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Articled To Error
Wandering lost among the mountains of our choice,
Asleep in our huts, how we dream of a part
We envy streams and houses that are sure:
And never will be perfect like the fountains;
--W. H. Auden, In Time of War XXVII (1938)
I only realized the scale of the disaster when I met my two colleagues in Sidi Dhrif. Until that meeting, based on the information I'd received from the men Strughold had sent to the US, I had believed that we had suffered only a minor setback, albeit one with some disturbing implications.
My eyes wandered over the courtyard covered in tiles of blue, white and gold. The fruit trees and flowers growing over every possible surface were almost enough to cover the smell of the smoke I was exhaling. It really was an incongruously beautiful spot.
"What do you mean, you didn't recover the data?" Strughold thundered. Our other colleague tried to meet my eyes in sympathy, and I ignored him. Not for the last time, I wished I had eliminated him when I had the chance.
"Mulder and Scully don't have it," I said. "Krycek must have double-crossed them and kept it for himself. His partner refused to hand it over."
"You don't understand how important it is that we recover that information," the Englishman stated.
This time I met his eyes. "What I cannot understand is why you permitted the research to progress so far."
"Krycek could have continued it on his own if we had attempted to shut the labs down. I judged it safer to allow it to continue where we could monitor it."
"Can you find this person?" Strughold asked. "This Jacob Bookman?" He sounded irritated. His ability to commandeer a presidential palace outside Tunis for our meeting was no doubt meant to impress me. I was more impressed by his paranoia--we were meeting so close to the fountain that its noise would cover the sound of our voices--and his extraordinary worry about the situation with Krycek, Mulder and Jacob Bookman.
"Of course," I said. Bookman and I had shared an interesting, if inconclusive, discussion as he used me to cover his escape from Winchester Air Force Base. He had expressed interest in the Project and I had intimated that the fee for his entry into our little clique would be Krycek's head. If I could find him again, I was certain I could renegotiate. The uncertainties could wait until I was alone.
"And Mulder?" Strughold asked.
"For the moment, Mulder must remain free to act. Once Krycek is taken care of and the information is retrieved we can reconsider, but right now I need Mulder in the open."
The other two didn't object. How could they? Their idiotic gamble had lost them Krycek, Mulder and the vaccine data. John Davies, Strughold's security chief, was lying dead in a ditch somewhere in Central Europe. And they had managed to involve two complete strangers who were somehow allied to Krycek. Now, as usual, they needed me to clean up the mess.
I said my goodbyes and returned to Tunis airport. Twelve hours later I was face to face with one of the few people I had left in the organization. Not that the others were disloyal; most of them were merely dead. Krycek had to have been behind the El Rico firestorm. It was another item I would have to take up with him when I saw him again. My shadow-child, my slippery protégé, I should have paid more attention to him, and now I would have to kill him. Nothing fancy, this time. Alex Krycek had a remarkable talent for escaping from situations which should have left him dead. This time a bullet in the back of the head would finish the matter.
It was almost a certainty that Fowley too would betray me someday. For the moment, though, I had little choice but to rely on her. "Marita Covarrubias was sent from Fort Marlene to one of the sites in Colorado," I told her. "Find her and have her brought back here."
I was getting used to looking up from my desk to find Scully watching me, one eyebrow slightly lifted. She had started to try to distract me with new cases: she even passed me a report about a slime monster in Minnesota. I passed it back and returned my attention to my computer screen.
Scully said something about an appointment, grabbed her briefcase and walked out.
I opened my mouth to call after her--the slime monster was proof of how worried she was about me--but she was already gone.
When I heard footsteps in the hall and the door opening I started to talk right away. "Listen, Scully, I'm sorry. I know I've been--"
Diana Fowley was standing in the doorway. "Fox," she said uncertainly.
It took a second for my brain and my mouth to reconnect. "What the hell are you doing here? Where have you been? You're apartment was deserted!"
"I had some vacation time to take. And I've... I've put in for a transfer to the Atlanta field office."
"A transfer." I stood up. "Aren't you forgetting something, Diana? You don't really work for the FBI. You work for the Smoker, C. G. B. Spender, whatever the hell his name is."
I was still hoping that she would tell me that I was wrong. She just looked at the floor for a second. "It isn't that simple, Fox," she said. "I thought I was doing the right thing."
"The right thing? How is betraying everything I thought you stood for the right thing? Help me understand that, Diana, because right now I'm not very clear about that one."
