Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chameleon, Rendezvous, Part III

Chameleon
Rendezvous
Part III

It was a hard winter, with snow coming regularly about every third day. Treks back and forth to the cache were long, and potentially treacherous. The Indian woman had proven to be more than simply difficult. She and Peter shared the lean-to, separated by a pile of supplies. The woman was cold, demanding and almost totally silent unless poked or prodded in some way. The cat demanded meat. Peter had become a good shot with the rifle by practicing on a target range he’d established by the river, and because it took fresh meat, at least every other day, to satisfy the damaged predator. He’d gotten so good at muzzle-loading that he could shoot twice in ten seconds, faster if he just spit the ball down the barrel without a patch, but not as accurately.
Neema had fashioned snowshoes from twine and twigs. The ungainly things worked well but they were extremely work intensive to use. In spite of the food supplies they had, and the constant flow of fresh game, Peter lost weight. He could cover miles in the shoes by the end of winter, however, and the rifle, which had once seemed so clumsy and heavy had become like an extra limb of his body. The woman came up with solutions to every problem they faced but never discussed any of them.
“The cat is a better companion than you,” Peter said to the woman, in exasperation one day.
“Cat likes you,” she responded.
“And you?” he asked, but there was no answer. He looked at her for a long while, waiting for the answer that never came. She worked on sewing some new piece of fur and leather adornment while she prepared their meal at the same time.
She was severely attractive. Peter felt longing deep inside his body, but rejected it. The woman was an Indian, and she had about as much regard for him as she had for the cat, which was close to nothing at all.
Peter could not touch the cat. Any time he came close the animal focused its eyes on him intently. The message was easy to read: ‘touch me and you die.’ Peter got the message clearly each time, drawing his hand back, happy to still possess the appendage. But Neema was not governed by the same rules. She shooed the animal, sometimes smacking it hard on the rump to get it further away from the fire or out from under the small leather tent Peter had built for it off to one side. The cat would simply move, and then sit a distance away, licking its bad paw. Those were the only times when the cat and he looked at one another with any understanding.
He’d taken to talking to the cat, which caused Neema to stare at him as if he was insane. The cat did not seem to mind. Somehow, Peter found it more comforting to be deliberately ignored by the beast rather than by the woman. He called the cat ‘Cat,’ which seemed to bother Neema all the more.
In the spring Peter prepared to leave for Rendezvous, hoping that he was guessing right about when the event was and what day it was in his life. The woman seemed to understand, equipping him with new lighter moccasins, new pouches for his ‘possibles’ and a fine coonskin cap. The cat simply disappeared one day in the week before. Peter had looked for the animal constantly, sometimes calling his name, then looking back to see if the woman had heard him. She never turned, however. Peter realized that the animal’s paw was probably healed and that the predator was doing what predators were set upon the earth to do. He missed whatever the cat had provided, as well as being forced to hunt successfully every few days. With that need no longer in place, his shots with the rifle seemed to miss as often as they hit.
One day, with the sun just above the horizon, Peter prepared himself to leave. Neema helped load the pack onto his back, strapping it down securely, then patting it sharply to indicate she was done. He turned to the woman, prepared to say something about his leaving and eventual return, but she walked away into the brush above the camp.
He walked for days; dry camping at night without a fire. He knew nothing about who or what might be about in the strange valley he was traversing. He moved north. He knew nothing about trapping, skinning, or even jerking beef. He also knew he was about the poorest excuse for a mountain man as had ever prowled the area. Only Rendezvous could help him. There he could find advice from real mountain men, some supplies and possibly friendship. He had money. He could pay for the advice and supplies. Friendship would be more difficult, he knew.
Once he had crossed the last swale into the final valley Peter knew he was headed for the right location. He had not run across a single living soul. In fact, he had not seen another man since he’d left rendezvous the year before. Peter heard movement in the brush off to his right side. He froze, and then slowly dropped down to his knees, swinging the beautiful rifle up smoothly. He stared over the top of the barrel into huge unblinking eyes.
“Cat,” he whispered, lowering the weapon. The mountain lion sauntered out of the brush, walked right by him, and then swatted him once across the thighs with its black-tipped tail. It sat ten feet from him, staring. Peter sad down too, cradling the rifle across his knees.
“So, you’re going to Rendezvous? That would be some scene,” he laughed out loud at the thought, “there would be real mountain men running for the hills, I’d be willing to bet.” The cat just stared, licking its lips, as if wondering whether Peter was worth biting into or not.
“Don’t get any ideas,” he cautioned the animal. “I’m pretty good with this thing now,” he said, gesturing with the rifle. The cat blinked once, very slowly, as if completely discounting the threat. Peter pulled his pack from his back, took out his remaining supply of Pemmican, about half a pound, and tossed it before the cat’s front paws. The cat sniffed, and then lay down to chew.
“There, I’ve bought momentary safety from your clutches. I’ve got to go down. Maybe we’ll see one another again some day.” The cat ignored him, as it chewed on the Pemmican. Peter began the long hike down to the bottom of the valley, where smoke rose up in the distance. He didn’t look back. He knew the cat would never give him the benefit of looking to see him leave.
Men began appearing out of the trees, walking parallel to his own path.
He heard them before he saw them. His hearing had seemed to improve immensely since living through the winter. Peter came upon the welcome scene of the rendezvous. Fires burned everywhere. Temporary shacks had been thrown up that appeared as substantial as any built on the main street of a regular town. Animals were corralled behind fences all over the end of the valley, with open areas occupied by men playing games, riding horses or putting up new tents. Peter slowed as he walked through the area, from one end to the other. He looked for the men of Jim Bridger. The same men he’d tried to get on with the year before. They proved to be easy to find. Laughing, yelling and an occasional gunshot came from their camp.
Without preamble he stepped in among them, meaning to announce himself, but he never got the chance. The same man who had fooled him into being a target for the previous year’s spitting competition encountered him directly.
“That’d be Jed’s rife,” the man stated, flatly, bringing a quiet over the entire area. The man’s outstretched finger pointed directly toward Peter’s chest. Peter stopped. He thought for a moment about explaining how he had come by the dead mountain man’s rifle, and other stores, but he again did not get the chance.
“I’ll be taken that,” the man said, moving sinuously toward Peter, his hand still outstretched, but no longer pointing. He wore a huge coonskin cap, the kind with the Raccoon’s head set above his own.
“What?” Peter asked, shocked by the turn of events.
“The rifle. He promised it to me, if he went over to the other side. You wouldn’t be strutting around with his rifle if he weren’t a deader. Maybe you had something to do with that. The rifle is mine, hand it over.” The man stopped five feet before Peter. They stared into one another’s eyes.
Peter saw mean-spirited drunkenness in the man’s eyes. He’d seen that same look in his uncle’s eyes, the day he was cast from his family’s property. He brought the rifle down from his shoulder, and then swept it up, all in one continuous move. He aimed quickly and fired. The man’s coonskin cap shredded, with bits flying all about through the air, while the man screamed, clutching his head in both hands.
Peter reloaded faster than he’d ever done before. Spitting the ball down the barrel, tamping the rifle butt once hard upon the earth, then swinging it back up into battery. Men ran all about around him. He held the rifle barrel rock steady, aiming at the recovering man’s chest.
“Gentlemen!” a powerful voice shouted. Quiet again came over the encampment. A tall man in splendid new buckskins walked into the open central area. “What do we have here?” he said, opening his arms wide.
“I’m gonna gut him,” the man who’d lost his hat said, through gritted teeth, his face near black from powder stains. His large ‘Bowie” knife was extended in his swinging right hand.
“Put that away,” the big man intoned. He was instantly obeyed, but not without complaint. “What about my cap? He shot my cap right between the eyes.”
“Tell me,” the big man demanded, looking straight into Peter’s eyes, ignoring the other man. Peter knew that he was standing in front of Jim Bridger himself.
“Jed died. Tree fell on him. I found his body. Took him awhile to die.
I got this,” Peter pulled up his Jerkin, and then carefully retrieved the paper he’d found on Jed’s body. “I found this note in his hand.”
Bridger took the scrap of paper. He read, and then began to laugh. “I’ll be damned,” he said, “that son of a bitch had more class than I thought. Actually thought of somebody else but himself in the end.” He handed the note back.
“This here is the White Man who found Jed’s body. Jed left him everything proper and legal. He’s got the paper.” Bridger talked to the men around him, almost all of whom nodded back at him in agreement. When he was done with his speech, he pulled Peter aside. “Walk with me over to the exchange.” They walked for a bit before the big man spoke again.
“You’re the tenderfoot from Ohio who came though here a year ago, aren’t you? The one my men spit on?” he asked. Peter said he was. The man looked Peter up and down as they walked. “That idiot Johnson was lucky you didn’t shoot him right between the running lights, instead of his coon. Shouldn’t have happened, what they did to you. What’d you come back for?”
“Need some advice and supplies,” Peter said, leaving out the friendship part.
“You can get all the supplies you can buy over at the store. What advice you lookin’ for? Bridger stopped. They faced one another.
“I got this rifle, skins, twenty-one double eagles,” Peter pointed at his stomach, “an Indian woman back at the camp, a cache of stuff and some strange mountain cat who’s adopted me, I think.” Peter blurted out everything he could think of.
“Don’t tell another living soul about the double eagles,” Bridger replied, looking around them, but there was no one nearby. “What’s the advice you’re lookin’ for?
“I don’t know what to do? Do I go back to Ohio and claim the land my uncle stole? Do I go back to school? Do I try to sign up with one of the companies here?
I have money, and all this stuff, but I don’t know what to do.” Peter finished, feeling exhausted in giving his huge problems over to a man of such known wisdom. They walked for a while without speaking.
“Let’s see if I got this right. You came here last year with nothing. Now you got what you learned during the winter, a fine rifle, skins, an Indian woman, a cache of supplies, some sort of mountain lion, and twenty-one double eagles. I don’t have any advice. But I do have a question. What does God have to do to get your attention?”

