Chapter 1: Operation Silver Vanguard
Here is my blessing and my curse:
I touch you with the same hands
with which I pray, the same hands
with which I kill.
Tell me they feel
the same clasped as they do
bruised and bloody-knuckled.
Tell me I can trace the bow
of your lips with my
Nathaniel Orion G. K.
Aaron Peel observed Eve and Villanelle stroll along Rome’s cobblestoned streets as nonchalantly as if they were enjoying a holiday together.
He was ensconced in his breakfast room of ivory marble, dark wood, and caramel coloured leather. They were out in the open, exposed. Vulnerable. Weak. He was able to coolly chew a thin slice of prosciutto and then pop an olive into his mouth. They had to contend with the bustle of tourists and the choking pollution of traffic. He hunched over his tablet and caressed the screen to switch camera angles. They had no idea that he controlled every camera planted at the corner of an intersection or mounted high on the eaves of buildings or wired in each store, home security system, and digital device. They could not possibly comprehend how much he really saw and how it made everything so pathetically easy.
Carolyn and Konstantin flanked him at the table. They looked like stone sentinels, Aaron thought. Ever present, ever watchful. Unfortunately, these ones were not equally as silent.
“Is Raymond ready?” Carolyn asked.
Konstantin’s face darkened. “Yes.”
“The corner cafe at the end of this street,” Konstantin replied as he flicked his head toward Aaron’s tablet, “like we discussed.”
Carolyn took a sip from her crystal and gold rimmed glass. “Then Operation Mandalay is finished.”
“That’s it?” Konstantin chuckled. “Mission accomplished, just like that?”
Carolyn smiled thinly. “Momentarily.”
“The two of you will be silent now,” Aaron announced. He tapped in a few commands. He typed away the latest snippets of code he could gather from the program, then dug into various file folders and rearranged data. The latest footage of “Billie” pleased him immensely. He imagined, just for a moment, that she would resist quite nicely when he finally came to slide a knife into her heart. Until Carolyn’s terse voice ruined his daydream.
“Are you preparing Operation Silver Vanguard?”
Aaron sighed. “That sounds as if it was chosen by a random internet name generator. Couldn’t you do any better?”
She let the silence linger as she plucked a few grapes and fixed Aaron with a very pointed stare. The glare from the tablet’s screen washed across Aaron’s glasses, giving the brief impression that there was nothing human behind them.
“Aaron, we appreciate the wealth of data that you possess. We’ve made use of it in the past, as I’m sure you can recall. But before you liquidate Pharaday by the end of this week, we need to have your program.”
“And if I don’t give it to you?”
“I’m afraid I must insist that you do.”
“She’s right,” Konstantin offered between mouthfuls of warm bread dipped in honey.
“Or what? You’re going to kill me?” Aaron snorted. “You may understand what it does, but you don’t understand what it really is, what it means. And you certainly don’t know how to use it.”
“Then please enlighten me.”
Aaron delicately stroked the corners of his tablet before answering, as if its clean, smooth surface could soothe him. “My company specializes in artificial intelligence. It is far more intelligent than any impulsive human being. It makes no mistakes. It has no regrets. It can find out anything about anyone, because I’ve made it so. AI is always writing itself. That is what you would be getting: a program that is always writing itself.”
“To what end?” Konstantin grumbled.
“You don’t need to know,” quipped Carolyn. “We have people who can handle that. Thank you, Aaron.” She extended her hand. “Give me your program. Now.”
“I don’t think I will.”
Konstantin’s glass clattered against his plate and he disguised his disbelieving laugh by coughing into his napkin.
“You will. Or before your company liquidates, the world will learn the rather unpleasant truth of how you dispose of your palazzo’s guests.”
When Aaron’s mouth twitched open to reply, Carolyn cut him off. “You are not the only one who has access to data, Aaron. Data sharing is reciprocal.”
Very slowly, Aaron reached into the breast pocket of his shirt to produce a silver USB drive. An arrow, the symbol renowned among the ancient Greeks as a symbol of power bestowed by the goddess Artemis, was engraved onto it.
Aaron slipped the USB into the port on his tablet and began the transfer sequence. The screen flashed various times, hazing his glasses, refracting off the crystal, the polished silverware, Carolyn’s cold gaze. When the sequence was complete, Aaron proffered the USB to her.
“This USB’s case is made of fine silver. The very best quality.”
“Marvelous.” Carolyn reached out.
“Wipe your filthy hands before you touch it.”
Carolyn yawned again. She complied then snatched the USB from Aaron. Konstantin rose from the table, but Carolyn motioned for him to sit again.
“There’s no need to rush now, Konstantin. We have everything we need. I want to stay and watch the show.”
Aaron switched to camera view on his tablet. “They’re almost at the cafe.”
“The program’s search function should be easy enough for you to use,” Aaron said dryly as moved to sit in another chair so that Carolyn and Konstantin could peer over his shoulder. “All you need is anyone’s name and you will know everything.”
“Ha!” Konstantin shook his head. “Not even your best technology knows what Villanelle can do.”
Aaron shrugged. “Irrelevant. She makes mistakes. My program does not.”
“Aren’t you worried about Eve, Carolyn?”
“Oh, no! I’m perfectly alright. Your concern has been noted, Konstantin.
They watched as the camera zoomed in on Eve and Villanelle.
“And what if they just run from Raymond?” Or kill him?" Konstantin persisted. “You don’t know what tricks they have up their sleeve.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Aaron smiled. “There is nowhere on earth for them to hide.”
Mid-morning sunlight slanted across the colourful laundry strung out between the adjacent buildings. Peeling armchairs, gutted refrigerators, and soaked mattresses were pushed up against one side of the street. Along the opposite side, soiled (and possibly bloody) clothes, countless cigarette packs, empty wine and beer bottles, and littered food were spread around like some grotesque picnic. The stench was nearly overwhelming.
Eve hurried to catch up to Villanelle, who traipsed ahead wearing her most radiant smile. Eve knew that others saw Villanelle much the same way that many outsiders viewed Rome: an abnormal and damaged relic in a continent of modernizing cities. They couldn’t possibly conceive that Villanelle was passionate, dreamy, arrogant, clever, a touch spoiled (just a touch, mind you), raucous, irreverently romantic, and by turns entirely exasperating and enchanting. She was like a ruin that remained perfectly preserved thanks to benevolent, caring touches that alone eased the ravages of time.
Up ahead of them, people trickled out of a cafe. Somewhere between watching an elderly couple sharing spoonfuls of gelato and then having to evade a pack of roaming stray dogs that caused most of the people along the street to clear off, Eve decided that she needed the largest coffee in existence right about now.
“Hey, could we stop here for a minute?” she asked Villanelle. “I haven’t had my morning coffee yet.”
“Sure. You didn’t sleep well?”
“Not at all. And then this morning, you insisted that we discuss my plan about how not to kill Aaron before new buyers visit.”
“But you told me that you didn’t have a plan, Eve, because you trust me to handle him.”
“I still don’t have a plan. That’s what the coffee is for.”
Inside the cafe, Eve rummaged around her handbag. Her fingers brushed past her passport and “Billie’s” fake passport; past a small pack of tissues; past her lipstick; past numerous hair ties; past her planner and a tube of hand lotion; and finally past her iPhone until she found her leather wallet buried underneath it all.
She paid a lot for two tremendously small cappuccinos and they drank them sitting at one of the cute tables outside. The patio was mostly unoccupied, except for a short, brutish man with fading ginger hair who was studying the Monday morning newspaper.
“We should probably head back to Aaron’s palazzo,” Villanelle reminded Eve. “He’s expecting me to come by now.”
“So much for our plan.”
Villanelle grinned. “Forget the plan. You never answered my question from last night. Are you having fun in Rome?”
“Well, I’m not having fun in Rome.”
Eve and Villanelle stared at the ginger-haired main. He neatly folded his newspaper and simpered at them. “Want to know why?”
Villanelle smirked. “Oh Raymond, you are the worst.”
“Who is this?” Eve hissed.
“Don’t worry. Everything is under control.”
“Do you want to know instead why Rome is called the Eternal City?” drolled Raymond.
Villanelle sighed. “I don’t care.”
“Its citizens thought that no matter what happened to the world, no matter how many other empires might rise and fall, their precious Rome would go on forever. Bit stupid, really, if you ask me.”
“No one is asking you, Raymond.”
He stood up so suddenly that his chair fell over. “Your little Roman holiday is over.”
“Oh?” Villanelle squeezed Eve's shoulder. “That’s news to us.”
Raymond rolled up his sleeves. “Circumstances have changed.”
Eve frantically searched their surroundings for anything she could use as a weapon. She couldn't even throw any hot cappuccino in his face, damn it. As she backed away, Villanelle flung out one arm across Eve’s chest to shield her. And her other arm miraculously pulled out a pocket pistol from the back of her waistband.
A pounding gathered at the base of Eve’s skull as he raised his hands in a gesture of surrender, followed by a hard knot forming in the pit of her stomach when Raymond began to back away, too.
“That’s it Raymond,” Villanelle called out, “keep going.”
“Will you just shoot him already?” Eve cried, a tremor of hysteria threading into her tone.
“He is important to The Twelve.” Villanelle’s grip on the pistol tightened. “Unless...would you like me to shoot him?”
Before Eve could answer, Raymond backed away until he’d disappeared into the cafe.
In the moment of confusion that followed, Eve thought that she would actually get to exhale a sigh of relief. The sound of broken glass was followed by Raymond storming back outside, hefting a fire axe.
“Do you want me to shoot him now, Eve? ”
The shot cracked Eve’s ears. She flinched. Raymond was bleeding from his right shoulder. Another shot rang out. This one missed, as Raymond swung at Villanelle and caused her to stumble out of reach. He kept swinging, the axe singing and wailing through the air.
Eve was shaking. Sweaty and ragged and gasping, she lashed out with a kick. Her foot connected with Raymond’s knee cap. He went down to one knee, snarling.
“Raymond, are you going to propose to my Eve?” panted Villanelle.
He swung up at her, but from his position, the angle wasn’t right. Before the axe completed its upward arc, Eve seized its long handle. She towered over Raymond. He swore and thrashed. Eve kept bearing down on him, her fingers locked tight. She locked a feral growl behind her clenched teeth.
Raymond reversed from pushing to suddenly pulling. Eve pitched forward. The air in her lungs disappeared when Raymond’s fist connected with her stomach. He pulled her down to her knees now and they continued to wrestle with the axe handle until Eve felt, rather than heard, Villanelle come up from behind.
Her long shadow fell over Raymond. Eve envisioned Villanelle’s expression as she aimed down the pistol sights: clean, cool, motionless, intent. Inaccessible.
The bullet ripped through Raymond’s forehead. Eve felt the blood spray across her chin and trail along the left side of her face. Hot. Thin. Wet. The axe clattered to the ground the same moment Raymond’s body keeled over. Bits of brain were stuck in the fabric of Eve’s grey blazer, she realized faintly. Blood soaked the front of her turtleneck sweater; she used it’s collar to nudge off the spray on her face.
Villanelle slowly helped her stand. She brushed off Eve’s blazer and held her still for a moment.
“Oh god. Oh god. We are so fucked!”
“I think I’m going to be sick!”
“Swallow it. It’s not safe. Someone will come after him. We have to go!"
Eve grabbed her handbag. Villanelle grasped Eve’s hand. And they ran.
When Carolyn stepped outside Aaron’s breakfast room to freshen up, Konstantin followed her.
“Why this intermission?”
“Why does Villanelle have a gun?”
“I gave it to her.”
“When was this?”
“She found me last night, on her walk around the palazzo. I was trying to park my car across the street at the hotel. She criticized me for double parking, Carolyn.”
“So you gave her a gun, for old time’s sake?”
“Giving her a gun won’t keep your family any safer, Konstantin.”
Konstantin’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “That is your job.”
“Right now, my job is to make sure our assets are dealt with.”
Once they’d rejoined Aaron, Carolyn picked up the knife beside her breakfast plate. She slanted it this way and that, letting the sunlight spill over it almost contemplatively. “What are your plans for the rest of the week, Aaron?”
“I’m visiting my sister in Greece tomorrow.”
“I see.” Carolyn put the knife back down. “Splendid! Of course, I’ve always loathed family get-togethers but if you two can get along, that’s really extraordinary.”
“Where are they?” Konstantin asked.
“They’ve gone into some catacombs. But Eve brought her phone, the idiot. I’m tracking them. Barely. The signal’s faint.”
Carolyn sighed. “I guess we’ll have to bring in the Cleaners, then.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Aaron keyed in more commands. “Some UAVs should do the trick.”
“Excuse me, what are those?”
“Konstantin, they’re drones.”
“Because machines do not feel.” Aaron said. “No messy ties. No second thoughts. No emotions. That is what makes them...perfect.”
Villanelle twisted around and fired at the drone trailing them. The shot ricocheted off its pristine silver armor. No sparks. No dents. Just the sound booming throughout the stone catacombs.
Villanelle fired again, and again. The last shot missed, hurtling just over one of the drone’s propellers. It resembled a four legged spider, complete with a square, blazing red light at its center; this eye gave it an amusingly severe expression.
“Where are we going?” Eve gasped.
“I don’t know, I’m just following you!”
They turned a corner. The drone started emitting some increasingly high pitched whirring sound. They ran faster. Villanelle fired more shots until the trigger clicked. She threw the empty pistol at the drone as hard as she could and grinned when it at least slightly wavered from its course.
“Look, light!” shouted Eve.
Some loose wooden planks and fallen rocks blocked their path. Eve rammed into the planks with her shoulder, screaming incoherently. Villanelle joined her. They threw themselves at the wood until it splintered, then they kicked it down. Eve grasped a plank, whirled around, and slammed it into the oncoming drone with all the grace of a seasoned batter.
The drone’s central light cracked. Flickered. Faded momentarily. The whirring stopped.
“Wow.” Villanelle nudged it with her foot. “Do you think it’s dead?”
“It was never alive to begin with.”
“You know what I mean, Eve.”
“Yes. Let’s get out of here before we find out if it's going to wake up or not.”
A few hours later, they were bustling through Ciampino airport.
They’d shed their old clothes in the washroom and replaced them with some outrageously overpriced, hideously styled offerings in one of the many airport stores. Eve wore an ill-fitting grey hoodie (which did not complement her handbag whatsoever) and black cargo pants, while Villanelle had opted for the most offensively stamped crop top she could find and a pair of artfully ripped skinny jeans.
“When this is over, we’re going back to Paris and buying everything in existence from Coco Chanel.”
“If we don’t die in the meantime.”
“You are such a drama queen.”
Eve dug through her handbag and brought up her phone as they approached a terminal. She flicked through various airlines and ticket offerings; her eyebrows shot up at some of the prices. “Any ideas where we should go now?”
Villanelle shook her head and pursed her lips apologetically.
“Great. Thanks for the help.”
Eve scowled at her phone. The data had drained faster than usual and so had her battery, even though she’d charged it that same morning. She shoved the prickling concern aside. “Give me a minute and I’ll figure it out.”
“You always do, Eve.”
Eve closed her eyes and sorted through her memories from the past few days. She arranged them like blossoming internet browser tabs, shifting and shuffling them around until they were lined up in some sort of logical order. Everything she’d researched about Aaron Peel surfaced, until her brain snagged on a little detail triggered by the crisp smell of popcorn.
She punched in several search terms, scrolled through various articles, used a translator, and managed to pick the right place.
“I’ve got it!”
"We’re going to Kymi, Greece. It’s a small, coastal town.”
“When you had dinner with the Peels, Konstantin told me that they spoke an old version of Greek. Turns out it’s dialect is only spoken in Kymi.”
“You never cease to amaze me, Eve. But should we go after Peel first?”
“It’s a good place to start.”
“I agree. Are you sure we can’t just go to the island of Lesbos for a few days?”
Eve glared at her. “Our flight leaves in two hours.”
Eventually, they found the correct gate (of course it was the one farthest from their terminal, of course it was). Eve slouched down in the lounge chair as far as her aching spine would allow and was just about to drift off when she felt Villanelle rest her head on her shoulder.
“You okay?” Villanelle murmured.
“You were pretty shaken up after I shot Raymond.”
“Yeah well, I’m just glad you saved me.”
“I want you to tell me how you’re thinking and feeling. Always. But especially about this, okay? Watching someone die is not easy.”
“I imagine the only thing worse would be to actually kill them.” Eve let her lips brush against the top of Villanelle’s head as she felt her shrug.
“I thought I’d be scared. I thought I’d be a mess. But I’m like you now,” Eve whispered, feeling the realization spread warmth throughout her chest. “I’m not afraid of anything.”
Villanelle nuzzled into Eve’s curls.
“I am so glad we don’t have to hide who we are from each other anymore.”
Chapter 2: Inheritance
Terracotta roofs rose above the heavy thickets of firs that blanketed the mountainside. Between herds of grazing goats, groves of olive trees, and clusters of cypresses, several pebbled routes guided past an old mill, a cistern, and a quaint church. All the buildings faced the Aegean sea, cupped by the forests which layered backwards in the form of a natural amphitheatre. The invigorating scent of the sea breezed against dangling power lines; swept over compact, colourful cars; wrapped around houses and shops; whistled swiftly down avenues flanked by hanging baskets of fragrant flowers; playfully nudged the sailboats at the port; and refreshed the sun kissed skin of all the people beneath the azure sky.
Amidst all these people, Eve and Villanelle moved like wraiths. When they flew in last night and attempted to book a room at the beach resort that was aptly named Kymi Palace, they promptly found out that Aaron already owned it all. The lobby was strongly scented with cedarwood, mimicking the smell of old, regal ships. Leather couches were propped against sandstone walls and arranged in inviting formations along the polished marble floor. A mural made of blue and white gemstones decorated the area behind the reception desk. Eve argued with the concierge for fifteen minutes in order to force him to accept a hefty cash-only payment for their stay, as well as to keep their check-in off the books entirely, for a considerable tip.
This morning dawned with a chord of anticipation. Eve noticed it nestling between her fingers; gathering in the back of her mind like storm clouds on the horizon; tasted it lingering on her tongue like electricity. Anticipation curdled with worry and anxiousness as she roused herself from sleep. She’d almost fallen off the bed when she saw Villanelle coming from the ensuite completely naked with two sets of bikinis draped over her right arm.
“Did you sleep well?”
“Eve, you don’t have to keep your eyes closed.”
It was somehow worse to keep her eyes closed, Eve realized, because that seemed to intensify the images of Villanelle’s luscious lips, her smooth skin, the way her blonde hair tumbled down her long neck, and the seductive current of her voice. When Eve could finally open her eyes, Villanelle was smiling.
“Help me choose which bikini looks best, okay?”
Underneath the covers, Eve clenched the bedsheets. Her eyes tracked Villanelle’s fingers as she slowly untangled the first bikini’s top. She laid it on the bed, very close to Eve’s feet. It was copper coloured and had triangle shaped cups, ones that could probably accentuate the ampleness of Villanelle’s breasts. Then she bent down, showing off the way her hair spilled across her back like rays of sunlight, and slowly eased the bikini bottom (what little of it there was) up her legs. It passed her toned thighs and finally, she dragged it to rest on her hips.
Eve could see the covers over her chest cresting and falling with each sharp intake of breath. She traced Villanelle’s body with her eyes. And suddenly found herself aching to trace it with her fingers, too. Villanelle was clearly lithe; her muscles radiated wiry, chaotic strength with each precise and fluid movement. Fuck, even the way she arched her back to adjust the bikini top enraptured Eve.
The distance between them left her bereft. It was cruel and unjust for the sunlight to get to caress the slant of Villanelles jaw; to rest at the soft hollow of her throat; to linger at the curve of her hips; to heat her lips with trembling passion. Eve’s burning hands relinquished the bedsheets in favour of resting against the tender skin of her inner thighs. In turn, Eve noticed that Villanelle’s inner thighs were already slightly coated with arousal, the dripping wetness lending a delightful sheen.
Eve imagined that Villanelle would invite her to lick the slickness there, allow her to taste the sharp, almost stinging, yet undeniably delicious flavour of Villanelle’s secretions; then grasp a fistful of Eve’s hair when she moistened her way between Villanelle’s legs, tugging with increasing force the more insistently that Eve lapped between Villanelle’s folds and flicked her tongue across Villanelle’s firm, swollen clit.
It wasn’t until Villanelle tried on the second bikini that Eve consciously focused on her scar.
A thin and pale line marred the area just above her left hip. The slightly raised skin contrasted with the soft flower print of the second bikini. It had a center back strap and the slim cut bottoms were designed with an ultra low rise at the front. Eve couldn’t tear her gaze away from the ripple of Villanelle’s scar as she twirled around and then rested one knee on the edge of the bed, leaning toward Eve.
“Do you want to touch it?” Villanelle asked softly.
Eve kept her eyes fixed on the scar. Underneath the covers, her fingers were ablaze. All it would take was one smooth motion for them to make contact with her dampened panties. It wouldn’t take much to drag her fingers along her dripping slit, in much the same motion as the slice of Villnalle’s scar.
How it had wept blood, that fine cut, that flesh-line separating right from wrong. Eve couldn’t forget how tissue and tendon had yielded to the pocket knife’s blade, searing and tearing as she penetrated Villanelle. And her groan, the shift of her body as she rolled over in agony, taking Eve with her, the motion dizzying and intoxicating and potent.
Villanelle seemed to notice that Eve’s eyes had glazed over. Her voice carried traces of amusement and pride when she asked:
“Are you touching yourself?”
Eve hurled the covers off and leapt out of bed. “We should be looking for Aaron.”
“Relax. We’ll find him one way or another.”
The first bikini was neatly folded on the end of Eve’s bed when she came back out of the (very cold) shower. Apparently, Villanelle’s entire plan regarding Aaron was to spend the day at the Palace’s rooftop terrace. It had a wooden balcony and overlooked the entire beach. The white sand served as a canvas to contrast all the people that strolled barefoot along the shoreline. There was an ethereal haze where the horizon met the sea, a great distance held in the cusp of Kymi’s inviting grip.
The slopes of mountains on either side dipped into the water which shivered between shades of cerulean and deep lapis. Its heady scent washed Eve as she begrudgingly reclined on one of the white wicker sunbathing chairs. Beside Villanelle was a table complemented by a plate of fried sardines glazed with lemon juice and a vase of striking yellow narcissi.
Eve closed her eyes and was immediately captivated by the scents that enraptured her: the mineral zing of the saltwater, a sloppy dash of sunscreen, the ambertoned glug of tanning oil, the citrus from a passing margarita and of course, something so uniquely Villanelle.
She smelled ancient, musty, wild. Taking her in was like being inside a secret underwater cavern, where drowning was not the gateway to death but rather the entrance to paradise.
Eve wished that she at least had her iPhone to fidget with. She’d left it in their suite, powered down to charge after yet another battery drain had surged it late last night. Something to look into, Eve noted, as she tilted her head back. The view before her was indeed astounding, but an onslaught of worries raced through her jet-lagged mind and flickered behind her tightly closed eyes. What if they somehow missed Aaron? What if he already knew they were coming? What if The Twelve knew where they were right now and had already sent someone to murder them in a few moments ?
What if she wasn’t good enough? What if Villanelle got bored of her? What if they both died before getting what they wanted?
“I think there’s something wrong with my phone,” Eve blurted.
“Okay. Do you want me to buy you a new one?”
“No! Of course not, I just-”
“You worry too much, Eve.”
Villanelle lifted a hand to shade her gaze from the sunlight. Her radiant eyes retreated behind a fearsome squint, her lips were hidden by a frown.
“Do you see her?” She pointed to a woman that was wearing a black one-piece swimsuit and leaning against the railing. She had curly dark hair. “She’s perfect!”
The sharp twist of jealously derailed Eve’s anxious train of thought. It rose through her rib cage, charred her heart, smoked it’s way up her lungs and made her eyes sting. She grabbed the bottle of sunscreen protruding from underneath Villanelle’s wicker chair and stood over her.
“I think you need more sunscreen.”
“Yes, you do.”
Villanelle languidly rose to her feet. She faced Eve with one eyebrow arched.
Eve tried to keep her hands steady as she placed them on Villanelle’s shoulders. She slathered sunscreen along the sides of Villanelle’s neck, pressed it into the tautness of her back, dragged it all the way down to the bikini bottoms and let her hands linger on Villanelle’s hips.
A heartbeat passed between Eve and Villanelle.
Then Eve snaked an arm around until her palm smoothly went over Villanelle’s scar. She pressed down. Villanelle’s exhalation contained the ghost note of a moan. She let Eve bear the weight of her as she leaned backwards, pointedly flush against the throbbing between Eve’s thighs. It was building into an insistent ache, demanding immediate release. Eve wanted to growl into Villanelle’s hair, wanted to mark the sensitive skin of her neck, craved to smear kisses just underneath her ear and all along her throat, longing to feel the leap of her pulse against hungry, wind chaffed lips.
Instead, Eve slowly dragged a finger along Villanelle’s scar. Up and down, up and down. Her touch was light yet suggestive, matching the rhythm of Villanelle’s breathing.
“What do we do now?” murmured Eve.
“Watch and wait,” Villanelle rasped.
The woman at the railing was still leaning over it. She was waving at someone on the beach. Her curly dark hair flowed in the wind. She extended her body even farther, the black swimsuit straining against her tanned back.
As Eve’s hands roved all over Villanelle’s back, Eve couldn’t help but note that one quick shove would send the woman tumbling down to a very messy death. Her neck would probably crack, leaving her features in a state of permanent, lopsided shock. Her brain wouldn’t even have time to process the snapping of bone, the shattering of her jaw, the bodily fluids leaking onto the concrete as people screamed and gathered around her in horror.
Eve smiled into the nape of Villanelle’s neck.
Kenny’s laptop screen was awash with lines of code, fractures of different windows flipping between each other, colouring the room with shades of cool blue and pale white. Kenny eyed the silver USB cheekily poking from the side of his laptop; it made the machine whir intermittently and Kenny strongly contemplated hurling everything against the adjacent wall.
The front door slammed. Kenny ignored the dread pooling in his gut as he heard Carolyn trudging up the stairs. He rubbed his sweaty palms against his khakis and willed the sequence to write itself faster.
“No. It just keeps looping.”
“How was Rome?”
“Eve is fine, Kenny.”
Kenny remained focused on the screen even when he felt Carolyn looming over him. The same few lines of code kept reappearing, then repeating digits that obviously had some significance. But just as soon as Kenny’s fingers brushed over the keys, or hovered over the trackpad, the sequence would restart as if it sensed his intentions and was determined to mock him.
Carolyn squinted at the sheet of paper that I Kenny had scrawled on with a drying pen.
“What did you see?”
“I know there’s got to be a pattern. At first I noticed the repetition scattered throughout the middle of the sequence. When it gets to the end, it just...starts up again.”
“Did you try anything differently?”
“Mum, it’s messy. Really, really messy.” Kenny pointed to his scribbled notes. “I can see the pattern. But I don’t know what it means, where it fits, or why it loops.”
“Why do you think it loops?”
“So I can find the rest of it. Back to the beginning, until I can put all the pieces together.”
Carolyn observed the flashing screen. The sterile yet chaotic information didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest; she reached into the pocket of her blazer and donned her glasses. Then she crossed her arms. Challenged the screen to a staring contest. And over the next few moments she proceeded to win, Kenny thought, because she stifled no less than two yawns and fought back against the natural inclination of her eyebrows to shoot up in confusion when the sequence restarted.
“Yes, I see what you mean now, Kenny. It’s quite rude.”
“I’ve been at this since you first got back. It’s taking forever. I keep missing the point.”
“You were never cut out for the Cleanup operation.”
Kenny lowered his eyes. He stared at the hardwood floor, his vision slowly but surely going in and out of focus. A chasm yawned inside him suddenly, threatening the sourness of failure and disappointment. When he looked up again, Carolyn was smiling.
“That’s why you’re very good at this instead. And you’re getting better every day.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Breathe. Stop and think for a moment.”
Kenny tapped his finger on the edge of his desk.
“Maybe...I’m not finding anything else in the sequence because I’ve already found everything?”
“Perhaps. Or the sequence itself is incomplete.”
“Oh my god!”
“Aaron doesn’t strike me as a man who would simply hand over all his secrets.” Carolyn placed a finger against the side of her nose.
“Bastard...of course.” Kenny rubbed his temples and exhaled slowly. “This USB must be the first one. It prompts the sequence, but it only truly starts with the next USB...and continues with the next...and then the next.”
Kenny glared at his screen. He caught the remaining digits again, furiously noted them one more time for good measure, and then slammed the pen down.
“Do you know where the rest of these USBs are?”
“I’m afraid not.” Carolyn’s lips twitched with something like amusement. “It would be useful if we had a team to hunt them down.”
“Jess? And Hugo?”
“And you, if you agree to be our codebreaker.”
“It’s not like I have a choice, do I?”
“Kenny, you always have a choice.”
“Fine. I may as well stick with this then.”
“Good.” Carolyn let her shoulders slump a bit. She nodded at Kenny’s notes. “I’ll let you explore the idea that those repeated digits are geo-location coordinates while I go have a nice chat with Jess.”
Caroyln was halfway down the stairs when she stomped back up and peered at Kenny.
Eve scrolled through her contacts, relieved that her phone was finally fully charged, when her thumb came to rest on the name Hugo. She stared at the screen as if it could offer any indication of what she should do next. Unbidden, fondness and terror clashed together in her chest with all the viciousness of two gladiators fighting in Rome’s Colosseum. The strains of her emotions felt like striking blades, brutal punches, and swift kicks to the head. The unrelenting grapple between the two opposing forces threatened to break the amor Eve had meticulously encased her heart in; thinking of Hugo really meant thinking of Villanelle, and remembering his body shuddering beneath hers only caused her to want, and want, and want Villanelle more.
The woman herself amplified this effect considerably whenever she entered Eve’s orbit. Not that she’d actually left at all from the moment she had arrived, Eve admitted solemnly as she watched Villanelle sharpen a fisherman’s knife. It had a wooden handle that looked like it was hacked from the body of a boat. The blade was thin, slightly curved, and somewhere between too short and too long in length. Villanelle dragged the sharpening stone along its edge smoothly and quickly, occasionally wetting it with faintly scented oil from the small bottle resting beside her. Eve followed the practiced motions of her hands, the confident press of her long fingers as they prepared the knife, and wondered how it was possible that Villanelle made even this unimpressive tool radiate with such an opulent aura.
When Villanelle was finished, she tucked the knife away in the front pocket of her overalls. The grey t-shirt she wore underneath appropriately reeked of fish, and she’d even managed to put on the ghastly black rubber boots that rounded out her disguise. Her hair was tied into a tight ponytail. She flicked her head with an air of finality and put her hands on her hips when she caught Eve’s gaze.
“Are you ready?”
“I don’t know.”
“But all the fishermen are bringing their boats back at dusk. We have to pay Aaron a visit and bring him our latest catch.”
“I’m sure Aaron won’t like the idea of his dinner being caught by a woman.”
“Do you like your fish filleted and grilled, or raw like sashimi?”
“I don’t really like fish.”
“Let’s hope Aaron does.”
Eve looked at her phone again. “Maybe I should call Hugo before we go.”
“It would make me feel safer. We’re walking into Aaron’s grasp without a plan.”
“I am confused as to why there always has to be a plan and an end result. To think of someone for just a purpose is to dehumanize them.”
“I guess it’s because people usually like to have plans and goals. Something to strive for.”
“Making it up as I go along is just what I do.”
Eve sighed. “I don’t want to be on the run from The Twelve for the rest of my life. You probably think that’s boring.”
“I am never bored with you, Eve. But...will going after The Twelve make you feel safer?”
“Fine. Then we’ll take care of them.”
A shaky laugh escaped Eve. “What do you think is happening here? You think we can just go on a killing spree and take out The Twelve? We don’t even know who they are!”
Villanelle shrugged. “How hard can it be? We can start by finding a Keeper.”
“And do we know who any of them might be?”
“Can’t you ask Konstantin or something?”
“He wouldn’t know either. He was just my Handler.” She paused. “But Raymond kept saying he was more important than a Handler.”
“So he was a Keeper?”
“I think so.”
“Great. He’s dead.”
“But Aaron isn’t. The sooner we find him, the sooner we’ll know more.”
As they stepped out and twilight in Kymi was accompanied by several resonant tolls of the church bell, Eve felt her spine tingling with foreboding. She wanted to tip the wooden fisherman’s skiff over when Villanelle gestured her into it, just to spare them from whatever horrible fate Aaron would inflict upon them. What if he already knew they were coming? What if he just instantly recognized them as soon as they set foot in his rustic admiral’s abode? What if he had some security system with invisible lasers that would just disintegrate them on the spot? Drowning definitely seemed like the more compassionate option, even if the shock of the water would be freezing enough to stop her heart in its tracks anyway.
Villanelle silently rowed them along. She had the air of someone who had done this ever since they were a child; perhaps her mother had also fished along those same shores, as had her mother before her, and back and back the bloodline went, these fishing women that were adept at traversing tumultuous waters and wielding knives that sliced through scales and rope alike. In a few moments, it seemed that Villanelle was skilled enough to cast out a net and capture every fish teeming beneath the surface.
The water was as smooth as glass and reflected the subdued hues of purple and orange as the sun sank down. Eve caught her rippling reflection and watched it refract as Villanelle dipped the oars.
“This is romantic, don’t you think?” asked Villanelle.
“No. You stink of fish.”
“You’re ruining the moment.” Villanelle heaved the oars back with renewed fervor. “I like the way the sunset moves through your curls.”
They looked at each other without speaking. The quiet that unspooled between them was one of understanding and brought with it a sense of ease. Listening to the splashing of the oars soothed Eve. And knowing that Villanelle was bringing them to at least a certain destination managed to calm Eve as well. So much so that when Villanelle got out of the skiff and proffered her hand to steady Eve, she grasped it without hesitation.
“Should we just knock on the front door?” wondered Eve.
Villanelle shook her head. ”There’s a better way.”
The Peel residence was the largest building along this shore. It had two stories, with a balcony wrapping around the front of the house, parallel rows of cypresses leading to the thick wooden front door, and a gravel path drizzling over to the back where Eve could hear a fountain playing. Villanelle crept along, swiftly passing the largest window on the east side, and waved Eve over to crouch beside her near a neatly trimmed hedge. Voices carried to them, wafting from the living room and through the French doors that were left ajar.
“How was the tech conference in Rome?”
The first, soft voice was Amber’s. It tickled Eve’s memory of eavesdropping on their dinner only a few days ago.
The second, austere voice belonged to Aaron. Eve already pictured his smug face, the calculating lilt of his tone, his bespectacled eyes devoid of any passionate spark.
Eve could hear the floorboards creak as Amber and Aaron walked around. This was followed by the poof! of air rushing out of leather as they both sat down, presumably on the sofa. Eve was about to peer around the bush when Villanelle anticipated the very same impulse and carefully pried the French doors open wider. Eve joined her, and they promptly huddled behind a wall extending off the kitchen hallway that allowed them to survey the living room. It smelled of charred driftwood. Tones of cream and dark brown pervaded the pallette, while the only bursts of colour were contained in the blue curtains and the rug thrown before the stone fireplace.
Amber and Aaron continued their conversation in the old Greek dialect. It was pleasant to listen to, Eve noted distantly, but she clutched the edge of the wall so hard her knuckles turned white. The longer they spoke without her being able to understand a word, the more her chest felt like it was caving in. A physical pain settled into the core of her lungs, which seemed to drip open a pit in her stomach that induced nausea and constricted her throat.
Villanelle’s touch on Eve’s forearm elevated her to a different plain of mind. Villanelle exuded an unnerving aura of calm that radiated from her fingers and seeped into Eve’s bloodstream. Although Villanelle’s expression was soft, the stubborn set of her jaw was the only thing that betrayed that her mind was anything but serene. Yet Eve felt sedated, her sickness tranquilized for as long as Villanelle anchored her with physical contact. Eve focused on how good it felt to touch Villanelle that morning, and the sunlight of those thoughts broke through the clouds of uncertainty.
They would watch and wait, Eve decided. Just as they had done today, until Villanelle noticed Aaron berating a vendor in the fish market and then stalked him here to this place. All they needed was an opening, a lull in the conversation, to invite them to slip in as surely as a knife sliding between the ribs.
“What would father say about you selling the company?” Amber’s harsh switch back to English punctured the flow of the preceding sentence. Aaron insisted on replying in old Greek, but she shouted him down.
“No, you can’t just do what you want because he was murdered!”
“Be silent. You don’t know anything.”
“I know you’re denying me what’s mine!”
Aaron’s laugh was quick and sharp, like a needle stuck under the skin. “And what do you think is yours?”
“I have just as much of a right to father’s company as you do. I don’t want you selling it.”
“Sentiment doesn’t suit you. We’re better selling off the bloated beast he created instead of letting it bleed us dry.”
“I won’t let you do it!”
“I am the man in this household! It is already done. There’s nothing you can do.”
“No!” Amber propelled herself away from the sofa and put it between her and Aaron. “You’re not going to control me anymore. I have a say in my own inheritance!”
Villanelle pulled out the fisherman’s knife, stepped into this gaping wound of the conversation, and pulled Eve in with her.
“If you want your inheritance,” Villanelle called out in “Billie’s” voice, “you should claim it.”
Eve stood to one side of Amber, while Villanelle framed her on the other, and they all regarded Aaron. In the dim light, his stern features almost looked effeminate.
“You’re all ridiculous. Nothing you do matters.”
“You can’t control your way out of this,” Amber snarled. “We can make our own choices.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Aaron, you don’t seem surprised to see us.” Eve kept her tone flat and aimed for something close to casual.
“I’m not. You were a nuisance from the moment I met you.”
“Rude,” muttered Villanelle.
“Not nearly as rude as breaking your dinner host’s nose with a book because you’re an immature, spoiled brat with a penchant for violence.”
“Don’t even think about it Villanelle!” Eve snapped as Villanelle’s fingers twitched on the knife’s handle. “We still need answers.”
“What do you want to know?” Amber asked. “Maybe I can help.”
“In Rome, Aaron had a meeting with some Russian buyers,” offered Villanelle. “Do you know of any others lately?”
“There were some people visiting last week and the week before, yeah.” Amber twined her hair around her fingers while she thought. “I can remember some from Germany. Spain. Um...Japan.”
“The UK?” Eve asked tersely.
“I think so. France, too. And Australia, probably. It didn’t sound like British English anyway.”
A pounding gathered in Eve’s head. She knew, with a warm sense of weight that settled into her very bones, that these countries weren’t random; that Aaron was calculating and goal oriented; that the buyers were handpicked; that they approached him with a singular agenda; that Aaron was slowly inching closer Amber; that the tech conference in Rome was a front for a gathering of international buyers; that the buyers had a source which directed them; that Villanelle had moved to stand at Amber’s shoulder; that Amber was clutching the edge of the sofa; that Eve was standing still, so still, while thought after thought stacked itself in her mind like a long row of glittering, ruby-coloured dominos; until the final domino completed the arc of Eve’s thoughts by suggesting that all Amber needed was a push in the right direction and everything would come into sharper focus.
So Eve pushed: she eagerly flicked that domino with an air of curiosity and watched the rest fall, cascading into a sequence that laid bare all of Eve’s thoughts against the backdrop of the Peels’ living room. Eve met Villanelle’s eyes. They were clear. Steady. Utterly honest. Not a hint of disapproval clouded them.
Easily, almost effortlessly, Eve turned Amber’s fear into a weapon:
“Aaron ordered the hit on your father.”
In the time it took for Amber to gasp and Aaron to shout a curse that would have made even the most hardened fisherman blush, Villanelle pressed the knife into Amber’s hand. Then Villanelle gently squeezed her shoulder, stepped away from her side to rejoin Eve, and looked on as Amber faced an exceedingly pale Aaron.
“Father already gave you the company but you killed him anyway.” Amber said numbly.
“I can explain-”
“Don’t.” Amber skirted around the sofa. She advanced on Aaron, gripping the knife with such force that Eve could hear her knuckles crack from across the room.
Aaron scrambled around the sofa, stuttering and trying to lead Amber on in circles. Her pace was relentless. They circled each other like wolves prowling the fringes of firelight. Amber kept saying you can’t control me like a chant or an invocation. Her voice cracked a few times and wavered with the threat of tears, but still, she trailed Aaron.
As she completed her latest pass, Amber directed a question at Eve. “How do I make the right choice?”
Eve looked Amber dead in the eye. “Don’t make a choice you aren’t prepared to live with.”
The last of the sunset haloed Aaron’s silhouette and threw his face into shadow. How he responded to Amber driving the knife into his throat was not up to him, it was up to his body; and though he believed earlier that he could control his body, he could not.
Air whistled past his slackened lips. Blood poured from the wound in his throat. Crimson lines streaked down the front of his shirt and raced down his left forearm. His expression twitched between shocked and petrified. Wet skin and tissue pulsed. The wound gaped.
Then the knife sliced across the rest of Aaron’s throat. In its wake was a shaky diagonal line that slopped more blood, freeing it to gush down like a waterfall. Aaron slumped against the back of the sofa and gradually slid down it until his head lolled sharply to the side. The blood from his throat was slowly reduced to a fine trickle.
His glasses slid uncontrollably down his nose and the lenses cracked when they smacked onto the floor.
Chapter 3: Fracture Points
Carolyn walked into the MI6 offices holding the latest edition of the Financial Courier in her iron grip. She tossed it on Hugo’s desk. He looked up sardonically.
“Did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed?” His eyes widened as he read the headline. “Oh shit.”
“What’s going on?” Jess joined them with a cup of tea. She leaned against the side of Hugo’s desk to support herself and her pregnant belly.
“Read it,” Carolyn commanded.
Hugo cleared his throat, then smirked. “‘Sale of tech company Pharaday UK put on indefinite hold as Amber Peel mourns death of brother.’”
He skimmed the rest of the story and gleefully extracted quotes. “‘He died of fish poisoning,” stated Amber. She further noted that she would honour tradition by burying her brother in Kymi, Greece, where the Peel family has roots…’ Wow.”
“What’ll she do with Pharaday now that she’s not selling it?” asked Jess in between loud slurps of tea.
“Apparently she wants time to mourn Aaron,” Hugo grunted. “‘When asked about next steps, the young heiress to Peel’s tech empire and his considerable wealth declined to comment. ‘This is an extremely difficult time. I’m asking for privacy and time to properly grieve.’”
“Oh what a load of bullshit…we all know what’s really going on.” Jess appealed to Carolyn. “It was Eve and Villanelle, right? Please tell me that you told them to assassinate Aaron.”
“They did MI6 a favour, really.” Carolyn sighed. “However, for the record, I didn’t order this. It seems they took some initiative. But we can’t just have two rogue agents killing people on the run. It’s too...destabilizing.”
“We can’t officially apprehend them either,” Jess pointed out. “No red tape means they don’t even exist.”
“Correct. This is a bit of a pickle, really.”
“So they’re just on vacation, killing people now. Brilliant.” Hugo swiveled in his chair and tried, unsuccessfully, to hide his face-splitting grin.
“What else do you think they’d be doing?"
Hugo’s fingers formed a V shape and he flicked his tongue vigorously between them. Jess rolled her eyes.
“Ah Kenny, right on time.” Carolyn waved him over to his desk. They all crowded around him as he gingerly set his satchel down and eyed his computer screen warily.
Carolyn put her hands on his shoulders. “Please find Eve and Villanelle for me.”
“No problem,” Kenny said sarcastically, “I’ll just track them through some fiber optic cables.”
The sound of his furious typing filled the office. It took him a bit to locate Eve’s phone. It took him a bit longer to process the coordinates etched on his screen, because actually, if he was really as good as his mum thought he was, and if he really was getting better the more he practiced this sort of mildly creepy thing, then Eve’s phone was currently drowning right in the middle of the Aegean Sea.
“Okay so, looks like Eve had the good sense to ditch her phone.”
Kenny switched to scouring CCTV footage. Europe looked decidedly less charming when viewed through the various camera feeds scattered throughout London, and the rest of England, and Scotland, and Germany, and Hungary, and Greece, and every other country both belonging and not belonging to the EU. Kenny silently cursed Aaron for being so monstrously creepy and supporting his creepiness with a nightmare search engine and piles of money, but Kenny also fervently thanked Aaron for posthumously making his job easier with nearly unlimited surveillance access.
By the time Jess had gone through two more mugs of tea, Kenny found Eve and Villanelle. He glowed at Carolyn’s smirk of approval, the knowing twinkle in her eyes. Even Hugo seemed impressed.
He nodded at Kenny’s screen. “Does anyone fancy chocolate or cheese?”
Villanelle visited Zürich only once, with Konstantantin. When she was sixteen and he had chosen her (not Nadia, because of course she was better at everything than Nadia) from the shitthole Russian prison. The very next day, he’d taken her to Credit Suisse in order to open a bank account. Pride was a good feeling, Villanelle remembered, because it made her feel powerful. Feeling powerful was good, and she was probably the only teenage girl in the world to have her very own Swiss bank account.
The pride remained with her even now, Villanelle noted, although it was strange because she could not tell if it was here because she still had her account or because Eve was here with her, and now she had someone else to impress besides Konstantin. Not that he ever acted terribly impressed with her, but Eve...fuck. With her, it was different. All of it. Especially the feelings, one of which was pride, along with all the power it carried. Yes, Eve made her feel powerful , and that was good.
Eve made her feel good , and that was all that mattered.
Villanelle glanced behind her with a toss of her hair. Eve was seated on one of the cushioned wooden chairs in the waiting area, hunched over a notepad. Villanelle was attempting to actually access her bank account, only to have her efforts frustrated by the stupid, stupid banker with his weasel-like eyes and annoying voice.
“You did not have to come all this way to Switzerland in person,” he said. “We also offer online banking services.”
“I do not trust online banking.”
“We pride ourselves on privacy and security. It is very safe, I assure you.”
He spun her some narrative about the rise of identity theft, spewed some statistics, and used a lot of pointlessly complicated language to explain how Credit Suisse countered this threat, all the time speaking in a professional sounding voice. But he leered at Villanelle, swept his eyes up and down her body, practically salivating at the rise and fall of her chest and the way her hips tilted to one side as she leaned against the counter. He was already irritating, and the more he spoke, the more that Villanelle really wanted to carve his eyes out with one of the golden fountain pens just within her reach.
But Eve would not like that (yet). And his screams would distract Eve from her notepad, after all. So Villanelle tried to be tactful and to be polite, as well as nice and normal and decent. For Eve.
“I don’t need your assurance. I need my bank account. Hurry up. Please,” she added quickly, thinking that Eve would approve. Then she scowled, because when had she started thinking about Eve’s wants and needs and feelings before her own?
Villanelle suddenly missed being sixteen again. Before Eve.
“Just give me a few moments, miss.”
Villanelle sighed. She paced over to Eve and sank down on the chair beside her. Slouched. Placed her hands over her chest. Tugged at a loose string on her jeans, ripped it off. Used it to floss her teeth. Wrapped the string around her finger so hard it cut into her skin and made the blood flush to the surface. Let the string float away, then sighed again. Loudly.
“What?” Eve asked distantly.
“I am wondering why the banker is being rude at me, and I was only being polite.”
“What did he do?”
“He was checking me out.”
“I’m sure you’re just crushed by that,” said Eve, idly underlining some words on the notepad.
“And he is making me wait.”
“Devastating.” Eve ran her hands through her unruly hair. This seemed to brighten Villanelle’s mood. “Look,” Eve showed Villanelle the notepad. “I’ve listed some countries that should pique your interest. We’re already in Switzerland, which is one of them.”
Villanelle went through the list. She recognized the half-dozen countries that Amber had already mentioned. The rest hastily careened into each other in Eve’s slightly chaotic handwriting: Belgium. Canada, Netherlands. Sweden, United States, Italy.
“Why are these countries special?”
“Villanelle, there are twelve counries. Y’know, twelve. ”
“I can count, Eve. So?”
“These are all the G12 countries,” explained Eve slowly, “the ones with significant economic and political influence.”
“And you think the Keepers will be there?”
“Probably. I mean, Frank said that The Twelve always ordered hits in some sort of sequence. Is that true?”
“I don’t know, I never really paid attention.” Villanelle tilted her head thoughtfully. “But that would make sense. The people I killed had significant influence, as you say.”
Eve chewed thoughtfully on the end of her pen. “Do you know what Keepers actually do?"
“Konstantin told me that they keep the names of The Twelve. But...I don’t think he really knows what they keep. He just got postcards from them and handled me.”
“Besides, it wouldn’t make sense for Keepers to have the real names of The Twelve-"
“That’s just bad organization.”
“Exactly. The Keepers might crack if they’re captured or tortured.”
“There’s a thought!”
Eve shifted in her chair. “But they’re obviously keeping something. And if we find them, we’ll be in a better position to stay alive.”
“You know we can’t have them coming after us.” Villanelle said steadily. She trusted that Eve would feel the heavy implications of this declaration, even if she didn’t currently feel its underlying electric thrill.
Villanelle had still hoped to hear more than weary resignation in her voice at the thought of murder. But okay, they could work up to it. Villanelle would nudge and prod and ease Eve into it as easily as she slipped in between her heart beats.
“I am glad we have a list now. But us going to The Twelve stays difficult.”
“I don’t know what else to do.”
“Well, they must know about Aaron by now. I am sure they are already looking for us and this will only make them look harder. That is why we should let them come to us, Eve.”
“Right. That’s...a good idea, actually.” Eve scratched the back of her head. “Maybe MI6 is looking for us too?”
“Why, so you can go back to your old life?”
A short, mirthless laugh escaped Eve. “I don’t think that’s possible. Even if I wanted it to be.”
Villanelle carefully looked at the scuff marks on her shoes in order to hide the sparks flaring in her eyes. “Okay. If MI6 is also looking for us, then that’s good.”
“How? I don't want to just sit around and wait to be found.”
“Neither do I. That is why every time we...escalate…we will be doing nice, productive things and they will all come to us faster.”
They will die faster, too.
“Escalate?” Eve tested the word in her mouth. Its taste was clearly not something that she enjoyed. And yet, it was also not a taste she wanted to altogether spit out. It was an...acquired taste.
Villanelle saw Eve’s left leg jitter up and down. The indecisive tapping of her fingers on the notepad. How she couldn’t bear to look at Villanelle, in case she noticed the intrigue lingering there; like the time it had coloured her face when she saw Villanelle shove Amber’s caretaker in front of the oncoming garbage truck, right in broad daylight, a kill performed just for Eve. Now was as good a time as any to give her a push in the right direction.
“I have enough money in this bank account to keep us going for a long time. We can vacation as long as you like, Eve.” Villanelle smiled broadly. “But sooner or later, things will escalate. I’d rather do it on our own terms. We can escape the messes we make ourselves, but if The Twelve or MI6 make those messes for us…”
“Okay okay,” said Eve quickly. “What should we do?”
“We need to find a Keeper here in Switzerland.”
Eve swore under her breath, and added some particularly caustic phrases in Korean for good measure. “Yes, but how?”
“Konstantin and I stayed in a hotel by the river the last time I was here. Which was...a long time ago, okay.” Villanelle admitted. “But it is worth checking out if The Twelve still use it.”
“Look at you, setting goals!” Eve grinned. “And if we somehow find a Keeper there?”
Villanelle shrugged. “We’ll just have to make the rest up as we go along.”
Zürich collected a fine assortment of boutiques that offered everything from outerwear for ladies and gentlemen to esoteric finds such as quirky wooden art. Sleek, modern restaurants served Mediterranean food along the banks of the Limmat river and cafes bustled with cyclists, locals, and brooding writers alike all spilling onto the charming narrow streets.
Cable cars rumbled past Eve and Villanelle as they crested a hill. They were greeted by rows of colourful houses, their facades recently cleaned and gleaming freshly in the mid-morning sun. There was an elegant, aristocratic house from the 18th century on the corner of the street. It was distinctly bone white, with a blood red front door. Intricate wrought iron balconies complemented the windows on the upper floors, along with the black shutters flung wide open in a seemingly inviting gesture. The flagstone steps that led to the entrance gently curved beside sets of tables and chairs arranged off to the right of a garden gate.
Inside, Eve was immediately struck by the black and white Art Deco pattern that adorned the polished floor. The light flooding from the large windows only accentuated the impressive effect of the lobby: a blood red pillar towered beside the heavy mahogany reception desk, an ornate golden clock ticked away on the wall, and the sliding ebony doors down the hall revealed an adjoining waiting room complete with impeccable caramel coloured leather chairs and a bookshelf groaning with meticulously bound volumes.
While Villanelle admired herself in the large mirror hanging opposite the vertigo-inducing staircase, Eve found herself drifting to one of the leather chairs. A selection of books had been thoughtfully placed on the table beside it. Eve flipped through a few and smiled ruefully; if this were really a vacation (a decidedly romantic one, her mind suggested) then she would surely plop down right here to read and research until well into the night. Even the lamp seemed to nod in agreement with her, its angle appropriately adjusted to helpfully peer over her shoulder.
