The Return of the Emancipator

It’s midnight by the Heineken clock and I’m eating a McDonald’s at the base of the O’Connell monument when I hear somebody cursing and muttering above me, and who do I see climbing down from the top of the monument but Daniel O’Connell himself. He’s made it most of the way but he’s hesitating about jumping the last few feet.

“Just do it, Dan. It’s not far,” says I. “Make sure you bend your knees when you land.”

He makes the sign of the cross and he jumps, his cloak flying out behind him like your oul fella dressed up as Batman. Two paving slabs crack noisily under his feet like they’ve been struck by twin bronze sledgehammers, which I guess they kind of have been. Out of nowhere, an image flashes through my mind of stone tablets, smashed to pieces by some old man at the foot of a mountain. Charlton Heston, I think.

“Jaysus,” says he. “Did yiz have to put me so high?”

I crane my neck to look up at the empty pedestal. He uses the distraction to rob a few chips from my McDonald’s and he shoves them in his mouth with a grunt of satisfaction.

“These’re good,” says he, chewing. “I suppose the famine’s over, is it?”

“The potato famine? Yeah, a while ago, now.” I hand him the bag of chips.

“That’s good,” says he. “Glad to hear it.”

He turns three hundred and sixty degrees to get a good look at the place while I finish my Chicken Royale. He picks another chip out of the bag and waves it in the general direction of Starbucks, Burger King, Eddie Rockets, McDonald’s, and the other Starbucks.

“Am I still on Sackville Street?” says he. “It looks a bit different.”

“Same street,” says I. “But it’s O’Connell Street now.”

“O’Connell Street?” I notice a bit of a smile. He nods at the huge metal spire in the distance. “And what’s that? The O’Connell Spike? Daniel O’Connell’s Needle, something like that?”

“The Millenium Spire.”

“The Millenium? You mean, built in the year 2000?” He raises his eyebrows.

“Well, 2003. It was a bit delayed.”

He mulls this over for a bit and then he asks “And where’s Nelson? Yiz moved him somewhere?”

“Um, yeah, he was moved alright.”

“Proper order,” says he, frowning. “Didn’t like him looking down on me. One-handed gobshite. Could feel his beady eye on….” At this, he puts his hand on the back of his neck and wrinkles his nose, disgusted, like, and says “What the..?”

“Here,” says I, and gave him a wad of napkins.

He wipes the bird s**t from his head and neck and then he scrunches up the McDonald’s bag and uses it to finish the job.

“Seagulls,” he mutters. “They’ve lost the run of themselves.”

It’s late and I’m too cold and too drunk for conversation, so I stand. I only came down this end of the street to get away from that big English bollox, Jim Larkin. “Listen, Dan, I won’t keep you, gotta be making tracks.”

“Yeah.” He lets out a sigh and glances up at his pedestal. “No worries.”

He stretches his arms to get ready for the climb but then he grimaces and looks closely at his left elbow. He angles it for better light. The grimace turns into a frown. He sticks his index finger into a small round hole in his bicep and into another hole in his forearm.

“What’s the meaning of this?” says he. “Bullet holes? What have you muppets been up to?”

I back away. “Yeah, about that, Dan. I’d love to stay and chat, but…”

Different Worlds

I look up from my phone to find that April has that hurt expression on her face. It’s an expression I’ve been seeing more and more, lately. She said something. A question? What did she say? Better ask.

“Sorry, what did you say?”

She doesn’t answer straight away, but takes a sip of wine, her eyes hardening above the rim of the glass. It’s her second, even though we just sat down a few minutes ago. I drop my gaze back to my phone and scroll through my timeline, absently. Here, at least, the past is never really gone. It stretches back, and back, and back, a ribbon of words and images and time-frozen smiles. What did Einstein say? The distinction between past, present and…

April is speaking. “I said, are you on Facebook again?” Her voice is flat. Controlled.

“Oh, yeah. Just for a minute. Stephen Hawking has just died.” I thought that might buy me some leeway. When Bowie died, she cried, and I was very supportive.

“That’s why you’re ignoring me? You’re never off that thing.” She picks up the menu and drops it on my plate and says, “Choose something. I’m having the garlic chicken.”

I put the phone facedown on the table and flip open the menu and run my eye down the list of mains. I don’t really see them. I’m thinking about the ineluctable gravity of black holes, and how they pull you in, and how hard it is to escape, but maybe, just maybe, you get spat out and find yourself in another place or in a different time. In the past, perhaps, where things could be different. The menu. Concentrate. What’s risotto? Is that the one with the mushrooms? My hand twitches towards my phone, to google it.

