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Victoria and The Rescue

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1982: TURKEY

"Again, Lamb: Why are we here?"

Victoria Winslow lay belly to dirt looking down at a landscape obscured by airborne dust and debris. It was a scene rendered further misty and ephemeral by poor overhead lighting from the universe. The team was traversing a transitional zone, where tenacious pockets of tree and rock eventually spread and grew into real wilderness only a few miles from the nearest urban center.

Compound X occupied an untidy sprawl over what appeared to be deserted farmland on the outskirts of a major Turkish city. Through her night-vision scope Victoria counted out the small fleet of surprisingly pristine American Jeeps. Eight vehicles. Brand, spanking new American Jeeps. They were parked near a phalanx of petrol drums and ridiculously combustible wooden buildings.

"Think I know why the dolly's here, but wouldn't mind hearing an answer to that question on my own account." The long-limbed, long-haired gentleman to Victoria's left stretched before going into a fit of suppressed coughing. "Lamb? I'm an American citizen, now. Minding my own business in Palermo when I was snatched away from my charming bit of wife, press-ganged by humorless chaps who in past may have been employed by my repellent one time boss -- I trust they have eliminated the "other" Six department, by the by -- flung from Palermo to Athens in a beastly military transport, where the first thing I see upon landing is your disagreeable countenance. You can't tell me your Six doesn't have pilots for unsanctioned Turkish excursions. So, why the fuck am I here?"

"I suppose neither queries nor comments are philosophical in nature." Jackson Lamb lay to Victoria's right, holding a rifle casually, somnolent as a log. "Practically you're here, Winslow, because it's your job to take your guns where they send you. As for you, McAlpine -- grit in the Deus ex Machina, I suppose. Not sure how you got mustered to fly our ingress and egress. Probably your knack for being at the right place at the wrong time. Mean to have a chat about that choice when ..."

"If . . . " Victoria interrupted. A bit of hay lodged in her eye. She pulled back from the scope long enough to rub at the irritant, then resumed watching the compound. Since joining them in Athens, the asset introduced as "darling Philip McAlpine" had been engaged in constant verbal banter with her long-time mentor and handler, Jackson Lamb. It was difficult to decide which man contributed more to this nerve-shredding dialogue.

"When I get back to London." Lamb sighed, an exhalation that twined unobtrusively into the fierce bluster of Turkish wind. "Even in your prime, you wouldn't be my first choice on a mission, darling Philip. Any mission."

"Your grandmother's knickers, Lamb. Been in them. She was a goer." McAlpine nudged Victoria with his elbow. "Wot's the mission, luv?"

"Vermin eradication. And we could have left you with the plane. Alone." How did Lamb know absolutely everyone in The Game, on all sides of the fence, Victoria wondered. And how did it happen that everyone seemed to know him? This McAlpine came off as a bit drifty, but Lamb's claim he was a natural born pilot had been borne out by their low altitude approach to an empty length of Turkish roadway, and the smooth landing that followed.

But this was no time to waste speculative thought on her comrades. Victoria resumed evaluating the scene below. There was enough light to see two exterior guards pacing without enthusiasm.

"Those Jeeps are definitely part of the missing goods," Lamb whispered.

"Would have been quite happy guarding the plane. Serene, in fact. Could probably nose out a few local chaps who grow the most fabulous . . ."

"Shut it."

The guards met. Lit cigarettes. Exchanged conversation. Victoria noted the men's fluid, unconcerned mannerisms as they laughed and spoke together. It appeared that business as usual in this part of the world had little to fear from local law personnel, or rival businessmen.

"Lamb. Translation?" Although she spoke French and Spanish quite well, languages were not her strength. The universal language the body spoke, a shift or change of eye focus, movement of muscles in shoulders and arms, a myriad other small tells between the eyelid and lower lip -- this was the tongue in which Victoria's fluency equalled, perhaps even surpassed, her mentor's.

Lights irregularly strung along the compound eaves flickered and danced in the wind. A single, barely audible word in the gibberish of Turkish reached her ears while she waited for Lamb to respond to her request.

Rusya. She might not speak Turkish, but that word she knew.

Russian.

"Lamb."

"They've got a prisoner," Lamb said, finally. "Been playing with him."

"Elaborate." Damp cold emanated from the earth, prised its way into bone marrow and shot icy fingers along her limbs. This land could be lush under noon sun, but at its heart was rock and stone, insulated from sun's heat. Primitive. Essential. Victoria ignored the bitter intrusion and pushed her elbow into Lamb's ribcage. "Now."

"They have a Russian prisoner. They are questioning him. It happens in this part of the world, Winslow."

Victoria blinked water from her irritated eye then resumed watching guards through the scope. "Suppose I've forgotten: our orders are –?"

"To disrupt the group responsible for multiple thefts and incursions against NATO bases. Kill as many players as possible, except, possibly, one upper management chap. Establish a standard of behavior." Lamb's voice was remarkably lacking in any of his usual sarcastic or knowing inflections. "Possibly find a paper trail of sorts."

"Establish a standard." So. Them Upstairs were pissed by recent cheeky predation on goods and materials in certain NATO countries. Gun runners. Dope smugglers. Slavers. Mercenary incursions against the representatives of established lower tier governments who, if not bosom friends were certainly participants in the courting dance between countries. "Pure retaliation, then. Who's down there?"

"Intel says one of the ring's top wise guys." Lamb used the Americanism with broader implication. "These are private entrepreneurs, although there's apparently a working arrangement with the TAF. A codicil to my orders notes recovery of a certain player would be appreciated."

"How will I know that player? And if I shoot your chappie?"

"Ah. Well." Lamb sighed deeply. "Whenever you're ready, Winslow."

Victoria's world narrowed. Her finger flexed twice. Guards fell.

Lamb was already halfway down the ridge by the time Victoria slipped her rifle into its back sling, exchanging it for her Walther. For all Lamb's languor and sloth, he was also the second quickest, quietest person she had ever observed working in the field. After nearly 10 years of association with Jackson Lamb, Victoria still enjoyed watching him work -- when she wasn't fantasizing about garroting him.

She knew full well that while Them Upstairs valued the man for his results, they would be horrified to think he might be a template for other agents. It was an idea she had considered many times with amused resignation. For if any person could be credited with the creation of Victoria Winslow, British agent and assassin, that person would be Jackson Lamb.

Everyone had role models.

Surprisingly, McAlpine was only a few steps behind Lamb.

Victoria fumbled down the rocky slope of ridge to the buildings, then moved with more stealth to join her companions under the feeble wavering spotlight above the compound's front door. Inside the door a small room with benches and oily rags waited, empty of human life. Two doors marked exit choices from the room.

"McAlpine, take a right." This instruction was almost subvocal. "Winslow, with me . . ." Lamb opened the left-hand door and moved down a short, stinking, poorly lighted hall like a matron circumnavigating a flower show.

On his heels, Victoria followed with her back against the wall. Listening.

Eight feet from their entry the hall ended at a battered metal door sans doorknob. A metal bracket and dangling padlock indicated how it might normally be kept closed. Lamb paused, forehead nearly touching the door. Listening.

The laughter of men. Guttural syllables, quick and careless. Three voices.

After a moment Lamb held up three fingers, then his fist: two fingers, three fingers, then an extension of first finger pointing approximately 35 degrees to the left. He moved back to let Victoria take lead.

It was instinct by now. Lamb's hand signals, his physical expressions, were almost always more explanatory than paragraphs of instruction that usually began with words like "Under no circumstances . . ." or "In the event of capture . . ." Reading him, Victoria knew her targets were at two, three and eleven o'clock. This grouping was best assayed with two shooters.

Trusting Lamb to hit the eleven, Victoria pushed open the door with her foot. There weren't many people she would trust so close behind her, holding a gun. Lamb was a better than fair shot on the range, and deadly accurate in the field. Aversion to personal injury seemed to up his game. In every previous action Victoria had been in that included Lamb, his marksmanship and judgment had proved impeccable.

