All previous parts can be found here.
Continued from Part 46,
I took a breath. “Well, I do have some thoughts on this matter, but it might be difficult to—”
Mr. Harris held up a hand. “Whoa. Before you jump in with your hot idea, I want to list the obvious options first. Then we’ll talk about whatever’s on your mind, because I want to hear what you have to say. First, though, we really need to look at the London option.”
“London option?” I asked with a sinking heart. I had the distinct impression that Mr. Harris was toying with me.
He nodded. “I’ve got to be honest here. I know it would suck for you, but if you headed back to London, especially if you went back of your own free will, my life would be so much easier. Giles handed me the job of nailing you, and I’ve nailed you. All I need to do is shoot the evidence to London via courier and send you back to London by plane and mission accomplished. I once more show Giles that I’m his boy and that he can trust me with anything.” Mr. Harris leaned forward, “Plus, I’m sure I’d get a raise and a hazard bonus out of this, so the ol’ wallet would benefit, too.”
“Your mind’s made up, then,” I unhappily said.
“I’m just pointing out the choice that would be the best one for me,” Mr. Harris said with a shrug. “I figured it was better to just get that out there and out of the way. The other upside is that sending you back to London would defang Roger for a good long while. Giles doesn’t think it’ll deliver a knockout blow and get Roger tossed, though. All it does is buy Giles some breathing room so he can find a knockout blow and that’s about it. As for you? Your career as a Watcher would be over and your very short Slaying career will begin.”
I began to hyperventilate. “Mr. Giles plans to have me killed?”
Mr. Harris’s singular eye narrowed as he thoughtfully regarded me. “No, he doesn’t.”
“Then why would you say such a thing?”
“Eva, stand up.”
Mr. Harris stood. “Stand up. I’m not going to bite, not that you can’t kick my teeth in if I try. Just stand up.”
I hesitantly did as he asked.
“Look straight ahead,” he ordered.
I again did as he asked. When he began moving to my right, I startled.
Mr. Harris held up his hands and said, “I’m not going to touch you. I just need to think about how to word this so you won’t rip my head off.”
“Do you really need to start circling me?” I asked.
Mr. Harris grinned. “Yup.”
I once more looked straight ahead, although I was much more nervous than I had been. The fact that the Dogon hyena mask to my left was now even clearer in my peripheral vision certainly did not help my state of mind.
As for Mr. Harris, he did indeed circle around me. Although I couldn’t see him, I imagined that his all-seeing eye was taking note of every detail and that tricky mind of his was filing the visual information away for later reference. Perhaps he was looking for my ‘weak points,’ in case he ever felt the need to physically overpower me.
Mr. Harris circled me once and began yet another circuit. The glimpses I got of his face belied the intense concentration going on behind that eye. I didn’t feel dirty since I didn’t get the notion that he was trying to see through my clothes. However, I did feel very much like I was being microscopically examined.
Mr. Harris finally came to a stop to my left. “Turn around and look at me,” he gently said.
I did as he ordered and realized with shock that the Dogon mask was clearly and firmly over his left shoulder if I looked at him head on. As for Mr. Harris’s expression, it was…odd. Not friendly, but not unfriendly either. I’m hard-pressed to describe it, even these many years later. I suppose the closest I can come to it is to say that he looked very much like a wild animal sizing another wild animal up to determine if the creature before him was prey or predator.
“When I first saw you, the first thought that went through my head is, ‘She’s very good,’” Mr. Harris continued in a soft voice. “The slouch, the clothes that aren’t the world’s best fit, the mousy brown hair that’s cut just right to make that jaw of yours a little too square and hide the eyes. And even if you weren’t a Slayer, no one would ever accuse you of being graceful.”
I felt no small amount of sting at this frank discussion of my physical flaws. “Excuse me,” I protested, “I was not aware that I had entered a beauty contest.”
Mr. Harris didn’t smile; didn’t even blink that one eye. “I’m trying to make a point, Eva.”
“That you don’t find me attractive? Good. I don’t find you attractive either.”
It was as if I hadn’t spoken at all. “The point I’m trying to make is that when I first saw you, I thought you were trying pass.” He jerked his head toward the files on his desk. “God knows people seem to think I’m an expert on ‘passing,’ although I’m still not clear what I was trying pass myself off as. Sane? Dangerous? I dunno. But I know all about double lives. Normal construction worker by day, demon magnet by night, remember? I’ll be the first to tell you that straddling two worlds like that is not as easy as it looks. It’s probably even a stupid thing to do, but back then my choices were, ‘do both’ or ‘walk away.’ Walking away really wasn’t a good option for me for a lot of reasons I don’t want to get into right now.”
I felt like Mr. Harris was lecturing me and I couldn't resist saying in an irritated manner, “You said you had a point.”
