"That aedile wants another hunting expedition, they'll be floating his body back to New Damnation," Banty said, low and through his teeth.
Fisk sniffed, glanced at the smoke billowing above us, and then back out over the Big Rill's sun-hammered silver. No one moves the way Fisk does. Slow and deliberate, each gesture languid and relaxed. Until it isn't.
The Cornelian churned the waters, bragrags whipping in the wind, steaming upriver, while we kept pace. Fisk and I took the escort contract from Marcellus out of New Damnation, but the aedile's tribune saddled us with Banty, the greenhorn, who was good for nothing, except big talk and no action. The tribune wasn't a bad fellow, but even good folks make mistakes.
Fisk watched the Cornelian, the sky, the land. He remained still but his eyes never stopped roving, grey eyes, bleached by sun and years in the elements. Partners for the last decade and I still didn't know anything about the man, other than scraps and pieces. Had a family once. Could shoot out the eye of a sparrow on the wing. Feared no man, nor Vaettir. No rest until the stretchers are gone from the earth. He hated them with passion only reserved for Gods, dangerous women, and whiskey.
Head count conscripts milled about on the boat's galleries, staring out into the West, no doubt scanning the horizon for stretchers, terrified. Up on the top deck in the shadow of the pilot's roost stood an an umbrella, and the frill of patrician women. The stacks, daemon fired, blew ash and cinder skyward as if answering the flames of the fields.
Fire calls to fire, they say. I believe that.
From where I sat on Bess, I watched the other scouts, Sharbo, Ellis, and Jimson riding the western shore, stirrup high in fallow growth. No farms that side of the river, so close to the mountains. Stretchers come down, raiding.
Fisk said, slowly, "How you figure, Mr. Bantam?"
Banty put a hand on his pistol, a Hellfire .32 with Imp rounds. Sure to sully his soul, but deadly.
"I'll kill him."
Fisk glanced at the young man, taking in the rumpled uniform, the tight grip on his pistol.
"You might be stupid enough, at that."
Nick Hardin never thought his first Hollywood party would be in a big-assed tent on the Chad-Sudan border, but here he was, nursing a gin and tonic, hoping he’d set things up far enough west that he was out of RPG range in case some Janjaweed punk got a bug up his ass. Fucking Mooney and his do-gooder shit.
Hardin had run into Jerry Mooney in Khartoum almost a year back. Darfur was heating up as the PR play of choice for socially conscious Hollywood types looking to bump up their Q scores. Hardin was heading out on his usual fixer gig for one of the networks. Same gig he’d been running since he got out of the Foreign Legion back in 1996 – logistics on a file footage job. Camera guy, sound guy, some former BBC face with the right kind of public school accent and safari guide outfit. Get 10 or 15 minutes in the can from the hell hole of the week so Nightline’s got something for a slow news day. Run the film, then cut back to the studio where the talking heads and maybe someone from Medicines sans Frontiers or some Foggy Bottom undersecretary could cluck their tongues between beer commercials. A little of the self-flagellation that a goodly portion of the folks that actually watch Nightline like to engage in before bed – helps them sleep better. Hardin’s job? Line up some transport and some security that, when you bought them for a couple of days, stayed bought. Point the talent at the right locations, pay off the right warlords, make sure the face gets his interview without getting his throat cut and the crew gets out without having to buy back their equipment at ten bucks on the dollar.
The face in this case being Nigel Fox. Hardin liked Nigel, and Nigel liked gin. That’s why he was spending his twilight years stringing the massacre circuit when he used to cover No. 10 Downing Street for BBC 1. Hardin had done Somalia with Nigel, Liberia back in the Taylor days. Kinshasha, Rawanda. The beginnings of a beautiful friendship. Hardin waited at the Khartoum airport by the Twin Otter he’d chartered as Nigel walked across the tarmac with his crew, a couple of stoner Italian adrenaline junkies. And with Jerry Mooney.
Hardin had heard of Mooney, of course. Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor. Square-jawed leading man in a maybe dozen chart-topping flicks. Probably more than a dozen – Hardin figured a few had come out that hadn’t made it to the flea-bag cinema down the street from his place in Accra.
“Nick Hardin,” said Nigel, “meet Jerry Mooney.”
