Closer to God
The reinforced double-steel door of the underground parking lot slowly retracted sideways across our view. It was too impossibly heavy to rise vertically.
We sat waiting in the Pajero, DCM next to me in the passenger seat and Burt
just behind her. Staff Sergeant Stevens pushed another button and rock barriers at the top of the drive began to sink into pre-formed slots. He held up one hand, watching the stones, until they were gone, replaced by metal grates that snapped loudly into place. His hand moved and became a salute. The kind only a Marine is capable of making. I nodded at the man, putting the Nissan into gear. Mrs. Haggerty waved to him, as well, but I knew the salute was intended for me. I smiled my appreciation. His arm came down. He pointed at the windshield as I drove by. I looked at the small white card under the wiper, then reached my hand around through the open window and claimed it.
Bright afternoon sun had replaced the rain, and a cooling wind blew through the Pajero’s open windows, as we waited to take a left onto Limuru Road. Traffic was heavy, and Kenyan’s gave no quarter when it came to driving. We plunged into the melee but didn’t have far to go. Muthaig’s crowning feature was the Safari Park, Kenya’s only real five star hotel with any local flavor.
We waited to take the turn into the hotel.
“May I call you Joyce?” I asked.
“No, you may not,” the DCM shot back, not looking at me, instead examining the wedding band still located on the appropriate finger of her left hand. “You can call me Joan,” she relented. “I hate the name Joyce.”
“You look terrific, Joan,” I said, quite truthfully.
“Fuck off,” Joan stated, her voice evidencing disgust, “don’t try your smooth, urbane, man-of-the-world crap on me.”
I checked the rear view mirror, to see Burt trying to cover his smile with one hand. He avoided my eyes.
“Thank you,” she followed up, unaccountably. The woman was confounding me. I was afraid to speak, but felt somehow, that she wanted me to say something.
I was in a verbal minefield.
“How long have you been divorced?” I tried, figuring that almost every divorced person I had ever met loved to talk about the divorce, and how rotten the other person was.
“None of your God damned business,” she hissed, massaging her wedding band hand, but looking out the side window. I waited for more, but nothing came.
“Two years?” I offered.
“Two years?” she turned on me, speaking the words loud enough to make me raise my right shoulder and wince. “Two years? What kind of idiot are you? Oh, I almost forgot, you’re a spook. One of those Southern-Fried-Chicken-University types who populate Langley. What’d you major in, Bo Weevil Mating? If I’d been divorced for two years, do you think I’d still be the DCM for that idiot?” Spittle hit my cheek.
I heard a barely audible giggle from behind me, but I didn’t look in the mirror. I finally hustled the Pajero through the broken ‘tiger-teeth’ jam of the opposing traffic.
“Ah, no,” I blurted out to her series of questions, driving as fast as I could manage to get to the hotel as quickly as possible.
“No, what?” she yelled. “No, you have a degree is something else, like maybe Burro Husbandry, or ‘Poor-White-Trash’ farming?” I shook my head, in agony.
The huge pyramidal structure of the Safari Park main building appeared and I headed the car for it like it was a laser-guided smart bomb. Supposedly the willow reed thatched buildings had been designed with clues taken from native Kenyan hovels, but in truth, there was nothing in the country that looked like the place.
Without meaning to, I skidded the Pajero to a halt directly in front of the lobby, and jumped out. I moved around the vehicle to get Joan’s door, but one of the bellmen had already attended to that. She stood waiting. Burt was out and leaning against the back fender, as if ready to enjoy more of the show. The show being my complete humiliation.
Joan headed straight for the lobby. I followed closely behind her, noting how powerfully she strode, her black pumps clicking loudly across the tiled floor of the entrance. Burt ran into me, because I had run into Joan. She had stopped too suddenly for me to avoid her. The three of us grabbed one another and swayed.
“Oh great, slimed by a Halloween spook,” she exclaimed, pushing herself from my fumbling grasp.
“Would you stop that?” I said, as quietly as I could to her retreating back.
“Look what happened to the last guy who got outed on your watch?” I followed up. She flinched, but kept walking.
“Good one,” Burt whispered behind me, which made me frown.
