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The Messenger

By Virginia Jensen

 

We’d been watching the squat little stone house for two nights, creeping up the back way to our perch two stories above it and across the street, sacking out in the daylight trying not to be found, slipping through the streets with our uniforms hidden under Arab gear.

I don’t know which higher-up thought it would be a secret for long in a small town like this. If it was Fallujah or Baghdad we might have had a chance to get away without being noticed. We had to count on some rural ignorance, I suppose. Anyway, you do what you’re told, right?

It felt like about ninety, ninety-five degrees. We were all sweating just sitting up there doing nothing, and it was the middle of the night. But the stealth was finally paying off. We had been watching people coming and going since it got dark, like it was a train station. A motorbike, a horse and two camels. Everybody else was on foot.

“What do you think’s going on in there?”

“How the hell do I know. Just shut up and watch for anything that looks like a weapon going in or out. “

“Pass me those infrareds, jerk.”

“Hey, Pony. Behind you.”

Over the edge of the flat roof a dark head popped up, only a silhouette, small and hesitant. Six M-16s wheeled around in the dark and took its measure. Bloggett called out something in Arabic. “Who’s there?” or the like. He wasn’t a real interpreter, he just knew more words than the rest of us. A tiny girl’s voice came back; you could barely hear her.

“What’s she saying, Bloggett?” I asked.

“Tell her to get down off the roof and keep her mouth shut,” Al snarled. “And if she won’t go, you help her. Smack her around if you have to.”

“What’s she saying Bloggett?” I whispered.

“Something about a messenger.”

Al dropped down flat and crawled over to the child. He grabbed her under the arms and pulled her like a rag doll over the edge and onto the roof. Now it was an interrogation.

“Ask her what they’re doing down there. What kind of messenger.”

“I can’t make it out. She keeps pointing up to the sky. To Venus, I think it is. Wait. Sign. It’s some kind of sign - or an omen.”

“It’s a damn nuisance. All that light from just a star. Stars aren’t supposed to be so bright.”

Blackie volunteered a real answer. “It’s a conjunction with Saturn, and Venus is at the closest...”

“I don’t give a shit,” Al said. “Find out what she knows, Bloggett. When her buddies start killing your friends you won’t think she’s so cute.”

“Well, now you’ve got her scared to death. She was real brave, climbing up here.”

“Yeah, yeah, but it means they’re onto us. She could compromise the whole mission. They could be surrounding us up here while she distracts us. Stay awake, assholes.”

Bloggett tugged the girl loose from Al’s grip and pulled her away behind a stack of rubble.

“Shit,” Bloggett said over and over. He rolled back into position.”Shit. Shit. Shit,” till it started to sound like a gun firing in the distance.

“Why would she come up here, Al,” I said. “If they’re up to something she would have gone to the people down there, not to us.”

“Prob’ly some trick. Damn tricky terrorist bastards.”

“But it doesn’t make sense.”

“It ain’t supposed to make sense, dipshit. It’s a fucking war.”

Bloggett crawled back up behind us with the girl in tow. Her scarf had fallen back off her head and you could see her child’s face. Just a little kid, I thought. Somebody’s little kid sister. My own sister's face popped into my head - blond, blue eyed, and just as innocent looking. Her wide eyes betrayed some fear, but you could see the determination in them too. She kept saying something over and over in Arabic.

“What’s she babbling now?”

“Well, sir, best I can figure is something like ‘don’t shoot the messenger.’”

We all stared at each other in the starlight.

“Maybe it’s a relay point. Not guns, but information.”

The girl had recognized Al as the leader and was tugging at his sleeve.

“Get her off me, Bloggett.”

Bloggett pulled at her but she stiffened up. I was the only one watching the house at this point. A man in a robe stepped out the door and glanced quickly up and down the shadowy dirt street.

“Sarge,” I said, but he wasn’t looking at me. The girl had raised her hands over her head up to the sky and the floppy sleeves had fallen away from her skinny arms. You could see she’d been hurt. One brown arm riddled with jagged scars and three of the fingers on that hand missing. Her hair was choppy on one side like it had been hacked away and grown back different from the rest. Land mine, I thought.

She started up on some kind of announcement in hard, awkward English.

“He has come back.”

I heard a rustle down in the street and saw the man pulling someone else out the door. A woman. I put the infrareds up to my eyes.

“Sarge,” I said again, but he didn’t hear me this time either.

It was no weapon the woman carried gripped to her breast. A lumpy little bundle hot with life. I heard the girl going on behind me.

“He is our Guide,” the girl said now, bolder and louder, “our Counsel, our Messenger Naqeeb al-Ummah. He is the Luminary of Knowledge, the Ocean of Instruction. He will unite the Arab nations . . . !”

About that time things started to move real fast. Al said. “Fuck, I knew that was a terrorist house" and rolled back and reached his arm out toward the grenade launcher. I looked down just in time to see the man leading the woman with her bundle across the street. He looked up at me, calm, as if they were out on a Sunday stroll, and then they disappeared into the shadows about the same time the girl finished her speech.

. . . unite the Arab nations under a banner of peace.” She almost cried it out.

“Wait,” I said to Sarge. “It wasn’t a weapon.”

But his hand was already on the grenade launcher. About that time we heard a crackle in the air above us. A loud sputter and zap, like when an electric line breaks. Blue light popped overhead.

“Heat lightning?” Blackie guessed.

“Geez, what was that?” Bloggett exclaimed. And we looked around and the girl was gone.

“Shit,” Sarge exclaimed, “the damn thing shocked me.” He grabbed for the grenade again, this time there was no shock. But I knew he was too late.

We got down to the street and rousted out the building. There was nothing, only a small straw bed, some candles, and the smell of strange spices.