politics, short fiction, women

White Rabbit

“Men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, of more serious ones they cannot; therefore, the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.”

Nicollo Machiavelli, The Prince.

1.

Ibrahim walked down the street, cursing Ellen for making him clean out the frier again before he left to attend mosque with his uncle. He hated the job, but Mohammed insisted he finish out the summer before he got him an internship at the firm.

He didn’t want to be late. Mohammed was fastidious without being vain and he had known nothing but his faith but he did business without it being a problem.

Ibrahim drew comments and stares. No one wanted to feel alien in their own skin and he would slip out of the way, finding something to do in the back until their attention went elsewhere or he pretended not to have heard anything. He simpered and it hurt to do it but once he was working with his uncle, he would earn respect without being made to suffer for it.

He was running late.

It was the only thing which saved him.

He saw the mosque and quickened his pace before a massive hand slapped him backwards. He smelled his hair burning and his eardrops popped like balloons as he fell backwards, breaking his coccyx against the sidewalk.

Ibrahim lay there, mute with pain as his hair burned and his body turned inside out with pain. He had bitten his tongue and each swallow tasted of burnt copper as he struggled to breathe.

2.

Jessica drew on the cigarette, trying not to stare at the small throng of protesters who came every day. Wizened and pale, tan and hardy, they would take turns, behaving like fundamentalist ants, blazing with a narcissistic zeal which irritated her. David’s work took him all over the world, and since she had emigrated and married Blake, she kept up the correspondence, never getting a reply from him despite the anguish it created for her. She still loved David, but life demanded a compromise. Letting go had taken the desperation of an animal chewing off a limb to escape a trap but the pain stayed with her.

The women who came fueled her passion when she debated Blake about her work. He presented her with rational arguments, numbers on paper to show they didn’t need her to work, she could stay home with Brian, but Jessica saw it as a comfortable path to death. She loved her husband, but she couldn’t live as an appendage to him. Marriage was difficult enough, let alone one which served as a gilded cage for her.

The cigarette burned the back of her throat and she tossed it to the ground before she went back inside.

The door slammed into her, fractured her skull and the door handle punched through her left hip, propelled by the force of the explosion. She died before she hit the ground, the door stuck to her as a final, cruel insult from the universe.

3.

Terry took off the balaclava and wiped his face. He had put on a show for the video, speaking in a bombastic tone which he had borrowed from professional wrestling promotions and Alex Jones and it had tested his reserves of stamina to keep up the indignant righteousness necessary to put his point across.

The motel room smelled of powdered soup and stale cum, but he could use it for meetings and videos so he never gave Pete too much shit about it. He wanted to protect his family, and if it meant going out of his way a little, it was a small price to pay. Their enemies were everywhere, and he loved his family too much to put them in harm’s way.

He waited for the video to upload, sent messages to the others through an app which sent photo messages and deleted them after being watched. Terry knew the risks, but the technology was there to protect them, despite what people believed.

Terry looked at himself in the smeared full length mirror, the stubble on his cheeks and his lean, intense build gave him a renewed pride in his work. He ran on righteousness, and all the energy made him restless, had him capable of working eight hours on his construction job and then organising the rest of the guys until he collapsed into bed next to his sleeping wife. He got up, tucked the balaclava under the pillow, and left the room.

He watched the news when he got home, drank a beer as he watched the footage of the emergency services and struggled to hide his delight at the success of their first major operation. Once the video went live, people would know their group’s name but not his.

Terry had tried to make people see what was happening. The capitulation to progressive forces had castrated his country and it made him fear for his children’s future enough to act as he did. Other people had come into his world, convinced of his fears enough to help and once he had found his tribe, it became a thing of logistics over rhetoric.

Jenny called him upstairs and he drained the last swallow of beer before he switched the tv off and went to bed.

It had been a good day.

4.

David slipped out of the hotel room. He had broken up and flushed the syringe down the toilet, wiped everything down to remove any trace of his presence with a practiced care as the body cooled on the unmade bed.