Checkout Girl

Snow had been cleared from the footpath and the street and formed into a knee-high mountain range in the gutter. It was dirty and embedded with scraps of litter. I walked alongside the peaks and valleys, my backpack heavy with cans of beer, and I thought about what you’d said. You had spoken the same words to thousands of customers, I’m sure, and each of those customers had given the same answers. That’s how the ritual works. But they didn’t hear your true message. That revelation was mine alone.

I returned the next night, hoping to speak with you again. I filled my basket with cheap beer and placed it before you. You asked me if I wanted to pay by cash or by card. I was transfixed. Beneath the surface of your words, there was a depth of meaning that was unmistakable. Then I looked at the ceiling and saw the cyclops watching with its diode-blinking eye. Eavesdropper, thief-stopper. Did I say that out loud? A flush rose in my cheeks. I paid with fistfuls of coins, my hands trembling, and I left the shop.

I hunched in the shadows of a doorway and thought about your magnificent voice and my muttered responses. You must think me an idiot. How many customers do you speak to each day? Hundreds? What could you see in me? I’m not special. You were just relieving your boredom. Like a fool, I had gone to you two nights in a row thinking that I was chosen by you, that only I could understand you. My eyes watered as headlights from the passing traffic washed over me and dazzled my vision. The swishing of tyres in the slush and the rise and fall of the engines was a tuneless primal music. I groped in my backpack for a can of beer and cracked it open, hoping that the booze and the light and the noise would obliterate you.

I told Dignam about you. He was sceptical about the hidden messages in your words and I struggled to explain it to him. It’s like those 3D magic-eye pictures, I said, when the secret picture reveals itself, only it’s much more than that. It’s an epiphany. He nodded sympathetically, but he said I was imagining things that weren’t there. Slipping back into old habits. It’s the time of year, he said, and the darkness. It plays tricks on the mind. He upped the dosage of my meds and advised me to switch to a different supermarket.

I needed to forget you, so I took Dignam’s pills and I took his advice. I started using one of the German outlets for all of my shopping. I thought about you less and less. Each evening was a little brighter than the one before. The clocks went forward. Summer arrived, with blue days and golden evenings and purple nights. An autumn of greens and red-golden browns.

Then, a change. The trees were skeletal, their leaves dead and useless on the cracked dirty concrete and piled in drifts against the chain-link fences. Darkness was a slow-rolling shutter, inching downwards each day, as the window of light grew smaller. Winter was waiting, and so were you. I walked past the entrance of a supermarket one night and the automatic doors whisked open, startling me. A warm blast of air broke over me like a sea wave and brought your voice to my ears.

Thirst gripped me but I turned away from you. I walked to another supermarket on another street and tried to remember the mindfulness stuff that Dignam had talked about. I couldn’t. In the booze aisle, I filled my basket mindlessly. I joined the line of supplicants at the front and we shuffled in lockstep, unwise men bearing gifts.

You were there too, silent and patient. It’s hopeless, I thought. You’re everywhere now. Omnipresent. I lifted the bottles from my basket and placed them before you one at a time. You spoke, loudly enough that an old woman in the queue turned her head. I heard your voice then as it had always been, cold and distant and omniscient as the dark vaulted heavens.

“Unidentified item in the bagging area.”

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Goon

I hammer on the front door with my fist and press the doorbell three times. Somebody is coming down the stairs. A dark male shape behind the nineteen-eighties frosted glass. A muttered curse and a key turning in the lock. The man who opens the door is tall, slim, and little more than a kid.

He looks at me and I know what he sees, and that’s fine. He sees what I want him to see. He sees the cauliflower ear and the long-ago broken nose, and he thinks I’ve been in a few scraps. Correct, son. Well spotted. I could have gotten the nose fixed years ago, but it serves a purpose. It tells people something about me and saves me the hassle of proving it the hard way. So, when I say, “I’m here for Michelle,” he doesn’t speak the arguments and questions that occur to him. Without opening the door any wider or taking his eyes off mine, he turns his head slightly and calls out to her. She comes down the stairs, barefoot, nervous, curious, and when she sees me in the porch she sighs and turns back.

To me, she says “I need a minute.”

To him, she says “It’s alright, he works for my dad.”

He gives me another once-over and steps back and opens the door but I have no interest in going inside. That might lead to conversation, and we’re in a hurry. Two minutes later, Michelle comes down the stairs again and kisses him goodbye, making a big production out of it, and whispers something to him that doesn’t do anything to ease the scowl on his face, and then we walk to my car and get in.

