A million thanks to Debra,
who is valiantly reading through all this stuff before
it reaches you, and without whom I'd be lost. Ok, I'll keep quiet
now, so you can read. Enjoy!
American Consulate in Saint Petersburg. 11:32 PM
Mildred sat back in the armchair and closed her tired eyes, waiting patiently for Murphy to stop pacing. He had summoned her to his room a few minutes ago, just as the storm had broken out. Mildred stretched her neck to one side, trying to release some of the tension that had accumulated there. Sleep was a commodity neither of them had enjoyed in the past week.
Murphy had just given Mildred a brief summary of Steele's message. Looking down at the piece of paper he was still holding, he saw with surprise that his hand was shaking.
"I don't know, kid," Mildred said, her eyes still closed. "He sounds as if he knows what he's doing."
"He always does, Mildred," the younger man replied. "But that doesn't mean his plan, whatever it might be, is going to work. Right? I mean, he knows how to lie."
"But you just told me that he's a professional-- that you've never seen him so sure of himself before. If such a thing is possible," she argued.
"Yeah," he replied, turning his back to her, deep in thought. "That's exactly what scares me."
He couldn't explain it, but the fact that Steele was so cool, professional, and deadly had him really worried. On the one hand, he was sure that the man could handle things better than in the old days, and if he and Laura were in a dangerous situation, her chances were probably better if Steele was around. But on the other hand, that was the very thing Murphy was most afraid of. What would happen when Steele wasn't around anymore? And worse, how would he, Murphy, handle it if Laura decided to stay with Steele and not come back to the U.S at all?
"You think Miss Holt will stay with him?" Mildred asked, guessing his the reason of his apprehension and projecting her own fears.
Murphy's shoulders sagged and he slowly turned around to face her. "Steele seems to think she will," he replied lifting the piece of paper as a proof.
Mildred looked down and nodded in sad agreement. Even though she hadn't exchanged a word with Miss Holt in almost a week, her recent brief meeting with Mr. Steele still made her shiver. When he had assured her he was in love with Laura and would never dare to hurt her, Mildred had only to look into his eyes to know he wasn't lying. Hell, she had known for years that those two loved each other; it had been so obvious. But in spite of that, all her certainty had vanished the minute he had taken off.
Mildred took the piece of paper from Murphy's hand and read it hastily.
"Laura and I will meet you at Pulkova-two Airport tomorrow at 10 AM. Make sure you and Mildred have your papers arranged."
When Mildred stopped and looked at Murphy in the eyes, she was smiling. "We are leaving tomorrow, then?" she asked him hopefully, "All of us?"
Murphy frowned. "Keep reading," he instructed.
"I expect you'll be able to persuade your friends with the CIA to leave us alone, I will take care of the KGB."
Mildred looked up at Murphy with a questioning glance on her face. "You're friends with the CIA?" she asked with obvious surprise.
"That's what Steele thinks, but I bet Donaldson is not so sure," Murphy said grimly.
Mildred lowered her eyes to the white paper in her hands once more.
"Once we are out of Russia, we'll go our separate ways. I can't thank you enough for your help, Murphy. Give my best to dear Mildred-- Steele."
Mildred sighed deeply, not sure if she should be feeling touched, scared, sad-- or perhaps all at the same time.
The Helsinki Hotel. 11:41 PM
With slow, careful steps and his eyes fixed of the small window, Steele paced around the small hotel room, the closeness of the space making him feel trapped. The lights from the city beyond the river were colored sparks that amused the eyes but didn't distract the brain. He had kept the window open in spite of the violent summer rain smashing violently against the glass and dripping slowly inside the room.
But he didn't care about the water; all of his senses were focused on deciding on how to most effectively use the information he had received from Daniel. Should he involve the police? The KGB? Certainly not the CIA; that would do more harm than good. Perhaps he should approach the matter face to face with Kira?
Kira Alexandrovich Bakunin, according to Daniel, was the great-grandson of none other than Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin himself; the most renowned, respected Anarchist of all times, loved and hated in equal measure by his pairs, his enemies, and his pupils.
