smile on Henry. "You can leave us to continue Henry; just close the door on the way out." Henry was rather relieved but also slightly miffed at being ousted from his own office; he decided to take solace in a cup of coffee and something sweet from the vending machine. "I seem to remember Equis having dealings in Sachovia some years ago when my Father was still chairman..." Jane said. "Yes, in fact that is why your company was first on our list. During the turbulent years as the communist leadership melted away and our country was left rudderless... There was need of... Some rather specialist undercover work. I was a rather naive twenty five year old back then and was fortunate to have briefly worked with your Mr Linden on a particular clandestine project... I understand that he may still work for your organisation Miss Freeman?" "Colby?... Well yes but these days he has withdrawn from the limelight rather. There was an unfortunate incident." "Let me be blunt Miss Freeman. I am familiar with Colby's apparent fall from grace. I did tell Mr Powell that I had done my research on Equis. The fact is that the Sachovian government has continued trust in Colby Linden. He served our country well and we like to keep our friends close. We are aware that he has fallen from grace... Might I speculate that he has fallen on his sword to protect the reputation of Equis?" Jane winced inwardly at the suggestion but said nothing maintaining an easy composure. "Well... You will no doubt have your reasons" Valentina continued "but the fact that he might now be considered less operationally trustworthy might suit us well. This mission will of necessity be clandestine and the lower the profile of those involved the less static they will generate and the less likelihood there is of alerting our adversaries – The mission needs to go undiscovered." Valentina paused and shifted her position in her chair. "Miss Freeman, it is no secret that we need to bring the girl home; our enemies are resourceful and vigilant. They are waiting for an opportunity to strike. Should we for example engage an armoured car and a company of heavily armed men to escort her, the anti-monarchists would have little difficulty in mounting a military style attack, the same would be the case if we tried to air-lift her into the capital. We need to be discrete with Natasha's escort; the most unlikely man will attract the least attention and if he can bring our princess home unnoticed then my mission will be complete." "Your reasoning makes a good deal of sense to me Miss Gussev, but only if the man you chose as escort is a competent as you assume Mr Linden to still be." "Well yes... I hope you are not suggesting that Mr Linden is no longer a capable operative." "I would not go that far..." Jane was suddenly alarmed to realise that she had no idea how Colby Linden was these days. He used to be THE man to look to for any difficult mission but as far as she was concerned he had slipped completely off her radar screen since the Saudi incident. In her defence the incident was somewhat before her time. "Miss Freeman, I have put my cards on the table, can we approach the minor matter of your fee should you wish to assist us?" "The fee for our services depends on how much resources we need to apply to the operation. There will need to be a calculation before I can suggest any figure. What I can say is that we would expect a fifty percent advance – non-refundable in other than exceptional circumstances, with the balance payable on successful completion." "That would not be a problem. Sachovia's economy is starting to flourish... we will be willing to offer your company a substantial financial incentive if you are prepared to undertake this simple mission on our terms. We have assumed a figure of up to five million sterling." Jane freeman leaned back in her chair. Five million was an astronomical figure; much larger than any single contract had ever attracted before. "I'm sure we can accommodate you for a little less than that Miss Gussev." Jane said as she successfully kept her burgeoning smile in check. "I can fully understand your reasoning Miss Gussev and I can assure you that we are well equipped to satisfy your needs. The problem I have is with Mr Linden... I am not sure he would even be willing to undertake the job... A matter of confidence you understand. His self assurance took a battering after the incident to which you have alluded and the similarities between that commission and the one you have proposed may be too much for him to accept." "I think maybe you underestimate Colby... Or am I wrong, do you maybe overestimate him?" Jane tapped her nails on the desk top. "I'm not quite sure what you mean by that... In any case I want to select the best man for the job. We have several low profile close protection officers who would be more than competent enough to escort a child across Europe." "We believe that Colby Linden is the best man for the job. I know for a fact that he would put his life on the line to protect Natasha... Would your alternatives make the same commitment?" Jane smiled, she was unused to negotiating with such a determined client but was unwilling to show how unsettled she had become. "Look miss Gussev, let me talk to Mr Linden... If he is willing to undertake the commission then I will, with some reluctance, agree to your request. But you must understand that in this business reputation is everything. Should Colby Linden be seen to have failed to protect another client, then my company would likely be ruined... I cannot let that happen... If you insist on using this man, then we may have to keep the involvement of Equis in the operation out of the public gaze. "That would not be a problem Miss Freeman. So would Colby be available to speak with me now?... My instructions are to get this undertaking resolved as quickly as possible." "I would like to talk to Mr Linden in private first Miss Gussev... Could we perhaps meet again tomorrow?" "My schedule is quite tight Miss Freeman... I suppose I could delay until tomorrow morning." "Can you be here at ten Miss Gussev? Or I could come to your Hotel... I will have discussed the matter with Mr Linden by them." Valentina nodded with apparent satisfaction and indicated that she would return on the following morning. Jane elicited Henry Powell’s assistance in escorting her visitor back to the lobby and then quickly returned to her own office. She found her secretary under a mound of paperwork and asked her if she could call Colby Linden and ask him to come up to her office... "Straight away please Penny." Jane sat at her computer and brought up Colby's file. She had always had a soft spot for him. In her father's time he had been something of the local hero. To say she had a crush on him back then would have been overstating the case but she was surprised at how the discussion of him had caused an unexpected frisson. The Gussev woman, whatever her true motivation, had certainly got close to the truth in suggesting that Colby had made himself the scapegoat. As far as Jane was concerned, the man had done all he could to complete the mission and save the boy. There was nothing in his file to point to any operational failure on Colby's part and if he had truly been culpable, why she wondered, had her father not simply sacked him from the company? Her musings were interrupted by the man himself. "Colby, come in sit down. It's a while since we've spoken." He seemed to have aged since they had last met. Maybe the fact that he bore a day's growth of stubble on his cheeks and was wearing what appeared to be a suit that he might have inherited from his grandfather added to the rather down at heel appearance. She wondered if they were paying him enough. Her eyes scanned his file and alighted on the salary figure. She was appalled. "When did you last get a pay rise Colby?" "Er... Not since your father's time, rather before the Khan debacle Miss Freeman." "Call me Jane for God's sake... So who's your line manager? Your file is vague on the matter." "I don't actually have a line manger; I was sort of left to my own resources." "For fuck's sake why don't I know about this?... You were one of... No bugger that... not one of, you were our BEST man." Colby shrugged. "What happened Colby?" "I know it was before your father died but you must be familiar with the story, don't make me go over that old ground again.." "I know about the tragedy of the Saudi boy... What I don't know about is the tragedy of Colby Linden." "I stuffed up... I guess I've been living in a state of... Atonement." "Don't you think it's time to move on?" Jane asked with a deep sigh. Her words were met with another shrug. "OK Colby, I'm going to sort this out... Starting with your appalling salary. By my calculation you are also due some serious back pay. Then I'm going to shift you back into operational service." She paused looking for a response. There was nothing she could read in the stillness of his steel grey eyes. "Is that something you could embrace, or have the fires gone out?" "Oh the fires still burn Jane." "Good, that's bloody good Colby. I would have liked to let you dabble in the shallows for a while until you find your feet but... The fact is your services have been requested on a contract that you may find emotionally difficult..." Jane stood and walked to the cocktail cabinet. She poured them both a modest measure of scotch and was surprised to feel her fingers trembling as she raised the glass to her lips. "I think you may know a woman by the name of Valentina Gussev." Colby felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle at the mention of her name. His mind danced back a decade; to a scene now only half remembered. Snow and ice and fire and passion. There was danger which only added to the intensity. The clandestine mission involved recovering some important papers rescued from the chaos of a country on the verge of a tragic civil war; it was a successful undertaking and along the way he and the young, beautiful, passionate Valentina Gussev had briefly collided. He had left a part of his heart with her when he had been required to return to Britain. He could feel the pain of her loss again and it was almost welcome after the years of numbness that he had endured. Slowly Jane explained what Valentina Gussev had proposed. A close protection escort job... another vulnerable child that needed to be kept safe. She stressed that he was not obliged to accept the job and could work his way up from the shallows if that was what he wanted. Colby ran his hands across his face and realised that he had not shaved that morning; an omission that the old Colby, the one that Valentina knew, would never have made. He felt a sudden urge to find that old Colby Linden again but that man was buried deep now under years of self pity. "As you know Jane," He said in a soft, dry throated voice that Jane had to strain to hear. "I was in Sachovia a decade ago. I have a fondness for the place. I'd like to to do this... The fact is I'm not sure I'm up to it any more." "There's no pressure Colby; I'd like us to win this contract but I can walk away from it if necessary." As Jane spoke however, she inwardly winced at the thought of losing the lucrative contract. "Can I have a little time?" "No, that's not an option Colby. They want to get things moving straight away." He sighed, his reflection bounced back at him from the polished glass walls. He saw an old man. Maybe only forty two but too old for this. Inaction had left him weary. A pity – he really would have liked to have seen Valentina again... "Find someone else Jane... If it were anything other than escorting a kid..." "OK I understand... Maybe Standish would be suitable." She added. "Standish is an over confident arse Jane... He'd go at it like a bull in a china shop." Jane already knew that, she had no intention of letting Standish any where near this case. Just a prod to see if there was a glimmer of life left in the old dog. Colby was surprised to discover that maybe there was. "You Jane" he said with the beginnings of a long forgotten grin "are as wily as your old man." "I know... So?" "I'll talk to Valentina... If she can convince me that I'm up to it then I'm in." "Thank you Colby, I'll give her a call and arrange a meeting... Oh and Colby... Get yourself a new suit for Christ's sake." Colby leaned across the desk and gave his boss a kiss on the cheek. She accepted it with barely a flush. No one else in the company had ever dared to do that before. She thought that maybe she had unwittingly woken a sleeping tiger. The thought rather amused her. Chapter 3 Jane Freeman was at her desk at six, dawn still just an anticipation resting in the eastern sky. It was rumoured, possibly a little unkindly, that Jane never went home until the weekends. It was an idea supported by the presence of a small annex to her office which housed a bed and a wardrobe of clothes. Single, no children Jane Freeman was self contained. Whether there was any significant other in her life was the stuff of water-cooler gossip. There was no shortage of takers for the position among the idle gossipers of both genders – should such a position become available. In fact the chairwoman had been home and had slept soundly in the company of her Persian cat. Needing little sleep, she always rose at five and cycled to the office where she showered and changed. She was an executive, the wealthy head of a business empire but possessed of an asceticism of nature that had no interest in the trappings of wealth nor the need to own or be owned by any one else. She was at peace with herself and knew that her life was exactly as it should be. In order to present a more acceptable image, Colby had indulged in a haircut on the way back to his modest two bedroomed flat on Woodstock Road. With an unaccustomed nervousness about the day ahead, he had selected his one remaining decent suit, a medium grey Armani in fine wool. The polish on his shoes was a leftover from his army days, an ingrained, spit and polish habit that even his last years fighting depression had been unable to break. He had lived his own version of asceticism over the past years but it had been imposed more by his meagre salary than by any natural frugality of spirit. His life was part of his atonement; it was what he deserved and he was, or had been until very recently, content to wallow in his misery. He arrived at the Equis building just before eight and took the lift to Jane's floor. Penny was already at her desk and did a double take when she saw the newly groomed Colby Linden. She caught a whiff of his aftershave, the look of his exquisitely tailored suit and instantly regretted walking out on him two nights earlier. Not only did he look the image of her sometime fantasy lover but he seemed to have suddenly discovered a new found confidence that did nothing to lower her elevated heart rate. "Is she in?" Colby asked as he adjusted the cuffs of his white shirt. "Er... " Penny seemed unable to manipulate the flux of her brain sufficiently to summon a coherent response. "Yes... yes. Sorry yes." "I am expected." Colby said. "Shall I just go in." "OK." Penny said as she struggled to fend off the feeling that she had slipped back a decade or two into the frame of a gauche teenager. Jane looked up from her desk, fresh faced and smartly dressed but without any nod to to the trappings of office, if you could overlook her demeanour, she might have passed for an office clerk from accounts. "Good morning Colby... " She slipped off her reading glasses and looked up from her papers. There was a nod of apparent satisfaction at what she saw. "You have certainly scrubbed up rather well. That's quite an improvement from yesterday." She was under no illusion that Colby's effort was for her, Valentina Gussev was clearly the intended recipient. "She's expecting you at nine thirty; I understand she intends giving you breakfast... Probably pickled herring and cabbage." She added under her breath. Colby pretended not to hear and glanced at his watch, a rare Bell and Ross military timepiece that had once belonged to his father. "Have you taken breakfast yet Colby?" "I usually don't bother." He said. There was something in his tone that reminded Jane of how he had been so underpaid over the last years. "I've spoken to Nigel... Do you know him?... Payroll officer." "I don't think I've met him." "No... Anyway a more normal level of salary will be established from next month and your back pay, quite a decent sum, should be credited to your account by close of business today." "That's very generous Jane." "Mm, hardly that... If this was the US I expect you would be... What's the expression? – Suing my ass." "It was as much my fault as yours Jane." "OK... We'll say it's water under the bridge." "Indeed." "Have you come to any conclusions about Miss Gussev's request?" "Nothing has really changed; perhaps I feel a little more my old self today. I have been under a cloud, felt that I somehow had to make some..." "Yes yes... A sack cloth and ashes thing... I get the message Colby but it's time for you to move on." "OK Maybe it is... this job may be a way for me to find my salvation. Valentina may be able to convince me, I'm feeling inclined to listen seriously to her anyway. I know it's what you want..." "It is Colby, but this is not about what I want. I stand by what I said yesterday; there's no pressure from me. Colby, the more I look at the facts surrounding the so called 'Khan Debacle', the more I think that it is Equis who needs to seek absolution from you." Colby nodded, It was just an acknowledgement of the kindness of her words, there was no confirmation nor denial of the veracity of Jane's statement. "Which hotel is she staying at?" He asked rather quietly. "She's at the Camberwell; take a cab on expenses." "The Camberwell is quite near; I'll walk if you have no objections. Some fresh air might clear my head." "Of course, in that case you'd better get going. It wouldn't do to keep her waiting. Oh and Colby... Welcome back." Colby slipped past Penny on his way to the lift without acknowledging her fawning smile. Timing his departure to arrive on time at the Camberwell, Colby made his way across the morning bustle to the four star hotel. It took slightly under thirty minutes of brisk walking and Colby was feeling flushed and energized by the exercise as he presented himself at the reception desk. "I have a meeting with one of your guests; a Miss Gussev." Colby announced to the receptionist. "Ah yes I have a note about that... You are Mr Linden?" "I am." "I think she's already made her way to the dining room... Just a moment." She picked up her phone and made a call. After a few seconds she was able to confirm her statement. "Miss Gussev asks if you could join her... The dining room is just through those doors." Valentina was not hard to locate. Even after ten years and with her back to him, sipping orange juice from a delicate stemmed glass, he would have known her anywhere. As if by some sixth sense she turned her head towards him as he entered the room. It was like being dragged back ten years to the post soviet Excelsior in Sachovia. Time had softened the harsh memories of the conflict that he had been drawn into but the time spent with Valentina was etched deeply. As was the pain at having to say goodbye. He crossed the softly hushed carpet to her table. "Miss Gussev, please don't get up." "Why call me Miss Gussev? Are we no longer on first name terms?" Colby hastily sat as the waiter pulled out a chair and then melted away unseen into the shadows. "It's been so long... " Colby said. "It has Colby but really ten years is no time at all to forget what we shared." Colby wondered if their distant coming together had meant as much to her as it did to him. He rather doubted it; she had made no effort to contact him over the years. Of course the same could be said of Colby but maybe he had an excuse for locking himself in a cocoon. "You never got in touch Valentina... I wrote but got no reply." "Oh did you? I'm sorry..." She touched Colby's cheek with her cold pale fingers."Sachovia was tipped into war, I was constantly on the move... I sort of thought that you had moved on. I told you that you should if you remember." "I know what you told me as the war was starting to tear Sachovia apart. But I know what you really wanted." "Things happen Colby... We were living in different worlds back then, you were still a high flying Equis agent and I was wrapped up in a war... But let's think of happier times. Come on let me feed you... You've grown skinnier over the years." She said. "Do they not feed you at Equis?" She lit up her face with a smile that Colby had etched on his memory, it was no less potent than it had been a decade earlier. Then she attracted the attention the hovering waiter. He loomed like a silent phantom emerging from the ectoplasm. A neat man, slim and dark, his impeccable appearance marred only by the glimpse of an ugly tattoo that sneered up from the line of his shirt collar. "My friend will have the full English and I'll have a little French toast with honey. I do love honey and it's so hard to find these days back home." She added as an aside to Colby. The waiter floated toward the clatter of the bustling kitchen with their order. "Oh and more coffee please..." Valentina called after him. He made no acknowledgement of the request but would be sure to bring coffee without further prompting. Colby was not sure that he was up to a full English... Not on an empty stomach... however he committed himself to the task with stoic determination. "I would have thought Sachovia might be flowing with milk and honey after all this time." He said. "So how are things these days?" "We are hopeful that things will soon improve. The peace was hard won and it's still very fragile." Valentina sighed softly. "So fragile... But we are starting to see the country lift itself from poverty. There are optimistic signs." Valentina's face suddenly brightened. "You remember Alina? You must remember her. The pretty girl with the beautiful white horses." Colby nodded but his memory of the girl was now vague; an aspiring ballet dancer he seemed to remember. But that was before the bony fingers of politics took a firm grip of her future. "She's got three... Count them... Three enchanting little children now, all at school." "And a husband?" "Of course a husband... But not Sebastian. She found someone else." A shadow fell over Valentina's eyes. Colby remembered Sebastian; he was a young man back then still gripped by youthful idealism. A strong jaw, enthusiastic for his cause; quick with a joke and the first in line if you needed help. He was definitely one of the good guys. He could see why young Alina had clamped herself to him so tightly. "What happened to Sebastian?" "He vanished... Many of the faithful did. It is rumoured that his strong young frame now serves as a support for part of the Stavinsk-Kussek motorway." "I'm truly saddened to hear that... And what news of Sascha?" "My dear brother... The world is a terrible place Colby, we must find our solace where we can." Colby watched as Valentina fought back tears. "I'm sorry Valentina, the last thing I wanted was to bring you pain." "I know... Just don't ask about Sascha. I always thought I was strong person, that's all that most people see when they look at me, but underneath... I still cling to hope Colby. The men of Sachovia still come back from the fields or factories tired to their bones. They sit in front of their television sets, minds misted by cheap vodka and dreams of a contented future. The winter still falls with its icy fingers across the window panes, the wood fires still burn with their curling dark smoke and the crows still fill the air with their chill calls. But in the spring the church bells ring and the meadow flowers peek up towards the sunlight. Everything is new again. We live for that newness Colby, a fresh start, a forgiveness when we can finally stop remembering the snap of a broken neck or the thunder of a bomb." Valentina wiped a finger across her eyes but she found her composure again as quickly as she had let it slip. "I want you to help me bring that happiness to Sachovia but Miss Freeman tells me that you might be reluctant to accept our commission." "I've been rather hors-de-combat of late." Colby said "I'm not sure I'm the man you want any more." "Jane Freeman implied that you would say as much... I can't believe that you have changed Colby; people don't change. Never, not really, not in essence anyway." Her blue eyes ran across Colby's face. It was so familiar to her yet matured now and distinguished. "I rather like the silvered temples by the way." She said. "That's what ten years will do for a man... You haven't changed." he said with a tender smile. Valentina took a sip from her glass of orange. "You can tell me I'm still beautiful if you like I won't be embarrassed." She said with a flutter of her eyelids and a little self effacing laugh that Colby had thought he would never hear again. "But seriously Colby, I've made it my task to convince you that you're the man for the job. You know that I won't take no for an answer so why not just save us both the time and effort and agree?" Colby knew very well all about the persuasiveness of the angel-faced seductress that sat opposite him. Ten years ago she had led him into things beyond the call of duty. Back then he hadn't regretted an instant. Back then then Valentina was a naive young woman filled with an infectious desire to do good. Now he saw her as a mature woman, wiser and scarred by harsh experience. "Indulge me" he said "I still need convincing." The breakfasts arrived complete with more coffee. "Tuck in Colby my government will be paying for this." He watched Valentina attack her French toast like a schoolgirl enjoying a treat on a mid-term break – "Oh this honey is divine..." Colby couldn't help the smile as he took courage and with his index finger wiped a dribble of golden liquid honey from her chin. "You haven't changed a bit." He said. She took his finger into her mouth and sucked off the honey and then suddenly bitten by an uncharacteristic flash of shyness she let her eyes drop to her plate. "Colby..." She said "wouldn't you like to do something important with your life again? Something that you could look back on with satisfaction; something worthwhile." Colby considered the word worthwhile, even the most discreditable of acts could be described as worthwhile as long as the context was considered sufficiently virtuous. "So tell me about the mission." He said as he sliced open his roll with surgical precision and spread thick yellow butter on it. Valentina told her familiar story once more, it felt to her like spouting lines of an over-rehearsed play, each time the telling seemed less compelling, more forced. Nothing of what she said added anything to Colby's understanding. The briefing from Equis had been comprehensive and included some additional independent research which only supported what Valentina had already told them. "Yes but why do you specifically want me?" Valentina lowered her eyes: "Maybe I just like your arse." She said. "Be serious for a minute Valentina." "The truth is Colby, I need someone I can trust. I'm still working, as you may have guessed, for the Sachovia Security Bureau. Many of my contemporaries, some of my dearest friends, have long since vanished without trace. It's a perilous job in a volatile political environment... I've been given this job directly by the Prime Minister Boris Koch and frankly I feel a little out of my depth." "I can see you might but..." "No listen Colby, let me finish... I need someone to trust – I mean really trust; someone I wouldn't mind holding my hand from time to time. I won't lie to you Colby, this is not without danger. A lot of people want Natasha dead before she can get back home and they'll stop at nothing to achieve that." "There must be thousands of competent people who could escort the girl home. You could do it yourself Valentina." "My face is too well known in Sachovia. Natasha is hidden away where no one will think to look. I will not tell you where she is until you are committed to the mission. There are very few I can trust among my countrymen, in my estimation you are my best chance. I've been looking after Natasha for almost a year now and I've grown rather fond of her. In a life like mine you don't get to have a family... Natasha has in a small way occupied that vacuum. I know, that whatever happens, Natasha's presence in my life is only temporary but her future is important to me on a personal level. I thought you might be able to understand." "I think I do understand Valentina." "I need your honesty, I need your strength, I need your cool head in the face of danger... I need you Colby " Colby looked into the face of the woman that he had once known so well. Ten years ago she had been naive but courageous. The years had been kind to her, the naivety softened but there was something behind her eyes that made Colby wonder if she were being completely frank with him. "I'm flattered but you're asking me to put my life on the line to take a girl to face a future that she probably does not even want. You are asking me to be responsible for putting her into danger... All those qualities that you ascribed to me, if they were ever true, belong to the man that I used to be. I don't know if he's still in here." Colby reinforced himself with a mouthful of glistening bacon and waited for her reply. Valentina nodded while her fingers danced nervously against the white linen table cloth. His feelings for Valentina allowed him nothing less than aching compassion for her and beyond that, despite himself, Colby was surprised to discover a growing glimmer of excitement at the prospect of the mission: the feeling of sliding towards something important, the pull of action after being too long locked in the basement. If you tell a man often enough that he has courage then his courage grows. Colby had been repeatedly told by the media and others that he was a venal coward... He suddenly realised that he had believed those words, made them real. Valentina's words came like an antidote. "Valentina, tell me one thing... Why were you chosen to arrange the girl's return?" "There is little trust left in my homeland these days Colby. The powers that be in Sachovia chose to pick fruit only from the orchards they own." "And do they own you Valentina?" "They believe that they do and that's all that matters in the dangerous world I live in." "You seem a little disillusioned with how things have turned out." "No, don't think that. It's still early days, I think the future for Sachovia could still be bright." Colby nodded but was held back from quite believing the optimism in her words. Something about her voice discomforted him and he rested his knife and fork on the porcelain plate and dabbed at his lips with his napkin. Valentina could feel her arguments were becoming water thin in the face of Colby's reticence. Why could she not tell him the truth?... how could she countenance putting him in danger? She thought. "Colby... Will you come up to my room with me?" she asked. "For just a minute." Standing she moved close to his side, linked fingers with him like she had done ten years ago when she was just twenty five and still not corrupted by the weariness and futility of war. They rode the lift avoiding eye contact but with Valentina's fingers still twined with Colby's. Her room was plush. The Camberwell had its roots in the elegance of the past and much of that had been retained giving the room a slightly old fashioned feel, much as her room at the Excelsior had felt all those years ago. She drew the heavy brocade curtains against the brightening morning and then turning to face him and with the slightest of hesitation, slipped the straps of her dress over her shoulders. The soft silken fabric fluttered to the floor like a wounded butterfly. She wore no underwear, this was clearly no oversight yet somehow there seemed an innocence in her allure as she stood white and naked before him. Colby felt his heart thump against his ribs as Valentina held out her arms for him. There had been many lonely nights when had he longed to feel this intimacy with her once more. Urgently yet with a delicate gentleness Colby made love to her. He knew that her receptiveness was no act. As they lay together on the cool sheets of her bed, both knew that the dead embers of long ago had been irrevocably reignited. In the travails of men there really is no such thing as a reasoned decision, our choices rest on the play of our emotions at the point when our resolve collapses. Of course Colby knew that the lovemaking had been an act of seduction, made in desperation when considered argument had failed to convince him. But of course Colby would take the commission, how could he not now? And of course Valentina hated herself with a passion for her act of beguilement. Even though that act had revealed to her the truth about her feelings for Colby. Her feelings were as strong as ever and yet, with the morals of a back street harlot from Stavinsk, she was sending him to the gates of hell for his trouble. As Colby quietly left her room, Valentina's eyes flooded with tears. She bit into her lower lip until the blood trickled salty and metallic against her tongue but she felt no pain. Chapter 4 The decision made, Colby found himself renewed. Not different, just returned to the man he once was, or a version of it – older, harder more pragmatic. If Valentina had not quite released him from the burden of his past, at least she had given him license to function normally despite the ever present burden of guilt. "I've got this boat." Valentina said "I left it moored in Guernsey before I took the flight to London. We need to retrace my steps." "Why Guernsey?" "I discovered the Channel Islands some years ago when I was looking for a safe haven. A personal retreat – nothing to do with the job, not directly anyway. I've put down some tentative roots there if I ever need to disappear in a hurry. Guernsey just seemed to me to be an ideal place. Central for the UK and Europe but remote enough to walk freely out of sight of the dangerous people who want to rule the world and crush you under foot." "Maybe..." Colby said. "OK OK I admit it... " She laughed "I just fell in love with the place... You know any excuse to drop in when I'm passing." "That sounds closer to the truth but Valentina, is all this subterfuge really necessary? It seems a lot of trouble to go to just to come and talk to me." Valentina looked into the man's face, she saw a shadow across it that hadn't been there before her act of seduction. His eyes seemed to still follow her after he had looked away, what had she done? She could not deal with this now; Colby was just a player in her three act drama, disposable once the final curtain had fallen... At least that is what she struggled to tell herself. "Have you not heard a word I've been saying?" She asked as her defences against his masculine presence became fragile. "Those who stand against us will stop at nothing, they have learned nothing from the war. Our only chance is to be invisible." Colby seemed not to hear the anxiety betrayed by the hoarseness in her voice. "What sort of boat?" He said. "She's a ketch, handles like a baby." The enchanting thought of the boat brought a release to her tension warming like a ray of sun on an autumn day. Sailing was a joy for her, no politics or lies just the honest play of the elements to contend with – the elements were fickle maybe, but existed without deceit. "I didn't know you could sail Valentina, can you manage a ketch on your own?" "Well obviously." She said through a disarming smile without elaboration. "So when are you going to tell me our destination?" "Our destination is Natasha; I'll tell you where she is more precisely once we're at sea." "I thought we had an understanding Valentina, wasn't something mentioned about trust somewhere during those... negotiations?" "I trust you Colby but not necessarily those you talk to." "I talk to no one Valentina, haven't for years. You don't think I'd let anything slip do you?" "No I'm sure you won't... Especially since you still have nothing to tell." "OK... So where did this pretty ketch come from?" "Don't worry it's not traceable... Not easily anyway, its got a new paint and a new name with paperwork and a history to match. As a matter of fact it was liberated from a rather overly ambitious young blood who fancied himself as the genesis of a Sachovian Mafia." "Is there such a thing as Mafia in Sachovia?" "Not any more." "He won't squeal? This Mafia boy who's had his boat pinched." "Trust me Colby, he won't be squealing..." Colby thought of motorway underpasses and fell silent. He really didn't want details. ... The flight to Guernsey was as brief as it was uneventful. They flew directly from London City, travelling incognito on a regular scheduled flight, taking the same plane but with tickets booked separately. Sitting apart there was no indication that they might know each other during the flight. Going their own separate ways at the airport no one could have linked the two apparent strangers. It was not until they met up at the Victoria Marina in St Peter Port that they again acknowledged each other. The evening was already starting to fall as they met. They greeted each other with nothing more obvious than a nod of the head – just vague acquaintances, nothing to suggest they might have been lovers. "She's over there Colby. The white one with the two masts." The Ketch's hull was painted white with varnished teak decking. With her sails furled and the hull bobbing gently in the easy swell, she looked as pretty as a picture. To Colby who was a competent sailor himself, the ketch looked as if it might be a handful sailing solo in the sort of weather that could chop up in the Channel. "Who actually owns it? "Colby asked. "Officially or in reality?" "Both I suppose." "The State of Sachovia might claim ownership but the paper work tells a different tale. A fictitious German art dealer bought it in Cherbourg and then..." "OK I guess I don't need to know any more..." They stood for a moment embraced by the stillness of a Channel Island evening, the gulls lying on the wind, the setting sun melting into a horizon of purple cloud. As they came closer to the ketch, the painted name suddenly revealed itself out of the dusk. "The Midnight Falcon." Colby said. "It seems to suit her." "I came up with the name when we re-fitted her; midnight to maybe imply her covert activities and Falcon... Well it was to do with her being a huntress... Dangerous talons, that sot of thing. Actually she has a personality and its far softer than that, a willing mistress eager to please. Come aboard Colby and get settled; I intend setting sail as soon as it gets dark." Colby wondered about Valentina's dangerous talons; he didn't really know her anymore, just that he loved her again. Valentina showed Colby to his cabin, deliberately separate from her own and then took him to the galley where she set about preparing something to eat. She seemed transformed from the urbane sophisticate that had negotiated with Equis back into the woman he had known a decade earlier. "I'm hoping to slip away unnoticed." She said. "The wooden hull is pretty much invisible to radar and I'll be running without lights until we make some distance from the islands." Colby searched for something to say. "Do you know where the ketch was built?" "It's British, a classic long keel design. It's not as big a coincidence as it might seem but it was actually built by Palzeaird and Sons right here on Guernsey back in the late seventies. They tell me it's got three layers of 3/8 inch mahogany, glued and copper riveted and a three and a half ton keel to keep her upright. Unsinkable –at least that's what I tell myself when I'm battling a gale. She was fitted with new spruce masts by our unfortunate aspiring Mafia friend and we reconditioned its 80 horse diesel engine in France." "I'm impressed... By the boat and your knowledge of it." "I do nothing by halves Colby. I spent three days fitting her out and preparing the chart work before I sailed her home from Cherbourg." "Where is home?" "Home... I wish I knew Colby. The place we're going... I think I can tell you now... Its a secluded little Greek Island called Ikinos. There's just room for... Well I suppose its a bloody great mansion. You'll see when we get there. Don't ask who owns the Island, I'm sworn to secrecy, lets just say a rich sympathiser." "It's quite a distance to the Greek Islands." "It's a long way from Sachovia – in every way not just sea miles." "Which of your islands do you prefer?" "You can't compare them. Guernsey is a place you could settle down on and maybe build a life. I love the little Greek hideaway; the last few months have been idyllic but its just a staging post, my time there is almost over." Valentina took his arm... "It took me 31 days to sail to Guernsey, I'm hoping to break my record on the way back. At least it will give us time to get to know each other again." She said. "I thought we'd already done that." "Maybe... Come and eat..." Valentina had prepared a Feta salad with a fresh baked baguette and a bottle of chianti that she had picked up on her way from the airport. "So what's the plan when we get to... Ikinos is it?" Valentina rolled the tiredness from her neck and took a sip of her wine. Colby noticed a soft sigh before she spoke. "You'll be given a few days to get to know Natasha then I'll sail you to the mainland. I don't know exactly where. The plans are deliberately not set yet but it will inevitably involve a long overland trek. You'll probably be doing it by motorcycle. We'll talk about the details later. I'll need to discover them myself first." The weather forecast was good, and for fifteen hours they cruised effortlessly at five knots tacking into the wind across the benign south easterly. Then the wind freshened and with it the work load but also their speed. Valentina had been right, the ketch did feel unsinkable as they ploughed down the French coast to Portugal and on towards Gibraltar and the Mediterranean. The days aboard the Midnight Falcon passed in regular routine but never monotony, the sea always providing an acute stimulation for the senses. During his days at sea, a passionate fondness for the Midnight Falcon and her captain took possession of Colby. He rejoiced in every new experience. Each day immersed in the expansive seascape seemed to wash his spirit clean. The seabirds, constant companions, hovered in the air like spirit guides. And when the daylight faded the darkness brought the insignificance of their existence into sharp focus. They were just a tiny speck lost in the middle of the dark sea that sat on an infinitesimal blue dot in an infinite universe. The thought of returning to land seemed far away and hardly wanted. For the first time in many years Colby was beginning to rediscover a little inner peace. It was dawn when after a month at sea Valentina pointed across the Falcon's bow to the shadow on the pink horizon that was Ikinos. The young woman watched the ketch slowly make headway as it tacked across the wind and cut through the gentle swell. The return of the Falcon meant a shift in her world to an uncertain future. As the ketch came closer she made her way down the path that wound down the south side of Ikinos. She felt excitement to see Valentina again but there was the shadow of the unknown draped across her slender frame. Barely more than a cliff reaching up out of the Adriatic it offered less than a square kilometre of land and most of that was inaccessible. It might have made a splendid retreat for a medieval monastery. The Island had almost taken on a magical significance to Colby over the weeks of the voyage and now it lay before his eyes and was beyond what he had imagined. Slowly they edged closer to the mooring point, a wooden jetty clinging to cliff face at the foot of a steep and winding path. There was a modest motor launch moored to the jetty bobbing a fraternal greeting to the Midnight Falcon. Above the path and high on the cliff stood the mansion resting on the pinnacle of Ikinos, white and majestic like a new Parthenon. Colby almost felt the pull of a home-coming as they dropped the sails and manoeuvred the last few metres under diesel power. As they scrambled onto the unsteady footing of terra firma the young woman who had watched their approach from the mansion was skipping down to meet them. She looked too old to be Natasha, maybe twenty. She was still dressed for summer unwilling to say goodbye to the balmy days which even in these sun-drenched islands was inevitable. "Valentina... Welcome home." She called. Valentina waved back as she hauled herself up the path. She introduced the young woman to Colby. "This is Katrina, Katrina Devra. She's been looking after Natasha with Andrej – Captain Andrej Kowalski of the Sachovian Security Bureau –." Colby nodded. "Yes of course." he said and thought: another damned secret agent to contend with. Valentina turned back to Katrina: "How is our little princess?" She asked. "Like a typical young teenager she hates everything; she might be pleased to see you back though, Andrej has been tough on her during your absence." "I hope he gives her the respect she deserves." "One day he might when she's grown." Katrina shifted her gaze to Colby. She saw an attractive mature man with the frame of an agile tall boxer. His eyes held an intensity, possibly capable of cruelty but with an unmistakable kindness lurking behind them. She instantly liked him and offered, through her natural shyness, a broad white smile before linking arms with Valentina and leading the way back up to the mansion. They pushed their way into the building. The doors opened onto a large room, white as marble in the sunlight but starkly black in the shadow, so austere in its furnishings that it more resembled a modern art gallery than someone's home. Through a wall of tinted windows lay a terrace draped in purple bougainvillea. Beyond that lay the Aegean so brightly azure that it was hard to look at it for long without falling dizzy. Natasha was standing on the terrace looking out across the sea. She stood with her weight carried on one leg looking so young, so vulnerable. Captain Kowalski, possibly Katrina's boyfriend, maybe thirty with cruel eyes but no sign of kindness lurking behind his, took an instant dislike to Colby. A dislike that he had nurtured for long before the two men had met. The captain saw the Englishman as an intruder; the man they had selected to do the job that he was more than capable of. A foreign usurper with no understanding of what was required. He took Colby to one side into an alcove with a scintillating view across the sea. He leaned in towards him as if about to share some conspiratorial gossip. "If I see you touch Katrina Devra, I will cut you; she is mine." He whispered into Colby's ear. Colby had faced threats before; some of them he took seriously. This one came as a surprise and almost made him involuntarily burst into laughter. Natasha came and joined them. She was carrying a book and studiously avoided looking at Colby. "Come and have some wine." Valentina called across the room. "And me..." Natasha said from behind her book. The accent was clearly French; none of the household spoke fluent French, which left her alone in her native tongue. "No chance little one." Katrina said. Natasha hated being called that, she was almost a woman now; almost a queen. She took her book, a tattered paperback copy of 'Bonjour Tristesse' and dashed out into the starkly bright afternoon sun again. She ran, her bare feet slapping against the long marble corridor to the bower that was buttressed out over the cliff. From here she could see an infinite distance, miles and miles across the sea; if she let her imagination roam she could see all the way to Sachovia, a darker place, a place hung with the colour of aged dust. The bower gave her the feeling of being on the prow of ship; nothing but sea and an imagined landfall waiting. Sachovia, they told her, was her homeland but it was a place she had never been to. It offered a language she could not speak and a responsibility that threatened to suffocate her. Colby took a glass and splashed a little from the bottle of questionable Chablis and then taking his own glass he followed Natasha to her retreat. "Here, Cup-Cake," He said "just a taste." "Cup-Cake? Where did that come from? I'm not a kid, you know." Colby laughed. It was a warm friendly laugh and Natasha thought that maybe being called Cup-cake was not so bad. She took the wine and sipped, puckering slightly at its dryness. "Mm... lovely. Thank you Colby Linden." She said looking over the rim of her glass with coquettish shyness. She pronounced his name Colbay Landan. He smiled. "Just call me Colbay. Do you mind if I join you for a while?" He asked taking the answer for granted as he squatted down beside her. Natasha shrugged. "Non, pas de tout." She said. "It's nice here." He said. A brilliant red bougainvillea cascaded over the balcony adding a breathtaking intensity to the deep blueness of the sea and the whiteness of the marble. He sat and lifted his face to the warm sun with closed eyes. Suddenly he was in Saudi again; the strafe of gunfire; the smell of death wrenching at his stomach... "They tell me you were brought up in France." he said to the scented air. "I've never even seen Sachovia, my family found a safe exile in the south. We've been French for generations. I grew up in Nice." "How do you feel about going home?" "Sachovia is not my home, I no longer have a home. You might think a queen would be able to make her own decisions." "Would you rather stay here?" "If I have a place I call home then it's in Nice, since they killed my brother Gregori I have no one... Maybe Valentina now but she's about to desert me. The sooner they kill me too the better." "Natasha... I give you my word that I'll keep you safe; one day you will find your happiness." "I don't think so. In any case how can I trust you?... An Englishman... What can you know of my life and those who want me dead?" He thought he understood... The feeling of a future not worth living was not a total stranger to him. "If you were able to map your own future, what would it be?" "I just want to be an ordinary French girl. A simple life; eventually a husband, two point five children. Maybe on a pretty little farm somewhere." Colby's heart ached for her. ... At dinner Katrina sat next to Colby. She sat close, possibly too close. Kowalski watched with muted annoyance through narrowed eyes. He was blinded to the obvious fact that Colby was trying to avoid the young woman's attentions. As she tried to feed him grapes with the bubbling laughter of a schoolgirl Colby could see something behind her eyes that did not quite sit with the laughter... a look of sadness, almost a look of desperation. He could not define it any more accurately and slowly stood, excused himself and sought the cool air of the cliffs. He made his way down the path that led to the jetty and stopped by a small clearing etched into the cliff face. There was a flat topped rock which made an adequate seat, the rock was still warm from the sun that was now riding low in the sky as if determined to plunge into the sea like the diving gulls. "Don't mind those two..." Colby turned at the sound of Valentina's voice. They had hardly spent any time together since arriving on Ikinos and he felt the fragile bonds that linked them being stretched taught like a violin string on the point of rupture. "I think Katrina is trying to make Andrej jealous." "If that's true then she's succeeding. How old is she?" "She tells me twenty but I think younger, she has not yet learned to avoid playing with fire. One day her fingers will be scorched." Valentina moved closer until Colby could feel the warmth of her body next to him. "Andrej wanted to be the one to escort Natasha home." She said "He claims to have strong feelings for Sachovia; a patriotism that, by my estimation, makes him overconfident in his capabilities." Colby nodded as his eyes reached out across the sea. Somewhere in his future might be a place like this where he could settle at peace with the world. He turned to look at Valentina; there would be a place for her at his side but she turned her eyes away from him as if fearful of allowing him to read her thoughts. "We'll be going in two days. I've had contact with Sachovia and we have agreed on a starting point. Do you want to know the details?" "Just give me those two days Valentina; there will be time enough... You know that Natasha does not want any part of this frightful game don't you?" "I love her Colby, I don't need your words to make me cry over her... You have no idea." "Tell me then." "I can't. I just can't" They rested in silence watching the sun fall. Then she whispered as soft as the fall of a feather so that Colby had to strain to hear: "Come to my room tonight... If you want." He did want, he had wanted little else for weeks but for some reason Valentina had kept him at arm's length. He heard her footsteps retreat into the distance and followed every step remembering how gracefully she moved. He sat alone until the bright stars burned into the darkening sky. There was an edge of cloud balancing on the horizon still just visible in the half light. He was lost in thought when he heard the unmistakable sound of a shotgun being closed. "Englishman... I warned you not to touch Katrina. You think you can take my woman as well as my job?" "Put the gun down Andrej, I'm in no mood to have you walking around here threatening people. Just put it down. I'll be gone in two days; there need be no need for any hard feelings; I have no intention of touching your girl if that's who she is." "To hell with you Englishman." Colby could hear the crunch of boots on the rocky pathway as Andrej came closer. The moon had risen now and was behind him three quarters full. Colby stood his ground. "How do you think you are going to explain this to Valentina if you kill me. Have some sense man. Walk away before its too late." He could smell the heaviness of strong fortifying liquor on Andrej's breath as it curled down towards him. "You've been drinking Captain. Put the gun down or I'll take it off you." "Fuck you." Andrej said as he edged closer. The shotgun was now raised to Colby's chest. The polished metal flashing in the silvery moonlight. Colby could hear the drunken man's finger ratting against the trigger. Colby knew all about guns, mostly what he knew was that he did not like them, especially in the hands of a drunk with a chip on his shoulder. Andrej Kowalski, a captain in the feared SSB, would not admit to any of the events that transpired on the cliff edge that night. Indeed he had no precise memory of much that had happened, there was the flash of a fist. A boxer's left jab straight and fast like a cobra's strike. It was only half seen and then somehow the world was turning on its head around him, the moon was mocking his stupidity and Colby was standing over him emptying the cartridges from his gun. The last thing he remembered before retching up his dinner was the sight of the shotgun being hurled out far from the cliffs into the darkness. Then the distant splash of the sea as it swallowed its prize. ... Colby found Valentina in her room. The widow was open allowing a cool breeze to lift the fine white muslin curtain and fill the room with the scent of Japonica. She lifted her arms to him, drew him to her bed. "I think we are doomed to be star crossed lovers Colby; I've ached for your touch since that morning at The Camberwell but you must accept that there can be no future for us, you must understand that. We will have to go our separate ways." She kissed the hollow between his neck and shoulder and he leaned in towards her holding her head in his strong hands. "I will never accept that Valentina, when this is over I'll find you again. I love you Valentina nothing can ever change that." His voice soft but full of certainty. Valentina wished that it might be true. She felt a strong impulse to abandon herself to his care. To tell him the whole truth and let his gentle wisdom resolve all her troubles... Then she thought of her brother Sascha and a sadness fell over her.. "When this is over we may both have become different people, you may no longer want me." She said as she drew his lips to hers and felt his passion overwhelm her once again. Chapter 5 "I think I should touch base with Equis its been over a month since I've had any contact with anyone at the office." Colby said as he and Valentina drank strong coffee in the small room she used as an office. It was a secluded room normally kept locked. No one was allowed in there – ever. Colby knew this and felt rather flattered that he had been invited into Valentina's sanctum. It spoke of trust or maybe, he wondered was it some sort of test? There were several rather powerful looking computers, bristling with megahertz and gigabytes the sort of which any home computer geek might drool over. There was also a bank of communications equipment which, he imagined, was linked to the rather large satellite dish that scanned up into the heavens from the wide mezzanine balcony. "Send them a postcard..." Valentina said "Weather fine, wish you were here. That sort of thing." It had been her first display of humour since making landfall. She took a sip of her coffee. "No I'm serious Valentina." "Is it really necessary Colby? Every call we make is another opportunity for our whereabouts to be traced." "I know that but all close protection officers are expected to report back on a regular basis. If not we could trigger an alarm. If Equis starts putting out feelers to find me it could do more harm than good." "Wouldn't they know not to do that? I assumed there was a keen understanding of the need for absolute secrecy. In any case I'd rather you didn't use a cell phone to call London... I have a satellite phone that links securely to an office in... I think Budapest at the moment, they keep changing it. It's manned by Sachovian officers and they can redirect calls with minimal possibility of alerting even the most astute surveillance. I'll organise a call for you but keep it brief Colby and do not under any circumstances disclose our position." It was was the work of a moment for Valentina to connect Colby with Equis. The call being taken by a somewhat fractious Jane Freeman over a line that was secure but seriously compromised in terms of sound fidelity. "Colby is that you?..." "Yes, Jane" "Christ we've be going frantic here..." "Surely not... There's no need, everything is going according to plan. We need to be very discrete... As was made clear before we set off." "What?... This line is terrible." "The call is taking the long way round. Sorry about that... I said we need to be careful.. Can you hear me? His words were sent one at a time with raised voice as if speaking to some foreigner with little English comprehension. Jane did not appreciate his humour. "Yes, yes I'm not deaf Colby. So where are you at the moment?" Jane's voice was snappy but Colby thought he could detect a hint of relief behind the sarcasm. "Can't give you any details I'm afraid. The call is just to let you know my status is nominal." "Understood Colby. I've heaps to ask but I guess you won't be answering... Colby are you still there?" "Still here Jane." "There's some news starting to surface. The fact is, and you may not know this from your place of seclusion, but there's talk of renewed political unrest in Sachovia. Looks as if things may not be as 'nominal' as you thought." "What sort of political unrest Jane? Can't you be more precise?" "What?... Speak up will you?" "I said what sort of political unrest?" "It's not hit the media yet but the rumours are