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Not My Lover - Enigma by Deslea R. Judd Part 2 WIP
Summary: This is a WORK IN PROGRESS. The death of Marita's protector and a startling discovery about her past leads her to the brink of darkness in her search for the truth. But can she let in the one man who would stand at her side? Alex and Marita's account of Seasons 1 and 2. Prequel to Not My Lover, but stands alone.
Not My Lover: Enigma *NC17* 2/?
Formerly Love Will Keep Me Alive
Deslea R. Judd
DISCLAIMER: Situations not mine. Interpretation mine. Deal.
ARCHIVE: Yes, just keep my name and headers.
SPOILERS/TIMEFRAME: Season 1-2; mytharc spoilers to Closure. This instalment is Marita's version of the events of Erlenmeyer Flask to Ascension.
CATEGORY: angst, mytharc, romance - Krycek/Marita (explicit), Marita/Other (historical), Mulder/Krycek (a little).
RATING: NC17 for sexual situations and language.
SUMMARY: Prequel to Not My Lover. The death of Marita's protector and a startling discovery about her past leads her to the brink of darkness in her search for the truth. But can she let in the one man who would stand at her side? Alex and Marita's account of Seasons 1 and 2.
NOTE: This story can be read without reading Not My Lover, but if you haven't done so, it will be helpful for you to know that the dark man is X, Maxwell Donovan is the Well Manicured Man, and Diana Donovan is Diana Fowley.
MORE FIC: http://fiction.deslea.com
FEEDBACK: Love the stuff. email@example.com
AWARDS/ELIGIBILITY: Finalist, 2001 Spooky Awards (Outstanding Unfinished Work, Outstanding Krycek Characterisation, Outstanding Marita Characterisation, Outstanding Krycek/Marita Romance).
The story so far: Just five months after agreeing to work for Spender to pay his mother's medical expenses, Alex Krycek was assigned to partner Fox Mulder, who was at a loose end after the closure of the X Files. Hoping to get information for his own purposes, Alex attended the funeral of Deep Throat, Michael Harrington. There he made contact with Mulder's ex- wife, Diana Donovan, now the daughter-in-law of Michael's half-brother, the Well-Manicured Man. He also saw UN aide Marita Covarrubias, Michael's young fiancee and a child prodigy. Diana gave him access to information and directed him to a sex club owned by Michael and inherited by Marita. He learned of a faction within the group that was opposed to hybridisation - including Michael, Maxwell Donovan (WMM), Marita's mother Larissa, and Bill Mulder - but he is not sure why they are opposed.
After Krycek killed Augustus Cole protecting Mulder, the two became lovers. Meanwhile, he continued to investigate, and discovered that Marita, as Marita Ekaterinberg, went to college with Diana and Mulder at Oxford (she knew the former but never met the latter). Someone else went to Harvard as Marita Covarrubias and became a scientist. He followed up, thinking that this might shed light on the faction's agenda. When Dana Scully was abducted and he was asked to co- operate, Alex had to decide whether to do so, and continue the work, or walk away. He decided to co- operate because he had new information that might enable him to blow the work open: the Harvard Marita and the Oxford Marita were identical. Now, Alex is on the run from Mulder and the FBI, and living at his suite at the club, determined to find out the truth about the identical women. Marita takes up the tale.
Love will keep me alive.
There's a reason that philosophies like this one are not to be found in religious texts, or in the apocrypha of the ages. They're created by the modern mind as a panacea for the self-absorption of the modern age. Conventional sentiment, devoid of meaning.
In other words, they're self-deluding crap.
But I keep coming back to the words. They have become my mantra, my survival anthem. I hate them, and I despise the song from which they came, but they will not leave me. I puzzle over them contemplatively, as though a tenet of my oh-so-meagre faith. And that is in spite of the fact that their fabled love is just that - a fable. I have never loved - not like that - and sometimes I believe I never will. I feel out of time and place, a twenty- three year old woman with childish dreams and the exhaustion of a crone. For me, there can only be protection - a pathetic kind of love, perhaps, but perhaps that's all there is.
Yet for all my dreams; for all my intuitive, blind grasping for something better, my grief for Michael remains. He had protected me, and I had loved him; and when I cradled his body in the car that night, that dreadful song assaulted my senses, etching itself indelibly into my memory. The Dark Man kept the radio volume high - though just whose sobs he was trying to muffle, I couldn't have said. And after the funeral, when I endured the meaningless gestures of people who had had a hand in his death, I kept telling myself:
Love will keep me alive.
Keep saying it, Marita, and one day it might come true.
The sound should have surprised me, coming as it did in an empty apartment; but it didn't. I looked around from the window, and saw the Dark Man behind me. "Hello," I said absently, and turned back to the window, tracing the course of a drop of rain with my fingertip.
"You should be more careful," he said reproachfully. "The door was off its chain. I used my key and walked straight in." I saw him remove his coat, dimly reflected in the glass, and lay it over the couch.
"You shouldn't have a key," I said dully. Was that strange, colourless voice really mine?
"I'm Michael's executor," he pointed out, coming around me to sit on the windowsill. We were five storeys up - the visual of him leaning casually against a thin layer of glass was surreal. But then, most things were surreal in that first awful month after Michael died, starting with watching him being shot to death a hundred feet away. "I'm supposed to have a key until the estate is wound up. You're not even supposed to be here yet."
"Are you going to enforce that?" I demanded in a low voice.
He shot me a withering look. "Of course not. But you should be more careful. If you can't protect yourself then you should go home to Larissa."
Suddenly, abruptly, I felt physically ill. With Michael gone, without his gentleness to cushion my anger, I felt as I had felt early on in our relationship: as though I had been sold. "Mother is the last person I want right now," I said bitterly.
The Dark Man's brow flickered, but he didn't comment; and at last, I asked incuriously, "Do you really think they'll come after me?"
He shook his head, relenting. "Unlikely. They've taken their revenge. I doubt they even know we were there that night."
I frowned, still tracing raindrops on the window, teasing delicate trails through the condensation. "Wouldn't it have been in Dana Scully's report?"
He shook his head. "She ends her report with her account of his shooting and her retrieval of Mulder."
"I wasn't kind to her that night," I said sadly. "When I told her to take Mulder and go, she looked like she'd been slapped." I hung my head. "Michael would have expected better of me."
"Marita, you were barely coherent. I doubt she blames you, and anyway, it doesn't matter. What matters is your safety. It doesn't pay to be careless."
