For the Scatterlings and Orphanages Africander Fiction Challange by ludditerobot.
For all previous parts, go here.
Continued from Part 33.
Ahhh, but that is in the future. Let us now return to the dark history of Gao and how, in the long-reaching shockwaves of what happened there before my arrival, gave Mr. Harris all the tools he needed to set his cunning trap. A trap, I might add, that irrevocably altered my future.
“Anyway, once things got shot to hell in Gao, we had to come up with a plan to hit them hard and fast,” Mr. Harris said as he released Radar from the one-armed hug. Mr. Harris thrust his hands in his pockets and added, “The only thing we had going for us was that they hadn’t figured out where we were. Rumors had put us everywhere from Bamako to just on the other side of the Niger border. It was a lot of ground to cover, but once you know what you’re looking for—”
“You had to move quickly before they discovered your precise location and mounted an attack,” I interrupted.
Mr. Harris nodded his head. “Jamina and Miri knew about a couple of the humans that were working with the vampires, but they didn’t know specifics. They thought it was only a few and they were pretty sure it was under the threat of death for not just them, but their whole families.”
“Are you saying that wasn’t the case?” I asked with horror.
Mr. Harris chuckled, but there was no humor in it. “We grabbed one of the humans for questioning. We figured we’d offer and to get him and his entire family into hiding in exchange for information. We also figured we’d have to sell the idea because, hey, these vampires had to be pretty frightening to convince anyone that sending innocent people directly to their deaths without passing go or collecting $200 was the best offer they were ever going to get in this or any other lifetime.”
“You might say we were pretty much disabused of that little notion,” Dave glumly said.
Alexandrienne turned her face aside and spat contemptuously on the ground.
“I won’t get into the whole round-and-round I went through getting information out of him,” Mr. Harris said.
I noticed that Dave, Doc, and Sue shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Alexandrienne turned her eyes toward me and thrust her chin out as if daring me to give voice to anything negative on the matter. Given their reaction, I suspected that the ‘round-and-round’ was hardly a gentle affair.
Radar, bless his innocent heart, merely watched Mr. Harris without any indication that he knew there was a potentially dark reason for Mr. Harris’s unwillingness to discuss details beyond what was necessary.
“The humans who were involved didn’t have any threat hanging over their heads. It was all about greed,” Mr. Harris said flatly. “Their job was to put on a friendly face, walk around in the sunshine, recruit the victims, and collect the money. Then they split the fees with the vampires, 70-30. Believe it or not, the bigger share went to the humans. Anything the vampires got off the victims once they got them to the desert, the vampires kept 100 percent.”
“Feeding the humans’ greed is one way of ensuring loyalty, I suppose,” I said weakly. “Are you certain these humans knew what they were working with and that they were delivering people to certain death?”
“Yes,” Mr. Harris answered darkly.
I’m sure I looked rather horrified. “How could such miserable creatures sleep at night with so much blood on their hands?”
Mr. Harris smiled, but there was no humor in it. “Humans make the best monsters.”
Radar suddenly found his dangling flip-flopped feet very interesting, a surprising if silent agreement with Mr. Harris’s shocking statement.
“This would be a true thing to stay,” Alexandrienne said quietly.
I admit that I was chilled to the bone by the unspoken unanimity in the faces of the others.
As if sensing my discomfort, Mr. Harris seemed compelled to explain, “These guys didn’t care, Miss Swithin. They just wanted the refugees gone for good. Now I’m not saying all those refugees are angels. Hell, no. And yeah, there are some refugees that are criminals and they are going out there and victimizing everyone in sight, but most of those people are just desperate.”
“Desperate people need to live, too,” Alexandrienne added. “You do what you must, even if it is not something a nice person would do.”
Mr. Harris hunched his shoulders and added, “As far as these guys were concerned, the refugees turned the old ’hood into a hell hole. Not saying they did or didn’t, but I will give them that the refugee situation isn’t helping the long, slow decline that’s going on out there along the edge of the Sahara.”
“Gao’s not the only place that’s getting hit by desertification, a shrinking water supply, and locals fleeing the area to find a better life in the big cities,” Dave elaborated. “Life’s always been tough along the desert’s edge, but the last few droughts have made it a hell of a lot tougher. The region never recovered from the last two and the cracks are showing.”
“In short, the refugees are handy scapegoats,” I said. I felt quite ill. “They were probably only sorry that the vampires couldn’t kill the refugees fast enough to decrease the excess population.”
