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«Quiller Balalaika», Adam Hall

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Book 19 in the Quiller series, 1996

 

More vicious than the Sicilian brotherhood, and more powerful than the dons of New York, the Mafiya is omnipotent in post-Soviet Russia. Even Quiller thinkstwice about moving unarmed and unprotected into into its deadly labyrinth.

But now he has no choice. In a mission deemed suicidal even by Croder,Quiller is up against the most evil man in Russia…

1: SNOW

As the TU-154 bounced and floated and bounced again I wiped the mist off the window with the back of my hand and the flashing lights out there became brighter, and I could see a white carpet of fire-foam with yellow-caped figures wading through it.

The smell of garlic came suddenly on the air as Ivan leaned across me to take a look. Ivan had been my fellow-passenger all the way from Paris and I knew the names and ages of his six grandchildren but still wasn't sure what had happened to Rudi, the third-from-youngest: Ivan had been reticent on the details, and all I knew about little Rudi was that he had 'been an angel' and that hundreds had sobbed when they'd lowered the casket into the ground, hundreds.

'The last one,' Ivan said now with disgust as he stared through the window at the wrecked jetliner, 'was in Tashkent, only a week ago. A Yak-42, with thirty more people on board than there should have been.' He shrugged into his black astrakhan collar. 'Par for the course – there aren't enough planes.' The scene swung in a half-circle as the jet made its turn and started rolling towards the terminal, and the question flashed through my mind: why wasn't I feeling relieved that we were safely down? Because it can never happen to us, that's right. 'But it wasn't the extra load,' Ivan told me. 'They said there was water in the fuel tanks. It had been refuelled in St Petersburg in the pouring rain.' He slumped back into his seat. 'Get the water out of the fuel tanks and the vodka out of the pilots and we'd all sleep easier under our seat belts.'

Light snow was falling as we nosed into the runway gate; it had been announced from the flight-deck earlier: light snow, the wind at five knots, the night temperature ten below freezing, welcome to Moscow.

Ivan pumped my hand and presented me with a Cellophane-wrapped packet of toothpicks, courtesy of McDonald's. He said he hadn't checked any baggage. Nor had I, but I went off in the direction of the baggage claim because that was where I'd been told that Legge would make contact.

On my way there I passed an Aeroflot official standing on some kind of box to give him height above the people flocking around him; their faces were blank with disbelief or angry or wet with tears as he tried to reassure them: the rescue teams had now prised the cabin door of the crashed plane open and gained access to the passengers; the flight-deck had continued to report to the tower since the landing, but 'reception was difficult'. It was said that some – perhaps many – passengers were alive, together with three of the crew. Hope must be steadfastly maintained, the official told them, until definite news became available; meanwhile, free vodka and other refreshments were to be had at the cafeteria for those who wished to go there. Some of this was half-lost in the wailing of an ashen-faced babushka who stood rocking her shawled head back and forth between her hands, a little girl clutching at her skirt, her huge eyes staring at something she had never seen before: the sudden spinning away of the world she had always been told she could trust.

Legge was waiting for me at the baggage claim, watching me from the middle of the crowd until he thought I matched the description he'd been given. I'd never seen him before either; I'm just quick to note when I'm being watched, and no one else knew I was here. All I'd been given was his name, and the code-intro.

'All my eye,' he said.

'And Betty Martin.'

'You've got no baggage coming through?'

'No.'

'This way, then.' He was short, energetic, rolled a little in his walk, didn't look round to make sure I was keeping up as we nudged our way between people with wet coats and snowboots, their eyes half-hidden under their fur hats, snow on some of their shoulders: they were in from the street, like this man Legge, to meet passengers. From snatches of conversation I picked up they were talking about the crash, just heard the news.

'We've got customs clearance for you,' Legge said, 'but they'll want to see your visa at Intourist.' A young woman was coming out of the office with a clipboard and Legge steered her back and gave her the visa and she checked it and ripped off her section and didn't seem certain whether to give the visa back to Legge or to me, so I took it and put it away.

'If we can be of any help to you,' she said, 'at Intourist, here is our card and you have only to call us.' A stunning smile: she knew about the customs waiver and that I had to be some kind of VIP to qualify.

We got into a battered black Audi outside the terminal and the chains began beating a tattoo as we moved off through the rutted ice of the street.

'Ex-Navy?' I asked Legge.

He didn't look at me. 'Crystal ball?'

Sometimes a man's walk can tell you more than his eyes, that was all, especially if he doesn't know you're watching him. After a couple of miles I took another look at the far right top corner of the outside mirror on the passenger's side and saw the dark grey Volga was still there, keeping station two cars behind.


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