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Vultures in the Playground
Copyright 2011 by A. Sparrow.
All rights reserved.
Chapter 1: Monrovia
The harmattan had come to rob the sky of its blue and its stars. The sinking sun, reduced to a fuzzy red orb, shimmered over a sea of zinc roofing. Even now, in the depths of dry season, the air was a dank and fetid sponge, pungent with wood smoke and burning plastic. Shadows of dead palms stretched like talons. Every surface, every child was coated in dust.
Two men trailed Archie, faces rigid with purpose. They crossed every alley after him. Mirrored every turn and backtrack. Loitered by every vendor he feigned an interest. Their loose and jaunty gaits reminded him of young lions; never had he felt more like prey.
Archie had been indulging his habit of taking a long walk after a long flight. No big deal in a stable country like Ghana, but in Liberia, it begged trouble, especially for someone wearing a smuggler’s vest lined with fifteen thousand in crisp hundred dollar bills.
To make matters worse, his usually keen sense of direction had failed him. Instincts dulled by jet lag, he had gotten turned around and found himself wandering through a vast and haphazard informal settlement patched together from rice sacks, pallets and sheets of tin. He had no idea how to get back to his hotel.
The cash was destined for a malaria project in Nimba County. The only bank in town had a habit of embargoing wire transfers until certain exorbitant ‘special handling fees’ had been paid. Archie hadn’t felt comfortable leaving the money behind at the hotel, though it had proved no more secure on his person.
Eyes forward, legs churning, Archie strode on, making a show of knowing exactly where he wanted to go and how to get there. A glimpse sufficed to tell anyone he was lost.
What possible business could a man of his advantages—spotless clothes, white skin—have in the meanest shanty town in Monrovia? Walking alone at nightfall? Men like him were meant to be chauffeured around town in shiny Land Cruisers.
Children waved and laughed and chased him until their worried mothers called them back. ‘Boss man,’ they called him—a relict term that offended him more than any epithet tossed his way, seething with its connotations of slavery and subjugation. Most of the other names—faranji, mzungu, obruni, oyinbo, yovo—denoted whiteness or foreignness, not just caste or privilege.
Boss man. What a bizarre thing for a nation founded by repatriated slaves and having no colonial history to call its paler visitors. He was no boss man. He was just a man.
The settlement bustled with the commerce of poverty. Women sold charcoal by the chunk, beans by the handful, twigs for cleaning teeth. He stopped at a makeshift soft drink stand little wider than a phone booth, pieced together from scrap plywood and painted Coca-Cola red.
A woman sat inside with a baby balanced on her lap. “Pardon me, ma’am. Do you know how to get to Liberty Hotel?”
For the umpteenth time, asking the same question, he received the same response. She shrugged and looked away.
He bought a Coke with an un-creased twenty dollar bill—further proof of his privilege, its cleanliness clashing starkly against the wad of greasy, blackened singles he received back in change.
This bottle might come in handy if things got rough, serving as projectile, club, or broken, as a blade. Resistance, however, would be his last resort. Better to offer them the contents of his pockets and pray they not discover his money vest.
He tracked his pursuers in his vision’s periphery. They remained attentive to his every movement. Yet, their patience was almost lackadaisical. In Liberia, he supposed, no one was ever in a hurry, not even muggers.
Why so cautious? It couldn’t be because they feared him. He was easy prey—a pasty, out-of-shape American. To them he must have looked like one of the common breed of international functionaries that came here for consultancies and workshops. The kind who never read State Department security warnings and were ignorant of Liberia’s recent history, its civil wars, massacres and chronic lawlessness.
People busy with late-day chores elbowed past him—lugging water jugs, packing up market wares, hauling kindling, bearing bundles of scythed grass for their goats. Crowds were no deterrent to a determined pair of muggers. These folks were survivors. One did not endure years of civil war by getting in the way of other people’s dirty business.
If not for the windfall beneath his shirt, Archie might have called the muggers’ hand and gotten the whole deal over with. A dummy wallet in the rear pocket of his khakis was stuffed with small bills and expired credit cards. He had left the flap unbuttoned, to further entice and distract. If that didn’t satisfy them, they were welcome to the iPod bulging his shirt pocket and the Nikon dangling from his belt.
All of those items were replaceable; they might even be insured. A simple bump and snatch would leave him no more harmed than a gecko sacrificing the tip of its tail.
But the 15K in his vest changed everything. Fifteen thousand USD was worth killing for in this part of the world.
The tangled snarl of alleys he had been traversing finally gave way to a major street. He paused at the corner, figuring he needed to head west towards the ocean and setting sun. But this road ran north and south. Yet another warren dense with narrow lanes lay between him and refuge. At least this next settlement looked more established. Buildings of brick and concrete rose above the shacks—Lebanese wholesalers with razor-wired compounds. Culverts and sidewalks bracketed the dust and ruts.
Sweat dribbled down his torso. He gazed up and down the street. Where were all the taxis? When he was last in Monrovia, their primary colors crowded the lanes as thickly as spawning salmon.
