I need someone to challenge my skills. The first ones have been too easy. They are smug and overconfident, but I think that may be changing. I think they are a little nervous now. Hmm. Maybe one more for practice before I try the best of them.
Michael looked up from his laptop screen, and a brief smile played across his face as he saw Sylvia standing there. He had been expecting Birkoff. "Sure, come in. It's been a long time hasn't it."
"Five years. Not since Simone. I was sorry to hear about her death
Michael. She was an excellent operative and a good trainer, and she
taught me a lot. I know you loved her and must miss her very much."
Sylvia sat down and leaned on her elbows across the
desk from Michael as she gauged his reaction. His eyes grew shiny at her words, but there was no other sign of emotion. She wondered if she had said too much.
"Thank you, Silvia. I have tried to put Simone's death behind me, but it's not always easy or possible."
"How about some dinner, Michael? You don't look like you eat enough."
Michael looked surprised. "I thought you had dinner plans with Pierre."
Sylvia gave a grin and an exaggerated sigh. "He stood me up, mon ami. Maybe someone told him I only go to ‘dinner' with men, but to bed with women. Who knows?" she said as she gave a slight shrug. "I would rather have dinner with you anyway."
Michael was tempted. Dinner with an old friend who wanted nothing from him and who couldn't be used against him seemed like an excellent idea. "I'm waiting on some intel," he said as he opened his hands in front of him in a gesture of ‘what else can I do.'
Birkoff opened the door to Michael's office and saw him talking to the Italian C5 like they were old buddies. Michael was even smiling, something very rare for him. "Michael, I have that intel you needed."
"Thank you," Michael replied as he took the disc from Birkoff and lay it casually on the desk in front of him. "Anything else, Birkoff?" he asked as Birkoff continued to stand there with a puzzled look on his face.
Birkoff blushed. He knew he'd been staring at Damico. She really reminded himof Simone. Weird, he thought. "No, I'm back to Systems unless you need anything else, Michael."
"No, we were just talking about going to dinner." Michael stood and with his left hand buttoned his long jacket. With a casual sleight of hand, he pocketed the disc with his right. Sylvia stood as well. Birkoff preceded them as they left the office. Michael and Sylvia continued to talk in soft familiar tones as they walked down the steel halls of Section One.
As they rounded a corner, Nikita came striding from the opposite direction. "Michael. I was coming to see if you wanted to find something to eat." The words were out of her mouth before she could call them back. It was only too apparent that he already had plans with someone else.
Michael performed the introductions with ease. "Nikita, this is Sylvia Damico. Sylvia, this is Nikita."
"Nikita, what a lovely name. It's very nice to meet you."
Nikita swallowed as she took Sylvia's hand. "Very nice to meet you, too," she said. Lie, lie, lie said her heart.
Michael could see the emotions coloring Nikita's face. "We were just leaving for dinner. Come with us." Merde, he thought. Nikita has entirely the wrong idea about this dinner, but there is no way to gracefully explain that she has no reason to be jealous.
"Uh, no, I wouldn't want to intrude." No, I don't want to intrude. I just want to pull that curly died hair out of her head. I can't believe he is doing this. Walter said give him space. Well, he's going to have plenty of that now.
Sylvia, too, picked up on Nikita's embarrassment. "Please do. It wouldn't be an intrusion," she encouraged, but she had other thoughts as well. Yes, it would be an intrusion, because I haven't seen Michael in years, and he looks like he needs to talk to someone. Hmm, she thought. Maybe he needs to talk to someone about her.
"No, really. I just thought of something else I need to do before I leave. It's probably going to take me an hour at least. You two go on and have a great dinner, and I'll go back and finish up that, uh file I left undone." Nikita made a 180 degree turn and with long, quick strides retreated the way she had come.
Michael sighed. Sylvia looked at him with a quizzical expression on her gamine face. "Is this dinner going to cause problems for you, Michael? Nikita looked upset."
"What do you mean?" he asked trying his blank stare on Sylvia, who him too well.
"You know what I mean. Are you and Nikita involved? She did not look like a happy camper when she saw you with me."
Michael looked at Sylvia and said, "It's a long story."
