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 firstname.lastname@example.org . 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 13: Two Futures
It was only a two-hour drive from the work camp to Rika Chorna but the trip seemed longer because of the company. Arthur's two days in the hospital had been followed by three days in the camp's infirmary. When the medics decided the swelling in his leg had gone down enough they sent him back to the city.
Arthur sensed that the two guards didn't like him much. Perhaps, it was their terse manners or the way they handcuffed him and threw him in the back of the van. He didn't have to speculate for long; as soon as the doors shut the driver and his partner laid out their particular grievances against him.
Item 1: It was obviously his fault that a trio of their guard friends had to work night shifts because-
Item 2: Criminal # 88588 had the nerve to go and get attacked by the wild boar, which forced the-
Item 3: Heroic, good-natured, hard-working guards to risk their own lives in an effort to save a dishonored criminal. Which lead to-
Item 4: The wasting of perfectly good ammunition.
Their logic was impeccable but their courtesy could've used some work. After much name calling, and lecturing they arrived at the Public Works headquarters in Rika Chorna. Arthur picked up his paperwork and went directly across the street to check in with his spokesman.
Arthur scuttled along on old wooden crutches trying to grip the slick handles while keeping his paperwork in good condition. It was one of the harsh realities that every Danubian criminal struggles with: The enigma of not having pockets, what to do with your stuff?
Ralkliv's secretary made Arthur wait just a minute before sending him back. He hobbled down the hallway, slipping some, as the crutches' worn down rubber pads didn't grip the floor so well. In Ralkliv's doorway, his left crutch slid out a bit too much.
Instead of allowing his sore left leg to contact the floor he let go of the crutches, and caught himself with both arms. Since he was down there already he figured he would transition into an awkward kneeling position and greet his spokesman in the formal manner. Ralkliv sighed and said his line, though not with a very welcoming tone.
Ralkliv, in fact looked upset. "Criminal # 88588 have a seat."
Arthur gathered the paperwork off the floor and handed it to his spokesman; he sat as Ralkliv spent a silent minute reading.
"Arthur, I see you have been in trouble again." Ralkliv emphasized 'again'. You were in two fist-fights during your second week in camp?" Ralkliv emphasized 'two'.
"Well sir, the second fight closely followed the first so it was more like one fight with a... brief intermission."
Ralkliv made a falling whistle noise; a sound that Danubians made to show disapproval. "You think that sounds better, I do not. This report also states that you admitted to instigating the fights."
"Uh... Yes sir, but it was more of a misunderstanding really. One of the criminals on my work crew took something I said the wrong way, but I do regret that mistakes were made."
"I never get a simple answer out of you, do I?" Ralkliv inclined his head to the side and rubbed his temple with the fingertips of his left hand. "What exactly did you say?"
"It was a joke, actually. An American joke I had translated into Danubian... and uh..." Arthur paused to swallow. "Perhaps I translated badly and he thought I was talking specifically about his mother and sister; I always have trouble with pronouns and..."
A completely humorless Ralkliv interrupted. "Tell me this joke."
Arthur told the joke.
"Prostitution, exploitation, sodomy, incest..." Ralkliv closed his eyes and shook his head. "This is what you find amusing?"
"Well," Arthur shifted in his seat. "Not when you put it like that."
"With this sort of filth in your mind it is no surprise you get in so much trouble. No other client of mine causes me half as much trouble. Do you know that I have superiors that I have to explain your behavior to?"
"One month after your trial you violate the terms of your sentence." Ralkliv started counting on his fingers for emphasis. "A week after you got back to the city you caused a disturbance in the middle of the night. Then there was that shameful disruption during the Day of the Dead. And last year there was the incident with the horse and the tourists. Now you get into not one but two fistfights and then you almost get yourself killed."
Spokesman Ralkliv had run out of fingers on his right hand. He made yet another sound of disapproval before swiveling to retrieve a folder from his shelf. Ralkliv opened it to place the paperwork inside. "Arthur, this is your file. Do you notice how thick it is? I have a client serving his eighteenth year and his file is thinner than this!"
"Sir, I regret that mistakes were..."
"Stop saying that!" Ralkliv closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. "Criminal # 88588 you will meet me here first thing in the morning. You are dismissed!"
"Yes sir." As Ralkliv searched for his aspirin bottle Arthur hopped on one foot, picked his crutches up off the floor, and made his way out hoping his spokesman would be in a better mood in the morning.
* * *
"Mr. Jakt," Arthur handed a cardboard box to the old man. "I got you something for your birthday. I know you didn't have to take me into your household, and you certainly didn't have to treat me so well. I suppose I just wanted to thank you for that."
"Bah... I wanted somebody to mow my lawn and patch the roof and you were some good cheap labor for the business." Jakt shook the box.
"So you invited an enemy of the state into your household for maintenance? You took a big risk; I mean a spy like me could have made off with your entire fishing lure collection while you slept."
Jakt ripped open the end of the box. A bait cast reel and graphite rod was inside.
"I had my sister send it over... never been used. A friend of mine gave it to me and I never got a chance to use it." Arthur didn't mention that he had won it gambling on baseball.
Arthur pointed out: "It's got titanium doodads and everything. My friend only bought the best when it came to fishing; lived in a shack though."
While Jakt examined his new reel and rod, Samantha arrived with the cake. A cake she had baked herself. "So how did it go today?"
Arthur stood on his right leg and grabbed some plates from Jakt's cabinets. "Spokesman Ralkliv still wasn't in a very good mood this morning so I didn't bring up the subject."
Samantha finished setting up the table, and stuffed a napkin under one side of the platter so the cake didn't look so lop-sided. "Where's he got you working now?"
Arthur wondered if the cake had been dropped on the floor and stuck back together. "Uh... he had me assisting one of his clerks with paperwork, but I'm not really very good at it so I keep getting loaned out."
"Are you going to ask him tomorrow?"
"Definitely... I would have brought up the subject today but he kept going on and on about how my behavior was causing him all kinds of problems and warning me that if I kept getting in trouble, he would be forced to take action."
Samantha looked up apprehensively. "What does 'take action' mean?"
Arthur looked away and took an uneasy breath. "Well... he's going to roll up a newspaper and whack me on the nose." Arthur motioned sharply with one hand. "Bad Criminal! Bad Criminal!"
Samantha gave Arthur a sour look and placed a hand on her hip; she was sometimes a pretty tough audience.
Samantha stepped into the living room. "Mr. Jakt, your cake's ready."
Arthur thought it was an unusual cake: both chewy and gritty; bitter and sour. How Samantha could forget to put sugar in a cake was baffling. Jakt had the stomach of a goat and ate his slice quickly. Arthur forced himself to swallow the first mouthful. Samantha watched Arthur for his reaction.
"Mmm... So, what type of cake is this?"
"Um... it's a coffee cake; do you like it?"
Coffee grounds, that accounts for the grit. Arthur tried to wash it off his tongue with a big swallow of milk. "It's really good!" Samantha smiled proudly. How Danubians got through the day without lying was something Arthur would never understand.
* * *
The next morning Arthur acted as apologetic as possible as he got up off Ralkliv’s floor. "Sir, there is something I need to discuss with you."
Ralkliv looked like he was afraid to find out. "Yes Criminal # 88588 what is it?"
"Spokesman, Samantha and I have been seeing one another for almost two years. We talked it over and we want to get married. We were hoping to have a wedding sometime next year after she completes her sentence."
Ralkliv had a relieved expression; he leaned back in his chair, tapping his fingertips together in one of his 'deep in thought' gestures.
"Arthur, I have no objection to a marriage but you must realize an engagement between a foreign criminal serving a long sentence and a soon to be released foreign criminal raises unique challenges. Samantha has about eleven months left of her sentence and you have almost twenty-eight years. This situation is difficult... Is it true that Samantha is willing to stay here throughout the entire term of your sentence?"
Ralkliv twisted his fancy ink pen in the fingers of his right hand and thought a bit. "After Samantha is released in June she will have the legal status of any other traveler. However, the Danubian people have great respect for the institution of marriage and there are laws that might apply in your case. I believe that I can get permission for Samantha to remain in Danubia... perhaps at some point Samantha might even be eligible for citizenship."
"That's good to hear sir but is there anything I can do?" Arthur decided to head off Ralkliv's response. "I mean besides staying out of trouble?"
Ralkliv gave Arthur one of his dramatic looks, placing a forefinger on his desk for emphasis. "You just concentrate on that, I will handle everything else."
* * *
Arthur said goodbye to Jakt and Samantha and then boarded the Public Works bus feeling only a little pain in his left calf as he climbed the steps. It was noon on August 2nd; a hot, dry and windy day.
Arthur picked a window seat in the back. Samantha was still standing outside in the courtyard. He forced himself to smile and wave back. Arthur never told Samantha how apprehensive he was about returning to the camp. He wondered if the guards had something planned for him.