Come to think of it, driving in from the airport, the only vehicles he had seen had UN or NGO insignias. It would be nice to see one of them drive by right about now. Most had policies against taking hitchhikers, but someone noticing his distress might make an exception.
No police were around either, though that was not necessarily a bad thing. These days in Monrovia, the force participated in as many crimes as they deterred. Odds were fifty-fifty he would be taken into a station and hassled for bribes—though he would have taken that bet against a ninety-nine percent chance of being mugged.
An older man in a sport coat and tattered shorts lugged an overstuffed duffel bag bulging with cheap sneakers. He turned to Archie with a weary but kindly expression.
“Are you lost, boss man?”
Archie cringed at the salutation, but let it pass without correction. “Do you happen to know where I can find a taxi?”
“Nowhere,” said the man. “Not today. There has been no petrol in Monrovia all week. They are all queued up at the filling stations. A shipment is coming tomorrow, they say.”
“I see.” Archie sighed and glanced back at his pursuers, who were now lounging against the ruins of a concrete wall. Struts of rusted rebar protruded like ribs on a half-eaten carcass. The men pretended not to look his way.
“You wouldn’t happen to know the quickest way to the Liberty Hotel from here?”
“Liberty? I have never heard of this one. Maybe it is new?” The old man hoisted his bag and sauntered off.
Archie made brief eye contact with one of the men following him. This was getting ridiculous. Why didn’t they just come after him and get it over with? They did not seem like diffident types. Were they simply that confident he would not be able to elude them?
But with the sun about to collide with the smudged horizon, their strategy made sense. In a city with inadequate lighting and unreliable electricity, they would soon have the complete cover of nightfall to do their deeds.
Archie shivered at the realization and darted off across the road, angling for a busy lane with walks strung with light bulbs and second-hand clothing shops still open for business.
The men crossed behind him and were joined by a third, who carried a dirty Styrofoam box over his dreadlocks. One of them uttered something terse and guttural in the local Krahn that sounded like a command. His companion sprinted ahead, dashing past Archie without a glance, as Archie cringed, certain he would be tackled.
But the man rushed right on by. Had Archie misunderstood their intentions? Did the man with the cooler merely wish to sell him a cold drink?
But no. Archie could see what they were doing. They were setting up a triangle around him. His stomach seized with the realization that something nasty was about to go down.
He still had the empty bottle in his hands, but when he went to get a better grip it slithered through his sweaty palms and he fumbled it. It smashed against the concrete gutter. As he stared at the shards, the faces of passersby flipped his way. They kept their distance like antelope abandoning an injured member of the herd, as if they knew a predator was about to strike.
Panicking, Archie squeezed around a bamboo partition, past a group of ladies chopping onions and cooking rice over charcoal. He squeezed through a gap in a fence into the next alley and ran, aiming for the sunset. The man who had passed him earlier appeared and blocked his way. Before Archie could dodge, something hard and heavy slammed into the side of his head.
A grapefruit-sized rock thudded to the ground. His muscles went limp. He crumpled and rolled half into a ditch beside a black and greasy trickle of sun-reduced sewage clotted with discarded plastic sacking. His vision wavered at the fringes, but he never blacked out. He lost all control of his limbs.
His head lolled to one side just as a cinder block crashed down, barely missing his skull. The block shattered against the lip of a culvert, stony fragments spattering his cheek, showering his eyes with grit.
The men fell upon him like jackals onto a carcass. One took his fake wallet. Another reached into his shirt, tugged sharply and snapped the cord of his security pouch, taking his real wallet and passport. Archie flailed feebly, fending off their probing fingers.
The man bearing the cooler appeared, dropping to his knees while the leader leaned over Archie and held his arm flat, pressing a serrated knife against his wrist. The first nip of the blade restored Archie’s clarity and control. He flinched and wrenched his arm free, kicked out a knee, catching the man in the ribs. The man grunted and dropped his blade. Archie squirmed free and scuttled away like a crab, backing up against a fence.
A boy called out. “Soldiers coming!”
A military truck careened around the corner. Two of the attackers fled, but the third, still holding Archie’s passport, ducked around the corner of a building and lingered, glaring at him with an inexplicable mix of hunger and hatred that sickened him with its intensity.
“I’ve got money here!” said Archie, patting his vest. “Please. I’ll give you money for that passport. Lots of money. Just let me have it back.”
The man just stared back, the rays of the setting sun accentuating tribal scars in triplets across his angular cheekbones. Archie would remember this face. He felt under the weeds for the rock that felled him, gripped it like a softball and was about to fling it at his assailant, when the man disappeared.
Two soldiers staggered out of the troop carrier to pee in the ditch. They seemed startled to find a white man staring back at them from the ground but were too drunk and incurious to give a damn.
Blood trickled into his eyes. Archie reached up and found his hair all matted and sticky. His money vest remained intact. He wished he had thought to zip his passport inside. He felt its absence as surely as if they had plucked an organ from his chest.
Other soldiers bustled out of a warehouse and loaded cases of large green bottles into the bed of their truck. Archie didn’t dare approach them for help. They were already blitzed out of their skulls. Friday night was coming on strong.
