*grumbles about deadlines that are unrealistic*
For the Scatterlings and Orphanages Africander Fiction Challenge from ludditerobot.
For all previous parts, go here.
Continued from Part 34.
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.
“After all, you just said you know where they are,” I pushed with a sweet a smile. “A daytime attack would be much more efficient.”
My words had the intended effect. The tension was so thick in the hut that I could touch it with my hands.
Mr. Harris sighed. “Guys, you do remember their shaman and his shields? Or am I the only one not having a senior moment?”
“Oh, riiiiight,” Dave nodded. “The shaman and his shields. Shit. Forgot about him.”
Radar opened his mouth to say something, but Alexandrienne intervened. “Radar and me were not there. What is this about a shaman?”
“Big shields. Powerful shaman. Caused massive problems,” Dave nodded.
Mr. Harris regarded Dave with amusement. “Not that big, not that powerful, and not too many problems.”
Given the choice between Dave’s judgment or Mr. Harris’s on whether a shaman posed a threat, I would choose Dave’s. Mr. Harris’s extensive experience living on top of a Hellmouth and consorting with extremely powerful witches almost certainly had affected his judgment in this area.
“They’ve only got the one shaman. I’d call him bush league, but that would insult Grandma and I’d never hear the end of it if she knew I did that,” Mr. Harris said. “We ran up against him the other night. I think he’s some ringer the vampires recruited. He’s one of those that needs to do a whole ritual just to light a fire using magic.”
It appeared I was right. Mr. Harris did have a very skewed idea about magic.
“His particular specialty is throwing up one of these impenetrable shields. It’s impressive if you’re trying to attack and bouncing off it like you’re a rubber ball, but none of the people inside the bubble can get out either. The only thing it does is let the people inside know you really, really want to kill them, but that’s it. It doesn’t even hurt the attackers,” Mr. Harris explained. “It’s really his only trick and it takes a lot out of him. Once he dismisses the shield, he’s pretty much useless for casting another spell. He can’t even defend himself he’s so wiped and has to hide behind a vampire to keep him injury-free. Right now he’s the locked door preventing a daylight raid. Tonight, he won’t even be an issue.”
I looked to Dave for his reaction and noted that he was already relaxing his tense shoulders. Either Dave had overreacted to the potential threat posed by the shaman, or he was relying far too much on Mr. Harris’s unreliable judgment.
“Here’s how it’s going to fall out, guys,” Mr. Harris looked to each of us in turn. “We’re going to sneak up to the far side of Joe so our bad guys don’t spot us. We’re timing our arrival for around sundown.” Mr. Harris then focused on Dr. Mboto and Sue. “Doc, Sue, you’ll sneak into Joe. Go directly to the elder’s house. He’s agreed to let you use his home as an emergency room if we need it. Make sure you pack everything you think you’ll need. Assume the worst.”
Dr. Mboto and Sue snapped twin nods. “I’ll be certain to include a gift for him as well to show our appreciation,” Dr. Mboto added.
Mr. Harris grinned. “I already covered that, so don’t sweat it.”
Dr. Mboto’s eyebrows rose. “He was pleased?”
“Flattered beyond the telling of it,” Mr. Harris assured the doctor.
Dr. Mboto leaned back and warmly smiled. I startled at the sight of it. Although I barely knew the man, it seemed that I had associated a constant expression of studious objectivity with his visage. It warmed my nervous heart to see the façade broken, if only for a moment.
“That is good news indeed,” Dr. Mboto said. “Excellent news. Well done. I believe you deserve a hearty congratulations.”
“Good heavens, what did you offer the man?” I asked.
The smile disappeared from Dr. Mboto’s face. Sue looked rather worried.
Mr. Harris teasingly said, “We offered him a cookout.”
“A cookout,” I dubiously echoed.
“Don’t laugh. People around here are always looking for an excuse to have a pot luck dinner,” Mr. Harris assured me. “Food, fun, a little singing, a lot of dancing. Everyone’s down for it. We offered to help out with a big to-do next week in exchange for letting us use Joe. Grandma even pledged to make her special goat surprise.”
