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TUCKED INTO the Millennium Hotel on London’s Grosvenor Square, the Pine Bar is a place of hush and shadows. Dark wood panelling, leather seats and black shaded chandeliers cosset those who seek discretion in style. Head barman Norberto Andrade has hidden many celebrities in its recesses during his 27 years of service, including James Bond stars Sean Connery and George Lazenby.

The three Russians who ordered drinks on the chilly afternoon of November 1, 2006 had little of the lethal glamour one might expect of spies. True, two of them were smoking cigars and drinking gin. But the other, a fair-haired man whose slightly angelic face and wide eyes gave him a look of worried alertness, was dressed inelegantly in a khaki t-shirt, jeans and denim jacket. He sipped green tea as the smokers, complaining about the small British measures, ordered several rounds of drinks at once. Andrade placed their orders on a tray, but when he reached their table, one of the men obstructed him. The moment had an unforgettably hostile edge to it. He struggled to put the drinks down, eventually managing to sit them next to the tea pot.

The men eventually left, and Andrade cleared the table. As he poured the remaining tea away, he noticed that the consistency of the liquid that tipped into the sink was strange. Gooey. He couldn’t have known it as he puzzled over its weird yellow tinge, but the man who’d been sipping the tea was a 43-year-old Russian dissident called Alexander Litvinenko, and the tea itself, draining away into the London sewers, was lethally radioactive.

Litvinenko lived in north London's desirable Muswell Hill; he left the Pine Bar and arrived back home around seven. He changed his clothes, sat down to a chicken dinner prepared by his wife, Marina, and spent the evening watching Russian news online. Four hours later, he went to bed.

Before long, however, he was up again — vomiting with such violence that Marina began to panic. She brought him wet towels, dosed him with magnesium tablets. Nothing seemed to work. During the night, his temperature plummeted, yet he begged for the windows to be opened so he could gulp down more of the freezing November air. “It looks like they’ve poisoned me,” he said to his wife.

The next night she called an ambulance: doctors took a cursory look, diagnosed a stomach infection and sent him home. But two days later he was sicker yet. His doctor immediately sent him to Barnet General, a bright local hospital not far from his home. When Litvinenko told the medics his theory — that he’d been poisoned by the Russian security services — they suggested he call a psychiatrist. The probability, they thought, was that his sickness had a far more routine cause: food poisoning from an unfortunate lunchtime dose of sushi.

The doctors treated Litvinenko with a heavy dose of antibiotics. And yet his body continued to break down. Three days after admission, he was being fed through a tube. His hair was falling out, and Marina gathered it in little bundles from his pillow and pyjamas. As the medics tested Litvinenko for AIDS and hepatitis, he kept telling them:I’ve been poisoned. On November 11th, 10 days after he fell ill, he gave an interview to the BBC Russian Service saying he’d suffered “a serious poisoning”, and implying that it had been carried out by an Italian associate, Mario Scaramella, his lunch companion at the sushi bar that Wednesday.

The next morning, further medical reports arrived. The doctors had run an array of tests. One was for radiation exposure: it came back negative. Instead they found something more complex – and more surprising. Some kind of exotic chemistry, some strange poison, was in his blood. Immediate attempts to identify it left them baffled.

Two weeks after the Pine Bar — two weeks without food or an accurate diagnosis — Litvinenko was visited by his friend and fellow dissident Alex Goldfarb. In his late forties and handsome, despite his slightly scruffy hair and puffy eyes which gave him an air of tired wisdom, Goldfarb ran the International Foundation for Civil Liberties, a New York-based human rights organisation. Before Goldfarb was allowed in to visit, he was told to pull on protective gloves and an apron. Don’t touch the patient, the nurse warned.

By now, Litvinenko was surviving on a drip of intravenous fluids. The doctors still couldn’t identify the strange signal in his blood, but had no doubt about its power. Something was going badly wrong with Litvinenko’s bone marrow. But what, and why? It seemed to evade their investigations at every turn. “Frankly,” one doctor told Goldfarb, “we’re at a loss.”

Clad in hospital armour, Goldfarb asked Litvinenko about Scaramella, the mysterious Italian he’d mentioned in the BBC interview. “The Italian has nothing to do with it,” confided Litvinenko. He was grey and pale and pacing his room with tubes dangling from his body. “I named him on purpose, as a trick.” He was spreading disinformation, he explained, because he wanted the killer to feel safe enough to return to the UK to complete his mission. It had been a mistake to drink tea with his Russian visitors but, Litvinenko thought, he was still strong enough to fight. The assassin had failed.

On Friday November 17th, 2006, more than two weeks after he fell ill, doctors finally identified the chemical signal. Their toxicology reports matched what their patient had been saying all along. Litvinenko wasn’t crazy: it now seemed possible someone had indeed tried to kill him. The latest tests suggested thallium, a rare and devious poison.

Under an escort of armed police, Litvinenko was transferred to a locked room, on a locked floor at University College Hospital, an ultra-modern complex of white concrete and azure glass in the centre of London. Anti-terrorist officers stood watch while the doctors started a new course of treatment.

Thallium is a toxic element that can be found in both radioactive forms and in lethal poisonous compounds. In some ways it is an ideal poison: it’s tasteless, odourless, difficult to diagnose. But it also produces some highly characteristic symptoms: patchy thickening of the skin; numbness in the hands and feet. Another symptom is the hair loss that, in Litvinenko, was by now unmistakable. The prognosis, though, was good: thallium has an antidote.

Still worried, Goldfarb sought the help of John Henry, a brilliant toxicologist at London’s St Mary’s Hospital who was famous in Litvinenko’s circle for his ability to spot poisonings. In 2004, Henry had seen a Ukrainian politician on television. Viktor Yushchenko was a figurehead of the so-called Orange Revolution, a moderniser and an enemy of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. He was also, Henry deduced, being poisoned. Yushchenko’s florid, pockmarked face, even filtered through TV, betrayed a potent group of compounds called dioxins.

Lying in his bed, Litvinenko was pleased to see Henry. “I know you’ll get me out of this,” he said. The professor took his hand. “Oh, you are strong,” he said, noticing his grip. “I could still do push-ups if it was not for these tubes,” Litvinenko said.

That muscular grip alerted Henry to a potential problem in the diagnosis. How could Litvinenko be so physically strong? Why wasn’t his energy dissolving away? Goldfarb showed the full toxicology report to Henry. “It says here that the level of thallium is elevated, but only three times over the norm,” Henry said. “This is too low to account for the symptoms.” In his opinion, the hospital physicians had been misled by that mysterious signal. Something else was at play.

On Monday November 20th, Henry returned a more detailed analysis to Goldfarb. By now he was sure that there was another reason for the patient’s rapid decline. “This is not thallium,” he said. “His bone marrow function is totally gone, while his muscles are strong. If it were thallium, it would have been just the opposite.” And the doctors agreed; they were already moving to drop the thallium treatments. That day, Litvinenko was so sick that he struggled to speak. Yellowing and bald, he instructed Goldfarb to take his photograph and pass it to the press. The next morning, he looked at his ghastly image in the British newspapers. “Good,” he said. “Now he won’t get away.”

On November 22nd, just before dropping out of consciousness, Litvinenko opened his eyes and said to his wife, “Marina, I love you so much.” The next night, propped up with pillows, alone in a hospital room guarded by armed police, his heart stopped. And for that, at the last, he might have been grateful. The poison had produced a death so painful that he chewed through his own lips.

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