Hearts of Stone | Tor.com


For over 25 years, the Wild Cards universe has been entertaining readers with stories of superpowered people in an alternate history. In Emma Newman’s “Hearts of Stone”, a young woman learns how to control her deadly powers from an unlikely ally.

Kerry —a.k.a Stonemaiden— is a monster. Or at least… she thinks she is. Ever since she turned her parents into granite statues, she lives in constant fear of hurting other people. To prove herself a hero–someone worthy of joining the Silver Helix–she embarks on her first field mission to Central London where she’s tasked with surveying a Russian diplomat named Kazimir Nazarenko. When she finally comes into contact with Kazimir, it becomes evident everything is not what it appears, leading her to question everything she’s been led to believe.

Note from the author: This story contains references to, and characters from, Russia and Ukraine. It was written in 2020, and was inspired by my fear of what was then a potential war, rather than any of the devastating events unfolding in Ukraine as a result of the Russian invasion in 2022.

 

 

 

St Alban’s, England, September 2005

 

Stories From The Great War?” Captain Flint picked up one of the books piled on the sofa, opened it to find the library label, and then flipped through the pages. What made you choose this?

Kerry turned to look at him. He stood in the middle of the living room, a stone giant who made everything else around him seem tiny and flimsy. His eyes glowed red from deep in the sockets, and from the slight tilt of his head she deduced that he was puzzled.

She nudged the fridge shut with her backside and shrugged. “It looked interesting.” She didn’t tell him that she’d spotted it at the library when she was hunting for another book to feed her schlock thriller habit and had grabbed it in the hope of finding some morsel in its pages with which to impress him.

Flint dropped the book down on the sofa and opened the French doors out onto the small patio. There was a stone bench by the fish pond that he preferred to sit on when the weather was good and it was a fine autumn day.

“It made me think about what the men must have felt like, when they went into battle,” she said, following him out with her drink.

Flint sat on the bench with a dull thud and rested his elbows on his knees, the closest he ever came to appearing relaxed. She sat on the grass next to him, her head level with his knees, and put her glass next to the pond. He stared down at the koi turning in their slow circles. “A lot of fear before each push, and a lot of boredom in between, I imagine.”

She wondered how much of that was based on his own experience of combat. She wanted to ask him what it was like, how he’d coped, whether he’d ever been scared. But she had to pick her moments with Flint, and she had the sense that this wasn’t the time. He usually visited every couple of weeks, work permitting, and it had only been six days since his last visit.

You had a psych evaluation a few days ago,” he began, and her stomach sank into the grass. I received the report.Kerry chewed her lip and pulled a lock of her curly black hair from her ponytail  to twist it around her fingers. She too looked down at the koi, nervous about what he was going to say. She hadn’t liked that evaluation. It was only because Flint had ordered it that she actually stuck it out.

“She was very impressed with you.”

Her head snapped up. “She was?”

“You’ve had a lot to adjust to. And as she points out in the report, there aren’t many eighteen-year-olds who have lived alone for several years and adapted so well considering the . . . challenges you have.”

Kerry plucked a strand of grass and tore it down the middle. She had tried, very hard, to play down all the negatives. She’d shut down any discussion of what had happened with her parents. She resented even being made to think about it and for days afterward had been left with a grim emotional hangover that only miles of running and a lot of trashy movies had been able to lift.

She looked up at Flint, whose glowing eyes were now focused on her. “Well, I had a lot of help, didn’t I? There are lots of people who’ve been through a lot worse and didn’t have you to look after them.”

“Kerry . . .”

“No, I’m serious. You gave me a safe place to live.” She waved a hand at the cottage. Yes, it was a mile away from the edge of St. Albans, which had to be one of the most boring towns in England, but it was safe and secluded, and when the briefest touch could turn any living thing to granite, that was a definite advantage. “You gave me an education, and personal trainers, and . . . and you never used me.”

He looked away from her then, up at the sky, leaning back and breaking the moment of connection. “I think you credit me too much,” he finally said. “I facilitated these things, using resources awarded to me by my position.”

“Yeah, but you could’ve done it differently. What I’m trying to say is . . .”

And then all words left her, replaced by a chaotic tumble of images, memories, snippets of days she’d worked so hard to put behind her. The first time she’d met Flint and how terrifying he was. The sight of her parents as the granite statues she’d made them into broke their bed under their weight. Waking in the cupboard beneath the stairs after her father had knocked her out, the surge of despair and physical pain in her chest when she realised that they’d used her to murder people and disguised it as art.

The breath in her lungs burned and she squeezed her eyes shut and grabbed handfuls of grass and forced herself to be where she was now. She listened to the birds and the buzzing bugs and felt the breeze in her hair and the sunlight on her face. She was safe. She was at home, and she was with Flint, and he had made sure nothing bad happened to her since the day they met. He’d only asked to see her ability once, just so he could understand. When the fox with its mangled leg was turned to stone and its suffering ended, she’d sobbed. He’d gathered her into his arms and held her. For the first time since her card had turned, she had felt safe.

“What I’m trying to say is thank you.”

Flint looked back down at her and then rested his stone hand on her head and smiled. Even though he was being as gentle as he was able to be, being made out of flint meant he was still heavy and sharp in places. She knew there would probably be a few severed locks when she  freed the chaotic mass of curls  from the ponytail. She didn’t care though.

So,” he said as he stood, in a tone that marked the end of that conversation and the beginning of a new, less emotional one. Now that you’ve had your exam results and I’ve seen the report, I want to know what you want to do next.”

“You know that. I want to join the Silver Helix.”

“It’s dangerous.”

“Well, so am I.”

“This isn’t something to be flippant about.”

“I’m not! I’ve thought about this. A lot.”

He slowly paced to the middle of the lawn, leaving crushed grass and imprints in his wake. “You’re bright . . . there are all sorts of opportunities in data analysis and—”

She stood too. “Oh no you don’t. I want to be at the front, with the other aces. You can’t keep me tucked away here forever. I want to go out there and make a difference.” When he said nothing, she sat on the stone bench, trying to appear calm. “You’ve done so much for me. Let me contribute something for a change.”

“You’re sure you want to work in the field?”

“Yes! I know I won’t be doing the really exciting stuff right away, but I want to have the chance to learn! You know I can take care of myself. I’ve been working hard on my fear . . . I’ve been into London a few times. I know how to minimise the risk to other people.” She didn’t mention how hard it was. How she had nightmares about accidentally turning someone she brushed against into stone. How she’d taken up running so she always knew that she could get away fast.

“Mmmm . . .” Why didn’t he sound convinced? “The report did talk about how keen you are . . .”

She held her breath, waiting for him to decide. She wanted to be in the Silver Helix and be a hero, not a monster. But more than that, she wanted to see him every day. She wanted him to need her as much as she needed him.

There is something that would be a good first mission for you,” he said slowly, as if still deciding whether it was a good idea.

Her heart fluttered at the sound of “first mission,” but she stayed silent. She didn’t want to seem too excitable, or he’d decide she wasn’t mature enough.

“There’s someone we need to put under surveillance. Came in just this morning. He’s a nat, so low risk for you.”

“Where is he based?”

“Central London.”

Fear stabbed at her gut. Central London was crowded and chaotic and she’d only been there a handful of occasions at the quietest times of day. Her surveillance training had been in St. Albans. She didn’t want to admit that the thought of a mission in London horrified her as much as it thrilled her, so she took another sip of her drink to cover as she gathered her thoughts. “Would I be working alone?”

“You’d be sharing the assignment. It might turn out to be nothing more than overcaution on our part. You’d be given a hotel room close to the target.” He came over and put a hand on her shoulder. “There’s no shame in saying you’re not ready yet, Kerry.”

That clinched it. She looked up into his burning coal eyes, standing as straight and tall as she could. “I’m ready.”

#

 

Kerry wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting, but it wasn’t a tiny hotel room in a converted Victorian townhouse that had seen better days. The Russian embassy was only a two-minute walk away though, and the target’s accommodation less than a minute.

Three days into the assignment, all of the things she’d been worried about hadn’t come to pass. It was relatively easy to avoid close contact with people in the hotel as she wasn’t going in and out at peak times. The surrounding area had wide pavements and it was easy to keep her distance from other pedestrians. It had turned unseasonably cold and people were wearing scarves and gloves early, making her need to wear gloves to feel safe completely unremarkable. Everyone was so caught up in their own lives that they universally ignored her.

However, all the things she’d hoped for hadn’t happened either. There were two other people involved in the surveillance, but she hadn’t met them and probably wouldn’t. She didn’t even get to speak to them over the phone; everything was being run through two pagers, which had surprised her. When she asked Flint why they didn’t use a mobile phone instead, he’d bristled at her and said the pagers were far more reliable than phones and less of a security breach if lost. She wondered if he just didn’t like mobiles, but either way, there was no further discussion. She was given a pager that connected her to Flint and one that connected her to the other two agents, both of which had a simple acknowledgement button for her to press when she’d seen a message.

Flint hadn’t been in touch since he briefed her, and the other pager only beeped to let her know when the target had left either a work setting or his accommodation and where she needed to pick up his trail. She was assigned to monitor his movements outside. Where he went, what he did, and who he spoke to. In the past three days he’d gone out to eat once, alone, and that was it. She was actually bored.

The target was an aide to a Russian diplomat who was in town to assist in negotiations regarding a tricky trade deal. His name was Kazimir Nazarenko, and he seemed to be the dullest man in London. Everything about him was bland, from his suit and coat to his neatly clipped greying brown hair. His face was eminently forgettable, and the only thing she thought when she first saw him was that she was going to have to work hard not to lose him if he went anywhere busy because he seemed just like any other relatively successful businessman in London.

