"Hey, this place used to be a shooting range." Tasha said, stopping.
"Used to be a what?" Al turned. He stood out for sure. Most tourists from the west could avoid that and pass for a local Bulgar or Turk if you put your head down and wore something halfway normal. Alan was wearing some sort of ridiculous baseball hat turned backwards. And he was ginger.
"A shooting range. You know. Where you learn how to shoot."
Tasha turned and looked at the supermarket in front of her. The setting sun reflected onto her from every glass window that made up its front facade, bathing her in light. Even that felt very different from back in the UK. Even that felt nostalgic.
"Hey, at least it isn't a KFC or anything. Looks like a local chain." Al stood with his thumbs curled around his belt buckles, rocking back and forth on his heels.
"Mhm. Damya-Mart. It only used to be in Kruv City or somthing when I was little. Come on." She walked past the little gate and through the mostly empty parking lot. There was no security although a few cameras jutted out from behind peeling corner walls. There was little to fear in this place before sunset.
Tasha led them around the side, of the entrance through the narrow path between the walls of the supermarket and the outer fence. It wasn't a very well maintained outlet. Litter was strewn all around the sides, possibly even visible from the front. Old cartons lay smashed and half-formed, houses for the cats perhaps. Large yellow garbage bins lay in a pile, oozing and leaking and breeding flies.
"Wait, Kruv City? I thought that was the white quarter." Alan said.
"Yeah, it is. So why the Arabic name, right?"
Tasha kicked detritus away with the toes of her boots and made a path for them to follow till the back of the boundary-fence.
"Yeah, my thoughts exactly." Al said.
"Well, it didn't really matter for our generation, I think. It mattered to our parents. But my best friends were both originally from Syria, I think. Like their grandfathers' grandfathers. Or Lebanon."
Tasha pulled her phone out of her handbag and switched on the flashlight.
"Yeah, it's the same wall. Look. See the little black spots where the cement is peeling off? Over there, look." She pointed it out to Al.
"So those are the times you missed, right?"
"I was lousy at shooting, Al. I always missed." She took a few steps closer to the wall and let her hands run along their smooth surface. The wall was damp and covered in the muck of wet paper. There was a collage of commerce and politics on the wall of their old shooting range. Posters for new burgers in McDonalds, advertisements for insect-exterminators and call-taxis, campaign-advertisements in Greek, Turkish, Arabic and somehow, even English. And the curfew rules, of course.
“Oh. Fuck. What time is it?”
Al checked his watch. “Six, I think. Curfew’s at eight if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I think we better get a move on.” Tasha switched the flashlight off and gently let her fingers wander away back to her. It felt like she was letting go of something very important that she had been allowed to tap into for only a brief second. A little vein into something ancient.
“You should take a picture, though.” Al said.
Tasha giggled. “Don’t you have enough pictures of me already?”
“I don’t think anyone can ever have enough pictures of you, Miss Markov. Really though. You should probably take one. For memory’s sake.”
She met Alan Broadbent last month at the UN, when the delegation was being drawn up. He was moneyed London through and through, at least at first glance. But there was something in him that was far too attracted to dangerous. A brief stint in the Counter Terrorism Commission had seen him in Tunisia and Libya for a while. And then Yemen. And then Tanzania. And then India. And now here. Now to her home. His flirting was much like his deliberation in council meetings. Passionate but a little too practiced. But she was growing to like him a lot more than she expected. That respectful, barely restrained, uniform passion for international relation, Austrian economics and for some reason, her, was exciting. Tasha was blushing a lot more than she needed to, especially given the surroundings.
She stood in front of the wall and swept her straight brown hair behind her ears. Al leaned forward to adjust the collar of her white woolen coat before stepping back and raising his Nikon up. He was standing where they used to stand when they were kids. Tasha, Alfiya, Cihangir, Abdul Rahman. They would stand and shoot at the little target. And Tasha would miss.
Al took the shot.
“Why’d you stop smiling?” Al asked as they wove their way back through the piles of garbage and back onto the main road.
“Old memories I suppose. They’re getting worse and worse,” Tasha said. The streets were different, of course they were. Nothing stays the same for ten important years. Citibank ATMs were tucked in between leather tanneries and felafel shops. Cafes were all over the place now. There was only one here when she was little. And that was where they were going.
She was a little shocked and a little outraged. This could’ve been anywhere. Istanbul. Cyprus. Turin. This didn’t look like Damya anymore. Damya looked like fear and that fear was still there, of course. But it had changed as she had changed. It was no longer fear of the unknown. The smell of garlic no longer permeated the air and strings of cloves hung over the shop windows seemed more decorative than anything else. People walked past in their Dishdashas and hijabs and suits and shirts and little black dresses but gone were the holsters around everyone’s waists. But they were all still checking their watches.
“So shall I fuck off, then?” Al asked.
“Huh? No, meet him first. I think he’d like that. I don’t know, I have no idea what he’s like anymore,” Tasha said.
“The two of you were friends, right?”
“We were...we were together for a bit. Before I left.” Tasha smiled. She could remember what Cihan tasted like better than what he looked like. She could remember the feel of his very new stubble against her lips when she kissed his cheek. The smell of the adidas aftershave he used. He was a very tangible memory, her Cihangir.
“So, butterflies in your stomach and all that?”
“After a fashion.” She smiled. “Yeah. I’m excited.”
She saw him from a good distance away but said nothing. She only looked. He did not beef up with age. He was still slender and his brown, crumpled shirt hung loosely from him. His stubble now overtook his face, as messy as the rest of his jet black hair. She remembered that as well, now. How soft that hair felt between her fingers. He was like a composite of feelings now for Tasha. She wondered who he was.
He turned and smiled, a different smile from when he was younger. Guarded, perhaps. Or maybe she was imagining that. She didn’t know. She smiled back and hugged him breifly. Old Spice now.
“Cihan, this is Alan Broadbent. A colleague. Alan, Cihangir Kartal. A very dear old friend.” she smiled and watched them shake hands.
“You work for the military police, right?” Al asked.
“No, merely the police force. But the lines often blur here. Friends, shall we step inside?”
The cafe looked exactly the same from the outside. It had been repainted, for sure and Visa and American Express logos were plastered onto the glass door but it was the same.
“No, you too catch up,” Alan said. “There was this gorgeous antique bookstore I saw along the way. I think I’ll do a little exploring.”
“Best coffee in Damya.” Cihan said, so entirely perfunctory, Tasha knew. But nobody else would. He hadn’t changed after all.
“No, I’ll definitely come back after a bit. Save me a seat.”
“Be careful then, Mister Broadbent. Be indoors by seven thirty.” Cihan said.
“Sure thing. And call me Al.”
It looked the same indoors as well, Tasha could see. Blue-green paint on the walls and framed posters of old French movies. A wooden counter covered in jars of biscuits and sweets. The smell of Turkish coffee (without the combined smell of garlic). Old, white metal chairs and whitewashed wooden tables.
They sat at their usual table almost automatically. Tasha took her coat off and draped it around her seatback. The metal was always too cold for her. He looked on and she knew he noticed. He could see him smile a little.
“The two of you aren’t…” he began.
“God no. We just work together.” She could feel her face growing hot.
“I was only asking, Tasha.” He smiled. “You look good.”
“You do too. You like your Baba. How is he? How is everyone?”
“They’re...they’re still here. They’re well. Betul came back from Holland last year. Management. She’s working at the university.”
“And you? In the police and all. Just like we all told you.”
