Chapters 9 - 10
He told me to get in. Get in this car that’s gonna try to leave the flashing lights and cocked guns in the dust…no chance. The seconds ticking by on the expensive watch Mr. Fox bought me were currency more precious than gold, sex, or power. Then there was a twitch from the near-dead ‘officer’ in my arms and Dom’s eyes fluttered, probably winking at the devil wherever his consciousness was…we’re gonna lose him…I can’t lose him, we need him. I got in the car.
The majestic pine trees lining the English countryside would have been a haunting sight, kneeless in the early morning fog, but trees begin to blur, really blur when you reach about 110 mph, something I never knew before my life as a fugitive from justice. I guess I never had a reason to look out the window of a car while more than doubling the regional speed limit.
An air of malcontent spread over our tense crew like a wet blanket, the very road rising up to meet the speeding wheels of our getaway like the prickling spine of a waking dragon. Off to our left, thick rushes spread over dales and mounds of earth that rose and fell into the fog swept distance like deep sea waves, barely aware of our race for survival, save for the sparkling dew that occasionally broke through their local atmosphere reminding me to blink my dry, dazed eyes. The morning was light enough, but I could not see the sun.
I sat motionless, staring out the tinted window. My clothes were a mess, Dom’s blood coating my vest and shirt, but I felt warm and calm like the blood. I couldn't bear the thought of him dying so I sat and stared while Val spurred our car’s horsepower toward its limits. The engine of our ‘borrowed’ Cadillac CTS-V whirred and whined like a dozen ponies instead of the 649 horses its namesake boasted. Occasionally Co would lean out the driver’s side backseat window to spit a few harmless bullets into the air as a reminder to the pursuing beat cops to keep beating. POP! POP! POP! The immediate pressure following each squeeze of the trigger momentarily silenced the rest of the horns, engines, and wind in my ears.
Mr. Fox had trained us well for much of what we’d encountered but not for this, not for losing one of our own. The car rocked like a clumsy phone booth during an earthquake. I ignored my nausea. Val wrenched the emergency brake, threading our car like a needle through oncoming traffic and onto a moor beside a bright stretch of rush-hour highway…the thick grass was more than aware of us now.
The English are far more blasé than Americans give them credit for. If we were in Texas, soccer moms and screaming teenagers would be screeching this way and that, but we zipped to and fro on the English lanes without so much as a second look, almost as if the police sirens were echoing ‘mind your bloody business!’
Val took a risk at the first break in the median and wrenched a U-turn going in the opposite direction of our pursuers. He stomped on the gas pedal, taking full advantage of our momentary separation. We exited the expressway as soon as the flashing lights disappeared from the rearview, under cover of a recently descended hill. Once off the freeway, we were back on track to our pre-mapped escape route. Our driver was a marvel, with a pulse closer to reading a book on a Sunday than in a race for his life.
My friend, fellow captive, and the chief contributor to the mission we just accomplished lay eerily still, long since passed out in my lap. I'd been talking to him, reminding him of how pathetic he'd have to be to quit now after all the hellacious struggles he'd already endured, struggles that made being stabbed in the left lung with a fountain pen seem more like a break from work than a serious injury. I spoke to him until his closed eyes and pale face were the only response to my encouragements and then I gazed out the window knowing I would probably lose my strongest ally unless something was done soon. Up ahead I could see the safe house. Maybe there’s still time.
The morning sun filtered through the half-closed blinds as we burst into the pre-rented apartment off Oldham Street and Cobb. Dom was more like a corpse now then my friend. I felt sick laying him on any other table than an operating one or God’s altar. Instead, we strew him across the kitchen table and within ten seconds, his blood covered it like a crimson tablecloth. I had no idea we had that much red inside us, but he made it seem endless.
"…You send that medic! Do it and bloody yesterday, wanka’. You’re on my time now! I’d rather not have to pay a visit to St. Catherine’s Primary School on Drury Lane…” The dead line on the other end had an effect on the atmosphere in our very room. Mr. Fox must have been calling in a favor from one of his network of undesirables, but even I felt a chill at the mention of an elementary school in the same sentence as a criminal request. He had a way of communicating that was both clever and razor sharp. His tone of voice was always filled with excitement, but rarely framed in a space where it was merited. It was almost funny if he spoke that way on purpose. He sounded like a bad friend, ‘Surprise! Your wife is cheating on you!’ or the way a disbarred doctor might explain, ‘Got some news! You’ve got a week to live!’ Despite his interest level, however, it was contrasted further by his discomforting whisper. His volume was eerie enough to cool the blood in your veins to a slurry, like hearing your name whispered at night in your bedroom, alone, within seconds of drifting towards dreamland. It was the kind of voice that made you pray the speaker didn't know where you lived or where your kids were.
