A HARD WOMAN TO KILL

 

 

 

Claudia Liebig looked at the young boy’s picture. Serg was

frowning hard in concentration as he drew. In five years of

teaching Claudia had never met such an intense child. Everything

Serg did was coloured with the same remorseless focus.

Claudia had rebelled against the tenets of her art school,

which was ultra-liberal, focused on the idea that theory was

as important, or maybe more so, than technique. Claudia

disagreed and here at the small, international private school

near Alexanderplatz in central Berlin where she was the art

teacher, figurative work featured highly. By all means, she

said, be abstract, but before you do me a series of coloured

rectangles or cubist faces, or before you display an everyday

object as art, show me you can paint like Mondrian, Picasso

or Duchamp could.

Today her pupils were drawing their parents at work. Desks

and rudimentary offices were the main themes – most of the

parents worked in offices and some of the children’s parents

were in TV, so there was a smattering of cameras and monitors

depicted in the paintings.

Serg was drawing some tanks; they looked scarily real. She

admired them.

‘T-80s,’ said Serg. He spoke flawless German even though

Russian was his mother tongue. He had an amazing vocabulary

too, thought Claudia. Teachers shouldn’t have favourites, but

they do. Serg was hers. Despite being Russian. Not a popular

thing to be in nineties Berlin.

‘That’s nice,’ said Claudia. Serg bowed his head over his

painting, colouring in the tanks battleship-grey. ‘Are they good

tanks?’ Serg lifted his head and looked steadily at her with

his startlingly green eyes. He was a child of almost unearthly

beauty, thought Claudia, like his mother.

‘My father says that remains to be seen.’

‘Is that your father in the tank?’ Claudia pointed to the

picture.

Serg shook his head and indicated a figure in a jeep. It

was astonishingly well drawn. Claudia had met Serg’s dad

once, rumoured to be head of the FSB, the former KGB, at the

Russian Berlin embassy, the Stalinist-style palace in the Unter

den Linden, in the heart of the city. She could recognize his

powerful

bull-like neck and physique, the angry energy that

the hunched figure seemed to radiate.

‘That’s him,’ Serg said.

‘Get that machine gun up here now,’ barked the colonel.

Captain Kamenev ducked as more clods of heavy Chechen

mud rained down on them from the remains of the park they

were sheltering in. The colonel in his filthy uniform, some medal

ribbons sewn on to the breast pocket – Kamenev recognized

a couple from Afghanistan and, taking pride of place, the red

ribbon of the Hero of the Soviet Union, from way back in the

glory days, before the USSR fragmented – picked up an AK74

rifle and fired a dozen shots at a third-floor window a couple

of hundred metres away on the other side of the park. He put

the gun down, turned and directed the reinforcements trickling

up from the ragged lines behind them. They were confused

and scared conscripts, some of whom had received only a few

hours training and were now up against seasoned Chechen

troops, battle-hardened in Afghanistan, and fighting for their

religion, their soil, their families and their lives. One of the

colonel’s sleeves was soaked in blood. Watery sleet fell from

a dull, silvered sky. Three burnt-out T80 tanks lay like dead

metal dinosaurs in the no man’s land between the park and the

three apartment blocks, pockmarked by shell fire, windows

blown out, the grey concrete scorched here and there by fire. In

huge, Cyrillic letters someone had painted the Chechen slogan,

Svoboda ili Smert, freedom or death.

And the cold rain fell down from the leaden skies above.

Small-arms fire crackled menacingly from the buildings

opposite alongside the heavier, meatier sound of a PK machine

gun. ‘Why don’t we blow those bastards up?’ grumbled

Kamenev to the colonel. He scratched at the lice under his

rough battledress. Filthy, Chechen lice, they itched like crazy.

He peered through a jagged hole in the brickwork where

a Mukha RPG shell had punched its way in, and looked

at the park. There were three dead Chechens there, the

colonel’s handiwork. The colonel rolled his eyes, took out a

Belomorkanal cigarette and lit it. The cheap harsh tobacco

seared his lungs comfortingly.

