Looooong day ahead, so I'm putting this up now.
For the Scatterlings and Orphanages Africander Fiction Challenge by ludditerobot.
For all previous parts, go here.
Continued from Part 21.
“I would think that Mr. Harris would want to talk to Dave first, since he will be traveling this evening,” I remarked.
Dave waved a hand to indicate that he was perfectly fine with the order. “Harris and I will probably be talking awhile since we’ve got to plan everything out. It’s faster to talk to you first.”
“If you say so,” I responded doubtfully as I got to my feet.
“I’ll take care of the bowls,” Dave said. “Better leave the damp cloth on wrapped around your wrist for awhile.”
I looked down at my wrist in surprise. I had utterly forgotten that the cloth was there.
When I walked into Mr. Harris’s hut, he looked up at me with an exhausted smile. He had made an attempt to clean up, although he had not yet taken the time to shave. He still wore the dusty clothes that he had on when I first laid eyes on him. He obviously did not stop and take the time to attend to his own needs the way he should have.
He indicated a chair with a nod. “Please, have a seat.”
I glanced around me as I made myself as comfortable as I could on one of the rickety wooden chairs. It was obvious that Dave had told me the truth when he said that Mr. Harris’s hut served as an all-purpose meeting place. The interior was so crowded with the trappings necessary for the administration of the village, that he barely had room for himself.
The only signs that anyone ever attempted to use this hut as a place to live was a neatly made-up cot shrouded by a mosquito net shoved in the corner. Next to it was a plastic bin overflowing with clothes and a pair of battered boots placed haphazardly next to it. A half-packed backpack sadly stood sentry in the corner, a testament that its owner knew that he could be called away on a moment’s notice.
Most of the space, however, had been converted into an ad hoc office. Mr. Harris was sitting behind an abused wooden desk that would have been sent for scrap had it been in the Council halls. A pile of papers was precariously balanced in one corner, and a pile of binders was precariously piled on another. There was a battered metal filing cabinet shoved against a wall. Several rickety chairs, the very clones of the one I sat on, were scattered around the crowded space.
Overseeing it all was a carved wooden mask. Judging by the large, rounded, pointed ears painted with white spots; the low-slung, prominent brow over tiny square eyeholes; the gritted and grinning nature of the teeth that hinted at being sharp enough to tear the flesh off bone; and the darkness of the wood, I guessed it to be a representation of some sort of terrible animal. It had been affixed to the wall in such a position that there was no place in the hut for any occupant to escape its empty-eyed feral gaze.
Mr. Harris reached into a bowl and pulled some meat out the stew. “Sorry,” he apologized, “I haven’t eaten all day. I’m starving.”
“It’s quite all right,” I assured him. “The stew is quite good. My compliments to Grandmother Touré.”
He grinned. “Yeah, it is isn’t it? She’s a hell of a cook, that’s for sure.” He started chuckling. “If you told me a year ago—” He stopped. “Actually, I’ve been here more than a year. Hunh.” He shook his head. “Okay, if you told me a year-and-a-half ago that I’d be eating goat and loving it, I would’ve called you crazy.”
I suddenly felt ill. “Goat?”
“Grandma does good goat,” Mr. Harris nodded as he popped another piece of meat in his mouth. “She does good camel, too.”
“Camel?” I weakly asked.
“She’s got this thing she does with rabbits. Outstanding. But nothing tops her chicken,” Mr. Harris said. “I hope Colonel Sanders doesn’t get wind of it, because then I’ll have to battle his Kentucky Fried minions to keep them from kidnapping her.” He leaned forward and added, “Between you and me, though, I think her vegetables are a little too mushy. Don’t tell her I said that, or I might end up with a bowl cooked onions dumped on my head.”
“Onions,” I repeated weakly.
“I’ll tell you something, though. Know what I miss?” He looked around as if he were afraid that someone was listening to us. He leaned forward and said in a near whisper, “Bacon.”
I blinked at him as he leaned back and dug through his stew for more meat.
“Bacon,” I slowly repeated.