She bit her lip. "I'm sorry."
"Diana, you were with me when this all started, when we found out about the X-Files. Was everything you ever told me a lie?"
"No!" she said. "No. I came here today because I was worried about you."
"And luring me to El Rico was a sign of how much you care about me."
A line appeared on her forehead. "What are you talking about?"
"Everyone there died, Diana. And if it hadn't been for Scully's call I would have been there too."
"And you think we were trying to kill you? We were trying to help you, to save your life and to help you find Samantha again."
"Don't bring my sister into this, Diana!" I said, a little more loudly than I meant to.
Diana stepped back. "If you want to blame anyone for what happened that night, blame Krycek."
It was my turn to be confused.
"Who do you think told them that we would be there, with Cassandra? He was supposed to turn up, but he never did. He was double-crossing the group the whole time. And then he completely disappeared. Even Birtwistle couldn't find him, until he turned up and kidnapped you, and handed you over to Strughold."
"Krycek didn't hand me over to anyone."
She met my eyes. "Fox, please be careful. Krycek is a loose cannon--no one can restrain him any more. I know you don't feel... I know you can't trust me right now. But please remember that if you need anything, you can come to me. No matter how desperate the situation seems. You're not in this alone. If you ever believed in what we had together, believe that."
I just stood behind my desk and stared at her until she dropped her eyes and turned to leave. I really had to settle things with Scully.
In my father's house are many chambers. I chose the one on the left-hand side on the second floor. It hadn't been used in quite a while except as a guest room; the bookcases now held the overflow from the office downstairs and the posters which had once covered the walls had been rolled up in the basement somewhere and replaced by black-and-white photographs.
From the window I could watch the path that led up to the front of the house, so I settled down to wait for my father to come home. Force of habit took him to the library every morning. He claimed that he was producing another book. It might be the volume of autobiography he sometimes threatened to write, although the need to change nearly all the names--to protect the guilty, of course--seemed to be holding him back from publication.
I had no idea what I would say to him when he did return. I was uncomfortably aware that I'd run home like a little boy bringing his father a broken toy, handing it over to be fixed. But I was no child, and my father could not make this decision for me.
Spender had been very clear that the price of my entry to the conspiracy would be Sasha's death. An excellent choice from his point of view, as it eliminated what he would see as the major risk, that Sasha and I were working together. Once I would have rejected it out of hand: Sasha was one of the few men I considered, if not my equal, then at least my friend. I had felt the same about Daniel, whose death should have made me even more reluctant to endanger Sasha. Once we really would have been working together on this, plotting against Spender and faking a death which he could accept, leaving me on the inside and Sasha working underground.
Now, though, both my problems had the same solution. It was all too clear that Sasha had discovered my role in Daniel's death, and that he suspected that I knew that he knew: why else would he keep himself and my sister away from me? The best way to ensure that he never used that knowledge against me was to remove Sasha altogether.
The same action might save my life. Not just mine: there was my family to think of, my father and my sister. And more.
In Turkmenistan I had for the first time gotten a sense of the scale of the disaster ahead. The idea that the world was run by some secret cabal working behind the scenes was one I'd been taught to regard as the worst kind of paranoia. I didn't like the knowledge that I'd been mistaken.
Now that I knew, I had to act.
I got up and went over to the window to look out. Across the street a thin woman with straight brown hair was trying to load two little girls into a maroon Volvo. An old man was walking up the hill with a German shepherd on a leash.
The conspirators had, I presumed, received some kind of guarantee that they would survive. Sasha seemed to believe that it would be possible to stop what was coming. But even he had to admit that his ability to work within the conspiracy was now limited. He had double-crossed them too many times. Whereas I...
I could take his place, if I were willing to kill him.
The little girls got into the back seat and the woman drove away in the Volvo. I turned from the window and went to sit on the bed. There was no way I could take this problem to my father and allow him to judge me for the choice I might have to make.
I got up from the bed and smoothed the covers. He would know that someone had been in the house no matter what I did, but he would probably also know that it was me. As I turned off the lights I gave the room one last glance: Leilah's dolls seemed to stare back at me accusingly from their shelf. The yearly gift of a well-meaning family friend to a girl who had preferred to play with my trains and my father's printing presses, it was ironic that they were one of the few things left to mark that the room was hers.
I let myself out the back door and was caught again by the sight of the old wooden garage Sasha had named the firetrap and Leilah, more euphemistically, the guesthouse. In fact most of our guests stayed in spare rooms, but Sasha had lived there whenever he visited us despite the lack of heat. Never quite family, never just a guest.
