Summer was here and so were the bugs. Sarah swatted at a wasp as she hopped off the city bus and headed along the pavement. When the flying menace refused to flee, she gritted her teeth and stopped walking. “Piss off!” she snarled, but the wasp only seemed further aroused by her frustration. As it dove at her head for the third time, Sarah snatched it out of the hair and crushed it in her fist. The dickish creature managed to get off its stinger before it died, but the piercing pain in her palm was worth the satisfaction of feeling its tiny body crunch beneath her fingers. She threw its dead carcass to the pavement and resumed her journey. Shit happens, Mr Wasp.
As Sarah marched through the high street, she could have ignored the frequent glances from strangers — it would have been the normal thing to do — but instead, she met their leering stares until they were forced to look away. If they wanted to stare at her, then she had the right to stare back at them. Either that or they could pay her money for the freakshow.
It didn’t take Sarah long to reach the bank. It was in the middle of Birmingham’s busy Corporation Street and barely a hundred yards from the bus stop she had gotten off at. The thing that would sap her time, was the ridiculously long queue winding from the bank’s entrance all the way to the two lonely tellers at the far end of the room. Sarah noticed the four vacant serving windows and hissed. She looked at the exposed arse of the fat woman queueing in front of her and hissed. She looked at the sticky, snot-nosed toddler, running around and making noise, and hissed. Sarah hated the bank.
The pudgy toddler spotted her face and gawped at her with a mixture of confusion and horror. Sarah bared her teeth in an unfriendly grimace until the child tottered away to its ignorant mother, who was too busy with her iPhone to give a shit.
If Sarah could have helped it, she would do away with her quarterly bank trips. All other aspects of her life she dealt with via the Internet or over the phone, but she had no choice but to come into the city once every three months to pay in her foreign cheques for US dollars. The money came from the Department of Defense: her widows benefit and insurance payments for the loss of her husband. He was from Jackonsville, Florida and she was from Warwick, yet somehow they had found each other. A Hellfire missile had parted them before their lives had truly even got started.
“Come on,” Sarah mumbled as the line moved down by a single body. She hated being in public. Other people frustrated her. They strolled about in their stupors, squawking about things which didn’t matter and filling their faces with deep-fried death, all the while believing themselves to be the centre of the universe. Sarah didn’t understand what counted as the human race. Surely she was the normal one? But no, she seemed to be the outsider looking in at a species that made very little sense to her.
Was I always like this? Her wasp sting was itching so she ran her rough nails over her palm. No, I was different once, before I got crushed like a wasp and left to die. Suddenly she regretted having crushed the flying insect, who no doubt had had things tougher than her, but she willed the guilt away. There was enough to deal with for now. Like waiting for this friggin queue to get moving.
A handsome businessman strolled away from the tellers after having been seen. He smiled at Sarah as he passed, but once he got close enough to see the far side of her face, he switched his gaze to the floor and sped up. He may as well have run screaming, Sarah thought to herself as she let our a sigh. Lots of men would often give her a smile if they caught her good side, but as soon as they glimpsed the left side of her face their stomachs would turn and they acted like they’d accidentally flirted with a lizard. They would make their quick exits and try to disguise the shame written across their faces with an awkward smile, but it was always obvious. It had gotten to a point where Sarah didn’t even consider making polite conversation anymore. Her scars made it impossible.
The queue inched forward another foot. Sarah shuffled along irritably. It was a Monday morning. Didn’t the bank expect to have so many customers? What made it worse was that Sarah could clearly see another three members of staff hanging around in the office area behind the serving window. One guy swigged coffee and chuckled at the jokes of his colleagues, while less then twenty feet away a queue of a dozen sweating people wasted minutes of their lives waiting to be acknowledged. It made Sarah think about what had happened yesterday morning, about the bomb that had gone off in the village of Clitheroe. Were all those people hanging around just like this, thinking everything was normal? Did they even see it coming? I never saw it coming…. I didn’t know what had happened until I opened my eyes and found myself hanging upside down.
