Nikita tried to enjoy the singer. Who was beautiful and intense, in a dark way. And sad. Or maybe it was just the song that was sad.
Dansons tu dis
Et mois, je suis
Mes pas sont gauches
Mes pieds tu fauches
But it was hard when she knew that the woman was integral to the mission. Section One could make even the most beautiful thing ugly.
“Not enjoying yourself, chere?” Michael asked over his glass of wine.
Nikita smiled softly. “I’m…a bit preoccupied.”
J’ecoute, tu parles
Je ne comprends pas bien
La Belle Dame sans Regrets
“Perhaps I could distract you?” And suddenly Michael’s socked foot was traveling up her calf. Despite herself Nikita giggled. Michael quirked an eyebrow. “I do not remember you being so ticklish, couer.”
“Not ticklish, just…amused.” Because at that moment the whole thing was quite absurd. But then what Section mission wasn’t absurd? No, not the missions, Nikita thought -- the missions themselves were usually quite practical. The mission profiles on the other hand….
Operations strode behind the holographic projection of Emmanuel Striecht. “We’ve been keeping tabs on him for ten years, and have had a deep cover agent on him for seven of those ten. Striecht deals primarily in arms, but has recently moved into biological weapons.”
“How long?” That from Michael.
Birkoff sniffed and answered: “Our agent says within the last two years, but she believes he may have been involved with some preliminary dealings as early as six years ago.”
“She?” From Nikita.
“Yes,” Operations growled, “she. But that isn’t as important. Yet. Birkoff, continue.”
“How she came to believe such about him?” Michael supplied.
“Yeah, well apparently Striecht’s had no trouble calling in people, from suppliers to movers and buyers, as well as--”
“Could these not be the same people with whom he did his arms dealings?”
Birkoff shook his head. “That’s the thing: they’re not. But our deep cover op has been seeing them around Striecht off and on for years now. We have most of them identified.” The holographic projection split -- Striecht’s picture filling one half while more than a dozen thumbnail pictures took up the other side. “The earliest acquaintance has been traced back six years. Possibly just that, an acquaintance, with Striecht supplying muscle for the transportation of the bio-tech.”
Operations took over. “And now we want him in. Gathering intel on Striecht hasn’t been easy. Outside his business dealings he’s a very private man. He doesn’t have anything in the way of either family or friends, really.”
“Then how do we…?” From Nikita.
The holographic projection changed once again, the thumbnails disappearing entirely. Striecht was relegated to a corner as the projection filled with the picture and stats of solemn-looking, olive-skinned woman. “This is Cerise, our deep cover operative.” Operations gave Nikita a hard look but didn’t follow the path of whatever he was thinking as Madeline took over the briefing:
“Cerise is one of the few people in Striecht’s inner circle. They are quite close and he enjoys having her family come to visit.”
Nikita’s eyebrows went up. “Family?” There was no family after Section.
“Various Section ops who have come to ‘visit’ whenever Cerise was unable to come in for debriefing. You will play her cousin and Michael shall be your adoring husband.”
Had that been sarcasm in Madeline’s voice?
“To a point of course. We’ll discuss the specifics in my office. Operations?”
“That’s it. Everyone be ready by oh seven-hundred tomorrow morning.”
The specifics had been that she and Michael would get close enough to Striecht by way of Cerise, and thus, between the three of him, bring him in. Apparently neither Madeline nor Operations believed it was a mission for a team. Striecht was on guard for muscle. But his beloved mistress and her family? No, Striecht was a careful man and would not take someone into his confidence, let alone his bed, without being absolutely certain of his or her loyalty.
Cerise turned out to be a healthier shade of tan under the dim light of the nightclub versus the harsh flash of a Section bulb. Nikita couldn’t be certain whether she was tall or in very impressive heels -- her pale gold sheath fell to her toes. And when she stepped offstage she gathered the train in her arms and was handed downstage. She nodded appreciatively to her helper before making a bee-line for their table.
Nikita stood quickly, Michael following behind more slowly. A smile plastered to her face, Nikita held her arms open to this woman she had never met, but felt a certain kinship to. They were like cousins. Distant cousins. Cerise wrapped her in a fierce hug. “Nikita,” she said with a cultured English accent, “what a surprise to see you here. When did you get into Nice?”
“Not very long ago.”
“How did you know I was here? My, it’s been years!”
Nikita’s smile dimmed a bit as she ducked her head and said, “Aunt Madeline told me, actually."
There was a light in Cerise’s eye that Nikita thought only she and Michael would understand. “Yes, Aunt Maddie. We don’t see each other as much as she’d like, but I must say it’s a sight more than I’ve seen you! And who is this handsome gentleman?”
Nikita moved to one side so that they could shake hands as she introduced Michael, “My husband.”
“Your what?” Cerise sat down suddenly, as if shocked. They quickly followed suit. “Aunt Maddie never mentioned… My manners, please forgive me Michael. Welcome to the family,” she said with a wide smile. Nikita saw that it didn’t reach her eyes. And why should it?
“Thank you,” he replied softly. “Nikita never mentioned that her cousin was so beautiful.”
Cerise laughed. “If he’s like this all the time, I know why you married him.”
Nikita joined her “cousin.” She brushed her fingers across the back of Michael’s. “Only in public.”
Cerise’s laugh that time was genuine, hiding behind her hand. “You know I forgot how absolutely horrid you could be. It’s refreshing,” she said softly. “Oh dear, now I’m completely dry. Nikita, if you don’t mind, might I have a sip of your wine?”
Normally neither Nikita nor Michael would have had anything alcoholic to drink, but this mission was not the norm. The target wasn’t going to be brought in tonight. The target wasn’t going to be brought in at the end of the week. They weren’t there to gather intel or be decoys or anything that required the full use of their Section training. Tonight, and for many nights to come, they were actors. Nikita picked up her empty glass and grimaced. “Sorry.”
“It’s quite all right. I suppose listening is thirsty work too.” Nikita decided then that she liked the deep cover op. How much was yet to be determined.
“Here,” Michael lifted his half-filled glass, “I haven’t finished mine.”
Cerise smiled. “Thank you, Brother,” she said, toasting him. “Est-ce que tu Frainçais, Michel?”
“Oh, you’ve done very well Nikita.” She pushed back her chair and stood. “If you will excuse me I have to mingle before the next set. Will you stay until the end?”
Nikita nodded. “Absolutely. I never knew you sang so well.”
Cerise’s eyes lowered momentarily and Nikita knew she had inadvertently struck a nerve. “Thank you. I will see you both later.”
“Those are very interesting earrings,” Michael said, watching as Cerise put the fanciful gold things on.
“Her Uncle Walter made them for her.”
The trio looked up. Michael and Nikita exchanged a look as Cerise pushed back her chair and embraced the man they knew as Striecht. “Manu! I wasn’t expecting you tonight. And so late! I’m completely done singing.”
“Yes well it was a last minute decision.” He kept his arm around her waist when he said, “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends?”
The smile she gave them was conspiratorial. “Emmanuel, this is my cousin Nikita and her husband Michael.” They stood, greeting each other. Michael noticed that Striecht never let Cerise go. “It’s been a very long time since we’ve seen each other, and never in Nice.”
“Then how did they find you?”
“Our Aunt Madeline,” Nikita said with a pleasant smile.
Striecht returned it. “A delightful woman. She has excellent taste. Didn’t she buy this dress for you, Risa?”
Cerise flushed. “Aunt Maddie has bought me many things. But how rude, Manu, sit down. Michael was just asking about the ear cuff Uncle Walter made for me. Would you like to see one?”
“If I may?”
Cerise pulled the left one off and handed it to Michael.
“I don’t recognize the style.”
“It’s something I saw on The Artist once.”
“Yes,” Striecht broke into the conversation, “she mentioned that she had seen it on him once to her uncle and the very next week they were delivered to her door. Your uncle is a master craftsman,” Striecht said to Nikita, “but you probably knew that.”
She nodded, taking the ear-cuff and placing it against the outer shell of her own ear. “Yes. Although he’s never made me anything so beautiful.”
“Ask and ye shall receive, Sugar,” Nikita heard whispered in her ear through the earring.
Nikita handed it back. “I wonder how he did it without a molding of your ear.”
Cerise shrugged. “I just know that they are beautiful. Unfortunately I can’t wear them on stage.”
“Too much flash from the stage-lights.”
Striecht stood suddenly. “This is our song. Dance with me, Risa.”
She took his hand and let him lead her away.
Michael turned to Nikita. “ ‘The Artist?’”
“I believe she meant Prince. A pop singer who changed his name to a symbol.”
Madeline came over the comm. “First impressions?”
Michael answered: “He seems very devoted,” he said softly. “Perhaps a bit wary of us?”
