They always tell you: don't get lost in the cover. Or they used to tell you that, and haven't for years. It's a rookie mistake, and you don't make rookie mistakes.
The trick, then, is when it's not a cover at all.
It's a shell game of selves. Shuffle the cups, pocket the secret. Put another in its place when they lift up the wrong cup. No one has to know. No one has to know all of you.
You can splice together a story. You're good at that. Cut the tape apart, put it back together. Every part is true, but the whole thing is a lie. That's a good story. That's a good cover.
Here is a story:
Yugoslavia is falling apart, and you don't care. Or you do, but not like that. It's a job and something more than that: it is your work, it is what you do even if it's not what you are. Not all of what you are. No one has to know all of you.
You meet Delphine in Sarajevo, and this time her accent doesn't give her away. It's not safe to be the way you are here — is it ever? Where? But you always spice the story with the truth of yourself, even if it's slipped between sly secrets, hidden under layers of Mugler or Alaïa, left in bloody blots on discarded bandages. Every part is true; the trick is in the telling. So you meet Delphine in Sarajevo, and it's not safe, but you thrive on the adrenaline and you tell her: meet me in the broken country.
You think: does France have an interest in this? Part of you cares, has to, every time.
Part of you just loves the way the Sarajevo lights look on her skin. You touch her, as if that is a thing either of you can do. And it is. Because you say it is. She says it is. And the world is burning.
It always comes crashing down. This is a thing you know. You broke the world, or people like you did. You broke this country. You broke all of them. You wonder sometimes: you serve a country, or an interest, or a saint. Saints die for what they believe in, and that's not something you would do. But you can graze a saint's ashes, sift for clues, try to find a scent that takes you somewhere. It doesn't have to be somewhere new. Just a place that smells interesting.
You meet Delphine in Pretoria, and her neck smells like home. You inhale and breathe in and suck air past your gritted teeth, but she still smells familiar, like you know her or know what she wakes in you or at least know the clawing ghost of her upon your brain. She means something, and you wish she didn't. You hate when it means this much.
And you kiss her, in the long warm February sunlight.
Nelson Mandela is elected, and you and she part ways like it means something. It does and it doesn't, and you think: This is one to splice out. Drop the reel. Let the tape melt and burn.
In a single year, an American space shuttle docks with a Russian space station, and the World Trade Organization comes to be.
You heave a sigh, feeling as if your body is a space station, as if the emptiness is outside of it.
You're too old for this, and you meet a woman called Delphine who isn't, quite. There's some part of this that is still magic to her, and when you lie in bed together it's like there's some part of you that's still magic to her, as if you don't both know this a million times over, as if you are old beyond children’s tricks. But when she vanishes, you almost want to turn over the cup you know is empty. The magic bean was never there. It was traded away between false covers.
Sunday after bloody Sunday has come and gone, and there is a truce in Northern Ireland.
She must have come across the Chunnel — you hate that term — but Delphine breathes it against your mouth when you ask why someone like her is here. Delphine likes friction, and so do you, and you have each other up against a wall in Belfast as you both try to tell if it's fireworks or gunshots. You should care which one. You should.
You kiss her anyway.
There's a story that starts in Berlin.
The world is falling apart. It always is.
Delphine knew you before you knew her, and that's only fair. Someone has to blink first.
It wasn't her, and that fascinates you.
You never blink.
And you don't think you did, in the end. It's just that Delphine saw through you.
She never should have, and whether you were just too raw because of Gascoigne or she was so precious or the world was burning around you both: It doesn't matter how the magic trick was done. It just matters that it was magic.
Here is a story:
Percival had your number. He had Delphine's. He came after you both. He sent a dozen men after you. He sent himself after her.
He fucking sucked at playing the numbers.
It's not that he won. It's that Delphine was too smart. She stabbed him in the back — if only literally — and she ran. He told you she was dead, and he had blood and photographs to prove it.
This is not a story you tell MI6. This is not a story you tell the CIA.
You contacted the French operative.
She gave you information.
Satchel killed her.
Later, Delphine will tease you about the "little death" you gave her.
Much, much later.
Here is a story:
You are retired. Technically. People like you are never retired.
Everyone says the world is ending. It's the turn of the millenium, and the entire system will come crumbling down. It always does.
You meet Delphine at a New Year's Eve party. It doesn't matter where. It's a broken country. You always meet in the same place. She has smile lines around her mouth, and you know she'll tease you that you don't. Your hand runs up the smooth curve of her thigh to her hip. As if it doesn't matter. As if it's unexplored territory.
But every time it is, it is, it is. You never know her. You're not sure she knows you.
But across a dozen disasters... You think: Maybe this is something you could know for sure.
Cards on the table. Stop shuffling the cups.
Pick up all the pieces off the cutting room floor.
She laughs when you ask her if she's staying long. Then she doesn't laugh, when you ask again, slower, against her mouth. She breathes her answer into you, secondhand smoke burned off a cigarette lit at both ends. There's no safe place to start, and no safe place to end. Your kind don't last long. These things don't last long. But here you both are, a decade later. You feel the gun under her dress; she clicks her fingernails against the one under yours. It makes you smile, and she does tease you, in the end.
And she stays.
By which you mean: You stay.
The world is ending, and when you want to stitch together a story now, you don't have to destroy the original. The haptic heaviness of analog is gone, and when the clock strikes midnight the digital memories will all stutter into the ether.
Or that's the story they tell you.
You have a better story to tell. The world is always ending. And you watch it burn, from a rooftop with your stilettos off, holding Delphine's hand as she toasts the silent stars. When you kiss her this time — when the fireworks erupt — officially, it's the first time. That is what it will say in the records. That is the story the world will know.
But it is a story about yourself that the world will know. You. And her.
You are done with what they tell you. This is what you tell them: You met your wife in the broken country, and you stayed.