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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books, men, short fiction, women

The Bullet Found You

He ran in his dreams.

There was the recollection of his uncoiled youth. Slim and taut with muscle, even at twelve. It taints his memories of his youth with crude washes of horror and regret.

These dreams woke him, trembling and confused. It was a long time ago, and yet these dreams returned like a recurring complaint. He was a man who could have someone killed with a phone call, but in his dreams, he ran from the train with the snap of bullets passing by him.

He got up, poured himself a good measure of single malt, lit a cigarette and walked to the living room.

Benny stood up when he walked in, his mouth twisted into a knot of concern but Ernest waved him off. Despite wearing nothing but a robe, Benny responded to him like he were in an expensive suit, but Ernest sat down and looked at his employee with something close to need.

‘Do you ever have bad dreams, Benny?’ he said.

His voice was a thin, reedy whisper but Benny furrowed his brow and considered the question with great importance. He shook his head and emitted a small squeak of a no.

Ernest chuckled and took a sip of the whisky. He sat back and drew on the cigarette.

‘Is everything ok, Mr Wolfowitz?’

Ernest let his head tilt backwards as he blew out a plume of smoke.

‘I guess. You can sit down, Benny. I’m worried you can see my junk from there.’

Benny sat down fast enough to make the cushions jump and Ernest sat up to look across at him. He ran his tongue across his lips, left to right, before he let it settle in the right corner of his mouth. His eyelids were low as he took another pull on the cigarette before settling into the couch.

‘Thanks for not saying either way. I make you nervous, huh?’ he said.

Benny nodded and flicked a nervous smile. His moustache was sweating as he looked at his boss.

‘Just this is the first time I’ve sat across from you. You said, if I see you, it means something’s gone wrong.’ he said.

Ernest recalled saying it, and a small burst of regret singed his insides.

‘I meant, I need no interruptions, Benny. I’m not an asshole to you guys.’ he said.

Ernest set the tumbler down on the floor by his feet as he adjusted his robe.

“Relax. We’re just talking,” he said.

Benny had never served, but he nodded in agreement again and say thank you. His reaction pleased Ernest, who picked up the tumbler again and took another appreciative sip. Its warm burn relaxed him as he blinked and chased it down with a puff on the cigarette.

‘I have this dream, Benny. The same dream, over and over.’

2.

You know the worst thing?

How ordinary those men were. You think of them as monsters but it is too easy, gives you an out if you ever wonder about your own capacity for evil, Benny, I tell you. A unit of volunteers, police in their own country, but they volunteered to come and do their duty.

They came to the village at night. Pulled from our houses like vermin, gathered together in the square as they watched us, made sure we didn’t run away. My father had died last year, so I was the only man left in my family.

There was nothing I could do. Nothing at all. Twelve years old, and looking at those men, barbers and engineers at home but here. Gathering us up to take a train.

. They kept the men together, and packed us in so tight, Such a thing, I couldn’t breathe, but I was thin and so I moved to the sides, pressed to find any cool, clean air to breathe in. Each breath stunk of other people, all of us, soiled and doomed.

Such a thing to smell, Benny, I tell you.

Escape? No, such a thing was a dream and I was very much awake.

But I didn’t stop looking. They were not smart men, who put us in these carriages. Some of them smelled of too much beer and looked at us like they expected us to tell them what to do. One of them was slack on securing the door. I watched him do it.

But I remembered, Benny, and when we got to the train yards, it would pass the woods outside my village.

The woods were my favourite place to play, I knew them well.

My hands shook as the train slowed down, ready to take on more passengers. My heart was in my throat but I made myself push the door open. The night air fell on me like a cool wave, and I cried out with a savage joy. There was a rough hand at my back then I was tumbling forwards, landing in the dirt hard enough to knock the air from my lungs.

I got to my feet, heard the shouts go up and then the guns firing at me.

Have you ever ran like your life depended on it?

It is not an easy thing to do. Part of you wants the defeat, like a wound which can never heal and it gives you a reason to be clumsy, Benny, but fight it when it comes.