“Of you, maybe,” Nikita said. “I think maybe he’d be more secure if you were related a little more closely than through marriage.”
“Perhaps we can use that to our advantage," said Madeline. "Full report tomorrow at ten-hundred.”
Nikita turned to Michael. “What now?”
He took a sip of his wine and watched Cerise dance with Striecht, light flashing from the clips holding her hair up. “We’ll go with Cerise to her apartment and get as many necessary details as possible.”
“You don’t think Operations’ files are complete?”
He turned to look at her. “I think Operations’ files won‘t tell us the personal details we need to know about this man.”
“And Madeline’s debriefing…”
“Is not the same as firsthand information.” He stood. “Shall we?”
Nikita looked up at him, eyes full of questions. “Come Nikita, when was the last time you worked on your social graces?”
She almost laughed, but wisely thought against it.
Cerise pushed open the door to her apartment, pulling her hair out of a golden pelican clip. “Welcome to my humble abode. Would you like something to drink?”
They shook their heads.
“Make yourselves comfortable.” Cerise hung up her dress in its garment bag in a free-standing hall closet. “I know it’s not much to look at…”
“It’s beautiful,” Nikita said earnestly. “And huge.”
Cerise shrugged. “What can I say, I’ve been a good girl. Excuse me while I change.” She left them and disappeared up a short flight of stairs into her bedroom. “So what do you want to know?” she called down.
“Is it safe?” Michael asked.
“Like I said, I’ve been a good girl. Everyone trusts me, even the bad guys.” She poked her head around the sliding lilac screen, curly hair falling over her eyes, when he didn‘t reply. “I checked this morning. No bugs.”
Michael watched Nikita explore the warehouse apartment as he asked, “What is Striecht like?”
“Paranoid, but I’m sure Madeline told you that. Surprisingly kind. If I didn’t already know what business he was in I would never begin to imagine. He calls when he has to break an appointment. He gives me gifts for no reason. He visits when I’m sick and invites my ‘family’ over when they come.” She came out of her room, braless in a t-shirt and sweatpants. “Which you should expect an invitation in a few days now that he knows you’re ‘staying’ in town.”
She rubbed her eyes and Michael noticed that they were red around the edges. “Are you sure you don’t want coffee?” she asked.
“If you don’t mind,” Nikita said.
Cerise shook her head and took down two mugs. “Back to the mission: If you’re not already then the two of you need to have a room at one of the hotels downtown. Striecht will probably have had you followed.”
Michael took out his cell phone. “Birkoff. Book a room for Nikita and I. Get back to me with a location.” He flipped his phone closed. “Done.”
“He’ll back off in a day or two, but he’s desperately protective.” She smiled. “I believe he thinks someone will use me to hurt him.”
Nikita snorted. “How long have you two been…?” She was reluctant to go on.
“It’s okay,” said Cerise. “I was trained for the mission specifically, I think. I have no idea what Section will do with me when its done.” She poured their coffee then went to the refrigerator. “How long? I’ve been on assignment for seven years. It took Striecht about a year to consider me safe and another two, about, to trust me.” She added as much milk and sugar as the cup would hold and pushed a stray curl behind her ear. “But we’ve been lovers almost from the start.”
Nikita always found it disconcerting when Section provided clothing for her. That they knew her size and tastes was…
Well she could at least gain some small pleasure from them not being her own. The illusion of privacy would live for another day. She stopped going through “her” bags on the bed. “Do you think Birkoff picked this place out,” she called to Michael in the next room, “or Madeline?”
She stood as Michael entered. Now they got to decide who slept on the couch, she thought grimly.
Nikita fought the instinct to back up when Michael came within a hands width of her body. It was strange, they were both still shod but Nikita in her heels was a good two inches taller. And yet he made her want to back down.
He turned his head as he spoke, “I did not think who made the decision would matter very much to you, Nikita,” so that his breath brushed her cheek.
“It doesn’t to you?”
He looked her in the eye and said, “Not every decision made is worth our time worrying over…” He brought a hand to her cheek. “And some are.”
Nikita kissed his palm.
No need to figure out who was sleeping on the couch.
The next few weeks passed quickly. Cerise and Nikita went shopping during the day, to off-season deserted tourist traps, to museums and galleries -- the better to “catch up.” Michael often went with them unless called in on some other assignment. The women simply explained the odd absences as Michael attending to business when Striecht asked.
“He should be here learning about his family.”
Nikita smiled. “He already knows a lot about you. Well, Cerise… Aunt Madeline told us very little of you, Emmanuel. I suppose she thought it wasn’t her place.”
Striecht shrugged. “There is very little to tell.”
“Come now, you can’t fool me. Cerise wouldn’t attach herself to just anyone.”
With a shake of her head, Cerise said, “You don’t know that Nikita. I might have been desperate.” The women laughed at Striecht’s expense.
Their evenings were spent at Cerise’s nightclub out on the town at Striecht’s good will. “You are very generous,” Michael commented one evening.
“I don’t have much family of my own. Risa and a few business associates are it. And it pleases me that her family should visit her so often,” said Striecht with his arm around Cerise.
With a roll of her eyes Cerise explained, “Manu thinks I should fly out to Paris and London to see you more often.” She turned to Striecht, “But you are miserable when I am gone for the two vacations a year I take.”
“I think,” Nikita interjected, “that perhaps Emmanuel would like to be invited on these excursions.”
Striecht nodded. “Your cousin is quite wise.”
“Thank you. Now if only you could convince Michael of that.”
Cerise seemed to pull back a bit. She picked up her white wine and sipped it. “Maybe some day you will, Manu.”
Sunday it rained and they spent the day in Cerise’s apartment. Nikita had quickly become aware of her fellow’s coffee addiction. “I got it from Thomas, the bass player. An American.” Cerise put her cup down. “When is Madeline calling?”
Michael answered. “Within the hour.”
“Shall I make us lunch then? I could do a stir-fry that’ll be ready by the time she calls.”
Nikita raised an eyebrow.
“When you do most of your debriefs over the phone or in a crowded restaurant you learn to do them relaxed.”
Nikita shrugged. “Sure, why not. Do you need any help?”
“Wanna go through the fridge and figure out a dessert? Michael, you can start cutting.”
Nikita laughed as he moved to obey. “It must be nice to be so free.”
There was instant silence as both Michael and Cerise stopped what they were doing. “This isn’t freedom, Nikita," she said. "I sleep with a man that I could love if I didn’t know better. I live in a nice apartment paid for with blood money and God knows what else. Every day is another day that Striecht may discover who I am, or that he may do something I can’t let him live for. Or there may come a time when I find that I don’t care anymore. I don’t have friends, I don’t have family…I don’t belong in Section and I don’t belong here. When this mission is over it’s more likely than not that they’ll cancel me. Trust me, Nikita, this is just another gilt cage.” She turned back to the cupboards.
Cerise looked over her shoulder at Nikita and smiled. “Don’t be. I guess it is freer than your average Section existence. I shouldn’t have preached to you so.”
Nikita smiled back, a kind of understanding coming over her. “So what do you think of strawberry shortcake.”
“Oh, do I have real whipped cream in there or that light stuff?”
“You wouldn’t mind running down--”
Nikita was already moving to get her jacket. “No problem. Back in a minute.”
When the door closed behind Nikita, Cerise turned to Michael and said, “Can I ask you two things?”
“How’s Birkoff? Haven’t seen the runt in ages,. And do you ever just, you know, want to die?”
“Good and yes.”
Cerise nodded. “Nikita’s a nice kid. Oh, throw the chicken in the wok, will you?”
“She is naïve.”
“Aren’t we all at some point?”
Michael was silent for some time before he answered, “I think, sometimes, it will get her killed.”
“Other times I think she will be the only one of us who survives.”
Cerise made a face. “You're always cryptic, Michael. What do you think? Is this ready?” She lifted a spoonful to Michael’s mouth. Nikita came in and locked the door behind herself. She raised an eyebrow. “Done already? That was quick.”
“Maybe a little longer,” Michael said softly, taking the bag from Nikita. “You try, Nik--”
The phone on the table rang. Michael picked it up. Put Madeline on speakerphone. “What’s our status?”
“Hungry,” Cerise answered. “Could you give us a moment to dish out lunch, Madeline?”
“I’d rather we finish this now rather than later,” she said in that tone that was friendly and authoritative. Cerise turned down the fire under the wok as they settled themselves around the speakerphone. “Have you made any progress?”
Cerise believed the question to be directed to her so she answered, “Not really. Striecht’s not be any less courteous, but he seems to be a bit more wary of Michael and Nikita than he has been of other Section ops posing as family members.”
“Do you think it has anything to do with the perceived threat Nikita noted before?”
