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Vultures in the Playground, Page 1

A. Sparrow


  A. Sparrow

  Copyright 2011 by A. Sparrow, All Rights Reserved

  To Alex

  Chapter 1: Monrovia

  The harmattan had come and robbed the sky of its blue and its stars. The sinking sun, reduced to a fuzzy red orb, shimmered over a sea of zinc roofing. Even now, in the depths of dry season, the air was a dank and fetid sponge, pungent with wood smoke and burning plastic. Shadows of dead palms stretched like talons. Every surface, every child was coated in dust.

  Two men trailed Archie, faces rigid with purpose. They crossed every alley after him. Mirrored every turn and backtrack. Loitered by every vendor he feigned an interest. Their loose and jaunty gaits reminded him of young lions. He had never felt more like prey.

  He had been indulging his habit of taking a long walk after a long flight. No big deal in a stable country like Ghana, but in Liberia, it begged trouble, especially for someone wearing a smuggler’s vest lined with fifteen thousand in crisp hundred dollar bills.

  To make matters worse, his usually keen sense of direction had failed him. Instincts dulled by jet lag, he had gotten turned around and found himself wandering through a vast and haphazard informal settlement patched together from rice sacks, pallets and sheets of tin. He had no idea how to get back to his hotel.

  The cash was destined for a malaria project in Nimba County. The only bank in town had a habit of embargoing wire transfers until certain exorbitant ‘special handling fees’ had been paid. Archie hadn’t felt comfortable leaving the money behind at the hotel, though it had proved no more secure on his person.

  Eyes forward, legs churning, Archie strode on, making a show of knowing exactly where he wanted to go and how to get there. A glimpse sufficed to tell anyone he was lost.

  What possible business could a man of his advantages—spotless clothes, white skin—have in the meanest shanty town in Monrovia? Walking alone at nightfall? Men like him were meant to be chauffeured around town in shiny Land Cruisers.

  Children waved and laughed and chased him until their worried mothers called them back. ‘Boss man,’ they called him—a relict term that offended him more than any epithet tossed his way, seething with its connotations of slavery and subjugation. Most of the other names—faranji, mzungu, obruni, oyinbo, yovo—denoted whiteness or foreignness, not just caste or privilege.

  Boss man. What a bizarre thing for a nation founded by repatriated slaves and having no colonial history to call its paler visitors. He was no boss man. He was just a man.

  The settlement bustled with the commerce of poverty. Women sold charcoal by the chunk, beans by the handful, twigs for cleaning teeth. He stopped at a makeshift soft drink stand little wider than a phone booth, pieced together from scrap plywood and painted Coca Cola red.

  A woman sat inside with a baby balanced on her lap. “Pardon me, ma’am. Do you know how to get to Liberty Hotel?”

  For the umpteenth time, asking the same question, he received the same response. She shrugged and looked away.

  He bought a Coke with an un-creased twenty dollar—further proof of his privilege, its cleanliness clashing starkly against the wad of greasy, blackened singles he received back in change.

  This bottle might come in handy if things got rough, serving as projectile, club or broken as a blade. Resistance, however, would be his last resort. Better to offer them the contents of his pockets and pray they not discover his money vest.

  He tracked his pursuers in his vision’s periphery. They remained attentive to his every movement. Yet, their patience was almost lackadaisical. In Liberia, he supposed, no one was ever in a hurry, not even muggers.

  Why so cautious? It couldn’t be because they feared him. He was easy prey—a pasty, out-of-shape American. To them he must have looked like one of the common breed of international functionaries that came here for consultancies and workshops. The kind who never read State Department security warnings and were ignorant of Liberia’s recent history, its civil wars, massacres and chronic lawlessness.

  People busy with late day chores elbowed past him—hauling water, packing up market wares, hauling kindling, bearing bundles of scythed grass for their goats. Crowds were no deterrent to a determined pair of muggers. These folks were survivors. One did not endure years of civil war by getting in the way of other people’s dirty business.