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copyright 2009

Monday, December 28, 2009

Chameleon, All Alone, Part II

Chameleon
Part II
All Alone
The sun shown brightly against the wall of supplies just in front of his face, as Peter groaned, working his way out from under the pile of blankets he’d pulled on top of him in the night. The fire was long gone, and it seemed that the biting cold had departed with it. He refolded the blankets, just as he would have done back on the farm, then he attacked the small wooden box of Pemmican. It was impossible to eat it fast. It was just too tough. Made from jerked lean meat, bison fat and local berries, it was considered the indispensible travel food of all mountain men, even though it had originally been created by Indians. With one pocket stuffed full of the rope-like strands, Peter chewed while climbing from the life-saving cache.
The sun was high and everything was melting when he climbed out of the hole. He examined Jed’s body. He realized that he needed the man’s leathers and gear. Travel through winter altitudes with the season just coming on was not possible in his condition. Not in the hopelessly threadbare garments he had. A hand axe lay atop all the boxes stacked in the hole. Peter bent and retrieved it. The tool was so sharp and well made that he was able to chop and worry one of the sprouting branches from the fallen oak in only minutes. Using a nearby rock for a fulcrum, it didn’t take much longer to lever the much larger branch upward, brace it and then pull Jed from under it’s fatal weight.
The man’s rifle was under the brush behind him. Peter retrieved it. His father had owned a flintlock, although he’d never taught Peter to shoot it. Jed’s gun was percussion, a much more advanced weapon. The hammer struck a small brass cartridge instead of a flint and open powder. There was no flash in the face of the shooter, no failure to fire from moisture, and only an occasional misfire, at least according to the men who had gathered for the rendezvous.
Peter hefted the rifle. He decided to examine it in more detail later. The sun was melting the snow. Before long the beaten trail Jed had made would be gone. Peter knew he needed to find out where that trail led. He stripped the body, changing into the dead man’s soft leather jerkin and pants. They fit badly.
Peter was too hefty, but they would do. The heavy leather moccasins were most welcome and nearly a perfect fit. Pulling them on, he noticed a leather band that circled Jed’s body. Loosening a leather tie he pulled the band to him. It was a long pouch. Inside the pouch, between thin folds, were new gold coins. Peter sat on the snow. There were twenty-one coins, each bearing the word twenty over the top of an eagle. They were ‘double eagles,’ Peter knew. He’d heard of them but never seen one.
Strapping the leather band around his own waist he looked down to see a piece of paper in the dead man’s hand. He pulled it free. A pencil fell from Jed’s stiff white fingers. The note said: “If White Man finds me have all. Use well. Body be buried at river, face water.” Peter tucked the note into a fold of the belt under his leather jerkin, and then proceeded to cut more branches with his new hatchet.
At rendezvous, the Indians present, those with horses, had traveled with triangular shaped devices called travois. He loaded the body onto newly cut branches, covered the cache as best he could, slung the rifle over his left shoulder, and then took up the pointed head of the travois. He would act as the horse.
The trip was not a long one. Melting snow lubricated the branches splayed out behind Jed’s bouncing body. The last hill was the hardest, not because of the incline but because of bad footing. Finally Peter came to the top of the rise. He stood, panting, gazing down upon a thin winding river. It was early in winter so the line was of black moving water instead of white covered ice. The tracks he was following also meandered in a dark line, right down to near the edge of the river.
Half sliding, half running, Peter guided the travois toward a thicket where the tracks seemed to end. He wondered what he would find. He fell twice, swore, got up and then went on. The leathers had not been dry when he started. After two plunges into the wet soggy snow they were nearly soaked through.
Smoke came from the far side of the thicket. Peter stopped, dropped the travois and crept slowly forward, peering through the branches of trees for which he didn’t know the names. His new rifle was at the ready. A lean-to came into focus, set forty feet, or so, up from the slowly moving water. He could not see inside it.
“How could a fire have burned that long?” he said, aloud.
A woman in pigtails stepped out of the lean-to. Peter almost sat down in shock. The woman stared at the thicket. She was an Indian, he realized.
“Come,” she said, very softly.
Peter backed up, regained his hold at the point of the travois, and then moved around the thicket. He lowered it next to the lean-to. The woman did not move.
Peter took the rifle from his shoulder. He leaned on it uncomfortably.
“He died when the tree branch fell near his cache,” he said, haltingly.
The woman walked to the side of Jed’s body, took a step back, and then kicked it in the head as hard as she could.
“Made sure,” she stated flatly, before returning to the lean-to.
Peter stood frozen, gazing from the body to the woman, and then back at Jed’s newly crooked neck. When he looked up again he caught movement further up the hillside, above the lean-to. Quickly he shouldered the rifle, pulling back on the hammer.
A large cougar sat not twenty yards from the lean-to, staring down at him hungrily. He took careful shaking aim, centering the top of the long barrel on the animal’s chest. He pulled the trigger. Snap. Nothing happened. He tried it again.
Another loud snap. The animal did not move. The woman walked to his side and stared up at what he was trying to shoot at.
“Cat,” she said, unconcerned, while Peter struggled with the weapon.
The cat took a few steps toward the lean-to, holding its left paw up, limping badly. It sat down once again.
“Cat sick, why shoot?” The woman asked.
“Its dangerous,” Peter said, his voice shaking, his eyes glued to the wild animal. “What’s it doing here?”
The woman sighed. “That one,” she motioned with her foot toward Jed’s broken body, “was feeding it, try to draw closer so he could take fur, but would not come close enough.”
“Oh,” Peter stated, knowingly, as if he understood. “What should I do?”
“Feed cat. Cat sick. Why shoot. Then learn to use rifle.” The woman sat next to the small hot fire when she was done. “Cat never come this close. Must know you cannot shoot.”
“What does it eat?” Peter asked, curious as to what the strange talking woman would answer.
The woman kicked a haunch of meat nearby, half buried in the melting snow.
“Deer. Cut. Throw. Cat comes close in night. No other animals. That,” she motioned toward where Jed lay, “not notice.”
“Not notice,” Peter mouthed. “And why’d he leave such a visible track to the cache?” The question had bothered him while he’d been dragging the travois.
The woman pointed toward the lean-to. Peter went to the pine and mud covered structure. Ceramic bottles, like the mountain men at the rendezvous had ‘pulled’ from lined the back of the lean-to.
Peter took out his new knife. It was a huge wonderful piece of sharpened metal. He severed the half frozen leg at the haunch of the deer, hauled it up behind the hut-like structure and tried to throw it. It thudded to the earth ten feet away.
The cat stared at him, the injured paw raised, as if in a wave of encouragement.
Disgusted, Peter grabbed the haunch again. This time he dragged it up toward the wild beast.
“If she’s not afraid of you then I’m not either,” he gasped out, slipping in the bright white snow. The cat never moved. Ten feet from the beast, Peter balanced it on end then let it fall forward. The cat slowly rose up on to its three feet. It stared into Peter’s eyes until the boy had to look away.
“Alright, alright, you can have it. I’m going now. Please don’t attack me.” He breathed the last words quietly, so the woman would not hear him. Bravely, he held his back square, not looking back as he made his way to the fire. Once there he squatted down, across the embers from the Indian. He fondled the rifle, wondering what was wrong with it, but not wanting the woman to see him trying to figure out the problem.
“Needs cap,” the woman said, in her unemotional way.
“What?” He gasped, understanding that she was trying to explain what was wrong with the weapon.
“Cap. In bag. On stomach. There.” She pointed at his waist. Peter looked down at the small bag hanging from a tied leather fringe secured to his belt. He opened the drawstring on the bag. The inside was filled with small brass caps. Carefully he took one out. He examined it. It was a tiny pointed thing, flat at one end. He brought the rifle up, pulled the hammer back and saw a similar brass surface. It was crushed. He turned the rifle over and pounded lightly against the lock with one hand. The old cap fell out. He put a new one in, and then carefully let the hammer down. He smiled thankfully at the woman.
“Load,” was all she said, looking into the fire. Peter’s face turned red. Of course, the gun had been fired and not reloaded. Jed had probably fired it to try to draw anyone nearby to him. Peter decided to load the weapon later, when the woman was not watching him. He did not know how to load the rifle, even though he’d seen his father load the flintlock many times.
“Who are you?” he asked, to change the subject. Steam came off his buckskins from the warmth of the fire.
“Take off skins. I fix. Skins too small. I take care. You no sell me.”
Peter stared at her. What was he supposed to put on if he gave her the skins? He was naked underneath. He’d left his farm clothes back at the cache. He shivered, and attempted to change the subject again.
“Name?” he asked, trying to talk like the woman.
“Neema. I Shoshone. That thing bought in summer,” she again pointed at Jed’s naked body. “Bad man. No honor. No soul. Bad heart. I with you now. Do not sell me.” Her last statement was not delivered as all she had said before. It was impassioned, and she had extended her hands before her, where they still were. Her face was down between her arms. Peter was deeply affected.
“I won’t sell you. I’m not sure I own you,” he replied uncomfortably. His life had suddenly become complex. He was a rich man. Four hundred and ten dollars would buy almost sixty fine horses, or a hundred head of cows. And now he had this woman. He looked up toward the cat, as it had moved again from where it had been. Somehow it had worked itself down to the side of the lean-to. It lay and munched comfortably, ignoring Peter and the woman.
“Cat has pride. We pride. But cat sick. Make good fur coat.”
Peter was stunned. “No, the cat can stay. Or the cat can go. But we won’t hurt it.” He didn’t know why he said the words, as they seemed to have come out all on their own.
“How is it that Jed,” Peter pointed at the body as the woman had, “said that he lived alone. That he howled at the night alone. That he’d die alone?” He didn’t expect the woman to understand him. She put her hands up, smoothed her raven black hair, and then looked at him intensely with her huge brown eyes.
“Did live alone. Did die alone. Is true,” the woman said.
Peter looked at the body, then all around him, and understood.

