BY SAGE HARPER
I don’t think there is anything weirder than watching your own funeral.
I was coming back from ‘tying up the loose ends’ on the ground. By that, I mean being party to faking my assassination, to put it in the baldest terms. See, I was a cop – one of the best, if you believe the performance evaluations and the press coverage. So as a result there are a lot of very powerful very pissed off people in my neck of the woods who would quite like to turn me into a hog roast; and you can’t bring that kind of baggage with you when you join a secret counter-terrorism organisation. So for the last few weeks, I’ve carefully extracted myself from every facet of the life I had lived, and finished it up by making believe I had been killed. After all that was done, they flew me back to Cloudbase.
Richard Fraser was officially dead. Now I was only Captain Ochre of Spectrum.
I went straight to the officers’ lounge. Home sweet home, or it will be when the Stockholm syndrome kicks in.
I stood at the door, something stopping me from just walking in like I usually do. Through the window, I could see Magenta standing by the counter close to the door, fixing himself a cup of coffee and, by the looks of the other captains attentive and smiling faces – by that I mean Scarlet, Blue and Grey; if Black smiled it’d probably crack his face in half – he was relaying some amusing anecdote. But that wasn’t stopping me, seriously; like I’d ever be scared of Pat Donaghue and have him run my life. It didn’t really matter anyway what my reasons were; it just felt like I couldn’t take another step.
So instead, I watch through the window as Blue stands in the kitchenette area fixing himself a bowl of oatmeal; which is an oddly fascinating viewing, because Blue is so meticulous about his food. Everything is lined up on the counter in the order he needs it, and he swirls on the syrup in some elaborate design. I should mention it’s long past morning, but Blue staunchly believes any time is always a good time for breakfast foods.
I press my hand against the door, as if I were vaguely curious as to whether it will still be solid, or I could walk right through it like a spectre. I don’t really feel like me any more, maybe because nobody has a handle on who me is. Last I checked, I was Richard Fraser, detective in the WGPC, among other things. But now, all the media are saying Richard Fraser is dead, that he died in an assassination at the hands of a sniper. Whereas obviously, I know that I’m still alive, I think. But then, if Fraser is dead, who is left for me to be? So maybe I’m like the undead then, a zombie, or something.
Eventually, Blue sits down at one of the tables; I open the door.
“Rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”
They all look round, as if they’ve seen a ghost. Maybe they have, I mean it is Halloween today. I’d forgotten that, between everything that was going on. Normally, Halloween is one of my favourite holiday; even though I’m obviously not a kid anymore, I can still enjoy the candies and pranks. Now here I am, pulling the biggest trick on the rest of the world.
See, it would be a good joke, only it isn’t remotely funny.
“Oh, that’s a shame,” Magenta says, breaking the silence. I did figure he’d say something like that, but I wasn’t gonna take it to heart.
We weren’t exactly friends; I was a cop and he’d been a mobster, after all. And he grates my nerves, trying so hard to please, like that’d make up for his criminal past. Really though, all that aside, he must surely have some redeeming qualities. Apparently, he has a kid kicking around somewhere. So presumably, somebody must have thought ‘this is the man I’d want my child to spend every other weekend with.’
The others are less objectionable by default; but to be honest, none of them are really my friends. We haven’t really had that much time yet to get to know each other, though you wouldn’t think it from seeing Scarlet and Blue; they’ve pretty much been best buds since day one. I sort of envy that; it must really help with slipping into this new life. Anyway, they’re decent guys, and in theory, given our job, I’d take a bullet for them. But there’s something that makes me hold back. With everything that’s happened to me recently, a part of me is a bit skittish about making friends anyway, considering it’s a reoccurring theme in my life that people I care about died or hurt me.
Or I hurt them, and that’s even harder to deal with.
There are times when I get to thinking this was the stupidest choice anyone had made: throwing together all these people with basically nothing in common, then expecting them to work as a crack unit-fighting terrorists, with this floating tin can to call home. Then again, it’s not as if I have a choice. Not anymore, anyway; those bridges are well and truly torched.
The news channel is on almost constantly in the lounge; the only variation is the station chosen by whoever is in the lounge at the time and cares about that sort of thing. I quite like the French one; it has a neat theme tune, and growing up, I spent a lot of time in French neighbourhoods in Canada, so I try to keep my language skills honed.
