Just as my despair ratcheted up another notch, I heard the sound of a motor engine approach and the crunch of tires in the courtyard outside.
Mr. Harris had arrived.
The moment of truth finally at hand, I stumbled to my feet and out the door. A disreputable-looking native driver exited the driver’s side and my eyes slid away from him as he wasn’t of any importance to me. The tall white man with dark hair who exited the passenger side captured my full attention instead.
At long last, Mr. Harris in the flesh.
I steeled myself and began my slow march forward. I felt as if I my feet were dragging through molasses, so nervous was I about finally meeting the man. I knew that I had to take this opportunity convince him that I was utterly harmless and meant him no ill will, for if he had even a hint of my true intentions I knew that I would not get a second chance to get back into his good graces.
Mr. Harris barely had time to place one booted foot on the ground before Alexandrienne appeared from between two huts, moving fast enough that she was nearly a blur. Radar and Sister Ig followed from behind, but they couldn’t even hope to keep up. Bunmi, with her happily gurgling son strapped to her back, serenely took up the rear of the greeting party.
I had just made it to the battered Toyota RAV4 when Alexandrienne skidded to a stop before Mr. Harris. She took one look at his disheveled, exhausted state and let out a gasp. She reached out a hand to touch the cheek I couldn’t see. It was the side of his face that no doubt had the eyepatch, although I couldn’t see hints of the strap in the man’s shaggy, unkempt hair.
Before she made contact, however, he had managed to engulf her wrist in one of his large hands. He softly said something to her in an unfamiliar tongue. Although he seemed to be stumbling over the words themselves, the language sounded like it was full of vowels and soft consonants. I stopped and listened to the brief exchange as Alexandrienne answered him in the same language, although her words flowed beautifully.
It most certainly wasn’t English. It wasn’t French, as I knew French when I heard it. It lacked the gruff, barking sound that I heard in tlhIngan Hol. By process of elimination, I knew the language they were speaking had to be Krahn, as that was one of the four languages Alexandrienne claimed she could speak.
Right at that moment Mr. Harris stiffened and he spun around to face me. He was indeed wearing the eyepatch, which seemed to enhance his rough physical state so that he looked like an untamed man of the wilderness. His appearance indicated that he hadn’t slept, shaved, or showered for at least two days. There was a livid cut across his left cheek, and a bruise just above the eyepatch. He had clearly been fighting.
I hesitated a moment and debated whether I should give my apologies and offer to introduce myself more formerly a later time, or whether I should simply step forward and get the business over with.
Before I made up my mind on the matter, Mr. Harris held up a hand and mouthed, “Don’t move.”
He quickly glanced at his filthy-looking native driver just rounding the front of the jeep and signaled him to likewise stand still. The man did so without even a trace of a question crossing his face. Radar, Sister Ig, and Bunmi, obviously noticing that Mr. Harris was giving out silent orders for us all to stay put, had halted some distance away.
Just then the otherworldly water bearer Liwaza emerged, coming from a direction somewhere behind the native driver. Mr. Harris must’ve seen her approach before warning us all to stand where we were.
As Liwaza floated closer with her vacant eyes and wide smile, Alexandrienne’s posture became increasingly stiff. I could almost hear the tension in her muscles sing as she slowly shifted into a protective stance next Mr. Harris. In that moment, she bore more than a passing resemblance to lioness preparing to protect her most precious cub from a vicious predator.
Sensing Alexandrienne’s high-strung watchfulness, Mr. Harris delicately rested a restraining hand on her shoulder. It was obviously a silent order for her to not make any sudden moves.
When Liwaza finally reached him, she looked up into his face and held up the cracked mug for him to take.
“Ahsante sana, Liwaza,” Mr. Harris said as he gently took the cup from her cupped hands. He then drank it down before handing it back to her with a surprisingly graceful bow.
In response, the girl’s smile grew wider and she bowed back at him. She then turned and happily skipped away, thrilled that her sole purpose in life had been fulfilled by safely delivering a cup of water into Mr. Harris’s waiting hands.
