The Company You Keep
Paris. Late fall, 1973.
The guide books always called it Gay Paree, but in truth, Paris was often more gray then gay, especially in the off-season. This was one of those days. It had rained the night before and would probably rain again before the sun set. Now, the morning was merely damp and chilly, a light mist wafting through the boulevards, like the vaporous trail from a heavy smoker. It was early, not even half past eight, but les boulangeries only baked their bread twice a day, and one had to be up and about if one wanted a fresh baguette.
April Dancer didn't mind. She preferred Paris in this time between Toussaint and Noël. The tourists were long gone, all the kids were back in school until December. You could get a decent table at the good restaurants, better service at the shops and cafes. The sidewalks were uncrowded and uncluttered. Even traffic was lighter. You could stroll. You could browse. You could breathe.
She was doing all three this morning, enjoying the relative stillness of the city on an early Saturday morning, accompanied by the delicious scent of the still warm loaf of bread that she carried in a shopping bag dangling from her arm. She could hear the slap of her shoes against the wet sidewalk as she headed up the Champs-Elysées, toward her hotel. The pavement was slick with moisture, and her heels skidded from time to time. She was paying so much attention, negotiating the cracks and the puddles, that she almost didn't see the figure sitting in front of the café. He was wearing clothes the same color as the morning, and with his pale skin and blond hair, he blended seamlessly with the soft blues, grays, and ochres of the surrounding cityscape. Indeed, the only reason she did notice him among the haphazard arrangement of empty tables and iron chairs, was that he was the only person there.
Hearty soul, she thought, to be sitting outside in weather like this. And a little crazy, too, considering that inside, under the red awning and behind the Plexiglas, all the window seats were just as empty.
As she approached, the lone man looked up from his newspaper to watch her, and he kept watching her as the distance closed between them. His gaze was so calm, yet so deliberate, it made her uncomfortable. She wished she were wearing the dark sunglasses she'd left back in her room. It wasn't until she was almost upon him, that she realized who he was.
"Well. My goodness," she said, exhaling a sigh that mixed relief with astonishment. "Fancy meeting you."
Illya Kuryakin took a slow, studied sip of his café au lait before replacing the cup on the saucer with a decisive click. "Hello, April," he said softly.
For the moment, she was taken aback.
"Is something wrong?" he asked, genuinely concerned.
"No, it's just that it's been a while since anyone's called me that."
"Would you prefer that I use your new identity?" Your new cover. She could hear the accusation in his voice, but he was too polite to say it aloud, so she couldn't tell him he was wrong, that it was her life now, not merely a "cover." She knew he didn't just mean her married surname. She'd changed her first name, too. Her husband had joked that it was to match the monogrammed initials on his old bath towels, but they both knew better. Retiring from U.N.C.L.E. was not a simple matter.
"It's all right. Actually, it's rather nice to hear."
He cocked his head in response and gestured to the opposite chair. "Join me?"
The invitation surprised her. Even when they were colleagues, Illya was never one for socializing or small talk. She sat, not waiting for him to hold out a chair. He probably wouldn't anyway: that had always been Napoleon's department. Illya continued to drink his coffee, watching her get comfortable, but she understood his casual scrutiny for what it really was. He was taking inventory: the trench coat from Givenchy, the shoes from Fendi, the Chanel silk scarf covering her hair and gathered about her throat. And then of course, there was the jewelry: the flashes of Bulgari gold, the three-carat diamond surrounded by sapphires from Cartier. Tasteful, but hardly modest.
Kuryakin nodded toward the grocery bag resting in the other chair. "I thought four star hotels had round-the-clock room service."
"I love fresh bread."
"And the concierge was otherwise occupied?"
"I like to do some things myself."
"But surely not the marketing."
She knew what Kuryakin was implying. These days, she was rich. Not just rich: filthy rich, enormously rich, rich beyond anything she could ever have imagined. There were scores of people to do things for her. Hell, if she'd asked him to, her husband could have bought the whole damn bakery and paid them to bake all day.
"No, not usually," she conceded. "But I know this wonderful little place, and I needed the exercise."
Just then, a waiter poked his head out, obviously annoyed that he was being forced to do so. Illya ordered another café au lait for her and a refill for himself, and the waiter gratefully withdrew into the warmer, drier interior. April took the opportunity to change the subject.
"And what are you doing these days?" The question was disingenuous. Ever since Illya resigned from U.N.C.L.E., there'd been rumors about his free-lancing. And sometimes, something more than rumors.
"Whatever I can to survive." She knew he meant that literally.
"Mark is on sabbatical at Cambridge," she volunteered without being asked. "He's studying for another degree, but it's just an excuse. Things finally got too much for him."
"As they do for everyone, eventually," Illya observed. Obviously, he was well aware that she'd resigned and married, too. April shrugged.
"Not everyone. Napoleon's still in there pitching."
"Only a matter of time —"
"Oh, I don't know. He's still in Stockholm, running the Scandinavian sector. Back at the top of his game again."
