Anyway, my nifty new Xander Mood Theme set is courtesy of frontyardninja. If you want to snag it for yourself, go here. If you want to get a good look at what the whole thing looks like without downloading it, you've got to check out the pretty.
I promise I will get back to everyone who gave me feed back on Refugees on Sunset Boulevard over the next couple of days. I was trying to get this part out (that stupid lack of five minutes together thing I've been wrestling for two weeks). I feel so cut off from all of you. I've barely had time to look at my FList.
Plus, the time change is hell on my sleep schedule. I can't seem to wrap my head around it.
I just want everyone to know, that the main points in this part really were written back in December. The fact that the timing between this and the current controversy over illegal immigration in the U.S. that has resulted in some pretty massive protests is just a weird quirk.
Also, you might notice a mention of Algeria here and some set up for that story (which I also owe). I do still plan to write it, but not until I'm done with Water Hold Me Down. I even have a title for the Algeria story: Midnight's Clear. Don't know if I'll keep it, but that's the working title.
You might be interested to know, that naming this story Facing the Heart in Darkness was a last-minute decision. The original working title was In a Culture of Masks as a reference to Dogon Country in Mali (where Dave is located), but the title was changed when I changed part of the story's setting from there and kept it closer to Djenné.
For the Scatterlings and Orphanages Africander Fiction Challenge by ludditerobot.
For all previous parts, go here.
Continued from Part 32.
“If we’re done talking about my life of occasional crime in the name of truth, justice, and not getting eaten by the minions of whatever big bad decided to take over world starting with my hometown, I’d like to go back to Gao,” Mr. Harris said.
“About four months ago, the Devon coven gave us the heads up that there was a Slayer in Gao. Naturally, me and Ally saddled up and went for a visit. We found Miri, a young girl who was a refugee from Sudan.” Mr. Harris paused as he glanced at Dave. “She had hooked up with Jamina, who’s married to a used camel dealer that operates out of there.”
“I’ve got to admit that still cracks me up,” Dave grinned.
“I agree with Dave. This sounds like the beginning of very bad joke,” I said.
“They take their camels very seriously in Gao,” Alexandrienne solemnly volunteered. “It is very big business. Smart people can earn much money.”
“I have a hard time dealing with the concept of a ‘used camel dealer’ too, but Ally’s right,” Mr. Harris said. “Jamina isn’t exactly poor.”
I had to remind myself that I was not supposed to know more than what few hints Dave had dropped about Mr. Harris’s peculiar situation with regards to Alexandrienne. Thankfully, I could use Dave’s freely given story to clarify the precise nature of Jamina’s and Miri’s relationship. “Am I to understand that this Jamina’s story is similar to Dave’s?” I asked.
Dave and Mr. Harris once more exchanged glances. I thought it strange that Mr. Harris grinned while Dave looked rather surprised. It seemed to me that it should be the other way around.
“You mean how Dave met Kavitha? That part?” Mr. Harris asked without his eye leaving Dave.
“That is precisely what I mean, Mr. Harris,” I said.
Mr. Harris looked at me then, but his grin did not dim. “You would understand correctly.”
“I see,” I nodded thoughtfully. “I assume that you were the one to explain the nature of this connection?”
Mr. Harris’s grin decreased in wattage, but his gaze did not waver. “Miri became a Slayer a year ago August.”
“August?” I asked with surprise.
Dr. Mboto smoothly intervened. “Her onset of menses triggered her Slayer power.”
Ah, yes. I recalled Mr. Harris mentioning to Dave that the onset of menses — rather than the death of the Slayer — was now the switch that turned Potential into a Slayer. Even so, I couldn’t resist glancing at Dr. Mboto. He defiantly looked back at me, as if daring me to contradict him or to add the key piece of information that would tell Alexandrienne, Radar, and possibly Sue that this was a new way for Slayers to be called.
However, as I couldn’t foresee what the fallout would be should I correct misperceptions, I thought it best not to challenge Dr. Mboto. Even so, I wondered how Mr. Harris explained this change to his Council-raised physician.
“Forgive my surprise,” I inclined my head towards Dr. Mboto. I then looked up at Mr. Harris, who was impassively watching me. “I was taken aback by the fact that the Coven failed to find her for so long, especially since I get the impression that the girl wasn't located an inordinate distance away.”
Mr. Harris slowly nodded his head, as if understanding that I would — for now — honor his wishes and steer clear of anything that had happened in Sunnydale. Even so, his gaze did not waver from my face. “You know the coven. Ever since the attack on the old Council headquarters, they’ve been working 24/7 to find Slayers, so their track record can be a little iffy because of the exhaustion. I’ve never been able to figure out a pattern of who gets found first since they took over for the Council seers. Giles tells me that no one in London has been able to figure out a pattern either. I was wondering if maybe you had any ideas.”
I was taken completely by surprise. Was Mr. Harris seriously asking me if I might have seen pattern? As he appeared to be waiting for my answer, it seemed that he had indeed done so.
“I’m afraid that I didn’t pay much attention to such discussions since my career track would not normally put me in the field,” I answered truthfully, if carefully. “So many people in London pour over the lists, I find it difficult to believe that I’d see something they’d miss, in all honesty.”
