It's the kind of flashy club that reminds Sark of Russia, and not in a good way. The music is loud and there's an impressive selection of vodkas, but the wine list is second-rate and overpriced. What offends him most about the club is that it's in Milan. He knows of an extraordinary enoteca, only five blocks away; he could be there now, tasting one of the varietals. But it's all business: the kind of people who come from Moscow every spring and fall to buy fashions on the runways want places like this, and who is he to complain if someone decides to make a profit off of that?
Business brings him here, a message straight from Derevko with time, place and code phrases. No description: the contact will find him. So Sark makes his way to the bar, scans the row of bottles and is pleasantly surprised to find an obscure Croatian liquor he'd developed a taste for. The evening won't be a total waste.
By the time the bartender has the glass in front of him, there's a man standing to his left. Sark knows it's the contact before the man says a thing; he's spent enough time with killers to have worked out a typology of his own, and something about this one is making the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Clothes so good they're almost unnoticeable: no one spends that much money to be invisible, not without reason. He says something in a murmur too low to hear over the noise of the club, and nods his head toward a curtained doorway at the end of the bar.
Behind the curtain, it only gets worse. "Someone took out the head of K-Directorate. That was you?"
"Aren't we supposed to be discussing the price of fish?" Sark asks.
"Fuck that," the man says. "I'm on a schedule." He's leaning forward, talking in a breathy, intense voice. "I need to maintain my access to certain facilities. I had an understanding with K-Directorate."
"I fail to see what that has to do with my employer. Unless you'd like our help in renegotiating?"
"Don't play dumb. It doesn't suit you and you're no good at it." He keeps going, fast and low, as Sark chokes back a retort. "I want you to tell her--don't fuck up my projects. I can do my own negotiating, but I don't like needing to, and I don't like surprises. You understand? Tell her that."
Sark forgets the insult and ignores the threat in the other man's voice. Only one thing matters: the personal pronoun. This man knows who Derevko is. He keeps his face smooth and leans forward in turn, his eyes blank. The other man's aren't; the green there seems to shift, darker and lighter, and he's breathing a little faster than normal, Sark guesses. Good. Let him worry. "I'll pass on your message." He rises to his feet so that he can stare down at the other man. "I killed the last man who threatened my employer."
The other man bares his teeth, mimicking a grin. "Sure you did. That's what you're for."
She doesn't keep an office: no paperwork, no record-keeping. Instead she lets him sit next to her on the loveseat and pours him a glass of claret. An '85 St. Emilion, not at all bad.
"The meeting?" Her head is tilted to one side, and she's looking at him through slanted eyes. Something about her smile makes him glad he didn't kill the other man outright.
"He expressed some concern that his own operations would be set back by the recent changes in K-Directorate."
"So Alex was upset?" Her smile gets a little deeper.
Formality is no defense against her, but he can't help trying. "He seemed to feel that he should have been warned about our intentions."
"Mm." She runs a finger down his arm; he tries not to let his reaction show. "He's a useful man. I wanted you to meet him."
It sounds like an opening. "Useful for what?" He files the name away--Alex, in the American style. Unusual for a Russian, if that's what he is. It might be enough, should Sark need to track him down.
"Biologicals." Her hand is on his arm. "He has a talent for information." She's leaning toward him, and he holds himself still, but then she reaches across and takes her own glass. "Now, the new assets in Tokyo. They require consolidation."
This time it's a train, the TGV speeding north from Lyon. There are coded files in the briefcase at his feet but Sark is staring out the window, watching the countryside blur. A different kind of motion in the corner of his eye and he turns away just as the man from Milan slides into the empty seat beside him. Alex Krycek: Sark's mental file on the man is now extensive.
Krycek doesn't wait. "I heard about Khasinau."
Surely, Sark thinks, he's not about to offer his condolences? He manages a polite, noncommittal nod. In the sunlit train car he has a better view of Krycek: older than he'd thought. A few lines around the eyes, a little silver in his hair. Nonetheless, he doesn't look bad for a man the United States government believes to be dead. Better than Khasinau does now, no doubt. Sark is fairly certain the Krycek didn't sense the shudder he had to repress.
Krycek, it seems, understands that Sark has nothing to say about Khasinau. He continues, "I want to hire you. An extraction."
