A seagull shrieks outside Ksenia’s window then whirls away to skim over the breakers. It’s the same damn bird that always wakes her at 4 am, an hour before she rises. She yawns and gives it the finger, thinking Why do I even bother going to bed? I, Ksenia Orekhov, am going to shoot that bird.
Sliding into a silk dressing gown she heads for the shower. It’s Friday and her day off, but she hates to lie in bed. It’s a waste of time. Unlike Von, Ksenia works for a living as a part-time IT security specialist, since she refuses to benefit from what her mother Vonya calls ‘tributes for love’. This gets translated by the Revenue Office as ‘living off immoral earnings.’ Their sea-front penthouse flat is conveniently close to Brighton Rail Station. Each working morning Ksenia wakes at five to get the six-o-nine train into Victoria, running for the connection that gets her to the office in Twickenham for 8 am. She was lucky to find a new company that didn’t examine passports and work visas too closely.
She sighs as she towels herself, looking into the mirror at her rake-thin body. ‘So stylish to be so thin, my dear,’ Von always says. She quite likes her hair which is blonde with a little help and has a natural tendency to frizz in the morning. Von says it’s because Leo’s probably her father. Ksenia drops the wet towel as though it’s contaminated by the thought, and takes a clean one, thinking, Oh God I hope not. I wonder if there’s a way of getting someone’s genes out of your body. It makes me sick to think I’ve got his sleazy DNA coiling all through me like letters in a stick of Brighton rock. She dries her hair efficiently, trying to blast the idea out of her head. Anyway, Von said ‘probably’. Twenty-four years ago, she must have had a lot more men to choose from than a kitten-kicker like Leo. With a last blast her hair’s smooth again. Staring into the mirror as she applies her make-up, she examines her narrow face, her expressive dark-blue eyes sombre and thoughtful. I don’t look anything like him. I wish Most were my father.
Von’s men have come and gone but Most is a constant in Ksenia’s life. He’s a bit of an antique, but luckily his bank balance is as healthy as a gym bunny. It’s a powerful attraction for Von, addict shopper in Brighton’s Lanes. He has the friable, cultivated elegance of a courtly Spanish grandee, and he’s very fond of Ksenia. Grabbing jeans, shirt, and pants from the floor she slides into her clothes and ankle boots and heads for the galley kitchen.
Time for a cup of coffee and the first ciggie of the day—food’s not her goal. Von’s Sobranies in their open silver tray tempt her, but she needs the swifter jolt from her Egyptian brand. She leans on the breakfast bar, dismissing Von’s lover boy Leo from her mind and drawing in peace of mind from the shifting shades of the seascape framed by the floor-to-ceiling windows. Joyfully inhaling the morning’s signature scent of coffee and camel-dung cigarettes, she relaxes her shoulders and thinks of her last meeting with Most. That job paid for Von’s last destructive raid on her credit card. Maybe he won’t forget her. Her Blackberry whines and she flicks it to scroll the text message:
Meet me Vanuzzis 10 am LGW
Bring suitcase two days. Most
Ksenia smiles as she sends ‘OK’, making a mental note to take her Russian and UK passports. In another ten minutes she’s packed a bag; she’s used to it. It’s a job. Scribbling a note to Vonya, (‘Away three days with Most. Taken credit cards. Behave.’), she runs down the four flights and out the door.
Gatwick North heaves with frantic movement like a City pub at closing time. Ksenia looks through a throng of shuffling, sweaty travellers to the haven of the bar and sees Most relaxing in an armchair reading the Washington Post, a faint smile on his face. He knows the truths behind the newsprint. Glancing up he sees Ksenia looking his way and rises, folding his newspaper. His face lights up as he walks towards her with his arms held out.
‘It’s been too long, devushka dorogaya.’
The smells of sandalwood and cigarettes on his elegant overcoat are reassuringly familiar to Ksenia. She snuffs up remembered comfort in his arms, savouring his ‘dear girl’ endearment. Good to know she can count on his remembering past successes.
He pats her back and releases her, beckoning to someone over her shoulder. ‘My business in Washington went well. Now we’re going to Biggin Hill; I’ve a charter waiting. Leonard here will drive us.’
‘Are we going to Petersburg again?’
He nods. It’s typical of Most to take a charter flight. She can’t imagine him in the company of ordinary travellers. They’d sense him as a herd of sheep sense a predator in their midst.
Tall as a plane tree and clad in a suit of sombre grey, Leonard uses his height and powerful shoulders to cut a path through the throng like a scythe. A Mercedes is waiting; the short drive brings them to one of Biggin Hill’s charter plane hangars where a neat, needle-nosed Lear jet sits on the tarmac. Silent Leonard the chauffeur becomes Leonard the pilot as they complete the departure process and board.
‘We’re flying into Pskov; it’s less busy, and from there Leonard will drive us to the hotel. We can pick up the M20.’ Most tucks a cashmere blanket around Ksenia’s shoulders as she settles into the cream leather seat. ‘Try to sleep.’
Two hours later they land on the charter runway at Pskov and pass through the Arrivals hangar at speed. A Volga V12 Coupe is waiting for Leonard the driver.
Ksenia runs her hand over the gleaming bonnet of the classic car, admiring the retro styling.
‘You keep the old ways, then?’
Patting the car, Most exchanges a glance with Leonard. ‘It has its uses; this one was bought in Moscow. The glass is bullet-proof.’ He ushers Ksenia gently into the back seat and sits next to his driver, taking a file of papers from the glovebox. As the car speeds through the dusky afternoon Ksenia takes her i-POD from the pocket of her leather jacket and pops in her Buds, closing her eyes again. The only way to travel in this country is with rapper Oxxymiron’s voice guiding her back to her roots.
Entering Primorskaya on the city’s outskirts, the brutalist ranks of stone tower blocks in Ulitsa Nalichnaya come into view: her mother’s birthplace. No wonder she took the quickest route out of here, Ksenia thinks. I would too. They pass Moskovskiy railway station and the graffiti-covered garages between Ligovsky Prospekt and Ulitsa Vosstaniya in the city centre, old and perilous playgrounds for her friends. The main streets of Petersburg have arched entrances that lead to through to a timeless warren of enclosed squares called dvor, one of the most characteristic features of the city. Ksenia finds them fascinating, and very useful too. They’re an ancient stone maze in which pursuers can be lost with ease; she knows them like the back of her hand.
‘No 14 again?’ Ksenia asks, and Most nods. She smiles, as she likes the gracious Italianate hotel on the Moyka Embankment, part of the Venetian canal landscape created by Peter the Great. Most’s favourite poet Puschkin has a historical connection with the house and its opulent fin de siècle décor makes Most feel at home. It’s there he’ll wait as she stalks the target he sets. She never misses.
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