Night, thus dark, save for a lit streetlamp. Quiet, thus lonely.
At length two men emerge sprinting from darkness and stop at the lamp, their modest black jackets and brown pants shining in the warm electric heat. One bends over, attempting and failing to catch his breath but powers through to say:
– This—this is—the place.
He’s nervous. He’s sweating. This is his night, his birthright, the time of his life. Lauded & reviled by all the right people. Tonight belongs to him. He is Mikhail.
He, on the other hand, is calmer, sedated almost, by something he sees in the night sky. A reflection telegraphed from the dead center of the universe. His job is done, and so he waits. He is Sweeney.
Mikhail – a short, heavyset man wearing a solid blue button-down, hair parted perfectly down the center, compressed by the thousand years of tyranny which preceded him and the weight of freedom which he has won for generations to come, drops the blue bag to help his breathing. Sweeney – tall, thin, unassuming, donning the same uniform but the shirt is stained through, head topped by a driver’s cap, and completed with a pair of unintentionally fingerless gloves, looks into the deep, royal blue night.
– Look at the stars.
Mikhail makes no response, leaving him to gaze. Sweeney continues:
– It’s the lights. Can’t hardly see ‘em anymore.
Sweeney smiles, and without turning says to Mikhail
– Remember back when we were—
to which Mikhail snaps back in between pained breaths
Sweeney says nothing more, still looking into the sky, wondering nothing in particular. Everything seems to match him – the unknowing city in the distance hums its familiar beat, and the trees shortly off in the distance mirror his stillness. Beyond the lamp there is park, and flat grass all the way to the tree line. Behind them a bench, erected in memoriam of young Finnegan Affine nineteen-ninety-nine to two thousand, stands unopposed save for the lamp in the landscape. Wind courses through and conducts its soft orchestra, a light movement of air at their heels and the scuffing of leaves across the cement walkway and the ruffling of loose fabric around the wrists. For a moment Sweeney is alone.
Mikhail breaks the tension with a loud breath, stretching backward, finally overcoming his difficulties. He bends down to the bag and says:
– Well, then. Let’s have a look at the king.
Undoing the latch Mikhail steps back to admire his handiwork. The bag was purchased that morning at a discount shop, and Mikhail prides himself on its symbolism. Deep, royal blue leather, firm handles, silver clasps, and blood-red interior upholstery to make clean up a breeze. Expectedly the interior shines in the lamplight. Mikhail responds with his hands on his hips & a gentle, content sigh. Sweeney ambles up to Mikhail’s side, hands in pockets, neutral, and tilts his head slightly to the left.
Mikhail, in a familiar, frustrated tone, says
– Well… will people know it’s ‘im?
– What do you mean ‘will people know?’ It’s the king, for christsakes.
– Yeah, we know that, but the…
Sweeney gestures to the bag.
– …is a bit mucky, and, ah, he doesn’t have the…
He gestures to his body.
– …other bits.
Mikhail looks back into the bag and tilts his head to the left. Both stare, dumbfounded.
With sudden clarity Mikhail claps Sweeney’s near shoulder.
– His face! It’s on every coin and cash in the country! There’s not a man, woman, or child alive who doesn’t have a profile in their pocket.
Sweeney frantically searches his jacket, coming back up a moment later saying
– I haven’t any money.
Mikhail takes his head in hand and steps away.
– Neither do I.
He paces back and forth while Sweeney takes back to looking at the sky. This wasn’t according to plan. The plan was fine, yes, the plan was fine. Executed perfectly, Mikhail might add. No hitches, no quarrels, none deader than had to be. So where was the reaction? The fanfare? Certainly they didn’t find it at the palace. They almost strolled through the gates. In fact the only obstacle to the royal chambers was a locked window, unconnected to any alarm and easily hurdled with the assistance of a rock found in the courtyard. Shouldn’t a king have something in place to keep people like Mikhail away? Or was this another form of His Majesty’s Arrogance, that attitude which drove Mikhail to plan to kill him in the first place? Does a king who cannot protect himself deserve to live? One would expect a sense of self-preservation from the monarch, if not from some careful third party. Perhaps they bagged the wrong man and the King’s Chambers is just a sadistic name given to the head servant’s quarters. He checks the bag once more, and – yes, yes, that’s him. That’s the man. A scalding wave flushes from Mikhail’s head down into his chest and burrows into his heartstrings. To distract himself he turns to Sweeney and asks a very important question.
– Where is Cognate?
