Special thanks to blackrandi for the invitation to participate in “The Magical Mystery Tour. A country song, “Hell on Heels,” left me with an itch to write this particular story. It wouldn’t leave me alone until it was finished. I’ve included other “Thanks” at the end.
I’m no hero, at least not now.
The last time I did anything brave was a long time ago. Fourth grade, actually. There was a girl in my grade named Cindy Van Dyke. Not popular, not well dressed and not well off. She’d probably never be pretty. Her red hair was dark and, dull, hardly ever washed. She had freckles; not the cute dusting across the nose some girls had. They were stark blotchy ugly things on a pallid smooshed mean-looking face.
It was on one of those blustery fall days where the damp wind came up extra cold, the kind where nobody’s parents had them jacketed quite heavily enough, so we clung close to the school during recess to stay out of the harshest part of the wind. That kind of concentration of fourth graders reaches critical mass quickly.
For whatever reason, Cindy Van Dyke somehow became the focus of a random rush of grade school cruelty.
I don’t really remember the exact nature of the Cindy Contagion, but I do remember that if you wanted to remain uncontaminated, you had to stay off whatever 8 x 6 block of broad playground concrete she was on. The effect was like a reverse magnet, hordes of fourth graders rushing to evacuate to safe places, leaving a miserable Cindy surrounded by a bubble of loneliness. I have no idea what possessed me to stand my ground as she trudged toward me, a cloud of misery hovering around her. Maybe at first I was playing the game, too, and by staying in place I was showing I wasn’t afraid of our newly-minted Typhoid Mary. If so, it didn’t last past a single look at her downcast eyes.
I had been singled out just a couple months before for the crime of wearing a t-shirt with the Butterfinger candy bar logo on it. I’d suffered my sentence of carrying “Butterfingers” as my nickname for a month. As if life isn’t tough enough at that age when you are already named Calvin Pickmann. I’d shaken those chains off and gone back to my given name just a week ago.
So as she stepped onto my block, when I was supposed to jump clear, I just stood there and said, “Hey.”
She watched me warily for some clever trick; she knew how the game was played, too. She couldn’t believe anyone would defy the will of the Horde. After a minute, she nodded, and I went back to rearranging pebbles for some mystic fourth grade reason.
I could feel the communal outrage build as the Horde realized in its dim emotional collective conscience that I was refusing to play along. There was a slow but certain realization that I’d have to be punished, at the very least ostracized, along with her. I was, as they say, well and truly fucked. I’d even done it fully knowing the consequences.
My salvation came in the form of another redhead: Laura, a skinny fearless copper-wire-haired bucktoothed fury in slightly ragged clothes. She’d never been a friend before, barely had two words for me in our five years as classmates. Maybe she really stepped in as a member of the Secret Redhead Mutual Aid Society. Regardless of the reason, the equation changed as soon as she stepped onto that forlorn block of concrete desert with us. Laura was nobody to trifle with. She had an explosive redhead temper and long sharp nails that she wouldn’t hesitate to bring into play. Many of our classmates had felt her wrath.
She glared around with blazing forest-green eyes at the suddenly cowed mob, daring them to do or say one goddamned thing.
The nasty energy of the mob evaporated in the inferno heat of her stare. Kids were suddenly drifting away, finding other things to do, leaving the three of us standing uncomfortably on our stronghold. Cindy glanced around, not quite sure what to make of her rescue and hastily retreated to the safety of the space near the classroom door, where there was real teacher overwatch. She would disappear after the end of the school year. Moved to Ohio, I think someone said. I don’t remember for certain. I remember hoping she fared better there. I really did.
Laura and I just stood ignoring each other for a long while. She finally gave me a curt nod and headed toward the foursquare area where her friends were waiting. Later that year, Laura would mark my arm with her nails in a rather one-way discussion over the use of a jungle gym, but compared to the usual way she dealt with interlopers into her chosen domain, it was rather mild.
We weren’t friends, not really, but we nodded to each other in passing.