“Yes.” Cerise shrugged. “It’s possible. He’s never met another male ‘relative’ that could compete for my affection romantically, and I’ve never introduced him to any of my male friends. Other than my band mates I don’t have any.”
“Jealousy?” Nikita said. “As Cerise said, it’s possible. Striecht’s profile suggests a strong tendency toward such emotions. What do you think, Michael? Have there been any signs of marking territory?”
“Striecht never physically lets Cerise go in my presence.”
“No,” Cerise admitted thoughtfully, “he doesn’t.”
“I suppose you will simply have to work harder at trying to gain his trust," said Madeline. "Any other input, Nikita?”
“Other than what we already know: that Cerise is his weakness? No.”
“All right. Let me know how it goes. And enjoy your meal.”
The phone line went dead.
“So how did you get this assignment?” Nikita asked.
They were ensconced in the living room, still waiting out the rain. Cerise sat across from Michael and Nikita, sipping on another coffee -- again as light and sweet as she could make it.
“Have you ever seen the musical Chicago?”
“Yes,” said Michael. “Well, once upon a time I was in a very low budget version of it and I was Merry Widow Number 5.”
When Nikita looked at them confused, Michael explained: “In the musical there are six women accused of murdering their husbands who, via song and dance, explain why they were justified in doing so. And how they killed them. Widow Number 5--”
“Had artistic differences with her husband,” said Cerise.
Michael nodded, apparently unbothered. “He saw himself as alive--”
“And she saw him as dead. Exactly it.” She shrugged. “In real life I was Merry Widow Number 6, Velma.”
“You killed your husband and sister?” Michael asked.
Nikita frowned. “But how did that…?”
“The murder raised Section’s red flags. I suppose I did the rest on my own. For quite some time I wasn’t myself. I had just murdered my husband and sister while they were together and the shock of both… No one could get me to talk for many days, but music had always been my sanctuary. Other women on the row cried themselves to sleep, but I sang. Or hummed, or whatever. I suppose Section, with their ways, found out I had some passable talent and decided I fit the profile. I’ve only ever been trained for this specific mission. From the intel they’d gathered on Striecht prior to my coming on, they knew he frequented the club where I am now. I suppose having me be a performer just seemed like the most logical approach to Madeline.”
Nikita shook her head. “No one will ever know how that woman’s head works.”
“You’re probably right.” They fell into thoughtful silence, lulled and buffeted by the sound of the rain on the glass and soft indefinable music playing in the background. “What shall we do about Striecht? It’s time for this to be over.”
Michael sat forward in his chair. “Perhaps he and I could get together. Just the two of us. ”
The look on Cerise’s face said she didn’t think it would work. “You can try, but I don’t know how up to it he’ll be. How long are you two on this assignment?”
“For as long as need be.”
She took a sip of her coffee. “Then I say it’s only a matter of time. Striecht will see just how devoted to Nikita you are, that you are both no different than the rest of my ‘family’ that he has been charmed by, and he will finally invite us to a private dinner at his chateau.”
Nikita nodded. “And that’s where we’ll bring him in.”
Cerise groped for her cell phone in the dark.
Operations was pacing back and forth behind the long table as the last person, Cerise, sat down. “We need Striecht now.”
Birkoff picked up the conversation with: “We’ve just gotten secure intel that he’s planning to move something big within the next few days.”
Cerise shook her head. “We can’t get him now. I can’t do it on my own and you don’t want to do this messy. I thought the idea was to get him out as cleanly as possible.”
“That was before the new intel,” Operations growled.
Michael cut Cerise off before she could say something rash: “Is it possible to intercept the shipment, giving us more time?”
“Birkoff hasn’t run that sim yet. That doesn’t change the fact that we are running out of time here, people. While you all chitchat and make friends, Striecht is still going about his business. Cerise, when were you last invited to the chateau?”
“Not since before Nikita and Michael came.”
Operations swore softly. “This is not going as planned.”
Madeline broke in. “I’ve come up with a new scenario.”
“Striecht is concerned about a potential relationship between Cerise and Michael, yes?” The trio nodded. “Then give him something to be concerned about. Flirt openly, be a bit more secretive about your goings on. Do things with Michael but without Nikita.”
“And how does this help us?” asked Operations.
“I predict Striecht will do one of two things,” Madeline said calmly. “He will either feel the need to claim a greater hold over Cerise and put Michael in his place by inviting them to the chateau, or he will be angered enough to go to Cerise’s apartment without a guard from whence he can be taken in.”
There was silence over the table as the words settled. They could almost see Operations turning the plan over in his mind. Surely he would want a more precise outline of it, but… “Birkoff, go run a sim on intercepting Striecht’s shipment.”
“Yes, sir.” The young man stood to leave. The others followed suit.
“Not so fast. Nikita," said Operations. "You stay, run the sim with Birkoff. You’re going out with the intercept team.” She nodded. “Michael, walk Cerise home. I want reports on my desk at oh-nine-hundred. Dismissed.”
The operatives scattered, Michael and Cerise walking silently together. Madeline called for them to stop. “Cerise, what will you tell Striecht if he asks you why you were out in the middle of the night with your cousin’s husband?”
“I couldn’t sleep so I went for a walk. I ended up down by the hotel and saw Michael and Nikita standing in the vestibule talking. We chatted on for a bit before Nikita went up, then it was Michael and I. After a bit I felt it was time to go, but Michael refused to let me walk alone after I insisted that I didn’t want a ride.”
Striecht gave Michael a hard stare from across the white linen tablecloth . “That was a very kind thing for you to do for my Risa.”
Michael shrugged. “It was the only thing to do.”
“That’s right,” Nikita said with a wide smile, “if I had found out Michael let Cerise go home alone so late by herself, zzzpt!” she said, miming cutting off her head. She took his hand and kissed it. “Besides you’re too much a gentleman to do otherwise, aren’t you?”
Michael turned to Nikita. Blinked. “Yes.”
Their waiter came and asked after their food. “It’s very good, thank you,” Cerise said softly. “If you could have someone clear the table and bring a dessert menu? Thank you.”
“None for me, Risa,” said Striecht.
Cerise quickly turned from Nikita and Michael to Striecht. “Must you go so quickly, Manu? I’ve hardly seen you this last week and a half.”
“Business, dear heart.”
She frowned. “You do too much business.”
He fingered the sparkling emerald and peridot drops in her ears. “My business buys you things like these. And this,” he said, fingers going to the matching pendant on a gold chain.
“Perhaps I don’t want baubles. Perhaps I want you.”
Striecht kissed her forehead. “And you shall have me. Tomorrow.”
He stood. “Or perhaps the day after.”
“The day after!”
“Risa!” His voice dropped. “I have said, not in public and not in front of your family. Now I must go whether you like it or not. Won’t you even say goodbye?”
Striecht turned to Michael. “And does your Nikita treat you so when your business takes you far from home?”
Michael looked from Nikita to Striecht and back again. “I think, maybe, she is happy when I am gone so that she can forget all the terrible things I make her do and be with the man she truly loves.”
“Michael!” It was supposed to be outrage, but it came out a smiling admonition.
Cerise knocked on the door of their hotel. When Michael answered she said, “Are we set?”
“Yes. Nikita and the others should be making their way to the target just now.”
“Nikita, take point,” came over the comm.
Bent over double, Nikita ran to her position. She’d only worked with Kimmich a handful of times, but he was reliable enough and had a cool head under pressure. Much more couldn’t be asked for, or expected, of a Section team leader. Nikita could have thought of many other people less suited for this mission.
“Bear and Johns, move into final position.”
Nikita watched as the two operatives moved to take their pre-designated posts. This wasn’t to be a hard mission. It should be over and done within minutes. Two other teams in unmarked vans would block Striecht’s transport -- a lone beat-up van which Birkoff identified as having five armed hostile and one other body, the carrier -- and Nikita, Bear, Johns and Tora, who was behind her, would pick off the hostiles. If they needed them, reinforcements were in the Section vans, but if came to that then the ground team was probably already dead.
Michael drove. Something about the look on his face as they walked toward the car in the garage said he always drove.
“So what are we going to see?” Cerise asked him.
The beat-up van, a patchy dark and light green with her night-vision goggles, was stopped precisely as planned.
“Get ready. On my mark.”
After what felt like an eternity of waiting, the drivers of the various vehicles got out of their cars to figure out what was going on. Except one of the Section drivers shot Striecht’s driver as soon as the man was within range. Immediately the doors were opened and hostile forces hopped out.
Nikita stood and took aim. She knew Tora had fired a shot when she saw the man beside her mark go down. They were all using silencers to hide their location. Someone cursed off to her right -- Johns? -- as the remaining three hostiles fired back into the night. A bullet spat wood chips in her face as it nicked a nearby tree. They were back down, hiding, as Striecht’s forces fired blindly. She saw Bear lift his head and fire. Another hostile went down.