that the government might be under threat from a coup." "What's the source of this information?" "Something Toby Fitch picked up... He's got dealings in Slovakia at the moment and has been keeping an ear to the ground in that part of the World." "Ah Toby..." "What's that supposed to mean Colby?" "No... Nothing... If he's got the right end of the stick, it could change everything Jane... Look I'll certainly talk to Valentina about this. Naturally she has her own links with Sachovia which are likely to be more relevant than sweeping up gossip via Slovakia." "Toby's a good man Colby I won't hear a word against him." "Of course Jane and thanks for the information... Don't expect to hear from me again for a while; If I need help I'll get in touch." "You might if you can. Colby... Just take care of yourself, its a harsh world out there." "Jane I just love how you mother me." "What... Don't be ridiculous. Just wait 'till..." The line went dead with a foreboding crackle that sounded like distant fireworks heralding the beginning of some spectacular event. Valentina had been standing within earshot. Her antennae had picked up something that had raised a worried expression. "What's this about political unrest?" "Just that... Jane had no details. I suspect it's just rumours but it seems there may be the rumblings of a coup in Sachovia." "That could put all our plans in jeopardy. She didn't tell you any more?" "She doesn't know any more Valentina, it came from a source that I would treat with caution." "OK I need to check this out, could you excuse me Colby... I have some calls of my own to make." "OK... let me know if the plans have changed." He wandered down the mosaic tiled passage to the dining room leaving Valentina the privacy to make her calls. The view from the windows was of another glorious day, blue and golden with enough freshness in the breeze to stop the heat from becoming oppressive. To Colby's surprise the remains of breakfast had not been cleared away yet; the table was scattered with half eaten croissants and the molested remains of over-ripe fruit. Andrej and Katrina were overdue in making their regular shopping expedition to Kamari on the holiday island of Santorini. Apparently there was some issue with the motor launch; 'A blocked fuel line... should be fixed today'. According to the sullen Andrej Kowalski. As a result the mansion's supply of fresh produce was starting to wilt at the edges and the breakfast fruit had shown its age. The cups and plates had been tidily stacked but left where they lay is if the stacker had been called away on some urgent business. Such a scene was not typical, normally young Katrina had tight control of her domestic duties and performed them swiftly with good humour despite wondering why it was always the women who got stuck with the domestic tedium while Andrej got to play with his new tools on the stricken launch. In fact Kowalski was not busy making repairs to the launch... Colby noticed him skulking in the shadowy corner behind one of the broad supporting columns that braced the upper floors. He was gnawing at a hunk of bread which he had no doubt found in the kitchens. Since the troubling moonlight encounter, Andrej had rather kept his distance and had not made an appearance at breakfast. The cut on his cheek that Colby had administered looked purple and painful there was some minor swelling to his right eye. Colby wondered if he might be biding his time, letting his rage mature until he chanced upon an opportunity for revenge. He didn't need this distraction and decided to try and play down any feelings of animosity... Last evening forgotten. "Captain... Nice morning." He said. Andrej scowled from his shadowy corner and moved slowly with the sway of a western gun-slinger towards Colby. His face hovered too close with breath smelling of tobacco and the unpleasant tang of yesterday's Tsipouro. The captain was not afraid of the Englishman; no way. "Does Valentina know that you've been playing your dirty little games with Katrina as well as with her." He whispered through a leering smirk. "Maybe she expects more loyalty from her tame Englishman. It would be a shame if she found out. If I were you I'd be very careful... Old Chap." Old Chap, Colby found the quaint expression amusing, Andrej must have picked it up from watching old English films. No one ever used it these days and certainly the words had never crossed Colby's lips as far as he could remember. "Colby smiled. It was a broad smile, the sort you might keep in your repertoire for the welcome return of a dear friend. Behind it was a trace of menace that Andrej did not quite appreciate. "It might be better if we kept out of each other's way for the next two days. I'll be gone then and you can return the important work I'm sure the SSB have lined up for you." He tried to take a step back but Andrej followed and kept his face uncomfortably close. "Do you think Valentina would be happy for you to escort Natasha if she were to discover that an old man like you has such a taste for young girls." Before Colby could summon a suitable reply Andrej turned on his heel and made for the door. "Don't think that was my only gun." He said as he sparked up a cigarette between his cupped hands. He made some undecipherable but clearly antagonistic gesture with a thrust of his chin before pushing arrogantly though the swing door. Colby shrugged off the incident. He knew from experience not to go looking for trouble when it could be avoided. Something Andrej had yet to discover. He carefully collected the crockery from the table and made for the kitchen. It was a large and airy room, with a well equipped work space. Clearly designed for a number of cuisiniers to simultaneously prepare food for a large household. Windowless to avoid distraction, he thought, the room was cast in semi-darkness. He snapped on the array of light switches and a bank of LED lights burst into brilliant blue-white life. There was a bank of stainless steel gas ovens along one wall and a central granite topped work island with sinks and preparation surfaces. In one corner was access to the walk-in cool-store. There were two large freezers and an array of kitchen implements that would have kept the Savoy going over a busy weekend. Huddled in the opposite corner Katrina was sitting on the floor her head lowered and her knees drawn up tight to her chest. Her carelessly disordered hair fell across her face. She was gently crying and Colby felt the stab of resentment that someone so young and beautiful should willing accept the attention of a man like Captain Kowalski. "Katrina... What's wrong?" Colby crouched down and lifted her face. There was bruising already darkening on her cheek and her left wrist. She seemed to have withdrawn into a state of mindlessness, hovering in the shadows. It was something Colby associated with the effects of trauma, something he was not unfamiliar with. "Did Andrej do this?" Katrina sniffed back her tears. "No I fell." She said. Colby lifted her to her feet. She was without make-up and with the teary face she looked hardly any older than Natasha. He noticed for really the first time how thin she was; catwalk thin, another five kilos to certified anorexia. And yet such a short time ago, she had seemed so ebullient, flirty as if filled with the pleasure of life. "You don't need to put up with this." Colby said with a gentleness that had the girl's tears flowing again. "I love him... He thinks you have made love with me. I told him it was not true." She wrapped her thin bronzed arm round Colby's neck and let the tears come." "Come on now, no need for tears. I'll help you clean up the breakfast things." Katrina seemed to brighten, she managed a watery smile and wiped her eyes. The work done he took her out into the early morning. The air fresh and filled with the scent of wild sage. Against their backs the Sun was already warm as they walked along the cloistered walkway than ran across the entire south side of the mansion. They found themselves at the terraced garden. It was planted in flowering shrubbery for easy care with gravel paths and a small central orchard of citrus trees. There were oranges still green and hard among the waxy leaves. "What are you going to do when Natasha leaves?" Katrina shrugged "I will miss Natasha, she is like a little sister to me. Maybe when she is queen she will send for me and find me a handsome prince. But life is not a fairytale... I have to go back to Sachovia. Andrej said he will marry me." "You should think carefully about that; I'm not sure he's the man for you. You could do much better." "You think?... Life is not that easy easy in Sachovia, he's a captain. A girl must do whatever she must do to get by. Maybe you could marry me." She said with a little laugh. "How old are you Katrina?" "I'm twenty." She said with complete conviction. "Really?" "I will be soon." "How soon?" "Oh eighteen months or so." Colby laughed. "Valentina told me as much. You are too young to rush into a marriage especially with someone like Andrej..." "Mm... maybe." She said as if she were just the observer of her life as it unfolded before her. "Katrina where are your parents now? Your family?" I was orphaned in the civil war ten years ago. I had to make my own way. There was an old lady who had lost her granddaughter to a fascist bomber. I called her my sweet Babushka, she's dead now, died in the harsh winter of 2014... She took me in and raised me on her small holding until I was grown. And then Valentina found me and offered me a job." Colby knew there must be much more to her story but did not press her. "I must go..." She said. "It would not be wise to let Andrej find us together." She touched Colby's arm. "Thank you... You are a very nice man, I'm sorry I made Andrej hate you." He watched her walk away, still so innocent despite everything, so pretty, so damaged. In another world she could have been a film star he thought. Valentina and Colby conspired to have lunch together away from the others. One might think that after a month in each other's company confined within the 30 foot length of a wooden Ketch, there might be a need for the two to find some separation. That was not the case. They dragged a small wooden table into the alcove that Natasha had made her own. They lay cushions against the marble seat and Valentina delving into a wicker hamper and produced a light lunch she had prepared for them to share. They watched the gulls playing with the warm air that rose up the sheer cliff. Feathers the colour of sun-bleached cotton and a call as poignant as a lost child calling for his mother. They ate their lunch, content in each other's company. "Did you find anything more about the political instability?" Colby asked. "Not much to tell really. I've contacted my people and was told not to worry. It seems one of the top men of the opposition party, Edward Walenski, was killed in a helicopter accident while returning from some international mission. The official story is mechanical failure but video clips clearly show that the helicopter was brought down with a missile they think an American FM 92 stinger. It seems there are still plenty around left over from the 06 war; the Americans were very generous... Apparently Walenski was manoeuvring to take over the opposition leadership and didn't quite watch his back. You see now how vulnerable Natasha would be to an open entry into Sachovia." "It brings things into stark reality, how do you propose keeping Natasha out of the firing line when she's home?" "It's not really possible to keep her completely safe but a recent pole shows seventy percent of the population are supportive of a return to a monarchy. To openly go against that would be political suicide." Valentina sighed as if the weight of the worlds troubles rested on her shoulders. "I knew Edward, he was a nice man, nice but but naive, his wife will be in torment." It seems you know everyone who lives In Sachovia?" Colby said. "Only the important people." She smiled. "So nothing has really changed, Adam Prochniak remains leader of the opposition Republik party. The government is completely unaffected, if a little shaken. Importantly, our mission remains the same." "Do you know Prochniak? He sounds as if he might be dangerous." Valentina shook her head. "Do you know everyone who lives in London?" She countered. "Oh I'm on first name terms with less than half I'd say..." He smiled but then regretted the attempt at humour. "Valentina, my reading of the situation in Sachovia suggests that the country is tinder dry just waiting for a spark to set things off again. The place seems to be balancing on the edge of new civil war to me. I really have grave concerns about taking Natasha back there in the present climate." "Of course it's not damn-well safe Colby..." There was the snatch anger in her voice now as if the frayed edges of a raw nerve had been probed. "What do you really know about Sachovia Colby? It's my country, its pulse is my pulse. Each new tragedy it suffers I feel as a physical pain." "I know, I know... My feelings can't compare but I left a part of myself there ten years ago Valentina." Valentina sighed, she could not maintain her anger at him; it was never focussed on him in the first place. She knew their time together was short, far too short to squander in pointless anger. "I know, I'm sorry Colby I didn't mean to make light of your feelings." She gently rested her fingers against his arm. "My feeling for Sachovia are coloured by those I have for you Valentina." "Please stop I can't hear this." "I need to tell you this Valentina. I'm obsessed by you. I can't get you out of my head. There's no logic to it, there's not even any pleasure to it. Every time I think of something funny, I need you to laugh at it, and when I'm feeling down, it's you I want to cheer me up. I don't know who you are any more Valentina I think you've left me behind. But that doesn't change a thing, it just makes me sad... I'd take the sadness if it came with the deal." "Don't... Please... There can be no 'deal' Colby. I wish things could be different. If I could turn back the clock those ten years, I would never let you escape my arms but the civil war has changed me, there are things I must do now that go beyond my personal happiness. Things that test my understanding of right and wrong." She paused searching for a way to explain. "Colby can you remember telling me when we were sailing down through Biscay how insignificant it made you feel bobbing like a speck in the vast ocean. I had the same feelings and it's true; our individual lives don't count for any more than a dandelion seed on the wind. The happiness of a single man or a woman... or a child, means nothing in the scheme of things." "Well just keep on telling yourself that Valentina... One day you may even come to believe it... Look let me just say one more thing then I'll stay silent on the subject...Valentina while I still have breath in my body... My arms will be waiting for you." Valentina was committed to her path, it had been set on course long ago. She turned her face away from his gaze, fearful that the tears that rimmed her eyes might show how close she was to abandoning everything for him. It would be so easy... They sat together sipping wine in reflective silence until maybe half an hour had passed when Natasha stumbled over them seeking her own escape. "There you are." She put her arms round Valentina and kissed her cheek. "Can I sit with you for a while... Andrej and Katrina are arguing again. I hate it when they fight." "Come and sit next to me." Valentina said as she made room on the cushions. "Has Andrej fixed the launch yet? If not we'll have to get a mechanic sent over from Santorini." "He was testing it earlier I think it's OK. Andrej is in a foul mood today." Valentina put her arm round Natasha and the girl snuggled close desperate for someone to care for her, the touch of compassion and understanding that she was starved of. "You don't really like him do you?" Natasha shook her head. "Is it true – are we leaving tomorrow?" "The day after..." Valentina said. "I wish I didn't have to go. Sachovia seems like a terrible place to me." "We've talked about this... You must be strong Natasha Kashinka... You are of royal blood, the people of Sachovia are calling for their Queen. We must all answer the call of destiny even when it seems unbearable." The path that Valentina had chosen had always been a bitter one, not for the outcome, but for the innocents who would be sacrificed like lambs to the slaughter and she included herself among the tragic number. Chapter 6 The time ran swiftly and the new day had already brought their last hours on Ikinos. But at this hour the first glimmer of dawn was still more than an hour away. The weather still hung fair across the Greek Islands, there had been a long spell of tranquillity over the Aegean spreading deep into the Mediterranean. Valentina knew it would be unlikely to last much longer as the turbulence of shifting seasons took hold of the climate. Unable to sleep she had walked up to her office to read the latest communications from Sachovia. The recent signal confirmed the initial part of the journey. It was intended to confuse anyone who might have an interest in the passage of a man and a child heading to Sachovia. All they had told Valentina was that she was to sail up to Dubrovnik with her two passengers. There was a contact to meet at a place still undecided. Natasha and Colby would pose as an English father and daughter, together on a touring holiday. They would make their way north, by motorcycle. At this early stage of the journey, no indication would be apparent that they were heading anywhere near the troubled state of Sachovia. Their first destination was to be the city of Trieste lying on a narrow strip of Italian territory between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia. A city of writers, travellers, exiles and misfits. Valentina was to abandon her precious cargo in Dubrovnik; such was the turmoil that constituted her world, it was almost impossible that she would ever see them again. From there Valentina was expected to sail, broken hearted or not, back to the mansion on Ikinos from where she would conclude her business and disappear from view. The contact in Dubrovnik, handsomely rewarded for his trouble, would supply the motorcycle, camping equipment and enough Euros to see them safely to Italy. Valentina was fully aware of the need for all this secrecy but it gave her no comfort to be abandoning them in Croatia and even less as she contemplated the uncertainty of what lay ahead for them. Not for the first time she was questioning the sanity of the game she was playing. Once it had all seemed inevitable to her, she had no alternative. But now her sense of moral outrage was starting to drag her to her knees. Valentina shook away the dismal dust of her thoughts and busied herself plotting the course for the Falcon. It would take 6 or 7 days to sail the 1200 km to Dubrovnik at least she would have another week to spend with Natasha and Colby, but to return without them... Knowing what lay ahead... She did not know if she could summon the strength for that any more. Valentina checked her watch; it was barely five am. She was considering going back to her room and trying for sleep again when she heard a scratching sound coming from the lock on her door, some muffled words of frustration and then the door suddenly opened. "Andrej... For God's sake man you scared me half to death." Andrej jumped back, he seemed as shocked as Valentina. "Sorry... I er... Thought I heard something. I know you normally keep the door locked." "You were expecting burglars perhaps, on this rock in the middle of the sea?" "I don't know... I'm not sure everyone here is trustworthy." he said with a sneer. "You mean Colby Linden perhaps?" Andrej shrugged avoiding eye contact. "I would trust him with my life Andrej, you need have no concerns there." "No of course..." He raised his head and looked over towards Valentina's desk. "I see you have the details of the journey." He said as if he were making small talk. Valentina watched his flicking eyes as he strained to draw some information from her notes. She hastily folded the chart and gathered up the remaining papers into a folder then turned back to him. "Yes Andrej they have finally revealed the first stage of the journey to Sachovia." "Is it what we expected? Overland via motorbike." "Yes... I know you think you could have done this yourself..." "I've come to terms with it. I'm sure Linden is more experienced in such things than a simple Sachovian captain like me." "I'm glad you can accept that... Andrej, It's the final outcome that is important not who does what. You have been of great service to Sachovia already, don't feel that your efforts have been overlooked. Your name has been mentioned at the highest level." It was a lie but one that placated Andrej and made him bristle with pride. He nodded an acknowledgement of the compliment. "Do we know where they will be heading?" he asked in a voice altogether too casual. "That information is on a need to know basis... For you own safety as much as for mission security." "Of course, I was just curious." With a non committal smile he slipped quietly back out of the room. What was that all about? Valentina wondered. Surely I can trust Andrej Kowalski. Nevertheless she collected all her papers, anything at all sensitive to the mission and locked them securely behind the thick hardened steel of the wall safe. The combination she had chosen was perhaps rather too obvious – Natasha's birth date but it had seemed appropriate enough when she had selected it. Colby had woken as the first rays of light entered his room. He was naturally on edge but his thoughts settled not on the journey that lay ahead but involuntarily on Andrej Kowalski a man who had managed to unsettle him. The captain had gone out of his way to be unpleasant since they had first met and now he was shown to be abusive towards Katrina. Short of dropping him from the cliff-top onto the jagged rocks, an idea that he found not without merit, there was little he could do. Any warning he made towards Andrej would be hollow because in a few short hours he would no longer be there. His father had once told him that the responsibility of a moral man was to act if there was some reasonable intervention possible and not to waste energy worrying if there was not. It was good advice but he could not help the concern he felt for the vulnerable young Katrina. As he lay in bed he pondered the feasibility of getting her into Britain where she might be safe and have the prospect of a decent life. He thought fleetingly of an illegal entry; wondered if Equis could do anything. He had not discussed any of this with Katrina, maybe she would not want to go to Britain, maybe her loyalty towards Sachovia and the restoration of its monarchy was a driving passion for her. He realised how little he knew about her; most of it had been filled out by his imagination and probably reflected an idealized version of the girl, the girl he hoped she might be. He rolled out of bed and stumbled into the shower. Access to a shower on the journey may not be so easy so he took a long soaking advantage of the hot water. He felt invigorated as he dressed and took a brisk walk round the property in the fresh morning air. He watched as a small boat chugged across the flat sea leaving a shimmering wake that traced its path from somewhere beyond the cluster of islands that lay halfway to the horizon. "There's breakfast if you want it." Colby turned and saw Natasha standing behind him. She had been sent to find him; the domestic duties of a prospective queen. "It's a really special place here." He said. "I could happily call Ikinos my home." "It is nice but you'd get bored stuck in the one place. I feel too isolated here, I have no friends my own age." "Do you have any contact with the friends you used to know?" "I'm not allowed any." she said without emotion; a simple statement of fact. "No, maybe I can see why, but it's a shame..." He tried smiling at her but was met with a stone wall. "Are you ready for the journey?" he said. Natasha shook her head. She looked inconsolably sad and Colby put his arm out to her. "No don't..." She said as she stepped back brushing his arm away. "This is not my doing Natasha, don't hate me." "Of course it's your doing..." She snapped "You could have said no." Colby could do little but shrug, the child was correct. What he was doing was not for her, not for Sachovia, not even really for Valentina. It was an act of personal selfishness, a last chance to salvage his floundering life and self respect. "If not me they would have found someone else." He said almost to himself. "Would you be happier if it were Andrej taking you?" There was anger and despair in her eyes as she twisted away. "Just leave me alone..." Colby watched as she ran off, her long fine hair lifting in the air and catching golden in the low morning sun. Suddenly he didn't feel like breakfast. He felt like being alone and made his way to the garden. He had seen an intriguing narrow path that seemed to edge down the northern side of Ikinos and decided to satisfy his curiosity. The path was roughly hewn and far from safe with a scattering of marble sized rocks covering the slope. He slithered down to a small level platform, the natural terrace was covered in tough coastal grass swept almost flat by the sea winds. It was still speckled with pink buttons of thrift and small outcroppings of spiny yellow gorse. The edges of the platform were sheer and fell away to the sea-washed rocks maybe twenty metres below. What really caught Colby's interest was what looked like a rope ladder attached to the cliff and disappearing down towards the water. Floating in the waves half seen, was what could have been a small buoy with a short mooring rope attached. Turning away from the edge he saw, partially hidden behind some scrubby gorse, the entrance to a narrow cave in the cliff face. He pushed his way in. The cave, little more than a deep widening fissure, did not extend far into the cliff – maybe two metres. The light that filtered in from the entrance was enough to show that there was little of interest. A long dead shearwater lay in a decay of feathers and bone across the rocky floor but what caught Colby's interest was the shape of a sealed twenty litre plastic drum pushed as far from the opening as possible. Colby wrestled off the lid and inside, wrapped in plastic he found a wet suit, jeans and T shirt and interestingly a mobile phone. There was the sudden sound of angry words; the unexpected voice from behind him spat a curse he could not understand but the venom in the man's expression was more than enough to alarm Colby. As he turned to face whoever it was something heavy hit him across the side of his head, he saw a bright light for just an instant before his world turned dark. ... When he woke he was back in the mansion. "What happened?" He asked as the fog began to clear and he lifted his head from the pillow. "You must have fallen." Valentina said. "Katrina spotted you from the far side of the garden. We managed to get you back here." "Where's Andrej?" Colby asked as his thoughts started to reorder themselves. "We really could have used him earlier to help carry you back but he took the launch out to get oil for the generator." Colby sat up; his colour was slowly returning and with it a dull ache across the back of his skull. "How are you feeling?" Valentina said as she brushed her cool hand across his forehead. "Yes, I'm OK, – a little confused." "That's not unexpected, Colby. I think maybe we should delay our journey a day or two." "No, no I'm fine we need to stick to the schedule." Valentina nodded, her relief was palpable. "That would be best if you're up to it." "I really am... got a pretty thick skull." "Thick maybe... Pretty is up for debate." She said with an endearing wrinkle of a smile. Colby laughed but it was probably a mistake as sharp pain seared across his temples. He closed his eyes for an instant as if he had suddenly got soap in them. "When, by the way, did Andrej leave in the launch?" He said. "Why do you ask?" "I thought I saw him... Just before my... fall." "I don't think you could have seen him, he took the launch out straight after breakfast." Colby nodded "OK... I must be mistaken." By the time they had eaten lunch Andrej had still not returned. Colby wanted to see him, his original view that it had been Andrej who hit him was starting to seem less plausible. In any case he resolved never to turn his back on the captain again. "Where exactly was I when Katrina found me?" He asked Valentina who was nibbling at the core of her apple dropping unnoticed seeds into her lap. "On the slippery path just before the grassy platform. She wouldn't have noticed you if you'd been further down." "Did you know that there's a small cave down there by the grassy plateau." "I've more to do than go climbing the cliffs Colby." "It's easy to access, no climbing involved... Do me a favour if you get time go and see if there's anything in there." "What are you expecting? A cache of Spanish gold?" "Maybe." "Why don't we go now together if this is so important to you. Do you feel up to it?" "OK, it takes more than a bump on the head to sideline me for long." "I seem to remember." Valentina said. It took little more than ten minutes to scramble their way to the cave. The slipperiness did lend support to the idea that Colby had simply slipped and banged his head with the rest belonging to an unconscious imagination. "What do you see?" He asked. "Colby there's nothing here." "No plastic drum?" "Nothing... Look for yourself." The low grumble of a boat's engine drifted across the air. "Can you hear that? " Colby said "It sounds like the launch... It must be Andrej, it's about time he was back." In the ten minutes it took them to return to the south side of the island Andrej was already operating the power winch and lifting drums of fuel oil up in a cargo net to the service entrance of the mansion. "You were a long time Andrej... Have any problems?" He turned towards the voice and at least from Colby's perspective seemed startled when he saw the Englishman standing next to Valentina. "Er... No not really. I had to wait for them to load up the launch so I went to the tavern and had some lunch, a couple of beers." Colby narrowed his eyes and looked long and hard at Andrej as he stood silhouetted against the afternoon sky. The captain's expression was sullen but essentially unreadable. ... Valentina took Natasha to one side, she could see that her nervousness was starting to unravel her; she needed a distraction. "Katrina's preparing a special meal for us tonight, she might need some help if you feel like it. It will be a farewell to Ikinos for you. We'll eat early so that we can set sail as the sun sets. I know this isn't what you want Natasha but try to think of what it means for Sachovia." "I hate all this Valentina but what can I do? Some accident of my birth has pushed me into a future that I have no control of. I feel as if I'm drowning in... what's the word?... la responsabilité" "It's the same word in English, responsibility.... I understand how you feel Natasha." "Then why can't I just be left alone to be a normal teenager?" "I can't answer that darling... There's nothing you can do but try to make the best of it. None of us know what the future holds, no matter how hard we try to control it. Your future may be far better than you imagine." Valentina spoke with softness and a certainty that she wished could have been real. Thank God she has no idea what really lays in store for her. Valentina thought. She caught herself frowning and lifted her look of anguish with a smile. She brushed the child's cheek with her soft fingers and felt like a venomous snake hypnotising its prey. "You've been like a mother to me Valentina, why can't you come with me. If I must go to this foreign country, I need a friend by my side." Valentina took the child in her arms and drew her close. "I can't do that... don't ask that of me Natasha, my heart is already breaking." Natasha held her tight. "I'm sorry..." She whispered in a voice almost too soft to hear. "I would never want to cause you pain Valentina, you have been so kind to me." They sat holding each other for a long peaceful moment until Natasha pulled away from the embrace. "What route are we going to take?" She said as she seemed finally to have accepted the inevitable. She sniffed hard and wiped her hand across her eyes. "We'll head north. It will take a week or so to sail to Dubrovnik. I don't know all of the route I'm just following what they choose to tell me. Try to think of the journey as an adventure, a holiday. All I know is that you are heading up to Trieste from Dubrovnik. They have planned three leisurely days of motorcycling for you to get there." Valentina turned and saw a shadow flit away round the corner of the wall as if someone might have been listening. But it was of no importance, the future was set in motion. Nothing could stop it now. Colby had taken Andrej by the arm and swung him against the wall with enough force to knock the wind out of him and sting his tongue with the taste of blood. "Overhear anything of interest Captain Kowalski?" "I don't know what you mean... Take your hands off me you bastard Englishman." Colby pinned him tight against the wall his forearm crushing against the captain's neck. "Thought you'd left me for dead out there did you?" "I don't know what you're talking about, you're full of shit." He struggled but Colby held him firm. "Just a warning Andrej... You can come after me if you like. I guess I'm fair play, but if I hear you've raised a hand to Katrina again... Once this is over I WILL come looking for you." Colby increased the weight against the captain's throat. "Do you understand me?" "Yes, yes," Andrej spluttered "Katrina is just a fucking whore, you can have her for all I care. Why would I waste my time with a street slut." Colby drove his fist into the man's stomach and Andrej doubled up in pain. Once more he felt humiliated by the Englishman, the anger rose up from the pain... One day Colby fucking tough-guy Linden... but for now he had his own game to play which offered more reward than troubling to break Linden's neck might. The special meal was meant to be a celebration of the summer days spent on Ikinos and an expression of hope for Natasha's future. None of the participants were really in any mood to celebrate. The festivities, such as they were, were forced and artificial. Katrina's culinary skill must have been gifted from the gods as she had no formal training. Despite this she had roasted a suckling pig stuffed with onions, celery, carrots and wild herbs. Natasha had been finally coaxed into helping with the preparation of a layered chocolate cake thick with whipped cream and dark Belgian chocolate. Although the preparation of the meal was down to Katrina she hardly ate anything. From Colby's observations the girl seemed to exist almost entirely on Perrier water. Not a good proposition for a girl hovering dangerously on the edge of anorexia. Colby's gran would have prescribed steak and kidney pudding with mashed potatoes with plum duff and custard to follow. To be taken twice daily until further notice. Colby, a silent observer, watched the interplay as Andrej now studiously ignored Katrina while she fawned over him like a rejected puppy. He wondered with a measure of distaste if maybe she didn't deserve the loathsome captain after all. No doubt there would be some form of reconciliation once they were left on their own in the mansion. Colby had spent just a few scant days on Ikinos, a jewel that sparkled in the azure sea. He had been entranced by the place; the remoteness ideally matched his nature which leaned towards solitude. The ever changing seascape was constantly uplifting had magically helped in the restoration of his battered spirit. For Natasha the island had been her Elba, little more than a prison. She was glad to leave but terrified of what lay ahead. She clung to Katrina as they stood on the jetty. She was losing another friend, all she could see was loneliness and a tragic life in a country ravaged by war... if she survived long enough to see it. "We should go Natasha." Valentina urged. The child nodded but was still reluctant to let go of Katrina. "Here take this darling..." Katrina slipped off her silk scarf and hung it round Natasha's neck. "Think of me when they make you Queen. Remember I was like your sister..." "You are my sister..." Natasha said as she kissed Katrina and finally climbed unsteadily aboard the Midnight Falcon... as if she were ascending to the gallows. The Ketch set sail into the purple dusk. With a following wind it was calm and tranquil as the Falcon did what she was built for. There was almost a feeling that the pretty craft had come to life as she drove on with a rolling gait into a soft mist that lay low on the water. Colby held out his hand to Natasha and she took hold of his fingers, a last straw of kindness to grasp in silent desperation. She shivered as the cool evening air kissed her shoulders. Colby looked back across the swirling evening mist but already Ikinos was fading into his mythology as if it had never really existed. Chapter 7 A ridge of high pressure hung over the Greek Islands but the forecast was for a rain drenched front to collide with their course unless they could outrun it. Wheels were turning, deadlines were there to be met. The Midnight Falcon was a spirited and courageous craft but no racer. They cruised effortlessly through the night and deep into the next afternoon at the speed of a soaring kittiwake. Reaching for the island of Kithira on a south westerly tack. The island marked the gateway to the end of their Greek odyssey. But by evening of the second day the wind had turned blustery and by midnight it had freshened bringing with it a decent swell that had the Falcon pitching in the darkness. With help from Colby, Valentina reduced sail and they ran before the weather for the lee of the island with sea anchor deployed. Then the rain came, gently at first but building as the wind veered westerly. Natasha was in her bunk. She felt sea-sick and frightened, she was no sailor and felt trapped and in constant fear that the boat might at any moment capsize. She suddenly longed for the safety of her prison island. Valentina changed course again and beat northwards, hugging the coast to avoid the worst of the heavy weather. Sometimes the sounds of the storm were deafening. The waves beating across the Falcon's beam rolled them like marbles in a jar. The timbers creaked above the roar of the storm as the Falcon was tossed in the endless solitude of the vast sea. Despite two nights without sleep Valentina seemed to be in her element. Her cheeks coloured, she navigated the waters with the skill of a woman born to the task. Natasha continued to huddle, ears shut with hot fingers against the oppressive noise of an angry sea. This was an alien place for the princess of Sachovia; even more alien than Sachovia. Colby thought of nothing, his mind empty as a familiar calmness came to him. He had experienced seas like this before and had complete confidence in Valentina's sailing ability and in truth, his years of withdrawal had left him rather immune to concern for his own safety; a life of little value is easy to abandon. He watched and learned and fell deeper under Valentina's spell. By the time the sun rose again, the worst was behind them. Valentina was tired but still invigorated. "She handled that beautifully." She said to Colby with a laugh of adulation as she took a deep swig of the hot aromatic coffee that Colby had managed to conjure up in the galley. "Who Natasha?" "No you fool the Falcon." She laughed. Colby smiled at her, with her soft eyes big enough to drown in. He thought: If she's in love at all, its with this damn boat. ... Heading north into the Ionian Sea, Valentina edged the Falcon further from the land. There was nothing to see except the rolling waves, often white capped with flecks of foam, and the occasional glimpse of a trawler or sardine fisher under diesel power. Natasha ventured from her cabin and breathed in the clean air. Still withdrawn, the beauty of the day forbade melancholy and slowly she was lifted to feel that life might be worth living if only for moment like these. The calm after the storm can sooth the most troubled breast. Colby took the wheel while Valentina slept the dreamless sleep of the exhausted. He kept the ketch heading north, favourable winds now making the going easy. Natasha prepared some stew for the evening meal and when Valentina woke refreshed they ate together in celebration of the end of the bad weather while the Falcon sailed herself ever closer to their shared destiny. Colby finally decided to express his concerns about Andrej with Valentina. As he spoke Valentina lifted her eyes from her plate. The stew, little more than cubed beef simmered with onions and potatoes was good, especially to an appetite sharpened by keen hunger and the smell of the briny air. "When you get back to Ikinos," Colby said as if it were a matter of little importance, "I think you should reassess your relationship with Kowalski." "My relationship... In what way?" "I'm not sure you can trust him, I think he's operating to an agenda of his own." "What makes you think that Colby?" She smiled at him as if the storm might have washed away his good sense. "My observations... And I'm fairly certain that my fall was no accident." "You think Andrej was responsible?" "I have no proof but yes... The decision to allow no phone contact from Ikinos was undoubtedly a wise one from a security point of view..." "But?" "Only if others had not made their own provision. I think he has access to a mobile phone. That's what I hoped you would find in the cave when we went back to look." "You saw a phone in the cave?" "Unless my mind is playing tricks on me." "You should have said something earlier Colby." "I know..." He said. Natasha who had been quietly listening to the conversation added her own criticisms of the captain. "I never trusted him, the way he used to look at me..." "In what way?" Natasha blushed suddenly wishing she had kept quiet. "Did he ever touch you?" Valentina asked with sudden alarm. Natasha shook her head and fell silent again. Valentina put down her fork. Andrej Kowalski was a problem for another day. "That was really good Natasha," the girl lifted her eyes, it was clear that at this point in her life she wanted little more than to please Valentina. "It was nothing." She said from the glow of praise from Valentina. "As for Andrej, whatever he might have been up to, he will return to Sachovia as soon as I get back to the Mansion... I think, if he did have some scheme in play then he's left it too late. If he did feel the need of a phone there might be an innocent explanation" "Such as?" Colby asked. "Maybe he had a girlfriend that he wanted to stay in touch with." Colby nodded. He was not necessarily in agreement with Valentina's opinion but felt that he had done his duty by raising the concern. "OK... I wonder would it be appropriate for me to make contact with Equis again?" Equis she thought... Ah yes that place. London seemed a million miles away. A place to dress for seduction, a place to betray those you care most for, a city of beguilement. "Yes, of course... I need to explain the workings of the satellite phone to you anyway, you'll be relying on one to keep in touch during the journey." Colby was familiar with such things and was soon connected with the office. "Jane... Hi it's Colby. If I'm right it should be late afternoon where you are." "Yes good guess... Better line this time... How are you?" "I'm fine, everything is going to plan so far." He briefly explained all he knew about the journey. "It all sounds idyllic..." She said with hardly any trace of irony in her voice. "Listen Colby, can you talk freely?" "Yes the girls are below deck, I'm pretending to sail the boat on my own at the moment. What is it?" "I'm assuming you are still living in a news media vacuum..." "Pretty much." "Mm. The trouble in Sachovia does not seem to be going away; usual sort of civil unrest but there's a harsh edge to the protest marches and rallies. There's a general call for the government to resign and hold new elections. The streets are awash with tear gas." "That's not what I want to hear Jane; I'm struggling with the implications of taking Natasha back there as it is." "It's just a job Colby. Our client has engaged us to complete a simple contract; the moral implications are not our concern as long as what we have been asked to do is legal. In any case the unrest may well pass over, these things often do but I thought you should be kept up to speed." "I'm not sure I can gloss over the moral implications of what I'm doing that easily Jane but I take your point... Thanks for the warning anyway... So how's life in London?" "It's as if you never left dear boy. Trust me no one misses you." "I hope you're smiling when you said that." "I never smile Colby, I think the last recorded event was the summer of 2004." She laughed which rather collapsed her argument. "Actually Penny does keep bringing your name up... Maybe you made a conquest there." "I really don't think so Jane. Look, this was really just a touching base call if there's nothing else I'll get back to my sailing. I have an urgent course correction to make in about an hour or so." "I wouldn't want to interfere with that Colby but actually there might be something that could be critical to your mission but I'm waiting to get confirmation before I worry you." "Before you worry me... You can't leave it like that Jane..." "Trust me Colby as soon as I feel you need to know I'll tell you... Speaking of which is there any way I can contact you?" "No I'm sorry this call is being routed through a series of firewalls run by the Sachovian Security technicians. I'll try and make regular calls." "OK Colby... Miss you." What was meant to have been a quick 'I'm OK' call had taken on a slightly sinister edge. Not knowing what the issue that Jane had hinted at, had opened up troubling doors into his imagination that should have been kept tightly shut. However he trusted the Equis team and thought: Out here on the Midnight Falcon in the middle of the Ionian sea, there's really nothing to worry about... is there? As the evening drew on Natasha retired to her cabin, she was starting to feel more at ease on the Falcon now and sleep came easily to her as she was rocked by the gentle motion of the vessel. Valentina sat alone on the aft deck. In quiet conditions like this with the self steering set the Falcon needed little input to guide her to their destination. She watched Colby as the moonlight shone across his back. He was leaning against the white enamelled side rail lost in thought. There was that familiar stab of guilt for the way she had seduced him into taking her commission. Over the weeks as she had re-acquainted her self with him, she was beginning to regret every lost minute of the near ten years they had been apart. Colby had been, if not quite her first lover then certainly the first man she had ever really loved and now as she watched him in the moonlight, he unaware of the caress of her eyes, she knew that she still loved him. Only her young brother Sascha held claim to as much of her love. Sascha with his innocent dark eyes, the courage of an eagle and heart of an angel. She could see him now smiling at her; telling her that everything would be all right. She wondered how many lives she must condemn for the sake of her sweet Sascha. He had played a courageous role in the civil war acting for the men who would inherit the new government and bring stability to the rich and poor alike. If Valentina knew one thing with any certainty, it was that after all he had sacrificed during the war, Sascha was owed a future. Valentina quietly moved to where Colby stood against the rail. It was his eyes that had first caught her attention all those years ago. A twist of her head and there he was across the room; a bar full of the heavy aroma of alcohol and hazed with cigarette smoke. Maybe she had drunk too much but her eyes had seen something special. This man sent from England, a commission to undertake and then be on his way leaving no trace. But he had left a trace, a trace that ran deep. It was before the 06 war had really started but there was already enough horror in the streets even then that only the obstinately blind could not see the tragedy slowly, inevitably unfolding before their eyes. The dominoes had already started to tumble when Colby stole her heart. As the Falcon gently yawed in the currents, Valentina moved closer to him until she could smell his musk against the salt air. "I'm sorry." She said. "What for?" "For tangling you up in all this... This bullshit." "Is it bullshit?" "All politics is bullshit Colby. Its just words and posturing to get the outcome that benefits the one with the loudest voice. Natasha doesn't care about the Monarchy, she doesn't care about Sachovia and yet we are making a martyr of her because some people with loud voices think it serves their purpose." Colby found himself in complete agreement with Valentina, he was unable to mount any reasonable counter argument and made no effort to. "Then turn the boat round," he said "we could find a desert island somewhere and live on coconuts." Valentina smiled at the image, it was not without attraction. "Don't tempt me..." she said as she put her arms round Colby's neck and drew her lips up to his. "Make love to me." She whispered "Out here under the stars where there are no politics just the sea and the sky and eternal innocence." Colby felt her breath on his cheek the taste of the sea wind on her lips as she gathered herself tightly round him. They lay together with only the Moon as chaperone and for an instant captured the taste of bliss from the times in her room at the Sachovian Excelsior, a place long since vanished to the ravages of war. "I want you to have this." Colby said. "What is it?" "It used to be my mother's wedding ring. I've kept it all these years." "I can't take this Colby... What does it mean?" "It's not a proposal or anything stupid like that... Look it would just make me feel happy to know you care enough for me to keep it safe." "I won't wear it." "I'm not asking you to." "Are you sure about this?" "Certain." "You are a sentimental old fool you know..." "I know." She lifted her face to his and kissed him again while inside she wept. ... They had crossed over half the distance to their destination now. The Falcon had become home again, familiar, comfortable. Colby watched Natasha as she lay on the deck catching the rays of the afternoon sun. Valentina was trimming the sails and easing the wheel to ensure that their heading matched the GPS coordinates. "Tell me about your life in France." Colby said. Natasha raised herself up on her elbow and shaded her eyes from the sun with the palm of her hand. "What's this? Sweet talk so that you can deliver me to my fate with a clear conscience?" "I'm just curious." "Tell me about your life first Colby, then I might tell you about mine." "My life... Not much to tell... after school I was in the army. Learned to box a little which I liked, learned to really hurt people which on the whole I didn't. I did some sailing in my youth that might have been the best times... Then I joined Equis. Became an Executive Protection Officer I was sent to do some close personnel support in Sachovia as the war started to unwind. I met Valentina... Then I had a troubling failed mission in Saudi that put me into a decline for a while. Now I'm here to see you safely home." "No wife, no kids." "No... " He said with no intention of elaborating. "Now your turn." Natasha shrugged as if her life story was of no importance, no interest to a foreign mercenary. "I have never seen Sachovia, my family moved to France in my great-grandfather's time when the Bolsheviks came. I was just an ordinary schoolgirl. My parents were quite well off... We had a nice life. My elder brother was in the army like you." Natasha's eyes seemed to drift off into a place where memory and sadness had become the same thing. Colby watched her without speaking, waiting with infinite patience for whatever words would come next. Natasha absently twisted the fabric of her T shirt and then finally continued, her eyes unfocussed, she was really speaking to herself now, Colby merely an observer. "Then one day, I can still remember the smell of distant wood smoke in the air, the chatter of children's voices that fell suddenly silent when they came for me. They took me from my classroom... I can still see Mademoiselle Filbert who always smelled of lavender and wore the prettiest of dresses... The shocked look on her face. They said that there had been a car accident with the Citroen, mama and papa... were dead, both of them. Gregori came to find me but I was alone for two days waiting silently for my brother. He was a handsome man in his officer's uniform, I loved him so much." A half smile briefly shadowed across her face at the tender memory. "After the funeral we went away and spend time together. He found a cottage for rent in the Camargue near the Petit Rhône and we lived through our sadness together. It was a painful time but I remember those precious days with fondness. Then one day he took me in his car, a day out he said. We had a picnic in the sun... I think there was sun... We stopped at a little village and Gregori bought me a pretty little bedside light with a carousel that turned when the light was on. He said it was a gift to show that he loved me. Then we drove into the evening eating chocolate and singing along with the songs that were on the car radio. Finally we came to a gate with a metal coat of arms above it. There was a big house beyond the gates. The windows were full of lights sparkling in the distance and as we drove up the driveway Gregori would not sing any more. I saw tears in his eyes, he would not look at me. I was put in a room with other girls... I waited for my brother to come back. I did not know what I had done to be punished like this but I knew if I was good and did as I was told and never moved far from my room he would find me again... I put my lamp by my window so that he would know where I was... still waiting for him. My darling brother. And I knew he would take me home some day." Natasha stood slowly, she wiped the tears from her face. "Is that what you want to know?" Colby had no words. "Be honest Mr Linden, this is just another job for you, when I'm delivered like a package of meat, you will never think of me again." ... The Midnight Falcon continued ploughing its furrow across the sea ever closer, drawn by the capricious winds, to Dubrovnik an ancient city in southern Croatia flirting with the Adriatic Sea. The Old Town, encircled with massive stone walls and battlements completed in the 16th century was waiting with total indifference to the ketch's distant approach. Somewhere in the town was a man with a motorcycle and from the town a road that traced its way up to Trieste. Chapter 8 Arriving at a port after a lengthy time at sea is always an event, a right of passage, something to remember when the days grow short. The Midnight Falcon had not quite reached that hallowed status but instead had slowed in the shelter of a small cove maybe a kilometre from Dubrovnik's old harbour entrance. Valentina slackened the sails and turned about. The sea was breaking as brilliant white surf on the far shoreline; in the distance was a speck, little more than a smudge, a trick of the light. Then above the urgent call of the gulls came the sound, a whining engine on full power. Drawing closer to them; their arrival had been anticipated. Within minutes the jet ski came into view with its engine howling as the craft lifted from the water at each wave crest, bouncing and crashing across the swell. It was approaching in a wide arc at speed. Without stopping, or noticeably slowing, a small floating package was jettisoned from the speeding craft which rapidly turned away from the Falcon and headed back along the coastline. The briefest of encounters, unnoticed by any watcher, the craft was now making a rapid separation from the Falcon, there had been no meeting, no exchange of words. Valentina, slipped over the side. The water caught her breath with its sudden chill as she sank into its salty embrace but it was not the coldness of the water that troubled Valentina. The sea still held a trace of the remembered warmth of summer, the tourists were still swarming the streets of the old town and the beaches still full of sun worshippers and Adriatic toe dippers. Valentina swam the twenty metres in effortless strokes as if she had been born in the ocean. Colby watched her slender shape as she quickly retrieved the small fluro orange package like a mermaid recovering some misplaced pearls. The package could have been a piece of forgotten luggage, an illegal cash payment for some work of corruption, maybe a drugs drop to add an illicit frisson to a holiday break. Colby helped her back aboard, lifting her as if she had no weight and wrapped a towel across her bikinied shoulders. She pulled back from his arms as if declaring that the days of intimacy were now over. "The papers... " Valentina said as she shook the salt water, in cascading diamonds, from her hair. Within minutes the Falcon was making way again. The brief intermission was unobserved. Valentina called Natasha over to her. She stroked her fingers across the girl's cheek. "Natasha you will be travelling as Camille Linden, Colby's daughter. The story, if anyone should ask is that you live in France with your French mother. Colby and your mother are divorced and your father is taking you on a touring holiday. Does that make sense?" "Of course it makes no sense... You are asking me if I'm willing to play your stupid game, yet you know that I have no choice." Valentina could find no reply for the child. "I'll be travelling under my own name?" Colby asked. "Yes... they think the closer we can stick to the truth the better." He shrugged thinking that a false name for him might prove an advantage... It was out of his control in any case. "There's also this," she said as she handed him a sheet of paper. It's a simple code, if they need to contact you in writing the message will be coded. Just substitute the letters according to this. Don't lose it Colby." Colby looked at her as if she thought him a simpleton. "Sorry..." she added "it's just my nervous tension." They crossed by the Old City harbour, the medieval battlements guarding the entrance looked as they had centuries ago, even the missile scars from the recent war had been repaired. At the harbour master's office, overwhelmed with the seasonal tourist craft, a cursory glance at their papers was found to be sufficient. These English tourists were fellow Europeans... It was the Arabs you had to watch these days. To meet their contact, they had to make their way to the steps of the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. He and Natasha each carrying all their possessions in small shoulder packs closely followed Valentina. It was not an arduous walk in the late afternoon. The small group of three, looking for all the world, like a family on holiday strolled the cobbled streets pausing to window-shop and admire the architecture. Until now Colby had been Valentina's passenger but now he felt the pull of the reins of responsibility against his hands. His eyes darted, saw everything, reacted to nothing. He was at work now, suddenly ignited by re-acquaintance with a set of skills that he had thought might be forgotten. They rose a flight of steep stone steps and went into one of the endless cafés. Little