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Eight o’clock and not even the end of another long day. Inwardly grimacing, Michael Samuelle tried to remember the last time he’d worked a nine to five day. It hadn’t been recent, that was for sure. The life of a parole officer, even in a ‘small’ town like Rye, New York wasn’t easy or always pleasant.

Twenty-five miles outside of New York City, Rye was fairly sheltered from the hustle and bustle of the big city. A population of approximately 17,000 living in a five and a half square mile radius were watched over by thirty-five salaried police officers, augmented by an auxiliary team patrol.

The people of this town were very proud of their low crime rate and relatively small police force. But while the rate was low, crime still reared its ugly head as it invariably did in every town or city, regardless of its size.

Michael was one of the many parole officers employed by the state, sometimes referred to as ‘glorified social workers with a license to shoot’ by those who didn’t know any better. He’d been a parole officer for five years now, the circumstances surrounding his transfer to Rye’s parole division tragic and life altering.

Clamping down on the memories and the anger they had brought on, Michael viciously ripped open the envelope lying on his desk. It contained a comprehensive file on his latest case. A cop killer who’d had enough connections to get herself a cushy cell in the Danbury, Connecticut women’s prison for a couple of years followed by an early release for good behavior.

After six months of parole in Connecticut the woman had been allowed relocation to Rye. Her affluent grandmother lived in Rye and wanted her only grandchild living with her. Accepting responsibility for her granddaughter notwithstanding, the woman must have pulled a few strings of her own to get what she wanted.

Making a mental note to find out just what kind of connections his new parolee had to get off so easy after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter, of a police officer no less, Michael moved on to the rest of the file.

Two hours and a cup of cold coffee later, Michael finally closed the file on his morning appointment. Habitually looking at the photo only after reading the file, Michael was quite surprised at the blue-eyed, blonde beauty looking up from the color photo attached to the file jacket of Nikita Jones.

A woman with her looks who can kill in cold blood? danced across his mind before he shut the file.

********

Nikita Jones showed up to her appointment right on time. At precisely nine o’clock in the morning, two hours after he’d started working, there was a knock on Michael’s office door.

“Yes.” Michael called out.

Nikita opened the door and stepped just inside the threshold, assuming that the name on the door matched the person inside. “Nikita Jones reporting in.” She stated, sounding like it was a phrase she’d grown accustomed to saying.

“Come in.” Michael returned.

Nikita strode over to the desk, prepared to sit but waiting for an invitation or command. To her surprise, her new parole officer reached over his desk and offered his right hand. “Michael Samuelle.” Nikita briefly shook his proffered hand. “Have a seat.” He pointed to the swivel chair across the desk from him.

Sitting down, her demeanor visibly wary, Nikita waited in silence for her new watchdog to start the interview.

Pretending to look at her file, Michael surreptitiously watched as Nikita betrayed her nervousness by swiveling around from side to side in her chair. Michael had purposely put that chair there as a way to gauge the state of mind of all those who came through his door. It was one of several tactics he had picked up during his few years as a detective in Rye.

“So,” Michael looked up from the file in front of him after a few minutes of silence. “What brings you to Rye?”

“Isn’t it in the file?” Nikita asked.

“I’d like to hear it from you.” Michael answered, sitting back in his chair, watching as she struggled in vain to figure out his angle.

“My grandmother lives here.” Nikita answered succinctly, hoping that would be enough. She knew she had to refrain from her usual behavior, this man literally held her life in his hands.

“As she has for the last fifteen years.” Michael countered, having done as thorough a background check on the woman in front of him as he could given the unusual circumstances of her case. Nikita hadn’t grown up in Rye, or anywhere near it for that matter. She’d spent most of her youth in Australia (explaining her accent), moving to California with her mother when she was barely into her teen years. Nikita had moved to Washington, DC as soon as she was out of college, spending just over five years in that city before committing her crime there. “Why the sudden invitation?”

“It wasn’t sudden,” Nikita answered. “She had wanted me to move in her with her as soon as I …got out.”

“Okay,” Michael amended. “Then why the sudden acceptance?”

“I-I.” Nikita stammered, the brief flash of anger at the interrogation and the memories that came with the question not going unnoticed by Michael. “I wanted a clean start on my own at first, but….” She paused, searching for the right words.

“But it was more difficult for an ex-con to start over than you’d imagined.” Michael guessed.

“Yes.” Nikita confirmed, looking away and twirling a lock of hair around her finger, another nervous habit. “She’s the only family I have, so…” She trailed away.

“Your mother passed away?” A surprised Michael asked. According to his records Nikita’s mother was still alive. Where she was though, was anybody’s guess. The consensus was that she was probably still somewhere on the west coast moving around when she couldn’t pay the rent because she’d spent it all on alcohol, just like she’d been doing for the last twenty five years.

“She doesn’t count.” Nikita turned back to Michael, her voice hard.

“I see.” Michael dropped the matter, for the time being anyway. “Adrian is your father’s mother?” He asked to change the subject, even though he already knew the answer.

“Yes. My father died just after I was born.” Nikita answered, grateful to get off the subject of her deadbeat mother.

“But you never lived with your grandmother before now?” Michael asked another question he already knew the answer to. He wanted to draw Nikita out and get a feel for her emotional stability and personality in general. The way she talked about her past would help him determine the former at least.

“My mother never got along with Adrian so after my father died, we stayed with my mother’s parents in Australia.” Nikita answered reluctantly. “After they died, we moved to California.”

“Why California?”

“That’s where her current boyfriend was from.” Nikita answered blandly, the memories too old now to cause damage. They’d had to leave everything behind because her mother couldn’t support them herself. The boyfriend didn’t last but California did.

“And the move to Washington?” Michael asked.

“What’s the point of these questions?” Nikita asked. Her last two parole officers didn’t give a damn about her past. The first one had been transferred less than a month after her first visit with him and the second one, a woman, was even less interested in her past than the first one. The first one had helped her get a job and then his only concern had been that she kept her job and apartment and stayed out of trouble. The second parole officer only had the same concerns. Maybe twice in the six months did she even get asked a sincere ‘how are you doing?’

Michael refrained from smiling. This one didn’t last long at all. It usually took a few more questions before they got exasperated. Nikita asking so soon confirmed two things, she was impulsive and she wasn’t the little wallflower she was trying to convey. The latter was fine, but the former that made him wary

“Do you have a problem with my methods?” Michael asked, deceptively mild.

“No, of course not.” Nikita answered quickly, looking down and returning to her former demureness by the time she looked up again. “It’s just that it’s not what I expected.”

“You’ll adapt.” Michael returned, more than a hint of warning in his short but meaningful answer.

“Of course,” Nikita felt the need to respond.

“I like to know the complete background of everyone who walks through my door. In their own words.” Michael gifted her with an explanation, berating himself for doing so even before he finished speaking. He couldn’t understand why he felt the need to explain to this one, he never had before. Bringing his attention back to the matter at hand, Michael mentally noted to examine his motives for his revelation later. “Now, about the move to Washington?”

“I was offered a paying internship at one of the papers in Washington,” Nikita answered. “It was enough to pay the rent. I waitressed then tended bar for the rest.” She tried to keep her answers short. She sensed that Michael was using her answers to formulate a profile on her and wanted to give away as little as possible. But inexplicably, like Michael before her, Nikita found herself elaborating even though she hadn’t been asked to (yet). “I had other offers, some of the local ones even paid better, but I wanted to be as far away from the West Coast as possible.”

“You had no other financial backing?” Michael asked diplomatically, wondering if Adrian had made her presence known at the time.

“My grandmother offered, but…”

“You wanted to ‘make it’ on your own.” Michael surmised, already having figured out that Nikita’s independence streak was fierce.

“Yes,” Nikita confirmed. Something bothered her about her new parole officer. Even though he seemed polite and interested, Michael irritated her. She decided that it must have been *because* he seemed so polite and interested. By next week she figured he’d revert to the same behavior as her previous officers and that must have been what irritated her. Why bother feigning interest if you had no intention of ‘following up?’ Hell, it made it worse in the long run, thinking you had an ally when you really didn’t. Come to think of it, he was probably doing this to get inside her head for the express purpose of using it against her later. Coming to that conclusion made her angry enough to add, “Anything else about my life before prison that you want to know about?”

“Since you ask,” Michael almost smiled at the opening her obvious anger combined with her impulsiveness had given him. “Why did you kill the cop?”

Nikita opened her mouth then thought better of it and shut it quickly to reign in her anger and gather her thoughts first. “I don’t suppose you’d buy self-defense.” Michael merely arched an eyebrow. “Self interest,” Nikita sighed, refusing to elaborate. Part of the deal that kept her off of death row was that she keep her mouth shut. If she reneged, death row would be preferable to what she’d been promised to suffer. “The cop stumbled across a robbery and tried to play hero.” Nikita finally gave him the story she had been told to convey to any one who asked.

“And for that you got probation after two years in minimum security?” Michael asked skeptically.

“Just lucky, I guess,” Nikita snapped.

Michael saw the fear briefly enter her eyes before the anger guiding her answer kicked in. She recovered quickly though, so quickly in fact, that Michael wasn’t even completely sure of what he’d seen. Dropping the subject for now, but noting to pick it up again after he’d done some investigating of his own, Michael moved on. “So, you start your new job today?”

“Yes,” Nikita actually smiled, grateful for the change of subject.

“You realize this isn’t standard procedure,” Michael commented.

“What do you mean?” Nikita asked, confused.

“Ordinarily, I’d conduct pre-parole, or in your case, pre-transfer interviews with you and your family members. Your grandmother at least,” Michael sighed. “As well as your prior parole officer, landlord, employer and acquaintances. I’d also have established employment and living arrangements before you moved here.”

“But my grandmother said she took care of everything.”

“Exactly,” Michael pointed out. “Highly irregular breach of protocol.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” Nikita stated sincerely, looking down again. She knew there were procedures for transfers but she didn’t know how thoroughly her grandmother had bypassed them.

“I see that now.” Michael acknowledged. “Perhaps it’s best if I talk with your grandmother.”

“Why?” Nikita’s head snapped up. “What for?”

“It seems as though she’s primarily responsible for your move here.” Michael stated neutrally. What he really meant, and they both knew it, was that it was apparent that Adrian had pulled quite a few strings to get her granddaughter to live with her. What Nikita didn’t know was that Michael also wanted to find out if she had pulled the original strings that got Nikita such a cushy sentence. “I’d like to meet her since it’s apparent that she’ll have a great deal of influence over you from here on in.”

“Of course,” Nikita sighed, understanding that it hadn’t been a request. “I’ll bring her with me next week.”

“Good.”

********

Her first day at her new job had Nikita too busy to contemplate her early morning meeting. Adrian had secured Nikita a nine-to-five job as a receptionist in a corporate law office. Nikita had the suspicion that her grandmother had…suggested they hire Nikita if they wanted to keep her rather sizable account.

While Nikita was grateful to her grandmother, she was also a bit resentful of having to rely on a virtual stranger, family or not, to help her get back on her feet. It had been obvious from the way she was treated by the office staff that they weren’t aware of Nikita’s activities over the last two and half years.

The senior partner that had met Nikita that morning had explained that her ‘background’ was only known to the three senior partners in order to “make everyone feel comfortable.” Nikita merely smiled and said thank you. Although the man was more than polite, Nikita got the feeling that he wasn’t too happy to see her there, was merely doing one of his biggest client’s a favor. She vowed that she would change his and his partners’ opinion of her.

When five o’clock rolled around, Nikita was surprised. She had been busy all day, the firm being one of the most prestigious in the surrounding area, and had barely had time for lunch. Nikita was satisfied to see a few smiles and ‘good jobs’ thrown her way at the end of the day from her colleagues.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad here. Nikita thought. And if it is, it’s only for eighteen months, just long enough to finish her parole. I survived the last two and a half years, I can survive this, too.

