For all previous parts, go here.
Continued from Part 36.
“I really am sorry about this,” Mr. Harris assured me quietly. “You have no idea how sorry I really am.”
I answered him in a tired voice. “But you don’t have a choice in the matter.”
He startled. “What? No. Oh, no. There are choices.” He then sadly smiled. “The problem is that all the choices we’ve got really suck.”
In the few brief hours’ of respite between my leaving Mr. Harris and our trip to Joe, the sun outfitted itself with the Winged Sandals of Hermes and fled for the horizon. I remember thinking at the time that it seemed that the universe itself conspired to aid Mr. Harris in his nefarious schemes.
I initially attempted to follow Mr. Harris’s advice and take a nap, but my fluttering heartbeat and my nervous stomach did not allow me to get so much as a moment’s respite. My mutinous body eventually drove me from my bed to the mudcloth-covered bench with pen and a pad of paper in hand.
As the sun raced across the sky at a dispiritedly fast pace, I scribbled everything that I had heard and seen since my arrival in Mali. I thought it best to leave some record of my adventures in case the worst happened and Mr. Harris was faced with the prospect of shipping what was left of me back to London in a box.
Truthfully, I took no comfort in the fact that my death would leave him twisting at the end of a rope. I was selfish enough to prefer life — still am to tell the truth — even if it meant that I would utterly fail in my mission to bring Mr. Harris low. Even if it meant that by living, the Ethiopian Wolf would be able to use my defeat as the foundation upon which he could begin building his reputation as a trickster par excellence.
Oh, be careful of the bargains you make dear reader, even if those bargains are made silently and in secret with only yourself. Although I admit, from my current perspective, I did not make such a bad bargain for all that. I suspect, however, that my terrified and naïve younger self would be suitably horrified if she could but pull back the curtain of time and see me during one of the many times Mr. Harris has seen fit to drag me with him into a sticky wicket.
Looking back on these moments as I stood on the precipice of who I was and who I was yet to be, it’s odd to me that I did not immediately reach for the laptop, type up everything I knew, and send it up to the satellite via the secret email account that Mr. Wyndham-Pryce and his people eagerly monitored for news. I can only credit the fact that on some level I believed Mr. Harris when he said that I would be perfectly safe despite my proximity to danger.
Mr. Harris was wrong about one thing, however. In the final moments before I stepped over the line and into Mr. Harris’s terrifying world, I was alone. I may have never been out of sight of Mr. Harris and his people; I may have been backed by an army of Slayers; and I may have been watched by the handful of Watchers, both official and not-yet official, that were there. In the end, however, I truly was alone, as we always are in that blink of an eye when our lives change.
I credit my cowardly nature for turning to pen and paper instead of bits and bytes. I did not want to set in motion a series of events that could result in Dave’s ruin, Sister Ig’s disgrace, Radar’s forcible relocation to a facility for orphans, and yes, even Liwaza’s placement in the Highlands Facility. I did not wish to steal the healthcare clinic, Dr. Mboto and Sue, or the school from a civilian population that valued and needed them. I did not want to live with the consequences or the responsibility for any of this, assuming I survived the night’s work, without being able to righteously defend why I did what I did. There were still too many questions that needed answering, too many puzzles that needed solving, and too many factors to consider before taking that final and fatal step.
I would like to claim that it was my infernal curiosity, that burning need to see and understand, that stayed my hand. But the terrible truth dear reader is this: I feared death only slightly less than living with the consequences of my actions.
When the sun reached just after mid-afternoon, Bunmi came to fetch me. Through a series of pantomimes, she lead me to understand that I would be fitted with a stake and that she would teach me how to properly hold it.
I protested this, of course, although I can’t say why I bothered fighting my fate. Bunmi did not understand English at the time, and even if she did, I suspected it would not have troubled her serene insistence one whit. She was determined that I could at least defend myself if the worst came to pass and there was nothing I could say or do to dissuade her.