different from any other eatery in Europe they filled up on fresh seafood pasta and slices of sweet apple strudla spiced with cinnamon and washed down with strong coffee. Colby was now fully operational as body guard, close protection, it felt strange to be back in harness. Strange but good. The main attributes for such an officer is not to confront attackers, not even to 'take a bullet' for the client, though that was far from an unknown occurrence, an accepted last resort. The skill of close protection was to ensure that the client was never placed in a compromising situation in the first place. Protection of any sort revolves around spatial awareness, observation, and being one step ahead of the potential threat at all times. An ability to anticipate the future an undeniable asset. In that light, escaping an attack, whether successful or not was seen as a failure of duty. It was a while, probably too long, since Colby had been active in the field. He had not forgotten his training but his reflexes were not as honed as they once were. Despite welcoming the return to active duty, he was on edge, eyes scanning for anything that did not sit right with his sixth sense. He had seen the two men enter the café shortly after them. They sat at a table behind Colby and he swapped seats with Valentina in order to more easily assess them. He had always been able to tune in pretty well to things that did not quite sit right but, now that he had taken the time to observe them, the two men, laughing, speaking German with exaggerated gesticulation, showed no sign of keeping a low profile. They were no threat. Colby relaxed, no alarm bells were ringing. Those who posed the real threat were the ones you did not see. The young girl with an Uzi 9 mm in her satchel, the grandmother with a gentle maternal smile and a poisoned umbrella spike in her hand, something unseen in the shadows... Especially the shadows. When they left the café there was no sign of followers tracing their path. Seated on the steps of the Cathedral disguised among a huddle of tourists they waited. The appointment was for five, at five fifteen Valentina was starting to get edgy but Colby had already seen the man standing in the shadows watching, taking his time with the casual larceny of an 'A' grade pickpocket. When he finally appeared satisfied that it was safe he walked closer and sat next to them. He lit a cigarette and spoke as if to himself: "You want motorbike maybe?" He said. "You and the girl want to make little trip?" "What's your name?" Valentina asked. "I was to tell you Dmitri..." He said still not looking directly at them. He blew a curl of smoke up into the evening sky. "OK Dmitri... You have some things for us?" "Sure... You are from Sachovia?... Nice place I think." Colby stood up, his tall shadow crossing the man's eyes. "That is not an appropriate question Dmitri, if you need to ask that, maybe you are not the man we are expecting." "No no for sure. I Just askin' man, no cause for discomposure." He tried to stand but Colby eased down on his shoulders. "This is correct word, discomposure?" Dmitri said suddenly unsure of his impeccable English. "It will do..." Colby said "where's the bike?" "A short walk... I take you now." "You go ahead we'll follow at a distance." Colby said as he looked left and right then up to the distant buildings, the dark windows and balconies that could easily hide a sniper. Dmitri shrugged "OK, I go this way." He moved like a cat across the marbled square to a narrow alleyway. Colby watched him slide away then turned to Valentina. "He seems harmless..." "I agree, not the sharpest knife in the drawer maybe but he fits the description I was given." "You take Natasha I'll bring up the rear." Colby said as he shifted his sunglasses up onto his forehead as the shadows started to stretch long and dark towards evening. Dmitri seemed eager to be on his way, fidgeting and nervous he lit his third cigarette since Colby had first spotted him. He handed over the bike keys, two helmets and a small package containing maps, money and a credit card – American express. On the BMW's carrier was a pack containing a small tent, sleeping bags and a container of water. Strapped to the tank was a small bag for money, travel documents and maps. Any thing else they might need would have to be bought en-route. "I go now..." "OK Dmitri... Thank you." Valentina said. Dmitri dipped his head in a slight bow, an easy five hundred Euros for him, and then he quickly moved away dissolving into the darkening shadows. The bike was a surprise being a magisterial BMW R 1200 GS. A rugged machine capable of handling indifferent terrain but still powerful enough if you needed to outrun a chaser. That was the last thing Colby wanted however. His plan was to cross the country like the shadow of a cloud, invisible and silent. Valentina had unfurled the map. A blue pencil line traced out the route they were expected to take. "You'll need to take the Jadranska Cesta highway, I suggest you make some distance as soon as possible. You've got your Satphone? GPS device? Spare batteries?" "I'm not a novice at this Valentina..." "No sorry... Do you need a gun?" She asked. "No absolutely not." Colby said. "Do you have one?" "I know you dislike guns Colby and I respect that but for me it's part of the territory. Of course I have a gun." "Then keep it safe Valentina, I do not intend getting into any armed warfare." "OK... So lets have a look at the map they supplied." Colby crouched down and looked across Valentina's shoulder at the map. "What?" "Are these masters of yours complete amateurs?" Colby said. "You never commit details like your route to paper." Valentina shrugged. "That's why we employed you I suppose. You won't be following their pencil line will you?" "No." "As long as you arrive at Trieste in three days." "That was my plan Valentina. I think we'll ride until about ten tonight and then find a place to pitch the tent out of sight." She nodded, and imagined them alone in the darkness, without her and she felt a pain in her chest. "Colby you must remember to send your position coordinates via the satphone ever day." "I won't forget Valentina but it seems an unnecessary risk to keep effectively revealing our position." "It's what the government wants Colby, they've invested a lot of money in this enterprise. In any case the contact that's been set up is as secure as possible." This was the moment that Valentina had been dreading. The time when she would have to leave them. It was a duty born in the love of her brother and had set her course long ago. It was too late to turn back now even though every fibre of her being screamed at her to take Colby and Natasha and run for the hills. "What are you going to do now Valentina?" Colby asked stretching out the time before she would vanish. He felt the pain of parting acutely, as sharply as Valentina was trying to deny it. But for Colby there was hope, hope that they would meet again when this nonsense was all over. Valentina had no such hope left. "I'll sleep on the Falcon tonight" she said "and then sail back to Ikinos. You'll be at Trieste before I'm back on the Island. Someone will be in touch via your satellite phone to give you more details." "Can I contact you?" "No, I don't think that would be wise." "I thought we might keep in touch." He said. Valentina said nothing. Natasha whose eyes were already brimmed with tears leapt at her wrapping her arms round the woman. "I wish..." She said unable to find any more words. "I know darling... we've discussed this. You have to forget me now." "I love you Valentina... I know you love me." Valentina untwined herself from the girl's arms. Fighting back her own tears, she hardened herself and spoke the words that tore at her heart. "No... Don't think that Natasha. I took care of you because it was my duty; nothing more. Forget me now just as I will forget you the minute you disappear from my view." Natasha stood back, stunned by this ultimate rejection, a rejection she could not understand. "Goodbye Colby." Valentina said, it was nice to meet up again. Then she turned away, her duty done. The game would play out now without any further involvement on her part. She marched away heading towards the City's cobbled streets, baroque buildings and the endless shimmer of the Adriatic. Valentina should have been inspired by a walk along the ancient city walls that have protected this civilised, sophisticated republic for centuries; she was not. All she saw in the shadows was the hovering ghost of betrayal. "Valentina..." Colby called across the still air but she did not turn back, not until she was out of their sight. Then in the fading light she leaned against a stone wall and looked into an abyss of her own making and sobbed. Colby straddled the bike. "Get on." He said as gently as he could. Natasha stood unmoving, eyes still filled to the brim. "I want to go back with Valentina." "What?... Please don't fight me Natasha... It's too late to turn back now." As he watched the girl, expecting her compliance, she suddenly turned and ran following the path that she had seen Valentina take. It took him fifty metres to catch up with her, taking her arm he pulled Natasha towards his chest and held her tight. "I thought you were resigned to this Natasha... This is not what I want. It's what your country wants." "It's not my country." "Then it's what Valentina wants... Do you trust her to want the right thing for you?" Colby felt her straining sinews soften against the inevitable. A queen she might be but she had no power, no more self determination than a trafficked slave. She had struggled with loneliness since her parents had died but now she felt completely, utterly, helplessly alone and without hope. They crossed the tall suspension towers of the Lozica bridge as they left Dubrovnik behind. Colby opened the throttle of the BMW and felt the surge of power as the highway rolled by under their feet. Natasha, still an unwilling passenger, balanced on the rear of the bike. Leaping off to her death at some convenient point, was an option she held in reserve. Colby had told her to wrap her arms round his waist for safety but she had stubbornly refused. Colby shrugged, the bike was safe and he would be breaking no speed records. They would take the E65 and D8 to Split the second largest city in Croatia; three hours he estimated of gentle cruising in the slow lane. They would have to cross the 9 kilometre Neum corridor that belonged to Bosnia-Herzegovinia and bizarrely cut the Croatian coastline into two. There is effectively no border control for foreigners who are transiting without stopping using the green track through the corridor and the 'father and daughter' passed through unnoticed and with only minimal delay. They rode on as darkness descended; the modern highway could almost have been anywhere in Europe. It was an easy ride but took most of the allotted three hours before they reached the turn off to Spilt. The blue pencil route had already left the coast and headed inland. No one would know where they were; unless they had been followed. Colby had seen no sign of that, and if he had been followed he would have known. Colby had taken a brief holiday break in Split some years before and was reasonably familiar with the tourist resort. Split managed to balance comfortably between modern tourist driven exuberance and old Dalmatian tradition. A mix of Roman ruins and modern night life. A city of tourist shops and beaches. The BMW needed refuelling so Colby pulled into the Lukoil gas station for petrol. The stop offered an opportunity for him to attempt a frontal assault on the wall of silence that Natasha had erected around herself. "Do you want to look round Split?" He said as if the long ride might have melted the frost between them. Natasha shrugged at the suggestion, making no eye contact but busying herself stretching away the stiffness of the long ride. "We could get something to eat." Colby said. Another shrug. Colby remembered the Old Town with fondness. He remembered the Riva Promenade that sat at the heart of Split's entertainment scene. The day and night, restaurants and cafés. The beautiful people sipping coffee, smoking cigarettes and enjoying the sights and culinary flavours of the Dalmatian city. It would still be bustling at this hour and he knew Natasha would love to see it whether she was in a mood to admit it or not. Once the bike was brimmed he invited Natasha to climb on behind him. This time she did as he asked without comment, no attempt at escape. Whether she liked it or not she was now tied to Colby but the link was a fragile one born of necessity not inclination. Stubbornly she would not hold onto him even as the bike leaned hard through the twisting old labyrinthine streets. Colby parked down close to the Riva seafront and they walked for a while under the waving palms, and tourist illuminations. The air was filled with the tantalising smells of cooking. Finding a restaurant with tables in the open they ate among the bustling tourists, anonymously invisible, just part of the scene. At not yet nine it was still early for the night-life to be in full swing but they would not be waiting for that. Natasha made it very clear that she was unimpressed with Split but she did manage to eat two ice-cream sundaes after her steak-frites. Colby felt a softening of her sullen disapproval; she even spoke to him. "Feeling better after that?" He asked as he watched her delicately wiping her mouth. "I need the toilet." She said. Progress indeed Colby thought. At the public toilets an old Peugeot 504 rattled down the road too far away for Colby to take notice of its creaking progress. Not until, on an ill timed down-change, the car backfired with the sound of a large calibre unsilenced rifle. Instinctively Colby grabbed Natasha's arm, drew her close and dropped them both to the ground under the cover of a low wall. Natasha screamed the terrified scream of a child younger than her years, the car backfired again and Colby finally recognised the sound for what it was. "Sorry, sorry." He said to the trembling girl. "I thought..." His voice trailing off into silence as the Peugeot's headlights pierced the darkness and passed by them in chugging indifference. "Is this to be my life from now on? I'll never feel safe again." Natasha said. Her words were lost to the darkness as Colby was for an instant back in the harsh sunlight of Riyadh... The boy was called Laurence he suddenly remembered, named in deference to his English mother's wishes. He had found the boy huddled in a straw-strewn cell, still dressed in his pyjamas, eyes wide and cheeks stained with grubby tears. Sunlight from a high barred window flashed from his pleading dark eyes. Have you come to save me? A terrified hope escaped from the boy's trembling lips. Yes you're safe now. He took the boy in his arms lifted him from his corner. I prayed for you to come the boy whispered hardly daring to believe that he was rescued. Colby ran into the harsh sunlight holding the child tight. They rested for a moment in a dark corner. Your mother's waiting Laurence, be brave just a little longer. The boy nodded, eyes filled with unconditional faith in this man whom God had sent... The vision of the boy's pyjamas red and ripped faded into the blackness of a Split night... ... They headed inland towards the isolation of Malijkovo; rumbled across rutted country to a spot that overlooked Lake Peruća, a Dam build to feed the Cetina Hydro-power System. As the bike fell silent and the headlight faded into the sombre night, a feeling of intense solitude fell over them. The blackness of the lake was broken only by the occasional shimmer of the moon as it glimpsed out from behind the scurrying cloud. There were no lights to be seen, no people to hear; Colby felt safe for the first time since leaving the Midnight Falcon. They pitched the small tent and, still dressed in all but their boots, crept into their sleeping bags. "Good night Natasha." Colby said. "Sleep tight." He heard a mumbled reply; something deliberately indecipherable but it was a response, not the deep painful silence that he might have expected. Colby smiled for an instant before sending their position to the Sachovian Government, a job that took all of fifteen seconds. Despite his reservations about doing this it did give a sense of comfort to know that the good guys, where ever they were, were watching over them. Colby however, wrapped in his absolute trust of Valentina, had no idea that the signal was not being sent to the Sachovian government at all. If he had known the truth it would have given him no comfort at all. Chapter 9 From their impromptu little camp-site they rode on. Nothing had been left behind, just some fading tyre tracks and the fugitive smell of exhaust gas; another 300 km was scheduled for the day but there was no rush, time was flexible out here in the wilds of Croatia. The morning had wakened them with a chillness that left the tent damp and made them eager to get up and be on their way. The road up to Vrlika was slippery with a treacherous sheen of dew across the dark tarmac. They slipped through the small town in a blur of indifference. Still early no one was around to notice the flight of the BMW. As a weak sun rose to treetop level and warmed their backs, their spirits lifted and Colby's thoughts turned to breakfast. They stopped briefly for coffee and rolls near the Cerovac caves at Gračac. Colby checked the map and Natasha leaned across him, unconsciously resting against his arm to see if her destiny was written there for her to see. They sailed through the rural village of Udbina unseen leaving nothing but a wake of turbulent air, next stop Korenica. Colby stopped for more petrol and they shared a small bar of chocolate; just like a father and daughter might; a father and daughter who were not quite on speaking terms after some trivial argument that had grown out of proportion. Colby lay his map out again. It was a tourist map and filled with details of places of interest. He hoped that topographical accuracy had not been compromised for sake of the annotations. "Pick which way you want to go." He said. "Which is the road to France?" Natasha said. Colby would have smiled if he had thought she was joking but he could still sense the anger towards him; some dispute between them in which he had played no intentional part. They finally agreed to head for Slunj. It was an agreement in which only one party participated. Colby agreed with himself, Natasha maintained her air of studied indifference. According to the tourist map, Slunj, a town in the mountainous part of Central Croatia, was located along the important North-South route to the Adriatic Sea between Karlovac and the Plitvice Lakes National Park. Supposedly famous for its little waterfalls and the water driven 18th century flour mills that were preserved in the picturesque lower part of the town. With time to kill, it sounded worth a look. The ride was leisurely and entirely uneventful, apart from a brief close encounter with a rampaging dog that tried unsuccessfully to end its life under the BMW's wheels. Colby was still maintaining a low profile but now felt satisfied that they had not been followed. If there was a danger, then it lay ahead waiting for them in Triste. After a brief touristy look at the local attractions Colby was finally able to convince Natasha to join him for a tuna and egg pizza with rocket salad at the discrete little Bistro Centar on Braće Radića. They sat in a corner at a polished pine table, on red covered chairs emblazoned with the coca-cola logo. They could have been in Hemel Hempstead, or Pittsburgh... or Nice. Across the room sat a mother with three children each battling for supremacy. It is a well accepted aphorism that any group of children exceeding three in number will generate more noise than an Airbus A380 on take off. The squabbling voices in a language that Colby found undecipherable offered a wall of anonymity for his own conversation. "You were telling me about France... After you parents were killed." "You really want to know more of my misery Colby?" She said as she extricated a wedged piece of baked cheese from her teeth with a delicately poised little finger. "Are you planning to write my life story after I'm dead?... My part in the downfall of Queen Natasha of Sachovia by C. Linden. Paperback Edition" C. Linden smiled. "It's a plan," he said "actually I'd just like to know more about the girl I'm putting myself at risk for." She made a guffaw, a noise of contempt, maybe a trace of humour softened the impact. Colby sipped from his glass of iced water and felt the stab of pain from his sensitive lower left molar. "I'm really interested Natasha. Tell me how Valentina found you?" "I don't know... Does it matter anymore? She's gone now." There was a long pause which Colby allowed to run to its conclusion. "I waited patiently for my brother, did my studies kept my lamp burning. Gregori never came back for me... Of course not... When I was taken to his funeral there was no one there that I knew. There were friends of my brother from the army, some distant relatives from my mother's side of the family that I had never met. All they asked me was if he had left a will... I felt totally alone... There was this attractive woman, slender, elegant like a model. She had a kind smile that somehow made me feel safe. I sort of knew we belonged together. She came up to me and took my hand... " Natasha lifted her eyes to the last slice of pizza. "It's yours if you want it." Colby said. "Sure?" "Sure." He slid it onto her plate. "Go on you were telling me about this woman." "So I could tell that we would be friends from the instant I saw her..." She bit into the soft cheesy dough, strands of elastic cheese drifting onto her chin. Colby knew what Natasha meant, Valentina had a similar effect on him. "She said she was a friend of Gregori that they had talked about him returning to Sachovia... I really had no idea that he was in line for the throne. When I was little there was sometimes talk about the family's regal past but it was not real to me just like a fairy tale. Valentina said that she would like to look after me now that I had no one." "What about the French authorities? I'm assuming you were under state care at the time." "I don't know about that stuff... I'm just a kid you know." Colby raised his eyebrows at the admission and allowed a smile to brighten his face. "What?... don't make fun of me." "I'm really not... Go on Natasha." "So, Valentina said the government of Sachovia would square it with the French authorities." "You were happy with that?" "More or less... I had no one and suddenly here was this nice friendly person who said she wanted to take care of me. What would you have done?" "Me?" He wondered what would he do if Valentina offered to take care of him. Probably run for my life. He thought. "I'd have grabbed her with both hands." He said. "Me too... We lived in Paris for a while before going to Ikinos. Then she was off sailing and I was left with Katrina. I liked her too, she was like a big sister..." The pizza was finished, the squabbling children had been bustled away to a waiting car. Natasha's eyes caught in the flickering fluorescent lights looked infinitely sad. "We'd better go..." Colby said, "make use of 'les toilettes' before we set off." he suddenly felt inadequate that he had so little French. He wished he could speak to her in her native tongue. "Don't." She said. "I can't help my accent. Whether you people like it or not, I'm French – Est-ce que vous fucking comprenez, espèce d'andouille?" The sudden stab of anger seemed to rise from nowhere and shatter what Colby had hoped was the beginnings of a carefully drawn amnesty. "Natasha, I never meant to imply anything, your accent is delightful." She stood up. "Please just don't... I'm going to the loo." ... After a final glance at the map Colby slipped it back into the tank-bag in front of him and started the engine. It idled with a satisfying rumble and he felt that he should be enjoying this time exploring Croatia. He edged out onto the road. "Hold on." He said to a silent response as they left the picturesque town of Slunj in their wake leaning the bike through the addictive sweeping curves. Colby pointed the bike up into the craggy hills overlooking the Korana canyon. Finally he pulled the BMW into a remote rest area. "Stretch your legs for a while, I need to try and contact my people at Equis." He got a sullen "Whatever." by way of response. Moving away from the bike he leaned against a metal rail, a barrier against an inadvertent plunge over the edge and down into the gorge below. He could see the river far below him, white water hung in a soft mist, as it careened across the rocky valley floor. The distant roar of endless rumbling water somehow isolating, soothing. Natasha watched as Colby fiddled with the controls of the satellite phone. Natasha climbed up onto the BMW and eased the pendulous weight from its side stand. She felt the strain of the bike balancing against her legs. Valentina had owned a scooter when they lived together in Paris for those few precious months. A time when it was just the two of them, no talk of Sachovia yet no talk of responsibility or duty. Occasionally Valentina had let her ride the little pink Vespa round the deserted streets outside the apartment and into the park. The scooter was much lighter than this monster though – the BMW's weight felt intimidating but in her imagination she could see herself riding away on the crest of its power. A massive stallion galloping into the distance to a place where Sachovia had no existence, to a place where her family still lived and were there waiting for her with open arms. She closed her eyes against reality and dreamed of a lifetime ripped away from her before it had begun... ... "Is that you Jane?" "Colby... you took your time getting back to me... Are you well?" "I'm fine, it's all going to plan." "Listen Colby I have no good news I'm afraid... This is something that might impact you directly." "Sounds bad, go on spill the beans." "Well, it seems that your friend Valentina may not be quite what she seems. Apparently the Gussev name has been linked with a certain Adam Prochniak. He's the leader of the Sachovian opposition, possessed of a somewhat chequered reputation." "Yes, I know the name. In what way linked?" "It's just a string of rumours at this stage Colby and how much truth is contained within rumour is always difficult to assess. But this Prochniak character is thought to be strongly against the monarchy re-establishing. If he does have Valentina Gussev's sympathy then you will need to re-asses just how safe the Kashinka girl is under her direction." "Valentina is very close to Natasha, I can't believe she would put the girl in danger. Look Jane if Valentina wanted to harm Natasha she's had ample opportunity. In any case she is out of the picture now, gone back to Ikinos we are no longer in contact with her." "I that so... I'll have to think about that... Maybe I need to re-asses my facts... Or maybe now that Gussev has set the ball rolling it's been handed on to others to pull the strings together." "What strings Jane?... What do you think she's up to and why would Valentina have come to Equis in the first place? A bullet between the girl's eyes would have been simpler and quicker." The words made him glance across at Natasha. She sat quite still on the bike appearing to be lost in thought. "I might have an answer for that Colby. Toby Fitch has picked up on some more gossip, and before you say anything I'm fully aware of your opinion of Toby." "Busy little beaver isn't he?" "Listen man for God's sake this is important... What he told me was something I needed to check out before burdening you with any unnecessary hearsay. I've now had a corroboration from another source." "Who?" "Can't say... Connected to our foreign ministry... I'm not at liberty to reveal names." "You move in exulted circles these days Jane..." "Yes I do, goes with the territory, and it mostly gives me no pleasure..." "So what have you managed to corroborate?" "Well... this may be painful to hear, but it has been suggested that you were chosen for the mission specifically because of your past history." "Let's not mince words, you mean the 'The Khan Debacle'." "Just so..." "Go on Jane don't spare my feelings now you've started." He glanced across towards Natasha again who was fiddling with the controls and leaning the bike's weight precariously between her slender legs. "Colby the suggestion has been made that if the Kashinka girl were to meet with an accident on her journey then your well documented 'incompetence' could be blamed." "Ouch. You really know how to boost a guy's confidence Jane." "Yes I know... The point being that suspicion would be diverted from the true guilty party... In my view that guilty party might be Adam Prochniak; you can join your own dots. It's only speculation." "I'm having trouble with all this Jane, I'll need some time to let it sink in... Valentina is a friend, more than a friend. She wouldn't betray me or Natasha... She just wouldn't." "OK I hope you're right but watch your back Colby, if Gussev really is the bitch I'm starting to think she is then you could be walking a dangerous path." "Advice?" He said expecting none. "You're the man on the spot." "Yes... So should I go on to my assigned rendezvous or make a dash across Europe and bring Natasha home to England?" "Whoa... That could rip open a whole other can of worms. The danger for Equis is that we've not just got a thirteen year old girl to take care of but a political time-bomb. If you really want my advice I suggest you continue to head for the rendezvous. But trust no one. Frankly the sooner you can get Kashinka off our hands the better." "I understand what you're saying and to be honest she's being a total pain at the moment, but Jane there's no way I'm going to deliver her into the hands of some damn assassins. Not you, not Valentina, no one will make me do that." "OK Colby, I'll support you until you start to threaten the good name of Equis... If that happens, all bets are off... I don't want you to come home in a pine box and I really don't want to be the one who has to put you in one." "Meaning you will if it's me or the good name of Equis." "Like I said Colby, you have my support for the moment... Call me soon." She ended the call and Colby's head was spinning with the implications of what he had just heard. He had a sudden insight into how Natasha must have felt when Valentina abandoned her at Dubrovnik. He returned his gaze back down to the gorge, his eyes hardly focussed as he traced a couple of kayakers who were negotiating the rapids, a blur of red craft and fluro yellow jackets and green and white water. Then he heard the engine of the bike start. He turned and watched as Natasha wobbled the machine that was far too big for her across the rest area and down onto the twisting mountain road. He screamed out for her to stop and sprinted after her. When he reached the road she had gone. Only the distant roar of crashing water filled his ears and a misted ribbon of narrow twisting road vanishing behind a hairpin bend filled his eyes. ... He had no choice but to follow her. He picked up his helmet and back pack that lay discarded on the damp concrete of the rest area and set off at marching speed. He tried to remember details of the map, how far they were from a town, what lay down the winding pass. It was all a blur, he had taken little notice at the time. He hoped there might be a car that he could hitch a ride with but this was no highway just a scenic route he had taken to find some seclusion for his call to Equis. When he turned the corner the road dropped away twisting down into the green forested valley. He marched on trying to keep the demons at bay. He had lost one child and paid a heavy price for it, another would be unthinkable. The mist was starting to thicken and a feeling of helplessness was draping itself over him like a shroud. Colby was lost in a commotion of disconnected thought as he paced angrily after Natasha. He knew she may be gone for good, there was zero chance he could catch her on foot. Before he had time to react, an old drab olive coloured 80's Opel Rekord, unwashed since the last rain storm, suddenly rattled past him. Scarred with rust, it housed a group of teenage boys, blaring the car horn, gesticulating from the greasy windows, cans of beer grasped in angry fists. He considered maybe he was lucky to have missed the opportunity of thumbing a lift. The road had straightened by the time he had gathered his wits. Shadowed in the distance he could just make out the BMW resting on its side like a beached whale. Natasha was trying to lift it back onto its wheels but the machine was far too heavy for her. He started to run as the car full of teenagers slowed to make a close inspection of the vulnerable girl. A sudden thickening swirl of mountain mist fell down from the craggy rock that towered above him. He felt an ominous chill across his back and a darkness across his thoughts. When he got down to the stricken bike the boys already had Natasha pinned by her arms against the car. She was screaming and kicking wildly with her booted feet but the delicate frame of the girl was no match for three burly inebriated young men. "Gentlemen... I think the young lady would like you to let her go." They turned their attention to the voice, none of them spoke more than rudimentary English but the understanding in his words was clear enough. Colby dropped his pack and helmet and moved closer to the sneering youths. Emboldened by alcohol more than reason, one of the boys took an overly optimistic swing at him but Colby was in no mood for delicacy, he sent the boy onto his back with a single punch. Bloody faced he was scooped up by his comrades and they quickly took their leave in a cloud of worn-cylinder oil smoke. "What the fuck where you thinking... you stupid child." Natasha backed away her eyes wide in fear. She had never seen Colby Linden angry before. She had pictured him as emotionless, hardly a real person, just an annoyance she had to tolerate until the assassins finally found her and ended her miserable existence. "I'm sorry she whimpered." As Colby came within striking range, he watched her flinch. "No, please... I'm really sorry." Colby felt deeply ashamed that he had frightened her. "What did you think you were doing?" He said in softer voice kneeling down beside her. "You could have been killed." Natasha was in tears now; she had no explanation for what she had done. It was hardly even an attempt to get away from him just an opportunity she had unthinkingly grabbed. Natasha was beaten, she had no where to run to, no means to get away now that the bike was sleeping on its side. Despite herself she screamed: "I hate you... I hate all of this merde." Colby's head was still buzzing with what Jane had told him; he suddenly need space to think, to calm down. He turned away and started marching from the girl and the comatose BMW. Natasha watched him move away and was suddenly struck with panic. "Don't leave me please..." She called. "I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I'm the one you once called Cup-cake. You said you would keep me safe." Colby's ears were shut to her plea, he was no longer there... The bright sun, the black shadows, detail lost in the brightness, the shadow filled with unseen danger as he edged across the stable doors where the sleek polished Arab mares were kept... He could smell the sweet musky hay-scent of their breath... He could hear the sound of angry gunshots... the scream of a child, his weight suddenly limp and heavy in his arms... the sting of hot metal in his shoulder... Chapter 10 He kept on walking into the mountain mist. His strident shape was out of Natasha's sight now, her leg had been trapped when the bike had first toppled on to her and it was painful for her to walk. It had not really been a crash, she had already stopped, just wanting to go back for him in a panic of regret, but the bike was too heavy and as she tried to turn it back it toppled over in an inevitable slow motion... Nothing she could do. She crouched down by the bike and called out to him again. Her voice bouncing off the canyon rock. "Colby Linden..." There was no reply other than the forlorn echo; she was alone again and the strands of panic were already pulling tight at her chest. Huddling by the warm engine of the motorcycle her mind fell blank; this was another straw against her camel's back, all too much for her to take. In the mirrors of her imagination she suddenly saw Colby as not her enemy but her saviour and it was her own stupidity that had driven him away. She closed her eyes and wished for her parents, for Gregori... for Valentina. "OK I finally get it..." The voice said startling her eyes open and in an instant, her panic faded, he had come back for her after all. "You can't stand me and I sure as hell can't stand you. Let's just get this thing over and done with with the least possible trouble." Natasha blinked, he had never spoken to her like this before, always gentle... She hadn't quite realised before how kind he had been to her in face of her constant antagonism. "I'm sorry... I didn't mean to do it." She said "I didn't mean the things I said." "Just cut the whining and help me lift the bike up onto its wheels." The BMW fired into life with the first churn of the starter motor. As far as Colby could see there was no damage other than a misaligned mirror which he quickly twisted back to its designated position "Get on." He said with a voice that made it very clear that it was not a request. She accepted the instruction and wrapped her arms round Colby's waist. Colby felt her compliant weight against his back and knew that something had changed between them. They rode through Karlovac and then as the weather cleared he turned to the north-west unleashing the BMW's power on the highway to the Capital. They edged along the Sava river with the Medvednica mountains hanging grey in in the distance. The city offered a mixture of straight-laced Austro-Hungarian architecture and the crumbling socialist structures sitting together in uncomfortable incongruence. For all its history which stretched back beyond the Medieval city to Roman times, Zagreb was now a modern European city. The sun was already sinking when they stopped briefly at the Kaptol Square, a handsome plaza still imbued with the romance of long forgotten days. Lifting their eyes they could admire the twin spired cathedral, felt uplifted by the devotion that had gone into its construction. The stone glowing orange from the setting sun, it was still the tallest building in the city and dominated the skyline. Caught behind the cathedral a full moon was just showing against the fading blue of the evening sky. The sounds of Zabreb's pulse filled their ears. Colby's anger towards Natasha had already faded, he had too much sympathy for the girl's situation. But there was no way he was going to tell her that, if she wanted him to return to the avuncular guardian he had tried to be then she would have to earn it. Natasha had endured something of a wakeup call, the vulnerability of her situation has suddenly been exposed by the harsh spotlight of reality. She needed him, this handsome strong Englishman. He reminded her a little of Gregori, how he might have been had he been allowed to live into middle age. She was even growing to respect Colby, a little. But there was no way she was going to tell him that. He would have to earn that privilege. They needed a place to stay and Colby stumbled upon the Hotel Fala. A discrete family run hotel which had a vacant twin room ideal for a father and daughter. Comfortable enough but sufficiently out of the spotlight to attract no unwanted attention. They bathed and changed into their last remaining clean clothes before eating a light meal. They dozed in front of the TV put almost to sleep by an old episode of Sex In The City enhanced with Croatian subtitles and bewildering advert breaks. "Colby...Thanks for coming back for me." Natasha said as she climbed sleepily into the warm comfort of her bed. He looked at her big spaniel eyes that suddenly felt like a trap waiting to snare him. Any paternal feeling that may have lain dormant in his heart had been rigorously suppressed over the years and now this kid was in danger of re-igniting the dying embers. He was not her father, she was certainly not his daughter– just don't go there. He told himself. "I was just doing my job..." He said to her and turned away towards his own bed. She shut her offending eyes and seemed to sleep for a moment but before he had turned out the light, she opened them again and watched him moving in the shadows carefully folding his clothes. "Colby... we should be friends." She whispered. He let her words dangle. "Colby?" she said again, as if calling for his help. But he did not come to her aid, he lay on his bed and tried to sleep, tried to make himself believe that this was just another job. The sound of the room's phone jolted Colby back from a dream. He groaned and checked the time. 2:15 am. He lifted the receiver. "Yes?" he said his voice soft and slurred with sleep. He heard a woman's voice. She spoke a version of American English with maybe the trace of a French accent, the whole package slurred by a little too much alcohol. It was not Valentina, not Jane, not anyone he knew. "Linden, why don’t you call me? It's been a nightmare trying to track you down. I know I said some pretty harsh stuff and I'm sorry about that... Can't we just act like grown ups?" her voice softened "Talk to me, Linden you always know how to push my buttons when you're in the mood." There was a gasp of emotion from the woman. "Linden, I need people, I'm no good on my own. Look OK I'll admit it. I need you... I always did." "Who is this?" Colby said suddenly wide awake. "I'm not sure you've got the right number." "Oh don't give me that... I know you too well Linden." Colby sat up in bed he looked across the room. A lozenge of street light fell across Natasha's bed. He could see the gentle rise and fall of her breath, she was clearly still asleep. "Linden, are you still there?" "I'm still here but I'm not who you think I am." "So who the hell are you then?" "Salesman agricultural supplies." He said. "Not a Lufthansa pilot then?" "No sorry, like I said. I think you have the wrong number." "Pity, you sound kinda nice. You married?" "No." he said and then wished he had lied. "Are you?" "Yes" "To Linden?" "Hell no... He's not the marrying kind... Like you I guess." "Where are you calling from?" Colby asked. "Across the street from the Fala. I've got a room in the Tropika. So what are you up to?" Colby knew not to answer. "Trying to get some sleep." He said. "What's your name?" Colby was out of bed now. He shifted the curtain an inch to get a view of the Tropika Hotel. It was only a chance decision that he hadn't chosen to stay there himself. "Call me Annette, you sound nice Linden. Thing is I could use a drink. You got anything to offer a girl like me? I'd make it worth your while. Like I said... I'm a lonely girl." "I've got a bottle of Scotch." Colby said playing along. "Vodka shots is what I like. Got any vodka?" "What room are you in at the Tropika?" "Second floor, room 14... I'll slip out of something pretty." She said. "Bring some ice will you?" "OK." Colby said "Give me 15 minutes I need to get dressed." "Not on my account Linden... Don't keep me waiting." Colby replaced the receiver. He was not quite sure what had just happened but he had no intention of hanging around to find out. "Natasha... Wake up, get dressed we need to go." Natasha could sense that something was wrong and she made no argument. It took them five minutes to collect their things and make their exit from the Hotel. Colby rode fast into the night making a 100 km diversion from the route he had originally planned. Natasha clung safely behind him enjoying the snarl of the powerful bike with her arms wrapped around Colby's waist. He did not ease the throttle on the BMW until the first glimmer of daylight filtered across the darkness and they were far enough away from Zagreb for the strange phone call to have almost become a half remembered fantasy... Almost. They had one day left in their schedule to reach the Italian city of Trieste. Although it marked a transition point in their journey, a significant milestone, Trieste was also a destination that others were aware of and as such was another potential brush with danger. Less than 250 km away it was an easy three hour ride if they took a direct route. Colby wanted to approach Trieste from the north, a route that would not be so readily anticipated. In any case they would need to cross Slovenia and border crossings were places where identities would be exposed. They stopped for breakfast at a roadside café and then brimmed the bike's fuel tank. Not really nervous, Colby had been given an extra edge of alertness that had been buried over the past two days when he was confident their anonymity had been assured. He no longer had that confidence. Before collecting their things he consulted the map one more time. He had decided to head north to the Slovenian city of Maribor, carve a shallow arc across southern Austria to Vilach and enter Italy at the Coccau boarder crossing. From there it was an easy jaunt down to Trieste via Udine. He estimated six hours riding time which was a fair stretch to sit on a bike exposed to the elements. He thought of Valentina, of course he did. Wondering how far she had taken the Midnight Falcon. Was she safe? Did her thoughts sometimes stray to him?... Was she really in the pay of those trying to assassinate Natasha? Natasha sat close behind Colby her arms gripping tightly. She leaned against his back as if unwilling to let him escape. This was a new thing for Colby, being at the same time both welcome and disturbing to his equilibrium. They rode away from Zagreb into a still morning, a flurry of pigeons startled into the air as they accelerated up the Slavonska Avenija and headed northwards on the E59 toward the border crossing at Maceljj. It was just a small village in the heavily forested area of northern Croatia bordering on Slovenia. A modern multi-lane highway fed into the border control and Colby and Camille Linden were filtered through with routine indifference once their passports had been sighted. A new country lay before them but little had changed, the scenery along the highway sliding from forest to flat farmland and then on to the hills sloping down to the silver ribbon of the Drava River The vineyards along the sloping hillsides finally heralded their arrival at Maribor. If not for the growing nervous tension they could have spent time there exploring the town and the parks. They had time to take a break for coffee in the old town surrounded by an endless vista of terracotta roofs. Overhead hung a brilliant blue sky, it seemed as if the whole of Europe was riding on the back of tourism. The crossing into Austria went virtually unnoticed, as member of Schengen Zone, Slovenia has virtually no controls at borders with Italy, Austria or Hungary. They travelled westerly along the autobahn 69. Approaching the Italian border, they slowed and followed a dawdling camper-van down through the tunnel before the Coccau alpine crossing. The van slowed to walking pace at the crossing but the border control appeared unmanned and they sailed through without stopping. Colby urged the BMW past the van and they continued down through Italy to Udine. They had made excellent time across the well maintained autobahns but it was now well into the afternoon and they were both desperate for a comfort stop and maybe some lunch. At the Piazza Matteotti they grabbed a table under a billowing white canopy and ate genuine Italian pizza. The town had once been part of the Austrian empire and Colby felt a hint of old Vienna still clinging to the town's atmosphere. There was also a memory of Venice in the architecture, the city that had ruled here for almost 400 years. He looked across at the other tables, no armed assassins, no old ladies with spiked umbrellas poised. He was not surprised as Udine would not normally be a town to cross on the route from Dubrovnik. Just three days since they had left there yet it seemed to belong to a different time. His satphone had been constantly silent since he had last talked to Jane at Equis. He felt the need to keep her up to date with their progress and called Jane on her private number. "It's Colby... Just to keep you up to date Jane." "I'm all ears." "So... I have a scheduled meeting at the Saint Anna Cemetery in Trieste early tomorrow where we should get more information on the route they want us to take." "OK... Is everything as it should be? You sound a little tense." "Yes, it's just that the meeting makes us vulnerable to anyone who might be listening in." "Is anyone listening in?" "They tell me not... In fact I've had no direct communication with anyone from the Sachovian Government since Dubrovnik." "Weren't you supposed to be sending them your position on a regular basis." "I have been, but it's just a stream of data, one way communication... I don't even get conformation that my signals are being received." "I'm sure you'd hear about it if they weren't Colby... Anything else?" "No... I guess I just wanted to hear a friendly voice." Jane laughed. "Don't think I've ever been described that way before. Actually I'm expected at a meeting so I really have to go, thanks for the update. This will soon be over Colby, I look forward to seeing you back home... And Colby, just keep yourself safe." Colby carefully put the Satphone away, his eyes caught Natasha's as she lifted her head. "You OK?" He asked. "I guess." She said with little conviction, her face sad and pale. Colby wondered: He wondered why he was doing this to the girl. He wondered why he had not insisted on getting a contact number for Valentina. He wondered why she seemed to have cut him off completely. He really needed to hear her voice before he started to forget how she sounded, Was it was the voice of an angel?... Or a demon? Trieste was little more than an hour away now but he had planned to arrive under the cover of darkness. His instructions were impenetrably vague requiring him just to be in the carpark of the Cimitero Cattolico di Sant Anna off Via Flavia at dawn the next morning. The cemetery was marked on the map they had given him with a blotch of red ink which seemed somewhat ominous to Colby's jaded eyes. They were supposed to wait in the carpark, it might be some time, but he would be contacted. Was the contact to be in person or by his satphone? Maybe carrier pigeon. Nothing was disclosed. It almost felt like some devilish trap was being set for them. More details... He needed more details. There were none and no one to ask. He sipped at his iced coke and pondered the best course of action. He should really have had this all worked out long ago and felt annoyed at himself for his procrastination. "You look worried." Natasha had hardly taken her eyes from him since they had left the bike on the hill by the photographer's shop and meandered into the square. "Not worried... just thoughtful. Did Valentina tell you anything about the contact we are supposed to make in Trieste?" "No... I don't think she wanted to burden me with details." She gave him a look of guileful shyness. "What?" Colby said. "Well... I did sort of overhear something." Colby nodded and waited for her explanation to come of its own accord. "She was talking to Andrej, he was asking about our route. She said we would be contacted at the Cimitero." Natasha played with her drinking straw swirling it through the foam on her strawberry milkshake. She lifted her eyes to him again. "I think we are to get new passports under different names... It's all I really heard." "So Valentina actually told Andrej that we would be waiting at the Cimitero tomorrow morning." "I think he sort of wheedled... is that the word?" "Could be."Colby said. "I think he wheedled it out of her, is that a problem?" "Not if you think that Andrej is one of the good guys." "You don't think he is?" "Let's say I have less confidence in him than Valentina probably did when she spoke to him." "I'm not committed to the monarchists cause either, does that make you distrust me? Am I one of the good guys" Colby laughed. "I've always known about your feelings you're honest about them... and I'm sorry this is happening to you Natasha... But no I don't distrust you, your definitely one of the good guys." "But does this mean we might be unsafe if Andrej knows too much." "Natasha, Camille... whatever they are going to call you next, we haven't been safe since we left Ikinos." He had the sudden urge to reach across the table and hug her but remained stoic; principal number one, close protection handbook: Allow no emotional attachment to develop with your client. He had tied the principal tight with a sequence of devilish knots but now could feel the inevitable slip of the first knot as it fell apart. Natasha finished her milk, as much of it's sickly sweetness as she could stomach. "And what about you Colby Linden... are you one of the good guys?" "That depends on your perspective... What do you think?" Elbows on the table her chin supported in cupped hands, she made a show of examining his face with her searching eyes. "I've met worse." She said. They walked back to the BMW and filled the tank at the self service Eni petrol station. "OK this is what we are going to do, we'll ride down close to Trieste and find somewhere to camp overnight. Maybe a secluded beach. Then we'll present ourselves at the infamous Cimitero Cattolico di Sant Anna and see what fate has in store for us. "We could catch a plane to Nice, it's very pleasant this time of year. Or I could show you the cottage that Gregori rented in the Camargue, or show you the house I was born in. I could show you where I used to be happy." Colby smiled indulgently. "OK we'll keep that in reserve as plan B just in case this current farce doesn't work out." They rode down towards Trieste, jostling mostly successfully with the Italian traffic. With little difficulty they found a secluded beach within sight of the Castello di Miramare. The sea looked inviting in the maturing afternoon sun so they found some shops nearby and bought bathing suits and towels, some sandwiches and fruit and returned to the beach. They swam in the shallows, the water colder than they had expected as they frolicked like a father and daughter might and tried to put the imminent future out of their minds. Colby was well aware of how vulnerable they were to an attack while splashing in the cool waters of the Adriatic but reasoned that no one could possibly know where they were... That would not occur until tomorrow morning at the cemetery. As night fell and the last of the beach-goers disappeared with their umbrellas and folding chairs, they pitched the little tent out of sight of the road behind a wall of storm-lifted boulders. The night sky was unusually clear and they looked up in wonder at the stars that hung above the blackness of the sea. The sound of the waves crashing on the beach peaceful and hypnotic. They stood on the sand looking out across the dark water. "Which direction is Sachovia?" Natasha said with a voice so soft that Colby could hardly hear her. Without consulting a map Colby could not really tell; he pointed vaguely out into the open water. "It's over there under that cluster of stars." He said with false conviction. Natasha lifted her head and seemed to sniff the air to see if she could scent her ancestral country, the spices that Katrina used in her native cooking, the sweet fragrance of the famous Sachovian freesias carried on the cool air. She could smell neither, just the acrid scent of death. Her eyes glistened wet under the moonlight. ... Aboard the Midnight Falcon Valentina was halfway through her journey back to Ikinos. The wind, fresh in the sails, drove the ketch across the dark ocean. She looked up at the same stars, her heart heavy with regret. No one could see her alone on the water and she had no need to hide her own tears. ... The little camp was packed away before the first glimmer of light appeared in the morning sky. A fresh day filled with newborn expectation for some, filled with naked dread for others. Colby rode the bike leisurely down the nearly deserted road into Trieste. He found the Via Flavia and rode slowly past the Cemetery. There was no one to be seen so he carried on into the industrial area and turned round. The streets were still empty filled only with a prescient silence. By the Euro Car sales showroom he stopped the bike and lifted his visor. He twisted back to his passenger. "Natasha, I want you to stay here by the showroom while I make the rendezvous." Under the lights of the showroom window Natasha's face showed sudden consternation. "No, don't leave me on my own." "As soon as I've got our instructions, I'll be back for you. There's no need to worry." "And if it's a trap?" Colby took a deep breath. "If it's a trap then you'll be safe here and I'll have a better chance of dealing with any trouble on my own." "But if anything happens to you, what will I do?" She started to cry and as he turned his head back to her Colby could see the terror in her eyes. "Please don't leave me... I'd rather take my chances with you than be left alone." Colby's idea had been carefully calculated. The meeting at the Cimitero Cattolico di Sant Anna represent the biggest danger so far in their journey. He considered it a risk too dangerous to expose Natasha to. He would leave her with the satphone, some money, her passport and a contact number for Equis. She was a resourceful girl and would be able to hide away in a hotel until Equis sent help. They could have someone with her within a day at most. That had been his plan, he had not taken into account that the prospect of being left alone in a foreign land with the possibility of assassins after her, might be too much for a thirteen year old girl to contemplate. "Please Colby... Everyone I have ever cared for has abandoned me in one way or another." Her brimming spaniel eyes cracked his heart as she pleaded to stay with him. "OK, OK... This goes against everything I have learned Natasha but we'll stick together. She wrapped her arms round the soft leather of his jacket and hugged him tightly and Colby felt another knot of principal number one fall loose. They cruised back to the cemetery as the first shafts of daylight woke the slumbering sky. They waited half an hour and saw nothing but the slow start of commuter traffic edging reluctantly along the Via Flavia. Another quarter of an hour passed and then a woman in a headscarf, carrying a large bunch of flowers, walked towards the cemetery gate. The gates were still locked and she placed her flowers with infinite care against the gate railings. She stood for a moment with bowed head before turning away. Colby watched as the woman walked slowly towards them. There was something about the fact that she wore sunglasses that did not sit right with Colby and he turned on the BMW's ignition and held his finger over the starter in preparation for a rapid exit. He looked round, there was no one else in sight. The woman came closer, close enough to speak. "Just some flowers for my baby." She said. "I'm sorry." Colby said wondering why she had spoken in English. She wore a knitted jacket over a simple cotton dress. Over her shoulder hung a leather bag, large enough to hold something dangerous. Colby narrowed his eyes. There was a simple elegance to her, typical of the urban Italians who seem to have a sense of style written in their DNA. But she was not Italian, her voice was highlighted with the same accent as Valentina and Katrina. "When