She was thinking of defecting to the West already! Jack had always suspected that Irina knew him better than he knew himself, but he'd never anticipated this. He should have, of course; his assignment had ended with his wife's, and so they'd reached this transition together. And if she knew the CIA's cover story - which he should have realized, long ago - then perhaps the truth wouldn't be too shocking for her to take.
"Jack!" Oleg was staring at him, shaking his head. "Where are you? Have you heard a word I've been saying?"
"No. I'm sorry." Jack tried to smile. "It's been a long night."
"Maybe you shouldn't come out drinking after all. You can't afford to lose touch with reality more than you already have."
"One vodka," Jack promised. Irina would need some time to get Valentina soundly asleep. "Then I'll leave the rest of you to it."
They were standing in the alleyway behind the theatre, waiting for Galine and her friends to finally emerge. As usual, Oleg was impatient, filled with energy, bouncing on his heels; between his hands he juggled Galine's purse, which he had already collected from her. "How can it take so long to put dresses on hangers?"
"At least they strike the set. You used to leave props lying around all over the place."
"For you and Irina to use? No, don't tell me. It's more fun to have it a mystery, and try to imagine what's embarrassing you so." Oleg shot him a sideways glance, and Jack didn't need the streetlights to know how amused his friend was. "This is madness. Wait here."
When Oleg thrust Galine's purse into his hands, Jack held it out slightly from his body, as though it were something foreign and strange. "What are you doing?"
"Dragging my wife out by her hair." Oleg opened the stage door. "We'll return in five minutes, or I swear, you and I will go out on our own and they won't see us until dawn."
The door slammed shut before Jack could protest; he had no intention of leaving Irina alone until dawn, especially not when they had so much to talk about. Then again, gentle Oleg didn't actually intend to drag Galine out by her hair.
He leaned against the brick wall of the theatre, trying to imagine the conversation he would have with Irina later that night. The truth would hurt her - Jack knew that too well, having envisioned the wounds it would inflict and the scars it would leave over and over again during the past eight years. But Irina knew part of the truth, she was ready to accept certain risks, and she had to know - she had to - how much he had learned to love her. Tonight, when he told her, it wouldn't go well. Jack was too well acquainted with Irina's temper and her pride to think any differently. But if she wanted to leave the Soviet Union, and he could help her do that, then she'd at least work with him, and while they worked together, she would have time to --
Jack cocked his head as he heard a car motor, loud and fast, getting closer; almost before he could realize what was happening, a black van skidded around the corner, screeching to a halt just in front of him.
The back doors swung open. Arvin Sloane grabbed Jack's arm. "Get in."
What the hell was Arvin doing? It was madness to approach him so publicly, so noticeably. Furious, Jack leapt in the van, hoping Oleg wouldn't appear. Arvin slammed the doors shut behind him and said, in English, "Go."
The driver took off, accelerating so sharply that Jack slammed his head against the van's side. Wincing, he said, "If you're trying to be discreet, Arvin, you're not doing very well."
"I'm not trying to be discreet. I'm trying to be fast. Jack, your cover's been blown. We had to extract you immediately."
A thousand objections rose up, thick and fast and nauseating, so clotted together that they clouded Jack's mind and closed his throat. Only one came out of his mouth, perhaps because it was the smallest: "I have Galine's purse."
Arvin ignored this. "I'm sorry. You'll never know how much. I had presented them with your plan, and they were considering it. They hadn't said yes, but with more time - well. We didn't have any more time."
The crisis was on him now, and Jack's mind snapped into focus, crystallizing the moment, the problems, the choices. "I'm not leaving without my wife and daughter."
"You're already gone," Arvin said, making a gesture that took in himself, the driver and the van combined. "The KGB received a tip. Apparently one of the agents we were calling on to expedite your departure turned you in. We have every reason to believe agents are at your home even now."
Irina was headed home. Could Irina outfight one or two of her fellow agents? Jack had absolutely no doubt that she could, especially if Valentina were in danger. (The thought of Valentina in danger shook something fundamental inside him, but Jack buried it down deep.) That meant, if he could get there quickly, they might still have a chance. "You don't know that for certain. That means we're going home - to the apartment where I live, and we're going to make every effort to collect Irina and Valentina."
"You're not looking at the facts. I don't blame you. If I were in your position -"
"You're the one not looking at the facts, namely the fact that I refuse to leave without at least trying to retrieve my family."
