politics, short fiction, women

Grift

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

James Baldwin.

 

1.

One of her students was the daughter of an old friend, and when I’d been in the area, over dinner and a good single malt, he had told me about the problems it had caused them. She had become hostile, which was fine because she was a young woman and they tested their parents as part of growing up, but Harrison, who’d had my back searching the houses of suspected jihadists,where every pair of eyes was a threat, looked pained as he poured himself another scotch and shook his head in pain and confusion.

 

I smiled and tossed back my hair.

 

‘Want me to look into it? Another woman’s easier to talk to.’

 

My therapist, for example. If I would talk about what happened during my career with the CIA, it was easier to do so with another woman.

 

There were nuances of horror only another woman understands.

 

Anger, too.

 

Harrison smiled and lowered his eyes before he nodded.

 

‘If this is about a threat to your white, male privilege -‘ I said.

 

He chuckled and shook his head. His smile decayed like autumn leaves into a pensive frown as he took another drink. He sipped his whisky and set it down on the desk as he sighed and bit his lower lip.

 

‘Do you ever think we did any good out there?’ he said.

 

I’d never have children. He had nightmares every night. We read the news, watched television and bore the resentment of people so desperate to be charitable, they gave their money and time to fill the pockets and egos of people who would never be satisfied. I reached out, touched his hand and said I would check it out for him.

 

2.

 

‘The reason you have nice stuff is that you stole it from me. Your people robbed, raped and degraded me and my people.’

 

I watched her give a clownish sneer as she stood before the podium, breathing in the light, constant rhythm of someone carrying too much weight. The microphone amplified her breath more than her words, and it sounded like Darth Vader at an AA meeting.

 

Professor Rachel Madureira looked across the hall before continuing. She had rehearsed this, saw the pained frowns and uneasy shifting from certain members of the audience. They displayed the appropriate amount of guilt, which she acknowledged with a nod, before continuing. She narrowed her eyes and glanced down at her notes, and I slipped from my seat, having heard enough to know how the rest of the talk would go.

 

It’s all your fault. Give me stuff.

 

She had accepted stuff as reparations.

 

Tenure at the university and a column on Slate where she told millions of people how they were rapists and thieves who should give their money to her to assuage their collective and individual guilt. A link to her Patreon was at the bottom of each article as livid as a paper cut and had given her a stipend of eighty thousand dollars.

 

Oppression was good for business.

 

The adipose march of time had slapped handfuls on her in uneven amounts, around the belly to where the skin of her stomach pressed through the front of her dress in folds and the material stretched at her hips and thighs. The wobbling jowls and chins enhanced the solid perpetual anger she emanated in waves of refined hostility. She wore it well.

 

Like her lies.

 

Her people were Scandinavian immigrants, who came to the country in the late 1950’s with the surname Larsson.The surname of Madureira came from a short lived marriage just after she graduated with her first in gender and racial studies, and she made allusions to ‘her people’ in her articles and speeches without specifying how her people were. This information was hidden, but available. Today was the first time I had been in the same room as her, but I knew her and what she did for a living.

 

There are stages to a confidence trick, and they are the same, no matter how large the scale:

 

She’d achieved this trick through her academic position, and there were lawsuits where she had sued universities based on perceptions of their hiring practices. They settled, and it would fund the next round of applications and lawsuits. I admired the elegance, even as I swallowed a distaste for how it put her in touch with young people.

 

She encouraged their guilt and compassion through confrontation. Her classes were her platform and she berated students to the point of tears. It was behaviour we would have drawn up a report on, but I knew where the Agency’s focus laid. The reward for the mark would be the sense of activism, ideology was identity and I realised I was looking at something more interesting than I had first imagined.

.These were calls to action, or public events seized on for a column or even a social media post. She made herself the victim when it suited her, posting unsubstantiated incidents of racial or gender abuse. Tearful, defiant videos and tears, then the comments below.

 

I put together a report, looked at her professor’s academic record, read her papers and found them wanting. She spent more energy on social media than her field of study. She defended herself on the most illogical positions without being called on them. The current President left her frightened, but after a dismal evening’s review, she had always been frightened.

 

It was late and I made an assumption. It was never something I did in the field because it could kill you, but I was curious, and it hadn’t led me to anything other than she was a shitty professor and a professional provocateur. I told Harrison that, and he had spoken to his daughter about changing classes but she was passionate about it enough to stand up to him, which he respected. It was their last conversation.