He rose and limped back to the main road, struggling to walk a straight line. He paused at the corner, scouting the street from behind a display of T-shirts. He was about to step out when the man with the scars came trotting past. The bastard had circled around the block, doubling back to the scene of the crime.
Archie waited until the man was halfway down the lane and then started after him. This man had his passport. Of all the things he could have taken, this was the least replaceable, bearing dozens of multiple-entry visas from three continents that would take months to restore. Even if he couldn’t retrieve it on his own, it might be useful to know where it ended up.
The light was fading quickly. Perhaps it was foolish to follow. Maybe he wasn’t thinking straight. If his attackers were bold enough to try hacking off his hand in daylight, imagine what they would do under cover of darkness. But darkness worked to his advantage as well, offering concealment. He had turned the tables. Once pursued, now the pursuer. The thought of it thrilled him.
Keeping up wasn’t easy. The guy kept veering off through random compounds, tracing a circuitous route as if he knew he was being followed.
Like a zebra sniffing the wind, the man paused to survey his surroundings. Archie dropped onto a stool surrounded by shoe-shine boys. The kids laughed at Archie’s flip-flops, but proceeded to clean them anyway with a bit of rag dunked in a can of muddy water.
The man headed straight for a corroded chain link fence backed with metal sheeting and topped with razor wire. He punched a code into a keypad and slipped through a heavy steel gate. The gate slammed shut behind him.
Archie slipped the kids some coins and sidled up to the fence, peering around the edge of the gate. A pack of growling, snapping dogs sensed his presence and harried him around the periphery.
Dump trucks, graders and other construction equipment filled the compound within, some of them stenciled with ‘Xtraktiv’ in a shattered black font. Two unmarked humvees mounted with fifty-caliber machine guns were parked beside a sandbagged bunker against the main building.
That name—Xtraktiv—rang a bell. At the airport, a van with that logo had picked up a trio of young men who had been goofing around, posing for pictures with a security guard.
A metal placard posted on the gate warned: ‘NO SOLICITORS.’ But there was a local telephone printed underneath. He pulled a Sharpie from his pants and tried jotting the number on his hand, but his palm was too bloody. He found a clean patch on his forearm and wrote it there.
He staggered off into the twilight, heading back down the alley toward the glow of the setting sun. Blood dribbled down his chin and dripped off his fingertips. Some passersby seem startled to see him. Others barely gave him a second glance, as if bloody-faced white men were a common sight Friday nights in Monrovia.
Generators cranked up. Lights flickered on. Frogs began to croak from a slough. The smell of roast chicken wafted from a grill and sent pangs through Archie’s stomach. He wondered if anyone could make change for a hundred dollar bill.
Chapter 2: Liberty
Taxis that night were as rare as okapis. Somehow, Archie lucked into the only one operating on Embassy Row, swooping in as it dropped off a carload of young missionaries at a courtyard restaurant.
“Liberty Hotel, please.”
“Oh!” said the driver. “We are very close.”
“Good,” said Archie. “The closer the better.”
The driver winced when he noticed the extent of Archie’s injuries. “Jesus Christ, man! What happen to you?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” said Archie. “Just my welcome to Monrovia.”
“You want to go to hospital?”
“No thanks. The Liberty Hotel will do fine.” He had enough food for nightmares for one evening.
He supposed he could relax finally. But the muscles in his neck stayed knotted and his head throbbed in time with his pummeling heart. He stank of sewers and smoke and fear.
The cab cut down a dark lane and turned onto a well-lit boulevard the Archie recognized instantly. It wasn’t far at all. He could have easily walked back if he had known where to go.
The taxi turned into the drive leading to the Liberty, which was set back from the road. The sight of its backlit sign induced a smile. Now he could get washed up, tend to his wounds, find something to eat and regroup—not necessarily in that order.
Headlights washed over a pre-teen boy pulling a green plaid suitcase that looked way too familiar.
“Holy shit! That kid’s got my bag!”
“What you say?” said the driver.
“Stop. Right here!”
“But sir, the drop-off is over there by—”
“Right here! Right now! Stop!”
Archie bolted out of the cab and ran after the kid, who tried sprinting away with the suitcase in tow. The tiny wheels caught on the rough pavement and threw the bag over on its side. The boy dragged it behind him, frantically trying to right it when Archie caught up, lunged for the handle with his good hand and wrested it away.
The kid screamed. “Teef! Help me! Dis man is a teef!”
Passersby gathered; people emerged from an open-air bar.
“This is mine,” said Archie. “Look at the tags. My name is—” He noticed that all the tags and destination stickers had been yanked off. “You little fuck!”
He grabbed the suitcase and zipped it open, pulling out the photocopy of his passport that he always packed in his luggage. He held it up to the light beaming down from a termite-clouded street lamp.
“Look at that. That’s me, you little—” But the kid had disappeared into the shadows. The crowd was already dispersing, perhaps fearing the trouble that would ensue once Monrovia’s hyper-aggressive and unpredictable police arrived on the scene. Liberian cops tended to err on the side of inclusivity, often rounding up bystanders in lieu of actual perpetrators. And Friday night in Monrovia was no time or place to get entangled with the law.
