The Alternate Link of Steele 8
House on Maly Prospeckt. 9.00 PM
Kira Bulvakov opened the heavy oak door with the help of an iron bar. He stomped into the spacious and dark room with his hand loosely covering his gun. The slam of the door echoed in the walls like thunder. The other two occupants of the room, however, seemed oblivious to the noise.
Bulvakov smiled to himself . *Well done, old friend,* he thought.
Nevertheless, the noise had been enough to break the couple's mood, and Laura and Steele broke their hug.
"Nice of you to drop by personally, Bulbakov," Steele said. Seeing the gun in the other man's belt, he took an almost imperceptible step in front of Laura.
Bulbakov smiled thinly. "I thought I had to give you a special treatment, old friend," he retorted. Then in Russian, he added, "Seems you handled the problem quite nicely."
Steele's eyes narrowed at the suggestion, but he knew Bulbakov was right. His arm went protectively around Laura's waist, and when she lightly rested her hand on it, he felt better.
"Are we free to go now?" Steele asked.
Bulbakov purposely avoided Steele's question as he addressed Laura, "Glad to finally make your acquaintance, Miss Holt. Misha here has been talking a lot about you. My name is Kira Bulbakov."
Laura nodded her head
*Misha!* she thought as she stole a quick glance at Steele, who stood motionless beside her, gripping her waist more firmly.
"Congratulations," she told Bulvakov icily. "Now if you would kindly answer Misha's question..." she continued, using the name as if she'd known it for ages.
Seeing both their expressions, Bulbakov let out a bellow of laughter. *These two are a match made in heaven!* he thought.
"As soon as we confirm that the bookmark is the original. Then, and only then, will you have the rest of the money -- and you and Miss Holt will be free to go as you please," he said good naturedly.
Steele smiled a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes as he read between the lines of what Bulbakov had just said. *Miss Holt will never leave them behind, nor will I,* he vowed to himself.
"What about the other two Americans?" he asked in Russian, trying to sound calm and collected.
"We'll talk when the deal is done," Bulvakov replied in the same language, equally charmingly. *I need those other two as backup, Misha. How else can I be certain your Miss Holt will stay true to form?*
"Their freedom was part of the deal," Steele replied, his tone still leveled and friendly, his accent hardly noticeable.
"Later," Bulbakov said. Then adressing Laura in English, he said, "Shall we Miss Holt?"
Laura looked at the two men and sensed the tension between them. Still, she had no idea what had been said. Steele's frozen smile didn't let anything out, nor did Bulbakov's ever-polite expression. *The Daniel Chalmers' Charm School. Graduated with honors, both of them,* she thought as she moved towards the exit.
Center for Social Research- Housing Facilities, 2:46 AM
Laura stared at the molten ceiling for the hundredth time and tried not to wake Steele as she shifted in the uncomfortable bed.
Hours earlier, when the door closed behind them, Laura had felt the now familiar cold chill coming down her spine. She had looked around only to find that the tiny room they had been provided with was not even big enough for two beds. There was a large iron bed in the center of the room, a big desk on the right wall, empty bookshelves above and around it, and a barred window on the left.
"Kira was right. This is certainly not the best hotel in town," Steele had said grimly as he put the leather bag on the desk.
"I guess the previous owner was an avid reader, but not much of a housekeeper" she had replied, scanning the dusty bookshelves.
Laura turned her head and looked at Steele again, also for the hundredth time that night. She saw the strain marks in his forehead, and noticed the way his face had suddenly aged. She wondered how long had he been without decent sleep. No longer than her, she supposed, but she had taken a twelve-hour involuntary nap not long ago.
She remembered how Steele had sat in the bed and reclined against the wall to rest his eyes, rubbing his temples as he tried to shake his headache away. Laura had tried to engage him in conversation, but it had been useless. He had dozed off almost immediately, mumbling something about the sound of her voice being like a lullaby. Laura had stayed up, sitting at the desk, trying to figure out on her own what was going to happen next.
She remembered the irony of Bulbakov's tone when he had told them he expected the results from the experts in the morning, and then implied it would be wise for them not to go out on their own. Not for a breath of fresh air, not into the halls, not even out of the room. The Research Center, he had solicitously explained, was guarded by the militia and even though they had his personal protection, sometimes guards made mistakes.
In the darkness of the night, sitting in the cold iron chair, Laura had gone over the story Steele had told him about his years in Russia. She had the feeling all of this had something to do with their present situation. Steele had refused to answer some of her earlier questions, however, alleging he himself didn't know too much since Daniel hadn't told him about it.