"And complicated, I'll bet," Sylvia giggled.
Michael gave a slight nod of his head. "Yeah, that pretty much describes it," he said in a soft voice filled with ironic overtones.
"Well, my friend, dinner is what you need, and I have ears to listen."
She patted his shoulder as Michael hit the elevator button to take them
to the real world.
Mandelita Lopez enjoyed being the center of attention, and she had everyone's attention. The briefing was a high level one, held in Madeline's office. The attendees consisted of Operations, Madeline, of course, and O'Brian. All of them, except for Lopez, were beginning to show signs of agitation.
The tension created by the murders had caused Operations to start smoking again, and although Madeline had given him several stern glances, he continued to ignore her and refused to stop his incessant puffing.
To say that Madeline was irritated by Operations' was smoking was an understatement. Inwardly she fumed, but outwardly she decided to stop giving him giving him her evil eye and maintained her usual equanimity. And now the prima donna Lopez had decided to play a game by keeping them waiting for her findings. Madeline recognized the techniques of a power play, because she had used them herself.
O'Brian drummed his fingers on the table in a gesture of impatience and then ran his fingers through his already disheveled hair. He wanted Lopez to stop standing around looking gorgeous and get the horse and pony show on the road, for pity's sake.
Lopez was a good judge of exactly how long to delay the preparations for her briefing. It was a power play she relished occasionally, and today she had indulged herself. She had rearranged her reports, asked O'Brien to adjust her chair to a more comfortable height and favored them all with her condescending gaze before finally beginning.
"I will give you my findings in each case, as well as summarize the report from the Balkans on Coriascue. Mr. O'Brian here will present any evidence that might point to our culprit or culprits. Madeline will present her profile of said culprit or culprits. Once these reports are given, I will be more than happy to leave your environment. The rest of the microscopic examinations, fiber examination and DNA tests will be performed at the Agency. We will, of course, maintain close and frequent contact with you in order to aid your internal investigation. Any questions, thus far?" She looked at her semi-captive audience.
"No, then I shall continue."
"Please do, Dr. Lopez," came from Madeline.
Lopez smiled, "Victim ID# 1A, Terrence Carrey, was killed by a single 9mm gunshot administered through the mouth in an attempt to masquerade as a suicide. The negative paraffin tests rule this out. The exit of said 9mm resulted in a massive destruction of the cerebellum and disruption of the posterior cranium. Time of death was approximately 2240 hours."
"Victim ID# 2A, Judith LaFontaine, was dispatched by a shot gun blast at very close range. Time of death 1000 hours as evidenced by the video surveillance tape at her apartment."
"Victim ID# 3A, Marcus Redmond. died of massive exsanguination after having his throat cut. There was a blow to the occiput which could have caused death had he lived long enough. The body was not moved. Time of death has been readjusted to 1715 hours instead of 1605."
"The reason for the readjustment in time?" Operations asked.
"The temperature in the little-used area was cooler that first thought, it increased the rate of heat loss from the liver making it appear that he had died earlier."
"Then he had only been dead a few minutes when he was discovered by Nikita?" asked Madeline with a small smile of satisfaction that the arrogant forensic pathologist had made a slight error in judgment.
"Yes, I believe that is what I said. Now, to continue. The report from the Balkans was prepared by a colleague of mine and is fairly complete. Korda Coriascue was killed while on a mission. At the end of the mission, his body was found lying face down at the far perimeter of the mission area. He was found on autopsy to have been shot in the back with 9mm shells, none of which matched any of the weapons issued for that mission. It was, however, standard Section issue ammunition. Evidence is still being analyzed to determine if his death was a product of enemy or friendly fire. All operatives on that mission are under detention until a conclusion has been reached. Their investigation continues as does ours here."
Lopez paused and said, "Mr. O'Brian, if you will present your report of evidence collected until now please." Lopez relinquished her spot in the limelight gracefully.
