ADVENTURE THE 41ST: PAWN'S GROVE
For those unfamiliar with the posting structure of a blog: postings appear in the order they are made by their author, not necessarily in the order that would most benefit an ongoing series such as the one you are about to read. Since the purpose of this blog is to be an ongoing thriller, simply removing the previous chapter to alleviate confusion is not an option – since no one coming to the series after the first chapter had been removed would be able to follow the story line.
Therefore, if you scroll down or visit the archives in future months, you will be able to read this continuing drama in the manner and order it was intended to be read. For this reason and purpose each subsequent adventure in the ‘Eddie Mars’ serial will be marked by a number. If you follow these numbers marked at the top of each chapter in their numeric order - eg ‘Adventure the 1st’ - you will be able to follow this continuing saga.
For those savvy to the blog world – this disclaimer may seem redundant, and for that no apology is made. This disclaimer is meant to better acquaint new readers in how the entries in this blog will be posted and how best to follow the series from this point on. And now…
ADVENTURE THE 41st: PAWN’S GROVE
Most of my life has been a series of undistinguished circumstances that I hope to one day bore everyone else with a best seller. It isn’t that I don’t relish ‘life experience.’ I just find most of what falls under that banner of personal discovery quite dull. The books I read today all have identical earmarks; take an ounce of banality and mix it with four shots of ‘misery loves company;’ a New York Times darling and Oprah Book of the Month selection for sure. Maybe even a T.V. movie of the week...for the weak-minded.
Come to think of it, maybe I won’t write that book after all. There’s too much mediocrity these days masquerading as high art. It’s a graceless age we live in where the sordid, the cheap and the vial get celebrated.
I’m not from this time. I don’t exactly know what period in history I’d fit in – but I’m fairly certain I’m a renaissance guy woven into the wrong tapestry. I suppose I’ve become a true cynic at heart…maybe. Still, I haven’t lost my touch at doing snap analyses on the company I keep…or that is…the company that’s keepin’ me.
Brenfeld’s a bit of a mystery man – a guy with too many unanswered questions to make me want to get to know him better. If he’s military, it’s only in the ‘ex’ sense and not with an honorable discharge either. His boy, Wisenback couldn’t find his own behind with two hands, a compass and a map of the human body. So much for covert ‘intelligence.’
Nazinja arrives in the courtyard in his flowing white finery about an hour after my debriefing, a stately cart driven by four oxen that look as though they’ve been scrubbed and polished just for the occasion are pulled by a loyal subject hand picked from the valley. While the boys are packing up our gear for the journey back to ‘un-civilization,’ I detect a note of distinct dissatisfaction from our host and decide to approach for a closer tete a tete.
“Looks like this is farewell,” I tell Naz’.
He smiles politely, as though he understands much more than he lets on.
“You will be at peace, my son,” he tells me.
“It’s a good trick if you can pull it off, pops” I reply, “I’ve never been there, but I understand it’s a nice place to visit.”
Naz’ leans in, bowing his head slightly and removing a small white gold talisman from around his neck. It’s in the shape of what appears to be a seashell tied to a leather strap. He approaches as the long lost friend I’ve never known, holding the strap open above my head and slipping its noose about my neck. There’s more weight to that little shiny trinket than I anticipated.
“Peace be with you,” Naz’ repeats quietly, resting his large tanned hands on my squared shoulders and giving them a tender squeeze, an ominous warning glance in the direction of Brenfeld and Wisenback before turning away.
“All set?” Brenfeld asks.
“And if I’m not…” I suggest.
“Too bad,” Wisenback mutters, tossing his last bit of luggage aboard our cart.
One of Naz’s loyal subjects, an uncharacteristically tall Arabian in dark beige robes, acts as our driver.
For those unfamiliar with travel by ox cart, it’s not exactly the most economical way of getting around. Brenfeld sits up front with our driver. I take the backseat with Wisenback and watch as Naz’ gestures a silent blessing for our safe journey.
A crack of the driver’s whip alerts the four lumbering drudges shackled to our cart to begin their hauling. The wheels to either side move softly against the dark refined dirt beneath, so slowly at first that I’m not entirely certain we’re moving. Then, I notice that Naz slowly begins to shrink into the background scenery. It’s a good twenty minutes before he’s out of our sight but not for once during this time does he move from his spot – like a statue or beacon beckoning safe passage onward.
