A little early for tomorrow, but I'm expecting a very long day.
Gakked from, oh, everyone on my FList at this point. I'm such a sheep. ("BAAAAHHH!")
Xander is in over his head. Again. And again. And again. And because he hates to be alone, he has a tendency to drag everyone else into trouble right along with him.
There's a problem or mystery, but it can't be solved using brute force. Brains and common sense have to be applied. Whenever that happens, see #10 for the result. If it requires a show of brains and common sense among multiple characters, the action turns into something that even the Keystone Cops would think was a bad idea.
The best laid plans ... never work out.
Plots tend to be just a weeeee bit complicated. See #7 for the result.
Stories tend to celebrate birthdays measured as "1-year and X-number of months."
Xander's not the strongest, the bravest, or the smartest guy in the story, but he's probably the most clever guy in the room. Plus, he fights dirty.
Tempers have a tendency to flare, usually with very nasty results. Right after this happens, Xander stares in the mirror and berates himself for letting his "Inner Daddy Harris" loose on an unsuspecting population. Again.
Just enough of Xander's negative traits as a character is used in the story to make readers wonder if I secretly hate him and am trying to single-handedly revive the Xander-bashing genre to its previous height during Season 6.
Shipping? What shipping is this shipping thing of which you speak? When you saw that slash between the two letters in the heading, you weren't actually expecting me to write anything resembling a sex scene or romance, were you?
Xander is distressingly human. He will always be distressingly human. And if by some quirk of fate he picks up a little something extra due to external circumstances, it usually isn't much help and tends to be more of a hinderance. Oh, and Xander is usually not thrilled about it, either.
Although my arrival in Bamako was still an hour or so away by the time I finished reviewing the documents, I closed the file and stared out the airplane window into the darkening sky. The thought that I would be walking into the treacherous snake pit haunted me. I was unable to still the shiver across my skin as I contemplated the fact that I would be under Mr. Harris’s power when I stepped off the plane.
The most defining characteristic about many countries in Africa is its queues. Some are orderly, but others are writhing masses of human flesh with no rhyme or reason. Plunge into the riot of trying to get from the back to the front and you will find yourself quickly overcome with confusion. Soon, you’ll wonder if you’re heading in the right direction, or even if you’re in the right position to reach your goal. The less experienced you are at using knees and elbows against your fellow man to propel yourself forward, the more likely it is that you’ll be expelled from the crowd and land right back where you started.
The second most defining characteristic of many countries in Africa, even in the large cities that wouldn’t seem out of place in any industrialized nation, is “the hurry up and wait” syndrome. To win your spot on a bush taxi, bus, or even a small airplane traveling direct between African locales, you have to get there early and plant yourself in a seat. Then you wait until your conveyance is sufficiently packed with paying customers and their cargo — which at times can include livestock — before it departs. None of these modes of travel leave on schedule, and I have remained glued to my seat without a bathroom break for up to three hours after the listed departure time while the driver or pilot opted to stuff yet more paying passengers into an already overcrowded transport.
The less said about waiting on civil service employees or government officials in any number of African nations, the better. Depending on the country in question, it may be advisable for you to offer “tea money” or cadeau or dash to the overworked and underpaid souls who, much like Sisyphus, must push the rock of government uphill. Once the tea is bought, so to speak, you usually find that the rock is but a mere pebble and the treacherous path up the mountain is nothing more than a pleasant stroll across a flower-strewn garden.
It should be no surprise to you, dear reader, that Mr. Harris was a master at bullying his way through African queues and negotiating the price of tea. He was less masterful at being patient when forced to hurry up and wait, although that could be because he tended to be of a larger build than most of the passengers and so was miserably crowded in seats that were just small enough to force him into a cramped position. Whenever he had to take local public transportation, he could be well nigh impossible and the longer the wait, the more impatient he tended to grow. Once, in the Central African Republic, we were cramped in a bush taxi for more than two hours. Mr. Harris was in such foul temper that Alexandrienne, Mr. Harris’s self-appointed Slayer whom you shall soon meet, threatened to thump him on the head hard enough to knock him out, if only so the rest of us could enjoy some peace and quiet.