‘Cos they’re all underground in sewers and cellars and those

dimwits in their tanks can’t drive down a proper street in

Grozny, let alone one full of rubble, and do you really want to

provide more shelter for the Dukhs?’ Learn from history, boy,

thought the colonel. Learn from history or you’re doomed to

repeat it. My dad fought at Stalingrad; I was brought up on

stories of fighting in ruined cities.

He got into a low crouch and rubbed his knees. I’m not as

young as I was, he thought.

 

‘Better get back to headquarters. I’m not supposed to even

be here.’ He shook Kamenev’s hand, crushing the young man’s

fingers in his powerful paw, and was gone, relinquishing

his temporary control of the forward position. The captain

looked mournfully at his retreating figure. He wished to

God the colonel was still here to take command and tell him

what to do. He looked around him, saw the terrified faces

of the conscripts around him. Blyad, he thought, I guess I’m

in charge now.

Several hours later, the colonel was in the back of a UAZ

4x4 as it bounced along a rutted track through what seemed to

be an endless forest about forty kilometres from Grozny. It was

late afternoon but already dark. In the front was Cherkov, his

FSB bodyguard who had been with him for twenty years, and

in the back, next to him, Velnikov, a staff captain from 58th

Army, based at Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia. The guy behind

the wheel was a driver from a Group Vympel Spetsnatz Unit.

The colonel didn’t know the man, but he could do with losing

a few kilos. The ruts were so deep, the earth impacted by the

weight of heavy logging lorries, that the driver was keeping the

UAZ at an almost forty-five degree angle, the offside wheels on

the raised central soil, the nearside wheels in one of the troughs.

Whoever the driver was, thought the colonel, he was doing a

bloody good job. To keep up the speed he was doing in those

conditions showed some skill and a cool head.

Grozny should have been surrounded, hermetically sealed,

but there were gaping holes in the ring surrounding it. The

colonel with his knowledge of military tactics, practical, hard

won fighting the Mujaheddin in Hazarajat in the central

Afghani mountains, had been brought in specifically to

identify these areas. He had discovered the biggest gap in

the Old Sunzha sector and they were on their way to meet

a Chechen informant who would supply the names of the

Russians who were being bribed to let it happen.

‘Hey, Cherkov,’ said the colonel to the man in the front

passenger seat. ‘Is it true that woman cook at the base gave

you that shiner?’

Cherkov turned and grinned, one hand cradling his KMP

sub-machine gun. One eye was almost closed, a riot of blue

and yellow. ‘Yeah, she hit me with a soup ladle,’ he said. ‘I’d

told her she had an arse like a badly packed parachute.’ They

all laughed. They were the last words he ever spoke.

The driver turned a corner, hissed under his breath, and

slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the tree that lay across

the road. While the car skidded to a halt, the passenger window

exploded in fragments of glass as three rifle bullets hit Cherkov.

He died instantly. The colonel swore and grabbed his machine

pistol from the seat next to him, pulling the trigger and firing

blindly through the smashed window at the unseen attackers.

He heard a scream and silence, and turned to Velnikov. The

colonel was about to shout to follow him, and his hand reached

for the door handle as he tried to take the fight to the enemy.

The staff captain shot him in the face at point-blank range.

Velnikov opened the screw-topped vodka bottle of 80 proof

Ruskova vodka and took a swig.

‘That was easy,’ he said to Arkady Belanov. He had expected

more from the dead man, knowing his reputation. He looked

at the body of Colonel Surikov sitting next to him, his head

resting against the rear window, covered now in gore. Blood

from the bullet hole in the colonel’s forehead had stained the

neck of the white T-shirt he wore under his battledress the

exact red as the colour in the medal ribbon of the Hero of the

Soviet Union on his chest. He handed the vodka to Belanov.

The fat man took the bottle with his left hand, nodded his

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thanks and casually shot the captain through the heart with his

right.

