The Not So Secret Agent
by Ed Harley
Author’s note: This story is set in the fictional country of Upper Danubia.Those unfamiliar with Danubia might want to check out EC's excellent novels first, since those are the original works my story is based on. My characters are original but nearly everything else was borrowed from EC's fiction.
Feedback: Have comments or questions? Send'em to me at email@example.com . It should be noted that due to my vain and self-centered nature I greatly enjoy praise. But not unlike a Danubian criminal, I'll never change my bad habits unless I'm forced to, so constructive criticism is also much appreciated.
Chapter 7: Arthur vs. the Post
Arthur groaned as he woke. It took a moment to remember where he was. He got up on his knees and elbows and wiped the soil off his face. His left eye wouldn't open; a crust of dried blood and dirt kept it glued shut. His head throbbed when he sat upright. The light seemed too bright at first; the moon illuminated the camp from the west. Arthur could make out the shapes of several of the barracks and the large square mess hall.
The damp night air flowing down from the mountains felt chilly to a man unprotected by clothes or shelter. The collar and chain seemed especially cold.
Arthur pushed the chain aside and got up on his hands and knees searching for water. One of the guards had at least left him that. Arthur scooped a double handful of water out of the metal bucket and splashed it onto his face. A couple more times and he was able to open his left eye and wash the dried blood and dirt off the swollen spot above his left eyebrow. That particular injury was self-inflicted. He remembered stumbling face-first into the post; the guards thought it was pretty funny. He had fallen unconscious while it bled.
Arthur was so thirsty, he drank and drank; and then he rested, doubling over with his forehead on the ground. After a few minutes he felt better; he grabbed a section of chain so it didn't pull on his neck, and stood. He found the eyebolt that the chain was locked onto; it was about one inch thick iron that had been driven into the post. Arthur twisted on it hard with both hands, confirming that it was highly stable and strong. The post was sturdy too, about a foot thick and a few inches taller than him.
Next Arthur decided to see how far he could go from the post. He had to lean outward and pull hard to stretch the heavy chain tight at approximately four meters or thirteen feet. Arthur walked a complete circle. The circle's area, a quick calculation revealed, was about 50 square meters or 530 square feet.
Arthur stood with the chain held high in one fist. Looking upward at the moon, he laughed. "Pi are square? Hehehe... Pi are Not square!" He shouted at the sky. "Cake are square, Pi Are Roouunnd!" Arthur cackled and dogs in all directions started barking. Arthur missed his dog. Lucky was now his sister's dog, though his name wasn't really Lucky. It's hard to give away a dog named Squirts.
Arthur sat down and the barking eventually stopped. It was so quiet, so dark in Novo Sumi Ris at night. His back was too sore to lean against the post; Arthur shifted forward, holding his head in both hands. He watched the moon set behind the western mountain ridge; silhouetted trees looked like miniatures from such a distance. Arthur thought about the previous night; he reached a hand over his left shoulder. The skin was swollen and still hot, there were some scabs.
He felt ashamed of what he'd done. He wished he had just taken the blame instead of angering and insulting the Major. Now he had surely made life even harder on Samantha and Laura. What did his resistance gain him anyway? The Major got everything she wanted. Though her knowledge of espionage was seemingly restricted to plots from thirty-year-old movies; the Major's brutal methods were highly effective.
Arthur remembered signing a confession and then, while a guard held either arm, the Major had used a permanent marker to write a word across his chest. She had laughed mockingly and then issued an order. Two guards had dragged Criminal number 88588 off to the eastern side of the men's section to a sturdy wooden post two meters high. A third guard with a flashlight followed, dragging a heavy chain behind him.
Arthur felt a chill as the wind blew; he curled up on his right side, closed his eyes and tried to sleep, all the while wondering what became of the girls. He hoped Samantha and Laura fared better than him.
* * *
He woke to the distant wail of a horn. A freight train never failed to roll into town at exactly four thirty AM. A door opened and shut, the gate slid back and several guards started their morning shifts. Pole lights flickered on. Criminal # 88588 didn't want to move but to stay on the ground would only invite more abuse.
A light fog settled in the valley, the mist was illuminated by a few lights starting to come on in the town. Arthur got up on one elbow and looked around. Lights were already on in the kitchen and mess hall; the women had to get up thirty minutes earlier than the men so they could prepare breakfast. Some of the guards were waking the men's crews, flipping on lights, banging on doors, and yelling in their typical harsh fashion.
Arthur saw a guard walking toward him; a stout built man, with a military-style short clipped hair, and a nose that hooked, giving him a stern severe expression. Arthur rolled over onto his knees and elbows, rested his forehead on the loose sandy soil and waited. Footsteps stopped in front of him.
"Stand up criminal." The man said.
Arthur tugged the chain to the side and stood. The man searched his key ring and stepped close to open the lock. The guard threw the lock and chain on the ground; then he roughly grabbed Criminal # 88588's chin and looked at the wound on Arthur's forehead under the brightening lights. He made a falling whistle sound that Arthur had heard other Danubians make to show disapproval.
"Come with me." The burly guard walked toward the back of the guard's quarters. Arthur followed. In a detached way he was curious about what would happen next... torture perhaps, or maybe they would just shoot him in the head and get it over with. Maybe they would wait for sunrise. He always liked sunrise; it would be good to see the light in the treetops, hear the birds, and feel the warmth on his skin one last time.
The guard unlocked the door of a small metal shed and ordered the criminal inside with him. The room smelled of rubbing alcohol. The guard pointed to a metal stool: "Sit."
The guard gathered up a sterile cloth, sloshed some alcohol on it and began cleaning the wound above Arthur's left eye. "Keep eyes closed."
A few drops of iodine were applied to the wound and then the man found an appropriately sized bandage to cover it up. "There... done." Then he had Arthur turn and lean forward a bit so he could see his back in the lamplight. He opened a cabinet and looked around a bit then shook an aerosol can. Some cool spray hit Arthur's back.
When the guard finished he looked at the criminal approvingly. "Feel better now?" He didn't wait for an answer. "See... I should have been doctor!" He laughed like it was the funniest joke ever and then shooed Arthur off. "You're cured now; go eat, go eat!"
This man, Arthur realized wasn't nearly as mean as he looked. Arthur turned back toward the guard. "Uh… Sir, am I going to be executed?"
"Bah!" The guard paused from putting up supplies. "Bullets are expensive, why waste one on you?" He frowned and then said: "Follow the rules and maybe things get better." He gestured toward the door: "Go on now, go eat."
Arthur stepped out of the building feeling mildly pleased that his execution wasn't imminent. He walked into the mess hall to join the rest of group 6. The other criminals averted their eyes and turned away. To other criminals, Arthur figured, the word written on his chest must be a warning.
Group six went up into the mountains, worked twelve hours, came back to the camp and ate supper. Then as the rest of group 6 returned to the barracks Arthur carried two buckets across the yard to the post: one full of fresh water for drinking and bathing, and another bucket with a lid that took the place of a toilet.
The guards expected him to lock the chain onto his own collar before they came by for the nightly inspection. He hoped that it would be one of the junior guards instead of the angry woman that confronted him before. The other guards might get a bit rough, but she was far worse. A high-ranking officer like her probably wasn't required to perform such menial duties, the warden certainly never did, but the Major obviously enjoyed the power.
Arthur gathered up the end of the chain, hooked the open padlock through the last link and over the collar's loop. He reluctantly locked it shut. The post was at the eastern boundary of the men's section, a hundred meters from the women's quarters. Trees and buildings mostly obstructed his view; Arthur moved as far south as the chain would allow and looked for Samantha and Laura. Perhaps, he hoped, they would come out by the fence and look for him too.
* * *
A miserable week passed without any sight of the girls but Arthur was determined to find out something. One evening, at supper, he noticed a young criminal leave early; Arthur put away his tray and followed. He was able to corner the very young and very nervous Danubian criminal behind the barracks. A bad reputation, Arthur figured, had to be worth something.
The skinny young man looked like he was about to vomit when Arthur rounded the corner at the end of one of the long sheet-metal buildings. Arthur stepped close and shoved the guy back against the wall when he tried to slip past. Arthur tried to look his most menacing: "You’re going to tell me something."
"I ... I can't... I'm not allowed..." He tried to escape and Arthur slammed him harder against the wall. The young man did vomit then.
Arthur glared at him like a mountain lion looks at a poodle that just vomited on him. "Have you seen the two American girls this week?”
Overall, Arthur thought his attempt at intimidation was pretty successful, disgusting but successful. He learned that the girls were still at the camp but they were placed on disciplinary status, working extra hours until after dark. Unfortunately, before Arthur could learn any more, a guard caught the young Danubian talking to the American spy. It cost them both a minor beating but it was worth it, for Arthur at least.
* * *
One evening in late July a criminal from group 6 walked by the post and a folded paper triangle fell out of his hand. The criminal never acted as though anything happened and continued on his way. Arthur casually palmed the paper; and when he was sure no one spotted him he buried it under the sand; it would be safest to wait for night, and read it under the near full moon.
The message was written on the back of an invoice for canned goods. Arthur knew that Samantha had taken a big risk smuggling a note to him; how she convinced the criminal to deliver her message would be interesting to know. Though Arthur hoped the subject was some daring escape plan, all that she really had to say was that she and Laura had to work longer hours and they were not supposed to talk to each other. The Major had them on separate work crews now, but they were able to sneak around and meet each other every few days. Of course, there was the sort of content that he expected: she was thinking of him, she hoped he was doing all right and such. Samantha's wording was somewhat repetitive and there were a couple misspellings. Arthur sighed; he was a little disappointed at the quality of his first secret prison correspondence.
"I should write a fitting secret message," Arthur said. "Something worthy of all the risk and planning; it would have the right wording, sentence structure, and... and it could be in rhyme like the Iliad or... "
Startled by a dog barking, Arthur realized he was standing up and speaking out loud again. "I um... I... sleep, I should sleep now." Arthur refolded and buried the note beside the post. Tomorrow was either the thirtieth or thirty-first day of July. Did July have thirty-one days? He recalled that all months named after Roman Emperors like Julius, Augustus, and Octavian had the maximum of thirty-one days. So the first of August was either one or two days away. The knowledge that another judicial switching was quickly approaching didn't help him sleep very soundly that night.
When Arthur awoke the night was unusually dark; he looked up to see the stars but instead there was a large dim form hanging above him or perhaps below him, and the surface his body rested on wasn't a cot or flat ground but it had corners and cold metal protruding from it. Arthur held on tight as vertigo overwhelmed his senses. He had the feeling of being suspended high in the air on some beam or tree limb ready to fall if he let go. His feet, he realized, were not touching bark, or metal, they weren't even suspended in the air; Arthur felt sand between his toes.
He took a series of deep breaths and tried to calm down enough to examine his surroundings. Arthur reluctantly let go with his left arm and reached out but nothing was there, then searching above his head he felt the square end of the beam. After a few tense seconds he understood what had happened. Arthur released his death-grip on the post and looked down; he had wrapped the chain around the post five times. Wrapped up like a tetherball and standing upright against a post is no good way to wake up at night. With his pulse still pounding in his ears Arthur sank down and gripped his head in his hands. "I'm fucking sleepwalking again."
He stood up and circled counter-clockwise to unwrap the chain. "If I wasn't held captive here," he grumbled. "I'd demand that idiot therapist give me a refund!’ Avoid stressful situations' she said. Ha! No stressful situations here, no way."
Again he realized he was speaking out loud, though no one was around to hear. The lights from an approaching freight train came into view to the west; as it traveled downhill from the pass its brakes squealed and the train slowed. It was the four-thirty train that supplied the refinery. With thick clouds overhead the night was almost completely dark, but it was too late to go back to sleep now. Arthur sat down and leaned against the post. He drew his legs in close and shivered as the wind picked up. "Surely that wasn't lightning." There was a rumble overhead and the first heavy drops of rain splattered in the dust.
* * *
During work the next day Arthur found out that it was the 31st of July. There were several others in his group who shared his apprehension, although everyone did what they always did. They worked hard for twelve hours, marched back to camp, cleaned up, ate supper, and went back to their barracks.
After supper Arthur filled up his clean bucket with water and walked to the northwest corner of the perimeter fence. He picked up the loose end of the chain that he swore was heavy enough to use on a log-truck, and then gathered the equally oversized lock. "Damned lazy guards," Arthur grumbled, "making me lock myself up." The lock snapped shut and Arthur tried to find some comfortable way to rest without the weight of the chain pulling at his neck.
A guard always came by about an hour after supper to make sure Arthur was securely fastened. It was usually a junior guard that worked the night shift, and most of them, didn't show much interest in him. An insult or a slap was about as bad as he got from them, but at least once a week the head female guard, Major Drazetka, came by to personally inspect him.