For all his dullness though, he’d been seen coming out of a Twisted Fists hideout five days ago, which had put him on Flint’s radar. There were no known connections between the Russians and the joker terrorist group. Flint was concerned that Nazarenko had delivered a message on behalf of his boss, a diplomat who had direct links to the most powerful men in Russian politics. Without any other evidence of conversations happening between the two, he was hoping that they’d caught it early.

She was hoping that her target would be more interesting over the weekend. He worked long hours and didn’t seem to be interested in exploring the city. Maybe he’d been there before. She was just glad she’d bought lots of books and her Game Boy.

A knock on the door made her leap from the bed to her feet and ready to fight in moments. There was a do not disturb notice on the door and Flint wouldn’t come to see her here, he’d summon her through the pager. She breathed in deep and went to the door’s spy hole as quietly as possible.

The woman standing in the hallway was definitely not a hotel employee. She was utterly beautiful with long black hair and was wearing sunglasses inside, after sunset. Kerry chewed her lip, instinctively staying quiet in the hope that the woman would go away. Maybe she had the wrong room.

The stranger ducked down out of sight, sending Kerry into a panic. There was no keyhole to look through, thankfully, just the thin gap under the door, but she was definitely still there and——and then she was inside the room.

Kerry squeaked in surprise and threw herself into the corner without thinking. Then her brain kicked into gear and realised the woman had to be an ace . . . one who could teleport, one who had found her out!

Just as Kerry was weighing up how to take her down nonlethally, the intruder smiled. “So you’re Flint’s latest ace in the hole. So to speak.”

“Who are you?”

“Hasn’t Kenneth told you about me? I’m his favourite.” When Kerry shook her head, she put a hand over her heart and feigned being wounded. “That hurts. But then again, our mutual friend likes to play his cards close to his chest, doesn’t he?”

“I didn’t invite you in. Get out!”The woman took off her sunglasses, revealing silver eyes. “That was rude of me. I apologise. Looks like you’ve realised I’m not here to kill you.” She smiled, but Kerry didn’t relax. “You must be Stonemaiden. You can call me Lilith.”

“What do you want?”

“Two things. I needed to visit so I can extract you in an emergency. Now that I’ve been here, I can come and get you instantly, as soon as you need me. If something goes wrong, get back here if you can, then I can pull you out even if there are people surrounding the building or waiting for you to come out.”

Flint had mentioned another ace would be brought in if there was an emergency. How else would Lilith have been able to find her? A warning would have been nice. Kerry frowned. “Do you need to touch me to do it?”

Lilith nodded. “Oh,” she said at the sight of the fear that must have been blasting from her eyes. “That’s a problem, is it?”

“Yeah.” Why hadn’t Flint mentioned that? They couldn’t be absolutely certain that clothing would protect anyone from her curse and she’d refused to experiment with it.

“A fatal sort of problem, I gather, from the look on your face. What would happen if I touched you?”Kerry pressed her lips together, her hands balling into fists tucked under her armpits.

“So you don’t trust easily. I respect that. It’s a good way to be in our line of work. Though you’re not an official recruit yet . . . that first mission . . . ah, nothing like that buzz at being let off the leash for the first time.”

The way the woman spoke unnerved her. She was so casual and calm, as if they were just passing the time like two farmers chatting over a gate. Kerry felt on edge and ready to run at any moment, but then she remembered that she could kill Lilith so very easily, if she really needed to. “What was the second thing you wanted?”

“Just a chat. I’m not going to hurt you. We’re on the same team!” Somehow, even though the words were reassuring, there was something mocking in her tone.

Kerry folded her arms. “What about?”

Lilith glanced around the room, at the book that had slid onto the floor, a YA romance that made her right eyebrow twitch with amusement. She sat on the bed and undid the buttons of her coat, revealing a slinky black dress underneath. She was so graceful and . . . gorgeous. Her beauty made Kerry feel like a potato. “You. I’ve been hearing whispers about you for a long time. Then the whispers became arguments and the curiosity became unbearable.”

She was obviously trying to suck Kerry in and make her ask more questions. She wanted something, but what?

“Flint and Enigma were arguing about you only this morning,” Lilith continued nonchalantly, leaning back so she could rest against the wall. “Flint’s quite emotional when it comes to you. His desk took a beating. I think he misses being able to shout.”

The thought of Flint not only talking about her with someone else, but also being passionate about her, made Kerry feel . . . wait, why was Lilith bringing this up? Did she want to work out why Flint had been looking after her? Kerry couldn’t fathom why she’d be so interested.

“Did Enigma say something to annoy him?”

“Mm.” Lilith’s eyes were scanning the pile of books on the tiny bedside cabinet, making Kerry feel horribly self-conscious. “Something about a psych report. He seems to think that Flint has been keeping you wrapped in cotton wool.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You tell me. I can only compare it to how Flint had me trained. How did Banger and Mash treat you?”

“Who?”

Lilith’s eyes were suddenly very much focused on her. “You didn’t get any physical training?”

Kerry thought of the hours of running, the punchbag sessions, and the awkward noncontact combat training that they’d tried and then written off, when they decided that progressing to anything more useful was too risky to the trainer. Besides, if anyone who was a problem got that close to her and she needed to defend herself, they would always come off worse. “Of course I did. Lots.”

Lilith was all smiles again. “We don’t know each other, so it must seem that I’m being horribly nosey. But the truth is . . .” She paused a little, as if hoping Kerry would reveal her real name. She didn’t. “The truth is, Stonemaiden, being a newbie is hard. I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did. Flint can be really tough on new recruits, and if he’s been gentle with you so far, it’ll only hurt all the more when you see the . . . other side of him.”

Kerry knew better than to trust anyone pretending to be kind to her. Only Flint had shown any genuine interest in her wellbeing. “Why do you care?”

Lilith shrugged. “Hearing about the new kid on the block brought back some memories. And we’re going to be working together, aren’t we? I want to make sure the people I work with don’t get hurt.”

Kerry edged around the room, keeping as far away from Lilith as possible without looking like she was trying to, until she reached the dressing table. She pulled out the stool, a rickety thing with a stained chintz cover, and perched on it. “I want this to be a success. I don’t want to disappoint Captain Flint.”

Lilith’s smile was dazzling. “Of course you do and of course you don’t. But let me give you a bit of advice. This is a surveillance mission, right? Just writing down where the target goes and what time and all that. They could get any grunt to do that. Hell, it’s a nat, so even a bloody plod could handle it. No. This is actually a test.”

She leaned forward. “To see how I handle boredom?”

Lilith laughed. “Only if you’re doing it wrong. They’re testing your initiative. It’s obvious. If this were really serious, there would be three of you tailing him on the street, not just you. Just the fact that they’re handing him off to you when he leaves his flat or the office speaks volumes. It’s a training-wheels exercise at most, if you take it at face value.”

“I don’t take mission briefings at ‘face value,’” Kerry said, bristling at how condescending she was being. “I listen to what they want and I do the job.”

The smile turned into a smirk. “If you trail this guy for a few weeks and send in dull reports that any plod could write, they’re going to conclude that that’s all you’re good for. You’re an ace. Flint’s latest recruit. He needs to see if you’ve got what it takes to really find out who this guy is and what he’s up to. The only way to do that is to befriend the target.”

“But Flint said I wasn’t allowed to make direct contact. Observation only!”

 

“Of course he did. That’s the test, don’t you see? He doesn’t want bloody robots in the Silver Helix. He wants bright, brave, and resourceful aces who are willing to take risks to get the intelligence he needs to keep queen and country safe. This man you’re watching might be a nat, but he visited the Twisted Fists. How can you find out why he did that just by watching which restaurant he goes to? Knowing how he likes his steak isn’t going to reveal whether he was opening a line of communication to the Russian government or if he’s simply a bit of a prat who got tricked into going into the only bar in Guildford that gets you an audience with a joker terrorist.”

Kerry didn’t want it to, but what Lilith said made a lot of sense. And she had wondered about her part in the surveillance . . . it certainly didn’t seem as robust as some of the more hardcore thrillers she’d read, but she’d dared not question it. For all she knew, the stuff in the novels was just totally made up. And besides, Flint might have people tapped into the London CCTV network, checking his movements too. But if that was the case, why assign her at all? Was it really a test?

Lilith had nothing to prove and couldn’t possibly see her as a threat. Kerry couldn’t see why she’d take the trouble to come here and give her bad advice. What if she did as Lilith suggested? She could find out so much more, and prove that she was overcoming her fear of interacting with people in close proximity. The Russian was only a nat, Flint had said, and she’d make sure he didn’t get too physically close. She imagined being able to tell Flint, confidently, that he was either no risk at all . . . or the first sign of Russian collaboration with domestic terrorists. That could be huge. He’d be so impressed that she’d gone the extra mile.

“Okay,” she said.

Lilith looked pleased. She pulled a small slip of paper from her pocket and put it on the bed. “That’s my mobile number. Get a burner phone, put this number in it, and label it as ‘home,’ okay? Text me so I have your number. Don’t leave this room without it. If you get into trouble, call me, any time, day or night.”

 

Kerry nodded, thinking through the advice she’d given. “How do you find things out from people without them realising that’s what you’re trying to do?”

Lilith smiled broadly. “Oh, I can give you some excellent tips, don’t you worry about that.”

#

 

It took another week of waiting and watching Kazimir read newspapers in three coffee shops before the opportunity she’d been hoping for arose.

Even though the week had been dull, it had given her a chance to think through the advice Lilith had given her and even practise it a bit. For her it was quite revelatory; most people don’t assume the worst when someone strikes up a conversation with them, the woman had said. “Especially men. In fact, men like it the most.”

For Kerry, any initiation of social contact sent her heart racing. What did the person want from her? What were they trying to get her to do? She found it hard to imagine that anyone would not feel that way, but in most cases, Lilith had argued, people felt open and curious. And if it was a young woman striking up a conversation with a man, he often felt intrigued and excited. “But why?” she’d asked.