If Steele remembered correctly, the original Bakunin had been an aristocrat, born in the Tzarist province of Tvar in the early eighteen hundreds. He had been involved in more than a few revolutions throughout Europe before he was married off to a merchant's daughter while in a Siberian prison in the 60's. Being extremely poor, all he had to offer in exchange for freedom and money had been an aristocrat family name. That marriage, brief as it had been, had given Bakunin an undesired family. He received a wife he didn't love and a child he didn't care about-- a family he would leave behind in shame and pain.
After a few generations, that pain could have easily evolved into hate.
Kira Bakunin was the last link in a long chain of outcasts. A family despised first by the Tzar, then by the Revolution, and then the Leninist State. As aristocrats, the Bakunins were hated by the Revolutionary masses of the 20th century, as an Anarchist's descendants they were considered dangerous both by the people and the government.
Steele stopped pacing and stood by the window, allowing the cool night air to fill his lungs and refresh his mind.
"Oh, Daniel, why did you have to choose him?" he muttered quietly.
Even if he could fathom the reasons why, he was still shaken by his mentor's choice. Had Daniel taken advantage of the fact that Kira was indeed an outcast, a man with no loyalties but to himself, reluctant to trust his government, his fellow countrymen, or his own family? Such a man would have no problems in forming a new alliance; maybe Daniel had provided not only a safe environment, but also a new identity that he could put on or take off like an old suit.
Kira would have no qualms about betraying those he was working with-- namely, the KGB. And Steele was certain the Komitet wouldn't be altogether happy to find out that Major Trashkin, alias Kira Bulbakov, was in reality Kira Bakunin, great-grandson of a man who had attempted to bring the State down -any state down- on countless occasions. Kira Bulbakov had deceived the KGB for more than 20 years, and they wouldn't be thrilled to know they had been duped.
Steele couldn't imagine why Daniel had taken such a risk, for surely he must have known that a man like Bulbakov would also be ready to betray him, if need be. Maybe Daniel was prepared to take his chances. Maybe he had taken chances with him, Steele, as well. After all, his mentor didn't know anything about him when they had first met-- not that it mattered, since he didn't know that much himself anyway. While Kira had a tumultuous past to account for, Steele had never really had a past. His boyhood hadn't been easy, but at least his father hadn't been a criminal ... Or had he? He'd never know, would he?
Steele shook his head, trying to clear his mind from the ghosts of the past and focus on the problem at hand. His loyalties were deeply rooted; he would be forever grateful to Daniel for all he had given him through all those years and for the way he had loved him like a son. Daniel had been the closest thing to a parent Steele had known in his youth, and nothing in this world could make him forget that.
But now, especially now, he had Laura to think of, as well as Mildred, Murphy...and Felicia. Yes, it always came back to Felicia. If there was one person he had betrayed throughout this ordeal, it had been her, and the thought of it made him ill. He had to make it up to her, somehow; he had to make sure she would be all right.
When the phone rang, Steele almost jumped out of his skin. Going to the night table, he picked up the receiver.
"Zaniata. Nyet vyeshayitie trubku, pazhalusta," a female voice said. - A call is getting through. Don't hang up, please.
Steele waited patiently until the line came back to life.
"Harry?" Daniel Chalmers' worried voice said.
"Daniel, old man, is everything arranged?" Steele asked, his face beaming.
"It was hard work, but the plane will be there in the morning. If it weren't for your other *present* I'd be really considering taking up another line of work-- one far less expensive," Daniel replied with a cheerful tone that belied his inner discomfort. His son was in trouble, in deep trouble, and he would do anything in his power to help him.
"I take it the package has arrived," Steele said with a thin smile on his face.
"Yes, my boy, safe and sound. What do you want me to do with it? I cannot fence it right now. It's way too dangerous with the CIA on our backs and-"
"Listen, Daniel, listen. The CIA is exactly who we're looking for," the younger man replied.
There was a silence on the line.
"Daniel, you there, mate?" Steele asked urgently.
"Yes, I'm here, Harry, but I'm afraid I'm hearing things."
Steele smiled in spite of himself.
"Did you just say we are *looking for* the CIA?" Daniel asked.
"They're the ones who are after Felicia, and they are the only ones who would very much like to have that bookmark, Daniel. The KGB already has a copy," Steele explained.