Mr. Harris took a breath and added, “In the end, we never did manage to find out where the vampires were hiding the refugees or where their desert headquarters were. None of the humans we nabbed would spill, and that’s assuming they even knew that information. And before you ask, yeah, we questioned more than one. Questioned four of them, in fact. The only reason we pushed it that much is because none of us could believe what we were hearing. I guess we, or maybe I mean me, was kind of hoping there was at least one human involved who had no clue that he was sending desperate people to their deaths.” Mr. Harris again hunched his shoulders. “You’d think I’d know better than hold out for that kind of hope, but you’d guess wrong.”
Alexandrienne looked up at Mr. Harris with a sad smile.
“Did you get anything useful out of these people at all?” I asked.
“Operational stuff that made it easier to hit them where it hurt,” Dave said tightly.
“We could have gotten more for our trouble,” Mr. Harris said.
“You’re the one that laid down the rule about leaving human crime to human law,” Dave responded evenly.
Mr. Harris shook his head. “I listened to you, and human law hasn’t done a damn thing. The government sweeps Gao only every once in awhile and less than a week after they’re gone, it’s back to business as usual. All we get is a bunch of politicians in Bamako claiming they’re doing ‘something’ about the problems along the Sahara when anyone with eyes can see they’re doing it for the photo ops.”
“Gentlemen,” I interrupted, “you’re getting rather ahead of yourselves and leaving me no more enlightened than before. Perhaps someone should try explaining the root of this argument to me?”
Alexandrienne fixed her eyes on her Watcher as the temperature in the room plummeted.
Mr. Harris crossed his arms and looked me square in the eye. “The plan was to plant the idea that a good third of their human helpers had decided to sell them out to us. Then we spread the rumor about the time and place negotiations were going to take place. Then we capture the worst human offenders, lock them up just where we said they’d be at the day and time when we said they’d be there. After the vampires showed to teach their little traitors a lesson, we go in with every Slayer we had in Mali and have ourselves a dusting party.”
“By using their own people as bait, you wipe out a good portion of the existing human infrastructure,” I said thoughtfully. “Then, of course, there’s the marvelous benefit of imparting quite the moral lesson. Those who were not there eventually hear about what happened and they more fully understand that their vampire partners could easily turn on them instead of sharing the ill-gotten gains collected from refugees. This frightens the existing collaborators and those tempted to follow in their footsteps from ever working with such monsters again.” I peered up at Mr. Harris with a smile. “I must say, Mr. Harris, that is a rather good plan. However, it appears that taking care of merely a third of their human helpers was not enough to achieve your goals.”
“Are you kidding?” Dave exploded.
I blinked at Dave. “That wasn’t the plan you followed?”
Everyone in the room, including Mr. Harris, gaped at me.
“I’ll take that as a ‘no,’” I quietly said.
“You actually agree with me?” Mr. Harris asked. He looked positively shocked.
“They were mass murderers and consorting with the forces of darkness,” I pointed out. “No doubt their deaths would have been far more merciful compared to the terror their victims experienced and didn’t survive. Furthermore, they helped terrorize one Slayer and her Watcher, drive a second such pair from the town, and murder two Slayers. And, as you pointed out at the beginning of this meeting, your current difficulties are the direct result of not destroying enough of their infrastructure, a key component of which is clearly their human allies. It seems to me that this plan, which was obviously the plan your people objected to, would have neatly resolved the problem.”
Alexandrienne and Dave exchanged worried glances.
“What do you expect?” Dr. Mboto growled. “They are both Council, after all.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Mr. Harris and I shouted in unison. This resulted in the pair of us staring at each other. I wasn’t sure which of us was more surprised by our brief moment of solidarity.
“No offense intended,” Dr. Mboto said, although it was clear from his voice that giving offense was very much indeed his goal, “but the Council has not always been cautious of the innocent lives they crush underfoot when the cause is believed to be just.”
“These collaborators were hardly innocents,” I argued back.
“And their wives? Their children? Their parents? Are they guilty as well?” Dr. Mboto rhetorically asked. “Leaving aside for the moment that their families would have been left to fend for themselves in a dangerous environment, do you honestly believe that the vampires who survived this scheme would allow them to live? Yes, perhaps you would’ve instilled a little terror in those humans who would cheerfully feed their fellow man to the monsters in exchange for filthy lucre. Did you never consider that the vampires would have also learned a ‘moral lesson?’ They could very well have decided that they made an error in judgment working with humans at all and could very easily decide to remove all witness and potential witness to their folly.”
“Given the rather dire situation—” I began.
“Doc’s also right,” Mr. Harris quietly interrupted. When I snapped my eyes to him, Mr. Harris favored me with a wry grin. “That was one of the arguments that convinced me to go with something a little less drastic.”
