dark flat water, darkly menacing sky, a distant spit of land extends into the ocean

The varied strands of his complicated existence had surely been woven only to strangle him in the end. But not quite yet, he promised himself, at least to the extent that this could be said to lie within his own power. Arguably the game was a somewhat pointless one at this stage, but he would keep playing for a while longer – perhaps even right up until its end abruptly arrived, which he sensed (or was this just a debilitating fatalism?) was not far off, and which he knew could probably never have been avoided altogether anyway, even had he still been young and at the top of his game, which he no longer was, nor would be again. There was probably a limit to how many times, and how far, a person could run until weariness of one kind or another set fatally in, or before the past simply caught up, whether through happenstance or by means of what he took to be its guardians’ remorseless diligence in pursuing him.

Perhaps they were snares now, quite as much as things that strengthened him, but there were still things that he loved, in this latest and quite possibly final chapter of his life. For example, that transitory but magical daybreak time, when all is tranquil and the close approach of dawn makes every leaf and palm-frond, viewed against lightening sky, a perfectly crisp silhouette, resonantly if only temporarily black, even as an ever-more-luminous pre-dawn will soon uncover each of their secret colors, tease them out into the light of day, blur their fleeting photo-etched clarity with multi-textured depths and subtle chromatic complexities. Later on, when colors are fully awakened, splendid and lively, there might well be that gentle, transient flicker of blue from a bashful bluebird in flight. Better still, albeit depending on the time of year, there would be the bold and reflective white glory of the longtail or tropic-bird, a-wing in a warm azure sky that holds no dangers: a creature lofting peacefully (and with what always looked like superb contentment) above seawater of turquoise hue and crystalline clarity; a paradisiacal dream of an unsoiled life above the fray, all sundrenched grace and beauty and purity.

He wanted to be the longtail, but reality, for now and for the foreseeable future, involved a high degree of empathy with the wary bluebird, a creature (it seemed to him) not really so much bashful as governed by an acute consciousness of a ubiquity of impending dangers; a creature whose fragile life seemed but a series of prudent, discrete and pre-emptively evasive maneuvers, flitting from one temporary perch of safety to the next.

The bluebird was not so foolish as to trust to luck, or to put on a false air of boldness, when safety lay rather in its vigilant, jittery instinct for survival. Even so, in a tough and predatory world, he imagined that a bluebird’s life was not a long one, and that it was typically only a matter of time before a cat or a rat or some other menace brought it to a violent end. A secure bluebird-box, suitably small-holed by way of entrance and set atop a smooth post or pole, might well enhance the creature’s life-prospects very considerably, but even a small bird could not hide forever in its snug place of safety. Sooner or later, death, murderous death, would likely catch it in the open. In that regard at least, if surely not in beauty, he knew himself to be a bluebird, for a kindred fate would surely befall him too, and might well not be long in coming.

And what of his ex-wife: did he still love her, as he now more chastely loved such things as the beauty of the early morning, warm cheerful sunlight, bright friendly ocean, and certain affable birds? She, he knew, no longer loved him, and for this he could not really blame her, since he (though at first only unthinkingly) had given her a multiplicity of reasons for revoking and repenting her former love for him. He had, at least, provided quite well for her, in their respective exiles. He had owed her that much, if only for having borne and untimely buried Alexei, their only child. He undoubtedly loved and missed Alexei, or at least loved and missed the unsullied remembered idea of him; and he supposed that since he still thought of her from time to time he must still love his ex-wife, even though when he had been with her it had too often felt like penance and protectiveness rather than anything more joyous. Latterly, until they finally separated, she had always silently reminded him of what he had done. Yet he did miss her. You didn’t spend fifteen years of your life with someone – love her, at least so far as your own flawed and complicated nature allowed you to – and then not miss her later on when you no longer saw her, even in the old photographs of her and of the two of you (pictures long since deliberately discarded, at his end of things at least, in part for her own sake).

Her goodness and inner strength of character had long been a reproach to him, and deservedly so. He acknowledged himself to be fundamentally weak and not very good, although he had at least made real and successful efforts to avoid being far worse. That latter redeeming ember or mitigating circumstance could not, unfortunately, be said to apply to those men who (or whose hired instrumentalities) would eventually catch up with him. Even with all his flaws, he was considerably better, morally, than them, and perhaps in a way it was that dialectic or juxtaposition of relative evils, rather than some mere animal drive to survive, which had furnished the motive power for the long, dangerous game of recent years.

Yes, decidedly he did miss his ex-wife, especially just now, although he knew that had he been encumbered by her he would probably have fallen victim to the chase quite some time ago. If a man had to run, it was best that he run as unburdened as possible, having made clear to the relevant parties that she was in no way blameworthy in the matter, and having also, with hard kindness, done things to suggest to them that he no longer cared for her; that they could therefore not get at him through her and should leave her alone.

He certainly didn’t miss those darkest but hugely lucrative doings back in Russia in the old days: thankfully, at least in that sense, they were in the past: although he might wish that they had not happened at all, and that he had instead led a more blameless and ordinary life, they were at least done, if perhaps not quite adequately buried. The doings of the past had provided amply enough for his present needs and for whatever likely remained of his future, but he had no wish to think back on them, at least any more than his subconscious mind now and then compelled him to.

Nor would he miss such comparatively trivial but related things from times past as the peculiar musical sounds of a dial-up internet connection being established, or of a fax machine making its own discordantly warbling contact with the outside world; still less the messy complexities that they had so often represented. For that matter, he wouldn’t miss this cheerful and unknowing island’s kiskadee or yellowbird either, with its bold noise, its boldness and intrusiveness more generally, and its tendency to defecate everywhere. He himself had been too much the yellowbird in the past, only to grow ashamed (though a little late in the day) of his own messes. And now, justly, he was the bluebird, though hardly that of happiness. Yet in his daytime imaginings, and in some of his pleasanter dreams (and perhaps eventually in something grander, more rarefied and more lasting than either?) he could be the longtail.

