My reflection betrayed nothing in the pocket mirror, checking one last check before he arrived. It was my armour, my war paint. It was only eight a.m and already the heat had plucked at my reserve, gathering damp patches at the small of my back and underarms. He welcomed it, rubbing his bearded cheek against me when we made love. The thought tested me like the tropical heat.
Mateo’s car pulled up across the street, and one of his men came out and opened it. He stood up, adjusted the peak of his cap and glanced around him before he strode over whilst his man shut the door and stood by the side of the car. Mateo wore a light tan suit and white shirt, tailored to mask the bulge of the holster under his jacket. A man’s posture cannot hide who he is. A lightness came to his steps as he drew closer. His face, a stoic mask, broke into a warm, gentle smile when he saw me.
‘Cara Mia.’ he said.
My hands went to his face, fingers running through his beard before our lips met. He smelled of fresh coffee and coconut oil.
His eyes narrowed as he ran his fingers against my left wrist.I shuddered, betraying myself with a simple touch. I gave a slight cry, and his hand encircled my wrist. It excited and appalled me how small I felt in his presence. Not diminished but small, nestled against his broad, furred chest as he slept with his palm on my breast. During the night, he would reach between my thighs and cup me without stirring.
‘Tell me.’ he said.
He was sometimes clumsy. Once, he entertained purchasing a motorcycle and my appalled rejection of the idea wounded him, but he hid it well. There were moments of grace with him, but he’d also drop glasses and miss spots where he shaved his head. Yet, for his endearing clumsiness and earnestness, it would have been stupid to assume it was a weakness.
‘Please sit down.’
A waiter approached. Mateo ordered tea for me and an espresso for him. When the waiter left, his attention returned patient but implacable. It was difficult to breathe. He leaned forward, took my hand and turned it over, pressed his fingers to my wrist and looked at me.
‘You’re agitated but trying to control it. With some success, I might add, Esther.’ he said.
It was difficult to meet his gaze. My news would change things between us, forever. There was the possibility it meant my never leaving this cafe, but there was a gentle light in his eyes with me. If my betrayal dimmed it, then it would justify his wrath.
There were stories about him. He would never speak of his work beyond generalities.
‘To speak of my work is to relive it.’ he said.
Each breath burned in my chest. The heat needled me, and when the waiter brought our order, Mateo poured me a glass of ice water from the carafe between us. He spoke through his actions, and the care, the attention he paid me came home to roost as we sat there.
Waiting for me to talk to him.
‘At three a.m, covert action teams will mount simultaneous strikes against tactical targets all over the city.’
Mateo picked up his espresso and looked at me over the rims of his spectacles, nodded for me to go on.
I shuddered, revolted and relieved as I picked up my glass and gulped down half in one go. My mouth was arid and sore, but the water soothed me enough to continue. There was a faint mineral taste to it, but it was pleasant. A first act of the new government was investment in infink nowrastructure, private funding in return for preferential tax breaks for future industrial sites.
The barracks at Costa Verde.
The Presidential Palace.
Casa De Secretos.
It was our name for it. He grimaced and closed his eyes as he set his cup down. He retrieved a cigarette case and lit one with a lighter which had FUCK COMMUNISM painted on it. It had been his father’s; he told me. A veteran of Vietnam before he met his wife, Mateo’s mother and they moved to her homeland, away from a country spoiled and venal.
‘Cara Mia. This news troubles me.’
He exhaled a slow plume of smoke and took my hand across the table.
‘But it is not unexpected.’ he said.
He squeezed my fingers, showing strength without violence.
‘What do you mean?’
He took off his spectacles and peered into my eyes.
‘Tell me what you see there, Esther. I know it is your real first name. They have advised you to mix them up, but it’s a tough habit to break because you shared concerns about a loss of identity to Dr Snyder back in April.’
It took an impressive deal of control to remain calm.
The relief of confession had masked a seething nest of revelations, a misinterpretation of the situation which terrified me.