Mr. Harris then turned to me and opened his mouth, but before he was able to get a word out, his native driver — or rather, the man I had foolishly assumed was his native driver — interrupted with a song.
“Moooooooona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you,” he sang as he approached Alexandrienne, who seemed to have been overcome by a case of shyness, “You’re so like the lady with the mystic smiiiiiiiiiile.”
Mr. Harris looked to the heavens and shook his head as his man continued to sing.
“Is it only ’cause you’re lonely men have blamed you?” Here the singer took one of Alexandrienne’s hands in his own while her smile became brighter than the sun, “For that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile?” He finished with a flourish by bringing Alexandrienne’s hand up to his lips so he could gallantly kiss it.
“Ahhhhh, mon amie,” the man declared with a blinding smile of his own while Alexandrienne giggled. “And how is my Mona Lisa of the Sahel today? You are looking as gorgeous as ever.”
I cringed upon hearing the man’s accent. He was as much an American as Mr. Harris. I had assumed that because he looked African, he had to be native. I was only glad that I had a chance to hear his voice before I made a fool of myself. This realization forced another upon me: his disheveled and battered state showed that he, too, had been fighting alongside Mr. Harris.
“Hello, Dave,” Alexandrienne said between giggles. “I am very fine.”
Mr. Harris began edging toward me as the man, Dave, continued with his outrageous flirting. “We need to take you to the Louvre so Leonardo’s Mona Lisa can get a look at you. She’ll be so jealous to see an African Queen more beautiful than the stars standing in front of her.”
Alexandrienne at this point was looking down at the ground as her right foot hooked around her left ankle. I could see she was fighting very hard against yet another round of embarrassing giggles.
“Miss Swithin, right?” Mr. Harris began with a tired a smile and a low voice. “Xander Harris. Sorry about the whole mix-up. The timing isn’t the greatest for any of us.”
“So I gather,” I said sympathetically. And indeed, dear reader, I truly was sympathetic. Mr. Harris looked like a man who desperately needed sleep, but knew that he would have to wait some time before he could sink into blessed oblivion. I held out my hand for him to shake, which he did after hesitating a moment. “Eva Swithin, Watcher’s Council,” I formally introduced myself.
“I kinda knew that,” he replied dryly.
We both startled when we heard Radar shout, “Dave!” The boy barreled into the man and flung his arms around his waist. “When did you get here? Sister Ig and Bunmi didn’t tell us you were here. Is Kavitha with you?”
“Heya, kid,” Dave said as he ruffled Radar’s close-cropped hair. “Got here yesterday morning, it was super secret squirrel I was here, and Kavitha is busy dusting up some vampires that are hunting white foxes and leaving the drained corpses on the Hogan’s doorstep, so she couldn’t come.”
Mr. Harris heaved a heavy, theatrical sigh. “Oh. I see. Johnson gets all the love.”
“That’s because I’m cooler than you, Harris,” Dave joked.
While Radar scampered to Mr. Harris to bestow yet another ecstatic hug, Dave quietly greeted Sister Ig and Bunmi.
“So I was right about Joe,” Radar said. “What happened in Curly? Did you hear about Djenné? We had to stake two vampires while we were there.”
Mr. Harris snapped to alertness. “What?” he sharply asked.
“Whoops,” Dave remarked.
“Quite true,” I confirmed. “A Mr. Ly planned to send you a message today, but Alexandrienne took care of the problem last night.”
“Fuck,” Mr. Harris softly swore. He cringed as he looked down at Radar, “You didn’t hear that.”
“Nope. Didn’t hear anything,” Radar confirmed with a grin.
“Pest,” Mr. Harris semi-affectionately said before looking at Dave. “Looks like the day’s not over yet.”
“I got it,” Dave waved at him. “Because, buddy, I don’t trust you to walk upright right now, let alone drive. I don’t think you need to fall asleep behind the wheel and hit a goat. People get a little annoyed when you run over their dinner.”
