O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Robert Frost, "Choose Something Like a Star"
When he appears on her security feed--plate, toast, and marmite in hand--her first thought is that it’s a trick: a sick joke, a stress delusion, someone’s foolish attempt at applying pressure.
Then he looks into the camera, straight at her (at that immutable point in the mind’s eye the implication of surveillance places her) and he’s real: older, aged, whittled, absolutely convincing. It's the way the eyes are the same and the skin around the eyes have changed just enough to mark the passage of time.
Nineteen years. And Randall Brown is alive.
In her office, Lix doesn't react. She feels as though she's tied to her chair, immobilised, arms tight against her chest. On the screen, Randall leans forward and places his breakfast on the table in front of him. He rotates the plate, aligning the diagonals with the concentration of someone picking a combination lock. He’s listening for a click only he can hear, but he doesn’t take his eyes off the camera, even if he can only guess that she's watching (but he knows, he must know). Every move is deliberate.
He sits back. He waits.
She gives the order to bring him in and watches as the team explode into view, violent, thorough. He puts his hands up. She’s always minded where his hands are. Watched for what they're saying. The long, narrow fingers curl gently, relaxed to indicate his complaisance.
Someone off-camera, Hector probably, puts a gloved hand on Randall’s shoulder to urge him to his knees, and Lix’s breath catches with the sharpness to confirm that yes, she has been breathing all along. So many guns pointed at him, danger everywhere. He eases himself to the ground, as though in prayer, unthreatening, unthreatening, a miracle of self-possession.
He bows his head. But before his head is all the way down, he raises his eyes again, a fleeting moment invisible to the team in the room with him. This is for her, this sardonic message. See? he says with his look. See how I'm cooperating with your trained goons? I'm coming in for you. I'm letting them do this, for you.
“Why now? Why has he made himself known now, after so many years? Something must have changed.”
The everyday keenness of Bel Rowley’s question, as though she’s opened her composition book to tackle an essay she’s been set, has the effect of decoupling Lix from her experience of her own situation. She sits back in her chair and listens, watching her team bounce the ball of discussion across the conference table. Bel is so earnest, they're all so young, so new, this generation of agents recruited after Soviet dissolution. Two decades, a breath’s span, is history to them. Everything they know comes from a file, a record, some data a desk clerk typed onto a sheet of paper long ago, half redacted and never complete in the first place. Discretion, confidentiality, state secrets: for all these reasons, let the record show only scraps of the story. History doesn't need more than that.
The secrets here reside within the bodies of its agents.
“Maybe he was tired of being in the cold.” Freddie, his romantic notions picked up from novels and never unlearned.
“No, an operative like Randall Brown doesn't stay hidden for so long just to give up when he's had enough. He has a record, he's known for competence, precision--”
“The thing is,” Lix interjects, and they stop to listen, faces turning to hers like the faces of attentive students. She’s fought for this, all her career, to be listened to, and still it amazes her, the expectant trust. “The thing is, we need him. Our current problem calls for a particular expertise we don’t have in-house. He has it. Though it’s preferable we find out how he knew to come forward...it isn’t critical. As long as he cooperates, we’ll screen him; we’ll use him. That’s all.”
Later, Bel corners her in the locker room, still puzzled. She thinks they’re in this together, and Lix wants to stop her, wants to warn her not to seek out confidences she can’t unseal. But Bel suspects nothing. Lix doesn’t even have to ask not to be forced to lie.
Maybe that’s how it is, when you’re a spy. Maybe some secrets are effaced so completely that they’re no longer secrets: they simply never were. Everyone knows, and then everyone you know is gone, replaced by a different set of secret-dealers. What didn’t have to be kept dissolves, details particularise through the atmosphere, truth averages out into the white noise of total information. Without a record, no past is any more real than any other.
Sometimes, Lix wakes in a panic in the night, unable to remember which lie is the least false, which photograph was never doctored, if such a thing could ever have been developed at all.
In the bland, bright room, there is only Lix, only Randall, only two chairs and a table. They are on either side of the table. Randall stands, and Lix doesn’t try to stop him. She longs for a cigarette, a drink, something to hide behind.
“Why did you come here?” she asks. “Why now?”
In what insane way, she doesn’t ask, did you think this was a good idea?
It had been her job, once, to ensure no one thought him insane. To make sure he wasn’t. When he left, she found herself other, easier jobs.
He regards her without speaking. He tucks his chair in under the table. Picks it up. Moves it to the right. Tucks it in again, exactly mirroring Lix’s chair. Picks it up. Tucks it in. Swings it away. Tucks it in. Each time, the chair lands with painful exactness. It’s like Randall is performing a card trick, a croupier’s shuffle, and Lix resists the urge to shove her chair out of position and spoil the illusion.
A fold appears in Randall’s brow, his eyes tighten. He reads her, of course, with ease. Now the trick is like a knife trick. She must stay still as the blades slice the air, her breath. She’s suffocating.
“Come to dinner with me.”
All the withheld air rushes through her. “Come again?”
“Come to dinner with me, Miss Storm. When one is away, one craves the comforts--”
“I will not…” What--Apologize? Eat? Comfort him? “...break protocol. If you want to stay here, if you want to work here, provisionally, I can offer you a reinstatement and the protection of the Service. You’ll have to sign the Official Secrets Act again, now that we’re acknowledged to exist.”
Beneath the many words, the details that are relevant, but only in a practical, trivial way, there is only one, underlying them all.
Stay, she thinks, not for the first time, with a sort of avidity she thought she’d outgrown. Randall is silent; he watches as she runs her hand through her hair, searching for something else to say among the very few things she can.
“You, uhm, you can eat with Clarence, I’m sure he’ll want to see you. I’ll ring the DG’s Office.”
“Clarence is a spy.”
Lix frowns in confusion. “Of course he’s a spy, Randall, he’s the Director General of the Security Service.”
“Clarence is a spy for the Russians.”
At this point the interrogation, or debriefing, or whatever it is, goes out the proverbial window, the deck (stacked, carefully) is thrown into the air, and, as had ever been the case in Randall’s wake, all is chaos.
This is the Randall who frightens Lix the most, the only Randall who frightens her. This nearsighted savant dispensing witticisms, cryptic advice, circuitous encouragements, as though he’s nothing more than a devastating sage, suddenly part of the team, having destroyed and fixed them in one deadpan declaration.
Still, she fights for him. To those who remain her bosses, he’s too sharp an instrument, which once used must be carefully disposed.
But we need him, she continues to say.
She says, I can control him.
Could, they say, once.
What they don’t say is you are how we lost him, how we lost control. You were the one who was supposed to know him. You, to sort the investigator from the interrogator from the weapon. You were meant to run him. You were meant to handle him. It wasn’t your whole life, but you were responsible for his.
Perhaps they’ve forgotten. She’d found herself other, easier jobs. She’s been very good.
She insists. I need him, she finally says. In this way, she gets what she wants: this unsettling presence tinting the edges of her domain.
Hector thinks of himself as James Bond, but, terrifyingly, it is Freddie Lyon who sees Randall as a role model.
Lix hasn’t forgotten the man Freddie threw over a banister last year. He didn’t have to fall, and Freddie didn’t have to let him. Might be how it begins, dropping a subject down a stairwell, afterwards rehearsing the justifications that mean you can live with it. The incident had shaken him, but then he’d been seconded to the CIA, and now there’s Randall.
“When my father died, I bought a boat!”
Lix, listening around the corner, wonders if it would change Freddie’s opinion to know Randall had taken the boat unauthorised across a border and returned with blood across the fibreglass, bullet casings in the bow. Randall’s father had been a spy. There had been a matter of war grudges, prehistoric ones incurred at the beginning of the conflict they had been just old enough to inherit.
That night, Lix had had to torch the boat, fabricate an elaborate excuse, an entire off-the-books operation to make sure their masters didn’t find out. She’d taken Randall to a safe house and sat with him while he turned trauma into gesture, and gesture into words, limbic transmutation of violence into recitation, hours of telling and retelling until, finally, he had expelled it from his body, was able to let it go.
What is an amanuensis who never writes anything down? In those days, Lix imagined herself a camera, the lens always uncapped, and at the end of it all she would open up the panel in the back of her mind. She would extract the film, and expose it, all the frames at once, to the brightest light she could find.
Randall goes to Egypt. Randall can’t call a revolution, but he can sway its outcome on intelligence gathered by their department, so he’s been borrowed for a joint venture. Lix, stuck at home, spends countless hours on the monitoring lines, watching ambiguous security footage, listening to broken chatter. Whisky never more than a smudged glass away.
He used to wash her dishes. He used to follow her home, rinse plates, pick up shirts, wipe lipstick and fingerprints off of used tumblers and mottled dust from windowpanes. He cooked her things. He drank with her so neither would drink alone. He took her despair for the indiscriminateness of the world and showed her where she could see the patterns: insidious patterns that made her so successful at her job later on, monstrous ones that made her question it and see its necessity, and, yes, patterns that rose out of relentless repetition to become designs too transcendent to hold for any longer than a moment. He taught her how to bear witness to the destructive impetus of her species and wrest hope from its rubble. All this, and tradecraft too.
These were the things Randall did for her, and in recompense she made sure he killed the people their government wanted him to kill, and no one else.
When he survives, when he returns, the relief sends Lix seeking out the respite of the tech closet, where she knows she has two minutes between automated camera image analyses to recover her composure; and that even if she were to happen to glance at the relevant screen, Sissy wouldn’t give her away. There, enshrouded in a darkness punctuated by orderly lights blinking and pulsing like racks of stars, under cover of the thrumming whine of tapes and discs, Lix spools the ribbon of her self back, back, into her chest, around her sternum, as tightly as it will go with each end threaded through thorns far beyond her reach.
She emerges to find Randall waiting for her in the corridor, simultaneously patient and fidgety, as though he could have stood there adjusting letters on the duty roster until the end of time.
Not at all surprised that he’s tracked her, “Are you following me?” she asks.
“Curiosity. Where is everybody?”
She walks to her office, and he follows. “Bel and Freddie are meeting with an asset who’s been roughed up. She’s frightened; they’re trying to reassure her. Hector’s having lunch with his wife.”
“Yes, she works across the river. They said Hector was very good last week--”
“--which is a bit of a surprise, but I suppose he chafes at being home while she’s abroad, and as ex-special-forces misses being properly in the field. So it stands to reason that he has, shall we say, a problem with discipline.”
“He’s complacent and bored, and he’s a buffoon when he’s bored.”
“Well, they’re trying to recruit him. Kendall thinks he and Marnie will make a good team, which I’ve put on record is a terrible idea; they’d be too close, all tangled up like that, but they’ll be offering him something he’d be hard pressed to refuse.”
“They’d be too close. He’ll self-destruct.”
Randall looks at her pointedly, and Lix stalks into her office, glad she’d shuttered the blinds on the window looking out over her department nights ago. But he follows her inside and slides the door shut behind them. She retreats behind her desk, angry but also bemused--what does he want from her, what is he doing here?--and stares at the colourless ghost of herself reflected in shadows in the darkened screen of her computer monitor while he stands on the far side of it and fiddles with the clutter of her working life.
She shouldn’t let him pick up the sheath of folders piled there among the used cups and the spent bottles, but she knows he’s not thinking about the contents of the files even as he reorganises them, ordering them alphabetically, then by date, then by reference number. Still, he doesn’t speak, and all he’s done is systematically deprioritise the security of the nation and unravel her nerves.
All the while she studies his hands. Evaluates his level of agitation against an ancient checklist. He taps the folders, but idly.
He’s fine, she thinks. Whatever this is, he’s managed in Cairo. We’ll manage here, where I can watch over him.
How she was able to make a go of it, all these years, not knowing where he was, if he was safe, if he would ever resurface, she doesn’t know. How she’ll live with his return, and what he drags up with him, she’s yet to see.
Randall picks up one of the empties; under normal circumstances, Lix would be more circumspect, but it’s been a long week, most of it spent sleeping in the office, and she simply hasn’t had the benefit of a break long enough to look around and do something about the mess.
“Mr. Madden is an alcoholic,” he says at last. “You encourage him.”
Lix glances wildly at her rearranged desk, which now resembles a lopsided chess board. Nearly the entire set of tumblers lined up along one edge has the telltale smear of her lips, personally identifiable red prints like labels on pottery from a layered excavation. Except one. Hector Madden had stayed late the evening before he’d flown out. They’d talked about Nasser, foreign stations, a photograph Lix had once taken minutes before extraction from an embed gone wrong. History.
“He hardly needs encouragement, and I do need him to keep his demons in-house.”
Because he’s still holding the bottle, Lix wants to direct Randall’s attention elsewhere, but the sight of his fingers around its neck has her in thrall: she’s remembering a morning on a different continent altogether, sweat pasting her hair to her temples, his linen shirt to his back.
They would wake up already wilting from the heat, damp and listless, but that day he had had a perfectly firm grip on the gin. A tense grip. An angry one. All the better to hurl it against the stuccoed wall to become a smashed litter of glass and paper, glistening in the relentless sun, his torso heaving.
Shortly after that, blood on his fingers, the shards, indifferent teeth, sharp whether the person who went to pick them up cared or not.
Blood and disinfectant. Every operative smells of cordite at some point, but those hospital smells Lix has associated with Randall since she improvised her first field dressing for him, since the first time she’d kept vigil while he lay in recovery, the uncounted times she’s cleaned him up in a hotel room or the back of someone’s car. Always, she’d been there in the aftermath, wiping away the blood to see how much of it was his, putting the pieces back together stitch by stitch. Sometimes, but only rarely, she’d gone into the field with him as backup, laying down covering fire, confirming and then consoling, the bandage that held him together as he worked himself apart.
He was a mercilessly successful, scrupulously specific missile with a brain, and all that was required of its delivery system was that she keep him from going off prematurely, and that she protect bystanders from the shrapnel. But while he could seem zen, even contained at rest, inside he was a roil of combustibles, whose equilibrium the two of them calibrated constantly, and he had a short fuse.
The shattered gin, she had told herself then, was the rapid release of a pressure valve.
Lix would rather not have to relive Cartagena, however (bare feet cut up, bruises and blood loss, the recognition that what had run in her veins was startlingly indistinguishable from what had run in his, indissoluble once intermingled), so she takes the whiskey bottle from him and drops it in the bin by her desk.
“Anyway, he's in exalted company,” she says with a lightness that looks away from their entire history. “You were an incomparable drunk.”
Bel and Freddie return long before Hector shows any sign of decamping from his lunch, with a report that their informant had been beaten up--by a policeman.
“Vice division, apparently. They think Kiki’s a lead in a big takedown they’ve been building, and that she's holding out on them, protecting people who don't deserve to be protected.” Freddie frowns in distaste. “Somebody got impatient.”
“Better tell them to back off, or I'll report their man for misconduct.”
“Already have,” Bel says with an air of satisfaction.
“Hmm. All the same, we should step down on contact. If your source is starting to look suspect, it could be because of our influence.”
“There was one thing…” Bel looks at Freddie for confirmation. “She was at a private party last week, and they talked about something she thought might be called ‘brightstar’ or ‘brightstone’. She couldn't say why she thought it was important, but as soon as she got close they stopped talking about it quite abruptly.”
“Have Sissy add it to the flagging list. We’ll see if anything comes up.” Lix raises her voice to carry to the analysts’ desk. “Isaac, do “brightstar’ or ‘brightstone’ mean anything to you?”
“Keats? ‘Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art’?”
“‘And watching, with eternal lids apart’,” Randall murmurs speculatively.
