fiction, men, war

the bullet found him

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 cock 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.

 

 

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men, politics, short fiction

White Rabbit

 

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

Nicollo Machiavelli, The Prince.

 

1.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He was running late.

 

It was the only thing which saved him.

 

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

 

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

 

2.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

3.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It had been a good day.

 

4.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

His grief galvanised into something familiar to him.

 

Anger.

 

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

 

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

 

5.

 

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

 

‘What’s next?’ he said.

 

Terry scratched his chin and smiled.

 

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

 

Mike grimaced as he shook his head.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

‘OK, I get it.’ he said.

 

Terry smiled and clapped Michael on the shoulder.

 

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

 

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

 

‘Right on, Terry. Right on.’

 

Terry lit a cigarette and sat back in his chair.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

6.

 

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

 

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

 

David answered on the first ring.

 

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

 

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

 

Larry grunted with disbelief.

 

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

 

David said nothing.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Larry sighed with a longstanding weariness.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He called a cab to the hospital.

 

7.

 

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

 

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

 

‘Hello, Ibrahim.’ he said.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Ibrahim cleared his throat.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

8.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

‘What did you see?’ the man said.

 

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

 

The man grimaced and stepped towards Rick.

 

‘Did she say anything?’

 

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

 

Rick told him. The man walked away.

 

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

 

9.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

‘Good evening Mike.’

 

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

 

‘What is this?’ he said.

 

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

 

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

 

Mike grunted and struggled against the cords.

 

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

 

‘Fuck you.’ Mike said.

 

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

 

The man laughed and Mike recognised the accent. British.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

‘Do you read comics, Mike?’ he said.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The man chuckled and sat back against the couch.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

‘Please, don’t kill me.’ he said.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

10.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

‘It’s good work.’

 

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

 

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

 

Beaners or niggers?’ the man said.

 

Terry scowled as he walked away.

 

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

 

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

 

‘Do I know you, mister?’ he said.

 

The man shook his head.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The man shook his head.

 

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

 

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

 

11.

 

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

 

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

 

Plus, Pete thought, being white helped.

 

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

 

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

 

The White Rabbit understood the first rule of guerilla warfare:

 

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

 

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

 

12.

 

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

 

‘He’s a limey?’ Chris said.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

13.

 

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

 

The man loomed above him.

 

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

 

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

 

14.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

‘Please.’ he said

 

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

 

15.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ he said.

 

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

 

‘Did you know her?’ Blake said.

 

The man nodded without taking his attention from the headstone.

 

‘Yes, she was a good girl.’ he said.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He had never left.

 

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beauty, fairy stories, short fiction, war, women

The Strange Knight (The Wild Man 7)

Previous episodes are here.

Once upon a time, the kingdom of Hearst celebrated the birth of Prince Roderick by declaring a war of expansion upon its neighbours. King Doran set out to expand his territory as a christening gift for his son.

Eilhu avoided Mirabelle but caught the whispers of war on the wind. He worked the garden when he knew she was away from her chamber and went out into the woods when she was there. His heart learned to shudder in the shadow of her absence. He grew tall and broad through the garden work, and he could sit with the older men, feel their blessing over their disdain.

Three days after the rumours of war became fact, Mirabelle stood with her father, Peter who addressed the court from his throne. He was a stout man, kind and generous in manner and he trembled with emotion as he spoke.

‘Doran has gathered a great host who gather on the borders of my kingdom.’ he said.

Eilhu stood at the back of the crowd. Peter’s voice carried, and he stood in shadow but his eyes returned to the princess. He tugged the brim of his cap lower and raised his chin.

‘My army is gathering. I call upon each able man to fight in its defence.’ he said.

The crowd fell into a deep, shocked silence. Eilhu’s heart pounded against his ribs. He stepped forward, raised his hand and shouted.

‘I’ll fight for you if you give me a horse.’ he said.

A ripple of laughter ran through the crowd.

The king frowned and turned to a lieutenant, whispered to him.

Eilhu’s gesture prompted volunteers. They would raise an army but it would not be enough.

He stood at the stables for three days. It was dusk on the third day before the stable hand went inside. His armour was whatever he could find, a motley of materials in different sizes but he stood tall and true.

The horse was a chestnut stallion, it limped forwards and regarded Eilhu with sad, hopeful eyes. Eilhu fitted a saddle and rode it out with pride. The stable hand laughed, but it faded with each hitching step away.

At the edge of the woods, he called The Wild Man.

The Wild Man walked out of the woods.

‘What do you need?’ he said.

Eilhu gestured to the horse.

‘They gave me this to ride to war upon.’

