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No dance no deal

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Like all of Irina’s bolt-holes, the flat smelled of burnt wires and dust. All those millions, running scams from Hong Kong to Dakar, and she still couldn’t trouble herself to have decent furniture brought in. Look at that chair, sagging on its tired old legs. How typical.

Ekaterina bit her lip to keep from sneezing, head angled back slightly to avoid killing herself. The knife at her throat was cool against her skin.

“Irina.” She watched her sister in the old mirror hanging over the sofa opposite, gilt flaking from the cheap frame. Irina was still too thin, had been since Kashmir. Both of them looked silly with their faces tipped up like this, not that Irina noticed. She didn’t make the mistake of looking. "Is there a problem?"

The blade’s movement was barely perceptible. "Khasinau called."

The man might be useful but he’d make one call too many, one day. Katya rolled her eyes in case Irina actually was watching. "He’s an old woman. I told you I was going to check on things."

"You mentioned Bucharest," said Irina. "Not Galway Bay."

Katya let her shoulders obey the vicious strain on her right arm, twisted up and across her back. "It was my birthday," she gibed, ignoring the pain, admiring her favorite shirt in the mirror. It was silk, white as milk against Irina’s usual sleek black. "What do you care if Sasha and I had a little party to celebrate?"

"Not Sasha," said Irina, and Katya took an ostentatious breath, her enjoyment of the memory quite genuine: blue eyes, clever hands, a certain youthful insistence. A little runnel of blood reached the neckline of the shirt. It was dazzling, red on white.

"No," she admitted. "All right, I couldn’t resist. He’s impressive, your Julian. You didn’t by some chance think him innocent?" Not for years, she imagined. Not with the American girl — Allison, Allie — in his orbit.

"He is not to be distracted," said Irina coldly.

"He’s seventeen. You’re a fool." She was half in earnest. Irina never cared about human frailty until she had a use for it. There was another little prompt from the knife.

"Let me recall you to our timetable."

Katya sighed. "There’s a new mutation; he believes it is stable. Irina, he’s wasted in the lab. Put him in the field."

But Irina never cared for advice, either. "He had questions?" Colder still.

He had, actually. The speculation in his eyes as he’d watched her dress told its own tale. He’d offered to accompany her to the airfield, which made her laugh: such pretty manners. She’d kissed him and made some remark about how well things were going and then he’d said it so casually, as if it weren't the only thing on his mind: And Irina?

"No questions." She shifted slightly, which hurt. There was a new and faster trickle down the side of her neck. "Oh, come on, Irusha. We had a little fun, he learned a few things. Nadyenka will thank me, some day," she said. "If he ever does find her."

"He’ll be useless if he doesn’t," was her sister’s soft reply. "And you." No doubt there was an intricately coded Rambaldi treatise against humor somewhere in Irina’s collection. She tried again.

"Don’t be such a bitch. I won’t touch him again. Shtob ya sdokhla, okay? Is that good enough for you?"

There, finally, a little snort from just behind her left ear. She knew that would make Irina laugh: May I drop dead. She anticipated the shove between the shoulderblades. The knife disappeared. She smelled like blood and her neck was sticky and these ugly walls that hadn’t been painted since Brezhnev died were beginning to depress her.

"Perhaps I’ll just check up on Jack Bristow instead," she couldn’t help adding.

In the mirror, Irina’s predatory smile. "Please," she said. "And give him my love," and Katya laughed. She had no problem conceding that point. For now.

The shirt wasn’t salvageable. Getting a rise out of Irina had been worth it, but she’d make her pay anyway. She wet a threadbare linen napkin at the samovar and sponged the worst of the blood from her skin.

She hadn’t answered the boy Julian’s question, actually, had done him the favor of ignoring it. He knew by this time that Irina had no personal interest in him. Katya thought it a pity, but then her own agenda was quite, quite different from her tedious older sister’s. She shook her head over the tea service, more tarnish than silver.

"’Rusha, we have lemon-cakes for tea," she said, pleased at her own foresight in providing them, but Irina was already back at the terminal they’d had all that ridiculous wiring installed for, clacking away. Katya smiled and set a cup at her sister’s elbow. She didn’t mind. It meant more for her.



June 8, 2004