The elderly Italian priest crouched in the corner of his cell and covered himself with his straw pallet. Outside, screaming artillery shells exploded into the soft African earth, and shrapnel splattered off the stone walls of his prison. Now and then, a shell air-burst overhead and hot metal shards pierced the corrugated metal roof.
The old priest curled into a tighter ball and drew the pitifully thin pallet closer. The shelling stopped abruptly. The old man relaxed. He called out to his jailers, in Italian, “Why are they bombing us? Who is doing this thing?”
But he received no answer. The older Ethiopians, the ones who spoke Italian, had gradually disappeared over the years, and he heard less and less of his native tongue through the stone walls. In fact, he realized he hadn’t heard a word of it in almost five years. He shouted in snatches of Amharic, then Tigregna. “What is it? What is happening?” But there was no answer. They never answered him. To them, he was more dead than the ripening bodies that lay in the courtyard. When you ask questions for forty years and no one answers, it can only mean that you are dead. But
he knew they dared not answer. One had answered, once, when he first entered his cell. Was it forty years now? Perhaps it was less. The years were hard to follow. He could not even remember the man who had answered, except for the skull. His jailers had given him the skull of the one who had answered him. The skull was his cup. He remembered the man and his kindness each time he drank. And the jailers remembered when they filled his cup; they remembered not to speak to him. But he asked anyway. He called out again. “Why is there war? Will you release me?”
He stared at the iron door on the far wall. It had closed on a young man in 1936, when Ethiopia was an Italian colony, and the door had not opened since. Only the small pass-through door at the bottom of the iron door was ever used. His sustenance came in and his waste went out once a day through that small portal. A window, no larger than a big book–really just a missing stone–above eye level, let in light, sounds, and air.
His only possessions in the cell, aside from his tattered shamma, were a washbasin, a pair of dull scissors that he used to cut his hair and nails, and a Holy Bible, written in Italian, which they had let him keep when he was first imprisoned. If it weren’t for his Bible, he knew, he would have gone mad many years ago. He had read the holy book perhaps a hundred, two hundred times, and though his eyesight was growing weaker, he knew every word by heart. The Old and New Testaments brought him comfort and escape, and kept his mind from dying, and kept his soul nourished.
The old man thought of the young man who walked through the iron door in 1936. He knew every detail of the young man’s face and every movement of his body. At night, he spoke to the young man and asked him many things about their native Sicily. And he knew the young man so well that he even knew what went on inside his mind and how he felt and where he went to school and the village he came from and how old his father was. The young man never got older, of course, and his stories were always the same. But his was the only face the old man knew well enough to remember. He had seen that young face in the mirror for the last time close to forty years ago and not again since, except in his mind’s eye. He wept.
The old priest dried his tears on his dirty native shamma and lay back against his cell wall and breathed deeply. His mind eventually came back to the present.
Wars had ebbed and flowed around his small prison and he imagined that the world had changed considerably in his absence from it. Jailers got old and died. Young soldiers grew old as they paraded through the years in the courtyard of the small fortress outside. When he was younger, he was able to hang from the sill of the window much longer. But now he could no longer gather the energy to pull himself up for more than a few minutes a day.
The shelling had jarred loose many things in his mind. He knew that his imprisonment was at its end; if the explosions did not kill him, then the guards would because he knew they had standing orders to kill him if they could no longer continue to guarantee his incarceration in this place. And now he could hear the sounds of fleeing garrison soldiers. And the jailers would soon open that never-opened door and do their duty. But he held nothing against them. Those were their orders and he forgave them. But it did not matter if they or the explosions killed him. His own body was failing him anyway. He was dying. There was famine in the land and the food had been poor for over a year. His lungs made a liquid sound when he coughed. Death was here. Inside his cell and outside his cell.
