AN INSECT the size of a humming bird buzzed out of Warz’ open mouth. He coughed and his eyes fluttered open to let in half-dead light. He felt queasy. He tasted poison with a trace of licorice. Propping himself on his elbows, he looked around but didn’t know where he was or how he got there, and he thought, Cass! Cass dumped him like a load of manure. Then the hangover made Warz roll over.
Warz checked himself for injuries. The body liked to break when thrown from a speeding vehicle. He wondered what time it was, but his watch was missing. Objects were blurrier than they should have been at dusk. So he reached up to adjust the glasses and panicked. They were missing too. So was his hat.
He got on his knees and began sweeping the ground in wide arcs for the glasses but grabbed only warm sand. Again, he wanted to know what time it was. If the sand was cool, it might be very late. Then he became aware there was no weight on his neck. The camera! It was gone! He moved faster, discovering only pieces of paper, bits of metal and plastic. Some of it pricked him. An empty bottle stinking of peppermint schnapps rolled away. He retched when he smelled it but chucked only spittle.
Warz began crawling in circles, back and forth, the end of his nose scraping ground. He wanted to find Cass and kill him, and believed he’d get away with it because this was Africa, if he was still in Africa. If he was, he was confident he had enough f. u. money to get around murder, particularly in Africa. Everyone had a price, and the third world’s had to be the cheapest. Then a new panic attack hit when he touched the big pockets to feel the cash. The pockets were empty, and the big wallet was gone with the return tickets and passport!
Warz got scared. He might not be lucky this time, get help from the wrong people, wind up a blind beggar like what he’d been seeing since he got off the plane. Sure, they’d cut out his tongue so he couldn’t talk, cut off his hands so he couldn’t write, make their maimed white monkey panhandle outside embassies and swank hotels, milking sympathy and guilt and, at the end of the day, take his money cup from him, chain him down, and make him do it again the next day.
Warz smelled vomit, right under his nose. He flapped his jacket front, but the mess had pretty much crusted on. Then a dead-fish smell made him look for the sea. He closed an eye, curled an index finger into the thumb, and peeked through the monocle. The old trick squeezed light on the back of the retina. The brighter the light was, the better the technique worked. For the moment, he couldn’t discern reflection, but he could make out a black void where he heard beach break.
Warz imagined an Arab the next day starting his cook fire by ray-gunning sheep-hair tinder with sunlight through a lens of his glasses.
Farther away was a broad glow. He didn’t need the monocle for that. He relaxed a bit. It had to be Djiboutiville. The United States had no consulate there, but the French would know what to do. He couldn’t be the first out-of-towner rolled there. How long was he unconscious? he wondered.
Warz walked along the beach toward the glow, feeling things would work out but expecting to start hurting somewhere since he couldn’t be that lucky. A dead baby hammerhead lay in his path like a discarded tool. Warz passed the fish and went into the Indian Ocean. He scooped warm handfuls to wash off the vomit.
CREW-CUT REGULARS in civvies were partying at a hotel on Place Menelik, wishing their military obligation was done and their hair longer. As Warz went by, a blur rushed past his face. The regulars snagged the drunk from throwing another punch. They apologized. Their wild colonial boy mistook him for somebody else, that’s all.
The Rolling Stones’ “Starfucker” was shaking Place Menelik courtesy of the Hotel l’Europe. European women, some of whom, like their kids, knew English; some with kids in tow, went right on shopping in hothouse dresses and tropic-weight gold without covering the children’s ears. Sticks and stones, they’re what broke bones, not naughty lyrics about a New York groupie.
People avoided eye contact with Warz, he looked so skunked. He wanted to rest and sat down at a table under the Bar Menelik’s overhang. Someone had left behind loose change. It didn’t look like enough to buy a beer. Postcards were left behind too, under a steel ashtray. The paperweight was engraved with the Legion’s flaming grenade.
“More Majorum” was inscribed below the image. “In the fashion of our forefathers.” But a lot of Latin Masses offered Warz no help with the meaning.
