Don’t look. Don’t nod. Just ignore me. Drink your coffee.

We’re being watched. Don’t look up. Probably by your people. Certainly by mine. Probably other people’s people. This would be easier if we knew how many sides there are. Okay, so I asked you not to look up, but let’s not get into an argument about it.

Actually, maybe we should just not talk for a little bit.

Open the napkin and decrypt what is written there using this one-time pad I prepared using a proprietary algorithm. Actually, forget it, it just says I love you.

Don’t get up because I did ask some people to kill you in that event, if you’re not dead already from the poison. In the coffee. I’m kidding. Some kinds of poison have no taste. Which is something I learned from you. Without at first realizing it.

But now that we’re on the subject, let’s talk about us. When I was posted to our embassy here, I loved it. The Embassy building faced a plaza where Napoleon had stood, and Proust and Patton, although not together. My orders were to subvert somebody who had been posted to your embassy here, who could not possibly be an enemy spy.

Standard operating procedure is you find somebody who’s pissed off or bitter or just basically in total despair and looking for a way out of their lives, not that I would know anybody like that. But you look for one in the bars or embassy receptions or intellectual meeting places, whatever those are. It’s just in the manual.

And I did try. I edged up to people who looked bored or like they didn’t want to be there, who thought everyone else there was stupid or who laughed at the same idiotic dignitaries I laughed at. Operational technique is to edge, to stand near them with a drink in your hand and strike up a conversation, which isn’t as easy as it sounds, like striking a match, say, or an innocent bystander. Repeated attempts were made, with repeated drinks of various kinds throughout repeated evenings, with less and less success.

In the end it came down to the dwindling number of people who were willing to sit next to me at official functions. But then you did, and you smoked at the table, and changed your mind about your entrée, and sat down before the Duchess did. I was, at once, a lost man.

We talked about the things we both cared about passionately, literature and pre-war paintings. We saw things the same way, plays and music we liked and my country’s rate of airplane production and the size of our industrial base. I know! But what I thought is, why shouldn’t we talk about what we both care about?

You lose track of what’s normal. Sure, later there was a lot of time to think it over. What I should have said, shouldn’t have said, or worn, or unlocked, or planted, recorded, unencrypted, carried across a heavily monitored border, or swallowed.

But – and my therapist points this out – you could have been a little more careful. For your information, nobody just happens to carry that much piano wire around. And then in the hall of mirrors, when you said you were just shooting at my reflection, you were not. And then again on the cliff, which I thought was going to be romantic. That was when I had an epiphany about whether I really was all that good at relationships. At least no one can say those hang gliding lessons were a waste.

I knew. I want to tell you that I knew. I think I did know. We dated, we slept side by side, and I knew. I realize now I didn’t care. I didn’t want someone I could deceive. I can lie to anybody. I wanted a fair fight. I wanted gunplay, broken glass, oil slicks on the road. Someone who could take a punch, and crack a safe.

Speaking of which, they say the treaty is being revised, that your vizier and my secretary of state are figuring this mess out in a neutral third country. Or someone who looks very like the secretary of state. So tomorrow we might be on the same side. Unless you’re a triple agent, in which case we already were on the same side. If I have that correct.

Which brings me to the business. Which is what this is, I don’t just wear a tuxedo all the time. So when you leave, take the briefcase by your left foot. The codes are inside, so do what you want with them. Take this Australian passport. Take this decoder ring. Take this laptop. Take this combination magnifying glass and pen and compass. Take this sniper rifle. Take these keys to a studio apartment in Brussels. Take this parachute, take this sandwich. Take this sniper rifle. Take this prophylactic. Take this backpack nuclear device.

And when you leave please don’t say anything, don’t look to either side. And if I see you again, just act like a stranger, because I just realized I like that. We’ll meet at some reception and talk about what the spies talk about. Eagles landing, owls at midnight, and the clear, unseasonably cool weather.

And take this gas-powered grappling gun. I happen to know you’ll need it.


Photograph by RestrictedData

Orange Prize for Fiction