  If not for the windfall beneath his shirt, Archie might have called the muggers’ hand and gotten the whole deal over with. A dummy wallet in the rear pocket of his khakis was stuffed with small bills and expired credit cards. He had left the flap unbuttoned, to further entice and distract. If that didn’t satisfy them, they were welcome to the iPod bulging his shirt pocket and the Nikon dangling from his belt.

  All of those items were replaceable; they might even be insured. A simple bump and snatch would leave him no more harmed than a gecko sacrificing the tip of its tail.

  But the 15K in his vest changed everything. Fifteen thousand USD was worth killing for in this part of the world.

  The tangled snarl of alleys he had been traversing finally gave way to a major street. He paused at the corner, figuring he needed to head west towards the ocean and setting sun. But this road ran north and south. Yet another warren dense with narrow lanes lay between him and refuge. At least this next settlement looked more established. Buildings of brick and concrete rose above the shacks—Lebanese wholesalers with razor-wired compounds. Culverts and sidewalks bracketed the dust and ruts.

  Sweat dribbled down his torso. He gazed up and down the street. Where were all the taxis? When he was last in Monrovia, their primary colors crowded the lanes as thickly as spawning salmon.

  Come to think of it, driving in from the airport, the only vehicles he had seen had UN or NGO insignias. It would be nice to see one of them drive by right about now. Most had policies against taking hitchhikers, but someone noticing his distress might make an exception.

  No police were around either, though that was not necessarily a bad thing. These days in Monrovia, the force participated in as many crimes as they deterred. Odds were fifty-fifty he would be taken into a station and hassled for bribes. Though, he would have taken that bet against a ninety-nine percent changed of being mugged.

  An older man in a sport coat and tattered shorts lugged an overstuffed duffel bag bulging with cheap sneakers. He turned to Archie with a weary but kindly expression.

  “Are you lost, boss man?”

  Archie cringed at the salutation, but let it pass without correction. “Do you happen to know where I can find a taxi?”

  “Nowhere,” said the man. “Not today. There has been no petrol in Monrovia all week. They are all queued up at the filling stations. A shipment is coming tomorrow, they say.”

  “I see.” Archie sighed and glanced back at his pursuers, who were lounging on the remnants of a concrete wall, exposing bones of rusted rebar. “You wouldn’t happen to know the quickest way to the Liberty Hotel from here?”

  “Liberty? I have never heard of this one. Maybe it is new?” The old man hoisted his back and sauntered off.

  Archie made brief eye contact with one of the men following him. This was getting ridiculous. Why didn’t they just come after him and get it over with? They did not seem like diffident types. Were they simply that confident he would not be able to elude them?

  But with the sun about to collide with the smudged horizon, their strategy made sense. In a city with inadequate lighting and unreliable electricity, they would soon have the complete cover of nightfall to do their deeds.

  Archie shivered at the realization and darted off across the road, angling for a busy lane with walks strung with light bulbs and second-hand cloth
ing shops still open for business.

  The men crossed behind him and were joined by a third, who carried a dirty Styrofoam box over his dreadlocks. One of them uttered something terse and guttural in the local Krahn that sounded like a command. His companion sprinted ahead, dashing past Archie without a glance, as Archie cringed, certain he would be tackled.

  But the man rushed right on by. Had Archie misunderstood their intentions? Did the man with the cooler merely wish to sell him a cold drink?

  But no. Archie could see what they were doing. They were setting up a triangle around him. His stomach seized with the realization that something nasty was about to go down.

  He still had the empty bottle in his hands, but when he went to get a better grip it slithered through his sweaty palms and he fumbled it. It smashed against the concrete gutter. As he stared at the shards, the faces of passersby flipped his way. They kept their distance like antelope abandoning an injured member of the herd, as if they knew a predator was about to strike.

  Panicking, Archie squeezed around a bamboo partition, past a group of ladies chopping onions and cooking rice over charcoal. He squeezed through a gap in a fence into the next alley and ran, aiming for the sunset. The man who had passed him earlier appeared and blocked his way. Before Archie could dodge, something hard and heavy slammed into the side of his head.