“You might be surprised,” Mr. Harris said thoughtfully. He shook his head with a grin. “Sorry. Getting off track. Anyway, about a month after Miri became a Slayer, Jamina found her. Between the two of them, they pretty much figured it out on their own. Well, they had to, didn’t they? It wasn’t like I was knocking on either door.”
“How did they manage the trick of it?” I asked.
“The dreams, for a start,” Mr. Harris said. “The interesting thing is Jamina was sort of sharing the Slayer dreams with Miri after she found her.”
“Are you saying that Jaminia is also a Slayer?” I asked with surprise.
“Nope. Not a Slayer muscle in her body.” Mr. Harris paused. “I’d seen something like this twice before we met Miri and Jamina. A new Slayer dreams about someone and then somehow meets up with her dream person. That dream person is someone who, like Dave, dreamed about the Slayer in return. The problem is neither one of them knows anything about other Slayers or Watchers or the Council. Yet they somehow figure out what’s going on because after they meet, they start sharing dreams that spell out what they’re supposed to be doing. Once they’re both up to speed about the who, what, where, when, and why, the dream-sharing thing stops.”
“Dave? Did this happen with you?” I asked.
Dave shook his head.
“Might not have been necessary in Dave’s case,” Mr. Harris said.
“Because you were there to educate them about their true natures,” I said.
Mr. Harris shrugged. “It’s just a guess on my part.”
There was much to ponder here. Mr. Harris had the previous night grouped himself with Dave, Akella, this Jamina, and several others. According to all indications, these people had all dreamed of their Slayers before meeting them face-to-face. According to the conversation I’d overheard between Dave and Alexandrienne, the Slayers had dreamed of these people in return, a fact that had just been confirmed by Mr. Harris. I could see a pattern emerging. These “acting Watchers” all obviously believed they had been chosen by something to care for and guide a specific Slayer, and that something had very little to do with the Council.
That’s when I realized: there was a cadre of these acting Watchers in Africa who had absolutely no loyalty to the Council and who looked to Mr. Harris as the voice of authority. Not just on operational matters or for logistical support, but for all their information about other Slayers, Watchers, and the sacred mission to protect this world.
As for Mr. Harris, the only Watcher in Africa who had been duly sworn in and the only Watcher in Africa officially recognized by the Council, he was operating with almost no oversight from London, save for whatever oversight came from Mr. Giles’s office. Furthermore, it appeared that office was aiding and abetting Mr. Harris in defrauding the Council so he could provide financial support for his pet project on the Mali Sahel.
Ye gods, I thought. Now here was a frightening situation if there ever was one.
I had to ask the obvious question, although I already knew the answer. “Has the Council been informed of this state of affairs regarding Dave and Jamina?”
“Giles and I talked about it,” Mr. Harris said. “Dave is also in the middle of the vetting process for official Council recognition. We’re going to see how it goes before introducing Jamina.”
Mr. Harris’s choice of words in his answer was…interesting. It wasn’t precisely a ‘yes,’ but it wasn’t a ‘no,’ either. Perhaps Mr. Giles was preparing to inform the Council as part of Dave’s application. It would go a long way toward explaining why Mr. Harris was not bothering to hide this peculiar state of affairs from me, the Council’s official representative.
Of course that was it, I decided.
My decision to delay filing anything substantive until Dave’s fate had been determined was looking to be a far wiser course of action than I had first realized. It was far better for Mr. Giles to reveal this emerging situation to the Council. If I did so, it was highly likely that I would be viewed as a naïve fool who’d been conned by Mr. Harris into believing that people like Dave had any legitimacy whatsoever. After all I had witnessed, heard, and overheard, it was very clear that something unprecedented was happening, but it was so far outside my experience and expectations that I simply didn’t know what to make of it. While someone should inform the Council that something untoward was happening with Slayers in the field, I was not eager to risk what little good reputation I had to be the one to do it.
Yes, I thought. It would be better if wiser, more experienced, and more senior heads took the lead on this issue. If I brought the matter to the Council’s attention, I would be laughed out of the building. No one would dare do the same to Mr. Giles when he did so.
Dave interrupted my thoughts. “It’s a good thing someone upstairs hooked them up and educated them, because as Harris said, Gao is a snake pit.”
Mr. Harris picked up the thread. “Me and Ally found them within a day after we pulled into town. Turns out they had reached the point of overwhelmage. We were the proverbial last-minute rescue.”
“Oh?” I prompted.
“Vampire gang,” Mr. Harris said. “I’m not talking about the stereotypical pack that picks off the population one-by-one, either. I’m talking about a highly organized, very smart mini-mafia that had struck deals with some real scumbags of the human variety to help them attract victims.”
“Surely you must be overstating the situation,” I said with a raised eyebrow. “While it is not unprecedented for vampires to work together, it is usually because they are part of a pack that hunts cooperatively or because they’re part of one of their blasphemous mystical vampire cults.”
“Miss Swithin, when I say these vampires were mafia, they were mafia, okay?” Mr. Harris interrupted. “We’re not talking about some weird vampire religion with delusions godhood complete with creeptastic underground church. No chanting and no vessels and no mystical whatevers and no prophecies involved. Just a bunch of killers in it for the profit and blood. That’s it.”
