Thursday, January 28, 2010

On The Job, a short story...

On The Job
James Strauss

Forty-Second Street combines thousands of semi-repaired potholes to run it’s multi-lane misery past the Hyatt Hotel. Some call it the Grand Hyatt, but they’ve never stayed there. Traveling veteran’s call it the TAS, for ‘That’s A Shame,” which is the expression one hears cross the front desk when guests complain about having no hot water. The hotel’s water pipes run through the subway tunnels built directly underneath the structure. For some reason, unknown to any city employee or private plumbing contractor, the hot water to the hotel is almost never hot, nor delivered at any acceptable pressure level.
The subway station, and the TAS attached above it were on Hobson’s beat.
He’d been a New York City cop for eleven years. It had taken him almost that long to get a street beat instead of motor patrol. Mostly he spent his time inside, drinking coffee, rousting street people, or writing the numerous petty theft reports for the gallery owners who suffered continuous losses from shoplifters. Hobson never caught shoplifters. He’d had a variety of young partners over the past two years of running his beat, however, and it had taken some time to teach them that there really wasn’t much shoplifting to police. The reports written were for insurance claims. The shop owners made a bit of extra profit by juicing their insurance companies by making up claims.
Hobson liked partners. He had somebody to talk to when he had a partner. Metro was a comfortably safe job but it was boring as hell. The people who flowed through the hotel and underground station moved all the time. Fast. They did not stop to converse or pass social time. On top of that, all of the employees of the hotel worked like beaten dogs. They had no time to stand or sit around and be interesting. They were respectful, but not social.
Hobson’s only regular acquaintance was a small time crook and shoeshine expert named Kevon. The man had a whacked out expressive personality and almost never stopped talking, unless it was to listen to one of Hobson’s numerous stories about when he’d been a parking enforcement officer. Kevon, pronounced ‘Kee-von,’ loved the ridiculous excuses people sometimes tried to get out of a parking ticket, only one of which had ever worked. A beautiful woman had lifted her blouse to show Hobson her breasts once. That had worked. Hobson still saw the breasts sometimes when he lay in bed smoking his last cigarette of the day.
Kevon shined Hobson’s shoes for free. He gave him his best ‘before and after’ shine. A digital photo of scuffed boots before the job, and then another when the boots shined bright enough to see things in. Hobson had never found out what Kevon did with the photos, as his procedure was always the same; take the shots, show them once, and never produce them again. Kevon claimed he was maintaining a vast collection for his ‘constituency.’
Kevon ran cigarettes as a sideline, gambled to the point of complete poverty, and occasionally showed up drunk as a lord. People loved him, no matter what his vices, and Hobson did too. But he loved Kevon’s boy, Tyson, even more. The kid had just turned ten the week before. Hobson had found him one of those solar system projectors he’d found at the Anthropologie store in mid-town. He hadn’t considered the gift much, but had almost been brought to tears when Kevon informed him that the boy could no longer go to sleep unless the projector was on. The boy was going to be on the job one day, Hobson just knew, and he’d be sergeant material, unlike Hobson himself.
Ty could shine shoes better than his dad, but he didn’t work the shoeshine booth on 42nd Street very often. He never ran it alone. Although 42nd wasn’t dangerous, as far as New York City streets went, it did have it’s crazies, drug-addled peddlers and mean-spirited vagrants hanging about, especially into the evening hours. Although Ty’s crack smoking Mom had moved out years before, Kevon had proven to be a devoted and dependable father. Hobson counted the man’s treatment of his son as a wonderful asset to their friendship.
Whenever Ty was there, Hobson found some excuse to be nearby. He was convinced that only two beings on the planet really loved him. His cat, Tigger, and the boy, Tyson. Children and cats could be trusted to let you now what they really felt, or so Hobson fervently believed. He had never married because no woman he’d dated and asked had ever said yes. Secretly, he believed that the women he’d put the question to had exercised impeccable good judgment. Hobson was not very intelligent, far less than good looking, and had only one thing going for him. That was his tenuous relationship with the New York Police Department.
His own sergeant had confided in him one day, informing Hobson that his beat would protect him until retirement. No self-respecting cop on the force would take the job, no matter what the department threatened.
Hobson bought an egg and sausage filled croissant for his breakfast from Hidey-Ho, the street vendor on Lexington. He got his coffee from the underground joint called Brio. They didn’t give him his coffee “on the arm” however; instead they allowed him to tip a dollar for each cup. They were stealing Brio coffee at three bucks, and making Hobson pay one dollar to them in cash. He’d bought into the system for a year before he’d figured out their illegal trickery. By then it was too late.
Hobson went up toward 42nd Street.
He had no partner. His latest partner, Wilson, had had the Swine flu, then pneumonia, then migraines. No one had replaced the man in three months. His sergeant told him to ‘endeavor to persevere,’ like from the movie ‘Josie Wales.’ Hobson rented the movie but hadn’t been able to figure out the reference.
When he got to the street he looked for Kevon, who should have been at his usual place, standing in front of a bank of three raised shoe-shine chairs. Tyson’s smaller bent over body stood there in his place. He was working on one man’s shoes, while another filled the far chair.
“Morning Ty,” Hobson murmured, between bites of his thick croissant. He was worried, not seeing Kevon, Ty being there, and it being a school day, but he didn’t show anything.
“Good morning, sir,” the extremely well mannered young man answered, while he kept working polish into his customer’s shoes.
Hobson waited for several minutes, until it became clear that the youngster was not going to say anything else.
“Where’s Kevon?” he finally asked.
“In the precinct, “ Ty answered.
Hobson’s coffee cup stopped in mid-air. ‘In the precinct’ meant that Kevon was locked up. Saying nothing further, and in spite of the fact that he didn’t want to leave the boy alone working the shoe shine stand, Hobson walked back to his cop kiosk just inside the 42nd Street underground entrance. He called his dispatcher. Hobson was Metro, not City, so it would take some time to find out what had happened to Kevon. He put the word out, and then returned to the street.
The boy worked like a maniac, shining shoes, handing out the free newspapers Kevon distributed as a sideline and giving people directions. Long ago Hobson had stopped giving directions. If asked he just said he wasn’t from that part of the city. A police officer in uniform, standing at an underground entrance, could spend all of his time giving directions. He didn’t consider such contact befitting his status as a crime fighting police officer.
The call came in at mid-afternoon. Kevon was inside on Federal hold. The ATF had filed a complaint. Kevin’s bootleg cigarette operation had been uncovered.
His bail was ten thousand, when meant a thousand cash and a promise for the rest, if Kevon didn’t show up for court.
Hobson considered, sipping from his cold coffee cup. Cops didn’t bail Skells out of jail. Cops put Skells in jail. A Skell being a crook. But Kevon was one of his people. He worked Hobson’s beat. He was his only friend, and father to Tyson. Hobson concluded that Devon, although damaged and scarred, was not a Skell. And the ATF guys were Feds. Feds were lowlife creeps who lived and worked by their own arcane rules, almost all of which were stupid or wrong. Every Metro cop knew that. If you worked with Feds, you told them nothing and expected less,
Hobson used his cell to call downtown. Within ten minutes he made contact with a member of his old academy class. The thousand had to be paid soon, as Kevon would be transferred the following day to Riker’s, the only place Federal holds were kept. He hung up, went to the street to see how Ty was doing, and then crossed to Chase, where his money was. He had just over a thousand in his account.
Hobson didn’t call for a patrol car. He took a taxi to the jail. He didn’t want to explain what he was doing or let anybody know that he was temporarily abandoning his post. Everything went smoothly at the jail, until he found out that Kevon would not be released until the following morning. The Federal Court had to clear the bail, not City. There was nothing to be done. Hobson’s mind was so centered on the problem of Tyson being alone that he didn’t see his own sergeant.
He ran right into the big man’s jutting stomach.
“What the hell are you doing here, Hobson?” the man yelled. “And who’s standing it at your post?”
Hobson bounced back from the huge man, his mind frozen. He stood panting.
“Well,” the sergeant hissed down at him, bending slightly forward.
“Wilson’s covering,” Hobson got out weakly, “and I’m just visiting a friend.”
“Bullshit, you little maggot,” the sergeant stated, his voice more moderated, but filled with a tone of distasteful resignation. “You just paid the bail on some Skell. You think I’m an uninformed idiot? And Wilson’s back from sick leave? I didn’t know that.” He looked closely at Hobson’s shiny shoes then not so shiny uniform. “I don’t know what the hell you’re up to, but I don’t like it. Get outta here.”
Hobson nearly ran back to the street. He grabbed the first cab that came along. The exchange with his sergeant had been frightening. The man had not known that Wilson was still sick. That Hobson had left his post without approval or replacement was a potentially terminal act. But at least his sergeant had known about the bail, and had not seemed to care. That was a plus.
The boy was working when Hobson made it back to 42nd. Hobson breathed a sigh of relief. There were not patrons waiting for a shine, and snow had begun to fall, cutting passing sidewalk traffic to almost nothing.
“You’re Dad won’t be home until tomorrow morning,” Hobson mentioned, softly, looking out at the passing cars and trucks.
“Okay,” the boy answered, his tone uncertain.
“I live in Brooklyn. We can take the subway there when my shift is done.
We’ll have prime burgers and watch television, then come back tomorrow.” Hobson stopped talking, not knowing what the young boy might say.
“Will I get to meet Tigger?” the boy asked.
“Yes,” Hobson replied, with a big smile. “C’mon with me and we’ll get my stuff from the kiosk. You can have a hot chocolate from Brio while we wait the clock out.” Together, they covered and zippered up the outside shoeshine chairs.
Hobson didn’t notice his sergeant until they were almost to the kiosk.
“Oh Jesus,” he whispered, but it was too late, the sergeant had seen them
“Get rid of the kid,” the big man said, his voice ominous in tone.
Hobson fumbled for some change at the bottom of his pocket.
“Here, get the hot chocolate,” he said, shakily to Tyson. The kid grabbed the money and ran toward the coffee shop with a grin.
“So what have we here, Hobson,” the sergeant said, leaning forward, propping one elbow up on the flat surface of the kiosk desk. Hobson didn’t know what to say. He moved to stand at his station on the inside of the round counter area.
“Wilson isn’t back form sick leave. You abandoned your post. You bailed out some low-life Skell shoeshine guy for a grand. You couldn’t get him away from the Feds today so you’ve taken up with his ten year old kid until he gets back.” The sergeant stopped talking. He stared intently into Hobson’s eyes for the first time Hobson could remember.
“Have I got any of that wrong?” He said, when Hobson didn’t talk.
“No sir,” Hobson finally said, his heart sinking to the bottom of his well-shined boots.
The sergeant shifted from one leg to the other, and then turned his head to look up and down the underground corridors.
“You took care of the people today Charlie. You went right at the Feds, and you lied to me in doing it. And you’re not done. You’ve got the kid. You represented today. I underestimated you. For the first time since you’ve worked for me I’m impressed. You’re part of what not many people understand about the New York Police Department. You’re on the job.”
The big man straightened himself, and then turned and walked out to 42nd Street without another word or look. Hobson stood in shock behind the counter.
“He called me Charlie,” he whispered to himself. Nobody on the force had ever called him anything but Hobson.
The boy came back, whipped cream covering his mouth. They went home to Hobson’s cramped apartment in Brooklyn. Tigger was overjoyed to have a new admiring friend added to her extensive collection. When they got into Hobson’s lone double bed, the boy was uncomfortable, until Hobson switched on his own illuminated solar system. They stared up to watch the planets and moons slowly revolve around the sun until the three of them fell into deep sleep.
copyright 2010

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Morning Calm, a short story...