The Wild Man laughed, a rich ringing sound which shook the branches above his head. He turned and walked back into the woods. Eilhu felt the rumble of fast approach and watched the trees shaking as something moved towards him and the lame horse.

It snorted, lowering its thick head as it emerged from the trees. A violent light glowed in its eyes, and the black skin gleamed like black water. The Wild Man had a suit of black armour slung over his broad, furred shoulder. Eilhu took it, shocked by how light it was.

The Wild Man tapped it with a finger.

‘Crafted by dwarves, it is light but hard.’

He handed Eilhu a sword, its edges gleaming as Eilhu took the hilt. Its balance was perfect, and he swung the blade in smooth arcs before he stuck it into the ground and changed.

The rumbling intensified as men clad in iron marched in perfect columns, swords flashing in the twilight.

The horse came to Eilhu and lowered itself. He stroked the lame horse and thanked it before taking the saddle off and mounting the war horse. His heels struck the horse and he galloped to war, the columns of men moving to match his pace.

Doran had forced Peter’s army to the brink of defeat. Broken bodies laid in mud churned into frozen brown waves of earth, small groups of Peter’s men struck at the bristling tide of soldiers. Eilhu rose in his saddle, drew his sword and yelled for the men to attack.

The Wild Man’s armies charged as one. Blades rose and fell in perfect rhythm as Doran’s armies broke apart. Eilhu charged, swinging his sword against anyone in range as Peter gazed upon the turn of events with disbelief. Eilhu struck a soldier across the bridge of his nose with his sword, saw the spray of blood and bone chips as he rode past. Peter yelled for his men to attack, seized with a savage joy as they ran towards the retreating enemy.

Eilhu circled the field of battle and heard the horns of Peter’s army declaring victory. His body throbbed with exultation, perspiration dripping down the inside of his helmet as he saw Doran’s soldiers running. He grabbed the reins and took the war horse back to the woods.

The Wild Man petted the lame horse with a delighted focus. He smiled at Eilhu.

‘What do you need?’ he said.

Eilhu told him.

Mirabelle ran to meet her father. His face, streaked with blood and dirt and eyes wide with disbelief but he sat up in his saddle.

‘Father, congratulations on your victory.’ she said.

She wept with relief as he got down from his horse. He shook his head.

‘The victory was not mine.’ he said.

She clutched at her father as he kissed her on the cheek.

‘Another army came to our aid, led by a strange knight. They drove Doran’s armies away and then -‘ Peter sighed and shook his head.

‘What?’ Mirabelle said.

Her father lowered his chin.

‘I did not see him or his army.’ he said.

Intuition flared in Mirabelle’s heart, a candle lit against the darkness of mystery. She kissed her father again and ran to the garden.

The head gardener stood, grafting a bud of apricot to an apple tree when she asked him where his boy was. He bowed and fought the urge to laugh.

‘He’s just come back on that lame horse of his. Wearing his patchwork armour.The lads have been taking the…I mean, they’ve mocked him for cowardice, your highness.’ he said.

Mirabelle’s cheeks burned with heat.

‘And what did he say?’ she said.

He scratched his chin and chuckled.

‘He looked each of them in the eye and said he helped turn the tide. Boy’s got a way about him, I’ll give him that.’ he said.

Mirabelle thanked him. She went to the stables, heard the laughter ringing out as she approached. The sight of her killed it and when she asked to see the lame horse, the boys exchanged nervous glances before obeying her.

She stroked along its neck and sent the boys away. She put her mouth to the horse’s ear and whispered.

‘Where did he take you?’ she said.

Within her thoughts, she wondered who she was asking.

 

 

 

 

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beauty, love, war, women, writing

A Sparrow’s Song

the_early_bird__1__by_hansgoepelphotograpy-db43xve.jpg

Loviisa held the rifle to arms, narrowed her eyes to focus on the deer in her sights. The glare of the sunlight made her head hurt, but she went away inside herself, to the cool perfect zero that enveloped her in the moment before she pulled the trigger.

She had learned to find comfort in pain and exhaustion before during and after her mandatory year of military service. Otso, her fiancee had died whilst she was out on exercise, whilst building the farm they would raise cattle and children on. She had wept herself into exhaustion, but the work of building then maintaining the farm became a way to absolve herself of her grief and guilt.

Her parents wrote letters, alternating between pleas and admonitions. They asked her to come home, but she told them in the plainest way possible she was home. It stung her, that they could not see how hard it had been for her, that she was making the best of it.