I shook my head. I couldn’t have possibly heard that right. “Are you seriously telling me that the citizens of Joe agreed to serve as bait because you offered to help them with a party?”
“Yeeeeeaaaaah. Are the people around here great or what?” Mr. Harris nodded with a grin.
“Unbelievable,” I muttered. “He probably would’ve been ecstatic if you offered him a trunk fully of sparkling plastic beads.”
“Hey, hey, hey! Watch it. We’re not trying to buy Manhattan,” Dave comically protested.
Mr. Harris cleared his throat, a warning that it was time for this non sequitur to come to an end. “Radar?” he prompted his young charge.
The boy sat straight up and thrust out his chest.
“You’re not seriously sending Radar into battle, are you?” I protested.
Radar glared at me. “I know how to use a stake.”
Mr. Harris indulgently chuckled. “That he does. But Radar, I don’t need your mad dusting skills. I need your eyes.”
Radar seemed disappointed, but that didn’t stop his grin. No doubt he was excited just to be included. “Lookout?”
“Yup. I need you to climb up on one of the roofs so you’ll have a bird’s eye view of what’s going on. If you see anyone trying to flank our fighters, shout. If you see anyone trying to get around us to attack the village, shout even louder and then get Maria’s attention. She’ll be in the center of village ready to dust whatever vampire manages to break through.”
“If the people will be safe in their huts, I really don’t see how a lone vampire can do much to harm them,” I said.
Mr. Harris pointed up. “Thatched roof. It may be rainy season, but it still burns really good if you set fire to it.”
“Vampires are vulnerable to fire,” I sniffed. “I hardly think they’d—”
“Knew a vampire that smoked like a chimney,” Mr. Harris interrupted.
“How is that possible?” I asked.
“One night I saw him whip out his Zippo and set fire to another vampire,” Mr. Harris blithely continued. “While the burning vampire screamed his head off and turned to ash, Cigarette Smoking Vampire slooooowly opened his pack of Marlboros and used the flames to light a fresh cigarette.”
This story was greeted with dead silence as we all openly stared at Mr. Harris.
Radar broke the silence. “Wwwwoooooooow.”
“Daaaaaaaaaamn. That’s hardcore,” Dave agreed. He suddenly shook his head. “Wait. This vampire set fire to another vampire? With you standing right there? Why didn’t he set you on fire?”
Alexnadrienne screwed up her face. “I wonder this also.”
“He was trying to impress this girl I knew,” Mr. Harris said dryly. “Setting fire to me, no matter how much he wanted to do it, wasn’t going to win him any sweet lovin’. Setting fire to the other vampire was really the only way to go.”
I rolled my eyes. His story was highly unlikely. If it wasn’t a boldfaced lie, he was most certainly embellishing the tale.
“Unnnnh, she did know he was a vampire, right?” Dave asked.
Mr. Harris studied Dave a moment. “Well, yeah. Of course she was dead at the time, so I have no idea why he thought setting fire to the vampire instead of me was going to help him at all.”
Honestly, I thought, Mr. Harris’s twisted sense of humor bordered on inappropriate.
Dr. Mboto and Sue exchanged long-suffering looks. They had obviously been subjected to whatever passed as Mr. Harris’s idea of whimsy many times.
“Oh. That’s okay then,” Dave mumbled. He shook his head. “Wait. Dead? The hell?”
“Looooong story,” Mr. Harris said. “I’ll tell you that one later.”
I suspected the truth would be much more mundane.
“Anyway, that’s why Maria’s staying in the village after sundown,” Mr. Harris turned to me as he said this. “If a vampire starts running around Joe, he can still cause property damage bad enough to drive people out of their homes. The vampire’ll be able to move fast enough to kill someone, although probably not to drain them of blood or turn them. It’s a better safe-than-sorry move on my part.”
“What if a human breaks through to the village?” Sue asked.
Mr. Harris sighed. “Hopefully, Maria will figure out he’s human pretty quickly and she’ll just knock him out. I wish I could give you a better answer on that, but I just don’t have one.”