‘Yes,’ he said to the corpse, sitting next to the dead colonel.

‘Very.’ He took another pull on the vodka bottle and put the

Baikal pistol down on the seat next to him.

Claudia Liebig said to her class, ‘Five minutes to finish, children.’

She walked over to Serg Surikov. His picture was nearly finished.

Claudia looked at the picture. Behind the tanks a city was

burning. She could see red flames and black smoke. In the

corner, in the sky, was a figure with wings,

‘Is that an angel?’ she asked.

Serg nodded.

‘To protect your father?’

Serg nodded. His very green eyes were slightly slanted, an

inheritance from his Siberian Tartar mother, then he added

softly, ‘Or to avenge him.’

Outside, the skies were darkening over Alexanderplatz and

it started to snow.

CHAPTER ONE

‘This is my husband. His name is Charlie Taverner.’

Oksana Taverner (née Oksana Ilyinichna Yegorov) looked

across the desk at Hanlon. The policewoman’s features, Oksana

decided, were harshly pretty but not helped by a swollen and

badly bruised left eye that was a purplish-black in colour.

Oksana’s eyes dropped to check for a wedding band on Hanlon’s

left hand, but the long, strong fingers were free of ornamentation.

So, not done by her husband then, which had been

Oksana’s immediate thought. Yekaterinburg, Oksana’s home

city, like most of the Urals, most of Russia, most of Eastern

Europe, had a poor record when it came to violence against

women. If you saw a woman there looking like Hanlon you’d

know who had done it.

Then their eyes met and Oksana decided that Hanlon would

be nobody’s pushover. Oksana thought they belonged less

to those of a state official and more to those of a gangster,

someone from the Uralmash mafia. They were disconcertingly

chilling. The eyes were matched by a face whose expression

was equally cold.

Oksana had grown used to the, in her eyes, overly friendly

British. Where she came from, people didn’t usually apologize,

say please or thank you or smile in a self-deprecating way. It

had taken her a while to realize that politeness didn’t equal

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weakness. No chance of that happening with Hanlon’s face,

she thought. For a second or two Oksana wondered if maybe

her English had let her down and she wasn’t in Missing Persons

but somewhere more sinister, or if Charlie’s death (she was sure

it was murder) was being handled by the British equivalent of

the FSB, the Federal Security Bureau.

Hanlon looked back at Oksana Taverner and saw a tall,

very attractive dark-haired woman in her late twenties with

classic Slavic features, high cheekbones, large almond-shaped

brown eyes. She was casually but expensively dressed in muted

browns and greys, a vivid-coloured scarf artfully tied around

her long, shapely neck.

Her eyes dropped to the glossy photo of Charlie Taverner that

beamed at her through a see-through plastic wallet. Oksana, a

veteran of Russian bureaucracy, had also appended photocopies

of his passport, driving licence, security ID for the Home

Office and their wedding certificate. She had even included a

photocopy of her birth certificate, passport and her degree in

metallurgy from USTU, the Urals State Technical University.

Oksana had also gone to the bank and withdrawn a thousand

pounds in nondescript twenties just in case a vziatka – a bung

– was needed, as it would be back home. It was in her bag, in

a manila envelope.

Hanlon looked at the photo of a chubby-faced amiable man

with glasses and a receding hairline, aged about fifty. Then

up again at the beautiful Russian woman young enough to be

his daughter.

And just what, she wondered cynically, could possibly

have attracted you to the well-paid and securely pensioned

Mr Charlie Taverner with his large detached house in Windsor,

a spitting distance from the castle?

‘How long has he been missing?’ asked Hanlon wearily.

‘Sunday night. Today is Thursday so four nights. He should

have been with your Metropolitan Police for a meeting on

Monday. He was not there either.’ Oksana looked at Hanlon

with a hint of disdain that implied the glamorous world of the

Met was something that Hanlon could only dream of, here in

Langley Police Station. Langley, thought Oksana dismissively.