Absolutely unable to suppress her, the popular girls brought her into their fold; although she never seemed as cruel and heartless as the rest of the Amy-Angie popular-girl crew tended to be. For my part, I trudged along in my hand-me-down clothes with my nose buried in whatever book I’d dug out of the school library.
Laura didn’t go through puberty, she exploded through it in epic style. By the end of 8th Grade, her frizzled carrot mop had turned to exquisite red-gold silk, buck teeth turned into a brilliant 1000-watt smile, and her figure ... well suffice to say it looked like the boob fairy had decided there was no such thing as too much of a good thing. Somewhere along the way, she changed her ragged clothes for the fashionable kind. She’d immediately been swept into the Cheerleader-and-Jock world of the beautiful, while I had slogged into the lower end “Brains” category as we felt our way into, and then through, high school.
I actually managed not to completely screw up High School. I passed with pretty good, though not great, grades, and I’d had a for-real, all-the-way girlfriend, named Keri, until her parents packed up and took her to Colorado with them right after my Senior Prom.
By the time we graduated High School, my fourth grade heroics were long forgotten, and I’d probably said two sentences to Laura in the last three years. Partly because no sane girlfriend would want her boyfriend talking to the most beautiful girl anyone could imagine, and partly because Laura moved in different circles. Once in a while, passing each other in the hallway, we’d say “Cal” and “Laura” to each other, but nothing more. Sometimes I would look at her and it was like we caught each other looking, both hastily looking away. Even thinking about her was probably dangerous. She had a college boyfriend with a black Trans Am, for God’s sake. I think the boyfriend actually changed out occasionally, but they were hard to tell apart. For all I knew it was the same car.
I’d decided to skip college, mostly due to a distinct lack of money for such things, and had continued working at the auto parts store where I’d been for the last two years. Six months of that, though, and when the Army recruiter told me about how I could finagle college out of a four-year enlistment, I decided to give them a shot. I’d be getting on the bus to basic training on the 2nd of January. I had no great dreams, but I scored big on the test for learning languages, and I’d asked to be a Chinese linguist. I’d heard it translated to a lot of college credits.
For my last hurrah, I decided to attend Joe Pedone’s New Year’s Eve party. He was a year older than me and had “the cool parents” who, since the year he turned sixteen, simply disappeared for about three days before and a week after New Year’s, giving him plenty of time to plan, execute and clean up. Needless to say, this time was not wasted. He had the craziest parties, or so I’d heard. Having a full-time girlfriend whose idea of celebrating New Years was much more intimate had prevented me from joining the festivities, before.
Of course, I’d run into problems. My cousin needed help moving to his new house and I’d been roped in, under the pretext of him seeing me one last time before basic training, of course. So, after an 18-hour day, I made it to the party after it’d been in full swing for a couple of hours, and I was completely wiped out. I managed one rum and coke, then asked him if I could lie down for a half hour in one of the guest rooms. He gave me a solemn promise to send someone in to get me in 30 minutes.
I basically missed the whole damn party. As raw morning light filtered in through my eyelids, I shifted and someone spoke in a hushed tone.
“Where’s your shirt?”
I managed to blink one eye open and looked to my left. A single sparkling green eye was visible through the mass of golden red hair resting on my bare chest.
I squeezed my eyes shut for a second and re-opened them, sharpening the image a bit.
“Unless you have a Rolling Stones Bridges to Babylon concert T-shirt of your own, you’re wearing it.”
There was a brief pause as she swiveled her head a bit and lifted to look between us.
“Huh. Okay. Then where’s my shirt...” shift “ ... and bra” another shift “and pants.”
At that point I realized my left hand was resting on a very firm, apparently completely bare butt, and one of her long legs was draped luxuriantly across mine. I kept my hand right where it was, so as to not draw attention to it, of course.
Seriously. I knew that voice. I still had scars on my arm from crossing her at the jungle gym all those years ago.
At least I was still wearing boxers, although I had no idea where my jeans had gone. She moved to get more comfortable, bringing an awful lot of bare inner thigh into contact. At least she hadn’t exploded yet.
