For the Scatterlings and Orphanages Africander Fiction Challange by ludditerobot.
For all previous parts, go here.
Continued from Part 31.
Mr. Harris wasn’t insulted, most likely because he did not understand my reference. “Maybe. Maybe not. All I can tell you is that once I started paying attention to the moments that come after, I haven’t been wrong yet about anyone.”
I studied Mr. Harris a moment before saying, “Well, I look forward to seeing this principle of yours applied to a real-life situation.”
Mr. Harris grinned. “I’ll see what I can do about giving you a practical demonstration.”
The sun was just past the meridian when I was done cleaning my hut. I despaired over the fact that I could still see the faint outline of the gecko’s stained impact on the wall, but fresh wall hangings satisfactorily hid the scene of the crime.
I inspected my sleeping pallet for signs of my earlier moment of violence, and was pleased to see that it had not been befouled. I put fresh, gore-free sheets and coverings on my bed and tossed the wadded-up sheets that bore the hint of blood in the corner for later transfer to Grandmother Touré.
I had just finished hanging my mosquito net according to the technique vouchsafed by Dr. Mboto as the best way to keep mosquitoes from invading my sleeping space when Radar burst into my hut.
“Sorry to bother you,” he said with excitement, “but Xander called an emergency meeting over this vampire stuff in the other villages.”
I brushed my sweaty hair out of my eyes. “I don’t see what that has to do with me.”
“Xander told me to get you because it affects you, too,” Radar said.
With a weary sigh, I followed Radar.
As I crossed the open yard, I saw Mr. Harris speaking to a young couple.
“Nagesa and Akella,” Radar volunteered without my prompting. “They brought news. They’re why we’re having a meeting.”
I was quite taken aback upon hearing who they were. Akella was not at all what I had pictured. He had a slight build and was dressed in nothing more exotic than faded denims and a blue t-shirt that bore the legend, ‘Wassup?,’ whatever on earth that meant, in large, red lettering. He stood slightly to the side and behind Nagesa and merely nodded along with whatever his companion animatedly related to Mr. Harris.
Nagesa, on the other hand, looked to be an impressive young woman. Her carriage was perfectly straight and her shoulders were squared. She was taller than Akella and built more sturdily than he was, although there was a hint of delicacy about her movements. In contrast to her companion with the questionable past, she was dressed much like Alexandrienne with a brightly colored wrap-around skirt, t-shirt, and turban.
However, when she glanced over to us, my breath caught. The girl’s face was positively gorgeous. No wonder Akella believed her to be an angel when he dreamed of her. As for Akella, I couldn’t see what his face looked like, due to the fact that Nagesa’s animated movements didn’t allow me to get a clear look at him.
I had recalled that I had heard the jeep arriving and leaving several times as I worked to clean my hut and looked around. I saw the jeep, but not the Toyota. “I assume they came by the Toyota,” I remarked.
“Sister Ig went down to Djenné for news, then picked Akella and Nagesa up from Curly in the jeep to bring them back, yeah?” In Radar’s breathless excitement, his native clipped South African accent overrode his fake American one. “Right after she dropped them here, she took Kosoko, his son, Grandmother Touré, and Liwaza and left for Joe in the Toyota.”
I stopped. “Are you telling me that, a few exceptions aside, the village has been evacuated of its noncombatant inhabitants?” I demanded.
“Yeah, yeah,” Radar nodded.
“Then why am I still here?” I roared.
Radar’s eyes went wide as he shrank away.
Mr. Harris’s head snapped around to see the cause of the commotion. He said a few quick words to Nagesa and Akella before jogging over to see what all the fuss was about.
“Radar said — Sister Ig — Kosoko — everyone is gone?” I stuttered at Mr. Harris as he approached.
Mr. Harris held up his hands. “Calm down. I’ll explain everything once we’re inside.”
“But—” I began.
“Really no time. We’ve got issues,” Mr. Harris snapped. He then turned his back on me and went to his hut, leaving Radar and myself to follow or not.
When I saw Nagesa and Akella walk away to separate hut, I jogged to catch up with Mr. Harris. “Why are they excused?” I demanded.
“They’ve had a very long night and they’re going to have another long one coming up, so I told them to get some rest,” Mr. Harris grimly responded. “They don’t need to sit in because they’re the ones that gave me the information. Bunmi’s not attending either, so I’ll have to talk to her separately.”