The old man’s biggest regret, he thought, was that he would die in ignorance–that as a consequence of the two score years of being held in darkness, he knew less than the simplest peasant did about his world. He did not regret the dying–that held no special terror for him–but the thought of dying without knowing what the world had come to in his absence was a peculiarly sad thing. But then again, his calling was not of this world, but of the next, and it should have made no difference what the world had come to. Still, it would have been nice to know just a little something of the affairs of men. He could not help wondering about his friends, about his family, about the world leaders of his day.
He wrapped the shamma around himself more tightly. The sun was fading from his window and a chill wind blew down from the highlands. A small lizard, its tail partly severed by a piece of shrapnel, climbed awkwardly up the wall near his head. Outside in the stillness, he could hear the soldiers speaking in Amharic about who would have to kill him if it became necessary.
Like so many other imprisoned and condemned men and women, like the martyred saints, the thing that had sustained him through his ordeal was the very thing that had condemned him in the first place. And what had condemned him was his knowledge of a secret thing. And the knowledge of that secret thing comforted him and nourished him and he would gladly have traded forty more years of his life, if he had them to trade, for one more look at the thing that he had seen. Such was his faith. The years in prison saddened him because they meant that the world had not yet learned of this thing. For if the world knew, then there would be no more reason for his solitary confinement.
He often wished they had killed him then, and spared him this living death for forty years. But he was a priest, and those who had captured him, the monks, and those who had imprisoned him, the soldiers of the emperor, were Coptic Christians, and so they had spared his life. But the monks had warned the soldiers never to speak to the priest, for any reason, or death would come to them. The monks had also told the soldiers that they had leave to kill the priest if his imprisonment and silence could not be guaranteed. And now, he thought, that day had surely come. And he welcomed it. He would soon be with his heavenly father.
Suddenly the artillery began again. He could hear its thump and crash as it walked around the walls of the small fortress. Eventually the artillery spotter made his corrections, and the rounds began to land more accurately within the walls of the compound. The sounds of secondary explosions–stockpiled petrol and ammunition–drowned out the sounds of the incoming artillery. Outside his window, the old priest could hear men screaming in pain. A nearby explosion shook the tiny cell and the lizard lost its grip and fell beside him. The deafening explosions numbed his brain and blotted out every awareness except that of the lizard. The reptile was trying to coordinate its partially severed halves, thrashing around on the reverberating mud floor, and he felt sorry for the creature. And it occurred to him that the soldiers might abandon the garrison and leave him here to die of thirst and hunger.
A shock wave lifted a section of corrugated metal off the roof and sent it sailing into the purple twilight. A piece of spent shrapnel found him and slapped him hotly across his cheek, causing him to yell out in pain. The old man could hear the sounds of excited shouts outside his iron door. The door moved almost imperceptibly. The old man stared at it. It moved again. He could hear its rusty stubbornness over the roar of the fiery hell outside. But forty years was a long time and it would not yield. There were more shouts and then quiet. Slowly, the pass-through door at the base of the unyielding cell door slid open. They were coming for him. He clutched his Bible to his chest.
A long, gaunt Ethiopian slithered through the pass-through onto the mud floor and the old man was reminded of the lizard. The Ethiopian rose to his feet, looked at him, then drew a curved sword from his belt. In the half-light, the old priest could see his fine features. He was undoubtedly an Amhara from Hamitic stock. His hooked nose and high cheekbones made him look almost Semitic, but the tight, black hair and dusky skin revealed him as a descendant of Ham. With his scimitar in his hand and his shamma, he looked very biblical, and the old priest thought that this was as it should be, although he could not say why.
The old priest rose, carrying his Bible, and his knees shook so badly he could barely stand. His mouth, he noticed, was quite dry now. He surprised the Ethiopian by deliberately walking across the small cell toward him. It was better to die quickly and to die well. A chase around the cell with upraised arms to ward off the blows of the scimitar would have been grotesque.
The Ethiopian hesitated, not wanting to do his duty in the final analysis and wondering now if perhaps he could circumvent it. But having drawn a short straw, he had become the executioner. What to do? The old priest knelt and crossed himself. The Ethiopian, a Christian of the ancient Coptic Church, began to shake. He spoke in bad Italian. “Father. Forgive me.”
