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Stranger In The Night
By Catherine Palmer
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Sweat dampening the wrinkled sheet beneath him, Joshua Duff counted the spurts of AK-47 bullets hitting the front door.The first round slipped into his nightmarehouse check on a nameless street in Kabul. A search for insurgents. Dread crawled through him like a snake, twining around his neck, suffocating him as he crept forward in the heat. Faces stared at him, brown eyes luminous beneath long, fringed black lashes. Mouths smiled, lips parting over missing teeth. Hands reached out, fingers extended.
Friend? Or enemy?
The second round of staccato hammering woke Joshua from the troubled dream.The strangled breaths were his own.Jerking upright, he reached for a gun that wasn't there. The smell of gym shoes, basketballs, dusty concrete caught in his nostrils.This was not his barracks.
Or was it?
His eyes searched the darkness. Confusion tore through his brain as he worked to decipher data. A form lay on a bed across from him. The mound of muscled shoulder was motionless. Another man sprawled on a mattress near the door.
Comrade or civilian?
Asleep or dead?
A single window filled the only visible wall.
Somewhere nearby, an animal snuffled.
Death still stalking him, perspiration beading his bare chest, Joshua gripped the rounded aluminum frame of his cot. He licked his lips, expecting grit. Its absence surprised him. The tendon in his jaw flickered as hetried to force reality into his brain.
Of all the adversaries he'd faced in his thirty years, this was the most wily.This doubt and hesitation, this inability to decode the truth, eluded him like aTaliban sniper in the Hindu Kush Mountains.He tensed, waiting for an imam's voice to drift from a distant minaret, the morning melody of Islam.The start of another day.
The hammering rang out a third time. Not a machine gun, it was fist against metal.
"Devil take 'em." Sam Hawke's familiar voice was drowsy in the stifling room. Hawke was a fellow Marine. Reconnaissance. They had patrolled the streets together too many times to count.
The other man unfolded now, a hiss groaning through the air mattress beneath him. "Where's Duke? Come here, boy."
A German shepherd's low-throated growl answered. Joshua recognized it. He had seen the dog before. But where? Toenails clicked across the cement floor as Duke paced. The edges of Joshua's nightmare began to sift away like desert sand.
"I'll get the door," Sam said, rising. He glanced at Joshua. "Duff, you stay put. Let's go,Terell."
Terell Robertsthe third man's name. He stood and stretched. His dark skin shimmered with perspiration.
Duke tensed, waiting for one of them to open the door. The dog anticipated each movement the men made. He knew this routine.
Sam flipped on a lamp and Joshua scanned the room, distinguishing a heap of jeans and T-shirts awaiting detergent and a dryer. He noted a clipboard near his cot, the list of activities Sam had planned for the coming day. Joshua recalled his friend handing it to him, explaining what he'd writtenbasketball practice, homework and tutoring, woodworking, computer skills, ballet lessons, crochet, arts and crafts.
Hardly the business of their Marine Corps reconnaissance unit.
He spotted his wallet and keys on a low table. That wallet held U.S. tens, twenties, fifties. More than a month had passed since he'd carried colorful paper afghanis with their detailed etchings of mosques, and handfuls of jingling puls in his uniform pockets. He had rented a civilian car at the airport. He recalled parking the black Cadillac near the building's front door the evening before.
This was what they called post-combat disorder. Post-traumatic stress syndrome
A fourth round of hammering broke his focus.
"Persistent booger," Sam muttered.
Shaking off his confusion, Joshua got to his feet. "What's up, Hawke?"
"Nothing.We get this every night. Homeless folks in search of a bed, a drink, another fix bang on Haven's door. Some think it says Heaven."
"Yeah, and they're ready." Terell chuckled ruefully as he stepped into a pair of flip-flops.
Joshua recalled the old building now. Haven, the sign over the entrance read.This was Sam Hawke's place, the youth center he and Terell Roberts had opened about a year ago. While deployed together, Sam had told Joshua about playing basketball in college. He had spoken of Terell, the consummate athlete, destined for the history books. Last night, Joshua learned that Terell had spent a few years in the pros before bottoming out.
Sam had come to his rescue, and with the last of Terell's NBA savings, they had started Haven.
Sam Hawke was loyal, a man who never forgot a friend. Joshua hadn't been home in Amarillo for a full day before Sam called and invited his friend to St. Louis.
"Come see what I've got cooking, Duff," Sam had urged. "Your old man is planning to slip those velvet handcuffs around your wrists any day now. Get over here and pay me a visit while you can."