I've gone, why don't you look at the flowers?" She said. "You'll find what you need." She moved away, the exchange had taken just seconds, she might just have wished them a good morning instead of setting them off on the second leg of a momentous journey. Natasha looked back and caught the woman's eye. "The baby?..." She said shyly. "Yes... he sleeps in a tiny grave in Rubansk." She moved away a few more paces then turned back, removing her sunglasses she sent Natasha a smile, so delicate that it might have been missed. "God bless you Princess." She said in a soft voice coloured by her own tragedy. And then she was gone into the quiet autumn day still mourning her war-lost child but with innocent hope for the future of Sachovia. Chapter 11 Encased, almost invisible in the cascade of flowers, was a heavy plastic zip-lock envelope. It contained a single sheet of paper written with a sequence of meaningless words and two newly forged high quality passports. One in the name of Alan Carstairs and one in the name of Madeline Le Page. The sheet of paper made no sense without the simple code-breaker that Valentina had given Colby. It would be easy enough to crack the shift-cypher for any cryptographer worth his salt but it was an effective delaying tactic for anyone who might stumble upon the information with a view to using it to discover the whereabouts of the princess. They rode the bike out of the city as the early morning light started to fill the sky. There was the promise of a fine day as they sat in a rest area but at this hour there was still a chillness in the air. Natasha paced back and forth keeping warm while Colby assiduously deciphered the message a single character at a time. Once revealed, their instructions were simple enough. They were instructed to go to the Central Railway Station by the Piazza della Libertà, north of the city centre. They would abandon the BMW there and walk the short distance to the nearby Hotel Italia where a room had been booked for them. The day was theirs to use as they wished but were required to take the midnight train to Milan travelling as uncle and niece still apparently on a touring holiday. Colby couldn't help thinking that father and daughter was more plausible. He shrugged to himself. "What?" Natasha said. Ever watchful she had learned to read Colby's expressions like a psychologist in waiting. "Nothing..." Colby said. "Are you hungry?" "A little... Colby I have no clean clothes." "I was wondering what the smell was." He received a prod in the ribs for his humour. It marked another softening of their once turbulent relationship. "OK we have plenty of time on our hands today, we'll book into the hotel and get cleaned up, have some breakfast and then... ta-dah hit the shops." Natasha managed a half hearted giggle, the plan seemed to meet with her approval. She allowed the last of his mornings ration of smiles to drift across her face and felt she was at last taming him, he was starting to become a man she could trust, a friend even... maybe not quite that. As they filtered back into the growing traffic with Natasha hugging tightly round his waist, Colby noticed for the first time the reflection that drifted in and out of his mirrors. It was the ghostly image of a charcoal grey Mini Cooper. A common enough car but this particular one had the roof painted in the colours of the Italian flag. His eyes kept darting back to the mirrors, the Mini was always there following with one or two cars separating them. He took a series of side streets while keeping a close eye on his mirrors. He wound on a little more throttle and the BMW surged forwards, cresting the rise of a hill at speed when he would be temporarily invisible to the Mini, he suddenly braked and pulled to the side of the road. Seconds later the Mini appeared in his mirror as it followed across to top of the hill. The car was travelling fast in an attempt to keep pace with the sudden acceleration of the bike. Too fast to stop without it being an obvious confirmation that it wanted to be behind the BMW. "I think we have a tail." Colby said to Natasha. "Just hold tight, I'm going to take evasive action." Colby accelerated back in the direction he had just come. He flicked left across the traffic, at the first intersection leaning the bike deep into the corner and allowing the engine to snarl with aggressive acceleration. He snapped left again and squeezed through a narrow gap between a delivery truck and string of commuter traffic then pulled into a narrow side street. There was a warehouse with an open roller door waiting for a delivery, Colby braked hard pushing Natasha hard against his back. The rear wheel of the heavy BMW slithered sideways for an instant on the greasy concrete as Colby took the bike into the relative darkness of the warehouse. There was no one around, a fork lift truck sat unattended idling diesel fumes into the enclosed space. Tea break Colby thought... Do Italians take tea breaks? He waited five minutes before cautiously edging back out into the fresh air. There was no sign of the Mini so they resumed the journey to the station. Colby felt satisfied that he had successfully lost the Mini and allowed his shoulders to relax. He let the bike slow to the meandering speed of a wandering tourist. The bike had handled well, he would abandon it at the station with regret. Colby might have been less relaxed if he had noticed a pale blue Fiat 500 behind them, invisible among the myriad similar cars that plied the city streets. A small car that was always three or four cars behind them even after Colby's little diversionary tactic. As instructed they left the BMW at the station with the key tucked away under the seat. The Hotel Italia was an easy stroll from the station, they crossed the short distance with the relaxed gait of tourists with time to burn, crossing the piazza and the garden, pausing to gaze with curiosity into the shop windows then along the narrow Via dela Geppa where the Hotel Italia stood in its renovated glory. "Do you speak English?" Colby asked the receptionist who greeted them with a bright red lipstick smile that could easily have been accepted as genuine. "I believe we are expected, Alan Carstairs and my niece Madeline Le Page." "Ah yes I have the reservation here sir... You will be staying just the one day?" "We have to catch a train late this evening." "Ah yes..." They were shown to the room, took advantage of the copious hot water and soft clean towels and dressed as respectably as their diminished wardrobes allowed. It was still only eight thirty they found their way to the dining room and ordered a continental breakfast, croissants, juice, coffee, a little cherry conserve for Natasha's sweet-tooth. Anonymous and unobserved despite the injudicious parking in a loading bay outside the hotel was the pale blue Fiat. It would be sure to eventually attract a parking ticket if the warden were not occupied reaping the day's early gossip from her friend at the Café Geppa. "Colby, you think the guy in the Mini was after us?" "Better call me uncle Alan..." Natasha made a groan. "All this stupid name changing is getting tedious... So the Mini? "I don't know for certain but it would be a fair guess. The fact is we lost them so there's nothing to worry about. They'll be looking for two people on a bike... We don't have a bike anymore." "OK... " She took a sip of juice. "What would they do if they caught us?" "Remember I told you that I would keep you safe?" "Yes... You told me back on Ikinos when we first met... I didn't believe you then either." "You can trust me, this is my job and I'm good at it. There's nothing for you to worry about." She gave him an unconvinced shrug but her attention had already been diverted by two women who had just entered the restaurant. Colby's first glance identified them as mother and daughter. The mother was a woman of about fifty still possessed of a discrete attractiveness despite tending towards comfortable middle age corpulence. Her hair was tied elegantly into a chignon and showed the first traces of greying. She was dressed in a beige Burberry trench coat with a pink silk scarf at her neck. Carrying a white folding cane and wearing dark glasses she appeared to be without sight. The daughter if she were that, walked with her arm linked into her mother's. She guided the older woman with a delicate touch, there seemed a bond of affection that made their interaction easy, instinctive. The younger woman was maybe late twenties and possessed of considerably more than her fair share of attractiveness. Her hair, short but expensively styled and stridently blond fell softly against her slender neck. She had delicate features and heavily made up eyes deep enough to fall into. She wore distressed jeans, a passing fashion statement that had already survived several decades. The tight jeans showing off the perfect curve of her hips, she caught Colby's gaze with an eyebrows up smile of misty pleasure. Colby shifted his protracted gaze away as if he had been a peeping tom caught at a bedroom window. Natasha's attention was captivated not by their appearance but by their conversation, conducted in French. "You're French." She exclaimed in her native tongue before Colby could divert her from the overwhelming urge to make contact with someone from the land she still ached for. "Yes, we're in Trieste on holiday. Where are you from my dear?" They spoke in French and Colby strained with his time-faded schoolroom French to understand what was being said. "I'm from Nice... I'm Madeline...This is my uncle Alan... He's English." She added as if warning them not to be alarmed by any eccentricity. "Won't you join us?" Colby took his understanding from Natasha's excited gestures more than her words and groaned inwardly. No Natasha no... low profile. But he was too late, the offer was readily accepted. Colby smiled pleasantly while his molars ground together in silent disapproval. The women took just coffee and introduced themselves as Sophie and Clémence. The the elder of the two engaged Natasha in gentle conversation on the attractiveness of the south of France while her daughter took delight in distracting Colby with her innate charm utilising the English in which she was adept. "Alan, what do you do for a living?... No let me guess..." Clémence touched his face with her eyes as she searched his rugged features seeking clues. "I'd say something active, maybe a sports coach, football manager." She smiled as if she were trying to provoke him." "How clever... That's exactly what I am." he said. "Oh really?... comme c'est merveilleux!" She took a slow sip from her cup, her little finger poised elegantly. "OK you do me." She said. Colby smiled at the thought but satisfied himself by playing her guessing game. "A fashion model?" He suggested. "Ah... I thought Englishmen were too gallant to resort to flattery." Colby's eyes crossed to Natasha, what he wanted to do was extricate them from this encounter, charming as it was. Natasha was so overexcited at meeting these French women that she might let anything slip. "I wonder Madeline, if you might spare a moment do an infirm lady a service?... Clémence gets so tired of me being a constant burden..." "Oh mother I really do not," the daughter said "what will these nice people think of me?" The mother smiled at her daughter. "Nevertheless... Madeline, you see I have difficulty with my eyes... would you mind accompanying me to the toilets?" "Of course, I'd be happy to." Natasha declared. Colby was floundering in the dark sea of his French comprehension and before he could act Natasha was on her feet taking hold of Sophie's arm and steering her towards the toilets. Colby's eyes flashed nervously but before he could decide what to do Clémence was already dragging him back into conversation. "So Alan, how is it that you are on holiday with your niece?" Clémence nudged herself closer to Colby and gently anaesthetised him with a soft smile. He was no less susceptible to the distractions of an attractive woman than any other of his gender. Clémence let her fingers rest almost imperceptibly against his arm and leaned in towards him. Her perfume made him dizzy. "And how is it that an Englishman has a French niece?" He had rehearsed the answer to this question and it fell from his lips as if he were speaking the truth. "My sister married a guy from Nice... Look if you'll excuse me I'll just make sure Madeline is OK." He made a move to pull to his feet. "Oh won't you stay and talk to me Alan, those two will be ages... I thought we were getting on so well... You know I think you were not quite honest with me when you said you were a football manager." Colby glanced across to where Natasha had taken Sophie. There was no sign of either of them. "I'll be back in a moment." He said to a pouting Clémence who suddenly seemed way too seductive... way too good to be true. He stood by the door to the ladies. A woman, mid thirties long dark hair pushed through the doors heaving with the weight of a wheelchair. There was a child, baseball cap low over his eyes, slumped in the chair. A soft toy nestled within the folds of a pale blue blanket that was draped over him. Colby held the door for them. He felt a sudden stab of compassion for the woman and her invalid child. He hesitated before speaking. "Excuse me, did you see a blind woman and a girl in there?" "Si Si grey haired lady, I think. They waiting for empty cubicle." "Thank you." Colby said as a brief wave of relief flowed over him. He followed them to the entrance and held the door for them to pass through. He returned to the toilets and waited for five long minutes before deciding to ask Clémence to see if everything was all right. He paced back to the dining room, nearly colliding with a group of excited children being chased by their fraught mother – "Sorry." – "Sorry." He slid past the family as the youngest of the children suddenly burst into howling tears. Colby looked across to where they had been sitting, the remains of the breakfast was still there his cup of coffee only half drunk. Clémence was gone and Colby's heart sank, his sixth sense had tried to warm him, alert him to her too easy familiarity but had been overruled by a surge of testosterone. Colby rarely felt the adrenaline-jolt of panic but this moment drew him to the very brink. He raced back to the toilets and burst unceremoniously into the hallowed space into which he was allowed no access. The room was brightly lit, sparkling surfaces and polished chrome. Reflecting mirrors showing nothing but an empty room; in the corner lay a padded Burberry trench coat, a grey wig, and a white cane. He ran out into the street where he had last seen the woman with her disabled child. He ran twenty metres up towards the junction then back a similar distance in the other direction but there was no sign of Natasha or her kidnappers. He raced across to the piazza de la libertà his eyes wide, scanning across the gardens towards the station. Think Colby think... It was then that he saw the Mini Cooper turning across the Via Tivarnella maybe 75 metres away, the Italian flag on the roof seeming to mock his stupidity. The Mini was held up in the warp and weft of the morning commuter traffic; this was Italy there was the constant blare of car horns but his ears were shut to the sound. He broke into a sprint cutting across the gardens and then out into the streaming traffic. When he reached the Mini it was moving again, just starting to accelerate into an opening gap. He dashed out in front of it arms waving. The Mini screeched to a halt swerving across the lane to avoid him, Colby wrenched open the door and grabbed the driver by his thinning hair pulling him back against the headrest. When Colby realised that the driver was alone in the car, he felt the sudden need to be sick. "Where is she?" he yelled. "Let go of the hair, I've little enough to spare... Just get in Mr Linden." The voice was undoubtedly that of an Englishman. Colby was stunned. "Who the hell are you?" "Just get in for fuck's sake. I'm in danger of getting done for a traffic violation, that's the last thing I need." Colby slid into the passenger seat and the Mini pulled out into the flow of traffic accompanied by an orchestra of car horns with frustrated drivers apparently conducting the impromptu scherzo with their own version of musical gesticulation. "Who the hell are you?" Colby repeated once the Mini had found a measure of anonymity on the Via Udine. The man was unexceptional in appearance. His small dark eyes as watchful as a hawk, followed his passenger's every movement. He was a broad shouldered man in his forties, his skin had the waxy pallor of an office worker. Even whilst occupied with driving, he had the aura of someone faintly troubling, self assured even in the face of threatening behaviour, a man to be wary of. The accent was London with an edge of public school poshness that remained stubbornly undisguised. "I said who the hell are you and how do you know my name?" Colby repeated in his most menacing voice: slow, deep and full of unstated threat. "You can call me Barry..." The driver said "Been following you since the cemetery." "I know." Colby said. "Yes, not my best work... Nice job of avoidance by the way. If I hadn't known you were headed for the station I never would have found you." "If you think back it was me who found you Barry... And you still haven't answered my question." Colby said. "And while were exchanging pleasantries how did you know I was heading for the Station?" "I assume the girl has gone missing." Barry said. "I'm going to get very angry very soon unless you give me some answers Barry." "Look... I'm with the government... " "Who's government?" "You really need to ask? Seems your boss at Equis took fright at the rapidly escalating situation in Sachovia. Called in a favour. I just happened to be the man on the spot, actually I have been deflected from my day job of keeping an eye on some weapons traffickers who use Trieste as a convenient staging post" "Sorry to be a nuisance... You mentioned a favour?" "She wanted to make sure you didn't stuff up... Seems I was a bit late." "How did you find me? I've been taking inordinate pains to remain invisible." "Well you did rather let your whereabouts slip to your Equis boss..." Colby sighed. Did he have to hide even from Jane? "So what part of the government do you represent Barry?" "You seriously can't expect me to answer that Mr Linden." "I don't see why the British government would be concerned with this." "You'd be surprised, the political ramifications of a new war in Sachovia run deep for the whole of Europe even our cousins across the Atlantic are watching developments nervously. Mind you since 911 taking a deep interest in the business of other sovereignties seems to be something of a developing national pass-time for them." Colby stayed silent for a while trying to make sense of what he was hearing. "Where are we going?" Colby finally said. "I'm taking you back to your Hotel." "Do you have any idea where they have taken Natasha Kashinka?" "Sorry, rather in the dark on that one. We'll get feelers out but I'm not hopeful. We don't have much of a presence in Italy, have to rely on the locals and they can get a little sniffy." "Do you know who took her?" "Could be either faction?" "I don't think they want her dead," Colby said "she was sedated and pushed away in a wheelchair. It would have been simpler to poison her and leave her dead if they wanted that." Barry nodded, in contrast to his passenger, he seemed to be rather enjoying the excitement of the morning. "The anti-monarchists would likely have killed her on the spot and the Sachovian government are the ones employing Equis to transport her safely, they can have no motive for the kidnapping." Colby's words were really aimed at buttressing his own disordered thoughts. "Can't argue with that." Barry said as he stood heavily on the brakes outside the hotel. "That'll be a fiver Gov.'" Barry said with a wink that showed an almost callous lack of concern. "What are you going to do now?" Colby asked. "Report in... This news is likely to spark a minor panic back at the office." "Can I keep in touch with you?" Colby asked. "It might be useful to have a contact on the spot." "Oh I really don't think that would be a good idea Mr Linden... your best course of action would be to catch the next flight home and leave this to the professionals." "Thanks for the lift Barry." Colby said, the sarcasm drifting over Barry's head. He got out of the car and watched the Mini Cooper ease back into the traffic. He checked his watch, not even nine yet but he had already made a monumental stuff up. It was an hour earlier in London, but Jane would no doubt be at her desk by now. He made his way to his room and punched in the number for Equis. "Come on, come on pick up..." "Good morning Equis security. Marianne Glover speaking, how may I help you?" Colby had a soft spot for Marianne. Married with two children, disarmingly friendly, astonishing memory for names, efficient in her job. A good decent woman; Charles Glover was a lucky man... "Hi Marianne... could I speak with Jane Freeman... It's Colby Linden." "Colby, good to hear from you... How's it going over there?" "I'm sorry Marianne, this really is quite urgent..." "OK putting you through..." He was kept waiting maybe 30 seconds before Jane picked up her phone. Those seconds were extra long, stretched in harmony with Colby's sense of impending doom. As he waited with the phone pressed hard against his ear, he seemed to fall again into the gloom of that oppressive Saudi day that would not leave him in peace. "Colby... I'm guessing you have a problem..." Chapter 12 A crescent of pale sand stretched out before her; in the distance the blue ocean seemed to nibble against the beach as it held back the white breakers that carried the rolling energy from another continent. The air was filled with the cry of gulls as she skipped down the grassy dunes to the hard sand. The wind made the loose grains of sand scurry and slip. Each step she took made the sand squeak beneath her feet. She turned back to the headland beyond the dunes and caught sight of the white cottage, the tufts of sea grass waving in the wind... This was where she belonged – not that other place that she had never seen, had no ties to. This is where she could be happy. It was now the gallop of white horses that caught her attention. She was transfixed by the sight as they raced along the shimmering silver beach. She tried to count them five, ten, fifteen? Where had they come from? Where were they going? They churned the shallows to foam with the pounding of their flashing hooves; their heads lifted showing the rhythmic wash of their manes, the ripple of muscle along their flanks. Their tails were held erect streaming behind in their turbulent wake. The scintillating spray lifting up against the blue sky, hazing the bright air which hung fresh and filled with the sharp tang of brine. She was running now faster than she had ever run before and without the slightest effort. It was a moment of pure exhilaration. Her feet pushed her across the hard wet sand like a gazelle as she came closer to the waxing tide. There were pink and white shells, bleached by the sun as they lay glistening under a translucent iridescence of water. She danced over them as they exposed themselves to the sun winking up at her as if they were part of her joy. She ran faster and leapt over a gnarled and grey driftwood log that lay in rolling in the edge of the surf. Bounding forward her feet easily cleared the obstacle and then her feet skimmed over the sand an inch above the surface as she drove herself faster levitating by the force of her will. She was along side the horses now; the magnificent muscular creatures at once both powerful and yet delicately fragile. She held out her arms and catching the wind she lifted towards the blue horizon no longer tied to the ground... free at last she was flying. Soaring up into the clouds she danced with the gulls as if sharing some celestial joke. In the darkness there were voices raised in a language she could not understand, coming from far far away. They pulled at her, grounding her again in the shadow of an unwanted reality. The sound of distant traffic, of children's play. Her cosmos was fading away, crystallising into harsh reality... No let me sleep, let me sleep. "Wake up kid." A voice, a woman's voice, not a voice of anyone she knew. Let me sleep. But they would not let her sleep. They pulled her from the soft warm cocoon of her bed and sat her in a chair, hard cold polished wood against her fragile limbs. She slumped, unable to support her own weight and they slapped her face, once, twice, left, right. "Sit up... Lift your arms." What do you want? Who are you? But deep in the recesses of her brain she knew all too well who they were. They had come to kill her like they had killed Gregori. A sweat-shirt was pulled over her head then threaded over her arms. She felt the bristled stroke of a stiff hair-brush as it pulled roughly across her scalp. Then a painful white light scorched her eyes as the blinds were lifted. "Hold this..." It was a newspaper, today's newspaper. She squinted at the page La Repubblica it said in thick black print. The cover held a large photo of a man with his head in his hands. His despair was displayed square on the front page, she didn't know him, she didn't care... the words were unreadable to her. "Hold it up like this..." Rough hands shifted her... She just wanted to sleep. "Open your eyes." Then the blinding pain of a camera's flash seared across her swimming synapses. "Drink this..." A drinking straw was placed in her mouth... A milkshake maybe... She sucked greedily until the gurgling sound of dragging air told her there was no more. Then her sleeve was pulled up. A scratch, a sting. Heat flowing through her veins... It was dark again as the blinds were drawn. She could still hear the children's games outside; the rumble and sudden snarl of a motor bike as it tore up the street... A motor bike. She saw his face, the kind smile, the patience, the strong arms. Was it her father? Did he love her as much as she had grown to love him. Why had she never told him? But she was flying again dancing with the gulls, circling the cottage, waving to her brother who looked up smiling... He was running after her but she was too fast in the air she laughed with bubbling joy, he could never catch her. But he was still alive still happy, she had always known that he could not really be dead, even through the mist of her tears. She knew he would never really leave her... Never... never... How could he? Then she found a soft cloud and lay her head against the comforting pillow of its warm embrace. It was peaceful as she swam into the darkness and found sleep. The smell of distant cigarette smoke tickling against her nose roused her again. There was a flash of memory across the confusion. She tried to sit up but her limbs were not under her control. Sophie and Clémence the sound of the names rang in her ears as she dragged them from her memory. They spoke French...She was blind...Her daughter pretty...As they stole her...From the city... Which city? She remembered the toilets, the wheelchair... The panic before the peace came with a sting in her arm. "Wake up Princess, its time to eat." She struggled to force her eyelids open. Soft light now from the feeble bedside lamp... the face a blur. "We need to keep you well, little one. You are worth a lot of money to us." Natasha narrowed her eyes until the face resolved itself into a recognisable form. "I know you..." The woman looked younger than she remembered but the features were unmistakable. "You are Sophie. You can see? Where's your daughter?" She struggled against the fog to remember the pretty woman's name... "Clémence, that was it." The words came out stubbornly, thick as if she spoke through a mouthful of half chewed bread. What does it mean when you don't recognise your own voice? She thought. "Ha... Clémence was just a disarming distraction for your escort; she'll back on the streets of Marseille by now dressed in her Versace denim jacket and silk skirt plying her timeless trade. It's me you need to be concerned about but once this is over I will disappear forever and will not trouble you again. I mean you no harm little one." Natasha could not make sense of the words any more than she could add two and two but slowly, drip by drip the memory of the morning came back... The cemetery with the sad sad woman, the flowers she left, then escaping the Mini... The breakfast... The breakfast! A sudden wave of panic took hold of her and she started to tremble. "I want Valentina..." She said through a burst of tears. Then someone else entered through the half open door, the presence heavy in the room seemed to crush her. "I'll take over now." He said, the voice was familiar, the accent somehow hateful to her ears. As his masked face swam into focus she thought she recognised him, his vicious eyes. What is his name? I know it. "Chicken soup, eat up Natasha." A white mug, thick rimmed was pressed to her lips, the taste salty, savoury. She took it cupped in both hands and she drank greedily. It was good, she was so hungry. She chewed the small pieces of soft white flesh and sucked the nourishment from the mug. How long since I have eaten? Not since the cottage in the Camargue by the ocean... She thought from the depth of her wavering delirium. The mug was empty now, the steam still rising from the drained vessel curled into the chill night as she held it in her hands warming, comforting. Her eyes lifted again and saw his face, and she knew him and now she could name him. It truly was the Devil... "I know you... " She whispered. "Have you come for me?" She asked more in dread than hope. … In Sachovia the rebel uprising was sending deep shivers of disquiet across the country. It was not only the government headed by Boris Koch that could feel the shift in popular sentiment in favour of the rebels but the official opposition party headed by Adam Prochniak also now saw the future through the prism of existential despair. For Boris Koch who's army was balanced precariously on the edge of outright mutiny, the future could only be salvaged by swiftly uniting the country under a new monarchy. Rescuing Natasha Kashinka was his only focus now. Natasha's photograph was sent from a disposable phone which already lay crushed beyond salvation in the filth of a septic tank. One copy to Adam Prochniak in the interests of fairness, one copy to Boris Koch in the expectation of a considerable prize. The recipients had 24 hours to respond with an offer or Natasha Kashinka would be withdrawn from sale. What would happen to her then was not specified. Koch sank into the soft leather of chair with a creak that he suspected came from his ageing bones rather than the plumply buttoned red leather. A laptop lay open on his desk bathing his face in a blue glow. The image of Natasha holding today's Italian newspaper scowled at him from the bright screen. He pressed his intercom: Karin... Will you ask Vladimir Koratov to come to my office. It is a matter of some urgency." Vladimir's office was just along the tiled corridor. The walk would take the finance minister maybe 30 seconds. Boris watched the sweeping hand of his watch tick the seconds away. After one minute and 10 seconds a faint smile settled on his face as a dapper man, dressed in a sharply tailored grey suit, tapped and entered Boris Koch's office. He carefully closed the heavy ornately carved doors and turned back to face his Prime Minister. "What kept you" A look of consternation flashed across Koratov's face. "I'm sorry... I..." "Only joking Vladimir, come and take a seat. At times like these we need to maintain our senses of humour." "Is there a problem Boris?" Despite the attempt at levity, the Prime Minister looked drawn. The last years had rather aged him and he had been transformed from a vigorous wrestler of a man with barrel chest and powerful arms into a greyed shadow of his former self. "The child has been kidnapped." He said. Koratov paced forward in short almost feminine steps that might have belonged to Karin. "What?... I thought all the arrangements were in place for her secure delivery." "So did I Vladimir... Come sit down. I need some advice. Will you take a drink?" Even with Koch slumped in his seat Vladimir felt the man's heavy shadow fall over him. He offered his Prime Minister a delicate smile. "It may be wise to keep our wits sharp Prime Minister until we have resolved our response to this crisis." Vladimir sat, legs crossed, hands in his lap, what he lacked in physicality he made up for with the sharpness of his mind and the acuity of his near photographic memory. A memory he sometimes wished would desert him... He had seen things in his fifty years, particularly the war years, that no man with his delicate sensibilities should have to remember. "You may be right Vladimir we'll hold the drink until later... I received this email not ten minutes ago." He turned the computer screen towards Koratov who peered at the screen over the rims of his glasses. "You are certain this is genuine?" "Always suspicious Vladimir, its why I keep you close... It's certainly an image of Natasha Kashinka, I have a portfolio of her pictures sent from one of my agents... I believe you know Valentina Gussev, a formidable agent during the war." Koratov nodded, the Gussev name was familiar to him. "It was Valentina Gussev who discovered Gregori Kashinka and his little sister I understand Prime Minister." "She was too late to save Gregori but she took Natasha under her wing and has kept her safe until now." "I wonder if you see the hand of Adam Prochniak directing the child's kidnapping." "It's a possibility but not one that persuades me; he needs to appear squeaky clean to the voters if he wants to take my job. I believe this is just a criminal act with the intention of reaping a windfall of money." "I find myself troubled by the prospect of negotiating with these kidnappers whoever they are. We might consider them terrorists... In that light is it wise to negotiate with terrorists?" "That is a familiar and overused chant the West uses for it's own political justifications. I take a more pragmatic approach, indeed I could argue that buying our way out of this situation is by far our best option. We may be able to save the girl and restore the Monarchy at a very modest cost, far less than if Sachovia were dragged back into another tragic war." Vladimir Koratov nodded, he knew when it was best to avoid clashing views with Boris Koch. Over the past weeks as it became apparent that the rebels were starting to acquire heavy weaponry, Koch had been attempting to negotiate a rapprochement with the opposition leader. He had suggested, despite the distaste such negotiations incurred, that they might work together in an attempt to quash the uprising. Of course they still stood poles apart on the monarchy issue but if the country were to be destroyed by another war then neither of their causes would benefit. "So Vladimir... We need to make an offer. What sort of figure do you think would satisfy these criminals without over-troubling our coffers?" "I'll need to take some advice on that Prime Minister..." "Very well, report back within the hour with a recommendation will you Vladimir. Time is not on our side if we are to save the girl and the monarchy." Boris Koch watched as his finance minister withdrew to consider the prospective negotiations. In the distance he could already hear the sickeningly familiar sound of artillery as his reluctant army pounded at the rebel positions. He could feel his dreams starting to run through his fingers like a river of sand but he was not ready to give up on them yet. Chapter 13 The moon hung as nothing more than a thin crescent slicing across the heavens. A steady wind was flicking at the tops of the waves while the first stars were starting to show through the cover of dark cloud. Scenting the fragrant air of land drifting on the sea wind Valentina eased the sheets as she nudged her heading to port drawn by the pull of journey's end; Ikinos was within grasp once more. If only she had not sold her soul then there might be joy in her return. She had done the unthinkable to save her brother and now the time was on hand that she could at last secure his release. Her thoughts also turned with a kindness towards Katrina, the young woman she had once saved from an uncertain future before plunging her into another even more precarious future. She thought less kindly of the Captain; especially since Colby had made unsettling suggestions regarding flaws in his character. Andrej had always presented himself with self assured arrogance. In some men she might have found this an attractive trait but in the captain's case, his swagger seemed supported by little more than his own feelings of self importance. Her mind slipped towards Natasha and Colby but she had learned to quickly deflect those paralysing thoughts... except when exhaustion tore at the edges of her self control. The nights on the water were starting to be filled with the long anticipated autumn chillness but the days since Dubrovnik had been mostly temperate, easing her troubled mind with the effortless routine of sailing. The Midnight Falcon was part of her now, even the ownership had fallen to her when she had bargained it in partial payment for arranging Natasha's deliverance. Thirty pieces of silver in exchange for a child she had grown to love. Could there be any worse betrayal? She wondered. If the wind kept up then she should sight Ikinos by the first glimmer of dawn and make landfall in time for breakfast; a prospect that strengthened her resolve. Ikinos still held the memory of a haven for her but her remaining days there were now numbered in single digits. She, Katrina and Andrej would vacate the place of idyll in favour of its legal owner. Adam Prochniak, the leader of the opposition, the man who wanted Natasha Kashinka dead, was the legal owner of Ikinos. The ownership disguised by layers of financial trusts and slight of hand ultimately fell to him but his right of ownership was as open to question as his flawed morality. ... There were no eager eyes following the Midnight Falcon's return this time. The ketch made its graceful approach as predicted. The sun edged higher until it breached the shimmering horizon and turned the morning sky and with it the Falcon's sails to a delicate pink. The passage of time when sailing the vastness of the oceans has no absolute meaning. It progresses not by the tick of finite seconds but by the fickle play of wind and water, by the rise and fall of the moon and stars. Valentina's return from Dubrovnik had taken not the fistful of days ticked off on a calendar, but half a lifetime. As she dropped the sails and started the diesel engine for the final approach, she noticed that the motor launch was not moored in its usual place, it was unusual but there could be any number of reasonable explanations. In her present state of mind Valentina took everything as an omen of ill. Putting the drive into reverse she slowed the Falcon allowing its momentum to inch it to the dock at the speed of a leaf on a pond. Then leaping the gap of dark water with the painter in her hands she secured the ketch and started up the familiar winding pathway towards Prochniak's splendid mansion. It was not until she had reached the main entrance that Katrina appeared. She was haloed against the brightening sky. She looked exactly the same as on the day she had wished Valentina a safe journey. In the same way that a porcelain figurine looks exactly the same after falling from a window ledge. Recognisable in every precious detail but broken. There was a smile on Katrina's face, a welcome but it could not disguise the desperation of her state. "Has Kowalski done this to you?" Valentina said dispensing with the pleasantries of greeting. Katrina opened her arms for Valentina, the stain of tears had long since dried on her cheeks. Her lip was swollen, her cheek grazed. The blackness of her eye now turned purple and yellow as the old bruising faded. She looked even more emaciated than usual. "He left me like this... I did nothing..." Valentina held the girl, suddenly her own self pity evaporating into concern for Katrina. "I'm back now darling... How long ago did he leave?" "It must be two weeks, not long after you left... He took the launch... I've been living on what little I could find in the freezer." "You poor girl... I'm going to make it my solemn duty to feed you up or you'll be carried away by the next gust of wind." Katrina smiled but she still had her tale to tell. "Andrej told me he loved me and that we would marry when we left Ikinos. He told me of his plans, what life we would build together when he left the army. But when I brought the subject up again he seemed a different man, he fell into a rage saying I had trapped him. He punched me and twisted my arm violently behind my back... I thought it might be broken at first." "Can you move it?... Show me." Katrina winced as she rotated her shoulder but there appeared nothing broken beyond the girl's fragile spirit. "Come on lets get you cleaned up... We'll see what we can find to eat, you look half starved." "Valentina..." Katrina whispered as if they might be overheard by some malevolence that hid in the shadows. "Yes." "It's so good to have you home." The mansion's supplies were almost exhausted so after making Katrina comfortable, Valentina chugged the Falcon across to Kamari. As she marched away from the moored ketch the heady aroma of freshly baked bread drew her towards the grocery store. She bought enough supplies to see them through a week and then caught in a sudden wave of optimism brought on by the bright day, felt that she might not be totally beyond redemption after all. She walked back past the sea front café, grocery bags swinging to the cadence of her step. The sky had already filled blue and bright with the urgent call of the gulls darting overhead. "Hey pretty lady... Come and have a coffee. Not seen you in long time." "Sorry Kosto, I have to get back... Next time maybe." She smiled radiantly at the irredeemable old rascal as if there were no clouds at all on her darkening horizon. Kosto was an old timer, born into a Greece that was still mostly horse drawn. He had earned his livelihood fishing the coastal waters and now spent his days reliving the half imagined memories of his youth. He sat sun-aged outside the café, a part of the furniture. His skin, wrinkled round his twinkling eyes, was dark and leathery on his cheeks. At his feet, as always, rested his half-blind faithful Labrador Escouto, with its greying muzzle and tail that would wag enthusiastically at the slightest provocation. Kosto waved at the attractive young woman... there was plenty of time to chat up the flocks of sweet tourist chicks that flitted across the periphery of his life. One day one may even take his bait... He sipped his dark bitter coffee and chuckled to himself. The dog's tail flapped sleepily. ... "Do you know what caused Andrej to suddenly turn on you?" Valentina asked as they stood together in the kitchen preparing the first decent meal Katrina would eat in days. "I think he's just a madman; I can't imagine what I saw in him any more. We had started arguing... about nothing really and then shortly after you left he just lost control completely like some crazy person. He seemed to have a lot on his mind... things he would not discuss with me." Katrina put down her knife, fingers trembling at the memory. "When he became violent, I thought he was going to kill me Valentina, I tried to fight back but he was too strong. When he wrenched my arm behind my back I could feel the muscles start to rip..." She wiped her eyes. "I screamed at the pain and it seemed to bring him back to his senses... But he was not sorry for what he had done... He spat at me Valentina, spat at me as if I were nothing... less than nothing. He took the launch and left without speaking another word." "Not all men are like that Katrina... One day you'll find someone who'll prove me right." Katrina shook her head; her life had been hard, her experiences bitter. Only Valentina had shown her any real kindness since she had left her Babushka. "Valentina, what can I do now, where do I go? I have no one now." ... It was impossible for Valentina to push Natasha and Colby from her thoughts but even more urgent now was news of her brother Sascha. Valentina took sanctuary in her office and using the satellite phone called Adam Prochniak the man she had come to hate. "Valentina, I've been waiting for your call..." Valentina detected a slight slur in his speech as if he had been drinking. He was by no means drunk but she imagined him softly anaesthetised against the world he inhabited; a world entirely of his own creation. "I've done what you asked Adam, you must now complete your side of the bargain and free Sascha." "Our plans have been thwarted Valentina." "What do you mean?" "Have you not heard that Natasha has been kidnapped?" Valentina sank into her chair, her legs no longer able to support her weight. "Kidnapped? How? When?" "Have you not heard? Has Boris not been chewing your ear?" "No, I've heard nothing... what's happened to her Adam?" "It seems that your Mr Linden is even less competent that you bargained for Valentina... Kashinka has been taken before we could enact our plan." "This was never our plan Adam... I played my part in order to save Sascha. Your blackmail was effective but I was never a willing player in your despicable undertaking." "You chose your path Valentina." "You left me no choice... I could send Natasha to her death or allow you to kill my brother... It was an intolerable decision that you forced me to make." "If you say so Valentina. I was just playing the cards that fell my way." "So who has Natasha now and what does this mean for Sascha?" "Don't talk to me of Sascha..." "We had a bargain Adam... unless you keep your word and free my brother then I will dedicate the rest of my life to hunting you down... I have nothing left to lose now." "Valentina, some clever bastards who knew exactly what they were doing kidnapped Natasha and have put her up for auction to the highest bidder. Mercenary kidnappers driven by nothing more noble than greed. These people knew just how valuable the child was to both factions in Sachovia and I suspect they had inside knowledge... Have your lips always been sealed on the matter Valentina?" "Of course... you have no right to question my actions. I spoke to no one. Of course I didn't, what do you take me for Adam?" "I take you as someone who's head has been turned by misplaced grief and anger... Not a recipe for clear thinking in my opinion." Valentina fell silent. The consequences of this sudden turn of events might just offer her a way to put right what she had done but she could not yet calculate how. "Valentina, are you still there?" "Yes... yes is there any more you can tell me Adam?" "It's pretty certain they will still be in Italy, there would be little to gain by risking a boarder crossing. I also think it is unlikely that the Republic Party will be bidding for her even though I have been invited to do so." "You want her dead this turn of events seems to be playing out the way you want." "Hardly... The ransom demands have been passed to me. I can't bid for her rescue and then have her killed... In any case what you must realise Valentina is that things in Sachovia have rapidly escalated since you left. I see open civil war as an inevitability again. As a result Natasha Kashinka has become something of an irrelevance for the Republik Party." "An irrelevance... after all you coerced me into doing?... Adam tell me where Sascha is, when are you going to free him?" "Your brother is long dead Valentina..." "Oh no don't say that..." Valentina sank to her knees. "When... how?" "He was working under cover..." "I know that damn you... It's the only reason I couldn't confirm where he was." "My people discovered his body before this all started. It gave me a way to influence the turn of events." "And you said nothing, you kept me in hope of saving him for all this time?" "We realised that as a bargaining chip, he was worth more to us dead than alive. Double agents aren't born Valentina, they are created... I turned you into the treasonable slut that you have become by a simple expedient of holding his release over you head in return for a little duplicity." "But he was already dead? Even before you turned me into a murderer." "Yes... Though in fact your action have not resulted in Natasha's death... Not yet." "You monster!" Valentina screamed. "I know..." "How did Sascha die?" "It was nothing to do with us... I was told it was an infected wound that went without treatment for too long..." "I'll find you Adam..." The intensity in her voice was enough to rock Prochniak back on his heels for an instant and take away the latent chuckle that lay in his throat. But now that open hostilities had been declared he quickly fired back with the speed of a stiletto stabbing into naked flesh. "I doubt that you will ever find me... My vaults run deep Valentina. Too deep for the likes of you. Too deep for your grubby fingers to reach me. My vaults are full Valentina and money can offer a lot of protection. How do you suppose I fund my lifestyle... not on the salary of an opposition politician. How do you suppose I fund the Island in Greece that you know so well with its lavish mansion, the house in St Tropez and the Apartments in Paris and London. Do you really imagine they are owned by the Republik Party? No they are mine, together with some millions in US dollars and gold bullion they are set aside to ease my old age. You cannot be so naive as to think that I acquired my fortune honestly, without there being causalities along the way. Valentia war gives the right men, visionary men like me, infinite opportunities. I took my share of the spoils in the '06 war, but I now find I have little appetite for another war. Sachovia is no longer a place I'm willing to battle for... the fools there have exhausted my patience." "I truly think you are insane Adam, your money will be of no use when they lock you in an asylum." "I am not insane Valentina. I am the only truly sane man left in Sachovia. It is true, man cannot live by wealth alone... He needs status and that is what drove me, gave me the right to take what I want... What is it that drives you Valentina Gussev?" The silence as Prochniak ended the call seemed to fill the room with blackness. Valentina's world came crashing down. Sascha was dead and everything hateful she had done had been pointless. It had been two years since she has last seen Sascha; she remembered telling him to be careful as they parted... She remembered his face as it had been years ago when he was full of life, full of nobility and hope for the future. Now she would never see him again, never kiss his cheek, never remember the old times together. Their childhood gone, turned to dust... turned to despair. ... Watching the autumn dawn appear behind the wind-splintered cloud, it came as a shock to Valentina to realize that she had already spent 24 hours on Ikinos since her return. She had discovered more than she ever wished to know. With Andrej Kowalski gone and her filament-thin connection with Adam Prochniak finally broken there was nothing but aching nostalgia to keep her on Ikinos. But it was no longer safe to stay in that place owned by Adam Prochniak. If she understood one thing about the man it was that he was driven by vindictiveness. Her priority now was to keep Katrina safe. She had no duties left to fulfil, none of an official nature in any case. Sascha was beyond her help now and her remaining duties were self imposed and owed to the living people she had betrayed. It was impossible to undo what she had done but she thought of confession... Not to some invisible sad eyed priest who took upon his shoulders the authority of God. Not even to God himself who's silent answer would give easy absolution... But to the man and the girl she had betrayed. In her mind she saw Colby's face again, on the day that she took him to her room and artfully let her dress slip to the floor; Prochniak had been right she had become a treasonable slut... But she still saw how Colby had looked at her, not with shallow lust but with something much more profound. Her cheeks ran with tears for the man she had betrayed, for Natasha and for Sascha... especially for her dead brother for whom she could now do nothing. Valentina had no access to Natasha or Colby; the confession would have to wait. The one person who needed her now was Katrina and yet she had left her alone through the night too wrapped up in her own misery. She could at least try to help the one person she cared for whom she had not yet betrayed. "Katrina.... Katrina." She called across the marble hall. "Pack you things. We're leaving." Katrina's face appeared at the doorway, she was still dressed in her night clothes. Simple cotton pyjamas, bare feet. With her hair still sleep-ruffled she stood with all her fragility exposed looking about twelve. "We?" Katrina said uncertainly as if her own welfare no longer warranted the interest of another soul. "Of course darling, you don't think I would leave you behind on this God-forsaken rock do you?" Chapter 14 The Midnight Falcon eased away from Ikinos. It was destined never to sail those tranquil azure waters again, never again to feel the gentle winds of the Greek Islands fill its sails. Valentina looked back at Ikinos; she was exiled from there now and her own country of Sachovia could no longer offer her any prospect of safety. Katrina took her arm, resting her head on Valentina's shoulder. The two women watched as the evening started to fall and bring with it a sense of quiet stillness, they sailed as if on a lake of glass into an unknown future sharing sadness but somehow a contemplative sadness that left them calm and thoughtful. "Where are we going?" Katrina asked. Valentina looked up into the sky, her eyes followed the scattering of sea birds heading across the last traces of light to their nocturnal roost. She was unsure, there had been a vague idea of sailing back to Guernsey the small island still had a strong pull for her it held good memories and almost no one knew of her attachment to the place. But then maybe France, the place she had found poor Natasha. There was an emotional pull that she could not really account for, she didn't even speak the language with any degree of fluency but Katrina's question seemed to crystallise the emotional pull into a destination. "I thought we might make for France," she said "see what's cooking over there." The words spoken with confidence as if the course had been plotted on the boat's charts long ago instead of just being plucked from the air. "France." She said "I trust you to make the right choices Valentina, I just need to belong somewhere. Somewhere that I can find a future." "If you'd like to go back to Sachovia I have money, I could put you on a plane." Katrina tightened her grip on Valentina's arm and shook her head making her soft hair dance against the fragility of her too slender neck. "No... I'd rather stay with you; there's no one in Sachovia waiting for me." "It's the same for me Katrina... I feel I've sacrificed my life for Sachovia and now my work is done it feels as if my efforts have been for nothing. There's nothing and no one in Sachovia for me any more. Maybe a bullet with my name on it. I'd welcome your company Katrina until you find your own niche somewhere." "You must be welcome in Sachovia, when Natasha is Queen you'll be welcomed with open arms like a true heroine. Natasha thinks of you as a second mother, she told me as much." "Oh don't say that Katrina, you might break my heart..." "Why not?... One day you will find each other again." Katrina pulled herself even tighter onto Valentina's arm. "And what about Colby... I saw the way you two looked at each other. Don't pretend there's nothing going on there." "I wish you were right Katrina but there are things Colby doesn't know about me... " "I can't believe that your secrets can be so terrible." "You're a lovely trusting girl Katrina, I hope your trusting nature won't lead you astray some day." Valentina leaned across and kissed Katrina on the forehead. They held each other as the Falcon sailed on into the darkening sky, watched as the crescent moon fell behind a bank of cloud while the wind started to freshen. Valentina was only half there in the cool night air with the wind in her face, her other self hovered in a place of memories and ghosts. A place inhabited by those she had loved and lost... "So Katrina, how are you feeling now?" Valentina asked as she dragged her thoughts back to the present. "Much better since you've come back, but I'm so tired, I haven't been sleeping much since Andrej left me." "You're far better off without Andrej, don't waste your tears on him Katrina." "No I know... He showed me who he really was... left me with the bruises to prove it." "Why don't you go and get your head down, let the roll of the Falcon lull you to sleep." "That sounds good if you wouldn't mind..." Katrina headed below deck to her little cabin. A new world was opening up for her and she felt the excitement of anticipation just starting to overwhelm her apprehension of the unknown. She wanted to forget the past and all that was entangled in it. She slipped into her bunk where she quickly found an easy peace as the water lapped against the hull and the timbers creaked in a somnolent rhythm. For Valentina it was an opportunity to do the task she had been dreading, the task that had been gnawing at her for days now. It was the long overdue confession of her sins; the final admission that she owed to Colby. She knew that once she had told Colby the truth then her fate would be sealed and she would have to let her dream of a shared future with him fall to ashes. She took her Satphone and made a call to Equis in the hope that they might be able link her to him. It was nearing six in London and most of the day-time staff were on the point of leaving for the evening. Jane Freeman was still busy at her desk and took the call. "I have been expecting your call Miss Gussev... Naturally we will be refunding what you have already paid. I am most sorry for what has happened." Valentina had no idea how to respond to this, her thoughts had completely moved on from the part Equis had had played in her subterfuge. She was sufficiently well trained in her subversive arts however to instinctively not reveal her cards until the last play had been completed. "That is a generous approach Miss Freeman... Are you able to offer any more explanation for what has happened?" She left the question as deliberately vague as she could while still implying that she was fully aware of everything, still in the loop of Boris Koch's information network. "Colby is back in London, I assume you know that... I have personally debriefed him and it seems that a rather well executed piece of trickery allowed Natasha to be taken. We don't know where she is at the moment even with the aid of some high level assistance from my government... I don't know if you have any more information from your end as to who the kidnappers might be... Sadly we assume it was agents of the anti-monarchy faction and we hold grave fears for the child's safety... Are you able to enlighten me in any way?" "At this stage Miss Freeman I am not really at liberty to say any more." "I completely understand Miss Gussev. If there is anything we can do, absolutely without cost to you, then please don't hesitate to ask. I know your confidence in us must be shattered but my offer is genuine and given in good faith." "Thank you... I was wondering if I might be able to speak to Mr Linden directly." "I'm really not sure that would be wise Miss Gussev; Mr Linden's position at Equis is currently under review. I have given him two weeks 'gardening leave' at the end of which I'm afraid to say we may have to take a hard decision. This is a personal sadness to me as I don't believe anyone could have prevented the kidnapping and Mr Linden always acted to the highest professional standard." "Then why lose him?" "It is a matter of public perception... My company cannot exist without our clients having total confidence in our competence. We simply need a sacrificial cow in order to cleanse our reputation and continue trading... Sadly that has to be Colby." "I understand that Jane... May I call you Jane?..." "Of course." "What I need to discuss with Colby is not to do with his work for Equis but is of a personal nature. I would be very appreciative if you could give me a number for him." "Are you intending launching a personal attack at him because if..." "No no quite the opposite Jane. I am seeking... an understanding from him for my own shortcomings." There was a long silence before Jane found the words to reply. "I am aware that there is some history between you two... Valentina give me your number and I will relay it to Colby. If he wants to talk to you then it will be his decision." "Thank you Jane I can't ask for any more." It was less than an hour later when Colby made the call back to the ketch. Valentina was still on deck, the sea was starting to develop a chop and a bank of ominous cloud hung low on the horizon. As she spoke the night sky was suddenly lit up with a sheet of bright startling lightening. Three seconds later the low rumble of thunder reached her as it rolled across the water at the speed of sound. "Valentina... Is everything OK?" "Looks like there's a storm coming... I'll try and out-manoeuvre it if I can." "You're at sea?" "Yes on the Falcon again." There was a pause then: "I wish I was with you; the time we spent together on the Midnight Falcon was precious to me." "Me too but you may change your mind Colby when you hear what I have to say." Colby seemed not to hear her words, his mind was full of his own feelings of guilt and failure. "Do you know that I lost Natasha?" He said dreading the answer she might give him. "Yes... That is nothing compared to what I have to confess..." "Confess?" "It's the sort of thing I should tell you face to face Colby... But that can't be, so it will have to be this way. I desperately need to get if off my chest..." "It sounds serious... you can tell me anything Valentina, you know how I feel about you." "Colby, before you let your emotions surface, you should hear what I have to say. I think you will end up hating me." "I can't believe that Valentina, not for an instant. You'd better tell me what it is." There was another flash of lightening that made Valentina flinch, it was enough to tip her into a sudden confession." "I betrayed the government, I betrayed Natasha and God forgive me, I betrayed you Colby." "What do you mean... Is this nonsense because Natasha did not want to return to Sachovia?" "I wish it was as simple as that Colby... What I did was beyond unforgivable..." "So tell me..." "I can't make this pretty... What I did..." Colby heard Valentina break down into sobs. He had never known her to do that, even at the worst moments she had always held a level of self control that he thought almost superhuman. "The mission you were on was not to return Natasha to Sachovia but to deliver her into a trap." "What?.." "No just let me speak Colby... I need to say this as quickly as I can before I lose the courage. I was employed by Boris Koch the Prime Minister to organise Natasha's safe return to Sachovia... But I was actually working for the opposition, a man called Adam Prochniak. I was a double agent if you like... I set you up and I tricked Natasha into trusting me. There was supposed to be a bomb attack on the way back to Sachovia which would have killed Natasha... possibly you as well but there was no intention to harm you. It was to be blamed on a fundamental Islamic bombing, a random attack on mainland Europe that would have no link to Sachovia apart from Natasha being caught up... Just a casualty of a random terrorist attack. The anti-monarchists would have removed the last remaining claimant to the throne without being implicated in any way." "I can't believe what I'm hearing Valentina... You loved Natasha, I know you did." "I regretted it as soon as I started down the path but in my defence, not that I can really claim a defence... I was blackmailed into my actions." "Blackmailed... How?" "Prochniak told me he was holding Sascha... You remember him from the old days?" "Of course I remember your little brother, he was besotted by you, wanted to follow in your footsteps. He was a hero of the war." "Yes... Prochniak told me that if I wanted to see Sascha alive again I would have to ensure that Natasha would never be returned to Sachovia. It's clear to me now that I made the wrong decision." "Why?" "Because sending Natasha to her death was a betrayal of everything that I and Sascha stood for. He would never have wanted that... and well Prochniak lied to me. Sascha was already dead." 