What if a prince fell in love with a rebel?
Clusters of Butterflies
Torrents of Bats
Clear Pretty Blue Skies
Swarming of Gnats
Warm Coffee Lids
Friends who’ve forgiven me
Friends who’ve betrayed
Friends who’ve abandoned me
Friends who have stayed
Women who swing their hips
Women who don’t
Women who’ll lay with me
Women who won’t
Besties and spouses
Living in tenements
Dreaming of houses
The Creak of Old Windmills
The Flower that Wilts
The Strength of my Youth fades
The Jousting Lance Tilts
The Windmills keep turning
I don’t quite know how
I fought them all Bravely
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
December 29th, 2014
Tilting at the Windmills of My Mind
All rights reserved
We found a vacant flyer, white with red stripes. It looked like a flying candy cane.
“Me? Why me?”
“But you guys call me Ed.”
“It’s just a nickname.”
“I’ll change it officially before I ride in this; it’s ugly,” she said. “We’ll attract attention we don’t want, and people will make fun of us. Well, you.”
We waited until another one came in, dark blue, clean lines, driven by a bureaucratic drone, who looked us over as if we were beetles on a pincushion before wiping his travel program from the hologram key map.
She programmed the key with our map, and the flyer whirred to life.
“How’d you two meet?” Ed asked.
“Candace? I met her in high school.”
“I didn’t mean Candace.”
“If you don’t want to tell me, it’s okay.”
“I don’t. Not now.”
“You miss her, don’t you?”
“Now we’re talking about Candace?”
“Just making sure. Every day, Ed. They didn’t have to shoot up the neighborhood to find me.”
“They were sending you a message.”
“They killed my neighbors, innocent people. Children died. What was the message in that?”
She was quiet a moment, then she said “They’d do anything to anyone to get to you.”
“I didn’t consider myself that important.”
“Well, you were wrong.”
“No,” I said, struggling against the rise in my voice, “I wasn’t. They made me that important. It wasn’t the worth the show of violence and power. I’m going to find out who did it, and why, and then I’ll take care of it.”
“And after that?”
“I don’t expect to live ‘after that.’
“So how does Lliya fit in?”
“I’m going to ask for her help; the squad will be in Nanjasi looking for Steele’s key; it might be related, it might not. I don’t know what part I play; it seems pointless for them to go through all that and then summarily suspend me.
“Something’s going on, and since I don’t have the squad’s resources, I’m going to need Lliya.”
“Can you trust her?”
I chuckled with a grim humor. “In this context, I don’t know; I guess I’ll find out.”
What I’d loved about Candace was that she wasn’t part of any of this; there were times I wanted to include her, and sometimes I’d start to, but she’d put her finger to my lips to stop me; and she was right, because if she ever became a part of it, we were both in danger, and she was my refuge.
If I defiled her with my knowledge of the world’s maggot- filled underbelly, I’d have no place to go to get clean and sane again.
It was a quiet Sunday afternoon, and she was rubbing my shoulders, humming softly to herself.
“What’s that song?” I asked.
“I don’t know; I remember my mother humming it sometimes when she was in the kitchen.”
“She never told you what it was?”
“I never asked. Why?”
“I don’t know; just seemed to me you would know something about it.”
She stopped rubbing. “Why is it so important to you that I know about it?”
I shook my head, “It’s not, babe. Forget I said anything.”
She resumed. “It’s that mind of yours.” Her voice deepened, mocking me. ’All data must be analyzed and re-analyzed.’ Really Warren, it’s a pain in the anal-ize.”
“Ha, you have jokes.”
She sighed, “No, just one; a big one, right between my hands.”
I reached back and pulled her into my lap as she squealed and laughed.
“I’ll put a big one between your hands.”
She wriggled her rump on my lap, and her voice grew husky as she drew close.
“Oh, yeah? Big talk, big man. Back it up.”
“I think that’s your part,” I said, slipping my hand inside her blouse.
And then she kissed me, and time went away.
“Warr, you listening?”
“Put the shields on; it’s starting to rain.”
I put the shields on, and the rain slipped off around them, keeping thing visible.
The afternoon was turning into evening.
“You’re going to have to go pack for Nanjasi soon, right?”
“Not taking much. I’m a girl, but not a girly- girl, otherwise I would’ve flown in that candy cane and talked your ear off about how pretty it looked.”
“You thought it looked like a candy cane too?”
“Yep.” She pointed. “There’s her place,” she said. “No lights on.”
“You know her haunts.” Again, not a question.
“I doubt I know them all, but we’ll try what I know first.”
We split up; Ed walked one side of the street, and I walked the other.