“Why is one of your Slayers excused?” I demanded.
Mr. Harris stopped. “You don’t speak Klingon. Since you’re my guest, I’ve got to cater to your needs. That’s why the meeting is being held in English. Bunmi’s English can be iffy at best. She’s getting better, but not good enough for a meeting like this and we don’t really have the time to help her understand if the conversation moves too fast for her.”
“Ah,” I said with a nod.
As it was clear that Mr. Harris was in no mood to hear any continued objections from me, I had to follow him to his hut.
Dave and Alexandrienne sat side-by-side, looking quite abashed about something. Dr. Mboto and Sue were also present and were likewise sitting together, although their expressions gave nothing away of their thoughts. As I took the remaining chair, Radar scampered to the desk and hopped to reach its overcrowded surface so he could sit on it. When Mr. Harris’s body moved to block the doorway, the feeling became quite claustrophobic.
Mr. Harris’s one eye glared at Dave and Alexandrienne, who were studying the floor with intense interest.
“Most days I love saying ‘I told you so,’” he began in a flat voice “Today does not happen to be one of those days.”
“Confirmed?” Dave mumbled as he stared at the floor.
“Yeeeaaaaah. Our buddies from Gao,” Mr. Harris said angrily. “What should we call this one? Gao Part II? Revenge of the Gao? Bride of Gao? The Gao Strikes Back? I’m open to suggestions.”
I startled upon hearing ‘Gao.’ It appeared that I would finally get the story of what happened there. I reminded myself to step cautiously. I was not supposed to know anything about this subject.
Dave’s head shot up with a frown. “Don’t you think you’re overdoing it?”
“No, I’m really not,” Mr. Harris growled.
To my surprise, Alexandrienne jumped to Dave’s defense. “Dave’s right. You are—”
Mr. Harris angrily pointed a finger at her. “Don’t start, Ally. Do. Not. Start. Two days. I’ve been sitting on my mouth about this for two days. Be glad I didn’t strangle the pair of you before now.”
Everyone in the hut looked positively stunned. They clearly did not expect Mr. Harris to berate them, nor did they expect this level of anger.
Mr. Harris grimaced as he shook his head. “If we had followed my original plan, we would’ve never had to deal with the shit we’ve had to deal with over the past few days. They would’ve never had the network in place that got them by Jamina and Miri.”
Dave looked livid. “You don’t know that.”
“You’re right. I don’t,” Mr. Harris sarcastically allowed. “Here’s what I do know. They wouldn’t have been able to pull off what they did less than six months after we went into Gao with stakes blazing. It would’ve taken them much, much longer to rebuild. Their resources and contacts would’ve been so depleted that Jamina and Miri would’ve actually been able to see them rebuilding.”
“Unh, Xander?” Sue tremulously asked in her Irish brogue.
“What?” Mr. Harris snapped.
“Watch yourself,” Dr. Mboto growled. “You have no cause to be angry with us.”
Mr. Harris smiled tightly. “Sorry, doc. You’re right. I’m a little wound up right now. Go ahead, Sue.”
“Should you not be angry with Jamina and Miri? They’re the ones that missed all the signs,” Sue said.
Mr. Harris looked like he wanted to tear Sue’s head off for pointing the finger elsewhere. As a result, I was rather surprised that his answer was as polite as it was.
“Jamina and Miri are leading the fight against evil almost every night out there. You know it’s like fighting World War III. The Cleveland Hellmouth is less active than Gao,” Mr. Harris said
I was so startled by this comparison that I shouted, “There’s a hellmouth nearby?”
My outburst stunned the hut into silence. Everyone suddenly began talking at once.
Dave glared suspiciously at Mr. Harris. “Well, is there?”
“What is this hellmouth?” Alexandrienne asked.
“I second Ally’s question,” Sue said.
“What do you know about hellmouths?” Dr. Mboto asked Mr. Harris.
“I think this hellmouth is a bad thing, yeah?” Radar said.
“Quiet down!” Mr. Harris bellowed.
The hut once more plunged into silence.
Mr. Harris took a deep breath. “First, Miss. Swithin. No. There is no hellmouth in Mali. The closest active one is on the Nigerian-Cameroon border and we’ve got that covered by Liziuzayani and a local woman who’s acting as her Watcher. There’s a second smaller one in Uganda.”
