The old fighters greeted each other with their customary, shoulder-bumping handshake. They went to their usual table in the corner of the raised section where they could look over the other customers in the restaurant. There were two types of food to choose from: Italian or Eritrean. They were so old that they could remember when this colonial-era hotel served many Italians. Even earlier, natives had not been allowed.

The Italians were long gone. The friends ordered a simple meal of lentils and injera because both were adhering to an Orthodox fast. It was late afternoon.

In any group of three people, there is a government spy, but Johannes and Tesfay were only two, and the other customers were slightly too far away to hear their easy conversation. They spoke freely of brownouts, feuds with tenants, mandated food prices, the water shortage.  The coup attempt. The boys who’d been arrested. In a small city of old families, there are only a couple of degrees of separation to both sides of a conflict.

Coffee came. Now they talked about the many shops and cafés the government had closed down for supposed tax evasion. They didn’t speak of Johannes’ surviving son, who was absent. He’d presumably slipped overseas to escape endless national service, like everyone else. They were old men, so next they spoke of old times. On this occasion, Johannes was the one to bring up the hyenas and Tesfay smiled with nostalgia. He had, after all, been the one who’d almost been eaten.

“Think of it!” Johannes guffawed. “You survived the Ethiopian airstrike but nearly got killed by those beasts instead.” They both laughed. Their youthful exploits were their favorite topic because everything was different now. Complicated. It was simpler when the enemy was foreign and in the other trench.

Tesfay stretched his hand towards his upper back, where the scar was. “It’s still there.  No bite marks, though! Only the burn, thanks to you. Thank you, my friend!” It was something he’d told Johannes many times before. While manning a rugged mountain redoubt on the Nakfa front, the Soviet-made bomb had sent him rolling down a cliff-like mountain slope, coming to rest against a boulder with several broken bones, unable to move as the sun plummeted beneath the horizon and the hyenas began to squeal. He’d heard other men die that way, and women. The ones too far away to be rescued by their comrades. The Martyrs never aged, never saw their country free. Or, mercifully, what had happened to it since.

Johannes suddenly grew serious. He looked at his friend intensely, as though about to inform him of another death in the family. Tesfay returned his look quizzically. Normally they bantered at this point, perhaps about how he would be a skinny feed for such large predators, or how, if things had become desperate enough, he might have had to eat the hyenas, instead.

The hush and the penetrating stare continued. Somewhere in his heart, Tesfay knew what was coming. He’d been waiting for the moment for 30 years.

Finally, Johannes broke the silence.

“Do you remember your promise?”

Tesfay released his breath and nodded.

Of course he remembered, though they had not spoken of it since the day when his comrade had lugged him to safety with superhuman strength, shooting off occasional AK-47 rounds into the dark to ward off loitering carnivores. He had to stop each time because when he was climbing, the rifle was slung over his back and his friend was slung over his shoulders. He had been a strong young man. When the enemy had shelled the mountainside, there was nothing for them to do but lie down flat and see whether they were hit or not.

“My friend,” said Tesfay, raising his hands.  “I remember. Has the day come, at last? It is my honor to fulfil my pledge, before God.”

“You told me, before the stretcher-bearers carried you out, that you owe me your life, and promised that one day, I could ask any favor of you, and you would grant it.”

“Yes, my friend. Yes! That is exactly what I said, and I meant it with all of my heart. What is it that you finally want? I will help you in any way that I can. Not that there is any need of a pledge for me to do that. You are my friend.”

Johannes sipped his strong, black coffee. It was bitter. He preferred macchiato, but their fasting prohibited the consumption of animal products for one month.

“I need you to kill a man.”

Tesfay smiled slightly, but his comrade was no prankster. His smile faded. He looked around nervously.

“My friend…” he whispered.

“Do not whisper. A whisper is loud. Look.” Johannes was speaking in his usual voice, and he motioned around the room. Nobody paid any attention to the old men. Families enjoyed animated conversations, toddlers fussed, young couples leaned close to each other. “Look at me,” Johannes went on, with a big smile and an expansive gesture. “To them, I’m talking about the strangely delayed rainy season. Maybe I am even talking about how my nephew in Germany got engaged to a nice Eritrean girl. Whisper, and everyone strains to hear. Speak as usual, and we are invisible, like we are hidden underground.”

Tesfay looked again at a young couple nearby. Their heads were close and they spoke in low, inaudible voices, but these were no secret lovers. Not here, in the restaurant of a major hotel. No, they were engaged or newlyweds. Their families approved. This was not the place to plot love affairs. Or murder.

The two old men were invisible in plain sight.

“If you come to my house,” Johannes said, “someone will see you and wonder why you are there. I’ve been watched since the coup because I’m a former commander and Isaias is now monitoring all prominent people. If we go to a quiet bar, everyone will know we are there for private conversation. That is where spies in the corner are paid a hundred nakfa for each secret they overhear. This is the place for confidentiality. So, will you do it? Will you fulfill your pledge?”

“My friend…my friend…” Tesfay managed to speak with a bold, camouflaged voice, but could not entirely conceal his distress. “I cannot break an oath, and I cannot sin against God. Who is this man? Is he a danger to your family? Do you need protection? Perhaps the police can help; I have connections.”

“He is a danger to all families. He is an evil murderer who is a danger to everyone. The police cannot help. He must be stopped, and so I call in my favor.”


“You know him.”