The Morning Calm
James Strauss

Acid-laced coffee. Tawdry imitation 60’s d├ęcor. Indian music drifting down from worn out ceiling speakers. The Route Sixty-Six diner, ironically located on 56th Street. New York.
Wayne stared out through the long expanse of windows fronting the busy street. In spite of a punishing wind and beating rain, people flowed back and forth by the window in amazing numbers. He was the restaurant’s sole customer. ‘Late lunch,’ his new acquaintance had suggested, hours earlier.
The opening of an alley directly across the street attracted his eye.
The alley was unusual, from what Wayne had seen so far in New York, in that it extended only half way through the block, and ended in a brick wall. Also, it appeared clean, well lit, devoid of the usual collection of crumpled trash cans. A small white sign with black lettering was placed high up near where the walls met the sidewalk. It read simply, ‘Korea.’ Just beneath were letters hand-done in red paint; ‘Alley of the Morning Calm.’ Tiny Christmas Tree lights ran row upon row up and down along the bricks, twinkling brightly in the rain. A single business had been built into the wall at the end of the alley. A blue awning stretched across it’s top. In a window next to the door a malfunctioning neon sign occasionally blinked “Izumi Maru,” right above a crossed knife and fork.
Wayne smiled to himself, his face remaining expressionless. Korea, translated roughly from the language, did mean ‘ land of the morning calm,’ and Izumi Maru, in Japanese, was close to ‘fountain of life.’ There was a warm serenity to the entire scene, only slightly diminished by pounding rain. He drank some of the bad coffee. A young make-believe American kid tried to offer a warm up. The boy’s coloration and accent indicated Filipino heritage.
“Nothing more yet,” Wayne told him.
The server began to walk away.
“By the way,” Wayne inquired, stopping him. “What’s down that alley, across the street?”
The kid’s gaze followed Wayne’s.
“Jappo restaurant. Run by Korean. Koreans hate Jappo’s. Serve poison fish. Jappo’s eat, get crazy, but always come back.”
“Puffer fish,” Wayne said, not looking at the server’s departing back, instead his eyes fastened on the uncommon street scene before him. Puffer fish were filled with a neurotoxin that was among the most poisonous in the world. The flesh of the fish was prepared at restaurants all over Korea, however. In Seoul, the places were required by law to post a sign indicating the number of people who’d died from consuming the poison during the year before. The most popular restaurants were those that posted the largest numbers. Wayne had never eaten the delicacy, but he’d known many Korean’s who had. When prepared properly by a master chef, the Puffer meal gave it’s gourmet consumer a ‘high’ much more intense than cocaine, and one that lasted far longer. Most of the world outlawed such restaurants, including the United States.
Wayne wondered whether the kid was right. It seemed unlikely that some rogue Japanese restaurant was serving the illegal meals in the middle of a place as heavily policed as New York City.
“Korean Yakusa,” the kid said from behind him. Wayne lowered his right shoulder, then leaned back, twisting his head to face the boy. He didn’t like people approaching him from behind. The Filipino server walked past, however, to stand facing the broad expanse of clear glass. The rain was abating with the wind, but everything outside remained shiny and cleaner looking. A group of young men had appeared from nowhere, taking up residence half-way down the abbreviated alley, crouching, bending over and motioning to one another with weird hand signs.
“Fake phony cowards, they are…fake cowards they are…” hissed his server, like he was repeating a line from a twisted Dr. Seuss story.
“Yakusa is the name used for Japanese mafia, not Korean gangs,” Wayne corrected him.
A homeless man passed the alley opening. He wore a tattered and torn version of Wayne’s own outfit. Irish tweed coat with worn blue jeans. Wayne noted the similarity, and then shifted uncomfortably.
There was no retirement plan for hit men. No Social Security. No Medicare. It was a lonely business, without any social support network, and it didn’t pay anything near what people had come to believe it paid from movies and television.
Wayne had a few dollars invested and a solid chunk in his checking account, but every once and awhile he worried about what might happen in his later years.
The street person pushed a shopping cart piled high with unidentifiable junk, the outside of his cart festooned with plastic bags tied all around it, like old tires circling the hull of a harbor tug. The man and cart moved very slowly past the opening of the alley mouth.
The boys from the alley moved, like a single rippling stand of willows. One moment they were crouched down in the alley, the next they were surrounding the old man and his cart, as if blown there by a great gust of invisible wind,
One boy pitched things from the vagrant’s basket onto the sidewalk and street, while another opened a folding ‘sling-blade’ style of knife and cut slits up and down all the bags tied to the cart. Trash spilled into piles, some of it blowing about in the remains of wet stormy winds.
At first the homeless man attempted to defend his belongings, but soon gave that up as the pack descended fully upon him. He ran, but only made it a step or two before being brought down by a blow to the back of his legs. Once down, the boys began an obviously ritualized ballet of martial arts movements. Dancing and twisting, they delivered kick after kick into different parts of the agonized man’s anatomy. The gang’s enjoyment was palpable, even from well across the street and through a pane of thick glass.
The gang ended their onslaught as they had begun it, running lightly, like interlacing lemmings, to recollect back at their lair, half way down the alley. The vagrant’s body twitched, while his arm’s and legs fought for control. He got up shakily, then tried to assemble something from the piles of junk surrounding him. He lacked the strength to refill the basket completely. Finally, grasping the cart by it’s bar handle, he glanced once into the alley, before staggering away down the street.
“Assholes,” the Filipino server said aloud.
“What about nine one one?” Wayne inquired, quietly.
“None of my business,” the boy responded, instantly, spinning about, and then walking away toward the kitchen in back.
“Mine either,” Wayne whispered, but the kid was gone. Averting his eyes from the hypnotic scene, he checked his wallet. He put a twenty on the tabletop.
His ‘late lunch’ was not coming. He’d guessed that when they’d made the date. Wayne was used to it. He had no friends. People found his company vaguely disconcerting in some fashion no one had ever taken the trouble to explain. He’d never expected the guy to show up, but he’d gone through the motions anyway.
Outside the Route 66 he stood for a moment next to the entrance. The rain was gone. A low afternoon sun was trying to penetrate between the buildings further down the street. Wayne stared at the alley mouth, breathed in deeply several times, and then walked to the corner for a cab.
Sitting on the side of his bed at the Waldorf, he looked at himself in a mirror perched above the clothing drawers next to an overly-large plasma T.V. He inventoried the image staring back at him. He was sixty but looked forty-five. He was ‘born-again’ hard, mentally and physically. He was still quick as a striking snake and agile as a Lynx. But, deep inside his blue eyes there was a haunted lonely glint
he was not surprised to note.
The young Catholic priest had effected him deeply. Wayne was a Catholic but had fallen away in his youth. He’d gone back into a church, just to talk to somebody, the week before. It had not gone well. Unbelievably, the priest had refused him absolution for his sins. Wayne had not thought that possible. The priest had come out of the confessional to tell him, in a hushed whisper, that Wayne would have to find some other redemption from God for the things he’d done. He’d said that it was simply not within his power to forgive, or offer further advice.
“Well God, what do you have to say?” Wayne asked the mirror, “or do I have to do this on my hands and knees?” Nothing happened. God remained his usual silent self.
The television was filled with idiotic sports games and awful news, so he turned it off and paced. Finally, he decided to take a walk. Three blocks from the Waldorf, on Lexington, he ran into it. The rain was gone but a brisk wind remained. The wind drove an empty shopping cart right into Wayne’s path as he walked. He pushed the thing away with an irritated shove, and then walked on. After only a few steps he stopped dead in his tracks. What was an empty shopping cart doing on the sidewalk of a busy downtown street? Wayne looked back. The shopping cart waited, unmoving in the center of the concrete walkway.
Pushing the cart before him, Wayne made his way back to the Waldorf. The cart felt right, as if it was rolling on well lubricated ball bearings. He left it jammed against the side of the hotels’ granite entrance. A doorman looked over at him, then at the cart, but said nothing. Wayne went up to his room.
An hour later he returned, exiting through the same door. The cart was right where he’d left it, as he’d known it would be. Wayne threw an armload of used towels, a trash bucket and some extra rolls of toilet into the basket. He pushed the cart toward 56th Street. He knew he didn’t really look his part. He was not properly filthy or seedy enough in his disguise, but was counting on the dying light of early evening to cover a multitude of sins. Nobody paid any attention to him at all, as he made his way the mile and a half, or so.
The yellow lit opening to the alley was even more welcoming than before, when he rounded the last corner. It beckoned warmly. The thronging masses of a busy metropolis had withdrawn with the fading light. Wayne checked his shoulder holster. The factory-suppressed Ruger, in twenty-two short for less sound, was there and ready, loaded with nine rounds, one in the chamber. The weapon was designed for close, nearly silent, work. It was all but useless beyond ten feet.
Wayne’s hand swept down to brush past the forty-five taped to his right ankle.
As opposed to the Ruger, it was terribly loud, devastatingly destructive, and good for much more than ten feet, as any proper backup should be. He was ready.
The shopping cart moved before him, almost of it’s own accord. Wayne bent forward, beginning to drag one leg behind, as if he was crippled or injured. His main concern was not based on either his appearance or his preparations. It was in attendance. Was the deadly flock of predatory animals going to be waiting when he rounded the corner and entered the alley, or was he merely to arrive there, abandon the cart, and enjoy the first Puffer meal of his life?
He felt their attention before he was even under their full gaze. Slowly and deliberately, he turned the cart to direct it down the alley while, at the same time, bowing his head further down so the smile he could not suppress wouldn’t alert them, His right hand sought out the warm comforting butt of the Ruger. He unsnapped the hoster release with his thumb.
Wayne heard the gang’s near silent approach and thought of the priest. How correct that agent of God had been to deny him absolution. God Himself was so much more generous in His allowance for Wayne's redemption.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Flip Side, a short story...

