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Slope [short story]

By thatwasnotveryravenofyou

Things turn bad in Strasbourg.

 

To be entirely specific—things turn into a full-blown clusterfuck involving a bullet-riddled museum, one turncoat antiquities dealer, and a very valuable renaissance spoon in Strasbourg.


It is not his most successful job, all things considered.


They have to wait it out somewhere, and she has a cabin in Wengen, so that’s that.


Wengen, if you haven’t heard of it (and no one has, really), is a smudge of a town on the edge of the Alps, so high and hedged in snow that you can’t even get a car into the place. This is perfect for someone in need of a hideaway, but not so much a getaway. Since they are seeking the first and hope to avoid the second—Wengen it is.


“Don’t touch anything,” she says, hauling their bags, both thrown over the bony wing of one shoulder, into the cabin.


A bullet swiped him in Strasbourg —not enough to fuss over, but enough that he’s out of the bag carrying business for now. He’s never been injured on a job before, but that’s just the way his luck seems to be headed. Though, to be fair, the Germans are terribly good shots.


“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he says, pocketing a dusty Swiss coin from the table next to him. He could never resist the cheap thrill of a minor rebellion.


They aren’t friends, him and her. They don’t even particularly like one another. But they’ve worked three back-to-back jobs together and are each the best at what they do, which has led to a certain kind of respect. And, as this mutual going-to-ground indicates, a trust. It should be enough to get through one winter.


And Wengen, as it happens, is stunningly pretty.


He looks out the window—at the exquisite, unending white of it—and thinks, at least there is that.




***




He can’t cook, is the thing.


“Can you do anything helpful here?” she asks in a flat tone.


“I can be wonderful company,” he says. 


She is always smoking these terrible little cigarettes she rolls herself. She pulls one out then, as though it is a trial to exchange these two sentences with him.


“Cut wood,” she says, not a request.


He does.


It’s dreadful, but he does.




***




The reason why he got involved in the spoon heist in the first place is because he is a forger.


He forged the team’s passports and identification, he forged the documentation needed to enter the museum and to examine the spoon, and he himself was a forgery—he played the professor that was supposedly doing said examination.


Forgery is an art more than a science; he’d measure it out as one-third presentation, one-third precision, and one-third blind bloody luck.


“I ended up with the spoon. Did I mention that?” he says to her when they’re sitting on the slanted floor, picking through what little equipment they have.


Her head snaps up.


“You have the fucking spoon? Ja pierdolę, you fucking skurwysynu—”


West discovered very early in their working relationship that when Anka started in on someone using her native tongue, she could be exceptionally scary.


“It’s not as though we can do anything with it,” he says, allowing himself a wistful look out the window. “If we tried to sell it now, they’d trace it straight back to Strasbourg, which means straight back to us, and we—”


Jebać to,” she spits, standing up and kicking a box on her way out of the room.


He shrugs to no one in particular.




***




West asks if he can draw her. And not for any of the usual reasons he asks to draw a woman—those being seduction, professional manipulation, or the chance at a well-paid portrait. He asks because she is the most interesting thing in the cabin.


He tells her so. She frowns, but takes a seat in the armchair opposite him.


“Let’s see if you’re as shit at this as you are at the cooking,” she says, swinging her legs over one side, her fingers already rolling a new cigarette against her thigh.


He sketches the outline of her, noting for the first time just how slight she is. Not just short and not just skinny, but small everywhere—narrow nose, tiny fingernails, reed-thin wrists. ‘Delicate’ is not a word he’d have ever thought could describe her, having once watched her shoot a man at point-blank range and then use the still-hot tip of the gun to scratch her ass.


But she is. Delicate, that is.


He drafts her tattoos next. There are too many to count, but he gets them all, or at least all the ones he can see. She is not modest—she walks around naked or half-naked whenever it suits her. Right now she’s wearing one of her ancient t-shirts that appears riddled with bullet holes and a pair of underpants that looks meant for a lumberjack.