They were not good shots. It was not a matter of pride for them, to be competent soldiers. It was to my fortune they missed me.

Others behind me, were not so lucky, but they died free.

Still, they died.

The worst thing is, I don’t dream about my mother or my sisters. My father had been dead for three years by then. None of those things bother me, Benny, but do you know what does?

In my dreams, Benny, I dream about them shooting me. Or worse, catching me and putting me onto the train again. What sort of man thinks about those things?

What sort of man dreams about the bullet which never found you?

3.

Benny fought back tears as he coughed into his hand before he looked up at his boss.

‘We all have times when we think about how things could have gone down, Mr Wolfowitz.’ he said.

Ernest tilted his head to one side, curious despite his exhaustion.

‘But I didn’t get shot, Benny. I made it, and then from there to all of this.’ he said.

There was no need for a gesture, Benny knew. If you worked for Mr Wolf, you knew what he did to keep what was his and added to it with the same fervour. If James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, then Ernest Wolfowitz was the hardest working man in crime. One of the wealthiest too, and he had moved a lot of dirty cash in clean, legitimate vehicles but if you bought a dime bag, Mr Wolf made money from it.

‘I know, but we still think about it. If it makes you feel fortunate, then it’s God talking to you.’

Ernest frowned and picked up his glass.

‘He does not talk Benny. Not since he packed my family into the trains.’

Benny sat back, remembering how his girlfriend had told him to stay off religion or politics in polite conversation with anyone you didn’t want to piss off. He folded his hands and put them into his lap.

‘Sometimes he doesn’t say nice things, but he tells you the truth.’ he said.

Ernest watched him before he drained the rest of the glass and stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray. He got up, adjusted himself inside his robe and walked away without speaking. Benny stood up as he left, but Ernest did not acknowledge the gesture. Benny waited until he heard the click of the bedroom door before he sat down.

He wondered how much trouble he was in until dawn when the next guy came in to take over and he drove back to his apartment. When the phone rang, he heard Yanni, one of Mr Wolf’s lieutenants, tell him a car was outside.

Benny ran to the bathroom and vomited before rinsing his mouth out with water and throwing on a jacket as he ran downstairs.

Someone set a chess board up in the study. Mr Wolf sat with a crystal decanter of scotch and a welcoming smile which unnerved Benny as he looked at the empty chair opposite him.

‘Sit down, Benny.’ he said.

Benny sat down and looked at Mr Wolf.

‘Am I in trouble, sir?’ he said.

Ernest shook his head.

‘If you were, you’d know.’ he said.

This, Benny knew, was Mr Wolf. The old man last night, he wasn’t someone to mess with, but this man before him, although he wore the same face, held himself apart from everyone and everything.

Mr Wolf poured Benny a drink and handed it to him.

‘No, Benny, I thought it useful to talk about God with someone I trust not to tell anyone.’ he said.

Benny went to say like a confession but remembered his girlfriend’s advice and bit down on his tongue. The scotch stung him, but he kept his impulse under control.

‘Mr Wolf.’ he said.

Ernest shook his head.

‘No, Benny, call me Ernest.’ he said.

It was the start of a great friendship. They held one another’s confidence for five years before a stroke took out Mr Wolf and left him bedridden. Benny took half a million from the Garcia Cartel to hold a pillow to his friend’s face, but as he felt him relax. Benny was glad at the end, it was down to him. Tears ran down his face as he leaned over and whispered into Ernest’s ear.

‘The bullet found you.’ he said.

Benny recognised himself in the ordinary men who shoved Ernest’s family into the streets, and it had killed his own faith. As Ernest died, part of Benny died with him. The rest of it followed a week later when the Garcia Cartel decided Benny was too expensive to keep around.

It was on a train out of the city, Benny had sat in first class, which made him easy to find. When the three men, not much more than boys, closed the doors behind them, Benny smiled. They were competent, and they promised to be quick.

His bullet had found him, too.

He looked forward to telling Ernest about it.

 

 

 

My book Until She Sings is out now.

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The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly

Micky Haller is a criminal defence lawyer who inherits the firm of an old friend after they’re murdered. One of the clients, a Hollywood producer accused of murder, presents a lucrative but dangerous opportunity for Micky.

