But now? To my well-armed companion struggling in the canoe bow I shout hastily, "if your S&W won't fire, Benjamin throw it at them," and gesture toward a bushy curve, where the stream bends away and vanishes. Ha! As if still floating we have not already vanished between the tall green walls ...
For my bravado returns frightful breathing, and streams of curses ... more fearful than Benjamins ability with his 357-caliber these curses I mostly ignore. "Fucking mud! Pigs asshole ... fouled the Gawdammed cylinder ... if only ... Got a rag, Jerry ta wipe the fucking mud ... d'you see them? Shit! Can we cut her off?"
I snatch at a torn piece of wool and pass it over. "Rifles ... they have rifles, Benjamin. Cut them off?" My gaunt companion surrounded by sweet blizzards of jah: Insane? Yes, I believe he is ... do I prefer this to paralyzed confusion and the stench of fear? The thought develops and passes praise Allah whose hand separates living from the dead. "Together we will die, my friend. Our bodies found mossy entwined skeletons won't that make enemies howl corruption!"
Benjamin says. "Let an iron pig roast 'em upside-down ... bloody kfirs ... d'you know an honest enemy, Jerry, yours or mine?"
Salt taste smears my cheek. The bullet-crease burns, blood smears matting my face-hair. A reek of cordite curls upstream - it makes courage cheap and expensive the humor by which Allah has chosen to bind existence. "My friend I can think of one ..."
Tendentious laughter. "Send him out fast, then and bury his ass in hi-stone."
Hi-stone ... HA! This black, fetid stream, and the green canopy are nothing like that! Shot echos have died in murky, swamp vapor. My ribs ache, for the canoe barely holds my girth and for the slow torture I would now attack. "This hull compares unfavorably to my 20-meter Jeaneau," I say with a rueful smile.
But Benjamin shuffles his bones un-speaking. He has grown that way, a hard bone time chews poorly. We cramp over waiting for the second volley ... minutes ... sweat boils off waiting against stream bank mud for the hunting rifles BLEATING ... the long, slow groan of rifled slugs.
"I would not use such weapon to kill a man," I say so Benjamin may hear what nonsense comes with the attack. "Such crude methods are more like your Lieutenants business. This shooting would interest him. You haven't ..."
Jah billows, yet - I trust him. Insects whine at my bloody cheek I slap them away. At our feet lie electronic trinkets - they can talk to the stars. We are alone. I look up at my friend. "But now?" He is indifferent - glowing red ash arcs from his fingers into the brush. I fuss, then push off jabbing with the paddle. "Without support, and without a rifle much safer to move forward ... they cannot shoot and run."
Unfortunately my companion cannot shoot and breath. BLAM - as if to prove this he wastes a round into an oak. "You have cleaned mud only from the revolver." Unforgiving, the branch splinters. As we pass it falls. "Ferocious work my friend they will scatter before us."
I finger a brass compass, it promises nothing. The tiring stream pushing us along, where trees lower and vines entangle, and the heat and moisture strain blood through skin. Still paddling I sit upright rocking the hull. Yet my companion insists on soundless agony. I say. "Only the shooter will know we died honest men."
"Shooters Plural! Not just the girl, or shooter - singular. He could have strangled her - tied her down, wrapped her up ... she can be a lamb. "
"Of course, she struggles as we do ... certainly, Benjamin ... a tiger she is ..."
"I don't know - God sakes watch it ..."
Our canoe heeled, and dove headlong over a spill - we slammed forward, metal hull crying, then floating beyond the log and tangles of oak into the tidal. It explodes over the bow, flat and open and endless to the horizon. Suddenly the bushy green canyon no longer traps us. Salt grass fields replace lavender and laurel. Brine smells of rot. Heron rise in white clouds, and where current ends ... we are squirted from a tube: my eyes stretch into the panorama. The whole of it shimmers, as if frozen.
"Nothing moves Benjamin except us - the womans trail ends a vapor. A ghost. She has returned to Allah ... or Ishmael ..."
"Bitch is hiding under the pluff-mud." - watching us struggle - waiting ... "
I had hoped for a more prudent response. "My friend you observe as well as inconsistency permits." Smiles I restrained ... "Now look here, a truly consistent man would take the first round as warning, the second as good luck and find a compass-needle pointing same direction as the fleeing bullets."
