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 email@example.com . 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 10: Unnatural Resources
The lake was deep blue and so wide that a person could see across it only from the high ridgelines a thousand feet up. Along the shore just a few national park campgrounds interrupted the expanse of undeveloped wilderness around the eastern side of the Rika Chorna Reservoir.
Ten criminals followed behind the ranger, he kept his horse at a trot so they were forced to jog along the trail just to keep up. Running with handfuls of rakes, shovels, and pick-axes was about as easy as it was quiet but Danubian criminals were accustomed to hard work. The steady south wind made for an unusually mild October day. In the forest leaves fell like yellow and orange snow, the sort they have in China.
The ranger crossed the small stream near the stables then brought his horse to a stop. He adjusted his wide-brimmed hat and turned back toward the trailing criminal work crew. "You," the ranger bellowed, "American."
He never had a horse, never rode a horse, never wanted a horse, but it was always Arthur who had to take care of the ranger's horse at the end of the day. Arthur didn't have anything against equines in general, but this particular horse had something against him, he was sure of it. Ears folded back, teeth bared, indignant snorts; this horse was evil, and to make matters worse the ranger ordered him to take it down to the creek and wash the damned thing!
Arthur put away his pickaxe and rake in the toolshed, then reluctantly gathered the bucket, soap, and brush used to scrub the hateful beast. Arthur was certain it subtly glanced at him with malicious intent as he unbuckled the saddle and untied the lead; he kept careful watch on the scheming horse as he led it toward the creek.
Ankle deep in cold water with the ranger's horse before him, Arthur decided to get it over with quickly, but as soon as he reached down to retrieve the brush from the soapy water the beast took advantage of his momentary lapse in vigilance and bit down hard on Arthur's left shoulder with its pointy evil horse teeth. He jerked away from its huge jaws and thick rubbery lips and stared with unrestrained fury into its long wicked face. Arthur's sequence of horse-related insults ranged over three languages, lasted a full minute, and gave no thought toward decency, wholesomeness, or subject verb agreement.
Throughout the whole tirade the horse just stood there, like it was completely innocent and hadn't done a thing. Arthur glared at it and rubbed his shoulder; feeling an arc of horse tooth indentions sore under his fingertips.
"Evil deceptive horse," Arthur screamed in half English half Danubian. "Now you act like you didn't bite me?" Arthur looked into the depths of its wicked eye... they were set too wide apart to stare at both. They dared one another- the horse was testing his resolve, Arthur was sure. The hateful abyss of the beast's large black orbs taunted him, but he was determined to meet its defiant gaze.
"What are you doing?" The ranger was back to check on his horse. "Rinse him off and take him to the stable." The ranger clapped his hands rapidly and spoke in a condescending tone. "Hurry up." A dejected Arthur retrieved the bucket and did as he was ordered; the horse had won this time... but next time... ooh, yes... next time.
* * *
A ranger drove Arthur back to Rika Chorna right after work on the 8th of November. He met Samantha outside her host family's house after she had put the kids to bed; they hurried through the cold night air. A band performed on stage as they walked through the criminal's club toward the rooms in the back.
"Arthur, I didn't even know you were coming back today; is the job at the lake finished?" Samantha shut the door and flopped back on the mattress.
"No,” Arthur said nervously. “That’ll go on until it gets pretty cold, I guess. They brought me back because tomorrow's the 9th."
"The ninth... oh god… the switching, I forgot." Samantha turned white. "I'm really sorry."
Arthur sat down beside her. "Don't worry about it; I can survive another one." He sounded like he was trying to convince himself more than Samantha.
"That policewoman hates you; I watched the way she looked at you."
"Yeah, I noticed."
“I missed you." Samantha leaned over and kissed him softly on the lips. "When do you have to go back up to the reservoir?"
"The tenth," Arthur took a breath as he thought of something. "Uh... Are you busy tomorrow evening? I was thinking about attending one of their church services, I thought you might want to join me."
Samantha looked surprised. "I thought you were an atheist."
"Oh... I don't know," Arthur shrugged. "I believe in whatever's convenient, I guess, but never mind that. See, I think that attending their church could benefit me. From what I understand, a judge sometimes reduces a criminal's sentence for good behavior or an act of heroism. I haven't come up with anything heroic to do yet... well, I have been watching for some tourist to fall off the docks so I could rescue them, but they have pretty good balance so far."
"The good behavior route hasn't been going so well either, I started out with a bad reputation and I think it's gotten even worse. So my next plan is to convert to the Danubian religion. I thought maybe that would help my image. Danubians might think I'm reforming myself, finding the Correct Path in Life and all that."
"Arthur," Samantha said. "I'm already a member of a church; I'm not going to join some pagan religion."
"Oh, come on,” Arthur urged: “I'm pretty sure they'll not make you sacrifice a chicken or anything, besides you don't have to join. Just go and watch."
"Well," Samantha said. "I… I guess it wouldn't hurt to go watch but I'm not going to do anything."
"I'd worship flying monkeys if I got something out of it." Arthur smirked. "This first trip though, I just plan on observing. I want to know how people are expected to act before I go any further." Arthur swallowed hard and paused. "I have to be extra cautious, especially after what happened during the Day of the Dead."
"No shit! That was the only time I ever saw Spokesman Ralkliv at a loss for words."
Arthur shrugged. "I still don't think it was my fault. I mean I just got back to Rika Chorna that morning... no one explained that shit to me. As I see it, it was their fault for not being clear. If you paint a foreigner up like a zombie, you should make sure that person understands that he is not in a Halloween parade... and that he's not supposed to act like a zombie."
"Arthur, I don't think this place has done good things for your head. Do me a favor and don't go completely nuts, I really don't want to have to date a Danubian. I swear, if I hear one more word about my honor I'm going to puke!" Samantha grinned. "So... what's it like up on the lake? It’s not as bad as the labor camp is it?"
"The work's similar but the staff is nicer. I dig, rake, stack rocks, and such. It's not bad work really, except for this terrible horse that I have to take care of. You should see the way it looks at me and it bites me whenever it gets a chance and then it acts like..."
Samantha sighed and stretched back on the mattress. She arched her back seductively and opened her knees wide apart giving her lover a fine view. Samantha wet her lips with the tip of her tongue and held Arthur’s attention with her hungry green eyes. Arthur watched her right hand slide down her firm stomach to go between her thighs, rubbing nimble fingers teasingly over her plump sex. Samantha’s other hand alternately squeezed her breasts and played with her stiff nipples.
"Ooh Arthur,” Samantha undulated her hips and moaned loudly: “When you talk about horses it makes me sooo wet!"
Arthur sat there grinning and enjoying the show: “Really?”
Samantha giggled and grabbed ahold of Arthur’s erection. “God, you’re so stupid sometimes.”
* * *
People wrapped in scarves and heavy winter coats hurried along the sidewalk toward their destinations. Arthur was the last one off the bus; he was also the one person who really didn't want to retreat indoors. He slowed and then came to a complete stop on the bottom step at the entrance to the Police Headquarters. A cold front had passed through the previous night, though the morning sky was mostly clear a few snow flurries blew toward the southeast. Arthur wasn't wearing anything other than work boots but the temperature was the last thing on his mind. He stood there until his skin was numb from the cold. A woman behind him complained about the stupid criminal blocking the stairs while she was freezing to death. Arthur stepped to the side and let the woman, who seemed dressed for an arctic expedition, pass by. It was hard to move forward, so hard to climb those steps and report to his spokesman's office on the day of his third scheduled judicial punishment. There was really no alternative though, Arthur tried to convince himself; it was simply something he had to do. He willed himself to start walking again; Spokesman Ralkliv was waiting inside his office when Arthur arrived.
Ralkliv was very businesslike; he offered some food and coffee, though Arthur refused both. How a criminal could eat at a time like this was baffling and as for the coffee, Arthur felt alert enough already. For fifteen minutes he sat and waited for the policewoman and her partner to arrive. Even though he was on the fourth floor of the police headquarters with a tracking collar on his neck the police still felt the need to handcuff his hands behind his back; with a firm grip on his arm Officer Stashak marched him steadily toward his destination: a long corridor in the basement with five rooms along the right side. Sobbing noises could be overheard as they passed by two of the doors. Arthur was taken to the last room in the hall. The room was almost square, six meters across, with concrete floor, bright lighting, and a thick wooden door. A sturdy metal table stood waist-high near the middle of the room, three folding chairs were along one wall and the camera operator had his equipment set up in the back corner two meters from the judge's desk.
Arthur recognized the judge as the woman who had sent him to the hard labor camp. A witness was present. The woman looked about thirty, attractive but underweight and far too pale, her sharp features and black hair, matched her cold expression; yet she looked somehow familiar. Everyone in the room except Spokesman Ralkliv seemed hostile and ready to enjoy his pain.
Arthur lowered himself before the policewoman and kissed the shoes of his tormentor, seconds passed between this degrading act and the tap on his shoulder.
"Criminal # 88588, you will position yourself on the punishment table before I lose my patience."
Arthur stood up and walked to the end of the table that faced the Judge, he put his ankles against the leather restraints that were bolted securely to each steel table leg. Watching closely, Officer Stashak tapped her switch impatiently against her left palm. He knew he couldn't delay; Arthur bent forward at the waist ninety degrees exposing him to the punishment that was soon to come. He stretched out across the cold metal tabletop and placed his wrists across leather restraints that were polished from frequent use.
As Stashak strapped him down, Arthur glanced toward the witness. He realized where he had seen her before: in the newspaper. It was the wife of the injured policeman here to see justice done. It only got worse. Stashak efficiently bound his ankles, wrists, and midsection to the table then she stepped back and swished the flexible switch through the air a few times to let her victim sweat it out in anticipation of the first stroke.
Arthur heard the high-pitched whistle and the snap of leather against skin. Then a line of burning pain formed along the right side of his buttocks. Arthur wasn't expecting the first hit so soon, he jerked, and a barely audible gasp escaped his lips. As the pain faded he concentrated on being calm, still, and defiant. The officer struck nine more times, moving lower with each vicious blow. Stashak paused to run her fingertips over painful welts looking for a reaction; not getting one, she stepped to her left and took aim at unmarked skin.
Methodical and cruel, Stashak struck hard and then paused many seconds to give Criminal # 88588 plenty of time to dread the next brutal stroke of her switch. It was not just the pain but also the wait that wore on a criminal's mind during a punishment, knowing that a police officer could take as long as she wished to inflict the fifty strikes. Ten welts on each side and criminal # 88588 was desperately trying to remain still, his skin was wet with sweat and he pressed his forehead hard against the table. She struck mercilessly five times along the back of his right thigh, and observed the criminal's uncontrolled tugging against his restraints with every stroke, it wouldn't be long she knew. Stashak started her methodical assault on the left side. Criminal # 88588 groaned after the switch landed, she knew she was close to breaking him now. Four more strikes in quick succession caused the American to finally cry out. Stashak was pleased, she glanced to the wife of her former partner, who came to see Criminal # 88588 suffer for his crimes. The woman looked even more pale than usual.