'I can't get my head round any of this Valentina... You are saying that I was taking Natasha to her death? That you really set up Natasha to be killed?... I just can't believe it." "It sounds so stark, so evil when you say it out loud but yes, I don't expect you to understand because I can't really understand any of it myself... There is no reasonable explanation I can give you." "But you thought saving your brother was worth the murder of an innocent child? A child you claimed to have grown to love?" "No no of course it wasn't worth Natasha's life... At first I did not know Natasha, in my mind I just saw her as another anonymous and expendable victim of the war. I somehow lost my moral compass, blocked it out by my desperation to save Sascha.... What I was doing hardly felt real... I can't explain... I can't recognise the woman I had become when I think back. Go ahead Colby, I have earned all your hatred, I told you so at the start of the conversation." "So... Now to the nub of the matter Valentina... Why did you involve me? What did I ever do to you to warrant a betrayal of my principals of that magnitude?" "I..." "No let me finish... I thought we had forged an understanding back when we worked together in Sachovia... I thought you held the moral high ground. I looked up to your principled stance in the face of horror... So why me Valentina? Why all the trouble to enlist me when any fool off the street could do the job that you really wanted?" "You'll hate me even more when I tell you Colby..." "You think..." "It was all about credibility... We needed to use an international agency to show that there was no partisanship involved..." "That can't be all... why me specifically?" Colby asked the question but Jane had already given him the answer, an answer he had chosen not to believe... until now. "Colby... It's because of the Saudi boy... Because a courier who had so publicly failed once to protect a child in his care would not raise a suspicion if..." "If I did the same thing again... I thought I knew you Valentina... I knew you had some petty flaws, we all do, but I believed in you, believed you had a core of morality that sat squarely with my own. I would have done anything for you, anything to be with you again to have you in my life... You know Valentina, that day when we met again at the Camberwell and had breakfast... and what followed... It saved me from a downward spiral that seemed to have no end. You gave me a reason for hope, a reason to pull my arse out of the swamp I was slowly sinking into. But Christ it was all a con, you played me like an old violin until I wept for the beauty of your music and then you sent me to my doom with an innocent child in my arms." "No no... It wasn't all a con. Colby everything I said to you, everything that happened between us on a personal level was real. You touched the part of me that was still sane, still had a grip on right and wrong. At least believe that Colby; you must believe that, I did and I still do love you. I'm so sorry... If I could turn back the clock..." "None of us can do that Valentina..." "I know and I can't ever expect you to forgive me, I know I've hurt you terribly; all that was left to me was to admit the truth of what I did and hope that you would not hate me completely." "Hate you?... Hate you?" Colby screamed into his phone. And then his voice fell silent as he ended the call. The ringing in Valentina's ears continued long into the dark night and the raging storm that was bearing down on the Falcon. "Colby... are you still there? Colby... Colby..." She wiped her eyes and then whispered into the darkness... I'm sorry I'm so sorry. Another flash of lightning lit up the sky and Valentina shut down her Satphone as the thunder rolled past ominous and dreadful. Colby sat in his London flat, eyes fixed on the window seeing nothing of the view across the darkening London skyline. The drips of rain chasing down the glass blurred the city lights into a distortion of reality. He suddenly realised that everything you saw, everything you understood about the world was an illusion of your own making. It did not make life any less real but it was still all an illusion. Before Natasha had been kidnapped he had conceived a plan, when the child was safely delivered, he would set out in search of Valentina, whatever it cost him. Nothing else mattered to him, not his career not his financial future not even his survival. He just had to find Valentina again and make her happy... make her whole. He had known that she was troubled by something but could never have guessed how bad the truth was. Now that he knew, his future was blank, drained of colour, without meaning. He felt the hard plastic of his phone still in his hand. He looked down and discovered that he had crushed the casing with the force of his grip. Blood was oozing from his palm as the sharp shards of plastic bit into his flesh. He threw the phone across the room and watched it shatter into a million fragments of lost hope. And the worst of it all, the part he could not understand any more than Valentina could understand what she had done, was that he still, despite all she had done to him... God help him he still loved her. Chapter 15 Boris Koch sat in apparent ease in his Prime Minister's rooms. His finance minister Vladimir Koratov had just returned after seeking advice regarding the negotiation with the kidnappers. "Prime Minister on consideration I think we should start our negotiations at say 10 million Euros." "It sounds a little low to me; isn't that what Europa League footballers earn in a week? How have you arrived at that figure Vladimir?" Vladimir was not sure if the Prime Minister was making a joke or was really so out of touch with what passed as a fortune among ordinary people. "It has been based on how easily satisfied we expect the kidnappers to be." He said taking the Minister's words at face value. "We pitched it high enough to be attractive, not insulting to their egos and yet still leave plenty of room for upward negotiation." "How high should we go in your opinion Vladimir?" "The money is not relevant in any absolute sense Prime Minister. If it deflects a war then any sum would be cheap. Another war would cost the country many billions and set us back decades. What constrains my thinking is the morality of rewarding these criminals." "Let me worry about the morality Vladimir... However I do share your misgivings about dealing with these people so let me put your mind at rest... Once the child is safely back in Sachovia, I think the kidnappers will have only a brief time to enjoy their profits." "I take your meaning Prime Minister, so would you be more comfortable if we set the starting negotiation at say... 20 million?" Koch leaned back in his chair presenting the image of a man relaxed and in complete control of his universe. "I sometimes think I'm getting too old for all this Vladimir." He said. "Surely not Boris you have decades of active politics left in you yet." Koch laughed. "There's no need to flatter me Vladimir... I'm quite aware of my longevity expectations thank you... The reason that I asked you to consider the matter is that I would like you to undertake the negotiations; I would prefer to be at arm's length from this distasteful process. I wanted you to have considered all the implications before hand... May I suggest you try to get them to show their hand, see if you can get them to state a figure that would satisfy their greed. You have my authority to go to 250 million if they won't settle for less than that then you'd better refer to me again." "Very well. How are the negotiations to take place?" "Some tedious process, I've given the details to Pyotr at the SSB, he's running the communications. Apparently we will find a phone number supplied via a third party Twitter account. The number will appear when we post an agreement to negotiate. This internet stuff is all beyond me." "Seems they've got it all sewn up nice and tight... except... will it be a live telephone conversation?" "That is my understanding." "Then the SSB might be able to trace the call?" "I've got Pyotr's team looking into it but time will be against them... We think they are ensconced somewhere in Italy which doesn't aid our cause and I doubt the kidnappers will keep the line open for more than a brief exchange. In any case I'd rather pay up than risk harm coming to the child; my future is intimately tied up with Natasha Kashinka's – never forget that Vladimir." "No of course." "Stick by your phone I'd like this wrapped up before nightfall. I'm going to get the SSB to set up the call as soon as possible." ... In a dark cellar in a quietly anonymous Italian back street, Sophie Laurent had just moved her eyes from the glow of her laptop. "Andrej they've taken the bait." "I assume it's the Government who have made the offer." "As expected... I'm putting the contact number up on the Twitter account now. You've got your negotiation strategy clear? Now we've got this far I don't want any cock ups. To be frank Andrej I would prefer to conduct the negotiations myself." "We've discussed this already I thought we had an agreement that I would negotiate." "If it means that much to you..." "I'm into this as deep as you Sophie... More so. Don't forget that my face is well known to the SSB and those guys don't take kindly to getting screwed over." "Sounds as if you might be getting cold feet Andrej?" "Not at all, since you first approached me with this 'opportunity' I've been a hundred percent committed, I've done all the hard yards, don't forget that." "Hardly... it was me who took the girl from under your friend Linden's nose." "Linden's just a rank amateur..." "If you say so darling. But don't let me down, I find it very hard to forgive men who do that." "Ooh scary..." He said in deference to his bristling male ego. Sophie did not smile at Andrej's childlike attempt at humour. Instead she narrowed her eyes in a way she had that gave her a chilling expression of cold menace that he almost found erotic in its intensity. Sophie had to put up with him for now, his information had been instrumental in bringing the deal to fruition but once his usefulness was at an end she would dispose of him. It would not be a difficult task; not difficult at all. "You'd better be careful Andrej... Those friends of yours in the SSB are just puppy dogs compared to me. Don't forget I cut my teeth in Tel Aviv. Mossad takes a certain pride in how well it trains its agents." "Assassins you mean." He mumbled under his breath as he edged away. Andrej was not a complete fool; he held his tongue from further comment like the good boy Sophie expected him to be. He edged across the dark mustiness of the cellar to the ancient refrigerator that wheezed contentedly to itself in the corner. He wrenched open the door and helped himself to a beer, one of only three remaining bottles of Luppoli Originale. "Better make that a soft drink Andrej... I need you sharp for this; the phone is likely to ring any minute." Andrej was getting sick and tired of being bossed about by women and he slammed the fridge door shut with an unnecessary level of violence but when he turned back he was clutching nothing more intoxicating than a can of Coke. In fact it was half an hour before Vladimir Koratov was connected with the number. On further consideration Boris had decided to listen in on the conversation on speaker phone and made himself comfortable in his well used leather chair as the little piece of entertainment unfolded before his silent presence. Andrej spoke in English rather than risk betraying his origins by using his native tongue: "Who am I speaking with." He said. "You are speaking with the man who is authorised to exchange a large sum of money for the safe return of Natasha Kashinka." Koratov said with obvious distaste. "I'd like a name." "I suggest you mellow your tone if you expect cooperation from me... I really don't see why you need my name but it matters little. I am the Sachovian Finance Minister Vladimir Koratov." "Very well Minister how much are you going to pay for the safe return of your princess?" "I see you like to get straight to the point... Let me ask you how much would you need?" "The opposition has already bid 200 million Euros; you will need to do better than that." Koratov was shocked by the size of the ransom but kept himself composed. "I suspect you are not being entirely truthful with me young man but if that is the case then I suggest you run back to Prochniak and accept his offer before he changes his mind. That sum is far beyond what we will pay." Andrej had been expecting a counter offer of maybe 50 million if he was lucky. This rejection was not the response that he had been expecting and he stumbled like an errant schoolboy trying to explain why he had not completed his homework... "Er... That's not an... Er... We will need..." Sophie grabbed the phone from Andrej's hands. "For God's sake Andrej..." She spat before addressing her next remarks to the phone: "Minister I'm sorry... We seem to have got off on the wrong foot. I can assure you that Natasha Kashinka is safe and well at the moment... That will certainly not be the case in twenty four hours unless we can come to a satisfactory agreement. If you have an interest in the girl's well-being then please make a sensible offer for her return or she will be delivered into the hands of Adam Prochniak, a prospect which should chill the heart of any loyal monarchist." "You must give me a figure to negotiate from." "I think you heard the figure of 200 million mentioned by my colleague." "That is an outrageous amount of money." "This is an outrageous situation Minister... I have no need, or desire, to justify myself to you." "That may be the case but you would be wise to show some respect; your actions are at the extreme end of criminality and you are negotiating with the government of Sachovia not some fraught parents who's child is being ransomed for a few thousand Francs." "I am fully aware that this is a criminal act and I am quite comfortable with that state of affairs. Don't waste your time trying to arouse feelings of guilt in me, just make your counter offer. I quite understand that my team is in peril for what we have done and I won't hesitate to walk away from this negotiation – empty handed if necessary. If I do so, if you pressure me into that course of action, then you will never see the Kashinka child alive again." Vladimir turned his eyes to his Prime Minister who urged him to continue with a brusque piece of theatrical sign language. Vladimir eased the sudden tightness of his tie and undid the top button of his shirt before resuming his attention on the phone conversation. A small rivulet of sweat trickled down into his eyes making them sting. "No no I understand. Let's try to keep emotion out of this. We could possibly consider a sum of say 100 million Euros." "I really have no desire to drag this out... in order to expedite matters I will meet you in the sweet zone say... 150 million Euros but you must accept the transfer of the girl on our terms." Vladimir looked across to Koch who nodded with a rather satisfied smile. 150 million was peanuts when he was prepared to go as high as 500 million of his tax payer's Euros. "Very well... What specific transfer terms do you have in mind?" Vladimir said. There was a hardly detectable pause while Sophie allowed herself to release the tension that had held her body tight. 150 million was way beyond her expectation she would have been happy to take 50. She gathered her thoughts before resuming the conversation keenly aware that the longer the phone call lasted the more opportunity there was of the SSB tracing their location. "There will be a new number on Twitter shortly we will resume our negotiations when you contact us again. Remember any deviation from our agreement will result in dire consequences for your little princess." Sophie ended the call and removed the SIM card straight away. "I think we can have that beer now." She said. ... "You did rather well Vladimir." "It's not concluded yet Boris. I can't imagine what nonsense they have in mind for the transfer." "It will just be to ensure their safety I'm sure we can accommodate their wishes without hardship. Ideally we need to have the girl safely in our care before any money is transferred; as long as they agree to that then we will let them play their games to their heart's content. We will have a lifetime to track them down." "You really think they will agree to releasing her before the money is transferred?" "Probably not but we will have to reach some compromise to our mutual satisfaction. I'm sure you'll think of something." One floor up from the cellar where the kidnappers had conducted the negotiation, Natasha lay on a hard bed in a locked room. The blinds had been lifted a hands breadth letting in a shaft of jagged afternoon sunlight onto the crumbling plaster on the facing wall. The view from the window was of a street lined with decaying last century villas debased by neglect and decay, by ugly satellite dishes and television aerials. A string of washing hung in the wind like a forgotten streamer while children played a noisy version of Russian-roulette-football with the sparse traffic in the dusty road. Natasha was secured in a stiff canvas straight jacket which was shackled to the iron frame of her bed. The harsh collar chafed against her soft neck. Slowly she was being weaned off the sedatives that had been constantly injected into her bloodstream and now she was starting to make sense of her situation. Awareness was not a comfort to her equilibrium but she had managed to conclude that her kidnappers wanted her alive. She was just not sure why. Andrej had crept up while Sophie sat silently sipping her beer, apparently hypnotised by the glow of her computer screen. He wore a mask to hide his identity and stroked Natasha's cheek with the back of his fingers, she might have warmed to his touch had his subtext not been so obvious. He stood over her watching the rise and fall of her breathing. Natasha turned her eyes away from him. He was hiding his face but she knew, even in her drugged state, who he was. It was information that gave her power over him and she kept it close. "Your people will pay for you soon don't worry," he said at last. "You just made the mistake of being born to the wrong family." So this is punishment because of my ancestry, thought the princess as the repulsive man tightened the buckles on her jacket. "Does that hurt?" He said with the shallow sneer of someone who had long ago severed the last strands of his humanity. "I can make the discomfort go away if you are good to me." She closed her eyes tight. What he didn't know, she thought, was that she was not alone in this prison. Her brother was with her. Even in her imagination Gregori was still more real to her than a foul SSB agent ever could be and she let him speak to her, his comforting voice lifting her from her prison and bringing sleep in the comfort of his words. She was in the Camargue again, walking on the beach with her brother, not concerned anymore with who might be in the shadows, waiting to touch her or take her to the hated Country of Sachovia. ... "Boris... I was just thinking of the oaf who made a hash of trying to negotiate with us... before the apparent brains behind the enterprise took over..." "Yes?" "Did you recognise the voice?" "I recognised the accent which was decidedly of our own country. Do you know him?" "It will come to me..." "Let me know when it does... I may wish to invite him to dinner; I'm sure we could engage in an entertaining conversation before he lost his fingernails." It was already starting to grow dark before the finance minister spoke to the kidnappers again. "When can we expect to see Natasha Kashinka?" He said wishing to take the early initiative. "As soon as you comply with our requirements..." Sophie snapped back. "listen: this is the bank account number to which the 150 million Euros will be transferred..." She reeled off a string of numbers. "Did you get that?" "Of course... Cayman Islands I see... Why am I not surprised?" "Yes, yes, knowing that won't help you... Please read the number back to me." Vladimir sighed with frustration but complied with the request. "Good... When the sum is safely in the account we will make the exchange." "No that is not the way it will be... No money will be transferred until the princess is safely recovered. I don't need to explain why." "We are not stupid Minister, believe me such double dealing would not be in our interests. However I can understand that you might be reluctant to release the funds without feeling confident of the girl being returned. We have anticipated this and my colleague has suggested using a person to collect Kashinka that we both have confidence in. The transfer must be kept very low profile. No fast boats, no helicopters, no armed men in dark sunglasses." "I can appreciate the benefits of that for both of us but a person in which we both have confidence? Is there such a person?" "We believe there is... one of your own SSB agents in fact. For our mutual security we propose making a rendezvous at a location at sea, the girl will be transferred to your boat and at the same time, once you see that she is safe you will electronically transfer the funds to our account. We will then go our separate ways." "You seem to have thought this through carefully; I don't think we would have any great difficulty with that in principal. Depending on the exact details meeting with our approval. However the complexity will of necessity cause extra delays. You have our word that we will complete our part of the bargain in an honourable manner. But we were hoping for a swifter resolution, is there no other way to expedite the exchange?" "Not unless you can suggest an alternative that is acceptable to us." Vladimir turned his eyes nervously to Koch seeking some direction. Koch held out his hand for the phone. "This is the Prime Minister, Boris Koch; your terms are acceptable assuming the man you want to us to use for the recovery meets with our approval. But if this new demand is anything less than honest then I will ensure that you and your team will be hunted down. No expense will be spared. Do you understand?" "Your threats are quite hollow Prime Minister. You can hardly believe that we have not taken extreme measures to become invisible once the transaction is complete. However you can be assured that there will be no subterfuge on our part; the exchange plan is simply for our mutual security." "I'll take your word on that... I accept that I have no option... This will all take time to organise. Where do you propose the exchange taking place?" "We have selected a quiet location in Straights of Messina some distance off Reggio Calabra. Without giving too much away it is within a sensible range of where the child is being held. We appreciate that it will take some time for your boat to reach the location. When you are ready to commit to an exact date for the exchange please post a message on the Twitter account as before and we will arrange further contact. The child will be kept safe until then. Her condition is not however a comfortable one so we urge you to waste no time... Are we agreed on this Prime Minister?" "Very well, we will need to organise a small boat from the area. You had better reveal who this confidence inspiring agent is so that we can brief him." "Not a him... I believe you know the agent in question she is known by my colleague to have a personal interest in the child's safety and we understand she already has access to a craft that will be ideal." "Her name?" "Yes of course Prime Minister she goes by the name of Valentina Gussev." Chapter 16 "I've been thinking Prime Minister... These kidnappers might be a little naive in assuming that a small craft would be safe in the ocean... Might it be possible to launch a strike after the exchange has taken place?" "And risk an international incident?" "We could have a covert high speed intercept boat, maybe an attack helicopter in the general area no one would know." "You've been watching too many action movies Vladimir... I suppose it would be possible in theory but the money will already have been transferred by then... besides I would be more interested in locating the nest that these vipers occupy rather than just taking out their ferryman. Don't worry Vladimir they won't get away with this." "I hope not Prime Minister. So have you managed to make contact with Valentina yet?" "The SSB have traced her on her boat... The fact is she is no longer officially in the service, her last mission was supposed to mark the end of her SSB career but I think she might be convinced to put her desire to find a quiet life on hold for just a little while longer." "You've not spoken to her yet?" "I'm waiting for her call, she's got the message that it's important but not what it's about; maybe they should have been more explicit, I'd hate her to decide not to bother returning my call." "Is that likely? Valentina always showed... What shall I call it?... An independence of spirit." "She'll comply with my request I have no doubts about that." "I hope you are right Prime Minister." ... Life on the Midnight Falcon had once more fallen into a familiar routine. The heading was set for the south coast of France but the detail of what they would do was still little more than a vague list of aspirations. Valentina was starting to adapt to the feeling of freedom that this uncertainty had brought her and the signal from the SSB had been a sudden and jolting shock, dragging her back into a world of unwanted commitments and responsibilities. She guessed that it was concerned with Natasha's capture. Her heart still ached at the thought of the child but she could not see what she could reasonably be expected to do. But if there was a glimmer of hope that she might be able to save Natasha, she would walk barefoot over broken glass. So it was with no reluctance that she made the call, encouraged also by the insistent sharp nipping of curiosity that had always been her downfall. "Prime Minister... I thought we were agreed that I was now free to pursue my salvation." "No one appreciates what debt Sachovia owes to you more than I Valentina but when you hear what I have to say maybe you will reconsider and undertake just one more simple task." "Then speak... Let's be done with this." "I'm not sure if you have heard the troubling news about Natasha." "No... what's happened?" She lied. "The poor child has been kidnapped on route to our homeland." "Is she still safe?" Valentina said with genuine undisguised concern. "For the moment. Her captors will execute her unless we agree to an enormous payment." "And the payment is too high?" "No no the money is just an annoyance we have a contingency fund already budgeted for which will hardly notice the transfer...No Valentina, my problem... Sachovia's problem, is that the kidnappers have made some very specific requests for how the transfer of the princess into our care must be made." "And how does this concern me?" "What they have demanded as a condition of the transaction, is for you... specifically you Valentina, to collect Natasha at sea with your little ketch." "Why so?" "I struggle to understand that myself; they must know from your reputation that you can be trusted. They have somehow discovered that you have a personal interest in Natasha." "And they also know about the ketch?" "Apparently so." "Prime Minister there are really only a handful of people who know that... I have been extraordinarily careful in keeping that information on a need to know basis." "It begs the question about their identity, certainly one of the negotiators spoke with an accent that was without question Sachovian. We may have a traitor among us Valentina." "I'm certain that is the case Prime Minister; there can be no other explanation." "You have suspicions as to this person's identity?" "I do Prime Minister... Indeed I do but for the moment I intend keeping my suspicions to myself." "Maybe we can return to that issue at a later date. I am more concerned with recovering our future queen...Will you help us Valentina?" "What you are asking seems easy enough. You just wish me to sail the Falcon to some predetermined destination, collect Natasha and then sail her to safety?" "It's all I ask." "I can hardly refuse to do that that Prime Minister... " She said. The call ended and Valentina saw in this mission a way to undo, if not the culpability then at least the consequences of what she had done to Natasha. However at the back of Valentina's mind hovered the nagging suspicion that this was just a trap to lure her to her doom. A part of her could almost accept that she deserved to face the consequences of her betrayals... falling into a trap might be a justifiable end to her sorry existence. But there were several problems with that prospect: firstly she had Katrina on board with her and she owed it to the young woman not take her into danger. Katrina was innocent of any wrongdoing, her life had been plagued by ill-treatment by others and circumstances beyond her control but she had endured it all and deserved to find happiness. Secondly, despite everything, Valentina still felt that she had a life left to live and she would not give that up cheaply. There were things to put right... New dreams to follow... Old friends to rediscover... Maybe an opportunity to make peace with an old lover hovering somewhere waiting for a reason to start to trust her again. Valentina called down to the galley where Katrina was preparing food. "Come and talk for a minute." Katrina poked her head up from below deck. The few days at sea had already had a profound affect on her appearance; her skin was showing the beginnings of a healthy tan, when she smiled in that shy way she had, her cheeks shone with the blush of ripe peaches and the healthy food was already starting to clothe her bones in a round softness through which her true beauty was finally being revealed. "I'm going to put you ashore on Sicily Katrina." "Why... what have I done?" "No nothing... you've done nothing other than be an ideal companion and I'll be sad to lose your company." "Then why?" "I've just made my reply to that call..." "Yes." "It seems that Natasha has been kidnapped." "Oh my God no." Katrina bounded up onto the deck and held onto Valentina both seeking and offering comfort. "She's safe for the moment Katrina, don't worry. But they want me to rendezvous with another boat and collect her once a ransom has been paid." "Then I must come with you Valentina; you can't leave me behind at a moment like this." "It may not be safe, there is a possibility that it is just a wild goose chase, a trap for me." "Why would anyone want to trap you?" "I'm not ready to tell you that yet Katrina... One day maybe. Let's just say that you can't have lived the life I have without making some enemies along the way." "OK... I still don't care... You and Natasha are the only ones I care for in the world. She was like a little sister to me." "You care enough for her to put your own life at risk?" "Yes yes a thousand times yes." ... So the Midnight Falcon was destined not to make a stopover at Sicily after all. They would however hug close to the craggy coastline on the way to their rendezvous. The two women, now stiffened by a resolution to make every effort to rescue Natasha turned their course eastwards away from France and then north up into the Straights of Messina. Reggio Calabra sat on the toe of the Italian boot and looked across the narrow passage of sea to the coast of Sicily. The rendezvous was set a little south of the narrow strait to avoid the strong tidal currents and to find isolation from unwanted observers. The Midnight Falcon eagerly pushed on into the choppy waters with the wind tight against her sails as if the little craft understood and was a willing and eager party to the rescue. It was one of those glorious autumn days when the air is crisp and the sun still strong enough on your back to warm away any chill. The rendezvous was set for eleven and the Falcon was anchored in the shallows a good hour before the exchange was due to take place. Through binoculars Valentina scanned the coastline. There were few boats on the water, a couple of traditional clinker fishing boats brightly painted crossed out in the distance seeking their subsistence catches of sardines in the rich waters along the coast. There was an enormous MSC cruise ship anchored in the bay maybe two miles away from where the Falcon turned slowly around its own anchor rope. "It seems too peaceful for it to be a trap." Katrina said. "Things are seldom what they seem. But lets be optimistic... If all goes to plan then there will be three of us sailing away to a new future later today." "It will go to plan Valentina I can feel it in the air." Katrina said. "I can feel my world turning around this point in time when we rescue Natasha; everything will change for us." "And will it be a change for the better, do you think Katrina?" "Oh yes... Without a doubt." She smiled. ... Natasha had been woken a little after midnight and bundled roughly through the dark streets into the uninviting back of a windowless van. There was a kapok mattress on the floor, it stank of mildew and years of settled dust but she sank against it as the rear doors were slammed shut like an exclamation mark on her fate. With the metallic ringing sound still in her ears, a feeling of dread came over her. Was this finally the time of her execution? Were they taking her to where her body would never be found? Then she thought with a sudden feeling of absolute despair, that there was no one, no family left in the world to look for her and grieve over her sad remains. She would have to face her final journey alone and unloved. She tried to remember Gregori's face but somehow it was lost to her now when she needed him most. She sobbed and thought of her parents. She had been angry with them for dying and leaving her but now she needed their love like never before and they were gone. Maman, où es tu?... Where are you? It was hours before the van finally stopped and in a daze of semi comprehension she found herself in bright daylight being lifted into the cabin of a modest sized sailing catamaran. White and tall masted she rolled in the gentle swell of the harbour eager to feel the ocean winds fill her sails. So they are going to drown me at sea. Natasha thought. Maybe Gregori will find me in the ocean currents, I might wash up on some distant white beach with galloping horses and I might fly with the gulls...Up to where my family is waiting for me. The sun was bright, sparkling on the water stinging her watery eyes but the smell of the sea, fresh and filled with the tang of ozone and salt filled her with the desire to live. The catamaran eased away from the dock under the power of a small outboard motor and then once in open water the sails were raised and the boat lunged forward feeding on the immense power of the wind. Skimming across the waves gaining speed and as the sails were trimmed the port hull lifted from the water balancing its weight against the pull of the wind. In the distance, as the catamaran turned in a gentle arc across the blue water, Natasha could see another boat resting at anchor, sails furled it lay quietly, patiently, waiting... It was maybe a kilometre maybe two away half seen in haze of the ocean glare. Although still small in the distance it had the pull of the familiar, like an old friend and suddenly Natasha had a glimmer of hope. The Midnight Falcon she whispered under her breath; she dare not speak its name out loud in case her words might break the spell and cause the beloved Falcon to disappear like a desert mirage. Valentina watched through her binoculars as the catamaran came closer. She felt that this had to be the kidnapper's boat. It looked fast and sleek as it cut through the water then it slowed and turned in a tightening circle orbiting the Falcon 50 metres away looking for confirmation that they had the right craft. Finally they seemed satisfied and the catamarans sails were dropped. There was little more than fifteen metres separating them when the catamaran dropped its anchor. A noisy squadron of gulls settled on the water like impromptu spectators gathered to watch a fall of momentous events. There was a sudden stillness that seemed to hover over the two small craft. Valentina held onto the side rail and looked across at the catamaran. A small inflatable was dropped over the side and balancing against the swell, Natasha was carefully lowered into it. "Valentina... Valentina." Natasha called as her fears were turned to glorious hope. "Just hold on Natasha, a few moments more and you'll be safe back with us." It was then that Valentina recognised Andrej; she was not surprised. She had nothing but contempt for him but her own sins were equal to his, she had no right to cast the first stone. The SSB captain stood on the for'ard trampoline, his stance arrogant as he displayed himself to the world for the mercenary that he was. "So Colby was right about you Kowalski." Valentina shouted across the water. The captain didn't reply but threw a rope across to his former colleague. The rope was attached to the inflatable dingy and Valentina pulled Natasha towards her. Another rope was attached to the stern of the inflatable and Andrej tied it to the rail of the catamaran so that Natasha could come no closer than half way to the Falcon. She sat in the inflatable, balanced precariously between two worlds. Her future still no more certain than it had ever been. "You see she is well." He called. "Let the goblins in Sachovia know that the money can be transferred and I will release my end of the rope." Katrina appeared on deck. She saw Andrej and once the initial shock had dissipated, took profound confirmation of exactly who he was, how lucky she was to be free of him. She ignored his scowl and his look of surprise at seeing her and instead concentrated her attention on the really important person that had been delivered to them. "Natasha..." She called with her arms open. "My darling welcome back little sister." Natasha's eyes flooded with tears and she held her arms out as if she could span the ten metres that separated them. "Just hold on a little longer Natasha. We have a whole lifetime to share." Valentina was already on the satphone giving confirmation of the success of the rendezvous. A short distance across the water in the catamaran's cabin Sophie Laurent, not her real name of course, was at the keyboard of her computer. She was logged through a maze of passwords into the Cayman Islands bank account. It took another five minutes before she saw the money appear as if by magic. It took her all of two minutes for her to empty that account and transfer the money again to an account with a Swiss bank that bore her real name. She came up on deck. "It's all done Andrej... You can release the girl." "You think so?..." He said. "Yes Andrej... let her go we need to be away from here quickly now." Sophie's voice was harsh, demanding. Her words were no request but an order which she expected to be followed without question. "I'm sick of you fucking women telling me what to do..." From inside his jacket he produced an SSB issue Glock pistol. The cold metal felt heavy in his hands as he lifted it and trained it on Natasha. The captain was a good shot. It was the one thing he had excelled at during his military training. He was destined to have become a roof-top sniper in the SSB if the brief outbreak of peace had not put an end to that particular career path. Valentina screamed with urgency to the girl: "Natasha... Look out... jump into the water... swim to the Falcon." And then she watched in paralysed horror as the rescue turned irrevocably towards tragedy. She pulled desperately at the rope but the loads on it were too much she would have to drag the whole weight of the Falcon against its anchor to close the gap. The bright light flashed against the Glock's barrel as Captain Kowalski balanced his aim with the roll of the sea. He was lost in the moment, a slave to his euphoria, a barbarian at the gates of heaven. Natasha turned her head towards him and looked into the darkness of barrel. I always knew it was to be you who would kill me she thought. They had tied her to the little inflatable boat, she couldn't jump free. Her eyes danced between the barrel of the gun and insane sneer on the captain's face until the tension became too much for her to bear and she turned her gaze to Valentina until even that was unbearable and she closed her eyes. Time seemed to have slowed in those last seconds but Natasha once again found her brother, she felt that Gregori was with her again, he had come for her. At last they would be together again... The sound of the shot, when it finally came, seemed to stop the world for an instant. There was Sachovian blood and shattered bone and brains splattered into the bright sky and the curious gulls alarmed by the percussive sound of death lifted into the air, what they had witnessed was beyond their understanding as they soared up into the clear peaceful sky of an Italian morning. Chapter 17 The phone call startled Colby from a somewhat sombre reverie. He had been shaken by the shocking revelation from Valentina; her words were still playing in his head like a song caught in a continuous loop. Not only could he not switch it off but the implications for him left him floundering for a reasonable response. In fact he questioned whether he should even try and respond; maybe he should simply forget Valentina Gussev, consign her to his past, a painful mistake. The call on his home line that dragged him from these thoughts was from his boss Jane Freeman. Colby had been vaguely surprised that she was still bothering to speak to him after what had happened in Italy. He took a sip of coffee from the mug he had been clutching before answering the call. The coffee had unaccountably gone cold and he pulled a face. "Colby, how are you?" "I'm fine." He said a little diffidently. "Mm, forgive me if I don't quite believe you... Look smarten yourself up; I'm doing something totally out of character and taking you out to dinner." "Are you indeed? What's this in aid of?" "I need to discuss your future with you." "Ah that old thing..." "I'll pick you up at seven... If you're good I might even let you drive. I've just pulled the dust covers off my Dad's old Alvis and had it serviced... Cost me a bloody fortune so I better make use of the old girl." "I'm overwhelmed Jane." Colby said though the tone of his voice hardly confirmed the sentiment. It was three hours later when Colby, brushed and polished, standing before the view from his living room window watched Jane's majestic arrival. The 1967 three litre TF21 pulled up under the glow of the street light. One of the last cars Alvis ever built before the changing times turned the slow decline in the company's profits into a terminal disease. The Alvis was was finished in silver paintwork with old fashioned but still stylish wire wheels. He had often admired the car when he had seen it parked in the reserved space at Equis. It seemed a long time ago when Jane was still at University and 'Old Man Freeman' still used the Alvis for his daily commute into work. It was already a classic back then and now it seemed possessed by the ambiance of another time when the world was simpler, when elegance was still important for its own sake, when craftsmen had the time to build things intended to last for generations. Of course even back then – especially back then, such qualities were reserved for the enjoyment of the wealthy. That, Colby mused was what separated himself from Jane Freeman. Although she cared little for the excesses of wealth, she had been brought up among those who did and strode comfortably among the well heeled. Despite his expectation of what Jane intended telling him; the chance to drive the Alvis offered an allure, a sweetener to ease his way into the underclass of the unemployed. He had already come to the conclusion that the 'discussion of his future' was simply a euphemism for being dismissed, sacked, fired, awarded the order of the boot. There was no pleasant way to tell a man he was out of a job. He walked out into a clear but already chilly evening and returned the rather cautious smile that Jane sent him. "Here catch..." She said as she tossed him the keys. There was a trace of misty breath as she spoke and she pulled her warm coat more tightly round her and lifted the collar round her neck. "I can already see that you are more interested in the car than in me." In the soft light Jane looked quite attractive. Somehow he had never really thought of her as a woman... just a sort of continuation of her father in a younger format. "What a suggestion..." He said "You know I only have eyes for you." He held the passenger door while his boss made an elegant re-entry into the old world ambiance of the Alvis. The car's interior was no less impressive than the elegant bodywork, decidedly traditional British, furnished in red leather and walnut and deep pile carpets; this particular car, he knew, was rare in having a five speed gear box. "I'm not much of a driver..." Jane said "I get behind the wheel of a car when I have to but this old girl is full of fond memories for me; I can't remember a time when it wasn't in the family, it would be unthinkable for me to part with it." "You could utilise me as your chauffeur." Colby suggested with half a twinkle in his eye. "It's a thought... We're dining at the Marlborough... I imagine you know how to find your way there; they have the underground parking which is such an asset." "That used to be your father's club didn't it?" "Yes I expect if you gave the Alvis her head she might find her own way there." Colby drove across the City with the delicacy and care that the car deserved. Each gear change timed to perfection and, despite the temptation of a car that was still good for an easy 120 mph, he never threatened the sanctity of the speed limits. Jane was impressed. "You actually drive like a grown up." She said in a surprised voice as if all men were intrinsically wannabe racing drivers. Colby couldn't help laughing despite the feel of the Damocles sword that swayed precariously... inevitably over his head. He knew what the evening held in store for him but still couldn't help liking Jane. They had pre dinner drinks and bantered with small talk as if playing an impromptu game of verbal tennis until their table was ready. The final score went unrecorded. The Marlborough was an exclusive establishment, founded long before the Great War had threatened to ruffle the feathers of the aristocracy. They had managed successfully to have retained the easy decorum of yesteryear while embracing all the advantages of the modern world. An excellent club if you could afford the fees; Jane could, though it was a rare occurrence for her to flaunt her wealth. Colby certainly couldn't afford the fees and had never been inside the Marlborough’s timbered and hushed walls before. As they started on the main course Colby, feeling Jane's discomfort, turned the conversation to the inevitable. "I've never been fired before but I can't think of a more pleasant way than being wined and dined in a place like this." Jane looked up from her venison: "So you've guessed my decision." "It's the one I would have taken if our roles were reversed." "Well thank you for making this easy, I was rather dreading having to form the words... I can't pretend that letting you go brings me anything but sadness Colby." "Then give me a stay of execution." Colby said. His humour and light heartedness at odds with the melancholy of his true feelings. "I wish I could Colby... It's all worked out rather badly for you hasn't it? In truth none of it has been your fault. But you do understand why I have to make this decision?" He nodded. "Of course... Equis runs on reputation not sentiment. But I'll miss the old place... A big chunk of my life has been spent working for you and your father; some of it successfully." "Yes..." She opened her bag and pulled out a folded cheque. Equis will cover this of course but I've drawn this against my personal account; I'd rather keep this... what do they call it these days?... this golden handshake out of the public gaze." Colby took the check, it seemed such an old fashioned thing in these days of digital banking and plastic cards. He lay it by the side of his plate still folded still unseen crisp and virgin. "Thank you," He said "you were under no obligation." "Oh I think there was a moral obligation Colby. Equis has always stood proudly on the high moral ground. Whether it is in dealings with out customers or our employees." "I know that Jane... it's probably why I stayed with Equis so long." "There might be the possibility of offering you some work on contract. But my thinking along those lines is still rather vague at present." "I think it might be better for me to just move on Jane; I was never a man for half measures." Jane nodded and smiled at him and then called the waiter to bring the dessert menu. "Have you thought what you might do?" "The Foreign Legion crossed my mind..." he said as he exhausted his last reserves of humour. "do they still have that?... In any case I'm probably too old." He took a mouthful of chocolate pudding. "Actually I was rather a keen yachtsman in my youth and just lately I've been exposed to a taste of that life again..." "Ah yes the Midnight Falcon wasn't it?" "Yes, I spent some contented hours on her." "And tell me Colby, was it the boat or her captain that offered the contentment?" Colby just smiled. "So... tell me more about this interest in sailing." "Well I started with a dingy when I was still a schoolboy, progressed up the ranks a little and finally managed to get picked to crew on a Trans-Atlantic Ocean racer. A fifty footer; we started from Rhode Island, Newport and finished in Cowes. Took us eighteen days, we got 3rd in class which wasn't bad for a bunch of army amateurs. It was later the same year that I joined Equis – '98 and having finally decided to settle down and try and forge a career, I found I no longer had the time for all that frivolity. Just lately I've been contemplating the possibility of finding a way to earn my living around boats. I have this vague but compelling notion to move to the coast somewhere, maybe set up a chartering business. I'll have to tot up my assets when my head clears and see if it's a viable proposition." "The cheque might help." Jane said. "Yes..." He said suddenly remembering the slip of paper; he lifted it from the table. He was reluctant to open it; somehow once he had read the numbers on the cheque, seen Jane's signature written in the expensive old fashioned fountain pen that she insisted on using, then his fate would finally be sealed. There could be no possibility left of begging for a reprieve or throwing himself on her mercy... Finally he drew his reservations to one side and opened the folded cheque, the numbers danced before his eyes. "Jane this is far too much... I can't accept this." He said. "I will be offended if you don't Colby. Equis is doing well, the money will hardly be noticed in the end of year balance sheet." "Are you absolutely sure Jane?" "It's not that much in the scheme of things; a years salary or so. I want you to have it Colby... My father would have wanted that too. He had great hopes for your future at Equis but it never quite worked out as he had wished." "No... Thank you Jane, I can't deny that the money will be welcome... It really does put flesh on the bones of my plans... Thank you so much Jane." The desserts eaten they took coffee and brandy under the vaulted ceilings of the great hall. They tucked themselves into a quiet corner and were swallowed into the warm comfort of enormous arm chairs. "Something I've been meaning to ask..." Colby said as he swirled his glass and watched the amber fluid catch the soft light. "Go on." "This British agent person that I ran into in Italy..." "Ah... Well, I got a call from some officious... I'll call him a knob for want of a better word..." Colby snorted with merriment into his brandy glass. "A gentleman then, an officious gentleman from the Sachovian Consulate wanted to know what the hell you were doing. Apparently, Colby you were rather deviating from the exact route through Europe that had been given to you... I understand why of course... but they apparently had lookouts placed strategically so they could monitor your progress... and to their horror you rather disappeared." "It was entirely deliberate Jane, but I was sending regular signals of my position to them." "He didn't mention anything about that, I rather got the impression that they had no idea where you were." "Really..." This information was new to him and it started the gears of his brain churning. Following Valentina's confession he suddenly realised that his signals were being sent to the opposition party. He felt suddenly very gullible. "Are you listening Colby?" "Yes sorry... just had a revelation about something..." "So," Jane continued "there's this old family friend, Sir James Penbury, I don't suppose you know him... he was an old friend of my fathers, went to the same school... he's nearing retirement now but he still wields some authority in the echelons of Military intelligence these days... I happened to mention it to him in passing at some appalling cocktail party that I was high-jacked into attending. He suggested that there might be some of our guys in Italy who could liaise with the locals to keep an eye on the boarders; maybe spot you as you cruised through on your BMW." "How did you know about Italy?" "The er... let's call a spade a spade shall we?... The knob from the consulate told me that a rendezvous had been arranged in Trieste." "My God their security really did leak like a sieve." "Amateurs Colby... Anyway you were caught on camera crossing the boarder from Austria... Nice idea coming in from the north by the way... The rest you know." "Yes that's cleared up something that was niggling... Jane as you know only too well, I've been rather out of the loop of late... Have you heard anything more about little Natasha Kashinka?" "No, I would have called you if there was any news of her... Am I mistaken in thinking you let yourself get rather close to her?" "No, not mistaken but it was quite unintentional; maybe my repressed paternal instinct got the better of me... She's a nice kid, no family left, suddenly burdened with all this monarchy nonsense and now the poor little thing has been kidnapped... Yes I guess I feel an empathy for her Jane; It's more than just the guilt I feel at