As Arthur anticipated, she didn't miss the opportunity to harass him the day before his scheduled switching. Arthur pulled the heavy chain aside and forced himself to kneel down to the woman.
"Criminal # 88588, you don't look pleased to see me; that really does hurt my feelings. I always enjoy seeing you on your knees and chained up like a dog." She raised the tone of her voice. "And tomorrow morning I will enjoy seeing you strapped down and beaten. Do you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to have you set up right in front of me, so we can see more of one another. It will be most amusing to watch the faces you make as the policewoman whips you."
The Major shrugged. "I was going to request the task of punishing you myself, but it seems the officer who switched you at your trial is making time in her busy schedule to come all the way out here to our camp. Isn't that considerate of her, Criminal # 88588?"
Arthur stayed in his kneeling position and had a fantasy of knocking the legs out from under this woman and tightening the chain around her throat. He thought he might really kill her... if given the chance.
"Don't you have anything to say? What's the matter, perhaps you miss your friends, the two American girls?"
She pulled her switch out and she slowly walked around her victim. "I have good news Criminal # 88588; you and the girls will see a great deal of each other tomorrow. In fact I think that I'm going to have them sit by me so they have a good close view of your punishment." She tapped his bottom with her switch. "I do hope that the officer who administers your switching gives you a nice hard beating. I think it would help correct the girls' attitudes to see their dishonored friend break down and cry right front of them."
The major circled back around while dragging the tip of her switch along Arthur’s spine. "I seem to have forgotten, Criminal # 88588. Who is the officer that is in charge of punishing you?"
Arthur burned with hatred for this guard who so enjoyed his humiliation; finally he spit out the words. "Officer Stashak"
"Yes, I remember now. Officer Stashak. I just couldn't place the name. Did you know that I attended your trial?" She laughed: "You're so quiet today, but you were not so quiet at your trial were you? I enjoyed hearing you scream and watching you cry as the officer whipped you; I do hope you put on as good a show for us tomorrow."
“But it's getting late, and I suppose I should let you get some rest before the big day tomorrow. Criminal # 88588, did you chain yourself securely to the post as you were ordered?" She raised her voice when she got no response. "You will answer me!"
Arthur's voice obscured none of the hatred he felt for the Major. "Yes officer."
"We will see, Criminal # 88588."
She inspected the lock in her usual way. With Arthur remaining in the kneeling position with his forehead to the ground, Major Drazetka grasped a section of chain above the lock and pulled upward with steady force until her victim couldn't breathe. "Stay in position Criminal # 88588," she warned while tapping him with the switch in her right hand. After a while her arm grew tired and she dropped the heavy chain on his back and left him gasping for air while she walked back to her office.
Arthur slammed his fist into the dirt in frustration, heaved the chain to the side, and leapt up. He could see his tormenter walking down the sidewalk in the distance, but there was nothing he could do about the guard, or the next day’s beating; just wait for it to happen. Feeling absolutely powerless and alone he finally sat down and leaned against the post. His fingers felt a sharp corner in the sand. It was the note that Samantha had sent him; he unfolded it and read through it again.
He whispered to himself: "Not completely alone." After he re-buried the letter Arthur lay down and exhaustion overwhelmed him. He slept soundly that night.
* * *
There were few words spoken at breakfast. Instead of the lively conversations that usually filled the mess hall in the morning, there was only the noise of a couple hundred workers eating: spoons scraping against aluminum trays, and cups set down on the tabletops. Arthur stood alone and leaned against the cinderblock wall. He wasn't allowed to sit with the rest of group 6. Arthur didn't feel hungry at all. He drank a mouthful of water and walked outside to the yard where the work crews gathered every morning.
Two of the six crews were already marching north toward the park. Arthur and the rest of group 6 dropped to their knees and waited. A young guard collected one of the ten-meter chains off the gatehouse wall and began locking it onto the criminal's collars. As soon as Arthur and nine other criminals were secured the eager guard marched them forward a bit faster than normal.
After they arrived at the park the criminals were unchained and ordered to take their seats in the small section of bleachers that overlooked the soccer field. Crew 6 filled the back row and waited. The warden walked out onto the field at sunrise and began calling numbers off his list. Arthur tried to at least appear calm as he lined up with the other forty-four criminals on the field.
The warden double-checked his list; when he was satisfied that all the criminals were accounted for he ordered that the tables be set up. Arthur paired up with another young man to carry two tables onto the field. He helped the young man set up his table then, as they were about to get the other one unfolded Major Drazetka took charge. The Major wasn't satisfied until Arthur's table was set up not ten feet away from her front row seat. True to her word she sat with Samantha and Laura to either side.
For several tense minutes the forty-five criminals silently stood by their punishment tables and awaited the arrival of the officials that would oversee the switching. Arthur found it hard not to look at the hated guard sitting directly ahead of him. Although Samantha or Laura were in no mood to talk, the Major didn't miss the opportunity to further torment the Americans. She spoke loud enough that the otherwise silent crowd had no choice but to overhear the conversation.
"I think it will be good for you dishonored girls to see your friend disciplined today." The major looked Arthur in the face and continued to speak in a mocking tone. “I watched this spy friend of yours get punished at his trial and it was most amusing, if he screams even half as loud this morning he will surely wake the whole town. Today you will see that your friend is nothing more than a weak, cowardly, dishonored animal, just like yourselves. Though it will be fascinating to see how much pain he can endure before he breaks and further disgraces himself in front of his former students. Tell me girls, are you looking forward to seeing Criminal # 88588 punished?"
Samantha avoided looking directly at him. "No officer." Laura's low trembling voice echoed the same. As bad as he had been treated in the past three weeks Arthur thought that the girls might have been through worse; though standing beside the switching table Arthur knew that was about to change. Still, he refused to be provoked by the woman. Arthur stood at attention like a soldier and tried to show no reaction to her words. Before she could continue her taunting the warden announced the arrival of the court officials.
A judge and five spokespersons, Ralkliv wasn't among them, took their seats overlooking the scene. Then a contingent of guards and police walked out onto the field. As Officer Stashak approached, Arthur knelt down before her.
"Pay attention girls." Arthur heard the major’s venomous words as he stretched forward to kiss the toes of Officer Stashak's shoes. After the tap on his shoulder Stashak ordered him to get into position on the punishment table.
Arthur fought off a wave of despair and humiliation, and then resigned to his fate; he obeyed the policewoman. He moved to the far end of the table and placed each foot against a cold metal leg and then bent forward ninety degrees at the waist. Arthur stretched forward, extending each arm out across the heavy leather restraints that were bolted to each corner. Officer Stashak's strong hands buckled the straps around his left ankle and then his right. She had a wicked smile on her face as she walked to the front of the table to secure his wrists. After he was stretched out over the table with wrists and ankles bound; Stashak wrapped the wide leather strap around his waist and tightened it so that his stomach was pressed firmly to the aluminum table.
Arthur looked forward; like the first switching in the courthouse there were over two hundred people watching. This audience, however, was more sympathetic; they knew exactly what he was going through. Arthur tensely awaited the first strike of the switch. Major Drazetka ordered the two girls to watch carefully; and though he didn't look, she was certainly referring to him alone. Arthur closed his eyes, pressed his forehead against the metal surface and braced for the first blow. Officer Stashak and the other officers struck in unison.
Officer Stashak touched the line that was quickly swelling and turning red. "It will only get worse Criminal number 88588. I'm going to make you suffer for what you did to my partner."
Though Arthur had no control of his situation, he resolved to give Officer Stashak and especially the major as little pleasure as possible. He would resist. Pressing his forehead to the table, he closed his eyes and tried to focus on something other than the pain.
Arthur heard the first sounds of weeping after Stashak and the other officers struck a tenth time. After the pain receded a bit he wondered if it was better or worse to keep count. Against his better judgment he raised his eyes to look toward the guard and the two girls seated to either side. The Major was scolding Samantha for looking away.
Arthur counted the twenty-second stroke of the switch, and it took every measure of his will to remain still and quiet. Officer Stashak had started overlapping the previous welts, and the pain was so fierce that for many seconds he couldn't breathe at all. He hoped that no one had noticed how hard he pushed his head against the table or the tightening of his fists. The loud wailing of the female criminal to his left didn't help. The sobbing young woman had an especially rough time; her tormentor had no problem with fondling her helpless body in between strokes of his switch. Arthur looked away as the pain and despair on her face was too much to bear. Then the whistle of all the switches moving quickly through the air and the impact of the next stroke refocused him on his own pain. As the forty-five criminals were drifting toward desperation the officers who administered the punishments seemed to enjoy themselves more. Compliments were given to the officers who made their criminal cry out loudest. Arthur closed his eyes again and awaited the agony of the next stroke.
He was still keeping count as the Stashak struck the thirty-first time on the back of his left thigh. There was no longer any way to mask his pain, he couldn't help but gasp and strain against his bonds at that point. Breaths came in ragged intervals and sweat trickled into his eyes, mixed with tears, and dripped onto the metal tabletop. As the pain faded slightly Arthur heard the Major order Samantha and Laura to pay close attention; their friend was about to break.
Stashak had also noticed his resistance erode. "I have been looking forward to this for a long time Criminal # 88588. You can't resist me much longer can you?" She mocked. "Now I'm going to beat you nice and hard... make you scream."
Through the last part of the beating Arthur lost count as his whole perception shrunk to the sensation of intense pain. Crying out in agony, he tried in vain to break free from the restraints, as any animal would.
Then it was over. He struggled to his feet, and then, without any hesitation he mindlessly went through the rest of the ordeal. He was presented to the judge, he kissed Officer Stashak's shoes and thanking her in a weak desperate voice, he lined up for group photographs, and then lined up to face the crowd as the other criminals were sent back to work.
As he stood there trembling from the pain Arthur realized they had won; the Major's smug face said it all. Officer Stashak had broken his will in front of everyone including the hated guard and his two friends. That realization was almost as bad as the pain itself. After a few minutes he regained some self-control, wiped away the tears, and stood there trying to look defiant once again, failing miserably.
* * *
Arthur wasn't sure if the camp was built on the opposite side of town from the park for that purpose or not, but the unfortunate fact was that a long walk awaited him and the other forty-four criminals. It had only taken fifteen minutes to walk from the barracks to the park but the situation was far different after the judicial switchings. They were chained together in five groups for the slow walk back through town. Though the guards wanted a quicker pace it was obvious that forty-five people in severe pain did not make for a well-organized march.
It did apparently make for good theater; it seemed that half the town came out to have a look at the beaten criminals. Arthur noticed that many parents even brought their children out to watch this pathetic parade pass by. School was out, he figured, so this could either be entertainment or perhaps a warning to scare their kids' straight. With eyes red and faces distorted in pain, the forty-five criminals that shuffled down the street were a pitiful sight. All the criminals that marched ahead of Arthur blended into a solid line of red and purple welts; all around he could hear the ragged breaths of those who were still unable to stop crying.
Arthur looked at the free people watching from roadside. The experience was part freak show, part zoo exhibit, with a bit of slave auction thrown in. He passed by two old men who casually discussed the welts on the passing criminals in the manner ranchers might talk about injured livestock. Further down the road an agitated woman in a white dress pointed and lectured a teenage boy: "This is what will happen to you if you don't..." On the front porch of a small yellow house a spindly old woman leaned forward from her chair and peered over her glasses at the line of passing criminals; with a look of contempt she spoke to her equally critical lady friend. A teenage girl briefly made eye contact with Arthur, and then shyly looked away. He watched two dark haired boys, perhaps eight or nine years old, taunt and laugh at the criminals near the front until their mother's scolding sent them scurrying off into a store. Arthur walked past a young man wearing foreign clothes and a backpack who crouched by the railroad tracks trying to get a new roll of film loaded into his camera. Though the strange experience of being viewed like this distracted from the pain, it was equally distressing in its own way.
After the excruciating walk back a guard noticed Arthur wasn't entering the barracks, "You there! You spend the day in the barracks; after supper you go back to the post." Arthur knew they didn't allow him inside the barracks out of pity; they just didn't want a worker sidelined with a heatstroke from exposure to the August sun. By the time he collapsed on the canvass cot Arthur knew he couldn't take any more.
Sometime later Arthur heard footfalls on the concrete floor. Any distraction from the throbbing pain was welcome, so he twisted his head in the direction of the noise. His red eyes stung from the salty sweat. Arthur focused on a figure wearing dark robes and a tall hat. Though it felt like he was dying, Arthur didn't expect them to send a priest.
He rose up on one elbow and turned toward the man in black. The priest wore sandals, a tall hat, and a plain black robe; the gray hair near his temples indicated he was a little older than he otherwise looked. The priest blinked, letting his eyes adjust to the dim barracks. He glanced at the eight criminals recovering in the barracks then the priest found the one he was looking for.
