CHAPTER FOUR HUNDRED and EIGHTY-SEVEN
Wednesday night — 9:11 p.m.
New York City, New York
Exhausted by his own rage, Ivan put his hands over his eyes and leaned his forehead against the table. For the first time in at least an hour, the room was silent. Everyone watched him. He was sitting on one side of the table and his guests on the other. Nadia was pacing back and forth along the end of the apartment. Giovanni was standing near the kitchen. Ivan looked up.
“How can this happen?” Ivan asked.
“We’ve spoken with the Paris Opera Ballet as well as the Royal Ballet,” acting Sergeant Alexandra “The Fey” Hargreaves said. “They say that the recruiter from the Bolshoi saw Sissy dance. They thought she was a good candidate for one of the three schools.”
“You said this before,” Ivan said.
“They say it’s not unusual,” Senior Homeland Security Agent Arthur “Raz” Rasmussen said. “They are the three best schools in the world. Four, if you count Vaganova. They are usually interview the same candidates. Someone from the Bolshoi was at Sissy’s dance recital and told the others. To them, it’s not that complicated.”
“Paris Opera Ballet just took some suggestion from Russia?” Ivan asked. His hand slapped the table. “No. They hate Russians. They …”
Ivan crossed his arms across his chest.
“No,” Ivan said. “I do not believe this.”
Ivan shook his head.
“No,” Ivan repeated. “There is zero percent chance that this is the truth. Paris Opera Ballet? Interviewing someone because of Russian Ballet? No way.”
He raised his hand and pointed at Alex. He took a breath to say something and then shook his head again.
“Is foolish to believe that,” Ivan said.
“I can only tell you what they’ve said,” Raz said.
“It’s likely that we’ll know more in the morning,” Alex said. “But you need to know this — James Schmidt called me before they left. He told me that he’d never seen an interview tour come together so quickly. He didn’t like the way it all fell into line. It felt ‘artificial’ to him.”
“Then why did you let her go?” Nadia’s words burst from her.
Alex and Raz gave her blank looks.
“Fine,” Nadia said. She pulled out a chair next to Ivan and sat down. “It was a rhetorical question. You’ve already said that it wasn’t up to you to let her go or keep her here.”
“Mr. Schmidt knew that Raz and I were in New York for a meeting at the UN,” Alex said. “He told me what was going on. We helped him get plane tickets and made sure there were people to keep an eye on them on the flight. It was no accident that a member of the board for the Paris Opera Ballet sat across the aisle from Sissy. He requested the seat, but we had to approve him.”
“Who?” Ivan asked. “Who was that?”
Alex said his name and Ivan scowled.
“Across the aisle from Sissy?” Ivan asked.
“Why would he want that?” Nadia asked.
“We weren’t sure,” Alex said. “So we placed someone in the seat next to him. Our …uh … friend said that this man and Sissy chatted most of the flight. They played cards — Gin, I believe.”
Alex looked at Raz and he nodded.
“They really seemed to have had a great time,” Alex said. “An hour in, the man convinced Sissy to have something to eat. They ate cookies and dunked them in tea. They even used the cookies to sweeten their bets. It was all on the up and up.”
“James Schmidt called us after they landed,” Raz said. “He had no idea that this man was there or had so much access to Sissy. There was some concern about this little meal they ate. We learned from the flight attendants and our friend that the food they ate was from the food service on the flight. We felt that wasn’t a risk, and Sissy has not been ill.”
“After we received the distress call from Sissy, we’ve sent someone to speak with this man,” Alex said. “We should hear from him in a few hours. We’ll know more then.”
“Is Sissy in danger?” Nadia asked.
“Not now,” Alex said. “She has someone with her in her room. James Schmidt has been apprised of everything that has happened. In a few hours, they will go to breakfast in the student dorm and attend a few meetings. They should be finished this afternoon.”
“And then what?” Ivan asked. “Are you sending her to Russia to see what you can get from her?”
Alex gave Ivan a wide grin.
“Oh fine,” Ivan pointed to himself. “You say he’s paranoid, but look at what has happened. If someone hadn’t told us, my Sissy would be in the hands of … of …”
Ivan shook his head.
“Well, she’s not in his hands,” Alex said. “She will have a protective unit with her until she leaves.”
“And if she decides to attend one of these magnificent schools?” Ivan asked.
“Let’s just take this one panic at a time,” Raz said.
“What can you tell us about this man?” Alex asked. “Why does he hate you so much?”