It wasn’t even Slough.

The policewoman said nothing, but tugged at a loose strand

of the coarse, dark hair that framed her face in a fringe of

unruly corkscrews. Oksana would have straightened it before

coming to work, even in a place as pointless as this. She began

to regret taking Charlie’s boss’s advice to seek out this woman.

She decided to emphasize Charlie’s importance, his proximity

to high-ranking officers that this lowly woman could never

know, never have.

‘He should have been presenting evidence to commission

chaired by Assistant Commissioner Corrigan on Russian mafia

in London.’

Now she had Hanlon’s attention. Oksana’s sharp glance

noticed a slight stiffening of posture, a narrowing of the eyes

in the woman opposite. Hanlon looked hard at her. Corrigan

had sent Hanlon into this living exile in Berkshire. Was Charlie

Taverner a lifeline back to her old job in some form of serious

crime with the National Crime Agency?

Corrigan, thought Hanlon. The name had jolted her awake.

Until now, Hanlon had not been paying that much attention

to the Russian. Everything came at a cost and Oksana was

paying the price for her beauty. No one really took her

seriously except when her exams had been marked without

anyone knowing what she looked like. Hanlon herself was not

immune. She had mentally dismissed Oksana as a mail-order

bride and had more or less assumed that her husband was

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probably playing away with some other woman of doubtful

virtue. Some other East European bimbo from an agency.

‘May I ask what he was supposed to give evidence about at

this inquiry?’ she asked.

‘Prostitution and their. . .’ For a moment Oksana’s mind went

blank as she mentally searched for the English; she knew them

as soutiner. Then it came to her. ‘Pimps, particularly growing

connections between Moscow and London, lya, lya, lya.’ She

shrugged. ‘Russian population here is increasing. Five years ago,

Charlie tells me, there were maybe forty thousand Russians

here in London, now, who knows how many now. Some say

two hundred thousand, some say four hundred thousand. V.V.

says Russian oligarchs own Chelsea now.’

‘Who’s V.V.?’ asked Hanlon, baffled.

‘Vladimir Vladimirovitch. President Putin,’ said Oksana,

rolling her eyes and her ‘r’s.

‘Oh,’ said Hanlon.

‘But is dangerous to lift up rocks and look underneath,’ said

Oksana. ‘Sometimes you find more than you expect. That is

what Charlie was doing, picking up rocks.’

‘What do you think has happened to your husband?’ asked

Hanlon. She raised her voice slightly as another jet passed

overhead. She was beginning to get used to the endless noise

of the flightpath. Heathrow was only a couple of miles away.

Both Mawson and McIntyre were out of the office and the place

was silent apart from the roar above them. Absent-mindedly

she touched the tender, bruised flesh around her eye, a sparring

injury from her boxing training.

‘Charlie is dead,’ said Oksana flatly. There was a bleak

acceptance in her voice that touched Hanlon, who was used

to people being either in denial or more visibly shaken. The

woman across the desk was calm and matter-of-fact. There

was no ‘I can’t believe this could have happened’. She was just

stating a fact. If there is one thing Russians are, Hanlon thought,

it’s tough. She’d met a few. Oksana’s face was expressionless.

‘What makes you say that?’ she asked.

Oksana looked at her steadily. ‘The people Charlie knew,

particularly from Moscow, that is how they deal with problems.

They eliminate people.’

‘I see,’ said Hanlon. Maybe in Russia, she thought, but not

in Windsor, not tubby ex-civil servants like Charlie. Litvinenko,

yes; Taverner, no. ‘But you shouldn’t really be talking to me

about this. Your husband was a civil servant, ex-Foreign Office,

an important man. You have a reasonably convincing story

suggesting a crime has been committed. Go to Corrigan. He’s

surprisingly accessible.’

‘No,’ said Oksana.

Hanlon wasn’t over-burdened with work but the Baranski

disappearance was generating more than its fair share of paperwork

and she had a meeting with Child Protection looming

that

she had to prepare for. Oksana’s problem wasn’t her problem.

