Part IV

        Birkoff continued to work through the day on Michael's files and his frustration level was at it's peak, when he received a urgent communication from Marco, who, as part of his Section training, was currently assigned to routine operative surveillance.

        Marco, a former police detective recruited by Section One after Nikita became involved in the investigation of a serial killer, was shouting over the comm.  "One of your C5 ops was just murdered in her apartment.  Someone blew her away as she answered the door."  Marco's excitement was tangible.  Here was something he was already trained to do and he was ready to do it, if they would only let him.  He rewound the tape again, and saw that the angle of the camera did not show the perp at the door.  All he could see was LaFontaine walking toward the door, then heard a blast and saw her body flying into camera range again.

        Birkoff knew the only local female C5 op was Judith LaFontaine, whose reputation was almost on a par with Michael's.  She had been beautiful, cold and relentless with little of Nikita's heart.  He was stunned, but not enough to forget what needed to be done next.  "Get me Operations now," he demanded into his comm set.

        "What is it Birkoff?  We're awfully busy right now," was Operations terse reply.

        "Judith LaFontaine has been murdered at her apartment.  Surveillance caught the act, but not who did it.  Shot gun blast!  Police will be crawling over the place if we don't hurry, sir."

        Operations looked at Madeline.  "Someone has taken out Judith at her apartment."  Madeline's only response was a raised eyebrow.

        "Birkoff, dispatch housekeeping ASAP.  We have to contain this.  Get me George at the Agency, right away, Birkoff."  Barking orders came naturally to the ex-Army officer.

        "Yes, Sir!" Birkoff was so snappy in his reply, his mental salute could almost be heard.  Birkoff set in motion the mechanisms to contain this disaster.  If housekeeping didn't arrive in time, Section One was in danger of being compromised by a mere police investigation.
        Madeline, who had been sitting quietly through the exchange, said, "We need to call everyone in, Birkoff.  We also need to investigate the death of Coriascue as well.  I know that was supposed to be a mission loss, but I want full details on my desk by midnight."

        Operations looked a little ragged around the edges.  The loss of three C5 ops in twenty-four hours and another one suspected was more than he had ever thought he should  handle in a routine day.  "What the hell is happening here?  Is this an internal or external threat?"  His expression was weary as he looked at Madeline for her

        Madeline, too was tired, for she had not slept since the call about Carrey's suicide.  "It's still too soon to tell, but we need a priority briefing with all the C5 ops, international as well.  You know this could get worse before it  gets better."

         With blonde hair flying behind her, Nikita was an avenging fury as she made her way to Madeline's office. She knew Operations was bound to be there, since he wasn't watching over them like Zeus on Mt. Olympus.   Nothing Michael had said would deter her from providing him with an alibi for the night before.   As many times as Michael had lied to save her, she would see to it that this time the truth would save him instead.  The very idea that they had  restricted him to his quarters infuriated her beyond belief.  It was obvious to her that Operations and Madeline had no sense of loyalty to the operatives they oversaw.  At the first sign of trouble, they quietly withdrew into their private domain to spin further webs of deceit and manipulation.

        Nikita punched in her access code and was rewarded by the opening of Madeline's office door.  Operations and Madeline looked at her with twin looks of exasperation as she entered.

        "Nikita, is this important?" was Madeline's soft question.

        "It damn well better be, Nikita," was Operations terse challenge.

        "It's damn important!  You have Michael confined to quarters, and I'm here to tell you he was with me last night."  Nikita's start had been brave, but years of hiding her feelings diminished the last half of her sentence both in volume and enthusiasm.

        "What?" Operations asked unable to believe his ears.  Michael had spent the night with Nikita.  What the hell was Michael thinking?  Was it some ploy to destroy her compassion.  Obviously not working, he thought.  Here Nikita was defending the ‘innocent' yet again.

        Nikita swallowed, stared at them both and repeated, "Michael was with me last night--till after 4AM."  Operations steel gray eyes were boring through her as if to dissect her heart from her chest.  Damn, she thought, Michael was right.  I should have kept my mouth shut.

        "That's lovely, Nikita.  Thank you for giving Michael an alibi, although I doubt he would appreciate the consequences, if it were true."  Operations did not doubt Nikita, but he was not inclined to deal with the consequences of her truth, certainly not now in the midst of three dead C5 ops.

        Nikita felt her face flush as the blood rushed there with the increase in her blood pressure.   By the time Nikita could speak, she was in Operations face.  "Thank you?  You damn well ‘should' thank me!   You're treating the best operative that Section One has like  he's a murderer without one shred of evidence.  You ought to be damn grateful he was with me."