I was compelled to set aside my writing and tuck it out of sight into my bags to follow her onto the sun-drenched dirt in the middle of Mr. Harris’s village. Bunmi first went through the ritual of finding me two stakes that she judged to be a worthy fit for my small hands. Once that task was complete, she then, with a series of nudges and pantomimes, went about the business checking my balance and correcting my stance before attempting to teach me some self-defense moves.
I fought her every step of the way. I stubbornly let the stake slip from my hand on several occasions, tripped over my own feet, and made a hash of following her movements. I was entirely certain that I had proved my point to her. I was not a fighter. Strength, speed, healing, and Miss Summers’s actions in Sunnydale be damned. Nothing could ever change that fact about myself.
If my deliberate play for incompetence troubled her, Bunmi showed no sign. She seemed to have an infinite well of patience and perseverance that never once showed signs of flagging. Even as I fought her with every trick and lie at my disposal, I could very well see why Mr. Harris thought her most suited to be his “head Slayer” responsible for training the other girls. Having had the dubious privilege of witnessing Bunmi’s training sessions after my own one-on-one with her, I can honestly say that the Council would have been hard-pressed to find someone better to counterbalance the excitable natures of Slayers that are new in their power and ferociously exploring the limits of their gifts.
Lord knows how long Bunmi and myself engaged in our battle of wills as the sun raced ever faster for the horizon. All I can tell you is that the shadows were starting to lengthen and I was covered with dirt and sweat by the time Mr. Harris jogged over to us.
“It’s time,” he announced. He then said something to Bunmi in the barking, growling language of tlhIngan Hol.
Bunmi relaxed out of her demonstration of the fighting stance she wanted me to ape and nodded at him. She paused to smile at me and pat me reassuringly on the hand before turning to Mr. Harris and speaking to him. As the syllables and sounds of tlhIngan Hol poured from her lips, I rather got the notion she was giving him a full report on our training session.
Mr. Harris’s expression was neutral as he listened to what Bunmi had to say, so I couldn’t get a read on whether he was displeased, disappointed, or otherwise convinced that he had made an error in judgment by including me in his plans. When Bunmi was done with her report, Mr. Harris merely inclined his head and simply responded, “Qatlho’.”
Bunmi spared me a look before turning to Mr. Harris with a grin and a shrug. She said something that sounded like a question and my spirits rose. It seemed to me that perhaps I had succeeded in thoroughly fooling Bunmi after all and that she believed my inclusion in the night’s battle, no matter how peripheral I believed that role to be, was not a wise course of action.
Mr. Harris in response threw back his head and laughed. He immediately apologized to me. “Sorry. Don’t mean to be rude or anything. We’d do the English thing but, like I said, Bunmi’s still learning.” He shrugged good-naturedly to underscore his point before turning to Bunmi again. He clapped her the shoulder and spoke some more in tlhIngan Hol to her.
She shook her head with a smile in response. She then bowed slightly to me before heading to what I assumed to be her hut.
I could barely stand the suspense. “I assume she told you about our training session?” I prompted.
“Unh-hunh,” Mr. Harris nodded. “Bunmi tells me that for a Watcher who’s never held a stake in a real-life combat situation, you’re not bad. Says with a little training you’d be something approaching pretty good.”
I was flabbergasted. “What? Did she tell you I kept dropping the stake?”
Mr. Harris grinned. “Yeah, about that. You seem to be big on the dropping thing. I only mention it because you said you kept dropping your stake when you were doing the vampire dusting expo in a training class. Keep doing that, people’ll get the idea you’re dropping it on purpose.”
My heart froze. “Why would anyone get that idea?”
Mr. Harris gently took the stake from my hand and lazily flipped it like it was £1 coin. “It’s a stick with a point, Miss Swithin. It’s not that hard to hold on to. I mean, c’mon, I’ve got one eye and I’ve got zero problems using it.” He stopped and handed it back to me with the point facing himself. “Okay, to be fair I’ve had more than a year to get used to the whole one-eyed thing so I’m getting hella better at compensating for my lack of depth perception.”