“And now you have this predicament,” I pointed out. “It seems to me that earlier in this conversation you were rather furious over the fact that your people refused to follow this very plan.”
Mr. Harris winced. “I was angry and, as usual, I engaged the mouth before the brain.”
“As long as you realize that,” Dave said stiffly.
“So what plan did you use?” I asked.
“A straight-up coordinated attack against only the vampire portion of the gang using every Slayer we had,” Mr. Harris said without elaboration. “We took out most of them, but some escaped. Too many escaped as it turns out, but not enough for them to re-start the regular coyote service at least. A few small-ish vampire gangs have been aggressively trying to fill the niche, but between the Dynamic Duo that is Miri and Jamina and the interns we’re sending to them to help out, none of them have managed to send so much as a single truck into the desert.”
“For which you and your people should be justifiably proud.” I meant it even when I said it. “What about their…to be honest I hesitate to call those wretched creatures human.”
Mr. Harris nodded in agreement with my statement. “The fallout was total chaos. About half of them jumped ship when word got out that something or someone came down pretty hard on the vampire half of the gravy train, so I guess some of them got the ‘moral lesson.’”
“Too bad that it was too late for too many innocents,” I said quietly.
Mr. Harris’s responding smile had a touch of sadness to it. “And too bad the lesson they learned can be basically summed up as, ‘Something bigger and badder that lives to dust vampires is keeping an eye on Gao, so hanging with anything that’s got fangs and yellow eyes is not a smart idea,’ instead of, ‘killing humans for cold cash is bad.’”
“Now you are asking for miracles,” Dave cynically remarked.
“Too right, that,” Sue glumly agreed.
“Unfortunately, not enough of the humans got the message and jumped ship,” Mr. Harris said. “Turns out that just enough of them decided to hang tough and hook up with what few of their vampire buddies survived. This time the agenda was revenge on us for ruining their good thing. Sorry to tell you that you walked right in the middle of them pulling off their big plan.”
“You know this for certain?” I asked as the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
Mr. Harris shook his head and rubbed his face with his hands. “Before you arrived we managed to grab one of the vampires responsible for the attacks. He wasn’t actually one of our Gao survivors, just some vampire who signed on to help out because he wanted to get a rep for being a Slayer-killer. Between what he told us and what Akella and Nagessa just told me, I now know for sure that the Gao crew have been pretty much devoting their energies to taking us down since things went to hell for them.”
“They obviously found out where you are,” I numbly said.
“They knew what to look for. Like I said, maybe they had to search a big area, but they’ve been doing that 24/7 since we took them out. All they had to do was follow the rumors and just weed out the untrue stuff by the process of elimination,” Mr. Harris shrugged. “While they were looking for us, they cast a recruiting net for some fresh fanged faces by promising them a chance to bag a Slayer of their very own.”
“I do not much like being hunted,” Alexandrienne interrupted with a feral grin. “I will have to bite them and teach them a lesson.”
Radar said in all seriousness, “Xander, tell Ally that she’s supposed to stake vampires, not give them rabies.”
Alexandrienne playfully swatted at mischievously smiling Radar as Sue nervously giggled and Dr. Mboto and Dave indulgently rolled their eyes. Mr. Harris pinched the bridge of his nose with a wince.
“Guys, not now,” Mr. Harris said with resignation.
Alexandrienne and Radar stiffly arranged themselves into an attitude of studious concentration while Sue coughed herself into quiet. I had a feeling that such childish shenanigans were not at all unusual. Mr. Harris needed to do a better job teaching both his Slayer and his charge when such antics were appropriate and when they were not.
Mr. Harris was obviously well aware of this, since he released a long-suffering sigh. “Anyway, once they thought they had enough troops to do the job, they decided to march our way and put their big plan into action.”
I shook my head. “But from what I gather, no one has yet been killed as a result of these attacks, nor does it appear that you’ve been directly attacked. It doesn’t make a whit of sense to me that they’d attempt to destroy you in such a round-about way.”
“Well, first off, the vampires can’t march directly into the village,” Mr. Harris said.
“Ahhh, when your village is at full strength, you post sentries,” I said with a nod.
“That, and Grandma’s got these wards that really don’t like demons and vampires. The other thing helping us is that their human buddies are what you might call classic cowards with zero interest in going head-to-head with us without supernatural backup. They’d have to do without the muscle if they wanted to fight us on our home turf,” Mr. Harris said.
I frowned. “I…well, I did know that Grandmother Touré is a witch. I wasn’t aware that she was that powerful.”
