“There is no such thing as human rights. If you are lucky enough to live in a country that nurtures and supports you, then relish and protect that luxury. Human rights, like children, are so natural and everyday a simple, accepted love, but if they are taken from you, only then do you get why they were so, so special a privilege. The rich, the corrupt and those in power, those who pull the strings, they know this.”
When prisoner RS-547281, known widely as Lily, had offered that insight on the Global News Beat last week, it was like being assaulted. I had frozen, in total realisation, that I was a cog in a machine, a machine that was impossible to defy.
The transfer was a single night’s work. It sounded so simple at first. The sequence was uncomplicated; report for briefing at the holding cell, secure the prisoner, accompany the prisoner to super max. Low-profile, small team, minimal comms, all discreet, no press releases. The file had been given to me in person by an official in a long black raincoat. I had been a little irritated as it was Friday evening and he appeared at my doorstep, just before school pickup time, which meant I would be late. Inside the deep manilla envelope were photographs, instructions and the words Top Secret emblazoned on every document. It had shocked me at first, seeing the contents of that envelope. She was very well known. A booming voice rejecting the President, and in a nation where speech needed careful consideration for health and safety reasons.
The other guards, my victims, seemed okay. I had to step beyond my comfort zone. They were career security guards, two veterans that just wanted payment at the end of the month. They did not care about her fate or the reasons behind it. They decided to do what they were trained to decide. Right and wrong is not always so black or white, but one thing I know is that people are not gods. We need to make choices as people, to step back and make them with some real, intelligent perception, with the right motivation.
The prisoner did not deserve to die in jail. I knew that much. I knew that she would perish in that Hell hole if the van were to reach its destination without incident, and she would slip away from history forever.
I had to intervene, so I did, I chose a moment that felt relaxed. The two guards were talking about their pay rates, joking and comparing knuckle dusters and I just looked at the grill behind them and the sullen silhouette of a teenager’s face and something inside me remembered I was a father. I took my piece out and shot them both in the head. They hardly had time to even turn toward me.
She thought she was next, that was the irony. I told her ‘I was acting on instinct’ but she found that hard to believe and breathed in and out like it would be her last breaths.
The prison van screeched to a halt after the gunshots, and I yelled to the driver to come to the back, to open the doors.
I didn’t kill him, because he guessed it was all off, and he just ran for it. I heard him but never saw him as he sprinted heavily away, with the driver door of the prison van left open.
It was 3am in the morning, so no one was around. Watching the bodies bleed was a quiet moment.
I eventually uncuffed her and led her away to a place in the shadows. She did not resist at all. We paused after about thirty minutes of dashing and skulking through the spaces between the spaces of the city.
We ended up between two tall, nondescript buildings, amongst dustbins and weeds and broken bottles, shrouded in darkness.
The alleyway was covered in graffiti, mostly lyrics from songs about liberation, love and loss. All had the same kind of message, ‘everyone can be someone’. I had killed two people in one day, I had never done that before.
“Are you going to kill me?” she asked, like a lamb, not a lion.
“What you did…” I said with genuine admiration, “Was tell a king to fuck off….”
I smiled. She did not, but I could tell her eyes were as pure as diamonds.
“He was just a liar,” she said. “And you have avoided answering me?”
I liked her honesty. It was hard like granite, you couldn’t dent it.
“So, what now?” she asked. “They will soon be back, and in numbers. They won’t worry about locking me up now, or you. They will shoot us on sight.”
I shrugged. She looked perplexed.
“Why?…” she asked – staring into my eyes.
“My sons. I rarely see them now, just the weekends, I am divorced… But I care about them, about their future. You, people like you, with a voice and a following, you can give them a future that is worth something.” It was a half- truth.
The alley stank in equal measures of urine and beer, an improvised toilet-stop after last orders. We were in complete darkness and the nearest light was a street lamppost about a hundred feet away, highlighting the road. No cars had gone by since we were there. It was unnaturally quiet, even for this city.
“You have any friends who can hide us?”
“Us?” she quizzed.
“I am now officially an enemy of the state. So, yes, us!”