At the moment, we’re on CNN.
“We don’t have to watch this if you don’t want to,” Scarlet says.
“Nah, it’s OK,” I tell him, sitting down between him and Grey. That’s the only seat left; part of me thinks that was deliberate. Maybe the busy bodies who’ve been making the arrangements for my Ochre period briefed them, told them that I had to be constantly supervised and treated like a fragile infant in case I have a nervous breakdown. “Actually, I’m kinda curious what everyone will say about me.”
There are two guys on the screen, and I only recognise one of them. Both are trussed up in thick coats, which looks a bit ridiculous really, because over their heads, the sun is burning so bright that everything seems to have a golden glow. There are white fluffy clouds, and all that kinda crap. You’d think that for a funeral, it would be a bit more… well, funeral-like. But then, I suppose it isn’t really a funeral, not that anyone there would know that. Anyway, for all the sunshine, it’s still the last day of October in Chicago, so with the wind it must feel pretty chilly.
The newsreader guy, whom I didn’t know, turns to the guy next to him for the obligatory interview with a World Government Police Corps representative.
“Detective Fraser’s death has been a tragic loss to the WGPC,” Ian Stewart spouts. “He shall be greatly missed by all those who worked closely with him, and those who collaborated with him, during his illustrious career.”
Yeah, except you, two-faced bastard. Stuart’s been desperate for the Supreme Commander’s job ever since the previous commander announced his upcoming retirement. He was so pissed that I had been chosen to do the job and that he was only second choice. Now that I’m out the way, Stewart will be into the commander’s chair before it’s even cold.
At the sound of Stewart’s voice, Magenta moves from his perch over by the kitchenette and ambles over to where I’m sitting for a better look.
“Jesus Christ! He’s the commander now?” he leans closer to the TV in order to read the caption, which obviously confirms his assumption. Something about that rattles him, but he covers it up by seeming merely amused by this development.
“Yeah,” I answer. “There’s just no justice in the world, is there, Paddy?”
He doesn’t rise to it; normally he would, especially with that epithet, but this time he decides to let it go. Credit where it’s due, as a rule, he gives as good as he gets, which I can respect.
“You know him?” Scarlet innocently asks Magenta. I just roll my eyes, wondering what rock Metcalfe has been under.
“The WGPC chief of New York, circa 2065. Yeah, we've met.” Magenta resumes his place at the other side of the room. It’s like he doesn’t want to be a part of this, but equally just can’t help rubber-necking my train wreck. I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same, if I had been in his place.
Stewart is near the top of the list of, oh about five hundred people, who salivate over –possibly even jerk off to – the thought of Patrick Donaghue’s painful untimely demise. And more importantly, have the means to make it happen. Maybe that explains the flicker of uncertainty that passed across Magenta’s face; Stewart will have more leverage now that he’s Commander, and odds are they’re going to end up meeting at some point through Spectrum field work. The thought of that almost makes it worth being assigned as Donaghue’s field partner, because, boy, do I not want to miss that showdown. The joke’s on Stewart, I guess, now that Donaghue has been pardoned and he can’t touch him.
Not that I can get too smug and complacent; plenty of those people on Donaghue’s list are probably smoking big Cuban cigars now that I’m out the picture.
So it seems ironic and absurd that we’re both here together; that I’m obligated to take a bullet for Donaghue, when not so long ago I’d have happily put a bullet through him.
If I am being honest, a part of me still does want to. Not kill him; I wouldn’t give anyone the satisfaction; just sink a slug into the soft tissue. So it bleeds and hurts. He just really bugs me so much of the time; the way he struts about the place like he deserves this job, that he’s getting away with having been a mobster, as if a thief can ever reform. Then on top of all of that, and hell if I’d ever admit it, he can make me feel so small; that condescending look on his face when I mess up on a written test for not knowing pi or who the World Government agriculture minister is. Well, see, here’s the thing, Paddy: the reason for that is, while you were prissing about getting your billion degrees in whatever, I was kinda tied up busting dirt bags like you.
So yes, maybe I'm just being dramatic. I wouldn't really (in italics) shoot him, after all. Even if he was to push all my buttons. I don't really have it in me to be that callous.
Maybe just punch him in the nose if he goes too far.