Officer Stashak had gotten a good response with her last hard strike but now was not the time to hurry; she would give the American spy the long painful beating he deserved. She waited for his breathing to slow before getting back into position; there was a solid mass of red welts that had swollen across the criminal's bottom; it would be excruciating when she began to overlap them.
On the next strike Criminal # 88588 made a suppressed groan and then couldn't even breath for several seconds, after a long pause she put all her strength into a stroke across the center of both cheeks. He screamed. Ralkliv, the arrogant spokesman that got the American out of the death sentence he deserved, rose out of his chair to check for blood. There was none of course, there were plenty of broken capillaries under the surface, but Stashak knew exactly what she could get by with without breaking the skin and stopping the punishment early. Criminal # 88588 would have no such luck. Six more strikes resulted in more agonized screams as swollen tortured skin took more punishment, she was sure to wait minutes in between strikes to let the American appreciate the pain fully and dread her next blow.
Ralkliv watched carefully now for broken skin, at length he decided to direct her blows to the back of his client's thighs. Officer Stashak was pleased to accommodate him by striking twice on each leg, covering previous welts in new lines of pain for the American spy to feel. The final eight hard blows were directed to the unmarked skin of the criminal's shoulders; Stashak put all her strength into these last blows and got the loud responses she wanted. Ninety minutes under her care had reduced criminal # 88588 to a trembling mess who was hurting so bad he could barely breathe. Officer Stashak looked over to see Mrs. Andreis's disturbed expression; she had probably never witnessed a judicial switching up close before.
Stashak admired her work as she freed the American from his bonds, virtually every centimeter of the criminal's buttocks and thighs were covered in purple welts and the eight red lines across his back were already turning dark and swelling. She ordered him to his feet, and brought him close to the judge for inspection; there could be no doubt he got the full punishment today. Watching Criminal # 88588 kiss her shoes and thank her for the punishment in a hoarse trembling voice made Officer Stashak feel smug. How could one not feel proud after a job so well done?
* * *
Arthur carefully got up from the recovery table and decided to make his way outside. He shuffled slowly through the busy lobby at the ground floor of the Police Headquarters, people all around turned to see the welts covering the backside of the humiliated criminal. A cold west wind hit Arthur in the face as he stepped out the main entrance. Most of the people outside wore winter coats; Arthur hadn't bothered to even put on boots. He stood on a patch of brown grass and turned his back into the wind; it felt good. The throbbing burning of the fifty welts eased somewhat. Five minutes in the cold had reduced the pain considerably, though his hands and especially feet were almost frozen and the metal collar seemed to suck all the heat out of his skin on such a cold day. Arthur boarded a bus headed west toward Jakt's house. Free people on board the bus whispered and openly stared at his punished body as Arthur walked down the aisle; in Danubia a criminal's humiliation and torment was a spectator sport.
Arthur shivered uncontrollably as he walked the last hundred meters to Jakt's front yard; shivering hurt, walking hurt, breathing hurt; when it was warm out even sweating seemed to hurt after a switching. With hands too numb to grip, Arthur pushed the gate open and walked past the concrete mixer that Jakt had been working on in the front yard. The junky antique doorknob had to be twisted just right as the warped door was pulled flat against the doorjamb. Arthur got it right after a few attempts, when the door swung open Jakt was right in front of him.
"Arthur it must be two below! You're going to freeze… you're not even wearing shoes!" Jakt started to help him inside until Arthur waved him off; he didn't want anyone touching his shoulders.
"Thought the cold air would... do me good." Arthur rubbed his numb hands together. "Reduce the swelling, maybe."
Jakt shut the door. "Humph... Freeze to death more likely. Go over to the stove and warm up. Are all Americans as crazy as you are?"
"I can tell you that they don’t want me back."
“You have family and friends, I’m sure.” Mr. Jakt said.
Arthur’s laugh was rough and dry as his throat. “Dad’s dead, mom’s ashamed of me, none of my old friends have even bothered to write, and the US government isn’t going to lift a finger to help me.” Arthur’s legs trembled as he stared down at Mr. Jakt’s old gray linoleum. It was weathered and lined with age like the old man’s face. Everything within the house was old, frozen decades in the past.
Mr. Jakt grasped Arthur’s forearm to gain his attention. "Arthur, I want you to know that you have a home here now. You are always welcome at my table."
"Mr. Jakt, I..." Arthur tried to control the shaking. "I know the way most people feel about me here. I imagine your neighbors didn't like it when you took me in."
"I'm too old and cranky to worry about what everyone else thinks. I make up my own mind, no matter what meddling relatives or neighbors say. When Hradekt... Spokesman Ralkliv asked for my help I couldn't turn him down, you see he and my son used to be good friends back in school, as a boy he spent more time at my house than he did at his own." There was a look of pain and sadness, Arthur knew he had a son who died long ago but Jakt never talked about it.
"You would have liked my boy, he was always laughing; my wife thought I was a bad influence on him. He was a little rebellious but never did any harm... well, he painted the cat lime green one time but that was it. He loved animals, sometimes he would catch lizards or snakes and bring them right into the house and his mother would scream." Jakt had a distant look. "We used to camp out by the lake all the time, he loved to swim..."
Arthur warmed up by the stove and feeling returned. Jakt noticed the pain in Arthur's expression. "I have just the medicine that will make you feel better, and old friend of mine brought me a couple bottles last week, and I haven't tried it out yet; made from black currants." He retrieved a dark wine bottle from the cabinet and poured two small glasses.
Arthur sipped the silky dark liquid. "That's really good... medicine Mr. Jakt; I feel better already."
"Have you gone to where Rika Chorna River spills into the lake?" Jakt asked.
Arthur nodded. "They had us repairing a washed out hiking trail on the north side of the river."
Jakt smiled crookedly. "We used to rent a little cabin over on the north bank and spend a week up there every summer. My boy caught his first fish right on that riverbank when he was only five years old. He just cast in his lure when a huge pike-perch struck, it was 60cm long at least; he refused all help and pulled it in all by himself." Jakt chuckled. "He got so mad when he found out I wanted to cook it, he grabbed it up in his arms and said he was taking it back home and letting it live in the bathtub." We finally compromised and let it go back into the river." Jakt's smile faded. "You know, that really doesn't seem like so long ago."
A couple glasses the wine made Arthur think less about the pain, now he simply felt exhausted, the sleepless night and the stressful morning took its toll. Jakt was still drinking when Arthur excused himself to go lay down a while.
* * *
Arthur didn't sleep; he just rested. The fifty welts throbbed with every pulse; his wrists were sore too, he had pulled so hard to break free. After lying in bed for an hour, Arthur decided he had had enough; the dried sweat felt sticky and dirty.
Feeling absolutely subhuman and smelling like something dead, he managed to get up while keeping his legs nearly straight. Arthur groaned as he stiffly shuffled down the shadowy hallway; loose floor boards creaked underfoot, his metal collar reflected lamplight. In the front room Mr. Jakt had the door to his woodstove open; he crouched down stoking the fire. When Mr. Jakt looked up Arthur nearly said: "Fire Bad!" like Frankenstein's monster. He turned into the bathroom instead; Mr. Jakt never got his movie references anyway.
Arthur felt better after bathing; he got out his notebook and wrote a four page letter to his sister and then it was nearing church time. He told Mr. Jakt that he'd be out late and then Arthur took a deep breath and stepped out into the shockingly cold evening air. He had on his work boots and nothing else; Samantha insisted that the government issued orange poncho was simply too unfashionable to wear, even at night.
Arthur met Samantha at her host's house and then they boarded a bus and then a trolley took them the final distance downtown. They exited onto a wide stone walkway that led to the church. It was easy to see which people were heading to the Cathedral; all worshipers excepting penitents and criminals wore traditional black prayer robes.
Samantha marveled at how many people walked toward the Church on such a blustery evening: "Gotta be a couple hundred at least."
"Those robes don't look very thick either, and I think they're naked underneath..." Arthur watched as a particularly strong gust hit a group of worshipers as they climbed the polished marble stairs. "Yep... they're naked alright!"
"Ooo..." Samantha shivered. "I'm freezing my...everything off." Samantha hugged up close to Arthur as they waited in line to enter. “It's gotta be warm in there!"
When they passed through the two ancient wood and bronze doors Samantha and Arthur just watched and waited, trying to do what everyone else did. People sat on benches and removed their shoes. They stored their footwear in a long narrow side room lined with shelves. Arthur put two pair of criminal boots into a cubby space and when he came back out most of the worshipers had taken their places inside the gigantic main hall.
Arthur frowned. This didn't look like a Christian church at all. Where were criminals, foreigners, nonbelievers supposed to go? A slim young woman in a full length black dress saw their confusion and walked toward them.
Samantha whispered: "Do we have to kneel?"
"I don't think so..."
The priestess said a few words that Arthur didn't recognize, something from their scriptures maybe.
"Ma'am; this is our first time going to church... a Danubian service I mean and um... we don’t know what to do." Arthur gestured: "This is Samantha Sherman, my name is Arthur Liggett."
As soon as she heard the accent she understood. The priestess spoke slowly and clearly, introducing herself with a name that Arthur was sure he couldn't pronounce without practice.
"It is good to have you here at the temple,” the priestess handed Samantha the last copy of the hymns and seemed embarrassed that she didn’t have one for Arthur.
"Thank you," Arthur said. "One's good enough ma’am… or uh… priestess, Samantha reads a lot better than I do anyway."
The priestess’s brow furrowed: "Have you not been here long?"
"About half a year."
The priestess didn’t approve. "Are you not in a language class?"
"Samantha is. I haven't really had the chance. I have been trying to teach myself though."
She tilted her head slightly, scrutinizing Arthur. "Have we met? You seem familiar."
Arthur shifted uncomfortably; he hated being recognized. "Uh... it's possible that you could have seen me on television or in the newspaper, I'm the uh... spy."
She took a sharp breath and nodded slightly. "Oh yes I... I remember." She looked to each criminal in turn in a friendly way: "You are both welcome here... please come this way."
Arthur and Samantha attended their first Danubian Church service that night; it was interesting but not nearly as weird as Arthur expected. It really didn't last long either, just a half hour or so. Before Arthur and Samantha left the young priestess even took the time to come all the way to the entrance just to thank them for attending.
The night was frigid and Arthur was sore but he definitely didn’t want to say goodnight to Samantha yet so they took a bus to the criminal's club. The club's seats were less than half full and there was an instrumental group performing on stage. Samantha found a table in a shady corner; the band was finishing up as Arthur hobbled back with a couple drinks.
