As the fire began to die, the nighttime autumnal chill began to seep into Michael’s body. After their lovemaking, Stephanie had fallen asleep in his arms. Michael was torn between a wife, who had given him the only semblance of a normal life he had ever known, and an existence of ever-present danger with the woman he loved, Nikita.
Initially, Stephanie had been part of his mission. Prior to that, he had seduced many women over the years, and loved only one, Simone. As long as Simone had been alive, Stephanie had remained a charming bedfellow; but he had never conceived that she would be anything more than a way to infiltrate the Fogherty IRA connection.
After Simone’s death and the miserable months that followed, his deep cover life had become a refuge from Section One. The split between emotion and Section became wider. When Nikita had been given to him as his material, working with her had been his refuge from his life of deception with Stephanie. His attraction to Nikita was undeniable, in spite of his attempts to put her out of his mind. Nikita was there every day, challenging the rules and his control.
Then Stephanie had become pregnant with Sean. Michael had become enraged with Stephanie, and then afraid for the child, who would have the potential to become a pawn in the dangerous double life he led.
The rift between Michael and his wife grew as she grew large with the child.
He was no closer to infiltrating the clannish Fogherty’s than he had been
at the time of their marriage. Operations had not allowed him to
sever all connections and disappear.
“You’ll have to continue, Michael. There’s no other option. You knew going into this that it would take time to become trusted by the Fogherty’s. So I suggest you go back to your little wife and pretend to be a happy camper about the new baby.”
“What about the baby? What happens when this assignment is completed?” Michael had agonized.
“You should have thought about that ‘before’ you impregnated your wife. You know we can’t make that decision until it ‘is’ completed, Michael. Don’t make the mistake of becoming too attached to your life in suburbia, Michael. It won’t last forever.” Operations had given Michael a feral smile.
“I’m not attached. I want out now!”
“No, Michael. That is all. You’re dismissed.”
Michael had spun on his heel and left.
The memory of that scene with Operations still made Michael tense. Stephanie, in her sleep, felt the change in his body position and opened her eyes.
“Mmm, it’s getting cool. Want to go upstairs to bed?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Michael said as he wrapped an afghan around them. As they climbed the stairs together, Michael told himself that Stephanie deserved a better husband and didn't deserve what might happen when the mission was completed.
Upstairs, Stephanie watched Michael’s deliberate movements. He had covered her body with the down comforter, and walked to the window and stared into the night. As the moonlight illuminated his muscular body, she was reminded of Michelangelo’s David. The planes and ridges of his muscled back never failed to inspire her passion.
“What’s wrong, Michael? Come to bed.”
Michael turned toward her, she thought she could see his eyes glistening brightly in the moonlight. “Michael, are you okay?” she asked.
In one graceful motion, Michael slid beneath the comforter. “I’m fine.” he said, then turned his back to her.
Stephanie turned her back to him in order to hide her puzzled tears.
She was certain that Michael was hiding something. Earlier their
lovemaking had been wonderful, to her. She wondered, not for the
first time, if it meant the same to him.
At 9AM Nikita entered Section One. Her dark sunglasses hid her swollen, red eyes. She wore a man-tailored black suit. She decided she might as well dress in black. She was mourning the death of her relationship with Michael. As she walked past Comm, Birkoff waved.
“Hey, Nikita. Did you find, Michael?” he asked, glad that there was no one else in Comm. at the moment.
Nikita stopped and gave Birkoff the stare, although hidden behind her shades, it lacked its usual intensity. “Yeah, I found Michael.”
As she turned to leave, Birkoff asked, “Well, is he still alive?”
“Very!” With that brusque statement, Nikita turned and left Birkoff to his computers.
“Oooh, I guess she did find him, after all.” Birkoff shook his head.
Madeline looked at the operative in front of her. Dark shades, black man-tailored suit presented the female version of Michael. “What is it, Nikita?” she asked, as she observed Nikita for signs of agitation or anger.
“I want you to know I found Michael. Never mind how. I also want you to know, that I would prefer not to be sent on any missions with Michael. I understand that if there’s no other choice, I will function as ordered, but I would ‘prefer’ never to have to be on his team again.” Nikita, once she had started, found it difficult to stop.