“I'll get to work on it,” Isaac says, ducking behind his workstation.
Lix renews her firearms certification. She updates her legends. She usually manages to keep her personal security up to scratch--just--but she reviews the things she's let slide: self-defence, counter-surveillance, current codes and protocols. She's been a desk officer for years, too senior to risk in the field, but now the old spy in her says it's time, says she must prepare. It’s deep-seated knowledge collating the indications into a picture right below the level of consciousness; hard-won instinct insisting she not dismiss them. Clarence, this brightstone business.
And Randall’s here now. Randall changes everything.
As per her list, eventually, she makes her way to a small, lightless room with a locking door: a facility easily available to someone of Lix’s rank, someone in Lix’s profession. The thing is, the tech closet isn’t really a closet; it’s a partitioned area contiguous with the corridor, which in turn opens onto the main floor. The rather melodramatically hermetic department offices, even when sealed during a lockdown drill, are a bustling, functional operations centre. Lifts, airplanes, Underground all go somewhere, purposefully, quickly. They're thoroughfares you stay still in, knowing it's only temporary. These spaces, features of Lix’s everyday life, enclose, but they don’t entomb.
She’s put it off until last, but because she's done everything else, she’s come for her old, animal nemesis, the fear that won’t be talked down. If she can’t best it any more (too old, too complacent), then she’s no good out there, no matter how thoroughly she brushes up on every other skill she used to have as a field officer. She's signed out the room, blocked out her calendar. Only the medical office--not even Bel--knows where she is.
She rests her palm against the door, as though she can feel the shape of the darkness inside. She already knows what it tastes like. Dust. Concrete crushed back to powder. Contaminated water. Fires, somewhere.
Over the parapet, Storm. It's probably one of the safest rooms in London.
Lix looks up at the door as though she's summoning up the courage to face a firing squad, and then, brisk as she can, she inputs her access code and steps through into the blackness.
It closes behind her with the heavy smoothness of a secure mechanism.
She knows the room is about the size of a police lockup, that it has no furniture, no soft surfaces, in fact no features at all. It's the blank inner side of a geometric object, sealed until a programmed release. The air vents are designed to circulate without seeming to be there at all, in the unknowable ceiling. There’s nothing for her to fight here but herself.
Very carefully, Lix lowers herself to the centre of the floor and waits.
Too quickly, laughably quickly, she loses track of time. She forgets (though she knows, she knows) whether she is in a small space or a large one. Phosphenes drift across her visual field, camera flashes that linger, bright, too bright to have a colour. In the silence, she hears all the noises of her own body, mostly pulsing, liquid rhythms, going too fast, fear-fast; this is what panic sounds like from the inside.
She tries to take slow breaths, but there's very little air. She can barely move. Her throat is dry. Her eyes are dry. Everything is dust-clogged. Everything is constricted. The weight of the entire building seems to bear down on her, pressing, pressing, threatening to fall. Her heart squeezes percussively, and a wave surges through her head, smothering her. She fights the urge to thrash, her need to respond physically to what her mind is doing to her. She claws her hands against the smooth floor, the skin under her fingernails throbbing from sharp particles of phantom debris.
Part of her--foolish part of her--longs for real pain to focus on.
How long does this go on? Minutes? Hours? She has never left this rubble. She gasps and gasps.
“Ms. Storm? Very sorry for the interruption. You’re needed, Priority One.”
The intercom cuts out, and suddenly, there’s light. Lix startles, blinks back tears against the gentle glare. The room is just a room. Ordinary, clean, antiseptic cell.
Lix sits without moving and allows herself a necessary, silent moment. Isn’t sure until she speaks whether her voice will obey her. “Of, of course. Thank you.”
Near enough. She pulls her knees up and rests her forehead on them, gathers herself with an inhale, picks herself off the floor of the frankly far too effective interview suite, and does her best to put it behind her.
“What’s going on?”
Lix hopes her jacket covers the sweat staining her blouse; she’s stopped long enough to check her face and the time before hurrying back to her team, but she’ll have to rely on the professional calm that kicks in to camouflage the rest.
On the overhead screen, there’s a map freckled with pinpoints. “What am I looking at?”
“Supposedly, a very large number of very small explosive devices.”
Sissy’s apologetic about the projection. “It's only my best estimate on the distribution. The intelligence is really vague?”
“And what was the source?”
“An alert came in about…” Bel glances at her watch. “Twenty minutes ago. Someone at GCHQ passed it to us. It looks like they’re still running checks, so it shouldn’t have come through, but it was expedited, with local call signs.”
Randall, circling, passes within Lix’s earshot. “Barnaby?” he says at a tone pitched for her.
She nods concurrence.
“We’ll have to verify...at least some of those,” she says. “Hector--”
Freddie’s phone rings.
“Lyon. Yes. Yes, thank you.”
They all wait while he scribbles on a notepad, before he walks up to the screen and gestures at a minor constellation. “Explosions reported at these five locations.”
“All right, both of you get down to the nearest one and liaise with Emergency Services. We need confirmation if it was a bomb, and if so, what kind. Sissy, chase up Cheltenham for the full report, whatever they have. I want to know how we got that map before any more of these things go off. Bel is on point; everyone coordinate with her.”
The entire team goes into motion around her at once. Lix runs her hand through her hair, breathes out. No one has questioned her, no one has noticed. The crisis will claim all her attention, and by the time any of them have a moment to look around, she'll have recovered from her self-imposed test of mettle. She can think about whether she’s passed it later.
Once they’re all busy with a task, though, Randall corners her.
“Are you all right?”
“This isn’t the time--” Lix starts to turn away.
He grabs her by the upper arm. She shoots a glance around, but no one is watching them.
“No. You can fool your juniors, but you can't fool me. I once watched you try to hide a sprained wrist. This is much the same. What's happened?”
She won't let him interrogate her, though. Especially not here, in her own territory.
“It has nothing to do with you, Randall.” She looks daggers at his hand around her bicep, and with the decency to look apologetic, he lets go, dropping both arms to hang by his sides. “And nor does it have anything to do with what's happening now. I'm fine. There’ll be no impact on my mission competence.”
“You're not fine.”
“But I'm well enough,” she says, and, accepting no more argument, escapes into her office to call the Home Secretary.
It's a lie, it's all a lie, but Lix has more important things to worry about, so she tries to pretend she can go on telling the lies she has always told. It’s her job, after all.
Later, after another five devices go off, just large enough to cause localised damage and disrupt lives without destroying any infrastructure or leaving fatalities; after the untraceable tipoff is properly analysed and the bomb squads--all the bomb squads--have been mobilised as though in a gruesome game of connect the dots, Lix sits below the big screen, contemplating the map, the countless pinpricks of fear.
It casts a ghastly light, but all the same, they’ve seen it before. They’ve been living in its shadow all their lives.
The public relations mess in the wake of this attack is, if anything, more extensive than the containment and disposal effort. Special Branch neutralise a hundred minor explosive devices but the result is a million disquieted people. When all of a sudden anything could be a bomb, the familiar is rendered dangerous. The fragile illusion of safety slips, and what is revealed beneath, human condition of the ages, is unacceptable. Explanations are required.
This gives McCain all the excuse he needs to infringe upon what is supposed to be a secure space. The Press Secretary is pushing past the checkpoint almost as soon as they’ve downgraded the alert, looking surreally fresh in contrast to Lix’s rumpled team. Her priority is to stand down her officers, send them all home to sleep; McCain’s, apparently, is to be in her way. If she had the sort of door she could slam in his face, if she worked in the sort of climate that allowed her to slam a door in the face of a Downing Street political advisor, she would.
What Lix has not considered is that although she was once Randall’s keeper, in the interposing years, she has fallen out of practice, preoccupying herself with larger concerns, and she isn’t as sharp as she once was. She loses track of him in her consternation with McCain’s presence, forgets that he’s at the periphery, watching, every bit as tired and testy as she feels.
McCain’s smugness, as always, floats on top of Lix’s nerves like spilt petrol, noxious and thick. The veneer of civility goes only as deep as the fabric of his suit, and he knows that his method--the insinuations and the undercurrent of threat--works. It’s got him this far; it is approved of. Spies lie to keep secrets, or to discover them. McCain lies to manipulate.
In this case, he has power. He hardly has need to manipulate, but he makes no secret of his jealous disdain for the intelligence community.
He’s already nearing the end of his harangue as he cuts in front of Lix, his voice dropping to hint unpleasantly. “I don’t need to tell you that confidence in this service is low in Whitehall...and should the public become aware of recent revelations about the very senior official who is said to have retired, such a scandal, in combination with the extensive and upsetting disruption to this city’s sense of safety that the latest, mm, scare has caused would turn the possibility of a personnel review into a certainty.”
“I think you mean to say thank you for finding all the bombs.” Randall moves in close to McCain, sending a current of alarm through her, and it transpires that Randall, who doesn’t make a habit of physical contact with anybody, let alone strangers, has laid a hand on McCain. This, more than McCain’s worn intimidation tactics, causes Lix to step back on one heel.
Thank god for Hector, who does something oldboyish involving chummy hands clapped on shoulders--one visibly firmer than the other--and thank god, too, that Randall merely raises an eyebrow and detaches himself, because Lix, for once, had had no idea how to disarm the situation.
She manages to wait until they're walking away through the night, the others receding through the rings of amber streetlight across the Thames, towards Westminster, before her ire gets the best of her.
“Damn it, Randall, what on earth made you think it would do anybody any good to antagonise Angus McCain, of all people?”
“There comes a time a person has to say ‘enough’. Beyond which one loses all one’s territories and self-respect. I saw that that time had arrived. His was an insult to the efforts of this entire team.”
“He was winding down--on empty threats, I might note--before your foolhardy interference.”
“The Lix Storm I knew would never allow a politician to question her role in the security of this country.”
“The ‘Lix Storm you knew’ wasn't answerable to transparency oversight committees. Nor was she responsible for so many careers and lives.”
“No, not so many careers and lives.” A note of bile enters Randall’s voice. “It was just the one, wasn't it, that you had to handle then?”
“Yes, just one, and as ever, as much trouble! Friendly fire, Mr. Brown.”
“One hot house flower of an agent whose well-being it was so much easier to care for than your own.”
Lix clamps shut her mouth. She has nothing to say to that, nothing that isn’t unjustly bitter with resentment.
“Or anything else that was close enough to matter to you.”
She glares at him for having the gall to hint at what she doesn't want--and there's no reason--to talk about.
“And you, Randall? Did you care so very much about my well-being?”
When he moves with that familiar sudden speed and she finds herself pinned against Portland stone, the first thing she does, before she can focus on the situation, is to check for cameras at the mouth of the alley. They're too close to Thames House. If Randall has been caught on CCTV looking like he’s threatening her, it'll bring security down on him in minutes, and she won't be able to protect him.
As for herself: she holds on to her briefcase. Refrains from reacting precipitously. (Sometimes, the best defence is patience.) Stares him down, mouth a thin line.
Half dare and half don’t you dare.
There was a time Lix would have been willing to recognise the signs that Randall was veering out of control, to acknowledge that something was wrong--more wrong than the normal eccentricities that allowed him to participate in his own life--but losing him for so long and recovering him again has made her selfish.
She’s renewed her dusty promise of watching over him, yet when he skulks about the department unnerving Lix’s team, she refuses to do anything about it. In truth, it’s unnerving her as well, but she tells herself it’s always been like this. His habits, his rituals...they’re more disruptive than the social contract often tolerates. Lix’s department is small, a cell, really, insulated from the vast apparatus of state bureaucracy. Such a close-knit team establishes an ecology too easily thrown out of balance. Its members are oversensitive to new influences, as soon as those influences stop being avuncular and start being irregular.
But Randall’s anxiety is all over the place. Each time Lix ventures out of her office, she sees the motion out of the corner of her eye as Randall shifts things around his desk. She sees the repetitions, and her officers who, let’s face it, are observant, highly-trained students of human weakness, must note them too. And the things he’s doing with his hands, the contortions and gesticulations, constantly now…
She’s ignoring it all, in hopes time will restore to Randall a level of calm compatible with a healthy work environment, when she finds him in her office making domino lines out of the contents of her top drawer.
She stands in her own doorway in a state of exasperation.
“Is this a cry for attention or a poorly articulated request to be arrested?”
Randall is suddenly very still, his shoulders stiffening. He doesn't look up. “Or perhaps you'll just have me escorted from the building so you won't have to talk to me.”
Though she can't see his face, Lix recognises the caustic tension in Randall’s voice, and she locks the door, checks the blinds to see that they're shut.
She steps into the room, her arms crossed over her ribs. “I did not come to my office to debate-- And you are not, could you please...try to exercise some of the restraint that has allowed you to work with your colleagues in the past?”
He turns to look at her. Complex emotions battle across his face in a second, his eyes narrowing, his brow furrowing, his mouth flat, but the dominant emotion is an angry recalcitrance.
“I won't go,” he says. “So forgive me, Ms. Storm, but you'll have to abide with my lack of restraint or leave me be to rearrange your rather pedestrian desk drawer.”
It's a bluff as much as it is an admission.
“Fine, then." She's fed up; she digs in. "Know that I'm not going to talk to you about what you want to talk about. As a matter of fact, until you can be reasonable, I'm not going to listen to you at all. So go ahead and get...this out of your system.”
She gestures at the desk, not bothering to fully uncross her arms.
“You want me to...?”
“Yes, that's right.”
For a moment, he looks as trapped as she feels, but then he returns his attention to the array of pens and the spiral of paper clips on her desk. He picks up the pens one by one and arranges them in a line. One of them rolls onto its side, and he adjusts it to equalise the spacing again. It isn't Randall's MO at all, this extraneous design. The tail of the paper clip spiral leads to the tip of the first pen. The last pen points to a huddle of USB sticks (blank, brand new; she isn't cavalier with classified data), which he proceeds to stack one on top of the other.
No, the colours are in the wrong order. He dismantles the tower, stacks them again. Still wrong. He tries again, and again.
One of the flash drives takes a tumble; the whole tower topples. He puts his arm down and sweeps the entire design from the surface of the desk, flinging stationery into the corners of Lix’s office, under the chaise, against the window where the Venetians vibrate metallically.
“Finished?” She asks, not entirely generously. He glares at her. She glares right back.
Then again there had been the time she had failed to recognise that he was in trouble; or rather, that the trouble had them both by the neck. Officially, he hasn’t been forgiven the wrongs that sent him on the run in the first place. But...officially he was never reprimanded for them. They let him run.
She’s all too aware, though, that this reprieve is conditional. She’s subject to the judgments of what is at once the sub rosa oligarchy it has always been, a morally baroque modern bureaucracy like any other, and a necessary system of internal surveillance. As they all are. It’s one of the prices she accepted to be allowed to do her job. At least she’s had the privilege of making an informed choice.
Freddie stops by, dropping himself into the chair across her desk. He’s not quite looking at her, working himself up to whatever it is he wants to say, so Lix lets him take his time. First, he studies the photograph on her wall (a reproduction, magazine-sized, that Lix had herself printed off a microfiche sheet in the library and stuck in a silver frame, blurry enough at this distance to escape the scrutiny of the rare visitor, of Capa’s “Cerro Muriano” picture). Then his gaze falls on the ever-blinded observation window.
When he does look at her, he has that delicate, boyish expression on his face that, set off by the intensity of his seriousness when he’s passionate about something, makes her think of him as beautiful. He leans forward. “Listen, about Randall…”
Lix raises an eyebrow, feigning amusement. “Not you, too? Bel reminds me daily that she still doesn’t know what to make of him.”
