From her own personal laptop at home, she sent email to Helen Collingwood in London. "I'm your niece. Philip's daughter. You won't believe that, but please let me come see you sometime on Saturday." She gave thought to whether she should sign her given name, but decided against it. She was using an anonymous, virtually untraceable screen name; better to err on the side of caution.
The reply came back within half a day. "I jolly well don't, but you've got nerve and I'm curious. Half past seven on Saturday. I dare say you know where I'm to be found of an evening. Keep an eye on the dog. He bites." There was no signature.
And if I didn't know where you're to be found of an evening? But Nikita couldn't help smiling even as she frowned.
On Saturday afternoon, she took a commercial airliner to London, wearing a backpack, a sky-blue sweat suit purchased that morning, running shoes, and her light-weight, hoodless white jacket; the sooner she got used to the idea of a less-than-skin-tight wardrobe, the better. Knowing that she was probably under surveillance, she nevertheless felt barely a qualm about putting her aunt in danger. The days of Operations and Madeline were over, and she'd recently discovered that high-level operatives in other Sections were permitted closely-monitored Relationship Privileges with selected blood relatives on a case-by-case basis. A widow for a quarter of a century, Helen was eighty-six years old with no family of her own. According to Section's database, she had few close friends and no apparent interests outside of the profession she still practiced almost full time. Even if the Group resented Nikita's leaving the country to visit a relative who was neither parent nor sibling, she was certain they would not believe she would risk her aunt's life by telling her anything classified.
The Helen Collingwood Clinic was on the first floor of the owner's home--a tall, elderly, well-kept house on a quiet, residential street. The entry door was unlocked, the hallway just inside it mellow with dark wood and a tile floor buffed to a low shine. One light shown from an open door--the "surgery," Nikita guessed. It turned out to be the surgery's waiting room, also mellow and dark; the source of light was an office through a door on the right. Her hand on the tiny, one-dart dog tranquilizer gun in her jacket pocket, Nikita heard a low, rumbling growl as she approached the office door, followed by a few words from a barely-audible human voice. The dog stopped growling, and she entered the office, hoping that her father had been right that once Helen saw her, she would need no words to know that Nikita was who she claimed to be: the niece of Evelyn Jones Wallace.
The woman who sat behind the large oak desk, her back straight and her penetrating dark eyes fixed on Nikita as she entered, wore her snow-white hair in a long braid coiled at the back of her head. Even sitting down, she looked tall, elderly, and well-kept like her house. She wore a plain tailored blouse under a dark green cardigan and, Nikita guessed, probably a tweed skirt beneath the desk on which her hands were folded. A cane was hooked over the back of her chair.
Her expression was neutral as Nikita entered the room and approached the circle of light thrown by the desk lamp and the burning logs in the fireplace. But even after what her father had told her, she was unprepared for the widening of those dark eyes and the sudden pallor of the woman's sallow face as her own face and figure became visible to her aunt. The older woman drew in her breath sharply, and the black Lab at her feet barked once--a sound like a cannon in the small room. Helen silenced him with a touch on his head. But she seemed almost unaware of his presence as she whispered, "Dear God" with a mixture of disbelief and awe.
Silently, Nikita handed across the desk the paper on which her father had written the name and address of the clinic -- and then, below it, a single, brief line: "Helen, just look at her."
Nikita glanced at the chair next to her and then, questioningly, at her aunt, who nodded, eyes again fixed on her niece's face. Finally she said, "Her own daughters don't look half as much like her as you do." The voice was strong but hushed, as though the speaker were in church, or beside an open grave.
"Do you believe me now?" Nikita asked quietly.
"It's his handwriting." A frown, but the dark gaze did not return to the paper in hand. "Is he dead?"
"Yes. About a month ago." Her aunt's expression didn't change. ("They weren't especially fond of each other," Christopher had told her. "She and her husband were his guardians after Evelyn moved to the States, but I think there was no love lost. After the third sister was killed in the blitz, Evelyn was the only one left who everybody loved.") "I only knew him for about a month before that," Nikita went on. "He didn't know I existed until a few years ago. He and my mother weren't married. They never even lived together."
The snowy brows rose slightly. "Philip?" The first emotion to become evident in her tone was mild incredulity. "The hell you say." Feeling an impulse toward a nervous laugh, Nikita pressed her lips together and nodded. "Poor soul. One would've thought he didn't have it in him."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you." But those eyes would not leave hers. "What's your name?"
