Stained stone angels guarded their walk from other people’s beliefs. They held hands at times or paused to kiss. Their talk came pinesap slow and honeycomb sweet. Sere leaves swirled at their feet in happy-puppy frolics. Incised letters and numbers caught morning dew that ran like tears. Symbols signaled unseen deities. Last expenses for lost ones studded acres with a final gap-toothed smile of relief. A quiet breeze wafted muffled chirps from huddled birds; sparrows, feathers puffed, shivered on stoic motionless alert as crows, imperious, plotted murders, flight. Branches rattled, snowflakes played cage with light touches.
He told her what he’d done. She told him what she’d lived through. They held hands, gazing into the valley below.
The first bullet broke his spine at the hips, thrusting him into her arms in a sprawl as if to tackle her, as if to hug her into submission. The second bullet took out her throat, baptizing both in red, sending both to the ground, where they lay embraced. Breeze stilled, birds fell silent, and the cemetery waited as the valley began its day.
“Finished, at least.”
Two men paid by others shouldered rifles and walked deeper into the trees, local hunters seeking early-winter deer to top off a family pantry. Good venison smoked and gnawed through bitter cold kept many village people going. So did occasional jobs requiring marksmanship.
One did what one could to survive.
“He must’ve known.”
“Retirement is a permanent term. He knew that much.”
“But meeting her, after all this time. Mindless risk.”
“Final statement, I’d say.”
“Call it what you will, at least it’s done.”
“Is it? I wonder if it’ll ever be done.”
Hidden files came out of hiding to flutter open. Papers shuffled. Stamps, signatures, and initials added minuscule weight. Slapped shut, files slipped back into hiding.
Lives ended. Time shifted. Lives remained unchanged. Time shrugged off personal details cuddled and coddled like mushroom spoors awaiting the chance to fruit. Lives changed.
State secrets fenced with the state of secrecy. Those on guard lunged to touch deeper, each point probing for heart’s blood, each slash satisfied with a scar left for the opponent to contemplate.
Wet work soaked, stained.
“This will never come out.”
Holders of secrets hoped that were true while bearers of stains complained that it was. Clandestine, destiny of the clan; all for one and one for all or else. Confidential, confided lack of confidence, a doubt planted, slanted words a talus of scree to send one sliding over hidden edges.
Uncertain ground underfoot. Shifting loyalties. Climbing to a peak obscured by clouds of lies, goals always moved, summit a cynical term of negotiation and concession instead of a place.
Grand game, some said.
Dead serious, others countered.
Check and mate, friendship forfeit.
Caton came into it late, uninformed, and without top cover. This was often the way in pivotal cases of espionage.
Lancashire, its forests, his accent, all cast shade on Caton’s purposes. Ostensibly he’d been recruited for his professorial familiarity with Victorian fiction. This gave him excellent cover. He could move from school to school, none the wiser to his ulterior identities, motives, and actions.