The following manuscript was found in a cache of stolen documents, nestled between execution orders and ledgers detailing illegal funds siphoned from international aid programs.
The paperwork was going well, and I’d about finished half of a large stack of documents when I looked and noticed the time ... about ten in the evening, and by my reckoning a good a time as any for a well-deserved break. My butler had prepared a robe and silk pajamas, so I slipped into them and picked up a glass of port ... it burned a bit, and I coughed ... I had another, hair of the dog that bit me, as I liked to joke, and this one was better. I sat back and thought about the visitation, wondering again how much credence I could place in Joachim’s shade, before deciding once and for all time (when I make a decision, that’s pretty much it -- I don’t believe in being wrong) that it was just a bit of fog, a wisp of fancy brought on by overly ripe cheese, and those damn oysters. I cracked my knuckles and checked the time.
Curiously, the clock had not moved. It was still still 10 P.M.
More time for a break, then. I poured another glass, downed it, and rubbed my eyes. The chair was very comfortable, the leather supple and yielding against my bulk, and the fire warm, inviting. I yawned. Perhaps a small nap before finishing the paperwork? Usually I delegate as much as I can to my underlings, but there are some things that just need a dictatorial review before affixing the supreme signature, and I was determined to finish tonight.
I was about to ring for my butler when a sound pierced the quiet of the den ... a scraping sound of something metallic being dragged over a threshold, something metallic scraping and ruining my marble floors ....
I turned in my chair and stood up, reaching back for the pistol I kept in my desk ... my hand came back with nothing but a fist of air.
The figure before me was a strange sight ... tall and stooped, and draped in a red cloak that covered a metal breastplate, probably bronze. Bloodshot eyes burned out from under a scarred war helmet, but I couldn’t make out a face, though dark curls poked out from the sides of the helmet and gave the impression of a thick, frizzy head of hair. He looked like an old warlord, fresh from a fight, and in his hand was a long, broad-headed spear, the point crusted with blood.
But I was the supreme leader here, so I regained my composure and faced him. “Let me guess,” I said, “you’re the spirit that Joachim was talking about earlier?”
The voiced hissed out, low, lisping, and I could have sworn I had heard it before.
“Hate to say it, but I am not impressed. You look more like a typical state flunky dressed for a Halloween party than a ghost of some kind. What are you meant to be, anyway? Hoplite warrior? Centurion? Or the head usher at Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas?” (All kidding aside, there are some showgirls there that will kick your tongue out, if you know what I mean.)
“I’m none of those,” he answered. “I am the ghost of Dictators Past.”
“Your past, Richard.” He pointed the spear at me ... the tip rested an inch from my chest, quivering.
“I’m having trouble understanding you,” I said, my eyes on the spear. “Or is it just that you want to talk about the good old days? The political maneuvering, the outright thievery, the murder of undesirables? If so, you are in luck. That’s my bread and butter.”
The ghost seemed to nod, almost imperceptibly, but the spear did not move an inch.
“You guess near the mark, Richard. I do want to visit a moment from your past, a time before your murderous reign began, when you had a choice and came to a crossroads in your life. Do you remember when you decided to supplant El Jefe and stage a coup d’etat?”
“Do I!” Now he was talking! I was beginning to like this ghost ... no matter that I could not place the voice. “I remember putting that old bastard down like it was yesterday.”
“Perhaps you do ... but then again perhaps not. There may be some details that you’ve forgotten. Or, and this may be more likely, you have chosen, with good reason, to forget them. No matter ... we’ll look back together ... NOW!”
The word boomed in my ears, and the spear slid up and pressed down on my shoulder. My vision blurred, the world pixelating, out of focus, and I seemed to spin ... no oh God I was going to be sick ... I closed my lips tight and swallowed the hot bile hard ... it burned going down, but at least my medals were clean (yes I pin them on my robe and pajamas as well).
I blinked once, twice, and could see again.
The world was different. There was a brighter light than I was used to -- and a clarity of air that I had not seen since my younger days. Shapes took form ... a long low building, a military barracks ... a World War II vintage Jeep with mounted gun ... a newly paved road leading up a hill, past the barracks, to what looked like a government office of some kind, you know the type, windowless (except for long slits in the reinforced concrete), boxy, surrounded by sandbags and other blast suppressors ... and there was Joachim leaning against the Jeep ... of course, I remembered this tableau, I’d seen it before. Was it the late sixties? Early nineteen-seventies?
“You guess correctly,” a voice said.
He was there with me ... the ghost of Dictators Past. I felt his spear tap my shoulder.
“Look,” he said, pointing to a figure sitting in the Jeep. “You may recognize that person.”
The figure was thin, I’ll give him that. And he had a nice, thick head of hair, brushed straight back, just how I liked it. And what a handsome fellow! Nice strong chin, regal nose, wide commanding brow (if you go for phrenology, you could say he was in the ‘Very Superior’ strata) ... the only unfortunate thing about this fellow was the conspicuous lack of medals on his military tunic ... a shame, really, because that meant he was a nobody. It made me kind of sad ... to feel better, I looked at my own chest ... still there! I patted them, fondled the ribbons, and turned to the ghost.