O'Brian cleared his throat as he stood. He adjusted his tie and tried with futile movements to present a neat appearance. "Basically, until the fiber and DNA evidence is back from the Agency, I can't tell you much. We all know how they died, and we don't know who did it. Our perpetrator is using different methods each time with no pattern. The common thread is he's killing your high level operatives. A week ago you had ten, and now you got six. Looks like a trend to me. I'm interviewing everybody that had contact with the victims, anybody that didn't get along with them for any reason. In a place like this, that includes a lot of people. I'm no where near any kind of conclusions, except that you better keep better tabs on the Class Fives you have left." O'Brian shrugged and sat again.
Madeline needed no invitation to command the attention of the gathering. She stood and leveled her gaze at her audience. "I have had little time to prepare, but I am convinced of one thing. These murders have been committed by one who is very intelligent, possibly with some psychotic tendencies. He either feels he has a mission or is acting from personal revenge or both. He is daring, which leads me to think that he is arrogant enough to think he will not be caught, but we all know he will. He is also very familiar with Section routine. Two of the murders have occurred here in Section, so it is obvious that he or she is one of us. Any of these murders could have been accomplished by a female as well as a male given the training all our operative receive. This matter will have my full attention until it is resolved."
Operations took the floor. "My appreciation to all of you for your hard work this far, but it's not good enough. We have to stop this before we lose anyone else. I want these murders solved, and I want them solved yesterday."
Lopez rose to leave. "I will contact you as soon as I have more test results." She nodded to the group. "Thank you for a most interesting experience."
Birkoff's excited voice broke over the comm system. "Operations, there's been another death."
Lopez sank into her chair. She wilted visibly at the news of yet another death. It would seem that she was doomed to spend more time in Section One.
"You're not going anywhere, Dr. Lopez till this is over," Operations said with determination in his voice. She nodded an agreement in response.
Operations began pacing, "Who, Birkoff? Who?"
Michael drove with an economy of movement, as he did everything. Sylvia noted that the muscles in his face appeared tense, and he had said little during the drive to dinner.
"Italian, okay?" he had asked her as they had left the Section.
"Italian's always okay," she gave him an impish grin. His smile was feeble at best. Economical of speech, too, she thought. He's really tied in a knot. This is not the Michael I remember. He really needs to loosen up a bit, and I hope this dinner will give him a chance to do that.
Lorenzo's Ristorante was a small mom and pop establishment that served very authentic and excellent Italian cuisine. The owner greeted Michael like an old friend and the three of them conversed in his native language for several minutes before ordering.
Their booth was in a quiet corner, and it was a slow night. Sylvia was relieved when Michael ordered wine. Hopefully, he would feel free to talk to her. "I see you're keeping up your Italian. How many languages do you speak now, Michael?" she asked.
Michael gave a slight shrug, "I've lost count. It comes in handy."
Carolina, the owner's daughter, brought the wine, giggling as she sat it on the table. Michael's soft, "Grazzi," made her giggle even more as she walked away.
"Well, Michael, I see you haven't lost your ability to charm every female who sees you." Michael's seductive qualities had not diminished with time. He was still one beautiful man. While she would never be attracted to him sexually, she was able to appreciate him as she would any work of art.
"Except you," he said with a twinkle in his gray-green eyes, as he took
a sip of the hearty red wine.
It was Sylvia's turn to shrug, "Well, what can I say, you're not my type."
Michael saw a brief, pensive look cross her face and asked, "So, are you involved with anyone now?"
Sylvia saw that Michael's face had softened and he seemed concerned about her. "No, my last relationship ended a few months ago, and I've not been anxious for another one. Relationships are almost not worth the trouble, Michael. You know what I mean?"
"You said ‘almost?'" he probed.
"Well, Michael!" she said in a more spirited manner. "I'm only human. I still want a relationship, but this was an outside relationship. It became very complicated. Trust was a big issue, and I had to end it, but it's even worse with an inside relationship. There's all the manipulation. Someone is always observing for weaknesses." Sylvia shook her head in semi-mock despair, for it was a well-known truth.
Michael's response was a soft, "Yeah." He took another sip of wine and watched the soft candlelight reflect off the crystal wine glass.
Sylvia watched as Michael appeared to be drawing inward. She asked, "Nikita? Tell me about her, Michael. She's lovely and obviously in love with you. How long have you been involved?"
