Ice Palace, Krashnovo Kursanta, St. 6:53 PM
The silence that surrounded the three figures standing in the large, elegant room was overwhelming, but Steele's words had broken the tense atmosphere, slashing the air like lightning and increasing the voltage of the dialogue even further. Neither Bulbakov nor Laura dared to look at Steele, the rage and fury that filled him so evident, that it seemed unsafe to even make eye contact.
"Kira?" Steele finally asked, his voice barely audible and yet amazingly threatening.
Before Bulbakov could answer, however, he heard the heavy stomping of booted feet coming. Seconds later his eyes greeted the other two men in uniform who stood silently behind Steele.
"Misha, old friend! How did the meeting go?" Bulbakov asked jovially, knowing he was safe, for the time being.
Steele turned around and looked his 'bodyguards' straight in the eye. One of them, the smaller man, shifted uncomfortably under the momentary glare and looked past Steele's shoulders to where Bulbakov was standing. The huge driver, however, scowled in response to Steele's defiant stare and grunted his challenge. The Russian didn't want to admit it, but he suddenly felt unsettled. Something about the smaller, lean, foreign stranger made him extremely nervous.
Turning around towards Bulbakov again, Steele took a step forward, allowing some room between himself and his unwelcome shadows.
"The meeting didn't take place. Grechko must be holding Murphy somewhere," Steele explained, his voice sounding out normal now. He suddenly smiled as if recalling some old pleasant memory and added, "I will meet him later, though."
"Splendid!" Bulbakov replied cheerfully.
"Yes, isn't it?" Steele told him icily while giving a glance over his shoulder to the Russian guards.
"Will you two cut through the crap and get down to business?" Laura exclaimed, exasperated by their cool manner. "You have a lot of things to explain, Bulbakov," she warned him testily.
"Of course, Laura," Steele interrupted, using his best charming smile. "And as soon as Boris and Igor here have the decency to leave us alone, we shall proceed, shan't we?
"Petr, Oleg-- beat it!" Bulbakov barked in Russian to his men.
The two soldiers nodded and started to leave, but not before the tall one, Petr, gave Steele a murderous look, which he returned in kind.
Now that the three of them were alone, Bulbakov turned all his attention to Steele, knowing the presence of the two guards outside the door would keep him in check for the time being. Still, he thought it would be best if he didn't push the Englishman too far.
Taking advantage of the slight advantage the intrusion of his men had given him, Bulbakov took a few paces towards his old friend. Then putting his right hand on his holster, he stretched out his left hand, palm to the ceiling, and said, "The gun, if you please."
Steele's eyes never left his friend's as he carelessly took his empty gun and hurled it towards him. "You know it's empty," he said.
"One can never be too cautious," Bulbakov replied, putting the extra gun in his pocket.
"Indeed," Steele said.
Laura looked from man to man, wondering how they managed to keep so cool and collected when they knew what was at stake. She kept her peace, however, since the previous matter Bulbakov and she had been discussing wasn't entirely a happy one. If what Bulbakov had said was right and Steele was indeed guilty of treason, however unknowingly, she concluded he might be better off not knowing about it. But she also knew that wasn't fair not to tell him.
"So, where and when is the new meeting with Mr. Michaels taking place?" Bulbakov asked as he poured a hot cup of tea and offered it to Steele.
Steele glanced at the hot brew as the steam climbed lazily in the air. Taking off his cap and sitting heavily on an armchair, he closed his eyes. "Corner of Dovrtsovaya nab., and Lessnov prospeckt. 10 PM sharp," he said innocently, and then sitting straight, he took the cup from Bulbakov's hands and sipped the invigorating liquid. "Thank you," he said.
*Treason?* Steele asked himself. Had Bulbakov been telling Laura that he, Remington Steele, was guilty of treason? He had never --and would never--commit treason, and it hurt to realize that Laura thought he was capable of doing it. He didn't need to ask if she believed whatever lies Bulbakov had told her about him and his past. He could feel Laura's curious stare on the back of his head, but couldn't turn to face her. Having already seen the look of sorrow in Laura's eye when she had looked at him, he purposely avoided looking at her again.
Steele closed his eyes momentarily as the smell of the tea pleasantly invaded his nostrils. But the fleeting calm didn't last long.
"Is that so?" Bulbakov said.