letting her get lifted in front of my eyes..." "I know exactly how you feel Colby, you want to put on your armour, mount your white steed and ride off into the sunset and rescue your princess." He laughed at the imagery but the sentiment it contained was on the money. "I never really thought of myself as a Don Quixote type; it sounds stupid to admit it Jane but yes, exactly that... Do you have any white steeds on hand?" "Sold them for a jar of magic beans just last week... I guess you committed the cardinal sin Colby... Emotional attachment to your client." "I can't argue with that Jane; but is it so very wrong?... in any case what do you propose doing about it now?... sacking me?" Jane couldn't help the soft smile, the more time she spent with Colby the more she knew he was exactly the sort of decent man that Equis needed... but the dice had been rolled, the decision made. Jane finished her coffee and placed the cup down on its saucer with deliberate precision. "Natasha must be a very special child." She said looking up. "Well no that's the whole point... she's just an ordinary scared little girl who's only wish is to lead a simple life out of the spotlight. I don't know who's got her, if its the opposition then there's a terrifying probability that she might already be dead, if its the government then she faces a future that might even be worse for her... Jane If I knew earlier what I know now, I would never have committed to taking her to Sachovia." "Mm... If not you then someone else would have." She took a delicate sip of her aged cognac, "Talking of Sachovia, the news from there is not exactly encouraging, the pundits are predicting that open war will break out again before the end of winter. It's a pretty grim picture... When will we learn Colby?" "I wish I could answer that; we seem doomed to repeat the same mistakes time and again. The only thing we've learned since the middle ages is how to kill and maim each other ever more efficiently. I've seen things in the early stages of the 06 war in Sachovia... when I first met Valentina, that would make you doubt the existence of human compassion." Jane looked into his face, the strong jaw, the intense gaze. If she didn't know the man better, know that he was a man of steel who kept his feelings tied down tight, she might have thought she had caught a flash of emotion in the corner of his eye. She knew he would not shed a tear for himself but maybe for the state of the world and maybe for the two children entrusted to his care that he had lost. She almost changed her mind about letting him go... Almost. "You mentioned Valentina Gussev, do I detect something simmering between you two?" "Oh there's something between us all right but I'm damned if I can put a name to it. One day I'd gladly lay down my life for her then you discover something about her that turns your world upside down, leaves you balanced on the edge of reason... It's as if we are forged from... I don't know some form of matter and antimatter, irrevocably drawn to each other but if we get too close we'll both be annihilated." "Could be a magnificent annihilation Colby." "Maybe Jane but you wouldn't want to stand too close to the fallout." "I'm no expert on matters of the heart but if you want my opinion you shouldn't let her get away without a fight." "Really... You met her Jane and I think you are a good judge of people... What's your opinion of her?" "She's strong willed, has a sharp intellect, exceptionally determined, highly capable... If her talents were on the market I might well offer her a job." "I was thinking along different lines... Is she, do you think Jane, a good person?" "I saw no evidence to the contrary... I can tell that something about her has recently unsettled your opinion of her... You know Colby we all do things that we later regret, things that are out of character. We need to show understanding for the occasional weaknesses of good people." "Forgiveness?" "It's a good starting point..." She rested her hand on his. "Come on let me take you home." "If you don't mind Jane I think I'd rather walk." Colby said. "It's a long way, are you sure?" "I need a long walk to do some thinking, my head's thick with a tangle of cobwebs... Jane thank you. You have been very decent about this." "Nonsense...Colby..." Jane paused for a moment but held Colby's attention with the force of her gaze. "Do you think I might still think of you as a friend?" She felt suddenly embarrassed almost before the words had escaped her lips, it was not an emotion that she often encountered in herself. Not Jane Freeman business executive, self assured, successful... but desperately alone in the cocoon of her self containment. Colby stood and looked down at her petite frame lost in the huge chair. She seemed unexpectedly vulnerable as she looked up at him. "Do you think that would be wise?" He finally said. "No... probably not... Forget I said anything." Chapter 18 Valentina watched, still trembling with shock as the catamaran pulled anchor and, swiftly gathering speed, turned back towards the coast. In the interval during which the horror had played out, a haze of autumn cloud had formed in the transparent sky. There was a noticeable chill in the air as Valentina watched the sleek fibre-glass catamaran. A starkly graceful craft, driven by the swirling zephyrs, she rapidly picked up speed and slipped into memory. Valentina contemplated giving chase but the Falcon would never be able to match her speed... In any case what would be the point? More senseless killing? Instead she made the last call to Boris Koch that she would ever make. "Prime Minister its Valentina Gussev again, I believe you have been waiting for this call." Koch had indeed been waiting, his secretary had brought him coffee and he sipped at it while she sat demurely waiting nervously for further instructions. Koch could hardly imagine there would be a problem; the money had been transferred as requested, the girl was well... Even so it had been fifteen long minutes since Gussev's last contact. He spoke with an uncharacteristic falter in his voice despite the staccato delivery: "Tell me the news Valentina we've been on tenter hooks since we authorised the transfer of the money... Do you have the child safely aboard?" "I'm afraid not Prime Minister..." "For God's sake what's happened." "I am sad to report that Natasha Kashinka was shot." "What?... How is she?" "She did not survive... It was a shot to her head." "How?... Who did this abominable act?" "It was the man you placed with me to help protect her. Captain Andrej Kowalski." "What? Kowalski?... He was recommended as someone trustworthy. Damn his eyes; the man is as good as dead." "There's no need to trouble your agents Prime minister... He is already dead." "Indeed... Was it you Valentina?" "No, it was the woman he was working with, the one who tricked Natasha from her escort. I doubt Kowalski understood how dangerous she was. Her name may be Sophie, probably not. I believe she will be in sole possession of the ransom money now. I very much doubt you will ever find her, from the little I saw of her I believe she was a highly trained professional, probably disillusioned and turned to crime to fund her exit from a perilous life." "Mm so... This woman killed the captain for the ransom money?" "I have no idea of her motivation Prime Minister, but it seems a reasonable assumption." "But you saw what happened; could you recognise her if you saw her again?" "Oh yes but I think that is very unlikely... Neither of us would walk away unscathed if that were to happen. I would prefer to draw a veil across her shooting of Kowalski; in my view Prime minister, she did us all a favour in that act at least." "I'm not sure I agree... However the money is gone... that at least is of little consequence. Why did Kowalski do this?" "I cannot say... It was clear to me that the man was only driven by self interest; once the money was transferred, Natasha no longer had any value for him. The man was full of hatred, I see that now. Maybe Natasha became the focus of his anger; the kindest conclusion that I can draw is that he was unbalanced by what he had done. In truth I suspect it was a simple act of mindless violence, maybe a payback for the way he felt he had been treated... I am no psychiatrist Prime Minister." "This is grave news. Was there nothing you could have done?" "The shootings were from the other vessel...I was just an impotent observer, we were separated by fifteen metres of open water." "I expected more of you Valentina Gussev... What of my plans now?" "Natasha will never now be queen of Sachovia... It was never her wish to do so. If you cared for the girl that might be some consolation." "I never cared for the damn child it was what she represented that mattered, don't you understand that?" Koch's mind was already searching for a way to salvage something from the situation. "A state funeral... We will bury her with all the pomp and ceremony due to the Queen she should have become. It will rally the people round the flag bring the rebels to their knees. But the search will go on there must be someone else who carries a trace of the royal blood." Even if I have to invent one he thought. "We cannot let my dream for Sachovia die along with this pathetic child." "With respect Prime Minister I feel it is time to abandon your dream. I believe you should look towards the salvation of your country, try forging peace with the rebels before it is too late." "I will never do that... Gussev. I order you to return the dead Queen to her native soil at all speed so that she may be afforded a funeral befitting her status." "I cannot do that Prime Minister... Natasha Kashinka is lost to the depths of the ocean along with her assassin." Koch slammed his fist against his desk and his secretary who was already shrinking into her chair, jumped visibly. Koch turned to her. "Are you still here... GET OUT!" He watched as the poor woman scuttled away clutching her notepad. Koch turned back to his phone call, his face dark and filled with menace. "Come home Valentina... I need to gather people with your skills round me. Sachovia needs you again if we are going to crush the uprising." "I can never return Prime Minister... There is more I have to tell you, something concerning me. When I tell you, you will see that my returning to Sachovia would now be impossible." "I can hardly believe that Valentina, not from a woman with your history, but go on. Nothing you can tell me can be any more shocking than what I have already heard." "Let me first explain the reasons that led me to my act of treachery..." "Treachery?" "Let me continue please, all will be revealed. I am telling you this for my sake in an attempt to ease my conscience. I expect and want no exoneration from you. Prime Minister I have grown to despise you and what you stand for. As much as I have always despised Adam Prochniak." "You seem to be falling apart at the seams Gussev... I doubt whether I should waste my time listening to this self pitying ramble?" "That is for you to decide... I will continue in any case. I was rather cruelly manipulated over my brother Sascha. I was led to believe that Adam Prochniak was holding him and unless I complied with his wishes he would be killed." "If anyone is capable of blackmail and kidnapping then it's Prochniak. What did he want you to do?" "He wanted Natasha dead. Dead without any suspicion falling against him or his Republik Party. The details now seem trivial, I won't bore you... The fact is I agreed and sent Natasha off to meet her death." "What? Surly you were working tirelessly to find and save the last heirs of the royal family." "It appeared that way, in fact I was working under Prochniak's direction to prevent Natasha from ever reaching Sachovia. There was to have been a staged terrorist attack on the journey to Sachovia but the kidnapping foiled the plan." "Well thank you for revealing this to me... In the end your wishes were granted... Natasha was killed just as you intended." "Not as I intended... It was a choice I made in an effort to save my brother. But long ago, before I learned the truth about Sascha, I realised that it was the wrong choice." "You will understand my difficulty in believing you Valentina... In any case you must realise that by making your admission of treason, you have just signed your own death warrant?" "I know you will try to have me assassinated. But I feel unwilling to abandon my life just yet; I still have atonements to make to people that matter." "I can assure you Gussev that you will find no peace while I still draw breath." Valentina dropped the satphone over the side. She watched for the few seconds that the phone took to sink out of view through the clear water. It took with it any last links to her homeland but more importantly it marked the first step on the long road to her salvation. She felt Katrina at her side and turned into her embrace. "Are you all right?" Valentina asked. She saw the tears in Katrina's eyes... "Did you hear all that?" "Is it true what you told him Valentina?" "I had hoped to tell you to your face Katrina but I struggled to find the courage. I still needed to have one friend left in the world." "The war drove us all to do things that we shouldn't... I understand your feelings for your brother but I struggle to see how you could have meant for Natasha to be killed. I know you Valentina and that is not what the Valentina Gussev that I love would ever do..." "I can no longer believe what I did myself." "I can see you regret it now... I can't abandon you Valentina, not now. If I'm your only friend then you are surely mine." "I don't deserve you as a friend Katrina... But I'm going to do what I can to put my life back on the tracks... Is everything in order below decks?" "Yes." "Good I'm going to need your help darling, I'm sure Koch will not forgive me as easily as you seem to have done." "He doesn't know you like I do." "Maybe not... In any case I need to disappear and there are things that need doing that it would be safer for me to be well clear of." "OK...you'll need to explain." "Katrina, I'm going to sail the Falcon through the Straights, we'll stop off at Capo d'Orlando just along the Sicilian coast. We need to re supply the Falcon and I need to send a message to someone else that I care about." "OK..." "From there I'm going to resume our coarse to France. Marseille is probably the closest landfall. I'm going to need you to be strong Katrina. I'll leave you there while I put some distance between me and Koch's assassin." "Leave me?" "I'll explain later Katrina, there's something I need you to do..." "Will he really send assassins after you?" "He's a vengeful man, of course he will." "Where will you go?" "You remember me telling you about the Channel islands?" "Yes you talked of an Island a little off the French coast... Guernsey was it?" "Yes... it's a place I love, a place where I think I can hide out until its safe for me to surface. It's a place you would be safe too Katrina. I have a little cottage there..." ... The morning following his dinner with Jane Freeman, Colby sat at his breakfast and flipped through his emails, among the usual dross he found a message from Valentina. It had been sent from some internet café in Capo d'Orlando Sicily. What the hell is she doing in Sicily? he thought. He was expecting another plea for forgiveness but nothing of her past transgressions was mentioned. Did she assume the matter was now closed and they could continue as before? What he read was a call for his help Help? He thought: Does she expect me to drop what I'm doing and rush to her aid after everything she's done? He closed the lid of his laptop and bit into his toast. He needed more coffee and drained the plunger into into his cup. His mind danced back to what Jane had said about Valentina... There was nothing he could disagree with in her opinion, or her advice. He opened the lid again and read on to the end of the email then again until Valentina's request was etched onto his mind. ... Still fuming Prime Minister Koch called his head of the SSB to his office. Of late the SSB had lost the honour that Valentina had known. It had developed a formidable reputation of violence and torture. The Sachovian security bureau had become a feared arm of the government and their actions were thought by many to have been the provocation that sparked the current unrest. General Pyotr Smivit head of the SSB stood framed by the heavy architrave of the door. He had lost his usual swagger and looked drawn and worried. The ill fitting military uniform he wore looked entirely out of place on a man who's battles were waged behind a desk; primarily against the innocent civilians of his own country. "Come in Pyotr, take a seat." Smivit seemed eager to vent his own frustrations: "They've barricaded the Trivolli bridge Prime Minister; its the only easy access to the city. And there's talk of a missile emplacement being established on the Dostrovich hills. We need to get heavy armaments down there... The army seems to be sitting on its hands." "Yes, yes. It will be dealt with soon enough, a handful of rebels is not my immediate concern. Sit down man and tell me, who is your best agent at the moment?" "In what capacity?" "I need a traitor assassinating." Smivit's attention was diverted – this was an area of personal expertise for him. "Ah... Covertly or were you thinking of a public spectacle?" "Frankly I just want her dead, but she may need finding first. But now you mention it, a public execution might be an interesting distraction for the rabble. We've not had one since before the war." "I think that might be seen seen as provocative in the present climate." "You could be right General... So is there someone who may be able to despatch a traitor covertly." "Vanessa Klimentovà would probably be ideal for the job but I can hardly spare her in the present emergency." "Let me worry about the home front. I want this person traced and eliminated, if your agent Klimentovà is the best for the job then unleash her; I'm not concerned about cost, requisition anything she might need on my authority." "As you wish Prime Minister... Does this traitor have a name?" "Oh you know her well Pyotr... Valentina Gussev." "For God's sake why do you want her killed?" "She was working undercover for Prochniak and his fascist party." "I really find that hard to believe Prime Minister." "I'm not looking for your belief General Smivit; if you wish to maintain your elevated rank then I need immediate compliance with my wishes." "Very well Prime Minister, is there any more information you can give me?... A recent location perhaps?" "She made a rendezvous with Captain Kowalski a few hours ago... Off the coast of northern Sicily." "Kowalski? Are we in contact with him?" "If you were thinking of utilising the captain then think again, the man is dead. He would never have been a match for Gussev in any case... She's on her ketch... You should be able to spot her from recent satellite imagery." "I'm afraid the Americans are reluctant to assist us with satellite reconnaissance at the moment..." "For God's sake why?" "They feel a little ill at ease over the prospect of a new war in Sachovia. All military cooperation has been suspended until the situation is resolved." "There will be no war... The damn idiots. Don't they know I have the situation in hand. Just do what you can then... I'll need to talk with the American Ambassador urgently." "I'm afraid the Embassy has been evacuated Prime Minister. The last members flew out this morning." "What?... Why was I not informed about this?" "Several memos were sent to you I signed them myself." "I can't waste my time reading everything that crosses my desk. In future I want you to come and tell me personally if anything needs my urgent attention... this is a most grave situation. The Americans are supposed to be our allies." "Hardly that Prime Minister a memorandum of understanding does not make an ally." Koch slumped in his chair. "Well man don't just sit there get hold of this Vanessa Klimentovà and bring her to me; I wish to brief her personally." ... It was under cover of darkness that the Midnight Falcon left the coast of Sicily. She was fully provisioned for the ten days or so it would take to reach Marseille. Despite the recent events Valentina felt on the edge of a rebirth. She breathed in the crisp autumn sea air, it seemed to cleanse her ravaged soul, not for a long time had the clear night sky seemed so tranquil, so full of hope. Valentina Gussev, the real Valentina Gussev was finally back, her moral compass reset. Once more a woman worthy of love. Those who now chose to stand in her way, those whom Koch had sent after her would need to be very careful indeed. At last there was no longer any internal conflict about what she must do. All that remained in her box of wishes was for a simple life to enable her to put things right, and from the very few that she loved, forgiveness or if she could not ask for that then at least a measure of understanding. As she steered the Midnight Falcon to the unseen horizon, Valentina lifted her face up to gaze upon the eternity of the universe. Her eye sought the pole star, a fixed point in the heavens that had guided navigators since men had first left the shelter of land. She wondered if Colby might be looking up at the same star, her hand involuntarily lifted searching for his arm but all she found was sadness. Chapter 19 From every angle he seemed to exude the very essence of a minister of the church; a priest or a vicar, maybe a deacon or any of the other arcane ecclesiastical ranks – the specifics were less certain. It was perhaps the slightly threadbare suit that belonged to a different age, the diffident slightly affected stoop of his shoulders, the trim but somehow unkempt beard, the wire framed bi-focals that perched on the end of his nose. Maybe the smile that although a constant companion was somehow lacking in sincerity; but the absolute give-away was the dog-collar that seemed to constantly etch away at the redness of his neck. He made his way along the train looking for a place that might offer some quiet solitude befitting a man of his station. At last he found a nearly empty compartment and moved down the ranks of seats to the least occupied section at the rear and sank with the weariness of an unwilling traveller into a window seat. Perhaps he wished to spend the journey in quiet contemplation or study. But on closer inspection the book he had pulled from his worn leather satchel was not the Bible nor indeed any work of theological scholarship. It was a well thumbed paperback edition of 'Revival' by Stephen King. He opened the book and leafed through the preface until the words 'chapter one' greeted him like an old friend. The appearance of a young woman and her companion, a boy of maybe twelve, seemed to offer him no comfort. She stood at the far end of the carriage looking with a keen eye at the faces of the other passengers. When her eyes found his she seemed suddenly transformed into a hunting dog who had scented a trail. With the boy close on her heels she moved arrow-like towards him. He diverted his eyes hoping she might continue past to the end of the carriage. It was not to be. She stopped and he had no alternative but to acknowledge her presence. The young woman pointed to the seat facing him. "Je peux?" She said. "I'm sorry... I have little French." He said as a last defence of his solitude. "Ah you are English, I thought you might be... I wonder if you would mind if we sat here?" "No of course not." He removed his gnarled leather satchel from the now shared table that separated them and gave the pair one of his smiles. Even that was not enough to drive them away so he withdrew into the pages of the book." Chapter One. "I see you are a priest." the woman said. Another non-committal smile. But the young woman's words seemed to require some verbal response: "Sort of... a vicar actually, the vicar of St Stephens in Bude... That's in Cornwall." "Cornwall, I've heard of this place I think; the famous Cornwall pies. You are returning back to there?" "Pasties... Cornish pasties." He corrected. "I will return there eventually; but I have business in London first." "Ah good London..." The young woman seemed to settle herself into her seat, planting herself as a permanent fixture. "My name is Mireille and this is Tommi." The sigh was not audible as the vicar was drawn unwillingly into deeper conversation. "Alexander Partington." He said as he rose slightly from his seat and offered the woman his hand. "I am pleased to meet you Mister Partington." She pronounced his name Par-ting-ton in a sing-song voice that was far from unattractive. "Are you going far?" Alexander said more in hope than expectation. "Tommi is going all the way to St. Pancras but I must leave the train at Paris." "Ah... all the way... Is Tommi being met at St. Pancras?" "Yes my sister will be waiting for him; Tommi is my nephew." Alexander shifted his eyes to the boy who appeared lost in some inexplicable game on his mobile phone. It seemed to involve the not infrequent generation of musical chimes. Not of themselves annoying of themselves, but the constant repetition... The boy had close-cropped hair and wore a quilted nylon jacket over a baggy yellow sweatshirt with 'LAKERS' and the number '24' printed on it in bold square face lettering. The words meant nothing to Alexander Partington. He had seen may kids like this in his time, self absorbed, not interested in any engagement with grown-ups; most had turned out just fine. "So you're going to London Tommi?" "I'm afraid he doesn't speak English very well, Mr Par-ting-ton." Mireille said. The boy did not look up from the game but seemed to sink a little lower, tortoise-like, into the secure bulk of his clothing. The TGV was moving now, inexorably gathering speed like a low flying aircraft. So different from the trains Alexander had ridden on as a boy in England; he seemed to remember them as steam trains, shrouded in white billowing clouds with the 'chuff' of the engines and the shriek of the steam whistle as they entered the black hole of Collingsford tunnel. But he knew that the vivid memories came from a romantic notion that probably owed its reality to the TV or cinema. Back in the eighties he must have been transported to school by nothing more romantic than diesel power; the last passenger steam trains were removed from service in the sixties he seemed to remember... Even he was not quite that old. He checked his watch... they should be in Paris by mid-day a little over three hours. Then after a delay to change trains there would be another two and a quarter hours from Gare du Nord to St. Pancras. It would be a long day. He sighed. Apart from the boy's game, there had been silence from across the table for several minutes. Alexander picked up his novel. He had borrowed it to read on the way down to the south of France but had by some twist of fate left it in his suitcase, retrieving it during the downward journey proved to be an obstacle too far. So he intended to read it, or a good chunk of it on the way back... Chapter One he read, all considered a good place to start. "Mr Par-ting-ton..." Mr Partington looked over the top of his wire framed glasses; his smile was persistent but weakening. "I wonder if you would like a coffee... I was just going to the buffet... you have this word in English?... Buffet?" "Oh yes... Er well that would be very nice." He paused briefly but then his sense of English chivalry prodded sharply at him. "But you must let me go..." He said rising from his seat. "Oh how kind..." "Would Tommi like something?" From under the muffle of clothing came the single word – Coke. "A Coke please, chèri s'il vous plait." "Coke-Please." Alexander cleared his throat. "How do you take your coffee Mireille?" "Black please no sugar... You really are very kind." Alexander felt a glow of pleasure as Mireille smiled at him. She was indeed quite a pretty thing he thought. The journey to find coffee and a 'Coke-Please' was an arduous one. The first intervention was simply the laws of physics; a centrifugal force which caught him unawares. He stumbled as the TGV leaned through a high speed corner and overbalanced against a rather severe looking man. A young girl possibly of a similar age to Tommi was clinging to his arm as if her life depended on it. She looked up at him with what he could only describe as terror in her eyes. "Oh do excuse me..." Alexander said. The man seemed to stiffen, his hand slipped into his jacket as if feeling for his wallet or... maybe a gun. Apart from the collected works of Stephen King, Alexander also had a life long fondness for spy novels. An interest which did tend to colour his imagination. The man who was, not unreasonably, a Smirch agent, lifted his eyes to Alexander. "Oh no that's quite all right Vicar." He said in a rather reassuring home-counties voice. Possibly not Smirch then Alexander thought. He finally returned to his seat with the drinks after encountering more difficulties involving an embarrassing exchange with the waiter. It was really a trivial matter concerning his inability to produce anything other than English currency. The problem was eventually resolved by an accommodating passenger who offered to exchange his twenty Pound note for a twenty Euro note. A most obliging Frenchman. The embarrassment at the time disguising the inequity of the exchange until much later. The coffee was rather good. Alexander took up his book.... Chapter One. "Mr Par-ting-ton... I must admit to having an ulterior motive for sitting with you in this mostly empty carriage." "Really?...Do call me Alexander." He said... for God's sake. "Excuse me Alexander, but from your appearance I guessed that you might be English and noting from your dress that you were a man of the cloth..." "Yes?.." "I felt that you would be a person I could trust. As I mentioned before, Tommi is to continue to London without me and I was looking for a responsible adult that might be able to accompany him on the Eurostar for last part of his journey." "I see... Well Mireille, I would be delighted to accompany Tommi to London." From the sound emanating from Tommi's phone, the boy seemed to have accomplished some outstanding achievement on the way to stacking falling blocks or rescuing the fairy princess or outwitting some hoards of angry birds – or whatever other intrigue the game might involve. In any case Tommi was smiling and so was Mireille and so was Alexander. He managed to doze for an hour or so and was wakened by Mireille who had just retuned from her own expedition up the north face of the buffet car. She bore cans of drink and sandwiches; trophies of her intrepid expedition. "I thought you might like something to eat Mr Par-ting-ton... er Alexander." She said. "Oh yes how thoughtful." Mireille handed him a can of apple juice and a plastic triangle of sandwiches. The sandwiches – white bread with something that may have started life as cheese and now oozed into soggy tomato seemed so un-French. He wondered if the buffet management stocked up on these in London to feed to the peasant English on the return trip – A final pay-back for Agincourt perhaps; the French are known to have a long memory in such matters he understood. Alexander bit into the sandwich and found his suspicions to be confirmed. He smiled at Mireille. "Quite delicious." He said. He checked his watch, there appeared to be half an hour left before arriving at the famed Gare du Nord and he took up his book once more. Chapter One... "Mr Par-ting-ton... er Alexander. I was just curious about what you were doing in the South of France... Was it perhaps a holiday?" For Christ's sake... yes it was a fucking holiday. He said inwardly. "Just spending a few days with friends." He smiled. "Oh how nice... But please don't let me interrupt your reading. You enjoy Stephen King?" Alexander closed the book and lay it on the empty seat beside him. "I get so little opportunity to read fiction these days." He said through a weakening smile. "You don't consider the Bible fiction?" Mireille said with a wicked twinkle. "I'm not sure now is the time for an in depth theological discu... Ah you were joking. You must forgive me the French sense of humour still catches me off guard from time to time." Mireille laughed. "You are such a funny man Mr Par-ting-ton." "Am I?" "Yes of course... now please don't interrupt me Mr Part-ing-ton I have a magazine to read." She pulled out the latest copy of something called 'Marie Claire'. Not a publication that Alexander was familiar with. The arrival at Gare du Nord Paris marked a significant mile-stone in the journey. It required that Mireille take her leave of them and Alexander and Tommi change trains. The changing of trains under any circumstances is always something fraught with trepidation but in a foreign county without the required fluency of language, it is apt to become a nightmare. As they edged along the corridor to the exit an observant passenger might have noticed the Stephen King paperback left behind forlornly where it has slipped under the table. No doubt someone would find it. The station was filled with the sound of barely decipherable messages echoing from the loudspeakers; the words bouncing back from various distant walls becoming out of phase with each other and in the process confused and meaningless to any but the seasoned traveller who had studied station-speak. People were bustling around like members of a disorganised ant colony in flight. "Tommi you'll be OK now... You'll soon be in London; just stay close to Mr Part-ing-ton." Mireille hugged her young nephew close. "As soon as we can we'll make phone contact." The boy nodded, eyes rimmed with moisture, it was clear he was intensely sad to see her go. He clutched her jacket unwilling to release the warmth of her embrace. Alexander watched them, this couple of foreigners that he had just met. He felt touched by their obvious distress at parting; he became suddenly aware of the strength of the bond that these two people shared. Perhaps stronger than any he could lay claim to himself. "OK young man we'd better find our way to the Eurostar, its due to board any minute." Alexander looked towards the boarding gates through which focussed passengers were already starting to stream. The boy looked up at Alexander as if in bewilderment. "You understand?" Alexander asked. "Oui, je comprends." Tommi mumbled. He turned back and waved at Mireille one last time as Alexander edged him through the boarding gate. "Thank you Mr Par-ting-ton." Mireille called across the sea of heads; her arms waving a last agonising farewell. But she was too far away to be heard, already anonymous among the crowds. She turned through her curtain of sadness and walked away towards the exits. Alexander let Tommi take the window seat while he occupied the one by the aisle. The train journey was more like taking a flight, the cabin was very much like that of an aircraft and the service the passengers enjoyed also seemed to be inspired by that 'elevated' mode of transport. They edged out of Paris and as the speed increased the scenery melted into a blur. The train could push up to 300 km an hour while the passengers were cocooned in comfort blissfully unaware of their precarious velocity. They were brought a meal which Alexander found to be of adequate standard; the vicar enjoying a glass a wine with his. Tommi picked at his coq au vin with little enthusiasm but seemed to enjoy the chocolate mousse. When the meal was over Alexander looked around the carriage and up front he was sure he recognised the man who was possibly not a member of Smirch. He was still with the girl who continued to hovered close to him. It was not all that surprising that a pair of fellow English travellers would also be going to London he mused... He patted his jacket pockets and delved into his satchel. Somehow he seemed to have annoyingly mislaid his book. Holding a conversation, except at the most elementary level, with Tommi was impossible due the impenetrable language barrier. Tommi was in any case back with his game; thankfully this time he was using earphones. Alexander decided to doze and did not rouse until he felt the train slow. Through the window he saw the familiar sight of the BT Tower situated in, according to Alexander's memory of trivia, a place with the unlikely name of Fitzrovia. Fitzrovia, he thought, sounded more like an obscure eastern European country than a small London district nestled between Bloomsbury and Marylebone. It was undoubtedly a place riddled with Smirch agents. It was late afternoon when they emerged from St Pancras into the pale London light. The sky seemed drab after the vivid light of the south of France. They walked a little way then Alexander pulled off his dog collar; it had been a constant discomfort for the whole day. He bundled it together with the wire-frame glasses and disposed of them into the nearest bin. His stature seemed to grow as he stood up straight and pulled back his shoulders. The child was watching him dispense with Mr Par-ting-ton, a half smile on the pale face, a shared look of acknowledgement as their eyes met. "So how are you Cup-Cake?" He said. "I like the hair cut by the way." Natasha smoothed her fingers across her bristly scalp. "It will grow back won't it?" She said. "Anyway I could say the same about your beard... and that suit where did you get that?" Colby opened his arms... "Come here." He said. Natasha could no longer restrain herself and she launched herself into Colby's open arms. "I've missed you." She said. "Me too... I'm so sorry about not keeping you safe; I promised that I would and I let you down." "Don't worry... It was sort of an adventure." "You must have been terrified; I would have done anything to spare you that Natasha." "I know... it wasn't your fault... it was me they tricked not you." "Valentina explained everything after I got back on board the Falcon." "I can't imagine how frightened you must have been... " "It all happened so fast... I was sure I was going to die. I always hated Andrej, he was cruel to me when Valentina was away. I knew he was evil... Then as he aimed his gun at me..." There was a pause as Natasha seemed to rally her strength. "I saw Sophie on the catamaran watching Andrej in horror, she seemed shocked that he might want to kill me... I don't believe she ever really wished me harm; she just wanted money. I'm not sure what Andrej wanted, he was just full of hate for everyone and everything... Suddenly Sophie had a gun of her own and in an instant she fired... Just one shot... she hardly seemed to take time to aim. Andrej's head just exploded... " "Oh Cup-Cake..." "I'm sure she saved my life in that split second. But it's something I never want to experience again. I think I was in shock, they lifted me onto the Falcon and wrapped me blankets in Valentina's cabin. I think I just slept for hours." Colby lifted her until only the tips of her toes were still in contact with the pavement. He kissed the top of her bristled head. "Don't think about it... You're safe now. We will make sure that you will never have to go to Sachovia now; you won your freedom in that moment in the shadow of Valentina's ketch." "I've longed to hear that Colby, I told you when we first met that I never wanted to go to Sachovia... Is it true that they think I'm dead?" "It's what Valentina told them, I'm pretty sure they believed her. In any case our little undercover train journey means that no one will know where you are now, no one will be looking for you ever again." Colby lowered her back onto her feet. "Colby... What's going to happen to Valentina now? Katrina told me that you and she had argued." "We did..." Colby paused not sure what on earth he could tell her. "Whatever you might discover about her, about what she did... I think you can be certain that she grew to love you and still loves you now. Nothing can ever change that." "What do you mean... What did she do?" Colby was struck dumb, he had no idea how to tell the child that the woman she thought of as the closet she had to a mother had sent her off to be killed. "I think it should be Valentina who tells you." he said. "No Colby you've frightened me now, you must tell me." "Look... Valentina was being blackmailed... What she did was to save her brother..." "So what did she do?" "It involved the sacrifice of someone." "Me?" Natasha said and she gripped Colby's arm so tightly that it was painful. "She was going to sacrifice me?" "It was not you Natasha but what you represented. She loved you... Looking back I can see that it tore her apart when the moment came to say goodbye to you." The grip on Colby's arm softened. He looked down at Natasha, watched as she seemed to lose control of her legs and sank down. Before she hit the ground he swept her up in his arms and held her tight against his chest. "She loves you Natasha, don't forget that. You have to find it in your heart to forgive her." As he spoke the words intended as a comfort to her he felt the bitter irony: he was expecting Natasha to forgive Valentina when he could not even bring himself to do it. ... Katrina had left the Gare du Nord without looking back; to do so might have left her tearful. She had a room booked in a small hotel within walking distance of the station and hid in her room until the morning. She had a flight booked that would, for the first time in her life, take her onto British soil. Her destination was a small Island nestled 50 km off the coast of Normandy where she had been invited to take the modest cottage that Valentina had surreptitiously managed to acquire. Katrina had decided that, once installed at the cottage she would try and find a job, maybe in the hospitality industry, until she found her feet. She had experience as a waitress in Sachovia and Valentina had furnished her with, mostly legitimate, references which might help. She had also given her a little money on which she could live for several months. Guernsey was a place of safety, well off the radar of any Sachovian agents. A place where Katrina might start to weave a new life like a normal person. A simple country girl who just wanted to find a little peace... and possibly, who knows, someone to share a life with. Katrina decided that she would make something of this new opportunity and patiently wait for Valentina to come back into her life. She knew with total certainty that one day soon, on some violet dusk, Valentina would surely sail over the horizon and find her own new life on the smiling little island. Chapter 20 The flight into Guernsey from Charles De Gaulle Airport was routine and uneventful and it was not until Katrina emerged from the airport into a gale stricken late afternoon that she realised just how windy it was on the Island. There were taxis waiting and huddling against the tempest, Katrina found sanctuary in the rear seat of a Mercedes. The driver put her single case, containing all she owned in the world, into the boot. She had the address that Valentina had given her written neatly on a scrap of paper. "Could you take me here?" She said. "Sure... No problem love... You here on holiday?" "I might be staying a while." she said. The address is my friend's cottage." "OK, its not far I'll have you there in a jiffy... Sorry about the weather," he said "It's not usually as windy as this... Might be in for some rain later." After a short ride of maybe fifteen minutes Katrina arrived at the gate of a cottage and watched as the driver made a three point turn in the street and headed back presumably to the airport. Katrina felt suddenly very alone and vulnerable. According to Valentina the cottage had started life as a humble farm outbuilding, possibly just a barn used for storing hay or housing animals. Built of dark granite on a concrete foundation with a sturdy slate roof the little cottage stood as the last building on Rue des Arbres at a place called Jerbourg. Any further and you would be in the sea. It was surrounded on three sides by farmland and a scattering of houses while to the east the land sank away to cliffs and then an expanse of the English Channel that disappeared into the misty haze of the horizon. Today the sea looked angry as white horses were spurred to a foamy gallop by the gale force wind. The cottage stood on its own small grounds separated by low granite walls. The front garden was dominated by an old walnut tree which still clung onto a few of last season's amber leaves there was still a scattering of uncollected fruit brown and gnarled flesh hiding the plump nuts still secure in their protective shells. Valentina had not been at her little hide-away cottage for some time and the little place known as Apple Cottage had been locked up and left to the hands of fate and the occasional care of the neighbouring farmer, an apple cheeked middle aged woman by the name of Mary who ran the farm aided by her grown son. Valentina was known to the few locals she encountered by an alias. They called her Valentina Gosling and her exact origins were a matter of some curiosity and curious gossip from the locals. "Polish I'd say Margaret..." "No... not with that name must be English maybe she got her accent from living abroad..." The truth of the matter had never been revealed despite the direct question being posed and skilfully deflected on more than one occasion. Valentina Gosling's occasional residence in the cottage remained something of an enigma... exactly as Valentina wished. Katrina noticed that the garden, if you could call it that, was overgrown and thick with weeds and twisted thorny bramble. It gave the cottage a run down appearance but a quick glance of the building showed that its fabric had survived the months of neglect without harm. The doors were still securely locked and all the windows were intact. If not for the high wind that was now stripping the remaining leaves from the walnut tree and sending an escaped plastic watering can skidding end over end across the unmown grass, she would have been entranced by the potential that the little dwelling offered. Her focus, for the moment, was fixed on finding a refuge before the darkening sky unleashed its threatened torrent of rain. The door locks were stiff to Katrina's slender fingers but yielded to the keys without too much difficulty. Once inside the shriek of the wind dropped an octave and Katrina stumbled into what should have been a haven of shelter. Instead she found a place cold and uninviting with the musty smell of neglect hanging in the damp air. Katrina's first meeting with Apple Cottage offered the weary traveller no real welcome, little promise of comfort. She had the sense that the cottage had been waiting for someone to rouse it from an unwanted slumber but doubted, in her present frame of mind, that she quite had the fortitude to tackle this on her own. She wished, not for the first time since leaving the warmth of the Mediterranean port of Marseille, that Valentina was still with her. A flick of the light switch revealed that there was no power and despite repeatedly clicking the switch she was unable to elicit any interest from the stubbornly dark bulb. Katrina had little understanding of electricity and absolutely no idea how to solve that problem nor could she let fresh air sanitise the musty odours for fear that the wind would strip the cottage of its modest furnishings. Despite her misgivings, a brief exploration showed Katrina that this small home really offered her everything she might reasonably expect and her feelings of disappointment seemed wilfully ungrateful. A small mezzanine floor taking up the entire width of the cottage had been constructed over the east facing half of the main room. Katrina climbed the simple open construction stair. It was steep with no hand rail, little more than a ladder but the effort of climbing it revealed a cosy looking bedroom. There was a soft double bed with a duvet rolled up at its foot, a chest of drawers and a built-in wardrobe which all confirmed the room's intended use. The absence of any bed linen was another concern for the young woman's mind but the view, from the small window, across the cliffs to the sea was compelling even on a day battered by gales. The bedroom was partitioned from the room below by nothing more substantial than a pair of heavy brocade curtains which would afford privacy from the sitting room below if required. The main room was a combined kitchen and sitting room and there was a small separate bathroom and a store room against the south wall. Next to the store room was an alcove which was separated off by another heavy curtain. The space was just big enough to fit a single bed though it would be difficult to call it a bedroom. The cottage was sparsely furnished. A Formica topped kitchen table with two hard chairs sat on the linoleum of the kitchen area. There was a slightly shabby sofa set on a square of carpet from which you could look up to the mezzanine bedroom. The only appliance Katrina could find was an electric kettle. She had little doubt that with a sufficient supply of electricity crackling in the wires, the kettle would work but when she tried the sink taps and found there to be no water either, her confidence slipped another notch. There were kitchen cupboards, all empty apart from a few plates, dishes and some brown toughened glass mugs. She found no food not even a small stash of emergency cans. The drawers by the sink held some cutlery and the under-sink cupboard held dish washing liquid and other cleaning products. A box of candles offered the prospect of a not entirely dark evening. Perhaps the cottage's saving grace was its fireplace with a small stack of dry logs which held the welcome promise of a warm evening. Katrina sank onto the sofa and considered her plight. She was in dire need of several things and could think of no way to obtain any of them. She needed food and a means to cook it, she needed water and she needed bed linen and electricity. Not too much to ask she thought. There was no phone in the cottage, her own mobile still had no connection with a local provider; she felt totally alone. As alone as when Andrej had left her on Ikinos. At least there she had water and power and a little food. She longed for a warm drink, a warm shoulder to cry on. Outside the wind continued to howl like an enraged animal, she pulled her thin coat tight round her and thought of the sultry nights on Ikinos when it was too hot to sleep. It seemed only days ago that she was there under the warm sun. Like the tumbling of a house of cards Katrina was suddenly gripped by a feeling of helplessness and her eyes flooded with tears. She looked around the room; her unopened suitcase still sat by the door where she had left it. It crossed her mind to call for another taxi and go to the town and find a hotel room. Anything would be better than this. But of course she had no means to call a taxi. If she wanted to find a hotel she would have to walk and she had no idea how far she was from civilisation. She realised in a feeling not far removed from panic that she knew almost nothing about Guernsey. John Le Prevost was drinking hot sweet tea and eating a double sized hunk of his mother's date and walnut loaf. He cared little about the future or of making a fortune, and had, as a result, a great reserve of simple happiness. His eyes stretched out into the rapidly darkening sky; it made him shiver just to look at it. He had spent most of the day, since early milking, repairing the stone wall down by the douit where the watercress grew thick and lush. He worked contentedly with a whistle on his lips but as the wind started up he withdrew to the farmhouse for a cup of sweet tea and a moment of warmth by the glow of the kitchen Aga. It was nearly milking time and his part-time farm hand Richard Allisette, a seventeen year old lad still at school, had not yet turned up. He was sometimes late getting home what with the extra exam tutoring he needed and the sometime football training. John could hardly blame Richard for that but milking would be a pig of a job to have to cope with on his own in filthy weather like this. The wind always upset his ladies and made them skittish and harder to handle. It had been a good summer and there was a bountiful supply of hay and silage to see them through the winter this year. In a few weeks he would bring the herd indoors for overwintering. Already, down by the stand of tall lindens, the bottom field was starting to get waterlogged and the reddish-gold Guernseys with their big soft eyes and gentle manner, were starting to churn up the autumn grass into a muddy swamp – not the best for pasture management. John was just twenty three and born to a farming life. The day to day running of the farm had fallen onto his shoulders after his father had been killed one black Wednesday morning when his ancient Ferguson tractor had rolled onto him while negotiating a steep cut of craggy land. He had been on his way to plough the potato field, a job he had done without mishap every year since he was seventeen. The accident was back two winters ago but it seemed like half a lifetime to young John. It was Mary who found her husband. She had expected him back for a bite of lunch and when he hadn't returned she walked up from the farmhouse across the high meadow with the sun watery in the sky. In her concern Mary ignored the view that might stretch to to the French coast on a fine day. Even after a lifetime, the view could still make her catch her breath in astonishment on a clear day. Mary saw the Ferguson on its back like a dead animal. She stopped, the breath suddenly taken from her lungs, knowing instantly that her husband would not be coming home ever again. She stood unmoving for maybe half an hour until John came to her. It was as if she had lost her compass, suddenly rudderless with a blank mind and black ice in her heart. "Mum..." John said as he drained his tea mug. "There's smoke coming out of Miss Gosling's chimney up there..." Mary looked up from the dairy accounts she was assiduously checking with a newly sharpened pencil. She took off her reading glasses and looked up through a pair of pale blue eyes that shone with natural kindness. "Is there my love... I didn't hear that she was expected back." "Might be be some vagrants, could've broken in." John said, his voice muffled by the soft cake. Mary got up and walked to the window. "I hope not John, I promised that Valentina woman I'd keep on eye on her cottage while she was away." "I know that Mum, that's why I told you... She's a strange one that Miss Gosling... What's she want with the cottage when she's never here to use it?" "Well that's her business I expect. No need for you to go prying into her private affairs my lad." John shrugged and finished his cake. "Now, what you could do for me John my love is just pop up there and see that all's well." "I could..." He said implying that he could hardly be troubled. "I've got the milking..." "Well do it for me love... Mind, if it looks like intruders have got in, come straight back and I'll give Sergeant Corbin a ring. I don't want you getting mixed up in no trouble." It was no more than a ten minute walk across the fields to Apple Cottage. John pulled on his new rubber boots, bought just two days ago from Tom Falla's over in St Martins. He pulled on his heavy, army style, parka with the hood pulled up against the wind. The little home had stood there on the high point since before John had been born and he had never known it serve duty as anything other than a cottage. John was a big lad, physically strong as befitted his job. His youth and inexperience gave him courage beyond his true capacity. Meaning he was afraid of no man nor beast. Accordingly he strode up the path to the front door of Apple Cottage and knocked heavily against its timbers with his fist. The sound made Katrina jump. She had certainly not been expecting visitors in this isolated spot with gale-force winds howling against the slate roof and rattling the windows. She hurriedly dabbed at her eyes. When the door opened John saw what was possibly the prettiest, most delicate young woman he had ever seen in his life. Her appearance had two effects, both were instantaneous. Firstly her elegant bearing made him feel like some clumsy oaf by comparison and secondly he knew beyond any doubt that she could not possibly be up to no good. She was an angel, there could be no doubt on that score. The two strangers stared at each other neither of them quite knowing what to say. "Saw the smoke from your chimney..." John finally said. Katrina continued to stare at the vision that graced her threshold. Had the angels sent him to help me, was he even an angel himself? Katrina assumed that angels probably didn't wear Wellington boots, even new green ones. "I felt the need for a fire..." She said as if an apology were required for such an outrage. "There were some logs... Is it a problem?" "No no... My Mum just... I'm from Le Moulin farm, your neighbour I suppose." He indicated the general direction from which he had come but his train of thought had somehow escaped him." "Do you know anything about electricity and water?" Katrina said. "I know its best not to mix them." John said and then instantly wished he hadn't. It was a law of nature that he transgressed at his own peril... all the jokes he tried to make would inevitably fall flat... It was the way he told them he thought. Even so the girl laughed, nothing too much just a gentle laugh but it was a laugh. He liked the sound of her laughter rather quite a lot. "How to get them working I mean..." Katrina said. The young man seemed flushed as if he had come a long way in a short time with his shoulders pressed into the teeth of the gale. "Don't stand there come in out of the wind... Tell me it's not always this windy on Guernsey." "No Miss this is a rare old blow... The forecast reckons the front'll pass through by midnight. Should be fine tomorrow." "You can't imagine how pleased I am to hear that." She called, her words disappearing into the wind. John pulled off his muddy boots and left them standing in the narrow porch before following the girl into the cottage. He almost immediately stumbled over Katrina's suitcase that she had careless left as an innocent looking but potentially fatal man-trap. "Sorry... sorry." He said. Katrina tried not to giggle, her mood suddenly lifted by the presence of the stranger. "I'd offer you a cup of tea... If I had any tea, or water..." "Or electricity..." He finished for her. "I see now..." "I've just arrived and I can't find anything... There's no bed linen, nothing to cook on, no food, no phone. If you hadn't come..." She let the sentence hang not sure if the stranger was going to be able to help her or not. She did not want to make hasty assumptions or lay any unwanted responsibility on his shoulders. "Have you looked in the storeroom, I think Miss Gosling packed things up in old boxes to keep them safe." "Oh no, did she?... That's the store room over there is it?" She said. "Lets have a look..." John pulled open the door. There was a bicycle stopping access to the stack of crates that filled up the small room. "Oh a bike... that could be very useful." Katrina said. The little store room was starting to feel like an Aladdin’s cave as John dragged out the cases and pried open the covers. Together they discovered a small microwave oven, a selection of canned and dried food still pristine in its vacuum packaging. The desperately needed bed linen and some carefully rolled towels. There was even a small portable radio with spare batteries. "Oh, this is just like Christmas... Why did I not think to look in there?" John could not come up with a reply so kept his tongue until the silence threatened to become its own embarrasment. "Maybe we should look at getting you some power." He finally said. "Oh yes..." John looked at the young woman. "I don't know your name." He said. "I'm