It was perfectly quiet, too. Sounds from the outside world were muffled by the thick walls, insulated by the heavy curtains on the windows, and generally seemed absorbed into the historic hush that pervaded the hotel. Then Eve heard Villanelle’s voice curling around the corner. Her accent was infused with German and French, carrying a tone sharpened to the point of dismissiveness and a cadence that spoke of her superiority with each passing syllable.
“...no, I do not want your history lesson.”
“But a tour of this place would surely relieve your boredom?”
“Yes!” Eve blurted, silently cursing herself immediately because the words hadn’t marinated long enough in her brain for her to really figure out if she knew what she was doing. “We would love a tour.”
The man chatting with Villanelle greeted Eve with a thin smile, disappointment at her presence flooding into his eyes as she stood well into Villanelle’s personal space. He wore a black suit with a crimson tie, and sported golden cuff links molded into an arrow.
“To begin,” he declared with a clap of his hands, “my family has owned and run this hotel for three generations.”
He ranted about the original hotel layout, the refurbishing of its lobby, how his great, great grandfather had acquired the clock on the wall, how the floor had been ripped up and replaced by the eye-catching pattern, and on and on and on. Eve cut him off when it felt like steam was coming out of her ears from the effort of listening.
“What kind of guests do you usually get?”
The man’s brow furrowed. “What a question! Our guests are very much like yourselves-”
Villanelle laughed uproariously.
“-and they are from all over the world,” the man continued with a venomous glare at Villanelle. “Have you been here before?”
“Yes,” replied Villanelle. “I’ve come back because of your reputation. To see if it still holds up.”
“I want to check in now. Let me give you my name.”
Eve’s heart lurched into her throat when the man made his way to the reception desk and flipped through the guest book. She clenched her clammy hands into fists when he peered at Villanelle intently, his head cocked to the side expectantly.
Villanelle’s smile was sharp, slashed across her face for the purposes of expediency and efficiency. Her German and French accent was now overtaken by her proper Russian one.
“My name is Oksana Astankova.”
In the hotel’s cavernous wine cellar, Villanelle studied Eve as she, in turn, observed the bound man before them beg for his life.
Eve’s hair was down. It tumbled past her tensed shoulders, trailed alongside her neck. The heavy, dark curls were contrasted by a topaz ombre that seemed to dip into every strand in the moody atmosphere below ground. Eve had a very particular posture when she was intent, Villanelle noticed: she stood very still, her feet close together, and either crossed her arms or clasped them neatly together.
Her poise contained the churning emotions beneath her earnest and thoughtful face. It always seemed soft, even when she watched the world with a breathtaking, single-minded focus. Villanelle had seen that intense look in Eve’s eyes only once, when Eve drove the pocket knife inside her. And she’d give anything to be captured in that gaze again.
Villanelle smirked and sipped some red wine, reveling in the miraculous fact that Eve had agreed to this bid for attention in the first place. Villanelle knew she shouldn’t possibly hope for more; that she should be quivering with gratitude in the simple knowledge that Eve had helped tie the man up, simply on the pretense that a kidnapping would cause enough of a stir without having to necessarily resort to murder.
Really, Eve had agreed to this just because Villanelle had asked her to. That was reason enough for Villanelle to pop open every single bottle arranged on the oak racks and drown herself in wine.
Eve seemed uninterested in the bottles sprawled on the long wooden table, the glasses half empty (or half full) lingering beside messily folded silk napkins. The chairs pushed hastily away from the empty plates, the still-warm hunks of bread nestled in crumbs. The crystal chandelier looming over them all and casting the man’s terror in harsh caricatures of pale, flickering light.
It was especially a shame that Eve ignored the cork-screw, for example, because it could be delightfully employed against the man’s kneecaps or his ribs. Villanelle would have gladly used it, if only Eve had asked her to. But all she could do was perch on the edge of the table and watch Eve be herself.
“You’re the keeper of this hotel?”
Her question bounced loudly against the stone walls. The man stuttered out his reply.
“Are you with The Twelve?”
“Are you a Keeper for The Twelve?” Eve tried in the same cordial tone, but she’d crossed her arms already.
The man’s eyes flicked from Villanelle to Eve and then back again. “We will always find you. There’s nowhere to hide.”
“Fair enough,” Eve countered. “But this time, we found you first.”
Villanelle marveled at Eve’s ability to keep her voice steady despite being in the throes of intense emotions. Some primal awareness of Villanelle’s regard flashed across Eve’s face when she glanced over her shoulder. Villanelle’s breath caught in her throat. This was it, she realized. This was Eve’s specialty: finding and shattering fracture points.
Eve had a remarkable feel for understanding people: their emotions, their motivations, their thoughts, their hopes. She laid it all bare, dragged everything squirming into the light to be scrutinized, weaponized.
Villanelle adored how Eve helped her see, because although she could understand the mindset of a person, their emotional undercurrents eluded her. She tried grasping them, but they slipped through her fingers like swiftly flowing water. And she did not care, this was true. But it was entirely besides the point when Eve was around, because she ripped open people’s hearts, letting the emotional fury spray forth from the darkest recesses of their fractured selves.
The knot of fault lines that connected people existed only to be severed by Villanelle, and Eve presented the largest, thinnest threads for them both to follow, tracing back to the here and the now. This was sustenance for the void inside them both; Eve and Villanelle were an open channel, an infinite knot surging within a cycle of power, no quarter given on either side, no wound taken, no possibility of fatigue.
And there it was, Villanelle gloried. She’d caught the exact moment that Eve immersed herself in this shared circuit of dark power, absorbing its limitless source, unwinding until she discovered it coiling deep within. And then she slowly exhaled, lacing her acerbic tone with an authority that made Villanelle’s heart tremble.
“So as a Keeper, what exactly do you keep?”
“You don’t have very many,” Villanelle observed. “For such a nice hotel, it’s too empty. Maybe I should check upstairs?”
“Yes, do that,” said Eve. “I’ll be right here.”
The second floor of the hotel echoed with emptiness just as much as the lobby. Tastefully decorated rooms with pleasant floral arrangements and generously big beds stood unoccupied. Villanelle couldn’t shake the feeling that it was just like the hotel in Rome, a facsimile of normal life suspended in a perpetual season of transience.
By the time she returned to the lobby, Villanelle could hear the man’s screams reverberating from the cellar. She crept up to the entrance and rested her forehead against the doorframe. Perhaps Eve was making good use of the cork-screw after all; the intervals between the man’s anguish, punctured by his increasingly laboured shrieks, sent Villanelle into fever.
She savoured his choked sobs, his renewed pleas, even the fact that she could not see Eve in this moment. Every nerve in Villanelle’s body demanded that she raced downstairs to take in the scene for herself, to hear the man’s breaths tortured out of his lungs, to see it all draining from his eyes as Eve absorbed herself in the work until it ended with his body slumped in the chair and all his secrets claimed.
Villanelle gripped the door frame until her knuckles turned white. Behind closed eyes, her vision swam with rage and blood and euphoria. She was joined with Eve, of course Eve was there, giving and taking, then taking and giving, but somehow always taking, taking, taking, until the end. She couldn’t bear to stand there listening for a moment longer, not when the pulse thundered in her head and the blood raced in her veins and she hungered to participate.
There was no scale, no sense of time. Villanelle had no idea how long she’d really been waiting there, in the velvet darkness of her mind. She felt a contortion in her physical form, a mild excitement, which might have even been a connection to Eve herself, here in the void they shared. In this space, Villanelle’s memories were more than memories: they became premonitions and hopes and dreams; restless insecurities and longings and dangling threads that gave way to desires soaked in violence and raw willpower.
When the man screamed again, unleashing a horribly pitched, drawn out cacophony, Villanelle could taste freedom. She pictured Eve’s enraptured face, sensed her generous attention, her charisma, her magnetic, musky scent, her anchoring body, and all that passion in her eyes-
The harsh ringing of the phone on the reception desk startled Villanelle.
Chapter 4: Aim For The Heart
The clipped, cool, and composed voice on the telephone greeted her.
In the ensuing silence, it seemed that the clock’s ticking boomed throughout the lobby. Villanelle quickly muffled the end of the handset after a particularly harsh scream drifted upstairs. As soon as it subsided, Villanelle cradled the phone between her neck and her right shoulder.
“Are you having a pleasant stay?” asked Carolyn.
“No. The room service sucks.”
Villanelle could practically see Carolyn’s lips twitch into a smile, only for her to regain control at the very last second and remain stoic.
“I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“Are you taking complaints? Because I have many, starting with the fact that I do not like vacationing while my life is in danger.”
“And what about Eve’s life?”
“Yes, yes, there is Eve too.” Villanelle said, slightly sulkily. “But I am first. Except I don’t want to die first. And I wanted to spend more time in Rome.”
“Ah yes, Rome.” Carolyn clucked her tongue. “What an unfortunate turn of events.”
“How did you find us?” There, that change of topic should show Carolyn who was boss.
Except Carolyn adeptly swerved that topic into an alternative one that made Villanelle swear internally in several languages.
“Do you recall what we discussed in the Russian prison?”
“Well, has your impression of Eve improved?”
“Yes,” Villanelle snapped. “She is just as capable as you predicted.” Another scream reached the lobby. “Actually, she’s amazing. And we get along great, professionally and personally or whatever. So what more do you want?”
This time, Villanelle could definitely hear Carolyn’s smile coming through in her voice. “Is Eve there?”
Carolyn started to say something about the urgency of the call, how she needed them both to be aware of certain changed circumstances, and how the new options presented to them could be beneficial.
Villanelle hung up.
Eve wiped her hands on a napkin, then carefully folded it to hide the blood streaks.
Ignoring the man’s wheezing and whimpering, she gripped the edge of the table. The still cellar air was cool against her heated skin. She felt as though she’d unscrewed her own head, dumped everything out, and then put it back on her shoulders without particularly caring to do it the “right” way. The unmistakably sharp aroma of wine mixed with the earthiness of her surroundings, briefly masking the scents of sweat and fear that seemed to stick to the very stones.
None of this was in her job description. Initiative in the workplace was so rarely rewarded though, Eve consoled herself. It didn’t matter if the man hadn’t said a lot, he’d said enough. After all, Eve could be just as effective at negotiating as Villanelle, she pointed out to herself, and whether that happened in a big red shipping container in the middle of a forest or right here in a decadent wine cellar really didn’t make a difference.
Eve looked at her hands, splayed flat against the table. They were pale now, rubbed clean. Against the dark wood, they looked rather plain and innocuous. There was no trace of their dexterity, efficiency, or precision. An air of professional brutality coated them like some kind of absurdly rare skin cream. Her fingertips continued to tingle, unwilling to discharge their spark of baseness.
All in all, Eve concluded, her hands were steady. Her wedding ring winked at her underneath the chandelier’s glow. She briefly shut her eyes. When she opened them again, Villanelle lingered at the foot of the stairs.
“Did you find anything or anyone else?” Eve asked.
“No.” Villanelle drifted closer. “Are you alright?”
A sigh tugged itself loose from Eve. “I don’t know.”
“Look,” murmured Villanelle as she gently lifted Eve’s left hand. “Your sleeve is stained.”
Eve registered that the stitching around the sleeve on her brown polka-dot blouse was indeed red. She blinked. Villanelle’s fingers were so soft, so reassuringly placed alongside her wrist, just as gently as she’d brushed against them when Eve passed her that loaf of bread back in Rome.
It had been a communion; they’d broken bread together and feasted from the same banquet. There was no shame in that, none at all, for it had brought them here to this exact moment. Standing together, one-on-one, level with each other’s gaze. Villanelle still hadn’t pulled away. In fact her thumb had slyly slid the sleeve farther up Eve’s forearm to reveal more excited skin.
Villanelle’s forefinger traced the flow of Eve’s veins, the intricate lattice work of life that was keeping her animated. If she opened up those same veins right now, Eve was certain that all the emotions swirling inside her would be coloured sanguine. And they would just spill ardently right out of her to douse Villanelle in unadulterated potency. Similar thoughts seemed to be on Villanelle’s mind because her expression was one of rapture: her lips were slightly parted, her pupils blown wide, and her face was the window thrown wide open in a house that hadn’t been freshened in decades.
She gripped Eve’s forearm now with a wiry strength that coveted. One lurch would press them together again, a position Eve found abruptly familiar and surprisingly fitting since they’d embraced against her kitchen sink another lifetime ago. Drowning in Villanelle’s hazel eyes, Eve found nothing but waves of acceptance and a storm of consistent ardor brewing on the horizon of her gaze. Being caught within it was like standing in the middle of a field before the rain.
Eve’s voice was low when she asked:
“Do you think I went too far?”
“No. I’m proud of you.”
And Eve felt Villanelle’s response surge up her spine; gather itself at the base of her skull; light up the left side of her brain; and burst into flames that flared their way through her rib cage. Eve allowed herself a low, shaky laugh because god, she deserved this euphoric moment even if it was spun from borrowed time.
“Yes. You did what needed to be done.”
Something stirred low in Eve’s stomach. It pulled incessantly at the floor of her insides, prodding her every waking moment and demanding that the bottom gave out, fell away into oblivion for such sweet, sweet release.
“I did what I wanted to do.” Eve declared, and her voice was as steady as her hands.
“That is why I’m proud of you.”
Villanelle dug a fingernail right on top of the most prominent vein. The brief sting from the contact heightened Eve’s senses.
“You’ve never told me that I’m somehow too much for you,” she whispered.
“That’s because you are not.” Now Villanelle pressed the crook of her finger onto Eve’s chin. Her soft touch lingered. She leaned in closer to Eve. “Actually, you are not being enough. I want more.”
A cold void ripped Eve open. The man moaned.
“Oh god-Villanelle, could you-? I mean, you don’t have to do much but-”
“Of course.” Villanelle smiled. “Anything you want, Kill Commander.”
She slowly stepped behind Eve, who attentively watched Villanelle’s hands wrap around the man’s throat. Those same fingers that had been so light and muted against Eve’s own skin moments before now forcefully left dark bruises. Villanelle tilted her head to regard the man’s expression while she drained the air from his lungs, wrung every wisp out between her unwavering clenches.
Eve heard his gagging, the wet, harsh breakage of his windpipe; she concentrated on his faded gasps, the way he thrashed and bucked to the tune of Villanelle’s fingers pressing, closing, claiming.
“Thank you,” she said to Eve afterwards, then promptly poured herself another glass of wine and downed it.
“I like to watch. Especially at the end.”
Upstairs, the telephone rang again. The sound reached Eve and Villanelle as they exited the cellar.
“It doesn’t matter.” Villanelle replied quickly. “Let’s go.”
“Wait.” Eve picked up the telephone. “Hello?”
“There you are, Eve.”
“Carolyn. What do you want?”
“May I remind you that you and Villanelle are still employees of the British government, and so must conduct yourselves in the appropriate manner.”
“I quit!” called out Villanelle. “The work is boring and the pay is shit. I’d rather be self-employed.”
“Villanelle, please-” Eve shifted the handset to her other ear. “Are you sure you don’t want to fire me after Rome?”
“Nonsense. As I said, you are both still employees and that will remain true as long as there is work to be done.”
“Aaron’s death has left our government with a knowledge gap. He had a vast network of information, as you know.”
“Amber can handle it, she is very smart,” Villanelle said.
“Be that as it may, one can ever be too smart or know too much these days.” Carolyn paused. “You and Villanelle will be part of an intelligence gathering operation.”
“What kind of operation?” Eve asked.
“Kenny revealed twelve points of interest.”
Villanelle looked hopeful. “Targets?”
“Kenny said-” Eve closed her eyes momentarily at the guilt that lanced through her chest. “He once mentioned the twelve saints, the twelve days of Christmas…”
“Kenny is here, just so you know. Would you like to speak with him?”
Before Eve could reply, a brief scuffle tossed static across the telephone line. This was followed by Hugo’s voice.
“Well well, Eve. How’s your European expedition going?”
“Please put Carolyn back on.”
“S’okay, you’re on the speaker. Oh by the way Eve, since you fucked me in Rome, does that mean I’ll get promoted soon?”
Eve caught Villanelle’s apparently affronted expression. She mouthed we need to talk while Eve cleared her throat and felt herself turning red.
“Okay well, what exactly are we looking for?”
Carolyn’s voice returned. “USBs.”
“Are you serious?”
“Let me guess: there’s twelve USBs?”
“Those are the twelve points of interest, yes.”
“Fantastic,” muttered Eve. “I’m thrilled to go on this fetch quest for you while I’m being hunted by a shady organization hell bent on murdering me. Just what I wanted for my middle age crisis.”
“This is your mission, only should you choose to accept it, Eve. You always have a choice.”
“Thanks so much, Carolyn. Any ideas on how I can find these USBs?”
“They’re silver,” echoed Jess’ voice.
“How tacky,” Villanelle commented.
“Great. Anything else?”
“Within The Twelve’s hierarchy, only Keepers are authorized to have these USBs.”
Eve caught Villanelle mouthing to her again, we were right.
“Uh, it’s not like the Keepers are going to be twirling them on keychains,” said Eve.
“Keepers are obligated to carry the USBs with them at all times. In my experience, it helps to search the body. And all its cavities. As well as to give a thorough going over of any personal possessions and surroundings.”
Villanelle slipped away towards the cellar before Eve could motion for her to stay put.
“So the Keepers keep...data?”
“The Keepers do keep many things: people, places, objects. Depending on the current directive of The Twelve, naturally.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Konstantin is a remarkably resourceful man,” was all that Carolyn put forth. “Currently, the objects in question are USBs with a considerable amount of intelligence stored in them.”
“Okay. Why would we help you?”
“You mentioned being hunted by The Twelve.”
“Is this the part where you offer us witness protection?”
“No. This is the part where I tell you to purchase an iPad, and commit the following security code to memory so that you can download each and every USB you find onto the iPad.”
Eve repeated the code several times in her head and stored it in some abscess in her mind where she kept all important dates and figures.
“Do keep in mind that the iPad is property of the British government. And that we do not condone cyber espionage in any shape or form whatsoever,” Carolyn added. “Further, please entertain the notion that this little fetch quest and evading The Twelve are not mutually exclusive concepts.”
“Fine.” said Eve curtly. “We accept the mission.”
“What will you do for us in return?” Villanelle asked loudly, right into the endpiece, reappearing at Eve’s side and dangling a blood coated USB in her face.
Eve jerked the phone away. “Where should we start looking?”
“Wherever you like. There are important people everywhere.”
Carolyn hung up.
Eve glared at Frankfurt’s jagged skyline as if she had the power to topple it. Skyscrapers of varying heights loomed over the wide canal. Historic houses, galleries, and farmer’s markets clashed against the glassy exteriors of luxe apartments and clubs. The buildings all shoved each other for space, competed for the same polluted air, and scrambled to catch the attention of locals and tourists alike.
The postcard attractions of castles and cathedrals belonged to the primeval forests outside the city limits. Within them, cars whizzed by restaurants and shops crammed together in selected districts, blocks of designated frenzy saturated in blitz.
Eve and Villanelle had chosen to eat on the mid-level terrace of a restaurant overlooking the busy plaza. It also offered a stunning view of the canal being blanketed by the approaching evening.
Four and a half hours after leaving Zürich, Villanelle remained sullen and withdrawn.
“You fucked Hugo?” Villanelle aimed the question at her yet again in that same accusatory, insistent tone.
“Villanelle, please drop it.”
She sniffed sharply. Her eyes had a glassy, detached sheen to them. “Why did you fuck him?”
“I already told you.”
“Tell me again.”
Eve untangled her hair and raked her hands through it. Her answer tumbled from her mouth like an avalanche of stones. “Listening to you masturbate made me horny. But I couldn’t fuck you right then and there, so I fucked Hugo.”
“But you were thinking of me all night?”
“God, yes. How many times do I have to tell you?”
“Mmm. I like it every time you tell me.”
Eve stabbed at her sausage. Mashed her already mashed potatoes even harder. Kept her eyes fixed on her food while she chewed. Swallowed hard, then asked:
“What did you mean when you said that you always want more? That it’s not-that I’m not enough?”
“I never said that.”
“Yes you did!”
“No. I didn’t mean that.”
“Then what did you mean?”
Villanelle gulped twice before addressing the question in an unvarying tone.
“I guess what I meant was that you are not being enough because you are always holding yourself back. And I always want...more.”
Villanelle tilted her head as she considered the question. “Money. Makeup. Murder,” she emphasized with a quick flash in her eyes. “The very best of everything.”
“Okay, you’re greedy.”
“So are you.”
“I am not!”
“Yes you are,” pressed Villanelle. “What do you want?”
“To finish my dinner.” Eve shoved more food into her mouth and chomped it down with enough force to bite through her tongue.
Eve stared. “You just can’t let this go, can you?”
“I want...I want to be okay.”
“I want to be good enough.”
“I want to be safe. Happy.”
“I want us to be okay. And most of all, I…”
“What? Say it, Eve.”
Eve carefully set her knife and fork down. Clasped her hands tightly before her on the table. Her eventual answer was barely audible above the noise of traffic and the rest of the people eating on the terrace.
“I want to feel alive.”
“Okay.” Villanelle’s expression betrayed nothing. “What if I said that you wanted too much?”
“Would you still want it? Would you still get it?”
“If I wanted it badly enough, sure.”
“At least I want material things. Those are easier to get. See, you are greedy. Because you want something that doesn’t exactly exist in the real world.”
Eve watched Villanelle devour her food. The realization came crashing down hard, with a note of finality that made her stomach sour and turned the food in her mouth into ashes. She framed her conclusion as a statement, not a question.
“You’re saying that I want something you can’t give me.”
“No. I am saying that we both want more . That’s all.”
“But we don’t want the same things.”
“We do.” Villanelle insisted with a full mouth. “I want more.”
“There you go again.” Eve heaved an exasperated sigh. “Of what?”
It was like being knifed in the heart, Eve thought.
“You are so stupid, Eve,” said Villanelle with a shake of her head. “You are always holding yourself back, and I always want more. Of your smile. Of your touch. Of your time. Of your attention. Of your thoughts and your feelings. You are not too much for me, I told you. I want more. Of you.”
Relief washed over Eve. The beginnings of a smile introduced itself on her lips, and she dragged her eyes up to finally fully look at Villanelle, expecting her to be warm and pleased at their resolution. Except that Villanelle’s blank expression hadn’t changed at all.
“But maybe, you should go back to Hugo. He can give you everything you want.”
“God, you are impossible.”
“If I am impossible, then I guess you’re just too much for me after all.”
Villanelle daintily wiped her mouth and got up from the table.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Sightseeing,” Villanelle tossed over her shoulder.
She didn’t come back to the hotel that night.
Eve had frantically texted her the address several times, knowing that Villanelle definitely had her burner phone on her. But at a quarter past one in the morning, she wasn’t sweeping through the lobby with an upturned nose and a majestic stride; she wasn’t beating Eve’s hotel room door down; she wasn’t throwing stones at Eve’s window because she saw that the desk lamp was still on; she wasn’t waving up at Eve from street level with a bouquet of roses tucked under one arm and a bottle of champagne in the other.
The clock just ticked away. Eve’s burner phone stayed remorselessly silent. She distracted herself for a while by messing around with the iPad. Shifting apps around, opening and closing her notes, even scrapping some altogether after tapping out only a few frustrated lines; drafting no less than six versions of a check-in email she’d prepared for Carolyn; panicking when she improperly keyed in the security code for the USBs once; then shoving the iPad inside her handbag so that she wouldn’t have to look at it mocking her for setting the lock screen passcode to 1234.
She quickly took the iPad out again, though, because a sickly feeling gathered in her stomach. Her head pounded the more that her thoughts orbited with increasing speed around planet Villanelle. Immersed in the blue glow of the screen, Eve nudged her trajectory away from Villanelle’s gravitational pull and reoriented herself to focus on the neutral, repetitive tapping and swiping motions of her fingers instead.
Before stringing together the search terms hacking basics, Eve flipped off the iPad’s camera, then swerved her middle finger around the room in full view of the hotel suite’s cameras, just in case MI6 or The Twelve fancied watching. She spent the next hour browsing online articles and picking apart free PDF files that outlined basic terminology, only to end up refining her search terms to coding basics.
Getting sucked into the black hole of cyberwar, data science, and something called Python for sorting through algorithms, eventually made Eve empty the suite’s minibar. Her alcohol fogged mind processed that coding and hacking came right down to assembling numbers and specific words. So she signed up for an online crash course of sorts that promised to send coding practice packages for the next three weeks. Eve downed the last of the beer, stomped on the can, and cackled at the prospect of not even staying alive for that long.
Morning brought with it spurts of rain that watered the censored garden inside Eve. Worry blossomed in several species of panic; anxiousness choked her like creeping vines; and rage was the soil in which these poisonous plants all grew. They formed an overgrowth in Eve’s mind that she tried to clear by making a list of prominent figures in German politics, economics, and entertainment. It seemed that there were far too many important people in the world, and she wasn’t one of them.
Villanelle still hadn’t returned by the time Eve was miserably picking at her late lunch and scrolling through the latest news. Frankfurt’s lavish, civilized appearance couldn’t be reconciled with headlines that decried thefts and manslaughter, or condemned districts overflowing with prostitution and drugs. Translating the more grisly details made Eve want to restock the minibar.
She tried not to imagine Villanelle getting into trouble. What if she got assaulted by a gang? What if she overdosed in some back alley? What if she got lost and found herself staring down the barrel of a gun? What if she was the one holding the gun, her mind supplied, aiming levelly down the sights for a bit of fun because she was bored?
Eve scrolled down the page faster. At the bottom of the newsfeed, one particular headline caught her eye. A local politician had just renewed his personal security contract with the same company that had come under fire for allegedly funding his reelection campaign. A quick follow up search revealed that the company specialized in cybersecurity and that the politician’s newest bodyguard also happened to have a very sharp skill set in data analysis and visualization.
It was just a hunch, but it compelled Eve to stalk their address (thank god for satellites), commit it to memory, and run halfway down the hall before she realized that she’d forgotten her burner phone. It waited for her on the bedside table, this chunky, blocky device that was as heavy as a brick, and just about as subtle as one.
Eve peered into her handbag, already crowded with the iPad and a jungle of all the things she apparently absolutely needed to have. She flipped open the phone while hating herself for hoping that any trace of Villanelle would pop up when she did. Her stomach sank anyway when there were no messages or missed calls. The thought that there was no point in taking it anyway guided Eve’s hands to the garbage bin.
But what if Villanelle returned to the hotel while she was gone? What if she suddenly needed Eve’s help? What if Eve needed to call the police? Fuck. Eve rapidly texted Villanelle.
where are you? what’s going on?
you’ve been gone for hours and hours now
it got dark out and it was late and I couldn’t sleep because I was worried
I’m still worried
will you please answer me?
Eve waited for a few seconds that stretched into minutes, which felt like hours. The phone remained relentlessly unresponsive and stubbornly quiet. Eve buried it at the bottom of her handbag. Hurling herself into motion felt good. She had a goal now, she had a reason to be chasing down public transportation and peering down crooked streets instead of waiting in the hotel room. She told herself that she was only scouting a possibility (no, she wasn’t searching for Villanelle, not at all).
Unease seized Eve when she finally reached the spot mapped out in her head. The building of the security services company was so tall that it forced her to tilt her head all the way back to entirely take it in. Opaque silver windows made up the exterior. The only glimpse that Eve had of the interior was when the revolving doors actually rotated to unveil flashes of business suits, the corners of the intimidating reception desk, and bursts of curt conversation.
She didn’t know the floor plan; she’d never seen the layout of the lobby; she was an unarmed civilian; she technically didn’t even exist to the rest of the world; and not even her well stocked handbag could knock over a muscular, fully armed and trained security guard.
Eve walked inside.
If love made you do crazy things, then anger made you do stupid things.
Villanelle admired how glorious Eve looked in her anger: the harsh angle of her jaw, the strain on her usually pliant posture, the restlessness of her fingers, the lightless depths of her haunted eyes, the barely hidden tremors in her voice, the way she flipped from dangerously quiet to explosive in a heartbeat. Yes, it was all a glorious and alluring picture indeed.
Eve was very stupid and oblivious in her anger, too. For example, she hadn’t noticed that Villanelle was tailing her for the past few hours. She should have caught Villanelle on the bus, sitting at the back and lazily gazing out the window, but instead Eve jostled for space at the front and paid more than the bus fare was worth because she didn’t understand a word of German.
Villanelle had expected her to take the bus all the way to the station near the airport; at which point she could have bought a one-way ticket back to London. Not that she would have lived long enough to appreciate her mistake, of course, but that really wasn't the point. Eve hadn’t made a run for it. She’d exited in the heart of Frankfurt’s business district instead, which was enough for Villanelle cancel their dinner reservations at the most expensive restaurant.
She’d played with the silver USB tucked into the right pocket of her jacket while she followed Eve. The kill had been an unexpected one, and all the more pleasurable for it: last night’s sightseeing hadn’t been a complete lie because Villanelle did make quite a spectacle of herself in front of a brothel. The owner of the fine establishment had appeared to remove her from the premises himself, then it only took one glance at her to change his mind. He didn’t understand the word “no” in either its English or German forms, but he did understand the meaning well enough when Villanelle sawed through his penis and translated with him excitedly, loudly, over his screams.
Villanelle knew that The Twelve had infiltrated several sex trafficking rings in Europe already, including the Polish one she’d been tasked to eliminate during the first month that her and Eve had met. Villanelle counted on there being a ring in Germany, and she believed she would have been recognized fairly quickly, just not before she’d gotten a chance to play the victim. It was thanks to men’s most primal urges that she’d walked away with her prize so soon, even if it took her a day longer to temporarily lose their trail.
For once, it would be nice if Eve wasn’t heroic and instead patiently waited for Villanelle to come back. But no, Eve was angry for some reason. Villanelle saw it in the way she walked, the way she absentmindedly swung her handbag. And Eve was worried, judging by her onslaught of text messages, although the burst of attention was more than welcome. Keeping Eve in her sights was easy enough, Villanelle supposed, but keeping her alive was a challenge.
She didn’t even look both ways before crossing the street! It took all of Villanelle’s self control not to pull her back from the crosswalk as a car sped by them. Eve determinedly made her way to some security company building and stood outside for five whole minutes. Still angry, still oblivious to Villanelle watching her with crossed arms and a concerned pout. She groaned when Eve entered the building. Waited exactly two minutes. Then Villanelle went inside herself.
Eve paced restlessly near the reception desk. Her hair was tamed in a tight bun. Her face caved in when she finally caught sight of Villanelle.
“Oh my god, where have you been?”
Villanelle nodded over her shoulder. “Now is not the best time to talk.”
A team of three officers carrying handguns had stomped out of the elevators and was marching over to them. Without preamble, one officer fired his gun. The shot burst through the revolving doors; the shattered glass panel spilled across the polished floor and made Eve shriek.
“‘Shoot first, ask questions later’ is a shitty PR policy,” Villanelle announced. She ducked herself and Eve behind the end of the reception desk. “Eve! Don’t panic. There’s only three of them.”
The officer that fired at them came around the desk. Villanelle’s hand jerked up. Clamped around his wrist. And she dragged him down again just as more shots burst over her head. Eve helped Villanelle wrestle his gun away. She gasped then clutched her ears once Villanelle emptied a bullet into his head.
“Just like a melon!” Villanelle yelled over the gunfire.
She leaned over the top of the reception desk and fired two shots directly into the remaining officer’s chests. The gun fell to the floor, taking all the thrill with it. Villanelle stared blankly until Eve staggered to her feet. She couldn’t stop looking at the pool of blood oozing from behind the reception desk.
“Whenever you shoot to kill, you must aim for the heart. Or the head.”
Eve seemed to curl into Villanelle’s voice. “Right. I was trying to get-”
“I know. It’s okay.” Villanelle grinned. “I got it.”
“You already got the USB?” asked Eve incredulously.
“‘Thank you for saving my life Villanelle!’” imitated Villanelle. “‘Oh you are welcome Eve, you are such a well-mannered Kill Commander, so nice and polite!’
“Give it here.”
Eve snatched the USB from Villanelle with trembling fingers. She immediately shoved it into the iPad. The screen flickered to life. Numbers and code began to appear with a pointed ping! that made Eve flinch.
The sequence was still going during their swift checkout from the hotel. Villanelle ushered her to and from the taxi that took them to the airport. Eve bought tickets to Belgium thanks to its proximity, but her movements were automatic and devoid of their usual vivaciousness. It wasn’t until they’d boarded the plane and settled in that she said hoarsely:
“Let’s try not to get separated again.”
“I’m only letting you have the window seat this time because you saved my life, you know.”
Villanelle smirked. “I usually sleep naked, just so you know.”
“You can also sleep naked. For balance.”
Eve sat completely still. Villanelle scoured her face for hints. It was harder to tell when Eve’s eyes were closed. If there were any traces at all of her considering that vivid mental picture, she did not give them away. Her breathing steadied after takeoff and her head rested at an angle that spilled some curls onto Villanelle’s shoulder.
“So if I had been there instead of Hugo, you really would have fucked me instead?”
“Go to sleep, Villanelle.”
Chapter 5: Off The Grid
Weary passengers pulled their suitcases through the musty airport hallways, trudged to the squeaky conveyor belts to sort through their belongings, fumbled for packs of smokes, and collectively barreled their way outside to the brisk morning air.
The Brussels airport was a concave structure that reminded Villanelle of the inside of a zeppelin. Thin steel support beams formed the backbone of walls, arches, and columns. The long, long roof was slate grey. Obsidian statues towered over the main entry gate. Crowds funneled between them under the watchful eye of security guards and cameras.
Villanelle slept fitfully on the plane. She hadn’t eaten anything for the last forty eight hours. Her eyes pricked with dryness and irritation. She almost missed the flash of movement to her right, the trickle of bodies rearranging themselves in line. Carefully, she looked harder at the gaps, reached out for the displaced energies that masked impending violence. Her hand was on Eve’s back and promptly steering her towards one of the neon lit exists to their left before she fully completed the leap between impulse and action.
Eve obeyed. As they approached a security checkpoint, she readied their passports.
"No more using passports,” hissed Villanelle into Eve’s ear. “We’ve got to be completely off the grid.”
"What’s the big deal?”
“They’ll be able to trap us better if they know where we’ve been and exactly where we’re going.”
“Shit.” Eve slung her handbag over her shoulder. “How are we going to get past security now?”
“I hate to tell you this darling Eve, but we’re already trapped.”
“Don’t panic,” added Villanelle. “Whatever you hear, whatever happens. We’ll get out of this. Here.” Villanelle grasped Eve’s hand. “Just don’t let go. Whatever happens. Don’t let go. Okay?”
Villanelle screamed at the top of her lungs.
“We have a bomb! Everybody get back!”
The bubble of calm that seemingly kept the crowd in check shattered. People screamed immediately. The checkpoint guards elbowed their way over and bellowed into their walkie-talkies. Eve hoisted her handbag in full view as Villanelle repeated that they had a bomb, causing fresh waves of panic to ripple through the crowd. She roughly shouldered torsos away, deflected outstretched hands, lashed out with kicks that eased a bit of breathing room between her and Eve, and the outskirts of bodies either lunging into their proximity or cowering away from them.
Eve clutched Villanelle’s hand hard enough to make her knuckles crack. Villanelle squeezed back with equal force.
Movement diverted her attention away again. She briskly kept them going past the security checkpoint. The mass of bodies pressed closer together, suffocating the already threadbare route to the nearest exit. Eve elbowed someone in the ribs and tugged Villanelle along past suitcases with coats draped over them, past reunited families, past teenagers that whipped their phones out, and past a clot of security guards that tried to cut their way through a horde of unboarded passengers.
Along the perimeter, there was more space to move. Villanelle urged them on diagonally to the exit. People glared at her as she waved and weaved a stream of least resistance. The packed mob still swarmed the exit. A faint scent of ozone crackled in the air. An authoritative voice blared announcements over the speakers. Eve’s hand was sweaty in Villanelle’s grip, occasionally sliding loosely over her palm. Villanelle could feel Eve’s quickened pulse beating against her wrist.
“We’re almost out. Eve, I’m going to let go of your hand now.”
Villanelle checked Eve; she nodded sharply. When their fingers disengaged, Villanelle felt the loss of contact like a phantom limb. She used both hands to part a gap ahead of them and pulled Eve through. They exited onto the blissfully airy tarmac. Eve heaved freshness into her lungs as Villanelle took in the flat, slanting, lines of the airport’s facade. Buses and taxis approached and departed every few seconds. Villanelle hailed a taxi that rolled to a neat stop in front of them. She practically tossed Eve inside, messy handbag and all.
The driver began berating them in Dutch, snippets of which Villanelle barely grasped, but he quickly switched to English when he heard Villanelle murmuring assurances to Eve. Villanelle’s hand darted into Eve’s purse and came up holding numerous crisp Euro bills.
“Anywhere, just drive! I will pay you double if you lose them. Go!”
Villanelle kept Eve and herself low in the back seat. Sirens began to wail. A fleet of armoured cars slinked up to the front entrance of the airport. People stampeded outside, gathered into amorphous blobs on the transportation terminal. Many had their heads bowed to their phones, absorbed in digital worship, and didn’t notice anyone suspicious in the backseat of a speeding taxi.
Underneath Villanelle’s palm, Eve’s heart beat to the pace of a terrified, fleeing rabbit.
“I thought it would be best if we had our little meeting in my home. The MI6 headquarters can be so intimidating.”
Carolyn set down a steaming mug in front of Amber Peel. She apprehensively bobbed the tea bag several times as Carolyn slowly stirred some honey into her own tea.
“How are you holding up?” asked Carolyn.
“Fine. I’ve just been throwing myself at work.”
“I understand.” Carolyn tapped her fingers on the oak table, squinted at the sunlight flooding the study, and sighed. “I thought about killing my own brother several times. Mostly when we were children.”
“Let’s cut to the chase.” The scrape of the chair as Carolyn dragged it further in made Amber flinch. “Eve and Villanelle had no reason to kill Aaron. I expressly told them not to, many times.”
“That doesn’t mean anything!” spluttered Amber. “They could have done it anyway!”
“Ah, but they didn’t. Consider this,” Carolyn chided gently. “To the public you appear to have every motivation to kill your brother anyway, thanks to his money and his company. I’m sure that there were personal reasons as well.”
Amber smoothed the material of her skirt and kept her gaze fixed on the leg she’d crossed at her knee. “It was fish poisoning,” she maintained flatly.
“And I’ll make sure that it stays that way at MI6.” Carolyn’s face suddenly brightened. “Now to business. You’ve taken over the intelligence portion of Pharaday UK and you’re still using Aaron’s program. But the rest is proving hard to get rid of, isn’t it?”
Amber nodded. “I don't trust any of Aaron's buyers. So I thought the safest buyer to turn to would be the British government.”
“Clever girl.” Carolyn sipped her tea to hide the beginnings of a smirk. “We’ve lost too many good agents in the field. It is not ideal.”
“Pharaday’s fleet of surveillance and artillery drones would boost your manpower.”
“That’s the idea. And I have no doubt it will eventually replace our manpower altogether. That is also not ideal, but I’m afraid we have no choice. MI6 must move with the times.”
“Why isn’t it ideal?”
“I am from a different time. Which makes me a bit of a relic, I suppose. I’m just used to dealing with people and bringing out the best in them. Machines are different.”
“Not that different,” Amber countered smoothly. “Pharaday’s AI program makes machines about as lifelike as you can get. It’s almost like talking to a real human being. Besides, you’d need to train a whole new department of humans to manage your new technology.”
Carolyn’s voice held mild approval. “That’s a very good sales pitch. But ‘almost’ is still the key word.”
They spent the next hour negotiating the terms and price of their business arrangement. Another set of mugs were brought out, as well as fresh biscuits that Kenny bought from the store earlier that morning. Eventually, Amber scrawled her signature at the bottom of an agreeable contract. Carolyn promptly downed the last of her tea, then got up to put the mugs away in the kitchen. Amber’s soft voice interrupted her.
“Why did you want to kill your brother?”
“Mostly to stop him from harming any more hamsters. I really can’t stand animal abuse.”
“Did you...kill your brother?”
“I’m afraid he had a rather tragic accident in his late thirties. Suicide by hanging, you know.”
“Oh. Did you-”
“Also throw myself into work as a coping mechanism? Yes. We’re quite similar in this way.” Carolyn yawned. “Thank you for meeting with me. I’m sure we’ll see each other again. Shall I show you out?”
The city of Ghent in Flanders, Belgium looked frozen in time. Medieval design was still prominent in its layout and architectural landmarks. A cathedral and its abbey dominated the confluence of the Leie and Scheldt rivers. Their craggy stone walls, soaring spires, and stained glass windows languished over a cobblestone bridge that arched tranquility over the sparkling water.
An inn near the flower strewn river bank had tidy, clean and cozy rooms that faced the docks. A dirt path extended from the inn’s courtyard to caress the corners of shops, market stalls, and radiant facades. Then the path continued past the city’s outskirts and wound into flat meadows; fields lined with apple blossoms and hedges; patches of cultivated woodland; tree-lined canals and cycling paths; soft areas of sand dunes; the blood-red poppies of Flanders Fields; and changing shades of rolling hills.
Eve and Villanelle had chosen the inn’s attic room with its rustic touches of massive exposed wooden beams and carefully preserved stone floors. Its height gave them a sweeping view of the square marked by one round and one rectangular tower, as well as a water well. For the entire week following their airport debacle, Villanelle kept watch by the window while Eve completed her first coding practice package. She went long into the night, the iPad silently heating in frustration and occasionally vibrating to announce Carolyn’s responses to Eve’s vehement check-in emails.
And Eve would wake, her hair unmanageable and her caffeine deficit already kicking in, to the same sight of Villanelle by the window. Yesterday morning had been an especially haunting sight: rain drops chased each other down the frosty dawn-coloured pane and Villanelle’s silhouette was outlined by the increasingly vibrant red sunrise. Her hair dangled loose from the way she rested her forehead against the glass. Small shadows retreated into the folds of her matte-gold kimono. Her expression was a mirror breathing above a cracked porcelain sink, her eyes holding more souvenirs than memories.
When Eve came up from behind to wrap her hands around Villanelle’s midriff and to rest her chin on Villanelle’s shoulder, she didn’t shift her position at all. Her spine remained stiff. Her hands hung loosely at her sides. In the absence of any perfume or skin cream, she smelled purely of warmth, protection, decadence, and temptation. Eve inhaled. It was like trying to pick out several individual scents in a stunning floral arrangement that produced a mesmerizing, ethereal effect, but coyly refused to reveal exactly what it was made of.
“We have been too long in one place.”
Villanelle’s voice was huskier than usual. Eve felt each roused syllable and smoky inflection reverberate beneath her chin and rest right into her bones.
“That’s what you said when we first got here. And the day after that, too. But here we are. Still alive.”
Villanelle unstuck her forehead from the window pane. “I don’t think anyone followed us.”
“We both agreed that we need to rest for a few days. Villanelle,” Eve said, her voice determined. “We aren’t machines. If we keep burning the candle at both ends, there won’t be anything left of us to kill.”
“Does being on the run make you feel alive?”
The rain pattered against the haloed glass during a brief silence.
“Sort of. It gets my adrenaline going, if that’s what you mean. Why?”
“I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter what we do, as long as we’re together.” Now Villanelle eased herself back against Eve, abruptly robbed of anxious tension. “You make me feel alive. That’s all I need, all I’ve ever wanted.”
Eve’s pulse leapt. Heat flared in her veins. Her breath quivered in the back of her throat, unsure of what words to squeeze into.
“You haven’t slept much. I’m worried,” murmured Eve. It seemed like the appropriate response. She settled for a tone that hopefully sounded much calmer than she truly felt.
Villanelle had the advantage of not making her expression available. “You’re not sleeping much either. Hypocrite.”
The kimono’s finely woven material was thick enough to cover up any change of breathing or rushing throb below the surface. As far as Eve could tell, Villanelle was unaffected. This kept Eve hesitating until Villanelle tilted her head ever so slightly in invitation. Then Eve delicately placed her lips on the side of Villanelle’s neck.
Tasting her sent a lurch through Eve. The flavour was raw, tinged with enthusiasm, and somehow impossibly sweet. Eve continued pressing light kisses slowly and tenderly up and down the area Villanelle had generously exposed. She did not sway, she did not moan when Eve’s lips grazed the spot just underneath her ear, or when her tongue trailed down to Villanelle’s collarbone and retraced over the path her lips had just imprinted.
Eve’s head spun. The air was charged with the tension between their bodies. One quick turn of Villanelle’s head would gift Eve the perfect angle with which to join their lips, to meld the intoxicating, mounting heat they shared. Some distant part of Eve’s mind recalled that Niko used to hold her like this, used to kiss her like this. His arms would form a hard barrier around her body, his tongue and stubble would tickle her neck while he put his overly-wet lips on her neck, and he always seemed hurried or preoccupied. Eve hadn’t imagined that she would be the one leading this scenario with Villanelle, but it felt way too good to debate her own motivations or to get swept away by doubt.
As soon as Villanelle reached back and entwined her right hand in Eve’s hair, all the air whooshed out of Eve’s lungs. Her neck kisses became harder and more urgent. A short, breathy moan slipped from Villanelle at the same moment her fingers threaded through Eve’s curls to grasp a fistful of them. Warm shivers rippled along Eve’s spine with each insistent tug of her hair. Her hands scraped the length of Villanelle’s sides, silently pleading for permission to do more. Eve could so easily alter their route so that she cupped Villanelle’s breasts, nestled in the gold material which covered them in what seemed like a honey glaze. Eve’s fingers itched to tease Villanelle’s perked nipples, but she had no reliable point of reference about how to do that properly; again, flickering images of Niko roughly skating over her achingly hard nipples only as a preamble to commence pounding into her made Eve’s expression twist into one of frustration and dull disappointment.
Villanelle’s grip coming to rest on the back of Eve’s neck sucked her back into the moment. She brushed Villanelle’s hair aside and mirrored the gesture, kissing the back of Villanelle’s neck and tugging the kimono’s collar down to give her better access to vast expanses she hadn’t yet explored. Clouds of fear drifted across Eve’s mind, made her hands tremble with uncertainty; would Villanelle just let Eve heave the hem of the kimono up, let Eve slide her fingers up and into Villanelle’s pulsating wetness, let Eve fuck her slowly but surely, over and over, against this window? But what if she simply wasn’t good enough to please Villanelle?
Eve’s one hand lingered on the kimono’s sash. The other one drifted up to Villanelle’s chest. Underneath Eve’s palm, Villanelle’s heartbeat was a caged bird fluttering against its imprisonment.
“Come to bed,” suggested Eve.
Villanelle’s hand slipped out from Eve’s hair. A hushed blanket settled around her shoulders. She didn’t respond immediately. Eve expected some sarcastic remark or maybe for her to spin around and ravish Eve, push her back onto the bed behind them. But Villanelle offered an honest admission instead, peeking from behind a raspy chuckle.
“I am tired.”
“Come to bed,” Eve repeated. “Just to sleep.”
They guided each other to rest in between the covers. Villanelle’s back was flush against Eve’s front. She draped Eve’s arm over her and exhaled onto the pillow. Eve wasn’t usually big spoon, she reflected, but somehow, someway this would do: the reassurance of holding Villanelle close, of breathing just over the top of her head, of feeling her hair slightly tickle the edge of her nose, of knowing that Villanelle was here and that she was real.
The next day, Eve and Villanelle sat on one of the benches that circled the square’s well. They watched couples stroll by hand in hand. Eve felt like the last shadow that passed over a blank canvas in an empty art museum. Waiting to be found dragged time like a blade over her.
Villanelle looked carefree as she gorged on her gestreken mastel, a cinnamon sandwich in the form of a bagel, cut in half and generously smeared with butter and caramelized sugar. Her eyes narrowed at some couples emerging from the cobblestoned alley beside a pub, laughing and kissing in between laughs, running through the square and whooping.
“Look at them, being all happy. Acting like they’re on top of the world,” sneered Villanelle. “They’ll break up in two or three years anyway."
“You’re too young to be this bitter and cynical.”
“Not really.” Villanelle scowled. “If you think about it, unless you are dating for true love that means you are only dating to break up.”
“That’s a very black and white view.”
“Sure. But it’s not any less true. These days people get bored and move on from each too quickly. There is no commitment.”
“They forget the value of having a real connection. And because they don’t know what they want. Or they don’t want true love.”
Eve peered at Villanelle. “What do you want?”
“When I love someone, I want them to be like you. I want true love.”
“I want to love them for life. I want them to love me for life.”
“And what about the ones who don’t? Do you just cast them aside?”
“Of course. I take what I can and then I move on. Don’t you?”
“Um. Not like that.”
“I actually spend time with people I like.”
“I see. You do this so it only hurts more when you eventually leave.” Villanelle chewed on her bottom lip. “How long have you been married to Niko?”
“Ten years,” answered Eve quietly.
“Okay. You don’t count.” Villanelle stuck out her tongue. “He is not your true love.”
“Oh, and you are?”
“Yeah. You said it, Eve.”
Eve frantically swept her hair up into a bun. Her heart was an overripe fruit squeezed to bursting, oozing and dripping down the walls of her ribcage. Villanelle’s presence sometimes felt like thick, leaded glass, other times like blinding light-but always, it was a protective layer between herself and the world, between what she thought or knew or felt, and what actually was.
In reality, in the real world, Eve and Villanelle sat on a bench. In her head, Eve excavated a gap between her body and her mind until she found a narrow space between the two in which to exist. In reality, there was a buzzing noise gathering from the cobblestone alley. In her head, Eve flipped through photo-album memories of her honeymoon: fragments of Niko’s crooked smile and her own tight-lipped imitation of one; his stuffy suit chafing against the side of her sleeveless dress; their footprints along the shoreline quickly being erased by the incessant tide; and Eve noticed that the edges of some memories had grown tattered, some were even covered with a film of dust.
In reality, Villanelle was yelling something, and then yelling louder, and a tingling sensation spread from the soles of Eve’s feet up to the tips of her fingers, increasingly electrifying every nerve ending. Villanelle seized Eve’s arm. The shock of contact propelled Eve to her feet. Villanelle scrambled them behind an old rock wall near the dirt path leading out of the city. Only when Eve’s ears started ringing did she register that they were being assaulted by a drone peppering their location with bullets.
Bits of rock showered down on Eve and Villanelle. Chips bit into Eve’s exposed neck and chest, crumbled down the front of her v-neck shirt, embedded themselves into her mane of disorderly hair. Villanelle crouched with her shoulder against the rock wall. Pale dust settled into her hair and ghosted on her face, giving her a ghoulish pallor. The air smelled chalky and explosive.
Bullets continued to shred the sky, the stone, the cord of survival that bound Eve and Villanelle together.
The distance between the wall and the hotel’s courtyard looked uncrossable. Regardless, Villanelle’s posture was poised to bolt into motion at any moment. Eve wanted to freeze her in this moment, to sew together the fabric of reality and keep it locked in place, as if Eve wasn’t existentially fabricated to cause Villanelle’s destruction with each paralyzed breath and every (poor) decision.
But Villanelle’s movement defied capture. The motion that drew the drone’s attention away and briefly made it stop firing was uncanny and strange; Villanelle’s legs probably meant to carry her over the top of the splintering wall and crashing into the drone, like she could rip it down from the sky. Instead, Villanelle used the wall as a springboard to propel herself away from the cracking stone, away from the drone...away from Eve.
Too fast for the drone’s sensors to track, Villanelle ran off with a puff of dust. The drone recalibrated itself and whizzed in pursuit of her, the crack of bullets growing more distant by the second.
Through it all, Eve couldn’t move.
Much later, when the sun had dropped from the sky to be replaced by the moon, Eve loomed expectantly in the attic window. Her handbag rested on the windowsill. A duffel bag perched on the edge of the bed, stuffed with changes of clothing, several expeditiously acquired wigs, pounds of makeup, and a first-aid kit.
Eve clutched car keys. In the hours that followed the drone’s ambush, she’d acquired a compact, serviceable car. She’d even mapped out the two and a half hour route that would take them from Ghent to the town of Lisse in the Netherlands.
Villanelle would return any minute now, Eve told herself firmly. She would, she would.
There was no doubt about it, none whatsoever! It was just taking some time. Eve checked her watch. That’s all, it was just taking some time. Villanelle was on her way back, for sure. She’d outpaced the drone. She’d outsmarted it. She hadn’t run out of breath. She hadn’t overestimated herself. She hadn’t felt leaden tiredness grow in the muscles of her arms and legs. She hadn’t been shot in the back or the foot while bolting down a country road, yelping in pain as she fell face down. She wasn’t a bullet-ridden corpse in the middle of a field. She wasn’t, she wasn’t.
Eve checked her watch yet again. Seconds crawled by.
We have been too long in one place.
Eve closed her eyes tightly to stop her eyes from leaking tears.
He is not your true love.
Eve remembered the way Villanelle’s voice had held such conviction, such fondness and promise. The delighted glow in her eyes as she’d sat on that bench with Eve, the lighthearted way she’d taken in their surroundings, the buoyancy in her step as she fell in sync with Eve, happy just to be with Eve.