I shame-facedly took the stake from his hand. He made his point rather well.
“Bunmi tells me that your big problem is you’re not bendy,” Mr. Harris continued.
“Bendy?” I asked in a weak voice.
“You know, flexible. You don’t do ‘go with the flow’ very well. She tells me that you spent the entire session not just fighting her but fighting yourself.” Mr. Harris raised an eyebrow. “You’ve really got to learn how to relax.”
I was dumbstruck. “Relax? How on earth am I supposed to relax when in a few hours’ time I’ll be standing in the middle of an unfamiliar village full of vulnerable civilians while a battle rages around me?”
“It’s a zen thing, I guess,” Mr. Harris said as he waved a dismissive hand. “Everyone’s got to find their own zen. Guess we haven’t found yours yet.”
“Zen,” I deadpanned.
“Really, just follow your instincts instead of fighting them all the time,” Mr. Harris continued.
I began to panic. Perhaps I had not fooled Bunmi at all. “What instincts?”
A corner of Mr. Harris’s mouth ticked up and I got the distinct impression he was doing his level best not to laugh in my face. “Your survival instincts,” he said. “You’d be shocked how fast they kick in when you’re face to face with trouble and you’ve got no room to run. I’m like the poster boy for that kind of thing, so I know what I’m talking about. All I’m saying is that if you run into trouble, just trust your instincts, go with the flow, and you’ll be okay. If I can do it, you should be able to do with no problem.”
I was not in the least bit comforted. “I thought you said that I was in no danger.”
“You’re not. Really, you’re not,” Mr. Harris quickly assured me. “It’s just that I can’t guarantee you a vampire-free night. I just want to be better safe than sorry.”
“If this is supposed to help me find this ‘zen’ of yours, it’s not helping,” I sourly said.
Mr. Harris shook his head with a smile and coughed, probably in an effort to prevent the laughter that I sensed was bubbling dangerously close to the surface. “Anyway, the good news is, you’re not in terrible shape for what you need to do tonight,” Mr. Harris cheerfully informed me.
“You’re saying this despite Bunmi’s report?” I asked with disbelief.
“Hey, you’re a hell of a lot more prepared than I was the first time I walked into the middle of a vampire rumble. I pretty much stood around in this crypt with a thumb up my ass and hoped like hell me and my friends weren’t going to die.” Mr. Harris paused and tilted his head. “Actually, you’re better prepared than the second time I walked into the middle of a vampire rumble. That time I brought nothing more than a flashlight, even though I knew we were walking into a vampire nest. Okay, it seemed like a good idea at the time since I was walking into a dark sewer, but flashlights have zero effect on vampires, especially when you drop it while running for your life.”
Somewhere in the middle of his tall tales, I began to giggle at the ridiculous notion that Mr. Harris didn’t know enough to bring a stake with him on his mission in the sewers. I could understand his being caught unprepared the first time, but the second time, especially when he knew that he would be facing vampires? It simply didn’t fit what I had seen of the man.
“Why don’t you get washed up and changed?” Mr. Harris asked. “Go with dark-ish clothes so you can blend in better with the shadows. If you’ve got something with big pockets, even better. You’ll have someplace to stash the stakes in case you need your hands free. Oh, yeah, something else,” he reached into a bulging pocket, pulled something out of it, and tossed it at me.
Out of sheer reflex, I snatched it out of the air. A split second after I did, I realized that Mr. Harris’s actions had taken me so by surprise that I had caught the object — which turned out to be an empty water bottle — without fumbling.
Mr. Harris didn’t appear to notice. “Fill that up with the holy water in your hut. If you have to, you can unscrew the top and throw the bottle. Makes for a hell of a holy hand grenade if you’re in a tight spot. Carrying that around is going to be a pain, so that’s another good reason to wear something with a lot of big pockets.”
I stared at the empty plastic bottle in my hand. “Let me guess. This is yet another case of better safe than sorry.”