He raised two fingers to the man behind the counter-someone she couldn’t recognize. “Well, it was a miracle I cleared the exam. I only got in the second time. But yeah, it’s been a couple of years and the pay is good. Let’s talk about the international delegate, though.”
Tasha giggled. “Come on, stop. It isn’t like as if it’s a big job or anything. I’m basically like a translator, almost. Saves them the trouble of hiring someone for every language. Plus, I suppose they needed someone to represent this place.”
Cihan sipped at his coffee. “You’re the first to have come back, though. Abdul Rahman left last year. Back to Lebanon with his family.”
“Alfiya? Sana? What about everyone else?”
“Alfiya went to Spain, I think. I’m not really sure. We didn’t talk much after you left. And Sana’s little sister got taken so she left.”
Tasha coughed a little, the coffee catching in her throat. She was expecting something like that, of course. But the throwaway tone in which he said it startled her. They told the delegation about that before they left. Desensitization and all that. She dabbed at her mouth with a napkin.
“So. What’s happening down south?” she finally asked.
“That’s what you guys’re here to find out, right? We have no bloody clue.” He offered her a cigarette and she shook her head. “We got better at kicking them out. Solar lamps work to an extent. Doesn’t kill them but they push back a bit. Garlic doesn’t really do anything.”
That sit between them for a while, the air pregnant with the memory of an old, evil smell.
“So when they rubbed it into our hair?” Tasha asked.
It was Cihan who finally laughed. Once it began, it didn’t stop. They laughed and laughed, his still the same, throaty rumble he got from his Baba and her’s hushed as always. She never laughed properly in public. And she knew he noticed that as well. “We used to use it as soap, right?” Tasha chuckled.
“In every bloody dish we ate, in every drink, in every desert. All useless.”
They quieted down when the man behind the counter coughed.
“I’m sorry, Cihangir.” she said, finally.
“Eh?” the smile had still not died from his eyes.
“I’m sorry. For what I said before I left. I didn’t mean it. I wanted to tell you, every time I called on the phone.”
“Not often enough.”
He wasn’t over it. “Do you still think we could’ve made it work?”
“I don’t know, honestly,” he said. “I think I dreamed too much, Tasha. We both did, together. That’s what we tell our kids now. Dream. But don’t dream too much.”
Tasha perked up. “Your kids! Show me!”
He flipped through his phone and turned it around to show her a family portrait. Cihangir, his arms around a very pretty young woman with blue eyes. She was leaning back into him and holding a baby in her arms. A little boy stood next to them.
“Fatema, right?” Tasha asked.
Cihan nodded. “Fatema. And that’s Adnan. And the little one’s Adalet.”
“Fatema, Adnan, Adalet. They’re beautiful, Cihan. I’m so proud of you.”
He smiled. “She did most of the work. It was mostly fun for me.”
Tasha giggled and punched his arm.
“So you’ll be coming back to meet Baba and everyone, won’t you?” he asked, his eyes piercing again all of a sudden. She was back in his garage, when she was fifteen and he was seventeen. She remembered how quickly they packed their bags. How she begged her Mama and Papa to try and petition to take the other families as well. How that argument ended in “They’re fucking Turks, Tasha. It’s time you grew up.” How she was forced to break this boy’s heart.
They looked at eachother for a while and laughed again.
13 Years Earlier
0.1 - Safiya Who Wasn't There
Waves crest the northern shore. They push and tug against an immovable wall of concrete and rock. Men patrol the battlements, ocassionaly standing steady over the bastions and peering out. Most of them peer the other way. The walls are to keep things in.
Further east, a small newspaper press in Kruv functions efficiently, manned only by one. The solitary print worker shuttles from station to station, coloring, photographing and keeping an eye on the white-noise churning, busy little press. It judders and shakes the whole building. The man hears nothing. The scene is bathed in the orange light of nostalgia. A single light bulb dangles above him, swinging to the tune of a barely perceivable wind. His senses are rattled by every distraction imaginable. Such coincidences are commonplace here. The press, an outdated mode of technology in most parts of the world performs its historic duty to the best of it’s ability. If it had eyes, it would see it’s master quietly dragged out into the back room. The act of having his life's blood sucked out of him is both very sensual and very utilitarian. The lips closed around his tender, freshly-shaven neck pull and release as lovers locked in a kiss do. The vampire is generative. He prefers to form a new pair of lips for him to kiss.
The press continues to print page after page, 16/1/2008 again and again and again. A Groundhogesque iterative statement. It does not tire. The cheap paper is smeared with filthy stories, all of them to do with haemophages and how they were no longer welcome. They sensationalize acts so very similar to what is going on in the next room.
He is found hung cruciform over the gate after the sun rises. Blood drips gently from his toes to the puddle on the pavement.
A novel fear eventually bubbles. The people are not used to this sort of thing coming out in the open.
A few miles south, men emerge from the cocoons of their apartments, their hands in their pockets. They greet each other, an unnecessarily bucolic show of communal kindness that does not really exist. They are really checking to see if everyone’s still alive. A part of Tvelym is already wide awake.
That part consists of four, ten year old students crammed very tightly into the back of a Corrolla. Miss. Alghami drives the Corolla with neither skill nor grace, weaving through tight, empty roads. She is, like everyone else here, subconsciously on the lookout for roadkill.
Tasha does not like being sandwiched between Abdul Rahman and Cihan but she is left with few other options. Alfiya is sitting on her lap, pressing into her without shame or remorse. She is wearing perfume. Tasha thinks it belongs to Alfiya’s sister, a sophisticated young woman who they both see only in nebulous glimpses when she returns from university. Tasha wants the window seat. She always has the window seat when the family go out on a drive and she feels blinded without it. She also feels suffocated.
The car comes to an abrupt (although comfortable for Miss Alghami’s standards) stop in front of the old fenced sandlot near the tanneries. The sunlight casts discomfiting patterns on Tasha’s face through Alfiya’s long, messy braid. The hair also tickles their nose which Tasha believes is the worst feeling in the world. The boys tumble out of either side and Alfiya manages to disengage herself from on top of Tasha. They stand in single file outside the car, blinking in the sunlight.
Miss Alghami walks back and forth in front of them, trying to furiously light a cigarette. She puffs daintily, pantomime-like and blows out before turning to them. “Right well, looks like they’ll be a while. So I might as well tell you why you’ve been picked for this.” She does not finish her cigarette. It is trampled under her heel already. Abdul Rahman looks with illicit longing.
Tasha’s hair is lighter than it will be. And curlier, of course. She ties it back a little tighter as she listens. Cihangir can’t keep his eyes off her when she does that. She knows. All these things are little games worth playing.
“Okay. So we’ve picked you because we know you won’t blow anyone else up. At least, that’s what we hope.”
The children say nothing. They are not distracted. They can sense that something important is going to happen today. Something vital.
“Yeah, so we’re going to teach you how to conceal your weapon which will be pretty pointless if you go around telling your friends. So don’t. Your parents have all given their consent so don’t worry too much about that. Don’t tell your aunties and uncles, though. The ammunition, as I’m sure you’re aware, is silver. I don’t want to find them melted down in some pawn shop. Understood?”
“Yes, Miss!” they chorus.
“You will only pull them out when you’re absolutely sure that there is certain danger from a haemophage. Even then, use it as a means of last resort. And please don’t-
She is cut off by the rumble of a motorcycle. The children turn and watch as a Triumph weaves it’s way through scant traffic and skids to a halt before them. The man astride it takes his helmet off and puts it around one of the handles. He opens some sort of compartment behind and pulls out a silvery box. Tasha likes the look of him. He’s handsome but he’s smiley and she’s beginning to find the latter a lot more important this year. She feels, rather precociously, that everyone could use a few smiles.