I must’ve returned to the party and gotten completely obliterated, although I didn’t have the splitting headache or what I would later think of as a latrine-floor taste in my mouth that I so clearly remembered from the previous few times I’d had too much to drink. All in all, the gods had been kind.
Now, I had to figure out how to get out of this alive.
The times I’d seen Laura with boyfriends, they roughly resembled the more powerful of the great apes. They’d just gotten even bigger and meaner looking since she’d started college. Even they would only become a problem if I survived Laura’s epic temper. I kind of figured out what happened though.
Good old Joey Pedone had a sense of humor.
If you passed out at one of his parties, he’d shave your eyebrows, mark you up with permanent marker, or, if stories were true, you might wake up naked in bed with another guy who’d passed out, or this. Funny, Joey, really funny, setting me up to be mangled, or worse, by one of Laura’s college football players.
She shifted her head to clear the other eye so I could see both of them. “Mmmm?”
“I think Joey got the drop on us. I don’t remember getting drunk, but I was really tired and must’ve passed out. I’m guessing you did the same.”
“Yeah. Seems like it.”
She pulled herself partly up and leaned across my chest a bit to squint at the clock on the bedside table. Accidently bringing her set of Destroyer-class breasts into full contact with me.
She twisted her lips in a curious moue. “It’s nine o’clock. The damage is done, there’s no way anyone is going to believe we weren’t in here screwing all night.”
She didn’t even seem really pissed by that.
She was silent for a long moment, still resting on my chest. Then:
“Heard you’re headed off to the Army.”
“Yeah, on the bus tomorrow.”
“Still a hero, huh?”
My confusion must’ve been obvious. I was a lot of things, but hardly a hero.
“Fourth grade. You stood up to everybody in fourth grade at one time. To protect somebody that nobody even liked. You’re the only hero I’ve ever really met.”
I laughed. “I was stupid, if you hadn’t showed up, I’d have been ostracized for the rest of my life. You’re the hero.”
She shook her head. “I did the right thing because you showed what it was.”
I was about to respond until she abruptly pulled herself up on top of me, straddling me.
I started to object, but she ground down against me and I lost the capacity for speech.
She smiled her unbelievably brilliant smile. “Everybody is going to assume we were doing this all night, anyway, no matter what we claim.”
She peeled the t-shirt off over her head in one motion. She was absolute perfection, even more spectacular than I’d imagined. That really is something; a nineteen-year-old’s imagination is fueled purely by Playboy and hormones.
The next couple of hours were spent doing what everyone would believe we were doing anyway. It was about as much fun as you can have in bed, on the floor or over a chair. Actually, that’s how we managed to find our clothes under the chair.
Laura didn’t seem to care who knew what we were up to, she was gleefully vocal; if anyone in the house had any doubts about what we were doing, she dispelled them quickly, and frequently.
We lay there, tangled together for a long while.
Her voice was almost a whisper, as if she was talking in church. “I came here on purpose, Cal. I had to do this once. Had to break Mom’s rules and try out a real guy, someone who cares about someone other than himself.”
I looked at Laura, but her eyes were downcast. “What do you mean... ‘Mom’s rules’?”
She grimaced and started talking, muffled and sad. Her mom had married her great love, a great guy who would do anything for her, but he’d been thoughtlessly laid off, lost his job when Laura was in second grade. A banner year for the company, the executives made massive bonuses after all; but they’d had to “restructure” and “downsize a few departments.” Laura’s father drifted from part time job to part time job, unable to find anything better until the stress crushed him. He had a massive coronary in the parking lot of a fast food burger joint. He’d just finished his night shift sweeping factory floors and was trying to be on time for his morning shift at the local McDonald’s. Laura’s tone was bitter. He’d died trying to take care of them.
After years in low-rent housing, struggling to keep a life going for them, even spending a year in a shelter, Laura’s mom, almost as beautiful as Laura, had re-married for money. “Love doesn’t keep a roof over your head,” she’d told Laura.
