The previous part was definitely an exercise in "live and learn." I had always assumed that "East Cupcake" as a slang term for "the middle of nowhere" was a very common phrase. Hell, I grew up with it and everyone I knew used it, so I just thought it was one of those widespread things.
Turns out that it just might be a New England-ism, or maybe even a Boston-ism. There were people in the U.S. who had never heard it until BtVS and thought it was a made-up term from the mind of Joss Whedon.
Hunh. You learn something new every day.
As we were called to board the bush taxi, my troubled mind kept nibbling at ever-darker speculations about the nature of Mr. Harris’s hold over his people.
The remainder of the trip to Djenné was dreadfully uneventful. I watched the scenery outside the window get increasingly wet and, just as Alexandrienne promised, the growing prominence of rice fields as we got the closer to the town.
We were treated to the sight of wading birds standing in the occasional plot of marshy land on either side of the road. The birds seemed completely untroubled by the automobile traffic and didn’t let it disturb their grazing. At most, these beautiful creatures would raise a head and serenely watch us pass, as if we humans were the ones on display for their private amusement.
Mostly, however, I was lost in thought, since I was busy mentally adding Alexandrienne’s information to what I already knew about Mr. Harris. This exercise did not make me good company. It didn’t help my state of mind that Radar had taken up a seat in the rear of the van. I imagined that those mischievous eyes were studying my every move for signs of ‘trouble,’ or whatever would pass for trouble in his mind.
As for Alexandrienne, at one point she dug through her plastic bag and withdrew a small book. She sheepishly looked around before opening it and bending low over the pages, thereby preventing anyone from reading over her shoulder. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her sneak a finger onto the page. She seemed to be mouthing silently along with whatever her finger pointed to.
It was shocking in a way. Here was a girl who could speak at least three languages struggling to read a slim volume. I was tempted to offer to help her decipher the words on the page, if only to distract myself from my own dark thoughts, but quickly concluded that I was being foolish. She was most likely literate in the languages she already spoke, so it was highly probable she was teaching herself a fourth tongue to add to her repertoire. I decided that it was perhaps best if I let her be. If she was interested in my help she would’ve asked, or so I reasoned.
Meanwhile, the mid-afternoon passed to late afternoon. By the 6 p.m., the sun was beginning its long, slow slide to the horizon and soon the shadows were deep enough that Alexandrienne was forced to close her slim novel and shove it in her bag. This she did so quickly that I was unable to get a glimpse of the title or cover of the book that so held her attention.
We finally reached the outskirts of Djenné, or rather, the bank opposite the town, shortly before 7:30 p.m. After the subdued ride, our arrival was an occasion for some excitement. Before we were to cross the narrow isthmus to the island on which the town was located, a man thrust his head into the bush taxi, took one look at me, and loudly said something to the driver.
This complaint, which I could not comprehend, prompted Alexandrienne to thrust her own face forward so she could look around me and protest.
Upon seeing her, the man immediately stopped and grinned at her. “Alexandrienne!” he heartily greeted her. In the string of French phrases that followed, I managed to ascertain that he was surprised Alexandrienne was not in the company of Mr. Harris.
Alexandrienne’s response indicated that her usual traveling companion was occupied elsewhere. She waved vaguely toward the back, obviously telling the gentleman that she was traveling with Radar instead, as I heard her speak the boy’s name. She then put a hand on my shoulder and completed her response with, “Mademoiselle Swithin est avec nous.”
He nodded and apologized for “de la confusion.”
“Aucun problème,” Alexandrienne said with a magnanimous wave of her hand.
I took this to mean that I had passed muster with the Djenné gatekeeper due to my apparent association with Alexandrienne and Radar and that I could continue onward unmolested.
Just when I thought the man was about to withdraw his head, he paused, and took a deep breath. I tensed, half-expecting that the man had changed his mind about me and was about to lodge another complaint about my presence. He called the driver to attention and said something to him. Then, he turned to Alexandrienne and hesitantly asked her something. Since I heard the words “privé” and “conversation,” I could only assume that he wished to speak to the Slayer privately.