A ballpoint pen also forgotten on the table was reverberating from Bill Wyman’s bass. Warz tried the pen on the palm of his hand. It worked. The top card showed Jacques Cousteau at the Gulf of Tadjoura. The explorer was inspecting a twisted, empty cage. The caption explained the cage was in working order the previous night when it was lowered with a dead camel inside to snare the TFAI’s giant manta ray, although the toothless rays sieved nothing bigger than small fish.
Warz wondered whether he should take over where someone left off after writing the date, tell his grandfather he’d be home soon, but an Arab kid distracted him. He was hawking a tray of black coral for what was two bits per chunk. A white man, who may not have been French, apparently knew what it was really worth, cornered him, and bought his whole supply for a lot less. The boy was happy. But Warz felt sorry for him, came over, and stopped him from leaving.
Warz’ skunked appearance made him look dangerous. He told the buyer to return the kid’s coral. The guy didn’t know English, but he caught Warz’ drift and complied. The kid left very happy.
Warz asked the man where the police were. The man knew Warz had nothing on him, but didn’t care to chance getting back at Warz by misleading him. Soon Warz was walking down Rue Ethiopie in the direction the guy pointed.
A narrow lane bent this way and that, and eventually put Warz in a dark, empty lot amid Cinzano umbrellas left open over bare tables. Ready for the next market day. Bony, alien-looking, stunted cats chewed on melon seeds. He saw nobody else. It was very quiet, lonely.
Looming over the lot on the other side of a high cement wall was a fat, white tower. At first, Warz wondered why the double-balconied lighthouse wasn’t working. Crooked strands of little light bulbs were hung on it and they weren’t even on. Then he got it: a mosque’s minaret. What had thrown him was, there were no loudspeakers. Because the French didn’t want to be summoned to prayer five times a day, let alone once, and they called the shots here.
He moved along the wall. A glowing cigarette butt flew out of nowhere, and a young Arab hopped off a table through his last puff to snag the smoke in mid air.
Warz raised his fists.
The smoker was insulted. “Je ne suis pas un voleur!” He wasn’t a thief or armed either, he said, and, unintelligible to Warz, implored him not to call the milice, the local police. He showed Warz the cigarette.
“S-see,” the smoker stuttered in more French, scared. “It’s British. I changed my mind about getting rid of it. Th-these things are expensive for me, man!”
Warz caught his breath. “Sonofabitch,” he gasped.
The nervous smoker didn’t believe he was getting through, so he pantomimed as he explained anxiously the butt was too long not to finish. Not getting through, he ran away leaving Warz looking over the mosque.
Didn’t they stone infidels caught in the places? Warz wondered. On the other hand, it might have gold or silver adornment. Catholic churches did. Nobody was around. If he could steal what his black-market associates would buy, he could get going again. The moneychangers might be devout Moslems, but they definitely were businessmen.
The wall’s bottom half was green, the top half white and capped with a white railed fence. The barrier looked over 20 feet high. Formidable. Too smooth to be Spidermanned. To be sure, Warz pulled the smokejumper’s table next to the wall, got on top of the table and looked up. No go. Besides, he thought, once in, could he get out?
Warz gave up on becoming a burglar. He jumped off to go file charges against a fellow American. Rounding the wall, he found the mosque’s tall wooden door. For the hell of it, since he was there, he tried the latch. It was locked.
GARISH NEON shouted at him in the lane Warz took now. “Zan Zee Bar,” yelled the sign. It made him thirstier. The police could wait.
A lame beggar woman scuttled across his path to be with a gaunt man that sat on the ground outside the bar. His eyelids curtained hollow sockets. He had money for her. He wasn’t done taking what he could from life. She bunched her dirty skirt to wriggle on his lap. Warz passed without staring to give himself the privacy.
Strings of glass beads clicked behind him as he entered the Zan Zee. In the foyer and embracing a sweaty local cop was a desultory girl done up like a cupie doll. The whole place was sweating. The table was wet, the floor was slick, the walls wept, the ceiling fan struggled to whip sodden air. Warz wanted “Wet Paint” signs hung on the girls, “For Rent” would be accurate too.
They perked up when they saw him and struck brave poses. They didn’t care how he looked. It was a slow night. But all Warz wanted was water.
The working girls outnumbered the few other customers, who happened to be legionnaires in sweat-patched walking-out khaki.
