Selection Criteria

by Roger Marchant

Selection Criteria

Dear Acquisitions Editor,

Attached please find three chapters as requested.

Yours sincerely,

D. Giles

farmer@spigot.org.au

Synopsis

Chris Cullip is Australian ex-military, possibly a questionable qualification, who to the extent possible for someone in this job has a permanent position in one of the more influential of the Australian Federal Public Service departments. But the small room in the top right hand corner of the funny part of Sinclair Offices is rarely occupied because its owners trade. This is putting into effect policies that government wants neither to make known nor, God forbid, be held responsible for. It involves much travel around Australia and its neighbouring countries.

Unlike in many action stories, the protagonists prime assets here are not necessarily hardware. Cullip succeeds, or fails, mostly by wits alone. Black Irish wits some would say, meaning a lot of luck - Chris would cheerfully admit to this - plus that certain something, black Irish again probably, that makes the back hairs prickle just in time for their owner to avoid becoming a negative asset.

In this story, Cullips background is revealed only obliquely in a convoluted set of situations which it is necessary first to identify, then react to and finally attempt what Patton famously defined as the soldiers duty; soldier here being a fairly loose or, perhaps, narrow description of what Chris does.

And its not for a living; Tony is not the only dilettante in this story, just as Stalrode is not the only character boasting (or not boasting) dubious sexuality. Chris Cullip is on a mission; a personal mission to put right something from the past. Something that has to be put right, even if people are killed. Even if a lot of people are killed. Plenty of collaterals here. Because Chris, too, has form, plenty of it, and is neither particularly law-abiding nor even patriotic. Well, perhaps to the extent that it will assist in completing the task at hand. Rather like, if you think about it, senior politicians and Secretaries of the APS.

The plot is the story of Cullips current task - or ostensible task - of finding a tactical nuclear weapon that has been magic-ed off a visiting US aircraft carrier on a goodwill visit to Sydney and hiddenwhere? (magic-ed because, of course, American warships on goodwill visits dont carry WMDs, do they?) The orders seem simple: retrieve the nuke then track down and with extreme prejudice dispose of the perpetrators of this outrage, a word only whispered at the highest level of government because nothing of this must ever see the light of day. But Cullip finds that something very different awaits and its a matter of whom to believe and, more important, whom if anyone to trust.

Moreover, in meeting the sort of people who are willing to go to extremes for their faith, which here happens to mean what is to their countrys advantage, Chris experiences, totally against a personality that tends towards cynicism, a sort of Road to Damascus moment. The metaphor is not really apt - this is not about religion, in any form. Rescue, if that is what it is, comes at last gasp by the sacrifice, or sacrificing, of a character who is near and conceivably dear. Chris is made to realise that the Australian way, as we all know, is the only way. Not the American, not the British and God knows not the Asian but the Australian way.

The villain of the piece is a clich, a multinational conglomerate; an organisation with deep pockets and long arms with which to use its resources. This is not a shoot em up tale. Action, yes; death, a fair bit; but more a story of love lost or, perhaps, thrown away.

Total of approx 90,000 words in 20 chapters.

1

Inner Sanctum

I think, yes Im sure, we being what we are and this occasion being what it is, that we might dispense with formality. Well, to a reasonable extent.

This introduction meant that although the meeting might be of some intimacy it would not be conducted on a first name basis. Always the game-player, Heathecote-Simms sidled up to his subject in a way that made Crab a nickname totally appropriate and therefore inevitable. In-house, that is.

The three of us sat upright, the rather hard chairs a slight question mark in an office that otherwise gave every indication of the rank, or level, of its occupant, who ran a good line in self-deprecation, or disingenuousness.

Alas, Im only a tenant here. And not, I might remind you both, a sitting tenant. What we have to do, given that theres a fair chance of the sky falling in - youll allow the Technicolor hypothesis, for this is becoming more and more a tenable theory - what we have to do in the long-term best interests of an organisation that concurs with our current if temporary circumstances, is to bring together terminally antagonistic or at least bellicose - that surely entities. And, to continue with rather warlike and probably unnecessarily blunt terms, fortify the battle cry of our captains without, and here I give due and final regard to terms military, reinforcing failure.

