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.
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.

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.
copyright 2009

Saturday, November 7, 2009

"We're Going To Mombasa"

Closer To God
We're Going to Mombasa
Chapter IV

We didn’t make it to the Railway Station, instead stopping the small van down around City Central near Kenyatta Avenue. The driver, conductor and two other teen passengers had remained silent during our trip, not that it would have made much difference with rock blasting from all the speakers. The conductor had rotated once to look at us, with attitude, but something about us had kept him from commenting, or doing anything else.
Burt and I were broke. We had to have cash, which meant we needed an ATM. A few businesses would take credit cards, but not many, even in a large developed city like Nairobi. Africa was third world, outside of a very few places. Our Teeny Matata plunged back into the ‘fishball’ of traffic as soon as we were out. I watched my Omega disappear with a glum expression.
“Got a cell phone?” I inquired of Burt, hoping that I had not been wrong about his over-supplied pack rat nature. I was not disappointed. He handed a small phone over to me.
“Will it work here?” I said, opening the Star Trek flip cover. I wasn’t sure why I’d asked the question, as I already knew the answer. Burt didn’t bother to reply.
I examined the phone. It gave the time of day in big numbers on the screen. I knew that young people did not even wear watches anymore. They got their time from cell phones. I wasn’t that young.
“Agency?” I went on.
“Safaricom chip,” Burt said back. That meant the phone was on a local system instead of any international. It was a relatively untraceable way to communicate, but I wasn’t thinking of calling anyone until we knew more of what we were involved with. Phone calls would give more information out than I was comfortable with. I wondered what other toys Burt had. The mission had been cadged together at the last minute. There had been no clearance meetings, or even initial planning sessions. Things like ingress, egress, communications, armament,
and even financing, had been thrust upon us instead of being homogeneously put together with forethought and design. I put the phone in my pocket. Now I had a bulge on each side, but high fashion was not something common to Eastern Africa.
“Braclays is over in Queensway House on Kuanda,” I pointed out.
I walked in that direction, looking around to see if any of our pursuers had picked us up. If they were Agency personnel we would not have much time on our own. The Agency was terrific at surveillance, and two white guys in downtown Nairobi would not be too hard to find no matter who was looking.
We walked into the lobby of the bank. There were private security guards stationed everywhere, including one on each side of a bank of ATMs. I inserted one of my Visa debit cards, punched in the four-digit code and hoped. Local shillings were all we were going to get from any ATM in the country, which was okay, except for the fact that the largest shilling note issued was for a thousand. With the exchange rate running at about seventy shillings to the dollar, that meant a
Thousand-shilling note was only worth about thirteen dollars.
I used four cards to get a total of sixty thousand shillings out of the machine. The stack of bills was over an inch thick. I shoved the folded wad into my back pocket and we headed for the door. Nine hundred bucks, or so, would have to do.
There was nobody noticeable on Kaunda Street, so we crossed to the Catholic Basilica. We went straight in through a huge gothic entrance. The place was straight out of the dark ages, with tourists gathered together in small guided clumps.
I took Burt all the way to the front of the huge old church and sat him in the front pew. Unconsciously, I genuflected before taking a seat next to him. The lighting was dim to the point of darkness. The place was perfect.
“Stay here. I’ve got to berth us aboard the train going east tonight.
I’m less noticeable alone. Whatever we ran into started down there, where Smith died, so we’re going back to the scene of the crime, if we live that long.”
I looked over at the big man, wondering what the hell he was doing. I was known for my rather unconventional behavior, which had gotten us into the mess we were in, but it was uncommon for wet workers like Burt to be anything but sticklers for following Agency directives and rules.
“What about the woman? You told her to meet us. You don’t think she’ll come?” Burt asked. I rubbed my forehead, thinking for a moment.
I do think she’ll come, but I don’t want to take her to Mombasa on this, not that she would go. I wanted her to meet us so I could talk to her about what she knows. We can’t drive all night down to Mombasa. We’d be sitting ducks on that rough road. The Agency has drones. We have to hope that whoever is after us will calculate that we’ll run to Jomo and fly out as quickly as we can.”
“We’re going to Mombasa?” Burt asked.
“Yes, we’ve got to get out of Nairobi.
“We’re going to Mombasa,” Burt repeated, this time with a strange tone of enthusiasm. I had more questions about his involvement but they could wait until we were on the train.
I left him there, heading of across the downtown common area for the station. I realized that I should have asked to see if he had a second phone, when the cell phone in my pocket rang. It was Burt.