********

“Grandmother?” Nikita asked the man who had opened the door for her when she arrived home at five-thirty.

“In the study, miss.” Mick, Adrian’s butler/chauffeur replied formally, stepping aside.

“Thank you.” Nikita returned, heading for the study. She still wasn’t used to this. Growing up with her mother then trying to live from paycheck to paycheck in Washington did not afford her any luxuries, let alone this opulence.

“Nikita.” Adrian greeted her granddaughter. “Sit. Dinner won’t be ready for another half hour.” She smiled. “Tell me about your day.”

Adrian’s request had brought back the disconcerting feelings Nikita had had during her interview with her new parole officer. She told her grandmother some of it, but not all. She finished by telling Adrian of Michael’s desire to meet with her next week.

“Oh, he does he?” Adrian remarked thoughtfully.

“Grandmother.” Nikita warned, not wanting her to run any more interference on her behalf than she had already. “Please, just meet with him. I don’t want…”

“Don’t worry, my dear.” Adrian interrupted. “Leave it to me. Meet, we shall.”

True to her word, Adrian took matters into her own hands. Nikita’s weekly interviews were on Monday’s but Adrian had no intention of meeting Michael in his office. Adrian had decided to invite Michael for afternoon tea. An aghast Nikita told her grandmother that such things just weren’t done.

Adrian’s mind made up, Nikita knew she wouldn’t change it. To minimize the damage, Nikita argued with her grandmother to set it up for Saturday so that she could be there as well.

Acquiescing to Nikita’s condition, Adrian called Michael Tuesday afternoon and invited him for Saturday tea. Michael was even more of a hard sell than Nikita but Adrian was persistent and would not take no for an answer.

When Michael protested that this was far from standard procedure, Adrian countered by asking was it not standard procedure to interview a parolee’s family and investigate their home life. Besides, Adrian had added, Michael was going to be important to her granddaughter’s life for the next eighteen months and the least she could do was offer the man a more pleasant setting for his interview than a stuffy government office.

In the end, Michael agreed to four o’clock Saturday afternoon. Adrian was happy to have the meeting on her territory and Michael welcomed the open invitation to inspect his new charge’s home life.

Michael had heard stories about the older woman. Rumor had it that she used to be quite a presence in ‘covert’ politics and he was looking forward to finding out how the granddaughter of such an influential and powerful person had gotten herself involved in robbery and murder.

********

The rest of the week flew by as each of three principles ‘prepared’ for their Saturday afternoon tea. By the time four o’clock came around Nikita was a nervous wreck while Michael and Adrian were anticipating an interesting afternoon.

At precisely four, the doorbell rang and Adrian directed a visibly nervous Nikita to sit back down. Mick would get the door and show their guest to the patio where Adrian and Nikita were already waiting.

A few moments later Mick appeared at the sliding glass doors that led to the patio and large backyard. Sliding the door open, Mick led Michael outside to the round glass table and made the necessary introductions. Once Michael was seated across from Adrian and to the right of Nikita, Mick announced he’d be back with tea and scones momentarily.

As he turned to leave Michael interrupted Mick’s departure by directing his gaze to Adrian and inquiring politely if coffee, rather than tea, would be a problem.

“Of course not.” Adrian smiled politely and nodded at Mick to bring their guest some coffee.

“How do you like it, sir?” Mick asked.

“Black is fine.” Michael replied.

Mick nodded in acknowledgment. “Be back in a jiffy.” He added, refinement lessons only masking his true personality to a point, before returning inside.

“So, Mr. Samuelle.” Adrian, acting as hostess, broke the awkward silence, getting straight to the point. “What is it you want to know about me and my granddaughter?”

Adrian had familiarized herself with not only standard procedure for parolees, but standard procedure for this *particular* parole officer as well. However, that didn’t stop her fishing for as much information about Michael as about his intentions. Nikita was in a precarious situation and Adrian was going to make sure that no one got in the way of her granddaughter’s second chance.

“Surely you realize that the…circumstances surrounding your granddaughter’s,” Michael briefly glanced at Nikita, “current situation are exceptional.”

“Is that what’s bothering you?” Adrian asked. “The breach of protocol my intervention has caused?”

“Partly, yes.” Michael admitted then continued as diplomatically as possible given the situation. “It’s customary for the officer in charge of the parolee to pave the way for a smooth reintegration…”

“Rather than sitting on the sidelines until very near the end.” Adrian finished Michael’s sentence then turned to her granddaughter. “Nikita, dear. Why don’t you see what’s keeping Mick?” Adrian had told Mick earlier to take his time serving the tea, in case she needed to have a private discussion with their guest.

“I’m sure he’ll be out any minute.” Nikita countered politely, having prepared for her grandmother’s probable tactics as soon as Adrian had mentioned having Michael over for tea days ago. She was quickly tiring of giving in and besides, this was *her* life that was being discussed and she’d be damned if she would leave it to someone else again, even her well-meaning grandmother.

Adrian did not like Nikita’s answer but was not about to show any division in the ranks and readdressed herself to Michael. “I would have thought you’d have appreciated having the burden of placing yet another parolee eased.”

“It is my job to place those assigned to me.” Michael countered while his opinion of Nikita went up a notch after she stood her ground with her grandmother. “But, if it *had* alleviated my responsibilities, perhaps I *would* have been…grateful.”

“It didn’t?” Nikita asked.

“No.” Michael turned his gaze to her. “In the long run, it made things possibly even more difficult.”

“How so?” Nikita asked.

“I will still need to speak with your current and prior employers, landlords, acquaintances, parole officers, cellmates.” Michael answered her. “A few others as well.”

“So,” Adrian reentered the conversation stating more than asking, “You routinely rely on others’ opinions rather than forming your own.”

“Most are usually on their…best behavior…when meeting for the first time.” Michael countered. “Quite often the façade presented isn’t a true picture. I’ve found it useful to talk to people who are familiar with the parolee first, to get an idea of their true nature.”

“Yes, I could see why that would be a priority for you.” Adrian responded as Nikita sat quietly, inwardly grimacing at the memory of her meeting and her lack of best behavior.

Before Michael had the chance to comment on Adrian’s statement or Nikita had the chance to warn off her grandmother, Mick came back with their tea, coffee and scones. Having delayed as much as etiquette allowed, Mick had muttered a few words to himself, plastered a subservient smile on his face and brought out the snacks.

Once Mick was gone again, Michael took a sip of coffee and waited for his hosts. Seeing that their guest wasn’t taking advantage of the table offerings, Nikita sat back with her tea as well. Adrian felt no such compunction and made both younger people wait until she was done. Finishing off her scone, Adrian was about to reach over to pour herself another cup of tea when Michael beat her to it.

Showing surprisingly good manners and patience considering that he knew exactly what his hosts were up to, Adrian especially, Michael waited for Adrian’s nod before pouring the tea.

Once everyone was settled back, Michael took another sip of coffee and picked up the thread of the conversation. “You’ve studied my…background.” It was more of a statement than a question.

“As a matter of fact, yes.” Adrian replied, surprising Nikita but not Michael who’d expected as much.

“Grandmother!” Nikita admonished sharply.

“It’s alright.” Michael turned to Nikita, realizing she wasn’t aware of her grandmother’s activities. “She’s merely looking out for you.”

“So, you understand?” Adrian inquired, not really surprised that Michael had guessed what she had been up to.

“Yes.” Michael replied. “However, I do want to know if your…investigation preceded my being selected to supervise Nikita’s reintegration?” He knew the older woman would understand that what he was asking, as diplomatically as possible, was if Adrian had perhaps somehow had a hand in selecting who would be assigned her granddaughter’s case. Although why she’d pick him was unknown.

“No, not before.” Adrian replied truthfully. “But I did do a bit of ‘investigating’ after the fact.”

“And you found something you didn’t like.” Michael guessed. His past may have been painful but he certainly had nothing to hide. Given Adrian’s stake in the situation however, Michael was fairly sure his background would be a problem for her.

“Since you’ve brought it up,” Adrian smiled humorlessly, “I don’t feel your past as well as your current…caseload will allow you to be objective where my granddaughter is concerned.”

“Really?” Michael asked pleasantly before Nikita had a chance to reprove her grandmother. “I would have thought that my past professional performance would alleviate your concerns.”

“How did you come to that conclusion?”

“If you had been thorough in your research, you would have found that each of my ‘cases’ have been treated fairly.” Michael answered.

“Perhaps.” Adrian conceded. “However, there were quite a number of parole candidates who never made it out of prison in the first place because of your testimony during their parole hearings.”

“It was, and is, part of my job to determine who is either not ready for parole or is undeserving of the privilege. Of course you’ve eliminated that aspect so I have to start at a disadvantage.” Michael returned, his green eyes flashing momentarily before concealing his irritation with Adrian for questioning his ability and objectivity, two things he had taken great pains to establish over the years. “As for anything else you’ve managed to uncover, I can assure you it’s irrelevant to Nikita’s case. She’ll be judged on her own merits just as everyone else is.”

“Of course.” Nikita interjected apologetically, recognizing that Adrian had gone too far and was quickly alienating the man who held her future in his hands. “I’m sorry, my grandmother…”

“No need for you to apologize.” Michael interrupted then turned his attention to Adrian. “I’m surprised that, given your earlier argument of relying on others’ opinions, you’ve apparently done the same.”

“I apologize if I’ve delved into an uncomfortable topic.” Adrian returned. “However, my granddaughter’s future is important to me and I need to be sure that you will not undermine her.”

“As I said, Nikita’s future is in her own hands, not yours.” Michael stood abruptly, having had enough and directed his gaze towards Nikita. “I’ll see you Monday.” He redirected his gaze towards Adrian. “Good day. I can see myself out.”

********

Monday morning came swiftly and Michael waited for Nikita to appear for their seven o’clock meeting. Drinking his second cup of coffee of the day, he sighed as he once again went over the conversation from Saturday.

He should have had more control over his emotions. Michael knew that Adrian would have him researched but had convinced himself it wouldn’t matter, she wouldn’t be able to get to him. His past was a demon he thought he’d dealt with successfully. But then again, no one had brought it up in a long while. So long, in fact, that he had almost forgotten how painful some of it still was.

Adrian’s actions however, were no excuse for his rudeness. Michael was sorry he’d snapped at his hosts and had an apology ready by the time Nikita knocked on his door.

“Come in.” Michael called.

Nikita walked in upon his answer, looking more confident than she had last week. “Good morning.” She smiled.

“Good morning.” Michael replied. Before he had a chance to voice his apology, Nikita surprised him.

“I wanted to apologize for my grandmother’s behavior.” Nikita began as she sat down, sealed manilla folder in hand. “Please believe me, I wasn’t aware of the extent of her…protectiveness until that afternoon. She had no right…”

“It’s all right. Apology accepted.” Michael interrupted. “As long as you accept mine in return.”

“Yours?” Nikita asked puzzled. “For what?”

“Walking out…”

“Oh, that.” Nikita was the one to interrupt this time. “Don’t worry about it.” She smiled. “You showed a lot more…restraint than I would have.”

“Still…” Michael wouldn’t let Nikita absolve him of his blame in the matter.

“Please.” Nikita interrupted. “I imagine it’s been quite a while since anyone’s sparred so effectively with her. It was about time, too.” She smiled again at the memory of their little tea party.

“The afternoon amused you?”

“Truthfully, yes. But it helped, too.” Nikita replied cryptically then picked up the folder lying in her lap and reached out to Michael. “This is for you.”