“Wait. Vampires can have religion?” Dave asked.
“No,” I firmly said. “It’s a matter of weaker vampires following an older, more powerful vampire. In the cases to which I am referring, the leader imposes trappings of a religious community to maintain discipline and ensure the loyalty of his or her weaker-willed subordinates. In exchange for their followers’ unquestioned loyalty, the leader often promises something in return, such as glory at his or her right hand or a world they will one day rule.”
“But still—” Dave began.
“From what little I know about this kind of thing, Miss Swithin pretty much has it,” Mr. Harris said.
I startled. Did Mr. Harris just agree with me?
“But if you really got the fascination bug biting you about vampire cults, Giles is the guy you should ask. He probably doesn’t have time to answer your questions, but he can point you to someone who can.” Mr. Harris shrugged. “I’m pretty sure the Council has someone on the payroll who’s got a good grip on the whole chanty-chanty deal with pointy toothed Hare Krishnas.”
“I do not think I understand what you said,” Alexandrienne said.
Dave leaned over and theatrically whispered, “It’s okay Ally. I don’t understand what he said, either.”
“Me, neither,” Radar agreed.
“He’s talking about vampire cults,” Sue said with exasperation.
“We’re getting off point,” Dr. Mboto said.
Dr. Mboto was quite right. “I’m sorry, but a crime syndicate consisting of vampires and what I assume are humans working with them of their own free will sounds rather unlikely to me,” I insisted.
Alexandrienne immediately leapt to her Watcher’s defense “All of us in this hut have seen this with our eyes,” she said.
“Miss Swithin, you seem to be forgetting something important here,” Mr. Harris said. “You and I both know that all vampires retain something, well, actually a lot of the personality the host body had before the demon took control of the corpse. They’ve got the memories, they’ve got the name-face recognition of people they knew from before becoming undead, and they know how to take advantage of that.”
“Yes, yes,” I impatiently interrupted, “I do know this, you know.”
“Do you know from books? Or do you know because you’ve dusted one?” Mr. Harris asked.
“Both,” I brightly said.
That took Mr. Harris aback. “Oh. I didn’t know you clocked field time.”
“Ah, no. No field time as such,” I quickly corrected him.
Mr. Harris shook his head. “Wait. This isn’t one of those stupid show-and-tell things where they bring in a vampire that’s been doped to the gills and chained to a table, hand you a stake, and tell you to plunge it into the heart so you get an idea of what the experience is like.”
“Summer before I went to university. I was 18,” I said with chagrin. I then realized exactly what Mr. Harris said and I glared at him. “And such demonstrations are hardly stupid.”
“Does not tell you how it is for us,” Alexandrienne volunteered with a snort.
Mr. Harris sighed. “At least you’ve held a stake. That’s something at least.”
I suddenly had a sneaking suspicion why this situation in Gao ‘involved’ me. I hoped that I would be more successful in dissuading Mr. Harris from whatever his plans were with respect to myself than I was in dissuading either Mr. Wyndham-Pryce or Mr. Giles.
“I dropped the stake before I stabbed the vampire with it. Three times,” I volunteered. “Then I missed the heart. Twice. The others were quite put out with me because I made quite a mess. Third time was the charm.”
Truth to tell, dear reader, my ruse really wasn’t necessary. Although the incident in question occurred long before my worst nightmare became reality, I thought at the time that I should be better safe than sorry. In exchange for the minor embarrassment, I bought myself a lifetime reputation as being inept with weapons.
Mr. Harris wasn’t having any of this, and he bullied forward with his typical stubbornness. “Even if you’ve just done the bookworm thing, you know that that vampires are a hell of a lot more like people than most people think.”
All of us in the hut looked at Mr. Harris with expressions ranging from sheer horror to utter disbelief.
Mr. Harris released a puff of irritated breath as he glanced around the hut. “If they’ve got any street smarts at all, they can adapt. Like people. If going it alone is going to work best, then lone hunter it is. If acting like a pack of wild hyenas is going to work, they’ll do that.”
“Okay, I see what you’re saying,” Dave nodded as he relaxed.
“Aaaaaand,” Mr. Harris turned to me, “if working with the local humans is going to keep them in blood, booze, money, and Marlboros with the bonus of keeping them undusty, they’ll do that too.”
I opened my mouth to argue the point.
“I’ve seen something like this on a small scale even before I ever stepped foot in Africa, so please don’t even try to tell me that I’m wrong,” Mr. Harris interrupted with frustration. “Vampires without a soul will even fight evil and dust other vampires if they think they’ll get something out of it that benefits them.”
Dave snorted. “I can’t believe that you actually have to qualify any vampire with ‘without a soul.’ That’s pretty much the definition of a vampire.”
Dave’s stray comment was what stopped me from pressing my argument. We were dancing rather close to the specter of the now-departed Angel and his singular souled status (please be aware, dear reader, that at this time I was utterly unaware that William the Bloody had also somehow acquired a soul prior to that last terrible year in Sunnydale), which was only a single step away from Mr. Harris’s hometown. It was best that I leave that sleeping giant be, especially since I was more concerned about wriggling out of whatever plan Mr. Harris had in store for me. Irritating him by bringing up anything that might lead to Sunnydale, even by chance, would not be in my best interests.