  A grapefruit-sized rock thudded to the ground. His muscles went limp. He crumpled and rolled half into a ditch beside a black and greasy trickle of sun-reduced sewage clotted with discarded plastic sacking. His vision wavered at the fringes, but he never blacked out. He lost all control of his limbs.

  His head lolled to one side just as a cinder block crashed down, barely missing his skull. The block shattered against the lip of a culvert, stony fragments splattering his cheek, showering his eyes with grit.

  The men fell upon him like jackals onto a carcass. One took his fake wallet. Another reached into his shirt, tugged sharply and snapped the cord of his security pouch, taking his real wallet and passport. Archie flailed feebly, fending off their probing fingers.

  The man bearing the cooler appeared, dropping to his knees while the leader leaned over Archie and held his arm flat, pressing a serrated knife against his wrist. The first nip of the blade restored Archie’s clarity and control. He flinched and wrenched his arm free, kicked out a knee, catching the man in the ribs. The man grunted and dropped his blade. Archie squirmed free and scuttled away like a crab, backing up against a fence.

  A boy called out. “Soldiers coming!”

  A military truck careened around the corner. Two of the attackers fled, but the third, still holding Archie’s passport, ducked around the corner of a building and lingered, glaring at him with an inexplicable mix of hunger and hatred that sickened him with its intensity.

  “I’ve got money here!” said Archie, patting his vest. “Please. I’ll give you money for that passport. Lots of money. Just let me have it back.”

  The man just stared back, the rays of the setting sun accentuating tribal scars in triplets across his angular cheekbones. Archie would remember this face. He felt under the weeds for the rock that felled him, gripped it like a softball and was about to fling it at his assailant, when the man disappeared.

  Two soldiers staggered out of the troop carrier to pee in the ditch. They seemed startled to find a white man staring back at them from the ground but were too drunk and incurious to give a damn.

  Blood trickled into his eyes. Archie reached up and found his hair all matted and sticky. His money vest remained intact. He wished he had thought to zip his passport inside. He felt its absence as surely as they had plucked an organ from his chest.

  Other soldiers bustled out of a warehouse and loaded cases of large green bottles into the bed of their truck. Archie didn’t dare approach them for help. They were already blitzed out of their skulls. Friday night was coming on strong.

  He rose and limped back to the main road, struggling to walk a straight line. He paused at the corner, scouting the street from behind a display of T-shirts. He was about to step out when the man with the scars came trotting past. The bastard had circled around the block, doubling back to the scene of the crime.

  Archie waited until the man was halfway down the lane and then started after him. This man had his passport. Of all the things he could have taken, this was the least replaceable, bearing dozens of multiple-entry visas from three continents that would take months to restore. Even if he couldn’t retrieve it on his own, it might be useful to know where it ended up.

  The light was fading quickly. Perhaps it was foolish to follow. Maybe he wasn’t thinking straight. If his attackers were bold enough to try hacking off his hand in daylight, imagine what they would do under cover of darkness. But darkness worked to his advantage as well, offering concealment. He had turned the tables. Once pursued, now the pursuer. The thought of it thrilled him.

  Keeping up wasn’t easy. The guy kept veering off through random compounds, tracing a circuitous route as if he knew he was being followed.

  Like a zebra sniffing the wind, the man paused to survey his surroundings. Archie dropped onto a stool surrounded by shoe-shine boys. The kids laughed at Archie’s flip-flops, but proceeded to clean them anyway with a bit of rag dunked in a can of muddy water.

  The man headed straight for a corroded chain link fence backed with metal sheeting and topped with razor wire. He punched a code into a keypad and slipped through a heavy steel gate. The gate slammed shut behind him.

  Archie slipped the kids some coins and sidled up to the fence, peering around the edge of the gate. A pack of growling, snapping dogs sensed his presence and harried him around the periphery.

