(41)

Michael took his time following the porter with his luggage and room key. Although he was used to being in unfamiliar territory, he was normally working with some type of Intel on his surroundings and things he might expect. Today with this mission it was personal and pretty much freelance. He took in everything, doorways that might later prove to be access or escape routes. Places in the lobby that would make excellent vantage points if the necessity arose. The elevators were pretty nondescript as elevators go six to ten passenger capacities, simple trap door on the upper left-hand side should you be facing the front doors. As he elevator rose to the penthouse suite, Michael took the time to study the porter standing directly to his right field of view. A middle aged Hispanic man, approximately 45 years of age, graying around the temples but with a mass of wavy hair sticking out of his cap.

Exiting the elevator, Michael became aware that the man walked with a slight limp. The man must have noticed Michael studying him and smiled "A gift from Uncle Sam" he patted his thigh. Michael cocked an eyebrow in confusion and the man continued. "Operations Desert Storm." He turned down the extravagantly decorated corridor and made his way to the door where he inserted the key. "You would think being a vet Uncle Sam would take care of me?" he shook his head. "Nope, discharged me on a medical leave and here I am trying to support a family" he pushed open the door, turned on the light switch on the left-hand side and waited for Michael to enter.

"I hope you enjoy your stay Mr.?" he put the luggage that he had been carrying next to the white Italian leather sofa, stood and straightened his uniform jacket while he waited for Michael's answer.

"Calabrise." Michael reached into his pocket and handed the man a ten-dollar bill, "For the family," he smiled as he escorted the porter to the door.

"If there is anything else you need just ask for Rubin," he smiled, pulled the door closed behind him and was gone. Michael lifted his bags and opened one of the suitcases. Removing the monitoring device, he carefully circled the outer edges of the rooms for listening devices and was relieved to find none. Sitting down on the sumptuously inviting sofa, he carefully plotted his next course of action.

************

(42)

Michael had ordered room service, opting to spend his first night in Chicago studying the Intel that Birkoff had so kindly provided. Deep in concentration, he jumped at the knock on the door and reached for the weapon he had carefully placed underneath the sofa cushion. "Yes," he called out, a wisp of his French accent could be heard in that one simple word. "Room service sir," said the voice on the other side of the door. Michael tucked his papers under several sheets of newspaper and quickly rose to allow the hotel worker access. Leaning against the door he motioned the smallish older woman into the room. "Filet Mignon, rare, new potatoes in a dill sauce, salad lightly tossed with house dressing and a bottle of our best wine, complements of the hotel." She smiled as she took turns uncovering every dish on the beautifully set table.

"Will there be anything else sir?" she stored the lids under the hidden shelf and stood upright again waiting for further instructions.

"No, I think that should be all I need," he returned her smile. She was a little woman, barely coming up to mid chest on him; gray hair braided carefully then secured in a bun at the crown of her head. Her uniform was an impeccably starched blue dress complete with the ever-present white apron. Even her shoes were a perfectly shined white color.

Michael wondered if she was someone's mother trying to subsidize her retirement with a job that obviously made her feel quite needed. Perhaps her family had abandoned her and now she took each guest as one of her children, willing to tend to their every need. He didn't know why he had the desire to know this. Only that it had simply popped into his head as he watched her unfold his napkin and lay out the intricately carved silverware next to an obviously expensive set of China complete with the hotel insignia centered within a blue boarder.

"I hope you enjoy your meal Mr.?" she turned to face him as her hands straightened the apron tied around her ample waist.

"Mr. Calabrise, but you may call my Michael" he smiled wishing could ask her to join him but knowing it was most likely against hotel policy. Reaching into his pocket he pulled another ten out and proceeded to hand it to her. Amused by the shocked look on her face he chuckled. "You deserve so much more" his eyes danced as the smile spread across his face.

"Oh, I couldn't possibly accept that, it's way too much for simply bringing up your dinner" she shook her head and took a step back.

"You did a splendid job of setting an inviting table, I do wish you would reconsider" he offered her the money once more. Hesitating slightly, she smiled a small-embarrassed smile before reaching out and gently lifting the bill from his hand "If you insist Michael" she smiled. With that, she did one final check of the table; turned the vase of fresh carnations toward the spot she was sure he would be sitting in and with a wave of her hand, quickly left the room.