" ... watching us struggle - calculating ... "
Hopeless ... Skin crinkles, back of his neck. A leach has attached and grows fatter. I burn it off bloodlessly with a cigarette - drop it, spit out the tobacco stench. "You are hopeless!" A swamp cat screams. Nothing sounds but smacks of wood paddles through the brine. Somewhere ahead or aside she flees - Benjamins thieving lover - we in pursuit a silent, silver sliver among low pine islands. I can see almost to the breakers, where ocean licks into the salt-marsh. Evening sky bled dark at its western rim.
Benjamin says. "Why did you come, Jerry?"
Offence I have long since ceased taking at the name Jerry - Jerry , such an American fools name not Jerrah though by it Benjamin means nothing. Jerrah - for centuries a Princes name ... my 25-caliber slides into a pouch. "Why tolerate your foolishness? To watch an enemy die, or fools struggle. Damned struggling buffoons." My right hand slams down on a thwart. "Just watch, how enemies will judge us," I say loudly with irritation, for this man who also is my sworn enemy would die beside me in a trifle. I lean back on my haunches, satisfied. One branch of the Y I have given him - perhaps he sees this, but is not offended.
Bow of the canoe Ben Hricko turned a trace. "Help them along, now won't you ..."
"I find no safety in silence or the obscure, by which my family has survived 26 generations."
"You and me, pal. We're gonna stay lucky, just watch easy. Quiet. Our canoe's a weapon."
I swashed brine over the bleeding crease in my cheek it howls pain then nothing. "Easy! Weapon? I have sentenced rapist to foul, breathless death in larger hulls, and to the mullahs they pleaded torture!"
Poor Benjamin - ignoring the cramp and jah-dreams his hand ran roughly over the bullet hole. It broke the aluminum curve just above water-line. "No pleading from her, eh pal? No warning away for us. She drilled a straight one, Jerry - misery taken and gone no tears over my hi-stone."
"Conveniently their shots missed you entirely."
"She's 20-20 bet the camel herd for that white turban."
"First them now she ... please, haste does not become you. Misery yes, but whose my friend? As a younger man I also had sought out women and their misery."
"In a fossil country packed with slaves."
"In an old culture worked by its servants." His face now is so grim, so striving I must laugh. "Ha - your bones have no meat, so you would allow none to others."
"I do as I want ... and ask nothing ..."
"Nothing you say and more than you imagine I agree. Not a lamb-shank, though who serves willingly frees not only the master."
"Free ... free women as in free beer?" He stuffs an oversized S&W 357-caliber into a holster against the hull, clips the water-tight and screws up his face. "Over a dead camel-hump you do ... you with the whip!"
I shrugged. "For the less worthy ... of course!"
"And for your favorite?"
"One both favored and unfaithful ...? Saudi woman have many vices - otherwise we would not bind them as we do - I would have her head."
"We are civilized - in South Carolina too civilized for reasonable behavior. What was I to do, let her run?"
"Perhaps call me an hour earlier."
"I did, as you remember your Corsican refused to believe me."
"Ah yes, a good man - for that he will lose a finger, but the woman ..."
His arms threw forward - helpless ... "Never again," ... and banged the canoe paddle against a
thwart - waved and insensate we plug on.
Not discovery, but search grinds a mans patience. So our friend the Lieutenant would surely admonish. Circling each of the myriad shoals and mud-flat islands - ignoring the heat and insects and reeking decay til ours arms ache and night caught us in her own steel-banded arms. This woman hides well, and I think she hides more cleverly than Benjamin imagines. How we search - helpless ... yet we stumbled upon her launch in head-high salt grass - empty, abandoned - engine still hot, flat bottom run into mud.
While Benjamin paddled I handed around the ragged fibre-glass sill binding the top looking for reasons I should not damn her. This skiff now un-needed or dis-allowed ... I say. "Alone or entrapped that IS the question, isn't it Benjamin ..."
"Hell no. Find a rope?"
