I head to my chambers and change out of my lounge suit into travelling soldiering gear. I pack an army issue bag with cigarettes, army combats, books and ammo. I unlock the small safe behind my bookshelf, which contains a few bundles of high-denomination dollar notes, passports in three different names, and a cache of written orders, from when we still had written orders, that I was ordered to destroy but did not. I strap the AK and don again the IIA twill, worn so it conceals the weapon. My smartphone’s vibrating like a motherfucker and my footsteps clock out over the golden corridors, all the time hearing: Comes love… Nothing can be done…
In the courtyard, the party is still in full swing. I fight my way through the revellers to the secure tunnel, which is right at the other end of the courtyard. The rapper will.i.am is doing his set by the main marquee. I knock into a woman and issue an automatic apology.
‘Oh, no problem.’ Charlene plucks a glass from a passing servant’s tray. ‘Want a drink, Gaetan? Going somewhere?’
Nothing could surprise me now. ‘Enjoying the party?’
‘Oh, yes. Loads of fun. But your secure corridor is not so secure, Gaetan. Very bribeable guards. Isn’t that right, Rostam?’
Yes, he’s here too, chatting to a woman I recognise as second in line to the Kuwaiti throne. He turns from his conversation and shouts: ‘Gaetan! My friend! Your regime is rotting from the inside out!’
I can’t deny it. I nod and smile, and Rostam turns back to the princess, a tall sleek woman who has become fluttery and bowed under Rostam’s hirsute charms.
‘One thing I want to ask, Gaetan, before you leave,’ Charlene says, ‘why’d you do it? All those years ago. Why’d you sell us out.’
I produce a pack of Camels. She takes one and I light it as it rests in her mouth, then travel the flame across to my own cigarette. ‘You know how it was. It was a surreal time for all of us. It was like half my home went crazy and killed the other half.’
‘Except that you ended up in the presidential palace and Leandro was sent up the mountains.’
‘I know. I’ve killed so many, and sent so many to the camps, but it’s him I think of the most.’ Cigarette smoke pirouettes from my mouth, turned blue, red, green, blue. ‘The way we were. Our weird little friendship. I think in the beginning I was more sympathetic to your side, but my allowance was not great, and after a while the mukhabarat got to me and I found it was easier to report on the dissident groups than stand with them. For months, it didn’t even feel like there was a contradiction. By the time I understood which side I’d landed on, it was all so entrenched, and our lives went in completely different directions.’
‘Quite. And now you are losing. Have you seen the news? NATO has agreed an intervention.’ She holds a palm to my mouth. ‘You’re going to say that can’t happen without the UN. But it doesn’t matter about the UN. You’ve got thousands of refugees heading into Turkey. Militant Kurds causing havoc. There’s your cassus belli right there, Gaetan. They will invade. As we speak, the Americans are loading aircraft carriers in Client City.’
My smartphone keeps vibrating. I take it out and there’s dozens of notifications. I gaze at the party around me, the head of our football team play-fighting with an African springbok, four or five children running around spraying pump-action water pistols, the drift of sickly smoke.
‘Your men won’t fight for you. Why would they? They are sick of short commons and blood on their hands. Your camps show up on Google Earth. Even if you live, even if you escape, there will be nothing to run to; you may live in comfort, but never in peace, and be on guard forever for the whisper of the village, the knock at the door.’
‘You’re right. It’s over.’ Something occurs to me. ‘Is Leandro still alive?’
Her eyes are brighter and I feel she’s really angry with me for the first time. ‘The fuck should I know, man? Get out of my sight!’
I’m happy to do just that. I shove a path through to the tunnel entrance, which has been built into a rambling rock garden that has stood since Khayyam’s day. I use my swipe on the secure gate. The stone railings rattle upwards and I don’t see a guard at the check portakabin. I jog down the steps of the crisis corridor. My boots splatter in the rainwater gathered at each step.
The torchlights are unlit for some reason, and I have to feel for the swipe at each succeeding gate. There don’t seem to be any corridor guards on duty at all. The coke has taken new flight from this rich booze, slicing and pounding in my head, and I keep waiting for my eyes to get accustomed to the dark.
Comes a nightmare.
You can always stay awake.
You may get another break…
Although the corridor is a straight route, I nevertheless appear to have taken a wrong turning. I’m expecting to emerge into the palace grounds, beyond which you can reach Dias’s warhammered streets. Instead I am in another courtyard, some kind of open antechamber, with another party going on, and more familiar faces… dresses float by me, I catch on a cunning little smile, and something is terribly wrong here, but the realisation produces only a harder layer of indifference, and the happy reckless feeling of coming home.
Nothing can be done…
Through the shimmer of the women coming and going a plant in the flowerbed catches my attention. You know, when you’re drunk, and you imagine faces, staring at you, and you look up to a forest of side profiles? And a voice says: ‘That’s him.’