Katrina Devra." "Oh that's unusual... But, you know... kinda nice... So where are you from Katrina?" "Croatia." She said repeating the rehearsed identity that Valentina had suggested to her. Keep your own name it will be easier but avoid mentioning Sachovia. "Ah..." John had heard of Croatia of course but would have been unable to find it on a map without a Google search. What he knew about it was vague... Had there been a war?... He was keen not to reveal his ignorance to Katrina. "Let's see if we can find the fuse box." he said. Instead of moving his feet seemed stuck to the spot, maybe it was the way Katrina's hair fell across her neck or the sparkle of her eyes... "So?..." Katrina prompted. "The fuse box." "Right, right... So I'm pretty sure the services haven't been cut off. It's probably just the main switch in the fuse box for the power and the stopcock for the water." "Stop...cock?" Katrina said rolling the unfamiliar words round her mouth. "Yes... Let me see if I can find the main switch... think the box is by the front door if my memory serves..." Katrina blinked as her bulky angel turned back towards the front entrance. "Yes here it is..." He called There was the click of a switch and the main room filled with light. "Thank you so much... You haven't told me your name yet." "John, John le Prevost." He said. "So thank you John... That's fantastic... Er I think you mentioned I think a... stop...cock." "Yes... I'll see if I can find it... I think I remember seeing it when Miss Gosling was here." In an instant John was outdoors again bracing against the gale and twisting open a stiff valve that was hidden under a small metal plate by the front wall of the cottage. Katrina let him in again as soon as she heard his knock and then, leaning all her weight against the power of the wind, forced the door shut against the weather. "Try that..." John said with the voice of a man confident of success. She went to the sink and turned the tap. There was a spluttering of trapped air that belched in a spray then a gush of brown water before the stream turned clear and steady. "You should have hot water when the cylinder warms up." John said. "You've saved me." Katrina said her instinct prodding her to rush up and kiss his cheek but a sense of propriety constrained her. It was possibly a pity because nothing would have pleased the young Mr Le Prevost more. Chapter 21 Boris Koch had arranged to meet with Pyotr Smitz and his most competent field officer, a young but quite ruthless woman by the name of Julia Klimentovà. He chose to walk the hundred metres or so from his office in the Government Administration Building to the nondescript stone walled SSB headquarters. It was late afternoon and already the light was fading into a depressing greyness as Koch paced cautiously along the wet pavement; the last of the brown autumn leaves making the street treacherous in the smooth soled Italian shoes he wore. In the distance he could hear the ominous yet all too familiar sound of heavy artillery pounding away at the rebel stronghold on the hills overlooking Rubansk. He stopped for a moment by the Platza Sachovia where in his youth, a cast bronze statue of Karl Marx had stood. Now the place was little more than an unkempt garden surrounded by iron railings, the gates locked at night to keep the vagrants and stray dogs away. The once attractive fountain had been dry since two summers ago and the cobbled pathway was littered by discarded take-away containers and empty cigarette packets. Koch could feel his country slipping away from him again. He had been gripped by a vision for Sachovia; he had intended it becoming a modern prosperous country with maybe an acknowledgement to his own personal achievements in bringing about the transformation. Maybe one day, he had once thought, a statue of himself might grace the Platza. Now he doubted that he would even survive to reach the tranquillity of his retirement. He finally climbed the stone steps up to the SSB headquarters and bitten by disillusion and misdirected anger pushed through the heavy doors. "Prime Minister... You should have waited for an escort, we cannot guarantee your safety on the streets at the moment." "It is a sorry state of affairs if the Prime Minister of Sachovia cannot walk a few metres from his office without an armed escort." Koch said as he looked at Pyotr Smitz with an expression that might have been taken for contempt. Smitz chose to ignore the penetrating look; he was a man skilled in the art of avoiding unnecessary conflicts. This was in direct contrast with his Prime Minister who stood before him unable to stop himself from probing at any niggling issue until, by virtue of his involvement, it inevitably turned into a major problem. "I have Julia Klimentovà in my office, would you prefer to speak with her alone?" Smitz said. "I have already taken the liberty of outlining in principal what you want her to do." Smitz’ voice gave the impression that he rather wanted to distance himself from Koch's present initiative. "You think my desire for revenge against Valentina Gussev is unworthy?" Koch said. "I think there may be more pressing matters for my staff to be engaged in at present... In light of the current emergency." "Call a spade a spade man... What we are facing is no emergency, it's the start of another bloody war. I've been fooling myself for too long about that; it's time to face up to the reality of the situation." "I fear you are correct Prime Minister." Koch cleared his throat, it sounded like the growl of a wild animal before launching an attack. When it came, the attack was mild. "I'm a simple man driven by simple emotions Smitz. Gussev betrayed me outrageously and she can not be allowed to get away with that. If the SSB is unable to supply a single operative to undertake a mission for the Prime Minister, then perhaps you have not maintained the security bureau in full operational strength as is required by the obligations of your office." Smitz chose not to reply but offered Koch an unconvincing smile. "I'll speak to her alone Smitz if you don't have the stomach for this affair..." "As you wish Prime Minister." The head of the SSB led Boris Koch along the corridor and into his office. Koch took the chair behind the desk and left General Smitz standing. "Do you have any drink in this place?" Koch said. "I have a decanter of Cognac." "No Vodka?" "I'm afraid not Prime Minister." Smitz pressed a buzzer on his desk and within moments a tall young woman with long brown hair walked in and without a word swept her skirts under her and sat primly before the desk as if she were about to take dictation. "This is Major Julia Klimentovà." Smitz said. "Give her a drink." The General poured two generous measures of Cognac and with obvious displeasure placed one before Koch and handed the other to Julia Klimentovà. "I'll leave you to discuss your business." Smitz said and made his exit. "You understand what I want you to do Major?" "General Smitz has explained... You want Valentina Gussev tracked and returned to face justice." "There will be no need to return her... You understand me?" "Your meaning is quite clear… You want me to eliminate her." "I want her dead Klimentovà can I make myself any clearer?" "No indeed not..." She took a gulp of her drink. "I have never really met Valentina Gussev but I know her from her reputation... admired her from afar. Her reputation in the SSB is a formidable one." "Have no concern; Gussev is long past her prime." "Her abilities are not my concern Prime minister, it is rather that she is held in such high regard by those who knew her and seems to have shown a long term loyal commitment to Sachovia." "That used to be the case… I am quite aware that Valentina Gussev is held up as a role model to all new recruits and her gallantry in the war is a thing that legends are built of." "So what has she done to justify a death sentence?" "It is not for you to question my motives... How old are you Klimentovà?" "I'm twenty six sir." "You would have been just a school girl during the 06 war. I can't expect you to understand what loyalty meant to us back then. Gussev has betrayed her loyalty to me and by doing so to Sachovia as well. She must face the ultimate justice." The Major gave an unconvincing nod. "Are you willing to accept this commission?" "As a sworn officer of the SSB of course; my duty is to obey orders without question... Whether I fully understand the implications or not." "That is exactly so Major Klimentovà. You would hardly have risen so high in rank at your young age without showing the right level of… commitment." "Thank you sir." "Valentina Gussev is not the only SSB officer to have an enviable reputation, you have shown yourself to be a formidable undercover asset." "I am successful at what I do Prime Minister but my missions rarely bring me any personal satisfaction. I may be young Prime Minister but my life has been rich with experience, may I ask you to reconsider your action towards Valentina Gussev? My experience has led me to believe that revenge is a hollow pursuit." "I will not be lectured on ethics by a slip of a girl Major. Nor will I be deflected from my intentions. I understand your feelings but you are a soldier of Sachovia, what you have done in the past and what you must do in the future is for your Country. Sachovia is in your debt, but the obligations run both ways." Julia nodded but the look of scepticism in her eyes was there for anyone who might care to notice. "Thank you sir." She said. "I am fully committed to doing my duty." "Good I expected nothing less... Julia, General Smitz has already had his feelers out looking for Gussev. We had contact with her from her boat off Capo d'Orlando which gave us a starting point from which to launch our search. There are some 'eyes' on our payroll in the area. Her boat, the Midnight Falcon... you have photographs... was reported to have recently made port in Marseille. I suggest you make your way there at all speed... Don't let me down on this Major Klimentovà... I can be most unforgiving of failure." ... Valentina had left her boat at the Vieux Port moorings. Now that her precious cargo was discharged she had decided to spend a little time ashore and had taken a room at the Marseille Métior Hotel. The hotel was close to the marina within sight of the Abbaye Saint-Victor. She intended spending no more than a couple of days of rest and recreation before finally deciding on how best to make her escape from Koch's clutches. She knew that it would take a while before they would be able to trace her. Her last known position was in Sicily and from there she could have gone in any direction. The Falcon was perhaps, she realised, a millstone round her neck making her easier to find but she could not bring herself to abandon the craft that had meant so much to her. In whatever fashion her disappearance would be accomplished, she knew that the Midnight Falcon would play an important role. After booking into the hotel, Valentina spent the afternoon shopping for clothing more suitable for the fast approaching winter. She suddenly realised that almost everything she owned was still in her flat in Sachovia. All the links to her past, to her long dead family and loved ones were now inaccessible to her. No photographs, no shared treasures, nothing remained that grounded her life in meaning... She was truly alone now, even her career was over with no hope of return. The Midnight Falcon was her only real possession, in some ways her only friend. It was with these desolate thoughts that Valentina ate a lonely dinner at the hotel. She thought of her time on Ikinos; everything had seemed so simple back then. What she was intending to do to Natasha and Colby had seemed like a dream, nothing to do with reality at all. Valentina ordered a slice of chocolate gateaux, a taste of comfort food. She sat by herself watching the other diners. She was the only one who dined alone and she wondered if this was to be her life from now on, alone and approaching middle age with little to look forward to. Dragging herself from the self pity Valentina decided to take a stroll down to the Falcon with her shopping; she would store it on board ready for an easy departure when the time was right. Her pretty little ketch seemed to have a strong pull on her emotions. 'Transference' – she knew the term a psychologist might use to describe her feelings. She was clinging to her ketch with the love that was really meant for Natasha and Katrina and... that man who had got deep under her skin but now hated her for what she had done. Valentina could not blame him, she understood the feelings because in her darkest moment she shared them. ... Expedited by official channels, Julia Klimentovà had been on an Airbus A350 to Marseille within four hours of her meeting with Boris Koch. The SSB had wasted no time in the search for Valentina Gussev and had already made contact with an expatriate Sachovian who had a business in Marseille taking aerial photographs with a small remote control drone. The man was wanted for some petty indiscretion back in Sachovia and was readily convinced by some gentle pressure regarding this to fly his drone across the waterfront and moorings of Marseille and take some photographs, nothing out of the ordinary for him. It was an easy afternoon's work but for the SSB a very fruitful one. The Midnight Falcon had readily made its presence known to the drone’s high definition camera. The SSB aerial surveillance office quickly located the ketch moored on the south of the Vieux Port. Moreover the boat was in a relatively secluded spot ideal for their purpose. A message was immediately despatched to Major Julia Klimentovà. ... Valentina's meal finished, she made her exit of the Métior. She smiled her best fake-smile to the Concierge who held the door open for her and wished her a jovial 'Bonsoir Madame'. The evening air greeted her with a cool freshness; the dark sky was clear and away from the lights the stars shone stark and cold. Valentina was thankful for the newly purchased quilted jacket as she made her way down to the marina with several bags of shopping. As she turned the corner by the office building, crossing the sharp pool of brightness from the security lights, Valentina saw the Falcon. It looked almost delicate against the mass of larger vessels that were moored at the marina. The stern was towards her and she watched with affection as the small craft gently bobbed and swayed in the calm water. But the woman's figure darting about the Falcon filled Valentina with sudden trepidation. Instinctively she stopped walking and slipped out of the light into the shadows. From the distance that separated them and under the meagre light, the figure could almost be mistaken for Katrina… if that were not impossible and if the clearly covert behaviour of the trespasser were not so familiar to Valentina from her own SSB training. Valentina felt that there was something familiar about the woman; she could not put a name to her but the sense that she had seen her before somewhere was as chilling as it was palpable. So soon she thought. How can they have found me already? ... Unaware that her presence had been observed, Julia Klimentovà made a rapid search of the Falcon. There was nothing she was really looking for; confirmation that this was indeed Gussev's boat was apparent enough to her trained eye. What she wanted was a suitable place to hide a GPS tracking device so that she would be able to locate the boat again at any time whether in port or at sea. She found what she wanted in the forward cabin inside a small storage locker under a squab. She exposed the sticky pad of the tracking device and stuck it up out of sight on the upper surface of the locker, closed the door and replaced the squab. Valentina's satphone had been left in the galley Julia knew the model, knew how to sabotage it. She pulled out the crystal oscillator pack and tossed it casually through the porthole into the water. Then she crept back up on deck and ducked down behind the gunwale peering out briefly to make sure no one was about before she slipped delicately back onto dry land and strolled away as if she were just on an evening walk. Valentina quickly went aboard the Falcon. The cheap padlock that locked the hatchway was still attached, still locked but Valentina knew how trivial an obstacle it would be to an undercover agent. Valentina had not thought to equip the hatch with anything more secure, until very recently there had seemed no need. The padlock opened for Valentina's key, possibly a little more stiffly than usual and Valentina entered her floating domain caught in a feeling that her personal space had been violated by the intruder. She dropped her shopping on the bunk of her cabin and carefully unlocked a small secure metal box that had been fitted to the top of her storage closet. Her fingers felt inside until they unexpectedly touched the ring that Colby had insisted she take. The feel of it sent a surge of emotion through her and she had to steady herself for a moment. She had told him that she would never wear it, now the simple gold band felt like the most precious thing she owned. She drew her breath and pulled her thoughts back to the matter in hand, her fingers found the cold metal of what she wanted a 9 mm Marakov pistol. The gun had rested there since she had hidden it shortly after the Falcon was refitted, she hoped never to have need of it. Now as she drew it into her hands she felt saddened that she had been tipped back into the world of easy violence. A world where a human life with all its richness of friends and loved ones, with all the hopes for the future, could be so easily extinguished. Her fingers pushed home a full clip of 10 rounds and she slipped it into the waist band of her jeans, snug and unseen against the crease of her back. The whole thing had taken less than two minutes and Valentina was back on land. She raced in the direction that the intruder had gone and slowed to a jog then a walk as she closed in on the strolling woman. They were on the Quai de Rive Neuve walking along the waterfront past the multitude of uncountable boats that were more a display of their owner's wealth than a functional means of transport. Valentina followed, keeping to the shadows. The woman passed the newly opened Starbucks and then with a brief look behind her, turned up the Place aux Huiles. She continued past the Queen Victoria pub until she disappeared into one of the many cafés and bistros that competed for trade in the busy waterfront centre. Valentina stood at the doorway; she could see the agent through the glass seated at a table with her back to the door. She looked relaxed, at ease with herself as she gave her order to a pretty young waitress who seemed distracted by a group of boys in the corner. A sense of transcendent calmness fell over Valentina. However reluctantly, this was familiar territory for her, this was where her deadly expertise lay. Valentina entered the bistro, 'Le Petit Chat Noir', the room felt warm after the chill night air and was filled with the seductive aroma of cooking, the atmosphere one of gentle relaxation. Under different circumstance it would have been a welcome place of escape. Without speaking she pulled out a chair and sat at the same table as the woman. Arms folded, her eyes held the younger woman’s for a long moment before she shifted her position and finally spoke. "Find anything interesting aboard my ketch?" She said in their shared native language. "Hello Valentina, it's an honour to finally meet you." Julia said, her composure hardly wavering by the encounter. The waitress returned and Valentina ordered an espresso. "Do you have a name?" Valentina said. "Julia Klimentovà." Valentina made a slow nod of her head as if the name held some meaning for her. "The name is familiar; our paths probably crossed during your training." "We never actually met…" "No…" The two women exchanged a look of intense curiosity. For both women it was like looking into the jaws of a tiger. Both knew it might be a fatal mistake to flinch or show any trace of fear. "Koch sent me." Julia finally said. "Tell me something I don't know... Tell me about yourself Julia Klimentovà... What makes you tick?" Julia allowed her frown to soften a trace. It made her face look younger but no less determined. "You should know that…" She said "I'm just another version of you. I'm Valentina Gussev as you were ten years ago." "Now you're trying to frighten me." Valentina said. There was not a trace of a smile on her face and her eyes had now narrowed. She knew that she was facing a facsimile of herself. She knew how ruthless she had been when she was this girl's age. "Do you have a family?" Valentina said. "I have parents, a younger brother." "No partner?" Julia did not answer but gave a non-committal smile. A chill smile that offered not a trace of warmth nor a glimpse into her true feelings. "And you are prepared to accept that by coming after me, you might never see them again?" "Why would I have to be prepared for that Valentina?" Valentina drained her espresso in a single hit. It was as hot and bitter as she was. She made no answer to the question and let the silence hang over them like a lead weight. Julia was the first to break the silence: "I have my duty to do Valentina... You know you were always my role model during my training. 'What would Valentina Gussev do in this situation?' Was a chant forever on the lips of my instructors and then always on my own lips after I graduated and was sent into the field. So Valentina Gussev... What would you do in a situation like this?" "Does it trouble you to be facing the woman with my reputation?" "Koch tells me you are past your prime." "I think he's mistaking me for someone closer to home." Valentina said. "So answer my question Valentina Gussev. As the role model for all recent SSB field agents... What would you do in this situation?" "Ten years ago I would already have killed you…" "I doubt that…" "Well young lady I have an SSB issue Marakov aimed at your belly as we speak." Julia shifted her gaze and saw with some astonishment that Valentina was as good as her word. The barrel of a 9 mm pistol was so close that it would be impossible to miss her should the trigger be squeezed. The hairs on the back of Julia's neck told her to run… It was an urgent message powered by a surge of adrenaline but she could not. Julia was frozen to the spot quite unable to move. "Go home Julia... tell Koch you couldn't find me, I've had enough of killing, I want to find my humanity again." Julia was pale, the blood drained from her face. "And if I can't do that?" she said. Valentina's reply was spoken softly but the menace in her words were if anything enhanced by the hushed delivery. "If you continue to come after me Julia Klimentovà, I will protect myself with everything I know." She paused and locked eyes with the young woman. "I will kill you Julia, make no mistake about that." Julia forced herself to make a watery smile. The smile was on her lips but her eyes showed nothing but fear. "You're young Julia, you have your life to live, don't waste it trying to satisfy some trivial petty revenge for Boris Koch. Koch is history, the Sachovia you know will be gone in five years. Don't you want to be part of the re-building? Don't you want to be able to go home to your loved ones again one day and find a life away from this insanity?" "I do want that Valentina but I have my duty... I'm sorry." "Then I am sorry too..." Valentina pulled the trigger of her Marakov five times in quick succession, Julia fell back in absolute terror, her chair toppling against the hard tiled floor with a clatter that had all the heads in the café turning in astonishment. Valentina stood over the young woman, her gun was already tucked away again out of sight as a silence fell over the café. She knelt down and whispered softly into the woman's ear. "Next time the clip will be in... Don't let there be a next time." She turned and slipped away into the cold shadows of the night where a light mist had risen and haloed the Moon with a mourner's veil. An hour later the Midnight Falcon was already three miles off shore and drawing power from the wind as it coursed towards the horizon. Valentina still had no conscious idea where she was heading... She had no idea but her heart guided by the Falcon's speed seemed to have no doubt. Chapter 22 Natasha was alone outside in the street, the night had turned cold with a threat of rain hanging ominously in the air. She was out just for a look round, she never meant to go far. Just five minutes in the fresh air to start to get her bearings in this strange fascinating City. She never meant get lost but the streets of London were unfamiliar to her. When Colby had left her he told her that he just had some quick business to do and he would be back soon. He had told her to stay in the flat and on no account to go out or answer the door to anyone. Natasha was a teenager... Ignoring sage advice is what they do, it's a law of nature. Keen to see a little of London, she had asked to go with him but Colby had seemed reluctant – worried that, despite all the subterfuge, she still might not be completely immune from watching eyes that could have been sent from Sachovia. Natasha decided that if he would not take her, then she would slip out on her own and be back before he came back, no one would ever know. Now she stood swelling with tears. It had started off fine; she had taken the new coat that Valentina had bought her, and slipped it on. Pausing to pose for an instant in front of her mirror. The coat was a knee length gaberdine with large buttons in two rows down the front. Pulled together with a belt it flared out slightly from the waist. Fashionable rather than practical it gave Natasha a feeling of elegant sophistication when she wore it. Valentina seemed to have a natural sense of fashion and knew exactly what a girl like Natasha would feel good in. Natasha pulled on the pink woollen hat over her cropped hair and stepped out into the night with anticipation and a little thrill of excitement. The crisp evening had seemed to fill her with energy and she had walked briskly down Milbern Street as fast as it was possible for her feet to hit the ground. The fish and chip shop was still open, the light from its window spilling across the sheen of the wet pavement, the smell tantalising but she had no money... She walked down Woodstock Road and then street after street, always turning to the right in the expectation that she would eventually end up where she had begun. She found herself near a railway bridge. 'Bridge End Road' the sign said. It meant nothing to her. A mile and a half down Parr Lane, half a mile down Holmwood Road past the brightly lit BP petrol station, and then she was hopelessly lost and starting to feel the threads of fear draw tight in her stomach. There was nothing to do but keep on walking and she marched on obstinately, feeling the muscles in her right calf starting to cramp. She had a sudden urge to sit down on the wet pavement and cry. Natasha's thoughts turned to Katrina, she was like a big sister to her and she missed her more than she could express. She would have given anything to see her walking towards her now with a confident smile on her face. Natasha held Katrina as a sort of role model, a perfect young woman to emulate. Katrina would certainly not have not got lost so easily, nor would she start crying if she had. Natasha took a deep breath and pulled herself together; her thoughts turning to Colby... He would probably kill her if she ever got home. Colby's flat was her place now, however temporary her stay there might be, it already justified the name home. Her future was still uncertain but she was starting to think of Colby as having a permanence in that uncertain future. He had not really said anything but she knew he was fond of her too. Even though she had only spent a few days there, his flat felt like a place she might belong, a place where she was safe. Natasha had been cursed with a poor sense of direction, but it seemed to her that the right thing to do would be to try to get back within sight of the river and follow upstream until she recognised some familiar landmark. That meant turning south, she thought, or west maybe. But which way was that? She would have to ask someone which way she was headed. She began to look, with a fragile kind of hopefulness, for somebody friendly, whom she might talk to. She didn't even know the correct address for Colby's flat... Rain was starting to fall across the air now, catching in the glow of the street lights like a sheet of tiny prisms. She passed an electrical goods store, a bike shop, a florist. The window of the florist was bright, inviting and she paused trying to draw some warmth from the glow of the light. She looked at the display of orchids and South African roses while icy rain made its way down her collar until it ran in a shivering rivulet down her spine. She pulled her light weight coat tighter and rubbed at the cramp in her leg. The coat was intended for a mild Mediterranean climate not the bone-chilling autumn weather of England. "You all right love?" The voice had come from a black cab that had just pulled up silently from the easy flow of traffic. Natasha froze. Colby had told her not to talk to strangers. He had told her not to leave the flat... She turned away from the voice and started to walk again limping now as her right calf muscle protested and threatened to leave her completely vulnerable. Gripped by an urgency that was suddenly teetering on the edge of panic she pushed herself on. Despite her earlier bravado, her recent experiences had left her fragile. The taxi followed slowly silently just the play of its headlights and the occasional splash of tyres betraying its presence. They moved, girl and taxi in unison for two or three minutes, each step more painful than the last. "You need a lift love? This ain't no weather to be out. Cats and dogs stuff this." Natasha turned her head. "I've got no money." Natasha said. It was the truth but was intended to send the man on his way. She turned to look at the driver. He was middle aged, greying hair with a flat cap balanced over what was probably a bald patch. He wore thick rimmed glasses and had his jacket collar turned up. She knew all about men who liked children too much but he looked harmless enough, his cab looked warm. Maybe there was genuine kindness in his eyes. "Oh is that a French accent?" The driver said. "It sounds pretty... anyway who said anything about money? Look I've got a daughter of my own, she's a few years older than you now but I wouldn't want her out on the streets alone at night... Where do you live darlin'? I'll give you a lift home... No charge." Natasha stopped and turned to face the driver. "I'm not supposed to talk to strangers." She said. "Come on love it's warm in here, you'll be safe with me... I promise." His gentle smile and the warmth of his cab was intoxicating... ... Katrina had woken to her first sunrise on Guernsey. The contrast in the weather could hardly have been greater. The morning was fine, just a trace of early mist falling down from the garden to the cliff. The wind had gone and was replaced with an embracing quietness that made her want to sing. She was still singing when she heard the knock at the door. Hastily grabbing her dressing gown she opened the door. It was John... Of course it was. He had brought her some eggs and a can of milk. Katrina dragged her fingers through the straggle of unkempt hair that lay across her eyes and blinked at the young man. "Just... well... Mum thought you might like some eggs." He said. "Oh yes how kind. From your own chickens?" "We've got a few layers running about the place, s'posed to be kept in the barn but they get out... We find eggs everywhere." "My Babushka back in... in Croatia had hens... the biggest yellowest yolks you'd ever see." Katrina took the eggs that were nestled in a cardboard box and put the milk on the table. "Have you had breakfast?" She said. "Well yes ages ago... You get up early if you've got cows to milk." "I can imagine... Well can I at least give you coffee then?" "You may do that, coffee would be nice." Katrina watched as he pulled off his muddy boots and then she drew him into the little cottage and sat him on the sofa while she disappeared to hurriedly dress. She called down to him through the mezzanine curtain. "Put the kettle on will you I'll just be a minute." It took just a moment for Katrina to emerge from the privacy of the bedroom wearing faded blue jeans and a thick oversized sweater knitted in triangles of pale grey and pink. She eased herself backwards down the rather fragile stairs and quickly made cups of instant coffee. Her warm smile was a gift for John that easily repaid his act of neighbourliness. She handed him his cup with the steam still curling into the air. He grasped it to warm his hands. "The weather seems to be a big improvement this morning John. I'll probably venture out and do some exploring... I might take that old bike for a ride." "That sounds like fun... I wish I could join you but the farm keeps me pretty busy what with it being just the two of us these days." "Just you and your Mum?" "There's a lad who helps with the milking but most of the day to day heavy work is down to me." "It must be hard work." "Not hard... not when you enjoy the life. I couldn't imagine working in an office or a factory. Give me the open air... Except when its... like howling a gale." "No... I guess getting back to nature, the simple life, has its appeal." John nodded and finished his coffee with deep gulps before wiping his mouth unceremoniously with his sleeve. Katrina smiled at his unpretentiousness, his open honesty. What you saw was what you got. She liked that. "Would you like another cup?" "I really need to get back." "OK... But don't be a stranger." She stood and walked him to the door standing a little closer than was strictly necessary. So close that their arms inadvertently brushed. "I don't suppose you could give me some advice John... The thing is I need to find a job and I don't really know where to start looking." John let his eyes trace her fragile frame, so delicate so pretty. He felt real pleasure that she had so easily come to trust him. "So what sort of thing are you looking for?" He said. "I've got experience waitressing, child care, I worked on a small holding taking care of goats and making cheese when I was younger, I can cook a little... Anything that will earn me a modest living." "I'll put my mind to it... Don't suppose you know how to milk cows." "I could learn..." She said. John was not sure how serious she was being; her face gave no indication that she might be joking but he didn't want to make himself look foolish by jumping too easily at an opportunity. "I've got a mate who manages The Captain's Table... It's a restaurant over La Fosse way. Maybe he'll have something... 'course its off season at the moment...." "You mean for tourists?" John nodded he seemed lost in thought... something about the idea of farm girls had caught his imagination. "I'll bring the Evening Press up later you may find something in there." "You're so kind John... If it's no trouble." She took his fingers with a shy smile and held them for just an instant as they stood by the door and then she watched him walk away across the road and then down towards his farm. The early mist was already lifting, the sky pale blue and clear, the air like ice. In a voice so quiet that it was barely audible, Katrina hummed a sweet melody from her childhood as she looked out across the blue of the sea. She felt that, after all, she might be happy here on this little dot in the Channel. When she had tidied the cottage Katrina dressed warmly and walked out into the morning. The sun had risen and a gentle warmth had softened the chill air. She made her way through the back gate that led directly to the cliff edge. From there she found a narrow rocky path, almost hidden under the tangle of overgrowth. It wound down through the gorse towards the sea. Below was a tiny cove, the tide was low and leaning over an outcrop of rock she saw a narrow strip of shingle beach with rock pools exposed by the ebbing water. It was worth investigating and she edged her way down the path. There was a small pine sapling that clung to the cliff edge and was bent and shaped by the prevailing wind. It was barely taller than she was and as she sidled her way past, her feet gave way on the slippery path sending a shower of loose rock falling down into the cove. If she had not been able to grab at the slender trunk of the pine she might have followed the landslide down to the jagged rocks below. Katrina took a deep breath and steadied herself before continuing her exploration. A small wooden dingy was pulled up above the high-tide line and chained upside-down to a stake driven into the grassy foreshore. Out a few metres into the cove where the water was deeper an orange buoy bobbed in the gentle swell. She knew instantly that Valentina would have moored the Falcon here. If she half closed her her eyes she could almost see it floating there. Valentina's Midnight Falcon... She thought of her friend out there somewhere all alone and wondered if she would ever see her again. The tears she wiped on her sleeve must have been caused by the frigid air of the English Channel. This was simply not a day for sadness. ... The invitation for John to come to dinner had been a rather spur of the moment thing. He had accepted it with eagerness and now in the afterglow of an extremely pleasant dinner they sat comfortably together on the sofa with toes warmed by a comforting fire crackling in the hearth. "Malcolm Dupres... he's the mate I mentioned... " "Yes..." "I told him about you... You know... that you were looking for a job." Katrina laughed "Yes spit it out... I assume he said no." "Not at all, in fact he reckons he might have something for you... If you want to go down there to the restaurant tomorrow morning." "That's great John. Thank you for that." "That's all right... Unless..." John paused suddenly halted by a feeling of uncertainty. "Well... unless what?" "So... Katrina were you joking when you said, you know... you could learn to milk cows?" "No I was definitely not joking... are you offering me a job on your farm John Le Prevost?" "Would you take it if I did?" "Is this is genuine John? Not just you feeling sorry for me? I'm not quite a charity case just yet." "Oh it's genuine all right and I could never mistake you for a charity case. Fact is Mum and me have been thinking of taking someone on for a while now... The farms doing well and the work load is starting to build up... then there's my part time lad Richard... He'll be leaving school soon and he'll be off to college on the mainland." "I wouldn't want to push him out." "You wouldn't, he'll keep his job 'till the summer's over in any case." "You may not have noticed John but I'm not very big, do you think I could cope with proper farm work? This wouldn't just be herding a few goats." John smiled, in fact he had notice that Katrina was no body-builder but could identify no problem at all in her stature. "There's lots of girls working on farms these days, a lot of the heavy stuff is mechanised these days anyway. I'm sure you'd be fine... But, if you're unsure why not go and see Malcolm first, you might prefer what he has to offer. Then if that's not suitable you could maybe do a month's trial on the farm, see if you like it." "And if you like me." "Well yes there is that..." "OK... that sounds like a plan." "I'll give you a lift tomorrow in the Land Rover if you like." "Now you're starting to spoil me John." "How else were you planning on getting there?" "I could take the bike." "But that would deprive me of paying you back for the dinner... not to mention the chance of you know... seeing you again." "OK if you insist... There's some other things I need to do like setting up a provider for my phone and organising a bank account. Could you point me in the right direction for that?" "No problem. We'll sort all that out... I tell you what, I'll take the day off... Maybe we could have lunch at Malcolm's. Then we can go into St Peter Port." "I'd like that but I don't want to be any trouble." "As long as I'm back by afternoon milking it'll be fine. I could do with a bit of time off anyway. It would be nice to have someone to show round town." She pulled herself closer to him and contrived to slip under the warmth of his arm as if he already was her boyfriend. She could feel John's gentle squeeze as he settled beside her accepting her friendship without question. Without looking she could sense his smile of contentment for the simple meal she had cooked him. A simple meal that had taken her the entire afternoon to prepare. John had brought a bottle of wine with him and they sipped the last glass caught in the warm glow of mutual discovery. The next morning early before John was due to arrive, Katrina cycled down to the local store for some bread and a few other essentials. The newspapers were on display in a rack outside the shop and she saw a headline that caught her attention: Latest from War in Sachovia. – Leader of Opposition killed in Missile strike. She bought a copy and hurried back home to read it leaving the bike propped up by the porch. Adam Prochniak, leader of the Sachovian Republik party and an unconfirmed number of his aides were reported killed yesterday following a missile strike on his office building. A spokesperson from the Republik Party said that his courage and unstinting service for his country were a testament to the spirit of the great man. He will be missed by all of Sachovia. The party would continue the fight for democracy spurred on by the loss of the great leader. The Prime Minister of Sachovia Boris Koch expressed his regret at the loss of a great man to the rebel forces. He sent his sincere condolences to the Republik Party and the family of his friend and parliamentary colleague. The civil war continues to escalate despite the latest Permanent Court of Arbitration peace talks held at the Hague on Wednesday. The Rebel forces were reported to be closing in on Rubansk the Capital of Sachovia and were reported as having captured abandoned Sachovian army weaponry including Russian made tanks and missile launchers. Katrina thought of her homeland and the terrible new struggle they were facing but she seemed remote from Sachovia now as if her life there had just been a nightmare from which had wakened to a world of normalcy. She thought of little Natasha who would never have to go to Sachovia now; she wondered at her own naivete for ever thinking it would have been a good thing. Katrina longed for her phone so that she could try to contact her. No longer condemned to being a queen, Natasha might now find a happy life... Wherever she was. Chapter 23 Despite it being counter to his better judgement, Colby had really been left with no option but to briefly leave Natasha alone in the flat while he undertook a little business. The people who deal in false papers, of the sort that Natasha needed, did not like to be seen trading under the antiseptic glare of daylight. Nine o'clock at the 'Cock and Bull' carpark. Take it or leave it... Come alone... Bring cash. He wanted to give Natasha a safe identity, make her as untraceable as possible... Take it or leave it... his contact had said. So Colby took it. Valentina had convinced him to take care of Natasha after she had been recovered off the coast of Sicily, to take her safely to England until she could arrange a permanent future for the child. Despite his anger towards Valentina, the call for help was not one he could ignore, there was a debt he owed to the child and a thread of closeness that had woven Natasha into his affections during their shared journey. The call for help had left him with no options and he had wanted none. Since that fraught conversation he had heard nothing at all from Valentina. He had no idea what plans she had made for the girl's future or if she had any plans at all. He was on his own, ill equipped to take the long term responsibility for a teenage girl. He needed advice, he needed to talk to Valentina but she was silent, unobtainable. Nothing new there he thought. Damn her beautiful eyes. Colby was only away from home for half an hour, three quarters at most. But the instant he returned to his flat now shrouded in darkness he regretted the stupidity of leaving her. There was no answer to his call up the stair to her small room. He made a rapid search of the entire flat, saw that her new coat was missing. The one that she was so proud of that apparently Valentina had chosen for her in Marseille just a short while ago. He tried to focus his mind, concentrate on the facts. There were only two reasonable possibilities: either she had decided to go out alone, despite his warning, or someone had found her and she had been abducted again. If she had been taken then there was little constructive he could do in the short term so he concentrated on the other, the less harrowing scenario. He knew she couldn't have gone far; the chances were that she had just slipped out for a quick walk, a moment of exploration, and would be back soon. But the thought of calmly waiting, doing nothing was unsupportable. However unlikely the possibility, he struggled to rid his thoughts of Sachovian agents, of kidnapping, of God knows what. After all she had gone through, the child was still so vulnerable. At least there was no sign of a struggle at the flat which Colby took as a positive... In the end he went back out into the wet night and ran calling her name across the dark streets like an idiot. He ran to the corner of Woodstock and turned up Blackchurch Hill past the bustling McDonald’s then cut back to Bridge End, round the corner to the fish and chip shop, on past the broad florists' window. There was no sign of her anywhere. He stopped to catch his breath trying to think where she might have gone. A woman dressed in a bright red rain mac was walking her wheezy fat little dog along the glistening street weaving her way around the puddles in her un-sensible shoes. "You haven't seen a teenage girl, short hair in a beige coat?" He asked. "No sorry honey... I ain't seen no girl. She run away?" "I'm not sure..." "Maybe she go up McDonald’s on Blackchurch, maybe she got friends up there." "Maybe... thanks." He said. He walked on breaking into a slow jog as he crossed the road towards the petrol station. He asked the young, nose pierced, attendant if he had seen a girl but was greeted with nothing more communicative than a shrug of disinterest. Despite wanting to beat some intelligent response out of the boy, he moved on through the rain leaving the teen unmolested with the pain of his own sad life to endure. Colby leaned against a red brick wall that glistened wet under the street lights. He thought of the promise he had made to Natasha on Ikinos. It seemed like half a lifetime ago since he was on that sun-drenched place. He recalled the promise he had made to her when they had first met. He had been making a clumsy attempt to try and bond with her. But his promise now weighed heavily on him, a promise to always keep her safe. It's what I do he had said... trust me... Colby's eyes seemed to lose focus in a blur of rain and car headlights, an elegant woman hurried past sheltering under the sweep of her umbrella. She reminded Colby a little of Valentina, the way she held herself, the confident stride. Where are you Valentina?... I really thought we had found each other again. The woman continued until she made a quick dash across the road he followed her with his eyes as she came level with a black cab shrouded in the misty haze. He looked down at his feet then back up towards the cab. Pushing himself away from the wall he jogged up the road and saw a girl apparently talking to the cab driver. She was indistinct but what really caught his attention was the stylish coat she was wearing, the way she stood with the weight on one leg like the time he had first seen her gazing across the ocean on Ikinos. "Natasha." Colby yelled across the noise of the traffic. He saw her head turn towards him and pulled by some instinctive emotion he ran into the road with little more than a cursory look at the approaching traffic. He dodged the glancing blow of a bright blue British Gas Transit Van that had hardly registered in his peripheral vision. Then rebounding, he nearly tumbled into the path of a party-girl at the wheel of her Mini. The Mini driver blowing her horn with unnecessary aggression that still barely managed to register on Colby's focus. Finally he made the safety of the footpath and ran towards Natasha. She had seemed to be balanced on the point of getting into the cab but now she turned and recognised him. "It's all right," She said to the driver. "It's my Dad." "You're her Dad mate?" The driver asked as Colby took Natasha's hand with what might have been mistaken for paternal concern. "Yes... I am." Colby said as he gathered his breath and looked suspiciously at the driver. "OK... well take good care of her, there's no telling what harm she could come to out alone like this." "Yes mate... Sorry for your trouble." Colby said. The cab drove away in a flurry of tyre spray and Colby was still not quite convinced of the driver's motives. Natasha lifted her eyes to Colby. "We'll have to talk about taking lifts from strangers." Colby said. Natasha could see no anger just relief in his expression. "OK... Dad..." She said with an almost cheeky grin. "but I know all about that stuff, I'm not a kid." "I know... you told me. Are you OK?" "I am now... I just wanted a look round. I got lost then a bit scared." "I know... Me too." "Can we go home now?" She said. Colby nodded. "What's going to become of me Colby, am I going to stay with you forever?" "I don't know... Would you like that?" Natasha shrugged. A sudden fear of rejection forced her from probing her true feelings too deeply. "Look Natasha... I need to talk with Valentina about it... I think she seems to have taken it on herself to become your guardian." "Really... did she say so?" "My recent conversations with her have been... a little fraught." "Don't hate her Colby... I've mostly forgiven her for what she did... I can't believe she meant to harm me, I think it was all just confusion in her mind. I can forget it. I might only be a kid but I know the difference between good people and bad people." "And Valentina is one of the good ones?" "You don't need me to tell you that... do you?" They walked on through the rain hand in hand. "So... Dad... I've got something to ask..." "I'm not sure you should call me Dad." Colby said. Natasha laughed, teasing him but pulling herself closer as they walked. "So can I ask you my question?" "You can ask me anything anytime Cup-Cake." "OK... Can we... maybe get Fish and Chips on the way back?" ... Still in Marseille, Julia Klimentovà had been closely following the Falcon's progress since she discovered it had left Marseille. Although the boat's course was far from direct, pulling out to sea and then curving back close to the French coast, it seemed certain to Julia that since crossing the coast off Brest, Valentina was now heading for Britain and seemed to be making directly for Falmouth. As long as the tracker kept sending its signal she would know to the metre where the Falcon was. The problem Julia now faced was that the tracker's batteries were nearing the end of their life expectancy and that meant she would have to act soon or risk losing contact. If the Falcon did not make landfall within the next few days, she would have to make a more direct approach. As a last resort Koch had arranged access to a helicopter and Julia was able to summon sufficient fire power to sink the ketch. Such an act would however attract far too much unwanted publicity and a covert action would suit her purpose far more satisfactorily. The incident at the Marseille café had left Julia shaken. She was now even more aware of how formidable an adversary Valentina was but even the warning she had been forcefully given was not enough to sway her from her mission. She had a job to do and like a terrier at a rabbit warren, she would see it through to the gory end. Valentina set a course for Falmouth, it was not her destination but she had no intention of making that obvious to any eyes in the sky. In these waters the sky was no stranger to light aircraft and any one of them was a potential threat to her security. It had now been over a day since Julia, still in Marseille, had checked on the Falcon's position. The ketch was now in the middle of the channel, roughly mid way between Brest and Falmouth. Despite the change of seasons a high pressure zone had settled over the area with an unseasonal calmness. With low winds the boat would be slowed and Julia's concern over the battery life started to grow. She noted with interest and surprise when the GPS tracker indicated that the boat had made a sharp turn to the north east. Julia reconsidered her conclusion, it now became more reasonable to assume that Valentina was making not for England but for the Channel Islands. It would take another day of sailing to confirm the destination but her intuition seemed to tell the SSB agent that the little group of islands was where she would finally confront Valentina Gussev. This time, Julia thought, she would not be so easily outmanoeuvred by the war heroine. There was more than a trace of sadness for her in being the one chosen to end the life of such a Sachovian patriot. But it was her job, not for her the concerns and strictures of the dubious ethics. That responsibility rested elsewhere; Julia Klimentovà would lose no sleep over the matter. In that respect the two women, so similar in many ways, sat at opposite poles. Valentina's conscience still pricked sharply at her in the small hours for what she had done as a consequence of the 06 war. Now with a new darkness falling over Sachovia, Valentina wanted nothing but to finally escape the conflict of her homeland and find some peace. It was Guernsey where she now hoped to find that absolution and she turned the Midnight Falcon towards that beckoning home with the expectation that her whereabouts might no longer be of concern to the likes of Boris Koch. She sailed on towards Guernsey with the hope that her presence on the Island would not in any way bring the Sachovian troubles with her to contaminate the peaceful Bailiwick. The hours rolled by, the progress slow in the still air. Valentina had hoped to make landfall by mid afternoon, now the evening seemed more likely and if the wind continued to falter there was a risk of becoming completely becalmed. She eased her heading to try and catch a stronger flow of wind funnelled up along the Cherbourg coast. Valentina was now laying to the south of Guernsey riding a gentle swell in light air. It would certainly be late in the day before she would sight Guernsey and the secret little cove that lay beneath her modest cottage. She had endured days with little sleep; her intention to rest a few days at Marseille had fallen away by the appearance of the young protégé Julia Klimentovà but there was more than the prospect of sleep that drove her on. Her friend Katrina would be there, someone who knew who she was, warts and all, and still cared for her. As the Falcon continued to make slow but steady progress, Valentina had come to trust the feel of her boat to show her the way to sail with the least effort. She had learned a lot from the boat – that you needed to work with the elements not fight against them. If you battled the elements they would ultimately destroy you. Valentina had come to see that the same was true when dealing with human nature. Her time at sea had left Valentina feeling that she was at one with the Midnight Falcon and she would just as soon lose her as she would a living friend. But Valentina had spent too long alone with only the spirit of a ketch for a companion. She needed human contact and although she had shared her joys, confided her darkest thoughts with the old timbers and had taken the boat's silent reply as a comfort, it was no longer enough. Julia Klimentovà followed the GPS signal as Valentina's destination was now confirmed. The trajectory left no doubt, there could be no other landfall but the island of Guernsey. A quiet place away from the eyes of the media that were finally now focussing with consternation on the crisis in Sachovia. Guernsey, a quiet place to find a haven. A quiet place to meet your end... Julia Klimentovà booked a flight. ... After less than a week on Guernsey, Katrina now had two job offers. One, a conventional position working in a restaurant, the sort of job she had hoped to find in order to establish herself. It represented the opportunity of a first step into what she hoped was to be a long term commitment to Guernsey. But the other offer held, quietly understood but unstated, something much more than just a job. She was drawn emotionally towards the second opportunity with John but it also terrified her with the speed it had arisen. She needed time but maybe delay would be seen as disinterest. After her disastrous and short lived relationship with Andrej, Katrina was wary of allowing her reason to be sacrificed to the call of her heart and so she waited, unable to commit to either course of action. Katrina had finally established phone contact with Natasha. She was too young to offer any great wisdom but it was good to bounce thoughts off someone close to you. Although interested to hear about John Le Pevost, Natasha had been more interested in news of Valentina but Katrina knew no more than Natasha did herself. In her turn Natasha could offer no news of what her own future held. She told Katrina that she was happy with Colby but she needed permanence, she needed to resume her schooling that had been put on hold for too long and she was unsure whether Colby was in a position to provide any of that. Natasha needed Valentina back in her life; she needed a family. Katrina had eaten a light meal and was quietly pondering her options when she felt the need to go out into the freshness of the evening air. She felt drawn to go out into the garden where the shadows were lengthening and the air seemed to quickly suck up the fragile warmth of the day. She looked across the bare trees that raked up into the clear sky, past them across the rolling fields to Le Moulin farm that snuggled in the gentle hollow. Through the swaying dark branches she could see a light from the window and imagined John and his mother Mary whom she had quickly come to feel at ease with. She could imagine them sitting down to their evening meal. There might be a regular seat at the table for herself one day. It was a compelling image but she turned in her uncertainty and walked round to the other side of the cottage. As she did the stillness was disturbed by the final approach of an Airbus as it brought its passengers from the south of France. Katrina did not know where the plane had come from or who might be aboard but she scowled at the brief disturbance of her tranquillity as the plane sank noisily towards the runway at Guernsey airport. Katrina ran her fingers across the dark granite of the garden wall, it still held the last brittle heat of the afternoon sun as she rested against it enjoying the peace. Then she opened the gate that led down to the cliffs, to the treacherous narrow path that slithered to the secret little cove. Katrina breathed in the cool air, tasted the tang of salt and the delicate scent of the wild herbs from the cliffs. The view from the garden spanned the horizon where a line of low cloud softened the boundary between sea and sky. The first stars were starting to show as the clear sky began its turn towards darkness. Across to the west the sun was sinking behind the