On the days she could not lift her arms above her head to undress, she believed herself incapable of it, but in time, she had built a fine smallholding and all of it her own work down to the last nail. She hunted as much for the reward of the hunt itself as the meat it allowed her to store. The cows were stubborn, the chickens stupid but the rifle never let her down.

She wore her white suit, furred on the inside with her finger on the trigger and all the world’s fate determined on a few ounces of pressure. She took in a deep breath, held it and pulled the trigger.

The deer collapsed the ground. She slung her rifle, unsheathed her knife and went over to it. She made a good, deep incision and pulled the intestines and anus with a good, hard tug that stained the snow a deep red beneath it. The upper organs joined the rest before she dragged the carcass back to the farm.

Let mother and father see how I struggle, she thought.

She had the carcass hanging from a hook in the larder before sundown. Her hands steamed and shone with blood. The act of death and birth was the same to her. Blood. Pain. Such thoughts led back to Otto and she left them in the dark of the larder.

She lit the fire to boil water and make dinner. Her back and thighs had ached when she heard the birdsong and went to listen.

A high melody always drew out the girl in her, even smeared in deer blood and sweat.

The sparrow sat on the branch of a fir, singing without a care in the world. She envied it but still stood there with the door open, listening to it and smiling to herself.

The song was a precious stone mounted on a bed of velvet silence. Its sweetness drew a dull blade down her side but she bore it without complaint.

Sparrows, Otto had told her, were psychopomps. Emissaries to and from the land of the dead. Its fragile courage gave truth to the idea, Loviisa thought and she wished she could sing her own joy to it. They might have been friends.

Joni crashed through the trees, with his left hand pressed to his shoulder, his raw lean face tight with shock.

He was sweating and unsteady on his feet as he approached her. He had time enough for two words before falling away into a deep faint.

‘The russians.’ he said.

2.

Loviisa dragged him inside. He was lighter than a carcass, but she took him into the cabin rather than the larder.

She cleaned his wound, bandaged it and he ate a bowl of elk stew whilst he relayed the news to her.

Stalin had ordered Finland to cede territories along its border.

Territories like the land she owned and farmed.

Her land.

The Russians would come through here. Through her.

‘You must come with me. It’s not safe here.’ he said.

Loviisa helped herself to another bowl of stew and shook her head.

‘This is my farm, I cannot just leave it.’

Joni meant well, but he spoke the same words as her parents, just from a different place and time. She smiled and blew across the surface of her stew. She whistled a little, and it sounded like the song of a bird.

A bird of prey.

She told Joni that he could stay the night and then leave in the morning. His feet were blistered and raw from his run, fortunate to survive his encounter by more courageous patriots and telling him to run.

Loviisa awoke before dawn. She broke down and cleaned her rifle, wrapped up whatever rounds she had in her parent’s letters to keep them dry and clean and packed whatever tins of food she could fit into her kit bag. She repeated the maintenance and cleaning routine with a sub-machine gun, an ugly but reliable souvenir from her time in service.

Joni watched from beneath the covers. Loviisa was a, robust woman but as she packed, her purpose lent her a beauty terrible in its power. He hated the Russians for what they had come here to do, but looking at her, he feared for them too.

Loviisa kept her promise and escorted him to the edge of the forest. She walked slow, precise and quiet. Joni worried that if he took his eyes from her, she would fade into the woods.

He stopped, fighting for something to say.

‘What are you going to do, Loviisa? You cannot fight them’

She walked over and planted a warm kiss that would haunt him into his dotage.

‘No, Joni, but I can hunt them.’

She turned and walked away. A sparrow sung overhead and as he watched her walk away, he thought he heard her whistling.

She hunted Russian soldiers through six feet of snow in temperatures of minus twenty.

Seven hundred and five Russian soldiers dead by the time the war was over.

They called her ‘The White Sparrow.’

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fiction, short fiction, war, women