Mr. Harris held up a hand to indicate that he was getting to it. A trick of the flickering light from the strategically placed oil lanterns in Mr. Harris’s hut gave the illusion that the hyena mask behind him was growing in size and moving around the wall. The effect was rather eerie.
“Eva, look at me, not the mask,” Mr. Harris said wearily.
I hadn’t realized that my attention had wandered and my eyes snapped to his face.
“What I’m trying to tell you is that I know about double lives and the need to hide one from the other. I also know what it’s like when you catch yourself just as you’re about to do or say something that would have people around you calling the police or calling for the men in white coats. I even know all about the days when you feel like you’re getting torn in half with the stress of hiding one life from the other.” Mr. Harris actually smiled then, but it seemed to me to be rather sad. “One thing your files did get right, though. I always reacted pretty badly when the Scooby part of my life interfered the normal part and I did overact when it happened. It wasn’t right, and it wasn’t fair, but there it is. Do you understand?”
I honestly didn’t, but I thought it best to nod, especially since I could swear that bloody mask was moving closer to us. I fully expected it to be sitting atop Mr. Harris’s left shoulder at any moment.
“The fact is, you’re hiding the Slayer mojo, but you’re not passing, are you?” Mr. Harris asked. “This is exactly who are. I mean, it took me awhile to get that, but I did. You’re a little bit more like me in that you’re trying to keep the two things separate when maybe you don’t need to anymore. I’ve got to tell you that it’s working about as well for you as it does me. Much as you’re going to hate hearing this, you can’t do it any more. You’ve got to decide what kind of person you are.”
Mr. Harris stepped back, and for a brief moment the mask appeared to be so close that I thought sure it would smack him in the back of the head. I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head.
“Eva, what is it?” Mr. Harris’s concerned voice broke through the darkness.
I opened my eyes and, I swear to you dear reader, the mask was floating in the air just behind him. The eyes seemed to have taken on a faint green glow. The jaws appeared to be opening, as if the mask was preparing to bite off Mr. Harris’s head.
Out of sheer reflex I pointed and screamed, “Look out! Behind you!”
Mr. Harris spun around.
The mask was on the wall just where it should have been.
As for Mr. Harris, he was in a fighting stance and looking around. “What? What is it?”
Alexnadrienne burst into the hut with stake in hand.
“Ally, wait!” Mr. Harris ordered.
The girl froze.
“Eva? What am I supposed to be looking at?” Mr. Harris inquired as if he were asking after my health.
“I thought I saw…” I hoarsely began. I cleared my throat, but the frog in it simply refused to go away. “I’m not sure.”
Mr. Harris nodded, but didn’t turn around. “Ally, it’s okay. Go back outside. There’s not going to be any problems.”
Alexandrienne snapped a nod and, surprisingly, spared a moment to smile at me as if I had passed some kind of test and that she was rather pleased about it. She then returned to the outside without a word.
Feeling like a fool, I tried to explain myself. “I thought I saw the mask sneaking up behind you.”
Mr. Harris turned, but only enough for me to see his profile, and it was the side with the eye patch at that. I couldn’t even begin to read his expression since so much of his face was blocked from my view.
“And did you?” he softly asked.
My eyes once more went to the mask, yet it remained firmly in place. “I…I…suppose not.”
Mr. Harris slowly nodded. “Well, these oil lanterns aren’t the most steady light,” he continued in that same soft voice. “A lot of shadows flicker around even at the best of times. If you’re overtired and overstressed, it seems like everything in the room is moving.”
“I…I suppose,” my voice dropped to a whisper as I spared Mr. Harris’s profile a glance.
Mr. Harris again slowly nodded. “I’m pretty sure you qualify on both counts of tired and stressed. No wonder you’re jumpy.”
“I could have sworn…” I began. I shook my head and cleared my throat. “Yes. Yes. A trick of the light I’m sure.”
“I’m sure,” Mr. Harris softly echoed. He turned his head to face me. He seemed to have a slight smile, but I couldn’t be sure. “Eva, sit down.”
I quickly dropped to the chair. I gave the Dogon mask one long look as I did so. Its visage was no more and no less hideous than it had been before the incident, and it was no less firmly attached to the wall.
Mr. Harris once again settled on the edge of his desk. “Eva, my mask’s not going to hurt anyone. It’s just a mask. That’s all.”
I jerked my head around to face him.
Mr. Harris seemed relaxed, perhaps more so than he had been before. His smile seemed rather genuine; despite the fact I probably made him jump out of his skin with my foolish moment of fright.
He sighed and shook his head. “Eva, do you even know what a Slayer is?”
“What sort of question is that?” I demanded. “I am—”
“No, you’re not,” Mr. Harris gently interrupted. “Don’t feel bad. I’ve seen it before, you know. All the Slayer mojo, but still, somehow, just not a Slayer. It’s not in you. I mean, you thought you saw an evil mask with green glowing eyes sneaking up behind me ready to rip my head off. A Slayer would’ve shoved me to the ground and attacked without even thinking about it.”
