by Lael Adair

Author's Note: This takes place when Jacob is out of the country fairly recently after Gail’s last letter, in which he learned she has a boyfriend. He says (when he returns) that the reason he stopped writing immediately afterwards was to detach himself, make it easier to see her when he got back...but it’s obvious the news weighed heavily on him, and it didn’t go away with time.

Jacob is currently stationed in Russia and is working to break up a crime syndicate from the inside out. He’s just been assigned to this job after breaking up a similar crime syndicate in Mongolia (perhaps an extension of the same one?) and hasn’t graduated to field work yet; he’s still in the “rookie” stage (as it’s called) where he has to become familiar enough with the syndicate history and hierarchy to convincingly portray a member. We enter in on him after he’s been stewing over the news about Gail for a while. Long enough to have it begin to distract him from his spy work, not long enough to make him hurry to get home. I want the amount it weighs on his mind to be just heavy enough so that someone who was looking for it would see it.

He’s just starting to make short trips into the streets, having learned his part in record time, and establish his “bad” reputation when he receives an encoded summons from SHUSH to recon at a location far outside the city, away from his usual operating grounds. It’s an unusual request, but he’s positive it’s genuine. So he goes.

Jacob eyed the building towering above him—a hotel, of all things. Not exactly the typical SHUSH rendezvous point of choice but it got kudos for breaking the mold. The message he’d received had not been particularly specific, just a name and a number. The name he’d figured out, it was an anagram of the hotel he now stood before. The number, however, couldn’t have been for a room. It was six digits, 540518, and he’d already ruled out the possibility of a phone number, street address, or beeper contact. As he walked through the rotating glass doors into a lobby accented with shades of gold and red he was banking that some detail about the number would catch his eye.

It didn’t. A man lounging in the lobby did.

Jacob’s hand turned inward discreetly towards his thigh where his gun rested between the overhang of his coat and his pants. The individual watching him was a mouse, its head already tilted in his direction. It had probably smelled him from the street which meant it was either one of his own, or this nice hotel was about to have a very dirty carpet. He tensed as the rodent stood and began to make its way towards him, watching its hands closely. After crossing half the distance that lay between them a subtle movement of its fingers caused him to relax. This was a friend.

“Reginald, so good to see you!”

Jacob hated doing these unplanned, covert meetings. SHUSH always came up with the dumbest names for him. He returned the stranger’s embrace with enough warmth and enthusiasm to fool his own mother into thinking they were brothers, then stood back for the next phase of the conversation.

“How was your flight?”

Were you followed?

“Good. But we really need to pick someplace closer next time, my arms are killing me.”

No. But we really need to pick someplace closer next time, my arms are killing me.

The mouse flicked its ears at the added jesting in the script. Jacob liked keeping the home office stooges on their toes...and reminding them this was his show. They liked to think they had to validate his work before it was deemed acceptable. If he’d neglected to check for anyone following him on the way here, he’d be dead.

“Come with me, I got you a room right next to mine.”

Jacob followed the mouse dutifully into the elevator and watched him push the button for the fifth floor. They exited together and passed down four hallways before stopping in front of room number 518. The mouse withdrew a card from an inner pocket to insert into the door, then held it open for Jacob to enter...alone.

It took a moment for Jacob’s eyes to adjust after the door was closed. The lights in the hotel room were off; a chair was seated against the back window, its occupant using the natural daylight outside to shroud his or her figure. Even the few milliseconds it took Jacob to adjust would have been enough to pump off a few shots had the action been necessary. Given who the person turned out to be, Jacob counted himself lucky he didn’t wind up with a bullet in his chest, anyway.

“Director Bonaparte? What are you doing here?”

“They have planes now, Mallard—I can get across the whole damn world in twenty-four hours when I want. Unless you thought I’d ship you off to some godforsaken country with a blank which case that smart-ass tone of yours needs to get a little more kiss-ass in it, quick.”

The mallard recovered quickly from his surprise. “You know it’s always a pleasure to see you, sir.”

Bonaparte’s eyes narrowed at the sarcasm, but he didn’t address it. “Don’t flatter yourself. I’m here on other business.”

