# # #
"How extravagant you are, throwing away women like that. Some day they may be scarce." Captain Louis Renault, "Casablanca"
"Her love was life to me."
Charles Boyer, of his recently deceased wife, in his suicide note
# # #
Before the war, the village of Teotecacinta had been insignificant, a simple, rural community, home to just over two thousand people, mostly farmers. The only thing at all special about the village was its location: Teotecacinte was in northern Nicaragua, a mere four miles from the border with Honduras.
When the Sandinista regime took power, and a Contra army rose against them, the little village suddenly became vitally important. It blossomed into a Contra base, home to native Nicaraguan freedom fighters, their mercenary supporters, and of course their American advisors. Teotecacinte became a cosmopolitan campground.
The Sandinista government reclaimed the village with a massive show of force. The troops were ordered to arrest all the rebels and foreigners, but by the time they arrived, all these undesirables were gone and only the resident farmers remained. The main body of the government forces retreated, leaving the village under martial law in the command of Enrique Santoro and his troops. As soon as his superiors were down the road, Santoro ordered the arrest of everyone who might have collaborated with the Contras. This order, of course, led to the arrest of nearly everyone in the village.
Santoro released the children and the old men and women. They were no use to him, and no threat. Men of military age were interrogated, tortured, then marched to the forest and shot. Women between the ages of fourteen and forty were questioned, sometimes beaten, frequently raped, and ultimately released.
Two dozen women - those Santoro reported to his superiors were the most dangerous and those who might have further information - were detained in the basement of the church, which Santoro had taken over as his headquarters.
After seven weeks, the Contras retook the village in a vicious and extraordinarily well-armed firefight.
The mercenaries looked around the village, shook their heads in familiar disbelief, and went to set up their camp again. The Contras looked at their shattered native land, buried the dead, and vowed revenge. The advisors moved into the church headquarters.
The women in the basement were, in some ways, more horrible than the rotting corpses in the forest. Their bodies spoke of the torture they had endured, but the women were as silent as the dead. They shuffled out of the basement, squinting in the sunlight, and wandered slowly back to their homes. They barred their doors and closed their curtains and in silence gave themselves into the care of their old parents and their young children.
All save one.
She shuffled, too, body bowed, wounds oozing, but she limped only across the street from the church. Then she hunkered against a garden wall, watching. Watching the Contras come and go, watching the mercenaries, watching the advisors. She seemed to be waiting for something, but no one cared to guess what it might be. Mad, they decided, and shook their heads. Damn shame. Happens, in places like this, in wars like this.
At the end of the day, the lead advisor came out of the church and walked to his waiting jeep. He planned to head back to Honduras, where he had a reasonably safe hotel with hot running water. He could always come back and run this war in the morning.
The woman lurched toward him, crawled into the passenger seat.
"Hey," he said, alarmed, disgusted, appalled, "get out. You can't be in here."
"Shut up and drive, Warnick."
There was not a trace of an Hispanic accent to her words. Warnick looked at her more closely. Her face had been beaten to a pulp. She wore rags, might have been a dress once, brown. Her feet were bare, her arms and legs covered with bruises and burns, cuts and old blood. Her hair was dark brown, long, matted with crud. She smelled horrible.
She could only open one eye; the other was swollen shut and crusted with yellow puss. But that one eye was not the eye of a madwoman. That eye was somehow familiar.
"Drive, Warnick," she said again.
He felt his mouth drop open. "Romanov?"
# # #
At two a.m., Robert McCall was sleeping soundly. Yet he woke instantly at the light, insistent knock on his door. Grabbing his dressing gown and his gun, he hurried down the hall. It was McCall's experience that only bad news arrived at this godforsaken hour; good news could usually wait until morning. He checked through the spyhole, then dropped the gun into his pocket as he opened the door. "Control?"
"She's alive, Robert."
McCall decided he would have to reconsider his bad news theory. "Lily?"
"Yes." Control was smiling broadly, an almost unfamiliar expression on his normally stern face. "Yes, Lily."
"Come in," Robert said. "Come in, we'll have a drink."
Control entered the apartment, but stayed at the door. "I can't stay. I'm on my way to the airport. Tillman's got her in Miami. I'm headed there now."
"And what," McCall asked carefully, "does Tillman say?"
"That he's seen worse," Control answered solemnly. They both knew what that might mean. Dr. Douglas Tillman was the Company's leading trauma specialist; he'd taken the Soviet bullet out of Robert's chest, put Kostmayer back together after the KGB tried to brainwash him. Tillman was absolutely the best, and he'd seen everything. Control shrugged it off. "He says she's not in any danger." The grin returned. "She's alive, Robert."