That general impatience, however, seemed confined more to small things and relatively short delays. When it came to the long view and accomplishing whatever goal he had set in his head, Mr. Harris could be, and still is, patient beyond human comprehension. When the risk is great and the potential payoff is greater, Mr. Harris bears more than a passing resemblance to an Ethiopian wolf stalking a field rodent. One minute, the wolf is lolling around on the grass without a seeming care in the world; in the next, there’s a struggling animal getting crushed to death in its jaws.
Underestimating Mr. Harris, as certain members of the Council have learned to their everlasting regret, is much like getting killed by an Ethiopian wolf. The only difference is that Mr. Harris lets them live to regret it. Usually. The one case where I suspect a Watcher paid with his life was an extraordinary circumstance, and it is also a case where I can’t prove Mr. Harris had a direct hand in the death. Although given the situation in question, I can hardly blame Mr. Harris if he did the unthinkable and didn’t lose a moment’s sleep or suffer a twinge of conscience over it.
However, dear reader, I’m afraid that particular tale is a story that takes place in the Australian outback and one that will be told much, much later in this memoir.
I mention these wonderfully annoying characteristics of African travel to explain why I had the most awful time getting from plane to the airport interior. I was forced to allow the disembarking crowd to carry me from my seat and deposit me on the tarmac. I then had to push my way onto the shuttle that took us from the plane to the International Terminal. Then, I was forced to endure customs. As the hints for “tips” from one particular customs official who fussed over my paperwork flew completely over my head — I cannot believe I was that naïve when I first arrived in Mali — I ended up being the last on my flight to break free into the open airport
I had initially feared that I would have a difficult time finding Mr. Harris, as I had assumed Senou International would be a rather large facility, on par with its European brothers. Instead, I was confronted with modestly sized modern affair that looked like it belonged in a modestly sized city with minimal tourist traffic. As I wildly looked around the terminal for a one-eyed, dark-haired man, I feared that I might have missed him. It was not outside the realm of possibility that he thought I had missed my flight and had left. As it was already dark and that I was in an unfamiliar city, I was faced with the prospect of sleeping in the airport before trying to resolve my predicament in the morning.
Eventually, I spotted a nervous-looking, two-eyed, short, white man bearing a whiteboard with my name scribbled on it. I had initially missed him because he was circling all around the airport like a frightened shark.
Mr. Harris, on the other had, was nowhere in evidence.
This, I thought, did not bode well.
As I did not have a choice in the matter, I walked up to my unexpected greeter and introduced myself.
The air of tension about him only increased once I made myself known.
“Llewellyn, from the liaison office.” he introduced himself in clipped English tones without preamble.
This knocked me back on my heels. I immediately assumed that Mr. Wyndham-Pryce managed to find a way to delay Mr. Harris so I could get my laptop enchanted without my target being any the wiser.
Llewellyn shot down that unvoiced thought. “Mr. Harris contacted us to say that he would be unable to greet you himself. He informed us that he’s been unavoidably detained by an urgent matter that needed his immediate attention and requested that I come here to escort you to your hotel.”
“Ah, I was told that I had to first—” I began.
“Yes, yes,” he nervously interrupted. “Mr. Wyndham-Pryce also contacted me and said to expect you.”
This did raise my eyebrows with surprise.
He fidgeted. “Mr. Wyndham-Pryce from the organization.”
“I know who he is,” I said cautiously.
“I don’t work for them or him, you understand. Just have done some favors where and when I can.”
Llewellyn, then, was one of the peons who served as the Council’s eyes and ears. We had quite a lot of them about, especially during the reign of the First Council. They assumed the Council was part of MI-6 or some such nonsense and so provided an endless flow of information. My escort was most likely nervous because it was the first time someone from the Council had actually asked him to do something more than file a report in exchange for his stipend.