“What is it?” Michael asked even as he reached for the folder.

“It’s a contact list of everyone you needed to speak with in Connecticut.” Nikita replied.

“Thank you.” Michael was caught off guard at the gesture.

“I know you have my current employer’s information already and you’ll have to speak with them.” Nikita continued. “But, uh, personnel doesn’t know about my uh, past. Only the three senior partners are aware of my background and I would be grateful if you’d speak to one of them when you call.”

“More of your grandmother’s doing?” Michael guessed the reason behind the secrecy.

“Yeah.” Nikita answered ruefully. “But this is one I can appreciate.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” Nikita hedged and blushed at the memories she was invoking. “People look at you differently when they…know. Connecticut was kinda lonely.” Nikita understated.

“I can imagine.” Michael knew exactly what Nikita was talking about, he’d heard it from most of the parolees he’d come in contact with. “Don’t worry, I’ll only speak to one of the partners.”

“Thank you.” Nikita smiled in relief. “I’ll give them your name today, so you’ll be put right through when you call.”

Not long after he concluded his weekly meeting with Nikita, Michael received another visitor, his superior, Lieutenant Paul Wolfe.

“So, what brings you here?” Michael asked once the lieutenant had sat down with the coffee Michael had offered.

“What? I can’t just drop in to say hello?”

“You can.” Michael answered, smiling. “But, you look like a man with something on his mind.”

“You’re right.” Paul sighed. “Got a call this morning.”

“Let me guess.” Michael’s smile faded. “It was about my new parolee.”

“Got it in one.” Paul confirmed.

“Who called?”

“The chief.”

“What did you tell him?” Michael didn’t have to ask what was requested, he knew *that* by the look on his lieutenant’s face.

“That I would talk to you.” Paul paused. “Of course, I didn’t mention what I would tell you.”

“What *are* you going to tell me?” Michael asked warily.

“Do what you have to do.” Paul answered.

Michael quirked an eyebrow, “That’s it?”

“I’ve had a lot less parole violations since you started here.” Paul elaborated. “You yourself re-trained a few other parole and probation officers from around the state in the last year. And I’ve had inquiries from several other states about the substantial repeat offender rate drop here.”

“What about the flak?” Michael asked, appreciating his superior’s support but knowing that it would cost the lieutenant.

“Ah, I never really wanted to make captain, too much paperwork. Maddy’s the breadwinner in the family, anyway.” Paul shrugged off Michael’s concern. “Speaking of which, she and I both would like you to come over for dinner soon. It’s been a while.”

“A while since she’s analyzed me, you mean.”

“She can’t help it. It’s the psychologist in her.” Paul smiled then turned serious. “And you *were* her favorite patient.”

“I’m fine.” Michael countered.

“Sure you are.” Paul agreed. “But you can still come over for dinner.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“You do that. Just remember, once Madeline gets something in her head, she’s relentless.”

“I know.”

********

The rest of the week passed by quickly for Michael. Although Nikita Jones was not his only responsibility, that week it certainly seemed that way. Working backwards was never easy and talking to people after the fact was a headache in itself. The logistics of trying to set up appointments all in one day so he didn’t have to rearrange his schedule anymore than he had to was a nightmare.

Making things even more difficult was the fact that not all the information on the contact list was current. One of the corrections officers had been transferred, another was on vacation. One of her former colleagues had moved away, another one was on maternity leave and difficult to find.

Finally getting in touch with whoever he was going to for now, Michael set up half a dozen appointments for Friday. He spent the rest of the week catching up and rearranging everything to give himself all day Friday to meet with a senior corrections officer from Danbury as well as Nikita’s second parole officer, former employer, two former coworkers/friends and the superintendent of the building she had lived in.

By the time Michael drove back home from Connecticut on Friday night, he had a clear picture of who Nikita Jones was after her incarceration. She had been a model prisoner, parolee and tenant. Her former employer, the owner of the restaurant Nikita had tended bar in, said she was a model employee. Her coworkers had nothing but positive things to say about her.

The question in Michael’s mind on the drive home and over the ensuing weekend was how to reconcile the model citizen with the confessed killer. Which was the real Nikita Jones? Michael prided himself and depended his professional life on his ability to read people. The truth of the matter was that Michael wasn’t really surprised with what he found out in Connecticut. But Michael was nothing if not thorough. He was also tenacious and didn’t like being told to back off. He didn’t like being kept in the dark either, not personally or professionally.

Michael knew he’d hit nothing but a brick wall in Rye and he didn’t want to bring any more flak to his superior, Lieutenant Wolfe either. The man did have his limits after all. Besides, it was readily apparent that Washington, DC was the key. By Monday morning Michael had decided his next course of action. It was time to dust off his detective shield.

********

Monday morning brought another surprise and Michael’s investigation was put on the back-burner.

“Good morning.” Michael greeted Nikita, preparing to bring up his trip to Connecticut.

“Hi.” Nikita sat down and immediately set to twirling her hair and biting her lower lip.

“Something wrong?” Michael asked. It was obvious something was bothering her so he gave Nikita an opening.

“No.” Nikita replied quickly. “Well, not wrong exactly.”

“Is there something I can help you with?” Michael asked patiently.

“Yes. But my…” Nikita paused about to mention her grandmother. “…I’ve already caused you enough trouble.”

Catching her slip, Michael grimaced inwardly. He knew Adrian’s interference would be a problem but he thought he’d have more time before she became a real hindrance. “What happened?”

“Nothing happened.” Nikita sighed. “The truth is I think I need to be on my own anyway.”

“You and your grandmother had a disagreement.” Michael guessed.

“I wouldn’t exactly call it a disagreement.” Nikita countered. “But it’s definitely best for me right now to be on my own.”

Like in Washington? Michael refrained from voicing the thought. “Perhaps you’ll change your mind when things…cool off.”

“No.” Nikita shook her head. She couldn’t tell him that his trip to Connecticut and his past were the reason for her and Adrian’s tension filled weekend. “I realize that it’s another breach of protocol and I’ve already used up more than my allotment of them…”

“But?” Michael prodded when Nikita faltered.

“But can you help me find a place to live and another job?”

“Are you sure?” Michael asked holding back a sigh, realizing they wouldn’t be discussing Connecticut today. “Have you told Adrian?”

“No. Not yet.” Nikita answered, her independence streak coming to the forefront. Michael had a feeling that it was that same independence streak that had gotten her into trouble in the first place. “But I am sure. I love my grandmother and appreciate everything she’s trying to do for me, but *I* want to do for me now.” She paused then smiled almost sheepishly. “With a little help.”

“Well…” Michael began.

“Look, it’s okay.” Nikita interrupted, babbling nervously, misinterpreting Michael’s hesitation. “I know I kinda just sprung it on you and you’d need some time to find something, that is if you agree to help. If not, I totally understand, I mean I’ve screwed up your schedule enough as it is. I’m sure I can find something on my own. Eventually.”

“Nikita.” Michael interjected when she paused to take a breath.

“Yes?”

“You used to tend bar?” Michael asked then remembered something else in her file jacket. “And worked on cars part time in high school?”

“Yeah.” Nikita answered, surprised at Michael’s detailed knowledge of her past. Although, after her last conversation with Adrian, she supposed she shouldn’t have been.

“I’ll call you at your office this afternoon.” Michael returned. “I may have something for you.”

“This afternoon?” Nikita asked. “Really?”

“Yes.” Michael confirmed. “I would call now, but the perspective employer is not a morning person.”

“No, this afternoon would be great.” Nikita smiled brightly, a sight Michael enjoyed more than he should have

True to his word Michael called Nikita just after lunch and gave her a name, address and an appointment time for a potential employer. Not wanting to tell her grandmother anything until her plans were settled, Nikita told Adrian she was going out for dinner with some coworkers.

Adrian was glad that Nikita seemed to be fitting in at the office and she was an adult, so Adrian didn’t question her and merely told Nikita to have fun. Of course Nikita’s assurance that she would be home by nine at the latest, eased Adrian’s worry about her granddaughter’s activities. Even though the interview was at six o’clock, Nikita gave herself plenty of time for a bite to eat, too. After all, it wouldn’t do to come home hungry after she had said she was going out for dinner.

Nikita drove to the address Michael had given her and parked in front of the modern four story office building. Somewhat confused since Michael had asked about her auto mechanics and bar tending experiences, Nikita nevertheless parked the car in the lot in back of the building and proceeded inside.

Arriving at the frosted glass door marked simply ‘WSJ Enterprises’ at precisely six o’clock, Nikita took a deep breath and knocked.

“Come in.” A barely out of his teens bespectacled male called out in answer to the knocking on the door.

“Hi.” Nikita greeted after she closed the door behind her. “I have an appointment…”

“Nikita, right?”

“Yes.”

“Uncle Walter.” The young man yelled over his shoulder. “I’m Seymour Birkoff. Everyone just calls me Birkoff. Have a seat. Walter’s on the phone, he’ll be out soon.” He looked back at the computer monitor, mumbled a few words and started typing rapidly on the keyboard.

Nikita sat in the reception area in front of a large secretary’s desk. Looking around the office, she noticed that there were five other desks, unoccupied but similar to the one being used by Birkoff. All six desks were facing the front door. The area was large enough to accommodate the arrangement of the desks comfortably, with plenty of room in between the desks. All the way to the left a small corridor led to what was probably the bathroom.

Along the back wall were three wooden doors. The one in the middle was unmarked. The doors on the opposite ends were more ornate and had plaques with initials on them. The one on the left had a plaque simply marked ‘S/J’ and the one on the right merely a ‘W.’

Nikita had been sitting for only a minute when the door on the left opened and Birkoff’s double, minus the glasses, walked out.

“Hey, babe.” He greeted walking towards Nikita. “I’m Jason Crawford.”

“Nikita Jones.”

“Forget it bro.” Birkoff spoke up before Jason tried to one of his many pick-up lines. “She’s here to see Uncle Walter about a job.”

“Cool.” Jason was undeterred. “Maybe we’ll be working together.”

“Not here.” Birkoff sighed. “At the shop.”

“Well then,” Jason grinned. “Guess I’ll be visiting the shop more often.”

Nikita smiled politely back at him and changed the subject. “You *are* twins, despite the different names, right?”

“Yeah.” Jason answered as Birkoff was already back tapping the keyboard. “Separated at birth and reunited by Uncle Walter when we were eight.”

“Oh, I see.” Nikita nodded, at a loss as to what to discuss next. She was saved the trouble as the door marked ‘J’ opened and an aged hippie, complete with pony-tail and bandana, dressed in blue jeans, denim shirt and black leather vest came striding out.

“You must be Nikita.”

“Mr. Walters.” Nikita nodded, shaking his proffered hand.

“Call me Walter.” Walter returned then elaborated upon Nikita’s raised eyebrow. “I know, Walter Walters. My parents had a weird sense of humor.”

“Ouch.” Nikita smiled.

“You’re telling me.” Walter grinned in return. “Come on in to my office.” He led Nikita to the back, calling to his nephews over his shoulder. “You almost done yet?”

“No way. Simon’s hard drive is gonna need replacing for sure.” Birkoff answered him. “Why?”

“This won’t take long.” Walter replied. “Start packing up.”

“But…”

“No buts.” Walter interrupted, opening the door to his office then firing a parting shot. “The two of you spend too much time here as it is, *especially* you.”

As the door closed behind them, Nikita wondered whether or not Walter’s anticipation of a short interview/meeting was a good thing or bad.

********

“So, Nikita.” Walter began after they were both seated, him behind his desk and Nikita in the chair in front of it. “Sorry, Ms. Jones.” He paused. “We’re pretty informal here.”

“Nikita’s fine.” She said pleasantly. “Ms. Jones sounds like a stern Sunday school teacher.”