It was dark when we finally found Lliya; she was in an aging bistro, peeling, spotted paint, dank upholstery, long past its prime, which made it great for clandestine meetings, and hiding. She was sipping something fancy and expensive from what looked like a ceramic thimble.
I signaled Ed, and she waved goodbye, mouthed the words, ‘Be careful,’ opened her coat like a flasher and smiled.
I returned it, shaking my head.
She closed the coat, turned up the collar against the drizzle, and started walking back.
I slid into the seat across from Lliya. She never looked up.
“Want a cup of this?”
“Does it come in a larger size?”
She shrugged. “What are you doing here?”
“Came to ask you a few questions.”
She sighed, looked up then. “I’ll save you the trouble: I didn’t set you up; you were happy with Candace, you were out of the life, you were out of mine, and I missed you, but not enough to do that.
“I don’t know why they took you, but if I had to guess, it was because out of all your squad, you’d worked everything. I don’t think sometimes you realize how long you’ve been at this.
“Surveillance, tech, infantry, sniper, impalement, martial arts; you’re a government agency wet dream. You’re not just a jack of all trades; you’re actually good at all of them.”
Kriley did say I was the best all around; still didn’t explain how I got caught.
“Any ideas who?”
“I know you’re thinking inside job; could be my people too. They didn’t send me after your squad. I came after you.”
“Why risk it, Lliya?”
“You’re an ass, Warr. Why do you think?”
“May I take your order sir?”
I’d been so focused on Lliya I didn’t see the waitress walk up.
“Is the food still good here?”
“They still have waitresses.”
“Something strong, with something broiled.”
The waitress smiled, her menu for savages at the ready: “Bourbon and steak?”
“I like you.”
“How do you want the steak?”
“Like a satisfied woman: well-done.”
Lliya sputtered out some of her droplet, and went into a coughing fit.
The waitress blushed and flounced away.
“My god, how did you ever get Candace to marry you with lines like that?”
“I didn’t use lines like that on Candace.”
She sobered. “I’m sorry, Warr. I didn’t mean…”
“S’okay, Lliya. Drop it. We’re good.”
She gave us a minute to make sure I meant it. I did.
“Listen to me, okay? She can’t be a distraction, and it’s my fault for bringing her up. You know how I feel about you, but we’re on opposite sides here. You had a choice to make, and you did, and I stayed away.
“It seems that circumstances are putting us back together, and I don’t know what’s going to happen. If it comes down to it, Warr, you know I’ll kill you, and I know you’ll kill me. We’ll hate it, and we’ll mourn inside, and move on, but there’s no question whether or not we’d carry it out.”
Her voice took on a note of wistfulness.
“That’s what would’ve made us great, but it’s also what makes us impossible.”
“Our devotion. It’s misdirected: it could’ve been for each other, but now it’s for what we do.”
“You didn’t have to be on the opposite side.”
“I didn’t choose it; I needed a job. We had history, and Kriley didn’t like it.”
“Sometimes I wish I had; he would’ve left us alone.”
I looked at her.
“No, he never made a pass. Seriously, could you imagine?”
“Anyway,” she finished the liquid in her thimble, “it doesn’t matter now, does it? What do you need from me?”
I sat back, breaking the intangible tension.
“Well you’re right; I’m thinking it was inside, I just don’t know if it’s mine or yours. If it’s mine, I need someone from the outside looking in. I want you to shadow me, see if anything looks out of the ordinary, anybody I can’t see.
“Steele Industries has their own trackers on me; they’re good, but not as good as you, and they’ll be gone with nothing to report in a few days.”
“Wouldn’t Ed be better for this?”
“Don’t know, because I can’t use her. And if it’s on my side that would tip them off that I knew, though Ed is hard to track, and I think she’d do it. Anyway, they’re going to Nanjasi without me. I’ve been suspended for getting caught; the suits at Steele say I’m a liability.”
“The suits at Steele are wrong.”
“Kriley tried to say that, but they weren’t interested. Will you do it?”
The waitress came back with the bourbon.
“Should you be drinking?”
“Question is, shouldn’t you?”
She considered it.
“What the hell.” With that, she answered both questions.
I poured some into her thimble, but she took the glass from my hand.
“On the rocks ruins it,” she said.
“I didn’t want you taking advantage of me.”
She smiled. “We both know I can do that whenever I want.”
I reached over and brushed a strand from her eyes, my thumb brushing her temple, and she wanted to lean into my hand, and I saw the effort not to; I put my hand back on the table, and it was a little colder where her cheek would’ve touched.
“That’s what would’ve made us great, but it’s also what makes us impossible.”