Even if what she said was true, her husband’s disappearance

wouldn’t fall under a Missing Persons remit. It would be Thames

Valley’s Serious and Organized Crimes’ baby.

She also suspected that Mawson would not be happy at

Hanlon taking it upon herself to bypass procedure. He’d made

it clear that such things would not be tolerated.

‘Look,’ said Hanlon, leaning across her desk and pushing

some hair from her forehead. The light through the window

picked out several long, pale scars on her forearm. There was a

slight kink to her nose that suggested it had been broken some

time ago. Oksana noted the fine lines that time and pain had

etched on Hanlon’s forehead, the tiredness around her eyes.

She had obviously known hardship and trouble in her life.

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She also noted the ligaments moving elegantly under

Hanlon’s skin. Oksana, a former gymnast when younger,

until she had become the wrong shape – too curved, too tall

– could appreciate how strong Hanlon was. Her eyes now ran

over the elegant musculature of Hanlon’s frame. She could

easily imagine her on a parallel bar or a beam.

‘You need the National Crimes Agency. Maybe even MI5 or 6.’

If it’s a threat to the country, which I doubt, she thought.

I wish you’d go away.

‘Not me. I’m Missing Persons, OK, Mrs Taverner,’ said

Hanlon wearily. ‘I find errant husbands and sometimes I order

reservoirs dragged for missing Polish junkies.’

As I am at the moment, she thought, thinking of Datchet

Reservoir, Peter Baranski’s probable resting place. She should

be seeing the Specialist Search people really, rather than wasting

time with this woman. She thought, You really don’t need me,

not unless Charlie is shacked up with his secretary in South

Berkshire.

Oksana shook her head angrily. ‘Nyet, nyet, nyet, Hanlon.

Sorry, I mean no. These other people. They are nomenklatura.’

She virtually spat the word out. Nomenklatura, the high priests

of the ruling caste. Every Russian’s nightmare. There was no

Party in the UK, but there was its equivalent, the civil service.

‘They are officials, government officials. Charlie’s killers

have access to obshchak.’ She hunted in her mind for the English

word; the policewoman was looking baffled. She found it. ‘To

trough, like pigs. But a trough full of money. They will have

someone to help them in government. They will have someone

in police. We say in Russia, ‘roof’, a krysha. They have millions

to spend. You cannot trust government.’

‘I’m the government,’ said Hanlon acidly. She had a certain

amount of sympathy with Oksana’s views but she didn’t appreciate

someone from the back of beyond, the Urals, telling her

the score.

‘Yes,’ said Oksana. ‘But you are different. I have seen your

file.’

You have done what? thought Hanlon. Her thoughts – alarm,

rage and wonder – were painfully transparent to the Russian

opposite.

Oksana said simply, ‘You cannot trust government. Like

I said.’

‘So you’ve read my file.’ Hanlon’s voice was low, menacing.

Hanlon was a very private person and the idea that someone

like Oksana could access it was as alarming as it was enraging.

How the hell had that happened?

‘Yes. Charlie’s firm has many connections. It is think tank,

it has many government connections.’

‘Oh, does it now,’ said Hanlon menacingly.

She had a mad desire to leap over the desk and smack the

woman opposite hard across the face. What right have you to

review my life? she thought. Not even my account of my life

either, but that of some official. Presumably it went into detail

as to why I’m stuck here, in Missing Persons, cleared of any

serious charges but deemed unsuitable for front-line police

work. Better deployed in back-office jobs, like this.

Oksana smiled. ‘Yes. You are not corrupt, Hanlon, you are

just crazy. I read your file. It is all there.’

‘Is it?’ asked Hanlon. I very much doubt that, she thought

bitterly. My side of things won’t be there. So much for data

protection.