The fate of the world rested in the hands of a few old men. If Sasha was to be believed, their attitude was "après moi, le deluge." Such a situation could not be allowed to continue. I could not turn away from what I knew, no matter what the sacrifice required.
The first thing to do, I decided, was simply to find Sasha. Once I saw him, I would know what to do.
After Mulder got back from wherever Krycek had dragged him too--and refused to tell me anything about what had happened to him--he started to insist that we go out for lunch. He preferred to eat outside and kept anything important he had to say for those occasions. So it was lunchtime when he handed me the plane tickets to San Francisco. We were leaving the next morning. Mulder doesn't believe in prior warning.
"What's in San Francisco?" I asked.
"Berkeley," he corrected me. "Jacob Bookman's family home. We need to find him before Spender does."
"And you think he'll have just gone home?" My belief was that Jacob Bookman had either made a deal with Spender or had left the country and was off with Krycek, wherever the hell Krycek was hiding.
Mulder must have guessed that I was skeptical, since he hunched his shoulders a little, the way he used to when he was trying to get me to buy some outlandish theory. "It can't hurt. We can interview his father, try to get a sense of where he might have gone. We need that data, Scully."
I got a good look at the Bookman family home the next morning, as we pulled up to the curb in front of it. It was a wide wooden building with a stone foundation and a deep front porch. The upstairs windows stared out blankly at the two of us as we left the rented car in the driveway. The plot was large and overgrown, giving the sense that the house was hidden from its neighbors.
We had been told by the Bureau office in San Francisco that Professor Bookman knew we were coming. But there was no sense, as we walked up the path, that anyone was watching us, and no one answered the door when we rang the bell. We waited another minute, and then Mulder glanced over at me and took out his lock picks. I looked away while he worked on the door; I suppose it was my own form of plausible deniability. If I were ever asked, I could always say I'd been concerned about Professor Bookman's safety.
"It's open," Mulder said. He sounded surprised, and I gave him a quizzical look. "No," he explained, "I mean, it was already unlocked."
Not a good sign. We both drew our weapons as he pulled the door open.
The front porch led straight into the living room. My first impression was simply a sense of space: it was a big room, with a high, wood-beamed ceiling and a big stone fireplace on the left-hand wall. My second impression, as my eyes adjusted to the dimness, was that someone had really done a number on it.
The place was a mess. The left-hand wall had been lined with bookshelves: their contents were now spread all over the floor. A glass case across from us was lying on its side, its contents spilled out onto the floor around it.
Mulder looked grim as we split up to circle the room. I was still picking my way through piles of books when he said, "This wasn't a burglary." He sounded very certain.
"How do you know?"
He gestured at the wall behind the fallen display case. "That carpet is an eighteenth-century Persian prayer rug. It's very valuable."
How the hell does Mulder know that kind of thing? "Not everyone has your eye for antiques," I protested.
"But any burglar would have realized that these coins lying on the floor are made of gold. Whoever did this was looking for something specific."
I sighed. "The data?"
Mulder nodded. "I'm going to look around upstairs."
I checked the other rooms on the first floor: they had all been ransacked. We would never be able to tell what, if anything, was missing, aside from the most obvious things. In the office the CPU had been taken, probably along with some CDs and disks. In the kitchen containers of food had been dumped on the table and there was a pool of water forming in front of the open door of the refrigerator.
Next to the pantry, a door led down to the basement. I remembered Jacob's comment about his sister using it to make fake IDs for her friends, and got out my flashlight. I was expecting something exotic, but it was just the usual: stacks of cardboard boxes, some of which had been emptied onto the concrete floor, rotting furniture, more bookshelves and a washer and dryer up against one wall.
Back upstairs, I found Mulder standing in front of the fireplace. He didn't even turn around when I came in. "Scully," he said, "come take a look at this."
"Did you find anything upstairs?"
"More mess," he answered. "No dead bodies, though. That's got to be a good sign." He half turned and offered me a photograph in a cheap plastic frame. I took it automatically, and looked down. Krycek and Jacob Bookman, with a girl who was probably the sister. They were dressed as if for a costume party--the girl's dress was something from the forties, maybe. Bookman was in a tuxedo and Krycek in a linen suit, and they looked like they were laughing about something, maybe the small red hat Leilah was trying to hand to her brother: Bookman had his hands up as if to push it away. What caught my attention, though, and must have drawn Mulder's as well, was the expression on Krycek's face. He looked delighted. Not smug, or cautiously pleased. Just purely happy. His mouth was open, as if he was about to say something. He was holding a fedora in one hand and reaching for the red hat with the other.