“Nikita, then.” Walter smiled. “Let’s see now. I’ve got two openings. One’s a restaurant/bar off of I-95 in Connecticut, just over an hour away from here. Not too far from the Mohegan Sun casino. It’s a biker hangout, but I keep the place clean, drinks and food only. It’s not rough, but I got a bouncer just in case to keep everyone happy.”

“Okay.” Nikita returned, still a bit confused. “And the other one?”

“Auto shop over in Mamaroneck, less than half an hour from here. Michael told me you’re familiar with mechanics.”

“Yes, I worked in a shop for a couple of years through high school.”

“As a mechanic?” Walter asked. “In high school?”

“Yeah. The father of a friend of mine owned the shop, let me work there after school.” Nikita explained. “Money was tight.”

“Ah, I see.” Walter understood. “Did you work on bikes?”

“Yeah, more on bikes than cars, actually.” Nikita answered. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Is this an employment agency?”

“Oh, good god, no.” Walter laughed. “I’m sorry, I thought Michael told you about me.”

“No.” Nikita frowned slightly. “He just gave me your name and address. I couldn’t talk for long at the time.”

“Okay, let me start at the beginning. Along with my nephews, I own WSJ Enterprises. It’s a software company. But I also own the repair shop and the restaurant/bar we were talking about. My problem is that I’m gonna be needing to spend a lot more time here now than in the past, so I won’t be around in the other two places as much as I used to. I need someone to keep an eye on things as well as work the bar or shop.”

“I see.” Nikita said even though she didn’t. If he was already hiring someone to manage his businesses as well as work them, then what did he need her for?

“I’ll be honest with ya. With tips and all the restaurant pays better to start, you’d average probably around eight, nine hundred a week, the shop only pays five. But if you’re a quick learner and I can leave you to run the shop, the pay there will equal the other one eventually. Plus it’s in a decent neighborhood and comes with an apartment above it.” Walter continued, oblivious to Nikita’s confusion. “So, which do you think you’d like more?”

“You’re offering me a position already?” Nikita asked, finally catching up.

“That *was* the general idea.” Walter answered. “What’s the problem? If you need some time to decide which one you wanna take, I could give you a day or two.” Another idea popped into Walter’s mind. “Actually, come to think of it, Jase and Birkoff are about to replace the office manager here, the current one is retiring. ”

“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but how do you know you can trust me to run either business?”

“Oh, well, I’d hang around until you got settled of course.”

“No, I mean you haven’t even asked me any questions…”

“Michael sent you. I trust that boy.” Walter interrupted, finally understanding her confusion. “If he says you’re the person for the job, that’s good enough for me.”

********

Half an hour later, Nikita walked out of WSJ Enterprises as their newest employee. She had a starting salary of seven fifty a week plus benefits and an increase in three months followed by bi-yearly increments if things worked out. Not quite what she was making now at the law firm, but certainly enough to get by until then.

Nikita got the feeling that Walter owed Michael somehow and had been generous on the salary. The question now was, which is the real Michael? Embittered and unforgiving ex-cop Adrian had portrayed or concerned parole officer she was growing fond of? Did he really want to help or was he setting her up for a fall? That question was the main reason Nikita took the office job. She wanted to be close to her employers’ to get a feel for their sincerity.

********

The morning after she had been hired by Walter, Michael called to confirm that she had taken the job and told her he had found an apartment she might find to her liking. The building was five stories high and had an elevator. It was only fifteen minutes away from the law firm and in a better part of town. Michael explained right off the bat that it was a one bedroom apartment, not very large, but in good condition and ready for immediate occupancy.

Nikita told Michael she’d be glad to look at it during her lunch break, if that was possible. He called her back with an appointment time and driving directions. So, at one o’clock Tuesday afternoon Nikita found herself in front of a five story apartment building that looked relatively new and well kept.

Ringing the doorbell to the superintendent’s apartment, Nikita waited to be buzzed in. After a minute of silence Nikita tried again, but to no avail. As she debated on her next course of action, a livery car pulled up to the building. A dark-haired, goatee sporting, well built thirty-something man dressed in an expensive suit climbed out of the back seat and walked towards her.

“Nikita Jones?” The man asked pulling out a set of keys as he approached her.

“Yes.”

“Hi. I’m Daniel Davenport.” He stuck his hand out for Nikita to shake. “I forgot the super was on vacation this week. Hope you weren’t waiting long.”

“No, just a couple of minutes or so.” Nikita returned with a small smile.

“Come on in, I’ll show you the apartment.” Daniel walked ahead of her and opened the door with his keys. “It was just vacated this past weekend but it’s been cleaned and everything.”

They took the elevator up to the fifth floor then walked to the end of the hallway to the corner apartment. Daniel unlocked the door and motioned for Nikita to precede him inside.

“Wow.” Nikita said as she walked in, already wondering how she’d be able to afford it. The apartment was unfurnished except for the brand new looking appliances. The ceilings were high and huge bay windows in the living room and bedroom looked over the green and treed back yard.

“So?” Daniel asked after Nikita had toured the apartment.

“How much is the rent?” Nikita asked with some trepidation. She really liked the apartment and the location, but…

“Six fifty a month.” Davenport answered. “Two months security up-front, but I can waive that. If you want it I’ll have papers drawn up today.”

“Six fifty?” Nikita asked suspiciously. “That’s it? What’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing.” Daniel laughed. “I owe Michael a couple of favors so I adjusted the rent a bit.”

“More than a bit.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Daniel waved her concern away.

“The owner won’t mind?”

“I *am* the owner.” Daniel smiled then elaborated. “Michael and I go way back. High school friends.”

“Are you sure?” Nikita asked, still uncertain.

“Michael’s financial advice was what afforded me the building in the first place.” Daniel answered. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

“I’ll take it then.” Nikita finally returned his smile. “Who do I make the check out to?”

********

On her way back to the office after promising to return after work to fill out the paperwork, Nikita again wondered about her parole officer. Financial advisor? Did he have money of his own, too? And if so, why would he take a job as a parole officer of all things or the cop that he was for all those years?

********

Busy with his other cases and dodging dinner invitations from Paul and Madeline, Michael hadn’t had any time to investigate Nikita’s past in Washington DC. Walter had called him right after meeting Nikita and had only confirmed Michael’s complimentary assessment of his newest parolee.

Michael’s workload hadn’t got any lighter in the last couple of weeks and he was seriously considering just letting it go and concentrating on the woman’s present.

Daniel and Walter’s opinion were two of the few that Michael respected and listened to. Daniel’s impression had been favorable and Walter was already fond enough of his newest employee to nickname her “Sugar.” Hearing Walter speak of Nikita in warm terms a couple of times in the last two weeks allayed Michael’s concerns about her. Michael had just about decided to let the past rest where it was when Adrian dropped in unannounced insisting they needed to talk.

“What is it that you think I can help you with?” Michael asked Adrian bluntly once they sat down. He moved his papers to a neat pile on the side of his desk, resisting the urge to sigh, knowing this would probably take a while.

“Convince me you’re only looking out for my granddaughter’s best interests.” Adrian replied just as bluntly.

“I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not here to look out for Nikita’s best interests.” Michael replied. “My job is to look out for society’s best interest.”

“You believe the two are mutually exclusive?”

“I haven’t decided yet.” Michael saw no reason to share his recent ruminations.

“I think your judgment is clouded by your past.”

“Perhaps you’d care to enlighten me as to just which part of my past it is you feel clouds my judgment. And what it has to do with your resentment at your granddaughter’s decision to move out.”

“What makes you think I resent the move?” Adrian asked.

“Seeing that Nikita’s decision to be on her own is the only thing that’s different since we met, I fail to see any other reason that would bring you here. Your manner before you even walked in the door was…less than friendly.”

“It’s not her moving out I resent.” Adrian contradicted. “It’s her reliance on your…acquaintances that concerns me.”

“Why do I get the feeling that Nikita’s current situation is known to you through parties other than those involved?” Michael answered with a question.

“That’s irrelevant...”

“I disagree.” Michael interrupted. “You resent the fact that she’s no longer under your control.”

“Tell me, Mr. Samuelle, what else do you think you know?” Adrian asked curiously.

“I believe your own guilt about your lack of involvement or intervention in Nikita’s past has clouded your judgment of the situation.”

“How so?” Adrian didn’t confirm or deny Michael’s assessment.

“Your earlier intervention served to no more than obstruct the normal routine. The current situation is merely standard procedure.”

“Perhaps I simply decided to use my resources to speed up the process.”

“I don’t think so.” Michael decided to dive right in. “What was it that you were afraid would be uncovered that would be detrimental to Nikita’s release in a pre-parole investigation?”

“Actually,” Adrian responded, the kid gloves coming off. “I *was* concerned with the circumstances surrounding Nikita’s ordeal coming to light but not because it would prejudice against her release.”

“Why then?”

“I’m going to go against my better judgment and share a confidence with you.”

“Why?” Michael asked curiously, their one previous meeting not having been on the friendliest of terms or inspiring any kind of trust.

“As you’ve already guessed, I had you investigated as soon as you were assigned Nikita’s case.” Adrian paused. “Subsequent…research has not changed my personal opinion of you, but professionally I have come believe that you can be trusted.”

“Really?” Michael asked skeptically.

“While I still have reservations about your position given your past, your record over the last five years has been solid enough to trust you with details I’ve been reticent about giving out.”

“Why now?”

“I’m concerned that Nikita’s independence streak will cause her problems again. It’s why I wanted her with me in the first place. Your intervention on her behalf has left her vulnerable again.”

“To what?”

“Nikita has a tendency to gravitate towards and rely upon the wrong people.” Adrian confided. “Most often, those who offer friendship quickly have ulterior motives.”

“Is that how Nikita got into trouble in the first place?”

“Yes.”

“Considering your…standing, why didn’t you intervene earlier? *Before* trouble started?” Michael asked.

“Nikita inherited her independence streak from her mother, my daughter. Roberta was on her own early and didn’t want anyone’s help.” Adrian answered. “Unfortunately, she made some bad decisions which resulted in a difficult life for herself and Nikita.”

“She refused your help or advice.” Michael surmised.

“Yes.” Adrian confirmed. “My job kept me extremely busy and by the time I found out how much my daughter degenerated, it was too late.”

“Too late for who? Roberta or Nikita?”

“Both actually. As a result of her youth Nikita did not want anything to do with either myself or her mother and struck out on her own.” Adrian sighed. “It’s too late for Roberta, but Nikita still has her whole life ahead of her and I will not allow the same mistakes I made with her mother to destroy Nikita’s future.”

“You think I’m ‘wrong people?’”

“Yes.”

“Because of my past? It has no bearing on how I treat Nikita or any one of my other cases.”

“That’s exactly the problem.” Adrian responded. “You’ll betray her in the end.”

“Why would you say that?”

“You yourself said that your job is to protect society and you still see Nikita as a cop killer.”

“Neither one of you has seen fit to tell me anything that should influence my opinion.” Michael pointed out.

“Nikita believes her punishment was just. Combined with guilt at her actions, she saw no reason to explain herself, especially after she tired of fighting the label she’d been branded with.” Adrian admitted.

“You feel otherwise?”

“Yes.”

“Are you going to enlighten me?” Michael asked.

“As a matter of fact, yes.”

“With the truth or your version of it?”

“Actually,” Adrian paused to pull a large envelope out of the briefcase laying at her feet. “I bore in mind that you would probably have difficulty believing anything I told you.” She handed Michael the file.

“What’s this?” Michael asked even as he reached over his desk for the envelope.

“It’s Nikita’s sealed file.” Adrian answered. “I’m trusting in your discretion.”