Dave’s eyes widened. “Uganda? You mean where we found—”
“Yes,” Mr. Harris quickly cut him off.
“You didn’t say anything to me!” Dave shouted.
“What is a hellmouth?” Alexandrienne demanded
“Sitting on top of a hellmouth for a week does not mean you’ve now got radiation poisoning of the evil and you’re not going to glow in the dark,” Mr. Harris said. “You’re fine.”
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, I gleefully thought. This promised to be quite entertaining. Of all the times for Mr. Harris’s lies to catch up with him.
“He is right,” Dr. Mboto nodded sagely. “Provided you are able to escape such evil places alive, and provided no one cast a spell on you while you were there.”
Dave’s eyes snapped from Dr. Mboto to Mr. Harris. His mouth was open and his jaw worked, but he appeared to have lost his voice.
Mr. Harris rubbed his face. “Not helping, doc.”
I really should not have been enjoying the exchange as much as I was, but I simply couldn’t help it.
“What was the spell that was cast on you?” Dr. Mboto asked Dave.
“Pro-pro-pro-“ Dave was apparently having difficulty getting the word out.
“Protective spell,” Mr. Harris finished for Dave. “White lighter stuff with an extra kick for keeping the black magic that was flying around from killing us. Have I mentioned that I hate apocalyptic cults? Because I really, really do.”
“Oh, well. That is quite all right then,” Dr. Mboto said with a nod. “If anything, the presence of the hellmouth made the spell that much more powerful, provided the caster’s intent was pure.”
“I concur with Dr. Mboto’s judgment,” I spoke up. I didn’t do it for Mr. Harris. I did it to set Dave’s mind at rest.
“It was purely about keeping us from getting killed,” Mr. Harris said. “That’s about as pure as it gets from a totally selfish standpoint.”
“What is this hellmouth?” Alexandrienne demanded for a third time.
Mr. Harris sighed as he realized that he had to cede his self-righteous high ground. “I’ll explain what one is to you later, Ally. Now’s not the time.”
“You better make the time to explain it to us when this deal is over, or I will kick your ass like you’re one of my little brothers when they’re acting like fools,” Dave warned.
“I’ll explain it to both of you in gory detail tomorrow,” Mr. Harris promised again with yet another sigh.
“You better,” Dave grumbled. “All you told us was that we would be fighting on top of a mystical convergence where evil energies from some really nasty dimensions enter this one.”
“Dave, that is the definition of a hellmouth,” Dr. Mboto said.
Dave and Alexandrienne blinked in surprise.
“Oh. So you did tell us,” Dave said in a subdued voice. “Never mind.”
“I thought it sounded less scary than the word hellmouth.” Mr. Harris sounded contrite.
“A lot less scary,” Dave said. He then shook his head. “Wait. You grew up on one of these things? After one week I was ready to shit my pants at the drop of a pin.”
Alexandrienne’s eyes locked on her Watcher. I wondered how this piece of information fit in with her ‘little guesses’ about Mr. Harris’s past.
Mr. Harris covered his face with his hands. “Oh, no.”
“You grew up in Sunnydale?” Dr. Mboto shouted with surprise.
Obviously Mr. Harris had told Dr. Mboto the fairytale that he was a “southern California stoner surfer boy who was scared straight by vampires.” Given the fact that Dr. Mboto came from a Watcher family, Mr. Harris would’ve been better off if he claimed to come from another state, even if it did directly contradict the lies he told Dave.
Mr. Harris peeked over the tips of his fingers. “Oh. You’ve heard of it.”
Fate does indeed have a habit of catching up with one, I thought with amusement. Mr. Harris had fatally cornered himself. He couldn’t deny anything without being caught in his own web of deceit by either Dr. Mboto, Dave, or Alexandrienne. This situation had great farcical promise.
“Heard of it? Sunnydale is legendary!” Dr. Mboto was openly staring at Mr. Harris as if he were the strangest animal in the zoo.
“Legendary,” Radar repeated with awe.
“Legendary?” Alexandrienne quietly asked as her eyes got wider.
“After Uganda, I’m afraid to ask what you mean by ‘legendary,’” Dave said weakly.
