Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Beyond (2): Crisis Cell

By Max Dunbar

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He studied literature at Sheffield and Manchester. He writes fiction in his spare time, and is Manchester's regional editor for Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. Max lives in central Manchester and blogs at Max Dunbar

The walls are around a hundred feet high and surround the palace. There are guard towers, and, recently, surface-to-air missiles stationed around the perimeter. Past the checkpoint at the main gate is a tunnel we call the crisis corridor, swiped and gauntleted and running right underneath the palace to the back courtyards. The guard at the compound checkpoint says: ‘You were seen in the company of subversives in Dias City. You could be a defector.’

‘Look, if I was going to defect, the fuck would I come back?’

The guards search and disarm me and run metal-detector wands over my body. There’s a long wait in the crisis corridor while they confer in their portakabin and I dance from foot to foot, eyes still hot and streaming from CS, high on stress and exhaustion and adrenaline. Then the main guard says that I’m going to a holding centre, ‘pending a decision’. I lose my temper and we have a bit of a fistfight but I’m outnumbered again and thrown into one of the dungeon cells beneath the palace.

The cell features a kind of pulley system above a central plate. The air smells of burnt flesh. I feel the tang of bruises on my face. I lie on the metal bar and try to sleep.

Moments later the cell door unlocks. Prazma appears. ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’

‘They think I’m a defector and a spy.’

Prazma looks harried and drawn. ‘Fatty’s not sure about you.’

She signs me out and we jog up the spiral staircase to the briefing room. I explain to Colonel Dya’apo what happened. From his expression, I’m not sure whether he believes me.

‘But why did they let you go?’

‘They had a proposal. About the tank they stole.’

‘Yeah, I got an email about that.’ Prazma unfolds the briefing room laptop and projects a YouTube video on the wall. The video features a tank heading at a leisurely pace down Tender Playa Avenue. The tank parks in front of an apartment block, as if it’s a family saloon. The camera zooms in and you see Charlene and Rostam get out of the tank. They salute us with the finger and walk into the building, carrying electrical equipment and shopping bags.

‘Motherfuckers,’ the Colonel says.

Prazma asks me what the proposal was.

‘They said they would give us back the tank if we released Hamid Zlatan.’

‘Impossible,’ Prazma says. ‘The Curator is set to read his script at eight hundred hours.’

‘Hang on,’ the Colonel says. ‘Can we trust them to return the tank? Is there a way to contact them?’

‘There’s a mobile number on here.’ I’m looking at the mocking email message from the Dias Social brigades. ‘As far as trust goes… they’re revolutionary scum, but I think they would keep their word.’

‘Call Charlene Ranta,’ the Colonel says. ‘Arrange it.’

Prazma is apoplectic. ‘What are you talking about? Zlatan’s the lead story! How can I tell Amima to cancel now?’

‘Bulk out The Boss’s Speech,’ the Colonel says. ‘I don’t know.’

‘But Zlatan’s turnaround is a key plank of our media strategy.’

‘Forget media strategy,’ the Colonel says. ‘We need that tank.’

 

New Year’s Eve is always a big event, and tonight an especial effort has been made to show the world this won’t be our last year. The lower floors of the palace have been thrown open and servants circulate with trays of blinis and champagne. The courtyard throngs with princelings and duchesses, military men tuckered-out and scrambled-egged, Russian plutocrats and venture capitalists from Dubai, Prazma’s JP Morgan crowd and London Cityboys and hedgies who know Alia and Ozymandias from the old days. I see Western politicians of the antiwar movement, whose web articles and YouTube speeches have been such comfort to Prazma in these dark times. Mingling with the socialites and celebrities are fireeaters, jugglers, jesters, wrestlers, caricaturists, stiltwalkers, liontamers, mandolin-men, oh, there were buffoons, improvisatori, ballet-dancers, musicians, there was beauty, there was wine.

There are omissions that only an insider would notice. Several of the courtyard structures have gone, including Lipchitz’s ‘Birth of the Muses’; much palace art has been sold to keep liquidity flowing into the palace. There are important faces from last year that I don’t see this year. In marbled halls across the Middle East great men and women watch our country and make hard decisions. Kanye West was supposed to play tonight but pulled out at the last moment.

‘Advised against for safety reasons.’ No one rolls their eyes like Prazma. ‘The State Department leant on him.’

‘What a pussy,’ Claire says. ‘I mean, this guy grew up in the ghetto, right, with all his niggers, and he’s scared of getting hurt here?’

‘He’s a gay fish.’ This is Josh from JP Morgan, a floppy-haired fellow who has been following Prazma and Claire around all night. ‘You seen that South Park episode? He sings ‘I’m a gay fish’ at the end. And they do that R and B ‘wrrarrrrwww’ sound. It’s hillahrrious.’

‘So who’d we get instead?’

‘Will – I – Am,’ Prazma shouts. She has to repeat it. ‘It’ll be cool, he’s a rapper, The Boss likes him.’