Michael uncorked the wine and filled his glass. Figuring that after tonight he would more than likely be too busy to take in the sights of Chicago, he would have an early dinner and then indulge himself in a walk along Michigan Avenue to enjoy the lights of the Christmas season. Michael didn't celebrate Christmas now, in fact, he tried to make sure that he was occupied on every holiday that came and went. Since losing Adam and Elena, he no longer took pleasure in days that once made him appreciate life but now simply brought back the painful memories of what was never to be.

************

(43)

Madeline had finished most of her Christmas shopping that day, after spending her earlier hours in the office; she had once again declined dinner with Alan. She had begged off making the excuse that she simply had too many errands to run and probably wouldn't be able to do more than grab a simple bite to eat at the local carryout.

Alan was visibly disappointed, as he had decided that he really wanted to get to know her. "Celia Bruebaker when will you finally give in and have dinner with me?" he had reached out and touched her elbow but quickly withdrew his hand as he felt her stiffen under his touch.

"I'm sorry Alan, but this is my favorite time of year, the shopping and such" no sense letting him know that this was the first time in she didn't remember how long that she could celebrate a holiday such as this. "Maybe some other time?" she smiled as she packed her wallet deep into her black leather purse. "I'm holding you to that Celia" he smiled and quickly left her alone.

After leaving the office, she made her way via a yellow cab driven by a man whose name she couldn't pronounce to Michigan Avenue and Water Tower Place. Paying the fare and adding two dollars more, she said good-bye to the man exited the cab and quickly rushed inside. The air outside was quickly becoming colder as winter had definitely grasped its icy hands around the city. She loved this shopping center, the escalators and elevators were decorated in rich velvet red bows and wonderfully scented deep colored evergreen wreaths hung just about anywhere the eyes could see.

Parents with children in tow precariously balanced packages and diaper bags on top of already over laded strollers. Little babies as well as older children were enthralled by the lovely ensemble of lights that hung from invisible lines at the ceiling and cascaded downward in a river of bright twinkling colors.

Madeline went into several of the boutiques and made purchases of brightly colored sweaters and blouses that she would have ordinarily bypassed in her annual shopping spree with Section. There she had stuck to dark two piece suits elegantly tailored but very nondescript in color. Blues and blacks had been the color of choice back then so she felt she was making up for lost time by buying all the wonderful solids, patterns and pastel shades she instantly fell in love with. She let the boutiques wrap each item so she would feel that more special on Christmas Day then collecting her packages, she made whatever final purchases she deemed fit and left the shopping center to head back home.

As she exited the massive complex, she was totally unaware of the people watching her. Being away from Section, she had almost gotten lax about her own personal safety. If she had bothered to look up and down the street, she might have noticed the once familiar black vans sitting parked up and down either side of Michigan Avenue but this afternoon, her head was swimming with thoughts of the coming holidays. She wished that she could have someone to share the day with but knew that allowing personal relationships within the office would only result in pain and heartache if and when she was forced to move on. It took the wind out of her sails as she realized that she would probably spend the rest of her life alone. Relationships were costly and usually, the only ones to get hurt were the innocent ones that had no real concept of what they were getting into.

"Subject is heading for home." The statement was directed into the communications device connected over the ear of one of the operatives sitting on guard duty tonight. "Subject has had an extremely busy shopping day today," he added. Switching off the unit, he placed it beside him on the table inside the van and smiling at the operative directly across from him simply stated "I hope she kept the receipts."

************

(44)

Nikita and Operations checked into the hotel that same night. Operations was insisting on one suite two beds, Nikita was having none of it. She insisted that adjoining rooms would be much better. "I want a little privacy" she whispered as the desk clerk checked her logbook. "I have two penthouse suites that have adjoining doors if that would do?" she smiled. Polished white teeth behind a mauve set of full lips.

Operations noticed what an extremely attractive woman the clerk was. Auburn hair, cut in a blunt style that ended just below her jawbone served to accentuate the long neck and high cheekbones under emerald green pools. Shaking himself back to the moment he nodded his agreement to the double rooms and handed her his credit card. "She wants her privacy?" he shrugged as he gave her a wry smile. "Personal secretaries, can't live with them, can't live without them." he winked at the clerk who was charmed by this handsome middle aged man. Checking to see if she had rings on her hands he smiled and adjusted his tie. "Perhaps you would care to join me later for a drink in the lounge?" he leaned closer "MS, Miss or Mrs.?"