"So I hear."
"And he's married."
"I hear that, too," Illya said distantly.
"You two haven't kept in touch?"
"No." He looked away, across the boulevard.
Before April could think of an appropriate response, the two cups of coffee arrived. Then the waiter retreated, and they were alone again. April drank, grateful for the warmth, and pulled the folds of her trench coat closer. She shivered, not entirely from the weather. "A rather dreary day for people-watching, don't you think?"
"Absolutely." Illya regarded her, and for the first time that morning, a smile quirked at the corners of his mouth. "I wasn't sitting here for the scenery. Or the coffee, for that matter. I was waiting for you."
"Oh." Suddenly, it all made sense. "So our running into each other like this wasn't a coincidence?"
Illya's smile faded as quickly as it had appeared. "I wish it were." He paused for effect. "Do you know that your husband is playing a dangerous game in Querido?"
April's eyes narrowed. "I beg your pardon? A 'game'? He doesn't think of it as a game. He's making substantial investments in a country that sorely needs it."
"And by doing so, he is making it possible for Alexandro Abaca to remain in power."
"As well he should!" April shot back indignantly. "With Angela gone, her nephew is the only hope that country has."
"So it's a matter of altruism?"
"Not entirely. Jon's a businessman. He runs a successful conglomerate — as you must know."
Their wealth was common knowledge. Still, April was beginning to suspect Illya knew a hell of a lot more about her and her husband than what might be gleaned from the society pages and the Wall Street Journal.
"And a savvy, self-made businessman at that," Illya agreed coolly. "Started with diamonds, didn't he? Not all of them his."
Bringing up her husband's questionable past was too much for April. "I wouldn't know. That was long before I met him." Hurt, she retreated to her coffee cup. Illya was unfazed by her anger and resentment. Still, he had no obvious need to antagonize her. Folding his hands in his lap, his voice turned matter-of-fact and reasonable.
"Querido is a crisis waiting to happen. The Soviets are financing the rebels in the mountains, hoping for another glorious revolution. The CIA is working its own mischief among the patrician classes in the capital, trying to install one of the generals as their puppet — apparently they don't even care which one. And Thrush — well, they're circling like vultures as always, waiting to take advantage of any opportunity. There are others, with other agendas. Alexandro, with his popular support, is an inconvenient fact of life for all sides. And that makes your husband inconvenient, too. Surely, he knows this."
April nodded. Yes, he did. They both did. That was why they were staying at the George V rather than at their usual haunt, the Hôtel de Crillon. The latter was located next to the U.S. Embassy — too close for comfort for someone trying to avoid surveillance and the random Company spook.
"Even with the gold and copper and tin; even if there's as much oil as everyone suspects, setting up a permanent operation in Querido will be difficult and expensive. There won't be more than a few million in profits for years — pocket change for your husband. So it makes me wonder: why should he choose to take such risks, personally and financially, to prop up an honest but woefully unstable government in a backwater Third World country."
"He has his reasons," April retorted. "My husband is a good man; a very good man." Any more than that was nobody's business.
"And Clara spoke those same words to Napoleon in Terbuf," Illya reminded her. "You heard how that one turned out."
April straightened and her eyes went cold. "Touché," she told him, barely able to repress her contempt. "You always had a sharp mind. Now I see you've developed a sharp tongue as well. Cruelty doesn't become you."
"My apologies. I live in a cruel world now. I need all the weapons I can muster."
April let go of a long sigh. "Well, if you must know, Jon and Alexandro are old friends. They went to school together. Pledged the same fraternity."
"Ah. I see." He nodded to himself, apparently satisfied. "So there is a motive other than greed."
"Yes, there is. It's called friendship." She leaned across the table, her fine, angular chin thrust out, defiant. "You remember what that's all about, don't you?"
Again, Illya remained unperturbed. "As a matter of fact, I do. That's why I crawled out of a warm bed this morning to sit in the drizzle and sip weak coffee. I came to warn you that your husband's life is in danger."
She didn't insult him by doubting or questioning him, or asking how he knew. She didn't think he'd tell her anyway.
"Who is planning to kill Jon?"
"It's difficult for me to say," Illya replied cryptically. Which didn't necessarily mean, April noted, that he didn't know the answer.
"All right. Then at least tell me how. How do they intend to do it?"
Illya leaned back in his chair. "Tonight, you're both scheduled to attend a formal dinner at the embassy." April nodded and said, "It's an effort to convince other international corporations to do business in Querido. The ambassador will be there."
"Expect an assassination attempt sometime before or after. Outside, on the street, I would imagine. Big and dramatic. A bomb. A sniper. Something that will make the front page of the morning papers."
"But why Jon?"
Illya snorted. "What better way to frighten away investment then to murder the prime investor?"
"An object lesson?"
He shrugged in reply. "One fares in life according to the company one keeps."