Visual confirmation of target locations was immediate and automatic. Before she completed her first step through the door Victoria aimed and fired twice. As she took her second step Victoria saw the eleven fall, although she was so focused on the room's centerpiece that she did not hear Lamb's shot.

Clean sweep.

Victoria stood, arm extended in the direction of her last target, eyes fixed on the body hanging from rust-raddled chains in the center of the room. The man's arms were bound behind his head. His face was bruised and bloody. Unconscious, certainly. Dead, possibly.

Time crawled to a sticky flow the consistency of good taffy.

Ivan.

"Ah, yes. The ever popular Palestinian hanging, with Turkish refinements. He's still breathing, Winslow, so please resume your own." Lamb stepped forward, holstering his weapon. "As our American cousins say: Charlie Foxtrot. McAlpine: prisoner is a known KGB operative. And if I may include a programme note, I think Winslow has just taken out the only individual Them Upstairs might be interested in questioning."

Charlie Foxtrot, indeed. Victoria had a swift, vivid memory of Joe grinning and winking. Charlie Foxtrot -- that's cluster fuck in Americanese. Sometimes it's the small things going bad that set the bell curve ringing like a carillon.

"When confronted with unexpected developments you talk too much, Lamb." Her two o'clock lay holding a still glowing metal rod, which smoldered noisomely against his forearm and the damp stone where his body sprawled. Victoria stooped over the body, reaching to search for keys to the prisoner's cuffs. She found the keys in the dead man's right hand pocket.

"Get him down." She tossed the keys to Lamb, continuing to ascertain that everyone who should be dead was well and truly dead by the quick and simple method of double tapping foreheads. "These three are neutralized."

"And the remainder of the compound is uninhabited." McAlpine hovered in the doorway. "You sure he's alive?"

"Barely." Lamb released the cuffs at the end of chains suspended from the ceiling. "His name is Simanov. If it's not too much trouble, McAlpine, relieve one of those deceased gentlemen of a shirt. Burns around genitals don't bear looking at."

"Two guards. Three inside. Where is everyone else?" Victoria looked everywhere but directly at Ivan's ravaged body. She had a mental map of her immediate vicinity, 3D and detailed, comprehensive and . . .

Ivan.

Lamb squatted near her two o'clock kill. "Not sure, but I can make a visual identification here. Mahmoud Al ----."

"Oh dear." McAlpine stooped and casually began going through the pockets of the three o'clock corpse before wrestling shirt and leaden torso free of each other. "I've heard that name bantered about. He moved the most excellent hasheesh. Weapons. Nubile morsels . . . But I wander. We won't want to linger near the mortal remains."

"Lamb -- what branch of the service is responsible for him?" Victoria had run into more than her share of eccentric ex-pats and discarded operatives. It seemed McAlpine might qualify for a new category in her personal Lexicon of Spies.

"Very well trained, I am." McAlpine offered the blood spattered shirt to Lamb. "Not a team player, though, and tend to suggest cutting hair with scissors rather than running with them."

"And then, there are the McAlpine Vices." Lamb finished his own corpse reconnoiter, removing and pocketing a small binder-type book from a cloth bag suspended from the dead man's belt. He took the shirt and threaded it onto Ivan's limp body with heavings and swearings. "Why am I doing this?" he inquired, sotto voce.

"Why, indeed." Victoria surveyed the dreary metal room, the array of bodies. Ivan's body lurked like a cinder on the edge of her vision. The skin on his upper right shoulder was a moonscape of scar tissue. Her handiwork. Something twisted, deep in her core, sending alerts of non-physical pain that she rejected with fierce concentration. "For whatever reason, quickly."

Exit strategy included a rapid rifling through the torture chamber and interior rooms that seemed to serve as sleeping accommodations. Lamb's mantra of nothing, nothing, nothing, what's this, then? droned -- or whined -- in the background as they made their way back to the courtyard. The sense of absence, of personal distance struck Victoria forcibly as she recced the space around the outer door. But in that absence all she could do was lead their exit.

Ivan.

 

They took one of the new Jeeps.

The engine turned over like oiled silk, bringing a heart-felt "nice ride" from McAlpine, who was ensconced in the back seat acting as support for Ivan's body. Lamb drove through the dark, headlights off, with Victoria riding shotgun. Under recreational circumstances it would have been a pleasant drive. Coy clouds veiled a quarter-full moon. The air was sweet with smells of dried grass, cooling earth, and occasional redolence of animal dung.

Victoria focused on their destination. Focused on her expectation of their exfiltration plans. Ivan's presence did not matter to their mission. Did not matter.

"Winslow. Tell me what you see ahead." Lamb pulled the Jeep off the road against an earthen bank topped by stalky grasses. Monotone clouds chased across the sky, trailing shadows like growing ink stains over the ground below.

During infiltration phase, McAlpine had set them down on a slender line of country road, leaving little trace. Now, Victoria scanned the ribbon of black roadway, squinting into shadows that dappled field and brush beyond dark verges. That line of trees ahead. Those haystacks. They had taxied the Cessna to those haystacks, thrown weighted camo nets over her back, then backtracked to the road on foot, doing their best to ruffle the grasses into something that didn't resemble wheel tracks. Now the field was a child's etch-a-sketch pattern of flattened grass.

"Company. I see company."

"They better not 'ave touched the plane." McAlpine shifted away from Ivan, folding the limp Russian down into the back seat's scant leg space. "Two vehicles. Eight men, maximum. Send the dolly along the fringes for a butcher's, Jackson."

Victoria managed to not roll her eyes at McAlpine's outrageous mannerisms. "I'll work my way over. Give me five minutes, then start your approach to the plane. And if he calls me dolly again, I shall put a bullet into the fleshy part of his arse."

"Fair enough," Lamb said cheerfully. "It's only the Turks, Winslow. Not Spetsnaz."

"You have no way of knowing." Heavier cloud cover was moving down from the north. Victoria waited, listening, adjusting fully to the ambient night light. Lamb and McAlpine waited with her, silent and nearly unmoving. She slipped from the Jeep when the moon had disappeared from view for several minutes.

Irregular movements, Winslow. Crossing empty spaces watch for wind pattern, light pattern. Become a ground squirrel. A vole. A wily grass snake.

Planning on teaching me how to set hooks into a sandworm, you tosser?

If pressed to categorize Lamb's talents, first entry on her response would have been "the art of sneaking." Intellectual, psychological, physical, against enemy or friend, Lamb understood what might be accomplished due to lack of attention, or focus of attention.

Victoria inched her way through pollen-filled weeds and grasses, trying to move like a very long, very thick reptile. Trying to move like something that would never, in the ordinary way of things, be noticed by animal or human observers.

The wind caught a scent, carried it into the grasses: recent exhaust fumes mixed with tobacco.

The wind caught a murmur of sound, carried it into the grasses: brief conversation.

Three-quarters of the way across the field, a few muttered words that seemed closer froze her mid-slither. Overhead the sky continued to darken. Stray specks of rain struck her forehead and eyelids. A ripe, rank smell invaded the air around her, then lost immediate potency due to the continuing sweep of wind.

Brilliant. No doubt in Victoria's mind. Someone had taken a crap between her position, the haystack, and the plane.

Natural hazards. Be prepared to ignore mud, bog, leeches, ticks, spiders, assorted reptiles. Be prepared to ignore excrement of all varieties. Don't try to fight nature, and most of the time it won't try and fight you. Doesn't need to, really.

Most of the time.

Victoria resumed inching. Above the tips of waving grasses she could clearly see the outline of haystacks where they had left the plane. Her crawl described a half circle from the road, a course that would bring her to a point where she could see the rear of the stacks.

Yes. There was the outline of the net-covered plane. And behind the screen of haystacks, two more American Jeeps were parked a short distance past the Cessna.

The world's ambient noise changed, the addition of a bass note thrummed beneath the wind.