In Country

Homeless people aren’t supposed to exist. Much like veterans of unpopular or obscure wars, we’re the equivalent of flatulence after a good meal. Expected, logical, organic but to some people, we’re an embarrassment. We shouldn’t exist because we remind others of frailty and mortality. It’s why there are more movies about military power than sacrifice.
Women in combat, too. So forgive me if I suffer from a little bit of a complex about it. If I were to look at it from a positive perspective, it taught me to value what good things came my way. They were seldom in coming, but I knew enough to hold them close until they left.
Which they did.
Sometimes, they were taken from me.
Like Zeke.
We were both living at Camp Bravo. We had been there when it was on tribal land, held on when it got moved. Now, you might think that we were talking about being on deployment, which we sort of were. Camp Bravo was just off the freeway near Mesa. We stood firm against the ADOT when they tried to move us as well. It was home, for us, sure it was canvas tents but it was better than trying to huddle under cardboard or in a dumpster. Zeke had been infantry, did two tours in Iraq and came home to a ‘Dear John’ letter armed with a headful of fears and trauma that meant he liked to be where it was quiet. He was gentle, had a kind word for everyone he met and turned every cheek he had. He had been my guide when I got there, six months testing the good will of my friends to breaking point and with a headful of my own shit to fling around like an ape at the zoo.
Zeke took me under his wing. Two broken birds, only one of whom still believed that they could fly. He helped me get clean, staying up with me as I wretched and shuddered my way through withdrawal, wiping the junkie sweat from my head and telling me that I would make it. He reminded me of my strength again. There was a quote from Ernest Hemingway that he would say to me when I lost my way and started to think that everything was going to be shit forever.
“If people bring so much courage to this world, the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these, you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
He remembered it word for word. Spoke it like a psalm, and I remembered it too.
He would pause before saying ‘no special hurry’ and smile to himself.
It wasn’t all gutter philosophy and stoicism. He showed me what were good dumpsters, which restaurants threw away the best food. It was not a good life he showed me, but an existence that didn’t want to kill me any faster than life would. When he helped me sort out a tent, it was the first roof I had slept under and not spent the night worrying if I would be asked to leave. My night terrors were absorbed by the open sky, and in time, they faded to a soaked sleeping bag once in a while.
It was Zeke and I, then Donnie who’d lost a leg in Kandahar started to hang with us and he brought Paulo with him. We would play cards, help newcomers and work with the agencies who started offering help. We wangled a food truck to stop by, medical check ups and although it wasn’t perfect, it was a small series of bright reminders that the world wasn’t always at war, strung together like christmas lights.
Until Zeke got caught in the wrong part of the town.
We weren’t informed of what happened in the direct, considerate way that you would learn if you were a relative. The police did not tell us, until a pair of detectives came out to the camp, bemused and surprised by how organised we were.
They cut him. They beat him. They burned him.
They did not know who had done it. The why did not matter. Zeke was a homeless man, someone to avoid eye contact with, to be embarrassed about. His death barely made the paper, but for the three of us, it was a world ending and we mourned him around the fire, shivering and speaking bitterness.
‘We have to find out.’ I said.
Donnie narrowed his eyes, scratched his whiskered chin and drunk his coffee. Paulo glanced between the two of us and nodded in agreement.
We stopped thinking like victims.
We remembered our training.
A principle of guerilla warfare, insurrection is that you make your weaknesses your strengths. If you are limited in numbers, then you are small and are able to react faster than a larger standing force. If you don’t have a lot of equipment, then you steal what the other guys have and use it against them.
No one wanted to see us, so we played that up. We found where they burned Zeke, walked around, asked questions of the street people who were there, part of the environment but not acknowledged.
Someone always sees. If it’s not a CCTV camera, it’s a pair of eyes. We learned that the latter was always better.
College kids. Bright, happy murderers.
A person with a little faith in human kindness might see this as a horrible incident, an act that would manifest in ulcers and nightmares, therapy sessions that end up in tearful confessions without any true justice applied to it.
We knew that the world didn’t work that way. They would go on to graduate, work good careers, raise children and die in their beds without a single care that they took the life of a man who gave his body and mind defending their right to be sociopathic assholes.
They liked to bar hop. When they were soaked in liquor, they would rough someone up. Three of them to one guy and Zeke had served as an escalation of the adventure. A plateau reached, and we all figured out that once was not going to be enough.
We knew that much ourselves. Not that we enjoyed killing. A good shot was one that meant you got to go home, or you kept your buddies from being shot. These guys were the ones who had learned a taste for it. We ran recon into the city, at night and keeping watch on the places near where they would drink. It was a fortnight before we saw them. They did not start anything, but they had that hungry, ugly need growing in them. Their throats rising and falling with the inability to keep it reined inside them.
We were ready by then.
One fact about America is that it’s easier to get a gun than it is to vote or get a driving license. We needed three of them. Handguns. Revolvers because they were easy to pick up casings. Simpler and less likely to jam. A pack of band-aids on the handle to avoid leaving fingerprints. Disposable too.
They could not help themselves. They chased down a young girl for two blocks. Donnie laid in wait at the end of the alley, on account of his prosthetic but Paulo and I, followed close and when Donnie stepped out from behind the dumpster, we had them in a perfect triangle.
One of them, a blonde corn fed fuck machine wannabe who would have caught my eye in better times laughed at him until Donnie pulled the gun from his coat. The other, with a braying laugh and a gawky overbite turned white when we saw us slip in behind them. It was the third one, shorter than the other two but with the smile that a shark would show before it bit into you. He was the one to worry about.
I shot him first. Paulo drew down on the kid with the overbite and Donnie limped forward, emptied all six rounds into the blonde kid until he was pulling the trigger.
Click. Click. Click.
Our ears would have been ringing with the volume in such proximity but we had all worn foam earplugs. A lot of the clubs handed them out at shows and they floated in puddles outside. It was quite something to see what people threw away.
Countries did much the same thing.
We tossed the guns down a storm drain. Made it back to the camp before dawn.
The tragic deaths of three young men with bright futures made the news. Three young people who took and took until they took too much mourned with a fervour that made the three of us feel angry and sick with it.
It was a good trade.
Redemption was not easy in coming for the three of us. To wipe a slate clean seldom removes the stain.
Then we saw the girl who had run from the three of them turn up in camp. Her name was Raine. She didn’t recognise us but we all knew who she was. She didn’t say much, but seeing her made things easier to bear.
She would come and sit with us by the fire. We told her stories, about the wars, the boredom, the things that we lost along the way.
The things that we found to replace them.