“Something wrong with your phone?” I ask.

She ignores the question. “Who told you where I was?”

“Who do you think?”

“Rachel,” she says, and when I don’t respond, she tries another guess. “Susan?”

I pull out from the kerb and file the names away for future reference. If I have to chase her down again, I’ll start with Rachel and Susan. In fact, nobody told me where to find her. I saw her at her dad’s house yesterday evening. She was dressed to go out, and I knew there was a boyfriend in the picture from the cagey way she answered Red’s questions. It took me two hours this morning to find out who the boyfriend is and where he lives. Finding people is my talent and it’s what Red employs me for. Often they don’t want to be found, so it’s difficult. They’ve borrowed from Red, or they’ve bought from him, or they’ve stolen from him. The last group are the ones that really don’t want to be found, because if Red gives the word, they might never be found again. With civilians like Michelle, it’s easy. Their social media is like a trail of breadcrumbs.

So, we’re driving, and we’re not talking much, which is good, because I can concentrate on not being followed. I’ve seen her being flirty with Red’s other guys, Gerry in particular, but with me it’s different. Probably another advantage of my boxer’s mug. She’s not a kid anymore, and I don’t want Red getting the wrong idea. He’s a protective father. That’s why I’m not going to tell him about the lanky student she spent the night with. I’d be expected to go back and express Red’s disapproval to him. I’d have to express it on his fingers, his ribs, his legs, and I can do without that. After a while, she looks up from her phone and stares out the window.

“Are you not taking me home?” she asks.

“No. The Hilton. Your ma and your and sister are already there.”

“What’s after happening?”

I say nothing. She thinks for a second and then starts typing something into her phone, her thumbs a blur.

“Don’t text anyone,” I say, a little more abruptly than I intended.

“I’m not.”

I glance over and see that she’s scrolling through a news app. She finds the story that I knew would be there. A sensational headline. A photo. Fragments of a windscreen scattered on a street like bloody teeth. A man dead, his name withheld from the story, just his age disclosed, enclosed in two brackets, and now he’s not going to get any older. The getaway vehicle burned out and abandoned somewhere nearby. A comment from a local who says that everybody’s in shock and that it’s a good area and that nothing like this ever happened around here before. 

“Who was it?” she asks.

I assume she means the victim, not the shooters. “Someone your dad knows. A business acquaintance.”

She has known about Red’s business since she was fourteen, so I expect her to scoff at the euphemism, but she just bites a fingernail. Probably relieved it’s not Red who got shot. Probably.

“What’s going to happen now?” she asks. “They’re going to keep coming after us?”

Us. Them and us. She’s been rebelling against Red for as long as I’ve known her, but now it’s ‘them and us’.

“No, your dad’s going to take care of it. He told me to get you to safety first.”

A few minutes later, we drive into the underground carpark of the hotel. Gerry is pacing in the shadows near the lift. I can tell it’s him from his walk. He always moves like he’s listening to a song that nobody else can hear. James Brown, maybe. Something funky. I tap the horn once to get his attention. He stoops to peer at us, one hand shielding his eyes from my headlights and the other deep in the pocket of his coat. I drive to him, slowly, so as not to spook him, and lower my window.

“Any word?” he asks.

“Nothing. You hear anything?”

He shakes his head. I turn to Michelle, but she’s already out of the car and slamming the door behind her. She has Red’s temperament. I watch in the rearview as she clomps around the back of the car in last night’s high-heels. Thanks for the lift, I mutter under my breath. You’re welcome, Michelle, don’t mention it.

Gerry says “I’ll text Red and tell him you’re on the way, yeah?”

“Yeah.” As I drive away, he hotsteps it over to the lift where Michelle is waiting.

It takes me fifteen minutes to get to the garage that Red is using as a staging post. There’s a tracksuited youngfella near the gate, pretending to be waiting for a bus, but really he’s watching for the cops, and watching for the opposition, a mobile phone in one hand.

Inside, there is just Red and the Brady brothers. I don’t know the brothers too well. Red only uses them for a particular type of job. They’re his rapid-reaction force. His emergency response unit. The younger one is holding a funnel in the mouth of a two-liter plastic milk bottle, and the older one, Frank, is pouring petrol into it from a can. They’re both wearing hi-vis jackets and builders’ boots, but there’s an automatic pistol on the workbench so I know they’re not about to build somebody a new kitchen. Red is kneeling in front of an Audi I haven’t seen before, changing the licence plate. He does a double-take when I walk in.

