The carpet was deep red with a twining gold pattern. Robin leaned forward a bit on the padded bench; it seemed, at that moment, very important to untangle the design, to follow the gold line to some rich source.
She frowned as a shadow muted the contrast, making her lose her place on the pattern.
"Are you okay?" It was a pleasant voice, and it spoke in English, without an accent. Robin wearily drew her head up. The man wore a tuxedo and bow tie and spotless white shirt; he must have come from the fancy reception that had been held in the hotel ballroom earlier in the evening. Pleasant face, concerned brown eyes, neat brown hair. The sort of man who could fix problems, he looked, and she found herself ridiculously wanting to throw herself into his competent hands.
"Are you okay?" he repeated.
"No." Her voice, after all these hours of disuse and crying, was a breathless croak. The man's head jerked toward the front doors at the booming sound of another explosion.
"They're evacuating the hotel," he said. "We all have to leave. Can you walk?"
She nodded, although she wasn't at all sure that she could. The man grabbed her arm in a strong grip and hauled her to her feet, supporting her toward the door. As they walked Robin noticed, with stunned surprise, the chaos that surrounded her hotel employees shouting to each other and to confused and frightened tourists in a Spanish patois that few people seemed to understand, men and women searching the crowd for their partners, a row of young soldiers with rifles shoving a frantic crowd away from the elevators and staircase. An elderly man in shirtsleeves sat, as Robin had sat, on one of the brocade benches, tears following the ridges of his wrinkled face.
Outside in the street, cars and fire engines sped by. The evening sky was lit fitfully with flashes of light and the air smelled of smoke and gunpowder. The flower vendor who had smiled at her when she bought the flowers for Rob's casket had abandoned her stand. The colors of the wilting flowers were muted in the dying light.
Civilians were being herded into military trucks, but the firm grip on her arm steered Robin to the left, along sidewalks thick with people hurrying frantically along. A child, abandoned next to a light pole, cried and Robin reached toward her. Suddenly, the mother was there, clutching the child desperately against her chest.
On a quieter side street, the man finally stopped at a small, darkened bar. The door was open, but the room was empty, a chair overturned and tables askew. The man steered Robin to a booth and slipped silently back to peer through a back door and into the his-and-hers bathroom.
He turned back to her with a shrug and a smile. "What can I get you?" he asked, stepping behind the bar.
"Rum and Coke," Robin said, automatically. It seemed to be the only drink order she could get bartenders here to understand.
A few minutes later, a glass of brown liquid, clinking wonderfully with ice, was slid in frontt of her with a flourish. The brown-eyed man sat across from her with a martini, complete with lemon peel and olive. He smiled familiarly, raising his glass in a salute, and it occurred to Robin suddenly that she was in an empty bar with a strange man, with no idea where she was or how to get back to the hotel or, well, anywhere safe.
As if sensing her unease, the man lowered his drink. "It's okay," he said. "I've got nothing nefarious on my mind. I'll take you back to the hotel if you want, although I doubt they're letting anybody back in. My name is Napoleon Solo, by the way, from New York."
"Napoleon?" Robin's incredulity came through loud and clear, and the man shrugged. "I'm, um, Robin Daniels. From Wheatridge, Colorado."
"And what is Robin Daniels from Wheatridge doing down here, at the worst possible time?"
Robin found she didn't at all mind the slight probing, welcomed, in fact, the chance to tell someone. "I came looking for my brother, Rob. He's a nurse." She paused defensively, waiting for the sort of smirking expression the information always produced. It didn't come.
"Rob was down here on what he called a 'personal mission,' working as a volunteer at Sacre Cristo Hospital. He wrote me a lot about how bad things were getting, and then a couple of weeks ago, the letters stopped coming. I came down to look for him."
"And did you find him?"
"Yes," she said, bitter with pain. "I found him at the hospital. In the morgue. He'd been shot walking home one night. Nobody seems to care who did it. Well, with so many people being killed, I guess they wouldn't."
She was surprised by the warmth of a hand covering hers, a square-cut pinky ring glowing in the failing light. "I'm very sorry," the man named Napoleon said, and Robin realized she was crying again when a tear fell glistening to the tabletop.
"It's been so awful," she said, wiping at her nose with her free hand. "I don't speak Spanish and I didn't know how to get anything done. Finally, I found a woman at the hospital who spoke enough English to help me get the...body shipped home, but when I tried to get on a flight, they were all cancelled. And now I don't even have a place to stay. I don't know what to do. And Rob is dead."
She began crying in earnest, dropping her head to the coolness of the tabletop. Napoleon got up and returned with a worn towel from the bar, dampened on one end.
Robin bathed her aching forehead with the wet towel, and scrubbed her face roughly and felt a bit better, although stuffy-headed.