“Jerry,” said Hardin, shaking hands. He turned to Nigel. “We still shooting news or are we making a movie?”
“Little of both, old boy,” Nigel said. “Ran into Jerry here at the Hilton night before last. Splendid chap. Shared a bottle of Boodles, and let me have more than half. Anyway, he was headed down to Darfur for a look-see, some video-blog thing for his web site. Marvelously technical, beyond me of course. But his fixer bolted on him, left the poor man stranded. All for one and one for all, of course, so I told him he could pack along with us.”
“Nice of you spend my nickel, Nigel,” said Hardin.
“Hey, Nick,” said Mooney, “Look, I know I’m imposing, and I know you’ve got to make a living. The guy I was supposed to meet up with, he’d said $500 a day, American, plus expenses. Nigel tells me we’re back tomorrow night, so that’s two days. Suppose we say $2500, is that fair?”
Usury is what it was, but Mooney threw out the number. Mooney was starting to smell like the gravy train. With a capital G and a capital train.
“Yeah, OK,” said Hardin.
Mooney smiled. Big, dimpled movie star smile. “All right. Off to the heart of darkness.”
Hardin caught the little smirk from Nigel. They always do that, the first timers. Drop the Conrad on you. But the darkness wasn’t concentrated in a heart anywhere. It had metasticzed into hundreds of tumors. Some, like Darfur, were a thousand miles wide. But most of them were about the size of a qat-chewing 13-year-old with an AK-47.
Nigel waved the Italians back to the truck. “You’ve forgot the bloody gin.”
And now for something completely different. Malachi Stone has somewhere close to 84 novels completed. He's just waiting on his checks. Here's the newest one he's posting, NIGHTMARE NUMBER NINE.
“Charred meat gets me hot.” She grinned at him, trying for lewd and crude. The steak joint was nothing special, one of those where they let you throw peanut shells on the floor and every twenty minutes or so they make the waitresses get up and line dance just in case your conversation lags.
His and her conversation hadn’t lagged. He’d never taken his eyes off of her, not once, even though the waitresses all wore tight jeans and skimpy western tops and danced right beside them, practically on top of them in fact, all of them twitching their butts and clapping their hands in rhythm to the country music. He’d ignored them. She was making an extra effort to be vivacious tonight, a rare treat for him. He was eating it up all through dinner.He slipped a steak knife into his coat sleeve on the way out after leaving a generous enough tip so that nobody’d mind. He opened the passenger door for her in the parking lot. She turned to slide in and was just starting to smile at him in that open-mouthed way she had—there was a black string of charred meat dangling from her left upper canine—when he put the knife in her, never breaking eye contact.He put the body in a funny place. Then he drove home and went to sleep. Heavy meals always made him logy.
The date of my appointment turned out to be the first day Brenda had the saddle splint off her nose. Both her eyes were still black like a raccoon’s but the bruises under her eyes and across her cheeks had faded to the colors of autumn. We both were weary of explaining their presence to every client of ours who’d wandered into the office over the past two weeks. I’m sure at least half of them, as well as most of the attorneys, clerks and judges Brenda and I dealt with every day at the courthouse, suspected me of being a wife-beater. The truth was more difficult to explain, but hardly less shameful, at least for me.
The nurse weighed me before ushering us into a sterile white examining room with a single print hanging on the wall. After a moment some long-ago vestige of my college art apprece course kicked in and I recognized it as William Blake. I pointed it out to Brenda.
"Michael Binding Satan,” she acknowledged, slurring her pronunciation of “Satan.” She still hadn’t had the repair surgery and her speech was affected in a subtle way. “Has kind of a yin yang thing going on, don’t you think? Appropriate for a sleep disorders clinic I suppose.”“Why’s that?”
“Isn’t it obvious? The one having the nightmare is Satan. He represents the chaos of the subconscious mind. Check out the rictus of terror on his face, the reptilian tail flailing around like Leviathan. And see the Archangel Michael putting a sleeper hold on Old Scratch, getting ready to pin him to the mat? Michael represents man’s consciousness fully awakened, putting the sleep disorder devil under his feet once and for all. Don’t you find it encouraging?”
“I could have used you in first year art apprece class.”