Mr. Fox growled the instructions that originated from the phone white-knuckled to his ear. He had the look of a man who deeply resented going through the motions of a rescue that we all knew would fail, taking time that was beyond value to those fleeing the scene of a crime – time that compromised the entire purpose of our small mission and may render Dom's unexpected sacrifice utterly pointless. We reacted like sleepy college kids to an unplanned exam, trying to piece the how and why when we should only be focused on the ticking clock. Co shoved an Epi-pen into my hand, which I plunged into Dom’s heart. Co was trying to paste a special three-sided petroleum jelly patch on the wound itself to keep it from sucking air into the lung the wrong way, but Dom came back to life for a few seconds in a big way causing the patch to be secured to his abdomen, missing the wound altogether. This process was made all-the-more juvenile by Dom’s unconscious arms randomly swinging in large arcs like he was having a night terror about Apollo Creed, clocking me in the eye here and Val in the nose there. Note to self: read a damn book on military field surgery and pray you never have to practice what you've learned again.
Ironically, the ideal man to conduct a debunked MacGyver surgery, reusing syringes and employing I.V.'s made of salinized Aqua Pura bottles, was the pre-cadaver unraveled on the table. I would happily trade places with the man simply because I knew he'd save me if our roles were reversed. My forehead pulsed, pounding all thoughts and memory out of my mind except one, ‘do a good job!’
Levine Sikes, or "Co" as he'd come to be known, short for "Company," short for the man you'd want to be the face of your company because nothing can stick to a man like that, was the weakest in the presence of blood yet was diligently swabbing as much as he could from Dominic's gushing wound. Shirtless due to our lack of towels, his fit and scarred body would lead anyone who couldn't see his face to a very different conclusion as to what sort of man he was.
Mr. Fox swept through the three of us surrounding Dom’s limp frame and scooped him up like a football player recovering a fumble, "We're out of hea' chaps.” Just then, as if Bad-timing herself wanted to prove her worth by example, the large door downstairs snapped open and MI-6 came pouring through the opening before the splinters hit the floorboards. Blindly, we followed the pallbearer as Co lay down cover fire into the hallway to give our party the precious few seconds we needed to climb the fire escape to the roof.
Laurence Mayfair was watering her geraniums for the second time that day trying to get them to bloom. Still without success, she frowned and decided it was time to take them back to the store when she heard fireworks from somewhere below her. "Outrageous!" she whispered to herself, knowing exactly who it was breaking the apartment bylaws; her son Daniel and his friends should be setting an example, not breaking her own rules! She angrily reached for her coat and the doorknob when the unmistakable metallic clang of the fire escape rattled behind her. "Daniel! I've half a mind to..."
Laurence never finished that sentence. Instead, she crashed to her knees in shock at what she saw. As she looked on, a furious constable carrying a dummy, an unbuttoned beat cop, a shirtless runner with a gun, and a construction worker scaled the escape onto her flat and they were all covered in blood. It seemed like she could hear a little joke forming in the back of her head about an old American rock group, The Village People. She always fell to her dark sense of humor when she was nervous, but before she had time to finish her thought the crack of the constable's threatening voice fell on her like the priest's fire and brimstone sermons that terrified her as a child. Men like this made her believe in God because she was looking at the Devil.
"Look at me calfer! I need your car keys and its location or you'll look like this bloke hea', ga' it?” Laurence got it and moved mechanically and quickly, no questions asked. She walked fast to him, handed over her keys, and then pointed downstairs on the opposite side of the street at a small, yellow hybrid. Then, without waiting for a response, she lay face down on the floor and spread her arms and legs as if she knew it was unsatisfactory. A good thing for her, too, because as soon as Mr. Fox fixed his eyes on the worst luck in the history of luck, he instinctively backhanded the air where she had been standing and excruciated “Dof Doos! I bet you went an’ bought a fuel-efficient vehicle like that ‘cause it makes you feel better about being a wasteful oinka', eh?” Then, to drive his frustration home, he flipped over her gardening table, knocking her plants to the ground. Now eye-to-eye with the geraniums, Laurence caught a glimpse of a tiny bloom and smiled at the spilt dirt. I felt sick being near a man like this but sicker still at the idea of sharing showers at the local penitentiary for the rest of my life, so I said nothing.
We dropped Dom as carefully as possible into a garbage heap below the near balcony and then leapt together into the black stench that we were hoping would be soft, but wasn't. With course shouting at my back, I gripped Dom’s collar and dragged him free as we all ran for the Hot Wheels version of a car across the road.
Val, our handyman behind the wheel looked cramped as he shoved the E-brake into the release position. Mr. Fox seemed to respect him most of all. The two of them looked at each other as if making some heavy-handed decision and without a word depressed the gas pedal and their trigger fingers out the window as ten or twelve service men were falling, scrambling, and firing down the street at us.