‘Do you know my mother’s profession, Esther?’ he said
She was a veterinarian.
Mateo nodded as he unbuttoned his jacket.
‘She taught me lessons which ran parallel with my father’s instructions. Their beliefs informed my perspectives on the world. A place free from the tyranny of kings and clergy, free and prosperous with the grace to stop and enjoy the fruits of its labours. ‘
He paused to smooth his beard with his fingertips, a gesture somewhere between contemplation and grooming.
‘Which was always my goal. My mother’s lesson was in understanding the principles of animal husbandry. My innovation was to apply it as a macro-political exercise. Neutering when necessary, keeping the organism healthy and secure from all threats, foreign and domestic.’
He smiled, but it did not reach his eyes.
I am not a monster. My aim is to take my country to the pinnacle of its achievements, then disappear and enjoy it in the time left. I’ve done things to protect it and have prepared for such an event as this.
My thighs and stomach were taut with the effort to rein in my feelings. His voice was quiet, a little above a smooth whisper, but he had my attention without effort.
‘You don’t have the penetration into our operation, Mateo. We’ve been able to establish supply chains, flown in military advisers to train the militia.’ I said.
My voice sounded sharp, a smashed glass at a wake which drew everyone’s attention.
‘Because, Esther, I allowed you to.’ he said
He pointed up at the sky.
‘That is C-7623, piloted on this shift by Private Cole Wilkins, 115th Engineers of Terre Haute. He enjoys his work, but he’s hoping to launch missiles when the opportunity arises. Some of his reports concern me, Esther, but you won’t have seen them.’
My disbelief fell on me like a roll of quarters swung against the back of my head. He smiled and gestured around him.
‘I planned against the worst scenarios. I imagined the ultimate enemy and how my country could survive it. Weak men have taken your country, but they will not take mine.’
The first time I learned about Mateo Costas was at an event-shielded briefing before we flew into the country.
They committed nothing to paper, no recording devices to ensure freedom of discussion and opinion.
‘This is the guy. Mateo Costa.’
‘Native Mother. Attended Oxford University on a scholarship then signed up for the US Navy followed by SEAL training which is where it got interesting,’ Ellis said.
Ellis was on secondment from MI5, with the florid build of someone punished for every second in a country more than a few degrees above a tepid English spring. People wondered if this was a punishment for a previous failure, but he was an encyclopedia of the country’s politics and economy. He clapped his hands together.
‘Costas took part in two SEAL missions. Notable ones. The rescue of Captain Phillips and then Operation Neptune Spear. Which is?’
I put my hand up.
Ellis shot me with finger guns before he clapped his hands together.
‘Now, he’s too dignified to confirm this, which means when it leaks, he looks stoic and humble. Now he returns home, joins the Crypteia and in three years, he’s running the entire operation.’
King, a former Delta Force operator who made the move into intelligence, put his hand up.
‘I’ve read Keller’s report from last year, and he claims it was a committee which voted on supply requests.’ he said.
Ellis winked at him.
‘ He requested investigatory powers, went through whatever police and career military survived the coup and trained them into his own unit. On paper, they’re civil servants or clerks, but they had commissariat authority. He turned it into a Tardis.’
‘Bigger on the inside than the outside.’ I said.
Ellis chuckled and shot me a wink.
‘Democratic Socialism got a turn at the bat, Mateo came back after the coup, created his own little squad of trained and well-armed soldiers then -‘ he gestured to all of us.
King leaned forwards before addressing the room.
‘He brings down the central committee in one night, held office for one year and then resigned before open elections in return for his old post with the Crypteia.’ he said.
‘They disbanded it before he took office and didn’t exist on record at all. Like this meeting.’ I said.
Ellis whistled under his breath and opened a bottle of water. His short-sleeved shirt hung from his thin shoulders like a damp flag.