“I’m comforted that you’re here, then,” I said as I put on my best diplomatic smile.
“There’s a…a…well, I think he’s a Touareg waiting for you in my office,” Llewellyn said in a shaky low voice. “Dresses like one, sure enough. Skin’s a bit…well off, if you get my drift. Then again, most of that lot has discolored skin. It’s the dye in their clothes, you know.”
This intelligence caused me to frown. “What makes you doubt that he’s—”
“His eyes,” Llewellyn said. “They, unh, they glow.”
“Ah.” There really wasn’t much more to say than that.
“Best get your luggage,” he said. “The sooner you show, the sooner he’ll leave.”
“As frightening as all that, then?” I asked as I strove to keep up with his scurrying without accidentally outrunning him.
“He hasn’t done anything frightening, now that I think on it,” Llewellyn said. “It’s more his airs that make him rather off-putting.”
“Speaking of which, once I depart your office, where am I supposed to stay?” I asked.
Llewellyn seemed relieved that I wasn’t questioning him more about the ‘Touareg.’ “Mr. Harris made arrangements for you to stay overnight at Mande Hotel, an excellent choice I must say. Lovely view of the river. The aircon is of somewhat dubious quality, but you’ll have hot running water and a private bath. I understand the restaurant is quite good, and not just because it juts out over the river itself. Enjoy it while you can. You won’t find such creature comforts once you leave the capital.”
“Mr. Harris will be meeting me at the hotel, then?” I asked.
Llewellyn nodded. “I was under the impression that would be the case. He said he thought it best to let you rest from your flight before whisking you off to the hinterlands.”
Much as a hot shower and some bed rest appealed, the thought of being whisked away from civilization to God knows where by Mr. Harris did nothing to ease my mind.
The trip to the Canadian Embassy in the Hippodrome quarter of Bamako and my private meeting with the sorcerer my escort mistakenly had believed to be a Touareg was singularly uneventful. As it was already full dark, and the private taxi was barreling through the streets, I was unable to get a truly good read on my surroundings. What I did see, however, was somewhat generic in nature. To be sure, there were graceful colonial-era structures still standing, but they only served as a depressing contrast to the non-descript box-like buildings stood sentry along the paved roads.
I was disappointed. I expected foreign and what I got was hopelessly mundane. There was not even the hope of a soaring skyscraper to break up the monotony of the scenery. Although I understood there was a scattering of tall buildings in the city, by and large Bamako was singularly devoid of the glittering armies of glass and steel that marked most centers of commerce in Europe.
The only sign that I was in an African nation, instead of anyplace else in the world, were that the people in the streets were uniformly black with nary a white face amongst them and the odd brightly colored mural that seemed to appear with startling suddenness when my taxi turned a corner and disappeared almost before my eyes registered it was there. Or rather, I imagined the murals were brightly colored since the darkness and ambient lighting from the streetscape tended to wash out the images.
I was somewhat thrown by the fact that it was already night, as it was only just after 7 p.m. At first I thought it was because I had landed in an earlier time zone, but Llewellyn assured me that Bamako was on GMT time. When I inquired about the early fall of night, pointing out that sunset in London wouldn’t happen for at least another half-hour yet, Llewellyn explained that the days and nights here were neatly split. In late June, the sunlight clung to the land as late as 7 p.m. or so, but that most of the time daylight didn’t last much beyond 6. To recapture the days of late sunsets, I would have to head much further south, only late sunsets and summers south of the equator occurred in the December-January-February trio of months, instead of the June-July-August axis I was used to.