*It's strange he doesn't know more about Chalmers' plot. He and the older man always seemed very close,* she had reasoned. *What could have made Chalmers be so secretive this time? Could it be that the man was trying to protect Steele somehow? But in that case, why would have tried to involve him in the first place?*
Laura had wondered about this for some time, but had gotten nowhere. Then tightening her fists in frustration she had given up, the strain of so many unanswered queries making her head throb and her eyelids feel as if they were made of lead.
She had tried to focus on the problem at hand, but somehow her thoughts seemed to divert to years past and to painful issues that had been postponed for too long. Finally she had concluded that if she was going to sleep at all, she had better use the bed, so she lay down next to Steele, but as far away from him as she could.
Laura shifted again, insomnia beginning to really bother her. As she opened her eyes, she was surprised to find Steele looking at her through his sleepy ones.
"How long have you been up?" he asked quietly.
"I wasn't able to sleep," she replied as she sat and away from him.
"Oh. Sorry I dozed off," he said, looking up.
Laura was now sitting upright, her back against the peeling paint of the wall. Steele started to sit up also, but Laura's hand on his shoulder prevented him from doing so.
"Go back to sleep," she told him. "We'll talk in the morning."
"You won't sleep, so you'd better tell me about whatever it is that's bothering you," he replied as he rubbed his eyes, feeling the headache return.
Laura looked down and met his eyes. He seemed determined not to let it go this time. *Just as well,* she thought as she gathered her courage to finally ask him what had been in her mind for all these years.
"Why did you leave me?" she asked, almost choking on the words as her eyes went away to rest on the opposite wall. On the corner of her eye, however, she caught Steele's immediate response: he had closed his eyes and sighed.
For a few minutes neither of them spoke. Steele had his hand over his eyes as he tried to steady his head which was throbbing painfully. Laura was still looking away, barely able to breathe as she waited for the answer. Finally, she began to rise from the bed in an effort to regain some measure of control on her feelings. Tears were threatening to come.
"I had to find myself in order to give you something you could hold on to," he said, almost in a whisper. "I didn't mean to leave for good."
Laura looked back. He was now looking at her, his eyes pleading her to believe him. She nodded and sat back on the bed, but still could not meet his eyes.
"I failed you, and I failed me. I didn't find anything. All I had was this," he said, reaching into his pocket and retrieving the watch. "It arrived at the Agency with a note saying that my father wanted me to have it."
He looked at her and finally she turned to look at him. She silently took the watch from his hands and opened the lid, causing the music to fill both the room and their hearts with warmth and sadness.
After the last note ended, Steele took the watch back and stared at the engraved initials for a few seconds.
"I don't know who I really am,
Laura," he continued. Saying it out loud for the first
time in his life made it even more painful. "I thought if
I found out who I was, I would have something to give
you... but I failed. I just... It was too much, and I..."
His voice trailed off as he saw the tears running freely down her cheeks. He didn't know the reason for her tears, but nonetheless felt compelled to make it better.
Steele reached up to hold her tightly in his arms, speaking soft words of encouragement in her ear. Minutes later he felt her breathing return to normal, but he continued to hold her close.
"I'm so sorry, Laura," he said as he took her face with his right hand and lowered his lips to meet hers in a chaste kiss.
Laura pulled away from him and turned around, still not meeting his eyes. "But why wouldn't you ask for my help? Why wouldn't you trust me? Why...why...?" She shook her head as if the words refused to come out. Then taking a deep breath, she said, "Why her?"
Again, some minutes passed before Steele answered. He stood up from the bed and started pacing around the room, feeling like a caged panther, knowing there was no way out this time; he would have to face the facts. Above all things, he knew Laura deserved his honesty.
"Why didn't you ever trust me? Do you have any idea how much that hurt?" he said before he could stop himself. Then in an effort to amend it, he added, "I always had to prove myself around you. Finding my true identity was maybe the most important test I ever had to face. and I failed. I couldn't return to you empty handed. If I had, you would have lost all respect for me. It was just too difficult, Laura. You were just too difficult," he finished. Realizing his explanation hadn't come out well at all, he did he cursed himself.
His last words hit Laura like daggers. *I was just too difficult? How dare he!*
"You were just as difficult as I was, you know," Laura said, feeling hurt and betrayed. "But that didn't scare me away." She looked at him and was shocked to see a sad tiny smile in his features.