Archie stormed into the hotel lobby, brushing past an elderly security guard, who smiled and saluted as he entered, as if all was right with the world.
A sleepy young man peered up at Archie from a sofa behind the counter. Archie’s bloody face jolted him out of his stupor.
“Oh! What happened to you, boss man?”
“Mugged,” he said. “My key, please. I’m getting my things and leaving. I have to say, the security in your establishment leaves something to be desired.”
“I said, give me my key! I’m checking out. If you can’t keep these damned kids from breaking into my room, you don’t deserve my business.”
“But sir, you have reservation for three nights. We have a penalty for cancelling reservation.”
“No way am I paying any penalty. I want my key, now. Give it.”
The clerk’s eyes flickered with anger. He pursed his lips and snatched Archie’s key from a nook, slapping it on the counter.
When Archie reached the room he found the door jamb splintered and the lock dangling loose. He didn’t even need the key. How both the clerk and security guard hadn’t noticed any hanky-panky was beyond him. Were they both sleeping? Or were they accomplices?
He pushed the door open with a simple nudge. As he had feared, the courier bag holding his laptop was missing, but at least his toiletries remained in the bathroom. He grabbed them and stormed back out down the hall, tossing the key on the front counter.
“Sir, if you leave now, you must pay for half a day.”
“Fuck you. I’m not paying you a cent. You should pay me.”
“Then I shall call the police.”
“Go ahead. Call. I’d love to talk to them.”
Outside, Archie was glad to see the taxi still waiting. He threw his toiletries in the back seat beside his suitcase and climbed in front.
“You got enough gas to get back to Robertsfield?” He hoped to stay at the former Hilton the airline crews still used, right across from the airport. It was expensive, but had proved a reliable refuge in prior troubles.
“I … don’t tink so, boss,” said the driver. “My tank, it is almost empty.”
Archie sighed. He didn’t want to stick around Monrovia. Most of the other hotels were flea bags of the worst sort. But he remembered one he had seen on the way in from the airport, near the old rubber plantation.
“There’s a new hotel this side of Harbel. You know which one I’m talking about?”
“It is called … Hibiscus?”
“Yeah. I think that’s it. Looks like your needle’s not quite pegged. Think you can make it that far?”
“Maybe.” The needle of his fuel gauge was well into the red zone near the big ‘E.’ He sucked air through his teeth and bit his lip. “We try.”
“Good man. What’s your name?”
“I am called James.”
“James, I’m Archie. If we run out, I’ll help you push.”
“If we run out you give me fifty dollar … plus the full fare … for staying overnight.”
“Deal,” said Archie.
They made it to Harbel with the engine coughing and sputtering in the final throes of fuel starvation. James coasted into the lot, rolling to a halt behind a row of cars lined up before the reception area. The place—the Red Hibiscus—looked promising. Every letter of its lighted sign still glowed. Its brick walls were freshly painted, the ornamental shrubs well tended.
Archie felt a smile lift the corners of his cheeks. This was just the kind of harbor he needed after his rough welcome to Liberia. He hoped they had a vacancy.
The place wasn’t nearly as nice-looking inside as out. The mirror in the lobby had a huge crack like a lightning bolt. The carpets were grimy and the dining room looked like it had been vandalized—broken chairs and tables heaped in one corner.
But business seemed to be thriving. The bar, at least, seemed lively enough, thronged with a mix of Lebanese expatriates and well-to-do Liberians.
“Any rooms available?” he asked the petite woman behind the counter, who was fussing over a sheath of invoices.
“We have,” she said, without looking up. “But only standard singles. The deluxe rooms are all taken.”
“Are they air conditioned?”
“They have fans, self-contained toilets.”
“That’ll be fine. I’ll need two rooms, please. My driver will be spending the night as well.”
She handed him two registration forms, but once she looked up, she couldn’t stop staring. “What happen to your face?”
“Oh. It was just an accident,” said Archie. “Um … I’ll have to get James in here to fill this out. I only know his first name.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said the woman, her face fixed in a grimace, as if merely looking at him pained her. “Put them both under your name.” She clasped her hand to her chest “Do you need bandages?”
“Um, maybe,” he said, remembering that his first-aid kit had been packed in his stolen courier bag.
His stomach sank when he reached the line asking for his passport number. He knew the number by rote. That was not the issue. He had just forgotten it had been stolen and did not look forward to the rigmarole he faced in getting it replaced.
The woman opened a drawer and pulled out a tube of ointment and a box of children’s band-aids replete with sparkly stars, dragons and faeries. “Take whatever you need,” she said.
“Why, thank you!”
She placed two keys on the counter, each wired to a hefty slab of mahogany.
“I don’t know where this porter has gone. I can help you with your bags.”
“Oh, no need. I only have but the one.”
Archie went outside and found James reclining in the front seat of his cab. He reached through the window. “Here’s your key.”
“Oh no … That is okay. I will sleep in my car.”