The Flip Side
James Strauss

My eyes opened to dim gray filth. The ceiling above me looked like it hadn’t been painted since the Civil War. Intricate cobwebs rounded the corners of the bedroom, while dirty clothes littered all open spaces on the floor.
My head hurt with the kind of pain that neither aspirin nor Tylenol could come close to touching. I groaned out loud. Escape, a Russian Blue cat, lay comfortably on my chest, long whiskers close enough to tickle a cheek, but not intrusively so. Escape answered my groan with a strange sound of his own. I stroked him, more to make him move than to satisfy any need he or I might get from the act. He wasn’t into the physical ministrations of species Homo Sapien, so it worked.
I got out of the bed. The mattress was the only decent thing in the room, being of aged but quality lineage. Beautyrest, the tag said, when I infrequently changed the sheets. I found the name humorous. Only in the movies did anybody have any beauty when they got up from a night’s sleep.
I went into the bathroom and began my habitual preparations for the day, grimacing with pain radiating from the core of my brain, thankful that the hangover was not worse. One full fifth of expensive Vodka the evening before should have left my body in much worse condition.
“Thank you, God,” I intoned to the awful image that stared back at me from the cracked mirror. I ran the hot water, beginning the process of filling my ancient tub. If I hurried, I could shave, floss, and brush by the time it was at the perfect level for a quick bath. The much more convenient shower had quit sometime back, but since Gordy, my landlord and best friend, never complained about months of back rent owed, I was duty bound not to say anything about anything, especially when it came to upkeep.
Escape sat near the heating vent, absorbing warm air, waiting for me to climb into the hot water. When I was ready I plopped myself in, cutting the tap off with one foot. The tap only produced water up to a medium degree, not hot enough to burn skin.
The cat jumped up to the rim, slowly bent his front legs, and then began drinking from the water. It was a move I had never come to understand. What possible interest could the very hot water hold for him when he had a perfectly good bowl of fresh water next to his food dish. I had to wait for him to finish before soaping up. I didn’t want to the growling that would ensue if I fouled the clear hot water. For unknown reasons my being in the water was not a violation.
The damned cat, a beach stray, had somehow wormed its way into the apartment building one day, and then selected Gordy and I as it’s victims. He cat liked to walk on Gordy’s computer keyboard, deliberately step on the ‘escape’ key, and mess up everything on the screen. After awhile the key word became his name.
Once out of the tub, dried, and deodorized with my hair brushed, I was ready for the day. I fastened my Mont Blanc watch bracelet to my wrist. The watch was my single most expensive possession, as I’d lost my car in a bet the week before. Gambling had swept over me when I had taken a leap of faith, with respect to the Mayan prophecy.
Gambling and drinking. I was in the act of considering where I might find a drink, to get through the morning, when I looked down at the face of the Mont Blanc. My eyes came back up to the mirror. I peered at my shocked image.
It was December twenty-second, of the year two thousand and twelve. I surprised myself by smiling at my own pained image.
“It is the evening of the day….” I stared, singing the Maryanne Faithful song happily. I rushed into my shorts and polo shirt, throwing on flip-flops. I headed for the front of my apartment at a run.
I beat on Gordy’s door. He had a patio which overlooked the whole beach. Pacific Beach was right on the ocean, and at our fifth floor ‘penthouse’ level we could stand and look far out to sea.
“Jesus Christ, hold your horses. It’s seven in the fucking morning in here,” he said through the wood.
Escape and I waited for Gordy to unlock the door, he sitting patiently while I fidgeted, rubbing my head with both hands.
Once inside, I rushed by the scrawny little man, bumping him aside to get to the exposed deck. Escape moved to his back up bowl near the sink.
“Got something to drink?” I threw back at Gordy over my shoulder.
“You smell like you’re still drinking already. It’s seven in the morning, for Christ’s sake. You’re killing yourself. I’ll make coffee, he answered.
I stood on the deck and looked out across the open ocean. The sun was coming up behind us on the backside of the apartment building. The horizon to the west was dark. I listened to Gordy bang things around in his kitchen. He lived as alone as I did, both having gone through a succession of decent women before they’d found about us. In spite of the fact that he had nobody on earth that gave a damn about him, like me,
he wasn’t a believer in the Mayan prophecy.
Moments later he appeared at my side with a hot cup of coffee. He had one of those machines that was always on, always ready to produce a single cup from a neat little plastic container. At one time, before I had become a true believer, I had had such toys, but now they were all gone. My apartment was a gutted shambles compared to Gordy’s showplace.
“What are you looking for,” he asked, both of us drinking from ceramic cups while leaning our forearms against the deck railing.
“It’s the day, idiot, the Mayan calendar day,” I responded, a lilt to my voice, headache fading into the background. “We should be drinking booze.”
“Not that crap again. The world is going to end today. The Mayan prophecy says it’s all over. Niburu, the red dwarf is going to strike. An asteroid is going to hit the center of the Pacific. Phooey! It seems pretty normal out here to me.”
We sipped in silence for a few minutes. The day was coming on, the sun climbing ever higher behind our building. I peered intently at the horizon. There was a darkness rising higher than darkness should be out there.
“Look at that,” I declared, pointing at the horizon.
“Hmmmm. Looks a little weird, I’ll give you that,” Gordy responded.
`We waited. The darkness grew higher, the bottom of it turning black. Something was moving at us, across the full length and breath of the horizon. It was coming fast, and it was terribly ominous. Escape appeared, and then leaped up to sit atop the narrow railing, his side uncharacteristically pressed into my forearm. He too stared into the coming darkness.
“There it is. I just hope it’s what they predicted. Our problems are going to be over soon.”
“Great, just great,” Gordy intoned, his voice leaden. “You got yourself fired, blew every dime you had, lost what you didn’t sell, all in the hopes that the end of time was coming today. What kind of sick mind do you have?”
“Ha, you don’t get it at all. I’ve never been right about anything. But I’m about this. That counts for something,” I replied, my voice not nearly as enthusiastic as before. Escape turned his head to look into my eyes.
“Well, it’s not my fault,” I tried to explain, shaking my head.
The three of us stared into the approaching wall of blackness.
“See you on the flip side,” Gordy said through clenched teeth.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Closer To God, Kurushimi Maru, Chapter XII