When we finally got dressed, we walked out through a hung-over crowd that watched us with one collective eyebrow raised.
Laura stopped at the door and gave me a lingering kiss. She whispered, “Stay a hero.”
Then she was gone.
I discovered a lot about myself in the Army. Basic training sucks. The most important thing a drill sergeant teaches you is that no matter how pessimistic you are, you’re actually even more worthless than you think.
I also discovered that when you sign up for a language, that’s exactly what you are doing, signing up for: “a language” not “the language” that you thought you were choosing. I didn’t even know Shona was a language, much less that it centered in Zimbabwe. Hell, I didn’t know that Rhodesia had officially changed its name to Zimbabwe. Just another victim of the public school system. It also meant that my clever idea of going to language school in California so I could surf was out the window. Shona was taught in a grim contract school in Virginia.
After I finished training, I was off to Fort Bragg as a brand new Private First Class. I should have spent the next year learning how to be a soldier, but I was immediately sent to support a Special Forces team on a six-month pump in Africa. I didn’t think I’d done much more than stay out of the way, but a letter of commendation reached my unit before I even got back. It quickly became a pattern: six months in Africa, more language training in other African languages, and another six months and so on.
Three years of being loaned to every Special Forces team with missions in Africa set my course, and I finally applied for Airborne School, then the “Q” course, the Special Forces selection course. If I was going to be doing this anyway, I might as well get all the training. It sure as hell wasn’t easy, and it gave me a new respect for the guys I’d been working with.
For the next seven years, I spent about half my time in Africa, mostly trying not to stop a bullet or catch something incurable, while I used the time to finish my degree in Corporate Security. I learned more and more about the rivalries, connections and dynamics of Africa. I imagined myself becoming part of the web, becoming part of Africa. I was “that guy,” the guy that spoke the languages, understood the people. The guy that reminded everyone that, “It’s Africa, that’s the way it goes.”
I’d probably have worked there for the rest of my career, untangling the knot of Africa, until I went to the market. I was looking for trinkets for family members, some food for the team house, nothing really important. I was really just killing some time; I’d just finished my degree before returning for the pump, and for the first time in a long time, I had no reading to do, no papers to worry about. My weekends were my own for a change.
I was probably a hundred feet away when I saw her. She was young; she was terribly young, and very, very, pregnant. It was the eyes though, that caught me, the soft, warm, brown, African eyes that I’d always thought were so special, so much the thing about Africa that I’d always remember. Her eyes were different: empty, hollow. All that remained in them was the vacant stare of the dead.
She saw me, looked into my eyes and she knew that I knew.
I know I yelled, know I tried, but it made no difference at all. A young girl, kidnapped from her school by self-serving religious fanatics, tortured, abused and brainwashed. She was little more than a weapon by the time I saw her. Maybe, with time and effort, somebody could have recovered that lost girl, but there was no time.
The explosion of the suicide vest slammed fragments through the packed crowd. I was unharmed. The layers of almost a hundred innocent victims, men, women and children, between us had absorbed the fragments. I helped the ones that I could.
I was physically unharmed, but hardly unscathed. The cynicism that I wore as armor had shredded in that single eternal stare. I wasn’t part of Africa after all, and I never could be. No matter how long I stayed, I’d always be a visitor, always be an outsider.
I dropped my plans for re-enlistment and put out my resume.
I barely had it out before the corporate headhunters started calling. Special Forces experience combined with the degree in Corporate Security was a very attractive combination for many companies. Maybe an occasional visit to Africa, usually to a nice hotel, five times my pay and a plush office against ten more years of pumps to every disease and insurgent-infested corner of Africa; it really wasn’t much of a challenge to pick the winning hand in this game. Maybe, someday, if I was lucky, I’d even forget those eyes.
