Get 20% with code SPRING23 SHOP NOW>>
As the light fades, an icy wind rises. A southeasterly, racing out of the Gulf of Riga across the Baltic Sea and meeting the ship broadside, so that the containers groan and strain against their lashing rods. Every day, as we voyage eastward toward Russia, the temperature falls.
The container that Villanelle and I have shared for the last five days is a corrugated steel box the size of a prison cell. It’s a little over two and a half meters tall, contains a part-load of clothing bales, and sits atop a five- container stack on the starboard side of the ship. Inside, it’s as cold as death. The two of us live like rats, huddling together for warmth, nibbling at our diminishing stock of stale bread, cheese and chocolate, sipping our rationed water, and urinating into a plastic bucket. I’ve been constipated since the ship left port on the northeast coast of England, and Villanelle shits into a series of plastic bags bought from a pet shop, which she then neatly knots and stores.
At the forward end of the container there’s an emergency hatch, perhaps thirty centimeters by thirty, which can be unbolted from the inside. This admits a thin shaft of light and a freezing blast of salt air. Standing on the clothing bales, my eyes streaming, I watch the steady rise and fall of the horizon and the slow-motion leap of the bow wave, white against gray, until my face loses all feeling. When the wind drops, I’ll pour the piss-bucket out of the hatch. It’ll freeze as it runs down the container. I’ve asked Villanelle to throw her shit bags out too, but she’s worried that one might land on deck.
She’s thought of everything. Thermal vests and leggings, underwear, toilet paper, washing stuff, tampons, neoprene gloves, red-light torches, a commando knife, plasticuffs, 9mm ammunition for her Sig Sauer and my Glock, and a hefty roll of used U.S. dollars. We have no phones, laptops or credit cards. No identifying documents. Nothing to leave a trail. No one except Villanelle knows for certain that I’m alive, and Villanelle is officially dead herself. Her grave, marked with a small metal plaque provided by the Russian state and inscribed Оксана Воронцова, is in the Industrialny cemetery in Perm.
Two years ago I didn’t know that Villanelle, or Oxana Vorontsova, existed.
I was in charge of a small inter-Service liaison department at Thames House, MI5’s London headquarters, and life was, on balance, fine. Work was on the dull side: I had an MA in criminology and forensic psychology, and had hoped for a more challenging deployment with the Security Service. On the positive side I had a steady if unspectacular income, and my husband Niko was a kind and decent man whom I loved, and with whom I was hoping to start a family. There were worse things, I told myself, than routine, and if I spent every spare moment at the office building up a file of unattributed political assassinations, it was just a private thing. Just me keeping my hand in. A hobby, really.
In the course of this unofficial research I became convinced that several of these killings had been carried out by a woman, and almost certainly by the same woman. Normally, I would have kept this theory to myself. My role at MI5 was administrative, not investigative, and there would have been raised eyebrows and condescending smiles if I’d brought the subject up with my superiors. I’d have been regarded as a slow-lane liaison officer getting above herself. Then a Russian far-right political activist named Viktor Kedrin was shot dead at a London hotel, along with his three bodyguards. I was accused of failing to organize adequate protection for Kedrin, and fired.
This was bitterly unjust and everyone involved knew it. But we also knew that when the department fouled up as royally as this, and it didn’t get much worse than the assassination of a high-profile principal like Kedrin, someone had to take the fall. Ideally, someone senior enough to count, but not so senior that they couldn’t easily be replaced. Someone expendable. Someone like me.
Shortly after I’d cleared my desk and handed in my pass at Thames House, I was discreetly contacted by a long-serving MI6 officer named Richard Edwards who, unlike his counterparts north of the river, was prepared to listen to my ideas. Seconded to his off-the-books team, and tasked with finding Kedrin’s killer, I pursued Villanelle around the world. She proved a spectral and elusive quarry, always one flawless step ahead. All I could do was follow the blood trail. And, unwillingly, admire her grim artistry. She was bold, free from guilt or fear, and probably a little bored by the ease with which she evaded detection. Flattered to discover that I was pursuing her, Villanelle began to do the same to me. One night in Shanghai, she climbed up the outside of my hotel into my room and stole my bracelet as a trophy. To make amends, and for the sheer effrontery of it, she broke into my house in London in broad daylight, to leave me a different (and much more expensive) bracelet that she’d bought for me in Venice. These intrusions were as flirtatious as they were terrifying. Whispered reminders that she liked me, but could kill me at any time she chose.
Although I refused to admit it at the time, even to myself, this twisted courtship had its effect. Obsession is not immediate. It stalks you. It creeps up on you until it’s too late to escape it. When I first saw Villanelle in person it was by chance, and again it was in Shanghai. I was on a scooter, caught in traffic, and she was walking down the pavement toward me, dressed entirely in black, with her blond hair slicked back from her face. Our eyes met, and I knew it was her. Villanelle can be sweetness itself when she chooses, but that evening her gaze was as flat as a snake’s. She claims that she recognized me on that occasion, just as I recognized her, but I don’t believe her. She lies. She lies compulsively, all the time. Later that night she lured my colleague Simon Mortimer into an alleyway and hacked him to death with a meat cleaver. The savagery of the attack shocked seasoned investigators of the Shanghai homicide squad, who had seen their share of Triad killings and other horrors.