“What does it matter? It was a trick of the light. It wasn’t even real. You said so yourself,” I pointed out. I then realized that Mr. Harris had added details that I had not given him. My eyes narrowed with suspicion. “It wasn’t real, was it?”
Mr. Harris waved his hands. “It’s your reaction that’s important, not whether it was real, and not whether you’d look pretty dumb if you attacked and ended up smashing into a wall because there was nothing there to attack.” He then added with a grin, “But you did tell me to fight the illusion sneaking up behind me, and that’s really good.”
His response had answered nothing at all. “What on earth are you talking about? And what is going on?”
Mr. Harris folded his arms and regarded me with something close to amusement. “Eva, you’re a Watcher through and through. You know it and I know it. The Slayer mojo really doesn’t change that.”
“But the Slayer power, the Sacred Calling—” I began.
“With no killer’s instinct.” Mr. Harris then shook his head. “Well, you do have one, but it’s definitely not in the stake-first-dust-first realm. It’s more on the brain-y level and, boy, you know how to use that to attack someone. Hand you a book, you’re pretty dangerous. Hand you a stake, well…” He let the thought hang with a shrug. “Basically, you’ve got the skills to be a really good Watcher. The lack of killer instinct is going to get you pretty dead if you’re a Slayer.”
Against all reason, I felt I had to defend myself. “I staked that vampire you set on me!”
“Only because you had to,” Mr. Harris said. “It wasn’t your first or even your second instinct. Back people in a corner, though, and they’ll do a lot of things that aren’t their first or second instinct. Trust me on this one.”
I glared at him.
Mr. Harris sighed. “Okay, Eva. Answer me this. Can you imagine going out night after night, stake in hand, and patrolling everything in your general vicinity for the sole purpose of dusting vampires and killing demons? Is that what you really want to do?”
“Obviously not,” I grumbled.
“Is it something you think you can do, even with the Slayer mojo?”
I looked up at him with a frown.
“Be honest,” he prompted.
I looked down and shook my head.
The sound of rain once more filled the hut’s interior. Oddly enough, I felt relieved. I know I should have felt shame in admitting that I simply couldn’t be a Slayer, and yet I felt as if a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
“So we’ve pretty much established that you going back to London is good for me, bad for Roger, and deadly for you,” Mr. Harris said.
I looked up at him with a frown.
“Would you say that is fair?” he asked.
“I suppose,” I said.
“Okay, then. That leaves us with obvious choice number two.”
“Obvious choice number two?” I echoed as my frown deepened. If there was a second obvious choice, I certainly didn’t see it.
Mr. Harris snapped a nod. “You run.”
I couldn’t resist a sarcastic smile. “Would that be before or after you conveniently remove my Slayer guards?” I sweetly asked.
Mr. Harris grinned. “That would be after. Doing it before would just be silly.”
“Oh, yes. You’re going to tell your Slayers that I’ve agreed to behave and that there’s no need to keep me trapped in my hut.” I grinned back. “You will all then conveniently go to bed. Then, during the night, I will break my word and sneak away under the cover of darkness.”
Mr. Harris nodded. “Yeah. Yeah. That sounds about right.”
My jaw dropped. “It does?”
“Although I wouldn’t do it at night. I’d wait until after breakfast, because that way it would put us even more off our guard. Bonus, you could steal some extra food to take with you,” Mr. Harris nodded.
I shook my head. Mr. Harris had to be toying with me. “You’re going to call off the Slayer guards.”
“About four seconds after you leave the hut and they see that you haven’t killed me,” Mr. Harris cheerfully responded.
My eyes narrowed. “Someone will be watching me, I’m sure.”
“Nope. No watching.”
I studied him a moment. Then I asked the obvious question. “Where would I go?”
I tilted my head and regarded him with a rather puzzled smile. “Oh, why not. Theoretically, then.”
Mr. Harris clapped his hands with a grin. “Goody. I love theoretically.”
I frowned at him. “Did you just say ‘goody?’”
“Theoretically you could go to Djenné,” Mr. Harris announced.
“Why on earth would I want to do that?”
Mr. Harris made a comical face. “Hello? Bush taxis? Pinasse? I know the traffic isn’t high on non-market days, but it’s still tourist central and it is the height of tourist season.”
I gave up. Whatever game Mr. Harris was playing, I thought it best to go along until I could discover his aim. “I suppose I could just steal your jeep.”
Mr. Harris appeared to give it some thought. “Nah. Stealing the jeep would attract attention. Plus you’d get me mad.”
“We wouldn’t want that, would we?” I grumbled.
“Unh, who’s under Slayer guard because they annoyed the wrong people again?” Mr. Harris asked.
I glared. “Fine. Point taken.”