 

Rachel had promoted a counter protest against a talk by a conservative author. She had spoken about it in her lectures and on her social media accounts. It spoke of Nazis and stunk of insincere outrage, but it drew students to attend. It was a hot afternoon when the groups gathered, shouting and throwing missiles at one another. The air shimmered with violence and the heat brought out the worst in everyone.

 

It was a grapefruit can fill with concrete, shot from a catapult rigged in the back of a van. Someone had downloaded the design from the internet and printed the parts over a week before putting it together and used it on nazis like a tactical ambush.

 

Their mathematics had been flawed and the first shot went higher than expected, then it crashed down into the skull of Harrison’s daughter. It would have been quick, I consoled myself, as I watched him crumple after her death. There was video and I could lie and tell you I didn’t watch it but I did.

 

Rachel wasn’t there. It would be silly to direct a play and stand onstage.  Harrison had been careless in the way men are when they go about suicide, his head reconstructed with care but little success. A shotgun does that.

 

She lived in a gated community. Alone, which was convenient. There were cats, but they weren’t an issue for me and stared at me with indifference as I sat in her office and waited.

 

She came in without switching the lights on and went into the bedroom. She stayed there until dawn, then went out to teach. She did not eat lunch unless it was a faculty event and even then she would eat the barest amount of food. Her size led me to believe she suffered from an eating disorder.

 

The cupboards were empty. Her refrigerator was a stale, warm piece of performance art.

 

There were no photographs, no papers to show she even existed. There were transcripts and her presence online, but there was nothing I found to back it up. I put a call into someone who knew things, and she was not on their radar before the protests. After two visits and three phone calls, I sat in the bedroom, looking at the bed which had no sheets to spare me the sight and smell of the fetid, wet mattress as I sat in the corner of the bedroom and waited for her to come home.

 

She looked at the gun in my right hand then straight into my eyes with a reptilian interest.

 

‘What is that?’ she said.

 

I told her to close the door and come inside. She was perspiring, but not from fear and even in the twilight, I saw a pulse fluttering in her cheek.

 

‘You do something now, don’t you?’ I said.

 

She sighed, told me in a small voice, she needed to undress. I gestured with the device and she peeled off the dress, her flesh undulating like soured milk. It danced against her frame and I blinked twice as I hooked my finger on the trigger. My mind was a single screaming pitch of disbelief as she crawled onto the bed and opened her jaw wide, like a snake swallowing a pig and retched as the excess flesh dripped from her in smoking blobs and strings onto the mattress where they evaporated into the thick, ammoniac smell which permeated the mattress.

 

She sat up and stared at me from across the room. Rachel smiled with a grim unease.

 

‘I am from Scandinavia, but I am not one of their people.’ she said.

 

It took forever, but the words came out of me.

 

‘What are you?’ I said.

 

3′

 

I followed my people here, but I was never one of them.

 

I hid in their stories and their dreams. When I was hungry, I crept on top of them and sucked their dreams down like meat and mead, before I moved on. America was a land rich with promise, but it frightened me.

 

There were other people and their gods here, and how we clashed, unable or unwilling to compete for the faith of men in any terms less than war.

 

This mare was smart. I hid amongst the people, safe in a warm belly then a body for a lifetime and kept my feeding down to the bare minimum. Hunger is a good teacher, necessity is even better, so I learned to expand my appetites to strong emotions.

 

Anxieties. Fears. Guilt. Virtues.

 

After centuries, it amused me to pretend to be something I am not. I was strident in challenging anyone who questioned me, careful to remain mediocre in capability but not ambition. When you have lived through cycles of civilisation, it is no effort to find where a man’s guilt lies.

 

There is truth in the anger, I am part of an oppressed people, not indigenous but still separate from men, and dying as the distance grows. I have so much food to harvest, I have to store it all on my body, transmute it or I would explode, I’m sure.

 

My talent for provocation is amoral, an adaptation afforded to an apex predator, as your scientists would say, and it is what I must do to survive.

 

They have been good lives.

 

4.

 

I shot her twice in the chest and walked up to put another two rounds into her forehead.

 

A third phone call. Dennis would arrive with his crew and clean everything up. We had been exchanging cards at Christmas since before Burma, and his work kept him young. I cannot say the same, but I put the phone away and went outside, eager to be away from the stink.

 

Her disappearance warranted speculation but there was someone else eager to take up the slack. Left or right, it didn’t matter because nothing ever changed and I watched a country I’d endured horrible things for, die by degrees.

 

Rachel’s story stayed with me, and the rest of my life was flavoured with dashes of paranoia at every eccentric I passed, or everything I saw which couldn’t be explained straight away. It made sense more than the dismal crimes I hoped had been committed instead.

 

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