"Hell no! You so wants to believe her taken, overwhelmed, enveloped not by her own needs, but by force. Very well - though not clear thinking for a man I sometimes see as wise ... Needs and force - I also had believed such a difference existed for women."
"For yours ... all of them." He jumped up. "Over there, Jerry ..." The landing was a swatch cut of
T-ZINGGG ... one shot flying high overhead.
A heron flying explodes, like a puffed up pillow its sightless wings beating and tumbles from the sky. The fish it had speared falls beside it they are like Einstein brothers falling without weight, but only the herons dead body splashes. By now we are experienced soldiers, in this war and watching death then ignore it. It is not us.
"Lame shot," says Benjamin his eyes flashing round then settling onto the thrashing white feathers. "One shot could mean anything."
"Not to the heron."
"Desperation! They're cornered."
"Ha - yes, edges everywhere in a swamp or desert such a geometric man you are - or newly primitive. Just as in life forms rule everything so neatly; by comparison what is a razor?"
"You're a pigs ass-hole, Jerry."
After such an oath I expect his eyes to gleam, but they remain dull blue saucers watching where the heron has sunk, and his hands stuck to his shave-head as a prisoner might. He grunts and lurches. We ship, roll out and pull through the pluff-mud. Salt grass reaches our shoulders, cutting and bamboo rises above. It is a kind of art, this wenches hiding, a kind of creation this I do not mention as we struggle forward.
Ben tugs angrily at branches of a half-submerged log. "D'you know she must have fallen ..." His hand held a tuft of peach-blonde hair. "Careless, her ... she never is, not Peachy when she's got her mind to it." He pointed, and with passion grit out. "That way!"
"Ha, my friend that way - impenetrable - you have taken before, carelessly and that way ..." I paused for a glance around - swamp and forest primeval ... a wasteland to think I had become a man where so much as a cupful is precious "... that way if not taken, we may with peaceful minds still return to our beds."
"Worn and peaceful," I grunt. "Such should be a mans bed - unvexed - at least one of them ..." This said to Benjamin in perfect faithfulness, as a comrade in battle - what I do not share is the unreasoned, lizards insight ... the primeval dark felt at the battles end. So clear, though I am confused as if by second sight forbidden by the Prophet - blasphemy against mans will. I motion to the canoe, grabbing the curved bow and dragging it. He shakes his shave head, and sits on the rotted log stump.
"Him or they," he mumbles to no one, and leaning over slides the 357-caliber S&W from its water-tight. "Never, or ... or from the beginning?" He opens the cylinder takes out a slug and rolls it, palm- to-palm then look up straight at me. "Our differences, Jerry bitter as they are never came to a thing like this. When I called ..."
"When you called I came directly from the marina - a pittance. Our differences a game between men, simply ... one wishes the bullet to pass closely yet never strike."
"Then ... if Peachy had been your woman ...?"
"Ha! A tigress clawing my rugs! I would have beaten her, before taking her seeing when first the dagger appears - before or after I slept." Cold chatter this wisdom though happily I carry scars it gives me no pleasure. "Had she first kissed your feet in thanksgiving ... what's to be said? You found her beached, wounded - a lost sea-raven ... while now she fattens, shares your Island and your bed, stolen a friend might say and removed your other women. Sharing less than everything, and ... those chemicals Benjamin they will ruin you, but ..."
"Bloody kfir - we shared more than ..."
"Ah yes, my friend - to share the algorizms ... to share the truth, but perhaps if we are fortunate she understood little."
"Her mathematics? Flawless!"
"What did you explain to her?"
"Everything from my side - nothing of importance. She understood everything." He plucks at a hawkish, bone-thin face. "I'm screwed!"
Laughter bursts from me. "Ha! What can she have thieved? Half-dozen CDs? A months worth of data ... you are years behind me, Benjamin, but she saw fools gold and mined it. Damn her, running to Soros, or Lam - any developer really, or to the Kazaks. They would show her the door - sell her to a Nigerian slaver or ... or drop her into a pit."
He turns on me. "What's the method worth ... if it works?"
To which I raise an eyebrow nothing more. "Last months outcomes also? Eh ... diffusion matrix, percolation tensor ... not the operators, of course ..."