Mr. Harris cleared his throat as he settled himself more comfortably on the edge of his desk. “Now, I want to be clear, we’re just talking theoretically, okay?”
“Goody,” I grumbled as I echoed his earlier turn of phrase.
“Theoretically, you could leave in the middle of the night, but so not a good idea.” Mr. Harris placed a hand over his heart, a rather gaudy touch to show whatever passed for sincerity in his mind. “I have to tell you, Eva, the road to Djenné can get very confusing. There are a lot of wrong turns you can take. There are a lot tracks that go off the road. If you don’t know where the turn off is to get to the big city, you could land on one of those by mistake and find yourself lost in the middle of a Fulani’s herd of cows, and that’s if you’re lucky. I’ve been out here for about a year, give or take and if I don’t pay attention I can still get turned around and that’s during the day. You don’t even know the area, so I can only imagine that it’ll be a lot easier for you to get lost. So going at night? Not a good idea, even with Slayer eyesight working for you.”
Much as I was loath to admit it, Mr. Harris had a rather good point.
“So, theoretically, if I were trying to escape from my evil clutches, I’d have to choose a different time to do it.” Here Mr. Harris began tapping his chin with a forefinger, yet another flourish to indicate that he was thinking about how to solve such a puzzle just at that very moment. He snapped his fingers and grinned. “Know what? I think that earlier idea of leaving just after breakfast actually is the perfect time to do it.”
“Your gut instincts are positively amazing,” I sourly commented. “I’m not at all fooled by this, you know.”
“Who’s fooling anyone? Not me. I’m being completely honest with you,” Mr. Harris shrugged.
I believe I raised an eyebrow at this point.
“Think about it.” Mr. Harris got to his feet with his one eye fixed on the distance. He even extended one hand as if inviting me to view the future. “There you are at breakfast. Everyone sees you. It’s happy-happy-joy-joy time for all because obviously your word is your bond. No need to keep the guards on you 24/7. The Slayers will be relieved because guard duty is boring and they’d rather be doing anything else. I’m relieved because this mess is not as messy as I thought. All us relax, so much so that maybe we might not be as vigilant about your movements. More fool us,” here Mr. Harris inserted what he supposed was an evil laugh, “because you are sneaky like…like…Eva, help me out here. What’s a really good sneaky thing?”
“Piling it on a bit thick, aren’t you?” I asked.
Mr. Harris comically frowned. “Eva, give me a sneaky thing I can use.”
I sighed. It appeared he wouldn’t stop pestering me on this point until I gave him what he wanted. “A snake?”
Mr. Harris grimaced. “Too many negative connotations.”
“Good grief,” I muttered. “A mouse?”
I sarcastically grinned. “I know. An octopus.”
Mr. Harris slumped. “An octopus? Are you even trying?”
“An octopus is very sneaky. I saw it on one of Sir Attenborough’s nature documentaries,” I sniffed.
Mr. Harris glared. “Too PBS-y.”
“Well what do you want then?” I asked with frustration. “Nothing I suggest is good enough for you.”
“I’m looking for something sneaky that doesn’t require me watching something that’s good for my brain,” Mr. Harris petulantly responded.
“I know. A panther.” I couldn’t resist sarcastically adding, “Is a panther good enough? Will a panther do? Or do you have problems with panthers as well? I bet you don’t like cats, do you? I bet that’s your problem. It’s a cat, so therefore not good enough to be your sneaky thing.” I huffed as I crossed my arms. “Well, I’ll have you know I like cats. I had a pet cat as a child. Fuffa.”
Mr. Harris blinked at me. “Fuffa,” he deadpanned.
“I was 3 when I named her! And I meant to say ‘Fluffy,’” I protested.
Mr. Harris let out a breath. “Thank God. I would’ve been worried if you named her that when you were 16. But still…Fuffa? My mind is going to a very bad place right now.”
“Are you finished?” I snapped.
Mr. Harris rolled his eye. “Fiiiiiine. Panther it is.” He grinned. “Actually, that totally works. Stalker-y, hunter-y, very Slayer-y. Yup. I like it. Way to go, Eva!”
“I’m so glad you like it. I feared you’d tax my brain overmuch,” I remarked.
Mr. Harris ignored me. “So, there it is, just after breakfast. You’ve pocketed some extra food. I dunno. Maybe some bread. Hardboiled eggs. Who knows? Just food. Then, right at the height of confusion as everyone breaks up and heads off to wherever they’ve got to go for the day, that’s when you look around all panther-like. Seeing we’re very distracted, you get up and go,” Mr. Harris sharply clapped, which caused me to jump, “vroooomm!”
“Vroom?” I asked wearily.
“It’s vroooomm, and a total vroooomm at that,” Mr. Harris announced. He settled back onto the edge of his desk and leaned forward as if he were confiding in me. “Right to Djenné. It’s rainy season, so the boats are running regularly. It’s tourist central, so bush taxis to get you wherever. You can even really throw people off the trail and catch a ride on a random truck. Yup. I think in about two or three hours, your tracks could be well and truly covered and you could be anywhere.”