“What’s going on, Nikita?”
“The two remaining hostiles are moving back behind the truck.” She heard Kimmich order the Section drivers to find and cancel them. An all clear quickly came over the comm.
“All right. Get the package and get out. Nikita pull your team back, we’re going home.”
“The Mikado. And to think I was opposed to Gilbert and Sullivan,” Cerise said with a soft smile. It was getting late. They had eaten before the musical and she was now quite tired. It was a shame that it was all a farce for Striecht. Her precious Manu. “I only wish Nikita could have come with us.”
“As do I.”
Cerise shifted on her feet. They stood outside her apartment complex uncertain what to do. Uncertain of how to do what they must. “Well,” Cerise said clearing her throat, “it was a lovely evening. I’m sorry Nikita couldn’t make it.”
“You said that already.”
She laughed softly. “Did I? I suppose I’m more tired than I thought. Merci, mon frere, pour le correction.”
“Tu es bienvenu,” he said with equal softness. He pushed a curl from her eyes behind her ear. “Uncle Walter’s earrings.”
She couldn’t meet his eyes. “Yes.”
“Ah, then…” Michael took a step closer and kissed her tenderly on the lips. As if they were old lovers. “Bon soir.” He turned to the night and left.
Cerise touched her fingers to her lips. “Goodnight Michael.” Then she hurried inside, inexplicably guilty.
Striecht called around 7 the next morning. “And it went well with your cousin and her husband?”
“Nikita couldn’t make it,” Cerise said to the speakerphone. She stirred her tea. “Something came up at her job at the very last minute.”
“So you didn’t go? I’m so sorry to hear that Ris--”
“Michael and I went. We ended up giving your ticket and Nikita’s to a couple in the lobby. They share the box with us.”
Striecht was silent on the other end so long that Cerise called his name. “I am still here,” but his voice had taken on a dark undertone. “Did you enjoy yourselves?”
“Yes, the show was lovely and dinner was delicious.”
“…You went to dinner?”
Sip of tea. “Of course. You had made reservations for us. We couldn’t just back out. Dinner then the show and Michael dropped me off in front of my apartment before going back to the hotel. I wish you could have been with us, Manu. I think you would have enjoyed the show. Speaking of, how has business gone?”
She could hear the frown in his voice when he said, “Not so well.”
“But you are coming home soon?”
“Not for another two days.”
It was her turn to make him wait in silence. She drained her tea. “Well maybe when you come home the four of us can have an intimate dinner at the chateau?” Then more softly, “I miss you Manu. It’s as if we hardly see each other.”
“Perhaps. I must go now, Cerise. I will call you later.” He hung up before she could say goodbye.
Which was just as well. Cerise unfolded herself from the table and took her teacup and saucer with her. She dropped the Earl Grey teabag into the trash, noting that its five predecessors had stained the garbage within, and placed the dishes in the sink.
Now might be a good time for her to finally go to sleep.
There was a breakfast tray in their hotel sitting room when Nikita got back from the mission. Blessedly Michael didn’t question her until she was heaping seconds onto her plate and going for a third cup of coffee -- with sugar and cream this time and not black.
“It went well?”
Nikita leaned back in her plush chair. “Very. Kimmich is good. John’s took a hit to the shoulder, but otherwise there were no casualties.” She took a bite of her toast and jam. “And with Cerise?”
“She thought that you would have enjoyed the musical.”
A questioning eyebrow went up. “She was wearing Walter’s earring,” Michael said softly before leaving the room.
“Michael, what are you doing here?” Cerise said from the stage. “Where’s Nikita?”
“She’s on her way. I think she stopped into a boutique.”
Cerise smiled as she came down. “This may take a while, then. I’ve seen my cousin shop. How have you been?”
“Good. Any progress?”
She shook her head. They were now close enough to hug. Michael gripped her by the elbows and pulled her gently in for a light kiss on either cheek. Lingering more than was necessary she whispered in his ear, “He’s going to be gone another two days.” They pulled away. “I’m afraid not,” she said normally.
He smiled genially. “We’ll just have to step up the schedule I guess.”
“I guess. Nikita!” The empty nightclub soon rang with their squeals as Cerise begged to see what she had bought. They too kissed on either cheek. But quickly. As one would a friend. Or family-member. Quite unlike a lover.
Madeline leaned over Birkoff’s shoulder as he explained the simplicity of tapping the surveillance system Striecht had just had installed in Cerise’s apartment. She smiled maternally at him. “Excellent.”
Nikita and Cerise walked down the streets of Nice arm in arm, gazing into boutique windows. “How does it feel?” Nikita asked her.
Cerise shrugged. “I’m not sure. To look at it, it’s exactly the same -- he hires only the best. But I know someone’s been there. Messed with my things. Now I know I’m being watched and, frankly, its been a long time. How do you handle it Nikita?”
“It’s hard to believe, but after a while you forget.”
Cerise looked off into the distance. “I think I’ve forgotten how to forget.” She turned to Nikita with a small smile. “I promised you brunch. How about we stop here? I know it sounds insane, but I love them for their excellent bread.”
“You’ve been in France too long.”
Cerise laughed. They went inside and were seated, piling their jackets and bags into the other two, unused, seats. Soon they had their coffee and a small basket of bread in front of them. Nikita sipped hers as she watched Cerise heap sugar and milk into her cup. “Admit it,” she said to Cerise, “you come here for the coffee.”
“Guilty as charged. Although I’ve found myself drinking quite a bit of tea lately.”
Nikita’s eyebrows rose. “Oh?”
“I guess the coffee’s been making me jittery. Tea was what my mother used to give me to calm down.”
“Hmm, lets see? I think my mom used to pop sedatives.”
Cerise reached across the table. “I’m sorry, Nikita. I didn’t mean to bring up something so personal. I--”
Nikita shook her head. “It’s all right. I was actually trying to make a joke if you can believe--” She stopped short as her cell phone rang. “Hello? Yes, sweetheart we are out. Where are you?” Covering the mouthpiece she mouthed Michael to Cerise. “Oh you’re just a few blocks away. How about you meet us? Lovely. See you soon.” She slipped the tiny phone into her purse. “Michael should be joining us in moments,” Nikita told Cerise with a smile she didn’t feel.
“How lovely.” They stared into their cups for a moment before Cerise began to move her things. “We should make a place for him to sit, don’t you think?”
“I was just going to say the same thing.”
“Well you know what they say about great minds and whatnot.”
“What do they say?” Michael asked softly.
Nikita and Cerise looked up, Nikita coming to her feet to give Michael a quick kiss. “That they think alike. Isn’t that how the saying goes?”
Cerise nodded. “And I think what you want, Michael, is for us to actually get out things out of the way so that you may sit.”
“Thank you. And, hmm,” she raised her fingertips to her temples and pretended to concentrate, “what Nikita wants is for our food to arrive.”
With a mock-frown Nikita asked, “Are you sure this is about great minds or are you actually psychic?”
Their waiter arrived with their food. “And for you, monsieur?”
“Café-au-lait, s’il vous plait.”
“Oui, monsieur. En moment.”
Michael turned to Cerise. “Apparently you’re psychic.” He thanked the waiter for his coffee.
“Apparently. So how are things…?”
“At home?” Nikita supplied.
Cerise smiled slowly. “Yes, at home. I didn’t get to see Uncle Walter last I was there, or Seymour, or--”
“Birkoff lets you call him Seymour?” Nikita asked incredulously.
“Not particularly, but he’s not here to stop me is he? Oh you’re right, it’s terribly mean. Birkoff then. And I’ve not seen Jurgen-- I forgot he’s dead,” she ended softly. “Sometimes it’s incredibly hard keeping up with family, you know?”
Nikita nodded. Michael watched them passively. Sipping his coffee. They ate and talked about nothing for about fifteen minutes before more “family” issues began to creep into their conversation. Finally Nikita set down her fork and said, “You’d think we’d be able to go one day without talking about them.”
“I could tell you about the club, but I think you know everything I know and some things I don’t already. I’d tell you about Manu’s work…but I don’t know much,” Cerise said with quirked lips.
Michael joined their conversation: “He seems very private.”
“He also seems to be gone a lot.”
Cerise frowned. “Not very often. But when he does leave for business it’s always an extended period. It can be quite lonely.”
“It’s not so lonely with us here, is it?” Michael said. He waited for an answer, but there were two sets of eyes focused intently on his left hand…holding Cerise’s right.
“Cerise?” “No…no it’s not as lonely with you here.” She looked up and flashed Nikita a smile.
“I hate this,” Nikita said the moment they were safely back in their hotel room. “How dare Madeline ask you to go through with this. It’s bad enough Cerise has been with this man for--”
Michael grabbed hold of her shoulders. “Nikita…Nikita!” He searched her face. “Nikita, Cerise and I both understand what we must do,” he said softly.