distant clouds sending them to a thousand shades of violet. As is often the case on a calm autumn day a shimmer of gossamer mist hung low on the still water. For Katrina it was a view of tranquillity but tempered by an inexplicable sadness, an instant when the forces of nature had come together to frame this unique image. Never again in the history of the universe would this moment be exactly repeated. Katrina's breath was stolen by the thought, by the simple beauty. She felt a peace fall over her as her mind emptied of noise. The world sat before her eyes; a fragile thing to cherish and protect. She watched in silence as the sunset intensified and then from the low mist, from the shroud of invisibility something slowly resolved itself into a shape that brought a wetness to Katrina's eyes and forced her to call out across the cliffs an impassioned welcome that no one could hear. It was the Midnight Falcon returned at last from its long journey, riding the delicate breath of the wind to make a homecoming. Chapter 24 Valentina dropped the sails a little way off shore and finished the journey under the slow throb of diesel power. She moored the Falcon in the cove tying it to the tethered buoy. From down on the water she could not see her little cottage up on the cliff top but she could feel its pull as she rowed the bright yellow inflatable dingy across the thirty metres of still water. Katrina was already standing on the thin strip of shingle beach and she pulled Valentina up onto dry land. "You don't know how good it is to see you again Valentina." She said as the cold water lapped at her feet. "Is everything all right?" "Yes... perfect, your little hideaway is even better than you described. But I've missed you Valentina." "Me too." She put her arms round Katrina and hugged tight. "Come on let get up the cottage. Be careful of the path it can be treacherous in the dark." Katrina laughed... "Now you tell me..." "Why?... No accidents I hope." "Nothing serious..." "So the handover with Colby all went went according to plan?" "Yes just as you arranged it... You haven't spoken to Colby?" "No, since leaving Marseille I've been without communications." "So how have you been Valentina, no problems?" "Nothing I couldn't handle." "What does that mean exactly?" "Let's go up, I'll tell you later." They scrambled over the rocks, Valentina rested her hand on Katrina's shoulder and followed her up the precipitous winding path. At the top Valentina stopped for a moment to reacquaint herself with the view from the cliff top. There was still enough light to remind her of what a soulful spot the cottage stood on. "It feels like I've come home Katrina... Sachovia hasn't felt like home for a long time." "There's nothing there for me either, I still have a fondness for the pretty farming villages and the mountains but little else... Do you think the fools will destroy the place completely this time?" "They seem to be doing a good job of it but I think Sachovia will rise again... I doubt I'll be there to see it though." "It's beyond sad... Why are people so stupid Valentina?" "I'm the last person to ask about that... Come on lets get inside." They walked up the path and Katrina drew her friend inside. "You've got the place feeling nice and cosy... Did you have any problems getting yourself settled?" "Not really the cottage and I make a perfect fit... It took a while to find out how everything works... I met John Le Prevost, he saw smoke from the chimney and came up to see if someone had broken in. He's been a big help." "Has he indeed..." "Yes." "OK anything I should know?" "Don't be silly we've only just met." "John's a nice guy... one of the good ones I was telling you about." "I've discovered that... Anyway you were telling me about this problem on the way back, the one you could handle..." "Mm... Well it seems that Koch has sent someone after me... I'm not really surprised, he's a man that thrives on vindictiveness..." "My God..." Katrina suddenly looked concerned. "What happened?" "It's OK... She was a young woman a little older than you, a little younger than me. We might have been friends in another life... We had a little conversation." "A conversation?" "Well I explained to her, made it clear, that it would be foolish for her to try and do Koch's bidding." "So what was she supposed to do, arrest you and take you back to Sachovia?" "No nothing quite as civilised as that..." "You're saying she was supposed to kill you?" "That's the impression I got." "And you talked her out of it?" "Don't worry Katrina, I can be quite persuasive... anyway I'm here now safe and there's no way she or anyone else can know where I went after leaving Marseille. I made sure to follow a zigzag path up the French coast then slipped deeper into the Channel by cover of darkness." "I hope you're right. The thought of an assassin on your tail gives me no comfort at all Valentina... It's hard to imagine the war in Sachovia having any impact on Guernsey it all seems so far away." "That was my thinking too... I've had a soft spot for the little Island ever since I first discovered it. It's where the Falcon was originally built so in some ways it was like bringing my baby home... Now, enough of this small talk, have you any food in? I'm starving." "Let me see... If I'd known you were coming... I could do eggs, sausages, there's bread, fresh today." "Sounds perfect..." Valentina ate while Katrina hung on to her every word, Katrina told Valentina of her two job offers and revealed more about the closeness she had already found with John. By the time they had settled on the sofa with coffee, a warm fire was blazing in the hearth and the sky outside was bathed in darkness softened by just a shimmer of filtered moonlight. "So Valentina... what plans have you made for little Natasha?" "You're in phone contact with her?" "It was a priority to get my phone set up and talk to her... You don't know how hard it was to leave her at Paris." "She was safe with Colby... Natasha needs to get back to a normal life. She's free of all that Monarchy nonsense now, no one from Sachovia knows where she is... I doubt if anyone will care now in any case. She never belonged there Katrina; what she needs now is a family..." "And you'd like to be the nucleus of that family?" "I've thought long and hard about it. I owe her a debt and more than that, I can finally accept my feelings for her. I grew to love her Katrina... She has no one in the world except us... You me and... Colby. I'm not about to abandon her... not ever again." "I know Valentina... I know." "I've got such a lot to put right with her Katrina..." Katrina put her hand out to Valentina. "Don't go there; it's all in the past now. I've talked to Natasha about it. Honestly its no longer an issue for her... she seems happy enough with Colby but her uncertain future worries her. I know she misses you." "Does she?" Katrina nodded. "Oh yes... she's waiting for you, every time we speak she wants to know if there's any news of you." "And Colby... I think he still hates me." "He came running when you asked for his help, that doesn't sound like a man who hates you." "He came to help Natasha not me..." "I'm not so sure... From the instant when I saw you two together on Ikinos, I could feel the electricity between the pair of you... That's not something that disappears easily. Do you still feel the same about him?" There was a long pause and Katrina watched the rise of unresolved the emotion in Valentina's face as she spoke. "How do I feel about Colby? You know Katrina, I fell in love with him back in 2005 just as the war was starting to unravel the Country... I was not much older than you... I've been in love with him ever since... His hatred for me breaks my heart." "Have you told him how you feel recently?" "It's complicated Katrina... I wish we could go back to when we first met I'd do things very differently. But things are what they are, I can't make any demands of him. I'll have to talk to Colby anyway and sort out what we'll do with Natasha. Her safety and welfare has to be my priority." "So... what would you like to see happen?" "I've thought about that on my journey here, I think I'd like to bring Natasha here to Guernsey. There's a lot of time to think when you're alone out at sea and I've come to the view that Guernsey is the place I'd like to spend the rest of my life. I've got quite a nest egg saved up from my disreputable life... I can easily afford to make a home for Natasha, make sure she has a good education and a real future. I've thought of maybe setting up a charter business... you know renting out sailing boats for holiday makers. The Channel Islands would be ideal for that... And I'd like to see you settled and happy Katrina. Here with me on Guernsey would be nice but if you'd prefer somewhere else I'll help you financially to get settled. After all you've been through you deserve your own happy future." "You've got it all worked out Valentina..." "Like I said I've had lots of time to think and prioritise what's important to me." "So where exactly does Colby fit in with all this?" "Colby is the missing piece... If he didn't hate me so much... Then I'd... " She paused to regain her composure. "But I've got no right to expect anything from him. I used him Katrina, betrayed the trust he had in me. I guess I don't deserve such a man in my life." "You will be happy again Valentina... I just know it." They sat together talking about the harrowing news of their homeland as it broke down into sectarian chaos and open war again. It was almost ten when the headlights of a car briefly raked across the front of Apple Cottage. It was unusual as the cottage marked the end of the road, next stop the English Channel. Valentina opened the curtains and peered out. Everything was dark again, still and quiet as it should be. There was no sign of the car it must have turned round and gone back. But as her eyes became accustomed to the darkness, Valentina thought she saw the flash of something reflective caught in the silver of the moonlight. Maybe it was the polished lens of a camera or binoculars or something more sophisticated like an infra-red night vision scope, the sort of thing she had used on night missions for the SSB. Valentina drew the curtains with a barely audible "Damn her." escaping her lips. "What is it?" Katrina said. "No nothing... Someone taking a wrong turn I expect... Look I was going to sleep on the Falcon tonight but I think I'll bunk down on the sofa instead. I'll organise a folding bed first thing tomorrow." "Take the upstairs bed Valentina... It is yours by rights." "No no the sofa will suit me fine, I've had so little sleep lately I could sleep on a bed of rusty barbed wire." In fact Valentina had little sleep that night as she kept vigil by the window. Despite her watchfulness there was no further sighting of anything suspicious. ... Sachovia was crumbling now under the weight of civil war. The rebel forces were pushing down the valley following the dark water of the Darvinsk River. Much of the army had already fled back to their villages or joined with the rebels. It was now hopeless for the government and international forces seemed reluctant to get involved. Urgent meetings at the UN had still failed to commit to any peace keeping initiatives even thought the inevitability of that was accepted by all. The bridge at Vrobnik was already in rebel hands which meant that Rubansk was virtually under siege. Boris Koch sat alone in his expansive office, almost the entire staff of parliamentary workers had already fled the capital but Zandra Putrish his faithful if brow beaten secretary still sat at her desk alone in her little office primly awaiting orders like a concert pianist watching for the fall of the conductor's baton... There would however be no more secretarial work needed by Koch's Government. General Pyotr Smitz burst through the doors to Koch's office with an expression of panic on his grey face. He was still dressed formally in his military uniform, it seemed somehow appropriate to him to hold on to the trappings of office for as long as possible. Koch wondered if he was trying to make some sort of statement. To Koch, the son of a simple potato farmer, the uniform looked like fancy dress, a completely unnecessary ostentation. His father, had he lived, would have been so proud to see his son rise to the position of Prime Minister... What would he think now? Koch wondered as he watched in impotence as his country slowly slid into oblivion again. "Prime Minister we are withdrawing to Alexigrad. We have commandeered the Constantine Centre as a suitable Government headquarters until our troops can mount a push back. You must collect your things and come... The last helicopter is waiting." Koch leaned back in his chair, he looked pale and weary; the years hung round him like a shroud. "Our troops will never mount a push back Pyotr. Face the truth... It's over, this dream that some of us shared. The fools have destroyed what might have been a golden age for Sachovia, now our country will lie in ruins for a generation." "We have to do what we can... " Pyotr rested his hand on Koch's shoulder. "Boris come on it's too soon to give up, we can regroup, there's always a way back." Boris hardly seemed to hear what his head of the SSB had said. His eyes gazed out of the tall windows at the angry sky. It hung dark and heavy with rain. He took a deep breath. "You know Pyotr," Koch said "when I was elected Prime Minister, I thought I had finally reached my goal. My life's ambition was fulfilled... But I had fooled myself. It was just a first foot fall on the precipitous stair to my ultimate destruction. I'm not sure I would have started the journey if I had known how arduous it would turn out to be. I have faced nothing but opposition all along the way. Opposition from my political enemies but also from those I considered my friends. It has been a soul destroying journey. Only a few have stood by me... Like you Pyotr." He turned his eyes to the General. "How much of this unfolding tragedy was my fault Pyotr?" "You'll feel better when we get up to the mountains, you'll be able to think clearly up there away from the constant nerve jangling barrage of gunfire." "No my old friend... I have done my best but I fell short, my energy is spent. All you see now is an empty shell." "That's not true." Pyotr said as he gripped his Prime Minister's shoulder. "No it's too late... I wanted to re-establish the Monarchy bring back the glory that our great grandparents knew in the days before the Bolsheviks... I had visions of Rubansk becoming a modern vibrant city to rival the likes of Paris or London... A bridge between Moscow and Brussels. I could have made it work but it's all turned to ashes." The General looked into Koch's face and saw nothing but defeat behind his eyes. "Take Zandra and get on your helicopter... I'll be staying here." "You have no option Prime Minister the rebel forces will be at the gates before nightfall. If you stay the barbarians will lynch you... I've seen what they can do to their hapless captives." "They can't touch me Pyotr, not any more, the damage is already done... Is that pistol in working order General or is it just for show?" "It's part of my dress uniform but of course it is a fully functioning weapon." "Is it loaded?" "Naturally." "I have one last order for you General. Take Zandra to safety and leave me with the pistol." "You would not be able to defend yourself with a pistol Prime Minister, be sensible." "The rebels will not drive me from my office Pyotr nor will they murder me. My future will be in my own hands. I have one last act of courage left in me Pyotr." "Are you sure about this?" "Deadly sure General. Now please follow my orders and may God be with you." The General removed the pistol from the polished leather holster of his dress uniform and lay it gently on the desk in front of his Prime Minister. He took a pace back, stood to attention then saluted the man he had served for so long. Without another word he turned and made his exit. Passing through the door to the Prime Minister's office for the very last time. Boris Koch poured a large measure of brandy from the crystal decanter. He intended to finish the entire decanter before the rebels arrived. He walked to the old gramophone that stood in the corner of the room. It was a decades old piece of equipment and hardly ever used. He selected a recording of Wagner's Tannhäuser overture and turned the volume up high before taking a seat in the corner of the room selecting a plumply cushioned leather armchair with a view of the heavy oak doors. He considered the age of the doors and the craftsmen who had made them two maybe three centuries ago. A different time when things were made to last for ever. And now, would they be splintered into firewood by a rabble? Over the door Koch had hung the carved and gilded seal of Old Sachovia with the two eagles resting on an ancient crown. It was to have been the emblem of the New Monarchy... now it seemed to mock him as much as inspire him. He took a gulp from his glass, in the distance the whine of the helicopter's rotors could be heard over Wagner's swelling chorus. Koch's eyes filled with tears for his lost dreams as the last of the faithful lifted into the air and crossed the dark sky to an uncertain future. The General's pistol rested on the arm of the chair. Boris Koch was defeated but unbowed. ... "Colby... Colby its Valentina." Natasha was bouncing on her toes like a five year old at Christmas. "She wants to speak with you." She held out her phone for him. He looked at the girl and saw the pleasure that renewing her contact with Valentina had given her. "How is she"?... Is she all right, safe?" "Talk to her..." She held out the phone. "Come on its Valentina..." Colby took the phone he seemed reluctant as if speaking to her might push him over some precipice. "Valentina?" "Colby... Is that you?" "It's me." "How are you? Is everything OK with you and Natasha... Oh and thank you for collecting her... Katrina said your impersonation of the vicar was brilliant... I've missed you... Colby... really missed you... I could have used you with me when I sailed from Marseille... Colby are you still there?" There was a silence from the other end of the connection, a silence that held all the dread that Valentina feared. She had tried to be bubbly as if nothing was wrong. "Talk to me Colby... What more can I say?... I'm sorry... I'm sorry." Colby could hear the sniff of tears. "What do you want Valentina?" "I'm in Guernsey... I'd like Natasha to join me here. I'd like to set up home for us here." "Us?" "Natasha and me and... Please say you'll bring Natasha." "You think you can just snap your fingers... Or let your dress slip to the floor... and I'll just come running. I think we've been there Valentina." "Colby... Don't say that... I love you... You once told me that you would always wait for me... I need you. We could be happy again." He snapped the phone shut and wiped his arm across his eyes. He saw Natasha standing watching him, suddenly deflated, her eyes filling with tears as she looked up to him. "I'm sorry Cup-Cake." He said, "I didn't mean for you to hear that." "I love her Colby... I've forgiven her why can't you? We could be together... A family." He shook his head and held out his arms for her, felt her tears of anguish against his chest as she held him tight. "Natasha, you always told be that your only wish was to go back to France to Nice where you grew up. We could go there together... You could teach me to speak French. Maybe we could find a cottage like the one you and Gregori had." "I know I said that. You have become my family now Colby... but not just you... I need Valentina to complete the circle and I know you can't hate her... not deep down. It's just your stubborn pride that's stopping you from finding happiness." He held Natasha tight. The last few months had changed him so much. "What makes you think that I still love Valentina?" he asked her, his voice soft and protective. But there was no answer other than the tightening of her arms around his chest. Chapter 25 Guernsey had woken to another calm autumn morning. The air was fresh and held the anticipation of a fine day; a day for Valentina to start the process of making Guernsey her home. There were financial arrangements to complete, the transfer of funds to her local account. She needed to establish a new identity divorced from the Gussev name. Then there was Mary and John Le Prevost at Le Moulin Farm who knew her as Valentina Gosling. She wanted to say hello and thank them for keeping an eye on the cottage and helping Katrina to get settled. She needed to buy some much needed furnishings for Apple cottage including the foldaway bed. Whether the cottage was to become her long term home was still undecided. It had been more than adequate for herself as a bolt-hole but with Katrina and possibly Natasha to consider it was starting to show its inadequacies... And if Colby should also agree to come... She put that thought on hold, deep in the wishful-thinking basket and set about her morning's duties. Yet hovering over her was still the troubling prospect of having to finally deal with Julia Klimentovà. By mid afternoon all her immediate duties were satisfactorily completed and she sat in the cottage drinking tea and chatting to Katrina who was busily preparing food for the evening meal. Her mind inevitably turned to the Sachovian agent. Dealing with that young woman would not be something to take lightly. Despite her efforts to forget Julia her unseen presence had hung over her day, taking the edge from her contentment. It was more than just the threat she posed but that she had failed to heed the warning. Valentina had hoped to have left the world of violence behind her now. She had turned a new corner on her life, and whoever she might find to share it should be free of the dark stains of her past. Julia Klimentovà was a clear and present threat but as Valentina considered the situation she realized that what had happened was to be expected. If their roles were reversed then she would not have given up either. Some blind stubbornness was an almost essential quality of any successful player in the dangerous game that Julia Klimentovà still played and in which Valentina was an acknowledged exponent. Despite avoiding being completely preoccupied by the inevitable confrontation, Valentina had kept watch for any trace that might betray Klimentovà's presence. She saw none but also knew that darkness was the time to expect the attack. She needed to bring her things up to the cottage from the Falcon and decided that this was best done in daylight. She made her way down to the cove and rowed the inflatable out to the ketch. It was while sorting through the things that she had managed to collect, that she came upon the GPS tracker. The discovery came as no real surprise but held a measure of annoyance for her failure to search earlier for what was something so obvious. At least it explained how she had been found so easily. Valentina destroyed the tracker with an angry crush of her heel but by now it was far too late. Unlocking the secure strong box, she retrieved her Marakov, a menacing tool of trade that belonged to her dark past. She had hoped never to need it again and had intended destroying it. It had crossed her mind to let it slip overboard in mid-channel but she had somehow never quite got round to it. Recent events had forced her into reluctantly reconsidering her intention; maybe she would need to use it once more... Just once more. She tucked it into the band of her jeans where it could rest unseen. Also in the box was a small collection of tools of her trade which would need to be safely disposed of. What stopped her in her tracks was coming upon the ring that Colby had given her when their relationship had seemed something easy and natural. She sat in the stillness and held the ring in her fist. Then in an act that belonged nowhere in her usual repertoire, she made a wish on the simple gold band. A wish like a wide-eyed child might make on a shooting star as it flashed across the heavens. The news of Boris Koch's death had reached her via the morning newspaper. The news had its own poignancy especially the way in which he had elected to meet his end, but his death was also a relief for Valentina and it did draw a veil over her betrayal of the government. Now that both Koch and Prochniak were dead, she seemed free to follow her dreams... If not for the one last encounter that she knew would inevitably end in tragedy in one way or another. There was just one more load to collect from the ketch as Valentina rowed back to the beach. She had spent too long foraging among her belongings and the afternoon shadows were already drawing long. Katrina called down to her as she picked her way carefully up the narrow path. "Is it too early to eat? I've got a little ahead of myself with the preparation." Valentina looked up at her young friend; she had changed so much since her time on Ikinos. At her core she was the same young woman that Valentina had taken under her wing. But recently she had blossomed, put on weight and matured into something of enchanting beauty. Valentina fully understood why John had fallen for her so easily. She understood and approved, all that remained was for Katrina to acknowledge the truth that stared her in the face... that she was destined to become a farmer's wife. Valentina smiled to herself. "No it's not too early..."She called back. "There's just one more load, I can do that after we've eaten." Katrina had made a traditional Sachovian dish: Golabchi which consisted of cabbage rolls stuffed with meat, onion and spices. There was an apple cake cooked in the microwave to follow. Valentina was amazed at how she managed to prepare such good food with the minimal cooking facilities the cottage had to offer. The day had been busy for Valentina and a constant state of alertness had left her rather drained by the tension. She ate hungrily. "This is delicious, just like I remember from when I was a child. I can't remember when I last ate it." "It turned out quite well." Katrina said. "You'll make someone a good wife." Valentina said. "Sorry that sounds like such a cliché thing to say..." "Yes it does..." Katrina replied with a smile that threatened to light up the room. The apple cake was no less welcome and when they had finished eating, Valentina stood and stretched the knots from her back. She could see that darkness was not far away, her fingers involuntarily moved to where the Marakov still sat. It was alarming to feel the gun that she had concealed so naturally. She no longer wanted to be the sort of person who felt at ease around guns and explosives. However, at the same time, the feel of the gun was also a comfort. "I'll just slip back to the Falcon before it gets any darker and pick up that last load. It's amazing how much junk you can accumulate after just a few months." "I'll come and help you row the dingy." "No it's all right I'll only be twenty minutes, I'll be back before it's dark." Valentina pulled on her waterproof jacket against the evening chill and made her cautious way back down to the shingle beach where the inflatable waited. She just had a little canned food from the galley, her collection of books and the last of her bedding to bring back. As she rowed out across the still water towards the Falcon, Valentina looked up to the cliff. She almost expected to see Julia Klimentovà standing with a sniper rifle trained on her. There was no one there. A day ago, Julia had traced the exact position of the ketch almost immediately after arriving on Guernsey. She had taken a hire car to the location under cover of darkness and had driven as close as possible to where she knew the ketch lay. She then walked the cliffs until she saw the Midnight Falcon looming white against the dark water. There appeared to be no one aboard but the little white cottage on the cliff top had seemed like a reasonable place where Valentina might be found. This proved to be the case... She would return the following evening with her weapon and complete her mission with as little fuss as possible. Klimentovà had left her car fifty metres away from the cottage It rested under the shadow of a tall tree barely visible in the twilight. She was dressed in dark clothing and blended into the shadows as she made her way to the cottage. At the cottage she slipped over the wall, took hold of her silenced pistol and tapped at the door. Her plan was as audacious as it was simple. Valentina would be expecting an attack from the shadows not a frontal confrontation. Assassin's never knock at your front door... They always lay in wait under your bed or in the back seat of your car or in a room with a telescopic view across the street. Use the unexpected, even if it seems too simple... It was what Valentina herself had advocated. Julia had learned from the master. Katrina heard the tap at her door and looked up from the book she was reading. She checked her watch, not yet six even though it was already nearly dark. There was the slightest skip of excitement as she wondered if it might be John. As she opened the door there was a moment of surprise. Julia Klimentovà was poised to fire a single head-shot and then slip away unseen... It would have taken five seconds after the door was opened to complete her mission and she would be back on mainland Europe before the body was discovered. But there was a mutual realisation that the person at the door was not the one expected. The SSB agent acted first. Katrina was hit forcefully between the eyes with the butt of the gun. Her head slapped back and her knees buckled but Julia caught her before it hit the floor, before there was any noise. She was inside the cottage, poised like a cat, gun drawn in anticipation but no one else was there. She quickly checked the remaining spaces of the cottage then retuning to the unconscious woman lifted her head. Katrina was already struggling back to an uneasy awareness. "Where's Valentina?" Julia said. It was a voice that demanded an answer, the tone held the obvious threat of more violence to be administered without compassion or any concession to feelings of guilt. Through the fog Katrina remembered Valentina telling her of the assassin sent by Koch. She tried to speak but her mouth would not work. There was a slap across her face and the question was repeated. Katrina struggled to focus her eyes. She saw the image of two faces which slowly came together to reveal a cruel expression. "Who the hell..." Katrina managed to say before Julia had her in a choker hold. What little grip Katrina had on her senses was starting to fade again. She wanted to say I can't breathe, let me free and we can talk. But no words came. She was feeling the blackness creep over her... calling her to let go, to find sleep. "Tell me where she is or I'll finish you now." Julia said. This was already turning into farce, she should be finished and gone by now. Her patience was at an end. She slapped Katrina again. The pain was lost into the darkness of growing unconsciousness. Katrina meant to give nothing away but her eyes turned toward the cove to where the Falcon lay at anchor. It was all Julia needed. "On the boat..." She hissed. One more punch and Katrina lay still, limp like a wilted flower. Julia let her fall back and moved to the rear of the cottage. The moon had just risen, a pale unsmiling face hovering over the horizon. Julia could see the gate that led to the cliff top. She walked on without fear, driven by determination and growing anger. She saw the boat, the cabin's pale light in the growing darkness reflected on the water. With the sails furled the boat floated pale like a phantom might hover in the night. A shudder ran down Julia's back. It was just the chill of the wind she told herself. Valentina was no supernatural foe. She was as susceptible to a bullet as any other living creature. Valentina had been on the point of returning when she saw the dark figure at the top of the cliff. The moment had finally arrived and with it a clarity of thought. "Julia... Julia Klimentovà." she called. The sound of Valentina's voice made the agent suddenly freeze. The voice was strong, confident. The woman simply did not know fear Julia thought. She had considered herself also immune to that weakening force but now when faced with Valentina Gussev, she trembled. Her knees felt barely capable of holding her weight. "Julia, we don't need to do this... Have you not heard the news... Koch is dead there is no longer any point to this." "You're lying... Lying to save yourself." "I am telling you the truth... the truth to save you. Listen to me Julia, I have no wish to kill you. Go home Julia don't waste your life on this." She slipped her Marakov from its hiding place. The old friend, the old enemy. Her fingers closed around the grip. "Don't make me do this..." She said again this time in a softer voice, almost to herself. Julia was starting down the path her feet feeling carefully at each step for a firm foot hold. Valentina held up her gun. It flashed in the moonlight. "Do you know how many have fallen to this Marakov during the war Julia? Don't let it claim another life before I finally destroy it." Julia continued edging down the path and Valentina with enormous regret took aim at her last enemy. She was an excellent shot and she knew the Marakov with an intimacy that would allow her to easily bring down Klimentovà even from this distance, even with the roll of the Falcon to allow for. "Valentina... look out... " The words loud and shrill pierced the falling darkness like the scream of a night owl. It was Katrina who had struggled back from her oblivion to desperately warn her friend. The sound of Katrina's voice hit Julia like a shock wave, in her state of high tension she twisted violently, her eyes turning up to the top of the cliff. Valentina aim was precise, she squeezed off her shot and Julia's gun was shot from her fingers. For an instant Julia was stunned, no one could shoot that well but there she stood disarmed with a single impossible shot by Valentina Gussev. All she had heard of her was true, she had never really believed it before... But the agent's sudden involuntary movement proved fatal. As she turned back to look at Katrina in astonishment, her balance was lost and she slipped half a metre on the loose rock and then as she twisted in the direction of the slide, she tipped forward. There was no longer anything she could do as she plunged in free fall. Valentina watched as the dark figure fell, bouncing against the cliff edge. There was no real scream just a snarl of desperation as Julia tried to save herself. Valentina could only hear the rattle of slipping gravel and the sickening sound of tender flesh against hard rock. Julia was already dead before her body landed with a thud against the jagged outcrop that ringed the shingle beach. Valentina rowed back to the beach in a daze. She struggled past the tragic body up to the top of the cliff, her thoughts were focussed on Katrina. When Valentina found her she was on her knees trembling and pale, her face bloody but she managed a smile as Valentina sank down and held her. Finally Valentina led her back to the warmth of the cottage. "What did she do to you Katrina?..." "It's all right... I'm OK now." Valentina sat her on the sofa and brought warm water and bathed her face. She had been lucky. Valentina realized that Katrina had been of no interest to Julia Klimentovà just an inconvenience to brush aside. "Is she dead? I heard her fall." "Yes... She could have turned away and gone home... back to her family." "What do we do now?" Katrina said. "Do you feel strong enough to help me?" "Yes, what do you need?" "I think it's time that I finally killed off Valentina Gussev..." She said with a crack of emotion in her voice. Valentina collected a small bag of things she needed and with immense care they picked their way back down to the beach. "This won't be pleasant Katrina but I need to dress her in my clothes." "Ah I think I understand now..." Together they re-dressed Julia, lifted her into the dingy and rowed back to the Falcon. With a huge effort they lifted the body up onto the gently rolling ketch. Valentina wrapped her own Sachovian passport into the folds of a heavy leather wallet and tucked it deep into the inside pocket of the jacket. Valentina slipped below deck to where there was access to the diesel tank. She eased the fuel feed connection until there was a steady drip of fuel. "I'm sorry old friend." She said in a whisper. The words were not for Julia Klimentovà, they were not for any living person but were for the Midnight Falcon that had one last sad mission to complete. She found her way to the strong box and recovered the contents... A precious ring that she could never leave behind and a sealed container of things that no sane person would ever need. One of which was an incendiary device. She popped her head back up to the deck. "Get back in the dingy Katrina... I need to lower the foresail. Then I'll join you." Valentina returned to the diesel tank, already the volatile fumes had gathered dangerously in the enclosed space. She set the timer on the incendiary fuse and lay it on the tank. With the foresail and the self steering set, Valentina finally slipped off the Falcon for the last time, her fingers reluctant to let go of the precious timbers. With an effort of will she released the mooring rope and already her eyes were flooded with tears, her vision blurred as she whispered a farewell to her pretty little ketch. It was a falling tide and the Falcon, as if it knew what it must now do, eased away from the cove. The soft wind caught at the sail and drew the her out into deeper water. The self steering had been set to send the Falcon out close to the coast. Valentina let go of the rope that held the dingy to the ketch, then rowed back to the beach. They stood silent as if at a funeral as the Falcon, hardly visible, eased away into the night. It marked an opportunity for Valentina to finally say goodbye to Sascha. She had no body to bury, no knowledge of where he lay but in her mind the Falcon would be his resting place. Through the blur of Valentina's tears there was a sudden burst of flame and the ketch was lit up as it took its final tragic journey. There was no holding the tears now as the Falcon grew smaller, sailing unmanned into the void of darkness. Katrina held her friend, she shared the pain of Valentina's loss. There were no words she could find to say but she thought of a Viking Funeral as the flames reached up and took the sail in a burst of fire. The ketch would be easily visible to anyone along the coast now. "She was like a friend..." Valentina finally said. Then when it was about a mile off shore the Falcon was finally holed and slowly it sank into the black water. The flames were gone. The Midnight Falcon was gone and with it Valentina Gussev was also gone. "She's sunk Katrina... I can hardly believe it... my dear Falcon." She sounded desolate as she took Katrina's arm. The moon had risen higher in the clear sky and Katrina could see the silvery tears on Valentina's cheeks. Together they pulled the inflatable up above the high tide line and turned once more to the spot where the Falcon lay at rest. As they made their way back up to the cottage Valentina suddenly felt bereft as if her life no longer held any meaning for her. She needed Colby desperately and despite the wish she had made on his ring, he was still silent and angry, missing from her life. Chapter 26 They made their way carefully, delicately picking a route up the murderous path until they reached the little cottage at the top of the cliff. Katrina held Valentina as they sat before a fire and felt the night fall silently around them. "Everything has changed." Valentina said. "I'm not sure I know who I am anymore." "It's just the shock; you'll feel better after a good night's sleep." "I am tired Katrina... I hadn't quite realised how weary I feel. The life I've led has drained me of everything. It was a big price to pay for nothing but failure." "No Valentina, you've achieved a great deal there's no way your life has been a failure." "I fought to save my country... that lies in ruins now... I corrupted those I loved and led them to their own despair. I lost the one who I've loved since we first met... Not a great record." Katrina could not stand to hear her friend talk like this. "Now stop this, I won't listen to any more. You're just listing the negatives. Without you, I probably wouldn't be alive and as for Natasha..." "Natasha?... Without me she'd be living a happy life as a normal French schoolgirl with no troubles in the world, no one plotting her future or her murder." "That's all over now... Natasha is safe and free." But Valentina was not listening, slowly bit by bit, she was withdrawing into herself, into an impenetrable shell woven of shame and grief and hopelessness. Katrina brought them wine. It was not celebration wine, the mood was of sadness for the death of a young woman that they hardly knew... It was sadness for the loss of the ketch and the brother who would never return. Sadness for Natasha and Colby and a life wasted. All these things had been embodied in the Midnight falcon. It was consolation wine and they drank until the sharp edges of the sadness were softened. Valentina finally lost herself in sleep... Weeks and weeks of sleep. A deep hibernation through which she was sustained wholly by the love and care freely given by Katrina. Occasionally she would rise and stand on the cliff top with the cold wind biting into her. If she listened carefully she thought sometimes she could hear the rattle of the Falcon's rigging carried on the wind... calling to her to race heedless down the path to join her. Valentina did not emerge from her depression until the winter was almost over, showing the last sting in its tail before the renewal that the coming spring might bring. But when she did emerge she was changed, softened, the veneer of self confidence fractured but she was somehow whole again. But it wasn't until Katrina announced that she and John were to be engaged that Valentina finally fully woke up. The news that Natasha and Colby were coming to Guernsey for the engagement party was the final reason that Valentina needed to cast off the weight of slumber. For far too long she had wanted to be with them again. But she understood now that Colby might no longer feel that he had love to give her and that he was unable to express his feelings to her. She had driven a part of him away, perhaps it was destroyed forever by her actions. She understood that this bitter knowledge was behind everything she had felt over the past weeks of despondency. Now that she would see him again, there was a glimmer of hope... Hope is the last resort we can all cling to when all else fails. Overlooking the picturesque harbour of St Peter Port the rooms that Mary had booked for her son's engagement party were the place that Valentina hoped that her wish might finally be made real. A taxi had brought Colby and Natasha straight from the airport. It was already evening when they arrived. They stood by the open door looking lost, looking for a familiar face. Valentina was stunned into silence by the sight of them haloed in the door frame. She stood hardly able to move. Natasha had no feelings for her other than unconditional love; their separation had only reinforced those feelings. They had been apart for too long and the girl ran across the room and leapt into Valentina's open arms. "I think you've grown darling." Valentina said as she pulled the girl's face up to her and kissed her cheeks. Then she turned back towards Katrina. "Katrina... There's someone here who you might like to say hello to." Katrina lifted her eyes. It was no surprise... she had invited them herself; her motives were exactly as might be imagined and her eyes fell on Colby and watched as he approached Valentina with strange nervousness. Katrina hugged Natasha and then made her way over to Colby. Standing on her toes she did exactly what Valentia seemed unable to do and kissed Colby. "I shall have strong words with you if you and Valentina are not reconciled by the end of the evening." She whispered into his ear. "She's not been well Colby... I think you might be the only one who can save her from herself." Katrina looked deep into Colby's eyes and he could feel how seriously she had intended her words to be. Before Colby could reply she turned across the room clutching Natasha's hand. "You must meet John." she said with nervous excitement. Valentina moved closer to Colby... "Do you want to take a walk for a while?" She said. "Hello Valentina... If you like." They moved out of the hotel and walked slowly down the hill towards the lights of the town. The air seemed to hum with the prospect of rain. "Shall I start?" Valentina said. "Do you have some sort of a speech prepared?" "Hardly that... I know I can't expect anything of you after what I did... but I need to try, in whatever clumsy way spills out of my mouth... I need you to know how I feel." But it was made more difficult not only because she could not really explain her feelings but because she did not know how Colby would react. "Do you think you might, put your anger on hold for a minute, just to help me." "I admit that I was angry... no, maybe not really angry... disappointed. But even that's gone now." "Gone in the sense that you no longer care, that there is nothing left?" "No not that... never that Valentina." She caressed the sound of Colby's voice as he spoke her name. As they walked he seemed to slip away into silence, wrapped up in his own reflections. Suddenly he was aware of her looking up into his face, hearing her say: "And do you know why?" "Why what?" He said. "That you still care." "If I could answer that, I would be a wise man. I just do." "Then act as if you care," she said. "You seem as lost as I've been." "I've been lost for a long time Valentina... I once thought you might be my way back." "I still could be... We can be each other's way back." "I was wondering how you would find it back at the cottage. With no one there now Katrina's soon to be married." He said deflecting the conversation towards safer ground. "I may not be going back for long," she said "the Cottage and the cliff edge haunts me with unwanted memories. I had such a fondness for the place but I don't need all that goes with it..." She looked up into his face. "Where will you go?" He said. "Let's go back inside... I'll tell you when we've had a drink. I need to ask you something." Back in the hotel there was gentle music playing, an easy background to the jumble of voices that settled over them like a patchwork quilt. Valentina caught Mary le Prevost's eye across the room. She was standing with John and Katrina who still clutched Natasha's arm as if the girl might disappear if she were to let go. Mary waved at Valentina. She smiled back then Katrina blew her a kiss across the room. It was as if Valentina stood on the edge of this newly forming family, welcome but not quite a part of it. She eased Colby to the buffet and they filled plates with the hotel finger food and took glasses of red wine. From the throng of people most of whom were strangers to them, Colby and Valentina drifted off to a corner. "You were going to tell me where you might go." Colby said as he sipped from his glass. "It's hinges on something I need to ask you..." Valentina said. "You see... I've found this place... A family home, there's plenty of room for... Anyway it's within walking distance of a boat charter company I've got my eye on." Colby said something about how nice that sounded. He was careful to float over the subtext but Valentina had begun now, there was no turning back. "Would you be interested in bringing Natasha... Coming with me?" Valentina took his two hands with impulsive affection and looked up into his face. Before Colby could respond there was a call across the room for glasses to be raised for John and Katrina. "Katrina has lived for this moment," Valentina said. "All she ever wanted was a decent man to love her – come on, let's drink to their future." At the table, they held up their glasses and drank to Katrina and John. Colby turned to see Natasha, the glow of happiness at being among people she loved gave him a twinge of guilt. He held out his arms to her and she came to him, her face shining with joy. "I'm so happy for Katrina." She said. Valentina watched them, the closeness between them had become easy and natural, for an instant she felt shut out again. She tried to imagine herself wrapped in the folds of such a relationship. The wine had softened Valentina's reticence and on an impulse she took Colby's face in her hands, and kissed him – like a friend. "Can't we start again Colby?" Then she pressed her lips against Colby's mouth again. This time with a passion that had little to do with simple friendship. Colby knew that he could bear no more of this. He felt he could no longer face the torture that he felt every time he thought of her or looked at her face. It called for something that he felt incapable of giving her any more. He could not stand the idea of being false to her, he felt that she deserved more, much more. Deserved a man more worthy than he. He made some excuse and went out, leaving her there with John and Mary and Katrina and Natasha and a sea of unknown faces. Colby felt the same way he had on the day when he heard that the Falcon had been sunk, he felt sad and bewildered and incapable of responding in any meaningful way. He went into the men's room to wash his hands. A man, no longer young, combing his hair at the wash-hand basin asked him who he was with at the party. Then staring at his reflection in the mirror he spoke words that resonated with Colby. "You know." He said "Sometimes when I look in the mirror these days, I don't even recognise the bugger who's looking back at me." Colby thought he knew what the man had meant but before he could summon an answer the man had straightened his unaccustomed tie and returned to the noise of celebration. Colby suddenly felt in need of air and moved out onto the covered terrace among the exiled smokers who breathed their fumes into the damp night. The anticipated rain had started to fall and he stood watching the big drops curling down through the shafts of window light, into a world already drowning. In the air there was a curious soft breath, gentle but filled with the cold sting of the night air. Drips of water from the overflowing gutter, large and shining made a line of wetness where they fell on the gleaming bricks of the terrace. Then he felt suddenly shocked as he suddenly saw himself as someone he no longer knew. Colby had been there five minutes or more when Valentina opened the glass entrance doors and came out to look for him. "Oh! you're there," she said. "I somehow thought you would be." She came and stood beside him. She had put on a coat. The material was thick and softly pink, a colour that he never associated with Valentina. "It's Katrina's – she lent it to me... You're not cold are you?" she said. He was dressed in a light jacket hardly adequate for the weather. "It's chillier out here with the rain." Colby said. She touched his hands. "You feel frozen," she said "come into my coat," and she undid the buttons and folded him into her warmth, close against the heat of her body. "I've been lost for a while Colby." She said. She pulled him close her eyes softly closing as she breathed in the familiar scent of his skin and remembered with pain how easily they had made love just a few months ago. "I think you've lost weight." Colby said. "Unrequited love can do that." Valentina whispered across his ear into the damp evening air. Colby too was pulled into the past as he remembered her body, soft and young and firm-breasted, as he had first seen it in Sachovia a decade ago. Valentina brushed her lips across his face, gently, thoughtfully, as if to soothe him. "You still haven't answered my question." She whispered with her eyes still closed as if the darkness gave her courage. "What question?" "The question about the family home. Would you come with me? Would it be impossible?" Colby watched the rain slowly merging into the background of darkness beyond the lights of the terrace. Would he go with her to the family home? He felt the question float away, losing itself in the rain and darkness, dissolved among the saturated air and the distant crash of waves. Colby knew that it was a question that he was afraid to answer but that finally he would have to find the courage to face it. And then Valentina said softly compellingly "It's easy Colby... just say yes." Colby stared into the darkness, trying to frame an answer. The rain now silent as it fell onto the glistening concrete. Lost in that silence Colby felt that he could hear an echo of past times bouncing back to him across the darkness. "You will come, you and Natasha, won't you?" she said. "You're not still caught up in something that no longer matters are you? Sachovia is dead to me and all that it corrupted me to do. Can't we forget the past and look towards a future together?" "I can't come with you," Colby said. Valentina did not speak for a few moments. He felt her body quiver before, with a voice filled with infinite sadness she finally said: "Why? Colby tell me why." "I just can't come with you." He repeated and heard her sharply drawing her breath through the roundness of her lips that were still held close to him. Still she would not release him from the warmth of the coat, from the pressure of her argument. "Do you mean you don't want to come with me?" she said. "You mean you don't want me, that your love for me has died?" "It isn't that..." "So you do still love me? Remember what you once told me... that you loved me and nothing could ever change that." The directness of the question that he had feared for so long and did not want to face struck him like a poisoned arrow. He felt his entire body drowning with the bitterness of regret. Then he felt her begin to ease the tightness of her grip on him in some half hearted struggle to set him free, but she could not quite let him go, not yet. "If you don't love me anymore just say so – Maybe I could understand it. I know I've given you enough reason." "How could you understand it?" He said "When I hardly understand it myself." She did not speak for a moment or two. From somewhere across the town Colby could hear the sharp sound of a motorcycle. The sound seemed to intensify a silence already so heavy with rain that everything was muted. He could not see a single light from St Peter Port as the rain seemed to bring down the gloom like a dark curtain. In this strange moment of quietness the movement of her body against him seemed suddenly to crystallize his feelings. There was something reassuring in the warmth of the coat, the feel of her close to him again. "That was how I fell into depression." She said. "I think it was mostly because of all the things I did to you... If there had been no one that I needed desperately then I might have found the loss of Sascha and the Falcon and all the rest of it easier to bear." Carried on the wind the sound of the motorcycle faded into a poignancy. Valentina rubbed her face against Colby's chest. "You know Valentina Gussev died out there in the flames of the Falcon. They found her scorched body the next day and made the identification. No one in Sachovia cares anymore in any case, they have much more than me or even Natasha to worry about now. But when she died it was as if I lost my identity. I need you to recognise me... to call me by my name. Then I'd somehow no longer be lost." "And what is your name?" "Still Valentina... I'm Valentina Gosling... sailor and sometime lover of the best man in the world." Colby suddenly became aware of her face. The trouble she had endured. He could see that her dream was dying and he knew suddenly that he did not want her to lose it, exactly as Natasha had not wanted to be separated from her. But he had turned his face from both of their wishes. Colby could not bear the thought of her in pain. What he saw of himself, reflected in Valentina seemed gradually no longer strange. The unrecognisable edges of a person distorted as much by fear of love as by lack of love began to reshape themselves into something that was finally starting to make sense to him. Without Valentina he was not whole. He had so often thought of her but recently it was always in the abstract, always with sadness. It had not occurred to him before that the pain of love might be what you need to endure to make it real. Nor had he grasped that what he felt for Natasha and even Katrina was almost entirely to do with the love he felt for her. He felt suddenly stupid when he finally realised that he had rejected her love because of his own inadequacy. His feeling of being used, betrayed was just an excuse. Nor had he grasped that he might have made her and Natasha suffer through wielding his selfish pride as if it had been a shield against his pain. "Would you forgive me?" she said, "for the shameful, terrible things I did?" Colby did not speak, he remembered all the others that he had misjudged though the prism of his own self concern. "Would you forgive me?" she repeated softly, trembling, knowing that her future balanced on his answer and that this was the last chance she would ever have to convince him. The self inflicted wounds of his misjudgements were suddenly laid before him with such clarity that he could not speak. "I thought of you every night when I lay there in my cottage. After I sent the Falcon off in flames with the last trace of my identity, it was like saying goodbye to Sascha and everything I loved. It was the worst moment of my life as I reached some sort of bottom; there was no one inside my empty body anymore. If not for Katrina, dear Katrina, I might not even have survived... But even in my darkest moments I still wanted you. You and Natasha." "There is nothing to forgive anymore." Colby said. The sad tipping of her voice into tears seemed to wake him at last. He had never seen her so fragile and holding her, folding himself deeper into the borrowed coat, he shut out the rain and the darkness. Valentina lifted her face up to him. "Do you remember the time on the Falcon... The first time when we set sail from this little Island?" she said. "That lovely weather, just the two of us?" "Yes." Colby said. "So will you come with me to the family home?" Colby knew now the answer he must give. He nuzzled against her cheek and spoke softly in little more than a whisper: "Yes," He said. "I think I will Valentina Gosling." "Oh... Colby... It took me a long time to fully understand just what I had done to you, but I know now and I know how much pain it gave you. I know because I have lived with the same pain myself." She pressed her face into his chest and as he held her Colby felt that he could hear the sound of the sea rising up again against the bow of the Falcon. He remembered the happy stolen moments with Valentina before she had told him what she had done. He could no longer allow regrets to be bound up in those memories that stretched back across the years. He suddenly felt set free of his past, he could even, finally, forgive himself for what had happened in black shadows in the stark north African sunlight all those years ago. Valentina had brought him this gift of insight through her own pain. Forgiveness is meant, not only for others, but for yourself and through it all he could no longer fight against the truth that he and Valentina belonged together. Staring through the rain he could already feel the warmth of the coming spring, the call of the gulls leaning on the bright air and the crash of the ocean with Valentina and Natasha at his side.

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