Surfing Heathecote-Simms gaze, Stalrode turned a blonde and rather narrow head at an oblique angle and leaned forward to speak, resembling perhaps an exotic kind of bird; delicate but certainly a raptor - that everyone knew. Well, everyone who should know. But there again, werent all Heads of Security the same in euphemism? Even if this one came via a dizzyingly posh Sydney school and then Oxford, sharing the same staircase and using the generic mate for dreamy aristocrats and embryo ministers of state alike. And crooks. Not that one would necessarily know. Stalrode, abetted by, it must be said, an admirable Security Section, was not one to advertise pedigree. Sunshine High and University of Wollongong, perhaps. Or grunt first, pusher close second.

For me, Director, I work best, if youll allow, with the man in the street and what this man - and thus many more who are now, so to speak, at least in the quarter finals - what they tell me openly is that Cliffords gone over. Well, we knew that, didnt we? Not gone over in that sense, theres really nowhere to go nowadays, or no one to go to. No, this fucker lifted a cool billion dollars...

I felt constrained to murmur. We dont actually know.

and disappeared. And the bitch with him. That clever, dissatisfied, capable, beautiful bitch, Trudi Granz. I may use beautiful as a final qualifier but its no means her minor asset.

Stalrodes sexuality was a grand and secret thing although outwardly, which is the forte of any Head of Security euphemistic or not, male and female were equally balanced in the enthusiasms of the many and glorious hatreds in that crowded psyche.

Heathecote-Simms leaned back against the unyielding wood and assumed a look of pure admiration.

And there you have it! Whenever murk exists, comes Stalrode in to pierce it with acumens pitiless beam. No, I say even more, for intelligence can be gathered by minions. Im referring to this ability to direct, receive, classify and decide - wheat from chaff, eh, Staldrode, wheat from chaff! Then to report. That we are blessed with such intellect.

The glance took on a degree of complicity and somewhat of a gleam.

But we are here gathered, he continued, tapping the open file, gathered for the purpose of selection. You know, choose us out men to go hither, fight with Amalek, tomorrow to stand on hills crest with the rod of God in our hand.

H-S could produce faux Milton with the best of them. We tended to ignore the jokiness of it all while accepting that his accent and oral delivery patterns would never change. For not only was our Director a Pom but he had graduated from the same college, same staircase as his nominal subordinate, whom he now rather gloomily regarded as a naughty but clever child to be kept under some sort of control.

Stalrode, not to be moved, stared straight ahead. Biblical implications are not to my taste, you know that, H-S, even if you are alluding to the Chinese. Nor slang. Rod of God, indeed. Too much Mickey Spillane. Youre not essaying humour, are you, Director? Because you know well that Ive always considered the separation of powers a mere device to cosmeticise the executive.

Yeah, I thought, your left hand exists in blithe ignorance of its opposite members doings. Or members, visualising the Security staff, universally known in the business as The Twilight Boys, who on Stalrodes watch and behest and as required by the situation to hand, employed ad hoc - that is, zero - rules of engagement. Well, boys was an overstatement, but gender, as in stiletto heel or steel-toed boot, was of low priority when your features were being rearranged. Earless Wanamaker could testify to that. And attempted to at his two trials, unsuccessfully.

I should have said it out loud because Stalrode, with neither nod nor glance in my direction, stoked up the theme.

You may as well tell the story. After all, Cullip here is cleared. I think I - we - can be very assured of that. Not off the street, either. Up to my level. Nearly, anyway. Thats what comes of working with politicians.

Raised hands demonstrated Heathecote-Simms polite surrender. Of course, of course. He was looking at me, though. Within these four walls only. But you know that. I think I might be allowed the tiniest relaxation to smooth the process. Not, of course, that in any way am I suggesting this meeting might be anything but a joyous occasion for you. A three beat pause. Joyous.

Man could be in Tibet by now.

Of course, Stalrode, thank you. We must get on. Time waits and all that.