"Jack. It's too late for that. It was almost too late for you." In the dim light that filtered in from the van's dashboard, Jack could see the deep lines on Arvin's face; until that moment, he hadn't realized how much his friend had aged. How much he'd changed. "All I can promise you is that we'll find out who leaked this information. Whoever's responsible for this will pay. I'll make certain of it."
Only one thing to do, then. Jack lowered his head into his hands and leaned forward, a gesture of grief and surrender. "Oh, no - Arvin, no -"
"I'm sorry." Arvin leaned forward to lay a supportive hand on his shoulder.
In an instant, Jack reached into Arvin's jacket, just where he knew the holster would be; before Arvin could even react, Jack had the pistol, cold in his hand, pointed against Arvin's temple. "I'm sorry too," Jack said. "Stop the van."
"What the -" The driver swerved slightly on the road, surprised - as well he might be - that one CIA agent was holding another hostage.
"Do it," Arvin calmly told the driver. His eyes met Jack's. "You're making a mistake."
"Maybe. It's mine to make."
"I don't blame you for what you're doing. I don't agree - but I don't blame you." He smiled a little as he said it; the expression made the skin around his eyes wrinkle, and it gathered around the gun's muzzle.
Jack smiled back. "I appreciate that."
The van skidded over. Even through the tinted windows, Jack could tell that they were only a mile or so from his apartment, a lucky break. "I'll be back here with my family in two hours precisely. If you want to retrieve me then, return to this exact location at that time. If you aren't going to try to return, tell me now, so I have a chance to devise another exit option."
"Another exit option? And how would you arrange that?" Arvin looked more than doubtful, but he nodded. "We'll try, Jack."
Jack opened the back door and slid out, still pointing the gun at Arvin until the moment he turned to run. Behind him, he could hear the van squealing away at top speed. Would they actually return? The driver might refuse, and even if he didn't, there was every chance the KGB would be looking for them the same way they were looking for him. And for his family.
No time to worry about that now. Irina and Valentina needed him.
Tucking his gun into his belt, Jack began running through the back streets, moving as quickly and quietly as he could. Galine's purse was still clutched in his right hand; the first time he heard a motor and ducked into some shadows to avoid detection, Jack opened up the purse to see what was inside. Galine had a few rubles, which he tucked into one of his pockets, a lipstick that was useless, tissues that were equally so, and apartment keys. After a moment's deliberation, Jack put the keys in his other pocket and threw the purse into the gutter. Then it was safe to run again, and he ran as fast as he could.
Not fast enough. Each step jarred the bones in his legs, rattled the breath in his chest. He thought of himself as being in shape, and he was, by the standards of a man approaching middle age. But he was no longer in the physical condition needed to be a foreign operative. He'd grown comfortable. Soft. Never again, Jack swore to himself. Never again.
At last he reached the apartment building, which looked much as it always did, a dull gray tower of cement. No sirens were blaring, no lights flashing; maybe the KGB hadn't made a move yet.
Jack paused, leaning against a nearby wall to catch his breath. The night was warm, and he could already feel sweat pooling beneath his arms, plastering his shirt to his back. Carefully, he slowed his breathing and ran a hand over his hair. At this point he couldn't afford to attract attention for any reason. He buttoned his suit jacket again and checked his silhouette; the bulge of the gun wasn't noticeable while his hands were at his sides. That would have to do.
Nobody would think anything of it if he came in through a side door, so Jack did. But even as he turned the corner to go upstairs - no point in risking the noise of the elevator -- he heard the agents talking, half a flight up:
"I don't understand it. We've searched the entire floor."
"So, we search all the floors. We're supposed to find the daughter, and she's got to be hiding someplace. We won't be getting anything out of the aunt or the mother anymore, so we just keep looking."
Jack's hand was on the butt of the pistol before the second agent was even done speaking. He flattened himself against the wall and waited for them to descend. The moment the first one came within reach, Jack slammed the pistol into the side of his head, hard. He heard the bones of the man's skull splintering; it had been a long time, but he'd never forgotten the sound. Before the other agent could react, before the man could even fall, Jack punched him hard in the larynx and felt the cartilage give with a crunch.
"Gavno!" The other agent cried, but he shut up the moment Jack leveled the gun in his face. Jack had no intention of shooting - the sound would carry up the entire stairwell, alerting every agent who didn't already know that Jack was in the building - but this agent didn't know that. His friend's falling body drove the point home with a thud upon the floor.
"Tell me now," Jack said, "where is Irina Derevko?"
The agent was almost too stunned to speak, but he stammered out, "Taken to -to headquarters. Arrested."
