"Mrs Hughes," a man says from behind her.
Vivian turns. The sharp November wind threatens her scarf-wrapped hair and her heavy wool coat flaps at the hem, but her face is cool and unruffled. She smoothes down her buttoned front and holds out a gloved hand to her CIA liaison, a short grey bureaucrat in a long grey coat with horn-rimmed glasses perched high on his nose, and she doesn't smile when she says, "It's a pleasure"; the arch of her eyebrows says plainly enough it isn't. He shakes her hand briefly and then gestures to the bench to the side of the walkway. She follows him, heels splashing in last night's rain where it puddles on the concrete.
They sit. Vivian settles her scarf, adjusting the hummingbird brooch that holds it in place. "That's pretty," the man says politely.
"It was my mother-in-law's," she tells him, her voice a deceptively smooth sing-song. "An heirloom."
He nods and begins: "I was sorry to hear of your husband's death—"
"Don't be," Vivian says. She smiles now, showing a little bit of teeth. "It was long enough ago that I've gotten used to the idea. And if I'm not gravely mistaken you didn't know him to be truly sorry beyond mere sycophancy, did you, Mister…?"
He falters. "Oh—I think it's best if we keep this impersonal."
She gives him a sideways look as if expecting the answer. "I thought so," she says, her words harder now, more level. She squints up at the sky, a blinding overcast canvas of white. "And I think a minimum of intrusion on both our parts will make this go much smoother, don't you?"
He clears his throat and she looks back down at him, face politely neutral. "Fair enough," he says begrudgingly. "What have your previous contacts said about our interest in you?"
Vivian folds her hands in her lap and considers. "That I have a certain set of skills, to phrase it delicately, that the CIA could utilise in its—" She licks her lips. "Its negotiations with the Soviets."
"That's putting it very delicately, yes," he says. He leans forward. "'Negotiation' isn't quite the word I'd use for what we need you for, Mrs Hughes. It's going to be a bit messier than that. Do you understand me?"
"Perfectly," she says. There had been a cross of worry between her brows as he speaks, but now she smoothes it back away into blankness. "I should clarify for you, though, that I don't have any kind of training in this field. Or even any formal experience."
"I know. And if we didn't need your skills very badly, I wouldn't even be asking this of you," he says. He sighs and settles back against the bench, watching a flock of birds take off from the dark sluggish lake. "It's not that we don't understand the theory, even if we've had to educate ourselves off the books; we have some operatives who are very well-versed in the sort of sphere in which you operate. But none with your natural talents. And so we find ourselves turning to civilians to take on the roles the KGB has already filled with groomed operatives."
"And you're not happy about it," she guesses.
"Not even remotely," he agrees. "But needs must, Mrs Hughes."
"Well, since we're speaking of 'remotely'," she says, "I'll also let you know that I won't be able to do what you want from me here. Whatever work you have in mind, I'll need a certain degree of proximity for it."
"Which is why we're flying you to Moscow tonight," he says, checking his watch. "This afternoon, rather."
She blinks at him, astonished. "Today?"
He smiles grimly. "You signed the releases, Mrs Hughes," he says. "You're ours to do with as we wish. Did you have some sort of pressing issue that you feel takes precedence over this operation? I wasn't aware that your time was so thoroughly engaged."
"No," she says. Indeed. "No, I'm—unengaged."
He makes a movement as if to pat her hand sympathetically; she turns outraged eyes on him, and he desists. "You'll be fine," he says. "Unless, of course, you're killed. Which is a distinct possibility, I'll warn you right now. We only want you for surveillance and intel-gathering right now, but once you're in the field the boundaries of function become, shall we say, ambiguous. We'll need you to do whatever you're called upon to do, without question."
"I understand," Vivian says. "Or I'm beginning to, anyway."
He watches her carefully. "And you're fine with it?"
She sketches a wave with one hand. "Oh—as you say, I signed the papers. And, as you've so carefully danced around the subject, now that my husband's gone what have I to lose?"
"Yes," he says. "I wouldn't have put it so bluntly, but yes."
He draws a photo out from up his sleeve. "This is who you'll be concentrating on for the time being," he says, passing it to her. The picture is dim and unfocused, seemingly taken from behind a lamppost, but she can see the subject clearly enough. Three people standing on a street corner in the snow, two men, one woman, all dressed for winter in boots and black coats, but only one of the men has his face turned to the camera. Dark eyes, fixed on the lens. Mouth twisting to smile knowingly. "He's codenamed Koschei. We haven't identified him beyond that yet; all we know is that he has a similar skill set to yours."
"Koschei?" Vivian says, wrinkling her nose, thinking back to her nursery tales as she looks into the man's eyes. "A bit melodramatic, isn't it?"
"Apparently not," he says soberly. She goes back to studying the photograph, telling herself the chill down her back is from the icy breeze and nothing more. "They told me you speak Russian?"
"Well enough," she says absently. She touches her gloved fingertips to the photo, memorising the planes of Koschei's face. "My nanny was from Novosibirsk, and I took languages in university: I'm a fast study. I've been brushing up."
"So long as it won't be a problem," the man says.
Vivian passes the photo back to him; he gestures for her to keep it, and she slips it into her coat. "It won't be," she says. "Is that everything?"
"For now," he says. "You'll be briefed in detail once you're on the plane. We'll have a driver at your home to pick you up in—say, two hours?"
She stands, arranging herself, patting her hair under the scarf. "How long am I packing for?"
"Indefinitely," he says, still sitting, holding her gaze.
She purses her lips, then smiles falsely and lifts one hand in his direction. "Well, goodbye, then, Mr Baxter," she says.
He takes it. "Good luck," he says. He shakes her hand, then releases it; she tucks it into her pocket. "I mean it. I hope it goes well. I don't think it will, but I hope for your sake that it does."
Vivian smiles again and walks away. She inhales and holds her breath: one, two, three—
"Wait!" he calls.
She turns back. His eyes are wide behind his glasses.
"I didn't tell you my name," Baxter says.
"I know," she says. She rocks back on her heel, tilting her head to the side, lifting one finger to tap her temple. "John Alfred Baxter. Born on the seventh of March, nineteen-eleven. Your father ran a dry goods store, and your mother died when you were three. You think your wife wants to leave you, and to be honest, you're probably right. You're not a pleasant person, Mr Baxter, and the next time you try to use my husband's death to emotionally manipulate me into doing dangerous and despicable things for your government, I'll look her up and tell her every one of the sins you have tucked away in the dark rotting corners of your head."
He opens his mouth, then closes it. Vivian turns again to walk away, but as she does Baxter calls— "You're still going to Moscow, aren't you?"
"Yes," Vivian says tiredly, not stopping or looking back. She curls her fist in her pocket, feeling the metal band of her wedding ring press against her skin beneath her glove as her shoes beat hollowly across the concrete. "I'm still going to Moscow."