“Yes,” said the old priest and he prayed for both of them in snatches of long-forgotten Latin. Tears welled in his eyes as he kissed his Bible.
A shot rang out above the dwindling sounds of artillery outside and he heard a cry. Another shot, then the sounds of automatic rifle fire.
The soldier said in Italian, “The Gallas are here.”
He sounded frightened, thought the old man, and well he should be. The priest remembered the Gallas, the tribal people who were as merciless as the ancient Huns. They mutilated their prisoners before they killed them.
The priest looked up at the soldier holding his scimitar and saw that he was shaking in fear. The old priest yelled at him, “Do it!”
But the soldier dropped his scimitar, then drew an ancient pistol from his belt and backed away toward the door, listening for sounds outside.
The soldier seemed indecisive, thought the priest, torn between staying in the relative safety of the cell or going out to be with his comrades, and to meet the Gallas, who were now within the fortress. The soldier was also torn between killing the old priest or letting him live, which could cost him his own life if his commander discovered what he had done–or failed to do.
The old priest decided that he preferred a quick and merciful death at the hands of this soldier; the Gallas would not be quick or merciful. He stood and said to the soldier in Amharic, “Do it. Quickly.” He pointed to his heart.
The soldier stood frozen, but then raised his pistol. His hand shook so badly that when he fired, the bullet went high and splattered off the stone behind the old man’s head.
The old priest had suffered enough, and the strange emotion of anger rose inside him. Here he was, after close to forty years in solitary imprisonment, and all he had wanted in his last moments was to die well and to die quickly, without losing his faith, like so many others did in those last seconds. But a well-meaning and inept executioner had prolonged his agony and he felt his faith slipping. He screamed, “Do it!”
He stared down the barrel of the gun and saw it spit another flame at him. And he thought of the thing that had condemned him. And the vision of that thing glowed like the fire from the gun, all golden and blinding–bright like the sun. Then everything went black.
He awoke to the miracle of being alive. The roof was mostly gone and he could see pinpoints of starlight against the sky. A bluish moon cast shadows across the floor, which was strewn with timbers and stone. Everything was unearthly still. Even the insects had abandoned the fortress.
He looked and felt around for his Bible, but could not find it in the rubble, and thought perhaps the soldier had taken it.
The old man crawled toward the door, then carefully out the pass-through. The soldier lay naked outside the door, and he saw that the man’s genitals had been hacked off. The stripping, the mutilation; this was the mark of the Galla tribesmen. They might still be near.
The old man rose unsteadily. In the courtyard, naked bodies lay in the blue moonlight. His insides burned, but he felt well otherwise. It was hard to feel anything but well, walking now under the sky and taking more than five paces in any one direction.
A cool breeze picked up swirls of rubble dust, and he could smell the burned earth and the death around him. The damaged concrete buildings gleamed white in the moonlight like broken teeth. He shivered and tucked his arms in his shamma. His body was cold and clammy. He became aware that his shamma was caked with dried blood, sticking to his skin, and he moved more slowly so as not to open the wound.
It had been forty years, but he remembered the way and walked to the main gates. They lay open. He walked through them, as he’d done in dreams five thousand times, and he was free.
The Jeep bounced slowly over the rutted track, and its filtered headlights picked out the path between the tight jungle growth. In the distance, artillery boomed and illuminated the black sky, like flashes of distant lightning.
Frank Purcell gripped the wheel and peered hard into the distorted shadows of gnarled trees and twisting vines. He hit the brakes, then shut off the hard-idling engine and killed the headlights. Henry Mercado, in the passenger seat, asked, “What’s the matter?”
Purcell held up his hand for silence.
Mercado peered nervously into the encroaching jungle. Every shadow seemed to move. He cocked his silver-haired head and listened, then looked out of the corners of his eyes into the darkness, but he could see nothing.
From the back of the open-sided vehicle, on the floor among the supplies and photographic equipment, came a soft feminine voice. “Is everything all right?”