A noise behind Jacob yanked his attention away from the conversation. Behind him, the door opened, and he felt someone draw to a stop at his side. He only needed to smell her to know who it was.

Lolita. Perfect.

“Agent Yetka,” he greeted her with a stiff formality.

Lolita scowled down her beak at him through dark eyelashes, her lids half closed. A curt nod was his only response.

“Don’t sit down” Bonaparte snapped as Jacob tried to claim one of the red leather chairs nearby. “You won’t be here long.”

Lolita hadn’t bothered to take a seat. Jacob began to get the distinct feeling he was the only one out of the loop in the room...and it pissed him off.

A file was thrown on the bed before Bonaparte, forcing Jacob to step forward in order to retrieve it. He reached for the folder with every sense of apathy that he could, as if none of this was unusual, but behind the scenes his mind was reeling, trying to untangle what was playing out in front of him. He’d been out of the country a while, that was true, but communication techniques existed to make sure remote agents were just as aware of the organization’s activities despite being removed from the Center. To be unaware of a mission from the Head himself meant it was either top secret...or he’d been shut out intentionally. Jacob fought with every fiber of his being not to shoot a poisonous glare at Bonaparte. If this was a test, the new Director was going to get far more than he bargained for.

“Asimov Bulba” Bonaparte said, his eyes boring into Jacob’s bowed head while the mallard perused the file. “He was tagged attempting to enter the United States a few days ago when the meatheads in customs got lucky. There was no contraband on him and no record of crimes committed within the US, so he wasn’t detained, but I guarantee he went there for something. And those rent-a-cops in the airport aren’t likely to get lucky twice.”

Though Jacob hated Bonaparte almost to the core, there were some attributes to the man he took to. His blunt, politically-incorrect method of speaking came to mind.

Author's Note: Jacob already knows why that is bad news. Asimov Bulba, Taurus Bulba’s father, is a sort of political revolutionary in Russia—an unwelcome, radical revolutionary. Comparable to Stalin or Hitler, Asimov feels the direction his country is currently taking with its leadership is wrong and is notorious for launching heated campaigns against non-existent causes simply to gain more people under his control. In the underworld he’s notorious for weeding out and executing foreign spies and sympathizers with the current political state of Russia. He’s also rumored, unofficially, to have had a hand in several political assassinations within his own country and stirring up similar mayhem in other nations around the world. Most of Russia thinks he’s nuts, but there are a few that follow him and that’s where he gets his men from. He’s pretty powerful and very wealthy (all that wealth will disappear before Taurus can get to it).

Lolita stepped forward, pointedly shattering Jacob’s personal space as she flipped one of the pages of the file for him as she would a child.

“He wasn’t alone. Here you can see photographs of two companions—operatives, we think—and a photo capture of his young son. This is the first we’ve seen of him.”

“If he was out on business, why bring the kid?”

Bonaparte bobbed his head. “To facilitate the excuse he gave to the customs officers, we think: a family vacation.”

Jacob snorted as he tossed the file back on the bed. “With two other men built like boxers? Right.”

“We’ve been trying to relocate Bulba since he showed up on the radar but received word this morning he’s already back in Russia. It means he either gave up and went home—”

“—or got what he wanted without anyone noticing.”

“I pulled you off your current assignment because I can’t wait for you to start at the bottom. The syndicate you’ve been working on is a branch of Asimov’s organization—a main branch with a potential connection straight to the top. We need to break his ranks, we need to break them now, and I need someone who is at least capable of finding his own ass to do it.”

Author's Note: Jacob is working with Lolita because, unbeknownst to him before now, she was never really a true agent of SHUSH. She was a participant in a sort of “exchange” program between the Russian and US government where they trade agents to one another for temporary usage. Before Lolita was in the United States, she worked in Russia as a spy located high up into Asimov’s ranks. Very high. Basically, she’s there to get Jacob into places higher and faster that he’d never be able to do on his own.

After filling in the more mundane aspects of the assignment at hand both Jacob and Lolita are dismissed. She grabs the door and opens it herself before he can offer to open it for her...not that he would have. Now that charming her isn’t fun anymore, what’s the point?