Robert chuckled. "So you've said."
His friend turned as if to go, then turned back. "Robert," he said, sincerely, "you've been . . . a true friend, through all of this. I want you to know . . . I want to say thank you."
McCall nodded, a little embarrassed. "Give her my best."
"I will. I will." Still grinning, Control went back into the night.
Robert thought about going back to bed, but he knew he wouldn't sleep. Instead, he went to the kitchen and put the tea kettle on to boil. So the girl was alive. After all this time. He shook his head in amazement.
She'd been missing since Labor Day. He remembered the date because he'd spent the day with Scott and Becky, teaching his son's latest girlfriend how to sail. Becky had a lingering fear of water - to be expected, from a woman who had drowned as a child - and started the day huddled in the cockpit with her life preserver knotted around her neck. By day's end, she was scampering around the deck on her sure, bare feet, the life jacket forgotten in a corner, sunburned and laughing from sheer joy. It had been a very good day, the best that Robert could remember for some time. Spending time with his son had become so much easier of late. As if they had turned some unseen corner in their relationship, they could talk without boring each other, could disagree without arguing. He had always loved the boy; suddenly he was beginning to like him, as well.
He'd come back to his apartment late, tired, salty, and found Control sitting on his couch, smoking an evil cigar in the dark.
A Contra base in Nicaragua, Control reported, had been overrun. The American advisors - most of them State Department, DoD, not regular Company men - had been warned and had evacuated cleanly. But the person who had gone to warn them was missing.
"Missing," Control had spat. "She's missing, Robert."
Control had almost nothing to do with the Contra war. That was being handled over his head, in Washington, at the highest levels of the government, and he was glad of it. It was illegal top to bottom, against the explicit expressed wishes of Congress, and it had become so top-heavy that Control was sure it would soon fall apart. He had done what he could to keep his top agents out of it, to keep his office as clean as he could. But they had needed a courier, a good one, and fast, and one of the bigwigs in DC had snagged Lily Romanov out of her apartment in Langley and sent her.
And she was missing.
There were, of course, no plans for a rescue attempt. They weren't even sure she was alive; fighting had been especially intense in the area where she was last seen. Besides, and more importantly, there was no official American involvement in the region. They could not launch a rescue into Sandinista territory without admitting that she was there in the first place. The higher-ups in DC were not going to risk exposure and embarrassment to save the life of one woman, a simple courier at that, who was in any case probably already dead . . .
Robert had rarely seen Control as furious as he was that night.
He had listened to his friend rant for over an hour, denouncing everything and everyone from the White House on down. That they would put one of their people in harm's way, then abandon her out of political convenience, was simply incomprehensible to him . . .
McCall had elected not to point out that Control himself had done similar things. He just listened and nodded and filled the glass as needed and waited. In time, the tirade ran out of steam. Then he'd ventured, "When do we leave?"
Control had shaken his head. "We don't."
"If they won't go get her . . . "
"No. They're probably right, she's probably dead." Control had closed his eyes for a moment, trying to shut out that awful realization, though his training and experience told him it was almost certainly true. "And if she's not," he'd continued, "then she's gone to ground."
"If the Sandinistas knew they had an American agent in custody, it would be all over the news by now. They haven't said anything, so either they don't have her or they don't know they have her. If we go poking around down there and she *is* still alive . . . "
Robert had nodded, understanding the logic, agreeing with it - and understanding, too, what it cost Control to do nothing.
Weeks later, he'd had to explain it to Mickey Kostmayer, who was devising a rescue plan of his own. He hadn't succeeded in convincing him, but Control had, not by reason or logic but by sending his teammates to Hungary. Kostmayer was furious, hurling any number of accusations at Control, there in Robert's living room - but the reasons stayed the same. Either she was dead, or she was alive by her own wit, and in any case they could not help her until the situation changed.
Control and Robert had both known, from the start, that she was very likely dead.
But now - Robert glanced at the calendar that hung on the wall over the telephone. Seven weeks, a little more. Seven weeks, and she was alive and she was safe in Tillman's care in Miami.
Robert shook his head. It was not the first time he'd been amazed by the world in general, and by Control's unfailing luck in specific.
The kettle whistled, and Robert made his tea. He carried it into the dark living room, to the window, and looked out at the silent street below. Wondering, now, what the future held for his friend and Lily Romanov.