“You’re never going to let me live that down, are you?” Mr. Harris asked.
Mr. Harris leaned toward me and added, “I was aiming for a vampire at the time.”
“Missed her,” Dave cheerfully volunteered. “Instead, Harris took out the goat and nearly took out a shrine while he was at it.”
“I did not hit the shrine. I came nowhere near that shrine,” Mr. Harris protested. “And I did not miss her. I ran over her legs, didn’t I?”
“Near thing on the shrine,” Dave argued back. “Thank God Kavitha could stake her while we argued with the villagers about the goat and the near shrine-wreck.”
“That was very funny,” Alexandrienne nodded with a grin.
I felt dizzy trying to follow the give-and-take between Dave and Mr. Harris. Such an exchange was positively the last thing I expected to hear in what was supposed to be Mr. Harris’s private domain.
“Boys!” Sister Ig interrupted. “If we’re done showing off for Miss Swithin, someone needs to get food into the pair of you.”
Mr. Harris actually winced at what was to me Sister Ig’s surprising rebuke. “Right,” he agreed. With a heavy, long-suffering sigh — this one not at all theatrical and entirely revealing his exhaustion — he turned to me and said, “I hate to do this to you, but I’ve got to talk to Ally first—”
“And me! I helped, yeah?” Radar eagerly volunteered.
This prompted another sigh from Mr. Harris. “I should’ve known. I’m guessing you’re the one who sniffed out the information about Curly?”
“Yeah,” Radar said proudly.
Mr. Harris chuckled at this. “That’s my boy. All right. I’ve got to talk to you and Ally first. Johnson?”
“Take Miss Swithin over to Grandma for some tea.”
Dave’s cheerful expression dimmed into a frown. “Are you sure about this?”
“Yes,” Mr. Harris said firmly, looking much more like the man I had expected to meet.
It was then I realized that everyone around us stood at attention as they waited for Mr. Harris to complete his list of orders.
Mr. Harris turned to me with a grim expression. “Grandma’s the master chef and she always brews up this special pot of tea when new people visit.” He waved a hand and his grim expression settled into one of vague amusement. “It’s some kind of a hospitality thing which I totally don’t get, but I’ll get an earful if you don’t go over and say hello.”
“I really don’t think any of us have the time to—” I began my protest.
“Make the time,” Mr. Harris said shortly. “It’ll take you all of, what, five minutes? You go over, you say hello, and you drink the tea in front of her. Besides, I’m tied up with Ally and Radar for a bit and Johnson has to eat anyway before he can even go anywhere. I’m pretty sure that your Day Runner isn’t exactly brimming with things that have to get done right this second.”
“Why are you so insistent on that I meet your Grandmother Touré?” I asked. I hoped that I didn’t sound suspicious.
Mr. Harris stepped back and, for a brief moment, an expression of surprise crossed his features. It was quickly replaced by realization, “Oooops, sorry. I was wondering how you knew her name. I forgot that Ally probably gave you the who’s who.”
“And then some,” I added.
He nodded with a smile of understanding. “Yeah, okay. I think I see where you’re going. There’s nothing in the tea that’s going to turn you into a frog. It’s just some herbal thing she likes to make. Very tasty, too. And she really will give me holy hell if you don’t go and introduce yourself.”
“She’ll hold you responsible if she thinks me rude,” I said doubtfully.
He shrugged. “You’re technically my guest, which makes me responsible.”
“Fine. I’ll accompany…Mr. Johnson, is it?” I said. “I suppose any meeting between us is delayed until the crisis is past.”
“Nope. I’ll grab you after Johnson’s done eating,” Mr. Harris said.
The answer admittedly took me by complete surprise. “That’s not entirely necessary.”
“Hey, I’m not planning on anything big,” Mr. Harris assured me. “Just a quick chat to get you going.”
“Unh, that is…yes, okay,” I stumbled.
“Oh, and at some point today I need you to talk to Doc and Sue, you know who Sue is, right?” Mr. Harris asked.
