Wednesday, May 21, 2014

WIP: Chapter 6 of 'Dragonslayer'

6.

     Morgan had been even more exhausted than he thought. On Friday, after Susan Pinchon had left the residence, he drank his tea, took a long hot shower, and lay down across the big king sized bed in the master bedroom, and didn’t wake up until after seven on Saturday morning.
     He spent the rest of the weekend exploring the house and grounds and getting to know the staff – and, more importantly, letting them get to know him. He learned that all three had served every ambassador since the embassy was first opened. None of them were married, and were intensely dedicated to their jobs. After the shock of his arrival, the residence in just two days had become a kind of refuge, a place where he knew he’d be able to get away when the press of his diplomatic business became too much.
     Susan Pinchon and George Toko were at the residence at 7:30 Monday morning to take him for his first day in the embassy.
     “I hope you had a restful weekend,” Pinchon said as the limo exited the compound gate.
     “Yes, I did,” Morgan replied. “I hadn’t realized how tired I was until I lay down on the bed. But, now I’m ready to slay dragons.”
     “Well, the first dragon we have for you is His Excellency Gideon Simbawashe, the esteemed foreign minister. Jonathan Kabo called me late Friday, and said Simbawashe wants to see you this morning. We’ll stop at Jonathan’s office first, and then he’ll escort us up to the minister’s office. By the way, I hope you don’t think it presumptuous of me to include myself in your meeting.”
     “Not at all. I would have insisted you come if you hadn’t. I want you to know everything I know. After all, when I’m absent, you have to act in my stead. Will we be going to the embassy first, or the ministry?”
     “We’ll go straight to the ministry.”
     Morgan didn’t have a lot of experience in such matters, but he didn’t recall the foreign minister meeting his ambassador so early after his arrival when he served as the number two in Dagastan. Then again, he wasn’t as familiar yet with African customs as he hoped eventually to become.
     He decided that trying to figure things out in the absence of more in depth knowledge was a waste of his mental energy, so he just sat back to enjoy the ride and take in the scenery. He also was cataloguing landmarks as they drove. Another habit from his army days – he liked to be aware of the terrain in which he operated.
     Like many West Africans, Nagandans are early risers. Once they were through the wooded area and into the settlements on the outskirts of Mabuntu, they encountered women on their way to market with goods for sale or on their way to gather wood, young boys driving scrawny cattle in search of grazing ground, children fortunate enough to have parents who could afford the fees on their way to school, and the noisy traffic that darted to and fro seeking a way around the many barriers that appeared often without warning in the roadway.
     About halfway back toward the airport, Toko took a sharp left onto a street that was a bit better kept up than the rest of the routes, and entered the city proper. An armed soldier at the intersection watched them idly, but kept his AK-47 cradled across his chest.
     The city streets were if anything even more crowded than the country roads, with a large number of military vehicles mixed in with the civilian traffic.
     They passed the sprawling City Market, a large normally vacant field which in the early morning every day was covered with rows and piles of everything one could imagine, including used clothing, freshly butchered meat, fruits and vegetables, carved wooden furniture, and metal toys made from beer cans that had been cut opened and flattened. Early morning shoppers weaved in and out among the wildly gesticulating and shouting merchants, and mangy dogs sniffed around the perimeter seeking the rare tossed-away treat.
     Beyond the open market were buildings left over from the colonial era. Shops, workshops, restaurants and office buildings lined the bumpy street. Most of the shops, selling clothing and sundry items, were owned by Lebanese, a non-African community that had been present in Naganda from the time it was colonized by the English in the mid-1700s. Most of the buildings were constructed of gray stone. A tall red-brick two-story building near the center of the city was the exception. The Nagandan Central Bank, formerly the British Bank of Commerce, was the only building that didn’t look faded and worn. Most of Naganda’s government buildings, including State House, where the head of state’s offices were located, and the foreign ministry, were located on the north end of town, separated from the rest of the city by barricades across the street, which were manned by scowling young soldiers brandishing AK-47s and RPGs.
     At the sight of the red, white, and blue national standard flying on the Lincoln’s bumper, the soldiers flung aside the barricade and let Morgan’s vehicle pass. The foreign ministry was located not far from where they entered the restricted area. A four-story gray stone building, it sat inside a walled compound guarded by more green-clad soldiers. Toko drove into the compound, following the curved drive around and underneath a porte cochere at the front entrance. An elderly man opened the entrance door as Morgan got out of the car. He held the door for Morgan and Pinchon to enter, and motioned them to a desk opposite the door. He then closed the door and rushed behind the desk, pushing a dusty ledger toward them.
     “Please, sah,” he said. “You and madam sign visitor book. Someone will be down to escort you.”
     Brushing at the dust, Morgan entered his name and organization on the first blank page. Pinchon signed underneath him. They looked around for a place to sit. There were two scuffed leather sofas across the room, but they were, like the ledger, covered in dust. They decided to stand.
     After about five minutes, Cedric Mboko came through a set of double doors to the left of the reception desk. He smiled broadly as he approached, his hand extended. “Excellence, Ma’am,” he said. “Mr. Kabo is expecting you. If you will please, follow me.”
