The Shadow

Written for the Last Author Standing contest (original fiction division, round 1, challenge 11), April 2011.

“Carlos! Thank God. You’re the only one I can trust.”

It’s not surprising that the General is pleased to see me, with things as chaotic as they are. I’ve been his right-hand man for years now, the shadow that follows him everywhere, carrying out his orders without question. Always cool, competent, collected — and when I need to be, which is often, utterly ruthless.

I automatically fall into my customary place as we descend into the bunker, on his right and a step behind him, following as closely as if I were his shadow in the literal sense. The presidential palace — that is what we still call it, though we have not had a president since the military coup decades ago — is well guarded, but with each uprising, the rebels seem to become stronger, more numerous, better organized, and this time, we have had to face a possibility that was unthinkable before: that they might win. The palace can no longer be regarded as the unassailable fortress it once was. The General’s honour guard are highly trained, well-armed, and perfectly prepared to kill on command, without qualm or question — I should know; I trained many of them myself. But they are limited in number, and there are so many arrayed against us this time. Entire sections of the military have defected to the rebels’ side. No wonder the General is relieved to have someone at his side whose loyalty is assured.

The bunker was built into the palace as a safeguard, a secure and defensible haven to be resorted to if the unthinkable ever did happen — if enemy forces actually found their way into the palace. Once, that was regarded as paranoia. No longer. From here, we can access security cameras from all over the building and grounds, control various security systems and defences, and, if worst comes to worst, escape through a hidden shaft to the helicopter landing pad at the top of the building. The General, of course, does not think it will come to that — for that would mean he had truly lost. He is convinced we can still prevail, and shot the last man who suggested otherwise. Now, no one dares raise the possibility. No one except me, that is.

A small handful of the honour guard accompany us in, checking the space thoroughly to make sure all is as it should be, that the security systems are working, that the caches of food, water, weapons and medical supplies are intact and sufficient to last out a siege, that we will be safe here. When they have finished, I order them back out into the hallway to stand guard, leaving me alone with the General. They barely conceal their relief — if someone must attempt to convince him that the fight is effectively over, that his only option now is escape, better it be me than one of them. I might have a chance of surviving the conversation.

When the door — a foot thick, reinforced with steel — closes behind them, the General also breathes a sigh of relief. Given the number of recent defections, he trusts no one — or almost no one. I, who have been at his side for years, killing, torturing, and performing countless other acts many would call atrocities at his command, all without showing the faintest trace of emotion, am the sole exception. Sometimes I think he regards me not as a fallible, untrustworthy human, but as something more like a living weapon, always at hand, always reliable. The men fear me almost more then they do him, for the General can be capricious, capable of mercy or cruelty as the urge strikes him. I have no such unpredictability — I am always perfectly cold, controlled and efficient. If the General calls you before him, there is a chance you might be spared. If I come for you, you are already dead.

A flyer drifts across the floor as the door closes, one of thousands distributed by the rebels outside. It shows the image of a young activist who has become a symbol for the rebels since her disappearance ten years ago, and the subsequent discover of her body, raped and mutilated, in an empty field. She is a martyr to them. There have been many others like her since, other rebels the regime has attempted to make a example of, but somehow her image still retains its power.

The general snatches up the paper angrily and spits on the photo. “Whore!” he snarls. “If it were not for her, none of this would have happened. She was the beginning of it all!” He crumples the flyer and throws it away. I show no response. I never do.

Instead, once the door has firmly closed, and all the locks have clicked into place, I wait for him to turn his attention to the security cameras. And then I quietly draw my pistol and shoot him in the back of the head.

It’s strange — after all these years, I expected to feel more when the time finally came. But as I stare down at the spreading pool of blood on the floor, I feel nothing, except a faint sense of relief that it is all finally over. The years of deceit, the meticulous creation of a false identity, the countless atrocities needed to win his confidence, all leading up to this moment. The timing had to be right — I could not risk that even though he fell, the regime itself might prevail, in another’s hands. And now it is done.

I do not expect to be named a hero for what I have done here. More likely, I will be shot on sight — after all, they only know me as his loyal second, hated and feared by all. Conceivably, they might let me live long enough to stand trial for war crimes. Either way, my end is assured. It is the price of living a lie as I have — no one could know my true sympathies, or I never could have risen this high. Infiltrators are everywhere. But it doesn’t matter to me now.

I pick up the crumpled flyer, smooth it out, and lay it on the table, as I sit down to await the taking of the palace. The photo is the last one taken before her death, as she spoke at a rally, but gazing down at it, many other images flash through my mind: Maria at her high school graduation, eyes shining with hope for the future. Maria as a child, playing with her dolls. And as a tiny baby, placed into my arms by the midwife as she looked on the world for the first time.

As the sounds of fighting draw closer, I gently kiss the photo. Rest in peace, my darling girl. Papa will be with you soon.

Story prompt: “Deception”.