The bus went east on a two lane paved highway and then pulled off on a rough gravel road. The road quickly deteriorated from gravel to parallel muddy grooves with a ridge in the middle. The bus stopped at an intersection with another farm road, a place wide enough to turn around. A gray Public Works truck was parked beside the road.
The criminals unloaded and faced the two guards; both were aggravated to be kept waiting so long. Arthur recognized the man from the hard-labor camp at Novo Sumi Ris.
"Form three lines of ten." He kept his shotgun raised and ready as his partner retrieved chains from the truck bed.
Arthur heard the rattle of chains and memories of that camp flashed sharp in his mind. Those three months were unforgettable. The judge would've been pleased; she taught him a harsh lesson.
Arthur revisited that horrible place often at night, his nightmares came in fragmented scenes: chained and abandoned, left crying in despair shivering wretched in the cold rain, or cowering alone in terror in the shadows of merciless guards, their switches and batons raised and ready to strike, or screaming but unable to make a sound while under the control of the Major and her brutal methods... and there was always the sound of chains.
The panic told him to run- anywhere so they wouldn't lock that chain onto his collar. Arthur took deep breaths to slow his racing heartbeat and tried to focus on some movement over a farmer’s wheat field: a bird of prey flew low and fast heading southward. Arthur lined up a couple seconds slower than everyone else. The guard noticed.
"Are you trying to disrespect me criminal?" Arthur was sure he was recognized.
"No officer." Arthur just finished in time for a slap across the face.
He drew his forearm back again and Arthur flinched. His female partner thought it was pretty funny. She stepped up close to Arthur’s face.
"You better learn place, Criminal #88588. Get on your knees so we can get you dogs chained up."
The curl of a thin smile formed as she locked his collar's loop onto the end of the ten-meter chain. She gripped it in both hands and pulled the chain, dragging the criminal forward by the neck like an animal; she mocked his panicked expression, laughing with her partner, obviously enjoying her work.
The crew marched for about two hours on the narrow uneven farm road and arrived at the work camp in the late afternoon. Arthur noted that the camp was bigger than before with tents spread out into an adjacent field. Arthur's old work crew was surprised to have the gunshot American back so soon; he joined in immediately, working in the late August heat.
* * *
In their typical love for efficiency, Public Works concentrated all the judicial punishments down to just four days per month. With the huge size of the camp that still amounted to around a hundred criminals at a time; inconvenience to court officials, guards, and work foremen was kept to a minimum though.
While taking that uncomfortable walk to the guard's camp, Arthur complained bitterly to whatever gods were listening. "This is so unfair! I get attacked by a boar, shot in the fucking leg and then I have just enough time to make a full fucking recovery before the next switching. Damn it, why didn't those bastards shoot me in July?"
Two clusters of criminals stood in the courtyard already; arms folded in the predawn chill. The men all looked the same. Earlier that week the guards decided to head off an infestation of lice in the simplest way. Forty or so naked hairless men stood in formation with their metal collars reflecting morning sunlight, looking like aliens waiting to board the mother ship. Dozens more apprehensive criminals came streaming in from all over the camp. Arthur joined the rest of the men waiting in silence.
The guards' tents were arranged into a hollow square fifty meters across, with a courtyard in the middle. There were a few trucks parked inside, and two chain-link detention cages to the right of the entrance, but the criminals' dread focused the long row of platforms down the middle.
Sunlight lit up the hedgerow east of camp and a group of guards came out to start their morning shift. One of the officers, an administrative type who always seemed to have a clipboard in his hand took charge; as he called out each number, a fearful man or woman stepped forward. He read forty-eight names off his list and directed the first group to the line of platforms; the second group was cataloged and told to wait nearby. The judge, five spokespersons and several police arrived just as he finished. Condemned to their fate, forty men and eight women stood in a long line across the courtyard.
Arthur was not pleased to be in the second group, better to get it over with quickly. His group had to watch from just a few meters away, presumably to further humiliate the criminal being punished and to torment the criminals anticipating their own beatings.
Arthur faced a young female criminal. She looked so young, probably seventeen or eighteen though if her hair wasn't braided she could've passed for fifteen. She stood on the other side of the table, looking so fragile and innocent, sandy-blond hair held in tight braids, lithe form with small breasts, smooth skin pale with fear, the curve of her hips not yet full, she stood nervously, shifting her weight with legs slightly parted. The girl’s hair was shaved off as well, except for the traditional braids on her head that no guard would dare touch.
The young woman took in a sharp breath as a guard approached her with his switch in hand. She trembled; Arthur could see it from four meters away, the guard had certainly noticed.
Her skin turned even paler when he ordered her into position. She leaned forward across the table; when she looked up her eyes were already full of tears. Arthur didn't want to stare at someone in such a vulnerable state but he knew better than disobey direct orders right in front of a guard. The girl looked at Arthur briefly; he knew her desperation well, a subtle nod of encouragement was all he could offer though.
She was tougher than he thought she would be; staying silent and mostly still through the first 20 hard strokes of the switch. She kept her eyes shut tight; face rigid in an expression of agony, tears streamed down the bridge of her nose onto the flat metal surface. It was only when the guard struck several times along the tender flesh of her upper thighs that she cried out in a thin sharp voice. Her sobs blended with sounds of misery throughout the courtyard as the switching continued; some groaned, or screamed, or made hysterical sounds like demented laughter following the sound of switches whistling through the air and whipping down hard on already punished skin.
The guard concentrated his last few blows across the sensitive lower curves of the young woman's bottom, overlapping previous welts. She was crying hard, arms pulling in vain against leather restraints; she screamed horribly as he struck the last blow.
Once the restraints were removed her hands went immediately to her face as she cried hysterical with pain, writhing from side to side on the tabletop. The guard proudly yanked the violently sobbing young lady to her feet and marched her a short distance to display her severely beaten bottom and thighs to the judge. When he released his grip the weakened girl collapsed on the dusty ground; it seemed to amuse the guard to watch her struggle. It took her over a minute to crawl forward, kiss his shoes and hold back her sobs enough to thank him for the cruel beating.
There was a brief break, apparently for the judge's benefit, and then the second group of criminals were called up. Some of the same officers stayed and some new ones arrived; Arthur stared at the dirt and waited for Officer Stashak.
"Criminal # 88588, you will kneel before me!" Arthur was startled to look up and see the female Public Works officer who lectured him endlessly after the fight. He thought perhaps a two-hour drive was too inconvenient even for Stashak; a fortunate turn of events since the woman looked scrawny in comparison and she certainly wasn't driven by the kind of personal hatred that Stashak held toward him.
As Arthur stretched across the table and the officer began tightening the straps, he wondered if this was her first time. She was slower than everybody else getting his ankles bound and then she hurried to the front and started tightening the restraints on his wrists.
Arthur could feel blood gathering in his right hand. He considered not saying anything, but figured he really didn't have anything to lose at this point. "Officer, it's too tight, you're cutting off my circulation."
She gave the: "You will speak only when spoken to" line but she did loosen it a notch. Arthur glanced down the line- all the other guards and police were waiting for her to finish her clumsy attempts at wrapping the final strap around his waist. It seemed to embarrass her; as soon as she finished tightening the strap she yanked out her switch; whipping it through the air perhaps to regain some confidence.
The guards up and down the line glanced at one another and then all struck in unison. Arthur gritted his teeth and forced himself to remain calm. It was painful, just not as severe as he was used to. This switching, he hoped, might be tolerable. Methodical strikes of the switch every half minute or so followed; it was at least proceeding quickly.
Arthur pressed his forehead down on the aluminum tabletop still wet with the girl's tears. Half way through the punishment several criminals were crying out but he was still holding on. His tormentor looked uncomfortable as the American criminal remained silent.
She struck her hardest, intent on breaking his silence. Criminal # 88588 groaned and pulled at the restraints but even after the fiftieth blow he did not cry out as she wanted. Arthur got himself off the platform, quickly wiped away his tears and stood defiant once again.
The August sun made his punished skin burn even hotter; though it wasn't the same severity of his usual beating it was still an excruciating walk back to his cot. The pain would soon fade and he wouldn't have to worry about another switching until November. It wasn't much but that was the only positive thing Arthur could think of right then.
* * *
The sun sets about two minutes earlier every day in August and September. Geese and ducks stopped to pick through the farmer’s fields in October before migrating further south.
Other than stuff like that it was difficult for Arthur to distinguish one day from the next. It really didn't matter; the work was the same grueling struggle that left a person hungry, dirty and exhausted at the day’s end.
Cold weather slowed work but didn't stop it; it was normally just the top few inches of soil that froze at night, and the metal claws of an excavator or dozer ripped through it reasonably well so the project could continue. Keeping on schedule was about the only thing that mattered to Public Works; in November they even issued real cold weather gear so criminals could work longer shifts and thick sleeping bags so they could endure the bitter nights. Even judicial punishments were moved indoors, though that was more for the guard's convenience than the criminal's comfort.
