This is a simple story of good and evil,
Light and dark,
White and black.
(“Sun,” Hofesh Schechter Company)
No one walks through London with a machete.
Unless you count the two men passing him just now. Niall had already wrapped up taking pictures of the spot where the Effra River had once emptied into the Thames, when one of the two men looked back at him. The man’s gaze lingered a split second too long, his eyes offering an invitation. At least, that is what it looked like to Niall. Perhaps the man wanted to challenge him, defy him. Hey, look what we can do. Nobody is even trying to stop us. Here in this city, which bans all rubbish bins anywhere near government buildings out of fear that someone might plant a bomb in them. As if bins were the only places where people deposited such things.
Niall actually had a lot to take care of before the shoot next week. He needed to decide what he was going to film, which camera angles would work best, which scenes would make the most sense. Then grocery shopping and home… actually. But now he was trailing the two men, the machetes making him both vaguely uneasy and a little curious. Besides, an underground river was hardly going to disappear on him.
The men strode along the southern bank of the Thames and under the railroad bridge, before turning left and walking a short way along the edge of the park. They did not seem to be in any particular hurry. Although they passed other pedestrians, nobody paid them the slightest attention. Everyone was focused on their own thoughts, their own lives.
Actors, Niall concluded, on their way to an audition or a film shoot. But why would actors have to bring their own props? A small acting troupe, perhaps. Or showoffs with something to prove. A dare like they did for bachelor parties, just not something silly this time, something with weapons. There had to be a reason. Should he call the police? Or should he wait a few minutes? After all, they were not bothering anyone and did not seem all that dangerous, despite the machetes. In any case, they were carrying the weapons confidently, as if they were toys. Maybe they were. Surreptitiously, Niall snapped off a few photos. Nobody would believe him later on if he had no proof.
They looked like brothers from behind: same height, similar build, jeans and sneakers. As far as Niall could tell, they both had short black hair, dark brown skin, and trim beards. One of them wore a green tee-shirt, the other a blue one. Nothing else distinguished them, at least, not from the back and at a distance.
They turned into the park, before coming to a halt. They were chatting, as they had been doing off and on the whole time, occasionally laughing. They even glanced back at him once to make sure he was still there, which did not seem to bother them at all.
Niall was still holding his phone, ready to call 999 at any moment, but nothing happened. The machete men just stood there cheerfully, as if waiting on someone. Niall guessed they were somewhat younger than him, though not by much. Mid- or late twenties, both very fit. The one in the blue shirt was quite attractive: regular, open facial features, large, watchful eyes. With his thinner lips and more closely set eyes, the one in the green shirt looked more secretive.
Two joggers were wheezing their way through the park, while a young woman pushed a stroller alongside another woman of about the same age. A boy, twentyish, strode past Niall and cut across the grass.
Since nobody else seemed disturbed by the machetes, Niall decided they had to be fakes. The men were meeting here in the park for some kind of role-playing game, and their friends would show up any minute with more toy weapons, perhaps even in costume. All of it harmless. Good thing he had put off calling the police, since he would have just made a fool of himself. Niall snapped off a few more pictures of the men before turning and walking off.
He had almost reached the edge of the park when he heard someone start screaming, followed by several voices yelling all at once. He spun back around. The machete men were threatening someone: the boy who had walked past him so resolutely. His hands were thrown up, as if in surrender, and he kept crying out, “Leave me alone.” Although he was much taller than the other two and as fit they were, he seemed unstable, vulnerable. He was alone against the two of them, and they were armed. They were keeping him at bay with their machetes: one of them in front, the other behind, their knees slightly flexed as if about to jump. With their arms spread out and their weapons as extensions, they seemed about to embrace each other.
The joggers had come to a stop close to Niall, and they were also watching the three men.
Niall still gripped his phone, but instead of calling the police, he tapped the camera symbol.
“Call the police,” he instructed the joggers.
Both of them reached for their phones.
“What for?” one of them asked, as his companion dialed 999. “You’re already holding yours.”
“I’m filming,” Niall said.
“Jerk,” the other one snapped.
The man in the blue shirt lunged, aiming for the boy’s throat, but he ended up striking his upraised left arm. With a howl of pain, the boy fell back a step and doubled over, trying to press shut the bloody gash on his upper arm with his right hand. The man in the green shirt was also filming everything with his phone, and Niall heard him urge his friend: “One more time. You’re not done yet.” It was as if he were supervising a motorcycle repair job.
“I’ve got this,” the one in blue replied, before kicking the injured boy in the back of the knees so he crumpled into the grass. Between sobs, the boy cursed his attackers, then the man in blue bent down and started stabbing.
The one in green cheered him on: “Yeah, that’s right. You’re doing great!”
“I know.” The other one sounded annoyed. Even after the victim’s agonized screams broke off, the attacker continued stabbing, though less enthusiastically than before.