"Sorry," she said. "I've got to stop doing that. I'm usually not the helpless type. I'm an office manager, for heaven's sake."
Napoleon smiled. "Even office managers are allowed some time off, when they've been through what you have," he said. "I may know someone who can help you get out of the country, if you're ready to leave."
"God, yes!" Her instincts about his fixing capacities had been right, it appeared.
"Well, I'm meeting a friend tonight. He has, ah, escorted someone down from the mountains and I will take the someone on to a meeting I have been arranging. My friend is heading south, probably, to fly out of San Cristobel, if he can get there before the fighting does. I expect I could persuade him to take you along. It won't be easy, but it will get you where you want to go."
"What about you?" It was partly concern for him, but mostly a dread of being handed off to the unknown "friend."
"I've got a bit more work to do here; I'll find my way out later. My friend has a packet that needs to get to New York, and he's developed something of a reputation with the milicia, so he needs to go now. And, I think, so do you."
He glanced at his watch. "And we're running out of time. Ready?" She nodded. On the way out, Napoleon piled a cocktain napkin with the contents of a condiments tray on the bar and tucked it in the pocket of his tuxedo.
They returned to the hotel, slipping in through a back door into the laundry and up in a service elevator to her room, just long enough for Robin to pick up her passport and money. Napoleon insisted she hide it in her bra, safe from casual thieves. She looked longingly at her suitcase, but Napoleon convinced her to leave everything behind, saying he would send it on if he could. He glanced over the collection of skirts and dressy blouses and dress shoes she had brought, then closed her closet dismissively.
If not for Napoleon's comforting bulk ahead of her, she would never have had the courage to enter the dark building. As it was, fear made her clumsy and she stumbled over small bits of rubble. Like a child, she clutched at the back of his jacket for reassurance as they passed through moonlight and back into darkness, deeper into darkness.
Suddenly, she was caught from behind, an arm thrown roughly around her neck, the cold hardness of a gun pressed against her cheek. She squeaked with fear, her throat too closed by panic to release the scream that swelled in her chest.
Napoleon spun around, leveling a gun of his own. He squinted into the darkness behind her and relaxed.
"It's okay, Illya," he said. sliding his gun back into a holster under his left arm. "The lady is with me."
After a moment's hesitation, the arm and the gun were suddenly gone and Robin stumbled forward to clutch at Napoleon. He slid an encouraging arm around her and she was able to turn and look. It was hard to see the man, even when he moved forward into the faint block of light from the moon. He was small, slender and dark, and balanced a light machine gun on one hip -- all signs that pointed to a soldier, government or rebel, she couldn't tell.
His voice, when he finally spoke, called for more complicated conclusions: It was slightly hoarse, educated, faintly accented. And, he answered in English: "I should have known, I suppose, but it did look like she was holding a gun against your back. And, you are late."
"Trouble at the hotel," Napoleon said briefly. "Illya Kuryakin, my partner. Robin Daniels, my ... responsibility."
"Napoleon," the hoarse voice said warningly, "you have a responsibility, a rather consuming one..."
"Yes, where is he?" Napoleon interrupted.
Kuryakin turned, twisting his body without moving his feet, and gestured with the gun. Robin could make out only shadow upon shadow. "He's sleeping," Kuryakin said helpfully and Napoleon grunted in reply. "The trip was difficult," Kuryakin added, explaining the unseen man's slumber.
"I can imagine,'" Napoleon said. "Are you okay7"
Kuryakin shrugged. "I wouldn't say no to a bath and some food and a bit of sleep," he said. Although his face was lost in shadows, Robin was aware that his eyes were fixed on her, his conversation distracted as he tried to puzzle out her place in all this.
"You're going to Linda's?"
"I need you to take Robin with you, Illya."
"Illya, it's important..."
"It's always important."
Napoleon sighed in frustration. "Listen, I'm going to talk very slowly because you are tired and you are apparently having trouble hearing me. It is important that Robin get to the airport at San Cristobel. She is an American citizen. She came to this Godforsaken country to look for her brother, who was here working at a hospital. Trying to help. She found him, dead..."
Robin felt the prick of renewed tears and blinked them furiously away. Kuryakin didn't speak or move.
"Illya, she's caught in the middle of something that isn't her fault. She just needs some help to get home. Please. You know I won't make it an order, but I'm asking."
The slender silhouette shifted slightly and there was a weary sigh from the gloom. "Did you bring anything to eat?"
Beside her, Robin felt Napoleon relax. "Sorry, there wasn't any caviar left over," he said, handing over the napkin.
Kuryakin peered down. "Olives and… marischino cherries? Thanks," he said drily, and poured half the contents into his hand and popped it into his mouth.
He stepped into the dark corner. There was a rustling sound and a surprised exclamation, then soft murmuring in Spanish. The pale square of the napkin changed hands. She heard Napoleon's name and then, "Buena suerte."