The frozen winter transitioned into a wet miserable spring, with the camp mired in a swamp of sticky red mud. It covered everything; workers wore the mud on skin and work clothes, and slept in muddy tents on muddy cots. Work continued regardless, even with irrigation ditches half full of floodwater and roads so sloppy that supply trucks had to be pulled by bulldozer.
By the end of March the Ministry of Public Works was already crowing about their tremendous accomplishment; completing over two hundred kilometers of irrigation canals before the summer growing season.
Arthur had to admit; it was impressive what a few pieces of heavy equipment and three thousand laborers could accomplish in nine months, but he didn't care much for the celebration that a handful of government officials held on the last week of the project. Arthur just wanted to leave the muddy fields behind and go back to Rika Chorna and Samantha.
* * *
Samantha pushed a wheeled cart down the central isle of a long hospital ward, two rows of narrow beds set to her left and right. This was the children's section of the Rika Chorna Medical Center. Criminal # 88634 was near the end of her ten-hour shift; just a few more lunch platters to hand out. She wore a light old timey nurse's hat with pink stripes and matching canvas shoes that marked her as hospital staff, a position that translated to 'junior nurse' in English.
Though the hat and shoes were technically clothing, the Ministry of Justice was sometimes practical when it came to employment. Bare from ankle to forehead, Samantha still felt naked enough. Much of the staff working the more menial jobs at the hospital were criminals, including about three quarters of the other junior nurses, a euphemistic title for a job that was mostly cleaning, delivering meals and medicine to patients.
She stopped by the foot of the last bed. "Lyetta? Lyetta... are you still sleepy?"
The five-year old girl struggled to wake up. She made a small fist, and rolled her head on the pillow. The girl was too weak to sit up on her own; Samantha slipped a hand under her back and lifted her thin body forward so she could place a couple pillows behind her. Samantha set a tray on her lap and sat on the side of the bed not obstructed by the IV line.
"Want to eat a little? I brought you applesauce!" Samantha scooped up a spoonful and did the universal airplane trick to get the child to eat. She got three spoonfuls of food down before Lyetta refused more and quickly fell back to sleep.
Samantha put away the tray and picked up the clipboard hanging on the foot of the bed to report how much the young patient had eaten. Less than yesterday... three weeks and the child had gotten steadily worse. Samantha caught herself looking at Lyetta's chest to see if she was still breathing.
Samantha stopped by the nurse's break room and talked to some of her co-workers who were just beginning their shifts. All her friends were employees at the hospital, mostly young women serving criminal sentences but some free people too. She fit in well enough, besides the foreign accent and the lighter complexion, the American was just one of the couple hundred criminals on staff that did the hard work that kept the hospital running smoothly.
She was on good terms with her superiors too. They appreciated how hard she worked, her attention to detail, and her willingness to work late or come in early if asked. A couple of the registered nurses had even encouraged her to pursue a nursing career. Spokesman Ralkliv liked the idea. She was still thinking it over and concentrating on her work. Criminal number 88634 was a model employee. Her usefulness kept her in Rika Chorna and out of the labor camps.
Samantha's shift ended at four in the afternoon so she had plenty of time to go over to the spokesperson's offices and pick up her mail. A secretary was at the outer office, she looked through the cabinets and handed Samantha a bundle of letters. Samantha left the oppressive Police Headquarters building quickly.
The park to the north was inviting. It was a warm pleasant April afternoon; the crabapple trees were in bloom, countless honeybees hummed, working the blossoms overhead. Samantha sat in the soft grass and opened the bundle.
One letter from Arthur... she smiled and cringed, it was always something unexpected from him. Mothers should warn their daughters to never date a spy. She tore open the envelope and read. Samantha started breathing again when she realized he wasn't injured or in bad trouble again, just ordinary trouble. He was so infuriating sometimes but also daring and wild.
Samantha blushed and covered her mouth with a hand as she read. So sneaky! Such a bad boy! He could say the filthiest things in ways that the government sensors that scanned his mail could never figure out. So many clever metaphors! It was a game to him, a secret they shared. If Danubians only knew Criminal # 88588 like she did they would execute him on the spot! For the time being her spy was safe, slaving away far to the east on the big public works project, perhaps another couple weeks and they would be together.
One letter was from her older brother and one from her parents. Samantha didn't particularly want to open them. Relations with her family had been strained over the past few months. It all began when she telephoned her mother in August to tell her about her engagement to Arthur. Samantha remembered the silence.
She heard her mother start crying: "Samantha... don't do this..."
She expected to be congratulated, instead, her mother cried and her father took the phone and tried to talk some sense into his daughter, encouraged her to break it off.
"Think of your future," he said. "When you get released next year we want you to come back home. You need to move on, I mean, I know you're close to Arthur but he won't be released for another 27 years, most of your life will be gone; think about this." He urged. "I know you've been through a lot Sammie..."
"No!" She had screamed into the phone. "No you don't know what I've been through, what Arthur's been through! He helped me, he held me when I was alone and scared, he suffered because he stood up for me! Now you want me to just throw him away! It's... dishonorable! I… I don't want to talk to you anymore!" Samantha had slammed the phone down, so mad she was shaking.
Several weeks later after many rebuffed attempts of her family to talk to her, Spokesman Ralkliv called her to his office and insisted that she contact her family. She made the phone call ready for a fight, but this time her parents were measured and cautious in their words. Though there was obvious reluctance, they accepted her decision, and there was an unspoken agreement that they just wouldn't talk about it again.
* * *
Samantha waited anxiously at the train station. She had requested the day off when she received news that Arthur was returning. Airbrakes hissed, the metal on metal screech ceased and the crowd murmured as the doors to the passenger cars opened. Free people exited first then some male criminals started out the door carrying luggage for women and older passengers.
The men's shaved heads were tanned as the rest of their bronze skin. Samantha recognized Arthur's mischievous face among the crowd; he hauled two bags at the direction of an old woman. He spotted her too and winked. Samantha stayed back until he finished loading the woman's luggage in the back of a passenger van; in Danubia free people always came first.
Samantha squealed as Arthur scooped her up off the floor like a caveman, she noticed he had gained probably twenty pounds of muscle since she saw him last... he didn't look so skinny anymore. "Put me down!" She cried out in English. "Everyone's looking at us!"
"Well of course they are!" Arthur let go but still held her close. "We're pretty damn hot! I mean between your butt and my rugged good looks..."
"And my perky tits?" Samantha giggled.
"Perkiest tits I've ever seen, and who could blame these people for staring at my chiseled abs..."
"And our modesty, they've got to be impressed by that!" Samantha added with a kiss.
"Yeah, we're way more modest than any of these jerks!"
Samantha leaned forward and whispered in Arthur's ear: "Um I don't think that guard over there likes us much... I think we should go now."
Arthur glanced at the guard. "Jealousy is such an ugly trait."
"Isn't it though." Samantha held his hand as they left the station. "So... where to?"
"I've got to go check in," Arthur gestured to the collar. "Scan me in and all that. Then I need to see Spokesman Ralkliv if he's around, I bet I got some mail."
"How many days off did they give you?"
"A bunch... we worked like 90 days in a row, so everybody's got free days coming. Can't take them all at once, but we're still technically working for Public Works until next Monday. Which means that I've got the Whole Damned Week Off!"
"Yep, probably should go see Mr. Jakt next." Arthur groaned. "I bet he hasn't even mowed the yard since I've been gone! And I need to go to the Church; I'll go to the Sunrise service in the morning. Hopefully my priestess won't be too rough on me, I've been studying as much as I can stand to but Danubian religious texts are some pretty dry reading.”
* * *
The next afternoon Arthur came to see Samantha during her break at the hospital. He sat down at a lunch table and ecstatically exclaimed: "I'm in!"
Arthur gestured wildly. "The Church, I'm in!"
"Yeah, see last night I found a note on Mr. Jakt's front door. It was from my priestess. The note told me to come to church this morning an hour earlier than usual. When I got there she was waiting for me. I started to ask questions but she told me to be quiet and follow her. She led me down into this torch lit chamber in the basement with a pool of water in the floor. And uh, she gave me a bath."
Samantha's eyes widened. "She gave you a bath?"
"Yeah... I mean, not like a bubble bath or anything. It was all ritualized she would use a big bronze pitcher to pour water on me and chant verses from the religious texts. Then she dried me off and had me follow her into the Church. There were probably four hundred worshipers waiting for the service to start. She took me up front and introduced me as a full member of the Danubian Church! Can you believe it?"
"Damn. I can't believe it finally worked." Samantha eyes widened. "Still, that's a lot of trouble to go to; I mean you don't know that a judge will reward you for converting... I mean all the others are in the Church too."
"Well... it's not like that... not anymore. Okay," he admitted, "it did start out as one of my schemes but my priestess really helped me out a lot. I mean... she didn't have to but she made sure I learned to read and write Danubian- you should have seen all the workbooks she sent me when I was working up in the park.