“And ‘what you must do’ shouldn’t have to include whoring yourselves for Section!” She pulled away forcibly.
“Are you upset, Nikita, or are you jealous?”
She turned slowly. “How dare you suggest…” Sitting suddenly in a chair Nikita said miserably, “I consider Cerise is my friend.” But you’re my lover.
“I know.” He had heard the unspoken words as well.
Operations was watching sims from his computer when Madeline stepped into his office.
“You wanted to see me?”
“Good, you’re here,” he said turning to her. “We need to turn up the fire under Striecht. Make him as tense and as emotionally vulnerable as possible.”
Madeline seemed to consider for a moment. “Our intel indicates that he’s moving another package across Germany to make up for the one we took from him. Last minute interference should prove quite bothersome.”
Operations frowned. “Let’s not make it a full out assault. Harry him. See if Birkoff can hack into whatever computer system and cause a little trouble. Just because we can’t get at Striecht personally just yet doesn’t mean we can’t bother him as much as he’s been bothering us.”
Michael closed his cellular phone.
“So what’s the word from Section?” Nikita asked him. She held out her wrist so that he could affix a bracelet for her.
“Striecht has been effectively delayed.”
“Thank you.” She pulled her hair up. “How much time does that give us?”
Michael pulled on his dress shoes. “Four days, a week and half on the outside.”
“So we’ll shoot for five?” She slid the last pin home and examined herself in the mirror.
Nikita turned to Michael and frowned, but he was checking his watch. “Are we ready?”
“Let me get my purse.”
Nikita had begged to sit in the back seat as they traveled to Cerise’s warehouse apartment from their evening out.
Cerise turned in her seat. “How are your feet?”
“Better. Now if only they made backseats for the tall woman, then I’d be pleased as punch.”
“Maybe Michael can give you a foot massage when we get to the apartment. Michael?”
“Perhaps,” he said softly, eyes on the road.
Several hours, and many glasses of wine later, Nikita had had her massage, her feet resting comfortably in Michael’s lap as they sat on Cerise’s couch. Suppressing a yawn, Michael said, “We should be going.”
Nikita glanced at her dress watch. “You’re right.” She pulled her feet from Michael’s lap. “We didn’t mean to keep you up so late.”
Cerise jumped up. “No, don’t. Don’t go. Why don’t you stay over. I’m sure I can find things for you to sleep in, and Nikita…you can borrow some of my clothes to go back to the hotel in tomorrow.”
The couple looked at each other, questioning each other with their eyes although Nikita wasn’t sure if she got a response. “Do you think we should stay, Michael?”
There was a heartbeat’s pause as Michael glanced quickly away from Nikita to Cerise and back. “We’ve been drinking. Maybe we should.”
“There it’s settled. You two can have my room. I’ll just get you some things for you to wear,” Cerise said before dashing out of the room. Nikita wordlessly climbed out of the couch and, with her back to Michael, made herself a cup of strong, sweet coffee.
“What are you doing up?”
Cerise jumped. One hand over her plum silk covered heart, the other clutching a tea cup, she said, “I could ask you the same thing, Michael. Did I wake you? Is Nikita–”
“She’s still asleep.” As he stepped from the shadows into the light she noticed how the pale gray sweatpants she’d lent him clung to his hips and thighs. They were the loosest pair she owned. She’d bought them on sale several years ago but had picked up the wrong size. At first she’d intended to give them to Striecht only to learn that sport’s wear wasn’t his cup of tea. The pants usually lived in her reserve drawer, saved for days when she absolutely had to do the laundry, was feeling particularly careless about her looks, or there was nothing left to wear to the gym. And when she wore them she had to roll them up several times to keep from tripping on the overlong hem. Michael seemed to have no trouble. He’d foregone a shirt.
“I’m sorry if I frightened you.”
Cerise shook her head. “Not frightened. Just surprised.” They were whispering she realized. “Would you like some tea? I have several kinds.” She busied herself by the stove. “I’m sorry if I woke you somehow.” Fire under the tea-kettle lit, she moved to the sink for a cup.
“You didn’t wake me, I was having trouble sleeping.”
“Then maybe some chamomile?” She flashed him a smile. “It’s supposed to be good for insomnia.”
“I don’t think that will help.” Michael glided smoothly across the bare tile to join her on the small area rug in front of the sink. He took the mug she’d plucked from the drainage-board from her hands and put it back. Knuckles brushing her arm as he brought his hand back to his side he said, “You know what this is about.”
Cerise had forgotten how much she hated Michael’s straightforwardness. Especially when she couldn’t conjure some for herself. Like she hadn’t known this moment wasn’t coming.
She’d forgotten how much she envied the way he could just do whatever they asked of him. But they all had their part to play. “We had too much to drink earlier, Michael,” she murmured, placing her hands on his shoulders and pushing. “Go back to bed. Go back to Nikita and this will never have happened.”
“I’m not drunk, Cerise, and neither are you.”
“God, Michael, we--”
Hands on her hips, he pulled her flush against his body and kissed her before she could forbid the inevitable. When her hands slipped from his shoulders around his back, his fingers journeyed under her chemise, caressing her soft skin. They broke for air.
“This is wrong.”
Cerise kissed Michael back, forcing him off the tiny area rug, past her small table toward the living room. His mouth on hers was so different from Striecht’s -- so sweet and gentle but demanding still…
Their breathing was loud in their ears as, somehow, Cerise fell backward onto the couch. Michael stood over her, panting softly although it felt like they would wake the world with the sound of it. Cerise drank in the sight of him, wondering what he was thinking and whose turn it was. She curved her fingers around his side. Tugging. Carefully straddling her waist on his knees, Michael cupped her face in his hands and kissed her again. It wasn’t until they started sliding into horizontal that Cerise had the presence of mind to tear away and say, “We can’t do this now.”
“Michael, Nikita’s in my bedroom right now asleep, thinking that you’re asleep next to her,” she hissed.
He helped her sit up, but kept kissing her jaw lightly. “Tomorrow then. We can’t keep going this way.”
Cerise stopped him long enough to look him deep in the eyes. She cupped his face much as he had hers. “You’re right.” She kissed him quickly. Hard. “Tomorrow. Are you sure you can get away?”
He kissed her palms. “Yes. What about Striecht?”
Shrugging she said, “He’s not here. He’s never here.”
Cerise slipped the lock from the door and pulled it open.
Michael glanced around quickly. Stepping inside he pulled her close and kissed her.
“You read my mind,” she said when he let her breathe. Another quick kiss and she was pulling him into the apartment. “Did you want something? Wine? Coffee? There’s some lunch left over from--”
Michael whirled her around, catching her in his arms. “Shh,” he said with a finger to her lips. “What I want is right here.”
“Don’t lie to me, Michael,” she said softly, her lips moving under his finger.
He brought their joined hands down, down, down past his belted waist. The brush of their knuckles over him elicited a quiet gasp. “I want you, Cerise.”
“Ah to be a man,” she said before crushing her lips to his.
Operations paced behind the briefing table, waiting for stragglers. Cerise was once again the last one to take her seat. Without preamble: “Things are going well. Now if only we could start a meeting on time,” he growled. No one looked at Cerise, but there was a barely audible snigger from Walter’s general direction. “What’s the word?”
Cerise answered: “Well we all know he hasn’t come back, but neither has he called which is very unusual for him. Whatever he’s doing is either very private…or he’s very upset with me.”
Birkoff pushed his glasses up on his nose. “We know Cerise is right on at least one point: whatever Striecht is moving it’s big.” He called up the holographic screen. “They’re set up here. There are guards at each access point, as well as guards patrolling both the grounds and rooftop access.” Small X’s appeared as he pointed out hostiles. “Plus Striecht’s managing this whole operation from an urban center so there’s no simple in and out with this one. There’s just no way to do it without exposing ourselves and endangering who knows how many innocents.”
Operations had stopped pacing long enough to listen to Birkoff’s report although he‘d already heard it. “Obviously the success of our last mission against him and Birkoff’s efforts at hacking Striecht’s systems have put him on guard.” He turned to Nikita, Michael and Cerise. “We need him in. We need him in now. You all know how we‘re looking for this to end. We need Striecht in, but we don‘t need foolhardy attempts to come looking for him. Besides, with Striecht gone all his computer files become inaccessible?” Cerise nodded. “ Good. Review the upload on your tablets. Dismissed.”
Everyone turned out of their chairs. Madeline spoke up. “Michael, Cerise…” They turned. “Good work. We’re making progress. What Birkoff didn’t mention is that we have spotty intel that Striecht may be making a move to halt his progress go back to Nice. The two of you are doing very well.”