‘So, he de-stabilised a socialist government, didn’t stay in office long enough to steal anything. Now he runs the secret service of a capitalist democratic government. It runs in secret, without oversight, and although the deputy director thinks his altruism is neutered, I think he presents a clear and present danger to our long-term economic interests.’
I put my hand up.
‘Aren’t they our buds now?’ I said.
Ellis chuckled and scratched the back of his neck.
‘Facebook moved their HQ down here. Bezos has been here six times in the last year and there’s been fawning articles in the Washington Post about it. But they’re also not responding to the left about the atrocity claims, or the president’s comments about diversity. So there are optics to consider and the economic impact.’ he said.
We were talking about overthrowing a country because it did a better job of being American than America did.
Ellis worked in Psychological Operations, had embedded himself into the country’s social media and combed through metadata to establish a profile of a target as intimate and complete as a splendid marriage.
‘ We’ve got candidates who favour a better deal with us.’ King said.
Ellis shook his head.
‘He’s a righteous guy, tough and plain-spoken, but he’s not the man behind the wheel. Mr Costas, I believe and so does the Director, is the linchpin of his country’s government and development.’
What I said next, in a room shielded from observation or betrayal, came back to haunt me as I sat there looking into Mateo’s eyes, waiting to have my instinct and experience proved wrong.
‘Then he’d need eliminating alongside whatever strategic sites you’ve accounted for at the same time.’ I said.
Ellis frowned and ran the tip of his tongue against the philtrum of his upper lip.
‘How do you suggest we do that, Esther?’ he said.
We met at a bookstore. It was one place where he spent his free time, casual and unrecognised. His recommendation of Olive Kitteridge surprised me, but he said his grandparents had the same stoicism of character and came from the book’s setting. He introduced himself without announcing his position and invited me to join him for coffee.
When we met, his presence was electrifying. He had power without being stunted or calcified by it. It didn’t sit well with what they had told me about the efforts he took to keep his country from returning to a socialist government. Professional concerns drove my actions, then later it came to stymie them. Ellis had told me, in his capacity as my handler, to accept dinner if he offered. Which he did. He did not instruct me to sleep with him, which was my choice. Perfect men bored me, and Mateo’s flaws were as embraceable as the rest of him. It did not blind me to the dangers of loving such a man, but there were reasons beyond the torrid rush of attraction. Now, I saw the myth of him, the secret policeman who kept things in order.
‘Were you sent to kill me?’ he said.
I shook my head.
‘No, I was to gather information on you. Relay it back for analysis.’
‘Was Ellis your handler?’ he said.
A jolt of fear and surprise shot through me. He passed me the cigarette case and I took one. He lit it for me and watched me until I nodded.
‘How did you know his name?’ I said.
‘He was from British Intelligence. Seconded to your CIA after eight years with psychological operations and a further five working for Deputy Director Prentiss. Wallace came to you from Delta Force. He has a fiancee. Her name is Shonda, and she’s eight weeks pregnant, but he doesn’t know yet.;
His voice was soft, slow and conversational but he scattered his knowledge like he was sowing salt to kill the soil of my reality.
‘What about me?’ I said.
He knew what connected the quinceanera of Don Rezillos niece and the attendant case of food poisoning caused by mal carne with the supply chains of the insurgents fighting along the coast. His men were shadows, which rose and dragged people into the darkness. They disappeared, or had deaths explained by choice or random fate. I didn’t know which one faced me, but I hoped it would be quick.
He asked the waiter to bring us more drinks. He looked at me and continued.
‘When I arrived, infant mortality had gone up three hundred percent. People were shooting at farmers to steal their cattle. Their professors became their oppressors and turned my home into a fiefdom. My country, Esther, neutered and corrupted by those who believed they knew best. All under the baleful gaze of a government who saw everything and enriched themselves first,’ he said.
Passion rose within him, lending his tone of voice a gruff thickness I found interesting.