We trailed behind the fast moving woman through the lobby and out the back, around a great blue pool surrounded with palm trees of all sizes, and on past the cascading series of wonderful waterfalls that gave all the interior rooms of the establishment a special serenity. The Hilton, and the Sarova hotels have better rooms than the Safari, but none can come close to matching its ambiance. I knew where we were headed. The Nyama Choma Ranch Restaurant was the only thing left between us and the Muthaiga jungle forest. It was simply the finest African food restaurant in Kenya. Nothing else was close. I yearned for an Ostrich steak covered in Monkey-brain gravy. No monkeys involved, of course. Its only a name.
Under one side branch of the falls I caught a flash of movement. Then it was gone. It had been part of a head, sticking out of the bushes, viewing our arrival. I slowed. Burt stumbled into me. I was a little shaken, as I came to a stop, while Joan disappeared into the opening of the restaurant.
“What?” Burt inquired, backing up a step.
“I wouldn’t take an oath on it, but I think the Lebanese just checked us out from beyond the falls.” The water pouring down upon the rocks made talking difficult, but Burt got my message. He turned automatically, putting a palm trunk between himself and the falls.
“You still got that hand cannon under your coat?” I asked, remaining in the open. If we had walked into an ambush no thin palm tree was going to save us.
Burt nodded, but did not make any moves to access it.
“Got anything else?” I asked, feeling a bit naked.
Burt showed me three fingers, held down at his side. Special Forces hand chatter. I always liked the one where the leader takes two fingers of one hand and aims them at his own eyes, so everyone will look at him. In practice, however, I’d found that the gesture, like so many, was all for show. Anybody who could see the gesture was already looking.
“Three?” I said, in amazement. “The Mau Mau’s were put down in 1960, for Christ’s sake. Give me anything small.”
Burt leaned down by genuflecting on right knee, hand sweeping back to flick the bottom of his pant leg upward. Quickly and smoothly, like an unfolding python, the thick muscular man rose up and delicately inserted a .45 Caliber AMT automatic into my open left hand. I stuck it immediately into my front trouser pocket. The five shot auto was small, yet as thick as a full blown Colt. The bulge was noticeable, but I had little choice. Klingon’s preferred to die fighting in combat, or so they said on Star Trek, and I was not going down unarmed.
“What does it mean?” Burt whispered, his eyes never leaving the area of the falls.
“I don’t know. Not good. What would he come here for? If Haggerty decided on Executive Action, then why would the man come where the man is? He’s a U.S. Ambassador, for God’s sake. And how would he know where he was? I haven’t been able to make sense out of anything since we were out there on the Serengeti.” Joan came back out of the restaurant, looking even more impatient then when she’d walked in.
“What the hell are you doing?” she hissed, clicking up to us.
“Admiring the falls,” I covered.
“Oh great, a gay spook and his cultured Troglodyte,” she complained, in exasperation. “Paul’s in there having lunch with one of his mysterious companions.
Should I announce you or do you want to make a grand entrance?”
“We’re coming. Please show us the way,” was all I could say. The woman did not elicit lengthy response, not without dealing out considerable pain.
“What’s a Troglodyte?” Burt asked, from behind. I was about to answer when I had another thought. I stopped again, this time with the four-top table, where the Ambassador sat with some unidentified white male, in sight. “Back out Burt, this could be a hit on Haggerty.” Why else would the Lebanese not take a taxi home, but instead head straight for his antagonist. Who was the Lebanese? He’d acted as prey, very convincingly, but he wasn’t acting that way anymore. Burt backed up to the restaurant entrance, and then disappeared into a hidden alcove. I moved to Joan’s side at the table.
“What’s this?” Paul said, slowly getting to his feet. He stared at me in surprise, and recognition. I stood stunned. The man could only have recognized me if he had a file photo. I relaxed a little as I realized that someone might have called him from the embassy. Cell phones worked amazingly well in Nairobi. I didn’t carry one but I was willing to bet that Burt had three or four under his “Q” designed safari rig.
“Sit,” I commanded the DCM, pulling out a chair for her. She hesitated.
“There’s danger here, sit and act like everyone else,” I continued. She took the chair. I sat at the one next to her, across from the two men. The Ambassador joined us.
“What,” he began, but I held up my right hand. I slid my left hand into the .45 pocket at the same time. The automatic was double action, I knew. In the silence over the table a distinct metallic click sounded. The automatic was off safety. All four of us sat frozen.