"And you think that they will er, forget Felicia's past...indiscretions...in return for this vital piece of information on the KGB. Is that it?" Daniel said, finally understanding Steele's scheme.
"Precisely. What do you think, mate? Can you do it?" Steele asked hopefully.
"That bookmark is worth millions in the private sector, as you well know. You and Felicia could hide forever with that," Daniel ventured, already knowing what the answer would be.
Steele's face darkened as he digested his mentor's suggestion. He was, however, unwilling to even consider it. His voice sounded stained and tired as he spoke again.
"Daniel, I'm not going ba-"
"I know, my boy," the older man replied with a sigh. It had been worth a try.
"I'm sorry," Steele said almost in a whisper.
"Will you see to it that she's safe? Please?" Steele pleaded, trying not to let his anguish show.
"You can count on it, my boy," Daniel replied, not too cheerfully. "But I cannot see to it that she's happy."
It was Steele's time to sigh this time. Still, there wasn't much he could do about the current situation. Felicia would just have to understand, even if she was hurt, and in due time they would get a divorce. One really wasn't necessary, of course. Since Michael O'Leary had never existed in the first place, he could vanish into nothingness as fast as he had appeared so many years earlier. The real divorce, the one in their hearts, was the only one that counted... and it had already taken place. Steele couldn't say exactly where-- maybe it had been at the airport in Spain, maybe over the phone in Russia, maybe even that very first night in their room after the museum incident...
"Harry, are you alright?" Daniel asked over the phone, bringing Steele back from his reverie.
Steele touched his fingers to his brow and massaged the bridge of his nose, trying to rub away the headache that was already torturing him. "Yes, yes. I'm all right," he assured his friend.
"Will I see you any time soon?" Daniel asked, almost afraid of the words he was speaking.
"That's hard to say, Daniel," Steele replied sadly.
"Yes, well... You will always be welcome, my boy."
"I know," Steele said with a smile. After a small, awkward silence, he sighed again. "Listen, Daniel. I know I don't often say this to you but, well... Thank you." The statement was simple, but it was heartfelt.
"Oh, but you have... several times. Maybe not in so many words, but you have," Daniel said, his heart warmed.
Steele remembered a scene like this taking place many years ago on a boat. They had shaken hands then, and he found himself wishing they could do the same now. But he and Daniel were miles away from each other, and their only contact now was a fragile phone line that threatened to go bad at any second.
"Right. Well, I'm afraid I have to make another phone call now," he said, and then he softly added, "Goodbye, Daniel, and good luck."
"Good luck to you, son," came the faint answer.
Then the line went dead.
Steele stood in the darkness staring at the phone, lost in thought for a few seconds. Absentmindedly, his hand went to his pocket and he popped the lid of the watch open, the comforting music blending nicely with the soft sound of the rain of the rooftops and soothing his nerves.
His eyes narrowed in concentration, his jaw tightened, and every muscle in his body tensed as he then began dialing Bulbakov's number.
Saint Petersburg Police HQ. 11:32
Agent Donaldson entered the building with a nonchalant air, even though he was feeling quite self-conscious. If someone had told him twenty-four hours ago that he would be seeking the help of the Saint Petersburg Police Department to help four American citizens escape from the country, he would have thought they were hopelessly insane.
He still wasn't sure of how Michaels had convinced him to do this, but here he was, sticking his neck out for people he didn't even know. Then again, that was his job, wasn't it?
Shaking the water from his drenched overcoat and letting it drip on the hardwood floor, he met Sergeant's Grechko amused gaze and silently asked permission to light a cigarette. The Russian nodded his head, but the expression on his face as they greeted each other was nothing short of disbelief.
Grechko held the man's glare, admiring his courage. What was a CIA agent, though undercover and credited in all legal papers as embassy personnel, but still very CIA, doing here at this hour of the night?
"Hello, Steven. Lovely night, isn't it?" he said as he accepted a Marlboro from the American.
"Yeah, if you're a duck," Donaldson replied, puffing smoke blissfully, as he didn't have a care in the world.
Cool matyerybyets, Grechko thought. "What brings you here? And why are you calling me?" he asked, too tired to play around. He wasn't a stupid secret agent, after all. He was a policeman.