The man stands before them and smiles, giving Miss Algahami a respectful nod and bow. “Good morning, kiddos. Sorry for waking you up so early. I’m Inspector Tyador Lurbo. I’m going to teach you how to shoot the shit out of vampire scum.”
It is unfortunate when a newspaper is forced to report on another. This, however is different. The latter newspaper, was destined for posthumous success. The editor in chief of this second newspaper was once food for a beast of prey. Now, he is in a body bag in the Kruv morgue, a pale, drained, unhappy corpse.
The first newspaper is The Damyan, established 1947.
The second was too playful for it’s own good. It bears the title The Bloodistan Gazette.
The streets are bare. The men who manage the leather tanneries have not turned up for work yet. Tasha wonders if they were told not to show up. ‘Dear Mister Karim. Stay home for today. Love, The Ministry.”
She wonders why they are doing this in the middle of a usually busy street. It must, she assumes, be some form of hiding in plain sight, a tactic she has heard of but doesn’t entirely understand. She has elected to go last and stands at the back of the line, feeling the little revolver between her cold hands.
She watches for a while as Inspector Tasimov shows Abdul Rahman the correct posture and stance to be in when he’s going to shoot vampires. The others are watching, rapt and ready to glean whatever they can. She doesn’t care. She knows she’s going to be rubbish at this.
She slips back a little, her feet making patterns in the evenly spread gravel. She twirls on her tiptoes. It is what she does when she is too busy thinking. She does not realise that Miss Alghami is standing next to her until she bumps into her. Tasha turns and looks up at the tall, poised cigarette-smoking figure looming above her. She smiles and her teacher does not smile back.
“Natasha, you ought to be putting your mind to this. Not everyone has the privilege of being able to own and operate what you’re holding in your hand, myself included.” She whispers a quiet “bugger” when her lighter fails to flicker into life.
Tasha likes it when teachers swear around her. It is like they open themselves up just a little and hand her something very personal. And she’s heard a lot worse than bugger from people who aren’t supposed to swear.
Miss Alghami lights another cigarette before finishing the one in her hand. She lets it fall again, half done and smouldering. Abdul Rahman is too preoccupied to notice. He has his own tube of fire to deal with.
“Miss Alghami, what about Safiya?” Tasha asks.
“What about her?”
“Um,” she begins to twirl again and manages to stop herself. “I think she’d be much better at this than me. The PE sir doesn’t even let me do calisthenics, Miss Alghami. I’m rubbish. I promise.”
“I know. Psychological profiling, my love. It can be a royal pain in the…” she smokes instead.
“Yes, but what about Safiya? She’s even got two little brothers and I’m an only child. She’s amazing at throwball and volleyball and things like that. And she wouldn’t hurt a fly. Unless it were a vampire fly.”
“Haemophage. Something has to be done about that imagination of yours, Natasha,” she smokes again shaking her head and trying to avoid Tasha’s very large, very adorable eyes. “Well, if you must know, we couldn’t get parental approval. We tried, believe me we did. Some people just don’t understand how things work.”
Tasha nods. “I understand.”
“‘Course you do. That’s your problem, Natasha. You understand far too much. Run along.”
Tasha imagines what this would look like from an outside perspective. Perhaps from the eyes of one of the leather workers who did not get the memo. She is dressed in her school winter uniform and bundled up in a sweater and scarf. She holds in her hands a .22 revolver and when she leaves here today, she will have silver ammunition with her.
She stands in line and waits for Alfiya to finish, trying not to twirl. Inspector Tasimov makes another cross in his checklist and motions her to come ahead. She obliges, standing in the spot where Alfiya just stood.
“Natasha Markov, yes?”
“Natasha Markov. Says here you’ve received a regional trophy for your Maths last month. Congratulations, Natasha. Or is it Nat?”
“Of course,” the avuncularity is not as forced with him as with other policemen. He is genuinely a nice man. Tasha understands that. “You look like a Tasha. Any sports you happen to be good at, Tasha?”
“Chess,” she says.
“Good. Chess is good. Anything else?”
“Not really, sir. I’m not really good at sports.” Tasha says.
“Don’t think it’ll make a considerable amount of difference, Tasha. It won’t. It’s just that I could tell your friends to think of it as a game. I don’t think I can with you, can I?”
She looks at him, her left leg preparing for a twirl.
“I think we’ll have to explain this to you. Statistically. You understand statistics, don’t you.”
“Mmhmm.” she nods.
“Good. Tasha, nine students were affected by haemophage-related violence last month in Kruv. Out of that, seven of them were girls taken. The other two were a girl and a boy. Jamal Karim and Ana Tork. Both of them died defending one of the taken. This, Tasha, is what we call a dangerous precedent. Do you understand.”
“Good. They died defending them. Unsuccessfully. This wasn’t because the haemophages were bigger than them or stronger than them. No, it was because they had tools which the children didn’t have. The children didn’t have tools at all.”
He points at the gun. “Tasha, that is a tool. You are expected to be able to use it to defend not only yourself but your friends as well. And your family. You are to keep it with you at all times. Do not misplace it. Do not let anyone other than your immediate family know you have it. Do not show anyone the silver. And practice here.”
Tyador Tasimov tries hard to teach Tasha. The other children pass back and forth around her and at one point, Miss Alghami takes them to the cafe, leaving Tasha alone with Tasimov in the middle of the empty field, shooting over and over again at the target with lead bullets.
She stops counting her attempts. After a couple of hours, she manages to hit something vaguely on target. She almost forces her gun into Tasimov’s hand.
“No, it’s yours,” he smiles and pats the top of your head. “Whether you want it or not, it’s yours.”
She is trying hard not to cry.
They slowly walk back towards the entrance to the little clearing. “Hey, don’t worry about it, okay Tasha? I wasn’t all that good at the physical stuff myself when I started out. It doesn’t really matter.”
“What matters?” she mutters, sullen.
“You already know. What matters is the result, Tasha. Whether you and your friends and the ones you love are alive,” he unfolds his sleeves back down and buttons the cuffs before putting on a brown leather jacket. “Or dead. Are you a target?”
“I don’t know yet,” she says, unnerved by his candor. Miss Alghami would not have approved of that question.
“All the more reason for you to be prepared. So be prepared. Just think of this as something to tack on to the end of your maths and physics and music and dance, what?”
She nods, pressing her hands deep into the pockets of her sweater.
“Come on, then. Let’s go find that teacher of your’s.”
“Aren’t we taking your motorcycle?” Tasha asks. She wants a ride on it.
“I won’t be leaving right now, I don’t think.”
There’s still nobody here. Tasha is surprised and a little impressed. A lot of decisions were made for this little session to be made possible. Whole streets were forced into abandoning a morning’s business. At least, that’s what she thinks happened. “Inspector, where is everybody?”
Tasimov mumbles for a bit, keying something into his Blackberry as they walk past the sheds and gates covering the storefronts. The sun is much higher up than when they arrived. Tasha has forgotten her watch. She knows it is probably sitting in the little panel over her sink, waiting for her to wear it. “Eh? Oh, there’s been a taking yesterday here.”
“And still. It is morning after all. And it suited us okay. We can only do this in Municipal defence land, right?”
“But who got taken?”
Tasimov’s face contorts just a little. “Female. Arab. Forty three years old.”