“Bacon, sausage, ham. You know. Pig meat,” Mr. Harris said between chews. “One thing they forget to tell you about countries were Islam is a dominant religion. No pork. None. ‘Peeegs are filty animals, eh? Make you filty if you eeeet dem. You do not want dat,’ according to Ally. She’s got a whole lot of people that agree with her. I’m almost at the point where I’d murder someone for a cold, dry pork chop.”
“I see,” I said cautiously.
“I’m just glad that Mali is laid back about the millet beer and the palm wine,” Mr. Harris nodded. “There are some countries out there where you have to whoop it up on runny yogurt and instant coffee. You could always try the kola nuts, but they’re waaaaaay too bitter and you’ve got to chew a lot of them to even get a slight buzz. You could always chew qat, I guess, but it tends to make people go a little crazy. Personally, I’m too paranoid about trying anything stronger. Plus, the drug laws around here put the drac in draconian. That, and I’m not all that excited about supporting your friendly neighborhood batshit insane insurgency by buying their crap to get a high.”
I cleared my throat. I was utterly at a loss how to respond. “I, unh, I see. I’m rather shocked you left tobacco off your list.”
“Don’t smoke,” Mr. Harris said, “although there are days when the second-hand smoke is so thick that I might as well light up a pack of Marlboros.” He paused and tilted his head, as if he were seriously thinking about doing just that. “On second thought, nah. If I smoke the Marlboros, I’ll lose my most popular bribe.”
“Cigarettes for bribes? I wasn’t under the impression that Africa was the set of a prison movie,” I remarked testily.
“American cigarettes are the Best. Currency. Ever,” Mr. Harris cheerfully informed me. “Recognized the world over. Accepted where American Express, Visa, and MasterCard aren’t. No need to exchange it for the local folding green. Compact and easy to carry. I can’t say enough about them. Next time Congress has a hearing on the evils of tobacco, I want to go and testify in support of that nasty nicotine.” He placed a hand over his heart. “God bless subsidized tobacco farming, South Carolina, and duty free shops. Without them, I’d have to pay a lot more for the good stuff.”
I’m fairly certain I looked at him like he was mad.
“Listen to me,” he said with an off-kilter chuckle. “I’m going on and on about cigarettes and bacon. I sound like every other expat American in Africa.”
“Not precisely,” I said. “I’m sure another American would’ve at least mentioned something about takeaway fast food.”
Mr. Harris looked puzzled a moment before his face lit up with realization. “Ahhh, you mean McDonald’s. Nope. Not going to hear it from me. If I need to see the Golden Arches, I can hit up one in Egypt.” He shook his head with amusement. “In Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood will demonstrate in front of the American embassy and then break for lunch to get a McFalafel at the local Mickey D’s. I just don’t get that.”
“McFalafel?” I asked.
“Actual menu item,” Mr. Harris assured me. “It’s not bad, either.”
“Mr. Harris, this is all very fascinating, but you did not invite me here to discuss food,” I said.
“Sorry,” he grinned. “I’ve had about four hours sleep in the last 48, so I’m a little punchy. I’m starting to hallucinate that there are vampires sunbathing on the roof, so I know I need to get a nap before I really lose it.” He nodded at me then. “What happened to the wrist?”
“Dave informed me that it was a bug bite,” I said.
He reached out a hand. “Let me see,” he kindly said.
A look of irritation crossed his features. “I don’t bite. I just want to take a look. I’ve got a ton of experience on the bug bite front.”
I carefully got out of my chair and approached his desk. I hesitated another beat before I presented my covered wrist for inspection. In all honesty, I wasn’t entirely sure what I thought he would do to me.
He gently took my wrist and unwrapped it. A puzzled frown crossed his features as he studied the skin. “There’s nothing there.”
“It was red and itchy not long ago,” I said as I pulled my wrist away from him. However, my own inspection by the light of the late afternoon sun showed that the skin was clear and unblemished, as if nothing had happened to it at all.
Mr. Harris shrugged off the mystery. “You probably rubbed against something and irritated it. Just keep on the lookout for it happening again. You might be allergic to something.”
Highly unlikely. Although I had not yet gotten used to my heightened sense of sight, smell, and sound, in a large part because I did my best to avoid using it as much as possible, I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that allergies were not one of my problems. “I…suppose,” I hesitantly agreed.