“I don’t think he hates me,” Ivan said with a shrug. “I doubt it has a lot to do with whether he likes or doesn’t like me.”
“Then why do you think this is happening?” Raz asked.
“I know things about him. I was there when a variety of incidents happened,” Ivan said. “He is now a powerful politician.”
“He has killed everyone who knew him at the time you knew him,” Alex said.
“I was retrieved by you and your team and brought to this country,” Ivan said. “Plucked out of Russia. My guess is that he never gave me even one thought. Do you know why he’s remembering me now?”
Alex looked at Raz and he tipped his head back and forth.
“You can tell us,” Nadia said.
“We only have hearsay,” Alex said. “We don’t know anything for sure.”
“I will take,” Ivan said.
“We believe he’s seen your dance parties,” Raz said. “He has a daughter by a Russian ballerina …”
Ivan said her name. Alex and Raz nodded.
“I do not know her. I read the Russian papers,” Ivan said. “She is not his wife, but he makes no secret of his actions.”
“We believe that she and her daughter are fans the videos,” Alex said. “They both follow you in Instagram.”
“I am not the focus of those videos,” Ivan said. “It’s about the young dancers.”
“We think that’s the point,” Raz said. “His girlfriend and daughter started watching the videos. He sent the recruiter from the Bolshoi to Sissy’s audition. He probably figured that he would invite her to Russia. It would be a great thing to have such a world famous ballerina choose to study in Russia.”
Ivan closed his eyes when he realized what had happened.
“He saw me dance,” Ivan said. “He told old Otis that he couldn’t believe I was still dancing. I should have thought of this.”
Ivan swore and pounded the table. Ivan got up. For a few minutes, they watched Ivan work out his rage as he paced back and forth. He threw himself into a chair.
“I apologize,” Ivan said. “I am acting like a hysterical ballerina.”
“It seems to me that you have a right to be hysterical,” Alex said with a grin.
“These people,” Ivan said with a shake of his head. “They never give up. They will hunt us down. There is no where we can go to hide from them. They didn’t get Sissy this time, but what about next time?”
Alex gave Ivan a concerned nod.
“One way to stop that would be to come in,” Raz said. “Do an in-depth interview on tape, on the record. We can have a Russian specialist there to help you with dates and places. He will also have questions of his own.”
“No,” Ivan said. “It will only bring more danger on me and everyone I love.”
“He already believes that you’ve done this,” Alex said. “Getting Sissy is his ‘retribution’ for what you’ve done to him.”
“Why would he think this?” Ivan asked.
“He has no idea how transparent he is or how much the world has changed,” Alex said. “It’s not the whole spy game anymore. If someone sneezes in Moscow, it’s likely to be someone in the UK who passes out the tissues.”
“We are all intertwined,” Raz said. “That’s what she’s trying to say.”
Raz looked at Alex and shook his head. She gave him a bright smile.
“People around the world know what he’s up to,” Alex said. “He assumes someone must have talked rather than the fact that there are cameras in the pocket of every single person in the world.”
“But what I know is old,” Ivan said.
“Doesn’t matter,” Alex said. “He will assume that you talked to get your freedom.”
“He doesn’t know about O’Malley,” Ivan said.
“That’s a good bet,” Raz said with a laugh.
“I will think about it,” Ivan said.
“You think you’re protecting yourself and Sissy,” Alex said. “If you’re right, he will not stop looking for you. If you’re wrong, it’s likely that he will kill you and everything you know will be gone.”
Alex snapped her fingers.
“That’s the power he has,” Alex said. “He can erase everything you know about him in an instant. All he has to do is kill you. He’s done it to everyone else. You want to stick it to him? Tell us what you know. Don’t let him wipe out everything you’ve been through.”
“I know what you say makes sense,” Ivan said. “I just …”
“I understand,” Alex nodded.
“Is there anything we can do to help you?” Raz asked.
“Just …” Ivan stopped talking.
“Bring our Sissy home,” Nadia said.
“Will do,” Alex said. “You know how to reach us.”
Ivan and Nadia nodded. Alex and Raz got up from their seats. Giovanni helped them with their jackets and they left the apartment. Before they left, Raz stopped to speak to Nadia.
“Yes, we’re ready,” Nadia said.
“What was that?” Ivan asked.
“He was asking about Poland,” Nadia said. “You remember that I am going there in a week and a half with Nash, Teddy, and whoever is able to come — Sandy, probably, since she owns the land, Seth’s father Bernie, maybe Seth if he can get free.”
