Our camp this evening was an old motel that had survived better than other buildings in the small town, though I guess that depends on your definition of survival. After a month in-country, my definition meant a roof and a high percentage of intact windows. An earlier visit by one of the UN reconstruction crews had set up a generator in the rear parking lot so at least there was running water from a nearby well and a few lights. When we got squared away, our team leader, Jean-Paul Cloutier, suggested that we build a fire. I could sense the hesitation in the other members of our group as we stood in the motel's vehicle area. The previous three nights, moving deeper into the disputed territory, a fire had been a fine idea, since I'd been sleeping on the ground under tents donated by the Belgians and we could hear the comforting growl of UN convoys moving out on a nearby two-lane highway. A fire was a bit of luxury. But tonight? So close to the inspection sites?
Jean-Paul clapped his large hands together, like an overwhelmed schoolmaster trying to impress his students. He spoke to us in English. It was the lingua franca of our little group. "I'm sure there is nothing to worry about, correct? Or else Charlie here would be telling us to huddle in a basement somewhere. Charlie, am I right?"
Charlie Banner smiled, kept his arms folded. He was in a camouflagedfield uniform of the U.S. Marines, had a light blue beret on his head and wore a holstered pistol at his side. The UNFORUS brassard hung from his muscular right arm. "You folks go right ahead," he said. "I'm sure things will be just fine."
Jean-Paul gave a twitch of his head. "There you go, then. Let's get some firewood, eh?" He was about a half-foot taller than me and plenty wide. The top of his head was covered with black stubble and he had black-rimmed eyeglasses. Like the rest of us he wore blue jeans and heavy work boots, and he had a thin down parka that at one time had probably been yellow and had faded almost to white. On the lapels of each of our parkas was a square radiation-monitoring device called a TLD, which stood for thermoluminescent dosimeter and which measured our radiation exposure in-country. Although we were scores of kilometers away from any supposed fallout, the instrument was supposed to make us feel better that any random exposure was being monitored. Trust me, the gizmo was only working at fifty percent effectiveness: no doubt it was accurately measuring what was out there on the winds but it was failing to make us feel any better.
Technically we were civilians and we stayed in civvies as much as possible. Although we supposedly had the customary UN disdain for men in arms, I knew that all of us in this crew were happy to have Charlie with us, even if he was an American.
I reached into my coat pocket and took out a small flashlight. I maneuvered myself so that I was next to Miriam van der Pol, a doctor from Amsterdam who had long blonde hair in a ponytail, a bright smile and a cheerful way of going about our dreary business that made her just pleasant to be with, like relaxing by a cool spring brook after a heavy day of hiking. Not that I was under any misapprehensions about Miriam and whatever little interest she had in me. I was the youngest and most inexperienced member of the group and I had no illusions that she would find me attractive.
Still, I liked being with her.
Miriam saw me and laughed. "Ah, well prepared as always, Samuel."
"It's getting dark," I said. "I don't want to be stumbling around in the dark."
She nodded. "Monsters in the dark, yes."
"If we're lucky, just imaginary ones," I said. Yeah, monsters in the dark. Here and at home, and I left it at that. I didn't like the dark, never had since I was eight years old.
I took her to the edge of the parking lot where fall leaves had already drifted down, and the sight of the orange and red hues made me think ofbeing back in Toronto. Just a brief pang, really, because I remembered only a few months ago being so eager to leave that stifling and safe and boring city, to go someplace exciting and challenging.
Like the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.
There were some pine trees with dead limbs on the lower parts of their trunks, pale white like bones, and we each snapped off an armful and made our way back to the vehicle area. From here we had a good view of the low-slung motel, the three white Toyota Land Cruisers with muddy sides that had the UN crest and UNFORUS stenciled on the side, and the hunched-over figures of our section clustered around a small fire. At the other end of the parking lot were four abandoned vehicles. A pickup truck, a Saab, a Toyota I couldn't identify and a minivan. All the tires were flat and windows had been shot out. A voice with an English accent came from our group, saying, "Get that fire going properly and I'll leave the stove in the lorry. A meal by firelight tonight, friends."
Miriam gently bumped into me and whispered, "Peter deludes himself. He thinks he can cook."
I gently bumped her back, liking the sensation. Who wouldn't? "Then we're aiding him in his delusion, by eating what he serves us."
By the side of the parking lot the empty asphalt road faded away into the distance. From the faint generator-supplied illumination from the motel I could make out the utility poles and the dead street lights, overhanging the roadway like tired sentinels. It was an eerie sight, all the dead lampposts heading into the equally dead town, and I looked back to Miriam and kept my gaze on the ground as we walked over to the fire.
