Thursday, June 1, 2017

Fiction: Unwanted President. Chapter 12

The Separation

By Ed Rogers

Unable to sleep, Tom woke Mary at five the next morning, and by the time Stepen came banging on their door at six, they were dressed and ready to go. Mary had been crying off and on for the whole hour, and as they walked down the hall, she held onto Tom’s waist with both apprehension and determination. Saying goodbye to Mary was one of the hardest things Tom could think of doing. In his heart, he knew Stepen was right; they would be after him, not Mary. That still didn’t make it any easier.
    Stepping out into the cold morning air, Mary was gripped by the realization of their separation, and she would not let go of Tom. The long, low, black cars looked ominous sitting in the white backdrop of the fresh snow. The smoke from their exhausts was swirling around their squat bodies – together they looked like a dragon from Hell.
    Finally Stepen said, “Come, it is past time to go. You should have said your goodbyes last night.”
    Tom pulled Mary’s arms from around him and kissed her tear stained face – first one eye then the other. As tenderly as he could, he told her they would be together soon, but she did not believe it. “I’m afraid, Tom. I know if I let you go now, I will never see you again.”
    “Mary, that is not true, I will find you when this is over, and we will grow old together. Now please get into the car before this crazy man shoots both of us.”
    Mary got into the back seat and she was looking out the rear window as it drove off. Tears were still running down her face. She looked like a small child who was being taken away from her home. Tom fought back the lump that was rising up into his throat – it was tearing his soul apart to see her that way, but he needed to know she was safe.
    Stepen was, if nothing else, a professional, and they were at the mercy of his knowledge. Mary would cross over into Germany tonight, and Tom hoped that nobody had noticed she was gone. Somehow, he didn’t think that would wash, but if Stepen was right, they would be busy looking for him – it was their best shot. She had friends in Germany she was going to stay with for a day or two, then start working her way across Europe, until she made it to Greece. That would be their meeting place – on the warm beach of a Greek island.
    This had all been like a nightmare he couldn’t wake up from. The SUVs, the Professor killed, the kidnapping, and Stepen shooting it out with the kidnappers – all this for a story that Ted was going to take one look at and fire him. Life was a crap shoot: you roll the dice and they come up what they will – sometimes seven, sometimes snake eyes. It was time to cut his losses. Tom was going to turn in what he could piece together of the story, and then meet Mary in Greece. Ted could publish the story, or not – Tom knew that Ted would need something to justify the bill for the fuck-up, so – like it or not – he would have a story.
    Tom was already looking forward to being in Greece with Mary. As her black car pulled out of sight, he had a vision of the two of them on a sandy beach looking out over the warm Mediterranean.
    Stepen’s voice brought him back to the cold streets of St. Petersburg. “We need to go now –a snowstorm is coming in from the west. It will be big and wet, and if we don’t beat it you will be stuck at the airport. Nothing good ever comes out of the west.”

It was not going to be easy for Tom to get out of Russia. He had been at the airport for three hours waiting for Aeroflot Flight 289. The snowstorm came in and the flight was grounded until they could clear the runway.
    Over the years, Tom had flown out of many an airport. Moscow was at the top of the list of douche-bowls you never want to be caught waiting in for a delayed flight. Tom had thought that, in Moscow, the airports would be more Western, but there was only one restaurant open in the whole terminal, and the food was not fit for human consummation. The lady in the restaurant told him this was a government terminal, and he was on a government flight. Even so, the place was a dump. The bar could have been on the waterfront, and been called “The Seven Seas.” Unless you were looking for a fight, that was not the place to be waiting for a flight. The longer it took the runway to clear, the drunker the crowd was going to be. He found a place to sit in the concourse, such as it was.
    The first leg of Tom’s flight was to Yakutsk, Siberia, where, God willing, most of the drunken miners would be getting off. Then across China and landing in Ho Chi Minh City sometime late the following afternoon, or maybe that same night, depending on what time the plane got off the ground from Moscow.