“Right. You need my list of gotta have its,” Mr. Harris reached down and opened a drawer in the desk. He began rooting through it. “I’ve got the folder in here somewhere with everything. Where is it…where is it…where is it…Ig, if you’ve cleaned my desk again I’ll…nope, that’s not it…that’s not it either…and thaaat’s noooot…got it!”
He re-emerged with a triumphant smile and brandishing a very thick file overstuffed with papers. “There you go,” he said. “I’ll just hand this off to you so you can read through it. We can talk about it once I’m done dealing with the meatheads that have decided to make my life miserable.”
I fought the urge to frown. Once more, Mr. Harris expressed an entirely self-centered view of things. Vampires were attacking the local people, yet he acted as if they were a mere annoyance because they were making his life difficult.
I took the bulging folder and noted its heft, yet more proof that Mr. Harris was entirely self-centered, especially if he thought he’d get everything stuffed inside. “This is…it’s quite a lot.”
“Yeah, well, I figured I’d throw everything I could on the table for you,” Mr. Harris said. “I know I won’t get everything I want in there, but I’m hoping we can negotiate the list down to something we can both see as a reasonable settlement.”
I shuddered to ask how he defined “reasonable.”
“I suppose you included something in this pile of needs for Liwaza,” I said.
Mr. Harris released a sigh as he rubbed his face. “Liwaza,” he repeated in a deadpan manner.
“Dave was quite insistent that I talk to you about her before I did anything else.” Not entirely the truth, but close enough. Although Liwaza was not at the top of my list of things I wished to discuss with Mr. Harris, I thought that it might be the best way to get him to talk openly to me. The harder, more detailed questions I wished to ask him could wait until after I was sure that I had gained some semblance of his trust.
“Please, sit down. Again,” Mr. Harris invited me.
I did as he asked, although I put the unwieldy folder on the ground rather than keep it precariously balanced in my lap.
Mr. Harris studied me a moment through his lidded eye as he took a deep breath. “Have you heard about the Highlands Facility?”
“No, I can’t say as I have.” I replied.
This prompted another sigh. “I’m not surprised,” Mr. Harris said. It seemed to me that he aged 20 yeas before my very eyes. “Welcome to one of the deep, dark secrets of the new and improved Reformed Watcher’s Council.” He looked at me and said, “Somewhere outside of Inverness there’s a very special, very high-security, very private, very exclusive hospital.” He pinched his nose with a wince. “Well, they call it a hospital, but it’s more the kind of prison they’d shove Hannibal Lechter in and leave him to rot.”
“What on earth would the Council lock up in such a facility?” I asked. “People driven dangerously insane by demons?”
“Slayers. They keep Slayers there who’ve driven dangerously insane by God knows what.”
My answer was immediate. “Impossible. If such a facility existed, people on the Council would know about it.”
“Oh, but people on the Council do know about it,” Harris assured me. “A very small, very select group of people.”
“And of course, I only have your word on this,” I said flatly.
“Yeah, I know. Pretty unbelievable that a Watcher in Mali knows all about it, but a Watcher in London doesn’t,” Mr. Harris easily allowed without any a hint of sarcasm that I could detect. “I didn’t know about it until five months ago, and I found out only because I made it to the ‘need-to-know’ list.” Mr. Harris stared at the top of his desk with his unseeing eye. “I don’t have to get into Sunnydale with you, do I?”
“No, although I do wish to talk to you at great length about that.”
His mouth quirked into a rather nasty smile. “Curious?”
“You’ve been lying,” I said flatly.
Mr. Harris flinched. Despite that, his voice was even. “Please tell me you didn’t say anything to anyone.”
Interesting, I thought. Mr. Harris had deliberately, and with forethought, lied about his past, but his reasons for doing so were no clearer to me than they were when I first got an inkling that this was the case. It appeared I had one up on Mr. Harris, something I could use against him when the time was right. I needed only to discover what his fears were so I could use it to the best effect.
“No, nothing concrete, although I fear I may have inadvertently disabused Dr. Johnson of the notion that you were — Now how did he put it? — ‘A stoner surfer boy scared straight’ by your first encounter with vampires,” I said with an innocent smile. “Completely by accident, I assure you. His statement took me so by surprise that I could not cover my shock.”