"He looks so young," I said, before I could stop myself.
"I forgot what he was like when we first met him," Mulder said softly. "The years have really roughed him up." He sounded regretful.
I was irritated by the sympathy I had felt, and handed the photograph back to Mulder. "This doesn't change anything," I said briskly. "Just because Krycek didn't spring fully-formed from the earth doesn't make him any more trustworthy. He's still an amoral killer with--"
The front door slammed open. "Freeze!" a voice shouted. "Police!"
We turned, our hands in the air. Skinner was going to be furious.
It took a few minutes to convince the good representatives of the Berkeley PD that they had not caught the thieves red-handed. They were apologetic, but not apologetic enough to let us keep cluttering up their crime scene.
I left Mulder trying to be territorial and found a guy looking to make detective whose eyes lit up when I used the phrase "ongoing FBI investigation." He promised to go over the house with a fine-toothed comb; I didn't believe that there would be any evidence to link this to the conspiracy, but that was no excuse for not trying. More importantly, he told me he'd keep me up-to-date on the investigation and let me know the minute any member of the Bookman family reappeared.
"He killed Skinner, you know," Scully said in the car.
She should have known that midday traffic on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge was not the best place for that kind of announcement. I had to concentrate on keeping us in our own lane before I could respond.
"What?" Skinner had growled at me the day before.
"Over the winter. With the nanotechnology. He killed him and brought him back to life. So Krycek didn't tell you about that."
"No." It didn't occur to me to doubt her.
"He's been holding that threat over Skinner ever since, making him do his dirty work."
It was starting again. Whatever fragile peace I had achieved with Krycek was about to be broken. "He told me that he's looking for a cure for the Oil, that he's trying to stop Colonization."
"And you believed him."
"I think he meant it. I don't think he meant for either of us to end up in Strughold's hands."
"Hm," she said. "Why would Alex Krycek be working against them?"
"Survival," I suggested. That was a reason Scully would accept, although I wasn't sure that it was the whole story. "Maybe all he wants to do is save Alex Krycek, but he seems to think that the best way to do that involves saving a whole lot of other people as well."
"But not Skinner."
Not Skinner. I thought of him, lying on the hospital bed while Krycek, hidden somewhere, turned his own body against him. Skinner had put himself on the line for us again and again. He had protected us to the best of his ability. In those terrible months when Scully was dying, he had made a deal with the devil to keep her alive. And Krycek? Krycek had finally admitted to killing my father and arranging Scully's abduction.
And still this murderer in my brain was not the man I'd faced down in that stable, not the man caught between hopelessness and humor outside the lab in Turkmenistan. He was a killer: he had killed my father, he had killed Skinner, I had seen him leave a trail of bodies over the last few days. But that wasn't all he was.
"Did you know that Krycek lost an arm in Russia?" I asked.
Scully expelled a breath. "Is that supposed to make up for everything he's done?"
"No. No, of course not. But..."
"Mulder, I think you need to admit that Krycek was just trying to use you. I don't know what for, what his purposes were, but you can't just assume that they were what he told you. He's trying to manipulate you. He's just using a different method than he did with Skinner."
I started to protest and then realized it. "Actually, I think you're right."
"What?" She glanced over at me and almost smiled. "Mulder, can I get that in writing?"
"No, seriously. Krycek has some kind of plan that he needs my help--our help--for. He took me to Turkmenistan to prove that I could trust him and work with him."
"By kidnapping you."
My mouth twitched. "Well, no one ever said Krycek was normal. I agree that he set the whole thing up, except for our capture by Strughold. That was not part of his plan. Neither was anything that happened there."
"It could have all been an act." I shook my head and she sighed. "Now what? And what about Skinner?"
"I don't know. Maybe if I look like I'm playing Krycek's game I can get him to let Skinner go."
"Look like you're playing Krycek's game, or actually play Krycek's game?"
She'd caught me. "This thing with Krycek, Scully, I feel like it's as close as we've ever come to the truth."
"You've always found it easy to trust Krycek," she said. "I wish I understood why."
"Does it frighten you?" She frowned. "Because it frightens me. Scully, I'm not sure I want to trust Krycek, and I know I don't want you to trust him."
"Well," she said, "there's not much risk of that."