Arthur looked around curiously; he hadn't been inside the club in months. "Heck, the show's over already?"
"No," Samantha explained. "They leave the stage open certain times to let people talk... you know, about their sentences, the suffering, things they lost since their convictions... mostly they just want to get something off their chests... to be heard by people who know what they're going through."
Arthur took a sip; leaning his shoulder carefully against the wall he stood beside his seated girlfriend. "God, I miss real beer."
"Arthur, do me a favor... please don't go up there, you'd totally mess it up."
Arthur got all indignant then: "And just how do you know that I wouldn't have some pretty compelling things to say? I suffer too you know... I mean, you should taste this beer, it isn't even cold; and heck, I can't sit down right now, how bout that? And yesterday I got a letter from Tee and it turns out that my dog has a rash on his belly."
"Arthur," Samantha rolled her eyes. "No one wants to hear you complain about beer or how much your butt hurts..." Samantha stretched upright looking at the first speaker. "Hey... I know her, it's um... Katya, I work with her sometimes at the hospital."
Arthur figured the speaker was about Samantha's age; she had the typical dark brown hair made up in tight braids, broad across the brow, big expressive eyes that drew you in. She bit her bottom lip nervously before she began; Katya was obviously shy but she did have a good speaking voice once she got started. Arthur sipped his warm beer and listened. As he had expected it was an awfully depressing story.
The young woman was from one of the small agricultural villages to the east. She had never gotten into any trouble until she did something reckless in her seventeenth year. She had badly wanted a certain dress though she didn't have the money to buy it. It was, she said, a split second decision in the store's dressing room. She had the dress on, admiring herself in the mirror and she had just... slipped her old dress over the top and walked out.
Everyone in that small town had heard about the theft, though there was only one person who knew who the culprit really was. She had the dress hidden in the bedroom she shared with her little sister but she couldn’t dare wear it without getting caught. It was no longer something that she desired; it became a source of constant worry and guilt.
Katya broke down crying when she told of the horrible day when she returned home from school with books in her hands. She had opened the door and inside the front room was her mother, sitting in a chair and holding that stolen dress in her lap. Her own parents had turned her into the police.
Now Katya lived like an outcast in the household of a distant aunt. She had been taken away from home, abandoned by family and friends, and made to live in shame. Someday she hoped to regain her honor and the trust people had lost in her. Katya had two more years left to serve, and unless the government deemed her trustworthy, she would have to spend the rest of her sentence inside the Rika Chorna collar zone.
Several more criminals spoke and most of them had similar stories of loss, or abandonment. Girlfriends or boyfriends who left them, family members who won't speak with them anymore; one young man, who was a senior in high school, told how his parents even made him get on his knees to speak. After hearing all that, Arthur started feeling better about his own family. Sure there were lazy bastards, dirt bags, crazies and cheaters but next to these unyielding and cold Danubians even his mother was starting to look like a saint.
Samantha went to the restroom and on her way back Arthur noticed that she stopped by a table in front of the stage and talked to several young women and a few guys she knew.
When she got back Arthur gestured toward the group. "So those are your friends from work?"
"Um, yeah." Samantha nervously took a drink.
"They aren't going to invite you over because of me, right?" Arthur asked. "Not going to share a table with the spy."
Samantha looked down at her glass. "They just know you from stuff they've heard... they... I don't know..." She sighed. "It's almost a religious thing..."
"They think I'm corrupted, a liar, an enemy, someone beyond redemption?"
Samantha shook her head. "They... I don't know... they just don't understand."
Arthur stood in silence and finished his beer. He wanted to fix this problem. Samantha shouldn't have to stay separated from her friends because of him. And most of all he didn't want to lose her.
Arthur understood why they shunned him, but didn't know what to do about it. Then, just as they were about to leave, a young criminal stepped up on stage and the crowd's demeanor changed; they didn't look friendly at all.
The young man was obviously very uncomfortable behind the microphone; his voice quivered as he introduced himself. The Danubians watched suspiciously as he made a public apology on stage, in front of his peers. Arthur couldn’t understand everything but it seemed that the young man had broken some kind of big social taboo in the process of committing a theft, and then on top of all that, he had repeatedly lied to his family and friends.
With tears in his eyes he explained his actions, apologized, and then, after breaking down crying a couple times he regained some composure and vowed to redeem himself. The reaction of the crowd was remarkable to Arthur; they went from hostile to friendly in minutes. He was apparently forgiven just like that. This peculiar scene gave Arthur an idea for yet another plan.
That night Arthur just couldn't stop thinking about the speech. After trying to go to sleep for an hour Arthur climbed out of bed, grabbed his notebook and started scribbling out an apology speech that followed the general format of the one he had heard earlier, an hour later it was complete. Satisfied, Arthur put away the notebook and went back to bed, now all he had to work on was the stirring delivery!
* * *
The next morning Arthur stepped off the bus in a bad mood. It was dark and cold. He had to report to the Ministry of Natural Resources even before sunrise. All the pain from the previous day's switching didn't help. Arthur pushed past several bus drivers, equipment operators, and clerks loitering about on the steps.
Inside was a surprise: the priestess he had met at church the day before was waiting on him, with a couple books in her hands.
"Arthur," She said. "I brought these for you."
"Um..." Arthur flipped through the workbook.
"Arthur, I expect you to complete those lessons in the next couple weeks; you can mail those back, and I will send you more."
Arthur was baffled: "But uh... why is..."
"Now, I don't want to hear any argument from you." The priestess spoke sternly but with a kind expression: "I checked up on you, Arthur Liggett; you have a university degree back in America so I know you can handle some basic textbooks."
She raised a finger and reminded: “Priestess.”
“Oh… Yes priestess… of course I will do my best."
The priestess left and Arthur hurried to the receptionist's desk; it was just two minutes until time to check in. Then he had to wait for a ride back up to the lake. Arthur decided to examine the books. The cheap paperback workbooks had the title printed in English, French and Spanish: An Introduction to the Danubian Language part 1 and 2. The priestess included a short handwritten letter inside the first book; a little puzzle to figure out.
* * *
The Ministry of Natural Resources gave Arthur several days off during the week of the spring equinox. Unlike the Danubians, Arthur wasn't all that concerned about the equinox celebration; he had something entirely different on his mind.
The timing was right; he had practiced and practiced. It was time to go for it. The first day of spring seemed like a good time for a new start. Samantha was a nervous wreck and decided not to watch his speech.
The main room of the criminal club was about at half capacity. Arthur checked to make sure that Samantha's friends from work were there, right in front of the stage. Arthur signed up to speak, then went over to the lunch counter and ordered a plate of the hottest food the criminal's club had to offer.
The enormous main hall was nearly full, rows of tightly packed tables arced in a semi-circle around the elevated stage. The lights dimmed and the first speaker nervously stepped behind the microphone to share his troubles with his criminal peers. The young man was very emotional, sincere, and repentant. Arthur watched closely, that was exactly the look he was hoping to pull off.
Arthur's food arrived but he waited until the 14th speaker got up on stage before he took a bite. Ten minutes later a tearful young woman finished her talk and it was time. Arthur forced himself to chew up the last red pepper and then he walked up on stage. With his face red, eyes watering, and sweat beading on his forehead, he stood behind the microphone facing a couple hundred criminals in the audience. Arthur began to speak as soon as the room grew quiet.
"I'm known by three names. My given name is Arthur Liggett, my official name is Criminal #88588, but most people in this country know me as the American spy. The details of my crimes are common knowledge but the reason I'm here today is that I wanted to tell my side of the story."
The skeptical, suspicious looks he received were unsettling but not unexpected. The news media had painted Arthur as a villainous foreign agent intent on stealing Danubia’s natural resources. Changing minds, however, was the whole reason for this speech. Arthur swallowed hard; his mouth was really starting to burn.
Arthur started out by describing his life before the ill-fated trip to Europe. Since he knew Danubians were obsessed with family life he talked about his family. Arthur didn't overtly lie but the truth was stretched nearly to the breaking point when it came to telling how close he was to his mother. Then, for the girls in the audience, he figured he'd throw in a tale of lost love: the heartbreaking story of the girl he left behind. Arthur decided to omit certain parts about the epic drunken two-weekend romance with Charlotte. For the dog lovers in the audience he even mentioned Lucky.
Then it was time for the meat of the speech. The story of how he became involved in espionage. He would walk a fine line. Realistic enough to be plausible, but he wanted to appear decent and virtuous enough for people to sympathize with. Arthur would play the part of a man who tragically let greed overcome his conscience.
When he got to the part about being offered money he paused dramatically, looked out into the audience and said what he hoped was a good emotion charged line.
"It was a very suspicious deal that he offered but I got greedy and... I took the money anyway." Arthur paused then, looking down as though he felt great shame at his sinful ways. He kept it brief though, not wanting to overdo it.
Next Arthur moved on to the action-packed sequence, the intrigue with Rumak, the tense trip to Rika Chorna, culminating with the confrontation between Rumak and the policeman.
"Then there was gunfire... three shots. And I... I found myself all alone, at a crime scene in a foreign country... I didn't know what to do so I slipped out the back door and I ran. It didn't take them long to find me."
With a pained expression, that thanks to the peppers was very real, Arthur studied the audience. He had their full attention now. Arthur focused on his timing, pausing four seconds to give the impression that he was having another one of his soul-searching moments.
Arthur briefly described his arrest and trial, and then he shifted into what Samantha suggested would be an effective tactic; using the betrayal of trust between his old boss and him to gain sympathy. The story of the phone call was mostly true. This part of the speech, Samantha insisted, needed to be tragic instead of angry. Arthur's nose was running some from the peppers. He sniffed a little and wiped tears out of his eyes.
"My old boss," Arthur said, "was surprised to hear from me."
'Arthur,' he said. 'I'm so sorry about what happened. Now, I don't want you to think that I knew what was going on, believe me, I was just as surprised as you were that this thing was illegal. I wish there was something I could do.'
"He seemed real friendly until I brought up the subject of his testimony. He paused for a long while, and then told me that the corporate lawyers just wouldn't allow him to expose the company to the financial liability or the scandal it would cause."
The audience seemed more sympathetic now. As he had hoped, the tale of his boss's calculating self-interest shocked the Danubians. Arthur paused and tried to look like the old bastard's betrayal deeply hurt him.
"After I failed to get Mr. Neal's testimony I had no legal grounds for retrial or reduced sentence, but my spokesman thought there was a small chance to work out a deal directly between the US and Danubian governments. So I contacted my congressman, the State Department, and everyone else I could think of who might help me but in the past eleven months I've received nothing but polite form letters back.
"Now, I've come to the harsh realization that I'm not going to be released anytime soon. My situation here is difficult. The police blame me for their colleague's injuries, the general population thinks I’m an enemy of the state, and the American government considers me a liability. I realize, at this point, that I'm nearly alone."