"Why are you looking for her daughter?"
"Orders. Don't - don't know."
Dammit, dammit, dammit, how could he get to headquarters? How could he get Irina out of there? Jack turned it over and over in his mind, trying to find the missing piece to the puzzle, the one that would show him the way. But there wasn't any missing piece - there wasn't any way -
The agent shoved forward, and in Jack's moment of distraction he was caught off guard; one moment he was trying to think of a way to rescue Irina, and in the next he was stumbling backward. When the KGB man made a grab for the pistol, Jack threw it in the far corner; better for neither of them to have it.
"Traitor," the KGB agent snarled, swinging his fist at Jack.
"Patriot," Jack corrected as he ducked. He put one hand in his pocket and closed it around Galine's keys; two of the keys stuck out between his fingers, sharp metal prongs jabbing out from his fist.
The agent slammed his shoulder into Jack's chest, sending them both sprawling into the wall. Jack swung his fist up from his pocket into the man's face; the keys stabbed into his eyes. After only a half-second of the scream, Jack used that fist to punch the man's throat, severing his vocal cords and probably at least one major vein. Instantly, there was silence, broken only by the wet sound of a body falling into a pool of its own blood.
Jack only paused to grab the gun; he didn't stop to look at his own condition until he was out of the apartment building and safely in an alleyway a few blocks south. Luckily, the blood was mostly on his hands, with only a few spatters on his suit. His shoes were drenched, but probably nobody would notice them.
Irina is under arrest, he told himself as he cleaned his hands with an issue of Pravda he fished from the trash. Irina is under guard at KGB headquarters. I can't take out a full complement of KGB guard, not by myself, and probably not even with CIA help. I can't reach Irina.
Something in him shivered and shuddered, and threatened to break, but Jack focused on the facts. The facts could help him. He had to focus.
The KGB had been looking for Valentina, and they hadn't found her. (Why? Why Valentina? Probably to use her against Irina, to use her against him, don't think about it, think about the facts, focus.) One of them had said that they'd searched the entire floor. Valentina's only friends in the building lived on their floor. It was unlikely, therefore, that she was hiding on another floor. Most likely, Valentina was no longer in the apartment building. (Did Irina get her out? Did somebody warn them? Did Katya know what to do? No time to wonder. Later.)
Katya was almost certainly in custody with Irina. Babushka was in no condition to leave the apartment on her own, much less escape with a child. That meant that Valentina was probably alone. (Alone, and afraid - focus, focus --)
Where would his daughter go?
In the single greatest moment of hope in Jack Bristow's life, he realized that he probably knew.
Gorky Park was never entirely empty, not even late at night. At that hour it became the province of lovers and black-marketeers, of the lonely and even just the bored. Jack walked quickly through the pathways instead of running; nobody would care much about a single person walking alone, not yet. He estimated that the bodies of the guards would be found within the next quarter hour, and at that point the security sweeps of the city would become more intense by a power of ten. Whatever movement through Moscow he needed to accomplish, he needed to finish soon.
But then, Jack had almost reached his goal.
The footbridge was visible even in the moonlight; here, he and Oleg had talked for hours on end while their daughters played nearby. Valentina had swung from those tree branches, and that bridge, she'd said, was her fort. Her fort kept all the bad men out.
He knelt beside the footbridge and whispered, "Valentina?"
Silence - and then a faint rustle. Jack said again, a little more loudly, "Valentina? Are you there?"
"Daddy!" Her voice was half-whisper, half-sob; before he could even turn his head toward her, she hit him like a missile, flinging herself into his arms. "Daddy, what's happening, what's happening?"
Jack folded his daughter in his arms, embracing her as tightly as he could. Thank God, he thought, in gratitude to a deity he didn't believe in. "Shhhhh. Be quiet, Valentina. You have to be very quiet."
Valentina leaned her forehead against his; he could feel her cheeks, wet with tears, against his eyelids. So quietly he had to strain to hear, she whispered, "Some men hurt Mama."
Jack didn't move, didn't swear. He only said, "Tell me exactly what happened."
She answered him as quickly and efficiently as any agent would, filling him with pride even as her words pierced his heart: "They invited me next door to have some pashka. Aunt Katya said I could go. But while we were eating our pashka, men beat on our door and came in and yelled at Aunt Katya. I could hear through the wall. She cried and shouted and said all kinds of things that made them mad. But what she was shouting - it was like she was shouting to me, Daddy. Like she didn't want me to come home, so I didn't."