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Chameleon, The Cache, Part I

Chameleon
Part I
The Cache

Peter moved as quietly as someone wearing leather street shoes and fabric clothing could move through heavy snow. The trees were spaced fairly closely so he could creep from one to another in turn, wait a few seconds and then move on. That he was lost and cold no longer mattered. He had a trail. A mountain man who went by the name of Jed left his tracks nearby. The mountain man’s trail did not flow from tree to tree, as he did not appear to be tracking anyone, attempting to avoid detection.
Peter had been following the man for five days. He calculated that he was about a day behind. Both men had come from the Green River Rendezvous up above the Utah Territory. His attempt to become a mountain man at that annual celebration had been a complete and utter disaster. Coming out of Ohio, with farm clothes on his back, without a gun or proper travel equipment had been his undoing. That and his childlike wonder and enthusiasm. He could not shoot, wrestle, knife-throw (he had no knife) or tell tall tails. He also had no money. To the bands of mountain men and trappers he had been nothing but a ridiculed source of rolling entertainment. They’d tossed him coins after they’d used him as the target in a spitting competition. When he had simply stood there, not bending to pick up the coins, tears in his eyes, they’d laughed some more and taken them back. Reflexively, he looked down at the brown stains still adorning his torn woolen coat. There had been no chance at all that any of the companies filling the valley would let him join them, much less as a sharing member of their group.
He was going to die in the pine forest. He knew it, but he continued to trudge from one unfeeling foot to the other anyway. There was no place to go back to, and he lacked the energy. He followed Jed, his only hope. The man was a loner. He didn’t hunt or trap as part of a team, as most of the men did. Peter had figured that it would be easy enough to follow the man to wherever he was going. But there had been no snow at the lower altitude of the Rendezvous. There had been no intense cold. He could not go back. He knew he’d come to far. He could only go on, hoping that Jed might be holed-up just ahead. Peter knew that he could not last another night without proper clothing, a fire or a place of warmth.
He was twenty-two, but he looked fifteen. He was tallish, thick of body and whipcord tough. His blue eyes were bright with an educated glint of intensity. He could read. He understood numbers and he knew how to work, long and hard, but the snow was slowly sucking the feeling and life from his body with each swishing step. He thought about the farm, where his sister and parents had perished in the fire. About his uncle who had come and taken ownership of the land. Ohio law, the sheriff had told him, when he’d guided him to the county line.
Jed had won the shooting competition and Peter had been impressed. The beautiful English rifle the man had used had impressed him even more. Jed had proclaimed the rifle itself to be the real winner, as it had shot so straight. The mountain men had loved that. But it was Jed’s other comments that had caused Peter to follow him. After drinking, or‘pulling,’ as they called it, many times from an acrid smelling bottle, in celebration, he’d told everyone why he was a loner.
“I was born of woman who left me to be alone. I’ve lived alone, hunted alone and howled into the night alone…and I’ll die alone.” The mountain men had laughed, but not Peter. He’d understood.
“And I like it that way,” the mountain man had finished, to more 'pulling' from the ceramic container. Peter had watched the man intently after that. He wanted to live alone too, but he needed someone to teach him how to do it. So he’d decided to follow Jed and learn.
The light was beginning to fade when Peter saw a large oak rise above the pine in the distance. Following the tracks, his mind beginning to grow numb as the rest of his body, he made for the tree. A huge branch had fallen from it earlier. The great thing lay atop the snow, with only a light dusting on it’s bark. Peter squinted. The branch had fallen recently, he knew. The wound way up on the oak’s trunk was bright and fresh, although barely visible in the fading light. He crouched with the smell of smoke. Someone had had a fire nearby. He knew the smell of old wet smoke.
Slowly, Peter moved to the main trunk, then eased around. He looked for Jed’s tracks. He found them, but saw immediately that they were too thick and deep.
It was like the tracks had been made by several people walking the same path, or one person going back and forth to some distant destination. His eyes grew round. The deeper tracks began at the far side of the fallen branch. Peter ran to the mess of limbs and old dead leaves. Down through the bracken he saw the outline of a man’s torso.
“Oh no,” he whispered, gently climbing up over. Breaking branches and casting twigs aside Peter uncovered Jeb’s upper torso. A small pile of ashes lay near the man’s head.
“He lit a fire, but there wasn’t enough fuel,” he said to himself, having brushed aside enough to see the man’s pinned and mangled legs. The branch had fallen across Jed’s lower body. The man was frozen hard to the touch. Peter knew he had died during the pervious night, when he himself had almost passed, warmed only by a thick layer of needles beneath a large pine tree. He climbed back atop the main trunk of the branch, to consider how to free Jed’s body. The climbing activity warmed him, but he knew he didn’t have much light left to work in, or much energy either. Fleetingly, he wondered why it was important to move the body at all, but he discarded the thought. He jumped down to the ground at Jed’s side, having come up with an idea, but the ground was not there. Peter plunged right through the earth, wood and dirt cascading around him as he fell.
He hit the bottom hard, knocking the wind from his lungs. In panic, he clutched his chest, and then looked up. As the first breaths sucked through his gaping mouth, he stared at the broken opening above him. He breathed deeply several times. All around him were stores. Hides, blankets, boxes of lead and pemmican were neatly stacked against the walls of the pit.
“The cache,” he sighed, thinking of Jed at the Rendezvous. The men had talked of caches buried around special high mountain hideouts. In such secret store houses the mountain men kept supplies which enabled them to weather through the long cold months of winter.
Peter climbed to his feet, his head just barely rising to the height of the hole he’d created by jumping through the roof of the cache. A stack of split firewood lined one side of the pit. Conveniently, a forged iron bar and a flint striker hung from leather thongs over the wood. Using the kindling from broken door pieces, Peter set to work building a fire at the bottom of the cache. Once lit, he propped ‘Tee-Pee’ stacked chunks of fire-wood over the small fire. He then pulled down several thick blankets from a pile, threw then under, around and over him. He stared at the box with pencil writing on its side that said ‘Pemmican.’ His mouth watered but he could not move to get the box as deep sleep claimed him.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Present

The Present
By
James Strauss

The child who was not a child crouched, his back to the warm window. It was below zero in Wisconsin, but not in the deep window well. A mouse looked up at him, its puzzled stare demonstrating no understanding, but also no willingness to back down. The child smiled. He looked down at his fellow traveler, but did not extend a hand. He knew about wild animals. Wild animals survived. Wild animals fought and died over territory. He was in the mouse’s territory, but he wouldn’t fight. They could not be friends. Wild animals had no friends. He knew that, at eight years of age, for he was a wild animal himself.

His name wasn’t Zack, but that was the name he called himself. His real name didn’t matter. The police couldn’t do anything with Zack, because he’d made it up. A couple of times he’d been printed but his finger-prints were too small to register in their computerized network. He’d been remanded to youth authority custody as Zack Zack each time, a name he’d seen in a cartoon somewhere. The window was warm to his back. He turned his head to study it. The basement light was unaccountably on. If someone was in the basement he would be visible, but he’d seen no one at all in the hours he’d been there. The lock to the window was not fastened. He pushed. Very very gently he applied sideways pressure to the multi-layered glass. He didn’t have gloves. The glass was so cold, even though much warmer than the above-ground temperature. It moved. An inch. Then a few more. Warmth cascaded out, filling the window well. Zack checked back for his companion, but the mouse had disappeared. Zack was not disappointed. Everyone disappeared in his life.

He didn’t try to open the window far enough to enter the basement. He was not stupid. If he went in, and got caught, then the cops would be back real quick. If he stayed out he could jump out of the well and run.

The window was open about four inches when the cat appeared. A gray cat. Big. Sitting there, having come silently form nowhere. Zack felt a pang of fear. The cat was nearly a fourth of his own size. If it had claws it could hurt him, he knew.
The cat stuck its head through the window, its eyes wide open, unblinking, as if in question. Zack stared. He didn’t know what to do. He’d never had a pet. Cats ran when they saw him. Dogs too. But not this one. Unable to stop himself, Zack reached out one dirty hand to pet the cat’s head. The cat did not react. It blinked once. Zack patted its head several times. When he stopped, the cat stepped through the window, and then curled up on the cold detritus of autumn leaves and junk which had fallen into the window well earlier, before the snow had come.

Zack stuck the fingers of his right hand into the cat’s gray fur. The cat looked up at him, but made no move at all. The boy’s hand felt wonderful. The cat’s fur was warm and it seemed to draw his fingers in welcome. He sighed deeply. The coming night was the best he’d had in a week, no matter what. Sleeping in the fields, even under rolled crops or piled hay, had been terrible. But that was before the colder temperatures. When it was as cold as it was there was no sleeping. Zack intrinsically knew that. Sleeping in the fields was the same as dying, and he didn’t want to die, so he’d come to this house. The lights had attracted him. There were other homes about but they were all dark. He knew he would have been safer from discovery there, but the promise of warmth from the lights had drawn him in.

The lights were Christmas tree lights. A single tree, down the hill right in front of the house, glowed. Across the back yard was a row of five more trees, all lit up as well. Only one tree, in the middle of the five had colored lights. The rest were little white ones. Zack wondered why the one tree was colored. Deep snow covered the trees so the lights were a glowing soft white, except for the colored tree.

Zack loved Christmas. Not for the presents. He’d never had a present. His family had not been a family at all, just a collection of people laying around in different states of sleep. Zack loved Christmas because people were nicer during the Christmas season. They gave him money and things. That didn’t happen during the rest of the year. But he wanted a present. One Christmas present would be okay. Zack sighed again. He didn’t know anybody. He’d run from where he had been weeks before. He’d only gotten to the country because a drunken man had picked him up by the side of the road. He’d wanted Zack to drive for him, not understanding that he was only eight years old. Zack hadn’t minded the drive. The car had driven all over the road and it had been kind of fun, like circus rides he’d heard about but never experienced.

A boy appeared in the window. Zack froze in terror. The boy called softly, not looking a the window.
“Harvey, Harvey, where are you?” The boy said the same words over and over, looking up into the basement rafters, then at the many boxes stacked along the concrete walls.

Zack looked down at the cat. The cat had to be named Harvey, but he didn’t move. Zack gave him a gentle shove, but the animal just looked up at him, as if he was smiling in pleasure at the other boy’s inability to find him. The boy, who appeared to be about his own age, turned to the open window, noticing it for the first time. He saw Zack. They stared at one another for a full minute.

“What are you doing with Harvey?” the boy asked, pointing at the curled up cat.

The cat ignored the boy, remaining on the cold ground next to Zack’s foot.

“Nothing,” Zack whispered, truthfully, through the opening.

“Its cold out there. Why are you there? Its warm in here. Come in here, and bring my cat.” The small boy crossed his arms, waiting for his orders to be obeyed.