"And afterward in Querido, the economy will collapse, public support will dry up, and Alexandro will be finished politically."
"Or, if he's disposed of, no one will care."
April frowned in disgust. As she drained the last of her coffee, she considered all she'd just learned. "I suppose we should go to the police."
Illya laughed dryly, without humor. "They won't be able to do anything in time. With a contract this important, a lot of money has already changed hands."
"Then we should at least alert embassy security."
"Only if you're certain of every last staff person's loyalty. What you pass on to the wrong person can be used against you."
Exasperated, April held up her hands. "Then why did you tell me all this? What am I supposed to do?"
"Stop your husband from going to the dinner. Cancel. Get out of Paris before tonight."
"Why? You have a private jet."
But April was still shaking her head. "Jon would never cancel without a very, very good reason. It's his pet project."
"Then find a reason. Plead illness."
"He'd go without me."
"Make him ill. I can give you something. Drug his juice, his tea, his four o' clock cocktail, anything — ." Illya paused. April was staring at him, incredulous. "Don't look at me like that," he said, "like you're some wide-eyed Innocent. It's been done. We did such things all the time."
"I remember," April replied flatly. "That's why I quit."
Now it was Illya's turn to make a face. "You love your husband, don't you?"
"More than anything in the world. I would die without Jon."
"Well, if you don't do something to get him away from this city tonight, you just might die with him."
"Oh God," April muttered to herself aloud. Suddenly, she felt utterly exhausted and utterly helpless. "I don't know. I don't think anything can be done to stop him or the dinner."
Illya shrugged again, resigned. "Thenevents will proceed as they must."
A raindrop splatted on the tabletop, near his elbow. Then, another. And another. "It's beginning to rain," he declared. He reached into his breast pocket for his wallet, but April waved his hand back. "I'll get the check. It's the least I can do for your trouble." When he started to object, she smiled and added, "I'm rich, remember?"
Defeated, he returned her smile and rose from the chair. "Be careful tonight, April. Stay alert; be on your guard. Keep your eyes open. Switch cars, change routes, alter the itinerary at the last moment if you're even the least suspicious. Do whatever it takes. Maybe you'll see it coming in time."
"And maybe I won't. I'm a little out of practice."
"Ah, but you know what they say: Once an agent, always an agent." Taking his leave of her, he tucked his folded newspaper under his arm and turned up the collar of his coat. "Good luck," he said, meaning it, and then walked away.
"Yeah," April murmured to herself.
By the time she reached the hotel, it was pouring. The scarf around her head was drenched clear through, and her hair hung down in dripping ringlets. Even worse, the bread in her bag had gone soggy. In the lobby, the staff was so solicitous of her bedraggled condition that she had to wave them off several times. Upstairs, she found her hotel suite empty and a note taped to the bathroom mirror. Apologies from her husband: he'd been called away for a working breakfast and some appointments afterward, but he'd meet her for a late lunch, in the ground floor restaurant, Le Grille.
If he makes it back at all, she told herself. There wasn't much she could do at the moment. And anyway, Illya said it would happen tonight. Outside, in public. In front of everyone.
Over my dead body, she vowed. Maybe if she took a nap and cleared her head, she could sort things out. At least, she had to try. Rummaging through her cosmetics travel case, she found some double strength aspirin, swallowed two tablets, and went back to bed.
The aspirin did no good; she couldn't sleep. Over and over, April turned the problem around in her mind, always arriving at the same answer. No lie, no deception, no strategic maneuver seemed plausible. There was no help for it: she'd have to tell her husband the simple truth, not only about what she knew, but how she'd come to know it. She spent the rest of the morning prowling about the suite, rehearsing the dialogue in her head.
"And who told you this?" her husband would ask.
"An old friend."
"A Russian spy?"
"We worked together in U.N.C.L.E."
"And who does he work for now?"
"I'm not certain. I've heard he free-lances."
"So he could be working for the Soviets."
"Or if not for the Soviets, against the Soviets."
"That's possible too."
"Yet, he wanted to warn you —?"
"Because we're old friends." More than that — close in a way that would be difficult to explain, so she wouldn't try.
"And how did he come by this information?"
"He couldn't say."
"Couldn't or wouldn't?"
If her husband asked her that question, she wouldn't be able to answer. Sitting outside the café this morning, April strongly suspected that Illya knew much more than he was telling her. About nearly everything. But that was routine in espionage. Indeed, Illya might have been doing her a favor, holding back information to protect her as much as to protect himself.
"But he knew the time and place..."
"But close enough. He knew the circumstances."
"He gave you a rough scenario."
"And he knew why it would happen, the reason behind the assassination attempt."
"Did he give you a way to get in touch with him? An address? A phone number?"
She knew what her husband would say next. She could visualize Jon, taking a step back, cocking his head to one side and declaring disingenuously, as if he were thinking out loud. "Now let me get this straight: A Russian spy you haven't seen in five years —"
"— All right, four. A Russian spy you haven't seen in four years waylays you on the Champs-Elysées to warn you that someone is trying to kill me. He tells you the approximate time and place, but won't tell you anything else. Not who he works for, how to reach him, even how he came by the information."