She lifted the glass in a silent toast, and I lifted the thimble, and we drank.
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
March 3rd 2014
All rights reserved
My name is Warren, an unassuming name, but you’d be wrong to make assumptions: They call me Warr, because it’s all I’m good at making. And I’m really, really good.
1: The room was stifling, rank with the scent of tangy sweat. Flies crawled through my blood, biting, sipping, itching, but I couldn’t scratch with my hands tied behind my back. My lips and nose were swollen from the blows, and it was hard to breathe around the stifling, stinking gag to get air through my mouth.
The goon had his fingernails pressing into a leg wound, and I snarled, muffling through the gag, tensing against the bonds. “Tell us.” The goon pressed harder. I couldn’t help it, and cried out in pain. He let up, and the relative relief was welcome. We all sat breathing for a time. Sweat trickled into the wounds they’d inflicted, burning.
Telling began to seem like a good idea, but if I did, my squad was all dead, and I was hard pressed to believe these guys would really let me go. Goon took the gag off, looked in my eyes, and grabbed me by the neck, not squeezing, just holding it in his meaty, sweaty hand like a set of keys. The thin man sitting in the chair behind him cleaned his glasses on his tie, looking at me.
“I will ask you one more time. Your life is forfeit if you remain silent, and we will find your squad and kill them all the same.” Somehow, I managed to find a bubble of saliva to help me speak.
“Then why do you need me to tell you?” My voice croaked from my dry throat.
“To save us the time of searching, of course.” “Go to hell.” “You first.” The goon looked in my eyes and head butted me. The stars were beautiful, but the room went dark and I saw them fade like a child’s innocence.
2: When I woke up, the goon and the mastermind were on the floor, surrounded by areolas of blood, and in the chair sat the most lethal, beautiful woman I ever met, trimming her nails, expertly, with the point of a really big knife. Lliya, at times my nemesis, at others, my lover, and sometimes both simultaneously. I had no idea which one was going to kill me, and sometimes, I didn’t think I’d care.
The gag was out, but I was still tied up.
“Good morning, handsome.”
“Interesting. I thought you’d say ‘Thank you, gorgeous.’”
She stood, walked over to me; I actually felt a little sliver of fear. Looking into my eyes, she put her hand with cool fingers and light pressure, capable of anything, on my swollen cheek
“Thank you, gorgeous.”
She slinked behind me, untied my wrists, knelt, untied my ankles, her mouth close to my crotch, with a small smile on her lips.
She smiled up at me, undoing the last of the knots. Her smile dazzled, her eyes sparkled with erotic mischief.
“My dear Warr, you know I only keep you alive so I can kill you myself. But not like this. Not sporting, and all that crap.” “I agree.” She rubbed my wrists, bringing the stinging tingle of circulation back, then I took care of my ankles.
“Get up, darling.”
She wrinkled her nose. “You stink.”
“Yes, but not at my job.”
She looked back at the dead goon and the mastermind, then back at me, the point of her knife slowly twirling at the corner of her smirking mouth.
3: It took some time for the swelling to go down. Lliya tried to stay, but that was too volatile a situation. I still remember the kiss she gave me when she left.
Captain Kriley and some of the guys came to see me, debrief me over what the squad accomplished without me, and razzed me hard for getting caught, but praised me for not cracking under the beating I took.
“We’re gonna beat your ass for getting caught, but we’ll wait til you heal.”
“You had to go the bathroom again, didn’t you?”
“Your face still looks like a catcher’s mitt.”
And on it went. I tried not to laugh, because it hurt my ribs, but they had no mercy. Soon, Kriley dismissed them all, sat across from me all serious like.
“Yeah.” He sat back, steepled his hands, “I’m beginning to wonder if we should’ve recruited her instead.”
“Me too. She said I stunk at my job.”
“You did get caught.”
“First time, Captain.”
He unsteepled his hands, put them in his lap. “True, but sometimes, once is all you need. There’s guys don’t come back from once. You know that. So what should we do now?”
“Let me go after her.”
“What does she know, you need to go after her?”
“Nothing. I like the curve of her backside.”
“You can go all puppy-dog about it on your time. I’m not asking again.”
“She knows who’s behind the killing.”
“And you know this how? She told you?”
“She set it up.”
“And you know this how?”
“The little man in the wide tie told me. Somehow, she knew we were here, tipped him. I was blindsided,” I touched the swelling behind my ear, “and they got me. The rest of the squad went on without me.”
“Your feelings hurt?”
“Captain, I’m just running the facts by you.”
“Sorry. No more busting your chops. But those aren’t facts. Yet.”
