Monday, May 19, 2014

WIP: Chapter 5 of 'Dragonslayer'


     Senator Appleby had called it correctly. The Foreign Relations Committee had approved Morgan’s nomination and it had been quickly passed by the full senate on a voice vote. He was sworn in by the State Department’s director of protocol two days later, and a day later was on a plane, by way of Amsterdam, to Naganda. He hated flying – always had. At six feet tall, he never fit comfortably in the economy class seats. But, as an ambassador on the way to post for the first time, he was authorized to fly in business class. That meant more leg room, seats that reclined far enough to allow him to sleep, though fitfully, free-flowing drinks, and a choice of food served on real china rather than plastic plates.
     His flight from Dulles International Airport near Washington had landed in Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport at 6:00 pm, and he had eleven hours to kill before his 5:00 am departure to Mabuntu, so he’d put his carry-on bag in a locker, gone through the immigration checkpoint, and taken a taxi from the airport to Amsterdam’s famous red light district. He’d visited before, and the sex shops, peep shows, brothels, and prostitutes on display in red-lit windows didn’t really do anything for him. But, there was little else to do in the city after dark, but drink, dine, or chase after whores. He found after walking for a block through the infamous city center that he didn’t have the desire for drinking or whoring, and he’d eaten on the plane, so he wasn’t hungry, so he hailed a taxi and went back to the airport, where he walked through the airport’s hundreds of shops selling everything from Dutch cheese to French perfume to pornographic pictures for an hour, and then retrieved his bag and spent the three hours before boarding sleeping fitfully on one of the padded chairs in the departure area.
     As a business class passenger, he was among the first to board. His seat was near the front of the business class area, where he could see the even more sumptuous accommodations in first class. The stewardess, a buxom brunette with the name ‘Monika’ on the gold wing-shaped name tag over her left breast, served him a vodka tonic and a view of her cleavage as soon as he’d settled into his seat. The business class section only had four passengers, Morgan and three balding businessmen who immediately went to sleep as soon as the plane took off. The flight attendant, who introduced herself to Morgan as Monika Loewenthal, asked him if he wanted anything to eat. He passed on the food, but ordered another vodka tonic – and got another lingering view down the front of her blouse and a beaming smile.
     By the end of the nine-hour flight, Morgan had eaten one meal, drunk four vodka tonics, and exchanged addresses and phone numbers with Monika, who informed him that she flew the Amsterdam-Mabuntu flight three times a week and usually overnighted in Mabuntu on the third flight. Unfortunately, this was just the second flight – the third would be on Sunday, July 3d. Morgan asked her to call him when she came in. He expected to be relatively settled in his new residence by then, and wanted her to have dinner with him. Smiling enigmatically, she assured him that she would.
     As the pilot started the descent into the airport at Mabuntu, the other passengers in business class woke up, and Monika was busy preparing the cabin for landing. She gave Morgan’s arm a gentle squeeze as he got off the plane. There was promise in the warm, lingering gaze she gave him.    
     The warmth of Monika’s gaze was blasted away as soon as he stepped through the aircraft door and onto the wheeled landing ladder. The hot, humid air slammed against him like a two-hundred pound linebacker. A sour, fetid smell that he couldn’t identify mixed in with the biting odor of aviation fuel, almost making him gag. He wrinkled his nose and breathed slowly. It didn’t help much. He noticed that most of the passengers didn’t seem to notice either the heat or the odor – no doubt frequent visitors. The few first time arrivals were evident from their expressions, ranging from dismay to disgust, and the fact that many of them had put their hands over their noses. After the heat and smell, the next thing Morgan noticed was the noise. Not just the usual engine noise of an airport, but the incessant squawk of human voices. Vendors, airport workers – even other passengers – all talking nonstop, and at the top of their voices.
     At the bottom of the ladder, a skinny black man in an ill-fitting blue uniform motioned him toward a one-story building with a corrugated tin roof and green mold on its concrete walls. A door on the right had a crudely lettered sign over it that said, ‘Immigration and Customs.’ The passengers were all headed that way, so Morgan turned and followed.
