It had cost him a lot to get there. He had threatened and bribed his entire staff to silence. He had hacked into databanks he wasnít even supposed to know existed and altered files with lethal content. Before he left Section, he had all but blackmailed Simon into covering for him. He had done all that and would have done even more to get to her in time.
"Is that her?" the morgue attendant asked.
For a dizzying second he thought it wasnít. The hair was bright, not jet-black, but then he saw the slanted, cat-like eyes and he knew. Jenny. Oh God.==
Her full name was Genevieve Cotter and she was from somewhere near New Orleans. She spoke the Cajun patois, her accent thick and luscious. At eighteen, she was an experienced Valentine Operative. Birkoff had noticed her earlier, her throaty laughter, her dancing eyes, the easy way she held Nikitaís arm as the tall blond and the petite brunette swaggered through the halls together, but nothing he had seen had indicated that she would be sitting on his bed, when he got off-shift. She wore a black tank top and slacks. Her feet were bare. She looked incredible. Birkoffís heart skipped a beat. Maybe a couple.
"Madeline sent you."
It was more of an accusation than a question. Madeline had her own ideas and uses for Valentine Operatives, coupled with a tendency to inflict her own solutions on others. If sleeping with a young stud relaxed her, then it must relax everyone.
She hugged her knees to her chest.
A faint smile played over her lips. The wine-red lipstick matched her nailpolish exactly. Madelineís touch.
"Iím under orders to stay here tonight. To please you, cher."
"Itís not, je tíassure. Can I smoke?"
She drew out her pack of cigarettes and tapped out one into her palm, before looking up at him again. She was obviously waiting for affirmation.
"No. Iím allergic to that shit, got it?"
She put the cigarette back, still smiling. The Valentine Operatives were trained to appear unfazed , but there was something uncanny about the smile, which wasnít cold, just very intense. Ferocious. It reminded Birkoff of a small predator, ready to pounce. He shook his head, turned to leave. He wasnít up to this. After thirty-odd hours of straining eyes and mind to the limit, all he wanted was to crawl into bed and disconnect from the world. He had no wish for another of Madelineís mindgames.
*She dumped three missions gone sour in my lap today,* he thought angrily, *and now she tops it off by giving me a Section hooker.*
It didnít help that the hooker was a damn pretty one. Normally, her scent alone would have been enough to arouse him, but the knowledge that Madeline had set them up made him feel...small.
"You go out that door, cher," Genevieve said, "you go straight for the abeyance list."
He stopped cold. She shrugged.
"Miz Madeline, she said to tell you that. Come to bed."
She rose and walked up to him. That close, Birkoff could feel her scent, which was part warm girl, part flowers.
*Roses,* he thought, *large velvety roses.*
"Come to bed," she said again. "Itís a job, cher, a damn job, just like the ones we do all day. Just think of it as overtime, wonít you?"==
Birkoff woke up with his arms full of sleeping girl. She was tiny, but so was the bed. Spooning wasnít an option.
"Hey", he said softly. "Iíve gotta get up."
She yawned, slanted eyes opening a fraction.
"So do I. You want to hit the showers first, bebe? Iíll fix us some food."
After his shower, Birkoff joined her for breakfast. A picky eater, himself, he watched in fascination as she devoured her meal with an urgency usually seen only in starved canines. When she had finished her third plate of scrambled eggs, her seventh piece of toast and emptied his jam jar entirely, she went to fill up her coffee mug. Birkoff chose that moment to ask her:
"Is the job finished?"
He tried not to sound too sarcastic. It had been nice to make love to her. She had an active little body, and she was funny and sweet.
"No," she said. "Iíll see you Wednesday. Maybe some more time, I donít know."
"How...do you feel about it?"
"Truthfully, Birkoff?" She cupped her hands around the coffee mug. "It was okay. You were gentle with me, and I like that. I donít mind this job."
He tried to hide his mortification, reminding himself that no one had ever suggested that he would be Valentine Op material.