Jean-Paul had started the small blaze with a cigarette lighter and Miriam and I dumped the wood in a pile, while Peter Brown, our resident Englishman and alleged cook, began unpacking small aluminum pots and pans. The other two members of our crew--Karen Tilley and Sanjay Prithan--went to the open lobby of the motel and dragged out some furniture: a small couch and four hard plastic chairs. I thought for a moment about getting onto the couch with Miriam but Jean-Paul had other ideas. He got there first and motioned Charlie to join him. Jean-Paul had a folded-over map in his thick hands and a small flashlight as well, and he started talking map talk with the Marine. I sat in one of the chairs, next to Karen, who was American like Charlie. Karen leaned over too close, her red hair tickling my face, and said in a low voice, "The hunt continues. Site A, Site A, all hail the wonders of Site A. What makes them think we'll find it?"
I stretched out my legs to the fire. "Somebody out here has to find it," I said. "Why not us?"
"Because Jean-Paul and that damn Marine move us too slow, that'swhy. Look, a week to go and if we don't find anything then a bunch of war criminals get set free in The Hague for lack of evidence. Guys who merrily set up a shooting zone near here where unarmed men, women and children were slaughtered. You want that to happen?"
I put my hands in my coat pockets. Karen's breath had a sour smell to it. "Right now all I want is a hot meal and a bed to sleep in."
"Sounds too basic."
"Basic is good," I said. "Hot meals are good. So are beds."
Her voice perked up. "So they are. You picked a room yet?"
I glanced over at the motel units. "One with a door and unbroken windows."
She nudged me. "Let me know which one you get. Maybe I'll need a roomie or something, if they run out of good rooms."
I looked at the fire and at Peter stirring something in the pots as he was joined by Sanjay. The firelight reflected off of Sanjay's eyeglasses, making him look almost mystical. Peter was a beefy-looking guy with short brown hair, who looked like he had gotten his muscles from tossing drunken customers out of London pubs. I said to Karen, "You're from California, right?"
"Right," she said.
"All the women like you in California?"
She laughed, nudged me again. "Some day you come out there, and I'll show you."
"OK," I said. "Some day." But I sure as hell wasn't going to hold my breath.
Miriam came out from our parked vehicles and gave me a bemused smile. Karen raised her voice. "Hey, Peter! How much longer? I'm tired of roughing it."
"Not too long, hon, not too long," he said. "Besides, this has been a marvelous trek, quite marvelous. You want to talk roughing it? Think of Rwanda. That was roughing it. Heavy jungle, roads of red mud, and the hundreds of bodies along the road, butchered with machetes and sharpened sticks ... At least this place is relatively clean, and we've got good roads. Not like Rwanda."
Miriam was unpacking some of the metal dishes. "Or Fiji. Nothing like Fiji, either. A Pacific paradise, filled with smoke and shallow graves and reefs with broken boats on them, bodies floating around in the lagoons. Too hot in the day, too stifling at night."
Jean-Paul said something that I couldn't quite hear, something about the Congo being even worse. As they discussed such things among themselves I kept quiet and let the fire warm the base of my boots. This was my firstassignment working for the UN so I didn't have any clever stories to offer. What few stories I had dealt with the university in Toronto and a former newspaper reporting job, and it seemed just too damn silly to bring it up. So I didn't.
OUR DINNER WAS a kind of stew from rations donated by the Americans--how nice of them, we all agreed--and was made somewhat more palatable by heavy seasoning. Peter looked thrilled at having successfully heated it up and I let him have that victory. We huddled in a circle around the fire and there was the talk of the mission, of Site A and of what we would find in the morning. While we talked and discussed and raised points about the search, the Marine, Charlie Banner, just kept quiet, eating his own meal, the firelight making his dark skin seem smooth and flawless. He was as big as Jean-Paul but while Jean-Paul was expansive in his movements and talk and actions, like he was always on stage, acting for us, Charlie was the exact opposite, moving slowly and methodically, trying to keep in the background. I always kept looking at his eyes. They seemed to have witnessed a lot of experiences, none of which Charlie had shared with us.
With dinner over I joined the dishwashing crew, bringing over buckets of hot water from one of the motel rooms, letting it drain from a tub spout into white plastic buckets with metal handles. Peter, apparently exhausted by his cooking efforts, sat on the fender of one of the Land Cruisers, smoking a cigarette. Sanjay joined me on one of the trips to get water. "You doing all right, Sam?"
"Samuel," I said automatically.
"Excuse me?" he asked politely.
"Samuel," I said. "My full name. Samuel Roth Simpson."
I picked up a full bucket in the small motel bathroom, looked at his cheerful face with its thick black mustache, and then said, "Sorry. Didn't mean to bark at you like that. When I was a kid I kept on being called Sammy or Sam or Sammy Simp. No good reason to keep pissing me off, but when I could, I just wanted to be called Samuel. OK?"
He smiled, picked up the water bucket. "OK. So. Are you doing all right?"
