Categories
fiction short fiction

The Truth Of His Heart

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 slight cry, and his hand encircled my wrist. It excited and appalled me how small I felt in his presence. Not diminished but small, nestled against his broad, furred chest as he slept with his palm on my breast. During the night, he would reach between my thighs and cup me without stirring. 

‘Tell me.’ he said. 

He was sometimes clumsy. Once, he entertained purchasing a motorcycle and my appalled rejection of the idea wounded him, but he hid it well. There were moments of grace with him, but he’d also drop glasses and miss spots where he shaved his head. Yet, for his endearing clumsiness and earnestness, it would have been stupid to assume it was a weakness. 

‘Please sit down.’ 

A waiter approached. Mateo ordered tea for me and an espresso for him. When the waiter left, his attention returned patient but implacable. It was difficult to breathe. He leaned forward, took my hand and turned it over, pressed his fingers to my wrist and looked at me. 

‘You’re agitated but trying to control it. With some success, I might add, Esther.’ he said. 

It was difficult to meet his gaze. My news would change things between us, forever. There was the possibility it meant my never leaving this cafe, but there was a gentle light in his eyes with me. If my betrayal dimmed it, then it would justify his wrath. 

There were stories about him. He would never speak of his work beyond generalities. 

‘To speak of my work is to relive it.’ he said. 

Each breath burned in my chest. The heat needled me, and when the waiter brought our order, Mateo poured me a glass of ice water from the carafe between us. He spoke through his actions, and the care, the attention he paid me came home to roost as we sat there. 

Waiting for me to talk to him.

‘At three a.m, covert action teams will mount simultaneous strikes against tactical targets all over the city.’ 

Mateo picked up his espresso and looked at me over the rims of his spectacles, nodded for me to go on. 

I shuddered, revolted and relieved as I picked up my glass and gulped down half in one go. My mouth was arid and sore, but the water soothed me enough to continue. There was a faint mineral taste to it, but it was pleasant. A first act of the new government was investment in infink nowrastructure, private funding in return for preferential tax breaks for future industrial sites. 

The barracks at Costa Verde. 
The Presidential Palace. 
Casa De Secretos. 

It was our name for it. He grimaced and closed his eyes as he set his cup down. He retrieved a cigarette case and lit one with a lighter which had FUCK COMMUNISM painted on it. It had been his father’s; he told me. A veteran of Vietnam before he met his wife, Mateo’s mother and they moved to her homeland, away from a country spoiled and venal. 

‘Cara Mia. This news troubles me.’ 

He exhaled a slow plume of smoke and took my hand across the table. 

‘But it is not unexpected.’ he said. 

He squeezed my fingers, showing strength without violence. 

‘What do you mean?’

He took off his spectacles and peered into my eyes. 

‘Tell me what you see there, Esther. I know it is your real first name. They have advised you to mix them up, but it’s a tough habit to break because you shared concerns about a loss of identity to Dr Snyder back in April.’ 

It took an impressive deal of control to remain calm. 
The relief of confession had masked a seething nest of revelations, a misinterpretation of the situation which terrified me. 

‘Do you know my mother’s profession, Esther?’ he said

She was a veterinarian.

Mateo nodded as he unbuttoned his jacket. 

‘She taught me lessons which ran parallel with my father’s instructions. Their beliefs informed my perspectives on the world. A place free from the tyranny of kings and clergy, free and prosperous with the grace to stop and enjoy the fruits of its labours. ‘
He paused to smooth his beard with his fingertips, a gesture somewhere between contemplation and grooming.

‘Which was always my goal. My mother’s lesson was in understanding the principles of animal husbandry. My innovation was to apply it as a macro-political exercise. Neutering when necessary, keeping the organism healthy and secure from all threats, foreign and domestic.’ 

He smiled, but it did not reach his eyes.  

