begins with the letter K."
"I knew that."
"Deranged Soviet." The American lowered the binoculars,
knowing without having to look that his partner's expression would
deadpan. "Do you want to play or not?"
A slight sigh, the sound of cold coffee slurped from a Styrofoam
cup. "Am I a communist?"
"No," the American said cheerfully, keeping his eyes on the one
lit window remaining several floors up. Fatal error. He'll
never get it now. "You're not Nikita Khrushchev. That's one."
a war, and maybe you're a boy, and maybe you're a soldier. In
any case, you see things--you are things-- that
no human being
should ever have to see, should ever have to become. Maybe
you're seven, eight years old and you watch from hiding as the
Ukrainian captives face to face in pairs, embracing, blood
running from the thin wire twisted around their wrists. The Germans
them up along the railing of a bridge and shoot one of each
pair. Momentum carries living and dead over the low railing,
river below, where the difference ceases to matter.
It does save on bullets.
Or maybe you're seventeen years old and carrying a U.S. Army
rifle through the minefields of Southeast Asia, and scattered
from a cluster of refugees penned under the span of a railway
two of your comrades. And the order comes down via a bleak-eyed
sergeant, the lieutenant says shoot them all. "Sarge." You squint
through your scope, watching mothers cover their children, husbands
cover their wives as if human flesh could protect human flesh from
spinning lead. "There's women and babies in that crowd."
"I know it," he says. A heavy pause. "Follow orders, son."
You can't be too careful.
Whichever, it isn't something you talk about afterwards. Even
to your buddies. Even to the people who were there. Five
years, twenty years--and the old hurts become the foundation
for the battlements that keep the world at bay.
Maybe you adopt a suave and charming frictionless surface,
a ready smile and a self-deprecating turn of phrase--and
judo for the days when those don't suffice. Maybe you turn
inward, settling into a glass-hard, glass-sharp facade, warded
barbed wire of cutting wit and disdainful glances, and learn
to kill as
efficiently as you'd solve differentials.
You don't tell anyone about the nightmares of falling, and
bridges, and a corpse leaking brains clutched tight in your
"This is not vodka." The
Russian held the heavy crystal glass to the light and sighed
at its clarity.
"The tax stamp was intact until I opened it. It's been in my freezer
since Saturday." The American stretched his long legs, propping
his heels on the ottoman. He inspected his own cocktail --
gin, vermouth, two onions -- carefully. "Unless a spy
entered my apartment while we were on assignment and
poisoned the liquor
eighty-proof Stolichnaya. It says 'Vodka, product of
Russia' on the label."
The Russian glanced the length of the curved couch and
favored his partner with a rare sardonic smile. "Wodka," he said precisely, "comes
in bottles with a tear-off foil tab, because one never
opens the bottle unless one intends to finish it. It
is not sipped,
allowing it contact with the palate or tongue is the
direst sort of foolishness. And on an occasion such as
this, one shatters
the glass in the nearest fireplace, so that it may never
be disgraced by being put to a lesser purpose."
"That's Baccarat," the American answered reasonably, as the Russian
lowered the glass to his lips, measuring his partner
over the rim. "And
it's a gas fire. And what's the occasion worth breaking
my glasses over, in any case?"
"Am I a defector?"
"No, you're not Kim Philby. That's two."
"I can count." A considering pause. "Do you want coffee?
There is still a bit in the thermos."
"Yes. I'm not counting that question, out of the goodness of my heart."
"You are exceedingly kind. Am I dead?"
"No," the American said, and this time he couldn't resist a sideways
glance. The Russian had looked over at the same moment, of
course: their eyes met in the darkness and then they turned back to their
respective tasks. The American watched the window. The Russian
watched the door. "You're not John F. Kennedy."
"Three. What is that quaint expression about tiny mercies?"
"Small mercies," the American corrected, and held out his hand
for the coffee without glancing down.
young, looking for -- something. Anything. But she dies. Badly.
Maybe you leave the Army.
Maybe you join
have nowhere else to go, and some smart talent
scout notices the strength of your body, the agility
of your mind, the
charm in your
demeanor. That might not mean anything, but coupled
with that dead look at the back of your eyes--the
says I am in
forever--maybe you find yourself recruited. It's
the CIA, or is it the GRU?
One thing leads to another. Detached duty first,
then a transfer. Maybe you keep wearing her ring,
you do, it turns out to be a mistake. You learn
what you should have
to keep things that mean something to you in
a safe deposit box, not in your apartment and
not to get attached. Not to make friends. Not
to bring lovers home. Not
to get into the car and simply flip the ignition,
as any normal person would. Not to turn your
Not to trust.
