Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Woman Who Cheated Death

The cruelest thing about the tumor, Valencia Stitch often thought during the long, hazy last days of her life, was that it had taken her sight, but not her memory. She would lie in her hospice bed, feeling the sheets rustle against her dry, paperlike skin, hearing nurses’ shoes squeaking past in the halls outside and the wind in the trees outside. And as she stared up at the ceiling with blank, useless eyes, she’d see the faces of all the men she’d worked with -- all the ones she’d sent to die.

As with most everything else, Valencia thought of the tumor through the framework of her former job. It had infiltrated her brain, making its way undetected past her body’s security services. It had settled in, acted the part, and then reached out to other, healthy, normal cells, and turned them. Brought them over to its side. And then they went out and did the same, feeding the tumor’s power, extending its reach.

It was how Valencia had, in the better years of her rapidly dwindling life, brought down countries. As countries went, she supposed, so could she.

The second cruelest thing about the tumor -- and Valencia was not a woman given to excesses of self-pity -- was that it would deny her the culmination of her life’s work. Her friends from London Circus still came by now and then, sweeping the room for bugs as they habitually did, and then sitting down to talk some shop with the dead woman. And so she knew that the Iron Curtain was rusting through; that a great sea change was beginning to swell beneath an entire continent, that all the work and all the years and all the blood would pay off, and consign those miserable Soviet bastards to history’s dustbin.

But not yet. A few months, at most. By which time the greedy little goblin in Valencia Stitch’s skull, and her lymphatic system now, and who knows where else the doctors hadn’t the heart to tell her, would have had its final way with her.

The kindest thing about the tumor, the guilty secret she nursed deep in her heart, was that it might take her back to her dear Roger. She saw his face now and then, too, floating up out of the perpetual dark to which she’d grown accustomed. For the first time in ages, it felt like, the thought of him was more comfort than pain.

She woke on the last afternoon of her life from a hazy, blurred morphine dream of playing solitaire alone at her desk back in the circus, with each card bearing a dead man’s face. She’d just matched up Michaelson, who’d died badly somewhere in a Stasi secret prison, with Godfrey, who was poisoned in Malta, when the dream dissolved and faded into sightlessness and the smell of crisp starched sheets and spring air.

At the chair by her bedside, someone shifted and cleared his throat.

“Do I know you, sir?” Valencia asked in a voice like rustling papers. She knew the answer already, and posed the question with all the formality she could muster.

“I’m afraid we haven’t had the pleasure,” the voice said. American, possibly with a trace of the Midwest about it. “But I’ve read a lot about you.”

If her mouth had ever been moist anymore, it might have gone dry.

“Have they sent you to kill me, then?” she asked. “Afraid I’ll dose myself halfway to Heaven on the morphine, and spill a few secrets?” Her guest chuckled softly.

“No, no,” he said. “I’m outside that little game entirely. I understand you were quite the organizer, though.”

“I had my moments,” Valencia replied, her lips pursing in some ghastly approximation of a smile. There were some things she was glad not to see, and her own reflection was one of them. “Kept my boys in line. Kept things neat and tidy and running smoothly.”

“I can appreciate those talents,” the guest said. “Actually, I was wondering if you’d like to come and work for me.”

“Please don’t say such things,” Valencia told him. “It rather hurts me when I laugh. Besides, unless you propose to pay me by the hour, I doubt you’d get the better of that offer.”

“Who’s joking?” the guest said softly. “Fifteen years now, you’ve been a queen in the biggest chess game in history. Kept track of pieces all across the board, in multiple countries and multiple languages. Moved your knights and bishops. Your rooks. Your pawns. You weren’t afraid to sacrifice a piece when you had to.”

No, Valencia thought. Not afraid.

“And you can offer me, what?” Valencia asked him. “Something grander still? I’m afraid I must decline. There’s a skeletal gentleman who’s already come round for the preliminaries, and he has a rather exclusive prior claim to my services.”

The guest laughed again. “Death? Death’s nothing. Not compared to what I’ve done, or what we’ll face, or what we have yet to do. Are you afraid of dying, Mrs. Stitch?”

“No,” Valencia said, as convincingly as she could. But her guest laughed again, knowingly.

“You’re lying,” he said. “Young woman like you, not even close to 40 yet. And beautiful. I saw the pictures -- before the chemo, I mean. Tell me again, truthfully. Tell me you’re not afraid of sliding into that long dark just yet.”

Valencia said nothing, sliding her dry alien tongue around a mouth that hardly felt hers anymore.

“Because I can assure you,” the guest said, “if you’re not afraid of what’s beyond the borders of this life, you should be.”
“Get out, damn you,” Valencia said. “Who are you, to taunt a sick woman with false promises and mockery? Are you suitably amused, you horrid little man? I’ve had hallucinations more personable.”

She heard the visitor stand up, heard his chair scrape on the linoleum tile. A hand, unusually soft and very cold, fell not unkindly upon her brow.

“My promises aren’t false,” the visitor said. “I need your skills, Mrs. Stitch. We have great work to do. Many difficult choices to make, and many lives depending on them. Take the job, and I’ll cure you. Right now. Right here.”

“I...” Valencia faltered. “I should like to speak to my doctor.”

“Now or never,” the guest said, softly, with the edge of a threat in his voice. “Tell me you’re not afraid. Tell me you want to die, and I’ll walk right out the door.”

“I don’t,” she said quickly, even before she knew it was true. “I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.”

“I didn’t think so,” the visitor said, and she heard the smile in his voice. She heard the rustling of his jacket. “Now, this is just a prototype, but I assure you, it’s been thoroughly tested.” She felt a point of cool metal rest against her brow, and against her will, her lower lip quivered, just once, with a spasm of sudden fear.

“It’s inoperable,” she said to the visitor. “The doctors have said, over and over. Quite impossible.”

“Impossible?” he laughed softly. “Impossible’s just an excuse. All I need is a little time.”

She felt the tip of the metal slowly grow warm, and then hot. A singing just beyond the range of hearing filled her skull.

“Let there be light,” she heard the visitor say distantly. The darkness rushed away from her, like a curtain lifted.

And Valencia Stitch died, and lived, all in the same moment.

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