This is the tenth round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “J”.
Readers have until the publication of the next round of stories (about two weeks between rounds) to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the first of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “J” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — (E. J. D’Alise)
(2,774 words – approx. reading time: about 11 minutes based on 265 WPM)
He remembered a different life, a different place; remembered as if outside himself, as if looking at a scene from a movie . . .
~ o ~ o ~
The boy was scared. His back against the wall, his legs futilely trying to push him through it, he could do little but watch the Raider advance toward him.
In response to a primitive instinct that would serve him poorly in this instance, his body froze, and only his eyes tracked the movement of the Raider’s arm raising the machete it held.
He closed his eyes and . . . CRACK!
Pelted by dirt and shard of pottery, the boy opened his eyes.
The Raider was crumpled at his feet, the remnants of a flower pot adorning the masked head, the dead flower in a clump of dirt standing as a fitting decoration for a few seconds before toppling to the other side of the head.
The boy looked up . . .
“Get up and get in here,” the girl yelled. “I don’t have any more flower pots!”
Her head disappeared from the window only to quickly reappear.
“And bring the machete after you kill him,” she added.
The boy looked down at the pool of blood forming under the Raider’s head. Grabbing the machete, he ran into the house, the girl now holding the previously locked door open for him.
“Did you kill him?” she asked.
“He looks dead,” the boy answered.
With a stern look, she grabbed the machete from his hand and ran out. The boy heard the sound of two strikes, then a pause, and one more. He looked out and saw the girl wipe the machete on the Raider’s clothes before running back in, closing the door, and replacing the crossbar.
“Come,” she said. “We must get out before they start burning the town.” Without waiting, she headed toward the stairs. Only, instead of going up, she went down into the cellar.
He had yet to move when her head reappeared.
“Fine, you can stay here,” she said, “but at least hide.” Her head then disappeared.
This time, he followed. The cellar was no more than a small cool place to store some food, and the boy saw no place to hide, but the girl was pushing on one of the walls.
“Help me push,” she said.
They ran through a tunnel revealed when the wall opened like a door and then onto a path that led them to an overlook atop the hill, reaching it just as the Raiders were setting fires and leaving.
The girl turned to the boy.
“My name is Lisa, but everyone calls me Jaguar.”
That was the first time she saved his life.
~ o ~ o ~
After the Raiders left, they made their way back to the smoldering remains of the town. Other survivors milled about, some crying, some in shock, some angry.
That’s where The Watch was born. Both Jaguar and the boy joined and began training. The old man who mentored them knew Jaguar, and he accepted the boy as her companion. Within a few days, the old man named the boy Sparrow, citing something about spirit animals.
“Spirit animals?” Sparrow asked.
“Yes,” the old man replied. “Your traits; who you are and what guides you. The animal can visit you in a dream, or you see one, or someone names it for you. Your spirit animal is a Sparrow.”
“What does it mean?” Sparrow asked.
“It means you are fearless, confident, and responsible. You are a natural-born leader.”
The boy said nothing, his thoughts filled with the realization he was none of those things.
“And Jaguar?” he asked after a brief silence.
“She is powerful, courageous, strong, and protector of the feeble and downtrodden,” the old man said.
“That fits,” the boy said.
Over the next few months, Jaguar and Sparrow learned the tools and ways of The Watch; knives, guns, hand-to-hand, strategy, and more. Sparrow learned well, but Jaguar was better.
She was better because once committed to something, she executed without hesitation and never looked back.
Sparrow was nearly as good, but he always looked back at the lives lost, friend or foe.
It was a brutal world that forged them and drove their actions, but Sparrow never forgot he was a human interacting with other humans. That “looking back”, that awareness of the humanity of both friends and foes, is what eventually rose Sparrow to lead The Watch, fulfilling the old man’s prophecy and surprising himself in the process.
Jaguar became Sparrow’s right hand, the one holding the sword. The difficult tasks? She completed them, without questions, trusting in Sparrow’s vision.
The Watch went about the task of destroying the Raiders, taking the fight to their strongholds both by land and sea until the final battle was set to take place at the capital, thousands of fighter poised on each side for a fight to the death.
But it wasn’t so.
The governing body of the Raiders offered to relinquish authority in exchange for a voice in the new government.
It was the only time Jaguar questioned one of Sparrow’s decisions. His decision to accept the offer.
“You cannot trust them,” she said. “They should be wiped out, eradicated.”
“Think of the loss of life,” Sparrow replied. “Think how many of our own we’ll lose.”