The winner, at least to me, was Qantic Services Inc.; they’d opened a new satellite office outside the Highway 35 loop of Dallas, and they were planning some business operations in Africa in the future. A Security Manager with some experience in Africa was just about perfect for them: they couldn’t justify hiring a full time “Africa Expert” by himself, but my role in Security allowed them to keep the expertise on hand and still have me working full-time. I’d provide a bit of advice on Africa while “managing” facility security. It didn’t feel like a “manager’ position; there was no team to manage, but more of a security coordinator. I “owned” personnel security, but the guard force and computer security weren’t mine, even though I had to work with them.
I moved in the week before I started, choosing a “singles” apartment not too far from my new workplace. I noticed a few pretty girls around the pool when I moved in, and a couple of them noticed me right back, so at least I had some off work-hour prospects. I decided that would have to wait until I got settled in to work.
The management board was fairly typical, mostly corporate drones, a lawyer, and Alan Daniels, the director of the new division, and the son of the CEO. His father was preparing him to take over the whole thing. I got the impression he felt he was out of his depth, that maybe he felt like he wasn’t up to the task of being his father’s heir. He had an air of desperate desire to be something, anything. Still, he seemed like a nice guy, and he spent a couple minutes greeting me and talking about his fiancée, a woman named Karen whom he’d met at a horse show.
The board quickly welcomed me and handed me off to Human Resources. The head of Human Resources was Bethany, who reminded me of my ninth grade English teacher, a graying, but sharp woman with a wry sense of humor. She handed me my personnel paperwork and led me to my new office, a bit smaller and more cookie cutter than I’d dreamed, but better than a cubicle.
I wasn’t there ten minutes before the phone rang.
“Hey, this is Jessie with IT. Bethany says we gotta set you up with an account on the system. Like, today. You got a minute?”
“Sure. Where are you?”
“Bring your in-processing papers. Go out of your office, turn right. Take the green corridor to the light blue, go left and walk until you reach lemon yellow. My office is the first on the right.”
“Welcome to Crayola Land!”
Three colors and a near miss on dark yellow and I walked into her office. A pixie-ish woman with bright green hair and matching lipstick peered at me through green-framed glasses past her computer screen. Her blue eyes sparkled, and she smiled broadly. “Hey! You made it.”
“How do colorblind people get around here?”
“I sneak out and leave cookie crumb trails. You’d be taking snickerdoodles to chocolate chip to peanut butter.” She grinned mischievously, then launched into a horrible parody of a German accent, sticking her hand out. “Your papers! Ve must haf your papers!” I handed them over and watched her hands blaze over the keyboard.
She glanced down at the papers. “Not married ... you got a girlfriend?”
“No time, just got here. Moved into my apartment a week ago”
She wrinkled her nose like a bunny for a second. “Steak then.”
“I was going to flirt with you until you asked me out, but that could take half an hour, and I have a lot to get done. It would work, though. Once you asked me out, we’d have to go out for coffee, then a casual date of some kind. After that you’d want to take me to a good restaurant, and you’d want to make a good impression, so you’d ask me what kind of place I’d want to go. I figured we could fast forward through that stuff. So, steak.” She flashed an impish smile.
I held my hands up in surrender. “Okay, you figured out my plan. What time?”
“Six thirty. We’ll walk, there’s a new place that just opened up about three blocks from your apartment.”
This felt distinctly like a set-up. “Where do I pick you up?”
“Three floors down, apartment six. I watched you move in.”
I squinted at her. “The girl by the pool. In the blue bikini.”
Her suppressed giggle managed to burst out. “The bikini you found so interesting that you didn’t remember my face.”
“Hey, you had on huge sunglasses and that big hat.” There hadn’t really been very much to the bikini, which was why it was so interesting, to be honest.
“Yeah, yeah, I saw what you were looking at, and it wasn’t my hat.” She gave me a sideways smile to let me know she wasn’t offended.
That was the start of a lot of good times. Jessie was a Dallas native and knew every fun place to go. She’d lived in Austin for a while, which explained the hair. It didn’t stay green, it changed often, and her lipstick and glasses changed with it. Stay weird, Austin, stay weird. She wasn’t shy, and she didn’t have any problems letting me know when she was interested in spending the night. She was honest and made it clear that she wasn’t interested in a real relationship right from the start. She even admitted she was more into women than men, and that I was something of a break from “all the drama.”