I couldn’t resist throwing more bait on the water. “Dr. Mboto misspoke. He means very legendary,” I stressed with a smile.
Mr. Harris shot me a one-eyed glare.
“Sunnydale is the most powerful hellmouth in this dimension,” Dr. Mboto excitedly explained to Sue. He turned to a reddening Mr. Harris. “How on earth did you get out of there unscathed?”
Everyone in the hut was once again struck dumb as all of us, including Mr. Harris with his one eye, openly stared at Dr. Mboto.
“Unscathed?” Mr. Harris asked in a bewildered tone.
Dr. Mboto waved a hand, but he seemed so excited to meet someone who had grown up on the Sunnydale Hellmouth that he was utterly insensible to his faux pas. “Yes, yes, yes. Some minor physical injuries aside.”
“Getting your eye poked out by an evil minister is minor to you?” Mr. Harris asked with an even more bewildered tone.
Now everyone turned to stare at Mr. Harris. We were starting to resemble spectators at a tennis match.
“Don’t you understand?” Dr. Mboto was looking at Mr. Harris with open admiration. “You survived growing up on the Sunnydale Hellmouth. You left that Godforsaken cauldron of evil behind and are alive, sane, and still willing to fight. That is nothing short of extraordinary.”
Staring at Mr. Harris turned into gawping at Mr. Harris. As for Mr. Harris, he looked like he wanted to crawl into a very small hole and pull it closed behind him.
Radar was the first voice judgment. “Coooooooooool.”
Mr. Harris turned his attention to Radar. “Not cool. Trust me. Definitely not cool.”
Alexandrienne’s face was a picture of open shock. “Did this hellmouth destroy your village?” She sounded like she wanted to cry.
Mr. Harris closed his eye and dropped his head. “Ally…” he said softly.
“Sunnydale is gone? Impossible,” Dr. Mboto said. “My parents were there 15 years ago to collect a cursed statue of Loki that had fallen into the hands of a mage who was quite mad. Their mission there was one of their favorite stories to share when they entertained guests. I recall them saying that Sunnydale was a thriving town with a rather large population.”
“Not after Mr. Harris and his compatriots closed the Sunnydale Hellmouth more than a year ago,” I cheerfully volunteered.
Mr. Harris whipped around to face me with an upraised finger and said in a firm voice, “Don’t.”
I defiantly looked up at him and…
To be honest dear reader, the expression I read there broke my heart. It was too familiar to me. It was the expression I sometimes saw in the mirror when allowed myself to remember that I could very well be the last Swithin alive.
He dropped his finger and repeated in a softer, defeated voice, “Just…don’t.”
I looked away out of guilt. I knew then that I would never be able to use Sunnydale or what he did there against him ever again. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not after seeing just how wrong Dr. Mboto truly was. Mr. Harris — like many other Watchers who had lost everything they held dear during the First Evil’s devastating attacks — escaped the battle with more scars than anyone thought.
“Closed,” Dr. Mboto whispered. “The Sunnnydale Hellmouth? Closed?”
Mr. Harris clenched his jaw and warily turned his eye on Dr. Mboto.
“Joe,” Sue said quietly to Dr. Mboto, “remember the news about the earthquake in southern California last year? The one that destroyed part of the coastline?”
Dr. Mboto shook his head. His expression was shocked. “You? That was Sunnydale? That was you?”
“A group of us,” Mr. Harris said carefully. I got the distinct impression that Mr. Harris was doing his best not to look at me. “Not me. A group of us closed it. It’s gone.”
I chanced a glance at Radar, Alexandrienne, and Dave.
Radar, like many young boys who are slightly too young to understand the true cost demanded of those who stand on the frontlines, radiated pure hero worship of Mr. Harris. Alexandrienne’s expression was guarded, but her eyes were soft with sympathy as she studied her Watcher. As for Dave, it seemed that this exchange finally drove home to him — in a way that his one-on-one conversation with Mr. Harris did not — just what he had asked of Mr. Harris when he demanded the full and unvarnished truth of the younger man’s past.
The strained, uncomfortable silence stretched far too long, and it appeared that no one was prepared to break it.
I cleared my throat to get everyone’s attention.
“This Gao. Would someone care to educate me?” I asked.
Mr. Harris glanced at me and I swore I could see a trace of grateful feeling there.
