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.

copyright 2009

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