“You can worry about me later Paul,” I said, conversationally. “The same Lebanese, the subject of our attention a few hours ago, was out by the falls a few minutes ago. I let him off near the airport, where he was supposedly going to go into hiding. I might have erred and cost you your life, but I don’t want Joan here, or your friend, to go out with you. What do you think?” The waiter came over and placed water, without ice, in front of both Joan and I. We sat in silence.
“Ah, how sure are you,” Paul began to ask, but I cut him off.
“This is the Choma, and the waiter just brought us glasses of water, not bottled water like you have.” I smiled, wondering if the man would get it, as I prepared to go to the floor and attempt to crawl behind some nearby decorative rocks. If anybody opened up I could count on Burt to provide intense covering fire, but his ammo wouldn’t last long. The only safety might be found in staying less than a foot off the ground. An assassination at such a notable hotel and restaurant would have to be over in seconds. Surviving the first few seconds would be everything.
“The waiter’s not a waiter?” Joan said in a low tone, her voice shaking. “What have you done Paul? What are we in?”
“Alright,” the Ambassador said, ignoring his ex-wife and speaking directly to me. “Maybe I was wrong about you. I apologize. What do we do?”
I was amazed. The man was apologizing for attempting to kill me. I sighed.
Being an operational agent for the Agency could not be taught in schools or learned in books. It was too bizarre for that.
“We leave. Slowly, without fanfare, you move toward the kitchen over there Paul, while your friend heads for the washroom in back. Joan, you’re going out all the way to the street, where you’ll wait in the Pajero. You drive. I’m going to knock my silverware onto the floor, then lean down to pick it up. If there’s fire, then you all drop and stay where you are, without moving at all. If there’s fire, it‘ll probably be at me, here at the table, where they intended to shoot. The silverware hitting the floor is your cue. Got it?” Nobody said anything. “Tell me you got it?” I instructed.
Joan murmured something, while Paul and his companion said yes at the same time. I pushed my fork onto the floor. It hit with the sound of a ringing bell.
Everyone moved. I went to one knee, then leaned under the table and fell to my stomach, turning to bring the .45 out and up. I had no more time than that. The phony ‘waiter’ stepped out of the bushes holding an old-fashioned double barrel shotgun. The ends of the barrels looked huge, as he stood only two feet over me.
My AMT was only inches from his stomach. I laid there, looking up into his eyes while taking all the slack, and a little more, out of the .45’s trigger. Slowly, he moved the shotgun aside, cocking his head, as if in question. I gave him back the thinnest of smiles, wondering what Burt was thinking, since he wasn’t doing anything. The man stepped back into the bushes and was gone. I breathed for the first time since I’d hit the floor. I then crawled to the front of the restaurant, right past the host at the front desk. He looked down at me in amazement, until he saw the automatic in my hand. Then he dropped down and disappeared.
I got up and began loping back through the areas of the falls and pool. I saw nothing of anyone, save a few tourists laying near the water or taking pictures of everything around. At the main entrance I paused to observe some kind of film crew who were set up down near where cars circled to let people off. The Pajero idled near their large, tri-pod mounted, camera. Several large Caucasian men milled nearby, and one long-haired young woman. The passenger door snapped open. I saw Joan at the wheel and Burt’s hand sticking out from releasing the door. I jumped in.
“I think we’re gonna be famous,” I said, but nobody laughed.
Joan jerked the Pajero into gear and tore off back around the circle, headed for the traffic mess on Limuru Road. “What happened back there?” she asked.
I was about to answer her when Burt made a comment.
“The woman. I saw her. At the airport in Joburg. I think she was on my flight.”
I twisted around to face him, letting go of my seat belt.
“You flew direct from Johannesburg, and she was on the flight?”
Where where you flying to? You came down from Lake Victoria.”
I watched the big man closely. I had come to trust him, but I didn’t know just how far yet.
“Zurich. Then Zurich to down here. I met Walt up at the falls, to check it out. We had a couple days.”
“Shit,” I said, out loud, turning back to face Joan. “Pull down into the traffic, and then stop. Burt and I are getting out. You take the car to the embassy. You should be alright. I pulled Staff Sergeant Steven’s card from my shirt pocket.
Give me your cell phone number.” I took out my pen to write.
