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Authors: Graham Adams

Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Europe, #France

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He pulled out the crisp ten shilling note. She held out her bony hand for the note, and Louis passed it to her without hesitation.

She neatly folded the note into a small square and pressed her bony hands together in a prayer-like fashion as the boy watched intently. He noticed two things happen as she pressed her hands. The first was that the old woman’s stature somehow got larger. He blinked his eyes in disbelief. Secondly he noticed that on her right hand, on one of her fingers there was a silver ring. Not an ordinary ring though. It was easy for Louis to make out the shape, two snakes formed into a double ‘S’ shape, each with a tail and a distinctive head. He leaned forward for a better view; each head had two red eyes that seemed to be getting brighter, and then suddenly went dark.

The old woman passed the note back to Louis and he opened it up to check that the precious note was as it had been.

‘Put it back into the same pocket, boy, right now!’ The old woman demanded.

He jumped up and pushed it in his pocket, and sat down again on the wicker chair. Magda sat down on the other chair looking quite exhausted.

Louis began to feel a heat travelling up his leg. It was not a searing heat, nor did it make him alarmed at all. The soft warmth reached his hip area and he suddenly felt the urge to stand up, watched all the time by the old woman. As he stood up he felt and heard a sharp ‘click’ in his hip area. The heat sensation had gone but he just stood there in the caravan not knowing what had happened to him. The old woman shuffled up to Louis and whispered in his ear.

‘Now boy, walk around the room and keep walking until I say stop.’

He did just as he was told, initially not noticing anything, but then everything felt different. He wasn’t sure what had happened. She said stop and he just stood in the middle of the little van, feeling his hip but not speaking. He looked at the old woman who looked back at him intently.

‘Yes my boy, you are cured, no more limping for you. Now sit a while whilst I tell you a story.’ He sat on the chair, looking at her like an obedient puppy dog.

‘Where I come from, yes, we all help each other, but there is always a reward for that help is expected. When you saw my need after the trouble with that horse, you came to my help and asked for no reward. In fact you thought nothing of it, you walked away not even asking for my thanks. I know something about you my dear Louis, you were not taught to do this, it has to be born in you, and this is a very rare thing. As you grow to a man, many years from now, you will find that most people are driven by selfishness. Listen to my advice, do not change your ways no matter what the future holds. I tell you this, help your fellow man, ask for no reward and I promise you will be rewarded tenfold.’ She put her bony hand on his little shoulder.

‘Do not worry about what people will say about you, now that you no longer limp. Maybe just two people will ask you about it that is all.’

‘I think I know who they are Magda.’ Louis found his voice.

‘To those who will ask, the answer you will give them is this; it went away on its own as I grew up. Will you say that to them?’ She asked and he nodded and smiled at her.

‘Will it be our secret?’ he asked.

‘You must never tell anyone, not even your dear father. Do you understand my boy?’

Louis thought for a moment that no one would believe him if he did. So he acceded. He was about to leave, sensing that the audience was over, but she stopped him with her hand.

‘I have another present for you, it may not seem much.’

She held out her hand to him and he looked down to see it. A small brown envelope was nestled in her bony palm. It was no more than an inch square, made of brown parchment, with what looked like two words written in a strange language. He took the envelope, turned it over and saw that it was sealed. Magda explained to him that the writing was in the language of the ancient Greeks-

γ
νῶ
θι σεαυτόν’.

She also told him that inside the little envelope were some tiny seeds. ‘Keep them inside and do not take them out. I tell you this because in the bag they are powerful, but to let them out they will just be seeds and will forever lose their power’. Finally she told him that he will always know where it was, as the power will remind him wherever he went. She also told him that it would be alright to give it to another person, if he wished to. Good fortune would follow this person as long as the seeds remained in the envelope

He pushed the little envelope into his other pocket, put his arm around his benefactor and kissed her bony cheek. Closing the little door behind him he walked towards the way out. Walking not limping, he felt the power in his legs as he left the park and didn’t look back. He did wonder though if he would ever see the old woman again, Magda, who had changed his life forever.

The young boy certainly felt strange as he made his way back to the centre of town. Such a seismic change had happened to his body, at such a tender age too, it was just too big for him to take in. Limping for twelve years, and now he could walk just as good as the next boy. How could this happen? What would people say? What would his father say? Why did it have to be a secret? There were so many questions in his head.