Our second meeting, on the hard shoulder of a motorway in England, was orchestrated with chilling brilliance. I was driving back to London from a Security Services interrogation center in Hampshire. My passenger was Dennis Cradle, a senior MI5 officer who, earlier that morning, had admitted to me that he was in the pay of the Twelve, the organization that employed Villanelle to do their killing. I’d tried to turn Cradle, to get him to inform on the Twelve in return for immunity, and he’d responded by trying to recruit me, which was pretty fucking cheeky, all things considered.
Twenty minutes into the journey, we were flagged down by a female police officer on a motorcycle. It was Villanelle, of course, but by the time I’d figured that out, it was too late. Villanelle told me that she’d missed me. Touched my hair, and talked about my “pretty eyes.” It was all rather romantic, in its way. Then she disabled my car and abducted Cradle, leaving me stranded beside the motorway. Cradle probably thought he was being rescued. In fact, Villanelle drove him to a secluded spot outside Weybridge, smashed the back of his skull with a blunt instrument — I’m guessing a police- issue baton — and dumped him in the River Wey.
Villanelle wasn’t ideal girlfriend material, but then I wasn’t looking for a girlfriend. I was married, for heaven’s sake. Happily married, to a man. And if sex with Niko had never been transcendent — no flaring comet-trails or exploding supernovae, no werewolf howls — I had no complaints. He was that rarest of beings, a genuinely good guy. He loved me when no one else gave me a second glance. He praised my hopeless cooking, was enchanted by my fashion-blindness, and regularly assured me, in the teeth of evidence to the contrary, that I was beautiful. In return, I treated him appallingly. I knew exactly how much I was going to hurt him, and I did it anyway.
It was the way Villanelle made me feel. For all my frozen horror at what she had done, I was awestruck. Her focus, her meticulousness, her ruthless purity of purpose. I’d been sleepwalking through life and suddenly there she was, my perfect adversary.
I would learn later that Villanelle had felt the same way. That while working as the Twelve’s star assassin had its professional and material rewards, she had begun to crave an excitement that routine political murders didn’t deliver. She had developed an appetite for danger. She wanted to lure a pursuer onto her trail, someone worthy of her mettle. She wanted to dance on the razor’s edge. She wanted me.
Niko loved me, and I’d always felt safe in his arms, but the games that Villanelle played were satanically addictive. It took Simon’s murder to awaken me to the boundless range of her psychopathy. I hated her after that, which was what she intended. She wanted to show me the worst of herself, to see if I’d back off. Of course I only came after her all the harder, which delighted her, but then Villanelle never drew any distinction between hate and desire, between pursuit and courtship, and in the end, neither did I.
When did I lose perspective? Was it in Venice, when I discovered that she’d been there a month earlier with another woman, a lover, and I found myself transfixed with jealousy? Or was it earlier, by the side of the motorway, when she told me that after climbing into my hotel room on that monsoon night in Shanghai, she’d sat and gazed at me as I slept? It doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is that when Villanelle asked me to come with her, to walk out of my life and leave behind everything and everyone I’d ever known, I did so without hesitation.
I knew, by then, that I’d been living a lie. That from the time I’d first been approached by Richard Edwards, I’d been brilliantly, artfully deceived. When Richard asked me to investigate Villanelle and the Twelve I flattered myself that he was impressed by my intuitive and deductive skills. In fact he’d been a fully paid‑up asset of the Twelve all along, and wanted to use me to test the organization’s security. It was a classic false flag operation, and by conducting it off the books, for reasons that made perfect sense to me at the time, he ensured that no one at MI6 got wind of it.
I had begun to suspect that I’d been used in this way, but it was Villanelle who finally confirmed it. She’s a psychopath and a habitual liar, but she was the only one who told me the truth. She showed me, dispassionately, just how easily I’d been manipulated. Listening to her was like watching an elaborate stage set being dismantled, and suddenly seeing ropes and pulleys and raw brickwork. She told me that she’d been given her next target, and that it was me. I’d discovered more than I was meant to. I wasn’t the Twelve’s dupe any longer, I was a liability.
The encounter, and its aftermath, was classic Villanelle. I’d just returned from a horrendous few days in Moscow, and when I got back to my flat I found her in the bath, washing her hair. A 9mm Sig Sauer was lying between the taps, and she was wearing latex gloves. I was pretty sure she meant to shoot me. Villanelle is coy about how many people she’s killed. She just says “normal amount,” but I’d guess that the figure is nineteen, maybe twenty victims.
We had to stage my death. Then we had to disappear.
So that’s what we did, and soon we were racing through the night on her Ducati motorcycle, my arms wrapped tightly around her, heading north. Villanelle didn’t really give me a choice, but then I didn’t want her to. I was ready to cut the ground from beneath me. I was ready to fly.