Taverner’s widow nodded. ‘But back to Charlie. In Russia we

say navomnye ubiistvi. Contract killing. If I go to normal police,

I think nothing will happen.’ She paused and her long fingers

with their shapely ox-blood nails played with her expensive

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Hermès scarf. ‘They know Charlie is missing, they will go

through motions, that is all.’ She frowned angrily. ‘I have spoken

to some policeman already. He asked me if I knew Charlie liked

to go to see whores.’ A contemptuous look flickered across

her face. ‘Yes, I say, is where his contact is. This policeman,

he as good as told me that he was with some whore for sex,

not information.’ Oksana made an expansive gesture with her

hands. The movement encompassed her incomparable body,

her beautiful face. Look at me, it said, look at me.

Hanlon looked at her as Charlie had almost certainly done,

five feet ten of unbelievable sex appeal. Oksana nodded at her.

Look what Charlie got for free at home. No sex worker was

going to compete with her, that was for sure.

‘You

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                  Prologue

 

Claudia Liebig looked at the young boy’s picture. Serg was frowning hard in concentration as he drew. In five years of teaching Claudia had never met such an intense child. Everything Serg did was coloured with the same remorseless focus.

 

Claudia had rebelled against the tenets of her art school which was ultra-liberal, focused on the idea that theory was as important, or maybe more so, than technique. Claudia disagreed and here at the small, international private school near Alexanderplatz in central Berlin where she was the art teacher, figurative work featured highly. By all means, she said, be abstract, but before you do me a series of coloured rectangles or cubist faces, or before you display an everyday object as art, show me you can paint like Mondrian, Picasso or Duchamp could.

 

Today her pupils were drawing their parents at work. Desks and rudimentary offices were the main themes – most of the parents worked in offices and some of the children’s parents were in TV, so there was a smattering of cameras and monitors depicted in the paintings.

 

Serg was drawing some tanks; they looked scarily real. She admired them.

 

‘T-80s,’ said Serg. He spoke flawless German even though Russian was his mother tongue. He had an amazing vocabulary too, thought Claudia. Teachers shouldn’t have favourites, but they do. Serg was hers. Despite being Russian. Not a popular thing to be in nineties Berlin.

‘That’s nice,’ said Claudia. Serg bowed his head over his painting, colouring in the tanks battleship-grey. ‘Are they good tanks?’ Serg lifted his head and looked steadily at her with his startlingly green eyes. He was a child of almost unearthly beauty, thought Claudia, like his mother.

‘My father says that remains to be seen.’

‘Is that your father in the tank?’ Claudia pointed to the picture.

Serg shook his head and indicated a figure in a jeep. It was astonishingly well drawn. Claudia had met Serg’s dad once, rumoured to be head of the FSB, the former KGB, at the Russian Berlin embassy, the Stalinist-style palace in the Unter den Linden, in the heart of the city. She could recognize his powerful bull-like neck and physique, the angry energy that the hunched figure seemed to radiate.

‘That’s him,’ Serg said.

 

‘Get that machine gun up here now,’ barked the colonel. Captain Kamenev ducked as more clods of heavy Chechen mud rained down on them from the remains of the park they were sheltering in. The colonel in his filthy uniform, some medal ribbons sewn on to the breast pocket – Kamenev recognized a couple from Afghanistan and, taking pride of place, the red ribbon of the Hero of the Soviet Union, from way back in the glory days, before the USSR fragmented – picked up an AK74 rifle and fired a dozen shots at a third-floor window a couple of hundred metres away on the other side of the park. He put the gun down, turned and directed the reinforcements trickling up from the ragged lines behind them. They were confused and scared conscripts, some of whom had received only a few hours training and were now up against seasoned Chechen troops, battle-hardened in Afghanistan, and fighting for their religion, their soil, their families and their lives. One of the colonel’s sleeves was soaked in blood. Watery sleet fell from a dull, silvered sky. Three burnt-out T80 tanks lay like dead metal dinosaurs in the no-man’s-land between the park and the three apartment blocks, pockmarked by shell fire, windows blown out, the grey concrete scorched here and there by fire. In huge, Cyrillic letters someone had painted the Chechen slogan, Svoboda ili Smert, freedom or death.