I am not a monster. My aim is to take my country to the pinnacle of its achievements, then disappear and enjoy it in the time left. I’ve done things to protect it and have prepared for such an event as this.
My thighs and stomach were taut with the effort to rein in my feelings. His voice was quiet, a little above a smooth whisper, but he had my attention without effort. 

‘You don’t have the penetration into our operation, Mateo. We’ve been able to establish supply chains, flown in military advisers to train the militia.’ I said. 
My voice sounded sharp, a smashed glass at a wake which drew everyone’s attention.  

‘Because, Esther, I allowed you to.’ he said

He pointed up at the sky.

‘That is C-7623, piloted on this shift by Private Cole Wilkins, 115th Engineers of Terre Haute. He enjoys his work, but he’s hoping to launch missiles when the opportunity arises. Some of his reports concern me, Esther, but you won’t have seen them.’ 

My disbelief fell on me like a roll of quarters swung against the back of my head. He smiled and gestured around him. 

‘I planned against the worst scenarios. I imagined the ultimate enemy and how my country could survive it. Weak men have taken your country, but they will not take mine.’

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 this was a punishment for a previous failure, but he was an encyclopedia of the country’s politics and economy. He clapped his hands together. 

‘Costas took part in two SEAL missions. Notable ones. The rescue of Captain Phillips and then Operation Neptune Spear. Which is?’ 

I put my hand up.

‘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 entire operation.’ 

King, a former Delta Force operator who made the move into intelligence, put his hand up. 

‘I’ve read Keller’s report from last year, and he claims it was a committee which voted on supply requests.’ he said. 

Ellis winked at him.

‘ He requested investigatory powers, went through whatever police and career military survived the coup and trained them into his own unit. On paper, they’re civil servants or clerks, but they had commissariat authority. He turned it into a Tardis.’

‘Bigger on the inside than the outside.’ I said.

Ellis chuckled and shot me a wink. 

‘Democratic Socialism got a turn at the bat, Mateo came back after the coup, created his own little squad of trained and well-armed soldiers then -‘ he gestured to all of us.    

King leaned forwards before addressing the room.

‘He brings down the central committee in one night, held office for one year and then resigned before open elections in return for his old post with the Crypteia.’ he said. 

‘They disbanded it before he took office and didn’t exist on record at all. Like this meeting.’ I said. 

Ellis whistled under his breath and opened a bottle of water. His short-sleeved shirt hung from his thin shoulders like a damp flag. 

‘So, he de-stabilised a socialist government, didn’t stay in office long enough to steal anything.  Now he runs the secret service of a capitalist democratic government. It runs in secret, without oversight, and although the deputy director thinks his altruism is neutered, I think he presents a clear and present danger to our long-term economic interests.’ 

I put my hand up. 

‘Aren’t they our buds now?’ I said. 

Ellis chuckled and scratched the back of his neck. 

‘Facebook moved their HQ down here. Bezos has been here six times in the last year and there’s been fawning articles in the Washington Post about it. But they’re also not responding to the left about the atrocity claims, or the president’s comments about diversity. So there are optics to consider and the economic impact.’ he said. 

We were talking about overthrowing a country because it did a better job of being American than America did. 
Ellis worked in Psychological Operations, had embedded himself into the country’s social media and combed through metadata to establish a profile of a target as intimate and complete as a splendid marriage. 

‘ We’ve got candidates who favour a better deal with us.’ King said.

Ellis shook his head. 

‘He’s a righteous guy, tough and plain-spoken, but he’s not the man behind the wheel. Mr Costas, I believe and so does the Director, is the linchpin of his country’s government and development.’
What I said next, in a room shielded from observation or betrayal, came back to haunt me as I sat there looking into Mateo’s eyes, waiting to have my instinct and experience proved wrong. 

‘Then he’d need eliminating alongside whatever strategic sites you’ve accounted for at the same time.’ I said. 

Ellis frowned and ran the tip of his tongue against the philtrum of his upper lip. 

‘How do you suggest we do that, Esther?’ he said. 

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 was sowing salt to kill the soil of my reality. 

‘What about me?’ I said.

He knew what connected the quinceanera of Don Rezillos niece and the attendant case of food poisoning caused by mal carne with the supply chains of the insurgents fighting along the coast.   His men were shadows, which rose and dragged people into the darkness. They disappeared, or had deaths explained by choice or random fate. I didn’t know which one faced me, but I hoped it would be quick. 

He asked the waiter to bring us more drinks. He looked at me and continued. 

‘When I arrived, infant mortality had gone up three hundred percent. People were shooting at farmers to steal their cattle. Their professors became their oppressors and turned my home into a fiefdom. My country, Esther, neutered and corrupted by those who believed they knew best. All under the baleful gaze of a government who saw everything and enriched themselves first,’ he said. 

Passion rose within him, lending his tone of voice a gruff thickness I found interesting. 

‘Why wouldn’t I seek to do something about it?  I’d read enough of the literature to speak the language, repeat the narrative and make myself useful without appearing to hold any personal ambitions. What surprised me was the level of incompetence in charge. None of them saw me coming until it was too late.’  

‘My country is not a place where children scream in the night. Our immigration controls, our trade deals are to protect and advance our interests. We always played ball with your country, Esther, but we grew too good at it, didn’t we?’ 

‘Much like Hussein, Gadaffi, Jung Un, we’ll be the latest enemy. I pulled the trigger on your country’s greatest enemies and when I did actual work; they sent you to betray me.’

I went to shake my head, but he raised his hand and I looked down at the table, ashamed and afraid. 

‘It doesn’t matter, cara mia. I accounted for such things. A man can never give the truth of his heart to his woman, not if he wants her to stay.’ he said. 

‘You never told me anything.’ 

He smiled and nodded. 

‘To discuss it is to relive it. My villa is a Faraday cage and no, I was frank about not discussing work with you. I didn’t give you the exact reason.’ 

I asked for another cigarette. He offered it and then lit another for himself. My eyes fell on the lighter and he smiled. 

‘What we must discuss is where you stand. Or rather, sit.’ 

My eyelids were heavy. The curls of grey smoke rose from the end of the cigarette. It was fragile and beautiful before it dissipated. A beam of sunlight struck through the carafe, fracturing the light into a rainbow of colours. The world took a deep, slow breath and my thoughts slowed down to a crawl. 

‘You’ve drugged me.’ I said.

Intoxication mauled the words as they left my mouth. Mateo plucked the cigarette from my fingers and placed his hands over mine. 

‘Cara Mia, you cannot choose between your heart and your duty. It is enthralling to practice tradecraft and strategy in matters of the heart. I honour our arrangement.’ he said. 

His voice was soft, gruff and melancholic as someone took my arms and helped me out of the chair as my legs went out from under me. 

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 is simple. You will see when you open the second envelope. 

There were other choices, but my heart spoke its truth, and so I give you space to consider how you would like to spend the rest of your life. 

Mateo.

I  turned the second envelope over. It was thick, and I felt a blunt edge at the ball of my thumb before I set it down. My phone sat there, its black screen capturing the planes of my face, like it were something emerging from the void, pale and sculpted. 

It was a passport, proof of citizenship, with my name and face. A credit card, in my name and a ring made from tropical wood, finished to a high shine. 

This is how I will deal with you. 

I looked out towards the ocean, playing with the ring but unable to avoid glancing at the phone. My head throbbed with the aftereffects of the sedative, but the dilemma had dug claws into my scalp. 

He knew everything and spared me. I knew anyone else in the field would not be so fortunate. The militia were gathering eight miles from here, and as I picked up the phone, I heard the sharp rush of missiles. 

I tossed the phone into the ocean. I had slipped the ring onto my finger and it rested there, rich and dark against the skin. A perfect fit, but it was no surprise. I watched the sea for a minute before the booming roar of artillery made me go inside. 