    Tom dozed off, and it was not long before he was back on the beach with Mary. The loudspeaker blared into life, and he knew it was announcing his flight because all of the drunks were falling out of the bar and heading for the departure door. Tom had a seat assignment, but it sure looked like more people were heading for that plane than there would be seats.
    Putting up with that many drunks in the terminal was bad enough, but now being pushed with them into the small confines of the airplane was creating a very explosive atmosphere. The drunken miners were pushing and cussing at everybody. Tom was trying his best not to make eye contact with any of them. As he got close to his seat, his heart fell. Someone was sitting in his seat.
    It was one of three seats together, and the three men sitting in them were asleep, or pretending to be. Either way, Tom wanted no part of asking any one of them to move. He just stood in the middle of the aisle, not knowing what to do. Then, from nowhere, the stewardess appeared and said something to him in Russian. When he did not answer, she took his ticket out of his hand.
    She looked at the numbers over the seats and then looked down at the three men. The stewardess was not a big woman, but when she turned toward the back of the plane and hollered for the other steward, she yelled so loud it hurt Tom’s ears – he had never before heard a woman with a voice that booming. All of a sudden it got so quiet you could hear a cricket chirp. Tom looked around to see what had happened. The biggest man he had ever seen in his life was coming down the aisle right at him.
    Involuntarily, Tom started backing away down aisle. All the while the big Russian kept coming like a mountain toward him, until he reached the Russian sitting in Tom’s seat. With one hand, he picked up the Russian and held him with his feet off the floor. The big steward was asking him questions, and at each answer, he shook his head no. Then, with the usurping passenger still dangling in the steward’s grasp, he headed down the aisle toward Tom.
    Tom backed all the way to the middle restrooms and stepped into one. The steward filled the doorway as he passed. The former passenger’s feet were still not touching the floor as he was taken off the plane.
    The stewardess came to get Tom and escorted him to his seat. The Russians on either side of him were not too happy about their friend being thrown off the plane, but they just gave him a bad look and turned away.
    Once they were airborne, the alcohol and thin air put everybody to sleep. The flight turned out to be a very quiet one. Tom was even able to doze off for thirty or forty minutes.
    He awoke when he felt someone shaking his arm. The stewardess was waking everybody up, and asking them to put on their seatbelts. Tom looked out the window but could see nothing but snow blowing past the plane.
    As the airplane descended, the wind from the snowstorm knocked it around as if it were a toy. Tom tried not to show any panic, but when he looked around at his fellow passengers and saw that they were praying and holding onto their arm rests with white knuckles, he knew this was not going to be the normal landing everybody had expected.
    The plane was hit by a hard gust from the right side and almost rolled over on its back. Tom heard people yelling, and he was not sure, but he thought he yelled along with them. Suddenly the airplane leveled off and the wheels slammed into the runway. The engines were thrown into reverse, and the pilots were standing on the brakes. Their speed slowed, and the plane turned toward the terminal.
    The passengers, including Tom, began to laugh uncontrollably. That was how close they were to dying. The laughter was on the verge of being hysterical. Even the two miners next to Tom had forgotten they were mad at him and began slapping him on the back and laughing. The plane came to a stop at the terminal, and the disembarking passengers forgot the landing as they began to fight to get their bags from the overhead compartments.
    An announcement blared in Russian that Tom figured out was saying there would be a six-hour delay while they checked out the airplane – he had caught the words six and delay, and he knew that it was mandatory in the States to inspect the plane after a hard landing. But in the States they put you on another flight.
    Tom wanted to stay on the airplane, but everybody had to disembark. Not wanting to fight the crowd and not looking forward to six hours in a Russian airport, Tom was the last passenger to get off. The terminal, unbelievably, was nicer than the one in Moscow. Although everything in the terminal was closed, it was clean and quiet. Perfect for a person to catch a nap on one of the long leather-padded benches.