Tasha is quiet. She understands once again. She was definitely a mother, this woman who got taken. They can hear the swell of sirens behind them and when they get to the more populous sections of Tvelym market, Tasimov’s phone rings. He stops in front of the cafe and is back on his phone again.
“Na’am. A’araf. Yeah, I’ll bloody be there in a minute, Abdullah I’m walking here.”
He keeps talking, miming to Tasha to go inside and to tell Miss Alghami he said goodbye. He taps her chin and smiles, walking away quickly into the burgeoning throng of the Tvelym Bazaar. Tasha does as he says, pulling a chair up next to Alfiya. Miss Alghami is doing what she always does when she isn’t teaching them. She is reading.
“The Inspector got called, Miss Alghami. He told me to tell you goodbye.”
Abdul Rahman cooes and is swatted absently on the head by Miss Alghami, who nods at Tasha and then returns to her book.
“So did you get one?” Abdul Rahman asks, rubbing the back of his head and mock wincing. Tasha picks out the raisins from the cupcake Alfiya kept for her. “Yeah, I got one. Not really on the circle though.”
“Just on the paper?” Alfiya asks.
“Yeah. Just on the paper.”
“Well, it’s a start. We can always come back next week and keep practicing,” Cihangir says, smiling that obvious smile of his. She wonders if this boy will ever learn how bumbling and unsubtle he is. And how adorable.
“I mean, Cihan and I can take care of things during class. It’s only the separate girls things where they need you guys.” Abdul Rahman says.
“Church as well, I guess.” Tasha says.
“Not the mosque, for sure. They wouldn’t let a girl walk around with a gun.”
“Then you better stick around with me,” Alfiya winks.
Abdul Rahman returns to his sandwich.
“But I want to be good at it.” Tasha says.
“You can’t be good at everything, Tasha.” Alfiya giggles.
“I can try. But it isn’t that. It’s like...it’s like they picked me for this. I have to be good at it.”
Miss Alghami pats her hand. “Finish your cupcake.”
So, she finishes her cupcake.
About a kilometer away, Tyador catches up with Subbie Abdullah. He is dressed in an Arsenal sweatshirt over blue jeans. He smiles through his sunglasses. “How was baby duty?”
“Better than spending the morning fucking about here with you. Find anything?”
“It’s a...what do you like to call it? A closed and open case.”
“Open and shut. Not fun paperwork, is it?”
“No, I finished all the fun parts. All you have to do is interview the family now. And then the paperwork, like you said.”
They walk as they speak, through increasingly dense and complicated layouts of municipal housing. Tight, blue painted buildings fold and crunch into each other and at times the lane in the middle gives way to pipe and raw, rusting metal. The people are hushed, watching from cracked windows as the men walk past. The usually packed street is empty.
“This is usually Tanin area, right?” Tyador asks.
“Yeah but this one was Octopus.”
Tyador stops and turns to Abdullah. There is only one way he could have come to know that. “Witness, eh?”
“Yeah. Twelve year old girl. Her daughter.” Abdullah says, all business now. “Shit,” Tyador isn’t excited to deal with children again. Not after this morning. Not after teaching for twelve year olds how to take a life successfully. Or, if he wanted to be politically correct about it, an unlife. “She’s okay?”
“She can talk. Just...just do it. I’ll wait out here.”
“What’s her name?”
“Safiya Abdur-Razzak.” Abdullah says.
Tyador pales. Safiya Abdur-Razzak was supposed to be with them this morning. The one who did not get parental approval. That was about to change, or so he understood.
He knocks, enters and tries to forget. Unsuccessfully.
East from Kruv City, cityscapes puddle and melt, dissolving into veldt and grassland. In winter, the grass is green and little pink flowers bloom, Tyrolising the plots of land the farmers have abandoned. The Kruv Veldt bleeds into the Aldamm Veldt, separated by only one seam: the National Highway.
It is too early for the steady stream of white Sunnys and Camrys, Pajeros and Prados, the occasional Mercedes and perhaps even the camouflage brown of an official hummer to begin pissing forth from Kan in the north. A couple of hours have elapsed since sunrise. A few kilometers to the west of the highway, a little shack rusts and decays. There is only a dirt path, its entrance cleverly concealed at the main road.
Cars begin to assemble in front of the shed. They are of every possible variety and the men remain seated inside them, waiting for someone important to arrive.
Altan sits in his Camry, his eyes stinging from the long drive all the way from Kan overnight. He knows what this is about. He got a call from Abdur-Razzak himself before he opened the newspaper yesterday morning. Baba Jafir was drained and hung cruciform outside their press.
Like what they did to Jesus.
Altan plays with the nicotine patch on his upper arm, tugging at it to scratch the irritated skin underneath. He searches his glovebox in vain for a smoke and then plays with the bubble light on top of him for a while.
He takes the occasional glance out of the window. All four of the others are here, all in their cars, all doing something.
He toys with the idea of calling Abdur-Razzak and asking him why he’s taking so long. It feels blasphemous almost, to think of him being late. He was always here first, arranging the makeshift office, switching the kettle on and getting the coffee ready and preparing his long, important speeches. Altan wonders what the speech will be like today. They will continue. He knows. This isn’t the first time someone has died for Bloodistan. Not even the first time someone’s lost his life to a phage.
Altan remembers when he first joined. He was then a replacement. The last man who could work print-layouts got himself sucked dry as a raisin behind an insalubrious theatre in Kruv. Razzak began paying very close attention to who he admitted into the program after that incident.
Altan senses the black Pajero behind him before he sees it. He can see the reactions of the other seekers from where he’s sitting. Georges has put his laptop down and is slicking his hair back, eyes on the wing mirror. Karim is already out of the car, his paunch possibly even more buddha-esque than the last time Altan saw him. Saladin is asleep.
Altan gets out of the car and tucks his shirt in again, watching the Pajero raise a cloud of dust as it parks in the far corner. He is not prepared to see the man who steps out of it.
He can see how bloodshot Abdur-Razak’s eyes are from here. He is bent and frail, his face craggier and even more sinister looking. He hasn’t shaved and his short, curly grey hair is a mess. He stands in front of his car, his shoulders bowed, looking at them from beneath heavy brows. He nods curtly and turns around, unlocking the shed and entering it.
Altan exchanges glances with Georges who shrugs at him. They walk towards the entrance to the shed, not speaking. Karim is tapping at Saladin’s window with his car key, trying to wake him up.
When they’ve all assembled in front of the rusting metal door, Altan knocks. He hears chairs being dragged around inside. He knocks again. The door opens after a while and they see Abdur-Razzak’s back, his woolen half-sleeved sweater flecked with dandruff and dust. They follow him inside and Saladin, still bleary eyed, locks the door behind them.
Paint peels off the inner walls of the shed, the only light coming in from the shattered window and the dust-covered skylight. The muck from above casts odd patterns on everyone’s skin. The smell of mould and damp is perhaps even headier than the garlic, the cloves of which are old and no longer potent. Large stacks of pink booklets surround the little table with six chairs arranged in the center. The seventh one is turned away.
“Where is he?” Abdur-Razzak finally says, his voice creakier than the door. It sounds like he has been crying more than speaking for the past few hours. Altan did not know Razzak loved Baba Jafir so much so that he had to cry for him. But he is sure there is something else.
“Brother, you can’t be saying that we would know where Ajax fled to-
“He called me,” Altan cuts Karim off. Abdur-Razzak looks up at him and he can see the older man’s decay. “He’s gone to Cairo. It wasn’t his fault.”