     After perfunctory handshakes, he spun on his heels and started at a brisk pace toward the door. They had to hustle to keep up with him. Through the door, they entered a dusty, dimly lit corridor that stretched off to the right and left. Doors lined the wall to their front, most of them closed. Except for the sound of their footfalls, though, the corridor was silent. They passed an elevator with metal grate doors that had a crudely lettered ‘Out of Service’ sign wired to the grate, and came to an opening in the wall with wooden steps leading upward.
     “I must apologize,” Mboko said. “The elevator never works, and Mr. Kabo’s office is on the third floor. The minister’s office is on the fourth floor.”
     Pinchon looked at Morgan and shrugged.
     “My once a week visits here are my main exercise,” she said wryly.
     By the time they’d reached the third floor in the dusty stairwell Morgan felt a coating of grit on his face and hands. He knew the grit would be embedded deeply in the fabric of his clothing as well, and wondered about the quality of local dry cleaning. At the third floor, Mboko pushed open a door, leading them into a corridor that was better illuminated than the ground floor had been. He walked to the left and to the end of the corridor, stopping and knocking on the door.
     There was a muffled ‘come in.’ Mboko pushed open the door, and stepped aside to let Morgan and Pinchon enter. It was a small room with a large woman sitting behind a small desk, two stiff-back wooden chairs, and a small sofa at an angle in front of the desk.
     “The American ambassador to see Mr. Kabo,” Mboko said.
     Without acknowledging them, the woman rose and entered a door to her right. After a moment, she came back out.
     “He’ll be with you momentarily,” she said and resumed her seat behind the desk, again ignoring them.
     Morgan looked at the dust-laden sofa, and decided to sit on one of the chairs. Piinchon smiled and copied him. Mboko frowned, and took out a white handkerchief and dusted off one of the cushions on the sofa and sat. They sat in companionable silence for the next ten minutes. Morgan was accustomed to waiting, and he was pleased to note that she also didn’t seem discomfited by the delay. Mboko, though, continually fidgeted, looking at the gold Rolex on his thin wrist from time to time and then glancing at the door to his boss’s office.
     Finally, the door swung open, and Kabo stood there in his dark suit, the dark stains still apparent at the armpits.
     “Mr. Ambassador, Miss Pinchon, please, do come in,” as if they’d just arrived, rather than being left cooling their heels for ten minutes.
     Kabo’s office was spartanly furnished. A simple gray metal desk, behind which sat a scuffed, leather-backed chair. Two similar chairs sat in front of the desk, and a plain wooden chair sat off to the side. On the wall behind his desk was a large framed photo of a youngish looking man in the green field uniform of the Nagandan army. The man’s face was dark brown, with broad brows, and an unsmiling expression. The walls were otherwise bare. A three-shelf bookcase sat in the corner. It contained several dusty green notebooks. Morgan couldn’t read the penciled labels. Kabo motioned them to the chairs in front of his desk and sat in his own chair. Mboko took the plain chair. On Kabo’s desk was a single sheet of paper. He fussed with it, aligning it precisely with the desk’s edge.
     After aligning the paper to his satisfaction, Kabo looked up at Morgan. “I hope, excellency that you had a restful weekend.”
     “I did,” Morgan said. “But, now I’m anxious to get to work.”
     “Ah, yes, but you understand that until you have presented your credentials to His Excellency, the head of state, you are forbidden to participate in public events? Speaking of which, you did remember to bring your letter of credence and other documents?”
     Morgan removed the documents from his briefcase and passed them to Kabo, who spent several minutes reading them. He then nodded.
     “Excellent,” he said. “Everything appears to be in order. Your diplomatic identification card will be issued within the next three days, and we will schedule the ceremony for presentation of your credentials as soon as possible.” He pushed the documents aside and stood. “Now, if you will come with me, we’ll go to the foreign minister’s office.”
     Morgan, Pinchon, and Mboko followed him to the stairwell. While Morgan and Pinchon followed Kabo upstairs, Mboko went down. “I’ll meet the two of you in the lobby when you’re finished,” he said over his shoulder as he went around the corner.
     On the top floor, they came out of the stairwell into a broad corridor that, instead of uneven wood slats like the others, was covered in a thick, red, yellow and green carpet. At the end of the carpet, a large Nagandan flag, with its red, yellow, and green stripes, hung from a brass pole. They walked toward the flag, ending their journey in front of double wooden doors in dark mahogany. Kabo rapped lightly on the doors, and then pushed them open. He stepped aside and motioned Morgan and Pinchon in.
     The foreign minister’s reception area was as large as Kabo’s entire office, reception area included. The secretary, a young, medium brown-skinned woman with her hair done in tight braids on her oval head, a bit too much lipstick on her thick lips, and her ample breasts nearly spilling out of the plunging neckline of the bright green dress she wore, sat behind a large dark brown wooden desk with brass fittings. She looked up and welcomed them with a broad smile.
     “Ah, excellencies, please be seated.” She pointed to a large, four-cushion leather sofa to the left of the door. “His excellency the minister will be with you shortly.”