    Tom was woken by the sound of the stewardess calling for everybody who was going on to Vietnam to board the airplane. Leaving the dream of that beach and Mary was not easy. It had been a rough couple of days, and the strain and stress had caught up with him. But he felt fairly renewed now – the six-hour sleep was the answer to his depression.
    Tom was looking forward to getting to Vietnam. It was always nice to see places you had read so much about. Maybe he could write a sidebar that would help sell Ted on printing the story. Maybe something along the lines of, “From the Killing Fields of Vietnam to the Streets of the Capital – A Soldier’s Story.” It had a nice ring.
    The atmosphere on the plane had changed also. It was as if everything was brighter after a few hours of sleep. They were serving drinks and food was being prepared. Without the miners on board, no one needed to be on their guard all the time. After eating, Tom thumbed through some magazines. The fact that they were in Russian didn’t matter. Tom had no idea what they said, but it became a game to make up stories to go with the pictures.
    He entertained himself with this game for hours. It was a good rest for his mind, but it was hard not to think about Mary, although he knew he had done the right thing. He kept worrying about her, and kicking himself for not asking Stepen to give him a way to contact her. If he was not careful, the worrying would consume him and he would not be able to think of anything else. Tom knew that that would be dangerous. He was going to a foreign country where he would be dealing with strangers, and one wrong move could mean his death. Tom needed to keep a clear head. Mary would be all right, Stepen could take care of her, and Tom would take care of Tom.
    He was the only one sitting in his row of three seats, so he moved over to the window to watch the sun as it came up over the China Sea. The sight took his breath. God, how beautiful! He wished Mary was there to see it with him, but he caught himself; he had to stop thinking about Mary if he wanted to get out of this alive. For all he knew, the guys in the black SUV would be waiting for him at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City. He was sure they had a better travel agent than he did.
    The dice were rolled – the plane would be landing, and he was going to have to deal with whatever was waiting for him on the ground. It would have been nice if Stepen had given him a weapon. Tom was not much of a fighter. It was more guts and abject terror than any skill that sustained him in a fight, but a gun would have made him feel a lot better. Tom spent the rest of the flight running through one scenario after another. It was always, what would he do if? The ifs had no end.
    Thankfully and mercifully, the seat-belt sign came on and the stewardess came around making sure everybody was buckled up. The plane landed in Ho Chi Minh City, but instead of pulling into the main terminal they taxied past the other airplanes that were disembarking their passengers and came to a stop by a special hangar where government workers were processed. The second the doors were opened, the heat and smells of Vietnam poured into the airplane.
    People were getting their bags and pushing their way toward the exit. Tom was a little overcome by the heat and smell. After all, he had just come out of a snowstorm. He needed time to get his feet under him, but the plane was starting to heat up very fast, and would only get hotter.
    He had to push his way out of his seat while being banged about by the other passengers. Tom managed to open the overhead compartment and pull his backpack out. He started toward the front of the plane. Getting off was going to be a hot, hard battle. Everyone was struggling with his or her baggage. Why didn’t anyone check their baggage anymore? As if putting up with them was not bad enough, now someone was pulling on his arm.
    Mad and irritated, Tom turned to confront whoever it was. A Vietnamese man in an Aeroflot uniform about chest high to Tom was pulling frantically at his arm. “Hey, I’m trying to get off this airplane,” hollered Tom.
    “No, no,” said the little man, “you come with me. It not safe you go that way.” Tom looked toward the front of the plane, and back at the Vietnamese. What the hell? If this guy knew why he was here, the odds were pretty good someone would be waiting for him outside.
    Pushing their way toward the back of the plane was harder than going forward. You didn’t need to speak Russian to know what they were calling you. Tom was soaking wet by the time they got past all the other passengers. The Vietnamese handed Tom an Aeroflot uniform that looked like his own. “Put on and leave old clothes in restroom.”
    Tom did as he was told, and was then put into the one-man elevator that went to the cargo hole. When the door opened the heat hit him full in the face and made him dizzy for a minute. He had heard stories about the heat from Vietnam vets, but stepping into it right out of Finland and Russia was like jumping from a snow bank into a hot tub – way too much.