“Is better. For security.”
“I don’t think that’s a problem. This place seems pretty well lighted. And there’s a guard over there.”
“Is better I stay with my car.”
James looked serious and determined. Archie thought better than to argue.
Archie’s room was clean but spare. It smelled a bit like a moldy basement. The bed was one of the narrowest twins he had ever seen, its sheets ghosted with the dim outlines of old blood stains and body oils, like a modern day Shroud of Turin. The bathroom provided two towels, but they were made of a polyester blend that seemed only to repel water.
Still, it was a welcome haven, set far back enough from the main road to soften the rumble of passing trucks.
The water that dribbled out of his shower was cold, but refreshing. He tended to the wound on the side of his head, picking bits of crusted blood and road grit out of his hair. To close the wound on his wrist, he improvised a butterfly with the sticky part of a glittery band-aid. The porcelain ran with streaks of reconstituted blood.
He was lucky the knife had been dull and that his watch band had interfered. Otherwise, it would have severed an artery. He couldn’t imagine what that man had been trying to do to his hand. He couldn’t have been trying to steal the watch. It was a cheap-ass Timex Indiglo.
He turned on a window fan and sat naked on the bed, his scalp throbbing beneath a lump over his ear as thick as a wallet. He opened his suitcase, the contents of which seemed mercifully undisturbed. It felt good to slip into some clean clothes. He tossed the shirt and pants he had been wearing into the trash. Slashed and scuffed, they were beyond salvaging.
He sat and stared at the mirror above the bureau through a fog of fatigue and pain. He looked awful, but couldn’t blame it all on that brick to the head. The face in the mirror did not match the one in his mind’s eye. That soaring forehead. Those creases angling down from his nose. He was starting to look like his freaking father. No wonder he hated looking into mirrors.
Archie made it back to the restaurant just before it closed. He had gone looking for James, hoping the cabbie would join him, but had found him in the parking lot scraping the last of his rice and palm oil stew from the bottom of a large bowl.
“Don’t worry about me, boss. You take care of yourself.”
He found a table on the patio that didn’t wobble as much as the others and ordered a large Club beer. Its white-on-green shamrock logo made him wonder how the Celtics were doing in the playoffs. Inside, he was still an Eastern Connecticut boy, even though he hadn’t lived in the state since high school.
The waitress didn’t bother bringing him a menu. Turned out, the kitchen had only one item available that night: grass cutter stew over rice—the same dish James had enjoyed. The lack of a choice didn’t faze him. At least it arrived promptly and came accompanied by fried plantains and a fiery relish of onion and chopped pepper. With a tall beer to wash it down, it certainly hit the spot.
The perfume of rubber trees permeated the smoky air. Giant termites swarmed the street lamps. He ordered a second Club and pondered his situation. Here he was, with no passport, no credit cards, and no netbook. He had planned to hire a car and spend a full day up-country, but that would have to wait.
He had built a day of wiggle room into his schedule and it looked like he would be spending it at the US Embassy. Maybe some of his hosts from Global Change for Children could come down and meet him in Monrovia. He only needed a few hours to go over papers and transfer the money.
He wondered how quickly the embassy could get him a new passport. He doubted they could arrange one by Thursday when he was scheduled to fly to Accra. The last time this had happened to him, in Nigeria, he had been stuck in Lagos for two extra weeks. Of all the places in the world he could be stranded, Monrovia was near the bottom of his list.
Liberia hadn’t always been this bad. Founded by former American slaves, it had neither benefitted nor suffered from colonialism, though the Americo-Liberians who dominated its politics managed to cultivate their own brand of oppression.
In the late 80s, when Archie had first started coming here, it had been a pleasant enough place to visit, dictator or no. Sure there had been the usual corruption, bureaucratic hassles and road blocks, but the people had always had a laissez faire attitude towards visitors.
But that was before the civil wars, before the fall of the old despot Samuel Kenyon Doe and the depredations of Charles Taylor, the new despot. He found it difficult to reconcile the friendliness and humanity of West Africans with the brutality that could explode in their civil wars.
Since then, everything that had been bad about Liberia had been made worse—the cities grittier, the people poorer, even the dogs more desperate.
Archie thought it would be good to call work and let them know what had happened. He turned on his trusty old Siemens GSM slab phone. Puzzled when it failed to locate a network, he opened up the back and saw that it still held the Claro SIM card he had installed in Peru. He had forgotten to swap in his global Mobal chip before he left.
No biggie. He could purchase a local SIM in the morning. There were ads all over the streets for up-and-coming mobile companies. At least some areas of commerce were burgeoning.
It meant, though, that he couldn’t share his predicament with anyone back home. Not right away, anyhow, not while he had this tremendous urge to vent and commiserate with someone who cared. But whowasthat, these days? Who gave a damn what happened to him on the other side of the Atlantic?
Not Trudy, his ex-wife. Not anymore. They were still friends, in a sense, on a remembering birthdays and Christmas cards basis, but Trudy had her own life now out on the West Coast.