I studied him a moment. “There’s a catch. I know there’s a catch.”
Mr. Harris waved a hand. “Well, yeah, but I’ll get to that. First I need to tell you the really, really theoretical part.”
“Oh. I see,” I said with a vague nod. “We must first endure yet more theory.”
Mr. Harris shook a finger at me. “See? You’re being impatient. You’re so focused on some ‘catch’ that you haven’t thought about what I’m theoretically doing while you vroooomm off to God knows where. I mean, that’s going to be trouble if you don’t at least wonder about what I’m going to do. If you don’t plan accordingly, you’re not going to get very far, are you?”
I slumped and stared at him. Blasted hell. He wasn’t just toying with me; he was doing so in the cruelest manner possible.
Mr. Harris once more put a hand over his heart, and looked at me with something I suppose approached sincerity. “I have to admit that this is totally theoretical since I can’t actually see the future. Do you understand?”
I nodded in a dispirited manner.
Mr. Harris dropped his hand and he sighed. “Now, c’mon. Don’t be like that. I’m just telling you — theoretically, you understand — what’s most likely going to happen. I can’t just tell you that it’s definitely going to happen, just that it probably will happen this way because this is just the way my luck always goes.”
I looked up sharply at him with a puzzled frown.
“Things have kind of come to a standstill over this Revenge of the Gao situation and your arrival, so a lot of things have to get done,” Mr. Harris confessed. “I’m busy. The other adults are busy. Hell, the Slayers are all busy. We’re all so far behind that we can’t even begin to catch up. Theoretically it’ll be lunch before anyone notices you’re gone.”
My mouth dropped open. Was Mr. Harris actually offering to give me a few hours’ head start?
“Since we have breakfast somewhere around 8 and lunch is somewhere around 12:30ish, that’s what? More than 4 hours? That’s about right,” Mr. Harris said as if he were talking to himself.
I sat up. He was offering to give me a few hours’ head start. But why?
“Lunch is about an hour or so,” Mr. Harris continued as if my reactions didn’t register. “Theoretically speaking, no one will wonder where you are until near the end of that hour. Mostly it’ll be, ‘Hey? Have you seen, Eva?’ and ‘No, I haven’t’ and you can bet someone will say ‘Wasn’t she just here?’ Then people will go on to gossip about something else. I swear, show people something shiny and they get distracted. Eventually someone will say, ‘You know, I know I didn’t see her get lunch. Are you sure you’ve seen her?’ and that’ll be answered by ‘I think I saw her just before lunch.’ Right then someone will get nervous and say that maybe they should check.”
I can’t be hearing this correctly, I thought.
“So, off our intrepid trio go — well, a theoretical trio — and they do a quick search. They check your hut, they check the medical tent, they check the latrine, but no you,” Mr. Harris said. “Well, right then they figure they better tell me because, unh-oh, looks like you’re not actually here.” He leaned forward and said in a low voice, “I have to tell you, Eva, I will not be happy when I’m informed that no one’s seen you. Worse, instead of coming to me as soon as they were suspicious, they spent a half-hour diddling around.” He straightened back up and primly added, “Theoretically speaking, of course.”
“Of course,” I faintly echoed.
“Well, you know what that means,” he nodded.
I shook my head simply because I was too afraid to say anything.
“I gotta go for the sat phone and call Giles. Soooo, not a good thing,” Mr. Harris shook his head. “Giles will be all, ‘One simple thing and you can’t even get that right.’ And, ‘The plan was so simple a donkey could have done it.’ He’ll be cleaning his glasses, and sighing, and pinching his nose all while telling me that I’ve screwed up.” Mr. Harris got to his feet. “Well thanks a lot Giles! I know I’ve screwed up! Thank you for reminding me that I’m a screw-up. It’s not my fault! She was being all panther-y!”
So violent was this outburst that I shrank backwards in my chair.
Mr. Harris settled back onto the desk. “Good thing the sat phone’s battery is drained, hunh?”
“Wh-wh-what?” I stammered.
Mr. Harris’s eye innocently widened. “The sat phone. The one I used to call Giles. The battery’s drained so I can’t do anything with it, unless I want to use it as a paperweight. Theoretically speaking.”
“Oh. I see,” I faintly echoed.
“Well, not the first time that’s happened I’ll tell you.” Mr. Harris ran a hand through his hair. “This one time…nope. I won’t tell you that one right now. Let’s just say it involved a huge shark God and all I had was Ally and a couple of spear fishermen to help me deal with it. Ugly doesn’t even begin to cover it. Also embarrassing. Turns out I failed to sacrifice a 2-pound lobster to it and that’s why it was enraged.” He shook his head. “Where was I?”