     Inside the cramped room that housed Nagandan Immigration and Customs, the heat and odor was even more oppressive and the noise of people shouting into each other’s faces threatened to give Morgan a headache. The crowd seemed to be milling about as people crowded forward toward the three booths housing bored looking men in khaki uniforms. Morgan looked around in confusion. He’d been told that there would be someone from the embassy and the foreign ministry to meet him, but in the crush of the crowd he saw no one who seemed to fit that description. He shrugged and inserted himself into a knot of people edging toward the booth on the far right of the room, when he felt a tug at his sleeve.
     He turned to see a tall, medium brown skinned man with a severely receding hairline and upper front teeth that pushed against his thick lips standing there smiling at him. The man’s dark blue cotton suit was stained at the arm pits and neck from sweat. Morgan was wearing a tan, summer weight jacket over khaki pants and was already sweating. How anyone could wear a dark suit in this climate he didn’t understand.
     “Ambassador Morgan, sah?” the man asked.
     “Yes,” Morgan said. “That’s me.”
     The man smiled broadly, showing crooked and stained teeth.
     “Oh, very good, sah. I’m Cedric Mboko from the foreign ministry. May I have your passport and luggage claim checks please?”
     Morgan handed over the requested documents. Mboko motioned him to follow, and then began not so gently shoving people aside as they made their way around the edge of the crowd and to the booth on the right. Mboko showed Morgan’s black diplomatic passport and his own ID to the immigration officer who frowned and waved them through. They entered a darkened room with platforms to either side; behind which stood more bored looking men in khaki uniforms. Mboko nodded at them, and they ignored him.
     Pushing through a set of double doors, they emerged into the large entrance hall of the airport, an area that was more crowded, noisier, and smellier than anything Morgan had experienced to that point. He looked around at the packed, milling crowd, still breathing shallowly to minimize the odorous assault on his olfactory system. Off to the right, he saw a group of smiling white faces, standing out like neon signs in the sea of black faces. He smiled when he recognized Susan Pinchon, a broad shouldered woman who was only an inch shorter than his own six feet, her dark brown hair pulled back in a severe bun. The system had worked at light speed to get her orders published, and her transfer not only approved but implemented. With her were two white men, both shorter than she was. Then, an oval brown face emerged from behind one of the men – Mary Sung. She bounced up and down on her short, bowed legs, waving at Morgan. He waved back.
     “Ah,” Mboko said. “I see the people from your embassy over there. There is also Mr. Kabo, the America’s desk officer.”
     Morgan saw a very dark man, about Mary Sung’s height, dressed in a dark, three-piece suit, his bald head gleaming under the harsh sunlight filtering through the flyspecked glass of the large front windows, standing just to the right of the group of embassy people. So, he thought, this is my welcome party from the government – a flunky and the desk officer – this is getting off to a rollicking start.
     As they approached the group, Susan Pinchon stepped forward, holding out a hand, which Morgan grasped. Her handshake was warm, firm, and dry, and she looked at him with a welcoming gaze, a slight smile on her unadorned lips.
     “Welcome to Naganda, Mr. Ambassador,” she said in a deep, husky voice. “Let me introduce you to your welcoming party.” She moved over toward the small, dark man. “This is Mr. Jonathan Kabo, director of the foreign ministry’s Americas section.”
     The man proffered his small dark hand. His grip was weak, almost effeminate, and his palms were sweaty.
     “Your Excellency,” he said in a cultured British accent. “On behalf of His Excellency, Foreign Minister Gabriel Simbawashe, I would like to welcome you to the Republic of Naganda.”
     Morgan resisted wiping his hand after releasing the man’s grasp. “Thank you Mr. Kabo,” he said. “It is an honor to be in your country.”
     “You are no doubt tired after such a long flight from America,” Kabo said. “I will greet you more appropriately tomorrow morning at my office in the ministry. You will want to retire to your residence to rest up. Cedric will take care of the immigration formalities and your luggage.”
     Having made what Morgan took to be a set speech, Kabo stepped back, fixing Mboko with an icy stare.
     “Now, Mr. Ambassador, allow me to introduce the staff,” Pinchon said. She turned to the small group standing expectantly by. “This is Thomas Breedlove, the embassy political counselor.” A tall, angular man with his blond hair combed straight back on an oval, high browed head, stepped forward and shook Morgan’s hand. He had a firm, dry grip, but his blue eyes held no sign of welcome. “This gentleman is Colonel Liam Brennan, the defense attaché.” Brennan, a broad-shouldered man with sandy brown hair cut short in military style, and twinkling brown eyes, grasped Morgan’s hand in an almost crushing grip. “And, you know Mary Sung, of course.” Morgan took Sung’s small hand with both of his. She smiled up at him.