    The Vietnamese stepped out of the elevator and said, “Come, we must hurry. Not safe.”
    “Wait a minute,” said Tom. “Who are you?”
    “I Nguc Minh. Means Shining Jade. Come, we hurry now.”
    Nguc Minh had Tom climb into the baggage cart and drove toward the hangar. They pulled up beside a gas truck and stopped. The driver of the gas truck got out and took Nguc Minh’s place on the baggage tractor. Tom got his bag and crawled into the cab of the truck. Minh got behind the wheel and they headed out of the airport.
    They turned onto Highway 1 and headed north. Tom assumed they were going to a hotel where he could get new papers and then go on to the States, but soon they were out in the countryside, and it didn’t look like hotel country.
    “Where are you taking me? I’m supposed to fly out of Ho Chi Minh City and back to the States.”
    “Change of plan,” said Nguc Minh. “Bad people looking for you in Vietnam and you have no passport. You not worry. We get you home. Take a little longer, that’s all.”
    Tom resigned himself to his fate and sat back and watched the countryside go past. He found it hard to picture a war going on in that country. It looked so peaceful. Farmers and their families were working the land and the only thing flying in the air was birds.
    So many lives were destroyed with the fighting in Vietnam, it seemed as though there would be some sign of their passing. But Tom saw no sign of the thousands who had died here. Maybe that was good for those who must carry on and pull a living from the land, but it was a sad footnote in history.
    Tom turned to Nguc Minh and asked, “Were you in the war?”
    Nguc Minh looked at Tom to see if he was joking with him. Seeing Tom was serious, he said, “If you were alive, you were in the war. The North killed my father and brothers. The South killed my mother and sister. I was baby and now the only one in family alive.”
    Tom saw that he had opened a wound that was better left closed. He spent the rest of the ride in silence. It was a dumb question, and Tom wished he hadn’t asked it.
    They pulled into a small village, and Nguc Minh got out and bought some rice for them to eat. Tom watched Nguc Minh shovel the rice into his mouth with his fingers, and followed suit. What the hell, when in Rome do as the Romans.
    Nguc Minh took the bowls back and bought a small bottle of something. Then he parked the truck under some trees and moved the seat back and got comfortable. He opened the bottle and handed it to Tom, who asked, “What is it?”
    “Ba Muoi Ba,” said Nguc Minh.
    Tom could smell the strong alcohol and said, “Thank you, but I don’t drink anymore.” He handed the bottle back to Nguc Minh, who turned it up and took a big hit off it. God, how he’d like a drink!
    Nguc Minh put the cap back on the bottle and said, “We sleep here tonight, morrow I take to big honcho. He gets you out Vietnam.”
    Without another word, Nguc Minh turned facing the side window and was asleep. He head said his name means Shining Jade.
    Tom wished it were that easy for him. He looked longingly at the bottle beside Nguc Minh, thinking that maybe one drink wouldn’t hurt, and after all, it would help him sleep. God knew he needed the sleep. His hand moved toward the bottle and picked it up, and he started to take the cap off. Then, shaking his head, he put the bottle back. He knew that he would have knocked off what was in the bottle and then would be back in that village looking for more. Maybe tomorrow, or the next day, but not today.
    Tom didn’t know when he fell asleep, but the truck started and brought him straight up in his seat. It took him a few minutes to remember where he was, and who was driving the truck.
    Nguc Minh said something in Vietnamese, and then repeated it in English, “You sleep with much noise from your nose. You would be dead soldier.”
    Tom couldn’t tell whether or not that was a joke. He decided it was better if he just let it go – he might not want to know the real meaning. Instead, he asked, “How long before we get to where we’re going?”
    “We drive two hours, and then take back roads into Triangle. Then three hours from there.”