Mercado turned around in his seat. “Yes, fine.”
“Then why are we stopped?”
“Good question.” He whispered, “Why are we stopped, Frank?”
Purcell said nothing. He started the engine and threw the Jeep into gear. The four-wheel-drive dug into the track and they lurched forward. He moved the Jeep faster and the bouncing became rougher. Mercado held on to his seat. In the back, Vivian uncurled her slender body and sat up, grabbing on to whatever she could find in the dark.
They drove on for a few minutes. Suddenly, Purcell yanked the wheel to the right, and the Jeep crashed through a thicket of high brush and broke into a clearing.
Vivian said, “What the hell are you doing? Frank?”
In the middle of the clearing, gleaming white in the full-risen moon, were the ruins of an Italian mineral bath spa. A strange, anomalous legacy from the Italian occupation, the spa was built in ancient Roman style and sat crumbling like some Caesar’s bath in another time and place.
Purcell pointed the Jeep toward the largest of the buildings and accelerated. The stuccoed structure grew bigger as the vehicle bounced across the field of high grass.
The Jeep hit the broad front steps of the building, found traction, and climbed. It sailed between two fluted columns, across the smooth stone portico, and through the front opening, coming to rest in the center of the main lobby of what had been the hotel part of the spa. Purcell cut the engine and headlights. Night creatures became quiet, then started their senseless, cacophonous noises again.
The moon shone blue-white through the destroyed vaulted ceiling and lit the pseudo-Roman chamber with an ethereal glow. Huge crumbling frescoes of classical bath scenes adorned every wall. Purcell wiped his face with his sweating palm.
Mercado caught his breath. “What was that all about?”
Vivian regained her composure and laughed mockingly from the back of the Jeep. “I think the brave man just lost his nerve in the dark jungle.” Her accent was mostly British with a mixture of exotic pronunciations. Mercado had told him that her mother tongue was unknown and her ancestry was equally obscure, though she carried a Swiss passport with the surname of Smith. “A woman of mystery,” Mercado had said to Purcell, who’d replied, “They’re all a mystery.”
Mercado jumped from the Jeep and stretched. “We’re out of the jungle, but not out of the woods.” Mercado’s own voice had that curious mid-Atlantic accent, common to people who have traveled between the British Isles and North America all their lives. His mother was English and his father a Spaniard–thus the surname–though he’d spent most of his youth in boarding schools in Switzerland, and spoke French, German, and Italian like a native.
Frank Purcell cupped a cigarette in his hand and lit it. In the glow of the match he looked older than his thirty-odd years. Lines worked their way around his mouth and his brown-black eyes. Gray was sprinkled through his shaggy black hair and he looked tired. He slumped back in his seat and exhaled a long stream of smoke. “What is this place, exactly?”
Mercado was pacing around over the mosaic floor of the huge lobby. “Roman baths. What do they look like, old man?”
“Well, there you are, then. Bloody Fascists built them as part of their civilizing mission back in ’36. I did a story on them, as I recall. You’ll find them in the most unlikely places. Come on, then. If the mineral springs are still flowing, we’ll have a nice bath.”
Purcell stepped stiffly out of the Jeep. “Keep your voice lower, Henry.”
“Can’t very well keep it low if I’m over here and you’re over there, can I, Frank? Come along. Let’s explore.”
Vivian joined Mercado at the entrance of a colonnade that led to an interior courtyard. Purcell walked slowly over the rubble-strewn floor. Five years in Indochina as a war correspondent had expunged any fascination he might have once had for ruins. The last ruins he had gone out of his way to see were the ancient city of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and that side trip had cost him a year in a Khmer Rouge prison camp. That year would remain a very big part of his life. He’d lost there, among other things, any illusions he might have had about his fellow man.
He joined Mercado and Vivian as they walked slowly down the moonlit colonnade. A statue of Neptune with upraised trident stood in the middle of the walkway and they had to go around him. The colonnade made a ninety-degree turn, and as they rounded the corner they could hear the gentle lapping of water.
