I didn't know when riding in elevators alone became my form of relief. When the button was pressed and the doors were sliding shut, only then did I feel some kind of reprieve from the world outside those doors. I could take a breath and stop pretending, if only for a few moments. I didn't have to be anyone else except me. I would slump against the back wall and stare at the button panel, counting down the number of floors left because the ride never lasted long enough. As it reached its destination and slowed to a stop, I had to straighten up and start pretending again before doors opened.
Today, I was in an old elevator in an apartment building on Zubovsky Boulevard in Moscow. It was rickety with wood paneling and the distinct smell of turpentine. I was alone, headed to the fifth floor. There was a bundle of nerves in the pit of my stomach and my palms were sweating despite the late November snow that blew through the city. I unbuttoned my heavy winter coat and practiced my Russian accent in my head.
This was a simple task, one I had done several times now. I had never done it in Russian, though, and I didn't feel confident in the slightest. I had barely passed the language test at Langley. There was something about the verb conjugation that always messed me up. To my relief, though, I had passed the test and was certified as field-ready in Russian. As the elevator began to slow, I swallowed, not feeling too relieved anymore.
My hand found the Russian passport in my coat pocket. I opened it, seeing my face but a different name. "Dominika Dubrovskaya," I said to myself, testing it. I tried to make sure there was no trace of an American accent. "Dominika Dubrovskaya."
The doors opened and I slipped the passport back into my pocket as I stepped out. The hallway was empty and quiet, the paint peeling on the walls. The floor was dirty, too. I found apartment 506, taking a deep breath before knocking.
There came the sound of keys and a lock clicking. A middle-aged woman opened the door and peered at me with curiosity. "Zdravstvuj," she greeted in a smoker's voice.
"Zdravstvuj," I replied. I smiled and continued in the best Russian I could, "My name is Dominika Dubrovskaya. I called earlier to take a look at the apartment?"
"Of course, of course," she said, beckoning me into the apartment.
I shrugged off my coat and folded it over my arm, taking in my surroundings. She showed me around, emphasizing that despite unreliable hot water, broken freezer, and the foot-wide hole in the kitchen wall, it was a fabulous apartment.
"Are you moving to Moscow?" she asked, giving me a big smile as she hastily tidied up the coffee table.
"Yes," I said. "I live in St. Petersburg, but I just got a promotion. I'll be working in the Presnensky district downtown." I crossed my arms and smiled pleasantly. "I'm excited to start somewhere new."
Eyes bright, she said, "Ah, yes, you will love Moscow. I have been here for twenty years and it's been wonderful. I hate to leave, but my brother…" She trailed off, pausing as she straightened the book on the table. "He's sick." She shook herself and looked up at me. "Congratulations on the promotion. What's your line of work?"
She said it so casually as if it was a normal question. I guess it was a normal question. I met her eyes and gave her a normal answer. "I'm a human resources manager for VTB Bank."
"My cousin works for VTB Bank," she told me happily. "Maybe you will meet him."
"Maybe I will," I replied. "What's his name?"
"Ivan Krylov," she answered, eyes widening and looking thrilled. "He's one of those computer guys…" She waved a dismissive hand and laughed. "I do not know what he does exactly."
"Ivan," I repeated, giving her a nod. "I'll keep an eye out."
I wouldn't be meeting Ivan Krylov anytime soon. I didn't work at VTB Bank and I wasn't a human resources manager and I wasn't staying in Moscow for more than a week. I was an operational logistics officer for the Central Intelligence Agency. Once my job was done, I was on a plane back to Washington, D.C.
"Oh, did I show you the closet in the second bedroom?" she asked. "You have to see it; it's a great storage space."
I followed her but I didn't care about storage space. I wasn't looking for the same qualities in an apartment as other future tenants. Inside of analyzing the square footage of the bedrooms and the "cozy" ambiance of the place, I was looking at the number of plugs, the size of the living room, the location of the building, the seclusion of the apartment. I tried to visualize where the equipment would go. It looked like it could all fit.
It was my job to set up before an operation took place. I scouted out the location and constructed a site that could enable the field officers to successfully complete their mission. I brought in the computers, the tech, the gear, and even stocked the fridge, but I was always gone before the operation even started.