“Exactly.” He glanced at his watch and softly swore. “We’re running way late. We’re not going to get to Joe until well after dark. We better leave in 5, so get a move on.”
I quickly scurried back to my hut. In truth, I was rather worried. Mr. Harris had apparently gone out of his way to make sure that I was at least minimally prepared to face a vampire if I had to.
My mind immediately rebelled at the thought. He had promised several times that I would be perfectly safe and that there was never a moment when I’d find myself alone. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any deception or any hint of doubt in his voice as in my mind I replayed each and every time he had given me that promise.
I decided that Mr. Harris was most likely covering every eventuality ranging from the best-case scenario to the worst and nothing more than that. He had been taken by surprise by these particular enemies, after all. He was merely taking precautionary measures in case they once more took him by surprise, despite all his cunning strategizing.
Still, I was troubled.
Given the amount of careful planning that had gone into the coming battle, I thought it rather surprising Mr. Harris had been caught so unawares by the Gao vampires and their allies to begin with.
And so, dear reader, that was how I ended up in the back of a crowded jeep heading into the heart of the battle for Joe on that fateful night. A lifetime of avoidance, a lifetime of hiding, a lifetime of pretending to be something I wasn’t had all come to naught.
To say that I was unhappy about this would be understating my feelings on the matter.
Dr. Mboto drove. Sue and Radar were jammed in the front seat with him. Bunmi, Akella, Nagessa, Alexandrienne, Dave, Mr. Harris, and myself had to fit ourselves as best we could around two duffle bags full of medical supplies. Between the bumpy road and the precariously crowded conditions that forced me to practically share Mr. Harris’s lap with Alexandrienne, I thought sure I would be bounced out of the jeep long before we reached Joe.
Although dusk was in full bloom and we were some distance away from Mr. Harris’s village, I cast a despairing glance back it and wished mightily that I was there.
This final glance backwards revealed something that made my blood go cold.
It took a few fateful seconds for my mind to realize what I had seen and a few more fateful seconds to get Mr. Harris’s attention since he was busy complaining about being crushed flat under the combined weight of Alexandrienne and myself.
“Mr. Harris,” I urgently said.
“Yes,” he irritably snapped.
“I thought I saw—” What? I wasn’t sure. The dark form of a person as they carefully picked their way across the center of the village? Maybe the penned cow and goats, let loose in the event the vampires’ human allies reached the village to spare them from senseless slaughter?
A trick of shadows caused by the fast-approaching night?
“Saw what?” Mr. Harris grumpily prompted.
Mindful that Mr. Harris had warned me that humans — even humans with evil intent — could easily cross Grandmother Touré’s wards, I knew that I had to say something. “I’m not sure, but I thought I saw someone in the village.”
Mr. Harris turned his head, as the receding village was on his blindside, and squinted into the gathering darkness. “Oh?” he prompted.
“I…I…I’m not sure, actually,” I stammered. “I thought it best to mention it, just in case.”
As the horizon and the darkness swallowed the village whole, Mr. Harris remarked, “Good eyes.”
I nervously glanced in the direction where I believed the village would be. I didn’t think it would be outside of a normal human’s sight to see an indistinct shadow scurrying about, even as far away as we were. “I just happened to be looking at the village at the time,” I quickly said.
Mr. Harris craned his neck so he could better look at my face. I was, after all, awkwardly positioned on his blindside. “Jumpy or not, thanks for the head’s up. We’ll have to approach the village carefully when we get back from Joe. The last thing any of us needs is to get jumped when we’re exhausted from fighting all night.”
I shivered. “I’m sure it’s nothing.” This was said more as a hope than a statement of fact. To be honest dear reader, the more I thought about it, the more certain I was that the shadow I saw was a human sneaking across the village in a hunched-over manner. “I’m most likely jumping at shadows.”
Mr. Harris smiled warmly at me and I felt a strangely reassuring touch on my back. “Don’t sweat it. Better we jump at shadows than them jumping at us.”