"That's about the size of it."
And then Jon, usually a pleasant, charming man, would level his gaze at her and ask bluntly, "And what makes you think he's not the assassin?"
That was the crux of the matter wasn't it? April began to tremble uncontrollably every time she arrived at this point in her imagined dialogue. She knew what she would answer: "Because, as I told you: we're old friends." It sounded lame every time she said it — quietly, in her head, or more forcefully aloud, to the empty suite.
Because we're friends, goddamn it. Isn't that enough?
But was it?
It should have been. It would have been in the old days. In the old days, if Illya or Napoleon or Mark had told her to take a step off the edge of a cliff to apparently certain death, she would have done it. She would have trusted them completely, trusted that they had a very good reason to tell her such a thing, that they were trying to save her life. And they would have trusted her in the same way.
But that was then and this was now.
Once an agent, always an agent.
April turned her right hand palm up, and traced the hairline scar with her left index finger thoughtfully. Did the old loyalties still hold?
Stop your husband from going to the dinner. Cancel. Get out of Paris before tonight.
He'd said the words calmly, coolly, as if he were telling her to bring an umbrella because there was a chance of rain. Yet, there was something else behind it. Didn't she detect just a hint of desperation? Of pleading?
Get out of Paris before tonight … Before I have to kill him.
No no no no no. April pressed her fists against her temples and squeezed her eyes shut. No, stop it! she scolded herself. Stop thinking like that right now! After all, this was Illya Kuryakin for God's sake. But Illya didn't know Jon and judging by the Russian's tone and manner, didn't care to know him.
And a savvy, self-made businessman at that … So there is a motive other than greed. Illya had made only a minimal effort to hide his displeasure with her own very obvious trappings of wealth.
But so what? Even Napoleon used to make snide comments about the fabulously wealthy people they often ran across during their missions, and he had such people in his own family. Despite their different ideologies, none of them had ever been dogmatic. Politics was never a problem.
So Illya was not the assassin, April decided as she washed her face in the bathroom sink and reapplied her make-up. And that was that. Period.
But that left another assassin lurking somewhere. And she still couldn't say anything, not if she wanted to protect Illya.
She knew all too well that free-lancers didn't take sides, only clients. If spies operated in a world of hazy legality, for free agents, it was a veritable fog. They were the edge walkers, the spookiest spooks, the grayest of the gray. If she told her husband, no doubt he would want to involve the police or embassy security or even worse, the DST, France's counterpart to the FBI. And one thing would lead to another and soon they'd be searching for Illya, if only to question him. And if they found him, who knew what laws he'd skirted or broken? Certainly, his identification papers would be false. He might not even have entered the country with a valid visa. He'd gone out of his way to warn her. She couldn't repay his kindness by complicating his life so enormously and perhaps, putting him in danger.
She couldn't do that, she told herself as she changed into a fresh blouse and skirt for her lunch date. Unless by not doing so, she'd be putting her husband in danger instead. And Jon would die because she kept quiet. Because she didn't act. Because she couldn't decide whether to put her faith in the past or the present. Because she'd trusted Illya, only she'd chosen to trust him the wrong way.
"And how did he come by this information?"
"He couldn't say."
"And what makes you think he's not the assassin?"
She argued with herself about the right course to take, struggled with and against her loyalties and her fears, her logic waging a ferocious tug-of-war with her gut. All the way down the hallway. Inside the elevator. Across the lobby. Into the restaurant. Behind the smile she showed her husband. All through their lunch together, raging in the background as they shared the more mundane details of their separate mornings. And near the end of the meal, as the waiter set their coffee cups before them, Jon asked casually, "By the way, did you locate your little bakery? Did you buy your bread?"
Then events will proceed as they must.
She bit her lip and swallowed hard. "Yes, but it was spoiled when I got caught in the rain." And that was all she said. Unaware of what those few words had cost her, Jon changed the subject.
"Something wrong, darling?"
It was early evening now, and her husband was standing behind her, hooking the clasp of her diamond choker. April smiled. She couldn't hide much from him. They were on the same wavelength — had been ever since they'd first met. That's why she'd married him, the money be damned.
"Well, actually, I've had a splitting migraine all day." Which was the truth.
The arguments were still swirling around and around in her head. If she trusted Illya, she should get her husband out of town. But she couldn't get her husband to go without telling him the truth. If she told Jon the truth, she might get Illya arrested. But then, maybe Illya wanted to be arrested, wanted to be stopped. Maybe he was the assassin. But he couldn't be the assassin. And if there was another, she should get her husband out of town…
"Did you take some aspirin?"
"Yes, and I can't take any more. My head's already buzzing like a bee hive."