They nodded to her and turned away, Michael toward his office and Cerise to Walter’s work station. Nikita caught up with her. “I can’t believe she said that to you.”
“Good job?! How dare she? You and Michael aren’t whores--”
Cerise smiled from the corner of her mouth. “But sometimes we are.”
Nikita grabbed her arm as Cerise moved to walk away. “You shouldn’t be. The least she could do is treat you with respect. The least she could do is pretend that you’re human beings.”
“I think she thinks she is. If that makes any sense.”
“Nothing here makes sense.”
Madeline watched Cerise practice her blank look from the corner of her eye. But she had been instrumental in training Cerise and knew that the operative was taking in whatever changes Madeline had made to her office since their last meeting. Madeline finished typing the last sentence of an intel request to Section Three and sent the missive. “You’ve gotten a message from Striecht?”
“Yes, I checked my messages at home and he’s left me one.”
Cerise brought a hand to her mouth. Lowered it. “He wants me to come to Prague. That’s where he is, isn’t he?”
Madeline smiled. “Very good. When you get home I want you to check the messages again, call him back immediately and refuse to go. Politely of course. The psych profile we’ve drawn up on him shows that he is more likely to do something rash if he thinks you’re having an affair than if he believes you are going to simply end the relationship.”
Clearing her throat, Cerise asked, “What will you do with me when this mission is over?”
Madeline turned back to her monitor. “We’ll just have to see, won’t we? You’re dismissed.”
Cerise stood to leave.
“One thing, Cerise…” “Yes?”
“No, Manu, you were right. What do I know of your business affairs? There will be time enough for us when you come home… Of course I miss you. I always miss you… Manu, you are being paranoid… Yes I will wait for you. Bring me back something pretty from Prague? Oui, je t’aime, mon couer… Goodbye, Manu.”
Cerise turned in the circle of Michael’s arms and lifted her neck so that his kisses fell on her throat. Nuzzling his jaw she murmured into his skin, “Did Madeline send you?”
He didn’t answer, kissing her instead.
Mon rêve évanoui
Les escaliers de la butte
Sont durs aux miséreux
Les ailes des moulins
Protègent les amoureux
“That was so sad,” Nikita said as she applauded politely at the end of the song.
Michael didn’t have an answer for her. They’d been sitting in silence for most of the night, listening to the chatter of guests around them.
Cerise set the water bottle from which she’d been drinking down and stepped demurely to the mic. “This is the last song of the set.” Activity among diners and listeners was largely unchanged, until waiters began pushing back extra chairs in the front.
“What do you think they’re doing, Michael?”
“Making a space for guests to dance,” he said as one couple after another got up from their places. “Would you like to?”
Nikita stared at Michael’s outstretched hand. “Would I…?”
“Like to dance.” He watched thoughts and questions chase themselves behind her eyes. Some of them, he knew, she desperately wanted answers to. Part of her wanted to rage and scream, wanted to stand up and defame him, defame Cerise and Madeline and Section. She might want to pull out the snub nosed pistol she had hidden in her purse, point it at him and shoot. And he might want her to do it. Do everything. Be his Fury -- even if all he would be able to do was sit and wait her out.
Nikita placed her hand in his and allowed Michael to lead her from their table.
“You look very beautiful tonight, Nikita,” Cerise said, barefoot and perched on her kitchen table. Nikita nodded from her chair.
“Thank you. So are you,” she said with a smile. “Don’t you think so Michael?” Who was sitting between them.
“Yes,” he answered, “quite lovely.”
Cerise sighed. “I don’t know what to do now. I should just let you guys go back to the hotel. It seems wrong of me to keep you both up every night.”
“We’re on holiday--” Nikita began.
“Oh that’s no excuse,” she said with a soft smile. “Go home. I kept you the other night. There’s no reason for me to be selfish,” she said, hoping off the table-top.
Michael stood. “Perhaps there is something we could do?”
Nikita took Michael’s hand who helped her up. “No, Cerise is right, we should be going. Goodnight Cerise. Lovely as always.” They exchanged kisses.
Michael released Nikita’s hand and took Cerise’s. “Goodnight,” he said kissing it.
“Goodnight.” She walked them to the door. As they left she stopped Nikita and told her quietly, “You are very lucky woman to have him love you.”
Michael glanced at Nikita. “That’s your phone.”
“Do you think? I wonder if I left something at the apartment.” She fished out her wireless phone. “Hello?”
“I see.” She hung up. “Michael, Drop me off at Section One.”
After seeing Michael and Nikita out, Cerise had hauled out the latest shipment of advance cd’s that had been delivered to the club, and subsequently handed over to her. There were half a dozen artists in the battered cardboard that she’d never heard of, but she couldn’t find anyone in her cd-rack that would fill this moment.
Sitting in her window seat, the frosted window open to the chill autumn air, Cerise tried examining her feelings. Beyond reason she felt guilty. And she didn’t even love Striecht. Although sometimes she made the mistake of liking him. Wasn’t it funny that she had killed her own sister and husband for this very same thing? But Cerise wasn’t laughing. Her tea, orange-pekoe, had gone cold in her cup. She drank it anyway.
Then there was Nikita who, the more time she spent with her, she was convinced was absolutely in love with Michael. Cosmic irony was only funny when it happened to someone else, she mused darkly.
Sighing she settled herself more deeply in the seat cushions. It would be another sleepless--
Cerise started at the knock on her door. “I’m coming,” she said huskily, as if she had been asleep, while she pulled a gun from its hiding place under the cushions. “Who is it?”
Releasing a breath Cerise lowered the gun and unlocked the door.
Walter called out to Nikita as she stalked past his station. “Sugar, you go past here one more time and you’re gonna wear a rut in the floor. Now what’s wrong?”
She sat on a stool. “I’ve been put on Close Quarters Standby.”
“I don’t see the problem in--”
“There’s no mission,” she hissed in her anger, leaning forward. “They’re just keeping me out of the way.”
Slouching, she said, “Operations and Madeline.”
Walter nodded sagely. “So you don’t think this has something to do with the other aspect of the Striecht mission.”
“If this had anything to do with another intercept meeting why hasn’t there been a briefing?”
“What are you doing here?” Cerise asked as Michael walked past her into her warehouse apartment. “Did you leave something? Or Nikita? You could have picked it up in the morning,” she said warily, shadowing his progress across the wide space.
“Nikita got a call. She’s had to leave to take care of…family business.”
A frown crossed Cerise’s brow when she said, “I thought you took care of that.”
“Your aunt, Madeline, wants Nikita with her.”
Cerise nodded. She moved past him to replace the gun. “And how long will Nikita be gone?”
“She didn’t say.”
“But I bet you can guess.”
Michael was silent for a long moment.
Are you upset, Nikita, or are you jealous?
“Why don’t you just ask one of them?”
“Huh?” Nikita shook herself.
“Why don’t you just go ask them what’s going on?” Walter said again. “I think Madeline’s still in her office.”
“Tonight,” Michael said softly, answering Cerise, “and perhaps tomorrow, too.”
“Time enough?” He came to stand in front of her. His lips brushed her forehead, her cheeks and lips as his strong hands kneaded her shoulders.
Cerise broke away. “Would you like some wine?”
“No, Cerise,” he said taking the half-filled bottle from her hands. “All I want is you.”
She gave a soft, husky laugh. “Yes, I remember.” Her arms went around Michael’s neck as he kissed the column of her neck. “I didn’t think it would be this hard,” she whispered into his ear. Remembering a Valentine training mission she’d done with Michael many years ago. Had she said the same thing then? The room had been different -- the clothes, even their hair -- but it had still been their lives at stake.
Michael slid slowly down her body, kissing her through her thin camisole. When he rose he drew the lavender silk up and over her body, and tossed it away. Pressing his forehead to hers he murmured, “I’m sorry,” before capturing her lips.
Madeline looked up from her computer to the chime on her door. “Come in.”
Nikita slipped inside.
Just the person she had been waiting for. “Give me one moment, Nikita. Please, have a seat.” She closed the last document she had been going over and set the computer to a pass-code protected standby. “What can I help you with?”
“Why am I here?”
“I thought that’s what you were going to ask me,” Madeline said with a small smile and tilt of her head.
“Let’s not play games, Madeline. You know why I’m here, in your office. What I want to know is why I’m on Close Quarters Standby. Is there some mission that I haven’t been notified about?”
Madeline folded her hands. “There was going to be, but at the last minute Operations changed his mind. He felt that pulling Striecht in too many directions might delay him from the ultimate goal we’ve set for him.”
“Then why am I here.”
“It was my decision, Nikita, to put you on CSQ. Operations wanted you to stay in the field.”
With a slow shake of her head, Nikita said, “This is wrong.”