"I need to leave now, anyway", she said. "Iíve got another job."
Jealousy bit hard for a moment, then passed.
*Fool. You donít own her. Section does. If they didnít, she wouldnít be here with you.*
"Thanks", he said, meaning it. "Next time, Iíll fix you dinner. Have a preference?"
Genevieve eyed Birkoff, a mischievous smile lighting up her face.
Genevieve ended up having to cook the crawfish, since the insectoid carrion eaters from the swamp weirded Birkoff out. She showed him how to suck the heads off and which goo inside was edible. Then they got smashed on the gin she had brought and played a really crazy game of bourree, before they went to bed. Afterwards, she said he could call her Jenny.
Birkoff recognised this as a friendly move, but he really hated the thought of her calling her Seymour.
"Cray used to be my nick when I was still out there", he said. "Itís a name that doesnít hurt."
She was very still, watching him. When at rest, her features were rather plain. It was her animation that created the illusion of beauty, much like the endearments in French she tagged onto her sentences created the illusion of intimacy.
"I wonít hurt you", she said. "Except to save you. Remember that, cher, and get back under the covers."
She taught him to play poker. He tried to teach her chess. She brought the booze, since she had an ID that said she was of legal age to purchase alcoholic beverages, and he hadnít. He added ingredients from exotic dishes from the South of Scarlett OíHara and Rhett Butler, to his grocery lists, and they cooked together. She showed him how to mix cocktails and to dance. He learnt to make her GTs the way she wanted them and both foxtrot and two-step came naturally to him, but he didnít have the temper for tango. They stopped making love. The transition from a job well done to friendship was easy and natural. They still shared the bed, more for comfort than warmth. At work, their circles never touched. Simon was Jennyís communications officer and he worked the opposite shift to Birkoff.==
"Itís getting to me, cher", Jenny said.
She was drunk. So was he.
"Youíre okay, Jenny", Birkoff said.
He had snatched a quick look at the mission profile and tweaked it, before putting it back into Simonís files. He couldnít tell her that, but thatís how he knew she was going to be fine.
"No," she said. "No, Iím not okay."
She sloshed around the liquid in her glass, which was pure gin, because they were out of tonic. Some of it spilled out of the glass, onto the table.
"Son of a _bitch_!" she yelled.
"Iíll clean it up," Birkoff offered. "Why donít you go to bed? Iíll take the couch tonight, give you a chance to sleep, okay?"
That was when she threw the glass at him. He saw it coming, just the way he had seen his fatherís hand coming and he was just as helpless and frozen as back then. Because someone he trusted, someone he loved, turned on him with hatred, and for all his brilliance he couldnít figure out why.
The force of the impact broke his glasses. Blood started to flow into his eyes, obscuring his vision. He stumbled to the sink and turned on the water, terrified that she would attack him from behind, while he rinsed his eyes. She didnít. He rinsed and rinsed, until the water ran clear again and the cold made his forehead ache and he almost willed her to come at him again and give him an excuse to punch her. As soon as he could see anything at all, he walked into the bathroom and locked the door. The mirror showed a deep cut straight through his eyebrow and this right eye was already starting to swell. He taped the cut with greater care than needed. He brushed his teeth and straightened up in the bathroom locker. When he couldnít delay his exit any longer he walked straight out to the couch and pulled the blanket around him. Jenny was on the bed, hugging her knees to her chest, the same way she had been the first night they had spent together. She didnít cry, but she was rocking herself.
"Youíre a fucking loon", he said cruelly. "Get a hold of yourself."
She tried to stop.
"How I got here, Cray", she said between chattering teeth. "I went to bed with someone. We got smashed, had a fight, he said heíd sleep on the couch and weíd talk in the morning. Then it was morning and I walked out in the living room and he was....The carpet had been white. I had had a lot to drink the night before, but I was pretty sure it had been white. And the smell. His gut had been punctured and there were already flies everywhere. I didnít know there were so many flies in a condo."
