He is not there when I wake.
Dredging myself from sleep is almost painful. Though I never dream anymore; shapes and colors sometimes, a flash of sound, certainly nothing coherent enough for definition. But cruelly, each day I wake there is just a moment when I remember nothing.
I wish I could stay in this millisecond longer. It could be seen as selfish – wanting to wallow in ignorance and enjoy the lack of knowing how a child must feel every morning. But that's not my motivation. I wish I could stay and study who I am in that absolute fragment of time. There is where I am pure and uncompromised, and I know now, that is the state I need to return to. It's all a tricky balance, you know. Weigh the bad and the good, cut away the parts that are dying and encourage those that bloom.
This is a natural process most of the time. You know who you are and what you want, and you strive to achieve it. But not for me.
I stretch slowly, enjoying the feel of my limbs encountering cool spots on the sheets, and abruptly realize that I cannot sense Sark anywhere. It is unnatural for me to lose track of him, a feeling that is swiftly followed by a guilty surge of responsibility. I have let down my guard, and Sark…
The crashing down of this reality spurs me on to a sort of panic. I have already yanked open a drawer before I realize that there is no point; if he has decided to leave, I won't know it. And it is just as I expected – he has left with nothing but the clothes on his back, the papers he was so feverishly studying, and the student visa I'd procured for him in the months leading up to this grand escape.
"Grand," I say aloud to the morning air. The word sits there, overly ornate and pretentious in the plain boarding house bedroom. There is nothing grand about this.
"Stupid." That sounds better.
I should not be surprised at this turn of events, but something small inside me is extinguished with the realization that I am, again, alone. I shake myself to try and stop the thought, briskly take myself into the bathroom to get a start on what will have to be a busy and delicate day.
I have grown so used to being utterly alone in the company of friends, that maybe this will prove to be easier, to be alone in a city full of strangers.
The woman at the bed and breakfast is startled when I abruptly cancel our room; when she lets slip that she saw Sark leaving early without me, I allow my lower lip to tremble and my eyes to drift down, stammering the feeble lines of a woman covering marital difficulties. She is a sweet busybody, and presses a tissue into my hand before letting me out.
I leave without looking back.
Renting a flat proves to be relatively easy; though the market is tight, the more remote areas are still slow enough for me to find a suitable space within the week. In the interim, I flit from boarding house to boarding house, never within less than a five-mile radius, never to an area I know. My hidden bank accounts stood not only the test of time, but the test of death – though the surface funds and badly-masked accounts had all been unearthed during my absence, first by my father and then by the CIA, some of the deepest and oldest sources have gone untouched.
I very carefully tap the ones I think most trustworthy, my heart pounding faster nonetheless as the teller hands over an envelope stuffed full of crisp fifty-pound notes. Even using an account I believe totally safe, I am always aware that the CIA may be playing a subtler game. But at the same time, my mind drifts to my mother, who plays a more subtle game still.
Which is why, in the series of small withdrawls I make from my most trusted account, I also make one very odd request: two separate payouts, one just under £800, one a little over £100 – both a few pence off a nice round figure. The teller looks at me oddly, and I bashfully mumble something about wanting to keep the numbers straight in my statement, as the money is for bills. She seems used to American eccentricities, and just gives a small smile as she enters the two uneven figures into the long queue of numbers, not noticing that inverting and realigning the withdrawls results in a UK mobile phone number.
It is not Sark's phone that I pull out in my new flat, a studio that looks out on a quiet street of other nameless studios. I sit on the carpet and lean against the daybed, wondering again at his motive in leaving the mobile phone on the nightstand. Perhaps because he didn't wish to wake me? No, he's too deliberate for that – had he wanted it, he would have gotten it. He certainly must have known that I would never, ever use it myself; it would have been sheer idiocy to trust him not to bug it, or use it to trace me.
Because that is now something I have to worry about. The feeling of abandonment has long since gone, and I have gone thoroughly to ground. Within moments of finding the curiously conspicuous cell phone, I had combed through the menus to ferret out any information he might have left – but the phone was not only new, it was totally blank.
Except, of course, for one number.
One outgoing call, to somewhere in Minsk. I didn't know the number, and for just one moment was possessed with such an insatiable need to dial, to listen for the voice at the other end, that I violently thrust the entire device away from me. It felt too set, too much like cheese left out for a starving mouse. I wanted so much to know who had been on that line, who had told Sark of my father's death, whether it had been Irina…
But my mind had slowly cooled, and I knew, as I know now, that it was not worth the risk at all. He could have done anything to the phone, for god's sake – perhaps the "send" button was coated with anthrax, or linked to C-4, or worse. So I scrubbed my hands, carefully wrapped the mobile in a plastic bag, and had taken a walk along the South Bank. And as the sun set behind Parliament and the great ferris wheel churned above me, I idly dropped the bag into the Thames, where it floated out to sea.
Of course, the training of a spy dies hard. It seems that the farther away that mobile sinks, the more actively the number in Minsk bobs to the surface of my thoughts.
Days pass quickly in this new life. I find myself wandering parts of London I've never had the time to look at before; most of my business was in the center of the city, or out on Canary Wharf.
I walk a very careful balance in this city. I must stay away from major centers, where there is always the risk that I will see someone I know, or knew, or will be picked up on the damn closed-circuit television that seems to have this town wired. I am lucky, in that I have no need of a job; I buy an old typewriter and set it up on my table, stack clean bound notebooks on the bookshelves, and manage to pass myself off as a reclusive writer rather successfully.
This ability to start anew is startling in its simplicity. I always knew that I might be called upon to go deep undercover when working for the CIA, and I remember how the idea both thrilled and worried me. Mostly, I worried about being cut off from everyone I cared about; a thought that makes me laugh aloud, now.
But the thrill of creating this alternate life has been tempered with something else, which I find both worrying and liberating. Without that anchor, that central core that pined for friends and family, I find myself… not caring.
My neighbors, who now know me as Nancy, are kind. The café waitress who brings me coffee every morning as I scribble away in my notebooks – she has begun chatting, ever so hesitantly, her English forcing its way past a stubborn Albanian accent. And they are becoming my anchor, I realize; I am identifying myself through the way they see me, and I am beginning to wonder if Sydney is important at all.
My mother does not call me; the CIA do not sweep in; Vaughn does not arrive on the doorstep, his brow furrowed and green eyes concerned. Every day, these things become less and less important to me, my mind releasing the painful bits, drowning the questions in an ocean of indifference. And I begin to stop playing the part, as the days turn into weeks, September sliding to November.
Which is perhaps why, coming in from the balmy autumn evening, I am caught so utterly unaware by the figure sitting casually in my flat, impassive as always, and casually leafing through one of my scrawl-filled notebooks.