Closer To God
Kurushimi Maru
Chapter XII
Burt took less than a minute to throw his heavily pocketed over-layers back on before we pulled from the prison lot. The Range Rover ride to the Beach Africa was filled with pain and chatter. Mr. Owili didn’t know the meaning of the word silence, and the bruises I’d suffered at the hands of prison guards throbbed with each movement of the big SUV. Sam Hill’s driving style had been honed somewhere along the infamous stretches of the Baja One Thousand off-road race, or so it seemed to me.
“You do not understand how much my family will be happy when they learn of your assistance to me. You must come for the dining. It is only a short drive. It will make you very happy. You will be immensely rewarded!”
I glanced over at the animated little man, wearing what was left of his tattered blue suit. His faux English accent, distorted by an underlying native tongue, was cute, but annoying. Mr. Owili’s effervescent enthusiasm for life bounced all over the interior of the Rover. Burt, sitting in front of me, remained as silent as Sam.
The Beach Africa parking lot was half full when we pulled in, parking out front. There was no reason to believe that the Rover was being looked for by anyone.
Five women were gathered in our banda when we arrived there. As the four of us wedged in, I immediately noted that Wendy and Joan were not getting on. It was nothing I could pin down, but I sensed a subtle distance between them. From somewhere, a couple of bottles of wine had appeared. A blouse covered Helen’s bandage, and she seemed in no pain, her wine glass almost empty.
“My name is Mr. Owili and I am very pleased to meet all of you,” the Indian said, going from person to person, shaking hands.
“Are these all of your family?” he inquired, bowing ridiculously in front of me.
I looked around the room, standing straight, making believe I felt just fine, when in reality I wanted everyone out of there so I could lay curled up in bed.
“Yes, I guess so,” I intoned. Anything else would have called for a long explanation, and I was just not up to it.
“You should look after those wounds,” Mr. Owili said, pointing at my loosely hanging arms. “The contusions could be serious,” he went on, in his irritating dialect.
“What contusions?’ Joan asked, crossing the room to stand before me.
Wendy followed close behind her. I looked from one to the other, wishing I was somewhere else. And alone.
“Let me see,” the DCM said, taking my right wrist in her hands, and then unbuttoning the sleeve. Wendy did the same to my left sleeve.
“I trained as an emergency medical technician once,” Joan said, matter-of-factly to Wendy.
“And I slept with him last night,” Wendy replied, in a similar, disinterested tone.
The room went silent. The smile on Mr. Owili’s face faded for the first time since I’d seen him inside the prison.
“How nice for him,” Joan purred, “he does seem to do really well with young girls.”
Wendy said nothing. I closed my eyes and grimaced with the discomfort their handling, and the pain of their conversation, was giving me.
“We didn’t sleep together. We just slept in the same bunk,” I offered, by way of explanation. Sam and Burt both started to laugh at once. I glared across the room at them.
“That wasn’t the way it was,” I said, raising my voice in anger.
“These have to be wrapped. You’re still bleeding into the muscles. Pressure wraps and ice might allow you to use your hands tomorrow, otherwise they’re going to swell like ripe melons,” Joan said, ignoring the comments.
“Take Mr. Owili wherever he wants to go, in the general area of course,” I said to Sam.
“Oh no, I cannot go home like this,” Mr. Owili said. “I must get cleaned up. My family is very formal you know. They think highly of me. I have a very important role. And I have to get the money I owe you first. It would not be fitting to go home deeply in your debt. We are to be great friends!”
Wendy and Joan wrapped my forearms while Anice went for ice.
“Stay,” I said. “Hell, stay as long as you want. In the morning we’re going to
the ferry to have a little talk with one Rafiq Salim.”
“Rafiq?” You know Rafiq?” Mr. Owili said, in his expressive style. “There are three ferries. The Salim’s have only one. I know this man. My family sells fuel.
He is not a generous man. Bantu. A Lebanese who speaks Bantu. Not a good thing.”
I brushed Joan and Wendy aside.
“You know Rafiq?” I asked, having a hard time believing what I’d heard.
“We are not friends, but yes, I know him well,” Mr. Owili responded.
“Maybe you can help us. The man appears masterful at lying. I need
to know some things, to help us all.” I said, including the group that was not really a group.
“I would be particularly grateful,” Joan chimed in, taking Mr. Owili’s hand in one of her own. I watched the Indian melt under the heat of her charm.
“Of course. Of course I will help you. I am a big supporter of the United States and its people, and now all of you.”
Anice came in with the ice. I brushed everyone aside as I made for the bed.
Lying there, ice packed about my arms, I willed them all to go away. My chest hurt, and my back ached. I needed to recover myself.
“Do you want me to stay with you?” Wendy asked. I watched Joan, behind her, almost break into laughter.
“No,” I answered, my eyes already closed. You guys stay together. Burt can see to me just fine.
I woke several times during the afternoon but never saw Burt or Sam.
Only Joan was there, sitting in the single chair in the room, reading some thick novel.
I slept on through the afternoon, awakening when I heard the door. I sat up. My body was stiff, but everything felt better than it had. The sheets were soaked through from melted ice. I unwrapped my arms. Black and blue welts ran from wrist to elbow on both arms, but would be invisible once I put my shirt on again.
Sam strode through the door that Burt had left open.
“Nice security,” I commented, but neither man paid any attention.
“What time is it?” I asked. Sam showed me his Citizen watch face. It said eight o’clock. “You got something against mix for the coffee?” I asked the Marine.
“Gay coffee? No, got nuthin’ against it, sir, or them,” he replied.
Once again, I found the young man surprising. He had an edge I just could not quite place. It was as if he respected me hugely but did not like me at all, or just the reverse. It was anything but complete and open acceptance.
“You replaced the rental I had in Nairobi. The new one is the same color.
Same everything. How’d you do it? And why? And what happened to the other one?” I drank from the paper cup when I was done, and waited.
“I drive what they give me,” he answered. It was the answer I expected. It was the Marine way of telling me that he was not going to tell me anything. It was how enlisted Marines handled officers when I was on active duty. They didn’t lie, but they wouldn’t tell the whole truth either, even if survival depended upon it.
I would have to figure things out for myself, or find another way to get the information.
Joan walked into the room. She’d changed into something nice for the evening, as if we were staying in a four star hotel.
“You slept alone. How surprising, for you,” she commented, standing over all three of us looking like a million bucks in her recently pressed outfit.
“I thought I woke up and saw you here with me,” I replied.
“Dreamer,” she answered. “What’s the plan?”
“Where’s Mr. Owili?” I asked.
“With the girls,” she responded instantly. I realized that Joan never referred to the other four women as anything but girls. I was surprised, but not to the point of saying anything.
“Sam, Burt, Mr. Owili and I are going to the ferry. We’ll pick up Rafiq, if he’s there, take him somewhere and ask him a few pointed questions. That’s it.
Some guys are coming over from the consulate to lend us a hand, and report back, no doubt. They’ll be there around nine.” I looked up into her eyes. “You want to come? The Rover won’t feel right without a full load.”
She shook her head. “No, I’ll hang out at the beach here. But thanks for asking, this time.” She turned and strolled out.
“Doesn’t anyone close a door in this place? It is a hotel,” I said, moving to take care of the chore myself.
“Hostel, it’s a youth hostel,” Burt said. “Not like a hotel at all. More like a Boy Scout encampment. About the same price too. Where the Agency guys going to meet us?” he went on.
“I don’t know. The ferry landing, I suppose. They won’t be hard to miss. They never are when they’re on their own. But they’ll be on time.” I saw Burt grimace at the insult to knuckle-dragger’s in general, but then his expression softened. He knew, as I had found out, that he was anything but the average Agency enforcer.
“What about Dingo, and the rest?” Burt inquired.
“Look, they have to go,” I replied. “To wherever their next stop or adventure is. We can’t have them around. We’ve been lucky so far. The Kenyon authorities are slow, but they’re not that slow. This had become a traveling circus.”
Burt didn’t reply, but the expression he wore would have been more appropriate on a spoiled brat’s face.
“Lay out weapons, communications, ingress and egress for tomorrow,” I said into the silence between us. “I wouldn’t normally put that on you, but then things aren’t normal, and neither are you.” I hoped the compliment would cheer him up, but he didn’t respond with anything more than a weak nod. “We’ll assemble at zero seven hundred for a Sitrep,” I finished, heading for the door. “I’ll be out with Sam before dawn, looking for an appropriate site.” I didn’t wait for a reply. The tasks assigned were one’s that I would normally have attended to myself, except for the weapons, but it felt uncommonly good to have someone I could count on.
I slept on the bed, having found extra sheets in a locker near the empty front desk. I kept the lone mosquito net. Burt had been able to beg or borrow a sleeping bag from the Earth Mothers while thin hostel mats served to be the floor padding for Sam Hill and Mr. Owili. It was warm, without air or moisture control of any kind, so we all slept on top of whatever we had.
I had gone to bed alone, the others enjoying the always-open student bar near the pool. I awakened long before dawn. Sam Hill was already up and gone. I was surprised, not by his absence, but by the stealth of his departure. I was a light sleeper, and had been since the Nam. I moved to the small bathroom with a bit of quiet embarrassment and anger.
“The little prick,” I breathed, as I stepped over Burt.
“Thanks boss,” Burt whispered up, embarrassing me further.
I shaved, washed as best I could, as there was only a sink and toilet. My arms were black, my chest red and I couldn’t tell what my back resembled. But I felt okay and I hadn’t lost mobility.
Sam was waiting for me in the Rover, parked idling in front of the hostel entrance. I got in. We didn’t murmur morning greetings. It was barely light enough to see. Two cups of hot coffee, half full, steamed in the dash holder, without tops. I took the one closest to me, amazed at the efficiency and politeness of the young Marine.
“Go back the way we came out. Once you get over the bridge, follow the water up. It’s called Mbaraki Creek. If I remember correctly, there was a ship laid up and abandoned some years back.” Sam drove, but not at his usual breakneck pace. There was little traffic so the Range Rover stood out. I knew he was responding to that fact. Mission orientation seemed to be firmly embedded in the young man, yet I knew he couldn’t have had much experience at such things. He was a natural, I concluded.
“Whom do you really work for?” I asked. He took that opportunity to grasp his own paper cup and take a loud sipping drink. The coffee was hot as hell.
“The Corps. All the way up the hill. Uuuurah,” he answered.
“What possible interest could the Corps have in all this?” I inquired, this time looking over at him with real interest.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
I felt he was telling the truth. At the very least his answer was an admission that the United States Marine Corps had some sort of cards to play in the hand I’d dealt myself.
“And Burt, and the rest of ‘em,” I said, before drinking more coffee.
“Say again, Sir?” Sam inquired. I ignored him.
A ship appeared along the shore. The stern of it was huge, rounded and rusting to the point where pieces were hanging all over the superstructure and hull.
“Pull over close, then get as far up to the bow as we can,” I pointed, unnecessarily, at the front of the old dead hulk. I’d used it once before. Nobody every came near the thing. It was a death trap, but the mid-ship’s deck was still serviceable. Well sort of, I thought, looking at it as we went by.
The Rover came to stop just before the bow. A name was painted under the rust. I had never gotten close enough to read it before.
“Kurushimi Maru,” I intoned, very slowly. “Maru means circle in Japanese,”
I stated, not having any idea when or where I’d learned the fact. “It can also mean world. I haven’t a clue about Kurushimi though.” I finished my coffee. Corporal Sam Hill surprised me again.
“Kurushimi means pain, or hurt. We used to have to say it when we finished the last rope climb of the obstacle course at Parris Island.”
I wondered why Marines finishing any obstacle course anywhere would have to yell something in Japanese, but I let it go.
“World of hurt,” Hill said, like he was tasting the words. I could tell from his expression that it was not a good taste.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Closer To God, Happy Valley, Chapter XI