(inspired by this http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/mesa/2016/12/21/arizona-officials-camp-north-mesa-homeless-veterans-can-stay/95671828/)

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beauty, short fiction, war, women

All The Merry Men

1.

‘The art to diplomacy is to subdue an opponent without direct conflict.’ Asra said.

I lowered my chin to my chest to avoid the sentiment that arose in my face. She gave a dry laugh.

‘Yet most of your stories involve direct conflict. How would you explain that?’

To ask Asra such a question, in light of what I had heard thus far, took a courage that I had not believed myself capable of.  Yet she lowered her goblet and brushed a lock of hair back underneath her hijab whilst looking past me.

‘There is the world as we would wish it to be, and the world that is. Sometimes you build bridges between them.’

She folded her hands in her lap and fixed me a frank, challenging look.

‘Sometimes, you burn them so that whatever is on the other side does not cross.’

I refreshed the quill in the inkpot and quoted her words with a flourish.

‘There is another question, perhaps the most obvious?’

She tilted her head, studied me with her lips pressed together. Her face had turned red beneath her olive skin before she took in a deep, slow breath through her nostrils.

‘Obvious to whom?’

I set my quill back into the pot.

‘Forgive me if I have offended you. If I am to write an accurate record of your service, then the reader will ask these questions. Should we not answer them?’

She picked up her goblet and took a sip.

‘Should we have to? My service has its own voice. The Caliphate endured through some tumultuous times due to my actions. At my father’s behest.’

I gave a swift nod in agreement, reluctant to speak for fear of offending her further. She had told me about decapitating two Staggus warriors with one swipe of her scimitar a few minutes before, so there was no doubt that she could dispatch me with any number of objects.

The goblet.

The carafe.

The tray that it sat upon.

My quill.

That was before I considered her bare hands. I decided that a change of subject proved an act of diplomacy that she might appreciate.

‘You were one of the first of the Caliphate to meet the Under Tribes?’

She set her goblet down and ran her tongue over her lips.

‘Ah, now there’s a story.’

2.

I had freedom after a fashion. My father did not require my presence to command my actions. The established trade routes worked on two levels. There were those that featured on every map available, that took in The Plait and The Southern Islands, the House of The Staggus and The Pagoda Lands. They served as the arteries that kept the heart beating, transporting goods and people where they were needed.

Beneath those were another set of arteries. Set points where I could send and receive messages. Caches of supplies should I need them. If necessary, I could spend months without hearing the call to prayer anywhere outside of my heart.

It was at one of those that I found the letter from him. A simple message, but much like the system, it worked on two levels. The letter spoke of ordinary sentiments, a father expressing pride and concern for his daughter rather than a Caliph instructing one of his agents.

It was an agent that the hidden message referred to. Written in starch, and revealed with a few brushes of hibiscus, the words here were less formal and more aggrieved.  

Hajj Dal-Bah had gone missing.

3.

To further the point you made about us being tools, Hajj Dal-Bah was a blunt instrument, a club left bloodied and clotted to show how many skulls it had cracked open. He served as a clear symbol to the friends and enemies of the Caliphate.

Mostly, our enemies, if we are being honest, and for the sake of biography, let us say that I am.

Hajj was the Bastard of The Caliphate. He was sent as a message. A statement. He needed no disguises or excuses. If he came to see you, he was the last thing you saw in this world. His name translated into ‘The Pilgrimage of Ritual Slaughter.’ He was built like a boulder, with long moustaches that swung from his face and bleak, cold eyes that absorbed the light and held it with a rapacious hunger. His body was covered with scars from battle, and his muscles were bulging plates beneath his dark skin. His voice was seldom used, and it carried the low rasp of disuse but he spoke poetry and prayer with the passion of the devout.