“Because they think it could turn into something more.”

“Yeah, but not every time, not every conversation, surely?”

Lilith had shrugged. “Maybe not consciously. And maybe they just like the thought of it, but know it won’t be anything more. But trust me . . . men like talking to young women, and most spend a huge amount of time and effort working out how to make young women want to talk to them. You see everyone as a threat. They see every woman as a prospect. It’s a fundamentally different worldview.”

“Not all men, though,” she said, thinking of Flint. But Lilith had just remained silent.

She tried it out at the coffee shop across the street from the restaurant where Nazarenko had been eating. She asked the man at the next table if he’d finished with his newspaper—an older man in his fifties, a similar age to her target. He’d smiled, passed it over, and made a comment about how there wasn’t much news today, just gossip. That had been her opening. She’d agreed with him—another tip from Lilith—and made a comment about how much attention was paid to celebrities when there were real problems to focus on.

And it had worked! They chatted for twenty minutes, until the man finished his coffee and cake, got up, wished her a good day and said how much he’d enjoyed talking with her, and left! It was the boost in confidence that she needed.

On a rainy Thursday evening, Kerry followed Nazarenko to a large bookshop with late opening hours and decided to take the risk of going in to browse near him.

He went to the thrillers section. Heart thrumming, Kerry picked a book off a nearby shelf and pretended to read the blurb on the back as she kept an eye on his movements. She wondered if he was looking for a dead drop, or a specific edition of a book in order to crack a cipher. Then she reined her thoughts in. This was real, not some schlock spy rubbish.

Another man came in and drifted over to the same section. She couldn’t help getting excited at the prospect of some sort of exchange or meetup with a Twisted Fists contact. She did her best to memorise everything about what the second man was wearing: a perfectly nondescript suit and wet overcoat, similar to the target. It being a working day in London, neither of them looked out of place at all. Nazarenko plucked a book out that she’d read and flipped to the opening chapter. The other man picked up the latest from one of the big-name authors and browsed some more.

“Excuse me,” Nazarenko said to the other man, his Ukrainian accent soft and pleasant. “Have you read this book? Is it good?”

Kerry held her breath. Was this a coded message to identify each other?

“Oh, yeah, it’s crap,” the man said disparagingly. “Don’t bother. Stick with the greats.” He waved the book he was holding up. “You know what you’re getting, and there’s none of that politically correct crap in it, know what I mean?”

Nazarenko nodded politely, but the initial friendliness she’d seen in his face had gone. The other man grabbed a second book and went off to the till while her target continued to browse. “I’ve read that one,” she said with a shy smile. “I liked it. I don’t think it’s as good as his second series though. I think he got better as a writer.”

Nazarenko turned and smiled at her. She found herself warming to him immediately. He was in his late fifties, not particularly handsome but not terrible to look at either, with kind grey-blue eyes. “What is first book of other series?”

She scanned the shelf and tapped the spine before drawing back, not daring to take it out and pass it to him. “That one.”

He pulled it out and read the back. “It look interesting.”

“Oh, it is. I read it after a whole bunch of Scandi-noir and it was really refreshing.”

“I’m sorry . . . Scandi-noir? I’m not familiar with that word.”

And then they chatted about books for a while, and it was . . . easy. She felt like a normal person, the sort who goes out and has friends. She was working so hard to be all the things that Lilith had told her to be, while in the back of her mind she was absolutely fizzing with the thrill of conversation with another human being. One who wasn’t made of flint.

The conversation reached its natural conclusion and they both bought books and smiled at each other when they left. She took care to go in the opposite direction, rounded a corner, and then pulled out a tragic anorak from her rucksack. She put it on, tugged the hood over her hair, and then doubled back to pick up his trail. As hoped, he was heading straight back to his apartment building, where she handed over to the other agent on duty there with her pager.

That night she barely slept. She replayed the conversation in her head, even though she’d written down as much of it as she could remember as soon as she got back to her room. On Lilith’s advice, she kept the movement log exactly as she’d been maintaining it before, using a separate notebook to keep track of her extra efforts. She planned to keep up the pretence of following the mission briefing to the letter, and then delivering the big report at the end of the assignment. Then she could demonstrate she’d done both. Captain Flint would be so impressed.

But it wasn’t fantasising about Flint’s approval that kept her awake. It was how much she’d enjoyed the conversation. She knew it was sheer luck that her bookish ways had helped to break the ice, and that it wasn’t actually that big of a deal, compared to the average person. But she wasn’t average. Since her card had turned, she’d had an in-person conversation that lasted longer than one minute with . . . six people . . . seven if she included Nazarenko.

When she followed him on his usual walk to work, she desperately wanted to talk to him again, and knew that she shouldn’t be feeling that way. The need eased as the days went by, and it helped that the book she’d bought was really good. She managed to focus on the mission, mindful of Lilith’s advice.

 

#

Then, five days later, Nazarenko went to a coffee shop and she saw her chance to find out more.

Kerry pretended not to notice him when she went up to the counter to order her drink and continued the pretence as she sat a couple of tables away. It was pouring rain again and the place was less than half full, leaving a clear table between them. She sat side on to him, took off her gloves, pulled her book from her rucksack, and started reading.

“Ah, hello again!”

The accent was unmistakeable. Her smile was genuine when she looked across at him. “Oh, hi! How was the book?”

“Excellent, thank you for recommendation. I’m two chapters from end.”

She held up her book. “Same.”

“Apologies. I leave you to read.”

“No, it’s fine.” She closed the book and put it away.

“May I join you?” he gestured to her table. When she nodded, he picked up his coffee and coat and sat opposite her. “Thank you. It’s nice to have someone to share coffee with.”

“I don’t know anyone in London either,” she said.

“Oh, I know people here. I just don’t want to have coffee with them.” They both chuckled at that. “No, my colleagues are good people. They just want to talk about work. Not books.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m diplomatic aide. My boss is here for big trade talks, maybe you see them on news?”

She shook her head. “I don’t watch the news. It sounds important. Do you help with the negotiations?”

He smiled. “No. I am not diplomat. I am good at legal documents and looking for loopholes. It is quite important but also very boring. My name is Kazimir.”

He held his hand out across the table and she almost panicked. She gave a small, awkward wave and picked up her mug, a giant one that merited the use of both hands, thankfully. “I’m Clare.”

After the briefest moment he covered the rejected handshake by reaching for the sugar. “Do you work in London?”

“No, I’m looking at colleges. I’m thinking about studying here.”

The conversation flowed so easily between them. She actually enjoyed the lies she told, like it was a game, pretending to be someone else. They talked about the differences between coffee shops in Moscow and in London, and the similarities too. They discussed books and life as a diplomatic aide. Kazimir was so friendly that she almost felt guilty that she was spying on him.

They ordered a second drink and talked about films and what to do in London as a tourist. He was unmarried; when he told her, he hastily added that he wasn’t looking for a young wife, that he was old enough to be her grandfather. The way he insisted that he had no designs on her was endearing. But how was she supposed to find out what he was doing when he went to that hideout?

“What are you going to study?” he asked.

“I was thinking about English lit, or history. Not sure.”

“What do your parents think?”

“They’re dead.”

It just came out. She’d relaxed so much, even when lying, that the truth sounded harsh and ugly.

“I am sorry you lost so much so young,” he said softly and reached toward her arm.

She was so busy worrying about having revealed something too personal that she didn’t notice until he was mere millimetres away. She pulled back and, adrenaline surging, she was on her feet, grabbing her rucksack and coat and running out of the coffee shop.

There were tears on her cheeks when she got back to her room and she didn’t know if they were of grief or shame. Then she was sprinting and now she was back at the hotel and she’d screwed it all up. She locked the door behind her, dumped her gear on the floor, and flopped onto the bed. Why did she think she could take on this assignment? If Lilith had known how dangerous she was, she’d never have suggested Kerry try to get close to the target.She grabbed the pillow, curled herself around it, and sobbed. It wasn’t just the failure. It was the fact that Kazimir seemed like a nice guy. He was only trying to comfort her, like any normal person would. She’d seen people do that on TV and in films, just reaching out and touching someone’s arm when they wanted their companion to know someone was there for them. And every time she watched that happen she ached for it.

She’d ruined the mission.

No . . . she hadn’t ruined it; she could still watch him and turn in the basic report, but she’d failed the test. Should she write all of this up now? She wanted to show how much she’d learned about the target, how well she’d done to get closer, but how could she do that without revealing how she’d royally cocked it up?

 

“Miss Johnson?”

The receptionist called Kerry’s pseudonym as she was leaving the next day to get some lunch. Kazimir was installed at work and would be there until six, if his normal schedule was upheld.

She went over to the desk as the receptionist held out an envelope. “A man left this for you yesterday evening.”

“Thanks.” Clare was written on the envelope in a spidery scrawl.

She opened it there and then, knowing it could only be from Kazimir; everyone else who knew her cover name had direct access to her through the pagers.

Dear Clare,

I am sorry I scare you. I think I know why you are scared. I will be at coffee shop every night this week at 6:30 p.m. Please come. I was scared like that too. I know how bad it is. I want to help.

Kazimir

 

It was written on her hotel’s notepaper; there was a pad on the table in the corner. He must have followed her there after she ran. She crushed it to her chest. She was so stupid! Her target knew where she was staying! Did that mean she had to abort?

Appetite gone, Kerry went back to her room. She read the note again, then pulled her case from under the bed and started to chuck her clothes into it, shaking and nauseated. She’d have to tell Flint how badly she’d messed up. He’d be angry. He’d say she wasn’t good enough to be in the Silver Helix, and then what was she going to do? She had no money and nowhere to live without Flint’s support. How was she going to survive?