"You know I rely on you to keep me sane."
One perfect eyebrow lifted. "Keep you sane?"
My life is not exactly full of pleasant surprises. So something has to be pretty fucking catastrophic--in the "my dad died last week and my boss just tried to kill me" scale--before I really sit up and notice. Getting caught in Turkmenistan by Strughold's people was getting uncomfortably close. Someone had known about that facility and had been watching it. A leak on the Russian side of things, with ties to Strughold, was bad news. The Russians were very close to a feasible vaccine, and if what Strughold had said was true, there was no way I could permit him to get his hands on it.
And after Austria, I had a score to settle with Strughold.
I figured that Leilah would be anxious to see the back of me. It was for the best: the man she had thought I was wasn't the person I had to be most of the time. Anyway, I couldn't stay in Spain; it was too far out of the loop. And the house was giving me the creeps. I knew it was time to go when I dreamed that Daniel Katalan's ghost came to stand at the foot of my bed and demand his revenge.
She left with me. My week resting my leg left her pale and sharp-eyed. I knew she wasn't sleeping much because every night, very late, she would come and lie next to me in my bed, slipping out again just before the sun rose. I pretended to sleep through it and waited for her to put the pieces together when she was ready.
In Moscow it was still winter, and the streets were full of wet snow. I don't keep an apartment here any more so I checked us into the National Hotel; in Moscow things are either very good or very bad, and this way at least I could be pretty certain the heating wouldn't break down. I left Leilah in the room while I went out to let a few people know that I was back in town.
When I got back I was feeling cautiously optimistic. I wasn't exactly Moscow's golden boy any more, but the people I dealt with were realists. Once they'd found out I was playing both sides they got over it: they could still use me.
I knocked on the door. "Sasha," I said.
"Right." It was her voice, through the door. She opened it to let me in. "What's that? Luggage?"
I had a heavy parcel wrapped up in paper and string lodged under my prosthetic arm. It had been awkward to carry even up to the room. I pulled at it with my good arm. "It's for you."
She came forward and got it from me, using both hands. I stayed still and watched her take it over to the bed and start to rip at the paper. She looked up and gave me a small, careful smile. "It's not a bomb, is it, Sasha?"
"No." I hoped not.
I guess it was pretty obvious once the paper came off, but she unrolled the whole thing and laid it out flat on the bed.
"A fur coat," she said. It was hard to tell if she was pleased or not.
"You were cold just in the taxi coming in from the airport." She was staring at me, not smiling. "Check the inside pockets."
She did. "A fur coat and two guns. You really know the way to a girl's heart, don't you?" She almost sounded as if she thought it was funny.
"One of the guns is for me."
"Sasha, what is this?"
"A coat," I shrugged. "A gun."
"You don't have to buy me things."
"At least see if the damn thing fits."
She put it on and went to stand in front of the mirror. It was long and narrow, the sable only a little darker than her hair, so that I could see where one ended and the other began. She was barefoot, and it came to her ankles. The coat looked like I'd thought it would when I saw it in the window and went into the shop to buy it. Maybe better.
"So," she said, turning around. "It fits."
"It looks..." I trailed off. What was I supposed to say?
"Sasha, it's a beautiful coat. But you shouldn't buy things for me. You don't have to take care of me."
I couldn't take care of her. It was crazy for me even to try. "You haven't heard the bad news," I said.
She grinned. "If it was really bad news you wouldn't have bought me the gun."
"Dinner with two generals. We can't get out of it. Vodka, filthy jokes and greasy food."
"Will there be lap dancers?" she asked. "Daniel said there were usually lap-dancers."
I rubbed my hand over my eyes. "I hope not."
When I looked up, she was standing right in front of me. "Thank you," she said.
I brushed my hand over the sleeve of the coat, barely touching it. "It's just a coat." It was Russian sable. I met her eyes. "You aren't... You shouldn't think... I don't want anything for this." There. That was tactless enough.
For just a second, I thought she might start to cry. But she blinked and said, "You never expect anything, Sasha. It's part of your charm."
I would figure out what she meant by that later. "It's worked so far," I ventured.
"Yes," she said, frowning a little. "Will you let me help with all this? The... aliens?" She said it like it was a word in a foreign language. "You've carried it on your own long enough."
The urge to trust someone becomes overwhelming sometimes, although it has never worked out. The situation was dangerous enough without bringing in my messy relationship with Leilah and Jacob. All I would do was hurt her. Hurt her more, anyway. A better man than I am would have sent her packing. But she was a good shot and an excellent forger and had contacts all over Europe and Asia. And I was tired of being alone.