In truth, to him these days, ‘reality’ and the fruits of his imagination were different only in their essence, rather than in their importance: the one was grossly, near-constantly, tangible, if sometimes only really impinging upon him as a fearful quickening of the pulse when jumping at a shadow or at a moving branch, or as a rising taste of bile in the throat; the other barely tangible if at all, very inward, and with a modicum of quiet effort required. He himself never had any difficulty distinguishing the real from the imaginary, and he flitted pretty well between the two, so why, least of all now, unduly privilege the one when the other could (at least temporarily) seem nearly as real, be more aesthetically pleasing, and possess all the while the very considerable advantage of being malleable at will if one so chose? If nothing else, imagination could be – now was, and in the distant past, too, had often been – a well of resiliency upon which to draw when the times were tough or just unsightly or unsympathetic, and when something pleasingly bespoke was wanted. Imagination comforted him, in his nearly hermit-like existence of today, almost as much as it had in his younger years, long before he had clawed and pecked his fill of success from the carrion bonanza of the end of the former Soviet Union.

The house, set back a little behind a terrace and a low wall whose seaward side was fringed with a natural barrier-ribbon of dense brush usefully interspersed with numerous sharp-spiked cacti, perched atop a section of coast whose steeply-sloping sides, not especially tall, nonetheless conferred a fair degree of safety from that quarter.

Barriers of a different kind – taller walls, an electrically-operated gate, thick hedges stiffened with wire fencing – variously shielded its landward sides. As nests go, it was tolerably secure, at least for a modest villa on a small and quite densely-populated island. Even the longtails evidently approved of this perch, for there seemed to be a seasonal burrow or nest of them down somewhere on the seaside rock-face.

Nautically speaking and indeed more generally too, the neighborhood was in a fairly quiet location, not heavily trafficked with boats but by no means unfrequented by them, especially in the main tourist season; and the sound of an approaching motor-boat, though it was not a very unusual thing thereabouts, was easily heard. He heard such a boat now, with a mild but undeniable frisson of concern that was depressingly at odds with the beauty of the day and of the setting. A while back, as when he first took up residence here, he might well have taken the automatic precaution of going inside the house, watching and listening intently until the boat had passed, rather than remaining on the terrace where he might be visible and potentially a target, but he had grown a little more relaxed in recent times; a little fed-up with hiding himself away. Warily, nonetheless, he picked up his substantial binoculars and swung his gaze in the direction of the nearing craft, picking it out easily enough, soon recognizing it for what it was, and tentatively assuring himself that it was very unlikely to pose a danger.

As he had suspected from the particular sound of its engines (and, as it came ever closer, something about the way the water sounded as it thumped and slapped its bows and its long hull), it proved to be a tour-boat that passed by each day around this time in this part of the year, at least if the weather was not too blowy, carrying tourists out to the reefs on a snorkeling expedition. With the binoculars he quickly scanned the little cabin superstructure and its decks, fore and aft, satisfying himself that nothing appeared to be amiss or unusual, then allowed the heavy field-glasses to descend more comfortably to chest-level where, in the extremity of a sniper’s bullet targeting his heart, they might even provide some protection. But thankfully there was no sign of any such impending horror. Indeed, as the boat and its relaxed-looking occupants went by he gave a long friendly wave, and felt his spirits uplifted by the return waves from most of the people on board. The passengers were quite likely enjoying a little ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ sightseeing along the way. It was certainly a beautiful place for a holiday – and to reside, for that matter. As places of exile go, it was among the pleasanter that he had known.

Scenery aside, there was undoubtedly something rather agreeable about living on a resort island: a certain contagious relaxation, he supposed; an openness to cheerfulness, even when there were undoubted grounds to be uncheerful. The warm sunshine didn’t hurt either, especially the way it played on the water – played with the water, he often felt, so nicely did the two go together.

It was a low-pitched, steady, rather gutsy-sounding boat; its noise fairly loud, but quite pleasantly rather than obnoxiously so, as it passed by at a moderate yet purposeful rate of knots, pleasure-bound but unrushed. Getting there was half the fun, really, and why not? It occurred to him, with a sudden pang, that he saw so few people nowadays that he wished that these affable strangers had not slid by quite as fast as they had. But the tour-vessel was continuing on its way, its occupants’ attention having already moved on to the next few houses unfolding along the coast. Still, it pleased him that those people had seemed happy.

He turned to go inside to refresh his drink and noted with a start that the bank of sliding glass doors stood partially agape, the opening sound (like so much else) having been concealed by the din of the boat’s throbbing diesel engines. A figure loomed in reflection behind him, arms poised in the air, its gloved hands oddly manacled-looking. An instant later, the garroting cord came down around his neck: tight, unyielding, now pulled much tauter still, worked by hands that knew their grim business all too well.

He – or at least his body (adrenaline-pumped, oxygen-starved, surely doomed and yet far from docile) – struggled fiercely – but unavailingly, of course, for this wasn’t the movies and he was no cinematic action-hero – as slow death overtook him. How had he let it come to this: all of his precautions, his careful checks and double-checks, his secret pride in always maintaining situational awareness, his forever state of vigilance, for naught? With his head pulled back, his bulging eyes beheld in the glaring sky a longtail lofting along, a creature (as it had always seemed to him) of quiet happy grace, unperturbed, supremely elegant, sublime.