"I suppose not." I met his gaze properly for the first time. "Was Michael careless? Is that why he died?"
The Dark Man regarded me intently, frowning; then shook his head. "Michael made a deal, knowing that he would probably die for it. He stole something - something they needed - and gave it back in exchange for Mulder's release."
"The thing he got from Scully that night," I said. "He told me that much. What did he steal?"
He held my gaze for a long, long moment - and the Dark Man was not one to use body language for emphasis. At last, he said in a low voice, "The alien genome."
My eyes widened in absolute stupefaction. I stared at him in disbelief. "Oh, my God," I said in slow horror. "No wonder they killed him."
"He died for a greater cause." His voice was kind.
"Mulder's life? What kind of a greater cause is that?" I demanded angrily.
A look of chagrin passed over his features. He said dryly, "Kill Mulder, and you risk-"
"-turning one man's quest into a crusade," I finished irritably. "I know the company line, and I know it's crap. Tell me why he's so important." The Dark Man looked nervous, and I persisted, "Michael and I were to be married. I have a right to know."
He watched me steadily, as though in indecision; at last, he asked grimly, "How much do you know about colonisation? I mean really?"
"Enough to get me killed, I would think," I hazarded. He shot me an interested look, and I shrugged helplessly. "Diana graduated a year before I did. I was lonely...spent all my time online. That was when I started hacking. First it was just stupid stuff - putting caricatures in place of photos on the faculty website, that sort of thing." His mouth twitched, and he struggled manfully to keep his solemn demeanour in place. I reminded myself to ask him one day whether it hurt to be so perpetually, intentionally dour. "But when it occurred to me to try to find out exactly what my mother had done that meant I had to go into hiding, I knew the right names and places to look."
He looked at me with new respect. "You hacked into the CIA?" I shook my head. "DOD?" I gave a mock-modest shrug at the latter, and he shook his head. "You were lucky you weren't caught."
"Not lucky," I corrected. "Smart. I did it at Maxwell Donovan's mansion while I was on holidays there. As far as Defense was concerned, I was him. I got into Project Enigma and found this database called Majestic Twelve-"
The Dark Man went visibly pale - well, as pale as he got, anyway. "You got into the MJ-12 files?"
I nodded. "Is that bad?"
"More like a fucking miracle," he said, and it occurred to me fleetingly that I'd never heard him swear before. "Go on."
I watched him curiously, wondering what he was thinking, but I complied. "I imagine it's encrypted, but since I was logged in as Max, it let me view it. It was all copy-protected, of course - to save it, I had to do screen captures, page by page. Very laborious."
"You couldn't have done the whole database that way."
"Hell, no. And Max didn't have a tape drive. I only managed to fill five floppies before he got home." I looked out the window once more, my mind drifting, as it so often did these days. The brief spark of interest he had aroused in me was flickering, dying; my hold on the present was growing gossamer- thin. I said absently, "But since I'd searched for my mother's name and Michael's, they were filled with the right kind of data." It had stopped raining, I noted thoughtfully. Michael had loved the rain.
"So what did you find out?" he demanded. I just shook my head dully, teasing fingerprints in the condensation on the glass, not really hearing him. I pressed the side of my fist to the glass and saw that it looked rather like a baby's footprint. I filled in the toes with my fingertips, pleased with myself. And by the way, was I losing my mind? And did it matter?
"Marita!" he said insistently, intruding on what passed for my thoughts.
"What?" I sighed, my tone petulant, like a child.
"Stay with me. You're stronger than this."
I was seized by a sudden, perverse impulse to start humming and rocking just to piss him off; but that in itself was a return of spirit, and I channeled it. I thought hard, struggling to remember what he'd asked me. What I'd found out, that was it. "Well, nothing about whatever my mother did that put me in danger, anyway," I conceded. "You were Michael's right hand - do you know about it?"
He shook his head. "I was in Tunisia checking up on Strughold in 1983. I know something went down, but Michael never told me about it." He went on, "If it wasn't in MJ-12, then it must have been factional."
"I agree, but I didn't know about the factional split at that stage," I explained. "All I knew was that there was a certain group which had the power to vote on and enact certain issues, and that that group included Max, Michael, Mother, Bill Mulder, and that asshole Spender. I knew that we had a deal to create an alien-human hybrid, to ensure human survival. I didn't know about the planned colonisation then."
"What on earth did you think hybridisation was for, then?" he demanded incredulously.
I gave wry shrug. "It was the eighties. Everyone was afraid of nuclear war, and MJ-12 documented the radioactive qualities of the alien race. I thought they were a benign force, giving us information so that we could survive a nuclear holocaust."
"Oh, I see. Yes, that makes sense."
"Mother let me keep on believing that when I came home and confronted her. It wasn't until Diana started making connections between Mulder's work and odd comments from Edward that I started to wonder. She made contact with me after she quit the X Files and started asking questions. Pretty soon I was asking them, too."
"Asking who?" he asked curiously.
"Well, Michael, mostly," I said, and he nodded pensively. "He fobbed me off, of course; but he came home upset on Christmas Eve in ninety-one. He'd had to kill an EBE under Security Council Resolution 1013." I frowned, remembering that awful night. Michael had never killed before, to my knowledge; and he'd had nightmares for months after.
The Dark Man's voice intruded on my thoughts. "That was when you realised they weren't such a benign force after all?"
I shook my head; said easily, "Oh, I'd suspected that for a while. I don't trust Mother," I admitted, and that was a painful thing to say, even now, "and the hybridisation program was accelerating even though the nuclear threat was easing. That explanation didn't make sense anymore." Michael's cat leaped up on the windowsill between us, and I lifted her onto my lap, still talking. "The existence of that resolution pretty much confirmed my suspicions. I knew then that hybridisation had to represent a compromise, and the invasion threat was the logical conclusion to that train of thought." The cat licked my hand affectionately. That struck me as odd - I'd always thought only dogs did that. "Michael pretty much confirmed it, and he told me about the factions - how one side, our side, wanted to delay hybridisation for as long as possible." The Dark Man was nodding. "So where does Mulder fit into all this?"
The Dark Man reached out and scratched behind the cat's ears with some affection. He was rather like a cat himself, come to think of it. It shouldn't have surprised me that he had an affinity with them. "For some time, Michael has been placing people, both within Strughold and Spender's hybrid operation and in positions of power elsewhere, in the hope of exerting pressure on the project and delaying its success. You're one of those, of course."