     She then stood and disappeared through a door to her right, reappearing a moment later.
     “May I offer you coffee or tea?” she asked.
     Morgan declined. Not knowing how long the minister might keep him waiting, he didn’t want to risk having to go to the toilet – in fact, considering the condition of the building that he’d seen so far he didn’t want to risk having to use their facilities under any circumstances. Pinchon also declined, but Kabo asked for a cup of tea. The secretary turned to a cabinet behind her desk and poured dark, steaming liquid into a fine porcelain cup. She put the cup on a tray, added small containers of milk and sugar, and gave it to Kabo. He poured most of the milk and four teaspoons of sugar into the tea, put the tray on the coffee table at his right and, loudly slurping, began drinking.
     After three or four minutes, the small door opened. A large man, his shoulders almost as wide as the door opening, and his head less than an inch from the top of the door, dressed in a dark blue, finely tailored suit, pearl gray shirt, and red tie, stood there. He had a square head, thick, tightly curled hair, black, but flecked at the temples with gray, a thick beard and mustache, a wide nose, thick lips, and close-set eyes with yellowed whites and bloodshot. He looked like someone Morgan wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.
     “Mr. Ambassador,” he said in a booming voice. “Please, come in.”
     With Pinchon and Kabo trailing, Morgan followed the man into his office.
     It was even more sumptuous than the secretary’s office. The desk, made of some deep black wood, was six feet wide and four feet deep. He had a set of pens that Morgan was sure were gold, prominently displayed in the center. His chair was high-backed, carved of the same wood as the desk, with velvet pads on the armrests and seat. Two smaller versions of his chair sat in front of the desk. To the left were another version of the chair, and two small sofas covered in the same velvet fabric as his chair. A black wood oval coffee table sat in front of the sofas. On it was a silver tray containing a plate of cookies, a silver urn, and four porcelain cups. To the side were containers of sugar and milk. Silver spoons lay next to the four cups.
     “Excellency, may I present the American ambassador, David Morgan. You know, of course, Miss Pinchon,” Kabo said. “Ambassador . . . Miss Pinchon, His Excellency Gabriel Simbawashe, foreign minister of the Republic of Naganda.”

     Simbawashe’s huge hand swallowed Morgan’s as they shook. He motioned him to one of the sofas nearest the large chair. He then shook Pinchon’s hand, taking hers in both of his and leering down at her. She sat next to Morgan on the sofa.
     Simbawashe then sat, and for a long interval merely looked at Morgan, his square, dark face expressionless. Morgan looked back at him, equally without expression. Finally, Simbawashe smiled as if the two of them had shared some secret information.
     “Ambassador Morgan,” he said. Welcome to Naganda. I trust my staff has been taking good care of you?”
     Morgan nodded. “Yes, Mr. Kabo and his man . . . Cedric . . . met me at the airport. I have no complaints.”
     He knew at this point that he should be making small talk about how happy he was to be in Naganda, how beautiful the country was, and other mindless, meaningless junk. But, he hadn’t decided whether or not he was pleased, and so far, what he’d seen of the country had been anything but beautiful. Besides, he wasn’t very good at idle chitchat. Simbawashe didn’t seem to notice.
     “Very good – I’m happy to hear that.” The big head slowly bobbed up and down. “We will try to arrange your first meeting with the head of state as soon as possible. In the meantime, I trust you will honor protocol and avoid public appearances or public statements.”
     “I understand,” Morgan said. “I have quite enough work inside the embassy itself to keep me busy for a while.”
     Simbawashe leaned forward, raising a large dark hand, his index finger pointing at the ceiling. “There is one other thing, ambassador,” he said. “Your predecessor had an unfortunate habit of occasionally making public statements critical of our government – comments on how we should be doing things. We consider this to be unwarranted involvement in our domestic affairs, and would hope you’ll not fall prey to the same disease.”
     Morgan had no doubt that at some point he would make a statement – either public or directly to the government – that would piss them off. That was part of his job description as American ambassador. He wasn’t sure, though, whether he should make an issue of it before he’d even presented his credentials.
     “Mr. Minister,” he said. “When I was a little boy growing up in Maryland, my grandmother always told me that I should never try to teach a dog how to suck eggs. I’ve always followed her advice.”
     The minister’s brow furrowed. “I, uh, do not understand what you mean, ambassador,” he said. Then he scowled. “Is this some kind of American insult?”
     Morgan laughed softly. “Not all, minister. It’s an old folk saying that roughly means you shouldn’t try to teach people things that they know better than you do. I have no desire or intention to tell you how to run your government. That’s something for Nagandans to decide.”
     Simbawashe looked confused. Morgan knew he was trying to decipher the meaning of what he’d just said. “Good luck with that,” he thought. He’d managed to leave the door open to multiple interpretations of his response. The only part that was, to him, unambiguous, was the part about not telling the locals how to run their government. He would comment when he thought it necessary to advance U.S. interests, but, he was only a temporary visitor, and had always felt that outsiders stepped over the line when they tried to tell other people how to run things.
     Finally, Simbawashe smiled – if only faintly. “Very well, then,” he said. “I look forward to working with you.”