"It's Nikita. And I don't know why my mother named me that. She never told me much about anything important."
"Was she gone a great deal?"
"She was drunk a great deal."
They stared one another, Nikita with no idea why she had said such a thing to a stranger. For a moment she wanted to run away. But she had come here to avoid running away. "I need your help--as a private medical consultant for the next few months. I can pay you. That's not the problem."
"What is the problem then? Why come to me if you can afford a doctor?"
"I can't tell you that," Nikita answered, her voice firm but without defiance--similar, in fact, to the voice she used when talking to the Group. That thought disturbed her, but now was not the time to wonder why. "I can tell you why I'm here, but not where I live or what I do. Can you live with that?"
"Well, we'll have to see, won't we? Are you pregnant?"
"You want an abortion."
"No. That option would be available elsewhere. I told you, I need you as a professional consultant for a time--until I have to tell my employers about the pregnancy."
"Do you know who the father is?"
"Did you intend to have a child?"
"No. I--got a little bit careless."
"Quite. And now you're a little bit pregnant."
"Is this kind of personal interrogation part of the arrangement?"
"As of this moment, my girl, no arrangement exists. Are we clear on that? Now. I don't want some irate chap stomping about in here demanding to know what you're up to with regard to his potential progeny."
"That won't happen."
"The pregnancy happened."
"He was gone." Nikita tried to keep her annoyance in check. "I didn't expect to see him again. I was very busy--"
"Oh, come now. You and I both know that's no excuse for this kind of nonsense. Did he leave you or what?"
"No. I sent him away."
"And he just happened to turn up again while you were in mid-cycle, and you did nothing to protect yourself."
"We get an annual shot," Nikita said, trying not to shout. "We're supposed to have thirty days' grace after our record gets flagged in the computer. I'd only used up twelve days when he came back. We should have been safe."
As the pace of the dialogue increased with the tension level, the dog had raised his head to look at Nikita. Now he shouted another bark, and she jumped involuntarily.
"Shut up, Chauncey." But Helen's voice was mild when she spoke to the dog. She stroked his head again, and he lowered it once more to his paws. Frowning, she returned to the business at hand. "What annual shot? An anti-ovulant?"
"No. It's a slow-release spermicide."
"There is no such thing."
"There is where I come from. Can't you understand? I didn't expect to see him again. And then--so many things happened at once. I was promoted. My life was chaos, I wasn't getting any sleep, and I got careless. Then my father died. How the hell many details do you need, anyway?
A faint smile. "You sound like Evelyn too."
"That's great. I think." Flinging herself back in the chair, Nikita slid down on her spine, head bent, knees akimbo, and glowered. "Are we done with this yet?"
"Have you had the shot?"
"No. I thought it might somehow be dangerous for the bu--baby, so I hacked my record in the computer. Flag's gone."
"You've got some nerve, all right." Helen rose, took up her cane, and limped across the room. She was indeed tall, and her skirt was tweed. Her limp was virtually identical to her brother's, and like him, she apparently had a penchant for walking away from the person she was talking to. "Come along. Come along. I don't do consultations unless I've examined the patient first."
They sat facing one another in the surgery, Nikita back in her sweats and her aunt now wearing a white coat instead of the cardigan. Nikita perched on the edge of the examination table, her stockinged feet hanging, her elbows on her knees, chin on her clasped hands. Helen faced her in a straight chair, her cane hooked over the back of it, a clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other. The clipboard, Nikita had noticed, held a plain sheet of paper, not a pre-printed form. Taking careful notes, but off the record.
Proceed to second mark.
Helen's expression was thoughtful; the pen tapped lightly on the clipboard's metal clasp. She had turned off the lights in the room, and the fire in the office fireplace threw moving shadows into the room next door where the two women sat.
"Is the father in as fit condition as you are?"
"Do the two of you work together?" Silence. "Very well. Alcohol? Drugs?" Nikita shook her head. "Any genetic disorders in his family?"
"Not that I know of."
"How well do you know him?"
"Better than anybody else does."
Helen had been writing on the clipboard; now she glanced up sharply but did not comment. The pen scratched. Shadows danced across the walls. "Other than her drinking, was your mother in good health?"