     “Nice to see you again, Mary,” he said.
     “You too . . . Mr. Ambassador,” she said. Her eyes glistened.
     “It’s nice to meet all of you,” Morgan said. “Thank you for coming to meet me.”
     Pinchon laid a hand on his arm. “You’ll want to go to the residence, of course,” she said. “Your car and driver are waiting outside. I’ll ride with you.” She turned to the others. “I’ll see the rest of you back at the embassy.”
     Morgan noticed a tightening of Breedlove’s jaw, and a flicker of emotion in his icy blue eyes.
     “Oh shit,” He thought. “I haven’t even unpacked, and already I sense dissension in the ranks.”
     This, though, wasn’t the time or place to deal with it. Besides, his body was silently screaming for a cold drink and a long nap after nearly a full day of travel.
     “Okay,” he said. “I guess I’ll see all of you at the embassy tomorrow.”
     He let Pinchon lead him through the milling crowd of people there to meet passengers or who were trying to sell trinkets to passengers and those meeting passengers alike.
     Inside the terminal, the heat, humidity and odor of oil, sweat, and the spices, flowers and fruit the vendors were hawking had been oppressive. When they exited the double glass doors into the glare of the West African afternoon sun, the heat and humidity soared, instantly soaking Morgan in a coating of uncomfortable sweat that caused his jacket to stick to his underarms and his pants to bunch up at his crotch. The smell at least was bearable thanks to a warm breeze coming from the west. It was, though, just as noisy – a cacophony of voices coming at him from all sides. Morgan clutched his briefcase to his side. In it he carried his Letters of Credence and Commission, which had to be presented to the head of state.
     Pinchon made her way expertly through the press of bodies, most of whom only stared in awe at the tall, dark brown man following the tall white woman. They made their way to the curb, an uneven slab of cracked gray concrete that was the same color as the terminal building, without the coating of gray-green mold. Sickly looking green shoots sprouted up from the cracks. Here and there, in little depressions in the sidewalk and the macadam street beyond, were red-orange puddles with grayish scum floating on them.
     If the scene inside the terminal could be called chaotic, outside on the bumpy street that had more potholes than macadam, with all manner of vehicles from army trucks to rickety looking jitneys overloaded with passengers carrying everything from children to chickens vying for space, horns blowing and drivers yelling at each other, was beyond chaos. In addition to the vehicles, all being driven at high speed as drivers jockeyed for position, pedestrians, including small children, darted across the street, narrowly missing being crushed by the oncoming vehicles.
     They walked along the sidewalk. A line of the colorful jitneys, pickups and jeeps with gaudily painted platforms erected behind the driver’s seat, were parked in front of the terminal. Finally, they came to a shiny black 1975 Lincoln Continental Sedan with two metal poles affixed to the front bumper on either side of the rectangular headlights. A tall, well-built black man, who looked like he could be a defensive guard for a professional football team, stood near the front. He was dressed in dark blue trousers that stretched over his muscular thighs, and a white shirt whose sleeves looked like his biceps and chest muscles would burst it at the seams. Square of jaw, with a prominent forehead and close cropped black hair, he had widely spaced eyes that, as Morgan got closer he could see were bloodshot and the whites were yellowish – a sure sign that the man had at some point in his life  had malaria, like more than half the population of Naganda.
     As Morgan and Pinchon approached, the man snapped to attention. His fleshy lips were stretched in a welcoming smile.
     “Mr. Ambassador,” she said. “May I introduce you to George Toko? He’s your driver. George has been the ambassador’s driver since the embassy first opened, and he’s one of the best drivers in Naganda.”
     “I am best driver in all of West Africa, mama,” Toko said simply. “Welcome to Naganda, pa.”
     Morgan looked at his deputy with a quizzical expression. “Mama? Pa?”
     She laughed. “It’s an expression of respect here,” she said. “People often address their superiors in that manner. I’ll admit it takes some getting used to, especially considering that George is ten years older than me. You’ll learn not to flinch when you hear it.”