By the time he was outside Scattergoods, he had decided to march right into the shop, just to let his dad know that he was back safe and sound. Louis headed for his father’s counter. but Henry was busy serving a customer, showing him cloth from a large book of samples. As the customer was looking at the book, Henry looked up at his son and gave him that ‘sorry I’m busy’ smile. Louis knew this was not the time, so he waved to him and walked out the door. Just before closing it, he looked back but Henry was deep in conversation again. He hadn’t noticed, he thought to himself.

The clock on the shop wall said just after three so he decided to search out Danny at his dad’s shop half way up the High Street. He strode up the hill and was at the Tripe Shop in no time. He opened the door and the bell rang loudly. Mr Sanderson, in soiled apron and white boater came into the shop. His boater had a colourful ribbon on the rim matching his jolly red face.

‘Is Danny about?’ Louis asked.

‘No he’s not young Louis. He’s gone to the ‘tanner rush’ with Derek Taylor.’ This was a colloquial phrase for the children’s programme at the King’s cinema every Saturday afternoon. ‘By now though, they’ll be watching the football match. I think the Town are at home today.’ Often, if there were any children wanting to get in near half time, the gatemen would ask if they had been to the cinema, and often let them in for free. In turn that would swell the gate and increased the noise of the supporters.

‘Thank you Mr Sanderson.’ Louis turned and went outside on the pavement.

Hey, Louis, wait a minute will you!’ The shopkeeper shouted, but Louis was already out of sight. ‘There’s something different about that boy today,’ he said to himself then shrugged his shoulders and carried on with the cleaning.

Louis looked up the hill. The crowds were dwindling already. He thought about the stalls on the market at the top of the steep hill and strode up it. He felt no discomfort as it got steeper so he decided to break into a run. As he neared the top, he met a few stragglers who were struggling with their heavy bags down the hill, and they looked amazed at this boy running up it. He carried on running past the big church and came to a stop at the market stalls. Amazingly, he was not at all out of breath. It suddenly made him realise what a wonderful thing Magda had done for him.

The scene before him was a rare one indeed. His Saturdays were spent doing his rounds for Mr Reynolds and he remembered that in his old condition, he could never have attempted that hill, certainly not on a Saturday. Many of the stalls however were packed away, or in a few cases in the process of doing so. In fact the once vibrant scene had become rather desolate and empty. In a short while. the council clean up team would be clearing up the debris, and within the hour, the only thing standing would be the war memorial.

Louis approached the top of the High Street. It was very steep and very straight, so that despite its length he could see his dad’s shop right at the bottom. Across the valley he could make out the huge viaduct carrying the trains from the North Eastern railway. His father told him that the Italian prisoners of war had built it right across the valley, a massive landmark. As he made his way down the road, he could make out the various shops, but one shop stood out above the rest, Molly’s Ice Cream Parlour. No one could miss the ten foot cone, shaped like an ice cream cornet. It needed no other introduction. Danny and himself had enjoyed the delights of Molly’s on many an occasion, and agreed there was no ice cream like it.

A sudden sharp wind whipped down the hill at his back and he pushed his hands in his pockets. He felt the crisp ten shilling note in his left pocket, and in his right one, the little square paper envelope. Just before Danny’s shop, the council had erected two cast iron benches for those less able to complete the hill without a rest, one each side of the street. It was quite deserted now as he sat on one of the benches intending to take a closer look at the envelope. He pulled it out of his pocket and squinted at the writing;

γ
νῶ
θι σεαυτόν’.
As he sat looking at the words, in a way it felt really good that he had two secrets, one of which was this little thing in front of him. What did it mean?

A sudden gust of wind threatened to take the envelope out of his hand, but he managed to get it back safely into his pocket again. He sat back on the bench again just as another gust blew, and slap! Something wet hit his face. Peeling a large piece of paper off his cheek he looked at it. It was white, official looking with strange copperplate writing on it. ‘The Governors of the Bank of England promise to pay the bearer the sum of £50.’ He just sat and stared at it, it was not anything that he had seen before. Who could possibly have so much money, he thought to himself. He looked down the street, looked at the huge cone over Molly’s shop and visualised the amount of ice cream this could purchase. Beyond the cone, he could see the sign ‘Scattergoods’ and knew what his father would have told him to do about it. From where he sat, down the next street he could see the little blue sign of the police station and in a few moments he was standing at the counter.

The large constable was peering down at him from behind his desk. ‘What do you want lad?’ he boomed.

‘Sir I’ve just found this,’ holding up the wet note. One of the corners was a little torn but even from the desk, the policeman could recognise what it was and jumped up.

