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To live here one must forget much

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I study your sleeping form
at the bottom of the pool
like a house I could return to,

like a head cradled in the arms.
Unless you are asleep I cannot make my way
across the night
and through my isolation.
--Anne Carson

 

 

In her cold New York walk-up, hardly larger than a closet, Fiona’s phone rings. It is four in the morning. She sits bolt upright on her daybed, wearing a red hoodie that almost drowns her and a pair of grey yoga pants, and fumbles the phone open, nearly missing the call entirely. The fact that the area code is foreign and unfamiliar does not concern her. She answers all night calls, because criminals don’t do necessarily do business during the day.

“Hullo?” she says, her Irish coming out in her half-asleep state.

“Fiona Glen . . . ayne?” says the voice on the other end. The connection is not very good and he sounds extremely hesitant. Fiona is used to this. Making first contact in tenuous situations like the ones she deals in can be fraught. Male criminals often don’t want to hear their new work buddy is a woman. It bothers them. She tries to sound as masculine, as sure, as possible.

“Yes,” says Fiona. “Speaking.”

“My name is John Adeyemi, madam. I am calling from Lagos, from the DSS. Do you know what department that is?”

DSS, also known as SSS or State Security Service, is Nigeria’s CIA counterpart. Fiona has never spoken to anyone in DSS, and no one in DSS would ever want to buy firearms from her. Mystified now, she stands and goes to the window to look out as she speaks. No one is on the street watching her. That’s good at least.

“Of course, Mr. Adeyemi. How can I help you?”

“Madam, we have a card with your name on it . . . it is a long story . . . you are acquainted with a Mr. Michael Westen?”

At the sound of his name, which she hasn’t spoken or even thought of – well, or tried to think of – in ten years, her heart stops for a second, then jumpstarts with a bang, at the same time as her brain says, Of course that’s what this is all about.

Her first panicked thought is to say that she has never heard of Michael Westen in her life, but if they have a card, that option is closed. She sits back down slowly on the bed.

“Madam? Are you still there?” The DSS man sounds a little worried. Fiona begins to wonder what kind of trouble Michael has gotten this man into. In Nigeria. Of all places.

“Yes, I’m here. Yes, I know Mr. Westen.”

“I am relieved to hear it. Your information was the only thing we could find on his person. . . .”

“Is he dead?” she asks, beginning to panic, even though she tells herself every damn day of the week that she does not care whether Michael Westen lives or dies. The thought of him lying in a dusty African street with a bullet in the back of his head makes her queasy. It’s the way he’ll end up anyway, says the voice in her head.

“No madam, no. Not dead. Not dead, but burned.” He says it in a quaint way so that she starts to wonder exactly how burned he is, is it really serious, was it a bomb, and it takes her a minute to remember her spy lingo.

“Burned?” she says sharply. “By the CIA?” If so, she understands why Adeyemi sounds so nervous. If Michael was blacklisted by the CIA, he was radioactive. Too hot to kill, and too hot to hold. A real quandary for a security service.

“Yes, madam.”

“Why are you telling me this? I’m a total stranger. For all you know, I’m his grandmother.”

“Madam, we have some old file copies from Libya.” Adeyemi sounds a little reproachful, like a teacher who knows you didn’t do your homework. Fiona blows out a breath. Do a few arms deals in Libya, and all of Africa gets to know you, apparently.

“Right. Well. . . . what do you need, Mr. Adeyemi?” She tucks her feet underneath her, into the blanket.

“We searched for Mr. Westen and found him on a flight to Washington, D.C. On . . . advice from a . . . colleague, we diverted his flight to Miami, Florida. Our colleague also advised us to call you and tell you that the plane will be landing at 4pm, your time, at Miami airport. The flight number is Air France, A1740.”

“Do you always take advice from these ‘colleagues’?” says Fiona sarcastically, groping for a pen and writing the flight number on her hand in the half-light.

“Madam, we have found in these situations that we must do as our colleagues advise. Since I have given you the information, I will wish you a good morning.”

“Mr. Adeyemi, wait – “

“Yes, madam?”

“How is he? Is he – physically – ?”

“Madam, our information is that he was beaten severely. He was unconscious as we transferred him to his direct flight. It was not our fault, of course. He was . . . on assignment and committing dangerous acts in our country.” And we’re glad to be rid of him goes unsaid. Security services are usually extremely happy to be rid of people like Michael.

“I understand,” says Fiona. “I appreciate your calling and I want you to know that I have received all your information.”

“Good morning, madam,” says his patient voice, and the connection clicks closed. Fiona hangs up the phone and then sits there, staring at it. It does not ring again. She goes and checks the window again. No one is there. Was it a dream? She opens the phone up again and checks the call log. No, there it is.

“Michael, what did you get yourself into?” she says to the morning air, and begins to pack a bag.