Connelly is brilliant. He puts together these poignant, sometimes verging on bleak plots but the characters and material find the warmth there and it raises the craft element of crime where it’s like wrestling with the big issues of the world. Haller has flaws and makes mistakes but he’s smart, resourceful and endearing.

Connelly also has a wonderful eye for consistency as characters from other books of his turn up in various capacities. It’s similar to what George Pelecanos does and, tangentially, what superhero comics do, and it’s a pleasant experience for the long term reader of his work.

I love this book. It’s entertaining and doesn’t waste your time or attention. It demands it.

My book Until She Sings is out now.

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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

I’ve been working through a reading list, more classic books and this is one of them. In my leisure time, I enjoy genre work. However there’s also the craft element of my writing to consider as well as the benefits of good literature.

Having read this soon after The Executioners Song by Norman Mailer, there are thematic similarities which made it a more thoughtful read for me. The Clutter family, their friends and community, the law enforcement agencies who investigated and prosecuted their murder are written with insight and warmth, and Capote extends this to the pair of murderers, without sparing us from the damage they embodied and inflicted.

It is a masterpiece of reportage and imagination, there are lines of acute insight and warmth but Capote never forgets to keep the whole thing moving and growing.

There is a respect for the horror and beauty of life here and although it’s the first Capote I’ve read, it won’t be the last.

My book Until She Sings is out now.

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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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Queue

His hair was thin, laying odd where he had taken his hat off upon coming into the bank. He had dyed it at some point, trading the recognisable golden-blonde halo for a dull, tobacco brown. It was more honest, like the man had been a useful shell, something to discard when the need arose. What lived inside that man was one person in front of her.

 

There was a livid white headed pimple visible above the collar of his shirt with a circle of inflamed skin around it. He carried the packed sour musk of poor hygiene. He had tried to make an effort with his clothes but he looked fragile. He had walked around as a god in a crisp white polo shirt and shorts, the silver whistle dangling between the cleft of his pectorals as he shouted out plays from the dugout.

 

He used to smell of nautical aftershave, a clean bold smell to him that reminded her of limes and now made her mouth fill up with vomit if she ever caught a whiff of it. She could not see his hands. She remembered how they would rest on the line of her neck.

 

He looked shorter than she remembered. The years had whittled him down whilst hers had been building a body that she considered hers again.

 

She leaned out and saw the harassed teller struggle to remain polite with the elderly gentleman, his balding head shining and fragile in the afternoon light as he tried to remember his account number.

 

This was the second day of following him, but the first that she did not have to rely on guessing where he might have been. She had watched him stop at the store and pick up a copy of a magazine he kept rolled up and inside a plastic bag that he brought with him. His chest would rise from excitement and look both ways as he left the store to return home.

 

She had walked in and shoplifted three magazines, took them back under her coat to her hotel room and took them apart. She removed the staples with needle nose pliers and replaced them with wire transmitters that fed to an app on her phone. All ordered over the internet which he probably was banned from going on. Hence the need for analogue release, which was a slick, distasteful thing to consider and she spat it away.

 

Returning the magazines was more difficult than stealing them had been. She did it in five trips, losing her nerve on the third and fourth. She watched him go back to the store.

 

She watched him go to the store, return home with milk, bread and another magazine. Her phone beeped with a connection. He did not have a cellphone which was almost an atavism these days, but she could follow him.

 

She looked different too. She had become a woman which would not interest him anymore.

 

She had never picked up a baseball bat again and had switched to judo. After getting her black belt in that and competing at a state level, she had begun to study Brazilian ju-jitsu and even got into muay thai kickboxing. Her hair was still long, tucked up beneath a ball cap. Her complexion was soft, hints of peach and milky coffee. She wore a long green sweater with sleeves that hung over her hands and black leggings with unlaced boots. The clothes softened her, hid the cast of her shoulders and the raw, callused strength in her hands from all the years gripping the thick white material of the ghi. She had no intention of fighting him because it would be too quick, too awkward.