Other things too; she even got me to reconcile with my mother and Mr. Andreis. I think it did me some good; not a bad religion really, I could get used to it. You ought to give it a try," Arthur shrugged. "It comes with a free bath."
Samantha took a sip of coffee. "Um, no thanks... I think I'll stick with Jesus."
* * *
Samantha rested on Arthur’s chest, breathing heavy; the sheen of sweat made hot skin sticky. She placed her head on his shoulder; felt his quick breaths and heartbeat. Samantha smiled, kissing her lover playfully and then she rose off his hips and rolled by his side. The mat of spongy green mosses softened the moist forest floor to an almost be bed-like consistency. Cool shade from a grove of conifers kept their secluded hideaway nice and comfortable.
"Ooh," Arthur reached underneath himself. "So that's what that was!"
"You sat on a pinecone!" Samantha snickered: Why... why didn't you say something?"
"I don't know," Arthur grinned. "I was busy at the time."
Samantha pushed on his hip. "Turn over... let me look... you've got." She shook with laughter. "Pinecone... impression," she cackled. "On... your butt!"
"Damn!" Arthur threw the smashed pinecone in the water. "Next time you get the bottom." He cringed. "Oh great! I have to go see Ralkliv in the morning... and a judge! Man! I hope it goes away. I really don't want to explain this!"
Eventually the humor of the situation was exhausted and they lay back down, with Samantha's head resting on Arthur's shoulder. They enjoyed the moment; pine needles made a gentle swishing sound in a slight breeze, several yellow and brown warblers competed for nesting sites twenty meters up.
Arthur thought of something. "So... wanna come over and see Mr. Jakt's house tomorrow... I finished it this morning. Today’s the eighth of May; I've been here for three years and just now got that house painted."
"You know," Arthur continued. "I had it all ready about three weeks after my arrest, had the paint scraped and everything and it rained. The next week," Arthur laughed. "I got sent to that labor camp, and then they sent me up to the lake and when I came back it was winter. But it's done now; looks pretty sharp too. Mr. Jakt's real proud of his yellow house with green trim; he even wants to cook a supper for us. Just give me a few hours, wanna come over about five?"
"Sure... right after work." Samantha studied Arthur's face. "You don't even seem nervous about tomorrow... I was always a mess."
"I guess I've mellowed out... I mean, I still dread it, but I just don't think about it much until its time... it's just a part of life I've got to deal with... got no choice really."
Arthur grimaced. "I mean... Mr. Jakt thinks he's a good cook, thinks it's a big treat when he cooks for me, but the last special meal he made had me outside vomiting half the night. God," Arthur clutched his stomach. "It feels like he's trying to preserve me from the inside out!"
"Actually," Samantha rolled her eyes but played along: "I was referring to the beating."
"Oh... that... yeah I am a little nervous about that but not nearly as much as I used to be. You know, I haven't even seen Officer Stashak in a year- not that I miss her- but I thought it was strange that she didn't come out to the camp in August, November or February."
"Maybe she quit the force or moved." Samantha said.
"No, Ralkliv mentioned her, she's still here..." Arthur took a sharp breath. "Hmm... maybe Mr. Andreis talked to her."
Samantha shrugged. "Maybe she'll go easy on you."
Arthur and Samantha looked at one another. "Yeah, Right!"
"Let’s see." Arthur started figuring. "May has thirty one days, and today's the eighth, that's thirty one days until June eighth. Just think, next month you'll have one of those weird white rings around your neck. And it's too hot to wear a scarf, boy are you going to look strange."
Arthur stroked her cheek sadly. "Poor Samantha ... she'll have to start buying clothes again."
Samantha groaned. "How on Earth did I end up with you?"
Arthur started recounting the sequence. "Boy meets girl, girl gets arrested, boy and girl get sent to hard labor camp… girl's fault by the way... then you seduced me."
"I seduced you?"
"Yep," Arthur said. "I was completely innocent."
Samantha scoffed. "I think you're confusing innocent and stupid. The fa..." Then Samantha yelped out and scrambled to her feet as a water snake swam across the pond. "Aaii... it’s... sn...Sna!"
Arthur looked around with surprise. "A Sna? Where? I haven't seen a Sna in years! Wait..." Arthur turned to the snake and shrugged. "Girls." Then he took off after Samantha.
He struggled through the thick barrier of evergreens; Samantha had been extra dramatic and ran all the way back to the trail. Arthur was having a good time enjoying her terror over a little snake.
Arthur shouted: "Heck, I didn't know you could run like that..."
Samantha didn't even look at him, she stood in the trail; and then Arthur heard a man's voice. Arthur walked out beside her. A couple police officers were approaching.
Arthur’s pulse pounded; he recognized the policewoman as one of the cops who used to harass him every day after work. Samantha knelt down; Arthur stepped beside her and did the same.
The officers stopped a couple meters from them. The young policeman deferred to his older partner.
"Stand up." The policewoman ordered. Arthur and Samantha stood facing the police partners.
"You are aware," she said. "That there are strict rules against lewd and indecent behavior in Danubian public parks?"
"Yes officer." Samantha and Arthur answered nervously; it was obvious what they had been up to.
The policewoman sternly continued. "Such an act in a public place is a criminal offense. We expect all persons, especially convicted criminals, to be respectful of the law. Do you understand this?"
"Yes officer," Both Samantha and Arthur felt sick; she was so close to her scheduled release date.
The police woman looked at Arthur. She glanced down, then raised an eyebrow and smiled slightly. "If either of you should see any such offensive behavior, be sure and report it to the proper authorities. Is that clear?"
"Yes officer," Arthur started breathing again. "We will... um... be sure to keep our eyes open."
The police partners continued on. Arthur and Samantha looked at one another, breathing heavy. If the policewoman meant to scare them, it worked.
* * *
The eighth of June was a special day, Samantha and twelve other criminals made a rare happy trip up the courtroom steps, Arthur walked by her side. Her three-year sentence was going to be over in a matter of minutes.
Samantha's nervous goofy smile made Arthur laugh. "I'm wondering how many guards it's going to take to wrestle your head into the collar machine- what was it last time four or five?"
Samantha rolled her eyes. "Arthur, your totally messing up the dignified nature of this moment- and it was only three guards."
"Oh, excuse me... I'm not real sure what to say at an event like this; maybe they sell de-collaring greeting cards downtown?"
Once inside Arthur stood in the vacant area usually reserved for court officials. The ceremony was quick and simple. A line of male and female criminals formed at the front of the courtroom. When it was her turn a very proud Spokesman Ralkliv stepped forward and proclaimed to the judge that his client was indeed ready for release. Samantha was crying happily when she knelt in front of the collar machine. White skin formed a ring low on her suntanned neck, Samantha and the other former criminals listened to the judge's short speech and then posed with their broken collars for a series of pictures.
Arthur had brought the engagement jewelry along; with the traditional white dress, braided hair, and jewelry Samantha now looked like a traditional Danubian woman. More importantly, the sentence was over, the torment and humiliation was over, Samantha was free.
Her first priority was to move out of her host's household; which the couple wanted as well since they could no longer order her around like a slave. For the remaining time before their October wedding Samantha had arranged to stay in the household of one of her friends from work; it was a major improvement.
Arthur and Samantha spent some of their very limited spare time looking around the city for a place to live. Arthur's fame preceded him; if landlords had 'No Spies Allowed' signs on their doors it would have simplified things considerably. Not everyone cared though, especially in the less fashionable neighborhoods.
To Arthur, a person who had spent much of the past few years sleeping next to a horse or in a crowded army tent, every house looked good. Samantha was more discriminating but they eventually decided on a decent small rental house that would be available in September.
* * *
One day in June Spokesman Ralkliv called Arthur to his office to discuss an interesting opportunity. After three long years of searching; Ralkliv thought he had a good chance at getting his client a job with a private employer.
Of course, no self-respecting Danubian company was eager to have an enemy of the state in the office but this particular business used American software and was getting pretty desperate for a person who was both skilled with computers and fluent in English.
Ralkliv seemed almost as excited as his client as they went to meet with the manager. Arthur took the opportunity to shamelessly brag about his technical skills, education, and experience. Ralkliv’s lips tightened as he listened to Arthur talk; he never could get his American client to act as humble as he was supposed to.
There was a brief tour and then, about an hour into the interview the manager sat down with Spokesman Ralkliv to discuss the conditions in which he could hire his client. Arthur sat silently to the side while they discussed his future.
Arthur had the job offer but there was a problem: an espionage conviction came with many restrictions; as it was Arthur couldn’t even touch a computer or use a telephone except the one in his spokesman’s office. And only a judge could lift those restrictions
Ralkliv pulled a few strings and got Arthur a hearing before one of the more open-minded judges. He argued that his client was not the national security threat they once thought he was; Criminal number 88588 was simply a young man who had acknowledged his mistakes and was trying to turn his life around.
Ralkliv pointed to Arthur’s somewhat improved behavior, his engagement to Samantha, and his conversion to the Faith of the Ancients as evidence that he was making real progress toward reforming himself. It would be a mistake to hold him back from his potential.