"Of course not. Only here ..." He touches his forehead. Then. " Hell, even the Feds God damn-it Jerry what if she's a Fed!"
"Trade-craft ... clever little wench, dammit she is so clever, fast as a surf blue ..."
"Juice also, has your damsel something a government person cannot imagine - I say that even as
one who in part belongs to his government."
T-ZINGGG ... flies a bullet high overhead, prodding us.
We crouch momentarily. Benjamin lights a cigarette and I take one. "Your Federal poison," I say, but it soothes, unlike the bite of black-tar hashish I have shared in Iraqi swamps - under their guns.
Benjamin stared intently at the twist of blonde hair. "I imagine she handed data-sets off to her rancid brother."
"She and her brother, both Brits or an ancestry more vague? When did the brother appear?"
"Shortly after the Lieutenant ran a FedScan for me."
"What a treasure you are, Benjamin - such was your trust in this woman ..."
"I had no choice! /bin/mistress forced me, on pain of losing ROOT privilege. Drunk and naked, Peachy found a buffer overflow and hacked my Convex. The daemon, well ... she was pissed beyond words."
"Your toys, Benjamin, they encircle you."
"I was laying beside her ...."
"So the Lieutenant searched. Ha! May I guess? He found your mistress to be a demon, a vixen, a schemer. A goddess, she appears from the clouds correcting Aristotle, while in her flesh she has been both the consolation of men and a convicted murderess ..."
"Bullshit! The Lieutenant found her bank accounts. In Swiss Franks at Shilde-Grundmann alone they run seven figures. Acquisitive ... the name does her no justice. Know what I mean?"
"Tut-tut - a modest retainer. And her person?"
He shifts uneasily. Hiding which of my fantasies he knows for truth. "Vague! Her passport's English, her accent Welsh and degree Oxford. Did I say she can knit? Her last known address like her employment a trading company in Macao. She's ... unsettled, her brother slacks in Freeport when he's not running in jah from Haiti. That piece of info came for nothing, as the Lieutenant said. He thought I should crap out."
"Such a prize ... this unsettled Peachy ..." Sweat fills an eye, blinked away. "And she is affected to her brother?"
"Hates him. I told her to crap-him-out!"
"But not you, never you, Benjamin ... not because of a woman." I lean back on the canoe, watching purple sky darken. A carpet of stars lead home; Procyon glints in Canis Minor. How can I judge this man? I believe the cynics smile stayed within, for I would not bring him shame. "Real and virtual toys - your women give you no rest. Hacked, as you say. We Saudis would be Iraqi kennel-masters could we not do better. I say once a flag is raise all may see it, but ..." I crushed swollen mosquitos against my blood cheek, " ... but granted all mischief what have they in the data excepting mumblers - either indecipherable or unbelievable!"
He bounced off the stump. "I saw, what you intended ..."
"So you do - sit on the very sand I will make vanish while you conger. A proper Jesuit you would have made. But lost in love to a woman-child? Poor Benjamin now lost beyond reason or humor."
"Nothing's funny ... Move along Jerry, eh ... she'll be after your secrets next."
"But a step behind you, my friend ..." Why indeed have I come on this misadventure?
Ben stopped, face narrowing and his bony hands clasped his neck. "That too."
At first we follow a thin trail of steps wet and broken, and limbs bent over. Crossed a tidal creek still draining to a larger island thick in live oak, reeking decay along swamp fringes while higher, toward the island middle few stumps remained. Thick, rough-leaf grass covered sotted marl. Flashlights told everything if whispering evidence shouts.
I whisper. "Praise Allah, my friend put the gun away." He was prodding the chrome barrel and pilot laser recklessly, into every crevasse. At a distance groping them - brambles and dark crevasse where danger may lurk, or for what he might annoy ... The fluorescent barrel-bead swung by my head. "Look here, Benjamin if you step on a snake it bites, but for alligators ...?" I wiped sweat, and the stench of insect repellant from my forehead as the dull, red beam and barrel pointed elsewhere ... ".. surely we will encounter no alligators east of the tide-line."
"They're everywhere ..."
"If you insist."
"Don't patronize me! What's unlikely is also necessary ... might be, could be, have been ... d'yah see the second set of foot-prints, Jerry?"