"You were always braver than I was. Stronger, also, in many ways," he said simply.
As he looked into her eyes and saw she was still waiting for the rest of his justification. Inhaling deeply, he turned his back on her, the sight of her making the hard task ahead almost impossible.
"When I realized I would never find my father I returned to Daniel's. He wasn't there, but Felicia was. I was a wreck, emotionally and physically. I had lost everything. You, my life as Remington Steele, my chance to know who I was. Everything. I felt more like an orphan than ever. And since Daniel seemed to have disappeared into thin air, all I had left was Felicia," he said in a very small voice.
Laura sat silently on the bed; staring at his back and watching his shoulders sag under the stress he was feeling.
"After a while, I noticed she was not the same woman I had met years earlier. She was supportive, she never judged my motives, she didn't ask for anything, and she trusted me. She just gave me what was hers to give, freely and willingly," he continued, still staring at the wall. He could feel Laura's gaze in his back, but was still unable to face her.
Laura lowered her eyes and wished the earth would swallow her. *Felicia trusted him. She gave him what he needed. She loved him. All the things which I, Laura Holt, refused to give him for fear of loosing him.* She felt a lump in her throat, but her eyes were painfully dry.
"A year later, I asked her to marry me, but she said she wouldn't. that people like us didn't marry," Steele smiled fondly at the memory. "It took me weeks to convince her. I..."
He turned slowly and looked at Laura. He wanted to make her understand, to convey the right message, but as he saw her pain filled face, his heart sank under the weigh of his guilt.
"I was so lonely, Laura. I just... I always wanted a family of my own," he blurted out as his hands went helplessly up in the air. "So I settled for what I could have. I never dreamed I'd ever see you again."
He stepped closer to the bed, but Laura was still looking down.
"Say something, Laura."
*What am I supposed to say? *Laura thought bitterly. *That I was lonely, too, but I wasn't so weak that I would marry someone else? That I hate you for what you did, but somehow I can't dream of being with anyone but you, because I love you so much that it is physically painful? *
Laura felt her throat go dry as she forced the words out. "I always dreamed I'd see you again," she said in a very small voice and as she looked up, she saw him smile. She saw gratitude in his eyes-- and she thought she also saw love in them.
Steele leaned over the bed, supporting
his body on both his fists as he searched Laura's eyes to see
what she had just said was true.
"I thought I had made a good choice, Laura, until that night at the museum. The second I saw you again I knew I had settled for less, and I knew I had been a coward." He cocked his head in order to see her eyes better, but she refused to meet his gaze.
"Look at me," he asked, waiting. "Laura, look at me," he repeated as he took her delicate chin with two fingers, lifted her face, and forced her to meet his eyes.
When her brown eyes finally rose he felt as though he needed more air, as if he would drown with the intensity of that look.
"That night at the museum I knew I could never, ever, let you go again. I don't care what happens to Mildred, or Murphy, or Daniel... or even Felicia,"
He saw her frown and swallow hard, her eyes beginning to moisten.
"I know that's selfish, inconsiderate, and plain arrogant, but I only care about us," he said again.
Laura heard his words and was still unable to believe them. "How can you say that?" she asked as she nodded her head in denial. "How can you not care? They are in danger, and you don't care?"
"They're not in danger as long as they're not in our way. I thought you understood that," Steele said, frustrated that she had only heard one part of what he was trying to tell her, and not the part he was actually needed her to understand.
"How do you know Bulvakov will keep his promise?" Laura asked.
Steele sighed. "I don't know; not for sure. But the chances that he does are higher if we keep our part of the bargain and stay out of his path. He already has what he wanted; he has no reason to hurt us, or them."
"I never should have involved them in this," Laura said to herself.
"You shouldn't have come; none of you," Steele agreed. Then in spite of himself, he added, "But I'm glad that you did."
Laura watched him as he sat back on the bed beside her, looking at the opposite wall. She knew he was feeling better now that he had explained his reasons, now that he had come clean. But it didn't help her feel may better.
"How can you not care about Felicia?" she finally asked.
The uncertainty was killing her. *How could he just forget her? How could he not care about her anymore? Did he feel that way after he left me. too?*
"I do care, but I know she's safe. I can't go back to her after..."
They both remained silent for a few minutes, side by side, but yet apart.
Finally, Laura reached out and took Steele's hand in hers, pressing it firmly. "She did it for you," she said slowly and matter of factly.