“Don’t know about powerful,” Mr. Harris said with another shrug. “According to her she’s a regular ol’ bush witch that knows about bumps in the night and what you can do to give evil things enough pause so you’ve got time to get to safety. There’s not a lot she can do beyond a few passive defensive things, potions, and some herbal mixes. Just the same, give her the right plants and ingredients from the Fetish Market, and her mojo can be effective.”
Given that one of Mr. Harris’s allies was one of the most powerful witches on the planet, his faint praise of ‘can be effective’ could be translated by the rest of the English-speaking world as ‘very impressive.’
As if reading my very thoughts, Sue volunteered, “Harris misspoke. I believe the word he actually meant to use is ‘terrifying.’”
“I rather think it depends on who is being terrified,” Dr. Mboto said as he patted his fiancé’s hand reassuringly.
“Obviously neither one of you have had the pleasure of meeting Miss Rosenberg,” I muttered.
From the sound of Mr. Harris’s cough, he had clearly heard me. I cringed as I looked up, realizing that I once again had stumbled too close to the realm of Sunnydale. I was surprised to see that he seemed rather amused.
“Guess you met Willow, hunh?” he asked. His eye had once more taken on that same disturbing too-knowing sparkle that was the virtual twin of the one that shined in Miss Rosenberg’s eyes.
“Sue, trust me. Eva’s totally on point here,” Dave spoke up. “I’ve seen Willow in action. She makes Moms when she’s in one of her scolding moods look like a fluffy, cuddly teddy bear.”
My eyes sliced directly to Dave. I had wondered at his seeming familiarity with one of Mr. Harris’s companions from Sunnydale. I didn’t have to wonder any longer. He had obviously met Miss Rosenberg. Strangely enough, in answering one small mystery, Dave had now shined a light on several more. Under what circumstances had he met the young woman? What’s more, how could he have met her and yet be so completely ignorant of Mr. Harris’s past?
“Willow?” Sue frowned as she turned to Mr. Harris. “Your friend who visited us when—” Sue quickly looked at me and her mouth snapped shut.
Curiousier and curiousier, I thought. It was rather clear to me that I was not supposed to know that Miss Rosenberg had ever stepped foot in Mali, let alone the village itself.
Strangely, Mr. Harris seemed utterly unperturbed. Judging by his reaction, one might think that he, at the very least, didn’t see why Miss Rosenberg’s visit had to remain a secret. “Sue, let’s just say that Will knows her way around a spellbook, okay?” he said.
“Your Willow is a witch?” Dr. Mboto asked with surprise. It was a strange echo of the befuddled expression on Sue’s face.
Mr. Harris shrugged with an amused air, but chose instead to return to the subject at hand. He turned to me and picked up the dropped thread of the conversation. “Even though we’ve got the wards and the sentries, as far as I know, none of our current problems ever tried to step foot into the village.”
“Perhaps they sensed the wards,” I pointed out.
“Maybe. Doubt it, though. They’re passive, like I said. I’m sure there’s some sort of low-level energy they’re throwing out, but you’ve got to be as powerful as Willow to pick up on it. Even then, according to her, it’s an echo of echo if that makes any sense,” Mr. Harris said. “Nothing happens with the wards until something tries to cross the perimeter. I’ve seen it happen. Once.”
“This is the part that’s ‘terrifying,’” Sue said with a shudder.
“More like neat and effective,” Mr. Harris nodded. “That’s one vampire that won’t be following me and Ally here ever again.”
“Would have been better for her if she was not such a sneak,” Alexandrienne said with a pleased nod. “Would have been better for her to stay and fight me like an honest vampire.”
Mr. Harris grinned. “Ally gets insulted when the vampires won’t play ball and act like ‘proper vampires.’”
Alexandrienne snorted. “She was not a fun vampire. No. She ran away before I could stake her.” She winced. “I should have known she would be angry and would follow us. I should have chased her.”
Mr. Harris frowned. “You were in no condition to do anything. Let’s call it ‘not your fault.’”
“I do not like Yandus,” Alexandrienne muttered angrily. “They do bad things here.” She tapped her head.
Mr. Harris attempted to intervene. “Ally, it’s okay. You really don’t need to—”
“Yandus?” I said half to myself. “What on earth are you—”
“A Yandu attacked us before I could chase her,” Alexandrienne said to me. “It is a hyena spirit that possess people and makes them crazy. It tried to possess both of us, but it could not get into Xander’s mind and he killed it.” Alexandrienne turned a dazzling smile on her Watcher. “I could fight it a little and I was not crazy after Xander killed it, but only because it could not touch Xander.”