Bugger. Lamb was coming across the field, headlights on, gunning the engine. He must really believe the reception would be nothing special . . . a presumption borne out by Victoria's quick recce through her scope.

Shooting the four men hiding near the haystacks was almost an embarrassment. Turkish Land Army, almost certainly. They lay on their bellies in a row, like ducks in a shooting gallery. Feeling like a poacher near a bait pile, Victoria fired four shots into the centers of the prostrate silhouettes. Frantic movements followed her shots, but when the Jeep plowed past the haystacks there was no gunfire from the ground.

Bok. Bok. Bok. Grunts of pain and shrill cursing in Turkish certainly indicated Victoria's center grouped shots had done only part of their job, and there was still at least one living soul in the area.

Victoria got to her feet. Lamb had killed the Jeep's lights. Possibly had finished off the swearing Turk, as silence once more descended upon the land around her.

"Get the nets off." McAlpine shouted, far too loudly into the silence. "I'll get her ready to go."

What the hell was the point of it all? Victoria wondered. Turkish bandits and Turkish army with new American Jeeps? Were these reason enough to send in a team to shoot a few people?

And collect a tortured Russian.

Pay no attention to the man behind the screen.

Joe again. Winking one expressive brown eye, and flashing his dimple. Our work occupies the stage far beyond the screen. When you going to accept and grok that, beautiful?

Fucking American movies. Fucking American pragmatic spies. Fucking British strategists. Fucking Russian spies getting caught . . .

Ivan.

She didn't need a reason to do her job. Victoria held her rifle loosely, moving forward in a half-crouch toward the plane. A small part of her awareness made congratulatory mention of the fact she hadn't had to crawl through shit to reach the target area.

Victoria's next step slipped her boot sideways, bringing with it the pungent odor of fresh excrement.

Every silver lining had a cloud.

 

Victoria helped Lamb remove the camo net, helped Lamb drag Ivan's body into the plane, managing to scrape her boot more or less clean during the process. McAlpine muttered in a low monotone to the controls as he took them back across the field, onto the roadway, then into the air. It was a smooth retreat, seemingly unwitnessed by additional hostiles.

"Next stop, Athens," he called back over his shoulder. "How's the Russian?"

Considering Ivan's boneless impersonation of a traffic fatality, Victoria took that to be a rhetorical question. Between them, she and Lamb removed the collaboratively blooded shirt, then arranged Ivan in a seat positioned as far back as possible. Lamb produced a small blanket and draped it over Ivan's torso.

"Med kit?" Under her fingers Victoria could feel his Ivan's pulse alternately race, then slow. His skin was too cool, and damp.

"Here." Lamb flipped the latches on a large metal chest. "Antibiotics, certainly. And I'm giving him something to keep him under."

"Is that a good idea? His heart --"

"Has held up thus far." Lamb raised an eyebrow. "Don't want him waking up, do we?"

Victoria didn't immediately know the answer to that question. "I don't want to kill him, either."

"A position statement I do not wish to revisit at this time." Lamb filled one syringe after another. He administered the contents into Ivan's upper arm, then rocked back on his heels to peer at her. "Bless me, Winslow. It's complicated."

Fuck. Victoria's own heart raced, then slowed. The phrase was one from Lamb's personal codebook.

Bless me: Things are not as they seem.

"For an op on Turkish soil, that went off rather easily. What were we really after, Jackson?"

Lamb's eyes paused on Ivan's battered face, then drifted back to the med kit. "Thieves and schemers, Winslow. War creates ideal breeding ground for thieves and schemers. We're the plod, love. Old Blighty can't abide thieves making them look bad around the globe."

His words sank. Sank. Sank deeper. Victoria's hand flew to a spot just below the scar tissue on Ivan's chest and settled. "Who is stealing from whom, Jackson Lamb? And what do you know that I do not?"

"More. Always more." Lamb shot a look toward McAlpine's back. "Chances are good we're safe to talk about this here. Now."

Wind buffeted the small plane. Lamb's face went almost white. "Probably safe."

Body language again. Unusual loss of color. Shoulders squared. Mouth taut. Tiny lines under Lamb's eyes betraying small, underlying tensions.

Victoria's deliberate inspection brought a relaxation to his mouth and eyes.

Lamb took a deep breath, let the tension flow from his shoulders, and smiled lazily. "Best clean him up, then." He rummaged tubes of ointment from the med kit and handed them to her. "A generous application to those groin wounds might be wise. You do that."

Victoria started with the burns around Ivan's groin, remembering what it had been like to smell her own flesh burning in a New York basement. Ivan lay perfectly still and unresponsive as she worked. When she glanced up to find more sterile gauze, she realized Lamb had been tending to Ivan's face and upper chest. Cleaned of dried blood, glistening with ointment, the well-remembered face belonged to an older man than the one she had last seen. Had last kissed.

"You said KGB. That's not still true, is it? Vladimir Simanov was seconded by the GRU in 1980." Ivan's uncle and patron. If ever a Russian flew under the world's radar -- under his own country's radar -- that man was Vladimir Simanov.

"Every government has their extra-extra-special branch." Lamb's tone was mildly mocking. "Take McAlpine."

"Wish someone would take McAlpine. How do you feel about cockpit sex, Victoria?"

"How do you feel about a bullet through your arse?" She glanced in his direction and found him watching them over his shoulder. "Didn't I hear you say you have a wife?"

"Charity would not only understand, but approve." McAlpine shook his head. "Spies today. So -- provincial."

"Much like the majority of spies in the last decade. You're an aberration, Philip darling."

"Do you ever get laid, Jackson? Do you ever want to get laid? I always worried about you, malchik."

The affectionate Russian word seemed to have a dampening affect on Lamb's power of speech. Victoria made a mental note of the phenomenon even as she finished with all areas of broken skin on Ivan's lower legs. She settled the blanket gently around Ivan's chest, laying her fingers against his throat, finding the rate of his heart beat seemed to be more consistent with a healthy heartbeat.

"He's stable, Winslow. Leave him be. We won't have long to Athens, and we should talk." Lamb put the kit in order, re-latched the case, then sat sideways in the seat opposite Ivan, resting his feet on the metal case like a convenient ottoman.

McAlpine did something with the controls, did several somethings, and lighting throughout the Cessna's interior was reduced to minimal. He half-swiveled in the pilot's chair so he could keep one eye on the controls, one eye on the tiny cabin behind him.

Victoria took the seat behind Ivan, situating herself so she could keep an eye on everyone.

"NATO goods going missing? That's what this was about?" Her question was casual. Quiet. She watched Lamb's face. No joy there; he was composed and withdrawn.

"Only reason I can see for dragging me into this mess is that someone wanted minimal involvement of active personnel." One of McAlpine's large blue eyes, shrouded by a lazy eyelid, was focused unrelentingly on Lamb. "There was an element of hysteria in my recruiter's explanations. Incautious haste is the other reason I was press-ganged."

"Well. The order came down Jacob's ladder approaching the speed of light," Lamb said. "Not our place to analyze the whys and wherefores."

"Indeed." McAlpine's drawl took on an even more deliberate, pensive quality. "I'm remembering why I severed any involvement with Six (the original), and Old Blighty. Always did have my own brain, Jackson. Not afraid to use it."

"Being your handler: like fucking herding cats in heat." Lamb slumped back in his seat and sighed deeply, and at some theatrical length. "There are good reasons why full disclosure at this altitude might be a bad idea. Successful completion of this job requires we pass on the notebook I acquired at the compound. We also need to deliver our Russian to his compatriots. In still breathing condition."

"Two separate, unrelated mandates? Missing hardware. Wandering Russians. There was quite a fuss over Turkey back in the '60s. I wasn't involved, but my ears have always been to the ground," McAlpine said. "Were you, Jackson? Involved?"

Deep, deep well. Sloshing about with chilling, unseen knowledge. Victoria tried to make some sense of McAlpine's demeanor and comments. He'd struck a chord with Lamb, subtle, quiet, but resonating -- or she knew nothing of Lamb. And at this point in their partnership she knew rather a lot about Lamb. "Why was Ivan at that compound, Jackson? Did you know he would be there?"