For the next thirty minutes we travel in silence, the slight click and clack of wheels and axel beneath us serving as a metronome to keep pace with the minutes that drag by. There’s an almost therapeutic quality to that lull and sway of the cart, an anesthetizing feeling of…can it be…peace?!?
My gaze is inexplicably drawn upward to the golden bowers of foliage shading our path from direct sun. We’re in a forest unlike any I’ve ever seen – deep glistening leaves as large as pancakes gently turned back and forth as though flipping to tan evenly on both sides. A rustling breeze keeps us surprisingly air conditioned, a calming sensation of cool that almost puts me to sleep.
Perhaps this is the nirvana Naz’ spoke of: communal one-ness with the natural world – a sense of traveling through time and space without ever leaving either. Eat your heart out, Eckhart Tolle. I feel a bizarre stimulation growing from within. It overpowers my weary resolve with uncharacteristic general wellness that swells into an elation of the senses. Am I drifting? Have I lost myself in the moment or merely my mind for all time?
“Glad to be going home?” Wisenback asks.
He’s wrecked the moment, brought me back to reality. I’d like to tear out his larynx and feed it to the ox, then throw the rest of him under their lazily tramplin’ hooves.
“Not particularly,” I admit.
“Why? What’s waiting there for me?”
“You’ll find out soon enough,” Wisenback explains.
I don’t like the tone in his voice. I’m even less gracious when it comes to surprises that everyone else seems to already know about.
“How ‘bout giving me a hint?” I suggest, “You know, a kiss to build my dreams on.”
“Enough talk,” Brenfeld declares with such a deadening knell that it kills off what little reserve and interest I had in continuing our discussion.
. . .
Eventually, the dense foliage above gives way to a sparse and ripening canopy of intense noon day sun. The ground beneath becomes brittle, hard and lumpy – vaporizing into tiny dust clouds that linger as pulverized steam tracks within the humidity rising slowly behind our cart. The air turns hot and oppressive. I feel as though a great blanket of crushed charcoal and grease is smothering my lungs.
The oxen begin to grunt loudly. Evidently, mine isn’t the only discontentment. I glance at Wisenback – heavier and sweating Crisco from every pour. In a cannibalized society he’d make one hell of a succulent roast pork.
. . .
An hour later and we’ve all been sufficiently cooked to warrant a change of venue and it comes in the form of a remote landing strip where a twin engine plane and its pilot have been patiently awaiting our arrival. Our driver and the pilot exchange polite hushed conversation in their native tongue before our luggage is loaded aboard. The engines of the plane shriek to life. It’s the first motorized noise I’ve heard in almost three weeks and it strikes me as foreign.
I take a window seat near the back of the plane, wide awake with anticipation and wondering what the future holds. I can see that Brenfeld shares none of my interest or curiosity. He reclines his seat all the way back and is off to dreamland practically at the moment our landing gear separates from the earth.
We fly far above the clouds leaving the direction of our journey a complete mystery to me. With nothing to stare at but a dainty stretch of white and fluffy licking at our wings, I decide it would be prudent to nod off and leave the cushy softness to those in-flight angels and their philosopher kings.
. . .
I awaken several hours later to the distinct scent of several pungent spices blending together from a cool draft blown into our cabin through the open door. Some sleep. I didn’t even feel the touch down. No sign of the boys. I’m all alone. Outside I hear a faint grunting and some foreign chants that have an Arabic flavor. Good call.
Poking my head into the open sunset beyond I spot a caravan of camels moving slowly across a sandy landscape and feel the light pulverized sand dust circulating in late afternoon winds. The sun is a half orange ball barely visible behind some distant dunes.
“Hey, Sleeping Beauty,” I hear a familiar voice call out.
Looking across the makeshift tarmac we’ve landed on I spot a fatty figure in civilian clothes approaching with an oversized plate of steaming food – not mine…his. It’s Brenfeld, licking his meaty fingers as though it were the first food he’d tasted in creation. Interesting platter; stewed dates, a few fresh figs, some potently seasoned meat I can’t identify and something that should be a potato but probably isn’t.
“What?” I reason, eyeing him up and down, “No military spank? What happened to your duds?”