"That's how she used to justify the drinking. 'Healthy as a horse and happy as a clam.'"
"And your father?" Helen did not look up as she asked the question.
"He used a cane like you do. He never mentioned anything else. Is it--was it arthritis?"
"The family curse, one might say. His father was limping by age forty. You have no symptoms?"
"How did Philip die?" The pen had stopped scratching, and the dark eyes met hers directly once more.
"It was job-related. He died saving someone's life."
"Fancy that. Whose life?" Silence. "Quite."
"You didn't like him very much, did you?"
"He was an agreeable child." Helen's forehead furrowed, and it seemed as though a fine mesh of pain settled over her face. "Evvie got the looks, you see, and Connie got the charm. 'Til Philip, I thought I'd got the brains. Cleverest of the lot. Everybody said so. And after all, fair's fair." Her gaze had fallen to the clipboard, and her voice was low. "It didn't matter, though. I didn't matter. Evelyn was the only one he loved."
"He sent me to you, Helen."
"And why did he do that, Nikita?"
He said he wanted us to know each other. The easy lie was on its way to her mouth before she stopped it. "He said Evelyn would have wanted us to know each other."
"You couldn't know that," Helen whispered, "unless he'd told it to you."
Oh, but I could. I could have had her daughters grabbed and tortured until they spilled everything they knew about her and some things they didn't know they knew. "Well, he did."
Helen sat looking down at her clipboard, the tapping pen silent. Then, finally: "Family members can't be patients."
Elbows still on her knees, Nikita covered her face with her hands. When she thought she had her voice under control, she ran her hands back through her hair and said, "I wouldn't be your patient. I just need you to consult with me about once a month until I can go to my own doctor."
"I do not understand why you can't do that now."
"I know you don't. But I can't tell you."
"Now look here--"
In the waiting room, the dog burst into a frenzy of barking, filling both rooms with menacing noise. Nikita's pulse raced as she slid off table; her jacket was in the other room, and the dog trank was in her jacket. Oh, god-DAMN! But instead of going to investigate the source of his agitation, Chauncey scrambled to a stop in the doorway between the hall and the surgery and stood there shaking the rafters with his cannon-like bellowing, eyes entreating his mistress to give him permission to plunge on down the hallway to what Nikita was sure must be the back door--a back door that both Helen and Chauncey no doubt believed was completely secure.
"Please don't let him!" Nikita too entreated her. "I know who it is. We're not in danger. Please!"
"Chauncey!" Moving surprisingly fast, Helen went to the dog, who waited in the doorway; the surgery was obviously forbidden territory, and even now, Chauncey knew where limits were set and obeyed them. "Ease up, old boy. Ease up." Turning, she demanded, "Young woman, what the hell are you up to? This is my home--" And then she stopped.
Michael was standing in the doorway to the waiting room. Little more than his silhouette was visible--a silhouette with shining eyes even though the lamplight and the firelight were behind him. Nikita forgot her aunt. She even forgot the dog. She was barely aware of crossing the distance between them before they were holding each other, her face hidden against his shoulder and his face buried in her hair.
Chauncey gave a low growl, but stayed put.
"Shut up, Chauncey." Again the order was given in a subdued voice that belied its abruptness. There was a silence, and then Helen said mildly, "Hair o' the dog, is it?"
Answer her. She deserves to be answered. But all Nikita could manage was a muffled, "What?"
"It's an old wives' tale. The best remedy for the morning after is the hair o' the dog that bit you."
There was no answer to that one.
She heard Helen move across the surgery toward where they still stood in the doorway, the dog preceding her to snuffle suspiciously around their feet. Michael raised his head to look over her shoulder at her aunt. Face still hidden, Nikita tried to imagine what might be passing silently between the other two, and failed. Then Michael shifted her gently until she was leaning into his side, his left arm tight around her shoulders, and holding out his right hand, he did something she had never heard him do before.
"Dr. Collingwood--Michael Samuelle."
They shook hands, Helen peering at him in the dim light. Nikita had the impression she liked what she saw, but all she said was, "There's a guestroom at the top of the stairs. I dare say you won't need two?" As one, they silently shook their heads. "Quite. Good night, then." To Nikita: "We'll talk again in the morning. Chauncey, come help me lock up." And she left the room, closing the door behind her.
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