“I have another phone. The number’s on the dialer, titled King Kong.”
I thought about his self-derived nickname he had given himself. I tucked away a thought to examine his phone to see what he’d chosen for me.
“Thanks,” I responded, not knowing what to say. The man was proving to be an enigma, like maybe a bear with human intelligence would be. Burt hung up. I waited until I was tucked into a corner alcove of the Kenya Bank, right across Haile Selassie Avenue from the station, and then flipped the phone open again. I called Staff Sergeant Stevens, hoping he was still around. I was compromising the cell phone by calling the Embassy, but I had little choice. I had to have more data. I did not believe that the Agency had sent men to kill me. It was just not done. There was no need. They could just recall me and lock me up any time they wanted. They didn’t need to kill field agents. They had worse punishments. Imprisonment and loss of retirement were much more feared punishments, and very commonly applied. In the final analysis, when Burt had been instructed to shoot me, he had refused. Field agents did not kill field agents. There was no career left to an agent who participated in such action, and we all knew it. It was not even entirely believable that he had been ordered to do such a thing.
“I can’t tell you anything at this point,” Stevens said, without preamble.
I held the phone out and stared at it for a second. Whether Burt’s phone was already target material, or whether Stevens had been waiting for an unknown call, I did not know, but there was no point asking. Stevens was a Marine, first and foremost, above wife, country and even God. It resonated through him.
“Is she coming?” I asked.
“Tower, in twenty,” he said, and then hung up.
I turned to my right and looked up at the tallest building in East Africa. The Times Tower. That was the tower. Twenty, in Marine parlance meant twenty minutes. She was coming. I was relieved, and intrigued, by her conduct. I hadn’t been absolutely sure that she would come. Not nearly as certain as I’d led Burt to believe.
Seeing no one of any consequence over at the long cinder block construct of a railway station, I crossed the street and entered the facility. I was always surprised that it was clean. Even the bathrooms were clean. And the rain earlier in the day had helped, giving the place a fresh, although local, scent. I went to the line of booths under a sign that said “Kenya Railroad Berthing Allotment.’ I could not help looking around suspiciously as I approached the attendant behind his bars.
“Two, first class cabin for Mombasa.”
The man looked at me, the black visor of his blue cap shined to a high luster. As a former Marine myself, I could tell that it was polished leather and not the fake Corfam junk. There was one train to Mombasa every night. It arrived there, from Nairobi, early in the morning. Tickets were booked in advance, and for cash.
“Papers,” the man said, primly, holding out one hand toward the slot under the bars.
I took out my wad of shillings, peeled off four of them, then slid them through the slot. The 1st class fare to Mombasa was posted on the chalk board behind the man. It said nine hundred shillings. I waited. He stared down.
“For two,” he said. “Private room with clean bedding and first service in the dining car.”
The money was gone when I looked down. I had not seen the man’s hands move. He took two tickets from a drawer, shoved them toward the slot, then looked behind him and made believe he was concentrating on something else. I let him, taking the tickets and walking back toward the platform, until I saw the woman.
A white woman stood out form the building, peering up and down the platform, as if looking for a train. But there was no train, nor would there be until the evening run was ready to be made at around seven. The events at the Safari Park had occurred so quickly and intently that I could not recall if the woman was the same as the one with the camera crew. But she was looking for something. And I knew I was being looked for. I went into the restroom without going out onto the platform. From a stall I called King Kong and filled him in, about the woman and about Joan’s pending arrival, now only fifteen minutes away. Burt’s analysis was better than mine. If the woman was there, then the others would be in the area. We decided that I would try for the Railroad Museum just north of the station.
Before leaving the bathroom stall I removed a full roll of toilet paper. I carried it with me in my right hand. The station was not crowded, which was unfortunate for my purposes, although no one gave me the slightest glance as I went out to the street side, gained the far edge of the building, and then darted across a twenty yard concrete expanse. The Railroad Museum was right there, with an old engine and cars lined up next to it. I hid behind the cars, kneeling to look up from under them. I did not observe any extraordinary interest or pursuit. After a five-minute wait, I did see the woman. She stood at the outside lip of the wooden platform. She gestured with one hand toward someone who seemed to be in the direction of my position, but I couldn’t see who she might be waving at. Finally, I went through the door into the museum.
The object of the woman’s attention was obvious once I was through the door. A large white male stood in front of me, his arms extending up and outward, as if to engulf me. Without thinking of the potential of terrible repercussions, my left hand went down. I brought the small forty-five up out of my pocket, flicked off the double-sided safety and walked right into the arms of the huge man. His attempt to grasp me never reached conclusion. I jammed the AMT into the side of the toilet paper roll, pressed the arrangement hard into his belly and squeezed the trigger.