Dinner with the generals was not as bad as it could have been. One of them turned up with his mistress, a stringy second-rate ballerina in a very small, very lurid dress. About halfway through the meal the other one managed to connect Leilah with her brother and proceeded to lecture her drunkenly on Yugoslavia and Chechnya while the ballerina slipped off to the bathroom to shoot up. A party of Georgian gangsters sitting at the next table got interested in the lecture and started to argue with the generals about terrorism and corruption--subjects they probably knew more about than the generals did. They also insisted we try some kind of Georgian lamb dish they had ordered, which undoubtedly involved parts of the animal normal people throw away. It was so disgusting that we all needed a lot more vodka to wash away the aftertaste.
I love the New Russia. At least no one got killed.
We stumbled back into the hotel at dawn, after the usual protestations of eternal love from the Georgians. The ballerina had to be carried out. When we got back to the room Leilah muttered something at me, lay down on the bed and fell asleep, still wrapped in the coat.
The dinner was worth the headache. The Russians had ordered the Turkmeni lab closed down in a response to the destruction of so many of the American labs by the alien resistance; the three key scientists had been moved to more secure locations. Now I knew where they were.
In the morning I decided to go pay them a visit and see if I couldn't make someone else feel as sick as I did.
Yevgeny Beraichev was alone in the lab when I found him. Perfect. I locked the door behind me and leaned back against the reinforced glass; he looked up when he heard the lock but by then it was too late. He knew he was in trouble when I pulled down the shade so no one could see in.
"You told me you had a vaccine," I said.
He was already pale from the winter and the time spent inside the lab, so he didn't have much color to lose. He swallowed and then wiped at his mouth as if he'd been drinking something. Then he brushed his hair out of his eyes. It was long and stringy, no real color, and didn't really match the rest of him. Yevgeny was a man made out of cubes: cubes for his legs, cubes for his torso, a cube for his head. He looked solid, even in the lab coat, but I could practically smell how scared he was. I walked toward him, three slow steps.
"You told me you were making progress. I thought we had a deal, Yevgeny."
"Aleksandr Grigorievich..." he began. "I thought... That is..."
"Progress. Yes," he said. "Yes, I have made progress. The results are good." Three more steps had me an arm's length from him and him babbling. "You have to understand, we left so suddenly, I couldn't put it in the store-room. There wasn't time. I was keeping it separate, so no one else would find it. It was an accident!"
"You were holding out on me, Yevgeny. Admit it." He jumped backwards and beads of sweat appeared on his face. He was much more frightened than what he had done warranted. Lucky the first time: I'd found my leak.
"No! Here it is; let me get it." He began to move sideways, as if he was afraid to turn his back on me. Well, the man was supposed to be some kind of genius.
"Stay there." He froze. "Tell me a story, Yevgeny. Who have you been talking to? And what did you tell them?" I pulled a chair away from the machine it was sitting in front of. "Have a seat. Make yourself comfortable."
He shook his head, the first sign of resistance. It was bound to start.
"Did they threaten you, Yevgeny?" I kept my voice low and soothing. "I can threaten you too, if it will help." He shook his head again and I sighed. I had a headache. Why shouldn't he?
Beraichev was solid, but he wasn't fast. I took one step closer to grab him by the neck of his shirt and slammed his head down against the laboratory worktable. His hands scrabbled against the smooth surface. I slammed his head down again, so he'd know I meant it, and let him go.
"I don't want to hurt you," I told him. "Don't make me hurt you, Yevgeny."
He pushed himself up, then stepped back and sank into the chair, holding his head in his hands. "The vaccine isn't perfect. It has a 53% success rate. I think I can make it better. I don't know if I can make it perfect."
Fifty-three percent. Was that two billion lives lost or two billion lives saved? It was no good: the newborn Grays would just rip up anyone the vaccine worked on.
"Fifty-three percent is worthless. It won't save your life."
He swallowed. "I can make it better, Aleksandr Grigorievich, but then the vaccine becomes impossible to synthesize." In other words, impossible to produce in the necessary quantities. Fuck.
"Not good enough. I thought I could count on you, Yevgeny. Not just to do the work. To keep your mouth shut about it. You mentioned my name to someone. Who was it?"
He looked up at me. "They'll kill me," he whispered.
"Not if I kill you first." .