Steele looked up from his cup and stared at his friend's white starched collar and old-fashioned bow tie, his face a mask of innocence. "You don't consider the time appropriate? Or is it that you can't handle Sergeant Grechko in such short notice?" Steele taunted him, sipping the tea and then resting the cup in the delicate saucer.
Bulbakov laughed for a long time. He bent over, resting his hands on his knees, and looked alternatively from Steele to Laura through tear filled eyes. He nodded his head from side to side, seemingly enjoying a fabulous joke neither of them was party to.
Finally, Laura's patience ran out. She glared helplessly at Steele, who was too busy concentrating on his commarade's actions to even notice her. Putting her fists on her hips, she frowned.
"What are you laughing about?" she asked in a far from friendly tone of voice.
"The corner of Dovrtsorvaya nab and Lessnov prospeckt?" Bulbakov said, his laughter subsiding a bit, and looking amusedly at Steele.
Steele just glanced up and took another sip of tea. "Indeed," he replied quietly.
"Just two blocks away from the American Consulate?" Bulbakov continued.
Laura looked at Steele in surprise, unable to believe he thought he could fool Bulbakov like that. *What's his angle?* she wondered.
But Steele wasn't giving anything away; he seemed totally focused on his drink.
"And I shall meet with him at 10 PM tonight, alone," Steele said, very sure of himself. "You will see to it that Grechko doesn't cause us any trouble," he added, raising his eyes from the cup in a subtle motion that increased the image of self-assurance he was trying to project.
Bulbakov measured the truth in his old friend's words and started walking towards him with long, slow strides. When he was just inches away from Steele's armchair, he gently put his hand on his gun.
Steele didn't move.
"How do I know you will return and will not be tempted to, er, visit the Consulate with your former associate?" Bulbakov asked.
"Of course, I will return; Laura will be here," he replied, the tone of his voice sounding rather sarcastic.
Both Bulbakov and Laura were taken aback by that new edge to Steele's voice. *Does he mean that, or is he lying?* Laura wondered desperately.
"Like hell I will be here! I'm coming with you!" she declared.
"You shall remain here, Miss Holt," Bulbakov said on a reflex, his statement quite final.
Steele kept his satisfaction to himself; the Russian's words were exactly what he had been hoping for. He had deliberately set the trap for Bulbakov to make her stay, and at the same time, he had led him to believe maybe he didn't care for her a much as he truly did. The fact was, Steele couldn't have Laura risking her life out there with him, but neither could he have her being used as a permanent exchange chip in Bulbakov's hands.
*Oh, I will return,* he thought to himself. *But even though I have no business in the American Consulate, maybe Murphy does.*
"Very well. It's settled then. Now if you'll excuse me, Kira, I think I shall retire for a bit; I feel quite drained," Steele said, getting up from his chair and placing the cup and saucer on a nearby marble table. He walked towards the stairs without looking back, and when his foot touched the first step, he turned briefly and called, "Coming, Laura?"
She met his eyes before moving a muscle, trying to gauge him. Then deciding it was much better to follow him than to stay with Bulbakov, she joined him at the stairs.
"Petr and Oleg will be waiting for you at 9:40," Bulbakov said, grinding his teeth.
Steele froze on the first landing and turned back to face the Russian. "I'm going alone!" he yelled.
Bulbakov snickered. "They'll be here, and they'll be armed," he yelled back.
Laura could see Steele trembling with rage, and to avoid further trouble between the two until she had a proper talk with Steele, she took his hand and shook it lightly. Feeling him relax slightly, she began climbing the last flight of stairs with him in tow.
As soon as the heavy, white oak door of their room was closed, Steele let out a deep sigh. Releasing Laura's hand, he let himself flop belly down onto the bed.
"Christ!" he muttered to the pillows.
"I'm coming with you, like it or not," Laura said, propping her back against the door.
"Please, Laura. Let's not argue about this, ok?" he said tiredly.
"You were the one who told me not to leave you alone for your own good, remember? Or was that just a pep talk?" she asked, her temper beginning to rise.
Laying on his back now, Steele lifted his head to see her better. He hoped she was kidding, but the harsh look on her face told him she wasn't. He sat up and warily ran his fingers through his hair. He was so tired, so Goddamn tired!
"Where do you think I'm going to go? Do you think I'll run with-- with Murphy to your Consulate and leave you high and dry?" he asked, his tone unbelieving.
"Of course not!" she replied defensively, not wanting to admit that the thought had crossed her mind, though only for the briefest moment.