Zack crawled through the window, after pushing it open. He didn’t touch the cat. The cat seemed to know that he was supposed to follow, so he did. Both of them stood to face the child, once they were in and the window was closed.

“You don’t look happy,” the little boy said, “but Harvey seems to like you. Do you live around here? I didn’t know there were any kids around here. All the rich people go back to Illinois at this time of the year, and they take their kids. Not that those kids like me anyway. I don’t have any friends.”

“I don’t know,” Zack said, hesitantly.

“You don’t know what?” the little boy responded.

Zack’s face grew red. He didn’t know what to say.

“I think I need to go before the police come,” he forced out, turning to look back at the closed window.

“Why would the police come?” the little boy said, “Are you a criminal?”

“I don’t know,” Zack responded truthfully. “I don’t know what a criminal really is, but I may be one.”

“No, I don’t think so,” the little boy replied. I think you’re here because of Christmas tomorrow. I asked God for a different Christmas gift this year. I didn’t want a sled, an electronic game or a scooter. I wanted something interesting, like a real friend. My parents don’t understand me. So God sent you. Do your parents understand you?”

“I don’t really have parents and I don’t know about God. I went to school but only for a year. I’m not sure why. I learned to read, but I don’t have any books.” The little boy reached out one small hand. “I’m Clark, and I live here. You learned to read in one year? I can read now, but it took me three years. Maybe you can’t really read. Maybe you’re just saying that.”

Zack shook the serious little boy’s hand. “That box over there says ‘Maytag, this side must always be up," he intoned, pointing.

Clark followed Zack’s gaze, then nodded.

“Okay, you can read,” Clark said.

“Why are you down in the basement?” Zack asked, tentatively.

“Harvey,” the little boy replied, instantly, picking up the big cat, but not for long. Harvey twisted and jumped down. The boy laughed, delightedly. “Harv is my only friend, but he runs away from me and hides. He likes the basement.”

“What time is it?” Zack asked.

“Almost midnight on Christmas Eve,” Clark responded. “My parents are asleep. They ‘overserved’ themselves a bit. That means they drank booze. That’s why all the lights are on. I kind of like it. I can do whatever I want. What do you want?”

The question caught Zack off guard. He almost said that he didn’t know, but held back. He thought about what he really wanted. “I’d like a present,” he said, smiling for the first time.

“Cool,” Clark said. “I’ve got lots of presents. Let’s go upstairs and check them out. They’re all wrapped but I’ve opened every one without Mom or Dad knowing about it. Maybe you can guess what’s in the boxes.” Without another word Clark walked to the stairs Harvey followed him, then turned to look back. Zack realized that the cat was more like a dog than a cat. He liked that. He moved to follow the boy and the cat up the stairs, brushing the dirt and leaves from his clothes as best he could. The house was warm.
Clark lead him through a hallway at the top the stairs and into a front room library. A decorated Christmas tree stood against the outside window, its lights blazing with reflections of the lights in all the many decorations hung on its branches. In the distance, out the window, Zack could see the softened light of the snow covered tree in the front yard. Clark and Zack moved presents about until they’d handled every one. Zack had not been able to guess even one of the presents correctly, but he had loved trying. There was only one flat box left.

“This is from my crazy grandpa. He’s crazy but I love him. I never can guess what he’s going to give me. My Mom says that’s because he’s crazy. But that’s okay. Old people can be crazy and still love you. My grandpa taught me that."

Zack handled the wrapped box. It was wrapped with some kind of bright gold paper. He shook it. “Gosh its pretty,” he said, delaying his guess.

“Yeah, my grandpa is colorblind so he goes for the wildest colors possible. He has no clue. That’s why the one Christmas Tree outside is colored. Its for grandpa. But he’s crazy, so it doesn’t matter.”

Zack nodded, as if he understood at. He had no grandfather that he knew. The crazy grandpa sounded pretty neat to him.

“You can have it,” Clark said, out of the blue.

“What?” Zack asked, in puzzlement.

“The present. If you can guess what’s in it then you can have it.”

Zack set the box down. It was too much. He knew he could never guess what was in the box. It was like the rest of his life. He was never going to understand any of it. That was just the way it was. A tear almost rolled down his face. He grimaced, then turned away. He would not cry. He could not cry. He was in the best Christmas place he’d ever been in his life. He wanted to crawl under the beautiful tree and sleep. Then wake up and live there.

“You don’t have to guess. Here, its yours. Merry Christmas. Grandpa is so crazy he’ll never know his gift is gone when he comes tomorrow.” Clark pushed the box toward him.

Zack fought his tears back, knowing that Clark knew he had almost cried. He liked the boy for ignoring it. “He’ll know. You’re not telling the truth. I can’t take it if he’ll know.” Zack slid the box back.

Clark sat back on his think knees, staring at Zack. “Okay. You’re right. But grandpa is different. When he comes I’ll take him aside and tell him that there was this boy who came in the night and needed a present. Grandpa is the only person in the world who will understand. I just know it. He’ll just shake his head, and like me even more.”
Clark pushed the present over to Zack again.

This time Zack grabbed it and tore the wrapping off. It was a small model train. Inside there was even a small transformer. He opened the box very carefully. The train was from Switzerland, a place Zack had never heard of but loved the sound of its name name. Both boys worked to set up the tracks into an oval. They connected the transformer and plugged it in. The train ran. Zack could not believe it. The present was a marvel of wonder. A small light illuminated the engineer in the engine compartment. They ran the train around the oval many many times. Finally Clark told Zack that he had to go to sleep. Carefully, they packed the train back into the well formed box. Zack followed Clark upstairs to the bedrooms. Clark showed him his sleeping parents. Both of them snored gently. The boys smiled at one another.

“My Dad is kinda serious when he’s awake, but he’s a great dad. He wears an expensive watch called a Nardin, which I’m not allowed to touch, but I do when he's in the shower. Mom acts silly but she's not, even though she's a blond. She's okay.

Zack made believe he understood. They moved to the last bedroom on the floor. Clark climbed into his bed, then pulled the covers up to his neck. A small blue blanket was on the pillow next to his head. He reached for it, then inserted part of it into his mouth.
“Mom says I have to give up my blanket soon, and Dad says my 'rag' is unhealthy.”

“Its okay,” Zack said, standing next to the bed, with the train box under his arm, wondering what it would be like to have such a blanket.

“Will you be gone when I wake up?” Clark said, his voice beginning to grow sleepy.

“Yes,” Zack said, gazing down upon the boy.

“Are you the friend God sent me?” Clark asked.

“Yes” Zack replied, not knowing why he said it.
“Will you come back again.? You can live in the basement. Nobody will know. And then we can play every night when my parents are asleep. Harvey can come too.”

Zack stared at the boy. Clark’s eyes closed, then his breathing slowed, although the blue blanket never left his mouth. Zack reached for the light switch, and then flicked it off. He stayed for a few more minutes, just watching the sleeping child.

Back before the window in the basement he crouched. His back was to the glass, which now felt icy cold. He would sleep until morning and then be gone. The train set, his first Christmas gift ever, was clutched tightly under his right arm. Harvey lay stretched across his left ankle. Zack thought of Clark, in the bedroom way above him, as he waited for the dawn.