“How dare you.” Abdur-Razzak’s voice is a low growl. “How dare you cast the blame away from him when you know he’s the one who let the vampire escape. How dare you!” His voice swells to a shout.
“Because he did it under your orders, old man! We all did!” Georges shouts. Altan rubs his eyes. It is far too early in the morning for this. “This was your idea. We told you. Every last one of us. You can’t bloody capture a vampire and poke around with it. You knew this would happen-
He cuts off when he sees Abdur-Razzak sobbing into his hands.
Karim gingerly puts his arms around him. “Baba was special to all of us, Razzak Brother. But we’ll move on. We’ll keep moving on and finish this for him.”
“There’s nothing to finish, Brother,” Razzak continues to sob. “They took Jamila.”
The room is hushed instantly. Saladin slowly sits down on one of the chairs, eyes wide. Georges puts his hands on his pockets and bounces on his heels, eyes locked with Altan. Altan wonders why he doesn’t care all that much.
“I’m taking Safiya and going to Syria. There’s nothing more for me here,” Razzak croaks.
Karim gently pats his head.
“Brother, this isn’t above our mission. Above our calling,” Georges says, his voice unsure.
“There is no mission anymore. They left a note. They know who you are. They know who everyone is.”
“Then it’s true!” Altan says, in spite of himself. “They’re all in it together, Brother. The Americans, the UN, the haemophages, the government! We have to let the people know!”
“Then die. But don’t do it with my name attached to your truth.” He gets up. “In fact, don’t do this at all. You’re like younger brothers to me. You are like my sons.”
He slowly walks towards Altan. “You. Destroy everything. All of this.”
Altan breathes in for a moment. Bloodistan has been his life’s work. He remembers the little thrills of life he used to feel jolting through him when he heard people talking about the paper and his articles. Then, he remembers the fear that passes through him every time a patrol-car drives past his house. He focuses on the second emotion.
Altan nods. “Should I burn it?” “No, that’ll just attract attention. Give me your keys and take my jeep. Throw everything into the sea. There weren’t any contributors’ real names on the new issue, were there?”
“No, just the American’s. He demanded we keep his real name in.”
“So get rid of these quickly before they find something they don’t need to find. And then get out.”
Abdur-Razzak turns to the room. “All of you, get out. Turkey. Cyprus. Greece. Wherever. Don’t stay here.”
Georges coughs. “Brother, you told us this is bigger than our family. You told us that this is the most important piece of journalism we would ever accomplish in our lives. What about all of that? What about the country?”
“Georges, friend, forget that the Bloodistan Gazette ever happened. Yes, what matters is blood. We know that. So think about your blood first. There’s nothing bigger than family. I had to lose one to find out.” He pats Georges on the cheek.
Abdur Razzak takes a few steps back. “Everything you’ve learned. Everything you’ve come to find out about the way this country really operates. Take it with you to your graves.”
They begin loading Razzak’s jeep with bundles of what used to be The Bloodistan Gazette.
“How’s Saifya going to hold up, brother?” Altan asks.
Abdur Razzak manages a smile. “Safiya. Oh, I should’ve let her school teach her how to shoot silver.”
A few winding highways away from the babelic bustle of Kruv City which was collectively on the brink of deciding whether to tear the sky open or not, cars slow down. The streets still occupy space in the same way, paved the same way and used by the same economic cross-section of vehicles. But the atmosphere is different.
Towards Alnev and the the eastern side of the city, a new sort of life emerges. The Alnev Mixed- Model Academy is a squat, pink little building shaped like a hug. Two protruding arms to a horizontal line. A courtyard in the front. Gates. Barbed wires. The works.
At the end of every month, buses and cars stop around the vicinity of the hostels and dormitories that surround the school, teary eyed mothers and firm fathers sending boys and girls of all ages into the welcome embrace of the Mixed Academy. They are from all over the place. They arrive modestly and conservatively and they wait for their parents to hiss away in their creaking old cars before they take shelter beneath faithful old trees, smoking, kissing and exercising fledgling freedoms. They are like all kids.
There was always a subconscious drive for ghettoization by the collective of grown-ups around the area. It never worked. Kids didn’t care anymore who was who. They all looked the same in their golden pseudo-hair and their leather jackets. Nobody cared if you were a Rahim or a Raymond. Nobody went to church or to the mosque.
It is a sun-dappled day, approximately a year after Safiya Abdur-Razzak had left the soils of Damya for Lebanon on Morocco or London on wherever. Tasha is doing Abdul Rahman’s Advanced Trigonometry for him. He is daydreaming, as he always is.
The classroom is almost empty, save for a couple at the back who are unravelling their lives to each other when they aren’t too busy exercising every inconspicuous method of contact at their disposal. The lights are dimmed to protect their privacy but Tasha doesn’t mind. She prefers to work in the dark.
“What’s the sine of 90 degrees?” she asks. She looks at Abdul Rahman, his curly hair cut far too short for her tastes. Not that that was her call anyway. He is looking out of the window, gently tapping at the glass with a coin.
“One. Why, you forgot?” he doesn’t look away. He is so obvious sometimes. It infuriates Tasha to no end. She can see through the intellectual effete facade easily. She always could. He did not try very hard to hide his obsessions. That is what Tasha was interested in. Tasha is obsessed with the idea of being obsessed.
“No, I just wanted this whole thing to be worth something. Why’d you even take advanced trig if you don’t like it?”
“I don’t know. I thought I would.” He turns and she knows he is smiling at her but she cannot see him but for his silhouette through the sunshine from behind him. “I thought I liked logic and things. I do. But just...well, it’s all pretty useless, innit?”
She wonders where he got ‘innit’ from but decides not to prod. She can sense that he is about to unspool himself and she wants a peek. “What’s useless about this? All the space telescopes and things like that. That’s all trig.”
“Yeah, there’s a story there. They could teach us about space telescopes. But what’s all this stuff about Maria’s lighthouse and the three ships? Who’s Maria? Who’s in the ships?”
“It’s…” the word is on the tip of her tongue.
“Hypothetical?” he asks.
“Well, hypothetical useless. There’s no story there. There’s a story in maths for sure, but nothing with Maria’s lighthouse.”
She sighs. She knows about his obsession with stories. His uninhibited interest in the whys. She has come across people like him before, of course. People who carry notebooks around and write poems and stories, usually not very good ones. But Abdul Rahman isn’t interested in creation. He’s all about discovery. That’s his obsession.
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right.” She clicks her pen and returns to her trigonometry.
“You give up too easy.”
She looks up. “What now?”
“You had something to say, Tasha. Say it.” he sits, his head resting on the backrest of his chair.
She chews on the end of her pen. “Well, there’s the whole maths as theory thing right? Like Miss Yavuz said. Maths as the purest science.”
“So.” she sits up and pushes her glasses up in front of her eyes again. “So, shouldn’t it be okay if there isn’t a story there? If it’s just concepts? The whole hypothetical thing is just a fake story, right? So we can change it and make it no story and that would make it okay.”
He nods. “Yeah, it would be okay. But then-
“But then why, right?” she giggles and if the room were any brighter, she would see his cheeks redden.
He waits a full while before asking what she knows he will. “So did she email you?”
“One, her papa would email my papa. And two, no.”
“Do you think she’s still in Lebanon, then? Or do you think she got across?”
She waits a while before answering. Sometimes, it pays to do that when you’re talking to Abdul Rahman. “I don’t think about her at all. I try not to. You should too.”