"You killed him?"
"I think so."
" You donít _know_?"
"I had been drinking. Passed out drunk. I donít remember. I could have."
Birkoff got up. He handed her a cigarette and a lighter, while being careful not to touch her. She shook her head automatically.
"Iíll turn up the fan", he explained. "Go ahead."
She didnít need to be told twice. As she inhaled the smoke, Birkoff wondered what it would be like to enjoy something so much. His own addictions were purely electronic in nature. A physical addiction, engaging neurotransmitters and receptors, might be more satisfactory.
"Thank you," she said hoarsely, after she had finished her cigarette. "Iíll leave now. And Iíll clear it with Miz Madeline."
The tightening in Birkoffís chest as she took her coat off the hanger had nothing to do with the residual smoke.
"Jenny", he said, and she turned around enough for him to see that she had no hope left. She really didnít expect him to stop her.
"Jenny," he repeated. "Donít be an idiot. Come back here."
She shook her head and looked down at his white carpet and he knew flies were buzzing inside her head.
"Iíll bring a gun, okay? First sign of trouble, Iíll shoot you. I promise."
That made her drop the coat. The purse and her key followed suit as she walked across the carpet like it was water and he was Jesus Christ and her faith in him was the only thing that kept her from drowning.
He put his arms around her and felt her tremble like an injured animal, beyond whimpering or crying out. He held her until the trembling stopped.==
Birkoff called in sick the next day. He almost never did that. When sick, he tended to go to work as usual; either it passed or someone ordered him down to Medical to get a prescription. When he wasnít sick, he worked, that was all. This morning, though, he had a headache and he wasnít particularly eager to show his bruised face around Comm. Jenny had left early, kissing him lightly on the forehead as she slipped out of bed. Her touch had not evoked the slightest desire in him. Whatever was between them now had nothing to do with sex and they were very far from love.
He was not prepared for the outpouring concern from all over Section. Nikita and Walter called to ask how he was. He lied and said he was sleeping off a migraine. Operations called to let him know that recovery was expected in three days, at the very latest. Of his people in Systems and Comm, almost everyone called him before lunch, pretending to have a problem only he could solve. How flattering. The call he dreaded most of all, that from Madeline, did not come. His instinct told him that she would favour another approach, and he was proven right when a key turned in his lock and Sectionís mother, guardian and chief interrogator let herself in.
"Mr Birkoff," she said in the rich, melodic voice she used for comfort and threats alike. "I believe we have a situation to discuss."
She sat down at his kitchen table, and moved the unwashed dishes a little so that the area directly in front of her was clear. Her hand lingered for an extra second on the gin bottle and an expression Birkoff couldnít read flickered in her eyes. Disgust? Compassion? He knew that his eye was a mess. The room smelled of the greasy food from last night and of the gin still on the floor.
"Genevieve is an alcoholic. That does not, so far, impair her ability as a Valentine Operative. The mission profiles are carefully constructed to suit or even to take advantage of her addiction. If you try to interfere, not only will her performance suffer, but eventually so will yours. The time and attention you spend on her could be used more constructively. In your field of work, tension release is of outmost importance to all operatives. To have an alcoholic on your hands will not relax you, trust me."
Birkoff almost laughed, a bitter bark. Jenny wasnít an alcoholic. When you lived on the street and drank out of paper bags or came home drunk and started slapping your kids around you were an alcoholic. Jenny just liked to drink. She never failed an appointment, never called in sick...
"You thought _I_ called in sick because I was drunk," he challenged Madeline.
"The thought did cross my mind. Iím pleased to see I was wrong. The consequences would have been severe."
He must be insane to push Madeline like this. No-one did that, ever, and lived.
"I will find you another woman. Your work is much too valuable for you to be distracted or hurt."
"I donít want another woman!"
"Who _do_ you want, Birkoff? You can have anyone."
And anyone he named would be given the choice of prostituting herself or die. What a great way to start a relationship.