He’s noticed her scars before—it’s hard not to, considering their number. And he can see now that several of the tattoos are actually just covering scars, the ink fitting against the rise of her skin in exactly the right way to hide it.


Camouflage, he notes. Very clever. 


He’s sure some of the scars are from a job (a few look suspiciously like healed bullet holes), but there are too many to be just that. Far too many.


When he draws her that night, he decides to leave them out. 




***




Wengen is perfect because, in winter, everyone is a tourist.


It is a sea of the unfamiliar, of people from everywhere who don’t know one another, and that means one Polish woman (no matter how fierce her walk or ice-white her hair) and one British man (no matter how excessively handsome he may be) can move about unnoticed in the small ski town.


This is why he feels at ease going out in search of something for dinner so that Anka doesn’t have to cook for them yet again.


When he brings it back—two orders of veal and mushrooms in a cream sauce—he indulges in a small flare of self-congratulation because, as he sits the plates on the sloping table, Anka smiles.


He brings dinner more often, after that.




***




He catches her looking at the drawing two weeks later.


She stares at it, hard and unblinking, as though it is staring back.


After a ripple of hesitation, she touches her fingers to the paper. He watches her trace the image of her left wrist, sees her pet the part of it that, in real life, has a jagged scar bisecting the blue of her veins.


She picks it up, folds it once, and puts it into her bag. 




***




There is something about living on an incline. Things shake out.


There are very literal things—pens that roll away, books that tip themselves off shelves—and the far less tangible, like an idea that falls right out of him at 3 A.M.


He scrambles up from his tiny bed and out of his tiny room (which he is certain was meant to be a closet) and digs through a bag in the hallway until he finds it.


The spoon—the Strasbourg spoon, the unsellable fucking


“We can turn it into a fork!” he bursts in and tells her, bouncing on the balls of his feet.


“What the fuck are you talking about?” she says to him, sleepy and squinting against the brightness of his enthusiasm.


“Renaissance forks are far more valuable than renaissance spoons—they are rarer. And with the right equipment, I can turn the spoon into a fork.”


She lights a cigarette and slumps against the pillows.


“It’s a perfect counterfeit. Every testable marker would show it as authentic because it is, in fact, a renaissance utensil. And the people trying to kill us for the whole bloody Strasbourg mess aren’t looking for a fork.


“Go back to bed,” is all she says.


But he can see the telling little turn to her lips, the almost-smile that says, do it then, if you’re so sure you can.





***




The sex, when it happens, is a complete surprise.


He is in the living room on the secure line she set up for them, talking equipment over with Virgil.


West is careful not to be specific—only Anka knows about the intended spoon-to-fork transfiguration, and he means to keep it that way—but he needs to get supplies from someone and Virgil is equal parts trustworthy, mechanically knowledgeable, and a little dim. In other words, perfect.


While he is on the line, Anka crosses the living room stark naked. This is not noteworthy in and of itself, as he’s seen her do it dozens of times after exiting the shower. What catches his attention is that she walks into his room instead of her own.


“Virgil—going to need to ring you back,” he says, letting the phone slide from his fingers. 


He follows the damp trail of her footsteps, the little drop drop drop across the carpet from the ends of her hair.


He stands in the doorway—which, considering the size of his room, means standing straight in the middle of it—and watches her lean backwards onto the bed.


“I’m not expecting much,” she says, sounding already bored by the sex they haven’t had. And bugger all if that isn’t a challenge he has no hope of resisting.


It turns out she was right to be skeptical—it is terrible, the first time. The bed is too small, the walls are too close, and having to adjust for the incline really does not help matters. And he thinks, well, that’s that.


But two nights later she does it again. And this time he knows the tilt of the room, and the size of the bed, and the shape of the walls, and the shape of her, and everything sinks into place.


He realizes the most important bit just before she settles on top of him, which is that they’re stowed away in a cabin over a mile of snow, and there is no reason, none at all, not to take their time.  


He kisses her thigh and looks up the long pale line of her, at her eyes wide open in the dark, and thinks, slow.