Conventional relationships just weren’t her thing at all, but she only dated one guy or one girl at a time; while the logic didn’t seem quite straight-forward to me, it suited her quirky personality, and frankly, I was just having a good time anyway.
I didn’t really have time for a full-time relationship, anyway. I’d only been at Qantic six weeks before I was called down to the CEO’s main office in the heart of Dallas.
After waiting an extra half hour, I was shown in to meet him.
He was an older man in a five-thousand-dollar suit with a perfect tan, perfect teeth and a snow white perfect head of hair. He looked like he belonged in a movie or on a golf course. He got up and walked around the desk to meet me as a I walked in, taking my hand in a perfect handshake, gripping just hard enough to show no sign of weakness, just light enough not to be overly aggressive. “Calvin. Welcome aboard.”
“Thank you, Sir. Glad to be here.”
“Good to hear. How are you settling in?”
“I’m doing well, the office is good, and my co-workers are friendly.” In Jessie’s case, extremely friendly.
“That’s good. Have a seat.” He gestured to one of the chairs in front of his desk and sat in one opposite it.
He made small talk for a few more minutes before getting to the point. “I need you go to Kinshasa and make arrangements for meetings. We’ll get you a contact list. This is just to lay the groundwork with businessmen and a few government officials. There’s a lot of potential there; untapped resources, and we really need to set up contacts and get in on the ground floor.”
I kept a polite smile on my face. “That’s what they say.”
It was what “they” had been saying for decades. There was a running joke among a lot of “Africa hands” that Africa was the wealth of the future “and always would be.” Africa might have wealth, but it was far harder to exploit than all the businessmen ever dreamed. Safety, corruption, dysfunctional economics, and crime all created an atmosphere that always seemed to conspire to prevent the promise of Africa from paying off, especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic aka the DROC and the CAR. Hell, some kind of industrial chemical spill had killed nearly three hundred people along the Bangui River in the CAR just a few months before I’d left the Army; all that anyone had done was shrug and say, “It’s Africa, that’s the way it goes.”
Still, it was going to pay the bills, so I smiled, and decided to go along, making arrangements for mid-level executive meetings. Some of the businessmen were almost certain to be con men, but that wasn’t my end, everybody seemed happy, and it all seemed pretty small scale, so Qantic could easily absorb any financial losses.
As I was getting ready to leave, a tall stone-faced man came in unannounced.
Daniels nodded to him. “Calvin, this is Philips. He’s my Chief of Security and he represents me when things go wrong.”
I extended my hand, but he just stood there and didn’t respond.
“Philips is a bit of a germaphobe. He really doesn’t like to be touched.”
I nodded to him. “Nice meeting you.”
He only responded with a curt nod and I left thinking he was one of the creepiest men I’d ever met.
The trips broke up the monotony of security programs and paperwork, so between Jessie and the coordinating trips, I certainly wasn’t bored. Jessie always had me bring back mementos of the trips from Africa.
Along with employment came social obligations. Mr. Daniels was adamant that everyone from the janitors on up make it to at least four of the eight “corporate mixers” that he had every year; it was written into the employee handbook and reinforced frequently. They actually sent out RSVP cards and secretaries and office managers chased down answers. Bethany hinted, and Jessie confirmed, that more was better. If you were out of town on business, that was fine, just make a note of it in your “Regrets” response, but if you had any chance of making it to the mixers at all, you should take it. Mr. Daniels was at every one of them and he remembered every employee who showed up, and that reflected in the end of year bonuses. Since four of the gatherings were barbeques, two were semi-formal and only two formal, most people could find four they could tolerate.
I figured I’d better attend all I could, and decided to drag Jessie along if possible, at least that way it wouldn’t be boring. I brought it up while we ate at a new Thai place Jessie had discovered.
