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The Midnight Falcon

 

The Midnight Falcon

By Graham Saunders

 

 

Colby, not quite the man he used to be.

Valentina, beautiful, a seductress, dangerous.

Natasha, a child born to be a Queen…

What could possibly go wrong?

 

***

 

 

Copyright 2016 Graham Saunders

 

A Shakespir Edition

 

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

About the author

Chapter 1

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.

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.”

***

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The Midnight Falcon

Sachovia is an Eastern European state newly emerging from its communist past and a recent destructive civil war. A populist call goes up to re-instate the old Monarchy. This does not please the parliamentary opposition and plots are put in place to ensure that a monarchy will never emerge again. Since the assassination of her elder brother, there is only one remaining link to the old monarchy – Natasha Kashinka. She is a child, an orphan and has no desire to leave France, the land of her birth to be taken to a war ravaged country she does not know. But forces greater than she can resist have taken hold of her future. In London, Colby Linden once a high flying close protection officer for Equis Security, has been sidelined after a botched rescue attempt involving the tragic death of a young boy. The boy's death still weighs heavily on Colby's shoulders and he has sunk to a position of obscurity in the depths of Equis security. When an opportunity to redeem himself by covertly escorting young Natasha to Sachovia, he finds himself uncertain that he still has what it takes. Valentina Gussev, an agent of the Sachovian Security Bureau, uses the past she shared with Colby to convince him to accept the commission. They set out together aboard her ketch – The Midnight Falcon to the tiny Greek island of Ikinos where Natasha has been kept secure in the care of young Katrina and Captain Kowalski. The old feelings between Valentina and Colby emerge again but something in Valentina's behaviour suggests that all is not well. The three of them sail to the Croatian city of Dubrovnik and from there, keeping a low profile Colby and Natasha travel north by motorcycle to Trieste where further instructions await them. Valentina returns to Ikinos to tidy up lose ends and finds that Katrina has been abandoned by Kowalski. They leave Ikinos together and it is revealed that Valentina is a double agent working towards the demise of Natasha. Her motivation which has come close to destroying her is blackmail. She believes that her brother Sascha is being held captive on pain of death unless she abandons her conscience and cooperates with the anti-monarchists. The unimaginable happens when Natasha is kidnapped from under Colby's nose in Italy. A ransom is demanded of Boris Koch the Prime Minister of Sachovia for her return. He believes that Valentina is still loyal to his cause and instructs her to sail her ketch to a rendezvous where Natasha will be recovered in exchange for the ransom. It is revealed that Captain Kowalski is one of the kidnappers. Valentina confesses to Colby what she has done, the ultimate betrayal of the ones she loves. Colby is left bewildered and outraged. Before Natasha is safely recovered it seems that she and Kowalski are shot dead. Valentina calls Boris Koch and tells him that Natasha is dead. She admits her guilt to him. Boris, driven by vengeance, sends an Assassin after Valentina. Unrest is fermenting again in Sachovia and it looks as if another civil war is about to break out. Valentina convinces Colby to meet Natasha and take her to London until she can make permanent arrangements for the child's welfare. Katrina finds refuge on the Channel Island of Guernsey in a cottage owned by Valentina. She meets a boy and a romance develops. Valentina sails her boat to Guernsey but the assassin is on her tail. After an encounter the assassin is left dead and the Midnight Falcon sunk. Sachovia finally collapses into war again and Boris Koch faces his end with dignity, his hopes dashed. Valentina sinks into a depression which is lifted when she is finally reunited with Natasha and Colby. There is forgiveness and the hope of a happy future for the three of them on Guernsey.

  • ISBN: 9781311414281
  • Author: Graham Saunders
  • Published: 2016-10-18 10:06:59
  • Words: 92404
The Midnight Falcon The Midnight Falcon