It was cool and dark inside. There was the click of the front door and I closed my eyes when Mateo said my name. 

‘No, not anymore.’ I said. 

Categories
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.

Categories
beauty love short fiction women

The Last Good Cup

Gabrielle sipped her espresso, unfiltered cigarette smouldering in the ashtray as she projected an air of glacial calm. The country was collapsing around her, echoes of larger forces clashing, rationing of essentials, bureaucracy calcified into inertia and citizens dazed and furious with the state of affairs.

 

Mission accomplished.

 

She had missed her exfiltration window by an hour. A changed truck with a snug, padded compartment for her to sleep past the ring of steel which made up the country’s last display of authority before it tore itself to pieces. She looked at her watch, knowing she should be on a plane by now.

 

This was the last good cup of coffee available in the city. It was strong enough to make her gums sizzle, nerves sparking with caffeine as she affected an air of implacable cool but going off the grid meant a kind of courage. She had curled her blonde hair, so it fell in ringlets around her sharp features, applied a sheen of gloss which made her bee-stung lips drip with the promise of sex. She wore a white cotton shirt, slacks which clung to her lean thighs and high backside over black boots. Her battered leather jacket hung from the back of her chair, tailored with Kevlar plates along the forearm.

 

The carbon folding knife, honed to an edge which could split hairs and throats with precision.

 

A small plastic, moulded pistol, put together on a fabricator from plans sent in a snapchat image.

 

Passports, scarred from reconstruction. Different names and nationalities.

 

Three of them for her, another two for him.

 

If he came. His decades of power had congealed around him, a cocoon of political and personal transformation. She had hastened it, but along the way, something unforeseen had happened.

 

Dinner at the embassy. Invited as the plus one of a local businessman, a pensive, damp man who kept a soft, manicured hand on her all evening. She fought revulsion, chained up beneath years of tradecraft, listening and working her cover hard. Their eyes met across the main hall of the reception area and he gave her a cold, appraising look before turning from her.

 

She stood next to him, the melodic burr of his voice at odds with his reputation. He spoke with his hands, gesturing and emphasising in slow movements which mesmerised her. Experience honed her instincts but intuition held chaos inside her, ready to spill out and corrupt the taut, cold work of democracy. His cologne reminded her of the kind her father used, with a ship on the bottle and when his hand grazed hers, she caught her breath.

 

His invitation came. She accepted it. Lunch at the base where he spoke in spare, considered statements. His file was thick with records of his achievements and commendations, and she caught his allusions with an angler’s care. The question of consummation came up without comment, and his thick, strong hands undressed her with reverence. Lovers came and went, but the general made his mark inside her, handling her with a force which left fingertip bruises. Her hips and thighs ached for hours afterwards, and her reports to her handler omitted the pleasure of the encounter with her.

 

Their schedules were cruel. He had a collapsing military to run; she had a military to collapse and between them, during the summer, they met occasionally. The intensity of anticipation was maddening. Afterwards, skins drying and hearts thumping, he would talk about the ache of her, unwilling to hide behind his stoicism or station. She curled around him, wishing she could hint at her work here.

 

Wishing he could survive it.

 

The agency had teams in position, local talent with sub-machine guns and rented cars, maps scarred with red ink prophecies of doom, chained together through synchronised watches. Between seconds, she played handmaiden to the death of a cabinet whilst they shared a cigarette in the rented bed. When the phone rang, she saw the man reflected in the files and fought the pull to confess, knowing he could snap her neck with his hands.

 

Wanting it. Anticipation tasted like blood in her mouth, and she kissed him on the cheek, whispered how she might help him.

 

His nostrils flared as he shook with fury, demanding an explanation. Her confession made his eyes wet as he strode from the bed, naked and barking orders to frightened soldiers before he ended the call and turned to face her.

 

‘Can you help?’ he said.