“If I understand correctly, this Gao is the cause of your current predicament,” I hesitantly added by way of offering an olive branch. “As it appears I am involved whether I like it or not, I would like to know what is going on.”
“Gao’s this town up in the northeast of the country, right on the edge of the Sahara.” Mr. Harris’s manner was subdued as he began his explanation. “It’s a real hellhole, but I mean that in the human sense instead of the supernatural sense.”
“So no mystical phenomena,” I said.
“That’s contributing to the misery? No,” Mr. Harris said. “What it has is a huge population of desperate refuges from every just about every war-torn country in Africa that want to reach the land of milk and honey, which in this case is defined as anywhere but here, and they’re willing to chance crossing the Sahara to get there.”
“On top of all that, you’ve got a lot of shady characters with no compunctions about taking advantage those desperate refugees,” Dave added with a glance at Mr. Harris.
“Such as vampires and demons,” I said.
“Humans, too,” Mr. Harris said. “The best way to think of Gao is that it’s a town on the American wild-west frontier. There are a ton of bars; even more con artists looking to make a quick buck off the desperate; rampant drug use and prostitution; a run-down market where people are selling whatever they can to raise money; a lot of petty crime. That kind of thing.”
I shook my head. “Mali is an Islamic country.”
“So? Because it’s an Islamic country there’s no crime?” Mr. Harris said.
“No, no. That’s not what I meant. You mentioned bars, drug use, and prostitution. I thought that sort of thing was frowned upon and that engaging in such activities could result in fatal criminal penalties,” I said.
“The legal system in this country is based on French civil law, which means that it’s secular. We’re not living under some way-out extreme version of Sharia law,” Dave said. “Technically, there’s a death penalty on the books, but you’ve got to be gunning for the government, blowing up public buildings, or transferring funds from the government’s pocket to your fat Swiss bank account to the tune of 10 million CFA. Not even first-degree murder is going to put you anywhere near that kind of jeopardy around here, unless you kill the president or prime minister. No one’s been executed in this country since somewhere around 1980.”
“When I told you Mali was laid back about a lot of things, I meant laid back in the familiar sense, not by comparison with Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Harris nodded in agreement.
“Even so, I hardly think illicit drug use is any more legal here than it is in London,” I pointed out.
“Prostitution isn’t legal here either, but since when does legal or not legal stop anyone from doing something when they really want to do it or think they have to do it?” Mr. Harris said. “I’ve technically broken state and federal law when I had to.”
“Technically? How on God’s green earth do you ‘technically’ break federal law?” Dave incredulously asked.
Mr. Harris paused to look at Dave. He suddenly shrugged, probably because there was no longer any point to him completely shrouding his past behind a curtain of lies as he’d been at least partially outed. “I stole a rocket launcher from an army base with my high school girlfriend while Willow and her high school boyfriend kept the getaway van’s motor running.”
Radar grinned from ear to ear out of sheer joy upon hearing this.
Alexandrienne and Sue exchanged disbelieving looks.
“Why would you need a rocket launcher?” Dr. Mboto asked in an echo of my own thoughts.
“To blow up a supernatural demonic judge who couldn’t be killed by any weapon made in forge. We had to do it. He was rampaging through our shopping mall,” Mr. Harris casually said.
Dave blinked. “Yup. You technically broke federal law.” He shook his head. “Okay, you did it to rescue the mall, but it was still a rampaging demon. Had to be done. Let me guess. You were 16 when you did this?”
“Seventeen,” Mr. Harris corrected.
Dave seemed to consider this answer very carefully. “Nope. No matter how hard I think about it, that really does not make it sound any better.”
“Xander—” Radar began.
“No, I will not get you a rocket launcher for Christmas,” Mr. Harris said.
“Not even a little one?” Radar plaintively asked.
I bit my lip to keep from giggling.
“Radar!” Alexandrienne exclaimed.
“Ah, the innocence of kids who’ve never lived in a war zone. I miss that. I miss that very, very much,” Mr. Harris said.
Funny enough, my urge to giggle evaporated.
“If we’re done talking about my life of occasional crime in the name of truth, justice, and not getting eaten by the minions of whatever big bad decided to take over world starting with my hometown, I’d like to go back to Gao,” Mr. Harris said.TBC...