I am not certain what set my teeth on edge more, the fact that I should’ve known that but had somehow dismissed such information as unimportant, or Llewellyn’s school marm-ish tone as he relayed this bit of trivia to me. I made a mental note to myself to maintain tight discipline. I had always been sensitive to sunset and sunrise, a sensitivity that only increased in the past year or so and brought with it a certain restlessness that I didn’t dare give in to. I feared that an unbroken string of nearly uniform 12-hour nights might be more than I could handle. Lord knows that this past winter in London was difficult enough, and I had welcomed summer with its attendant short nights with a relief that only patient who’d just broken a high fever could understand.
I was certain I could handle this situation, as I truly did not have a choice in the matter if I wished to remain unencumbered from what some might argue was my responsibility. Besides, I reasoned, I wouldn’t have to endure it for long. Just long enough to gather the necessary evidence to bring down Mr. Harris.
Once the sorcerer completed his spell on my laptop in one of the Canadian Embassy’s conference rooms that had been set aside for the meeting, Llewellyn bundled me in a taxi without further ado and instructed the driver in French to convey me to Hotel Mande. At least I assume he said that. I can read any number of languages, French being just one, but my verbal linguistic skills leave much to be desired. Even a summer in Provence with my parents when I was a teenager failed to discipline my tongue or tweak my ears well enough to hold a conversation in French, let alone get much more than the gist of what was being said.
I confess that I am equally hopeless with Latin, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, and Arabic. Place a book in front of me written in any of these languages, and I can translate them with ease. However, if you ever find yourself in any country that uses any of these languages as their common patois, save yourself an avalanche of frustration and don’t ask me to conduct even the simplest of transactions. I’m more likely to end up buying a hat when all you want is directions to the closest taxi stand. Trust me when I say that this is not an exaggeration. I can even show you my collection of hats, umbrellas, jewelry, and other trinkets purchased from markets all across the globe if you wish to see proof.
The taxi ride was long, as the Hotel Mande is located on a large piece of property at the edge of the city, and was likewise unremarkable. By the time I arrived at the hotel, it began to rain with such force that I thought the drops would drill their way through the taxi roof. Thankfully, there was an overhang protecting the entrance of the graceful building and so I was merely damp instead of soaked to the bone by the time I, my backpack, and my single piece of overstuffed luggage made it to the lobby.
Should you ever find yourself in Bamako, I do recommend Hotel Mande as a perfect compromise between the modern anonymity of a chain hotel and the charm of something local. The furnishings and decorations evoked Bamako’s French colonial past, while the facilities were on par with the most modern standards.
When I checked in, my credit card was waved away by the English-speaking staff. When I inquired about the length of time my room had been reserved, they freely told me that that a certain “Monsieur Harris” had been quite explicit. The reservation was for two nights, but he fully expected that I would be checking out in the morning. The spare night was only if my escort had been delayed in their travels. Payment for the first night had been authorized in advance. Payment for any food I might consume or services I required would also be drawn off the credit card used to pay for my stay. When I asked if there was a message specifically for me, the hotel staff informed me that there was nothing, other than to expect someone to fetch me in the morning.
This brief intelligence caused me to frown. “Just ‘someone?’ No indication that Mr. Harris will be here personally? No names of the people who’ll be here to collect me?”
This earned me an apologetic shrug. No. They were not provided any details. Only that whomever had the credit card that paid for my stay would be here to settle accounts with the hotel and would serve as my escort during my onward travel.
Mr. Harris, it appeared, was going to remain frustratingly elusive and secretive right up to the moment of truth. I could not fathom the reason for it. If my “resource review” mission had been seen for the ruse it was, and if Mr. Giles and Mr. Harris shared their suspicions with one another, then it seemed to me that Mr. Harris would want to take the measure of my character long before I stepped foot in his base camp by meeting me on Bamako’s arguably neutral ground.
Unless, the horrible thought struck me as a bellboy gathered up my bags and led me to my room, Mr. Harris was taking measure of my character without me knowing it. After all, he had contacted the liaison office and the hotel before I arrived. For all I knew, Llewellyn could’ve been a double agent and was even now filing separate reports to Mr. Wyndham-Pryce and Mr. Harris about my activities. He could have eyes and ears in this very hotel focused on my every move, considering he was the one who booked my stay and made arrangements for my comfort.