  Dump trucks, graders and other construction equipment filled the compound within, some of them stenciled with ‘Xtraktiv’ in a shattered black font. Two unmarked humvees mounted with fifty-caliber machine guns were parked beside a sandbagged bunker against the main building.

  That name—Xtraktiv—rang a bell. At the airport, a van with that logo had picked up a trio of young men who had been goofing around, posing for pictures with a security guard.

  A metal placard posted on the gate warned: ‘NO SOLICITORS.’ But there was a local telephone printed underneath. He pulled a Sharpie from his pants and tried jotting the number on his hand, but his palm was too bloody. He found a clean patch on his forearm and wrote it there.

  He staggered off into the twilight, heading back down the alley toward the glow of the setting sun. Blood dribbled down his chin and dripped off his fingertips. Some passersby seem startled to see him. Others barely gave him a second glance, as if bloody-faced white men were a common sight Friday nights in Monrovia.

  Generators cranked up. Lights flickered on. Frogs began to croak from a slough. The smell of roast chicken wafted from a grill and sent pangs through Archie’s stomach. He wondered if anyone could make change for a hundred dollar bill.

  Chapter 2: Liberty

  Taxis that night were as rare as okapis. Somehow, Archie lucked into the only one operating on embassy row, swooping in as it dropped off a carload of young missionaries at a courtyard restaurant.

  “Liberty Hotel, please.”

  “Oh!” said the driver. “We are very close.”

  “Good,” said Archie. “The closer the better.”

  The driver winced when he noticed the extent of Archie’s injuries. “Jesus Christ, man! What happen to you?”

  “Oh, it’s nothing,” said Archie. “Just my welcome to Monrovia.”

  “You want to go to hospital?”

  “No thanks. The Liberty Hotel will do fine.” He had enough food for nightmares for one evening.

  He supposed he could relax finally. But the muscles in his neck stayed knotted and his head throbbed in time with his pummeling heart. He stank of sewers and smoke and fear.

  The cab cut down a dark lane and turned onto a well-lit boulevard the Archie recognized instantly. It wasn’t far at all. He could have easi
ly walked back if he had known where to go.

  The taxi turned into the drive leading to the Liberty, which was set back from the road. The sight of its backlit sign induced a smile. Now he could get washed up, tend to his wounds, find something to eat and regroup—not necessarily in that order.

  Headlights washed over a pre-teen boy pulling a green plaid suitcase that looked way too familiar.

  “Holy shit! That kid’s got my bag!”

  “What you say?” said the driver.

  “Stop. Right here!”

  “But sir, the drop-off is over there by—”

  “Right here! Right now! Stop!”

  Archie bolted out of the cab and ran after the kid, who tried sprinting away with the suitcase in tow. The tiny wheels caught on the rough pavement and threw the bag over on its side. The boy dragged it behind him, frantically trying to right it when Archie caught up, lunged for the handle with his good hand and wrested it away.

  The kid screamed. “Teef! Help me! Dis man is a teef!”

  Passersby gathered; people emerged from an open-air bar.

  “This is mine,” said Archie. “Look at the tags. My name is—” He noticed that all the tags and destination stickers had been yanked off. “You little fuck!”

  He grabbed the suitcase and zipped it open, pulling out the photocopy of his passport that he always packed in his luggage. He held it up to the light beaming down from a termite-clouded street lamp.

  “Look at that. That’s me, you little—” But the kid had disappeared into the shadows. The crowd was already dispersing, perhaps fearing the trouble that would ensue once Monrovia’s hyper-aggressive and unpredictable police arrived on the scene. Liberian cops tended to err on the side of inclusivity, often rounding up bystanders in lieu of actual perpetrators. And Friday night in Monrovia was no time or place to get entangled with the law.

  Archie stormed into the hotel lobby, brushing past an elderly security guard, who smiled and saluted as he entered, as if all was right with the world.

  A sleepy young man peered up at Archie from a sofa behind the counter. Archie’s bloody face jolted him out of his stupor.