He got into the waiting car and sat back, closing his eyes as it drove away. The arrogance of his targets never surprised him, and this one had been boasting about his company’s work for the intelligence community. David did not inform him such behaviour had signed his death warrant

Bastard of the British Empire he told himself. He loathed the arrogance of San Francisco and was eager to get back to London. David denied his feelings unless it was three a.m and he thought of her.

Doing the right thing hurt him but it kept her safe and him a secret.

The safe house was across town, and he took a long hot shower, ordered take out and sat down to relax with a few hours of inane American television. He made the mistake of watching the news, and when he saw the photo of her, he convulsed with feelings he thought buried in the graveyard of his soul.

Three years ago, David had bare flames held to his feet, threatening to perform the same function on his genitals before the SAS team burst in. He had not wept then, but as he looked at Jessica’s face, he put his face in his hands and wept for what might have been.

His grief galvanised into something familiar to him.

Anger.

When it abated, he took out his phone and made a phone call.

Two hours later, David was on a plane to Illinois.

5.

Mike struggled to contain his excitement as Terry passed him a beer.

‘What’s next?’ he said.

Terry scratched his chin and smiled.

‘We can expect a push back from the authorities, so the answer is nothing for now.’ he said.

Mike grimaced as he shook his head.

‘It’s not enough, Terry. We need to get our message out.’ he said.

Terry grimaced at Mike’s immature enthusiasm. He could never take the long view of things. It was a warm evening and they sat on the porch, keeping the conversation neutral until Jenny put Rachel to bed and they were free to discuss things.

‘Do you remember Waco, Mike?’ he said.

Mike swallowed and nodded. He had been in awe of Terry’s pilgrimage and his righteous anger at government intrusion into people’s lives. They condoned the tide of Muslim immigration and paid lip service to the sanctity of the unborn to such a degree it had prompted a response from the men of the White Rabbit Militia to stop talking and act. Mike resented the slow pace of their work, but Terry was so certain it killed his doubts.

‘We’ve shown our hand. It’s now up to others whether they heed the call to action.’

Mike had built the bombs for both targets, being a savant with things which made him useful, if not indispensable to the others. Pete had been in the Marines until he got kicked out, Chris ran the website and social media feeds, but it was Terry who was the cool, calm centre of the group. Mike wondered if Terry’s aloofness was a test of his character, but washed his anxious, frightened thoughts down with a deep pull on the bottle of beer before he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

‘OK, I get it.’ he said.

Terry smiled and clapped Michael on the shoulder.

‘We can’t go into this thinking we’ll get away with it, Mike. We’ve got to accept the price of liberty and the consequences.’ Terry said.

Mike felt blessed by Terry’s touch but kept his face still. Instead he gave a terse nod and made a face he hoped looked like the right mix of determination and gravity.

‘Right on, Terry. Right on.’

Terry lit a cigarette and sat back in his chair.

‘We’ve just got started, Mike.’ he said.

If Terry had asked him to cut one of his testicles off, Mike would have asked him which one before doubting him. He wondered who would play him in the movie, he hoped for the guy from Stranger Things, the sheriff with the guy from CSI New York as Terry.

Mike had big dreams, but he was glad Terry was there to keep things calm and even. The work was getting started, but he wanted it to start there and then.

6.

David watched the video on repeat. He looked past the man on the screen, focused on the details behind him.

He made a note of the furniture, and the colour of the paint on the walls. David wrote the details in the blank pages of the ledger he carried everywhere. He contacted his handler, Larry, through a My Little Pony message board, where he left a message and waited for his phone to ring.

David answered on the first ring.

‘Why aren’t you on a plane, right now?’

‘Personal matter. There’s nothing in the pipeline so I’m taking time off.’ he said.

Larry grunted with disbelief.

‘You pulled one of my analysts to look up everything on a pair of bombings in Illinois, David.’

David said nothing.

‘There was a woman killed. British, according to the news. Look, the FBI are all over this. Just come home and I’ll light a fire under their arses to get it dealt with.’ Larry said.

David swallowed, his throat tight with regret and a cold, hard anger. Watching the videos fed something terrible in him, kept the wound open and bleeding without the mercy of unconsciousness to ease it.