‘Well my lad, you’re in luck today, aren’t you?’ He said, gently easing the note out of the boy’s hand. Doctor Collins has just been in here asking about the same note, and if anyone should find it to send it straight away to his surgery.’

‘But I don’t know where it is. And I can’t anyway I have to be delivering my papers for Mr Reynolds and I’ll be late.’

‘Give me your address and I will take it to him myself.’ The officer said in a disgruntled tone. Louis glanced up at the station clock and it said close to five. He waved to the wide-eyed constable as he rushed out, back to the High Street. He looked down to the bottom and instantly saw the delivery van outside of Reynolds’s newsagent and he could even see the man carrying in the bale of evening papers. In a few seconds he would be starting up the van and heading for his next ‘port of call’. Louis ran down the hill, he had never been late before.

‘What would Mr Reynolds say?’ He thought to himself.

‘Where have you been till this time Louis?’ the newsagent asked

‘I’ve been to the police station Mr Reynolds.’ Louis said it rather quietly as he passed him to go to the back of the shop to sort out his paper bag.

‘There’s something different about you today, what is it boy?’

Louis pretended not to hear him as he quickly thrust a handful of ‘Green uns’ into the side of his bag.’ Bye Mr Reynolds!’ he shouted as he rushed out to do his round.

‘Bye young fella!’ he shouted back to Louis. ‘There is something different about that boy today, but I’m blowed if I can tell what it is.’ He said to himself.

What a difference he felt on his round today. Of course, as with the other people he had met that day, no one noticed his lack of limping but they were very pleased to receive their paper earlier than the previous week. ‘They must have come earlier,’ he would answer when they asked. Louis arrived at his back door easily half an hour before normal. He walked into the little scullery and his dad was hand washing some clothes, his back to his son.

‘Hi dad,’ his father noticeably jumped, and turned in surprise at his visitor. Louis walked into the little sitting room as Henry followed him in.

‘Whoa a minute, what’s this, what happened, didn’t the papers turn up?’ he asked.

‘Yes they turned up dad; I just did the round a little quicker today that’s all.’ Louis answered.

‘Go and get washed and changed and I’ll have a cup of tea ready for you when you get down, and you can tell me all about your day, especially about that Magda woman.’

Henry watched him as he walked towards the door and disappeared upstairs. Something in his mind was nagging him about Louis, something different; he even sort of talked different. What was it?

4
Victor learns Russian

Я люблю тебя Лидия

(I love you Lydiya)

Twenty four year old Victor turned the ignition of his little Fiat Punto; today he was taking a momentous step in his life. He had finally achieved the opportunity that both he and his parents were hoping for.

Harry and Phaedra Norman had had their son at a late stage in their lives. They had both been top civil servants in London. Harry worked in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Pheadra at the Revenue. What a surprise for Harry, Fay had told him that he was going to be a father, and she was nearly 50! Always the practical sort, Harry immediately started making arrangements for them both to retire to the country.

In their respective fields both of them had built up sizeable pension packages, each having worked in the public sector for thirty years. Good savings born out of careful financial management. They were in the best position possible. What with the sale of the modest Hampstead flat, the world was their oyster so to speak.

For many years prior to their pregnancy, they had spent an annual holiday in the New Forest, and always wanted to move to the area in their retirement. Several towns went under consideration; Lymington, with its connection to the Isle of Wight, or Lyndhurst with its New Forest history and access to the mystical part of the Forest. They even considered the lovely riverside town of Fordingbridge where the river Avon slips by.

Burley, however won them over being in the heart of the Forest, and they found that a perfect little cottage on Pound Lane was up for sale. It was situated close to the centre of the village and yet just far enough away to be private and quiet. Access to larger towns such as Southampton or Ringwood was only a short car ride away.

At the allotted time, their baby son was born, surprisingly quite uneventfully, considering the mother’s advancing years. As the child grew and the parents took the child into the village, neighbours often remarked that Henry and his wife were the grandparents of the boy, perhaps helping out a wayward daughter. No one actually broached the subject with them, but if they had done so, Fay would have been quite able to deal with it.

Most parents, especially at their age would have found it difficult bringing up baby, but with all the good planning by Henry, he was easily able to share the load with Fay and be on hand for every need that their son Victor had. His primary education was in the local Burley Primary and what a great start it was. Later, bussing to the senior school at Ringwood was the obvious choice. When he had reached the time of work experience, Victor was able to secure a place in the local auctioneer’s office. This exposure to the world of antiques worked out to be the spark of interest that began to drive him into the decision to take up Art as the main subject for his ‘A’ levels. Books covering many of the old masters works filled his bedroom.