Sylvia's questions made Michael want to groan. He wasn't sure he could stand to reveal the depth of his feelings and frustrations, even to an old friend.
Michael's eyes grew pensive as he studied his wine glass. "I guess it would depend on how one defines involved."
Sylvia's curiosity was piqued by Michael's nebulous answer. "Michael! How do ‘you' define involved?" Michael's eyes held a plea not to be quizzed further, but Sylvia was too good a friend to allow him to continue to withdraw emotionally. She watched him sigh and look around the room. She watched as his eyelids blinked rapidly and as he stalled answering her question.
He sighed again and finally began to speak. "My ‘involvement' with Nikita goes back to four years ago. It was six months after Simone's death (or at least that's what I thought). I was in a state of existence. I was not eating or sleeping. I functioned like a machine. Operations said ‘do this,' and I did it. He said ‘go there,' and I went. He said ‘kill this one," and I did. I was as dead inside as one can be and still remain alive. I had no fear of death. I would have welcomed it, you understand?"
"Yes, Michael, go on."
"Madeline had tried to counsel me, but our past dealings left me not inclined to bare my soul to her. Then one day, Madeline informed me that I would have to be responsible for training a new recruit. It was Nikita.
"Oh my God! Michael, you're involved with your material! No wonder you're wound up like a violin string. Have you lost your mind." It was the number one rule that a team leader should never become involved with his material, especially a new recruit. Use them, yes, but never fall in love with one of them.
Anger flashed in Michael's eyes, turning them dark green. "It wasn't like that. Nikita was different from the very beginning. She was recruited because of her beauty and apparent ability to kill in cold-blood. She was still quite young--nineteen or so. She cried and claimed her innocence as I told her of her choices, but that is not unusual, I know. We began training, and she was quick to learn, very strong and very undisciplined. Operations wanted to cancel her at the end of her two years probation, but I defended her. He also accused me of being involved."
"If having a reason to breathe is being involved, or if having a reason to come to this place day after day and do what we do here because of Nikita's presence, then I am involved. If the only light in my heart and mind is the image of Nikita's face, then I am involved beyond the depths of any relationship I have ever experienced." Michael's eyes shone with unshed tears as he voiced the emotions to a friend that he had never dared to share with Nikita.
"Oh, Michael. I don't know what to say. I had no idea this
had gone so far."
"The first year after her probation was a difficult one for us both. I chose her for every team that I could, so that I could control and protect her. There were times for mission profiles that I had to lie to her and manipulate her feelings for me. Do you have any idea what it was like for me to have to tell the woman I loved, that I loved her and then have her find out it was part of the mission profile? There were times when she hated me, and I hated myself."
"In time, I came to realize that she had been innocent of the crime that brought her to Section One's attention. By that time, it was too late. Nikita had become suicidal and was placed in abeyance without my knowledge, until it came time for a suicide mission and Nikita was one of the six abeyance pool members to be sacrificed."
Sylvia sat in speechless wonder. She didn't want to stop Michael now that he had opened his heart, and he was able to express the agony that consumed him.
Michael took another sip of wine as he continued. "I gave Nikita a PDA that I had quickly programmed to send her a warning message to flee. After the triggered explosion consumed the target, the tactical team and I left. I had no way of knowing if Nikita made it out in time or not. And I did not know for another six months. She never answered my encrypted messages that I sent her on the PDA. I went through another six months of hell, never knowing if she were alive or dead. It was the nadir of my life."
"Ah, Signor Michael, here is the dinner I have prepared for you and the lovely young lady." They were served by Lorenzo's wife, Sofia, and the fragrant spices were like honey and ambrosia to the hungry operatives.
Sylvia sampled her pasta and clam sauce, "Mmm. It is heavenly, Michael." Sofia smiled and she left the couple to their dinner and conversation.
Sylvia contented herself with several bites of her dinner, then looked at Michael who looked exactly like a child dawdling over his dinner. "Michael, she obviously didn't die, and she's back in Section. Go on please. If you're not going to eat, you might at least continue your story."