"I didn't know who it would be, Winslow." Lamb stared at the toes of his boots, resting on the med kit. "And there are things even you shouldn't talk about, darling Philip."

"Oh. Aye. Fuck that." McAlpine turned his back on them and went back to watching the plane's console. "Comprehensively: fuck you, fuck the Russians, and serially fuck Them Upstairs with an oversized, rusty spiked dildo."

There was no malice in the comment, just rather wistful matter-of-fact yearning that reminded Victoria of her last conversation with young Regina. Mother can be so unreasonable. Llamas would be no trouble. They are very low maintenance animals. We could definitely keep llamas in Grand Fenwick. Victoria shifted her position slightly. "It occurs to me that in all the time I've known you, Lamb, I've never pointed a gun directly at you, mid-torso, lungs and heart."

"I've always known you had the best chance -- no -- let me say, certainty, of killing me." Lamb's eyes were fixed on Ivan's unresponsive countenance "I don't know more than this, Winslow: return the Russian to his people. Transfer recovered documents to Them Upstairs. Have you ever needed to know more than your orders contain?"

Had she ever needed to know more? Fair question. "Sometimes our actions are questions. Not answers," she said slowly. "Wisdom of Smiley. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time I obey orders. You, more than anyone, know this to be true. If you say my orders are to make sure Ivan returns safe to the bosom of Mother Russia, I say "Yes, sir!" and comply with alacrity. It's worth noting that my compliance will never again be deaf, dumb and blind."

"Noted." Lamb held up one hand in a field gesture. Stop. Pause. Consider. "We're touching down in Athens in a matter of minutes."

"Will you give me more intel then?" Victoria watched his face, his shoulders, the shift of his eyes. "Lamb?"

"We shall see. Wheels within wheels, Winslow. Wheels within wheels."

 

ATHENS

Athens International. And the mouth-watering smell of spanokopita was in the air. Interesting that they -- someone -- had instructed McAlpine to enter Greece with a forthright profile. Victoria followed Lamb and McAlpine, trying to hold Ivan some semblance of erect.

"His feet won't be moving on their own much longer," she whispered to Lamb. Amazingly Ivan, eyes closed and seemingly mostly unconscious, had somewhat cooperated with his own mobilization into the airport. There were definite hitches and pauses in this cooperation.

"Um." Lamb slowed. "Roadblock ahead. Gentlemen with guns."

"Shoot them," Victoria muttered. "No uniforms there. Seriously, Lamb: shoot them." Three stocky figures in dusty khaki and black behind a man-in-charge type were holding silenced Sterling submachine guns. "Spoils of war, Lamb? I'd like one of those guns."

"Gently, Winslow."

"Bugger that." Ivan would collapse as soon as she released her hold on his ribcage. One step forward would give him some cover as she drew her gun . . .

"Lamb and Winslow?" The lead man in black looked Indian, but spoke with a clipped colonial English accent. "Your presence is requested."

"Really? McAlpine, relieve Winslow of her burden there, would you?" Lamb took one step into the lead. "Who issued the invitation?"

The transition of Ivan's weight into McAlpine's care raised Victoria's opinion of him another notch. Her hands and arms were immediately free to find her gun.

"Chief of station. Please don't, Miss Winslow."

"Which chief of station?" Lamb gave no signal to stand down. His spine was razor straight as he took another step toward the man. "Quickly."

"Sir Andrew."

Lamb's body language did not significantly alter. "I shall be most pleased to speak with Sir Andrew. By the by, tell your men to keep their distance. Miss Winslow is uncomfortable with the proximity of Sterlings. They make her proactively twitchy."

It was a tense stroll down airport corridors to the outside world, ending at an oversized black cargo truck. The gentlemen with guns split the difference, two preceding them into the back of the truck, two following after they boarded.

They hadn't taken her guns, hadn't searched any of them. Victoria watched Lamb, while peripherally assuring herself that McAlpine supported Ivan. The fingers of Lamb's right hand moved, casually, as if brushing dirt from his knee. Battle language.

Don't assume friendly.

Who?

Upstairs. Lamb's hand signal blurred into a bit of slang. But sideways.

Which meant, Victoria interpreted, that there would be a person of influence and rank, not necessarily in the loop with Whitehall and company, who was calling the shots here.

Instructions?

Eyes wide open. We don't stop here.

 

Sir Andrew had a superb view of Athens.

Victoria stood in the open, arched doorway between an eclectically furnished dining area and open courtyard, staring past the men with guns who had patted them down and taken their guns before bringing them inside the misleadingly ancient-looking brick home. She had helped McAlpine arrange Ivan on the floor against an interior wall. He was still deeply unconscious.

"Lamb. How long has it been? Sit." Sir Andrew gestured at the table down which he surveyed them. "Retsina? Help yourselves."

"Don't mind if I …"

"No, Phillip." Lamb pulled out a chair at the opposite end of the table. "Your name was not included in my brief, Sir Andrew."

"You've had no formal contact since leaving Gibraltar." Sir Andrew's fingers were long, lean. He extracted a gold cigarette case from an inside pocket with an elegant, predatory motion. He poked out a brown-wrapped cigarette and placed it between his lips. A single magician-quality movement of fingers and the case was exchanged for a gold lighter. "Your brief may have expanded in scope."

In her peripheral vision, Victoria saw the bloom of flame as Sir Andrew lit his cigarette. One of the men with guns seated himself on the broad stone ledge around the courtyard, finding and lighting a cigarette for himself with one hand.

"I'm waiting," Lamb said.

"Don't bother." McAlpine reached for the nearest bottle and filled a squat, chunky glass with vile liquid. "If the toff 'ad got the correct ID and authorization, would have been the first thing out of his mouth."

Clinking of teeth against glass as McAlpine gulped the retsina, and general quiet followed the observation. Sir Andrew smoked. Lamb watched Sir Andrew. Victoria took a step out onto the courtyard.

"I don't suppose you'd like to give me one? Cigarette, that is." She watched amusement slide over the smoking soldier's face, watched him slide his rear off the stone wall.

"Backchos. Get within three meters of her and you can kiss your tackle farewell." Sir Andrew tapped ash into a crystal ashtray, and sent a withering look of contempt towards the courtyard. "Bless me, Lamb: it's complicated."

Three years gone since Victoria had learned one meaning of that particular phrase, and now she'd heard it twice in one night. She turned her back on the courtyard, and took a seat at the table next to McAlpine, who had a wall at his back. The seat gave her a clear view of the men in the courtyard, and a peripheral view of both Lamb and Sir Andrew. She turned her head slightly to find Sir Andrew tracking her relocation.

Victoria smiled, and imagined placing a shot perfectly between his bushy white eyebrows. His eyes narrowed, then slid away from her, back to Lamb.

If only the world's problems could be solved by shooting people, Victoria thought with a soupçon of nostalgic regret for her younger days. The older she got, the more ops she completed, the more obvious it became that as soon as one body fell, another rose to take its place. The older she got, the less patience she had for the men who sent her into the field with guns. The men who used lives and property as disposable markers on a vast, constantly changing board. Conolly had called it The Grand Game with reason.

"Quit drinking, Phillip. I will need your professional services in less than an hour. If you have nothing further to say, Sir Andrew --?"

Color rose slowly from under Sir Andrew's collar. It wasn't much, Victoria noted, but a definite spike in blood pressure afflicted their host.

"I need to put a few questions to your prisoner, Lamb. What did you use to put him down?"

"Special blend. McAlpine's Little Helper. He won't be available for conversation for quite some time, old boy." McAlpine removed his fingers from the retsina bottle with obvious reluctance.

"He's nothing to do with the team the Russians may, or may not, have recently sent to the mountain," Lamb said.

"That's obviously not what the Turks thought." Sir Andrew stubbed out his cigarette with force, sending ash flying over the ashtray edge onto the table. "The need for intel on what the Russians are doing in the vicinity of Ararat supercedes Nato's petty pilfering complaints."

