Authors: Margaret Maron
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For Barbara Mertz, who extended a generous hand to a ragtag bunch of unknowns
he sits huddled on the dirt floor in near darkness, her knees drawn up to her chin, her arms clasped around her legs to keep them from trembling. A dim battery-operated lantern gives barely enough light for the guard to keep a watchful eye on her and another journalist. So far as she knows, they are the only two westerners still alive from the UN group who came to this village to deliver food, water, and medical supplies. Humanitarian aid. It was supposed to have been a safe day trip out from Mogadishu. Instead, their trucks were ambushed and strafed with bullets, their drivers’ mangled, bloody bodies thrown into the nearest ditches. Beyond the walls of this hut, bursts of gunfire and shrieks of terror still mingle with the screams of villagers and their children dying in agony.
Unless they have been separated to hold for ransom—a not unrealistic hope, the other journalist whispered before their guard ordered them to keep silent with a wave of his rifle—it will soon be their turn to die.
She knows she is not brave. Given the chance, she will probably cower and beg for her life, but she has passed from paralyzing fear to calm regret for her daughter and her onetime lover. Her daughter is grown, well launched on a satisfying career; but the life she could have built with her old love, even supposing he still cares for her, had been a glimmer of light through the dark tunnel of the guilt that drove them apart. Now she will never know if the breach could have been healed or if—
Her thoughts are cut off by a rustle in the doorway. The guard’s rifle swings toward the two Arab men in native robes who duck through the opening, kicking a bundle of some sort before them.
,” says the first man, while the second steps forward and points toward the two prisoners. He seems to be questioning the guard about them with assured authority.
Distracted, the guard turns his back on the first man to answer, when that one suddenly slips his arms under the guard’s, locks his hands behind the man’s head, and forces his neck to bend so sharply that she hears his spine pop and sees his body go limp before she fully understands what has just happened. The second man grabs the fallen rifle.
He points it at the woman and her colleague and in heavily accented English, says, “We go now.”
The first man lets the guard’s body slide to the ground, then pushes the bundle toward them and says something in Arabic. The second man nods. “You put on.”
She pulls at the cloth. Two burkas, complete with head scarves. Her colleague does not hesitate, but instantly slides one over his head and helps her with the other. He adjusts their scarves till only their eyes are visible.
“Keep your hands hidden and your head down,” he tells her, “and don’t look anyone in the eye even if they speak to us.”
The assassin gives a murmur of approval and motions for them to follow.
Outside, they keep to the shadows, and the woman has almost begun to allow herself hope when a tall Ethiopian soldier with an automatic rifle blocks their way. His teeth glisten in the light from a nearby burning hut and she does not need to know the language to understand that he is claiming her as his own booty. He grabs her by the breast, but before he can rip off her burka, he is felled by a blow to the nape of his neck with the butt of the rifle the second Arab carries.
Minutes later, they are bundled into the backseat of a battered and bullet-pocked car and are speeding back to Mogadishu through the darkness over rutted, bomb-shelled roads. She unclenches her hands from the folds of her burka and realizes that they are coated in something sticky. She holds them up to her nose and smells.
“Oh my God!” she says. “This burka. It’s soaked in blood!”
The assassin, who is driving, gives a short bark that could be a laugh, and the other man says, “She not be needing it. You, yes.”
“Who are you?” the other journalist asks. “How did you find us?”
“No talk,” he says.
When they finally reach a relief camp on the outskirts of the city, they are ordered out of the car. Before their rescuers drive away, the assassin calls to her and holds something out in his hand. A camera.
“He say sorry,” the other man tells her. “Only this one he can save.”
Although smaller than the Leica she has lost, this is her favorite and the camera she uses most frequently.
“Tell him thank you,” the woman says. She grasps the man’s hand before he can pull away. “Thank you both for saving us.”
His eyes gleam oddly in the lights of the camp as he jerks his hand back, throws the car into gear, and speeds away.