Legs wobbling, she sat at the dressing table and rested her head on the aged wood. There was the farm. She could go back there . . . No, just the thought of seeing it again made her feel sick.

She read the note again. Why had Kazimir sent this? If she took it at face value, he was telling her he understood why she was so afraid. But he was a nat. How could he know? He probably assumed she’d been attacked in the past or had some sort of phobia.

Maybe she didn’t have to abort, if she was really careful. She could ask what he meant by the note, an easy way to find out more about his life and why he’d been scared too. The breath eased in her chest. This wasn’t a disaster. It was an opportunity.

#

 

He was sitting in the same place as before, a large cup of black coffee in front of him. She watched from across the street until she mustered the courage to go in. There was no pretending she hadn’t seen him this time. His face transformed from a worried glower to a happy and relieved smile. That same warmth was there, and she started to wonder if maybe he could help her, even without knowing what she was really afraid of.

Once she had her hot chocolate, she went to sit opposite him again. There were a few more people than before, with just enough ambient noise from their conversations to make it feel more private. “I’m so glad you come  ,” he said. “I feel bad for scaring you. And I know I can help.”

She slipped off her coat, tucked her bag under the table within easy grabbing range, and sipped the chocolate. “But you don’t know anything about me.”

“I know you are scared of touch. And I know it not because someone hurt you. It because you have hurt someone else, and not wanted to, when you touch.”

Her stomach clenched. It was like she could feel the blood sink inward from her cheeks and lips. What if he really did understand?

“There is point in diplomatic talks, when deadlocked, when one party has to make decision to be vulnerable,” he continued, his voice soft and low. “It is risk, yes? But to find solution, risk must be taken.”

“Solution? Don’t you need a problem to need a solution?”

He smiled sadly. “Clare, you are scared of people, all the time. Is that not problem?”

She didn’t reply; she knew she wouldn’t be able to get the words around the lump in her throat. She couldn’t even keep looking at him, at his kind eyes, so she stared down at the hot chocolate instead.

“So, I take risk,” he continued softly. “I know that fear because I too can kill people with touch. How you say . . . my card turned. But is secret. Yes?”

Her head snapped up. He wasn’t a nat?! This changed everything. She searched his face for any sign of a lie, but he looked the same as before. Kind. Concerned.

“But . . .” Slowly her brain came back online. “But you tried to touch my arm! Were you trying to—”

“Nyet!” He looked appalled. “No, no, you have to understand . . .” He became aware of the other patrons who’d looked over at his outburst and lowered his voice again. “I control it now. But in start, I had no control. I . . .” He looked up, eyes shining with unshed tears. “I kill my brother,” he whispered. “When I was more young than you. When card turned I did not know, I did not look or feel different, but then one morning, I got out of bed, I went to eat breakfast, I . . .” His voice cracked. “I just want to pat him on shoulder, to say good morning . . .”

He was telling the truth. She knew it. And in that moment, more than anything in the world, she wanted to reach across and touch his arm, to express that she understood without the need for clumsy, stupid words. Kerry wrapped her arms around herself, gripping her elbows, squeezing tight, fighting the urge to cry as she felt his pain.

“I turn him to dust.” A single tear broke free, rolled down his cheek, and landed on his coffee spoon. He looked down at it, swiped a hand across his face, and sniffled, dragging himself from the memory to look at her again. “So I know what it is to be scared of touch.”

The coffee shop chatter faded into the background as she reeled from the feeling that someone finally understood. She’d been comforted by Captain Flint as much as anyone can be comforted by a strong man of sparse words, but now she realised it hadn’t been comfort, merely the removal of that constant fear in his presence. She’d mistaken the absence of that tension as something soothing, when it wasn’t at all. Here was a person who really did understand, who wanted to help her.

A person who had found a way to control his curse.

His status as a surveillance target, his motives for contacting the Twisted Fists, his part in whatever game was being played between the UK and Russia, all of it faded into the background. She didn’t care about what Flint wanted her to do; all she wanted was to stop feeling scared.

“I turn people to stone.”

She’d crossed a line. It was one thing to decide to speak to the target, it was another to reveal her true nature. With five words, it felt like she’d betrayed Flint and set herself on a path that could take her away from him.

Kazimir nodded slowly. “Is this why parents are dead?”

She pressed her lips together to stop the lower one trembling, breathed in deep to push the lump in her throat down, then swallowed to keep it there. “Yes.”

He murmured something in Russian. Then he seemed to make a decision. “We both take risk in telling this to each other. I promise I will not tell another what we say here.”

Kerry nodded. “I promise too.” And she meant it. None of this was going into her report. Right now, she wasn’t even sure if she was going to write one. It felt weird confessing something so private while she was supposed to be spying on him. But she couldn’t tell him about Flint and the mission without jeopardising her chance to learn from him.

She pushed down the discomfort with that and sipped the hot chocolate to cover her hesitation. “You’re not scared of touching people anymore . . . Did someone teach you how to control it?”

He shook his head. “I teach me.”

“But . . .” She let the rest of the question die off, unable to think of a way to ask it without sounding horrible.

“But how learn, when I kill so easy?” He sighed and leaned back in his chair, his gaze moving from one patron to the next. “I think conversation is dangerous for us if overheard. Shall we go to my apartment?”

Her heart flipped with panic. If she went there with him, the agent posted there would see her! “I . . . would rather stay somewhere public.”

He nodded. “I understand. Shall we walk in park?”

It would be dark in less than an hour, but it was better than being seen by one of Flint’s people. She agreed, and they finished their drinks and left. As they headed toward Kensington Gardens she wrestled with her guilt, feeling like she was betraying Flint, even though she wasn’t quite sure if she actually was. The silence between them was giving her fear too much room to grow, that was all.

“Do you keep it a secret from your colleagues?” she asked.

He took so long to reply that she thought he hadn’t heard her. “Some. It is . . . complicated.”

“I worry that I won’t be able to find a job, being the way I am.”

He glanced at her, frowning. “Your government does not know? I thought there was register here.”

She shook her head.

“Do not tell them.”

“Why?”

They’d arrived at the nearest entrance to the park. He pointed to an empty bench nearby. “Are you happy to talk there?”

She nodded and once they sat down, he leaned back, thoughtful. “Have you heard of Chernobyl?”

“I read about it.” It was some of the history she’d devoured over the past few years since escaping the farm. “It happened before I was born. It must have been scary.”

“Before you were born . . .” he muttered. “You make me old. I grew up in village ten kilometres away. When accident happened, I live   in Moscow. I was sent to . . . ‘help.’ Not help people there . . . help Communist Party to control information. It was my job to make sure Party’s secrets stay secret.”

The tone of his voice suggested the job was deeply unpleasant. “Did you have that job because of your curse?”

“Curse?” He frowned a moment and then seemed to understand. “Yes. I can make anything turn to dust. Document. Report. People. Useful for KGB.”

She stayed very still, fearful that her racing thoughts would somehow become visible on the surface. He was a member of the KGB?! That wasn’t in the briefing! She’d read a few Cold War thrillers, and many more modern ones that had former KGB agents who, for the sake of flimsy plots, refused to recognise that the Cold War was over. Was that why he went to the Twisted Fists? Because he still worked for whatever branch of the Russian government used to be the KGB? Why was he telling her this?

“That was when I see how much harm I do. Not because of gift. Because of how government use it.” He twisted to face her. “You can kill too. Fast, yes?”

“Yes.” The word was just a croak.

“You can kill fast, with one touch. If they know about you, your government see you as weapon, like me.”

“But if they wanted me to kill people, leaving a statue behind as evidence would be rubbish!”

He smirked. “Statue is easy smashed. No evidence of life. No body to bury. No bones to find. If outside, in right place, people would not think it real person before. If I wanted to kill that way, I would wait until they were posed somewhere. Look like art.”

The hot chocolate was shooting up her gullet in a sudden rush of nausea. She pressed a fist against her lips, breathing in through her nose and desperately trying to suppress the urge to vomit. Captain Flint wouldn’t ask her to kill anyone! He knew she’d never be able to do that again, not after what her parents put her through.

“Apologies. I scare you in different way. I want to stop what happen to me, happen to you, yes? When I young, like you, I want to be hero. To help my country be great. The KGB tell me I do that, but not true. At Chernobyl, I see many people—my people, Ukrainian—not get help.”

“So did you leave them? Is that why you’re a diplomatic aide now? To do more good?”

He laughed, but it was bitter. “There was no way for me to leave KGB. Then KGB end, but new government find way to keep me useful. I help diplomatic corps, yes, but not in way people think.”

So he was still making things—and maybe people—disappear for his government. And he was just . . . chatting about it? “I don’t understand why you’re telling me this. Surely you’re supposed to keep it a secret?”

With a sigh, he nodded. “I have old friends who have no idea what I do, who know me almost all of my life. But I am tired and . . .” He patted his chest as he fumbled for words. “Heartsick. I hope that after end of Soviet Union, things get better for Ukraine. But I learn something here that . . .” Another sigh as his gaze focused on a nearby tree. “I am sick of loyalty to powerful men who not care for people. I try to ignore so many things, all my life. I just do job. But no more. I change. And . . .” His gaze returned to her. “And I see me in you and I wish I have someone to help me when I am young. Then I might not be where I am now. But what I learn in London I cannot forget and I cannot carry on same.”

So he was having some sort of crisis of loyalty to the Russian government and thought she was just some scared girl that good fortune had brought into his life so that he could help her. But what had he learned in London? The Fists hideout he’d visited was outside of the city, in Guildford, so it wasn’t their existence, or what had happened there—if he was telling the truth. It felt like he was. She was desperate to know more but paralysed with uncertainty: how to pursue it without giving herself away?

“And,” he added, “there is relief to talk to someone, yes? It is lonely in my job.”