They had been lovers, Control and Lily, in a brilliantly quiet affair that had lasted more than a year. But inevitably one of Control's enemies learned their secret, and shot Lily in an attempt to get back at Control. She'd survived, but Control had ended the relationship. He didn't want to risk any more harm to her. He wanted to protect her. He wanted her to be safe.
Robert shook his head. He had said then, and had continued to say, that Control was a fool. It was clear to him that his friend still loved the woman, and would until he died, and what was more, that he loved her in that unique way that Robert had loved Manon Brevard, entirely without reservation, without the need for secrets between them. He knew what it had cost him to lose Manon, and to learn only years later what he had missed, the life that might have been. He had tried to convince Control not to make the same mistake. Lily was half his age, but she was by no means a child. She understood perfectly the risks of the relationship, and she was willing to take them. If Control was to have any true happiness in his life, Robert had argued, then he would find it in the arms of that woman and no one else.
Control, of course, heeded none of this. He had sent her away for her own good, he insisted stubbornly, and he was standing by his decision.
McCall had never learned what Lily thought of that decision. He'd seen her a number of times, first at Pete's with Mickey, later on her own. They spoke cordially, like friends, which they quickly became - but they never spoke of the affair. When Lily spoke of Control, it was as her boss. Not a single word from her, not the slightest intimation, the vaguest hint about her feelings, about the love that Robert had been sure she felt. It was as if the affair had never happened. As if it had vanished from her memory.
Which was, Robert realized, an act of love in and of itself. Because Lily Romanov might have raised a sea of trouble for Control, if she'd been so inclined. That she did not, Control maintained, was a testament to his ability to judge character. In Robert's opinion, it was another testament to Control's extraordinary luck.
And so things had continued for a year and a half, until her disappearance. And so things might have continued forever.
But her disappearance had brought a change in Control. From the moment the report came in, Control began to obsess about her, to reexamine his choice. From the day he knew she was gone, Control had decided to get her back.
It was not, in McCall's opinion, going to be as easy as Control seemed to think it would be. Lily Romanov could be stubborn in her own right, and fiercely independent. She might, he conceded, just run back to Control's arms at the first invitation. Or she might laugh in his face. Robert was not willing to bet money in either direction. He didn't know Lily well enough to make an educated guess - and he doubted that Control, who had been her lover for a year, knew her that well, either.
All had been mere speculation while they silently assumed that she was dead. Only once, late after dinner and deep into brandy, had Control given any indication that he was unsure. "Do you think she'll forgive me, Robert?" he asked quietly.
"For not going to get her?"
"For all of it."
Robert had nodded. "She would forgive you anything," he assured his friend. He did not add, if she's alive, but they both heard it.
But she was alive - badly injured, evidently, but alive - and Robert was not at all sure that she would forgive.
He finished his tea with a sigh. Did it matter? Oh, in the long run, for Control's happiness, for Robert's peace of mind, but tonight? Did it matter tonight? Or was it enough that she lived? Against all ridiculous odds, against all of Robert's experience in such matters, she was alive. For tonight, that was enough.
He put his cup in the kitchen sink and went to back to bed, wishing them both Godspeed.
# # #
"You can't see her."
"What?" Control asked with barely contained anger.
"You can't see her," Tillman repeated placidly. He was nearly eighty years old, a foot shorter than Control, and completely unimpressed by the display of temper. "She doesn't want to see anyone."
"She'll see me," Control said with assurance.
"She especially asked not to see you."
Tillman patted the younger man's arm paternally. "She's hurt, she's ugly, and she knows it. Give a girl a little room for vanity."
"Vanity?" Control practically screeched. "She hasn't got a vain bone in her body. What is it? Does she blame me for this?"
"Then why won't she see me?"
The doctor poured him a nice cup of herbal tea, knowing full well he wouldn't drink it. "Control, I'm not a psychiatrist. I couldn't begin to tell you all of what's going on with her. But I tell you this: she's badly hurt, she's very fragile, and she needs to be left alone."
Control took a long, slow breath. He had come in with such expectations, with his opening lines all rehearsed. Idiot. Why did this woman always make him behave like such an idiot? Why could he never think clearly where Lily Romanov was concerned?
Tillman was watching him. He sipped the tea and made a face. "New poison?"
"Good for the digestion."
"I want to see her medical file."
Control glowered at him. "No? Last time I checked, you were still on my payroll."
"Last time I checked, I was still a doctor and my patients were entitled to a certain level of confidentiality."
"She was injured in the line of duty . . . "
"I've made you a summary." Tillman took a single sheet of paper off his desk and offered it. "Take it or leave it."