I couldn’t entirely follow Alexandrienne’s chain of words, although no one else in the hut appeared to be in the least bit mystified by her statement. As I puzzled over this odd riddle, the memory of Mr. Harris as he appeared in my dream intruded: I am the chain to the earth. I am the keeper of the heart and soul. I am the shield to the weapon.
Could it be that Mr. Harris’s seeming immunity to this possession had protected Alexandrienne to a certain extent? And if so, how was that possible? I wondered. I turned to ask Mr. Harris, but one glance told me that I would not get an answer any time soon. Mr. Harris’s reaction to the Slayer’s tale was…curious. He seemed distinctly uncomfortable that Alexandrienne had mentioned his heroic deed.
“It was a lucky shot. I got to it before it got to me and was done doing its thing,” he mumbled.
More than that, it appeared, since Alexandrienne seemed very certain that this demon could not gain so much as a toehold in Mr. Harris’s mind. Of their own volition, my eyes went to the hyena mask on the wall. I wondered if perhaps Mr. Harris knew what he was about after all. Perhaps the Dogon mask, which glowered over our gathering, had some protective power that gave Mr. Harris the ability to resist possession by the Yandu, and who knows how many other malevolent spirits.
“Look, the upshot of our Gao stalkers is that they never bothered to attack us. They wanted to isolate us first by turning everyone in Djenné and the surrounding villages against us using random attacks. I doubt the wards had anything to do with it,” Mr. Harris said. “Lucky for us, we did catch on earlier than they thought we would. The locals actually do trust us enough to give us the head’s up if they think something’s a little off. Until this, it’s been a lot of jumping at shadows, but I’d rather check out a potential ‘nothing’ than get hit on my blindside because I didn’t listen when someone sent up the red flag.”
I was aghast. “You’re relying the civilians to be your early warning system?”
“Does anyone in this room look that stupid? I mean, seriously?” Mr. Harris asked with irritation. “Aside from sentries around the village, we usually have nightly patrols hitting up at least two of the villages or Djenné on a random basis. I’d cover more ground if I could, but I don’t have enough Slayers at any one time and the ones I do have need to sleep at some point.”
“Oh. I see,” I said with relief. “I didn’t mean to imply that you were not vigilant.”
“Not vigilant enough, I guess,” Mr. Harris admitted. “Or maybe I mean there weren’t enough patrols, or maybe that the patrols we had weren’t random enough. Otherwise, these guys wouldn’t have been able to slip under our radar like they did. If nothing else, I’ll have to go back to the drawing board. But that’s not the really scary thing.”
“Oh, God. There’s more bad news, isn’t there?” Dave asked.
Dr. Mboto, Sue, Radar, and Alexandrienne all favored Dave with irritated looks, as if he had spoken out of turn.
Mr. Harris, by contrast, viewed his friend with something akin to amusement. “The scary thing I’m talking about is the rumor situation.”
“Oh. Okay,” Dave weakly grinned. “Jumped the gun.”
Alexandrienne swatted at him as Radar shook his head and rolled his eyes.
“The rumors that allowed your adversaries to track you down,” I said.
Mr. Harris nodded. “It’s a matter of time before someone or something else decides to do the same thing. The way the rumors about us is getting around is starting to border on terrifying.”
“How far have these rumors about your village spread?” I asked with creeping disquiet.
“I’ve been as far south as northern Angola and have heard rumors about a village of superwomen somewhere ‘up north,’” Mr. Harris said with a vague wave of his hand.
Sue let out a low whistle to show her surprise.
“The good news is that the name the country where we’re located always changes,” Mr. Harris said. “The bad news is that Mali shows up on that list as often as it doesn’t. Every once in awhile there’s even a few supermen mixed in the population, but the village with superwomen who act like men and speak a weird language that no one understands is pretty much a constant.” He suddenly grinned. “I really love the one that’s got me as the leader of some weird cult full of fanatically loyal soldiers. I can’t even get Ally to teach me how to make tea the right way.”
“That is because you make terrible tea, so I must make it or we will have to drink bad tea,” Alexandrienne protested. “You put too much sugar in it and you do something to the leaves, I do not know what. They become very bitter. I can drink bad tea, but I am afraid you will insult people if you make tea for them when they visit us.” She childishly stuck out her tongue at him to underline her point.
“Behold one of my loyal minions who wait on me hand and foot and fulfill my every whim,” Mr. Harris said with a good-natured air.