“I’m going to the Fourth of July Barbeque, are you interested?”
She shrugged, her fluorescent purple hair bouncing. “I could be. It’s more a family event, but they rent out the whole resort, the rooms are free, and the food is always amazing. The only problem is that you have to participate in some of the events to go.”
“I really need to hit as many of these mixers as I can, and I can’t think of a better game partner than you.”
She flashed me a smile. “I already looked up the events. I think we can place in the rock wall race, because only one couple has signed up. I’m pretty good at trivia, so if I con Bethany and her husband into teaming up with us, we have a shot at not looking like idiots there. He’s a history professor and wicked smart at trivia.”
“We need one more event, right?”
“Not the thirty second hot dog eating contest. I got talked into that last year. I won, but I not only got sick, I got propositioned by every jackass with a dick for six months.”
“Well that explains why you are so good...”
“Shut up.” She glowered at me in mock fury.
“Okay. Got it. So how about the Mud Run obstacle course race? It’s the big event, it’s on a Sunday and the rock wall race is Saturday morning, so we’ll have time to recover.”
“I’m too short for the walls.”
“I’ve done a lot of obstacle courses; it’s practically an art form in the Army. I know some tricks for walls.”
She shrugged. “It’s messy, but it might be fun. You sure you will be there? I don’t want to be left hanging.”
“I should be back at least three weeks before, I’m only going for two weeks this time. This whole thing is probably a waste of money on their part, but I’m doing my best and I’m getting paid.”
“Did you tell them it seems pointless?”
I finished my bite of Pad Thai noodles. “I did, I thought I was pretty circumspect, and I sent a nice polite note up the chain. The only one that responded was Philips. He basically told me to shut up and do what I’m told.”
“I’ve only met him a couple times. He makes my skin crawl. Never says anything, just stares and looks at me like I’m an insect. I don’t even know what he really does; none of the security people report to him.”
“I know some of the meetings I’ve set up in the CAR and DROC are for him, but that’s all.”
Jessie spooned some Jungle Curry onto her rice. “I know he reports only to Mr. Daniels.”
“I just don’t trust him. All the stuff I’ve gotten from him seems ... I don’t know, ‘condescending,’ maybe.”
“Probably just an asshole. You’re the new guy who’s done that cool Special Forces stuff, maybe he’s just jealous.”
I watched our mangos and sticky rice arrive. “Just doesn’t feel right.”
Our conversation turned back towards the Fourth of July mixer.
I did get back in time. Jessie and I came in second on the rock wall race out of five couples, but, honestly, two of them were doing it because everything else was full. Jessie turned out to be right about the Trivia contest. It wasn’t even close. I managed to answer two whole questions, and Bethany about five, but Jessie and Howie, Bethany’s husband, pretty much ran away with the competition, while we all drank too much and ate dry-aged steaks that must have cost fifty bucks apiece.
Despite her serious demeanor at work, after a couple drinks, Bethany turned out to be hilarious. I asked her if she and Howie intended to run the Mud Race, Bethany rolled her eyes, snickering. “I can’t believe you’re asking me that! Have you looked at the obstacles?”
“The walls aren’t all that bad.”
“Screw the walls. It’s the crawl-through pipes. There’s no way in hell I’m getting this forty-two-inch ass through a thirty-six-inch pipe!”
Jessie, a little more than half lit, began giggling uncontrollably. “Howie could get behind you and push.”
“Oh yeah, I know how that would go. If I get stuck in a pipe and he gets a hand on each of my hips, helping me get loose will be the last thing on his mind.”
“Ride ‘em Cowboy!” Jessie spun an invisible lasso over her head, grinning from ear to ear.
Bethany choked on her drink for a second. “That’d be the last year we’re allowed to attend!” Her eyes widened. “Hey, maybe we’ll do it the year I retire.”
“Go out with a bang!” Jessie howled. Howie nodded agreeably and both women worked their way up to breathless laughter.
I shook my head. “Sorry I asked.”