This particular mission had something to do with an arms dealer. I was never given details. I just knew the apartment needed to have a clear view of the car dealership across the street.
Stepping over a pile of old newspapers, I walked over to the window and squinted to see through the snow. My research had been spot on. Right across the street, I could see into the glass windows of the dealership. I had already arranged for a telephoto lens to be brought in for the agents to get decent pictures of whatever was down there.
"So, what do you think?" the woman asked, almost anxiously.
The timeline for this operation was short, so I had no time to play coy. The Agency wasn't going to love the price tag, but I didn't have much choice. "I love it," I replied. "I'll take it."
She was delighted. I signed some papers and we arranged a time to settle the deal. She promised me it would take her a day at most to pack up and move out. Considering I only had two days until go-time, I hoped she could keep her word.
As I stepped into the elevator and the doors closed, I leaned against the wall and gripped the railing tight. That had gone better than I thought. I hadn't slipped up. Wiping my palms on my jeans, I wondered when I would stop being nervous before things like this. I had been recruited right out of college, fresh-faced and twenty-two, but I had changed so much since then. Two years of field training, a year at a desk in D.C., six months of shadowing another logistics officer, and now eight months as a fully-fledged logistics officer myself. Everything was still relatively new to me, but I was still slightly ashamed at the amount of nerves I had.
The elevator dinged and the doors opened. Buttoning my coat back up and slipping the hood over my head, I exited the building and headed down Zubuvsky Boulevard. The snow was coming down heavy, covering my jacket in a matter of seconds. Cars passed by as I walked past the dealership, tires swishing in the snow. Just as a precaution, I avoided looking into the windows.
I was meeting my local contact who had been driving me around the city. His name was Dimitri; a sweet guy who loved to talk about all the things he wanted to do when he came to America. The CIA had snagged him as an asset after he had written an essay for his application to Harvard. It had been titled, "Why I Love the USA". He didn't get into Harvard, but he was getting paid a nice chunk of change to provide ground support for agents in Moscow.
The car was parked in a small parking lot near the apartment building. There were only a few cars in the lot, all of them coated in a thick layer of snow. I reached the blue Ford Focus, hardly able to wait to get out of the snow. I yanked the passenger door open, quickly got in, and slammed it shut.
"God, it's freezing," I said breathily, pulling my hood down. I turned to look at him. "It's got to be like negative five—"
My eyes saw but my brain didn't comprehend. I was looking at Dimitri's face, pale with those high cheekbones and pointed nose, not understanding why his head was tilted back or why his eyes were glassy and blank or why there was a red dot in the middle of his forehead.
My hand went to my mouth as I made a sound. "Dimitri?" I whispered, leaning over and shaking his shoulder. His head lolled to the side, his ear brushing the fabric of his coat. "Dimitri?" I reached a shaking hand out to feel his pulse. There was nothing. His skin was still warm and I couldn't help noticing how young he looked.
My breath was coming and going too fast. I knew I had to get out of this car. Whoever killed Dimitri would certainly want to kill me, too. But I was frozen. I just stared at his face, listening to the cars drive by and the deafening pounding of my heart.
It had to be something to do with the dealership. I didn't know anything about the op. Being kept out of the loop had never been an issue before, but now I wanted to know what I was up against. I needed to get out of here.
The keys weren't in the ignition or in Dimitri's rigid hands. Whoever had killed him must have taken them. There was a metro station down the road, but it was on the other side of the car dealership. I didn't want to walk by there again. Besides, if someone had seen me get into this car…well, then, I guess I was screwed no matter what. There was a street parallel to Zubuvsky Boulevard situated on the other side of the apartment building. The parking lot was straddled between the two streets. I could try to get to the metro that way.
I forced myself to move. I shoved Dimitri's jacket up and grabbed the gun in his waistband. It was a Makarov pistol, small and black and a reassuring weight in my hand. I never had had to use a weapon in the field, and I had even left my CIA-issued Glock 27 at home for this particular mission. I had drawn a gun several times, but I had never fired. I prayed I wouldn't have to. I opened the door and pushed myself out of the car, keeping the gun low so as not to alarm any civilians. The nerves were back in full force now, twisting my stomach into knots. As I ran for the street, I fumbled in my jacket pocket for my cellphone. I needed to call in.