I’m fairly certain that my face turned to stone in an effort to prevent the nervous giggle from reaching my lips. Mr. Harris had obviously heard and had been deeply amused by the very same rumors that Mr. Wyndham-Pryce had related to me.
“Well, you know rumor. Any beggar can be a king with enough time and distance,” I said with a too-hearty air.
“Met my family have you?” Sue grinned. “I’ve got no less than 14 kings in my family tree, all of whom have been robbed through the centuries of their rightful claim to lord it over Ireland and Great Britain by you English dogs.”
“Direct descendant of Zulu kings right here,” Dave chuckled. “Let’s forget that my family can’t actually trace its roots any further back than to antebellum plantations in South Carolina and Alabama.”
“You guys have cool fake family histories,” Mr. Harris said. “Trade you my real family for them.”
“No way, Harris,” Dave laughed. “Make up your own damn pedigree.”
Mr. Harris appeared to think seriously about it before breaking out in an infectious grin. “Nah. Too much work.”
“I’m fairly certain the Council is researching your genealogy as we speak,” Dr. Mboto said.
That statement wiped the grin right off Mr. Harris’s face. “What?”
Dave’s and Radar’s eyebrows drew down and they wore matching puzzled frowns.
Alexandrienne merely tilted her head with a thoughtful expression. She didn’t seem in the least bit surprised by the exclamation that had been pulled from Mr. Harris. I wondered what she knew, although I confess myself surprised that she knew anything at all.
Dr. Mboto seemed taken aback. “The old Council was always very keen on keeping family records. Perhaps with the current state of affairs, no one is undertaking such tasks quite yet. But I assure you, if the current Council has brought the old guard into the fold, they will most certainly be looking into your family background.”
Mr. Harris looked like he desperately wanted to question Dr. Mboto more on this matter. I could hardly blame him on that point. It’s one thing for him to be unconcerned that the Sunnydale Project files on his loutish parents were buried among the numerous other records even now being stored in London. It’s quite another to hear that your entire family history would be eventually unearthed and recorded for posterity. I wondered why Mr. Giles had never mentioned this to his protégé.
However, we were veering far too close to Sunnydale as far as I was concerned. If we stepped over the town line, so to speak, I was afraid I might accidentally speak out of turn. Now was not the time to earn the ire of Mr. Harris, so I thought it best to drag the conversation back onto its earlier path.
“Given how widespread the rumors are and the presence of some rather troubled nations on this continent, I’m rather surprised you haven’t had nasty problems from either the human or demonic side of the equation before now,” I said.
“Many people do not think we are real,” Alexandrienne said before Mr. Harris could answer. “I think many people think the someone made up the story about us because they have difficult times.” She looked down and picked at her skirt. “I think that maybe some people would like to think it is true, but they are also afraid to find out it is a lie if they think too much about it.”
I admit that Alexandrienne’s statement baffled me. Mr. Harris’s expression, on the other hand, seemed to indicate that he was not mystified by it in the least.
“In case you’re wondering, Miss Swithin, I don’t even get involved in the conversation whenever I hear the rumors, that way I won’t have to lie and I won’t accidentally give away that I know anything,” Mr. Harris said quietly. “Besides, I know I’d be really pushing Giles’s patience if I started picking up random people from all over the continent and bringing them here.”
That sentiment utterly mystified me. “Well I would hope you wouldn’t,” I said. “I think your current situation perfectly illustrates why the Council is rather keen on secrecy. It is, after all, as much to protect Watchers and Slayers from superstitious people who might view us as a threat as it is to protect innocent civilians. All in all, it would be much safer for them to stay where they are.”
Everyone in the hut turned a sharp eye on me.
That’s when I understood the unspoken context of Mr. Harris’s half-hinted at desire to swell the population of his village. “Ah. I suppose I should amend that to, ‘it would be safer for some people to stay where they are.’”
Mr. Harris shook his head. “Sorry. I forget that you haven’t traveled through any of the real sinkholes of suck. Didn’t mean to get all judge-y on you.”
“It’s quite all right,” I said contritely.
“Anyway, back to our vampires and where we’re at right now,” Mr. Harris said. “The plan they put together wasn’t actually a bad one and definitely more subtle than you’d expect. The general idea was to ratchet up the terror. First, they’d start with randomly attacking people in the surrounding villages and in Djenné. The whole idea was to make it look like muggings that went bad or fights where the local came out the loser. After a few days of this, the plan was to up the ante and throw in something more violent like rapes, or hurting the attackees enough so that the hospital in Djenné would have a lot of patients in the touch-and-go column. The only hardcore rule was to not kill anyone and to steer clear of this village.”
“That is an odd plan,” I commented.