"I'll share that opinion when I return to Gibraltar." Lamb eased back from the table, one hand fumbling in his tactical vest for a cigarette. "We're ready for that ride back to the airport, now."

"You'd better know what you're doing, Lamb," Sir Andrew muttered. "Who is your handler these days?"

Lamb stood, managing to maintain eye contact as he lit his cigarette. "You haven't signed the documents necessary to receive that information, Sir Andrew. If you're feeling out of the loop, speak with Gibraltar."

 

Their guns were returned before they got back into the truck. Only one of Sir Andrew's men, a driver, accompanied them on the ride to the airport. There was no conversation, or hand-sign from Lamb, who chain smoked and stared into space. Further murking the close atmosphere, McAlpine sat with eyes shut, breathing anise fumes, gently swaying with the truck's sharp turns. Exiting Sir Andrew's assignation house, Victoria had nicked a couple of decorative pillows, which she used to protect Ivan's head from the metal truck bed. She sat on the floor next to Ivan's inert body, one hand on his shoulder, one hand on her gun. Against her fingers she could feel the slow, shallow regularity of his breathing.

It took every ounce of willpower she possessed not to slide down next to him and lay her cheek against his chest. It was an instinct Victoria mentally seized, shook and lectured on the grounds it belonged to a much younger, far less knowledgeable version of herself. A younger, naive, unsophisticated, unconsciously hopeful version of herself. Ten years, and of course he looked older. It was difficult to judge the full effect of those years at the moment, with his face swollen and bruised. Though if he were to open his eyes, Victoria had no doubt they would be the same brilliant, laughing blue she remembered.

The truck jerked to a halt. A quick glance at where Lamb knelt behind the driver told Victoria it was he who had instigated the stop. Lamb spoke a few rapid words in Greek, then maneuvered his body between the front seats, into the passenger's seat.

"I'll meet you in the hangar, Winslow. The plane should be prepped and ready."

The truck door creaked open, then shut with something less than a slam.

"Well. If that doesn't suggest Lamb expects we'll be greeted at the hangar . . ." McAlpine cracked his eyes open, slid a long look between her and Ivan, then shut his eyes again. "What's the story? You and the Russian. I ask this, knowing full well you will not tell me. But I ask to let you know your demeanor brings the question to mind."

"Bugger." One hand sliding along the truck's interior, Victoria eased herself from a sitting to standing position. She decided to ignore the question. "When we get out of the truck, you're going first. I'll back you up. We won't move Ivan until we know there's a clear exit to the plane."

"Ummm." McAlpine made a slight motion of his head that could have been a nod. "Lamb said -- Simanov. Is he, by any stray thread in Tyche's chiton, related to that old warhorse Vlad?"

Victoria stared at him until his eyes slitted open again. "Did you and Lamb train at the same time? Do people often wish to kill you?"

"Wish. Try. Fail. Die." McAlpine grinned. "You've got really nice tits for a wet operator, anyone ever tell you that?"

"My goodness, Mr. McAlpine, most men find my accessories more remarkable." Victoria reached over Ivan with one foot and kicked McAlpine in the left knee. "Get up, and get ready."

"Sound just like my wife after a bottle of Mazis-Chambertin red. Think you'd like her. Fairly proficient wet operator herself."

 

One airplane hangar was much like another. The door to this hangar was wide open to the night, allowing the truck free and rapid access. Viewing their entry past a ragged collar and hairy ear, Victoria suggested to the driver that he might want to park the truck as far away from the plane as possible.

"Take your gun out of his ribs," McAlpine said. "Foot soldier. No agenda. Probably has a girlfriend with seven children at home."

The driver took a sharp left, parking the truck nose against the side of the hangar.

"Teach your grandmother, McAlpine." Victoria withdrew her gun. "Please leave the gun as you exit."

"Right. And, six children, sir." The driver cast a regretful glance down toward the coveted Sterling resting on the passenger-side floor, then cracked his door open and slipped out of the driver's seat. He moved with an alacrity that suggested an understanding of the situation.

Victoria leaned forward to grab the gun, then clambered back to join McAlpine. "Get moving, then."

"If I'm shot, love, you do realize Lamb will try and pilot the plane." Gun in one hand, McAlpine ducked his head under the canvas blocking the truck's rear access. His next words came back muffled. "We have an unwelcome committee. Repondez s'il vous plait."

"Bugger." Victoria twitched the canvas aside just enough to maintain a peripheral awareness of the truck's interior. She stepped down next to McAlpine, cradling the liberated Sterling across her stomach.

Three men of nearly identical height and build, who apparently frequented the same barber and outfitter, were now occupying a spot between the truck and the plane. They formed a close khaki tripod: lead man, focus left, and focus right. All three carried HP MP5K Room Brooms.

Victoria nodded her appreciation, catching the eye of the lead man. He flashed her an even-toothed, overly-white smile.

"Americans. It's an International party." Dentistry was the big telltale, but it was never difficult to identify the universally recognizable arrogance of Americans on a mission. "Gentlemen? We're in something of a hurry. How may we help you?"

"We're looking for a Russian who recently participated in an Ararat climb."

"You're looking in the wrong place." Lamb's disembodied comment brought twitches of reaction from the Americans as they scanned for the source of the voice. "Truth: we've got a Russian. Truth: he has nothing to do with Ararat. If you hurry, you might still catch them in Turkey. If you linger . . . "

The tripod drew closer together, almost back-to-back.

"I don't mind taking your advice, but we'll take the Russian with us to Turkey and chat on the trip. I like to cover all the bases."

"If it didn't impact my own agenda, I'd be well pleased to send you on a snipe hunt. Unfortunately my agenda includes the Russian. I'd rather not shoot at allies, but Winslow has no such hesitation."

"Thought that's who she might be. Pleasure to meet you, ma'am. Matt Cooper, here. That must be Lamb in the shadows?"

"Natural habitat," McAlpine muttered. "Can we move this along?"

Cooper stared across the space at them for several long seconds, then nodded. He spoke a nearly inaudible syllable to the other men, who lowered their guns and began a quick, strategic retreat from the hangar. "On your word, Lamb, that your prisoner has no connection with Ararat --"

"You have my word." Lamb stepped from behind a stack of crates. "Langley's coming late to the ball on that action."

"Maybe. Ball's not over. Bob Matheson said we might run into one or the other of you in this part of the world."

"Bob?" Lamb made a tssking sound of reproach. "You are referring to a large, black gentleman -- Joe by name, joe by occupation?"

"And dimples," Victoria added. She saw a quick smile curve the corner's of Cooper's lips.

"Yeah. And dimples." The smile became a full laugh. "Okay. As I said -- just covering my bases. On to Turkey, then."

"Before you go, who pointed you in our direction?"

It was a question Lamb had not asked Sir Andrew, Victoria realized, and wondered if he already knew the answer both parties would give him.

"Not specifically. But Athens leaks like a sieve. So I probably shouldn't keep you here any longer."

It seemed Lamb wasn't the only master of sarcasm working in the field.

"McAlpine, plane. Winslow, watch. I'll collect the Russian baggage." Lamb was moving even before Cooper's long legs and tightly muscled arse disappeared to the left of the hangar doors. He pulled Ivan from the truck bed with one jerk and slung him over a thin shoulder without visible effort. "Winslow! Eyes!"

TANGIERS

If McAlpine hadn't needed a place to point the plane, Victoria doubted whether Lamb would have shared the intention to reconnect with Gibraltar personnel by way of Tangiers. The flight away from Athens was mostly silent. McAlpine watched his gauges. Lamb interrogated the reverse side of his eyelids. Victoria sat beside Ivan, who was always somewhere in her field of vision, and philosophized about counting coup in the Spy Game. After a smooth, uneventful landing, McAlpine administered another hypodermic needle to Ivan's arm.