Freddie glances away and back again, fidgeting. “I saw him in Paris. I think, I know I saw him in Paris. When I stopped at the bureau there, on the way back from Langley. I didn’t know any faces, and so naturally I thought he was just another member of staff, but when he showed up here, under the circumstances--he must have been hacking the system, following the trail to the DG. I thought you should know.”
Lix manages to smile over her outrage, thanks him. She forces herself to sit still until he’s closed the door, and then she’s out of her chair, just for the sensation of movement. Not for the first time, she wishes her office had an exterior view. She makes do with closing her eyes, imagining an open space. A technique they'd taught her, long ago, when she'd needed it. It helps, a little. Does nothing to clear her racing thoughts. She fingers a nick in the paint on her wall.
He’d been in Paris. Randall had been in Paris, and of course, Freddie’s right, he was after records, but also Freddie is wrong, he wasn’t after the evidence against Clarence. Clarence was an offering, a solution to a problem brought to Lix’s door like a bouquet of flowers or a dead mouse--a mole--with the expectation that it would gain him entry.
Where else had Randall gone before he presented himself on her threshold? Barcelona? Madrid? Granada? What right does he have to step all over the past like this, when he abandoned it in the first place? She wants to forbid it, lock down the borders both real and in her heart, shut him into her memories and go back to pretending he wasn’t ever more than a job that ended, difficult while it lasted, left behind cleanly, cauterised.
She lets out a breath and puts her reading glasses back on. Tries to focus on her paperwork.
If Randall is surprised when she asks him home for dinner, he gives no indication of it, and the actual gifts he brings--flowers after all, and wine--look like laughably fake props in his hands. She can imagine the scene at the shop, Randall hesitating in front of an endless shelf, straightening the bottles and bewildered at the array of choices, the opportunities to get the alias wrong. Would Randall the ordinary human being buy this identical wine or that one on his way to his ordinary dinner date with his ordinary, his ordinary…? There Lix’s sense of humour runs out, so she relieves him of the wine and the flowers, and waves him into her, well, her astonishingly ordinary flat.
While she unpacks the takeaway, he hovers, examining everything around him with the air of a difficult, half-feral cat. She doesn’t have anyone in to clean, people like her never do, not the sort with dusters and vacuum cleaners anyway; there is a joke about the excessive thoroughness of a spy’s cleaner. But it helps that her furnishings are modern and that she has almost no personal belongings. What she does have is a floor to ceiling view of a twinkling cityscape that is removed and anonymised and lovely from this height. She also has reinforced soundproofing and regular debugging sweeps.
They can talk here.
What a change, how grown up they are, how sane, eating a meal together, off of clean plates, in her home. Tulips on the table between them. As if she isn’t furious with him, as if he hasn’t so recently tipped over the scales of rage. Sometimes, Lix hates that Randall’s calcified angers are so useful to the state.
(Sometimes she’s heady with shame knowing the part she's played in cultivating the Randall who is a weapon. Even then, there had been the moments she’d seen him so tired of it; when she'd tired of it, too, of losing to the part of him that was separate, kept him incomprehensible and unreachable even when he'd been in her arms.
She remembers chasing him to the seaport in Jakarta, catching up in time to see the body already falling away from his loosening grip, his face fixed and otherworldly. She'd watched him, waiting--years later, she isn't sure if the dread she associates with that tableau was there from the beginning, or if she only felt it later, when he'd turned to her, and she could see the cost of his control, or after she'd coaxed the uncannily clean knife from him and they'd left the dead man in the lee of a container ship, relieved of valuables, not a drop of blood on either of them.
Once, it had been a fountain pen and a pocket square against the wound, and still his hands were clean.
Of course she should have saved him then, and saved herself. But there was the world instead, and that hasn't changed, not for her, not when she's made it her life’s work, in lieu of what it could have been.)
Can he tell that she's fuming in the way she pours her wine?
He eats with a quiet circumspection, not trying to make conversation. He clears away the plates and the forks, finding his way around her kitchen as though he's never been away. She stands by her window and contemplates the city while she nurses her final glass of wine, one arm wrapped around herself, her quarrel with Randall temporarily at bay. She closes her eyes when she senses him emerging from the kitchen. She isn't ready to turn around and face him, not yet.
“I don't want--” she tries to speak calmly, to smooth the catches in her voice before they escape into the air between them. “Leave the past in the past, Randall. There's nothing to be gained in digging up...in reopening old wounds.”
“When a bone is set incorrectly, it has to be broken again. Otherwise, makes it very difficult to run. Keeps one up at night. I've been limping along on a bad leg all these years; in a way, all my life. I grew tired of dragging the weight of it. And I thought if there was a chance--”
“--if there’s any chance, then I have to take it. I can tell you know I went looking through your old records. The remnants are easy enough to track down, if you know they’re there. But I found...some forms, dates, a name, which, I must confess, leaves a certain amount of detail lacking, no matter how vivid the imagination. If I had a picture, a trace…”
In the end she turns to look at him because she wants to see his face, because she doesn’t understand how he can come back into her life only to torment her like this, what could make him believe he’s doing any good. He falters, stricken--she’s keeping it together, just--but the teeth of conviction grip him, and he presses on, relentless.
She’d like to ask him to leave, because there’s nowhere she can really go and she’s desperate for escape. But she won’t send him away to disappear again, so she stands still, shaking, holding her place, holding the damned glass, holding herself in as she’d had to learn to do.
“You must have kept something that you can let me see. You must want--”
“Don’t do this. Don’t make me say it.”
“If I could see what she looks like, if we take the chance together, then maybe we could find her.”
Something too sharp to feel slices through all the filaments strung through her. She’s tied so many of them across the chasm she’d forgotten they were nothing more than threads.
“You can’t know that for sure.”
The hard and wild thing fills his eyes, and she should help him, but she has to breathe. She has to breathe. He’s said something unthinkable, and she leaves the glass on the table and Randall in front of the window.
They had had a child, a little girl. The child died, in France.
Sophia, her name was Sophia.
It was in no meaningful way a secret that Lix had had a baby; for one thing, there were hospital records, immunisations, receipts for bills paid. There was even a birth certificate, if one knew how to look, though Mafrand was a legend, one Lix never used again after Noisiel. For another, there was the baby herself. In the dust from Randall’s supposed defection, Lix insisted on working through almost all of her pregnancy, and after she was born brought Sophia around with her everywhere.
It wasn’t at all clandestine, and nor was it discreet, or sensible, or any of a thousand things Lix should have been, and it probably wouldn’t have lasted long past those first years, but then a bomb went off, and a building collapsed on what Lix hadn’t been willing to call her whole existence, and she never had a chance to give Sophia up to a better life.
But after she was discharged from hospital, after the psychiatric furlough, when she was finally allowed back in the field, Lix Storm never again mentioned the little girl who had charmed ambassadors and served as surprisingly effective camouflage on more than one occasion, and no one who knew her questioned her on this erasure. What difference could it have made? So Sophia might never as well have been.
Years passed. Regimes toppled. The world changed, as it does. It changed often, but not for Lix. For her it would always stay the same.
Randall is still on the sofa, and the light edging over London is wan and weakly crepuscular when Lix finds the courage to emerge from her bedroom. She’s holding the crumpled manila envelope that’s served, since the day she’d unpacked the belongings they’d stored for her--hobbling around an echoing flat until she’d realised she could not live with the objects that had come out of the box--as marker for a grave that doesn’t exist.
Having come this far, she’s not convinced she can hand it over. She smooths her fingers over its surface, worn to the velvet of fawn’s ears long ago and mottled since then, untouched for years. She supposes she buried it as best she could.
But Randall won’t let her sleep. He wants to unearth little tombs, exhume sparrow's bones he doesn’t believe could be below ground, rather than in the air.
He rises to meet her, and looks so hopeful she wishes she could hide the envelope away again. It isn’t good for anyone for her to humour this ridiculous notion of his. But she hands it over before she can change her mind. She wants to doubt, too, for just a moment, to fall under the spell of Randall’s hope. Like trying to catch a dropped knife. Stupid and irresistible. By the time reflex draws her hand back, she'll have a nasty cut, but it's an urge one has to train out of oneself, and she hasn't done, not when it comes to him.
Lix hadn't dared to write on the front, not so much as a name; it’s a blank, like Sophia’s life. It’s a weightless thing. In Randall’s cautious fingertip grasp, it looks as though it could lift away on a breath of air. He turns it over and unwinds the figure eight of the string, tilts the mouth of the envelope towards his open palm.
One photograph, rounded at the corners, slides out, and a lock of hair. She’d saved that lock from the very last haircut. Sophia had wanted it short, and Lix had collected it on a whim, a sentimental keepsake of fading babyhood to tuck in a dresser drawer.
Randall smooths the little curl with his index finger. He studies the only picture Lix has saved of their daughter. Sophia, head bent over a picture book, nascent frown of concentration just visible. Lix, overtaken by the sense memory of brushing Sophia’s hair, fleecy and prone to tangles, is only aware that he's very still, as though holding his breath.
“On that day in…”
“...in Noisiel, yes...”
“You were trapped in the building for thirteen hours.”
He prompts her in small segments, playing the line.
“I...I wasn't with her. I'd had to go out to speak with a, uh, stringer and only just got back. We’d had something that might have looked like a warning, but the intelligence was all over the place, we didn't know what was going on, and we were trying to find out. One of the technical people was keeping an eye on her while she slept.
“When the, when the bomb went off, the heat and the concussion knocked everyone over. We...picked ourselves up and saw that we were on the far side of the facility from the detonation, it was possible to get out. But I thought if I could make it to the room where she'd been sleeping, I could…”
Lix sucks her lips in, trying so very hard.
“Then the building fell.” She’d told this story before, been made to talk about it with her psychiatrist until somehow she’d managed to shape it into a size she could fit in the life she'd been left to, but it's different, telling it to Randall. It blooms. It's a drop of blood in water.
“I couldn't”--she squeezes her eyes shut, swallows, continues--“couldn’t get out of the rubble. I couldn’t get to her.”
She rubs her fingertips with her thumbs, worrying at bandages that are no longer there.
“In time, they dug me out, but not her. She was just gone.”
“They told you she was dead. That she’d been in the blast.”
Lix nods. She has imagined her child caught in every explosion since that she's ever been too late to stop.
“But you never saw a body.”
A vertiginous fury washes through her at the way Randall is trying to pick the sutures out of her life, and just as quickly, it drains away, leaving her wrung out. She's too tired to explain herself. To tell him about the pictures and the analyses, to lay out the evidence of debriefings and inquests and confidential reports. He’ll have already seen the documents. He’ll have gone through all the newspaper articles. A full-scale investigation and a manhunt took place in the aftermath of the attack, but by the time Lix had got out of hospital, it was all over.
She'd gone to the site, against orders. She'd peered into the pile of charred concrete and twisted metal, already washed by rain and neglect into anonymous postindustrial decay, and though in her soul she'd sifted through every scrap of wet fabric, every splinter of burnt furniture that she could pick out among the debris, she'd known it to be a barren exercise. So she'd tried to examine in her heart the choices she could have made differently not to end up with a lost child and a broken life. It hadn't helped. They could have told her as much.
Eventually, she'd found her way by going back to work. She was good at it; it was hard, and then it just was, and maybe she's been afraid to examine herself too closely, but yes, eventually, it was easier.
Almost immediately, she can tell that she's made Randall worse.
She gets him to leave, and she lets him have the envelope, feeling like the laces are being pulled out of her, and she tries to doze for an hour or two because she's old and she has a demanding job.
He's there when she walks into the office, pacing exact little parallelograms, and she wonders if he went straight from her door to Millbank, if he ever goes to the flat he's been leased, except when he knows he's being monitored. He's all nervous energy, straightening chairs and adjusting lamps, and Lix can see that if she doesn't get him something to do the rest of her staff is going to go out and find trouble just to get away from him.
Isaac has a stack of resources in regard to the Brightstone lead to sort through, something Randall has always been good at when he's not out doing what he does, so she sets him on those, and then has Bel in to talk about her Cilenti project. By the time they're through with the meeting, Randall’s at Isaac’s desk telling him a witty story, and if Isaac’s laugh seems a little uncertain, it could be because Randall’s anecdotes usually leave one wondering if one has really understood.
Superficially, he's more relaxed, his hands in his pockets and his concessionary smile on his face. But she can sense Randall’s eyes on her as she tries to get on with her work, catches high-index lenses reflecting flashes of fluorescent light as he turns his head to home in on her, following her wherever she goes.
They’d met in a narrow corridor in Century House, like two dogs introduced on neutral ground, wary, skinny creatures too reticent for a romp around the park. At that age, they’d worn their undomesticated dispositions like badges; Lix was too proud to be unnerved by the way Randall looked at her in that wordless veiled way through his thick glasses as he did at everyone. As for Randall, even now Lix doesn’t know what he’d thought, only that there must have been some lack of disapproval because the matchmaking went through.
From the beginning, she travelled with him, and Lix was given to understand that this was an unusually intimate arrangement and a potentially damaging one. But once in situ, Randall would disappear like any agent, sometimes for days, sometimes weeks. He was thorough about it. Lix would wait, sifting through all the other work she was assimilating, while he completed the tasks she parsed for him.
That they allowed her to run an agent at all was the first of many engagements in a revolution that remade an organisation surviving by hewing to old forms. Whether they knew it or not, the shadowy men of the intelligence hierarchy needed her, born into the world they’d made, wounded by its paranoia, weighted by its fear.
And if she’d known that the world she would make, in her turn, would shatter that fear into a million shards and embed them along its newly drawn lines, she’d have taken the job anyway.
She’d have done what she needed to do.
Randall had responded to the barbarity of the world with his own form of fury, uncontainable and fatal, but she had, in fact, been very good at controlling it. She'd known better than anyone how to direct him, how to aim his deadliness and hit a target.
She'd known almost from the start, before she was good at anything else, because she understood the fuel that fed his anger. She knew what drove him and it drove her too, that sense of the world being wrong and the thrill of going in and doing something about it--the thrill, too, of just daring--and only sometimes, in moments of extremis, did she have to funnel him through herself, sieve some of what made him Randall through the filters she used to navigate civil life. And even that had been fine until they had begun to sleep together.
Then it was good. It was better.
It was harder, too, because it made everything matter, where she'd clung on to the remnants of her nihilism before. But she'd been twenty-five, too old (also too young) for such adolescent absolutes, and working with Randall, being with Randall gave her a way forward. She'd used his singularity of purpose as a crutch and a sort of reverse prism with which to gather her strengths.
What had been easy, what had been natural--throwing herself in as though the throwing itself would get her wherever she was meant to be next--only a few years earlier had turned out to be childish idealism. The reality was that although punctuated by the awareness of savage, casual cruelty (not to mention inexorable annihilation), life happened day by day with a crushing banality. A democratised sword of Damocles the massive presence over all their heads, no one ever looked up. They had no need.
She drank. She danced, in clubs boasting sticky floors and one a.m. laser shows with the most junior diplomats and the cultural attachés. She tallied what they took and who they took it from in the foam and with the club kids. She worked.
When the Wall had fallen, it hadn't made as much a difference as she'd thought it would. While she went through the motions of celebration with the rest of the world, happy for those who would be free, by that time Lix already knew too much to think there wasn't another sword, or the same one, flashing in dark alleys, rehung glinting in the sky.