“The nurse. Sister Ig informed me,” I numbly answered.
“Good. Anyway, you need to get the full health and sanitation speech from the two of them. They would’ve grabbed you before now, but they had a rough night last night and I dragged them back here this morning so they’d get some sleep. They’re probably still out cold,” Mr. Harris continued.
“Let them rest,” I said. “I hardly think I’m placing myself in any jeopardy by waiting until tomorrow.”
“Sorry, the talk with Doc isn’t negotiable, even if it means waking him up.” The way Mr. Harris spoke made it clear that he was giving me a direct order. “Besides, he’s another one that’ll let me have it if you don’t check in with him right away, only I definitely can get on board with his reasons. The last thing any of us need is for you to get sick. We can do the basic medicine stuff here, but if we’ve got to haul you to the hospital in Djenné, I’ll have to fill out a ton of paperwork. In triplicate. My usual sunny disposition and charming personality goes on a permanent vacation when I have to do that. Trust me, you do not want to deal with me when I’m filling out forms.”
I couldn’t resist grinning in the face of his long soliloquy. His concern for my health and wellbeing was limited to only how it would inconvenience him. This show of raving ego had finally given me a hint of Mr. Harris’s personality beneath the friendly façade he had initially put forth.
“Then I will be sure to make time for the doctor as well,” I promised.
“Good,” Mr. Harris said. “That about covers everything. Let’s get going guys.”
I watched Mr. Harris walk off with Alexandrienne, Radar, Sister Ig, and Bunmi in tow.
“Harris can be a little overwhelming at times,” Dave said with some apology in his voice. “It’s nothing personal, but he’s juggling a million things right now.”
“So I see,” I replied. “Well, Mr. Johnson, let’s get the introductions over with, shall we?”
“Call me Dave,” he said, as he gallantly offered me his arm.
“As long as you feel free to call me Eva,” I responded as I threaded my own arm through his.
Allow me to pause one moment, dear reader, to point out something: a very rare mistake on Mr. Harris’s part.
Mr. Harris had been very eager to talk to Alexadrienne and Radar about their fight with the vampires in Djenné. As far as he knew, I had been there as well, and as such he should’ve included me in his inquiries. After all, I was a Watcher and most Watchers would’ve followed Alexandrienne and Radar on their mission, if only to evaluate their capacity for strategic thinking and how well they fought.
Yet, he didn’t think to ask me about it at all, a sure sign that he already knew a one key fact about me: that I avoided even the potential for engaging in hand-to-hand combat at all costs.
Take heed this warning dear reader: it is the small things that can trip up even the best of plans and the cleverest of men, but before you can exploit such a thing to your advantage you must first notice your opportunity.
Looking back, this was the only mistake Mr. Harris made. I would not get another chance to escape the noose that was even then being fixed around my neck.
I mention this small point because it carries with it true irony. Mr. Harris’s particular brand of cleverness is in noticing the unconsidered options, small missed opportunities, infinitesimal stumbles, and microscopic mistakes that shouldn’t be fatal to executing a plan, yet always were by the time Mr. Harris was taking advantage of them.
Yet, within minutes of my meeting Mr. Harris, he made the exact same mistake that he has exploited to the detriment of so many others.
Pity that I didn’t notice it at the time.
My mind was not subtle or supple enough to catch it, perhaps. Or maybe I was too innocent and naïve. Or — and this is the most likely — I expected my opponent would be as subtle as a troll, when really I was facing someone who was no more supernatural than an Ethiopian wolf. Furthermore, I was too nervous, too overwhelmed, and acting too cautiously. A thousand other things so occupied my mind that I had completely missed Mr. Harris’s rare stumble in omitting to question me about the events in Djenné.
If I have to choose a point at which Mr. Harris’s triumph was assured, I would have to choose this moment. It was here that my own unconsidered option, small missed opportunity, infinitesimal stumble, and microscopic mistake set me on a collision course with my fate.