September 2, 2001
Los Angeles, California
Jack hesitated for a moment, his hand still on the keys in the ignition. His car chimed impatiently at him, but Jack ignored it; whenever he prepared to enter Arvin Sloane's house, he needed time to steel himself, to arrange the various layers of deception he needed to do his job, not to mention stay alive.
The most visible layer: Arvin Sloane was one of his oldest friends, had been his compatriot for more than 30 years now. He treasured his friendship with Arvin and Arvin's wife, Emily, and so paid visits to their home periodically, for dinner or the odd cocktail. This layer existed for Emily's belief and Sloane's approval.
The second visible layer: Sloane was his superior at SD-6. The two of them worked together to reroute the moneys spent by the corrupt governments of the world, out of the pockets of various evil warlords and amoral corporations and into their own. Their loyalty to each other was one of the few absolutes in a shadowy, shifting world - one of the only elements they could ever truly count on. This layer existed for Sloane's belief.
The first invisible layer, seen only by Jack and those Jack chose to witness: Jack was a double agent, working for the CIA to help bring down SD-6. As such, his visits to Sloane's home were never simply social occasions; any observation, no matter how trivial, could be important and would need to be reported. This layer existed to focus Jack's attention.
The most invisible layer, the one even Jack didn't acknowledge very often: Arvin Sloane was one of his oldest friends. This layer existed only because, after decades of trying, Jack had been unable to destroy it.
Jack took a deep breath and got out of the car. When Sloane opened his front door and held out a wineglass in a gesture of welcome, Jack managed to smile.
"You're looking well." Sloane shut the door behind them with a clack that resounded on the hallway's Italian tile. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear you'd spent the last two weeks at a spa."
"Try the mud wraps -- very refreshing," Jack said. As Sloane well knew, Jack had spent the majority of the last two weeks in a jail cell in Myanmar, a nation not known for its contributions to human rights. But he could now bend his toes again, which was a good sign. "If you're drinking a merlot, I wouldn't mind a glass."
"It's a pinot noir, but I bet you won't mind a glass anyway." Sloane, uncontradicted, set about pouring Jack a drink. "Emily will be back soon. Then we'll find out how she's doing."
Jack accepted his wine. "Thanks for having me. There's nothing left in my kitchen that hasn't already run a few laps around its expiration date."
"One of the more minor drawbacks of our profession." Sloane nodded ruefully, putting a hand on Jack's elbow as he steered them both toward the back terrace. The Sloane house reflected Emily far more than her husband: It was warm and welcoming, with well-tended philodendrons and ferns in terracotta planters, paintings by struggling artists hung proudly beside better works, and a collection of antique books that Jack had spent many hours poring through. "Maybe you should stay to dinner, then."
"I wouldn't want to impose."
"Jack. You're never imposing." Sloane gave him a smile, thin-lipped and lasting; after all these years; Jack still had no idea whether that smile was sincere or not. "We'll ask the lady of the house if it's all right. I hear her now -"
Sure enough, Emily was coming around the corner of the house, dressed in a loose T-shirt and soft judo pants. Jack, as frank with himself as he was careful with others, thought she looked like hell: her skin pale and sweaty, her breathing rapid, and her hair frizzed out in a thousand directions. She put her hand to her chest as if to steady herself, then leaned against the railing of the back steps as Jack and Sloane walked down toward her.
Sloane said, "What's your heart rate?"
"A hundred and forty-eight."
"And your time?"
"Three hours, 58 minutes."
Jack cocked his head. "So - what does that mean?"
"That means - I'm on target." Emily hesitated for only a second before breaking out in a broad smile. "And THAT means I'm going to run my first marathon two months from today."
Sloane laughed in delight, taking the last steps down two at a time to embrace his wife; Emily wrapped her arms around him as if she hadn't seen him in years, instead of a couple of hours. She always did that. When her eyes opened, Jack held up his wine glass in tribute. "Congratulations. You're putting the old men to shame."
"I don't see any old men in this garden," Emily said, smoothing her sweaty hair as she extricated herself from Sloane's embrace. "Just a couple of guys who could try running once in a while. It wouldn't kill you."
"No," Sloane said, rubbing her back. "It would just make me want to die."
"I hit my goals for the last four weeks - that means I'm ready. Or as close to ready as you ever get." Emily was flapping the front of her T-shirt to create a breeze. "I can't believe I'm going to run 26 miles."
Jack said, "I can't believe you're going to pay for the privilege."
Emily grinned. "Hey, with all the torture, you also get a souvenir T-shirt."
"Worth every penny," Sloane said, then frowned as his pager went off. He flicked his hand up to read off the numbers; Jack watched as the smile faded from his face. "I should take this. Jack, you and Emily relax. I won't be long."
"I can come with you," Jack offered. But it was too late; Emily's hand was already on his elbow, and whatever slim chance he might have had at eavesdropping was lost.
"Don't even think about it." Emily laughed softly. "You're going to come look at my rosebushes."