No unwelcome committee lurked as they deplaned. Lamb was able to effortlessly materialize an ancient, wheezing vehicle to provide transportation away from the air strip, which indicated to Victoria that someone, somewhere was abreast of Lamb's mission progress. From airport through increasingly crowded streets, Lamb's driving was greeted with the same gestures and honks accorded to native drivers.

"Watch the donkey! Watch the melons! Beware pedestrians and robbers!" McAlpine's shouts of warning failed to convey sufficient concern. He rather sounded as if he was enjoying himself. "Are we there yet? I smell majoon . . ."

The stairs to the space above Cafe Tanja were so narrow that two could not walk abreast. They handed Ivan along like a piece of unwieldy furniture, up two to three steps at a time. Upon reaching the locked door at the top of the stairs, Lamb fished for a key, opened the door, then pushed Ivan through ahead of him.

"Settle. I'm off to Gibraltar." Lamb made a quick sweep of the rooms, then returned, rubbing his eyes. "Winslow, you're the voice of reason while I'm gone. Philip, no smoking anything."

For the first time in their partnership, Victoria realized Jackson Lamb had been aging. That she had probably been aging. After hours on the road, the map of Lamb's face contained a sketch of clandestine lanes and unkept foreign byways. More misdirection than direction, she thought as Lamb met her eyes fully. Victoria recognized the question and assessment. Lamb was not worried about leaving her and Ivan together. Not worried -- but cautious.

"Right." Curiously, Victoria's fingers twitched with the intention to rub at her eyes and explore the state of her own skin. She ignored the urge, and saw Lamb's eyebrows raise.

His mouth twisted into a quirk of sardonic amusement. "It's a tell, Winslow. Teeth held together, jaw set as you tilt your entire face slightly downward and glare. Relax. Best keep our baggage unconscious. I'll send collectors."

Victoria put space between her molars and continued the glare. "Is McAlpine expendable?"

"Use him as you see fit." Lamb patted his pockets absently, then was gone.

A deadbolt on her side of the doorway was the entry's only security feature. Victoria punched the bit of metal into its sheath, then turned her attention to the space around her. Quick reconnaissance showed three rooms: one large living area past the stairway entry. One rudimentary WC, door to the left. One kitchen area contiguous to the living area.

"Could really do with a cold beer." McAlpine had made himself useful, arranging Ivan's body on the floor. He sniffed an oversized, ornately tasseled pillow that had been lounging against one wall. Apparently satisfied, he inserted the pillow under Ivan's head. "My drug cupboard is nearly empty. That last injection was only maintenance level. He'll start to surface in a few hours."

"I'd rather that didn't happen before Lamb or an extraction team shows up."

"Relationship end on a note of strain?" McAlpine went to the half open window, pushing aside heavy hanging drapes to peer at the streets below. "We'll need a few things. Bottled beverages at the least. I'm going out."

"McAlpine."

"Eh?" He faced her with the nonchalance of a punter who had just told his wife he was stepping out for a pint with the lads. "Problem with that, Winslow? Did you want to hydrate the baggage with area tap water?"

She really didn't. "Watch your front, back and sides. Our entrance from stage left was far from invisible."

"Wasn't born yesterday, love. What's Lamb's current door code?"

"Shave and a haircut. One bit. Anything else, you're like to get shot."

McAlpine didn't look particularly worried. He patted his pockets thoughtfully and withdrew a battered leather wallet. "I find myself somewhat embarrassed financially. Lamb is a poor provider in that department. But this will help the cause."

"Buzzed a poor foot soldier, did you?" Victoria's eyes moved past Ivan's still body, assessing defensibility of the main room. "Go quickly. Return quickly."

The man could indeed move quickly when occasion warranted. McAlpine evaporated around a barely opened front door. Victoria bolted and locked the door hardware behind him.

 

Restless, on the prowl, scrutinizing every feature of her environment except Ivan's recumbent body, Victoria moved between rooms, between windows, straining to incorporate the dribble of ambient sound allowed by the building's brooding stonework into the physical narrative she was building of her environs.

Outside the narrow floor-to-ceiling windows in the living area, shallow wrought iron balconies clung to the outside stonework. If someone came calling, those balconies would be handy.

Ivan's face was flushed in the drapery-diffused glow of afternoon sunlight, beads of sweat taking a slow toboggan-run down his temples. Two fingers on the pulse at his neck revealed a rapid, but steady, heartbeat.

"Bugger." Victoria backed away and took up residence on the edge of an armchair. "Ivan Simanov. If ever there was a Red herring . . ."

There was an unexpectedly satisfying sense of cynical, ironic pleasure in her spontaneous play on words. If Victoria had needed proof she'd been working with Lamb for too many years . . .

Lamb. The go-to lad for Them Upstairs. All the weird, the knotty, the complex and slimy traffic got routed to Lamb. Thus, often, by association, to her.

Even so, this work was not as varied and interesting as Ian Fleming made it out to be.

Victoria pondered. Lamb had been sent, with support and a victim of citizen impressment, to Turkey. Ostensibly to intervene in a smuggling enterprise. Lamb, with support, had encountered Turkish, British, Greek and American resistance to that simple mission. All asking questions about Russians and Ararat. Considering recent events, the only significant country that hadn't weighed in . . .

"Bugger." Victoria closed her eyes, held the Sterling relaxed against the top of her thigh, and listened to the world around her.

Her last, unlamented lover had been an American scholar wallowing around London. Postdoctoral something or other. She'd never really paid attention. He quoted Proust. Extensively. By the time they'd parted, Victoria had wanted to shoot him.

"Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were."

Proust. Wanker. French wanker. Wordy French wanker.

The scritch of metal against stone, a whisper of sound, caused Victoria to open her eyes and shift the Sterling. With one strong push of foot against unresisting flesh she relocated Ivan to a position closer to the back of the sofa.

Two tentative knocks came on the door, just as a single subdued yet prolonged shrill of metal moving against metal filtered in from the direction of the balconies. Victoria went to the draperies, hugging the wall. A pair of hands, visible from fingers to elbows, were clamped around the balcony railing.

"Bon jour? 'allo?" The voice, filtered through the thick door, seemed unusually tentative for an official visitation.

Decisions, decisions. Verbal engagement in two languages brought Victoria three steps back into the center of the living area.

The apartment door was very old, with inset rectangular panels. Architecturally attractive, Victoria thought as she let the Sterling hang against her stomach and took her Walther from its holster. She put a shot through the top of the door, then turned and put two shots through the open window behind her. The shots provoked simultaneous exclamations, and a most satisfying clatter as the personage attached to the hands on the balcony released their hold on the wrought iron.

From the balcony: "Merde!"

From the hallway: "Merde alors!"

Victoria put another shot through the top of the door as she stepped forward to unbolt the lock. "Hands high, one visitor," she called out, angling back away from the entry.

"Excuse moi! 'allo?" The body projecting the salutation made no move to try the door.

"How may I help you? Please be prompt, and be brief."

"I am Millinier, say-de-say. My instructions are to find a certain Russian."

The voice was faint, but could be heard well enough. SDECE, Victoria thought, would naturally be the last card to fall in the current game.

"I have a Russian. He was not on Ararat." Victoria paused. Reflected. "He's not the Russian you're looking for. You can go about your business. Now." She twitched her finger on the Sterling, and a new pattern of holes appeared across the inset door panels. "You may wish to send someone outside to warn m'sieur wall-climber that I will shatter both his wrists if I see him again."

"You are British operative . . . Victoria Winslow?"

It was a small world, with few working women in the field. Victoria saw no point in denying the identification. "Yes."

"Ah. And Lamb?"

"Gone to Gibraltar. If you are SDECE, you'll scarper on back to your people and tell them it was a snipe hunt. If you are not SDECE . . . " A small shriek came hard on the heels of the next bullet through the door. "C'est compris?"

"Oui. Pardon!"

Victoria cocked her head, listening as the plaintive murmur of French obscenities faded. She reset the door bolt. "As you say."

