Issue 139, Summer 1996
The Double Agent
It was going to snow and then it didn’t snow.
He loved her like a dying man’s last cigarette.
It was cold where she was going and she was
susceptible to chills. She felt in her pocket
for her pills. She was out of breath
by the time she reached the top of the stairs.
The man waiting for her had been waiting for an hour.
“I’m sorry,” she said. The man laughed.
He had all the time in the world.
The kid swore under his breath.
He was young, quick, and his head was on fire.
He was going to do something great,
he didn’t know what, only that it would be important.
He was born for it. His parents would love him,
and then they would give him back his childhood.
The dog was planning his next betrayal.
It was, he reasoned, in the nature of dogs
to betray their bitches. The men at the bar
were wearing dark suits and ties as thin
as the excuses given by an unfaithful mate
to her homicidal husband on the phone.
She ordered a manhattan for her and a martini for him.
He smiled. He hadn’t expected to be working
with someone so—so charming, he said
kissing her hand.
The dog was dead. That was the message.
She had the look of a woman who likes
being looked at. “How could you
do it?” she gasped. The kid paused
at the door. “It was easy.”
The man reading the paper in the hotel lobby
heard every word. There was a short silence.
Suddenly he put the paper down.
“I am the stranger of whom you speak,” he said
in the formal English of a Spaniard
in a Hemingway novel. That was the tip-off.
“Enlighten me, Mr. Lane, if that is indeed your name.
Why didn’t you leave at once when you could?”
“Loyalty,” he replied with sarcasm so thick
you could be sure he was carrying a false passport.
In that second, he had to make up his mind:
was he bluffing, or would he pull the trigger?
“Three men have been killed for those papers.”
He sounded indignant. She looked bored.
She had heard it too many times before.
But she had never become used to the sameness
of hotel rooms in Alpine villages visited
in childhood dreams. She dreamed she was invisible
and could watch everyone live their normal lives,
When they murdered his mistress,
they made sure he was watching.
He could see it from the balcony:
freedom; there it was, across the river,
in the brown haze of dusk:
a row of dead birches like the bars of a gate
with blue water and green hills behind it.
Tonight he would go. What was the signal?
Was it worth it? You din’t ask yourself.
You just grabbed your case and went.
You didn’t even know the date, the month
and year, until you got there. Afterwards,
if you were lucky, there would be time
to remember. Well, he would have to do
the remembering for both of them. And once
a year, in a hotel room in a nondescript town,
he would take out her photograph,
look at it, and put it carefully away.