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“We’ve got to stand up for the right to take the piss out of these monsters, these fools, these posturing maniacs who strut around in their black gear as a death cult trying to frighten us all. Screw them.” (Steve Bell).

So that Tuesday the gunmen had determined upon a trial run. The brothers would drive to a certain house on the edge of Reims where they would collect the guns. They would then return to their own house, where Mohamed, this teenager who was supposed to be their getaway driver, would be waiting with the getaway car.

Said, the eldest brother, was gloomy and tense. Imagine that somebody who has only learned how to swim by reading books and consulting websites is finally standing on the edge of a diving-board, ready to entrust their body to the swirling weightlessness. Would they respond to the water with complete, immediate precision or would they sink like a brick? There was simply no way of telling.

In their impatience the brothers began to bicker about the guns. Cherif snorted that their house was full of guns, as indeed it was – the brothers possessed a fully-stocked armoury and gym. But Said replied that this was a trial run and that they could hardly appear on the streets of Reims with real weapons, firing real traceable bullets. The organisation would provide them with rifles that would fire, Said had gathered, green paint.

They were now on their feet, squirming into their Burberry trench coats and jangling their keys. “How long will you be?” Mohamed called after them.

“About twenty minutes man.” Said froze and shot a glare back over his shoulder. “Why?”

Mohamed looked uneasy. “I just wanted to know when you’ll be back… how much time I have to get ready.”

“You’re not going on to Chatroulette man, playing up while we’re away. I’ve told you, if I see that again I’m going to cut your cock off and you can use it as a bookmark for when you’re studying the Quran.” If anybody else had said this, it would have sounded like a joke, but Said had that sort of plain, raw, ultimately-incomplete mind that can never make jokes. Mohamed shuddered: it seemed far more probable that Said would castrate him than ever crack a joke about doing so.

They were walking out to the car when Said dropped back. “Hey I want my black cap – you know, my new Ralph Lauren one.”

Cherif felt all of his annoyance at his brother rising to his face again. Nonetheless, another argument would mean more delay, and so he settled on a moderate glare. “Quickly man.”

Said returned to the house. When he emerged again, it was without the baseball cap and, to Cherif’s instant alarm, he looked shaken.

Cherif’s mind was racing – his brother seldom looked like this. “What’s the matter man?”

“You have to come and see this. I know it’s slowing us down, but… we have to deal with it.”

“What is it?”

“It’s Mohamed. He was… well, he was… When I went into our gym he was having sex with the punch bag.”

Back inside the house, Mohamed was still struggling to bundle his penis into his flies. He looked just as shaken as Said and when he saw the two brothers, he started to blubber. Cherif worked out with this free-standing punch bag every morning and Said was now showing him the slit in the underside where he had seen Mohamed penetrating it.

Cherif smiled furiously and then turned and slammed Mohamed against the wall. “Shall we kill him?” he asked Said stonily.

Said shook his head. “No time to get another driver, man.” Mohamed had poured down the wall and he was currently cringing in a puddle on the floor. Cherif carefully pressed the heel of his boot on to Mohamed’s knuckles. “Man, we’re going to make history tomorrow. We’re going to see that our people, our faith, finally get some respect. Act in a way that is appropriate to this! If anybody ever learned that one of us had dishonoured our bodies and dishonoured the prophet by… I mean by… I mean how long have you been fucking my punch bag?”

With these words, an image even danced briefly through the plain mind of Said of his brother landing a squelchy punch on the bag and then being showered with rotten semen as it exploded open.

Still cowering on the floor, Mohamed was allowed to scuttle out of kicking distance. “I’m more sad than angry,” Cherif remarked as the brothers departed.

They collected the paintball rifles from the safe house and on their return found Mohamed waiting meekly for them. It was as if drums had started to pound, just out of earshot. They climbed into their car and soon they were sliding through the streets to the first, exhilarating test of their professionalism.

The organisation had identified an apartment in Reims which corresponded in its size and layout to the offices which were the ultimate target. This apartment had been the headquarters of a venture capital firm which had gone into administration a month back. The organisation could not guarantee that the gunmen would be undisturbed – there might be a concierge padding about the corridors – but this was in itself a test of how quickly and smoothly they could operate. There would be six men hidden around the abandoned offices and the brothers had to hit each of them directly in the chest. They should be in and out in less than five minutes.

And so Mohamed drew up outside the offices and then the gunmen were running for the door, with the open air now soaring brilliantly around them. The paintball rifle felt clumsy and brittle in Said’s hands, with the same hopeless implausibility of plastic fruit. He crashed through the office door and all around him people froze and there were mild exclamations. A lady with a blue rinse and half-moon spectacles paused with what looked like a pink feather duster in her hands. She eyed them with bemused surprise. Said fired a volley of green paint straight into her chest and she staggered back with her face screwed up.