 

And the cold rain fell down from the leaden skies above.

 

Small arms’ fire crackled menacingly from the buildings opposite alongside the heavier, meatier sound of a PK machine gun. ‘Why don’t we blow those bastards up,’ grumbled Kamenev to the colonel. He scratched at the lice under his rough battledress. Filthy, Chechen lice, they itched like crazy. He peered through a jagged hole in the brickwork where a Mukha RPG shell had punched its way in, and looked at the park. There were three dead Chechens there, the colonel’s handiwork. The colonel rolled his eyes, took out a Belomorkanal cigarette and lit it. The cheap harsh tobacco seared his lungs comfortingly.

 

‘Cos they’re all underground in sewers and cellars and those dimwits in their tanks can’t drive down a proper street in Grozny, let alone one full of rubble and do you really want to provide more shelter for the Dukhs.’ Learn from history, boy, thought the colonel. Learn from history or you’re doomed to repeat it. My dad fought at Stalingrad; I was brought up on stories of fighting in ruined cities.

 

He got into a low crouch and rubbed his knees. I’m not as young as I was, he thought.

 

‘Better get back to headquarters. I’m not supposed to even be here.’ He shook Kamenev’s hand, crushing the young man’s fingers in his powerful paw, and was gone, relinquishing his temporary control of the forward position. The captain looked mournfully at his retreating figure. He wished to God the colonel was still here to take command and tell him what to do. He looked around him, saw the terrified faces of the conscripts around him, Blyad, he thought, I guess I’m in charge now.

 

Several hours later, the colonel was in the back of a UAZ 4x4 as it bounced along a rutted track through what seemed to be an endless forest about forty kilometres from Grozhny. It was late afternoon but already dark. In the front was Cherkov, his FSB bodyguard who had been with him for twenty years, and in the back next to him, Velnikov, a staff captain from 58th Army, based at Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia. The guy behind the wheel was a driver from a Group Vympel Spetsnatz Unit. The colonel didn’t know the man, but he could do with losing a few kilos. The ruts were so deep, the earth impacted by the weight of heavy logging lorries, that the driver was keeping the UAZ at an almost forty-five degree angle, the offside wheels on the raised central soil, the nearside wheels in one of the troughs. Whoever the driver was, thought the colonel, he was doing a bloody good job. To keep up the speed he was doing in those conditions showed some skill and a cool head.

 

Grozny should have been surrounded, hermetically sealed, but there were gaping holes in the ring surrounding it. The colonel with his knowledge of military tactics, practical, hard won fighting the Mujaheddin in Hazarajat in the central Afghani mountains, had been brought in specifically to identify these areas. He had discovered the biggest gap in the Old Sunzha sector and they were on their way to meet a Chechen informant who would supply the names of the Russians who were being bribed to let it happen.

‘Hey, Cherkov,’ said the colonel to the man in the front passenger seat. ‘Is it true that woman cook at the base gave you that shiner?’

 

Cherkov turned and grinned, one hand cradling his KMP sub-machine gun. One eye was almost closed, a riot of blue and yellow. ‘Yeah, she hit me with a soup ladle,’ he said. ‘I’d told her she had an arse like a badly packed parachute.’ They all laughed. They were the last words he ever spoke.

 

The driver turned a corner, hissed under his breath, and slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the tree that lay across the road. While the car skidded to a halt, the passenger window exploded in fragments of glass as three rifle bullets hit Cherkov. He died instantly. The colonel swore and grabbed his machine pistol from the seat next to him, pulling the trigger and firing blindly through the smashed window at the unseen attackers. He heard a scream and silence, and turned to Velnikov. The colonel was about to shout to follow him, and his hand reached for the door handle as he tried to bring the fight to the enemy. The staff captain shot him in the face at point-blank range.