    “What triangle are you talking about? We aren’t going into the Golden Triangle, where the dope dealers hang out, are we?” Concern had come over Tom. He had read a number of stories about reporters who went in looking for a story and were never heard from again.
    “Not to worry. Everything A-okay,” Nguc Minh laughingly said.
    There was nothing Tom could do, but it sure didn’t feel A-okay.
    A couple of hours later they pulled onto what Nguc Minh called a road, but it wasn’t much more than a trail. Some potholes were so big Tom wasn’t sure the truck would get out of them. They drove like this for about two hours.
    Suddenly four men in black pajamas carrying AK-47s stepped out from the thick underbrush into the clearing and stopped them. It was right out of a war movie, and Tom was half expecting to see John Wayne leap out and start blasting away.
    Nguc Minh jumped out of the truck, waving his arms and shouting. They were fighting with Nguc Minh over something. Then Tom’s door was jerked open and one of the men pulled him out, threw him to the ground, and put a gun in his face.
    “Nguc Minh,” Tom hollered, “what is going on here? I thought these guys were your friends!”
    The man standing over Tom hit him in the midsection with the butt of his rifle. Tom wanted to cry out, but he had no air. He rolled into a ball and lay there gasping for a breath. He could hear Nguc Minh raising all kinds of hell, but all Tom wanted was to be able to breathe one more time.
    He felt hands pick him up and push him back into the truck. He wasn’t sure whether it was Black Pajamas or Nguc Minh, but right then he didn’t care. The truck started up and headed down the bumpy road again. Tom forced himself to turn over and see who was driving the truck. He was somewhat relieved to see Nguc Minh.
    He pulled himself up into normal sitting position and asked, “What happened back there, Nguc Minh? Those sons of bitches were going to kill us.”
    “They think Nguc Minh pay to come down the shit road. They want fuel from the truck. I tell them, no fuel. We go, or big boss kill them and whole stinking family. They want to kill you, but I tell them you big shot buyer from America. They hurt you, they die. We no more problem now.”
    Tom was feeling better, but not good enough to get into that conversation. He was alive, and these days that was becoming quite the accomplishment. They bumped along for the longest hour Tom could remember; every hole and rock on the road shooting pain through his body.
    Suddenly they were out of the brush and at the edge of an expanse that seemed to go for miles in all directions. Roads edged with bamboo ran through a small town immediately before them and up through what looked like poppy fields into the hills. The town had huts people lived in, with cook fires and pig pens and children playing, and many huts that appeared to be work places. Some of the work huts had walls, some just roofs –thousands of people seemed to be working throughout the compound. Tom couldn’t see what they were manufacturing, but he had a good idea what the main product was.
    Nguc Minh pulled onto a long asphalt runway and headed toward a small hangar at the other end of the black top. A jeep pulled onto the tarmac and headed to cut them off. Tom yelled at Nguc Minh that somebody was after them. Nguc Minh looked around Tom to see out the window, and then stopped the truck. “It is A-okay. That the boss. You be good now. You get out.”
    Tom opened the truck door and stepped onto the runway. Nguc Minh drove off, and Tom was left standing alone facing the oncoming jeep. The jeep was an old WWII vintage vehicle. It pulled up next to Tom, and a man looking to be about 70, wearing a cowboy shirt, jeans, and boots, got out. “I’m Jake. You must be Tom Warring. Get in. We’ll go back to my hooch. I’ve got air back there, and we can get you out of this heat.”
    Tom got into the back of the jeep and the driver took off, nearly throwing Tom out the rear. They stopped in front of a beautiful house. It was a two-story Southern colonial, with a well-kept front yard and a large porch with, of all things, four old-time rocking chairs – right out of South Carolina. A white fence surrounded the front yard, and rose bushes graced the fence.
    As Tom followed Jake up the eight stairs and crossed the porch to enter the house, the jeep took off in a cloud of dust. When the air-conditioned air hit Tom, he had to fight the impulse to throw his arms around Jake and hug him. It was like stepping into a different world.