By the time I reached my richly appointed room, paranoia had taken root in my mind and refused to let go. I tipped the bellboy and quickly shoed him away, just on the chance he might be spying on me. When I locked the door behind him, I scoured the room for any sign of surveillance equipment. Every item was picked up and examined; every drawer and cabinet was opened, emptied, and searched; every item I had taken out of the drawers and cabinets was likewise studied; every single piece of furniture was moved and upended before I righted it and put it back into place. I even flipped the mattress, although I did stop short of ripping it and the pillows open to see if there was anything tucked inside.
Thank heavens no one knocked on my door to ask about the noise. I’m fairly certain that it would’ve been very difficult to explain how I managed to tip the heavy wood bed frame onto its side without any help.
It took several hours to complete my thorough search. By the time I was finished, I was exhausted as a result of the unaccustomed physical exertion and intense concentration on my task. I fell onto the bed, fully intending to rest a few moments before pulling Mr. Wyndham-Pryce’s paperwork from my backpack and reading the documents that had shamefully gone unexamined since the night I had received them.
Despite my best intentions, however, I was soon fast asleep.
I awoke to the sound of impatient hammering on my hotel room door. I blearily registered that sunlight was already poking into the room around the heavy drapes and that the atmosphere was rather stuffy. I bolted upright and realized that I was still wearing my travel clothes and that I had not bothered to adjust the air conditioning to a cooler setting.
Dear heavens, I thought, Mr. Harris himself was already here and I had yet to complete my reading on the man. Furthermore, I would no doubt present a sorry picture when I opened the door in my sleep-rumpled street clothes.
The hammering picked up in intensity.
I awkwardly scrambled out of bed, shouting that I was awake and would be there shortly. I momentarily thought about shedding my clothes and tossing on my pajamas, but quickly dismissed the notion. The lie that I was so exhausted from my trip that I fell asleep the moment I reached my room could only be counted as something in my favor.
I straightened my clothes as best I could, marched for the door, and flung it open.
To my disappointment, Mr. Harris was again nowhere in evidence. Instead, the sight of a young black woman and an even younger black boy behind her that I guessed to be approximately 12-years-old confronted me.
“Mademoiselle Swithin?” she asked without preamble.
“Oui,” I responded with a nod. Before I could ask if she could speak English, the young woman marched into my room as bold as you please with the boy in tow.
She took in the room with a glance before turning to me with a frown. Her hair was covered by turban of many colors that clashed most awfully with the brightly patterned skirt wrapped around her waist. I could only thank heavens that she was wearing a plain t-shirt as I feared yet another busy pattern on her study frame might cause my eyeballs to explode, although it was of a bright pink color that didn’t quite match either skirt or turban. The combat boots on her feet seemed distinctly out of place. To my mind, she should’ve been wearing flip-flops to compliment her ensemble.
The boy was dressed far more sedately in dark long pants and an untucked, short-sleeved button-down, oversized, plain shirt that was brownish in hue. Ironically enough, he was the one wearing the flip-flops. Unlike his intense female companion, he seemed completely at ease. He flung himself into a chair and landed in an awkward sprawl that was mostly a tangle of arms and legs that seemed impossibly long for his stature. He cheekily grinned and winked at me with one of his mischievous eyes before settling back in the seat. I got the distinct impression that he was waiting for the show to begin.
“Je m’appelle Alexandrienne,” the young girl began.
“Can you speak English?” I quickly interrupted, as I knew she would soon outstrip my ability to comprehend her.
Her eyebrows crunched low. “Watcher?” she asked in a distinct French accent.