Without conscious thought, Eve found herself sitting on the bed. She held her head in her hands and sobbed. Her entire body shuddered with the force of the grief and terror that wracked her. The thought of losing Villanelle split her right down the middle, eviscerated all other rationality. Villanelle had stood at this very window yesterday morning, had snuggled up with Eve in this very bed. Now she wasn’t here, and Eve couldn’t think properly, couldn’t numb the intensity of her agony, couldn’t contemplate any of her tomorrows without Villanelle in them.
The sound of the attic door being battered choked off Eve’s sobbing. She hastily wiped her tears away and threw it open. Villanelle slumped against the doorframe, wearing a lopsided grin. Her blouse was sweat stained and torn. She reeked of some foul combination of chemicals and smoke. Her knees and shoes were caked with mud.
Wordlessly, she reached out for Eve’s hand. Pressed her palm into it. Relinquished a charred but unmistakably silver USB. Stumbled over the landing past Eve, muttering something about needing a shower.
Eve gasped. “Villanelle, your back!”
Villanelle lazily turned her head. “Hmm?”
Eve was at her side in an instant. “Fuck, fuck! Take your blouse off.”
“I’m fine, Eve.”
“No you’re not! Take it off! Here-”
Eve quickly tugged the blouse up and over Villanelle’s head. She looked like she could barely stand. Eve maneuvered her to the bed and carefully set her down beside the duffle bag. Eve rummaged around until she found the first aid kit and tore it open, gathering bandages, gauze, and antiseptic. She poured it over Villanelle’s gunshot wound; the bullet’s trajectory to Villanelle’s right shoulder blade looked like a glancing shot, perhaps grazing Villanelle as she turned a corner or hopped a fence.
Focusing on sterilizing the inflamed, bloody area made Eve appreciate the miraculous fact that she was looking at a flesh wound. And that Villanelle was alive, even if she was shaking and swearing and flinching underneath Eve’s touch. When she’d finished mopping up the gore, Eve overturned the attic until she found a needle and some spool tucked away in the bathroom cupboard.
Her hands shook so badly that she could barely pull the black thread through the needle’s eye. The fifth attempt did the trick. Eve steeled herself, took a deep breath, and announced that she was going to sew the wound up.
Villanelle eyed the spool warily. “Is that the only colour you have?”
“What? Why does it matter?”
“I like to keep a good aesthetic.” Villanelle almost shrugged, then thought better of it with a grimace. “Do you have any pink thread?”
“No I do not! Hold still!”
Eve imagined that she was merely examining another crime scene photo, another stomach-churning illustration of the damage that a bullet could do. She isolated Villanelle’s shoulder blade from the rest of Villanelle, treating it as its own fleshy island amidst a sea of shattered nerves and oozing blood.
Villanelle didn’t make a sound. Eve tried to make conversation to distract her, or maybe to break the suffocating silence.
“Thank you for saving my life, Villanelle.”
A pause. Then:
“Again,” suggested Villanelle.
Eve halted in the middle of a stitch. “Again,” she acknowledged, through gritted teeth.
“You are welcome, Eve.” Villanelle inhaled sharply as she felt her skin scream through another pierce of the needle. “Thank you for saving my life, Eve.”
Eve almost dropped the needle altogether. “Of course.”
She worked a few more stitches in, fighting her stinging eyes and the exhaustion dripping from her fingers. “We’re almost done. By the way, how did you find the USB?”
“It was inside the drone, in some black box. I had to break it open with a rock.”
“Good thing you managed to take it offline.” Eve muttered.
“I didn’t,” grunted Villanelle. “It chased me almost the whole way. Then it suddenly just powered down. Still shot me first, though.”
“Then it must have lost contact with its controller.” Eve’s brow furrowed as she absent-mindedly inserted the remaining stitches.
Villanelle inspected the duffel bag as soon as Eve snipped the completed thread and pressed fresh bandages onto the wound. “I am looking for something nice to cover this up. Do you have any Givenchy or Chloé in here?”
Eve tossed her an orange jumper and glared as Villanelle gingerly slipped it on.
“Do you think you’ll be able to travel?”
“Yeah.” Villanelle smiled thinly. “I’ve been hurt worse than this. One of my most recent injuries was a stabbing, you know.”
“Are you sure you’re alright?” Eve’s voice was low and rough. “I’ve got a car for us parked outside the courtyard.”
“Then let’s go.”
The car’s headlights illuminated their way outside the city, then enabled them to wade through the feral darkness of Belgium’s countryside. A wolf’s chilling howl drifted through the open windows. Eve’s hair billowed in the cool air. The iPad stuck out from her handbag in the back seat; the glow from its sequence in progress caressed the duffel bag nestled against it, as if seeking comfort from its own species.
In the passenger seat, Villanelle had positioned herself so that she was mostly resting on her uninjured side. The seat belt simultaneously formed a bit of a support and a makeshift splint that kept her from accidentally placing weight on her weakened muscles. Every time the unpaved road vibrated, Eve’s eyes darted to Villanelle’s shoulder blade to check that the stitches hadn’t burst and ruined the car’s upholstery.
Eve mostly kept her eyes on the road. And Villanelle mostly avoided looking at Eve. The next time that Eve glanced over, Villanelle had turned her head away. All Eve could discern in the dim light was her smudged silhouette and the rhythmic sound of her laboured, but steady, breathing.
The pain in Eve’s chest was so clear, like metal glinting. It was a roaring burn of severing that demanded that Eve felt it, unwaveringly. Villanelle kept on inhaling and exhaling, softly inhaling and exhaling.
And as long as she could hear Villanelle breathing, Eve resolved to keep being the very air that she breathed.
Chapter 6: Murderous Tendencies
Villanelle was bored.
She rolled the window down to catch the dawn breeze. On the horizon, subdued hues of blue and purple melted to make way for the radiance of the sun. The shapes of windmills stood out starkly in the distance. On both sides of the car, parallel lines of red, blue, violet, and yellow tulips ran side by side, swaying closer in the breeze, yet never coming into contact.
Eve had stopped the car to get out and stretch. But she soon grabbed the iPad to snap photos of the fields, exclaimed “wow!” every few seconds, and hadn’t bothered to direct any of her refreshing enthusiasm in Villanelle’s direction. Her wound throbbed. The stitches were already itchy, and the distraction of having a cleft in her right shoulder blade brought with it the accompanying irritation of knowing that she had to favour her left hand more for shooting or stabbing.
At least having a weapon wouldn’t have been boring. She would cradle it in her lap (or conceal it in the glove compartment if Eve was truly uncomfortable) or clean it, or reload it, or stroke it, anything to keep herself focused on increasing their chances of survival. Anything to keep her distracted from the fact that Eve had seen her look ugly.
It was borderline insulting, actually, that Eve had been the one to judge the damage of Villanelle’s gaping and leaking wound. It was her wound, it belonged on her body. Yet Eve had squinted at it and...fixed it. Eve, who couldn’t hold a gun properly. Eve, who couldn’t push the knife in hard enough. Eve, who didn’t know the damage she did with her gaze and her touch and her mouth. Eve, who could barely admit what she wanted but still chased it, fueled by an apparently bottomless well of passion.
In the rearview mirror, Villanelle watched Eve wade into the tulips. She brushed her fingertips against the tops of the bulbous flowers. Her hair smudged against the lightening sky like a brush stroke of black ink gracing a spacious canvas. Entranced, Villanelle craned her neck and twisted around to get a better view. Her right side immediately protested, shooting pain through her upper arm.
Villanelle dipped her other hand into the duffel bag. She seized the first wig she felt, a silken brunette thing, and turned to face the dashboard again. The vanity mirror was depressingly small; Villanelle pulled it down delicately but it still squeaked on its loose hinges. Strands of hair fell dully across Villanelle’s face, slanted over her nose, curtained her eyes. She blew a huff of air to part her bangs. Caught a flash of Eve posing for yet another selfie and rolled her eyes.
Eve’s head snapped in Villanelle’s direction when she heard the horn honking. A sweep of wind threw curls across the lower portion of Eve’s face, briefly obscuring everything except her eyes. Even from this distance, Villanelle absorbed Eve’s searching gaze.
Now that the full force of it was finally directed at her, Villanelle felt the cold void within shrink to a manageable spot. This, she could handle. This, she could work with. She stretched herself over the driver’s side further to shout out the window.
“We need to get going!”
“Oh, don’t be such a joykill!”
“Will you stop already?” demanded Villanelle, just as Eve prepared to snap a bunch of blue tulips. “I think you have enough photos. Stop it. Come back here.”
Maybe she sounded more irritable than she meant to because when Eve got behind the wheel, her exuberance was replaced by sullenness.
“That sounds like something Niko would tell me,” Eve said softly.
Villanelle instantly made the most disgusted face she possibly could. “Please don’t say that.”
“Well fuck you, but it’s true.”
“I only like the first part of that sentence.”
“Look, if you really want to fuck me up, all you need to do is get one of those stupid disguise moustaches and tell me to stop again.”
Villanelle tilted her head. “Why would Niko ever tell you to stop?”
“Because I’m annoying, I’m too much and too soon, I’m a burden. I swear a lot and I get too angry and I drink more than my limit and I don’t comb my hair. I get too excited about things no one else would ever be excited about, and then Niko feels the need to tell me to stop because really, sometimes, I just don’t know when to stop or how to stop.
Oh and also, I don’t really want to stop. I want to keep going, until-until I find what I want, until I know everything, have everything. And Niko, he thinks that a person can only know so much and I’m not like that. I’m not. I never have been, but he made me, because...because he’s dull, so he dulled me.
And I don’t want to be like that anymore and I just-for fucking fucks sake, you make me feel alive because you’re the only person I’ve ever known that actually wants more of me.”
Villanelle had closed her eyes while listening. She basked in everything Eve was willingly and also unwittingly gifting her: the pang of deep longing for what was unspoken between them, the neediness crawling into her low voice with every strained word, the way it all poured out of her to gradually become a black, abysmal, pool that Villanelle wholeheartedly drowned in.
She wrung out every drop of despair and doubt from the curves of Eve’s inflection; she licked the bitter residue from the words that Eve lashed harshly with her own tongue; she nuzzled into Eve’s cadence most comfortably when it vibrated with a rage-soaked timbre; she caught the damp impressions that Eve’s fingers left on the steering wheel from the force of her grip; she moistened her lips with the watery shine that quivered ever so briefly in Eve’s mocha-coloured eyes; and she drenched herself in the way that Eve meant every single word she’d said.
Villanelle was drunk on Eve’s essence. The purity of it was an elixir that Villanelle quenched her thirst with. Its flavour tasted like every secret and fantasy and murder and mistake and desire and wish that she’d ever coveted; an antidote she didn’t even know she wanted, a cure for what she didn’t even want to cure, a chance at redemption that she would never even take; but it was intoxicating just the same because Eve was flooding Villanelle’s senses, pumping through her like the gasoline that pumped through this car.
She seriously contemplated asking Eve for more, right here and right now, in this car. What Eve had just offered, and what she was offering forevermore, belonged to Villanelle. It was hers because she’d heard it and felt it and caused it and participated in it; let Eve wet her toes in that dark pool because Eve belonged to her; and they could swim against the current or drown in their own wanting together, whichever was better; and all it would take would be one heated, lingering glance at Eve now, or a simple caress against her fingers. Then Villanelle would take her, claim her, possess her.
Villanelle bit her lip to keep herself tethered to the moment. She wanted to mark Eve as surely as she’d seen Villanelle be marked on her right shoulder blade; she would even bleed and shake and writhe and be ugly again; would let Eve see for herself that she was only flesh and blood and bone; would gladly endure being impaled and marked by Eve again, if it meant that Eve’s hungry eyes endlessly looked into her own and she simultaneously offered and seized everything, everything, that they both madly craved.
To sit beside Eve and do nothing made Villanelle’s hands shake. She was fumbling to unbuckle her seat belt when Eve announced:
“God, sometimes I want to kill you.”
And suddenly, Villanelle wasn’t bored anymore.
Pink streamers and clusters of golden balloons decorated the MI6 office. White ribbons dangled haphazardly from the top of the tall filing cabinets. A thin wooden table bearing half-devoured lemon cake and an assortment of presents was pushed up against the burnished black brick wall. Congratulatory words were plastered on the windows and all over Jess’ desk, which was in turn occupied by celebratory greeting cards.
“Got just a couple of weeks left before my bun comes out of the oven,” she announced proudly, for the fourth time that morning.
Hugo patted her belly and conspiratorially whispered against it. “You oughta stay in there, if you know what’s good for you. It’s a weird world out here, with lots of weirdos in it.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Jess dryly. She clinked her glass of water against Hugo’s half-empty glass of champagne. He reached around her to grab the bottle and emptied the rest of it into his mouth with a nonchalant shrug.
Kenny skulked near the office doors. He’d placed his untouched glass on top of several precariously balanced cardboard storage boxes. Brushing a streamer aside, he opened the lid of a box simply marked “V” and picked through some files. He stiffened as Hugo sauntered over.
“That’s ‘the best codebreaker in British Intelligence’ to you.’”
“Whatever. Your mummy must be so proud of you.”
“Shut up.” Kenny felt himself redden right to the tips of his ears.
“Do you really have to work during Jess’ maternity leave party?”
“Yes.” Kenny peered over his shoulder. “Some of us actually do work around here. Not that you’d know what that is, since your mum and dad pay for everything.”
“Seriously?” Hugo dragged his fingers through his artfully arranged hair. “This shirt costs more than your entire month’s salary.”
“My computer costs more than your entire tuition at Oxford."
Hugo grinned. “I wouldn’t know, my mum and dad pay for everything.”
Kenny turned back to the files. “Are you done? I’d like to keep working.”
“Actually, I just came over here to tell you that your mummy wants to talk to you. She’s on the phone in the other room.”
Kenny slammed the lid back on the box. Wordlessly, he passed Hugo and crossed over to the office space adjacent to the room he was in. The telephone was on a desk beside the largest unshuttered window. Kenny hesitated before picking up the endpiece.
“How are you getting along with the party?”
“It’s fine. Jess liked the cake you sent.”
“Did you like it?”
“I haven’t had any yet.”
“Ah. Well.” Kenny heard Carolyn exhale sharply. “Perhaps you should go have some, then.”
“Goodness Kenny, I just wanted to check in on you.”
“So that’s all you wanted to talk to me about? Jess’ party?”
Kenny blinked through the silence that stretched between them.
“I suppose...while I have you on the line…” Carolyn cleared her throat. “You’ve been working late at the office these past few nights. Any progress with the sequence?”
“Got a few coordinates, but no complete geo-location yet. The sooner Eve and Villanelle give me more USBs, the more I’ll have to work with. I still think it would have been easier to just use some sort of cloud service,” Kenny added irritably.
“I believe you told me that individual USBs are harder to hack than digitized intelligence gathered all in one place.”
Kenny and Carolyn sighed simultaneously. Silence fell between them again like a hammer. Carolyn broke it first.
“And what about the other assignment I gave you, how’s that going?”
“Like finding a needle in a haystack.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.”
“Sorry. I’m trying my best, mum.”
“Alright. Enjoy the rest of the party.”
Carolyn ended the call. Kenny padded back over to the office. Jess was gathering the cards from her desk and putting them in her purse. She glanced over longingly at the cake and then swiped some icing on her finger.
“Where’s Hugo?” asked Kenny as he joined her at the table.
“Went for a smoke. This is delicious, by the way.” said Jess. She cut Kenny a piece of cake and then promptly cut herself another piece as well.
“You know, I notice the way you are.”
“Oh. Sorry.” mumbled Kenny.
“Don’t be silly, you’ve got nothing to apologize for! I just meant that you seem aloof. Keep mostly to yourself. How come?”
Kenny swallowed a particularly hefty piece of cake. “I’m used to it.”
“You must get lonely, surely.”
“Only when I’m not working.”
Jess’ smile was small and sad. “I’m really going to miss working with you.”
“It’s only for a while.”
“Yeah. But I know it’ll all be different when I come back.”
Kenny scraped the rest of the cake off his plate. “It’s hard to leave a place where you feel that you belong. Even harder when you know where you want to be but can’t get there fast enough. I dunno what to do when I feel like that.”
“You’ll get to where you’re going soon enough, believe me. In the meantime you’re right where you’re meant to be. You belong here, Kenny.”
“Thanks. Um. For encouraging me. Like, genuinely. Not because you have some sinister plan.”
“‘Course. You’re brilliant!”
“I’ll try to keep that in mind.”
As soon as Jess left the office (not without giving him a warm, firm hug though), Kenny got back to work. He ignored Hugo’s prodding remarks and focused solely on his screen. Anything behind its parameters melted away, singed by the glow of either the display of the fragmented sequence or the flipping between various international landmarks. Kenny broadened his search, then grudgingly narrowed it when Hugo strolled past his screen and made a caustic, but sadly accurate, remark.
It was well into the late afternoon before Kenny had worked through most of the unnecessary variables. Communicating with his computer was usually a breeze, especially if he was running an algorithm with a well-defined set of rules and processes. Problem solving was what Kenny had in common with his computer; its blinking lights, quirky sounds, and breathtaking speed gave it an understated sort of cleverness. Sometimes when he pushed it hard enough, Kenny swore that sparks of joy flew from the cables intertwined inside like veins feeding blood into a heart.
Aaron’s program had proven more taxing on Kenny’s computer than he’d originally anticipated. Its AI components were unreadable with his current hardware, but the search engine on steroids that was the hallmark of Aaron’s controlling, paranoid, and menacing engineering remained perfectly intact. Kenny wanted to resent its presence in the program’s backend, but he just couldn’t bring himself to because it was way too damn useful.
Kenny’s finesse came in the form of navigating the program tactfully by nudging its limits and inserting instructions that didn’t insult the way it was naturally wired. Without being pushy, without being pompous, Kenny kept conversing with his computer in the most plain language possible. It eventually rewarded him with a curt answer.
After double checking the name he’d come across in the files earlier, Kenny carefully typed it into the search engine. His screen flashed. Pages and pages of information were downloaded, enough to compile a dossier. Photographs and folders of anecdotes were dumped onto his desktop. Finally, his eyes narrowed at the most recent bit of information: longitude and latitude.
The screen was suddenly too bright. Kenny couldn’t un-recognize the facts that blinked at him in various shades of satellite imaging. A rush of pride suffused him, followed by a plunge into the depths of anxiety. He’d come through, but then that meant Jess was right in her view that things would indeed be different.
Kenny spent a good few minutes reflecting on this as he swiveled in his chair. Then he went to phone his mother.
“You can’t just say you want to kill me and then not elaborate.”
Eve squinted at the road through the haze of a full blown sunrise. The horizon was leaking gold. Orange smudges gradually coloured the edges of the sky. The yolk of the sun was steadily spreading, and somehow it was easier to look at it dead ahead than it was to look at Villanelle.
She’d sunk her teeth into Eve’s heart, snarling and tearing. Eve quietly, exquisitely bled as she felt the heat of the sun scorching the plastic dashboard, the steering wheel, her forehead. Her mane of hair was like an extra layer of clothing and she badly needed to trim it. After tucking some wavy strands behind her ear, Eve finally found her voice again.
“I’ve thought about your death over and over again since I stabbed you. I thought about what I’d do if I lost you. If you-if you died.” Eve forced it out. “But death just isn’t something that happens to you. Does it?”
Villanelle flashed a smile and cocked her head in anticipation. “So why do you want to kill me?”
“Because sometimes, you’re all that I can think about. You take up so much of my headspace that it gets hard to focus on anything else but you. So I want to kill you sometimes, only to stop my thoughts from constantly concentrating on you.” Eve licked her lips. “ But I know that’s not how it works, not really. I’d miss you so fucking much, I don’t actually know what I’d do without you, because nothing will ever be enough anymore unless it’s you, and-” Eve halted. “Oh god, I’m sorry, I’ve said too much!”
“No! Don’t stop. Keep going.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Please, Eve. Don’t stop.”
Eve looked out the window briefly to catch the red and yellow tulips get set on fire by the sunlight. It was strange, she thought, how their colour matched the intensity of her feelings. The breeze had stilled. The sky was completely clear. The fields on both sides of the car seemed to suspend the car on its own asphalt oasis, a private moment of calm that reverberated with a heady sense of fate. Eve sucked in a deep breath and continued feverishly.
“I knew you before we ever met. I spent two years researching you, tracking you. Figuring out your style, your pattern. I couldn’t tear my gaze away from your kills. After a while, I even started looking forward to them because each one seemed to bring us closer. I didn’t know who you were, I didn’t know what you looked like, but I knew you. I knew you.”
Eve’s cupped Villanelle’s’ cheek. “After I stabbed you, there was not a single day that went by where I didn't think of something you said, or a memory we shared, or how your arms felt, or the way we talked to each other, or how it felt to lay down beside you.
I found you in all of my small, quiet moments. Like when I was making coffee. Getting dressed. Before sleep. When I was driving somewhere. Even if you were gone, even if-if I killed you, I know I’m always going to find you. Because I want you to be there. To be here , with me.”
Villanelle placed her hand on Eve’s cheek, mirroring her. “Do you want to kill me right now, Eve?’
“No.” Eve’s pulse quickened. She shifted closer to Villanelle. “I want to kiss you.”
The corner of Villanelle’s mouth quirked up. “Good choice. You can always kill me later…”
Eve leaned in and kissed Villanelle. At the touch of her lips, Villanelle blossomed. She pressed her own lips against Eve’s with more force, gripping the nape of her neck. Villanelle’s hair, set alight by the sun, unfurled down her neck. Her eyes were wide open, unguarded. Accessible.
She tugged Eve’s bottom lip with her teeth and Eve responded by pressing their lips together again. Her head swam with euphoria that spun her around and around. Villanelle’s lips were sweet wetness and quivering fire, evoking sensations from her that she’d never felt before. Oh, Eve had imagined this moment endlessly. Its softness and smoothness, its fragility and its bittersweet taste. But nothing compared to the reality of Villanelle, seeing her, feeling her, touching her, tasting her.
With a crescendo of breath, Eve closed her eyes. She didn’t know, didn’t really need to know, if Villanelle was still gazing at her with insatiable hunger and undeniable force, or if she’d closed her eyes too. All Eve wanted to ecstatically feel, needed to feel with every heartbeat, was Villanelle’s lips fused to hers. Their mouths connected over and over again. Their smacking sounds echoed in the car alongside their sharp gasps, growing more pronounced as they slanted their heads in angles aligned with the rays of sunlight spilling over the seats.
Eve smelled Villanelle’s primeval scent, mixed with the honey fragrance of the tulips, more acutely when she leaned in as fully as the car’s console would allow. Villanelle’s insistent mouth parted Eve’s shaking lips, sending wild tremors along her nerves. Eve opened her mouth with a low moan.
Villanelle’s nose brushed against Eve’s. She held Eve’s chin in place as she bestowed another open-mouth kiss. She took as much as she gave: breath, pulse, teeth, tongue, heat. The sensation was all-consuming, rocketing from the bottom of Eve’s spine to the base of her skull, pooling deep in her gut, and blinding her as surely as the sun’s glare. She felt a growing dampness between her legs.
Eve and Villanelle captured the sun in their mouths and transferred it between them. Warmth, as well as an electrifying current of power, surged through Eve. She clumsily placed wet kisses along both sides of Villanelle’s neck, let her hands slide upwards and palmed Villanelle’s breasts. Finally, an oh-so-delicate moan dripped from Villanelle. She let her head fall back momentarily, but the soft grip she maintained on Eve’s shoulders fell away.
Villanelle suddenly ran her hands through Eve’s dark hair. She dove into her ensuing kisses with the same force that bullets ripped through flesh and bone; with the same strength that she sliced arteries open; with the same triumph and hysterical joy and infectious zeal with which she incinerated lives. Eventually, Villanelle broke the kiss and rasped:
“I also think about killing you, Eve.”
Eve drew back slightly to drink Villanelle in. She slid her hand down Villanelle’s spine and rested it at her hip.
“Okay,” Eve whispered. “How?”
“How would you like to die?”
“Um…” Eve gave this some thought. Then she grinned. “You could love me to death.”
Villanelle’s laugh chimed. “Oh Eve, that is so dreamy.”
“Speaking of dreams, I used to have this awful dream, around the time I didn’t know whether you survived me stabbing you in Paris.” Eve flicked her head, heaved more air into her aching lungs. Her lips felt bruised in the best way possible. “I dreamed that you’d asked me to run away with you to Alaska, of all places. Of course I said yes, but then I changed my mind for some reason. And-”
Eve’s eyes flicked to Villanelle’s. She looked flushed and for the first time that Eve had ever seen, quite delightfully distraught.
“And?” urged Villanelle.
Eve licked her lips. The ghost of Villanelle's lips still lingered on them. “And you got pissed at me. Rightfully so, maybe. That’s wasn't clear. But it was definitely clear that you were pissed and then you...you shot me.”
“Oh.” Villanelle arched an eyebrow. “That’s a shitty dream. Very inaccurate.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.” But the trace of humour from Eve’s tone had slipped. She mussed her hair.
“What is wrong?”
“I just…” Eve rubbed her nose. “I mean, I’d understand if you did it. If you killed me. I do fucked up things when I’m angry too.”
“Well, it’s not like it hasn’t crossed my mind. And as I just said, I do want to kill you.”
Villanelle shifted in the seat. “Because you are the one.”
“You are. You are the one.” Villanelle insisted. “Listen to me Eve.”
Eve drew a breath to protest but Villanelle sealed it with another kiss. She traced Eve’s jaw when she pulled back. Her husky voice resonated right down to Eve’s core.
“You are the one. Because when it comes to you, I just...I can’t do the things that I usually do, or do them the way that I am used to doing. So I want to kill you because you are like a limit, sometimes, and I was never into self denial.
I am finding that I can’t do my job as...efficiently. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I can’t think. I cannot turn a corner in my mind without coming across you. And I can’t think about just myself anymore. That is inconvenient Eve, so I want to kill you also because I want to get myself back, in a way. But killing you would be like killing myself, in another way, and I don’t like that. Obviously, I wouldn’t do that to myself. Or to you,” Villanelle added quickly. “But my point is, I don’t want to go back to the way I did things before. Because it’s better knowing that someone like you exists. It's better knowing that you make me feel so much more-just, more . Of everything. It is fulfilling.”
Villanelle looked deep into Eve’s inflamed eyes. “There's feeling complete, and you make me feel whole . Not only that, but you make me radiate. There’s feeling alive, exhilarating and glorious and arduous feeling alive. And then there's how you take me way beyond that. Without even trying. This is how I exist now, better. Because of you, Eve. With you.
And I can’t kill you because I can’t live the rest of my life knowing that you exist, and that I exist, and that we ‘d have to exist apart.”
Silenced breezed into the car. Eve gripped the steering wheel with one hand and her other arm draped against the back of Villanelle’s seat.
“Wow,” Eve said finally. “I’m glad we had this little talk.”
“I’m glad we can talk about anything. You know, romance, politics, work, murderous tendencies.”
Eve matched Villanelle’s wicked grin. Then she caught sight of an approaching car in the rearview mirror. She didn’t realize it was a police patrol car until it drew closer.
Villanelle glanced behind them. “Oh.” She patted Eve’s shoulder. “Don’t speed. It will only be more suspicious. Just smile and look innocent.”
Eve angrily killed the engine. The police car pulled up alongside them. Eve waited for the motor to be switched off. Waited for the familiar sound of a car door slamming shut. As she waited, she played out responses to the inevitable incoming line of questioning.
No officer, there’s nothing to see here! You just missed my makeout session with a Russian assassin almost twenty years younger than me.
Yes officer, I’m fine! I’m just trying to calm my screaming nerves and tingly lady-parts, which apparently only get aroused these days from the touch of a serial-killer turned assassin for an international murder syndicate. Guilty as charged haha!
No officer, I am not insane! I’ve just never felt this good since I can’t remember when, and I feel so alive that I’m not going to ever let you arrest me and lock me away for the rest of my life, even if I’m in love with a psychopathic murderer.
The police car’s motor was running. Pale smoke lifted from the tailpipe. Eve was beginning to smell the exhaust, and to feel faintly nauseated. Her heart got stuck in her throat when the officer stepped out.
He looked to be in his early twenties. His black uniform with a bold yellow stripe across the torso fit him snugly. He had pleasant, clean features with a tanned sheen and perceptive, blue eyes. Eve pasted on the most innocent smile she could muster when he leaned down to window level.
“Hello. How are you two ladies?”
“How are you?” asked Villanelle. Eve glanced at her, all fireworks and bubbliness. She was effortlessly casually, breezy, entrancing. Her voice was a mix of several accents thrown together into an unidentifiable mush. Eve silently praised her.
“Not too good, I am afraid. Where are you going?”
“Just passing through these lovely fields!” Villanelle turned up the wattage on her smile so high that it seemed to be able to power several entire cities across Europe.
“You should turn back. The border ahead is closed.”
“Why?” Eve asked.
“It is in a bad way over in Sweden right now, so Denmark has also closed all its shared borders as a precaution.”
“That’s horrible!” Villanelle said. “I feel so worried now,” she added, flapping her hands in a manner that suggested she felt anything but that particular emotion.
“What happened?” came Eve’s quick question.
“I am not quite sure. Some important people got shot yesterday in Parliament.” The officer sighed. “I am sorry that your trip has to be postponed.”
Villanelle bit her lip and fluttered her eyelashes. “Do we really have to turn back?”
“But surely, you are a strong officer. Right?”
The officer shrugged. Eve thought that he blushed a bit.
“And you are brave and respected, too. Right?”
“I bet you’re the best officer in your unit,” added Eve, adding some extra shine to her smile.
“See, we are safe with you! Could you please escort us across the border?”
The officer looked surprised. “I am not sure-”
“Please!” insisted Villanelle. “We planned this vacation for months, we don’t have a lot of money to do it again, we can’t just turn back now!”
She was marvelous, thought Eve. The way she instilled distress into her voice at a moments notice, the warble in her tone, her pliant movements...Eve could really, honestly kiss her all over again for being so marvelously devious.
“I guess...I could escort you.” The officer acquiesced. “They won’t ask questions if they see a uniform,” he added proudly.
“Oh, you’ve made me so happy I need to hug you!” announced Villanelle. Before Eve could process things, Villanelle bolted out of the car. She approached the officer with outstretched arms. Except instead of hugging him, she weaved aside from his hug and wrapped her forearm around his neck in a choke hold.
By the time Eve unbuckled herself and got out, Villanelle had slammed his head against the hood of the patrol car with enough force to temporarily knock him out.
“Why are you doing this?” Eve’s voice cracked in the abruptly stifling air.
Villanelle looked at Eve like the question was readily apparent. “He interrupted us.”
“Wait! Leave him alone!”
Villanelle disregarded Eve’s instructions and stripped his entire uniform off instead. She handcuffed his hands. Threw open the trunk of the car, found the officer’s kit in the back, dragged it out. She sprang it open to pull out an extra uniform.
“Put this on.”
“Do as I say, Eve. Put it on.”
Villanelle quickly removed her own clothes and made a great show of tucking the overly-large uniform in to flatter her curves. When she put the officer’s cap on at last, Eve was still struggling to pull her pants up. The bullet proof vest was also proving to be a challenge.
“I hate bullet proof vests,” she muttered.
“Get me a wig from the duffel bag,” snapped Villanelle.
Numbly, Eve obeyed and returned with a ginger coloured one that went well past shoulder length. Villanelle groaned. “Could you get the brunette one instead?”
Eve hurled the wig at Villanelle. She shrugged on the top of the uniform but left the cap off. She tossed it in the backseat of the car and was halfway inside when the car croaked with the weight of Villanelle heaving the officer’s body into the trunk.
“Villanelle, what are you doing?”
As she rounded to the trunk, Villanelle was rummaging through the officer’s kit. He regained consciousness with a groan that quickly turned into very verbal, very loud protests.
Villanelle shushed him by snatching his gun. “We’ll just borrow this, thank you.” She holstered it and continued going through the rest of his kit. “Oooh,” she exclaimed when she pulled out a serrated utility blade.
Eve’s blood ran cold when Villanelle pulled the officer’s boxers off.
“Oh my god, what the fuck Villanelle?”
She looked at Eve and tilted her head. “What is it, Eve?”
“D-do you have to do that?”
Villanelle blinked. “Well no, I don’t have to,” she answered after a moment. “I just really, really want to.”
Uh…” Villanelle waved the knife around in any general direction. “I have a thing against authority figures?”
“I am a feminist?” Villanelle tried again.
Villanelle smiled. She put her fingers in the uniform’s breast pocket and took out the item within. “Would you let me do it if he had a silver USB?” she asked sweetly.
“No.” Eve’s voice wavered. Slightly. “Think Villanelle. You don’t have to be violent. We could take him hostage instead,” Eve offered.
“Why would we do that?”
“Because we haven’t done something like that yet,” was Eve’s prompt answer.
“Why are you worried about him hmm?” Villanelle shook her head in disbelief. “He is just a random person.”
“He’s a police officer who helped us.”
“Oh, I get it. You are moralizing.”
“You are trying to do the ‘right’ thing, aren’t you?” Villanelle snorted. “You think you are too good for me, Eve?”
“Are you sure? Because you seem to think that somehow your shit stinks less than mine.”
“Villanelle, stop it. Just…stop it.”
“Fuck!” Eve threw her hands up. “Fuck, can’t you think about the consequences of your actions for one second? How this is going to affect us? Fuck!”
Villanelle’s tongue flicked out to lick along the edge of the blade.
Eve’s eyes narrowed. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I am thinking.”
“Okay. I think that you do not understand how this works.”
“What?” Eve closed the distance between them. Her chest heaved. Her head pounded. Her eyes roved all over Villanelle (and lingered at her lips, which were still reddened, and swollen, and so warm, and so soft, and-)
“Well usually, when I cut a man’s penis off, there is lots of screaming and blood and-”
“Shut up! Stop it! Shut up!”
“Why, does it disturb you?”
“Villanelle,” snarled Eve, “please don’t do this. I am asking you. Begging you. Please, stop.”
“What is the problem?”
“The problem is that if you do this, there will be awful consequences.”
“You already agreed that we should escalate.”
“That’s not the point! That’s-fuck, that’s the problem! You’re doing this with no point! He didn’t do anything wrong! God, he wanted to help us! There’s no point, so don’t do it!”
“Point?” Villanelle pressed her thumb to the point of the knife. “There doesn’t always have to be a point.”
“Y-yes there does.” Eve said hoarsely. Her throat hurt. Her head pounded harder. She wanted to rewind, so that she was kissing Villanelle, and Villanelle was kissing her, back in their car that smelled of tulips and affection.
Villanelle turned to the trunk. The man screamed and thrashed and strained against the handcuffs.
“Villanelle, this will escalate things out of control, and then we’ll be fucked, and god that can’t happen, we just-we just started, and fuck there’s no time, please, we need more time to be together and just-fuck, please Villanelle. Stop.” Eve reached for Villanelle, her fingers brushing against the collar of the uniform. “Please, don’t do this. Please.”
Villanelle put her hands on her hips. “You do not get to tell me what to do, Eve. You tortured a man.”
Eve almost buckled to her knees. Her voice wheezed out of her. “Don’t, Villanelle.”
Pain shone in Eve’s eyes as she watched Villanelle through an eviscerating haze. Villanelle held Eve’s gaze for a long moment. The air was loud. The sky shuddered. The sun was like an eye that couldn’t close because its eyelid had been removed.
Then with a flick of her wrist, Villanelle brought the knife in between the officer’s legs. His scream pulled the sky down, brought it down shattering over all their heads. Villanelle sawed. His next scream was much louder, but choked off abruptly. Blood poured between his legs. There was a wet, crunching tearing sound.
Villanelle tossed her hair off her ears as if she expected to hear Eve scream the way Anna had screamed when she’d come home to see her husband bled out on their bed with a gaping cleft between his legs.
But Eve was silent. Through it all, she couldn’t move.
With a blank expression, Villanelle tossed the knife and then the officer’s penis. Both landed with a thud somewhere in the tulip fields.
Eve twisted to her knees. Dry heaves wracked her body. She clutched her stomach, choking, retching. But nothing came out. She wiped her mouth anyway. She couldn’t bear to look at the scraping sound of Villanelle dragging the officer’s body off, or the rustling of the flowers. Their height and their floral scent would mask his rotting body for a long time, Eve thought distantly. She tried to repress the very next thought, brilliant, with no success.
“Are you coming?”
Eve struggled to her feet. Leaned against the car’s closed trunk for support as she tried to regain her balance. Her body was numb. Her mind was as blank and empty as Villanelle looked. She disappeared into the driver’s seat with a flash of neatly tied ponytail.
After a moment, Eve followed her.
The sun beat down. The tulips swayed. And kept on swaying, long after the car drove away.
Chapter 7: Stockholm Syndrome
The police car sped towards the Swedish border.
Eve was getting a steady stream of anxiety from watching Villanelle drive with just one hand, her uninjured left one, while her right rested lightly on her thigh. She’d charmed them over the Danish border with nothing but a pair of gleaming aviators and a flash of the suppleness underneath her uniform. The aviators still disguised half her face, functioning like unsettling reflectors of the world, constantly mirroring but never offering insight.
The second pair of aviators rested on the dashboard. Eve had put them there in favour of fidgeting with the iPad. The latest USB sequence just finished uploading, but Eve still clung to the cool, smooth surface of the device. She checked her email inbox yet again, hoping that the final part of her coding course had arrived so that she could actually have some sort of viable excuse to keep staring at the screen. But her inbox was resolutely empty.
Somehow, Eve managed to stuff her hair into a bun that fit underneath the police cap. She stole another glance at Villanelle, who looked impossibly dashing in the uniform. The collar remained unbuttoned low enough to expose her décolletage. The folds and ruffles stuck to Villanelle like a second skin. And damn it, she looked like she had approximately twenty years worth of experience with the force, got Nancy the secretary to bring her coffee and doughnuts in the morning, and personally worked out with the chief every other day of the week.
Looking at Villanelle like this, it was easy to forget what she had done. Everything that she had done.
Which was why Eve preferred to look all over the car instead: at the silent two way radio and mobile data terminal, at the automated external defibrillator in the back, at the flares and barrier tapes grouped together near her handbag and the duffel disguise bag, at the first aid kits, and at the ammunition packs stuffed in the glove compartment.
From the corner of her eye, Eve could tell that Villanelle was watching her pay far more attention to the iPad. So Eve kept her eyes glued on it.
“We should start a travel blog. Or a vlog, actually. I love being on camera.”
These were the first words that Villanelle had spoken directly to Eve during the rusty day and a half they’d spent driving across Denmark. Most of it was comprised of vividly coloured dock towns, historic monuments, sprawling fields with cottages that had faintly smoking chimneys to stave off the rain, and stout wooden windmills planted in the middle of yellow marigolds.
Eve furiously swiped through photos of the tulip fields. She held up the last one she’d taken, a cluster of flowers gathered in the lower right corner of the shot, with a windmill framing the space on the left.
“Look, not pictured: decomposing body of castrated man!”
“Still not over that, I see.”
“It’s funny how you told me that you didn’t want to go back to doing things the way you’ve done them before, but then you go right ahead and continue your destructive pattern.”
“No, this is definitely different,” retorted Villanelle. “I have never had to justify myself to anyone before.”
“Get used to it, because I want to understand.”
“I simply cannot have this conversation with you as an equal, because until you kill someone for yourself Eve, you will never understand.”
Eve dropped the iPad onto her lap. The wet Danish countryside flowed by. Rain fell across her window, blurring the edges. Confining her to a dreary, surreal space where the barrier between the world outside the car and the invigorating one inside mattered less with each passing second.
“What you did to the officer was senseless,” said Eve stonily. “Just like when you killed Bill. Completely senseless.”
“So are you saying that if there had been a point to my actions, they would have been easier for you to approve?”
“I...I’m saying that it would be easier for me to understand.”
Villanelle’s teeth dug into her bottom lip. Her left hand gripped and ungripped the steering wheel.
“You liked me more when I had a point, didn’t you? When I was assassinating for The Twelve?”
The asphalt road was very slick, Eve noticed. It was also cracked and bumpy. Patches of gravel covered stretches of it. At the speed they were going, the wheels could skid easily. Still, the rain kept falling. Some of the fields were already drowned.
Eve glanced at Villanelle. All she could see was her own reflection, doubled.
“It made you easier to find.”
“I do not understand you, Eve. You have seen my prison record. You know what I have done. Mostly.” Villanelle pushed her aviators back up to the bridge of her nose. “You know what I am doing. You are okay with looking at gory photos of my kills for two years, but you can’t handle a live demonstration? Am I too real for you or something?”
“You have a serious problem.”
“No. You have the serious problem. With what I do. With-with me.” Villanelle’s jaw clenched. “I don’t have that problem. I am okay with what I do.”
“Well I’m not. Okay? I am not. Fuck.”
“I know. I know that you are not okay, Eve,” added Villanelle. “You have a serious problem.”
“If Anna hadn’t fucked me, I probably would have graduated high school and then gone on to university.”
It felt like Eve’s lungs had collapsed. It was too hot in the car, way too hot. Eve opened her window for a second, but closed it right after rain pattered the left side of her face.
“Do you think you are problem free? Do you, Eve? Answer me!”
“No,” Villanelle emphasized. “That’s right.”
Eve barked out a strained, joyless laugh. “I really think your problems are worse than mine.”
“I do not want to fight with you Eve.” Villanelle’s voice took on a sing-song tone. “We should be able to have difficult, intense conversations without getting overly emotional and violent and shit. But…” Villanelle took off her aviators and put them in the cup holder. When she spoke again, her voice was the snake that wrapped around Eve’s heart. Tightening, squeezing, sinking its poisonous fangs in to circulate paralyzing toxin.
“You are a woman in her forties who is okay with getting into a romantic relationship with me, a woman in my twenties. Nevermind what it is that I do, what we’ve both done. You are okay with wanting to be with me, apparently, because you are in a position to be an important and dominating figure in my life. Eve, you are a control freak. No, you are,” insisted Villanelle, jabbing her finger at Eve as soon as she opened her mouth.
“With Anna, I was barely a teenager. She had all the power. It was her responsibility to put distance between us, to say no, if there was a need for it. I was less experienced, less knowledgeable, more easily impressed and could not navigate that sort of difficult relationship. I was young. But I am not a child anymore, Eve-”
“Then stop acting like one!”
“And I can make my own decisions,” Villanelle continued loudly. “I am an adult now. So are you. We can make our own choices. And whether you feel things for me, or if you don’t, or whatever the fuck is going on inside of you for me, it doesn’t change the fact that we have a responsibility to respect each other’s choices.”
Eve freed her hair and threaded her unfeeling fingers through it. “You want me to respect your choice to castrate a man?”
“Not exactly.” Villanelle wrenched the steering wheel, rumbling the car over the roughest section of asphalt yet. “I want you to respect the power behind it, my power to do what I want. Regardless of how you feel about it. But maybe, you are too much of a control freak for that. Maybe you want me to be like I was with Anna, because you want to keep your power and control as an older woman, and you are considering me like I cannot do what I want.”
Eve turned her head away to look out the window again. She couldn’t stop Villanelle’s voice from barreling into her.
“You knew me before you ever met me, right Eve? So what is your problem, really? Why are you here, with me, if you have such a problem?”
There was only stillness, Eve’s breathing. She put a hand to her forehead. Her voice had an eerie lightness to it.
“Because it feels good. You...you make me feel good.”
“You make me feel good, too.” Villanelle exhaled in relief. “So there should be no problem. I still do not understand your problem with...my problems.”
Eve plucked her question from the back of her constricted throat. “Does hurting people make you feel powerful?”
“Oh, yes. And you?”
The answer bled out of Eve. She clenched her hands to try to stop them from shaking. A great weight toppled out of her chest.
“Wow. Okay. Uh, is that your problem?” Villanelle asked incredulously. “Because it shouldn’t be. Having power is a good thing.”
“God, why don’t you try having some empathy, Villanelle?”
Villanelle’s expression scrunched up. “Oh. This is an empathy problem…”
Eve rounded on her. “How would you like it if I cut your tits off?"
Villanelle glanced down. “Okay Eve, I was hoping you were kinky, but-”
“It would hurt you a lot, right?”
“And you wouldn’t like it, right?”
“Then you can understand that cutting a man’s dick off would be like getting your tits cut off. Comparatively. You do get that, right?”
“I get what you’re trying to do, Eve. You want me to understand the situation. But I already do. I can understand it in my mind.”
“I’m trying to get you to understand the situation in your heart. To have a little empathy in there.” Eve prodded her chest.
“I already told you that I feel things when I’m with you.” Villanelle wet her lips. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”
“I-I know you said that. That’s why it hurt when you didn’t listen to me because...you didn’t care about how I felt or what I thought.”
“Ohhhh.” Villanelle shot Eve a quick, wolfish grin. “So this isn’t really about the officer at all. This is all about how you felt about what I did.”
Villanelle’s grin broadened. “It totally is.”
“‘Oh, don’t Villanelle! Leave the officer alone, Villanelle. Stop it! He’s just an innocent, helpful man, Villanelle. Stop Villanelle, you’re going to dooooom us! Listen to me, Villanelle, listen to me!’” mocked Villanelle. “God, why don’t you try having some empathy Eve? Isn’t that how this works?”
“I don’t know,” Eve said hollowly. “You tell me.”
“Okay, I will.”
Eve gripped the door handle as the car hurtled over a bump with an awful scuffing sound. Gravel ping-ponged underneath, bounced off the doors and scratched the windshield. The wind picked up.
“I honestly do not care about your feelings, Eve. It is not in my psychology. You should know that already.”
“Yeah thanks, I already do know that you obviously don’t care about me. Thanks for shoving it in my face, you asshole.”
“I thought you were smart, Eve.” Villanelle loosened her one-handled grip on the wheel as the car sped up. “Hopefully by now, you can see that I do care about you. Maybe that’s asking for you to see too much though, I am not sure.”
“You’re going too fast,” Eve choked out.
“I can care about you. And I do,” continued Villanelle, as nonchalantly as if they were discussing the rainy weather.
The car whipped past a decaying barn so fast that it tore chunks of asphalt from the road.
“Villanelle. Slow down. Please.”
“Usually this happens only because you are doing things for me and giving me your emotions. You know, like transference. And it feels good. Really good. I like the feeling that you give me. A lot. So I will do all those things that caring people do: I will ask you about your day. I will cook for you. I will do the laundry. I will buy groceries. I will take you on trips. I will kiss you,” she added with a twinkle in her eye.
Eve carefully kept herself still while the car shuddered and Villanelle peered at her as if Eve was a coiling, wispy column of smoke that could disappear if Villanelle breathed her words out too hard.
“I will do all these things, even if I don’t care about your feelings, because you are very interesting and you do not irritate me the way everyone else does. Usually.”
Villanelle pressed down harder on the acceleration pedal.
“Except today, you are being extremely irritating. I can tell that you are angry, and maybe you are also...”
Villanelle fumbled for the word and then swore when she quickly swerved to avoid slamming into a miserably wet black cat that was crossing the road.
“...disgusted? Yes, maybe you are turned off by me or whatever, but you cannot ever control me or what I do. Which is why, Eve, my best resolution is for you to accept me.”
The car raced along a painfully straight stretch of road. Eve closed her eyes for a bit longer than a standard blink and almost bit through her tongue when Villanelle stated:
“Or you can go home.”
Eve saw that there was something yielding in Villanelle’s face, something easily wounded. Villanelle lifted her chin, sharpening the line of her jaw. Her eyes were bright and narrow. She looked at Eve with the sad, fierce look of someone who was seeing something that she knew she should not have.
“I mean, you can go home whenever you want,” Villanelle said. “No one is stopping you.”
Up ahead, the road split into two different directions. The signage indicated that one turn would take them towards more urban locales, while the other route buried itself in squelching mud. If the car continued plowing straight ahead, it would shatter through a thick wooden fence and plunge into a deep pool of water.
“And then you’ll be home,” Villanelle said. “But now that you’ve had a taste, gotten a raw appetite, you probably won’t.”
No, Eve thought, she probably wouldn’t. It was hard to turn down an exciting life.
“I know you want me to care all the time about how you feel Eve, but I can’t. Caring about myself is about all I have bandwidth for and that is enough for me.”
“Villanelle, slow down!”
“But lately, we have a good thing going. Please do not ruin it by getting caught up in my choice of professional methods. Okay?”
“Okay, okay, fuck!” Eve pointed to the splitting road. “Stop! We’re going to crash!”
Eve couldn’t stop shaking. She was cold. Her stomach roiled.
“So you can either accept who I am and what I do, completely. Or you can leave. You can go home. Do you accept me, Eve?”
The fence was closer.
“Oh god, yes! Fuck, just-stop the car!”
“Are you sure?”
The fence was closer still, its wooden beams large and sturdy.
“Are you going to abandon me?”
“Fuck! Oh fuck! No, I’m not! No! No, Villanelle, no!”
“You do not want to leave me?”
The fence filled most of the windshield. The car went on and on, roaring.
“Eve, you are such a liar.”
“No! I-I don’t want to leave! I don’t! I won’t! I can’t leave you, Villanelle-just, fuck, fuck! Please, stop the car!”
The tires squealed. The brakes screeched. Smoke filled the air. The car skidded along the asphalt. Rain flung itself against the windshield.
Screaming. Adrenaline. A vacuum of sound and motion.
Villanelle’s voice was cacophonic in the aftermath.
“Why will you not leave?”
“Because I’ll die!”
It was just a sliver of movement, the barest flick of Villanelle’s head, as if she expected Eve to give another reason, as if she hoped for a more emotional admission. Quietly, she asked:
“Is fear of death the only thing keeping you here with me?”
Eve shook her head. Villanelle nodded. They lapsed into cramped silence.
The car had come so close to the wooden fence that Eve could see the nails and metal holding it together, the rings of tree-ages that were amputated to forcibly construct it into a fence. Eve felt like her legs were cut off, like her hands had been packed in ice for days. Her mind replayed the film reel of their ride as the car peeled away from the vicinity of the wooden fence and towards civilization. Villanelle looked okay, barely shaken and totally composed. Eve wanted to slap her.
The film reel kept snagging on what Eve had confessed. It soon ran itself ragged, unwinding and spilling onto the killing floor. The projection of Eve’s life kept playing on the wall of her mind, but it was unrecognizable, unfamiliar, as if Eve had walked into the wrong theater or started watching the wrong movie and couldn’t find the remote to switch it off.
The car was moving again. There was no threatening speed. Everything would be okay. Slowly, Eve constructed this idea, reached for it and held on to it. All this worry and fright was simply what Villanelle wanted. It was a distraction from their mission, a distraction from their union , and really, Eve’s panic had been absurd, something she would eventually remember with embarrassment.
When they pulled over for the night, and Villanelle was well and truly snoring in her sleep, Eve was still remembering. The darkness hid her embarrassment well, the flush of it hot on her neck, the twitching of it sharp in her fingers. Eve switched on the iPad. She composed an email to Carolyn with the subject line “The Tulip Field Incident.”
As per our usual check-in emails, I am writing to inform you that the fourth USB has been uploaded for Kenny to sequence.
However, I’ve got to also explain the tulip field incident to you. Villanelle and I were apprehended by a police officer in Lille, Netherlands, where we obtained this latest USB. He explained that there had been a shooting in the Swedish parliament and that we should turn back.
Then he offered to escort us across the border. Everything was fine until Villanelle got out of the car and...I’ll just borrow Elena’s words here: Villanelle “chopped his knob off.”
I tried to stop her. But she wouldn’t listen. The situation got out of control. Which is why I’m reporting it to you.
I would greatly appreciate any guidance that you can give me. Preferably as soon as possible. I’m at a loss here.
Thanks for your consideration.
The iPad’s glow subsided. Eve leaned her head back, closed her eyes. It wasn’t the terror of her near-death experience that played out in her mind; it was the elation of kissing Villanelle. Darkness knocked on the window, pried at the seams between the window and the door handle, danced behind her stinging eyelids. Eve fell asleep to memories of being kissed over and over again, as well as the sensation of welcoming the corruptive darkness with open arms.
The Swedish border patrol were not impressed when Villanelle rolled up to one of the security booths with the radio blasting ABBA.
An officer frantically waved his hand in a downward motion, indicating that she should turn the volume down. Villanelle nodded sagely and turned it up instead. He stomped outside. Eve switched the radio off with a pointed look at Villanelle.
“Hello, hello. What is your business in Sweden?” asked the officer.
“We are the Dutch police.”
“Yes, I can see that.” The officer squinted at her and Eve. “Why are you so far away from your jurisdiction?”
“We’re uh, investigating the shooting in your Parliament,” replied Eve.
“Very tragic,” Villanelle added.
The officer waved them towards the squat, grey box of a building. “Pull over, please.”
Villanelle’s heart thwacked. Heat ﬂowed up from her stomach and burned her face. She stopped the car in front of the entrance, turned the engine off, and inhaled the building tension.
“They’re going to see the bloodstains,” hissed Eve, as the officer called a few more of his colleagues over and rapped his knuckles on the trunk.
Villanelle got out of the car, followed swiftly by Eve, once she’d gathered their bags. They hurried inside the grey building while the officer yelled after them. Inside, Villanelle swept past cluttered desks and computer screens, stacks of papers and personal belongings, pairs of officers chatting near a vending machine, and interns hurriedly carrying messy file folders. Heads turned as the officer kept yelling, but Villanelle ducked them into the women’s locker room.