He paused then, as tears and sweat ran down his cheeks. Arthur thought he maybe overdid it with the peppers; he wanted to look emotional, not like a burn victim. His tongue, lips, and throat were absolutely on fire but he forced himself to refocus on the speech; to make the impact he was looking for, he needed to finish strong.
"I know I should have asked more questions; I should have known better than to take that deal. I regret the mistakes I made but there's nothing I can do about it now except suffer the consequences. But I want you to know that I'm not your enemy, I'm not a danger to anyone, I'm just a foreign criminal who's trying to move on with his life. Even though I don't deserve it... I came here today to ask for your forgiveness."
Arthur walked off stage, doing his best to mimic the humble, pensive expressions that he had seen from the previous speakers. The crowd's warm response was encouraging but all Arthur could think about right then was the large glass of icy goodness waiting for him on his table.
He sat down and it wasn't thirty seconds before one of Samantha's friends came over to invite him to sit at their table. Arthur had to put down the icy drink and act like his mouth wasn't boiling. Samantha would be along soon, and she would be sooo happy! Arthur cringed... oh, the things you do for love!
Chapter 11: Bad Company
Theresa Liggett had a window seat in the second passenger car. The seat was un-cushioned with an almost straight back; it was almost as uncomfortable as all the attention she was receiving.
Passengers bounced in unison every second or so as the old train rolled over welded joints and swayed to the curvature of the tracks. Tee had never ridden on a train before but she was certain that the Danubian rail system was not up to modern European standards; it was only a hundred and eighty miles from Danube City to Rika Chorna but the trip was supposed to take three and a half hours. It wasn’t even air conditioned, a fact hard to miss in the last week of August.
Tee had gotten a phone call from her brother two weeks earlier urging her to come visit him in Danubia. It was peculiar since he hadn't said anything about a trip before then, but that day he nearly insisted upon it. Tee used about a quarter of the money that her paranoid brother had kept hidden in his freezer to pay for travel and two days lodging in Rika Chorna. Her mother was completely freaked out but Tee went anyway.
The train slowed considerably as it climbed the pass; two miles away and two-thousand feet below the sun reflected off the choppy waters of the Rika Chorna Reservoir. The train passed through a short tunnel and then the view to the east opened up.
Rugged slopes and hardwood forests transitioned into rolling hills and green pastures dotted with sheep, cattle, farmhouses, and barns. The rural landscape stretched on for several kilometers and then ended abruptly; the western boundary of Rika Chorna was like a solid wall of buildings on the plains.
Factories, loading docks, and shipping containers stacked two high filled an industrial park on the right side of the tracks; on the left side multiple freight trains occupied the parallel tracks of a busy rail yard.
The train passed through into a residential zone with multistory apartment buildings, a city park with a sizable lake, and rows of small houses stretching far to the north. The train station was almost exactly in the city's center.
Air brakes hissed, the train car shuddered one last time and Tee's first train ride was over. She grabbed her old suitcase and stepped outside.
The station was obviously old, built of gray marble and hardwood beams; some select pieces of marble encrusted with brilliant mineral veins of green malachite and blue azurite formed an arch around the main entrance.
Everyone turned to look at her; Tee usually enjoyed being the center of attention but she had never felt this out of place. The Danubians all looked so similar. Every female above high school age had her hair tightly braided and wore simple light dresses and sandals. The men kept their hair and beards trimmed short and wore plain pants and shirts. The Danubians wore no jewelry, no watches, no make-up, and definitely no weird multicolored spiky hairdo like the one that Tee sported.
Tee’s breath caught in her throat when she saw a naked man and woman standing casually near the unloading platform. The woman held a child’s hand; the boy, probably about five years old, was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt.
Tee stared at their necks. The metal collars they had clamped around their necks had turned dull grey with age but the numbers engraved on the wide central band were large and easily readable. The man was #65722 and his wife: #65764.
Tee’s heart raced. Criminals! Convicted collared criminals like her brother. It was one thing to read about it but to see it in person was shocking. Were those faded bruises on the woman’s bottom?
Tee knelt down on one knee and pretended to tie her shoelace. The two criminals talked casually while they waited; the boy tugged insistently on his mother’s hand, trying to get her attention. Then an elderly man and woman unloaded from the first passenger car. The two criminals warmly greeted the old couple and the little boy screamed out with joy when he saw the wrapped present that the old woman carried.
Tee made herself stop staring at the weird scene. The station had a couple hundred people in it and none of them seemed to think there was anything unusual about having naked criminals in their midst. Forty meters across the station Tee found a map that was labeled in English. For reasons he didn't explain Arthur insisted on meeting her at a small park south of the station.
Tee walked rapidly down a stone path with hedges to either side. It led to an open space with mowed grass, big shade trees, and a view overlooking a small river. A family was eating supper at one of the picnic tables with a good view of the stream; another couple sat on a bench and watched their three kids play ball. The park was otherwise empty.
“Tee, it's hard to believe you showed up on time." She jumped and spun around to see Arthur leaning against a tree trunk wearing nothing but a collar and dusty orange boots.
Tee caught her breath and tried to not look embarrassed. "Hey, nice shoes."
"You like them?" Arthur’s face was red as well, but he kept his cool and glanced slyly to both sides. "Don't tell anyone but I've got a special deal with the Ministry of Justice. In exchange for thirty years of hard labor I get as many of these awesome orange boots as I need."
Arthur looked Tee over. "Are you in costume? Don't tell me, let me guess... You're a colorblind gypsy? A whore from a Mad Max movie?"
“You have no sense of fashion Arthur. But even you have to admit that my new hairstyle is pretty awesome."
“Yeah, the colors are really... festive, but how do you get it to stand up like that? By the way, thanks for toning it down like I asked."
“Anything for my troublesome brother; what are you called?" She examined the collar with a curious expression, then reached up and rotated it to find the engraving. "So 88588... How's the espionage business going these days?"
“So, so. This place is so primitive I hardly know what to spy on; I did manage to infiltrate a work camp to the west of here but that's about it."
Tee was still messing with the collar, "So these are tracking collars?" Then she put an index finger through the loop. "What do they do, walk you on a leash?" Tee burst out laughing. "Is that why you're in the park?"
“Tee," Arthur struggled to look serious. "I had almost forgotten how much I hate you."
Tee wagged a finger. "Don't make me roll up a newspaper!"
“Fair warning." Arthur said. "I don't have my shots!"
Tee noticed the other people in the park watching her. "I'm freaking starving. Where can we eat at anyway? I'll pay,” Tee bugged her eyes out: “I really don't want to know where you keep your money."
Arthur grinned. "Criminals don't carry money; we have to charge everything using the number on the collar."
“So your collar's like a credit card?" Tee was amused. "Let’s go to a store; I wanna run your head across the scanner!"
“Uh... It’s more like an ID, they just write the number down. Uh… before we go…you remember what I told you about this place? You know, about the lying, respecting the religion, public officials and such? You're no use to me if you're in here too, you know."
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. You're the one who can't stay out of trouble."
“Point taken; so, you still going out with that Roddy guy?"
Tee sighed and brushed her spiky hair back. "Nah, he couldn't stand my lizards anymore; they've really grown since you saw them. Over three feet long, can you believe it? I told him to watch out for their tails; you know they're kind of sensitive about that. Anyway, one whipped him right across the nose when he sat down on the couch. He threw such a fit; so the boyfriend's gone."
Arthur shrugged. "Well, gotta keep priorities straight… Anyhow, I can take you over to your hotel room and we can grab some food but after that I've gotta go visit the church."
“They make you go to church?"
“No, I go voluntarily; a guy’s gotta have allies here you know. Besides, most criminals are religious." Arthur flicked his collar, trying not to laugh. "In fact, the Danubian Church teaches that all this criminal treatment is crucial in the process of realigning my damaged soul."
“So do you think you're aligned yet?"
“Nah, I guess it's gonna take a few more whacks." Arthur looked at Tee and sighed. "Here we are having one of our typical stupid conversations. I don't suppose you have anything important to talk about, something that you couldn't discuss over the phone or through the mail?"
Tee's eyes darted right and left and then she stepped close. "Oh, yeah." She said in a hurried whisper. "I brought you something. You remember Strangler? He died this spring."
She reached into her bag searching for something inside. "Long story short; I've taken up taxidermy!" Tee pulled out a wide snakeskin belt that was over a meter long. With a smile that would have looked demented on anyone else Tee tossed it to her brother. "So what do you think?"
To people in the park it surely appeared as if Arthur was having a seizure. The bout of fierce laughter left Arthur crouching on the ground, catching his breath for a moment before he could say anything at all.
"Tee if I could wear pants this belt would be the shit! I don’t think they’ll let me wear a belt even without pants, but if I could I would definitely have this on."
Tee beamed in pride over his compliment of her leather crafting skills. Her big brother's laugh was something she had badly missed; it was good to see him again, though she would rather not have seen so much of him.
After a while she watched her brother's demeanor change, Arthur seemed like he wanted to say something, but he stood in silence nervously looking around the park at nothing in particular. Tee waited. Her normally calm brother had a troubled expression.
“Tee, before we go through the city, you need to know something. I have rules I have to follow, lots of restrictions. No clothes obviously and there are places I can't go. They tell me where to live, where to work; I'm twenty-four years old and I had to get permission to go out on a date with Samantha. I've been told a number of times that I'm nothing but government property!"
Arthur's face was red. The furious expression seemed very out of ordinary for the even-tempered brother she was used to.
Arthur noticed her unease and lowered his voice somewhat, though he looked no calmer. “And I have to kneel down to public officials like I'm worshiping a fucking pagan god or something. Then there's the police... they don't harass me as much as they used to but if they decide to humiliate me in front of you there's nothing I can do about it. They can make me kneel with my head to the ground right out on the sidewalk for as long as they want. If they think I'm being defiant they may even hit me."
Tee was taken aback by all this, but most of all by the change in her brother's personality; he had never been the type to act out of control in front of her.
Arthur looked at Tee and took a deep breath. He no longer looked angry, just miserable. "If they stop me don't do anything. Don't say anything... that would just make it worse on me... or you. No matter what they do to me, I've been through worse; just stand back."
“OK, are you alright Arthur?"
“Yeah, I'm fine." Though he quickly looked down Tee could see tears in her older brother's eyes. She wrapped an arm around his shoulders. Arthur barely more than whispered. "No Tee, I'm not alright."
His shoulders trembled under her hand. Growing up, Tee had often run crying to her big brother for help. She hadn't seen him cry since their father died six years earlier. Tee rested her forehead on her brother’s shoulder and Arthur hugged her tight. Her tears wet his shoulder and chest.
Some of the Danubians turned to watch the curious scene; wondering why the convicted criminal and the weird foreign girl stood together in silence at the edge of their city park.
* * *
That evening Arthur wanted Samantha and Laura to meet Tee. They crowded into Tee’s hotel room and had the usual awkward introductions.