You're a physicist and an athlete, or an engineer
and a soldier. A second-story man and a martial
artist--with another profession
as well. The oldest profession, but there are
a thousand ways to sell yourself. When you're
a woman --
for business or
-- or, in the line of duty, sometimes a man,
sleep. If duty demands you stay the night, rather
than rising and
you lie awake listening to soft breaths in the
darkness. You never, ever doze. Even if it were
safe, you couldn't
Until, unexpectedly, you meet someone who doesn't
need an explanation.
"We are not dead," the Russian answered, and deigned to clink
glasses with his partner when the American
leaned forward on the deep leather sofa to make the reach. He knocked two fingers
back in a gulp, feeling the insufficient burn
of the Stolichnaya, and rose and passed through the door into the kitchen to
another from the bottle in the American's Kelvinator.
He pushed back against the refrigerator's door, leaning his abused neck on the
curve of the metal. "You are going to have
a shiner, my friend."
The American laughed. "I'm going to have
more than a shiner. The bastard loosened
a couple of teeth."
"Do not poke them and they will resettle," the Russian advised,
sipping his vodka. Decadent novelty: vodka
that could be sipped. America had its advantages.
"The expert on loosened teeth, are we?"
"Somewhat. Is the initial K in my first name?"
"No. You're not Katharine Hepburn."
"Five. Am I male?"
"Yes. Six." The American had not risen from his seat deep in
the green leather.
The Russian dropped his glass on the table
beside the sofa and came toward him, flicking
it ring. "Have
"The onions are in the refrigerator. As is the vermouth--"
"If you would drink vodka like a civilized person--" He fetched
the necessary items and handed his partner
the gin bottle. Standing over the American, the Russian observed what he poured
the bottle marginally higher. He skewered
onions on a toothpick, and dropped them into a Gibson that was probably much
too warm. "It
is good for you to relax."
The American watched in amusement, and killed
half the glass in a swallow. "It was a close
call, wasn't it?"
"It was closer than I like," the Russian answered, and shoved
his partner against the couch, a palm flat
on either shoulder, straddling the other man's knees. He raised his right hand
and tilted the American's
chin up, turning his eye into the light. "You
have a hematoma."
"You," the American answered, "have whip cuts from here--" idle
fingers marked a place just below the collar
of the black turtleneck "--to
here." The crease at the top of his buttocks,
and by chance the American's fingers pressed
hard on the worst of the welts.
The Russian hissed.
"And you're worried about a spot of blood in my eye?"
"Closer than I like," he said again. The vodka made him feel
distanced, thoughtful. "Are you drunk yet?"
"Pleasantly--" a slight hesitation, and a smile "--loose."
"Good," the Russian growled, and plucked the pricey glass from
his partner's fingers, setting it beside
his own. He grabbed two wings of a linen collar in fists that were surprisingly
his height and pulled, tendons ridging, buttons
scattering, baring the American's untanned chest. "Because I almost lost you
tonight, and I am not in a mood to play games."
"I save the games--" the American leaned forward, raised a bruised
hand, knotted it in the Russian's perpetually
untidy hair and yanked "--for
people upon whom my life does not depend."
The pain was good, startling, sharp and alive
as the tinkle of shattering crystal. Pain
is as it should be," the Russian said, and
bit his partner perhaps harder than he should
Silence, broken by little grunts of effort
and the wetness of mouth on mouth, mouth
affirmations of survival.
lip was puffy, the flesh inside his cheek
welted and split from his teeth. The Russian
did not mind.
blood was also preferable to not.
We have a plane to catch again, in the morning," he said, leaning
back and raising his arms to make it easier for his partner to peel
cashmere knit from damaged skin. "You would
think our employer would give us a week off
"Tovarisch?" The American laid one callused hand flat on the
gymnast's muscle of the Russian's belly.
"Am I famous?"
Hm. How to answer that? The American smiled, long square fingers
tapping idly at the hard plastic of the
steering wheel. "Four.
In certain circles--"
"That is not a yes or no answer. I should claim forfeit--"
The American cleared his throat. "Hmm. Bathroom light just went
off. He's at the window. He's drawing the
"What is he wearing?" The Russian was suddenly a flurry of
motion, turning over the seat back, digging
in a black plastic trash bag
on the back seat of the babyshit-brown 1962
Dodge Polara with the three small dents in the driver's side door.
"Slumming," the American said, leaning forward with the binoculars
pressed to his eyes. "Dark slacks. Your jeans
should be fine in the dark. And -- slouchy
white pullover. No, ivory. Sweater
or a sweatshirt."
"We brought a white sweatshirt," his partner said, and slithered
back into the front seat with his prize.