She was halfway out of the Dutch police uniform by the time she spotted a pair of neatly folded navy blue Swedish uniforms. Wordlessly, Eve joined her in switching clothing. She glanced at the door periodically, as the officer’s bellows echoed in the hallway outside. Villanelle adjusted the angle of her beret and saluted Eve with a grin.
“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself,” said Eve.
“I am. Very much.”
Eve pointed behind her, at the television mounted on the wall. Her expression was grim. “It’s a good thing you enjoy being on camera, too.”
Villanelle turned to look at shaky cell phone footage of her and Eve in the Brussels airport. This was followed by clearer CCTV captures of their faces, with sensationalist headlines splashed across the screen.
“Wow. We’re famous!”
Instead of responding, Eve pressed her ear to the locker room door. Quiet reigned. She carefully squeaked it open and darted out when it was readily apparent that the officer was nowhere in sight. Eve led them down another hallway that emerged to a parking lot. Swedish police cruisers gleamed in the noon sun, arranged in unvarying rows. Eve approached a woman wearing a neon-coloured vest and returned to Villanelle a few moments later with car keys.
They eased out of the parking lot without a stir. Eve kept glancing behind them. She missed the towering stone cliffs, crowned with trees, that framed long parts of the expressway. It cut through morose rocky hills and plowed past grassy fields that were interrupted by rivulets. Concrete overpasses, dizzying turnpikes, and steel bridges distinguished the expressway from the verdant blanket of nature that struggled to regain its grip amidst pollution and construction.
An endless stream of trucks and cars zoomed past their newly acquired patrol car (Villanelle even caught some people glancing at them in alarm and contemplated turning on the sirens). Eve stared out the passenger window. She seemed lost in thought, or she was ignoring Villanelle, and the longer that Villanelle indulged that line of thinking, the more that she wanted to ram into the vehicles that were parallel to them.
The expressway took Eve and Villanelle right to the outskirts of Stockholm, where train tracks ran alongside skyscrapers, flowing glass and steel abstract sculptures, and old buildings with ivy crawling up the walls. Villanelle’s first instinct was to check them into the nearest hotel, but Eve’s earlier remark about investigating Swedish Parliament urged her to park the patrol car across the street from that very same building.
It was entirely round and occupied its own concrete island, surrounded by deep water that shimmered in the sunlight. Glass windows adorned the top of the building. Heavy wooden doors circled around the bottom. Eve and Villanelle pushed past the group of reporters, INTERPOL officers, and security guards crowding the foyer and found themselves inside the Parliament chamber. There were two tiers. All the seats and desks were structured like an amphitheater, angled to face the front of the room.
Villanelle noticed the chalk outlines as she drew nearer. Eve picked her way past shards of glass that littered the raised platform where the most ornately carved seats were, then turned around to study the shattered central window behind the balcony. Frowning, Villanelle crouched and, with a slender finger, traced the outline of a woman. She had been hit from the back and sprawled face-down; yet the wood of the platform had not darkened where her pool of blood was supposed to have spilled. The same was true for the rest of the outlined figures, spread around the podium and ornate seats in a tangle of flailing limbs.
“There is not a lot of blood,” Villanelle noted, making sure that Eve clearly heard the disappointment in her voice.
“There’s a good reason for that.” Eve busied her hands with taming her unkempt hair and spoke excitedly. “I just talked to a woman that was part of the evidence gathering crew, and she said that the sniper rounds they recovered were blunt shaped, full metal jackets.”
“I can’t remember the last time I used a sniper rifle. I prefer being up close and personal,” purred Villanelle.
“These types of bullets have soft, metal cores," Eve explained. "So when the sniper aims for center mass, the bullet hits the target and mushrooms out, but stops inside.” Eve gestured to the chalk outlines. “The bodies would have all had bullets lodged in their chests, but little to no bloodspill. Sorry to disappoint.”
“Do you think that The Twelve had something to do with this?”
“Maybe they wanted to send a message.”
“To us? Maybe. I’m not sure. They couldn’t have known we would come here, surely?”
Villanelle’s scalp prickled. “I wouldn’t underestimate them. They may have been hoping we’d show up to something like this just to...investigate.”
“Which means we’ve got to get out of here.”
A few hours later, after they’d purchased new clothes and promptly put them on before even the tags had been properly cut off, Eve and Villanelle ate sandwiches in front of a marble fountain. Eve wore a black ruffled high neck blouse, paired with black pants that had golden rivets sewn along the side seam; Villanelle chose a taupe coloured windowpane check suit (which was offset by a white blouse with light pink pinstripes underneath) and slim matching trousers.
Her hair was gathered in a tight top-knot, mirroring Eve’s choice to keep her own hair in a restrictive bun. Although it exposed the soft flow of her neck this way, Villanelle still craved to see it spill over her shoulders, to grab fistfuls of it, to bury her nose deeply in it and inhale Eve’s potent scent. The only touch Villanelle allowed herself was to wipe mayonnaise off the corner of Eve’s mouth with her thumb, which she then lightly sucked on for good measure.
Eve gulped down the last of her sandwich and dusted her hands, as if ridding herself of a troublesome thought at the same time. She inhaled the freshness of the fountain, tilted her head up to the sun. Villanelle watched her, enraptured. The remnants of Villanelle’s sandwich nestled limply between her fingers, all but forgotten at the sight Eve; there was no combination of flavours, no mixture of spices or drizzle of sweetness that could ever compare to the taste of Eve’s kisses. True, her lips were as intoxicating and saccharine as the finest ice wine, and her touch evoked syrupy feelings that slopped all over Villanelle’s heart. But Eve’s flavour was wholly delicate, inviting, and unfiltered, something unique that Villanelle hadn’t tasted in all her years of kissing women.
Watching Eve was a banquet too, one that Villanelle found herself constantly starving for. But earlier that day...Villanelle stuffed the rest of the sandwich into her mouth, hoping to bury the acidic feeling of shame that curdled in her stomach. Eve had looked so repulsed by Villanelle earlier that day, and although the heat of that emotion warmed her just as much as any of Eve’s positive affections, Villanelle found the effects of Eve’s negativity to be too short lived in comparison.
She nudged Eve’s foot. “What is on your mind?”
“I want a haircut."
Using her fingers, Eve imitated the motions of scissors against her hair. “A haircut. You know, snip snip?”
“But your hair…” Villanelle shook her head. “I see no reason why you should get a haircut.”
“Uh, it’s too long? It will make me less immediately recognizable? Because I want to,” Eve finished firmly. “My hair. My body. My rules.”
“What do you mean no?” Eve stood up indignantly. “This isn’t up for discussion, Villanelle. I’m getting a haircut.”
Villanelle swallowed hard. “No, Eve. I don’t want you to cut your hair.”
“Why is this such a problem for you?”
Because it’s like I’m losing a piece of you.
“Because I like your hair the way it is, okay? Don’t cut it.”
“But this isn’t about what you want. I want a haircut and I’m getting one.” Eve took a few brisk steps, then whirled around. “Listen, I don’t want to fight with you. I really don’t. And this isn’t a discussion. It’s my choice. So go find us a hotel room while I get my haircut, and I’ll be back before you know it.”
The sun curled through Eve’s hair, and Villanelle felt an indescribable shiver at the sight. Eve was not angry, or at least not nearly angry enough, which meant that she was not completely oblivious and stupid in her righteous rage. Villanelle watched her walk away, let her walk away, at least two blocks before following. People threaded between them: pushing baby strollers, blabbing loudly on their phones, shouting over the incessant hum of traffic, and shoving past Villanelle with all the delicacy of a battering ram.
Eve’s pace was considerably hobbled by the fact that she was burdened with both her worn handbag, which was slung over left her shoulder, and the duffel bag that she hauled in her right hand. Villanelle kept a leisurely pace, ducking behind flower stalls and taking inclined paths that ran parallel to Eve. She kept her hands stuffed in her pockets, braced her body for the collisions that were inflicted by other bodies, and maintained a scorching gaze on Eve that seemed to melt people out of her way.
One of the longest avenues was flanked by office and apartment buildings that had facades painted daffodil-yellow. On the bottom floor, various shops and cafés tempted throngs of passersby. When Eve’s attention was caught by a hairdresser that looked to be the same age as her, Eve apparently struck up a fine conversation while the hairdresser finished her cigarette. Villanelle perched on a bench once they went inside and observed with a keenness that could have sharpened all the deadliest knives in her arsenal.
The hairdresser placed Eve in a chair located on the left side of the room, close to the entrance. Good. Then with a flourish, she covered Eve with a garish cape. Villanelle flinched when the hairdresser began cutting at the thickest bottom threads of Eve’s luxurious hair. It truly looked as though this particular hairdresser was massively incompetent because she drastically varied the length of hair and angle of the scissors with each snip.
After a particularly uneven shearing, a flustered Eve turned around to confront the hairdresser. Villanlle’s grin of approval quickly veered into shock and rage at the sight of the hairdresser grasping a fistful of Eve’s hair. By the time she’d viciously yanked Eve’s head back, Villanelle burst through the door.
Eve managed to twist free of the seat. She dodged the scissors, scooped up her handbag, and swung it at the hairdresser. It thudded against her right flank, which was enough to unbalance her subsequent swing.
The rest of the hairdressers screamed, along with their clients. Villanelle shoved the telephone off the front desk just as another hairdresser reached for it, and pushed Eve’s assailant before she could launch into a flurry of motion.
Upon recovering, the assailant’s scissors flashed through the air. Villanelle ducked. The scissors arced towards her chest. Villanelle pivoted, then brought her elbow down hard on the assailant’s collarbone. Her fingers sprang open. Villanelle grabbed the scissors. The assailant ran for the back room of the salon.
Eve was yelling something at Villanelle, something about being careful, but her voice came to Villanelle as if she was hearing it from the opposite end of a tunnel muffled with cotton. Only the scissors she held felt real: the cool, thin metal of the handle shank, the cutting edges clasped in a terminal union.
The pain scorching her right shoulder blade was the next dose of realness that sharpened Villanelle’s senses. She lunged at the assailant and this movement tore Eve’s meticulous stitches. Judging from the hot oozing feeling that followed, Villanelle’s suit was now ruined with a sizable patch of blood. She swung the scissors with renewed passion, slicing the air until she’d backed the assailant against the wall.
Sweat gathered on Villanelle’s forehead. Her ragged breaths filled the small room. The assailant tried to merge with the wall, still leaning as far back as she could, although there was nowhere left for her to go. She met Villanelle’s eyes, a broken plea stuck in her throat.
She rammed the scissors into the assailant's throat. Once. Twice. Three times. And on the fourth, Villanelle shoved the gore covered scissors all the way through to the back of the assailant's throat. They remained firmly lodged there. Blood flowed from her ravaged throat, dripped between the scissor’s thumb and finger holes, slid from the sticky blades and drenched her apron. Villanelle relieved her of a silver USB concealed in one of the back pockets.
The salon had emptied when Villanelle returned to Eve. She accepted the USB Villanelle handed over. She made no comment on Villanelle’s bloodied left hand, or her unstitched right shoulder blade. Villanelle steered her outside, bags in tow. They walked for about a block and managed to squeeze into a packed bus that took them to the other side of the city.
Here, most of the buildings had drab, stone facades and were impossibly thin and tall. They crookedly clambered into each other. The grimy assemblage of housing blocks looked appropriately dour in the weakened afternoon sunlight. A clinic, a social center for the homeless, and a shell of a supermarket stood side by side. Railway tracks criss-crossed, like a fishing net thrown over the entire area. The train station was graffiti covered. Drug blanched zombies, most of them young, wandered the streets and the entire place felt as if its vital capillaries were ripped out.
A motel close to the train station had a few vacancies left. No one thought twice about accepting a bloodied young woman and her ostensibly traumatized, middle-aged woman companion. There was a suffocating sense of isolation to the room that they took up, a windowless room at the very end of the hall near a flickering, droning parking light.
Villanelle inspected the room and was quite relieved to find no traces of semen stains on the pillows. The carpet was threadbare, but recently vacuumed. A single plastic chair occupied the corner opposite the creaky bed, while a vase of not altogether wilted flowers lent the room a more pleasant scent than it otherwise might have had.
Eve went to the clinic, unsupervised, and came back with a first aid kit. Villanelle sat on the bed, topless. Eve tended to Villanelle’s newly ruptured wound and inserted fresh stitches; they didn’t speak until she was finished and Villanelle cautiously turned to look at Eve. Everything about her posture and the look in her eyes screamed that she had barricaded herself against assault, as surely as the decrepit apartments outside had sealed themselves in with white security shutters.
“How can you be naked? Here? Now?” asked Eve, watching Villanelle discard her remaining clothing and flop onto the bed.
“Don’t worry, the bed is clean. I checked.” Villanelle traced her stab wound scar. “You are stressed, Eve. I am naked because I am trying to relax. You should try it.”
Eve sat down next to Villanelle. She rubbed her temples. Villanelle focused on a spider crawling across the ceiling.
“Why can’t we be good people?” wondered Eve.
Eve grimaced. Villanelle clarified:
“To each other.”
“I don’t know.” Eve sighed. “Sometimes I’m not even sure I want to be a good person.”
“All of the time.”
Villanelle propped herself up on her elbow. “Why don’t you want to be a good person? Isn’t that your thing?”
Eve forced out a laugh. “I-I feel like I’m losing myself.”
“You are not losing who you were. You are finally becoming who you used to pretend not to be.”
“Niko told me I was a good person. The kindest person he knew. I hated him for it.”
“Because that’s what my father used to say. He insisted that I should be a good person. And when I wasn’t, according to him, I was the worst person in the world.”
“I do regret that him and I never saw eye to eye.” Eve chewed on her bottom lip. “He was the type of father that told me whenever the ice cream truck played music, that meant there was no ice cream.”
“Oh yeah, he sounds like a totally good person,” said Villanelle, with a rueful chuckle.
“I tried reconciling with him so many times. It’s important to try and resolve conflicts with a person while they’re alive,” Eve added. “I think it’s supposed to be part of the whole good person thing.”
“You know, I remember something I read in the philosophy book Aaron sent me. It said that the Lockean or Roussean definition of being good is fulfilling the right to do whatever the hell you want.” Villanelle smirked. “But then there’s Aristotle’s more ancient definition of being a good person, which is the ability to master your passions so that you may devote your life to pursuing some sort of common good.”
“Let me guess: you don’t agree with the old, white bearded man’s philosophy?”
“Because I will always do whatever I want. It feels good. It is good. Simple, Eve.”
Villanelle folded herself upright. She made sure that Eve was looking at her intently when she said:
“You asked me what my point was with the police officer in Lille. The point is that I did what I wanted to do. Wanting to do something is reason enough to do it. Especially if it feels good.”
Eve didn’t respond. Villanelle prompted Eve, with a fluttering passing over her heart.
“Could you have stopped me from doing what I wanted to do?”
“Actually, yes. You could have. Probably. So that is not the problem, Eve.”
“What do you mean?”
“I am sure that you could have stopped me, if you really wanted to. But you didn’t really want to, and that is what you are feeling so guilty about.”
After a long silence, Eve managed to say:
“Of course I am.”
Villanelle dragged her fingers through Eve’s butchered hair. Thankfully, it was still thick, and heavily carried Eve’s scent.
“Don’t be afraid of being your own person, Eve.”
“But what if I’m not a good person?”
“Doesn’t matter. And I don’t care. It doesn’t change how I feel about you.”
“Then maybe...I don’t want to be a good person anymore,” whispered Eve shakily. “I just want to be a person. Not good. Not bad. Just...a person. A real person.”
“Will you...will you help me?”
“I-I want to understand. I really do.”
“You want to really understand?” Villanelle shooed Eve off the bed. “Go and kill a man. Then come back and talk to me.”
Eve’s feet were soft and easy on the cobblestoned streets. Her gait was measured, self-possessed but not cocky enough to inspire a chase. She kept calm, breathed evenly, and continued to stalk silently behind the man that she had chosen to kill.
There was nothing special about him; he’d been sitting in the park beside his canvas messenger bag, hunched over a slice of pizza. On a whim, Eve picked him out from the rest of the joggers and Frisbee throwers and dog walkers. Softly, quietly, without being too obvious, Eve followed him as soon as he’d left the shade of the tree he was underneath. She moved closer to see that the back of his neck glistened with sweat, close enough to burn him with a touch of her finger, then allowed him to drift away a few meters.
This pattern of catch and release turned Eve into the shadow attached to the soles of his feet; the predatory flash between speeding vehicles that he avoided; the gap between his step and his fall; the whites of his eyes shining as he turned to look behind him.
Eve became the fear that quickened his pace past wide open parking lots, bustling restaurants, bicycle racks, and oppressive stretches of empty streets. A drone flying overhead startled Eve; her already frayed nerves unraveled further when she saw it lazily circling between her and her target. She clutched her handbag harder, nails digging into the soft leather. Her eyes darted around her, seeking immediate shelter. The queasiness in her stomach subsided, as did the sour, yet metallic taste in her mouth when she observed the drone being controlled by a group of awed kids.
Relief flooded Eve as she realized that the civilian drone’s purpose was for photography, “cool Instagram posts!” as one of the kids out it, and that Eve wasn’t about to be filled with bullets. She closed the distance between herself and her target again, noting that his muscular build posed a threat to all five-foot-six, soft-spoken, frumpled-style of her. From behind, she could ram a pen into his neck, or tear his face with her fingernails, or put him in a chokehold.
Eve wanted to test out death inflicted on someone else for a change, and she smiled in recognition that she was unconsciously imitating the boldness of Villanelle’s direct approach. It felt good not to think, even in passing, of defence. In this lofty headspace, infused with stirring touches of Villanelle’s strength and resourcefulness and power, Eve only thought about attack: the split of concrete as she darted forward, the heat pounding in her veins, shallow breaths swirling in her lungs, her sharp, glistening teeth ready to tear, dark eyes swallowing her target whole.
They converged at a transportation hub. Buses and taxis arrived and departed with the frequency of worker bees. Eve stepped onto the bus terminal and was suffused with the familiar rush of excitement that she felt whenever she was with Villanelle; Eve realized that it was also the same electric current that had thrummed in her as she contemplated shoving the older man off the metro platform in London.
Here and now, Eve felt simply and unquestioningly alive.
On the edge of this platform, her target nervously checked his phone numerous times within the space of a minute; adjusted the thick belt buckle holding his denim shorts up; belched; paced the yellow strip that warned WATCH YOUR STEP and was clearly too preoccupied to notice Eve lingering in his personal space.
Small, end-of-life slip ups.
While Eve did not have Villanelle’s skills, durability, or toughness, she did have more than enough cunning to position herself directly behind her target’s fully vulnerable back. All it took was one shove, one movement of her arms coming up to meet his back, a thrust that would end his existence and kickstart Eve’s, which was a fair trade in her mind.
Eve came closer. Thought that Villanelle would surely approve. Felt her heart skip a beat at the thought. Her hands were warm, impossibly warm. Slowly, slowly, she brought them forward, ready to stumble and claim an accident, if her target suddenly turned on her.
A bus was pulling into the terminal.
Her target shifted from foot to foot. Eve was close enough to see the stitching of his muscle shirt. The bus was slowing down, but before it completely came to a halt, Eve could push him over the edge. She could, she could. One push. One. push. Just one. One. Push. One. Push. One. Push.
This chant gathered in her pounding head. She waited too long. With a weary whoosh of decompressed air, the bus stopped in front of her target. Eve blinked.
Rage exploded in her chest. Her hands shook now, all the heat from them sucked out at the sight of her target still being alive. Another man emerged from the bus, then startled Eve by embracing her target. She teetered away from him.
Because at the other man’s touch, her target became a man again, a human being kissing another human being, a quick indulgence in affection out here in public. The two men walked away from the bus platform to get into a taxi. Eve caught the other man’s hand lingering on his partner’s lower back. She burned and burned.
Alone on the platform, Eve choked on her disappointment. She didn’t do it, couldn’t do it, even though she’d wanted to. Would Villanelle mock her now? Would she turn away disdainfully? Would she reject her, forever closed off now to the possibility of murder, of understanding and sharing this pleasure between them?
A new taxi honked its horn, snapping Eve out of her torturous reverie. She got inside, mumbled the motel’s location, and remained mute for the rest of the journey. It was tempting to contemplate murdering the taxi driver just to somehow redeem herself, but even Villanelle would agree that this wouldn’t be a practical choice.
The taxi dumped Eve in front of a shot-up convenience store near the motel. Running on pure impulse, she bought a pack of cigarettes and two burner phones there. Then she trudged back to the motel, lingering with her shame in the air-conditioned lobby. Her iPad rumbled. Frowning, Eve opened her inbox to see an email from Carolyn.
I am delighted with your progress! I suppose Kenny is too, but I simply can’t tell anymore (he is working very hard and cannot find the time to directly communicate his own progress to either of you).
To be quite honest, I have no idea why people view struggle, or the admission of it, as a weakness. I do believe that being human and vulnerable is shunned these days for the sake of a facade. I’d prefer someone to be acquainted with the dark side of being human and to be honest about it, rather than pretend that it doesn’t exist or that it isn’t admirable to have faced it.
Perhaps Villanelle can correct me if I am wrong (and we do know how she loves to correct me) but I think the expression the young ones use these days is that “the struggle is real.”
Regarding the tulip field incident, I think that you handled it very well. You presented your perspective and reasoning. Villanelle rejected it and did what she resolved to do anyway. An undesirable outcome occurred, but such is the nature of field work.
Villanelle’s behaviour should not be surprising. You know that she has a history of knob chopping. You know that you cannot control her. Considering this, I’ll emphasize again that you handled the situation very well.
I understand that you are struggling with feeling like a failure, Eve. But you did all that you could. While the tulip field incident is very unfortunate, it is also a learning opportunity for you. Really try to reassess your approach the next time there is a high-conflict situation with Villanelle.
Namely, instead of trying to control her, perhaps you should be offering guidance about the options and alternatives available to her. Please do give this some thought. You mustn't lose your head, Eve.
In the interim, I suggest that you treat the tulip field incident the same way you treated the garbage truck incident: cordially.
Your professionalism is reflected most poignantly when it comes to failure. How you deal with it speaks volumes about you. After all Eve, it is not our failures that define us, but rather our recovery from them.
Therefore, let me also suggest that you and Villanelle resolve your professional concerns as soon as possible.
Your mutual survival is dependent on your professionalism.
P.S. Please do try to be more discreet from now on. The mark of a successful covert operation is that no one hears about it. This is rather hard to accomplish when you’re plastered all over the news.
Carolyn’s line but you did all that you could stuck out to Eve like a mockery of reassurance. There was no way that she could explain to Carolyn that she hadn’t done everything she could have. She’d been paralyzed. And only Villanelle truly knew that Eve hadn’t really wanted to do anything about Villanelle’s knob chopping, in the end.
Eve could have gotten into the other car. She could have driven away, somewhere far away where Villanelle and The Twelve and MI6 couldn’t possibly find her (or she hoped). She could have restrained Villanelle (the very thought made her want to laugh hysterically). She could have thrown herself between the knife and the officer, if only to see whether Villanelle would have hesitated.
Worse, Eve knew that she hadn’t done any of these things because it truly didn’t matter what Villanelle had done; Eve’s feelings remained just as intense and unmovable from her heart.
This cold, hard fact kept Eve tethered to Villanelle. And maybe Eve walked back to the motel room because she had come down with the worst case of Stockholm Syndrome ever. Or maybe, possibly, she walked back to the motel room because there, dozing on the bed, was the one person in this entire, irredeemable world who understood and accepted her with welcoming arms.
The one person in this entire, shithole world who wanted to make her days brighter and perhaps the only one who suggested murder as an artful form of self-expression, affirmation, agency, and freedom. The one person, Eve thought feverishly, who made murder cool and who would never judge Eve for the thrill that she found in it.
Eve was content to not disturb Villanelle; a nice, long soak in the bathtub was calling her, and she’d just put her handbag on the plastic chair, kicked off her shoes, stripped down to her tank top and panties, when Villanelle stirred.
She sat up in bed, hair tumbling down to her breasts and with the sheets pooled around her waist.
“Hey,” Villanelle greeted.
“How’d it go?”
Eve avoided Villanelle’s gaze.
“Couldn’t do it, huh?” Villanelle sighed in a way which indicated that she was a long-suffering woman. Her voice was thick with the residue of sleep and husky enough to send shivers down Eve’s spine. “Oh well. There will be another time.”
Villanelle tilted her head. “What did you expect me to say, Eve?”
“Uh, I don’t know. Thanks for trying, maybe?”
“There are no rewards for attempted murder. It is only the successful ones that count.”
“Yeah well, maybe I’m not the killer you want me to be,” Eve snapped.
“That is true, maybe you are not who I thought you were,” Villanelle bit back. “So disappointing.”
“You want me to be a mess! You want me to be scared!”
Villanelle glared at her. Eve approached the bed, radiated with stress and anger and exhaustion and despair and longing and just...everything. All at once, slamming into her.
“This is what you wanted,” hissed Eve.
“This is what you wanted!”
Villanelle’s answering shout propelled her out of bed. She slammed Eve against the wall, with its peeling and faded green wallpaper. Eve went very still. Her shoulders popped with the force of Villanelle’s grip. Their breaths mingled. The heat between their bodies grew molten. Eve felt her pulse quicken when Villanelle put a forearm across her throat.
A vein in Eve’s neck twitched. Swollen, pronounced, it pulsed and pulsed. Villanelle eyed it hungrily. She licked her lips.
“This is what you wanted,” Villanelle repeated, softly. Her voice carried a questioning undercurrent, teased between folds of certainty.
“Yes,” growled Eve.
Villanelle’s fingernails dug into Eve’s shoulders. Carefully, slowly, Eve arched her back so that she was flush against Villanelle; her nipples chafed against the material of Eve’s tank top. Villanelle slipped the straps of Eve’s bra off her shoulders, pulling at them until they snapped back against Eve’s shuddering skin.
Now that her throat was freed, Eve managed to rasp:
“Amazing,” murmured Villanelle. Her hands slipped underneath Eve’s tank top to toy with the bra’s clasp. She’d pointedly avoided touching Eve’s breasts, which made Eve want to crush them against Villanelle’s with renewed vigor. “Change just two letters, and you would have been asking for me to kill you…”
“Do it. Go on, do it!”
Villanelle tossed Eve’s bra aside. She propped her knee between Eve’s legs. As if on cue, Eve felt a rush of wetness soak through her panties. She quaked with this wanting, drowned in it just as surely as if Villanelle was holding her head under water. A strained gasp trickled from Eve when Villanelle’s knee applied more pressure against her clit.
“Ask me,” whispered Eve.
“I don’t like asking for things.”
“If you don't ask for things, you never get anything.”
Villanelle regarded Eve steadily. “People give me things without me asking for them.”
“Yes,” Villanelle replied coolly, “it is.”
Eve placed her hands around Villanelle’s throat. “Ask me.”
“Don’t know what you mean.”
Eve’s hands tightened, “Ask me.”
“Really, Eve, I don’t-”
Eve’s grip was tight now, choking off the rest of Villanelle’s insolence. She kept her hands locked firmly in place, her eyes focused on the reddening of Villanelle’s skin, her racing pulse slamming against Eve’s fingers, her eyes never once sliding off Eve’s face. She looked enraptured, Eve thought.
Villanelle didn’t resist, just surrendered herself to a controlled fall, taking Eve down with her onto the bed. Eve momentarily let go of Villanelle’s throat to reposition herself. She straddled Villanelle’s hips, which only added Villanelle’s own wetness to the already slick coating on Eve’s panties.
Eve ached for the friction and ecstatic pressure that grinding against Villanelle would give her, but all she could manage instead was a barely coherent forward pitch and a weakness that flooded her arms at the sight of Villanelle’s eyes closing in serenity. She kept them closed as she said hoarsely:
“I would never ask you to do something that you don’t want to do.”
“I-I know.” Eve looked down at Villanelle through a tangle of uncut bangs.
“Do you want to fuck me now, Eve?”
“Okay.” Villanelle’s eyes sprang open. “But I do not want you to.”
Eve instantly squirmed off Villanelle. She rolled beside her, their bodies still touching, but panic now coursed through Eve instead of desire.
“Like I said Eve, you only get rewards for a successful murder,” said Villanelle.
“Oh, fuck off,” Eve said with a shaky laugh. “That’s not fair.”
“Are you seriously going to tempt me with murder-”
“Sex, you mean.”
“-and keep me hanging on, and just-just expect me to let you do that? Seriously, Villanelle?”
Villanelle was not smiling. “I do not want to have sex with you right now.”
“But…” Eve wrestled with her emotions. Tears welled up in her eyes. “Why?”
“No means no, Eve. I don’t owe you an explanation.” Villanelle pulled away from Eve, although she remained seated on the bed.
“I want to understand.”
Villanelle muttered something that sounded decidedly like fuck, only it was spoken in a far more melodic language.
“Okay fine, you asked for it Eve. I don’t want to have sex with you because if we have sex right now, you will feel guilty after. I want you to fuck me without shame. And I want you to let me fuck you,” she added, “without shame.”
“I’m not ashamed!”
“Yes, you are. It is for the same reason that you couldn’t kill a man today.”
“What reason is that, Villanelle?”
“You tell me.”
Eve turned her head away. She felt a bit grateful that she wasn’t completely naked. “We are emotionally abusive towards each other.”
“Maybe that is true. But I am still a person, Eve. I am not just some emotionless, abusive robot that doesn’t deserve love,” said Villanelle. “Besides, I have only had three relationships in my whole life. You are my first real one, Eve. So I am learning and I am trying.”
“I’m trying too! It’s just that...sometimes, I just don’t know...I mean you can be so violent, and then you’re so fucking lovely, and I can’t keep up with you, and I just want to know-I need to know, because it’s really hard to tell sometimes...how you feel about me.”
Villanelle’s voice shook. “I love you.”
“I do.” Villanelle affirmed harshly. “It is possible to love someone deeply, yet to be bad at loving them. But I really am trying. I will try to be better. For you. Promise.”
Eve’s voice was a restrained shout. “Your two ex girlfriends are dead. You’ve admitted that you think about killing me. How do I know you won’t murder me, too?”
“You have to trust me, Eve.”
Villanelle’s expression seemed to mirror Eve’s own, a half-mask of concern, yearning, and hesitation. They stared at each other for what felt like an eternity. Then Villanelle got up from the bed. Eve’s heart sank.
Only to soar back up, all the way into her throat, when she saw that Villanelle had returned, dangling the sash taken from her golden kimono.
“Will you let me blindfold you, Eve?”
Eve’s brow furrowed. “Why?”
“So you know you can trust me.”
Eve could hardly breathe as Villanelle covered her eyes with the sash. The darkness was complete, soft and oddly comforting. Eve heard her own heartbeats, as well as Villanelle’s, beating in swirling colours behind the makeshift blindfold.
“Eventually Eve,” came Villanelle’s whisper, “you will have to reconcile your ideas about me being both a saint and a demon.”
Her warmth rolled off to Eve’s right side, then faded slowly away. Eve reached out blindly. Her hands closed around nothing. The bed inclined as Villanelle shifted closer to Eve. In the absence of touch, Eve concentrated on the anticipation crackling between them, the scents and sounds that came to her beyond the veil of darkness. Knowing that Villanelle was there, feeling this truth, even though she couldn't necessarily see or touch her, wrapped Eve in a blanket of peace.
Villanelle’s breath returned against the side of her neck, but this time, it was accompanied by her lips and her touch. A guttural moan vibrated through Eve at the sensation of Villanelle kissing her neck, then light sucking and biting at her wildly pulsating jugular vein.
Eve reached around and buried a hand in Villanelle’s hair, while Villanelle’s touch, smooth and soft, melded into the shape of her other hand on Eve’s thigh. She gently rubbed and kneaded the area there. Another hand materialized at Eve’s waist, her fingers dancing like silk unfurled across Eve’s skin.
Those fingers drew up Eve’s figure, dashing teasingly against her skin, nails grazing ever so slightly, circling around her breasts, stopping coyly just shy of dipping below her waist. All the while, Villanelle kept kissing Eve’s neck and murmuring into her ear, her voice dripping like honey in languages that Eve could identify but could not fully understand. Finally, Villanelle spoke in English.
“You can trust me, Eve. I am not going to hurt you.”
Eve felt Villanelle ease her blindfold off.
“Because you’re mine.”
Eve nudged her away with a gentle kind of reproach that was rooted in disbelief.
“You are, you’re mine.”
Eve breathed out the word.
Villanelle took Eve’s face in her hands and kissed her deeply. The same rush that Eve felt in the tulip fields came back to her now. Greedily, she pressed Villanelle hard against her, returning the kiss with unrelenting strength.
When Villanelle opened her eyes, they were clouded by darkness. She pushed Eve down and moved above her now. Eve watched her arms, the same thready muscles and veins that all amounted to movements of murder, and found Villanelle’s present tenderness surreal.
She touched Eve’s knuckles to her lips.
“Do you trust me now, Eve? Do you want to be mine?”
“Yes,” said Eve.
Villanelle shifted over her, reached for the pack of cigarettes, and lit one with a faint look of distaste. Eve pried it from her fingers. Took a long drag. Grinned at the smoke curling between them, until Villanelle dissipated it with a wave of her hand.
“What do you like most about being an assassin?” Eve asked.
“I used to get really restless,” replied Villanelle. “Now I’m not so much anymore.”
“Restless,” Eve echoed.
“Restless,” Villanelle said. “You know-restless? I kept thinking how many places there were. Now I get to see them all.”
Eve laughed. “I guess you picked the right life.”
She smoked lavishly, sending out plumes through her nose and letting the smoke roll from her mouth. She thought about much she hated smoking, but how it felt so good from time to time.
Villanelle stole her half-finished cigarette. Eve thought that she would have a puff after all, but Villanelle stubbed it out instead. She lay back down, her body facing Eve’s. Villanelle’s shoulder smelled faintly sweet, like candle wax. Eve inhaled deeply, her eyes half-closed, and tucked in the sheets around Villanelle’s chest. Eve placed her palm on Villanelle’s stomach, but when she tried to move her hand, Villanelle covered it with her own.
“Honestly Eve, do you feel ashamed for loving me?”
“No.” Eve’s eyes were moist, the line of her mouth set determinedly. Her voice rang loud and clear. “And that’s the truth, Villanelle. Being with you, like this? I don’t feel shame. I feel love.”
Villanelle sighed contentedly. She brushed her lips against Eve’s, which curled into a bright smile.
“Of all those places you’ve been,” asked Eve, “which was your favorite?”
“Obviously, my favourite place is wherever I'm with you.” Villanelle dragged her thumb against Eve’s chin. “But I do miss Paris.”
Eve reached out and delicately stroked Villanelle’s face.
“Then let’s go back to Paris.”
Chapter 8: Up In Flames
Eve watched Villanelle loosen a wooden floorboard at the threshold of her apartment in Paris. She heaved it away with an exaggerated gasp that transformed into a casual toss over the railing. Eve winced as the sound of the floorboard thudding to the tiled ground echoed throughout the stairwell.
The key Villanelle extricated from the floorboard’s hiding place was burnished brass. She inserted it into the lock, wiggled it around, rattled the doorknob. The apartment door refused to open by persuasion, so Villanelle opened it by coercion; she kicked it in and waltzed across the landing, winking over her shoulder at Eve.
At first glance, Villanelle’s apartment looked pretty much the same: pale blue peeling wallpaper, high ceilings with their curling coat of paint, creaking and cracking hardwood floors, and tall windows that offered views of Montmartre and the rooftops of Paris beyond. But as Eve and Villanelle drifted from room to room, they noticed that the apartment was cleansed.
Gone were Villanelle’s books and fashion magazines from the white shelf in the hallway. There were no kitschy lamps casting light from their humble corners. Her exercise equipment, once conveniently scattered wherever she happened to reach for it, was nowhere to be found. The abstract paintings that Villanelle had curated were taken down from the walls. The bathroom, with its balck and white checkered floors, pink tub and sink, was devoid of any towels, soap, or shampoo.
Mercifully, the wispy white curtains were still draped across the windows and Villanelle’s armoire, although empty, remained standing in the bedroom. Her vanity desk was gone, along with all her perfume and makeup, but a lone mirror slanted against the wall opposite the right side of the bed. It, too, was bare, stripped of linens, sheets, and pillows. Eve drifted to it.
Villanelle shuffled around in the adjacent kitchenette. The leather sofa there had been knifed open, yet resolutely propped itself up against the window. No more glass table, no more shelves stocked with canned soup, baking powder, and spices, no more cupboards filled with neatly arranged glasses and mugs. And of course, the fridge was empty.
“Do you think they’re watching us right now?” Eve called out.
“They can watch all they want.” Villanelle poked her head around the corner. “There is no food.”
“We just spent all night and day on a train that serves only those shitty nut and dried fruit packets. I am hungry.”
Eve heard the floor groan, felt Villanelle stand at her shoulder.
“Are you thinking about it?” she asked softly.
“I’m thinking about what we would have done if I hadn’t stabbed you.”
Villanelle’s breath was hot on the back of Eve’s neck. “Our last few days were rough. Let me make it up to you.”
Eve tilted her head, allowing Villanelle better access to one side of her neck, where she pressed tender, lingering kisses.
“We’ll get some groceries. Then we’ll go to Chanel and I will buy you everything you want.”
A long, low sigh slid out of Eve. “You don’t want to...stay in?”
“I do. But I never have sex on an empty stomach.”
Eve turned to see Villanelle smiling playfully. She extended her hand. Eve took it.
“Come,” said Villanelle.
And Eve let herself be guided along Montmartre’s steep and cobblestoned streets in a spellbound daze. Pretty lampposts and lush trees lined the streets. Throngs of people made it hard to maneuver quickly. Eve found herself still holding Villanelle’s hand. Their fingers laced together and Villanelle’s thumb occasionally glided across the back of Eve’s hand.
A street musician strummed his guitar at the bottom of the steps, using the architecture as a kind of natural amphitheatre to captivate a gathering audience. Villanelle hummed along with the melody, interspersed with the barking of stray dogs that ambled through the crowd. She tugged Eve down a side street and they emerged onto a boulevard of bars, kebab shops, stalls selling towels, clothes, sheets, linens, fresh produce, baked goods, postcards, and cheap, gaudy gifts.
There was also quite an assortment of cabarets and sex shops which sold things that Eve wasn’t creative enough to even dream up. In between bags stuffed with olive oil, milk, eggs, flour, champagne, and baguettes, Villanelle promptly bought a double-ended, hot pink strap on as well as several bottles of lubricants and oils. She tucked this bag underneath Eve’s arm with a wicked grin and carried on walking ahead with an extra bounce in her step.
On their way back to the apartment, Eve and Villanelle passed grassy and terraced gardens. Chirping birds filled the balmy air. Ivy stuck to the sides of the pastel green, blue, and rosé buildings. Scooters and compact cars drifted up and down the streets. Young couples all around held hands and kissed beneath the trees, while widows threw flowers on graves and old men lugged watering cans towards tombs surrounded by plants in the nearby cemetery. Life cycles and death rituals clashed amidst the cheers of children and the trudging, echoing steps of people making their pilgrimage up and down Montmartre’s stairs.
The mouthwatering smell of grilled meats, sauces, and fresh seafood drifted to Eve and Villanelle as they returned to the apartment’s street. Once they’d hauled the groceries upstairs and loaded the fridge, Villanelle sliced the baguettes while Eve poured olive oil onto some paper plates. She thoroughly soaked the slices, crunched on the other dry ones with abandon, and watched Villanelle put milk and eggs on the counter, with a promise to cook for Eve when they came back from Chanel.
Once they’d devoured all the baguettes, Eve and Villanelle set out again. Villanelle took them down a street opposite from the one they’d walked earlier. This way was quieter and more refined with its wine and cheese stores, small design shops, vintage clothing, flower stalls, and more bread and pastry shops. Gradually, the building facades became cleaner, paler, and more elegant.
Past a park with its wrought iron gates, past a line of cars parked all along the street, past a luxurious hotel and a group of students posing to take selfies, Eve and Villanelle came to 31 Rue Cambon.
The Chanel boutique was instantly recognizable thanks to its striking black and white palette. Two large windows flanked the entrance, displaying the latest outerwear for the season, along with complementary handbags. Villanelle strutted inside like she owned the place, radiating with an air that was so perfectly balanced between haughtiness and confidence that it would have earned an approving nod from Chanel herself.
Eve basked in the scent of perfume that shrouded her upon entering. Its composition was based on sandalwood and vanilla, with floral notes of rose, jasmine, and lily of the valley. Bursts of its zingy, bold and fresh fragrance draped over Eve while she explored the boutique on the ground floor. The main room was milk-white. Black trim accented the walls and corners, joined by a black diamond pattern that adorned the tiled floor. The heavy obsidian reception desk, black velvet armchair, and ebony table pushed against the back wall only served to highlight the breathtaking colour of the oil paintings enclaved into the ceiling.
Collections of dresses and suits hung on their black hangers emblazoned with Chanel’s golden initials. Creme, sea foam green, grey, and pink fabrics formed blazers and suit jackets, many of which boasted metallic solid gold embellishments or diamond encrusted lapels and shoulder pads. Eve trailed her hands over the garments, slipped her fingers into pockets, felt over collars, squeezed hems, parted hangers to reach new layers.
Frantic, flowing French reached her. She looked up to see Villanelle holding a houndstooth, charcoal-coloured pea coat, which she shoved into a saleswoman’s face. Alarmed and apologetic, the lady directed Villanelle to a section of trench coats and offered her a glass of champagne. Villanelle sipped it coolly. When she finished, the saleswoman approached her with a beige trench coat that rested elegantly on Villanelle’s shoulders and flattered her height. She went through a dozen more coats, posing in front of the many mirrors for lengthy periods, tossing her hair, and finally turning on her heel to go look at dresses.
Eve carefully removed a suit from its hanger. The rich, oxblood colour accentuated it’s finely stitched black floral pattern. She shrugged it on, resting the matching pants over a cozy armchair, and stared her reflection down. The dark fall of her hair was shortened, touching down just at the top of her shoulders, but it popped alluringly against the suit all the same. Slowly, Eve turned her body to appreciate the comfortable yet graceful flare of the cut.
She smoothed the material. Gloried in its quality. Found herself adoring the way it felt on her, and how it made her feel like she could crush the world between her bare hands. After she’d glanced down at the price tag, Eve suddenly felt an overwhelming need to find the entire champagne bottle to drain.
Villanelle soon came over carrying a black jacquard patterned suit of her own. It had velvet lapels and gold flecks strewn into the fabric.
“Good, you like that suit! Me too.”
“Do you know how much this costs?” asked Eve incredulously.
Villanelle shrugged. “Why does it matter? I told you, I will buy you everything you want.”
“I’m not sure I want you to. It’s too much. Way too much.”
“Am I not supposed to be the one with no money, while you are the financially stable older woman treating me to luxury, in return for sexual favours?”
“This costs as much as the down payment for my townhouse in London!”
Eve reluctantly removed the suit. Villanelle cast an appreciative eye over the entire long rack, including all the delicate tops, blouses, and leather jackets that coexisted with the other suits. Then she addressed the expectant saleswoman and spoke in English for Eve’s benefit.
“Eve wants everything on this rack,” Villanelle said. “What else do you want, Eve?”
“Oh my god!” flustered Eve, as the saleswoman relieved each and every item of clothing from its hanger. She neatly deposited the pile on the counter.
Eve wished her own hair was longer so that she could steadily tear it out. “Villanelle, what are you doing?”
“Giving you what you want.”
“I believe the appropriate response is ‘thank you, Villanelle,’ but I’ll accept that one too.”
“God, I honestly don’t need all this stuff. I really want you. Only you. Just you,” Eve emphasized with a touch to the side of Villanelle’s face. “Especially you, exactly the way you are.”
“That is nice, Eve. Truly. But since you are mine, you will look good.”
Eve blinked. “Don’t I already?”
“Sure. It’s just that now you will be exactly the way I like.” Villanelle smirked. “Just think of it as being a better version of you. My treat.”
Without waiting to hear Eve’s response, Villanelle motioned for her to come upstairs. A stairway lined with mirrors led to the second floor fitting rooms. The third floor housed the studio, together with light-flooded workshops nestled below the rooftops. Eve emerged behind Villanelle on the extensive second floor; more mirrors made up whole walls, a plush beige carpet felt heavenly beneath Eve’s feet that were worn out from all the walking, and white leather armchairs with gold pillows sat outside the curtained change rooms.
The air smelled faintly but unmistakably of decadent musk. Lamps with beaded detailing drenched the room with a soft, muted yellow light. Ivory mannequins flirted with each other, arranged in flamboyant poses that showed off jewelry, handbags, dresses, and deeper into the room, assortments of lingerie.
Villanelle swept past their blank faces without a second glance, but Eve paused beside one. She tapped it hard enough to get Villanelle’s attention, then asked quietly:
“Do you think I’m like this?”
“Of course not! You are much better. You actually move.”
“Villanelle, I am not an object.” Eve moved her hand away, balled it into a fist. “I have a face. I have a body. I have a mind and a heart and a soul that are all my own. And I’m not made of plastic, I feel things.”
“Yes,” said Villanelle wearily. “Yes. Of course. I know you have feelings, Eve.”
Eve tried not to focus on how good Villanelle looked in this opulent space, how she fit right in with her surroundings as if they were created just to contain and impress her.
“But you don’t care. Right?” Eve couldn’t shake the bitterness from her tone.
“Actually, I do care about making you feel good right now.”
“Because it makes me feel good. Knowing that you feel good means I’m doing a good job of being your partner.”
“Oh.” Eve ran a hand through her hair. “Okay. I appreciate knowing that.”
“Here.” Villanelle opened a drawer secreting three rows of silk and lace bras, complete with their corresponding panties. She offered a navy blue set to Eve, who accepted it and eagerly disappeared behind a curtain.
She could hear Villanelle humming around the room, the rustling of more lingerie being selected, gasps and giggles coming from Villanelle’s parallel change room. Eve almost couldn’t recognize herself in the finery that enhanced her body. Her eyes scrutinized from head to toe, pausing at the perfect symmetry of her cleavage, the deep shade of the bra that brought out the smoothness and glow of her warming skin. Eve liked how the full cups were suspended from slender straps, with a white leafy design completed by woven stripes.
The light in the change room could not help but embrace the curves of Eve’s hips, to slip unashamedly past the silhouette of her panties, with their lustrous satin front and transparent mesh reverse. Eve dragged a finger across the lace embroidery and allowed herself a broad smile.
With a sense of recklessness, she stepped out to raid more drawers and pluck various sets of lingerie from their marble platforms. She added a copper coloured camisole and a sheer, emerald teddy glittering with sequins. Then a white bra that had small black polka dots, and white panties with silver roses stitched along the crotch seam caught her eye. She put this set on and felt the certainty blossom in her chest because she didn’t want to take it off.
The sound of Villanelle drawing the curtains aside made Eve part her own. She couldn’t contain her gasp at the sight that greeted her.
Villanelle wore a garter set coloured passionate red. The bra flared against her skin, its sheer lace inserts contrasting against the shine of black rhinestones scattered on the rest of the fabric. The thong revealed the contours of her hips and the fishnets served to highlight her leonine strides as she came to Eve and tilted her chin up.
Eve kissed her, hard. Villanelle inhaled sharply and entwined her fingers into Eve’s hair. In turn, Eve loosened Villanelle’s French braid and threaded her hands through Villanelle’s silken hair. Eve didn’t want to pull away, couldn’t tear her searing lips from Villanelle’s. It felt too good to be lost in the fire spreading outwards from her chest and the delirious smoke filling her mind. She gladly gave herself over to the haze until a short cough made her eyes fly open.
“We will wear these immediately,” Villanelle announced breathlessly to the saleswoman by the stairs, who studiously noted the astronomical prices and added them to the already exponentially growing amount. She swiftly gathered their lingerie and went downstairs to let them hastily put their clothes back on.
At the counter, Villanelle took out her leather wallet. It was so worn out that its surface was smooth. She opened it, looked at it, then closed it. She handed it to Eve.
“I am going to let you pay for us with my money. So you can be me for a moment, see if you like it or whatever.”
Eve took the wallet, Villanelle’s wallet. She flipped it over, looked at it this way and that, felt Villanelle’s weight in it. There was falseness in her identification, a manufactured fakery of who she was that made it possible for them to strike and disappear. But there was power, too.
The photo of Villanelle was very real, with its vibrant smile and the golden tumble of her hair past her shoulders. The credit cards were quite real too, and Eve proffered one to the saleswoman who took it without batting an eyelash.
“I always wondered what it would be like to be you,” said Eve.
“Yeah. I used to picture you out there. Different people. Different. places. Doing good work, having adventures. You were always on some adventure.”
“Huh. I always wondered what it would be like to be you, with a steady partner, kids, roots. A place to call your own. Going to work. Going to the neighborhood barbecues and visiting friends. Everyone out there mowing their lawns at the same time, drinking coffee in the morning and wine in the evening. Nice. Normal. Safe. Respectable.”
“I thought you hated that kind of thing.”
“Well, I guess you don’t know too much about me after all.”
“I guess not.”
Eve and Villanelle left their hefty Chanel bags by the apartment door, resolving to properly unpack them when they’d gotten around to doing some decent laundry over the next few days. Villanelle disappeared into the kitchenette. Eve dragged the bag containing the hot pink strap on from underneath the bed and chuckled as she turned it over in her hands. She set it beside the bed as the clattering sounds of a skillet and the spurt of hot oil distracted her.
Soon, the apartment filled with the wholesome smell of crêpes. Eve watched Villanelle hum and sashay around the kitchenette. If she knew that Eve was observing her, she gave no indication (although Eve could think of no other possible reason why she would bother showing off that she could perfectly flip the crêpe in the skillet to brown its other side).
A few layers of crêpes were already stacked on a paper plate by the time Villanelle asked:
“Savoury or sweet?”
Eve crossed the kitchenette to gather paper plates and napkins, then heaved the sofa around until it faced the unshuttered window. Early evening cloaked the rooftops of Paris. People still strolled the streets below, but in far less hectic numbers than earlier that day. Eve took a deep breath. Held it, held it until her heart was near bursting, until her lungs screamed for oxygen and her veins begged to split open. Then she exhaled, half-expecting to feel hollow, but instead found the warmth of contentment nestled just below her heart.
Eve went to the vinyl records wedged between Villanelle’s armoire and the cold fireplace. She dusted off an Edith Piaf record and crackled to life that song about living life without regrets. Villanelle finally brought the crêpes over, which she’d filled with chopped ham, red pepper and sautéed mushrooms, and also sprinkled with shredded Cheddar cheese.
After they’d eaten their fill and spent some time on the balcony, they went to lay on the bed.
The music flowed over them. The strong and distinctive voice trembled into a wail. Sparrow-like notes trilled and crooned, reaching an aching crescendo before fluttering off into silence. Eve took Villanelle’s hand and put it on her chest so that Villanelle could feel the beating of her heart. The skin was warmer there, close to the bone.
Captivated by Villanelle’s intense gaze, the heavy flesh of the years of misdirected love began to come off Eve. She gazed back. Silent. Waiting. Villanelle let Eve’s hand go. She turned on her side so they were facing one another.
“I never thought this would happen.”
Without knife and without catastrophic interruption, Eve let Villanelle kiss her. The meeting of their lips sent sparks sizzling through the air. Eve could practically hear them crackle, feel them singe her tongue, smell their sharp, smoky discharge. With her hips touching Villanelle’s, Eve deepened the kiss. Never, not ever, would she get used to the all-consuming feeling of Villanelle setting off cataclysms inside her with every press of lips and slip of tongue.
Eve exhaled hitched breaths that Villanelle gluttonously inhaled. She fisted her hands into Eve’s hair and drew her own thigh up tight against Eve’s. She swallowed, her throat working so hard that Villanelle certainly noticed. There was no reprieve from her insistent, forceful kisses.
Then Villanelle reached down between Eve’s legs and slowly rubbed her hand up and down the length of Eve’s cunt.
A long, deep, loud moan shuddered from Eve. No conscious thought, no intent, no premeditation or deliberation; just the motion of Eve rolling over, taking Villanelle with her, letting her legs part to give Villanelle better access. Her palm pressed down as she slid her hand back up, then her fingers lightly circled Eve’s clit through her pants. Eve knew that they were already soaked at the crotch, but that was better, that was amazing, because Villanelle smoothed Eve’s own wetness onto her readily slickened folds.
Eve whimpered when Villanelle drew her hand away. As soon as Villanelle had frantically removed her clothes, Eve slammed herself into another feverish kiss. Her hands roved the length of Villanelle’s flanks, cupped her elegant bra and roughly kneaded her nipples through the lace, then flowed down to slip just underneath the hem of her glistening thong. She mirrored Villanelle’s stroking fingers as best as she could, dragging and rubbing and pressing and rubbing some more.
Villanelle pushed her back down. Eve struggled momentarily, wanting to do everything, just fucking everything, all at once. But Villanelle swooped her mouth onto the right side of Eve’s neck, kissing, biting, licking from her pulse point down to her collarbone. With a raspy sigh, Villanelle tugged Eve’s clothes off.