I thought I would come to Heathecote-Simms assistance. Then I propped. Both presumptuous and unnecessary towards a public servant who had famously stared down two prima Donnas throughout a high profile, deep even, Senate Committee. On the telly for all to see, too, then trivialised in the press next day. Or, rather, made light of in one rag, inflated by the opposing baron. As is the Australian way.

Heathecote-Simms as a mere tenant. Didnt think so. Too many bodies, too many coordinates. So, back to current matters: I cleared my throat, not nervously, I hoped.

Youve read my abstract. Ive made myself familiar with the Clifford case. To the extent possible.

Stalrode leaned forward. And a bloody detailed possible it was. What, straight from the Ministers desk, was it? Or would that be bed?

Is that what you really think?

Stalrodes lips, thin at the best of times, near disappeared.

You ask as though you expect me to know the answer.

Heathecote-Simms again lifted both hands, this time a gesture of appeasement. Since the day he had with well-camouflaged delight received his first stripes, the Directors strength had not revealed itself in operations or policy or even principle, which last would have stood out in the Service like a veritable Martin Luther in a congress of Machiavellis. All agreed that the H-S was meetings, the General Eisenhower of our time. No one elevated to this office had been better at bringing disparate units to a concurrence in the face of often great and divergent intents. Given, any agreement between parties essentially at opposite poles philosophically would last as long as the project in hand and not a second more. Very like General Eisenhower. But the fact remained: the greatest gift attaching to this lover of hard-backed chairs was that of conciliation.

Moreover, quite obviously a survivor. It behoved me to keep this in mind. At any time, before, during or after the event I could - and almost certainly would - be repudiated. So, close up all decks, that sort of thing, and keep recipients of any revelation down to a tiny few.

In this case, just Heathecote-Simms and, against every instinct, Stalrode. Not that the Head of Security wouldnt in any case find out. It was whether I could risk disclosure early in the game and rely upon discretion - there certainly would be no overt support - or keep schtumm and have the information filed somewhere in that voluminous retrieval system for revenge at a later date.

As it was I adopted an attitude of some contrition.

Anyway, you know where my information came from.

A lie and a compliment at one go, as usually they went. Thing is, would the Head of Security fall for it? It had been a ranging shot only; I had my shells neatly piled ready for the exchange to come.

The answer, and I was mildly surprised, was a nod of affirmation.

Youd be surprised what we know. A mistake by Stalrode. Realised and qualified immediately by After all, we do have your CV.

Of course, but which rsum was here referred to? The official version penned by my old Minister himself or that dredged up by the more literate of the baboons?

Heathecote-Simms offered an indulgent smile. We were children, house guests, offered lollies and squabbling, in the politest of fashions, over the right to clean up what was in essence the fault, yes, fault, of no one but H-S himself.

Of course, our Director would never see it like that. And as my instructor had drilled into me close to the end of what had been in the circumstances a very long and fairly arduous course: if you get through this - and bear in mind Im not saying you will - if you get through this, remember just one thing above all others and youll make your old coach happy: never, ever, underestimate anyone with whom you work. The higher they are, the more bodies they have clambered over. Bodies of people rather like you. So, try not to come second.

Heathecote-Simms pressed a small button on the decently aged desk. A Directors desk, in all its glory. Within seconds a soft knock presaged the arrival of Peter-who-was-really-Tony with the Spode and Earl Grey. A small smile for the Director; for me a more lubricious effort from full red lips. Stalrode was ignored. Heathecote-Simms, who was as hetero as anyone might reasonably expect, had been subject to some censure regarding the person of this personal assistant. Oblique and polite from his equals over lunch, perhaps; a buzz around the office on the part of the workers. The Director, la reine, ignored it all.

Those many - mandarin to admin assistant - who didnt know, suspected. The tiny few who did, admired. It was, in fact, just another layer of an already deep-six cover.

As he turned to leave, the PA heel brushed the leg of my chair. Just a nudge. A nudge that first asked has H-S given you the go ahead, then? and then possibly warned, I told you, watch the old sod.