“It’ll have to do,” Dr. Mboto mumbled.
“Me and Ally, Dave and Bunmi, and Nagessa and Akella are going to be working as teams,” Mr. Harris continued. “First, we take Radar to his lookout post. Then we split up with our partners so we’re forming a line between the fight and the village. Our main job is to catch anyone or any vampire that might break through the battle line and stop them by any means necessary before they reach the village. Our secondary job is to listen for Radar’s shouts and deliver any messages he’s got about enemy movements to the battling Slayers. Got it?”
I delicately cleared my throat.
“Ah. Miss Swithin. You’re probably wondering what’s up for you, right?” Mr. Harris asked.
“To put it mildly,” I said cautiously. “I simply don’t understand why you want me…” My voice trailed off as I realized that I had perhaps misread Mr. Harris’s true intentions. “Of course, you want me to observe your people in action. I take it that I will be perched on a roof with Radar?”
Mr. Harris nervously grinned. “Not exactly.”
It appeared that I had not. “You can’t honestly expect me to go into battle!” I yelped. “I have no training nor any skill with a weapon! I’m a notorious bumbler on the workout mats! I had to be excused from tai chi because of my terrible sense of balance! I’ll be killed!”
Alexandrienne leapt to her feet just as Mr. Harris took a hasty step back with his hands up. “Miss Swithin—” he began.
“Mr. Harris,” I pleaded, “surely you can see that one such as myself would pose a greater danger to you and your people if you handed me a stake and forced me to march lock-step along with you. You’d be distracted once you saw the depth of my incompetence in the realm of hand-to-hand combat. It is imperative that you focus on a deadly enemy instead of worrying about a helpless woman left to fend for herself on the field of battle.”
Mr. Harris quickly stepped between me and his Slayer. “Ally, don’t hit her,” he ordered in a voice that brooked no argument.
The order, which from my point of view came out of nowhere, prompted me to leave my chair and scramble for the door.
“Miss Swithin!” Mr. Harris barked.
I spun around to face him. My fists were helplessly clenched out of either fear or rage, I wasn’t entirely sure. “You dare—” I began.
Mr. Harris marched over to me until we stood nose-to-nose. “Damn straight I dare, especially since you won’t even let me finish. I have less-than-zero plans to throw you headfirst into the deep end of the pool.”
I glared at him. I must admit, dear reader, that it’s very disconcerting to stand eyeball-to-eyeball with someone when the other person has only one eyeball to glare into.
“How many times do I have to keep repeating this to you before you get it through that thick Watcher skull of yours?” Mr. Harris began in a low and angry voice. “I have no interest in a dead you. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Even if I was the kind of guy who would set you up for ugly death, which in case you missed it I’m not, a dead you would cause more problems than I need. You go home in a box, especially if you’re in that box because I put you in front of a pack of pissed off vampires, just how much do you think my life’s going to be worth?”
Mr. Harris’s twisted reasoning did give me pause. Even if he suspected that my cover story was merely a ruse for me to gain entry into his village so I could find evidence against him, too many people knew where I was. He was right. My untimely death would raise far too many questions and would paint him with too much suspicion. It was entirely in his best interests that I be seen leaving Mali both whole and hale.
The bigger question, of course, was whether I’d be able to keep my skin intact after I returned to London and provided Mr. Wyndham-Pryce with enough information to assassinate Mr. Harris’s character, competence, and sanity.
It was very strange for me to realize that I was probably safer in Mali with Mr. Harris — even with a roving pack of angry vampires and evil humans bent on revenge looming dangerously in my immediate future — than I was back in London under the protection of Mr. Wyndham-Pryce.
“So, then, what do you plan to do with me?” I asked.
Mr. Harris released a breath and took a step back. He glanced behind him and said, “Ally, it’s okay.”
It was then that I realized that Alexandrienne was not only still standing, but was also hovering protectively behind Mr. Harris. She had most likely moved into position while my attention was wholly absorbed by my confrontation with her Watcher.