The walk down the hallway seemed infinitely longer with Lolita hovering too closely at his side. She had been in America long enough to know the limits on the boundaries of personal space, which led Jacob to believe she was doing it on purpose. Even when “dating” he’d never liked standing close to her and she knew it. As far as men went Jacob wasn’t the biggest, and Lolita was a very tall, very poised woman. The closer he stood, the more he had to look up to meet her in the eye.

Finally, they reached the elevator. He pushed the button.

“You don’t seem particularly happy to see me.”

It was a typical woman approach—stating the obvious in a vague enough way to insinuate nothing while insinuating everything.

“I’m not.”

He could feel the smirk cutting across her beak. “I can’t imagine why. With a different setting comes a different reputation, yes? You are free to begin all over again... yet you refuse to look at me, refuse to speak to me directly. I dare say you are still mad at me.”

He wasn’t, but it surprised him to notice that she didn’t seem to be, either. She was being coy. She was playing with him.

Jacob was immediately suspicious. Above all else Lolita Yetka was an intense woman. Though months had passed since she and Jacob had last...parted ways...he highly doubted she’d forgotten a sliver of the hatred she bore towards him. She spoke easily enough but was looking for something, too. Something to use. It wasn’t the first time Jacob had entertained the idea that the woman was capable of orchestrating something a little more dangerous than a smear campaign for revenge. Most SHUSH agents had a defiant streak within them—a need to operate outside of society’s rules.

But she’d lost her bargaining chip. To Jacob Mallard she was worthless as a prize already won, and if she wanted to play with the boys he’d gladly oblige her.

He turned to meet her directly: fearless, unintimidated. “What’s there to be mad about? I told you those numbers in that book were old.” He returned his gaze forward. “I just don’t like getting partnered with agents who’ll slow me down.”

The elevator door opened. Together, they moved inside.

“You may be tied to me longer than you think.” The doors closed. “Your connections to me and therefore your entry into Asimov’s crime organization will hinge on the understanding that you and I are lovers.”

He scowled at her, thinking it was a joke, but she was being serious.

“Asimov’s ranks are closely-knit” she explained, “I couldn’t very well have claimed you as family. And, aside from family or a relationship close to it, no one is trusted.” She paused when she registered the glare in his eyes. “This is bothering you....”

Jacob cursed himself for being so obvious. He should have known she’d pick up on the contempt radiating off of him.

Unfortunately, it gave Lolita the ammunition she was looking for. Pressing her advantage to its fullest extent she moved in closer, bringing her beak near his neck.

“What’s the matter?” she whispered, her breath stirring the feathers on his throat. “Am I not good enough for you any more?”

Jacob forced her away—the first time he had ever forced any woman away. “Get off of me.”

She smirked, dropping the façade. “Now those are truly words I never thought I’d hear from you, Agent Mallard.” Her eyes narrowed shrewdly. “There are only two reasons I can think of that would cause a man to lose interest in women. Since your sexual orientation is obviously not an issue, it must be the latter.” She smiled unpleasantly. “You’re in love.”

He lifted his head, his eyes sliding to meet hers in a piercing glare, but though the warning was obvious it went unheeded.

“I this makes things a little clearer. But the question is not who she is, but why are you here and she is not? Perhaps, in this instance, your charms fell short? Word somehow reached her of one Jacob Mallard’s habits when it came to romancing women?

“I’ve romanced prostitutes for longer than it took you to put out.”

It was a little harsh and untrue, but Jacob was more concerned with causing damage at this point than anything else.

“Do I disgust you?” Lolita pursued. “Do all women disgust you in the shadow of this goddess who rests so obviously high above the level you are able to con your way into? How ironic that the one thing you cannot have is now destroying everything you could.”

The elevator stopped on the bottom floor.

“It is a fate all too fitting. My only wish for you is that she, whoever she is, marries whatever god of a man she can find and leaves you in this state for the rest of your miserable life.”

The doors opened and she stepped outside into the public eye.

“Are you coming, darling?”