For the tea boy and I were acquaintances of long standing. Or lying. In both senses. One of this environments exceedingly few things in which I retained any real confidence was that our history - Peter/Tony and me, that is - was as yet an unopened book to my colleagues. For in deception, Tony, I shall use his given name, was peerless. Longer ago than I can remember with comfort, in an early dawn towards the end of our physical relationship, satiated, post-coital soft and therefore just a bit vulnerable, Tony had told me a few - a very few, I suspect, for he wasnt that nave - of the things that he had once been and from which, in a positive sense, he had come forth.

Tony was an orphan. Not Wildean carelessness but as a result of a head-on during a rainstorm on the Hume Highway. He had been twelve, no siblings. But, using witnesses who could and would take an active part should the terms of the agreement be breached, his flattened mother and father had had the good sense to have formalised the administration of their grand fortune in the event of an unfortunate circumstance such as this. They had achieved this by means of an annual retainer, more than sufficient to keep him honest, which was not his normal mode of operation, paid to a face in the city via a thumbprint account. Or more correctly, a no-face in the city. And the city was neither in Australia nor any country with whom Australia enjoyed a viable understanding vis--vis dodgy people nor, more significantly for Tony, decidedly dodgy cash.

What resulted was serendipitous, if that term may be used in conjunction with the abrupt loss of ones nearest and dearest. Amazingly, Tony said, the face developed a parents pride and became a surrogate father. The boy attended the best of schools, where he enjoyed unparalleled renown for his vacations in the most beautiful beach city on the Pacific seaboard, holidays that embodied, literally, the best the Mardi gras town could offer. Then to the States and a summa cum laude from Harvard, for Tony was not only rich but bright with it, a combination that produced so unusual a persona that upon his return to Oz the graduate entry finger was crooked at him, as he always said, quick-smart. From then it was inevitable that the likes of Heathecote-Simms would sniff him out. Tonys opportunities and thus his skills multiplied by the day. But the cash was used sensibly. He lived at a level commensurate with his salary plus a bit and he didnt go in for Italian four wheel wanks. But he enjoyed himself and hugged close his autonomy, whereby he worked to his own, very special, agenda.

In other words, unlike 100% - well, nearly - of the other toilers in our particular vineyard, Tony was a true dilettante, a circumstance that his de facto father assured him was privy only to the two of them (plus the witnesses, of course, but their priorities were very different and posed no threat of outing). Plus, again, such an assurance was, in the ill-chosen words of a long-gone Leader of the Opposition, gold-plated. Why? Because the face not only loved his ward but knew full well upon which side his bread was buttered and needed no demonstration of Sods Law to reinforce that conviction, thank you very much. But he knew nothing, I like to believe, of the intimacy that Tony and I had enjoyed.

We should adjourn to another place.

Stradrode looked at the ceiling and with a forefinger described a circle.

Oh no, nothing like that. Heathecote-Simms seemed anxious to reassure. This office is swept daily. Daily. But people do know were here.

People? Tony?

Got paperwork. Could go to the park later. Stradrode wanted any further discussion to be under Securitys terms. Or, rather, in a place where personal snoops were operating.

Heathecote-Simms smile was beatific. Park? Of course. But not the car park. Might I suggest Taronga? Lions? Different routes. Say forty minutes?

Not what Stradrode wanted to hear. Forty minutes was too soon to get set up. A double tap of the foot. Since were protected in this, an ostentatious glance around, this snug abode, why not stay?

People.

Your people, Stalrode, I thought, thats the problem.

I cleared my throat. Then this interview is over?

Amazed, Heathecote-Simms stared at me.

Good God, yes. As such. Surely you realised that? The tiniest of nods towards the Head of Security. Weve decided instrument. We now have to discuss method.

2

On the outer

Taking the short cuts of my childhood I got there fast, found a comfortable niche with a view of the main entrance and close but categorically upwind of the lion enclosure - madame must have been on heat. I thought a quick drag might be reward for efficiency. In travel, at least.

Didnt know you smoked, Cullip. Whats up? Nervous?

The Head of Security stood a metre behind me, in the angle of the corrugated iron sun shade so recently daubed with Afro images courtesy of a once-over-quickly tart-up by a council facing yet another election.