"Of course," I echoed.
"Mulder is another. But Mulder got a lot more important two years ago. That was when Michael decided - against all good sense, I might add - that it was worth the risk to make himself known to Mulder as an informant."
"That was when Samantha Mulder died," I said reflectively.
"That's right. We thought at that time that Spender would recruit him as his successor in Miss Mulder's place, but that didn't eventuate. He felt Mulder was too much of a loose canon." The cat stretched, shrugging off my hand, and walked elegantly onto the windowsill without a backward glance. With some amusement, I watched her position herself regally at the Dark Man's side, like a consort. "He started looking outside the operation instead - started recruiting people out of the FBI and CIA, hoping to groom someone. We believe that Alexei Krycek, who I pointed out to you at the funeral, is one of them." I made a sound of comprehension. "In some ways that outcome is better, because Mulder can put more pressure on the operation from outside. We believe Spender would kill Mulder if he had to - he's not above infanticide - but he'll protect him for as long as he can."
I nodded slowly, thoughtfully. At last, I queried softly, "Was it worth Michael's life?"
He held my gaze steadily. "He thought so."
We sat there in silence for a long moment; me staring out the window once more, him petting the cat absently. It was a companionable silence, because I genuinely liked the Dark Man, and I believe he liked me, as much as he could be said to like anyone. With the Dark Man, I always knew where I stood. That was a rare gift in my world.
He was watching me curiously. "Are you all right, Marita?"
I shot him a look, but then I slumped a little, sighing heavily. "I feel like a fraud," I said bitterly. "I wasn't in love with him."
"He knew that."
"But I did love him."
"He knew that, too." He reached out, cautiously, as one who is unused to reaching out, and squeezed my shoulder gently. I shot him a wan little smile, and he withdrew. "Michael wasn't a fool, Marita. He knew that an eighteen-year-old girl doesn't accept a proposal of marriage from a fifty- five-year-old man for romance. She does it for money, or if she has money, then she does it to be safe. And if you're really lucky, she loves you for protecting her from whatever she's running from." I wondered whether he was speaking from experience.
"My mother thought he would keep me safe," I mused. Then, morosely, "What I thought didn't come into it."
He said sharply, "Did you resent Michael, Marita?"
I stared at him. "No," I said, thunderstruck. "He took care of me."
"Then stop acting like a fucking penitent," he said impatiently. "You were a kid railroaded into an adult relationship, and you made him happy anyway."
I held his gaze for a long moment, but then I sighed, nodding, accepting this. I said wearily, "What do I do now?"
"You've got two choices, Marita. Go back to playing fetch for the Consortium, or pursue Michael's cause. See if you want to make it your own. If you want to do something for him, make it something a little more constructive than sitting in his apartment staring out a window."
"How?" I demanded. "I don't have access."
"I can get you access. Your placement in the United Nations is intended as a mere pressure point - leverage if ever the need arises. But you don't have to stay at that level. With the right mentor and the right patron, you could become a player. Make a difference."
"Who?" I said sharply, turning to face him fully.
"Me as mentor, Spender as patron. You could switch allegiances later if you wished - Donovan is one to keep in mind - but start with Spender."
"Why Spender?" I queried. "He is an odious man."
"They're all odious men, Marita. Some just wear better cologne." I laughed at that - a weak laugh, but a laugh just the same. He unbent a little, smiling at me indulgently. "He controls our placed operatives in the FBI. That means he has leverage over Mulder."
"Not to mention putting me only two rungs down from the voting circle."
The Dark Man nodded approvingly. "That's right." He shifted uncomfortably. "There's something else I need to tell you - something that may make a difference to how you proceed."
"Go on," I said apprehensively.
"Have you ever heard of The Den?"
I shrugged. "Sure. It's a Consortium social club down Westminster way. If the rumours are to believed, it does double duty as a sex club."
"That's correct." He said conversationally, "It belonged to Michael, you know."
I stared at him, thunderstruck. "What?" He said nothing; only held my gaze steadily. I sat back in utter disbelief. I said in a low, fierce voice, "Michael was not that kind of a man."
"No, he wasn't," he said mildly.
"But - why would he do such a thing?" I demanded incredulously.
He shifted again. "I'm telling this second hand - I didn't join the group until 1978 - but I presume you're aware of the Teena Mulder scandal in 1960?"
I nodded. "Teena and Spender wanted to marry. Bill Mulder was distraught - he was ready to expose the work in revenge. Everyone was taking sides. Somehow that got resolved - I'm not sure how -"
"Strughold uncovered abuses of the pathogen by a certain dictator in the Gaza Strip," he supplied. "The group realised that personal agendas were not luxuries they could afford. Bill Mulder agreed to turn a blind eye to the affair. Spender agreed not to seek to marry Teena. The men eventually became friends again, and Bill raised their children as his, as you know."
I nodded reflectively. "Story as old as time. What's that got to do with Michael?"
"The sexual revolution was dawning. Michael was worried about leaks...blackmail. The Teena Mulder affair consolidated his fears. He built The Den as a response to that problem. He viewed it as the lesser of two evils - and to be fair, he appears to have been right. There has never been a sexual scandal with that magnitude of danger since." I nodded, understanding. He said more gently, "It's yours now, Marita. You inherit that along with everything else."
I stared at him, aghast. "No...no, I don't want it."
He leaned back, crossing his arms across his chest. He didn't seem surprised by my reaction. "Why not?"
I thought hard, trying to put the mess of thoughts running through my head into some sort of order. In the end, it all came down to one thing. "I find it offensive."
He nodded thoughtfully. "All right. Let's try this for offensive. The Den employs seventy-one courtesans. Most of them are runaways whom Michael was putting through university and trying to get out of the sex industry. Thousands, over the years. People who might have died otherwise; people who went on to have productive lives. Cassandra Malloy was one of those."
"Spender's wife?" I said in astonishment.
He nodded. "Of the seventy-one there now, fifty-four are female, and thirty-two have children. If you abdicate responsibility for those people because it offends your sensibilities, who's going to take care of them? Are you going to hire a social worker to run your brothel for you?" His voice was lightly mocking.
"Can't I pay them off? Shut it down? Money is hardly a problem."
He shook his head. "You own The Den only in name, Marita. It's viewed as a Consortium asset. You are expected to keep it open. The implications of refusal are grave."