He swallowed convulsively. "I saw Malcolm Foote at a conference in Bonn..."
"And you complained about me," I whispered, leaning closer.
"You were worried about the work," I continued. "You weren't sure what my intentions were."
"He told me you were going to release the virus, that you only wanted the vaccine for a small group." Beraichev was still whispering, his eyes closed. It was like his fear had put him into some kind of trance.
"And you believed him."
"He told me... he told me he would help, that if I let him know when I was going to give you the vaccine he'd take care of it."
"That he'd take care of me, you mean."
He swallowed and nodded again. Then he opened his eyes and said, "But I didn't leave the vaccine in the lab for either of you. I kept it."
"You double-crossed us both?" I barked out a laugh. He was sweating, though. Like I said, he was some kind of genius. "Yevgeny, you idiot! Where are the samples and the documentation?" He gestured with his head to one of the shelves. Keeping an eye on him, I went over to look into the box in it. A set of vials in a case, some computer disks and printouts. It looked good. Three of the vials had the number he'd given me on them. Series 77-22, number 1764. I slipped the whole case into my pocket and drew my gun. Beraichev got up from the chair. "Sit back down," I told him.
He sat down and I shot him between the eyes.
The other two scientists were geniuses too, supposedly. Maybe this would make them work harder.
As I walked back into the hotel I was feeling fairly pleased with the way the day had gone. My headache had almost disappeared. Krostenko and Selunskaya were suitably impressed by Beraichev's dead body; I didn't expect any trouble from them for a while. The Russians still needed me as a go-between, so they wouldn't raise the issue of my killing Beraichev directly; what they would do was increase the security on the other two and their work so no one else could get in. That was good: I didn't want anyone getting at them until I knew what was going on with the vaccine-Colonization link. And tucked into my coat pocket I had Beraichev's vaccine. Fifty-three percent was better than nothing. It had to be.
Plus, I had a lead on the leak to Strughold's organization, although I wasn't looking forward to confronting Malcolm Foote. After Charne-Sayre's death he'd taken over the Brit's research program. He was an idealist, a man more like Mulder than me. The last person I would have expected to go over to Strughold's side.
One of the bellboys got in my way as I strode across the lobby. "Madam is in the conservatory," he announced, then stood there and stared at my shoes, waiting for his tip.
Leilah had probably been bored, sitting in the room. I changed directions and went to find her.
The National is proud of its conservatory. You can sit there in the middle of winter, surrounded by tropical plants, drinking your gin and tonics and dreaming of empire. A lot of brass, polished daily. A lot of wicker. Fern bar by Fabergé.
I stood in the entry, scanning the room, as the headwaiter hovered behind me. There she was: I hadn't seen her the first time because she was talking to another woman. I could see the back of a blonde head. The ballerina? Leilah saw me and smiled, then leaned forward to say something to her companion as I made my way over to them.
They'd been having tea, not drinks, and the table was littered with the detritus: fine china cups and plates, a small pot for the tea and another, on a warmer, for the water, some kind of yellow cake. There were two pieces left. It made a nice scene, two good-looking, well-dressed women meeting in the middle of the afternoon for a little fashionable gossip. Even their looks contrasted: one fair-skinned and blonde, the other dark-haired and tanned. Two businessmen at a table nearby were clearly admiring the view. I desperately wished that I didn't know either woman, so I could appreciate it too.
My headache was back, with a vengeance. I got to the table on autopilot; they both looked up and smiled at me.
"Hello, Alex," Marita Covarrubias said.
I slumped into a chair next to Leilah's. "You're looking well, Marita." It was true. Oh, I could see traces of the wreck she'd been in the way the skin was clinging to her cheeks and in the broken veins in her eyes, but other than that she looked completely self- possessed. She always had.
A small tightening of the muscles around her mouth was all the answer I got. As if I didn't have enough enemies. "Can we talk here?" she asked.
"I don't think you want to go anywhere more private."
"You must know why I'm here."
"Since it isn't the glorious Moscow climate, I guess I must have pissed someone off."
"He wants to see you."
I grinned. No shit. "He probably wants to kill me. What's in it for me?"
"He claims he still needs you on the inside, particularly now." Now that the resistance was trampling all over his secure little kingdom, I guessed. I'd be happy to sit back and watch it happen if I wasn't worried that the rest of the planet was about to follow the Smoker down the drain.
"But you don't believe that."
She gave me a little smile. "I think you're right. But he's started to talk about a new generation taking over. Agent Mulder's name was mentioned."