“You found her?” he asks.

“Yeah, I left her at the hotel.”

“When?” He fishes his mobile out of his pocket and checks the time. “She wasn’t there three minutes ago.” He thumbs the screen and turns away, raising the phone to his ear. I pull out my mobile and I call Gerry’s number. Voicemail. I hang up and dial again. Answer, you bastard.

Red is talking to somebody. “Yer sure? Alright, call y’back.”

He walks over to me. He’s still holding the screwdriver that he was using to fix the licence plate. The Brady boys are standing up and taking an interest, the petrol can forgotten for now.

Red says “That was her ma. Michelle’s not there.”

“I left…”

He talks over me. “Tony’s there. He hasn’t seen her either.”

“I left her with Gerry. In the hotel carpark.”

“With Gerry?” Red’s voice is shaking now, and so is the screwdriver in his fist. “What’s Gerry got to do with it?” he shouts. “I told you to find her, and bring her to her ma, and her sister, in the hotel.” He grabs my jacket with one hand and twists it. A fleck of spittle lands on my chin. “Now where the fuck is she?”

I reach back to steady myself against the workbench, and my fingers brush against the cold metal of the gun.

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Continue reading “Goon”

Earth. Have you heard of it?

Earth. Have you heard of it? It’s the blue planet. Blue, because there’s so much water. So much water that it falls out of the sky and drenches my fur. So much water that I throw back my head and catch the drops on my tongue.

Nobody told us in advance. Or if they did, it was in a briefing session when I wasn’t paying attention. There were plenty of those. The first hint we had was when we were coming down through the atmosphere. The air was full of moisture so thick that we could barely see the rest of the squadron. I waited for artillery to scream up from the ground and cut us to pieces. Would it be instant death or the long fall? It seemed like an age before we broke through the cloud cover and saw the city below us, defenceless.

Our squad found one human survivor after the battle. An old white-hair. He was starved and exhausted and digging through the rubble with bleeding hands. We couldn’t explain it. Nobody should have lived through the barrage. Soldiers from other squads came to see for themselves because they’d never been close to a human before. We charged them a portion of their rations just to look at him and when the novelty wore off we kept him around as a mascot and a guide.

I talked to him one evening and asked him about rain. He told me that the moisture stays in the sky because the air is warm but if the air gets cold for any reason then the water turns into droplets and gets pulled down by gravity. That’s how rain falls. Then it just sits on the surface all over the planet which I guess is the blue colour we saw from space. After a while, it gets reabsorbed into the air and just rises up by itself and then the whole thing starts all over again. I’m not sure about this last part. I haven’t seen any rain going upwards.

He told me about soft rains and hard rains and drizzles and downpours. He told me about thunderstorms and cloudbursts. He had dozens of names for it but I couldn’t see why. It’s all the same to me when it’s soaking my uniform or shorting out the electronics in my weapon. He told me about the snow that would come in winter and how it would cover the streets and how people would skate on the canal. I didn’t want to be fooled by his stories. I told him this but then he showed me a glass globe he carried. You could shake it and you’d see white flakes swirling around and settling on the little city that was inside it. His city, he told me, the first one we’d levelled.

When we moved out into the countryside I realised that he was right about the rain. About it being more than just moisture and air and gravity, I mean. That’s all it is but at the same time that’s not all it is. I don’t know how to explain it. I saw it first when I was weaving around the blast craters in the big-wheel. The craters were full of water. The rain pelted into them and made pockmarks that rippled outwards in perfect circles, quicker than the eye could see, overlapping and rolling into each other and through each other and fading out to nothing and then blinking into life again. It was hypnotic, like watching shockwaves from orbit.

Outside of the area of the searchlight beam it was too dark to really see the rain falling but you’d see it where it struck the bulletproof windows and you’d hear it tapping on the roof. I pressed my finger on the cold dry inside of the glass and traced the path of a drop as it zig-zagged down the outside. There was something comforting about being warm and dry in the vehicle with the storm so close. It was like we were inside the old man’s snowglobe but the weather was on the outside. It’s something you have to experience.

And there was that time we were in a forest on foot, doing a sweep-and-destroy for humans. It had stopped raining for the first time since morning and a kind of, I don’t know, greensmell, was rising up from the floor and making everything different. I didn’t know that smells could have a colour. ‘Petrichor’ is what the human called it.

Fat drops were hanging and wobbling on every leaf and all along the branches. I reached up and grabbed a branch and shook it, and it was like it was raining again for a second or two. The human laughed. The rest of the crew just made howls of complaint and shook themselves dry but to me it was beautiful.