Mr. Harris glared at me a moment as I maintained my innocent façade. He finally softly swore. “Fine. We’ll talk about it. Later. It’s way too complicated to get into right now.”
“Yes, you should inform me what you wish to keep confidential,” I agreed. “It would not do for me to inadvertently discuss that which you wish to keep hidden in the dark.”
Mr. Harris nodded slightly as his eye narrowed. Yet strangely, he seemed to be fighting a genuine smile. The first challenge had been laid down, the first blood drawn, and the battle, at long last, had been joined. I only wished he didn’t look so blasted pleased about it.
“Fair enough,” he said with an air of a man who cared not one whit about what I knew or did not know. “Anyway, I bring up Sunnydale because I want you to know that we had no idea something like this would happen.” He released an unexpected snort. “Despite the fact that we had Miss Exhibit A standing right in the room with us.”
“You’re not making any sense,” I said.
“It turns out that making every Potential on the planet a Slayer was not the great idea we all thought it was,” Mr. Harris said.
I could’ve told him that, but I held my tongue.
“Some girls…” his voice trailed off as he closed his eye. A deep frown, of guilt or pain, I wasn’t entirely sure, seemed to have taken over his face. He started again. His voice was quieter this time. “Some girls and young women who were — okay, let’s say troubled, insane, not playing with a full deck, whatever you want to call it, were part of the Potential pool. They got the power and,” he paused as he shook his head, “let’s just say some of the people around them didn’t survive them becoming Slayers.”
I felt the blood drain from my face.
“Some of the Potentials were perfectly okay before they got the power, but when they became Slayers, they went completely off the deep end,” Mr. Harris added. “Not as bad as the ones who were already mentally ill, but a body count’s still a body count.”
“Dear God,” I whispered. “In the old days—”
“In the old days, the Council would’ve murdered them,” Mr. Harris harshly interrupted. He leaned back with a sarcastic smile. “Welcome to the kinder, gentler, fuzzier Watcher’s Council. Instead burying our fuck-ups, we now lock them up and hope like hell it doesn’t come back to bite us on the ass. Which it did with a vengeance, by the way. Also shows that like the old Council we don’t learn from our fuck-ups either, because we’re too busy arguing about what really happened.”
“I think you’re getting quite a bit ahead of me,” I said as my mind attempted to wrap itself around what Mr. Harris was saying.
“You’re right, you’re right. You didn’t even know about it, so I shouldn’t be getting mad at you,” Mr. Harris wearily said. “From what I understand, the Highland Facility started operations when me and Willow were still in London. So if it makes you feel any better, we were both completely left in the dark about what was going on.”
“Why?” I asked. “I would think that Mr. Giles would at least consult with his inner circle.”
“Combination of things. One, Giles was trying to protect us from the fallout of what we did. He figured we’d both be pretty devastated if we found out. He was right, but it would’ve been better finding out about it then, instead of much later when Liwaza was found,” Mr. Harris freely admitted. “The other? He thought if Willow and I knew about it, he’d catch holy hell from the both of us. Well, on that he was wrong, mostly because we both got ambushed with the information, so there was some mental and emotional reeling while we tried to come to grips with it.”
“It falls to the First Watcher to make the hard decisions,” I reminded him.
Mr. Harris studied me with a frown. He clearly did not appreciate the fact that I had just reminded him that Mr. Giles was, in essence, his direct superior and, as such, could never be a true friend or confide in him like the older man most likely once did.
“The Council started a collection of the dangerous Slayers pretty early on,” Mr. Harris continued. “There are still rumors about a few more running around out there, but they’re proving really hard to catch. Anyway, sometime in February, a Slayer named Dana happened to the Highlands Facility.”
“She was this Slayer out of L.A. I guess she’d been locked up in a mental hospital. Not entirely clear what her story was, but I do know that she was the victim of some horrific crime. Something about her parents being murdered and her being kidnapped and brutally tortured for days by the killer.” Mr. Harris shook his head. “No surprise she never recovered.”
“Dear God,” I whispered.