Alexandrienne blinked. This was clearly unexpected. “Un moment,” she said to me, forgetting to switch back to English. She twisted around to the back of the bush taxi and snapped, “Radar!” before expressing her apologies to the driver and the other passengers for the unexpected delay.
She and the boy clambered over the other passengers to reach the outside. The gentleman pulled them some distance away and began speaking in an urgent and low voice. My ears strained to hear, although I’m not entirely certain why I bothered, as I couldn’t even get the gist of what he was saying. The only words that stood out in the verbal soup were “hôpital” and “deux creatures.”
Alexandrienne nodded sharply through it all. When the man finished, she said something back that seemed to cause his shoulders to slump in relief. She then pulled Radar closer to the bush taxi and said something in that odd, barking language they both shared. She may have been translating for the boy, or she may have been discussing whatever the man said, I honestly couldn’t say either way. Regardless, Alexandrienne’s brief conversation with Radar prompted him to grin and nod enthusiastically.
The Slayer then looked over her shoulder at the man and said something.
“Merci beaucoup,” he said. “Vous voir ce soir à neuf.”
At least I was able to puzzle out his final parting shot to Alexandrienne. He had thanked for her, for what I couldn’t say, and had made arrangements to see her at 9 o’clock, just a few hours hence.
As Alexandrienne and Radar pushed their way onto the taxi, I asked, “What was that all about?”
“Monsieur Ly thought you were a tourist and wanted you to pay the entrance fee,” she said with a shrug as she settled back into her seat next to me.
“Entrance fee,” I repeated.
“Yes. It is 1000 CFA for tourists to enter Djenné. I told him that you were with us and that you were not a tourist,” Alexandrinne said.
“So, the conversation about two creatures that you had after you left the taxi was about my entrance fee into the marvelous wonderland that is Djenné? I was not under the impression that Djenné was the African equivalent of Euro Disney,” I said sweetly.
Alexandrienne’s startled at my sarcastic remark, before she said in a low voice. “I will tell you later.”
The bush taxi released us in front of the Grande Mosqueé located in the center of the island. As what few streetlights that existed in town were primarily down by the docking area along the river, the intimidating structure was cast very much in shadow. Its strange shape dominated the buildings surrounding it and, to my very European eyes, its outline resembled an abandoned castle that had been melted around the edges by acid rain. The crowded makeshift stalls, already erected for tomorrow’s market, and the narrow alleys between them, added an air of secretive menace to the area.
As my luggage was retrieved from the roof, I realized that the road on which I stood consisted of dirt. I bent down to take a closer look and saw that the ground was damp and bore signs of a heavy rain that most likely occurred earlier in the day. I gave up a silent prayer of thanks that our ride out of Bamako had been without a hint of rain, especially since Alexandrienne seemed convinced that my backpack would not keep its contents dry under such an assault.
As I straightened up, I swiftly realized that I was in for a spot of trouble. I doubted that the wheels on my luggage were equal to the task of going more than a few feet on such a surface.
“How far away is this hotel?” I asked Alexandrienne as she checked her backpack for signs of tampering.
She waved vaguely in a direction away from the Grande Mosqueé. “Half of a kilometer, easy walk,” she said absently.
As I slid on my backpack, I gave my luggage a despairing look. There was positively no chance the wheels would survive an overland trip of that length. I’d have to carry it. If I was not properly exhausted by the time we reached the hotel…
There in a nutshell, dear reader, was my true problem at that moment. I had by this point so lost sight of what “normal” in this situation meant that my only option for staying hidden was to not even attempt any task that might require even the smallest muscular effort.
Thankfully, Alexandrienne spotted my problem — or rather the problem I wanted her to see — before I even formulated an excuse for why I couldn’t carry my own bag.
“That will be too heavy for you,” she said. “I will see if the driver would like to earn more money.”
Before I could thank her, she scurried off and began negotiations. Whatever she offered for his services as a porter, it was enough. As soon as the other passengers scattered, our little group set off for the Tapama. As the driver led us onward, Alexandrienne advised me to stay as close to the buildings as possible before she furtively handed me a stake.