“We’re prepared for the sacrifice. The Watch has already paid a heavy price in lives, and that sacrifice will be for naught if we stop short.”
Sparrow should have paused and considered his words, but, uncharacteristically, he replied in anger.
“I carry the weight of that sacrifice, not you. You shed the burden of the lives we lose and the lives we take as if water from a duck’s back,” he said. “You have no . . .”
Sparrow stopped, hearing the import of his words as if spoken by someone else. The words were true, but only as they concerned himself.
He had no right to assume if or how Jaguar carried her burden just because she never shared it. In that, as in many other things, she was much stronger than he was. On the outside.
Hearing his words as she stood in front of him, the mask had slipped. Just a little, but at that moment, Sparrow knew her burden was as great and perhaps greater than his own.
He was about to speak, but the mask snapped back on, showing only the resolute visage of the Jaguar. No fear, no sorrow, nothing to deter from one’s goal; a weapon to be wielded . . . only now, he knew her to be a much deeper-thinking weapon.
“Is that what you think of me?” she asked.
But she didn’t wait for an answer. She turned and left.
And not just left; she was gone. Jaguar was nowhere to be found.
She wasn’t there for the official transfer of power, the disbanding of The Watch, for Sparrow’s inauguration, or any of the other milestones: setting up the representative governing body, the judicial arm of the government, and consolidating the various military entities under one joint command.
That had been ten years ago, and now, as Sparrow sat alone in his official residence, he realized how right she’d been.
The Raiders had played the long game, and they’d played it well. Subterfuge, behind-the-scenes deals, influence peddling, compromises made in bad faith . . . all working to this moment. The moment when a malevolent focused minority — using the very tools meant to ensure justice and equality — was on the verge of taking the reins of power from the majority, wresting them from his hands. It wasn’t for himself that he grieved, but for his unrealized dream for his people.
~ o ~ o ~
“And here I am,” Sparrow spoke aloud in the empty room, his focus returning to the present.
The evening was quiet for the first time in months.
The staged demonstrations had accomplished their task. They forced the hand of the governing body toward concessions that in a day would hand the power to protégés of the old Raiders’ guard; politicians and officials they had groomed and placed in critical positions of the judiciary, military, and some even inside his circle of advisers.
They spoke of being for the people and condemned Sparrow for the very problems they had orchestrated. What they hadn’t accomplished by guile, they’d achieved with threats, blackmail, and the occasional murder. Not that it could be proven, given that the investigative arm was under their control.
A soft knock, a head peering from behind the door . . .
“They’re here. Should I show them in?” his aide asked.
Sparrow nodded and went to sit behind the desk; a simple desk meant to remind the person behind it of their, and the country’s, roots. He supposed it would be replaced by some ornate monstrosity befitting whichever monster would soon sit in his place.
Two men and a woman walked in.
These were the people pulling strings. The puppeteers behind the scenes; between them, they controlled eighty percent of the press, much of the country’s import and export volume, and had deep ties into the industrial-military complex that had grown so in the last eight years.
They were smiling as they approached, and well they should. They had won.
For a brief moment, Sparrow contemplated killing them. He’d kept up with his training and these three were soft. They had no spirit animal; to associate them with any animal would be an insult to the animal; these three were driven by greed and a thirst for power.
“Enjoy your time behind that desk,” the woman said. “Tomorrow you’ll stand in judgment.”
“Judgment?” Sparrow asked.
“Yes,” the older male answered. “News is breaking as we speak of a joint investigation by the Intelligence Service and the Chief Prosecutor. They found strong evidence of your misdeeds while in power. Misdeeds counter to the welfare of the population.”
“Yes,” the woman picked up. “You appear to be the ultimate hypocrite, preaching equality and fair play while secretly benefitting from behind the scenes agreements.”
Sparrow considered the information. There would be secret accounts in his name, of course, and people willing to come forth with evidence supporting the accusations, and enough editorials and circumstantial evidence to cast doubt among even his most loyal followers.
“I should kill you all right now,” Sparrow said, his voice betraying no emotion.
The three lost their smiles, but only for a moment. “Enter!” the younger man yelled out, a touch of worry in his voice.
Sparrow’s personal guards walked in, two of them coming to stand on either side of the desk.
“I’m sorry, Sir,” the Captain said. “Orders from the Chief Prosecutor and the High Court. We are to take you into custody.”
Sparrow stood. Before anyone could move, he drew his gun . . . and placed it on the desk. He then did the same for his knife — a gift from Sparrow — and his backup gun.