The judge questioned Arthur extensively trying to uncover any hidden agenda, but unable to do so, he finally gave permission. Arthur started work the next day. For Arthur, it was a real treat to do work that required thinking instead of muscle and endurance.
That summer, everything that Arthur wanted seemed to fall into place. Samantha received the residency papers that allowed her to live in Danubia and the Ministry of Justice officially permitted the marriage. Their wedding was scheduled for the first Sunday in October; Arthur’s priestess would perform the ceremony in the grove outside the Cathedral.
Wedding preparations were complicated in Danubia. There were meetings with government officials, classes they had to attend, and religious rituals that had to be performed.
Samantha was completely embarrassed by one such ritual. Part of a Danubian woman’s Correct Path in Life was to bear children so of course they didn’t see anything wrong with blessing her whole reproductive system. Arthur rolled about laughing when he found out some priest had blessed Samantha’s vagina, remarking that: ‘now he would definitely have to be more careful down there.’
In early September Mr. Jakt took Arthur out to a farm to pick up a gift. Mr. Jakt was playing the role of Arthur’s father during the wedding and part of a Danubian father’s duty was to provide the wedding sheep. Arthur named it T-Bone and kept it in Mr. Jakt’s back yard.
Samantha left Danubia on the second week in September; she had plans to visit friends and family in the US and then escort her parents back for the wedding. It was far from the circumstances they envisioned for their only daughter’s wedding but as her mom had said: Honey, if you really want to marry a naked criminal with a tracking collar around his neck then, uh… (At this point she usually broke down crying).
Tee visited for a couple days on the same week that Samantha left. Tee had been living in Belgium with her boyfriend, who was a mid-level bureaucrat for the US State Department. Arthur teased her about dating a thirty-year old geezer but she didn’t seem to mind the age difference.
As the summer neared its end, Arthur spent most of his free time at the Church. The clergy always needed volunteers during the week leading up to the Day of the Dead; a time when the thoughts of most Danubians turned to their own mortality and the spirits of the dead.
Criminal number 88588 preferred to think about the living. He had a girl whom he loved, a career offering real opportunities, a few friends, and the Church services were even starting to make sense. For the first time since his arrest Arthur felt like his plans for the future were finally coming together. The life he wanted was just within his grasp.
Chapter 14: The River
Arthur liked the Danubian clergy, mostly because the priests and priestesses treated criminals like him about the same as they did free people. It felt good to be spoken with like a human being instead of spoken at like a number. When Arthur was in the city he always tried to attend services; normally it was hard to find the time, but on this special day all of Danubia's criminals were off work.
The massive bell rang one last time, deep reverberating tones faded to inaudible levels and the crowd of a couple thousand worshipers turned their attention toward the entrance. Families clustered in groups of ten or twenty; parents and children stood with grandparents and other relatives, all were dressed in simple black prayer robes except for an occasional nude collared criminal or penitent family member, their skin tone standing out in a mass of black.
The Cathedral was the largest and oldest of Rika Chorna's many temples, a massive stone structure dating back to the decades following the eastern people's exodus from Lower Danubia. A group of clergy stood high at the church entrance facing the rising sun, chanting a prayer in archaic Danubian for gathered worshipers to repeat. The ancient prayer called upon the Creator to remove false visions from the minds of the faithful before they entered the temple.
Arthur waited for most of the congregation to enter before he passed between the massive wood and bronze doors. There were no pews inside, just a cavernous room with vaulted ceilings, patterned rugs on the floor, and an elevated dais at the front. Worshipers stood with their families, forming long orderly rows across the chamber. Arthur stood with a group of worshipers who came alone.
Despite it being an important day, the service followed the normal format. There were hymns sung, rituals of fire and purification, and a women's choir performed in the uniquely Danubian style with contrasting vocal pitch taking the place of instrumental music. The service concluded with a sermon.
The congregation got down on their knees and knelt upright while an elderly priest dressed in a black robe and tall cylindrical hat spoke on the subject of suffering and redemption. Arthur listened intently; suffering had been a big part of his life for the past three years. Redemption was more of a relative concept, but Arthur did have something specific in mind.
There were just a few worshipers remaining when Arthur turned to leave the Holy Cathedral; then he heard a familiar voice behind him.
"Arthur," the young priestess said. "It is good to see you here at the temple again; I want to again express my gratitude for all the help you have given the Church. The Temple Archivist said that the English translations that you made have put his project ahead of schedule by weeks."
The priestess was about his age, tall and thin, with sharp expressive features that complimented her energetic determined nature. She had been his spiritual advisor for almost three years. Arthur thought she viewed him as a challenge, a chance to prove herself; she was eager and driven where others might have advised caution and patience. To drag a prideful, greedy, deceptive criminal toward the Correct Path was one thing, but to reform the infamous American spy- now that would be something to brag about, but of course Danubians (especially clergy) didn't do that sort of thing.
"I remember that day clearly when you first came to the temple three years ago. Everyone talked about that terrible crime you were involved in. At first I was suspicious, I thought you were simply acting interested in the faith to gain something, but throughout these past three years I have seen a tremendous change come over you. Arthur, it has been an honor to help guide you back toward your True Path in Life."
"The honor is all mine, priestess. When I first came to the Church I was skeptical." Arthur grinned. "I never would have thought that I would become a religious person again; I hadn't gone to any kind of church since I was fifteen years old. But I suppose I'm not the same person I used to be."
She smiled brightly. "Arthur, it will be good to have you with us on our most holy observance."
"I too have been looking forward to this day for a very long time priestess and I have a feeling that this Day of the Dead will have special significance for me."
There was the slightest hint of a smile on Arthur's face as he walked purposefully away from the church.
* * *
On the second night of the Day of the Dead the marchers filed into a city park to rest. They set down their torches and slings, got a drink, and took bathroom breaks. The rest was brief; after a few minutes the priests called on the marchers to reform a line so they could have their ghoulish black on white body paint retouched and their torches refueled and lighted. Soon the entire criminal population of Rika Chorna walked in fire-lit columns through the dark city streets, all except one.
Arthur had deliberately been one of the last to visit the restroom; there were five empty stalls, including the one that he wanted on the left. He stood on top of the toilet seat, lifted a vent panel off the wall and retrieved a packet that he had placed there the day before. Tucking it under his arm along with his sling and torch he stepped outside the door and glanced toward the priests thirty meters away. Arthur waited in the shadows behind the building; five minutes passed. Keeping low to the ground and moving slowly he looked around the corner. No one had noticed his absence, it was clear.
Arthur ran down one of Rika Chorna's many walking trails; one that lead to the south side of the business district. After a thirty minute run, he stopped, set the torch and sling down on the trail and opened the heavy plastic bag. He removed two items: a hexagonal screwdriver and a small flashlight fitted with a blue filter.
Arthur cautiously approached a large metal building; ordinarily it would have been illuminated but on this one holiday all its lights were turned off. A thin line of fire glowed a couple kilometers to the north as he crept toward the rear of the building. This was the water rescue-training center run by Natural Resources, and it had a few items Arthur wanted to borrow.
There was a boiler room at the back of the building that was unfinished and un-insulated inside; Arthur unscrewed the lower edge of a piece of sheet metal enough so he could squeeze through, once inside he turned on his light and walked to a supply room, he took three items and then promptly left the building.
Arthur replaced a couple of the screws to hold the metal down and then he carried his new equipment back to the trail. He packed everything carefully inside the bag, tied the bundle securely, threw it over his shoulder and ran west, until he came to a small murky pond half filled with leaves shed from overhanging tree limbs.
Taking a length of thin nylon rope he bound the package with a double-constrictor knot and waded into the center, his bare feet sank through black layers of rotting leaves, bubbles of methane churned to the surface with each squishy unpleasant step. When the water was just above his knees Arthur let the package sink. He buried the free end of the rope a couple inches deep in the pond bank, and placed a perfectly ordinary rock, though one he would recognize, on top. After that it was only a matter of retrieving the torch and sling, taking another hiking trail to yet another park and waiting.
* * *
No one noticed the figure hidden at the forest's edge as the line of convicted criminals and penitents entered the park, the last scheduled rest stop of the March. The fires they carried provided the only light; the rest of Rika Chorna was blacker than the moonless sky. A seemingly endless line of tired and thirsty marchers filed into the park and the dedicated clergy attended to their needs.
With the darkness pierced only by a few pale fires it was remarkably easy for him to slip back into their midst; Criminal # 88588 simply walked out, had a couple glasses of the berry punch that stained his mouth red as blood, and then like most everyone else, he reclined in the soft dew-covered grass and rested.
A few minutes passed and then Arthur lined up with everyone else. A priest frowned and remarked about the poor condition of his body paint, especially from the knees down; Arthur just shrugged as they repainted him.