"Nikita was free for six months, but was captured by the Freedom League at the end of that time. During her time there she heard of a plan to kidnap a scientist, and that a mole inside Section had tipped them that we knew of the plan. She managed to escape, and at the site of the mission, I saw that she was alive for the first time, when she took out two of their operatives and saved my life. More hostiles came on the scene, and when my attention was diverted, she disappeared."
"That night when I sent her another encrypted message, she answered and gave me her location. I went to her that night," Michael hesitated. He had never told anyone about his first time with Nikita, and he wasn't sure he could tell Sylvia."
Sylvia stopped between bites of pasta and said, "Let's see if I get the picture. Nikita is supposed to be dead. You're both away from Section's prying eyes and ears. You're alone and together. Sounds like you had a hell of an opportunity for some wild and abandoned lovemaking. I hope you took advantage of it, Michael. Tell me you did, please!"
"We did," was all Michael could bring himself to say. The memory of their first time together still made him shudder. Making love with Nikita had been an intense experience that incorporated profound passion with an element of exhaltation. It had been all he had ever dreamed and feared.
Sylvia let a low squeal erupt. "I can see you're not going to give me any details about that, so how did you bring her back in Michael?"
Michael looked at her in gratitude and continued, "Before Nikita escaped from the Freedom League, they had made a video tape of her, saying she had cooperated. There was going to be a mission to destroy their base camp, where Nikita had been. Nikita went back there and hid in a sub-basement. At the end of the mission, I ‘rescued' Nikita and brought her back."
"So did they buy your story? If she was supposed to be a prisoner for six months, she should have been in pretty bad shape."
Michael looked at his yet untouched dinner. "Nikita thought of that as well. Before I brought her back to the van, I beat her." Michael's voice faltered as he made the admission.
Sylvia patted Michael's hand in a gesture of comfort, "You had to do it. Surely you realize that."
"I know, but it broke my heart to do it. Less than 24 hours before I had made love to her for the first time, and then there I was beating her." Michael's eyes were shiny as he remembered the emotions that tore at him in that dark sub-basement.
"Hmm. The ‘first' time? Michael, I don't remember anything in your profile about your being a monk. How long had you known her, for pity's sake?"
"Three years, but you have to remember, she spent most of that time hating me," he said with wry amusement.
"But you're together now?"
"No, not in the way you mean."
"No?" Sylvia's voice was incredulous. What was wrong with the two of them. Granted, inside Section liaisons were not condoned, but it ‘could' be done.
"It's difficult to explain. Nikita doesn't understand the need for caution. She's full of life and passion, and she wants a ‘relationship,' but we have been manipulated so many times. I've lost too much to Section One, I couldn't bear to lose her too. I asked her to be patient, and she got involved with the Spec Ops that handled her reprogramming. When he died on one of our missions, she blamed me. We have spent most of this year estranged. We lie to each other. Nikita always has her own agenda on a mission--save the innocents, which can't always be done. Now, Operations has upgraded her status and she is no longer my material. I can't protect her anymore. She is a tremendous operative, but still headstrong, and she doesn't always see the big picture. I don't trust Operations in his use of her, but I am powerless as long as she reports to him and not me."
"So you have not been together since she came back to Section? I find that difficult to comprehend, Michael." Sylvia had become so engrossed in Michael's story that she had stopped eating as well.
"Well, that is not exactly true. We were in deep cover on a mission for almost a week as husband and wife, under surveillance by the target as well as Section One. We made love once."
"Under surveillance? Well, that must have been a salutary experience for you both."
Michael smiled, "Actually, it was. We came to a sort of understanding after that, for a while anyway. But the lies and deceptions of Section came between us again. We were together again last night, and I had hope that our understanding was renewed, but after her refusal to come to dinner with us, I don't know. I know what she is thinking. She still has some insecurities and some lack of trust. Who can blame her? Certainly not I."
Michael's and Sylvia's cell phones rang simultaneously. "Yes, all right. I'll be in." Michael looked at Sylvia, "Another one. Let's go." Michael was back in mission mode, and the gentle emotional man submerged.
"I'm not going anywhere without my dinner," Sylvia insisted.
"Sylvia, We don't have time," Michael said.