"Then why can't they run it?" I demanded angrily.
He shrugged. "They can. That's what will happen if you wash your hands of it. But are you going to leave those people in Strughold's hands? Spender's?" I shuddered. "I thought not."
"You seem to have it all figured out," I said coldly.
"Don't do that, Marita. I'm not trying to manipulate you into anything. I'm just telling it as I see it. If you tell me to, I will find someone to run it, and I will do my best for those people. But I think you'd be letting yourself down - and Michael." At my reproachful look, he conceded, "All right, perhaps I am trying to manipulate you. But can you look at me and tell me I'm wrong?" I was silent, ashamed.
He watched me for a long moment, then reached into his pocket. He handed me an anonymous pass card and a business card. "That's the address and your access card. You should see Connie Francis as soon as you can - she's the business manager. She'll make sure you know everything you need to know."
I took them reluctantly. "All right," I said in a low voice.
We were silent for a long moment. At last, the Dark Man said thoughtfully, "You know, Marita, I think you're underestimating the value of The Den. It puts you in a unique position to obtain the information you seek."
"If you're implying what I think you're implying, I don't think you should say any more," I said warningly.
"What do you think I'm implying?"
"You're implying that I should sleep my way to the truth," I said angrily.
"On the contrary. You don't have to have sex to use it to your advantage, Marita. Sometimes the greatest power lies in being unavailable."
"You're talking about teasing," I said, but I wasn't sure that was it at all. I was out of my depth on a lot of levels. I had only ever been with Michael; and for me, sex was something very simple and companionable. The complexity, the layers of interaction and manipulation the Dark Man alluded to were foreign to me.
He shook his head. "No. When you tease, the other person owns a little piece of you - even if it's only in their own mind. I'm talking about absolute control. I'm talking about owning yourself. I'm talking about being desired precisely because you belong to no-one but yourself."
My brow creased. "Are you talking about B&D?"
"Nearly. D&S - domination and submission." I thought on this. "I don't know if I can do that," I said hesitantly. "I don't know if I'm even - equipped to do it." I said haltingly, "Michael and I were - well, pretty vanilla." I flushed a little. I hadn't been brought up to speak of such things. I struggled on, "I liked it that way. There was honesty in it. I don't have a seductress in me just waiting to break out. I don't know how to do the things you're talking about."
"It's a skill, nothing more. It can be learned like any other. I can teach you, Marita - if you'll trust me."
"I do," I said unhesitatingly. "But - this? I just don't know."
He nodded slowly in acceptance of this. "Just think about it, Marita. You know where to find me."
I nodded pensively. "All right."
He rose and walked to the armchair. In the reflection I could see him putting on his coat. I turned in my chair to look at him. "Why are you doing this?" I demanded.
He looked at me with some indecision, but finally, he said, "Fifteen years ago, Michael entrusted me with a traumatised young girl. I hid her in a disused wing of The Den. She was fourteen," he said grimly. "Whatever guidance she needed to put what had happened to her to use without destroying herself, she didn't get it. She was a courtesan by sixteen, a double agent by eighteen, and dead by her own hand at twenty-seven."
"Samantha Mulder," I said softly.
He inclined his head. "I never taught her how to protect herself. Never even understood the need until it was too late." He shrugged. "I'd like to do better by you."
He turned from me then, and went to the door. I called him by name, and he turned.
I shot him a smile. "You already have."
He nodded thoughtfully, and then he left me.
"I think he's wrong."
I stroked the cheek of the infant in my arms, and looked up. Diana was watching us pensively. "Go on," I prompted.
"I think he was wrong to suggest it," she elaborated. She shifted on the bed, sitting up, leaning over to the remains of lunch on the room service trolley. She chewed on a celery stick thoughtfully. "Marita, you're very young."
"You were married at my age," I pointed out; but my voice was mild, because part of me agreed with her. At the sound of my voice, Elizabeth opened her eyes and stared at me unblinkingly. I smiled down at her warmly. She was going to be beautiful.
"I'm not talking about years. You've been with one man - and an undemanding one at that." I flushed. "It's not my wish to make you uncomfortable, Marita, but let's be frank - you're inexperienced. You don't know how to handle yourself with the kind of men you'll meet at The Den - and really, I hope you never do. I think of you like a sister, you know?" I shot her a faint smile, and she returned it. "And I wouldn't want my sister in that place."
"Well, it appears that I have no choice - at least on the admin side of things," I said wryly. "As for the rest, I just don't know." I carefully extricated a lock of my hair from the baby's curled fingers.
Diana frowned, picking at the salad bowl absently. She conceded, "It might be worth it, *maybe*, if you had something firm - some concrete goal, and that was the fastest way to achieve it." She sat back on the bed. She looked tired, and not for the first time, I wondered about the wisdom of discharging her so soon. "But just to get more of a foot in the door - no. There are better ways in, and you should wait for them to present themselves."
I nodded slowly. "It might all be a moot point, anyway. I don't think I'm even cut out for it. He says it's a skill that can be learned - that he can teach me to protect myself - but I just don't know."
Diana shrugged. "Oh, if it came down to that, he's right. He taught Edward and I," she revealed. At my look of surprise, she said, a little sheepishly, "Yeah. Max doesn't know - he'd hit the roof. But we had a concrete goal, and Michael and the Dark Man helped us." Her good humour faded, and she said softly, "It's not an easy thing to do, Marita. I haven't killed anyone, but Edward has, and he says it's a little bit the same. It's something you do because you have to do it, and it isn't the devastating thing that people think it is - but it does take something of yourself. Something you never get back."
I nodded, frowning. At last, I said softly, "Is it worth it?" I didn't just mean The Den.
Diana drew her knees up to her chest morosely. "I don't know, Marita. If we can find a way out of this mess, a way to make a real future for her -" she nodded to the baby "- and for Shane, then yeah. But more and more I think that's just a pipedream." She was suddenly very pale. "I don't know if these children are going to grow up, Rita, and that scares the hell out of me."
"They will," I said - and however stupidly glib the words seemed, I meant them. My hold on Elizabeth tightened instinctively. "I swear, Diana, they will, even if I have to make a goddamn vaccine myself." She reacted visibly, and I said, "What?"
"Nothing. It's just - you reminded me of someone. Someone I used to know." I watched her, perplexed, and at last, she said, "Samantha Mulder."
"You still think about her?" I said softly. I knew she did, but this was the first time in over a year that she'd alluded to it directly.