"Have you ever considered why Genevieve has become so important to you?" Madeline asked in that sympathetic way she had just before she moved in for the kill. "Doesnít she remind you of someone? Dark hair, dark eyes, emotional and fragile. Others will explore your weaknesses, Birkoff. You need to be aware of them before they are."
He couldnít move or speak. He was a deer in the headlights and a butterfly on a pin.
"Think about it," Madeline advised him, rising smoothly.==
Birkoff took her advice. He thought about it, or rather, he took the problem and dropped it into the void that was the best part of his mind. While he washed the dishes and tidied up, the intuitive and logical parts in his brain interlocked and processed. All relevant parameters were called up from his near-photographic memory. When the room was immaculately cleaned and everything in it perfectly aligned, he knew what the right thing to do was.
Between the coordination of two real-time missions he put a virus in Sectionís computer mainframe to detect and obstruct anyone accessing Jennyís files. He put a similar virus in the security system to pick up conversations mentioning her name or a dozen keywords. A third variant he inserted into Oversightís systems. If Hillinger touched those files or got onto the virus, a frame based on recent missions would activate, and Hillinger would find himself in too deep shit to think about anything but saving his ass.
He made an appointment with the best plastic surgeon he could find. He applied to MIT for a major in economics and booked a room in a dorm. Fifty-thousand dollars disappeared mysteriously from the Swiss account of a drug dealer in Macao. A young woman in a morgue in Idaho, who had been tentatively identified after spending weeks in a river, changed her status back to unidentified. And, finally, because he had yet to see Madeline err in her psychological judgment, he signed up for an AA meeting.
Then he went to the cyber cafe to meet Jenny for coffee and tell her the rest of the plan.==
Jenny managed to evade Section on her own for almost three days. Michaelís team brought her in at midnight the third day and dragged her past Comm and System, doubtlessly on Madelineís orders. Birkoff didnít look up as she passed and he pretended not to hear her cursing him to hell and back. The techs showed up after less than half an hour and put him through a lie detector test.
Yes, she had hit him. Yes, he had set her up. Yes, he thought she had learned her lesson now. No, he wasnít sorry about wasting Section resources, he was ten times worth any lowly Valentine op or tech. Yes, he was very grateful that Madeline wasnít conducting the interview.==
There were two infirmaries on level two. Birkoff knew which one Madeline had put Jenny in, when he saw Michael standing guard in the south-west hallway. Michael saw him, too.
The word was admonishment, warning and command in one. Birkoff ignored it.
"I want to see her."
He hoped it would be enough. That Michael would understand.
He hoped Michael would mistake the quiver in his voice for misery rather than fear. Some human emotion flickered momentarily in the green eyes, turning them to silver.
"No. She is fine. Leave."
It was the last chance to turn back. Michael might forgive him for hanging around where he didnít belong, but for what he was going to do, no way in hell. But although his knees were shaking and his guts felt like vinegar, his mind remained oddly aloof. He brought out his panel and plugged it into the wall.
"Do you know where Nikita is right now?" he asked.
"The Beirut-Kairo run. ETA eighteen hours, four minutes. Three."
"Screw that. Things blew up in Lebannon. Nikita is left with half a team and no transport and have spent the last thirty seconds non-com."
Michael didnít even twitch. He was that steady. But the hallway had become very cold.
"She is alone," Birkoff pressed on. "She is in a warehouse trying to get through to us. There is a man bleeding to death in her lap. Without the satellite link she will die there. Alone."
"If she dies, I will kill you."
From the way Michael said it, he might as well have been discussing the weather.
"Itís all in your hands, Michael. Her life. That manís life, if it means something to you. And while we stand here, sheís still waiting. Let me in and Iíll restore the satellite link. Kill me, knock me out or whatever and sheíll die. Choose."
An eternity passed. Finally, Michael moved away from the door.
"One hour," he whispered. "No more."