“Sweet friggin’ Jesus! What a story!” her companion says as they stumble toward the fire and safety. “I’ve heard you can break a man’s neck with one good yank, but that’s the first time I ever saw it done.”
Date: Dec 27, 2010 12:23:14 PM EST
The situation is better than I hoped. I have the use of an abandoned house out in the country. Weather at the moment is much like London: cold, but not freezing. Sending this from a computer in a nearby library. Should be safe.
Tell Michael I found the guitar picks he wanted and will mail them next week.
Date: January 18, 2011 03:16:12 PM EST
To: [email protected]
What’s happening? Nothing from you in two weeks.
Subject: Re: ???
Date: January 19, 2011 01:26:21 PM EST
Intel was good, but I got it too late. He came in after dark and left before noon next day. Not to worry, Rihana. Sooner or later, etc. We’ve waited this long, we can be patient. Otherwise, things are going as planned. The vultures are beginning to trust me. One has let me band his leg without spewing all over me.
Subject: It Works
Date: February 2, 2011 04:26:02 PM EST
The first pictures are crisp and clear. Still waiting though. Turns out that security may not be a problem. Have learned there’s a better option.
If it won’t embarrass him, give my godson a birthday hug for me and tell him I’ve deposited £50 to his iPod account for his birthday. 16! If only Gerry could see how much he’s matured this last year.
In America, the term “buzzard” is often employed incorrectly to describe vultures. This probably dates back to the arrival of the first English colonists. There are no vultures of any type in England, so these pioneers probably gave the common term “buzzard” to all the soaring figures above the New World.
—The Turkey Vulture Society
idafternoon and the thin February rain was making a total nuisance of itself—too light to turn the windshield wipers on steady, yet too heavy to let them clear the glass between intermittent sweeps. At least it wasn’t cold enough to turn the rain to ice. Frustrated, my nephew Reese fiddled with the adjustable settings while I tried to find where he’d hidden the NPR station on his radio.
Up ahead, I caught a glimpse of movement on the wet pavement.
“Look out!” I cried, automatically stomping on brakes that weren’t there because I was buckled into the passenger side of the pickup.
With a sickening
, the front right tire hit flesh.
Reese glanced in his rearview mirror, braked, and immediately threw the truck in reverse.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
Looking into my own mirror, I saw no motion, only a splash of bright red blood that the rain had washed from the crushed head. No way could that small body still have a spark of life in it, but Reese kept backing up till we were even with it. Luckily, this was a deserted country road with nothing but scrub pines and bare-twigged underbrush on either side and no other vehicles behind or ahead.
“Won’t take a minute,” Reese said, hopping out of the cab. I twisted around in my seat to watch him push aside the tarp that covered the neon sign we’d just picked up from the auction house so that he could get at a plastic tub that was secured to the side of the truck bed with a couple of bungee cords. He picked the dead squirrel up by its fluffy tail, dropped it in the box, and snapped the lid back in place. Through the translucent plastic, I could make out another small shape.
All of my brothers and their children grew up cooking and eating whatever they shot when out hunting—deer, rabbits, game birds—but roadkill? Besides, I’ve heard Reese on the subject of tree rats too often to think he was going to take that squirrel back to his trailer and dress it out. Even Haywood’s quit eating squirrel except when Daddy gets Maidie to stir up a washpot of Brunswick stew big enough to share with the whole family.
(According to Daddy, “It ain’t a real Brunswick stew if it ain’t got a squirrel in it.”)
Like some of my equally squeamish sisters-in-law, I sort of pick around any dubious chunks of meat and fill up on the vegetables.
I hadn’t paid any attention to that box when he and my brother Will slid the sign into the bed of the truck. I was too excited that Will had come through on his promise to find me the perfect piece of retro neon for the back wall of the pond house we planned to build this summer. The battered pink metal sign was pig-shaped, measured about five feet long by three feet tall, and spelled out
BAR-B-CUE & SPARE RIBS
in bright orange neon tubing on the side. Normally it would have been out of my price range, but one side was so damaged that it could no longer swing freely and be viewed from both sides. It was going to need some electrical work, too, but hey, when one of your eleven brothers and two of his kids are electricians, you get the family discount. I figured a case of beer and all the barbecue Reese could eat for the next month at our cousin’s barbecue house would just about cover the cost of getting that pig up and oinking.