She said with difficulty, "I was with her in Tunis that day when she found out how close Strughold was to a successful hybrid." She shook her head, her lips drawn tight together. "I should have seen how upset she was."
I regarded her with genuine warmth. "You couldn't have stopped it, Diana," I said, not really sure whether that was true; but it probably was. "It's not like she jumped off the nearest building. She went home, put her affairs in order, and threw herself into the Grand Canyon. It was planned - probably long before Tunis. That was just the last straw."
Diana sighed, brushing her hair back from her face. "Maybe."
We stayed there in silence for a long moment, but then Elizabeth began to fuss, and Diana held out her arms. "I'll take her," she said in a more normal voice. "Shh," she hummed as I handed her over.
"I should go," I said reluctantly. "I have to go down to The Den and attend to whatever Connie Francis lays on me. And you should rest."
"Could you do me a favour?"
"Shoot." Discreetly, she began to nurse, still talking. "Get her to make out a new membership and courier me the card. Silver level. Alex Krycek." The infant moulded herself to her with a contented sigh.
"That's the second time I've heard that name today," I said mildly.
"I've got a feeling you'll hear it a lot more," she said, settling back. "He's one of Spender's boys, but he's not your usual Consortium thug. Academic background. Nice respectable young man."
"What's he doing with us, then?" I demanded.
"Paying his mom's medical bills," she smirked.
"You're joking, right?"
"Nope." She shot me a look. "He's been putting the feelers out. I get the feeling that his loyalty to Spender is, shall we say, on a trial basis."
"Really? That's very interesting," I said. "According to the Dark Man, Krycek's on the short list for possible successors to Spender - assuming he lives that long and doesn't piss anyone off." Diana laughed. I rose, stretching a little. I put my chair back by the window, where I'd found it, gazing out fleetingly at the city, thirty floors below. Damn Edward; couldn't he spring for a room with a balcony? She must be going crazy in here. Men just didn't think. "I'll get the card for you. And think again about staying with me, okay? You don't have to be stuck in a hotel room by yourself."
Diana laughed. "Will do. Thanks," she added.
"No problem. And Diana?" She looked at me expectantly. I said:
"Thanks for hearing me out."
She shot me a smile, then went back to cooing over Elizabeth.
I shut the door.
"How are you holding up?"
I looked at the woman in genuine surprise. Simple concern was an alien thing to me, it sometimes seemed. Though I was loved by many, that love was a complicated tangle of protectiveness and paternalism. There were few who just wanted to know where I was - how I was - and I felt my eyes sting with sudden tears at the woman's genuine warmth. I blinked them back in irritation. I was tired of weeping, and more tired of weeping in front of others.
"I'm - getting there," I said at last. "Thanks."
"We were all very sad to hear about Michael. He was very devoted to you. And I have to say, the circumstances distressed us all. Drive-bys are pretty much par for the course here in New York, but Maryland - you don't expect it there. Such a Catholic heartland, too."
"Even Catholic families have black sheep," I said grimly. Black sheep like Spender, I amended mentally.
"Very painful for you to have witnessed it. Have you been referred for trauma counselling? Father Donnelly isn't here at the moment, but I know he was wondering if we could help."
I shook my head. "No, Sister, but thank you. I don't think it would help. Some things just have to be endured."
"Try to be gentle with yourself for the next year or two, Marita. Others will expect you to recover before you really do. They can be very unrealistic sometimes - especially your mother," the older woman added tentatively.
"That's my mom. Champion of the stiff upper lip." I shook my head irritably. "Thank you - I'll keep it in mind."
"What can we do for you today, anyway, Marita?"
"I just wanted to see if you needed anything from me about cancelling the wedding. I was too shocked last week to even think about it."
Sister shook her head. "It's all taken care of. We've cancelled the booking, and the prenuptial enquiries with your baptismal parishes were already done. We spoke to your mother the other day, and she's handled the flowers and the reception. You don't need to worry."
"Typical," I said irritably. She looked at me sharply, and I said, "I'm sorry. That sounded ungracious. It's just - she does this, you know? Takes things out of my hands. Those things were my responsibility, and I think they might have been good for me."
She was nodding. "For closure. I understand, and I thought the same thing. But it wasn't my place to say so."
"Of course not." I sighed. "Is there anything else?"
"Only the application for dispensation from impediment to marriage - I was going to call the archdiocese today and put a halt on that."
"What's that about?" I asked curiously.
She looked at me blankly, and then her expression cleared. "That's right, you couldn't be there that day," she said in apparent recollection. I felt my eyes widen just a fraction, and I braced myself, knowing perfectly well that I had attended every parish appointment about which I had been told. I held myself very still, preparing myself not to react to whatever bombshell was about to drop. "As you know, your immigration documents identify Michael as your father." I nodded noncommittally, though I knew no such thing. I knew without doubt that Michael was not my father - he would not have committed incest - and so I concentrated on keeping my expression blandly curious as I waited for it all to fall into place. Eventually it would, I was sure of it.
"He and your mother were quite upfront about it all," Sister continued. "They explained about lying to the authorities to get you and your mother into the country, and they produced documentation showing that Michael was in Hanoi when you were conceived. We knew from our dealings with your family that he had never had any kind of adoptive relationship with you, so from our perspective, there was no problem of consanguinity or affinity. But because those documents exist, we had to get a ruling from the archbishop for you to marry, and say that we were satisfied that those documents didn't reflect a genuine issue of blood or adoptive relationship."
"I see," I said mildly. "That makes sense." I smiled winningly, my mind racing. The story held together, but I couldn't imagine why my mother and Michael had kept this from me. Thinking quickly, I said with as much shy reluctance as I could muster, "Sister, would you mind cancelling that while I'm here? That way, I know it's all done and over with. I think it would help, somehow." I hoped I didn't sound too bucolic. What I hoped was that she would have to get out the file in order to do it. Surely she would have to quote a reference number of some kind.
"Sure. I can do that." Her voice was kind. She rose and went to the filing cabinet. She withdrew a thick folder and came back to the desk. She sat down and, picking up the telephone receiver, hit a speed dial key. I tilted my head sideways to read the legend, *Covarrubias/Harrington*, and drew it towards me with a questioning look at the older woman. I worked to keep my expression mildly curious. She hesitated a moment, her brow furrowing; and I backed off, shrugging carelessly, even though my heart was pounding.