Randall, for all his seething quirks, in spite of his role in the intelligence machine, believed fully in the cause where Lix couldn’t. He needed to, perhaps because of his work, perhaps because he was the absolutely committed being he was.
He would find her at her lowest moments, or his, and together they would spin dreams of freedom from threat for the world they loved. For she did love the world, as impossible as it was to stand sometimes.
And she loved him for it. Theirs was a sort of flirtation that started solemnly and shed seriousness over the course of a night, lifting to high spirits as dawn broke over whichever city they’d kept vigil over (wandering its backstreets, writing its geography to the store of learned, cherished things), and it became clear that war had not. Exhausted and exhilarated, they would stand too close and smile, too giddy, and forget the dangers that might at any moment destroy all the things they cared about, that might consume everything.
“You see, we find a way,” he’d say.
She’d ask, “A way to what?”
So she’d kiss him, having survived.
Lix compromises herself in three ways. The first, and most severe, is to allow herself to believe in, to buy into Randall’s theory. Hope is one thing--to desire a sliver of hope only human--but belief; belief owns a person. She has little reason to believe him, his a tale of paranoia and pointless conspiracy supported by the thinnest of evidence. And yet. It's easy. It requires only the most minor of choices, not so much a choice at all but a letting go. Although she can't admit as much right away, she lets go. It's terrifying.
And it's seductive, and it’s cruel, and it could destroy her, this dream of Randall's that Sophia might be alive. Because what he's given her is not so much the dream that Sophia is living as it is the nightmare that she never died. Lix is fervent that it be true, yet she doesn't know if she's strong enough to learn to live with herself again if it is. Surely, one lifetime of guilt is enough. The body won't sustain another.
But what if it is true? Not just might but is: Sophia, no longer the child Lix remembers but a young woman; what would she be like now? Lix allows herself to imagine one detail, and like fission, it cascades across her mind, the invention of minutiae, until every cell of her is irradiated with questions and potential answers. She projects from memory, makes extrapolations she can't possibly support.
She creates a Sophia who was never lost, the one Sophia she is certain cannot exist.
So she tears it all down and leaves herself only the questions.
Does she wear her hair short, still? Is she afraid, is she happy, does she know that there is someone who is to blame?
What does she dream about, walking down a street at the first turn of autumn? Does she feel the urge to dance, to rush out into the open, to fill herself with filaments from the thunderous, fragile world until the tears in her eyes are tears of awe?
Is she like Randall? Is she brilliant and unbearable and full of hope?
The second way in which Lix compromises herself is to mobilise government resources in aid of Randall’s search. She doesn’t hide what she’s doing, but neither does she report it. It’s a kind of betrayal, but such a small one. In a lifetime of falsities, it hardly registers.
Still, sneaking around behind the backs of those who trust her most, the colleagues whose lives depend on (nebulous, often unverifiable) trust, she wonders, just who has she been lying to, and to what end? Sometimes, it isn’t so much that she forgets what’s true as that she can’t remember what the hell she’s been lying about.
Bel figures it out, of course, because Bel is thorough and Bel is vigilant.
“Lix,” she says before the weekly conference, a printout in her hand. “Did you request a records query? It's just the off-site component is massive, and I want to make sure we aren't wasting ground hours on a machine-initiated error.”
Lix considers Bel for a moment, looking over her reading specs. (Bel is squinting at the page as though it's out of focus. She must remember to bring in some of her early pairs for Bel to try. Or requisition a vision exam.) “I might have done. Let me see.”
Bel surrenders the paper. Lix pretends to read it. “Ah. Yes, this is in order.”
“But what is it for?”
Lix shakes her head. “Sorry, can’t disclose.”
But Bel won't be put off the trail so easily when she's scented that something is amiss. She stands over Lix with her hands on her hips. “What's going on? It's not like you to shut me out of something this big.”
“No, but I have to shut you out of this one.”
Bel stares at her with an expression of vexed disbelief. “I'll just remain deniable, then, shall I? On whatever misuse you could be committing? It isn't like I might be able to help, or want to.”
Lix wishes she could summon some pique with which to respond, but her heart’s not in it. If she can’t deceive Bel, she’ll have to depend upon her discretion. Or goad her out of persuing the matter.
“Oh, come on, Bel, you don’t need to be involved in everything. You’ll still be Head Girl even if you don’t know it all.”
It’s a low shot, but an effective one.
I’ll buy you a drink later and make it up to you, she thinks, but Bel’s hurt is clear, and Lix is sorry for it.
They kept their secrets close. If it had come to light, this fraternisation, Randall would have been pulled and Lix would have been reprimanded.
In Spain, she'd been happy. Madrid was at once stately and vital. Everywhere, huge horses looked down at them from the tops of grey and monumental buildings, their bronze riders receding behind heroic equine animation. It was a conservative city that had tipped over into a frenzied unsleeping freedom, sitting high up in the very centre of a fractious world. Always, there was light, light that polished the dusty pastel façades and made everything green grow and chased the nights like an afterglow.
They walked in the parks and they walked through the markets, and when Randall came back from being away they went to the Prado and looked at the Black Paintings. They tried to look at Guernica behind its glass in the museum annex.
Alone at night long, long after the cooling air had chased the sun, they ate jamón and conservas and drank anything they could get their hands on--wine, sherry, licór. They tasted it from each other's lips and they tasted it on each other’s skin, salt and sweet and bitter, and when they had drunk enough, it was just possible to swap their world of secrets and shadows for the simpler world of their feelings, to pretend that one was fiction and the other, hidden one, shining and real.
What Lix does to compromise herself the third way, then, is only what she's done all along, to love Randall, and that has also to do with believing in him; but which, of passion or of faith, is cause and which effect, she doesn't know.
The early tasks, she saw with hindsight, were tests. Those assignments had been easy successes, almost a battery of first times. When Randall performed adequately on one, they would send another, more complex, more dangerous, with deeper implications.
They knew he could kill. Yet they didn't require it of him at first. Until the team had been fully tried, Lix wasn't asked to ask him. It was need to know, but Randall was her asset, and apparently she didn’t bloody need to know.
It turned out Randall was good at a great many things an organisation dedicated to espionage might want accomplished, most of which took precedence over assassination. In all the years after, Lix wouldn’t again have anyone nearly as good at walking placidly into an office and lifting documents--the right documents--or making a microform (she would have strong words with her station-keeping counterparts in Paris) and walking out again. If he didn’t want to be followed, and she’d be grateful for and hate this skill in equal measure one day, no one could follow him. When they needed information, and they always needed information, he would bring in the right person, every time, for Lix to coax into the open.
In short, he was a superb spy, wholly adapted to the contingent operations assigned to him. On the rare occasions he chanced into difficulties, he generally got himself out of them. He wasn’t afraid of violence, only of untidiness.
So perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise when the order came. Perhaps it wasn’t.
But holding the words in her hands, Lix was determined to perform for herself the emotion of dismay. She thought, you are appalled. You have to be appalled, because to receive these instructions and not to pause strips you of the competence to act on them.
Afterwards, returned to the city that had become home, they sat on the teleférico, silent as the orange roofs slid by beneath them. Lix looked out the window at the Palacio and La Almudena pale on their promontory above the river, her elbow on the sill and her cheek against her knuckles. The old city receded, they crossed over the train tracks and the Manzanares, and as the terrain transitioned to the dry earth and sparse trees of the mock countryside, Lix and Randall regarded one another across the metal cabin.
“You’ve done this before. Tell me.”
Randall hesitated, and when he began to speak it was looking down at his hands on his knees, but he was matter-of-fact. No pain in his voice. “It was something I could do, or so they saw. It doesn’t begin out of nothing, but it’s something one learns, as one learns to operate a clutch or to feign deference. They taught me. They trained me. The training makes it possible.”
“Is that what you’ve been doing, training me?”
He shook his head minutely. “I wouldn’t want to. You...shouldn't learn to do this.”
“Why, because I’m a woman?”
“Because you’re better. Than the use of force. Better than killing.”
She wouldn’t let him get away with that kind of self-denigration. “And are you not? Were you not?”
He grimaced. “I was very angry once.”
Lix couldn’t help but smile. She leaned forward to stroke his face. “You’re still angry, Randall.”
“Supposing I am?”
“Perhaps I am, too, have you thought of that?”
He tilted his head, demurring and skeptical. “You’re not angry. Not like that. You’re not…”
“What? What am I not?”
“You don't want to destroy our world, you want to rescue it.”
She sat back to examine him. “I'm surprised the Soviets never got to you,” she said. She had been so confident, then, that he was hers. Her agent. Her assassin, yes, but hers.
“They ran out of time.”
The cable car entered its upper terminus and slowed. “Well, we’ve run out of time, too. We’re here.”
They got out and walked through the stubby pine wood. If this was a test, then it had been the final one. They’d crossed a threshold--they’d crossed the threshold. Randall had not become a horrifying stranger, as she might have feared. He was as he had been all along. But the stakes had always been high, and trusting in Randall Brown, believing in Randall Brown made it possible to do the work where without him it was only necessary.
At the base of her trust, this belief: that he didn’t want to destroy the world any more than she did. He wanted to redeem it.
Memory is obstinate. Memory is bloody-minded. Memory is a chronic, devastating virus whose strategy is one of relentless surprise siege, lying in wait for every vulnerability. The human mind isn’t like a computer, or a camera, or a scribbled code on a piece of paper. The information one tries to expunge is never entirely gone. It’s a ghost on the tape, rippling to the surface again given a stochastic set of nevertheless quotidian queries.
Biting into a pastry out of a basket, watching the crumb spring back, picking flakes off the plate with thumb and forefinger; a dozen times only other catered breakfasts are recalled, and then once, without warning, instead it's the pain au chocolat shared, clandestinely, outside of meal hours, with her little rebel.
Maybe that’s how it is, when you’re a spy. Maybe you can’t erase anything, even the things you thought you’d never written down. Without a record, every past is as real as every other. And every past is your past, the one from which you can’t really run, no matter where you go. The images Lix has tried to leave behind are the vivid, searing ones, and lie as she might to herself about her ability to forget, they project themselves on the screen of her mind again and again--they are inscribed on her bones. They circulate through her veins.
She doesn’t even have to close her eyes.
The bodies. And her body, turning her child into the world. Her body giving up all its inviolable boundaries to transmute nothingness into a life that might not rescue the world, but must surely redeem it. All the blood of the dead and dying couldn’t be washed away, but, oh, but it could be forgiven, couldn’t it?
In a collapsed building, her body failing her, frail after all.
She wasn’t Mother, only woman.
After Randall left, and after the recriminations had settled into repercussions, negotiated in locked conference rooms, Lix had fled Madrid. She'd headed north, out of Spain, and east, down from the plateau to the sea. In the shadow of the Catalans’ sacred mountain, with the bonfires of Canigó like beacons in the night, she'd laboured, giving birth on midsummer day.
And she'd learned to take life while learning what it was to give life, the day to day project of sustaining an infant side by side with the excavation of Randall’s unfinished work.
His admonitions echoed in her head. But his voice was always in her head then, filling in for the absence of the real thing.
She'd long since made the commitments. Accepted the responsibility. If she was able to pull the trigger, if that was something she could do, it was because she'd already been doing as much by sending Randall on wetwork ops. That it was so much harder in person...unimaginably so (how her hands had shaken; how in the aftermath her aloneness ached)...that was a psychological difference, and not a moral one. Lix’s ethics said that if she was willing to go as far as she already had, then it was hypocrisy--and dangerous equivocation--to balk now.
Still, holding her daughter to her breast, she wondered if she’d ever understood what she was trying to protect by becoming a spy, wondered what Sophia would think of the broken world she’d be given. She wondered how she would ever choose to send her away, how she could ever have chosen to keep her.
“Excuse me, are you...Alexis Mafrand?”
The man who shows up to the rendezvous at the South Bank is neatly dressed in a good suit, but his hair is unkempt and he has a nervous look to him--understandable, perhaps, given the circumstances of their meeting. He blinks large eyes at her before reverting to looking around behind him, as though certain someone is watching. (It’s a major public recreation area. Everyone is watching, and no one is.)
In response, she holds her gaze steady, affecting a calm she doesn't feel. His question is supposed to be easy to answer, but the lie sticks in her throat now, when it’s most important, when it isn’t really a lie at all.
She swallows her hesitation, says, “You’re Mr. Dugdale?”
“Oh!” he says with surprise, blinking. “I thought you’d...be French?”
She ducks her head, playing up her uncertainty with a touch of wryness, pitching her voice up. “It is a French name, isn’t it, Mafrand?”
There’s something familiar about this skittish man, but she can’t place him. He could be any mid-level civil servant accidentally glimpsing the fringes of a world he’s meant to be protected from seeing.
“Well, it’s just that when, when, when we got Sophia…”
Oh, heart, you’re the organ most likely to fail an old spy.
Lix manages a reassuring smile, conveying one emotion to obfuscate another. A mask that shapes the face that wears it.
“...she didn’t speak much English,” he finishes.
It’s impossible to imagine: her Sophia, so verbal, growing up speaking a language that, while not alien, is still fundamentally foreign. Losing the funny toddler phrases she’d picked up as she’d begun to express herself.
Lix is aware that it’s her turn in the conversation and she’s let it falter to an uncomfortable pause. “And that was when she was…?”
“Eleven. We think. She didn’t have any papers--but you’ll know that. This was eight years ago.”
She presses her lips together, nods. “She would have, uh, she would have turned twelve in June. The 24th of June.”
A light seems to switch on on Dugdale’s face. “That’s Sophia’s birthday, 24 June?”
“If I can ask, where was she born?”
It’s Dugdale’s right to ask questions, isn’t it? This man who has looked after--and, apparently, loved--her child for all these years, who doesn’t have to speak to her at all, especially when it involves enigmatic meetings with a bunch of spooks. He must have so many questions, and he’s being so very polite about them.
Lix leans forward, resting her forearms on the handrail, and looks away into the trees below.
“She was born in Perpignan; prior to that--well, we were relocating.”
In the aftershock of the botched op in Bilbao, even with Randall gone, it had been too hot for Lix to remain on the Madrid station. When he ran, she'd bargained, wondering if she could have prevented what happened, if she hadn’t been so ill, if she'd tried harder to monitor him, to hunt him when he had gone.
In the end, she ran, too, in a way, pretending her fresh start could protect her and her baby. (An official posting in Paris, Randall's loose ends in her dossier; another job, easier, harder.) That she could have Sophia and her career. She’d failed in her responsibility for Randall. When she should have chosen either her duty to her country or to her child, she wasn’t able to relinquish either.
No, that forfeit had been forced from her.
“The one who came to see me…” Dugdale says cautiously.
“I’d rather you didn’t ask that.” She puts much of the firmness back into her voice, regretting having to shift the tone of the exchange--terrified Dugdale will shut down. And he does recoil, wincing almost cartoonishly, but then he recovers himself. He blinks and licks his lip.
“Right. And I’d rather not expose my daughter to someone I don’t know, who approached me out of nowhere, and who could be dangerous to her.”
Absurdly, Lix almost smiles. Threaten him, and it turns out this anxious man is a terrier, just full of spirit.
It would be melodramatic and possibly untrue to tell him that while he is no threat to Sophia, Randall could very well be one to him. But what can she say? That Randall is the father who disappeared before his baby could be born? Inadequate. That he’s a government hit man gone rogue? Unhelpful. Attempts at truth that leave out so much they might as well be lies. She settles for something that’s more relevant in the present, and leaves the past where it is.