 

In the queue he turned and glanced at her, gave a distant but sickly smile then turned away.

 

It stung that he did not recognise her.

 

She kept her eyes on him, feeding her hate for him to keep her alert.

 

It became his turn to conduct business with the teller.

 

He was closing his account, which warranted one of the bank’s officers coming over to speak with him. She stood there, looking straight ahead as close as she had been since the trail. Her heart pounded in her chest and her limbs shook with the need to strike out at him.

 

Every heavy bag bore his face that she threw knees and elbows into.

 

She turned around and walked away. She was desperate for some fresh air.

 

She stood three people behind him in the post office as he filled out some forms to have his mail forwarded to him.

 

She stood outside the travel agents as he spoke to the travel agent, shook hands with her but failed to see the speed with which she reached for the hand sanitizer when he had left.

 

She did not follow him into the coffee shop. She had followed him for long enough, now it was time to hunt him.

 

2.

 

He let himself into his apartment and shut the door behind him. He stood against it and exhaled deeply as he stretched out his lower back. He switched the light on and stood the bag of groceries on the table. He reached into his coat and pulled out a pouch of rolling tobacco, made himself a cigarette and sat underneath the blinking fluorescent light, smoked it and stared out at nothing.

 

He shut his eyes and felt a vein in his temple throb with the beginnings of a headache.

 

He finished the cigarette and stubbed it out before putting the groceries away. He was too exhausted to eat; he had planned to jerk off and go to sleep. Tomorrow would be a new day for him, he told himself, one more day and he could go somewhere else, start again.

 

He unbuttoned his shirt in the doorway of his bedroom when he heard the creak of a floorboard behind him and started to turn.

 

The knee in the small of his back pushed the air from his lungs and he went to fall forward until he felt a pair of hands clamp onto his shoulders and pulled him back into the hallway. He tried to turn around, but the hands pulled him up.

 

He tried to speak, but he would be punished with another punch or a knee. He kept trying to move into the bedroom, but she used his shirt as a rein. He probably still thought it was a man beating him up.

 

He threw his arm up to shove her away, which she took in the shoulder and returned with a crisp jab to his nose that spread it across his face in a wet crack. Agony bolted through his head, splitting his brain in two with its bright fury.

 

He covered his face in his hands and she watched blood trickling between his fingers.

 

‘Get up, Coach.’ she said.

 

He pulled his hands away, the lower half of his face dark and shining with blood. His teeth were small and dull in his mouth, and his eyes welled up with tears.

 

‘No, please. I’ve been on a program. I can’t even talk to children anymore.’ he said.

 

She shook her head and took her cap off, stepped forward into the light.

 

‘You’re talking to one right now. ‘

 

Her eyes were dry and cold.

 

‘I was just going to scare you at first. I wanted you to know what that felt like.’

 

He put his hands up in front of him and shook his head.

 

‘Please, I’m a good person, I wasn’t but I’m trying to be.’

 

She stepped forwards and stared into his eyes.

 

‘I’ve followed you, Coach, what you were doing weren’t the actions of a good man.’

 

She ran her tongue across her lips.

 

‘None of them were, not ever.’

 

Her voice regressed and she was ten years old again, looking into his eyes and knowing what the sun would like if it had a face.

 

Before it scorched something inside her, made it charred and dead.

 

It was the little girl who made her run forward.

 

The choke went in quick and deep. Between her crossed thighs, his face turned purple and swollen, his eyes turning red from where blood vessels haemorrhaged as she constricted his blood supply to his brain.

 

She kept his arm straight and held between her hands until it went slack, then stayed on until her abdomen and thighs started to cramp. She crawled off him, fighting the burn of lactic acid from the effort of keeping the choke held in.

 

The air had begun to smell damp around him and she got away.

 

She slipped out of the room, then the building and pulled her hood up then jammed her hands in her pockets.

 

The queue for the Greyhound wasn’t long, but she kept looking ahead, waiting for the wail of sirens and it was when she got on and looked out of the window that she started to cry again. She curled her knees up to her chest and hugged herself.

 

She thought of home, and for the first time, did not feel sick.

 

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