As I shook my head with frustration over the arguments I didn’t dare voice, Alexandrienne’s bright-eyed, guarded expression caught my eye. Dave may have found Mr. Harris’s qualification amusing, but the Slayer was either intelligent enough or knew her Watcher well enough to know that Mr. Harris had said ‘without a soul’ for a reason. For good or ill, Mr. Harris was so focused on me that he didn’t notice that Alexandrienne was studying him very closely.
“Now,” Mr. Harris continued, “maybe when they were alive, all those vampires were fine, upstanding citizens. Once they were dead, all bets were off. If their knowledge about the area told them that making like Al Pacino in The Godfather was the way to get a nice, long unlife with all the blood they’d ever want, you can bet they’d do it.”
Although the concept sounded rather odd to me, I had to concede that Mr. Harris had a rather good point. Thanks to my studies, I knew vampire groups could organize themselves in any number of ways, from a parody of a family unit to temporary alliances all the way on to cults. Creating a criminal syndicate was perhaps not as outré as I would like to believe.
Furthermore, Mr. Harris truly was the resident field expert on this sort of thing. In fact, short of Mr. Giles himself or one of his Sunnydale compatriots, I had to admit that he might well be one of the leading experts in the world on such matters. However, I still found it difficult to believe that any group of vampires would willingly form an alliance with humans and treat those humans as equal partners. I would think that any vampire worth his fangs would believe such a thing was beneath him.
“I do apologize,” I said with appropriate humility. “You and your people know the lay of the land far better than I. You are right. You also have much more knowledge than I do about what’s possible and what’s not in how vampires organize themselves. Please, do continue.”
Mr. Harris’s eye narrowed and it appeared that he was irritated with my capitulation, although I couldn’t understand why he would be. I would think he would be rather pleased that I had acknowledged his expertise and had apologized for speaking too hastily.
Mr. Harris shook his head sharply and the irritation disappeared. “The long and short of Gao was this. This vampire mafia was running a coyote service—”
“Excuse me,” I interrupted. “But did you just say a ‘coyote service’?”
“American slang,” Dave stepped in. “A ‘coyote’ in this case is someone who sneaks illegal immigrants across a border into another country. If you’re in the U.S., it’s pretty much understood that when you say ‘coyote,’ it’s someone sneaking Mexicans into the U.S. of A.”
“Gao coyotes ferry the refugees across the Sahara in trucks,” Mr. Harris added. “Like the U.S. coyotes, they charge a pretty big fee for the service. And like the U.S. coyotes, some of them do the job as advertised. They collect the fee and then do pick up and delivery and it’s nothing more than that.”
“Some of the coyotes don’t get payment from the people they’re transporting. Instead, they get paid by people at the other end and they’re delivering people into indentured servitude,” Dave said. He added with grumble, “Actually, let's call it what it is. Slavery.”
“Then we’re got some classic double-crosses,” Mr. Harris added. “Sometimes they collect the money, deliver people only half-way, dump them in the middle of nowhere, and then take off with the extra profits. Sometimes they collect the money and then deliver people right to the authorities. Things like that.”
“I assume people know they are taking a chance when they turn their fate over to one of these coyotes,” I dryly remarked.
“Pretty much,” Mr. Harris said. “Gao’s got some extra complications.”
“A very big itinerant population, for a start,” Dave interrupted. “First off, the natives aren’t too happy about all these foreigners messing up their back yard. Far as they’re concerned, the faster these people leave for wherever, the better. As for the illegals, their situation is so precarious that it’s not completely unheard for people to just up and disappear. Whenever it happens, the assumption is that the missing people finally managed to find passage out of town to one of the richer north African countries, the Middle East, or Europe.”
“The people there are far from home, also,” Alexandrienne volunteered. “Many do not have families with them to worry for them. If they do have family somewhere else, the families do not always know where they are since they have to be secret-secret while they travel. If they disappear, it can be many, many months, if ever, they are missed and someone comes to look for them.”
“The really big complication is the Sahara. Trust me, you cannot underestimate that brick wall,” Mr. Harris said. “Jamina and her husband are Touareg and they took Ally and me out there in a truck. It was only a six-day trip, three out and three back, just to give me a vague idea of what it would be like if I wanted to, say, sneak into Algeria through the backdoor.”
“Why would you want to know something like that?” I asked.
I noticed that Alexandrienne and Dave had stiffened slightly in response to my question.
“It’s a just-in-case I ever needed to know thing,” Mr. Harris said easily. “If a Slayer ever showed up there, I needed to know if I could sneak just over the border, even though the border between Mali and Algeria is usually closed. But that isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that the Algerian government keeps a pretty close eye on tourists, so going there under an official passport won’t help me if I need to travel into one of their no-go areas. Hence, me seeing if I could sneak in and sneak back out.”
I kept Alexandrienne and Dave in my peripheral vision to watch their reactions and hoped that they thought all my attention was trained on Mr. Harris. “And?” I prompted.