His estranged younger brother Karl might be amused by the story of his mugging, but why give him the pleasure? Karl had never forgiven Archie for staying in Angola when Mom was in her last days, fading with emphysema. But Mom had understood. Why couldn’t he?
Three years had passed since Mom’s death. One would have thought that Karl would have gotten over it by now. Of the old nuclear family, all they had left was each other.
Who else was there to call? No one. He had let too many friendships fade after he and Trudy were no longer a couple. He had acquaintances here and there, and colleagues from work, but no one with whom he would feel comfortable sharing a breathless, beer-fueled outpouring of his soul.
That realization sent an icy pang down his core. As time went on, he seemed less self-sufficient yet more isolated—a potentially terminal divergence. He took a swig of his beer and looked out at the pair of distant tail-lights heading up the road to Robertsfield.
Melissa, the neighbor who fed his cats and watered his plants, deserved a call. She only expected him to be gone two weeks. The way things were going, he might have to tag on at least another week or two. He certainly would not be making it to Ghana any time soon, where the bulk of his work awaited. It looked like the Global Fund monitoring and evaluation team was going to have to start without him.
Melissa, at least, might offer a sympathetic ear. She was one of the few people in his life who seemed genuinely interested in what he did, draining entire pots of coffee listening to stories of his travels. She would barrage him with so many questions it could feel like an interrogation.
It was mostly trivia she asked about—what the hotels were like, the restaurants, the food. And she was a sucker for wildlife. She had to know about every snake or monkey he spotted crossing the road, his infrequent encounters with hippos and hyenas. She would gawk at the pictures and wish she had been there.
Talking to Melissa always perked him up. Sure, he was lonely and she was young, pretty and female, but there was more to it than that. She exuded this joy for the simplest things that couldn’t help but infect him with the notion that sticking around this world might be worth the bother.
He swigged down the last of his Club. He still felt wired, despite all the beer, but it was nothing a Benadryl couldn’t neutralize. First stop in the morning: the US Embassy.
Traces of ink on his forearm had survived the shower. He pulled out a pen and copied the number onto a napkin. These Xtraktiv folks might be interested in knowing that one of their employees mugged foreigners in his spare time. Who knows, maybe if he could get the management to intercede on his behalf, he might recover his old passport and not have to wait for a new issue from the embassy? He stuffed the napkin into his pocket and went back to his room.
Despite the Benadryl, Archie spent a fitful night. He was plenty groggy but he couldn’t sleep. Roaches swarmed the walls and traversed his blanket like herds of wildebeest crossing the veldt. Mosquitoes whined in his ear and pricked his brow. He could have deployed one of the bed net samples he carried in his suitcase, but couldn’t muster the energy to bother. It wasn’t till dawn had begun to show that he managed a few contiguous hours of slumber.
He dragged himself out of bed with the sun beating strong on the palms outside his window. His linens looked like a murder scene, smeared with streaks of blood and ointment. Embarrassed, he pulled off the pillow cases off and rinsed them in the sink. He didn’t want any maids freaking out at all the blood.
The restaurant was bustling compared to the night before. He was the only Caucasian among the otherwise diverse patrons, including a couple of Francophone businessmen fromCôtesd’Ivoire and an African-American family. James nodded and smiled from the doorway. Archie waved him over to the table and they shared a couple of egg sandwiches with finely-chopped hot peppers.
“So … Is there petrol today?”
James beamed and nodded. “Yes.”
“And it is good we stay in Harbel. The queue was much shorter than it would be in Monrovia.”
“Was? Did you already get fuel?”
“Excellent! Listen, I promised to fill your tank, plus a retainer for hanging around overnight.” Archie peeled off a hundred dollar bill from his roll and handed it over.
James folded and pocketed it, looking quite pleased.
“Want some more coffee?”
“No thank you.”
“Let me settle my bill and we can head to the embassy, alright?”
Archie went to the front desk. The same lady from the night before remained at her post.
“And how you feel this morning?” Her hand flew up to her cheek. “Oh! Your face looks so swollen. Are you sure you do not need a doctor?”
“I’m fine,” said Archie. “Just a little sore. Hey, uh … would you happen to know where I can get a SIM for a mobile phone?”
She slid open a drawer. “We have Comium.”
“Never heard ofthatone. Must be new. Do they have good coverage?”
“Then I’ll take one, plus twenty bucks of air time.” He slapped another hundred on the counter and received a new SIM, a scratch card and a wad of grimy, threadbare dollars in return.
Feeling empowered by the caffeine buzzing in his veins and his restored ability to communicate with the outside world, he strode off towards his room.
“Meet you out front, James. I’m just gonna brush my teeth.”
Chapter 3: Embassy
Archie went to his room and set up his phone with the new SIM, filling the account with scratch card minutes. He needed to report his travails to the HVI office, but with the four-hour time difference, it was way too early to reach anyone, even though they tended to be early birds. Instead, he called ahead to the US Embassy to try and get things rolling on his passport reissue.
The phone rang about seven times before someone answered.
“Good morning! So sorry for the delay there, I was hoping our receptionist would pick up but it looks like she’s not in yet.” The woman spoke with a mild southern accent. Northern Virginia, if he had to guess.
