“Labels aren’t really important to me.”

Book II – Prologue: “Love in the Time of Drone Strikes”

“God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart forever; the vulture the very creature he creates.”

– Herman Melville



The Midwest Theatre

Major Edward Blythe was of the opinion that karaoke was not meant to be performed in an enclosed space, boxed off from the agony and joy of public humiliation. Ordered to take his unit off for a week, he’d torn up the suburbs of St. Louis looking for the perfect bar. Even in the most bombed-out scorched-earth rathole, there was always a bar.

A basement dive named Cindy’s had kept the lights on for him, mostly through the necessity of providing shelter from the drone strikes. The owners were of good American rye stock, friendly to all manner of interloper. They wanted nothing to do with what they referred to as DTs, and what Edward’s own soldiers now referred to as H’atch L’s in honour of a previous commander’s unreconstructed cockney. 

Edward had undertaken to become a regular, slowly introducing his team into the background, appropriately dressed down for the occasion. There was no hiding their British origin once they opened their beastly mouths, even if they were ostensibly there under a UN peacekeeping banner. He’d made it clear to his people that when on holiday, they’d better leave their weapons at the billet or else forgo the privilege of getting to know the locals, recreationally or otherwise.

“If you must apply sanctions, my darlings,” he’d said. “Elbow grease.”

Sanctions was their preferred euphemism for any unscheduled but necessary killing. They’d been lucky so far that none of their active domestic terror targets were clever or bold enough to make some kind of strategic attempt to assay their positions. These kids with their Walmart cammies and 3D printed guns preferred hunting innocent people with a laptop or a mobile phone, anywhere they could connect to a black site internet server. It was a game to them, almost literally — Edward had been briefed on the dark web operational platforms, designed to look and feel like video games. Only in this world, the people the hacked rampaging cars mowed down were real. The neat little puzzles, when “solved”, overloaded power boxes and the resulting fires levelled whole towns. It was getting worse by the day.

He wondered how such tactics could be so pathetic, so tawdry, and yet so effective. But then, he was of the old school. This new generation of run-and-hide terrorist had no respect for the old ways. As a consequence, when forced into a real confrontation, they weren’t very effective in a fight against military trained special forces. Knockoff army surplus kevlar looked good, but didn’t do much good against his snipers. Doubly so when the Patriot Act, that old chestnut, had been resurrected in order to deprive the insurgents of habeas corpus and all of those other little democratic goodies. The concluding words of Edward’s brief had been at your discretion. Music to his ears.

Many of the so-called “Heartlanders” were local, and had failed to get out of the city before the bombing had started, unaware that they were on Edward’s growing list. The secret joint chiefs at the UN had titled it Operation Pretty Penny and set it up as an officially nonexistent counterterrorism mission dedicated exclusively to popping caps in some very angry and opinionated young men, most of whom were not all that clever at concealment.

They chose their hiding places by cultural instinct rather than common sense. The most recent mission had involved the pursuit of a suburban cyberterrorist through a recently abandoned Best Buy. The kid had a semi-automatic, and they’d played a neat little game of hide and seek on the sales floor, filling the big screens with bullet holes while the fifty-odd images of The Wizard of Oz played on under shattered glass. 

They’d cornered the idiot in the kitchen section. Edward, whose sense of the theatrical often bordered on camp, waited until he was sure their target’s Glock was empty, then slid out from behind a double-wide Whirlpool smart refrigerator, put his mouth to the young man’s ear and whispered, “Do you believe in spooks?”

The kid let out a satisfyingly high pitched scream and tried to run, but the unit medic was waiting for him at the other end of the display. She flipped open the brushed steel freezer door and bounced it off his forehead, dropping him like a stone.

After having explained his reference to his culturally illiterate young fighters, Edward ordered the target bagged and tagged for Air America, the revived airborne interrogation facilities that the CIA used to play silly buggers with the Geneva Convention. A helicopter would take this one to the airbase, and based on Edward’s information, the agents would make up their own minds about whether their prisoner had any intelligence value to them, or whether he was going for a swim in international waters. Brutal, but he didn’t blame these officers. All of them had been targeted. It wasn’t his business. It wasn’t really his fight. It was a job, one he enjoyed and was good at. The politics weren’t really his concern. 

Cindy’s, so far, had not disappointed him. They were compliant, diligent about keeping their bar wet, and they had even maintained the customs of Trivia Night, Movie Night and best of all, karaoke, the latter of which was dear to his heart. 

“It’s like a blowjob,” he’d explained as he’d indoctrinated the newer members of the team. “Sloppy and self-effacing beats precision.”

He favoured big band tunes, having inherited a love of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet from his Kuwaiti grandfather. He didn’t do too terribly bad a job at the classics himself, though his singing voice was really too reedy to match their full bodied richness.

On that particular evening, with a solid five whisky bourbons in him — and a designated subordinate — he treated fifteen locals and his own now-long suffering soldiers to an uncanny Sid Vicious style belt out of French Foreign Legion. That was his cap for the night, and he half-staggered, half stalked to his preferred booth near the door. 