Birkoff nodded. His fingers flew over the keyboard, disabling the program he had used to jam Nikitaís signal.
"Go to Comm, Michael," he said. "Nikitaís on-line. Iíve started an extraction profile, screen five, sim two. Priorities are one, team recovered, two, package recovered, three, package destroyed. You want to change it, go ahead. Thatís between you two. "==
Jenny was asleep. Birkoff had prepared himself for the worst when she was brought in, but Michaelís group had clearly been under orders to retrieve her, not damage her. He had hoped as much, seeing the Sinclair mission scheduled only a few days away. Jenny had been Sinclairís girl since she was recruited. Sinclair had been the reason why she was recruited.
She looked older when she slept, less like a pixie. As he watched her, her eye-lids fluttered.
"Quíest-ce que tu fait bebe?" she mumbled.
"De rien. Just watching over you. Are you okay? Did she hurt you?"
"No. Gave me a shot...I donít remember. You?"
"Iím fine. I had to threaten Michael with death and damnation to get in here, but what the hell."
She smiled, but it was a very tired smile and he worried about her again.
"Are you really alright?"
"Iím fine, cher." The voice was stronger now. "Sinclair four days from now, níest-ce pas? And youíll be there?"
"Simon thinks itís his idea. Everything is set. Go back to sleep. Iíll stay awhile."==
The bar had been bugged, the phone tapped and four cameras had been mounted to track Sinclairís every movement. It was possible, but not likely, that the exchange would be made on another location, but there was a team on stand-by to tail any vehicle. Jenny wore a wire and a video cam and very little else. She had brought Sinclair to the bar at ten and they had been sitting there for fifteen minutes. Birkoff was pleased to see that Jenny had stuck to ginger ale.
"Here he comes," Simon exclaimed from the other side of Systems. "Dark hair, leather coat. You got him, Birkoff?"
"Not yet. Slow turn, seven oíclock, Jenny. Yes. Freeze that picture, Gail. I want confirmation before any team changes position."
"ID confirmed," Gail answered. "Thatís Nicolas Park, with a new nose."
Sinclair approached Park, weaving through the crowd. Jenny tried to tag along, but he shook her off.
"Go back to the bar, babe," Sinclair told her. "This is biz. Men only."
She faked a pout. He grabbed her breasts with both hands and squeezed. She squirmed and he leered at her. Birkoff felt like puking. He felt even worse when he realised they had lost audio.
"Jenny? Jenny! Touch your chin if you can hear me!"
"Shit," Simon said. "Well, itís not as if she doesnít know what to do. After we take out Park, sheíll just hang around and wait for her transport, right? Birkoff, Iíll switch screens with you now."
Birkoff listened as Sinclair and Park sized each other up, like alpha males wannabees. A few not so covert references to the exchange assured them they were talking about the same thing and a couple of truly moronic code phrases that they were talking to the right person.
"Puh-leeze!" Simon groaned. "Weíve gotta get Ki-Soo in there now, I canít stand another minute of this...banter !"
"Keep your eyes on Jenny!" Birkoff snapped.
"...pissed on my Oreos?" Birkoff finished for him.
Sinclair and Park were at the bar now, ordering drinks. The bartender served them one whiskey each. The man next in line, a blond man in an expensive suit, blocked the view from the first camera and Birkoff called up the second and the third. None of them were optimally angled. The Suit struck up a conversation with the bartender. A mixer whined.
"Move your fat ass," Birkoff muttered. "I canít see what Park is doing."
Sinclair and Park finished their drinks. Jenny moved closer but they still couldnít hear anything.
"Weíd better grab them when they step outside", Birkoff decided. "Roberta, advise Operations and Madeline of the change in profile."
"Change approved", came Madelineís cool voice over the intercom. "Please proceed, mr Birkoff. Simon."
"Theyíre moving towards the exit. Ki-Soo, on your mark."
"Jenny still at the bar, Simon?"
"Good. Sinclair will be first out, Park next. Five seconds."