~ ~ ~

The pattern of five plus one knocks came far sooner than Victoria had thought it might. She had relocated a stool to a spot against the wall near the balcony window. She sat, leaning against the cool wall, drifting into the autohypnotic state that came naturally when she couldn't safely nap or sleep. Ivan's body was deep in shadow behind the couch, the sun's rays now illuminating other landmarks across the sprawling geography of Tangiers.

Victoria's knee made a snapping, popping sound as she stood and stretched before going to answer the summons. She flexed her leg and grimaced as the offending joint twinged, then resumed normal function. Waiting took more of a physical toll every year.

"Which bastard is it, waits without?"

"Hardly time for Himself to make it back. Open sesame, love."

"You may call me Winslow. Informality brings me all over … twitchy." Victoria opened the door and found McAlpine, weighted with packages.

"Whole world's gone twitchy. Is this what the job's devolved into? Not that it was ever a model occupation." McAlpine nodded at the blood spattered hallway behind him. "You do know Frogs can hold a grudge for centuries."

"Good guess as to blood type. Representatives of the French," Victoria emphasized the word with a reproving glare, "secret services do indeed have long memories. But they are also somewhat more pragmatic than my own country people. I'm sure it was a flesh wound. His lungs, and more importantly, vocabulary, survived intact."

"That's all right, then." McAlpine closed the front door, slid the bolt, and blinked like an owl. He plucked an over-sized fabric bag from his shoulder and handed it to Victoria. "Supplies."

"The Russian is restless. Your drugs . . ."

"Not my drugs, love. Not my kit." McAlpine squatted beside Ivan. "Actually not doing so badly, all things considered. There's bottled water in that bag."

"Will he wake?"

"I'm waiting for instructions."

McAlpine was not quite as adept as The Grand Master of Understated Sarcasm and Implication, but Lamb had probably instructed and passed him on the Expert course. Victoria recognized the choice of word emphasis and minute lift of eyebrow. Once again she wasted a moment pondering Lamb's existence, speculation that was now an infinite loop in her subconscious: The people Lamb knew. The people Lamb had trained. The fucking people Lamb did business with, traded recipes and bodily fluids with . . .

"Keep him under," she said flatly. "Until his people get here, keep him under."

"Righty-o." McAlpine had the unmitigated audacity to wink at her. And laugh. "That I can do. Are you hungry, love? Thirsty? Help yourself while I work."

The bottled water was a degree past tepid. Victoria found two chunky stoneware mugs in the kitchen and filled both, handing one to McAlpine. She downed a full cup of water, making a face at the flat, unpleasant aftertaste.

"This will take that taste out of your mouth." Excavating the contents of his bag, McAlpine unwrapped a small paper parcel. "You'll like this."

Interesting presentation, Victoria thought, eyeing the crackle of pastry atop a dark filling that smelled strongly of honey. She lifted the paper to her mouth and took a small sample.

"Dates? Walnuts? Honey?" She rolled the sticky confection against the top of her palate. "That's rather nice."

"Yes." McAlpine waited while she took another two bites, then took the paper back from her and finished the pastry, licking the paper clean of honey. "Rather nice."

 

McAlpine wasn't a bad sort of chap. And he was proof positive that there was life beyond Six, or however else Them Upstairs might choose to categorize the division of the troops at this point in time.

Or past points in time. Or future points in time.

Victoria sat on the floor with her back against the drapes, watching lingering swirls of smoke twine into the division of dark and light as angled afternoon sunlight slowly departed an unlit room.

"I've been stoned before," she said, conversationally. "This feels different."

"Expert courses." McAlpine blew a long cloud of smoke toward Ivan's face. "Some are more comprehensive than others. Torture resistance techniques on the Isle of Man, for instance."

"Indeed." She had been there. Cold water. Cold rock. Cold, hard, motivated men. "I would have gladly signed up for your variations, darling Philip."

"Stout lass."

"More durable and efficacious than stout, surely." Victoria's eyes wandered over the lines of Ivan's body. Injected drugs plus inhaled drugs equaled an extremely passive, relaxed Russian.

"He's not hurting, you know. He's quiet. Dreaming."

"Thank you." This person. This man she hadn't seen for a decade of years. She could touch him at this moment, but still would not be whole. On the map of her existence there was a deepwater trench, unexplored, unknown. This man lay below her entire waking existence . . .

"Winslow?"

"McAlpine?"

"Come to America. You could make a living."

"Get thee behind me."

"Any time, love. Any time." McAlpine winked obscenely and prodded Ivan with his foot. "You might as well tell me about him."

There were so many good reasons not to use drugs, especially with co-workers. Victoria sighed. "He's on my record. Ten years ago we were briefly lovers. It wasn't a sanctioned relationship. Them Upstairs told Lamb that if I didn't kill him, Lamb should." Her voice seemed to be reaching her own ears from a great distance. Victoria squinted through the smoke to make sure McAlpine had heard her answer.

He was nodding his head. "Well, then. The Russian's not in great shape, but clearly is not dead." Another poke of the foot. "Massive scar tissue on his chest. You did shoot him, and he survived?"

"Yes."

"And Lamb was with you when this went down?"

"Yes."

"Interesting."

Why McAlpine found this interesting, Victoria did not ask. Perhaps he guessed, as she knew, that Ivan's survival might be attributed more to plan than chance. An unfathomable, extraordinarily sympathetic plan by Jackson Lamb. Because one thing she had learned during her association with Jackson Lamb: if Lamb thought someone needed to be dead, they got dead.

And Ivan was very much alive. More-or-less.

Victoria watched Ivan breathe, slowly, deeply. He was past the point of her concern, cocooned in a haze of drugged exhaustion. Over the course of 10 years he had changed from young man to man. His face, fuller. His body, swollen, marred and battered as it was, was more difficult to evaluate. But there was a new breadth from chest to hip bones. Victoria eyes left his face, to watch low flying dust motes catch afternoon sun as they swarmed around his short-cropped hair.

She no longer tried to keep track of former lovers. There had been a time when Victoria knew how many sexual partners there had been in her life. Such a tally no longer seemed relevant. Bodies came, bodies went. The physical act had become mechanical, meaningless. No more important than moving a muscle to squeeze her trigger finger. This was a reality she had consciously decided not to think about.

"Have you ever heard stories about what went down on Ararat in the 60s?" An arabesque of smoke followed the question. McAlpine offered Victoria a small metal pipe. "Have you ever heard fairy tales about Russia's special protector?"

Victoria stared at the pipe, then slowly lifted it to her lips. Someone was shaking a finger at her muttering bad idea -- really bad idea, but bugger all that. She took a deep drag on the pipe and let the acrid sweet smoke linger on her tongue. "No."

"Lamb knows all the best stories, from all the countries. If you ever have the chance, try and worm this one out of him. They found something on that Turkish mountain during that climb, Winslow. Something ancient, vast, powerful and magical, and so very different from any of the powers we believe anchor this reality. We have countries. Weapons. Ministers and Lords. Presidents and politicians. Churchmen and saints. Scientists and artists. The things on the mountain have . . . power. Power and hunger."

McAlpine's rather dreamy eyes drooped into an exaggerated expression of sad yearning. "The Russians made an acquaintance and extended an invitation long ago. They received a measure of strange grace and protection when something accepted their offer. But if there's one universal truth, beautiful, deadly Victoria, it is that relationships have a half life. A sell-by-date. An end."

"I'll take your word for that." It was a truth she already knew. "You'd write fucking great fortune cookies. Ararat is a rather inhospitable mountain that was said to have been the final resting place of Noah's Ark. You're telling me every significant country on the planet is sending agents up the ice for something magical?"

The idea was so funny. Victoria realized she was giggling, and hastily handed the pipe back to McAlpine.

"Has been sending agents up the ice. This will be the third official survey on the Ararat structure. I don't know much. I heard Russians went up fast this time. It may well be some little while before anyone knows if they made it down."

