Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 113 in 2007.
Earlier that week the shorter of the two men shot the ambassador in the head and left him bleeding on the sidewalk while the taller man pushed the ambassador’s wife into the back seat of a dusty gray car. Both these men wore black masks and smelled of sweat and tobacco. The shorter man drove the car and the taller man sat beside the woman in the back seat. She was not crying but her fingers were trembling. Courage surprises us, the ambassador once told his wife. He said, It’s like that stray cat you’re always feeding. It comes to you when it’s ready. The taller man had covered the woman’s head with a dark hood that scratched her face and reeked of sour milk. This happened a block from the Hotel Tunisia under a bright North African sun.
Barker tossed beers to Henry and Leon and opened a can for himself. Barker said, Did you watch the news last night? Henry said, You mean Billy MacCaferty? Leon popped his beer and took a sip. He said, God, I loved the hell out of that girl. Barker nodded and said, We all loved beautiful Billy. Then Henry lifted his beer and said, To our poor Billy.
The late morning sun heated their shoulders, the backs of their necks. The water was gold and brilliant from the light. Leon had an eleven foot flat bottom skiff. The boat was painted dark green with a varnished gray interior. An eight horsepower trolling motor got them around the Newport News reservoir without scaring the fish. Sunlight reflected off the varnish of the boat, bringing a glare to everything.
I dated Billy during our junior year, Henry said. He reeled in his line an inch or two to keep it taut. Henry was small boned, delicate. He had thinning blond hair and nervous fingers. Henry said, That was too long ago, thirty years easy. I knew that face, though. I saw her on the TV and knew that face. The girl hadn’t changed in thirty years. I said to my wife, You know who that is, don’t you? That’s our Billy MacCaferty. In trouble again, I said.
We all dated her, Barker said. Even Leon here. Imagine our Leon dating Billy MacCaferty. Leon said he could imagine it just fine. Barker ignored him and tapped the bowel of his pipe against the side of the boat. Barker had a big black handlebar mustache and a smooth pink head. His arms and legs were thick and muscular with puffed veins beneath the surface of sun burnt skin. Barker said, I don’t want her dying over there. The whole decapitation thing is too barbaric to contemplate. Civilized people don’t need that grief, nobody does.
I don’t know why you can’t imagine me and Billy, said Leon. He was slim and tall and had a graying brown beard and tortoise shell glasses. I was more involved with her than either of you, Leon said. And not just high school. I dated Billy the entire year we worked at Langley. Leon never discussed his job. Barker and Henry taught physics at William and Mary and knew Leon worked at Langley but didn’t know what he did for a living. Leon and Billy were both data analysts in counterproliferation. Their job was to find out who had the bomb and who was developing the bomb and what countries were thinking about developing the bomb. They also collected data on how powerful that bomb was and who intended to do what with it. The Langley people wanted to know if these countries could be persuaded to stop. Then Leon took a sip of beer and said, You know I went to bed with her.
We all went to bed with her, Barker said.
The new widow was having difficulty breathing. The hood still smelled of sour milk and the material was prickly and dense. She had to breathe through her mouth to get air and avoid the stench.
Strong hands gripped her upper arms. These were the two men who had done the shooting and kidnapping and had stood on either side of her during the video. They were moving her again. Yesterday there were three men, the two kidnappers and the man who was filming them. The two men had black silk Thobs and black ski masks and each man cradled a Russian AK47 across his right arm. The widow held up a copy of Essahafa, a Tunisian newspaper, for the man filming them to record the date. Then she had read a prepared statement. She tried to stop the tremor in her hands and in her voice but had no luck. The statement said her husband had been executed for crimes against the faithful by the group Heaven’s Fire. Her husband was J.M. Williams, the ambassador to Tunisia. The statement said that the U.S. had five days to deliver two million gold. If the gold wasn’t there by midnight of the fifth day, Heaven’s Fire would behead her. The widow had difficulty reading the word behead. Her throat constricted. Tears appeared from nowhere and her eyes became hot and swollen. One of the two men nudged her back with his knee and she finally said the word.
Now they were moving her. They had covered her head with the hood again, that scratchy, smelly hood. The widow hadn’t bathed or changed her clothes in days. Three, four, she didn’t know. She wore the same white linen pants, the same white linen jacket. Her husband’s blood had dried to a cakey brown on the sleeve and lapel. Blood was on her favorite white cotton blouse, too, the one with the pale blue monogram on the right cuff. B.M.W. Like the car, she always said.