    “Come in and sit down.” Jake called a young girl into the room. “What would you like to drink, Tom? I’ve got everything from cold beer to hot rum.”
    “If you have water with ice, that would be more than I could ever have hoped for,” Tom replied. The girl was back in less than half a minute with a tall glass of ice water.
    There was a knock on the door, and the girl let Nguc Minh in. She turned and said something to Jake in Vietnamese. Jake answered her, and she and Nguc Minh headed out of the room. Nguc Minh was carrying Tom’s backpack.
    The ice water was the best thing Tom had tasted in a very long time. He set the glass down and asked Jake, “How am I going to get back to the States from here? And, if you don’t mind my asking, what do you have to do with all this?”
    “We’ll have time to talk about all that later.” Jake stood up. “Right now, let’s get you into a cool bath and a nap before dinner.”
    “I don’t need a bath or a nap. I want some answers, and that’s all I need right now.”
    “You’re wrong, my friend,” Jake said. “You need a bath really bad.”
    Jake clapped his hands, and a Vietnamese houseboy came in and bowed. Jake said something in Vietnamese, then turned to Tom and said, “If you will go with him, he’ll take good care of you. I’ll see you back here after you have rested.”
    Tom reluctantly followed the houseboy up the exquisite cherry wood staircase. At the top, they turned and walked down a long hall that ended at an ornate 8-foot-high door. The young Vietnamese opened the door and stepped aside for Tom to enter. Tom walked into a picturesque room with an oversized bathtub set by the window for the view of the gardens below. A king-size bed sat off to the side.
    Tom heard the door close behind him. Once he knew he was alone, he dropped his clothes and headed toward the tub. He slid into the cool water and it felt like medicinal balm to Tom’s battered body. His whole midsection was black and blue from being hit with the gun butt. He kept touching it, trying to find a spot that didn’t hurt, but to no avail.
    Tom laid his head back on the tub and almost fell asleep. The sound of someone coming in woke him, and he sat back up. He looked over his shoulder and saw two youngish Vietnamese girls approaching him with soap and washrags. “No, no! Please, I can do that myself.” Tom waved his arms around to emphasize the point.
    The young girls paid no attention to him. With one on each side of the tub, and disregarding Tom’s total embarrassment, they began to bathe him. He was thankful that when it came time to wash his private parts they handed him one the washrags.
    They finished with his bath and held up a large towel for him. Once he was wrapped in the towel, they pushed him toward the king-size bed, which had been laid out with clean white sheets. One of the girls walked out of the room, as the other handed him a pair of white pajama bottoms. She held the towel up as Tom pulled on the pajamas. She then motioned him to lie on the bed. Tom was not sure what was coming next. The young girl was beautiful and, at some other time, he would be very tempted. But right now sleep was far more appealing than sex.
    Suddenly the door opened, and he could see the other girl coming back. In one hand she carried a plate in which she was mixing something with her other hand. Tom was hoping it wasn’t some gourmet food – the kind the locals pushed on visitors, thinking they would love it if only they tasted it. Tom knew that if it had to be mixed on the plate before it was eaten, it would not be to his liking.
    The girl with the plate came to the side of Tom’s bed scooping up a hand full of what now looked like paste. Tom knew it would do no good to protest, so he just closed his eyes and opened his mouth.
    Instead of an exotic taste on his palate, Tom felt a cool ointment being rubbed into his midsection, bringing great comfort to his soul. After the ointment was well rubbed-in, the girls taped a clean bandage over the area.
    As the two girls walked toward the door, Tom realized that neither of them had spoken a word to him, or to each other. Now he heard them whispering and giggling as they walked through the door. Tom had no doubt where they found the humor in all this, but he was too tired and beat up to care what other people thought right now.
    As his eyes closed, he thought, Mary, where are you?
[Editor’s Note: The novel from which this excerpt is taken can be ordered from Amazon, as either a paperback or a Kindle book.]

Copyright © 2017 by Ed Rogers

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