Funny isn’t it, how life works out?
As the pallbearers come into view, I can’t help wondering what they put in the coffin, as obviously, it isn’t me in there, and the guys looked experienced enough that they’d notice it was empty. For some reason, the sight of it made me shiver at the finality of it all. That for all I’ve done, in my thirty odd years of existence, good or bad, it’ll all come down to me getting trussed up in a box and shoved down some hole in a non-denomination cemetery. Actually, I’d prefer to be cremated and my ashes scattered over Lake Michigan. Because what does it matter? Why would anyone want some marker they can visit to stand and cry over? Oddly, for all the planning that when into my faked death, nobody ever asked me about that part of it; so instead, I’m getting the default full blown cop funeral. I’ve been to those of colleagues that really died far more than anyone should. There’s few things in the world worse than seeing men in uniforms holding each other up as the tears roll. And being a part of it makes you feel the whole world will crumble like a sandcastle in your hands.
It was then I noticed Blue had put a hand on my shoulder, as a gesture of solidarity. It’s the closest, literally or otherwise, we’ve been since we got here.
He’s an upright guy, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a part of me that gets rattled by him; more so than with Magenta. I mean, at least you know where you stand with him, and it doesn’t make any difference to me either way what he thinks. But Blue, you can see the steely determination beneath that amiable composure of his, how he notices every little thing, that he’s unforgiving of anything not on his extensive list of ‘good conduct’.
And me, with what I did, which no, I’m not going to talk about… I’m never gonna make that grade.
So I push him away.
I know it’s not rational, decent, especially mature, or even pragmatic considering I can count my friends on one thumb. But sometimes I can’t even help myself. These things, stupid vindictive things, they just flow out of me.
I want to tell him thanks for understanding. He’s one of the good guys, Blue. He reminds me of a Labrador, in a good way; smart, loyal, kind, handsome in that wholesome Scandinavian way. Whatever his flaws, he really doesn’t deserve my crap. But a part of me can’t bear to explain. To have to admit what I did, how messed up I am, to apparently have it in me to walk away from someone who’s done nothing to but love me. He’d hate me. What reasonable person would want to be friends with someone like that? and I don’t know why that upsets me so much. Maybe because he’s the only one who truly openly shows compassion and empathy to everyone. His forgiveness and playing nice is the real deal; he’s just an inherently decent guy. He’d be a good friend if I let him be. And I don’t want to ruin that at the first hurdle.
So like a coward I don’t say anything. Just let his hand stay there and hope he understands; that I don’t hate him, that I want a shot at redemption.
Grey’s got his feet up, drinking in everything on the TV; a little smile twitching at the familiar sights and voices. Because Chicago is home for him too.
Of all of them, I get on best with him; maybe because we’ve both lived in Chicago, and never been ones for small talk. Brad’s a decent guy; he doesn’t say much and that suits me fine, because the last thing I need is some well-meaning moron yakking away in the interests of team building. And I think he appreciates that I’m the same way. He’s smart, never misses a trick, and pays attention to people when it counts. He has a wickedly dry sense of humour with it, and I like that. His only downside I can see so far is that he’s horrendously vain, maybe because he’s the oldest of us captains and doesn’t want to look it. And he sings show tunes in the shower. In a really weird way, he reminds me of my brother.
Scarlet is everything I expected, and I haven’t bothered looking far beyond the surface. He’s got the maverick streak that I can’t decide whether to respect or not. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for tweaking protocol if it’ll get a mission accomplished. But his way of doing things, I think, is born of arrogance. An only child, golden boy of the WAAF who rose through the ranks, he took this job over being promoted yet again because he’s not ready to settle down. I see it a lot. But in his case, he’s got the gall and skill to have the job done; assuming he doesn’t get killed on the first big assignment.
Off duty, I don’t really know what he’s like. He’s always on the go, doing something athletic, or otherwise, which to me doesn’t look a fun way to spend my free time. He’s restless here, even more so than water-boy Grey, but then I suspect he’d be like that anywhere. Maybe he just needs to get laid.