“Lead the way,” he said and was marched out of the office as the Captain collected the weapons.
Outside, an armored car waited, along with six escort automobiles. As the Captain opened the door to the armored car, he spoke a few words Sparrow only half-heard. Only after the door closed did Sparrow registered what the Captain had said.
“You have a visitor.”
A figure sat in shadow, away from what little light came through the small bulletproof window. If it were to happen, it would be here, away from prying eyes. As he let his eyes adjust, he readied himself; if he were to die, he’d die fighting. A noble thought that, but if the person had a gun . . . well, there’s some nobility to be found even in futility.
Sparrow tensed, shifting his weight to the ball of his feet, ready to rush across the small enclosure.
“You’re not good enough to even try,” the figure said.
“Jaguar! They got you too?”
“No, they didn’t,” she answered as she turned on the dome light.
“You’re . . . you’re not with them . . .?”
“No, and I won’t box your ears for even thinking it.”
“You have a plan,” Sparrow said after a momentary pause.
“I have a plan.”
“No; still and always the Jaguar, but I borrowed from the Spider.”
“I need your approval for the plan because you’re a part of it. And your part is one you might not like.”
“How can it be any worse than what’s happening?”
“Here’s how; you need to become a dictator; a benevolent dictator.”
“We have little choice,” Jaguar replied. “The system is corrupt and well past fixing it. We have but two choices; tearing it down and building it from scratch, or . . .”
“. . . a surgical strike, and maintain most of the existing structure,” Sparrow finished. “But, we have no time to prepare.”
“I’ve been preparing for the past ten years. Just as the Raiders have been building their power structure at the top, I’ve been working from the bottom up,” Jaguar said.
Sliding over to sit directly across from Sparrow, Jaguar continued. “All the branches of the armed forces and law enforcement are manned by ordinary people doing their duty. They don’t come from the ranks of the elites. The people who put their lives on the line are the very people being taken advantage of. They are the sons and daughters of people who work hard just to watch corruption and cronyism rewarded even as they barely scrape by. ”
Sparrow leaned back, resting his back on the padded steel wall, absorbing what she said.
“Thousands would have to be killed or removed.”
“Can’t be helped,” Jaguar replied. “I told you ten years ago; the cost is always high. But, like back then, it’s your call.”
“If we do this, you’re going to look like a murdering despot. The initial response will not be favorable, here or abroad, and people will be afraid of you. Even if you prove them wrong over time, they won’t forget. Not to mention some business interests, foreign and domestic, might have a go at you. But, don’t worry; we’ll dissuade them.”
Jaguar’s voice dropped and softened.
“You told me once you carry the burden of each and all killing. Here, you don’t have to. It’s my burden to carry. But, if even peripheral involvement is too much, we can wait. However, make no mistake; this cannot go on. At some point, perhaps soon, it will happen, only not as controlled.”
“Assume it works,” Sparrow said. “Assume I do a good job. How do we control those who come after us? We’d be setting up a system ripe for abuse. No benevolent dictatorship survived past a succession of power, with a few spectacularly falling into death and destruction. ”
“There will always be other Jaguars and other Sparrows. Your job is to make sure they’re nurtured and mentored as we were,” she answered.
“But, I’m not stupid,” she continued. “The Order of the Jaguar will outlast us both. And while someday it too may be corrupted, until then, anyone drifting from the righteous path, anyone forgetting they are serving the people, even if it’s you or me, they will be taken out.”
“Order of the Jaguar?” Sparrow asked.
“You don’t want to know,” Jaguar said.
“No, I don’t,” Sparrow agreed.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, Sparrow working out as many angles as he could think, Jaguar patiently waiting.
“Screw it! People deserve better than they’re getting, and I’m going to give it to them.”
Jaguar stood and banged on the front wall. Thirty seconds later, the vehicle stopped, and the rear door opened.
Jaguar jumped out as the Captain of Sparrow’s personal guard climbed in.
“You’re being taken to a safe location. We’ll be in touch when it’s done,” Jaguar said and closed the door.
“Sir,” the Captain said, handing Sparrow his two guns and knife.
“Thank you, Captain.”
The two men rode in silence as what would become known as the Night of the Jaguar was set into motion.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~
Sparrow didn’t see Jaguar again until years later, when he was on his deathbed.
Jaguar came and stayed with him for two days, sharing memories until he passed.
“You did well, little Sparrow,” she said as the nurse pulled the sheet over his lifeless body. When the nurse turned, Jaguar was gone.
That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.
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