     “Mr. Ambassador, sah,” Toko said. “I’m ready to take you to your residence.” He stepped around and opened the rear right passenger door, and stood at attention.
     Morgan shrugged. He was being bombarded with unfamiliar cultural norms along with everything else. As he’d learned in the army, though, it was best to relax and let things flow. He got in, placing his briefcase on the floor. Toko closed the door and ran around to open the other passenger door. Pinchon went around and got in next to him. When his passengers were seated, Toko reached in and took a small American flag from the front passenger seat and affixed it to the left pole, and then got behind the wheel and expertly wheeled away from the curb.
     As the car began moving, Morgan felt a blast of cold air, and he noticed that the interior of the vehicle had a slight pine smell. He took a deep breath.
     Pinchon laughed again. “In your car, in the office, and in your residence are the only places you can get away from the heat and smell. Again, though, yyou start not to notice it too much after a few days.”
     Morgan nodded and sat back in the seat, letting his head nestle in the headrest. He also noticed that it was quieter inside the car. He hoped the same would be true of his office and residence. The constant noise could really be distracting, and he didn’t think he’d ever become truly accustomed to it. Through the lightly tinted windows of the Lincoln he took in the scenery they passed. The traffic, once they left the airport, was even more chaotic, and included carts drawn by donkeys along with the motorized vehicles. Traffic policemen in dark blue uniforms stood at most of the intersections vainly trying to establish order, but no one paid them any attention. The pedestrian traffic was also heavier, with men carrying heavy loads on their backs or atop their heads, and many women in gaily colored wrap around dresses and headscarves, with even heavier loads on their heads, many also with infants strapped to their waists or backs.
     The architecture along the road from the airport was a mixture of colonial buildings, most of gray stone or brick covered in gray-green mold, and huts with thatch or corrugated tin roofs. Many of the huts had little gardens beside them being tended by young girls wearing only skirts, their dark, bare breasts, glistening with sweat, swinging as they worked.
     After twenty minutes driving the road angled upward and the buildings thinned out. A few thatch huts stood in the middle of fields with limp, brownish green plants dotting them. Most of the huts had cook fires outside, being tended by young girls or elderly looking women, all with their upper bodies bare. In one vacant field, a group of boys were playing soccer on the uneven ground. They stopped and stared as the black limo passed. Naked infants played in the dirt surrounding the huts. Chickens and sickly looking yellow dogs picked in the piles of garbage that dotted the roadside, scattering as the car neared, only to return to their foraging as soon as it passed.
     As the road got steeper, it also wound like a serpent through thick broad leaf trees that formed a canopy over it, plunging it into dark shade.
     They came out of the trees near the top of a hill. Ahead, Morgan saw a tall stone wall, topped by concertina wire. Toko turned right onto a gravel surfaced road that led toward a massive iron gate. As they approached, the gate swung inward and a guard, dressed in dark blue, stepped out and stood to the side. A soldier wearing a green field uniform, with an AK-47 over his shoulder stepped out and stood to the other side. As they passed, both men saluted. Morgan’s military instincts kicked in. He returned the salutes. Both men smiled broadly. Pinchon smiled and nodded.
     Then Morgan turned his attention to the view through the car’s front window. They were approaching a sprawling white stone building that looked like several cubes had been randomly set on the hillside and stitched together. The roof was green corrugated iron. The grounds around the building were a profusion of trees and tropical plants, none that Morgan recognized.
     Toko expertly wheeled the car around, stopping in front of a large, covered porch with a tile floor. He got out and opened the door for Morgan. Pinchon got out of the other side.
     “Welcome to Signal Hill,” she said.
     “That’s a strange name for an ambassador’s residence,” Morgan said.
     “That’s the name of this area. This house was the home of the colonial governor. He had a cannon up here that was used to signal whenever the colony had problems or came under attack – or so I’m told. It just seemed right that we keep the tradition by calling the residence by the same name.”
     More culture to absorb, Morgan thought. It did have a nice ring to it, though.
     The massive front door of the residence swung open, and two men and a woman emerged. One man was dressed in the same outfit as Toko, but wearing a white apron around his waist. The other man wore a set of blue overalls. The woman wore a black dress with a starched white collar. They beamed broad smiles of welcome, but remained silent.