“Yes, uh … my name’s Archie Parsons and—”
“Hang on, I think she’s here. Oh wait, it’s just Jeffrey. You know we’ve had a skeleton crew here since the nonessentials got evacuated, but everyone’s starting to filter back. We’ll be back to normal soon. Not soon enough. So how can I help you?”
“Yes ma’am, you see, my passport was stolen and I need—”
“Oh, that’s terrible,” said the woman. “But I can’t say it’s unusual for Monrovia these days. Sometimes the police confiscate them and hold them for ransom. Can you believe it? The police!”
“I got mugged. That’s how—”
“Oh, that’s just awful, just plain awful. But like I said, it’s not unusual in Monrovia these days. Well, listen … this isn’t actually my job, but let me take your information and I can find someone who can help you. Do you happen to know your passport number?”
Archie recited it from memory.
“Just a sec. Let me enter it into the system. You realize that you’ll still need to come here in person and file a DS-64 … uh … hang on … oh dear … this is odd. Are you sure you gave me the right number? I might have made a mistake in entering.”
Archie gave her the number again, speaking slowly, certain that the number he had given her had been correct. It was as deeply ingrained in his head as his birth date.
“Are you certain that’s the right number? The system is telling me that the number you gave me is invalid. And there’s a strange little flag that’s popped up in the database. Never seen that before. Hang on, let me have one of the guys come over and have a look.”
She put Archie on hold. He could feel his phone minutes ticking away as Shania Twain twanged her way through ‘Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under.’ He should have known better than to try to handle the reissue over the phone. He was about to hang up and just wait till he got to the embassy when he overheard snatches of frantic and combative discussion.
“Hang on sir. I need to transfer you to a more secure line.”
“Secure? What for?” There was a buzz and a click.
“Hello? Mr. Parsons?” The voice coming over the line was as deep and resonant as a radio pitch man’s, and just as devoid of any regional inflection.
“Doctor, actually. But that’s okay.”
“Sorry to hear about your incident. We’d very much like to provide you some assistance. Do you mind telling us where you’re staying? We can send a driver.”
“Huh? Since when does the embassy come door to door?”
“Liberia’s a pretty rough place these days, as I’m sure you realize. Situations like this, sometimes we go the extra mile for US citizens, especially folks like you who do so much for the hearts and minds. So where is it you’re staying?”
“Well … it’s called The Red Hibiscus. It’s a new place on—”
“We know it. Hold tight. We’ll send a team out right away.”
“Ateam?” Something weird was going on. This was not how embassies operated. Did they know of something bad about to go down that they weren’t willing to share over the phone? A coup, perhaps? “You know … you really don’t have to come all the way out here. I’ve got a taxi waiting for me in the lot. It’s just as easy for me to come there.”
“Oh, it’s no problem at all,” said the man. “They’re already dispatched. Can I please have your room number so I can pass it on?”
Archie’s skin prickled. The guy he was speaking with had such a disarming manner, but the oddity of the circumstances triggered a vague and primal sense of danger. He had not survived all those years of visiting failed states by ignoring his instincts.
“Um … I’ll be out in the lobby. I’ll look out for them and … uh … wave.”
“Okay, then. Just sit tight. Have a cup of coffee. We’ll have someone there within the hour.”
“Okay. Um … thanks. I guess.”
He hung up. Archie sat there, his stomach squirming. Since when did an understaffed and overworked embassy provide door to door service for someone with some missing paperwork? It wasn’t like he was some VIP. He was just some crap operative for an insignificant beltway bandit operation.
Maybe it was those damned psycho-active malaria pills making him paranoid again. When he had taken mefloquine after 9/11 it had turned every Middle Eastern person in Addis Ababa into a terrorist and convinced him that a cab driver named Muhammad was trying to kidnap him simply because he had taken an alternative route to the Ministry of Health.
Archie listened to his gut. He concealed his sweat-drenched money vest beneath a baggy Hawaiian shirt, packed his things hastily and checked out. He found James loitering by the door.
“You are going now?” said James.
“Kind of,” said Archie. “I want you to find a shady spot by the exit of the lot. We’re going to sit a spell.”
James loaded the suitcase and pulled up just off the main avenue under a mango tree with low, overhanging branches. Archie sat with his back against the passenger door, watching the turn-around in front of reception for signs of a diplomatic vehicle.
A grey van pulled up and disgorged three men wearing combat boots and oversized windbreakers. The Xtraktiv logo on the door leapt out like a swastika.
“Hmm. It’s those guys again,” Archie muttered, as a wave of unease quivered through his gut.
The men disappeared into the lobby. A minute later they burst back out the door, scanning the parking lot and its environs.
“Go,” said Archie, seized by misgivings. “Go James. Go!”
“Where do we go?”
“I don’t care. Back to Monrovia. Wherever. Just go!”
Traffic was backed up for almost a mile behind the checkpoint outside Monrovia. It seemed like everyone who had deferred travel during the fuel shortage had spontaneously taken to the roads. If the Xtraktiv van was following, it was not visible among the train of cars that had accumulated behind them.