Interesting. And Ivan was in Turkey, but not part of the climb. Had his presence there been for a mission, or had he, in truth, been trailing the red herring into spy-infested waters? Victoria licked her lips and forced her mind to form a couple of sentences.

"Do you know anything about Ivan Simanov? Besides the fact he is Vladimir Simanov's nephew?"

"No. Was never mainstream Service, love. Everyone knows Vlad, of course."

"I've read the précis on Vladimir Simanov. It's longer than a fucking Tolkien trilogy. Ivan and Natasha are barely mentioned. Even after --" Victoria paused and squinted into a roil of smoke. "The timing can't be coincidental. Ivan is in the neighborhood. He's captured, interrogated. A team is sent in to roust a nest of thieves, fortuitously finding a detained Ivan."

"It was a rescue, love. After what you've told me I have to say your participation is certainly puzzling, but perhaps they didn't have a quick alternative. Examine the narrative that describes my own involvement."

Victoria scooted forward until her legs touched Ivan's. She watched her own hand move, seemingly of its own volition, to trace the outline of his cheek, then settle on the upper portion of scars that cratered his shoulder blade. "You talk like Lamb. And you talk too much. Did your handlers underestimate you?"

There was a drawn-out lack of answer. Finally, McAlpine said: "Frequently."

"Bond once told me, by way of making bad times into bearable times, that when Them Upstairs pigeon-holed or underestimated an agent's talents, it could be of definite advantage to that agent."

"Succinct. Canny. My wife rather fancies Bond. She's been graphic about that. Superior imagination, has my Charity. Did you and Bond ever --?"

Victoria snorted a laugh. "As if I'd tell you. I think I'd like to meet your wife."

"Ohhh." McAlpine drew out the single syllable. "Yes, please."

Ivan's face was in shadow now. Victoria's fingers inscribed an infinity loop over the scar tissue on his chest. "So the world's powers are going up the airy mountain on a semi-regular basis. To find elves and fairies? To find a new method of civilization-disassembly?"

"Ultra-ultra-high explosives?" McAlpine giggled. "I've told you as much as I know. Considering the multi-country scramble for intel, there's some significant pearl hidden beneath the slime of the bivalve mollusk that encompasses our current Sitrep."

And there it was, again. The perils of smoking dope. The perils of smoking dope with a team member while on a mission.

"I should really shoot you for saying that." Victoria took a deep breath of wholly unfresh air and pushed back from Ivan's sleeping body. "I haven't seen this man for 10 years. He is still special to me. I hope to give him into the care of his compatriots, and I have no desire to know why we were sent to Turkey, why we found him in Turkey, and why Lamb is more cryptic than usual."

"Your call, love. In a week, two weeks, when you're evaluating your life choices, don't forget my invitation to the New World. You don't have to remain an MI-6 bitch forever. Suffragettes, unite!"

MI-6 bitch. Victoria wasn't sure how she felt about that label. It was marginally more acceptable to her than others she had heard applied to women in her profession. "Queen and country, McAlpine. If that ever changes, I'll track down your wife."

Comfortable, drifting silence expanded to fill the room as light waned, shadows lengthened, and Victoria's entire existence narrowed to the scars on Ivan's chest, the curve of his lip and distinctive cleft of his chin. A far too vivid memory of Ivan's mouth against her lower belly, his fingers gently bracketing her hips, momentarily reduced reality around her to smoke and shadow.

Life choices, McAlpine had said. Choices and unintended consequences.

"But that this blow had been the be-all and end-all."

"Banging the bard, love?"

Victoria realized she had spoken the quote aloud, and that she couldn't entirely blame her theatrical declamation on the drugs. "Poetry has, at times, been forced upon me. It erupts at inconvenient moments. Sometimes there are no choices, McAlpine. There is only duty and maintaining the status quo."

"Duty." In spite of his elevated state of consciousness, McAlpine managed a withering sneer. "You need a long vacation on a sun-scorched beach, lots of cold drinks, and possibly a high colonic. Duty, indeed."

"Duty and craft. If I have a headache tomorrow, I promise to shoot you."

 

They came for Ivan in the morning.

Sun rays dripped like radiant-infused egg-yolk over the back of the couch, vaporizing gummy residue from Victoria's eyelashes as she came to her feet, her body responding automatically to coded knocks on the apartment's front door.

"Winslow." Lamb's voice. Irritated. "What the extraordinary fuck have you been doing?"

Victoria took a moment to yawn and stretch before she opened the door. She didn't have a headache, but there was significant woolliness of mind, sensitivity to light, and weird lethargy in her major muscle groups. "Untwist your knickers. I'm coming."

Two men hovered behind Lamb at the top of the stairway: one sturdy, weathered blond, and one brownette with exquisite forearms. She stepped back and away as all three men entered the apartment. Russians, Victoria diagnosed as the brownette, with shoulders that Atlas would have envied, hefted Ivan into an over-the-shoulder carry. Ivan's eyes still did not open, but a groan of sound and thready, incoherent syllables seemed to indicate the return of partial awareness.

Surprisingly, McAlpine touched her shoulder and offered a bottle of water, a fleeting invasion of personal space that Victoria found she didn't mind. "We did our bit, love. Short of actual murder, the baggage will be drinking vodka and eating borsht in a few days."

"And which bit would that be, Philip? This hallway is solid with fug and bloodsplatter. I specifically told you not to smoke anything." Lamb's reproach was addressed to McAlpine, but Victoria found herself on the receiving end of his filet-sharp glare. "I ought to leave you here to rot."

"Charity would find me. She might also be moved to find you. But if you give me transport back unto the place from which I was taken, she probably won't feel it necessary to demand an accounting."

Lamb's face contorted into a rictus that showed his teeth, but he held his response until after the Russians disappeared down the stairway. "You are a contagion, Philip. A leper."

McAlpine grinned, unrepentant. "We have an office in Boston, Victoria love, and plenty of work for a competent wet artist. If you ever need to find us."

"She will not." Lamb gestured them to precede him out the doorway. He waved a hand at the blood splatter. "You shot a SDECE agent?"

"Grazed." Victoria squinted at the pattern of residue and shrugged. The light coming up the stairway was unpleasantly bright, and her mouth seemed coated in bad-tasting algae. She uncapped the water and drank half the bottle straight down. "They went away without a fuss. What happened on Ararat, Lamb? McAlpine says you could tell me quite the interesting fairy tale about Turkey."

"That's not my story to tell. And Philip needs to keep his mouth shut. Get functional, Winslow. We're needed elsewhere." Lamb's posture showed significant deviation from his usual slouch. He marched down the stairs in the lead, spine razor straight.

"Of course we are." Victoria gestured for McAlpine to go ahead of her, wishing she had sunglasses. "My guns and I are right behind you."

It had become the norm, for her missions to skirt the raveled edges of normalcy. In Victoria's experience, people she shot did not survive to reappear during later missions. Ivan was the sole exception. Ten years later, Victoria obliquely admitted the engineering of Ivan's shooting was the reason she still followed Jackson Lamb, still took orders indirectly from Them Upstairs. While being a right bastard, Lamb was also a canny bugger who walked the party line using only two toes out of ten.

It was, however, nice to know a person had choices. Alternative employment. Acquaintances in the larger world.

Victoria followed Jackson Lamb and Philip McAlpine into the light and street noise of Tangiers. First chance she got, the next stretch of down time back home, she would bake Lamb a tray of madeleines, gift him a bottle of Courvoisier, wait until half of each item was ingested before asking again for the Ararat story. The trick, really, to conducting an interrogation was patience.

Patience, baked goods and brandy.

A step behind the men, Victoria paused and drained the remainder of her water bottle. He was alive. She was alive. Life and death and war and peace, renewal and decay and megaindustry and self-reliance butted realities and philosophies and practicalities around her on the world landscape. She was a soldier. A warrior. A follower.

For this moment in time, anyway.

Patience. Baked goods. Vodka.

Victoria and her guns followed Jackson Lamb away from the streets of Tangiers, toward their next assignment.