There was a figure on Zubuvsky Boulevard standing on the other side of the street near the dealership. The snow obscured my vision, but I saw it cross the street and head toward me. I sped up, skidding around the corner of another apartment building and onto Danshov Street, as the sign read. A shot rang out and a chunk of brick shattered to my right. My arms flew up to protect my head automatically and I dropped the phone. What the hell? This guy was shooting at me at 9:30 in the morning?
My heart was pounding as I abandoned the phone and ran down the street before he could turn the corner and see me again. The street was empty. It was narrow and looked more like an alley than a road. No one was around to see this guy shooting at me. No one would call the police. No one was going to come to help me.
There was a parking garage ahead of me. Making up my mind in a split second, I darted into it, running down the road that led underground. I figured I could at least try to hide or hotwire a car. The road smoothed out and I slowed down. It was a small garage, simply an open space with painted lines for the cars. There wasn't anywhere to hide except behind a couple of concrete pillars or the cars themselves. I looked up and noticed one security camera in the corner. I doubted it even worked.
I went over to a red Hyundai Solaris and ducked down. I fished a bobby pin out of my bun and tried to pop the lock like I was taught during field training. It wasn't as easy as it had been in such a controlled environment.
The sound of boots slapping the tarmac echoed into the garage. He was coming. Luckily, I only heard one pair of shoes.
"Come on, come on," I muttered, jiggling the pin.
"Where are you?" a loud and deeply accented voice boomed. He spoke in English.
I froze, hand tightening on the gun. How did he know I spoke English? I stayed still as I heard him walking between the rows of cars. He was getting closer and I desperately tried to think of options.
"Where are you?" he repeated, about five cars down from me.
I inhaled sharply and Dimitri's face popped into my head. I squeezed my eyes shut and inhaled again. Opening my eyes, I pointed the Makarov to my left, where the man was approaching. I waited with bated breath. The sound of his boots had stopped.
A shot rang out. The bullet shattered the glass of the Hyundai's backseat windows and I gasped, throwing myself on the ground to avoid the shards. I felt them hit my back. Scrambling upwards, I darted for the pillar that was in front of me. Something grabbed the neck of my jacket and yanked me backwards against the car. I was glad for the thickness of my jacket because I could feel glass cutting into the material as the man pressed me up against it.
I was looking up at a brute of a man. He had to be six foot five or more with the widest shoulders I had ever seen. His hair was greying around the temples and his beard had strands of grey as well. His hands found my neck and squeezed hard.
"What is the CIA doing here?" he barked, his face less than an inch from mine.
I tried to breathe. "What are you - I – I'm not…" I spoke in Russian, trying to pry his fingers away. "…not CIA."
He held up my cellphone. "CIA-issue," he stated in English.
I couldn't breathe, but he didn't let up. He ripped the Makarov out of my right hand and threw it on the ground.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Don't know – what you're talking—talking about," I managed. There was no way I would admit I was CIA. I had been taught to deny, deny, deny.
He shoved his hand upwards, lifting me up off the ground so that my feet barely skimmed the surface. I started getting lightheaded, unable to breathe.
Eyes flashing, he spat, "I know you're CIA—"
I sent my knee into his crotch. He immediately loosened his grip, one hand going down to cup the area. I kicked him, pushing him away from me. He didn't go far, but I could breathe again. I coughed convulsively, raking in deep breaths of the chilled air. He pushed me to the ground, causing me to hit the concrete with my head. I touched my fingers to my eyebrow and they came away with blood. I turned to see him point his gun at me. I rolled away just in time. The shot reverberated in the garage and I quickly jumped up, picking up the Makarov that was lying near the back wheel of the Hyundai.
Running around the back of the car, I crouched low and clicked the safety off. I didn't even have time to think before the man stepped around the Hyundai and I popped up, aiming the gun and pressing on the trigger twice. Two bullets took him in the upper stomach.
I had always wondered if I could shoot someone when it came to it. I was a logistics officer – killing wasn't really a part of the job description. Sure, the conditions were dangerous sometimes and there was always a risk of running into trouble, but when they had issued me the Glock, I never truly thought I would have to use it. I lowered the gun and swallowed hard, my neck still on fire and my throat still burning.