“Raz has been helping us with the logistics,” Nadia said. “Would you like to go?”
“One panic at a time,” Ivan said.
Nadia squeezed his shoulder in support and went to bed. Giovanni asked Ivan if he needed anything. When Ivan didn’t respond, he left for bed as well.
Ivan sat at the table for a long time after Nadia and Giovanni were in bed.
“The past is never really over,” he said out loud.
Nodding to his own voice, he got up and went to bed.
Wednesday night — 7:11 p.m.
“Come on,” Nelson said. “It’ll be fun.”
Blane nodded and followed him into the weight lifting gym preferred by gay men. Nelson had called after he’d gotten off work. Blane had texted with Heather and she told him to have a good time. They agreed to meet up at nine. Worst case scenario — this would be over soon. Plus, Jacob was home and said he’d keep his phone with him if Blane needed to be bail out.
Nelson used his tag to get in and arranged for Blane to follow on a guest pass. The man at the desk was handsome, ridiculously young looking, and a little flirtatious. Saying nothing, Blane nodded and continued to follow Nelson into the gym.
“See!” Nelson said. “No one remembers you. It’s going to be fine.”
Blane took a step into a place that had been his sanctuary before he was run out of it by Enrique all those years ago.
“Let’s warm up,” Nelson said. He gestured to a stair machine. “See what you got.”
“I haven’t really …” Blane said.
“Then it’s time to get moving again,” Nelson said. “All that running and no lifting.”
Blane nodded and vaguely wished he was running with Mac and Wyn in the baby stroller right now. He bit back his anxiety and got on the machine. Nelson took the one next to him.
“I was thinking legs today,” Nelson said.
Blane gave him a vague nod. Nelson smiled. Nelson was such a cheerful presence that Blane couldn’t help but feel more at ease.
And then it started.
“There’s the old queen,” a loud voice came from behind him. “Hey buddy, can I get in line for a piece of that ass?”
Blane glanced back to see one of Enrique’s friends. His eyes shot to Nelson and wished that maybe Nelson hadn’t heard him. Nelson’s left eyebrow furrowed. Blane felt instantly embarrassed and ashamed.
“I’ll get in line,” another man chimed in. “Nothing like having a piece of that ass.”
“Just make sure to wear a condom,” a third man said. “You never know what disease that one is passing around.”
The men laughed as if they’d never heard anything funnier.
“How much is it now?” asked one of the young men Blane had dismissed before.
“Cheap,” the first man said.
Horrified, Blane focusing on using the step machine. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Nelson was equally embarrassed and unsure of what to do. Blane was about to leave when he felt someone slap him on the butt. That was a step too far.
He turned to see … Jacob. Aden and Mike were standing right behind him.
“My brother’s ass is not for sale,” Jacob said and turned to face the bullies. “Now, piss off.”
Jacob opened his hand and the men physically fell back. Mike took a machine behind Blane and Nelson. Aden stepped onto the machine next to Blane.
“I didn’t know you worked out here,” Jacob said to Blane.
“Very funny,” Blane said. “What are you doing here?”
“Trying to work off all that Daddy fat,” Jacob said. Jacob held his hand out to Nelson. “How you doing man?”
Looking a little relieved, Nelson simply nodded. Jacob took the machine next to Nelson. Within a few minutes, Nelson and Jacob were chatting about remodeling Nelson’s house.
“You okay?” Aden asked in a low tone.
“Not really,” Blane said. “I need to stand up for myself.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Aden said. “That’s what friends are for. You come here, even just with Nelson, you’re alone. If we come with you, you’re a part of a tribe, a community that loves you. People don’t tend to bully those who are connected to a larger community.”
Blane nodded. He glanced at Nelson and was relieved to see that Nelson’s shame and anger seemed to have faded.
“Don’t you think I should give up?” Blane asked Aden out of the side of his mouth.
“What would you tell me?” Aden asked. When Blane didn’t say anything, Aden started, “The past is …”
“The past,” Blane said with a nod. “Why do so many people remember it?”
“Because they have nothing going on in their lives,” Aden said. “Your scandal and shame are so memorable because they have nothing else to think about. We’ve had years of drama and pain since that time.”
Blane couldn’t help but grin at Aden and he couldn’t argue with Aden’s logic. They got to the end of their warm up and stepped off the machines. Nelson eyed the weight lifting area. The men who’d bothered them before were standing in groups gossiping with the other men there. The sour smell of their cruelty hung in the way. Nelson scowled.