At the end of the campaign we came back to the city and we parked at the side of the river. It was wide and fast at this place because we weren’t far from the sea. We got out of the vehicles to stretch and we stared out over the flow. Even after several months it was strange for us to look at. The human got out too and he walked to the edge of the water and looked across at the rubble on the far side. Then he did an odd thing. He stepped into the river and kept walking until the water was up to his chin and then he went under and we lost sight of him completely. We didn’t see him after that.

We thought maybe he swam away or he walked along the bottom of the river and got out again upstream. Or maybe he was just hiding under the water and waiting for us to leave. I don’t know if humans can do that. And if they can, I don’t think our guy could. He was pretty old.

I have his snow globe. I’m bringing it home in my ammo pouch as a souvenir of the mission. We’re probably leaving the planet soon. The commander thinks that we’ve done enough and there’s no point in chasing down the last of the humans. Some of the older guys disagree and think that we’re going to be here for a while. They say that the humans are regrouping in the far north and we need to finish them off properly. I hope that’s true. I’d like to see real snow before we leave.

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The Count

I had less patience than usual for Woodley’s twaddle. With hindsight, I can see that I was being a little unfair. He had agreed to meet me very late in the evening. Most people would not be so understanding of my foibles. Still, I was tired after my flight, and I was tormented by an unusually strong thirst. Those are the only excuses I can offer for what happened. I cut him off in mid-sentence.

“Do we have an agreement, or not?” I asked.

“Not.” He swallowed. “I mean, not yet.”

“And when, precisely, do you expect that to change?”

A vein pulsed on the side of his throat, betraying his nervousness. I could almost count his heartbeats. He raised one hand towards his mouth, caught himself, and adjusted his tie instead, which was just as damning a gesture. Then he spoke the lie: “It’s, ah, coming together. People are showing interest.”

I sighed. Years of writing, editing, compromising, rewriting, and now it had come to this. I wanted to throw back my head and scream.  I turned away from him and walked to the office window and leaned on the sill. The cool night air, with its promise of rain, wisped against my cheeks and the backs of my hands. Somewhere in the alley below, a cat hunted in the dark. I counted the rooftops, slowly. Counting is what I do when I feel agitated. Anything at all, it doesn’t matter. I count the mistakes I’ve made. I count the people I’ve hurt. I count the people I need to make amends to. I count the days since I last drank, and when I falter, I start at zero and try to count them again.

“It might help if you would meet some of the potential publishers,” he offered.

“That’s not possible. You know why.”

He changed tack. “The literary stuff, it’s very high brow. It’s a niche market. Have you considered writing something else?”

“Like what?”

“Vampire fiction? The teenagers go nuts for that stuff.”

I whirled around to face him. “Do you know how insulting that is? I am an artist.” I may have pounded my chest to emphasise the point. “Did Hemingway write vampire fiction? Did Steinbeck?”

He laughed.

“What’s funny?” I asked.

“All due respect,” he said, chuckling nervously, “but you’re hardly Steinbeck.”

I advanced on him. I saw the bump of his Adam’s apple quiver, once. Drops of sweat appeared on his forehead, three of them, as if by magic, and a blush rose in his cheeks. That was the trigger. I really couldn’t help myself. I lunged across the desk and surrendered myself to the thirst and the anger. My fangs plunged into the side of his neck and I gripped his arms around the biceps, using all my weight to force him back into the chair. His scream was muffled. It’s hard to vocalise your terror, or to object in any fashion, when one of my kind is clamped to your carotid artery. A growl of satisfaction rumbled in my throat, and my nostrils snuffled wetly as I struggled to breathe and drink at the same time. I slaked myself on the torrent until his heels ceased their drumming on the floorboards, and then I stood and massaged my aching jaw.

Of course, my shirt was ruined, and I hadn’t brought a spare. This was honestly intended to be a business meeting, not a feeding. And I have no doubt that I left enough evidence to occupy a team of forensics officers for a week. It was practically dripping from the ceiling. I made myself as presentable as I could, under the circumstances, and left the same way I had arrived, through the window. I counted the rooftops as I flew over them.

I feel some sympathy for Woodley, I really do, but what’s done is done, and he knew what I was since our first meeting. It’s his own fault, in a way, because if he had been a better agent then the whole sorry incident would never have happened. Rather than being too appalled at myself, I’ll just start counting the days again. Tomorrow, it will be one day since my last drink.

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