The letter read that he had not made contact after being sent to deliver a punishment. A band of brigands had ambushed and murdered a courier, leaving his body hung by its entrails from a tree. One of the brigands was the disgraced son of a nobleman who held a position of influence that allowed the excesses to go relatively unpunished. They would send troops into the forest to flush them out, but returned empty handed.

The courier was a citizen of the Caliphate, his messages related to the accounts of a gold mine earmarked as a gift to a reluctant ally in order to buy his favour. Such an insult could not go unpunished. In the spirit of expediency, Hajj was sent. He travelled into the dense forests of Share Wood and had not returned.

Hajj Dal Bah always returned. It was the will of Allah, and in turn, of the Caliphate.

My mission was to follow his trail and find him, then finish his work or aid him.

A cache had been left for me. Robes and furs, leathers and gauntlets, a long bow and a quiver of arrows as well as pouches of herbs and roots suitable for painful deaths and basic nutrition. I changed and left my travelling clothes wrapped in oilcloth. I spent the night at an inn, ate and drank alone, deflecting the curious stares with polite indifference before riding out until I found myself on the outskirts of Share Wood.

The wheels of wagons had worn the ground smooth, and the stumps of the trees sacrificed to ensure the trade routes were blanched from the exposure to the sunlight filtered through the branches.  I retrieved the letter from the saddle which repeated the instructions that would have led him to the last known hide out of the brigands.

I saddled the horse and set off on foot. My trail craft was not as practised but I sought out the broken branches, the leaves that had been pushed aside so often that they surrendered, leaving a visible route to whoever was careful enough to see it.

4.

The whistle of the arrow saved my life.

I rolled forward and came up, holding my breath with my hands on the hilt of my scimitar to keep them from trembling. A glance over my shoulder revealed that the arrow had punched into the trunk of a tree a few feet behind me. It was black, fletched but not with feathers.

It resembled a fungus, a bubble of grey-emerald flesh that pulsed with malign life. I crawled forward, taking great care to avoid revealing my location.

There were voices. A squelching, bubbling litany of sounds, like the lungs of someone afflicted with a summer cold, where each breath was fought for. No human spoke in such a manner, and my ear for languages was as honed as my sword hand.

My movements were slow, deliberate, and I circled around the source of the conversation. I gauged at least two voices, one low and wet, the other drier and sharper. I crept closer, my heart pounding in my ears.

Whatever lay before me, was unknown and no matter how experienced I was, it was wisdom to approach such things with caution and reverence.

I approached nonetheless.

There was no substitute for experience. The finest education might prepare you for any number of things, but the raw nature of witness and contact was the finest and most brutal teacher.

They were no more than four feet tall, with waxy, glistening skin and plates of ebon chitin protecting their chests and thighs. Their faces were hidden beneath swatches of shimmering cloth but they looked about them without any hindrance.  One of them wielded a short black blow with an arrow ready to fire whilst the other held a pitted short sword and a buckler shield made of the same material as the armour they wore.

These were men of the Under Tribes. I use the term loosely, for you because they are not men, although they walk upright and communicate.

In my tuition, I was taught that they had a structure akin to the insects they resembled.

A hive. These were warriors, bred and taught all the skills of war, enough sensation to move and fight but able to resist grievous injuries and pain that would cripple a human. The cloth of their faces was woven from a moss that grew deep in their underground caves, able to filter out the riot of sound and sight that would assail their sensitive and highly attuned faculties. Most of the direct experience came from encounters with the warrior caste but there were those brave or insane enough to parlay that into explorations which revealed more of the structure that these beings emerged from.

Ibn Al-Alhazred had been the itinerant son of a sahib, thrown to education and excess to ensure that titles were passed to a more suitable relative. He had found the entrance to a hive and managed to effect entrance without being slaughtered. He wrote about his experiences, and the books formed my curriculum upon them.

They were gardeners and miners, all of which were carried out by drones grown from unfertilized eggs, communicating in a language composed of chemical signatures and high droning songs that were brought into being by membranes in their throats and soft palates.  They grew mosses that produced acids to carve out the bedrock into structures of breathtaking scale and beauty, lit by phosphorescent growths and fed on the minerals that littered the air. It took all the poetry within Al-Alhazred’s soul to do it justice and the effort broke his mind, but his verses had an eloquence that drew tears from the hardest heart.

