the short story project


The Second Man

The smell of exhaust fumes grew thicker in the still air.  The heat hung over the heads of the crowd, shimmering, ghost like, enclosing and embracing. 

The mass of humanity packed in around me, secreting their odours of garlic, sweat and tobacco and for a second the smell and the crush of people took me back to Istanbul.  Infused with centuries of intrigue, it had been the perfect place to hide and, beneath the endless chattering of mankind, the perfect place to keep a secret.

“…and yet we must speak softly,” he had said to me, my blood brother.  “…and in that quietness we will preserve freedom.”

A horn sounded from the approaching cars, and I was brought back to the present.  The crowd behind me had moved forward, and within the close ranks I was beginning to feel claustrophobic.

I took a gasp of the cloying air and tried to move back the way I had come, but found my way blocked.  I turned one way and then another, searching without success for a route through the tourists and pilgrims, who stood waiting for the procession to pass. 

I felt the resistance, looked at their faces, and knew that nobody was going to move out of place for me. These people were joined together now in a common goal, and they had started to call out for me to keep still, telling me that there was nowhere to go. 

“Be silent and calm and remember that your mission is more important than you.”  His voice had been low and dark, whispering the words of our code.  It came back to me now like the voice of my conscience.

I could remember his face as he spoke those words, in a café hidden somewhere in the blistering heat of the back streets of Istanbul.  In my mind’s eye, the dark of that smoky place made him wolf like, rangy and unkempt with his narrowed grey eyes staring out suspiciously from above his untrimmed beard.  There was something else too, a hunger, a yearning for blood. 

In the future I was to meet many others like him, passionate, unbending, needy.  Gradually I would learn to spot them and avoid their company and so become known for my cautiousness and preference for working in the background. 

Back then though, I was young and greedy for glory.  I believed I had found a hero and was proud to have been chosen to work with him.   Keen to prove myself, I agreed to travel alone to Rome on recognisance while my brother in arms crisscrossed Europe, to avoid attracting attention, on his way to our rendezvous. 

By the time he arrived I had been alone in the city for some weeks and greeted him like long lost kin.  I babbled away at him for some minutes before he pointed out that in my excitement I had slipped into our own language.

“Be careful.”  He admonished me, looking around, but I had spoken quietly and I heard the smile in his voice and knew that underneath the calm façade, his mood was as buoyant as mine.

He looked different, he wore western style clothing as I did, but his hung off his bony frame, and he was clean shaven which made him look younger and less venerable.  His eyes were the same though.  Through the sheen of anticipation they remained wary, and in their depths I could still see flashes of the wolf.

That day and into the night we talked, revising details and perfecting our plan.  When we were talked out, it was long after midnight but he refused to return with me to the hotel and share my room.  Instead he turned to walk in the opposite direction, as he used to after our meetings in Istanbul. 

“Where will you sleep?”  I called after him.

He walked back to me.  “We are brothers.”  He said, “but we are not equals, and we cannot be friends.  If I fall in pursuit of our goal, you will forget me.”

He raised his hand as I started to protest “You will forget me,” he repeated, “because I am not like you.  You will never do this again, but I can never stop.” 

His words stung my pride and again I started to protest, but he shook his head at me.

“Don’t be offended.  There are other ways to serve and you will find your place as I have found mine.”

As he spoke, his eyes blazed with fever.  With a final nod, he turned away from me and disappeared into the darkness with our secret.


The next day, we joined the crowds around the edge of St Peter’s Square.  At lunch time the crowds grew thicker as people settled down to relax, eating sandwiches, chatting and enjoying the beautiful weather before the afternoon tours and programmes.  We stayed watchful, waiting for a rumour.

“It will start slowly,” he had said.  “With a whisper that will build in strength.  You must listen and feel for the change.  Be sensitive to the reaction of the people.  They will know when.”

It took three days to come, a vibration in the air, like music without sound.  I looked over at my brother and saw he had raised his head and was sniffing the air. 

