He left Kirill early, before the sun was up, dressing and prepping his gun in the dark. Number Ten, severe in her seriousness, was waiting outside the main suite door, staring at the opposite wall. Seven gave her a nod.
“Good morning,” Ten replied, without breaking her thousand-mile stare.
Seven jerked his thumb toward the suite. “There is coffee inside.”
True to her training, Ten didn’t move. She was famous in the ranks for waiting belly-down in the sand for eleven days straight until her target was just in the right position to strike. That patience and single-mindedness served her well on the battlefield, but here….
Seven tried again. “They bring breakfast at five-thirty. Kirill always has the same thing, but I can make sure they add something you like.”
Ten’s gaze flicked his way, but that was all. “I do not eat with my targets.”
Seven lowered his head. “This is not the war,” he murmured. “He is not a target; you do not put him in your crosshairs. You eat with him, talk with him, be his friend—”
Now, she turned to him, one nostril faintly cringing. “I suppose you let him sit in front when you transport him, as well?”
“Fine,” Seven said, and stepped back, waving his hand. “Do it your way. I cannot be late.”
Ten returned her gaze to the wall. “I will wake him at five,” she said.
Seven shook his head and left.
He drove to Special Security headquarters with his foot to the floor. Almost three hours in thoughtful silence, then another two in the Control’s dreary reception area while the director turned the screw. At last, the secretary, a heavy-set woman with the beady eyes of a polecat and the hair to match, announced that Number One was ready to see him.
Seven walked into the office, a modest-sized room done in drab gray but set off by gilded medals placed along the walls at an average man’s eye-level, to remind those who entered just who they were talking to. That was a smallish, crooked-nosed man at the center-placed desk, who did not rise when Seven entered. Instead, he sat reviewing some papers from over the jut of his short nose for the better part of a minute before even looking up. When he finally did, it was only to say:
“Commander.” Seven wondered if One were going to make him stand there at attention for this entire meeting, when the old man waved a mildly crooked hand at the chair opposite his desk.
Seven took the seat and kept his mouth shut; like most commanders he’d met, One liked his power, and hearing the sound of his own voice. After a few moments, the old man folded his hands in front of him and asked:
“Is there anything you would like to say?”
On the long drive here, Seven had promised himself he would not start with an apology. Not for doing his job. “No.”
One’s expression betrayed no frustration or impatience, but he did prompt, “Nothing about taking your charge off secure grounds and failing to return him to his rooms before curfew?”
“You seem to know the details already. Why should I repeat them?”
The old man twitched. Just a tic at the corner of his mouth, but the façade had been broken. “No one is ever as clever as he thinks he is.”
“I never claimed to be clever,” Seven said.
“Your job is to protect Morozov.”
“I was with him the whole time.”
“Number Two said you took him to a whore. Did you hold his hand while he screwed her?”
Seven’s spine reacted with an itch. Not so much for the words, but for their inflection. “Number Two was not there.”
One raised his chin, in an effort to look down his nose. It half-worked. “So, tell me what happened.”
Seven drew a breath and released it again. “We went into the city; that is true. And, we met a woman. That is also true.”
“A prostitute,” One said.
Seven tilted his head.
“You can tell me now,” One said, jowls drooping. “Or I can dispatch an investigator.”
“An escort,” Seven relented. “But, she is very tactful, and very clean.”
“That is not the point. Morozov cannot be wasting his DNA on some overpriced whore.”
“He ‘wastes his DNA’ every time he takes a shower!” Seven said, pulling a face.
One drew his thin lips taut, and Seven backpedaled.
“He is twenty-two years old. It was just a bit of fun. He has been sheltered his entire life—”
“For good reason! Do you know how many years – how much money – we have spent cultivating young men and women like him? These are not mere athletes,” One said gravely. “They are warriors: the strongest, fastest, fiercest warriors who will restore our country to its great glory. Which we never would have lost if we had stayed pure. They may have barred us from the last games, but that will not happen again. Morozov will win.” He pointed a finger at Seven. “You will make certain it happens.”
“I cannot simply deny him his freedom,” Seven muttered, when One cut him off again.
“You can, and you will.”
Seven stared at him, struck momentarily silent by the director’s authoritarian fervor. “And what if he says no?”
One scoffed. “A dog that cannot be brought to heel must be punished.” His bushy brows went up. “Is that what you want? To have him punished for a bit of fun?”
Seven shifted his jaw to the left, then the right, then mumbled, “No.”
“No,” One echoed, his tone contemptuous. His gaze remained firm as he leaned against his chair with an air of satisfaction. “Now that we understand each other, I expect a full report on events to date before you return to your assignment.” He looked down at his desk, grasped a file folder, and opened it up for perusal. “Ms Petina will supply you with the necessary forms, and a typewriter.” He glanced up again, but only for a moment, and only to say, “You are dismissed.”
Seven forced himself up and went for the door. By the time he passed the polecat and turned down the next corridor, his steps were stomping. He shoved open the lavatory door, and it banged against the wall, creating a crack of splintering tile.
He went to the sink and splashed some cold water on his face. In the mirror, his good eye took in his reflection, focusing on the scar running down the left side of his face and over his other eye, the one that had gone white and dead from a shrapnel shard. The war had taken a lot from him – less than some, more than others – but he’d fought for the lives and freedom of his people. All of them.
He drew a few centering breaths, relieved himself, and returned to the polecat. She made him wait another forty-five minutes before she led him down two hallways, a staircase, and another hallway to a drab, tiny cubicle that held only a single desk with a chair and a typewriter, and that was lit by a flickering fluorescent.
His only course of action was to do One’s busy work. It took a few hours, and when he was finished, the polecat was out at her lunch. Seven decided to walk outside for some food, himself, but everywhere he went, it was too busy, too expensive, or too unappetizing. In the end, he waited in a half-hour-long queue at a café for a bowl of soup that wasn’t half-bad but also wasn’t very good, either. Then it was back to the main office, where the polecat made him wait yet again.
“All right,” she said, after what felt like an eternity.
Seven got up from his chair and handed her the report. She gave it a single glance, and said:
“You need to redo it.”
“You are joking?” Seven hoped.
She pushed the papers back to him. “You can’t type over the lines. It distorts the scanner.”
“That is bullshit,” Seven said, before he could stop himself.
The polecat scowled. “Do you want the new forms, or not? It makes no difference to me.”
Seven bit back the barb at the tip of his tongue and held out his hand.
It took another hour to type the new report, and another hour after that to get it approved. By the time he’d finished at Control headquarters, he was famished, but the cafe he’d gone to at lunch was mobbed with tourists, and it was already evening. He settled for a travel coffee and a pork sandwich so tasteless and terrible, he tossed it out the car window after three bites, for some unlucky dog to find later.
It was long past lights-out when he got back to the hotel. Number Two, standing in the middle of the lobby watching the main entrance, broke into a slow, smug smile as Seven approached.
“How was headquarters?”
Seven held in a sardonic sneer. “Still standing.”
The older agent dropped his forced congeniality. “I trust you understand what is expected of you?”
This time, Seven gave a deferent bob of his head. “I know my job.”
Two nodded in return, as his supercilious smile returned. “Good to hear. No one likes a disappointment,” he said, and walked away with his hands clasped behind him.
Seven glared at his back but kept his voice to himself. His limbs felt like lead, but he didn’t go back to the suite. He needed a drink.
He walked into the hotel bar, pulled up to a seat in front of the bartender, and ordered a shot of whisky, downing it all at once. It went down harshly, not like the good stuff Natalya had.
He pulled out his phone and scrolled to a familiar number.
Dear Cleopatra, he typed. Will you see Antony?
He set the phone down on the bar. In less time than it took for him to order a second whisky, the phone buzzed with a reply.
A queen’s nights have too many hours to say no.
Seven smiled to himself, and tossed back the second whisky. Because to hell with that old man at headquarters who thought he could control other people’s lives.
The names “Number One” and “Number Two” always make me giggle a little bit, no matter how serious I’ve tried to make the characters and situations. The fact is, Number Two is supposed to be a number two, especially to Seven and his friends. But what do you think?