The man crumpled to the ground. I stared at him as his hand went to cover the bullet holes, shaking and pale. He made a terrible sound, a sort of half-moan, half-sob. He didn't look at me as he curled into the fetal position and uttered in Russian, "He is—he is—the CIA will never—"
I didn't know who he was talking about. I just kept staring at him as he breathed heavily, blood spilling out onto the concrete. I was shivering and shaking all over. I looked around, my eyes finding the security camera. I really needed to get out of this garage. But I couldn't move.
It must have taken him five more minutes to finally slip out of consciousness. Only after his head dropped to his chest did I realize that I was crying. I shook myself, wiping the tears away with the back of my hand. I had to get out of here. I reached through the broken glass of the back window and popped the driver's side lock up. I brushed the shards off the seat and slid in, reaching underneath the steering wheel to hotwire the car. It started and I slammed the door shut, reversing out of the parking space with the tires squealing. I didn't look at the man's still form as I drove forward and out of the garage.
I had a good sense of direction, but I got lost three times on the way to the safe house. The snow was falling even heavier now, obscuring my view of the signs and the roads themselves. I tried to make sure no one was following me, but it was damn near impossible in these conditions. I nearly crashed into another car and skidded more than once. My knuckles were white on the steering wheel. My leg was jiggling up and down as I was stopped at a red light, bouncing the gun on my lap.
The safe house was located a ways out of the center of the city. I eventually found the turnoff and jerked the car to a stop as I yanked the gearstick into Park. Taking the gun with me, I almost ran into the lobby of the small apartment complex. I tapped the "up" button of the elevator over and over until it finally arrived.
Once inside, I pressed the button for the fourth floor and watched the doors close. I stood there with one hand pressed to my mouth, blinking so the tears wouldn't come out, but they escaped anyway. Before I could even wipe them away, the elevator stopped and the doors slid open. I made my way to the third apartment down and fumbled in my jeans' pocket for the keys, unlocking its three locks with trembling hands.
I stepped in and turned around to close the door and lock it again. I stayed there for a moment, facing the door, roughly wiping the tears off my face. I could feel their tracks on my cheeks.
"Agent Hart?" a voice called tentatively behind me. "Is that you?"
I blinked, turned around, and walked into the small living room. Our tech guy, Danny Rowe, looked up at me from the couch. He was surrounded by equipment – boxes, computer parts, duffel bags full of clothing, books, and all sorts of wires and cords. There was a laptop on his lap and he was holding a paper plate with buttered toast on it. When he saw my face, he quickly set down the plate and moved the laptop to the low coffee table. Standing up, he looked at me with wide eyes.
"Agent Hart? You all right?" he asked, pushing his glasses further up his nose.
Sometimes he looked like a little boy with his too-long blond hair and big blue eyes. He was only twenty-three and one of those chronic nice guys who reaffirmed your faith in humanity. Even though he was smarter than everyone around him, he didn't have much confidence and often spoke in a soft, hushed manner.
"Yeah, I'm okay," I replied, dropping the gun onto the kitchen counter to my left.
Danny just looked at me, chewing on his lip. "Um, I – what happened?" he asked, eyes darting to my eyebrow that had stopped bleeding twenty minutes ago.
There was a sound from the hallway that held the two bedrooms. "Is that Gemma?" a deep voice called. "She better have brought me some breakfast –"
Thomas Boone, a logistics operative like me, came out of the first bedroom, grinning with a cardboard box in his hands. Tall and well-built, he hadn't shaved in five days, insisting that he looked "more Russian" with a beard. He did look imposing and rougher than usual, but not anymore Russian than when we had left D.C. He stopped the moment he saw me, the grin dropping. His eyes swept over me. He put the box on the kitchen counter, gave Danny a questioning look, and then met my eyes.
"What happened?" he asked.
My fingers went to unbutton my jacket but they felt numb. "Dimitri. They killed Dimitri," I told him, looking down. My hands were still shaking.
"What?" he said sharply.
Danny made a sound. "Dimitri's dead?" he asked softly.
I looked up. "Yeah," I said. "I – I found him in the car."
Boone came closer. "What happened, Gem?"
I blinked up at him and took a shaky breath, meeting his eyes that always confused me. I could never tell whether they were grey or blue. They seemed to change each day.