Steele felt her touch and his heart warmed. *I don't know how I lived without you this long, Laura Holt, but if I have anything to say about it, I won't live without you another day.*
"I know," he said, sadly.
"I spoke with her in Spain, and she said..." Laura told him with a strangled voice.
Steele was looking at her with bewildered eyes.
"She said I couldn't help you, but you were the only one who could help me," she continued. "I didn't understand what she meant then, but."
"Shhhh," Steele said, turning to look at her.
Laura remained silent and listened intently, immediately alert for signs of danger, but she didn't hear anything. Then turning towards Steele, she felt his hand leaving hers and saw it rise to caress her face. She saw the look of anticipation in his eyes and she knew she wanted him near, as near as he could be.
"If there's one person in this world who can help me, Laura Holt, that person is you," he said, breathing the words into her waiting mouth before capturing her lips in a kiss.
Laura ran her hands freely through his hair and felt she was loosing control. She knew she should stop him before it was too late. There was still one crucial element she had to bring to the surface and it wouldn't be pretty. Laura let out a sigh as she felt his warm lips moving down her throat, but somehow managed to regain control,
"Mr. Steele," she said.
She felt rather than heard his response on her flesh. She had to put a stop to it right then.
"Mr. Steele," she repeated more urgently, using her hands to tear him away from her.
"What?" he asked, his voice filled with desire.
"I'm sorry, but this won't work. Not now," she said. "I've been thinking tonight."
Steele reluctantly obeyed her wishes and looked at her with a mix of frustration and worry. *Of course, old man, what did you expect? Now she has every reason to distrust you, * he thought as he placed his head on her shoulder. Then moving away a few inches, he finally lifted his eyes to her, silently telling her he would listen.
"I don't think Felicia *is* safe. I think Bulbakov will eventually come after her," Laura said, hoping her feelings wouldn't betray her and she wouldn't make an even bigger fool of herself.
Steele frowned and moved away. "What are you talking about?" he asked. "It was Kira who helped her out of prison in the first place."
"Yes, but why?" Laura replied, wanting him to figure it out on his own.
Steele thought for a minute and then
his frown deepened, "I asked him to. I had leverage with
him at the time."
Laura nodded and waited.
"Why would he want to kill her?" he asked finally, his handsome features clouded with worry.
Laura sighed deeply before continuing, realizing this was not going to be easy. "You said that when you first came up with idea of the robbery, you provided the contact, didn't you?" She saw him nod, but he wasn't following her, yet. "But how could have Freddy Hawks known about your other plan in advance?"
Steele felt a chill as he considered the implications of what Laura was saying. *That's unthinkable. Felicia would never.*
"Are you saying Felicia betrayed me, are you saying she and Hawks were secretly plotting against me?" he asked in an incredulous tone, a laugh escaping his mouth. "She's not the same woman you knew, Laura; not anymore." His eyes narrowed dangerously as he tried to convince himself, repeating again, "She's not!"
"I'm not talking about Felicia! Calm down, Mr. Steele," Laura said as she felt the blood rushing to her face, "Calm down and think!" she yelled.
When she saw the turmoil in his eyes lessen she continued. "I suppose you checked Freddy's background before teaming up with him."
"Naturally," he replied darkly. The mere thought of Felicia betraying him again was making him sick, as was his anger at Laura for making the suggestion in the first place.
"Murphy and I did, too. He has a clean record; way too clean. Almost as if it had been made up," she explained.
"Made up, as in he's a con man? Or made up, as in he's a government agent?" Steele asked, almost to himself. *He couldn't be CIA. Please God; don't let Felicia have killed a CIA agent. They'll be after her like mad dogs! *
The despair in Steele's eyes was making it harder to confirm her suspicions, but the wheels of her mind were running wildly as the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. *Only Bulbakov could have told Hawks! Which means they knew each other before Steele suggested Bulbakov as the contact.*
"There were only three people who were supposed to know about your plan of selling your loot here, Felicia, yourself, and Bulvakov," she said. "I'm sorry Mr. Steele, but I fear Bulbakov won't take the chance of Felicia getting caught."
Steele frowned, a dark storm clouding his eyes, as he too realized what had happened.
"Felicia didn't know. She couldn't have told Freddy, even if she wanted to," he began, only to be interrupted by the icy words coming from Laura's mouth.
"Bulbakov needs Felicia out of the way before the CIA gets to her. I think it's clear now that, unknowingly, she murdered the third man in Daniel's dream team."