She slowly slunk back down, her muscled arms framing Eve’s face, and resumed kissing her. Eve deliberately responded softly, delicately, like a sparrow’s fluttering wings, lingering against Villanelle’s mouth just long enough that she could inhale her breath, feel the warmth of her skin, and taste the thick, exhilarating, desire that captured them.
Villanelle hungrily pushed back, her mouth open, tongue shoving past Eve’s clenched teeth, seeking the moist space within. Eve gripped the nape of her neck firmly, as if Villanelle would somehow escape, as if she somehow wanted to escape. It felt like Eve had soared out of her own body, like she did not occupy a corporeal realm anymore and instead floated in another universe.
It was Villanelle’s touch, Villanelle’s hot, quick breaths, Villanelle’s faintest whispers, that kept Eve grounded in the moment. She grasped Villanelle’s free hand abruptly and brought it to her mouth. Villanelle flicked her hair aside and observed with an arched eyebrow while Eve sucked on each of her long, slender fingers. She moaned slightly as Eve pulled the longest one into her throat, hoping to convey the thrill of lifeblood that surged through her veins.
With these wetted fingers, Villanelle once again devoted her touch to Eve’s scintillating cunt. A flash of amusement, a cry, a harshly drawn out breath, and Villanelle slipped a finger snugly inside Eve.
Wonder, awe, and a jolt of searing heat ripped through her. Mouth agape, eyes wide, she basked in the sight of Villanelle sliding her finger in and out, in and out, in and out. The repeated pressure, set to an unwavering, maddeningly lax rhythm, made her teeth grind. Villanelle never once looked away from Eve’s face. Her eyes burned, flaring at every twitch in Eve’s face and jerk of her leg. Villanelle kissed Eve’s inner thighs reassuringly while she added another finger.
Both were buried knuckle deep now. Eve’s moan went on and on. A great weight settled onto her chest, pooled deep in her gut. The sweat beading on her brow and the sweet strain in her muscles signaled that she would soon be hurled over the horizon of ecstatic pleasure. Her heart slammed ferociously against her ribs and her pulse quickened to a breathtaking pace when she felt Villanelle’s fingers curl deep, deep inside.
The fingers of her other hand lazily walked up her thigh and came upon Eve’s swollen, aching, and throbbing clit. A pinch. A flick. A feather light rub, followed by a sudden, heavy press. And then both sets of Villanelle’s fingers increased their pace and strength. Eve cried out, let her head fall back momentarily, grasped Villanelle’s hair, adjusted the angle of her spine so that she could spread her legs wider and wider, wide enough to let Villanelle push her fingers in even deeper, while her other fingers circled Eve’s clit incessantly.
Eve growled in pure frustration, gathering a fistful of dampened sheets. This was exactly like her own midnight masturbatory sessions, except for every single one of the reasons that it wasn’t, mainly because she was finally feeling Villanelle’s fingers and not her own. No blood-soaked, rage fuelled, longing and needy and eviscerating fantasy her malignant mind conjured up could have ever compared to the truth of Villanelle.
Eve seized her wrists. Villanelle stopped, tilted her head quizzically.
“Are you alright?”
“Sorry,” panted Eve. “I’m just so used to...y’know. A penis being there.”
Villanelle reached over the side of the bed with a smirk and slid the strap-on harness to rest at her hips. She stroked the hot-pink cock slowly, lubing it, her eyes twinkling.
“I hope you appreciate the irony of this.”
Eve laughed. “I do.”
Villanelle bent down to kiss her and Eve nearly missed, her lips a bit too far right and her nose bumping against Villanelle’s. She persisted, letting her eyes slide closed and going on feel alone. Villanelle’s smile crinkled as she maneuvered her mouth into place, tilting her head so that Eve’s lips met hers firmly and joyously at last. Villanelle breathed right into Eve’s nose each time she exhaled, which tickled her and made her giggle. This got Villanelle giggling too. As Eve pulled back sheepishly, Villanelle nibbled on her bottom lip, then kissed her intently. Eve’s eyes opened to see Villanelle’s shining bright.
She dragged the head of the cock teasingly over Eve’s entrance. Eve’s gaze flicked between it and Villanelle’s face. She watched, waited, silently prayed and begged, searched for a sign somewhere in Villanelle’s serene, carefully set expression. Eve sensed a quiet sort of determination which hid an underlying passionate resolve that boiled in Villanelle’s very bones. The thought alone of what was to come made Eve wetter than she had ever been before in her life; she choked on a breathy moan as Villanelle interlocked their fingers and kept Eve’s hands pinned firmly to the bed.
Eve felt the heat between their bodies, the airy material of their lingerie, as they scraped against each other.
“Ready?” Villanelle murmured at last, breath hot against Eve’s ear.
“God yes,” replied Eve.
Transfixed, she watched Villanelle’s hips roll forward like waves rolling onto a shore. She sheathed herself in Eve and remained there for a long moment. Eve threw her head back. The bulbous light, the ceiling, the comforting warmth of baking, the shift of the mildly creaky bed; all of this, all of this, was as familiar to her as the sensation of being filled by the shaft. It even felt like actual skin and nerve endings. But it was thicker, slicker, and warmer than the real thing, not to mention that it was being wielded by a woman.
A stir of discrepancy furrowed Eve’s brow. It was a good feeling, for sure. It was just that she needed to get used to Villanelle being a woman, a real woman, so Eve let her hands roam freely over Villanelle’s stomach, to graze against her stab wound scar then reach behind to undo her bra clasp; she absolutely had to take advantage of Villanelle’s statuesque stillness in order to wrap her lips around Villanelle’s perky nipples, to suck and lick them to aching fullness, to hear the buzz of Villanelle’s moan against the crown of her head and feel Villanelle breathe into her hair.
She responded in kind, pinning Eve’s hands again while she assaulted the sides of her neck once more with wet kisses and chased her lingering breath on Eve’s nipples with her mouth and tongue. Ever so slightly possessively, Villanelle extracted the cock and then slid it back in. Eve’s half moan, half whimper urged her to repeat the movement, this time more firmly. She stopped again, buried all the way to the hilt. Then she abruptly pulled out completely, poised at Eve’s dripping entrance.
It took massive effort for Eve not to crush Villanelle’s body against her own. Bits of begging fell from Eve’s lips, which made Villanelle grin sadistically. Through delirium, Eve tilted her hips off the bed. She hoped to meet at least the cock head, to put a little pressure on herself, to get a little friction. Anything, anything to let herself be impaled. But Villanelle resolutely denied her for a moment more. Her head was angled in such a way that her hair spilled over all to one side, her lips curving into a self-satisfied, knowing smile, her eyes dancing with embers.
Finally, oh finally, Villanelle graciously plunged back into Eve.
This time, she barely allowed Eve time to adjust to the feeling before more thrusts followed. More and more, an unbroken flow of exquisitely timed and tempered thrusts, striking at just the right angle and with completely enough force to make Eve moan and swear and gasp and shout and yelp and instinctually switch to Korean, and then back to English again when Korean suddenly wasn’t enough to keep screaming in.
Villanelle’s own desperate sounds made Eve’s heart pang. She remembered how she’d sounded that night in Rome of course, but now Villanelle’s drawn out moans and short gasps were more heated, more intense, more enveloping, and decidedly much louder. Eve knew that each and every thrust resulted in the other end of the strap-on reverberating inside Villanelle’s cunt too, sliding deeper into her own wet heat, and hitting hard against her clit.
A sheen of sweat gathered on Villanelle’s abdomen, as well as her shoulders. Her back rippled with strength as she carved deeper motions into Eve. The pace Villanelle set now was relentless and brutal. It made Eve incoherent. Nothing else felt real beyond Villanelle’s cock, the feel of her hands covering her breasts, the musky, intoxicating scent of her, the deep, consuming kisses that she bestowed, the gift of her savage, ruthless strokes.
When Villanelle broke their kiss, Eve pulled the name from the depths of her soul.
She stopped mid-thrust. Her upper arms trembled. Her bottom lip quivered. Eve brushed a thumb against it and drank in the sight of Villanelle’s eyes briefly sliding closed. Her expression was shattered yet also seemed strangely distant, as if her spirit had tugged itself loose from her body to momentarily preside over them. Then Villanelle returned to herself with a deep sigh as Eve cupped the side of her face. Leaning into the touch, Villanelle penetrated Eve again.
The deep, consistent thrusts were slower now but just as steady. Villanelle wrapped her hands around Eve’s throat and lovingly tightened her grip. She kept herself anchored like this, Eve noticed, as she suddenly picked up the pace again. Faster, harder, deeper, over and over, Villanelle pushed and drove and plunged into Eve with cries that sounded like they made her throat raw.
Eve came with all the force of an axe splitting the back of her skull. She shouted an endless litany into Villanelle’s shoulder, into the strands of delicate hair gathered there. Villanelle kissed her through the aftershocks but quickly slipped off the strap-on as soon as Eve was capable of proper speech.
“It is your turn now.”
A cold frisson ran up and down Eve’s spine while the rest of her burned like a pyre.
“Okay. Are you sure you want me to try? I-I’ve never done this before.” Eve twisted a lock of hair around her finger. “I can’t do what you do. I’m afraid I won’t be good enough.”
Villanelle crossed her arms. “Bullshit.”
“Seriously, Villanelle.” Eve gingerly accepted the strap-on and re-laced it so that she could cautiously pull it into position. “I’m so, so afraid I’ll disappoint you and then you’ll...you’ll leave me or something. Oh, this looks ridiculous on me,” Eve groaned.
Villanelle gently put a finger to Eve’s lips. “No. You are thinking too much. Which should really not be possible considering what I just did to you, but you never cease to amaze me, Eve.” She let her voice grow huskier, raised Eve’s chin to regard her inescapable gaze. “So amaze me, Eve.”
“Believe me Villanelle, I want to. I just don’t quite know how and it’s killing me.”
“Practice makes perfect. But let me take care of being perfect Eve,” said Villanelle. “You just take care of being yourself.”
Her eyes drifted down to the shining strap-on, coated on both ends with evidence of their mutual pleasure, as she leaned back sensually and slowly spread herself wide open. Eve swallowed hard. Reverently, she bowed her head down between Villanelle’s legs and lingered there. The movement caused Eve’s end of the strap-on to thud sturdily inside her and she gasped. Her hot breath against Villanelle’s soaked cunt made Villanelle gasp too.
Wordlessly, she entwined a hand into Eve’s hair and pulled it aside. Eve didn’t break eye contact as she let herself taste Villanelle. The shock of the sensation gave her pause; she’d expected Villanelle to be very wet and maybe a little salty. But she hadn't foreseen that Villanelle could also be syrupy, lightly sweet as well, even with an almost spicy hint that was sharp on Eve’s tongue. Slick and slightly thicker than water, Eve coated her lips and her chin with Villanelle’s flavour.
Maybe she didn’t need to use the strap on after all; Eve felt it poke against the mattress as she vigorously licked up and down, flicked her tongue against Villanelle’s engorged clit, then firmed her tongue to dip it inside Villanelle’s leaking folds. She mewled, clawed at Eve’s shoulders, gasped and moaned with need. Drawing her long, sleek legs up higher, Villanelle cried out:
“Please Eve, I need you inside me.”
Eve let Villanelle kiss her mouth clean, let Villanelle lick along her jawline to revel in the traces of herself. Eve pushed two fingers deep within Villanelle. Her ragged please, Eve, please made Eve tremble. She alternated between clumsily inserting and withdrawing sticky, shaking fingers. As her thumb circled Villanelle’s clit violently, Eve felt Villanelle grasp the strap-on to jerk her forward.
Eve braced herself on her elbows and cautiously entered Villanelle. The first few thrusts were awkward, pitched harshly too far in or not quite all the way in. In her nervousness, Eve accidentally pulled the cock all the way out. She hastily grasped its base and guided herself back inside. Villanelle moaned at the same time as Eve exhaled a breath she hadn’t even realized she’d been holding.
Watching Villanelle like this, unguarded and wanton and simply exposed, Eve felt unmistakable, rousing, potent power possess her entire being. Seeing the cock plunging repeatedly into Villanelle, feeling its pleasurable shocks inside herself, thrusting and thrusting with Villanelle’s every mounting cry, Eve finally understood what it meant to join their bodies together like this, to become one.
Villanelle abruptly stilled Eve, tugged her back out, and flopped onto her stomach. She balanced on her knees and peered suggestively over her shoulder at Eve. With quaking hands, Eve gripped Villanelle’s hips and thrust into her. And thrust into her again, and again, and then again. She draped herself over Villanelle’s back, trailing kisses along her spine all the way up to the nape of her neck. Villanelle craned her head around to kiss Eve. She brushed aside the hair that tangled and matted between their mouths, then fused their lips together again.
Eve grunted as Villanelle rocked her hips and eased herself backwards, shoving the cock deeper inside. They traded off, with Eve thrusting right after Villanelle impaled herself. Eve was alarmed at not being able to see Villanelle’s face, to revel in her vulnerability, but the sounds Villanelle made were indicative enough for her to know how well she was doing.
As Eve approached a more pounding rhythm, her arms quivering, her thighs shaking, her heart just about ready to explode, she grabbed Villanelle’s long hair and firmly pulled it back, back, back until Villanelle’s gaze was level with her own reflection in the mirror that leaned across from the bed.
They hungrily absorbed their own reflections. Eve’s eyes were wild, locked with Villanelle’s scorching gaze. Mouths agape, gasps strong enough to fog the mirror’s glass, half-broken swears and triumphant words spilling from their lips, Eve and Villanelle watched each other die little cascading deaths of rebirth, swirling and tumbling together into heavenly oblivion.
In the shadow of Notre Dame, Villanelle crunched on her second Ring Pop candy of the day.
She tried not to apply the term “mind blowing” to the way Eve had called out her name during sex. Very few things in life were really and truly mind blowing (the closest she’d come to this accuracy was actually strapping a grenade to a target’s head and briskly setting it off). She also tried not to think of the sex itself as being “mind blowing”, but this was proving difficult when she couldn’t stop thinking about it two days later.
Yesterday, she’d taken Eve to the Louvre. Eve had stared at her the whole time like she was the most precious work of art in there. Villanelle’s heart settled on asking her a very, very important question then. But she still needed to figure out how to ask properly. So Villanelle had said something stupid instead, something about feeling like Lady Liberty in Delacroix’s famous revolutionary painting. Eve had laughed and kissed Villanelle right in front of the statue of Psyche being revived by Cupid’s kiss.
Today, Villanelle pretended to be a nun so that she could get close to the Archbishop of Notre Dame, who was also a Keeper that spent a whole lot of time on his iPhone using Twitter and fidgeting with his silver USB. Villanelle’s black habit and veil were rented from one of the sex shops in Montmartre, which explained the habit’s shorter length, the exaggerated white cross emblazoned across her cleavage, and the fact that the sash keeping the costume together was made of fine silk instead of a more humble material. Nevertheless, Villanelle was certain that the long and burly rosary hanging around her neck would be useful once she found the Keeper.
Villanelle hummed and chewed the candy all the way down to its coral-coloured plastic ring, cracked the cherry-flavoured shards in her mouth, and gleefully swallowed their shattered remains. She took out the other Ring Pop from the pocket of her habit, compared its blue plastic ring to her own, then carefully returned them both.
Eve had refused the candy in favour of lighting another cigarette. She tucked the lighter away in the pocket of her cardigan, sucked a delighted drag, and blew a thick cloud of smoke at Villanelle.
“I can’t believe you went to morning and afternoon mass wearing that,” Eve remarked.
“Shhh.” Villanelle swatted the smoke away, clasped her hands together, and closed her eyes. “Do not interrupt me, Eve.”
“I am praying.”
“Oh so I’m distracting you from your job, am I?”
“Maybe.” Villanelle opened one eye. “One more USB and we will be halfway done with Carolyn’s operation.”
Eve nodded and flicked some ashes away. “And after?”
“We’ll have the rest of our lives to figure it all out, Eve. I hope it’s going to be for the rest of our lives.”
Notre Dame’s bell tolled six times to herald the fall of dusk. The Seine river shimmered and reflected the grey sky, the trees that lined the banks, the sleek cruise ships that split its waters, the traffic and the clusters of people that crossed the elegant bridges. Villanelle had jogged alongside the Seine countless times and it never failed to bring her a feeling that she could identify most closely with peace.
Eve was very much like the Seine: unrushed, gently flowing, reflective, at times stormy and polluted by doubt, but always astonishing in her depth and cunning with her ability to curve around or cascade past obstacles. Villanelle stole a quick glance at her and then stood up warily.
“I will go find this Archbishop before he begins evening mass. Watch my back?”
A hush fell over Eve and Villanelle as soon as they entered the grand cathedral. The ceiling was shrouded in shadow, its oak rib vaults intersecting to brace the entire stone structure. Pools of candle light flanked both sides of the transept, while weak light filtered through the stained glass windows and waltzed across the checkered, polished floor. Rows of pews faced the golden cross at the very back of the massive room. Villanelle cut through the people milling about, some standing and others sitting. A pair of nuns caught sight of her and promptly crossed themselves.
Eve seemed awed by the cathedral’s ominous, severe, and meticulous detail. Villanelle found it overwhelming and far too grandiose; all this work for an unresponsive, inattentive god? All this worship wasted on silence and apathy? She sniffed, being of the opinion that devotion of this sort could have been put to much better use when it was directed at real flesh and blood. Her pulse beat harder in her head and in her throat at the thought of being a sort of altar that Eve could fanatically venerate, perhaps by tearing her own heart out and presenting it as a sacred offering for Villanelle to calmly, gladly accept.
The concept of Eve sacrificing time just so that she could spend it with her pleased Villanelle. She imagined Eve slashing apart hours into minutes, crushing those minutes into seconds, scattering them like jewels for Villanelle to wear as a precious necklace, until time itself bent to their will. Indeed, time seemed suspended inside Notre Dame and it was perhaps the only thing that Villanelle appreciated about it.
As for history, Villanelle did not need to look beyond herself. It all began and ended with her; she was like the snake the devoured itself endlessly, and there was no room for anyone else to interrupt that cycle. Except that...there was Eve, looking up in awe; there was Eve, delicately dragging her wicked hands along the ancient wood of one of the pews; there was Eve, so very far away from the garden of Eden, wandering just a little ahead of the slithering Villanelle. She wondered what it would feel like for Eve to slice her veins open in an ardent display of devotion for Villanelle, to let them bleed into Notre Dame’s revered golden chalice just so Villanelle could quench her endless thirst.
Regrettably, she could not know this. Even more regrettably, the Archbishop was not in the nave, nor was he brooding by the two towers that soared upwards on opposite sides of the gigantic rose window. With a sigh, Villanelle ascended the spiraling stone staircase that brought her to the Archbishop's quarters. She motioned for Eve to keep watch by the door and opened it without bothering to knock.
Startled, the Archbishop looked up from his iPhone’s screen. His sallow face arranged itself into an expression of mild interest and his thin lips twisted into a cruel, simpering smile.
“Oksana. I was told to expect you.”
“How many followers do you have since the last time you checked Twitter a second ago?”
“I do not have followers. Not really.” The Archbishop set his iPhone down beside an impressively bound Bible. “I am a follower. I spread the word of Christ in anyway I can. For I follow Christ and I will be saved.” He wagged a wrinkly finger at Villanelle. “For you, I am not so sure.”
“Funny.” Villanelle eyed the letter opener conveniently within her reach. “I think you are being very narcissistic with all your social media and are in fact a huge let down to your role model. You should always practice what you preach, you know?”
“Are you here to kill me, Oksana?”
“No, that is not why I am here.” Villanelle’s lie was quick, her mind reshuffling the situation as a new idea began to take shape. “Actually, I came all this way for a confession.”
“I am serious.” Villanelle made her eyes grow wide and moist, forced a strained warble into her voice. “I have done bad things to good people. I have done bad things for a good reason.”
“Your soul is bent against itself,” the Archbishop said. “You will go to Hell, as all demons do.”
“How do you know that? Do you have a direct hotline to God or something?”
“You are doomed.”
Villanelle snorted. “I’ve heard that before. Is there no hope for me to be redeemed at all?”
“Not that I know of.”
Villanelle removed her rosary. She extended it to the Archbishop. When he reached for it, Villanelle looped it around his neck blindingly fast. She tugged, pulled, stretched the beads until they dug into his neck. His skin reddened, then turned plum purple. He thrashed and gagged. Eventually, he stilled and slumped in his wooden chair. Villanelle rummaged around his vestments and claimed her silver prize. She also snatched the letter opener as a souvenir.
Eve was leaning against the wall, pretending not to have listened in on the conversation. She was cute when she was flustered and innocent-like and focused, thought Villanelle. Instead of going back downstairs, Villanelle led Eve higher and higher on the pretense that she needed to regain composure after the kill. They climbed the staircase past the timber vaulted ceilings that were below creaking walkways and ended up in the attic with its wooden framing. A single, smaller rose window offered them a view of Notre Dame’s lead protected roof and the towering oak spire.
It was quiet here and it smelled calm. Villanelle’s breath caught in her throat as she watched Eve peer out the window. Villanelle felt as though they were balancing on the precipice of something, as though the only edges of her memory were those of her body defining itself against Eve’s, because the rest hurt too much to keep, for reasons they did not know how to know yet.
Villanelle glanced down at the plastic ring resting on her finger and solemnly wondered if she was brave enough to hunt for what she wanted. Then Eve looked over at her, eyes deep and dark and wholly accepting. Villanelle reached inside her habit and went down on one knee to proffer this plastic ring.
Remarkably, Eve wore an unreadable expression. She was motionless until she made some half-hearted attempt to reach for another cigarette but thought better of it and went back to being absolutely still.
“I...I-I’m already married.”
“Your husband left you.”
“I wouldn’t be a very good wife.”
“You’d get bored.”
Villanelle kept her voice and her hands steady. She could wait Eve out, outlast all the weak excuses she might possibly offer. It seemed as if Eve did not even believe them herself, judging by the tremor in her voice. Maybe it was just from the height of the attic, but Villanelle noticed a distinct lack of oxygen the longer that Eve remained silent. Instead of answering, Eve took the plastic ring from Villanelle with shaking hands and slowly slipped it onto her ring finger.
Its wide, plastic brim covered Eve’s faded wedding band. Villanelle kissed the back of Eve’s hand tenderly. Immediately, that hand found its way into Villanelle’s hair and seemingly moved fervently of its own accord. Villanelle reached over to touch Eve, to find that boundary that made her body undeniably real and made the experience that occupied it real, in the only way Villanelle could understand.
Eve helped her stand. She welcomed the curve of Villanelle’s face like hunger. They kissed with a craving that burned the back of Villanelle’s throat. So fierce was Villanelle’s elation that she got out the letter opener and decisively sliced a thin, shallow cut across her palm. She did the same to Eve’s palm, ignoring her string of mixed-language expletives. Then Villanelle pressed their palms together hard and intertwined their fingers until blood dipped to the wooden floor.
“Eve, I am sorry that I cannot give you a real ring now. I know it is not perfect-”
“No, it totally is,” whispered Eve.
“-but when this is all over, I promise I will get you a proper ring and we won’t have to be afraid of anything anymore, because everything will be right again. We will make it right. Together.”
Villanelle grinned. “I do not have many words for you, Eve. I have never done this before, so I am worried to disappoint you. I think you know more about making wedding vows than I do. But without fanciness, I want to vow that I will protect and care for you, just as I do for myself. I promise to be here for you through all times, even if you are sick from not drying your hair properly or you are grumpy because you haven't had your morning coffee yet. I promise to be here for you to make you happy, because then you will make me happier. I promise to appreciate you and to think about your feelings sometimes, although I will think about you always because you have not left my mind ever since you got here. Most of all, I promise to be yours forever, just as you are mine, until death do us part.”
Eve’s eyes brimmed with tears. Villanelle’s first instinct was terror and revulsion, but Eve smiled and it instantly unclenched her heart.
“Villanelle, there is nothing in this world that I wouldn’t do for you. Although you really can be such an asshole sometimes...but that’s the point: I promise to protect you, even if it’s from yourself. I promise to stand by your side, always. I promise to always tell you what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling. I promise to make you feel cared for, to make you feel adored, to make you feel real, and to make you feel mine. Because yeah, I am yours. Forever. I would kill and die for you, Villanelle.”
It was almost perfect, Villanelle thought. Maybe even too perfect. But whatever shadow passed over her heart was quickly chased away by Eve’s ardent kiss. With their lips fused, Villanelle reached inside the pocket of Eve’s cardigan and removed the lighter.
“Consider this my wedding gift to you,” murmured Villanelle, and touched the lighter’s flame to the bone-dry wood of the support beams and arches.
The attic soon filled with thick smoke. By the time Eve and Villanelle reached the ground floor, its unmistakable smell pervaded the entire transept. The stone vaulted ceiling would char, as would the statues, gargoyles, and chimeras who perched on the stone walls of Notre Dame, before the alarm sounded for the fire brigade. By the time Eve and Villanelle pushed through crowds of people gathering on the bridges and along the avenue, the timber trusses were burned all the way through, and the lead protecting Notre Dame’s roof was made molten by the merciless heat of the great flame that crested much higher above the central rose window.
From the safety of the apartment balcony, Eve and Villanelle watched the inferno rise between the two main towers. The wrathful and disordered flames were fed by wind. They roared into whirlwinds that devoured Notre Dame’s entire roof. Eating away at centuries, the ravaging fire birthed a vast curtain of dark grey smoke that billowed across the sky and blurred Paris’ skyline. Angry red and orange bursting flames pierced the accumulated gloom from the smoke, which spread wider and wider until it seemed to block out the pale gold sky itself.
Sirens wailed. People screamed. Birds fled. The air shook with fury. Notre Dame’s spire groaned agonizingly and crumbled in a thunderous column of smoke and sparks.
Eve and Villanelle kissed in the language of ashes, their future looming without promise and formless like smoke. Wisps of it curled through the thick, hazy air as if excited to be carried across Paris so swiftly. Villanelle tasted and smelled how acrid it was, but somehow, with Eve in her arms, the distant flames and the pall of smoke were the destined backdrop against which she conquered Eve.
Villanelle’s bleeding hand streaked across Eve’s hot, naked skin. In turn, Eve left bloody hand prints on Villanelle’s breasts, stomach, and the sides of her face. She licked the crimson trickling down Villanelle’s arm, tracing the pathways of her burning veins with a born hedonist's tongue. Villanelle moaned roughly into Eve’s mouth.
As if fueled by the feral fire, Villanelle half-straddled Eve’s hips and began to grind against her drenched cunt. She held one of Eve’s legs up and kept the other to the side so that she could rub onto Eve. Her faltering cry was cut off by a quick gasp, then a moan that kept ringing in Villanelle’s ears as she pressed her throbbing clit to Eve’s. She dragged her hips through slow, deliberate movements that reduced Eve to a needy, feeble mess. Her face was caught between the tides of pain and rapture, her eyes ablaze with delicious emotion that made Villanelle want to die from the intensity alone.
Eve’s hips bucked when Villanelle’s grinding quickened and she pressed down harder. Villanelle gritted her teeth. Her back and shoulder muscles, as well as her thighs, began to cramp and sear with warning. Panting, soaking, quaking, Villanelle sat down facing Eve and dragged them as close as they could comfortably get without entirely hindering their space to move. They kissed passionately, lost in the inferno between them.
Villanelle opened her eyes to take in Eve’s stunned expression when Villanelle rubbed insistently between her thighs and commanded Eve to mirror her. Villanelle welcomed Eve’s raw, rough fingers inside even as she slipped her own into Eve. Their gasps and moans mingled between searing strokes. Villanelle gave herself over to Eve’s touch, basked in her ecstasy, and felt her own euphoria unfurling as high as the clouds of smoke while Norte Dame, blackened and wounded, went up in flames.
Chapter 9: Remember Me?
The grainy drawn gathered in the form of a misted expanse of light breaking over the rooftops. Eve stretched and turned over to the right side of the bed. Her breath caught in her throat when she opened her eyes. She didn’t mean to scrutinize Villanelle’s sleeping form quite so closely, but she just couldn’t help it.
Villanelle rested on her back. Her long hair cascaded in sheaves of gold against the white pillow. Her soft face was painted in a vague ridge of shadows and dawn blush. Eve had never seen her look so peaceful, so utterly unguarded. It was a moment of pure honesty.
Eve’s heart thudded loudly in a rhythm of awe. She listened to a river, a symphony of Villanelle’s steady breathing. She truly looked like an angel dropped right from heaven into bed beside Eve. With a smile, Eve locked this perfect memory in her mind and heart.
A soreness flared between her legs as she shifted beneath the thin covers. Her sliced palm still stung, although the pain was milder now that it had been treated with gauze. Eve peered underneath it, flexed her fingers. She was bewitched by the thin, leaking line that cut across the expanse of warm skin, spellbound by the flaring tissue that rippled just below the shallow surface. She could think of no better symbol of her union to Villanelle.
The coppery scent of the slit was lost to the heavy stench of smoke that pervaded the apartment. Not even the opened windows were enough to air out the space; if the sky wasn’t ashen, the sun would have been spilling past Villanelle’s hips and slanting right across her face. A breeze lifted the curtains. Eve watched them being flung forward, as though they were reaching for something important, something unrecoverable.
As the curtain lifted again, Eve squinted in the direction of the closest sloping grey rooftop. Something flashed. Eve rubbed her eyes, thinking that the veil of sleep still clouded her vision. But no, there was definitely a flash there. Some sort of glint of light, discernable thanks to the manageable distance between the window and the rooftop.
Scowling, Eve glanced over at Villanelle. Her face was still serene with repose, the rise and fall of her chest nothing but tranquil. Eve looked at the window again, saw the curtains hovering again, concentrated on identifying that damn glint again. She whipped her head back to Villanelle’s face, caught a small, red dot sliding onto her cheek-
Eve lunged forward, taking the sheets and covers and Villanelle over the edge of the bed as a bullet whizzed past their heads and buried itself in the mattress.
Villanelle flailed, shouted, clawed at the sheets to disentangle herself. But Eve kept her head pinned down.
“Eve! What the fuck is going on?”
“‘Thank you for saving my life, Eve,’” panted Eve. “‘Oh don’t mention it Villanelle, I dodge snipers all the time-’”
Villanelle’s elbow jabbed Eve in the ribs as she flattened herself to the floor. Eve adopted the same position. They lay there, naked on the dusty wooden boards, straining to hear anything, anything at all besides tense silence. Blindly, Eve’s hand darted up to where the bullet was lodged in the mattress. She frantically felt for its hard, hot casing, and yelped victoriously as her fingers clenched around it.
Eve’s eyes darted around the room. Both windows offered the sniper deadly lines of sight. The kitchenette stretched too far away from their huddled position by the bed. And that left only the door which led to the front hallway, but that door was directly across from the other window.
“Do you have a plan Kill Commander?”
“Uh, yes. It’s called Don’t Die.”
“Okay. Do you maybe have a Plan B?”
“Don’t Die Badly?”
Villanelle squirmed her haunches apart from Eve’s. She raised herself onto her elbows and peered a bit past the end of the bed.
“Grab my pillow, Eve.”
She obeyed. Villanelle’s soft scent lingered on it.
Villanelle held the pillow at one corner. Eve witnessed her body transform. Her spine elongated. The line of her became sleeker, sharper, like a switchblade sprung free. Eve felt herself vibrate with the same energy, contaminated and animated.
“Be ready, Eve. I am going to close this window, and you are going to run downstairs. Okay?”
“I’m not going anywhere without you.”
“I’ll be right behind you. But do not be stupid and wait. Just run."
With her heart lodged in her throat, Eve watched Villanelle suddenly dangle the pillow past the bedside. Another bullet ripped through it. In the time it took the sniper to reload, Villanelle scrambled to the window and slammed its shutters closed.
Eve sprang to her feet and retreated into the hallway. On her way out the door, she grabbed the Chanel bags and took the stairs two at a time. A few moments later, Villanelle joined her. They dressed themselves in the foyer of the apartment building. Eve’s ensemble was a silk, champagne-coloured blouse that had a neck tie, and she hastily pulled on a pair of soft suede, high-rise pants. Villanelle chose a black chiffon jumpsuit that still retained a flamboyant touch thanks to its ruffles that artfully draped off the right shoulder.
“Did you see who it was?” asked Eve.
“Someone short. Shorter than you, even.”
“You didn’t see a face?”
Villanelle shook her head. “They had a veil on.”
“Great.” Eve squinted out the front window. “Where will we go now?”
Villanelle tied her hair up while she thought.
“Konstantin has a safehouse here in Paris.”
“You want to stay in Paris?”
“Um, yeah. It is the perfect place for our honeymoon. We can’t let little things like this interrupt our fun, Eve.”
“We can’t just walk around the streets either. We’ll get shot as soon as we set foot outside.”
“Then we will take the metro. There is a station near here.”
Villanelle smuggled them out the side entrance that her old landlady had used to accept grocery deliveries and mail. The graffiti covered and garbage strewn alleyway provided them a brief reprieve from the rooftop where the sniper was. Eve still kept glancing behind and above them as they tore down the stretch of avenues that led to Montmarte’s art nouveau inspired metro station.
Its green stairs descended Eve and Villanelle into the bowels of the earth, where the temperature was instantly cooler. The recycled air seemed to wrap itself around Eve’s throat and squeeze unscrupulously as she paced the platform. Bright tube lights bathed the tunnel in a pleasant glow. Watercolour murals of poppies, the French countryside, and the Eiffel Tower covered the walls. Eve caught her own distorted reflection as she glanced up at the tunnel’s concave metal roof.
With a pneumatic sigh, the blue and white train expelled its slightly disoriented passengers. Eve followed Villanelle into a mostly empty carriage. Many of the plush seats were folded up and the half-dozen passengers that occupied it were absorbed with their digital devices or napping against the windows.
Villanelle sat down and arranged her face into an expression of composure. Eve lowered the Chanel bags beside her and plunked her trusty handbag into her lap. The train doors closed. A quirky jingle was followed by an announcement delivered by a supremely bored voice.
“Paris is still having transportation strikes,” translated Villanelle. “Metro, buses, taxis, planes.” She tapped her finger against Eve’s handbag. “You should replace this with something that actually suits you.”
Eve reached into one of the Chanel bags. Her plastic ring caught on the zipper of the first item she grasped: a blue tweed, metallic embossed clutch with a liquid silver chain. It evoked an evening best spent sipping refreshing martinis while gazing down at the twinkling city lights from the top floor of a disastrously fancy penthouse.
Her second attempt produced a black and gold, python skin handbag which had enough space to accommodate transferring the iPad, the two burner phones, and the rest of Eve’s amenities. Eventually, she discarded her old handbag on the seat as she exited the train in Villanelle’s wake.
Konstantin’s safehouse was located in Paris’ sixteenth arrondissement. The buildings there were mostly stately apartments with off-white, smooth facades and chic shops occupying the floors at street level. Some swirly wrought iron balconies had baskets of flowers hanging off them. Thick curtains of apartments higher up concealed the elegant, exclusive world within. Eve noticed that many foreign embassies were situated around the neighbourhood.
A long line of cars was parked in front of Konstantin’s building. Eve and Villanelle skirted around flower pots and vases as they approached the glass door. Villanelle keyed in the entrance code (probably something that added up to the sum of twelve), Eve nervously clutched her new handbag, and they silently looked at each other as the elevator whisked them to the uppermost floors.
They entered the safehouse. Eve hung her handbag by the door and was immediately struck by the fact that the term “safehouse” was surely ironic. Konstantin was apparently a man of grand, modern taste, judging by the size of the place and its decadent furnishings. The grey pull out couch had rich, dark rosewood armrests that matched the main table, several voodoo masks lined the hallway leading to the bedroom, and the kitchen’s white marble countertops dared the chef not to spill a single drop on them.
Villanelle immediately checked the fridge. Eve peered over her shoulder and chuckled.
“There’s lots of good stuff in there.”
“Of course. Konstantin is fat so he must eat well.”
Villanelle shoved some bottles of vodka aside. Eve plugged in the iPad to charge and placed one of the burner phones beside it.
“I’m going to go shower,” she announced.
“You are not hungry?” Villanelle glanced up from the knife she’d taken from its maple holder, thoughtfully running her forefinger along the flat of the blade.
“Not really. Danger doesn’t agree with my appetite, apparently.”
Villanelle lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Then you’d better go quickly to shower, because I hear that the kitchen is the most dangerous place in a domestic arrangement.”
Eve laughed all the way to the bathroom. In the shower, she found herself reflecting on how nice this domestic arrangement with Villanelle was. They’d actually built a familiarity between them, a tacit comfort that allowed them to peak into each other’s personal space. As Eve shampooed her hair, she grinned at the thought that now she knew exactly what Villanelle had for breakfast. And Villanelle now knew exactly which clothes fit Eve like a second skin, knew how Eve liked her coffee and when she preferred tea instead, knew that she never minded when Villanelle dozed on her shoulder.
The soap thudded between Eve’s feet at the sound of the bathroom door opening. She squealed when Villanelle suddenly shoved the curtains aside and stepped into the shower. Her soaked hair darkened, her smooth skin shone, her face glowed as the water sprinkled over it, and her body splashed against Eve’s as she put her arms around Eve’s neck to give her a kiss dripping with piety.
Eve clutched the back of Villanelle’s head and kissed her even harder. The travertine shower walls echoed with their heavy breathing, then seemed to quake with the force of Villanelle’s moans when Eve dipped her head and laved Villanelle’s nipples with her tongue.
“Fuck, oh fuck Eve-” Villanelle exclaimed throatily. She fisted her hands in Eve’s hair when Eve slipped two fingers inside her drenched cunt. “I will remember that danger just enhances your sex drive.”
Water drizzled all over their bodies. It clung to their every curve and the swell of their breasts, as well as each strand of hair sticking to their gleaming skin. Eve lay her forehead at the crook of Villanelle’s shoulder as she thrust her fingers between Eve’s legs, probing, teasingly rubbing, stretching, filling. Eve felt dizzy from the heat of the steamy water, Villanelle’s torrid proximity, and the heady rush of victory that came from the fact that they were both still alive.
As Eve anointed Villanelle’s chest, stomach, and back with coconut scented body wash, she drank in Villanelle’s affectionate expression. Drops sprayed around them. Villanelle teased Eve’s hair into a shampooey mohawk and they both dissolved into giggles. When Eve almost slipped on the soap, Villanelle steadied her.
“Careful. Dying in the shower would be so anti-climatic, don’t you think?”
Eve smiled into the kiss. She kept her eyes open for long enough to catch Villanelle’s eyes flicker closed and to see her expression melt into exquisite, aching abandon, before Eve relented with a deep sigh. The press of their sloppy, hot, wet mouths rippled right down to Eve’s core. She took Villanelle’s hands and pressed them against the wall; she took Villanelle’s bottom lip between her teeth and tugged it until Villanelle keened; she took the pulsing breaths that raced under the surface of the sensitive skin of Villanelle’s throat; she took the force of Villanelle’s grinding hips and adjusted her own to be flush against Villanelle’s; she took Villanelle’s rain of kisses, over and over, tenacious and delicious and spellbinding; and when Villanelle cupped Eve’s chin to bathe her in a breathtakingly intense gaze, to drown Eve in emotion, Eve took that too.
After they’d showered, Villanelle switched on the television. Notre Dame’s burning was all anyone talked about. In between mouthfuls of eggs benedict, Eve watch the repeated footage of the roaring fire. She recalled exactly how deep Villanelle’s fingers had been buried while Notre Dame’s rose windows shattered; she remembered how, with a shaky whisper, Villanelle had begged to feel Eve’s slow, possessive strokes between her trembling thighs; and she reminisced about the creativity and precision of Villanelle’s licking and lapping tongue.
Eve had slung her arm comfortably around Villanelle’s shoulders. She shifted now, flipped through channels that scattered images of smokey, crumbling buttresses and beams, columns of embers, blackened marble tiles, and crowds of distressed, devastated people.
“Yeah, yeah, it is all very tragic and super horrible, all that history and culture lost, blah blah blah.” Villanelle muted the television. “You want to watch a movie?”
“Sure, why not.”
It took some time for Eve to work up to it, but she begrudgingly picked both volumes of Kill Bill to start with. Villanelle clapped her hands every time the blonde assassin exacted her revenge, no doubt delighted that she was seeing her own archetype play out on screen. Then Villanelle insisted that they kept on watching movies, so Eve decided on The Professional and Natural Born Killers Next. She studied Villanelle carefully, noted her salaciousness and euphoria at the violence playing out on screen. The depraved shine in her eyes as she soaked in the blood and brutality quickened Eve’s heart. She was half out of her seat during certain scenes, hardly containing her snickers and excited commentary, pulling Eve deeper into her reckless release.
Unexpectedly, Villanelle insisted on holding Eve’s hand during the entirety of Thelma and Louise. The movie seemed to sedate Villanelle slightly. She nodded along as if she perfectly understood the predicament of viciously road tripping out of a failed marriage and refrained from her usual caustic remarks. Eve let Villanelle conclude their movie marathon by choosing Ratatouille. And it was this one that swept Eve away into an ocean of tenderness: Villanelle rested her head on Eve’s shoulder as her fingers instinctively twined around Eve’s curls, while Eve found herself gently stroking Villanelle’s head and sighing contentedly as they watched the adorable animated rat aspiring to be a chef.
Paris glowed in cherry, joyful colours on the television. Awash with rustic gradients and a palette of hopefulness and acceptance, the film seemed to inspire Villanelle. She leapt off the couch as soon as the credits rolled. Plates clattered in the kitchen. Utensils and ingredients scattered across the entire surface of the counter. Villanelle chopped potatoes and onions, stirred sauce and ground beef, and pre-heated the oven until Konstantin’s entire place was toasty.
In the meantime, Eve decided to concentrate on researching the sniper bullet she’d recovered and to catch up on the final part of her coding course. She was just finishing up when Villanelle announced that the meal was ready.
“This is the same type of bullet that was used in the Stockholm shootings,” said Eve. She placed it delicately beside the iPad and the burner phone. The bullet gleamed in the late afternoon sunlight and she eyed it warily. “Which confirms that we’re dealing with the same sniper.”
“Okay. You are working too hard.” Villanelle rubbed Eve’s shoulders. “Let’s eat.”
Eve set the table and eagerly anticipated the dish Villanelle set down. Until she uncovered it.
“I know you like Shepherd’s pie, so I made it for you!” glowed Villanelle.
“Oh! Wow. Um, thank you.” Eve prodded the potato crust disparagingly with her fork. Villanelle scooped large spoonfuls of pie onto her plate and dug in, elbows splayed wide on the table.
“Not to take away from your hard work or anything,” said Eve. She faltered. Rubbed the side of her nose. “I mean, I appreciate this a lot. I really do. But. Well. I don’t actually like Shepherd’s pie,” she finished with a chuckle.
Villanelle swallowed a particularly large mouthful. “Yes, you do. You like Shepherd’s pie.”
“No, no, no. I really don’t.” Eve ran a hand through her hair. “Niko made it all the damn time and I just got sick of eating it often. So no, I don’t like Shepherd’s pie. But thank you for being thoughtful, Villanelle.”
“How do you know you don’t like it if you haven’t tried mine?” asked Villanelle softly. “Try it, Eve.”
“No, thank you.”
“Just try it.”
Villanelle slammed a spoonful of Shepherd’s pie onto Eve’s plate and smiled thinly. “You will try my pie even if I have to feed it to you myself.”
Sulking, Eve gripped her fork and stabbed the tiniest bit of Shepherd’s pie she could manage. As she put it into her mouth, she felt the familiar tang of Worcestershire sauce on her tongue.
“How did you learn to make Shepherd's pie like this?”
Villanelle kept her eyes fixed on her plate. “I asked Niko.”
“Was this at Oxford?”
Villanelle still hadn’t looked at her. Eve swallowed hard. A void opened up in her chest and howled through her.
“Villanelle,” asked Eve, her voice barely above a shaky whisper, “is Niko safe?”
“Of course he is safe, do not be ridiculous-”
“Is he safe?” Eve’s voice cracked.
“Yes, Eve. Niko is safe.”
Images of the police officer in Lille flashed through Eve’s mind. That horrible gaping wound, his terrifying scream, all that blood and disaster and sickness-
Eve’s fork clattered against her plate. “I don’t believe you.”
“You’re hiding something.”
Now Villanelle’s head snapped up and she looked at Eve with distant, glazed eyes.
“Why do you suddenly care so much about Niko?”
“I'm not officially divorced yet. Why are you keeping secrets from me?”
“To have your own secrets is healthy,” snapped Villanelle. “I am allowed my own privacy.”
“Bullshit. You know Niko’s Shepherd's pie recipe. He never gives that out to anyone. Hell, he only told me about it on our sixth wedding anniversary-”
Eve faltered. Her eyes grew watery as she gazed at her plastic ring.
“What did you do to Niko, Villanelle?”
“What did you do?” Eve’s voice escalated to a strained about. “Did you torture him for the recipe?”
“Or maybe you castrated him, is that it?”
“Stop it,” Villanelle hissed.
“Obviously you did something that you don’t want me to know. Something bad.”
“You are being a fool to your emotions, Eve. There is nothing bad going on.”
“If there’s nothing bad going on, then why are you hiding things from me? What can’t I find out?” Eve held her head in her hands. “Oh god. Oh Jesus...I am so stupid. Fuck.”
“Right now? Yes, Eve, you are being enormously stupid-”
Eve moved to stand up but Villanelle grasped her forearm. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going home.”
“I’ve got to go home.”
“Eve, you can’t go home.”
Eve wrenched her arm free. “Yes I can.”
She pushed past the dining table and grabbed her handbag so quickly that she knocked the coat hanger over.
“Eve wait, we need to talk!”
Villanelle’s desperate, fractured voice ricocheted around in Eve’s head as she rushed out and slammed the door behind her.
For the second time in the same month, Carolyn found herself waiting outside Helen’s office. As far as bosses went, she was usually easy to please and quite willing to let Carolyn manage herself; it was precisely why Carolyn tolerated getting out of bed every morning and taking the smelly tube to the MI6 headquarters, which also involved the considerable sacrifice of skipping out on fresh muffins and a spot of her favourite tea. God save the Queen, and all that.
Carolyn sat with her one leg serenely crossed on top of her other knee and with her hands clasped primly in her lap. The magazines on the glass table before her were as boring as ever; she had no intention of being anything less than alert during the meeting. Carolyn glanced over at the cylinder of crisps that she’d bought to placate Helen and mildly contemplated having a few herself. Then she was invited into Helen’s office.
The wooden strips of its walls, its overstuffed book shelves, the cluttered desk, and the leafy plant greeted Carolyn. Helen wasn’t sitting in her usual white leather armchair. Instead, she was hiding behind the open office door and threw it shut behind Carolyn with a resounding bang.
“Ah. Helen.” Carolyn turned slowly and proffered the crisps. “Would you care for some crisps?”
Helen seized the container from her. She brandished it like a weapon. “I am this close, this fucking close Carolyn, to sacking you!”
“Helen, please. I am right across from you. There is no need to scream at me, I can hear you perfectly well-”
“I’m shutting down Operation Silver Vanguard!”
“Be reasonable.” Carolyn sniffed. “Please, be reasonable. Operation Silver Vanguard has in fact had many tremendous successes.”
Helen stuffed lots of crisps into her mouth. “Remind me while I put together your severance package.”
“Certainly.” Carolyn calmly ticked her fingers off one by one. “I have Konstantin in my pocket. Aaron Peel has been dealt with. We have acquired Pharaday UK. Things are progressing swimmingly with the most intricate intelligence gathering operation we’ve put together in the past decade. And oh yes, agent Eve Polastri is still alive. Which by all measures is a miracle in and of itself.”
Helen peered at Carolyn over the rim of her wire frame glasses. “What about The Twelve?”
“Right. It’s quite simple Helen, really. The more intelligence that we have, the more we’ll be able to know.”
“I want them found, Carolyn.”
With a sigh, Helen brushed the crumbs off her slacks and wiped her hands on her dangling scarf. “You’ve made too many mistakes lately, Carolyn.”
“To which mistakes are you referring?” she asked icily.
“Why don’t we start with the two fuck ups you have gallivanting across Europe!”
“Eve and Villanelle are highly trained professionals, Helen.”
“Fuck ups!” Helen accentuated her shriek by slamming her fist on the desk. Crumbs flew from her mouth. “They’ll destroy every single cathedral and monument and castle in Europe at the rate they’re going!”
“Why is it that every time something bad happens you must assume it’s them?”
“I swear to Christ, any more of that out of you and I will sack you, honestly Carolyn I will- ”
“I understand.” Carolyn suppressed a yawn. It was time to hurry this little comedy of errors along. “What do you want me to do?”
Helen suddenly seemed spent, as if she was a wind up doll that had no one left to rewind her. “Tell me that everything’s going according to plan.”
“Oh, it is.”
“Helen, everything is going according to plan.”
She nodded. “Very well, Carolyn. Do you know where they are now?”
“Eve attempted to use her passport in Charles de Gaulle airport approximately two hours ago. Apparently, her purchase for a plane ticket to London was declined, so I assume she is using alternative means of transportation.”
“She’s coming here? ” Helen’s eyebrows shot up. “By herself? Is there some way we can retroactively fail her on her MI6 psych eval?”
“I’ll look into it for you,” answered Carolyn dryly. “In the interim, may I debrief Eve personally? I may at least remind her of the delicate nature of the mission and make sure she stays on the right track.”
“Fine. But Carolyn?”
She paused by the door, looked over her shoulder. “Hm?”
“Given that she’s currently a wanted woman throughout Europe, I want this done quietly.”
“I know just the right man for the job,” responded Carolyn, with a fond smile.
What was supposed to be a forty minute flight to London turned out to be nearly a four hour ordeal in total. The transport strikes in Paris forced Eve to spend most of that time waiting in the oversaturated airport, only for the two-way plane ticket she’d bought fair and square to be declined. Then she discovered that she’d left the iPad in Konstantin’s safehouse, that she hadn’t nearly as much cash in her money clip as she’d assumed, and that her favourite shade of lipstick hadn’t survived the transition from her old handbag to the new one.
At least she had the burner phone. She’d held it like a scalding brick between her hands while she waited in the queue to board the train that would take her to London. With that overpriced, last-minute ticket went the last of her meager funds. She’d contemplated calling Villanelle then, but the heavy dread in her stomach ruled that option out. Eve knew she was in bad shape when she’d started talking to herself on the train and her responses came back to her in a decidedly Russian accent.
Why didn’t you buy a one way ticket, Eve?
Because l’ll be right back. Obviously.
I do not know that. It didn’t seem that way to me.
What did it seem like?
Like you...abandoned me.
Well I’m coming back. Okay? I am.
Whatever you say, Kill Commander.
Eve had a brief moment of respite as the stewardess offered her water, then the conversation promptly resumed:
Do you miss me?
Eve rubbed the plastic ring. Yes.
Then why are you going to Niko?
Because why, Eve? You do not trust me?
I do! It’s just that...I don’t like secrets.
So this is not about Niko at all. This is about you needing to be a know-it-all at all times. Being too curious for your own good. Wanting to know...everything.
It is not!
It sure is.
Even Eve’s imagination got the spark in Villanelle’s eyes right and the amused, slightly mocking lilt of her tone.
You can’t stand secrets because you can’t stand not having all the cards ready to play. And I used to think I was the control freak…
You know Eve, you still haven’t told me why you chose Niko over me.
That’s because I didn’t choose him over you!
I didn’t. I didn’t. I’m just...I’m tying up loose ends okay? That’s all. You and I are like a semi-colon, we can always keep going. But Niko is a god damn question mark. That’s why I-I have to know he’s alright, so I can just move on with you and actually enjoy the rest of my life with you, be focused on nobody else but you. I know you can understand that in your head and your heart both, Villanelle. I know you can.
You’d better hope so, Eve. I really hope you understand the reality of the situation.
It was not that she didn’t grasp reality, Eve told herself much later as she exited the train on wobbly legs. It was just that reality usually meant nothing at all in the face of her emotions. Like the dread that continued to steadily gnaw away at her; Eve dropped by Gemma’s house first, but all the windows were darkened and not even Eve’s furious pounding on the front door could get anyone to come open it. Then the dread only increased as Eve approached the townhouse.
The familiar quiet street was lined with sleepy cars. Trees rustled. The smell of cut grass lingered in the cool air. Lamps had just switched on to cut through the murky twilight. A flash of memory twisted Eve’s heart: Villanelle pointing out that Eve had left the front door open, Villanelle falling into step beside her, Villanelle sitting beside her in the SUV that had transported them to the Forest of Dean, Villanelle looking like a goddess of death in her glorious mourning regalia that shimmered between the pine trees and shifting sunlight.
Eve lingered right outside the black front door. She gathered up the courage to fish for her keychain in the handbag. Blinded by darkness, she got her shaking fingers to open the door. Eve slowly crossed the threshold of the townhouse and then carefully shut the door. She stood absolutely sill in the front hallway, where Villanelle’s absence lanced through her even more acutely.