She shrugged too, then, waving a hand. I could almost hear the unspoken, 'Ah, what the hell.' I smiled again, pulling it towards me, breathing out shakily. "Thanks," I said softly.
"It's your own file, Marita. There's no harm in- Alicia!" She turned her attention back to the phone. "It's Sister Deirdre at Staten Island...oh, I'm great now that Easter's over. Father's away 'til Pentecost, so I have the run of the parish..."
I tuned her out, the dulcet tones of small- parish gossip washing over me. That would buy me a little time, but not much. I flipped through the pages quickly, passing over affidavits by my mother and Michael. Nothing written now would shed any light on what had gone before - they were too smart for that. It was original documents that were the key - documents they had gone to some lengths to conceal from me. Immigration papers...my mother's statement of defection...travel records from the CIA and United Nations for Michael from 1969 to 1971...more sworn statements (one from Maxwell Donovan, I noted idly)...a photocopy of the baptismal register from - I read the header - St Mary Magdalene parish in New York...Marks, Jeffries, Panethos, Covarrubias, Covarrubias-
I doubled back. Covarrubias, Marita Elena. Covarrubias, Elena Ekaterina. Both born April 19, 1971 in Ateni, Georgia; both baptised June 21. That meant-
I flipped back to the immigration papers. There was a photocopy of handwritten case notes from the US Consulate in Istanbul. They were in Arabic; but there was a certified translation stapled to it.
--April 23, 1971. Covarrubias, Larissa Krisztyna, and Girl 1, and Girl 2 escorted to embassy by Conrad Strughold. Mrs Covarrubias travelled over the Soviet-Turkish border on foot on April 22 w/newborn infants. Mrs Covarrubias states she is KGB operative, had previously contacted Michael Harrington (UN/CIA) re: defection, and that Harrington is en route to Istanbul, ETA 0830 Apr 24. Awaiting Pentagon confirmation. Strughold known to Consul as a mining entrepreneur based in Tunisia. Some mining interests in Virginia, USA. His involvement with Covarrubias and/or KGB is uncertain, but bears watching. Covarrubias case tentatively classified top security clearance. Entry ends.
--April 24, 1971. Asylum granted. Michael Harrington confirmed Covarrubias story. States he has been in contact with Covarrubias since a tour of duty with the United Nations in Zhezqazghan in 1968. Covarrubias formerly based in a top-secret KGB installation in Norylsk (Siberia). (Undecipherable sentence). No further questioning permitted. Covarrubias and daughters to be escorted to Washington, DC (depart Consul Friday 0630). Medical exam shows Mrs Covarrubias in poor health. Dr. speculates Mrs C. gave birth unaided; some postpartum hemorrhaging, no complications. Girl 1, Marita Elena, within normal limits. Girl 2, Elena Ekaterina, small for gestational age, seriously ill (upper respiratory tract infection). Mrs C. requests Catholic priest for baptism. Negated by CIA on security grounds. Mrs C. identifies twins' father as Michael Harrington; Harrington confirms. Inconsistent with Harrington's movements: left Zhezqazghan January 1970, has been in Hanoi ever since. Mrs C. may be attempting to portray herself as a fleeing adulteress to protect husband from KGB interrogation. Pentagon instructs our investigation be dropped. Entry ends.
I stared up at her, a little disoriented. "I'm - I'm sorry, Sister. What was that?"
She was watching me curiously. "I said, you're shaking."
I closed the file. "Someone walked over my grave, I guess. It's done?" Don't react, Marita. Don't even think. Just get the hell out of there.
"Yes, it's done. Are you okay?"
I could feel my control slipping. The rigid lines of my face were hurting. They burned, like too- cold ice cracking in sudden heat. "Yeah," I managed. "I appreciate this, Sister."
She rested a hand on my shoulder. "Be kind to yourself, Marita. I'll pray for you."
I reached up and patted it absently. "Thanks," I forced out. I went on with foreboding:
"I think I'm going to need it."
I threw my handbag down on the polished table, and it slid across and hit the fruit bowl with a clatter. My car keys followed, landing ungraciously at its side. I fumbled helplessly in my pocket for the brand-new pack of smokes and the cheap plastic Bic I'd bought at a truckstop. I ripped open the cigarettes and, pulling one out, threw the pack down, too. I flicked at the lighter uselessly, trying to light up. I yelled in frustration, "Mother! Where the hell are you, god damn you!"
My hands were shaking.
I finally got the cigarette lit, and drew on it gratefully. I pulled out a chair from the table with a clatter, and sank down into it. I sat there with my head in my hands, smoking. My head was pounding.
I heard a door close in the lower floor, and then the rapid, rhythmic beat of footsteps on the stairs. I looked up wearily.
"Marita! I thought I heard a car drive up."
"Mother," I said hoarsely. It was a whisper.
"Maxwell is outside having tea. Do join us."
I breathed out shakily, tendrils of smoke drifting up towards the ceiling fan, twirling merrily overhead. "Mother."
"Oh, dear, you're smoking again," she said reproachfully. "Have a peppermint before you come out. I think there's some in the kitchen."
Sudden fury gathered in me, starting in my stomach and rising to my chest like bile. There was something surreal about it all. My mother had hidden the existence of a twin from me, and she was bitching about smoker's breath? I had the feeling that the natural order of the world had been blown to pieces, free floating in weird prismic formations I'd never seen before.
I tried again. It wasn't just my hands shaking anymore - it was my whole body. "Mother."
She kept prattling. Not for the first time in my life, I wondered if she ever really saw me at all. "I have to get back to Maxwell. We'll see you when you've finished your cigarette then?"
I slumped in my chair, my head bowed in exhausted disbelief. I waved my hand at her helplessly without looking at her; and she obviously took that as acquiescence, because her footsteps receded. I stubbed out the cigarette on the underside of her beautiful table in what I knew was a maliciously infantile gesture, and buried my head in my folded arms. I don't know if I was laughing or crying. I think it might have been both.
At last, I rose, and composed myself. I went to the bathroom and washed my face and straightened my hair. I powdered my cheeks and touched up my lipstick. And all the while, I tried to convince myself to think kindly of her - at least while Maxwell was here. Elena had been small...sick. Maybe she had died very young. Maybe she never really recovered from being smuggled over the border, or from whatever my mother went through as she fled her home on foot in advanced pregnancy. In those days, didn't they sometimes hide the death of a child? Didn't they sometimes seek to protect the subsequent children? Maybe Mother genuinely thought she'd done the right thing. It helped to think so.