Brown is OK. He’s Blue’s friend from back in the days, so they hang out and have their little World Aeronautic Society reunions. He’s a prankster too, but lacks a certain finesse. Maybe I’ll teach him, because I’ve already gained my reputation, and I’m always the usual suspect – and it’s embarrassing to be associated with whatever he does that is so amateurish. Other than that, he’s a pretty regular, honest, unassuming guy. He doesn’t ask too many questions, which is always fine by me. He’s not even here right now, gone off to Australia to see his girlfriend.
He’s having a fling with one of the communication lieutenants from Koala Base, where we were stationed before coming here. I can’t say I miss the place. But Brown’s been mooning around over this chick like anything. Maybe it’s more serious than I gave him credit for. So he might end up getting a transfer to be near her, but you never know. Anyway, if he sticks around, I could get to like him.
Black, on the other hand, is a total bastard; he knows it and doesn’t care. Magenta hacked into his personal profile – because he could, and it’s part of his game plan to try and get dirt on everyone. I suspect he wanted to find something on me specifically, but he just got sidetracked. I don’t care, because my real secrets, the stuff he actually could hurt me with, aren’t on government files.
Anyway, apparently, Black had a real hard life; not hugged enough as a kid or something. So you kinda feel sorry for him sometimes, and figure he doesn’t entirely mean to be a total asshole. After all, he does seem fond of Blue. Well, when I say fond, that’s by Black’s standard. So really, it’s more that when they’re together sometimes, and he does know you’re there, for a split second you could mistake Black for a regular human being with a heart.
Then he gets it in for you and all that goes out the window. He especially hates Scarlet; which I can see why, considering Scarlet hates him back, but it’s not really called for. Scarlet’s okay, once you get used to him.
Black’s over by the door, like he doesn’t want to miss this, but equally won’t get involved. He thinks he’s above the rest of us, and maybe technically he is. Colonel White seems to be his buddy; don’t ask me why.
We all know that if your team hate you, it’s never gonna end well. So he should probably work on his people skills.
So there you have them: those are the guys, this crack team who are supposed to be like a big happy family.
At that moment, I see her, on the TV screen. Barely noticed by anyone else, but me. I’d been watching for her. From what I see of her, she’s still as beautiful as ever, though for the most part it’s hidden by a wide brim hat and long flowing black coat. I don’t remember her having a coat like that; she tended to wear one in jewel colours to cheer her up through the grey winters, and they certainly weren’t loose around the abdomen, because I’ve never known her to have a few extra pounds she’d need to conceal. She puts down a wreath of flowers among the meadow’s worth of other arrangements at the graveside, and turned around to melt back into the crowd.
Suddenly the big room is too small, hot and tight.
I make some excuse and went to the rest room.
I rest my head on my arms, lay them across the toilet basin and try to get my breath back. After five minutes, which seem like five hours maybe, the door swings open.
“The others sent me,” he says through the door bitterly, like he lost a close fought round of ‘rock paper scissors’. Maybe he did. “You OK?”
I’m still retching; trying to purge this shame, guilt, whatever darkness lurks inside me.
“Like you care,” I manage to retort.
“Sure I do. If you die or something everyone will think it was my fault, since on top of everything else I’m in here with you. I’ve got my image to protect.”
If I hadn’t felt like crap I might have laughed.
“You could always go with ‘extreme provocation’ as a defence,” I tell him. Then I almost want to take it back, because it sounds like an admission of guilt, maybe even friendship. And that’s the last thing I’d want to send his way. A part of me wants to, to just take the easy ride and get along, but I can’t. It riles me to know that the others like him, think he’s a loveable rogue or some kind of modern day Robin Hood. They weren’t cops, they don’t know what Donaghue is capable of. I didn’t trust him. And I am not going to let him take us down on my watch.
For some weird reason Magenta decides to wash his hands, I guess for something to do while waiting for me to come out of the stall. The dryer sounds so loud in the confined space when everything else is so quiet.
I can still see her so vividly in my mind. I’d honestly been doing so well, compared to how it had been a while back. At least now I was only thinking about her every other second of the day, generally making a passable show of getting on with my life. Coming to terms with what happened, because obviously I can’t take it back, so we both have to just move on. It should be simple, you’d think, with us being emotionally healthy adults with busy lives. Then something like that happens and it’s all fresh, raw, bleeding, and it hurts again.
He goes into the next stall, loudly flips down the plastic lid then climbs onto the toilet; standing on it, he can just about see over the dividing wall.
“Wanna talk about it?” he asks, as if we’re friends.