Mr. Harris grimaced. “Let’s just say that me and Algeria will not be meeting in secret during a moonlight stroll across the desert. To call the conditions brutal is an understatement. You charbroil during the day, you freeze at night, and you can get hopelessly lost night or day if you leave the roads. We won’t even try to get into the bandit problem along the border, although that’s another huge problem if you’re trying to cross the desert without an armed escort. Lucky me we didn’t run into any gangs with guns, so everything I’ve heard on that is still in the rumor category.”
“I’m hardly surprised the conditions are brutal. It is a desert. Not Club Med,” I said.
“I know it’s stupid for me to sound shocked, but I’m from California, remember? I thought I knew deserts,” Mr. Harris said with a shrug. “Not that I did a lot of hanging out in any desert, but I did manage to visit the California version a couple of times. You couldn’t really avoid it once you got beyond the suburban sprinkler systems. But there’s a world of difference between a California high desert and the Sahara. California at least has scrub brush and some visible signs of life. The Sahara is nothing but sand, sand, and more sand to the point of being overwhelming. You might as well be walking on the moon. If you don’t know what you’re doing and you get lost? The Sahara will kill you. I never got that feeling in any California desert I’ve been in.”
“Yet according to you these coyotes manage the trick of crossing the Sahara on a regular basis,” I pointed out.
“Like I said, if you know what you’re doing, you’ll be okay,” Mr. Harris said. “Note that I didn’t say safe. Everyone who’s got to cross the desert for living does it with a big ol’ dose of caution. Jamina told me that it wasn’t unheard for even Touareg experienced in desert travel to go permanently missing out in the dunes. If they’re not found within a day or two they’re given up for dead, since they will be once they run out of water.”
“The closest equivalent to crossing the Sahara is crossing the ocean back in the days when ships had nothing more than sails,” Dave added. “Whaling ships, ships that went to China for trade, slave ships going between Africa and West Indies…hell, the ocean is a desert in and of itself if you think about it. You’re British. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to tell you how many of those ships simply disappeared with no word if you know anything about history. No different if you’re caravanning across the Sahara and get hit by a sudden sandstorm.”
“Thank you for the history lesson, Dr. Johnson,” I said teasingly. “I believe I understand your point.”
“We’re not just talking about a hostile environment, though,” Mr. Harris said. “We’re also talking about the perfect crime scene. Who’s ever going to find a dead body out there? Hell with that. Who’s going to find a hundred or even a thousand hidden dead bodies in a sandbox that big?”
I leaned forward and mused thoughtfully, “The vampires could collect fees from the desperate refugees, load up a truck, and head deep into the desert at night. Once they are safely away from the travel routes, they could then feed at their pleasure. They could then simply dump the corpses in the desert and leave them to scavengers or the dunes. Since the refugees are an unwanted presence in Gao, and since it is highly unlikely they have anyone waiting for them at their destination, the dead wouldn’t even be missed.”
“Exactly,” Mr. Harris’s voice interrupted.
I blinked with surprise and my eyes immediately snapped to Mr. Harris. He seemed rather pleased with my deduction.
“I...I…I…” I stuttered as my mind scrambled as I realized that my comments might lead Mr. Harris to believe that I was a strategist.
“To fill it out for you a little bit,” Mr. Harris said, “the humans they were working with were the travel agents. They’d go around during the day and sell the coyote service to the refugees. From what Jamina and Miri told us, the fee this particular group charged wasn’t as cheap as what some coyotes charged, but was less expensive than most. Once they recruited enough people, they’d collect the fees and then deliver the refugees to the vampires’ enclosed and air conditioned truck. The truck would depart at night and head out into the desert.”
“Surely someone’s suspicions were aroused,” I said with wonder. “If people saw the same vampires departing every night with a truckload of people, surely they must’ve realized that they were at the very least dealing with a dishonest band of brigands.”
“These guys were smart about it,” Dave said. “They advertised once-a-week departures and they had two trucks and two vampire crews that alternated weeks. Even if you were a paranoid refugee, that kind of set-up makes it look like they really were delivering people to whatever Promised Land they needed to get to.”
I shook my head. “Are you seriously telling me these vampires stayed in the desert for a week? Possibly for two? Impossible! They couldn’t possibly survive during the day under that unforgiving sun.”
“You’re kind of forgetting something,” Mr. Harris said. “If they’ve got a fresh supply of blood, they don’t actually need water. Vampires can eat real food, but, again, with a fresh supply of blood they don’t need it. We actually don’t know where they took the trucks, so for all we know they could’ve had a bunch of shelters hidden in the desert where they chained up the refugees and kept them fed and watered until it was time to eat. Or maybe they just left people in the air-conditioned truck and during the day dug into the biggest sand dune they could find since they don’t actually need to breathe. Either way, they would be safe enough from the sun. So, yeah, they could definitely hide in the desert with enough humans to feed on for a week or two and not worry too much about suffering for it.”
“You don’t know where they took the refugees once they departed Gao?” I asked.