“The sat phone?” I tentatively asked.
“Yes, the sat phone. Theoretically dead.” Mr. Harris once more ran a hand through his hair. “Did I already tell you that it’s not the first time something like that happened?”
“Shark god,” I weakly reminded him.
Mr. Harris pointed at me. “Right. Shark god. Anyway, I figure that maybe I can solve this situation without having to call Giles. That means I call out the troops to search for you. We tear apart the village. No you. I figure you couldn’t have gotten very far since you don’t know the area at all, so time to fan out everyone to search the hills and dales and…okay, the flat, dusty plain, but you know what I mean. Still no you. By this point, we’re talking something like 2 hours, maybe even 3. Theoretically speaking.”
“Theoretically speaking,” I echoed.
“Well, upon hearing the unhappy news that you’re not in the immediate area, it occurs to me that maybe, just maybe, you’ve run off to Djenné. That’s when I panic because, oh boy, if you caught a ride earlier in the day, you could be anywhere. At this point I have to assume you left sometime right after breakfast. And that’s…” Mr. Harris puffed out his cheeks and slowly released his breath through pursed lips. “Help me out, Eva. I’m lousy at math.”
“What?” I startled.
“How long of a head start could you theoretically have if you left right after breakfast?” Mr. Harris asked.
I quickly calculated in my head. “Seven or eight hours.”
“More like eight or nine. I think you forgot to include lunch hour,” Mr. Harris corrected me. His eye widened and he suddenly whistled. “Oh crap, it’s going to be dark two hours! Sooooo not looking good for the Xan-man here. If I can’t find you in Djenné, I have to assume that you hitched a ride somewhere. I’m going to have to hit the Tapama and borrow their phone. And when I tell Giles the news, he’s going to roast me alive.” Mr. Harris fixed me with a severe look. “I hope you’re feeling guilty right now.”
I was so surprised by this aside that I slipped. “Not really.”
Mr. Harris sniffed. “Figures. My not-so-promising career is jeopardy and you don’t feel even a twinge of guilt about it.” He waved a hand. “Never mind. So, where was I? Right. Going to Djenné to look for you. I hop in the jeep with Ally and we race for the big city.” He sighed. “Wouldn’t you know it? I blow a tire. Theoretically speaking.”
“As always,” I quietly said.
Mr. Harris nodded with a frown. “You know, this has happened before, too. Stupid road. Why can’t they just pave them like civilized people, hunh? I bet I ran over something, like a hoe, or a rake, or a nail. That’s the problem with some parts of Africa. No curbside trash pick-up. No wonder why everyone hates paying taxes around here.”
I just stared at him. How much of a head start was Mr. Harris planning to give me? It appeared that he was willing to give me quite a lot. But that still begged the question: Why on earth would he do that?
“Me and Ally are actually pretty good at tire-changing. It’s a required skill if you plan on bouncing around the continent,” Mr. Harris said. “Normally we can get a tire changed in 10 minutes flat, but,” here he comically winced, “I misplaced the lug nuts. Theoretically speaking.”
“Theoretically speaking,” I echoed with growing disbelief.
“So, 10-minute job turns into 45-minute job because we have to find the lug nuts before we go anywhere. The clock’s ticking fast-fast-fast. We finally reach Djenné and do a quick search to see if anyone’s seen you. That’s at least an hour or two before we’re done finding all my usual informants and questioning them and by then it’s dark. So, we’re now at, what? Between 10 and 12 hours after you left at this point. Theoretically speaking.”
I was stunned. Mr. Harris was giving me a half-a-day to lose myself.
“Any more than that would kind of strain belief, though,” Mr. Harris apologetically said. He winced and quickly added, “Theoretically speaking, just so we’re clear.”
“We’re clear,” I quickly agreed.
Mr. Harris grinned. “I gotta admit, Eva. That’s a good plan. A really good plan. You really are a genius.”
I frowned at him. “I’m a…but it’s your plan.”
Mr. Harris had the nerve to look insulted. “My plan? Did you hear me mention anything about a plan? Did the words “this is the new plan” cross my lips at any time? Unh-unh. I’m not stupid. I want you to go back to London and give yourself up. That’s my plan because that’s what Giles asked me to do. Besides, there’ll be goodness in it for me if you do go back to London. Why would I shoot myself in the foot by helping you run away?” He shook his head. “Nope. It’s your genius, panther-y plan all the way. Theoretically speaking.”
Light dawned. “Oh. I see.” I cleared my throat. “Then yes, yes it is a good plan if I say so myself. I am, indeed, a genius.”
Mr. Harris grimaced. “Weeeeellllll, maybe nnnooot.”
My shoulders slumped. “This is where you mention the catch, isn’t it?”