“No.” I sit back, lean against the stall door. “You’re the last person I’d want to talk with, anyway.”
“You’re so tetchy all the time,” he says. “And not just with me either. The others have noticed and are starting to get concerned.”
I was about to say that he should mind his own business, that I didn’t especially care what the others thought of me. But he pushed on talking:
“It’s like you think the whole world has it in for you, that you’re not going to get comfy here because this will all go away too, and you’re just waiting to get screwed.”
I scoff. “Spare me the psycho-analysis crap.”
“I know you’re wary of me. But don’t you think if I was going to pull any evil genius stunt I’d have done it by now?”
“No, you’re just waiting, charming your way into everyone’s confidences before acting. You might have fooled the others, but not me. I know you. I’m watching you.”
That wasn’t smart, admitting it, but maybe I can claw it back as a double bluff.
“I’m here for the same reason you are,” he says casually.
“I had alternatives, and none of them was spending the rest of my life in Di Witts being someone’s bitch.”
“Ha, like that’d ever happen.” He carries on before I can respond: “They knew exactly who I was, but still couldn’t pin anything on me, and I wasn’t going to fall for any of their efforts to blackmail me into making a signed confession. So I’m here entirely of my own free will… What I meant is, I wanted a second chance too, was prepared to and did burn my bridges to get here. As strange as it seems, you and I are in the same situation. We’re all dressed up in a snazzy uniform, and nowhere to go, stuck with this asshole field partner who’s going to make our life hell...” He turns then, his eye sparking with a flash of the steely venom that once brought him to the top of the New York underworld. “And just so we’re clear, Ricky boy, you are going to break long before I ever do. Whatever you throw at me to make me fall, I can give back just as easily. With enough skill to fly under the radar.”
He pauses for effect.
“And I know why you’re in here, and who that chick on TV is. I’m sure that if she knew the truth, she would be proud of what you did, lover boy. ”
He leaves; I can hear his footfalls and the slam of the restroom door through the door, and I sink down even lower. Sweat was prickling at my skin, so surprised and unsettled that he could have figured it out.
‘He’s bullshitting,’ I tell myself. And I force myself to believe it even though I know rationally there’s a good chance he’s not. What can he do with it anyway? It’s not like he could go and tell; there would be no point. It’s not even his style to be that malicious.
It’s not like I can’t hurl anything back at him, he must know that; like that kid that I know he has. Not that having a kid is a crime. But Donaghue has been so eager to show his loyalty to Spectrum that he’s already given them some dirt on a few of his old ‘business associates’. I mean, c’mon, they may be criminals but they’re not totally stupid; they’ll realise somebody has turned on them, and that puts him in a vulnerable spot trying to protect his kid. But then I guess Spectrum probably already knows and has some contingency plan fixed up.
Which is fine by me; I wouldn't risk a kid's life anyway, even out of spite.
Still it got me all curious. I figured there couldn’t be many Donaghue’s in New York, so a few days ago, I ran a search for her birth records, and found it. He could have only been sixteen when she was born.
There must be something dark and twisted there. Might be a fun project to get to the bottom of; at least it’ll make a change from beating myself up and thinking too much about… her.
It makes me feel better, enough to stand on my still shaking legs. I might have messed up and deserted every other part of my life, but I can at least do my job ok and keep Donaghue in his place.
I go back to the lounge. I must have looked a complete mess, because Black fetched me some water. Well, ok, he shoved a plastic cup under my nose, because he was standing right by the cooler and Blue had asked him to, but it was a start. The others make some vaguely sympathetic noises and say something about changing the channel. But I won’t let them.
This is it now my life; the old one was dead, as surely as all those people on TV thought every part of me was.
I’m not going to look away like a coward.
So we keep watching, until the end.
Credits where they’re due …
Ian Stewart of the WGPC came from Chris Bishop's and Sue Stanhope's (joint) fiction ‘Dead Ringer’.
Brown’s personality, and his romance, are from Chris Bishop's 'All the Colours of the Rainbow'.
Marion Wood's story 'Tears of a Clown' inspired several aspects of the scene with Ochre watching the funeral, and the woman in black. Black’s relationship, such as it is, with Blue, is also from her story ‘Natural Selection’.
Thank you to Chris, for beta-reading.