Warz took a table. He reached behind him to peel the damp bush coat off his back. It re-adhered as soon as he let go, so he took off the thing.
Power smokers were holding expensive watches by their bands and flipping them overhand against each other. Somehow, a Germinal-Voltaire wafer broke the crystal on a stainless-steel block. “Clonkers!” the winner’s side roared and collected bets.
At another table, troops were cheering on a drunken buddy that was waving a broken glass and insisting he could make himself stop bleeding anytime he wanted to.
Bright as parrots, the girls in their party dresses swished closer to Warz. They walked unsteadily in high heels from behind their tables to perch on barstools. But they could teach European women about smooth legs, and they didn’t care how you looked as long as you could pay.
They didn’t know Warz couldn’t even pay for water. He hoped he wasn’t going to be charged for it.
One of the girls stood out by not standing out. In a demure black cocktail dress, she exhibited no interest in Warz, which disappointed him. Comely, she wore none of the makeup discoloring the others, nor jewelry. Clearly, she lacked ambition.
Warz tried to decide which girl was least likely to give him an infection. He’d never made it with a black woman. Friends said even if it wasn’t good, the first time with a black woman was never bad, and intimacy here would be meaningful. He would be making love to Africa, probing the primal womb.
Warz’ table thudded. A grim waiter was setting down two Kronenbourgs. The two legionnaires that ordered them were pulling up chairs. They were drunk but in command. One soldier, set solidly in middle age, seemed too short and slight to be able to survive the Legion, except he had.
The legionnaire placed a caporal-chef’s red-topped black képi on the table. Chief corporal was mostly honorary. The Legion didn’t like its active-duty seniors going around with sub-rank white toppers. The other was the silent type. Also expressionless, carrot-haired, younger, stronger, and big, perhaps a bodyguard. His shirt was unbuttoned to show off the gold religious medals, big as sommeliers’ spoons. He removed his corporal’s képi.
The short legionnaire put two yellowed fingertips to his lips and sucked on a smoldering filterless cigarette stub. A mottled hole was all that remained of an ear. He pushed a beer at Warz and unaggressively took hold of Warz’ arm. Warz gave him the benefit of a doubt and let him politely tug him farther out on the table to entwine his arm with his own. When the legionnaire lifted his bottle to his lips, Warz understood.
Ignoring his queasy stomach, Warz threw down his brew to grate his throat first and won. That impressed the little soldier who ordered another round. Warz lost the next match and not on purpose. The deadpan friend observed.
A puddle from the beers’ overflow was spreading toward the képis. Warz tried rescuing the hats. But his drinking pals waved him off. Only legionnaires could touch them.
“Indochine?” the little legionnaire inquired.
Once again, Warz’ tattoo had attracted attention. The U.S. Marines insignia was as well-known to the chief corporal as the Lorraine Cross.
Warz backed the lie it showed. “Oui.”
“Moi aussi!” the little legionnaire stressed. They were frat brothers. “Moi blessé! Cinq fois,” he proclaimed, leaving Warz without a clue to what he meant.
His companion took out a brush-topped bottle of white liquid shoe polish and painted a smudge on his cover while the modest whore from the back of the bar walked over.
“May I help you?” she asked Warz. She’d observed he didn’t speak French. Maybe Warz knew English.
Her accent crystallized each word. She used to teach in Berbera, she said, and she began to translate, her Rs shuddering gently. Whatever the perfume was, she smelled wonderful.
“He says he was in Indochina thrree yearrs. They did not have the pairr-mission to go home. He was wounded thrree times. In Algerria, twice morre. Once by the knife.”
The chief corporal gulped the rest of his drink. “Vive la Légion!” he cheered and slammed down the glass.
“Those wehrr the times for the rreal tests,” she continued for the little fighter, who was pulling on his knee socks, although they hadn’t slipped.
Then the soldier went quiet. Just like that, his mood turned sullen. Now he stared grimly at the floor. Everyone knew not to intrude, and nobody cared to check on the party where the drunk was cutting himself. A glance might get you involved.
After a few moments, the legionnaire resumed talking.
“He says the only prroblem”––she worked a bit on the words––“you arre perrmitted to kill enemies of the state only.”