"I came as a favor to you, actually. I have four of our nationals leaving on a chartered flight from Pulkova Airport tomorrow morning, and I don't want any trouble," Donaldson said.
"How is that a favor to me?" Grechko wanted to know.
"Can't you imagine who are the ones leaving?" the agent said with a smile.
"But you said there's four of them. Who's number four? Michaels, Krebs... Have you found Miss Holt yet?"
"She's meeting us tomorrow, no thanks to the efforts of your department," Donaldson replied.
"Yeb vas, Steven, you never asked for help. And my hands were tied up, anyway. Who's number four?" Grechko insisted.
"A guy from the Embassy," the agent lied. "He's going on leave. Who's got your hands tied up?" he asked, his mood unrelenting.
Michaels had instructed him to say four people, just in case their boss, Steele, turned up. But even though Michaels hadn't seemed so sure, Donaldson could hardly wait to see the man, he had many questions to ask him when they returned home.
"On a charter plane?" Grechko said, almost ironically. He wasn't buying it.
"Well, they were kind enough to take him along."
"Who's providing the plane?" Grechko inquired.
"One of Miss Holt's grateful clients, it seems," Donaldson replied with a smirk.
"That's some gratitude," the Russian replied.
"I'll say. Do we have an agreement, then?"
Grechko eyed the American wearily. He was so tired of this whole game, and he didn't care about it anymore. If they wanted to leave, then let them leave. Foreigners were nothing but trouble, anyway.
"Very well," he finally said. "We'll leave you alone, as long as all the papers are in order, and the Komitet agrees."
Donaldson put out his hand and they shook on the deal. The American turned to leave, but after taking two steps towards the exit, he turned around.
"The name of your *handcuffs* wouldn't be Major Trashkin of the KGB, would it?" Donaldson innocently asked the Russian.
Michaels had dropped Trashkin's name in a conversation, but apparently didn't know too much about him. Even so, the mere mention of the name had been enough to arouse Donaldson's curiosity, as well as his fear. Trashkin had quite a reputation, on both sides of the iron curtain.
"What if it were?" the Russian asked, aware of the danger.
"Oh, nothing; I was just thinking out loud. Why do you think the man is so interested in this?" Donaldson asked.
"Why are *you* so interested in this?" Grechko replied evenly.
Agent Donaldson laughed heartedly. Fair was fair.
"I hope I won't be seeing you tomorrow, then," he said with a grin. "Da Svedanya."
"Da Svedanya, commarade," Grechko replied, enjoying the last puffs of his cigarette as he watched the Agent disappear behind the doors and into the pouring rain, swearing at the skies.
Grechko chuckled. It would have been so easy to hold Donaldson, hand him over to the KGB, and then receive a promotion-- but he hadn't. The less he got involved in whatever was going on, the better. And besides, Steven Donaldson was an almost decent man, for an American.
Ice Palace, Krashnovo Kursanta. 11:38 PM
Laura shifted on the bed, her dark brown eyes still focused on the expensive, carved, wooden ceiling, the pleasant curves and twists reminding her of the turns and variations she encountered in her own life in the last few days. She had been lying there since Steele had left almost two hours earlier, and she could do nothing but wonder about where he might be and when he would come back.
Angrily, she chastised herself for feeling like a stupid damsel in distress, held prisoner in the villain's tower like in some silly children bedtime story. Being dependant on others was something she had avoided all her adult life; she had taken pride of her independence, her drive, and her ability to stand up for herself. The truth was, however, that not only did she feel helpless and vulnerable in her current circumstances, but also terrified of what might happen to her dangerously lovable Prince Charming.
Deep down in her mind, though she refused to give it any real consideration, she still feared that what Bulbakov had told her earlier in the night might be true. What if Steele *had* run back to Felicia with that bookmark, never to return?
Laura's hand took a firm grip on the pillow where his head had rested only a few hours earlier. Pushing the cushioned, soft material down towards her face, she stifled a groan of self- directed anger. Surprisingly, she could still smell his scent on the pillow cover. As his manly fragrance filled her lungs, a warm, cozy feeling spread slowly but progressively throughout her body. It reached from her heart to her toes and allowed her brain to process the undeniable fact that he would never leave her.