Torchlights flicker on the courtyard walls, giving them an orangey, eldritch look. Shadows jump and dance on the brickwork and the tiles around my feet, the air clangs with gilded, clotted laughter, and the sound of a glockenspiel somewhere. For some reason I’ve got Artie Shaw’s ‘Comes Love’ playing in my head: Comes a heatwave/You can hurry to the shore/Comes a summons/You can hide behind the door…

There is a disturbance in the press ahead of me and I hear the sound of breaking glass. Several guests look up as if the barbarians have stormed the gate. Colonel Dya’apo’s hand actually goes to his jacket.

But it’s Fatty, several hours late and riding a horse. ‘Hey, everybody!’ he shouts. ‘It is the End of Days!’

A round of raucous greetings follow. Fatty nods in recognition and I look him in the eye, hold his gaze. Claire jumps on the horse behind Fatty and slaps his bare back. Fatty looks a wreck; twitchy and unshaven, wearing nothing but palazzo pants and a New York Yankees cap. He trots Claire around in a small circle, shouting ‘This is the way the ladies ride, the ladies ride, the ladies ride!’

Although Claire is enjoying herself, giggling and slapping the beast’s flanks, Fatty’s horsemanship is not great and he knocks into several dignitaries, and at one perilous moment comes close to upending Alia’s Harrods fondue pot.

The only way I got through the six-course meal that preceded tonight’s event was by keeping Alia in the centre of my peripheral vision. Now she’s upon our little group, dress shimmering, eyes sparkling, Chanel dress cupped and glittering at the cleavage, teeth like a lighthouse beam. ‘My dearest stepson! Where have you been! And where did you get that animal?’

The Colonel is scrutinising the beast. ‘Is that horse from Service Animal Requisition?’

‘Er, no, I just sort of found it,’ says Fatty, unconvincingly. It’s treason for even a high ranking military officer to talk to the Regent in that kind of tone, but these are different times. The Colonel rages at Fatty for wasting the energy of an essential frontline cavalry horse.

‘Oh, Crispin, as great a soldier as you are, can you not turn your mind from the struggle for just this one night?’ The Colonel drops his objections under the force of Alia’s chiding. Then Alia says to Fatty, in what she perhaps presumes to be a quiet aside: ‘Would you happen to have a line, my dear?’

God knows why we all troop into the house as if we’re schoolchildren going to pass around a bottle of vodka on prom night. But I am practically falling asleep on my feet and could do with the energy, so I follow the Crisis Cell into the mansion. Fatty refuses to get off his horse, but Alia says: ‘It would scuff up the stairs, darling,’ so he reluctantly dismounts. The Colonel, with a grim expression, snatches the reins from Fatty and leads the beast away.

Fatty sits on a beanbag and begins chopping up. Alia puts on Zero 7, takes a seat on the swivel chair Prazma normally uses, and kicks her legs crossway; the spikes glisten on her Louboutins, ferocious and acute. The Callicore IV goes round and the room settles into relaxed coke-talk. Josh reclines on the sheets between Prazma and Claire, who are laughing with each other over his head. The hub is shadowy and dark. It looks strange without the mukhabarat shiftworkers.

Jokes and innuendoes are thrown around and I see a glance pass between Alia and her son-in-law. Claire gets up and starts sparring with Fatty, throwing pillows around. A Ming Luce vase smashes on the tiles, but Alia doesn’t seem to mind. Fatty hoists Claire by her ankles and carries her, still laughing, out of the room over his back.

Comes the measles… you can quarantine the room…

Comes a mousie… you can chase it with a broom…

Then, I don’t know how it happens but Alia is sitting very close to me, in one of those strange positions that people get into when they are trying to talk on beds, I am leaning against the post and she is almost hovering over me, forehead almost touching mine, laughing green eyes gazing into my own.

‘You know, Gaetan, I have always had a great respect for you,’ she says. ‘We do not talk as much as we should.’

‘I know. It’s maybe more my fault than yours.’

‘We have always had… a connection.’ She bows her head and removes a razorblade from her jacket. ‘Prazma! Could you pass me the – thank you.’ She begins chopping up on the Callicore. ‘Do you think about the future, Gaetan?’

‘No. I never have.’

‘You live for the moment, hey?’ She bows to chop and her hair is in my face, the frizz and bounce and smell of it. ‘I thought so! But we must all think of the future, in such trying times. Our region is troubled. Many great leaders have been overthrown. My husband… it does not look so good for him. For, whatever happens, he will not survive this. It will look bad.’

‘What are you talking about?’ I am mesmerised by her hands as she cuts and strokes. ‘We can win this thing.’

She raises her head and looks directly at me. ‘We cannot win the war. It’s over, Gaetan, for all of us.’

I’m struck by how English her voice seems.

‘But… I will be able to leave. I have friends in Qatar. Mayassa and I were at finishing school together, and she has made it clear that I have a place to turn to. What I need now is an escort.’ She passes me the mirror. ‘This could be an opportunity for you, for they will kill you, and I would not like to see so.’

An exit strategy swirls into my mind, dopamine sets up a bright indifferent glow in the brain. Get over the Lebanon border. Qatar would need military intel. This thing would end, one way or another, and by then Alia and I would be far away. Lie low in Qatar. This storm would pass. And then? New York. Amsterdam. Places beyond that I’ve never been.

I snort my line. ‘When?’

She places a hand under my chin. ‘Get ready now. The car will be ready outside the secure corridor in twenty minutes.’



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