Ah, the threat. Come back and play nice or we'll bring Mulder in. We know what you want, and we'll give it to him, instead. He'd always been the heir-apparent. The rest of us were just substitutes, kept in place until the day Mulder took up his rightful position. If it came to that, I wondered which way Mulder would go. Spender had been chipping away at his integrity for years, getting him closer and closer to the organization, frustrating him and forcing him to compromise. Diana Fowley was claiming that she had almost got him to come to El Rico with her. And in Austria he'd seemed happy enough to play along with Strughold for his own ends. Maybe this time it was going to happen. A Mulder who was willing to play ball allowed all kinds of interesting possibilities.
I said, "The old man's been trying to get to Mulder for years. It'll never happen, but you can tell him good luck from me."
Her face tightened. Didn't like being messenger girl, did she? But she couldn't have expected I'd take her back into my confidence, especially with Leilah sitting right here next to me.
"You don't have to trust me to realize that this time he means it," she said.
"But I'm not going to drop everything and rush back to Spender on your word."
"Don't you think he knows that?"
Jesus. I was never going to shake this headache. Not so long as the Smoker was alive. Right now I was in no condition to deal with Marita. I stood up. "Are you still staying at the apartment?" She nodded. "I'll contact you there."
Leilah stood as well. "A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Covarrubias."
Marita tilted her head slightly, looking up at her. "Remember what I told you," she said. "Alex, I look forward to hearing from you."
Great. I took Leilah's arm as we walked out. "What did she tell you?" I asked.
"It wasn't what she said as much as how she said it. Pretty much every sentence could have ended with 'you poor, deluded girl.' What does she want?"
"The usual. Freedom. Power. My head on a platter."
"Too bad. I liked her." Shit. The elevator doors closed behind us; Leilah leaned against the back wall and stared at our blurred reflection in the metal. "Once we got over the awkward moment when I thought she was a prostitute and she thought I was one. If the two of you are secretly married, now would be a good time to confess to it."
"I have a wife in Shanghai and two more in Yemen," I said automatically. She snorted. "Marita Covarrubias is a ruthless bitch who is waiting for the day when she can spit on my dead body. And I need to go to England tomorrow."
"And you want me to stay here and keep an eye on her." Leilah supplied.
"She used to have contacts. She might still be a player."
The elevator door opened and we walked back down the corridor to the room. "She thinks we're lovers. Will that be a problem?"
I answered as the door closed behind us. "Tell her whatever you think will work. I'll back you up." I might someday be desperate enough to give Marita another try, but I doubted it. I was pretty sure she felt the same. I had no idea what she wanted now--whatever she would gain the most by, I guessed. Much like myself: it was one of the reasons we had worked together so well, and probably why everything fell apart.
I sat down on one of the little chairs and watched Leilah step out of her shoes and wiggle her toes. "Will you be all right while I'm in England?" I asked.
"Of course." She sounded surprised.
I considered leaving it there: it wasn't my problem. Except that it was. "Will you sleep?"
She sat down on the bed. "I can hardly spend the rest of my life following you everywhere you go."
"But you could go home."
"I think activity is the best cure. I don't want to go home and play the invalid."
"I'd warn you about how dangerous this thing is..."
"But it would be a bit late," she finished.
"Everything is expendable, Leilah."
"Is that what happened to Marita?"
Shit. What had that woman told her? "More or less. She decided that I was expendable, and her employers decided she was expendable." And look at what had happened to them, and to her. There was probably a lesson in there for me.
She frowned at me as if she could follow my thoughts. "All right. I'll stay and look after Marita for you. Can you handle England without backup?"
"I'll manage," I said. "Did she really think that you were a prostitute?"
"I was mortified," she said. "Mistaken for a Russian whore? But now she thinks I'm in love with you." She made a face and batted her eyelashes at me.
"You look like an idiot when you do that."
"Wait until she sees the coat," she said, trying to sound grim. "It's bound to confirm all her darkest suspicions about us."
"Great," I muttered.
At that, she burst out laughing. "I'm so flattered, Sasha."
The relief I felt at hearing her laugh was unexpected. She was leaning back against the headboard and smiling at me from across the room. I smiled back, vaguely surprised by how unfamiliar it felt.
On to Part Two
Disclaimer: The X-Files universe and the characters of
that show are the property of 1013 and Fox. No profit is
being made here. As before, the opening poem is from W. H.
Auden, In Time of War, as published in his Collected Poems.
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