“Well, she gets the Slayer power and eventually uses it to break out,” Mr. Harris continued. “She left a trail of bodies looking for the guy who tortured her, I guess, before the Council could get to her. Once they got her, they spirited her out of the U.S. and brought her to Inverness. That’s when things went really wrong.”
“Surely they did something for the girl,” I interjected. “There is plenty modern medicine can do to blunt violent impulses.”
“Not to mention some really old medicine,” Mr. Harris added in a hard voice. “Say, the kind of drugs used in the Cruciamentum?”
“I am aware of the test you mention,” I said carefully.
“Proof that Travers loved to pull the wings off flies when he was a kid, you mean,” Mr. Harris harshly countered.
I foolishly rose to the bait. “The Cruciamentum is a time-honored test for—”
“—trying to get the Slayer killed on her 18th birthday,” Mr. Harris interrupted through his teeth. “If you think I believe for one second that it was to ‘help the Slayer build confidence in her abilities,’ then you are seriously deluded. I can think of a ton of really bad motivations for that shitty little ‘rite of passage,’ but I can’t think of a single good one.”
“If you were raised in the Council tradition, perhaps you wouldn’t need it explained to you,” I snidely replied.
Mr. Harris leaned back with a nasty grin indeed. “Fine. Educate me.”
“You heard me. Spill. Tell me what I’m missing,” Mr. Harris challenged me. “Because I would absolutely love to know why you think stripping a Slayer of her powers after she’s spent a few years relying on them just to stay alive, and then locking her up in a house with a crazed vampire is a good idea. While you’re at it, why don’t you tell me how many Slayers got killed because of this little test of yours.”
“Buffy Summers survived,” I pointed out, rather huffily I might add.
“How many didn’t?” Mr. Harris angrily asked.
“I don’t know. I would have to research the answer,” I said. “There is at least one that I know about, but only because her surviving Watcher had been given the task of cataloging artifacts. I remember him from when I was a girl.”
Mr. Harris paled so quickly that I thought he had seen his worst nightmare standing between us. His suddenly ghost-white skin was a breath-taking contrast against his black eyepatch, dark hair, and the red cut across his cheek. “I think you’ve made my point,” he stiffly said.
I opened my mouth to protest, but Mr. Harris interrupted me.
“They were using the drugs from the Cruciamentum to strip these girls in the Highland Facility of their power,” Mr. Harris said. “Much as I hate the idea of reviving that fun little ritual, it was at least a smart move on the Council’s part to put the drugs to use. One small problem. Unless you keep increasing the dose, the Slayer’s metabolism compensates and you might as well be injecting her with water.”
“They would have no reason to know that. The drugs were used only once in a Slayer’s entire career,” I pointed out.
Mr. Harris refused to let go of his point. “Yeah, because they usually just killed off the troubled Slayers instead of trying to help them.”
“You do not have that luxury when there’s only one Slayer,” I angrily responded. “You are acting as if this was a cut-and-dried issue when it most certainly was not. Your experiences are clouding your judgment.”
“And your Watcherliness is clouding yours,” Mr. Harris flatly. “All and all? I’ll keep my delusions of righteousness, thanks.”
“So, I’m assuming that the drugs wore off with this Dana,” I said in an effort to drag the conversation back on track.
“No. But Dana was an expert about how a mental hospital runs and she was very, very hot on breaking out to kill the guy who destroyed her life.” Mr. Harris looked at me. “Hell of a thing. I get that Dana was smart, as in scary smart. If she were sane, she’d’ve made a hell of a Slayer.”
“She engineered a breakout,” I guessed.
“Right, on the money,” Mr. Harris nodded. “Guess she was a little less delusional than the Council experts thought, because somehow she found out that the Cruciamentum drugs weren’t as effective on the Slayers that had been taking them for a few months. She managed to convince two girls to break out with her so they could go hunt the bad men that hurt them.”
“And once she was no longer receiving regular injections, this Dana recovered her abilities,” I said.