“We’re in luck,” said Mercado. “I can smell the sulphur. The baths should be up ahead.”
Vivian stepped onto a low marble bench and peered across the courtyard. “Yes, I see the steam. There, behind those trees.”
They walked across the courtyard toward a line of eucalyptus trees. The large expanse, once paved in white stone, was overgrown with lichens and grass. A two-faced Janus rose up out of a thicket of hedges and projected a monstrous moonshadow through which they passed quickly. The courtyard was surrounded by the colonnade, and vines had grown over most of the columns. Broken statuary of Roman gods and goddesses dotted the yard. The impression was of one of those fantasy paintings of Rome as it may have looked in the Dark Ages, with shepherds and flocks passing through great columned imperial buildings overgrown with vegetation.
They walked by a dry fountain in a melancholy garden and passed between two eucalyptus trees. In front of them was a stone balustrade that led to a curved staircase, and they descended the crumbling steps. At the bottom was a pool about forty meters square. Sulphurous fumes made the air almost unbreathable.
They approached the pool. It looked black, but the moon touched its gently moving ripples with highlights. A huge stone fish spit a never-ending supply of mineral water into the ever-demanding pool. The sound of the falling water echoed off the bathhouse on the far side of the pool.
“It stinks,” announced Purcell.
“Oh,” said Mercado. “You Yanks. Everything must smell like underarm deodorant to you. These baths are an ancient European tradition. These and the roads are the only good things Mussolini did for this country.”
“The roads stink, too,” said Purcell, stretching his muscular frame.
Vivian had peeled off her khakis. She stood naked at the edge of the pool, her milk-white skin shining in the moonlight, like fine, rubbed alabaster.
Purcell regarded her for a few seconds. In the three-day cross-country jaunt out of Addis Ababa, he had seen her naked at every bath stop. At first he was taken aback by her lack of modesty, but she had insisted on being treated with no special considerations.
Mercado sat on a mossy marble bench and began to pull off his boots. Purcell sat next to him, his eyes darting toward Vivian from time to time. He reckoned her age at no more than twenty-five, so she had been only about sixteen when he was stepping off the plane into the maelstrom that was Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport in 1965. He felt old in her presence. Who was she? he wondered. Her features were mostly Caucasian and her skin was like milk, but her eyes were definitely almonds and her jet black hair was long, straight, and thick like an East Asian, or maybe a Native American. But those almond eyes–they were dark green. Purcell wondered if such a combination was genetically possible.
Vivian held up her arms and inhaled the fumes. “It does stink, though, Henry.”
“It’s refreshing and salubrious. Breathe it in.”
She breathed. “Graviora quaedam sunt remedia periculis.”
Purcell stared at Vivian. There was no mistaking that that was Latin. This was a new language in Vivian’s repertoire. He asked Mercado, “What did she say?”
Mercado looked up from tugging at his boot. “Huh? Oh. ‘The cure is worse than the disease,’” he answered as he pulled off his boot.
Purcell didn’t respond.
Mercado said, “Don’t go feeling all inadequate, old man. She doesn’t know the language. Just a phrase or two. She’s just showing off.”
“For me, of course.”
Purcell pulled off his boots and looked at Vivian, who was sitting on her haunches and testing the water with her fingers.
She called out, “It’s warm.”
Mercado slipped off his shorts and padded toward the edge of the pool. His body, Purcell noticed, was showing the signs of age. How old could he be? He was here in Ethiopia during the Italian invasion in 1935, so he had to be at least sixty. Purcell looked at Vivian, then back at Mercado, wondering what their relationship was, if any. He slipped off his shorts and stood near Mercado.
Vivian, a few feet away, rose to her feet, stood on her toes, and stretched her arms in the air. She shouted to the sky, “There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption!” She fell forward and the black, warm mineral waters closed quietly around her.
Mercado hunched down and touched the water. “That was Shakespeare, Frank. King Lear’s description of a vagina, actually.”
“I hope that wasn’t his pickup line.”