Closer To God
Happy Valley
Chapter XI
There was no security inside the entrance to the court complex. Off to the side a metal detector sat pushed against the wall, and there were a couple of blue uniformed police officers lounging around, but that was it. I motioned at Burt to take one side of the filled room.
“See what you can find out,” I said, moving toward the right side of the completely filled space. There was a long counter that divided the room horizontally across the center. A long row of men and women sat behind the counter handling thick unruly lines of waiting people. It was not quiet. The room was a teeming sea of seething sound. It seemed like everyone was talking at the same time, to the people behind the counter, to the people in front and behind them in the lines, and then across to other people waiting in nearby lines.
We were the only white guys in the room. I thought that our race would gain us plenty of unwanted attention, but we were totally ignored. Whatever system of administration or justice being practiced in the court was running right across racial lines.
I worked the room, attempting to move past some of the people to get closer to the counter, and possibly talk to one of the clerks, but it was useless. Unless I applied some intense physical force there was just no way the waiting people were going to let me through. Going violent was not an option, so I eased toward the center of the room, looking for Burt. He wasn’t hard to find. At the far side he surfaced above the masses and locked eyes with me. The message was clear. He was having no more success than I. I motioned my head toward the entry doors. We met just inside of them.
“There’s no joy in Happy Valley today,” Burt intoned, which momentarily shocked me. Happy Valley was a place from memory. Not my memory, as I’d been a Marine further north while in the Nam. Happy Valley, sometimes called Dodge City, was down in Quang Nam Province. Burt didn’t appear to be old enough to have been in Vietnam, but the expression, which meant ‘no luck,’ was not normally used by non Vietnam Vets. In fact, I’d never heard it used by a civilian in the ‘real’ world.
We stood by the center set of three double doors that led into the courthouse. After examining Burt more closely, to see if I could figure out if he’d been a Marine or not, I looked around wondering what could be done about our situation.
I came to no conclusion on Burt. He was an enigma, like the mess we were in.
“Those two, where they goin?” Burt said, his eyes directed toward the far outside wall behind the long counter. Two female clerks were laughing while they walked. One was going through her purse as she moved, just as both passed under a huge sign that read ‘No Smoking.’
“Smoke break,” I replied, absently. Seconds later I connected the dots. “C’mon.” I said to Burt. “Maybe there’s a side entrance back along that wall. With no security, we have a shot.”
I moved quickly, leaving through one of the doors, and then walking rapidly to the corner of the building. The two women exited out through an unmarked door near the back of the building, as I’d hoped. There was a picnic table set under a tree not far from the door. They walked in that direction.
“Come on,” I said, over my shoulder, then made for the table, moving at a casual, non-threatening but rapid pace.
The women seated themselves at the table, facing one another and lighting up. A bright morning sun beat down, the day setting out to be a hot one. A low spreading palm gave plenty of shade but only for those at the table itself. Burt and I waited to be noticed, standing in the sun a few feet away, which didn’t take long.
We were the wrong color, and it was obvious we didn’t belong.
“Jambo, bwana,” one of them said, between puffs.
“Jambo, M’wali,” I responded, using a common Kiswahili greeting response.
I bowed slightly, before placing four of the five thousand shilling bills between them on the wooden surface of the table. They both puffed and stared down, unable to take their eyes from the huge offering, but making no move to pick it up either.
“What want?” the one who greeted me asked, not looking up at me. Her eyes were glued to the money.
“White man came through this place some time back. Not long. Like us,” I offered.
The woman flicked her eyes up to run them quickly over us, and then returned to the shillings.
“What can you tell me about him?” I asked.
Both women shifted uncomfortably. “Nothing,” the same woman said.
We know nothing. No one know nothing.” I moved my hand slowly, as if to take the bills back.
“One thing only,” she said quickly, stopping my hand in mid-air.
“Mr. Owili,” she said, her voice dropping to just above a whisper.
“Mr. Owili?” I echoed, in question.
“Mr. Owili cellmate, not long. He still in. No bail money. No fine money.
Inside.” Her eyes met mine for the first time since I’d walked up. I blinked. She swept the bills from the tabletop down to her purse in less than a second.
“How do I get in there?” I asked, wondering whether an attempt would prove worth the effort or not.
“Shillings. My brother inside gatekeeper. Have note.” The woman took a scrap of paper from her purse. She rummaged around for something to write with.
I looked over at Burt, raising both my eyebrows.
“What do you want me to do?” he asked.
“Go tell Sam what’s up, then come back and hang around the main prison building and see what happens.” I took the paper, but couldn’t make out what was written on it. It looked like Sanskrit. But I folded it and thanked her.
Standing back in front of the courthouse, I watched Burt walk to the Rover. I’d given him all of the money I had, save four of the big notes, just in case. He also had my wallet and passport, which I’d thought seriously about. The prison proper might want some sort of identification, but I couldn’t afford to lose my passport. The cell phone came out of my pocket last. We had to have communication. I couldn’t risk its loss.
I approached the front of the imposing prison structure. People were milling around the outside. It looked like most were trying to communicate with prisoners inside, either cupping their hands to yell toward upper windows or using hand signals. I moved through them to the entrance.
The main door to the prison was made of steel. The huge bars were criss-crossed with smaller construction rebar welded in after the fact. The steel was painted a bright blue color, while the walls had been done in some sort of bright white. There was a small solid window set into the middle of the bars. I knocked, not knowing what else to do. The little door opened.
“Entry?” a voice asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“How many?” the voice asked.
I almost laughed. It was like a routine out of Monty Python. I could see through the bars that surrounded the window, so I knew the guard could too. There was no one standing anywhere near me.
“One,” I said, feeling stupid.
The big door swung open with a huge creaking sound. I stepped through. I had never seen a Hollywood movie with a better prison door scene.
The heavy thing slammed behind me. Inside, the huge inner room was empty, except for the guard I’d encountered through the window.
“You a self-surrender?” the man asked, placing himself directly in front of me, so close I had to take a step back.
“I don’t know, “ I answered, not knowing what a ‘self-surrender’ was. I handed him the note the woman had given me. He took it, and then held it up in front of his face, as if trying to determine authenticity.
“Hmmm,” was all he said, lowering the note. We stood looking at one another for a few seconds until remembered the money. I pulled out the small roll and handed it over. It went straight into his pocket. He didn’t bother with counting.
“Owili. Put me inside with Owili,” I requested. He nodded with a smile.
“Come,” he answered. He took me to another steel door, this one solid and the color of steel. It was even more imposing than the outside door. The guard removed a short black rod from a belt loop.
“Baton,” he stated, smiling. He held out the strange looking thing with a proud smile. “Rubber, with fiberglass inside. Good bruises, but no broken bones.” He laughed while using the thing to beat four times on the outside of the door. Four thumps came back from the other side immediately. The guard unhinged an articulated locking device with his left hand, adroitly returning the baton to his belt loop while doing so.
“Put him in with Owili,” the guard stated to several men who stood on the other side of the open door. I noted that the inner guards did not wear the distinctive pressed blue and white uniform of the outer guard. Their khaki shirts and shorts were soiled and tattered, but each carried a copy of the rubber baton in a belt loop. I stepped into the darkness, very hesitantly. They grabbed me, pulled me harshly forward between them. The heavy door slammed shut behind me.
Things were not going as I had hoped.
They didn’t let go; instead I was moved forward, a guard grasping me firmly by each of my arms. There was no light at all and the place smelled like a sewer. I saw faint light ahead, after being guided roughly around several turns. We came out of a corridor into a large room of solid concrete, lit from above by a single light bulb.
“Wait here,” the guard who’d held my right arm said, pushing me against one bare wall. I moved to stand inches out from the filthy surface. I surveyed my fellow inmates, all native, all restless and moving about, except for a few crouched down along the walls. A small group was gathered in the corner furthest from me, casting furtive looks my way. I smelled trouble coming, above and beyond the aroma of raw sewage. Suddenly the group moved, as one, toward me. Two large Africans in the front, with a snake of men trailing behind. I turned slightly to the side, exposing the outside of my left arm, minimizing my silhouette and preparing to defend myself. I had made a mistake coming into the prison without more information. I knew I was about to pay a substantial price for that mistake.
The two guards returned through the side door they’d left through, right into the middle of the moving band. Instantly, their batons were out and swinging. The men near them screamed, while others ran and cowered. I breathed a great sigh of relief, until the guards reached me. One swung a baton into my stomach, while the other brought his down on my upper back when I bent down from the first blow. The pain was disabling. I wanted to shout at them that I was a visitor, not a prisoner, but I couldn’t get a word out.
Rough hands grabbed, half-dragging me through the door, and on into another concrete room, similar to the first but marginally cleaner, and with only a few inmates inside. The guards pushed. I stumbled forward, and then regained my balance. When I turned I was expecting anything but to be struck again. Both guards attacked, both aiming for my head. I took several blows on my arms as I covered up. Finally, I went flat to the floor on my back. Both guards were bending over, screaming down at me.
“They want your shoes. If you do not give them your shoes then they are going to strike you some more,” a calm voice, right next to my ear, said. I turned slightly. A man, not a native, but dark complected, lay on the floor next to me.
Scrunching up, I reached down and quickly pulled off my shoes. I pushed them away, and then pulled my feet back up. The guards went for the shoes.
“What’s the deal with shoes?” I asked the man crouching next to me on the floor, while trying to rub the agony from my forearms.
“American leather. It is the finest in the world. We are in Africa and there are no good animal skins. Is that not very very funny?” The man laughed.
“Thanks,” I said, my lips still stretched too thin with pain to smile
at the irony. “Who might you be?” I inquired.
“I am Mr. Owili. I am here for drunk driving, but they will not tell my family I am here so that I cannot pay the fine to get out. I have been here for some time. I am from India,” he finished.
“Well, Mr. Owili, what’s your first name?” I asked.
“It is not pronounceable. Everyone calls me Mr. Owili. You can call me by any name you like, but let us rise up from the floor and get some air.”
I mimicked the man’s crawl across the floor. “Air? What air?” I asked.
“Here,” he said, propping himself next to a huge crack in the concrete.
It was at least four inches wide, penetrating all the way through the wall’s great thickness. A breeze blew in. It was fresh air. Mr. Owili knew his way around.
I had only been inside the prison for less than half an hour but yearned terribly for the outside. I breathed slowly in an out, my back and arms still throbbing.
A voice spoke through the crack. “Donner? You in there?” I couldn’t believe my ears. It was Burt. Part of his large face blocked the light and the breeze, not more than a foot from where I sat.
“Burt! How the hell did you find me?” I asked, amazed.
“Don’t know, just walking around, checking everything out, like you said,” he replied, as if it had been nothing at all. “You find the guy?” he asked.
“Yeah, he’s right here. Can you get some shillings in through this crack?
I need some serious help in getting the hell out of here.”
“Sure. I’ll get a stick. What kind of a budget you want to put on this?”
Owili, listening to our exchange, began to laugh.
“This man Burt is a very funny fellow,” he said, between laughs.
Burt pushed through ten of the bills. I was pleased that who ever Tony was sending from the consulate would be packing cash. Our supply of shillings was dwindling rapidly.
“I’ll go around front and start bribing from there,” Burt stated gruffly.
The light and wind came back through the crack with his departure.
“Will you help me to get free of this?” Owili asked, as I gathered the money together. There seemed to be no modesty or restraint in the man.
“Tell me about the white man they brought in a few days back to stay with you. What did he say?”
“What?” the Indian said, his eyes growing larger. I waited.
“There is nothing to tell. He was dead when they brought him in. They put him over in that corner. They came back later and took him out. He was missing his private parts and was terribly bruised. But it was the many bullets in his chest that killed him, I am almost certain.”
It was the last news I expect to hear. I rubbed my face with my right hand, trying to think. Why in hell would anyone bring a dead man into a prison, leave him there for a while and then allow his body to be repatriated? Nothing seemed at all plausible, but I didn’t believe for a second that the Indian was lying to me. He didn’t seem to care one whit who I was or might be. He just wanted out, and I fully understood.
“Let’s get out, if we can. Here, see what you can do with these.” I gave him four of the five thousand shilling bills. He was up and moving toward the door before I got the notes fully into his hand. Once there, he stood, beating quietly, but patiently, on the thick solid wood. After a few moments, the door opened.
The trip back to the front of the prison building was worse than the trip in. I had no shoes, and the floor was littered with unknown debris. The guards led us, as before, by holding our arms. More guards had assembled as soon as they found out that money was changing hands. When we reached the front room the huge steel door was already open, and through we went, as before, but this time among a full entourage of guards. The same men who had beaten me clapped me on the back, laughing, as if the brutality had been some sort of rough joke. I grimaced with pain. I wondered what my body was going to look like for some days to come.
Standing outside, with the blue door closed behind us, Mr. Owili and I simply enjoyed the open air and the sun. A sudden urge to get as far away from the area as I could swept over me.
“Get Sam here with the Rover, now. I’m not walking anywhere without shoes,” I informed Burt. He waved both arms in the air, and then returned to the front of the building to beat on the metal window in the center of the door. Sam drove up. Mr. Owili and I climbed in.
Seconds later, Burt came running, jumped in the through the back door behind Sam, and then tossed my shoes into the wheel well in front of me.
“Another ten thou, but what the hell, there’s no Allen Edmonds around here.”
copyright 2010

