Andrea had been watching the mark for over a month now. Staking out all his appearances, all his ceramahs. Blending in. Shadowing his every move. And she figured tonight would be the night things took a turn for the worse.
Around her, the crowd was throbbing, heaving, murmuring. Muslims. Christians. Buddhists. Hindus. Atheists. They had poured in from all across the nation, all feverish in their desire to see the man they had come to regard as their saviour – their last, best hope for change.
Sweat dribbled down Andrea’s back, gluing her shirt to her skin, and she felt like a tiny pinball being bumped this way and that way in the human crush. Every breath was an effort. But, no, she didn’t fight the crowd. Just eased up and went with the flow.
“No way he’s coming,” a man said.
“Of course he is. He promised,” a woman said.
“Heard they are trying to kill him. That’s why he has to hide.”
“He’s not a coward. He’ll come.”
Andrea inhaled, a sharp feeling rising within her, bitter as bile, pinching her throat. The feeling of being so lonely amidst so many. Everyone was here for hope and dreams and change. But she… she was here for something else entirely.
Andrea touched her left sleeve and reassured herself that her knife was where it should be. Taped tight and ready for a quick draw. It was composite plastic – curved and serrated – and had passed through the security checks without a hitch. She figured she would get the chance to use it soon enough.
“He’s coming! He’s coming!” someone shouted.
Andrea blinked and craned her neck, straining to see past the swaying heads in front of her. The doors at the end of the convention centre popped open, and the crowd grew hushed. A long moment passed. Then the mark swanned in, bold, charismatic, larger than life, flanked by bodyguards. The national anthem swelled, and the crowd roared and surged, arms outstretched, boxing him in. The mood was dizzying. Thunderous. Like riding a wave of euphoria.
The mark grinned and waved and shook the hands of his supporters even as his entourage fought to keep him within a loose protective bubble. Some of the people broke down and wept. Others had to catch them and hold them upright.
Andrea watched, shaking her head ever so slightly. The cynical part of her mind told her that he was just another politician, adept at massaging popular sentiment. But in her heart of hearts, she knew he was different. He had languished for years in prison. Starved. Tortured. Forsaken. But he had emerged out of the darkness unbroken, unconquered, unyielding. And now… now he was ready to lead his people into a new dawn. But only if he survived tonight.
Andrea allowed the tempo of the crowd to bring her closer. The mark was exposed now. His protectors couldn’t possibly cover every angle. Too many people. Too many flailing arms. This was it. The moment of moments. With her heart thudding in her ears, her breaths quick and shallow, she scanned the people around her, searching for something that didn’t fit, something that would ping her radar.
That’s when she saw him. The pattern that didn’t fit. Stiff posture. Dark clothing. Icy intent. Like a shark cutting through the crowd, homing in on its prey. Andrea couldn’t see his hands, but she sensed he had a knife just like hers. She needed to intercept him before he intercepted the mark.
Drawing her knife, adrenalin blooming hot in her gut, Andrea exhaled – one, two, three – then elbowed past the people in her way and stretched out, going for the assassin’s throat. He must have sensed her coming because – damn it – he flinched and back-pedalled. She missed. He drew his knife, going low, aiming for her kidney. She heard the blade sing, saw it dance and caught it on the outside of her arm, feeling it rip through her sleeve, slicing her flesh. She gasped and tightened her jaw, knowing the cut was shallow, knowing the veins and tendons on the underside of her arm were safe, and she recovered and lunged, carving through the brachial artery just above the assassin’s elbow, a smooth killing stroke.
The assassin froze, his eyes locked on hers, his mouth open and shivering, before he staggered and went down, blood geysering. A woman screamed. Then someone else screamed. Then everyone was screaming.
Breathing hard, Andrea turned and caught a glimpse of the mark’s stricken face, his gratitude at her service, as his bodyguards lassoed around him and hustled him out the exit and into the night.
Andrea cradled her arm, applying pressure on the weeping wound as she melted into the panicking crowd. This country once had a dream of being one. Make us believe in it again.
Illustration by Alan Van Every
John Ling is a 28-year-old Malaysian writer based in New Zealand. By day, he works as a producer at Television New Zealand, the nation’s largest broadcaster. By night, he explores the darkest recesses of the human soul. His thriller, The Blasphemer, will be published in late 2011. Visit his website and his blog.