The funk left the little hero.
“Wehr you wounded?” she asked Warz for him.
“Oui,” Warz replied but feared if he kept it up, the legionnaire would show some of his résumé. Then it would be his own turn. He had to change the subject. “You work here?” Warz asked her, trying to be delicate.
“My pay I send to my parrents. Things arre not good in my countrry.”
She said her home was Zeila. She didn’t mention a fee. Warz hoped she was attracted to him. Meanwhile, back in the corner the legionnaire with the broken glass was gashing his chest to applause.
The free drinks never stayed empty, and, good boy that he was, Warz cleaned up everything put before him, including a green liqueur they added water to, turning it white.
“La fée verte,” the chief corporal said.
“The grreen fairry,” the ex-teacher trilled with a knowing smile.
Warz tasted aniseed. It was so mild, he wondered why they were drinking it like 200 proof.
The chief corporal asked Warz a question.
“He wants to know what you do herre,” the teacher translated.
When he heard that, Warz got an idea. “I want to see the barrage,” he said, struggling to speak clearly through the alcohol. Cass had to be caught. But first Warz had to set things up. “Je cherche Ian Kerr,” Warz slurred and grabbed the table to keep himself from sliding away. The whole room was turning.
Then Legion MPs showed up. They charged the table with the cutter, knocked him down, and dragged him away streaming before he made more of a mess.
WARZ BOUNCED and rocked in the front seat of a Hotchkiss. The little legionnaire was driving. The headlights were off and a prickly fog of barbed wire unrolled under star shine. Warz didn’t have to look to know the teacher was hanging on in the rear with the corporal’s bodyguard; he smelled the perfume.
Beyond the outermost wire were the now useless death’s-head signs. Too dark to see them or their French and Arabic warnings about mines.
The jeep ground slowly past a snoring bush, finally stopping near a tower that was nearly atomized by the late hour. Thirty feet up the clapboard beach-guard post, a shadow was scanning its perimeter and giving itself eyestrain at a pair of daytime field glasses.
A growling blotch appeared, moving toward Warz, but it stopped beside the ladder. Another Hotchkiss. A soldier left the blotch, rested a foot on a ladder rung and looked up.
“Air Ah Ess?” he asked, giving three letters in French. R A S. Did the lookout have anything to report? It was easier to remember or speak than “Rien a signaler?”
“Rien.” Nothing was going on, the shadow-guard answered and began descending.His relief waited to take his place while the legionnaires and the girl left the Hotchkiss as more forms gathered. She was drawing them to her.
Everyone gave first salutes to the little chief corporal, apparently a star. Even a top ranker in a black képi with braid saluted first, but they eyed her, hoping against hope she was a gift from the little soldier.
Warz decided to stay put in the jeep in order to look important. Important people made you go to them. He heard a plane, but when he tried to find it, the constellations twisted his head around. Tipsy, he gripped the windshield’s top edge.
Everybody was doing fine living in a hole turned inside out. Nobody needed to invent fire. Not one flashlight beam shattered dark. Legionnaires were kicked back in smocks resembling ER scrubs, except the sides were open.
A searchlight snapped on in the next tower 500 meters along the line. Routine. To let the boss know you weren’t asleep.
The little chief corporal was pointing out Warz to the form that left the tower. Was that Kerr? Warz wondered.
Then the bunch began coming toward him, or to the girl, Warz wasn’t sure, but all of them, his drinking partners, the watchtower phantom, the whole damn regiment, it seemed, were on the move his way.
The girl got away from the jeep.
Warz fidgeted. He was certain now they wanted to see him. He needed to sneak Cass’s plot to an officer but couldn’t tell if one was among the bunch approaching. And he had to tell Kerr his salvation was at hand, what Cass looked like now, to stay loose but not leave the parade ground. Kerr had to be sacrificed to lure out Cass. But how, Warz wondered, did he tell Kerr with everyone listening?
And then bang, thud, boom! Just like that. Triple jeopardy. A mine had gone off, quickly followed by a flare that whooshed upward from the no-man’s land and popped open.