“Samantha, Laura this is my sister Tee."
Samantha asked: “Tee’s short for Theresa?"
Arthur chuckled. "Nope, you see dad used to be a golfer and when my sister was little she had a bad habit of sticking things where they didn't belong so one day a doctor had to remove a..."
“Arthur, really!” Tee punched him in the shoulder. “Why don't you tell them why everyone in grade school used to call you Squirts?"
"Squirts!" Samantha rolled back on the bed laughing. "Now this, I want to hear."
“Uh... Maybe we should go somewhere," Arthur suggested. "So we don't have to talk so much."
“We could go to the club; I was going to meet Demetri there anyway." Laura was spending a lot of time with her Danubian boyfriend; though Arthur had barely met him.
“I’m game," Tee said. "There's definitely nothing to do here; it's been years since I've even seen a black and white television, this place is like going back in time."
“Or another planet," Arthur remarked. "But Tee can't go in the criminal's club; we'll have to do something else."
“She can go in as a guest." Laura argued: "It's her clothes that have to stay outside."
“No way," Arthur forcefully said. "I don't want to see my little sister naked. It's bad enough that I have to walk around like this. She is..."
“Capable of making up her own mind?" Tee looked mischievously at Arthur, before snorting at his annoyed expression. "Well, as much as I would like to irritate Arthur I guess we will have to find something else to do; besides, with an outfit like this I want to be seen."
“Tee, with an outfit like that people can't help but stare; it makes me wish I was blind.”
The four of them walked up to the entrance of the club, Samantha and Laura went inside along with a line of other criminals. Tee was wide eyed as a young criminal who had probably been switched that morning walked carefully past her and made his way toward the entrance.
“Holy cow!" Tee whispered.
“That’s India, not here. Why don't we get going?"
“I knew it would be bad but... shit, did they beat you like that?"
“Yes," Arthur sighed. "Standard criminal treatment."
“Every three months. Come on, let's go."
“Damn that must hurt; how do you stand it?"
“I don't know, you just do. Quit staring and let’s go already."
“Shit! What about Samantha and Laura; they surely don't beat the women too?"
“Oh yes they do, twice a year. Now let’s see if we can find that movie theater."
There were two posters at the front of the theater, both in Japanese. Old monster movies apparently. "What do you think the one about the giant mutant rat or the one about aliens?"
“Uh..." Tee got a close look. "The rodent's kind of cute... looks like one of those giant hamster looking things they have down in South America."
“Yeah, that's it. Looks better than the alien movie anyway."
“There aren't any American made movies here." Arthur looked for the entrance. "Maybe they at least have popcorn. I doubt it though, they probably say it's junk food. At the concession stand I bet they'll hand us a bowl of oatmeal and a spoon. Speaking of the movie we should get our tickets."
* * *
Thanks to Spokesman Ralkliv, Arthur had the next day off work. Tee would leave on the 11PM train but until then they would spend the day together. Though Arthur didn't particularly like it, the first order of business was to introduce Tee to his spokesman.
He was nervous about it for a couple reasons. First being how embarrassing it was to kneel in front of Tee and the second was that he was worried about what she might say. Tee wasn't known for her discretion.
Arthur showed up at her hotel room half an hour before sunrise. He knocked and waited, knocked again, then pounded. He heard a groan and she finally opened the door. Tee squinted, half asleep, and stood there wrapped in a blanket off the bed. "Oh... it's you."
"Who else would it be? I didn't come over here to watch you sleep, we've got stuff to do."
She just groaned and lurched into the bathroom and Arthur went downstairs to order some breakfast.
Tee came out of the bathroom wrapped up in a towel; Arthur was relieved that all the glitter and colors washed out of her hair.
"This is kind of like grits..." Arthur pushed a large steaming bowl toward his sister. "And that's black currant jelly... pretty good."
"Mmm..." Tee sat chewing for a while. "So, where's this Ravik guy at?"
Arthur gestured northeast. “Spokesman Ralkliv has an office over at the Police Headquarters, fourth floor. We shouldn't have to stay that long, but we have to do this a certain way though. We check in with the secretary, and then he'll come out of his office, and uh... I'll have to kneel down and greet him, then he'll give me permission to stand and I'll introduce you. Then he'll invite us into his personal office for coffee."
"That Is So Weird! Look!" Tee exclaimed, pointing at the breakfast table. "They brought us three spoons! For two bowls!"
“Hmm... that is weird," Arthur said. "I could see two spoons or four spoons... um... but never mind that. I was wondering if you could braid your hair first; it might go better if you blended in."
“Um... I guess so… Pig tails?"
“No, uh you know... like Danubian style."
“I don't know how to do that." Tee dumped the rest of the sweet black currant jelly on a small loaf of bread. "How bout a ponytail?"
“Uh... no, Danubian women don't let their hair hang down. Maybe if we get some safety pins and... like fasten the braids up on top your head somehow?"
Tee shrugged as she wiped jelly off her mouth and gulped a whole glass of juice. She jumped up. "I've gotta pee."
“You go do that; I'll be right back." Arthur gathered up the dishes and carried the tray to the kitchen downstairs.
Arthur returned fifteen minutes later holding a brown paper bag. "Hey."
"In here." Tee wore a fairly plain green dress. She stood in front of the bathroom mirror finishing up one of two braids. "What ya got?"
Arthur shrugged. "There's a hardware store down the street. Um..." He dumped the bag on the counter. "Got rubber bands, some fishing line and double stick tape."
“Oh..." Arthur thought of something. "No ear-rings and that tattoo of yours; make sure it's always covered. Danubians freak out over that sort of thing."
“You mean Rufus?"
Arthur asked: "You have another one?"
“Long as it's not on your butt or something."
Tee put her leg up on a chair. "See."
“Oh... it’s a... one of those..."
“It’s a tapir, Arthur." Tee exclaimed. "Geez, don't you know anything?"
“I know... it's uh... the biggest animal in South America right?"
"It's a mountain tapir," she gestured like: ‘who doesn't know that?’ "
"Second largest?" Arthur waved his hands. "Never mind... we can't let any Danubians know you have those. Long as you keep your dress on, your old tattoo should be covered... but the new one... hmm... we need to do something about that."
“Why do I have to do all this?" Tee whined. "It's so stupid."
“It’s religion Tee; it’s not supposed to make sense.” Arthur’s eyes narrowed as he concentrated. “Now… maybe we can paint over it?"
“Arthur, I just don't understand why you didn't go further in the spy business."
* * *
Arthur opened the door for his sister, which she thought was really funny. Arthur really wished Tee hadn't found out that Danubian criminals were forced to be helpful. Arthur figured at that very moment, Tee was thinking about all the stuff she could have him do for her.
The outer lounge to the spokesperson's offices had a large counter with a receptionist's desk behind it. Twenty chairs were along the wall; alternating between orange ones for criminals and gray ones for free people. Arthur placed a clean towel in the seat of an orange metal chair and Tee sat on a gray cushioned seat next to him.
Ralkliv came out to meet them a couple minutes early. Arthur whispered one last thing to his sister. "That's him... remember, he speaks English." Arthur knelt on the floor and Ralkliv had him get up almost immediately. After introductions, Ralkliv invited them back to his personal office.
As Tee walked in front of him, Arthur spotted some double-stick tape in her hair but the rest of it looked pretty good. The tattoo above her right knee was painted over with white latex and topped in flesh tone makeup... hopefully it wouldn't show even when she sat down.
Arthur’s apprehension didn’t last; not one minute after they sat down, Spokesman Ralkliv’s secretary interrupted. Ralkliv excused himself to take an important phone call.
Tee felt at the back of her head. "Um Arthur, it's coming loose, got any more tape?"
Arthur scoffed: "Where would I carry tape?"
“Well... you could jam it up your..."
“Wait... hey," Arthur dug through Ralkliv’s junk drawer. "How about a paperclip?" Arthur heard Ralkliv coming and sat back down.
When Ralkliv came back into the room he was so nervous that without even realizing, he spoke to Tee in Danubian. He apologized for having to leave the meeting early; Ralkliv explained that he had an emergency to manage.
Tee watched Ralkliv hurry off. “What was that all about?”
Arthur was happy to cut the meeting short. “His wife’s going to the hospital to have a baby, I think… Danubians are really reserved when talking about that sort of thing, so they don’t come right out and say it. Good news is: we’re off the hook!”
Tee shrugged. “So now what?”
“Well…” Arthur looked out the window thinking. “Mr. Jakt wants to meet you later but right now… how bout we go for a walk?”
Tee and Arthur walked down by the river and then he took his sister to see his home. Arthur gave Tee the big tour of the house, proudly pointing out his bedroom with its refinished wooden desk, his repaired table lamp and his freshly painted wooden chair.
Mr. Jakt was fascinated by Tee and she, of course, lapped up the attention. That evening Mr. Jakt broke out a bottle of homemade wine, and then he taught Tee a traditional Danubian song. What the performance lacked in quality it made up for in enthusiasm and volume. Arthur stayed busy serving as translator; not very accurate but quick enough for a lively conversation.
Early the next morning Arthur escorted Tee to the train station and then Arthur headed directly for the Ministry of Natural Resources building. It was time to check in and see what his next job was.
He hoped to stay in the city for a while but the MNR had other ideas. A ranger had requested help in clearing storm debris around one of the remote campgrounds. The job was scheduled to last three months.
* * *
Samantha was waiting when Arthur came back to Rika Chorna during the first week in December. She spent her very limited free time with Arthur but she couldn't bring herself to be happy. The dread of what was to come overwhelmed her.
On December 7th Samantha went through her normal day. She got up early and prepared breakfast for her host’s two kids, and then she went off to work her morning shift at the hospital. Samantha focused on her work and performed it well as she always did.
It was a long ten hours later when Samantha finished her daily rounds; she pushed a cart of dinner trays back into the kitchen beside the big stainless steel sinks. Samantha straightened her back and stretched her shoulders; it had been a long shift and Samantha was ready to leave work.
In the nurse's locker room her friend Katya was getting ready for her night shift; she waited by Samantha's locker.
"Are you going to be alright?"
Samantha barely nodded. "I'm fine."
“Are you going to see Arthur tonight?" Katya spoke softly: "You shouldn't be alone."
Samantha nodded. "He’s going to meet me later."
“Good... I talked to your shift supervisor; she got you an easier shift Thursday, no kitchen or laundry... just delivering patient meals."
Samantha tried hard to smile. "I really appreciate it Katya. Thanks. I... I think I better get going... don't want to miss the bus."
Samantha left the hospital through a side entrance. Instead of the huge parking lots that surround hospitals in other countries, the Rika Chorna Medical Center was encircled by gardens and trees. But it was almost winter; the flowers were dormant, the tree limbs were bare and the sky looked like snow.