Returning to stand before Napoleon, Kuryakin murmured, "Good luck. See you in New York."
"Thanks, Illya," Napoleon said, and gave Robin's arm a reassuring squeeze before nudging her to follow Kuryakin as he managed, somehow, to make his way soundlessly over the rubble and back onto the street.
Robin found Kuryakin waiting for her outside the door, pressed against the building. The moonlight was brighter here, bright enough for them to see each other clearly.
A bath certainly seemed in order for Kuryakin, Robin decided. His skin, what was visible of it, was dark with dirt and his longish hair was stringy and filthy. Pale, red-rimmed eyes stared disconcertingly from his dark face. He was dressed in black pants, tucked into boots, and a thin, long-sleeved black sweater.
His assessment of her white blouse and light blue skirt was equally critical, expressed in sigh and a shake of his head.
"We will steal a car if we have the chance," he began abruptly in a hoarse whisper, "but it is likely we will have to make the trip on foot. It will take two days and much of it will be through the war zone. We will travel at night and find a place to hide during the day. You will do what I tell you to do without argument. You will not complain that you are hungry or tired, although you will be both. If we are stopped, you will let me do the talking. Stay close and be as quiet as you can in those." He glanced with contempt at her good white pumps.
Robin opened her mouth to say...something, but he turned and started off before she had the chance. Anger seemed a more useful reaction than tears, so Robin made a face at his back and followed him.
That night was the worst she could remember. The fighting was close here. The stutter of gunfire echoed randomly from all sides, each time startling, each time making her heart leap with fear and leaving her body shaking from adrenalin. Countless times, they took refuge in alleys or bombed-out buildings as soldiers and guerrillas raced by.
Block after block of apartments and businesses were bombed out or scarred with bullet holes. Those that weren't had been looted.
But, yesterday or last week or a month ago, people lived here, she thought numbly. They shared meals there, in that kitchen now open to the night sky and the street. Children played on the stoop. Mothers shopped there for clothes for their children. Fathers picked up an evening paper and a pack of cigarettes at that shop on the corner.
Now, the sad sidewalks and streets were littered with rubble. Homey security had become deadly danger. Robin's back and shoulders ached with the relentless tension.
After one Jeep-load of government soldiers skidded around a corner and down a deserted street, Kuryakin paused in the doorway where they crouched, sniffing delicately. Jerking his head for her to follow, he moved deeper into what Robin recognized as a small cafe. Beneath the stink of burned food was something else, cloying and sweet.
"What's that smell?" Robin's hand grasped Kuryakin's hard forearm in instinctive fear.
"Blood," he answered, pulling free.
Robin froze there, crouched beside a Formica counter. She could faintly hear Kuryakin moving about, a slight scuffling sound, then silence. She gasped with surprise to find him beside her again. "Put these on," he ordered, pressing a pair of well-worn tennis shoes into her hands. They were still warm.
Robin dropped the shoes, burying her face in her hands. "I can't. I can't. I can't..." The litany kept her from screaming, and she kept it up, her voice rising slightly in volume as she felt Kuryakin's hands on her ankle, sliding off her pumps, pulling thick socks and the too-big shoes onto one foot, then the other.
He stood and pulled her up, dragging her hands away from her face. The pale eyes glittered at her coldly.
"This is a war," he hissed. "People die in a war. Your job is to stay alive until you can afford the luxury of regret. You cannot afford it yet. Understand?"
Robin nodded, dumbly, the litany forgotten.
They walked on, seeking the darkness, hearing their careful footsteps echo on deserted streets. There were more bodies; Robin stepped over them, keeping her eyes carefully elsewhere, comforting herself with her new litany. "Not yet, not yet, not yet..."
At a small grocery, they slipped in through a broken window. Kuryakin pawed through the scattered goods, stopping occasionally to stuff some unspoiled item into his sweater. When they left again, his slender shadow was bulky and he clinked faintly when he moved incautiously.
The endless night ended, at last. As the sky brightened to steel gray, he used a tidy explosive to blow open the lock on the intact door of a warehouse. Pulling the door carefully closed behind them, he led the way up a set of stairs and into the back of the building. The warehouse had been cleaned out. Kuryakin's eyes nervously scanned the huge, empty room. Robin, newly schooled in wariness, did the same.
Finally relaxing somewhat, Kuryakin led her to a far corner where he propped his gun against a wall, sank down beside it and began unloading the store of food. One bottle of beer. Three badly bruised apples. Two cans of peaches. A jar of peanut butter.
Robin looked the meager and mismatched banquet over with disinterest. Kuryakin eyed the pitiful pile as though it were a gourmet feast.
Eagerly, he took up the beer, pried off the cap with a Swiss Army knife produced from some pocket, and took a hearty swallow. Lowering the bottle, he found Robin's gaze on him and extended the warm beer to her. It tasted wonderful, and Robin found she was really very hungry.