With the clasp attached and the choker in place, she felt Jon's hands gently cup her bare shoulders, turning her to him. "Want to beg off, tonight?" he asked. "I can manage without you."
"Oh you can, can you?"
His face was close to hers. She could feel his breath on her cheek. She saw his kiss coming and leaned into it. Afterward, he whispered, "Of course, I'd rather not. But if you'd prefer to stay here —."
She pitched her voice low, making it husky with promise. "And would you stay with me?" Her hand brushed across the lapel of his tuxedo. "I'd make it worth your while."
"I'll bet you would, too."
She heard the chuckle rumble through his throat. He was tempted, she could sense it. Seizing the advantage, she pushed a little harder. "All those boring diplomats in their starched shirts," she added playfully.
"And the middle-aged businessmen with their wives and mistresses, most of them stuffed into low-cut, ill-fitting gowns"
"Oh now, you're making it sound like fun," Jon laughed. When he kissed her again lightly on the forehead and stepped back, she knew she'd lost him. She watched him tug at his cufflinks and shrug his shirt cuffs into place, and the gesture gave her a strange chill of déja vu. Napoleon had always done the same thing after he'd made up his mind.
Well, I had to try, April told herself.
"It's not the diplomats and the businessmen I'm thinking about," Jon said
"I know," she said, forcing a smile.
"I can't forget that little kid, that peasant girl, the one with the flowers…"
"I know," April said again. She remembered the girl, too. And a thousand others over the years that Jon had never met. Some of them alive and hungry, like that little girl. Some of them dead and past hunger.
"… selling in the marketplace, no shoes, no coat, just a thin dress against the rain." He came close to April again and took her hand. "I want to give that kid's father a good job so she can go to school."
April nodded. "I understand," she said, because God knew, she did. Before, she'd righted the wrongs of the world with a gun in her hand and a pocket full of bombs. Now, it was a checkbook. Not quite as exciting, but then, checkbooks didn't explode or take out innocent bystanders. All things considered, the checkbook was better.
"So are you coming or staying behind?" her husband asked from across the room. His tone indicated that either choice would be fine with him.
"I'm coming. I'll get my wrap." As April disappeared into the bedroom, Jon checked his watch. "Better hurry. The embassy limousine is due any minute."
"Oh, darling." April held still while her husband slipped the blue iris mink stole around her shoulders. "Do we have to take it? You know how I hate the paparazzi. They'll be waiting for us." If their regular chauffeur had been with them, things would have been simpler. But Max was back in the States, in bed with the flu. "Tomorrow, we'll be in all the gossip columns."
"Well, we do want publicity for this event."
"But not that sort. Pictures of my gown won't do anything for Querido's economy, and it will draw attention away from the real issues."
"You have a point," he conceded. "What do you suggest?"
"How about a plain old taxi? We can have it brought round to the back door."
"That might violate protocol at the embassy."
Her wrap in place, April snuggled close to her husband, the wisps of fur tickling his chin. "So? What good is being rich if you can't bend a few rules?"
His smile said her would humor her. But then, he always did. "I'll call the desk," he said.
"And I need to add something to my purse. Be right back." As Jon reached for the phone, April slipped into their bedroom, opened her cosmetics travel case, and fished out a .22 automatic. It was too small to do much damage except at close range, and it made her long for the power and protection of her old U.N.C.L.E. Special. But this was the best she could do at the moment, and a small caliber gun was better than nothing. She popped it into her clutch bag, took quick inventory of herself as she passed a mirror and hurried back to the parlor.
"The taxi is downstairs. The concierge says we can slip through a service entrance."
"How kind of him to understand." April paused. Her husband was staring at her. "What is it?" she asked, nervously.
"Did I ever tell you how beautiful you looked when you're excited?"
That made her laugh. She was excited, all right. Tense. Nervous. Petrified was more like it. But now that she'd committed to a course of action, the adrenaline was pumping through her system in a way it hadn't in years. And oddly enough, it felt good.
"Well, it's not everyday one tries to save a country," she said, feeling the blush rise above the bodice of her strapless sapphire blue gown. Or a husband.
"Then we should do it more often." In the next moment, his arms were around her, his lips on hers. And that felt good, too. She'd always been intensely attracted to charming dark-haired men, as smooth and sleek as silk with tongues to match. There was that prince in Zalamar. And poor, doomed Joey Celeste. And Napoleon, of course. Jon was a lot like him — they even vaguely resembled each other — but with one important difference. Jon had loved her enough to want to marry her. And Napoleon? Well, she'd thought it was the job that came between them, but now he was married himself. She'd even met the wife once — a strange experience, even stranger still because she genuinely liked the woman. If they'd been suburban housewives living in the same neighborhood together, they would have become fast friends.
After the kiss broke, he studied her face. "A penny for your thoughts," he said, searching her eyes.
That same wavelength again. "Oh that's easy," April smiled. "I was thinking how much you mean to me. How I'd never want to live without you."
"You never will."