        Operations was taken aback, and he was incensed.  Nikita had been in his face many times, but never in quite this loud and belligerent manner.  "I'll give you leave to remember where you are and who you--"

        Madeline sighed and stepped between them.  "Emotions are high.  Both of you need to reconsider and step back.  This furor isn't solving anything.  Nikita, another C5 operative has been murdered, and there is no doubt this time that she was murdered.  As she was at her apartment, and Michael was here, he is no longer a suspect at this time. However, we will ‘all' have to keep our heads in order to find the solution, without any further loss of life."

        It was Nikita's turn to be taken aback, "Judith?" After receiving a silent nod from Madeline, Nikita was speechless for a moment.  Madeline's eyes prodded her by looking from her to Operations.  "I'm sorry, I was only trying to--"

        "Help Michael."  Operations finished for her.  "Yes, we're well aware of that, Nikita.  And there will be further discussion of your relationship with Michael at another time," he promised with a forged in steel smile.

        Madeline spoke up before the situation could escalate again, "That will be all, Nikita."

        Nikita turned to leave, but paused on the second step.  "What about pulling O'Brian in on this?  He was a homicide detective, for heaven's sake."

        Operations raised an eyebrow, in surprise at her suggestion.  Why hadn't one of them thought of it.  Nikita might actually be worth something as an operative someday, if she could ever overcome her emotional tendencies.  He turned to Madeline, "Do it."

        Operations turned and nodded to Nikita, "Thank you.  That was an excellent suggestion.  That will be all."

        Geez, Nikita thought as she left.  Damned by faint praise again.  I hope I haven't loused up Marco's day, as well.


        After Nikita swept from the room, Michael continued to pace from one side of his quarters to the other. He knew if he had to stay confined much longer, he would surely decompensate. He feared she would make things worse by offering to alibi him for the night before. If they bothered to believed her at all, it would then be impossible to deflect Operations' and Madeline's queries into their relationship. Nikita's rash action would ruin everything he had hoped to accomplish in the future. His frank denials to Operations would no longer be accepted.

        In the past, Michael had told himself that the possibility of a relationship with Nikita still existed, as long as he continued to lie to Operations and there was no direct evidence of a relationship. Michael also worried that Nikita's would grow weary of waiting for the right time. Today her impulsive rush to ‘save' him would aim the spotlight dramatically on them both. This was what he had sought to avoid with four years of lies and manipulations so that Nikita might survive the rigors of training and missions. Michael had seen her potential from the first meeting, but as his feelings for her had become so entwined with his very being, that he had engineered every circumstance available at his command to ensure that she more than survived--she excelled.

        She was the most frustrating recruit ever given to him for material. He had told Operations once that she was different and that she was strong.  No one since Simone had touched him inside where his shackled and case-hardened heart beat. He knew he had not deserved to receive love again. Daily after her arrival, he had been transported and, yes, frightened as well, that he could 'feel' love for the most disruptive and vulnerable female that ever walked into a briefing in Section One. Her breathtaking beauty dazzled all who saw her, and he had been more vulnerable to her beauty and apparent goodness than any.

        "Hoist on his own petard," was a phrase that often echoed through Michael's head. Attempting to seduce her into the ways of Section One, he had been seduced by her beauty, by her light, and by her passion. Headlong into a hell of self-torment, he had flung himself. It was Michael's hell of denial, where he had attempted to counterbalance his need for her.

        Michael's torment was interrupted by Madeline's soft voice over the comm system. "Michael, briefing in five minutes."

        "Of course." Michael took a deep breath, attempted to compose his thoughts, and buttoned his jacket with a practiced movement of his left hand as he walked toward the briefing area.


        Marco O'Brian received the call from Madeline as he sat on an uncomfortable stool in surveillance with his eyes glued to the screen.  Housekeeping was already there at LaFontaine's apartment--in record time, he noted.  He wondered why the police had not been called and supposed that a call from ‘someone' to another ‘someone' about a federal case could circumvent the usual procedure for a ‘while.'  His perpetual habit of running his hands through his hair left it in a continual state of disarray, and todays events had increased his air of nervous agitation.

        "O'Brian, you are to report to me immediately.  We want to use you for our internal investigation of recent circumstances."

         "All right.  I'll be there," was O'Brian's  response.  Madeline smiled at how different he was from the taciturn Michael and wondered how long it would take O'Brian to change, or if he would be able to change.
        O'Brian presented himself with an eager ready-to-go attitude.  His appearance was slightly rumpled, so different from Michael's usual state of immaculate elegance, Madeline mused as she continued her comparison of the two men.

        "Okay, what do you want me to do?  I'm ready," Marco blurted.  He knew he was probably pathetic in his eagerness to do something ‘real' for a change.  He was tired of shooting at hologram terrorists.