The holiday ended at dawn, and then the criminals cleaned up, ate breakfast, and traveled to the police station to pick up their winter gear. Arthur reported to work just before noon; the workload was easy and the day was short. It was like that all over the city as people recovered from the Day of the Dead; work schedules were cut back and people commonly took the rest of the day off if they could.
Arthur had observed the Danubians carefully during his previous three years, noting that the celebration of the fall equinox with all its activities and two nights without much rest left most of the population sleepy- and not too alert.
* * *
Jakt was asleep early that night, as was most everyone. Arthur pulled on his orange work boots, laced them up tight and walked to the door. It screeched and rattled as he opened it, it really didn't matter; Jakt slept as if in a coma. Arthur paused, briefly looking back at his occasional home for over three years; then he shut the door behind him and walked away.
Outwardly calm, Arthur traveled the same path he always took to the criminal's club. This time however, instead of continuing east he turned south into a dark forested park, and then, when he was sure he wasn't being observed Arthur sprinted back to the pond he visited the previous night.
Reaching into the mud, his fingers found the end of the rope; he fished out the package and unwrapped it. Once he had put the twenty-pound boat anchor back into the water, the pack was considerably lighter.
Arthur took out a can of black shoe polish. "I- Fucking- Hate- Orange!"
Arthur spoke loud enough to surprise himself. "Focus 885... Uh, I mean Arthur... gotta stay focused." He took steady even breaths as he rubbed black on his issued orange work boots.
Next he covered all the skin he could reach in cold dark mud scooped from the pond bank. That done, he bound up his pack, threw it over his shoulder and took another trail westward. After a hard thirty-minute run he came to a place where the trail crossed a paved road. One of the yellow warning signs marking the edge of the Rika Chorna Collar Zone lay directly ahead.
Arthur stopped and opened the packet. He pulled out a roll of electrical tape and began wrapping his collar. After going all the way around it he used the flashlight and a small mirror to see if there was any uncovered metal remaining.
Satisfied, he went into his package again and removed a roll of metallic foil that had been cut into two-inch wide strips. In the same fashion he carefully wrapped the collar in foil. He repeated with two other rolls, and then with some difficulty, covered the foil with the remaining electrical tape.
Four months into his sentence he had thought of something peculiar. His collar had never been charged; if it were a transmitting collar he thought its battery would have surely worn down by then. Perhaps, he speculated, the collar was not an active transmitter but a passive unit like the radio frequency tags used in shipping.
Arthur reasoned that the government would only know a criminal's whereabouts when he passed by a detector. The outer perimeter must be lined with them, as soon as a collar passed through that electrical field, a current would be induced and the collar's antenna would transmit its identifying characteristics back to the detector.
If that was the case, he reasoned, the government would not know a criminal's location all the time, and more importantly if a collar was disabled it wouldn't immediately be noticed.
One night in his second summer Arthur built up the nerve to test his idea; that night he stepped across the boundary of the Collar Zone and traveled into the woods a few hundred feet. He thought the foil would effectively shield the collar's antenna from the electric field as long as there was an insulator between the metal collar and the foil. After an agonizing wait he realized it had worked, and Arthur, from that point on, knew that he had a real chance at escaping.
Praying to the ghost of Michael Faraday, Arthur stepped past the Collar Zone sign and continued toward the rail yard on the western side of the city. This was not a train station but a loading area for heavy cargo, chemical tankers, and aggregate. The lot wasn't illuminated much and there was clearly just a skeleton crew running the night operation but Arthur knew that this was one of the most dangerous parts of his plan.
Staying low to the ground he crept up to the chain link fence that surrounded the terminal. Using a pair of wire cutters he made a three foot high slice in the fence and squeezed through. After tightly binding up his pack, Arthur moved closer to the rail cars. They were already loaded and the locomotive was ready to move west toward Danube City. Train schedules were something you could count on in Danubia, and this one was scheduled to leave at 10:05 PM.
Arthur crept along a gully that paralleled the track until he could find a suitable car. There were locked container cars, and tankers, but the type he wanted was open on the top and used for hauling aggregate. A hundred feet downstream he found a suitable car and slowly moved up toward the rails. Arthur waited and listened for about five minutes before making his move; he climbed the outside of the car and jumped inside. Relieved that no one had noticed him; Arthur looked through his bag and put on a wristwatch. It was 9:45 PM; there was nothing more to do but wait.
Right on schedule the train began moving at 10:05 PM. Arthur spent the next few hours lying on top of a load of gravel and going over the next phase of his plan in his head. At one o’clock in the morning the train rolled past one of the smaller provincial capitals. Eighty kilometers ahead was Danube City and the part that made him the most nervous.
Rika Chorna he knew well. Over the past three years Arthur had studied the city carefully. He knew its roads and trails well enough to draw them from memory. He knew the location of fences and guard posts; he knew which facilities had watchdogs posted, as well as ways to move about without being seen.
Arthur had little first-hand knowledge of Danube City though. He had studied several maps and aerial photographs of the city but that was it. He would have to depend on the cover of darkness, and the fatigue brought on by the Day of the Dead to help him pass by undetected.
The heavily loaded train started slowing three miles from the Danube City rail-yard. Arthur threw his pack over his shoulder and carefully looked for a relatively safe place to jump. When the train slowed to about ten km per hour Arthur climbed down the outside of the car to the lowest rung and leapt. He hit the ground on his feet but tripped, rolling down the slope and landing with a splash in a foul-smelling puddle at the bottom of the ditch.
Scraped but otherwise uninjured, Arthur crawled out of the mud and examined his surroundings. The rail-yard was only one and a half kilometers from the East Danube River; the ditch went westward through the well-lighted complex so he would have to find another way around. There were just two options: north or south.
To the south, on the far side of the ditch, a hundred meters of un-mowed grass and weeds separated him and a one-lane access road that he recognized from the map. That road continued west for 1.2 kilometers, passing near several residences. The glow of electric lights in that direction was more than he expected. The aerial photographs of Danube City were over five years old, perhaps Arthur thought; the southern route was no longer safe.
Before he could examine the northern route Arthur had to wait five minutes for the train to stop, then he scrambled under a rail car and moved north. Arthur knew that a half-kilometer directly to the north of the rails there was a boundary between the industrial and residential zones. The aerial photos showed a strip of forested land in between that extended all the way to the river; he hoped it was still there.
Arthur couldn't see any lights to the northwest, but he did find an eight-foot high fence covered in vines, he grasped the wire in his fingers and pulled himself easily over the top. On the far side of the fence was an overgrown lot with lines of empty shipping containers parked inside.
Arthur sneaked past two hundred meters of empty containers, and came to a fence twice his height. A dog barked not far away. Arthur climbed on top of a container close to the fence, leapt and caught hold, rolled over the top and dropped down the outside.
A flashlight beam darted in his direction, but Arthur was already in the tall brush running west. The barking receded behind him as he sprinted along a rocky gully with thick vegetation to either side, after ten minutes he heard the rush of the East Danube River.
Arthur touched his fingertips to the cold water. He figured it must be fifty degrees already; unprotected, a man wouldn’t survive in that for long. The flood had subsided but the river was still above its banks and flowing in the middle at around 18 kilometers per hour.
He opened the packet and pulled out the dry-suit that he gathered from the training center; after squeezing into the insulated watertight suit he stuffed the rest of his supplies into the bag and strapped it to his leg using Tee's snakeskin belt. Sealed in the dry-suit with only his face exposed Arthur stepped into the swift current.
Samantha would have quite a surprise if the rest of his plan worked or a nasty surprise if it failed. Arthur had planned his own escape since midway through his first year, though back then he knew not to make the attempt until he was ready.
His sister's first trip was not to visit; Arthur needed an accomplice. He told her of his discovery, how he could disable the collar and how he planned to escape. Tee was as enthusiastic as always to be part of his plans.
Tee and Arthur had something else in common besides the odd behavior; they knew how to keep a secret. During her last trip they carefully went over every aspect of the plan and then said what might have been their last insults to one another.
Arthur never considered telling Samantha; that would have been too big of a risk for both of them. Though she had been confused by his insistence that she postpone her trip to California until September; she had, in the end done exactly as he wanted, so she would either be back in the US when he made a surprise appearance home, or she would be out of the reach of the Danubian authorities if his attempt failed.
Arthur wondered what he would say to her if he got back. Would she be angry that he hadn't shared his plan with her? Probably, he thought, but the anger would fade and they would get on with their lives.
It was bad about the wedding. Many people would be in for a shock. To make everything look convincing he had to go through all the normal steps required before a Danubian wedding. Jakt, Spokesman Ralkliv and his family, all of Arthur's contacts at the Church, and many friends that both he and Samantha had acquired during the past few years would probably feel betrayed. That was unfortunate but necessary; if he succeeded there would be no one there to wed, if he failed there would be nothing to attend but an execution.
He trusted one person with his life: his sister Tee. She had come through for him, even at the cost of sacrificing much of her own life to give her brother a chance to escape. Her diplomat boyfriend, whom she didn't even like, had the connections that Arthur needed to return to the US quietly without a passport.
