Closer To God
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.