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Closer To God, Forlorn Hope, Chapter X

Closer To God
Forlorn Hope
Chapter X

The Beach Africa hostel was nothing like other beach hotels I had frequented, up and down the coastal regions of Africa. We drove into to a collected bunch of what seemed like high school students, waiting for their school bus. Our Pajero was missing a lot of glass, which attracted a little attention, but, as we climbed from the vehicle, no one questioned or interdicted us. I opened the back hatch, intending to help Helen from the vehicle. I saw immediately that that was not going to work. She was just too messed up, mentally and physically. Some piece of feminine clothing was tightly wrapped and knotted around her upper left arm. She smiled weakly up at me. I felt guilty. The four women were not road warriors. They were just regular kids, tougher and more experienced than most, but still kids. And I had used them for our own purposes to a bloody outcome.
Leaving Anice to look after her, the rest of us waded through the crowd to arrive at some desks set against the wall of a large tiled room. African artifacts, looking like Walmart imitations, adorned the walls. I noticed that everyone was white, and frowned. I didn’t really mind, but it seemed uncommon for where we were. The small fishing village we’d had to work our way through to get to the hostel had been just the opposite. All local. No whites or foreigners.
The young lady checking us in was Irish, and cute as a button. An eighteen year old button, if that. Everything was ‘grand.’
“This is grand. Almost everyone has checked out. How many banda’s do you want?”
“Three,” I said, a bit taken up with all the youthful good cheer going on all around me. I looked over my shoulder when I handed her several of the five thousand shilling notes. It would be hard for the police to get a line on us where we were, but any of the residences nearby the recent shooting would be able to describe the Pajero with a missing windshield.
“Can we park around back to unload? I asked the Irish lass, returning my attention to her. When we came in I had noticed how thick the brush grew, just beyond the the Beach Africa compound.
“That’ll be grand,” she replied, “and each banda is only three hundred shillings a day, sir,” the woman said, holding out several of the notes in her right hand.
“Keep’em,” I responded. “We’ll be staying a while.” We wouldn’t be but I wanted no money problems from the hostel haunting us while we were there.
She handed me three forms to fill out. I scrawled across all of them using the writer Ben Johnson’s name, artist as occupation and Great Britain as country of origin.
When I completed the forms I handed them back and waited, hand in my pocket, in case there was going to be a need for more shillings. But the young lady didn’t ask for any identification or proof.
“Where are the rooms?” I asked. The Irish lass looked up at me without responding. “I mean, how do we find the bandas we’re staying in?” I re-phrased.
“Oh, grand, here’s a map.” She quickly circled the three northernmost small squares on a poorly copied piece of printing paper. I was relieved. We could drive the Pajero through the bush, and then unload out of sight, unless there were obstacles I was unaware of.
I turned to the group assembled behind me. “Back in the car, we’ll drive around back and unload.”
“You can do what you want. I’m walking,” Joan said. “Sam will get my bag.”
Sam beamed, as if he had received some sort of high compliment. Joan headed out the back of the building toward the visible pool and beach beyond. Her expensive slacks and day coat marked her as out of place and overdressed, but attractive as hell.
The rest of us loaded back into the SUV and drove through the brush. It was thick brush but no match for the brute force of the big vehicle. It took half an hour to unload everything and get Helen into one of the bandas. The single rooms, each with a bathroom and running water, were not large, but after packing into the cabin on the train they seemed bright and spacious.
Sam, Burt and I gravitated to the innermost of the bandas, automatically understanding that the women would arrange themselves in ways we neither understood nor cared about. Once settled I motioned both to sit and listen.
“We need a new vehicle. They’re going to be looking for our’s and we can’t move anywhere quickly with no windshield. We’ve got to make it over to Shimo la Tewa prison, then down to the ferry. Rafiq is probably on the ferry running back and forth.” I stopped, waiting to see if both men were getting what I was saying.
“What of the woman?” Burt stated, his voice flat, his distaste for Joan palpable.
“We need the DCM,” I replied. “She’s a major diplomat and not to be screwed with by the authorities. We also left a little mess back there in town.”
“You left a mess,” Sam said, unexpectedly, then cleared his throat, as if he had spoken out of turn. I noted his failure, for the first time, to use the word ‘sir.’
“Yes, I left a bit of a mess, following a single shot that could have gone right through your cranium instead of Helen’s arm.”
“Yes, sir!” Sam said, falling back into the rigid behavior required by the Corps when in the presence of an officer. Except I wasn’t a officer in the Marine Corps. The edge to his voice when he’d made the first statement made me uncomfortable, as if his opinion of me from other knowledge was significantly less than what he’d led me to believe earlier. I filed away my thoughts and feelings about the subject for later reference.
“And I’ve got to call in. We can’t proceed further without the Agency. We just don’t have the assets and we’re going to run into the local authorities at some point. The Agency doesn’t have a clue about any of this. I’ve got to bring them in. People are dying over what this is about. The Agency comes in or we get the hell out, no matter how we felt about Smith.” I took a seat on the edge of the bed to wait. I wasn’t running a real mission and I could only make believe for so long. There was terminal risk for all involved, as had been graphically proven. The players deserved to be heard.
“I’m in,” Burt said, almost before I was done speaking. He pulled out the nine millimeter and then disassembled it on the rug in front of a canvas drawer dresser. I looked at Sam.
“I ride for the brand,” he stated, his eyes boring into my own. The expression seemed self-explanatory, but I wondered what he considered the ‘brand’ to be. There was a depth to the young man I could not plumb, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sitting in a banda on the beach. He seemed awfully young to be as cool as he appeared. The blowing out of the Pajero’s windshield hadn’t affected his driving one bit, and he’d been completely emotionless about Helen’s violent injury. Both of those reactions didn’t seem to fit behavior when stacked agains Sam’s age or innocent demeanor.
Burt moved to the sink, cradling the pieces he had laid out on the floor. He threw them into the basin, then ran hot water and started to scrub them. Hot water and soap.
I hadn’t seen an operational weapon cleaned with soap and water since training, although it made complete sense. I presumed that the huge man had a bottle of gun oil squirreled away somewhere in his wrappings. Walking to his side I pulled the AMT out and set it next to the sink. I knew he’d want to clean that as well. It was nice to work with another thinking professional, but I said nothing, knowing that Burt would not want to hear a compliment about something he so took for granted.
“I’m taking a walk on the beach. I’ll be back after the call.” I looked at both men after I spoke. Sam leaned down to go through his pack. Burt worked away on the gun parts, ignoring me.
The beach was not much of a beach. Further north there was a real hotel called the Serena. I could see where the beach expanded and grew into a thick strip of white sand in that direction. I walked on sand that was mixed with small chunks of rough rock. The water breaking along the shore broke on hard flat rock, not sand. The Beach Africa could have been more aptly described as the Rock Africa, but, of course, that would never have worked. I dialed the international number.
I was put straight through to Tony, my control officer.
“What do we owe the privilege of this communication?” he inquired.
“This isn’t a secure line,” I began, telling him something I knew he already knew. No cell phone discussions anywhere in the world were secure. I was alerting my control that there was more information backing what I was going to say than I could communicate. I filled him in, omitting the name of the organization of the men who’d opposed us, as well as the train incident. I did mention Sierra Leone, and later diamonds, in a passing way. He caught the connection right away, however.
“Alright, he agreed. Pursue this stone thing. I’ll send a couple of drones down from the consulate in the morning, for your ferry transit at nine local.”
Ferry transit meant the isolation and questioning of our Lebanese contact, Rafiq, I knew. His mention of that interrogation without my bringing it up told me that he was closer in touch with our situation than he was telling me. And his mention of ‘stones’ told me what the Agency was really interested in. Smith was dead, but the diamonds were part of a living mystery to be solved.
I asked for more money.
“Twenty, but no more Charlie Delta. Do you understand me?” he asked. Charlie Delta was alphanumeric code for the letters C and D. Collateral Damage. Twenty meant that the men he was sending would bring twenty thousand in U.S. cash with them when they came.
“You want me to play this or do you want me to whistle Dixie?” I asked. I hated collateral damage although it seemed to follow me around like a recurring case of the common cold. Tony and I liked one another for different reasons, although neither he nor I appreciated our respective senses of humor. He hung up without responding.
I passed in front of Joan’s banda. I knew it because she was sitting outside of its sliding glass doors in a cheap plastic chair. I walked up, and then sat in the chair next to her.
“What are you planning?” she asked, without preamble.
“Visit the prison today. The ferry tomorrow. Need a rental car.
You’re the obvious choice. You’re not going to be on anyone’s radar. Not yet, at least.
Got a credit card?”
She looked at me like I was an idiot.
“Where do I go down here to get a rental?” she asked.
“You and Sam can catch a cab back to the Intercontinental. They have an agency right on site,” I answered. “Why are you really here?”
She didn’t say anything for a minute or so. I waited, watching the waves impact on the rock shore, and then wash up to the thin layer of sand, time after time.
“I don’t know. There’s something about all this. Something about you.
How do you assemble all these people to do your bidding? Those women think you’re some sort of heroic figure. How do you do that?”
It was my turn to remain silent for awhile. I had no good answer. A sales guru had once told me that the most effective salesperson was a conscious competent person.
Most people were unconscious incompentents. I didn’t like the feeling that, about what Joan was speaking of, I might be an unconscious competent. But I had no ready answer for her question.
“The cause is just. People follow a just cause,” I finally answered. And the answer felt good, until she spoke again.
“They don’t have any idea what the cause is. It’s a hell of a lot more than a just cause. How are you going to get rid of them? Even shooting them doesn’t seem to dim their enthusiasm.”
“I’ll work on it while you’re gone,” I replied, avoiding further discussion altogether by changing the subject. “You can’t come to the prison. A woman, like yourself, would stick out like a sore thumb. Burt and I will be bad enough.”
“Where is the prison?” she asked, not arguing with my decision, at least.
“Two miles from here, if that, by the inlet to the north. It’s about the most modern structure on this part of the coast. There’s a courthouse attached. We’ll go there to see what we can rake up, for a bit of cash.”
“I’ll get a car. If you keep building this entourage we’ll need a bus.” She smiled for the first time when she said the words.
“So you came down here for me?” I ventured.
“You’ve changed something in the fabric of the universe here. I don’t know what. I still don’t like what you do. I think your heart is good, however, yet I’m not altogether happy with that conclusion. Sometimes you seem so directly dumb, and then you seem brilliant.” She raised one hand in a gesture of helplessness.
“Idiot Savant, I think its called,” I interpreted for her.
“There’s nothing idiotic about you at all, so no,” she replied, rising from her chair.
“I’m going to check on Helen. I think she’s fine though. Happy to have been shot during an adventure in Africa. You’ve twisted her mind in some god-awful manner.”
“Like yours?” I asked, to her departing back. She didn’t turn.
It took almost three hours for Sam to show up at the banda with a rental rig.
I was impressed. It was an aging Range Rover. V8 power. Large and Heavy. The gas mileage of an Abrams tank but air conditioned and extremely comfortable. Sam, Burt and I drove the short distance up Highway B8 to the prison. There was no missing it, as it was the only multi-story structure along the highway.
Same wheeled the Rover into a parking lot the size of two football fields, that sat in front of the main building. Most of the cars parked were clustered near the far end, closest to the bridge running in a high arc over the inlet.
“That’s got to be the court building,” I pointed out to Sam. He pulled the vehicle in among all the other cars. There were no Rovers. It was far too expensive a vehicle for most indigenous citizens to own, or even rent.
“Well, sir, what now?” he asked, turning the ignition off. I twisted in my leather seat to look back at Burt.
“We go in, find a contact, and then pursue whatever lead he might be able to give us. I don’t know what we’re looking for. Better strip down. No weaponry. They might have detectors all over the place in there. It’s pretty modern for this part of the world.” I looked at the structures we were in front of. The place looked modern for almost anywhere we might be in the world, I realized. It had to be American built. America builds great prisons.
“Stand by, nothing more. Stay alert. Use your head,” I said to Sam.
I waited for Burt to strip down in the back seat.
“Ready,” he said, finally. “When small bands of English soldiers were sent into the breach against the French cannons, what were they called?” he asked, getting out of the passenger door of the Rover.
I thought for a moment. Cornwell’s Sharp series came to my mind.
“The Forlorn Hope,” I answered.
“Roger that,” he whispered, as we walked together toward the imposing structure.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Closer To God, If One Would Dance, Chapter IX