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copyright 2009

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Diamonds and Rust

Closer To God
Diamonds and Rust
Chapter VII

I carefully removed five more one thousand shilling notes and presented them to Wendy.
“That’s about one fifth the average wage in Kenya. It ought to get us dinner served in this cabin, and, unless my judgment about such things is sadly flawed, your natural allure ought to count for something.”
Wendy took the money. I saw a glint flash from her eye under raised eyebrow. I wondered how much of the five thousand would end up in the hands of the crew. She and Dingo headed out into the aisle.
“Who are you two?” I asked the remaining women.
“I’m Helen and this is Anice,” the blondest of the two blonds said, waving one hand toward her companion.
“Where you from?” I asked, making conversation while I thought about everything that had happened to us since stepping aboard the train.
“Troy,” she said, noting my lack of real attention.
“Helen of Troy…neat,” I responded with a smile.
“Why don’t you two join your friends at finding us all something to eat?” I said. I held the door open. Anice went by me, her short curly hair so thick and tight it resembled Velcro. When they were out of the room I secured the one-sided deadbolt. I stood before Burt.
“Want to tell me about it?” I asked him, pointedly, my arms crossed. He watched the evening countryside go by for at least a full minute before answering.
“Ah, about what?” Burt answered, his tone evidencing both ignorance and innocence at the same time.
I frowned. I was not accustomed to my team members withholding information pertinent to the mission, nor on acting independently.
“The three bad guys you forced to leap from the train. Take a close look at the window next to you. They’re safety latched, but you’d play hell at getting them open far enough to squeeze a full grown American through without using a lot of time and tools. Then there’s the terminal nature of what would have likely happened to guys. I don’t think you’d send three men to their deaths that way. I know something about you now. You didn’t force them from the window, so where are they?”
I watched Burt consider. I was determined not to be surprised at whatever he came up with. I didn’t know what had happened to our pursuers, but I knew Burt was lying about whatever had happened.
“I’m sorry, “ Burt apologized, But this isn’t a mission you know. Not anymore. I don’t have to report to you or do what you tell me. We’re on our own. I said I threw them off the train to impress the lassies. I haven’t been with a woman for awhile.” His eyes left mine to roam again across the moving Savannah.
In spite of myself, I was surprised. Burt was impressing young women while three guys, apparently still on the train somewhere, were trying to kill us for unknown reasons. I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to respond to that part of what he’d said, so I ignored it.
“Where are they?” I said instead, getting right to the point.
“Back in their cabin. Just like I left ‘em. One has a broken ankle and the other two broken wrists. They don’t have any guns. I threw their cell phones out the window.” Burt offered the last as if it made up for his earlier lie.
I glared at him, getting control of myself before speaking.
“This is a mission and I’m the mission commander, unless you don’t want to survive. We’re not going to get through this by trying to impress young women. We won’t live long doing stupid things like throwing their cell phones away either. Those phones had numbers and identities on them. Now you either accept that or you’re on your own. And, if you accept it, I don’t want any more of this crap. I make the decisions, on everything. That’s what I do. You implement those decisions in the manner I tell you to. That’s what you do. And you don’t keep anything from me. Got it?”
My voice had dropped in both tone and volume. Burt and I were in more trouble than I could calculate. I needed him, but I could reasonably survive without him. On his own, he wouldn’t last another day.
Helen of Troy’s voice could be heard through the solid wood door. She had one of those irritating nasal voices, but her looks were so great you tended not to notice when in front of her. I waited, my hand on the deadbolt, staring back at Burt.
“Alright. It’s a mission. I’ll do my part.” This time Burt's tone was sincere, but I didn't know what to think. However, Burt was all the team I had.
I twisted the small brass knob. Four women filled the cabin, settling onto bunks and floor as if a gaggle of geese looking to forage.
“It’s done,” Wendy stated, proudly. “They’re bringing dinner in about an hour, between the early servings. I couldn’t understand their word for the meat.
I think its called Punda.”
“Punda milia,” I added, instantly sorry I’d spoken up. The words translated into striped ass or Zebra.
“Means beef, I think,” I recovered, looking over at Burt, who was staring at Dingo too intently to pay attention to me.
“About the sleeping arrangements,” I began, but got no further. Obviously, the Earth Mother’s had discussed more than dinner when they had gone to the dining car.
“You’re sleeping in my bunk. I’ll stay on the floor with Helen. Burt can have the padded bench, with Dingo on the floor next to him.” Wendy’s rapid delivery gave away the preparedness of her comments.
There was silence in the room. The earlier arrangements discussed had seemed to include a whole lot more than just sleeping, but the amended plan suited me perfectly. The last thing any of us needed was more complexity, although I could not ignore the fact that the small room was going to occupied through the night by four attractive females and two men who had not known many women of late.
“The train is likely to stop soon,” I informed them. “While its stopped would be a good time to have dinner served. I’ll try to time it right,” I said, gesturing toward Burt to accompany me. Wendy frowned, but asked no questions.
“Wine, you have more wine. Might as well trot it out. We’ll be right back.”
I slipped out into the passageway with my last words hanging in the air. We didn’t need company with what we were about, and the Earth Mothers were just a bit too bright and adventurous. Keeping them from participating in anything would not be accomplished with force. Especially not since I’d allowed one of them to become armed. Our current and continuing presence in their lives was a risk to them, however, and I would not overlook it.
Burt led our passage through the dining car. I marveled at the old world charm of the d├ęcor. Red leather, deep brown wood and polished glass. It resembled some Hollywood director’s idea of what a dining car should look like, rather than what you would expect to find in a third world country. Eating in the cabin would be much less entertaining, but a whole lot more secure.
We made our way to the last car. We reached the last door, which Burt plunged right through, his weapon out and raised. I noted that the lock had been shot away, just like the one in our door.
Three men were in the room. Two sat on one lower bunk, opposing us, and the remaining man sitting on the floor, propped up against the wall. With the bunks down, there was not much floor space in a Fourth Class cabin. Burt moved deep enough into the space to allow me to sit on the lower bunk, across from the two men.
“Who are you gentlemen?” I asked, no threat in my voice. Burt’s gun was out and ready, but mine still in my pocket. They looked at me. The man on the floor had the broken angle. It was evident from off angle of the bones. The other two had wrapped wrists. One right wrist. One left wrist.
“Left handed?” I asked Burt, pointing at the appropriate man, but his attention was on the three men.
“Who are you people?” I inquired again. None of the three answered, each looking from one to the other.
I noted the very bottom of a tattoo sticking out from under the short sleeve of the one with the broken right wrist. I stepped carefully over the broken ankle of the floor positioned one. I pulled the sleeve gently upward. The tattoo was in blue. It was of the head of a water buffalo. Then I noted the age of the man. He was not young. Older than I, all three of them were, and I was old for the business.
“Thirty-two Battalion?” I asked. The man nodded once.
“Shit,” I mouthed to myself.
“What is it?” Burt asked, gauging the regret in my tone.
“Thirty-two Battalion is the old Boer Commando outfit, disbanded in 1993, I think. It was pretty hot shit. All three of you?” I pointed at the other two. I received no answer.
“Burt here will be glad to take your shirts off, and then break your remaining joints,” I offered. The one who had signaled before did so again.
“Who are you with now?” I inquired, not expecting an answer. I waited, but I knew I was wasting my time. The situation could only play out in one of two possible ways. Either the men were actually going to jump from the train, at high speed with their injuries, or they were going to see reason. I could only play the cards I had been dealt. I couldn’t change them.
“Okay. Have it your way. I don’t expect much. I know you guys. I was a United States Marine. I have a mission to perform. Either Burt here tosses you off the train or you tell me whom you’re working for. I’ll work something out. It’s not much that I’m asking. No names. Not even what this is all about. “ I waited, while once again they looked at each other. They had to be mercenaries. They worked for the money, so their loyalty was not to a cause. But their habit patterns where from the old school, and it would near impossible to break them down. I was not willing to resort to physical torture, and I didn’t really have the equipment for such an operation anyway. Physical torture always works. On everyone. No single human is immune, or tough enough to ‘gut it out,’ as that is the province of movies and television. But it comes with a high price, for the tortured and the torturers. I’d tortured. I knew the price, and I was no longer willing to pay it.
“Aegis,” the man said, his voice low. “Diamonds. It is about diamonds.”
I sat back stunned. Aegis didn’t bother me. It was one of the mercenary companies operating out of London. There were bunches of them. But his volunteering of ‘diamonds’ perplexed me. Tea, textiles, coffee and a few other things were exported from Kenya. There were no diamonds. Not that anybody had ever found or reported on.
“Where,” I asked, not sure what I expected to hear. And what I got I did not expect.
“Freetown.” We cannot tell you more. Our families will never be paid if we tell you.”
I liked the fact that the man was thinking about the money Aegis would pay out to their families following death. I had their full attention. There was no Freetown in Kenya. There was a Freetown in a place that had a ton of diamonds, however. Sierra Leone. A shit-hole of a place. The unadvertised, unclaimed, and nearly unknown, poorest country in Africa, which was saying something.
“We cannot give you anything else. Do your will.” The man bowed his head. Without sharp instruments and a controlled environment I knew that I wasn’t going to get more.
“Lighten up, Francis,” I quoted from the movie Stripes. “You did what you were asked. Here’s the deal. I’m gonna pull the emergency stop.” I stood up and grabbed the single line running corner to corner near the top of the car. “The trains gonna stop. Only you three will be here. They’ll come in hordes once they figure out the cord was pulled in this room. Stopping the train is a First Class Felony in Kenya. You’ll be arrested, guarded, and taken to jail in Mombasa. When you get there one of you needs to confess that he did it. Claim drunkenness. The natives think all White Men are drunks. Or you can claim that you need medical care from the injuries you suffered fighting with one another. Once one of you confesses the others will be set loose. Strange Kenyan Justice. The two released can pay the fine for the felony, and then you can get some splints and treatment for your problems.” I stopped and looked at them carefully.
“If you don’t claim you did it, then there is going to be trouble. Burt here is going to take your going back on your word badly. You won’t survive this mission, I promise you. I want your word as an ‘Os Terriveis’” I stopped again. Portugal had contributed a lot of men to 32 Battalion, and had loaned it the name “Terrible Ones,” not without good cause.
“We agree,” the man said, this time without looking to the others for approval. I was giving them a rare gift, and the man seemed to understand. It would be safer to leave them for dead, strewn along the harsh landscape of the beautiful Savannah, then have them reaching their superiors to tell of their contact with us.
I pulled down hard on the cord. Squealing sounds came from the wheel brakes of our car. It was going to be a slow stop as the emergency cord only worked for the car it was pulled in. The train whistle blew long and loud. The crew had figured out that there was a problem.
I took out another ten thousand shillings and placed them firmly in the man’s good hand. “You’ll need this for the fine. They won’t take your cash when you’re in custody. Trust me, I know about custody in Kenya.” I then took my box of cigarettes out and offered one to each man. They sat there, each with a white tube sticking out of his mouth. Burt brought out a lighter and went slowly from man to man, keeping his suppressed automatic trained on each while he lit their smokes.
“Dankie,” the man said. Dankie is Afrikaans for thank you. He slipped the bills into his shirt pocket. Burt and I stepped out of the room, then made our way quickly back to the dining car, which was full. The non-stop train was slowing to a stop, which caused a lot of discussion from everyone around us as we made our way through.
“What if they try to lay it on us?” Burt asked, just before we reached the room.
“They’re screwed. Strange Kenyan Justice. They’re the ones in the room where the cord got pulled. The exact place is registered down by the side of the car, near the tracks. There’s no Crime Scene Investigation over here.”
“Will it work the way you told them?” Burt inquired, his voice evidencing skepticism.
“I lie when necessary Burt, but I’m not cruel. Those were brothers-in-arms, whatever path they’ve taken since, and, because of your ‘assistance’ they won’t be a problem for us anymore.” I didn’t mention any of the problems that might arise from they’re eventual report to higher ups.
Wendy welcomed us into the room, locking the door behind us. I noted another empty bottle of wine primly set against the far wall, where a partially filled one sat next to it.
“We’ve been wondering where you were. And the train is almost stopped, just like you said would happen. How did you do that? And, when are we going to get to Mombasa?”
I laughed at her tone and obvious gaiety rather than her comments.
“When is dinner served?” I asked. I was terribly hungry and so very tired. I looked up at Wendy’s upper bunk with longing.
“It’s coming. It’s coming, Wendy giggled, but first we want to sing you a song.
Dingo has a ukulele. It’s made from Koa wood carved in Hawaii."
I slunk down the wall between the bunks. I prayed that there were no more players aboard the Iron Snake. Our stopping had risk. Anyone paralleling the train on the Mombasa Road could use the opportunity to get aboard. We could only plan for so much, however.
The Earth Mother’s started their song, the words brining an immediate rye smile to my face: “Well, I’ll be damned, here comes your ghost again…”
The song was a Joan Baez thing from many years in the past. I knew that the final words were: “…and if your offering me diamonds and rust, I’ve already paid.” I hadn’t understood the phrase any of the times I’d heard it. I could never figure out what diamonds had to do with rust, since diamonds are a crystal and rust is, well, rust formed on iron. I listened to song, being sung by some of the toughest angels I’d ever come across, and I knew that diamonds and rust did indeed go together and that the amalgam was one of hardship and pain, just as delivered by the words of the song.