Said stepped forward and, to his fright, he trod on a large tortoiseshell cat, which squealed with outrage.

A plump balding man appeared from behind a desk, waving greetings at them, only to yelp as a second shot of green paint got him square in the chest, caking his tie. Next Said became aware that Cherif was hissing at him from the doorway. At the sight of his brother, Said’s heart all at once trickled away. Cherif’s adrenalised state of a moment ago had been replaced with visible embarrassment.

“Man, stop! These are the wrong offices! I was looking at the sign on the door and it’s some sort of animal charity!”

“What the fuck!”

“They must have given us the wrong directions.”

“It’s that little shit not reading the map properly!”

Said turned back to the room, where the office workers were all still belatedly standing to attention. “Hullo everybody. I’m sorry to inconvenience you, but we’re from the council. We’re doing a spot check on your office security, and… you’ve done remarkably well… so… err… we’ll be taking no further action.”

It was as if the brothers had jumped back years, to be reduced to the shrill terror of children who are tearing away from a mischievously rung doorbell. They clattered down the stairs. Out in the street there was no time to stop, but unfortunately they had to. For it appeared that while they were gone an elderly lady in an invalid carriage had somehow rammed into the back of Mohamed’s car – which in all fairness to it was an old banger – and the car’s doors had fallen off. Mohamed stood beside the car sheepishly, trying to object whilst the invalid lectured him, her pudding face shaking with anger. The brothers spun on their heels and ran blindly through the streets.

“We’re from the council?” Cherif shrieked to his brother as houses cantered past them. “Genius! Fucking genius!”

“We have to get a grip” Said raged. “This is not appropriate!”

Next the little musical jingle of a police siren was gliding in the road behind them. “Throw away the rifles” Cherif ordered. “They’re shit anyway.” And so the rifles were thrown over a garden fence.

The siren was floating into their immediate vicinity. Suddenly Said pulled his brother by the arm, towards the open doorway of a squat concrete hut, some manner of community library, which was tucked back from the street behind a fountain and a display of flowers.

“Let’s hide here. We can blend in easily.”

Yet whilst they were conferring in the entrance, a tiny lady with silver hair had emerged from the library and she was beaming at them. “You’re here!” She smirked conspiratorially and tapped her watch. “Forty minutes late – we thought that you were never coming!”

She ushered them through a busy library, which was laid out in beautiful golden light under a glass dome, and into a back room. About a dozen middle-aged women, planted in a semi-circle of canvas chairs, looked up at them expectantly.

“Pop your clothes on that chair there. We’ll have you sitting on the piano – I’ve put some towels over it just to keep everything hygienic. And you, we’ll have you posing with the skull – like Hamlet.”

By now Cherif was apoplectic, but Said whispered urgently in his ear. They chewed over the matter in Arabic. It was the perfect opportunity to get rid of the clothes they had been wearing.

And so the brothers began to undress, disregarding one piece of designer clothing after another until they were absolutely naked. The little lady wrinkled up her nose – the same overly-sour smell was seeping from each of the brothers’ sweaty bodies. Some of the artists exchanged glances – Said thought that they looked a little disappointed. The black clothes were folded up and arranged in a pile on a chair by the door.

“You’re in luck today” the little lady sang encouragingly. “One of our artists is a cartoonist for the local newspaper.”

A very jolly-looking lady with flowers and fruit in her hat waved at them.

Cherif had automatically cupped his hand over his penis, but Said whisked it away. The brothers waddled self-consciously across the room to assume their designated positions. The skull appeared to be made of plastic.

“Think of what we will accomplish tomorrow” Said reassured Cherif in Arabic. The piano must have been lidless for when Cherif sank his buttocks on to the ledge, it emitted an awful, intricately-tuneless clunk. The ladies sniggered politely.

At some point over the consequent hour, Said noticed two men in sweatsuits lingering by the doorway. When he looked again, all of the brothers’ designer clothes were gone from the chair. After the brothers had been forced to compliment a collection of hideous daubs of their naked bodies, the most skilled of which looked more like a lump of kebab meat on a skewer than either of them, the brothers ventured that their clothes might have been stolen. The tiny lady with the silver hair led the naked men back through the library, to a chorus of community scandal, and into another hall where the amateur dramatics society was rehearsing. No, the director was adamant, they could not spare any of their costumes. But the tiny lady pleaded until he finally remembered that they had one left over from the Christmas matinée which they had forgotten to return to the hire company.

This day could not get any worse. The naked brothers could not be any more unimpressed.

It was the pantomime horse.