Jack's interest in rosebushes was approximately equal to his interest in the career of Britney Spears, but he obediently followed Emily down into the garden, making small talk as she gained back her breath and strength. She pointed out her prizes, all of which were in radiant bloom. "I love this one - the Dolly Parton. No telling where they got that name, huh?" She lifted up two slightly drooping yellow blossoms, each round and full and showy in the extreme.
"Can't imagine," Jack said with a half-smile. "What about this one? The white roses - what are they called?"
"Peace," Emily replied, brushing her fingertips against the pale petals. "These are probably my favorites in the whole garden. Leave it to you to notice them."
"Leave it to you to make them thrive." Jack could be polite whenever it was required, but Emily was one of the very few for whom all his compliments were sincere. Once, he had doubted the maxim that, over time, you gained the face you deserved; now, as he and Sloane grew grayer and more weathered all the time, and Emily still glowed with beauty and vitality, Jack was inclined to put more stock in old sayings.
Emily just squeezed his arm tighter. "You don't give a damn about flowers. Give me credit enough to know that."
"All right, then. Why did you bring me down here?" He was expecting some mild bit of intrigue, perhaps related to Sloane's birthday next month.
Instead Emily smiled at him in hope. "Well, Jack, it's like this - there's this woman in my pottery class, Diana -"
She swatted his arm. "Hear me out! Diana's a divorcee, just eighteen months ago, and she's only now starting to date again. So she's really not looking for anything serious, at least not right away. I was thinking, maybe if I had an informal little get-together --"
"This is not a good idea." Jack felt that this phrase summed up a lot of issues, very neatly.
"Diana's quite lovely. She's smart, she's funny, she's laid-back - a good potter, too, though I don't guess you care about that." Emily pursed her lips. "I could tell you she was a Mensa member, opera singer and porn star, and you still wouldn't ask her out, would you?"
It was an intriguing combination, but only in theory. "You've known me for almost 30 years. Have I ever been the type to go out on a blind date?"
"No. You haven't been the type to go out on any date, ever, so far as I can tell."
Perhaps being blunt would cut this conversation off before it got any worse. "Emily, I'm not a monk."
"I never thought you were. But I'm talking about a woman you could actually care about. I don't think anybody like that has been in your life for a long time." Emily frowned, her displeasure clearly only a mask for concern. Between the two, Jack would rather have faced her displeasure. Quickly, he cast a glance around the garden, hoping to find something to draw her attention and change the bent of the conversation. But amid a thousand roses in scarlet and coral and gold, Jack couldn't name one. All the information he'd memorized in his life to get out of combat situations, and yet he'd never covered roses.
Emily gestured him toward the dark-green cast-iron patio furniture nearby; Jack obeyed her and sat, even as he protested, "You know I don't want to talk about this."
"I know. That's why I'm making you do it." She sat in the chair opposite him and put her chin in her hand. "Diana would suit you, you know."
"I'm not sure why you think I'd suit her. I spend most of my time at work. I don't have any hobbies. Mostly I read. It doesn't make for scintillating evenings on the town."
"Don't sell yourself short. Jack, you know you're an attractive man." Emily said this with the ease of a woman who was both very beautiful and very happily married. "You can be quite charming, when you want to be. And I think Diana is just the sort of woman who would make you want to be charming."
"I'm content to charm you." Jack took another sip of his wine before venturing a joke, in yet another attempt to draw Emily from her subject. "Besides, spending time with you is cheaper than paying for dates."
Emily laughed, but he had only diverted her for a second. "Be serious. If I ask you something difficult, and you know it's only because I care about you, will you answer?"
"I'll try." Jack had a feeling this was going to lead to some atrociously awkward coffee date with Diana, who would end up venting about her ex-husband while Jack attempted to get to the actual coffee buried beneath whipped cream and nutmeg he hadn't asked for. But he was underestimating the danger by far.
"Did you love her so much - that woman in Russia?"
He couldn't answer, couldn't even think. Instead of reason or reaction, Jack had only a memory: Irina standing on the shore of the Crimean Sea, wearing a simple black bathing suit that nonetheless revealed every curve of her body. She was squinting at the light on the water, holding her hand out to shield her eyes as she leaned back against his chest. Her skin was warm from the sunlight, and smelled like salt and the sea.
"Are you never going to love anyone else? Ever?" Emily took his hand in hers. "Of course, you and Arvin aren't in intelligence any longer, and I know some elements of your mission are still classified, but can you tell me anything about why - why she's still with you?"
Emily raised an eyebrow. "Remember how, when you were in the CIA, you had to lie to me all the time? I remember. Mostly I remember the face you used to wear when you were doing it. I'm looking at that face right now."
If most people had dared to ask him these questions, Jack would have told them to go to hell in no uncertain terms. But Emily wasn't most people. Besides, as uncomfortable as it would be to tell the truth, it might prove more convenient in the long run than dealing with her matchmaking attempts.