‘Why wouldn’t I seek to do something about it? I’d read enough of the literature to speak the language, repeat the narrative and make myself useful without appearing to hold any personal ambitions. What surprised me was the level of incompetence in charge. None of them saw me coming until it was too late.’
‘My country is not a place where children scream in the night. Our immigration controls, our trade deals are to protect and advance our interests. We always played ball with your country, Esther, but we grew too good at it, didn’t we?’
‘Much like Hussein, Gadaffi, Jung Un, we’ll be the latest enemy. I pulled the trigger on your country’s greatest enemies and when I did actual work; they sent you to betray me.’
I went to shake my head, but he raised his hand and I looked down at the table, ashamed and afraid.
‘It doesn’t matter, cara mia. I accounted for such things. A man can never give the truth of his heart to his woman, not if he wants her to stay.’ he said.
‘You never told me anything.’
He smiled and nodded.
‘To discuss it is to relive it. My villa is a Faraday cage and no, I was frank about not discussing work with you. I didn’t give you the exact reason.’
I asked for another cigarette. He offered it and then lit another for himself. My eyes fell on the lighter and he smiled.
‘What we must discuss is where you stand. Or rather, sit.’
My eyelids were heavy. The curls of grey smoke rose from the end of the cigarette. It was fragile and beautiful before it dissipated. A beam of sunlight struck through the carafe, fracturing the light into a rainbow of colours. The world took a deep, slow breath and my thoughts slowed down to a crawl.
‘You’ve drugged me.’ I said.
Intoxication mauled the words as they left my mouth. Mateo plucked the cigarette from my fingers and placed his hands over mine.
‘Cara Mia, you cannot choose between your heart and your duty. It is enthralling to practice tradecraft and strategy in matters of the heart. I honour our arrangement.’ he said.
His voice was soft, gruff and melancholic as someone took my arms and helped me out of the chair as my legs went out from under me.
My tongue was a bloated slug in the cave of my mouth. Sunlight whipped across my eyes. I brought my hand up, felt the give of the lounger beneath me and sat up. The sea was blue, elegant and primal as I heard the crash of the waves. I stood up, saw I was on a platform overlooking the South Pacific, and turned to look at the villa.
It was elegant, with white adobe walls and warm wood beneath my feet. A small table had a carafe of ice water, a glass wrapped in a napkin and a small padded envelope. I looked down at myself, still wearing my clothes from the morning. I poured a glass of water and opened the envelope. A single sheet of paper, my phone and a small envelope. I unfolded the paper and read the note.
You have a choice.
Your phone is as you left it. If you switch it on, you will reconnect with your team and involve yourself in the outcome. By the time you read this, they have decided things, one way or the other, but it is your choice. I would not stop you from leaving.
My other suggestion is in the second envelope.
Neither of these choices is simple. You will see when you open the second envelope.
There were other choices, but my heart spoke its truth, and so I give you space to consider how you would like to spend the rest of your life.
I turned the second envelope over. It was thick, and I felt a blunt edge at the ball of my thumb before I set it down. My phone sat there, its black screen capturing the planes of my face, like it were something emerging from the void, pale and sculpted.
It was a passport, proof of citizenship, with my name and face. A credit card, in my name and a ring made from tropical wood, finished to a high shine.
This is how I will deal with you.
I looked out towards the ocean, playing with the ring but unable to avoid glancing at the phone. My head throbbed with the aftereffects of the sedative, but the dilemma had dug claws into my scalp.
He knew everything and spared me. I knew anyone else in the field would not be so fortunate. The militia were gathering eight miles from here, and as I picked up the phone, I heard the sharp rush of missiles.
I tossed the phone into the ocean. I had slipped the ring onto my finger and it rested there, rich and dark against the skin. A perfect fit, but it was no surprise. I watched the sea for a minute before the booming roar of artillery made me go inside.
It was cool and dark inside. There was the click of the front door and I closed my eyes when Mateo said my name.
‘No, not anymore.’ I said.