Saturdays were often spent with local auctioneers at Ringwood, Salisbury and beyond. A ceramics valuer took Victor under his wing, recognising the young man’s excellent photographic memory. His interest broadened into a wide range of antiques to such an extent that the main auction house sponsored him get an Art History degree. In return he agreed to spend the first two years with them as an assistant valuer.

As time went on he was asked quite regularly to take a more valuable antique to one of the main London houses. There he would witness auctions of all sorts of items that the local partnership could not handle. He then progressed into making full time valuations, as requested by some wealthy clients and submitted guidelines for purchase. At one of these visits to Christies at a specialist auction of Chinese ceramics, he was introduced to a Russian Diplomat, who invited Victor to have dinner with him at a famous Japanese restaurant in Kensington.

Mikhail was so impressed with the young man’s quiet air of confidence that only a week later Victor was called to the senior partner’s office at Salisbury and he was shown a letter from the diplomat. The letter stated that he was so pleased with Victor on his last visit to London, that a possible offer of working for the Russian Embassy, in a valuer of antiquities role, could be a distinct possibility. Therefore the question asked of the partner was, if Victor was willing, would he be able to release the young man for a formal interview and a month of acclimatisation to see if they could both work together? All reasonable expenses would be paid for as well as the use of a small flat in Kensington during this period.

Before Victor had decided to accept Mikhail’s offer, he talked at length with his father and got the benefit of Harry’s thirty years of service at the Foreign Office, especially dealing with his opposite number in the Russia, both in London and in Moscow. The Cold War had now ceased but some people didn’t change, his father told him. Victor could not suppress the excitement he felt at having been noticed by such an important person, the only slight fear he had was, that it seemed too easy for him.

The job he was expected to do for Mikhail was outlined to him, through an interpreter. He would be expected to acquire certain collectibles for a group of Russian oligarchs, who were fabulously rich and very discerning. They all resided in Knightsbridge, hence the reason to set up a flat for him in the area. He was not expected to give Mikhail an answer that day as the diplomat told him that one of the conditions would be a crash course in the Russian language; his rich mentors would only speak in their mother tongue. His tutor had been appointed and would start the next day.

Arriving by taxi at his little studio flat, a garret in a well appointed block, was daunting but he was relieved to see that the little room was furnished tastefully, if not a little meagrely. Victor explored the locality which had a few expensive bars, and, thankfully an old fashioned pub which seemed to offer decent food. One particular thing he noticed on his walk was that the few people that passed were not speaking any English. Arabic was predominantly spoken. He assumed that the property prices in the district were astronomical, and Arab sheiks might be the only people who could afford them.

The Russian method of teaching their language was to say the least, amazingly unique. A knock at his door at just after midnight, shook him awake. With long black hair, catwalk looks, and appearing about nineteen years old, she was the last type of tutor he could have expected.

‘Mr Norman, yes?’ She pushed her way into his tiny living room area. ‘I am here to teach you Russian, is that OK?’ She flopped onto his bed settee. ‘My name is Lydiya and I have good qualifications in English and you will learn from me good Russian very quick!’

‘Are you expecting to start this tonight, at this hour? Victor’s mind was racing, thinking about what sort of Russian could he learn at this hour?

This method of teaching was of course no problem, as it became clear to Victor that conversational Russian was what Lydiya was going to employ. At every visit she only spoke in Russian to him, expecting him to do the same. Occasionally she would speak in English, shouting, ‘No English speaking unless I say so!’

In less than three weeks Victor was speaking Russian almost fluently, and thinking in Russian became the norm. Near the end of the fourth week he had a phone call from home and he even answered his mother in Russian.

It was not difficult to find a deep attraction to Lydiya, and sometimes when the situation arose it was very hard to resist the temptation to show his feelings. She showed off her lithe body to the maximum effect. Her tight cropped top did not hide the fact she was not wearing a bra. The space from her top to the mini skirt showed a milky white band of flesh revealing the heads of two beautiful tattooed flowers, small and discreet, their stems disappearing below. How far, he could only guess.

In the second week he was allowed to ask her some personal questions, in Russian of course. It was then that he found out that she was in fact the youngest daughter of his employer, Mikhail. Once he found that out, he thanked his lucky stars that he hadn’t tried anything on with her. At the end of four weeks he realised that Lydiya could have been part of the test of his moral fibre.