The widow felt the sun through the linen. They were hurrying down stone steps. The hands that gripped her upper arms were pulling her along. She couldn’t remember the last time she had slept. Sand was entering her tan leather sandals through the woven slits and rubbing against her toes and the bottoms of her feet. Run with us or I will kill you now, the man on her left said. He whispered it close to her ear. His fist punched into her lower back, the pain snatching her breath.
She kept seeing her husband laying on the sidewalk with blood around his head like a halo. The white, sunny sidewalk and all that blood, she couldn’t quit the image. This month was their sixth anniversary. They had a five-year-old son, Payton, who was named after J.M.’s father. The boy had red hair like his dad and frosted green eyes like her. He was a beautiful, sweet boy, everybody said so. No one ever spoke badly about her Payton. She wanted to go shopping for school supplies with her boy. She wanted to buy his pencils and his crayons.
Why did you stop seeing her? Henry said. He had just finished tucking a white handkerchief under his navy blue baseball cap to protect the back of his neck from the sun.
She met some guy, Leon said. He popped another beer and checked his line. He lifted the fiberglass rod and it bowed but not enough to bother with the reel. Leon tilted his head back and took a long swig of the beer. Then he said, I loved the hell out of her and she met a guy.
Women do that, Henry said.
Everybody does that, Barker said. He was digging the carbon from the bowl of his pipe with a small pen knife, his fishing rod held tight between his big sun burnt knees. Tell me the truth, Barker said to Leon. Are you one of those psycho bastards who buys an Uzi and gets crazy?
The Newport News reservoir was smooth and reflected the tall pines and oaks along the shoreline. Jagged brown trunks of dead trees cut the water like dark islands. Between the islands the glassy water caught the morning light.
Guns scare me, Leon said. He had sweat on his forehead and the sides of his beard. The round lenses of his tortoise shell glasses flashed the sun.
Leon would have enjoyed telling Barker and Henry everything. He would have enjoyed seeing their faces go dull. He wanted them to look at him in a different way. They thought he was so amusing, so unintentionally entertaining. You’re not one of those bastards who buys an Uzi and gets crazy, are you? Ha ha. Even Leon dated her. Ha. ha. Who could imagine our Leon dating Billy MacCaferty?
She called him twice a week on a secured line. They still worked together; last week she called him only once. The Italians had told her that yellowcake uranium was never purchased by the suspected country. That was her term, the suspected country. The Italians believed the suspected country’s production technology was nonexistent and no one should be shooting up the Middle East under false or bad data.
J.M. met with the yellowcake people in Niger, Billy had said. The Nigerians are saying what the Italians are saying. Are you listening, Leon? J.M. is furious. He keeps talking about going to the Times. The Times, for God sake. I told him no way. I told him he doesn’t have a clue how these things work.
A skinny calico cat paced and mewed beneath her window. The window was a narrow open rectangle, maybe three feet above her; too small for an escape but not too small for a cat. The window was cut into the sand colored adobe wall. For the past day and a half the woman had balanced herself on a wooden stool and placed bits of stale corn bread in the open window. She would also stare down into the alley and talk to the cat. She would say, Aren’t you the prettiest thing. Look at you, she would say. How pretty you are. Here kitty-kitty. Come to mama. Mama’s got some yummies for her kitty-kitty.
An hour before sunrise the calico cat had leaped to the window. The cat meowed and woke up the woman. She was lying on a straw mat below the window. The room smelled of her own urine and feces that was in a wood bucket beside the straw mat. Moonlight outlined the cat and made a long silver column across the dirt floor. The cat seized the stale corn bread with its tiny sharp teeth, leaping back into the alley. Billy MacCaferty Williams shut her eyes and smiled. She was making a new friend.
Rain clouds were coming in from the east, off the Atlantic. The clouds were dark and thick and slow moving. A slanted gray mist hung from the clouds, drifting over the trees and toward the Newport News reservoir.
Henry turned to Leon, his hand at the brim of his baseball cap to extend the shade. You might want to start the engine, Henry said. We’ve got maybe twenty minutes before that storm is on us.
Leon was wiping the sweat from his throat and neck with the bottom of his gray T-shirt. I’ll decide when we go, Leon said. You don’t think I see the storm? Believe me, I see the storm, okay? Then Barker looked up from cleaning his pipe and told Leon to stop dicking around and start the goddamn motor.
Henry and Barker should appreciate him more, his efforts, his patriotism. Leon started the motor. They should have fallen on their knees and thanked Jesus that Leon O. Shoen was on deck while they slept. He would have loved telling them his secrets and seeing that dismissive holier than thou look melt from their faces. Let them believe what they wanted, Leon was their captain, whether they liked it or not, no matter what they thought.