Closer To God
If One Would Dance
Chapter IX
The view in front of the train was wide and clear when seen through the huge open space at the back of the engine. It was windy, however, as our speed was about forty-five. Dawn was moments away and visibility was less than a quarter mile, but it was enough.
As we came in toward the area of the station, according to the engineer standing at my side, the track would curve left to head in around the outer edge of the station. He showed me the small radio console that controlled four switches in the yard, the left most of which was the one that, when thrown, would allow us to proceed straight into the yard.
“We’re going in hot,” I said, seeing the buildings of the yard appear out of the morning gray.
“Hot?” he asked, his voice rising an octave.
“There’s nothing there. We can see. Hold the speed,” I replied, keeping my eyes on the tracks, noting how many more spread out further ahead. I slipped another five thousand shilling note from my pocket, this time passing it directly to the man’s squatting wife, who grasped it quickly, smiling again. I saw the track curve away to our left.
“Hit the switch,” I instructed, but the engineer shook his head.
“One more moment. We must give them no time to switch it back.”
The man’s hand hovered over the board. We were only feet from the curve when he eased down on the small lever. I watched the track ahead break and spread, and then we were over it.
“How far to Moi Road?” I asked. Both of us peered intently ahead, not moving our heads to look at one another. If there was something ahead there would be no stopping in time to avoid a collision.
“Kilometer. Minute. Two,” he clipped off, his voice tense, both hands braced to push back on a huge lever rising from the steel floor. I presumed the lever to be the brake, not that it might matter. There were at least twenty cars behind us. The inertia of the train was tremendous. We blew by the yard buildings, one man running out to watch us go by, a look of wonder on his face.
“Better slow this thing down,” I mentioned, as if I knew anything about stopping a train. “Where does the line end?” I asked.
“Used to be the Lakoni ferry, but we don’t go that far anymore. Don’t think there’s any track,” he answered. I recalled that the Lebanese and his family ran a ferry at that location.
The train began to slow, the engineer reaching for a cable that ran along the top corner edge of our small space. I caught his arm.
“No whistle.”
The man returned to his position, gently pushing on his big lever.
Jack saw cars crossing the tracks ahead. A lot of cars for so early in the morning. The intersection had to be Moi. I heard the universal ding ding ding of the railroad alarms signaling, as wooden guards descended to the block the road.
“You’re doing fine,” I said, my voice calm, although I didn’t feel calm at all. Had Burt received and properly interpreted the message? Was there going to be a Pajero waiting, or were we on our own? I punched the auto dial butto for Burt on the cell phone. He answered after the first ring.
“Hot, high and dry,” he said, and then hung up.
It was flight talk. I had not known that Burt was a flier. Hot, high and dry referenced the most dangerous kind of landing for an aircraft, outside of an emergency. If conditions were hot in temperature lift was less across the wing. High meant high altitude. There was less lift in thinner air. Dry finished the description. Dry air had less density than moist air, and ergo less lift. Using the expression as he had, meant that the Pajero was coming in but it was going to be a very risky landing.
“Gee, like I wouldn’t have guessed that,” I said to nobody, the engineer fully taken up with stopping the train. We were moving at about fifteen miles per hour when we approached to within fifty yards of Moi Road. I climbed around the rear guard of the engine, then jumped ten feet down to the slanted earth next to the tracks, using a series of Aikido rolls to minimize damage to my body as I decelerated.
The Pajero pulled around traffic, then came right down the railroad right of way, bouncing to near where I was rising, patting the dust from my shirt and trousers. The train’s air brakes gave off a huge whooshing sound, up and down the sides of the long line of cars. Burt and the Earth Mothers ran toward us from that direction.
Sam jumped from the vehicle and opened the back door. The Pajero was big but it was going to need all of its space for the six of us getting aboard. It would have been much simpler and safer to leave the Earth Mothers behind, but I knew they would have nothing to do with that. Burt and I would have to ditch them when we found some place to stay, and get our act together.
I ran to the passenger side of the vehicle and opened the front door.
Joan smiled down at me.
“What?” I asked, in total surprise and confusion. “What are you…” I began, but got no farther.
“I thought it would be a good idea to provide a little guidance. My ex-husband has had a hand in all this, and its my responsibility to make sure no more mistakes are made and that there’s no more violence.” She slammed the door in my face when she finished speaking. I got in the back.
Wendy was wedged between Burt and I, while the other three were crammed over the back seat into the cargo area. Sam hit the gas and rocketed around in a tight circle, throwing us roughly about the interior of the car.
“Where to?” he asked, looking back with a huge smile, obviously enjoying the driving and our obvious discomfort.
“We need a place out of the way where people won’t think to look,” I said to Wendy.
“The Beach Africa is it. Student hostel. About three hundred shillings a day
and okay. No air conditioning. You get a paraffin lamp and a mosquito net in a banda built for two. We got the sleeping bags though,” she said. “Go North on Moi,” she went on, leaning forward and pointing her finger for Sam to follow.
The wood crossing guards were still down. The engine had come to stop in the middle of the intersection, the engineer having delivered accurately for his money. Sam careened around the barrier, narrowly slipped between several cars and then accelerated in the direction Wendy had indicated. There were no cars in our way, as the barrier behind us blocked them all.
Wendy held to her center position, body wedged between the front seats, instructing Sam as to our direction. I peered over Joan’s right shoulder and grew ever more uncomfortable. We were headed back into the center of Mombasa, which was built on an island. The rail station was close to the center of town.
“Just head north and we’ll hit D eight, the highway and get off island. It doesn’t matter what road we take,” Wendy said.
We crossed another major road. There was little traffic. Sam did not bother to stop for the stop sign, and my worst fears were confirmed. A Maruki four wheel drive drove right past the rear of our Pajero at high speed, narrowly avoiding a collision, before screeching to a halt, and then spinning around to pursue us. Sam hit the gas. There was a sharp crack from behind us. Our windshield turned into biting little chunks of safety glass, and blew inward. European safety glass, not the good stuff used in America, which has a thick sandwich of gooey plastic in the middle, to prevent just such catastrophic failure.
There was a scream from the back at the same time. I turned, with glass pieces cascading from my throat and shirt.
“Helen’s hurt,” Anice stated, loudly, but not in panic. “I think the bullet hit the outside of her arm.”
“Get some material on it and apply pressure,” I instructed, hoping the projectile had not hit bone or an artery. We were in no condition to make for an emergency room, and we were not in a country where there was any decent medical care anyway.
I had not been angry since entering Kenya for the mission. I was not angry when we had been shot at earlier, and I wasn’t mad about the attempt on the train.
Those were the risks that went with the business. Fear I had experienced but not anger. However, I was getting sincerely pissed off that the Aegis people thought it was just fine to fire away at anything that moved.
“Give me the nine millimeter Burt,” I said, pulling the AMT from my pocket. I had one in the chamber and five in the magazine of the little back-up gun. The short barrel, and therefore lower muzzle velocity, would not allow for much penetration of the heavy .45 rounds however.
Burt handed me his gun.
“Loaded to fifty thousand C.P.I., one plus sixteen, “ he said, pushing the butt of the weapon into my open hand, behind Wendy’s back.
I examined the automatic for a brief second. The side of the slide read ‘F.N. 65.’ I knew the manufacturer. Belgian. The gun itself was made in the U.S. I liked that. Burt only seemed to carry American armament. Fifty thousand units of chamber pressure meant that the bullets, one third smaller than the .45 rounds, would launch from the barrel very fast indeed. Penetration was not going to be a problem.
“Take the next right hard, and then slow enough to drop me. Flip around
after a few more blocks and pick me up. Unless I go down. Then leave me and proceed.”
“Yes sir,” Sam replied crisply, veering the vehicle into a ninety degree turn. I loved the Marines. The vehicle slowed as we passed a wall. With the AMT back in my pocket and the FN in my right hand, I operated the handle with my left hand, opened the door, and leaped out. Sam had slowed to the perfect speed for my egress.
I was able to run a few paces and stop, without having to go down and roll out. I pulled out the AMT, flicked the external safety off by pushing it with my right palm, as the sharp little lever was made for right handed use.
The Maturi rocketed around the corner. I stepped to the edge of the crumbling curb holding up the FN. When the SUV was twenty feet away I opened up, shooting at the front glass, then the passenger doors as the car drove by.
I emptied the gun, brought up the AMT and waited. The Maturi slowed to a stop.
I moved into the street and steadied to take down anyone stepping from one of the
four doors, but nothing happened. The car just sat there.
The Pajero braked to a halt next to me. The passenger door was thrown open right at my side. Sam Hill was one hell of a driver, I realized, jumping in.
The door slammed as Sam accelerated us away from the scene.
It had all taken only seconds. My ears rang from the gunfire. The FN had been loaded to the maximum and the vibrations generated had caused some damage to my ears. The AMT was back in my pocket. I handed the used up FN back across to Burt.
“What happened back there?” Joan asked, twisting back to face me, her eyes wide, her lip quivering, but just a little.
“If one would dance, one must expect to pay the piper,” I answered. “Those clowns have been getting away with murder, or at least trying to get away with murder for days. I gave them something to think about.”
Joan turned, giving me her back again.
“Are they dead, the guys in that car?’ she asked.
“I have no idea,” I answered, truthfully. That I didn’t give a damn I kept to myself. Citizens were, after all, citizens, and it did not pay to attempt to bring them into the real world Burt and I lived in world. The Earth Mothers had come into our world for a brief visit and one was already wounded.
I checked the rear cargo area. Only Dingo was visible.
“How’s Helen?” I asked.
Anice spoke from the floor. “She’s got a slice out of her outer left arm, but he bleeding has stopped. A bit of shock. She’s real tired. But its so cool. Helen’s got a bullet wound.”
I rubbed my face, noting the bleeding cut across my right hand when I did.
The safety had cut right into the meat my palm. I had not noticed. The adrenalin of combat had cut the pain receptors and quite possibly the bleeding. Now I had both.
I grimace, clenching the hand to apply pressure. We had to get cleaned up, both Helen and I, before we entered any kind of hostel. Blood gets reported to authorities, and there was going to be some kind of very active investigation over the mess I’d left behind us. Possibly, there were no dead bodies in the Maturi, but I doubted that that was true.
Burt methodically replaced the empty magazine in the handle of the FN, pulled back on the slide, and then seated a round in the chamber. It took him another minute to take out the magazine, squeeze an additional round into the top of it, and then reset it into the automatic. The gun disappeared back into his multi-faceted outfit. He looked over at me. We both communicated the simple fact, it was good to be working with a real professional, without word or expression.
I looked out the window and watched our vehicle pass over the bridge. Mombasa was behind us. My clenched hand shook. I caught the wrist in my left hand, securing it. I wasn’t used to shooting people, and it didn’t feel good, even when the people getting shot had it coming to them in the worst way.
Wind blew with gusto right through the Pajero. I didn’t realize that the vehicle was a different one than the one we’d rented until that moment. How had Stevens and Sam come up with a vehicle of the same type and color? At the Safari hotel we’d lost the driver side passenger window and the rear glass. Either the damages had been repaired in extremely short order or we were riding in a different car. I tucked the information away for later consideration.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Another Chance