Sarah had visited Clitheroe once upon a time. It was a little place outside Manchester. It had a lovely little Italian place that served the best Ravioli she’s ever tasted. She had eaten there with her husband the night before they were due to catch a flight out from the city’s airport. It had been a nice, friendly little hamlet. Sarah had been shocked to see it littered with bodies on the evening news last night. Sarah had picked up most of the details on this morning’s news, but did her best not to dwell. She tried not to pay attention to the grim realities of the world. It was a habit of hers, though, to take an interest in events, whether she liked to or not.
The news had reported that a disgruntled pensioner was behind the attack, but that just raised more questions than it answered. Like how does a retired postal worker learn how to make a nail bomb? And why attack Clitheroe? Most people haven’t even heard of the place.
The line of bank customers shuffled up another half step. Four of the six serving windows were still empty. The guy in the back was still sipping coffee with his two colleagues.
Sarah had suffered enough. She exited the line and marched towards the window. She ignored the two exhausted tellers actually doing their jobs and bashed on the glass of one of the vacant serving booths. “Hey, d’you think you might come out and do your jobs for a while? There’s a few people waiting out here, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
There were a few chuckles from the people standing in the queue, but mostly awkward silence. Sarah knew most people didn’t like confrontation, but they were downright scared of it when it came from her. A person with a face covered in scars could be capable of anything. Why, Sarah might just grab the unattended toddler and eat him, for all that they knew. Yum yum yum, snot-nosed toddler.
The guy with the coffee ambled towards the window like a swaggering cowboy. He was wearing a cheap suit with garish cufflinks that he clearly thought were stylish. His badge read: ASSISANT BRANCH MANAGER. Sarah wondered if the idiot had noticed the spelling mistake as quickly as she had, or not at all.
When the man noticed the scars on her face, he stumbled mid-step, but recovered well enough to make it up to the window as if he hadn’t even noticed. “Ma’am, you need to join the queue.” He spoke to her as if she were a child.
“I did join the queue, but I’m worried that by the time you people get to me I may have joined the afterlife.”
There were more chuckles from the queue, but still mostly awkward silence.
“Ma’am, if you won’t join the line and wait to be served, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“And I’m going to have to ask you to kiss my ass. All these people are waiting and you’re standing around and having a chat. Perhaps it’s time to get to work, you think?”
The Assisant Branch Manager adjusted his tie and looked down his nose at her. “I’m now asking you to leave, ma’am.”
Sarah folded her arms. “So you’re not going to let me cash the cheque that I get from the US Army for my dead, blown-up husband? Is that what you’re saying? What about the money I get for losing half my face? Will you not help me with that? I understand that you like coffee, but I need my money to live.”
The man shifted uncomfortably. “I’m…very sorry to hear about that, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to leave if you’re going to be difficult. Please call our customer services number if you have a complaint.”
Sarah moved her face right up to the glass so that the smarmy sod could get a good look at her. “I’m not the one being difficult, mate. Don’t you people get paid enough to not treat your customers like a nuisance? Your job is to serve us but you make it seem like you’re doing us a favour. We give you our money and you act like it’s yours. We ask for it back and you make us jump through hoops. You fine and charge us every chance you get, then refuse to explain why, as if we should just accept that you make the rules. Well, let me tell you something, Mr Assisant Manager, I got my face blown off fighting in a foreign country so that oil companies and fat cat bankers like your bosses could keep their big houses and shiny sports cars; so when I say get your slimy arse out here right now and do your friggin job, I think I’m bloody well entitled to say so.”
There was an outright cheer from the queue now. It was an unexpected turn of events, but the other customers were solidly behind her. The Assisant Manager was not, however. He nodded over Sarah’s shoulder as if he were Caesar having a slave executed. Sarah span around to see a wide-shouldered security guard stomping towards her. With his bald head and tattoos, he looked silly in the smart uniform they’d given him.
“Ma’am, you’ve been asked to leave.”
“And yet I’m still here. Whatever should we do?”
More chuckles. The crowd were egging her on, eager to see what happened. Sarah rolled her eyes. Happy to let a disfigured freak entertain them for a while.