Yes you do. Anyway, Stalrode, theres no need for this.

Heathecote-Simms need is our need. The poor darling will wither away, wither away with anxiety if Clifford doesnt return unto the fold. And the bitch.

I assumed the biblical bit was directed at me. Using it, I mean. Perhaps the Head of Security wanted the truth to be a shock.

You know why you were chosen, I suppose?

Enlighten me, Stalrode.

Stalrode was a rule unto herself, even if she didnt like biblical references. I should have known. Got paperwork meant nothing of the sort. She probably took her canary yellow Mazda soft-top within seconds of us leaving the Directors office then tailed me along my personal route. A shivering thought. Our Security director didnt need The Knowledge. I almost felt violated.

Together, alone, call me Pamela. Thats my name.

Actually it wasnt. I happened to know - thanks, Tony - that the name intoned by the priest doing the forehead-wetting bit was Neil. But let not a little thing like a sex change, courtesy the grateful government of Thailand (only place to go, you know, terrific service and a lifetime of new naughties guaranteed) stand in the way of a new friendship.

Grateful? Oh, yes, Stalrode had bags of form. That particular incarnation was apparently as number three ASIO man in the good old early nineties. The King of Thailand, a lovable monarch, expected the truth from his President and got it. But not the whole truth. For example, his current squeeze? Not his sexual preference - Thais are very understanding about matters physical - but current as in currency, squeeze as in extortion.

It wasnt, Tony had airily observed in another of those relaxed moments in my bed, a big deal. Just gold.

Yeah, and he had whispered how many millions of dollars worth. Say a goodly proportion of Australias annual trade deficit.

But friendship with Stalrode? Me? Mates with a common-knowledge-but-no-proof disposer of villains who had beaten the rap? In her defence, real villains. But even so. And what sort of alliance, because, at best, thats all it could be, was she proposing?

Then tell me, Pamela.

I find them; you do the bitch and leave him to me.

Could the torch she held for Clifford still be guttering, albeit oh so faintly? Unbelievable.

But then my friend, the instructor, slipped back into my mind, the more unlikely anything, anything, to do with work seems, the more it probably is nothing of the kind. Except that it adds a few more points to the odds against you.

Cant one of your little helpers do that? Its no big deal.

Im merely saying what H-S will propose. You wait. Oh, the poor thing will haver around the disposal bit but he wants this one tight and youre the poor cunt whos been fingered, no worries.

Pamela could assume the trappings of any class, any time. She was right about our immediate master, though. Within the prescribed transit time a taxicab - well, it was done up to look like a taxi - ground to a halt within our sight Not without effort H-S, large and overcoated, debouched from its depths and on to the pavement in front of the Taronga main entrance. I descried no money changing hands, either from our boss to the driver or, unlike me, to whomsoever was now operating the ticket box.

Hey! I permitted myself, this looks preplanned. And therefore dangerous. Stalrode sniggered softly. Right now everyone you see is one of his. Hes not a fool, you know. Then, as if impelled by some access of honesty - or pride - qualified that observation with, Well, thats not completely true, either. I have one or two friends here, too.

And, I thought, Ive seen at least one. For I and her minions were, to say the least, acquainted. Not cocktail-party-acquainted; more like on-the-pavement-outside-the-pub-at chucking-out-time-acquainted. The Twilight Boys were renowned not only for their loyalty to their boss but for the fact that they were never known to resign her employ. Disappear, perhaps, as a result of some heroic but suicidal defence of her professional honour or even just cease to be, usually as a result of some external and extreme prejudice. But never did they leave of their own accord. Perhaps she had something on each and every one of them. I rebuked myself - of course she did. And in all likelihood the leverage had been obtained following advances such as were now being made to me. In fact, just as my old instructorbut perhaps you get the picture. Formative times, they were, and enduring lessons, on that particular course.

I allowed myself a general assertion.

For your protection, I suppose?

For the first time, Pamela Stalrode took her eyes off the oblique approach of our - my? - fate and favoured me with the sunniest of smiles and a blatant untruth.

