"London calling, eh, Paddy?" Anatole clapped me on the back as the plane bumped to a landing. "Is good to be back home?"
"Ah, sir, sure it's not my home," I said, upping the Irish a notch or two. Why, I wasn't sure, since neither Anatole nor his right-hand man, Yuri, had any clue what an Irish accent sounded like. Still, the more t'be sure I put into it, the thicker they thought I was, the more they let slip when they talked in Russian.
Paddy didn't understand Russian. But I did.
London was cold, but a normal, bearable sort of cold, not the blood-freezing chill of St. Petersburg, where after fifteen minutes your jaw was locked and your breath had frozen in your throat. A heavy drizzle fogged the tarmac as we stepped off the private plane, and I had to physically restrain myself from crying with joy. All right, crying at drizzle is a little extreme, but come on. It really had been ages since I'd been home.
And now, please God, I was home for good.
Anatole laughed and tossed his fur hat into the air. It skittered away under the plane and I winced, because my basic airfield training--not to mention Luke's snooty RAF know-how--told me that any foreign objects or debris on the tarmac could destroy a plane's engine or cause a crash on take-off.
But I kept quiet and plastered a grin on my face. The grin of the stupid. Paddy's grin.
London was decked out for Christmas, dressed up like a little girl going to a party. Such a different city from St. Petersburg. It felt like a party. People looked happy. Lights twinkled in every shop window, festooned every house, stretched across every street. It was madly tacky, but for once I didn't mind. Christmas cheer and all that. Every time I saw a street sign in English I smiled. Well, until I saw the ones which said "road closed" and had to remember my London geography in a pinch.
"Is very bright, no? London is town with lot of money," Anatole cheered as I made a mildly illegal U-turn.
"Ah sir, does my heart good, it does, to see all the Christmas cheer."
Yuri, whose English was much better than his boss's, said with a sneer, "It's capitalist extravagance. They waste their money on it."
"Is West," Anatole said. "They wasting money on everything!"
I pulled up outside the brashly expensive private members club where we'd arranged to meet Darren King. A valet came forward to take the car from me, but I declined. That car contained some pretty heavy hardware, and I didn't want him running to the police about it.
Inside the club, which had furnishings so up-to-the-minute they were almost unusable, we were shown to a private room where Darren King was drinking vodka and watching his team on a huge flat-screen TV. With him was a guy who had "accountant" written all over him and a woman wearing a few very expensive-looking inches of pink satin, a pair of high heels, a lot of jewelry and not much else.
One of Daz's cheap women, I figured, although she sure wasn't dressed cheaply.
Her gaze flickered over the three of us, cool, assessing. Okay, she was hot, but I wondered how much of that was grooming, and how glam she'd be in ratty old pajamas with bunny slippers on her feet.
The thought made me smile, and my smile made her frown.
She had a pretty sexy frown.
"Anatole, me ol' mucker," Daz leapt to his feet and gave the Russian an exuberant handshake. "How was yer flight?"
"My flight, it was good," Anatole said. He glanced nervously at Yuri, then added to Daz, "My English, is not so good. Yuri translate for me."
"Right, right, smashin'." Daz's gaze flickered over me, dismissed me as hired muscle and moved on to Yuri.
"Lemme introduce Peter, he's me accountant, top geezer--"
And a crook, I thought, watching Peter's nervous eyes. A pretty useless crook, but a crook nonetheless.
"And this is the lovely Natalya, treat for you, Anatole, she's Russian too."
He said it "Natawya". Ugh. It's called an L, idiot, learn how to pronounce it. And your H's too, while you're at it. And Th's, and--
"Told you I'd got a surprise for you, eh, Natalya?" Daz nudged her forward.
Anatole's face lit up, especially when he took in the length of leg and mountains of cleavage Natalya was displaying.
But Natalya, interestingly, looked like a deer trapped in headlights. Only for a moment or two, but it was there. Maybe she'd heard the rumors about Anatole, I thought, appreciating in a purely objective way how her long, glossy dark hair swung over her shoulders and framed her exquisitely made-up eyes.
Then Anatole grabbed her shoulders and kissed her soundly on both cheeks and cried, in Russian, "How wonderful to see another of my countrymen! Where in Russia are you from? How long have you been in London? We must drink to this. Vodka!"
Something about her smile bothered me. Clearly, no one else in the room had noticed, but her lips looked slightly ... fixed to me. As if she'd read about smiles, but never actually tried one out before.
"It's very nice to meet you," she said, and I nearly choked, because she was speaking English with the sort of cod-Russian accent my nan's whiskey-sodden bridge friends would attempt when her fat white cat leapt on their lap.
I nearly expected her to say, "So, Mister Bond," but of course she didn't. She just smiled that slightly inaccurate smile at everyone and announced, in that accent of hers, that she was going to the bar for the vodka.
"Nah, nah, love, you sit down, someone'll bring it," Daz said.
"I don't trust the waiters here," she said haughtily. "They will spit in our drinks."
So saying, she stalked off on her vertiginous heels, and all four of us watched her go.
Yep, she was gorgeous, but about as authentic as Pamela Anderson's breasts.