The message came through that he was instructed to attend a meeting at the Embassy the day after his tuition had finished. He was ushered into a large meeting room with the centrepiece of a large oval mahogany table and about ten ornate chairs. As he looked around, Victor noticed that there were no pictures on the deep scarlet walls. After half an hour of sitting with his back to the door, he took a quick scan around the room to see if there were any cameras. But he could see nothing obvious.

Suddenly without warning the door swung open and Mikhail walked in followed by six other men, all in dark suits, two in dark glasses and none of them acknowledged Victor as they found a seat. As soon as Mikhail sat down at the head of the table, he introduced the visitors by first name only, and they all responded in Russian. He could see that none of the strangers were willing to speak in English, so he introduced himself to them outlining his qualifications and past experience to them in their language.

During the last week of Lydiya’s tuition, Victor had sought out all the areas where Russian students and tourists would gather. He was eager to engage in conversation with them, posing as another Russian student. Most were kind and most willing to talk to him, whether they saw through his false identity it was hard for him to tell. However the one thing that Victor could not do was to draw his Russian ‘compatriots’ into any political discussions. He could see their suspicions on their faces as they ‘clammed up’ immediately.

Sitting in a Costas coffee lounge a few blocks away from his flat one morning, he was testing himself as usual, when a man around forty years old joined him at his table. With an ingenuous smile he started asking probing questions about what he was doing, how long had he been in the country. Victor felt quite uneasy about answering this man who now seemed to be pressing for answers from him. Instinctively he knew that the best course of action with his inquisitor was to come clean and tell him the exact truth. This did not appease the man and in fact seemed to press harder as if he didn’t believe him.

Victor then pulled a masterstroke. Pulling out his wallet he showed the man Mikhail’s business card written in both languages with the unmistakeable Russian official stamp on it. His visitor’s smile changed somewhat. In fact it seemed that the blood had quickly drained from his face. He stood up awkwardly, and the chair scraped noisily on the wooden floor. Victor noticed that a much larger man, sitting against the far wall also rose, much more quietly off his chair. His interrogator suddenly held up his hand to Victor, in a sort of mock apology. He then turned on his heels and walked out, followed by the much bigger man. He didn’t return Mikhail’s card but Victor was not concerned whether or not they called on Mikhail to substantiate his claims, in fact he did not care that much either way.

Back in the embassy meeting room, Mikhail smiled at Victor as the assembled oligarchs asked questions of the young man and he answered them immediately without hesitation. The whole meeting with them only lasted for thirty minutes, but it was very clear to Victor that things were going well, as when they all filed out of the room, all of them smiled and shook his hand.

‘Well Victor it looks like we are in business. Please sit down and we will discuss the final details of the appointment.’ Mikhail said in English.

As he opened his briefcase to take some papers out, Victor was reminded of what his father had warned him before he came to London.

‘Always ensure that you do not compromise the National Security’ Harry had said.

‘I am sure Victor that you are by now aware of my position at the Embassy. My work is varied and there are many calls on my time. This particular work I currently do for our visitors is one that a Diplomat should not do. I only help them because of my connection to Mother Russia, and the fact that they find it difficult to trust a stranger. Although you will be doing their bidding to an extent, you will be doing it under my guidance, and you will be able to talk to me should there be any problem.’

Victor decided to ask Mikhail a question before their discussion went any further. ‘Mikhail, there is a very important question I must ask you.’

Mikhail stood up from his chair, resting both hands on the table, and laughed out loud. ‘My dear boy, I know the question that you are going to ask me, I will give you the answer before you ask it. No, most definitely no!’

‘What, then, Mikhail, was the question I was going to ask you?’ Victor boldly asked the diplomat.

‘You are the son of Harry Norman are you not? Victor nodded. ‘Well, your father and I know each other well, and I have a great respect for him, and never would I ask you to compromise your British Security. Just to prove the point, I have made an appointment with Giles Carver at the British foreign office tomorrow at 2pm. You are free to say whatever you wish to him then. Does that make you feel better?’

Victor relaxed as soon as he heard Mikhail’s assurances and then became fully receptive to him. The job specification was all written down in an offer document. It became clear on reading the first page that this was not a 9-5 job. His passport was going to be used frequently and he would be dealing with the first-named men directly, in obtaining works of art and other valuable collectibles on their behalf at the principle auction houses around the world. He would be expected to meet Mikhail three or four times per year to discuss his progress or otherwise. Mikhail would make the arrangements for these meetings in advance.

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