“Yes,” she replied, and the agreement was genuine. At the sight of a park attendant approaching the gates, she stood. “They’re about to lock the park. We should go.” As they walked to the exit, she stuffed her hands in her pockets and clenched them into fists. “Do you think you’d be able to teach me how to control my curse?”

“Yes.” He sounded very confident. “It all in mind. You are smart and you want to learn. That all you need.”

It sounded too simple. How could he really know? “Have you helped anyone else?”

“Yes. But that person has different gift.”

“What could they do?”

“Ah, that is secret I must keep. But same in most important way; touch was problem.”

The man smiled at them as they left and the gates were locked behind them. Once he’d moved off, she turned to face Kazimir. “Will you teach me?”

“Yes.”

She looked, but there was only kindness in his eyes. Could she trust her instincts though? “What do you want in return?”

“Nothing. It only take time, and I have many evening and British TV is terrible. We can start now, yes?”

Surely it wasn’t that simple? Surely he wanted something? Then her attention was pulled away by a vibration in her inside coat pocket. Flint’s pager! “Um, I have to go . . . I have to . . . think about it.”

“It is hard to trust. I understand. Meet at café again tomorrow? Same time?”

She felt wretched as she nodded and gave a little wave before heading off.

 

“I’ve read through your activity logs and it doesn’t seem like the target has met with anyone or been anywhere suspicious.”

Everything seemed completely normal, the way Captain Flint sat, the way he looked at her. And yet Kerry’s heart was racing as if she were sprinting up a hill. Was this a trap?

“He just goes to get food, or books or coffee. That’s it. When he’s not at work.”

Flint nodded. “I think it’s as I suspected and he just delivered a message to the Fists rather than acting of his own volition. We’re keeping a close eye on his boss, but there’s been no more communication between that cell and the Russians.” He closed the file on his desk. “I think it’s time for us to wrap up the surveillance.”

“But . . .”

He frowned at her. “You think we should continue? I see no reason to do so from this data.”

“I . . . I just feel it’s good training in a low-risk scenario, like you said.”

He leaned back, scrutinising her. “You’re enjoying it.” It was a statement, rather than a question.

She feigned embarrassment. “Yeah. It’s the first time I’ve felt like I could be useful. I guess it might be boring for the other agents.”

Those duties have been folded into CCTV monitoring. It’s only one person at a time and easy to share with other assignments. I’m not concerned about that.”

And the whole time she’d been thinking that there were actual people posted outside his flat and workplace. If Flint knew that Kazimir was really an ace though, that would change. It felt wrong to keep so much from him, but she kept silent. If he knew what Kazimir could do, she’d be pulled off the assignment and lose her chance to learn how to control her curse.

I’m going to be away for a few days,” Flint said, breaking her internal guilt spiral. “We’ll keep it up for another week, to be on the safe side. I want you to keep the activity log going and then write a report at the end on any issues you overcame and any potential problems for future assignments. I want that on my desk seven days from now. I should be back by then.”

A week to learn everything she could from Kazimir. “Thanks.” She stood and was surprised when he did too.

He moved round from behind his desk to come over to her, putting a hand on her shoulder and squeezing just enough for one of the sharp edges to hurt. “I’m glad this has been going well. I know being in the city is hard. I’m proud of you.”

Tears welled, but Kerry didn’t know why. “Thank you,” she croaked, trying so hard to be the professional young woman she wanted to be. Then she threw her arms around his waist and shut her eyes, desperate for something she couldn’t name. She felt his stone hands resting lightly on her back and for a moment, just a moment, it felt like she had a father again.

 

She watched Kazimir draw an outline of a human body, reminding her of the chalk line drawn around murder victims in TV shows. They were back in the coffee shop, but this time tucked into the corner of the basement area.

“This sound strange, but listen to all and”—he smirked slightly—“and trust me. It work.”

“I’m listening.”

“This all about mind over matter, yes? But not silly American firewalk thing. This about using our mind to control something virus make us do. Now, when you touch and turn person to stone, it is skin to skin, yes?”

She nodded.

“But look at cup.” He pointed at the hot chocolate in front of her. “Not stone. You touch with hand but still ceramic. Yes? And your clothes, and your bed, yes?”

She frowned. “Yeah. My power only works on living things.”

“But what about your eyes? Your hair. All living.”

“But they’re mine.”

He smiled broadly. “Yes! They are part of you. Good.”

She wondered if something was being lost in translation. “I don’t see how—”

“I try to show you that there are . . . limit to power. And what we do now is think about how to change limit. There is no . . . thing in your skin that make this happen. It is all mind.”

“It might be something in my skin for all we know.”

He looked briefly frustrated. “Trust me. I know this.”

She chewed on her thumbnail as he put the black pen down and picked up a blue one.

“Now, I want you to imagine thing inside you that turn people to stone is like . . . ghost that fill you up.”

“What?!”

“No, listen, it make sense. I think of my power like this. Like . . . soul? Not physical, but fill whole body before I learn control, like this.” He began to fill the outline of the body with blue ink. “It not matter which bit of skin touch another person, because this”—he waggled the blue pen at her—“fill me up, yes?”

She nodded but still felt a bit lost.

He picked up the black pen, drew a second body outline and then a third. “Then I think, What if I can . . . pull it in . . . stop it from filling all of me?

He coloured in the second outline, but this time not right to the edge, leaving a narrow band of white between the blue and black ink. He tapped the white strip with the pen. “This . . . gap, this mean power not touch other person, or thing. It is deeper inside, so protect other person. Yes?”

It suddenly made sense. By pulling the power inward, somehow, shrinking it, it would no longer be able to turn people to stone. If it worked the way he seemed to think it did. “I think I understand.”

He looked so happy. “Good! Is so hard in English!”

“But if it works this way, do you have to concentrate on making it . . . smaller inside you all the time?”

“At first, yes. Is tiring. But after practise, no.” He pointed at the third outline he’d drawn. “Now, it feel like this, all the time.” He coloured in the core of the drawn body and no blue ink in the limbs or head at all. “Is like deep inside. When I want to turn something to dust, I imagine pulling power from inside to hand.” He added a blue line from the core to one of the hands, set the pen down and picked up his teaspoon. “Now I am second picture.” Nothing happened.

Then he stared at the spoon and she watched its shiny surface turn dull before crumbling to dust, as if it had never been metal. “That is what happen when I am third picture, yes? Send power to hand.” He picked up a packet of sugar. “Pull in, all good. Now . . .” The sachet’s paper turned to powder and a couple of sugar granules slipped out before all of them were turned to dust too. “Sent to hand.”

She blinked at the smears of dust on the table, and his other hand, which had been resting on the wooden surface the whole time. He had so much control! “And you can turn anything to dust? Living or not?”

He nodded. “But first only living things, like you. Maybe one day you be same, turn coffee cup to stone for party joke.”

She attempted a smile.

“You think it won’t work. That I talk rubbish. I understand. It take practise.”

“It’s pretty hard to practise something when people die if you get it wrong.”

“That is not practice, that is test. Practice is for thinking of power this way.” He tapped the paper. “Spend time to change way you think about what is you and what is power and how they not same. Test is get something very small, like bug, and see if work. Test is not think about this and then touch person to see if work.”

“Yes, of course.” She felt stupid again. “Okay, I’ll try.”

#

 

For the next three days she practised thinking about the curse in the way Kazimir had described. It was a frustrating process. It felt too much like doing nothing but a weird sort of focused daydreaming, a slippery, dissatisfying activity with no way to tell if she was doing it right. She imagined the curse like a second soul filling her body—even though it seemed stupid to do so—and imagined shrinking it inward.

They arranged to meet at the coffee shop in three days’ time. She hated the fact that there was so little time left on the assignment, but she couldn’t think of a good enough reason to hurry Kazimir along. She soon realised why he’d made the arrangement; it seemed he knew someone who’d been taken to hospital and visited them there two days in a row. At first she’d thought he was seeking medical help, especially as she saw him use an asthma inhaler for the first time that day. But the second time he went, he took a small bunch of flowers and left the hospital without them. She couldn’t face following him in to see which ward he went to. It was too busy, and too easy for Kazimir to spot her if she screwed up.

After a couple of days of frustration, she decided to test her progress. She went back to Kensington Gardens in the afternoon, while Kazimir was at work, and spread out her anorak on the damp grass next to a flower bed.

It was mercifully quiet, it being a weekday morning during the school term. She sat watching the soil for a while, soon seeing all sorts of bugs bustling about in their own muddy world. She took a moment to focus her thoughts and then put her hand on the soil next to a few ants.

She concentrated on imagining the curse pulled inward so intently that she didn’t initially see the ant crawling across her hand; it was the tickling that drew her attention.

It hadn’t turned to stone! She watched it patter across the back of her hand and felt such a surge of excitement that she laughed out loud. Then the ant froze, turned a dark grey colour and tumbled off, no more than a tiny chip of granite.

Appalled, she bit her lip, wondering if she’d imagined it being alive while touching her before. She grounded herself, helped by the feeling of the cold, damp earth beneath her palm, and went back to imagining the power shrinking inward. Another ant ventured onto her thumb, crawled onto the back of her hand, and she knew she wasn’t imagining it. It was working!

But as soon as she’d thought that, and let the excitement fracture her concentration, the ant turned to stone and tumbled off.

It was all the proof she needed though! Kerry jumped up, grabbed her anorak, and sprinted out of the park, past the coffee shop, back to her hotel. She had to run, she had to release the sheer joy and excitement at seeing an end to this hellish life. Kazimir’s technique worked and it would just be a matter of time and practice, and then she could live something like a normal life!