She smoothed her close-cropped hair with one palm, calculating and taking a moment to play out options. She was a slight build, a good foot shorter than me. A child, but one with a dignity about her posture and the way she held herself. There was a wisdom in her movement. Her prisoner uniform was grey, not orange, which I was grateful for, as it would be harder to spot.
“You have a secure phone?” she asked.
“Yes, I do.”
I fumbled in the inside pocket of my leather jacket and produced the military issue mobile.
“A simple button push, and it is impervious to tracking or monitoring,” I explained. “A handy addition for sensitive work.”
I pushed the button and handed it over to her.
She maintained eye contact with me as she punched in a number, which was impressive and a little unnerving. Such cool confidence under enormous psychological pressure. She could have aced it in the secret service, I concluded.
“It’s me…” she murmured into the mic. “…I know… The code is ‘fire bridge’. It is really me. One of the guards grew a conscience and broke me out in the transfer. Here’s the thing, we’re both on the run now, and need a safe place, I mean it has to be off the radar of the usual suspects. You understand. And I need a platform. Can it be done?”
She sounded for the first time since I had heard her, a little like a movie star, an actress in a performance. I could tell she had accepted I was not a threat.
‘What did she mean by that?’ I wondered. She was already planning further ahead, like her own life was a tiny bolt holding together a massive engine, one that required not to think of her own needs for celebration, relief, rest, crying, sleeping or the little things like these.
She concentrated on the instructions fed to her, offering tiny sounds of acknowledgement to confirm she was still listening, still there on the end of the line, alive and resurrected from the oblivion she was promised by the judge in her secret trial.
She handed the phone back and looked into me again, in that way, the eyes were lances, sharp points of light that could drill through any obstruction.
“Follow me.” It was her command.
We darted and slithered through the alleys, crossing roads quickly but not running to alert suspicion should someone be lurking and watching, should CCTV be passively collecting the night. We managed to reach the slums on the city outskirts, a territory I felt very uncomfortable in before dawn. Cops would often be discovered here after being ritually butchered.
The development was as impressive as it was grim. For miles, there were makeshift huts, made from breeze blocks and corrugated iron, with bed sheet windows and outside taps. It was a sprawling settlement born of poverty, molded by an army of ‘have nots’ reusing the garbage and scraps and recycling them into homes and communities.
She looked quite the local in her grey jump suit and short hair, ‘the criminal always blended into the backdrop of poverty’ I thought, that was what we all thought in security. I at least had a gun should we encounter a gang or a drunk with a knife, hunting chance opportunities. The only people we encountered were quiet and small and trying to blend into the background, like they were debris discarded and accepting of their abandonment. She strode with purpose through the maze, with no street signs, nor landmarks for guidance. In the heart of the slum, we stopped. She turned to me and pointed assertively where a slope seemed to trail under a building on stilts. We stooped as we edged beneath the building and to my surprise there was a steel door with a huge padlock that had bolted it shut. She knocked on it hard twice, left a pause and then three time more. I had presumed the lock needed an external key, but it was a trick. The padlock was remotely unlatched, and the door swung open, hydraulically.
“After you,” she asserted, smiling with one hand out, as if tempting me inside.
I hesitated, feeling the reassuring metal of my gun against my hip in its strap holster. The doorway was an impenetrable dark rectangle, as if it led to another dimension – a barrier you had to cross over to see what alternate reality lay beyond.
“Is Lily your real name?” I asked.
“No… Deception is sometimes a necessary evil,” she said, her hand still outstretched as an invitation to go first.
I took a deep breath and walked inside. I needed her to trust me.
The door shut behind me and blinding lights erupted in a blaze of exposure. She had not followed me though. It was a trap.
A painful cosh, tackled to the ground, disarmed, a sack over my head. I had been foolish. I sensed several men, all efficient and well trained, not hippies and activists, too together, too aggressively assertive to be part time placard holders or even a street mob. The canvas of the sack sucked in and out of my mouth with my breath, permeable enough to filter in some air.
“Get him upright.”
“Where is she?” I demanded, “I need to know where she’s gone?”