Mr. Harris nodded. “I mean, sure, you running away would pretty much prove to Giles that he can’t trust me to do anything right. Oh, I can survive the peel-the-paint-off-the-walls sarcasm. And I can deal with the good ol’ fashioned British snit complete with a stiff upper lip, doom-y frown of disapproval, and the glasses polishing of anger. No. The real problem for me comes in down the road. At some point, Giles may need me to do something for him, except that thanks to you, he’s going to think twice about trusting me to do it. Maybe he’ll give me a second chance, but maybe not. Either way, Giles is never going to be sure he can trust me again to do something right.”
“I think you’re being rather hard on Mr. Giles,” I pointed out. “After all, he is your mentor.”
My statement seemed to take Mr. Harris completely out of the moment and he stared at me as if he couldn’t believe that he had heard me properly. “He’s what?”
“Your mentor,” I answered in a puzzled voice.
Mr. Harris blinked. “Aaalllright-y then. Someone has a really weird idea about me and Giles, but we’ll just let that one lie there. Let’s just say I’m pretty sure I know how Giles will react a lot better than you do.”
“If you say so,” I responded, still puzzled by Mr. Harris’s reaction. Truth to tell, dear reader, I remain puzzled by it to this day. It seems rather clear to me that Mr. Giles has great affection for Mr. Harris and does mentor him, albeit in a rather nontraditional way.
Mr. Harris shook his head. “A lot of the reason why Giles will be really mad is because you never going back to London will be great for Roger-the-Snake. Your sudden disappearance from Mali is going to have the rumor mill spinning very fast. I’m very sure the word ‘murdered’ is going to get tossed around and people are going to start looking at me funny. That means Giles has to spill the whole thing about you being a Slayer and Roger planning to use you as his muscle. Problem is that without you there as evidence, it’ll look to some people like Giles is covering for me. Other people will believe him, though, since Giles does have some proof somewhere about what he says.”
That’s when I saw the catch. “To solve the mystery, people will look for me.”
“Bingo.” Mr. Harris crossed his arms with a sigh. “Doesn’t seem fair, does it? Roger not only gets off scott free, he’ll probably be better off. Some people will think that Giles is unfairly targeting him, so he’ll get sympathy support. He gets to keep his Slayer muscle, whoever she is. Worse, it’ll be harder for Giles to prove that he’s got Slayer muscle because he’s already made that accusation against you and you’re nowhere to be found. Sure, I’ll be in tough shape over the short term, but I’ll probably recover over the long term. Meanwhile, you have to live life on the lam.”
“The lam?” I asked as my heart sank.
“It’s shame, isn’t it?” Mr. Harris gave me a pitying look. “All that training and knowledge in that Watcher brain, all that Slayer mojo giving you a helping hand, and you’ll never, ever be able to use any of it. You’ll never be able to take a job where it’ll give you an advantage because you just might attract the wrong kind of attention. Worse, even if you choose a job that can never, ever be connected to your Watcher training, you can never excel at it because that might draw the wrong kind of attention, too. You’ll be condemned to a life of being average.” He tsked. “Don’t wish that on anyone.”
Mr. Harris had obviously misread me. I had actually aspired to being normal prior to being sent to Mali. True, it was normal as defined by the Council, and also true I hoped to excel within the Council’s research arm, but neither ambition would have put me in the spotlight, nor would it have made me a hero had I managed to achieve either. In fact, I would be considered quite ordinary by Council standards.
“Also, that proud Swithin family name? That’s gotta go, too,” Mr. Harris added.
I sat up straight and opened my mouth to protest. Just before any words escaped, I realized that Mr. Harris was right and my mouth snapped shut.
“I’d even chuck ‘Eva,’ just to be on the safe side,” Mr. Harris nodded. “So, the name Eva Swithin has to go. Then you’ve got to change your appearance. New hair color. New hair style. You’ll have to dress different. Since you can’t grow a beard, you might want to consider fake glasses, maybe even contacts that change your eye color.”
Mr. Harris leaned forward and added, “But do you really want to know what the real killer is, Eva? There’s no guarantee that you wouldn’t be found eventually. The Council still has the seers and they can still pick up on Slayers wherever they are. Now, granted, they haven’t figured out how to look for one particular Slayer when they’ve got a whole world to search. After your escape, you could be anywhere, so trying to find you will be like trying to find a needle in a mountain of needles. Not going to happen. But there’s nothing stopping them from pointing at whatever small town you’ve landed in and saying, ‘I see a Slayer.’ They might not know it’s specifically you, but they’ll hone right in on the Slayer mojo.”
“In the end I would be caught,” I whispered.
“Not necessarily,” Mr. Harris corrected me as he sat upright. “One advantage you have is that you already know the seers will eventually spot you. All you’ve got to do is keep a low profile, move often, and keep the eyes and ears open. If you spot anyone who looks like Council, you’ll just have to pick up and run. Sure, you’ll have to leave behind all your stuff, not to mention whatever life you’ve managed to build for yourself, but better that than going back to London, right?”