The light above the kitchen sink glowed faintly in the otherwise dark, subdued house. Eve crept up to it, feeling like a teenager that had stayed out way past her curfew. The sounds of a wooden chair scraping as it was dragged away from the dining table and a lamp being snapped on made Eve whirl around.
A very much alive Niko stood at the head of the table. He wore a white polo shirt and a pair of what once were blue stonewashed jeans that had achieved a uniform pale from too many washings. His black leather jacket was draped on the back of the chair.
His tousled and uncombed hair framed his stubbled face. The caterpillar-like moustache that stretched just under his thin nose twitched with every rugged line of his terse expression. Eve noticed that Niko had three, almost-faded marks ringed around his left eye.
“What happened to your face?” she asked.
“What happened to your hand?”
Eve flexed her gauzed hand and felt it tingle with the phantom pain of Villanelle’s touch. The plastic ring dug into the side of her thigh as she lowered her hand.
“I had a good time in Paris.”
“Brilliant. You get to be in Paris while I’m under house arrest.”
Eve’s heart slammed against her ribs.
“House arrest? For what?”
Niko barked a stiff, humourless laugh. He poured himself a glass of whiskey from the already emptying bottle on the table and threw his head back to gulp the drink down.
“I’ve been trying to clear my name. After your girlfriend killed Gemma-”
“Gemma’s dead, Eve! She’s dead!” Niko’s eyes were wild, reddened and shimmering with barely suppressed tears. “And I’m the primary suspect honeybunch, which means the police put me under house arrest!”
“Niko that’s-that’s rough.”
He glowered at Eve over the brim of the crystal glass.
“How do you feel about her killing Gemma?”
Cheated, supplied Eve’s mind, in that distinctly Russian accent. A torrent of blistering feelings fought for supremacy in Eve’s heart.
“I-I don’t feel anything.”
“She killed Gemma,” repeated Niko, as though this would change anything, anything at all in Eve’s impassive expression.
“I’m sure she had her reasons.”
“Villanelle is highly intelligent and self-motivated, I’m sure that she had a clear goal in mind when she-”
“I saw you. On the telly. In some airport. With her.”
Panic bubbled up in Eve’s throat. She couldn’t get any words out.
“God Eve, if you’d gone off with another man, I could understand. Even a younger man. I could get that.” Niko dragged his hands down his face. “But a woman? A woman, Eve? And one who’s about half your age? And a murderer, for God’s sake!”
“Thank God we don’t have any kids.”
“Haven’t I been a good husband? Tell me that, Eve. All I’ve ever done for you is love you and take care of you.”
“You suffocated me!” Eve raised her voice. “You couldn’t stand me going off to work, going into danger, doing a job that I love. You wanted to control me and keep me here!”
“I’m sorry you see it that way.”
Eve braced herself against another chair. “Do you know Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?”
“I know I just have a maths degree Eve, you don’t need to shove your criminal psych degree in my face every single fucking chance you get.”
“Maslow arranged all human motivation in a triangle,” Eve pressed on. “In the bottom row are basic needs, like food, water and shelter. The second row is feeling safe, like your comfort zone. And I can’t deny it Niko, you had me set up pretty good for those first two rows.”
“So what more could you possibly want?” he exploded.
“The third row is having meaningful relationships. You know, feeling loved. The fourth row is peer recognition, a cool job, healthy self-esteem.”
“Self-fulfillment,” murmured Eve. “The top row is self-fulfillment, Niko.”
His face twisted into a ghastly expression. He asked without wanting to really know, but his mouth opened and his tongue formed words, and those words somehow pushed past his gritted teeth anyway.
“Does she fulfill you, Eve?”
“Yes,” she answered without hesitation.
Mmm. Of course I do.
“She fulfills me in ways you could never dream of,” added Eve, feeling a velvety shift in her mind, a thrill rushing through her veins. “She fulfills me in ways that you never could.”
“That’s fucked up.”
“No Niko! You know what’s fucked up?” Eve gestured around them and between them. “This! This is fucked up.”
They glared at each other in deafening silence. Niko’s voice was feather light when he finally asked:
“Did you ever love me?”
“I-I thought I did.”
I thought you were safe. But you’re just...boring.”
“Have you always fancied women?”
“I’ve only ever been with men, Niko.”
“So is Villanelle your mid-life crisis then? Just trying on some cunt for a change?”
“I love Villanelle.”
Niko spoke seemingly without entirely meaning to, his words falling out like an avalanche of stones.
“You love me.”
“I love you!”
“No.” Eve’s denial was sharper this time.
“You don’t understand what that is.”
“No.” Eve raised her chin. “You never loved me. Only the idea of me. You don’t really know who I am and you never bothered to find out.”
“Enough, Niko. I’m done.”
“Eve, you chose a psychopath over our marriage.” Niko’s voice cracked. “Your father is probably rolling over in his grave.”
Snarling, Eve hurled the whiskey glass at Niko. He ducked just in time for it to shatter against the wall behind him, bringing down a row of photographs. Niko stormed out of the house and slammed the door so hard that Eve felt the boom reverberate through her skull.
She got another glass and sat with the whiskey bottle. The clock in the hallway ticked away. Eve drank. The amber liquid swirled and swirled at the bottom of the glass. The clock kept ticking away. Eve poured herself more whiskey, and drank and drank. When the warmth thoroughly liquified her, she got the burner phone out of her handbag and fired off two texts to Villanelle. Then she emptied the rest of the bottle into her mouth, slung her handbag over her shoulder, and stumbled out of the house.
With a wheezing chortle, Eve realized that she forgot to close the door again. She shut it firmly. Turned around and saw two police patrol cars parked outside the low gate in front of the townhouse, and an unmarked black van idling on the other side of the street. Her head pounded as an officer trudged up the steps towards her. He sounded fuzzy when he declared:
“Mrs. Polastri, you are under arrest.”
“You are under arrest on suspicion of first degree murder.”
“Murder? Whose murder?”
“Gemma Pearson,” the officer coolly informed her. “Now please, Mrs. Polastri-”
“Eve, just Eve.”
“Eve. Please be informed that you do not have to say anything. But, it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”
She nodded numbly along and didn’t resist when the officer handcuffed her. In the back of the patrol car, Eve’s mind raced as fast as the officer drove.
“I’m an MI6 agent,” she blurted.
The officer didn’t say anything.
“I’m in the middle of a mission. I can’t just be arrested!”
The officer didn’t say anything.
Eve bit her lip. Wondered if she was slurring her words. Closed her eyes in embarrassment as it dawned on her in a whiskey-soaked haze that even if the officer could somehow confirm that she was working for MI6, it wasn’t as if they would claim her. A hysterical little laugh tore itself from her abruptly dry lips.
“I probably sound crazy.”
Eve, you are crazy!
You be quiet. You especially.
“Mrs. Polastri-Eve. I strongly suggest that you remain silent. At least until we reach the station.”
“But-but…” Eve blinked. “I just want to understand what’s going on. Please.”
It was hard to get across to the officer just how weak she was feeling. She had no fight in her at all. The adrenaline made her feel sick and shaky. Being in the throttling police car wasn’t helping matters; her legs were entirely at the mercy of the shifting floor that pitched as the car swerved around corners. The pressure coming from her head down to her chest produced a horrible void. Residues of whiskey seemed to slosh between her ears and Eve was unable to gather any strength at all.
The officer, Eve was sure, realized that he was in complete control of the situation. He continued addressing Eve in a serious, professional manner.
“It’s a difficult situation, I’m afraid. Very complicated.”
‘Why? Just tell me that. Why do I have to be arrested? I didn’t kill anyone! Fuck. My work, my life–I didn’t kill Gemma, you understand?” Eve pressed her face against the bars separating the front of the patrol car from the back “Why is this happening? What is this? I mean-what the fuck?”
The officer sighed and shook his head, as though by saying “fuck” a second time, Eve had condemned herself utterly. Any chance of escape was gone now.
She persistently used abusive and foul language, the officer would note in the evidence report submitted to his superiors. Specifically, she said ‘fuck’ multiple times. Unfortunately, that confirmed it for me: I had no option other than to arrest her and lock her up for the rest of her life.
Eve’s head spun as she was taken out of the police car. The officer hauled her into the station, where she was promptly processed by grim looking officers. They snapped her photographs, took her fingerprints and snatched a head hair root for their DNA sample. The officer in charge of impounding her possessions insisted on recounting them all before he tucked them away into containers, as if Eve was ailing from memory loss.
“One pair of earrings, gold. One black flip phone, Samsung. One Chanel handbag, python, valued at over six thousand dollars. One wedding band, gold, with a sapphire stone.” The officer paused and looked at Eve with his bushy eyebrows raised. “One...Ring Pop plastic ring. Flavour, um. Uh-”
“Blueberry,” Eve offered helpfully.
“Blueberry,” snapped the officer.
He continued droning on. Then Eve was led to an interrogation room and just left to wait. She sat cross-legged in the metal chair. The thin table in front of her had a laminated wood surface that would have made Villanelle turn her nose up at it in disgust. The wall directly across from her was a two way mirror, of course, with its blurry, impassive surface stubbornly refusing to offer her any insight. The lights overhead were low and one fizzed loudly as if it was on the verge of blowing out at any moment. Eve hated the stale, tense smell of interrogation rooms, absolutely hated it.
After a while, the door opened and a portly man with greying hair entered. Eve sat properly and placed her hands flat on the table. The man sauntered up to the table, threw down a manila file folder, and reached into the pocket of his wool vest for a cigar.
“Could you maybe not smoke in here?” asked Eve. “I’m trying to quit.”
The interrogator squinted at her, puffed several rings of smoke, and spoke smoothly.
“Mrs. Polastri, do you know why you’re here?”
“Eve! Just Eve.”
“Well, Eve? Do you?”
“The arresting officer told me that I killed someone.”
“The victim’s name is Gemma.”
“Did you know Gemma?”
“I knew that she was seeing my husband outside of work.”
“Did you think they were having an affair?”
“Yeah.” Eve raked her hands through her hair. “I want to talk to a lawyer.”
“No, now! I’m not answering any more questions.”
“Eve! Just Eve!”
“Are you aware that your husband has been a primary suspect in Gemma’s murder?”
Eve rolled her eyes. “Yeah.”
“Righto.” The interrogator heaved in the last of his cigar. The smoke curled up towards the lights.
“Did you know that your husband has named you the primary suspect now?”
The words shattered through Eve like a falling diamond chandelier. She suddenly needed to be the one asking questions instead of answering them.
“Oh yeah, it’s all in here.” The interrogator tapped the file folder. “He came down to the station about an hour and a half ago.”
Eve’s blood boiled. “I didn’t kill Gemma!”
“Your husband has confessed.”
“There’s none of my DNA at the crime scene!”
“But your husband has confessed.”
The interrogator flipped the file open and read from it as if Eve was taking dictation.
“Apparently Eve, you already have a history of violence. You admitted as early as two months ago that you thought about chopping your husband up into little pieces and flushing him down a restaurant toilet. You slapped and shoved your husband during a heated argument. And this very same month, you admitted to your husband that you stabbed a woman in Paris.”
The interrogator glared at her. Nausea welled up in Eve’s throat. Her hands were freezing, her breaths came short and shallow.
“Your husband detailed how your gruesome line of work followed you home just about every day of the week. How you’d hole up in your office and spend hours upon hours looking at gory pictures, researching killers and their methods, instead of spending time with him.”
“I worked for MI5! I went overtime!”
“Your husband said you were fired. Twice.”
Eve swallowed hard. “I work for MI6 now.”
“Righto.” The interrogator glanced down at the file. “A few weeks ago, you stalked your husband and Gemma to her own home. Which is not far from the storage unit she was renting, by the way.”
He turned the file around so that Eve could see photos of Gemma’s body arranged upright on a horribly ugly, mustard yellow sofa. In the dim light of the storage unit, her face was suffocated by cellophane banners that had FRAGILE stamped on them. She looked like a banshee that had been rudely interrupted in the midst of an ear-splitting scream. Eve inhaled the dramatic presentation and bit back a lopsided grin.
Wow. I think this is your best work yet, Villanelle.
Thank you, Kill Commander.
The interrogator’s voice was coming to Eve from far away.
“Not to mention that you were well aware of your husband’s affair. I can understand your position-”
She laughed mirthlessly. “No, you can’t.”
“-I’ve been cheated on, too. I know how jealousy works as a motive for murder.”
“For the last time, I didn’t kill Gemma.”
“Righto.” The interrogator gathered the file. “You can tell your lawyer that now, you’re due for your one phone call.”
Eve’s first instinct was to call Villanelle. But she would probably never actually let Eve live this down; the familiar dread pooled in her gut at the thought of having to explain everything to an inconsolable assassin. So Eve stabbed in the familiar number at MI6.
Carolyn would fix everything. She had to.
Konstantin’s safehouse looked like a hurricane had devastated it. The table in front of the pull-out couch was flipped. Glass was embedded in the fur rug, along with the scattered remains of popcorn. Decorative pillows were torn open, their casing strewn around the main room. Books littered the bathroom hallway. The voodoo masks lay cracked in the bedroom hallway. Broken bottles of vodka soaked the kitchen floor, while their shards were still stuck in the ripped window curtains.
Several chairs had been smashed to pieces. Their legs were further splintered, along with being hacked apart for good measure. Large holes were punched into the walls. The television remote was rammed into the cracked screen. And Villanelle was standing with a severely bent umbrella in her hand, preparing to strike down the remaining framed paintings from the shelf.
Her cheeks were flushed. Her hair was disheveled. Her breathing was ragged. She felt as untethered and yet strangely heavy as when she’d taken those awful drugs in Amsterdam; the unfiltered aggression and raw, unstoppable energy seemed to course through her veins again. When the memory of Eve’s lips tingled against her own, she brought down the umbrella. When the memory of Eve’s hands on her breasts made her breath hitch, Villanelle swept the umbrella against the fallen paintings again, sending them careening across the room.
And when the memory of Eve’s hungry eyes and her intoxicating scent and her comforting voice and the fucking feel of her, the invigorating, exciting, essential feel of her scorched through Villanelle’s chest, she stabbed the pointed end of the umbrella into the paintings, over and over again, until the pointy end snapped clean off.
Through a red haze, Villanelle gradually became aware that the burner phone beside the charging iPad was buzzing. She hurled the umbrella aside and went to the kitchen counter. Numbly, Villanelle flipped the phone open to see two texts from Eve. The first one made Villanelle’s heart stumble.
Niko’s gone. I’m still at the house.
The next text had flared across the screen about a minute later. It made Villanelle’s veins freeze.
I know what you did to Gemma.
Villanelle gripped the phone until her knuckles popped. Her thoughts flipped back in forth in her mind like a light switch. She paced to set them along some logical track. The glass crunched beneath her black leather ankle boots. Her breathing was harsh to her own ears.
Eve had abandoned her. But...if Eve had abandoned her, then why had she bothered to send those texts? Villanelle scowled at them again. She could not decipher Eve’s mood, or her tone, or her body language, or her gaze, or her hair, through a screen. This arrangement of letters and spaces, devoid of intent and emotion, maddened Villanelle.
She glanced around the room. There was nothing of use left. She glanced down at the phone. It wasn’t the kind of attention she preferred, no. It was too inanimate and left far too much to interpretation. However, it was fresh and it let her lungs expand to gulp more air in, let new blood pump through her veins, let her misty eyes sharpen their focus once more.
Besides, Villanelle thought with a smirk, even if Eve knew what she had done to Gemma, Eve surely still wanted to understand, to dissect the how and the why.
And that (among other things) warranted an explanation in person.
Villanelle threw the burner phone and the iPad into her own gold, diamond encrusted Chanel handbag. She walked out the door without bothering to close it. Soon enough, she managed to purchase a plane ticket, to threaten the seller without actually killing her when she was about to decline Villanelle’s purchase, and to endure a blurry, agonizing flight to London without massacring her fellow passengers and the entire crew.
The depth of the night wrapped itself around Villanelle like a star-stitched shawl. It was that break even hour during which it was too late to go back to the beginning of the night, and yet still too early to think about dawn.
Even blinded and deafened, Villanelle could still find her way down Eve’s street. She felt the synchrony in the back of her head, tripped on it like red razor wire wrapped around her heart. Except for a few cars parked sleepily along the streets, all was quiet and motionless in suspense.
Villanelle was nearing the front door when an unmarked black van flashed its headlights at her. She threw up a hand to shield herself from the full force of the glare. The lights flashed again. Squinting, Villanelle could barely make out the silhouette of someone beckoning to her.
The popping white and yellow spots gradually faded from her vision enough for her to grin in recognition.
He opened the passenger door. She climbed in.
“Were you waiting just for me?”
“Actually, yes. Carolyn’s orders.”
“Oh.” Villanelle’s face fell exaggeratedly. “And here I thought that you actually cared about me.”
Konstantin sighed. “Carolyn is worried about your mission.”
“What is she worried about? It is fine!”
“You are making a big mess, you and Eve.”
“You worry too much.” Villanelle pet the top of his balding head.
Konstantin eyed her plastic ring. “Why are you wearing that hideous...thing? It does not match your outfit at all.”
“I married Eve.”
Konstantin guffawed. Then his laughter died down and his eyes narrowed.
“What is it about her?”
“We are the same.”
Konstantin scratched his beard. “Where is Eve now?”
Villanelle pouted. “We had a fight. And...she left.”
Konstantin snorted. “I do not think she left. Probably she is just needing some space, yes?”
Villanelle turned her head away to look at the boring sidewalk outside.
“Fights happen. Especially when you are married. But that does not mean you quit. Are you listening?”
“Another thing about marriage is that it needs vulnerability, Villanelle. If you are too broken to reveal your wounds to another person, then they never truly heal.”
Villanelle looked at him again. “How is your wife, Konstantin?”
“Fine. Still recovering from being stuffed into a cupboard by you.”
“Still annoying,” he grunted. “Still never shutting up about you and the very cool shooting scar you gave me. Especially since she cannot see it.”
Konstantin’s eyes darted to Villanelle’s stomach. He kept his voice careful and light, and for that she would not bash his head through the windshield.
“How is your scar, Villanelle?”
“Good, good.” She patted it with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Where is Eve?”
“I do not know much-”
Villanelle lunged for the car keys. She wrenched them out and pressed the sharp teeth of the ignition key against the soft flesh of Konstantin’s hammering jugular vein. His hands clenched the steering wheel. His eyes strained to see all of her in his peripheral vision.
“Where is Eve?” Villanelle repeated calmly.
“S-she was arrested.”
The key dug in. “Go on.”
“I drove Eve from the station to the MI6 headquarters about half an hour ago. She is there with Carolyn now. That is all I know.”
Villanelle eyed him suspiciously. The key dug in harder.
“Truly, Villanelle. That is what Carolyn wanted.”
“Take me to MI6 right now,” Villanelle hissed.
Konstantin shook his head. “I can’t. Wait!”
The key was about to pierce his skin.
“Carolyn thought that you would want to see Eve. But, she told me to tell you to keep going.”
“Yes. With the mission.”
“I don’t care about the mission,” snarled Villanelle.
Konstantin blinked. “Carolyn insists that you keep going anyway.”
“And if I don’t? What could she possibly do to me, Konstantin?”
Interesting, thought Villanelle, his eyes were suddenly sad.
“It is not you that you should be worried about. You are married now, yes?”
Villanelle slowly removed the key from his throat and tossed the keychain onto the dashboard. Her heart threw itself against her ribcage, as if begging to be freed from the intensity of the feelings swirling within.
“Then I will stay with you in London until Eve is finished with Carolyn at MI6.”
Konstantin shook his head fiercely. “No, Villanelle. No!” He held up a stern finger at her. “Remember one of the first things I taught you?”
“I don’t think so,” he snapped. “Say it so I know that you have not forgotten.”
“Do not stay too long in one place,” Villanelle huffed.
“Yes. Every time that you have stayed too long in one place, you have made mistakes. Don’t be stupid again now, Villanelle.”
She crossed her arms. “Don’t you think that Irina would like to see me? And you are being mean like this, sending me away.”
“You can’t do anything good if you stay here in London. Especially if you are with me. MI6 watches the safehouse. If they see you, they will get you too. And then you really cannot help Eve. So go, finish the mission.”
Villanelle got out the iPad. Wanted to smash the screen against the van’s shifter when it didn’t recognize her touch. Then she keyed in the code “1234” out of pure amusement. She grinned when she was admitted and swiped around for a bit until she could tell Konstantin the email address Eve had used.
“What about The Twelve?” asked Villanelle, as she tucked the iPad back into her handbag.
Konstantin stared at the road. “I can give you a day’s head start.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“Because I don’t trust Carolyn to keep my family safe.”
“But you trust me with that?”
Konstantin shrugged. “Irina trusts you.”
“She is funny.” Villanelle gazed at Konstantin meaningfully. “Will you watch my better half?”
“Yes,” Konstantin sighed again.
“Yes, yes. Now go, Villanelle. We’ll be in touch.”
She got out of the van, and then she remembered. “Konstantin?”
“Will you be visiting Paris anytime soon?”
“What, after Notre Dame? No.”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Oh, no reason. I was just wondering.” Villanelle twirled her hair. “You have such a nice safehouse in Paris, you know, and I was just curious if you would be staying there. Also, how much did all those masks and vases and other things cost you? Again, I am just wondering. You can tell me now or I can send you the bill later, if you like.”
Villanelle set off down the street while Konstantin yelled after her.
The last person that Eve had expected to come pick her up from the police station was Konstantin. He’d escorted her out of the claustrophobic holding cell not too long after the interrogator had menacingly informed Eve that she would remain in custody for at least another forty-eight hours.
Her neck hurt. Her shoulders were cramped. She rubbed circulation back into her wrists and watched Konstantin glug the mini bottle of vodka he’d taken from the glove compartment in the van.
“Where are we going?” she asked hoarsely.
“Carolyn wants to see you.”
“Oh, thank god!”
Relief flooded through Eve as Konstantin finally pulled up to the MI6 headquarters. Its tiered sandstone and glass exterior dwarfed the banks of the river Thames. Konstantin turned the engine off. Eve lingered in the car.
“Have you seen Villanelle?”
“No. I am surprised that she is not with you.”
Eve tucked some stray strands of hair behind her ears. “We got into an argument and I...well, I came here.”
“You left Villanelle all alone? After an argument?”
Eve looked down at the floor.
Konstantin tsked. “Clear communication between professionals is very important, Eve.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”
Eve waved Konstantin off. As she approached the entrance to MI6, Carolyn intercepted her from behind a pillar.
“Jesus Carolyn, you almost gave me a heart attack!”
“Apologies, Eve. That would be a very poor way to die.”
Eve peered at her. The woman looked as well put together as ever in her elegant navy trench coat, white blouse, and grey pants. Not a hint of tiredness or distress flicked across her features. In fact, she looked for all the world like she’d accidentally bumped into an old acquaintance, one that she privately immensely disliked.
“I have just had the worst day of my life and this entire night has been insane and-”
Carolyn smiled tightly. “Follow me please, Eve.”
Struck into silence by Carolyn’s unaffected tone, Eve trailed behind her. They passed old, regal architecture mixed with the sloping, gleaming, sleek lines of modern walls, doors, and abstract fixtures. Carolyn led Eve to a section of the MI6 building that she’d never been in before.
Past bustling research and server rooms, past corridors with low, arched ceilings and neatly laid bricks, past shooting ranges and physical combat rooms, Carolyn swept Eve into a soundproof, clinically white room. It looked like a more pristine (yet somehow immensely more menacing) version of the interrogation room Eve had used before.
Eve hesitated. Carolyn motioned her over to the maple wooden stool and white marble table set up near the icy two-way mirror. Eve couldn’t recognize herself in its shifting, malevolent surface. She sat down. Carolyn towered over her with crossed arms.
“Um…” Eve’s eyes flitted up to the comb-like lights affixed to the smooth roof, the wires threaded discreetly through the curving lines of the room. With the door closed, everything was seamless and ethereal. “When do you think I’ll be able to get my things back from the police?”
“I can put a request in to have them transferred here. But I wouldn’t rush, Eve.”
“Oh-kay.” Eve clasped her hands before her on the cold, cold table. “Carolyn, what’s going on?”
“I thought we’d check in face-to-face for a change.”
“So you had me arrested earlier?”
“No, Eve. I had nothing to do with that.”
Eve gaped at her. “Then that...was real?”
“I’m afraid so.”
In the end, all she could think of was this singular, three letter word that hardly contained the sheer force of her confusion, exhaustion, bewilderment, and rage.
“I can make all that go away, of course. Eventually.”
“Then why am I even here?”
“Why, indeed.” Carolyn inhaled sharply. “I must confess that I actually...miss having Villanelle around. But you mustn’t tell her I said that, or I’ll sack you immediately.”
Eve sighed. “Okay. Look, we’ve got six USBs already and we just have six more to go, so I really don’t understand why-”
“You and Villanelle have broken international law more times than even I can care to keep track of. You’ve been reckless and obnoxious. I told you Eve, this is a covert operation, whose success depends upon your professionalism. If you can’t grasp that, well then I really can’t help you.”
“Such is the nature of fieldwork. Right, Carolyn?”
Her lips twitched. “Don’t be facetious, Eve. Certain higher ups have taken note of your poor performance and I’m sorry to say, but if you and Villanelle don’t shape up, there will be consequences.”
“Is that it? You brought me here to vaguely threaten me?”
Carolyn tapped a finger against the side of her nose. Then she yawned.
“Do I have your assurance, Eve, that you and Villanelle will conduct yourselves professionally from now on?”
Eve spread her hands. “I can’t control Villanelle. God Carolyn, you told me that yourself!”
“I am fully aware of what I say and do, Eve.” Carolyn’s voice rang metallically throughout the room. “I am not asking for you to control Villanelle. I am asking for you to keep in mind the nature of this mission. Is that clear?”
“Good. Because I would hate to be strict.”
“What would you even do, Carolyn?” Eve raised her chin. Her own voice was clear and steady, filling the room with an authoritative presence. “You know that there is no one else that can get the job done like Villanelle and I can. And I’m not afraid of anything. My life can’t possibly be more fucked up than it already is.”
“I am still not sure that you understand the gravity of the situation, Eve.”
“What situation, Carolyn? What’s really going on?”
Carolyn’s eyes glittered coldly. “You’ve put a noose around your neck. I’m offering to take it off.”
“I’ll take my chances, thank you.”
“So be it.”
Carolyn walked away from Eve. She left the room, closing the door noiselessly behind her. Eve hesitated. Wondered if that was her cue to simply leave and just get on with things. She was just about to leave herself when another door near the two-way mirror swung open.
A short figure came towards Eve, wearing an outfit that contrasted vividly against the dispassionate room. Black hair, black shirt, black pants, black arm braces, and a voice as black as the ominous night.
“Remember me?” asked The Ghost.
Chapter 10: Initiation
Somewhere between selling sunscreen at a kiosk along Sydney’s bustling waterfront and being invited onto a private yacht, Villanelle decided that this was much better than the old method of getting postcards from Konstantin.
As soon as she set foot on the yacht’s wooden deck, a carefree smile shimmered on Villanelle’s face. Her hair flowed freely from underneath the Panama hat she wore. The white dress with navy blue stripes flattered her figure immensely, judging from the heads that turned as she made her way through the open-air dining area. The chefs were grilling fish and dousing shrimp along with scallops in white wine; the invigorating scent of lemon and the refreshing, salt tinged air drifted to Villanelle amidst clusters of sunscreened, chatting people.
Inside the glass encased salon, Villanelle sat down on the leather sofa and dwelled on her next move. It was hushed in here, with its pleasing interior of light wall panels of open-grain wood, pale-coloured upholstery and carpets, and pops of red and purple decorations. The refined and tranquil atmosphere calmed Villanelle enough for her to concentrate on the options she splayed out in her mind like a hand of cards.
Creaking and whooshing, the yacht cut swiftly and unstoppably through azure waters. Villanelle thought about the waves of screams and cries and shock and awe that would crash into her when she killed the Keeper who had invited her onboard. Villanelle contemplated disposing of the woman on the top deck, where the sleek bar was, so that she could conveniently enjoy a celebratory drink afterwards. But there were less people on the top deck, and shrinking her audience displeased Villanelle.
Think like you’re the target, not like you’re an assassin.
Villanelle rolled her eyes. Konstantin could have told her that. And he had, many times. Except it was different now, hearing it in Eve’s soft-spoken, sonorous, no-nonsense voice.
That would be easier if I knew how a thirty-something photography hobbyist thinks like. I can’t think boring thoughts, Eve.
During the pondering pause in Villanelle’s mind, she pictured Eve deep in thought. Meticulous. Deliberate. Her chin supported by her fingers, her dark curly hair framing the concentrated expression on her face, her mesmerizing brown eyes revealing her to be a woman of feral appetites and intensity. She would dip her chin as the right thought came to her. But, like Atlas bearing the weight of the world, Eve would strain unawares under the weight of that thought, wracked by the tedium and banality of her life.
Until Villanelle had completely improved it, of course. She could feel Eve’s resonant agreement at this thought, all silvery and hot, pooling low in her gut.
Have you checked the cabins, Villanelle?
Then go check.
Because if I indulged in a ridiculously expensive camera for just this little hobby, that’s where I’d keep it.
Villanelle went below deck. The spacious cabins were luxuriously appointed, with plush carpets and robust shelves filled with nautical themed books and clothes. She checked out each cabin, struck by the combination of hand-carved floral inlay floors, bamboo, woven wood and leather textures, and especially the elegant, walnut woodwork curling around the sumptuous beds. It was all that she could do not to get distracted by visions of fucking Eve on each of them.
How loudly do you think you could make me scream?
Pausing by the vintage-styled photography camera carelessly left on the edge of a large bed, Villanelle considered the question with a quickening pulse.
Loud enough for me to have to smother you with a pillow, probably.
But then I wouldn’t be able to see your lovely face…
That is true.
This unintended consequence made Villanelle shuffle her thoughts. She wondered if she could possibly, just for a little while, recline on this bed and slip a hand between her thighs. Already, there was a dampness that threatened to coat the fine material of her dress. Villanelle bit her lip, hard enough to draw blood. She glanced longingly at the bed.
Or what, Kill Commander?
Villanelle’s own response still managed to surprise her.
Or you could make a mistake, die, and never see me again.
Propelled by a sense of foreboding, Villanelle emerged back onto the main deck. The camera dangled around her neck from its thin leather strap. It was a siren’s call for the Keeper who finally noticed Villanelle leaning precariously over the edge of the steel railing.
“Hey!” she came over, face flushed from the heat and her anger. “That’s my camera!”
Villanelle didn’t look at her. She looked out across the choppy waves instead, at Sydney’s gleaming silver skyline. It struck a chord of inspiration in Villanelle, to try and squeeze as much Australian accent into her voice as she could. Even if doing so felt like scraping sandpaper over her vocal chords.
“Relax. I am just borrowing it.”
“How on earth did you get it?”
“You left your cabin open.”
And now Villanelle fixed the Keeper with a piercing gaze, revelling in the embarrassment that heated her cheeks and the tips of her ears. She did not have dark, curly hair. She was not that much older than Villanelle. And yet...Villanelle tilted her head to observe the Keeper closely. She was not unlike Villanelle, with her long, blonde hair, intelligent eyes, and intriguing features.
“You look gorgeous!” Villanelle held up the camera. “Lemme take your photo.”
The Keeper reddened even more, a disarmed smile splitting across her face. “Oh gosh, no way! I’m a sweaty mess.”
“C’mon, let me take a photo. You belong on a magazine cover!”
Villanelle tracked the Keeper’s eye movements as she glanced behind her, towards a burly black man lounging in swim trunks on the sun deck.
“Don’t let my boyfriend hear you say that,” said the Keeper.
Villanelle giggled breathily. “Wanna have a photo shoot in your cabin?” When the Keeper hesitated, Villanelle pressed in like a scalpel halving a vital organ. “Your boyfriend won’t see us there.”
Very flattered and very flustered, the Keeper let Villanelle lead the way. As soon as they got to the cabin, Villanelle shut the door and instructed the Keeper to pose on the bed. She obeyed easily, like a sheep obeyed its shepherd, unaware that the wolf was always watching. Villanelle enthusiastically photographed, showering compliments and praise onto the Keeper, dazzling her with a smile as bright as the flash that she switched on when the cabin shadows interrupted the right angle.
“So what scouting company do you work for again?” asked The Keeper.
“Uh, I am freelance.”
“I thought you said earlier that you worked for a Sydney based company?”
“No. I did not say that. You must have heard me wrong.”
The Keeper tossed her hair, moved to get off the bed.
She froze. Her eyes widened in alarm.
“No offence, but maybe you are a better model than you are a photographer.”
“You’ve never seen any of my photos.”
Villanelle squinted at her. “So show me”
The Keeper went to the laptop on the desk. She dropped the silver USB from her pocket and into a mug alongside some pens. Villanelle caught it in her peripheral vision as she tried to focus on the boring photos that slid across the screen.
“These are just photos of cars and fruit and flowers. Nothing special.”
The Keeper looked at her pathetically, like she was about to cry. Villanelle’s hands balled into fists. She could barely control her voice.
“I was right. You are definitely better on the receiving end of the lens.”
The Keeper’s eyes lingered on Villanelle’s lips as she wet them with her tongue.
“Get back on the bed,” commanded Villanelle.
“Take your shirt off.”
She hesitated. Villanelle stepped forward.
“Take your shirt off. Please.”
Villanelle reached for the camera again as the Keeper did as she was told. Her breasts were small, but she had a nice tan and her muscles looked like steel sheathed in velvet. Villanelle wondered what would happen if she peeled her skin off later, whether the tissue and tendon would unravel and hang limply from glistening bone or if it would remain supple and pliant. Her spirit would be of most interest; Villanelle wanted to know whether it would stick around like a particularly stubborn spot of blood on a priceless Persian rug, or if it would collapse through her emptying eyes, leaking away like water being sucked down the drain.
“Do you think I’m beautiful?” asked The Keeper.
Villanelle blinked. “Sure.”
“I wish my boyfriend would tell me that more often.”
“You don't need a man to tell you you're beautiful. Honestly, and I can attest, most men only think about sex. You can see this in their actions, in the way they speak. It's primal and rather pathetic in my eyes.”
Villanelle sauntered up to the bed and brushed the tip of her thumb against the Keeper’s jaw. “Any person would be lucky to have you in any body you have. You're much more than your physical form, and if someone doesn't appreciate that, fuck them.”
The Keeper looked up at Villanelle in awe. She guided Villanelle’s hands down to her breasts. Villanelle lightly pinched and rolled the Keeper’s nipples between deft fingers. She felt them harden fully against her palms, and in turn warmed her breasts by rubbing in slow circles. Villanelle left wet, smacking kisses between them, trailing all the way up to the Keeper’s mouth.
They kissed. Villanelle waited for her stomach to somersault; for her hands to tremble; for her core to come alive in waves of fire; for her veins to carry intense feelings back and forth from her heart and then radiate out the rest of her; and for her soul to swell and expand and throb the way it did when she was when Eve.
It didn’t happen.
Villanelle pulled away, artificially accelerating her breathing and generating sparks of excitement in her eyes. They kissed again, blank and bleak; the Keeper moaned and Villanelle imitated the same pitch and frequency right back at her. She kept her eyes fixed on the bedpost, which was a lot more interesting than the body that currently writhed in her hands. The Keeper pulled away, grabbed Villanelle’s left hand to push it against her clit, then stopped.
“Oh, this?” Villanelle beamed at the plastic ring. “Yeah.”
“And...your partner is okay with this?”
“It is an open marriage thing.”
It is not!
Well no, Villanelle relented, it really wasn’t. But it was still an...arrangement. And currently a long distance one at that. Besides, Villanelle was filled with wanting right now, and she would get what she wanted. Always.
Don’t be jealous, Eve.
I would never cheat on you.
You cheated on your husband with me.
Yeah. Just like this is different. This is a professional fuck.
Oh baby, is that really what you want?
Villanelle pushed the Keeper down roughly and silenced her excited yelp with a sharp kiss. Villanelle let her hands travel lightly along the Keeper’s flanks and plotted out when it would be best to watch, front row and center, the Keeper’s life slip away.
Villanelle screwed her eyes shut to isolate the Keeper’s hands from her arms, which were in turn removed from her torso and her neck and the head and the face and the mind behind it all; Villanelle concentrated on the pure feeling of quivering, hot flesh and pearly slickness that smelled and tasted nothing like Eve, but behind closed eyes Villanelle could play a game of pretend so that the feeling was almost accurate. Almost.
Villanelle let herself drift half out of her body so that she could curl up in the abscesses of her mind instead of looking at the Keeper. Nothing about this was personal, surely Eve could understand that in the furnace depths of her heart and know it in the oasis of her mind.
Then again, mused Villanelle as she felt herself approaching climax at the thought of mounting the Keeper’s head on the yacht’s bow, what Eve did not know wouldn’t kill her.
The MI6 office was broiling. Hugo had tried fixing the asthmatic air conditioning earlier, but only succeeded in completely wrecking it. He whined that it was too hot to work, whined that there was no more cold water left, whined that it was too hot to go outside for a smoke, and whined and whined until Kenny stuffed some heavenly earbuds into his ears.
Soothing sounds of waterfalls, birds, and breezes helped him concentrate on sequencing the current USBs at his disposal. Wrapped up in tranquility, Kenny couldn’t understand why the rest of the world had to be so depraved and violent. There was no need for aggression in between the lines of his code; there was no chaos in his neatly determined parameters; destabilization had no place with the stable letters and numbers that produced a direct result. Cause and effect was as easy as typing on the smooth keys, without a drop of blood spilt.
Kenny glanced at his other monitor. The sequence displayed six scattered geo-coordinates; some pointed to ancient ruins, others indicated historic monuments or sites of worship. Every time the sequence looped, these locations would shift and shimmer like links in an ever-elusive digital chain. Kenny drummed his fingers on the desk, swiveled in his chair, shot dark glances at an oblivious Hugo, and finally caved in to the temptation to surf the web while the sequence carried on.
As soon as Kenny looked at the newsfeed, shock and revulsion surged through him. The top story for the past two days was apparently a gruesome incident on a private yacht off the coast of Sydney. Queasy and shaking, Kenny closed the browser before immaculately high definition photos of a woman’s decapitated, mounted body were fully displayed. He rocketed out of his seat. Hugo glanced up.
“Where are you going?”
With clammy hands, Kenny fumbled for his iPhone. He stuffed earbuds into his ears, switched on a podcast about anxiety management strategies, and completed three whole circuits around the block before he felt even remotely ready to go back inside. The office’s warehouse exterior was stained with exhaust smoke, patches of graffiti, and dilapidated brickwork. Weeds poked through widening cracks in the pavement. The sun beat down. It seemed as if the world was entirely unaffected by the horrors it sustained day after day.
Hugo seemed to have that same demeanour. He was leaning against the doorframe of the entrance and nonchalantly smoking by the time Kenny returned.
“Does anything bother you?” blurted Kenny.
“How? There’s always something going on!”
“Exactly.” Hugo took a long drag. “It’s always the same, everywhere I go: while I’m out shopping, when I’m on the tube, when I’m checking my phone. All the same shite.”
“So you just ignore it?”
“Got to. Otherwise I’ll burn out twice as fast than I usually do.”
Hugo spread his arms across the doorway, blocking Kenny’s attempt to push past him.
“D’you feel any better knowing?” asked Hugo.
“I’d rather know than be oblivious, yeah.”
Hugo shrugged. “You’ve heard one story of murder or assault or fraud or some other crisis, you’ve heard them all. Nothing changes.”
“Not with that attitude,” Kenny muttered.
Hugo slowly crushed his cigarette beneath the sole of his polished loafers. As he dropped his arms, he said:
“Your mum called while you were out. Said it’s urgent.”
Kenny winced. “Thanks.”
Carolyn did indeed sound remotely excited when Kenny worked up the nerve to call back. He imagined that she was adjusting her glasses to a less severe angle while they talked.
“I must thank you again for finding The Ghost.”
“I suppose Villanelle also deserves credit for getting The Ghost’s own name out of her, but such praise is rather irrelevant when she’s not here to receive it.”
Kenny swivelled in his chair. “Is The Ghost still with you?”
“She was.” A pause shivered across the line. “She’s back in the field now.”
Kenny turned up the volume on his iPhone just to make sure he actually caught all of Carolyn’s praise.
“I’m proud of you, Kenny.”
Another pause vibrated between them.
“And I must say...your work has been most impressive for The Twelve.”
“Again, recruiting The Ghost would have been impossible if you hadn’t found her. Not to mention your work as codebreaker.”
“I’m trying my best.”
“I know. And it’s been noticed.” Carolyn cleared her throat lightly. “I’d like to offer you a promotion.”
“Yes. I want you to take over Raymond’s role.”
“You do remember him, don’t you?”
“Before Villanelle disposed of him, Raymond was the head Keeper. He was visiting Aaron in Rome to acquire his program and update the rest of the Keepers.”
Kenny’s own voice sounded distant to him, wavering and thinned out by excitement.
“You want me to be head Keeper...of The Twelve?”
“You would be a perfect fit here, Kenny.”
Kenny stared at the ceiling. His heart and head pounded.
“Do you want to meet The Twelve before you decide?”
“Yeah,” Kenny answered quickly.
“Are you sure? Once you do, there’s really no going back.”
Kenny took a deep breath. “Yes. I’m sure, mum.”
Carolyn’s smile glimmered through the phone. “Then we’ll get your initiation under way.”
The bamboo groves of Arashiyama in Kyoto offered Villanelle the perfect cover as she stalked the Keeper.
Tucked along the base of the steep mountains, soaring stalks framed the curving trails that cut through the verdant emerald thickets. The heavy, moist scent of the earth heightened Villanelle’s focus. Sunlight falling through the slender branches of bamboo and the mysterious, hollow, yet strangely tranquil sound of the wind rustling in the leaves almost made her want to stop what she was doing just to enjoy the moment.
Villanelle picked her way past some rocks just in time to see a chattering monkey swing down from a bamboo branch to drop in front of the Keeper. He immediately got his phone out and snapped photos, vigorously adjusting his positioning as the monkey observed him quizzically. The Keeper’s lanyard swung wildly; it was hooked to his phone, as was the silver USB. He jerked it away from the monkey’s prying grasp just in time and continued along the path.
With an immensely profound sigh, Villanelle followed the Keeper to the nearby Tenryu-ji Zen temple. It was regal and mysterious, with its black, sloping roofs and the presiding forest-blanketed mountains. An intricately carved stone path led to the thick wooden doors of the temple entrance. The pillars of the main hall still bore the sword marks left by samurai from centuries ago. Polished, hushed hallways branched off into tatami-mat rooms. The potent scent of incense burned the calm air.
The Keeper strolled out into the main garden. It had a large pond that caught the reflection of maple and cherry trees, as well as the large rough-cut rocks lingering on the periphery. Sand smooshed with every step that Villanelle took to close in on the Keeper, who had now paused by the banks of the pond. His head was bowed, as if in deep thoughtful or perhaps prayer. The reflection of the mountain range wrinkled the pond’s pristine surface. More monkeys gossiped in the distance. Villanelle waited.
She watched the Keeper take a winding path over a gently arched bridge. After a moment, she trailed behind him while he passed small waterfalls, startled a crane wading in waters filled with koi, and maneuvered out of range from the stern gazes of several stone statues. They brooded over a white panelled building adjacent to the main temple. Neatly raked sand surrounded its perimeter.
Villanelle ducked through the doorway. This wide room had fresh calligraphy scrolls displayed on the walls. The white, beige, and dark wood palette evoked a soothing atmosphere. Villanelle leaned against a pillar with her hands in her pockets as the Keeper studied a scroll. The harsh ringing of his phone shattered the quiet. He answered it brusquely and paced the room while he conversed. Villanelle let him get progressively more worked up, until he stormed past her pillar. She stuck out her foot.
The Keeper went sprawling across the floor. Villanelle promptly smashed his phone. Then she grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and steadily pounded his head into the floor; wet thuds became smacking crunches, then cracks, until the floor splintered along with the Keeper’s entire face. His slick forehead left bloody streaks along the wood, stained it darker than it already was. Villanelle ripped the USB from its lanyard and exited the building without a backwards glance.
Later on, when the sequence was uploaded to the iPad and Villanelle had vacantly poured herself steaming tea, she would wonder why she could not sink her emptiness. In between delicate sips, she would contemplate abandoning the mission altogether and disappearing into the bamboo groves. As the rain pattered on the tea house roof, she would pretend not to feel the feeling of missing speared into her heart. And by the time she had plotted her next destination, pulled onwards by some invisible cord of fate, Villanelle would admit to herself that murder, without Eve there to appreciate it, was no longer quite satisfying enough.
Chapter 11: The Unwanted Gift
Anna’s apartment still stank of death.
Prowling between the rooms, Villanelle was struck by how everything seemed to be frozen in time. The neat beige and gunmetal grey painted walls; Anna’s meticulous wool knitting patterns hanging from them, along with framed paintings and gilded icons of the Orthodox Christian faith; the wooden bookshelves groaning under the weight of countless language learning books, course readers, atlases, and travel photography collections; the ugly, paled lamps and peeling radiators; the vases and suitcases and vintage apparel bags; Max’s armchair with the blanket that Anna had knit for him, the one emblazoned with a cute cactus and desert colours; and the bloodstain on the carpet by the couch, where Anna had blown her brains out.
Even the motionless air remained stale in Anna’s bedroom. The curtains were drawn aside, allowing mid-morning sunlight to bathe the desk. Stacks of books lay open on both sides of Anna’s propped open, but drained, laptop. Max’s favourite vinyl jazz records leaned against the side of the display shelf. His Ph.D. diploma in Russian literature, along with his various translation books and unfinished manuscripts, were neatly held together by strained elastics.
Villanelle sat half-upright against the bed’s headboard. The sex she’d had with Anna here had always been suffocated by the punishing hand of God. Anna, with her emerging wrinkles that creased whenever Villanelle made her laugh; Anna, with the perpetually mournful set of her face; Anna, with the fullness of her lips and fragile tenderness in her hands; Anna had always cried afterwards, always lamented and clutched Villanelle fearfully, maybe preciously, even while her gaze reviled Villanelle.
Anna had preferred giving and taking pleasure in silence, so it had been Villanelle’s pleas and gasps and cries that melted into the pillows, into the sheets, into the knit covers, into the side of the bed where Anna’s pine-tinged scent was pressed, into the side of the bed where Max slept soundly, unaware that Villanelle had once impressed Anna with uninterrupted, perfectly articulated French curses and phrases while Anna fucked her with adamant fingers.
Those last few days before Villanelle’s arrest, before Anna’s condemnation and repulsion and horror, Villanelle had come over to the apartment after school for her usual French lesson. Anna had baked cake. Villanelle had set the table, as was their regular routine, then sat quietly while Anna bustled in the kitchen. The cake was celebratory; Anna had finally stolen away enough of the household money to afford sending Villanelle to Sorbonne in Paris.
She’d looked so proud then, pushing the envelope towards Villanelle across the table. Villanelle had placed her hand on top of Anna’s, feeling sheltered, feeling fulfilled, feeling right. She liked these stable, quiet, safe moments; they ate or they talked or Villanelle sat in Anna’s lap while Anna stroked her hair, or Villanelle read to Anna while she was in the bathtub, or they folded laundry or they flipped through photo albums of the school trips they’d taken over the years.
And that afternoon, that warm, hazy, surreal afternoon that Anna had shown Villanelle the money, gifted her with a brighter path to the future-that was the afternoon that they’d fucked on Max’s chair. Leisurely, breathlessly, tempestuously, Villanelle had given herself to Anna; and Anna, oh Anna, had let herself be taken apart by Villanelle’s hands. It was the best sex they’d ever had because at the end, Anna hadn’t looked doomed. Rather, she radiated with possibility and hope. She’d looked at Villanelle like she loved her more than she feared her.
Anna ushered Villanelle into the armoire at the sound of Max’s heavy footsteps trudging upstairs to the apartment. Villanelle hid there, heard them arguing over the money; Max exploded in fury when he’d looked at his bank statements and Anna had bravely lied to his stupid, bespectacled face, claiming that she’d donated the money to the university’s expansion of the language department.
They screamed and screamed. Villanelle covered her ears. But she could still hear Anna and Max screaming. Screaming and screaming like her father had screamed when he was drunk, like Villanelle screamed when she fled from him through the dim house, screaming so loudly that God could hear her vocal chords tear and would surely come to protect her, if only he was listening.
In the aftermath, Anna had cradled Villanelle’s head. She smelled of fresh laundry detergent, contrasted by the chaotic energy that still charged the air. Max had gone back outside; from the bedroom window, Anna watched him kick stray beer bottles around the playground, until Villanelle had turned Anna’s head and kissed her.
But Anna had recoiled almost immediately. Her fingernails dragged across Villanelle’s skin, almost breaking the surface, so sharply that Villanelle felt any traces of peace suddenly disappear. She’d said it then, right to Anna’s pained face, that the only reason she liked Max was because he had a penis; and Anna had yelled something in response, something tearful and awful, something that made Villanelle burn and burn with shame, and Villanelle had stumbled out of the apartment, choking on rage, crying and crying all the way back to the hearse of a room she was renting at the time.
And if there was one thing, just one fucking thing, that she absolutely hated Anna for, it was for planting the seed of normalcy within Villanelle, knowing that it had no hope to flourish in such malnourished soil.
Villanelle rolled over now, clutching her stomach. Her Chanel handbag rested at the foot of the bed. She reached for it weakly. Knocked it over. The iPad slipped out, rumbling. Villanelle ignored it and peered underneath Anna’s bed instead. She pulled out a large, dark purple box. Opened the lid. Her breath hitched.
She ran her fingers over the rows and rows of letters. They were grouped together by year, then by season. Shuddering, she opened the envelopes, drew the letters out, felt her eyes sting as she read her own words. Flowing cursive script covered pages and pages; some were creased from the force of Anna’s grip, others were fondly folded and re-folded, others were stained with drops that smudged a few words. The paper was yellowed from time and lined with traces of envelope corners. Even the stickers that Villanelle had stuck beside the scrawled addresses were kept in place.
The letter box was just like the apartment, Villanelle thought, with Anna’s obsessive need to preserve the moment, the memory, to keep it just the way it was. So she wouldn’t forget? So Villanelle would still be able to recognize everything, in the event that she one day returned? So that Anna could stop the relentless march of time?
A terrible feeling welled up inside Villanelle. She scattered the letters onto the bed. Raced into the kitchen and came back with a half whittled down candle. The wick was promptly lit thanks to a stray box of matches, and Villanelle touched each letter to the flame. It was a small one, but it quickly burned the dry paper, collapsing corners inward and melting glowing holes. Ashes crumpled onto Anna’s bed.
The iPad rumbled again. Villanelle admitted herself to the home screen. She ignored Konstantin’s incoming FaceTime call to instead scroll through Eve’s most recent notes and internet search items. Villanelle tilted her head in curiosity; the terms and themes were focused on distinctly female serial killers who had formed partnerships with other like minded women.
Rosemary West. Aileen Carol Wuornos and her Czech counterpart, Jaroslava Fabianova. Gwendolyn Graham and Cathy Wood.
Villanelle’s eyebrows shot up as she read their long list of victims, their especially revolting methods, and their twisted interpersonal dynamics. Some of them even made Villanelle look like a saint, and that caused her to huff disdainfully. Eve’s notes indicated standard things like time period, geographic location, upbringing, and age. But what interested Villanelle were Eve’s haphazard, dispersed thoughts on how she saw herself reflected in these murderous women. And most interestingly, how she related her own relationship with Villanelle to these women’s depraved trysts.
By now, the iPad was rumbling frequently. Villanelle finally answered Konstantin’s FaceTime call out of sheer annoyance. While she moved into the living room, he came into focus looking like his usual grouchy self.
“What do you want, Konstantin?”
“Yes Villanelle, I am well, thank you for asking. And how are you?”
“Annoyed. What is it?”
“I am checking on you.”
“Yes. And it is annoying, thank you for asking.”
Konstantin smirked. “Obviously I should not have worried. You are still alive.”
“Of course.” Villanelle placed the iPad against a cheap vase with dead roses in it. The camera angle tilted slightly. “Are you with your family?”
“What are you doing?”
“We will be eating soon. Have you eaten?”
“When I was hungry.”
“Yesterday,” she sighed.
Konstantin’s face darkened. “I recognize that painting.”
Villanelle glanced behind her. It was the painting of Red Square above the couch, depicted with gloriously accurate and vibrant brush strokes.
“It is a good painting!”
“Villanelle...you are at Anna’s place?”
She stared back at Konstantin’s stone-cold eyes. His gaze sent shivers through her even with the screen and virtual distance between them.
Konstantin swore in Russian. “What are you doing? Why are you wasting time in Moscow?”
“It’s important to try and resolve conflicts with a person while they’re alive,” Villanelle replied calmly. “I think it’s supposed to be part of the whole good person thing.”
“But Anna is dead.”
“This is not about Anna.”
Konstantin scratched his beard, looking quite like a bear that had been caught rampaging around the bramble bush.
