Chapter 16, by Elizabeth Shipp
The bug inside the Zil limousine picked up no conversation at all as Khlebnikov and Sumasedsky rode on the long journey from Sheremet'evo Airport to the heart of Moscow. As the heavy, squat car nosed into what had once been called Dzherzhinsky Square, the two of them looked at each other, and Khlebnikov raised one eyebrow.
Walking in the nearly hidden door in the corner of the courtyard, they made their way to the dimly lit elevator and hit the only button visible on the panel beside the steel doors. Neither agent looked at the other as they waited for the aging lift, still in silence, and stepped through the creaky doors once it finally arrived. There was no control panel inside the elevator, and they both faced the front door, each alone with their thoughts. Finally, after a slow ride downwards, the doors opened again, revealing a room lit only dimly. A large, polished desk dominated most of the floor space in the room, and held only a telephone and a small lamp on one corner. The pool of light allowed to escape into the gloom cast eerie shadows on a heavy, bald-headed man esconced in a leather armchair. The light also revealed the presence of a naked chicken, nestled happily in the curve of the man’s arm and looking brightly but somehow forbiddingly at the two agents.
“My my my my my, what a mess. Do you two realize what a mess you have made?”
“We were only trying to do a good job, like you said. What else could we have done?” Karel Tanovich Khlebnikov caught himself shifting from one foot to the other like he had always done as a schoolboy when he was in trouble. Stop it, he commanded his feet.
“You call letting Uke be killed-right under your noses-and letting that whole group of aiki-idiots run around loose doing a good job!?” The bald man’s voice rose, and the chicken stirred restlessly. “Easy, Skylerovna. It’s all right...”
“But, sir, you said to stay out of sight and not interfere, just to keep track of where Uke and her friends went. That’s what we were trying to do.”
“I don’t care.”
Vasili Ivanovich Sumasedsky finally decided he had heard enough. “How are we supposed to do a good job at tracking Uke and everyone she associated with, without getting involved, with no backup, and with no Aikido training? You didn’t expect us to just go to the dojo run by that Akiyama character and start as beginner students, did you?”
“So, what you are telling me, young man,” the man in the shadows almost whispered, “is that, even after SMUSH, the supersecret spy organization devoted to the control and eventual outlawing of ki to which you were both initiated ten years ago in the glory of the Rodina, even after SMUSH trained you, taught you flawless English, fixed US records so that your membership in Men In Black Skirts was unquestioned by even the highest echelons of that organization’s leadership, even after SMUSH gave you cosmetic surgery so that you could assume the place of Detectives Muttinachek and Jefferson in the so-called police department of that den of iniquity San Francisco without anyone questioning you, after all of this support and training and nurturing invested in you by SMUSH, all of this was not enough to let you do a simple job?” By the end of this riff, his voice had risen to nearly a rafter-shattering level.
“Well,” said Khlebnikov after seeing his younger partner wilt under the barrage, “not really, no. No no no.”
“So, what are you saying?”
“That we were simply misguided enough that we misunderstood your initial directive in this matter, and that if you would send us back into the field we would be more than happy and more than able to remedy our lapse in skills. Truly we would!”
“All right, then. I am glad to hear you say that...Skylerovna here has told me that that private eye who has been interfering in this thing has been seen boarding a flight for Boston. You must be careful of Rosen, she’s smart enough to get past you. She almost did in San Francisco, you know. But, go to Boston, find her, and don’t let her get away from you this time. Oh, and by the way, I’m sending Skylerovna back in undercover. She will be aware of what you are doing. Or not doing.”
“Yes, sir!” The two chastened SMUSH agents chorused in unison, backed to the door, and scurried out of the office. Not until they were back at the airport and safe (presumably) from the prying ears of SMUSH did either of them speak.
“Boston?” said Sumasedsky disgustedly.
“I suppose you’d rather go to Bel Air, wouldn’t you? Well, be happy with Boston. It could be Siberia.”