"Fewer ...," I suggest unsuccessfully. We entered the patch, circled it and finally move to its level center. Only from that highest point are remains visible on the islands south tip of an abandoned fisher-cabin, rotted dock and ruined stone rise of a cistern. Over them on-shore wind blows briney from the reach and stars wink dull, dance along heavy, heat tired draughts of air. I kill the flashlight. "Steps? Only hers, entering this patch of grass then leading to the shambles. What do you think?"
"She's smart! I imagine ..." Benjamin threw the flashlight beam toward a moving swatch where
the water mocassin had decided better slip away than die. He watches, steadies, points at the hut
fifty yards away then swears "damned ... Ibn-Ali I imagine when we find Peachy - her and the
goods quite impossible she's read nothing. I'll need to shoot her - d'yah know that?"
T-ZINGGG ...TSINGGG ... lead hornets snake overhead, and snakes or no we belly into the
rough green cover.
Benjamins use of my formal, given name and swearing death on a deceiving lover, and his air of utter, righteous solitude coincide with barrel flashes from the fallen wood hut and tastes of hot, angry, high-power slugs. These I have heard before up-river. And I have heard them before, howling packs of them. How they run you down, swamp or desert ... it does not change. They do not chew a mans bones but vaporize them. Good fortune, the shooting wild and angry such as to make Benjamin proud - that idea sticks, or has been stuck to me while an older brain burns that I may survive.
I roll left, away and down from the hill-top. Benjamin I do not see or hear - he has rolled the other way, or the bullets have chewed him up. Silence in either case I do not call him or shout or even roll, but slither like the snake toward dark thickets. No more shots are fired. Lower on the hill as I am, sideways on the slope trees hide the dock. Whomever fired is hidden. Them or she or it. I have waited hours, to kill an Iraqi dog - sniping ... who could remove eyebrows at a quarter mile for Allahs pleasure. But these ...? More a mating dance - approach and separate I think feeling unease. Watch-face diamonds glow. I finger a fresh clip into the 25-automatic ... to think I could have sailed following moon-rise into Scorpius, feeling for wind not a bullet - stealing points closer winds edge, feeling the hull stiffen and gently roll ... HA! What certainty have I traded for Benjamins unruly quest - to feel the edge of what wind ... I decide uncertainty will quickly find an end.
I will make the passages, and that thought drives me. Under live oak struggling through coarse, damp island sand - on my belly. The coiled, black form and flicking tongue does not interest me, nor I it while coils tighten and I scramble away. Snakes and humans - we evolved to seek prey both larger and smaller than each other - there exists a precise misfit as scriptures warn us from any contact less humans die and the viper be cast out. Each to their own time and needs and each pass unharmed.
This mystery does not attract me, as does the shooter. Bugs howl in my ears I ignore them. Hell is sunrise, compared to the blackness here. Beneath the island canopy growth is meager and following the compass I push through with almost vengeful speed. Equal fortune I wish to Benjamin should he still breath praise Allah that he does ... what a pity should he fall to an accident. It has occurred to me, that the womans theft - if such happened and the ambush if such is the intent - are directed not at Ben Hricko, but at myself. As he said the woman knows everything about his defense, and therefore nothing ... he would review himself no less harshly than do I. What has the man to lose?
Benjamins wealth, and his enemies are of a mercantile kind, which may appear and also vanish. What enemies vex me are of the soul. 'Do you hear that, Benjamin while you are an opponent you do not vex me.' I bite at a lump on my arm where a spider has bitten fresh and spit blood. What has he to lose compared to my kingdoms? Why do I think of him so closely, hurrying to anothers death ... or to my own?
'Benjamin - you and I locked in a duel. Do you hear?' But the woman ... I have never met her
brother - she is a whore. To me they mean nothing - but to him? Should Allah have preserved him
... has he felt truly? Would he kill her in vengeance or lust ... that is blasphemy for a just man. I
breath, and mists of dead sand-clay fill my lungs. Salt rasp cracks my lips. A dead-fall surrounds
me of fallen, rotted timber and I struggle to one knee. What's to be seen is seen dimly: a crust of
dock and the clap-board hut. It rises just beyond the tangle. Branches layer, like cage-wire I
cannot pass, but slide left measuring sodden ground toward the swamp. I am timing my own
steps, and those imaginary of Benjamin should he do as I would ... chrome safety of the 25-caliber falls under my thumb and slides open.