“They left a line of bodies between Inverness and Aberdeen,” Mr. Harris said. “Then they hit Aberdeen like a typhoon. Between them they killed almost 50 men from mid-February through the beginning of March. Almost all of their victims were guys who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
My mouth hung open as I listened to this with disbelieving ears. I had remembered the news reports of the rampage, of course, but I recalled that the reported body count was less than two-dozen men. The authorities had attributed the killings to a vicious gang of drug dealers who’d been caught out in a sting and had decided to battle their way across the country in an effort to escape justice.
“Giles had to call in some members of the old wet works crew to take them down,” Mr. Harris added quietly. “Got all three girls in the end.”
I had no idea what to say.
“It’s not fair. These girls were victims their entire lives. First they get victimized by someone or something that sends them into a bad place. Then we victimized them by giving them power they couldn’t handle. Then the Council victimized them a third time by locking them up.” Mr. Harris drew a sharp breath through his nose. “Then they pay for it with their lives. On a scale of one to ten, it sucks.”
“I’m certain the families of their victims might have something to say about that,” I pointed out.
Mr. Harris surprised me by saying, “Not disagreeing with you.” He shook his head. “Anyway, after that, the whole Highland Facility went on lockdown. They start increasing the doses, sometimes to fatal levels. The girls are kept isolated in separate rooms with steel-reinforced doors and iron bars on the windows. They are never, ever let outside. Whenever any normal human has to interact with them, it’s never less than in groups of three and one of them is armed with a gun.”
“A miserable existence,” I agreed.
“That’s not the best part,” Mr. Harris said. “The best part, is that eventually, the Slayers overdose on the drugs. You’re pumping so much of the stuff into their veins, that you start overworking that Slayer metabolism. Eventually, the metabolism is working so hard and so fast that the whole thing breaks down. When that happens, the next shot is the one that kills them.”
“Oh dear God,” I whispered.
“Essentially, a Slayer has about 9 to 10 months left to live when they start pumping that crap into her system on a regular basis,” Mr. Harris said. “Right about the time I found Liwaza back in April, the Council had just finished cleaning up the mess left by Dana’s rampage across Scotland and they lost their first two girls to overdose. They were long-timers, so the docs at Inverness went overboard on some of the injections. Since they’d been battered the longest, they were the first to go down.”
“And keeping Liwaza here is so much better?” I asked.
“Have you even heard a word I said?”
“Surely the Council is doing something to help them,” I protested. “Surely they are exploring other treatments, making an effort to help them recover from their mental haze. Surely the Council is doing something.”
“Miss Swithin, these girls are so far beyond help, that a St. Bernard can’t find them,” Mr. Harris said. “If you think a little Prozac and a session with the Council shrink is going to help them pull out of lifelong mental illness in 9 or 10 months, I want to live in your universe because it’s a much better place to live. In the universe I live in, you’re asking me to send a Slayer who’s gone through hell on earth and, through no fault of her own, has been traumatized into insanity up to Scotland where she can live her remaining days like a Council lab rat as they try to find something that’ll actually work without killing her.”
“I can see why you didn’t feel you had a choice,” I allowed. “But —”
“Miss Swithin,” Mr. Harris interrupted, “people who say they don’t have choice are lying. Whenever someone says, ‘I don’t have a choice,’ what they really mean is they’ve got choices, it’s just that all the options pretty much suck, so they go with the one that’ll be the easiest for them to live with. Might not be the right choice. Might not be the best choice for the people around them. But it always is the choice that, from a selfish point of view, is the best one for them.”
“I disagree,” I said.
“Tough. It’s my philosophy of life and I’m sticking to it,” Mr. Harris sharply answered. “Agree or disagree with me, I don’t care. But in this case, yeah, I had choices, and they all were pretty much of the bad.”
“I cannot see how keeping Liwaza in the village when she could be potentially dangerous not just to you and the other Slayers, but the surrounding communities as well, is the best decision,” I argued back.
Mr. Harris looked down. “I don’t know that it is, Miss Swithin. We keep an eye on her and keep her the hell away from any stressful situation. We never leave her unsupervised. Grandma has an herbal tea that’s just strong enough to take the edge off. Whatever is in it is at a low enough dose that we can increase the amount she drinks for a lot longer than 10 months before we have to start worrying about Liwaza’s health. It’s not the best solution. I’ll give you that. But it’s a better solution than sending her off to Scotland to be locked up for the rest of her very short life.”