“Listen,” Nelson said to Blane. “I really screwed up. I set you up for this bullshit again and I … I hope you can forgive me. I …”
“You didn’t know,” Blane said.
“I should have trusted you,” Nelson said. “You said this wasn’t a great place and I didn’t believe you. I’m sorry.”
“Hey, why the sad faces?” Mike asked. “I’m more than happy to head over there and show those weaklings how to lift.”
Blane grinned at Mike sneering at the men in the weight lifting area. Aden put his arm over Blane’s shoulders.
“I should probably head home,” Nelson said.
“Okay,” Blane said. “But we’re all going in the same direction. Why don’t we workout in the Castle gym? It’s big and has everything we need.”
Nelson gave Blane a long look.
“Great idea,” Jacob said.
“You’re sure?” Nelson asked.
“Tell you what,” Jacob said. “I’ll take your car. You can go with Blane. Mike can take mine. You can discuss it on the drive.”
With a nod, they went to the cars. While Blane felt comfortable, he knew that Nelson was going along because he felt so badly. They got into Blane’s truck and started toward the Castle.
“I feel awful,” Nelson said.
“I do too,” Blane said. “Heather would tell me that it’s dumb for us to feel badly over something that someone else did. We don’t control them. They get to live out their own actions, their own karma.”
Nelson nodded and looked out the passenger window.
“What are you thinking?” Blane asked.
“Nice to have a goddess around,” Nelson said.
“How was the date?” Nelson asked.
“They had a good time,” Blane said. “Tres and Heather are there at the Castle. They’re making cookies, I think. Maybe brownies. Something Delphie is doing.”
“I think I’ll let you get back to your life,” Nelson said.
“You can,” Blane said. He was silent for a moment before he said, “I retreat from life a lot. It’s one of the reasons no one’s seen me. At least alone, I won’t have people be cruel to me.”
“Aren’t we retreating now?” Nelson asked.
“Nah,” Blane said. “We’re just making another choice.”
He pulled into the Castle parking lot.
“Come on,” Blane said. “We can finish our work out or join the chaos. No one will be offended if we do one or the other or both.”
For a moment, Nelson didn’t move.
“Or you can just go home,” Blane said.
Nelson looked at Blane for what felt like a long time.
“Why did they show up?” Nelson asked.
“Jacob has this thing where he seems to know when something’s wrong with me,” Blane said. “I told him I was going to try this gym again, so he was probably on guard. Mike is always up for a fight and Aden … well, he’s a loyal friend.”
“Welcome to the family,” Blane said.
“Thanks,” Nelson said.
Blane got out of the truck and went around. He opened Nelson’s door and they walked toward the Castle. Half way there, Nelson took Blane’s hand. Blane grinned at Nelson.
“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” Mack raced out of the door.
He took Blane’s other hand and they walked into the Castle together. And … there was a whirlwind of children and laughter which led to a heart pounding, muscle building uproarious workout that ran into a fantastic dinner, fascinating people, and way too much wine and story-reading to little kids and …
Around midnight, Nelson and Heather were sitting on the main living room couch next to a waning fire.
“I want to ask you something,” Nelson said. “Blane told me that when you are Hedone, you cannot lie.”
“That’s correct,” Heather said.
“I need the truth,” Nelson said.
“Okay,” Heather said.
“Was it me?” Nelson asked. He gulped back a breath. “Did I kill Chet? I mean, he raced over to me. He attacked me. He called me all those names and … Did I kill him?”
Heather looked at Nelson for a long time.
“You can tell me,” Nelson said. “I can take it.”
“I wasn’t wondering if you could take it,” Heather said. “Or what to tell you. I was wondering why you feel so guilty and carry so much shame.”
Nelson’s mouth opened and closed for a moment.
“You know that you didn’t kill Chet,” Heather said. “The people who put that thing in his head killed him.”
“But I triggered it,” Nelson said.
“No you didn’t,” Heather said. “The device was set up so that Chet’s own physiology triggered the device. Without knowing it, Chet’s body killed him.”
“But he was reacting to me!” Nelson said.
“What?” Nelson asked.
“If being around handsome fit young men was deadly, I’d have died decades ago,” Heather said with a smile.
Nelson’s head popped up and he looked at her. Whether it was the wine or a spell or possibly just the truth, Nelson laughed out loud.
Denver Cereal continues next week…
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