“For the trouble,” she whispered before I could even voice a word of protest. “For safety.”
“Is this a common ‘trouble?’” I asked.
“No,” she acknowledged. “They have learned to stay away because of us. I think they must be strangers, or maybe passing through. It is very strange. I will explain later.” She then fell back to Radar, who was walking behind us, presumably to hand him a stake and to watch our backs.
Had I been unaware of ‘the trouble,’ the walk might have been pleasant. My eyes soon adjusted to the shadowed darkness of my surroundings, sharpening to a degree that surprised even myself. The night was cool and the sounds and smells of happy domesticity could be heard inside the squat buildings as we passed. If it were not for the occasional smell of sewerage wafting across my sensitive nose, and the fact that I had to remember to stumble on occasion to fool my two guardians watching my back, I might’ve even been able to put the thought out of my mind that vampires might be lurking in the narrow streets.
The Hotel Tapama was a pleasant affair. The building was designed in the Moorish style and was arranged around charming little courtyard containing a single tree. The rooms were snug and included a private, if basic, modern bath with recognizable toilets. There was no aircon, but between the fan and the cool night breeze that blew through our third storey window, I hardly missed that extra bit of luxury.
Given the way the hotel mistress greeted Alexandrienne and Radar on our arrival, I suspected that both of them, as well as Mr. Harris I was willing to wager, were well known to the employees.
“We will share a room,” Alexandrienne told me. “It is for two, but I think it is best if Radar does not sleep on the roof tonight. Usually it is safe for him, but…” her voice trailed off and she shrugged.
The dirty mental speculation that first occurred to me in Bamako once again raised its head. “Do you stay here often, then?” I asked.
Alexandrienne missed the import of my question, which I confess did help dampen my suspicions about Mr. Harris to a slight degree. “At the beginning, yes. Before we had huts. Sometimes we ran out of room, and we stay here until the new huts are finished. It does not happen so much now, so it has been a long time. Months, I think.”
The driver was kind enough to carry my luggage to our room. Judging by the expression on his face when Alexandrienne paid him, she had tipped him handsomely for the work of not more than 20 minutes. As Radar threw himself on one of the two narrow beds with a happy sigh, Alexandrienne and the driver exchanged pleasantries. The driver left immediately after their polite discussion.
After the door closed behind the driver, Alexandrienne’s demeanor completely changed to one of tense watchfulness. She scampered to the window and began scanning the street below. “He will be good. He has friends not far away. I will watch him until he reaches safety.”
“Excellent. Now maybe you best tell me what is going on,” I said.
“Two nights in a row, two vampires have been causing problems. Monsieur Ly was going to send someone to talk to Monsieur ’Arris after market tomorrow if he heard about problems again tonight,” she said distractedly as she kept her gaze on the street. She suddenly nodded in a pleased manner. “Ah, he has entered a house. I can stop watching for him now.”
As soon as she said it, a horrible realization bloomed, but I needed to be certain that I was right. “Mr. Ly would be the gentleman who demanded an entrance fee of me.”
“Oui,” Alexandrienne responded absently as she continued scanning the streets.
“Are you telling me that Mr. Ly knows the whole truth about Mr. Harris and his village?” I asked. “Does the whole blasted town know about you?”
Radar jerked upright in the bed to look at me, most likely because of the tone of my voice more than anything I said. Alexandrienne’s face quickly swung around to face me and she blinked in surprise.
“Monsieur Ly knows. A few others. Important people know,” she said. “We assassinated vampires when we first came. More and more were coming here, because of tourists. Biggest problems around market day. So we take care of it. Monsieur ’Arris said that we should be called Team Shane, but I think he was making a little joke. He tried to explain it to me about the white hats and the black hats and the shootouts with the guns, but I thought it was true to what we did and I told him so.”
This was enough to get me to put my face in my hands with a groan. You could take the boy out of the Wild West, but you apparently you couldn’t stop him from pretending to be the lead hero in a mawkishly sentimental western.