“I’ll be looking over my shoulder the rest of my life,” I protested.
“Yeah, pretty much,” Mr. Harris nodded. “And the longer you run, the harder it’ll be to avoid being spotted. The Council is rebuilding and sooner or later its worldwide network will be back up and connected. The seers have already improved a lot since they started Slayer-spotting and they’re only going to get better with more practice. The fact is you could spend the rest of your life dodging close calls, or you could end up getting caught anyway.”
I glared. “Running away isn’t much of an option, is it?”
Mr. Harris spread his hands. “Unless you know something I don’t or unless you can see a flaw in my thinking.”
“Give me time,” I grumbled. “I’m almost certain you’ve missed something.”
“Probably,” Mr. Harris easily agreed. “But to recap, this particular choice would be great for Roger-the-Codger, not-so-hot for me, and dumps you into a life of suck. The only upside is that you might avoid being forced into the life of a Slayer, but the downside is that you’ll never get to have the life of a Watcher.” He shook his head. “I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sound worth it to me.”
I could see what Mr. Harris was doing. He was trying to force me to accept my fate and return to London under my own power. Well, I thought, he wouldn’t get away with it.
Mr. Harris crossed his arms and looked at me thoughtfully. “Now that we’ve got the two obvious options out of the way, I just want to bring up that maybe there’s a third option.”
“I can’t wait to hear it,” I deadpanned.
“The problem is it’s way out there.” Mr. Harris waved into the distance. “And when I say way out there, I’m talking somewhere around Pluto. Maybe even another galaxy. I don’t think you’ll go for it. Hell, even I think it’s a pretty dumb idea because I know you’ll hate it. So, since I’m pretty sure my idea is pretty dumb, why don’t you tell me your idea.”
I startled. “What?”
“Your idea,” Mr. Harris said firmly. “You mentioned you had ‘some thoughts on the matter, but that it might be difficult.’ Your exact words. So if you’ve thought of something I haven’t, I’d like to hear it because, I’ve got to tell you Eva, neither one of the options I’ve brought up so far thrill me.”
Mr. Harris then fell silent and expectantly waited.
In the silence, broken only by the patter of rain on the roof, I recalled Dave’s words. Harris is a reasonable guy. He’s not looking to screw you over. If anything, he’s looking for a way to not screw you over, but he can’t do anything if you’re not willing to help him find a way out of it.
The question I had to decide in these few moments afforded me is whether I was willing to go through with it. That it was the superior choice to the two choices Mr. Harris had presented thus far, there was no doubt in my mind. The doubt was whether I could trust Mr. Harris to hold up his end of my proposed bargain. Even if Mr. Harris was willing, and I must be honest dear reader I had doubts about that at the time, he might not be able to in the face of Mr. Giles’s objections.
There was nothing for it. I had to at least try.
I gathered my thoughts, marshaled my arguments, and took a deep breath. Then I laid my one trump card on the table. “I could stay here and help you administer the village.”
Mr. Harris’s forehead crunched.
I plunged forward. “I have heard time and again that you, personally, are overextended. You’re constantly pulled in many different directions in the field, and are sometimes traveling for weeks at a time. You have to make time in your busy schedule to return here and deal with Council-related matters that no one else among your advisors has the authority to deal with. In a period when you should rest from your labors in the field, you are trapped in your hut dealing with administrative matters. I,” here I pointed at myself, “could take that load off completely your shoulders. What’s more, I can scare up additional resources for you and your people. As you said yourself, once the entire Council knows the existence of this village, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get all the resources you need. I, on the other hand, know many, many people in the lower echelons. They know how to creatively implement Council policy and decisions. I would know who would be a soft touch should we need to access to certain resources and information, and I would know who we should avoid.”
“What are you getting out of this?” Mr. Harris asked.
I felt emboldened by the fact that Mr. Harris hadn’t dismissed my proposal out of hand. “In exchange, I ask that you keep the fact that I’m a Slayer a secret from the Council at large and to intervene with Mr. Giles on my behalf. I am well aware that it would require you to trust me, but keep in mind that I would be forced into a position of trusting you. I am also well aware that the devil is in the details and that we’d have to work very hard to get it approved and that my plan could come to naught if Mr. Giles objects, but I think it’s worth the try.”
Mr. Harris’s expression took on a thoughtful appearance as he shook his head and tapped his lips with a forefinger. “Wow. That’s…that’s out there. It’s an unusual…I mean it’s so sudden and just out of the blue and…well, it’s a big step and…you’re not asking for something small there are you? I’ll have to really think it over because…maybe even sleep on it because—” He burst into a grin. “I accept!”
My jaw dropped and I stared at him.
Mr. Harris folded his arms and his grin got wider.
That’s when I finally figured out his game.
“You bastard!” I explodedTBC...