She opened the peanut butter, drawing its rich aroma into her nostrils before dipping out a dollop on two fingers. It was wonderful smeared on one of the apples.
In silence, they polished off the apples and most of the peanut butter and finished the beer, sharing it with meticulous fairness.
Then, "Sleep," Kuryakin whispered to her, and settled himself with his back pressed into the corner and his hand on the gun. Robin curled up as close to him as was comfortable for either of them, and fell into dark dreams of vague hazard and unfocused horror.
She woke several times during the night, pulled from sleep by her dreams and the ache in her joints from the hard floor and the distant sound of fighting. Kuryakin always seemed to be asleep, slumped against the wall, but his hand never left the gun resting across his legs. Robin changed position and forced herself back into sleep each time.
Finally, when she opened her eyes the light was fading. Kuryakin was sitting up, using a tiny can opener on his knife to open the peaches. He looked terrible in the slanting evening light, haggard and weary even after the sleep, and Robin wondered idly what she must look like by now. Perhaps Kuryakin sensed her gaze, because he showed no surprise when he raised bloodshot eyes to her face and handed her the opened can.
They ate the sweet, slippery peaches with their fingers and finished by sipping the thick syrup from the cans. If she made it back to Wheatridge, Robin promised herself, she was going to buy a case of canned peaches and eat them all. She was going to love canned peaches all of her life, if she got back home.
Kuryakin licked his grimy fingers delicately, like a cat, before taking up his gun again and motioning Robin toward the stairs.
The fading light showed them a street lined with warehouses and industrial buildings, and beyond it, open fields. By moonrise, they were out of the city. The moonlight turned the road into a silver river. Kuryakin was clearly uneasy traveling on its gleaming surface, but the fields were rough. He marched along relentlessly and Robin hurried behind him with increasing weariness and ill humor.
"Wait a minute," she finally snapped. "I need to rest."
"You can't rest here; it's too exposed," he said over his shoulder, without slowing.
Eyes blazing, Robin stopped dead and watched him continue along the shoulder for several yards before he turned back to stare at her questioningly.
Deliberately, she sat down on the shoulder of the road.
"What are you doing?" Kuryakin demanded, angrily. "I told you we can't stop here."
"I am through following orders, General Kuryakin," Robin shouted back. "You have been as awful as you could possibly be, and I am tired of it. You want to go on by yourself, go. I can find my own way from here."
He didn't answer, staring intently in her direction. To her surprise and alarm, he began suddenly running toward her. Robin scrambled to her feet in time to be bowled off the shoulder and over the embankment. They rolled over and over in rough weeds, Kuryakin's arms around her, the gun between them digging into her chest. They ended in a ditch, Kuryakin on top. Robin could feel the cold trickle of water against her back. She stared up into Kuryakin's face, trying desperately to make sense of this suddenly eccentric behavior. When she tried to wriggle free, he clamped his arms tighter around her.
Robin was opening her mouth to scream when she heard it, the rumble of tires on the road. The weeds at the top of the embankment lightened in the headlight beam. Seconds later, the car swept by, gusting dust into the air. Kuryakin buried his face against Robin's shoulder until the light and sound were gone.
He waited several more endless seconds. By the time he moved, Robin had become intensely aware of soft breath against her neck, the bone and muscle pressing down on her. Finally, Kuryakin stood and offered her a hand up, his eyes blank. They scrambled up the bank. At the top, Robin plucked at his sleeve to bring his attention back to her.
"Maybe," she ventured, "the soldiers would help us. Give us a lift or something…" Her voice faded out under his gaze.
"Maybe," he said. "Or maybe they would rape you and cut your throat and leave your body in the ditch. Maybe the guerillas would do the same, if they're the next ones along. Or, maybe they'd give you a ride to the airport and send you off with condolences for your brother's sacrifice. The point is, you won't know until the knife is as your throat because this is not a nice, tidy American-style war with rules for what's appropriate. Of course, you're welcome to sit here and wait for them if you like."
He turned and started down the road. Robin followed.
Three more times that night passing cars and trucks forced them into the ditch. Robin's light skirt and blouse were dark with mud and dirt and sweat. Her hair, when she pushed it from her face for the hundredth time, was stringy and filthy. She sighed and plodded on, her unvarying view Kuryakin's back and the fields on either side of the road. Her legs were numb with weariness. Her feet burned with blisters.
It was almost a relief when distant headlights again alerted them.The bank was steep here; Kuryakin slid down first, gun held wide, and managed to land on his feet at the bottom. Robin, pride giving way to practicality, sat down and scooted on her much abused skirt. At the bottom, she sat uncaring in the trickle of water, resting against the bank and staring up at the stars.