"Carolyn, not Mrs." she turned the receipt for his signature. "And I would love to join you." she smiled, turned his card over in her hand. "Mr. Davidson," she handed it slowly back to him, dragging her meticulously manicured nails across his palm.

Nikita felt her stomach turn, she wasn't used to watching Operations in motion. Wondering if he was taken with her or simply sizing up another Section prospect, she bent to gather her bags and turned to the clerk "Could someone show me to my room?" She was a little annoyed that Operations didn't seem to have his mind on their reason for being there. "I'm hungry," she persisted.

"So, order room service, go grab something, enjoy the sights," he whispered in an impatient tone as he returned his attention to the clerk.

"I'll have a porter show you to your rooms, and join you in say.... An hour?" she smiled at Operations.

"An hour is fine," he picked up his bags, returned her smile and turned to Nikita.

"Shall we?" he motioned her toward the porter who was approaching them.

Reaching down, he lifted all their bags and attempted to remove the one from Nikita's shoulder "Let me grab that for you Miss?" he wrapped a strong hand around the strap.

"No thank you, this I will carry myself," she motioned him to lead the way.

"Suit yourself," the Spanish accent became more apparent. As he led the way, she noticed that he seemed to struggle between the weight of the bags and the limp, which hadnít been apparent, moments before. "Are those too heavy for you?" she inquired.

"Oh no Miss, please don't take any notice, just recovering from an auto accident," he turned and continued toward the elevators. "The names' Rubin if you require anything else," with that, they entered the elevator that quickly ascended to their floor. Rubin led them to their respected rooms, showed them the amenities and left each after receiving a generous tip from both.

Something about the man didn't quite sit well with Nikita. She had not missed the curiosity with which he had stared at the bag she had refused to relinquish to him earlier. She made a mental note to have Birkoff do a background check on both Rubin and Carolyn... she wasn't letting anything or anyone stand in the way of what she had come here for.

************

(45)

Michael had retrieved all the updated Intel that his operatives had collected since taking up their positions following Madeline. She seemed to lead a relatively normal mundane existence except that she frequently shopped at Water Tower Place, her apparently favorite place to dine was Nick's Fish Market or Gibsons Steakhouse and she was more likely to walk to work then take any type of transportation. He wondered how it was that she had chosen Chicago to make her disappearance and who might have helped her thus far.

After gathering all his notes and securing their location in his suite, Michael donned a simple outfit of black jeans, a white turtleneck under a powder blue sweater; black soft soled work boots and the goose down jacket he had packed after checking the weather. Pulling a knit hat over his wavy hair, Michael took a final look around the suite mentally putting everything in its place and slipped out for an evening walk down Michigan Avenue.

In the lobby, the evening crew must have taken over, as the faces behind the desk were all different from when he had been down for a newspaper earlier in the day. Again his mind took in this information. The doorman was a young black male, approximately twenty to twenty-five, probably took the job to make some extra cash for his girl with the Christmas season steadily upon him. Michael smiled when he thought of what Section would be doing on Christmas. Probably nothing was his guess, in all the time he had been there, he had on occasion seen operatives hanging lights and tinsel in a simple but hopeless attempt of keeping up the pretenses of a life outside.

The sadness that another Christmas would come and go without Adam ever being aware that his father was alive and well hit Michael just as sharply as the winds coming off Lake Michigan as he exited the hotel. The Magnificent Mile was just that. To his right, the lake was a dark orb of nothingness. Except for the constant blinking of the lights signaling the locations of the sandbars and breakwaters that failed in their attempt to protect the shoreline and beaches from the eroding effect of Mother Natures constant assault on what was essentially hers to take. To his left Michigan Avenue, with its many stores and twinkling lights invited visitors to take a stroll, some hand in hand with their loved ones snuggling close together against the biting winter winds of Chicago.

Others were hailing taxis in their rush to get from one place to the next. While other couples took turns waiting for the handsome cabs that would give them the slow scenic tour of the Windy City while nestled together under a woolen plaid blanket as the horses steady plodding lulled them into a false sense of peace and tranquility.

Michael envied some of these people. They had lives to lead, whether mundane or exciting, each and every night, most still had family and friends to share their lives with.


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