Conway woke with a start. He lay on his stomach, sweating, the white bed sheet tangled around him like a vine and sticking to his bare skin, his heart pumping with a frantic energy, as if it were mustering all of its strength to ward off a familiar and powerful enemy.
The window fan was on; cool air blew across his damp, fevered skin. Outside, the Texas sun had just started to rise, the stars still visible in the dark blue sky. Dull red and gold slivers of light glowed across the cream-colored bedroom walls of the condo. The clock on the nightstand read 4:30 a.m.
Going back to sleep was useless. He had to get up in another hour and a half. He rolled over onto his back and stared at the ceiling.
The specifics of the dream didn't bother him. Over the past five years, the shooting had visited him dozens of times during odd moments -- and always in his sleep, the rational part of his mind replayed the specific events of that day in a desperate attempt to glean some hidden truth that, once discovered, would somehow prevent him from future harm. Fairytale bullshit. Life, he knew, didn't work that way. Shit happens. What you did was bottle the incident, give it a label, shelve it away, and ignore it. His experience at St. Anthony's Group Home had taught him that.
What did bother him was the feeling the dream always left in its wake: an indescribable sensation of debilitating loneliness. The feeling was not new to him; it had been with him as long as he could remember, coming and going, varying in its intensity, and in his thirty-four years of life he could still not explain to himself or any friend or priest the cause of its origin.
"Bad dream?" Pasha asked, her English flawless. She lay in bed with her back facing him, her voice clear and strong, always strong.
Pasha rolled over onto her stomach and placed her head against the pillow, her thick, dirty-blond hair strewn about her face and shoulders. She wore white panties and one of his white tank top undershirts. Her normally pale skin had a slight tan from the hours spent under the harsh Texas sun and her long body was firm and strong from her training in sambo, the martial-arts system used to train Russia's Special Forces. Middle age had given her a slightly feminine softness that he found attractive. That didn't mean she wasn't dangerous. Conway had seen her go up against the big boys many times. Pasha always won.
"The thing with Armand was a fluke. An accident," Pasha said. "You survived it."
Barely, a voice reminded him. But even now, in his semiawake state, he knew the dream had little to do with Armand and more to do with his irrational need to have the power to control and alter his surroundings.
"There's a lot riding on today," Conway said. "Two years of work. I want to make sure it goes down right. Make sure all the team members are in place and know what to do."
"We're prepared, Stephen. You're not in this alone."
"I realize that."
Pasha waited for the rest of it. She stared at him, her blue eyes filled with that constant expression of wariness and guard, the vigilant hunter staring down the scope of a rifle searching for the next target.
Conway looked away from her hard gaze. Her left ear was missing; what remained was a molten blob that, even when they were alone in the bedroom, she carefully hid behind her shoulder-length hair. No one knew what had caused the deformity. Her private life was as vaulted as her emotions.
Pasha Romanov was nine years older than he -- had turned forty-three two days ago -- and in the five years they had worked together, and even when their professional relationship had turned private, she had rarely opened up about her life. It was as if all of her memories and their affixed emotions were stored in vials only to be examined in private.
Conway propped himself up and rubbed the fatigue out of his face. "I'm going to go out for a run," he said. "Want to come?"
Pasha's full lips were clamped together, pouting.
"What?" he asked.
Pasha pushed herself up to her knees. Conway watched as she climbed up on top of him, her breasts swelling against the tightness of his white tank top. The first time he saw her breasts, he had been taken aback by their size and fullness. Pasha wore modern Armani business suits to work. She never wore clothes generally worn by most women and eschewed any style that accented her femininity.
Without a word or sound, Pasha yanked his boxers down his legs and then took him into her mouth. Behind her thick locks, her blue eyes stared up at him, her gaze serious and intense, the way one stared down an adversary. Conway surrendered himself to the smooth, texture of her mouth, and the dream and the hollow feeling of loneliness that had haunted him just moments ago began to drift away.
Several minutes later, his knees grew weak. His body started to jerk. Pasha sensed what was about to happen and stopped. She slid out of her underwear, removed her tank top, then moved on top of him and guided him deep inside her. Pasha always had to be on top -- she didn't like sex any other way -- and he wasn't surprised when she grabbed his wrists, moved them over his head, and pinned them hard against the mattress with a surprising strength. Pasha needed to dominate him like she did everything else in her life; she controlled how they fucked, set the pace and tempo -- she even controlled where he touched her by guiding his hands to certain areas, watching him the entire time.
Pasha leaned forward, her back arched, until her breasts rubbed against the upper part of his chest and the whiskers along his face, and then rocked back and forth, slowly, in full control, and stared down at him through her hair. Other women in his life had required constant foreplay before actual intercourse. Sex was a production. Not with Pasha. She fucked like a man, got right down to it without any pretense, no moaning, no change in expression, just greedy, give me what I need and absolutely no talking, her eyes always open and watching, her intense gaze reminding Conway of the way a jewel thief prizes a rare, priceless stone locked behind glass.
What a pair we make, Conway thought.
A moment later Conway felt the pressure build again. Without a sound or a change in expression, Pasha rocked her hips even quicker while keeping his hands pinned above his head, her strength amazing. His body jerked and shuddered and a moment later it was over, both of them quiet, breathing hard and sweating.
Pasha lay on top of his chest, her breasts damp with perspiration, sliding against his already wet skin. She still held his hands in place and then rested her chin on his shoulder, near his scar, her hair covering his face and eyes. It was like he was looking at the world from a jail cell.
"I'll always be here for you," Pasha whispered, her words a low, drowsy hum against his ear. Conway could hear her labored breaths, could smell the sleepiness and sweat lingering on her skin.
"I'll keep you safe," she said. "I promise."
Conway pried his hands away from her grasp, wrapped his arms around her back, and hugged her close to him. He felt the hard, rubbery stump of her left ear press against his cheek, a grim reminder that love and the whispered promises of solace and protection were no match against the chaotic agenda of the outside world.
Copyright © 2001 by Chris Mooney