THREE: July 6, 1994
from Maggie Minds Her Business
by Allie Simms
It had rained all night, a tropical deluge that turned the country roads to brick-red slush. Within an hour, the windshield of our Chevy Blazer was so covered with mud splashes that the driver had to stop to wipe off the murk. Then he and Allan Wyse stood, splay-legged, and watered the front right hubcap. Ami and I found a clump of thorn bushes, chased away the grazing goats, and squatted down, side by side and unselfconscious. She was wearing her bush travel outfit, a tee shirt, a colorful long wrap cloth the Africans call a pagne, and sandals. I had on a cotton shirt and slacks and, mindful of the coming visit to the snake-cult, heavy leather hiking boots. I tucked my slacks into my boot-tops to keep the pee from splashing on my cuffs. Taking a whiz in the bush, I reflected, was one more disadvantage for women in Africa. The guys, long since finished, awaited us, backs politely turned.
We encountered three police checkpoints along the road. When they saw our diplomatic license plates, they waved us through, but the rest of the passing cars and trucks were stopped and searched. I saw one trucker hand a banknote out the window. He went through without stopping. At the roadside, the gendarmes searched energetically through vegetable carts. Just past the lively market town of Anawa, Allan Wyse pointed to a smaller track turning right. “I think it’s here. This is the road I came from Kerga on.”
We turned right and bounced along the track through miles of oil-palm plantations and small villages. It was morning in Africa, and women were hard at work in their gardens, weeding and hoeing. Many had babies tied to their backs. A few barefoot children in tidy khaki uniforms were hurrying into a palm-thatched schoolhouse. They stopped and waved to us.
“Where are all the men?” I asked Ami. But I was thinking: Lazy bums, leaving their women to do all the heavy work.
“Men from this area work in the city, or they drive cross-country trucks,” Ami said. “I’m sure you’ve heard that the SIDA, what you call ‘AIDS,’ a lot of the men have trapped it. Many of them are too sick to work. Soon many of the women will have it too. The government is doing a health campaign, but the people of this region are animists. When they are sick they think it’s because the spirits are angry with them. We Muslims are clean and we listen to the doctors. That’s why…”
“I remember this school,” Allan interrupted. “Kerga’s just ahead, I think.”
In a few minutes we splashed into the little town. I didn’t know how to find the Revolutionary Council of the Village of Kerga, but I figured they’d know how to find me. I climbed out, with Ami, and told the driver to park in front of the village market. I glanced around at the ground, and then up into the branches of the trees. I was looking, nervously, for snakes. I took my walkie-talkie radio and hooked it onto my purse strap, giving the other one to Allan. We synchronized channels and I told him to stay in the car, but try to keep us in sight.
I glanced around to see if there were any police, but could see none. I did, however, notice a white Land Rover parked in front of a tin-roofed building whose sign proclaimed it to be the local dispensary. The Land Rover had a caduceus in red on the front door, and the words, “International Medical Volunteer Corps.” Getting out of it was the tall, bearded white man I’d seen near the flagpole the day before. He was walking into the dispensary with a big canvas satchel. Still curious about him, I turned to follow him into the clinic. However, at that minute I realized Ami and I were surrounded by villagers. They were mostly big, stout women, and they began bustling us along with their baskets and bundles, leading us into a maze of mud and straw houses. Allan and the driver followed as far as they could. Then I radioed and told him to wait, and go with the driver for the police if he did not hear from me in exactly one hour.
The village ladies brought us to what looked like a schoolhouse. It was made of cinderblock and corrugated tin, had a crudely painted blackboard and rows of rough benches and tables. We were asked, politely, in broken French, to sit. The room was decorated with pictures the kids had drawn with charcoal. Some of the pictures depicted snakes.
We waited a while in the close, steamy heat of the schoolhouse. Then a group of men came in, some old, some young, about eight of them. They were followed in by what I guessed was a fetish priest, dressed in an outfit made of snake skins. One of the skins was still inhabited, and the snake writhed and undulated around the priest’s body as he caressed it. It looked like some sort of giant python. I was so transfixed by the snake—its tiny, bead-like eyes seemed to be staring at me—that at first I didn’t even notice Fran Warriner, the woman I’d come to free. Her bush outfit looked wrinkled and sweaty, and her hair clearly needed a wash, but she didn’t seem to have been harmed. She was a tanned, athletic woman, with a premature gray streak that made her look like a younger Susan Sontag. The man who appeared to be to be guarding her let go of her arm.
“You’re from the embassy?” she asked, calm but edgy. “Am I glad to see you! Have you got the money? I want to get out of here!”
“I need to talk to them, find out what the deal is,” I replied. “Who’s the boss?”
“The elders make the decisions collectively,” she replied “There’s a village headman, but he’s appointed by the government and apparently nobody pays attention to him.”