“Nikita doesn’t know you have it.” Michael guessed.

“That’s right.” Adrian confirmed. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to keep it that way.”

“I can’t promise anything.” Michael responded. “But I will notify you in advance if I need to take any action.”

“Fair enough,” Adrian stated. “But I think you’ll understand my position once you’ve read through the file. I’ll be in touch in the morning.”

“What makes you think I’ll get to it so soon?”

“Knowing you, Mr. Samuelle, you’ll probably get to it as soon as I’m out the door.” Adrian actually smiled. “You don’t strike me as the type to put things off.”

Michael didn’t get to Nikita’s file quite that quickly, but no more than half an hour later he sat back with a fresh cup of coffee and unclasped the envelope Adrian had given him. As he tore open the classified seal on the manila folder inside, Michael wondered if the contents would negate or reinforce the need for an investigation.

After an hour of very interesting reading, Michael shut the folder and with an audible sigh sat back in his chair to assimilate all that he’d read.

The gist of the story was that Nikita had hired on to one of Washington’s premiere daily newspapers right out of school. Since there wasn’t much room for mobility at the paper, Nikita got creative and began searching for controversial stories in the hopes of garnering attention.

Nikita hit the jackpot with an investigation into police corruption. The problems started when, instead of exposing the story, Nikita became a part of it. The salary she was collecting from the newspaper wasn’t enough to live on and Nikita had taken on a second job bartending in an establishment frequented by many of Washington’s police officers, both uniformed and plainclothes.

Thanks to her moonlighting, Nikita uncovered an illegal scheme that she thought involved half a dozen corrupt beat cops and detectives. With information gleaned from patrolling the neighborhood and befriending its inhabitants, the cops became familiar with their citizens’ habits. They found out when they worked, when they made plans to go out for the evening, when they went on vacation and so on.

With information in hand, the aforementioned cops burglarized some of the more influential homes while they stood empty and divided the profits, padding their bank accounts considerably. The crime rate in DC being what it was, the pattern was difficult to find unless you knew what you were looking for.

Nikita had overheard snippets of conversation while bartending that led her to her investigation. It wasn’t long before she had enough evidence to bring the story to light. However, the lure of easy money was too big to ignore and Nikita found herself a willing participant in the scheme rather than reporting those responsible to the authorities.

Nikita had participated in three burglaries that went off without a hitch. No one had been the wiser, the authorities chalking the burglaries up to random crime. Her bank account grew and Nikita’s lifestyle improved dramatically, her second job forgotten.

The fourth burglary was a different story. Things went wrong, horribly and lethally wrong.

Nikita was inside an influential politician’s house along with three other members of her ‘team.’ Things were running smoothly until a security patrol drove by unexpectedly. The man had known that the prominent and wealthy senator was out for the night at one of the never-ending bashes Washington loved to throw. With the rash of burglaries in the area he had decided to make extra rounds, showing up a full forty-five minutes before his scheduled circuit.

Success had made the cops careless and the security guard noticed the beam of a flashlight in one of the windows. Calling the police for backup when finding something suspicious was standard procedure but it had turned out to be a fatal error.

One of the main functions of the uniformed officers of the burglary squad was to be placed on patrol near the intended target. If anything went wrong they’d be first at the scene. As intended, their own *were* in fact first at the scene.

While one distracted the security guard, the other pulled out an unregistered handgun and shot the man who had merely been doing his job. The guard was dead before he hit the ground. By then the crew inside had been warned, via walkie-talkies, of what was going on outside. They were out of the house and the crime scene sanitized before more officers arrived.

The story given to the department was that by the time the uniformed officers made it to the scene, the guard was dead and a search of the secluded home and grounds found nothing. With no witnesses to say otherwise and no evidence to the contrary, the department bought the story.

The only ones who knew otherwise were the crew responsible, Nikita included. The death of an innocent man was unacceptable to her. Knowing she would be implicating herself as well, Nikita nevertheless set out to trap her co-conspirators.

Nikita set up a meeting with the cop who’d actually pulled the trigger hoping to get him to confess his deed as well as discuss his accomplices. Coincidentally, he was also considered the ringleader of the group. Independent and stubborn to the end, Nikita wore a wire and told no one of her plan. To protect herself, Nikita took a small handgun with her. She wasn’t an expert shot by far, but she didn’t really believe she’d need to use it. She refused to think of the gun as anything more than a security blanket.

Unfortunately for Nikita, the security blanket turned out to be needed after all. The wire was discovered and before all was said and done Nikita ended up shooting the ringleader. He never regained consciousness and died on the way to the hospital.

After a hush-hush investigation the DC police uncovered corruption as high up as in the commissioners’ office in connection with these burglaries. The department couldn’t afford for the entire story to go public so the remaining officers involved were dispatched as quietly as possible.

In the end a dozen were arrested, all but Nikita directly connected to the department. Due to her cooperation, Nikita had received by the far the lightest sentence. The others had received sentences of no less than seven years behind bars.

Unbeknownst to Nikita and everyone else, the real mastermind behind the operation was still out and about. The only one who had known his identity or even the fact that he existed was the cop that Nikita had shot and killed.

********

Before Michael realized it, over an hour had elapsed since he put down Nikita’s sealed folder. In fact, the only thing that brought him back to an awareness of his surroundings was the insistent knock on his door. “Yes?” He finally responded.

“Hello, stranger.” The woman greeted once she opened the door.

“Hi,” Michael groaned inwardly. This day was just getting better and better. “Visiting Paul?” He asked hopefully.

“Nice try.” The brunette smiled, still standing by the door. “Dinner at eight.”

“Madeline….”

“You’ve been avoiding us for weeks. I’m beginning to think you’ve turned into a recluse again.” Madeline interrupted. “Or do you suddenly find our company lacking?”

“I’ve been busy.”

“You still need to eat.” Madeline countered. “We usually eat at seven, but knowing you and your schedule, I figure even eight is pushing it.”

“I don’t suppose you’ll take a rain check?”

“Not this time.”

“All right.” Michael acquiesced, knowing Madeline’s tenacity rivaled his own and he was just too weary to put up too much resistance anyway. He had spent long afternoon contemplating Nikita’s case and the even more troublesome pull it seemed to have, drawing him into reflecting on his own painful past even though the situations were nothing alike. “Eight o’clock.”

“Good.” Madeline smiled then was about to leave when she remembered something. “By the way, Paul told me Adrian Jones came by to see you.”

“Yes.”

“Something about her granddaughter being your newest case.”

“That’s right.” Michael nodded, not elaborating anymore. There were certain things that he kept confidential, regardless of whether or not the official rules called for it. “Why? Do you know her?”

“She was my mentor when I started out.” Madeline replied. “And don’t even *think* of asking me how long ago that was.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Michael smiled.

Once Madeline left, Michael’s thoughts turned to the evening ahead. So, Madeline knew Adrian. He suddenly found himself looking forward to the evening ahead.

********

Arriving precisely at eight o’clock, Michael rang the Wolfe’s doorbell. They lived in a better part of town, not gated but located at the end of a cul-de-sac in a small, quiet development.

Michael had often joked with his superior that it was a good thing that Madeline was well-known and successful in her field otherwise there’d be questions as to how they could afford to live in the fashion that they did.

“Michael. Right on time as usual.” Paul greeted as he opened the door. “Come on into the living room. Dinner will be ready in just a few minutes.”

“Madeline’s off schedule?” Michael smiled in surprise. “She’s usually even more… punctual than I am.”

“Punctual, yeah that’s a good word.” Paul laughed as he led the way to the living room. “Actually,” He continued in a conspiratorial whisper, “Maddy came home early and decided to experiment.”

“Experiment?” Michael echoed. “I thought the last time she did that we ended up with take out.”

“No, that was Paul’s experiment.” Madeline contradicted, coming into the living room and overhearing the last part of the conversation.

“I don’t know about that….” Paul countered.

“I do.” Madeline interjected firmly. “A French recipe you’d obtained from Michael the last time we had dinner at his place.”

“Well, maybe I botched it up purposely.” Paul tried for an escape. “I always did like your cooking better than mine.”

“Nice try. But it won’t wash.” Madeline smiled, remembering the smoking oven that resulted in the three of them ordering Chinese carry out.

“I’ll provide you with something easier next time.” Michael told Paul.

“Thanks.” Paul returned. “Preferably something I could nuke.”

********

Dinner was relatively uneventful, the trio preferring to enjoy the meal discussing mundane topics.

Once the meal was over and coffee and cake served, the conversation shifted. Since Madeline had cooked, she and Paul shared table clearing duties and Madeline came back out to sit with Michael while Paul did the dishes and cleaned up. As the dinner was fairly elaborate, it looked like Paul would be busy in the kitchen for quite some time.

Madeline knew what Michael wanted, but it had also been a long while since their last social contact. In the interim, Paul had told Madeline a little bit about Michael’s newest case and the fact that he had been withdrawing into himself lately. Whether the timing of Michael’s reclusiveness was coincidental or directly related to Adrian and her granddaughter was something Paul had been unsure of.

Madeline felt it best to get the topic of Adrian out of the way first, so she and Michael could talk about what was really bothering him. Paul and Madeline had a son of their own, Steven, but he had moved to Seattle several years ago, and they rarely saw him these days.

Michael had been working with Paul for five years now and both he and Madeline had grown to care for the younger man like a second son. When Michael needed help in dealing with his situation after his father’s death, the department had recommended he see Madeline. Even then she was already a premiere psychologist in the area and experienced with the unique plights of law enforcement officers of all type, from beat cops to commanders, rookies to gold shields.

Michael’s father had been a cop in New York City for many years. He’d met Michael’s mother while moonlighting, working security detail at the United Nations. Michael’s mother had been working for the French embassy as a translator. Two years after they’d met, they married, the catalyst being her imminent transfer out of the United States.

Michael was born a year later. His mother came from a wealthy family and had a trust fund that allowed them to live comfortably in the house they’d found in Rye. Once Michael was old enough to start school, his mother took a job teaching French in a private school close to home.

Their home life began deteriorating a couple of years later. The wife of a street cop wasn’t easy, especially when the cop walked a beat in a city like New York. Every time she heard something on the news about a cop getting shot in the line of duty, her heart stuttered until she confirmed it wasn’t her husband. As irrational as it may have been, knowing that it wasn’t a part of town her husband patrolled didn’t alleviate the erratic pounding in her heart until she talked to him, confirming without a doubt that he was all right.

By the time Michael was seven years old, his parents were on the verge of divorce. His father would not give up the streets in favor of a desk job or promotion to detective. His mother couldn’t stand it anymore. Before his eighth birthday, Michael’s parents divorced and he and his mother moved to Paris, her childhood home.

Michael didn’t see his father much over the next ten years. Once or twice a year during a holiday or over summer break is all the time they spent together.

Just after Michael turned seventeen his mother was diagnosed with leukemia. Before his eighteenth birthday, Michael found himself without his mother. She died after a painful and an almost year long battle with the disease.

His mother’s family was more than happy to take him in, but after speaking at length with his father, Michael decided to move back to New York and live with him. After the divorce, his father had moved back into the city. With his mother’s trust fund in hand, Michael was able to attend college without any financial help from his father.

Choosing Columbia University, Michael graduated four years later with honors and then joined the family business by passing the ‘entrance’ exams and enrolling into the police academy.

Michael graduated at the top of his class at the age of twenty-three. Five years and a stellar record later, Michael was offered a promotion to detective. By that time his father was ready to retire and they decided to move back to Rye where Michael began his detective career.

Six months after moving to Rye, Michael was assigned a new partner, Simone Wong. They’d started out as colleagues, eventually turning into friends. One year later, just six months before Michael’s life was turned upside down they became more than just friends. They’d started dating and it wasn’t long before each realized they were in love with the other.