“I’m assuming that you wish me to avoid bringing up Liwaza in any report I might file with the Council,” I said.
Mr. Harris looked distinctly unhappy. “Kinda hoping you will, yeah. Do I think you’ll do it? Don’t know. If you hold her hostage in exchange for this village? I honestly don’t know how I’ll come down on that. So, I know I can ask, but I know I’ve got zero guarantees.”
“I really don’t think this is the best situation for her,” I said.
“Here’s an alternative,” Mr. Harris offered. “Sit on the information about Liwaza. When you get back home, try to find out something about the Highland Facility. You know, the one you didn’t even know existed until I told you about it just now. Trust me. I’m pretty sure that once you get a good look, you’ll decide not to say anything.”
“I’m sure from your perspective the situation at Inverness is not ideal, but it is also entirely possible that your judgment on this matter is rather,” I paused as I considered how I could diplomatically phrase this, “suspect.”
“Suspect,” Mr. Harris repeated in a low voice.
“Because you feel somewhat,” I paused again in an effort to find a better way to phrase my thoughts, “responsible for not just Liwaza’s predicament, but also the predicament of the Slayers housed in Scotland.”
“I see,” he said in that same low, dangerous voice.
“I feel that, perhaps, you should allow me study the situation further so I can reach my own, correct conclusions,” I said. “After all, I am not carrying your guilt on this issue and I will, no doubt, be able to see what’s best for Liwaza with clear eyes.”
Mr. Harris nodded thoughtfully as he pursed his lips. “Ooooor, I have a better idea,” he finally said. “You can remember that Giles, He of First Watcherdom, was the one who suggested that I keep Liwaza a secret and hide her from the Council. I as a lowly newbie Watcher was following my superior’s very firm suggestion that I sit on my latest discovery until the mess at the Highland Facility could be straightened out and the Council had a better plan for helping the Slayers there than just pumping them full of Cruciamentum drugs.”
My expression froze.
Mr. Harris’s grin got wider and nastier. “True, if you talk, the big secret will be out. There’ll be a little scandal. Giles will have to answer some uncomfortable questions. But in the end, people will agree that Giles is doing the best he can with a very bad situation, especially since the only alternative is to just kill these girls outright. No one is ready to start ordering executions. Not while we’re still at the dawn of a brave new world where the Council can afford to be just a little more humane in its treatment of Slayers and everyone is still feeling fuzzy wuzzy about that.”
I am fairly certain that my heart stopped. I saw where he was going before he even said it.
“So think about this: nail me, you nail my boss who, oh by the way, happens to be your boss, too. What a coincidence!” His smile dimmed, but there was a glittering look of righteous fire in his eye. “If Mr. Giles finds himself in the very uncomfortable position of explaining about the Highland Facility to the full Council, Mr. Giles is going to want to know who spilled the beans. Mr. Giles will start questioning everyone who knew about it. Now eventually, he’ll get to me, which means he’ll get to you. I can’t imagine how pissed off he’ll be when he finds out that you betrayed the trust I put in you to be discreet.”
His began to giggle, as if his imagination reveled in the idea of violence being done to my person should I betray his precious Liwaza’s existence.
“Oh, wait! Actually, I can imagine it,” Mr. Harris declared. “You figure I’ve known him for almost eight years. Eight years is a long time. Long enough to know just how nasty Giles’s temper can be.” Mr. Harris leaned forward with a toothy grin. “There’s a reason why a certain Slayer moved to Rome. She wanted half of Europe between her and him before she told him that she was retiring, effective immediately.”
I swallowed. I could see he was being deadly serious.
Mr. Harris’s grin was off-kilter. His eye had taken on the look of holy madness. “I hope we are understanding each other.”
“We are understanding each other,” I said through a tight jaw.
“Eeeeeeeeexcellent. Understanding achieved in less than a day.” Mr. Harris’s smile took a turn for the angelic as he waggled a finger at me. “And here I was afraid that it would take us at least a week before we groked each other. Yet, here we are, and grokage has been achieved. We need to have a celebratory toast. I’m sure I’ve got a bottle of brandy around here somewhere. Have I mentioned ‘thank God for duty free?’ Because I totally, totally do.”