Oh no, nothing to do with me. They are there at the behest of H-S. You didnt really think they worked for me? Directly?

For the first time in many months, ice water trickled down my spine.

3

Shortlisted

There was no time to process this alarming information. Heathecote-Simms had spotted us and increased his sidle. A bright if not genial smile of greeting was aimed in our direction despite it being a mere thirty minutes since we had departed his opulent divisional headquarters office. Stalrode, appalled, hunched back into the angle of her corrugated iron niche, rather like Dracula exposed to the light.

It was me, therefore, towards whom H-S continued his ostensible approach, beaming the while. He had advanced to within some five metres when a shadow passed across his face and he grimaced. I remember thinking, rather stupidly, that the old chap had over-indulged in the senior officers dining room and now his lunch was extorting its revenge.

But I was wrong. I felt Stalrode beside me - her sixth sense was operating, no worries - whispering, Oh, no! and watched, useful as Lots wife, as our Director slowly performed a dignified collapse directly in front of us, oyster eyes transmitting messages of entreaty that were, alas, all carrier wave and no modulation.

To our left a fusillade of gun shots battered our ears. No one could ever say the Twilight Boys did things by half. Stalrode and I were encompassed by three, four, stalwarts and hustled away to a black Fairlane that had somehow materialised on the lane dividing lions den and monkey house.

***

Dear Mr Giles,

Thank you for your submission Selection Criteria.

Unfortunately we are unable to take up your offer of publication as in the end we did not feel that the work was suitable for the current Outbreak Press list.

Thank you once again for writing to us and we wish you every success in placing your work with another publisher.

Yours sincerely,

(Jacqueline Shawlt)

Acquisitions Editor

I shifted the keyboard forward, placed the letter on the cutting pad and with two forefingers stroked the single crease in the paper. My mind slipped into neutral and the only the screensaver, windows in a meaningless dance, provided a counterpoint to the gentle, obsessive movements of my hands.

I know what Im doing. Im grieving. In silence I inched around the gas operated office chair (my sole extravagance) and with great care dropped the flattened note on to the pile of similar communications, be honest, rejections, that lay in the tray labelled Selection Criteria.

Not without some effort, for it was ten in the morning and Id been sitting at the desk since five, my normal starting hour, I rose and creaked out on to the balcony. On the coastal highway a hundred and seventy-five metres below midgets scurried ant-like about their business. At Level 45 I was taking a risk but not a great one.

FUCKINGMISERABLEBASTARDCUNTS!

Most of the scream of frustration was blown away on the breeze. Otherwise, who cares? My mostly ethnic neighbours, left, right, up, down, all knew I was crazy - I could tell that by their refusal to meet my eyes in the elevator or along the corridor. Granted, I never said a word to them, why would I?

Bellowing into the wind did make me feel better, though. Lighter. As if Id sloughed off a dry, crumpled old skin. I lay on the sun lounge and stared into the deep receding blue of the sub-tropical sky. Now I will analyse the problem. Again.

OK, thats thirty two rejections, twenty nine bereft of even token encouragement. OK, so why? And dont bang on about Rowling et al being knocked back X times, I really dont want to know. What I do know, have known all along, is whats wrong. Its derivative, thats what. Voices shout out - at least three authors, one still living and churning out the same old rubbish every year in time for the Christmas market. Yes Minister meets John Le Carr meets James Bond, that sort of thing. My problem is that I dont create, I regurgitate. Because create is the name of the game. Proof? All those creative writing courses that were so below my consideration. Create! That means something new, not an inept pastiche of the droppings of, and here I grit my teeth, successful writers. Perhaps I should admit that Im a dilettante like Tony and write for pleasure alone, perchance to publish vainly.

I heard a moaning noise and rolled over. The moaning stopped and I realised it had been me. A hundred and seventy-five metres? Say three seconds? Then infinity, black and tranquil?

But the word that had just crept unbidden into my mind took over. Perchance.

Yeah, well, thats a whole new ball game, isnt it? An infinity of nightmares? I dont think so! If theres a perchance involved anywhere then I might just as well stay and fight the good fight.