“If it hadn’t been for him, I would never have suspected that she was still alive.”
She sees Dugdale accept this small concession as the best she can give, and painfully true. Sensing that it’s time to press him, she adds, “It was his project to find you, but I’m the one asking if you would, that is if she would like--”
“But how did it, how did it happen? Why would Sophia be separated from you in a way as to make you think she had died?”
“We don’t know. I’d like to know. I hope that with your help, we can find out.” Only partially untrue. “You must be aware, Mr. Dugdale, that in my profession, risk and the unknown are part and parcel. We do what we have to do.”
He doesn’t look convinced. In fact, he looks downright skeptical: uneasy or disgusted; she’s far too invested to tell which. “You mean for Queen and country?”
“Something like that.”
“A secret war is no place for a child.”
And to make that judgment, Lix thinks, he has the right as well.
It’s only later, reviewing the meeting with the obsessive thoroughness of occupational habit, that she realises where she has seen Michael Dugdale before. Budapest. Those hostages, who’d looked more like refugees, like they’d been on the run themselves. Lix had flown over to repatriate remains--a colleague had died rescuing them.
She hadn’t seen much of the haggard little group in her brief stop at the embassy, but she remembered noticing that they were a strange set of people to have been caught together, motley holidaymakers brought close by tribulation. It seems imperative now she remember everything about that glimpse.
She stubs out her cigarette and shakes out another, grateful for once her department’s offices are a bunker in the centre of a fortress (disguised as a Grade II listed building), meaning no one can look through a window and catch sight of the boss losing it out back of the building. Only the camouflaging foliage and the impassive stone watch her pace the dim bit of outdoor space coming off the main courtyard like an alley. She lights the second cigarette, trying to recall details of that one afternoon among many, how many years ago?
Dugdale, sagging with exhaustion and looking around the supposedly safe world with frightened eyes. All the rescued hostages subdued, sticking close to what they knew: each other.
Eight years ago, autumn. Chestnuts and black locusts with canopies like ambered clouds between the buildings. Leaves underfoot on tiled pavement, gathering against ironwork bollards.
Dugdale putting on a brave face for his family. There had been a woman and a girl in a knitted beret; he’d put his arms around her, protecting and comforting her while she clung to him, burrowed in his coat. The girl must have been, what, eleven years old?
A sick comprehension takes her all at once. It had crept up on her while she worried over minutiae, and now it's too late to escape it. A girl, eleven years old. Lix had been near her, seen only the back of her. Walked away. From her girl. Her own child.
She isn’t aware she’s begun to cry until the sob goes through her, a great spasm that takes her whole body and bucks it, one violent effluxion of grief that feels like something splitting and also like all the air is wringing out of her, wet and smoke-tinged.
She tries to rein it in at once, afraid someone will come along to sneak a smoke break and see her like this, but though she turns away from the building and forces the air to stay in her lungs, she struggles to bring herself under control. She squeezes her eyes shut, wraps one arm around the other, but the tears won't stop, and she’s shaking.
“Can I have one of those?”
Startled, Lix drops the crumpled remnant of her cigarette. “Shit.” She bends to pick it up, buying herself time before she has to turn around. She manages to put the stub in the receptacle without looking at Bel, even rummages in her pocket for the half-empty pack and her lighter. By the time she hands them to Bel, she has basic command of her face again, maybe even her hands.
Still, the look of shock on Bel’s ingénue features is not encouraging.
“Aren't you quitting?” Lix asks. If her makeup is in anything as much of a mess as her voice, Lix can well understand Bel’s startlement.
“I haven't seen you" --she ventures a tentative breath-- "smoke since Freddie went to Acapulco.”
But Bel picks up on the desperate levity of Lix’s quip, carefully goes along with it. “Aren't you meant to be quitting? It came up at your last physical, as I recall. Anyway, you know how it is. I'm gasping.”
Bel peers at Lix curiously and waits to see what’ll happen.
“I didn't know you were familiar with this spot,” Lix says. “Most people make use of that eyesore behind the archway.”
“Sissy sent me. She said she thought you might like to talk in private.”
Lix sizes Bel up. In this moment, Bel is a friend but also very much a junior colleague. It doesn't matter how sympathetic she is: most of what is wrecking Lix she can't explain to her. Still, she looks away. “Darling, there's nothing to talk about.”
You were crying.
She can almost hear Bel say it, an accusation as much as a surprised observation.
“You may feel constrained by the fact that I'm your subordinate,” she says instead, “but I'd like to think your confidence in me goes beyond our working relationship."
But then she leans forward and drops both the formality and the careful casualness. "Lix, what is it? What's wrong? Please tell me.”
Lix presses her palms to her eyelids. She isn't sure how it happens, but when she lets her arms down, Bel puts a hand on her shoulder, and though Lix can only insist that the matter is confidential, she finds herself letting Bel hold her nonetheless.
When Randall refuses to be talked out of accompanying her to the next meeting, Lix has little will to resist. She wants, just for a short while, to let someone else take charge, someone who hasn’t already been given a chance and botched it.
Dugdale is edgier around Randall, so Lix leads them down to the pedestrian promenade, where they can walk while they talk. This early in the morning, there are few people lingering between the skate park and the empty sand installation; in the shadows, the concrete is chilly and not particularly welcoming. Even the rainbow colours of the temporary playground are muted.
On the way to the meet, they had worried over contingency plans, but Dugdale is more than willing to answer their questions.
“No, no, Jen and I, we didn’t meet Sophia until after, after we were taken hostage. She was already there. She said...she said that her ‘guardian’ had been shot.”
“I don’t know. She wouldn't talk about it at first, and later, well, she found the particulars...hard to recall. She said her memories were muddled, and, and we talked about what she’d witnessed, but she never explained--I think she wanted to move on.” He lifts his palms as if to say, what can you do?, and he smiles an apologetic smile. “She had a therapist. Maybe she told him. Look, what I’m trying to say is, she was reticent with us about it, anyway, even after her English had improved.”
Has Dugdale told Sophia about meeting them?
Dugdale’s edginess suddenly tips over into something else entirely: Lix and Randall, experienced as they are, spot the amateur trying to get away with a bad lie. In retrospect, the eagerness to answer questions is a clumsy tell.
Randall’s hackles go up, his hanging hands clench with preparatory hostility, and Lix can feel the energy in him coiling for an attack. But she hurries to drop her nearer hand over his. His fingers flex and half relax.
Still, Dugdale notices, and his alarmed look goes from Randall to Lix, searching their faces. He puts his hands on his hips, posturing, nervous. Then all that puffed up bravado deflates, and he’s only a thin man wearing a worried look. He rubs his hand over his mouth. He owns up: that he doesn't actually know where Sophia is.
She’s nineteen, no longer a minor, and like so many young people, has gone off somewhere and failed to phone home. It's hardly surprising. Look at who she’s come from. Look at where she's been.
At that age, Randall had been on his way to the Falklands, learning to kill from a man who’d turned out to be MI6--the family talent an unavoidable, inevitable fate. And Lix, fiercely free at university, had just narrowly thrown over the most well-spoken, forceful girl she would ever meet and the anti-nuclear protests in which this girl--Henrietta Williams now, Lix has kept track--would have involved her. Would either of them have survived the alternatives, if they’d chosen or been chosen otherwise, the damage from the lives they have had notwithstanding?
Their search seems suddenly urgent, crucial. With the names and details Dugdale can provide them, however, and the resources Lix has at her command, it's only a matter of time before they locate her. They hole up in Lix’s flat submitting queries to localised databases--the most statistically likely to yield results--but when the usual avenues of public and police surveillance unearth nothing, it’s to Sissy and her specialised systems that they turn.
And so it is that in the first image of the living, current Sophia that Lix sees, she is a greyscale blur turning towards something away from the camera, candid, separate, distance underscored by the low-fidelity signal. Lix can’t confirm that the slim, dark-haired young figure on the screen is really her.
Randall steps forward from the space behind her chair, blocking her route of escape. He stares into her laptop as though he can force clarity from the picture. She lifts her eyes to watch him, trying to read the story of their years apart in the lines of his face, the years that have brought too radical a change on the child for her to comprehend, but might just be able to decipher on the father, except that all she can see is the Randall she’d know anywhere.
Only it’s the first time she’s ever seen that kind of wonder in his eyes.
She’s been afraid to say it aloud, lest it turn out not to be true, but speaking her name solidifies its reality. Something fleeting and hopeful tugs at the corners of her mouth. She turns back to the screen, leans into Randall’s side. Together, they study the grainy image of their lost daughter; found now, almost, soon.
Then a girl dies, another parent’s child, and although as always Lix admonishes herself that this is someone else’s tragedy, someone else’s heartbreak, the girl, the Right Honourable Ruth Elms, is not, apparently, someone else’s problem: the Peer in question, the parent, is the key opponent of a piece of legislation that would preserve the special powers that her department—and each one like it across the Services—depends upon during crises of public safety. The sort of powers they had called on so recently to save so many lives.
Is the dead girl a message? A threat that went wrong? Or a genuine accident? Lix is faced with the unpleasant task of investigating her own colleagues regarding an action they only might have taken and on the course of which she is simultaneously not entirely unsympathetic and very much sickened.
Ruth Elms was twenty-one, around Sissy’s age, barely older than Sophia.
Ruth Elms died of an overdose in her family’s closed-up country estate, in a chipping bathtub amid the clutter and dilapidation of a house no longer worth the cost to maintain.
Ruth Elms probably didn’t even know the reason she’d been murdered.
It’s no wonder Clarence kept on spying for the old opponent, even as the alphabet soup turned to mush around him. How much easier, to cling to a dichotomy that dictated a clear, monolithic fear, rather than this bewildering kaleidoscope of dangers. How many officers of a certain generation have lost themselves, unable to come to terms with the shifting of the mirrors, in a shadow world with the searchlights shut off?
And yet, knowing this, Lix’s stomach still seizes with acid when Isaac draws the connection between Ruth Elms and Clarence and Brightstone.
“He was trying to recruit her, or had done, or someone in his network was doing it. The connection isn't clear, but it has to do with Lord Elms’ amendments, and I think…”
“What is it, Isaac?”
“Well, I can't really be sure. This is complete speculation.”
The thing is, Isaac’s speculations are more often than not correct, whether he believes in them or not. He hasn't yet learned to trust in the intuitions that help him piece together the story from the information. He can see the leap, but isn't ready to make it.
“It's all right, tell me.”
“It's very far-fetched, but he might have been some sort of triple agent, working for an as-yet unknown third party with an interest in the privileges of the Intelligence Services.”
Lix nods. “Or he might even have been working on his own towards that end, using resources from both sides. So...if Clarence recruited the Elms girl, and Clarence was blown, and we didn’t find out, then who did know? Who did this?”
All that practice, all that preparing herself for something about to happen--Lix realises with sudden insight that this is what she'd known was coming. While she doesn't have the whole picture yet, if this is Clarence Findlay's doing, then she must go up to Suffolk and see for herself. Perhaps if she does, she'll understand what he's set in motion and how--whether--to stop it.
She rendezvouses with her team in Framlingham; they'd been talking to the local police, looking at the crime scene photos. Bel’s interviewed the caretaker, and Freddie has the keys to the main house. They work well together, but Lix has been trying to shield them. She wonders, now, whether this is ever possible.
Bel and Freddie exchange glances.
“Thought he was with you.”
“Oh, for fuck's sake,” she murmurs under her breath. Lix rummages in her pockets for her mobile. She thumbs the screens and a map displays itself with a blinking indicator in the centre of it.
“You put a tracker on him?” Freddie asks.
“He has a firearm with an RFID tag in it.”
A beat, empty of commentary. Better than she'd expected, all told.
“He's authorised,” she adds, though it's only true in that she has authorised him. She toggles the zoom on the map. “He's at the house.”
“As I recall, it was you, Bel, who noted he was known for his recklessness.”
Bel snorts delicately. “I read it off one of your reports.”
“Yes, well, I was trying not to exaggerate.”
It's all dust covers and ancient furniture inside, the sort of furniture that was sturdy and built to last once, and having lasted, is now dilapidated and perpetually threatening to progress from must to mildew. It’s remnant furniture: the better tapestries taken away long ago, rugs rolled up and sent to the preservers’, what pieces remain scattered about dwarfed by the rooms they occupy, a stage half dismantled, a reminder of a past more planned than the present.
Lix moves through the echoing rooms, stepping softly to dampen the hollow reverberation of her footfalls. Door by door, she enters deeper into the house, each chamber leading into another, a long row unfurling as though what is hidden at the end of the corridor lies waiting to be revealed.
She makes what seems inexorable progress to a door with Randall behind it, like a prize. But he’s seated and he doesn’t get up, barely reacts when he sees her; still processing the scene, it is a moment before Lix registers that something is terribly wrong.
“What’s happened? Are you wounded?” She scans for threats before closing the door behind her.
“No.” His words are slurred, like he’s trying to form them around a mouthful of stale porridge. “Drugged.”
She crosses the remaining distance to crouch by the chair, forgetting caution, and reaches to tip his head back, to pull away his specs and tilt his face into the light so she can take a good look at the dilation of his eye, his pupil hugely dark against the washed-out iris. The whites are watery, crackled with red like hairline fractures across enamel glazing. She loosens his tie, unfastens his top buttons, slipping her fingers under his collar to feel for his pulse. Slow, it's too slow.
“How?” She asks, easing his head against the back of the chair. She stands and finally looks around the room, evaluating it, searching for clues or anything that might help.
“Trap. Coming in.”
She glances behind her. There’s a glint, and she sees the needle on the floor. Inspects his hand (far too still, pallid, limp) for the matching scratch. No way to know what he's been poisoned with. She pulls out her mobile again, gets Bel to requisition a paramedic from the town. She trades her phone for a glove so she can pick up the needle and sets both out of the way on a table before returning to peer into Randall’s eyes again. Better make him concentrate. Besides, she has questions.
“What the hell can you have been thinking, Randall, coming here on your own, without telling anybody? We didn’t anticipate anything like this, but why didn’t you wait for the others, rather than sneak in?”
His face, staring back at her, is filled with an expression she doesn’t understand, a pain that might be anguish muddled by the unnatural sluggishness. Even her concern falls silent at it.
“She...was here. Sophia...was here.”
The world disappears, swallowed in an envelope of pressure--confusion, clarity, possibility. “What?”
Lix stands abruptly. She’s looking everywhere, all around the room, as though now the signs (shouldn’t she have seen them?) will reveal themselves to her. Her gaze skitters across the walls, the window, her glove on the table. It pauses there before ricocheting to Randall.
“Bel and Freddie will be here with the medic. Soon.”
“It’s getting better. Go.”
He doesn't look any better, but Lix hasn't got much of a choice, and he knows it. She has time for neither worry nor implications. She must press on. She leaves Randall behind through another door.
She sees herself in an old mirror, the image unfaithful on its silver backing. The reflection is so distorted, the entire room seems to be set at strange angles, composing a picture that doesn't make sense. Then, dizzyingly, the picture shifts, moving more swiftly than Lix does, and the woman in the glass peels away. In the real space of the house, Lix’s mirror image approaches her, not a reflection at all.
“It really is remarkable, isn’t it? Juliet Shaw.” The doppelgänger extends a cordial hand, crisp. When Lix fails to shake it, she brings her palms together soundlessly. “When I first saw you in Berlin, I was astonished, so believe me, I understand what you're feeling.”
The woman, Juliet Shaw regards her with a proprietary air. Lix is stupefied. It's like being very young and learning other people are separate from you, and not yet quite believing it.