“Jamina and Miri did the original sleuthing and found out about the scam, but they didn’t have details. Actually, the problem there was they didn’t care about the details and dove right on in once they got wind of what was going on.” Mr. Harris shook his head as he said this. “They were just focused on trying to stop the trucks, which brought down a whole lot of trouble on their heads from the mafia. They could’ve avoided a good chunk of their problems if they asked a few more questions before getting down with the dusting. By the time me and Ally showed, the two of them were fighting just to stay alive and not accomplishing anything. Jamina’s husband was forced to flee with their son and Miri’s mother back to the family village for protection. It was a mess.”
“Your arrival was in the nick of time indeed,” I said.
“Nick of time or not, Gao’s still dangerous. Make no mistake. With all those easy victims, it’s too big of a tempting target for vampires and demons that look at humans like they’re meat on the hoof,” Mr. Harris said in a warning tone. “Even though we shut down the coyote service and took a huge bite out the mafia there, the problems are still overwhelming.”
“Also it’s a perfect testing ground,” Dave added. “Before Harris sends any Slayer home to fight, they’ve got to do at least two tours through Gao acting as Jamina’s and Miri’s backup to prove they can handle the pressure.”
“We send at least one Watcher-Slayer team, or if there aren’t any Watcher candidates around a Slayer-Slayer team, through Gao every two weeks,” Mr. Harris elaborated. “Miri and Jamina evaluate how well they fight as well as how well they play with others and follow orders. Then they give me the skinny. It’s a good way to find out if they need more training before we send them out their own. Once they’ve completed two tours ending in a happy Miri and Jamina, we figure they’re as ready as they’re ever going to get.”
“Miri and Jamina are making these judgments?” I asked with surprise.
“Yes, because they understand that it is important to work together,” Alexandrienne explained. “So they are very good at seeing if this Slayer or that Slayer will ask for help if she needs it. Sometimes it is very hard for Slayers to work together, but it is very, very important that we learn, or we will be stupid about when it is good to ask for help.” She added darkly, “Gao is very good at teaching you that being stupid can kill you.”
Mr. Harris quirked a smile at his Slayer. “Teamwork is Ally’s number one thing.”
“It’s not yours?” I asked Mr. Harris with surprise.
Alexandrienne interrupted before Mr. Harris had a chance to speak. “I am telling you again, Slayers are very stupid about working together. I have had to do this,” she made a slapping motion with her hand, “to make some of them stop acting they are better than other Slayers and that they know everything. I know together is better. I know this from before I become a Slayer when it was just me and people like me when we would help each other be safe from evil people who would hurt us. Just because I am now Slayer, I do not see why it is different. But some Slayers do. They think just because they are strong now, they do not need help sometimes.”
I’m not certain what took me aback more: Alexandrienne’s vehemence on this point of teamwork; or the fact that she had confirmed in a public place that she was a Slayer with an unhappy history.
“You stepped on Ally’s sore point,” Mr. Harris said with a grin.
“You don’t say,” Dave said in a teasing tone. “Tell us how you really feel, Ally.”
Ally crossed her arms and glowered at Dave to underscore that, for her at any rate, this was not a joking matter.
“Look, it’s a big concern for me, too,” Mr. Harris allowed. “But honestly? The thing that worries me just a little bit more is making sure they can handle the pressure. There’s a huge difference between training and fighting for real, and there’s a lot of things they’ll run into when they go out on their own that isn’t covered in our non-existent training manual. Gao’s the best way to test if someone’s ready. They’ve got Miri and Jamina watching out for them, and we’re not too far away if things go sour. Plus, doing this for us means that Miri and Jamina aren’t going it alone out there, so they’re more than happy to do it.”
“You rather do have a habit of make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” I commented.
“Yup, that kills me, too,” Dave agreed.
“C’mon guys,” Mr. Harris interrupted. “It’s just common sense.”
“For you and Alexandrienne, perhaps,” Dr. Mboto mumbled as Sue rolled her eyes.
Alexandrienne huffed an irritated breath and gave her Watcher a meaningful look. Mr. Harris merely shrugged at her in response. It was obvious to me that neither one of them really understood why other people thought Mr. Harris taking advantage of what would always be problem location was at all an innovative idea.
Frankly, given Mr. Harris’s Sunnydale background, I would’ve been more surprised if he hadn’t taken advantage of it. He, more than anyone else involved in his Malian operations, probably understood the importance of hands-on training, so to speak. You might say that I understood why they were surprised by other people’s bafflement over the matter.
“Anyway, trouble or no, things are better there now,” Mr. Harris said. “Jamina’s husband is back in town and back in business, but their son are Miri’s mom is now permanently living with Jamina’s extended family, if that gives you any idea about how unsafe it still can be.”
Dr. Mboto grimaced on hearing this as Sue reached out and grasped one of his long-fingered hands. I wondered what troubled him more: a guilty conscience for abandoning the call of his bloodline, or the memory of his own childhood and his belief that he had been abandoned on the altar of his parents’ vital role in the fight against the darkness.
Mr. Harris’s all-seeing eye didn’t miss this brief show of emotion and he spared Dr. Mboto a sympathetic glance.
“I’m rather shocked her husband puts up with this state of affairs,” I said. “I’m also shocked that Miri’s mother would as well.”