When the truck had passed, Kuryakin gave her a narrow-eyed look and settled down next to her. "We'll rest a few minutes," he decreed.
With a sigh of relief, Robin dropped her head back against the cushioning weeds and stared up at the incredible clarity of a night sky undisturbed by city lights. A light-headed exhaustion and the simple cycles of nature all around swept away the fear that had accompanied her for so long. The newfound peace made her all the more aware of the strand of tension that was Kuryakin beside her, gun still and forever at hand. She was aware of him impatiently calculating and counting off the bare minimum of time required to get her on her feet again and moving.
Ruthless, inaccessible, intently alert like traveling with a wolf, she thought idly. If he gets hungry enough, he'll probably eat me.
"You don't like me much, do you?" Robin asked after a while, her voice conversational and casual, her eyes still on the sky.
"I don't like anybody this trip," he answered. "Nothing personal."
"You mean, you're not always like this?"
It was difficult to tell if she had heard a dry chuckle or the noise of some animal in the field. "I am seldom described as charming," Kuryakin said, "but I am usually polite at least." He sighed, or the wind did.
After a few moments of silence. he added. "I'm sorry about your brother. This is a very sad time for this country; what he did was courageous. It's a pity there aren't more like him."
"Thank you.What do you think is going to happen here?"
"The rebels will continue fighting, the government will become more repressive, the rebels will become more fierce, the government will punish everyone because it can't stop the rebels. In the end, a new government will impose its own form of oppression and it will start again."
"I don't suppose you're ever described as optimistic, either." This time Robin was certain of the chuckle.
"Occupational hazard," Kuryakin murmured.
"Who was the man you left with Napoleon?"
"Someone who might be able to end the war a little sooner. He is prepared to testify before a U.N. committee that government soldiers murdered the members of an international investigative team who have gone missing. He may even be telling the truth, although I don't suppose it matters much. If he lives to testify, if he is believed, it could discredit Narvaes' government and outside aid could be cut. Maybe fewer lives will be lost."
"Or maybe Narvaes will be overthrown and, with pressure from the U.N., democratic elections will be held and somebody like that poet, Sanar, will be elected and things will be a lot better. Rob and I tend…" She paused. "I tend to hope for the best."
He was quiet for a long time. "I hope you are right," he said. "And thank you for the reminder. 'Those who refuse to hope for a better tomorrow, condemn us to reliving yesterday.'"
"I've heard that. Who said it?"
"Sanar. Who would probably make a very good president."
"Well, here's to hope, then. What about us are we going to make it?"
"Of course. Although not tonight. Tomorrow night we will eat well and sleep in soft beds and dream. For now…"
He pulled himself to his feet, and Robin did the same. They walked the ditch for a ways, water squishing into their shoes, until they found a shallower embankment that they had the strength to climb.
They stopped for the day in a small grove of trees just off the road. The earth was springy with leaves and smelled comfortingly of growing things. Kuryakin lay on his side, facing the road, with one hand on the gun. Robin curled up behind him and scooted close enough to feel the warmth from his body without touching him. She slept soundly all day long.
They woke hungry and thirsty in the long shadows of evening, but there was nothing to eat and the water in the ditch was likely to be contaminated, Kuryakin said. They walked on.
Some time later Robin's world had long ago shrunk to the physical act of picking her feet up and putting them down Kuryakin stopped her with a hand on her arm. There was a small cluster of houses near the road ahead, windows dark.
Carefully, they made their way across a corner of the field, skirting around the edge of the settlement. On the far side, Kuryakin slid ghostlike to the back door of a small, white-painted house with an extensive garden. He tapped at the door and a dog barked fiercely inside.
After a wait that seemed to last forever, the door eased open and Kuryakin stepped into the shaft of light that spilled through. "Illya?" A woman's voice, whispering. The door opened just wide enough for them to slip in.
Robin squinted against the bright kitchen light and saw a small, middle-aged woman studying them. She was beautiful large, dark eyes and long black hair hanging loose and wore a brightly flowered robe. She held the collar of a large, angry-looking dog in one hand.
The woman shook her head, tsking at their appearance.
"Good evening, Linda," Illya murmured shyly.
"Good evening, Illya," she answered with a smile. "How nice of you to drop in."
The English was for her benefit, Robin realized, and said, "Hello."
"Robin Daniels, traveler on her way home. Linda Refugio, angel of mercy," Kuryakin introduced them, an unconscious echo of Solo's style.
"So," Linda said, "you have a story to tell, but first you need...everything, by the look of you. Bath first?" she asked, looking at Robin.
"Oh, yes," Robin breathed. They left Kuryakin in the kitchen, staring dubiously at the dog, which had curled up under the table. Robin followed Linda Refugio's back through a tidy hallway and up a small staircase. "You can use my daughter's bedroom," Linda said, turning on the light to reveal a room crowded with the leftovers of several stages of childhood, from a dollhouse and stuffed animals to a Beatles poster and high school textbooks. "She is attending college in Mexico City."