They found themselves spending almost all their free time together, alternating dinners out, or at Simone’s or Michael’s. Michael’s father was fond of Simone as well and often joined them for dinner when it was Michael’s turn to cook.

One night Michael and Simone were working late, waiting for an east coast contact to come through. Michael told his partner to go on home, there was no point in both of them staying. Rather than going home, Simone had decided to surprise him with a late home-cooked light dinner. She didn’t have a key to his place yet, the two of them still feeling uncomfortable about it given that Michael’s father was living with him.

Simone enlisted Michael’s father as an assistant and together they cooked one of Michael’s favorite dishes. While they worked, Michael’s father regaled Simone with stories of her partner’s youth and the time passed quickly.

When Michael came home late that night, just after midnight, his world fell apart. He knew something was wrong immediately, the front door had been left slightly ajar. It wasn’t until he entered the kitchen that he discovered the carnage.

His father and Simone lay dead. They’d both been shot in the back of the head, but not before being beaten and tortured, Simone’s body showing evidence of rape as well.

The subsequent investigation uncovered a penal system failure that haunted Michael until today. Michael’s father had put many men away over the years. One of them had gotten out on parole, over his father’s and the victim’s family strenuous objections, and hired three thugs to help him take his revenge on the man most responsible for putting him behind bars. Michael’s father had been under cover and was the most instrumental in leading to the arrest in the first place.

Michael was relentless in his pursuit of the murderer. Not taking no for answer, he insisted on leading the investigation himself. Hoping that taking the lead would help Michael conquer the demons rather than the other way around, his superior allowed him a long leash on two conditions. One, Michael would not follow any lead alone. Two, he had to see one of the department’s shrinks immediately.

Uncaring of the stipulations in his need for what he told himself was justice, Michael adhered to the conditions. He picked one of the two psychologists on the list, Madeline Wolfe. For various reasons he preferred to see someone who wasn’t licensed to dispense medication.

In the end, Michael had found the perpetrator and led a SWAT team raid on the man’s secluded home. He was an arms dealer, keeping many of his wares at his home and he didn’t want to come peacefully. A fire-fight ensued and the man died of multiple gun-shot wounds, *most* of the rounds having come from the SWAT team. The members of the SWAT team corroborated Michael’s story and there was no question or unusual investigation into the matter.

As per department regulations Michael continued to see Madeline once a week. It was Madeline who had recommended a transfer to the parole division in the face of Michael’s anger at the system. What better way to fix it than from within?

Without discussing any specifics and violating doctor-patient confidentiality, Madeline asked her husband if there were any openings in his precinct for a parole officer. Wondering at her involvement, Madeline merely replied that the person she had in mind needed a change of scenery. Any further questions could be asked of Michael himself at the interview.

While Michael was having dinner at the Wolfe’s Nikita was sharing a drink with an old friend.

Late in the day she had gotten a surprise phone call. The only person who had stood by her through the troubles in Washington had tracked her down to New York. Ironically, the friend had been a lieutenant in the DC police department and had subsequently been promoted to captain. Having tired of DC, a transfer to New York City followed shortly after the promotion.

Explaining that Nikita’s record was how she had been found, her friend apologized for the invasion of privacy. Nikita was happy to see an old, comforting and familiar face and accepted the apology as well as the invitation for drinks.

Nikita went home after work, showered and changed, feeling invigorated at not having to spend the evening alone again. Walter and his sons were very nice and great bosses to boot. But, as friendly as they were in the office, their socialization hadn’t ever extended beyond the building doors. Her co-workers were pleasant enough, but they didn’t exactly share any common interests. Nikita’s knowledge of computers was not nearly enough to keep up with their conversations and, truth be told, Nikita wasn’t very interested anyway.

Other than visits with her grandmother, Nikita’s nights were spent in front of the TV or curled up with a good book. She was looking forward to a night out, especially with the only real friend she had left after her incarceration.

Walking into the cozy bar, Nikita noticed her friend already seated at a table. As she neared the table, its occupant noticed her approach, stood up and pulled Nikita’s chair out for her.

“Nikita.” The blonde man greeted with a smile. “You look great.”

“So do you,” Nikita smiled in return. “Jurgen.”

“I really am sorry for tracking you down through official channels.” Jurgen apologized once the waitress took their order. “You left so suddenly and I just wanted to check to see if you were okay. Once I was in your file…”

“It’s fine. Really.” Nikita interrupted. “I’m glad you looked me up. It’s nice to see a friendly face.”

“So why’d you move?” Jurgen asked curiously.

“Things were difficult, a lot of the cops knew me. Some weren’t as…forgiving as others.”

“Why Rye?” Jurgen asked after their drinks were served.

“My grandmother lives here and she offered to help.”

“So you’re staying with her?”

“I was, but not anymore. I thought you saw my file?”

“I didn’t want to pry any further.” Jurgen fibbed. “I felt bad enough getting your phone number off the file.”

“I appreciate that. But I’m glad you called so stop apologizing,” Nikita paused. What are you doing in New York, anyway?”

“I got tired of the politics in DC.” Jurgen admitted.

“So, you transferred to another big city?”

“I thought about transferring to a smaller city or town, but…”

“You’re a big city boy.” Nikita finished the sentence with a smile.

“Yeah.” Jurgen returned her smile. “A fresh start…”

“You *did* catch lots of flak, didn’t you?” Nikita asked, remembering his protestations to the contrary.

“Some.” Jurgen confessed.

“I guess visiting me in jail didn’t help your cause.”

“Hey, I told them you were a friend and I wasn’t about to abandon that friendship just to clear my name.”

“Jurgen…”

“You made a mistake and you were paying for it.” Jurgen cut her off, trying to alleviate some of Nikita’s guilt. “Besides, if you hadn’t come forward the scheme would probably still be going on.”

“I guess.” Nikita acknowledged reluctantly.

Conversation turned to the mundane once their light dinner consisting of appetizers only was served. Over coffee, they picked up the thread of their earlier discussion.

“After things wound down they promoted me to captain as a way of apology.” Jurgen explained his promotion and why he wasn’t as upset about what happened as he should have been.

“When did you transfer to New York?” Nikita asked, having lost touch with Jurgen about six months into her sentence. She had told him that she appreciated his continued support but it would be better for her inside if a cop didn’t visit her regularly.

“About a year ago, a couple of months after the promotion.”

“So, how do you like it in New York City?”

“Actually, I like it a lot. I got lucky, I was assigned one of the better areas.”

“Oh, yeah? Which one?”

“Upper East Side. Lots of plastic surgeons with irate patients.” Jurgen grinned. “Definitely better than DC.”

“Do you live in the city?” Nikita asked.

“Decent living space in Manhattan on a cop’s salary? No way. Got myself a nice brownstone in Brooklyn.”

“Brooklyn?”

“Downtown. One of the urban renewal neighborhoods the city’s cleaned up.”

“Yuppieville.” Nikita grinned. “Somehow, I never pictured you as a yuppie.”

“Looks can be deceiving.” He joked. “In fact, I left my suit and laptop in the car.”

“A-ha! I knew you weren’t really a mild mannered police captain.”

“Yeah, you discovered my secret life. I’m a day trader, made millions and I’m just working the cop angle for fun.” Jurgen teased then, after a brief lull, asked Nikita about her life. “So, how’s your new parole officer?”

“Michael Samuelle is different than the first two. He helped me out. A lot.”

“But?” Jurgen asked, sensing that there was more to it than that.

“But I don’t think he did it for me but rather for himself. He used his own resources but I get the feeling it was more to keep an eye out on me than it was *for* me.” Nikita replied. “Have you ever met him?”

“When I was in DC we crossed paths a couple of times while he was still a detective on a cross-city investigation.”

“What did you think of him?”

“He was okay…” Jurgen hedged.

“But?”

“I don’t know.” He grimaced. “I got the impression that he was very controlling and strictly by the book. Professionally, I’d trust him to watch my back but I wouldn’t want to get on his bad side.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I’d want to cross him professionally either.”

“Are you having problems?” Jurgen asked concernedly. “Maybe I could talk to a couple of people, get you assigned to someone else…”

“No, no. Everything’s fine.” Nikita was quick to assure. “The job’s good, the apartment’s great. Why make waves when there’s no need?”

“Okay, but if things change, let me know.”

“Yes. I promise. It’s only for another year and a half anyway.”

“And after that?”

“I don’t know.” Nikita admitted. “I think my journalism days are over. I’ll find something else by then.”

“Like what?” Jurgen asked curiously, it sounded to him like Nikita had already thought about her future.

“I’ve been thinking of going back to school for a social work degree.” She replied. “Maybe counsel parolees trying to go straight.”

“That’s a tough job.”

“I always did like a challenge.” Nikita grinned.

********

Nikita and Jurgen both had a good time over dinner and before they went their separate ways they set another dinner date.

********

As promised, the next morning Adrian called Michael to discuss the file she had left with him the day before. Madeline had filled Michael in on some of Adrian’s past after dinner, explaining her high ranking connections. Adrian had successfully ran a covert operations organization for many years, putting her considerable analytical skills to use, before voluntarily retiring to teach psychology in the private sector.

“Hello, Michael.” Adrian greeted once he got on the line.

“Adrian.” Michael addressed neutrally.

“Have you read the material I left for you?”

“Yes.” Came Michael’s one word reply, his voice betraying nothing.

“And?” Adrian asked patiently.

“The circumstances may have been extenuating, but she nevertheless took a life.” Michael’s voice was still unemotional.

“It was self defense, or wasn’t that clear enough?” Adrian asked, somewhat less patiently.

“Perhaps.” Michael conceded. “But the burglary and corruption were *not* self defense.

“People get done in by circumstances all the time.” Adrian argued. “As you well know.”

“Meaning?” Michael asked, almost sharply.

“You were nearly done in by your partner and father’s deaths. But you received help and recovered.”

“The circumstances were hardly similar.” Michael returned, more calmly than he was feeling. Now knowing Adrian’s professional history, he wasn’t surprised at the depth of her knowledge of his past.

“Weren’t they?” Adrian countered mildly. “You were both victims of the same failed system. One due to negligence, the other due to corruption.”

********

Not long after his conversation with Adrian Michael took stock of the last five years of his life and eventually came to the conclusion that Adrian had been right about at least one thing - he was still a victim of his past. But realizing it was only the first step towards changing it.

In the meantime, Nikita’s weekly visits started to follow the normal pattern of Michael’s other parolees. Their relationship even grew somewhat more friendly while Adrian monitored all from afar.

However, mostly due to the gradual relaxation of his self imposed near isolation and continuing self-reflection, Michael did not pay close attention to Nikita’s personal life. He’d put his growing feelings for his parolee aside until he sorted his own life out. So, before he knew it, he found himself in an unlikely alliance.

The unlikely alliance formed less than two months after Adrian and Michael’s discussion. They had finally found something in common - their dislike of Nikita’s new ‘friend’ Jurgen.

Michael had worked with the man briefly on a case that crossed state lines, beginning in New York and ending in Washington DC. While he thought the man competent, there was something about Jurgen that Michael didn’t like. Or at least that’s what Michael told himself now. He refused to admit even to himself that Jurgen’s involvement with Nikita was even remotely responsible for his negative feelings about the man.

Adrian, for her part, had meanwhile investigated the man that her granddaughter was growing closer to and didn’t like what she found through unofficial channels. She didn’t like it at all.

On one Tuesday afternoon Adrian dropped by Michael’s office unexpectedly as he was about to leave for a hockey game with Daniel, Walter, Seymour and Jason - old friends he’d just recently renewed friendships with in his attempts to rejoin the living. The outing also fell into Walter’s plans to keep reminding his nephews that there was more to life than computers.