Shots blaze - loud, dirty fractures like cymbals clapping in the night. TZINGGG ... BLAM -
BLAM ... TSINGGG
Time and needs squeeze in. They force my breath into fierce, short gasps. I turn from the swamp
and dive in feeling thorns and thicket branches whipping, crashing with my head breaking
through, as live wood cords shred my turban. I gasp, but they do not cut like razor wire -
something strikes against my pants leg missing flesh. I fire downward, once and would follow the
thrashing, but already I am steps away, on the rise beside the cabin.
ACK ... it takes me unaware, this bullet shaving hairs from my neck.
Left, at the dock a bay cruiser rocks beside the piling motor running. Right, a figure darts from the pilings running hard, head down making for the stone circle. I cannot fathom why he chooses this trap of a collapsed cistern , what pulls him back, but his head snaps up seeing me, then his revolver following, coughing stray flashes ACK-ACK I do not waste rounds on this target so uncertain yet one must consider will he die well or easily - a planner, or man of war or a coward, but none of these for his determined strides so single-minded say he is deceived.
I slam into the doorway. Rotted wood shatters I tumble over, up and sense the open window and jagged glass pane. ACK - In a flash that shatters - ringlets cutting my face, my bloody hands they have the 25-caliber sighted, on shadows bent above a rough stone ring. My hand squeezes ... but I dodge instead - TZINGGG more glass powers carrying pieces of the wooden window-frame. I step back, then rush forward crashing through after the bullets.
My body bounces and rolls up face forward in the pose of hand-to-hand killing. Close up. Under the rifle barrel. 25-caliber automatic stretching out my arms extended as the rifle arcs downward in a kind of slow-motion. I am watching the man a surprise jerks up his face, and watch his arms and the wooden stock they magnify before I squeeze the trigger three times. Above the mans mouth appear three bloody holes. They have appeared as searchlights looking backwards, for now he can see nothing in front of him. I have ceased to exist for him. And he falls over the stone wall drooping his arms on the damp sandy clay the rifle falls away from his grasp with no enemy in sight. He sees nothing.
But I see. More than the smell of cordite or blood, the swamp reeks of night work. I stand eyes fixed over the cistern edge. Beneath, the woman kneels on bare stone. A torn wool shirt exposes her breast as her face, pearl in moons full light. She holds a revolver, in one hand. It points to a bloody hole in the dead mans spine. Her fingers clasp the trigger-guard, and her hand appears melted into the metal. That hand holds steady while the other caresses her head, fingers buried in waves of peach-blonde hair. Even in the dark marsh luminescence has caught that color, of a tiger or golden lamb. Beside her lays a shiny metal case.
From the trees, Benjamin has sharply called my name. It comes as a question. Think of it, my friends voice mingled with the shush of moss and live oak and wet swamp sand. The woman looks up expectant, turns her head as if willing her own name to be called. Her palm reaches out flat against the stone. I step over and down, and place the bead of my automatic against her temple and force my hand under her chin. Looking for a dead womans eyes - melting or shattered or full of red hate. Those of a coward or fool or slattern. Those visions. But I see in hers unmoved, brittle notes of emerald glitter.
Polaris. Ha! What Benjamin sees! The shock of it races through my spine. What she would expect had she stood where I do. Steel against flesh - she understands everything. I raise the barrel. It points to the night sky - Allahs mercy 'do you hear me Benjamin this woman will vex you!' and I bring down my empty right hand with all force across her face. Such a blow has shattered enemies, my own hand a nettles nest. Blood squirts from her lip, and a cheek white as innocence blushes, but that face becomes peaceful. She tumbles over lying beneath Cassiopeia, Mars and Venus having fled into darkness ... lying breathless together. This assassin - breath rushes from her, only to catch and hide - her temple throbs I praise Allah for his justice. She has covered the breast, and so Benjamin will find her. Life becomes sweet.