"Gemma?" he said, looking worried.
"Is she in shock?" Danny asked.
"I killed a man," I told him numbly. "Some man. A Russian guy. I killed him."
He didn't react and just looked at me. His eyes were definitely blue today. After a moment, he turned to Danny and said, "Call this in. Get Michaels on the phone. Now." He turned back to me and unbuttoned my coat for me. He slid it over my shoulders and tossed it onto the counter next to the gun. Taking my arm, he led me to a chair that stood next to the couch. He pushed a box off of it and sat me down. He kneeled in front of me and said, "Gemma, you gotta tell me what happened."
I heard Danny in the background talking to someone on the phone, pacing back and forth in the kitchen.
I mentally shook myself. "Dimitri drove me to the apartment building and I went to look at the apartment and everything went fine." I tucked a piece of hair that had fallen out of my bun behind my ear. "When I came out, I got in the car and – and I said something to him and turned and saw him there with –with a bullet in his head."
Boone closed his eyes and let his head drop down. The florescent lights made his dark brown hair glint with strands of red.
"And so I took his gun and I ran but this guy was across the street and he shot at me. I kept running, though. I dropped my phone somewhere – somewhere along the way. I found a garage – a parking garage, like one of those underground types. He followed me and shot at me. Then he grabbed me, tried to strangle me. Somehow—somehow he knew I was CIA," I paused, looking at Boone earnestly. "I don't know how he knew, Boone. He saw the phone and knew it was CIA-issued, so maybe that was how—"
He put a reassuring hand on my knee. "What happened next?"
I looked down at his hand. "I managed to get away and I got the gun back and ran behind the car. He came after me and we were both aiming guns at each other and I just…I just took the shot." I glanced back up. "Well, I took the shot twice."
"Is he dead?"
I nodded. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure," I replied. "Then I hotwired a car and drove here."
"The car's outside?" he asked.
I nodded again.
He squeezed my knee and stood up. "Okay, I'll take care of it," he said. "We don't need the police coming around."
"There was a security camera in the garage, too," I said, the panic apparent in my voice.
Danny walked over to us, holding out a cellphone to Boone, but his eyes were looking me over. "Michaels wants to talk to you," he told him.
Boone took the phone and pressed his hand over the bottom to tell Danny, "Get her a blanket and something hot to drink, will you? Get her warm. Then I need you to call Petr and get him to move the car outside. And then he needs to pull the tapes from the parking garage on Danshov Street." Danny nodded and Boone dropped his hand and went to talk to our boss, John Michaels.
Danny brought me a cup of hot instant coffee and a woolen blanket that smelled like my grandmother's perfume. I gripped it tight around me and forced the coffee down. I felt better as it burned my throat and warmed my stomach. The feeling came back in my fingers and I could actually think with some composure. I could hear Boone talking in the bedroom down the hallway.
It was twenty minutes before Boone reappeared, looking more worn than he had before. He jerked his head toward the hallway. "Come on," he said calmly. "Let's clean you up a bit."
I followed him into the bathroom. It was small and very basic. He sat me down on the edge of the tub and rummaged in the cabinet above the sink. I knew there was a first aid kit in there; I had stocked it myself.
"What did Michaels say?" I asked.
Boone turned to me with a washcloth and some gauze and stood above me. I closed my eyes and gripped my hands together tightly.
"We're scrapping the op," he told me. He held my head gently in one hand. I inhaled sharply as he touched the cloth to my eyebrow. "Sorry."
"It's okay," I replied. "Does he think we were made? I swear, I don't know how that guy would have known."
"He didn't tell me much, but they want us to come in on this."
I opened my eyes. "What do you mean?"
"They want us in on this operation," he answered.
Confused, I asked, "But I thought they were scrapping the op?"
"This specific one, yes," he said, turning to lay the cloth down. "We were just setting up for a surveillance op. There's something much bigger going on. I don't know, he wouldn't tell me much over the phone. It has something to do with Vasili Volkov, though."
I leaned back, throwing him a sharp look. "Wait, the arms dealer they referred to in the portfolio was Volkov?" Before each of our operations, we received a folder with all the details that we needed to know. They had never mentioned the name Vasili Volkov. "As in the CIA's fifth most wanted Vasili Volkov?"