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copyright 2009

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Iron Snake

Closer To God
Iron Snake
Chapter VI

I grabbed the extended hand, going into a double wrist-lock for additional support. Burt’s arm retracted like a hydraulic ram coming up out of a ditch, and I was pulled straight to the top step of the car. I stuck my head out into the increasing wind as the train accelerated out of the sharp curve. I was the last aboard. A well-groomed conductor retracted the stairs, and then stood looking at us as if viewing zoo specimens. We were at the end of the last car. He blocked the aisle without seeming to do so. I produced our tickets, which he examined, clipped twice and pointed forward with, before returning them to my hand.
We’d waited an hour for the train under Ficus trees, called Mugumo locally, that lined the tracks, with an assortment of natives impatient to clamber aboard with us. Apparently, once aboard, the conductors charged a lower, negotiated price, than could be had at the ticket station.
Our First Class sleeping car was located just beyond the dining car. Most of the overnight train configuration was spent on Fourth Class Fare, which meant four bunks to a room. Burt and I had only two, the extra space taken up by a bench seat with a long private window.
We made our way down the aisle, situated along the left windowed wall of the car. The only cars with center aisles were the dining and day-seat cars. The creak of wood and clicking of wheels were comforting sounds of security. The room was a welcome haven from events of the day. At least it was until I looked at the door. I moved past it, raising one hand to stop Burt. We stood on each side of the door looking at the holes around the handle. Small bore bullet holes. The kind slow, sub-sonic silenced rounds make when they enter wood.
I looked at Burt. Neither of us brought out any weaponry, although there was nobody in the corridor with us. There would be no one inside the room, which I confirmed by pushing the now unlockable door open with my foot. It swung wide, allowing us to see every inch of the space. No one waited because they would have been waiting inside an inescapable trap, in the event of problems. We were up against pros, who wouldn’t expose themselves to the whimsy of chance unless they had to.
I went around the inside of the room, poking my finger into holes on the far side wall and then the frames of our bunk beds.
“Why’d they shoot out the lock? The doors don’t have keys. You can only lock them from the inside.” Burt asked, pulling the bottom bunk down from the wall with a thud, and then sitting atop the mattress.
“Not anymore,” I answered. “Kind of gives me the idea that we’re gonna have visitors later, and they don’t even care if we know ahead of time.”
“Cheeky bastards,” Burt sighed. “Why they treating us like citizens?”
Citizens are regular people. People who have no knowledge of intelligence work, guns, pyrotechnics, or real violence. We call ourselves, and others like us, players. Once you are a player you can never be a real citizen again. Most of us think we can, but in truth, it just can’t be done. “Paranoia bites deep….” the song goes.
“Maybe that’s all the intel they have. Maybe we’re just a hit to them. Maybe they don’t have a formal organization behind them,” I mused, taking a place on the bench seat. The scenery going by was the outskirts of Southern Nairobi. Broken blocks, tile and brick, mixed in with metal sheets in a state of angled falling rust everywhere. And dust. Tons of gray dust runneled through with dark rivulets of muddy water. And native peoples everywhere. Three stone fires sending up hundreds of single plum smoke signals wherever I looked.
Our door flew open. My left hand slipped straight into left front pocket, the forty-five bearing on the door open through the cloth of my trousers. A woman stood in the door.
“Evening mates,” she said, loudly and cheerfully, her rough but attractive face broken nearly in half by a huge smile.
“Hi,” Burt mumbled.
My hand relaxed out of my pocket. I was staring at an ‘Earth Mother,’ as we term them. Young women, mostly from England or Australia, some from America, who come over to Africa and then wander about the countries in their comfortable boots. They invariably wear shorts, long sleeve shirts and carry packs that have to weigh more than seventy pounds. Their lack of fear and sense of adventure has always impressed us.
“We got wine if you got an opener,” she stated, with a great laugh.
I was taken aback for a few seconds. An Earth Mother without a Swiss Army knife? I couldn’t picture it. Then I realized we were being invited over for social reasons. The bottle-opener was cover.
“Sure,” I responded, assuming that Burt had more tools behind the padding of his multi-purpose coat.
“Americans?” the woman asked.
We didn’t answer.
“I know from the accent,” she went on, turning to lead us to her room, as both of us had risen to our feet. “’Hi,’ like ‘Hey’ is strictly American. Then there’s the ‘sure’ comment. Another dead giveaway.”
She was Australian, I knew, from her own heavy accent, but I didn’t reply, only following her two berths down the aisle, where another door was open.
“Ever go see the Flamingos,” she inquired, but not waiting for an answer. “At that lake outside of town American tourists like to go to? Down there they always say the same thing when they see the birds: ‘Oh my God, they’re so pink.” She laughed heartily. I had to laugh too. Her impersonation of an American, totally over done, had been vividly descriptive and funny.
We filed into the room. The woman closed the door behind us, engaging the lock with a loud click. There were three other women in the room, all heavily tanned, all smiling broadly. I was humorously glad that I was armed. Burt produced his own Swiss knife, bottle-opener extended. He went to work on a bottle.
“Four of you in a two-bed First Class room?” I inquired.
“Sleeping bags,” the woman named Wendy, who’d invited us in, answered. “First Class room is two hundred shillings less than a four bed Fourth Class.” I marveled, as that amount of local currency was worth about three bucks, and then took a seat on the floor, my back to the outer wall so I could face the locked door. We’d already had a lesson in just how secure those were.
We drank two bottles of red wine. The label read ‘Terpenja Garnacha,” which I knew was Spanish, and surprisingly, not that cheap. Burt and I nursed ours in paper cups, knowing that there were other players aboard who’d have to be dealt with at some point in the night.
“They call this train the Lunatic Express, you know,” Wendy commented, her voice beginning to slur. “There was a lot of opposition to its being built by the British in the eighteen hundreds,” she slurred on.
“Iron snake,” Burt stated, speaking for the first times since we’d entered the cabin. We all looked at him. “Its what the natives call the train,” he followed, his expression showing surprise at our rapt attention. “Kikuyu. The natives are mostly Kikuyu, not Masai,” he finished, almost guiltily, eyeing the remaining wine in his cup.
I couldn’t believe that I had heard correctly. My formal education was in ethnology. Cultural Anthropology they used to call it, before they wanted everyone to think it was all about the study of fish or bugs. I understood the origins and interaction of the cultures in Kenya. I simply could not believe that a Knuckle-dragger, especially a huge dumb-looking one like Burt, would know anything about such things.
“Where the hell did you go to school?” I asked him, without thinking.
“Thornton Fractional,” he replied, proudly. I knew it to be a high school located somewhere in South Chicago. I didn’t know why I expected some center of higher education to come out of his mouth, but I had.
“You two don’t even know each other? Wendy inquired. “We thought you were companions.” The women all laughed, while Burt’s face grew red.
“I’m not gay,” he said, his voice small amid the raucous sounds filling the room around us.
“So, are you married?” Wendy asked me, directly, her first two words coming out as one.
I said I was.
“All the good ones…and all that,” she replied, then went on, “What’s her name?”
“Joan,” I answered, not having a clue as to why I lied, or used that name.
Burt almost laughed out load, held back only by the angry frown I sent across the room at him.
“Gotta use the loo,” Wendy said, unlocking the door. The other women paid full attention to Burt while she was gone, he having indicated that he was single. I presumed that they were merely practicing their skills, as Burt and I were a good fifteen years older than any of them.
Wendy re-entered the room. “Some Bogans down at your place,” she stated, offhandedly, before being surprised by Burt’s instant rise from the floor.
“What’s a Bogan?” he asked, opening the door a fraction, then drawing out his suppressed automatic. I joined him, the AMT Hardballer in my left hand, pointed down. The room went silent and still, the sounds of the train seeming to grow louder with each passing second.
“What have we got?” I whispered.
Burt held up one finger, then pointed aft, toward the dining car. His finger then tapped his own forehead.
“Okay, out you go. I’ll give you ten minutes.” I checked my wrist, but there was no Omega there. I cursed.
His gun disappeared. He was out the door and gone, seemingly more smoothly and quickly than a man his size could move. I slid the forty-five back into my pocket, then turned to face the women. They sat frozen, one with a cup of wine halfway to her lips. I slid down the door, sitting with my back to it.
“I wont stay long, just until Burt gets back. You’ll never see us again, once we hit Mombasa,” I said, my voice soft but flat.
“Mombasa,” Wendy replied, her voice no longer slurring. “It means ‘Battle City’ in Nandi,” she said, matter-of-factly. I didn’t reply, instead waiting for the inevitable question. It came, but not in the form I expected.
“Who are the others?” Wendy inquired.
“We don’t know,” I answered, truthfully. “They came at us in Nairobi because of something that happened in Mombasa. So we’re going there to find out. They don’t have good intentions.”
“That wasn’t a normal kind of gun, the one your friend has,” Wendy stated.
“We’ve seen a lot of guns on our Walkabout. That one’s not normal,” she repeated.
I had nothing to say. I didn’t care about lying to the Aussies, but I could see no reason to add anything I didn’t have to, other than about Joan being my wife, and I couldn’t understand what had made me say that in the first place.
“He’s the killer, so what does that make you?” Wendy asked, the other women opening a third bottle of the wine, as if they commonly spent time in enclosed spaces with gun-toting hitmen.
I again did not answer, setting my cup aside.
“You’ve drunk our wine. We’ve taken you in. You owe us something,” she said, slowly, with quiet expressive meaning.
I looked at all four of them, trying to decide what to say. If there was a code for such encounters, then Wendy was right. Our taking up with them had, at the least, saved a potentially violent confrontation, which might not have worked to our advantage. And she had warned us. I took out the wad of local currency and peeled off two bills.
“Two thousand shillings,” I intoned, putting the money in front of Wendy’s feet, since she made no move to accept it with her hand.
“More,” she said, with no smile on her face or in her voice.
I took another bill from the roll, but she held out her hand.
“Enough money. Tell us more.” She pulled her hand back, then filled her cup to the brim with red wine.
I sighed and put the roll back in my pocket. “We’re agents. It doesn’t matter what kind of agents. One of us got killed in Mombasa. Burt and I came to redress that loss, but nothing when right. When I inquired, these guys, who we don’t know, came at us. Shooting. We can’t go back and we can’t go forward until we know more, which is why were going down to where we lost that agent.” I finished, hoping that my explanation would be enough.
“Can’t exactly go back to your berth, now can you?” one of the other women said.
I had no answer. The woman was correct in her assumption. Unless I could be certain that none of our pursuers were on the train, it would be very risky to stay in the berth we’d booked. But it wouldn’t be any safer elsewhere on the train, unless it was in a berth nobody knew about. Like the one I was in.
“Since Burt isn’t married, he can stay with me, if he doesn’t mind the hard floor,” the woman went on.
“What’s your name,” I asked her.
“Ruthie,” she answered. “Ruthie Jorgensen,” she fluffed her bright blond hair, as if to indicate the obviousness of her Scandinavian heritage, then went on, “but they call me Dingo, because I don’t talk much.”
“Well, that’s more than kind of you Dingo, but Burt’s much older than you. Women don’t take to men like us, and they usually have better judgment than to marry us,” I warned her.
“Except for Joan, that is,” Wendy said, drinking her whole cup of wine down, before going for another.
“I’m not married, since we’re trying to talk truth here. I lied, to fit in better."
"Joan,” I said, and then paused. I could not minimize Joan, “Joan’s a real woman, but with somebody else. And yes, you’ve shared your wine, your room and your friendship with us. That deserves something, which is what I’m trying to give you. Our problems are not your problems, and our problems are very serious.”
“Than you can sleep in my bunk,” Wendy said. “I mean, since your not really married.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Far from rejecting us, the women were welcoming us into their lives, at least while we were all aboard the train.
“Listen to me. We lie for a living. Violence is our stock and trade. We’re not good men. We’re just tools, guided around out here by people who don’t necessarily have the best interests of humanity at heart.”
“Is that part the lying?” Dingo asked, her face serious. I massaged my face with both hands. I had never encountered Earth Mothers, except in passing, and I was finding the experience frustrating and difficult to deal with. I also noted, when I was done talking, that the two thousand shilling notes were no longer on the floor. Wendy smiled, as if in thanks. I wondered, by the time the train hit Mombasa, whether Burt or I would have any currency left between us.
There was a very soft single knock on the door. I felt it rather than heard it.
The bad guys would not be knocking, and there was also no way they could know which cabin we were in. I stood and opened the door. Burt slipped in, and then took his place near Dingo where he’d originally sat.
“What’d you find?” I asked him.
Burt looked at me, then at the women, then back at me, without speaking.
“They’re in,” I told him. “We’re staying with them. Don’t ask how or why. Talk to me.”
With an expression of reservation written across his face, Burt talked. “They had a Fourth Class room let. There were three of them, all Caucasian. They decided that it was in their best interest,” Burt stopped, looking around the silent room carefully, “to leave the train before we got to Mombasa.”
“This is a non-stop,” Wendy stated, analytically.
“Any blood? Clean-up? Disturbance?” I asked, ignoring her.
“No. They were in the last car. I popped the emergency latches on their window, and out they went. Had some duct tape, so the window won’t flap, or anything like that.”
“You made them jump from the train?” Wendy asked, obviously stunned. “But the train is going a hundred kilometers an hour.”
“Would have been nice to talk to them. You didn’t question them, did you?” I interrupted.
Burt looked at me, his expression showing guilt.
“No, but I did get these,” he said, laying two RAP automatics on the seat between he and Dingo. She immediately caressed the surface of both pieces.
“Parabellum?” I inquired of him. He said nothing, confirming my analysis. The guns were nine millimeter’s produced by a small company in South Africa. That company supplied the local police forces. The weapons were not normally available on the private market outside of that country.
“Boers. Shit. What the hell do the Boers have to do with this?” I said the words to myself, thinking. “You find the suppressor?”
A gray, powder-coated cylinder joined the two automatics. I stared at it for a moment. “SAI,” I asked. Again, Burt did not answer. “Shit,” I said. At every turn with these unknown assailants we were being confronted with an abundance of capability and quality material. SAI was a company out of Denmark. They produced a ‘carbon’ silencer superior even to an oil-filled device, but they were usually more expensive than the weapon they were fitted to.
“Get rid of them,” I said, concluding there was nothing more to be learned from the weapons.
“Can I have one?” Dingo asked.
“Me too,” Wendy followed, instantly.
“Alright, take them, but not the suppressor. That goes out the window.” I was unable to keep the exasperated tone from my voice. I was traveling from Nairobi to Mombasa in the middle of the night aboard the infamous Iron Snake, trapped in a room with people equally as crazy as I, if not more so. The thought did not give me comfort.
“Way cool,” the supposedly silent Dingo intoned, using her caricature of an American accent. “What about dinner. You can’t go to the dining car can you, I mean with those others having gotten off the train early?” She stroked here new acquisition while she talked. Burt smiled at her, and then produced a magazine filled with cartridges. I looked from one of them to the other, wondering which one of them was in more trouble.
I took out my wad of shillings. “These seem to work wonders here. I think we can manage dinner in the cabin.