“They don’t have a choice,” Dave said with a dismissive shrug.
Mr. Harris shot Dave an exasperated look. “Yes, they do.”
“Some choice. Jamina’s husband can stay in Gao with her or he can leave his wife and return home with his son. Miri’s mother can become a permanent target by staying in Gao or she can stay away because Miri’s desperate to keep her safe,” Sue archly remarked. It was clear that she didn’t think much of these ‘choices’ and that her annoyance was directed at Mr. Harris.
“It’s still a choice,” Mr. Harris mildly pointed out. “Not for us to like it or not like it. It’s their lives and their call.”
“It should not have been a choice at all, as far as I’m concerned,” Dr. Mboto grumbled.
With that statement, I could tell that Dr. Mboto didn’t think much of either Jamina or her husband for leaving their child behind or of Miri’s mother for following her daughter’s wishes and living in safety away from the chaos of Gao. As for myself, I saw wisdom in their decisions, especially if this mystical connection I kept hearing about was real.
“Choices do not have to be fair,” Alexandrienne firmly said. She sounded like she was parroting an opinion — Mr. Harris’s no doubt — that she had heard many times before. “There is no rule that says that any of your choices must include a choice you like.”
Radar solemnly nodded along with this.
Mr. Harris beamed with pride over his charges’ obvious agreement with this bit of street corner philosophy. His quick glance at Dr. Mboto’s face, however, dimmed that very quickly.
I admit that I took some mean comfort in the brief moment. For all Mr. Harris’s sympathy for Dr. Mboto’s complaints against the Council and his perceived abandonment, I could clearly see that given his own way, Mr. Harris would more likely follow the path of Dr. Mboto’s parents, rather than retire from the field help raise any unfortunate child that he might father.
“Long story short,” Mr. Harris said. “Once we saw how beat up they were, Ally and me yanked Jamina and Miri out of Gao, with them protesting the whole time, and dragged them back here to patch them up and make them get some rest.”
“You then, no doubt, told them they were not alone and offered them aid and comfort,” I said.
Mr. Harris shifted uncomfortably. “The telling them they weren’t alone part…that’s a little bit of a complicated thing.”
My eyebrows rose at that.
“They sort of knew there were people like them somewhere around, but they didn’t know where, how many, or even how to start looking” Mr. Harris said uncomfortably. “They were about to switch to Plan B and start the looking part, but the whole Plan A of staying alive kind of got in the way.”
“They were already aware of your existence? How is that poss—” I began.
“We just know,” Dave interrupted. “It’s like—”
“Rumors,” Mr. Harris interrupted.
“What he said,” Dave quickly agreed with a nod.
I had a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t getting the whole story there. A glance around the hut confirmed that I was right. Alexandrienne and Radar would make very fine poker players since nothing in their attitudes neither confirmed nor denied anything. Dr. Mboto and Sue, on the other hand, had very guarded expressions.
Mr. Harris shrugged. “Do this long enough, you start hearing rumors of the wacky and weird. Well, maybe I don’t mean ‘hearing,’ because I swear to God that rumor is the most powerful force in Africa, if not the universe. Everyone’s always hearing rumors about something that’s just out there on the weirdness front. What I mean is you actually start listening to the really weird rumors. Eventually, you get the bullshit detector fine-tuned enough that you can pretty much weed out what’s not likely from what’s possible.”
“And they heard rumors about you?” I cautiously asked as my mind busily worked to find a way to trip someone in the hut up enough to reveal what I wasn’t being told.
“Like I said, we’re actually not that far, about a day’s drive away more or less,” Mr. Harris reasonably said. “And we’re not exactly super-secret. No one’s advertising we’re here with big neon signs, but enough people know about us that rumors are going to get out no matter what we do. Miri and Jamina heard about a village of superwomen located not too far away. Eventually, they heard enough to figure out that the superwomen were like Miri.”
“I’m rather surprised they’d jump to that conclusion,” I said.
Mr. Harris opened his mouth and suddenly snapped it shut. He shook his head as if to clear it before saying in a neutral tone, “Well, why would Miri believe that she’s the only Slayer in the world? In her shoes, I’m pretty sure I’d think there’d be other Slayers somewhere out there even if they weren’t exactly living in my neighborhood. That’s just common sense, right? Unless someone walked up to me and told me that I was it and there was no one else, that’s an assumption I’d make.”
I could feel my strained smile. I hardly needed yet another reminder that I was living in a world that my parents would find utterly alien. “Ahhh. A rather good point.”
“Sadly, the rumor thing doesn’t always work both ways,” Mr. Harris added with a wince. “I’m not around here a whole lot, and when I am, I’m pretty much tied up in Council paperwork and bureaucracy or catching up with whatever needs to be done around here. Plus, I’m constantly dealing with Slayers, candidates for unofficial Watchers, and new pairs that need to get used to each other. It tends to block the view.”
“Block the view?” I asked with confusion.
“You know. Rumor might be referring to the people you’ve already got with you, instead of pointing to someone new,” Dave smoothly intervened.
“Anyway, after we got the basics from them, I sent out three Slayers to try and keep down the body count. One of them had a Watcher, so I sent her along to keep an eye on them and do the digging around for information part,” Mr. Harris said. He suddenly shook his head. “For the record, that was my fault.”