Mr. Harris shook his head. “You’re still thinking like vampires are nothing more than killing machines. I keep telling you that they’re not. They’re predators with a human brain. If you’re really unlucky, they’ve got smart human brains. We’re not the top of the food chain. They are. Which puts us right back in to how vampires can adapt their tactics to suit their needs.”
“Finished?” I wearily asked.
Mr. Harris huffed an irritated breath. “What I’m trying to tell you is that our vampire buddies were being very smart. They were going around and attacking our neighbors, but leaving us the hell alone. Sure, we’ve bought a lot of good will, but think about this. We’re still a village full of superwomen, all of whom can bend a steel rebar with their bare hands and throw people through a brick wall without so much as breaking a nail. How long do you think it’ll be before people start looking at us like we’re somehow responsible?”
“A witch hunt,” I breathed.
“Now, maybe I could calm them down,” Mr. Harris said. “I do that by offering to scatter as many Slayers as I can spare out to the villages to pull full-time guard duty, even though it would pretty much leave this village vulnerable to an attack from humans. I could pull in the Slayer and Watcher teams from wherever they are on the continent and have them investigate if our problems really were demonic or if we were dealing with human shitheads. Maybe I could buy us enough time and enough good will that the grumbling wouldn’t get any louder. By then, the damage is done. We’ve got grumbling and once people start grumbling, that’s never going to go completely away.”
“They would still hold you at fault, even though you originally cleaned up the area, which is how you got this land in the first place,” I said with resignation.
“It isn’t what have you done for me, it’s what have you done for me lately,” Dave agreed.
“You might be interested to know that our vampire buddies figured we’d make some kind of gesture like putting Slayers in the villages and in Djenné on a semi-permanent basis,” Mr. Harris said. “When I did that, they were going to go right to Phase II of their plan.”
“Killing,” I said with cold certainty.
“Attacking groups, killing messily, and leaving at least one witness barely alive so he could tell the tale,” Mr. Harris said. “There are a lot of travelers and merchants that come through here, and most of them haven’t gotten the message that even in reasonably safe Djenné it’s advisable for you to be indoors at night.”
“What?” Dave sharply asked. It appeared that he did, indeed, guess correctly that Mr. Harris was about to impart some fresh bad news to the group.
Dr. Mboto and Sue looked down and studied their intertwined hands. Radar was the very picture of alertness. Alexandrienne’s expression had turned to stone. I wasn’t entirely sure, but I thought I saw her gaze fall on the ever-watchful Dogon hyena mask.
Before I could respond, Mr. Harris suddenly leaned forward and added, “Now, imagine this. You’re running a cargo boat service along the Bani. You’re running late. You and your crew haul ashore in Djenné after dark. Next thing you know, you’re attacked by a lot of really, really strong people. They slaughter everyone, but leave you alive. Then while they’re torturing you, they tell you that you’ll get to live if you agree to deliver a message and that message is: ‘If it weren’t for the Slayers living just down the road, you’d be perfectly safe. As long as they’re here, my gang and gangs just like us are going to keep coming and making your life miserable. So we think it’s best for everyone if you evict them. That way you wouldn’t have all kinds of evil things killing everything that moves after dark.’”
“Wow,” Dave said quietly.
Mr. Harris ran a hand through his hair. “I had a feeling they had been planning to go in that direction after we questioned our vampire the other night. I told Akella and Nagessa confirm it for me with our captive.”
Alexandrienne startled at that and hissed at Mr. Harris. Obviously she was not aware that Mr. Harris’s people had captured yet another informant. Radar’s eyebrows drew tight and he frowned with transparent concern. Dr. Mboto and Sue hunched lower and remained steadfastly transfixed by their hands.
Dave quickly glanced at me before looking away. “Jesus. No wonder why you walked in here ready to tear our heads off.”
“We got way too close to comfort.” Mr. Harris rubbed his forehead. He added softly, “Shit. So much for covering all the angles. I can’t believe how stupid—”
“No one saw this coming,” Sue interrupted as she suddenly looked up. The expression of panic on her face was painfully real. “No one could have possibly thought that—”
“I did,” Mr. Harris said. “The blame’s located right under Radar’s butt, which just happens to be on top of my desk.”
At least he was taking responsibility for things going pear-shaped, I thought.
“Truthfully, before this business began I had thought you were being rather paranoid,” Dr. Mboto said. “I assure you, the blame does not rest solely with you. We all should have been more on our guard.”
“Actually, I obviously wasn’t paranoid enough,” Mr. Harris countered. “And it does rest solely with me. It’s my job to make sure something like this couldn’t slip through and it did.”
