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. Life remained unchanged. Time shrugged off personal details cuddled and coddled like mushroom spoors awaiting the chance to fruit. Living changed gradually.
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. Edges chipped bones.
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.
A life-long spy had met his life-long source for one last embrace. They’d been gunned down by local hires.
Those shooters had to be shut off.
It was that simple.
It was simply time to call someone in from plain sight to deal with it.
Caton came into it late, uninformed, and without top cover. This was often the way in pivotal cases of espionage mop-up operations.
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. Being moved so often gave rise, in retrospect, to rumors of womanizing or worse. This enhanced his cover.
Caton backed against a tree, hands up, on toes, cringing each time of the hunting dogs darted in to snap at him. He waited until the hunter came to call off the dogs.
The hunter, dogs’ owner, squinted. “Treed you good.”
Laughing, Caton lowered his arms. He trembled his hands to show false fear. In a quivering voice he thanked the hunter. “Out hiking. Good thing you came along.”
“Might’ve froze.” He paused, spat. “Or got eaten.” The hunter’s turn to laugh fell short as Caton’s hand flashed up to release a throwing star.
It flew like a crow to lodge in the man’s larynx.
Gurgling blood, the man dropped to his knees, let go of his rifle, then pitched forward.
Caton retrieved the star, wrapped it in waxed paper, and pocketed it. He encouraged the dogs to smell, to lap at their master’s blood.
Some licked. One bit, shook, and tore.
Soon, they frenzied.
Caton walked away, using the deer path he’d found, which was
hard-packed enough to resist taking tracks.
The second hunter Caton found at his cabin. No one else lived with him. He skinned deer, tanned their hides, and sold them to a leather worker in town. He stuffed smaller animals, sold them to a taxidermy shop. He sold woods meat, as they called it, including venison, rabbit, gopher, and squirrel, to several customers.
Knocking, Caton flashed some money and asked about having a bear made into a rug. He talked in large sums.
When the man turned his back, Caton struck. He hit the back of the man’s skull with a mallet he’d found on a skinning table. The man went down like dropping a sheet of plywood.
Kneeling, Caton rolled the man onto his back. He untied the rope belt, unbuttoned the top of the man’s trousers, and unzipped the fly. He tugged the trousers down to the man’s ankles. No underwear made it easier.
Using a ripper knife also from the shop, Caton cut the man’s femoral artery close to his crotch. The man’s heart pumped his life’s blood out efficiently, with decreasing spurts and gouts. It did not take long for it to stop trickling, then to stop oozing.
Careful to avoid stepping in the pool of blood, Caton dropped a well-used pornographic magazine and the pelt of a mink near the man’s hands.
He left him to be found and frowned over by disapproving prudes and disdainful police.
Reporting the job completed, Caton vanished back into one of his other lives, to await another call, another chance to earn more time and money. Layers shifted, adjusting to minor changes. Losses, gains. Fires put out. Embers dampened.
Few knew their daily lives amounted to a cemetery stroll, graves patiently gaping at every step. This suited the handlers and property owners just fine.
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