“Yes, yes,” I nodded in an exaggerated manner. I enunciated as clearly as possible using hand gestures to make sure my point was clear. “I. Can. Not. Speak. French. I. Can. Read. French. I Can. Not. Speak. French. Can. You. Speak. English.”
Through my performance, a series of emotions flickered in quick succession across Alexandrienne’s face. First was wide-eyed surprise, followed by absolute confusion, which was quickly replaced by realization, and ended in a glare that could peel paint off the walls.
The boy behind her started snorting as he tried to suppress his reflex to laugh.
She licked her lips and smiled tightly. There was a slight nod like she wasn’t entirely sure what to make of me. Then she said, with equal care, equal enunciation, and equally insane hand gestures, “I. Am. Not. Imbecile. And. Not. Deaf.”
I cringed. “Ah.”
Alexandrienne crossed her arms, and said in her heavily accented voice, “Monsieur ’Arris speaks English. I learn to speak better from him. He knows I am not stupid.”
“I didn’t realize…I’m sorry. It’s just when you came in here I thought—”
The little minx turned her back on me and said something to the boy in a barking, growling language. I could only assume that it was some local tribal dialect. Clearly she was trying to prove a point. She spoke at least three languages. She could not have told me never to make assumptions about her again any clearer than that.
Whatever she said to the boy caused him to raise his eyebrows, but a sparkling grin took possession of the lower half of his face and he nodded.
She turned back to me and said, “We will start over. You are Mademoiselle Swithin. I am Alexandrienne. We call him,” here she jerked her head at the boy, “Radar.”
“What’s his real name?” I asked.
The boy frowned at me. He either understood what I said, or he understood what I was asking by my tone. Either way, he seemed displeased by the question.
“I know it. If he wants you to know, he will tell you. He won’t tell you before that,” Alexandrienne said. She stressed again, in case I was too thick to understand, “Call him Radar. Monsieur ’Arris gave him the name. I think it was,” here Alexandrienne frowned, “a reward? Yes. I think that is right. ‘Nose for trouble,’ Monsieur ’Arris says. So he is now Radar. Radar is very vain about it and makes everyone call him Radar. So, that is his name now.”
It took everything I had to keep my face neutral. Her explanation painted a picture of a man who willy-nilly handed out new names as rewards and a population that wholeheartedly took on their new identities when they were so bestowed upon them. I couldn’t help but wonder if Alexandrienne was actually the young woman’s real name. Could he have bestowed that name, a feminized version of his own, on the young woman now standing in front of me as some sort of reward? I held back from asking that question, lest she take further offense.
“Monsieur ’Arris could not come. We,” she waved a hand between Radar and herself, “will take you to Djenné. We will meet him there. Bush taxi leaves in a few hours. Enough time to eat and,” here she wrinkled her nose, “you to get clean.”
“Wait a moment,” I protested. “I’m being escorted to my destination by a girl and an even younger boy? What sort of madness is this?”
Alexandrienne growled before pointing to herself. “Slayer!”
I cringed. “Oh. I didn’t realize that—”
“Monsieur ’Arris is not imbecile either,” she interrupted angrily. “Bamako is a safe city, also. If dangerous, more people would be here.” She puffed out her chest. “I am plenty.”
I thought her defensiveness was quite unnecessary. “I apologize. I didn’t realize what you were. But if you’re enough to get me where I need to go, why is he with you?”
Alexandrienne gave me a wolfish grin. “He is good at seeing trouble before trouble sees him.”
My heart thudded in my chest. The import was clear. Radar was to watch me if Alexandrienne was otherwise occupied. Neither one of them was here to serve as my guides; they were here to serve as my guards. The nature of my onward travel into the country’s interior had suddenly taken on a sinister air.
“We wait for you in the restaurant,” Alexandrienne sniffed at me. “Hurry if you want food. We have to reach the bush taxi before it is full.”
She then barked something at the boy in that odd dialect. The boy got to his feet, gave me an apologetic shrug, and scampered after the Slayer as she regally swept out of my room.