“Is it bad being called Team Shane?” Alexandrienne asked hesitantly.
“No, of course not,” I assured her. “It is a fine illustration of a Yank’s annoying tendency to think the world revolves around his backside.”
“Yank?” Alexandrienne asked. She grinned. “Like Yankee?”
“Ah.” She cleared her throat and sang in a very off-key voice, “Yankee Doodle went to town, ridding on a pony—”
Radar started laughing hysterically, which was at least enough to get her to stop her caterwauling.
“Let me guess,” I said with a put-upon sigh. “Mr. Harris?”
“It is a song he taught to me,” Alexandrienne said proudly.
“Why am I not surprised?” I asked the heavens, or perhaps the ceiling as that was where my gaze rested. “Now, if we are done being foolish, am I to assume that you were initially successful in driving out the vampires?”
“They are all dust,” Alexandrienne said with a firm nod. “We won lots of good things for it.”
“Are you telling me that Mr. Harris made the town pay you for eradicating the vampires?” my voice rose with horror.
Radar jumped out of bed and glared at me. Alexandrienne actually took a step back under my fury. The Slayer began waving her hands in an effort to signal me to be calm.
“No, no, no. I said that wrong. Hmmm.” She frowned. Then she nodded, a sign she had found the right way to explain what she meant. “Good feelings! Yes. That is it. We make friends. They tell us things. Where to get the best price for fruit or fish, or sometimes they let us use the computers at Radio Jamana or the In-ter-net café and not pay full cost, or they tell us if they see something strange, or they hear about girls who sound like they are maybe Slayers from the boat people who bring cargo and fish, and where we could put our village and not annoy other villages. Like that.”
“In other words, by doing your duty you bought the good opinion of your new neighbors and their willingness to help,” I dryly said.
“And if your ruse failed, what then?” I asked.
Alexandrienne tilted her head as if my question didn’t make any sense.
“Would you have moved on without staking the vampires if the good people of Djenné decided you lot were more trouble than you were worth?” I clarified.
“Of course not!” Alexandrienne sounded positively insulted. “They offered after we assassinated the vampires.”
“You’re certain about that,” I said.
Alexandrienne was so unshakeable in this belief that I decided there was no point in pressing her. Furthermore, I highly doubted she knew everything there was to know about Mr. Harris’s schemes. He could very well have started negotiations for a quid pro quo arrangement in the middle of the ‘Team Shane’ campaign, and she most likely would have been none the wiser.
Through this entire exchange, Radar’s face darkened and his eyes narrowed into a displeased glare. Again, I wondered if Radar understood English, or if he was more like me and could capture the gist of what I was saying by understanding the occasional word and matching it up with the tone of my voice. That was when it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard Radar speak at all, not even in that odd dialect Alexandrienne barked at him.
”Fine,” I finally relented. “Now perhaps you best tell me more details of this latest trouble.”
“I told you, two vampires have caused trouble for two nights,” Alexandrienne said. “But it is strange. They are hurting people, but not killing them. Monsieur Ly tells me that two of his men are in hospital. Before that, one woman and one man was hurt.”
“Is he certain these are vampires and not a pair of hooligans causing trouble?” I asked.
“He thought that it was just troublemakers after the man and woman was hurt because they were not bit,” she explained. “But his men, they were bit. He sees and he thinks that maybe they are vampires. So he talks to the family of the woman who was hurt and they take him to hospital to talk to her. She tells him that the men who attacked her had yellow eyes and they were very strong. She tells him that she thinks there is something wrong with their faces because the faces look wrong.”
“A wink is as good as a nod, as they say,” I sighed.
This caused Alexandrienne’s eyebrows to rise.
“What I mean is, your Mr. Ly did a fine job investigating the situation before deciding he had a vampire problem,” I explained.
“A wink is as good as a nod, as they say,” Alexandrienne repeated thoughtfully, as if she were trying out the phrase. Her smile was very pleased as she added, “I like it. I will remember it.”