“Would you rather be there, watching them?”
Cerise worked at the buttons of Michael’s dress shirt. “Don’t be,” she breathed when he released her from the kiss. The plains of his chest -- yes she remembered this. His hair had been shorter, curling at his nape and not by his collar. “Not your fault,” she said, pressing kisses to his shoulders.
What had Madeline said then? When she was training them?
“No one’s fault,” she breathed into his warm skin.
Oh yes, Mirror your target’s desire.
“No!” Nikita leapt out of her chair. “But neither should they have to be out there selling themsel--”
“They aren’t selling themselves Nikita.”
“So Emmanuel Striecht isn’t in the Czech Republic somewhere watching them like its another porn channel?”
Madeline’s lips tightened into a line. “Of course Striecht is watching them. Nikita…Michael and Cerise understand that this is a necessary venture. Striecht is a very cautious man who--”
“I don’t need the rhetoric, thank you.”
Madeline sat back in her chair. “Tell me, Nikita: Is it righteous anger you feel or jealousy?”
Michael gasped. He had expected to be given the lead by default, as was so often true, but found himself mistaken. Cerise abruptly began to search out the erogenous zones of his stomach with the profound intensity of someone determined to find them. For a moment Michael struggled against his natural inclinations. He wanted to moan. He wanted to gasp and pant for air.
When Cerise nipped at his collarbone he remembered. Remembered that once when they were both green they had done a Valentine training together, under Madeline’s watchful eye. It hadn’t gone this far, and the affair had only been one night but Cerise had been an apt pupil. She’d taken to seducing him with grace and ease, learning his body and what he’d wanted and how he’d liked it. Michael wondered if she was working from that old knowledge or applying the skills they had practiced on each other.
Cerise tugged at his hair, murmuring so all could hear, “You think too much.”
Their breath came in ragged gasps between them. In her eyes he saw no one, only mindless desire. It occurred to him to wonder what for, but then she reached for the button of his slacks and he forgot to ask.
Nikita had no answer for Michael’s question thrown back at her. Was she jealous of Cerise, a woman who had been handpicked and groomed to become the mistress of a murderer? But that murderer was with Michael right now.
And you’ve had him for weeks during this mission, a mean-spirited voice reminded her.
Nikita came to stand in front of Madeline’s desk. “Perhaps its both,” she said finally. “But isn’t it enough that Cerise has been sleeping with Striecht for all these years? Hasn’t she gotten you enough information to be spared this?”
“What about Michael? Why aren’t you pleading for him?”
The shirt was soon gone as was his white tee. His slacks were caught, slowly sinking down his hips, between their bodies. Cerise had paused, her forehead against his shoulder although she was shorter by only an inch or two.
“Do you wish to stop,” he asked her softly in French. Michael said it into her hair and hoped the microphones didn’t pick it up.
She raised her eyes to his as she ground her hips into his. “You don’t want to.“
Swearing softly and quickly he bent his head and gave her a punishing kiss.
“Michael can take care of himself.”
Madeline raised an eyebrow at that. “You know, Nikita, not all women are fragile.”
“And neither are they machines! Most of us can’t turn ourselves on and off just like” snap! “that!”
They fell onto the couch.
“Which is why we have Valentine training, Nikita. You’ll be happy to know both Michael and Cerise passed with flying colors.”
When Michael gasped Nikita’s name into Cerise’s belly she wasn’t offended.
She envied them and their love. She had loved Andrew until he’d betrayed her, and loving Striecht felt like betrayal. Because she knew that she could. Love him. Except she knew too much, and so she struggled against the intensities of Hate and Love for a tolerable in-between of Like.
Michael had found her cradled in her window-seat, wrapped in a purple and gold silk komodo Striecht had given her as a gift. It had been a long time since she’d cried and Cerise had no intention of bringing back bad habits. One hand idly scratching her left foot while the other fisted against her mouth, she searched herself for the why and wherefores of the guilt bubbling inside her. She had been remembering when, once upon a time, she would have walked around her house, humming to herself, until she produced the answers she sought. But who had time to sing for oneself when you were busy singing for everyone else?
Well Madeline had been happy enough with their impromptu debriefing held over the phone a moment ago, and that was good enough.
Nikita sat on the stark white bed of her stark white room in Section. Much as she may have wanted to, there was no sense decorating it when any number of operatives might be assigned to the room as they awaited a mission. More keenly now than at any other time she longed for something to take her mind off her conversation with Madeline. How that woman always seemed to gain the upper hand in any conversation….
Michael had startled her, tangling a hand in her hair by way of greeting. “Are you all right?” How many women had he found in various states of dress and undress, sitting, standing, kneeling in windows?
She’d nodded, nuzzling his hand. “Just thinking.”
How many female operatives had answered much the same after Valentine missions? Admittedly few, but it was a good thing he was as unfeeling as Nikita claimed, else he might be hurt by their subsequent evasion. It was, of course, the wisest action on either of their parts: to avoid each other. Valentine missions with other operatives were blessedly rife with understanding and clear, cool heads after the fact. There was no seeking him out, no weeping (unless called for by the mission parameters), no unexpected announcements. No attachment. And within a few weeks they were once again on speaking terms. Yes it was good that he didn’t care.
....even when Nikita thought she’d been in the right was beyond her.
Was she jealous? She’d asked herself so many times she’d been unable to sleep.
Perhaps that was why she felt Michael’s hands ghosting over her skin. And hallucinated Cerise standing in a corner, watching them.
Once again wearing the sweatpants that were too big for her, Michael padded into the living room space and sat beside Cerise on the couch. She couldn’t help but ask if he’d heard from Nikita.
She nodded. “Is the coffee all right?” she continued in French, turning back to the television.
“It’s fine, thank you.”
“No one has yet come forward to claim responsibility for the biological attack on the Prague business-center early this morning, Parisian time. Police however--”
Cerise muted the television. “It was Striecht wasn’t it?”
“Yes. But it was very early there and few people were killed.”
Cerise shook her head slowly over her coffee cup. “I should have killed him so long ago.” She turned to look at Michael. “Do you know I stopped watching the news because I didn’t want to know what he was doing. Of course I knew from my intel reports, but somehow seeing it on the evening news makes it real.” With a sigh she got up. “I’m going to make breakfast. Can you stay or should you go?”
Gracefully Michael pushed himself from the couch. Cerise seemed very tan to him, very dark and different, in her white sweats and short white tee and dark curls framing her face. He held her around the waist. Kissed her forehead. “I’ll make breakfast. You go back to bed. You’ve been up a very long time.” When she began to protest he whispered into her temple, “Let me do this for you.”
Eyes lowered, she extricated herself from his arms. Moments later she was under lilac sheets wondering whether it had been Michael’s logic or his switching to her native tongue that had convinced her.
Looking up from the chair where she had been reading, Nikita had a profound sense of déjà vu when Michael entered their hotel suite --
-- as if Operations was saying her name from the Perch again, as he had that morning, telling she was off CQS and could leave.
“…did it go well?”
She stared at him blankly for a long time, trying to figure out a graceful way of saying no and finding none. Instead: “Perhaps I should ask you?”
As she had expected he would, Michael merely blinked at her. What a strange way to become predictable, she thought.
Unexpectedly he said, “It could have been better. You could have been here,” before dropping a soft kiss into her hair and heading toward their bedroom. Soon she heard the shower running. Nikita continued her reading although it kept running for quite some time.
“What’s the word on Striecht?” Operations asked Madeline as soon as she stepped into the Perch.
“It’s going well. Striecht’s expected ETA in Nice is approximately fourteen hours. From what little we’ve been able to gather his associates have found his recent behavior very odd. There’s no reason he shouldn’t perform as expected.”
He turned to look out the glass windows. “And Michael, Nikita, Cerise…they all know their roles?”
With a curt nod Madeline said, “Yes.”
Facing her again, Operations asked, “And Kimmich? Is he go?”
“Yes, Kimmich will be in position.” “Perfect. Now,” he took a deep breath before launching into the details of another mission.
They were having coffee at the little place Cerise liked so much. Or rather Nikita and Michael were drinking coffee while Cerise nursed a blackberry tea. Dark and sweet, she’d allowed both Nikita and Michael a taste, and judging by Michael’s reaction he’d found it sugary as Nikita had. But that didn’t keep him from having an animated conversation with Cerise in French. Every now and again they would look guiltily at her or switch back to English, only to drop into French without noticing. Of course Nikita understood every word they said -- her French was far better than, say, her German -- but there was something about the ease with which they conversed. Had Nikita not known that the entire outing was a setup for Section she would have truly felt left out. And possibly justified in fingering the gun she carried.