* * *

All the way to the airport and all the way off the tarmac and all the way until she forcibly tells herself to stop, her brains runs frantically through scenarios of what will happen when she sees him again. If she sees him again. If she can make her weak legs walk up to him, make her weak mouth speak.

Last time she had not seen him was the night he disappeared. It was the night she waited for him, waited until dawn painted the sky and she realized that he really was gone like fog rolling out over the Irish Sea. He had not said goodbye, and as she had gone over it a million times, he had not given her any significant looks or coded messages. He had simply vanished.

Fiona had not been a complete idiot. She had known he was not simply Sean’s security man. She had long ago searched his belongings and found a slim little silver phone that had a lock screen she could not decode, and a small photo of a blonde woman standing next to two boys with palm trees in the background. “Maddie Westen, Michael and Nate” was written on the back of the photo in looping cursive. She had put both items back where she found them and she didn’t think he had ever known his hiding place had been breached.

The palm trees narrowed things down from ‘possibly Canadian or American’ to ‘American.’ Because Michael was good – really good – at pretending to be Irish, but when he and Fiona were in bed (or, let’s be honest, on the counter or the table or the floor) and he had his face in the crook of her neck and his eyes were blank and dazed and he was hissing her name, Fi, Fi, Fiona, well. He forgot his accent. Afterwards, it was always impeccably back, maybe even a little more, like he was trying to make her forget that he was ever a human being.

They had had their share of fun. That’s what she kept telling herself over the next years, while she left her home and her family and her cause and made enemies right and left with no one to watch her back. While she fucked her way through the population of Dublin and New York and kicked them out in the morning. While she stared up at the ceiling of whatever flophouse she was staying in, feeling the rough outline of the handgun beneath her pillow. Fun, that’s all it was. No part of her believed it.

 

In the impossibly glass-and-neon Miami airport, she leaves her own plane and dresses in a very sharp skirt suit that she has carefully kept unwrinkled. She adds heels and a pair of swanky glasses and then strides into the Air France VIP lounge. No one even looks around. She checks the monitor but the flight number that Adeyemi had given her is not listed. Not surprising, given that it was likely a black flight. Musing over her options, she gets a whiskey at the bar and is considering the best way to finesse her way into the airport computer records when a Latina woman, also in a snappy dress suit, sits down at her elbow. Fiona does not recognize her at all, but shakes hands when prompted.

“Ms. Glenanne. Would you follow me, please?”

Bemused, Fiona follows her down a short hallway and out onto the tarmac, hoping this is not a setup that will end in her own extradition. After the cold of winter in New York and the airport’s extreme AC, she feels like a steamed pudding in an oven.

All this for one burned spy? Michael must have something in his head that the CIA couldn’t live with or without. Like the song by her countryman Bono, the CIA seemed to have nothing to win, and nothing left to lose. But Michael must have some very high-level protection: there is no other reason they would let him roam free instead of pushing him out of the plane at ten thousand feet.

After tramping over hot tarmac for quite some time (the other woman doesn’t seem fazed by the heels she is wearing, but Fiona’s shoes are hurting her feet like bloody hell), she sees a small plane parked on a side runway. A man in a pilot’s uniform has another man – it is Michael, she would recognize his body anywhere, but he has a black bag over his head – around the waist and is helping him, dragging him, down the plane’s stairs. Fiona reaches down, strips off her shoes, hikes up her skirt to mid-thigh, and begins to run.

As she approaches the two men, a black town car glides up alongside her and the windows roll down. The other woman is in the car and gives her a mild glare. “You didn’t have to run,” she says. Fiona pays no attention. She reaches Michael and tucks herself under his other shoulder, with his arm around her own shoulders, where she feels an instant sense of familiarity. His head turns, the faceless bag looking down at her.

“Fi?” he says, but then the car door is open and the pilot pulls Michael away from her and puts him in the back seat. The woman is already putting a needle in his arm before his arse even meets leather. As he lolls backward, the woman climbs out of the car, and so does the driver, leaving the car running. Fiona sees her bag and her shoes are in the passenger side seat.

“It’s just you two now,” says the woman. “Keep him in Miami. He’s not to leave.” She hands Fiona a wad of cash, puts on a pair of very military issue sunglasses, and she and the driver board the plane with the pilot.

“Spooks,” says Fiona, not bothering to keep her voice down. “Bunch of pissy little twats.” She gets in the car and peels off the tarmac in the direction of the fence without looking to see if they give her the finger in return. In the back seat, Michael is silent. “Well,” she says to his inert body, “what the bloody hell do I do with you, then?” After a beat, “Cheap motel it is, Michael, and it’s more than you deserve.” For once in his life, there is no argument from him, which makes her chuckle.

“Oh, and Michael? Welcome home. In fact, after I get you to bed, the first person I’m going to look up is your mother.”

--end—