This is interesting enough to distract Sark from his other concerns: he's done his research on the other man, and among his notes is an almost pathological avoidance of subcontractors. Whatever Krycek is doing, he's working on it alone. "From the United States?"
Krycek's teeth flash in the expression Sark categorizes as an imitation of a smile. "See you in Paris." He's gone as smoothly as he came, just a crumpled paper napkin with a place and time tucked into the seat pocket to show that he'd ever been there.
Good business sense and curiosity are in agreement, and Sark handles the extraction himself. The agent turns out to be a blonde woman with a disconcerting habit of looking at him as if he isn't really there, and Sark knows that he will be pleased to see the back of her in London; the half-dozen black-ops types he has to kill on the way to Newark do nothing to improve his mood, and he doesn't relax until the airplane lifts off.
The darkness seems to encourage her to speak. "Which of them are you working for?"
It's on the tip of his tongue to respond that, now that Khasinau is dead, the answer ought to be clear enough, but he knows that isn't the question she's asking. "I'm not at liberty to discuss that," he says.
"The Russians? Or are you contracting for the French?"
"I'm afraid that I can't..."
"Who took over in Britain," she presses, "after... now that..."
Whatever you do, Krycek had told him, don't tell her I sent you. It hadn't seemed prudent to ask why not. "I really have no idea what you mean." It isn't quite the truth. Sark turns back to the window, cutting off further conversation before the urge to be kind gets the better of him. He can see her reflection as she composes herself, and waits for her to sleep, or feign sleep. He will keep watch, he thinks.
Three weeks later he's in a laboratory in Slovakia, waiting for the results of a private demonstration, when a familiar shape catches his eye: Alex Krycek, on his way out a side door. No one else seems to notice, and he wonders if it's a hallucination brought on by lack of sleep. Irina's empire is still twisting in his grasp.
He tells his bodyguard to wait; he knows the layout here, and can guess where Krycek is heading. Left, right, and he quickens his steps to catch the door before it swings shut; Sark lets it close behind him, but the delay is enough to catch Krycek's attention. It occurs to Sark, as Krycek turns to look at him, that he doesn't know exactly what he wants from this situation. It's a novelty, these days.
Krycek is waiting, and Sark finds that, without a script, he has nothing to say for himself. He could, he supposes, ask after the woman he delivered three weeks previously to a nondescript detached house in Slough, but he remembers the quality of the tension between her and Krycek. Perhaps not. He scans the tabletops and cabinets, as if the equipment could give him some hint as to why he followed Krycek into the secure laboratory.
Krycek, it seems, has decided to ignore him; he's busy reading the labels on a set of vials he's pulled out, comparing the numbers on them to the papers on the countertop. Every now and then, he slips a vial into his pocket. He works efficiently, and as smoothly as is possible with only one arm; the other rests on the papers to keep them in place. The strangest thing about the scene, Sark thinks, isn't that. It's that Krycek has turned his back as if Sark is no threat at all.
Krycek works for perhaps fifteen minutes. "You waiting for something?"
He grunts and returns his attention to the vials. After another few minutes, he says, "I'm done here. You planning on turning me in?"
"No," Sark says, and then, "You broke in?"
"Cheaper that way."
"Ah." This, at least, seems like it will lead someplace familiar. "Would you consider an offer of employment?"
"Is that what this is about?" Krycek 's eyebrows are raised. "Because that's not what it looks like from here."
Four steps across the room, until they're facing each other: Sark doesn't remember deciding to move. "And from here?" From here, he can see the pulse leap in Krycek's throat; his own blood is pounding. This should be predictable, controllable. He shouldn't feel as if another step forward will send him falling off the edge of a cliff. He shifts his weight, takes the step.
The kiss isn't sweet: Krycek's mouth pushing his teeth apart, his hand in Sark's hair, Sark's hips pressed against his. That's it, that's the thing he wants, his hands pulling Krycek even closer, his tongue in Krycek's mouth, and he can't quite help the sound he makes when they finally break apart. Sark steps back, and lets confusion show in his face; the half-smile on Krycek's lips looks genuine enough. Krycek opens his mouth and closes it, as if decided against speech; the half-smile returns as he moves around Sark and walks out of the room.
The door swings shut, again. Sark opens his hand to examine the vial he slipped from Krycek's left-hand pocket. He wonders, but only for a moment, if this is what Irina had in mind.