Yet when had my mother ever protected me from the harsher realities of life? Not for her, the "Scruffy has gone to live in a beautiful garden." Not for her, the "Uncle Anthony died in his sleep." No, Scruffy was run over by a car. Anthony was shot to death in front of his children. The kind-hearted lies and myths of childhood were alien to my mother. She was a harsh woman, and in an odd way she believed her harshness helped me to grow strong. And maybe that was true.
No, my mother would not have lied to comfort me. She only ever lied to conceal the truth. But what truth was she concealing now? What truth was so important that she and Michael had conspired to continue in its concealment more than twenty years on?
Sighing, I finished in the bathroom and went downstairs. Breathing deeply, I stepped out the door into the courtyard. "Hello, Maxwell," I said airily; and if that seemed a little forced, he would simply put it down to bereavement. Maxwell himself had aged visibly in the last couple of weeks. He and Michael had been close.
"Oh, hello, Marita," he said kindly, rising as I took my seat. "How are you?"
"Holding up," I said grimly. "Mother," I added with a nod of greeting. If she was aware of the coldness in my voice, she didn't show it; but only nodded in return and poured my tea, setting it down in front of me.
"Well," my mother said after a long moment, "I have things to do, so if you'll excuse me, I'll leave you two alone." She rose, sending us a wide, manufactured smile, and left us.
I stared after her. "That was weird," I mused, my expression doubtful. I turned to Maxwell, and then I pulled back visibly. He was furious.
His face was very pink, his mouth pulled into a tight little grimace. I thought he was on the verge of apoplexy. It was actually pretty funny, and I smothered waves of hysterical laughter that suddenly threatened. He burst out indignantly, "Dear God! Michael's body's not even cold!"
My humour faded in an instant. I stared at him in stunned bewilderment. "She *wasn't* trying to-"
"I'm forty six years older than you!" I shot him a sudden, wry grin. "You don't look it."
We both broke out into horrified laughter - thank goodness! After so much stress, it was a relief to be able to do so. I laughed 'til I ached, and by then, Maxwell was leaned back in his chair, smoking his pipe, watching me amiably.
At last, I got control of myself. "I'm so sorry, Maxwell," I said ruefully. "My mother has the sensitivity of-"
"A bull in a china shop," he finished sympathetically.
The expression aroused an unexpected pang of nostalgia. "I miss England," I said suddenly. He said nothing, only waited. I elaborated finally, "Life was simpler then."
He watched me, his brow puckered with concern; and at last, he shook his head. "You only thought it was, Marita," he said mildly. "You've been part of this since the day your mother crawled into Turkey with you on her back."
"And my sister," I said quietly.
That shocked him. He shot me a look; one of surprise, melding quickly into worried nervousness. "Don't pursue that. You'll only put yourself in danger - and her." I nodded noncommittally - I had expected a warning. He leaned forward, his expression grave. "Especially if your mother finds out you know." At that, I opened my eyes very wide; because clearly, the other woman I would endanger was not my mother. And that only left-
"Elena's alive?" I demanded breathlessly, my cheeks hot with excitement.
Maxwell grimaced. Clearly, he'd thought I knew more than I really did - which made me wonder just how much more there was. He said in a low, warning tone, "Leave it alone, Marita."
I persisted. "Is my sister alive?"
Perhaps seeing that I wouldn't let him go without giving me something - but more likely believing I had a right to know - he conceded quietly, "Yes." He glanced at my mother, watching us from the kitchen window, and he went on in an undertone:
"But if you want her to stay that way, you'll leave it alone."
The Dark Man stood aside, silent permission to enter. I entered his suite and slammed the door behind me. I was shaking.
"Marita, what's the matter?"
I stared at him stupidly for a moment, then turned and went to the basin on the elevated dais. I splashed water over my face, then looked up at my reflection. There were pink spots high on my cheeks, and the lines of my face seemed suddenly haggard. I breathed out shakily.
The Dark Man was watching.
I leaned over the basin, breathing deeply, waiting for some semblance of composure to form. He was still looking at me with that worried expression, but he went to the bar, and busied himself pouring drinks. And when I came down the steps at last, he handed me mine without editorial comment. I took it, and sat on the elaborate bed, drinking gratefully.
He left me there for a few minutes, turning off his laptop and tidying a sheaf of papers on the dresser. "What's wrong?" he asked at last, sitting at my side. Briefly, I told him what had occurred.
"Did you know?" I asked finally.
The Dark Man shook his head. "I didn't come aboard until you were seven. You remember," he added with a sudden grin.
I laughed at that - a little weakly, but a laugh just the same. "I said that you were the first black man I'd ever met. Mother was mortified."
He laughed a little. "I was furious - not with you," he added hurriedly, "with her. I was pretty political back then." His smile faded. "That was 1978, so whatever happened to Elena, it must have happened before that."
"Earlier. Before I could remember anything myself," I chimed in. "Say before 1974." I felt better now - more controlled. It felt good to be proactive.
"Maybe she was surrendered to the colonists as a hostage," he hazarded. "The timeframe works. I always assumed your mother gave up your father, but I admit that was only a guess. I never thought to check one way or another." A new thought occurred to him, and he asked, "Who did you think she surrendered, anyway?"
"I didn't think she surrendered anyone," I said, bewildered.
"But they all gave up someone," he protested, his brow creasing.
"Michael didn't," I pointed out. "Neither did Max or Bill Mulder. And Spender surrendered two. I assumed it was done by ballot."
The Dark Man shook his head. "Max gave up his wife. She went willingly - she was terminally ill. She died a month later in colonist custody. That's why she's never spoken of as missing." I nodded, comprehending. "Samantha was Bill's hostage, not Spender's. If the colonists had learned Bill wasn't the children's father, they'd have demanded Teena - that was why Spender went along with it." A flicker of compassion went through me - something I'd never thought I'd feel for Spender. "Michael was the only one who truly gave up no-one, because he had no-one to give up. His only living relative was Maxwell."
"Maybe he did, though," I said thoughtfully. "If Spender and Bill Mulder lied, why not Michael and my mother? They'd already lied that he was our father once before. Maybe she said Elena was his to settle his debt along with hers."
The Dark Man frowned; nodded slowly. "That makes sense," he conceded. "And it would account for his protectiveness of you growing up."