My husband doesn’t have a clue how these things work, she had said to Leon on their secured line. The extremists think the country in question is too secular, she had said. They want a civil war and need us for the heavy lifting. All we have to do is take out the current regime and accept their oil when the job’s done. Try explaining that to my sweet diplomat husband. Try explaining how the world works.
The taller of the two kidnappers always brought her morning meal. This was corn bread and water that had a rusted taste and some type of vegetable, usually red beets or raw cabbage. The water or the food or both kept giving her cramps and the runs. The two kidnappers refused to empty her wood bucket and the stench of her urine and feces was getting unbearable. She had even soiled her clothes, the white linen pants and the white linen jacket.
Last night the widow dreamt that she and her recently dead husband attended a New Year’s Eve party in Georgetown. J.M. was dressed in his Oscar de la Renta After Six and had a bullet hole in his forehead. She wore her white linen suit smeared with feces and blood. People who talked to them had a stiff face and needed to be somewhere else. Do excuse us you two, they would say. You know how these things go. So many people and hardly any time. J.M. became indigent. He’d say, But I died trying to save you and your boring friends. The new widow shushed her dead husband and apologized to each guest and told them that under different circumstances she and J.M. could be an entertaining couple. She kept saying, Stay awhile and get to know us.
Now she was alone and standing on the wood stool, arranging bits of the corn bread in the narrow window that was cut into the sand colored wall. The woman had dipped the bread in the rusty tasting water and shaped it into little balls. She had also placed balls of the corn bread next to her straw mat.
This was the second day since the video. She didn’t expect anyone to give two million gold to the men who shot her husband and kidnapped her but she did hope her people would try a rescue. The new widow was not without a plan.
The morning rain was gentle and cold and brought a rising steam to the surface of the reservoir. Henry and Barker held their faces toward the dark sky, eyes shut, and let the rain wash away the heat. Leon was guiding his varnished green and gray skiff toward the shore. The electric motor churned a silent wake behind them. Leon’s khaki shorts and gray T-shirt had become wet and heavy. Rain dripped off his beard, his hair. See, Leon said, I know what I’m doing. Then he said, That’s the trouble with you guys, you never have faith in me. Like I was some type of moron. Some retard. But I’m all right. I’m a good man, a man you can trust.
What I told you was between us, she had said on their secured line. This was her last call to Leon and a week before the two men shot her husband and kidnapped her. She sounded angry but in control, Leon remembered that. You’ve put us in danger, she said.
Leon had waited for this call, her call. He was showing off his logic, the justice in his betrayal. My supervisor needed to know, he said. We can’t have our ambassadors getting all pissy and running off to the Times. If Niger is telling your husband there was no yellowcake, then everybody will want to know why we’ve packed up and gone to the desert.
That’s not what this is about, she said, whispering it. She could barely hear her own voice. His motives were far too transparent, more personal than patriotic. She said, No one can help who they love, Leon. You must know that. Of all things, you must know that.
Why did you leave? he said.
Why do people do anything, the woman said
She was squatting an inch or two above the wood bucket, her linen pants about her ankles. Then her heartbeat quickened. The calico cat had jumped onto the narrow window.
Hello, kitty-kitty, the woman said. Her tone soft, even. Such a pretty kitty. She stood without a sound and zipped and buttoned her pants. We don’t want to scare our pretty kitty-kitty, she said. The cat was already on its belly, gnawing at a ball of stale corn bread between its paws. She could see its ribs beneath the dusty fur.
The woman lowered herself onto the straw mat and began unbuttoning her linen jacket. She said, Mama’s got more yummies for her kitty-kitty down here. She patted the mat beside her, near the two other balls of corn bread. The cat stretched its neck toward the food on the mat and studied the bread and meowed. Then the cat leaped on the straw mat next to the woman. It turned a tight circle and settled to eat. The woman began stroking the cat and felt it vibrate under her fingertips. What a good kitty-kitty, she said and pulled at the right shoulder of her favorite cotton blouse until the stitching gave way.
The cat began to struggle and mew but she held it steady, looping the sleeve of her blouse about its upper torso. She tied the sleeve at the cat’s shoulders with the cuff in view and the pale blue monogram facing up. B.M.W. Like the car, she always said.
The woman climbed onto the stool and lifted the cat to the narrow window. She kissed the tip of the cat’s ear and whispered, Be my hero, darling. Be courageous. The animal landed in the shadowed alley on all fours and scampered out onto a street of dust and sand. The white sleeve caught the sunlight and flapped behind the cat as it ran.
Three days had passed since the video; maybe someone was out there looking for her. Then Billy thought about her son with his father’s red hair and her frosted green eyes. She imagined him searching for his school supplies, this box of pencils, that box of crayons.