The Under Tribes had exiled themselves after the First Djinn War, having lost many hives in order to send the djinn back to their realm. It was the last combined effort of all the different kingdoms and the attendant lack of respect shown in the division of spoils had caused their retreat.  

My sense of wonder and my survival instinct held a conversation before deciding that the diversity of life did not outweigh my desire to live.

The bodies littered around them spoke to the lessons that encounters with the unknown truly taught the unwary.

All the Merry Men were corpses.

It was the sight of Hajj that prompted my decision to fight.

5.

He laid upright against the trunk of an oak, punctured with arrows and an expression of amusement as his burial mask. His twin jewelled scimitars were in his hands, blessed weapons that could cut through plate steel and djinn flame with the same terrible zeal but they were covered in the scarlet blood of the Merry Men rather than the green humours of the under-warriors. It had taken eight arrows to bring him down.

I wiped away a tear and retrieved my spear from its sling on my back.

It rested perfectly in my palm against my thumb. I was close enough that I could not run to add velocity so I had to rely upon my core strength to lend it impetus. My desire to avenge my fellow agent sharpened my focus as I took a deep breath and twisted around.

The element of surprise was enough, but even with that, the warrior with the bow still managed to raise his bow before my spear punched through the veil and it fell backwards, limbs twitching with the insult of the penetration.

The second warrior turned, raising it’s chitin shield and pulling back the sword and bringing it to shoulder height. It skittered towards me, giving a wet cry of anguish. The most pragmatic action would have been to draw my scimitar and engage with it. It was what my training had taught me was the most effective means of resolving the altercation with a higher chance of survival.

A more malicious compulsion overrode my training and instead, I darted past it, running towards Hajj’s swollen corpse.

It was fitting that I would use his weapons to avenge him. I had time to slip them from his fingers. The poison held off the calcifying effects of death enough that it was a matter of picking them up and sliding the handles into the meat of my palms. I pivoted on my heel and crossed them in front of me.

All living things know fear. We are born only with a fear of darkness and heights. The under warriors were borne to the former and inured to the latter, so my instruction, my final terrible lesson was to teach this bipedal maggot the cost of defying the will of Allah.

I struck with the scimitar in my left, which it caught with its shield and used the blade in my right hand to clash against the sword in order to deflect the straight stab it made at my midsection. My personal touch was to bring the ball of my left foot and punch it hard into the centre of the plate that protected its gelid midsection.

It fell backwards, and I turned the blades then crossed them before swinging them around, both arriving to cut into either side of its head with a wet thud. It dropped the blade in its hand and hung loose from where its flesh adhered to the perfect edge of my blades.

I pulled my scimitars apart and wet portions of its skull came with it as it fell to the ground.

Here, I will admit that I continued to slash at it until it was in several pieces. Professional pride can be forgotten at such times. My tears were the concession I made to excuse my actions. When the fever of battle had left me, I surveyed the scene and investigated what might have happened.

The Merry Men had found a cairn in the woods, and in their playful greed, sought to open it in the belief that there might be treasure to plunder. No doubt, some of it might have made its way to the poor but in hindsight, they were better off without it.

It was a forgotten and sealed entrance to a hive. The act of exploration would have triggered a fungal alarm, sending a burst of warning chemicals into the lungs of dormant warriors, left with one terrible purpose.

To ensure that it remained undiscovered and unknown.

They would have made short work of the Merry Men.

The stout monk with his staff.

The stocky man, nearly as tall as Hajj in life, but in death, cut into handy sections.

The noble’s relative, clad in forest green and his goatee beard turned dark with blood.

Hajj had followed and been surprised. It was an ignoble end for a great warrior and once I had the lay of scene, I dug him a grave and said prayers over it.

I took his scimitars and buried mine with him.

The sound of weeping made me turn and from a copse of bushes emerged a pale redhead who dabbed at her eyes with a dirty handkerchief and a tale of enforced confinement that was aimed to negotiate desire between the noble’s relative and her.

I took her back to her castle and spent several nights there. She proved her gratitude with as much fervour as her inexperience and her need for secrecy allowed. I sent word back to the Caliph and burnt the robes. I rode back to the Caliphate in order to tell Hajj’s family of how he had fought and died in the service of Allah.

6.

I had no words and my forearm ached from the need to transcribe her words with as much accuracy as I could.  She lapsed into a contemplative silence until I returned the quill to the pot.

‘Men and women die much the same way. For all of Haj’s skill and strength, he was taken by surprise. It is the work of the imam’s to discuss whether such a thing was the will of Allah or Shaitan, but I know this. What matters is that I was there to avenge him and to ensure that his mission was completed.’