“But I’m not thinking about her.”
She finishes the sum quickly and closes the book. “For the last bloody time, there was no secret paper. There were like a hundred stories about Uncle Razzak floating around when they left. That was just one of them.”
“One of them is true, Tasha. And it could be be that one just as well as any of the others.” Tasha forces the workbook and pen into his hands. She has had this conversation with him far too many times and it is disconcerting now. She is tired of it and a little frightened. She has always been frightened of obsessions going rogue and turning against the obsessor.
They hear the gradual rumble of the bus entering the courtyard. The Athletic Team (and Cihangir(especially Cihangir)) are back. Tasha smiles and pulls his cheeks. “Just forget about it. Find another story,”
“You have to finish one before you move on to the next, right?”
She sighs again. “Right.”
The three of them take the bus to get to the Tvelym tannery-yard. Miss Alghami has to attend a PTA meeting and can’t drive them there in a Corolla. Tasha is relieved. She feels she has grown far too big to be squeezed in the backseat with two boys her age. Not that the bus is particularly better.
Cihangir goes to look for one of the nicer, low-floor ones and returns, shrugging. “We’re probably too late for those. But there’s a regular one over there.”
Tasha checks her watch. Three ‘o clock. That’s four hours till curfew. She pats the silver gun in her handbag. “Let’s go.”
Abdul Rahman’s head is buried in a newspaper. Cihan has a hand on his neck, directing him through streams of men in dishdashas and suits walking the other way, cart drivers, women, tattered and destitute, seeking alms, children without legs.
The conductor speaks only Arabic so Cihan pushes Tasha forward and she asks for three tickets to the tanneries. She finds her way to a seat next to an old, bespectacled woman in a hijab and tries not to occupy too much space. The boys stand and jostle. She smiles a little. Let them jostle, just for today.
The ride from Alnev to Tvelym is short but interesting for Tasha. Miss Alghami has never taken her along this route in the Corolla. She is not sure why. It is much faster. She is surprised when the bus is almost halfway there in five minutes. Then, the hinterlands of the Tvelym Bazaar slowly coagulates and she understands.
Poverty is, she has read, a relatively new phenomenon for Kruv. The west side of Damya was originally occupied by settlers from Bulgaria, Russia and Romania. Some degree of cultural mixing took place in a typically insular, European fashion and a new dialect of Russian was formed. That was Tasha’s mother tongue. The mass migrations began a few years before she was born.
She always thought they were because of the threat of phage attacks but that was more than a little ridiculous, in hindsight. The area of Kruv and the ‘Ard susceptible to attacks and takings were roughly the same. The reasons people move is the same here as anywhere else in the world. They do not seek a safer life, but a better one.
Tasha offers the woman next to her a biscuit and she takes one herself before passing the packet back to the boys, feeling a little guilty. Not long after she finishes chewing, the bus grinds to a halt. She dismounts first, her mouth sweet with chocolate cream.
The boys stagger out, both of them checking every pocket furiously.
“Phone, ok. Wallet, yes. Gun, yes. Notebook, yes. You got everything, Cihan?” Abdul Rahman packs his newspaper back into his satchel.
“Yeah, I’m good. We should get a move on.”
Some of the men running the tanneries have come to recognize them. Several of them smile and nod and point. A few of them call their friends and point together in a group. More than one leer at Tasha. More than a few try to sell them handbags and jackets.
Inspector Tasimov is waiting for them in his usual spot, leaning on the seat of his motorcycle and sipping coffee from a small plastic cup.
“So the other one’s quit?” he asks.
“Alfiya’s father withdrew permission, sir. She was practicing at home,” Cihangir says. She wonders sometimes if he knows how formal he is with the inspector. How worshipful.
“Practicing at home. Well, so long as she still has the gun, we can only hope for the best, right? Where’s my lovely lady in her valiant Japanese steed?” Tasimov sweeps his hands through his his long brown hair and mock winks at Tasha. She sticks her tongue out.
“PTA. She’s actually got work to do. Unlike you. Weirdo.” Abdul Rahman opens the gate to the courtyard and enters. The rest of them follow, Cihangir cleaning out his revolver and Tasha fumbling with the latch to her handbag.
“Tasha, do you want to do the darts first?” Tasimov lights a cigarette and smoke curls out of his mouth as he speaks.
“No, I’ll just get started with the target-shooting,” she says. Her revolver is delicately folded in a silk cut of fabric the same colour as the rest of her handbag. It looks odd once it’s outside. She can’t shake the feeling that it’s something that should never belong in her hand.
Tasha goes up to the rough line the Inspector drew in the gravel months ago and gets into her ideal stance. Tasimov pushes her left leg in a little more and she wobbles uncertainly before regaining her balance and pushing back a little to her original position. Tasimov sighs. “Just so long as you hit the bloody target…”
She clicked the cylinder back in and checked to see if it was aligned properly before taking aim.
“Don’t let the anticipation of the noise frighten you, Tasha. That’s always what happens.” Tasimov says.
“Okay, I’ll try,” she says, takes aim and fire.
Abdul Rahman whistles.
“Hey, at least it’s on the paper. Better than last week,” Cihangir says.
“Yeah, I guess so.” Tasha moves to the back of the line and twirls angrily, trying to force her frustrations down into her toes and drill it into the earth.
Abdul Rahman prepares himself with no real passion but with a practiced ease. She knows why. He likes doing things with his hands while he thinks. That’s probably what he does at home. Load, click, check, unload, repeat. She wonders where he’s hidden the silver. She keeps her’s in a little spare compartment in her handbag.
Tasimov leans and squints a little. “Looks like a six,”
“Yeah, it is a six.” Abdul Rahman goes behind Tasha, stuffing the gun into his belt.
Cihangir is already ready. He shoots almost instantly after he takes his stance. “That’s a nine. Very good. Again.”
They play The Carousel of Violence-Abdul Rahman’s name for it- for around four more rounds. Tasha manages a five and they all clap, Cihan smiling almost proudly. She wants to feel patronized but she can’t help feeling proud herself.
Tasimov untangles the straps of the spare motorcycle helmet and slaps it down on Tasha’s head. She squeals.
“Hey!” She looks up at Tyador who is zipping up his jacket. “There aren’t any lice in here, right?”
“Ask Miss Alghami tomorrow. She wears that one the most.”
The boys, who were till then admiring the shininess of the new chrome-work the inspector had got done, are stunned into silence. They look up at Tasimov.
“What?” he asks, lighting a cigarette.
“She’s got a Corolla,” Abdul Rahman manages to stammer.
“Yeah, I’ve got a motorcycle, mate. And a gun.”
“I’ve got a gun too.” Tasha giggles and Tasimov tugs at her ponytail peeking out from behind the helmet.
“Wait so...the two of you are...what?” Cihangir’s feathery hair blows around in the breeze and Tasha watches, rapt. She loves when he lets his guard down in front of people other than her. To a large extent, she likes how he’s her secret. She likes that nobody else knows how adorable he is. And he’s never more adorable than when he forgets his poise and his manners.
“The two of us are what?” Tasimov asks.
“I dunno, let’s go Abdi.” Cihangir pulls on Abdul Rahman’s sleeve and drags him away towards the bus-stop. He turns and waves, not leaving till he makes eye contact with her. Then, the two of them slip into the enclosed little stand and she can’t see them.
The light penetrating the coloured-glass windows and electric wires running across the rooftops of the tanneries is an orangey yellow. The colour of her satchel. Tasha slides backwards and makes room for Tasimov, wrapping her arms around his waist.