Jonathan Cognate is their contact, to be met precisely at this hour in this park under this streetlamp. Mikhail took great pains to make this certain. Once he followed Cognate right into his personal restroom at Party Headquarters, quizzing him on the time, date, and circumstance. Even the bench was made clear, and it is glowing enough tonight to call itself a landmark. But Cognate has yet to arrive.
Sweeney shrugs again in response. Cognate was Mikhail’s responsibility. As was the bag.
You wouldn’t ah been here tonight if that weren’t the case, Sween. ‘Member that. He came t’ you and axed you personally. He’s yer friend, Sween, support the bastard. An’ I do, I do. An’ you’ve gon’ an’ dome it, mate, you’ve done somepin real this time. You’ve committed to a task. Mum always thought you ‘ad that problem but now you’ve gon and shown her up, ain’cha. This can be somepin, I know it. Yer tryin’ ta be a good man, Sween, and that’s all ya can be. You ‘ere there fer ‘im tonight, and no one can say otherwise.
Thinking of Mikhail, Sweeney turns to the pacing man, then back to the bag, back to Mikhail, back to the bag. A thought occurs.
– Wot’s the penalty, y’think?
– For what?
– For, y’know, the…
Sweeney again gestures to the bag.
This is enough to halt Mikhail mid-step.
– I don’t know. Jailtime, certainly. Execution.
That last word hangs in the autumn air, gently swinging side to side in the breeze, neither witness willing to cut it down. Mikhail slowly resumes pacing, and Sweeney quickly resumes gazing. A bird’s whistle finally does the job for them, and in response Sweeney looks to his wrist.
– Huh. Look a’that.
Mikhail snaps to attention.
– What? What is it? The news? Have they found the body?
– No, it seems that the Emmys are on t’night.
Mikhail trods to the lamp. No, they couldn’t have been seen. There were no lights. No noise. Flawless. An in and out job. So what went wrong? Any and all failures – which there were none – couldn’t be on them. It’s the reception that’s the issue. The people. The palace. The people and the palace. It’s a matter of getting the word out. But surely the word would be from the palace? They’d tell, wouldn’t they? It’d be clear that the man was dead, and they’d have to let their subjects know. Right? Right. Then what of the people? Where is their jubilation? Where are the riots tearing down storefronts and towers alike? He swears, you do one thing right and nobody bats an eye, but you lash out in a public square against the injustices of the local preschool once and everybody just jumps all over your—
Mikhail slowly turns to Sweeney.
– What is that you’re wearing?
– Oh, you like it? It’s one ah-vum Apple Watches.
– Why do you need that?
– On account’ve I need the time.
– On account of you need the time? Sweeney, this is what we fight against! These, these symbols of power! The corporations, the monarchy, everything that’s corrupted what we loved for their own gain – that’s what we’re dismantling! In striking them down, we show that true power should and does rest with—
– Don’t he ‘ave a son?
Riposted, Mikhail’s face contorts inward.
– The king?
– I suppose he’s king now.
– I suppose he is.
The night adds nothing. Mikhail turns to keep his pacing. Sweeney doubles down into thought.
– President won’t be none too pleased.
Mikhail is arrested in his tracks as his eyes go wide.
– Though I suppose having an absent king is rather advantageous from a president’s point of view.
– L-let’s not focus on that here. We’ve done a great service tonight. Yes, there are further steps to take, but we’ve make the first, and that’s what matters.
– Awright, I can work wif ‘at.
Thus consoled, Mikhail points to Sweeney’s watch.
– Can you make calls on that thing?
– Think so, yeah.
– Try and get Verwant on the horn, he might be open.
Sweeney moves to his watch and fiddles with the dial. The slow tone chimes on, leaving the men and soaring into the night, ring after ring, filling out the park. No answer.
– Seems as though he’s occupied.
– Seems that way.
– Yeah, Mik.
– What would you say we’ve accomplished tonight?
– I’d say we’ve done the right thing, mate.
– It’s just…
– It’s just what?
– I mean, y’know.
– Are you saying what we did wasn’t worth the effort?
– No, no, I’m not sayin’ that. But…
– I’m just sayin’ we left alternatives.
Mikhail is about to chastise him for his lack of devotion when a low rumbling comes from the distant woods. Each sharply turns their attention to the source – some shadow approaches. They trade glances. What will they do – attack – convince – is it the police – did someone find it? – did someone find it! – but all too soon the shadow gathers itself out of the dark. It is a man, grizzled, gritty, homeless to the point of vulgarity. He notices the compatriots and says:
Mikhail and Sweeney are frozen. Sweeney is the first to gather his courage.
– H-hullo. How’re you?
– Doin’ well. M’name’s Liquor. He vomits. George Liquor.