The sound was not nearly as loud as I thought it would be. The toilet paper roll shredded, but the man, amazingly, did not go down. Instead he held both hands to his stomach, an awful expression of pain on his face and a mewling grown coming form his open mouth. I marveled. The man appeared to be made of something tougher than hide, gristle and hair.
I ran, using a casual lope, which covered ground quickly but made me look more like a jogger than someone running from something. The gun stayed clutched in my left hand, so small it was invisible to anyone who might have been looking my way. I could not have run with a two-pound chunk of metal in one front pocket. One thick hand waved from around the far side of the bank building, as I approached.
“What happened?” Burt asked, when I pulled up next to him, reseating the gun out of view.
“What in God’s name are you using for ammo?” I shot back. I had never known a forty-five round, at close range, fired into a man’s torso, to leave him standing and complaining0.
“Shot-shell,” Burt said, rather ruefully.
I waited, looking back around the corner for some sign of pursuit, but there was none. When my head swung back I spotted the Pajero across the side street, just pulling up to the steps of the Times Tower. Burt saw it to. We started out together while he talked.
“I load a cartridge of birdshot as the first round. In all my guns. I’ve had a few occasions where I shot the wrong guy. A few years back I decided that I’d rather apologize for causing pain and misery than live with the other result.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The man was demonstrating an application of intellect and good judgment that I had never seen from any gun or pyrotechnics expert I had ever met. His forethought had saved the day. There would be no unexplainable dead body at the museum. No Caucasian ‘tourist’ slain by terrorists or robbers. The man I had hit would be marginally injured and very likely ambulatory. No cordons. No investigations. Our train trip was still possible.
“What’s the second round, some sort of nuclear device?” I asked, not entirely kidding. Burt didn’t answer. We were upon the car, which was not driven by Joan.
A young blond male with short hair sat behind the wheel. I got in behind him, while Burt went around. The DCM was in the front passenger seat.
“Drive into the traffic,” I told the kid, assuming he was one of Steven’s Marines. Without a word he wedged us in among the Matatas, trucks, and other conveyances trying to get from Kenyatta onto Mombasa Road. I looked behind us, but could not make out anything, but realized we had been either followed to the Railway Station without our realizing it or our behavior had been predicted.
“Thanks for coming,” I said to Joan, “and who are you?” I followed, rapping the youngster on his right shoulder .
“Corporal Sam Hill, Sir,” he answered. “I got the week off for leave but nowhere to go. Sergeant said I might come with you guys, if that’s okay.”
He looked to be a teenager to me, but most Marines do, as I get older.
“A guy just got shot back at the museum, and we’re being hunted by people we don’t know. Are you sure you want a piece of this?” I retorted. I didn’t mention that I’d done the shooting.
“Yes, sir,” the boy-child replied, filled with enthusiasm.
“Why’d you come?” I asked Joan, noting that her medium cut brown hair was perfectly combed. It seemed to float around her head. When she turned to face me, it bounced on its own a few times. I felt a warm glow. She’d carefully prepared to see me again.
“I wasn’t doing anything else,” she said, then smiled for the first time since I’d encountered her. I had a million questions I wanted to ask her but none of them had anything to do with our current situation.
“Thank you,” I repeated, getting control of myself, enough to find out what we needed to know. “How did your husband get involved in a CIA operation?” I asked her, directly.
“He’s not my husband, and I don’t know, but I know he did. What was it all about?” she asked me, in return.
I noted that the nails of her left hand, draped over the side of the seat, were manicured, and painted to a high gloss. I could not tell the color, as blue was the only color I really saw well at all. Her eyes were intensely blue, with thick brows over them. I could see those. She had a stunning presence.
“What happened to Smith, down in Mombasa?” I countered, ignoring her question.
“It didn’t’ start in Mombasa,” she replied. “It ended there, down in that prison outside of town.”
“Shimo la Tiwa?” I asked? I knew the prisons of Kenya. Not hellholes like the prison typified in the movie Midnight Express, put out in the seventies, but dirty bad places to try to survive in, especially for a Caucasian.
“G.K,” she said, shaking her head, “I think it was called, from what I heard.”
G.K. were the two letters mounted above the iron grate entrance to Shimo prison. I’d never found out what they stood for, but I said nothing to Joan. We had a location to work back from. It was also instructive that Smith had been in prison, not in jail. It spoke of an unlikely permanence.
“Where did it start?” I asked her.