Vendors hawking fried dough balls and skewered meat took advantage of the long queue, shoving their wares through the window, some of them so persistent they had to be pushed away.
They passed through an area of overgrown fields, ragged palms and rusted, sagging fences. The old Voice of America compound had stood here before the turmoil of the 1990s had forced a move offshore to São Tomé. Stray dogs and goats ruled the property now.
The checkpoint stop was routine and cursory. A quick peek in the trunk from some sleepy-eyed soldiers and they were on their way again. They were rolling through a hectic market area when Archie’s cell phone chimed.
“Hello. Mr. Parsons? Are you still at your hotel?” It was the guy from the embassy, the one with the radio voice.
“Um … kind of … I’m … uh … in the area.”
“Well, we just sent some folks to meet you, and the lady at the desk said that you apparently … uh … checked out.”
“Well yes. Actually, I did. I decided to try another hotel closer into town. You know … to make it easier to conduct my business.”
“I don’t understand. We agreed you would stay put. What was the point of us sending a ride if—”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I must have misunderstood you. You know, I am kind of jet-lagged and … my ears—”
“I thought I made it quite clear,” said the man, his voice even and calm but simmering under its lid. “So where are you headed now? Back to the Liberty?”
“Back?” Archie’s face flushed. “How did you know? How could you possibly know I was there originally?”
“You … told us.”
“No I didn’t. I never mentioned it.”
“Oh, sure you must have. To Elaine, when you described the mugging.”
“No. I didn’t. I never said a word about staying at the Liberty.”
“Listen, this is silliness. It was just a hunch. The Liberty’s a pretty common destination for international guests—those who don’t know any better. I prefer the Cape myself, but I’d recommend the Royal if you have to stay downtown because—”
Archie hung up the phone.
“Where to now, boss?” said James. “We are here, the center of Monrovia, like you asked.”
“Just keep driving around. And … don’t call me boss.”
“Okay man, but where you want to go?”
“Just keep moving. In circles, I don’t care. I just don’t want them to track these phone calls. I’m not sure they can, with any accuracy. But I don’t want to make it easy for them to find us. Understand?”
“Someone is chasing you?”
“Don’t know for sure. Probably not. I’m probably just freaking out over nothing, but ... better to be safe than sorry.”
James stared at him, blinking. “Okay, boss. Whatever you say. Remember, the petrol is scarce and expensive, but it is your money. How about I take you to Paynesville? Show you some fancy neighborhoods. Where the big shots live.”
“That’s fine, just … no dead ends. Okay?”
It was still too early to call Melissa or work. He fished the napkin from his pocket and un-crumpled it. He had a weird feeling about what he was about to do.
“Can I borrow your phone James?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll pay for the minutes.”
“Okay.” Eyes wary, James handed over his phone.
Archie called the number he had copied from the placard on the fence.
A man answered, his voice reedy and American. “Octagon Petroleum.”
“I’m sorry. I must have misdialed. This isn’t Xtraktiv?”
“Well yeah, it is. OPM is our … eh … parent company. Who is this? How can I help you?”
“Well … um … this is kind of awkward. My friend … who’s now in the hospital … well he was mugged yesterday. And he said he saw the man who took his stuff run off into your compound. We were wondering if … maybe … he might be an employee of yours.”
“Who am I speaking to, please?”
“Um … this is Tom … Tom Brady.”
“And what’s your connection with this other guy … the one who got mugged?”
“He’s a colleague. We’ve worked together on projects.”
“This guy, the one who’s in the hospital. Is he okay?”
“Yeah, well … he’s a little banged up and … cut.”
“Must be serious if he’s still in the hospital.”
“Well, yeah. It’s bad enough.”
“Why? You going to send him flowers?”
“If this man is accusing our employees of wrongdoing, we might like to have a chat.”
“Wait a minute … what about the guy who mugged him?”
“Do you have a description?”
“Well, according to my … friend, he was about five foot nine, African and—”
“Well, that certainly narrows it down,” said the man, sarcastically.
“Let me finish! He had tribal scars in sets of three down both cheeks. His hair was long and braided.”
“That right there describes about half of our male employees. Listen, if you’re going to accuse us of—”
“I’m not just accusing! This actually happened. I … my friend saw him go through your gate. He had key code access.”
He heard some indistinct muttering at the other end.
“What hospital is he at? That Catholic mission place?”
“Um … Harbel. He’s at the clinic at Harbel.”
“Okay Tom. I’m glad you contacted us. All I can say is … uh … we’ll look into it. I’d recommend you not mention anything to the local police … because … well, you know how they are.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“You haven’t yet, have you? Contacted them?”
“No. We haven’t.”
“Mind me asking who you work for, Tom?”
“Um … Global Change … for Children.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Alright, then. Thanks for letting us know. We’ll be in touch with Dr. Parsons and get this straightened out.”
“Wait … how do you know my—?”
But the line had already gone dead. Archie stared at a stand of banana trees, their large leathery leaves flapping and rustling.
“Here we are,” said James.