Samantha walked quickly to the bus stop. She found that the small heated shelter was almost full; she waited by the window as even more people packed inside. When the bus came she lined up last, behind the free people and a couple penitents. The bus quickly filled to capacity, so that Samantha and the last six people in line were left to wait for the next ride.
Samantha took it well; it was nothing really, just a little inconvenience. Being a Danubian criminal had completely changed her point of view on what constitutes a bad day. She waited patiently and looked out the window at the blowing leaves. It was the seventh of December, a year and a half after her arrest. Samantha thought of that horrible night.
The warning that Arthur had given them about Danubia's strict drug laws had scared them, though not nearly enough. Instead of throwing their drugs out immediately they kept their stash hidden in the hotel room and continued to use.
June 7th 1992 was supposed to be their last night in Danubia. They had gone into their hotel room that night and retrieved what was left of the stash. That night they got incredibly high and then did something incredibly careless.
Police were waiting for them when they returned to the hotel that night. They were forced to strip naked right out on the street. The experience only got worse with the interrogation at police headquarters, the trial, and the switching. She and Laura had endured the punishment three times already; their fourth switching was scheduled for the eighth day of December.
Samantha shivered as the bus stop’s folding door opened. There were fewer people waiting for the bus this time; Samantha got aboard and in fifteen minutes she was back at her host's house.
Inside, the kids were waiting and their mother was irritable at her for being late.
"The children have been waiting for almost an hour!" The woman glared. "Where have you been?"
Samantha wanted to smash her fist right into the woman's thin nose but she knew her place as a criminal. Samantha dropped to her knees, apologized for being late and then she got to work in the kitchen.
Arthur came by after she had put the kids put to bed. Samantha's home was just a short cold walk from the criminal's club and their chance to be alone. They went straight to one of the small rooms in back. Arthur shut the door behind them; once they were alone Samantha began to cry. There was no need to explain; Arthur understood perfectly her dread of the next day's punishment. He held her tight in his arms, supporting her weight as she clung to his chest.
After a few minutes she recovered some. "I'm sorry... I thought it would get easier but... I feel just as terrified."
“I know... there'd be something wrong with you if you weren't scared." Arthur said gently. "As bad as it is, it will end; and tomorrow you'll be closer to the day when you can leave this place behind and go back home."
“But you'll still be here." Samantha looked up. "I'm not leaving you behind."
Arthur’s voice rose. "Now don't even think about staying because of me. When you get the chance... go. What kind of life do you think you'd have here anyway? They'll send me off to some labor camp and you'd be all alone... think about it Samantha, you're a foreigner; you'll always be a foreigner here. You can have a good life back in the US; you have your family, your friends, your church."
Samantha spoke quietly: "But I love you."
Arthur was unable to speak for a while. “I love you too but... you can do better Samantha... I mean... do you know how messed up I am? By the time you're released I'll probably be a drooling lunatic in a padded room somewhere."
Samantha leaned forward for a kiss. "You'll be my drooling lunatic."
Arthur wiped the tears off her cheek with his thumb. "Let the other girls have the rich, successful, well- adjusted types; you want the messed up criminal who talks to himself and has to tie a rope on his collar every night so he doesn't go stomping through the neighbor's flowers."
“You do that? You tie yourself up at night?"
“Yeah, ever since last year. The judge said I don't get any more breaks, he said it was my responsibility to make sure I don't cause any more disturbances. The tether wakes me up before I can get out the door anyway. Last time I was sleepwalking a couple days ago I had one end tied to a table leg, I jerked the table over on its side but it woke me up at least. That reminds me, I need to buy a lamp tomorrow." Arthur collapsed to the mattress and looked up at Samantha, her lithe form back lit by the single light over the door.
Samantha smirked: "That was a very noble effort you made to push me away, Arthur. Like a hero out of a movie."
“Well... I try and be virtuous every once in a while. You kind of surprised me though, if I’d had more time I maybe could've come up with a better speech."
“No... it was sweet the way it was... I liked it," Samantha giggled, "but... it would have been more dignified if you hadn't had a big boner poking at me the whole time."
Arthur leaned back and folded his hands behind his head. "So are you just gonna stand there talking or are you going to do something about it?"
“Oh I'm gonna do something spyboy..."
Samantha crawled atop him, straddling his hips, enjoying the warmth of his naked skin. "You're real damned weird Arthur, but you're not so bad... for an enemy spy that is."
“And you aren't half bad either,” Arthur replied, “for a petty criminal anyway."
* * *
A year and a half after their arrest Samantha and Laura were once again on their knees in Spokesman Ralkliv's office. Their arresting officers handcuffed their wrists behind their backs and quickly got the two criminals to their feet.
The officers marched the young women down to a corridor in the basement of the police headquarters. The door to the third room was open. The judge was seated at a desk along the far wall, there was a camera set up in the corner, and a metal table rested on the concrete floor near the center of the room.
Spokesman Ralkliv had a brief discussion with the judge before addressing his clients. "Laura, you must go first. Samantha you will take a seat by me."
Samantha sat and watched uncomfortably as her friend kneeled down and kissed the officer's shoe. The policeman moved Laura over to the end of the table and had her bend forward so that her bottom was presented in the direction of the judge. In a practiced efficient manner the policeman strapped her ankles securely to the metal table legs and bound her wrists and midsection firmly to the cold tabletop. There was a look of terror in her eyes but Laura remained silent.
The policeman pulled the switch from his belt and whipped it through the air, and then he moved close, trailing his hand down her spine and over the curve of her bottom. Trying to catch her off guard, he stepped back quickly and landed the first blow. Laura gasped but remained otherwise quiet.
Samantha flinched as the switch snapped against Laura's skin. Ten more fierce strikes of the switch left parallel lines swelling on the right side of Laura's bottom. The officer's cruel smile returned as Laura began crying from the pain of the switching and the humiliation of being touched by the policeman between strokes. Her pitiful sobs were punctuated by anguished screams as the punishment wore on. Samantha had to sit there and listen to it all knowing that she would be next. Ralkliv raised his hand after the fiftieth stroke. Laura sobbed hysterically as the policeman and his partner removed her restraints.
The judge called for a short break to give Ralkliv time to deal with his client, and the judge time to return to his chambers and refill his coffee cup. Samantha walked quickly to the restroom at the end of the corridor. The door shut behind her and she turned to look at her own reflection in the mirror; the young woman’s skin had lost all color.
Samantha’s legs trembled, fear overwhelmed and she sunk into the corner crying hard. Samantha folded forward on her knees with her head clasped in both hands. It was so hard to face a switching stoically like Danubian criminals are supposed to. It took every bit of her will power to get up off the floor and face the switching with at least some dignity.
Samantha rinsed her face in cold water from the sink and then she studied her own reflection. A limber young woman’s body; gracefully curved and pretty; Samantha thought her breasts were too small and her hips too slim and boyish. Arthur loved her body though, judging from how much time he spent kissing her breasts or kneeling between her thighs. Samantha smiled at the thought. The girl in the mirror still looked awfully scared but there was also a look of determination that she hadn’t noticed before.
Five minutes passed before she heard footsteps on the concrete floor. There was a knock at the door.
Ralkliv's voice was kind but firm. "Samantha; it is time."
Samantha dried her face on a towel and stepped out into the corridor. Spokesman Ralkliv offered a few words of encouragement before directing his client back into the room and shutting the door behind him. Her eyes were already red from crying when she knelt down in front of the policeman who would punish her.
The policeman ordered Samantha to position herself on the punishment table. She reluctantly placed her ankles against the leather restraints and bent forward across the cold tabletop. When all the restraints were buckled and the criminal was completely under his control, the policeman took careful aim and then struck five times across the lower curve of her bottom. Samantha shook from the pain but remained silent. Her resistance amused the officer. He traced the red lines swelling across the smooth skin of her buttocks, rubbing his fingers over sore flesh to increase the pain and further humiliate the criminal.
The policeman, unable to make Samantha cry early in the punishment, became methodical; striking hard and leaving parallel welts from the apex of her buttocks down to her thighs. Though Samantha made every effort to resist, she couldn't help but cry out and jerk at the restraints as he began to overlap the welts on her bottom and the pain became unbearable.
The last part of the punishment went at an agonizingly slow pace. He whipped the tender skin of her punished bottom and thighs with the flexible switch and then waited a full minute before he took aim and struck again.
By the time the switching ended Samantha was completely broken down, too lost in the pain to care about anything else. Samantha's beaten backside was presented before the judge so he could certify the punishment, and like any criminal she had to kneel down, kiss her tormentor's shoes and thank him for the punishment he had inflicted upon her. With her fourth judicial punishment completed, a violently sobbing Samantha took the painful humiliating walk back to her spokesman's office.
* * *
Arthur knocked on the door and waited in the frigid night air. He was wearing his orange work boots but not the insulated poncho that criminals are issued. During his first winter working for the Ministry of Natural Resources he wore the poncho nearly every day. It was drafty, the lining itchy, and it made a person look like a road-cone with legs but despite its faults it did keep a criminal working outdoors dry and reasonably warm. When Arthur was back in Rika Chorna he rarely used it, the inconvenience of having to take it off and hang it somewhere every time he went indoors was often worse than being temporarily cold.
Over a minute passed before the door opened and the head of Samantha's host family stepped outside. The man always insisted that Arthur acknowledge his superior status as a government bureaucrat by kneeling down to him no matter the temperature. Arthur pressed his forehead against the concrete and waited. The man stood in his warm winter clothes and let Arthur shiver at his feet for a completely unnecessary amount of time before bothering to invite him in.
Once inside the house, Arthur and the wife exchanged greetings that neither of them meant, and then he was at last allowed to see Samantha. A room toward the back of the house contained a sort of a nursery, with a child's bed along one wall, a crib, and toys strewn about. Along the wall opposite the bed was a canvas cot.
Arthur knocked on the door frame to announce his presence. The six-year-old girl sitting on the floor next to Samantha's cot threw her book aside and jumped up. "8!"
In one of many spiteful moves, Samantha's hosts didn't want Arthur's given name used, in their household he was criminal # 88588. To the kids he was simply 8. Arthur noted that the three-year-old boy was nowhere to be seen; a worrying thought since he treated Arthur like a human crash test dummy. Sneaking up behind a person with weapon in hand was his usual mode of operation.
Samantha lifted up on one elbow. "Arthur, I'm glad you're here."
Samantha had received the usual severe beating. The crimson welts covering her bottom and the backs of her thighs contrasted starkly with her pale skin. Arthur sat down in the floor next to her cot and took her hand.
“Ooh... your hands are like ice!"
“Yeah, that fucking yahoo kept me waiting out on the porch forever, and of course he made me kneel down to him out in the cold."