“You’ve given me a busy life. I like a challenge. I have to know in advance what you will do, although I somehow cannot get it right all of the time. I have to know where you are going to turn up next, where you have been. I always have to be one jump ahead, to make the proper arrangements, so that I can be there, where you are. Sometimes I imagine that I am too late, and that you are dead. Or the Twelve have skinned you alive and I could not stop them, and then I watch you die. Really, Villanelle, there are nights when I get no sleep.”
“If you die because you are stupid, what will happen to Eve?”
Villanelle eyed Konstantin frostily. She kept her tone cheery. “Nothing. Because you are supposed to be watching her.”
“I know that she is still with Carolyn.”
“They are too long together.”
Villanelle’s pulse picked up. Her cheeriness took on a mocking slant. “If I return to London, and something has happened to Eve, I will find your safehouse, Konstantin. And then I will stuff your family in an oven instead of a cupboard, and I will make you watch them being cooked alive. Okay?”
“I believe you, Villanelle. But I was going to tell you my address anyway, because you should return to London. Now. Especially if you are so worried about Eve.”
He gave the safehouse address to Villanelle, as if he expected her to immediately act upon every snap of his fingers like a whipped dog. She committed the address to memory but remained still.
“What does Carolyn want with Eve?”
“That, I do not know. Truly.”
“Then what did you see?”
“Carolyn only let me into MI6 once since you left London. I saw Eve in a white room, just sitting at a table. She seemed to be waiting.”
Konstantin shrugged. “For Carolyn to come back, probably. They are just talking, Villanelle.”
“Then why this urgency for me to come back to London?”
“Carolyn’s son, Kenny, he is gone. And that other guy, with the curly hair and expensive clothes-”
Villanelle wracked her memory. “Hugo?”
“I suppose, yes. He is dead. Shot by the Cleaners.”
Villanelle shrugged, tried to keep the elation out of her voice. “You want me to come to his funeral or something? I could find that black dress again, it was nice to wear for Eve-”
“I want you out of Moscow. You are not safe there.”
“I am not safe in London either. Even with you, in your safe house, with your crazy family.”
In Konstantin’s silence, Villanelle’s face became bland, smooth, devoid of all expression.
“Do you remember what you told me when you started my training?”
“I said a lot of things.”
“Yes. You always liked to do the talking too much. Anyway, I didn’t want to kill on my very first job-”
“I remember, you were very stubborn. Nothing has changed.”
“You told me, ‘Life is the unwanted gift, Villanelle. You are relieving people of it. What is the problem?’ And when you put it like that, I did not have a problem with the killing anyone, anymore.”
“Okay.” Konstantin grimaced at the sound of Irina’s distant shouts, which were soon joined by the calls of his wife to come downstairs and eat. “If you are not out of Moscow by tonight, I will come there myself and drag you away by your ear.”
“Don’t worry,” said Villanelle softly, “I will be gone by then. And we will talk again when I have the next USB. Okay, goodbye Konstantin!”
Villanelle ended the call, traipsed back to the bedroom, and shoved the iPad into her handbag. She threw open the armoire, shuffled through Anna’s dresses and blouses and skirts. Villanelle glanced at Anna’s makeup bag, at her shoe collection. Then Villanelle let a small smile lift the corners of her stiff mouth as she picked an outfit that Anna most certainly would have approved.
Moscow’s largest psychiatric institute was made up of several conjoined, squat, Communist era buildings. They were fenced together by a concrete wall topped with barbed wire. All the windows were barred.
Inside, the wards obviously hadn’t been repaired for ages: the yellow paint on the walls had turned grey, the vinyl floor covering had many holes and some sections were coming off entirely. The bedsheets and pajamas were supposed to be changed once a week, and the wards were supposed to be cleaned daily, but judging by the sour smell of cigarettes and the foul stench pervading the main hall, this was not the case.
Villanelle checked her handbag in at the front desk; cellphones and any other devices were not allowed, but she was informed that she could make calls from the doctor’s office. The nurses eyed her suspiciously, whispered amongst themselves about her outfit: a sunshine yellow, expensive French designer’s dress that seemed to be soaked in decadent perfume. Villanelle left a floral scent in her wake as her heels echoed down the long hallways.
She passed unshaven men wearing boring uniforms, wandering through the corridors. She skirted wailing women and surly teenagers that talked to themselves. They all roamed around like animals in a cage: back and forth, with no apparent purpose, looking down or staring into space. Halfway up the corridor, three nurses sat on the bench in front of the cafeteria, herding patients in and out. Villanelle hurried along, kept her eyes fixed straight ahead.
She used to believe that as she walked among people, she was mysterious, an enigma. But here, it seemed as if everyone had always known her, perhaps as if they had read her like an open book and expected her to one day turn up here. Villanelle felt cold. In this place, she could not project a false self; vulnerability split her open like a hammer cracked stone. Here, her family was known, her lineage, her history, her capabilities, and even her failures.
Villanelle’s eyes darted everywhere around her. She choked back a wave of bile that rose up in her throat, locked a scream behind her teeth as she approached this ward’s checkpoint. She suddenly wanted to experience a sensation of being freed, if only for a moment, from the weight of her body. She wouldn’t want to over do it, no-just to hang suspended for a reasonable period. Maybe until she could slip under delirium; she had heard of that before, the concept of induced delirium, when a patient was kind of “infected” with other patients’ delusions, and started to behave exactly the same.
The young woman sitting behind the bulletproof glass glanced up when Villanelle announced herself.
“Marta Poslovina. I am here to see Antoljevna Astankova.”
“One moment, please.” She typed away. Her eyes filled with sympathy. “Miss Poslovina, because this is the Alzheimer’s ward, patients may have these moments of lucidity where it becomes clear to them that they are losing their memories. I have to explain the visitor’s procedure for you.”
“Get on with it.”
“Did you know Antol?”
“What is your relation?”
Villanelle crossed her arms. “Cut the shit and get to the part where you tell me what happens when I walk through those doors.”
“Please Miss Poslovina, do not be angry! I am only a volunteer here.” The young woman nervously rushed through her instructions. “Go in. Straight down the hall until you come to two halls that split off. Take the right one, and Mister Astankova is in the fifth room. But be careful,” she added as Villanelle went away, “he has a violent history and he may not even recognize you!”
It was like the ward was slowly fading with each step that Villanelle took. Residents approached her with modest curiosity, some of it co-mingled with anger at her graceful movement and clear destination. Villanelle swept past a fading floral pattern on a swath of wallpaper that was interrupted by an unused corkboard. When she came to Antol’s room, she hesitated. Her heart pounded. Her head was on fire. Her hands shook. Very, very slowly, Villanelle turned the door handle and quietly stepped inside the room.
Antol was crouched before a row of potted plants, facing away from the door. Black earth covered the grimy floor around him. He wore denim overalls with no shirt on underneath, his skin deeply tanned from working out in the garden under the watchful eye of his nurse. His shoulders were still broad but slumped forward. His height remained imposing, yet his current hunched posture gave the impression that his body was like a half-crunched can of soda.
He fumbled for a trowel; Villanelle kicked the gardening tool out of his reach.
Which was when Antol finally acknowledged another presence in the room by looking up. His lined face was clean shaven. Villanelle gazed upon it with disgust, feeling immensely ashamed that she unmistakably shared certain features such as the piercing hazel eyes, the blonde hair, and the cruel sneer.
Antol eyed Villanelle the way he always had, as far back as she could remember: like not only was Villanelle an eternal disappointment, but also that he could already see what kind of life she was going to have, and it was too late to do anything that would not categorize her as a failure in his eyes. Villanelle felt that familiar curdling in her stomach, that acidic hatred and unstoppable rage building. Her hands balled into fists. She breathed shallowly, feeling as if she was again the whipped dog and Antol was the collar that suffocated her.
Villanelle withdrew all the way across the other side of the room. Where he couldn’t touch her.
When he spoke, his voice was rusty from disuse and he grated out Russian like unoiled gears trying to gather enough momentum.
“Where is my garden? Why are there no flowers?”
Villanelle stared silently.
Antol blinked down at the sagging plants, the barren soil. He wiped his dirty hands on the front of his overalls. His eyes bored through Villanelle, but she did not flinch. He looked without truly seeing. She raised her chin and spoke calmly in Russian.
“You know, I killed them all,” said Villanelle. “My cousins and half-sisters and half-brothers. I burned down the house with them all inside, so they wouldn’t have to suffer your violations anymore.”
Her father had taught her how to press a rifle’s stock into her shoulder and to lean her cheek against it so that she could shut one eye and line up the sights on her target- sometimes sparrows and squirrels and rats, other times just the fat pine tree across the yard-to hold her breath and then coolly squeeze the trigger.
She used to dream of getting him in her sights.
“I should have killed you,” Villanelle continued. “I wanted to, in case you are wondering. For my whole life. But it was better to make it look like you had killed them all instead. Because I did not want to lose Anna at the time. And I wanted you to rot in here and die.”
Antol squinted at her. His hands hung limply at his sides. A strange gleam coloured his eyes. Villanelle’s shone like flints as she advanced on him.
“Except you are still alive.”
He stumbled away from her weakly. When his legs met the iron of his bed, his knees buckled and he toppled onto the squealing mattress.
“It is a bit ironic, don’t you think? That you cannot remember what you have done, that you cannot really see my face. But that I do remember everything and I recognize your ugly face.”
Anton muttered something to himself. Villanelle retrieved the trowel from the corner of the room and hefted it.
“I thought about not killing you. On the bus over here, you know. I thought maybe you might say sorry or something, and we could have a nice resolution.”
Villanelle giggled without a trace of humour.
“You have nothing. You are nothing. I have everything. I have a woman who loves me, I have her forever. Her name is Eve. Despite everything that I have done, everything you did to me, she...she loves me. And I love her. It is enough to live on. More than enough.”
Villanelle considered the gardening tool philosophically, turned it over, wiped some dirt off.
“So I thought to myself, why would I kill a man who has nothing? I would get nothing from it. Not even a feeling. I already have everything! And then I thought to myself, there are too many men like you out there. One less man might not make much of a difference. But it does,” Villanelle emphasized. “To me.”
She bent down, momentarily lowered herself to Antol’s level, and put the trowel in his hand. He stared at her blankly. Villanelle stared back, hoping for a flash of recognition. She sharpened her tone to a sickly sweet edge.
“Are you listening to me?”
“Do you want to make a garden?”
Antol nodded more vigorously.
“Can you remember what to do with that?”
Villanelle tapped the trowel. Antol shook his head.
“Where is my garden?” he asked again. “Why are there no flowers?”
“Your garden is inside you! That’s right,” Villanelle nodded along, “you must dig inside yourself to make your garden. And when you are dead and the worms eat from your rotting body, you will make pretty flowers.”
Antol smiled. His eyes glittered.
“Now, I will help you to make it.” Villanelle imitated the digging and scooping motions of the trowel against her neck. “Use what you are holding, use it! Dig inside yourself and make your garden!”
Antol obeyed. Villanelle stepped back to avoid the blood spray as he rammed the dull end of the trowel into the soft flesh of his neck, over and over again, Her eyes widened, her lips twisted into a beatific smile, she breathed in deeply to absorb the scents of blood and sweat and earth that suddenly filled the dim room. She watched Antol repetitively eviscerating his own tissue and tendon, the trowel tearing through veins, blood splashing against plastic.
A gaping hole exposed glistening sinew and bone. Antol dug into it, twisted the trowel, oblivious to his own screams. The hole widened. Blood poured. Villanelle covered her mouth. Antol rammed in the gardening tool one last time, lodged it into his neck with enough force to get it stuck almost to the hilt. A rattling sigh escaped him as his body slowly slumped to the side.
Villanelle watched the life fade from his eyes. Then she left, feeling weightless. And finally, inescapably, free.
Carolyn had called Eve’s torture sessions with The Ghost “disciplinary procedures.” And if Eve could have laughed in a way that didn’t entirely dislocate her jaw, drown her lungs in lacerating pain, and make her ribs fracture, she would have.
The first session, Eve came to realize, was merely a reintroduction between her and The Ghost. She had not immediately lashed out at Eve, she had not raised her voice or even spoken a single word, in fact. She just stared at Eve. Silently. It was the silence that made everything worse, the suffocating, sterilizing silence, as deafening and all-encompassing as the maddeningly white room.
Eve preferred her own screams and pleas and rage-infused roars to the silence. She could handle the sounds of her own body breaking, the thuds and crunches and snaps and cracks and wet pounding. Anything, anything except for the silence.
The Ghost luxuriated in it. She stayed completely silent and methodical. Eve couldn’t tell if the braces on The Ghost’s arms were there to support her convalescence from her own torture injuries, or if they were there to actually enhance the force and precision of her strikes.
With that first blow to Eve’s stomach, the torture began. Sometimes, The Ghost mostly used her fist fists. Sometimes, she came out of the mirror room with a steel rod that fell heavily across Eve’s back, her knees, her stomach. Other times, The Ghost kicked Eve viciously with rugged boots.
Air wheezed from Eve’s bruised lips. She raised her leaden arms to shield her face. The rod slammed down, fractured three fingers on her left hand. Her wrist felt disjointed. She couldn’t see anything past her blurry, stinging vision, didn’t want to hear anything over her own howls.
These were the times when Eve collapsed to the floor and writhed uncontrollably, shamelessly contorting her body in a futile attempt to dodge the kicks (which were sometimes also combined with the rod). This only seemed to invite The Ghost to swiftly add more and more kicks, on Eve’s chest, in her stomach, between her legs, at the base of her taught spine, on her shins and elbows, in her ribs.
Sometimes Eve was beaten until she could hardly stand, then dragged by her hair to a corner, flung onto the polished white floor of the room, given scraps of seconds to heave some air into her lungs, then beaten again.
Oh, she had tried to fight. The first time, she bobbed and weaved as much as her unstable arms and legs allowed. She scuttled away from The Ghost, shuffled across the room, slid uselessly down the curved, comb-like walls. Attempted to tear the wires down from the ceiling to use them as a whip or something, anything, anything at all that wouldn’t leave her so exposed.
She tried keeping the table between them, until The Ghost smashed the chair over Eve’s head. The only reason Eve blearily realized that she’d blacked out was because she regained consciousness from the concentrated slaps and punches against her face; she couldn’t even open both of her eyes because the right one was sealed shut with crusted blood and a swelling, dark bruise.
The whole time, The Ghost was silent. Not a drop of emotion leaked from her eyes. Not a single movement came from passion; rather, it sprung from economy of motion and effectiveness. Eve tried to claw at her face, tried to seize her wrists, tried to lash out and catch her by surprise, only to be met a sheen of impassivity.
Eve stopped fighting back when it dawned on her that The Ghost wanted her to. She would let Eve lurch forward to try to land blows against The Ghost’s face, to try to kick and shove her; The Ghost allowed Eve to come at her with hysterical strength, only for her to calmly sidestep, or propel Eve past her using Eve’s own momentum, or to interrupt Eve’s disarray with crushing blows that brought Eve to her knees.
Then The Ghost disappeared at various intervals. Eve paced the perimeter of the room, trailed her damaged hands against the walls and the faint seams where the doors noiselessly opened and closed, yelled at her reflection in the two-way mirror and banged on it desperately. There didn’t seem to be any pattern or predictability to when The Ghost would return, or for how long she would be away. Was it minutes or hours? Days or weeks? It felt like months to Eve.
During these reprieves, Carolyn would come to the room. Eve sat at the table, her hands placed delicately in front of her, and she would stare straight ahead. Carolyn didn’t always come into Eve's view; indeed, this gave Eve a sinister feeling that whenever Carolyn was at her elbow, just out of sight. It was Carolyn who was behind everything! It was, it was, of course it was.
Eve would close her eye to try and shut out Carolyn’s caustic remarks. Memories stood out in Eve’s mind disconnectedly, like pictures with blackness all around them. Her heart became a stone, assaulted by the trickling water of Carolyn’s voice that cleaved through it. Whenever Eve’s mind drifted to Villanelle, she absent-mindedly stroked the place on her trembling finger where the plastic ring had been.
Eve’s stomach growled. Her throat was parched. Sleep wasn’t an option. She kept herself focused by dipping into the pain coursing through her body. She dug her sharp nails into the stripped skin of her forearm, or poked her finger into a leaking wound on her side, or leaned more weight onto her throbbing foot. With her teeth, she tore off strips of her blouse to tightly wrap around her fractured fingers like a splint; other strips were used to soak up blood and to staunch its flow from her very worst injuries. Eve held one spit-soaked strip against her right eye, dabbing at the dried blood and puss that still sealed it shut. Trying to pry it open made her gasp in pain, so she’d simply fixed her functional, bloodshot left eye on the marble table as Carolyn had entered the room again.
“A broken will might recover,” she informed Eve, as if she was discussing the possibility of improving bad grades for a rebellious student. “A broken body can heal. Agony fades.”
Eve raised her eye to glare contemptuously at Carolyn and her lips quivered into a pout. She refused to turn her head as Carolyn placed herself behind Eve. Her voice was flat, cold, and ruthlessly smooth (Eve wouldn’t have been surprised if Carolyn turned out to be a cyborg, for all her mechanical demeanour).
“I hope there won’t be any hard feelings between us, after all. Please. You will eventually come to understand that I did what’s best for you. And for Villanelle too, of course.”
Eve’s shoulders tensed as she felt Carolyn place her hands upon them. Her grip was firm. A bit too firm.
“Believe me, there is nothing personal about this. The Ghost has conducted herself in a most professional manner. You should learn from her example. I mean you really must maintain some level of self-respect Eve, some professional standards!”
Eve let her head hang. She remembered how soft and reassuring Villanelle’s touch had been; how she smelled like a summer’s day spent lying in the middle of a field, looking up at the clouds.
“Do not imagine that you will be vindicated after the fact, Eve. No one will ever hear of you. I will personally make sure that you’re erased from every institutional record. You’ll be wiped from each place you’ve ever worked at or lived in or visited. Nothing will remain of you, not a name in a birth certificate or census form, not a photograph stored in your phone or computer, not a memory in a living brain. You will be annihilated, after the fact. You do not exist. You will never have existed.”
The Ghost came back to beat Eve for ten or twelve hours at a stretch. She was in constant, registered pain. But it was not just pain, this time. The Ghost pulled her hair, slapped her face, made her stand on one leg, toppled her with a blow to her stomach, made Eve lick her mud and shit stained boots, shone a glaring light in Eve’s face until her eyes ran with water, and refused to let her urinate.
It got so bad that Eve pissed herself. Her pants were wetted, dried after a time, then wetted again. They were still wet the next time that Carolyn came into the room. If the stench bothered her, she gave no indication. She simply looked down at Eve gravely and rather sadly. Carolyn’s face, seen from below, looked coarse and worn, with pouches under the eyes and tired lines from nose to chin.
“All you have to do,” said Carolyn, “is to renounce Villanelle.”
Eve’s burst of harsh laughter ended in a gasp of pain.
“Don’t protect her. She wouldn’t do the same for you.”
“You don’t know that.”
The final session with The Ghost left Eve a whimpering, cowering, groveling mess. She didn’t bother to crawl to the table, to drag herself up into a sitting position. From her angle on the floor, Eve saw Carolyn’s black loafers come into view.
Eve spoke hoarsely as blood bubbled from her broken lips, loosened teeth, and swollen gums.
“I’d be very surprised if you didn’t.”
Carolyn crouched down, cocked her head to the side, narrowed her eyes at Eve.
“The Ghost understands discretion.”
“If you...wanted that...then why...did you ask Villanelle and me...to do this for you...in the first place?”
“It took a bit longer than I anticipated for Kenny to track down The Ghost again, that is all.”
Eve closed her eye. “Did you...let her into...The Twelve?”
“Surviving the Demon With No Face was most impressive. Naturally, I made her an offer in line with the directive of The Twelve.”
“What did you...offer The Ghost?”
“Protection for her children.”
“Like...how you’re...protecting...Konstantin’s family?”
Carolyn flicked away a speck of dirt on her sleeve. Her tone was deceptively calm and patient when she addressed Eve, again with the air of a teacher taking great pains with a less than ideal student.
“You know, this reminds me...When Villanelle was in that awful Russian prison, we had a very productive chat.”
“About you, Eve.”
Eve opened her eye. She focused on Carolyn until her gaze blurred.
“The Keepers have obviously proven themselves incompetent this far. But we can’t just leave the remaining intelligence loose out there in the world.”
“You have...The Ghost now.”
Carolyn inclined her head. “I doubt she’ll outpace Villanelle in securing the remaining intelligence.”
“When we’ve got all the intelligence, things will be different. Unfortunately, you’ve proven yourself immensely stubborn and incompetent in your current role. Not to mention...inflexible. It seems you don’t take too well to discipline. Of any kind.” Carolyn smirked. “I was the same way. So in light of this, I thought that I would offer you another role.”
“What...do you mean?”
“Eve, I want you to join The Twelve.”
Eve attempted to chuckle. She managed to squeeze out a strained breath.
“I don’t...like your...recruitment methods.”
“Please, Eve. This is a serious offer. I want you to join The Twelve as Villanelle’s new Handler.”
“No,” responded Eve sharply.
“Take some time to think about it.”
“You can have...my answer...now, Carolyn. No.”
“Don’t be silly, Eve.”
“You said that...I always...have a...choice...right?”
Carolyn’s nostrils flared. “Correct. An informed choice, at that. So you should know that I’ve told The Ghost to hold off on killing Villanelle until you’ve properly considered my offer.”
“You’re not thinking clearly. I sincerely hope your real choice takes into account that it’s not only yourself that you have to think about.”
Carolyn sighed. “The stiff upper lip is not always best, Eve.”
Eve looked Carolyn dead in the eyes. A slow smile spread across her bloated face.
“I know Villanelle...better than anyone. Better...than she...knows...herself. And...The Ghost? Doesn’t...stand a chance.”
The city of Córdoba in Spain was a dreamy collection of winding white washed streets, jasmine filled patios, and Moorish architectural treasures such as the Palacio de Viana. Its rustic facade of drab beiges and browns only served to make its tranquil courtyards and lush gardens planted with cypresses, orange trees and myrtles stand out colourfully. Palm trees swayed in the gentle breeze, which carried the scent of spices to Villanelle as she exited the palace.
She came out of the west wing pocketing a silver USB. Some stray tourists looked at her in a puzzled manner, but she glared at them darkly until they turned their attention back to the vine covered arches and the sky-blue shutters of the second floor. Villanelle had no interest in the palace’s vast art and antique collection, but she had found the Keeper tending to it earlier that day. A quick snap of her neck as she’d paused to wipe her creased brow while she gazed out the window ensured that Villanelle would be able to have a light lunch and still catch the next train on time-long after the security team discovered the Keeper was stuffed into one of her own display cases.
The sequence merrily uploaded into the iPad in the time it took for Villanelle to leave the old quarter and make her way down a promenade. She ducked into narrow alleys and offshoots of unpaved streets just to avoid the steady stream of tourists clogging the main routes. Cars honked their horns, obscuring the whimsical sound of wind chimes until Villanelle got close enough to brush past them. Street vendors shouted their wares. Laughing children chased dogs through the crowds. The locals were distinguished from the tourists because only the locals were oblivious to the ancient presence of Mezquita, Córdoba’s multiarched, lustrously decorated great mosque. A Christian cathedral was plonked right in the middle of it in a harmonious fusion amidst the vibrant columns; its tall bell tower presided over the area, waiting somberly.
Villanelle ate her fill at a nearby tapas bar, then decided to buy herself a gift to celebrate her progress. She walked around for a bit, window shopping. The perfume shop tucked away in the corner of a courtyard invited her to explore it thanks to its heady scents. It wasn’t until Villanelle reached for her wallet and peeked inside that she realized that the meal had cost her more than she’d anticipated. Blushing with shame, she barely managed to inform the owner that she would be back later with more money.
And when she did return later that afternoon with copious amounts of money, Villanelle upgraded her chosen bottle of perfume to the largest available size as a sort of congratulations to herself for not massacring the entire market population out irritation. Restlessness made Villanelle walk a long way to one of the most bustling plazas. Stately apartment buildings flanked it on all sides, along with the usual restaurants and stores bearing fluctuating tides of people.
Villanelle found a shaded table and sank down onto one of the metal chairs. She watched people come and go, got up and drank from the large fountain playing in the plaza’s center, peered into the cloudless sky once she’d gotten back to the chair, and observed the motions of her chest as she breathed steadily. A couple kissing in greeting made her heart skip a beat; she clenched and unclenched her hands, turned her head away stiffly, and distracted herself by getting out the iPad.
It didn’t take long for Konstantin to answer her FaceTime call. He looked to be outside his safehouse, resting on the stairs with a glass of lemonade beside him.
“You have done well, I hope?”
“When have I not done well? Tell me that, Konstantin.”
“Because you have always done well. More than well.”
Villanelle beamed. “You are being very nice today.”
“When have I not been very nice? Tell me that, Villanelle.”
“Well, there was that time you made me work with Nadia again...”
Konstantin took a long drink. “Where are you?”
“Córdoba, in Spain.”
“Do you like it?”
“I have not decided yet. But it has good perfume.”
Villanelle took the decadent bottle out, turned it this way and that for Konstantin to see, and slowly unscrewed its cap.
“There are only three USBs left. Have you thought about how we will celebrate when I am done?”
Konstantin shrugged. Villanelle stuck her tongue out at him. “You may be nice, but you are not much fun.”
Villanelle inhaled the perfume deeply. She lightly sprayed the pulse points on her neck a bit, then promptly sealed the bottle again to save the rest for that special occasion when she reunited with Eve.
She kept talking to Konstantin for a while. More people came and went, passed her by to cross the plaza, lingered to ask her for a smoke, begged her for spare change. She waved them all off, struggled to concentrate on Konstantin. At first she thought it was because he was droning on about something that had nothing to do with her. Yet...no matter how hard she squinted at the screen, Konstantin was getting blurrier and blurrier. Sweat broke out on her forehead and she found that talking was as hard as chewing through leather.
Villanelle’s head hurt. Nausea roiled deep in her gut. She loosened the top buttons of her blouse, but still, she couldn’t breathe. Her heart pounded and pounded, her vision blistered. Konstantin was yelling, it seemed, but then why was he so quiet and far away?
Ragged, constricted gasps wracked Villanelle. She rubbed her throat, slammed a fist onto the table, hit her chest over and over again to stimulate her abruptly slowed heart. Sweat poured down her face, into her wide, alarmed eyes. Choked words pushed themselves past the foam gathering at her mouth, but there was no volume to them. She clawed at her throat now, at her lungs, too. Konstantin bellowed, shouted her name again and again.
The world spun. Colours drained from the sky. The sounds of traffic and sparkling water and excited people faded. There was not enough air, not enough time, not nearly enough time-
Somewhere in the distance, the cathedral’s bell tolled.
Well folks, we’re halfway through this fic!
Thank you for investing time and care into reading so far.
From the bottom of my heart, my deepest gratitude goes out to agapius, NotesFromTheChamber, KillngEveKindofLove, and humeforks for their incredible support, encouraging comments, and dedication to enjoying reading this fic as much as I enjoy writing it! You’re all lovely and I’m so, so damn thankful for you.
I promise that the second half of this fic will be even more exciting (as well as darker and bloodier) than the first. There are plenty more twists coming up! I certainly don’t expect you to agree with them all, however all I ask is that you stick around until this is a complete work and you can judge it as such.
In the meantime, kudos, bookmarks, recs, and comments are more than welcome! What do you enjoy about this story? What are some areas for improvement? I’m always open to feedback, so please do feel free to share your thoughts. They help me grow as a writer and only enhance my writing experience!
I truly appreciate everyone who reads this fic. Your kindness and inspiration keeps me going. I hope you enjoy the rest!
Chapter 13: A Sentimental Old Man
I am too old for this.
Konstantin checked his watch again. He’d taken the first available plane from London to Córdoba. But that still left a gap of seven long hours between the moment he’d witnessed Villanelle crumple before him, to this very moment, where he was listening to a young man recount how he’d found and brought her to the hospital.
Konstantin closed his eyes. He could not escape images of Villanelle’s pained face, her jagged breaths, the confusion and panic swirling in her eyes, how she’d fallen so suddenly, leaving an empty chair and the sounds of the fountain in her wake.
A hard, cold knot formed in Konstantin’s stomach the more vividly the young man’s frantic, guttural Arabic explained the situation.
“As I already told you, I am an Uber driver. I was heading to my car, when I saw this pretty woman collapse. She is very pretty, yes? Even knocked out, she is very pretty.”
“Yes, yes,” grumbled Konstantin. The language rested low in his throat, unfurling slowly like a banner in the arid wind. “And you took her to this hospital?”
“I did. Right here to the sixth floor, to this room.” The young man jerked his chin to the closed door. “She is still in there. Knocked out.”
“You have done a good job. You can go now.”
“I want to stay here until she wakes up. So she can thank me in person. She is very, very pretty. Do you think she will give me her number?”
Konstantin chuckled. “When is your next shift?”
“Whenever someone calls me for a ride.”
“Does anyone know you are in here?”
“No. It’s okay, I will wait here.”
“I have a reward for you. Downstairs. Come with me.”
The young man trailed behind Konstantin, who took a sharp turn down an alley and muttered something about it being a shortcut to his car. Seconds later, he locked the young man in a chokehold. Konstantin nudged his corpse daintily once he’d shuddered and gurgled to death, then went back into the hospital. The cameras witnessed his ascent to the sixth floor. Some nurses and doctors smiled thinly at him as they passed by; Konstantin did not return that smile.
His lips were set in a grim line. Every second that ticked away felt like a blade being dragged across his skin. A jagged pounding clouded his head. He opened the door to find Villanelle hooked up to heart and lung machines. The digital sound of intermittent beeping filled the small, still room.
Villanelle was shrouded by thin sheets. Her breaths were so faint that Konstantin barely noticed the expansion of her chest. He peered closely at her sallow face. It was covered in sweat, so much so that her hair was matted against her forehead. Konstantin gently brushed some strands aside and let his hand rest there for a moment.
Villanelle did not stir. The machines kept beeping.
Walking on suddenly weakened legs, Konstantin moved to sit on a plastic chair opposite the bed. He watched the machines monitor Villanelle’s blood pressure and heartbeats, both of which dropped to basically non existent numbers, then occasionally trembled just up to the threshold of notice.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
A set of IV needles were inserted into Villanelle’s veins at various points in both her arms; they rested heavily at her sides, crumpling the sheets into abstract creases, globs of shadows, peaks and valleys of soft material trying to hide from the harsh lights overhead. Their pale glow accentuated Villanelle’s sickly pallor by crystallizing the sweat across her skin into a horrible glaze. She hadn’t looked this weak and ashen since Konstantin had recruited her from the Russian prison.
But Villanelle was alive. She was alive. She was alive. She was alive.
Konstantin took his head out of his shaking hands and angrily wiped his eyes as the door opened. A doctor stepped into the room. He held a clipboard with sheets upon sheets of scrawled notes. He greeted Konstantin hastily in Arabic.
“Hello, excuse me, who are you?
“I’ve come to see the patient.”
“But okay, who are you?”
“I-I am a diplomat.”
The doctor’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. Konstantin allowed his voice to break with desperation.
“She is my daughter.”
“So sorry. She is not in a good state.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“I identified the compound in her veins as a nerve agent.”
Konstantin went numb. “What kind of nerve agent?”
The doctor’s expression lapsed into one of deep concern and somber understanding.
“You are a diplomat, yes? Surely you are familiar with the name Novichok.”
Konstantin’s brain blotted out the doctor’s voice for a moment as he recalled information from the crevices of his mind. Novichok was a Russian name, of course. It meant “newcomer”. And it also referred to a group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s to elude international restrictions on chemical weapons.
“Novichok has been all over the news lately. You are not a British diplomat, I hope? It killed two of them only a few months ago.”
“I remember.” Konstantin cleared his throat. “What will happen to her?”
The doctor glanced at Villanelle. “She will be in coma for a week. All of the time, she is receiving injections of the drug atropine. Which helps her to keep breathing,” he added quickly when Konstantin’s face became thunderous.
“What can I do?” he asked.
“Well, you are welcome to stay here. But not much else, I’m afraid. The drugs must do their work.”
“What do they...do?”
“Atropine is only an antidote, not a cure. It will help your daughter recover her brain’s proper chemical balance. But even after she wakes, it takes up to two weeks to fully restore sufficient levels of nerve functioning.”
“And until then?”
The doctor shrugged. “Pray.”
Contrary to the doctor’s advice, Konstantin did not spend the week praying. He barely allowed himself to sleep. The few jerky seconds of rest he did get quickly descended into nightmares that eventually erupted into him gasping awake to loom over Villanelle. Time bled on as he washed her skin with soap and water. He also rinsed her eyes periodically and gave her plenty of oxygen under the doctor’s watchful gaze.
“It was lucky that she came to the hospital right away,” he’d remarked after monitoring the machines and vigorously making notes.
“The Novichok sample was an older one. The more recent samples from the 1980s take just a few minutes to work. But this one did not really kick in until about fifteen minutes after she was admitted. You are a lucky man.”
“Yes. I am.”
Nevermind that he did not feel like a lucky man. He felt like his heart was being pulled out of his chest and meticulously cut into pieces for every second that he watched Villanelle drift in the ether, completely lost to and closed off from him. Konstantin spent the nights holding one of her cold hands in both of his own. In the dim light of the single lamp on the bedside table, he was consistently struck by their differences; his plump fingers were gnarled like the roots of an ancient tree, whereas hers were smooth, slender, teeming with dexterity and precise strength, even in their motionless state.
By the middle of the week, the machines displayed a cascade of all Villanelle’s major life organs failing, one after another-just switching on and off: the lungs, the heart, the kidneys. The doctor adjusted her atropine dosage in response. He reiterated to a puffy-eyed Konstantin that Villanelle’s absolutely fragile condition meant that she didn’t need any additional stress once she regained consciousness.
Konstantin had paced many kilometers up and down the length of the hospital room near the end of the week. The hallway beyond periodically reeked of vinegar; the sheets were changed by increasingly nervous looking nurses that Konstantin glowered at; and he only left the room to go as far as the hospital entrance when the recycled, ominous air became too much for him to bear.
On the day Villanelle was set to come out of her coma, the doctor waited expectantly upstairs while Konstantin perused the hospital’s gift shop. He bought a bouquet of pink roses and picked the least ugly stuffed animal he could find: a white tiger. These items were placed at the foot of Villanelle’s bed. The beeping of the machines gradually quickened along with Konstantin’s heart at the first tilt of her head. When she finally opened her eyes, Konstantin softly instructed her not to speak or to move.
He stroked her cheek lightly, offering a warm touch against her clammy, shining skin.
“Do you recognize me? Don’t talk. Just nod or shake your head if you can.”
“Good.” Konstantin reached for the stuffed tiger. He delicately wrapped Villanelle’s fingers around it. “It is clean and...fluffy. You will like it, I know.”
The doctor hesitantly placed the bouquet by Villanelle’s head. Its scent drifted to her and she slowly turned to look at him.
“I have been treating you. Try not to be alarmed, but I must tell you...you have just woken up from a coma.”
Villanelle’s brow furrowed. Her voice was faint and there were meandering intervals between her delayed phrasing.
Konstantin shrugged when the doctor glanced pointedly at him.
“What do you remember?” asked the doctor.
“I…bought...perfume. It...smelled…nice. Then...pain. And...now this.”
“Okay. How do you feel?”
“You...are...really...a...doctor? R-really?” A long wheeze escaped Villanelle. “I...feel...like shit. Total...shit.”
Konstantin managed a strained chuckle through his tears. “She will be fine.”
He worriedly brandished his clipboard. “We’ll see.”
“What...is...happening? Where...what is...this place?” Villanelle’s dulled eyes dragged themselves left and right to somehow scan the room from her prone position. “What...is...the day?”
“Don’t worry about that now. The important thing to focus on is your recovery.”
Upon obtaining Konstantin’s curt nod, the doctor replied matter-of-factly.
“You were attacked with a nerve agent called Novichok.”
Konstantin watched Villanelle’s face twitch from shock to unbridled rage; her lips peeled back into a snarl, she gripped the edge of the bed, she glared at him fiercely and with such deep despair that Konstantin felt fresh tears drip down his cheeks. Suddenly, she thrashed and wailed. The doctor immediately pried loose the stuffed animal, tossed the roses aside, and jerked away from the bed when Villanelle’s arm flung out.
Her gaze was fixed on nothing and she didn’t respond to Konstantin sharply calling out to her. The doctor cursed when Villanelle became as rigid as a board, then cursed more loudly when she flailed around. It was clear that her legs shook, and shook so violently that the sheets slipped off the bed. She yelled. Her arms jerked again. She kept on thrashing.
Konstantin helped the doctor quickly place Villanelle on her side. He adjusted the soft pillow beneath her head. Gradually, Villanelle stilled. Her eyes refocused.
“You-you’ve just had a seizure,” the doctor informed her. “Again, please do not be alarmed. You are receiving atropine and it will help you stabilize.”
“Will it stop the damage?” Konstantin asked hoarsely.
The doctor hesitated.
“No, it won’t stop the damage.”
The doctor looked down at his clipboard, then at Villanelle.
“Your long term prognosis is manageable,” he said gently. “The drugs are a great help. But I am sorry, the damage is permanent. Expect to have ongoing seizures from the nerve agent. Your thought process will slow, as will your reflexes. You will have breathing problems, too.”
Villanelle’s mouth slackened. She closed her eyes tightly.
“I must keep you here for at least another day or two. You need to keep taking atropine. It will break through your blood-brain barrier and restore proper chemical activity in your brain.”
Konstantin forced himself to leave the hospital in order to buy Villanelle acceptable underwear and clothing, which he carefully helped her put on when the doctor briefly unhooked the machines. On the day Villanelle was finally cleared to leave the hospital, he cautioned them against any sort of travel.
“You greatly risk worsening your condition! You need to be resting now.”
“We cannot stay here.”
“I am not letting you out of my sight again,” snapped Konstantin. “If we go anywhere, we go together.”
“That is wise.” The doctor patted the medical bag that supplied more than enough doses of atropine to Villanelle. “You must give her an injection every one to two hours. No stress. No strenuous activity.”
“But can we travel?”
“It will be very unpleasant. She will vomit. Experience diarrhea. She will slip in and out of consciousness the longer your flight is. I do not recommend it at all. Just where are you going, anyway?”
“None of your business.” Konstantin tossed the doctor a thick packet of money. “Take this. Shut up. We were never here. None of this happened. Understood?”
Konstantin guided Villanelle to his car. She sat sullenly for the whole ride to the airport. And she could not seem to muster the strength to even protest when he slid the needle into her veins every once in a while. The sound of her melodious voice was missing from the air; he longed to see a spark return to her intelligent eyes. With a small smile, Konstantin offered her some information that would surely lift her spirits as they boarded the plane.
“Cheer up, Villanelle. You are going back to Eve.”
London was experiencing quintessentially London weather: consistent rain, milky fog, drafts of cold brought about by gusty wind hurling down the cobblestoned streets, and moody, volatile grey skies that were covered with opaque clouds. Raindrops splashed against the townhouse windows and pattered on the roof.
Eve glanced up idly. She contemplated how badly she actually wanted to refill her tea mug; it required getting up from her currently blanketed position on the cozy couch. Yet the warmth of the tea was soothing and unclenched the constant knot in her gut. With a groan, Eve limped over to the kitchen. The kettle was still hot. Steaming Earl Grey tea swirled into the earthenware mug. Eve gratefully grasped it tightly and carried it upstairs.
She sat on the edge of the bed in the room she’d once occupied with Niko. The very thought of him made her scald the roof of her mouth. She yelped. Swore in Korean. Slammed the mug down on the table at her side of the bed. And sat there, listening to the rain, staring at the plastic ring that was back to its rightful place on her ring finger.
That particular finger had healed in the time since her release from MI6, but it was permanently bent at a slightly crooked angle in comparison to her middle and fore fingers. Still, the ring fit well enough. Eve rubbed it reflexively as she listened to the rain intensify. The view outside the bedroom windows became blurry. Thunder growled in the distance. Eve held the mug again, just to give her hands something to do.
Or maybe its heat kept her grounded amidst the clustered memories that flashed through her mind as viciously and clearly as the lightning searing between the layers of clouds.
Villanelle telling Eve to wear her hair down, the very first time she ever saw Eve. Villanelle sending her a suitcase filled with decadent clothes and perfume, somehow knowing they would fit like a second skin. Villanelle traipsing around in Chanel, buying Eve her heart’s content worth of lingerie and suits, then kissing her madly.
Eve lumbered downstairs again, sipping tea delicately as she went. The memories flowed most strongly in the kitchen: Villanelle eating Shepherd’s pie. Villanelle hungrily admiring the black and white cocktail dress that flattered Eve perfectly. Villanelle leaning in to smell Eve’s perfume, the knife point digging into her collarbone. Villanelle pressing her up against the sink, teasingly trailing another, much more wickedly curved knife, between her breasts.
Beneath the moist scent of rain, Eve could still smell Notre Dame burning.
She rubbed the plastic ring. The rest of her belongings had been returned, but she’d left them behind to be disposed of at MI6. This sense of relief, of relinquishing dead weight, stayed with Eve even when she’d dropped by the MI6 office earlier this week. Then it only became more amplified thanks to the fact that Kenny, Jess, and Hugo were nowhere to be found. There was just a wide open space, ringing with emptiness, a space that Eve could occupy all on her own; expanding and flourishing and cutting loose until she poured out the river of darkness steadily rising within.
Its banks nearly overflowed every time that Eve glimpsed herself in a reflective surface: the toaster, the mirror in the bedroom, the bread knife. Her face was still bruised. The skin around and beneath her right eye remained darkened; whenever light slanted over that area, it had a rather ghoulish effect.
Eve’s remaining injuries were covered easily enough by assorted blouses, an occasional well-worn jumper, and a lot of careful tilting of her body that obscured the very worst of them. In the evenings, Eve did not sleep; she spent hours in front of the mirror just staring at her naked body. She bandaged the gashes on her ribs; glowered at the ghastly bruises on her stomach and shoulders; pretended not to hear the way the bones in her legs creaked like rusty hinges when she walked; washed her hands, twice, every time that they clumsily dropped things like framed honeymoon photographs or a cereal box. Her hair had surpassed even its own previous unruly length.
Notre Dame was still in the news, but the current cycle had been overtaken by more gruesome news: the half-decomposed body of a castrated police officer was found in one of Lille’s vibrant tulip fields. INTERPOL was on high alert. The international consciousness sizzled with a rabid pulse, countries crackling to life like synapses electrifying each other.
The townhouse ensconced Eve in its familiarity. Walls and doors and laundry and shoes and books and shelves and hardwood floors dulled the intrusion of the outside world. Eve buried herself in the scattered mess of her office. She was absorbed by her laptop screen, scrolling endless I.T. articles, AI theses, and practice runs of code that blurred the lines between simply typing out instructions and attempting to hack her own home security system.
Over a glass of crisp, dry Chardonnay, Eve dialed the company number of Pharaday UK. The rings buzzed in her right ear, the plastic of the kitchen phone heated up as she pressed the handset against her cheek, and the buzzsaw of excitement tore through her chest every time someone picked up. Eve lied her way up through the human resources department, sometimes switching to Korean and snippets of broken English depending on who she was transferred to.
Eventually, Eve gave her name to Amber Peel’s executive assistant and drummed her fingers against the desk until Amber picked up.
“Hey, Amber. How are you holding up?”
“Fine. What do you want?”
“I need to talk to you.”
“And if I don’t want to talk to you?”
“Then I’ll suddenly remember that I witnessed you murder your brother and conveniently forget to keep my mouth shut.”
Amber swore. Eve grinned. She clicked the top of a pen over and over again while she waited for Amber to warily move their conversation along.
“How can I possibly help you?”
“Well, I was doing some research and I came across a news snippet that reported you’d sold Pharaday to the British government. Is that true?”
“It was worth it. Look, if you want to talk about media, get in touch with my PR team. Okay? I’ve got a company to run.”
“I’m not finished with you yet,” snapped Eve. “Aaron’s program isn’t just being weaponized by the government and you know that.”
“So you’d also know that Aaron was smart enough to build some kind of failsafe or fallout plan, or something that would protect his legacy no matter whose hands the AI fell into.”
“If you’re not going to get to the point of this harrassing phone call, I’m going to just hang up.”
“Don’t hang up before you tell me about Aaron’s USBs.”
“They’re part of a sequence. And you know that.”
“Yes. But what does it do? What is it for?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t exactly close with my brother.”
“Right. He thought you were too stupid for him to to share information like that. Maybe he’s right.”
Eve’s grin widened at the sound of Amber’s frustration.
“I’m hanging up-”
“Can the sequence be corrupted?”
Silence. Eve held her breath.
“Um, I don’t know,” Amber answered eventually. “Probably? I’m not a hacker.”
“I’m not really one either. I just need to know if there’s some kind of flaw in these USBs that makes corruption possible.”
“If there is, I don’t know how to find it.”
“Fine. Can you just...send me a blank silver USB or something?”
“A clean USB, with no data on it. Send one to me. I want to study it.”
“Okay. I’ll just call the press, then.”
“Wait!” A long sigh whistled out of the phone’s endpiece. “Alright. I’ll send you the silver USB. But Eve-”
She hung up triumphantly. Two days later, Amber was as good as her word. The USB arrived in a chocolate box, tucked below the top layer of decadent liqueurs. Eve raided the box, reaching out for the chocolates one by one until there were none left and she’d pried between the USB’s mechanics.
There was nothing to upload to her laptop, no flickering, shifting sequence to interpret. Eve ran her hands through her hair. She chewed on her bottom lip as she hesitantly wrote a line of code onto the USB’s client driver. Nothing happened. She tried again. The block-lettered words fuck you Carolyn appeared briefly on the screen, before Eve replaced them with curt instructions that led her to subsequently write two more complementary lines.
Half a bottle of rosé disappeared by the time Eve took a break from coding to call her mom, who picked up on the fourth ring.
“You don’t usually call me, Eve. Are you in trouble?”
It took a moment for Eve to adjust to the sound of the rhythmic, airy Korean. Once her tongue broke through the first few syllables, her response came smoothly.
“I’m fine, mom.”
“Then what do you want? I don’t understand.”
“I-I just wanted to talk to you.”
“Sure, Eve. That’s what you always say.”
Eve thought about cracking open another bottle of rosé, which seemed to be the only sane way of getting through this conversation.
“How are you?”
“Bored and lonely. I have no grandchildren to care for.”
The chair rolled back from the desk hard enough to hit the other side of Eve’s office wall. She went to the kitchen, uncorked another bottle, and glugged straight from it.
“Are you drinking again?”
Eve swallowed hard. “No.”
“Is it because you’re having marriage problems again?”
“Uh...yeah. Actually that’s-that’s why I need your advice.”
“Call your friends for advice.”
The very sudden realization that Eve didn’t really have any friends slammed into her. Wine dripped down her chin.
“I just got back from Kew Gardens when you called me,” she said quietly. “The cherry blossoms look like they’re going to whither.”
“That’s nice. Listen, before you get back to watching tv for the afternoon or whatever, can I just-”
“Oh, I told you last time we talked. I got rid of the television. It’s awful. There’s nothing good on. Ever. So I don’t watch anymore.”
“I tried watching something about a year ago. it was this show about two women, an MI6 agent and an assassin, becoming obsessed with each other. There’s a second season now, but I like the first one better. Are you still at MI5, Eve?”
Eve carefully set the bottle down and gulped in a hiccup. “I don’t want to talk about work.”
“That’s probably best. You always said it was boring.”
“It’s recently gotten interesting.” Eve exhaled slowly. “Mom, why did you get divorced?”
“Your father was a difficult man.”
“I know. But did you still love him?”
“No. That feeling was gone by then.”
“Because your father was a difficult man.”
“Love is difficult when the person is difficult. I still think it’s worth it, though.”
“Oh really? What does Niko think?”
Eve scowled. “He gives up too easily.”
Her mom’s laugh tinkled through the phone. “No one will ever be as doggedly persistent as you. I’ve told you that since you were a child.”
“I know, I know.”
“I’m sure you two will sort out your problems.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve been problem solving these past few days.” Eve raked her free hand through her hair. “Did you ever feel a connection with dad?”
“What do you mean?”
“Y’know, a-a connection. A real, deep connection.” Eve glanced down at the plastic ring.
“We loved each other until we didn’t. My feelings didn’t stop me from doing what I needed to do.”
“I get that. It’s just...you two never seemed passionate when I was a kid. You just functioned. Until you didn’t, I guess.”
“Marriage is functional, Eve. It is an institution. Having children is part of it. Maybe if you were a mother, you would understand what I mean and wouldn’t be having these problems with Niko.”
Eve laughed mirthlessly. “I really don’t think children are the solution here.”
“Children aren’t the problem or the solution. They are a miracle.”
“What is it you can’t solve? What do you need my advice for?”
Eve took another long swig from the bottle to brace herself. Then the words poured out.
“I used to feel so alone. Like I was the only person in the world. I had no one to share myself with. And then, y’know...someone came along and took that loneliness away.”
“Yes, Niko did come into your life when you were coping with your father’s death all by yourself.”
“Right.” Eve swirled the wine in the bottle. “Sometimes, when the connection just vibrates, there’s no one else in the world. Y’know? With the right person, it’s like your thoughts and your feelings and your heartbeats just...sync. There’s nothing else outside the two of you. And it happens when they cry in your arms as you hold them. When you crawl into bed while they’re fast asleep and then they reach out to you. When you make eye contact across a crowded room and everyone else disappears. When you’re sitting next to each other, holding hands, just having conversations without even realizing how close you are...god. I live for that. For the emotional intensity that comes with that connection.”
“I had no idea you felt that way about Niko.”
Eve traced her thumb against the edge of the plastic ring. “I’ve always wanted this. I’d do anything to keep it, to have it burning inside me and to keep giving it away, just to get it reciprocated.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“I’m wondering...I mean I wanted to ask you-”
“Do you think I’m crazy? That the way I love is...too much?”
“You’ve always been this way, Eve. That’s the way you are. I don’t see why it’s a problem if you’re with the right person, like you’ve described.”
The silence between them stretched painfully.
“But I must say...it doesn’t sound like you’re talking about Niko.”
Eve choked on a mouthful of wine. “What do you mean?”
“Have your eyes been wandering? Have you committed the sin of adultery?”
“No, mom.” Not lately.
“I hope not. It’s your duty as a wife to be faithful to your husband. Even if you don’t like him. I never had sinful thoughts, even after I divorced your father.”
“Isn’t divorce considered a sin?”
“It’s a more forgivable one than adultery!”
“If you say so.”
“I do. A wife’s duty is to be faithful to her husband. And to bear his children.”
“Then I guess I’m just a shitty wife.”
“I don’t know. You never bring up your marriage enough for me to know.”
“Okay. Well. Thanks for chatting with me, mom.”
Eve ended the call and then held her head in her hands. The ghost of Villanelle’s perfume lingered in the air. It seemed to intertwine itself with Eve’s curls; to settle on top of her shoulders, to wrap itself between her fingers and teasingly brush against her cheeks. An aching, bottomless void ruptured Eve’s chest. She could feel the smoothness of Villanelle’s skin, see the blush in her cheeks, the wildfire surging to life in her captivating eyes. Eve collapsed onto the couch, threw a hand over her face, and wasn’t roused from her stupor until late the next morning.
Heavy knocking assaulted the front door. Eve threw it open. Squinting past the glaring sunlight, she made out Konstantin’s hulking silhouette.
Konstantin chuckled. “I will take you to her. Come.”
They went to The Twelve’s hotel near Norfolk Square in Paddington. Shiny offices and elegant Georgian townhouses lined the streets. Travelers came in and out of the pubs that dotted the area. Tall, leafy trees shaded the quiet avenue where the hotel loomed. Eve and Konstantin ducked inside the foyer just as the drizzling rain became a downpour.
“Are we safe here?” asked Eve.
“Nowhere is ever completely safe. But we should be okay here for a while, especially if we keep moving rooms and floors.”
They made their way down the vacant, dimly lit hallways. The peeling, plum coloured walls were still adorned with crooked paintings and slanting, kitschy plastic candelabras that emanated a sickly yellow glow. Plants wilted in their pots. The air reeked of stale cigarette smoke and unwashed laundry.
“Won’t The Twelve or MI6 check back here?”
“Why should they?” Konstantin paused at the foot of the staircase to catch his breath. “The Twelve never again use a location that’s been compromised, and MI6 has already been here to find what you brought them here to find. That gives us space and time.”
Konstantin led Eve back to room 201. He slowly opened the door. Eve’s stomach flipped over and her heart shot into her throat as she crossed the threshold. The window directly across from the door was opened a bit, allowing the scent of rain to refresh the small space. Eve saw Villanelle sleeping on one of the two creaky beds, wrapped up in the cobalt silk sheets. Eve took a step closer, her head pounding, her hands trembling, her heart slumping back down into its proper place in her chest, only to trip over its own rhythm.
Eve felt Konstabtin’s warm hand on her shoulder. But all she could concentrate on was how gaunt Villanelle’s face looked, how her body was splayed on the mattress, weighed down by chains of exhaustion. She breathed thinly. Eve reached out, but now Konstantin gripped her shoulder painfully.