Rather than explaining his plans, Michael told Adrian that he was late for a meeting and put her off with the promise to stop by her house the following day, late in the afternoon. Adrian in turn insisted he come by at five-thirty for dinner and promised there would be no interrogation this time. Recognizing that Adrian’s inviting him for a ‘civilized’ dinner could only mean that she was seriously worried about Nikita, Michael capitulated and accepted the invitation.

At precisely five-thirty Wednesday afternoon Michael rang the doorbell to Adrian’s home and was ushered inside by Mick.

Dinner was an informal but tasteful affair, the conversation consisting of general discussions and mundane topics. Both Adrian and Michael came to the realization that they shared similar opinions and views on more than one subject.

Once Mick served tea and coffee Adrian began the conversation she had intended to the day before in Michael’s office.

“Things are going well with Nikita?” Adrian asked.

“Yes. She’s progressing well.” Michael replied carefully, waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. He knew full well that the older woman was more than likely keeping tabs on Nikita and everyone around her.

“I’m glad to hear it.” Adrian paused. “What do you think of my granddaughter’s new friendship?”

“Jurgen seems to be on the level.” Michael responded neutrally.

“Seems that way, doesn’t it?”

“You have reservations?”

“A few. Yes.” Adrian confirmed. “What about you?”

“Nikita’s private life is her own.” Michael evaded.

“Even if it spills over into your professional arena?”

“How?” Michael’s eyes narrowed.

“Did you know that Jurgen was under investigation for the burglary ring Nikita was caught up in?” Adrian asked by way of answer.

“I was under the impression that it was merely standard procedure given his occupation and friendship with Nikita at the time.” Michael answered. “He was subsequently cleared of all charges and suspicion before being promoted.”

“You’ve already checked him out?” Adrian asked, not at all surprised.

“Of course. Any new attachments are looked into. Since my time is usually limited due to current caseloads it’s one of the reasons I try to set parolees up with people I already know and trust.”

“I thought that was to keep a closer eye on them.” Adrian countered, fishing now.

“Only partially. As I said it alleviates my workload and makes things run smoother.”

“How is Nikita’s job working out?” Adrian was still fishing, trying to get a read on Michael’s real feelings about her granddaughter.

“I’m sure you know at least as much about Nikita’s professional and personal life as I do. More, most likely.” Michael answered. “Tell me why I’m really here.”

“As you said, Jurgen was cleared of any wrongdoing...” Adrian finally began the discussion Michael had come here for.

“But?”

“But they never did find the architect behind the burglary ring.”

“It was my understanding that the leader was the officer Nikita had killed.”

“Yes, well that theory has some holes that the department never satisfactory filled.”

“Such as?”

“A very substantial amount of the money garnered from the burglaries attributed to the group remains missing.” Adrian enlightened Michael. “Furthermore Jamison, the cop Nikita shot, wasn’t capable of masterminding the entire operation.”

“Even if that were true, what makes you suspect Jurgen?” Michael asked. “His precinct wasn’t even involved.”

“That’s exactly the problem.” Adrian warmed to the subject, Michael’s keenness encouraging her on. “Three lieutenants and four detective sergeants in surrounding precincts were arrested and convicted. I find it highly unlikely that the corruption ‘skipped’ Jurgen’s precinct altogether.”

“Then why the promotion?” Michael asked logically.

“They had nothing on him and Jurgen knew it.” Adrian answered. “He also knew the department couldn’t afford for any of this to be made public. He made his intentions to sue them quite clear so he was promoted to keep the whole affair quiet. But Jurgen isn’t aware of how closely he’s still being watched by internal affairs. They’re waiting for the proverbial slip-up.”

“Has there been any indication since he’s been in New York…?”

“No, none.” Adrian admitted.

“What else?”

“What do you mean?”

“There is more that you’re not telling me.”

“It’s not on his record because he was cleared, but Jurgen has been investigated twice for bribery, once while he was still a patrolman and once when he was a detective.” Adrian confessed. “As I said, nothing was ever proven, but over the years I’ve found the phrase ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ true much more often than not."

********

Michael never took anything at face value and he wouldn’t put anything past Adrian where her granddaughter was concerned. For all Michael knew, Adrian simply didn’t like Jurgen and was trying to use him to get Jurgen out of Nikita’s life. He left his dinner meeting with Adrian with the promise that he would be in touch within a week.

Before he committed himself to anything, Michael was going to find out if Adrian was right or simply making up facts to suit her own purposes. The following day, he made some inquiries of his own to contacts he’d cultivated over the years. His contacts may not have been as impressive as Adrian’s, but they were his own, quite good, very discreet and completely loyal. Michael had no doubt his inquiries would remain quiet.

By the weekend, Michael had the required information in front of him. Rather than calling Adrian, he decided to talk to Nikita first at their next meeting. He felt it was only fair that she be the first to know what was going on around her.

********

Michael wasn’t about to launch into what he found without some preamble so their weekly session started out innocently enough.

“Things are going well?” Michael asked.

“Personally or professionally?” Nikita countered. She had gotten a raise last Friday and she assumed correctly that Michael already knew about it from Walter.

“Both.”

“Well, I got a raise and can now afford to pay a higher rent.”

“Daniel raised your rent?” Michael asked, surprised. He’d known about the raise of course. Walter had called him Thursday and told him about it. Michael in turn, had used the opportunity to pick Walter’s brain for his impression of Nikita’s new friend. Jurgen had dropped by WSJ Enterprises a few times to pick Nikita up for their dates. Walter’s response had been noncommittal, a telltale answer in itself. The older man usually read people well, he either liked them or discounted them quickly. The fact that he was so evasive undoubtedly meant that he wasn’t sure about Jurgen but for his Sugar’s sake, was giving him the benefit of the doubt.

“No, but I know what I’ve been paying is far below what he could get for the apartment.”

“It’s not necessary.”

“Yes, it is.” Nikita argued. “The less I rely on ‘charity’ the better.”

“Perhaps.” Michael conceded then paused, uncertain as to how to broach the next subject. “And personally, things are going as well?”

“You mean Jurgen?”

“Walter tells me you’ve been seeing a lot of each other.”

“Walter, huh?” Nikita asked. She was surprised her grandmother hadn’t said anything to Michael. The few times Adrian had met Jurgen she had made no bones about her feelings.

“He’s…fond of you. He just wants what’s best.”

“Walter has a problem with Jurgen? Or do you?”

“He’s a fellow officer...” Michael began.

“Yes, he is.” Nikita interrupted proudly. “A captain, no less.”

“That makes a difference?”

“Only in that it says that your own department thinks enough of him to promote him to a high ranking position.”

“The department isn’t infallible.” Michael countered quickly.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.” Michael realized he was fast losing control of the conversation.

“Look, I’m sorry about what happened to you because of a mistake in the system.” Nikita did not understand the more important part of Michael’s reason for that statement. “But that has nothing to do with me or Jurgen.”

“I wasn’t referring to my past.” Michael elaborated.

“Then what?” Nikita asked bewildered then finally catching on. “Are you implying that the department made a mistake with Jurgen?”

“There are some unanswered questions.”

“You’ve been talking to my grandmother,” Nikita sighed.

“Adrian’s opinion has no bearing on mine,” Michael argued.

“You have been, haven’t you?” Nikita interpreted Michael’s evasive answer as confirmation. “She’s gotten to you.” Nikita asked, remembering a recent conversation with Jurgen. He’d voiced his suspicion, based on his run-ins with Adrian and Walter, that Michael’s feelings for her went far beyond those of a parole officer for a parolee. “Or are you just jealous?”

“Neither.” Michael refuted both accusations more adamantly than he felt. “I just don’t want your feelings for Jurgen to blind you to your surroundings.”

“Jurgen and I realized that we’re still in love, the two year separation not changing anything. We’re getting married.” Nikita retorted angrily, even though she hadn’t accepted Jurgen’s proposal yet. “If he had any skeletons in his closet, I’d know about them.”

“I think that would be a mistake....” Michael tried to reach for his usual calm.

“You’re wrong.” Nikita interrupted again. “Both of you. I never thought you’d succumb to my grandmother’s paranoia and overprotectiveness.”

“It’s not…”

“Do you have any proof?”

“No.” Michael admitted, feeling defeated.

“Well, then, there’s no reason to discuss this anymore. Unless, of course, you have any *other* objections.” Nikita waited for his answer.

“No.” Michael repeated, refusing to admit even to himself that his feelings about Jurgen had more to do than with just concern for Nikita’s safety.

********

Not long after Nikita left, Michael came to a decision and made a few calls. He knew that in the end there would be backlash, and lots of it, but he didn’t care. For the first time in his career Michael was completely throwing the book away.

********

Three and a half weeks later, on a dreary and drizzly Friday afternoon, Michael rang the doorbell to Nikita’s apartment, the one she now shared with Jurgen. He knew Nikita wouldn’t be home yet as Walter had told him that she had asked to leave a little early so she could meet with Adrian to go over wedding details and then have with her dinner afterwards.

With evidence in hand, Michael confronted Jurgen. In the middle of the conversation, after Jurgen had already realized that the other man had indeed uncovered compelling evidence on him, both men paused at the key turning in the door.

Jurgen, who knew nothing of Nikita’s atypical plans for the afternoon, wasn’t surprised that she had come home at her usual time. Michael, on the other hand, was dismayed and distracted by her appearance which Jurgen took advantage of. He used the opportunity to pull his gun on Michael, cocking it and chambering the first round before Michael had a chance to react. That was the scene a horrified Nikita walked in on.

“What’s going on?” Nikita asked as she came to stand between them but to the side, out of the direct line of fire, her eyes darting back and forth anxiously between the two men.

“Your parole officer is looking for some extra credit.” Jurgen stated calmly while Michael remained silent, listening as another voice, this one in his ear, told him that backup was on the way.

“What are you talking about?” Nikita asked.

“He knows everything.” Jurgen replied, Michael remaining silent, warily watching Jurgen and the gun.

“How?” Nikita asked upon which Michael closed his eyes momentarily in pain.

“That’s just what I was going to ask.” Jurgen kept his eyes on Michael.

“You know?” Michael almost whispered, directing his question to Nikita.

“Of course she does.” Jurgen answered instead and Nikita didn’t deny it, merely looked at Michael sadly. “I was told you started digging around.” Jurgen continued. “Coming here saved me a lot of trouble.”

“How?” Michael asked, stalling for time.

“You came here out of jealousy and drew your gun. Luckily I had my own close by.” Jurgen narrated the story he was going to tell the department and was sure Nikita would substantiate.

“It won’t work…” Michael began.

“I think it will.” Jurgen interrupted and pulled the trigger.

********

Nikita woke up in a hospital bed to find Adrian sitting in a chair beside her bed.

“What happened?” Nikita asked hoarsely, waving away the water her grandmother offered.

“You were shot.”

“I know *that.*” Nikita returned impatiently. Her few words further drying her already parched throat, she finally accepted the glass of water Adrian still held.

“I’m afraid I don’t know much more than that.” Adrian replied as Nikita drank slowly from the straw. “Michael called and told me that you were in the hospital. When I asked him what happened he told me you'd taken a bullet in the shoulder but you were going to be fine. Care to elaborate?”

“Jurgen tried to shoot him. I couldn’t let that happen.”

“I gather Michael somehow uncovered evidence of his own?”

“He confronted Jurgen at the apartment.” Nikita replied. “Where is he?” She asked anxiously.

“At the station with Walter, they’re giving their statements then coming here.” Adrian had no doubts as to who her granddaughter was referring to.

“And Jurgen?” Nikita finally thought to ask.