Arthur was not pleased to have another encounter with a Danubian official. Another chance to offend somebody, he grimly thought; they probably burn nonbelievers at the stake.
Though the priest's posture was relaxed his attention focused solely on Arthur. The priest spoke heavily accented English slow enough for Arthur to understand.
The man introduced himself as a member of the priesthood and a servant of the Danubian people. "I have traveled here," the priest began, "to meet with an American... a convicted criminal by the name of Arthur Liggett. You are he, are you not?"
"Yes sir, my name is Criminal number 885... I mean my name is Arthur Liggett." It was an uncomfortable feeling that washed over him then, he now thought of himself as a number.
The priest nodded and tapped his fingertips together while he paused, thinking. "Arthur, on behalf of the Danubian Church I request the opportunity to speak with you today. Do you agree to an interview?"
Not wanting to find out what they would do to him if he refused, Arthur consented.
"I am pleased that you give me some of your time. It is a great privilege to counsel and guide one who is undergoing such a difficult transformation." The priest seemed eager then. "In order to assess your... current state of mind I would like to ask you some questions."
Arthur felt strange lying face down on the cot while the priest talked to him, so he decided to get up with as little flexing as possible. The priest allowed him time to stand up and have a drink of water. Still, there was something deeply disturbing about being naked during an interview with a priest.
The priest, thankfully, was only interested in asking questions. Many questions concerned his motivations, his feelings toward people involved in his crimes, and several probed the relationships he had back in the US. Arthur answered in the most cautious and vague manner possible.
Several minutes later the frustrated priest shook his head. "I feel that you are deliberately trying to conceal your true thoughts. Why do you agree to an interview and then refuse to tell me anything I don't already know?"
Arthur was growing tired of this inquisition as well. "I'm cautious because every time I've been questioned by an official I get in more trouble. Two months ago I was punished for something I said and last month the same thing happened. So I would think that anyone could understand that I don't want my words used against me." The stressful day and the constant pain caused him to speak more harshly then he wanted to; strangely the priest looked pleased.
"It is good to hear the truth spoken. There is, however, no reason to be concerned. I am a servant of the Church and the people; you have nothing to fear from me or other members of the clergy. You may speak freely."
Arthur was not so easily convinced; but he knew about the prohibition on lying so he decided to use it to his advantage. "Is it true that nothing a criminal says to you or other members of the priesthood can be used against him?"
"Yes," the priest said. "That is correct."
Still not satisfied, Arthur continued. "If a criminal such as myself told you of a crime they committed would you report the crime to the police, a judge, prosecutors, spokespersons, or anyone else that would hold that person responsible?"
"No." The priest answered.
Arthur realized how odd he must sound but just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that some people aren't really out to get you.
After Arthur was convinced that the priest was not a threat they had a long discussion. It was actually good to speak to someone again and there were some questions Arthur really wanted to ask about the Church and Danubians in general.
Arthur had been through a very rough adjustment period. He had been pretty much alone, having to deal with a culture that he didn't understand at all. During his time in Rika Chorna, Spokesman Ralkliv was the only English speaker he knew, and Ralkliv had gotten awfully angry with some of Arthur's questions, especially those having to do with religion or the Danubian concept of personal honor. Then Arthur learned that spokespersons were part of the Ministry of Justice. From that point on, he'd been wary of asking Spokesman Ralkliv any questions at all. Better to keep one's mouth shut than to unknowingly admit to doing something illegal and get in even more trouble.
This priest, though, was patient and forgiving of any slights. Arthur had been curious for the longest time about the Danubian prohibitions against piercings or tattoos and why the police aren't supposed to draw blood during beatings. Arthur's best guess had been that Danubians feared evil spirits getting into their bodies through the wounds, but that, the priest explained, was not the case at all. It was, he said, a sinful act to damage the Creator's gift of the physical body (permanently at least).
Then, there was that word: dishonored. Arthur had been called 'dishonored' a lot. People were so touchy about that word. Spokesman Ralkliv was so irritated about that word, irritated because his client didn't seem the least bit concerned with being called that. To Arthur, it was a pretty tame insult. To Spokesman Ralkliv it was a word with great social significance to the Danubian people; something that went back thousands of years and now his client was treating the concept as though it was a novelty. After one such awkward conversation with Ralkliv, Arthur had decided to just not mention it again.
The priest was patient and calm in the way that Ralkliv wasn't. There were many aspects of Danubian society that he was curious about. Arthur learned more about Danubians in one hour's conversation than he had the previous three months, but eventually it was the priest's turn to ask questions.
The priest already knew an awful lot about him and didn't waste time asking about what was already publicly known. He was more focused on intentions and motivations than details. Arthur talked in a fairly open manner with the priest, which after a while; he thought maybe wasn't such a good idea. The man seemed to be getting increasingly distressed at Arthur's answers. The priest didn't approve at all when it came to Arthur's shifty 'live and let live' attitude when it came to moral and ethical matters. "You cannot think that deception is acceptable?" the shocked priest had finally asked.
The troublemaker in Arthur thought about getting all irascible; pointing out examples of deception that existed throughout the Creator’s nature. Then he remembered that the priest had traveled all this way just to talk to him, a lowly criminal, an enemy spy, a man who was chained up like a dog every night, a man who went to the bathroom in a metal bucket. It would be rude to repay the priest's kindness with irritating snide remarks.
"No sir," Arthur lied. "I now see that it was wrong of me to lie in the past and I do regret it." His skin still burned and ached considerably. Physical pain and emotional pain produced about the same facial expression, Arthur hoped.
The priest then wanted to discuss the trouble with the girls and their drugs. He seemed especially concerned that Arthur had re-offended after just a month. Arthur tried to explain that he was just trying to keep the girls out of trouble, but the priest replied correctly that he was also trying to save himself. It seemed to Arthur that the priest considered the intent to deceive worse than the offense itself.
Arthur thought of something the priest said earlier. "Sir, you said something about me going through a transformation; I don't understand what you mean by that."
He nodded. "Foreigners sometimes don't understand but the criminal justice system here is not only designed to punish offenses and deter bad behavior. The suffering that the criminal must endure is necessary to reorient the damaged souls of the offender."
Arthur didn't think he heard the priest correctly. "So you're saying there's a religious justification for all these beatings?"
"Yes, the physical pain and mental suffering a criminal experiences is critical to the process of reform, so he may find the Correct Path in Life."
Arthur paused and considered the priests words. Did they think his soul was concentrated in the back half of his body?
"You think something's wrong with my soul?" Arthur appeared concerned.
"Yes, your actions were motivated out of greed and pride. It has brought destruction to your life and those around you." The priest explained: "There is hope for you, however, through suffering you may reflect on the poor choices you made in your life, and then you may learn to turn away from the false ideas promoted by the Destroyer and follow the Correct Path in Life that the Creator has set out for you." The priest asked: "Arthur, may I have your hands?"
Arthur figured the priest meant 'would you give me a hand?' "Um, sure, what do you need?"
The priest put out his own hands palm up. "Your hands."
Arthur put out his hands. He figured the man was going to read his palms. He hadn't had that done in years, hadn't been to a carnival in years either. Instead of reading his lifeline, the priest gripped his hands, squeezing each of Arthur's hands in his.
Arthur watched with fascination, was this some kind of secret handshake? The priest closed his eyes and held an intense expression. It went on for several seconds; Arthur wasn't sure if he was supposed to do something or not so he just stayed silent, watched and waited... the priest would eventually get tired and let go.
When the priest did let go he looked down for a time, as if gathering his thoughts. "Arthur," the priest said. "Sometimes the Creator blesses us with visions... communicates to us so that we might do the Creator's will, the nature of such visions are often difficult to understand, it may require prayer and meditation and patience."
"Did... you see anything?" Arthur asked.
"Yes, I believe I saw you. You swam in cold swift water with a crystalline night sky overhead... and there was a snake coiled around your leg. What it means..." The priest said. "I cannot say, perhaps this represents something significant to you?"
Arthur expected better fortune telling, especially after all the anticipation. Psychics are supposed to tell you about finding your true love or how you'll get rich but this man didn't say a thing about sex or money, and what was the deal with that snake? Ridiculous, Arthur thought, snakes don't live in cold water.
"No sir," Arthur said, "nothing comes to mind."
The priest was preparing to end his visit. "Perhaps when you get back to Rika Chorna, you could visit the Church. One of the clergy there would be pleased to counsel you.
"I'll do that." Arthur nodded. "Thank you for visiting me sir; you've given me a great deal to think about."
The priest left and Arthur did have a thought, not one the priest would have appreciated, but a thought nonetheless. Perhaps, Arthur speculated, he could use their church to his benefit. He could act devout as the next guy. The first step would be to show interest toward their faith, and then sometime later he could have his "come to Jesus moment" ask for forgiveness and put on a good show.
An American nonbeliever converting to their faith and worshiping... whatever it is they worship might be a sign of this soul reorientation the priest kept going on about. He thought he might be able to use this show of faith to convince people that he's not such a villain after all, maybe even help his legal situation. Prisoners back in the US were sometimes paroled early after finding religion; it's possible, Arthur thought, that the same thing might work in Danubia. It was worth a try anyway. With a vague plan formulating in his head Arthur carefully lowered himself back down on his cot and rested.
Chapter 8: Witches Don't Always Float
Arthur drove north on Highway 68 with both windows rolled down. The glue that he used on the ceiling panel came loose after only a week, so during the long drive home the tan fabric flapped vigorously against the top of his head. He smelled like Deep-Woods Off and sweat so even the hot humid fresh air was welcome. When Arthur was halfway home a NWS alert came over his radio; the mechanical voice warned that a funnel cloud was spotted five miles to the southwest and the town he was now entering was in the projected path.
St. James looked nearly empty though it was really loud with the tornado sirens activated. Arthur pulled off the road and parked by the gas pumps of a Shell station two miles south of I-44. Several people were taking cover inside; one frantic clerk opened the door when she saw him. "Hey!” she waved. “There's a damned tornado coming, get inside!"
"No thanks," Arthur stepped out of his old Dodge pickup and casually looked up at the darkening clouds. “Don't want to miss anything."
The woman made a disparaging remark about Arthur’s head and Arthur walked to a traffic island where he had a good view. For a couple minutes nothing happened, except the sky took on a yellowish-green hue and the wind gusted.
Arthur turned to see a paper bag skid across the pavement and hit the front of the store. When he looked back up it was there. Clouds hundreds of feet across spun directly overhead. It was a beautiful bizarre thing: an inverted whirlpool of blue-gray swirls and wisps of delicate white clouds that orbited lower. The quickness of its appearance made Arthur wonder how fast these things can drop to the ground. Seconds later, sheets of heavy rain blew sideways into the parking lot; obscuring the view- the fascinating thing was gone.
The windy night had made Arthur daydream about that first experience with a tornado four years earlier. A warm humid southwest breeze had blown all throughout the night, by morning the wind blew at exactly the right speed to make the coils of razor wire vibrate in resonance. Arthur had been awake for several minutes when a young guard came to unchain him at five o'clock; the guard was probably four years younger than Arthur, but he had the uniform and the power. Having to kneel down to every nineteen-year old guard was just one of many indignities he had come to expect during his stay at the camp. The Major had apparently instructed her guards to watch him for insolent behavior. Kneeling wrong, standing wrong, and many other ridiculous reasons were used to justify a slap, a kick, or a few strikes of the switch.
"Get up on your knees criminal # 88588." Arthur did as he was told so the guard could unlock the chain from a convenient height.
The guard retrieved his key ring but he wanted to have some fun first. He grabbed a piece of chain half a meter from Arthur's neck and yanked forward. Arthur caught himself and got back into position just in time to be slapped across the face. It wasn’t a very hard blow; the guard just wanted to humiliate the American criminal not make his own hand sting.
"Stupid dishonored criminal; are you trying to disrespect me?" The guard showed the back of his hand, threatening to strike again.
“No sir." Arthur knew that if he just stayed calm the guard would quickly grow bored with him; he was only pretending to be angry. Arthur waited obediently on his knees while the guard unlocked the chain.
“Good,” the guard said. “A dishonored criminal like you has to learn his place. Go join your work crew."
By the time breakfast was over the rumble of thunder was constant to the west. The criminal work crews lined up near the gatehouse, but the guards made no move to chain them together or send them off to work. The winds died down as the storm approached and the light permeating the thick clouds overhead changed noticeably to a peculiar yellowish hue. From what Arthur had seen Danubia's weather was kind of dull compared to the central US, but this morning with the high humidity and warm air, conditions looked favorable for a storm. The guards nervously watched as the sky darkened. The work crews were sent back to their barracks after a close lightning strike.