"You did the right thing." Jack felt a surge of love and gratitude toward Katya, so strong that it made his words husky and strange.
Valentina was shaking in his arms, but she kept explaining. "Then Mama came home, and, and - they hit her, Daddy. It sounded like when the neighbors fight. I heard them hitting - hitting Mama, and she fell down." His stomach clenched hard around the remnants of his dinner, and Jack kept from vomiting only by force of will. "They were all scared next door, so I said I would go away. I went out the fire escape. I thought I would fall down, but I didn't fall down, and then I came here. It was hard to find in the dark."
"I know, malishka. You were so smart to come here. So smart and so brave. I'm proud of you." He kissed her forehead and her cheek, and she buried her face in the curve of his neck.
She whispered, "Daddy - those men - did they kill Mama?"
He tightened his arms around her; there was no way he could answer that question with anything less than the bare, inadequate truth. "I don't know."
Valentina began to cry silently, her little body shaking with her sobs. Jack smoothed his hands across her back, then gathered her up in his arms. If he hurried, they could make it to the meeting place on time. After that - he would think about everything else after that.
At the designated moment, the black van crawled onto the right street and parked at the precise spot; Jack ran toward the back doors, which swung open just in time for him to climb in with his daughter. Valentina's crying stopped when the van doors slammed shut; as they began driving away, she stared at their new surroundings with red-rimmed eyes.
Arvin smiled unevenly at her; at that moment, he didn't seem to notice Jack at all. "So you're Valentina. Jack's daughter." He spoke in Russian, the words sounding even more natural now than they had when he'd been speaking to Jack. "Do you know, you're even prettier than I thought you would be?"
Valentina shrank back into Jack's arms. Jack hugged her, stroking her hair. In English, Arvin said, "Where is Irina?"
"They found her first," Jack said in the same language. He couldn't bear explaining more than that.
"I'm sorry." Arvin patted Jack's arm, then smiled down at Valentina again. He brushed two fingers across her cheek and said, in Russian once more, "My name is Mr. Sloane. I am a friend of your father's, and I'm going to be your friend, too." Valentina didn't answer, but she turned her head away and buried it against Jack's chest.
"Don't rush her," Jack said in English. Had the language always sounded so guttural to him? So harsh? "She's had enough for one night."
"I should imagine." Arvin kept up the English, obviously willing to spare Valentina the rest of their conversation. "I know this is hard."
"You don't know a damn thing about it."
"Listen to me. You've been undercover a long time. Your mind isn't what it was. You aren't who you were. At this moment, I know how much you think you love Irina."
Jack wanted to kill him, and but for Valentina's trembling body in his arms, he might have tried. "I don't THINK I love Irina -"
"Yes, you do. You think that because you're supposed to think it. That's part of being an undercover agent, making yourself believe things that aren't true. Only the very best can actually do it, Jack, but that's you. The very best."
"Irina is my wife. You're married to Emily now, Arvin. You have to know what that means."
"Irina never even knew your real name," Arvin replied smoothly. After several minutes of the stony silence that followed, he continued, "I won't argue this with you now. You'll come back to the States. Back to your real life. We'll set you up someplace inviting - I'm in the L.A. field office now, you might like it there -"
Los Angeles. They might as well have offered him a position on Mars. "I can't think about that."
Soothingly, Arvin said, "I know, I know. That's why I'm thinking about it for you. A nice home for you and Valentina - or, then again, maybe you'll want to give her an American name. Help her fit in at her new school."
A new school. A nice school, one with dancing lessons and karate lessons and no red neckerchiefs pinned with portraits of Lenin. Against his will, Jack felt a surge of longing for that other life.
But Irina -
Jack closed his eyes. All he could envision was a newspaper clipping, in a file he'd put in storage eight years ago and half a world away. A train was crumpled up like so much tinfoil, and he could remember its image precisely: the tears in the steel, the ripped-up tracks. He thought about stress tension on the metal, and never wondered once where in all that carnage the bodies of his parents lay. Why was he thinking about that now?
Arvin lay his hand on Jack's arm once again. "You'll feel at home again. You'll find yourself again, Jack. I'm sure of it."
"I'm not sure of anything." He could never have confessed that to anyone but a friend, never at any moment when he felt less devastated than he did right now.
"We'll help you think straight again. I'll help you." The van's wheels left smooth pavement, taking them out toward country roads and freedom. Even over the rumbling, Jack could hear Arvin murmur, "I'll take care of everything."
CONTINUED IN PART III: "THE REUNION"
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