"Yeah," he confirmed.
"Shit," I muttered.
"Yeah," he said again, cutting the gauze with a pair of small scissors.
"And they want us in on it?"
"That's what Michaels said. They need more agents on it now. Whatever this is, it's blowing up."
"Why don't they assign clandestine agents?" I asked, frowning. "We're just logistics."
He held up the gauze to my face and met my eyes. "We're field-trained and now we're knee-deep in this shit."
I sighed. "I guess," I said. "We'll be briefed in D.C.?"
"Yeah, we fly out tonight and we meet with the director tomorrow at noon," he said. He pressed the gauze to my brow and looked vaguely sympathetic. "They want to debrief you as soon as we land, though."
"Of course," I said lightly, but stumbled on saying, "Because of the – the guy I shot."
He taped the gauze and smoothed it out with his thumb. He looked down at me. "It's just for record purposes, Gem," he assured me. "It's nothing to worry about. It was self-defense."
I nodded and trusted what he said. Even though we had the same job title, he had been doing this two years longer than me. Before that, he had been a Navy SEAL. He always joked that I was a rookie and enjoyed telling me what to do. I usually listened, too, because there was something about him that made you believe he knew what he was doing. I had only known him eight months, but not once had I seen him lose his head.
He turned his back to me to wash out the cloth. "First time you've killed someone, huh, rook?" he asked delicately. He knew the answer to that question.
I watched the water turn a faint pink. "Yeah," I said.
"How are you doing?"
"I'm not sure," I replied honestly.
He set the cloth down to the side and turned around, leaning against the sink. "You're going to be fine," he said. "The first…well, the first one is the worst."
I bit my lip. "So you've…you know?" My meaning was implied.
Understanding, he gave me a sad smile. "Several times," he said. "Back when I was with the SEALs."
"And you're—you're okay with it?"
He stepped forward. "No, not really," he said. He raised his hands and touched either side of my neck, forcing me to lift my chin. His fingers brushed over the bruises of where the man had tried to strangle me. The warmth of his fingers made goosebumps break out over the coolness of my skin. "But you quickly learn that it's either you or them. How's your neck feel?"
"A bit sore," I said, "but I'm fine."
Whenever I got close enough, I could make out the faint freckles that dotted over the bridge of his nose and the tops of his cheekbones. I always had an urge to count them.
"He really did a number on you," he said before dropping his hands.
I touched my neck softly. "Seriously, I'm fine," I said. I paused before adding, "So, what's going to happen with Dimitri's body?"
I saw his Adam's apple bob as he swallowed. "The police found it first. There's…well, there's nothing more we can do."
I looked down at my hands. "What about the car I stole?"
"Petr got rid of it. He managed to pull the security tapes from the garage, too."
I managed a smile. "Thanks for taking care of everything, Boone."
"No problem." He walked to the doorway. "Come on, we've got to pack up. Flight leaves at 1900."
We packed what we needed as quickly as we could. The rest of the stuff we left in the safe house. A Moscow-based agent was supposed to secure it after we left. I called the woman about the apartment and told her that I couldn't take it. She sounded disappointed but wished me luck on the promotion.
We made it to the airport by five o'clock and separated so we wouldn't be seen together. We each stood in line to check in and pretended not to know each other. I used my UK passport just as a precaution since I didn't know if Dominika Dubrovsky had been made or not. I was now Drew Kelly from Bristol, England. Since I had taken a language course at Langley, I had a passable West Country English accent.
Even though the plane was stuffy, I wore a big scarf to cover the bruises on my neck. I tried to sleep but didn't succeed. I kept reliving the morning over and over in my head. Dimitri's blank eyes, the Makarov in my hand, the man curled up on the floor of the garage…
I got up to walk around the plane more than seven times, much to my seatmate's chagrin. I was dwelling on the fact that I had a debriefing in a few hours. Debriefings were normal, but I had never had one as serious as this one. Michaels had told me to go to room 331 in the main terminal of Dulles International Airport, a room normally used for interrogations or the handling of suspects. Somehow, I didn't find that reassuring.
When the attendants had dimmed the lights after dinner, I went to the back of the plane, drinking water out of a plastic cup and flipping through the in-flight magazine.