“This place, this Section is unbelievable. First you encouraged our relationship, then tried to stop it, and all the time he’s married to some little redhead in the suburbs. I will never understand how you can twist our lives and our minds with so little regard as to what it does to us individually. Oh, I know all about “We’re not here for each other” and “keeping focused on the big picture.” I’ve heard it until I’m sick of it. We’re human beings, granted we’re flawed ones, but we still feel pain, Madeline. Oh, god, Madeline, and it does hurt.” Nikita bent over the edge of the desk and sobbed, not caring that Madeline was seeing an honest reaction from her for once, not caring that Madeline was already chalking this up in her Nikita file as a weakness.
Madeline rose from her chair and placed a hand on Nikita’s shoulder. “Then I won’t repeat what you already know, Nikita. I can’t speak to what is in Michael’s heart, but there is a bond there. It’s not one-sided. What you have to decide, is can you get past this breach and continue to function? Rushing out and swearing to kill Michael is one thing, but can you perform, even if you are on a mission with him. Will your feelings affect your judgment or the mission. Take some time to consider this, Nikita, and let me know. I think you’re strong, and I think you can overcome the hurt.”
Madeline’s voice had been gentle and understanding, but underlying the kindness had been the steely reminder of a threat. Nikita knew if she couldn’t function, she would be canceled.
Nikita summoned her inner strength and said, “Thank you, Madeline. I know what I need to do now.” At Madeline’s sharp look, Nikita said, “No, not that. I’ll be fine.”
“I always thought you would, Nikita.”
A quiet companionable silence reigned at breakfast. Michael was in
his quiet mode again, Stephanie mused. She decided not to press him
about anything. Shortly after they had cleared the breakfast dishes,
a dark green Mercedes pulled into the driveway, and its driver tooted the
horn in greeting. Stephanie’s mother stepped out of the car and made
way for the energetic little boy who was running up the sidewalk before
she could shut the car door.
“Daddy, Daddy!,” he shouted as he ran through the house to the breakfast room.
Michael felt his heart lurch in his chest as his son ran into the room. The child jumped into his arms, and Michael was the recipient of a strangle-hold hug.
“Whoa, there, Sean. What have you been doing, while Daddy was away? Are you taking karate yet?” Michael sat on the floor with Sean in his lap to hear the coming recitation of events in his son’s life. Stephanie watched Michael’s interaction with their son and had no doubts about his love for Sean.
“Well, we went to the zoo again. I made Mommy stop calling me baby, and no, Mommy says you have to take me to karate. I rode my bike down the street and Mommy came hollering at me to come back. I climbed the tree next door, and I was sorry when it broke down. Mommy said it was to small to climb. Jimmy had a birthday party. I ate too much ice cream ,and I threw up all over Jimmy’s sister, but she’s a silly old girl, so I don’t care, if I did.”
Michael’s chest felt like his heart was expanding, leaving him no room to breathe. He hugged Sean to his chest and ran his fingers through the curly red hair. He didn’t how long he could maintain the pretense with Stephanie, but his feelings for Sean were true and overwhelming in their intensity. He wanted to protect his son from all hurt for all time, and he knew he couldn’t.
“Daddy has to go see Uncle Liam today. Do you want to go with me?” he asked.
“Sure!” Sean responded. “I have to get my truck. Uncle Liam hasn’t seen it.” Away he ran. Sean never walked when he could run, and he never sat when he could stand.
Michael laughed and asked, “Is he like this all the time?”
Stephanie laughed too, “Pretty much, except when he’s asleep.” She
continued, “Are you sure you don’t mind working for my family?
Do you think it will be ‘better’ than your other job?”
Michael still sat on the floor and looked at Stephanie with his intense green eyes. “Sure. It will mean that I will be home a lot more often. There may still be some travel, but not as much.”
Stephanie sat on the floor next to Michael. “Well, that’s good then.” Stephanie hung her head, unable to face him and said, “We both miss you when you’re not here, Michael.”
Michael placed his arm around his wife, and said “I miss you, too.” His tone didn’t sound convincing, and he wondered if she could sense the loneliness that invaded his heart.
The Fogherty’s family business was that they laundered money and bought arms for their compatriots in Ireland. Liam had observed Michael for five years before offering him a place in the family enterprise. His investigations showed that the young man was no art dealer, but a hit man of the highest order. He had found Michael to be intelligent and reserved. He had debated for the last year over taking Michael into his confidence, and after receiving a cautious acceptance, he waited for Michael to appear. He knew did not have long to wait, for he could hear his sister Siobahn talking to Michael and little Sean in the anteroom to his office.
The door opened and Michael entered. Liam watched Michael’s eyes
make an automatic survey of the room for available exits.