Soon, the whole square was alive with it.  The sun soaked stupor of the lunch-hour took on a sharper edge as the mood changed.  There was a collective movement towards the centre and I felt its strangeness, the first harmony of a multitude that had become as one.

“It’s time.”  He said and moved his face to mine as though he were going to kiss me. 

“…for the preservation of freedom, my brother,” he whispered, and a jolt of excitement went through me. 

I tried to speak, but the words caught in my throat.  Then it was too late, he was gone into the mass which was closing in around me.

A cry went up suddenly from somewhere to my right, and the sound of engines came towards me.  On the sighing breaths of those upwind came the sound of chanting as the crowd recited ‘Hail Marys’ over and over in a jumble of languages, erecting a wall of prayer around the central car as it passed. 

It was impossible to move.  I had been sucked into the middle of the flock and hemmed in, my body swaying with the ripples of the crowd in a kind of weird dance, with my arms pinned to my sides.  The smell of anticipation now mixed with the already heady stench and I felt my gorge rise.  I turned my head searching for clearer air, and saw him standing three bodies away, his hair a dark crown shining in the fiery sun.

He turned his face to me, as though he had known I was there all the time and I could see droplets of sweat, sparkling like scattered pearls on his face.  I opened my mouth to shout to him, but after all the words that we had spoken, I could think of nothing else to say.

The cars were crawling past now, like a snake through water as the crowd divided; so close that I have could touched them.  My hands were released and I raised them to my mouth.  I could feel my breath, hot and wet on my skin as I stood frozen at the edge of the swell of moving people, watching him. 

He took a step forward. 

“You must be one of the crowd. You must be unremarkable, invisible, forgettable.”

This had been my first lesson, taught to me like a creed. 

“Don’t make eye contact, step back into shadow, keep your head down.”

But the time for anonymity had passed.  Now he was an individual separated from the host; and the torrential sun sprayed light, like paint, down the side of the gun in his hand. 

I was aware of faces in the crowd looking confused, and of the uncertainty of the bodyguards riding shotgun, who stared blankly at the solitary figure. 

It seemed strange that this deed, which had blocked out my sun with its shadow for so long, should not be recognised when it came.  But when that recognition finally lit the faces of the soldiers and the pilgrims it was too late, for by then he had fired six shots into the space between two worlds and stepped back to admire his work.

There was a pause like a missed heartbeat and then a roar as the cars burst into life and sped through the square, the man inside the central one bleeding out as he lay on the floor, blanketed in dark suits.  Then, as the crowd blew apart, two people stepped forward and held him.  He looked across at me, as all three melted backwards into the confusion around them, and his face, strained and white, formed itself into a smile which he passed to me like a gift.

The crowd was now a screaming mob, running like panicked animals from the bullets which had broken the spell.  In the chaos, a woman stumbled into me and I caught her by instinct, rather than any good intention, as she fell.  Her weight dragged my attention down and I saw with a shock that I had blood on my hands.  She had been struck by one of the bullets and was bleeding heavily. I lowered her to the ground and laid her inert body across my lap.  She watched me with eyes that were full of pain.

I glanced around, but the piazza had emptied with remarkable speed and we were now almost alone. The few people who still wandered about, seemed inconsequential, like shell shocked ghosts, and the vast space silent and cruel after the intensity of the past hour. 

“Help me!”  It came out as a half whisper on the tail end of a breath. 

I just looked at her, holding her still as she tried to move, wondering if I should leave her and go for help or stay with her as she died.

“I believe in God,” she said.  Her voice edged with desperation as though she were asking for absolution.

I nodded and tried to think of something to say.  Then I realised that she was trying to continue.

“…the father, the almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” Her voice broke and her eyes now looked at me pleadingly, as though willing me to continue.

I swallowed and shook my head “I don’t know the words,” I whispered.

She closed her eyes and I wondered if she was reciting inside her head.  I watched as her life flowed away across the ground and mixed with the blood of the Holy Father.  From here I felt that I could see the blood of many, scattered in great pools across the paving stones, like a string of tears.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *