*yaaaawwwwwn* Can barely keep my eyes open...
As Sister Ig shifted the jeep into drive, my mind was busy on other matters. My most immediate concern was how I was to pretend that I had been affected by the bissap without overdoing it. The last thing I needed was to fend off uncomfortable questions from a physician in Mr. Harris’s employ.
Initially the road away from Djenné was paved. Just as I was about to relax into the now-familiar feeling of bumpy asphalt, Sister Ig turned off the road onto a rough and muddy dirt track through the lush green farming fields. Copses of trees dotted the distant landscape, giving shelter to the handful of livestock in the area.
However, I was too busy clinging to what few handholds existed in the jeep to truly enjoy the view. In truth, it was a wonder that I did not crush the dashboard in a desperate effort to stabilize myself. I am fairly certain that my fingerprints were indelibly imprinted on the dashboard.
“Are you staying long?” Sister Ig shouted over the rattling noise the jeep made as it bumped along.
“As long as I need to,” I shouted back.
“That’s dangerous talk,” Sister Ig said. “Next thing you know, it’ll be next year and you’ll be wondering what happened.”
I smelled an opening, but I wasn’t sure how far I could go. I glanced behind me to see the disposition of Alexandrienne and Radar. The Slayer seemed distracted as she gazed out over the fields, no doubt worrying about what she’d find when we arrived at the village. Radar, for his part, had finished the bissap and was now curled up among the bags taking nap. How he could do so between the rough road, the rattling, and the smell of diesel was a miracle akin to turning water into wine.
In either case, all potential witnesses were distracted, which meant I most likely would not find a better time to question Sister Ig.
“Is that what happened to you?” I asked.
I took a deep breath. “Is that how you got involved with Mr. Harris?” I shouted.
“Mr. Harris?” Sister Ig laughed. “Can’t wait to hear you call him that. He might have a stroke.”
“What does everyone call him then?” I asked.
“Harris, mostly,” Sister Ig said. “Some people call him Xander, but they’re kind of special cases.”
I shuddered to ask what constituted a ‘special case,’ but I thought it best to at least attempt to delicately approach the subject. “Like Alexandrienne and Radar,” I prompted.
Sister Ig shot me a glance before fixing her eyes on the road. “Alexandrienne’s been with him forever. I think she was the first Slayer he found, but I’m not sure about that. She usually goes with him when he’s out searching for the others. And Radar,” she shrugged uncomfortably, “is just Radar.”
It appeared that Alexandrienne occupied some kind of special status in Mr. Harris’s cadre. Radar too, going by the fact that he had leave to call Mr. Harris by the diminutive name of Xander, and the fact he had been allowed to accompany Alexandrienne on her mission to fetch me from Bamako. I made another stab at finding out what they did to earn it, but I knew I’d have to prod carefully.
“Alexandrienne and Radar don’t attend your school?” I asked.
“Radar usually does.” She glanced behind her to see, like I had, that Alexandrienne was distracted and Radar was asleep. She grinned at me and added, “Love him to pieces, but he can be a class clown. Hates doing classwork. I think if he could skip class, he’d do it, but Harris makes him go and makes sure he does all the assignments.”
Now, that was curious. “So Mr. Harris has a special interest in Radar? Why?” I asked.
Sister Ig once more concentrated on the road. “Can’t tell you. I mean, I could tell you something about him I guess, but what I know is confidential. I know just what I need to know and nothing more. Harris has the full story, but he won’t talk unless Radar says it’s okay.”
Going by Radar’s reaction when I asked him about his background, I knew we would have snowball fights at high noon on the Sahara before I learned anything more.
“It’s just that I find it odd that he allowed Radar to travel with Alexandrienne to Bamako to fetch me,” I said in an attempt to push the boundaries of our topic.
Sister Ig shook her head. “How do you think Harris bribes him into attending classes?”
“I don’t follow.”
“You know how some kids get $2 for every A on the report card?” Sister Ig asked. “Same deal, only it’s, ‘Radar, if you at least pass this class, I’ll let you take a break and you can come with me to place X-Y-Z.’”
“Mr. Harris allows a young boy to accompany him in the course of his work?” I asked with disbelief.
“Nah. Radar only gets daytrips, maybe an overnight stay somewhere, tops,” Sister Ig easily answered. “And he only gets to go if Harris is 99% sure that it won’t be dangerous.”
“Ahhhh, yes. With all due respect, even the simplest missions can go sour in a heartbeat,” I said. “Mr. Harris of all people should be aware of that.”
“You won’t hear me argue with you and I know Harris wouldn’t either. He’s practically a walking advertisement for what happens when things go wrong,” Sister Ig said. “But it gets Radar’s butt in the seat and learning, so I’m not going to complain too loud, just enough to bust Harris’s chops. Besides, Harris is super careful about when and where he lets Radar tag along, so I’m actually not too worried about it.”
“I suppose I completely imagined that the safe trip to Bamako and back involved Alexandrienne Slaying vampires in Djenné. I will also assume that I misheard her when she insisted that Radar should accompany her over my objections.”
Sister Ig had the good grace to wince. “Okay, yeah, Harris is going to get a few grey hairs over that one, but Radar’s a tough kid and the sad fact of life around here is, ‘Hang out with Slayers, sooner or later something will try to kill you.’ Really, don’t underestimate him. He knows to stay out of the way when things get hairy and he’s got a knack for clearing out the bystanders before they get hurt.”
Clearly there was no point in arguing this issue any further with Sister Ig. She may have her doubts about allowing Radar to run with Mr. Harris on occasion, but those doubts were not severe enough for her to truly question whether the situation was one that was ideal.
“Alexandrienne, on the other hand, is almost always in Mr. Harris’s company,” I said.
“Well, yeah. They’re pretty much a team,” Sister Ig said.
“How often are they absent from the village?” I asked.
“Depends,” Sister Ig shrugged. “Sometimes they’re only gone a few days, they come back a few days, and then they're gone a few days again. Like that, you know? Sometimes they’re gone for three weeks solid and the most we hear is whatever word Harris can get to us to let us know he and Alexandrienne are still breathing. Harris has to be back the last week of the month, though, to catch up on paperwork and file his reports. Only reason why he’s around this week is because you’re here for the resource review and the Council hasn’t sent him to put out a fire somewhere. Just his luck, he ends up with an emergency at home.”
Sister Ig was apparently a master of understatement, judging by Alexandrienne’s extreme reaction to the news that the surrounding villages were under attack. I smiled as diplomatically as I could and asked, “Who runs the village when he’s not around?”
“Doc, Sue, me, and Bunmi are the resident adults, so we—” Sister Ig began.
“Pardon me,” I interrupted. “Who is Bunmi? I haven’t heard that name before.”
“One of the Slayers. Our lead Slayer, in fact,” Sister Ig said.
I startled on hearing the phrase “lead Slayer.” That most certainly was not a Council designation.
“She’s married and has a son who’s about a year, year-and-half. A little cutie, that kid,” Sister Ig continued, oblivious to my reaction. “Anyway, she’s maybe about Alexandrienne’s age, maybe a little older, it’s hard to tell. But she’s got the husband and the son, so that automatically makes her an adult in this neck of the woods.”
I swallowed hard and stared guiltily down into my lap. “Your Bunmi is in a difficult situation, it appears.”
“How so?” she asked curiously.
This caused me to look up at Sister Ig, who was busy edging the jeep around a large puddle in the middle of the road.
“You can’t be serious,” I said. “She’s a Slayer with a young child. I can’t imagine her situation is helping her marriage.”
“Oh. I get it,” Sister Ig chuckled. “I guess there were some problems at first, but Kosoko, that’s her husband, he’s a weaver. Once he figured out he could sell his creations in Djenné and make a good profit, he settled down. He’s handy to have around, because now we don’t have to buy wall hangings for the huts and blankets all the time. Heck of a tailor, too. He made me this gorgeous dress, I can’t tell you. You’ve got to see it. Perfect for when it gets furnace-hot and dry around here.”
“So the fact that his wife is a Slayer is of little concern to him.” In truth, I found that difficult to believe.
“Nope, near as I can tell, that was never the issue. It was more the move from Nigeria, leaving his extended family behind, and him figuring out what to do for a living that was the problem. Once he found his niche and discovered that he could earn a heck of a lot more money here than back home, it was all good.”
“He accepts that his wife is a Slayer and his new living circumstances simply because he can earn more money?” I asked.
Sister Ig looked askance at me before returning her attention to the road. “It’s not that simple,” she said. “Kosoko is the oldest son, which means his family depends on him to support them. Now, he can stay home and struggle to make ends meet, or, he can move someplace where he can earn a lot of money. He keeps about a third for himself. Of that third, half goes into the village community chest since we pretty much take care of housing, food, and medical care for him, his wife, and his son. If he stays long enough, we’ll be educating his son, too. So he considers it payment for services rendered. The other half of what he keeps goes into a nest egg for his wife and kid. The other two-thirds of everything he earns goes to support his family in Nigeria.”
I colored in embarrassment. “I believe I get the point.”
“You’re only halfway there,” Sister Ig continued. “Now, his family doesn’t just stick Kosoko’s payments in a Swiss bank account. They invest it. In cattle. Where he’s from, the more cows you’ve got, the richer you are. If you’ve got a Texas-sized herd, that makes you stinking rich, which means that your extended family is due some serious respect from the neighbors. More than that, you can take that cattle and trade it for a better life for the kids. That could mean selling off a head or two to pay for land that’ll get passed down from one generation to the next. That could mean better clothes, or a better education, or access to services that you didn’t have when all you had was a goat and two cows. It means a better class of wife for your son because now you’ve got enough cows to trade for her hand in marriage. It means a better class of men will be proposing to your daughter because only a man whose family can match you almost cow for cow is going to even try.”
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” I said.
“Bingo, and I mean that like it’s the Friday night geriatric Church of the Sacred Heart basement special when the pot’s a cool grand,” Sister Ig nodded.