Brenfeld just smiles, that cheap hollow grin that says so much about the mindless thug he’s always been.
“There are some places where it just doesn’t pay to be an American,” he tells me.
“Oh,” I say, knowing a real five star recruit would find such words utterly hateful, “What’ll we be then? Canadian?”
“Nothing as passive as that,” Brenfeld suggests, “How ‘bout just tourists?”
“Sorry. I left my guidebook at home.”
“You won’t need it,” I’m told, “Besides, we’re not going to be here but another hour or so.”
“And just where is here?”
“Tarfaya…” he says.
He can tell by my deadpan stare that he hasn’t explained things too me just yet.
“Morocco,” Brenfeld adds, “Come. Let’s get you something to eat.”
“No thanks,” I say, my head throbbing slightly around the temples “I think I’m still a little queasy from the flight. I’ll just wait here for the refuel.”
“We’re not taking the plane from here on in,” Brenfeld explains, “There’s a boat waiting just off the coast.”
“Why ‘off’ the coast?”
“You’ll find out.”
And so I do.
Seems the shallow waters surrounding the coastline of Tarfaya aren’t exactly hospitable to bigger seafaring vessels. The gritty shores are strewn with rusty hulls of hulking leviathans that came too close for comfort and were then scuttled into that soft sinking base for all eternity. It’s surreal; a ship’s graveyard above the flat calm gloss of its waterline, where the local children and curious tourists crawl in and out of eroded freighter shells or swing off the dangling crooked masts just for a thrill.
Nearby someone’s driven a stake into the sand and moored a tiny row boat for our convenience. By now the lazy orange rim of waning sun has all but departed this craggy landscape, leaving a disquieting cold snap behind and the rush of night serge smashing into the eroded bottoms of those derelict ships.
In the distance, just beyond a thin film of magic hour haze creeping off the open waters, I can barely make out the faint dark outline of a boat. Our pilot appears from just beyond some nearby dunes, raising a large iron lantern – battered and rusty - into the air and drawing a set of slatted shutters open and shut before its lens; coded reflections that the distant ship signals back to him using the identical sequence.
Brenfeld, Wisenback, myself and our pilot squeeze into the dingy. Only the pilot rows. The wind off these rough waters becomes salty and chilling, making a mess’a my disposition. I keep it together, but slump my head between my shoulders, hoping to avoid the bitter sting of cold sea spray. Brenfeld’s not too keen on our accommodations either. After about fifteen minutes in the water I turn and look back.
Magic hour’s turned into a fairly dark eclipse; the light haze, now a thickening bank of fog. Then suddenly, like the specter of some forgotten ghost ship, the night before us is illuminated with a barrage of search lights, casting their oily yellow light into the choppy black beading waters surrounding us.
‘Okay’, I reason quietly; head up, chin forward, ‘We’re in for a long sail. She’s a bigger vessel than I gave her credit for.’
Our pilot stops rowing, tossing the loose end of a coil of rope to an Egyptian man waiting topside on the other ship’s deck. We’re welcomed aboard…well, sort of. No words are spoken by anyone. Only Wisenback let’s out a minor sigh of relief. Given his girth and disposition I’m thankful its not flatulence!
When I get close enough to him I can smell the scent of burnt balata on his breath. Oh yeah. He’s in for a bumpy night, all right. That food in town didn’t mix too good with our shaken, not stirred, journey.
As we’re led below decks to our quarters I catch a glimpse of one of the life preservers hanging off the bow with the name, Tipper Maru stenciled around its weather-beaten edges. She’s a grand ol’ gal alright – a strong swimmer that’s seen plenty of action – probably gun running or laying anchor for Nazi gold left behind during the good ol’ Rommel days. A fresh coat’a paint hides most of her wear and tear but she’s been around the Adriatic and knows it. That’s the way I like ‘em; tough and ready.
Below decks is a long corridor running the length of the ship. Our captain, a swarthy short rum-pot with a thick beard of tightly knotted greasy curls speaks to us with a thick Eastern European accent. Those dark heavy bags under his eyes belie a liver condition that’ll probably kill him – hopefully not before the end of our journey – but especially with his healthy penchant for a few stiff one’s in the bar when he thinks no one else is looking.
