Tea at the Ritz

He checked his phone again, foot tapping nervously beneath the table.

For an hour he’d scanned the Palm Court lobby from his table by the piano, but was now slumped back, as each chattering group passed through the elegant oak doors, mounted the marble steps and took their place for tea.

He fiddled with the cutlery and reached down to rub the varicose vein that throbbed in his calf, trapped beneath the cold steel of a Makarov 9mm, snug in its tight leather holster.

It was a year since he’d fled, a miserable, lonely year spent hiding in the damp basement flat his new masters had provided. Occasionally, he’d creep out at night to buy vodka. Every few weeks he’d spot a message in the Personals and rendezvous in the shrubbery at the park, his arrival sending knots of trouser-less men scurrying like rabbits.

At each debriefing he’d plead for a woman to be arranged for him. And finally word came, not the clandestine coupling he’d imagined but something far more grand, a location which, they must have figured, was unlikely to arouse suspicion: tea at the Ritz.

So here he was, awkward in the itchy, ill-fitting lounge suit they’d slipped to him in a Tesco bag, yet hungry with anticipation. She’d stood him up, he decided reluctantly, his chest heaving a great sigh as he remembered the girls back in Omsk. As he rose to leave, a hand gently tapped his shoulder.

‘Mikhail?’ He swung round to find a willowy blonde beaming at him. For a moment he was speechless, stunned by the most intense emerald eyes he’d ever seen.

‘Yes … yes’, he stammered, feeling the warmth rising in his cheeks and swallowing hard to wet his mouth. ‘You must be Anna!’ He offered a hand but she ignored it, moving forward to grip his shoulders and plant a lingering kiss on each cheek. He sucked in her fragrance as her lips passed. A waiter seated her and he took in the sight before him. From the Flamingo pink nails to the diamond pendant earrings, this woman – no more than thirty, he reckoned – oozed style and class. And she was here, with him, with Mikhail Vitsin!

The hour that followed seemed to him like a blur, a whirlwind of chatter, of warmth, of such attention from so beautiful a woman that he could hardly believe his good fortune.

They spoke of their childhoods, of families, education, careers, a rehearsed tissue of lies that rolled easily from his tongue. She was a dancer, travelling with a leading company. He said he was an engineer with an oil company. Visions of a night of raw passion flooded his mind as he reached beneath the linen to find and squeeze a bare knee. She winked, spreading a mound of Beluga onto a blini and posting it with an erotic flourish onto his tongue.

Her mobile beeped. A text message. She looked up and sighed.

‘Oh Mikhail, I’m so sorry. It’s my mother – she’s had a fall, I’ve got to go.’ She stood quickly, hugged him and playfully tweaked the tip of his nose.

‘You’ll just have to wait, you naughty boy. I’ll call you tomorrow, promise.’

He watched her stride to the door, raising his hand ready to wave, but she didn’t look back.

Mikhail Sergei Vitsin never saw the woman again but he thought of her often over the coming months, as the three grains of Polonium drained the life from him.

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