The seats were low, so he had a full if slightly blurred view of the man seated the next booth over. He had a notebook out and was scribbling in it, but his bespectacled face was raised to the shabby little stage so that the digital neon lights crawled over his rectangular lenses, obscuring the eyes behind them. He wasn’t much older than Edward, but his curly dark hair had streaks of pewter grey, visible even in the bar’s fuggy murk. He was unshaven, too, his long angular face due for a razor by at least two days.

From where he was sitting, Edward could tell the oversized ragged olive canvas coat hanging over the man’s shoulders was not in fact military surplus, but designer, and would’ve set him back by several hundred pounds. How he knew he was British, and English to boot, was one of the mysteries Edward simply accepted about himself. He knew people, and that gift had served him well as a commander in the field. 

This one was a newshound, a war correspondent likely showing a bit of ankle to whatever news outlet would keep him in lattes and craft beer. When he ducked his head, the lights slid off the lenses of his glasses and Edward caught a glance of his dark sleep-deprived eyes, his gently furrowed brow. The chunky glasses provided him with the defence of intellectual appearance, but underneath was a countenance that spoke of a nature that walked from danger backwards — never turning, always witnessing.

Edward found all of this appealing, but what really got him, reached into him and set a hook in his heart, was the thing the journo was doing with his left hand as he wrote. Up on stage, Edward’s best sniper was committing crimes against sound with an old Amy Winehouse tune. The man at the booth over didn’t seem negatively affected by her caterwauling, but was instead tapping along, his fingers working invisible piano keys with perfect time.

Warm within his aura of intoxication, Edward couldn’t help staring in fascination, and evidently was doing so quite openly, because after a few moments the journalist looked up from his notebook, his articulate eyebrows raised over his black rimmed specs, his whole face an enticing question mark.

“Can I help you?” he asked in an accent marking him at once as what Edward thought of as public school poor, being of the set himself. 

“I rather think you can,” Edward said, intending to give his best sly smile, but it only pulled at the corners of his face. He stared, feeling warmth come to his cheeks.

Blink once for yes.

He wiped the bourbon sweat off his palm and offered his hand. The reporter’s eyes moved up his arm, searching his tan SAS issue casual jacket for insignia, but finding nothing but his stripes, which might have been merely affected decor. Still, it was clear he wasn’t fooled. The hand that gripped Edward’s was firm and dry. 

“Gregory Wright,” he said with a tightly choreographed smile Edward suspected he kept especially for the members of the unauthorized special forces, a phylum with which he was clearly familiar. 

“Edward Blythe.”

It occurred to Edward that speaking to a journalist in his state while also chaperoning a delinquent gaggle of officially nonexistent professional murderers was possibly not the best strategy for operational secrecy. Then, that concern brilliantly dovetailed itself into a perfect pretence from which to dislodge the unfortunate professional from the comfortable little office he’d made for himself in his booth.

Edward jerked his head back towards the exit. “Mind if we have a word?”

Gregory sighed the sigh of a reporter about to be officially maneuvered out of a story, gathered his things and rose. He seemed to be even more confirmed in his suspicion as Edward went ahead of him, scoping the alley out for witnesses and threats. 

“Listen,” Gregory said as he shoved his notebook into his satchel with unwonted force. “I got the Foreign Office memo, my story’s got nothing to do with your outfit. So can we just go back to enjoying our evenings?”

“I intend to,” Edward informed him in a low voice, making it an open invitation.

Gregory’s eyebrow shot up, and his lips parted, just the merest concession to what was evidently total surprise. Edward didn’t blame him — he didn’t read as queer, and the uniform, which often masked his sexuality even further, stayed close to his skin even when it was at the cleaners.

“Are you… picking me up?” Gregory asked uncertainly, glancing around as though searching around for his lost credulity.

Edward shrugged. “Up, down, left, right. Labels aren’t really important to me.”

A drone zipped overhead, audible to Edward’s trained ears as a surveillance unit, grazing for fresh fodder. Gregory’s eyes rose to it, catching the beam of it as it travelled over the skeletal ruins of the Target that had once occupied the adjacent corner. 

“They’re just looking for a show,” Edward reassured Gregory. Then surprised his mark with a hard kiss, pressing him bodily back against the singed brick. He pulled back to evaluate the results of this opening gambit, looking into wide eyes, appreciating the slightly reddened speechless mouth.

Gregory surprised Edward right back, pulling him close, hands greedy, deft fingers closing in his hair. There was something desperate in him, not desperate for Edward’s attentions, but something deeper that Edward recognized as war fatigue particular to the civilian witness. Too much time looking at death down the telescopic lens.

Edward let his lips find the texture of downy hairs along the other man’s jaw, smelling like the spicy lemon conditioner he’d used in it, delighted to find the rough look was for effect. The vanity of this just made Edward want him even more.

“It’ll have to be your place,” he said in a low voice, smiling against the parted lips.

“It’s not far.”