“You will rest, please,” he tells us, “Dinner will be in an hour, at the end of the hall.”
“Hey, Cappie?” I say, tugging on the loose fitting sleeve of his stripped pullover.
“How about a little something to tide me over till then,” I suggest.
“Scotch and soda,” I tell him, before slipping into my private cabin, “A bottle of each!”
The captain’s good for it. He thinks he recognizes a fellow suffer of the finer elixirs and sure enough, ten minutes later my request is granted. One of the mute crew opens my cabin door without knocking. I’m shirtless and in my underwear, having found a basin of warm water and some soft cotton towels to sponge off the crust and filth of travel.
House boy gives me the once over – nothing kinky, but I can tell that white flesh doesn’t get much play time in these parts because he’s rather curious that my nipples match the rest of me.
“Okay, Wendyll”, I tell him, “Leave the bottle and round out your generosity by buzzing off.”
He’s obedient, I’ll give him that, even though I’m fairly certain he doesn’t understand a word I’ve said. Wendyll’s out’a my room, leaving two bottles and one deep glass behind. Wendyll! Actually, there’s no reason I should name him that. He looks more like an Abdula or Hahziz, only I don’t pronounce either so good. No, I like to operate within my comfort zone. He’s a Wendyll and he’ll stay that until I decide to call him something else.
I get dressed, from the waist down anyway, leaving my shirt slung over one shoulder and opening the porthole to get some life back into this room. The air’s stale. A strong current of salty breeze comes pouring into the room like high tide through the gaping hull of the Titanic: a refreshing blast I choose to augment with two stiff shots that go down smooth and fast; a wet coaster car on route to my gut station. The entire cabin hums with the low sustained boom of ship’s engines, their subterranean rumble a cheap foot massage as we get underway for parts unknown.
I decide to make my third shot a mixed drink and lean back into my bunk to enjoy the full wrath of its potent libation. Only I’m not particularly prepared for what comes next. It’s subtle and fairly sneaky. It starts with a few beads of coarse sweat forming across my brow at first. Not even the cold wind from outside seems to dry them. Then, suddenly, there’s a tightening in my chest – quick, extinguishing shallow gasps of breath.
I stammer a bit, like some frantic bull that’s just figured out the knife stuck through means he’s Christmas dinner for the white folk. My voice is gone and so is my hearing – replaced by a low drum beat…or is that my pulse, yammering like the distant Tom-Toms of some ancient tribe? My head aches and my eyes go black just a few moments before the rest of me.
. . .
Brother, if there was ever a time I ought to have died, that should have been it. I’m no expert, but I just know I was poisoned rather than drugged. I awaken after what feels like a few fleeting moments of unconsciousness, only my watch tells me it’s been several hours since I last knew my own name. Wow! What the hell was in that drink?
My porthole’s still open. My cabin door’s still locked. Outside the sound of surf has intensified considerably. Odd…I don’t feel the soft vibration of the engines beneath my feet anymore. Are we moored somewhere? By the lob and sway of my room I’d have to guess that we’re still in open water. It’s awfully quite out there and I’m wondering why no one came to get me for dinner.
I stagger to my feet, still dizzy from the after effects of whatever was in that bottle; feeling as though some leprechaun’s been beating my tonsils with a cockeyed shamrock. Opening my cabin door, I walk into the stifling stale air trapped within that narrow hall; knock on the cabin door closest to me before trying the handle. There’s no one inside. Ditto for the next three cabins. Where is everyone?
I get my answer when I finally make my way to the mess hall.
It’s quiet and full of a pungent blend of decay and spices. Brenfeld’s slumped in his plate of cold noodles and fresh dates, probably laced with something more powerful than what I had. He’s dead, alright. Same goes for Wisenback, the captain and his first two mates, all lying head first in their dinners with crusted dry blood stained in their nostrils, mouths and ears. What a buffet! ‘All you can eat’ if it doesn’t eat you first.
I find the cook splayed across the floor inside the kitchen with a severe burn scoured into his left cheek. He must have fallen in the middle of chow time and smacked his face on the open flame burner, still turned up and giving off quite a bit of heat.
Okay, so the cook wasn’t in on it. Neither was the captain or his crew. Then who?
