Eye of the storm

ONE

IT WAS JUST before dark as Dillon emerged from the alley and paused on the corner. Rain drifted across the Seine in a flurry of snow, sleet mixed with it and it was cold, even for January in Paris. He wore a reefer coat, peaked cap, jeans and boots, just another sailor off one of the barges working the river, which he very definitely was not.

He lit a cigarette in cupped hands and stayed there for a moment in the shadows, looking across the cobbled square at the lights of the small café on the other side. After a while, he dropped the cigarette, thrust his hands deep in his pockets and started across.

In the darkness of the entrance two men waited, watching his progress. One of them whispered, “That must be him.”

He made a move. The other held him back. “No, wait till he’s inside.”

Dillon, his senses sharpened by years of entirely the wrong kind of living, was aware of them, but gave no sign. He paused at the entrance, slipped his left hand under the reefer coat to check that the Walther PPK was securely tucked into the waistband of his jeans against the small of his back, then he opened the door and went in.

It was typical of the sort of place to be found on that part of the river: half a dozen tables with chairs, a zinc-topped bar, bottles lined against a cracked mirror behind it. The entrance to the rear was masked by a bead curtain.

The barman, a very old man with a gray moustache, wore an alpaca coat, the sleeves frayed at the cuffs and there was no collar to his shirt. He put down the magazine he was reading and got up from the stool.

“Monsieur?”

Dillon unbuttoned his reefer coat and put his cap on the bar, a small man, no more than five feet five with fair hair and eyes that seemed to the barman to be of no particular color at all except for the fact that they were the coldest the old man had ever looked into. He shivered, unaccountably afraid, and then Dillon smiled. The change was astonishing, suddenly nothing but warmth there and immense charm. His French, when he spoke, was perfect.

“Would there be such a thing as half a bottle of champagne in the house?”

The old man stared at him in astonishment. “Champagne? You must be joking, monsieur. I have two kinds of wine only. One is red and the other white.”

He placed a bottle of each on the bar. It was stuff of such poor quality that the bottles had screw tops instead of corks.

“All right,” Dillon said. “The white it is. Give me a glass.”

He put his cap back on, went and sat at a table against the wall from where he could see both the entrance and the curtained doorway. He got the bottle open, poured some of the wine into the glass and tried it.

He said to the barman, “And what vintage would this be, last week’s?”

“Monsieur?” The old man looked bewildered.

“Never mind.” Dillon lit another cigarette, sat back and waited.

The man who stood closest to the curtain peering through was in his mid-fifties, of medium height with a slightly decadent look to his face, the fur collar of his dark overcoat turned up against the cold. He looked like a prosperous businessman right down to the gold Rolex on his left wrist, which in a way he was as a senior commercial attaché at the Soviet Embassy in Paris. He was also a colonel in the KGB, one Josef Makeev.

The younger, dark-haired man