Linda led the way back down the hall to a bathroom, a wonderful bathroom with clean tile walls and a big, white tub and thick blue towels. Like a sleepwalker, Robin approached the tub, turning the tap, plunging her hands into the clean, hot water. Behind her, Linda laughed softly. "Enjoy yourself, hermana," she said, and left.
Robin lay on her back, perversely wide awake, now that she was finally comfortable and safe. She had emerged from the bath wrapped in a towel and tiptoed nervously down the hallway to find a soft gown laid out on the daughter's bed, along with a loose, embroidered dress and panties for the next day. A sandwich and glass of milk were on the night stand. With a sigh of satisfaction, Robin had sat on the bed and gobbled down the meal. She'd crawled into bed, expecting immediate oblivion. Instead, she lay awake, listening to the soft murmur of voices from downstairs, the patter of the shower as Kuryakin cleaned up, more soft talk from the next room.
And now, to her bemusement, what sounded an awful lot like lovemaking a soft moan, a giggle, rhythmic creaking and twice the startling thump of a headboard sharply striking the far side of the wall just above her head. Kuryakin? And Linda Refugio?
The sounds had long ceased before Robin fell into a restless sleep.
She found Linda in the kitchen the next morning, wearing a red dress and a wide belt that emphasized her tiny waist, her dark hair pulled back into a shining braid. "Buenos dias, hermana," Linda said with a broad smile, handing Robin a thick mug of coffee. She turned back to stir the pan full of scrambled eggs. Within minutes, a dark green plate piled with steaming scrambled eggs and buttered tortillas and slices of some brilliantly colored fruit slid under Robin's nose. She looked up to find Linda seated across from her with a similar plate. "Eat, eat," she encouraged, and Robin did. With relish.
"Illya tells me your brother was killed," Linda said suddenly, and Robin's throat closed against the food. "I'm very sorry. It is very hard to lose someone so close. Especially a twin."
Robin looked at her in amazement. "How did you know that?"
"Illya told me. He said you talk in your sleep," Linda answered her expression.
Robin felt her face harden against the intrusion. Linda was watching her speculatively, without embarrassment or apology. "You don't like Illya?" she said after a moment.
"He won't let me." Robin shrugged.
Linda sighed and nodded. "He is not easy, that one. This trip has been painful for him. I think it reminds him of his childhood. Terrible things happened in his homeland. Things a child should not know about." Robin remembered the child crying on the street outside her hotel, and wished her safe somewhere in her mother's arms.
"Have you known him long?" she asked.
"Off and on over many years. When he is near, he finds a reason to visit." Linda smiled secretively.
After a pause, she continued, "My husband worked for the U.N.C.L.E. He was killed and Illya came to tell me. He was very kind. Does that surprise you?"
Robin nodded and looked up to find Kuryakin at the kitchen door.
The dark and dirty man of the past three nights was gone, replaced by one glowingly, impressively clean. He was dressed in loose white cotton pants and a too-big white shirt with an open neck and long sleeves rolled up. His face and the skin of his throat and forearms were lightly tanned. His hair gleamed, pale blond. His eyes, no longer bloodshot, and intensely blue, fit perfectly in an angular, smooth-shaven, almost delicate face. Robin managed to keep her mouth closed.
"Handsome, eh?" Linda said, with a trace of proprietary pride. A faint blush spread over Kuryakin's high cheekbones.
He pulled a mug from the cupboard and poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot on the counter.
"Did you sleep well, querida?" Linda asked with amusement. Kuryakin nodded, blushing again.
"The storm woke me up," Robin offered.
"Just before dawn. Didn't you hear the thunder?"
Linda was looking not at her but at Kuryakin, her eyes filled with dread. "It's very close, Linda," he said quietly, answering her look. "You should come with us today."
"Come with us," he repeated. "Please."
"But my tomatoes are just beginning to ripen. And what about Che..." She gestured toward the big dog. "Illya, this is my home. I can't just leave. Where would I go?"
"Somewhere where you will be safe, until you can come home again. Come to New York with me. I certainly owe you some hospitality. Linda, please. You can't imagine what it's like."
"Of course I can," she said, suddenly angry. "Do you think I have seen nothing? My sister's house was destroyed, and my uncle's school three weeks ago. Shall I bring them to New York, too? And my neighbors, and my friends? No, I can't leave. This is my home. Besides, you are here to make it stop, aren't you?"
Kuryakin didn't argue with her, just nodded his head unhappily.
Robin left them in the kitchen. She made up the bed in the daughter's room, carefully folding the sheet into the hospital corners her mother had taught her, while an unwelcome voice in her head demanded, What's the point? Robin shut her eyes against the image of this room, the spotless bathroom, the bright kitchen burned and crushed by the fist of the approaching war.