Colors were shocked off the spectrum and made a reverse negative of the whole scene. Legionnaires scattered for battle stations in a world that was now swaying under the rocking sky light. A ground flare hissed opposite running boots.
The relief guard was caught midway on the ladder. Like a monkey on a stick, he shimmied to the top to hand crank his siren.
Down the whole line, searchlights were snapped on. An explosion close by tried perforating Warz’ eardrums, and there was another blast, then another as legionnaires opened fire and splashed a half second of electric yellow-orange on everything spotlighted across from them in the perimeter.
Armed shadows rushed past Warz to the fence. Ambush and alert teams hoping it was insurgents, hoping the assholes would try to take their lives to give them meaning. They were cursing in French, German, Czech, Portuguese, Fijian.
Warz had to see what was going on. Weaving from the jeep, he stumbled to a 10-foot-high chain-link fence and hung on it for balance. The new guard spotlighted the stage for him, and shaking there in a one-dimension scene bled of all color except black and white a lousy stone’s throw from success were four gatecrashers stuck in a minefield. Two adults, two kids. A family. All around them, other people’s admission charges dangled in the wire: flip-flops, hobo bags, pants, wraparounds, dresses.
A stop team arrived, scrambled for position and fired over the trespassers’ heads. Shots at the ground could set off more fireworks and toe popper mines.
Somali Issa, Afar, perhaps Eritrean, whatever they were, Warz deduced, they were here to find work in order to get food because they were fed up with starving. Legionnaires that knew poverty themselves held their fire.
The trespassers had crawled through double concertina and three meters of double-apron NATO-draht––razor wire––until luck ran out in the 10-meter-deep minefield. The toe popper didn’t detonate itself, and whoever yanked the tripwire set off the parachute flare that was connected to the ground torch. Before them was even more wire and then the big fence.
That these people would make it through in the dark always amazed the legionnaires, although some troops had been on the quay and watched a tiny pet octopus unscrew the lid on a jar of fish. To those men, sneaking in couldn’t be too difficult to figure out.
The trespassers knew the risks but still had to try. They knew people had succeeded. The man and woman seemed to want to speak but were catatonic.
An infant in a katanga slung on the woman’s chest was too shocked to clutch her. Its tiny fists were shaking, its mouth convulsed in silent screams that competed hopelessly with the siren. The trembling woman held the child tight. An older child, a boy, perhaps three years old, was on his haunches shaking and holding his knees. Clear liquid was dripping out the leg of short pants.
The fizzing torch descended slowly on its little parachute and the bizarrely lit scene died back to dark normal.
Somebody went up the ladder to yell at the tower guard to stop grinding the siren. As it wound down, Warz heard radio chatter.
Spicing the communiqué with another quaint epithet, the sergeant reported, “Bunjuls in the wire.” Nothing to worry about.
One by one, the other tower lights began going off, but this post’s stayed on.
If they didn’t intend to kill somebody, the sergeant yelled, they were not to waste bullets. Harassment shots at last ceased. Bored, disappointed legionnaires grumbled about lost sleep, unloaded and bitched again. Every time they toured here, this happened. Nobody ever came in shooting.
Then acrid stink crept out of the wire. Nobody was curious, including Warz until he made out a smoking pile in a tarry pool. First, he thought the trespassers brought along an animal because the small rib cage had to be a lamb’s or dog’s the ground flare was rudely barbecuing. When he got closer, though, he made out the body of a child. He couldn’t determine age or sex and wondered how.
It had stepped on one of the little mines, which blew off half of the foot and sent the kid toppling toward a trap of double flares just as its older brother’s foot caught on stolperdraht––the tripwire. The rocket went through the body. The family must have known.
Warz was disconsolate. It got itself killed trying to get a job no better than hauling shit. He wondered how the body would be returned to them. Before this, Warz’ dead always lay in satin.
Legionnaires hoped they wouldn’t be delegated come daylight to go in and pick their way around the ordnance to haul out remains. One was going to be chosen, and he would be washing his hands in cologne for a week. They shuffled off to resume the wait. Others were back at the jeep, waiting for Warz, who remembered he had something to ask and then something to tell.