I nodded. “If she knew we were here, how come she didn’t know where we went? She could’ve followed us herself and taken care of it. We never would’ve saw her, or known she was there.”
“Part of the reason I want to go after her.”
“She’s long gone, and we got better things to do.”
He let that sink in, then got up to leave. “Leave it alone, Warr. She’ll mess you up in the head, if she hasn’t already.”
That ship had sailed a long time ago, but I didn’t bother telling him that.
“Feel better,” he said, and walked out.
Maybe I should start at the beginning.
4: Flash! I remember glass breaking and the sound of copters, keen and fast, flying low over the neighborhood, and the sound of rapid shooting. Flash! My wife ran to the window to see what was happening.
Flash! In an instant she became a pile of molten skin, boiling blood, and bone shards, her head plopping on the bed beside me, looking at me with a question in her bloody, sightless eyes.
Flash! Men in black uniforms and helmets with black visors hitting me with sticks and boots and fists.
Flash! They carried me out, but as I was losing consciousness, I registered it all. People were screaming and running. The confusion was deliberate, and unnecessary. I would have gone quietly had they knocked. Women and children were lying prone in the streets, bleeding out, their husbands’ bodies vainly over them in a futile gesture of protection, family blood mingling in eternal rivulets of unison.
Flash! Tubes in and out, fluids flowing to and fro, in me, out of me, cycling through again, and men in white robes, outside of the plexiglass tank that contained me, talking in hushed tones about what I was to become. I heard them. Every word, but I never told them.
Flash! Tests, chemicals, more tests, more chemicals, straining against tight bonds, pushing, pushing, until they ripped free, and more men in black with sticks came for me. They say seven of them died before they found the tranquilizer that saw me behind thicker plexiglass. I had no idea where I was, or why. I had no clue why they wanted to turn me into a killing machine, but in the end now, it doesn’t matter. Now, they are the ones I hunt.
5: I’d lived in a quiet neighborhood, with good neighbors (mostly), and a good wife. We had no children, because I was mostly on the move, and never knew if I was coming home. I wouldn’t have liked it if Candace left, but I would have understood. She didn’t, and I loved her all the more for it.
We often went to the countryside on weekends, to a cabin I’d built there for us, our little hideaway, where we let ourselves air out the tensions of the week, and left our inhibitions in the car. I liked the mountains that took the sunset into their valleys, liked the silent, circling hawks, majestic in their flying, lethal in their descent. I liked the way the grass rippled like green water when the wind blew across it. I liked that Candace wanted to share it with me. I liked to think that we were happy, before she died.
And then, I didn’t think anymore, about anything that wasn’t my mission: find the insufferable bastards that blew her head off, or die trying.
Back on the job, still a little bruised up, but I was gonna hurt someone if I didn’t get out of that hospital bed. It was nothing a ballerina couldn’t endure. I was debriefed: we did not find what we were looking for, so we had to keep looking, except now it would involve traveling, which we all hated, so everyone was gonna have an attitude about finding it.
Kriley suspected that Llya tipped them off, but I knew it wasn’t the kind of thing she’d do, even though she lived to destroy us. Sometimes, even your enemies had codes of honor they wouldn’t break. And that meant that it was somewhere here, on the squad, working close, with access to plans and supplies, maps and computers, spy equipment, and weaponry.
It was shaping up to be a fun time.
I sighed, sipped coffee, looked at the clock, put the double frame pictures of Candice in the top drawer, sipped some more coffee, watched the clock some more, turning it over. Who could it be? Why would they do it? Money? Too simple, but simple may have been enough.
Revenge? Ambition? Jealousy? Too many questions would lead to me getting paranoid and shifty, and if someone else was thinking about this, I might be the one under scrutiny. I breathed deep to slow everything down, and reviewed what I knew of these guys in my head.
Kriley was by the book, and only by the book. His frustration with the job we did was mostly tied to the fact that everyone else, me included, was only loosely affiliated with the book. We cut corners and took shortcuts and risks, even when it came back to bite us. There wasn’t always time for the book, though Captain Kriley always insisted there was.
Colanto was stand-up too, but too eager to get home to his live-in girlfriend. If she was hoping for wife-hood, she’d be waiting forever. He tended to ditch overtime, and wouldn’t volunteer or take on extra if it wasn’t a direct order. He was a great shot though, and you could rely on him to take it when he needed to, and sometimes when he didn’t, just to expedite things. He was the obvious choice, and in this job, you never overlook the obvious, because very often, that’s what they wanted you to overlook.