"Of course not," she agreed. As they went out the door, she pressed her bag against her chest, reassured, if only slightly, by the form and weight of the .22 tucked inside.
The taxi deposited them at the embassy, a rather modest building befitting a small, backwater country. The security measures were uneven: tight in some ways and lax in others. Pleading paparazzi aversion, April and her husband convinced the guards to allow them to sneak through the kitchen and up the service stairs. When they emerged in the banquet hall, everyone was surprised to see them, because it seemed as if they'd materialized from thin air.
The next three hours passed as a blur for April. Most of the mundane details — the cocktails, the people, the conversation — she hardly noticed. She met the ambassador, a bespectacled ex-lawyer named Reyes; exchanged pleasantries with a dozen iron-haired men who looked and spoke nearly alike, sipped champagne and gulped elaborate hors d'oevres all without much interest or genuine pleasure.
But the taxi driver, the security guards, the staff people, even the waiters, she scrutinized closely for telltale bulges that might betray the presence of a gun or explosive device. She checked their surroundings continuously, despite Illya's prediction that the attempt would occur on the street.
Dinner was a horror, a drawn-out waiting game interspersed with wine, shallots, and Chateaubriand. Sitting through dessert and the accompanying speeches was even worse. April kept expecting each one to be punctuated by a bang or a boom.
But nothing happened, and the evening proceeded exactly as scheduled. Which meant they would leave the embassy at their peril.
If there's going to be an incident, April told herself, it will happen soon. She tried to cajole her husband into escaping by way of the service stairs again, but the ambassador wouldn't hear of it. Reyes was proud of the progress made that night, and he wanted the press, waiting outside, to know about it. Since Jon felt the same way, there was no avoiding the inevitable. They would exit by the front door.
They made their way down a central staircase in a little group: the ambassador and his aides, Jon with April on his arm, surrounded by a contingent of security personnel who were probably useless and worse, might include a traitor among them.
Stay alert; be on your guard. Keep your eyes open. Maybe you'll see it coming in …
Please God, April prayed as she fingered her clutch bag nervously, let me see it coming.
And her prayers were answered: five minutes later, she did see it coming.
Outside, the entrance to the embassy was graced by a small plaza. Ahead of their little group, the heavy glass doors opened to a night that was cold and clammy. It had recently rained again. April pulled her stole close and under cover of the fur, dipped her hand into her open clutch bag. The gun, still nestled inside, was even colder to the touch than the damp night air.
The ambassador and Jon exited first, and as soon as they appeared on the stone steps, the news reporters and photographers pressed forward, swarming the pavement below them like an invading army. The rat-ta-tat-tat of shouted questions overwhelmed the distant sounds of the city. Microphones thrust forward like brandished assault rifles. Light bulbs flashed and popped like incendiary devices
This isn't good, April decided unhappily, not at all. An assassin could nose a gun barrel through the crowd and fire before anyone noticed. Even worse, the plaza was surrounded on three sides by other, much taller buildings. April raised her eyes, skirting the bobbing heads of the newshounds and searched the darkened windows for movement. Around and around and back again.
"This way! This way, please!" someone called to draw her attention so he could snap a photograph. "Great dress!"
April ignored the compliment and continued scanning the scene. Vaguely, she noted the ambassador was speaking. Jon would be next. Their limousine waited on the other side of the human sea, an enticingly short distance away. Maybe fifty feet, maybe even less.
We have to get out of here, she thought. And then suddenly, it was too late.
She caught something out the corner of her eye — a glint, red, like a flash — high up and to the left. She recognized automatically what it was without thinking: Light bouncing off the reflective surface of a sniper scope.
"Get down!" she screamed to her husband. He was standing at her left side, and as she cried out, she ducked like a football tackle and rammed her body hard against his. It threw him off balance, and he lurched sideways, just as a bullet exploded against the brick face in the exact place his head had been a second before. The crowd roared as one, equipment flying, bodies dropping, bellies slapping loudly against the pavement. Unable to resist the momentum, Jon kept falling, and April went with him, over the side of the stone staircase, tumbling hard and painfully to shelter and relative safety. Somewhere behind her, April heard the ambassador's gurgled cry and she knew he'd been hit by a second shot.
A third bullet slammed against the now deserted steps, spraying cement, but this was a wild one, erratic and sloppy, as if the gunman had not taken the time to aim properly. And then, lastly, there was a fourth and final shot, which, to April's trained ears, was different from the others. The pitch was the same — it came from a similar weapon, no doubt a high-powered rifle — but the point of origin and the direction had changed. This one came from the right and was aimed, not at the embassy, but parallel to it. It was answering fire, April told herself.
It was Illya.
She didn't need to see him to know who it was.
The shooting stopped as abruptly as it had started, and now an eerie silence prevailed. The crowd seemed to sigh in relief and April let out a breath along with it. And then, far in the distance, sirens began to wail.