“It takes a while,” the one with the phone remarked.
“I know,” the other man repeated, his movements growing sluggish, until he was just jabbing the body with the tip of his sword. His friend circled the two of them, filming. The attacker finally gave up and lazily slashed his machete through the air, blood dribbling from the blade and down his hands. His shirt was covered in splattered blood, and beads of sweat mingled with the boy’s blood on his face.
The man in green lowered his phone, nodded encouragingly at his friend, and slapped him on the shoulder, before glancing over at Niall, the joggers and the other people who had gathered around them. Spectators. Death’s fascination was always stronger than fear.
“We have an audience,” the man in green declared.
The murderer followed his gaze and straightened up to his full height. “That’s good.”
“Hey,” the man in green shouted at one of the joggers. “Hey! What are you doing with your phone?”
The man who had just called the police dropped his phone before raising his arms. “Nothing, nothing.”
The man in green picked up his machete and walked toward him. “Nothing? You fucking kidding me? Did you call somebody?”
The jogger wet himself, and his companion groaned, either in horror or shame. Instead of helping his friend, he retreated a few steps.
“Calling is shit. Show a little respect, got it?” He stopped right in front of the jogger. “You’re supposed to watch what we’re doing, you hear me?”
The jogger whimpered.
Niall said: “He didn’t do anything. I was watching.”
He kept his camera trained on the machete man, but he was starting to feel dizzy.
“You!” the man in green shot back. “You were paying attention, huh?” He lowered his machete. “Did you film everything?”
“All of it?”
“Good. Just wait a second, don’t go anywhere.” He pulled something out of his pocket, a piece of cloth he proceeded to unfold. A black rectangle. White Arabic letters in the upper half, a white circle below with even more letters. The flag of the Islamic State. He walked back over to his friend and the body, positioned himself in front of them, and waved the cloth back and forth.
“Did you get that? Did you?”
Niall nodded, frightened. Despite his first impulse to run, he wanted to see what happened next.
“Come here,” the one with the flag ordered.
Niall obeyed. He was not one bit better than the others who had decided to hang around, but he sensed something else: a feeling of obligation. He had recorded everything, so now it was his duty to distract the two of men from the joggers, from the other people who had joined them, from the women with the stroller who were still there, though they should have taken the child to safety. Niall focused on his fear, knowing he needed to channel it the same way actors use stagefright.
“You’re fighting for the Islamic State?” he asked
“Yes!” the other man responded proudly as he continued to energetically wave his flag.
The man in blue pushed past him, leaving a bloody handprint on his shirt. He walked straight up to Niall and stared into the small phone camera. Niall struggled to stay calm, battling his flight instinct as best he he could. He had observed predators through his lens before, filming them as they slaughtered their prey, but none of them had ever been this close. He spread his feet further apart to project the illusion of stability, and grasped the phone with both hands. He could not stop his trembling though.
“We have killed a soldier.” The man pointed his bloody machete at the body in the grass, Niall’s gaze and the camera tracking the gesture. The boy on the ground had very short, neatly trimmed, light brown hair, and was in his early twenties, at most. In any case, younger than Niall and the two men. He was wearing normal clothes. Nothing about him indicated that he was in the military, except perhaps his haircut, which could mean anything, just like the two men’s beards did not have one particular meaning.
“We have killed a British soldier because we are at war.”
“What war? You mean jihad?”
“We are at war against everyone who does not acknowledge the Islamic State.”
“Are you jihadists?” Niall’s hands were steadier now, but his voice cracked a little.
The green one raised his right pointer finger and grinned into the camera, as the blue one said: “We are killing your soldiers, because you have killed ours. We are taking your women, because you have taken ours. We are turning your children into orphans, because you have done that to ours.” He shifted his position slightly, throwing a quick glance at his friend, who nodded back. The blue one continued: “We support the establishment of an Islamic caliphate and follow the orders of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. We want to fight for him, and we demand the liberation of all Palestinians. You occupied Palestine and then allowed the Jews to settle there. They have invaded our land, and killed women, children and civilians, so we are killing your soldiers. This man,” he pointed back at the body with the point of his machete, “killed our women, children and civilians, which is why we are allowed to kill him. It is our duty.”
“Did you know him?”
“He was a soldier.”
“How did you know that?”
“He was a soldier,” the blue one repeated, taking a step toward Niall.
Niall lowered his camera.
The man with the bloody machete declared: “Everyone needs to see this. Upload it.”
“YouTube,” the one in green added.
“Okay,” Niall replied, swallowing hard a few times as the pressure grew inside his ears.
“Keep filming,” the one in blue ordered.
Niall pointed his phone back toward the two men.
The one in green paced back and forth in front of the body, waving his machete at the jogger a few times. The man was now surrounded by a group of concerned onlookers.