The Danubian criminals gathered in several groups and Arthur stood alone by a window. They had been unfriendly even before the restrictions, perhaps they didn't like foreigners, or it could be something to do with his crime, though, Arthur thought, all of them must have also committed crimes. If he was unpopular before the restrictions, now he was radioactive, the other criminals didn't even look at him anymore.
A powerful gust slammed the front door shut, something landed on the roof with a bang, and the power to the barrack's two dangling light bulbs went out. Arthur observed the storm from the window by his cot. The town's storm drains and culverts were clearly overwhelmed by the heavy rainfall; the central street became a small river that carried trashcans, boxes, crates and all the other flotsam of the town's existence down slope to the east.
Another storm followed the first, with less wind but plenty of lightning strikes and torrential rain. The stream running down the central avenue covered the train tracks and lapped at the sidewalk. Townspeople worked in the pouring rain to keep floodwaters out of their stores; they stacked rows of sandbags a meter high against the storefronts.
Arthur was not the least bit sympathetic, though he tried to not let any of the Danubian criminals see him smile. When a guard slipped and comically tumbled down the stream with the other debris, he couldn't help but chuckle. "The Destroyer must be pretty pissed off today." Arthur remarked in English. There was a commotion near the back door as a rivulet of muddy water meandered across the barrack's concrete floor. What the Danubian criminals were so upset about was a mystery, Arthur certainly didn't care if the canvas cot that he wasn't allowed to sleep on anyway got wet or if his buckets floated around a bit.
A third hour of heavy rains fell. The storms were proving disastrous for Novo Sumi Ris but for Criminal # 88588 the flood was an interesting and deeply satisfying event. Floodwaters overtopped the sandbags and inundated the stores along the central street as the shop owners' feeble attempts to stop nature's power failed. Those townspeople who had stared at him and enjoyed his pain and humiliation during that long march back through town following the switchings; those people, Arthur coldly observed, were now having their own desperate struggles.
He stood in knee-deep water by the window and watched large pieces of lumber from broken up houses float up against the perimeter fence; in the distance a motorboat struggled upstream toward a flooded house. The rain slacked up just enough to see the attempted rescue a couple hundred meters up the main road. An old woman waved for help from the attic window of a small yellow house, her porch and most of the first floor was now underwater. "You're not looking so proud now, are you granny?" Arthur spoke in her general direction, while reveling in the chaos outside.
* * *
Late that afternoon a miserable guard waded into the barracks and announced the news that the levies east of town were in danger of collapse. All the criminal work crews mobilized in a desperate effort to shore up the levy system. Over two hundred criminals gathered near the gatehouse to put on their boots and gloves; Arthur reached underwater and tightened up his boots' laces, wrapping them around his ankle twice and tying a firm knot. Though he wasn't the least bit interested in helping the townspeople who regarded him as little more than a slave, Arthur was eager to see the stream at its flooded best.
The warden stepped out on his porch and gave a speech that epitomized leadership: he would coordinate efforts from his office while his subordinates would go out in the storm and take charge of individual work crews.
The Ministry of Public Works had several four-wheel drive trucks that were kept at a garage set on higher ground. The guards loaded truckload after truckload of criminals into the beds and drove off toward the worksites spaced along the threatened levies. Arthur and fifteen other criminals loaded up and were driven along a rough dirt road that paralleled the stream. The truck stopped on a curve in the road about five meters above the flood-waters and one of the foremen that Arthur recognized stepped out of the passenger side and took charge.
The earthen levy was pathetically small compared to the raging stream it was expected to contain, three meters of unconsolidated sediment high and six wide. A fresh bundle of sand bags lay in the mud and the foreman was impatient to get them filled.
Arthur and the other fifteen criminals filled and stacked sandbags on top of a section of levy for the rest of the day and into the night. The rain slowed occasionally but it never stopped.
Arthur heaved another sand bag on his sore shoulder and waded toward the embankment. The foreman's hoarse voice demanded that he move faster. Arthur didn’t speed up; like everyone else, he was simply too exhausted. The effort seemed futile anyway. Even after hours of work the floodwater lapped at the levy's top and multiple channels eroded though. The foreman would never admit it, but it was over, the whole section was about to breach. Arthur crawled up the levy's north slope and threw his sandbag on top of the pile; then he waded back through waist-deep water to repeat the same futile action. Looking around, he wondered how many of the Danubian criminals could swim.
Headlights illuminated torrential rain as Arthur heaved another soggy bag on his shoulder. The vehicle approached quickly; too quickly to make the curve on a flooded dirt road. Arthur dropped the bag and stepped to the side as one of the guard's off-road trucks slid off the road and made an impressive splash in the backed up waters behind the levy. The engine died when the water was up past the headlights.
An argument was already taking place as the driver's door sloshed open; the irate female voice coming from the passenger seat was one Arthur recognized instantly. He found the discarded sandbag in the muddy water and turned toward levy quickly.
"You… Criminal # 88588. Come here, now!" Major Drazetka threw the passenger door open and shined a flashlight in Arthur's eyes. She stepped out into water above her knees and grasped the bed to pull herself up to the muddy but still un-flooded ground. With a furious scowl on her face she pointed to the ground. Arthur realized with some disbelief that she was actually going to make him kneel down to her in the mud during a thunderstorm. He lowered the sandbag to the ground and reluctantly got into position in front of the Major, then a foot on the back of his head pressed his face further into the soft mud.
“When a guard gives you an order you will comply without hesitation!" She shouted. "Is that clear criminal # 88588?"
Arthur struggled to speak with his face half submerged. "Yes officer."
She pushed off with her foot and moved to his side. "You will obey! Do you think you can disrespect me because you're an American?" Arthur felt the impact of her switch several times across his buttocks and thighs, and then the Major rapidly laid down three burning stripes across his left side. There was no aiming or control to the beating, the Major was simply furious and taking her frustrations out on an unlucky target. "Disobedience will gain you nothing but pain! You and those American girls are property." Arthur felt four more wild strikes across his ribs and then she paused, breathing heavy. "You are nothing but a dishonored criminal, do you understand me?" She punctuated the last word with another swing of the switch. "Answer me!"
Arthur struggled to take a breath and answer the guard. "Yes... officer."
“Stay in position and wait, I had better not see you move!" Major Drazetka walked back toward the stranded truck and shouted a series of insults at her hapless driver.
The Major left her underling with the stranded vehicle while she dealt with the matter of the cargo. They were delivering bundles of empty sandbags to a crew working further down the creek, and with the truck sidelined she decided that a criminal could be put to use. With a flashlight in her right hand, Major Drazetka ordered Arthur to unload one of the twenty-kilogram bundles. After minutes spent kneeling he finally was able to stand again, he wiped the mud away from his eyes and then got the bundle of sandbags balanced on a shoulder.
The primitive dirt road that paralleled the stream ran precariously close to the bank, so Arthur had to be careful moving as fast as the Major demanded. She focused her flashlight mostly in front of her own feet; Arthur relied on the frequent flashes of lightning to find his way down the road. After a few minutes he shifted the load to his right shoulder, paused briefly and then continued forward but instead of stepping on the road his foot went into an unseen gully. He stumbled forward and the bundle slipped from his arms and rolled toward the bank.
Major Drazetka's flashlight beam found him almost immediately. The sounds of the storm obscured her shouted words but from the way she reached toward her belt her intentions were clear. Arthur scrambled in the direction that the package had tumbled. The Major ripped the switch out of her belt and charged forward, she was so furious that she didn't even bother to point her flashlight toward the ground. Lightning struck a tree just across the creek, Arthur looked back again, and the Major was gone. A beam of light shined up from the flooded stream. Arthur looked over the edge. "That bitch stepped off the fucking bank." The euphoria was brief. "Oh shit, no witnesses! If she drowns they’ll think I killed her!"
Grappling muddy tree roots and brambles Arthur lowered himself three meters down to where the flashlight fell. He dropped with a splash onto a submerged rock ledge in knee-deep swift water and tugged the flashlight from a tangle of roots. Arthur searched the water downstream; twenty meters away there was a large willow hanging over on its side in the swift current, and in the middle of the tangled mass of half submerged branches an arm moved and a face was visible in the churning water. The tree twisted and surged in the swift current; the Major's head was sometimes above and sometimes below water level as her body moved with the tree limbs that trapped her.
Arthur realized there wasn't much time to make a rescue attempt. He jumped in and let the current carry him downstream toward the tree's thick roots that clung like gnarled fingers on to the vertical bank. The tree shuddered and jerked underfoot as Arthur climbed out on two of the willow's many trunks, four meters from the bank he got to where the Major was trapped. She was moving but the surge of the current kept her head underwater for several seconds at a time. Arthur put a foot on each of the larger trunks and reached down and grasped her arm; he pulled with all his strength but the force of the current was too much. Arthur realized that since most of her body was swept underneath the main mass of the tree there was no way he could pull her up. A decision had to be made. If she couldn't go up, Arthur reasoned, she would have to go down. The water looked fairly deep below the willow, and if the tree limbs weren't too crowded, a person might be able to pass underneath. However, if it was choked with submerged limbs the Major would drown, but Arthur was willing to take that risk.
Major Drazetka stubbornly held on to the tangle of tree limbs and wouldn't let go. Arthur attempted to pry her hands loose one at a time but with the limbs twisting, the water surging and the major struggling to drown him too he found it was hopeless. Then he had an idea, one of the larger trunks was about a meter and a half above where the major was stuck.
Unencumbered by any knowledge of standard water rescue techniques Arthur climbed up the trunk above the major, got to his feet and waited for the tree to surge upward again. As soon as the major's head resurfaced Arthur jumped and landed both feet on her shoulders, with the full force of his weight hitting her at once she plunged down under the water and was swept beneath the tree. Arthur climbed back on top and retrieved the flashlight. He was eager to see if he had just committed a rescue or a homicide; five meters away an arm surfaced. He dove in, grabbed hold of her and swam.
Fifty meters downstream Arthur managed to drag her into a side channel where the water was backed up and not so swift, he pushed her body on top of some tree roots and then he heard her cough. Rescue it was. Arthur hauled himself up through the vines and brambles that covered the steep bank, and then reached back and dragged the groaning, coughing Major behind him. They moved inches at a time until the slope lessened and Arthur was able to stand and grapple the Major over his shoulders and then carry her out near the road. Just as he reached the road, Arthur’s foot slipped in the mud and they collapsed in a heap.
The flashlight was lost somewhere in the flooded stream but frequent lightning lit the scene well enough. Major Drazetka had half her shirt ripped off, her hat and left shoe were missing, and like Arthur she was coated in the sticky red clay from being dragged up the bank. She had some obvious injuries. There were several bleeding cuts and scrapes across her face and arms and the major clutched her shoulder and chest near the collarbone. He wondered if she knew how she got that particular injury. After a minute's rest Arthur got to his feet and looked down at the disheveled major who lay there in the mud retching, groaning, and coughing up water. "That's odd," he said in English. "I thought witches floated."
Minutes passed before the major recovered enough to struggle to her knees. Arthur thought this was his chance to gain something from the whole misadventure. He organized what he wanted to say in his mind and then, in his still rough Danubian he slowly and clearly addressed the guard.
“Major Drazetka, it must be an embarrassment to be rescued by a dishonored criminal. What will the other guards think? You walk right off the bank because you weren't paying attention, then you panicked and got trapped in tree limbs." Arthur tried mightily to water down the sarcastic tone. "Now you owe your life to me. But no one has to find out, do they? We could make a deal."
Major Drazetka spit out some of the blood that had collected from her torn upper lip and spoke in a hoarse voice: "And what would you want?"
“Drop the restrictions on me and the two American girls. Make sure we’re treated like everyone else."
“A dishonored animal forcing me to... Aaghh" She was in obvious pain as she turned toward Arthur. "I should kill you for trying to manipulate me!" She struggled into a standing position, then gave Arthur a look of pure malice and spit out more blood at his feet. "Very well, spy. You have your deal and you had better keep it." She had another fierce bout of coughing while clasping her injured shoulder and chest. "If... If anyone ever hears of this I will bring that confession of yours before a judge and make you pay!"
Arthur felt a thrill, he had won; he forced the major to do what he wanted. It was also a relief; he wasn't sure what he was going to do if she had refused. Throw her back in? It would have been tempting. As it was, Arthur was content to watch Major Drazetka struggle along the muddy road; he followed a couple paces behind.
She wasn't doing so well; the major gasped with every step, limping as sharp gravels pressed the bottom of her bare left foot. A couple times she slipped and fell. It must have been agonizing as broken bones moved from the impact. She would stay on the ground a while, almost silent but Arthur could hear her quick breaths, hear the haughty major groan and cry from the pain. She never asked and Arthur never offered to help, instead he stayed back and watched her struggle, enjoying every minute.