“I apologize,” I said sincerely. “I didn’t have much time to study…what I mean to say is, the Council sent me here with very little preparation and education in local customs. I’ve already stepped on a few toes, I suspect. I honestly don’t mean any disrespect.”
“Sorry I got on my high horse.” The way Sister Ig responded told me that she had completely absolved me of my faux pas. “I know you’re only a short-timer and your bosses probably didn’t think it was all that important to give you any cultural highlights. Not that it’ll help you. We’ve pretty much got people from all over in the village, so I guarantee you’d be stepping on someone’s toes by accident.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I will be more cautious in the future.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Sister Ig said. “I don’t think anyone’ll hold it against you if you make an honest mistake.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” I nervously cleared my throat. “Although I can see how Mr. Kosoko’s—”
“Just Kosoko,” Sister Ig corrected. “If you use the Mr., I think it’s Obot, but we all just call him Kosoko.”
“Kosoko, then,” I corrected myself. “What I’m trying to say is that although I can see how this move was ultimately advantageous for him and his family, I have to wonder if he truly grasps what a Slayer is supposed to be. I can’t imagine he’d be nearly as accepting if he truly understood it.”
Sister Ig glanced at me with amusement. “Well, for Bunmi, being a Slayer is all about training the other Slayers those Slayer moves and playing mom for the younger girls. She really doesn’t want to make fighting a regular thing, not with a kid and husband to worry about. Good shot she’ll be teaching Staking 101 and the Art of Dusting Vampires 204 for at least the next few years. Anyway, she’s part of our little junta when Harris is away, if only because she’s the official rep for the Slayers and the one with the most authority over them.”
“Short of Mr. Harris,” I added uneasily.
“We’re all short of Harris on authority,” Sister Ig said. “But like I said, he’s got his job to do, so we pretty much cover the day-to-day because he can’t.”
An edge of doubt began to creep into my mind over Sister Ig’s happy report. Here was a man who, in the course of approximately one year after his arrival in an alien land, had managed to not only find Slayers, but also build a village in a country that appeared to be reasonably safe and staffed with a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, a cook/witch, and a Slayer who was more than content to stay home and train the girls so he could travel the continent.
Although the various bargains Mr. Harris had struck along the way were efficient and gave him a flexibility that he wouldn’t have had otherwise, there was also no getting around that he most likely violated every rule to do so. He had willy-nilly altered his core mission and only informed Mr. Giles after the fact. He had not sent any of the Slayers he had discovered on to Devon, which was his original charge. He had recruited an orphan boy to be his occasional sidekick and a young Slayer to be his constant companion. Furthermore, he had attracted skilled civilian workers to staff his village, thereby placing them in harm’s way should any denizens of the darkness decide to target the people around him.
Either way, the portrait of Mr. Harris that Sister Ig had painted seemed to have no relation to the impression he had left on his fellow Sunnydale survivors. Either the inhabitants in Mr. Harris’s village were under orders to present a happy face to me during my stay, or he only accepted the cream of the crop into his village and had abandoned the rest to their fate.
My task was now more difficult than originally thought. It seemed well nigh insurmountable. The best I could hope for was that Sister Ig had overstated the charms of her village. At least then I’d have the opportunity to discover the truth. If Mr. Harris were acting as a gatekeeper and freezing out those Slayers he had judged to be less-than-worthy of his concern, however, I would have a most difficult time proving the charge.
“Seems to me that he’s an extraordinary lucky man,” I remarked. I hoped I kept the suspicion out of my voice.
This earned me another quick glance and a frown from Sister Ig. “I don’t know about that,” she said.
I jumped on the statement. “So there have been difficulties.”
“Always are, but that’s anywhere,” she said carefully. “I mean, I know I’m making it sound like a bed of roses, and maybe I’m talking up the place, but it’s a lot of hard work and lost sleep to keep it going. Plus you’ve always got new Slayers coming in, and they don’t always have happy stories and they’re not always healthy in body or in spirit, so that has to be dealt with. Then you’ve got the whole deal where eventually the Slayers have to fight for real and they get hurt, sometimes seriously. Then you’ve got Harris who’s always getting pulled in a million different directions, if not by the Council, than by us when he shows up back at the village because there’s some things only he can deal with.”
“So what you’re telling me is that God helps those who help themselves,” I said.
“I know what you’re saying, okay?”
I held my breath as I wondered if I had pushed too hard.
“Yeah, it’s a good thing there’s a bunch of us around who can help with the load,” Sister Ig continued. “But Harris is pretty good at making do with what he’s got, and he’s had to make do a lot, especially at the beginning, not that it’s gotten any easier. We’ve got different issues now, and none of us have any idea how we’re going to handle it when the hammer comes down.” She spared me a glance before fixing her eyes on the road. “Harris has got a plan. If it works, it’ll solve a lot of our problems. If it doesn’t…” her voice trailed off.
I must admit, dear reader, Sister Ig’s dangling thought filled me with foreboding.