I have to keep him talking, Niall thought. That way they won’t pay attention to the others. He was still considering what to ask when the one in green shouted something.
“Allāhu akbar!” the man in blue responded.
Niall quickly cut in: “Where are you from? London, right?”
The man in blue hesitated. Niall studied his face on the small display, too afraid to risk looking at him directly. He looked perfectly normal, calm, relaxed. He had dark skin and black hair, possibly Arabic. Then again, maybe not. He spoke with an unmistakable South London accent.
“Palestine,” the man in blue finally said. “We were occupied and oppressed by you Brits. You stole our land.”
“You’re both from Palestine?” Niall could hear police sirens. “Your friend, too?”
“We demand the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in our homeland.”
“He’s from Palestine?”
“Turkey,” the one in green called.
“If the Turkish government continues to control the waters of the Euphrates and oppress our brothers in the Islamic State, we will have to liberate Istanbul!” He waved the black flag and stood beside his friend.
“We are at war against unbelievers, against all unbelievers,” the Palestinian explained. The man in green handed him the flag, then walked back to the body and nudged it with his toe.
“Come here,” the Turk said to Niall. “Come on, I want to show you something. Hurry up and don’t stop filming.”
Niall shuffled forward slowly, making sure the Palestinian did not close the distance between them. He took care to keep both men in his frame, though there was no real need to worry about them going anywhere. The Palestinian stopped beside his friend and lifted the flag with both hands, like his friend had done earlier. The blood-smeared hands gripping the black flag with the white symbols. He still clutched the crimson-stained machete in his one hand, so it looked as if the flag were mounted to it. The archaic triumph of a man who had just killed for his faith, for his country, for himself. He marched up and down beside the body, the personification of victory, power, superiority. An awe-inspiring image, a horrifying echo of every war in history.
The man in green positioned himself spread-legged close to the dead boy’s head. He clenched the machete tightly in both hands, swung it back, and then swept it down on the corpse’s neck, as blood sprayed in all directions. He struck over and over again, shouting to his God with every blow.
Niall forced himself to hold his phone steady so the scene stayed in the frame, but he could not bring himself to watch directly. He tried to imagine himself miles away, but was unable to block out the screams from behind him. More and more people were coming, clustering into small, tight groups, staring in horror and disbelief, hands over their mouths. Some of them were vomiting, and one man had already passed out.
Niall shut his eyes for one long heartbeat, and when he opened them again, the man in green had finished decapitating the boy. He pushed the head a short distance from the body, as if it were a soccer ball, before bending down and picking it up.
“You got that?” he called to Niall. “That’s what we’ll do to all enemies of the Islamic State.” Then he turned to his friend: “Police.”
Niall thought this was finally the point when they would make a run for it, but he was wrong. They stood their ground, watching, though they did set the boy’s head back on the ground.
Niall saved the film sequence, his hands clammy and cold. The touchscreen on his phone could barely register the commands he was trying to enter with his fingertips. He had to keep rubbing his thumbs on his pants, repeating the commands, undoing the wrong ones. He trembled so much he kept clicking on the wrong things.
The police drove up in a small army of vans, cruisers and rescue vehicles. As a group of uniforms tried to press the bystanders back, Niall stood rooted beside the Palestinian, though he was now filming the special forces officers in full protective gear: black uniforms and helmets and guns. One of them yelled: “All weapons on the ground. Hands where we can see them.”
The two men tossed the machetes at their feet and raised their arms out to their sides.
“We are at war. We have killed a soldier,” the Palestinian called.
The police drew closer and encircled them.
“Everyone’s hands up!”
Niall finally realized that several of the police officers were pointing their guns at him. He lifted his hands, still holding his phone.
“Hey, I’m not part of this,” he shouted, looking around. “Tell them I’m not with you!”
The Palestinian would not look at him. The Turk shrugged with a grin, then he glanced down and reached his right hand into his back pocket, the way someone does when he wants to get his phone after a message has just come in. He pulled out his phone.
Someone cried: “Weapon!”
Niall saw the Turk collapse, two large, dark spots already spreading across his shirt. The one in blue screamed and ran to his friend, but the officers were quicker. They converged on him and threw him to the ground. Somebody knocked Niall down as well, sat on top of him, and bound his arms and legs.
“I had nothing to do with this,” he wheezed, but there was no reply.
Paramedics ran to the man who had been shot. Niall could not tell if he was dead or if they were trying to save him. They were all ignoring the boy, both his body and his head.
The man sitting on top of him stood up. Once back on his feet, he kicked Niall in the ribs. Two other police officers grabbed him by the upper arms and yanked him off the ground. He saw that his face had landed only a few inches away from a pile of dog shit, but his phone had not been so lucky.
“My phone,” he implored.
“Ours now,” somebody in black declared. “Just like you are.”