"Are you all right?" she asked her husband who was sprawled under her, in a heap. Jon's head tilted up. April sucked in a breath. There was a fine line of blood trickling down his temple.
"Darling — ?"
"It's okay," he said, swiping at the gash with his fingertips. He smiled, pretending to be cavalier. "Just a flesh wound."
Awkwardly, they scrambled to their feet to assess the damage. April's gown was shredded to her thighs, and both kneecaps were skinned. Jon, better shielded by his tux jacket, had suffered only a minor cut to his face. The ambassador, unfortunately, was dead, cut down by one bullet straight to the heart. Already the photographers, now recovered from their fear, were circling the body like scavenger birds. Jon wordlessly signaled the head of embassy security, but the man only shook his head in return. The ambulance just pulling up was a mere formality.
They spent the rest of the night answering questions, with the news reporters quickly replaced by police. And the police were, in turn, replaced by agents from the DST. The embassy kitchen remained open to serve coffee and pastries, and members of the ambassador's staff and the party attendees gathered in the lobby like the beleaguered survivors of a sunken luxury cruise. The police and the special agents returned for interviews again and again as the witnesses were allowed to go home one by one. April sat quietly on a brocade couch near the door, cradling her purse that still contained the .22, her ears pricked for the latest news. The law enforcement people were scouring the neighborhood, looking for discarded weapons and whatever clues they could find. They'd be working for weeks, canvassing residents, estimating trajectories, examining every inch of the murder scene. But she knew, as they did, that they had to hustle tonight to collect what they could. Already the trail was growing cold.
Good, April thought. She had faith in Illya. They might track down the other sniper, but they'd never find the Russian. No one, except her, would ever know he'd even been there.
With Jon occupied elsewhere at the embassy, eventually she dozed off, only to be awakened around three a.m. Her husband was talking quietly with a detective to one side. Rousing herself, she forced her feet to the floor in order to join them.
"What is it?" April asked.
"A clue perhaps, Madame, a message," the detective said. "We found this." He held up a matchbook, grasping it carefully just by the edges. "It has your husband's last name written on it. And something else…"
April squinted, straining to read the carefully printed characters. "1707 A.D."
"A date?" reasoned the detective.
"Possibly," Jon chimed in. "The embassy people tell me it's the year Querido's first capital was destroyed by an earthquake. The peasants considered it revenge on the aristocracy for their tyranny — an act of God."
"Hmmph," the detective replied thoughtfully, juggling the open matchbook between his fingertips.
April frowned. "Where did you say you found it?"
"At a rear entrance to that building — there." He pointed to the right.
April suppressed a smile. She knew the real answer, but like the other secret she knew about that night, she kept it to herself. As she rode back to the hotel in the limousine with her husband, finally released by the authorities, she almost laughed to herself.
It was a message, all right. 1707 — try 17:07. And AD— that was easy. Her old initials.
It wasn't a reference to the far-flung past, but to the near future. Tomorrow, in fact. It wasn't history. It was an appointment.
The next day. 5:07 p.m.
She found him sitting in the same seat as the previous day, dressed in black to match the coming night. He was reading the latest edition of The International Herald Tribune, and though it was dusk, he had his dark reading glasses on. As April slid into the opposite chair, Illya declared without looking up, "Your husband gives quite a stirring interview." He began to quote: "…And we must not allow — I will not allow — a gang of international thugs to determine the economic fate of five million people… So? Does he mean it?"
"You bet," April said. "Last night didn't frighten him off. On the contrary, he's more determined than ever."
"I believe you. He reminds me of Napoleon." Illya's eyes peeked over the top of his glasses as he added slyly, "Your type."
"I hadn't noticed," April shot back, but she was smiling. She lowered her gaze along with her voice. "And I want to thank you for saving him."
Illya pocketed his glasses and refolded the paper. "I merely offered advice which you didn't take."
"Nonsense. I may be a little rusty, but I can still distinguish between the sounds of two different guns."
Illya shifted uncomfortably and glanced around them, at the deserted café. A waiter hovered nearby, wiping the tables, upturning the empty chairs and gathering up stray bits of trash. "It appears they'll be closing the outside seating shortly." Abandoning the table and his newspaper, the Russian stood and reached for her arm. "Come on, let's take a walk."
"The sidewalks have ears?" April said.
"Something like that."
They began to stroll, turning off the avenue and heading south, toward the river. The side streets were quiet, but they kept their voices low, just above a whisper. Occasionally, Illya would scan the windows above them without appearing to do so.
"Now don't play coy with me," April said, returning to the conversation. "I know what I heard. Did you kill him?"
"I shot to wound. No reason to leave a body for the police to find and ponder over."
"So he escaped?"
There was a pause as April was tempted to ask about the sniper's fate, then decided against it. "You knew where he'd be positioned?"
"No, but I guessed well." Illya sighed. "Still, I could do nothing to prevent the first bullet. I needed him to shoot first before I could locate him. In the end, it was you who saved your husband's life."