Purcell dove in and swam. The warm water smelled like rotten eggs, but it was not unpleasant after a time. He could feel the fatigue run out of his body, but the heat made his mind groggy.
Mercado lowered his big bulk into the water, then began to swim.
Purcell floated on his back and drifted. He felt good for the first time in days. Maybe weeks. He let the pool currents take him, and the rising steam lulled him. In the distance, he could hear Vivian cavorting, and her shrieks of animal joy echoed off the surrounding structures. Purcell wanted to tell her to be more quiet, but it didn’t matter somehow. He noticed that his member was stiff. He rolled over and swam toward a stone platform in the middle of the pool. The platform was awash in a few inches of water, and he climbed onto it and lay on his back, then closed his eyes.
Mercado bobbed up beside him. “Are you alive, Frank?”
Purcell opened his eyes. He could see Mercado’s face through the steam. “Tell her to pipe down,” he said groggily. “She’ll have every Galla in the province here.”
“What? Oh. She’s sleeping by the poolside, Frank. I told her before. Were you dreaming?”
He looked at his watch. A full hour had slipped by.
“Let’s get back to the Jeep, old man. I’m worried about the gear.”
“Right.” Purcell turned and swam with steady even strokes toward the side of the sulphur pool and climbed out. He noticed Vivian sleeping, curled like a fetus by the edge of the pool. She was still naked.
Mercado looked around. “I’m sure there’s a freshwater spring around somewhere. Probably in the bathhouse over there.”
“I’d rather get out of here, Henry. We’ve taken enough chances.”
“You’re right, of course, but we smell.”
Purcell sat on the lichen-covered marble bench and wiped himself with his bush jacket. Mercado sat next to him. The older man’s close nakedness made Purcell uneasy.
Mercado pressed some water out of his thick gray hair, then pointed toward the naked, sleeping Vivian and asked, “Does she make you…uncomfortable?”
Purcell shrugged. Mercado had not offered to define his relationship with the young lady, and Purcell didn’t know if he cared. But he was curious. He had the habitual and professional curiosity of a newsman, not the personal curiosity of a meddler. Back in Addis, he had agreed to drive Henry Mercado and Vivian Smith to the northwest where the civil war was the hottest, and he hadn’t asked for much in return. But now he figured Mercado owed him. “Who is she?”
It was Mercado’s turn to shrug. “Don’t know, really.”
“I thought she was your photographer.”
“She is. But I met her only a few months ago. At the Hilton in Addis. Don’t know if she can photograph or not. We’ve taken scads of pictures, but nothing’s been developed yet. Don’t even know if she uses film, to be honest with you.” He laughed.
Purcell smiled. The moon was below the main building now and a pleasant darkness enveloped the spa. A soft evening breeze carried the scent of tropical flowers, and a feeling very near inner peace filled him. He wondered if he was getting Indochina out of his system. Apropos of that, he asked Mercado, “You were in jail, weren’t you?”
“Not jail, old man. We political prisoners don’t call it jail. If you’re going to talk about it, use the correct term, for Christ’s sake. The camps. Sounds better. More dignified.”
“Still sounds like shit.”
Mercado continued, “That it should have happened to me was more ironic, since I was a little pink in those days myself.”
“After the war. The Russians grabbed me in East Berlin. January of 1946. All I was doing was photographing a damned food line. Never understood it. There were food lines all over Europe in the winter of 1946. But I guess there weren’t supposed to be any in the workers’ paradise. And the damned Russkies had been in charge there for only–what? About nine months? Hard to erect a Socialist paradise in only nine months. That’s what I told them. Don’t take it personally, chaps, I said. You beat the Huns fair and square. So what if they have to stand on bread lines? Good for the little Nazis. You see? But they didn’t quite get my point.”
Purcell nodded absently.