And high in his tower, the relief was glassing the northern perimeter. It wasn’t his responsibility, but, above the far end, patterned lights were twinkling. He told the invisible friend he usually sought out when alone that once at home in Perpignan he watched a design of lights pass over the city, suddenly and altogether turn on a centime, then streak out of sight. He never told anybody else. It wouldn’t have been wise. People were people, always ready to invent witches to burn. Only, this UFO was not leaving. It kept getting lower, too, and coming on.
Then he heard rumbling. Gauzy stalks sprouted from the other towers’ searchlights. They swung up and weaved until the beams caught the thing. The ground began flashing; they were shooting at it.
The sentry strained to hear siren wail, listened for the phone to ring with the order not to worry, and made out the image. It was a plane, a big one, the size of a bomber. The Russians were rumored to have given a few to the neighbors. Then molten red streaked skyward. Tracers. He let go of the field glasses and cranked the siren’s handle.
Warz had just arrived at the car when the group there scrambled to general quarters again. Soon the little chief corporal was standing sideways to present less of a target, waiting with an aimed 9mm pistol for a clear shot at the lit cockpit to kill the whole plane. They could all see it.
The sentry looked poleaxed. The aircraft was coming in so low he believed it was going to take out the tower, but he snapped on his light. It slicked the plane’s belly as thunder took over. The earth shook.
His phone rang. If they were calling to tell him to jump, he couldn’t hear the bell. Stay at your post, he told himself. Remember duty, honor, country, la Légion!, and said the hell with all that. Halfway down his vibrating perch he jumped while the giant craft went roaring and screaming over him.
More 44mm pyrotechnics went off without distracting the single-minded chief corporal whose pistol bucked and flamed at the Leggo-like figures in the cockpit. Then the jeep’s windshield exploded.
Warz almost beat shattering glass to the ground, chased by the idea of a small needle-nose missile spinning toward him at half a mile a second. Shards and ejected casings pattered on his back. He pressed the side of his face into the sand. A hot casing stung his cheek. Another stray panged on the jeep.
The roar boomed like the end of the world. Warz covered his ears. Then the noise lifted with the plane. A line of well-lit portholes was stuffed with faces staring back at two dozen semiautomatics chasing them with fire even after the ascending plane banked and glared “Air Madagascar”.
A PRC 25 squawked threats of execution to the radioman, that nobody on the plane better be hurt because the punishment would be worse. They were told never to shoot at the city or shine the lights skyward because this shit could happen. The lights could make an uninformed pilot think the perimeter was an approach to the airport, or even one of the runways. The airport was close, remember? Why didn’t the other positions answer their goddamn phones?
Thud! There was a white flash. The party wasn’t over. One of the toe poppers had exploded. A big animal bellowed.
Thud! Bang! Again, a flare took off. Then another one whooshed up and popped open and began burning magnesium shavings, both flares swinging like Chinese lanterns. Objects became shadows that rocked off and on as though somebody was playing with a light switch.
Warz got off his belly to discover that a couple hundred meters down the line the fence had caught two camels now. Smoke and dust from the explosion were obscuring one of the victims, which was lying across the razor and roaring in agony from a half-gone foot. Its neck flailed the fence.
The other animal was trying to get away but only tearing itself on the wire’s tiny blades.
The senior noncom and the little corporal stopped beating troops off the plane and herded them to the new trouble on the fence. Once there, they opened fire to kill. Removal would be less dangerous if the camels weren’t alive, the carcasses butchered and carried away in pieces, although the sector would have to be neutralized and then rebuilt. It was going to be a headache.
Meantime, a Hotchkiss had arrived on the outside of the barrage at the trespassers’ entry point. From behind the car, anxious legionnaires were watching their friend, a private from the Côte d’Ivoire, tiptoe around the ordnance to guide the family backwards out of the trap.
Even before attending Catholic seminary, he had always helped the unfortunate. He wasn’t able to suppress his nature now or wait for morning. The headlights did a better job than dying flares to light his way. His sweaty face gleamed like wet onyx. The tower light was on the camels.
But somebody that hadn’t enlisted to shoot dumb animals changed the mission. He knew he wouldn’t get in a lot of trouble. Instead of going with the others to help with the camels, he stayed where he was, took aim, and fired.