‘I know, Larry. I’m taking leave. I’ll behave myself.’ he said.

Larry sighed with a longstanding weariness.

‘If this turns out to be another Rotherham situation, we’re both fucked.’ he said.

The police still found bodies, members of a child grooming gang. David accepted the damage within himself, but he used it, like a wolf uses its howl to communicate.

‘No, it won’t be like Rotherham.’ he said.

David saw an email had come through and opened it. Forensics reports, eyewitness testimony, drafts of warrants to investigate militia activity all scanned and converted to digital files. David told Larry he would be in touch and switched off the phone.

A viscous tension pooled in his eye sockets but he read through everything. He made notes of the names before he opened his briefcase and found the FBI badge, slipped it into the pocket of his suit jacket and stood up.

He called a cab to the hospital.

7.

Ibrahim drifted in and out of a cotton soft haze of narcotics. He would emerge to see daylight then drift off, returning to find it was dark as time passed on, indifferent to his grief and trauma.

He awoke to see the man sat at the end of his bed.

‘Hello, Ibrahim.’ he said.

Through his one good eye, Ibrahim saw him stand up and walk over to the side of the bed. He spoke to Ibrahim in perfect Arabic, introduced himself as Special Agent Garrett and wondered if he could ask him a few questions.

Ibrahim’s one good eye sparkled with tears as he nodded.

‘I understand there will be complications from your injuries and your recollections might be unclear but anything you can give me will help me catch these people.’

Ibrahim noted the use of the singular and tried to focus on the man. His use of Arabic was comforting but also unnerving to him.

He nodded and answered the man’s questions. They confused him, details about the routines of the mosque and its proximity to other places in town, before he asked after Ibrahim’s uncle.

Ibrahim cleared his throat.

‘You’re not from the FBI, are you?’ he said.

The man put his hand over Ibrahim’s and put his mouth to his ear to whisper.

‘The Prophet never avenged for his own self, Ibrahim. Neither will you.’ he said.

Ibrahim wept as much as the drugs allowed him, and the man left without speaking further. Ibrahim prayed for him.

8.

Rick gave the man a pamphlet as he walked past the clinic. He stopped and looked at it like someone had spat into his hand, but he folded it before tucking it into the pocket of his suit.

‘I understand you were at the clinic.’ the man said.

Rick had been on a coffee run, but the second hand glory was too powerful to resist and his assumption of divine providence made him something of a martyr to the rest of the congregation. There was no one alive from the small group to contradict him, aside from Betty and she was in an unresponsive coma from where a brick had glanced off her temple, propelled by the force of the explosion.

Rick could not meet the implacable gaze and he gulped, struggling to contain himself.

‘Yes, sir, God’s wrath is a terrible and beautiful thing to see.’

The man’s face tightened and his lips drew back over his teeth. His brown eyes burned with something cold and vicious which made Rick step backwards.

‘What did you see?’ the man said.

He had heard the explosion, and as he drew closer, smelled the smoke and blood. He had stumbled over someone’s dismembered arm and saw how the clinic door had impaled the British nurse.

The man grimaced and stepped towards Rick.

‘Did she say anything?’

Rick tried to back away but the man’s fingers clamped around his elbow, pinching into the soft meat of his triceps and found a set of nerves which shot agony through his arm, pinned him to the spot as he looked around for someone to help.

Rick told him. The man walked away.

There were fifty pamphlets left but Rick went home, locked the door and drew the curtains, watched the 700 Club and struggled not to cry with humiliation. If God were watching, he would understand, he told himself.

9.

Mike soldered the wires with care, humming to himself as he worked on the last electronic components of the device, the guts of an old cell phone re-purposed to allow them to activate the explosion via bluetooth. The rest of the device was plastic and ceramic around a core of C4 explosive, studded with nails and razor blades. It fit inside a Blue’s Clues lunchbox, and there were six boxes of similar dimensions in the packing crate below his feet.

His workshop was in the garage. It had been a labour of love, built to indulge his hobby of amateur electronics before he met Terry and figured out a new use for the space and equipment. For a bomb maker, Mike was proud he had all his fingers and limbs, but the information was available, even from the jihadists who posted details and schematics amongst upper case rants on the depravity of the American people. There was an irony to it which escaped Mike, but ideology left so little room for nuance.