Once he crossed the southern border she would be ready, with a change of clothes, transportation, and he hoped, a stack of hacksaw blades. The collar seemed tighter than ever now that he was just hours from escape, but it was time to focus on the present.
Arthur swam out to the fastest flow in the river's middle, then flipped on his back and stared up at the sky. To the east Orion the Hunter glittered in the pitch-black night. Eridanus the River meandered further to the south. Arthur had always thought this constellation difficult to find, but tonight enveloped in the cold East Danube waters it seemed that the stars were especially bright to the south. By dawn he figured he would be eighty miles downstream near the southern border.
* * *
Flurries blew in serpentine waves across the sidewalk and piled a centimeter high against the empty fountain. Spokesman Ralkliv was careful to avoid icy patches on the stairs. He took the elevator to the fourth floor and walked down the hallway to his office.
His secretary was busy filling out forms, she paused. "Sir, this package was delivered this morning; the courier said it was mailed from America but it didn't have a return address on it."
Ralkliv picked up the large box, which weighed 10 or 11 kilograms, and took it back into his private office. He sliced though the tape with a penknife and opened the top. Inside, strangely enough, was another large box but this one was wrapped up like a present with a bow on top.
Ralkliv lifted the wrapped box out of the larger one, cut the ribbon, and removed the lid. Inside was a curious collection of items with a letter on top. He read the signature on the last page, then dropped it and hurriedly dug through the box.
He felt its cold edge before he saw it. For a few seconds he just stared at it. The curved metal piece had been roughly sawed through right in front of the engraved # 88588. Other objects inside included some kind of a scuba suit, a flashlight, a wristwatch, a few tools and an envelope with American money in it. Ralkliv threw it all back in the box and picked up the letter.
Enclosed in this package are the items that I borrowed for use in my escape. The dry suit and wristwatch were taken from the MNR's water rescue center; all the other tools belong to Jakt. It was necessary to cut a perimeter fence on the south side of the Rika Chorna rail yard so I sent some cash to cover repairs. I was a criminal for over three years but I'm not a vandal or thief after all.
I wish I could have written earlier to explain what happened and to make clear that no one else inside Danubia had any knowledge of my plans. Not even Samantha knew; this whole operation was carried out with the help of only one other person from the outside, and I imagine you could guess who that was.
It took years of preparation for my plan to succeed, so I hope you don't take too much blame for not keeping control of me. The reason I waited to write this letter was that I had some difficulty convincing the US government that I am the same Arthur Liggett who was arrested overseas three and a half years ago.
As I'm sure you're aware there is no formal extradition treaty between the US and the Duchy, but being cautious, I wanted some extra protection before making my whereabouts known. It took four additional months to gain my new legal status; now, from what my lawyer tells me, so long as I stay in the United States I'm beyond the reach of your government.
When I showed up in California Samantha just stared at me like I was a space alien who had knocked on her front door. It was kind of funny; she didn't even recognize me at first since she'd never seen me dressed before.
Samantha was confused, angry, and ecstatic all at once. After a couple tumultuous months we got married in her family church (there are a couple photos taped to the underside of the lid). My mother and her third husband attended as well as my sister Tee. Samantha and I now live in Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, strangely enough it's not far from where I lived when this whole adventure began three and half years ago.
It was unfortunate that we had to part in such an unpleasant manner; I do appreciate all you did on my behalf but I needed to do what was in my own best interest. I suppose another man in my situation might have focused on reforming himself and learned to gracefully accept his humble status in life with honor and humility. But I guess my mother was right about me always being so stubborn and defiant - the only change I was willing to make was a change of address.
By the way, I didn't return the collar to taunt or gloat about my escape. When I got the thing sawed off in the hotel room rented by my accomplice, I just threw it in a box with everything else and took it with me. I didn't want to even look at the thing anymore, but it felt wrong to throw it in the trash so I decided to send it back to the Duchy with all the other stuff. Maybe it can be recycled into something more pleasant.
I hope our friends and acquaintances can forgive us, or at least forgive Samantha since she didn't mean to deceive them like I did. My contact information is written on the back of this sheet if any of them still care to reach us. I would be pleased to hear from you too spokesman, as long as it's not in your official capacity, that is.
With a furious growl, Spokesman Ralkliv threw the letter down and shoved the box off his desk; the flashlight, tools, and broken collar skidded across the hard gray floor tiles. He stood there breathing heavy for a moment then sullenly collapsed back into his chair with his head clenched in the palms of both hands.
"Why..." Ralkliv rubbed his temples vigorously.
Alarmed at the noise; his secretary hurried into his office to find the floor covered in all sorts of junk. Ralkliv was completely unresponsive, leaning forward in his chair holding his head as though he had a furious headache. He ignored her completely and just sat there asking that same question over and over.
"Why did I save him from the firing squad?"
Chapter 15: The Christmas Trip
Samantha Liggett stood in line at the local post office. She insisted that all the people waiting behind her go first. Most people were there to retrieve oversized Christmas presents. When it was Samantha's turn she picked up a different sort of package. The plain brown cardboard box weighed just about ten pounds and it had a Rika Chorna postmark on the lid.
She placed the box in the backseat of her car and drove directly home. She looked for an old Ford Bronco in the apartment's parking lot; Arthur wasn't home yet. Samantha carried the box inside and placed it on the couch.
She used a key to rip the tape. The shipping label had the name of her friend Katya on it- former friend now. Samantha had worked with Katya at the hospital for two years and even lived as a guest in her family home for a couple months after her release from custody. Katya, as Samantha's closest friend, had been looking forward to taking part in the wedding; the wedding that never happened.
Samantha opened the box. There were several personal items that she had left behind at Katya's home. Samantha had taken what she expected to be a short trip back to America. Then suddenly, inexplicably, she had answered the door at her parents' house and Arthur was there, just casually standing on the porch in a blue tee shirt and jeans. It didn't make any sense. Who was this person: a twin brother, a hallucination?
With a straight face, Arthur had said: "I'm looking to take advantage of an innocent young lady; have you seen one around?" Samantha had nearly passed out.
A little later she figured out what he had done and slapped him; then she kissed him again, then she screamed at him for taking such a risk and slapped him again. It went on like that for a while. Arthur thought it was awfully funny. That day Arthur thought everything was hilarious.
The days that followed were especially hard. Spokesman Ralkliv had called to report the disappearance of Criminal # 88588. Ralkliv described the circumstances.
According to Mr. Jakt and several other acquaintances, Arthur had complained that his new job was getting him out of shape, so for much of the summer he had been getting up before dawn to exercise. Every morning Arthur ran kilometers of city trails.
Several witnesses reported that at the end of his run, Criminal # 88588 always took a swim across the small river that runs through Rika Chorna. Afterwards, he would go back home, clean up, eat breakfast and then head off to work. On the morning of September twenty-fourth, Arthur Liggett didn't return.
Ralkliv described how authorities searched the park with dogs and searched the river using boats and divers but they were unable to find any sign of him. Then Ralkliv had to give Samantha the sad news: Arthur Liggett had likely drowned and was presumed dead.
Samantha had to suffer through all the condolences for her loss even as she spent her days with Arthur. There were messages from her friends, and Arthur's priestess, and the staff at the hospital in Rika Chorna. It hurt worst when Mr. Jakt called. Out of all the Danubians, he had been closest to Arthur. Samantha had little choice but to keep Arthur's real situation secret for a while; Arthur had so many tricky legal matters to work out first.
Samantha looked through the box that Katya had sent her. Katya could no longer be a friend but she had had the decency to pack up and return some of Samantha's personal items.
There were pictures in the box, photographs of her, Laura and Arthur, some photos of her friends from work, a couple pictures of her posing with the two kids of her first host family.
Criminal collar # 88634 was there too; she picked it up. With the latch pin removed it hung open in her hands. Looking at it made her shiver; she set it on the couch. At the bottom of the box was something wrapped in newspaper. She unfolded it carefully. Holding it in her hand, Samantha couldn't help but cry. The gray stone was roughly shaped like Idaho, with a shiny black trilobite fossil on one side.
She wasn't sad though, Samantha was grateful for her new life. Arthur had risked all to get himself free; and although he would never admit it, Samantha knew that he had waited because of her.
When her sentence was over and she was safely out of the country, he made his move. Arthur gambled and he won. All that deception and guile was considered dishonorable in a Danubian view, but it was still, she thought, a remarkable thing.
* * *
Samantha still had a couple more Christmas gifts to wrap and one more suitcase to pack. She packed Arthur's bag for him; otherwise he would probably take off without packing any clothes at all, he rarely thought about practical things. She had just finished when the phone rang.