I sat up. “What was?”
“I thought they were ready to handle it without me standing over their shoulders, and they really kind of weren’t. I should’ve gone with them because the non-paired Slayers would’ve listened to me. They wouldn’t have been happy, but they would’ve held back on my say-so,” Mr. Harris said.
“They didn’t listen to the Watcher you sent with them?” I asked.
“She didn’t have enough street cred with them, I guess. It was something I just…I didn’t see it since they would listen to her during training exercises and while they were in residence here, so I stupidly assumed they’d listen to her in a real-life situation,” Mr. Harris said. “The two unpaired Slayers figured Miri and Jamina were exaggerating how bad Gao really was, although God knows why they would. Or maybe they wanted to prove they were the hottest Slayers on the planet. I don’t know. From what I was told, there was a difference of opinion on how to attack the Gao problem. The Watcher-Slayer team wanted to keep a low profile and scope out the situation first before doing anything more drastic than the stake-and-run thing to keep down the body count, but the other two Slayers were chomping at the bit to dust ’em all and let Allah sort ’em out. Anyway, things went out of control pretty quick. Stakes started blazing and big noisy splashes started happening. In a little over a week, the two Slayers without Watchers were dead, and the Watcher-Slayer team had to flee for their lives.”
“Oh, dear God,” I breathed. Mr. Harris had just revealed why he overreacted to the situation in Gao to the point where even his own people questioned his tactics.
“What got the two girls was a trap,” Mr. Harris said quietly. “The mafia had found out that Miri and Jamina had left, and were making up for lost time. Now, they’d heard some of the same vague rumors Miri and Jamina had heard about the village of superwomen, but just dismissed it as one of those impossible things and didn’t pay attention. When three new Slayers showed up, they knew all the rumors were true.”
“In short, their actions not only got them killed, but they also confirmed your presence,” I said with a shake of my head.
“Bingo,” Mr. Harris nodded. “The mafia set up a trap to catch all three Slayers. It was a nice, big juicy target involving both their trucks and a supposedly ‘super haul’ of refuges. The Watcher thought it sounded like a trap. Her Slayer agreed. The other two thought they were being scardy-cats. So they supposedly reached an agreement. The Watcher-Slayer team would do a little gumshoeing to make sure, and the other two Slayers were supposed to stay put until it was confirmed one way or the other. Then all four of them would come up with a plan to deal with it.”
“And the moment the more cautious pair left, the two Slayers altered the bargain and attacked on their own,” I said.
“That about sums it up,” Dave said.
“Where is this Watcher-Slayer pair now?” I asked.
“Back in Cape Town doing their thing,” Mr. Harris said.
“After such a catastrophe, do you think that’s wise?” I asked.
Mr. Harris pinched his nose. “If I had a better option, I would’ve kept them here longer. But the truth of the matter is they didn’t do anything wrong. They managed to find out some information about what was going on in Gao before it all went to hell, and they were able to use that information to get out alive. They did try to hold back their partners, but it’s not their fault if the two Slayers decided not to listen and did what they wanted to do the second their backs were turned. Plus, you know how it is; much as you’d love to give someone a break it’s just not always the best thing you can do. Cape Town really needed a Slayer.”
“Cape Town has problems,” Radar piped up. He had been so quiet that I had almost forgotten he was there. “There are a lot of vampires there. I saw them all the time.”
I looked down at my folded hands. Radar had told me his parents were dead and that he wouldn’t ever return to Cape Town if he had his way. Although he refused to say whether vampires were responsible for his orphaned state, it seemed to me to be a likely scenario. What must’ve it been like, I wondered, for a young boy to look up and see someone who wasn’t a Slayer fighting back against the nightmares that destroyed his life? It was no wonder he worshiped Mr. Harris like a hero because, simply put, in the eyes of a terrified boy, Mr. Harris must’ve seemed like Batman’s very twin.
“Yeah, well, you didn’t do too bad when you were there,” Mr. Harris said fondly.
Radar looked down and studied his dangling flip-flopped feet. “Had to,” he muttered.
As Alexandrienne watched Radar with deep sympathy, Mr. Harris crossed the room and pulled Radar into a one-armed hug. “It’s dropped, okay?” he said simply.
Radar nodded and seemed to melt into the embrace.
Although I didn’t know Radar’s full story at the time, in that moment I got an inkling as to why Mr. Harris had taken a shine to Radar and had swiftly taken the boy under his wing.
In truth, I would argue that Mr. Harris has benefited as much as Radar has from the association, although it might not seem so to people who don’t know either man well. After all, from Cape Town orphan and street urchin to one of the Council’s intrepid investigators of paranormal objects and their uses might seem like a very steep climb to some who are not better familiar with Radar’s quick wit and love for trouble, two character traits that Mr. Harris has encouraged to a scandalous degree over the years.
Ahhh, but that is in the future. Let us now return to the dark history of Gao and how, in the long-reaching shockwaves of what happened there before my arrival, gave Mr. Harris all the tools he needed to set his cunning trap. A trap, I might add, that irrevocably altered my future.