“You need to leave,” said the guard, giving her his best impression of a snarling bear.
Sarah waved a hand. “And you need to take a breath mint.”
“Ma’am,” the guard reached out his hand and tried to grab her shoulder.
Without thinking about it, Sarah grabbed the guard’s hand and twisted it. She yanked him one way and then the other, flipping him over his own wrist. It was a basic Aikido throw and one which had become second-nature to her. Like riding a rusty old bike.
The guard rose up to a sitting position and looked about dazedly. He wasn’t hurt, but was more than a little surprised. Sarah stood over him and snarled. “I’d advise against standing up, mate, or else I’m going to have to make a deposit up your arse with my foot.”
The queue of customers cheered loudly. Their bloodlust was up and the violence had excited them. Sarah had seen enough mobs to know how people’s morals soon changed when their neighbours acted up. It was time to leave. She had made her point.
Sarah looked back at the stunned Assisant Manager behind the glass and pointed a finger at him. “Get your name badge replaced, dickhead. It gives away how much of an idiot you are.” Then she strolled out of the bank and into the crisp air of late-May, wondering how the hell she was going to get by without her cheque being cashed. Maybe if I come back tomorrow they won’t remember me.
She picked up pace and hurried away from the bank. If they called the police she wouldn’t be hard to identify. Heavily-scarred women wearing jeans and work boots were pretty easy to spot. The last thing she needed was to spend an afternoon in the nick. Hopefully, the bank staff would just forget about it. The guard had put his hands on her first.
But it didn’t take long before Sarah was sure she was being followed.
The man was staying far back, slipping behind pedestrians and remaining close to the various market stalls that lined the middle of the high street, but Sarah knew when she was being tailed. Every time she looked back at him, he looked away and pretended to be busy with his phone or the produce of the nearest market stall. He wore a grey woollen jacket that made him look like a middle-class car salesman, rather than a police officer or security guard. So why the hell is he following me?
Sarah slid into an alleyway between two estate agents and headed around the back of the high street. There were only parking spaces and a dingy hairdressers back there, but she was in no mood for a hair cut and she didn’t own a car. She picked up speed and glanced back over her shoulder. The man could make no secret of following her now. His footsteps echoed on the tarmac behind her, keeping pace rather than trying to catch up. He was apparently in no rush to catch her.
Sarah rounded a brick wall that sectioned off the parking yard for the bank — of all places — and slid herself behind a large steel wheelie bin. Her pursuer would have seen her sneak around the wall, but not around the bin. What does he want? So I made a scene at the bank? Is that really so serious? Bloody bankers think they’re above the law. How dare anybody question them, right?
The stranger approached, his footsteps growing louder. Sarah crouched down and waited.
Clip clop clip clop.
The man was close, definitely coming for her.
Sarah took a breath….
She leapt up from behind the wheelie bin and swung her leg around in a flying roundhouse. It was a knockout blow, designed to end the confrontation before it even had chance to start. If the stranger was indeed some kind of off-duty police officer then taking his head off was probably a bad idea, but he’d asked for it when he started with the cloak and dagger bullshit.
The stranger ducked Sarah’s leg and swept her feet out from under her as she landed. So surprised was she, that her head struck the concrete on the way down and left her lying there in a daze.
“Captain Stone,” said the stranger. “I prefer to shake hands upon meeting, but I am open to other customs too. Would you like to get up and try something easier?”
Sarah gazed up at the man and saw that he was grizzled, yet handsome. His chin jutted out like a superhero’s and his sideburns looked like they’d been cut with a buzz saw. Not a single crease had found its way onto his finely-tailored shirt. This guy is certainly not a plod. He called me ‘Captain.’
Sarah shoved herself backwards into a roll and sprung to her feet. She leapt at the man again, this time opting for fists. Her first blow missed, glancing sideways off a blocking forearm. Her follow up blows hit only air as the man jinked and twisted out of the way of them. He compounded her humiliation by once again sweeping her legs out from under her.