The idea of spending time at a youth center in the run-down inner city didn't appeal to Joshua. He had invested more than enough of himself in the poverty and danger of Afghanistan. His parents' rambling adobe house with its swimming pool and tennis court looked pretty good. He would enjoy riding out on one of the Arabians his father bred.There would be dinners with friends and family, flying over the spread in the Cessna, heading into town for a
Come to think of it, Joshua couldn't figure out what he'd want to do in Amarillo. The ranch certainly wasn't going anywhere. His father's oil business and the executive position could wait, too.With his parents both protesting, he had grabbed his duffel bag and headed back to the airport.
In St. Louis, he had rented the Cadillac.Then he drove into the city. Though it was late when Joshua arrived at Haven, he, Sam andTerell had stayed up talking for hours.When his head hit the pillow,Joshua had expected to sleep at least until the sun came up. But it seemed the two directors of the youth center were accustomed to regular interruptions of their night's rest.
"Armed?" Sam asked Terell as they stood in the half-light of the large room.
Expecting the men to reach for handguns, Joshua was surprised when Terell picked up a can of pepper spray. Defensive weapon. Strange choice, he thought.
Sam reached for a box he kept under his bed. He offered it to his friend.
Gleaming steel knives. Joshua glanced up in confusion. Sam and he were both expert marksmen.
"We keep a low profile around here," Sam said with a shrug.
Fingers closing around a slender stiletto, razor sharp, Joshua considered his friend's arsenal. A knife was an offensive weapon. That fit with what he knew of Sam Hawke. Highly trained leaders, the men were still very much alike.
The German shepherd led the way out of the humid room, across a dank landing to a flight of chipped concrete steps.
"Male,"Terell said as they began the descent.
"Agreed." Sam's voice was husky. "White."
"Nah, black. A kid. Scared."
Joshua realized this must be a nightly guessing game.
"Middle-aged," Sam offered. "Drunk."
"Probably." Sam picked up a first-aid kit near the stairwell. "Knife wound."
None of it sounded good to Joshua.
The three men crossed the cavernous gym, the site of Haven's single basketball court, two foursquare layouts, and just enough room for a gaggle of jump-ropers. Duke huffed with anticipation as he padded ahead.Yet another round of knocking began as they arrived at the front door.
"Whatcha need?" Terell called.
"Open the door. Please open."
At the pleading voice outside, Sam and Terell looked at each other, blue eyes meeting brown.
"Illegal alien," Sam said. "Adult male. Lost."
"Bet he got kicked out of his apartment," Terell muttered, reaching for the bar that secured the door.
Joshua weighed the stiletto in his palm. Earlier that evening, Sam had told him that African-American kids were a consistent majority at Haven. Latin Americans were part of the mix, toomost poor, persecuted, living on the brink. Unable to obtain visas or achieve refugee status, their parents had spent all they had and risked their lives to enter the U.S. illegally.
But the composition of the neighborhood had begun to change in recent months. Charitable foundations were resettling refugees by the score in St. Louis.An influx of immigrants from Burma, Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Bosnia and other war-torn countries led to new youngsters stepping timidly through the metal detector at Haven's front door.
Long ago, Sam andTerell had decided to take a"don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding legal documentation, they told Joshua. Haven was about the business of God's work. And the Lord had laid out a clear mandate for His people to welcome the alien.
"You ready?" Sam asked, flicking a glance at Joshua.
He gave a brief nod as he sized up Terell.Tall and massively built, the man held up his slender can of pepper spray while Sam lifted the bar and drew back the bolt.
At the slide and click of metal against metal, wisps of Joshua's nightmare floated across his mind. He gritted his teeth. The door swung open.
Liz Wallace turned a page in her scrapbook and ran a fingertip over the photograph of her parents waving goodbye at St. Louis's Lambert Airport. They had no clue that within three days, their precious child would be sitting down to a meal of roasted bush rat.
In fact, they never found out the whole story.You couldn't just fire off an e-mail that read, Hi Mom and Dad. Ate monkey meat and fried termites for dinner today.
This was not the kind of thing that would boost their enthusiasm for Liz's dreams of becoming a foreign aid worker. Of course, her brief trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo hadn't exactly been about transforming the plight of a Third World nation. She and her college teammates went to help rebuild a primary school that had been hit too many times by mortar fire.They put up a few walls and hurried home.