Howie gave a half smile. “I keep forgetting to keep the two of them apart when they get to drinking. They feed off each other.”
“I can see that.”
He smiled fondly over at his wife for a second, then turned towards me. “Bethany tells me you’re the Africa Expert as well as the Security Manager. Said Daniels himself chose you.”
“Alan’s a pretty good guy, but I think the board probably identified me.”
He pursed his lips, puzzled. “No, I’m sure she said it was the old man, not Alan.”
I started to ask, but Jessie fell back against me laughing wildly at something Bethany had said. Howie held his hand up. “Sorry, Cal, but I think we need to rope these two in and get them to bed before they go overboard.”
Bethany grabbed his hand. “Come on, let’s go practice that pushing technique.” He shrugged helplessly as she dragged him away.
I half carried Jessie up, and put her on the bed while I brushed my teeth. I was just thinking about Howie’s confusion when I heard a noise behind me. Jessie stalked towards me, dropping her dress to the ground. “Let’s see if we can put some of that red meat you ate to good use.”
The victory, sex, and grilled steak induced coma that we fell into later that night was well earned, and it was a damn good thing the Mud Race started late because we barely made it to the start line at eight o’clock. Not too many of the other runners looked all that much less bleary than Jessie and me.
Mr. Daniels made a few opening comments about the race symbolizing perseverance and a lot of other stuff that I was frankly too tired to listen to, then he fired the starting pistol.
It was absolute chaos, at least a hundred and fifty runners pouring into a three-mile-long mud course that had been heavily watered for over a week. It was a sort-of “choose your own destiny race.” It had about six different routes with different challenges.
I half-dragged Jessie for a ways since the start of the course was really deep mud. Less than fifty feet into it, not one runner was anything but a mud colored blob. It was easy to see we weren’t going to finish in the top five. Some of the couples obviously took it really seriously and must have trained on how to run mud courses. Still, we struggled along, laughing mostly at each other, though when one of the bustier secretaries had her tube top pulled down to her waist by the mud I cracked up.
“Who wears a tube top to a mud race?”
Jessie gasped for air. “Tiffany always does. I think this is the third year running she’s lost her top that way.”
“Not really an accident then?”
“I think it is her version of sitting on the copier to make ‘Christmas Cards’.”
“Can’t really see anything with all the mud.”
“I think that’s the idea – blatant exhibitionism without the actual risk. Daniels turns a blind eye to it.”
Laughing our way along we managed to get two miles into the course before we saw somebody in real trouble. Shielded from nearly everyone by a clump of bushes, a woman had slipped and had her foot trapped under a short wall. Her partner was frantically digging as quickly as possible to keep her from slipping under in the three feet of near liquid mud. They must have been way ahead of us, because he was obviously exhausted and starting to lose the fight to keep her from going under.
We stumbled over to them. “You need a hand?”
The guy nodded, choking in air, unable to answer while the woman looked at us with more than a bit of panic.
Jessie immediately joined in keeping her face clear of mud while I pushed down and worked an arm in to get her foot free. It didn’t take long, with the three of us working together, though she lost her shoe for good. I found a chunk of rock and jammed it in the gap under the wall to save the next person to come along. We stumbled along in a little group, him and me helping the girls up over the walls, then pulling ourselves over. It was just a matter of height.
The guy looked at me. “I couldn’t pull her out.”
“You have to break the suction; the mud’s like quicksand. I’ll send an email up the ladder and make sure they put people along the course for safety next year.”
He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve got it covered.” Once they scraped enough mud off their faces, it turned out our new friends were Alan and his fiancée, Karen.
When we finally reached the end, they insisted we cross the line before them because we’d stopped to help them. As we headed over to the wash-up station to clean up, Alan laughed as he washed the last of the mud out of his hair and off his face. “I was really hoping to place higher this year.”
Karen laughed. “We did okay, I survived and for a while it looked like that wasn’t going to happen.”
Jessie pulled her waistband out and peered down into her shorts pensively. “I have mud in places a lady should never have mud. Good thing I’m no lady.”