I loosened my tie and stretched, half-covering a yawn as I booted up the desktop computer. I sat down, waiting for the home screen to come up and tried not to think about what Becca had worn to bed. I had a call I didn’t want to take with a raging hard on and it was difficult enough to drag my thoughts away from her without adding to them.
Lost in thought, I jumped when the door to the office creaked open. Automatically, I whipped my head around, shrinking the window on the screen down with a quick click. My mother peered in from the hall. The pink roses on her quilted robe and slippers matched perfectly. Her curlers were in perfect rows and she was holding a baseball bat.
“Vanya,” she hissed, dropping the bat as soon as she saw it was me, clutching at her heart. She used the pet name she had used for me since I was a kid, even though I’m six foot three now, and only three years off forty. Hardly her little boy any longer. “What you are doing here? It is middle of night.”
“I know Mama. I didn’t mean to wake you.” I’d hoped I wouldn’t. Used to be I could come and go in the small hours without her knowing a thing, but lately her medication hadn’t been doing what it used to. She didn’t have to tell me that she’d been sleeping badly. I could see the shadows in her face.
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes, Mama. Go back to bed. I have some work to do. I won’t be long.”
“You work too hard, my Vanya. Look, you go gray. How you make time to find wife if always working?”
I shook my head. “I don’t need a wife to look after me, Mama.” For the first time, my standard answer felt shaky. A wife would be someone else to look after. Someone else to bring into the dangers of the world I inhabited. I didn’t want to do that. But the thought of Becca by my side swam into my head, worming in deep. She was the kind of woman who could hold her own. She wouldn’t simper or crumple under the weight of it all. I hadn’t felt as though I was missing something until I saw her again.
Mama wanted to see me settled down and to hold her grandchildren in her arms. And I wanted Becca’s children to be mine. Maybe now was the right time after all.
The thought shook me.
It wasn’t a new conversation. We’d gone over variations of it for years. No one I’d met in all my time in this country had come close to persuading me to change my mind about it and I didn’t plan to hitch myself to a woman I had no respect for, even to make my mother a grandmother before her health caught up with her.
But all of my objections seemed hollow and false when I thought about Becca. Not having her, or letting someone else claim her instead of me was so unthinkable that the computer mouse creaked beneath my white-knuckled grip and I had to consciously release it.
Mama’s hand settled on my shoulder and I picked up a hint of her rose-scented talc as she leaned in and pressed a kiss against my ear.
“You stay tonight. I make up couch.”
“Hush. I go to bed right after. Good night, Vanya.”
“Good night Mama.” There was no arguing with her when she’d made up her mind. I guess that was something we had in common.
I waited a few minutes after she closed the door behind her, listening to her bustle about in the living room, pulling out extra blankets. When I heard her bedroom door click closed again, I logged into Skype and waited for the call to come through.
End to end encryption meant that neither of us had to worry about what was said. No one could trace the content of the call. I was best placed to understand how that impacted policing. From both sides. Skype was a very useful thing indeed.
The picture flickered in, showing the inside of an apartment that could be anywhere. But I knew it was Moscow. This little screen was the largest window I’d had to see the Motherland in fifteen years. And as always, there was Yakov Ivanovich Timoshenko’s ugly, wrinkled face taking up most of the screen.
“Danilych.” His smile twitched. He used my informal patronymic, a subtle reminder that he had no need to use my full name and he could act as though we were the best of friends. He was too powerful to argue with, and he liked the personal touch with his delegates abroad.
Seated on the couch behind him, I can see the man who’s been calling a lot of the real shots on the ground, since Yakov had become too old to travel. Valentin Dmitryevich Rozkhov is the stern, cool man to keep an eye on.