     Morgan shot a querying look at Pinchon.
     “This is your residential staff,” she said. She motioned them forward. “This is the new ambassador. Sir, this is Matthew John Nkomo, your cook.” The man with the apron bowed. “Mariama Bandu is your housekeeper.” The woman curtsied. “And, last but not least, your gardener, William Toko. William is George’s younger brother.” The gardener bowed.
     “Welcome, sah,” they said in unison.
     “You can sign the new work contracts with them when you come into the embassy next week.” Pinchon said. “For now, they’re being paid by the embassy admin section. You’ll find an information packet in your master bedroom. It has the embassy main switch, my personal number, and other information about Naganda. Unless you wish, we’ll leave you to decompress for the weekend and George will pick you up to come into the eembassy Monday morning.”
     “That sounds fine to me,” Morgan said. “I am a little bushed from the flight. But, before you go back to the embassy, could I have a private word with you.”
     “Yes, sir.” She turned to Toko. “I’ll be a few minutes, George.”
     The household staff stood aside as Morgan and Pinchon entered. Inside, the place was cool, and the dark wood floors gleamed. He’d been shown photographs of the furniture, and everything was just as the pictures had shown. Later, he would put in some private art work, as well as the official artwork provided by the Arts in Embassy program of the State Department’s Foreign Buildings Office. At first glance, though, the place looked fine as it was.
     They walked through the entrance foyer and into a cavernous room that had small groupings of settees and chairs with small occasional tables placed around the walls. Off to the right, he knew, was the official dining room and kitchen. To the left were his study, and the bedrooms – the master bedroom, which was his personal living space, and three guest bedrooms.
     “Where can we have some privacy?” he asked.
     “The study is the first room on the left,” she said. “That’s where you’ll usually do your pull-asides during receptions.”
     “Sah, would you and madam like a cup of tea or something light to eat?” Nkomo asked.
     “I think tea would be fine,” Morgan said. “I ate on the plane, so I’m fine until supper.”
     The cook darted off to the right. Morgan followed Pinchon to the left and into the first door on the left. The study was small, only in comparison to the reception area. He’d seen general’s offices that were smaller. It had dark curtains over the window, and thick carpet on the floor. The dark, wood panel walls were as polished as the floor outside. A large oak desk sat on the left, and behind it was a high-back leather chair. Across from the desk were a small sofa, two occasional chairs, and an oval coffee table. Pinchon left the door open. Morgan motioned her to the sofa. He sat on one of the chairs facing her. Almost immediately, Nkomo entered carrying a large, round silver tray containing a silver urn, two teacups with saucers, a sugar bowl and a small container of milk. The cups, saucers and containers were of translucent china and were embossed with the Great Seal of the United States. Nkomo put the tray on the coffee table and quietly withdrew, pulling the door shut as he left.
     “What did you want to discus, sir?” Pinchon asked.
     “First, when we’re in private, can the sir,” he said. “I’m David, or Dave, and you’re Susan. You and I have to work closely together and trust each other. I find that too much formality can inhibit progress.”
     “Okay, David it is.”
     “Good. Now, the other thing,” he said. “At the airport, I sensed a little tension between you and Breedlove. What’s that all about?”
     Her face hardened momentarily, then she took a deep breath. “I’d hoped you wouldn’t notice that. It’s nothing I can’t handle, but I suppose you do need to know. Tom is old school Foreign Service, and considers himself something of an Africa expert. He resents working for a woman – feels that the DCM job is beyond my capability merely because of my gender. He also doesn’t think someone without years of experience on the continent should be in a leadership position here.”
     “I suppose that will include me as well.”
     Her eyes went wide. “Oh my goodness – how stupid of me not to have thought of that. Now that you mention it though, I suppose that’s so. Do you think it’ll be a problem?”
     “Like you, I don’t think it’s something I can’t handle. I had similar situations when I was in the army. Of course, it’s ultimately up to him. If he produces, I really don’t care much what he thinks. We’ll just have to see. You know, though, that you can come to me if you have a problem you can’t deal with on your own.”
     Her expression softened. “Thanks, David. That’s good to know. But, I think I can handle Tom. I grew up with four brothers, two older and two younger. I managed them, and they were a lot tougher than he would ever hope to be.”