 

Velnikov opened the screw-topped vodka bottle of 80 proof Ruskova vodka and took a swig.

 

‘That was easy,’ he said to Arkady Belanov. He had expected more from the dead man, knowing his reputation. He looked at the body of Colonel Surikov sitting next to him, his head resting against the rear window, covered now in gore. Blood from the bullet hole in the colonel’s forehead had stained the neck of the white T-shirt he wore under his battledress the exact same red as the colour in the medal ribbon of the Hero of the Soviet Union on his chest. He handed the vodka to Belanov. The fat man took the bottle with his left hand, nodded his thanks and casually shot the captain through the heart with his right.

 

‘Yes,’ he said to the corpse, sitting next to the dead colonel. ‘Very.’ He took another pull on the vodka bottle and put the Baikal pistol down on the seat next to him.

 

Claudia Liebig said to her class, ‘Five minutes to finish, children.’ She walked over to Serg Surikov. His picture was nearly finished. Claudia looked at the picture. Behind the tanks a city was burning. She could see red flames and black smoke. In the corner, in the sky, was a figure with wings,

 

‘Is that an angel?’ she asked.

 

Serg nodded.

 

‘To protect your father?’

Serg nodded. His very green eyes were slightly slanted, an inheritance from his Siberian Tartar mother, then he added softly, ‘Or to avenge him.’

 

Outside, the skies were darkening over Alexanderplatz and it started to snow.

 

 

                                                                                                                        CHAPTER ONE

 

‘This is my husband. His name is Charlie Taverner.’

 

Oksana Taverner (née Oksana Ilyinichna Yegorov) looked across the desk at Hanlon. The policewoman’s features, Oksana decided, were harshly pretty but not helped by a swollen and badly bruised left eye that was a purplish-black in colour. Oksana’s eyes dropped to check for a wedding band on Hanlon’s left hand, but the long, strong fingers were free of ornamentation. So, not done by her husband then, which had been Oksana’s immediate thought. Yekaterinburg, Oksana’s home city, like most of the Urals, most of Russia, most of Eastern Europe, had a poor record when it came to violence against women. If you saw a woman there looking like Hanlon you’d know who had done it.

Then their eyes met and Oksana decided that Hanlon would be nobody’s pushover. Oksana thought they belonged less to those of a state official and more to those of a gangster, someone from the Uralmash mafia. They were disconcertingly chilling. The eyes were matched by a face whose expression was equally cold.

 

Oksana had grown used to the, in her eyes, overly friendly British. Where she came from, people didn’t usually apologize, say please or thank you or smile in a self-deprecating way. It had taken her a while to realize that politeness didn’t equal weakness. No chance of that happening with Hanlon’s face, she thought. For a second or two Oksana wondered if maybe her English had let her down and she wasn’t in Missing Persons but somewhere more sinister, or if Charlie’s death (she was sure it was murder) was being handled by the British equivalent of the FSB, the Federal Security Bureau.

 

Hanlon looked back at Oksana Taverner and saw a tall, very attractive dark-haired woman in her late twenties with classic Slavic features, high cheekbones, large almond-shaped brown eyes. She was casually but expensively dressed in muted browns and greys, a vivid-coloured scarf artfully tied around her long, shapely neck.

 

Her eyes dropped to the glossy photo of Charlie Taverner that beamed at her through a see-through plastic wallet. Oksana, a veteran of Russian bureaucracy, had also appended photocopies of his passport, driving licence, security ID for the Home Office and their wedding certificate. She had even included a photocopy of her birth certificate, passport and her degree in metallurgy from USTU, the Urals State Technical University. Oksana had also gone to the bank and withdrawn a thousand pounds in nondescript twenties just in case a vziatka – a bung – was needed, as it would be back home. It was in her bag, in a manila envelope.

 

Hanlon looked at the photo of a chubby-faced amiable man with glasses and a receding hairline, aged about fifty. Then up again at the beautiful Russian woman young enough to be his daughter.