Though countless properties were being destroyed in the fury of the storm, and they walked back through hail and driving rain, Arthur thought it was one of the greatest nights of his life. Not only had he gotten the restrictions removed but also during the rescue he had apparently broken at least one of the major's collarbones. She wouldn't feel like beating anyone for several months.
* * *
The floodwaters dropped as fast as they had risen; the stream was back within its banks just four hours after the crest. At first light the criminals were put to work clearing storm debris off the roads and helping residents who requested assistance. Arthur and a few others were ordered to help the homeowners of a fairly large multi-family house that had an enormous pile of storm debris dumped against the front porch. The men were gone but two women and five kids were there, two of the older ones even assisted the criminal work crew with the cleanup. They had cleared most of the debris by noon when a group of female criminals came by to deliver lunch.
Arthur stood in the shade on the north side of the house and ate his lunch alone. As he ate he became aware that the two oldest kids were staring at him curiously and whispering. It was the boy and girl, probably siblings, who had helped some with the cleanup. Arthur turned toward the two children who had moved even closer and continued to look curiously in his direction. "Go ahead, ask your questions."
“We were wondering why you're standing over here eating all alone." The girl ventured.
“I’m eating alone because the guards don't allow me to talk to other criminals." In yet another humiliating episode Arthur had to explain himself to the eleven or twelve year old children. "As for why I'm standing... it's not real comfortable to sit down yet."
"Why do you talk like that?" The boy tilted his head to the side like a curious dog.
“I’m an American; I've been here since May. I'm trying to learn your language but it's difficult."
“I’ve never even seen an American before." The surprised girl exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
Arthur wished these children would just go away. "I was arrested after my employer and I broke into a building to steal data from a computer in Rika Chorna."
The girl's eyes got wide. "You're the American spy that was on TV? You're Lik-kikt?"
Arthur really didn't expect to be recognized. "Yes, but my name is pronounced 'Lig-Gett'; everyone calls me Criminal # 88588 now. So you heard about me on TV?"
“Yeah, they showed the trial twice and they talked about you and that dead guy a lot on news shows."
“So, what did they say about me on TV?"
She glanced up remembering. "Um... they said you were an enemy and a spy, and... that you wanted to steal our stuff, and Um... that you would kill people for money, and they said you were corrupted by the Destroyer, and too dangerous to let loose..."
The boy interrupted: "My dad thought they should just shoot you!"
Arthur had that sinking feeling in his stomach. "Do you think most people know who I am? I mean… your friends, your neighbors; the people in this town."
“Yeah, you're famous. Everyone knows about the American spy."
Infamous would be the right word. Arthur was beginning to understand why even the Danubian criminals had been so unfriendly. "Thanks for the information kids, but your mother probably wouldn't like you talking to me would she?"
“I guess not,” the girl said, “but you're not that dangerous any more are you?"
“No... No, I suppose I'm not." Arthur excused himself by saying that he had to get back to work.
The work crews returned to camp late in the afternoon. The barracks had a band of drying red mud up three feet on the sheet metal wall and the floor was covered in silt. Arthur used his bucket, which had filled up with rainwater and hadn't floated away, to scrub the sticky red clay off his skin; before he was completely finished there was the announcement he was waiting for. "Criminal # 88588, you are to report to the warden's office immediately." The electricity was back on again so the announcement came over the P/A system.
“Stand up Criminal # 88588." The warden had the manner of a disinterested bureaucrat; he turned in his swiveling office chair and pulled a yellow folder from a shelf behind his desk. He smoothed down his gray mustache with the thumb and index finger of his left hand, before opening the folder and looking to Arthur. "This is your file, we organize these by conduct, and you have a yellow folder because of the disciplinary violations you've had here at the camp." The warden took a drink of coffee from a gray mug with the Public Works seal on the side. "My second in command, Major Drazetka, spoke to me this morning about you. She believes that you have reformed your behavior, and should be returned to normal status here at the camp. Is that the case Criminal # 88588, will you follow all the rules and regulations, and respect the authority of my guards?"
“Good, sign this form. It certifies that you have met the conditions of the disciplinary action, and that you pledge to not violate any other regulations for your remaining time at this camp."
Though his spoken Danubian had improved considerably, Arthur hadn't learned to read or write Danubian any better in the past two months. Arthur pointed to the three blanks at the bottom of the form. "Ya negat rozumigukt." (I don't understand). The warden explained: official name, former family name or given name, and date. Criminal # 88588 filled in the blanks and the warden dismissed him.
Arthur finished washing the mud out of his hair and then went with the other criminals to eat supper. It would be good to sit down at the table and eat like a human being again. He soon reconsidered; the judicial switching had only been a few days earlier. Arthur decided that standing by a table like a human being is pretty good too though.
About an hour later Arthur spotted some of the female criminals, they had been busy preparing meals and then cleaning up the mess hall. The Major had agreed to return Samantha and Laura to normal status as well and Arthur was anxious to see them. A chain link fence on the east side of the mess hall separated the two female barracks from the rest of the complex, though during the day the gate in between was usually open.
Arthur and about half the other male criminals waited by the gate for the women to arrive. He wondered what it would be like to date a Danubian criminal. Back in the US every girl he had ever gone out with made him wait; wait for her to get dressed, or get her makeup on, or get her hair fixed. Even without being allowed clothes or makeup and hair already braided, Arthur decided, being women they would come up with some other delay, it was a law of nature. He almost didn't recognize the two American girls; their hair was in braids instead of the ponytails they used to wear.
“Hey... nice braids, you two look older, more sophisticated."
Samantha smiled. "The other women kept telling us how important it was to have our hair styled right but the major wouldn't allow it after we got in trouble. Early this morning the warden called us into his office and said that the restrictions were lifted and so a couple girls braided it for us before lunch. I guess your restrictions are lifted too huh?"
“Yeah, I'm reformed too." Arthur said. "I decided to tone down the corrupting influence, for a while at least. The warden must have noticed all my good behavior. I kept my buckets immaculately clean and the chain in good condition."
“Arthur," Laura excitedly whispered. "Did you hear that Major Drazetka's gone? They loaded her up in an ambulance last night. They said she fell or something and was hurt pretty bad. Too bad it didn't break her stupid neck."
“Yeah, I heard something about that."
"Oh my god," Samantha had noticed all the new welts across Arthur's left side. “What happened to you?"
“I had a run in with a guard who had a bad temper and even worse aim." Arthur shook his head disapprovingly. "I guess there's just no attention to detail anymore."
* * *
Following the flood the three Americans were treated like ordinary criminals, which was harsh by most standards, but better than before. The work crews spent their days repairing the extensive damage done by the storm. They patched roads, removed storm debris, and rebuilt all the breached sections of the levy system. Arthur and the girls met every day after supper in the usual spot; while they met under the pretense of more language lessons it was mostly just to talk.
After an especially rough day in late August Arthur went to meet the girls. They had been waiting for him under the shade tree. As he approached he really hoped they wouldn't notice his condition but of course they did.
Samantha taunted: "Well it's about time the teacher shows up, I'm going to have my..." Samantha stopped in mid-sentence. "Damn, Arthur!" Arthur's cheek was starting to bruise and there was a cut on his upper lip. "What did they do?"
“Oh my god..." Laura gasped at the sight of all the red swollen lines crisscrossing Arthur's back and shoulders. "Are you alright? What happened?"
Arthur looked away for a second and forced a smile. "Don't worry about it, a guard just got a little angry at me.
Samantha cringed. "Does that hurt? Are you okay?"
“Yeah, it's fine." Arthur assured them. "I'm alright... really."
“What happened?" Laura asked.
“Oh, there's not much to tell... just got slapped around some but never mind that." Arthur sat down and tried to get comfortable. "There's something we need to talk about."
Thin limber Samantha sat upright with her legs tightly folded and crossed, and Laura reclined against the tree with her legs outstretched, Arthur could never seem to find a comfortable way to rest and fidgeted constantly.
"You know," Arthur began, "last night, I was thinking about how much time we've got left. It's nineteen days for you and twenty for me. This stuff's going to be over with soon and we can go back to Rika Chorna. It's going to be a lot better when we get our custody transferred back to Spokesman Ralkliv.
Arthur scratched at the side of his head. "There's one thing I'm concerned about though. I've thought about our situation at this camp, especially everything that's happened since we got in trouble on the fourth. I don't know for sure but I think that some of the abuse went well beyond what the law allows in the treatment of criminals. From the way the Major reacted I figure that the guards don't want news of what goes on here getting out. I just don't know, but we should think carefully about our options and come to a decision."
“What do you mean?" Samantha asked.
“Well," Arthur explained. "I only see two options. The first is that once we get back to Rika Chorna we could go to Spokesman Ralkliv and tell him everything that happened to us. And the second option is that we keep it secret."
“Maybe it could help us get out!" Laura said. "Like, reduce our sentences or something."
Samantha was also enthusiastic at the thought of release. "Yeah, like... the US government could do something or the UN, you know, could pressure them to let us go."
“Yeah, well... I want that too,” Arthur said. "But we've got to be pragmatic here. We have some serious credibility problems. I mean... to Danubians I'm the corrupt enemy spy and you two are the spoiled American teenagers that sneaked illegal drugs into their pure and wholesome country. Who would a judge believe? On one side there would be several respected officials of the Ministry of Public Works," Arthur gestured, "and on the other side there would be us."
"But what about Spokesman Ralkliv," Laura asked, "he would be on our side, right?"
“Not necessarily... see, spokespersons are not our lawyers, there's no confidentiality. They're part of the Ministry of Justice, so any information you volunteer may as well be said to a cop."
Arthur sighed and stayed silent a while, thinking. "I'm also skittish about telling Ralkliv because of that whole Danubian honor code thing." Arthur made a baffled expression. "They've got the craziest ideas. I mean, at one point, Spokesman Ralkliv actually thought that I would rather be beaten than lose honor by telling a lie, and that's not the case at all! By the way, don't tell him that like I did." Arthur shrugged. "He means well but... it's just that we very different priorities."
“See," Arthur said. "If we tell him everything, I'm afraid that he might set something in motion that we're going to regret. I'm not particularly interested in defending my honor if it means more beatings or chains on my neck. If we make accusations without any evidence we might be the ones who get in trouble; charged with slander, perjury and who knows what else."
Samantha looked fragile as glass. "You think we should keep it secret?"
“Yeah." Arthur felt uncomfortable bringing up the next part. "There's something else you don't know about. After that confrontation with the Major, she had me taken to one of the back rooms in her office and she... she wanted to force me to admit my guilt. I tried to... I mean... I…"
Arthur swallowed hard and looked down. "She made me sign a statement. It said that I had you two spread lies about the guards and the camp. I'm sorry." Arthur started to say something more but stopped. He remained quiet, staring down miserably; now they knew how weak he really was.
“Arthur." Samantha had tears in her eyes. "Arthur, look at me. It is not your fault."
“We heard it that night," Laura's voice quivered. "And I saw you," Laura wiped tears from her eyes. "You were coming back from work... they hurt you so bad." Laura doubled over crying hard, Samantha leaned and hugged her friend tight, sobbing pitifully as well.
All the emotion Arthur normally set aside broke through then. He couldn't stop it this time, Arthur sat with his face buried in his hands and cried too.
Arthur realized how fortunate he was to have friends that stood by him. He thought of some of his friends back home too, at his old job, or playing baseball on Saturdays. He cried about the old life he had enjoyed: his refrigerator full of cold beer, his comfortable tennis shoes, that cool office chair he found beside the highway. He remembered trying to sneak into his apartment without exciting his dog, watching TV shows, playing video games, and eating potato chips.
He remembered his old girlfriend Charlotte leaning against her beat up green Nova with a cigarette in her fingers. Arthur thought about the black guy next door who always wore a leather jacket with no shirt who let Arthur borrow his motorcycle a couple times. It had been a great life before his arrest and he threw it all away for money.
Then Arthur thought of his sister. Strangely, he remembered something that happened many years ago, when they were both in the same school: it was one of their pranks gone terribly wrong. Who knew the old wild animal in the locker trick would be so hard to pull off? When Arthur closed his eyes he could still see his twelve-year old sister running down the school’s hallway trying to corral a terrified groundhog.
Arthur laughed even as he cried. Tee would find this so funny, her big brother sitting naked on the ground, crying like a baby. There'd be no end to her jokes. He missed his goofy sister. Would he ever see her again? Arthur cried about that too.
Though not one of Arthur's proudest moments, he knew it wasn't unusual at all. Nearly every night, when the barracks was quiet and still, there was the underlying sound of quick ragged breaths, muffled cries of the desperate and lonely. Arthur had seen big, tough looking, grown men sit on the ends of their cots doubled over, weeping miserably into their hands. Some criminals curled up tight on their sides like scared children hiding from the world, weeping until they fell asleep. They tried to be quiet but everyone knew. It was so commonplace that Arthur didn't pay much attention to it anymore, slept right through it, just another noise you heard at night, like crickets in the grass.