A chuckle of indignation from someone unseen, followed by, “Forget her, she’ll soon be long gone and she’ll be safe. Mission’s over, my friend.”
It was a good ten minutes before they yanked the hood off from my head. After the scuffle in the dirt, they caught their collective breath, whoever they were. I was chained to a chair in the middle of a damp, empty room devoid of comforts. Wallpaper was peeling off the walls and black mold webbed across the ceiling.
A tall man in a smart silver suit, but with a balaclava to conceal his face was standing in front of me. Beside him were four armed guards, faces covered, bland featureless overalls – they could be working for anyone. A desk with impressive looking computer gear and several screens linked to camera views sat imposingly in one corner of the room. There were two strikingly ‘out of place’ metal doors in the opposite wall, both with inset biometric eye scanners at head height. The room, it didn’t add up. What was this?
“I was trying to help her get away,” I said. “I’m not the bad guy.”
The suit on this man was expensive and tailored. He did not belong in a slum, or even an office. He belonged in an ivory tower, he would be a man of position in the big house. Perhaps he was a government agent of some kind, but who and from where?
“Recognise these pictures, Carson?”
He knew my name. This was not a good sign. He held up one of the A5 photographs I had been given in my assignment envelope, a picture of my two worried looking sons, held at gunpoint in a small cell.
“Whoever you are, don’t you hurt my boys! Don’t you dare do that.”
“We have no intention of hurting your boys, but we needed leverage on you. I work for, let’s say, another government’s interest – but that’s a good thing. We need the people here in your little enclave, to choose democracy in the Spring. We need this to happen for the greater cause. We can even out the wealth here you know, we can do some major trade and help people live a little more comfortably – you see, a good thing. We organised your assignment, you thought it was the powers that be, but it was us. Sorry about that, just a little white lie, to make things happen, to get the momentum chugging along there. We knew you’d do anything to protect your boys. You didn’t disappoint. Taking out those guards, that was love, that was love that made you do that. You should be proud, you’re a good father.”
“My boys!?” I begged.
“Look,” he was determined to debrief me, “We have eyes and ears everywhere, my friend. We picked you to break her out and follow her to the underground network, oh, how did we put it, to infiltrate the insurgents. This regime, they are a blunt tool, they’d never pull something like that off, frankly I am surprised you didn’t see through it all. It was bullshit. We just wanted to get her free of course, to finish what she started before she was arrested. She can turn this election with a webcam and a social media platform. Simple as that. Now, in this moment, please realise you have no choice anymore, you’re a fugitive now and they’ll kill your kids if you show up again, at least that is, until we bring their whole straw edifice down. We monitored all three of you guards for a week and identified you as someone who had the most to lose. For what it’s worth, after looking at the tapes on you, I think you have potential to be a good person, not that I’d know much about that anymore, to be fair!”
He was amusing himself with his diatribe.
“Threatening the only people I love, why am I surprised? That’s how it always works. So, what happens now?” I drooled. “What about Sue, my ex-wife, the boys live for her…”
The man seemed to stand straighter, as if braced for impact. He shook his head slowly and said, “We can’t save everyone I am afraid, not with this regime in power.”
I accepted it fairly naturally, like my mind had been working it out, unravelling it as I sat there, stuck in that chair. The boys. I was now all they had in the world.
“What now…” he repeated my words as if in revision. “Well, now you can work for us, and in return you can live, with your sons. Now let’s go and see them… they have been here all along in a cell only a few steps from this room. They are well fed and clothed and they’ll be pleased to see a familiar face, I can tell you that!”
I nodded, my head down, astonished and disgusted by the level to which I had been played.
“Of course, anything you say,” I confirmed. “Lily, or whoever… She’s not even a ‘real’ person is she? She’s an agent, isn’t she? I don’t care, I really don’t. I just want to be with my boys.”
“We know,” and there was a warm smile in the mouth hole of the balaclava.
With that, the chains came off, circling into a coil on the dirt. I would not run or fight, I only had to do what they told me, and we would be together, and we would be safe. It was an understanding, a pact – we’d remain a family, all we had to do was give them our complete obedience. That was the truth.