“They want three thousand bucks for you,” I said, “and we don’t pay ransom, so we’ll have to think of another way to approach it.”
“Three thousand? That’s outrageous!” she cried, shrilly. “All I did was take pictures of their worship dance for a monograph on serpent cults. Nobody told me it was taboo!” Then she added, so quietly I could hardly hear her, “I really meant it when I said not to bring in the cops. Some of the young men have g-u-n-s. There could be a massacre. These are culturally-unique people. Their way of life is disappearing. Get me out of here, but don’t hurt them.”
We began a negotiation along the classic lines. The village leaders said Fran’s photography had desecrated the ceremony and was bound to bring bad luck on the village. Reparations would have to be made. I conveyed the outrage of a great power and our principled refusal to pay ransom, but reparations, of a modest sort, might be possible. We’d consider it a donation to the village school. We bargained in poor French, a young man—the village schoolteacher perhaps—channeling the demands of snake cultists. I watched their venerated snake coiling and writhing on its priest’s chest. It seemed edgy. The heat pounded down from the tin roof. I wanted to get out of there.
I made my final offer: $362 dollars in the local francs. It was all the cash Fran and I had between us. The villagers hesitated. Ami, who’d said nothing up to then, reached into her bra and dropped some more notes on the battered schoolmaster’s desk. The village delegation began to talk animatedly among themselves. Ami leaned over to me and whispered, “The elders want to accept, but the young ones are saying no, to hold out for more.”
“Fran,” I said, trying to talk without moving my lips very much, “We need to turn up the heat. Collapse on the floor. Fake an illness. Make it look good.”
Fran said nothing, but began taking quick, shallow breaths. The villagers continued to argue, and I sensed the younger men were gaining their way. Then Fran gave a moan and slumped over onto the dirt floor. She was parchment-pale, gasping and sweating. I recognized the trick. There were kids in my high school that’d made themselves hyperventilate to get out of an exam.
“Look what you’ve done!” I shouted in French. “You’ll have to pay for this.” Ami snapped something in their language that made them stop talking and look up at the rafters as if they were expecting the sky to fall. Almost an hour had gone by, and I picked up the radio to tell Allan not to go for the police. As I keyed the radio, they looked scared. The schoolmaster, with barely a moment’s hesitation, picked up the pile of banknotes, and the entire group hurried out of the schoolhouse. I was glad to see they’d taken their python with them.
Ami bent over and helped Fran to her feet. She was still gasping and her breathing was irregular. We half-carried her through the muddy alleyways toward the Blazer, where she slumped into a corner of the back seat. Beside the car, a boy was holding a backpack. A small motorbike was propped against a palm tree nearby. “My pack, my bike,” Fran said, wheezing. The boy—a skinny kid in khaki shorts—cried, “Nous ne sommes pas des voleurs.” We’re not thieves. He turned away. The normal market activity had stopped and the villagers watched us anxiously as we pulled out of the marketplace and headed back down the road. Fran was breathing better now, but still looked awful.
“Ami,” I asked, “What did you say to those men that spooked them so much?”
“I told them, ‘If the white woman dies, the American President will send bombers to destroy your village.’ They saw you picking up your radio and they believed it.”
At first we were giddy with relief. Then we admitted a touch of shame. The villagers were so poor.
When we reached Anawa, Fran asked us to take her to the little apartment she rented above the pharmacy. I left Ami, Allan and the driver eating a late lunch out of the cooler in the back of the Blazer, and went with Fran to her flat. She opened the windows and switched on the ceiling fan. She got out a roll of money she’d hidden inside a sack of rice, and counted out all the cash she had: $320.
“I’ll come to the embassy next week and pay the rest,” she promised. We ate the peanut butter sandwiches I’d packed for the trip and drank barely cool, fizzy Fanta from her tiny fridge. From the window I saw the white Land Rover with International Medical Volunteer Corps on the door pulling away. I began to wonder again who the driver was, and whether I’d ever met him before, but Fran interrupted my reverie.
“I’ve been doing research in this province for three months,” she said. “You probably think I’m a lousy anthropologist, violating taboos and all that. The snakes are their intermediaries with their gods. But I did ask the village headman. He even charged me 200 francs for a permit!”
“It’s Africa; things are never what they seem,” I remarked. “By the way, that white guy in the Land Rover with ‘International Medical Volunteer Corps’ on it, do you know who he is? I saw him in the village, and just now he must have been at the pharmacy downstairs. He reminds me of somebody I once knew.”
“I’ve never met him, but I’ve heard people say he’s from Cuba. He’s a doctor, working on some AIDS project. I’ve seen him a couple of times in villages around here. Sometimes he’s with a woman, a light-skinned métisse. I think she’s a doctor too. They took blood samples and stuff in another village I visited. I wonder if he was the one who gave the villagers in Kerga that idea about calling themselves a revolutionary council? …God, I can’t wait to take a shower.”