It was sometimes a nice advantage speaking a language that very few other people understood, so long as they spoke in a pleasant tone of voice no one had any idea what they were really saying. Sometimes Arthur and Samantha had a contest to see who could come up with the most vulgar way to describe her hosts. Samantha usually won; having to stay under the same roof with the hated couple gave her plenty of time to exercise her creative side.
Arthur looked down at the little girl, who was staring at him with big brown eyes. He changed to the Danubian language. "It looks like you're in good hands here though. Got your own nurse to take care of you."
“I’m a doctor 8, not a nurse!" The little girl stood with her hands on her hips, and then she spotted a bruise on Arthur's back.
“Please excuse me doctor. Uh... there's nothing wrong with me is there?"
The girl poked at his shoulder. "8, you have a bear bite. Wait here." The girl quickly returned with a first-aid kit.
“A... bear? Thought I would have noticed that. Doctor are you sure a bear bit me?"
She slapped Arthur on the back. "Uh-huh, now stay still 8."
“She never leaves my side." Samantha smiled at the girl then spoke in English, "The first time she saw me after a switching, last December, she thought I was attacked by a bear too. She's terrified of bears for some reason. 'Sanka clawed by bear' she screamed to her mother. She wanted to take me to the hospital, and couldn't understand why no one else wanted to help. She sort of understands now, her mother told her how 'naughty' I had been, how I deserve this. I think her mother's jealous because she likes me better than her. She doesn't... Watch out!"
At full speed the three-year-old boy rounded the corner with a big stick in his hand. "Die monster!" He swung and connected with the monster's head just as it was turning around.
“Got you 8, killed you monster!" The boy giggled as Arthur disarmed him.
Arthur rubbed the sore spot on his forehead. "I can't imagine why they wanted help with the kids."
The six-year old girl scolded her brother, but she seemed pleased that Arthur had another wound for her to treat. As the girl squirted some kind of cold liquid on Arthur's shoulder, the boy climbed to the top of the crib.
“Ferik, you shouldn't hit people like that. 8 is not a monster." Samantha sighed as the boy leaped onto Arthur's back, grabbing hold of the collar on his way down to the floor. The boy yanked the collar backwards and growled. Arthur struggled to pry the boy's hands loose until small sharp teeth clamped down on his finger. Victorious, the boy retrieved his stick off the floor and ran out of the room hooting like an animal.
Samantha just sighed and shook her head. "Ugh... it's like living in the monkey pit at the zoo. So... how much longer are you going to be in the city?"
Arthur examined the bite marks on his finger and then turned to make sure the boy wasn't behind him again. "I guess I lucked out, they're remodeling the MNR training center and they need somebody to do most of the manual labor cheap. There's a lot of work to do, especially around the pool where they practice water rescues. So I'll be sleeping at home for several weeks anyway."
“There!" The doctor smiled at the superior job she did bandaging the bear-inflicted wound, and then she grabbed Arthur's head in both hands to closely examine the swelling red spot on his forehead. "Hold still, I'm going to fix your head, where Ferik whacked you."
Samantha watched as the girl picked a tube of ointment from the box and then yanked a handful of hair to tilt Arthur's head back. "Maybe we can meet Laura tomorrow after she gets off work at the store."
“I can't do it tomorrow," Arthur said. "I'm working late." The girl squirted some foul smelling liquid on his forehead and rubbed it in thoroughly.
“Meet at the club then? About nine?"
“Yeah, sure." When the young doctor pulled a long Ace bandage out of the first-aid kit Arthur had to stop her. "Uh doctor... you can't wrap me up... I'm a criminal, I'll get in trouble."
“Humph... You've been naughty too?"
“I’m afraid so doctor." Arthur winked at Samantha and changed to English. "Tomorrow night I'm planning on being extra naughty!"
Samantha rolled her eyes. "Arthur, if you even think about touching my butt tomorrow I'm going to stab your eyes out!"
Chapter 12: Arthur's Good Luck
Arthur settled down on the comfortable side of a tree trunk and leaned back with notebook and pen in hand. The sun had already set but there was time to write his sister before it got completely dark.
I've been bouncing back and forth all spring, Mr. Jakt doesn't have enough work to hire me all the time so every two or three weeks I go to work for the MNR. So I’m working up by the lake again. They apparently don't clean their stables while I'm gone. Right now I'm staying in a park building with twenty-three other residents- well, okay... they're horses.
One of the park rangers sometimes lets me go over to the main office after work and watch television. Strangely, this spring is the first time I've had a chance to watch Danubian TV, now I realize why so few homes have televisions. Who ever made these shows didn't do anything right.
I watched an episode of a cop show, with police partners on a stakeout. They spot the suspect sneaking down the street at night- only a mask and a cape would've made this guy look more suspicious. The police partners tail the man, who is always nervously glancing over his shoulder but never manages to spot the police hiding behind tree trunks, phone booths, or shrubbery.
Then they catch him red-handed in the act of committing a crime. Dramatic music starts up and the cops move in with guns-drawn and arrest the suspect for the crime of (I shit you not) vandalism. The show ends with the criminal making a tearful apology for his sinful ways, and the policeman lecturing viewers at home about how it's wrong to spray paint other people's property. As a criminal, I've never been so offended! And that was one of the better shows; it's too painful to describe what the sitcoms are like.
The newspapers aren't much better; the headlines all week were about new irrigation ditches. It had color graphics and everything. Most of the general population is wound up about the opportunities that will come from building it; of course, free people don't have to do the backbreaking work. It said in the paper that over 2800 criminals are available to work on the project.
I got my notice during lunch break. I was leaning back on a tree eating a bowl of potatoes and bread and watching a couple women exercising (naked) down by the campground. Don't you judge me! Watching girls stretch or go for a run is the only good thing about being here, but unfortunately I was rudely interrupted by the delivery of an official looking envelope.
Inside was an invitation from Public Works. I'll see Samantha when they send me back to Rika Chorna tomorrow. I don't know if she's been assigned to the project or not.
Samantha has been a little down since she found out that Laura was leaving Rika Chorna. Laura's boyfriend completed his sentence last month and he wanted her to go back to his home in Danube City with him. He promised her better living conditions and an easier life in the capital. For Samantha it was like being left alone since I'm hardly ever around. They're supposed to keep in touch but people do move on with their lives, I doubt I ever see Laura again.
I continue to attend church when I'm back in the city. The clergy treat me pretty well; one priestess in particular has made me into her special project. She's doing her best to turn me into a full-fledged member of the Danubian Church. Let me tell you, it's not easy; every time I see her she has more reading material for me to learn. Like a child on a road trip I ask: "How much longer?" She just smiles, tells me to be patient and assigns me some other task. I have a new appreciation for the efficiency of American televangelists, send money and you're in!
You're the only one from back home who writes me. In the past two years I haven't received a single letter from any of my friends. Now that I think about it, I really don't give a shit about them either. What exactly would we talk about anyway, the thickness of the calluses on my hands?
I suppose I'm just in a bad mood. I'm tired and it's time to head back to my cot before they come to check on me.
Hate you more than ever,
He walked back through the stables, past all the horse stalls on the right and saddles hanging on the opposite wall, to a square windowless room at the west end of the building. Arthur put the notebook beside him on the cot. He didn't want to forget it; it contained three letters that he wanted to mail when he got back to Rika Chorna. And he knew with certainty that the Ministry of Justice would be sure to have him back at Spokesman Ralkliv's office first thing in the morning.
* * *
It was still dark when the newest ranger on staff, a young man fresh out of college, came to get the criminal up. He didn't know that Arthur was awake already and sitting on the edge of the horse pen. Arthur jumped down behind the ranger. "Good morning sir!"
The ranger took a sharp breath, whirled around like he was under attack, and shined a flashlight in Arthur's face. "Oh!" He exclaimed, clutching his pounding chest. "You... you trying to scare me to death? You've got to be the worst criminal I've ever worked with."
"But sir," Arthur coolly pointed out, "I'm the only criminal you've ever worked with."
"Still..." The ranger breathed heavy. "We don't have much time; we've got to go soon... I'm driving you down to Rika Chorna."
Arthur followed the ranger toward the garage. "You're driving me? You mean you got your license sir?"
"Last Friday I took the driving section and passed." The ranger proudly proclaimed: "It was only my second try."
"Impressive sir," Arthur said. "So did you drive a little car with an automatic transmission?"
The ranger opened the side door of the garage to fetch the keys, he scoffed: "That's for girls, real men drive stick!" He headed for one of the trucks and threw Arthur a towel for the seat.
The ranger climbed behind the wheel and Arthur jumped in the passenger side. Just as the key was put in the ignition the young man stopped. "Wait... oh no... my gun!"
"Your gun?" Arthur squinted at the ranger.
"For transporting criminals I have to be armed..." He threw open the door. "I forgot to check one out yesterday. I don't have time to go back now... um maybe there's something in the shop."
Arthur waited for a minute. Then the ranger jumped back in the truck and something hit Arthur's shoulder. The cab's lights illuminated enough to see a long hunting rifle resting diagonally in between them with the barrel pointed at the back glass. Arthur looked quizzically at the young ranger.
The ranger shrugged. "It's a gun, and besides, the regulations don't say anything about what sort."
"Uh... yes sir... but could you perhaps scoot it away from me some before we get to Rika Chorna?" Arthur couldn't help but laugh. "The police are a little touchy about me and guns."
"Alright... alright." Arthur ducked and the ranger rotated the rifle around to set it across his lap with the barrel pointing down.
"Oh... I can't believe this!" The ranger swore and pounded his fists on the steering wheel. "I forgot the handcuffs too! My boss... is going... to kill me, he's absolutely going to kill me!"
"You have to handcuff me, sir?"
"YES!" The distraught young ranger yelled. "He gave me clear instructions yesterday... said you were dangerous, didn't want to take any chances… said to put you in restraints."
Arthur shrugged. "I'm really more difficult than dangerous."
"I know, I know, but he gives the orders. If I go back to get handcuffs I'll be late and he will kill me; but if he finds out I transported you without restraints he's going to skin me alive!"
"Restraints... hmm." Arthur threw open the door and climbed into the bed of the truck. "Can I borrow your knife sir?"
The ranger shined his flashlight out the back glass. "I guess... what do you need..."
Arthur showed a length of rope that was tied on an eyebolt set in the bed of the truck. "You could tie me up with this..."
The ranger paused for a couple seconds. "Um... rope could be considered a restraint, I guess... alright." He handed Criminal # 88588 his pocket knife.
Criminal number 88588 put his hands out and the ranger made a clumsy attempt to tie up Arthur’s wrists. "Oh, I don't know..." The ranger grumbled. "I never was any good at knots."
Arthur offered: "I could tie myself up... on the way."
"You don't mind?" The ranger jumped back into the cab.
"No sir, glad to help. I wouldn't want you to be late." Arthur sat and started wrapping the cord around each wrist while tugging on the loose end with his teeth.