April shook her head sadly. "I wish I could have done the same for the ambassador."
Illya was unconcerned: "Not a great loss. He will be easily replaced."
"Whew," she laughed nervously, "You do live in a cruel world, don't you?"
"More than you realize."
April threaded her arm through his and drew his body close as they continued to walk. "Okay, Mr. Know-it-all, then maybe you'll tell me now: who commissioned the bump? Who was behind the plot to murder my husband?"
"A few men. I still don't know all their names." He turned his head and looked toward her, nearly nose to nose. "I do know that one of them was the ambassador."
"Whoa, wait a minute." April halted dead in her tracks, nearly yanking Illya off-balance. Disengaging her arm, she took a step back and stood still for several seconds, trying to absorb his words as they slowly sank in.
"Are you saying Reyes set my husband up? But the ambassador was killed himself. So what happened? An accident? A misplaced shot? Hard to believe — that sniper was well equipped. Double-cross then? Some sort of betrayal?"
"It is a puzzle, isn't it?" Illya admitted with a shrug. And maybe it was in the carelessness of the shrug, a throwaway gesture, or the lightness of his tone, but suddenly, it all came together for April, all the pieces falling into place. There'd been so much confusion, so much excitement. Four shots.Two guns. Two targets.
"You did it," she whispered, as if she had to speak the words aloud to confirm their truth. "You were the one who killed the ambassador. He was your mission. That's why yesterday you wouldn't tell me everything that was going on. You didn't want me to accidentally screw things up. And that's why you were there last night."
Illya studied the pavement, then raised his eyes upward, scanning the balconies above their heads. "Do you really need me to answer that?"
"No." April let out a long breath. As he'd reminded her — accused her — the previous morning, she wasn't an Innocent. She understood how the Great Game was played. She'd played it herself. Nevertheless, for the moment, she seemed unable to speak or move, but when Illya offered her his arm again, she took it. Slowly, they began to walk again.
"Aren't you worried that the bullets they dig out of the pavement and out of the ambassador's body won't match?"
"We both used the same make and model weapon, and full metal jacket boat tail ammunition…"
" … Which shatters on impact so any identifying marks will be distorted. There won't be much dependable evidence to recover."
"I suppose there may be some head-scratching," Illya conceded, "but so many political assassinations are never solved. It's business as usual."
"And so you did your part and I did mine," April observed, resigning herself, "and the good survived, and the bad guys were vanquished once again." She made a face. "So exactly which side was the ambassador on?"
"Does it matter? This year's enemy will be next year's ally. There are no 'sides.' Politics is a Möbius strip."
They stopped as they reached the edge of the river. April leaned her hip against a low wall, folding her arms around her against the night chill. "Do you believe that?"
Illya considered. "I've come to think that maybe Thrush has it right. Land, money, thrones, missiles — in the end, it's all about power, nothing else. Who needs whom. Who controls whom. Who has the resources to do what they want, whenever they want. Who will live to see the following day, and who will not."
"It doesn't have to be a zero-sum situation."
"No, but we human beings treat it as such. We don't give according to our abilities and take according to our needs. We don't love our neighbor. We don't even allow our neighbor to exist in peace. We have yet to function as truly social creatures. Perhaps, we never will."
April turned toward the river. A fine mist was rising, blotting out everything but the twinkling city lights. "The world you describe isn't just cruel. It sounds terribly lonely."
"In the end, we are alone, all of us, trapped in our own skins, our own destinies. At least for the time being, it can't be otherwise." He smiled, a sudden, sympathetic smile. "Oh April, don't feel sorry for me. For the first time in my life, I'm free."
"No man is free who works for a living," she reminded him with a playful snort.
"Unless, he is the one determining his own fate. It's as I told you: for the first time in my life, no one owns me. My choices are mine. My ethics are mine. The results and responsibilities of my labor are mine alone."
"And I owe you for your most recent labor."
"Not at all. I've been more than compensated." He drew close to her again and asked softly, "You didn't tell your husband, did you?"
April shook her head. "I figured it was my decision to make. Jon doesn't tell me what to do."
"Then we're both free in our own way." He smiled again, his hand to her shoulder. "I'm glad I could help. You were right about your husband. You are in good company."
April nodded, feeling a catch in her throat. She suddenly wanted to cry, and she wasn't even sure why. She rubbed her knuckles against one cheekbone, feeling silly and foolish. "I've always been fortunate that way," she said finally.
"And that makes the world a little less cruel, doesn't it? Then, as now." He leaned across the small space that separated them and gently kissed her cheek. "Goodbye April. I wish you much happiness in your new reincarnation."
"And I wish you all the luck you will need in yours. Take care of yourself."
"Always," he assured her.
Turning up his collar, he stuffed his hands deep into the pockets of his black peacoat and drifted off , southward along the wall, heading towards the bridge and the Left Bank. April watched for a long time, until the shadows swallowed him up, the darkness reclaiming its own.