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copyright 2009

Monday, November 9, 2009

Have Gun Will Travel

Closer To God
Have Gun Will Travel
Chapter V

The Yaya shopping complex came up quickly as Sam curved in off Argwings. The place was covered with local woods, all blonde, accented with near iridescent
blue lettering in bad English; “y go anywhere else” right up over the entrance. It was off hours at the Java House so we got a table. Two, after I pointed across the place when Burt and Sam walked up. I stopped Burt to halve the wad of shillings I carried, happy to get rid of the stuff.
“Two Kenyan double ‘A’ class ones,” I said to his departing back. I wondered if he’d heard me, but then, the man had proven to be anything but a conversationalist. I took the available corner seat, so I could cover the front. I knew Burt would cover everything else. I wondered if the kid had a gun, but dismissed the thought almost as quickly as I had it. Stevens wouldn’t send one of his men into the field unarmed.
“You wanted coffee?” I inquired of Joan, attempting to gauge her mood.
“Ah, doesn’t look like what I want is at issue,” she said back, stiffly.
“I apologize, “ I said, with a sigh. It had been a long day, and the evening ahead didn’t look much better. Burt and I had to get on the train while avoiding
surveillance, which would certainly be on hand. Quite possibly it would be safer to take the car, now that drone strikes guided in from some secret Texas location were not in the cards. But I needed a night’s sleep, and so did Burt. The kid could handle the all night drive.
“Doesn’t matter, really, but its why I generally find people like you pretty disgusting. Women are not some service instruments to be led and controlled by ‘Promise Keeper’ males.”
I had heard those words before, from the Reborn Christian movement, wherein men sought to gain control over their family life, which really meant their wives. I thought it a bit more complex than she was portraying it but I let it go. I knew I had a habit of calling women ‘girls,’ and telling them what to do. I didn’t like it in myself, and I was working on it. But I was stung by her words, nevertheless.
“You know people like me? I thought I was in pretty rare territory, being what I am with the Agency and all, not to mention the military, the combat, the travel and tragedy. “ I stopped myself. I was there to get information, not attempt to win an argument that was unwinnable. That I liked her had no bearing, and it was not going to make her any more predisposed to like me.
We looked at one another across the table. I noted that her mouth naturally curved up, like it did a lot of smiling, even when she was not, like right then. She was just South of forty, I guessed, and with her looks, had had a tough time passing that milepost. Divorced less than two years ago. I wondered whether age had had anything to do with it. But I didn’t have any experience in marriage. Divorce was all around me. I tended to ignore it. There was nothing more boring than listening to someone detail just how rotten and evil their former partner-for-life was. I had always wanted to blurt out ‘so you’re saying that you are terribly shitty at selection?’ but I never had. I had maybe three friends on the planet, if I counted Burt, and I was topping the forty mark too.
“Do you like Africa?” she asked, speaking just as Burt showed up with two coffees, served in beautiful ceramic mugs, with containers of cream and old-fashioned cubes of sugar on the side.
I inhaled deeply, and then looked around, as I put a dollop of cream into my cup. “The place stinks. Nobody uses deodorant, except for the Wazungu, like us.”
I hated the Swahili term for white person. It reminded me of my childhood, when I had had to endure the term ‘Haole’ every day at school. The ‘H’ word we later called it. In Kenya, it was the ‘W’ word. “And there are parasites everywhere, once you get out of town. The dust is awful, almost all the time. The heat is oppressive, and the rain is seldom cooling or satisfactory at all.” I quit talking for a moment, to stir in my cream and sugar.
“I love it,” I finally concluded. “I don’t know why.”
Joan smiled, and then laughed for the first time, flipping her lovely hair when she did. It bounced several times. “There’s a phrase here that I don’t think you’ve heard. One that explains just what you just said.”
My eyebrows shot up. I thought I’d been pretty damned original, and I also knew I’d been around the Dark Continent for a bit.
“Africa is closer to God. That’s why you love it. That’s why I love it. Its impossible to explain to people who don’t live here.”
“Africa is closer to God,” I repeated, liking the words as they came out, but not really understanding how they applied.
“Who got shot?” she asked, catching me off guard. Her light inflection of the words told me that she didn’t really believe it had happened.
“You were shot at, in the car, as we left the Safari Park,” I reminded her, for credibility’s sake.
“What are you talking about?” she asked, again surprising me.
“The glass blowing out of the windows. I don’t think you missed that part, as you screamed loud enough to deafen Burt and I. The glass reacted to a bullet, fired from behind us by a silenced weapon.” I watched her slowly lower her coffee to the table, her complexion going like the song, a whiter shade of pale.
“I thought you broke the glass out for some reason,” she said, her voice shaking, her ceramic cup doing the same thing. I moved my head back and forth slowly.
“Something happened here. I don’t know what. But its important enough for people to have hired professionals to go after me. And now Burt. And they don’t seem to care that they might kill the DCM of a major United States Embassy as collateral damage. I need to know what you know. All of it, and I need it now.”
“You said that Rajic tried to get my husband killed.”
“You ex-husband,” I reminded her, looking at the wedding ring still on the appropriate finger of her left hand.
“That’s none of your business,” she fired back, covering her left hand with her right. “He tried to kill Paul, our Ambassador. What craziness is that? You’re just agents, you and that gorilla, but he’s an Ambassador.”
“You’re Ambassador?” I quipped, not being able to stop myself.
Joan’s color went from pale to red in an instant.
“Who do you think you are? Who do you think you’re talking to. No little puissant like you is going to insult me.” She started to rise to her feet.
“Please,” I begged, touching her left arm. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. My life is at stake here. I don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into. But I know that I’ve now dragged Burt and Sam into it, as well. And you. I’m a good agent, but I’m used to working with a script. I’ve got no help at all. Help me.”
She sank back onto the solid mahogany chair. The hushed sound of her clothing adjusting to new positions denoted the expensive nature of their fabric.
The woman was one class act and I was being forced to treat her that way.
“Call the goddamned CIA. Don’t you have some ‘Control Central’ or something?” She sipped her coffee after speaking, which, for some reason, I took to be a good sign.
“Control Officer. His name’s Lee, “ I blurted out, for no good reason at all. Just another of many violations of protocol and procedure I was wracking up since flying into Jomo Kenyatta Airport only the day before. “I can’t call. What am I going to say? That I violated orders in speaking to Rajic? That I’m responsible for an attempt on Paul’s life? That I’m trying to find out what really happened to Smith, who was a friend of mine? That I’m not going to let these new clowns shoot at me without killing them?”
Joan shook her head, frowning deeply. I noted that she didn’t use Botox. I liked that. Except for the fact that she held my very existence in contempt, I liked everything about her.
“I can’t reach Lee. Not yet. He’d have to recall me instantly. I won’t be listed as having gone rogue, but they won’t provide me any support until things get a bit more sorted out. They’ll be mad as hell that I’m not filling them in on anything. They lust for data. Any data. All data.”
“Oh,” was her only response, her eyes refusing to meet mine.
“Tell me about Rajic. I was informed that he had a jewelry business by the Airport here. Hell, I dumped him not far from there this morning.”
“He does, or rather his cousin or uncle does. I don’t really know. His main business, and his place of residence, is a ferry down in Mombasa, and he goes by Raj, not Rajic.”
“Raj owns the private ferry running out of Likoni?” I asked. There were three ferries joining the island of Mombasa to the mainland at the South end. Only one was private. It was a ramshackle ferry. I knew because I’d ridden it. Old, steam powered, rusting away, but filled with people bustling and laughing for every cruise. Mombasa had been trying to get rid of it for years but it was grand-father’d in.