So he told the truth he'd forced himself to accept, the words dusty and bitter: "Emily - I never loved my Russian wife. For many years, even after I returned home, I thought I did. But I didn't."
"How can you think you love someone when you don't? In my experience, you generally know these things."
"Your experience doesn't include a long-term, deep-cover assignment," Jack said, as kindly as he could manage. "In that situation, the truth and the lies - become blurred, over time."
Emily folded her arms and leaned back in her chair, studying him intently. "You have to have felt something for her. You can't just live with a person as husband and wife for the better part of a decade and feel nothing. Can you?"
On a snowy night in Moscow, glittering flakes fell on Irina's dark fur hat as they walked back to the theatre. Quietly, he said, "She was very beautiful, very intelligent. I admired her, and I wished she'd been born somewhere that would have offered her better chances."
"And that's it?"
In their little apartment, he held Irina while she nursed their baby, all three of them bundled into one embrace. "She gave me my daughter, and she was a good and loving mother. I'll always be grateful for that. More than I could ever say."
Irina smiling at him across a chessboard, watching the sun set on the river, wearing a simple white suit and carrying flowers as they went into the registry office to be married. The images overpowered him, calling up shadows of an emotion he'd spent years teaching himself to disbelieve. For a moment, Jack was lost in memories of the woman he'd married - the woman he had betrayed for the sake of a machine that never existed.
Emily put her hand on his forearm. "I don't know if this is classified or not, but - Jack, do you know what happened to her? I mean, have you ever, maybe, talked to her?"
Whatever oubliette of emotion had opened within him snapped shut. "We've never received any concrete intel. But, given KGB procedures, it's almost certain that she was interrogated and then executed." He couldn't speak of what his daughter had heard, not now, not ever.
"Oh, God. I'm sorry." Emily looked stricken, and Jack knew this was his cue to say something comforting, to claim that perhaps Irina had talked her way through it, had escaped, had even fought her way out. Back during the last days of his illusory marriage, Jack would have believed Irina capable of that; he'd seen her as more than an ordinary woman, had imagined her able to fight off KGB agents and escape the Soviets even on her own. That was how powerfully the lies had warped his mind.
"Don't be. If she wasn't executed, she was sent to a gulag. I knew her well enough to know that she would have preferred death to imprisonment." For much of the first two years after his return, Jack had woken in the night, sweaty with panic and sick with self-hatred; he'd lain there and wondered if Irina was still alive, if she was freezing in Siberian cold, if she was starving, if she saw the world through striped lines of barbed wire. But he had long since sealed himself off from that particular horror. "Emily, this ended years ago. There's no reason to revisit it."
Emily nodded, but absent-mindedly, as though she had taken no real notice of his words. Her fingers pressed against his wrist, and for a moment he wondered if she were taking his pulse. Instead, she said, "I understand now."
Jack said nothing, hoping she would finally take the suggestion and move on to a new topic.
She continued, "You don't let yourself care about anybody else because - you think you don't deserve it."
He wanted to argue the point, but that would have meant prolonging the conversation.
"What's going on here?" Sloane said genially as he came down the steps. "My best friend making time with my wife?"
"Yep," Emily said. "Once you were out of the way, I finally had a chance to make my move." She lifted her hand from Jack's wrist to accept the tumbler of water her husband had brought for her and gulped it down gratefully.
Sloane laughed and rubbed her shoulder. Jack, determined to get what little he could, said, "Business call?"
"Maybe. We'll talk about it later."
Good, Jack thought. That settled the question; he'd be staying to dinner, making sure that Sloane kept pouring the wine liberally. This visit wouldn't be a waste of effort after all.
"How can bankers work night and day?" Emily said as she lowered the glass. "And still not be able to clear a check during the weekend?"
"Trade secret," Jack said. The joke, slight as it was, made her grin. Whatever tension had lingered from their earlier conversation was finally gone.
"Now, let's get to my favorite subject." Sloane was smiling; Jack, sensing where the conversation was going, felt a strange mixture of revulsion and fear. But he was used to the sensation by now, even if he still didn't understand it. "How is Sydney?"
"Sydney is -" Jack let himself forget that it was Sloane who was asking. He just thought about his daughter, and didn't try to stop the smile that spread across his face. "Sydney's wonderful."
Emily grinned. "I'd love to see her again - it's been months, hasn't it, Arvin?"
"At least two months. Yes, Jack. Bring her over here some evening." Sloane sat next to Emily, but his attention was entirely focused on Jack. "Some evening soon."
Jack had learned to have a deep and powerful aversion to the unknown quantity, the variable that had the power to throw a scenario dangerously or fatally off-course. He had removed as many of these variables from his life as he could, as many as he could possibly control.
Above all, he wanted to remove the variable of Sloane's obsession with his daughter. But to do that, he would first have to understand it - and he didn't.
Sloane lifted his glass in an unspoken toast and repeated, "Soon."
Go back to the last chapter.