“You’ve used me often enough since then, Darling. And don’t you love it how the pronunciation of college course titles reverts to a pidgin Italian? Art apprece. Or soce for sociology, as in, ‘I sold back my soce book and only got a lousy buck for it.’ Guess I’m more sensitive to pronunciation issues these days.”
“Non lo parlo molto bene,” I singsonged.
“You’re the only person I ever met who took Italian in college. Why, Bosco? Perchè?”
“I needed a language.”
“We all need a language, dear heart. We’re a communicative species. But why Italian? I don’t think I ever asked you that before. It must have been over a cute girl. It was over a cute girl, wasn’t it?”
Brenda was my second wife, Betsy had been my first, a big mistake but soon corrected. Even though I was still working my way through the B’s I knew enough not to rise to that bait. “I wanted to read Dante in the original language,” I told her. Mercifully, the doctor chose that moment to appear.
Addressing Brenda the doctor said, “Looks like you were in a knockout.”
“Thank you for noticing, Doctor, but I’m afraid the man sitting next to me is the patient.”
Still focused on Brenda, who despite her injuries was and is a remarkably attractive woman, the doctor asked her, “So how are you doing?”
“I’m still prone to mouth breathing and am often mistaken for Boris Karloff on the telephone, but other than that I’m hanging in there, Doctor.”
“Nonsense. No one with ears could ever mistake your lovely voice for Boris Karloff’s.”
“You’re very kind. I was referring to my lisp. A temporary condition caused by my deviated nasal septum.”
“I know a good man for that.”
“So do I, Doctor. The problem is finding the time for going under the good man’s knife.”
“Yes, I see from the patient questionnaire that you two are husband and wife attorneys. That must make for a busy and challenging life.”
“Mine’s busy,” I broke in. “Hers is challenging.”
The doctor took a history. From Brenda second-hand, a fact I found rather disquieting. He asked her whether I ever walked in my sleep, talked gibberish in my sleep, slept with my eyes open, or in general behaved like a zombie after bedtime. Brenda answered every question in the affirmative, a fact I found even more disquieting.
“Does your husband ever rise stiffly in bed?”
“I beg your pardon, Doctor?” Brenda replied.
“You mistake my meaning. What I meant was, does he sit up in bed stiff as a corpse from time to time?”
She told him yes.
“And does he often awaken disoriented or confused, or with a blank look on his face?”
“Yes, Doctor. He stays that way all day long, too. Just look at him.”
“I don’t know whether you’re approaching this matter with the appropriate degree of gravity, Ms. Hoël.”
“Gravity? You want gravity, Doc? Try going ten rounds with this one some night. It’s like walking blindfolded into a pitching machine.”
“I only meant—”
Brenda asked, “So what’s the bad news, Doc? Give it to us; we can take it.”
“In my time I’ve encountered enough wives and girlfriends with cracked ribs, dislocated jaws and deviated nasal septa to recognize a case of night terrors when I see one,” the doctor said. He looked to be about thirty and had the air of a driving instructor about him. A driving instructor who spent more time pumping iron in the weight room at Gold’s Gym than he did poring over the medical literature. And even though we were in the examining room I couldn’t help noticing him poring over my wife’s gracefully crossed legs and picturing him pumping her instead of iron.
“Night terrors,” I said. “I’ve heard of those. Isn’t that where you see little green men coming to take you away?”
“Not necessarily. Sometimes they’re more of a teal.” He studied Brenda’s face for any reaction, then lowered his gaze to her right foot bouncing with nervous impatience. “Yes, night terrors, with a generous side order of adult-onset somnambulism. I’m fairly well convinced of my diagnosis, but to confirm it I’m ordering a sleep study. How’s this evening sound? We’ll plan on checking you in at the center around eightish.”
“Sounds like a preposterously early bedtime to me,” I said. “What about elevenish? Or even stroke-of-midnightish?”
The doctor didn’t smile. His stare had crept up to Brenda’s thighs and nestled there. She tugged at the hem of her skirt.
All three guys, fellow Team Decker members, continue to work on posting their stuff up on the web, for free. Call it sharing, promotion, beta testing, whatever. It's great to see so much good stuff out here. Right now, you've got three hunks of brilliance to enjoy. Make a note and when these books are on the end caps at Barnes and Noble and the front page at Amazon, you'll have fresh pieces of awesome to use your rewards cards on.