She was panting when she got to the hotel. The same receptionist who had given her the letter from Kazimir was on duty. Kerry stopped, feeling something jar in her brain. Kazimir had said he followed her from the café to her hotel after he’d almost touched her arm. She had sprinted, probably faster than she just had. He was asthmatic, in his late fifties, possibly early sixties for all she knew. How did he keep her in sight round the three corners between here and the café?

She went to the desk. “Hi . . . I don’t suppose you remember me, but you gave me a letter that was left by a man.”

The receptionist smiled. “I remember. I was on duty when he came in and wrote it. It doesn’t happen every day.” She lowered her voice and leaned in a little. “I keep an eye on the men who want to speak to a young woman staying alone at the hotel. You know, just in case.”

Kerry nodded. She knew. All women knew. “Was he very out of breath? Like he’d been running?”

The receptionist shook her head. “No. He looked worried, came to the desk and asked if I had a spare envelope because he wanted to leave a message for someone staying here. I think he was Russian. He seemed kind. I gave it to him, and he sat over there to write it and handed it in.”

So he hadn’t chased after her, as she’d assumed. Which meant only one thing; he’d already known where she was staying before she befriended him.

#

 

She was so nervous before their next meeting at the café that she couldn’t eat. She didn’t know how to handle this, and she couldn’t ask for help. She didn’t want to ask Lilith because she didn’t know the woman well enough; she had the feeling Lilith would look down on her if she confided her fears. If she managed to salvage this mission and earn her place in the Silver Helix, they’d be colleagues and she didn’t want Lilith to know how badly she’d screwed up. So she went down into the basement area carrying an unwanted hot chocolate after trailing Kazimir from his apartment, knowing he was down there waiting for her.

He looked pleased to see her, and she couldn’t help smiling back at him. “How is practise?”

She’d been so worried about what to say that her success had been pushed to the back of her mind. “It worked! Only for a few seconds when I was really concentrating, but it worked!”

He beamed at her, genuinely pleased. “Tell me all.”

She told him about the ant and—after a brief translation issue—about her excitement, how she ran all the way back to the hotel afterward. As he chuckled at the thought of her gleeful sprint, she took a breath and readied herself for what was to come. “It made me think, actually,” she said as he sipped his coffee. “About when I last ran to the hotel, after I panicked with you. Remember? When we first chatted here?” At his nod, she looked him in the eye. “It made me realise that you couldn’t have followed me back. I run very fast when I want to, and I wanted to that day. There are three corners, two close together . . . easy points for you to lose me if you weren’t right behind me. And given your age and”—she almost mentioned the inhaler—“and the fact that you tend to cough a little when we go outside after sitting in the warm, I don’t think you could have kept up with me.”

He didn’t look away, didn’t smile, didn’t do any of the things she expected him to do. “And what does that make you think?”

“That you knew where I was staying before that day. And that . . . worries me.”

“It worries you. That I might do to you what you were doing to me? Following me.”

She gave a tense nod.

“I am glad you thought about this. I wait for this, for many days now, and I know you not stupid. But you are young and have no experience. That is why it was easy for me to notice you follow me, days before we talk in bookshop.”

She felt her cheeks flush red and hated it.

“Do not feel bad. I have been agent for longer than you live. This is new for you, yes?”

She nodded. “Oh, God, I’ve really screwed this up.”

He smiled. “Drink chocolate. All not lost. I do not want to hurt you. We talk, work it out.”

She wrapped her shaking hands around the giant mug and found the chocolate a small comfort. “I feel so stupid. You knew, the whole time?”

“Da.”

“But you’ve been so kind. And it wasn’t all . . . I mean . . . you’ve really helped me. I don’t understand.”

“When I see how young you are, I not worry. I can kill very quick, remember. So I decide to wait and see what else being done. But I work out only you on street, and cameras to watch me come and go from apartment and office. Not good operation. Training for you. But why me? And then I realise why and I know you are with Silver Helix. Perhaps first mission. Wanting to know why boring Russian man go to Fists’ place.”

The more he said, the more incompetent she felt. She had really believed that she had been doing a brilliant job and yet he’d been one step ahead of her the entire time. “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me why,” she said with an attempt at a cheeky grin.

Kazimir laughed. “Because of thing I learn in London. But now not time to talk about that.”

“So you let me befriend you to learn about what we knew, and then you saw me panic when you nearly touched me.”

Da. I tell you truth. I see me in you. Then I know I must help. Because you work for government now, but still young, still new. Still time for you to get out and not be like me.”

It had felt true at the time, and it still did. That was a relief. “But why did you tell me about when you were in the KGB, and what you still do now, even when you knew I was spying on you?”

He shrugged. “All game, no matter now. If I care about Russia and how they use me, then I say nothing. But I do not care now. Loyalty to Russia is gone. And helping you more important than both governments. They only care about power and money for them, not people.”

She believed him. But should she? She felt like a silly little girl playing grownup games, and she hated it. What should she do?

“We finish drink,” he said, as if sensing her indecision. “We go back to our rooms. You make decision. I tell you truth; your government will use you to kill. If you can get out, do. If you need help to get out, I give it. And do not worry about Fists. I speak once to them, they are fools, nothing more. No risk. No terrorist plan with Russian government. My government does   not need those British fools to do evil.”

The emphasis made her wonder if there were other British fools he had in mind who were helping the Russians. But it was clear this was all he was willing to say now, and that all she could do now was decide what to tell Flint.

#

 

Four days later Kerry was perched on the edge of a chair in the waiting room close to Captain Flint’s office, her stomach cramping, trying not to cry. She didn’t want to, but her eyes were stinging and her cheeks were still burning after the brief exchange with him that morning. She’d known she’d done something wrong the moment she walked in, her report laid out on the desk in front of him. Even though his flinty features couldn’t show the nuances of human expression, there was nothing nuanced about his anger, and it burned from his hellish eyes when he’d looked up at her.

She’d been so certain he’d be thrilled by how much she’d discovered, that he’d be so proud of her. She couldn’t have been more wrong.

His anger had ended the moment she mentioned Lilith’s name. Now she feared she’d got the other agent into trouble, but she had to tell the truth about the advice Lilith had given; otherwise Flint wouldn’t understand her disobedience. Now, waiting to be summoned back in, she could see how stupid she’d been. Lilith’s advice had sounded so ridiculous when she said it to Flint. How could she have believed that he’d be happy with anything other than what he had asked for?

Was Flint letting her stew or just trying to manage his temper? She’d worked so hard to impress him and received the worst dressing down she’d ever experienced. Perhaps he was working out what to do with her. It might be the best time to run, to strike out on her own, but she wasn’t prepared. First lesson learned: expect the worst, be ready for it. It had taken her nearly two years to live without a grab bag of stuff by the door, ready to bolt if needed. And now her complacency had denied her a quick escape. She wouldn’t make that mistake again.

Her burner phone vibrated in her pocket, making her jump. Only Lilith had that number. She left it for a few moments, fearful that if she answered, she’d just get another telling off. But then Lilith might turn up in person when she least expected it. Better to get it over with. She pulled the phone out and accepted the call.

Before she’d even got it to her ear she could hear Flint’s fist pounding on his desk. “—as Lilith, not to mention the risk to the public as well as to her! What possessed you to interfere with a green recruit’s first mission?!”

“Would you have preferred me to reveal everything about myself on a first meeting?” A soft male voice spoke. Who the hell had Lilith’s phone? “I thought appearing as Lilith would be less scary than a man finding her. Is that sound your teeth grinding? Why, Captain, you’re so upset.”

“Don’t derail this, Noel!”

This ‘Noel’ and Lilith were the same person? A shapeshifter who could teleport? Wow. That explained how he had the phone number that only Lilith knew, and why he was confident about who would pick up and listen in. But why risk a breach of Flint’s trust in him? Why did Noel want her to hear their private conversation?

“All right, if you want the truth, I wanted to make sure she understood what she’s getting herself into.”

“By telling her to befriend an ex-KGB assassin?!”

“No one knew that at the time, not even you. I wonder if you’re so upset because it’s such a royal cockup on your part, not because I encouraged her to get some real experience. Even if she was just tailing, he would have clocked her.”

“Real experience? And you’re the better judge of how to train her, are you?”

“You’re mistaken, Captain. Not real experience of spycraft. Real experience of you.”

In the long pause that followed, Kerry realised she was holding her breath. She moved her thumb over the mic, just in case she gave away the fact that she was listening in.

“She has no idea what you’re really like,” Noel continued. “What you’ll make her do. She’s a kid. Like I was.”

“So this, unsurprisingly, is all about you.”

Another pause. “You wrap her in cotton wool, hide her away, and then give her some bullshit assignment to build her confidence. At what point were you going to drop the kindly father act?”

“Ah, so you’re upset that she didn’t get the same treatment as you, without considering that she is a completely different person with different skills and—”

“I had hoped, for maybe all of five minutes, that you might have regretted how you had me trained, but no. This is you manipulating a vulnerable kid all over again, just without the beatings. She has no idea what the psych said about her, I take it.”

“And how would you know? That report was confidential.”

“I overheard Enigma warning you that the psych said she was too keen to please you and it would impede her judgement. That you have too much power over her.”

Kerry remembered Flint’s words in her garden . . . he’d only said she was keen . . . he’d manipulated her?

“Look, you might not be happy with what I did.” Noel’s change in subject didn’t escape her. “But she uncovered a Russian ace who wasn’t even on your radar and handled it all brilliantly.”

“She’s arguing for him to join us!”

Poor kid. She’s really clueless, isn’t she?”

The sound of Flint’s fist hammering the desk again made her jump. “This is far more complex than you realise! And now I have to clean up the mess you made!”

“Oh, drop it! We both know why you’re so angry, and it’s not because I interfered with your new pet. It’s because she’s found another man who’s taken her under his wing and wants to train her. You’ve got competition, and you can’t stand it!”