"Nervous flyer?" I heard Boone's voice say.
I smiled and looked up from the magazine. He had just come out the bathroom on the left side, side-stepping a small toddler who was running around. He seemed too big for the plane, his six-foot-two frame forced to hunch over a bit. Running his hand through his hair and causing it to stick up in tufts, he looked like he was still half-asleep, his eyes hooded.
Lowering the magazine, I replied in an English accent, "Maybe."
We both knew I wasn't.
He gave me a small smile and a meaningful look. "Well, if you are, everything's going to be fine," he said, his words signifying something else. He was telling me not to worry about the debriefing.
"Thanks," I said, returning the smile.
He ran a hand over his beard, and then gave me a nod before heading back to his seat. We normally avoided making conversation when we were pretending to be strangers, but I appreciated him trying to make me feel better. I made my way back to my seat, finished the magazine, and closed my eyes, but was still unable to sleep.
I watched the city lights grow closer as the plane descended into D.C. The captain informed us that it was 2:00am local time. We deboarded, went through customs, and after picking up my suitcase, I made my way past the baggage area and down a brightly-lit hallway to room 331. No one even looked at me as I opened the door and closed it behind me.
A middle-aged, no-nonsense type of woman was waiting for me, arms crossed on the table. She told me she was Agent Caroline Allen and listened to me without making eye contact as she wrote down my account on a legal pad. I recounted the whole story, from Danny, Boone, and my's arrival to Moscow a week earlier, to assembling the gear needed for the operation, to finding and visiting the apartment, to finding Dimitri and the events that led up to the incident in the garage.
When I finished, she closed the legal pad and stood up. "Very well," she said. "I'll type this up and have it on your desk for you to sign. I'll send a copy over to the team."
"The team?" I repeated, looking up at her.
"Hmm," she said, tucking the pad under her arm.
"What team?" I asked, frowning slightly.
"Operation 67," she replied. She walked to the door and turned the knob. "The one you are now temporarily assigned to."
"Oh," I said.
"Good night, Agent Hart," she said before leaving me alone in the room.
I sat there for an extra minute. Operation 67 must be the name of the task force that was going after Vasili Volkov. I hated how out of the loop I was. I never knew about things until it was absolutely necessary. I didn't know what they needed with a logistics team if it wasn't to set up, move in gear, or procure local assets. Boone had said that they wanted to "bring us in". Since we were strictly pre-operational, I found that odd.
Too tired to think any more about it, I walked out of the room, closing the door behind me. I exited the airport, shrugging on my jacket. The night air bit at my exposed cheeks as I hailed a cab. The taxi driver was silent as we drove toward town, occasionally humming along to Mozart's Symphony 40 coming from the radio.
It was 3:30am before I was in the elevator in my apartment building. I lived on the 16th floor, so I had a good forty-five seconds of peace as I listened to the elevator whirr as it headed up. Clutching the handle of my suitcase, I couldn't wait for my bed. I fished out my keys and exited the elevator, heading for the door of my apartment. I unlocked it quietly and stepped into the darkness of my living room.
Without turning on the lights, I hung up my coat on the hook near the door. Leaving my suitcase by the couch, I headed for the kitchen and dropped the keys on the island counter. I got a glass out of the cabinet and opened the fridge, pulling out the Brita filter and filling up the glass.
"So, you're back."
I didn't need to turn around to know who it was. I finished pouring and put the Brita filter back in the fridge before turning around to say, "Hi."
The light flicked on. Clad in boxers and a black tee-shirt, Ben came into the kitchen, grimacing at the brightness. He had gotten his hair cut; it was now cut close to his head, the way I liked it best. Somehow, it brought out the bone structure of his face, the strong chin, the wide, pleasant mouth, the kindness of his eyes. "What happened to you?" he asked, looking at the gauze on my eyebrow.
I touched it. "Oh, nothing," I said. "Just fell into some pavement."
He raised an eyebrow disbelievingly. He knew what I did for a living, but only to a certain extent. When we had met nearly two years ago, I had been stationed at a desk at Langley. Since eight months ago, however, I had been traveling back and forth between various cities more often. Before that, Ben had believed I wasn't ever in the field, but now he seemed to know. He didn't look surprised anymore when I came home later than I was supposed to or disappeared without warning.