“Mr. Harris will be positively beside himself with joy when he hears it,” I dryly remarked. “I suggest you say it to him as often as possible.”
Her eyes were still thoughtful as she nodded. No doubt she was mulling how to best surprise Mr. Harris with the notion that she was capable of learning something without his firm hand guiding her. I uncharitably thought that it just might do him good to know that other people were more than capable of introducing his charges to pleasing new turns of phrase.
“I assume that you will be investigating the situation tonight,” I said out loud.
Alexandrienne seemed startled. “You are not coming with us?”
“Good heavens, no. You’re the Slayer.” I shook my head when I realized that she was talking in plural. “Wait. Us?”
“Radar is coming,” Alexandrienne said. “But you are a Watcher. You don’t fight?”
“Absolutely not. I positively forbid it. Radar is staying put,” I ordered. “And no, I do not fight. My expertise lies in the realm of far more intellectual pursuits.”
Alexandrienne’s face took on confused expression. “But you are a Watcher. And Radar always comes if he is with me. I cannot stop him. He is too good at seeing trouble. He knows to stay away until he is better at fighting.”
“I do not fight and Radar is staying here!” I shouted at her.
Confusion switched over to disdain. “You are afraid to help,” she stated flatly.
The stress of the day, the argument, Alexandrinne’s pig-headedness, and my absolute anathema against ever holding a stake in my hand caused my temper to snap. “Your precious Mr. Harris is a fool. Watchers. Do. Not. Fight. They train Slayers. They teach Slayers. They record a Slayer’s exploits for posterity. Slayers fight. The only reason why your thrice-damned master mucks about with weapons is because it’s the only thing he can do. It’s the only thing he knows how to do! Heaven above knows he hardly qualifies for his job based on his education. He is fiendishly clever, I grant you, but no more than that. The only reason why he can even pretend to be a Watcher is because there was no one willing to come here!”
Alexandrienne’s fists clenched, her body trembled, and her eyes sparkled with pure rage. For a brief moment, I thought sure she would throw me out the window onto the street below.
“Coward,” she finally hissed after a few tense moments. She then brushed past me as she stomped to the door, forcing me to back up a few steps.
Radar scrambled after her, but he made sure to sneer at me before he slammed the door behind him.
My mood shattered, I decided to make good use of the shower, believing that the hot water would serve to steady my nerves and cool my temper. I soon discovered that hot water was not an option. My mood plummeted further when I discovered that the ambient temperature had plummeted from merely pleasantly cool to into the low 20s (for the Americans in my audience, that would be the mid-60s according to your archaic way of measuring the temperature). I raced around the room a bit while still shivering from my cold water shower and wrapped in a towel to shut off the fan and to close the shutters, before putting on my pajamas.
This sharp drop in temperature came as a complete shock, despite Mr. Giles’s warning that the nights could be cool in this corner of the world at this time of year. Even so, I couldn’t believe that I had made the wrong choice in sleepwear, and angrily grumbled to myself that I should’ve packed my flannel set instead of the cotton as I bundled up as best I could.
I have since learned, dear reader, that if you ever have the misfortune to find yourself in the hottest desert on earth at the right time of year — or wrong time, depending on how you look at it — it can get cold enough at night to freeze water.
My self-flagellation over my various stupidities was briefly interrupted by a knock on my door. I flung it open, fully expecting to see a contrite Alexandrienne standing on the other side prepared to make peace. Instead I was greeted by a far more welcome sight: the hotel mistress bearing a platter of cold food from her larders. She apologized for the poor fare in her hesitant collection of English words. The sight of the food, however, set my stomach growling and I hurriedly assured her that her thoughtfulness was appreciated before accepting the offering and shutting the door after her.
As I set the try down, I realized that the woman had brought enough food to feed three people. I would have been perfectly capable of clearing the tray on my own since I was ravenous and the food, despite the fact it was cold, looked rather good. I snatched a chicken quarter off the tray and, as I munched at the dry meat, I dug through my backpack.
I decided that since I was already feeling low, I might as well complete my study of Mr. Harris.