Arlo was older, more settled, had seen his share of firefights, and knew what it took to survive. He was still rugged and broad, if a little more gray, but that only gave him more of an aura of authority, which he was not shy about wielding. I would be the most disappointed if it was Arlo who leaked.
Duncan, “Dark Horse” we called him, the quiet one, was the least likely. He never said much, didn’t seem to have a blink reflex, and had an unnerving intensity to be absolutely still, settling in like a big cat on the hunt, seemingly lifeless, blending in, until he was ready to strike.
The results were always lethal, and none of it fazed him. If it was him, he’d give me the most trouble, only because he was such an ex factor.
Lastly there was Eberdine, affectionately called Ed, the lone female on the squad.
She had cinnamon skin, sea-green eyes, and a body that promised heaven, and could send you there in a heartbeat with a blow, a blade, or a bullet to the temple.
She was the smallest, and perhaps, skill for skill, the most covert among us, hiding in places you wouldn’t think to look, coming back to you with information you swore was confidential, and knew there were no witnesses. She enjoyed it. “Keeps me sharp,” she always said. If she was the leak,
I was going to have a hard time catching her, and who knew how long that would take.
Tonight, He said, one of you will betray me. I learned that somewhere. It was heavy with foreshadow, simple and fearful, with a heartfelt agony of broken trust behind it, a sense of inevitability, and unmatched bravery in the way the victim stayed the course.
6: The conference room was big, manfully appointed, and too cold from the canned air that blew threw the inconspicuous vents overhead. The large monitor in the front of the room held the image of man with his face in deep shadow, track lighting glinting off the silver letters on the marbled black granite wall behind him:
“Were we compromised?” Shadow-face asked. “No sir,” Kriley answered. “Commander Warren didn’t break, but we didn’t find what we were looking for.”
He didn’t exactly throw me under the bus, he just kind of tossed me underhand. “Commander Warren. What have you to say for yourself?”
“I’m….sorry?” The squad chuckled, but Shadow-face wasn’t amused.
“Yes,” he said, “you are.”
That brought an even bigger chuckle; first Lliya, now Shadow-face. I had to learn not set myself up.
“The mission, sir?” Kriley said, mercifully switching the conversation back to its original purpose.
Shadow-face sat silently for a moment or two. “You will proceed to Nanjasi, sans Commander Warren.”
“He is suspended, effective immediately. He compromised the safety of the squad, and has become a liability.”
“But sir,” said Kriley, “he’s one of our best all around tactics operatives; I could really use him in the field. Would you reconsider, sir?”
“I already have,” said Shadow-face. “I was going to fire him, effective immediately. Meeting adjourned, Captain. You and the rest of the squad will leave for Nanjasi first light. Sans Commander Warren. “Am I clear?”
Kriley’s jaw twitched with the unsaid.
The monitor winked out. He looked at me. “You’re on vacation. Where will you go?”
“I’ve always wanted to see…Nanjasi.”
“You think this guy was born yesterday? He’s probably already got tails on you.” Kriley was right.
“And no,” he said, “you will not spot them, and no again, you will not shake them.” Right again.
“You done with your vote of confidence?”
I left, but I didn’t go home. Not right away. Not for awhile. I went to find Lliya, but I didn’t go after her. Not directly.
“Ed, where would a woman go if she didn’t want to be found?”
“Well, certainly not the bedroom.”
I flashed a phony smile, nodded. “Good. Now where?”
“Shopping, a chick flick, lesbo book store, feminist AA meeting. Why do you wanna know?”
“I’m looking for a woman.”
“Not in that way.” “Well, now I’m insulted.”
“Hey, you said not the bedroom…”
She arched a playful eyebrow: “It’s not the only room…”
“Come on, now.” I pleaded, chuckling.
“Okay, okay,” she was smiling herself. “She doesn’t want to be found?”
“Women don’t disappear not to be found; they wouldn’t go off to a cabin somewhere in East Loserville to get away from the Mister. They go somewhere to think, to calm down, to get past the emotions.”
“Where would that be?”
“A park, a coffee shop, somewhere public where she could be alone among people, because she’s afraid she’ll act out if she’s wrong upstairs. So there’s someone there to call for help.
“Indeed,” she said. “Glad to hear it. Know where to start?”
I thought about it.“No.”
“Should I come with? I’ll ditch you when we’ve found her.”
“Sure. Thanks. Why’s your name so damn weird?”
“I changed it to Eberdine. It was actually weirder.”
She laughed at my expression. “Let’s go find your killer girlfriend.”
“Well, when you put it that way…”
We walked, arm in arm, off to start my vacation, looking for a woman that didn’t want to be found.
© Alfred W. Smith Jr.
2014 All rights reserved