“In custody.” Michael answered from the open doorway, where he was standing with Walter.

“Well, since you’re finally here, I guess it’s my turn.” Adrian stated.

“For what?” Michael asked while Nikita remained silent, the adrenaline rush her concern for Michael’s safety brought waning now that she saw for herself he was fine.

“To submit evidence against Jurgen.” Adrian replied. “You two should talk anyway.”

“Grandmother…” Nikita began.

“Don’t worry, dear. Walter will drive me.” Adrian interrupted then turned to the man in question. “Won’t you?”

“Sure, yeah.” Walter nodded, inwardly smiling at Adrian’s effort to ‘clear’ the room.

A couple of minutes later, after a brief interruption by one of the nurses to check the patient’s vital signs, Michael and Nikita found themselves alone.

“How do you feel?” Michael asked, breaking the awkward silence.

“I’ll be okay.” Nikita answered groggily, trying to keep her eyes open for the much needed conversation with Michael.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Michael asked, needing to know how Nikita could keep Jurgen’s secrets, especially after all her convincing assertions of desiring a ‘clean’ life. Had she been so blinded by love that she was willing to go along with anything? Or had she merely been a very convincing actress? At this point Michael wasn’t sure which was worse. Either way she was lost to him.

Michael, however, would have to wait for an answer as Nikita couldn’t reply. She had once again succumbed to the pain medication and sedatives.

********

Nikita recuperated in the hospital over the weekend. Adrian, Daniel Davenport and Walter and his nephews all came by to see her while she was hospitalized. Nikita was thankful for all her visitors, but the one she wanted to see most never made another appearance.

Michael did not expect to see Nikita at their usual appointment time on Monday morning and he wasn’t disappointed. Nikita was still in the hospital but Michael had called, as he had done twice on Saturday and Sunday both, and found out that she was due to be released this morning.

Instead of Nikita showing up though, her grandmother did, and at seven AM to boot. As was usual with Adrian, she barged right in, this time not even bothering to knock.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve had to be up and about at such an ungodly hour.” Adrian greeted Michael, standing across from his desk glancing at her watch, refusing to even sit down. “Come, get your jacket, there isn’t much time.”

“Time for what?” Michael asked, puzzled.

“To pick up Nikita.” Adrian stated patiently. “She’s being released shortly.”

“You want me to conduct a meeting in the hospital?” A still confused Michael asked.

“No, of course not, but my granddaughter needs to speak with you.” Adrian explained. “And if I’m not mistaken you need to speak to Nikita as well.”

“No, I don’t.” Michael contradicted, purposely misunderstanding Adrian. “Nikita’s case will be transferred shortly.”

“For what reason?”

“Given what’s transpired, I can hardly be objective about her rehabilitative potential now.”

“Have you checked the status of the investigation at all this weekend?”

“No.” Michael replied. He’d refused to do anything other than make sure Nikita was healing. The pain of her perceived betrayal was still too fresh.

“Why?” Adrian asked, not surprised that he hadn’t.

“It doesn’t concern me anymore, other than to testify in the future.”

“Doesn’t concern you or is too painful to discuss?” Adrian countered.

“Why would it be painful?” An obstinate Michael queried. “I wasn’t the one who was shot.”

“No, but you feel guilty for Nikita’s voluntarily getting in the way of a bullet meant for you.” Adrian argued. “You also care enough to call twice a day and I’m sure you’ve already called this morning as well.”

“I was just making sure Nikita was all right.” Michael didn’t even bother with a denial.

“You’ll be able to confirm it for yourself. I’ll enlighten you to a few things you’ve missed this weekend on the way to the hospital.” Adrian stated. “All I’m asking from you is that you listen to Nikita before drawing any conclusions.”

********

“Come in.” Nikita responded to the knocking. She was dressed and sitting up on the bed, legs over the ledge, arm still in a sling and belongings on the chair next to the bed. She had been waiting for Adrian to pick her up and sign her out of the hospital. Nikita was perfectly capable of releasing herself, but her grandmother had insisted and Nikita was too weary to argue.

“Hi.” Michael greeted as he came into the room.

“Hi.” A surprised Nikita greeted in return. “Where’s Adrian?”

“Hastening your release and giving the administration her opinion of the hospital and its staff.” Michael answered.

“Her opinion? We may be here a while.”

“May I sit down, then?”

“Oh, of course.” Nikita replied, quickly shoving her few belongings from the chair over to the bed with her good arm.

“Michael, I’m sorry for everything.” Nikita apologized before he was even settled in the chair and facing her.

“Adrian told me some of it on the way here.” Michael welcomed the opening Nikita had given him. “But she didn’t tell me why you did it.”

“Which part?”

“All of it.” Michael replied then concentrated on one of the two questions foremost on his mind. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I only found out the evening before.” Nikita was grateful for the chance to finally explain herself to him. Michael looked like he was ready to listen and she could only hope that he would believe and forgive. “I noticed his cufflinks and tie pin. They looked familiar but I couldn’t place them. It came to me later, after I woke up from a nightmare about that last burglary. I realized then that’s where I’d seen them. I couldn’t hide the shock from Jurgen.”

“He guessed?”

“Yes.” Nikita sighed, remembering the best acting performance of her life. “I convinced him that I was fine with it, glad even, because that meant we were ‘independently wealthy’ and could go anywhere we wanted after my two years were up.”

“Jurgen believed you.”

“Yeah, maybe I should have gone into acting.” Nikita commented with a half-smile. “I went in a little early to work Friday to call my grandmother, I was afraid to call from the apartment. I also didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes, so I didn’t try do anything on my own. She called me back a couple of hours later and told me to come over after work. I told Walter I needed to leave early so that I could be home at my usual time so as not to raise Jurgen’s suspicions.”

“You told Adrian.” Michael stated. “Why didn’t you tell *me?*”

“My grandmother has connections that I knew she would use. I wasn’t worried about *her* getting caught in the crossfire.” Nikita replied carefully.

“You were worried about me?” Michael asked cautiously.

“Yes.” She admitted.

“Why?” Michael asked, leaning closer to look into Nikita’s eyes.

“I-I,” Nikita stammered. “I didn’t know that Walter was parked down the block listening in or that you were wearing a vest. I just knew that I couldn’t let him sh-shoot you.”

“Why?” Michael repeated, maintaining eye contact, their bodies now just a hairbreadth away from each other.

“I didn’t care about Jurgen the way I used to, but I felt wanted when I was with him. Then when you discourage me from the only close friend I had, I got upset. I didn’t want to be alone again and he was the only one…so I closed my eyes to everything and pretended nothing had changed between us.”

“What *did* change?” Michael asked, neither one of them having moved an inch.

Unnerved yet encouraged by Michael’s proximity, Nikita finally gave him the answer he’d been waiting and hoping for. “I love you.” She continued in a rush, realizing she had to explain why, despite her feelings for the man in front of her she had accepted Jurgen’s proposal. “But you warned me off Jurgen like Adrian, like a parent. I asked you if there was any other reason…” She trailed off, lowering her gaze, the foolishness of her actions so apparent now. “I just wanted to feel loved…”

“Nikita.” Michael raised her chin gently. “Do you know why I went to the apartment instead of submitting the evidence I’d compiled to the department?”

“No.” Nikita’s teary eyed gaze fixed itself on Michael’s gentle one.

“I needed to know if you were involved, if you knew.”

“Why?” Nikita asked, holding her breath.

“Because at that point I didn’t care about Jurgen’s activities as much your possible involvement in them.” Michael admitted, releasing Nikita’s chin and looking away. “When you didn’t deny your foreknowledge, my first thought was to keep you out of it.”

“Michael…” Nikita was stunned at the revelation.

“I’ve always gone by the book. Even my father and Simone…the investigation broke no rules.” Michael interrupted, turning back to Nikita, not needing to explain the entire episode, knowing Adrian had told her about this part of his past. “But the other day in the apartment, all I could think of was how to protect you, regardless of the consequences.”

“Then why’d you stay away?”

“That discovery terrified me, Nikita.” Michael confessed frankly. “That’s why I stayed away and refused to follow up on the subsequent investigation. Adrian just told me this morning what you'd done when you found out the truth. I’m sorry that I didn’t believe in you enough to talk to you without intervention.”

“Quite a pair, aren’t we?” Nikita commented after Michael’s confession.

“What do you mean?”

“We were so busy trying to protect each other, we almost lost each other.”

“But we didn’t,” Michael contradicted.

“Yeah, but I’m still a parolee and you’re…”

“Adrian didn’t tell you?” Michael asked, a half-smile gracing his features.

“Tell me what?”

“You’ve been released from your parole obligation.”

“I guess she wanted it to be a surprise.”

“You did cooperate and point the department in the right direction.”

“Like I said, once Jurgen believed I was on his side, he told me all of it, including where he hid everything.” Nikita stated. “How long do you think they’ll get him for?”

“Longer than the others, the evidence is too strong. At least twenty years, if not more.”

“Good. One less thing to worry about.”

“What else are you worried about?”

“How you’ll react to my impulsiveness.” Nikita answered then grabbed a puzzled Michael by his lapels and kissed him thoroughly until they were both breathless.

In the end Nikita’s worries over Michael’s response to her impulsiveness were for naught.

Epilogue

Three and a half months later:

“You can put that box over there.” Michael addressed Davenport, pointing to the corner by the bureau.

“That was the last one.” Walter came into the bedroom while Birkoff and Jason waited outside by the truck. “Come on, Dav I’m buying the beers.”

“You’re not staying?” Nikita joined the group in Michael’s bedroom, *their* bedroom now.

“We loaded and unloaded. On the weekend, no less.” Walter replied, seeing himself out. “That’s enough for me.”

“Me, too.” Davenport followed right behind Walter. “See you tonight.” He added on the way out, referring to the celebratory dinner the six of them plus Adrian, Madeline and Paul were having tonight.

“Well,” Nikita remarked from the comfort of Michael’s lap after looking around, “Where do you want to start?”

********

While Nikita lay in the hospital she and Adrian had had several talks. One of those talks had decided Nikita’s living arrangements for the immediate future. She didn’t want to go back to the apartment she had shared with Jurgen and Adrian was more than happy to take her in. This time the ground rules were laid out by both grandmother and granddaughter ahead of time.

Jurgen was no longer a threat to any one. With the insurmountable evidence against him, he had no choice but to plea bargain. Even then, he ended up with a minimum of twenty years before he could even think about parole.

Nikita continued to work for WSJ Enterprises and would start night school in the fall. She still wanted to be a social worker but she was going slowly.

The best upshot of the entire ordeal though was Nikita’s relationship with Michael. With Nikita completely free of the system, conflict of interest issues never arose. Sure, Michael had his share of ‘odd’ looks and comments in the beginning, but meeting Nikita a few times when she visited Michael at work quieted most everyone down, well, everyone who counted anyway.

Michael and Nikita had grown close quickly after their conversation in the hospital. With all the obstacles finally behind them, their love flourished.

In the middle of this past week, much to Nikita’s delighted surprise, Michael had proposed over dinner. After a quick, unhesitant acceptance followed by some discussion, they decided to plan the wedding slowly and live together for a while first. They wanted to get to know one another at their leisure. And why not? They had the whole rest of their lives ahead of them.

After assuring Adrian that it was nothing personal, Nikita had packed hurriedly, wanting to move in as soon as possible. By Saturday she was ready to move in and with the help of their friends, Nikita’s belongings were now in boxes and bags spread throughout Michael’s house.

********

“Well,” Nikita remarked from the comfort of Michael’s lap after looking around, “Where do you want to start?”

“Right here.” Michael answered, gently flipping Nikita over onto her back on their king-sized bed.