“After that, I made it a priority to find out everything I could about you, and I’ve kept track of you all these years. You’ve had a decent career, given your lack of ambition. It was a shame, that business in Spain. But then, if things had gone on as they had, you wouldn’t be where you are today, would you?”
On close inspection, they aren't so perfectly alike. Shaw’s ironed hair is lighter than Lix’s; she has brighter eyes, and freckles embellish the expression of smug amusement. Either she's taller than Lix or she's wearing high heels. They're inaccurate copies, printed off the same block during two different runs.
“It’s a testament to the deep compartments of secrecy within the unsinkable ship of intelligence that no one noticed our resemblance in those early days, and once I caught on, I made absolutely sure it wouldn’t come up as an issue. I knew it might be useful to me one day to have a double. Ha! We must have been made to be spies!”
Her double’s volubility mutes her. She’s been caught off guard twice now in the corridor of rooms; tripped up, she’s losing her balance, stumbling forward to avoid falling.
Which, out of her many questions and thoughts, should she put forward? What observation is she expected to make? It is outlandish and absurd and so far outside the probable as to be incomprehensible. Lix stumbles for solid ground, lands on professional inanities.
“You’re, what, SIS? And you and I, an...unlikely, unreported coincidence? What about the, uh, the loss of value to the Service--or don’t you care about that?”
“I thought about it. But you must see that as soon as someone found out, these lives wouldn’t have been our own. I’m sure you wouldn’t have wanted that any more than I did. We don’t need twinned agents, that's for plays and espionage novels. It’s one toy too many. They would have been coming up with all sorts of ridiculous uses for us, ill thought out and doomed to failure sooner or later. No, much better to keep this secret.”
Lix hates the position she’s in. This woman knows so much more about her than the reverse. “And now? Am I to think it’s accident that brings you to my attention here?”
Shaw laughs easily, a throaty, disconcertingly familiar bark. “No, of course not… You know that Sophia is here.”
Lix realises suddenly and unequivocally that she doesn’t want to hear whatever it is she’s about to be told. Shaw smiles a little, almost looks away, as though she’s experiencing a moment of empathy. What an effective interrogator she must make.
“As I say, I’ve followed your career very closely. When our building in Noisiel was targetted, I happened to be in Avignon, so I got on the TGV from Valence immediately. The call would soon go out for all available operatives to come to Paris anyway. It was chaos, a bloody disgrace! A picturesque suburb like that, no one expected an attack. No one even knew we were running a facility there.”
“You were missing, and there was your daughter, funny, precocious little thing. It sounds sociopathic now, that I took her. What I thought was, if you died, it would make no difference. But alive, you were insurance. I had to ensure I had leverage over you, and in Sophia I saw an opportunity.”
She meets Lix’s disbelieving stare. “I made sure she was cared for, I’m not a monster.”
It feels like being scraped up the inside with a strigil, this revelation, sweat and dirt and everything about her--all her past, all her fears, her desires--coming off the underside of her skin and leaving her raw and aseptic. It feels like the explosion is inside her.
Her heartbeat rushes through her chest and her head and her gut and her entire ringing body until her fingers seem stung and numb. The room and its sounds and the sight of Shaw’s face, her own face, come back in patches, along with the ability to parse the physical symptoms of what she feels into recognisable emotion.
They pass across her face as temperatures--the shock, yes, one more shock like the last in a series of blows, but after it, rage. Rage. An absolute emotion, almost simple.
“It was never meant to be permanent,” Shaw is saying. “Unfortunately, things got complicated.”
Shaw’s expression hardens.
“Oh, don't look at me like that, we share the same fundamental concerns. The safety of our country, the security of the free world. It's just that I happen to think those goals are best met by putting them in my capable hands. If there's any difference between us it’s that there's no line I wouldn't cross in the service of these aims. Wouldn’t you agree?”
The door clicks open. Behind the two women, Lix and the not-Lix (the ghoul...what else is she, that she could do this?), someone pushes on the door, obscured behind it as it swings on its pivot. Lix’s best line of sight without turning is through the mirror, so it is in its reflection that she watches herself, Juliet Shaw, and, gradually, the figure in the doorway.
The laboured way he moves; in spite of this, the steadiness of the gun in his hand. Randall.
When Lix turns, she sees him see the two of them, sees uncertainty in his eyes. Which of them is which? The foundation of her world, so recently destabilised by seismic cataclysms, develops a crack. She believes he would shoot her. She’s convinced he could shoot her.
Maybe it's not her world but her heart that falls apart. Then they reconstitute themselves, slightly misaligned.
“Hello, Juliet,” he says calmly, as he would to any passing acquaintance. Apparently, Juliet Shaw’s existence isn't a revelation to him.
“You know her?” Lix asks.
He shrugs. “We've met.” He carefully doesn't look at Lix any more than he did before, dividing his attention between them, assessing them.
“How long, Randall, have you known her?” It’s only possible for Lix to question him as her operative. It's a matter of sanity, hers. Of not losing her last shred of control. Not collapsing.
“In Spain she was very convincing.”
“You've known about the existence of a, a doppelgänger for twenty years, and you didn't think it might be germane to tell me?”
“I've been busy.”
“Oh, come now, Mr. Brown,” Juliet interjects with that disconcerting amusement. “Tell her about Bilbao.”
His eyes jump to Lix’s. “She threatened you.”
Lix’s eyes fall shut of their own volition before she forces them open again. This is why he ran? Why he had, had left? This...lunatic wearing her face?
“I didn’t ask for your protection!” Unfair, but he'd known she could fight her own battles. “And I certainly didn't ask for your sacrifice.”
Not for her sake. For their country, perhaps.
“And I didn't ask for yours.” He stares her down. Then he looks away, dismissing her objection with a grimace. “We bargained. I would disappear. She would leave you alone. Both of you.”
Lix is incredulous. Lix is livid. “How could you believe her, how could you be so naïve? What, because she made a few threats that I--we--could have handled, you decided it would be better to leave me without any information, defenceless, and, and half--?"
Is she keening? Is it a whisper, is it her voice that sounds like this?
“Then, when you were gone, when it suited her, she'd be at leisure to come back and finish the job. What did you think would happen? What?”
He can’t close his eyes while he’s covering Shaw, but Lix can feel Randall trying to withdraw, the antennae of his unease searching for somewhere to deposit the disquiet. But in a fight between discipline and need, discipline wins.
“You ran, and she came back for our child. You let her come back to break me.” Lix hears herself saying it, a low, mourning admission like the last divulgence in an interrogation, the one after the duress and the noise are over and all the intelligence, invented and genuine, has been offered up and spurned.
“No.” Randall’s tone is so hoarsely resolute it sounds almost brutal. “You and I both know that you’ve survived. As long as you have the work, you survive.”
When it happens, she isn't looking at Shaw and she doesn't see it in reflection, but her peripheral vision picks up the motion and the spot of black, and her brain puts it together into the pulled gun.
She's on her in an instant, knocking her back into the mirror, her knuckles against its frame. The mirror shatters, shards of glass falling around them, but Shaw’s grip on the gun is tenacious. Lix grinds the back of Shaw’s wrist into the sharp edges until she bleeds onto the fragments of mirror.
She recognises the hurried swallow of pain and fear and uses it to fuel her aggression.
She doesn’t care about the risk anymore.
“Where is Sophia? Where is she?”
Shaw’s gaze flicks to the other door, the inner one, and as if on cue it opens. The girl who rushes through has wild, dark curls and a frame that's all angles and limbs. She moves with a precision that's Randall’s, but the way she expresses shock when she sees them Lix knows with the familiarity of her own body.
“I heard a--”
She stops stock-still. Mouths a soundless syllable.
In that second of distraction, Shaw frees her hand and shoves Lix, who staggers backwards. She expects Shaw to shoot immediately, but instead she pivots to aim at Sophia. Lix swings around into this fragmentary, nightmarish new deténte. But it's a deténte of seconds. Everyone's fingers are already on the triggers.
Randall’s without a clear shot, and there's no time to get out of the way. He's weak, probably inaccurate. But control is a luxury. The danger--
She makes eye contact, widens them, dips her head pointedly. He stiffens in protest. She makes her mouth a thin line. Emphatic.
Randall fires. Lix staggers.
Her own voice cries out between multiple reports.
In school, they learned about a dog who had gone into space. Lix didn't understand why they couldn't send treats to the dog, as they had done for the ones who lived at the RSPCA, so she'd asked her parents, one evening before she was put to bed.
“Sputnik 2 wasn't made to come back,” her father said. “They knew how to send her into space, but not how to bring her home. A sacrifice for science, I suppose, but very sad nonetheless.”
She didn't understand, so her mother explained, “Laika died in space, sweetheart; I'm sorry.”
For a long time after that, she thought that that was what happened to all astronauts. They went into space because no one had been before, because of everything there was to see and learn, knowing they wouldn't be coming home. It wasn't until she saw the archival footage on television during the fifth anniversary of the moon landing that she understood there was a hierarchy of survival.
When she grew up, years later after she'd forgotten her childish misunderstanding, she continued to believe in some variant of it. She thought it was what one did: went out into the darkness (for oneself, for one’s country, for humanity), not expecting to return.
But it wasn't a Moscow stray whose decaying orbit they cowered from in their drills, sitting under their desks with their chair cushions unfolded over their heads, silver side up. After lessons, she stole the film their teacher showed, smuggled it home, and, sneaking the projector from its box in the living room, hid in her room to watch it, again and again, the vast round bloom of smoke and fire black and white against her rose-papered wall. She knew, it was obvious: no desk, no door jamb, no metal-lined mat could protect them from that.
She found the photographs later, what would happen when the drills failed to protect them. From there, the other pictures came naturally, the war images, the newspaper clippings, all of which she saved in her dresser like a boy’s stash of illicit magazines. It was a dossier of everything she feared, a talisman against catastrophe, a record of evidence that she could shut away, then pretend, when she needed to, didn't exist, that she'd never wondered a little too keenly and glimpsed far too clearly the oblivion pressing down over their heads.
When her recruiter searched her room, a standard procedure, she knew he'd found her pictures by the fact he'd left them out of order in their sleeve, a deliberate acknowledgement in spite of which she'd received the tap on the shoulder anyway. In London, she'd more or less stopped looking, the nights she'd sit down with a drink to flip through them becoming less and less frequent as she accrued greater and greater competencies.
The night before she'd stepped onto a plane with Randall Brown for the first time, she'd dropped all the pictures in the grate and watched them burn, curling away into ashes from their already worn edges.
Fear was for the helpless girl she had once been. Despair would take longer, but that was what drinking was for, drinking and working and listening to Randall, talking to Randall. And when all of that failed, there was still what one did: go out into the dark for humanity, not caring about the return.
She is in a hospital bed, and she is alone. Hasn't she been here before? Doesn't she already know this paint colour, this voluntary immobility, this confusion? Her body is such an insistent jangle of warning signals she can't tell what, specifically, hurts or how badly she has been injured.
They'd pulled her out of the rubble, hands under her armpits. No, it had been more cautious than that, digging that seemed to go on forever, agonisingly slow though she could hear them and even see them at work, while she remained trapped, forbidden and unable to move. She'd been so cold. Desperately frustrated, too, terrified. She'd waited in the darkness slashed by floodlights as they'd dug their way through most of a building to reach her only to tell her Sophia was lost. Dead.
No, this is not the hospital in Paris, this is an NHS hospital.
Framlingham, Sophia. Sophia! Randall’s improbable shot. The bullet going through her trapezius, incredible pain.
Shaw, behind her, standing taller, reeling as the same bullet lodged in her shoulder. Shaw, propped up against the wall behind her, switching her weapon hand, aiming again, irrationally dogged.
This wasn’t a plot, this was obsession.
Neither hesitated this time. Lix put herself between death and her child. Shaw took the wild shot.
This time, Lix crumpled. Randall’s gun echoed in simultaneous reply, and Lix watched, fascinated, as the two of them, she and her mirror double, seemed to fall in lockstep. Randall grew larger in her field of view, and then she couldn’t see Juliet Shaw anymore, and then Randall was crouching over her, Randall was breathing hard, distraught, grey.
His fingers came away from her shirt lurid and spasming. When she reached to still them, his hand was slick in hers. The hand that rested on her cheek, his thumb stroking her temple, trembled. But he’d laid down his firearm; they must be safe. Sophia must be safe.
There she was, a blur over Randall’s shoulder, her hand over her mouth. And beyond her, the door opened, and Bel and Freddie were rushing in...
A nurse appears in the familiar and unknown hospital room. She checks equipment, makes a note on the clipboard. Lix watches the activity, her attention drawn to the collection of apparatuses attached to or surrounding her. At some point, she notices that the nurse has disappeared, leaving her with the impression of a reassuring efficiency.
People come and go. Bel, her eyes wide with concern. Members of the family she’s avoided for months (a great-aunt in particular looms vividly in her painkiller-addled haze). A ghost.
They resolve, eventually, into--simply, inescapably--Randall. He sits, waiting. Randall’s always been good at stillness, when he isn’t fighting the things that won’t allow him to be still, but age has intensified this particular extreme. He’s a statue formed of unspoken thought and stockpiled energy. His specs are in the breast pocket of his suit jacket, his jacket over the back of his chair, and his eyes are closed; he might be sleeping, except Lix knows what Randall looks like asleep.
She makes a survey of him. The sun in the east shines through the window onto the back of his head, tinting his hair with coronal silver.
When he opens his eyes, she averts hers; the intensity of his attention is agonizing, and there is so much he might say, none of which she is prepared to address. By the time she brings herself to look at him again, he's moved out of the light and put on his spectacles, which simultaneously magnify and obscure him.
He regards her, unspeaking, and she him.
Then-- “A fox caught in a snare chews off his own foot and leaves it behind in the trap. But as he hobbles away he makes a crimson trail in the snow which the hunter follows. Finally, after a day’s chase, the hunter catches up with the fox. He says, ‘Fox, why did you run from me? You've suffered this long trial, and now I have you all the same.’ And the fox says, ‘Ah, but now you're lost, and the snow is covering up our tracks. Soon the dark will come, and you’ll freeze here with me.”
Lix sucks in her lips as Randall’s parable fades into the silence.
“Hm,” she says. “And what happens when the hunter figures out which pocket has his phone in it?”
Randall tilts his head and smiles without showing his teeth. “There's no signal. Anyway, it makes no difference because before help can arrive the forest burns down.”
“A mismanaged fire?”
“A cycle of pyriscence.”
“I'm sorry that I shot you.”
“You didn't really have a choice.”
“There's always a choice. With violence it's only a matter of weighing whether one can live with the consequences.”
Lix tries to look around, but as it turns out the trapezius is involved in an entire range of movements. “Can you help me with the controls? I’d like to sit up.”
They adjust the bed so that while not fully upright, it is inclined so that she can at least conduct this conversation from a decent position. It hurts; not so much as before. Her right side throbs where the second bullet fractured a rib and lodged there. And Randall’s bullet, on a better day, would have spared her shoulder altogether, but he missed everything that wasn’t muscle. She’s in pain inside her sling, but she’s lucky. It was clean. Nothing shattered, nothing severed. Not even, when it comes down to it, her faith.
Lix breathes carefully to test her body but also her emotions. Shallow. Anxious but steady. Right. As prepared as she’ll ever be.
She swallows. “...Sophia..?”
“--is fine. She came to visit you.”
Randall’s smile this time is real. “She thinks she remembers you. She remembers the embassy in Paris.”