When Arthur regained some self-control he refocused on the point he had been trying to make. It took a few more minutes for the girls to stop crying.
"So," Arthur began the awkward transition from bawling to business. "Everything's out there now, and we have a decision to make, in the next couple weeks anyway."
Laura folded her arms, pulling her knees in tight, looking down sadly. "So you don't want us to tell the truth, I don't know... what if they catch us?"
“I’m not asking you to lie," Arthur said. "Just don't volunteer any information that might be used against you. We're foreigners who haven't been here long. It's plausible that we wouldn't know that the guards crossed the line. We'll be out of this camp in less than three weeks. If we just keep our mouths shut and don't get into any more trouble our lives will improve. It has to get better doesn't it? You're what 18?"
Laura nodded and Samantha shook her head. "I turned 19 in April."
"Then you'll be released when you're 21 and 22, then you can go back to the US and start your life again. Survive these three years and then you can leave. I just don't want you to risk having your sentences lengthened. If you decide to report everything to Ralkliv I'll stand by you, but I just think that there's way too much to lose and nothing to gain from making those charges. Think about it, okay?"
The girls nodded and then excused themselves to go back to the women's barracks. Arthur sat alone beneath the big oak tree and wondered if it was right to try and keep the girls silent about the abuse they had suffered. He couldn't tell them about the agreement he made with Major Drazetka. The Major would hold the confession over his head to make sure he kept his word, but that also meant that the document wouldn't be used against him, unless they tried to challenge the guards. It was best to simply move on; Arthur didn't believe in moral victories anyway, those were just defeats by another name.
* * *
The next evening Laura left class early, supposedly to go rest, but maybe to spend some time over at the fence that separated the men's and women's' compound. Samantha had her suspicions that her dark haired friend enjoyed all the attention she was getting from the Danubian men, perhaps one in particular.
Now that he and Samantha were alone Arthur unlaced his left work boot and took out a small flat object wrapped in cloth. "I wanted to show you something."
Samantha tilted her head curiously. "Why are you whispering? Nobody here knows English."
“Um... It seemed appropriate," Arthur shrugged. "I guess this is one of those sharing a secret type of things."
“A secret?" Samantha's eyes glowed with interest. "Ooh, tell me!"
Arthur looked around dramatically then resumed whispering. "Today I found this rock, one small enough to sneak out." Arthur unwrapped it and held out his hand. "Check it out!"
Samantha took the flat gray stone, three inches long. "Kinda looks like Idaho."
Arthur waved his hand. "No, the other side!"
"Oh... It's a... a fossil?"
Arthur pointed to the shiny black part. "Trilobite. That's the cephalon, its head... see the eyes? There's the thorax, and the pygidium, the rear end."
" Cooool." Samantha held it close, examining it carefully.
“Keep it," Arthur said. "I want you to have it."
“Really?” Samantha grinned. “Awesome... but where'd you get it?"
Arthur pointed a thumb backwards. "There's this outcrop beside the railroad track where we worked the last few days; you should see it... it's just full of fossils. I look through it every once in a while when I get the chance." Arthur shrugged. "I tried to sneak a bigger rock out yesterday but one of the guards saw I had something in my hand. It was that tall skinny guy with the thick glasses... that dude doesn't miss a thing.
It was quitting time and we were all lined up for that stupid chain. I was down on my knees and he walked behind me and stopped. Said something like: 'Criminal, what are you holding? Show me!' so I opened my hand and he starts yelling: 'Drop the weapon!' So I say: 'I don't Have a weapon!' in a tone he really didn't appreciate."
“Oh my god!" Samantha exclaimed. "What happened?"
“Well, I guess the guards wanted to make an example of me; they put handcuffs on me and threw a chain over a tree limb and hoisted my arms up over my head till I was on tiptoes. Then they gave me a good old-fashioned whipping while everyone watched. So," Arthur said casually. "That's why I was late yesterday."
Samantha cradled the rock in her hand, running a finger over the fossil, and then she stepped close and grabbed his hand. Samantha tugged Arthur behind the tree trunk for a lengthy and daring kiss.
Samantha opened her eyes, licked her lips, smiled mischievously and walked away, but not before glancing back. "Tomorrow, Spy boy."
"Same time, same place." Arthur grinned exuberantly. "Just don't kill any guards with that trilobite, okay?"
Arthur retied his laces and dusted off the dirt that had adhered to his skin while he'd been sitting on the ground. Then he caught a glance of Samantha, fifty meters away going through the gate into the women's section; she paused to look in his direction one last time before hurrying inside the barracks.
Arthur had the strangest thought. "Am I the bad boy? Me? Arthur Liggett? How the hell did that happen?"
Chapter 9: Three Awkward Dinners
Criminal work crew 6 was treated surprisingly well during their last week. Breaks were longer and more frequent, workdays went from twelve hours down to ten, and not one of the crew was struck in the last seven days.
One of the guards said that this week of good treatment was meant to show the warden's appreciation for all the hard work the criminals had done in service to their country. Arthur wondered if anyone was gullible enough to believe that explanation. Regardless, this easy last week had its effect; he was feeling better and most of the welts and bruises across his shoulders faded away.
Arthur had never been so glad to board a bus as he was on Thursday morning, the tenth of September. He sat down by the window and like most of the others he turned to watch Novo Sumi Ris recede in the distance as the bus traveled east. The Danubian criminals were ecstatic to be leaving the camp, there were so many conversations going on that it was difficult to understand any of their fast paced words. Arthur didn't want to talk anyway; it was nice to simply look out the window and watch the countryside roll by. Thirty minutes later he stepped off the bus in front of the Ministry of Public Works, after a brief processing he was handed a stamped document and released.
* * *
Arthur had to wait just a short time before Spokesman Ralkliv walked in. After going through the formal greeting, Ralkliv invited him into his private office to discuss his situation.
"Arthur it is good to see you back," Ralkliv said in English. "I trust they didn't treat you too badly at the work camp?"
"It wasn't all that bad really," Arthur replied with a straight face. "And I did get to see a bit of the countryside."
"Good, good. I was more than a little worried about you; I have heard that sometimes the Ministry's guards can be fairly harsh toward criminals sentenced to their camps." Ralkliv raised an eyebrow. "And that flood must have been terrifying."
Arthur tried to steer the subject in another direction. "Yes, it was a big one. Spokesman, I was surprised to meet Samantha and Laura at the same camp, I actually had a lot of contact with them. One of the guards had me teach them to speak Danubian. I believe they were released yesterday. Are they back in the city now?"
"Yes, they're back.” Ralkliv gestured toward the window. “I have them working with the city groundskeepers for the time being, but there is something else we need to discuss. With Jakt's business shutting down for the winter I have to find you some other job." Ralkliv shook his head. "It has not been an easy task to find you employment."
"Spokesman,” Arthur said in Danubian. “Don't you think that my Danubian is good enough to be understood?"
"Oh… Yes, Arthur that actually sounds very good but that is not the problem." Ralkliv explained. "People are reluctant to hire you because of who you are. The crimes that you were involved in were widely publicized."
"So they think I'm a danger? I didn't do anything but take cover during the gun fight."
"Regardless, they see you as a threat in more ways than one. It is not good to be called a spy in Danubia. Arthur, in two weeks I have not found a single private employer willing to hire you."
Spokesman Ralkliv opened a folder. "That leaves only two options. The first is that you could be placed on a criminal labor crew for the Ministry of Public Works. The second option... By the way can you swim? Yes? Alright, the second option is that every fall the Ministry of Natural Resources uses a criminal work crew to clean up around the reservoir as well as do some maintenance on park grounds; it is only until winter though by that time perhaps I can find you another position."
"Do I have the choice, Spokesman?"
"Either of these options are acceptable to me, but you might want to think it over some."
"There's no need, I want the Ministry of Natural Resources job up on the lake."
Ralkliv nodded. "Very well. In two weeks you will need to report to the headquarters but before then I will have to get you an appointment with them for the necessary certification. They require some basic water rescue training for all workers, there is a training center not far from here."
Spokesman Ralkliv opened a desk drawer and removed a bundle of papers about an inch thick. "I have to go downstairs for a few minutes, why don't you look through some of the mail that has accumulated since you have been gone."
Ralkliv left and Arthur picked up the letter on top. "Let’s see, one from the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs." He ripped it open and read.
'We thank you for taking the time to write the Office of the...' Arthur skipped ahead… 'Regret to inform you that no further action is legally warranted in your case at this time. However, the US Department of State is dedicated to assuring the fair treatment of US citizens held in custody overseas, therefore a US Consular Officer will be sent to meet with you at the soonest possible date.'
The next letter was from the office of his congressman. 'Under current international agreements the United States Congress does not have the authority to alter the legal status of US citizens held in custody outside of our borders...' Arthur skimmed ahead... 'It would be more appropriate to direct your efforts to the European Bureau of the Department of State.'
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Great, this is the one time that they don't want to meddle overseas." He knew his own future was looking bleak, every effort he had made so far to get assistance from the US had failed, and the way that Danubians viewed him made any kind of reduced sentence very unlikely.
"I've only been here four months." Arthur whispered to himself. "Twenty-nine years and eight months to go."
There was a sense of disbelief when he glanced at the next envelope. "You have got to be kidding me! It must have taken a bloodhound with crystal balls to find me here."
He ripped open the envelope labeled: Alumni Association. 'You are cordially invited to attend the Annual University Homecoming and Alumni Banquet.'
Arthur smiled deviously. "So they encourage alumni to send in a picture of themselves and news of what's going on in their lives along with a donation. I would definitely have the most interesting capsule in the alumni newsletter. Let’s see, what would I say?" Arthur flipped the paper over and started scribbling on the back.
Dear Alumni Association,
It is good to hear from you, please allow me to catch you up on what's going on in my life. The past few months have been very challenging and exciting! I had always wanted to visit Europe so back in May when a business opportunity presented itself I took a big risk and traveled to a country in Eastern Europe known as the Grand Duchy of Upper Danubia. It was a big change from what I was used to, but I always felt that going new places and meeting new people really expanded a person's horizons.
From the beginning I was positively captivated by the Duchy’s fascinating customs, culture, and unique legal system. Now I truly understand what it means to step outside my comfort zone. I have a new job, a new place to live, new friends, and I'm taking advantage of this opportunity to learn a difficult foreign language. And the people are so friendly here! I suspect that I'm going to live in Danubia for a good long time; in fact, one might say that the government insists upon it!
Arthur Liggett, Criminal # 88588
"Ok, now all I need is a photograph and I can have Tee type this up and send it in with a donation. I dare them to take the money and publish this!" Arthur cackled. "Tee's gonna have a spasm."
Arthur straightened up as Spokesman Ralkliv returned. "Spokesman, I want to take some photographs to send back home. Where can I get a cheap camera?"
Ralkliv shook his head. "You cannot."
"I can pay for it, my sister could wire in the money if I don't have enough here."
"No, I mean you are not allowed to possess a camera." Ralkliv sat back down at his desk.
Arthur was confused yet again. "Criminals can't have cameras?"
"Most criminals can, but you were convicted of espionage so you are not allowed to possess any recording devices. I went over this with you after your trial"
Arthur didn't want to say that it had taken weeks to get where he could understand Ralkliv's heavily accented English clearly. "So could I get Samantha to buy the camera and take the pictures I want?"
"Absolutely not!" Ralkliv tapped a forefinger on the desktop as he forcefully made his point. "Directing another criminal to conspire with you to go around the law is even worse. Criminal # 88588, I am your custodian under the law and you will do as I say, you must not try and circumvent the intent of the law." Spokesman Ralkliv made an exasperated gesture, leaned back in his chair and took a long breath. "Arthur I... I just don't trust you, when I talk to you it seems that your words are calculated and you show no expression at all as though you don't want me to know what you're really thinking."
"Spokesman, please understand that I'm not trying to be evasive, it's just that this place is so strange to me and I don't want to offend anyone by saying the wrong thing." Arthur wondered if he sounded convincing. "So... how can I legally obtain a photo to send home?"
Spokesman Ralkliv sighed. "I'll have my secretary take a couple pictures, is that satisfactory criminal # 88588?"
"Yes sir." Arthur smiled. "That's excellent, but there's one other thing concerning Samantha..."
* * *
Courtship was complicated business; Spokesman Ralkliv had looked quizzically at him as he started writing it all down in his notebook. For Danubians, the courtship protocol was ordinary but to a foreigner like Arthur it was beyond confusing. It seemed they had rules for just about everything. To keep track of it all Arthur wrote down everything he learned; the notebook was already half full of his scribbling.