She leaned forward and rested her chin in her cupped hand.

‘Now tell me where my sex features in that?’

I had no answer for her.

 

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animals, anxiety, creative writing, culture, experience, fiction, flash fiction, friendship, mother, psychology, short fiction, short stories, stoicism, strength, Uncategorized, war, work, writing

The Burden of Law.

 

We had been in country for six months now, making friends was a thing of necessity and all of us in the unit had developed friendships in different layers. Imogen, who had dropped out of Stanford to be here was tight with Lorraine, who had been about to start beauty school before she got drafted, giggled like she was sucking down helium and liked to do our nails and hair when we were back at base. Olive had been on a scholarship to run track at LSU and she would work out with Patsy, who had been running her dad’s hardware store when he took ill, had resented handing it over to her younger brother, and took it out on the rudimentary weights and track they had ground and welded out of jungle dirt and brush. My BFF out here was Kelly, because of the fact that we had come from the same town and signed up together. It was that or get pregnant, get married to someone who would become an obese stranger to us over time and watch the years fly by. Safety is an illusion, and it just didn’t feel right to stand by and let other people stand a watch for our safety.

It’s strange what you believe, and your reasons for doing things. They weren’t lies as such, but we believed them at the time. Boot camp didn’t abuse us of that notion.

War did.

We dealt with it in different ways. Some of us retreated back to habits that engendered comfort, like Olive running track and Lorraine doing our hair.

Then there was Laura. Law, she shortened it to that and even spelt it that way, had it stencilled on her helmet with a skull and crossbones underneath. She was married, apparently, no kids, volunteered at the church in the small town where she had been born and lived before she got drafted.  No more than 5 feet tall, about a buck ten soaking wet but she had muscled through training. She was good at it.

Too good, but we never said that aloud. It was a feeling that could only be captured in the language of friendship’s whispers.

Law was the member of the unit who was appointed to kill children. It was not an official order, nothing written down or anything that would put a five star general in front of a sub committee but it was there.

Necessary.

It did not sit well with us, a callus against the skin of our souls, a cut that would heal if we could stop touching it. Law bore the burden quietly at first, but that changed.

It was the enthusiasm that she showed.

She started to take trophies. Fingers or ears because they kept better. No one else needed memories of their kills in country.

Once you’ve shot a grandmother in the face, it tends to stay with you. At least, I hoped it did. It reminds you that you’re still human. Still a woman.

So, when I tell you about how it ended, you have to understand that we were thinking about a lot of different things.

The village was supposed to have been cleared by the 101st

Law, by then, had settled on fingers, tied onto her bandolier of shotgun shells with neat loops of string, each one woven through one of the canvas pockets where each shell nestled, snug like a baby at a breast. Her bright red hair had been shaved down to stubble, bursts of cinnamon freckles against white skin that either burned or resisted the sun. Droopy-lidded brown cow eyes that saw everything with a quiet acceptance. She worked the pump action shotgun with surgical skill. Whatever she aimed for, she hit.

So when the little boy emerged, cheap Russian AK shaking in his arms, she was already in motion. Olive shouted but it was too late.

He flew backwards, at that range, his unformed, tan chest blew apart like a pound of meat dropped from a great height. Law had done it with no more expression than flitting a bug from her eyeline. We stood there, as Hillary, our lieutenant came over and touched Law on the shoulder, as though waking her from a pleasant dream.

‘What the fuck?’ I said.

Hillary raised her eyebrows and strode over to me. Her face had tightened into a harsh scowl, the same one she had probably used as a wedding planner to deal with an errant tent rental company error.

‘Sargeant, you do not get to question operating procedure. Stow that shit for base camp.’

Law knelt in front of the cooling corpse, looked around and giggled. It was a sound that stayed with me for as long as I lived. She already had the knife in her hand, ready to take a trophy.

The next sound was the shot.

It took her between the shoulder blades. Kelly lowered her rifle, then knelt down, placed it ground in front of her and knitted her fingers at the back of her head. She looked at me, tears budding in the corners of her eyes.

‘It had to be done, lieutenant. She can’t go home with that inside her.’

We retreated at the same pace we had arrived. Kelly was by my side, relieved of her rifle but not her duty. Hillary could have shot her there and then, but there would have been enough paperwork with Law already.

When the MPs came and took her, she smiled at me. I could not bear the weight of it and as she waved at me, she had the same expression as Law, but it was overlaid with the patina of friendship. I never saw her again, but when I went home, resuming my bachelors degree, I thought of her often.

I thought of Law too, but those were done by the time that I awoke. I would wash the sheets and shower a little longer than normal.

 

 

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