Alone, of course.

***

Alone? And who, pray, ever had the temerity to put that notion into your head?

Jesus Christ!

I leapt to my feet, lost my balance and staggered against the (luckily) high glass balustrade.

My dear fellow, dont take on so. All is not lost!

The gaze, famous for its professional disinterest, now contained an element of what looked suspiciously like genuine, if superficial, concern. The hand on my arm guiding me back indoors was as solid and unexpected as the lamp post you bump into when youve, well, when youre making your way home or, rather, used to make your way home in earlier, happier, more drunken days.

Irrational logic swamped me.

But youyoure dead!

Oyster eyes lost sympathy and were acquiring an interrogatory glint as the bulk of my visitor manoeuvred itself into the balcony doorway, denying me an easy way out.

Dead? Perhaps, in this situation, youd be good enough to define

dead for me?

OK. In for a penny

Well, H-S, I created you so I get to make those decisions.

Hah! The exclamation was iced with triumph. So long as you exist, so must I. You know full well that my demise in chapter three fails to suspend disbelief. Rotten writing, Im afraid. His shrug was compassionate rather than dismissive. But we can probably get you back on the right track.

It was the we that really scared me.

My apartment was high up and it was small. All a matter of cost and elevation, as every real estate man knows and all would-be buyers find out. I had eight squares - a little more than that offered to guests at Gitmo - and right now it was beginning to show. It was bad enough that H-S was a big man and but the thought of a third party was terrifying because I knew who it would be. And lo! another guest there truly was. Assorted crockery noises from my kitchenette preceded the appearance of the coffee girl, she of the narrow head and even narrower considerations.

Stalrode!

Oh, come on, who did you think it would be? Your little bum-boy friend perhaps? Or is he still with that dishy shadow minister?

I gathered myself. If this was a dream it would play itself out, willy-nilly. If it was a game I would have to play with care the part that had just been defined for me. But wait! Perhaps seconds ago I did take the big drop and was now a part of some post mortem melodrama!

Pavement theatre, I would have to presume.

You presume too much, Cullip. You have neither the sense nor the courage to do yourself in.

Well, at least the Head of Security was staying in character. And was well-informed: I knew exactly which shadow minister to whom she was referring.

Around my tiny coffee table the council began.

I, an apparently derived person, have no more desire to remain in thisthis concrete excrescence any more than I imagine Stalrode has. So, how to extricate ourselves?

The Head of Security offered us a rare smile. Disingenuousness becomes you not at all, H-S. You know well what must be done. And

My Director held up his hand.

Yes, yes. Thank you. Thats been decided. His glance at me was at the same time calculating yet, again, kindly. Imprisoned here behold the instrument of our freedom. All we must do is aim him and light the blue touch paper.

The bastards are talking about me and across me.

And method? Stalrode was at her silkiest. My support group seems to have gone AWOL.

Obviously my hatred of the Twilight Boys had translated into them being written out of the plot. Already. But how did she know?

Youd be surprised at what we know. That was a shock, of course, not mitigated by the fact that the Head of Security now found it unnecessary to cover any slip of the tongue. Oh yes, Cullip, there is an endgame and we dont come to this place, a contemptuous look around, unprepared. Abruptly the aggression left her and for a second Pamela, too, looked at me with something near pity. As H-S has said, freedom - for the Director, for me and for you, Chris darling.

I was wrong about the pity. That emphatic endearment, following hard upon the truncation of my first name was smart combination punching. I was now sure that very little of good would come of the situation I found myself in, an internal observation immediately justified as the Head of Security reached down into the capacious sling bag she always carried and with a conjurors aplomb produced what I recognised to be a snipers rifle complete with telescopic sight. I looked harder. This wasnt any old snipers rifle, it was my rifle. Or rather, the one I had used with last-second success from a submarines conning tower in a heavy swell and near-horizontal rain. And which, I further remembered, I had then thrown overboard.

But that was five years ago.

Stop reminiscing! Youre all grown up now and theres just one job left for you. The Director had dropped all pretence at civility and his voice was harsh across the table.