Alexandrienne offered Mr. Harris a tense smile, spared me a suspicious look, and retook her chair. As for everyone else in the hut, they had descended into a tense silence. Every eye was fixed on Mr. Harris and myself and it seemed that they, Dave most especially, were poised to spring from their seats at a moment’s notice.
Mr. Harris gave me a slight bow and indicated my vacant chair with his hand. “Miss Swithin?”
As I returned to my seat, I noticed that Mr. Harris kept his eye firmly on me.
Once I was seated, Mr. Harris clasped his hands behind his back and said, “You’re not going on the frontline, and you’re not going to be with us while we prevent any of the bad guys from reaching the village.”
The relief that swept through me was so powerful that I sagged in my seat.
“You’re going to be in the village center with Maria,” Mr. Harris said.
I sat up straight as my relief evaporated. “What? But you said—”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Mr. Harris interrupted with annoyance. “How my times do I have to stress that we’ve got the bad guys surrounded? Maria’s only in the center of Joe just on the off chance that someone or something breaks through. I’m not going to even try to claim that there’s no chance that’s going to happen, but the chances are really, really small. All you’ll be doing is watching Maria’s back. That’s it.”
“Why can’t I do that from inside one of the huts? They have windows. I can look through one,” I desperately pointed out.
“You can’t go hide in a hut,” Mr. Harris said shortly.
The tension in the hut rose. I thought it strange that no one spoke up — not to support Mr. Harris or to defend me. At the time I dismissed the odd silence of the others as discomfort over the fact they were witnessing a life-and-death struggle between their leader and myself.
“Why not?” I challenged him. “Dr. Mboto and Sue are safely inside a hut. Why can’t I?”
“They are our medical team. They need to be kept out of the line of fire. I need you outside so you can physically follow Maria if she has to move away from the village center. Besides, if you hide in a hut, I lose face in front of those people,” Mr. Harris answered.
“How on earth does did this become all about you,” I spit back at him.
Mr. Harris went red with fury. “This is not about me. This is about the village,” Mr. Harris replied in a surprisingly even voice. “Whether you realize it or not, those vampires have come dangerously close to discrediting us. If the worst happens tonight, and a vampire gets into Joe and starts causing damage and killing people, they’ll still be able to hurt our reputation. Everyone around us will start to have doubts that we can live up to our promise to keep them safe when the big bads decide to come knocking on our door. We can’t afford to take that hit, especially right now. We lose face over this mess, when the next crisis happens — and if there’s anything I can promise you there’ll always be another crisis — we could find ourselves at the wrong end of a lynch mob.”
“If the village’s situation is that precarious, then why did you plant a settlement here?” I demanded.
“Because our situation isn’t precarious,” Mr. Harris said. “If we’d been hunkered down here for a few years and had a longer record of keeping big bad things with big nasty teeth away, this situation probably wouldn’t shake anyone’s faith in us. But we haven’t. We’ve been here a year and the first big trouble had us scrambling. Right now we’re proving ourselves and living up to our end of the bargain. All it takes is one screw-up before we put this problem to bed, and we’ll lose a lot more than we’ll ever be able to win back. The other villages and the people in Djenné might let it go this time because we’ve got the health clinic, the school, and the well. Next time, and there will be a next time, we might not be so lucky. That’s why everything has to go right and that’s why I need everybody who can hold a stake be seen doing something to keep Joe safe.”
“And this translates as putting me in harm’s way?” I demanded.
Mr. Harris drew himself up to his full height and thundered down at me, “You’re a Watcher aren’t you? You may be an idiot with a stake, but you’ve got eyes. So use your eyes and those crazy Watcher skills and watch Maria’s back. That’s your job. Maybe it’s not your job description, but Watching out for Slayers is why you even exist.” He then broke out in a nasty grin. “Or is that only supposed to be in theory until you’re forced to earn that salary?”
“Why you—” I began through clenched teeth.