        Madeline smiled.  "You will coordinate with Hector in Housekeeping.  He has collected the evidence in Carrey's office and is in the process of doing the same in LaFontaine's apartment.  You will report to me.  Birkoff will assist you with any computer analysis or files that you need.  If you wish access to anything that is beyond Birkoff's clearance, you are to come to me.  Is that understood?"

        Marco smiled, "Yes, Ma'am.  Thank you for letting me do this."  Marco didn't know what else to say to Madeline.  She was certainly an awesome woman.  She had power, femininity and danger written all over her.  Powerful women could be as seductive to men as powerful men to women.  He wondered what she would be like in bed and remembered what he had learned in school about female spiders and preying mantises.  Nah.  Better not go there.

        Marco would have been very uneasy to know that Madeline was assessing his seductive qualities as well.  He was handsome in a rugged way.  His body seemed fine.  She was not sure that finesse would ever be O'Brian's strong point, but his obvious virility made up for that lack.  There were possibilities in that line, she imagined, but there would be time enough for those considerations later.  Too bad Nikita couldn't....  Well, that ship had sailed with Nikita's glaring pronouncement that Michael had spent the night with her.

        "That will be all, O'Brian."  Madeline dismissed him.

         "Yeah, okay," he replied as he rushed to take over the investigation.

        Madeline considered what she had set in motion.  This would be the first real opportunity that O'Brian and Nikita had for contact since his coming into Section a year ago.   His training had been no problem, but the next year would be spent in grooming his psychological  outlook to conform to Section Ones.  He was still a little rebellious, but again he had no real choice.  It had seemed  politic to keep Nikita away from O'Brian since she was directly responsible for his being recruited.  With Michael being at the heart of the investigation, it would be impossible to keep Nikita out of O'Brian's way.  It would be interesting to see what dynamic developed between them.

        Madeline had long begun to question her earlier wisdom of pairing Nikita and Michael.  True, Nikita had brought him out of his depression over Simone, but she wasn't sure that Operations could handle Michael's having any other loyalty but to Section One.   She could see the difficulty that Michael was having with it.  He was almost as remote and silent as he had been before Nikita had been recruited.  Personally, she thought he was terrified at losing Nikita, so totally terrified that his actions almost guaranteed that he would

        Michael walked into the briefing area and saw that Operations was already there, pacing as was his usual mode.  Six other C5 operatives surrounded the table, and Michael nodded at them as he took his place.  These were his peers and rivals to replace Operations when the time came.  Michael forced himself to focus on the greater problem at hand, but he could not help but wonder at the providence that put them all in the present arena as if they were ancient gladiators commanded to fight or die.   Operations would be constantly evaluating them all for ‘oversight,' and Michael did not intend to make any mistakes.

        Operations continued to pace and gave a sigh of relief as Madeline took her place at the table.  "You have most certainly already heard that Korda Coriascue was lost as the result of a mission, and that Terrence Carrey is dead as well.  In addition, Judith LaFontaine has been murdered.  The loss of three Class Five operatives in the matter of two days is an unthinkable coincidence.  It is still uncertain whether the threat is external or internal."  Operations glanced in Michael's direction, and it was noted by everyone at the table.
        Madeline said, "It is possible that Carrey's death was not a suicide.  These deaths are all under investigation.  Marco O'Brian will be in charge of this investigation.  He will report to me.  You are all to cooperate with him fully and not impede his investigation in anyway.  Until the source of this threat is determined, be on your guard.  We don't need to lose anymore C5 operatives."

        The operative from the British substation spoke first.  He was in his forties and prided himself on his resemblance to the royal family males.   His public school voice resonated in the open area.  "And ‘who' is Marco O'Brian, pray tell?"  He had no desire to leave his fate to what sounded like a mongrel Irishman.

        Operations cut Dwyer short.  "Normally, I would not dignify that question with an answer, but since the local C5 ops are well aware of who O'Brian is, I will answer.  He is a former homicide detective, well-suited for this investigation.  No further questions will be entertained about his background or circumstances of his recruitment."
         "Will we be allowed to assist in the investigation?" asked Silvia Damico with her lilting Italian accent.

        Operations was again terse in his reply, "Your assistance will be allowed only at the request of the investigating officer."

        Silvia rolled her brown eyes at the operatives around the table and closed her mouth in a tiny moue.  Her gamine appearance was deceptive, for Silvia Damico was a powerhouse at hand-to-hand combat.  Her status as a C5 was recent, and Operations was dubious about the recommendation that had promoted her.  Short, dark brown curls framed her piquant face, and she had every indication of having a real personality, which Operations distrusted, as a matter of course.