"If I can get Murphy there, and we can somehow manage to break loose from those two gorillas, then hopefully he can take care of Mildred."
"That's your brilliant plan?" Laura asked incredulously.
"For want of a better one, yes. How do you suppose we can get them out of this, otherwise?"
"I don't know, but that won't work. Bulbakov will kill us both when he finds out," Laura replied.
"I don't think he will. If he wanted us dead, he would have killed us already," he said, trying to figure out the reason for that.
Laura shivered as she recalled her previous conversation with Bulbakov. What if she had only endangered them further by confronting him? What if her actions caused had Bulbakov to think she and Steele knew too much now?
Suddenly, she was very scared.
Sensing her fear, Steele walked up to her and held her tightly in his arms. He didn't really want to talk about what had happened between her and Kira earlier, but he knew she was upset about it, and he had to put her mind to rest.
"I never committed treason, Laura," he said quietly into her ear. "I don't know what Kira told you, but he lied."
Steele put some distance between them and lowered his eyes to hers. She looked so sad, so terribly shaken, and when she looked down, unable to meet his gaze anymore, Steele took her gesture as a sign of disbelief.
"He said you were-" Laura began, her voice strangled.
"I'm not a traitor. By God, I am not!" he yelled.
Laura was having trouble breathing normally. How could she break the truth to him without hurting him beyond repair? How could she tell him he had been duped, used-- and would probably be discarded, as all of them would be when they were no longer needed?
"I may have done a lot of stupid things in my life, Laura, but I never worked for the KGB. You have to believe me!" he pleaded, his eyes growing moist and his voice shaky.
Laura looked into his deep blue eyes and felt her heart melt. All she wanted to say was that she believed him; that she knew he'd never do such a thing. But fact was he was guilty, even if he himself didn't know it, and there was no way around that.
"Please believe me, luv," he repeated.
Steele's soul sank when he heard no answer; sadly, he released her from his grasp, his eyes downcast. But before he could turn around to hide his shame, he felt Laura's arms going around his neck and pull him down to her. She kissed him hard, tears running freely down her cheeks. She kissed his lips, and the strong line of his jaw, and his neck, and everywhere she could reach, and then hid her face on the thick fabric of his uniform.
Steele held her tenderly, his heart thumping wildly, his whole being wanting to love her right there and then. His trembling fingers sought her jaw as he tilted her head to see her beautiful face better. She was still crying and her eyes hid a shadow of regret he could so easily read now.
"You didn't know," she whispered, tightening her arms even more around his waist, physically trying to deliver the support that her words hadn't been able to convey-- that she would be there for him anyway, anywhere, and anyhow.
Laura felt his body tense and pressed her cheek to his chest. "I'm sorry," she said.
Steele, however, didn't hear her last words; his mind busy with her previous revelation. "What didn't I know?" he asked nervously, gently pushing her away from him.
Laura sighed. If he had to know, it was best that he heard it from her and not from Bulbakov, the police, or someone else.
Kira Bulbakov was taken by surprise as he felt an iron hand on his shoulder. The next thing he knew, a violent thrust sent him sprawling over the hardwood floor. When he recovered from the initial shock, he tried to lift his upper body, only to discover he couldn't. Steele's full weigh was on his back, his knee probing painfully under his ribs.
"Schto?" Bulbakov cried irritably.
"Vam ploha?" -You dizzy?- Steele replied icily, applying more pressure with his knee until Bulbakov grunted in pain.
"Mienya nikajda nyet ukatchivayeit" - I never get dizzy- Bulbakov replied, puffing and panting from the lack of air.
"That's good, because you're going to get quite a violent ride," Steele said, grabbing both of Bulbakov's shoulders and turning him on his back as he held the struggling man's hands in place with his knees.
Seeing the rage in his friend's dark velvet blue eyes, the wildly pulsating vein in his forehead and the tightness of his jaw, Bulbakov was terrified; he thought his life was coming to an end. *Just as well,* he thought bitterly. *Better I should die by his hands than by the hands of strangers.* Then
"I'm sorry, Misha," Bulbakov muttered, aware that he might not have much time left.
Before Steele could answer, however, two sets of hands pulled him away from his victim. He struggled for freedom and was able to shake himself loose, his hand going rapidly to the back of his belt where the knife was tucked. Upon seeing the two M-16s leveled at his chest, triggers ready and fingers willing, he raised his hands in surrender.