She swears in Polish until she runs out of breath. He counts it as a personal accomplishment.




***




“The problem is that I need to find precisely the right grooving tool to force the prongs to separate without leaving any indentation in the—”


“Come here and be quiet,” she says, pulling him down against the lumpy mattress. She closes her eyes.




***




He asks her, much later, about the scars.


She doesn’t scream in Polish; she doesn’t hit him with the newspaper; she doesn’t storm out of the room; she doesn’t fall silent; she doesn’t flinch; she doesn’t scowl. These are the things he was preparing himself for, at the asking of it.


What she does is laugh.


“You ask the stupidest questions,” she says, and stubs out her cigarette.


She takes a walk later that day and comes back almost blue from the frost. When he tries to help her out of her frozen clothes, she elbows him in the solar plexus. They don’t talk about it.




***




With Virgil’s equipment, and a good bit of tinkering, he completes the forge.


The spoon—or fork, rather—is a flawless thing.


He sells it for a startling amount, more than he’s made on any job. When the wire comes through, he pours the entire case of Euros out into the cabin, letting the stacks upon stacks upon stacks of it slide down the floorboards all the way to the wall.


“Impressed?” he asks.


“You still can’t cook,” she says, cleaning her gun, not bothering to look up.




***




“BUGGER BUGGER BUGGER FUCK BUGGER BLOODY HELL BUGGER ALL—”


He hops into the cabin on one foot. The other is bent behind him, drenching the snow red. 


“What the fuck are you—“


She comes around the corner, spots the blood. 


“Stop moving,” she says, in a voice so soft he doesn’t recognize it. She ducks under his arm, helping him bear his weight as he walks. “Here,” she says, guiding him down the tilt and toward a chair.


She kneels and peels up his pant leg, hissing through her teeth when she sees it.


“What did you do to yourself?”


“Oh, that is so, so very like you, to assume that I would just go around gashing myself in the leg for a bloody laugh. Do you really think I’m so much of a fucking idiot that I saunter about all day in an attempt to get—”


She isn’t listening. She is getting a basin of hot water, the first aid kit from the closet, a set of towels from the low shelf.


He watches her, fascinated by the cool, neat precision of her movements. He’s seen her like this before, on a job, with her head bent over a task, but it’s strange to watch her work over him in the same way—like he is a broken switchboard, an impossible line of code.


“This will hurt,” she says, about to clean the gash. He can’t help the sound that scrapes up his throat at the bright white break of pain.


“It’s okay, you’re okay,” she says, in that soft voice again, wrapping the bandage. “Talk to me, tell me how this—”


“Someone fucking stabbed me with their fucking ski pole!”


Anka is at his feet, listening to him bark and sulk and fuss over how it happened, and that’s when he notices it—


Her head is resting against his thigh, her arm is cradling his hip, and she is smiling. It’s wide and soft and almost silly.

She’s not quite laughing, but it’s so close a thing that West can feel it in his skin, like how some people can feel rain in their knees, just before it hits.


It’s so gorgeous—that almost laugh, lingering there—that he counts it worth all the blood and indignity. 




***




“Thank you,” he says the next morning, his bad foot propped up on a pillow at the end of his bed.


“It was easy,” she says. “I know about things like that.” Her eyes are dark and glassy in the light. They are someplace else.


West would give all the money he has ever touched, down to the last coin, to know where.




***




Eventually the smoke clears, and the snow thaws, and they decide it’s safe to return to their lives, such as they are.


“I think I’ll miss it,” he says. He means Wengen, or thinks he does.


“Come back then,” she says absently, lifting her bag and throwing it across herself.  


Anka walks off without any goodbyes, and West takes a minute before his own exit to thumb one of her stubbed out cigarettes, right at the place where mouth meets paper.


Maybe I will, he thinks.





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Slope [short story]

Created: Feb 08, 2013

Tags: winter, heist, spies, spoons, snow, prose, story, switzerland

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