I crossed my arms, my brow furrowed, thinking hard. "Max said she was alive," I said slowly. "He said that investigating could put both of us in danger. He implied that the danger was from within - not from the colonists." I said curiously, "Could she be here?"
He shrugged uneasily. "I don't see how. I know Cassandra and Samantha were recovered, but Spender and Teena bartered for them. They handed over a group of rebels for them. As far as I know, no-one else ever came back."
"Could my mother have bartered for Elena?"
"I don't see what she could have bartered with. And she certainly couldn't have done it without my knowledge."
"Unless she did it in 1983, when you were in Tunisia," I pointed out. "And she sent me away right after that."
"Possible," he conceded. "But this is pure conjecture, Marita. We don't even know if she's here."
We fell silent, dwelling on this; but at last, I said with awe, "I have a sister." He said nothing, but only looked at me. His expression was kind. "How could I not know that? I mean in myself?"
"Maybe you did," he mused, almost to himself. "Maybe that's what's been holding you back the last few years."
"Holding me back?" I echoed stupidly.
He shrugged a little, warming to his theme. "You've been relying on these people to keep you safe - your mother, Diana, Michael - instead of working to do whatever it is you have to do. Maybe you needed to find out about Elena before you could break free of them."
"You think I'm weak," I realised - and in an unwelcome flash of insight, I realised that it was true.
"You have been weak," he said kindly, "but you're very young. Now it's time to get strong."
"You think badly of me," I said bitterly. It wasn't a question.
"On the contrary," he asserted with real warmth. "I think very highly of you, Marita. But you're still becoming the person you were born to be."
Tears stung my eyes. "I don't -" I faltered; went on finally, "I don't know what to do."
"What do you want to do?" he said quietly.
I glanced at him, wondering what the answer really was; but in the end, there was only one thing I knew for sure just then. "I want to find my sister."
"You might regret it."
"I know that," I said mildly.
"Max is a sound man," he warned. "If he says it's unwise, he's probably right."
I turned to face him fully. "Does that mean you won't help me?"
He smiled faintly; shook his head. "No. I'll help you, Marita."
I touched his hand; gave it a companionable squeeze before withdrawing. "Thank you, my friend."
We were silent for a long moment, but then a cellphone rang. We each checked our pockets; the culprit was his. He answered it, with an apologetic look at me. He rang off.
"That was Connie Francis. I have to go talk to her."
I nodded my understanding, and rose. "I have to see her, too. I'll walk with you." I scanned the opulent room appraisingly. It was lovely, I had to admit. I still had mixed feelings about The Den, but I understood its appeal. The Dark Man reached for the door, but I stayed his hand.
"What we talked about before - about this place. I'll do it."
He shot me a look. "Are you sure?"
"No," I admitted. I bowed my head. "But you were right. I've been too safe for too long. I know too much to let it stay that way." I met his gaze once more. "I have to make a stand, and rise or fall by it."
"Can you handle it?" he said piercingly. He opened the door, and motioned for me to go ahead of him.
"I guess I'll have to."
He turned back to the door and locked it. "Don't look now, but there's Alex Krycek. Nine o'clock," he added.
I turned to the void over the huge circular staircase, passing my eyes idly over the room without meeting Krycek's gaze. He was on the stairs the next level down, looking up at me. So he knew who I was - I thought he might. I said noncommittally, "So he is."
He turned and began to walk, me at his side. On the next floor down, Krycek frowned and went in the direction of the suites. "Wonder what he's doing here. Spender didn't give him membership."
"No," I agreed. "Diana did."
The Dark Man nodded approvingly. "Good. He's worth getting on side. He's low in the chain of command, but Spender's plans for him make him an asset."
"Assuming he plays along with Spender," I said mildly.
"You don't think he will?" His expression was curious.
I shook my head. "No." I thought back to Diana's words. "He's not an ignorant thug like Cardinale. That's why Spender wants him. And that's why he'll never own him."
He nodded approvingly. "You're probably right."
"What's his profile?" I asked with interest.
"He's an interesting one. Bisexual, but otherwise very conservative. Very motivated by family and community. Patriotically American, vehemently anti-Soviet-"
"He'd get along with my mother," I said grimly.
"- but very loyal to the post-Soviet Russian states. He's written in the academic political journals about Latvia and Estonia and Chechnya and all that."
"Anything about Georgia?" I queried, interested.
"Not a lot," he shrugged. "The north-western states are more his line. He's Latvian, hence the interest." I nodded, understanding. "Mind you, I'm sure your Russian heritage could be a common denominator."
"That's true," I said casually, though in truth my interest had little to do with his possible cultivation as an ally. He interested me. He was good-looking, but then, good-looking men were not uncommon in my world. But there was something else...something I couldn't identify. He reminded me of someone, or something. I wondered what it was. And then I realised.
He was somehow different from the others in our world.
"Anyway," the Dark Man said, "enough of that. I need to show you something before we go downstairs." He used his keys to open a door marked, 'Private Wing/No Admittance'.
"Michael's rooms," I said dully.
He shook his head in negation of this. "Not at all. He never lived here after it became The Den. I don't think he liked it here after that. No, these rooms were Samantha's."
"Samantha lived here?" I said in surprise. "I mean, later?" He knew what I meant - after she'd been a prostitute here. Courtesan, I mentally corrected. The euphemism didn't come easily, but I was their employer now. If I couldn't show some respect in my own mind, it would show in my dealings with them.
He nodded, motioning for me to enter. I complied. "She lived wherever was most expedient, but she kept rooms here all her life. Michael allowed it. He felt quite kindly towards her."
I smiled faintly, and realised wistfully that Michael already seemed like something very distant - someone I'd known a lifetime ago. I said at last, "That sounds like Michael."
"She has diaries," he was saying. "She was here in 1983. If you can find them - and there's no guarantee that you will - they might shed some light on things."
"You haven't looked for them?" I queried.
"I couldn't," he said evenly. His voice was very mild. Too mild. I wondered then if he'd been in love with her, but I didn't ask. Instead, I nodded, looking over the sitting room before me. Lovely prints on the wall; masses of cushions in all kinds of textured fabrics. It was a very feminine room. It made me sad - I'd never known Samantha, but by all accounts, she'd been a decent woman. And ultimately, of course, a martyr to the resistance. Shaking my head a little to clear it of these musings, I said at last:
"If they're here, I'll find them."
CHAPTER 2 CONTINUES IN PART 3.