"No complaints yet," I said. But then again, the evening was young.
"May I ask a question?"
Sanjay walked with me to the door of the empty room, walking carefully, not wanting to spill the precious cargo of hot water. "It's about Karen."
He turned, now looking sheepish. "I noted you talking to her earlier. Is there anything going on between the two of you?"
"Not a thing," I said. "Why do you ask?"
"Let's just say ... I have an interest, that's all. And I don't want to interrupt anything you may be having. The gentlemanly way, you understand."
"Sure," I said, walking out to the parking lot. "But I thought you were married, Sanjay."
"Ah, yes," he said, smiling gently. "But New Delhi is quite far away."
"It sure the hell is," I agreed.
AS IFINISHED wiping down the metal cookware I had an odd sense of satisfaction, that I was providing some type of service to the group. When I had first joined up with the team most of them had been in-country for months and were wary of me and what few skills I apparently had to offer. The worst offender was Peter, who though he was exceedingly polite and gracious always gave me the impression that nothing would make him happier than to see me on the next chartered flight back to Canada. I had tried to say something about it earlier but he had said, "No, no, you get me wrong. No doubt the High Commissioner thinks you're important, and so you're here. It's just that I would much rather have a more, shall we say, traditionally skilled field worker with us. That's all. Now, excuse me, will you? I have real work to do."
Tonight, after the dishes had been put away and we were sitting around the dying fire, Peter was talking animatedly with Jean-Paul. Miriam leaned over to me--her hair not tickling me, I'm disappointed to report--and said, "I think Peter wants Jean-Paul's job."
"I think Jean-Paul wants Peter's stones," I said.
"Stones? Excuse me?"
My face warmed up some. "Sorry, stones. Slang for testicles."
"Oh," she said. "That was good. I'll have to remember that."
Then she left to get some firewood from the pile that had been set up near one of the Land Cruisers. Sanjay was saying something in a low voice to Karen that was making her laugh. Charlie was on his haunches by the fire, idly stirring the embers with a stick, and I was about to get up from the cold plastic chair--night dew was already beginning to form on the slick sides--when there were noises in the distance.
It went quiet all around the fire as every head swung round to face the dark horizon off to the west. Faint popping noises, like firecrackers in an ashcan, and streams of red and orange light, arcing up and then back downinto the darkness. Jean-Paul cleared his throat. "Tracer fire--am I correct, Charlie?"
Charlie stood up slowly, stick still in his hand with a glowing ember at the end, a faint trail of smoke following behind. He stood there for a long moment, staring out into the distance. His body shifted and I sensed a change in his attitude, of a warrior sensing a far-off battle and wishing he was there instead of escorting a group of UN workers who sometimes needed their hands held and their noses wiped. He cleared his throat.
"Yep, tracer fire," he finally said.
Peter spoke up. "So, chum, who's doing the shooting over there?"
Charlie dropped the stick into the flickering flames. "Hard to tell. Rogue militia units up in the hills, maybe, dropping some harassing fire. Or maybe one of the UN front-line peacekeeper units that got spooked and now they're shooting at shadows."
Now it was Sanjay's turn. "Are we safe enough?"
Jean-Paul laughed. "Where in this cursed place is anybody safe? But at least you're safe enough here, right, Charlie? All the maps say this is a pacified area, and if trouble does erupt, our bon ami Charlie gets on his radio and calls in help. Right?"
Charlie nodded slowly, just staring some more out at the horizon where the faint red and orange of the tracers rose and fell. I crossed my legs and looked into the fire. "The maps say this is pacified, right?" I asked.
Peter said, "That's what the man said, or didn't you hear him?"
"Oh, I heard him," I said. "I'm just wondering if the militia units are using the same maps as we are, that's all."
Karen gave a quick laugh but nobody else joined her. Eventually the tracer fire died away and it went quiet again, except for the low roar of a jet going overhead, its running lights doused, part of the NATO force supporting UNFORUS, I supposed. Charlie joined Jean-Paul back at the couch and then it seemed like the fire lost its warming touch, for everything had changed in those brief moments when we saw the tracers out there in the distance. Another little reminder--as if we needed one!--of why we were here and what we were getting into. Nobody was talking to each other, save for Jean-Paul and Charlie, and then Jean-Paul doused his flashlight and said, "Time to retire, my friends. You have fifteen minutes of hot water and lights, and then we switch off the generator, fuel supplies being what they are. All right?"
One by one we got up from the salvaged furniture and went over to the motel units. As I'd told Karen, I'd found a unit with an unbroken door and windows and had claimed it as my own. Nobody called out a good nightto me but I didn't feel bad, because I didn't offer a good-night salutation to anybody else either.