"You bastard!" he told Bulbakov harshly, not even bothering to look at the two guards who stood now between him and the man lying on the floor.
Bulbakov slowly got up and motioned for his men to put their weapons down. Petr stared at Steele and at his boss, as if to double check that the order was correct. He then lowered his gun, but kept his finger on the trigger, just in case.
"I said I was sorry. You must believe me; there was no other way," Bulbakov began.
He was unable to finish his sentence, however, as Steele's fist violently connected with his jaw, knocking him down again.
"Bastard!" Steele repeated beside of himself with anger.
But before he could move any further, two shots whizzed by his boots, sending tiny chips of wood flying everywhere.
"Stop!" Laura yelled from the foot of the stairs as she run towards Steele, mindless of the guns pointing at her.
"Laura, don't!" Steele called out, springing forward and in the line of fire.
Bullets zinged by his ear, missing him by less than an inch, but he didn't stop running. Then jumping forward he tackled Petr, causing him to drop his weapon. Both men sprang to their feet and jumped to reach the loose firearm when the sound of a fresh magazine fired beside them froze them on the spot.
"Enough!" Bulbakov commanded.
All firing and fighting ceased leaving everyone shaken. The room looked as if a twister had passed through it. The glass of the windowpanes were scattered all over the floor, the once neat hardwood was now ripped from its rightful place, the rich curtains were torn, and the gunpowder smoke filled the air with its acrid smell.
Bulbakov stared coldly at Steele, wiping the blood that trickled from his mouth with the back of his hand. Then looking at Petr, he waved him and his partner away, hoping against hope he wouldn't need their services further. Glancing towards Laura, he made a silent plea for her to control herself.
"Now, we will all relax now and have a talk," he said, looking pointedly at Steele, whose tight clenched fists reminded Bulbakov of his throbbing jaw.
"You two-timing bastard!" Steele said under his breath. "You had no right to do that, damn you! I thought I could trust you; I thought you had honor."
Bulbakov walked towards him and stretched out a hand to help him stand up, but his help was rudely refused as Steele smacked it away and stood up without any help.
Once on his feet, Steele walked towards Laura. "You alright?" he asked, not wanting to sound overly concerned about her in front of Bulbakov.
Laura nodded her head and looked down at her feet, chips of wood all around them where the bullets had hit. "I'm alright. I'm alright," she answered, her eyes going up and down his body looking for any possible wound and sighing her relief when she found none.
"Why did you have to do it, Kira?" Steele asked finally.
"I needed that book," the Russian replied simply.
"Why involve him?" Laura said, referring to Steele, her fear suddenly forgotten as her mind worked relentlessly to uncover the answer to the riddle. "You and Hawks could have settled it by yourselves."
"We needed a cover. If the Agency or the Komitet found out, we could each claim the other and you- his partner- had attempted the robbery," Bulbakov explained. "I could tell the KGB that you and Freddy were CIA, and you had sabotaged the exchange. And by the same token,..."
"Freddy could tell the CIA that I was KGB and had tried to steal the book from the exhibition," Steele realized. "A man with no past and no creditable present, with no attachments to any government would be a perfect scapegoat"
"In a word, yes." Bulbakov replied calmly.
"So the KGB knew about the exchange all the time?" Laura asked.
Coming clean about it now didn't seem too much of a hazard. It was more than likely that neither she nor Steele would be able to tell anyone about it, anyway. "They knew I was on a mission to get the book; they didn't know what was in it, though," Bulbakov told her.
"It all comes down to that, doesn't it?" Steele said wearily. "Why is the damn book so important, anyway? It's not even the real thing, is it?"
Bulbakov took his time before answering, walking around the pair of detectives like a hunter stalking his prey. Taking his pipe from his inner pocket, he placed it in his mouth and flinched a bit when the smooth ebony rested on his rapidly swelling lip.
"You don't have a light, do you?" he asked distractedly as he ran his hand through his own pockets, trying to find his lighter.
"Answer me, damn it!" Steele exclaimed.
Bulbakov glimpsed at the small marble table, the only item in the room that seemed undisturbed, and saw his lighter there. *Funny,* he thought. *I don't remember leaving it there.*
Lighting his pipe and puffing a generous cloud of smoke, he continued. "The book, as you just put it so bluntly, Misha, is not really a first edition of Don Quixote."
"Really?" Laura sarcastically chimed in. "I would have never imagined."
"But I needed that exact forgery, and I needed someone who knew the book, who had seen it before, and who wouldn't be fooled by another copy."