"I want the whole file," Control snapped. He took the sheet and sat down, absently sipping the tea, making the same face, sipping it again. Reading the cold, hard words that should never have had anything to do with Lily.
The summary started at the head. Multiple abrasions and contusions to the face. Heavy blunt force trauma to the left occipital area, but no fractures. Dislocation of the jaw, self-corrected in the field. One tooth chipped, six loosened. Neck muscle strains consistent with mild whiplash.
She'd been beaten about the head. No surprise there. Unpleasant, but bearable.
It got worse.
Torso and limbs. More lacerations and contusions. Four cracked ribs, two on each side. Strap line bruises consistent with beating with a belt, probably leather; bite wounds of various sizes, primarily focused on her breasts; burns in puddle shapes that suggested melted wax; round char burns the size of cigarettes, bigger ones that indicated cigars. More burns and bruises on her arms and legs. Ligament damage to her left knee. Hyperextension breaks of both pinky fingers. More burns and strap marks on the soles of her feet. Malnutrition, dehydration, dysentery, strong evidence of food poisoning. Flea bites.
Evidence of sexual trauma consistent with rape and sodomy.
Control closed his eyes, trying to unread, trying not to know what he had known all along. Bad enough that anyone should have had his Lily at all. To have her this way, by force, to use sex as torture . . . against his Lily . . .
The rage rose like bile in him. They would die, every last one of them, they would die for this affront to his lady . . .
He threw the paper down and stood up. "I want to see her. Now."
Tillman shook his head. "No."
"Tillman . . . "
"Control. Think. Think about *her*, think about the woman. Can you do that? Can you just this once consider her as a person and not just as an asset in the field? Can you think about what she's been through?"
Control could think of nothing else. "I want to see her!"
"She needs to have control of her life right now," Tillman said flatly. "She needs to be able to say who she will see and when. I will not let you take that away from her."
Control sat back down. "She blames me."
"She must . . . "
"She thinks she failed you."
Control blinked. "What?"
"A good agent doesn't get caught," Tillman explained. "She is such a good soldier, she thinks she failed you."
"All the more reason . . . "
"No. When she's ready, she'll come to you. You're not talking to her."
Control sipped his tea, trying not to heave it back up. His Lily, his Lily . . . but God, she wasn't his anymore, was she? Because he'd sent her away. Because he hadn't known. He buried his head in his hands. "I have to see her," he whispered. "I have to know, Tillman . . . I have to at least know that she's really alive."
Tillman sighed, glanced at his watch. "Wait here."
"If you wake her," Tillman warned sternly, "I will kill you." Nothing about his tone suggested that this was hyperbole.
Nodding his understanding, Control stepped into the room.
A basic hospital room, white, clean. No equipment in evidence, just the bed, a chair, a dressing table, but plainly a hospital room. He stepped closer to the bed, aware of the silent rustle of his leather shoes on the linoleum. Trying to keep his breath steady and quiet.
She slept on her left side, curled into a tight fetal ball. She had the blanket tucked up to her chin, her right arm on top, two burns visible on that arm, bruises or shadows everywhere.
Her face was still mostly purple, one eye so swollen that it couldn't possibly open, her jaw smooth over swelling. Her hair was darker than it had been the last time he'd seen her. But the woman in the bed was undeniably Lily Romanov.
Control almost wished it wasn't. Wished that he could still believe that she was somewhere in Nicaragua, safely hiding with some farm family, untouched. But she was here. She was safe. She was alive. Control let out a slow, deep breath. She was alive. While she lived, she would heal. And if she didn't want to see him - if she didn't want him to see her like this - so be it. Tillman was right. He could afford to let her have that, now that he knew. Now that he had seen her again, breathed the same air, felt her very presence around him. Now that he was sure.
And when she was better, when the bruises had faded and she had come to terms with some of what had happened to her, then she would come to him, then they would hash all this out. Then, then they would find a way to put back together what they had had. They would rekindle their love affair, and this time Control would be more careful and more caring, less callous, less neglectful. This time she would know what she meant to him. This time it would be different.
He ached to touch her, just to stroke her hair, to feel her skin beneath his fingertips, but he kept his hands locked behind him. Not because of Tillman, but because he knew the instant he made contact, she would wake, in the grips of that horrible full-adrenalin alertness that agents developed in their first year, if they were going to survive to the second. And she would know that he'd seen her, like this, when she hadn't wanted him to. No. He would not wake her, he would not hurt her this way.
This time, he vowed, this time he would be more careful. And this time he would not throw her away.
He stood and looked at her until Tillman came and took him away.