“What’s the point of all this?” I said. “Why bring me here? I get the young Joachim, but who’s this other schmuck? I’d guess he’s a non-entity, if I ever saw one, though damn he’s a good looking fellow. Maybe a pussy-hound, one of Joachim’s bodyguards? Young muscle?”
“Richard,” the ghost replied, “that louche figure is YOU ... and this is a month before your promotion, at Joachim’s behest, to the general staff of El Jeffe.”
I gasped ... “Well I was (and am) a good looking guy! But I barely remember this. I mean, I barely remember being so ordinary. You sure there isn’t some kind of mistake?”
“No Richard. But quiet now, and listen ....”
Young Richard frowned, and picked his teeth with a long thin knife.
“I don’t know, Joachim. What you’re proposing is very attractive, and I’d like to do it. But the risks are pretty serious. How do you propose handling security?”
Joachim laughed. “You’re looking at security,” he said. “I know for a fact that El Jefe plans to make me security chief in a month’s time, when he reshuffles the general staff. And he’s asked me personally to recommend a young, hungry officer, someone who isn’t yet tainted by the bloat of military success, to help with internal security. Once the change happens, our first job will be to arrange for his safety at the annual Three-Year Plan speech. And that’s when I propose we kill him.”
“Seems a bit drastic, no?”
I was stunned. “That can’t be me,” I protested to the ghost, “I’d never, NEVER wimp out of a planned assassination! That’s my bread and butter! The staff I lean on in hard times! I even have a motto ‘when in doubt, snuff it out’ ... it’s on tee-shirts for Christ’s sake! Wait a second ...” I paused, “this is isn’t going out over the Internet, is it? My God, my credibility will be nil if this goes viral!”
Young Richard wasn’t finished. “I’ve got a problem with the murder of our leader, but assuming that happens, what next? What do you have in mind Joachim?”
Joachim smiled and leaned against the Jeep. He extracted an unfiltered cigarette from his shirt pocket, lit it, and took a long pull. He coughed an exhaled, his thin frame shaking (he was never the healthiest apparatchik, I had to admit).
“Richard,” he said. “This is the beautiful part. Once El Jefe is gone, we conspirators are going to need a face for the new regime. A young face, a handsome one. Someone who will be acceptable to the international community, someone who may confuse and momentarily give pause to those bastards in the opposition.”
Young Richard got it -- he beamed (I was always a quick study, even in those days). “If what you’re saying is true, Joachim, then this is a great opportunity. We can turn this country around, end corruption, build a better economy that’s not based on crony capitalism! Why, we can actually implement a Three Year Plan, rather just announcing a new one every year, which is what El Jefe has been doing. And the military ... well, we can institute reforms! No more private armies answerable only to the top man! No more greedy border wars over oil, water, and other resources! And no more political oppression. When I ... I mean we, when we take power ... no more jail time for the opposition. We can let them have their democratic debate! I -- We -- should welcome it! Free elections! A normal, rule-abiding parliamentary democracy! The people with a chance, finally, to live a decent life, make a living, pursue happiness. Think of it, Joachim, just think of it!”
Joachim smiled his long, thin smile, allowing a glimpse of yellow-gray teeth.
“Yes Richard,” he said, “that’s the spirit. Once we -- I mean you -- take power, we can achieve all this, and more.” He clapped Young Richard on the shoulder and with his other hand extracted an oily, silenced pistol from the back of the Jeep. “Here,” he said, “you’ll need this soon enough.”
The vision blurred again, the shapes bled into a indistinguishable mass of color and line, and when I was able to see the ghost and I were back in my den. The fire continued to roar ... and no time had elapsed.
“Ghost,” I said, “Ghost of Dictators Past ... what the hell was the point of that vision. Ok, ok, I admit to a little embarrassment over my youthful naivete ... democracy! Free debate! But you have to realize that once I did the job on El Jefe, and was proclaimed ruler, well ... I made sure Joachim and the boys knew that there was to be no committee, or junta ... I was the only one who would give any orders, period. They fell in line after that, and Joachim became my right hand man. And I did none of those things I talked about in the vision ... not one. I grew up quickly. I learned how to be a dictator, basically. Read the official state history books, and you’ll see what I mean ... still, I am puzzled -- why show me that?”
Red eyes stared at me and I heard faint laughter. “You had a chance, Richard,” the ghost said. “A chance to be different. All those years of tyranny ... the torture chambers ... the land-grabbing wars against your neighbors, the broken treaties ... the billions you’ve stolen from your people, from international aid programs --”
“All good things, from my point of you. What are you getting at?”
“They didn’t have to happen. They were not preordained. You had a choice. You made it ... but there still may be time.”
“I don’t like your tone. Time for what?”
But there was no answer. The ghost shimmered, lost his shape a bit in the fire’s glow, and faded.
I rubbed my eyes. I shivered. I pulled the robe tighter and poured myself another port, wondering what else would happen tonight.