“You can tell me, right? Miss Alghami and you are...”
“Zaynab. She likes rides on motorcycles and going to the movies and ice-cream after and makes the most amazing pasta I’ve ever eaten in my life. She’s a person, Tasha. Just like you.”
“Whoa. You’ve reached like pasta basis with her?”
“Shush.” And then she feels her whole body rattle as the motorcycle thrums into life. He checks his watch and then switches on the headlights before slowly easing through the crowds and trying to connect with whatever lane the other motorists are using today. He does not like the pre-curfew rush, she knows.
“The boys in tenth call her Iron Maiden, you know.” She has to shout over the cacophony. She loves the noise. There are men in tattered robes on either side of her, trying to sell her plastic, Chinese watches and hairbands and Damyan flags and all manner of other tat. Women shout over vegetables and cuts of meat and fish. Monkeys leap across rooftops, chattering and shitting, holding their babies close.
It is like any other city. Only, everyone is watching. And so is she.
She can feel a laugh shake Tasimov’s body. “The Iron Maiden? I think she’d like that. Now your turn. You and the cop in training. Answer in binary.”
“True-ish?” she cannot bring herself to lie to him. She has told her parents a resounding ‘no’ and most of her friends an equally resounding ‘yes’
Tasimov nods. They are blocked entirely now, their entryway into the main road swarming with people. He stands up and tries to peer above the heads.
“Must be an accident or something. Hope the boys are-
“Inspector, your phone,” Tasha says.
Tasimov pulls his phone out and curses quietly for forgetting it is on silent.
“Yeah, Tyador. Yeah? Wait, the Bazaar? That’s where I am. Jesus, I’m on my way!”
He pulls the key out of the ignition and grabs Tasha by the hand.
“Hey, what are you-
She grabs on to his hand as tight as he can and sticks close, the crowd around them getting more and more panicked the further ahead they went. She feels something dry slither down her throat to her belly when she sees where they’re going. The low-floor bus sits at an odd angle in the middle of the road, cars trying to pass through either side. There are two policemen outside the bus, unsuccessfully trying to cordon people off.
Tyador flashes his badge and they let him through, saluting quickly.
“Tasha, get your gun out and load it with the silver.”
“What?” she is dazed.
“Get your gun out and load it with the silver.”
She has never heard him speak like this before. She is frightened. She does as he says as fast as she can, her hands shaking. She prays she doesn’t drop a bullet and lose it. “All of them?”
“Yeah, all of them.”
Tasimov enters first, motioning Tasha to remain where she is. She hears his muffled gasp and follows him up the metal stairwell, her shoes making obscene rat-a-tats. She peers around Tasimov and sees it lying on the dirty floor of the bus, nose upturned and hissing.
She has never seen a haemophage at close range before. It is in some stage of flux between forms, it’s ears pointed and wide, blood oozing from errupting skin. It is covered in thick, varicose veins. It is convulsing.
A policeman stands behind it, gun trained to its head. Cihangir (her Cihangir) is in front of it, revolver out and steady, in perfect stance. Abdul Rahman is kneeling beside it. He is feeling behind its ear, his eyes closed very tight and his tongue sticking out between pursed lips.
Things speed up very quickly. Tyador slaps Abdul Rahman away quickly and grabs a handheld off the policeman’s belt. He pulls his own revolver out of its holster and shoots the haemophage between the eyes, under the neck and on its navel. He clicks the handheld until the static blaring out begins to take form.
“Tyador Tasimov. Inspector. Sub Military Police. Tvelym Bazaar.”
He stretches a hand back and shakes and Cihangir seems to understand almost instantly. He hands his revolver over to Tasimov and he shoots it again, same places. Then, he does the same with Tasha’s revolver.
Tasha almost subconsciously finds herself behind Cihangir and moves up next to him. He wraps his arm around her shoulder and they move in to one of the seats, making room. Abdul Rahman is writing rapidly into his notebook.
“How many did you shoot?” Tasimov asks the constable.
“Seven. That kid and I.” He points to Abdul Rahman.
“Okay. Is it Tanin or Octopus?”
The constable stammers.
“Tanin,” Abdul Rahman says, his voice soft.
Tasimov quickly touches behind its ear and pulls away, like he had touched a live wire. “Yeah, Tanin. We’ll have to check you for brain damage or something. That level of exposure.”
The haemophage begins to stir back and forth, making keeling noises and trying to wrap itself into the fetal position.
“Kids, get outside and stay in the cordon. Abdi, you better call your parents or something. You’re in so much trouble I can’t even begin to describe.”
Abdul Rahman nods, as matter of fact as always. He turns to Tasha and Cihangir and shrugs. They file out of the bus slowly, trying to avoid even looking at the retching thing on the floor.
Someone offers them blankets and orange juice. They refuse. The police don’t let the media talk to them.
This room was once sterile. The lights that hung overhead were once cool and white, their tubes not flickering and not casting patterns of spots and stains onto the once clean floor. The air-conditioning once worked perfectly fine. Now, the inhabitants are sweating and dabbing at their foreheads with damp, cotton handkerchiefs.
Before, the crucifix in the middle of the room was unoccupied.
The crucifix is a peculiar object. It is made of clear, smooth sheets of silver and fashioned in the shape of two long, narrow rectangles, crossing in the middle. There is cushioning for lumbar support. There are also spikes that emerge out of the middle of the crossbar, piercing muscle and sinew and then splaying out.
The haemophage rattles against them, making high supersonic keeling noises that deepen into low, barely audible moans. The mental interference is almost as severe. Someone pops open a bottle of Panadol and Aspirin and passes it along and everyone manages to swallow a few. Everyone is wearing earbuds. The smell of garlic hangs pungent and cloying in the air. It is not only the vampire who is uncomfortable.
The door swings open from behind them and two men in suits storm in, flanked on all sides by bigger men in Kevlar. They are both ministers. The one on the left is Muslim League from the Ard. His name is Ali Al-Rashid. He is big, bulky and sweaty, his face a splotched diarrhoea of shades of red. The one on the right is Citru Party. The posters call him Manual. He is lean and insalubrious looking. Nobody remembers his real name.
“Inspector Tasimov, what a pleasure to finally meet you. I will assure you, for the last few hours it is only your name and the names of your so beautiful students that is on everyone’s minds.” Al-Rashid speaks loudly, trying to outdo the screaming vampire.
Tasimov bows. “Thank you, sir. That’s…good to know.”
The two of them arrange themselves beside him, shaking hands with Chief Pamouk who is desultory and surrounded by cigarette smoke. Everyone else are wearing white coats and keying numbers efficiently into their calculators and laptops. “Shall we get started, sirs?” one of them asks the men who are not in white.
Manuel nods and benevolently stretches his hand out. They begin.
Two of them gingerly approach the haemophage in the middle of the room, rubbing two adhesive pads together and placing each behind each of the creature’s ears. It is violent and curious. It snaps at their gloved hands and cranes its neck.
“Shall we record this or would one of you like to experience it live, sirs?” The white-suit in charge offers the headset to all of them.
“Tasimov, you give it a look,” the chief grunts. “So long as neither of you sirs have a problem with that.” “Of course, not, Pamouk. It should be him. Of course, it should,” Al-Rashid says.
Tasimov puts the headset on. The screen in front of his face reads “please stand by” and gentle static hisses into his ears.
“Live in three. Two. One.”