Sarah wasted no time in leaping back up this time and launched straight into another attack. This time the man pulled a gun from the inside of his woollen jacket and pointed it at her forehead. “You’re testing my patience, Captain Stone. Please, calm down.”
She let her fists drop to her sides. “Who the hell are you?” she demanded.
“You can call me Howard.”
Sarah frowned. The man didn’t look like a ‘Howard.’ “What do you want with me…Howard?”
“Just an afternoon of your time.”
“Sorry, I’m busy.” Sarah went to turn away.
“Busy with what? Cashing the pittance that the US Government begrudgingly pays you? Or the marginally more generous giro the British Government gives to you for taking half your face?”
Sarah snarled at the man. The mention of her scars seemed to make them tingle. Her left eye blinked sorely where the pink creases met her eyelid. “You know nothing.”
“I know that you made a fine Captain until an IED took your face on the same day that a British ASM mistakenly took your heart. I know that you have been slinking around for the last eighteen months like a feral fox, snapping at anybody who comes too close. I know you’re angry, Sarah.”
Sarah let out a breath through her nose and ended up snorting like a bull. “So what,” she said. “Half the world is angry. The other half are pussies. What’s it to you?”
Howard looked at her — really looked at her. It had been a long time since any man could keep his eyes on Sarah for more than two seconds. When he spoke, he spoke like an old friend. “I can give you the chance to do some good again, Sarah; to take down the bad guys who are responsible for the kind of monstrous acts that ruin lives, like the one that ruined yours. I’m giving you a chance to pull yourself out of that pit of despair you’ve found yourself in and have some purpose again.”
“Who are you?” she asked again. She was getting tired of the fluffy talk and wanted straight answers. “Who do you work for?”
“An agency you’ve never heard of. An agency whose job it is to keep this country safe.
“Go to Hell.”
“I work for the Government.”
Sarah smiled. “Oh, well, why didn’t you say so? In that case, you can go to Hell twice.” She went to walk away again.
“That bomb that went off on Sunday….”
Sarah stopped walking and laughed spitefully. “Yeah, good job at protecting the country there. How many were there who died?”
“Forty-two. The people responsible have owned up to it.”
“I heard it was some old geezer with a grudge.” Sarah tried, once again, to walk away.
“It was,” said Howard. “The grudge was his, but the bomb came from Shab Bekheir.”
Sarah froze. For a moment she could not move at all. Slowly, she managed to turn around and face Howard. “You’re telling me that Good Night, a terrorist cell from Afghanistan is responsible for a pensioner blowing up a village in Lancashire?” She couldn’t help but laugh. It was ridiculous.
But Howard seemed completely serious. “We received a videotape this morning taking credit for the attack. Al Al-Sharer made the claim himself.” Sarah’s eyes went wide. Her scars stretched and itched. The wasp sting on her palm throbbed. “That’s right,” said Howard. “Al Al-Sharir, the man responsible for the IED that hit your squad. You’re the only one who survived, right?”
Sarah shook her head. “No, I died too.”
Howard sighed and nodded thoughtfully. “Fancy a chance at getting even?”
Sarah didn’t have to think about it. She nodded. “Where are we going?”
Howard grinned. “Some place no one knows about.”
Sarah was about to ask what he meant when a door suddenly opened at the back of the car park. A man stepped out of the bank’s rear exit and stepped onto the tramac. To Sarah’s surprise, it turned out to be the Assisant Manager, stepping out for a cigarette while the bank’s queue no doubt still trailed out of its doors.
Sarah looked at Howard and let out a long sigh. “Just let me deal with this arsehole, and then I’ll be right with.”
Howard seemed confused, but shrugged his shoulders and said, “Okay.”
When the Assisant Manager saw Sarah coming towards him, he seemed at first surprised, then worried, but he chose to stand his ground, chest puffed up like a peacock. Men never ran from a woman; they always felt like they were the ones with the power in any situation.
Sarah kicked the smug git in the bollocks, then turned and walked back over to Howard. “Okay,” she said to him. “Now we can go.”