There was a pause. “You have your assignment,” Flint finally said. “Don’t go near Stonemaiden again, and don’t come back until your assignment is complete.”

She feared the assignment had something to do with Kazimir. There was a snort from Noel. “I’m amazed you managed to find something that takes me thousands of miles away from her so quickly. Don’t worry, I’m sure she’s learned what she needs to.”

He ended the call then, and clearly didn’t leave via natural means. She made sure that the phone was set to airplane mode  , and barely had time to process what Noel had enabled her to listen in, when the expected summons came.

Shaking, she walked back into Flint’s office, not even able to look at him.

“Sit down, Kerry. I’m not angry with you.”

She looked up at his face, tried to gauge whether that was true, but it was impossible to deduce from the angles of his stone features. She sat down, willing herself to stay quiet and calm. She knew more than he realised, but not enough to control this conversation at all.

Flint sighed. “While I disagree—strongly—with the methods you employed, I can’t deny that you’ve brought me very valuable intelligence.”

Her chest tightened. Was he about to make her a full member?

“And that intelligence has cleared up a few questions from previous cases, and cast a new light on the findings from other, simultaneous operations. The thing about our line of work, Kerry, is that you might only know a small part of a bigger picture. That’s why it’s important not only to follow orders, but to understand that your conclusions may not be correct when combined with information from other operations.”

“You think I’m wrong about him not being a threat.”

Flint nodded, and seemed relieved that she was quick on the uptake. “I think he’s actually one of the most dangerous men alive. And I’m convinced that he’s involved in a plot to kill several key members of the government, and potentially the extended royal family.”

She almost laughed. It sounded ridiculous. “No, he hates the Russians and what they made him do. He doesn’t want to kill anyone.”

“I know you don’t believe me. He’s manipulated you brilliantly. We’re extraordinarily lucky that he decided to recruit you rather than kill you.”

“He doesn’t want to do that! He wants to help me!”

“Kerry . . . your family kept you hidden away. I did the same. Our motives may have been very different, but it had the same impact. You’re better educated now, but you’re not worldly. You have to trust me when I tell you that Nazarenko is very skilled at putting you at ease and making you think of him as a kind man. He’s not. And regardless, Nazarenko would never be able to work for the Silver Helix, and I would never be able to trust him even if he could. His presence in London constitutes a terrible threat, and it’s our responsibility to stop him.”

Their eyes met and it felt like the world fell away from under her chair. “You want him to . . . to be killed?”

“That’s the only way to ensure he can’t do any more harm to our leaders and national interests. Men like him can’t be arrested and put in prison. There is no kind way to deal with this, Kerry. It’s a struggle to defend our country.”

“But . . . but . . .”

“Have I ever lied to you?”

“No.” But he had left out that detail from the psych report.

“Have I ever pressured you into wanting to join the Silver Helix?”

“No.”

“The only thing I’m guilty of is wanting to ease you into this life slowly. Gently, I suppose. I made mistakes when I recruited… Lilith   , I know that. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes with you. But I fear I’ve been too protective, and all of that is going to come to naught.”

He had something in mind, but she couldn’t fathom it. “I don’t understand.”

“It has to be you, Kerry. You need to eliminate the threat.”

Her ears began to ring. She shook her head. She was missing something, surely. He’d never ask her to kill.

“Nazarenko trusts you, and you’re the most likely to be able to get close enough to do it. You’d be very fast, and that’s critical, given his own power.”

The ends of her fingers started to tingle, along with her lips. Tiny dots sparkled at the periphery of her vision. Then Flint’s hand was gripping her shoulder and he was looming over her and it felt like she snapped back into her body again. “Kerry. I’m so sorry. I never wanted your first assignment to come to this. But if you really want to be a member of the Silver Helix, you have to be prepared to do your duty.”

There was a surge of emotions: anger, betrayal, rage, despair, all so strong and terrifying that the blood roared in her ears and then, all of a sudden, nothing. She felt so calm. So . . . numb. “Do I have a choice?”

“The choice is whether you join us or not. Not whether he has to die. If you’re not prepared to do it, tell me now. There’s no shame in this not being the life for you.”

But she couldn’t imagine any other life. It all revolved around Flint. And the thought of turning her back on the dream of being in the Silver Helix, of getting up and walking out and never seeing him again, never being able to feel his hand on her shoulder or see that look of pride when he spoke to her . . . she couldn’t bear it.

“I’ll do it,” she said. “I was a stupid girl. I thought I knew him, and . . . and I see how he manipulated me.” She listened to the words coming out of her, detached, almost like another person was speaking them. “I won’t let you down.”

Flint’s hand moved from her shoulder to brush the top of her head before he stepped back. “I know you won’t.”

#

 

All the way to Kazimir’s apartment she tried to make a plan, but her thoughts just kept sliding off it. She couldn’t keep focused on anything more than which tube to catch and keeping as far from other people as possible. She had to get to Kazimir. Once she arrived, hopefully the next thing to do would become clear.

And then she was ringing the bell to his apartment.

He buzzed her in after only the slightest pause. Perhaps he’d been expecting her. Having been sent there by Flint, she wasn’t concerned about being spotted on CCTV, but she wore a baseball cap with her unruly hair tied and pinned under it, just in case there were interior cameras run by Kazimir’s people. She wore the anorak she hated, and it would go in the bin the moment she left.

The communal area was clean, tidy, and impersonal. She knew Kazimir’s apartment was on the top floor, one of only three in the small converted townhouse, and so she headed up the staircase at the far end of the small lobby.

He was waiting at his open doorway and smiled at her. “I am glad you come. I worry I not see you again.”

She reached the uppermost stair, saw the kindness and warmth in his eyes, and her knees buckled beneath her. She sat heavily, tears welling, unable to go any farther.

“Come in,” he said softly.

“I can’t.”

“He want you to kill me.”

Her head whipped round at the sound of the truth, but he was still just standing there, like an old uncle waiting for his niece to come inside so they could cook together. Like it was the most normal thing in the world to be welcoming to your own assassin.

“It is okay,” he said softly. “I expect this. Come inside. We talk. We work it out.”

Was he trying to lure her inside to kill her instead? She couldn’t just sit there and cry and she couldn’t leave without doing anything, so she picked herself up and followed him inside.

After closing the door behind her, she followed him through the small hallway to a large living room. It looked like there was a kitchen, a bathroom, and two other closed doors leading off to what were presumably the bedrooms. She went to the living room doorway and lingered, uncertain what to do.

It was a spacious room with a high ceiling, neutral décor, and large windows. The curtains were drawn against the dusk and a single lamp was lit in the corner, giving the large room a cosy atmosphere.

He gestured at a plump sofa as he sat in one of the two armchairs, both covered in beige brocade. She perched on the edge and glanced at the picture on the wall behind him of a street in a beautiful city.

“St. Petersburg,” he said. “Interesting place but does not feel Russian. I kill four men there in one night.”

When she realised her jaw had dropped open, she shut her mouth.

“I am dangerous. He tell you this, yes? I am threat. Must be eliminated. I understand.”

“Why are you so calm about this?” she blurted out.

He shrugged. “It happen before. Someone come to kill me. But this first time I want to talk to person first. Because this is not same.”

“Because you’re not scared of me?”

Nyet. Because I care about you. I tell you they will make you kill. It come true, yes?” At her nod, he leaned forward. “And how you feel about that?”

The same surge of emotions rose within her as they had in Captain Flint’s office, but this time it was harder to push them back down again. She clasped her hands together, pushed the palms against each other until the heels of her hands hurt. She had to get a grip!

“He said you’re dangerous, yes,” she began. “But he thinks you want to kill important people, and that’s why you should be stopped.”

Kazimir nodded. “He is right. I do.”

She groaned. “Why are you agreeing with the man who wants you killed?!”

“Because I do not lie to you. The only lie is not telling you that I know you have been sent to follow me. I want you to make decision for yourself. This is life junction . . . intersection . . . no, crossroads, yes? When I am at same crossroads, many years ago, I have no one to help me. I want you to see you have choice.”

She felt sick. Was this all just a ploy to stop her from killing him? “Okay . . . then tell me what you learned in London that made you stop being loyal to your government.”

“I come with diplomatic core in case government want something . . . cleaned up. The trade talks in press are just cover for real talks happening between top negotiator and UK arms dealers. The Russian government want to buy lot of guns, lot of tanks. This not new. But I hear conversation by accident between our diplomat and our negotiator. Guns and tanks are to use against Ukraine, my homeland, if Ukraine decide to join NATO. Russia still see Ukraine as their place, like in days of USSR. But Ukraine want to join West, not East.”

His hands balled into fists. “When I hear this, I know that Russian government never care for people. But worse; no government care for people. The UK arms dealers in talks, they have many deals with UK government. Many ministers take money from them, many ministers make decision about overseas policy to keep arms dealers happy, not to help British people. Same in Russia, many decision made for money, not people. That why loyalty die.” He looked down at his hands, distant for a moment. “I realise many thing, here in London. There are only two type of people; super rich and rest of world. Countries, borders, rules . . . I start to see how it is all lies to keep control of masses. Super-rich—funded by arms deals and out-of-control capitalism—can go where they want, do what they want, kill who they want. They use press to tell everyone else what to feel, who to hate. They tell people to hate each other, so super-rich can make more money. I am part of that machine, and I want to break it. I hoped Fists would be allies, but no. Silver Helix is British part of same machine. I do not want you to be cog in machine like me.”

She believed him. But she believed that Captain Flint felt he was doing the best thing for his country too.

“Is Flint, yes, who send you?” She didn’t answer, but he nodded at her silence anyway. “Flint is military man. Questions trained out of him. He salute queen and never question. He more dangerous man than I and definitely more dangerous for you. Does he deserve your loyalty?”

“Yes!” she replied without hesitation. “He’s done so much for me! He saved my life. I don’t know how I could have survived without him.”