Cerise frowned down into her cup. In the few weeks they’d been “family” she come to like Nikita and to have her pull away now… But things would be better once the whole mission was over. Everything would be better once the mission was over. She could stop singing. God, what a blessing that would be. Cerise could think of nothing more pleasurable than never singing another note. And she’d have her friend back. Seven years without someone you could trust and talk to… What a good fortune she’d had to be trained by Madeline -- Cerise had quickly learned that anything said to the “den mother” could and would be used against her. Not so with Nikita, she thought.
And Michael… Michael was himself, something she had also had the good fortune to learn early. Over the years he’d become even more distant, but she knew where she stood with him and that was a sight more than she knew about the other operatives. She knew the easy, free conversation she was having with him now was a gift. They talked about as much nothing as two human beings could manage, a skill at which they were both adepts, and it was probably the best conversation they had ever had.
He wanted to reach out and touch her, his Nikita. There had been no way to shield her from this hurt. If he had thought that an earlier warning might guard her heart, he would have told her what to expect as soon as it became apparent that this was where the mission was leading. It wasn’t Nikita he worried for, however, but Cerise. Cerise who had no allies within Section. Cerise who had been hand-chosen for one single mission. Cerise who burned for someone who, he imagined, was dead. Even as they prattled on about the vagaries of French cheeses, the arrogance of American tourists and the beauty of lonely country sides, he wondered about their plan for her. Would they bring her back in? Would they fill in the gaps of her shadow-education? Did they need her? Did they want her?
Had they had enough?
Like the brother he remembered himself to be, he worried for her well-being. He remembered wide-innocent eyes when he’d first kissed her in a small damask room in Section headquarters. He’d never forget how wide-innocent they’d been when he had moved in her the first time in her small lilac bed.
Of course it happened just as they were getting ready to cross. It couldn’t have been better timed if Operations had pulled the strings himself.
Michael and Cerise were waiting on the corner for Nikita to emerge from the café. Striecht jumped out of an unmarked car. “Are you so bold as to go in public then?” He ignored the loud crash of another car rear-ending his, still running, in the middle of the street.
Cerise turned confused eyes on her lover. “Manu what--”
He slapped her hard across her cheek. “Don’t ‘Manu.’”
Michael caught her as she stumbled from the surprise attack. Tears of pain welled in her eyes. One quick glance at Cerise’s quickly reddening cheek and Michael pushed her behind him. “I don’t know what this is about--”
“Don’t you?” Striecht pulled out a gun. People screamed as they fled. There were shouts to call the police.
Michael raised his hands defensively. “You don’t want to do this,” he said calmly, walking backward.
“Emmanuel! What are you doing?!” Cerise cried, coming from behind Michael. “You can’t shoot--”
“Stay out of it,” Striecht snarled. “I love you. I trust you. And you betray me with him? You’re nothing better than a whore.”
Michael felt Cerise’s hands tighten where they held him through his jacket.
“Emmanuel,” she said softly, “don’t do this. Can’t we talk about it? There are so many people here…you don’t want them hurt do you?” When he didn’t answer she confessed, “I know what we did was wrong, but I couldn’t stand being alone anymore…”
“You were never lonely before,” he cried. And shot Michael.
The crowd that had slowly gathered to watch the confrontation was once again set screaming and running. In the distance they could hear police sirens. Cerise was knocked backward as Michael stumbled into her from the force of the blow. Barely managing to steady herself, she lowered him to the pavement. “Call an ambulance!”
Out of the chaos came Nikita striding like an angel of heaven. “Nikita,” Cerise called over the din, “Michael’s been shot!”
The sirens were closer and had multiplied.
“Nikita! Emmanuel shot Michael!” she cried again when she thought the blond was in earshot. Cerise’s face blanched when she saw the fury twisting Nikita’s face and heard, “It should have been you!”
A gun appeared in Nikita’s hand. “Do you think I was blind?”
“I trusted you Cerise! And look what you’ve done!”
“Nikita, Nikita, please put down the gun. I don’t know where you got it from, but please put it away -- we have to get Michael to a hospital.”
“It’s all your fault!” Nikita cried shrilly. And just as suddenly she was calm. She aimed the gun for Cerise. “Move away from him. Now!”
“Nikita I’m so sorry. I swear I’m so, so sorry.”
“That doesn’t matter now,” Nikita said, tracking Cerise with the gun.
The sirens were nearly upon them.
“NO!” Striecht shouted, shooting wildly.
The bullet grazed Nikita’s arm through her coat on the left side, but she reacted immediately. Shooting Striecht. His gun dropped with an obscenely loud clatter as he brought both hands to his heart.
Cerise started toward him, shouting “Emmanuel!” as Nikita turned, sighted and shot her.
Three police cars fishtailed to a halt on the small street. “PUT DOWN YOUR WEAPON,” they called in both French and English. “PUT DOWN YOUR WEAPON!”
Mouth open in an O surprise, Cerise turned mid-step to look past Nikita, over her shoulder, and up at the low buildings behind them. She turned back to Nikita and collapsed, boneless.
There was a tense moment as the police and the ambulance team -- two vans that had pulled up moments after the police -- waited for Nikita to put down her gun. Organized chaos descended when she did: the police swarming over her and the ambulance workers swarming over the three bodies lying in the street.
Local reporters who covered the story would find one common thread in the stories of all their eye-witnesses: “I’ve never seen either the police or EMS arrive so quickly before.”
Nikita caught Michael as he was coming out of MedLab. “How is it? Are you all right?”
“There is a bruise, but it will heal.”
Nikita nodded, restraining the all-consuming urge to strip him to the waist and examine him for herself. “What about Cerise? Is she all right?”
Michael paused a moment before answering, “I haven’t seen her.”
“I had wanted to talk to her,” she said with a frown. Shrugged. “Well I guess I’ll catch up with her later.”
“Yes,” said Michael, softly, before excusing himself to a debriefing with Operations and Madeline.
Michael looked up from Birkoff’s computer to Walter passing behind him.
“Have you seen Cerise? I’d wanted to give her. Oh well,” he said with a healthy grin, “guess I’ll have to wait until later tonight.” There was a lecherous gleam in his eye and a swagger in his step as he strode off. Nikita’s smiling face immediately came to Michael’s mind until he was interrupted by Birkoff’s mumbled, “Cerise seems pretty popular.”
“Can you find anything?” Michael asked, once more bending over the ever-dark console.
Birkoff shook his head. “But there’s one more place I haven’t tried…the abeyance pool.”
“Do it.” Michael straightened and walked away.
Several hours later, Michael found Nikita waiting for him in his office. He hadn’t had a chance to scramble surveillance when she said, “Cerise is dead isn’t she.”
Slowly he returned the device back to its place in his desk. “I’m sorry Nikita.”
“Did you know?”
“That she would be cancelled? No.”
With narrowed eyes she accused, “But you suspected.”
“Why didn’t you do anything? Say anything?”
Michael punched in the code to deactivate surveillance. “What difference would it have made, Nikita, if she had known they were going to cancel her?”
“Murder her you mean.” Nikita paced his office, arms wrapped tight around herself. “How did you find out?”
I found out because you made me curious and scared. He didn’t say those words to her. “I had Birkoff run a routine scan on her whereabouts. When nothing was forthcoming I asked him to make a more intensive search. When it was obvious that nothing could be found from the computers I went to Madeline.”
“And she told you?” Nikita asked incredulously.
“Yes. Cerise was shot on the street in Nice.”
Nikita stopped short. “That’s not possible. My gun had the one trank for Striecht and the rest were blanks.”
“There was an operative. In the building. He shot--”
“That’s why she turned,” Nikita said softly, shaking her head. “She had to have known someone else shot her.” She looked at Michael. “You should have said something. Cerise could have escaped.”
Michael had no answer for Nikita, knowing it was an argument he could not win. This was one truth she had no stomach to hear, nor he to tell.
Michael was in Intel when, several days later, Nikita approached him with an active panel. “Did you do this?” She handed it to Michael.
Scanning it quickly he asked her, “How did you come by this?”
“Walter uploaded it to the panel for me. He’s been keeping up with the news. You didn’t disinter Cerise then?”
His blank look said everything.
“I heard about that."
Both operatives looked down at Birkoff. Who nervously pushed his glasses up on his nose. Talking about computers was one thing -- talking about the odd happenings of one of his few, and recently dead, friends was quite another. “I-I was the one who sent the article to Walter.”
Nikita turned to Michael. “So you have nothing to do with ‘Murderess to Lie with Slain Hubby?’” Again his neutral eyes told a story contrary to what she wanted to believe.
“Kinda gruesome, huh?” asked Birkoff.
Nikita frowned briefly at Birkoff. Shook her head. “But who would have…” Her wandering eyes came to rest on the Perch. And Madeline. Looking down at her.
© 2003 by the author. All rights reserved.
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