She remembered the roaring, raising tide in the oceanic blue of his eyes as he had told her he loved her, she remembered their loving, so passionate and tender, so possessive and yet so amazingly freeing. If Laura had ever held any doubts that they had been made for each other, the memory of his presence, so real and intense that it was practically tangible, had erased them from her mind. He still had to find his way back to her, and they still had to live long enough to walk away from their ordeal. But she could deal with those worries, as long as she knew they would do it together.
Petr came in without knocking and stood in the doorway for a few seconds before entering the room. Since verbal communication was out of the question, Petr simply lifted his hand in the air, curled his forefinger backwards, and motioned for her to follow him.
Laura sat on the bed and held her ground, shaking her head no. "Where's Bulbakov?" she asked, even though she knew the Russian wouldn't understand.
Petr merely repeated his sign, more energetically this time, using his whole arm to indicate the direction they would be taking.
"Bulbakov," Laura repeated. "Make him come here, if he wants to speak to me."
Petr was showing signs of tiredness.
"Bulbakov!" Laura insisted.
Petr decided he had finally had enough; if the lady wasn't moving, he'd do the moving for her. In two long strides he was by the bed, then in one single motion and displaying amazing force, he scooped a struggling Laura in his powerful arms and lifted her as if she were light as a feather.
The door closed behind them with a loud slam.
Bulbakov completed the final turn of the silencer on his gun and looked up. He wasn't really fond of killing, but he wasn't squimish about it, either. He had killed a number of people in the past without feeling too much remorse, and he would be able to do it again now.
As Petr approached with Laura on his shoulder, however, Bulbakov had the nasty feeling this time it was not going to be so easy. He could have turned the task over to someone else, but he realized he had to do this himself; after all, he owed it to Misha to make it fast, painless and clean. He looked at the pair again, watching as the woman struggled fiercely, causing the big Russian carrying her to swear loudly. Bulbakov would have laughed if the situation weren't so bleak.
"Put her down and leave us alone," he ordered Petr in a tone that sent cold shivers through Laura's spine, even though she hadn't understood the words.
Petr did as he was told; as soon as Laura had her feet on the ground again, he took his leave.
Far from being concerned with her powerful captor, Laura had all her attention focused on Bulbakov. She looked deeply into his green eyes and found that they seemed even deadlier than before.
"I'm sorry," he said as he lifted the gun and cocked it slowly.
Laura closed her eyes, but the shot never came. Or had it? Was she dead?
When her eyes instinctively shot open again, she saw Bulbakov fumbling with the safety catch and swearing under his breath. It was then that Laura suddenly realized she was unable to speak. It was as if her brain couldn't command her voice anymore, as if all the air had run out of her lungs. Quickly, she raised her hand in the air and shot him a warning with her eyes.
Bulbakov looked at her and wavered for a second. He reminded himself that he couldn't afford the luxury of doubt, and he couldn't miss another chance. If he didn't kill her now, he never would.
As his thumb once again cocked the firearm and the pressure on the trigger increased, he thought of Misha. His old friend had more than likely gotten away by now and was probably in London. That was for the best, he thought; he would have hated to kill Misha. They now both had what they wanted, and Bulbakov found he was ready to live with that. But there was no point in keeping Laura Holt alive any longer; she was a loose end that had to be tied up.
Laura's breathless voice reached his brain as a litany, bringing with it shock and confusion. She had only said one word, and it reached his consciousness as if it had been delayed in time, as an echo, as a thread of a past life-- "Bakunin."
The hand holding the weapon lowered a few inches, and the earlier resolve of her would-be executer seemed to have lessened. His eyes were cloudy as he hoarsely asked, "Schto?"
"We know who you are, Kira Bakunin," Laura said, feeling her strength coming back.
Bulbakov stared at her with vacant eyes. It had been at least twenty years since anyone had called him by that name, and the sound of it wasn't pleasant. Still, he couldn't be distracted; not now.
"It doesn't matter Miss Holt," he replied sadly, leveling the gun again. "I'm sorry."
"But it does," she said, controlling her voice and her fear. "If you kill me, Mr. Steele will shout your name from the rooftops, and even the KGB will hear."
