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Victoria and the Mousehole

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When you fall in love, it is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake, and then it subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots are become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Corelli's Mandolin

 

CHICAGO: DECEMBER, 2009

"You looked very beautiful tonight. It is a shame about the dress."

Ivan's words reignite a chain reaction of memory that Victoria has been throwing cold water on since, squinting up at a man's silhouette against the winter sun, she hears his voice coming from the body of a stranger.

She stands very still as Ivan's knife slices the weighty fabric of her winter white gown, from neckline to underarm, then down along the side seam. Victoria forces herself to find the interior quiet place where she regroups in times of great stress. She is conscious of pain from the wound in her side, but more conscious of the oddly persistent memory of an old nature film.

Hawkmoth emerging from chrysalis. The subtle elegance of the moth's body provides striking contrast to the wrack of discarded chrysalis. New from old. A not so subtle message, yet Victoria wonders if there are less obvious reasons this image has surfaced with such clarity. Benjamin Winslow did like his nature specials. Such programmes are almost the only television she remembers watching with him during the years they were married.

"Now you do not have to lift your arms." Ivan eases the fabric away from the entrance and exit wounds, then pulls the entire dress down over her arms, away from her body. He folds the dress into a rough pad and places it on the bed. He takes her right wrist between his fingers, finding her pulse. His free hand makes a movement toward her face, then drops. "Sit. How did this happen?"

"I was careless." Victoria shivers, and cannot stop. The action brings a sharper pulse of pain from her hip. The budget motel room is warmer than the raw Chicago December air outside, but not by much. Somehow the loud orange and red printed wallboard, and framed, faux-modern reproduction of vomited color above the bed make her feel like she's on a 60's Hammer soundstage, and cultists lurk nearby. Everything in her existence is minutely off-kilter, fictitious.

Without the comforting warmth of her dress, Victoria feels her skin puckering into gooseflesh. Her nipples stand hard as frozen grapes. Victoria withdraws her hand from Ivan's and manages to sit on her ruined dress. A small, uncontrolled sound vibrates in her throat, protest against the wrongness in her body, protest against the trickle of lava that burns down the side of her stomach and wicks along the edge of her panties.

"I'm bleeding again."

Ivan examines the window unit heater and adjusts the controls. A rattling blast of bone-dry hot air begins to displace the cold. "Where is your kit?"

"My suitcase. In the closet, under your coat." The coat from his lodge. How long has he been within driving distance of her own home? Victoria tells him the combination. Fuzziness brushes the edges of consciousness. She tells herself flatly to suck it up and focus: as gunshot wounds go, it could be much worse.

"Swallow these."

She takes the tablet, drinks the glass of water. He is still the thorough professional she remembers from so long ago, still as competent and unstressed in difficult situations. "There's a back-up phone in the suitcase."

Ivan rummages, lays out the first aid kit, cell phone, and several articles of clothing. "Here. I will do a field dressing for now. Unless you wish more professional medical assistance?"

Victoria holds out her hand for the phone. Two texts wait. "Don't be daft. Get me mobile. Frank and Marvin have checked in. We'll be needed soon."

It hurts, but his hands are very gentle. With the heat from the blowers against her skin, and the painkillers taking effect, sharpness of mind returns. Victoria looks down at the unfamiliar, yet so familiar, head of greying auburn hair as he removes the black work boots from her feet.

They are never alone during the planning phase of this mad mission. She watches Ivan, knows he watches her across the table as they collaborate on a plan to rescue Frank's lady, and annihilate the men responsible for so much death. It is the strangest feeling, to study his face, heavier with age, and see the laughing eyes of a young man.

A blink of an eye he says on the dance floor.

Victoria thinks of a joke one of her woman friends tells her, after christening yet another child. Nature administers a kind of biological, hormonal brainwashing, so young mothers will gradually forget how much of an ordeal it is to carry and bear children -- thus ensuring the world does not become a place full of only children. Victoria, who has never had children, understands this is only partly meant as a joke.

Nature has other mind tricks in her repertoire. Far more years stretch behind than remain in front of Victoria now. The time she has traversed getting to this year, this room, has acquired a hazy vagueness that only dissipates if she deliberately recalls a year, an event, a person to mind.

It is Victoria's opinion that nature is more scrapbooker than anesthesiologist, arranging memory between obscuring pages of more memory.

"Can you stand, or should I cut panties off? The blood will be very uncomfortable when it dries."

There is wry amusement and concern in the question. Some unwanted emotion constricts the muscles of her throat, makes it difficult to answer. She remembers this about him, more vividly than she has ever let herself remember over the years since she last saw him: his impertinently fatalistic, essentially Russian sense of humor.