The tube light flickered overhead and went out. Mike swore under his breath and set the iron down on the bench, switched it off with a brush of his thumb. He pushed his stool back, thinking about where the spares were.

He did not have time to scream before the cloth clamped around his nose and mouth, the high chemical stink insinuating into his head as he passed out from the force. Someone caught him as he fell into a deep, implacable blackness.

Mike awoke with the worst headache and strapped to the recliner in the living room with bungee cords. Someone had turned his Xbox and tv on, so the introduction music on Battlefield One shook the air. Mrs Foster was his only neighbour and she had gone to her grandson in Columbus for a long weekend.

‘Good evening Mike.’

He could not place the accent through the impenetrable barrier of the headache. He narrowed his eyes and looked around his living room.

‘What is this?’ he said.

A low chuckle caressed the back of his neck and he shuddered.

‘You will tell me the names of the other militia members and where they meet.’ he said.

Mike grunted and struggled against the cords.

The man walked around to face him. He was tan, with short dark hair and spectacles, wearing a black t-shirt and jeans. He held a stained white towel in one hand and a litre bottle of water in the other.

‘Fuck you.’ Mike said.

His anger was genuine, but the fear grew more intense with each second.

The man laughed and Mike recognised the accent. British.

‘Now, Mike, I admire your bravado but I had a look in your garage and you’re better off telling me what I want to know.’ he said.

Mike’s laughter died in his throat as the man walked towards him.

‘I won’t tell you anything.’ Mike said.

It was the most courageous he had been, and no one was around to witness it. The thought weakened him but not as much as what the towel and bottle were for. The man lifted the towel up and raised his eyebrows.

‘This isn’t for refreshment, Mike. No, this is your sad little group’s biggest fear come to life.’ he said.

Mike squeezed out tears and grimaced as he shook his head over and over. The swelling strings of the soundtrack sounded mocking and grated his ears.

The man sat on the couch and put the towel and bottle on the coffee table where Mike could see it.

‘I only make the stuff. We’re fighting a war, man. We’re dying out.’ Mike said.

They were Terry’s words, not his and the man smiled as he sat back on the couch.

‘Who’s dying out? White men? Now there, you and I have common ground. I’m doing the work you and your friends dream of, but it’s more complicated than that.’ he said.

His tone was generous, without the coiled sense of threat Mike had absorbed from movies and television. He looked around him.

‘Do you read comics, Mike?’ he said.

Mike nodded in furious agreement. The man smirked and looked at Mike.

‘I’ve always been a nerd for them. Not so much the superheroes, but I grew up with 2000 A.D. We never went into superheroes so much, but comics, shit I’ve got tons of them in storage. Have you ever read Preacher?’ he said.

Mike hadn’t. He wished he had. He lowered his chin and shook his head.

‘There’s one of my favourite lines where Jesse, he’s got the Word of God, and he ends up a sheriff of this place called Salvation after getting chucked out a plane, and there are these Klan types and he walks up to one and tears his hood off.’

The man was smiling as he mimicked the action. Mike’s stomach clenched with fear and confusion.

‘He says something which struck me as profound for a comic book. Why are the biggest champions of the race the worst examples of it?’ he said.

Mike recoiled at the insult and struggled against the bonds without hope.

The man chuckled and sat back against the couch.

‘You’re buying into a narrative. The same one used to keep everyone down. Being a victim means you avoid having to take responsibility. If you’re black or disabled, gay or white, then it’s not your fault if you fail at anything, is it?’

Mike had no answer for him. The righteousness of his cause was real to him, and the man’s mockery stung more than the chemicals used to knock him out.

‘You’re weak, all of you. Bombing mosques and a women’s health clinic, that’s weak shit.’ he said.

Mike wept, but it garnered no reaction from the man at all. He sighed and waited for him to stop crying.

‘You’re a talented boy, Mike. You should be proud of your craft, despite being a massive cunt.’ he said.