Mercado continued, “I had Reuters send all the press clippings I had written since the Spanish Civil War in 1936. All my best anti-Fascist stuff. I even had a lot of nice things to say about the brave Red Army in some of those pieces. I don’t know if the bloody beggars even saw my articles. All I know is that I was bundled off to Siberia. Didn’t get out until 1950 because of some prisoner exchange. And not so much as an apology, mind you. One day I was 168AM382. Next day I was Henry Mercado again, Reuters correspondent, back in London, with a nice bit of back pay coming. Four years, Frank. And was it cold. Oh my, was it cold. Four years for snapping a picture. And me a nice pink Cambridge boy. Fabian Society and all that. Workers of the world, unite.”
Again, Purcell did not respond.
Mercado asked, “How many years did you do, Frank? A year in Cambo? Well, we can’t compare it in years alone, can we? Hell is hell, and when you’re there, it’s an eternity, isn’t it? Especially with an open-ended sentence. You can’t even count off the days you have left.”
Mercado asked rhetorically, “What are you to them? Nothing. Do they let you know that your wife has died? Certainly not. They don’t even know themselves, probably, that you have a wife. They don’t know anything about you, except that you are 168AM382, and that you must work. So what if your wife is dying of pneumonia and penicillin is like gold and a woman by herself can’t–”
Mercado stopped abruptly, and a look of weariness came into his watery blue eyes. He said in a low, hoarse voice, “Bloody Reds. Bloody Nazis. Bloody politicians. Don’t believe in any of them, Frank. That’s good advice from an older man. They all want your body and your soul. The body’s not important, but the soul is. And that belongs to God when He calls for it.”
“Henry, no religion, please.”
“Sorry. I’m a believer, you know. Those priests in the camps. The Russian Orthodox priests. Had a few Baptist ministers, too. Some Catholic priests, some rabbis. I was in a camp with a lot of religious people. Some of them had been there since the 1920s. They kept me alive, Frank. They had something.”
“Lizards and centipedes kept me alive in Cambodia.” Purcell pulled on his pants and stood. “Let’s get moving.” He walked away from Henry Mercado.
Vivian had been awakened by their conversation, and she moved past Purcell in the darkness. He could hear the soft sounds of whispering as she spoke to Mercado. The words were lost, but the tone was soothing. Poor Henry, Purcell thought, the grizzled old newsman having a teary moment in front of a woman half his age.
They dressed and headed back toward the hotel lobby in the darkness. Mercado, who seemed to be feeling better, said, “I’ll give this place three stars.”
Suddenly the northern sky was illuminated so brightly that all three stopped in their tracks and crouched.
They looked up and could see star shells bursting in the night sky. An infantry attack had begun somewhere in the hills to the north and one side or the other had sent up these artificial suns to light the way. Automatic weapons fire could be heard now and green and red tracer rounds crisscrossed the hills. The deep, throaty sounds of muffled artillery rolled down into the spa complex, and explosions lit up the low mountain range like a thousand campfires.
Purcell stared at the close-by hills. He could see illumination flares pop and float to earth on their parachutes. Even after all the years in Indochina, the sights and sounds of battle awed him. He stood mesmerized as the hills lit up and sent a crescendo of sound through the night air. It was as though it were a light and sound show, a mixed-media symphony played only for him.
Mercado asked, “Who is killing whom tonight?”
“Does it matter?”
“No, I suppose not. As long as it isn’t us.” Mercado suggested, “We should stay here tonight.”
Vivian agreed, and Purcell said, “All right. We’ve found the armies. In the morning we’ll go see who won the battle.”
They continued on and entered the main building. The Jeep stood in the middle of the lobby looking very exposed. Purcell glanced around for a place to move the vehicle and spend the night. He noticed that one corner of the roofless lobby remained dark when the illumination flares burst. Between the Jeep and the dark corner was some rubble from the ceiling, but it was not an impossible task to get the Jeep through it. He stepped up to the vehicle and began pushing, not wanting to start the engine and create noise. Vivian jumped behind the wheel and Mercado helped Purcell push.
As their Jeep approached the patch of blackness in the far corner, an illumination flare lit up the lobby, and they saw standing in front of them a man holding a skull.