"Cut them." She is too old for the heroic stiff upper lip. "The black leggings . . . help me put those on. The waist should hit above the wound, and help keep the bandages snug."

Two snips of lace, and the panties thread out between her legs. His fingers make little contact with her flesh. Victoria shivers uncontrollably and wishes the heat of his hand would linger. Old woman. Old man. How is it possible, at her age, wounded and bleeding, to want . . .

"Do you need to use the bathroom before we put on leggings?"

"Good idea. Get out of my way. I can get there on my own."

When she stands, it feels like a flame-heated toasting fork has been inserted along the length of the wound. Victoria sucks in a gulp of air, walks to the bathroom slowly. She shuts the door behind her, leans against it for a moment as she contemplates the toilet. It is bad enough she has to let him see her this way, after so many years, without needing to ask for help using the loo.

Well, she can pee standing up as well as the next spy. Victoria washes her hands afterward, avoiding her reflection in the grainy mirror. Normally indifferent to nudity, she unaccountably regrets an earlier decision to forego a bra under the draping elegance and plunging neckline of her dress.

Conscious of wearing only her dignity and a gunshot wound, she returns to sit on the bed.

Ivan feeds the leggings up over her ankles, her calves, her knees. He pauses then, and finds a pair of anklets for her feet. His hands are quick, impersonal, yet Victoria has to push away a sense of aching intimacy.

Blink of an eye.

"Now. Give me your hands. I will pull you to your feet."

Standing is easier this time, still uncomfortable, but the sharpness of pain transforms to a dull, background grumble.

"Is all right?" He settles the waistband of the leggings above her hips carefully.

"Bugger. Hurts. Getting shot really pisses me off." She waves at the closet. "There's a button down shirt."

Ivan removes the stained dress from the bed. He helps her with the shirt sleeves, right arm first, then leaves her to do the buttons on her own.

"I'll need the other pair of boots." She sits on the bed without assistance, barely. When muscles move just right, or just wrong, it hurts like a bitch.

"Yes." He returns from the closet, kneels at her feet. "Marvin is ready for pickup?"

"Yes." She rolls the shirt cuffs up to just above each wrist, and wiggles her feet down into the boots. "Let's go."

Ivan replaces the first aid kit in her suitcase, adding the dress and panty shreds to the contents. "You won't be coming back here. Stay still. I'll clean."

He spends several minutes in the bathroom, a few in the bedroom wiping surfaces. "Finished. I'll put your things in the car."

As soon as the motel door closes behind him, Victoria stands and walks to the closet. She bends slightly, tentatively, wincing at the lightning stab of pain through her side. It's important to know what her range of motion will be. She picks up the coat and puts it on with manageable discomfort. Marvin has provided the painkillers for their kits. She makes a mental note to thank him, and find out what they are.

"Ready?" Ivan's handkerchief is between his fingers and the doorknob. He holds the door wide, then closes it behind them with a last flourish of fabric around the door hardware.

The car door is already open. Victoria steps in with her left leg, lowers herself onto the seat.

Ivan stoops beside the open door, holding her leg under the right knee. He lifts her foot into the car. "I know you could do it yourself, but it is such a pleasure to touch you again."

"Thank you, but it's only my leg, Ivan." She waits until he's in the driver's seat, pulling the car into traffic before she speaks again. "I'm too old to still have false pride over something like this. If I lose any more blood, I'll also lose any asset status that remains, and come down hard in the liability column."

"You have barely changed, since the last time I saw you naked." His accent thickens as he says this.

There is a quality of wonder and yearning in his voice that makes her blink and turn her head away to stare blindly out the window. She's not a crier, never has been. No tears when Benjamin passes. No tears when Joe dies. Her sorrow is internal, intensely personal; tears always seem less about the lost than the loser. Only one time in her entire life . . . It takes a moment, but her equilibrium returns.

"Shot once, cut twice badly. But your magnificent legs and breasts have not altered in the slightest."

"Liar." Victoria rests her head back against the seat. The painkillers have really kicked in now, and even the knot in her throat loosens as she forces herself to draw deep, steady breaths. "When Frank's business is complete we'll have this conversation."

"Good." Ivan drives, as she remembers, with decisive skill through the dark city streets. "I did lie when I said it was only the blink of an eye. It has been an eternity."

Equal parts grief and joy nearly overwhelm her ability to speak. She has not shared her sense of ultimate responsibility with Frank or Marvin. "Ivan. They shot Joe. I couldn't prevent it."

"I know, milaya moya. We will kill those responsible."

She hears implacable resolve in his voice. Ivan has not changed, in any way that matters. "That is a good plan."