‘It didn’t throw me. I’ve got a nose for these things, and when I found the groups you were into on Facebook, one phone call to Cambridge Analytica and I had your name and address.’ he said.

Mike shuddered and wept again. He did not see the blow coming until it turned his face, a stinging rebuke which blasted his self pity away.

‘Please, don’t kill me.’ he said.

The man stood up and ran his tongue over his lips.

‘The nurse at the clinic, the one who got impaled on the door. I knew her.’ he said.

‘I met the boy who will never walk again.’ he said.

His voice had roughened and Mike wondered if it was a trick of the light at the dampness in the man’s eyes before he picked up the towel and bottle.

‘But the nurse, Mike, I fucking loved her to the bone and I let her go because I thought this was more important.’ he said.

He unscrewed the lid on the bottle and tossed it to the carpet as he walked behind the recliner.

‘A man, Mike, has to have a purpose, even if it costs him to follow it.’ he said.

His voice cracked with emotion, which frightened Mike more than when he was glib and relaxed.

Mike twisted as the man put the towel over his face and held it in place with his left hand.

‘You’ll understand it when I’m done.’ he said.

Mike’s lungs heaved as he struggled for air beneath the careful deluge of water through the towel. His panicked breaths drew on every fibre of his being but he broke without too much effort.

It did not take much of the bottle before Mike was shrieking out names and addresses. The man made Mike repeat them without attempting to write them down.

‘I’m sorry I had to do it, Mike. I’ll make this quick.’ he said.

Mike wondered what he meant before the palm came up and hit him square in the centre of his face, driving the nasal bone into his brain.

David took a few things with him after he had wiped down where he had sat and left evidence which would throw things off enough to finish the rest of it.

10.

Chris rang Terry whilst he was on his lunch. Terry said nothing until his babbling had smoothed out into a choked sob.

‘Mike didn’t touch drugs, this has to be something else.’ he said

Terry told him to get the others and meet at the motel tonight. He ended the call and went back to the site, looking at the house he was building and wondering if he would see it completed. A cold sense of resolve washed over him as he slipped his phone back into his pocket.

‘It’s good work.’

Terry turned and looked at the man who stood next to him. He wore a dark pinstripe suit and smiled at Terry with a familiarity which tested his taciturn expression.

‘Thanks, I should get back to it. Can’t get the help these days.’ he said.

Beaners or niggers?’ the man said.

Terry scowled as he walked away.

‘I find having the courage of your convictions shows the measure of a man, Terry.’ he said.

Terry froze as his heart thumped. He swallowed and tasted copper as he stood up straight and turned around with care.

‘Do I know you, mister?’ he said.

The man shook his head.

‘No, you don’t. I bumped into Jenny when she dropped Rachel at daycare, beautiful family you’ve got there, Terry.’ he said.

Terry snorted through his nose and stood there, calculating the distance it would take to get close to the man and whether he could take him down. He had left the gun in the car, unloaded as the law demanded, but he itched to have it with him.

‘Mister, you seem like a smart man, if you’ve got something to say, say it.’ he said.

The man shook his head.

‘No, this is me fucking with you for sport. I don’t say things, I act.’ he said.

He turned and walked away without looking back. Terry’s hands shook as he reached for his phone and called Pete.

11.

Pete had set his rifle up from the back of the flatbed truck, hidden underneath a tarp with the scope trained on the window of the room they used. It was a.22 long rifle with a weaver scope and he had parked 150 yards away, just at the point where the round went from supersonic to subsonic. He adjusted for the drop at the distance but after popping sand niggers in the desert, Pete liked to think he was defending his homeland enough to factor in the physics.

Whoever the limey fuck was, he would not fuck with The White Rabbit and live. Pete knew the feds were circling, but they had time to get clear. Running was an option but Terry wanted this guy taken down. A last scalp before they all packed up and went out to Montana where there were people who could hide them until things blew over.

Plus, Pete thought, being white helped.

He chewed on the piece of jerky until it softened to the consistency of gum and sipped the bottle of water as he watched Chris and Terry enter the room.

Nice and smooth, he thought. They would lure the guy in, get him by the window and Pete would shoot him. The suppressor would reduce the sound to little more than a cough and it would be over.