He ducked his head, back of his hand brushing his partner's arm in the confined
space as he
writhed into the shirt. "This should do in
the dark. Where do you wish to take him,
"If he follows his usual route, ah--" the American looked at
his partner, just as the Russian looked at
him. The Russian offered a wary flash of smile at the inevitability of that glance. "--I'll
take him out behind the tailor shop and hand
him off to the boys in the van. Complete the route. I'll be there after you make
A stocky blond man emerged from the front
door of the brownstone, shuffling along
stuffed into the
side pockets of his slacks, his ivory
sweater lumpy and unkempt. "Be careful," the
Russian said, and slipped out of the car
as if he had never been there, the hood of
his inside-out sweatshirt pulled up to cover
the brightness of his hair.
Be careful? the American thought. I'm
not the one going into harm's way tonight,
On the surface,
he's wind to your stone, ice to your fire. The accent is an
brittle where yours is calm.
He's a depraved and godless communist,
or maybe he's a decadent capitalist
War takes place
the break room,
and your coworkers
place their bets on which of you
will kill the other one first. You
and the irresistible
force. Matter and antimatter. White
and black. Night and day. Us
Your coworkers are fools.
The détente that matters takes place in greasy midnight
alleyways over icy, oily coffee. Peel off the pretenses
and the same history lies beneath. Night and day aren't opposites.
They are two halves of a whole.
"Pansy. It's only alcohol."
"Pansy?" The Russian wondered if his partner could hear the raised
eyebrow in his voice. He couldn't be
troubled to lift his head from the sofa and look over his shoulder to catch his
partner's eye. "Consider
the source. In any case, the welts hurt
enough without your assistance."
"This one's going to scar, I think. You should have had stitches;
we seem to have split the scab."
"I do not need stitches -- ow. If you insist on tormenting me, at
least permit me to apply more alcohol
on the inside, also."
"By all means. It's gotten warm, I'm afraid." The vodka glass
nestled into the carpet beside the Russian's
left hand. "At
least one new scar," his partner said
two or three."
"Who would notice another?" The Russian lifted himself on his
elbow to sip pungent liquor, leather
briefly adhering to his chest. Cool fingers traced the old and new marks on his
thighs. The touch felt strange--interrupted--prickles
and pins and needles that were the legacy of damaged nerves, damaged skin.
The American sighed. "How can you just, ah, shrug it off
"I'm not a wounded pigeon."
"Wounded dove," the American corrected, cool stroke of an alcohol-soaked
cloth following his hand.
"Whatever. My actions will not be dictated by my injuries--" They
both knew it was a patent lie. Knew it,
and lived it. "Permit
me some measure of dignity, my friend." He
lay prone and set down his glass, reaching
back to run broad fingers up his partner's
forearm and shoulder. Fingers traced
skin like satin to a knot as
hard and slick as leather. "What is this?"
"You know what it is."
The Russian let his silence handle the reprimand, and his partner
sighed and gave in.
"It's a scar."
"A bullet wound."
"Did you know that scar tissue is the strongest tissue in the body?"
His partner set the antiseptic cloth aside and caressed one of the
uglier marks on the Russian's back, fingers
trailing to outline hard muscle. The Russian flinched more than he had
from the alcohol. "It's
tough," the American admitted. "But it
doesn't stretch. And it can interrupt
sensation, make pleasure feel like pain.
Make you afraid to take chances, get
"There is that," the Russian agreed, drowsy now as his partner
finger-combed his hair, floating on the
scent of warm leather and warmer booze. "But it is preferable to the alternative."
was deserted, and the American gave a faint, satisfied huff.
full-out to make
it here before him, but it was still
good not to be wrong. He stepped
into the shadows and waited, breathing
deeply with exertion. A week's
painstaking observation said that
this was the place where it must happen.
It all went bad, of course.
He tuned his ears for approaching
footsteps--fast, short steps, not
his partner's fluid
stride and oh-so-insignificant limp.
heard instead was a scuffle, a rattle
of shoes on metal, an angry shout.
to the cross
his steps as best
he could, and looked down, both ways,
Two struggling figures on a fifth-story
fire escape, interchangeable in the
near-darkness. Blond hair
a little too long for
respectability, pale lumpy pullovers
concealing the outlines of the bodies
within. The courier had taken to
by the seventh
sense everyone in their line of work
shared if they lasted long--and rather
than miss the chance to replace him
before the pickup, the Russian had
raised his sidearm,
it were loaded with darts, and leaned
back into a two-handed police stance.