Kuryakin and Linda were gone when she returned downstairs. Robin found them in the garden, almost hidden by the corn and the drapery of bean vines on their poles and the hearty tomato plants. Linda was quickly and efficiently plucking beans and blood-red tomatoes, dropping them into a pan Kuryakin braced against his hip. His free hand held a tomato and every few moments he took a slurping bite, careful to keep the juice off the white shirt.
"I'm impressed," Robin said, sliding between the plants to join them. "I can't even get radishes to come up."
"Good soil," Kuryakin mumbled around a bite of tomato. He dug bare toes into the crumbly dirt.
"Are you a gardener?" Robin asked, disbelief transparent in her tone.
"I'm Russian," he answered, cryptically.
They lunched on the beans, cooked with salt pork, and sliced tomatoes and corn cakes with juicy kernels of corn cut from the cob.
Linda chattered brightly about her daughter and her neighbors. She reminded Kuryakin with obvious embellishment of good times past and Robin joined in her laughter, wanting desperately for the happiness to be genuine. And all the time, Kuryakin sat nearly silent, staring at Linda with his large, pale eyes as though trying to absorb her every movement.
When the kitchen was cleaned up, Linda went to get her car and Robin hurried upstairs to brush her hair. When she came back down, she paused outside the kitchen door. Kuryakin was crouching in front of the dog, fingers clenched in the thick fur of its neck. He was staring into the dog's brown eyes and speaking harshly in Spanish. When he sensed Robin's presence, he quickly straightened, looking embarrassed.
"What did you say to him?" Robin demanded, as Kuryakin held the back door open for her.
"I told him to be fierce," he said, his voice and eyes carefully guarded.
Linda's car turned out to be an ancient Ford station wagon. Linda started to slide out, but Kuryakin said, "You drive," and slipped into the back seat. The gun was in his hand again. At his gesture, Robin joined Linda in the front seat.
Robin glanced back at the small white house as they pulled away. There was smoke on the horizon. A gray-haired woman standing in front of a neighboring house, painted green and with a plaster statue of Mary in a small graveled area, was staring toward the smoke. As the car passed, she returned Linda's wave distractedly, her frightened eyes flickering over them and away again.
They turned right at the road. Behind stretched the long ribbon of road they had walked. Ahead lay more fields and trees and road cutting through them toward distant buildings.
Silence filled the car. Robin glanced at Linda's carefully controlled profile occasionally, and in the rearview mirror at Kuryakin's tense face, his eyes flickering nervously left and right.
From the top of a slight rise, they could see in the distance a man standing in the middle of the road. He stood casually, watching them approach.
"Drive slowly," Kuryakin murmured from the back seat, and Linda tapped the brakes.
As they came close enough to see the man's bearded face, Robin heard a soft snick behind her. She turned to find the back seat empty. She glanced along the road, but there was no sign of Kuryakin.
The man stood in front of the car, feet planted, left arm raised. Linda slid the car to a jerky stop and the man stepped close to peer in through the open driver's window.
His dark eyes slid insinuatingly over both women, and he smiled. He spoke to Linda, his voice friendly, and Robin wanted to believe there was nothing sinister happening. The tension in Linda's body and voice said differently.
The man's smile disappeared, anger filling his eyes. Barking something to them, he stepped back and tried to open the door, growling at finding it locked. Linda stamped on the gas and the roar of the engine almost drowned out the chuffing sound. If might have been a startled bird taking flight, but the bearded man thumped against the side of the car with a grunt of surprise.
Robin was flung against the dashboard as the car stopped suddenly. The engine died and they sat for a moment in silence. Linda's hands trembled on the steering wheel. After a moment, Robin clambered out and ran around the front of the big car. The bearded man lay on the pavement. Kuryakin squatted beside him, gun in one hand and the other hand probing at the man's throat. Blood spread on the pavement.
Slowly, Linda unlocked and eased open her door. She slid out and turned to look at the two men. Kuryakin raised his eyes to her. "He had a gun," he said quietly, gesturing toward the large pistol still clasped in the man's right hand.
Linda dropped to her knees, the heel of one hand between her teeth. Kuryakin reached her first, clutching her arms in his hands staring into her pale face.
"Are you hurt? Are you?" he demanded, shaking her.
Linda shook her head, her eyes finding his face, then sliding over to his hand on her arm. There was blood on his fingers.
With a grimace of distaste, he released her.
Robin couldn't take her eyes from the bearded man. "You killed him. Why? He hadn't done anything."
"He would have. What do you think he was doing out here, alone? Why did he stop the car? Why did he want you to get out?"
Robin shook her head, staring down at the edge of the blood. "I don't know. Maybe. Couldn't you have just wounded him, maybe? Knocked him out?"