“And he give you safety in return for love?”

“Urgh, no, that’s gross!” He didn’t love her. But she did love him.

“Then why help you? Because he kind?”

He had been kind to her, but she wouldn’t say he was a kind man. He was cold and hard to read and to love. To say he’d done everything out of kindness felt wrong.

“Your face say lot of things, Clare,” Kazimir said sadly. “This man see young girl, scared, no family, and sees weapon in future.”

“No!”

“Yes. Men like Flint only see war. They are made from war. They only see targets and weapons. You are weapon that need kindness and help for long time, then when ready, weapon can be used to kill.”

His face was distorted by her tears so she looked away. “He’s done so much for me.”

“Not for love. If it was love, Clare, he would give it all to you like daughter, and not ask you to kill man in return.”

“But it wasn’t like that! He didn’t say I had to do this because of everything he’s done for me!”

Kazimir shook his head. “Many ways power can be used with no words. If you say no to him, do you have somewhere to live? Will you have money? Be safe?”

A heavy tear plopped onto her boot.

“That is power over you. Now you see it, you have choice. I can give you money to survive.”

“Oh, pay me not to kill you? That doesn’t sound very noble!”

He laughed. “When I say I am noble? I give you money, no strings. You have money, you can leave Flint, so money gives you power to decide. Or do you want to kill me? When he point at next person and tell you they are danger to queen, will you turn them to stone too? Will you do that for rest of your life?”

She saw the woman’s back in the studio, her pale pink flesh, the tiny hairs and pores of her skin as she posed for her father in the Grecian-style dress. How it turned grey at her touch. All those times she killed because she was told it was good, that it was right, that it made the world better.

She’d vowed she would never do that again. And yet here she was, talking to a man she had been sent to kill by the man she thought would keep her safe. A second tear dripped onto her boot. “I don’t want to,” she said. Her voice sounded reedy and small and she felt like she was fourteen again.

“I am sorry. This hard. But good for you to see how things really are. Like surgery. It hurt, but will let you heal. Better you feel this now, so young, with whole life to live, than like me, old and many times murderer.”

“But . . .” She sniffled. “If I don’t do what he wants, will you kill more people?”

“I see your problem. Hm. How would you solve?”

“Well . . . Captain Flint would argue that I already know the solution to that.”

He smiled. “Remember, I kill with touch too. Flint expect you to get close without me expecting, but not possible now.”

He was reminding her she was not the only deadly person in the room. She had no idea whether she would be turned to dust before he was turned to stone, but she didn’t want to risk it, for either of their sakes.

She wiped the tears from her eyes. “I don’t want to kill you. So I’d make a deal with you. I’d say that if I let you live, you have to let your targets live too.”

“Better. Tell me flaws in plan.”

It was like he was training her, more than Flint himself had, having just managed the provision of other trainers. She pushed that thought away. “I’d have to trust that you’ll keep your word. But . . . these people you want to kill aren’t Russian targets, they’re your targets, so it’s more likely you would be able to keep your word and find another way to solve your problem. Like turning tanks to dust, instead of people.”

His smile was radiant. “Good, good. But what about biggest flaw in plan?”

“Oh.” Her stomach twisted painfully. “Flint. He’d know I didn’t kill you. He’ll be monitoring the building . . . he’ll be waiting for a statue to be removed or something . . . or will send someone in to prove it’s been done.”

“So if stone man was here when he look, problem solved?”

“Yeah . . . but I turn living things into granite. It’s heavy and hard to work, and it would be stoo difficult to have one made and bring it into the building and . . .” She saw an interesting look on his face. “Wait . . . you’ve got something in mind, haven’t you? Don’t tell me you’ve got a bloody statue here already?”

“Even I cannot make that happen. But I do have another man.”

“Oh, God! A body? Here?!” She jumped up, hating the thought of there being a corpse somewhere in the apartment the whole time they were talking.

Nyet, calm, calm.” He stood too, patting the air between them. “Listen. I expect this, so I make plan too. We help each other. I give you statue for Flint, so he think you are good girl and do what he say. Give you time to make plan to leave if you want, be safe, yes? But also give me freedom too. If statue here, Russians think I killed by Silver Helix. They will not make fuss as I am not supposed to be real, yes? They be angry, but not start war. Everyone think I am dead, but I am not. I am free.”

It made a lot of sense. “I don’t want you to die, but I’m not willing to kill another man to save you. It kinda defeats the point, y’know?”

“What if man already dying?”

#

 

Behind one of the closed doors was indeed a bedroom, and lying within was a man of a similar age to Kazimir who was in the late stages of cancer. His skin had a dreadful yellow pallor and his breath was laboured, but he still smiled when he saw her. “Ah, the angel,” he said at the sight of her, his Ukrainian accent far softer than Kazimir’s. “My angel of death.”

She sat by his bedside and they talked. His name was Nikolai and he’d known Kazimir for over thirty years, through “work”—a comment that was not elaborated upon and one she didn’t push. They had saved each other’s lives at least twice though, so they were probably both in the spy trade.

Kazimir had explained his situation, and as the man wheezed his way through the tale, pausing occasionally to press the button that delivered more morphine, Kerry was painfully aware of how many steps ahead of her Kazimir had been throughout this entire assignment. The visits he’d made to the hospital were to visit his friend, but rapidly turned into a plan to buy Kazimir’s survival and freedom, whilst giving a faster and painless death to Nikolai.

“There is no hope for me now,” Nikolai said. “Just palliative care, they call it. I ask them to let me go faster, but no. It is not allowed. And my body is fighting to stay when my mind want to go.” His smile brought more tears to her eyes. “It will be kindness to me and gift to my friend. No burden on your soul, angel. No guilt for you. Kindness. Kindness.”

Kazimir watched the conversation from the doorway and when it was over, he went back into the living room as Kerry shut the bedroom door quietly. For a few moments she crouched in the hallway, trying to stop herself from crying, but the swell of grief and guilt and the pressure of so many memories that had been trapped behind the dam she’d built inside herself was too strong. She buried her face in her hands and wept as quietly as she could, not wanting this choice, this life, this dreadful crossroads where none of the choices  led to peace. If she saved Kazimir and reconciled herself to euthanizing Nikolai, she would still have to lie to Flint, betraying the man who’d saved her. But then again, said a tiny voice at the back of her mind, hasn’t he already betrayed you by asking you to kill again?

And then, like before, it all just . . . stopped. She felt nothing. She stood, wiped her face, blew her nose on a tissue she’d stuffed into the anorak pocket days before, and went into the living room.

“What if the people watching the flats saw you bring him in?”

Kazimir looked up from the armchair. “He come by taxi when I at work and neighbour in flat below let him in. Your people probably think he is relative of hers. Nothing to link us.”

“Can you leave without anyone finding out you’re still alive?”

He gave her a weary look. “I have multiple identities, disguises, and money in many currencies.”

“You’ve thought of everything, haven’t you?”

“I am good at my job,” he said sadly. “So, have you made decision?”

“You have to promise to leave the UK. Tonight. And not kill any of the people involved in this arms deal, or in the government or royal family. Otherwise the ruse with Nikolai is useless because Flint will know it’s you.”

He nodded. “I protect you as you protect me.”

“Let’s do it then.”

Kazimir dressed Nikolai in some of his own clothes, even putting false eyebrows and a toupee on Nikolai’s bald head to mimic his own hairstyle, and then carried him into the living room as Kerry stood in the corner and watched silently. The two friends talked to each other in their own language, softly, with occasional chuckles. She imagined they were reminiscing, judging by the open affection between the two of them.

She took the opportunity to examine the differences between the two men. They were a similar height, but Nikolai was frail while Kazimir was still solidly built. Another jumper was added to pad him out, like preparing for a bizarre photo shoot, Nikolai wheezing throughout. Kazimir’s nose was bigger, but if they posed him . . .

Was this what her father did before he asked her to murder those people? Did he stand back and look at them with the same critical eye and wonder about how to make sure the statues looked lifelike but not incriminating?

She swallowed down a bubble of bile and stared down at her shoes instead. Flint and his people would not look at the statue with the same critical eye as she was.

“I am ready,” Nikolai finally said to her.

She went over to him. “Are you absolutely sure?”

“Yes.”

“It will be very quick. I don’t think it will hurt.”

“I already hurt. Please. It is time.”

He shook hands with Kazimir, who murmured something in his ear as he let go. Whatever it was made Nikolai throw his head back and belly laugh and she touched his hand in that moment of pure joy on his face, looking away as soon as she felt contact. The laughter was cut off so abruptly that the last echoes of it rang off the glass cabinet behind him.

Kazimir gasped and said something in Russian and then she was running, out the door to the apartment, down the stairs to burst out of the building and vomit in the gutter outside.

 

 

Epilogue

 

Three weeks later, Kerry—aka Stonemaiden, the newest member of the Puissant Order of the Silver Helix—lay on her stomach on the grass in her garden and watched a worm crawl across her palm. She clenched her teeth, fighting to keep control of her excitement as the creature expanded and contracted itself across her skin to the other side.

The TV was on in the living room behind her, the familiar sound of the lunchtime news headlines music barely making an impression as she grinned at her progress.

“. . . continue for one of the world’s largest arms manufacturers.” Her attention focused on the newsreader when she heard those words. “Share values have plummeted following reports of a severe metal fatigue problem in several shipments,” the male newsreader said. “The company denies responsibility, saying they have proof that the shipments left their factories in perfect working order. In other news . . .”

She rolled over onto her back and laughed. Mysterious severe metal fatigue? She imagined crates of guns being opened only to reveal well-packaged dust. “Good luck, Kazimir.”

 

“Hearts of Stone” copyright © 2022 by Emma Newman
Art copyright © 2022 by Micah Epstein



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