Gabrielle sipped her espresso, unfiltered cigarette smouldering in the ashtray as she projected an air of glacial calm. The country was collapsing around her, echoes of larger forces clashing, rationing of essentials, bureaucracy calcified into inertia and citizens dazed and furious with the state of affairs.
She had missed her exfiltration window by an hour. A changed truck with a snug, padded compartment for her to sleep past the ring of steel which made up the country’s last display of authority before it tore itself to pieces. She looked at her watch, knowing she should be on a plane by now.
This was the last good cup of coffee available in the city. It was strong enough to make her gums sizzle, nerves sparking with caffeine as she affected an air of implacable cool but going off the grid meant a kind of courage. She had curled her blonde hair, so it fell in ringlets around her sharp features, applied a sheen of gloss which made her bee-stung lips drip with the promise of sex. She wore a white cotton shirt, slacks which clung to her lean thighs and high backside over black boots. Her battered leather jacket hung from the back of her chair, tailored with Kevlar plates along the forearm.
The carbon folding knife, honed to an edge which could split hairs and throats with precision.
A small plastic, moulded pistol, put together on a fabricator from plans sent in a snapchat image.
Passports, scarred from reconstruction. Different names and nationalities.
Three of them for her, another two for him.
If he came. His decades of power had congealed around him, a cocoon of political and personal transformation. She had hastened it, but along the way, something unforeseen had happened.
Dinner at the embassy. Invited as the plus one of a local businessman, a pensive, damp man who kept a soft, manicured hand on her all evening. She fought revulsion, chained up beneath years of tradecraft, listening and working her cover hard. Their eyes met across the main hall of the reception area and he gave her a cold, appraising look before turning from her.
She stood next to him, the melodic burr of his voice at odds with his reputation. He spoke with his hands, gesturing and emphasising in slow movements which mesmerised her. Experience honed her instincts but intuition held chaos inside her, ready to spill out and corrupt the taut, cold work of democracy. His cologne reminded her of the kind her father used, with a ship on the bottle and when his hand grazed hers, she caught her breath.
His invitation came. She accepted it. Lunch at the base where he spoke in spare, considered statements. His file was thick with records of his achievements and commendations, and she caught his allusions with an angler’s care. The question of consummation came up without comment, and his thick, strong hands undressed her with reverence. Lovers came and went, but the general made his mark inside her, handling her with a force which left fingertip bruises. Her hips and thighs ached for hours afterwards, and her reports to her handler omitted the pleasure of the encounter with her.
Their schedules were cruel. He had a collapsing military to run; she had a military to collapse and between them, during the summer, they met occasionally. The intensity of anticipation was maddening. Afterwards, skins drying and hearts thumping, he would talk about the ache of her, unwilling to hide behind his stoicism or station. She curled around him, wishing she could hint at her work here.
Wishing he could survive it.
The agency had teams in position, local talent with sub-machine guns and rented cars, maps scarred with red ink prophecies of doom, chained together through synchronised watches. Between seconds, she played handmaiden to the death of a cabinet whilst they shared a cigarette in the rented bed. When the phone rang, she saw the man reflected in the files and fought the pull to confess, knowing he could snap her neck with his hands.
Wanting it. Anticipation tasted like blood in her mouth, and she kissed him on the cheek, whispered how she might help him.
His nostrils flared as he shook with fury, demanding an explanation. Her confession made his eyes wet as he strode from the bed, naked and barking orders to frightened soldiers before he ended the call and turned to face her.
‘Can you help?’ he said.
She bit her inside lip, fuelled by a flare of awful inspiration in how to sell this to the agency.
‘It depends on what you can offer.’ she said.
He grimaced but Gabrielle sat on the edge of the bed, lean thighs open as she stroked the peach skin over her navel and fixed him with a knowing, wanting look. Survival was a base instinct and Gabrielle put her hopes on appealing to the full spectrum of his desires. He returned to her, clutching her jaw in his hands in a grip which made her temples pulse with pressure. She held his gaze, poised between oblivion and salvation.
His mouth opened, ready to rage, but he looked away, fingertips grazing down the line of her jaw, down to the line of her throat before returning to stare into her eyes.
‘What would it take?’ he said.
Gabrielle noted the fingerprints on the espresso cup, the tables teeming with plates and food abandoned at random intervals by the few patrons left in the city. He would be late, relying on the loyal soldiers to facilitate his betrayal. A difficult balancing act to carry off, but he told her he would manage it.
Another espresso and two cigarettes. The tobacco tasted different, cheap and rough compared to the kind sold in better times. Gabrielle knew luxuries were perfect gauges of collapse, and here she was, enjoying two and waiting on another.
Five. Her stomach ached with repressed concern as she got to her feet, threw down a few notes of currency, already reduced in value to sentiment and nationalist pride and nodded to the waiter. He winked at her, sighed and looked around.
‘You should have left earlier.’ he said.
The edge in his voice made her reach for the pistol but the waiter shook his head and retrieved a small revolver, nickel plated with a bevelled grip, small in his oversized hand. She put her hands up, palms outwards.
‘Make it quick.’ she said.
He grinned, ugly with anticipation and shook his head.
‘Such things are your country’s approach, senorita.’ he said.
Gabrielle had survival training, days of sustained and brutal torture designed to bolster her against enhanced interrogation. None of it would help her, but she kept her fear down inside, extracting from it the tools she might use to survive the next few hours.
The wall of force slapped her backwards, blurring her vision and taking her feet out from under her. Time passed in an insectile whine, details swimming on a tide of concussion. Gabrielle staggered, heard someone wailing in an unsteady contralto before realising it was her.
A hand encircled her wrist and she pulled the gun up, aiming at nothing as she caught the whiff of nautical cologne.
‘Senorita, it is okay.’ he said.
She tried to speak above the whine of her concussed eardrums but he pulled her to him and shook his head.
‘There are plans within plans.’ he said.
She leaned against him. Bleak, brilliant trains of thought crashed through stations of possible outcomes but she had purchased her ticket.
Or survive, if such an outcome was possible.
He wrapped a muscular arm around her, guided her through the ruined, smouldering streets.
‘Where are you taking me?’ she said.
He kissed the top of her head and pulled her close.
‘Nowhere, I am showing you something.’ he said.
His voice was grave, but he smiled at her, eyes ablaze with ambition and passion.
‘We need to get out of here.’ she said.
He shook his head and drew back his shoulders.
‘No, this is my country and as I prepared to leave, I recalled the Chinese character for crisis is the same as opportunity.’
Gabrielle shuddered as her legs lost substance and he pulled her upwards.
‘You came here as a traitor, senorita. I have a proposal for you.’ he said.
She raised her chin. His beard was white with brick dust, a small livid scalp wound had congealed like tendrils of candle wax on his lined forehead and the skin beneath his eyes was livid and infected with exhaustion. No longer a general.
She touched his face and he ran his fingers down her arm. A regal blessing, sweeter for the rubble and chaos around him.
The first birth pangs of a new world.
One, she hoped, where she could still get a good cup of coffee and a cigarette.