Mai Fisher turned to her husband and said, "Oh, yes, the Neanderthal approach really works."
"What else could I do? Tell her we're spies?"
"I think she's figured that out."
He studied her face, capable of reading so much. "Surely you don't want to start answering her questions? If you do, you'll have to tell her you were shot that time she found you. After that, you know what the next question would be."
Mai could read him, too. "She'd want to know if you or I had ever shot anyone."
"Precisely why I opted for the Neanderthal approach."
"We're well past the time where she accepts the first thing we can think of to tell her. She's smart, too smart for her own good right now. She's spotted our guns. How long before she sees through the whole subterfuge?"
"A subterfuge which, for spies, we have haven't done a good job of maintaining."
"Obviously we've been complacent, and just as obviously, Olga hasn't been circumspect."
Alexei shrugged and gave her a smile. "Maybe Olga thinks she's still recruiting for the KGB."
"I'm sure Olga has only told her what's necessary for her personal security."
Mai looked away, thinking, considering, but what she said surprised him. "If we tell her she can't talk about this, she won't."
"I don't want to put her in that situation. Look, I understand the older she gets, the likelihood she picks up on more of this is high, and that means the possibility of her becoming a target grows as well. And Olga isn't getting any younger. In fact, she's three years older than I."
"I didn't notice your age about a half hour ago."
"Much can be achieved in skillful hands."
"Yes, well, that aside, she isn't going to let this go."
His face became an inflexible mask. "We are not tell my granddaughter anything about what we really do. That's final."
Much like his granddaughter, he turned on his heel and strode back into the office, locking the door behind him. She could excuse Natalia for walking off in a huff. You expected that of a teenager. The same behavior from a man in his fifties wasn't. Which to deal with first? She drained her cranberry juice, wished it were whiskey, and headed upstairs.
"I'm on the computer," came the muffled reply when Mai knocked on Natalia's door. Mai rapped harder then could almost hear the pained sigh from the other side. The door opened, and Natalia moved to block the doorway.
"May I come in?" Mai asked.
"If I say no, you'll, like, remind me this is your house."
"That was uncalled for."
"I don't want you to come in if you're just going to tell me more lies."
"Even more uncalled for."
"Well, I don't want to be lied to."
"I'm not going to lie to you."
Natalia's eyes narrowed as she studied Mai. "If you're what I think you are, you could lie to me, and I'd never know it, right?"
"Yes, but I'm not going to lie to you."
Natalia glanced over Mai's shoulder. "You're up here by yourself, which means Popi doesn't agree with you."
"Popi doesn't know, yet, that I'm up here."
The girl considered for a few moment, her face still showing skepticism, but she stepped back to let Mai enter. Natalia went back to her desk, shut off the computer, then sat down and looked up at Mai.
Mai closed the door—no need to broadcast to Alexei what she was doing. She walked to the bed and sat down, noting the chaos of books, clothes, and stuffed animals around her. She thought about chiding then decided not to.
In a gesture reminiscent of her grandfather, Natalia crossed her arms. "All right, I'm listening."
"The time you found me bleeding in the bathroom?" Natalia nodded. "Your grandfather was changing the bandage because I'd been shot."
The girl's eyes widened. Her arms fell to her sides as she leaned forward. "Someone shot you? Like, with a gun?"
"Well, it wasn't a peashooter."
"He didn't want me to turn him in to the authorities, so he shot me."
"Did the police get him?"
Mai phrased the reply with care. "Yes, the police took him away." In a body bag, where I put him. "The time that Popi was hurt in Oklahoma City and you came to the hospital—we were there because we were trying to stop the man who bombed the building."
Natalia's mouth gaped. "You know that guy?"
"I can't tell you any more about it, but, yes, I do."
"How did you know he was going to blow up that building?"
"I made friends with him, without telling him who I really was. Because we were friends, he told me things."
"But you couldn't stop him."
A wave of bad memories and disappointment washed over her. "No, I couldn't. I tried, but sometimes a person can believe in something so much, something wrong even, that can be stronger than friendship."
Mai watched as Natalia's discomfort grew. It was one thing to want to know something and another to have the harsh truth given to you.
"I don't think I want you to tell me anymore," Natalia said.
"Too late. You're the one who started this, and I've never let you back out on something you've started."
"I'm afraid…" She stopped and gnawed her lower lip.
"You're afraid that Popi and I might turn out to be different from what you've known all your life." Natalia nodded. "Well, we're not. We're the same as we've always been. We try to stop people from doing bad things. At the same time we love you as much or more than we always have. That will never change, no matter what we do in our work."
"So, why do you do it?"
"This may sound hokey to you, but we do it to make the world a better place."
Mai watched as Natalia's wheels turned, and some concern rose. Natalia could be as manipulative as any teenager, and Mai could envision Natalia's holding this knowledge over her and Alexei's heads at the next adolescent uprising.
"All right," Mai said. "I've trusted you with this for the very reason I know I can trust you." Mai wasn't above being manipulative herself—that skill was bread and butter in her profession. "You must understand how important it is that this remains between you and me. You're smart enough to figure out why."
Natalia nodded but didn't speak.
"And Popi will be upset you and I talked about this. I'm not asking you to be dishonest with him. If you think about this for a while and decide you have other questions, I'll be happy to try and answer them. Deal?"
Natalia's reply was soft but sincere. "Deal."
"All right, then, when's this Career Day?"
"Next Wednesday at 10."
"I'll be there." Mai gave her a conspiratorial smile. "I'll even come in a limo if you think that will put the point across."
"God, no! That would be, like, totally embarrassing." She paused, thoughtful again. "But you can talk about your airplane."
"That part's easy. Would it be less embarrassing if I had the pilots do a flyover?" The girl's eyes gleamed at that prospect, and Mai was amused at the vagaries of teenagers. "Well, then, I hope my willingness to confide in you was helpful. However, you hurt Popi's feelings when you accused us of lying to you."
"I know. I'm sorry, and, thanks, I guess."
Mai smiled and stood, looking down into a face no longer a girl's, but a woman's. How much had the knowledge she just received contributed to that? Mai brushed Natalia's cheek with her fingers then turned to go.
When Mai reached the doorway, Natalia called to her. "Mummy?"
Surprised because Natalia hadn't called her that in a long time, Mai turned, her hand on the doorknob.
"I have one more question, then I won't ask anymore." Mai watched as she formed the question, and she anticipated what it would be. "Mummy, have you or Popi ever killed anyone?"
Knowing silence would answer the question, Mai closed the door and shut Natalia away with the knowledge she had sought.
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