“Are you crazy? You’ll get killed out there. All this because somebody was on the same plane? And that whole restaurant thing? You’re looney and paranoid, and maybe dumb as a post.”
“The number,” I repeated, patiently. “There was a guy with a shotgun at the restaurant. I think he was there for your husband.”
“Double gun.” Burt added, from the back seat. I looked back to him in question.
“Looked like one of those Holland and Holland things. Big bore.
I whistled. A gun like that would sell for a cool twenty-five thousand dollars, if not more. Whoever was involved in the mess we’d stepped into was very well heeled. And that was bad news indeed.
“He’s telling the truth?” Joan asked of Burt, her voice going up.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he replied. “Donner is the best there is. Not well liked, but the best there is.”
I would have commented but the back window of the Pajero blew out, along with the rear driver’s side glass. There had been no sound, except the whoosh and tinkle of breaking glass. Joan screamed, then drove recklessly right out into the middle of Limuru Road. Cars, vans and trucks careened and honked, but no contact was made. The SUV stalled out. I looked out the back, through the gaping hole, over the seat where Burt crouched down. The camera crew had scattered to cars and vans, now fighting one another to get out of the narrow driveway.
“The Railroad Station. We’ll wait there. When I call you, come get us.”
I flew between the seats and shot out the driver-side passenger door, Burt behind me.
“Like hell I will,” Joan yelled, “and you don’t have my number.”
I stood and put my hand up against the flow of traffic, which flowed around us like a thick school, of metallic fish. I liked the woman. She was tough as iron and she wouldn’t abandon us after we’d stood up for her. She’d figure it out.
A red mini-van, with a strange hand-painted poster of The Lion King splashed across its front, screeched to a halt, almost touching my hand. A gold stripe ran around the van’s body. I’d stopped a Matata, one of the thousands that constantly prowled the streets of Nairobi. They came in three kinds, regular, gospel and teeny. The regular one’s were for regular people, like most tourists. The gospel one’s blared reborn gospel music at impossibly volumes. The teeny ones were even worse, pumping out acid rock and rap. The latter two were mostly for locals.
Joan got the Pajero started. She joined the traffic flow. The side door of the Matata opened and a young hand waved. Burt and I crawled inside. There were already three teens inside, plus the driver and his ‘conductor,’ who collected the fare. Matatas had gotten their name from their original fare of three shillings. Now, the prices were variable, going all the way up to fifty shillings or more. Fifty shillings being about seventy-five cents American. The Matata didn’t move. Teeny conveyances were weird. They would carry people they liked, or thought were cool for free, or not let you in at all if they didn’t like your look. I could tell that the conductor didn’t like our look.
“You got any money?” I asked Burt. He shook his head. I stared at the evil looking teenager in front of me, trying to ignore the blast of horrid rap coming out of the Matata’s speakers. We had to get the hell out of there. I took off the Omega and held it up.
“Omega, Speedmaster, Astronauts took to the moon, four thousand U.S.” I said. The kid looked at the watch.
“Sare,” he said, then grabbed the watch. Sare, I knew, meant ‘free’ in the local street slang called Sheng. The kids spoke it, like pigeon in Hawaii.
“Sare, my ass,” I responded, angrily. “Railroad Station, right now.”
I tried to see out the windows of the mini van, to see if our new band of followers were there. They had to be. But I also knew they’d never be able to stay on us unless, somehow, they’d been able to attach a GPS unit to our specific Matata. Not likely. Not likely at all.
Matatas were the locusts of Nairobi streets, and they were nearly indistinguishable in outer appearance. We drove Limuru toward Mombasa Road in a veritable sea of them, our vast overpayment of fare overwhelming the driver’s natural tendency to stop for anyone else. Our teenage riders stayed with us to the station, without complaint or comment.
“Who were those guys, anyway?” Burt asked.
“Don’t know,” I answered. “They’re Caucasian, all of ‘em, and I don’t think they’re with the Lebanese. They look like Agency. And they fired on us.”
Ironically, a piece from the Lion King soundtrack blared out from the radio. Hakuna Matata played. I looked around at my fellow passengers. They didn’t seem to get the irony at all. Then the words of the song hit me. “Hakuna Matata! It’s a wonderful phrase. It means no worries for the rest of our days.”