My stomach fell and the lump in my throat tasted like the first day of school wrapped around the seconds before hearing the answer to a wedding proposal. Swerving through the narrow lane amidst oncoming traffic and pissed beat cops, the tension in our tiny car was so tangible I felt sure that if Val braked too hard my head would smack against it like a taxi partition. It was like a nightmare, watching death attacking us from every angle to find purchase and only Val's steady hands keeping the Reaper's sickle dry. Still, while Co chewed his nails to a pulp and I gripped my knees, Val looked calm, almost sleepy. Working the wheel and wrenching the emergency brake more often than the brake pedal, the man needed no advice on how to best handle our predicament. The drifting of the tires and the bumps of jumped curbs gave me the impression of a cheap carnival ride and then it happened…quietly. I realized I was having fun, looking around at the tense faces and Dom's comatose one, I was instantly ashamed that I was smiling. Smiling my ass, I’m grinning like an idiot. It had been such a long time since I had been in the company of a few good men my age that the camaraderie filled some need I'd been denying myself back in my small academic life.
I thought back to my studio and the ants there diligently working away in their farms. These little complex companions had become my focus due to their incredible capacity for weak and stupid action when singled out. In fact, get a few together and they still have no sense, but observed in the grace and fluidity of their hill or farm and their every movement has a purpose; their every choice, a carefully rationed calculation. Once they reach a critical mass of antennae sets, each ant goes from zombie to mindful engineer. The real question is not whether this happens…but how? All throughout nature, it has been documented. A bee separated from the hive falls listless and dies without the closeness of its brethren. The theory of a collective unconscious isn't new but it's been difficult to prove until…"Ow! Damn! I'm shot!" The side of my head burned like it was scraped with red-hot sandpaper.
Mr. Fox reached back without looking and gently stroked the wound, then eyed the faint amount of blood on his hand and made it clear "No you haven't! You've barely got a kiss, a bit far from the big fuck, ain't ya?” Relieved but oddly insulted, I ducked my head hoping to avoid the kind of intercourse that would lead to my final outercourse.
Looking like he was losing a game of strip poker, Co took his sweatband and put it low on my forehead to stop my small but painful injury from bleeding into my eyes. Then the car went dark and Co disappeared.
Title: Confidence Men
Age Range: 22-40
Word Count: 90,000
Author Name: Hanif S. Ali
Why it's a good fit
Many would agree that the times we live in are deeply troubled and those without firm belief systems find themselves not knowing where to look for answers on a day-to-day basis. Whether it's a school shooting in the States, to bombings in Aleppo, to drive-by's in London, Confidence Men is a tale of one place we all can find strength: in the stranger next to us. Confidence Men is not just relevant, but necessary because it takes a magnifying glass to the integrity in men's hearts. Philosophically, it skirts and explores the line between what makes a person good or evil, while simultaneously raising awareness of human trafficking, refugees and other social issues.
When four young professionals at the top of their game are blackmailed into joining the criminal underworld, only the depth of their combined intelligence and the power of the brotherhood they form stands between them and the dawn of the next World War.
If you’re orchestrating three significant heists across three countries, you’d want the very best criminals on the job – but, there’s a glaring issue: criminals, by their very nature, cut corners. The South African mercenary in charge of these heists, code name: Mr. Fox, can’t risk that behavior. So, what’s a soldier of fortune to do? Simple – abduct four high-profile figures with unparalleled skill sets and blackmail them into doing the jobs for you. The problem now? When four brilliant minds unite, even a veteran merc like Mr. Fox could turn from a predator into prey.
I have played some form of team sports for the majority of my life. Though my experiences on the field helped shape who I am, it has been my teammates throughout the years I relied on to cope with the difficulties life has thrown my way. Now, as an adult and teacher, I do not have much time for teammates and scoring goals; yet, as buildings fall, bombers and hackers attack our way of life, and the daily news feed is cluttered with chaos, climate change, terrorists and Brexit, I long for, now more than ever, that feeling of shared adversity and brotherhood to make sense of it all. Confidence Men is a book written for millennial men and women who feel like the world is out of control and wish they could physically fight back with a crack team in their corner.
Raised by a Muslim father and a Christian mother, I grew up in a house full of culture, ideas and fierce opinions in a city that consistently shelters people from every corner of the globe seeking the Happiest Place on Earth. My name is Hanif S. Ali and though I was born and raised in Orlando, FL, I feel more like a citizen of the world. I received my education at the University of Florida, graduating magna cum laude with degrees in English and Philosophy. Though my interests are eclectic – from painting to mentoring, attending concerts and physical fitness – it’s my lifelong love of reading that led me to become a media assistant in a library until I was approached to head the Composition program at a prestigious preparatory school in downtown Orlando. After several years teaching and designing curriculum, I founded a writing academy and worked to inspire other writers daily, while polishing my own craft.
My outlook on life is that of a realist and a problem solver, but my background as a philosopher adds an extra layer beneath all of my writings – a lens for those who see the bigger picture and read between the lines. From the names of my characters to the shades of gray in the hearts of my villains, there’s always something more to be found for those who are willing to look.
I have been a closet writer for nearly all of my literary life – until recently. For this reason, the social media-minded might find my platform somewhat paltry. That said, between Instagram, Facebook and Prose, I have approximately 1,200 followers, all of whom are real contacts that support me. My website is under development and can be found at www.hanifsali.com.