Steele raised one eyebrow in surprise. "I didn't think you'd remember that," he said, genuinely startled.
"Don't tell me," Laura guessed. "Warsaw."
"One of the items I helped retrieve from that lavish estate the copy of Don Quixote. It didn't seem to belong in its surroundings, so I asked Kira if he could do something with it, since my, er.. retainers.. didn't have any use for that particular piece."
"Seems others were much more interested in it," Laura said dryly.
"Yes, well," Bulbakov continued, a small smile lighting his face, only to disappear as soon as it had arrived. "The book actually *is* a first edition, but of something entirely different. It's a complete list of all the names, ranks, and known aliases of all agents on duty, all retired agents, and all moles, all the way back to the beginning of WWII. It contains a list of addresses, phone numbers, and identification numbers of all agents and relatives, both by kin or marriage, as well as detailed information of the times and locations of each and every mission or casual meeting they might have participated in, legal or illegal, accounted for or not."
"You have all that information about the CIA?" Laura asked, gaping at the enormous danger that represented in the hands of the enemy--or in anyone's hands, for that matter. It was almost unbelievable that someone could have put that amount of information together, let alone have lost it.
Both she and Steele were surprised by Bulbakov's laughter; they didn't think he'd be one to gloat to openly.
"I only wish, Miss Holt," Bulbakov said, wiping a small tear from the corner of his eye. "But it's a KGB agent list."
"What!?" Steele yelled. "Why on earth would you want a list of your own agents? The CIA is bound to have a copy of it, anyway."
"Why would Hawks give it to you? What was in it for him?" Laura wanted to know.
"Money," Bulbakov replied with a short, amused laugh. "Enormous amounts of the stuff."
"Where would you get it from? The KGB wouldn't pay for information they already owned, first edition or not," Steele reasoned.
"And besides, Freddy Hawks had more money than he could have spent in twenty lifetimes. He wouldn't have done it for the money, unless..." Laura paused, her mind twirling like a whirlwind.
"...unless he didn't know what the book was, either," Steele finished for her.
"Oh, Freddy knew alright," Bulbakov assured them. Then frowning deeply as if recalling some sad event, he added, "But the damn fool didn't know how to read it, and luckily for us, no one at the CIA was able to do so, either."
"The book is in code, then?" Steele asked.
Bulbakov nodded and looked curiously at Laura, who seemed immersed in her own thoughts, trying to gauge what her next question would be, wanting to know if her agile mind had finally figured out his game.
"Yes, Mr. Steele; it's in code. That's why Bulbakov freaked out when you failed to hand him the bookmark as well. Isn't that right, Bulbakov?" Laura asked, her brown eyes boring deeply into Bulbakov's green ones, issuing a challenge-- a challenge he was ready to pick up.
"If anyone attempted to read the book, Miss Holt, they could only find a very good, very accurate print of Cervantes' Don Quixote," Bulbakov said, somehow pleased to know his opponents were worthy ones.
"But when using the decoder in the bookmark, the list would come to the surface," Steele surmised. "But how could the CIA miss that?"
"I don't think the CIA ever laid hands on the bookmark. Did they, Bulbakov?" Laura guessed. "That was the exchange. You gave Hawks the bookmark; he gave you the book. Both governments would then have had access to the list."
"You had that bookmark planted in the museum for us to steal it ?" Steele questioned, the twists and turns of the operation making him dizzy.
"You could say that, yes," Bulbakov replied. "Of course, you weren't supposed to be the one who ended up carrying the bookmark. Freddy was supposed to have a fake one ready to be slipped into the book at the time of the robbery..."
"...but Felicia ran with the whole package," Steele said sadly, remembering her bravery that night and during the days that had followed.
"Still," Laura said, the tone ofSteele's voice making her uncomfortable again. "Freddy had plenty of time to switch the bookmarks before you got there."
"Oh?" Steele said, feigning surprise. And then, raising his eyes to the ceiling and wearing his most innocent face, he added, "And what makes you think he didn't?"
End of part 13
Note of the Author: It has been drawn to my attention (wink to Nan!) that the language spoken in Warsaw is not Russian, but Polish. Just wanted all of you to know, since the use of the Russian language in this story seems to have been rather inadequate-- at least, in all the Warsaw related bits. (I don't want to call it a mistake, but "poetic license". But the truth is, it is a mistake. Damn!)