"You watch too much American television," he said. "I had to be sure." He pulled Linda her to her feet. She sagged weakly against him.
"Can you drive?" he demanded of Robin.
To her surprise, despite shaky hands, Robin realized that she could. She nodded and the three of them slid into the front seat. Kuryakin laid the gun aside and pulled Linda into his arms. Robin resolutely did not look in the rearview mirror as she pressed on the gas pedal.
As they neared the airport, the traffic grew thick, family cars piled with suitcases and boxes and frightened-looking people, military Jeeps weaving between them. Robin drove a careful thirty miles an hour, eyes straight ahead, concentrating on keeping the car between the yellow line and the shoulder, just as she had when she drove home drunk from a New Year's Eve party once.
At the edge of the airport parking lot, Kuryakin told her to park in an isolated space. When Robin turned the engine off, he pushed Linda away and bent to peer into her lowered face. He spoke to her in Spanish and she nodded, drawing a deep breath and straightening her shoulders.
Holding his gun low, he showed Linda how to hold and fire it. She accepted it with reluctance, mimicking his actions. Tucking the weapon under the driver's seat, Kuryakin slid out of the car and Linda and Robin followed him.
Linda looked at them with lost eyes. "Come with us," Kuryakin pleaded but she shook her head. He pulled her into a tight embrace. His hand, clutching the back of her red dress, was covered still with dried blood.
When he released her, Linda turned to give Robin a sisterly hug. She's so small, Robin thought as she returned the hug. "Thank you," she whispered. "Be careful." Linda accepted the useless admonition with a faint smile.
Out of long practice, Robin fell into step behind Kuryakin across the long, hot expanse of macadam. As they eased into the chaotic crush inside the terminal, she caught his hand. He pushed to an airline counter where a harried man in a sweat-stained shirt shouted in Spanish and tried to wave them away. Kuryakin answered something and flopped open his billfold. The man stared at the billfold with widening eyes, looking from Kuryakin to Robin. He glanced over his shoulder to a soldier with a machine gun balanced on his hip.
Turning back, the man hesitated until Kuryakin slid a folded bundle of cash across the counter. The money went into the man's pocket. He handed over two tickets before turning away to shout at a family crowding close behind them.
In minutes, they were pushing past frantic passengers and harried ticket agents to board a plane, packed with passengers, its aisle littered with boxes and bags of belongings.
When they reached their row, Kuryakin spoke to the husky middle-aged man slumped in the aisle seat. The man raised a face reddened with unshed tears and stood to let them past.
Kuryakin took the window seat, staring intently through the small screen as the plane began to move, hurtled down the runway and curved away over the road and the countryside. When they slid into the clouds, he fell back against the seat with a sigh.
"She'll be all right," Robin said, and Kuryakin nodded without conviction.
Robin woke some time later, her neck stiff. She opened her eyes to find a small, dark-eyed face staring at her from over the seat in front. Robin smiled and the face vanished with a giggle.
Turning her head, she realized she was snuggled against Kuryakin's shoulder. He was asleep (or looked as if he were asleep, she reminded herself). Robin settled down again and closed her eyes.
In Dallas, they stepped off the airplane into another world. Business suits, cowboy hats, tailored dresses and high heels hurried past in the modern building. In their casual and bloodstained clothes, Robin and Kuryakin drew a number of stares. Robin pressed closer as Kuryakin led the way to a phone booth, where he pretended to make a call while speaking into his fountain pen.
Several minutes later, he opened the door and told her, "Well, Napoleon and Rivera reached the U.N. committee and the testimony apparently went well. We will have to wait to see what comes of it."
"And Linda?" Robin prompted.
"The phone lines are down."
"She'll be all right," Robin repeated.
In the busy terminal, arrows pointed them in different directions to find flights home. Kuryakin hesitated. "Will you be okay?"
"Hey, I'm back in the U.S. of A. and I've got money in my bra. I'll be fine." He rewarded her with a smile.
"Well, I can't exactly say it's been a pleasure," Robin continued wryly, "but I am glad I met you, and I am so glad it's over. Thank you for everything."
Kuryakin murmured, "'A good companion on a journey is more precious than a carriage."' At her surprised expression, he added self-consciously, "It is an inscription in a chapel in France. It was a pleasure to know you, as well. Goodbye." He extended his hand, but Robin pushed past and hugged him tight. She felt his hand stroke lightly over her back before he pulled away, nodded once, and vanished into the crowd.
It was near dawn when she reached Denver and Robin shivered in the light dress Linda had provided. She took a bus to outlying parking and found her car where she had left it...could it be just six days earlier? With a sense of unreality, she found the key hidden under the front fender, and slid in.
At the 7-11 near her home, she pulled in and bought a can of peaches with the cash from her bra.