“It was a long flight,” he murmured. “Let her sleep.”
The jangling of his keychain pulled Eve away from the bed. She stared at him incredulously as he unlocked the door adjacent to the entrance.
“What,” he grunted, “did you think Villanelle and I jumped out the window to escape you and MI6? It is not that high, but still high enough to break Villanelle’s legs. And I cannot even fit through the window!”
Konstantin waved Eve through the door. She found herself inside a stone passageway. The considerably cooler air made her shiver. More of those ugly plastic lights were nailed to the cracked walls, weakly illuminating the way forward. Konstantin’s voice boomed in the low, claustrophobic space.
“Each of The Twelve’s hotels have these secret passageways,” he explained over his shoulder. “For escape. Smuggling. Ambushing. They are quite useful.”
“Doesn’t Carolyn know about these tunnels?”
“Only some of them. Like the one underneath the safehouse my family and I are in.” He stopped to look pointedly at Eve. “Those tunnels connect with these ones. But even if I got my family out, where would they go next? There is nowhere for them to be safe.”
“Actually…” Eve tucked a few stray curls behind her ears. “I know exactly where they’ll be safe. Carolyn will never look for them inside the house of a lonely, bored old lady whose daughter never gave her grandchildren.”
“Yeah.” Eve shrugged. “You could bring them here and I’ll take them to Paddington Station. They’ll be at my mom’s place in like twenty minutes.”
Konstantin scratched his beard. “Okay. But I want Villanelle to smuggle them. You are too risky. And besides...she owes me again, I think.”
They continued walking. Their footsteps echoed in the twisting tunnels. Konstantin unlocked another door, which revealed a wide room. A large Persian carpet covered most of its length. On both walls, racks of pistols, rifles, and daggers gleamed from the glow of the plastic chandelier overhead. There were also rows of protective gear, including padding and a pair of bulletproof vests. A metal strongbox rested by a cellar-like room. Eve peered inside to see two black-haired children resting on their cots, whispering excitedly. The boy waved at Eve, while the girl stuck her tongue out.
“Carolyn told me about what Villanelle did to The Ghost. I taught her well,” said Konstantin proudly. “She also told me that Carolyn was keeping The Ghost’s kids in custody at MI6.”
“Let me guess, it was for their own good?”
“Something like that. The Ghost thinks that Carolyn is looking after them. But I took them here instead.”
“Carolyn just...let you do that?”
Konstantin shrugged. “She needed my cooperation and this was one of my conditions. Carolyn thinks I am protecting The Ghost’s kids. Letting them play with Irina, like that.”
“So why haven’t you used them yet?”
“I was waiting for the right opportunity.” Konstantin tilted his head. “I thought I would make a trade with them for my family, in case Carolyn is being difficult.”
Eve’s eyes glittered darkly. “I see.”
She wandered back into the training room proper. The bullet ridden targets at the end of the room caught her eye. She traced the large and small holes with steady fingers. Then she turned on her heel, seized the first handgun she could grab off the rack, aimed at the targets, and squeezed the trigger. The bullet burst from the barrel only to whiz over the targets entirely.
Konstantin’s mocking claps reverberated throughout the room. “Good job! You hit the air.”
“Shut up.” Eve aimed again, her grip tighter than before. She missed again. The cracking sound that followed her shot made her flinch.
“No, no, no. Stop, Eve.” Konstantin plodded over to stand at her shoulder. “You are too tense. Your feet are too far apart. You are not aiming properly.”
“Just let me shoot, alright?”
Konstantin spread his hands. “I am not stopping you. But you will keep missing.”
“Look at you!”
Another shot rang out. The targets remained unscathed.
“Your face is a mess. Your body is weak, undisciplined. You are not focused.”
Eve lowered her arms. “Are you just going to stand there criticizing me?”
“If you want me to teach you, then stop being so stubborn. It is stupid.”
Konstantin pried the handgun from Eve and returned it to the rack. He considered each weapon thoughtfully, glancing at Eve every now and then with a pleased hum buzzing low in his throat.
“It is good that you are interested in guns now. Villanelle cannot protect you forever.”
“I-I want to protect her.”
Konstantin nodded. “That is nice. I get it. But excuse me...I do not think you are capable.”
Konstantin arched a snowy eyebrow. His hand darted out to a small caliber pistol, a compact, punchy thing that nestled heavily into his palm. Suddenly, he shot at Eve. She yelped and ducked three whole seconds after a bullet would have ruptured her left kidney. Before she could recover, Konstantin shot again, aiming at her head this time. Eve crumpled to the floor, fuming.
“Fuck! Could you at least warn me next time?”
“There are no warnings when someone wants to kill you out there. No second chances. No room to be sloppy.” Konstantin aimed down the length of the pistol. “Why should I not kill you?”
Eve shielded her reddening face. “Oh my god, don’t!”
Konstantin laughed. “That is not a very good reason.”
“Stop fucking around, Konstantin.”
The next shot grazed past Eve’s forearm, shredding the sleeve’s material. Konstantin hauled her up by her hair and shoved the pistol’s barrel beneath her chin.
“Do you really want to protect Villanelle?”
“Do you want me to teach you how?”
“Are you willing to do anything to protect Villanelle and everything that I show you?”
Konstantin violently wrenched Eve’s right thumb and forefinger. She screamed, recoiled, jerked her hand away from his grasp. Konstantin spoke just over her.
“Circumstances are never ideal in the field. You will be hurt. You might even lose your eyesight or your limbs. That is why you must learn how to do your best without everything you take for granted, because only then can you do your best when you have it all in place.”
He strolled over to the strong box, then came back with a small ice pack for Eve’s rapidly swelling thumb and forefinger, and bandages to serve as impromptu splints. Eve choked on her shuddering sobs and tried to keep her hand still while Konstantin bandaged it. Eve’s eyes flashed with a feral, untethered haze. Konstantin slapped her so hard that her face surged to the side.
“Do not look at me like that, Eve. You will heal in a couple of weeks. We have plenty to do in the meantime so do not worry, there is no time for boredom.” Konstantin glared at his watch. “Let’s go back upstairs.”
Eve kept the ice pack on her dislocated fingers as she perched on the edge of the bed parallel to Villanelle. She looked on in horror while Konstantin grimly pushed a needle into Villanelle’s arm.
“What are you doing?”
Konstantin rolled Villanelle over to face Eve. “Keeping your wife alive.”
“What happened to her?”
“She survived a Novichok attack.”
“From The Ghost?”
“What do you think?”
“Oh no...god, no. This is all my fault.”
Eve recounted Carolyn’s offer to Konstantin. His expression darkened like storm clouds rolling across the sky.
“Why did you not say yes?”
“Villanelle’s already got you!”
“I can’t control Villanelle!”
Konstantin’s furrowed his brow.
“Carolyn tortured me!”
Konstantin crossed his arms. “Villanelle is laying there, all pathetic, because you did not swallow your pride? You are stupider than I thought.”
“This is hard for me too! I didn’t think that Carolyn actually wanted to replace you. I didn’t know that-that Villanelle could be hurt.”
Konstantin scorched Eve with a withering glare. “I will go speak to Carolyn. You give Villanelle shots every hour or so, you got that? If I come back and she is not better than she looks now, I will break your whole arm.”
The spicy aroma of bouillabaisse filled Carolyn’s living room. Konstantin hastily wiped his chin and refilled her wine glass. They continued eating in silence, savouring the hot, flavourful spoonfuls. Konstantin bit through tender slices of fish and tomato. He observed Carolyn lightly tapping her fingers in time to the jazzy melody wafting from the speakers on top of the fireplace. She seemed lost in thought; playing with her dangling earrings, slowly rubbing her nose, crossing and uncrossing her legs, keeping her eyes fixed on her glazed blue bowl.
Konstantin dipped in a hunk of bread. He chewed it jovially and mumbled past his full mouth.
“You have been so busy lately that I didn’t think we would have time for this nice dinner.”
“I really should take some time off.”
“Yes. You should.”
“Have you seen Eve lately?”
Konstantin shrugged. “She is no longer useful to you, yes?”
“Perhaps.” Carolyn yawned. “What about Villanelle? You must miss being her Handler.”
“I miss a lot of things.” Konstantin gestured between them. “Eve and Villanelle remind me of us, when we were in love.”
“That was a long time ago, Konstantin. You know I am not sentimental.”
He chuckled ruefully. “I know. But I am. Yes Carolyn, I am just a sentimental old man.”
The spoons clattered against the bowls as Carolyn rose to clear the table. Konstantin watched her go, feeling heaviness settle in his chest like an old friend that appeared at his doorstep, soaked to the bone and hiding a knife. So much about Carolyn’s living room suited Konstantin’s taste: the plush beige carpet, the bay windows, the inviting suede sofa, the shelves stacked with vinyl records and books. It was a house he could have designed himself, a place he would have very much liked to share with Carolyn until his final days.
Waiting for Carolyn to return with their usual glasses of plum brandy allowed Konstantin the rare comfort of indulging his imagination. Just for a moment, he allowed himself to envision being Kenny’s father and raising him to be a real man; steadfastly standing at Carolyn’s side as she executed her plans; being trusted enough to hold her hand, listen to her dreams and goals, to hold her through the night; to forge their twin flames together into an unstoppable inferno that scorched all obstacles in their path.
The longer that Konstantin kept himself entwined with Carolyn, just to catch sight of her or to snatch her drifting scent, the more acutely he was reminded that she viewed him as a distraction. The years flowing between them were so long and so brimming with sepia-toned events that Konstantin wasn’t sure sometimes if he actually had any accurate memories left or if they’d all dissolved into unfulfilled dreams.
He sipped his brandy in silence, preferring to keep Carolyn in his peripheral vision. She was the hawk observing lush fields for any hint of rustling prey, the momentarily retracted claws itching to spring forward again. Her voice was soft and low when she spoke.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this unsure about our future.”
“Things are moving too fast these days. I haven’t been able to keep up, I’m afraid.”
“I cannot slow down myself.”
“Well, there you have it.” Carolyn sighed. “We’ve tried so hard to make something that lasts, something that will outlast us all, and now wouldn’t it be ironic if it turns out to be the death of us?”
Konstantin downed the brandy smoothly. “I don’t know what to say. It is not like you to be worried.”
“I am not. I am simply trying to accurately assess my deficit of information. That is all.”
“Okay.” Konstantin turned his head to really look at her. “Whatever happens, Carolyn...I want you to know something.”
“You have done all that you could. More than any woman I have ever known. Maybe even in the whole of history.”
“Stop it, Konstantin.”
He slammed the brandy glass down. “It is true! Do not pretend. Please. How many years have we known each other? Please! You have not made any mistakes in all of that time. Everything will be alright. Okay?”
Carolyn gripped her glass so hard that her wrinkled knuckles popped. “And if everything is not alright?”
“Why would it not be?”
“Because I have never been entirely able to predict everything or everyone accurately. Not even you.”
Konstantin took the glass from Carolyn. He gulped down the last of her brandy, poised the empty glass on the corner of the fireplace mantle, and left Carolyn wrapped up alone in the fragile shadows of her living room.
Chapter 14: Hide and Seek
The sleep wasn’t real, wasn’t a deep slumber, only a fitfulness exacerbated by the comedown from the atropine. Dehydration, exhaustion, poor nutrition, a depletion of serotonin; Villanelle knew the symptoms but couldn’t explain them in her dreams.
They were strange dreams indeed, full of swirling colours, circles of light spinning themselves apart, dizzying hallucinations stitched together by blood-soaked threads and sensations that a cave had collapsed onto Villanelle’s chest, making her breathing laboured. Her mouth was as dry as a bone, her skin burned with fever, and when nausea gripped her, the dreams tilted into sensations of being on a boat pitching on roiling waves.
Porcupine prickles stung up and down the length of Villanelle’s arms, injecting more throbbing madness into her veins. She felt like her body was bursting at every joint, each muscle swelling and seeping over bone, melting into sinew and skin, fusing with arteries and sheets of tissue that were punctured by the rattling, break-neck pace of her aching heart.
There were no reliable indicators of when Villanelle’s body would betray her. It used to be a vessel with more rigour, more structure; something that not everybody else had and certainly something that was capable of doing things that nobody else could do. Now it seized up at a moment’s notice: tightness spearing through her ankles, straining the tendon running all the way to her trembling thighs, locking her hips in at a fiercely restrictive angle.
The muscles in Villanelle’s arms felt like they were melted wax. Tremors and twitches started in her hands sometimes, or her shoulders, only to spread down to her elbow or her chest or transfer wholly to the other side of her body. When Villanelle managed to clear her blurry vision, her body did not look and feel like her own; it was merely a distant collection of attachments that protruded from below her head and moved as if puppet strings were sewn into them.
For once, Villanelle was grateful that there were no mirrors around. But they still appeared in her dreams, long halls of mirrors that distorted her body into hideous flesh-coloured smears, blotches of blonde and hazel and sharp movements that fractured the glass. The shards embedded themselves into Villanelle’s abdomen, pooling blood onto the bedsheets, soaking her elbow deep in gristle and ichor. In her dreams, Villanelle was all alone; wandering the empty, long halls in silence.
Except in this dream, a voice called out to her. It was velvety rich, warm, smoky with a barely suppressed secret. It was darkly spiced by both lament and celebration, calling out her name with all the force of a runaway train barreling through a dark tunnel.
Her body thrashed. Numbness was followed by shocks from the base of her spine up to the back of her skull, then a rigidity that gradually broke into chunks of consciousness.
She opened her eyes. Panting, she struggled to sit upright. When the tingling in her hands stopped, she gradually registered that Eve was tenderly holding one of them.
“It’s okay, baby. I’m here.”
Villanelle started to say something, the words sloshing around in her foggy brain, something of an apology for Gemma, an offering of appeasement and understanding, but Eve’s kiss wiped everything else away.
Their lips slotted into place like the continents forming a new pangea, coming back together in such a way that the earth itself knew it never should have split them apart.
Villanelle broke for air but turned her head to the side when Eve leaned in for another kiss.
“You left me!”
Eve cupped her chin. “But I’m here now.”
Villanelle buried her hands into Eve’s curly mane. Her thumbs rested at Eve’s temples, delicately tracing circles there in time to Eve’s skyrocketing pulse. They shared breaths for a moment, their eyes searching each other restlessly.
“What happened to your eye? And your face?” exclaimed Villanelle as she drew back.
Eve flashed a lopsided grin. “Occupational hazard.”
“Truly, I did not know that your fingers could even bend like that,” Villanelle added.
Eve held up her hand and observed it philosophically. “I’m training with Konstantin.”
Villanelle rested against the headboard. She took in Eve’s wrinkled clothing, the messy layers haphazardly thrown together, the way she closed herself off by crossing her arms and angling her body slightly away from Villanelle. Eve looked every bit as haggard, wrung out, and beaten as Villanelle felt.
“I am beginning to get what Gabriel meant,” she said.
“Nevermind.” Villanelle pinned Eve with a piercing look. “What really happened to you?”
Eve didn’t say anything for so long that Villanelle feared she wouldn’t answer at all. Villanelle clutched at the bed covers, fighting to stay focused on Eve’s quiet response.
“Carolyn ordered The Ghost to torture me.”
Villanelle’s voice sounded like the darkest, fathomless depths of the human soul.
“Then we will go to MI6 and decapitate Carolyn along with everyone else there. Especially The Ghost.”
“I appreciate that your go-to solution is to just murder everyone, but that’s not going to work.”
“We can’t just walk into MI6, guns blazing! Look at us!”
Eve messed up her hair, wrapping long curls around her functioning fingers, concentrating hard on the lamp propped up on Villanelle’s nightstand.
“It is not that hard to kill someone, Eve.”
“Yeah, for you maybe. Things are a little too complicated for a simple murder.”
“What do you mean?”
“Carolyn probably thinks The Ghost killed you. And I can’t even guess why she thinks I might still be useful.”
“How did Carolyn get her hands on you anyway?”
Eve’s expression darkened. “Niko sold me out,” she spat.
Villanelle’s heart soared as Eve continued, rushing her explanation like it ripped away a chunk of her flesh with every word.
“He tried to re-frame me for Gemma’s murder. I got handcuffed and thrown in jail, everything. Then Carolyn had Konstantin drive me back to MI6. I was thinking she’d bailed me out, but she just baited me and I walked right into her trap.”
“Wow. You think you know someone.”
Eve’s thin smile twisted into an expression of concern as Villanelle’s hands twitched, followed by her head snapping to the side as tremors wracked her body.
“Don’t touch me!”
Villanelle closed her eyes to shut out the sight of Eve’s worried expression, denied herself the caring touch of Eve’s hand as it moved to rest on her chest.
“Stop looking at me like that,” snarled Villanelle.
“I-I want to make sure you’re alright.”
“There is nothing you can do. So just…just leave me alone. Okay?”
“No, not okay.” Eve shifted closer to Villanelle. “I have to make things right. I have to protect you.”
“Oh my god, protect me? Protect me? What the fuck!”
Villanelle coughed out a wheezing sort of laugh. Her eyes sparkled with amusement.
“I will protect you. I swear.”
“What is with you? I can protect myself.”
“Obviously not! Fuck!” Eve threaded her hands through her hair again. “I have to be honest with you, I have to tell you something.”
“Then tell me!”
Villanelle tracked the movement of Eve’s thumb as it steadily rubbed against the plastic ring.
“The Ghost’s attack on you...was my fault.”
“Carolyn offered me to join The Twelve. As your Handler. I refused. Even after she told me that whether The Ghost killed you or not depended on my answer.”
When Eve could finally bring herself to meet Villanelle’s gaze, her eyes were brimming with unshed tears. Villanelle wanted to stick a needle into her own eyes just to be blind to the whimpering, wet mess that was dissolving before her.
“Why didn’t you say yes?” Villanelle snapped.
“I thought Carolyn was bullshitting! I thought you could handle yourself!”
“Oh my god…this is my body, Eve!”
“I didn’t think-” Eve inhaled sharply and tried again. “I didn’t think The Ghost would actually be able to hurt you.”
“Oh, great thinking!”
“Stop it! I was hurt too!” Eve ripped the shirt off over her head to reveal the scars and bruises that the thin material no longer covered. “And that’s not even the worst of it!”
“It is not my body, Eve. Why should I care?”
Eve flinched away as if she’d been slapped. Her voice came out in a gasp of pain.
“I have to tell you something,” she said coldly. “And do not get how you usually get, all stupid and jealous and angry. Okay? Because I am just being honest with you!”
“After you abandoned me, I fucked another woman.”
Villanelle kept her voice steady, even as she saw the tears finally dripping down Eve’s face. Villanelle briefly considered peeling it off with her fingernails, if only to reset her expression and give her a nice, clean slate.
“It was in Sydney. On this really fancy yacht,” continued Villanelle. She did not look away from Eve. “It had three decks. Three! Anyway, she was this boring photography lady, nothing special. We did not have sex for long and I killed her right after. So you can stop staring at me like you want to rip out my throat. Okay?”
Eve surged off the bed.
“You cheated on me!”
“You betrayed me!”
“You’re my wife!”
“You are mine, too!”
“Then why the fuck did you cheat on me?” Eve screeched.
“Calm down, it was nothing!”
“We’re married now, it’s everything!”
“Eve, you are overreacting. It does not matter. I told you, she is dead. And I got the USB.”
“Wait, you fucked a Keeper?”
“Uh, yeah. Occupational hazard.”
Eve didn’t crack a smile. “I’m your wife. You cheated on me. You hurt me.”
“Okay, okay. I get it! I do.” Villanelle shoved the covers down lower, letting her torso cool. “But you hurt me, too.”
Eve’s shoulders slumped. Her was face obscured by curls. But her voice was harsh and clear in the tense silence.
“How can I ever trust you again?”
“Funny. I was about to ask the same thing.”
“What’s the point of being married to me if you’re just going to act the same as you did before?”
Villanelle stared at the wall. She could tell from Eve’s blanked out expression that her own was settling like chiseled stone, reforming into a hard mask. The beginnings of stiffness claimed her body. She struggled to keep the sweeping waves of pain at bay.
Eve went to the mini-bar, snatched a few mini-vodkas, and slammed the door behind her.
The room closed around Villanelle like a vault.
Standing a comfortable shooting distance away, Konstantin aimed at Eve and pulled the handgun’s trigger three times. Each bullet slammed into her vest at various points on her torso. She felt the shock of the impact disperse across the hard, thick material. Coughing and stumbling back, Eve peeled the vest off to reveal three flaring welts.
Konstantin tossed Eve another vest. “Again. You must get used to being shot at.”
Eve fumbled to put it on. Konstantin sent a few bullets whizzing past in order to hurry her up. She barely had a moment to recover before he shot at her again. The force drilling into the vest still made her flinch. Corrosive frustration bubbled up in her throat at the sight of Konstantin’s disapproving expression. Hearing him bark out orders for the last few days felt like sharp rocks being grated over Eve’s raw torture wounds. The ones that had healed fully by now still left ridges of raised skin, pale scars, and itching phantom pain.
Among other things, Konstantin had made Eve shoot with her wobbly left hand (completely unbalancing and humiliating her); flail around wildly in what could only very loosely be termed as self-defence; and practice shooting at him as he (regrettably) wore a vest, while her other arm with the dislocated fingers was restricted in a sling. The weight of a handgun no longer felt so foreign to Eve, but her wrist and carpals ached long after she’d returned it to the rack.
Polished rifles gleamed at her teasingly beneath the hot lights. Wickedly sharpened daggers with all sorts of serrated and curved edges piqued her interest as she ran the tips of her fingers along their cold blades. Sometimes The Ghost’s children would laugh nervously, distracting Eve from the motionless targets; more often than not, it was Konstantin’s consistent, intentionally distracting chatter that yanked her concentration away.
The first time Eve managed to actually pierce a target’s abdomen, Konstantin stopped mid-sentence to personally help her reload. Eve watched him deftly replace the handgun clip, her eyes shining keenly as he slowly guided her through the process.
“How did you get involved with all of...this?” Eve gestured around the room.
“I peddled information between Russia and Chechnya, during the First Chechen War in the 90s.”
“What was that all about?”
Konstantin eyed the handgun warily as he placed his hand over the top of the slide, grasped it, then pulled back sharply until it chuncked into place.
“I pretended to sell food and drinks at the market. But really, I was running information for both the Russians and the Chechens. Information was a far more precious commodity than goat cheese and plum wine during the war.”
“What was it over?”
“What all wars are about,” Konstantin grumbled. “Power. Control. Resources. Pettiness. We are in the middle of a war right now.”
“Right. So who won your war?”
Konstantin shot a target’s head off. “Does not matter. But since I know you won’t stop bothering me until I tell you, the Chechen guerillas won. Only because Russia could not control Chechnya’s mountains. I spent many months hiding in them.”
“Yes. They were close to important trade and communication routes. I survived in the mountains, while everywhere else there were bombings. Kidnappings. Famine. Children stepping on landmines. Births. And many, many deaths.”
Eve took the gun from Konstantin and mirrored his stance as best she could. “Is that when you met Carolyn?”
“I already knew Carolyn from before.”
“She asked me to kill her brother. To make it look like a suicide.”
“Oh.” All of a sudden, Eve found herself clutching the handgun more tightly. “Is that how you got into The Twelve?”
A spark flared in Konstantin’s eyes. “You could say that. Perhaps you are not so stupid after all.”
It was nice of Konstantin not to comment on the fact that Eve spent most of her days and nights in the training room. Sweat drenched and shaking, Eve feverishly pushed her body past its already broken limits. Once her fingers healed and it came time for Konstantin to train her-in-hand to hand combat, Eve insisted on no quarter.
She was terribly uncoordinated, clumsily dodging his strikes until heavy blows sent her sprawling onto the cold floor. Eve scrambled back to her feet and launched herself at Konstantin. She battered his chest with punches, elbowed him in the gut, clawed at his shoulders, and landed a glancing kick on his left shin. His eyes narrowed, but that was the extent of his discernible reaction. He calmly moved out of Eve’s range.
The next time she lunged forward, her white knuckles thudding against Konstantin’s vest, he sidestepped her follow up entirely. Then he shoved her against the wall, steadily crushing her windpipe as he leaned his full weight on the arm that he put across her throat. Growling, Eve clutched at Konstantin and tried to break free. A boiling hot, suffocating feeling wormed into her chest. She struggled against Konstantin’s grip, choking, lashing at his shoulders.
Eve heard her throat cracking. Yellow spots popped into her vision. She kept her ferocious gaze locked with Konstantin’s cool blue eyes. For all of his impassivity, Eve saw his eyebrows raise a fraction when she let her body go slack. This granted her just enough space to squirm, to dig her nails into the back of his hand, and to sink her front teeth into the soft, thin flesh between his thumb and forefinger.
Konstantin yelped as she bit down harder, then shouted at her in Russian when she didn’t let go. Her hair cascaded wildly the more that Konstantin tried to wrench his hand free. Blood spurted into Eve’s mouth. Its coppery, sharp flavour invigorated her. She finally loosened her jaws to push Konstantin away. He frantically applied pressure to the split skin, rivulets of blood leaking from between his fingers.
“You are just like Villanelle! Very emotional.”
Eve spat out the blood. She smirked. Her teeth and gums were streaked crimson. The taste lingered, set her on edge, and heightened her appetite. Konstantin fed The Ghosts’s kids before he trudged back into the hotel to tend to the bite, but Eve stayed behind to polish one of the handguns. It looked meaner than the one she used for target practice. Cold metal weight filled the palm of her hand. The muzzle was larger, clearly meant for a bullet that left a far messier impact than the ones that she fed into the other handgun.
The comfort of a weapon in her hands still felt the same.
Walking through the hotel’s dim passageways alone sent shivers crawling up and down Eve’s spine. She wondered how many more criss-crossed beneath London, where exactly they led. Were there paths beneath her neighbour’s house? Or underneath the supermarket? Did some routes end up at untold graveyards or abandoned metro tunnels? Stealing breath, stealing light, this hotel burrowed itself deep into the rotting earth; past rats and bones and plant roots, plunging through the foundations of buildings and layers of centuries past.
Unbidden, the catacombs below Rome resurfaced in Eve’s mind. The low ceiling and cracked walls bore down on her. Thrusting through the intermittent doorways, picking her way past loosened cobblestones, and keeping herself alert to the sound of her own harsh breathing, Eve gripped the handgun until her knuckles popped. It was the only thing that felt real to her, the only thing that she could hold onto in a sea of hazy shadows.
Until she carefully, oh so carefully, opened the door that led back to room 201.
Cloaked by the treacherous darkness, Eve crept deeper inside. The ugly carpet muffled her footsteps. She had to squint to make out Villanelle’s faint silhouette on the bed. Eve’s eyes flicked to the flaring red numbers of the digital clock; the small hours of the morning compressed Eve’s thoughts and feelings, neatly repackaging them into actions that her enflamed mind could somehow understand.
She hesitated at the foot of the bed. She flexed her repaired fingers. She held her breath. She momentarily rested her hand on the bed covers, almost jumping at their clammy texture. She took a step forward, stood at Villanelle’s waist now. She listened to her breathe. Just breathe. In and out, in and out. Her lungs sounded hurt, the air whistling out thinly and hollowly.
Eve’s forefinger brushed teasingly against the trigger. She raised the handgun, just as Villanelle rolled over onto her back, shifting the covers and sheets with her. Eve re-positioned herself to be at Villanelle’s chest now, so close that she could smell the drops of sweat gathered at the hollow of her throat. Villanelle’s visage was covered with murkiness, but Eve’s mind filled in Villanelle’s radiant tangle of hair, the purse of her lips, her high cheekbones, the magnetic gleam in her eyes.
In her mind’s eye, Villanelle was not sick or suffering. She did not feel like a long lost possession that washed up on the shore of Eve’s thoughts like battered driftwood. She was not used. She was new and exciting and reclaimed by Eve, possessed and taken and not up for grabs by the greedy waves that lapped along the black beaches made from shards of glass. It felt as if Eve had walked barefoot on these beaches, along this desolate shore, for an eternity.
And then she had met Villanelle. But Villanelle did not appreciate exclusivity, and Eve felt her heart collapse in the face of this reality. Her eyes stung. She breathed as hard as Villanelle did, trying to prevent sobs from escaping and alerting Villanelle. After several silent seconds, Eve brought the handgun up again. She held the grip with both hands now, just the way Konstantin had demonstrated, and she waited for her breathing to steady.
It was fine, Eve thought calmly. She would take her time. She didn’t mind staring Villanelle down from this angle, the one that gave Eve such a rippling sense of power that she felt her fingertips sizzle. It was like standing at the edge of a cliff, getting ready to jump off and splash into the unknown waters. The handgun gun trembled eagerly, its warmth friendly and reassuring, its silent lethality inviting Eve to make use of it.
She gasped as she thought she saw two sharp and suspicious eyes staring at her out of the darkness. But that couldn’t be right; it was much too dark to see for sure, and all the windows in the stifling room were shut tightly, covered by the heavy curtains. Not even the silver moonlight made it into the room.
Eve’s hands were terribly weak. Fearfully, she corrected her stance again, aimed the handgun right in the middle of Villanelle’s forehead. For every second that ticked away, Eve felt her hands grow more numb and more wooden. A distant curiosity brought her forefinger gently against the trigger again; she wondered if the blood would gush from Villanelle’s head like water from an overturned glass, or if it would stream down her face from the crown of her head like a waterfall, or maybe her head would just explode like an overripe melon as soon as the bullet ripped through it.
Beads of sweat slid down Eve’s face. A sudden giddiness seized her. Villanelle uttered a low, broken moan. Her arm flailed across her face, nearly catching the outstretched handgun. Eve stepped back. She couldn’t see Villanelle’s seizure, but she could hear the bed sheets shredding in her iron grip, hear her whimpers and faint cries, hear the thud of her limbs as she writhed.
The air was as thick and heavy as a coffin lid. Eve sat down on the edge of the parallel bed, the handgun hanging loosely from her fingers. Dead silence reigned for a minute or two. Eve quivered like a leaf, lifted her hand and put it on her sweaty brow, opened her mouth but couldn’t make a sound, and tasted the rancid feeling of loathing deep within her that grew stronger every second.
But it soon gave way to a sort of dreamy blankness that began to take possession of Eve. She listened intently and heard the sound of weighty, even, and unhurried footsteps which seemed to be coming from the hotel’s hallway. Everything was so, so loud in this inky stillness and precarious quiet; Eve couldn’t get off the bed without the mattress squeaking in protest, or the chair scraping as she accidentally bumped against it on her way to the door.
Deliriously, Eve peered through the eyehole. She swore at herself when it was instantly apparent that she couldn’t see clearly, glanced back at Villanelle, then once more through the small bubble that narrowed her vision down to the poorly lit hallway. The footsteps seemed to be coming closer, there was no doubt.
Eve’s neck was dripping wet. Curls tangled there and swept down her shoulders. She was only dimly conscious of herself now. She squeezed the handgun. A dreadful chill came over her at the sight of Konstantin’s white hair finally coming into view. She was taken with violent shivers. Her mind felt smeared with tar. Scraps of thoughts fought each other for her attention, but she could not catch a single one despite all her efforts.
The wooden door in front of Eve became realer only because she’d pressed her nose right on it. It smelled cheap, it felt cheap; her hand left a sweaty impression just above the rickety doorknob. Again, Eve glanced at Villanelle then through the eyehole, and almost jumped. Konstantin was in full view now, very close to the door and drawing closer the longer that Eve stood paralyzed.
Her heart beat painfully. She kept squeezing the handgun although it practically burned her palm to do so. A frantic, panicked thought stumbled forward: she should just give it all up right now, give herself over to Konstantin and let him break both of her arms for good measure; yes, she should just open the door immediately and rush forward into the weak light to be recognized.
Konstantin peered at the door strangely. Eve stood absolutely still, not even daring to draw breath. He was wearing his bulky overcoat, holding some sort of tote bag in his unbandaged hand, and refusing to simply go away.
Another thought came to Eve: she could open the door and just shoot Konstantin! But not in his belly, as Villanelle had done. No, Eve would shoot him in the heart, just like he was one of those targets in the training room. Then she would go back over to Villanelle’s bed and-and-
And then what? Eve suddenly grew very angry. Her own lack of committed direction pumped lava through her veins. She felt like a nail was slowly being driven into the back of her skull. This was followed by an intense sensation of relief when Konstantin abruptly turned two doors down from room 201 and slammed the door behind him.
The sweaty grip Eve maintained on the handgun reminded her that she should move. She went back to Villanelle’s bed. Stood rooted to the spot. Listened for her weak but unmistakable breathing. The handgun came up again and Eve stared down at Villanelle. Suddenly, an unbearable emotion crashed onto Eve’s shoulders. It forced her to drop her hands, to back away slowly, to leave room 201 hastily, to go up an entire flight of stairs, and to finally throw herself onto the bed of the first room she entered.
Eve didn’t sleep for the rest of the night so much as she just collapsed. She put the handgun on the bedside table beside the room service telephone, shed all of her clothes, and prepared to masturbate herself into oblivion. But it didn’t work; although her fingers came away slick and trembling, her mind spun itself apart with worry instead of pleasure. Thoughts swarmed in her mind like locusts, kept getting dragged down through the floor, surrendering to Villanelle’s gravitational pull a whole floor below.
Villanelle, who had without a moment’s pause, or any sort of reflection or regret, put her lying mouth on the Keeper’s tits; Villanelle, who had not hesitated to shove her slender fingers into the Keeper’s leaking cunt; Villanelle, with her shining lips and intoxicating eyes, had let another woman touch her smooth body; had let another woman press her glossy lips against the sensitive side of her neck, maybe even against the knife scar that Eve had given her; Villanelle, with her comforting, all-consuming strength, had angled her hips into the Keeper’s, had shared a shuddering breath, had dug her perfectly manicured nails into the lace of the Keeper’s bra, had spilled kisses into her mouth and flicked her tongue, had murmured sweet nothings, in that breathy, excited, callow voice of hers, into the nest of the Keeper’s hair, had dragged her lips along the quivering insides of the Keeper’s legs and tasted her, stained her teeth and lips and tongue with another woman’s flavour, had probably wiped her mouth after and wiped away all of Eve too with that single, nonchalant gesture.
Frustrated gasps tugged themselves loose from Eve as her hands brushed against rough patches of scarred skin; bumpy textures where the darkest bruises had been; tracing over her hardened, tender nipples, and lingering on her thighs. The night hid her body, but the thought of Villanelle’s reaction if she saw it again sent Eve into despair.
An immeasurable, almost physical, repulsion for everything surrounding her split violently into an obstinate, malignant feeling of hatred. She despised her face, her gestures, her voice, her mind. She didn’t make a sound throughout the whole rest of the night, didn’t allow herself to move a muscle.
Over a breakfast of croissants and black coffee, Eve stayed silent as Konstantin raved about how expensive everything in London was. Not even his training plan for the day got her to look up from her crumby plate. Only when Konstantin snapped his fingers directly in front of her did she jerk her head to look at him.
“What is the matter with you?”
“Nothing,” replied Eve dully.
“Don’t give me that! You are sulking. And I just can’t train you when you are sulking because it makes you extra stubborn. So tell me, what is going on with you?”
“I don’t like my body.”
“Ha!” Konstantin rubbed his beard. His eyes twinkled with amusement. “You may be thin, yes, but it is true-you have no conditioning. We will fix that, yet.”
“No, it’s not that. I mean I’ll never be the assassin you want me to be. And it’s not your fault,” Eve added quickly as Konstantin opened his mouth to protest. “I’m learning as much as I can. Which has been a lot so far, honestly. It’s just that I-I don’t really like my body.”
“Okay. Is that all?”
“No. I don’t think Villanelle likes my body. That’s...that’s probably why she cheated on me. And why she’ll never want me again.”
Eve muttered the rest of her sentence into the coffee, washed it down quickly, practically drowned it in bitterness. She didn’t want to look at Konstantin anymore, but he’d dragged his bar stool closer. More gently than she ever thought was possible, Konstantin placed a hand on her shoulder.
“I understand what you are going through,” he said gruffly. “Take a look at me. When I was in the Chechen mountains, I did not have all of a fun time. The Chechen guerillas made me prisoner for a while. They were not nice. Not at all.”
“You were tortured too?”
“Oh. I’m sorry, Konstantin.”
He shrugged behind his coffee cup. “It was a long time ago. I still have scars, but my wife does not mind. You see?”
“I appreciate that. But your wife isn’t Villanelle.”
It took Konstantin a few seconds to stop guffawing in order to answer Eve coherently. “Villanelle is special. You should remember that.”
“Believe me, I’m not allowed to forget.”
“I love her too, you know. Now are you jealous?”
“What? Of course not!”
Konstantin squeezed Eve’s shoulder warmly. “Villanelle has always been in command of her body, and who she shares it with. You will never be able to change that.”
“But I’m her wife!” Eve slammed her cup down, spilling some coffee onto her remaining croissant. “She's only supposed to share her body with me!”
“Did you talk about this before?”
“Um, no. I just...I just figured she understood that.”
Konstantin sighed. “What did I tell you about professional communication? You and Villanelle have known each other for a whole five minutes, and you spend most of those not talking. Ridiculous.”
Eve gaped at him while he slurped the rest of his coffee. “So I’m just supposed to crawl back to Villanelle?”
“Maybe consider my case again before you do. Carolyn has been with many lovers other than me.”
“And you’re alright with that?” Eve snorted.
“Because I am committed to Carolyn,” Konstantin answered stiffly.
“She’s just using you!”
“I am aware. And it works out for us, yes?” Konstantin grinned wolfishly. “Carolyn thinks she has got me, because I am around all the time. But soon, that will change.”
Eve’s eyes narrowed. “How do I know you aren’t just using me and Villanelle until your family is safe?”
“There you go, being stupid again.” Konstantin shook his head. “I am committed to Villanelle. And by extension to you, I suppose. Because Carolyn has endangered my family by trying to use them against me. While Villanelle, she will help them get to your mother’s place. That is the difference.”
“Okay, maybe I am stupid. Because I don’t get how you can just sit there and try to talk me into trusting Villanelle after she cheated on me. If I go back, she’ll just do it again!”
“But you are married.”
“Yes, that’s what I’ve been saying all along!”
“You are married, except you do not understand what that means. Not really.”
Konstantin looked at her with the same focus as when he was aiming a gun. “Marriage means that you both have your place. Marriage means that you have more than a simple interest in a person. More than an attachment. It means that you have a commitment. Villanelle and you need to talk, to make sure that you are committed to each other.”
“So we’re just going to patch this up with a nice chat over tea?”
“Tea. Wine. Coffee. Whatever you like. Only, make sure that you are communicating. It must be done. And I am sick of your bickering, you are worse than children!”
Eve picked at the hair tie keeping her curls in a neat top knot. “Talking with Villanelle would be easier if she was actually honest. And more emotional.”
“Emotional? You should have seen her in Amsterdam!”
“Amsterdam? What happened there?”
“Well, she murdered this cheating husband in a brothel. In front of his wife. Wearing a cute pink dress and a pig mask while she gutted him. Does that please you?” Konstantin chuckled as Eve gave a start. “She is not unfamiliar with the jealous, possessive type. You get me? Still, she was very wrecked when you did not come to see her in Amsterdam.”
“I wanted to!”
“Then how come you didn’t?”
“Carolyn wouldn’t let me!”
“If you were truly committed, you would have come no matter what. No matter what,” repeated Konstantin as he pointed at Eve meaningfully. “Just like Villanelle killed for you in Amsterdam. To impress you. Commitment! But when you did not come to her, she went out of her mind. I found her in a club, high on some shitty drugs. She almost killed someone, can you imagine? And then in the morning, I heard her crying in the bathroom. Over you!”
Eve stared. Her voice was thick with emotion. “Villanelle cried?”
“Yes. A lot.”
Konstantin shrugged. “I do not understand you women sometimes. You are always crying or screaming. But as long as you are not crying or screaming at me, it is good.”
“Konstantin-I had no idea. I...thank you for telling me.”
“It is fine. Now go! Talk to Villanelle, she will be awake by now.”
Eve made her way up to the second floor. The sun poured from the windows at this hour, throwing a streak of light on the right wall and the corner near the elevator doors. The hallway stretched on for an impossibly long distance. Eve slowly walked to the familiar burnished numbers, shivering at the memory of last night. It truly seemed like a fever dream. She felt wide awake now, her heart pounding quickly in her chest and her veins rushing with excitement.
Pieces of words clogged in Eve’s throat. She wanted to disentangle them before she opened the door, to get them into some sort of logical order, to inject the proper emotions into her sentences. Excitement got the best of Eve and she opened the door before she felt completely prepared, a small smile as bright as the morning sun already tugging at her mouth.
But when she stepped into room 201, Villanelle was gone.
Villanelle told herself that she was playing just a little game of hide and seek.
During the day, while Konstantin trained Eve, Villanelle would sneak out of room 201 for an hour or two at a time. She always returned for her dose of atropine and she made sure not to wander too far in case Konstantin or Eve randomly decided to check on her. But Villanelle wandered the deserted hallways just the same, peering into the unkempt rooms, grabbing snacks from the kitchen, watering the potted plants tucked away into dusty corners, chancing upon clothing left behind in closets, and clambering up the staircase in order to keep her muscles from atrophying entirely.
Some days it was harder to get out of bed than other days. On the hard days, Villanelle would stare at the shadows shifting across the wall as the sun dragged itself across the sky. She would not eat. She could not move, fearing the onslaught of rigidity that would inevitably trap her. And she did not sleep.
Blanketed by darkness, Villanelle would lay in bed. She’d pull the covers almost all the way up to her chin, tossing and turning between sudden flashes of hot and cold. Her eyes would be wide open. Nothing stirred in the hotel, so whenever something did, Villanelle would focus on it acutely and inquisitively. Most nights, she knew that Konstantin would pass through the room with all the grace of a bull tearing through a china shop.
Except that, last night, long after Konstantin had tucked the covers around her shoulders, Villanelle felt Eve come into the room.
Wading through the penumbra, Eve flowed with the shadows to reach the bed. Something throbbed in the blackest depths of Villanelle’s mind, dipped into the secret shivers of her soul, aroused the burning pulses of blood coursing through her veins. The air was charged with anticipation; Villanelle heard it slice open as the unmistakable whistle of a gun being hefted through the air piqued her interest.
Villanelle gazed at the area where she’d felt Eve radiating from. Her hair formed a thicker outline, blurred and morphing into the colour of the night. Villanelle held her breath. Bit her tongue to stave off a seizure, then pretended to have one just to see what Eve would do. Any second now, she could set off the gun in a blinding flash and a burst of hot pain that would disappear as quickly as it came.
Eve did no such thing. She just stood there. So Villanelle just lay there, her hands lingering at her waist underneath the covers, her heart racing, her eyes wide and her mind bursting with possibilities.
With her body shrouded in darkness, Villanelle felt a strange sense of calm because she knew that Eve could not see her. And yet, Villanelle still felt seen in a way that went beyond nerves and touch and sight; her heart capsized at the thought that she’d managed to move Eve enough for her to come to Villanelle, gun in hand, that she even thought about violently unleashing the tempest of her emotions.
It was exquisite and potent and glorious, and it was simply a little game of hide and seek, that was all. Just as Villanelle was playing hide and seek now, with Irina and Konstantin’s big-hipped, plump wife. Paddington Station was bustling with people eagerly shoving each other aside to board the trains for their morning commute. Oblivious and rude, they throttled past the bench Irina was standing on.
She scanned the crowd with a toss of her flouncy auburn hair. It was parted to the right side now, wavy and giving her an air of sophistication far beyond her years. Ignoring her mother’s alarm, Irina shrieked and pointed at the pillar Villanelle was slouching behind.
“I found you! I found you!”
“Shut up!” Villanelle shouted back. “I do not know how you can even see past that awful haircut!”
“It’s cool, okay? You are just being a big baby!”
“Come over here and say that to my face!”
Villanelle peeked around the pillar. Irina was standing with her hands on her hips.
“I’m hungry,” she called out.
“Too bad. I’m not getting you anything to eat.”
“Because I ate already and I am not hungry.”
“My mom is hungry too.”
“Your mom should go on a diet,” muttered Villanelle. “We’ll miss our train if you eat now,” she yelled, “save it for later.”
Irina crossed her arms. “Come say that to my face!”
Villanelle stepped swiftly into the crowd. She wove her way past trolleys and briefcases and sweaty bodies to reach Irina in a matter of moments. Irina sat down, huddling close to her mother.
“Does she get the annoying part from you?” asked Villanelle.
“No, I don’t!” Irina snapped.
“Huh. Then it must be Konstantin.” Villanelle crossed a leg at her other knee. “The train is late. I can’t believe this!”
“You should be patient.”
“Shut up. Don’t talk. Your voice is annoying. And you are still stinky.”
Irina stuck out her tongue. Villanelle caught it between two fingers and yanked it playfully. “Do that again and I’ll tear it out. Okay?”
Irina was mercifully quiet on the train ride to the house where Eve’s mother lived. It was a small house, with a bed of tulips in the front yard and a trail of dirt leading to a presumably flowery backyard. A few black shingles were loose, and the paint on the eaves supporting the roof had weathered away. Inside, the house was doused with migraine-inducing levels of scented candles and crushed, dried florals. Not a single item was out of place; not the shoes on the landing, not the tea mugs in the cupboards, not the chairs around the dining table, not the picture frames lining the staircase.
A large, gilded cross hung on the wall behind the leather sofa. It was covered with a plastic sheet that groaned obscenely when Konstantin’s wife dropped down on it. She chatted excitedly with Eve’s mother about religion while Irina rolled her eyes. She pouted by the piano that was pushed up against the wall dividing the den from the kitchen. Villanelle poked her in the arm; Irina kicked her foot in return.
“And how do you know Eve?” asked Eve’s mother.
Villanelle swallowed hard. “We are professionals.”
“Oh. You’re at MI5 too?”
“Sure. Why,” asked Villanelle sharply when Eve’s mother raised her eyebrows, “you think that is funny or something?”
“No, no. Not funny. It’s just that, you don’t look like you would work there.”
“Well I do!”
“Alright. Eve never told me about you. Just like she never told me that I would be babysitting your extended family until the very last minute.”
“They’ll be well behaved.” Villanelle elbowed Irina in the ribs. “Besides, what would God say about turning away a good neighbour in need?”
On her way out the door, Villanelle passed a picture of Eve that was placed on a glass table in the front hallway. She looked to be about Villanelle’s age here: her eyes were carefree, she was smiling brightly, and her hair was frozen in time just as a gust of wind had lifted it. Villanelle stared at the picture longer than she stared at her own reflection in the mirror above the table.
The train ride back to the hotel was somber, sullen, and far too long. Her body battled itself as the hour and a half mark approached; she sat on her hands to keep them from darting out, crossed her feet behind her ankles to keep them from shaking apart, bit her tongue and tucked her chin down to keep her head from snapping to the side; felt sweat slop down her cheeks, soak the collar of her blouse, pool on her abdomen and wet her back.
Not here, not here, not here thought Villanelle as a tremor rolled through her. There were too many people in this train carriage, and if she couldn’t master the spasms taking hold of her, those warnings of the chaotic pain to come, all the people would see how vulnerable and weak she really was. Then she would probably have to kill them, smear the cloudy windows with their entrails, leave their limbs along the metal aisle, shove their skin into the cracks between the leather seats and armrests.
With no darkness for cover, Villanelle could only look on as her leg thrust forward to connect with the hard back of the passenger seat in front of her. Then her left hand, which was supposed to be rubbing feeling back into her other leg, slammed into the window hard enough to make Villanelle cry out. Heads turned. Beady eyes scoured her body, flayed it open to expose all of its flaws. Stuttering, gasping at the cavern that had opened up in her chest and was steadily swallowing her whole, Villanelle shuddered in her seat.
She was rotting. People were looking. Nausea. Tension, climbing higher and higher. Fire, spreading through her, not caring for the fact that she didn’t want it to. Her knees smacked onto the floor, hard enough to make her cry out again. It was too much, too much, she couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t bear to feel the bile rising in her throat, the drool slipping from the corner of her mouth, the shaking of her body as it lost its battle and left her hollowed out on the littered floor.
Villanelle stumbled out of the airless train two stops earlier. The sky still blushed with the onset of morning, its colour gentle and soft on her raw eyes. Her arms itched. Her lungs felt like they were wrapped in a cold, wet blanket. Blurred vision. Dry mouth. The edges of her mind craving the needle under her skin, pushing familiar drugs again.
The empty hotel lobby made Villanelle’s heart sink, even if she expected it. Konstantin was probably training Eve, which meant that Villanelle could inject atropine undisturbed. She almost slipped down the stairs leading to the second floor, another jolt of stiffness causing her to lose balance and her grip on the iron railing. Sweating, shaking, Villanelle burst through the door of room 201-
To find Eve standing at the other end of the room, surrounded by debris.
Her mane of hair was wild. She breathed harshly. The curtains were ripped; a bannister toppled against the nightstand, evidently knocking over the lamp. In turn, it had fallen onto the floor to promptly be trampled. The room service phone was smashed apart. Bed sheets and covers pooled on the floor, their stuffing ripped out, scattered, eviscerated. A faint burning smell clung to the air.
“Do you have a thing for trashing my rooms?” Villanelle asked as she slowly stepped closer to Eve.
“Apparently, that’s the only way to get through to you.”
Villanelle found the atropine kit inside one of the desk drawers that had been ripped out and tossed aside. Quickly, almost mechanically, she plunged a needle into her arm with a sigh. A note of clarity rang through her soon.
“Villanelle, why did you marry me?”
The question was all jumbled together, as if it had spent too long coiled in Eve’s throat and now it had sprung free.
“Because I wanted to,” Villanelle replied. “Why did you marry me?”
“Because I love you.”
“Thank you. I can’t imagine why, but thank you.”
Eve sank down onto the bed. Villanelle came to her, towered over her. Eve looked up resolutely at Villanelle.
“I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Just us, together. Just...you. And me. Just you and me. Do you understand, Villanelle?”
Villanelle mirrored Eve on the opposite bed. “Yes.”
“But I can’t do that unless...unless I know. Unless I can be absolutely sure that-that you feel the same way. God, that you feel even a sliver of what I do for you.”
It was hard to breathe, hard to swallow. Hard to be seen in the naked daylight. Villanelle took Eve’s hand in her own.
“I’m glad I can reciprocate the same feeling that you give me.”
And oh, now Eve looked at her, really saw her for the first time since she’d entered the room. Villanelle’s breath caught in her throat. She brushed a lock of hair away from Eve’s eyes.
“But...but you being with another woman changes things,” said Eve.
“No! Nothing has changed. We are as we were. And we will be better.”
“I-I want to believe you. I do. God, I do. I just-how do I know, how can I know, how do I trust you again-”
“Okay, like this.” Villanelle cupped Eve’s jaw. Brushed her thumb across her chin, soothingly, back and forth, until Eve’s eyes fluttered shut. Her lips parted, her tongue darted out to wet them, and Villanelle sealed their lips together.
A single kiss wasn’t enough; she grasped the back of Eve’s neck hard with one hand. Villanelle’s other hand buried itself in her hair. Eve crushed their bodies together, chased away the excess air between them fervently. Villanelle felt the strength rippling through Eve’s forearms, her abdominal muscles, the leanness of her thighs. That note of clarity within Villanelle reverberated into a choir singing praises for Eve.
“Is this enough?” rasped Villanelle.
Eve held herself apart, panting. “I don’t know.”
“None of it meant anything,” Villanelle murmured. “Remember Hugo? With the Keeper, it was like that. I did not love her. I didn’t feel anything. There is no way she compared to you, it didn’t even feel the same. Eve, I swear.”
“Then why did you do it?”
Villanelle drew back to look upon Eve’s face fully. “I do not know how to deal with my feelings for you.”
Eve gasped. Villanelle pressed on.
“You have such a way with your attention, with your words, with the way that you are. With making me feel just so special and important. But all I have are these feelings welled up inside that I can’t put words to. And it kills me, because I know it makes you think that for some reason, you are not as important to me as I am to you.
Somehow you always catch me off guard. I know I feel the same joy at having you in my life, the same hunger, the same need to be close to you. I cannot even begin to express it.
So please know Eve, there is nothing, nothing, that I wouldn’t share with you. Just like I told you about cheating, just like I told you about Ana. I will be honest with you, know this. Anything, everything you want to know, I want to tell you.
And yes, I want us to be together. Just you and me. No one else. Only us, together. Always.”
Eve squeezed Villanelle’s hand.
“Okay Villanelle,” she finally said, her tone opaque. “But if you cheat on me again, I’ll kill you.”
“And if you leave me again Eve, I’ll kill you.”
Eve nodded curtly. She was silent for a few more moments. When she spoke again, she sounded like someone had turned her vocal chords inside out and restrung them to a wholly new pitch.
“We do so few things together.”
“This is actually true.”
“And I was thinking about what my wedding gift to you should be,” Eve continued softly.
“Yeah. I realized that I didn’t get a chance to do anything important for you. And I want us to reaffirm our commitment to each other, to prove we can trust one another again with our lives.”
“Okay, Eve. How?”
Her eyes gleamed like polished obsidian stones.
“I want you to help me kill Niko.”