“We’re alone, Michael,” Liam said to reassure him and rose to shake hands. Michael had a firm and confident grip, as if he had nothing to prove.
Michael nodded, “Good.” Michael sat with an economy of movement that was both graceful and powerful.
Michael exuded strength and competence, and Liam wondered how anyone would be so foolish to take this young man for a artsy-fartsy art dealer. Liam said without further preamble, “Well, I take it you want to work for me, Michael. My line of business is not too far from what you do now. I think we could be very useful to each other.”
“Yes,” Michael replied.
“I’m not recording you, Michael. Feel free to talk. You can ask me anything.”
“I prefer to listen.”
Liam shrugged at Michael’s caution. Perhaps, that was what had kept the young man alive all these years. Caution was good. “Tell me, Michael, how are you with computers?”
“I’ve a home computer. I use it to monitor my ‘business’ dealings. I’m no expert, but I can manage to do what I need to do with one.”
“Good! We will spend some time together this week going over my system. I’m not as handy with them as I could be, but I get by, too.
Both men were dissembling about the level of their computer skills. Michael wanted to earn Liam’s trust, and Liam wanted to test Michael’s loyalty.
“You can start tomorrow, 9AM. I am really glad to have you aboard, Michael, and I know Stephanie will be glad to see more of you.” He clapped Michael on the shoulder as he ushered him from the office.
Sean had managed to disrupt the entire anteroom with his energetic play. “Hi, Daddy, Aunt Siobahn let me play with the furniture. Can we go get some ice cream? I promise not to eat too much and throw up on you.”
Michael, Liam and Siobahn all began to laugh at little Sean’s promise. Michael scooped the four year old up in his arms and said, “Okay, let’s go.”
Sean began to wiggle. “Down, I want down. Only babies get carried. And I’m no baby.”
Michael allowed the tyro to run and skip ahead of him, as he wondered how
many more moments of pure happiness he would have with his son.
Operations and Madeline were sharing a cold lunch, while she brought him up to speed on all missions in progress and in planning.
“South Africa is still with the profiler, but should be ready by 5PM this
Operations interrupted Madeline’s spiel with an impatient, “Have we heard from Michael?”
“Yes, Liam Fogherty has accepted Michael into the fold, but Michael feels that he will be under surveillance for a while, so feels the need for caution and restraint.”
“Good, what does he say about Nikita knowing his "circumstances?” Operations asked.
“He ‘doesn’t’ know,” Madeline said with studied emphasis. “I thought it advisable to keep him in the dark about that. I don’t think Nikita will be making any more visits to the suburbs, and I don’t want to put Michael under any pressure to conclude the operation precipitously. It’s taken this long to put Michael in place. Another month or two won’t make any difference in the outcome of his relationship with Nikita, but it will make the difference between a successful mission and a disaster.”
Operations gave a smirk as he asked, “So how is Nikita handling this revelation about Michael?”
“As I expected. She was hurt, but she will recover and be a better operative for it.”
“I suppose I really expected to see some fireworks from Nikita. Maybe when Michael returns,” he mused aloud.
Madeline shook her head. “I think you underestimate Nikita, but then you always have. She’s maturing nicely. If this doesn’t destroy her sense of compassion and humanity, nothing will.”
“Now, there is a briefing at 3PM for the Moroccan mission, I propose we
make Nikita the team leader for that mission,” Madeline continued down
her list of updates.
Madeline was wrong about one thing. Nikita did take another trip to the suburbs. From her vantage point, she saw Michael and Sean return from their meeting with Liam Fogherty. Even from the distance, she could see the care and tenderness he had for the child. She could hear an excited, high-pitched “Mommy, Daddy bought me ice cream.”
The words broke her heart anew, and Nikita felt the black chasm of fresh misery overtake in her life. She took a deep breath and determined that she would shed no more tears, and that nothing and no one would ever touch her as this had.
Less than one hour later, Nikita had returned to Section One and sought her oldest confidant, Walter. She wondered if she had been a blind fool. Did everyone in Section know about Michael’s other life? She held her head high as she walked into Munitions.
“Hey, Walter,” she tried to say in her usual light manner, but the tremor in her voice made him look at her sharply.
“Hi, Sugar. What’s wrong?”
Nikita shrugged, “Nothin’ much,” she said in a hoarse whisper as she leaned toward him. “I just found out Michael’s married and has a son. That’s all.”
Walter’s eyes popped as Nikita dropped her bombshell. “What?”