“They, they loved her in Paris. She was...an easy child to love.” Lix looks down, furrowing her brow. It sounds wrong, still stuck in the past tense when Randall is speaking in the present, but Lix is unaccustomed to this new concept of Sophia. To her, her living child is largely theoretical, for so long has she believed her dead.
The thing about Randall is that he knows how to push her when she can be pushed, how to give her space when she needs it. The room fills with this patience and with the sadness of what has gone.
He leans forward to rest his palm on her thigh over the sheet, warm and dry and reassuring, and she looks at it and puts her free hand over his.
“They were the bright stones,” he says. “Sophia, Ruth Elms. Ideological recruits against a time of uncertainty. So, perhaps Keats after all.”
Keats? Then she remembers: ‘bright star’.
“Steadfast and immutable, right. Possibly not the most desirable traits in our field these days. Loyalty is one thing, but a rigid worldview locks one’s perspective when what's needed is flexibility. Can that really be what Clarence believed in?”
“They tried to form stars to burn in the darkness. Beacons. They did not succeed. Their lodestars rebelled, as stars do.” Randall pauses. “About Juliet Shaw…”
Lix releases his fingers. She lifts her hand towards her head, but, wincing, sets it down again atop the sheets. “Don't let’s, Randall. Randall--”
But he’s not to be evaded, though he struggles to get the words past her defences. “Just, please...let me talk--to tell you how I came to…”
She has a choice too, of course, even caught as she is in the hospital bed. She doesn't have to listen. Each time, it’s a choice, an act of opening, and of bringing in. This yielding is for her as much as it is for Randall.
She closes her eyes, allowing her own memories to match their jagged edges to his. “You were in Bilbao, and a woman who looked like me was there…”
They'd sent him to the Basque Country because of someone’s dirty assumption about relations between separatist groups. If at the time there had been a new elusiveness to him, a greater unease than ever, she didn't register it against the general noise of his inscrutable anxiety until too late. Too, she’d been distracted, looking inward, focussing the lens on a point within.
Then, somewhere on the Cantabrian coast, he'd gone silent, failing call-ins, missing drops. Around the time he was meant to be returning she'd received a single message that she couldn't decode no matter what cipher she tried.
In Bilbao, arms went missing.
“She would have pinned it on you and brought a punishing crackdown on the region. Maiming one bird in the process of flushing out the rest. Some crave control rather than power. Some cannot tell the difference.”
Lix senses in the density of metaphor and aphorism that there’s more Randall has to say and that he’s having an uncharacteristically difficult time saying it. That this is the confessional, not a tribunal.
“I didn’t know. The difference. Between you, I couldn’t tell. In a way. She couldn’t fool me for long, perhaps, but...perhaps also I allowed myself to believe, when I knew better. It was a kind of seduction.” His fingers curl against her leg. “Lix, I told her you were pregnant.”
It’s all she can do not to draw away. But it’s surprise, not real indignation. He’s so anguished, and she, she’s beyond offence by now.
“I kept a lot of secrets,” she says, forgiving him. “Sophia wasn’t one of them.”
She’s told a lot of lies. There were the ones she told other people, and there are the ones she tells herself. If a spy’s job is to find the truth, sometimes by lying, then it is also to know when to believe what’s honest and when to believe in what's false. Randall has always been an exemplary spy, but among the things Lix does better, the things he all but cannot do, is to shut the true things inside herself and post guards over them in their lonely towers.
She pulls his fingers away, contemplates them for a moment. Puts his hand on the railing and pats it, once.
In that time, defection (betrayal) had been at a low, almost passé. The Soviet dream was in ruins, its replacements yet to grow in the consciousness of the West. The Cold War was won, the aimless skirmishes that replaced it not yet begun. There were no governments looking to buy the loyalties of enemy agents with the triple braid of protection, prosperity, and ideology.
They told her ideology was enough for Randall, and in truth she couldn't disagree.
She just couldn’t believe he would run without her.
Only that he had had to; for how could she have gone with him? She’d have been a liability, not exactly bed-bound, but brought low by weariness, too vulnerable, too slow. So she had been left behind, and Randall--vanished. She had had her baby. She found other jobs. She was good at them. She would have built the new world to Randall’s specifications, but instead she built them to her own.
And for nineteen years, she had wondered why he hadn’t waited for her. Wondered, too, if he would have, if only.
“I think you’d better go, Randall. I’m...pretty tired.”
Oh, that stricken expression. Oh, the weight of Randall’s emotions. But it isn’t mere evasion. She is tired. Exhausted, in fact. She lets her eyes close, and then she sleeps.
It rained in the night, but in the early morning the clouds moved on to unveil a pale, bright sky. By the time Lix, finally on the mend after weeks, is cleared to venture outside, the sun has dried the flagstones, the flowers, the benches with their donors’ plaques. Only the soil remains damp below the grass, giving way underfoot, smelling earthy and of growth, where she makes her few deliberate steps across its shortest distance.
It’s a strategic decision with an attainable goal. Randall, arm supporting hers, doesn’t take his eyes off her until she is seated, catching her breath, on the bench. When she’s settled, he joins her.
Lix surveys the open space. To her left, the hospital is blocky brick and glass. In front of her, a patch of green, ringed by hedges, trees. Beyond, life. So much of it, so many people, safe and alive. Among them, Sophia.
She’s coming down the path now.
It’s strange and it makes her jealous to think Randall has become acquainted with their daughter while Lix herself lay incapacitated in hospital. But it isn’t fair: Lix had all those years, she had Sophia as a baby, a toddler, a growing child. Randall spent all that time alone, living in hiding. To protect them, whether misguided or disastrous, well meant.
Lix is more nervous than she has ever been before. She fidgets, interlacing her fingers, twisting them apart again. As Sophia approaches, Randall stands. She smiles at him (and Lix remembers, she remembers that smile), he indicates the bench next to Lix, and just like that, mother and daughter are side by side, no more than a hand's breadth between them.
The last time she spoke with Sophia, she had been so small. Now she's all but grown.
Lix doesn't know how to begin.
I'm sorry. I failed you. I didn't search hard enough for you. I missed you more than I thought it was possible for me to miss anybody.
But now you're here we have to learn how to believe in each other again.
Trust, she's come to understand, is the most costly, most necessary commodity.
Sophia plays with the hem of her skirt, smoothing it over and over above her knee. She tucks stray hair behind her ear.
“Sometimes, Juliet came to see me,” she says after a while, “when I was young. It confused me. I thought...but I knew it wasn't you. Only...she looked like you so it made it easy to remember what you looked like. Then, when she stopped coming, I was older, and I told myself not to forget. Because if I did, how would we recognise each other when you found me?”
Her eyelids flutter as she blinks in quick succession.
“But when I went to live with the Dugdales, I didn't tell them about before. It would have sounded like--I don't know--like a fabrication, or a delusion. I tried to put it behind me. It felt...I didn't understand what had happened to me, and I wanted to be fair. And I wanted, I wanted to forget.”
Sophia isn't looking at Lix, and so Lix can't look at Sophia, and together they stare into the fog of the way ahead.
“Then, one day, last year, I boarded the Eurostar to Brussels and Juliet was on it. She’d had an alert on the ports and on my passport.”
“It was your first time leaving the country since” --Lix catches herself at the thought of Budapest-- “since you were, you were adopted?”
“I was afraid. It was the first time I had been brave enough.”
Why does Lix feel like she's conducting a debriefing rather than having a conversation? Perhaps it's the only way she knows how, so vast is this thing that has happened to them. Randall’s just watching, still standing, somewhat apart, his head bowed.
But Lix has half forgotten her sorrow in her anger over what Sophia has been through in the name of an insane conspiracy. “I used to be afraid,” she offers. It’s the least she can do. It's the easiest of the many admissions she must make.
“You! But you were so daring!”
Something like a laugh, a quick puff of breath escapes her, and it's worth the pang. She studies Sophia. “How do you know that?”
“I remember…” Sophia’s smile is rueful, as though she's confessing a childhood fantasy. “Daring and glamorous. My mother who did something that was not paperwork and not talking to the visitors, at the British embassy.”
Lix reaches to run her hand through her hair, notices that Sophia is doing the same, and, astonished, stops short, winding up with her knuckles over her lips instead.
“How did you stop?” Sophia asks, “being so scared?”
I didn't. Whatever it became, I was taught to call it by a different name. Calling it something else helped. “I...made it my job to safeguard against the things I feared. To...to work.”
Sophia nods contemplatively.
“Ruthie told me she'd found something.”
Nearby, Randall shifts. So he, too, senses a change in the conversation, senses a decision being made. “What happened in London. That was Brightstone. Not us, but Juliet. Also Clarence Findlay.”
Lix’s heart sinks. This old bugbear. As though it isn't enough to reap the discontent of seeds sown across the world by generations of their compatriots, some in their profession try to make their world safe by making it appear dangerous. Only it so rarely is mere appearance. Is it scaremongering when actual violence is deployed, these acts of self-inflicted terror, which their masterminds would style vaccines for the civil body? But it isn't inoculation, it's mutilation.
“Juliet found out. She wanted me to… Well, I wouldn't. I couldn't. But then Juliet gave her those pills instead.”
Lix draws in a sharp breath, heedless of the hurt (there it is, the real pain to focus on).
She longs to touch Sophia’s hand, her shoulder, some kind of contact to reassure, to comfort, the sort of second-nature gesture she would make with anybody--with anyone else, that is. But she daren’t and she doesn't know if she's allowed, and anyway Randall’s sudden suppressed tension is like an alarm along Lix’s spine, frenzied vibration on a frequency she’s made it her duty to detect.
She turns to bring him into her line of sight, taking her attention from Sophia, and so she isn't watching her face when she stands up, abrupt and jerky. And Lix still can't see her expression as she gazes into the distance, fingers tapping her thigh.
She can feel Randall’s eyes on her, expectant, urging. She's meant to be doing something about this, but it's all she can do not to look away. She's trying to stay composed, and also she's at a loss, out of practice, paralysed. All the flippant ease she commands with her subordinates, all the indulgent nurturing: she's been playing at mothering, putting on a reassuring display for herself against the ragged absence in her life.
“My father’s here,” Sophia says.
For a moment, Lix is bewildered. Then she sees Michael Dugdale approaching along the same trajectory Sophia had taken around the side of the building. Lix aches for Randall; she feels so much, for all of them, her chest is tight with it, and she's spinning, lightheaded, blinkered by dark masses along the perimeter of her visual field.
She’s aware of Dugdale and Randall’s exchange, which while not consisting of pleasantries is no longer a matter of merely eyeing each other like opponents in a dogfight. Randall stands with his arms crossed. Dugdale nods at him.
She holds it together until Sophia and Dugdale are gone, and then she all but buckles, her head in her hands, then down by her knees. She drowns herself in this sensation of isolation until she feels Randall’s hand on her good shoulder, his arm warm around her, his brow against the back of her head.
She breathes, she breathes.
Sophia almost never cried. But tonight she was fussy and unhappy because it was late, far too late, and Lix had had to keep her up, and now it was clear even to such a small child that her mother was dressing to go out again. Lix stood in the doorway to the little nursery combing her fingers through her hair, watching her daughter move the wooden pieces of her toy back and forth, constructing patterns and shoving them apart again in her frustration with the way they refused to fit symmetrically.
Lix went to crouch in front of Sophia. “My love, let’s do something else for the moment.” She stretched out her hands, and Sophia dropped the blocks to reach up for her.
So Lix picked her up and swung her into her arms, standing, and Sophia wrapped her legs around Lix’s waist, clinging to her neck. She smelled of little girl sweat and strawberry toothpaste. Lix hadn’t thought she would ever be a woman who could experience nostalgia for the scent of baby products, but here she was, missing the peculiar cod liver and olive oil odor of le Mitosyl and liniment, wondering when Sophia had grown out of infancy and into toddlerhood.
Once in her arms, Sophia relaxed. She burrowed into the hollow of Lix’s shoulder, rather damp, and Lix shifted her weight so that she could free a hand to smooth over the hair that was fluffing into her face.
They held each other close, comforting one another with soft chatter. Then Lix glanced at her watch, and it was past time to lay Sophia in her bed and smooth the covers over her little body.
And when Lix, trying to convince her to sleep, said she knew that Sophia was sad she was going, and that she understood how she felt, but still must go, and when she promised she’d be back before Sophia woke in the morning, how much of it was a lie, and which parts of it was she telling to herself?
This is what she would blame herself for, years into a future of something that was not exactly regret: loving Sophia too much to let her go, not loving her enough to give up who and what she was in order to protect her. Enchantment was the danger and everything, everything that had led to this foolishness was the trap.
But it was all she had, Sophia and her commitment, and when, one incomprehensible day, Sophia was gone, her commitment only; and both versions of Lix, the new mother and the newly bereaved one were so alone, so lonely each in her own way, doing the best she could as though it could ever make up for the things she’d done or could ever be enough to battle the things that haunted her.
She’d learned from Randall how to hope. She’d learned from him how to see--though perhaps she had known that all along. She’d learned from being with him that she could stand to be in this ruinous, crumbling world, and that she could survive it; years later he would insist that she survive it, and she would, because she had to.
She always had, and she would be damned if she didn't do something towards repairing it, too, or die trying.
From the rubble she'd rebuilt a woman who could walk away, walk on on her own feet, restored the woman who would compile the intelligence on all her fears and burn them in a grate, along with her sorrows, all the photographs out of an album in a cardboard box one at a time until only one was left. From the dust she'd sifted despair, sharp on her tongue, dry in her eyes, and wept ash tears in the dark so as to wipe away the streaks unseen.
She did what she was able. She made a start on the work she knew she could never finish. She hoped there would be children who grew up to continue her work, even if her own child never would; and a secret part of her she was afraid to acknowledge hoped that one day, there would be children who grew up and found the work was done.
She gave herself to the career (as if she hadn’t already, long ago). She was first to volunteer and she refused to admit defeat and she made herself good at her job until for every daughter or father she didn’t save, there were an uncountable number of faultless, faceless strangers that she did.
And when--miracle, startling, joy!--she does save them, does she know how to love them? Is she ready for the light, to walk arm in arm, no longer alone?
Randall brings her a bag, immaculately packed and unasked for, which means he broke into her flat in spite of its security measures and hasn’t been caught. It’s all right. It’s how Randall operates. If he didn’t have the ability to get around a surveillance system, he wouldn’t have survived any of his own life, whether with her or on his own.
Lix wonders what it would have been to run with him, if she would have gone, given the chance. Where would they have run to, how would they have lived, Randall and Lix or Randall and Lix and Sophia? Would they have struggled, would they have become contractors (mercenaries), could they have been at peace in a house somewhere with rooms and belongings and the back garden on a warm evening? It’s more difficult to imagine than she might have thought possible before she had them both so tauntingly close to her again, if she had allowed herself to think of them at all.
But Randall didn’t give her a choice. It’s just as well, she thinks, considering the calibre of the ones she’s made.
He helps her change into the clothes he’s brought her, his face stolid as a statue’s. Pensive, meditative. She’s careful slipping her arms into the sleeves, takes her time dressing. She's out of her sling but he buttons her buttons anyway, and though under normal circumstances it would run her mad, she lets him.
She's thinking about Sophia’s visits, how they sit on the bench and talk around the things that matter, how since the first time, they have learned to hide from one another. Lix wants to tell her everything, but that would mean telling herself everything, and she wants to know everything, but the distance she keeps is reflexive, perhaps instinctual.