For the record, Will is three brothers up from me and runs an auction house on the west side of Dobbs, our county seat.
Reese’s dad, Herman, is four more up from Will, one of the “big twins,” which is how we differentiate Herman and Haywood from Adam and Zach, the “little twins” who were supposed to be the end of the line. I was an unexpected bonus—a “change baby” and the only girl. Herman’s in a motorized wheelchair now, so Reese and his sister Annie Sue do most of the electrical work these days, but Herman still keeps his hand in with whatever jobs he can do sitting down. Between the three of them, that pig was going to look just fine.
But first I had to get it stashed in one of the outbuildings on the farm before Dwight got wind of it.
My husband thinks neon is tacky, and so far I haven’t found the right place to hang the blue guitar sign I stole when I was sixteen (and spent the summer working off), the bright multicolored
OPEN TILL MIDNIGHT
sign that came home with me one New Year’s Eve, or the pink-and-white
sign that Will and Amy gave us when we got married. I’m hoping that when the pond shelter is built and Dwight sees that back wall filled with vibrant tubes of colorful lights that he’ll change his mind about neon and agree that this is exactly what’s been missing at our family get-togethers.
“What’s with the squirrel?” I asked Reese when he came around the side and opened the door.
He shook the rain from his cap, then climbed back behind the wheel and wiped his face dry on his sleeve.
“Guy I met a couple of days ago,” he said, finally getting the wipers set the way he wanted them before he put the truck in gear. “I told him I’d bring him any roadkill I found as long as it hadn’t been dead too long. Hey! Don’t change the station. I like that song. Beside, it’s appropriate.”
Diverted, I cocked my head, trying to get a fix on the music. The song was something I’d heard before, but the band?
Reese grinned. “Squirrel Nut Zippers.”
My answering smile became a frown when he turned off the paved road onto one that was dirt and gravel. We were still a couple of miles from the farm and I was in no mood for one of his side trips, not when Dwight was due home in less than an hour. As Sheriff Bo Poole’s second in command, his normal hours are eight to four, and it was already a minute or two past four.
Reese is about as reliable as a three-dollar watch. I couldn’t trust him to stow the sign where Dwight wouldn’t see it the minute he dropped in on Daddy.
“This is no time for a detour,” I said. “Where’re we going?”
“I told you. Guy I just met. I need to drop off those squirrels before they start smelling.”
“He wants roadkill? Why?”
This road was a deserted dead end with no houses for the last half mile and I hadn’t been on it since I was in high school. A lane meanders off to the left to wind up at the creek, and it used to be a popular makeout spot. Might still be for all I knew. Back then, it was way too close to the farm for anything except a few chaste kisses in the moonlight before my date drove me home. A bootlegger—
,” said the preacher who lives in the back of my head.)
(An amused snort came from the more cynical pragmatist who dwells there, too.)
Former or not—and as a district court judge, I live in fear that he’s going to turn up in a colleague’s courtroom one of these days—a bootlegger keeps tabs on anything happening around him, and Daddy seemed to have a pair of eyes everywhere when I was growing up. If I’d tried to park here with someone on the basketball team, word would have gotten back to him and Mother before the car windows fogged up good, so I’d kept the foggy window thing at least ten miles away.
The road ended, but another, nearly invisible lane continued on through the dripping trees, then leveled out into a sloped clearing next to a meadow that ran down to a creek. Beyond the creek was a stand of mixed hardwoods and I realized that those bare trees marked the western boundary of our family’s land.
A weathered clapboard tenant house with a rusty tin roof sat at the top edge of the meadow. Smoke drifted from the chimney and was pushed down by the heavy wet air to cloud around the rooftop.