I sighed. "Okay, so someone might have thrown me into the pavement," I corrected.
"You okay?" he asked, pursing his lips.
"Yeah," I replied. I took a sip of water. "I'm okay."
He just stared at me, crossing his arms over his chest. There had always been a sort of tension when it came to my job, but it had been getting steadily worse over the past few months. I knew it couldn't be easy to have a girlfriend who was gone half the time and couldn't talk about what she did on a daily basis. He had said as much. "You missed Thanksgiving," he stated.
I met his eyes and set the glass down on the island counter that stood between us. "I know," I said softly. "I'm sorry."
"Where were you?"
I smiled tiredly. "Somewhere that didn't celebrate Thanksgiving." Danny, Boone, and I had actually managed to get our hands on a turkey and tried to roast it in the small oven in the safe house. The temperature knob on the oven had been broken, though, and the turkey had burned beyond repair and we were forced to eat canned beans and corn because none of us wanted to venture out into the subzero temperatures. "Did everyone come over?"
"No, since you weren't here, I just went over to Josh and Melanie's," he replied. Josh and Melanie were our neighbors and good friends even if they hinted we should get married too often.
"Oh," I said. I picked up the glass and drained the rest of the water, setting it in the sink. "How was it?"
"It was great," he answered.
"Melanie didn't make that green bean casserole like last year, did she?" I asked, smiling. I came around the counter to stand in front of him. "God, the way she went on and on about how long it took it to get the recipe right. I remember just trying to make it seem like I liked it."
"You are good at acting," he said harshly.
It felt like a slap. I felt my face close off and I lowered my eyes. I resented the way my job managed to constantly interfere with my personal life.
"Sorry," he said quietly.
"That was uncalled for."
"It's okay." I looked back up into those brown eyes I knew so well. "I'm exhausted," I said, breathing a laugh. "I'm going to clean up and go to bed."
"Yeah, sure." He stepped to the side to let me out of the kitchen and followed me to our bedroom.
I went into the en-suite bathroom and closed the door. I sighed against it, feeling overwhelmed by simply everything. Slowly, I unwrapped my scarf from my neck, took off the gauze, eased out of my clothes, and got into the shower, savoring the way the hot water stung my skin. When I got out, I looked at myself in the mirror over the sink, examining my throat. There were bruises in the shape of fingers, sore to the touch. I took a deep breath, realizing what a close call it had been. I didn't regret shooting the man. I really didn't, but I could still see him when I closed my eyes.
When I came out of the bathroom, my bedside lamp was on and Ben was on the bed, facing away from me. I pulled on a pair of underwear and an oversized tee-shirt and went to my bureau to comb through my long hair. It was normally quite straight and easy to comb, but tonight, it had more than a few knots. When I turned back around, Ben was facing the other way, his eyes open.
"I forgot to tell you –" he started before cutting off and sitting up hastily. His eyes were fixed on my throat.
I knew I should have told him before, but I hadn't known how to say it. Eyes wide, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up.
"Gemma," he said hoarsely.
I bit my lip and avoided his eyes.
"What –what the hell happened?" he asked and came closer. He reached out, fingers hovering over my neck. When I didn't answer, he put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. "Gemma?"
I swallowed hard and said, "I – I can't."
Frustrated, he said, "Gemma, honestly, come on –"
"You know I can't," I told him.
"Gemma," he said again. Brow furrowed, he took my face in his hands and forced me to look at him.
Hot tears leaked out of the corner of my eyes, taking me by surprise. I blamed it on sleep deprivation. My lip trembled as I whispered, "Something – something went wrong."
"What?" he asked, confused.
A tear rolled off my face. "Something went wrong, Ben."
"What happened?" He brushed my wet hair behind my shoulder.
I wasn't going to tell him, not only because I couldn't disclose information like that, but because I feared the way he would look at me. I wasn't sure he could handle it. I just leaned into him, and he didn't hesitate to wrap his arms around me. He smelled like laundry detergent and his shampoo. As I cried into his shirt, he gripped me tightly and smoothed a hand down my hair. It felt good to finally let go.
A/N: Something new and different. Please let me know what you think!