Nikita gave Walter a close look. “You mean you didn’t know? I thought maybe I was the last to know.”
“Listen, Nikita, nobody knows the covers of the class five ops. but Operations and Madeline. Nobody! Are you sure?”
“I’ve seen it for myself, Walter. He has a beautiful red-head for a wife and a son. He looks to be about four. All this time, all this time, Walter, I thought.... It doesn’t matter ‘what’ I thought, because now I know the truth.”
Walter had never seen Nikita so miserable. He placed an arm around her shoulders and patted her. “It could be some kind of mission, Nikita. The wife could be an op,” he said trying to console her.
“And is the child an operative, too, Walter? Is Section recruiting four year olds now?” she asked with the misery too apparent in her voice.
Walter shook his head and tried again. “Michael loves you, Nikita. He may have no choice. You know how things are around here.”
Nikita was adamant. “He could have told me. He could have trusted me.”
“And would that make the hurt any less, knowing that when he had downtime, he was going home to a wife and child?”
“Maybe not, but at least I would have had a choice.”
“Nikita,” Walter said gently, “you’ve always had a choice. You chose Michael.”
One Month Later
Stephanie lay in bed and tried to fall asleep. She heard Michael sigh, then felt him leave their bed and walk toward the window. She wondered what he hoped to see in the black of night. Michael had been home for a month, yet they were farther apart than ever.
“Michael, come back to bed. It’s cold without you.” She hated the whining note that crept into her voice, but it seemed as if her world was falling apart, and dammit that was worth some whining.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.” Michael reluctantly left the window and returned to bed.
Although she feared the answer, Stephanie had to ask, “Is there someone else, Michael? You’re so distant. You’re like a stranger. You have to talk to me, please.”
“Sorry, if I’ve been preoccupied lately. It’s the new job.
Transitions are always difficult.”
“Michael, who’s Nikita?” Stephanie asked with a tremulous voice. “Is she someone you knew while you were still traveling?”
“Nikita?” asked Michael as he stalled for time. “Where did you hear that name?”
Stephanie took a deep breath. “You talk in your sleep, Michael. You have nightmares sometimes. You called her name, more than once.”
Michael didn’t know how to answer his wife. Why hadn’t he foreseen this problem? “I have been here with you every night for the last month. How could there be someone else? We make love every night, how can you doubt me?” Michael hated his evasions. No, lies. Call them by their proper name. His entire life was a lie. He lied to his wife, and he lied to Nikita by omission, but it was still a lie.
Tears started rolling down Stephanie’s face. “Michael you make love to me. You touch me in all the right places and I respond, but ‘you’ are missing. It’s like you’re on automatic pilot, Michael. The plane takes off and lands, but the pilot isn’t on board. You’re the only man I’ve ever had. In the beginning, I was so infatuated and so enthralled by the feelings you awakened in me that I was sure of your love, but since Sean was born, no, before Sean was born, you started pulling away from me emotionally.”
Michael reached his hand toward Stephanie, but she averted her face and wouldn’t allow him to touch her. He had never wanted to hurt her in this way. He didn’t love her, but she didn’t deserve the emotional turmoil that his way of life had brought her. Neither did she deserve how it would all end with his faked death, but at least she would recover and go forward.
“No, Michael, don’t touch me. I have to say what I’m feeling. Let me finish.”
Michael gave a silent nod. He didn’t trust himself to speak, yet.
“I know you care about Sean. Watching how you are with him has told me that you don’t love me anymore, if you ever did. So tell me, Michael. Who’s Nikita?” Stephanie challenged him with blue eyes brimming with tears.
Michael wanted nothing more than to be able to just walk away, but the mission wasn’t complete. He couldn’t walk away like he did with Nikita when her questions cut his soul too closely. “Nikita isn’t important,” he said softly. “She was a part of my life before you,” he lied.
Stephanie wanted to believe him. “Have you seen her since we were married?”
“Only in passing. She was part of the international ‘art scene.’ Don’t ask me any more questions about Nikita. That’s over. I’m with you and Sean now. You will have to trust me, when I say that I love you both.” What’s one more lie, when I’ve already told her so many, he asked himself. One more lie to add to his roster of deceptions.
Michael pulled Stephanie into his arms and kissed her forehead. “Go
to sleep. You are the only one I love.” Oh, Nikita, forgive
my lies, he thought in misery, as he held his wife. There was a special
hell for those, bound to one and in love with another, and that was where
Michael truly lived.