I searched my memory and asked, “Isn’t this the old Ferrabee place? I thought it got bought up as part of Talbert’s housing development.”
Reese shrugged. The last Ferrabee died long before either of us was born, and Reese had been brought up in Dobbs, so the name meant even less to him than it did to me. I tried to think who might own this forgotten slice of woods and meadow, but nothing popped to the surface. I’d have to ask Daddy. He would certainly know. In fact, he’d probably put in an offer if the land had changed hands anytime recently. Daddy’s like one of those old Iron Curtain countries: land-poor, yet always trying to extend the buffer between our homeplace and the outside world.
Reese pulled up to the porch and blew his horn.
No response. Not even a telltale twitch of the sun-faded shades that were tightly drawn over the windows.
“Must not be home,” I said. “I don’t see a car. Let’s go.”
He tapped the horn again.
Rain dripped from the porch overhang onto the single homemade wooden step. When I made a pointed show of looking at my watch, Reese eased off the brakes and the truck moved forward to circle past a corner of the house that had, till now, blocked our view of a rusty old black Ford pickup down near the creek. A muddy track was all the invitation Reese needed, and even though I yelled at him, we went bouncing across the rough meadow.
The black truck was parked beside a broad slab of cracked concrete. The slab was half enclosed by the stubby remains of a wall that was now only three or four bricks high and had probably served as the foundation for a barn or storage shelter years ago. This time of year, night comes early and the gathering dusk blurred the landscape. As we neared the ruins, what had looked like a clump of dark wet rocks suddenly morphed into three big black birds that pushed off from the slab and flew away.
Reese drew even with the driver’s side of the other truck and powered down his window. After a moment or two, the man inside lowered his and I looked into an unfamiliar face.
Late fifties or early sixties if the graying hair at his temples and a grizzled unkempt beard meant anything, the stranger wore a ratty black derby that had seen better days, a heavy black work jacket zipped up over what looked like black twill coveralls, and an unfriendly scowl. He could have been any dirt farmer in the county, annoyed by unexpected guests.
Except for his eyes. There was no curiosity in those cool gray eyes, yet I felt that we were being scanned and catalogued and that everything about us was being filed for future reference.
“Yes?” he said.
“Reese Knott,” my nephew said. “I was over a couple of days ago. Remember?”
“You remember hearing I don’t like company?”
“Just buzzards. I know,” Reese said cheerfully, ignoring the man’s frosty tone. “I brought them some squirrels.”
He hopped out of the cab and headed around to the back of his truck.
The man continued to stare at me through the open window.
“I’m Reese’s aunt,” I said, annoyed by the awkward situation. If he’d warned Reese off before, then clearly we were trespassing and his rudeness was somewhat justified.
Before he could respond, Reese called from over near the slab. “Do I just throw them on top or off to the side?”
I glanced in his direction and saw the remains of a deer carcass on the concrete slab where the buzzards had been before. The rib cage poked up from a mound of fur.
“No!” the man shouted back, exasperation written all over him. He stepped out into the misting rain and pulled a plastic garbage bag from under the toolbox bolted beneath the truck’s rear window. The box looked new and its unchipped white enamel was a marked contrast to the rusty dents in the truck. “I told you before that I don’t want anyone bringing them food out here but me. Put them in this and I’ll feed them after you’ve gone.”
Reese was clearly disappointed, but finally got the message. He dropped the squirrels into the plastic bag and headed back to the truck. The stranger remained where he was, looking up into the gray sky.
“Man,” Reese said, sounding like a little kid again as he turned the ignition key. “I was hoping he’d let us watch them land.”
As we drove back through the pasture, I leaned close to the window so that I could follow the man’s gaze. High above us, those three buzzards circled without flapping their wings. They seemed to bank and wheel almost absentmindedly whenever the thermals started to carry them away. A slight dip or rise in those big white-tipped wings brought them drifting back until they were overhead again, floating gracefully on the wind.