"Misha is safely in London by now, Miss Holt; don't kid yourself," Bulbakov said, trying to convince himself.
"He's still in Russia, Kira," she said, using his first name in an attempt to reach him on a more personal level. Not that she could gain Steele's 'Old Friend' status with Bulbakov, but it might help.
"How did you find out?" he asked, and then his face fell as the realization dawned on him. He spoke softly, as if his very soul had sunk. "Daniel."
Laura silently stared at the gun still aiming at her head. She saw the Russian smile a sad, little smile as his eyes moistened. He looked almost human.
But Bulbakov suppressed his tears; he wasn't that weak. Daniel Chalmers was the only person on this planet he had ever respected. What had he done to cause Daniel Chalmers, the most straight and honest man he had ever met, to betray him? He had done nothing wrong. Had he?
"He swore he'd never tell anyone," Bulbakov said, his voice broken.
He simply didn't understand. He had played by the rules-- even Misha would agree on that. Well, no, maybe he wouldn't. But then, poor old Misha wasn't the same man he used to be. And the rules... Well, rules are meant to be broken. Wasn't that what they always said?
"Your secret is safe if you let us go, Kira," Laura promised.
That made Bulbakov laugh; he was out of faith. "The past, it's the past, and it will never go away. Someone will always be there to pick up the dirt," he replied, his finger applying pressure on the trigger once again.
"It doesn't have to be that way," Laura said.
"What makes you so sure?"
The phone rang before Laura could answer. As the seconds stretched into hours, they felt as if they were finally about to waken from a nightmare that had held them captive for too long. Bulbakov fought the alarm signals his brain was sending him, warning him not to pick up the phone, already knowing who was going to be on the other end: Misha. At the same time Laura, bearing the same certainty, felt her heart bursting with relief.
But after two rings the line went dead.
Laura and Bulbakov looked at each other, the silence growing thick and heavy between them. The tension increased as their hearts thumped wildly inside their chests, so loud and clear that the beating could have fairly echoed through the walls, only to be silenced in the soft fabric of the curtains. Neither of them moved.
When the phone rang again, it was Laura who picked it up, ignoring the threat embodied in the steel muzzle of the Russian's gun. Bulbakov looked at her, admiring her boldness. He dared not move; he was transfixed by a force he wasn't able to resist, his finger was so tight on the trigger of his gun that it almost hurt.
"Kira?" Steele said over the phone.
Laura swallowed as she looked at Bulbakov, her eyes telling him Steele was on the other end. Then without taking her eyes from his shark-like dark spheres, she spoke into the phone.
"It's me," she said with a coolness that amazed even her. "But he's right here, and he has a gun to my head."
"Laura? Oh, God ..." It wasn't fear in his voice, it was sheer terror. "Are you alright?"
"Yes, for the time being," she said, still holding the Russians glare. It was as if their positions were bizarrely reversed and she was the one with a gun to his head. Still, Laura was more than aware that it was a momentary situation, and she that didn't have much time.
"Put him through, luv. Don't tell him anything, just hand him the phone. Ok?" Steele instructed.
"Okay," she replied, lowering the extension.
"Laura?" she heard faintly.
Sensing the urgency of his voice, she put receiver back to her ear. "Yes?"
"I love you," he said.
Laura barely had time to smile as Bulbakov took a step forward, aiming the gun directly at her right temple. Stretching his other hand towards her, the Russian demanded the phone.
The rain pounded mercilessly on the window beside Steele as the gentle spray fell on him, chilling his bones. He held his breath as the connection went bad for a second, his stomach turning at the foul taste of fear in his dry mouth. His hearing enhanced by his complete concentration, every sound around him seemed to blend into a muffled noise that impeded him from hearing what was happening at the other end.
When the line was reconnected, all that Steele heard was the loud bang of a gun. His entire world collapsed as his lungs exploded with a cry that came from the innermost depths of his soul. "Laura!!!"
End of part 17
To Part 18
N. of the A: The use of Mikhail Bakunin's name and biography are used here with extreme levity, and perhaps even a little inaccuracy. This is not meant to be offensive or insulting. (The man has been dead for 120 years so who's going to complain anyway? ) Seriously, I meant no offense, so don't sue me, ok?