But that trip, more than a year before, had changed Liz's life. The moment she graduated from college, she took a job with Refugee Hope, a resettlement agency in St. Louis. Her goal: to learn Swahili, enter a training program and move to Africa to work for the United Nations in refugee camps.
On this stifling night, unable to sleep after long hours toting supplies to incoming families from Burma and Bosnia, Liz couldn't sleep. Not unusual. Most days she was so exhausted she could hardly stand up. But after arriving home to her studio apartment, eating a quick bite of dinner and checking her schedule for the next day, she felt her second wind kick in. Wide-awake and unable to turn off her brain by 2:00 a.m., she made a cup of decaf tea and settled on her sofa with the scrapbook.
Liz turned the page and studied the faces gazing back at her, impassive and worn. She had briefly considered decorating the page in the colors of the Congo flag and placing stickers of wild animals here and there. But why distract from the beauty of the Congolese people with their buttery chocolate skin and deep eyes?
Yet what suffering the people had endured. Until that trip, Liz had never heard of such horrors. She understood now that Rwanda's civil war had sent nearly a million refugees pouring over the border into Congolese camps. When those refugees began to build power to retake their homeland, they enlisted the help of men in Congo's government.That brought resistance.
War began in Congo in the fall of 1996, complete with genocide, looting and genital mutilation. In some areas, soldiers raped more than half the women. Almost fifty thousand children were kidnapped and forced into combat, slave labor, sexual servitude.
Not long after a cease-fire was signed in 1999, insurgent groups led a second uprising. Yet another peace treaty was signed in 2003. By the time Liz arrived in Kinshasa, more than four million people had died. Some were killed in the conflict, but most perished from disease and starvation.
Three million were homeless. Houses, hospitals and schools lay in rubble. Fields and food supplies were burned. People hovered on the brink of starvation.
Under the umbrella organization of Refugee Hope, Liz cared for many of those woeful survivors who arrived in St. Louis. She wasn't doing much to help, though. Her job was mostly desk work. Filing government forms.
She wondered if anyone could prevent genocide. Probably not.
Four sets of dark eyes stared back at Joshua. He had seen this beforea man, a woman, two children, a plea for help written on earnest faces.Their innocence could belie a body strapped with explosives. In battle, Joshua had learned not to trust any expression of virtue. But this wasn't warfarenot the combat kind, anyway.
With a tired smile, Sam stepped into the open doorway of Haven. "Hey, there," he greeted them. "What can we do for you tonight?"
The man gave an awkward little bow. Skin of polished ebony glowed in the streetlight. His gray shirt was too big, made of cotton, short-sleeved and wrinkled. Khaki trousers sagged at the ankles. Shoes, cracked patent leather with frayed laces, had parted at the seams to reveal threadbare socks.
"Good evening, sir," he said, clutching a battered suitcase. A faint British accent, Joshua noticed. "I am Stephen Rudi. If you please, may I present my wife, Mary. And here is my daughter, Charity, and my son,Virtue.We come from Paganda."
"What are you folks doing on the street at this time of night?" Sam asked. "This is a dangerous area."
"Yeah, and it's after two in the morning."Terell was peering at his Rolex, evidently a vestige of his once-lucrative basketball career. "Mr. Rudi, your children ought to be in bed."
"Indeed, sir. But we have had a most unfortunate day. Please, may I explain? You see, we had recently arrived in Atlanta when we received a letter from my wife's brother.This man is our only family member to escape the recent unrest in Paganda. He invited us to join him here, where we could live with him and find better jobs. We traveled to St. Louis by bus, arriving this morning. But we searched all day, and we could not find him."
"Aha."Terell stifled a yawn. "So, you're from where? South Africa?"
"Paganda, sir. It is in East Africa, near Lake Victoria."
Joshua could see that neither Sam nor Terell recognized the country. He didn't recall much about it himself. Former British colony. Few natural resources.Tribal conflicthumanity's constantly failing effort to eradicate enemies. Sunnis and Shiites. Kurds and Iraqis. Hindus and Muslims. Nazis and Jews. Spaniards and Aztecs. Settlers and Natives. Boers and British.
Extermination never worked, but people forgot that. Again and again they attempted the wholesale slaughter of their foes. Genocide wouldn't end until trumpets rang out in the eastern sky to announce the end of time.
"You still got that letter?"Terell asked, focusing on the man's wife."Uh
what was the name?"
Excerpted from Stranger In The Night by Catherine Palmer Copyright © 2009 by Catherine Palmer. Excerpted by permission.
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