I took the hint and departed. Ami rode up front with the driver. Allan dozed in the back. I sat behind the driver. I burped orange-flavored Fanta fizz as we drove through a tropical rain, and thought about the Cuban doctor and his companion. Could she possibly have been Lucille? Suddenly, I noticed the driver talking to Ami urgently and pointing to some wet, ragged figures standing in the road ahead. They were holding what appeared to be weapons. A police checkpoint? They were waving, and they had some sort of obstruction—it looked like a long tree branch—stretched across the road. “It’s not the police, they’d have a car, or a jeep,” I said. “Must be bandits, or the FARTs.” If they were bad guys, we had no money and nothing else to give them except the car. They might kills us, might rape Ami and me. “Drive on, vite, vite. Everybody down!” I shouted.
Ami dipped under the dashboard; the driver hunkered down low, his eyes just at the level of the steering wheel. Allan threw himself over me as I ducked down on the floorboard. The driver gunned the Blazer, and I heard a thump as the tree-branch barricade flew up past the windshield. I wanted to sit up, then, look back and see if we’d hit anybody, but Allan kept me pinned down. At that moment there was a noise, like a muffled cough, behind us, and another, sounding like a loud KAPUKK!, almost all at the same instant. Tiny bits of glass showered down on us.
We sped down the road for another two kilometers or so, then slowed. Hesitantly, we sat up in our seats. The driver was still handling the car, but his hands were locked tight on the steering wheel, and he was grey and sweating. Ami was shaking. So was I. I had a slight scratch on my scalp from the glass. Apart from that, nobody was hurt. There was, however, a small, round hole in the back windshield and another, perfectly aligned, in the front, between Ami and the driver. Cracks in the glass spread out around the holes like spider webs.
“Good thing they didn’t have an automatic weapon,” Allan said. He was still panting slightly. “We’d be toast.”
It was late afternoon when I got back to my office. The visa seekers, and the American citizens with their requests and problems, were gone. Hal was drinking Diet Coke and catching up on the correspondence. The staff worked away quietly at their keyboards, one eye on the clock over the door. I sat down at my own computer, feeling limp and drained, and began composing a memo explaining the holes in the front and rear windshields. I knew there would be trouble. I finished it up and hit the “send” button.
Then, remembering I was supposed to be sorting out Lucille’s office, I went across the courtyard and down to the clinic. I had the keys Phil had given me from his safe. Netta apparently had gone home and the clinic was dark. I unlocked the file room. There was an odd smell I hadn’t noticed before: stale tobacco and maybe a whiff of sweat. Somebody else had been in there. The Marines patrolled the embassy at night and had access to every room and closet. One of them must have decided to check up on the file room.
I tried the keys Phil had given me on the medical file cabinets. They didn’t work. The locks were shiny, brass, and new. I looked underneath and saw they had been manufactured in China. They clearly weren’t the embassy-issue Yale padlocks for which I had the keys. Lucille had changed the locks. Why?
I was passing the Marine guard booth on my way back to the Consular Section when I heard Sergeant Dickman’s voice, muffled by the heavy Plexiglas, call out “Ma’am! The Ambassador’s office is looking for you. You’re wanted upstairs. On the double!”
Shit. The elevator was, for once, empty, and I was outside the Ambassador’s office in 30 seconds. Marilou looked up from her terminal, her expression inscrutable, voice neutral. She was always impersonal and professional on the job. “Go on in. The Ambassador will see you now.”
He was reading something from a file. He sat behind a teak desk that looked like the landing deck on an aircraft carrier. He had no computer—Marilou had told me he didn’t know how to use one. Colonel Hawkins was standing off to one side, looking out the window. Phil was talking to Nick the Spook, but stopped abruptly as I came into the office. I went directly to the worn spot on the carpet in front of the Ambassador’s desk. I’d stood there several times before.
“You wanted to see me, Sir?”
At first he said nothing, but continued to read what I expected was my report. I gazed at his vanity wall. There were pictures of him with the President, congressmen, senators, a celebrity or two, and standing behind the Secretary of State at a treaty-signing. There was a framed cartoon from a Wahville newspaper, showing him in a cowboy hat and chaps with a bag of dollars in his hand. He had a big collage made up of his ID badges from international conferences, and a collection of certificates and commendations.
As I waited, I felt a prickling sensation on the top of my head. I ran my hand through my hair and dislodged a small piece of windshield glass. It landed on the Ambassador’s desk.
At last he looked up, nodded briefly at me, and said, “Let’s all sit.”
He walked around his desk, and led us to a grouping of sofas and loveseats around a coffee table at the far end of his office.