        Madeline smiled, but the smile never reached her eyes.  Damico could be a wild card in future equations, she thought.  She's a lot like Simone in physical attributes and personality.  At that point in her plotting, Madeline remembered Silvia's sexual orientation.  Still, she thought, there might be a way to keep Michael and Nikita apart long enough for them to survive.  Once his strength, Nikita was now Michael's weakness, and Madeline was certain that Nikita would prove to be his or her own downfall. Strangely, neither circumstance was one that she desired to see.  Too many resources had been utilized in their training and upkeep.  Madeline often felt the balancing act she had to perform to keep them functioning at their peak was becoming impossibly difficult and so tiring.


        In spite of Madeline's inner conflicts, the briefing continued.  "Any further questions?" Operations  challenged his operatives.

        "Do we have any details on Coriascue?" Michael asked.  He would not be cowed by Operations belligerent attitude.  He'd been on the receiving end of it too many times before this.

        Operations removed his glasses and gave Michael a stern glance.  "A report is due from the Balkans substation at 5PM.  We'll meet back here at that time.  We should also have some preliminary results from the evidence collected in Carrey's office  and from the post mortem to tell us if Carrey committed suicide or was murdered.  Until then, be on your guard.  That's all."

        Marcus Redmond turned to Desmond Black and said, "I'm watchin' you man.  Don't you try anything with me."

        Desmond Black sighed and shook his head at the jokester of the C5's.  "Wouldn't think of it, Mark."  He and Mark had been recruited to Section within months of each other and had risen through a necessary measure of good fortune and continued diligence to the C5 status.  Desmond had always played the straight man to Marcus as they has ascended through the ranks.  If there was anyone in the room Desmond trusted with his life, it was Mark.  Both were Afro-Americans who had similar histories.  They had both been recruited into Section One after small robberies that had gone bad.  Section One training over the years had given them an education and polish that they probably would have never attained on their own in a still prejudiced society.

        Section One, however, was an equal opportunity employer.  If the blood was red, it could be spilled in the pursuit of eradicating terrorists around the world.  Desmond and Marcus were obviously both qualified and had spilled their share of blood over the last seventeen years they had spent in Section.  They were brothers in act, in shared goals, and in every way but genetics.

        Michael had envied their relationship for years.  The only operative  Michael had ever deemed a friend in Section One had been Chuck, and he had watched him die on a monitor as a bomb detonated.  Michael had seen too many operatives come and ‘go' to allow anyone else the questionable privilege of being his friend, until Nikita had claimed it in spite of his efforts and hers.

        Michael rose.  Operations had dismissed them, after all.  Pierre LeBlanc, Michael's countryman was already asking Damico out to dinner.  Michael heard Silvia assent.  What a sense of humor she had, he thought.  Michael held out his hand to Isaac Agbenohevi and gave him a traditional Ghanaian greeting.  Isaac smiled and tested Michael's grasp of the language a little further before Michael raised a hand  and shook his head in surrender.  The language of Ghana was not one of his best.

        "Thank you, Michael.  It is a pleasure to hear my language pronounced so well by one who was not born to speak it."  Agbenohevi  was a gracious and elegant man and somewhat reserved, not unlike Michael, but he did not appear to carry the emotional baggage that Michael did.  Michael looked at the assembly of C5's and felt that he was the only emotional cripple in the room.  Most of the operatives could have passed for professors or business executives, while Michael felt like a ghost in this room of vibrant people.  He wondered if he were made of weaker stuff than the others.  Had the rigors of Section not affected them?  How and why was he so different?  Why did he have to suffer so?  Michael knew his soul searching could not be assuaged by pat answers.  It was his  punishment for his crime before Section.  He knew he deserved no better.

        Madeline watched Michael as he watched his peers.  She was amazed to see the brief flashes of emotion that Michael was unable to hide from her seasoned eyes.  Disdain for Dwyer, amusement at Damico, envy of Black and Redmond, pity and amusement for LeBlanc, and admiration for Agbenohevi were only too apparent to Madeline.  So, too, was the withdrawal she saw in Michael's eyes as he compared himself to the others and found himself wanting.  Oh, Michael, she thought, what have we made of you?

        Operations in turn watched Madeline as well.  He saw the remote look in her eyes that he imagined he saw whenever Michael was anywhere near her.  He chose to believe that she still had some remnant of feelings for Michael, and he would never forgive Michael for that.  He knew it was an illogical thought process, but he didn't care.  His and Madeline's relationship had been ‘fine' until she undertook the last aspects of Michael's training--and took them too damn far.

On to Part V