“What…who is it? I know your enemies, but none are dangerous.” Tesfay’s mind rushed over his friend’s petty business rivals and squabbling neighbors. Peering around, he saw that no one paid the two old fighters any attention at all. One man over near the door seemed to glance at them for a moment, but young men like to admire fighters. Those immediately around them were entirely focused on their own affairs. “Is it that family which insists on paying the rent-controlled price only? The father? He’s no danger to you, only to your investment. Just take him to court and wait him out.”

“I mean another man.”



Tesfay’s face became grey. He slowly put down his tiny coffee cup so that it would not spill.

“He is the enemy of our nation. He has enslaved our children, ruined our lives. Everybody lives in fear. The young have all run away. So, I call in the favor.”  Johannes finished his own coffee with a final gulp. “And also, I cannot forgive what happened to my oldest son. To be imprisoned for lending a friend his travel permit is one thing, but for him to die there, like a dog, supposedly of typhoid…they killed him, Tesfay. Isaias killed him. He is responsible for all the young who are dead, or enslaved, or who had to run away.” His voice was carefully even and calm as he spoke. Invisible. “We cannot wait for him to die of old age. Even in his seventies, he is too healthy! And now it seems his son will inherit the communist throne. The son, that fool. For my eldest, and for the country, it is our duty.”

“But…how can I kill the Boss? He’s been hiding in the presidential palace since the last coup. He thinks the ministers are against him. He won’t even dare call a cabinet meeting. I can not get near him. And I had to give my rifle back when I turned 60.”

“You know what to use,” Johannes said, his voice as even and light as though he were discussing the football. Tesfay’s daughter was still living at home and had completed military training, so her mandated AK-47 was there. Johannes promised him some “real ammunition” because the standard-issue Chinese rubbish would almost certainly jam. He told him that his “connection,” someone high up in security, had given him details about the President’s upcoming visit to the Intercontinental Hotel.

“From the fourth floor,” he explained. “The room is already booked. You’ll have a clear view when his convoy arrives. Don’t open the window until after his security team have scanned the area. Two shots in the chest, no more, to escape the return fire. Then flee via the emergency stairwell. There will be a ladder already against the back fence. Our comrade on the other side will take you to shelter in the Chinese embassy. They want their naval base, and Isaias won’t give it to them. But they won’t do the deed themselves, nor do they want their cooperation known. It was their agent that gave me the rounds. Russian. They know their own product is trash.”

Tesfay looked like a man whose world had just fallen away beneath his feet. He stared into the darkness of his coffee, now cold.

“I think I shot a hyena that night,” Johannes mused. “I heard at least one yelp, when I fired into the dark. Its fellows would have eaten it, that’s what they do. There’s no loyalty in the pack. Now, I need you to kill a hyena for me. Yours will be far more dangerous than mine.” He sighed, gazing for a while at the ornate ceiling. They don’t make ceilings like that anymore. Then he looked back at Tesfay and shook his head. “If you cannot fulfill your pledge, I release you. It is a young man’s job; we did our job long ago. Six years in the bush. That’s enough! If you can’t do it, promise me only your silence and we are even.”

Tesfay looked into his friend’s eyes. In a sudden rush of exhilaration, the old fighter spirit returned to his heart. He had killed before—Ethiopian conscripts, from a distance—surely he could kill again? The escape plan seemed fanciful, but what did it matter? He was an old man, and he had a heart condition. Fulfill his pledge, free his nation once more, or spend another decade sipping sweetened tea in the local café until his Lord finally became impatient and called him? His children…the ones still in the country could fend for themselves, as he had done since he ran away to join the rebels at age 18. They were not children any more. His mother was safely in the ground. His wife he didn’t think about at all.

“When?” he asked.

“Next Tuesday, when the E.U. delegation arrives. Be careful not to hit any of them. They will be waiting in the foyer, but some may wander out to smoke or take a call.”

“And the ammunition?”

Johannes took a tin of black Kenyan tea from his plastic shopping bag and handed it to his friend, like it was a souvenir from abroad. The tin rattled metallically. Tesfay placed it in his bag, and turned to his friend with some of his former, youthful bravado upon his face. He could feel the vigor of certainty returning. No more hiding under a rock. Why him? Why not? None of the fighters had asked themselves that in Nakfa. It was obvious: because it was their job.

“I will put my affairs in order and perform a pilgrimage to St. Mary of Debre Sina. Next Tuesday, before God, I will fulfill my promise to my friend and my duty towards my country.”

He stood to embrace his old comrade, but Johannes was looking across to the other side of the room, and Tesfay saw him nod to a man in jeans and dark glasses. The man gestured to somebody outside, and in an instant, a dozen men strode into the restaurant from all directions, making directly for the old men.

Tesfay thought many things in the five seconds it took them to reach their table, considered many actions, the most extreme being to slash his friend’s throat with something sharp, but all he could do was utter one, anguished word.


“They caught my son in the plot,” Johannes replied almost inaudibly. “He’s all I have left.  I had to give them someone.” He said these words as he stared at the table, hunched over; a defeated man.

The secret police seized the limp Tesfay and his bag with its tea-tin, dragging his limp body towards the door. Everyone looked away, not wanting to take one last look at the old man before he disappeared for good.

“I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you! My family will avenge me!” Tesfay tried to yell more, but one of the security agents punched him in the mouth, sending blood spraying across the clean floor of the restaurant, and the other diners sat frozen, not daring to do or say anything to share his fate.  When he was gone, they carefully ignored Johannes and the cleaning and turned quietly back to their own group, ashamed eyes not daring to meet.

After staring into space for a long time, the old man paid the bill and left a generous tip on their usual table. He hobbled towards the door alone, and outside, in the cool air, he did not notice the beautiful, speckled nighttime sky. The old man looked much, much older than when he came in.