Arthur checked the clock; it was six-fifteen already; time to go to the hotel to meet Samantha's parents. This meeting was either step three or four in the protocol, depending on how you counted; it was hard to say since his was not a typical case.
During the last week at the labor camp Arthur had asked Samantha 'out' while they walked along the inside of the perimeter fence. Arthur planned to have some kind of a date once they got back to Rika Chorna, but the next day Samantha informed him that it was not going to be that easy. One of the female criminals had explained the whole courtship process in some detail.
First he needed Spokesman Ralkliv's permission; since he was Samantha's spokesman too that was straight forward enough. Next he needed to be invited to dinner with Samantha's host family, and that's where the trouble began. She might as well have asked to have a wet dog seated at their dinner table. It seemed that there was a serious social stigma with having the American spy over for supper but after much negotiation Ralkliv and the host family came to an unusual agreement. Samantha's parents were coming to see their daughter on the 14th of September; the deal was that if Arthur could gain her parent's permission, then Samantha's host family would reluctantly invite Arthur to sit at their table.
They probably didn't think Samantha's parents would even consider giving the infamous spy permission to court their only daughter but Arthur was determined to prove them wrong. Samantha told him all about her mom and dad. Arthur knew where they lived, and worked, their hobbies, and a lot of other information that might help him make a good impression. They would obviously be concerned about his crimes, though Arthur was sure that they thought their daughter was being treated unfairly and so they might have some sympathy for his situation too.
Arthur walked through the sparsely decorated hotel lobby and found room 112 near the end of a narrow hallway; he took a deep breath to steady his nerves and knocked on the door. The same man that Arthur had briefly met three months earlier opened the door. "Please come inside Mr. Liggett."
There was a tense handshake. "It's good to meet you again Mr. Sherman. Please, call me Arthur."
Introducing himself to Samantha's parents while naked was an uncomfortable situation to say the least. In the spectrum of bad ways to meet a girlfriend's parents, being naked with a tracking collar on your neck would surely score high on the list. Arthur thought he was over his inhibitions toward nudity until he was standing naked in front of these two fully clothed Americans. It was beyond embarrassing, though the Shermans looked just as red in the face as he did all over.
"This is my wife Anna." Mr. Sherman ushered his tall slender wife forward to shake Arthur's hand. "Samantha will be along in a few minutes, we wanted to speak with you alone first." They invited Arthur to sit at a small dining room table, perhaps so he wouldn't look quite so distracting.
Mrs. Sherman poured Arthur a glass of water and sat down; she had a friendly smile and piercing eyes. "Why don't you tell us a little about yourself Arthur?"
Arthur gave a practiced response with a brief description of his upbringing, family, education, jobs and such. He was sure to put in several pauses to make it seem less rehearsed.
"Arthur," A visibly nervous Mr. Sherman tapped his fingers together and leaned forward. "There is the matter of the crimes you were convicted of... we can't allow Samantha to see someone dangerous, you understand. Samantha believes that you were innocent of the crimes and just fooled into participating in that break-in and theft, and that you weren't involved in the shooting. Is that true, are you not guilty?"
Arthur was not so calm then; he forgot his practiced response altogether. He delayed by taking a slow sip of water. Focus didn't come. Samantha's parents waited for response. Arthur shifted uncomfortably, he just couldn't think straight under the pressure.
"I'm sorry," Arthur said at last, shaking his head with embarrassment. "It’s... um... just that I can't always remember things clearly. I haven't been sleeping much."
Mrs. Sherman nodded. "That's understandable; just take your time Arthur."
Arthur drank down the rest of his water and stared at the empty glass in his hands. The longer he focused on it the calmer and relaxed he felt.
"I used to say I was completely innocent, that my old boss and that Russian had just used me to get what they wanted, but I knew it wasn't legitimate."
"Mr. Neal said Rumak was an associate of his, someone involved in the energy markets. I met Rumak in Germany on the morning of the eighth of May; we arrived at our destination not six hours after we first met.
I didn't inquire all that much about what he was up to; he seemed to know what he was doing like he had been here before. I really didn't want to know the details. I just focused on my part; I would get the data for him.
And of course I thought I was worth all that money... it felt so good. I liked the idea of it: to fly into a strange foreign country, do a job like that and get out the same day with all that money... it was like something out of a movie.
But Rumak turned out to be a very dangerous man. I guess he thought he was caught so he shot the policeman and left me there to take the blame. I didn't know he had a gun. I didn't know who he really was... but that's no excuse. Without my help, he probably wouldn't have been in Rika Chorna that day and that police officer wouldn’t have been shot. The policeman almost died. He has a wife and two little kids, and from what I understand, he will never fully recover."
Arthur paused for a long while. "I don't know... sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think about what happened... and I realize I did this to myself. Someone almost died and I hurt my family. I think if my dad was still alive he would be ashamed of me."
Arthur stopped talking and looked up at the couple seated in front of him. While he had spoken he had a distant feeling like he was alone and talking only to himself, he certainly hadn't planned to be so embarrassingly honest in front of Samantha's parents. He really did need to get more sleep.
"Um... sorry." Arthur blinked away tears, took a sharp breath and cleared his throat. "Mr. and Mrs. Sherman, I have my problems but I'm no danger to your daughter or anyone else."
"Arthur, I appreciate you telling us the truth." Mrs. Sherman said. "I would have been suspicious if you claimed to be completely innocent," Her eyes darted toward her husband then back to Arthur; she seemed to have difficulty bringing up the next part. "Arthur, I want to know about Samantha, yesterday she admitted to us that she had been using ecstasy for the past year. Do you think she's clean?"
"Yes ma'am, there's no drug problem here. She never said anything to me about drugs since her arrest; I don't think she was addicted. It would be nearly impossible to find drugs here anyway, and even if a criminal found a dealer he still couldn't buy anything, you see criminals aren't even allowed to carry money."
"Good, that's so good to hear." Mrs. Sherman said. "Samantha told us how you tried to warn her and Laura about the drug laws, and you tried to keep them from getting arrested. She said you got in trouble because of that."
"Yes ma'am. That seems like a long time ago... having lunch at that restaurant. Tourists don't understand how harsh the laws are here but I guess my warnings didn't do much good. I was really shocked to see them arrested the next week."
"And you got punished for trying to keep Samantha and Laura out of trouble." Mr. Sherman seethed: "Unbelievable!"
Arthur decided that it would be best to let them assume that his motivations were pure and noble that day. "It wasn't their fault, sir. I made my own decision when I chose to not report a crime."
"If you don't mind, Arthur... um..." Mrs. Sherman's voice quivered like she might cry. "Samantha isn't telling us anything... how bad is it, these beatings?"
Arthur flinched but kept eye contact with Mrs. Sherman. "Um... I really don't know what to say. The pain is intense... I thought I would pass out, but I didn't. The police keep you right on the edge; they want to break your will, they want to humiliate you... that's sometimes almost as bad as the pain. It's a hard thing to deal with, for me at least."
Mrs. Sherman took a quick breath, choking back a sob. "How can these people be so cruel?"
Both parents were distraught. Arthur realized he wasn't being very reassuring. "Uh… well, Danubians don't see it that way; they're real proud of their system. They think it's cruel to lock someone in a jail cell." Arthur shrugged. "This is harsh but I suppose it's better than prison in some ways."
Mr. Sherman looked exhausted; he ran a hand through his thinning hair and sighed. "I can't stand the thought of it."
"Samantha's really pretty tough." Arthur reassured. "When I saw her before the trial she looked so fragile, I thought she'd just fall apart but she didn't. Really, she's dealt with it better than me in some ways. And as bad as it is, the switchings don't do permanent harm. Samantha's got five really bad days ahead of her; and then it will be over with. For a drug conviction... from what I understand it's usually worse."
Arthur looked away as Mrs. Sherman finally broke down. She excused herself from the table. Arthur could clearly hear her sobbing behind the bathroom door.
"Arthur," Mr. Sherman asked after his wife had gone. "How many do you have left? If you don't mind me asking."
"No sir, I don't mind. Let’s see," Arthur acted like he didn't think about it much. "Four per year, for thirty years... minus two... so it would be a hundred and eighteen more."
"Damn..." Mr. Sherman swore then he rested his forehead on his right fist. "This whole thing's a nightmare... I don't know what to do. No one in the government seems to think there's anything wrong with what they're doing to my daughter. And now Samantha treats us like strangers; I tried to talk to her but she pushes us away."
"I understand why she doesn't want to talk about it.” Arthur gestured to his collar. “I don't want my family to see me like this either. I don't know, maybe it gets easier with time."
Mrs. Sherman came back to the table; she politely apologized for the interruption and sat down again. "I appreciate you trying to help the girls, Arthur." Mrs. Sherman's shaky voice betrayed her outward calm. "It must be especially bad for the women. I want to know... Arthur...how is she being treated... is she being abused?"
Arthur knew what she meant but he wanted to steer clear if he could. "She spent three months at the labor camp. Life there was harsh. The work was exhausting, conditions were primitive, and the guards were very strict, the smallest infraction would get a criminal punished, the..."
Arthur was relieved that Samantha arrived at that moment to interrupt him; even with the summer tan Arthur could see her blush; that first meeting with her parents must have been horrible for her.
Samantha took the empty chair and there was a brief attempt at having a normal conversation. Samantha's father finally interrupted the awkward silence to go to the hotel office and order some food. They talked more freely after the food arrived and Mr. and Mrs. Sherman got into the second bottle of wine; Arthur and Samantha drank iced tea. At the end of the meal her parents exchanged glances.
Mr. Sherman, who had drank the majority of the wine, stood with a noticeable wobble and cleared his throat. "Arthur, I think that you are a good young man who has made some serious mistakes, but then so has Samantha."
He placed his left hand on Arthur's shoulder and grasped his hand for an overly vigorous handshake, Arthur awkwardly stood up and Mr. Sherman slapped him on the back. "Arthur, I think you two would be good for each other." Mrs. Sherman looked embarrassed as he continued. "Anna, I'm sure you feel the same way, Samantha has had worse boyfriends..."
"Arthur, what my husband means to say," Mrs. Sherman interrupted her husband to Samantha's apparent relief. "Is that if you promise to treat our daughter with respect and take care of her as best you can, you have our blessing."
"Yes, I will of course. Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Sherman." After an awkward pause Arthur continued. "Uh... You see everything is formal here, there has to be documentation. I need your permission in writing, with signatures and the date."
* * *
Arthur turned in the signed statement to Spokesman Ralkliv then it was on to the next phase: dinner with her host family. This one was tricky; Arthur knew they were just looking for cause to reject him. But according to Danubian rules, they needed a specific reason and Arthur was determined not to give them one. Arthur carefully reviewed the two pages of protocol that he had written down before taking the bus to their house.
The couple that hosted Samantha were bureaucrats who worked in the provincial government. They had two children: a five-year-old girl and a boy almost three years old. Samantha suspected that they took her in just so that they would have a servant to care for the kids and clean the house. They weren't friendly at all, she had to kneel before speaking and when they did talk to her it was usually just to give orders. Samantha liked the two kids though, the little girl followed her around constantly calling her something that sounded like 'Sanka', and Samantha slept on a cot next to the baby's crib.
Arthur knocked on the painted wooden door and waited almost a minute before anyone answered. A tall man with a dark beard and a grim expression finally opened the door. Arthur had to follow protocol and kneel down on the front porch; seconds of silence passed before the man gave Arthur permission to get up and enter the house. There was an equally cold introduction of the wife and kids. The wife ordered Samantha, who had been in the kitchen, to serve some drinks.
Throughout the formal dinner Arthur got the feeling that they were looking for a mistake, a reason to reject him. There was a strict order of doing everything at one of these diners, and being a criminal, Arthur nearly always went last. The conversation was another complex game, with Arthur's grasp of Danubian basic at best there were many chances for a slip up. He decided that the less he said the better, so he spoke only when spoken to and kept his practiced answers brief and simple. He was inwardly amused at how frustrated the couple seemed toward the end of the meal, he had not given them a single legitimate reason to reject him. When the dinner was finished the hosts looked furious at having to invite the American spy back to their table the next week.
* * *
The final challenge was culinary rather than strategic. It was time for Samantha to come eat at the house of Arthur's host and Mr. Jakt was preparing something special. Jakt was an adventurous cook and a mushroom hunter. The previous day the old man proudly displayed his prize by dumping a pile of moist baseball sized nodules out on the kitchen table. The dozen or so gray and brown clumps were still coated in mud from recently being dug up out of the forest floor. "Uh... What do you have there Mr. Jakt?"
"These," the old man proudly asserted. "Are the rarest type of mushroom in the central mountains. I'm going to cook them for you and Samantha tomorrow; wait till you taste it!"