He is assailed by sex. Even under considerable duress, the haemophage is thinking primarily about procreation. Tasimov sees titillating, orgasmic dreams of orgies where a tribe of around seven vampires suck on nubile women who suck back from the vampires, impregnating them. He sees the women rotting away, hanging from the ceiling of some dilapidated shack. He sees their wombs hang from them like ripe fruits, foetus-unlife pulsating in amniotic fluid.
“It’s horny. Poke it,” he grunts. He hears another high scream and for a while, all he can see is flashing red. And then fantasy fades away and he sees flashes of reality. Escape. The vampire is running through a populated maze, crazed by garlic and sunlight. It is afraid. It finds a sewer chute and falls into it. It swims in the muck for a few months, regenerating in the constant darkness. Then, it finds its way out somewhere. He sees these in vignettes, flashing for a second each before fading and cutting away to more sex, blood and violence. It has not fathered any children.
“It’s a child,” he mutters. “Poke it again. Harder.”
He hears a much more agonized scream. He sees a vivid, juddering scarlet. Then, he sees the last time it was poked. Men are experimenting on it. Men in grey, dirty shirts. He sees what it feels. It did not deserve the punishment it was being dealt. That was what it felt. Then, these men had caught the vampire. They were picking it apart.
More screams and he must fight now to push the pity away. He must fight to remember that this thing would gladly kill him and suck his blood dry then and there if they let him. It is infantile and idiotic. It cannot even vocalize. It cannot organize its thoughts. And it is Tanin so those thoughts and aspects are strong and short lived. He was having trouble keeping up.
He sees it for only a flash but he screams at them to stop and whips his headset off.
“Yeah, stop all of it. Go back maybe a second and then frame by frame.”
Everyone in the room crowds around a whirring monitor as one of them goes back, frame by frame.
“Okay, stop. There. Look.”
Tasimov taps on the upper right of the screen. The room in the aspect is very similar to this one. A poster hangs on the wall, pink and cheap.
“It seems this ghost will never stop haunting us, gentlemen,” Manuel says.
The image is magnified and cleared up of interference and noise. There is no ambiguity. The poster reads: The Bloodistan Gazette.
Bright, flashing lights are all they can see. There are interstices between the areas of bright, blaring stage-lights and the pitch-black backstage and Tasha wants to merge into the walls there. She is pushed on stage, her father to her left and Abdul Rahman in a very uncomfortable suit next to her. Abdul Rahman’s parents follow and then Cihangir and his parents.
And then, Inspector Tasimov. He blinks under the violence of the lighting but he has obviously done this before. He smiles a little at Tasha, winking and patting his chest. She is clenching and unclenching a little fist around her father’s hand.
Everything is blue on stage- the bright, toxic blue of the Kruv Executive Committee. Manuel, is standing behind a podium, speaking in machine-gun bursts like he does on TV. He was until now a figure associated only with the television for Tasha. He belongs on TV and splashed across the front of newspapers and magazines. He looks much too out of place in front of her eyes. She looks down, resisting the temptation to twirl. This maroon skirt is her favourite.
“This meeting…this conference would have gone down very differently if it weren’t for these children you see here. I wouldn’t be here in person, that much I tell you openly. I would only send a representative. Because takings, unfortunately, happen every week. We fight and we struggle to prevent it but the ground reality is that the kidnapping of our young women and the murder of our people has become something commonplace. Something we choose to avoid talking about. Yesterday, something very different happened. Yesterday, an untaking took place.”
Hundreds of little white lights flash into Tasha’s eyes as Manuel pauses, his hands still held in the air mid-flourish. She can hear the little sounds of wetness from his mouth amplified through the speakers. She never hears those on TV.
“We have begun investigations as to what exactly a Tanin Haemophage was doing in late daylight in the middle of a very public area. We do not know how it managed to enter a public bus without being intercepted. But, if it weren’t for the efforts of these boys, there’s no telling who would’ve died. This, however, is not a testament to their practice and skill. It is not even a testament to the abilities of their instructor, our very own Inspector Tyador Tasimov.”
The inspector bowed his head and smiled his crooked smile at the cameras. Tasha knew Miss Alghami was somewhere in this dark mass of heads in front of her. She could imagine the tight little smile on her face.
“This, ladies and gentlemen of the press, is really a testament to the Juvenile Armament Training system that we have in place. We implore every one of you. If your ward has been selected by their teachers, headmasters or administrators of the state for this program, do not hold them back. Lives are at stake. Not just their own but the lives of all of us. And for all those of us who are no longer children, there is no excuse not to carry silver with us always. Get your training, get your licences and be prepared. Thank you.”
They are ushered off stage quickly. Tasha looks back and sees Abdul Rahman standing stock still, his ears a furious red and his eyes narrow slits. His father gently nudges him forward and they are all enveloped in blackness again.
They are brought in front of various party heads who each shake their hands and pat them on their heads, congratulating them for what they did. Tasha must try hard to supress the feelings of undeservingness that is bubbling up inside her. She does not know why Tasimov made sure to include her in all of this as well. All she did was load a gun and hand it to him.
After everything, they are given early access to the buffet. “Leave some for all your leaders, kids,” Manuel jokes and everyone laughs. Tasha smiles out of politeness and takes a few rolls of freshly baked bread and some lasagne. It is the very melty crumbly kind that she absolutely adores. She watched layers of pasta and sauce and cheese cascade from her fork and pokes around with it, sitting in the corner. Cihangir is nowhere to be seen. She wonders if he left early with his parents.
“Hi, Abdi,” she says when Abdul Rahman drags a chair next to her and sits.
“Hi, Tash. Nice lasagne?”
“Mmhmm.” She smiles with her mouth full. “It’s really good.”
His eyes are distant, but she is used to that. She is not used to how miserable he seems to look. She has never seen him like this before and she is not sure how to approach this. Cihangir had asked him earlier about what happened during his personal meeting with Tasimov and the ministers. He was quiet and subdued: “Nothing, they just said they aren’t pursuing anything and I should just forget whatever I saw,”
She circles around the question for a while. It is in her mouth, thick and rancid and waiting for her to spit it out. She decides to keep her mouth shut and enjoy the lasagne.
“You can ask, you know.” He takes a roll from her plate and absently munches on it.
“Do you want to tell me?”
He looks into her eyes for once in a way he never has before. “I do want to tell you, Tasha. But you have to promise not to tell anybody.”
“Okay, I promise.”
“Okay. I saw a lot of red at first. A lot of poking. And some stuff I wasn’t supposed to see, I think. Then, I saw Uncle Razzak.”
Tasha chokes on her lasagne. “You saw who?”
“Abdur-Razzak. Safiya’s dad. I saw him. He was poking the phage and picking at its skin and things like that. He had gloves on. He looked tired but…kind of happy, I think.”
Tasha chews slowly, thinking. “And you told Tasimov and everyone?”
“Yeah, about that. The special meeting and everything. They’re not going to lock me up because it’d be weird after the whole press conference and everything. But…
“’One word of this gets out and your mother and father are dead.’ That’s what Manuel told me.”
Tasha cannot not comfort him. She does not know what to say to someone with that burden on his back. And she is worried that he does not really care beyond a level. That is why he is upset. It is more fear than guilt for him. He thinks it was worth it.
Tasha also knows why he told her. She is honoured and touched that he considers her trustworthy enough to know but it could be anyone. It wasn’t about the storyteller or the listener. It was only about the story and where it was. And right now, the story sits in her lap along with her half-finished lasagne, a rude, unwanted intrusion.