Mr. Harris held up a hand. “If you don’t go out there and do your job tonight, I guarantee you that I will be on the phone with Giles tomorrow. I will explain to him in excruciating detail how you left us high and dry. How you cowered in a hut while the rest of us put our necks on the line. Then I’ll explain how your Watcher self made the Council look very, very bad in the eyes of locals, and how that could turn into big trouble down the road, especially if the day ever comes that Council needs anyone in the area to help them out or do them a favor. Do you have any idea how fast you’ll be recalled to London? Do you really want to know?”
I glowered at him for blatantly threatening to use his influence with Mr. Giles to cow me into doing what he wanted.
Mr. Harris’s nasty grin returned. “From what I hear, the grapevine in London is just amazing. Gossips practically work on commission in HQ, at least that’s what they tell me. And there are people there who will always listen and believe the worst stories about other people. I’m pretty sure there’s someone back in the land of Monty Python who’s really, really jealous that you got a field trip to Africa while they toil away at a desk job. I’m sure they’ll be very, very thrilled to hear just how badly you screwed up. Maybe they’ll get this idea in their head that they can win your job by hyping just how useless you are. By the time you get back to London with your tail between your legs, your reputation will be totally trashed. Your career? Dead in the water.” His grin widened. “I’m sure they won’t fire you, since you’ve got the right bloodline and all. I’m sure they’ll find a nice little job for you as a personal secretary for a personal secretary for someone whose main job is counting the office supplies.”
My hands clenched with rage.
Mr. Harris triumphantly crossed his arms. “Your other option is to hold your stake and keep a lookout for the theoretical vampire or the theoretical human running through Joe. Maria’s the one who’s going to be doing the fighting. You can feel free to clutch your stake and hide under a rock. But, while you’re clutching that stake and hiding under that rock, I expect you to watch and make sure a second theoretical vampire or a second theoretical human doesn’t attack Maria while she’s busy fighting. If you see anyone or anything doing just that, I expect you do let out a holler so Maria knows she’s got incoming.”
The interior of the hut was so quiet that I could swear that everyone was holding their breath.
“What you’ve got is a choice,” Mr. Harris continued. “You can do a very easy job, one that’ll probably end up being you and Maria standing around in Joe bored out of your skulls for most of the night while the rest of us fight like hell to make sure you have a boring night. Or, tomorrow we drag you back to Bamako and shove you on the first plane back to Europe. Trust me when I tell you that when you land, you’ll be greeted by a lot of very unhappy Council employees all feeling the desperate urge to kick your ass.” Mr. Harris placed a hand over his heart. “Personally? I don’t care which option you go for. Whatever you decide is all the same to me.”
You bastard, I thought, you utter bastard. You’ll get yours soon enough and I’ll be the one who’ll give it to you. You’ll never see the blow that brings you low.
The only thing that stopped me from voicing that thought aloud was the sure knowledge that Mr. Harris’s victory would be short-lived. I only needed to be patient a little longer. Then, one day, I would enjoy the sight of Mr. Harris being put in his rightful place.
The anger suddenly seemed to drain from Mr. Harris. He dropped his hand and shook his head with a wince. “The hell of it is this, Miss Swithin,” he said, “If you’re not there, Maria’ll have no one watching her back. I can’t spare anyone else because I need them to deal with our Gao vampires once and for all. If we don’t wipe them out tonight, they’ll keep coming after us and that means people around us are going to get killed. I know you don’t want to do it, but you’re all Maria’s got for back-up.”
I clenched my jaw and glared at him. He left me no choice. I had no doubt that a word in Mr. Giles’s ear would so thoroughly disgrace me that I would never again be able to hold my head high while walking the hallowed halls of the Council.
“Fine,” I finally said. “I’ll do it, but I‘m doing it for your Slayer. I want to be very clear on this point.”
Mr. Harris nodded. I was almost certain that I imagined this, but I could swear that he was fighting a relieved smile.
“I know you don’t think this right now,” Mr. Harris said in a reassuring voice, “but you really did make the right choice.”
Needless to say, I was far less sure on that point. As Mr. Harris began to close the meeting, I felt my eyes once again drawn to the Dogon mask. My desperate imagination tormented me as I considered its feral expression. For a brief moment, I thought sure that its jaws were on the verge of opening to swallow me whole.