The two men stepped out. The seconds ticked past.
"Targets secured," Ki-Soo said, breathlessly. "No casualties. No complications. ETA six hours."
Birkoff exhaled. He surveyed the bar again. The abduction had passed unnoticed. The guests closest to the door seemed unperturbed. He looked back at Jenny and saw the Suit advance on her, with a drink in each hand. He put it down in front of her. His hand touched her bare shoulder. She turned, smiled, said something polite. The Suitís smile stiffened a little. He made a small apologetic gesture towards the drink and retreated to a chair a few meters away.
Something inside Birkoffís mind complained that the Suit hadnít retreated far enough. Then he saw Jennyís face and forgot all about the Suit. She stared at the glass. It was a Tom Collins. Not her favourite drink, but close enough. After their meeting at the cyber cafe, she had done her best to stay sober. That she looked at the drink like that was not a good sign.
"Donít, Jenny", Birkoff said under his breath. "Can you get audio up, Gail? Get a hardware tech over here, get Walter!"
"I donít care if heís sleeping!"
"I was going to say", Gail explained, "that the hardware problem is on her end. When he...um...touched her."
"Shit! I donít care how, I want her out of there now!"
The whole tech station looked at him as if he had suddenly grown an extra head.
"We canít compromise the abduction team," Simon finally ventured. "Sheíll get picked up in less than two hours, whatís the problem?"
In two hours Jenny could drink her way through a whole bottle of gin. By that time, she might botch the whole plan. That was one problem. Since she couldnít hear him, he had to wait for her move. That was another. The Suit, who was ogling her was a third. Cancellation, now, was a problem in a league of its own.
He shrugged. They kept staring. Jenny had picked up the drink. In his mind, he could hear the ice-cubes clink against the sides of the glass. She stirred it slowly, licked the stick. He saw her mouth the words "Hereís looking at you, bebe", before she emptied it. The Suit slid up to her side, smooth as could be, with another.
There was something wrong. What is wrong with this picture, Seymour? What is the difference between this picture and that one? How do you make a GT ? How do you make a Tom Collins? It is funny, Jenny had said, that some people use a shaker, because you donít really need to. And if you didnít need a shaker, there wasnít any reason to use a mixer.
He went back to the part where the Suit stood talking to the bartender. The noise level was too high to pick out more than meaningless fragments of the conversation. The bartender put in tonic, lime juice and gin. His hand moved over the container, quickly. Birkoff didnít need to see the crumpled package labelled "Rohypnol" in the waste basket, to know what had happened and what was about to happen.
He should have seen it. Just because you protected yourself and those you loved against Section didnít mean you had covered all contingencies. He should have paid more attention to ordinary life and ordinary people and all the ordinary ways you could get killed. But he hadnít and she was going to die for it. He watched her slide off the chair and head for the ladies room, with one last glance towards the third camera, which was her sign to him to kill the power. She didnít know. She thought everything was going to plan.
The drug was already in her system. She would feel it soon and when she did, sheíd know. But she. had a brief time yet. That time would be his first and last gift to her. He moved his hand and the lights went out.
When the lights came back on, Jenny was gone. The Suit, too.==
He got her a coffin. He took her back to New Orleans and watched as she was put into the ground and he didnít look away until the undertakers put the grass back on top. He remained there, by her side, as the sun set and darkness fell, because he couldnít leave her. She had been his lady and he was still her faithful knight and he didnít know how to let go of her. As soon as he opened his hands again, they would be empty.
He had thought it was within his power to give life. Sobriety. Whatever. He had been wrong. The only thing he could pass on was death. Section had made him into a weapon, body and mind. They had stripped him down, like a gun, until there was nothing left of the brother and the son, the playmate and the prodigy. They had done all that, and then been foolish enough to give themselves to him as a target.==
CODAHe said her name. It would linger on his lips. When the walls caved in, it would still be there. ==
"And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might, and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life."==