The day of the special dinner arrived. Jakt chopped the fungus up and dumped it in a large pot of boiling water; thick brown foam churned to the surface. The aroma was indescribable in polite company. Eager to escape the fumes, Arthur enthusiastically volunteered to pick up some special cut of meat that Jakt had ordered from the butcher. He didn't recognize the word that the butcher used to describe the mysterious meat but judging and from its size it must have been either bovine or equine in origin.
Later that day Arthur met Samantha outside the house to warn her. "Ok here's the deal, we're going to be eating some kind of strange slimy fungus that Mr. Jakt dug up in the woods, and I believe that the side dish is made out of something's tongue. Now, Mr. Jakt's really proud of this meal so we have to eat it and act like it’s really good."
"Eeew..." Samantha cringed. "I don't want to eat anything that tastes me back. Are you sure it's a tongue? I mean I... I don't think I can eat that."
Arthur took Samantha's hand in his and then peered off into the distance for dramatic effect. "I know these are dark days and we have suffered greatly, but now is not the time to give in to fear, or collapse in defeat; now is the time to rise to the challenge! We must harden our stomachs to this fungal invader, devour the tongue that's placed before us, clean our plates and ask for seconds!" Arthur made a grand gesture, pointing upward. "This will be our finest hour, we will march into that dining room, we will eat that disgusting meal with smiles on our faces, and we- will- not- throw-up... until later."
"Nice speech, very inspirational and topical." Samantha smiled brightly as they walked toward the door.
"Thanks, I've been working on it for an hour."
* * *
The following night they entered the criminal's club, took a seat in the back, and ordered two mugs of ale, but neither one was finished. Arthur raised his eyebrow slightly and Samantha shrugged. They hurried through a dim hallway toward the back of the club. There were doors to either side, some open some shut, that complex Danubian music was playing loud on speakers overhead. They picked an open room on the right side of the hallway. A mattress fitted with a white sheet rested on the concrete floor. A metal shelf bolted to the south wall held more sheets, towels and a box of condoms. Everything looked clean at least.
Arthur closed the door behind them. Samantha pressed close; her bright green eyes reflected the single light above the door. Arthur kissed her gently at first then decided to abandon caution altogether. His hands slid down and cupped the curve of her bottom. Samantha made a pleasurable moan and reached down between their bodies and circled her fingers around him.
"I should have brought my notebook, to keep a record." Arthur joked. "I bet I have to file a report on this later."
"Never mind that." She stepped over to the shelf and removed a packet from the box.
Samantha smiled her wicked smile. "Before you have anything to write about, Spy boy you're going to have to catch me first." She flipped off the light switch.
Arthur made two strides in total darkness toward where she had stood, she had moved but a barely suppressed giggle gave away her location. Arthur wheeled around, dropped to his hands and knees and listened; there was a motion to the left. He reached out and grasped some sort of limb before she twisted and rolled away, this time toward the corner, she had no place to retreat to now. Arthur was pleased he had tracked down his prey in the small rectangular room.
She squealed and giggled uncontrollably as Arthur caught an ankle in his right hand and moved forward to pin her down; she spun to the side and maybe would have got away if she hadn't been laughing so hard. He gripped her waist and dragged her on top of the mattress in the middle of the room. "No more escapes for you." He pinned her down and kissed along her lean stomach. "I'm afraid that I'll have to conduct a careful search to make sure you're not carrying a weapon; a spy has to be careful after all."
"Ah..." her shapely legs parted. "Well, if you must... mmm... you really are thorough, Arthur." Her fingers pressed the back of his head pulling him closer. "But you're not really going to... Ooh... take advantage of an innocent young lady are you?"
Arthur moved back up her body and grasped a nipple between his fingers. "You mean there's an innocent young lady in here too?" He pinched hard enough to make her yelp and squirm beneath him. "I'm afraid she's just going to have to wait, I have my hands full already."
Their collars clinked together as they kissed. Arthur felt her hand reach between his legs and fingers run along the length of him. "Mmm... I think you're the one carrying the weapon, maybe we should put a... cloak on that dagger before you... try and conceal that thing." She pushed Arthur back to his knees and he heard the pack open. With apparent practiced skill she rolled the latex in place.
"Now it's on to the conquest." Arthur proclaimed in his best Sean Connery type voice.
"It is?" Samantha bit down hard on his ear.
"Uh...yeah," Arthur tried to pull his ear loose while her teeth clamped down. "Ack... Haven't you ever seen a spy movie before? It's... standard procedure." He yanked his ear out of her mouth and pushed her back on the mattress.
She gasped and clung to his back, "Mmm... people tried to warn me about your... corrupting influence."
"You just wouldn't listen..." He whispered. "And now look where you are."
* * *
They lay in the complete darkness, resting a few minutes.
"I woke up in the middle of a flower bed this morning." Arthur broke the silence.
"I sleepwalk. Early this morning when it was still dark out I woke up in the neighbor's yard. This woman who lives next to Mr. Jakt let her dog out the front door, when he saw me laying there that beagle really freaked out and then the woman walked out into the yard to see what he was barking at. Judging by her reaction what she did not expect to see was some naked dude climbing out of her tulips at four AM; she threw her hands up and screamed like a banshee as she ran back to her porch. I had just woke up with that dog barking in my face and didn't know what the hell was going on, so I jumped up and stumbled backwards over her picket fence and fell right onto the road."
"You gotta be kidding."
"No kidding... the beagle jumped the fence right behind me and bit the big toe of my right foot; there was this big commotion with the woman screaming, the dog barking, and me cussing. The whole damned neighborhood woke up, turned on their lights and came outside. Someone must have thought I was an intruder and called the cops. So early this morning I got taken to the police headquarters and put in a holding cell. The police were convinced that I was high on drugs, and wouldn't listen to anything I had to say.
You know, I think Spokesman Ralkliv wanted to strangle me when the guards marched me to his office in handcuffs this morning. Anyway, after the drug tests came back negative I had to go before a judge this afternoon to explain why I caused the disturbance."
"Well, I went into the judge's chamber expecting to get in more trouble for violating the terms of my sentence again. He gave me a chance to explain my odd behavior so I told my story and I was absolutely shocked to find out that the judge believed me. It turns out that Mr. Jakt was able to talk his neighbor out of pressing charges for the property damage, I'll have to repair her fence and clean up a bit, that's it though."
"Holy shit, that's weird. My brother used to do that, sleepwalking I mean, though he never went out of the house and all that stopped when he grew up."
"One time back in Louisiana I woke up sitting behind the wheel in my truck with keys in the ignition. It was the weirdest thing, as I woke up I was tugging on the steering wheel trying to make a curve. Anyway, I thought I was over it... I mean I didn't have any episodes in the last year or so... until I was in that work camp and it became pretty common again." Arthur laughed. "I really freaked out some of the other criminals, stumbling around the barracks in the dark like a zombie. I think I became even less popular, if that's possible."
"It's all the stress I bet. Arthur you're so nervous all the time, maybe if you talked about it would help. You know, I think that Laura and I adapted better than you did. Arthur this place freaks me out too but you're getting paranoid, you have to try and calm down some. Being all tied up inside will drive you crazy."
"I know, I know. I've never been so... so angry and... frustrated before. I barely sleep anymore. I know it’s not good to hate people but I do. During that flood back at camp I was actually looking out the barracks window hoping the whole town would be washed away. Most of those people hadn't done anything to me, but at the time I wanted them all dead for... revenge I guess." Arthur paused. "I don't want to be like that."
"Arthur," Samantha rolled on her side and placed a hand on his chest. "If there's one thing I've learned from reading brochures in my mom's office it's that when a person looks at their situation more objectively they realize that life isn't just about them. Becoming bitter and resentful isn't going to help your situation any way; you just need to let it go."
Arthur nodded. "Sounds like a good idea. I guess most of the people here mean well, in their own peculiar way. From their perspective I'm a foreigner who came in to their country to steal from them. It's really hard to think kindly about Danubians after going through all this shit, but I will make the effort to at least not... hate." Arthur reached down to find her hand. "Maybe your mom could send me a box of those brochures."
* * *
Meanwhile, Laura had been experiencing a much smoother introduction into Danubian-style courtship. She met a young man at the labor camp, a nineteen year-old Danubian man, who absolutely looked like a giant beside her petite frame. Like Arthur and Samantha, Laura had been through the two formal dinners and now she wanted to introduce Demetri to her friends.
Later that week Arthur sat down at the table next to Samantha. "I never talked to the guy. He was on crew 11, I think... sent back about a week before us; besides him being huge I don't know anything else about him. So, Laura must have said something; I know how you girls gossip. You got to know something about this Demetri."
Samantha shrugged. "I know he's from Danube City."
Arthur laughed: "Uh... Oh."
"It's the rivalry." Arthur explained. "He's going to be almost as unpopular as me. These people feud like my grandpa and Uncle Leroy."
"So what do you think started it?"
"Well, it all began when my grandpa's prize coonhound had an unexpected pregnancy..."
"No," Samantha interrupted. "I meant the Danubian feud, between Rika Chorna and Danube City."
"Oh that... I don't know, every time I asked it got really tense. After a while I learned to just not mention it. I did happen to find a brochure in the trash once that listed some Danubian history in English. It said something about a squabble inside the royal family centuries ago. People had to leave some other place and come here. It probably had something to do with an unexpected pregnancy."
Samantha rolled her eyes. "Even I know more than that. It was the Ottoman invasion that caused the resettlement."
"Ottomans... what's their problem anyway? Think of it; a whole Empire dedicated to footstools."
Samantha smirked: "You're just a fountain of information. Wait... here they come."
Laura walked into the criminal's club hand in hand with her new boyfriend. She came up to just around his shoulder. Arthur figured Demetri was eight inches taller than him and heavily muscled like an American football player. Arthur and Samantha stood and invited them to the table. Demetri's hand nearly swallowed Arthur's. Arthur brought a pitcher of beer, Samantha and Laura chatted incessantly, and the guys just shared what passed for occasional small talk.
Then the conversation turned more serious when Laura spoke of Demetri's sentence. At that point Demetri felt it was necessary to share his whole story with the group. It seemed to Arthur that Danubian criminals had a habit of working sad stories into the conversation. Arthur didn't like that, but if he ever hoped to make friends with a Danubian, melodrama was just something he would have to put up with.
Demetri told how he was currently in the city of Rika Chorna because of a very difficult situation. His family was prominent amongst the Danube City police force. His father, grandfather, sister and two cousins were currently on the force; he had grown up around cops, all his friends were children of cops. Just after his graduation Demetri applied to the academy himself.
That plan was now put on hold indefinitely. It was all put in jeopardy when the young man and some of his friends had drank far too much alcohol and then got involved in a big fist fight outside a bar. Several broken windows and a few broken bones later the police showed up. Three others were arrested but Demetri, being big and strong, did the most damage and got in the most trouble.
Because of his close ties to law enforcement in Danube City, the judge ordered that Demetri stand trial 300 kilometers away, in the provincial capital of Rika Chorna. He told how he wanted to go back to his home but he still had a year left to serve.
After Demetri finished Samantha told him about her own conviction and sentence then everyone looked to Arthur. Arthur quickly counted off the sequence on his fingers: "Back in May I was convicted of spying, theft, and unlawful entry. I got a thirty year sentence and a hundred twenty switchings... um, so want another round?"
Demetri frowned. "Hmm... that is... very harsh..."
"Yeah... I didn't want to say anything," Arthur cringed. "But the beer in this country really isn't very good."
Demetri looked confused and Samantha gave Arthur a dirty look.
Then a band started up on stage. Arthur and Samantha turned to watch. Laura took her big boyfriend's hand and led him off toward the privacy of one of the rooms in the back.
Arthur whispered in Samantha's ear: "Man! He's gonna squash her like a bug!"
Samantha suffered from inappropriate laughter. "What if she splits in half?"
"Even if she survives," Arthur snickered. "Laura's gonna be walking crooked for a week! That's like being fucked by a mountain gorilla!"
"Call police ..." Samantha had her head down on the table laughing, "coochy battery in progress!"
"And if he ever gets in," Arthur snickered. "It may take King Arthur to pull him back out again!"
"One time..." Samantha shook with laughter. "I watched twenty five people squeeze into a Volkswagen... you wouldn't think they would fit but they did."
"I wish we could sell tickets or take wagers. Maybe get it on film..." Arthur scoffed: "but I suppose that selling tapes of a friend getting boinked would be considered dishonorable too."
Samantha wiped away tears. "Yep, I'm pretty sure it would be."
"Man!" Arthur swore. "Why is it that everything I want to do is dishonorable?"
End of part 3
Copyright© 2012 by Ed Harley. All rights reserved. I welcome your comments. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org