The White Rabbit understood the first rule of guerilla warfare:

Make your weaknesses your strengths. They were a small, tight cell and able to react with speed but Pete had liked Mike, and so laid there, he vowed to avenge his brother. Running sucked, but it meant they could come back, harder and stronger when this fucker was in the ground.

He looked through the sight and waited to make his shot.

12.

Terry and Chris went through the motions of setting up a video, both touching the holstered pistols on their hips for unconscious reassurance as they waited for something to fall upon them.

‘He’s a limey?’ Chris said.

Terry grunted and nodded as he reached for the balaclava from underneath the pillow.

‘Shut up and film me. We need to make this look real.’ he said.

Chris nodded as Terry rolled the balaclava down over his head. He caught a whiff of something acrid and sharp before he tried to pull it off as he bellowed with horror. Chris dropped the camera with shock at the sight of Terry’s face.

Red and pink sizzling blisters covered his face. He held his hands to his face and bolted past Chris to the door as he scratched for the door handle. Chris ran to him, turned him around and caught the stink of corroding flesh before he vomited down himself with shock at his friend’s ruined face.

13.

Pete frowned as he reached for his phone but he stopped when he felt the weight shift in the back of the truck before a hammer blow landed on the base of his skull. He tried to roll onto his side but a foot stamped between his shoulder blades and forced the breath from his lungs, cracking ribs and tearing the tip of his scapulae off as he struggled to improve his position.

The man loomed above him.

‘I’m a man who likes to work with his hands.’ he said.

Pete felt his life slip away in a series of judicious blows as the man beat him to death with his own rifle.

14.

Chris dragged Terry outside, looking around as he watched Pete’s pick up rocking on its wheels as two men struggled in the back. He drew his gun and fired blind as Terry mewled with agony, limp with the insult as the skin melted off his face. Chris felt something wet and gelid fall onto his shoulder and when he turned, Terry’s cheek had fallen off. He screamed and pushed him away as he cried out in horror.

The figure stepped down from the truck and disappeared from view.

Chris looked at the gun and met Terry’s eyes as they melted down his face like defrosted ice cream. Terry clutched at his shoulder and rasped out a single word.

‘Please.’ he said

Chris looked at his friend and raised the gun as he heard the faint cry of sirens in the distance. He squeezed the trigger as he gave his friend the gift of mercy.

15.

Blake stood by the grave, numb and struggling to keep upright as he looked at the headstone. Life had paused at the worst moment, and he veered between bleak disconnection and anger at how the world had gone on without him.

The news featured the arrest of the militia member who had turned on the others and been shot by police at a local motel used as a base of operations. Blake had watched the tearful wife of the leader and felt nothing but a grinding contempt as she denied all knowledge of the enterprise. He came to see Jessica’s grave every day even as the sympathy of others around him depleted by the raw gravitational pull of his pain.

It was a warm afternoon when he saw the man walk over to him.

‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ he said.

A British accent drew Blake from his inward focus as he looked up. The man was unshaven, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses as he looked at the headstone.

‘Did you know her?’ Blake said.

The man nodded without taking his attention from the headstone.

‘Yes, she was a good girl.’ he said.

His voice was slow and rough with fatigue as he took off the sunglasses and offered his hand to him. Blake was taken aback by the pain in the man’s eyes but he took his hand with whatever grace was available to him.

David looked at Blake, forced down the tumultuous blend of emotions, envy and kinship for the mutual loss alongside the need to control his emotions. It was a beautiful day but David felt like he was underneath a long, cold shadow wherever he went. The fact he wasn’t alone offered no comfort and an explanation of his association with Jessica would make things worse. He looked into Blake’s eyes with a cold frankness.

‘I killed them and I made it hurt, Blake. It doesn’t bring her back but you’ve got to start somewhere, haven’t you?’ he said.

Blake furrowed his forehead as David let go of his hand and put his sunglasses on. He smiled at Blake and walked away.