The paperwork is done and the releases signed. Lix tucks her medications, her pills and her ointments in their crinkling paper carrier between her toiletries kit and her cardigan. She puts her reading glasses and a sheaf of reports in beside them. Then she slips on her shoes, Randall picks up the bag, and she leaves the hospital room behind her.
There’s a car waiting to take her home. They sit in the back of it, Lix looking out the window. Home. She’d rather go into the office, or leave London altogether, but she has her responsibilities, and her responsibilities don’t want her until she’s fully recovered.
When the Millbank medical officers refused to clear her for duty after the hospital had discharged her, she’d remarked that she must be getting old for them to make her wait so long. They’d exchanged uneasy glances. She’d let them off the hook; she wasn’t their boss, but she was their senior officer. The physical limitations of age were hardly their fault.
“I think I might go to Tilling,” she says.
Randall looks at her, his eyebrow raised.
“Just for a while. If I’m to be forced to lie low, I might as well be comfortable.”
He frowns. His disapproval is a palpable swell, and she’s taken aback.
“What? What’s the problem?”
“What about Sophia?”
A certain impatience with Randall ripples to the surface. “What about Sophia?”
The line of Randall’s mouth goes tight. “She’s been coming to see you.”
“Yes...and if she would like, she’s welcome to come to Sussex too. Tilling’s only an hour away on the train. For God’s sake, Randall, I’m not proposing to go away forever. I just want to sit by the seaside in a straw hat and attempt to pretend I’m on holiday until something comes up that absolutely requires my attention so I can come back to work.”
He points an accusatory finger at her. “Don’t try to lie to me the way you’re lying to yourself, Lix. You’re making it possible--creating an excuse--to avoid her. Why?”
The car is suddenly too close, too stuffy. Randall’s probably planned the confrontation this way so she can’t avoid it, short of stopping the car or ignoring him outright. She’s sorely tempted. She huddles in her seat.
Lix sits up to meet Randall’s eyes. “What if she had executed Ruth Elms, Randall? You saw as well as I how it, it tormented her. We did that to her. We did that to her by being who we are, what we are; I did it by being too much of a coward, and too weak to face the personal consequences of what we do.”
She turns her face again, aghast at the vehemence of her self-hatred. Worse, to have revealed it. She’s terrified of his pity, his empathy, his forgiveness. But also of their reverse.
He doesn’t say anything. She’s loathe to find out what she’d see if she looked at him.
“Everything we’ve ever worked for" --her words come out smaller and hoarser with every sentence-- "it was to shape a safer world; and what have we made instead?”
A paranoid profession using fear to perpetuate itself. The shift from counter-intelligence to counter-terrorism had turned the feeding mechanism inward. The world had gone reactionary with protectionism.
“I, uhm, I only want her to know...that her world doesn’t have to be our world. This...inheritance, as much as she’s been tangled up in it, it isn’t destiny.”
Lix stares down at her hands in her lap, running her thumbnail over the tips of her fingers. “I want her to know how sorry I am to have allowed her to be caught up in it at all.”
“Then tell her.”
Lix wets her lips. She nods. She’ll try, she will, but she’s afraid that if she begins, she’ll never be able to stop.
For a long time, it’s silent in the back of the car, save for the background sounds of the engine and the tyres against tarmac. She’s grateful for the glass divider guarding the privacy of her emotions.
“Hm,” Randall says, a sound that doesn’t break the silence. He pulls on his seatbelt, drawing it out, feeding it back in again.
Eventually, he follows up. “You’re very much alike.”
She can tell she’s going to have to prompt him, so she clears her throat. “In what way?”
“You’re both so readily seduced by guilt. You keep it in boxes like so many sharpened gems and you drink its poison straight from the bottle.”
The car turns onto Lix’s street and pulls up in front of her building. She thanks her driver while Randall retrieves her bag from the boot and returns to her door, quick enough to help her out of it. Lix steps onto the pavement.
Randall heads for the building’s entrance, but Lix stops him with a hand on his inner elbow. “What do you mean? Why...would you say that? Of Sophia.”
“You needn’t worry she’ll follow us into the family occupation,” he says with grim humour. “Our daughter is wracked with guilt not because she might have murdered a girl when ordered to, but because she didn’t do anything to save the girl she knew very well was at risk.”
Lix blinks. “Oh.” A tension releases in her.
“Juliet Shaw may have had a hold over her, but she was ready to break away.”
Juliet Shaw's hold on Sophia... “I have a thought about that, actually.”
She lets them in through the vestibule, but it's only once they're in her flat that she finishes gathering the threads of what she wants to say. She watches him fuss with her things, tidying them away, and when he's finished she draws him to the window. They stand before the glass, looking out at the afternoon as its light begins to lengthen and its shadows begin to slant. She tells him, then, what she's pieced together, the story she only knows feels true: of a woman, alone, for years watching her double; and of the influence--the intimacy--she thought to gain by sending an incendiary through the mirror into her own house, and letting it burn.
It was a stupid mistake to make, the sort of amateur carelessness that ended careers, but Lix was both determined that it not end hers and too stubborn to acknowledge that it was a matter needing to be addressed at all. That she didn't notice at first she could blame on her body’s irregularities under stress, but really it was her own obstinacy that betrayed her, that and the fact that in spite of her competence in her professional life, Lix was hopeless when it came to her personal one. This was a problem because the two had become conflated. This was a problem, more pressingly, because she was pregnant.
There were things she told herself: that if she didn't want to keep the baby, she'd have to have herself recalled. That she couldn't go, because Randall was undercover, and he would be terribly exposed if she left it to another handler. That she'd be fine.
The fact was if she’d asked for help, she’d have been given it, whether it was legal in Spain or not. She was nominally a diplomat. More importantly, her operational fitness was a matter of interests beyond her own. But she didn’t ask. She kept her secret.
There were some things she shouldn’t have had to lie about, but she was so accustomed to obfuscation as defence that she’d forgotten how to tell the difference. By the time Randall surfaced, it was too late to change her mind. She’d been faced with a decision and she'd delayed until she no longer had a choice. She had known only too well what she would have chosen.
And Randall, sitting on her bed with lines of light spilling through the shutters’ slats onto his cheek, had stared at the bare swell of her belly, his mouth twisted, his brow deeply creased; so Lix had raised her chin and bit back her need and turned around to shrug her shirt back on. He had drained the rest of his brandy, the glass knocking against the top of the nightstand, and then, only then, seized her just above the wrist, stopping her, her buttons still half undone.
She frowned. “Let go of me, Randall.”
He shook his head. “No.”
But she rotated her arm, and he didn’t resist her shrugging him off. Their hands dropped, slack, to the bed. Both of them breathing harder than they should have been. He grabbed at his spectacles and pressed his fingers and thumb over his eyes.
“Lix. Lix...what have you done?”
As soon as he’d said it, he grimaced, hearing his own words.
“I mean--” He gritted his teeth. “That is--
She raised her eyebrow. He was drunk already, fighting his way via the bottom of the bottle back to normalcy after the spell of being someone else, and for once there was nothing thrilling about this version of him, for once he was just an alcoholic (wasn’t everyone they worked with, everyone they knew?), more mud than sprite. And still he set his specs back on his face, removed the flimsy metal cap from the bottle, poured himself another drink. He contemplated the glass, turning it around and around in his palm.
“Is this really what you want?”
Lix went back to buttoning her shirt. There was something, a treacherous part of her whispered, to having just a bit of Randall with her, even when she had to send him away.
She stood and walked into the kitchen so that she wouldn't have to see his emotions or acknowledge her own. “Whether I want it or not is beside the point. Whatever my wishes the reality is that I'm going to have a baby. You...weren't here.”
“You could have contacted me. I would have come. I wish you had.”
A lie. An impossibility. A thing she shouldn't want.
He followed her, and she watched him pick through the new tins on her pantry shelf, all the sardines and the tomatoes and olives she'd been buying in place of her usual vices. “Too dangerous. It would have put your life at risk and jeopardised an operation involving a dozen other assets. Months of work, high stakes.”
Randall turned all the labels out, lining them up as though in a shop. Lix tapped her thumb and ring finger together, fidgeting, waiting.
“What about returning to England, handing the job to someone else?”
“No one would have command of all the details relevant to your file. It would put you in an unacceptable position. I couldn't have done that. You know I couldn't.”
Call it duty, call it service; Lix was never going to just up and leave. Call it love.
This was the way they'd destroy themselves eventually, wanting a little too much, fighting a little too fiercely, all tangled up together in an avocation that demanded each of its acolytes be alone and all but alien.
“I know.” Randall bowed his head, finally leaving the tins be. Then he turned his eyes to her, colourless in the dim light. “So. What shall we do now?”
Lix ruffled her own hair. Exhaled. “Oh--well, uhm, have a baby. Work, if they'll let us. Live. Defend the realm.”
They could lie to each other or they could lie together. If they were going to be monstrous, and they already were, she wanted him beside her.
“Yes, Randall. As ever.”
He offered her his hand. She laced her fingers with his.
Chapter 6: Epilogue
She goes to Tilling. She can’t stay in London, not when she’s been banned from both sides of the Embankment between Vauxhall and Lambeth Bridges. (They’ve been thorough. They've deactivated her badge and suspended her remote log-ins, and her featureless flat feels like a cage during the day. She supposes she could go to Cheltenham out of sheer perversity, but Sissy’s entreaty not to be sent back to SIGINT has her wary of the Doughnut’s ouroboric loop.)
Before she goes, Lix gives Sophia a set of rail tickets and invites her for a stay at her great-aunt’s house, whenever she's ready. They could talk about France, they could talk about Brightstone, or Lix could tell her about Spain; whatever she wants, whatever she needs. It might help her to know the reasons, to understand the past that needn't dictate her future. Lix isn't sure Sophia will come, but she squeezes her hand and she makes sure she knows she's welcome. It is some kind of a start.
Sussex isn't remote but the preoccupations of London seem remotely distant in the spacious house with its light-filled garden room and its curtains billowing in the salt breeze. Lix wanders around with cups of tea in Royal Doulton, inspecting landscape sketches, reading from ribbon-fastened volumes of amateur poetry. She tries her hand at the acidifying piano scores, her technique as rusty as the pages are yellowed. She crosses the marsh along the old tram rails, exploring the nature reserve on her way to the sea.
Mostly, she sits in the garden surrounded by flowers, shaded by trees laden with latent fruit. It’s a kind of quiet that’s filled with sound: songbirds, bees, gulls. In this stillness with so much life in it, Lix finally gives in to what she knows she needs. She allows her thoughts to travel down the streams she has so assiduously avoided for so long, to dwell in deep pools and circle in eddies where she would have been quick to steer for the current before.
The sun reflects from the water’s surface. The light sinks itself into the water’s depths. The tide takes forever to recede. Everything is bright.
Lix rests her eyes against the glare, and when she opens them again, it seems, Randall has appeared. Has she been asleep? Did she ask him to come for her, did she forget? She takes off her sunglasses and mouths the frame, watching him; he walks over to her wicker lounger, his hands in his pockets.
She used to think he was her Pygmalion, her wolf boy, her joe. But it’s no longer true she only sees the old familiar Randall when she looks at him. She sees the life she’s led apart from him, the one he’s lived without her. He’s outgrown his unfinished softness, the way she’s softened her angularities. (Of the things they’ve kept: he his open eyes, she her sharp edges.) The years have unplied the threads of their lives and pulled them taut under intolerable tensions and plaited them together again, defined, developed, done and undone a hundred thousand times.
She sees the child they’ve recovered, whose existence knots the frayed strings of the partnership that had unravelled.
She folds the sunglasses and drops them in her lap. “We found her,” she says with a sleepy smile, a sort of untroubled incredulity.
Randall returns her smile. “We did.”
She reaches for him in invitation. He perches beside her so they’re thigh to thigh. She’s slower to come fully awake than she used to be, and she’s still blinking sunbeams from her mind’s eye when Randall lifts the ring on its silver chain from beside her collar where it’s fallen out of her shirt.
He looks at her questioningly. She bites her lip.
“Ah,” she says. It’s theirs, sort of. One of a pair of wedding bands they’d used when it was safer to go where they needed to go as Mr. and Mrs. Brown, or whatever name they’d been given, than as two people more committed in every other way, in the ways that mattered. “I kept it; it was easier, when I had Sophia.”
Randall lets the ring settle onto Lix’s sternum, where its weight slips it into its hiding place, tucked away beside her heart. A reminder.
All these years of not knowing, all this time spent learning to leave one another behind, and still, they’ve managed to find their way again. It wasn’t only Sophia who was lost.
“Perhaps it was premature, running.” Randall tilts his head and depresses the corners of his mouth. “Unilaterally. I should have found a way to contact you.”
“I would have asked you to stay.”
“I know; I knew it then. I didn’t want to be...swayed. You made so many of the calls on our behalf. But not this one.”
Lix laughs a single, huffed laugh. “Yes, supposing I did. It seemed operationally…”
She bites her lip, shakes her head. “Well, that’s a lie, isn’t it? I was so damned caught up in the dichotomy dictated by our roles. What was I, if not the one to make those decisions? You were the field agent. I was your handler. I, I forgot it was only my job, not my whole life.”
“And I viewed it as some form of ledger, that there was a way in which it was my turn. But I miscalculated. The tallies didn’t tally up. It was a time to draw together. Instead I left.”
She looks at him. Imagines she's taking a picture. In her mind’s eye, she adds this photograph of Randall to the auburn-tinged colour prints in their faded paper folder of the Randall she knew before. It's the same man and it's not, and maybe one day he’ll tell her about the man in between who spent all those years away, alone.
Lix sits up impulsively, extending her arm. Randall leans forward into her embrace. The kiss comes easily--because she knows him and he knows her. They know the give and take, the time to push past the last store of breath, the moment to let go. When they are generous like this, they find their love a safe haven, kind, foundational.
Yet underlying the languid familiarity, an urgency pulses. Her heart beats harder against its gilded, patched cage, and for once it is a happy beat. Randall’s lips are hot against hers. She cradles the back of his neck, both hands holding on as though they had not been made to release him once. The hand that brushes her shoulder is electric, a direct conduit to Randall’s state of mind.
They part, and Randall presses his kiss to Lix’s brow. They breathe. Their chests rise and fall in tandem, and if their inhalations are slightly shallow, if their exhalations somewhat careful, they've already adapted, as they do.
Whatever happens now--whether they’re a part of their daughter’s life or simply share in the knowledge that she’s alive, whether they save the world from its small, acute fears or it destroys itself in a myriad of minor skirmishes--it isn’t that none of it matters anymore, but it all matters a little less, it is a little bit more possible to bear, knowing they’ll bear it side by side.
For all her impetus towards escape, Lix has spent far too long buried in the bunker of her elapsed fears. She'd been no different from Juliet Shaw. Not much better than those who’d conspired to trade their own anxieties for the terror of an entire city. Or the frightened multitudes trying to banish phantoms by shutting borders, pressing inwards.
But she’s freed herself before. It's work that has no end, this project of the self, and more, a self with the strength to serve her people, protect all the people. To watch over the beloved, difficult world. To make peace.
It requires open spaces. It requires light that may falter in the dark but mustn’t ever fade.
The wind, blowing inland, queries the young spring leaves. The trees oblige with a crowd’s susurrus. Somewhere not very distant, grass rustles and waves turn. Lix rises, lifts her face to the sun and the air.
“Randall,” she says, “it's beautiful. Let’s walk down to the sea wall.”
He agrees. And, hand in hand, they do.