Samantha slung her hair to the side and picked up the receiver: "Hello... Oh, Hi... Yes ma'am, I'm doing fine... oh, I'm sorry ma'am," Samantha laughed nervously. "Um... Clara, it's just a habit, I guess... yeah, I'm packing right now ma'am... we should be ready to leave soon... oh, no ma'am, Arthur went to get the car serviced... Oh, I'll be sure to tell him... it will be good to see her again... okay ma'am; sorry… I keep doing that.” Samantha forced another laugh. “Okay Clara, we'll see you then. Bye-bye."
Samantha breathed a sigh of relief to be off the phone with her mother-in-law. It had been a rough adjustment period transitioning from Danubian Criminal to free American. People didn't know what to think of her now. She was almost insanely polite and respectful; Samantha felt compelled to call everyone wearing clothes either sir or ma'am, and if people were standing in line, Samantha let everyone else go first before she walked through the door or spoke to the teller at the bank.
Samantha sat on the couch and went through her checklist again: their bags were packed, the presents were wrapped, the windows were locked and so on... there was nothing to do but wait. Ten minutes later she heard Arthur climbing the metal stairs, it was pouring down rain, a typical soggy Louisiana December. She met him at the door with a roll of paper towels in her hand; between Arthur and his nervous dog she used a lot of paper towels.
Arthur stepped inside but stayed on the rug, his hair was flat against his head; his shirt clung to his wiry frame.
Samantha put her hands out. "Don't move! You're soaking wet... just take off your clothes right there!"
"Are you propositioning me?" Arthur chuckled as he stripped off the tee shirt.
"I just wish I could teach you how to use an umbrella." Samantha put the soaked shirt in a clothesbasket and pointed to his pants. "Come on, come on... we gotta hurry, I've got your clothes laid out… everything's packed. Just hurry up!"
Ten minutes later they were on the road, Arthur drove north, heading toward the interstate. Samantha turned off the radio. "Your mom called just before you got home. I don't know; she always makes me a nervous wreck."
"Heck, don't be nervous; mom really likes you." Arthur grinned. "Except for the criminal record you're like the normal child she always wanted."
"Um..." Samantha said. "I guess that's a compliment, uh... you know, she wants us to go to church with her tonight. She said Tee's going to be there too."
"Really... hmm... I haven't been to her church in a long time" Arthur shrugged. "Well, I guess I do owe her one. Did she um... happen to mention the Christmas play in 1983? I think she's still a little touchy about it; just about every year she'd tell me and Tee how we ruined that play and embarrassed her in front of everyone."
"No, didn't say anything... what did you do?"
"See when I was growing up," Arthur began. "My dad wasn't all that religious, and that really annoyed mom. She'd say that 'at least her kids weren't going to grow up like heathens!' So every Sunday she made sure that me and my sister went to church..."
* * *
It was time for the annual Christmas pageant at the Plainsboro Methodist Church. A nine-year-old Tee was dressed as the Virgin Mary with a swaddled baby doll in her lap; Arthur was a thirteen-year-old wise man in a robe and long white beard. His mom and dad sat in the front row. They looked so proud of their kids... at first.
Arthur had been determined to make 1983 the last year that his mother forced him to act in a church play. That year, Arthur and Tee added a little intrigue to the birth of the Savior, changing the plot to make it into a sort of a who done it mystery.
The wise man backed up against the wall where he could reach the light switch, the stage went dark, the Virgin Mary screamed out dramatically. The lights came on again, the audience murmured and poor Joseph sat with his mouth open as a series of surprising developments occurred around the manger.
"What's going on here?" The wise man pointed dramatically. "The baby Jesus is... Gone!"
"Oh no!" Tee jumped up shaking her little fist at the audience. "Somebody stole my baby!"
The wise man stepped out to center stage. "Don't worry, Virgin Mary, I'll find your baby..." Then the wise man noticed something on the floor. "What's this... could it be a clue?"
Most of the audience sat in awkward silence as their mother scrambled up on stage to put a stop to it. Arthur's uncle slumped down in the second row nearly asphyxiating from inappropriate laughter.
'Teresa Anne Liggett!' Their mother whispered loud enough to make an echo. 'You go find the baby Jesus Right This Minute!'
Meanwhile, the wise man was slowly backing off stage; he badly wanted to go tend to the camels, guard the frankincense or... something.
"Arthur!" His mother trapped him in the corner, wagging a finger in his face; the lecture was too frantic to make out the words. At one point she glanced at the audience. Then, not wanting to make a scene, she grabbed hold of the Virgin Mary's arm and the wise man's ear and dragged them both backstage.
After a very tense five-minute absence, the wise man shuffled back on stage again; his face was bright red and he kept his eyes on the floor. The Virgin Mary followed him, sniffling, with tears running down her face; she carried the baby Jesus upside down by a leg.
Virtually everyone in the church heard her mother whisper from offstage: "You're dragging Jesus... you hold him right!" Tee sat in her chair, put the doll in her lap and cried.
Then the play restarted. The first wise man gave gold, the second gave myrrh, and then it was time for Arthur to do his line. He started to step forward and present his gift to the Savior but there was a problem. His gift was gone.
He didn't see his jar of Frankincense anywhere but he did see his mother glaring at him from just off stage. Arthur felt everyone in the audience looking at him, expecting him to give a gift to Jesus. He slipped a hand inside his robe to see if there was something in his pocket. Arthur walked out to center stage and knelt down in front of Joseph and Mary.
“From the Far East I brought this... um" Arthur put out his hands and cringed. "This gift of... um grape flavored Nerds... for the Savior to enjoy."
There was more inappropriate laughter from the audience then. Tee was still mad at Arthur for getting her in trouble; she grabbed the box of Nerds and threw it at him but it flew over the wise man's head and into the audience. Tee sat there pouting with her arms crossed. At that point the minister's wife decided to cut their losses and close the curtains.
It was raining and cold that night so his father went out to warm up the car. Arthur and Tee wanted to get away from their mom so they went with him. They climbed in the backseat and waited. Their dad wasn't easy to read; it was really hard to tell when he was angry.
He got the heater going, turned on the defrost and adjusted the rear view mirror. "So Arthur," his father said. "I don't recall reading anything in the New Testament about grape flavored Nerds."
"Yeah," Arthur admitted, "it was kind of a surprise for me too."
His dad smiled slightly as his mother reached the car. She was already in mid-sentence: "...been so humiliated in ALL MY LIFE!"
* * *
"So..." Arthur said as he finished his flashback. "That was the last church play I was ever in. Heck that was... um almost thirteen years ago." He decided to top off his gas tank before taking the interstate; there was a Shell station ahead.
"Well," Samantha said. "Maybe your mom will have her revenge."
"Huh?" Arthur concentrated on turned left into the parking lot.
"You know, like... poetic justice. She could watch you raise a kid that's just as much trouble as you were."
Arthur's smile faded. "You don't... um... you... uh..."
Samantha nodded and smiled mischievously.
Arthur pressed the brake to avoid a pedestrian homicide. Arthur yelled out: “Woohoo!” And then he reached over to kiss Samantha enthusiastically on the cheek and nose as she squirmed and people watched.
Arthur threw open the door. “Hey… uh alright; hold on! I’ll got get some stuff to celebrate. Want some wine?”
Samantha said: “I’m pregnant; I can’t drink alcohol.”
“Really? I did not know that. Twinkies, how bout some juice?”
Arthur took off briefly then he thought of something and stuck his head back in the truck. “Hey, why don’t we name her Zelda?”
“Zelda,” Samantha laughed. “We don’t even know that it’s a girl! And no, we’re not naming our firstborn after a videogame!”
Arthur took a sharp breath: “Oh man, we’re gonna have to take care of a baby; do you know anything about that?” Arthur turned to examine the convenience store. “Hmm… maybe they have some books or something.”
“Arthur, I’m not using a parenting guide from a gas station.”
Arthur continued unabated: “And then, just think… you’re gonna have to teach her how to walk and talk and read and do stuff and then later on you’ll have to give her the talk about boys and sex and… and oh man… then you’ll have to tell her about how her parents used to be convicted criminals and…”
Samantha interrupted: “I have to tell her?”
“Well sure,” Arthur said. “You don’t want to keep secrets from poor little Zelda do you?”
Samantha shook her head. “We’re not naming her Zelda.”
Arthur filled up the tank of his white Ford Bronco. He had bought it for just eight hundred dollars since it had been wrecked by its previous owner. It had a replacement blue driver side door and fender; four new tires, and a decent motor. It was good enough for a young couple restarting their lives again in America.
Arthur paid for the fuel and bought some snacks for the trip: spicy smelly beef jerky for him and a pack of Twinkies and apple juice for Samantha. He put his wipers on high and turned north toward I-10. Samantha found a song she liked on the radio and cranked up the volume. Singing loudly, she asked that most important of all funk-related questions:
“Won't- you- take- me- to… Funkytown?”
“Won't- you- take- me- to… Funkytown?”
Such a silly question; Arthur thought. What right-minded twenty-seven year old escaped fugitive spy wouldn’t want to go to Funkytown?
Copyright© 2012 by Ed Harley. All rights reserved. I welcome your comments. Email me at email@example.com