David’s phone rang and he answered it. Larry had a car waiting for him and asked if he was coming back to work. David remembered the late nights with Jessica, back when this life was an idea and he had a choice to make about his future and the warmth of her skin, the overbite when she smiled and the way she rolled her cigarettes.

David sighed and looked at the Lincoln which idled at the kerb. He didn’t have to tell Larry he was back at work.

He had never left.

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beauty, politics, short fiction, women

Beatrice, On Departure

Beatrice sat in the departure lounge. She had allowed herself a soy latte, decaf after she had her vitamin drip. She looked up from her phone, appalled and excited to see if anyone recognised her.

No one did. She sent her location and a photograph of her latte to her platforms. These neurotic pronouncements were what she was doing instead of writing the second season. She thought about going into the writer’s room and tasted metals on her tongue. Beatrice was playing ring-a-rose with people who would stab her in the kidneys if they thought it granted them time with HBO and she was flying out with a vague idea on how to proceed with season two.

Both her parents had moved onto second marriages, but held onto inherited monies and well-paid work in the art world. They were patrons and Beatrice, despite her anxious flamboyance, was subject to their patronage. She aimed for the kindness of her audience by apologizing for it.

Social media was the perfect drug for her. Otherwise she was teetotal, vegan and drug-free. She wasn’t sure if Lexapro counted. Everyone she knew was on something. Her anxiety was symbiotic and it had allowed her enough success to not have to ask her parents for money as often as she used to. Beatrice resented having to ask at all because they used to know. She watched a pair of men walk up to the counter, both in suits.

They were close enough to listen. Beatrice’s fingers hovered over the screen, ready to record it for posterity. She wouldn’t risk video but a recollection would be interesting. Perhaps, she thought, I could hashtag it with something. There were, she thought, a father and son. She tweeted about how great it was to see fathers and sons out together but she worried about seen as misogynist so she deleted it.

‘I know I’m over thinking it.’ the younger man said.

The older man scratched his beard.

‘You are.’ he said.

Beatrice rolled her eyes. The paucity of their talk offended her.

She had been sharing a lot of trans support stuff of late.

Oh god they’re talking about trans women!

The reaction was immediate. More likes than comments, and people shared it. A drop of intention into the ocean of the internet, and people drank deep. She looked up, saw both men were looking at her. The older man’s eyes were dark with concern.

She used some of their conversation, to give it some colour. It was important to seed your story with detail. Beatrice tricked herself into her best writing, and here she was, exposed to the internet.

Beatrice took three or four photos. People were posting about observations about the men, and soon the internet knew who they were.

The older man reached into his jacket and took out his phone. He read the screen, scowled and stood up. He looked at Beatrice.

‘Excuse me, are you tweeting about us right now?’ he said.

Beatrice swallowed and looked away.

‘No, and why would you shout at someone like that? I have anxiety.’ she said.

Her fingers were dancing across the screen.

‘You’re doing it now, aren’t you?’ he said.

The younger man looked at his phone and then turned his head to stare at her.

‘She’s sent photos. What is wrong with you?’ he said.

Beatrice’s heart beat hard against her ribs. She put the phone back in her handbag. Taking video would have made things worse, but it would have been great to see those angry men berating her.

No one would ask what prompted it. It would come later, but by then, people would talk about it. She gritted her teeth and stood up. Her legs wobbled and she pulled her bag close to her chest.

They called her flight and she walked away.

She sat down, stared at the screen, saw the notifications piling up before an email came through.

‘Studio is pissed! If you’re not on your way, call me. If you are, stay off the internet, I AM SERIOUS’

Her head swam with a delicious dizziness. She was falling without moving. The sensible, professional thing to do was to mute the notifications, wait for it to die down and reassure the studio it was performance art.

Beatrice yearned to be a disappointment. She opened her app and composed a message about the assault she’d experienced.

 

 

My book Until She Sings is out now.

Ebook:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07XJRDND8If

Paperback: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1692105566/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_i_4akEDb3FTWNKR

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books, politics, short fiction, women

The Truth Of His Heart

(This came from my bemusement at the calls for a female Bond, when there was the Jolie vehicle Salt, but from there, it became about the interplay between victim and actor and who is who. I hope you enjoy it)

1.