“What?” Joan replied, not focused on the data I was trying to get from her.
“Smith. You said all of it started somewhere. Where?” I asked, patiently.
“Oh,” she answered, taking her time. I wondered if it was because of perplexity or evasion. “At the Embassy. Smith came to see Paul at the Embassy.
Neither of them were happy about the meeting, but I don’t know what they talked about.”
“Was your Communications Director present for the meeting?” I inquired, wanting to know if the local CIA ‘cowboy’ stationed at the Embassy was involved.
“That guy?” she came back. “Tyrell? No, why would he be there?”
I couldn’t believe that the DCM of a major embassy could remain unaware of the facility’s only CIA operative, however ceremonial his role was, but I let it pass. I would deal with Tyrell later.
“We’re going down there, to Mombasa,” I told her, not really understanding why I was giving her any information whatsoever. I just felt that I had to trust somebody and, for some reason I could not fathom, I found the DCM to be imminently trustable.
“The train. You’re taking the train tonight, aren’t you?” she correctly assumed. “You’re going after Rafiq, aren’t you?”
I didn’t answer. Rafiq Salim was the name of our Lebanese target from the mission. I tried to think of why Joan would think we would pursue him down in Mombasa. The Agency had informed me that he lived in Nairobi where he ran a jewelry business. Without prompting, she gave me the answer.
“He lives down there. His family runs one of the ferries.”
I almost groaned aloud. Whatever we were involved in just kept getting more and more complex. I couldn’t seem to find any truth in anything.
“What do you want me to do, sir?” the corporal asked.
“Well for one, Sam Hill, I want you to stop calling me sir. My name is Jack.” I didn’t make the obligatory joke about ‘Sam Hell’ as I presumed he had been living with that all of his life. “Then, when we’re done here, I want you to drive this vehicle down to Mombasa. You have a cell phone?” The boy handed me a white card, like the generic Marine Corps card Staff Sergeant Stevens had given me. There was a Kenyan number on it in pencil. A ton of numbers really, but they seemed to work.
I noted that he was attired in a worn canvas outfit, with lots of pockets. He looked like an assistant to a tour director for one of the tourist ‘safari’ adventures, or maybe one of the redemption-seeking workers for an aid agency. In Kenya to seek redemption from living a life of spoiled ease and meaninglessness. Joan’s information, if it was valid, changed everything. Mombasa was revealing itself as the key to our mystery, or at least the place where the key might be found.
“When you get down there, and you should arrive hours before us, go to the Inter-Continental and hang out. I’ll call you. We need a car down there, and it might as well be this one.” I could not rent a car for cash in Kenya. Renting another car, no matter what the bribe, would take a host of paper and plastic backup I was not willing to give out. I no longer believed that the Agency was after us. But somebody with assets and motivation was. I was not going to give them anymore than I absolutely had to.
“The embassy is locked down,” Joan said.
“How’d you get out?” I asked, but then didn’t wait for an answer, already knowing that Stevens was at work. The Ambassador would be howling mad when he discovered his ex-wife, his DCM, was not there. “When you going back?”
“Tomorrow. I’ll catch a Matata home. I don’t understand any of this and I need to think, and maybe drink half a bottle of Grey Goose while I do it. Can we go somewhere and talk? Do you have time? Is there some place?”
I was surprised by her request. I was also surprised, however, that she had gotten out from under an embassy lockdown. The woman was starting to amaze me even more than Burt. We had several hours to kill before getting aboard the train, and we needed to be someplace where we could be off the streets. The bottle of Grey Goose sounded wonderful, but it was not to be.
“The Java House, on Argwings, just off Kenyatta, you know it?” I said to the corporal.
“Kinda,” he answered, biting the sir off before it came out of his mouth. He made me feel old and slow, totally unlike what I got from Joan.
“Make it so,” I said, emulating Jon Luke Piccard from Star Trek.
“Engage,” he laughed back, diving out of the traffic, across two medians and reversing our course of travel. I noted that another vehicle tried the same maneuver but only managed to create a massive traffic tie-up behind us. Whoever they were, they were persistent and good. Just not as good as a crazy teen-aged Marine driving a Pajero in downtown Nairobi.
“What changed?” I said to Joan, as the Pajero rocked back and forth, avoiding all manner of obstacles I tried not to pay attention to, only too happy to be taking the train instead of riding with Sam.
“What changed about what?” she retorted, holding fast to the sissy bar mounted above her window.
Communicating with the woman was maddening.
“We’re going to Mombasa,” Burt said, unaccountably.
copyright 2009