Mombasa had a population of nearly a million, as much as that of San Francisco, but piled onto an island one fourth the size of Manhatten. All three ferries were jammed during daylight hours.
“And you know him how?” I continued.
“He’s come by at least once a week, to the Embassy, for over a year, although he’s been known to disappear for months at a time.”
“You know him? Talk to him? What?” I asked, in some frustration at the woman’s reticence to give any detail.
“I’m Deputy Chief of Mission, for Christ’s sake. I know just about everything that goes on there. Keep your shirt on.” She scowled, taking in more Kenya double A, some of the finest coffee on earth as long as you got the biggest ‘class one’ beans.
“Doesn’t seem like you know much about what Paul has been up to? People are trying to kill him, me, possibly even you. So give me what you have.”
Joan colored, her cheeks going to what I knew had to be some shade of red. I liked it, even if I couldn’t really identify the color.
“He’s a little scum-bag of human detritus, who’s never spoken to me. He’s only capable of leering at women. One of those.”
“Maybe he found you attractive,” I offered, instantly wishing I hadn’t.
“What are you? One of those men who a woman can’t even wear a skirt around? One of those animals who find women to be merely receptacles for their inadequate deposit?”
A silence descended over the table. I drank the cooling coffee, admiring my thick ceramic mug, the letters ‘J.H.’ glazed to its surface. I’d of considered stealing it if it the letters were ‘J.D.’
“You’re right,” she relented, after a few minutes. “I don’t know anything about any of this. I’ve never had anything violent happen during my service. I’m going to talk to Paul. He’s not a bad man, but he’s a fool.” She once again touched her wedding ring.
“Haggerty. You going to keep the name?” I risked, waiting for her to strike.
“Kilkenny. I’m taking back my maiden name when I get to the States. I never liked the ‘hag’ connotation of his name. I suppressed a laugh, covering my mouth with one hand, as if to wipe away a speck of foam. The ‘kill’ part of her maiden name had blown right by her. I was relieved my name wasn’t Kenny.
“What if they’re on the train?” She asked, after a moment.
“They probably will be,” I answered. “They’ll have the airport staked out, the rental car agencies, the major roads and yes, the train. They think we have to get out of the country any way we can, and we don’t have Agency help. So, some will probably be on the train.”
“Why don’t you just come to the Embassy and stay there. Nobody can get you there. When this all blows over you can leave.”
I laughed. “Now, who’s the Ambassador again? And how did we come to be targets in the first place? Paul had something to do with that. Stevens is cool, maybe Tyrell is okay, but I don’t know that, and I’m going to find out what happened to Smith.”
“You’re not a believable man,” she answered, forcefully. “I don’t think for a minute that Paul would have anything to do with violence. Certainly not terminal violence, and now I’m starting to sound like you.”
“That would be me,” I raised my cup to her, “the man who disgusts you.”
“I didn’t say that,” she retorted. “I said that men like you disgust me. That’s different.”
I couldn’t see the difference, in listening to her, but also knew that she had no helpful information to give me. I got up.
“What’s your plan?” She asked.
I ignored her. Burt and Sam were deep in discussion across the room, which was beginning to fill up with late afternoon patrons. Work ended early in Nairobi, or not at all, down in the sweatshops South of city central. I walked away, to have a moment with them.
I joined both men, taking a chair with my back to Joan. “She’s quite an amazing woman,” I said, for no good reason at all.
“Yeah,” Burt replied, “She’s a real sweetheart.”
Sam said nothing.
“Take her back to the Embassy, no matter where she wants to go. This thing that’s going on is hot. She’d make great hostage material, and I also get the idea that not everyone knows she and her ex-husband are not close anymore.”
“Yes, sir,” the young Marine responded. “When I make the run down Mombasa road, do I take out any opposition, or what?”
I liked the kid’s attitude. He had to be all of twenty, and he was ready to take on the world, even when he didn’t have a clue as to what was going on or whom we were opposing. But then, he knew about as much as we did.
“You packing?” I asked him, as quietly as I could.
“Duty nine. Sixteen in the back, with a Remington twelve.”
My eyebrows went up. Stevens was not messing around. Nine millimeter hand gun, M-16 automatic, and a twelve gauge shot gun. God, I loved Marines. There was nothing to be said. The kid would have to make decisions on his own. It was his life on that dark hard road, not ours.
“How you gonna get on the train?” he inquired, changing the subject.
Sam Hill did not need any more data so I didn’t answer his adolescent question. I rose from the table. “Hit it. Zero seven hundred tomorrow, or so, expect our call, or come looking.” I went back to Joan.
“Sam’s gonna take you wherever you want to go,” I lied. “I’ll call you sometime, maybe when this is over.
She stood, brushing non-existent lint from her beautiful clothing. The bottom was a skirt, and it allowed for her shapely legs to be seen. I looked away before she could notice me taking any interest. I’d had enough pain, not that she was done giving it out.
“Casablanca. This is the scene at the airplane, right?” She smirked.
I took the hit with barely a grimace. We did not say goodbye. Joan and Sam simply left. I turned away in case she looked back. I didn’t want her to see me watching her leave.
“What now, Old Hoss,” Burt intoned, when we got back to the table, making me feel like Michael Landon on Bonanza.
“Is that my name on your cell phone?” I asked back, still irritated with the woman. The Casablanca shot had hit home. She viewed me as some kind of phony macho cowboy, like Tyrell, only worse.
Burt pulled his phone out, flipped up the cover, punched some buttons, and then turned the lit screen to me. It read; “Paladin,” in small black letters, before the number to my phone.
My eyebrows went up. “Have gun will travel? From the old western television series?” I asked.
“A knight without armor in a savage land,” he responded, with a deadpan expression.
I still didn’t know what to make of the big man. Knuckle-draggers were named for the walking appearance of upright Great Apes. When they moved, their knuckles dragged on the ground. Burt was an enigma, and the mystery of his behavior bothered me, not that I could do much about it.
“You figured out the train?” he asked.
“Bus. We’re gonna take a bus to Muthurwa terminal. The tracks take a ninety-degree turn down the road from there. Train slows to five miles per hour, or so. We jump on and we’re gone. Lots of people get on and off at that corner, but I’m willing to bet our ‘friends’ don’t know that.
“You called in?” I asked him, as nonchalantly as I could.
“I’m big, not stupid,” he answered immediately, sipping from a second coffee he had on the table. I was sorry I’d asked. Right then I didn’t think the Agency wanted to hear from us anymore than we wanted to talk to them.
“What were your orders?” I inquired, getting to the heart of the matter, with respect to his place on the mission.
“If you went the wrong way, I was to take control of you, then take out the target.” He drank deeply of the hot Kenya double A.
“Take control of me? Is that Executive Action or just another name for it?” I asked, using the term we used internally for assassination.
“What do you think?” he asked back, not really putting it out there as a question. Nobody at Langley wanted any part of hitting an active agent. The phrase ‘take control,’ was perfect for purposes of plausible deniability outside, but its meaning to all of us inside was clear.
I patted my left front pocket. “This AMT only holds five rounds. I used one. Got anymore?”
Burt fumbled into one of his inside coat pockets, and then came out with another magazine. Surreptitiously, he passed it to me. I checked the first round, sticking up out the top of the small thick metal device. It was pointed, but solid.
“No shot-shell for the first round?” I inquired with a wiry smile.
“If you need a second magazine, then you’re shooting at the right guys,” he answered, adding, “his fast gun for hire heeds the calling wind.”
Neither of us smiled or laughed as I tucked the loaded magazine into my back pocket. Burt was either the best man I have ever worked with, or quite possibly the worst. I could not know which, sitting in the Java House, lost in a truly strange, and now savage, land.

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