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 small 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 safe to drink now. The first act of the new government was investment in infrastructure, 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 difficult habit to break because you shared concerns about a loss of identity to Dr Snyder back in April.’

It took a great 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?’

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.

Which was always my goal. But I digress, 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.’

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.

How, 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.

Because, Esther, I allowed you to.’

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.’

2.

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. American father. 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 his secondment was a punishment for 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.

‘Bin Laden.’

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 whole 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.

‘You’re both right. 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 and 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 made a see-saw motion with his right hand.

‘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 good marriage.

‘Wouldn’t the president be a better target? We’ve got candidates who favour a better deal with us.’ King said.

Ellis shook his head.

‘He’s a good 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.

I knew.

3.

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.’

He grinned.

‘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 were 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. If he had something in mind for me, it would have happened. 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 compelling.

‘Why wouldn’t I seek to do something about it? But to do it from the outside would have been foolish. 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 no longer 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, Gadafi, 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, in a small voice, for another cigarette. He offered it and then lit another 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.

4.

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 are 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.

Mateo.

I put the note down and 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, these items said.

I looked out towards the ocean, playing with the ring but unable to avoid glancing at the phone. My head throbbed with the after effects 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.

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poetry, politics

Flat Clown World

Is it the years I’ve lived?

Could be they were mostly ugly times,

Remembered through the veil

Of years,

But the calliope music is loud

Like God requested the age

Be the ridiculousness

And even the fervent gather information

Present it as evidence

Or clutch their pearls in

Masked indignation

And the clouds gather

There has always been the

Threat of rain

But I opened my coat

Come shelter

I’ll tell you stories

Until it passes

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poetry, politics

We Will Figure It Out

We will figure this out

Turn off the t.v.

Look outside

See how the wind kisses the

Trees

And the clouds all gather to gossip

Above you

Think about the breath you just took

Remember you’re wonder

And suffering

Because both sit within you

And history will pass

And we will laugh at these times.

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poetry, politics

Zombie Movies

I’m watching zombie 

Movies and the phone

Pinging with

Fits of neuroses

Squeezed into strait jackets

Not even a silver of moon

And everyone goes feral

Happy, bland faces

Gnawing at people’s futures

To feed a belly adapted for

some notion of justice

it is a hunger

Bland and cold

Relentless and puritan

The mob, clawing

And I turn the movie off

But it doesn’t end anymore

Does it?

I finger the faded bite scars

Remember how I too

Shambled and bit on

Hearsay

But I’m human now

Forgiving and puzzled

By how mindless hunger

Is mistaken for hilarity

And the disinfecting

Sunlight

when (read another book)

It’s all too close to beautiful

To see

The headshot rebuilt 

My brain

And I shut the door

Hear their nails clawing at the door

Wonder when they’ll come 

For

Me

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poetry, politics

black marketing

he works in something

not marketing

(but marketing)

a series of acronyms which make my

head hurt

but he’s engaging

On the verge of laughing at an inappropriate

Joke

Black marketing

So when someone sticks razor blades

Into Halloween apples

It sells the season, the right mix of cute and creepy,

Market penetration

Saying it with a smile

Reddened gums and he sniffs a lot

Perpetual nasal drip

But still

Poison in painkillers

A serial killer using a particular brand

Of weapon, shaking videos

Highlighting the name

Chuckling, he says

Companies pay to keep this

Stuff out of the press

But it helps

No one stopped drinking

Coke after the death squads in

Bottling plants

Boycotts are viral too

Changing a product name

Paying someone to complain

(There’s always a verbose child

Asking a pointed question)

I ask what company he works for

Laughing, he says

I’m a consultant.

They come to me.

We exchange numbers

And as he walks through the airport,

I wonder if he’ll be a good person

To know during the apocalypse

Either as its architect

Or someone knowing when

Something truly awful

Goes viral

Bacterial

Nuclear

Mushroom clouds spilling

Radioactive retweets

Blind, mewling likes

With their parent’s faces

i feel a sudden urge

to hold someone i love

ask them to put the phone down

and look at me

like i’m in the room

 

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