CONSCIOUS OF JEAN-PAUL'S warning, I took a quick shower and lit a small candle in a glass globe, which I placed on the shelf beside the bed. There were three locks to the door and I used them all, and then I placed one of the two chairs in the room underneath the door handle. The unit had twin beds, a bathroom and a low cabinet that had drawers in it. On top of the cabinet was a television set. I wondered what kind of people had come and stayed here in this room over the years, before the bombings, before the evacuations, before the fighting had broken out. At least it was clean, and at least there were walls and a roof. As I dried myself I switched on the television and got static. Most stations were still off the air after last spring's attack, but I was hopeful--one of my many bad traits, as Father would so often point out. At the rear of the television was a set of tiny rabbit ears, and after playing around with these and the channel selector, I was able to get a faint picture, flickering through the screen-snow.
I sat on the edge of the bed, watched the program. It was a UN news report, probably broadcast from across the northern border. A woman in a business-type suit was reading from something in her hands. Behind her on the set was the familiar UN crest. There was a slide barely discernible over her left shoulder, something about The Hague, but I couldn't make it out. I turned up the volume and just heard the harshness of the static. I wondered if it was due to the poor reception, or if some of the better-armed and better-equipped militia groups out there were jamming the signal. Militia. Such a soft term, I thought. "Death squads" was more harsh, more appropriate, but it was rarely used in polite conversation among the UN groups. Death squads worked in El Salvador and Serbia. They weren't supposed to be at work here. Not here.
I tried all the other channels. More static, except on one channel, where I could just about make out an old Michael J. Fox movie. Back to the Future, dubbed in French. I watched that for another minute or so, and then, as Jean-Paul had promised, the power went out and the room got very dark. Back to the future, indeed.
BY THE FAINT light of the candle I made sure that the sole window, overlooking the parking lot, was also locked. I drew the draperies closed and fastened them tightly with clothespins that I carried in my rucksack, and made sure that the bathroom door was wide open. In one of his few lettersto me, Father had warned me that if gunfire ever broke out in the area I should roll out of bed onto the floor, crawl on my belly and get into the bathtub. Better chance of surviving in a tub if shrapnel was flying around. It was a good piece of advice, probably the best one that the old man had ever given me.
I put on a pair of shorts and laid out my sleeping roll on top of the nearest bed. Earlier, Charlie had swept the area for booby traps, land mines and other nasty surprises from the militias doing their dirty work, but I was still cautious. In one of the staging areas where I'd spent time before flying up to join Jean-Paul's group I had heard a story about another UN inspection team like this one, bedding down in an abandoned hotel, and how the sheets and blankets had been salted with ground glass.
From my rucksack I pulled out a foam pillow, one of the few luxuries I'd brought along. The shape and smell of the pillow helped relax me in the dark, especially after a long day like this one had been. Next out of the rucksack was one of the two paperback books I had brought along. The orders from the UN High Commissioner's overseer of the field teams had been explicit: I could bring only a bedroll plus one rucksack for my personal stuff and another for my professional gear. After the pillow, clothes, toiletries, assorted candies and spices, I could barely make room for two books. One was a thin paperback of old science fiction stories from the 1940s and 1950s, The Green Hills of Earth, by Robert A. Heinlein. I read that whenever I was in the mood to read the cheerful--and failed--predictions of humans blazing out into the solar system, going first to the moon, then to Venus, Mars and even to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The other book was a collection of George Orwell's essays, and I read that whenever I was in a mood to read about humans' failings and foibles. Lately, this book was all I ever read, and I read slowly, restarting it right away when I'd finished it. I found tonight, though, that I was more tired than usual, and I blew out the candle after only a few pages of George Orwell rather skillfully dissecting the saintliness of Gandhi.
It would have been fun to have my Nokia cell phone at my side, to call up some buds from my newspaper job at the Star, to hint at what was going on with the world's biggest story, but the UN had banned those and other handheld electronic devices for the teams. It was like being stuck on the longest goddamned airline flight ever, for the UN were spooked that these signals could be monitored and traced by the militias and their government sympathizers. So no Nintendo game, no cell phone, no iPod for listening to tunes, though in any case the cost of workable handheld electronics had skyrocketed since last spring.
So I curled up in my bedroll, thinking about Charlie out there in thedarkness. I'm not sure when and how he slept, but he was always out there, on guard, and that gave me the tiniest bit of confidence to fall asleep. Two nights ago I'd had a full bladder and had made my way out of a tent in an overgrown hayfield, and there had been Charlie, sitting on the bumper of one of the Toyotas, sipping a mug of coffee, just nodding in my direction as I went out to find a tree to water.
There was another low rumbling and then another as two flights of jet aircraft passed overhead. Then all was quiet and I drifted off, in an abandoned motel in a small village in the state of New York in the troubled land that was known as the United States.
TWILIGHT. Copyright © 2007 by Brendan DuBois. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.