"Michael, have you never heard of a doggie bag?" she asked with a grin.
Nikita admitted to herself that she was in a major funk. Watching Michael go off to dinner with the petite Italian C5 op. was the contributing factor for her mood. Yes, she admitted he had asked her to join them, but she had been too stubborn to go. Now she had to suffer the pangs of jealousy, that she had not suffered when she once watched him ask Andrea Karsov out to dinner right in front of her. True, she had been a ‘little' jealous, but she had known Michael was up to something, and she had been proven correct in that instance.
The problem this time was that Michael and Sylvia appeared to already know each other quite well. She hadn't seen Michael so relaxed with anyone since before Chuck had died. Nikita decided that Walter would have to serve his usual purpose in her life. He was the most reliable source of intel in Section One--at least the kind of intel she was seeking.
She walked into Walter's work area. The grizzled older man was replacing inventory from the last mission with swift precision. "Hi, Walter," she said as she moved with casual grace to his work table.
"Hi, Sugar. What's up?" It was late, and Walter wondered why Nikita was still lingering at the Section. Operations had rescinded the close quarters order earlier in the evening.
"Oh, nothing. I was just wondering if you knew anything about one of the C5 ops." Nikita tried to make it sound like a casual inquiry, but wasn't sure she succeeded.
"Which one, Sugar? Have designs on one of them?" Walter asked with a leer.
"Not likely, Walter. Sylvia Damico, for instance, what you do know about her?"
Walter gave a quick look at Nikita and said, "Sylvia? Came to Section about ten years ago. She was Simone's material, close to Simone and Michael, but transferred back to Italy about five years ago, before Simone died. Another one of the five percent club, if you ask me. Operations didn't like her attitude. He didn't think she took life in Section seriously enough, but she was such a damn good op. that he wouldn't cancel her. So they had an amicable agreement that she would be better back home in Italy."
"But she's a C5 now."
"Yeah, upgraded about six months ago from what I hear. So, Nikita, what's with the questions about Sylvia? Something's buggin' you, I can tell."
Nikita sighed because she knew she was too transparent, and Walter knew her too well by now. "She and Michael went out to dinner. They looked like old friends. I sort of wondered if there was more to the story." Nikita looked at her hands and studied them intently, avoiding Walter's knowing gaze.
Walter threw his head back and laughed, "You don't have to worry about Michael and Sylvia. They're just old friends, and they probably have a lot to catch up on."
Nikita wasn't prepared to take Walter's glib assurances that they were simply old friends. "Well, you know sometimes relationships start as friends and end up as more."
"Nikita, they'll never be more than friends. Michael isn't Sylvia's type."
"Michael seems to be everyone's type, Walter, or hadn't you noticed."
Walter's shoulders shook so hard with restrained laughter that he had to sit down. "Sugar, you're missing my point entirely." He raised his eyebrows.
"You're saying Sylvia is gay?"
"Yes, Sugar. Don't worry. It's dinner with an old friend. That's all"
"Cool! Thanks, Walter," she said as she gave him her usual kiss on
the cheek. "Guess, I'll go home now."
"Get some sleep, Sugar," he said as she strode down the hall. She's got the ‘Michael bug' bad, he thought. He hoped Michael appreciated her, but there was little way to tell with Michael, and given the lies and manipulations that were everyday occurrences in Section One, it was just as well. Walter figured it was Michael's way of protecting her, but he doubted that Nikita appreciated it yet.
Nikita's mood was considerably better than it had been ten minutes before. As she continued down the hall toward temporary freedom, she was surprised to meet Operations, Madeline, O'Brian and the forensic pathologist all rushing toward the "A" pod of standby quarters.
Unnoticed, she followed behind them till they reached a door. It stood slightly ajar, and as Operations threw it open, Nikita saw Pierre LeBlanc lying on the floor at the foot of his bed. He had been strangled by a garrote, and his tongue protruded in a grotesque manner, swollen and discolored. Nikita turned away from the sight. He had been an attractive man, but death had taken that from him.
When would this nightmare end? Nikita wondered as she began to seriously
fear for Michael's life.
On to Part VIII