I suddenly realize I can hear the faint sound of a boat engine. It isn’t coming from below but from topside. There’s someone out there; someone who’s come for the Tipper Maru and what’s left of her crew.
I duck into the crewman’s passage, trying to get a handle on the direction of the engines I hear. No good. The echo distorts my perceptions. I need to go topside. I can feel my heart begin to race – a good kind of speed this time – natural and ready for anything.
Nearby is a coil of steel cable with a metal winch attached to one end. I’m not much for Indiana Jones but whoever comes my way with dishonorable intensions is going to get a ‘not so friendly’ hook stuck in their craw. I creep up the stairs leading to the deck. The engine sounds are getting louder.
Then, I begin to hear voices – one coming from the only man whose body I didn’t find below deck; that bastard who brought me my drinks. There’s another voice though – familiar, engaging – like an old friend I thought I’d never see again. And quite by accident, as I round the corner and come up topside I also arrive face to face with a not so distant ghost from my past.
“Well, well, Mr. Mars, we meet again.”
It’s Karl Talenburg, materializing from the dense fog, removing a rather weighty knapsack from over his shoulder.
“This was a waste of time,” he tells me, tossing the sack overboard.
“What was it?” I inquiry, my makeshift lasso firmly in hand.
“The antidote to the drug you were given,” Karl explains, “I expected to find you out.”
“Just out…” I suggest, “Or laid out?”
“No, no, my friend,” he admits, reaching over and squeezing me firmly by my shoulder, “Kill you and I kill myself. I’m not ready to die.”
“Were they?” I press on, cocking my head in the direction of the mess.
Karl takes in a deep breath before answering me, as though he’s mulling over just how much of the story he’ll be able to get away with.
“For beginners,” Karl begins, “They were not your friends. They weren’t even American.”
“Yeah,” I reason, “I gathered that too. But I like to keep my enemies closer.”
“Too close,” Karl’s quick to come back, “Within an hour you would have been cracked on the skull, weighted down with chains and tossed to the bottom of the sea.”
“Why?” I ask, “Why not earlier. In the valley or even before?”
“Because you were their pawn,” Karl explains, “In the game of chess a pawn is used to protect the king…and sometimes to confuse him. Remove the pawn and you leave the king vulnerable to obvious attack. So your captors were going to dispose of you where this king couldn’t find your remains and then hope that I would leave my defenses open for their kill.”
“But you’re already supposed to be dead,” I tell Karl, secure that I have all the answers to his bag of trick questions, “Brenfeld and Wisenback hit every connection you had. I saw Shin and Saiti being disassembled back in the valley. How in hell did you manage your escape?”
And then I really get the wind knocked out of me, because the last person I expect to find suddenly fades into life from that thick curtain of fog, like a sprig of heather relocated and thriving on the moon.
“Please, Mr. Maas. You are not to question our motives.”
It’s Manuella, my old pool side babe from Dubai who wouldn’t snuggle then if her concubine had depended on it. ‘Our motive?’ Well, I guess I know where I stand.
“You will please to note that you are still alive,” she points out.
“Yeah,” I say, my head still a tree full of owls all hooting at the same damn time, “Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t exactly feel as though all my pistons are firing just now.”
Sensing my rocky stamina, Karl has his man drag over a nearby deck chair. I slump into it with a welcomed sigh, barely able to make out the ship’s rail in the fog. One thing I do catch sight of is Manuella’s discovery of the leather attaché we’ve been draggin’ around like the Holy Grail for so long – that damn half of the list I’ve been protecting for all the wrong reasons and handing over to all the wrong contacts. Without reserve, Manuella tosses the attaché and its contents overboard.
“Great,” I mutter, “You’ve just lost our bargaining chip.”
“I hope they think so,” I hear him whisper into my ear.
Just who ‘they’ are I really don’t particularly care at this moment. My hands are numb and my head feels like its detaching from my body.
“I don’t understand,” I whisper back, “They double crossed you. Froze your assets.”
“There are assets, my friend,” he explains, “…and then there are assets.”
“Oh,” I say before losing consciousness again, confident that the second coming will probably arrive sooner than a fiscal drought for either of us.
Eddie Mars will return in his next big adventure:
OLD HABITS on June 25th 2008.
@Nick Zegarac 2008 (all rights reserved).