He might as well have been aiming
a peashooter, at this distance and
of fire. He'd
have been better
with a peashooter,
he realized as he thumbed the safety
off. Because his chances of hitting
his partner were just as good as
his chances of hitting the courier.
if his aim
was true, a bullet could
target, tumbling, rending flesh,
shredding arteries, and kill what
lay beyond. "Fucking hell," he swore,
blowing his forelock out of his eyes,
the scent of garbage and cool city
all around him as he waited for his
opening, breath smooth and
calm in his chest.
He waited too long.
A grunt, a left cross he thought
he recognized all too well, and someone
someone grabbed, and someone
hard at waist-level and toppled forward.
For a dizzying
moment, the American imagined he
too--flailing, fifty feet down
and broken glass with a crunch that
promised no survivors.
He couldn't comprehend how it was
that his partner fell, and didn't
He didn't run. He didn't look down.
Everything except his hands trembling
the American switched
auto and aimed with meticulous precision,
as if he were on the target range.
And then, five stories above him,
the Russian turned around and raked
his hair and
leaned hard on
shaking his head a little when he
saw the American leveling the gun. "You
had better not be another evil duplicate," he called, when he
had his breath under control. "I
haven't the energy to chase you if
"Thank God." A sigh, and the gun went down. "I thought--"
The Russian was descending the fire escape. Was swinging down
and dropping the last ten feet, not
bothering with the ladder. "I
used a body double," he said dryly, nudging the pulpy courier
with his toe. The American chuckled; he knew as well as the Russian
did that the humor was a gaudy veil over the face of the dark goddess
Necessity. The world trembled on the edge of a precipice, two great
enemies chained mouth to mouth, nearly kissing, vast muscles writhing
under fear-sweated skin. It would only take a single well-placed
bullet to topple the whole world flailing over the edge. "We
will need a cleanup squad. I am afraid
he is past interrogation."
"Go on ahead," the American answered, holstering his gun. "I'll
call it in. I should have known I'd
find you lollygagging. You're likely to miss your timetable for the meet."
"Lollygagging,"the Russian said. He looked up and his eyes
met his partner's, and without another
word he went.
And of course the evening only deteriorated
from there, because their contact
hadn't bothered to inform control
for the pickup had been changed.
always be another mission. There will always be another risk.
you'll be captured,
Maybe you'll be tortured, drugged,
beaten. Used as bait. But there's
no maybe about this: that you'll
for your partner even when control
in no uncertain
than death to try. You'll kick
and you'll claw and you'll scream and
Left hand and right, perfectly
coordinated. How can you feed
yourself in pitch
the fork? Because
you can. Because you're built
that way, halves of a whole,
not so much
and left, right
brain and left, one creature
split down the middle. One animal,
bodies, one luck.
And one day you'll run out of
that luck. Because that's the
any maybes there,
You hope when it happens, all
the luck runs out at once.
"What are you
"Juice,"the Russian answered, pushing the glass around on
the Formica tabletop, leaving
pearls of icy sweat behind it.
"It's--"The blend of nausea and fascination in his partner's
voice made him smile. "--mauve."
"It is guava juice."
"Guava juice?"He reached for the glass, and the Russian let
the corner of his mouth curl,
just a little, without looking up from the crossword puzzle he was working.
"You will not like it."
"Are you sure?"
The American put the glass down untasted and drew the second chair
around into the puddle of
morning sunlight. He sighed and leaned back, and the Russian saw the way his
long smooth fingers flexed
against the tabletop.
The Russian looked up over
the rims of his reading glasses. "Am
I an American?"
"No, you're not Martin Luther King, Jr.,"his partner said. "Seven.
You'll never get this one."
"Hmph."The Russian set the pen down, considering his partner
carefully. Considering the gloating smile. He frowned, feeling his
eyebrows pull together. "Am
"Am I--" Hesitation, fingers through hair, a sunny smile as he
played his victim onto the hook. "Am
I a fictional character?"
"Yes. Damn you." That exasperated twist of the American's mouth
told the Russian he had the
answer. One more question, to be sure.
"Ten. Am I a spy?"
"No. You're an agent, you slick son of a bitch. A spy works for the
other side. Put me out of
my misery already."
"The other side? Whatever happened to 'godless Soviet?'" No answer
except a shrug and a sideways roll
of the eyes. The Russian grinned, triumphant. "Clever American. You very
nearly had me stumped this time. Except you lied on one answer: not a
"I thought once I lured you down that backtrail I'd have you chasing
red herrings until dinnertime.
And how many communists dress in cashmere and drink guava juice for breakfast?"
"My friend, I never claimed to be a good communist. Détente
is the art of compromise."
"Ah. I thought it was the art of letting the other fellow have your
The Russian answered with
a shrug. "Ten games to four.
My turn. Your name begins
with the letter B."
by Elizabeth Bear