 

She bit her inside lip, fuelled by a flare of awful inspiration in how to sell this to the agency.

 

‘It depends on what you can offer.’ she said.

 

He grimaced but Gabrielle sat on the edge of the bed, lean thighs open as she stroked the peach skin over her navel and fixed him with a knowing, wanting look. Survival was a base instinct and Gabrielle put her hopes on appealing to the full spectrum of his desires. He returned to her, clutching her jaw in his hands in a grip which made her temples pulse with pressure. She held his gaze, poised between oblivion and salvation.

 

His mouth opened, ready to rage, but he looked away, fingertips grazing down the line of her jaw, down to the line of her throat before returning to stare into her eyes.

 

‘What would it take?’ he said.

 

2.

 

Gabrielle noted the fingerprints on the espresso cup, the tables teeming with plates and food abandoned at random intervals by the few patrons left in the city. He would be late, relying on the loyal soldiers to facilitate his betrayal. A difficult balancing act to carry off, but he told her he would manage it.

 

Fifteen minutes.

 

Ten.

 

Another espresso and two cigarettes. The tobacco tasted different, cheap and rough compared to the kind sold in better times. Gabrielle knew luxuries were perfect gauges of collapse, and here she was, enjoying two and waiting on another.

 

Five. Her stomach ached with repressed concern as she got to her feet, threw down a few notes of currency, already reduced in value to sentiment and nationalist pride and nodded to the waiter. He winked at her, sighed and looked around.

 

‘You should have left earlier.’ he said.

 

The edge in his voice made her reach for the pistol but the waiter shook his head and retrieved a small revolver, nickel plated with a bevelled grip, small in his oversized hand. She put her hands up, palms outwards.

 

‘Make it quick.’ she said.

 

He grinned, ugly with anticipation and shook his head.

 

‘Such things are your country’s approach, senorita.’ he said.

 

Gabrielle had survival training, days of sustained and brutal torture designed to bolster her against enhanced interrogation. None of it would help her, but she kept her fear down inside, extracting from it the tools she might use to survive the next few hours.

 

The wall of force slapped her backwards, blurring her vision and taking her feet out from under her. Time passed in an insectile whine, details swimming on a tide of concussion. Gabrielle staggered, heard someone wailing in an unsteady contralto before realising it was her.

 

A hand encircled her wrist and she pulled the gun up, aiming at nothing as she caught the whiff of nautical cologne.

 

‘Senorita, it is okay.’ he said.

 

She tried to speak above the whine of her concussed eardrums but he pulled her to him and shook his head.

 

‘There are plans within plans.’ he said.

 

She leaned against him. Bleak, brilliant trains of thought crashed through stations of possible outcomes but she had purchased her ticket.

 

Or survive, if such an outcome was possible.

 

He wrapped a muscular arm around her, guided her through the ruined, smouldering streets.

 

‘Where are you taking me?’ she said.

 

He kissed the top of her head and pulled her close.

 

‘Nowhere, I am showing you something.’ he said.

 

His voice was grave, but he smiled at her, eyes ablaze with ambition and passion.

 

‘We need to get out of here.’ she said.

 

He shook his head and drew back his shoulders.

 

‘No, this is my country and as I prepared to leave, I recalled the Chinese character for crisis is the same as opportunity.’

 

Gabrielle shuddered as her legs lost substance and he pulled her upwards.

 

‘You came here as a traitor, senorita. I have a proposal for you.’  he said.

 

She raised her chin. His beard was white with brick dust, a small livid scalp wound had congealed like tendrils of candle wax on his lined forehead and the skin beneath his eyes was livid and infected with exhaustion. No longer a general.

 

A king.

 

She touched his face and he ran his fingers down her arm. A regal blessing, sweeter for the rubble and chaos around him.

 

The first birth pangs of a new world.

 

One, she hoped, where she could still get a good cup of coffee and a cigarette.