Martyr’s Detour


Written for NYC Midnight’s flash fiction challenge 2017 part 2.

My brief was as follows:

  • Genre: Spy
  • Location: A coffee shop
  • Object: A cookbook
  • Time limit: 48 hours
  • Word Count: 1,000 word

I wrote it while on vacation in Seattle.

Title: Martyr’s Detour

Tagline: A mole in a terror cell must make a move to stop a plot. But she wonders if she is making things better or worse.


My brother, Ibad, drives me to work through Chemin-Long, east Bordeaux. I sit in the back in my niqab and robes. I’ll often walk to work, and without a veil, but tonight is a special occasion. My husband, Abu Bakr is returning with his brother and two nephews after two months in Sudan. Officially they were on a Hanbali mission. The coffee shop is being opened late to celebrate. In reality they’ve been at a terror training camp, learning about improvised chemical attacks. Abu Bakr doesn’t know I know.

Ibad stops at a red light. Beside us a magazine stand is packing up. The cover of a satirical magazine has an image of woman in a burka with a leash around her neck. The leash is being held by an Arab man. A speech bubble above the woman says, “It’s an expression of liberty for a woman to wear the burka.” In the cartoon the man is wearing an Adidas tracksuit.

Ibad catches my eye in the rear view mirror. He no longer tries to hide his sorrow. I hold his reflected stare until the light goes green.

“It should be me doing this,” he says. I refuse to open up the argument again. The fact is, I can get close to the target, he can’t. It’s settled.

It was Ibad who brought me into this life, three years ago, after I wrote him a letter saying I was going to run away from my husband. It was supposed to be a goodbye letter. It brought us closer than I could have ever imagined.   

He stops at the Al Saud coffee shop. “Do you have a safe house?” he asks.

“I will soon,” I say. His eyes lower.

“It could be different to mine.”

“It probably is,” I admit.

He sighs, “See you soon, you little kuffar.”

The kitchen entrance for the Al Saud coffee shop is at the rear, down an alley off the main road. Behind the store is a large wheeled bin. I look underneath to find a small, dense safe that has been left for me. I use the code was given two days ago. Inside is a small glass vial containing a few drops of liquid. I slide it into a pocket in my robe. I have an hour before it kills me.   

Three women I know, wives of other men, are in the kitchen when I enter. It is thin with one long, cluttered preparation unit, and poorly ventilated by a single small window. The air is thick with the smell of caramelised sugar, baking pastry, coffee and the occasional cooling whiff of mint tea. These smells are the scents of my childhood. The motif of my happiest memories. I almost change my mind.   

One of the women tells me Aisha and Nadia are here. Both are Abu Bakr’s other wives. Younger wives. 19 and 21 years old to my 29. But none of us receives much attention anymore. He has a younger wife in Sudan. Too young to emigrate to France.

The drinks and sweets are almost prepared. A stack of cookbooks sits on the edge of the counter. I take the third one down and open it at page 23 and 40 as I was told. Tucked between the pages, are instructions for using the glass vial, and an address of a safe house. I commit them to memory then replace the cookbook.

The other women are busy finishing decorating the sweets and pastries. In an act of daring I simply take out the vial and let four drops of the liquid fall into the coffee. The other women, absorbed in their tasks, don’t even look. I slide the vial back into my robe. My skin is pricking. A young boy pokes his head around the kitchen door, “They’re here.”

The four would-be martyrs are sat by the window watching the traffic. They’re dressed in hoodies and american jeans. The other women place the sweets and I lay down the coffee pot and cups. Abu Bakr doesn’t acknowledge me at all despite not seeing me for two months. I am not sure he has recognised me. I sit with the women and we drink mint tea.

One of the nephews pours coffee. They discuss their plans in a few cryptic words, “review the delivery points”, “change who carries the payloads”. They’re planning to drop some homemade chemicals into the ventilation system of the Paris Metro. Only I know this. Everyone else thinks they were really on a mission in Sudan.

The two nephews sip their coffee. They’re tired and it shows in their eyes. Abu Bakr and his brother are lost in thought. They leave their coffee untouched.

“Can I try some?” says the young boy running up to their table.

Abut Bakr looks at him, picks up the cup, and moves it towards the boy. I cannot speak out. I’ll blow my cover. My neck has tightened and I can feel my blood pounding through my skull. All my senses close around the cup. The coffee shop becomes black and silent.

He pulls back the cup, “It’s haram for now.” Abu Bakr takes a sip, ingesting the polonium poison. The boy walks off in a huff.

The world opens up again. My heart slows, slightly.

I look at the women in the coffee shop and try to count the number of widows I’ve just created. The polonium will kill the men slowly. It will simply look like it is an illness for a few weeks until it is too late.  

The clock on the wall tells me I have about 30 minutes before I receive a lethal dose. I look at Abu Bakr as he gazes out the window silently. I try to recall what it felt like to love him. But I cannot.

He is convinced his path is that of a martyr’s – a shortcut to heaven. But I have forced him on a detour through hell.

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