“Lady and gentlemen, sit down.” He gestured me to seat by the coffee table, just opposite his own big wingback. “Margaret, tell us about your trip. Start at the beginning, but we’re particularly interested in hearing about the bullet holes in the windows of your Blazer.”
I told the tale, kept it straightforward, factual, no embellishments. The python, Fran’s phony swoon, the modest payoff, our hasty departure from the village, rain, roadblock, shot fired, windows holed.
Phil gave me a scowly look. Nick the Spook made copious notes. Colonel Hawkins asked, “Margaret, what kind of a weapon did they use?”
Four pairs of male eyes stared intently at me. Nick the Spook stopped writing, his pencil poised over his notepad. Of course I had no clue. I’d barely glimpsed the guns, and in any case, didn’t know a Kalashnikov from a water pistol. I hate guns.
“Well,” I said, lightly, “I didn’t get a real good look, but if they’d had automatic weapons we’d be toast.”
The colonel smiled, and nodded. Nick the Spook wrote something on his pad and underlined it.
“Thanks, everybody, you can go now,” the Ambassador said. I struggled to get up out of the low-sprung loveseat. “Except you, Margaret. I’d like a few moments of your time, if I may.” His excessive politeness was a bad sign.
“Margaret, just to summarize your adventure today, you brought two of the local staff and an American private citizen into a dangerous situation, negotiated with kidnappers, risking getting kidnapped yourself, paid ransom in violation of the U.S. Government’s long-standing policy, and ran a roadblock, almost getting your entire party killed. As you so eloquently put it, if they’d had automatic weapons, you’d be toast. Am I leaving anything out?”
“No sir,” I said. “I guess that’s about it.”
I waited for him to say that he’d lost confidence in me. Those were the fatal words that got one sent home to walk the corridors of the State Department until a suitable penitential assignment came up in some remote post on the steppes of Central Asia. I pictured me and Ozzie, living in a yurt.
“Margaret,” the Ambassador leaned forward in his chair and locked his Delft-blue eyes on mine. “You are imprudent. Daring, resourceful, but imprudent. You should have leveled with Phil, let him work this one with the local police. That would have been the safer course, although not necessarily the most efficacious.”
Then he smiled, just a slight upturn of the faultlessly-groomed white moustache.
“You did well today. You acted in the best traditions of the consular service. But you were also very lucky. You can’t always be lucky, but you can always be careful.”
Was I being praised or punished? I wasn’t sure. The Ambassador got up, and I managed to launch myself out of the clutches of the love seat.
“Oh, Margaret, while you’re here…How are you doing on that assignment I gave you? Are you getting Lucille’s affairs wound up?”
“I’ve got a lot done already, sir,” I said, “and there will be a bit more to do next week. Maybe, going through her things, there will be some clue, some lead as to why she was killed. There are some odd things….”
“And if you should come across such a clue, you’ll be sure to take it straight to Phil, won’t you, Margaret?” He’d phrased it as a question, but it sounded like an order.
“Of course, Mr. Ambassador,” I replied, meekly.
I went back to my own office. There was a letter from my mother in my in-basket, and a copy of last month’s New Yorker, curling slightly in the humidity. It was Friday. I followed on the heels of my staff, out the front gate, through the still-muddy streets, and home to Ozzie. I poured a very stiff G&T, got the last of the fried chicken out of the fridge, put Janis Joplin on the stereo, and put the New Yorker and Mom’s letter on the table next to my dinner. I’d been hungry when I’d sat down, but now, remembering the sound of the shot and the evil-looking holes in the Blazer’s rear and front windows, I found I felt slightly sick. I got up, mixed another G&T, and sat sipping it moodily as the voice of the long-dead Janis wailed, “Honey, git it while you can.”
I was on my way to the kitchen for a third G&T, but thought the better of it. I didn’t want to have to join Marilou’s AA group. Instead, I gnawed on the chicken drumstick, which tasted like rubber. I fed bits of it to Ozzie, who purred in my lap. I read Mom’s letter. Dad was doing better. He was getting around the house with a walker and the physiotherapist said he’d soon graduate to a cane. My father missed his walks in the woods. My eldest sister, the real estate agent, had gotten a Lexus for her birthday. My younger sister was still at the ashram. She seldom wrote. Mom figured she was okay or we’d have heard. Mom had soloed in the choir last week because Mrs. Ellis had lost her voice. Mom hoped I was going to church. The Lord would always be there for me, even if I couldn’t always hear His voice…. I found my eyes stinging. I was almost 50 years old and I needed my mother.
“Allie Simms” is the pen-name of Ann Sides, a retired FSO who spent most of her career in the consular service. She lives now in Raleigh, NC. ”Maggie Minds Her Business” is available from Amazon Books in paper or e-book format.