Another Chance

By James Strauss

He was the first out for the season. The lake had iced over days before, which was uncommon so early in the year, but he’d taken the opportunity to beat any other ice fisherman and establish his fishing hut in the best location. Ten degrees below zero for three days was sufficient to form an ice layer thick enough to drive his truck across, tow the shack out, then park back at the edge of the lake and walk. He trudged back toward the run down ‘out-house’ looking shed he’d left near the middle of the lake. Inside the clapboard structure was a propane heater, six-inch ice drill, fishing equipment and half a case of Bacardi Rum. It was Saturday. He would have two whole days to do nothing but ice fish and drink, with a strong emphasis on the drinking.
When he arrived at the shack he turned around, and then studied the shore of the big lake for signs of other ice fishermen, but there was not a soul about. Smoke came from a few chimneys and he knew, even at six in the morning, his presence out on the ice was noted by many of the people who lived year around in the lakeside cabins. Several binoculars were probably sighted in on him, he thought, as he studied the shore. That conclusion did not give him any discomfort. Quite the opposite. If anything happened, like the ice not holding, then help would be only minutes away.
In past years many fishermen had gone through, one guy had even lost his Porsche, but all had been saved due to the ‘watchers’ on the shore and their quick actions. Because of the Porsche, and the potential pollution such a sinking might have on the lake ecosystem, no vehicles were allowed to park out on the ice during the frozen winter months. All the fishermen hated the discomfort and inconvenience that the rule caused, but they all understood the need to keep the lake pristine. Without the freshwater fish population there would be no ice fishing, and certainly no place to get as securely and quietly drunk as most ice fishermen loved to be.
Once inside, he turned the knob of the propane tank to full open and started the heater, making sure to pull down on the vent lever. Propane was clean but in a small enclosed space even the small waste of carbon monoxide it produced could be deadly. The next order of business was to mix a Rum and Coke, his favorite drink. Two parts rum and two parts coke mixed, without ice, inside a small ceramic cup.
He finished off two cups in as many minutes, warming him to the point where he could remove his heavy sheepskin coat and hat. The propane heater was extremely efficient. The thermometer read sixty degrees and he could see it slowly climbing.
He checked the ice surface around him. He had never built a floor into the shack. He preferred the walls to contact the ice directly, allowing him to pull fish right from the hole instead of up through a hole in a wood floor. He was a purist and proud of it.
Mixing a third drink, which he momentarily set aside, he worked on this fishing rig. A short flexible rod, light line and leader, two small hooks and a heavy sinker. He was going after bottom feeding bass. They were all fairly small, no bigger than nine or ten inches in length, but he loved their taste. Many of the other fishermen went after perch, a milder fish. The propane heater had a side burner. If he cared to, and was lucky enough to catch something early, he would have grilled bass for his breakfast. The thought made him smile. Downing the third rum and coke added humming to the smile. Auld Lang Syne. It was, after all, New Years Day, and he was dead set on changing his life. He was going to visit the children who’d gone away so long ago after the divorce. He was going to stop drinking after this last season of ice fishing. He was going to go back and get a real job, one more in keeping with his college diploma, rather than continue being a vacation cabin caretaker and handyman.
He set the prepared rod and line aside, built a back up, and then took hold of his powered ice drill. The guys at Home Depot said that it would drill a six-inch diameter hole through two feet of ice in one minute. Placing the point of the drill in the exact center of his small space he balanced the tip on the slippery ice, holding the machine perpendicular with his left hand while pulling on the rope handle sharply with his right. The machine screamed to top speed instantly, jerking him a little off balance with its torque. The blade bit into the ice, bounced upward, then slammed back into the ice, grinding in with great crunching sound.
He was under water. The impact of entering the thirty-two degree water was stunning. He body screamed in pain, and then flashed with a deadly numbness. He surfaced, dropping the drilling machine into the depths. He treaded water for a few seconds. Debris was all around him in the water. The heater, flame gone but gas bubbling from the tube, floated next to him, along with his hat and coat. Even the small stool floated inside the confines of the shack, bobbing among all the chunks of broken ice. He twisted around. The ice had broken under the shack he realized, his brain slowly recovering from shock. It had broken perfectly,
He moved to one wall of the shack and tried to lever himself up, grabbing hold of a cross-bracing two by four. The shack pulled down. He did not rise at all.
He paddled to the door. He pulled the shack downward, and then tried the handle. The door opened outward, designed to save as much of the shack’s small space for occupancy as possible. But it opened only two inches, and then jammed against the edge of ice outside. He started to panic. He was already losing the feeling in his hands, and strangely, in his hips and midsection. His legs still worked. His frog kick still kept him afloat, along with his weak grip on the wooden supports of the shack wall. He had to think, so he calmed himself. Help was not far away, if he could just maintain himself, get free of the frigid water and make his way outside. Simply waving his arms out in the open would bring immediate assistance.
More attempts at climbing failed. He fell back. A bottle thumped against his arm. He looked down. It was the half empty bottle of Bacardi. Treading water for a few seconds using only his legs, he grasped the bottle in deadened hands, got the cap off and took it to his lips. He drank the half bottle down in continuous swigs, and but could not release it from his frozen hand when it was empty. Instant heat blossomed from his stomach. He could feel the heat move slowly up to his head. He could only prop his hand on the wooden support of the wall, his fingers no longer usable for grasping anything.
He half lay against the bobbing wall, wondering what was going to happen to him.
“Please God, help me. I’ll quit drinking. I’ll take care of my kids. Just give me another chance.” His last words were slurred, even to his own hearing. He tried them again, but he couldn’t improve the pronunciation. He had to rest or he was not going to be able to help himself, he knew. He closed his eyes for a second, to take a break.
On the shore William and Harriet Barrow stared across the mile of ice and snow that separated them from the shack.
“The damn thing was four feet higher, I swear, when he set it up out there earlier,” William said to his peering wife, “and I’d bet a season ticket to the Cubs that its moving around somehow.”
“Nope,” Harriet said, in finality, “that’s the wind and the temperature differential caused by sun reflecting off the ice. “That guy is in there, probably sitting in a drunken stupor, waiting to catch a fish he’d pay three dollars a pound for at the Sentry.
“We ought to call it in, just to be sure,” William said, still staring out across the lake with his binoculars.
“Nah, we’ll have us some hot coffee and consider. If you think its still moving then, we’ll call.”
Half an hour later the couple returned to the great window. Both agreed that the shack was not moving at all.
Inside the shack, ice sealed everything over, catching all the debris and broken chunks in a jumbled frozen setting. The highest thing to rise above the surface was a man’s arm. Thrust upward, almost from the elbow, was a plaid covered forearm ending in a hand tightly clutching an empty Bacardi bottle.
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