So H-S is feeling the strain, too.

He spelled it out. To be free we - you - need to terminate the puppet master.

Hey! I thought, me? But they were still mind-reading.

No, Cullip, or more correctly, Giles - at this Stalrode darted him a look of pure fury - you only think youre in control. Remember, you merely regurgitate.

Oh, cruel, cruel!

Abruptly (well, painfully, actually, he had taken a tumble, after all), he heaved his considerable bulk away from the table.

He who pulls the strings is approaching the window at this very moment.

I glanced at the still open balcony door.

The Head of Security pounced. Window of opportunity, you fool. Ours. And it has to be you who exploits it.

Shes inviting me to be a Twilight Boy.

Dont you see, H-S reverted to his Oxford manners, Stalrode and I are but figments of your imagination. You agree with that, surely?

I nodded, but slowly because I was feeling the bruises on my upper arms where my Director had dragged me off the balcony. Some figment.

Which means, he went on with great patience, that it can only be you who pulls the trigger.

We know all about your little escapade afloat, added Pamela, maintaining the charade, hence the rifle. With your unerring eye, just one shot and it will be all over. We will then depart and you can have your rest. Youll need it, I promise.

Using up my psychological war chest, am I?

Arise, the times upon us. To the balcony! H-S sounded positively Shakespearian. Well, it was all a bit dramatic.

They stood, one either side of me in the balmy air at level forty-five. Far below the dark blue, breaker-fringed Pacific caressed an endless swathe of golden beaches out to the curve of its eastern horizon.

Stop rubbernecking!

I recalled that Stalrode had received his/her basic instruction from the Cousins and in the stress of great events was wont to revert to odd colloquialisms. It was a fancy that months and months ago I had cut from the first draft of the book.

There! Theres our target! The Director pointed across and down to the great plaza on level twenty where pool, spa, gym and running track shared real estate with one of the best bars north of Sydney. But I was not distracted by the view. By the inanimate view, that is. I already knew whom I had to kill.

And no more than a hundred metres away below there he was, all tanned six-pack and budgie smugglers. At his ease, too - long legs stretched out on the poolside recliner and with what I was sure was a daiquiri held in negligent grasp. At that instant I knew Stalrode had played out the game impeccably. I was Chris Cullip.

My heart turned over. Oh, Tony, forgive me!

This moment of intense emotion was shattered by a hiss to my right. The Head of Security was almost swaying in hatred - a hooded cobra about to strike.

See? See? Next to him. Its the bitch Grantz! I knew it! Take her first!

Just what did Pamela not know? My agenda, for one thing. Shooting Trudi would achieve nothing. Nothing for Chris, that is.

I buried my cheek in the stock of the gun and said hello to the scope. The plaza leapt into focus as if just a few steps away. Slowly I traversed left across the pool and along the line of sunbathers until the six-pack came into intimate view. I ignored the woman. A tiny adjustment brought his face, the face I so loved, into the cross hairs. It felt like coming home. Briefly I hesitated then became cold, operational.

The hiss next to me turned into a sigh and to Heathecote-Simms embarrassed Hrrmph! the Head of Security touched my ear with her lips.

Welcome back, darling Clifford, the Director and I knew that at the end youd do the right thing.

I congratulate myself that I was disciplined enough not to recoil from this hideous intimacy. I totted up the double-crosses Id been subjected to then slowly released my breath.

This, Ms Jacqueline Shawlt, is for you and your thirty-one anal-retentive hypercritical peers.

As I squeezed the trigger Tony looked up to the forty-fifth floor and winked.

They say a good sniper will cause you no pain. I certainly felt none as the bullet took me in the roof of my mouth. And I had been correct: infinity is very black, very tranquil and goes on for an extremely long time.

Pity about the dreams.

******

I sighed, lifted my hands from the keyboard and squeezed interlaced fingers between my upper thighs. I pressed my lips into a narrow line, considering.

A good ending, I thinkthe right sort of conclusion. Confused me, anyway.

Maybe, just maybe, a petit peu derivative, but.

***

Roger Marchant 2015

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