Perhaps he fought in a war. Perhaps his namesake isn’t familial. Perhaps that fluid on his shoe wasn’t there this morning, when he read the daily paper to spite his illiteracy. The only thing for certain about George Liquor is that he is here now, a testament to their work, the embodiment of all socio-political philosophy which drives men to pontificate & eliminate. George Liquor is a common man.
– George, would you like to know what my comrade and I have done for you this evening?
– Sure. Ain’t got much else t’look at.
– Funny you would say it that way.
He produces the bag.
– We have here, tonight, in this very bag, your oppressor and mine…
With philosophic flourish Mikhail produces the head of the king.
– The recently deposed monarch.
George looks to the head, then to Mikhail, back to the head, back to Mikhail. Behind his eyes Mikhail can see a tremendous buildup, a lead-in to an overwhelming reaction. Reception, in its most base iteration.
George Liquor laughs. In between breaths he manages to explain.
– Messr, I have t’ say, you are some kinda riot. You oughta be onna one’ve ‘em shows, at night, y’know? Tellin’ yer bits about a king. You’d kill the house, that’s what ya’d kill. Y’know I met royalty once. Once. Sweet guy who said he was the ol’ Franz-is Ferdinand, nice man, hell’ve a decent chess player. Now, I knew he weren’t the bona fide Franz-is, but only on account’ve a member ah th’ Austro-Hungarian aristocracy woodn’t ah been no fan o’ the Detroit Lions, and not, as I later learned, because the bona fide Franz-is got himself shot around nineteen-fourteen. Wonder how he wooda played chess.
On this note George Liquor stumbles back into the night, muttering incoherent treatises on the rules of board games, the inconsistencies inherent in early twentieth century foreign policy, and the application process to become a television sidekick.
Once more Sweeney and Mikhail are alone. The unknowing city in the distance hums its familiar beat, and the trees shortly off in the distance mirror their stillness. Having little else to do Mikhail drops the head back into the bag, slumps to the cold earth, and sighs.
– Cognate’s not coming. Probably never planned on coming. Probably thought we’d never make it this far.
Mikhail stands, and dusts off his pants.
Mikhail’s first nightmare was a lion trapped in a cage, desperately lunging at a crowd of doubled-over schoolchildren. Each time the lion made an attempt at freedom, the children would only laugh harder. A few crawled on the pavement, rapt with violent seizures of spastic laughter. Some actually wet their pants.
It’d been years since Mikhail thought about this, and it was only just now, in one of those rare glances of memory, that he also remembered his first and only fear.
– Jesus Christ.
– I didn’t think you were o’ that persuasion.
– Oh no, my friend, God exists, and his sole purpose is to spite me.
Mikhail looks to the sky. He thinks back to his early days in the Party, and he thinks what that Mikhail – young, bright-eyed, and furious – would do. He remembers his first assignment in the Party, and he remembers the coronation of Mink the Second, a loathsome, pear-shaped character, and how the cold sheet rain kept him alive and the speech given to the gathered crowd of loving subjects:
My, what a day for a coronation. Would we have it any other way, ladies and gentlemen? This is OUR weather! And this is OUR star-spangled country, ladies and gentlemen, and we can take it back, and we get it back to work with you, the working man, and me, the working man. We are a great nation, the greatest nation, the god given nation, torn down, hated, and humiliated by THEM, beset on all sides by the tyranny of THEM. They are not us. I believe in this country, yes I do, and I have never met a more hardworking group of men and women than those I had the great pleasure of speaking to personally this very afternoon [break for applause]. It is a god given right to have coins jingoing in your pocket. Ladies and gentlemen, while you are out today please, give a moment and support support support OUR troops troops troops, and children are the future. Yes, OUR children, and not THEIR children. The fascists are knocking at OUR door, ladies and gentlemen, but the working man will not let THEM in, for he is a man, and so am I by extension, of liberty and freedom and the founding fathers o my country ‘tis of thee so in conclusion god bless us all.
He remembers the measures taken to test his devotion and the manners in which his devotion was tested. He remembers the abject poverty and the gnawing hunger of youthful passion.
– What’s open now?
– I think th’ Kingsman’s got a good late-night special.
Mikhail can only respond with a sigh. In the coming months he’ll find this to be increasingly true.
– All right. It doesn’t matter. None of this matters.
Sweeney claps him on the back.
– That’s the spirit.
And so they leave, forgetting the bag and the bench and the lamp, leaving all traces of their efforts behind them. The next morning a woman walking her dog finds the bag, and, performing her civic duty, throws it in a nearby dumpster.