I reached down and picked up the file. I was careful to keep my eyes on him.
In response, he rested his elbow on the desktop, rested his chin in the palm of his hand, and smiled at me as if I were the most amusing creature he had ever laid his singular eye on. I got the distinct impression that he was daring me to do something about my predicament.
As I got to my feet, the animal mask caught my eye and found myself momentarily transfixed by its presence. Given the clutter of the tools of administration in the hut, and the nearly impersonal living space, the mask suddenly struck me as very out of place.
“Is there something the matter, Miss Swithin?” Mr. Harris’s voice sounded frightfully innocent as he asked the question.
My eyes slid over to him. “No.”
He responded with an exaggerated frown that revealed his amusement. “Sorry. I thought you were looking at my mask.”
“Now that you mention it, it’s rather striking piece of work,” I said.
He turned his head so his eye looked at it straight on. “Dogon. It was a gift.”
I bit back the comment that whomever gave it to him obviously didn’t like him.
“It’s one of the masks they use in the Dama,” Mr. Harris said as he looked at the mask with fondness. “When I brought Dave and Kavitha back to Banani, the Hogan offered me my choice. Originally, I was going to go for a Kanga mask. Those things are something else. Huuuuuge. Beautiful. White. Represents mankind. But when I saw this little beauty, I just knew I had to have it.”
“Beauty,” I muttered. Mr. Harris’s taste in native African art had revealed itself to be at best questionable.
Mr. Harris looked back at me. “It’s what they call a hyéne mask.”
I looked sharply at him. “That sounds rather like hyena.”
“That’s because it is hyena, just another word for it,” he said.
Against my better judgment, I asked, “Why on earth would you want a mask representing a vicious predator?”
Mr. Harris put a hand over his heart and blinked in faux innocence. “Wait. Are you telling me that hyenas aren’t the African equivalent of cute little puppy dogs? Have I been lead astray on that? So much for my big plan to open an abandoned hyena shelter where people can come and adopt a little scamp of their very own.”
I glared at him. “Are you laughing at me Mr. Harris?”
His hand dropped and he looked away. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he looked embarrassed. “A little. Sorry about that.” He looked back at me. This time, all trace of his previous madness was gone and his expression was quite serious. “I’ve been in Africa for more than year, so…” He winced and shook his head. “Trust me when I tell you, nobody in this village knows better than me what a hyena is really like under that mangy fur. Nobody.”
“Then why on earth did you choose this mask?” I asked.
He studied me a moment, but there was no fire in his eye, no smug smile on his lips, no righteous indignation in his posture. He appeared so drawn and weary that he seemed to shrink in size before my very eyes. There was something resembling guilt or shame in his expression, which I could not be sure. The only emotion that seemed clear, as it seemed to radiate off him, was an emotion of extreme sadness.
“It’s a reminder, Miss Swithin,” he said quietly. This time when his eye went to the mask, there was no pride or any willing recognition. Yet, somehow, he seemed to recognize it just the same. “It’s a reminder that’s sometimes really necessary.”
“A reminder of what?”
He startled slightly and studied me as if he couldn’t believe I was still standing in his hut. The spell of the moment had been broken and the expressiveness of his features went blank, very much like the eyes of the mask that hung on his wall.
“Miss Swithin, when you leave, please tell Radar to get Dave,” Mr. Harris asked in a tone that betrayed just how exhausted he really was. “I have to talk to him. Then I have to get some sleep. I’m hoping I’ll get at least two hours before Dave does what he has to do and comes back here to wake me up to report in. So, if you would, please.”
Mr. Harris’s sudden change in demeanor left me confused and intensely worried for my personal safety. He had gone from open friendliness, to malevolent anger, to weary acceptance in the course of moments, with no hint or warning when one emotion would supplant the next.
I mumbled my agreement to do as he bid, and quickly turned to escape the hut and my close proximity to a man that was clearly unstable. As I crossed the threshold, however, I couldn’t resist one final look over my shoulder.
Instinct guided my eyes to the carved hyena mask on the wall and I shivered at the sight.