Alexandrienne’s eyes dangerously narrowed. “You do not get enough sleep now. You are not losing more.” She glowered at Dr. Mboto and Sue. “Tell him he should tell Bunmi that she should help with this.”
“Ally—” Mr. Harris began with a warning tone.
“You do too much.” Alexandrienne stubbornly crossed her arms. “You will be sick if you are always running and running and do not stop to sleep even. Even when you eat, you are always busy doing something else. You are not being smart and you are smart, so you know you that you are not sleeping enough.”
“Fine. I’ll talk to Bunmi about taking on more responsibility and look into beefing up our patrols and early warning system,” Mr. Harris said with exasperation. “I just hate to ask because she’s still got her husband and kid to worry about.”
Dave held his hands palm up and moved them as if he were weighing an object in each hand. “Patrolling a whole continent. Coming up with a better security plan for the area around the village. Continent. Village. Continent. Village.” He dropped his arms and deadpanned, “You’re right. She’s doing way too much and you’re being a lazy bum. How dare you ask her to help, you rotten bastard.”
“Finished?” Mr. Harris asked with exasperated amusement.
“When was the last time you had a day off?” Sue asked sweetly.
Mr. Harris glared. “You’ve been talking to Ig, haven’t you?”
“Excuse me,” I interrupted. “But given that you’ve just evacuated your whole village, I would think that you’re still deep in the woods on this matter. Recriminations and concerns about your habit of chronically working yourself into an early grave can always come after this matter is resolved.”
“She’s gotta point, Harris,” Dave agreed.
Mr. Harris once more took control of the situation. “Now that everyone’s filled to the brim with the sitch, here’s where we’re at. Our people have managed to slice down the numbers a little bit over the past two nights, which means that the other team’s had to pull all of their guys out of Djenné because they’re running out of people and vampires. According to our unhappy informant, they plan to make a final assault on Joe, complete with wiping out the village, heads on pikes, puddles of blood, corpses galore, and one scared lone survivor to give the message that we take a powder or else.”
“Oh dear God,” I breathed.
“If it makes you feel any better, this isn’t at all usual. I’ve never had to deal with anything like this in Mali,” Mr. Harris said sympathetically.
That remark most certainly got Dave’s attention. Although his eyes had locked on Mr. Harris, he restrained himself from asking a question or making a comment.
“May I ask, why did they choose to target Joe?” I hesitantly queried. Truth to tell, dear reader, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know.
Mr. Harris’s grin was decidedly feral. “Because that’s the village that’s the furthest away and it’s the village we’ve left ‘unprotected.’”
I was utterly horrified. “You can’t seriously be telling me that you’re using an entire village as bait!”
Mr. Harris bounced on the balls of his feet. “As in bait and switch? Ooooh, yeah.”
I made a strangled sound. I was shocked that Dr. Mboto wasn’t protesting this horrid disregard for innocent human life. Perhaps he was as dumbstruck as I was by this blatant lack of concern for the safety of the village’s neighbors.
“Relax,” Mr. Harris said with his damnedable grin. “Already cleared it with the residents. They’ll be tucked in their huts nice and tight and armed to the teeth with enough holy water to fill a bathtub when it all goes down tonight.”
“What goes down?” I asked.
Mr. Harris held out his left fist. “The bastards who’ve cut into my snooze time are lurking somewhere beyond Joe. This I know because we’ve carefully herded them there. Thanks to Ig driving a jeep full of Slayers randomly around, the bad guys think that we’ve redeployed everyone to the villages closer to home or to Djenné, leaving poor ol’ Joe one sad little Slayer. Sad little Slayer will displaying brat-like behavior as she carries on with much ranting and yelling that mean ol’ Harris — that would be me — won’t let her play Stake ’Em Slayer with all the other girls.” He again bounced on the balls of his feet. “I’m sure she’s put on a hell of a show. Maria’ll put Meryl Streep to shame. She’s that Oscar-worthy when she lets her inner drama queen out.”
I felt ill.
Mr. Harris then held out his right fist so it was parallel to the left. “This is all of our Slayers. Even as we speak, they are sneakily surrounding our bad guys and waiting for the sun to go down. When the assorted bad guys make a run for Joe, we’ll be right on top of them. They’ll be dusted so fast, they won’t feel the stakes.”
I cleared my throat. “Why not attack them now? While the sun is still up?”
It appeared my question had struck home. Every eye in the hut swung to Mr. Harris. I credited the distinct feeling of electric panic to the fact that I had easily spotted a problem with his plan.