The young ranger grinned with great enthusiasm as he fired up the engine. "Now we go... hang on!" He released the clutch quickly, the engine began to stall and the ranger pushed the accelerator to the floor. Horses ran in all directions.
Twenty-seven terrifying minutes later Arthur untied his own wrists and stepped out onto the sidewalk in Rika Chorna. Next time, Arthur would consider fashioning a blindfold as well.
The ranger got out and frantically checked the pockets of his jacket and trousers. "Uh... let’s see... um." The ranger cringed: "I must have... uh misplaced my notes. There's some kind of order I'm supposed to give."
Arthur scratched at the back of his head. "Uh... I think I know the basics of it." Arthur looked up as he recalled. "Sir, I think you're supposed to tell me that my custody is now officially transferred from the MNR to the Ministry of Justice, and then you need to order me to report directly to Spokesman Ralkliv's office."
"Um... yeah, that's it." With just a little help the ranger repeated the order.
Arthur waited for a few seconds but the young ranger didn't do anything. "Sir... I'm going to need the paperwork to give to my spokesman."
The ranger breathed a sigh of relief when he found a folded-up paper in his shirt pocket. "Here, here you go..." He climbed back in the cab of the pickup. "Um... have a good day Criminal #88588."
‘Have a good day’ was a very peculiar thing to say to someone who was about to report to the police headquarters for judicial punishment. Arthur waved: "You too, sir."
Arthur watched as the young ranger backed his front wheels off the curb and then, reluctantly, Arthur turned toward the Police Headquarters, all the while wondering what it takes to fail a Danubian driver's test.
* * *
Ralkliv stood in the outer office drinking coffee and talking to a receptionist. Arthur got down on the floor and did the standard criminal to spokesman greeting.
"Please stand.” Ralkliv said. “I am pleased you came in early Criminal number 88588; there is someone here to see you. The man seated in my office; do you recognize this man?"
There was a glass panel in the middle of the office door. Arthur took a long look at the man. Probably mid-thirties, his hair was clipped very short, blue dress shirt, a walking cane was across his knees. "No sir, I don't."
"Arthur that is Officer Detynik Andreis. He came to me yesterday and said he wanted to meet with you; as a victim of crime it is his right."
Arthur felt a panic. "But... what does he want? I mean... I don't understand sir. He came to witness the punishment?"
"No," Ralkliv said. "He wanted to speak with you in private, beyond that I cannot say. Arthur you must not keep him waiting."
Arthur took a deep breath, opened the door, and nervously stepped into the office. He started to kneel.
"There is no need." Andreis spoke softly and slurred his words slightly. "I am no longer on the force. Please have a seat Criminal # 88588."
"Yes sir." Arthur sat. He noticed the long curved scar above Andreis's right ear, from surgery, perhaps.
Andreis twisted the cane in his lap. He sat, looking at the floor, gathering his thoughts. "I... did not tell my wife I was planning to meet you today; she would not understand." Andreis looked hard at Arthur, started to say something, paused and then sighed. "Now that I am here, I do not know, maybe she is right... she's always saying how I see things how I want to see them, not the way they are."
Arthur sat uncomfortably, waiting, unsure of what the man was getting at.
Andreis’s gray eyes focused on Arthur. "The fact is that I hated you for a very long time."
Arthur nodded slightly. "That is... understandable sir."
"It was two years ago yesterday, that shooting." Andreis continued. "It seems like a much longer time."
"It does." Arthur said quietly.
Andreis looked more comfortable now. "In the last year I have spent much time visiting my priest; I understand that you also are under the guidance of the Church."
"Yes sir," Arthur said. "A priestess has been teaching me about the Faith; besides counseling she's helped me learn the language better, reading and writing mostly. She's been very patient."
Andreis almost laughed. "Clergy have to be, especially when dealing with... hmm... difficult persons, don't you think?"
Andreis sat still for a moment, thinking. "My oldest boy is seven. He plays soccer on one of the school's youth leagues. He's very fast, one of the top players; plays so hard, he's a fighter!" Andreis paused to chuckle and shake his head. "But... he's not the least bit gracious in defeat, if he loses you best get out of the way... he's the worst loser you've ever seen. Calling the other team names, crying and punching and kicking, oh... one of the parents brought the team some cakes to last week's game, when my boy found out they were going to share with the winning team he dumped the pan on the ground. I was so embarrassed, it was a mess!
I have spent so much time apologizing for his outbursts that his coach finishes my sentences for me. I've got to be patient with the boy though. He just wants to win so bad, it is understandable that it would upset him when a victory is taken from him.
So I talk to him... after he has calmed down. I tell him that it's natural to feel upset, but all the fighting and screaming does no good, the game is over already.
Of course, an impulsive little boy doesn't see it that way; it is always somebody else's fault you know." Andreis shrugged. "I just have to trust that as he gets older he learns to accept the bad with the good, and deal with his anger in a more constructive way."
Andreis looked Criminal # 88588 in the eyes. "It is not good to be filled with hate. Perhaps I need to be a better example to my kids," Andreis laughed. "Or I could just blame his bad behavior on my wife; she was always the hot tempered one!"
Arthur interjected: "Sometimes anger is justified though."
"Surely, but to achieve a purpose, once the situation is rectified it is time to move on... at least that is the way I see it." Andreis smiled crookedly. "But, as my wife often points out, I'm not always a practical or realistic man." Andreis leaned on his cane and stood. He put out his right hand.
Arthur stood as well and grasped Andreis's hand. "It was good to meet you sir... and good luck with your boy."
Andreis smiled in a good-natured way. "Be well, Criminal number 88588."
Arthur watched him go. He felt relieved, the meeting went better that he could have hoped. Andreis was a good man and it's hard to be a good man, to do things right, to forgive people who hurt you. Arthur knew he had never been the forgiving type, but things can change. Proud, greedy, cruel, and selfish: that was the old Arthur Liggett.
He looked at the clock, it was 7:35. Officer Stashak and her partner wouldn't be by to pick him up for another 25 minutes at least. He sat down again in Ralkliv's office; there was time to think. What would the new Arthur Liggett do?
He thought about Samantha. She loved him. Why on Earth she did was a mystery, but she did. She was his best friend. He didn't want to be away from her. Was it time? Feeling extra sappy, the new and improved Arthur Liggett made his decision... it wasn't hard at all, in fact, he felt exuberant.
Spokesman Ralkliv casually chatted with his secretary, he took a sip of coffee, and then he noticed his American client standing in his office, cheerfully singing some fast paced American rap song. Criminal # 88588 came out the door laughing, happy as a lark. Arthur casually picked up the comics section of the newspaper.
Ralkliv sighed. Soon his client would be taken into one of the punishment rooms and beaten. Most of his clients were scared before a switching, they stayed nervously silent or prayed beforehand; some of the older ones were more somber, stoic, or contemplative. But Criminal number 88588 was just plain weird!
* * *
Arthur raised up on his elbows enough to read through a letter sent by his sister Tee. She had taken a break from college and was living in Maryland with some guy that worked for the State Department. Arthur imagined his sister attending a formal dinner in flip-flops and cheap oversized jewelry.
He didn't notice Samantha enter. "You look like shit Arthur."
Arthur flinched in surprise and groaned from the pain that the sudden movement caused. He turned to see Samantha standing in the doorway with one hand on her hip.
"Uh... I suppose I could comb my hair a bit."
Samantha looked down at his swollen welt-covered skin and cringed. "It's the guy that gave you that haircut that should've been beaten."
"It was cheap at least." Arthur shrugged. "I didn't hear you come in. Where's Mr. Jakt? I usually hear you two flirting."
Samantha laughed. "He's out front working on that pile of junk he calls a pickup truck... naked. I just opened the gate and there he was... underneath the hood, on his hands and knees right up on top of the engine not wearing a stitch of clothes and covered in black grease."
Arthur nodded. "Ah... The timeless art of seduction. But to tell you the truth, I'm getting tired of all this sexual tension when you come over here. Why don't you two just make sweet love and get it over with already? I mean, Mr. Jakt's old; how much longer are you going to play hard to get?"
Samantha rolled her eyes. "Anyway, Mr. Jakt notices me closing the gate and he turns around, the front of the truck's facing the gate by the way... and he just turns around and starts talking to me like nothing out of the ordinary is happening."
"This is the most erotic story I've ever heard. Slow down. Give me the details. What happened next? Did he drop a wrench on the ground and ask you to pick it up for him? Was there any suggestive dialog? Did he ask you to touch his ball joints or look at his crank shaft?"
"Uh... no, but I don’t think I’ll ever get that image out of my head. There should be an age limit for running around naked outside."
"Now you're making me jealous.” Arthur said. “I mean, how would you feel if I seduced your host? I can do it too, if I can just get the husband out of the house. You know all that kneeling's just a pretense to get a better look at my butt; she definitely wants some spy action- I bet the old man's just not doing it for her anymore."
"Don't you have enough women beating you already?"
"Now you sound jealous." Arthur decided to get up. He did his best to act like the burning throbbing pain on his buttocks, thighs, and shoulders didn't bother him. "I do seem to attract the wrong sort of attention; are you just off for lunch?"
"Yeah, I've got to go in ten minutes. Just wanted to come by and see if you were still in one piece." Samantha moved close for a kiss.
He pulled back, causing Samantha a temporary hurt look; then he jumped right in.
"Will you marry me?" Arthur would rather have had a more dignified way to bring up the subject than stinking of dried sweat and covered in welts, but time was not on his side, he would have to leave Rika Chorna in the morning and be gone for months at a time.
Samantha took in a sharp breath. "What?"
"I think we should get married... I mean, I'm not sure if we can, given our unusual situation but what do you say? Want to be Mrs. Criminal number 88588?"
"Wow... I... Hmm... After stammering about for a few seconds Samantha flashed a wicked smile. "Let’s do it, let's get married!" With a girlish scream Samantha jumped enthusiastically throwing her arms around Arthur's shoulders.
Arthur's eyes went wide in pain. “Shit, that hurts!"
Samantha giggled but let go. "Oh, sorry."
Arthur groaned and looked up at the ceiling. "What am I getting myself into?"
* * *
A hundred criminals lined up in orderly ranks, standing at attention inside the old train station. The guards had their switches and batons out, making a big show of the inspection in front of a crowd of travelers. The train was on time; in Danubia the train is always on time. Free people took their seats and then the criminals were allowed to board, though the criminals weren't permitted the luxury of a seat or travel in a passenger car.
Arthur gripped a wall panel with his left hand. The train car swayed and bumped so much that it was hard to stand otherwise and Arthur did want to stand; the last occupants were either sheep or goats. It was the tenth of May and the warm air whipping all around the open topped livestock car smelled of spring... and goats.
Though it was not easy to judge time Arthur thought they traveled almost two hours eastward from Rika Chorna before the train came to a stop near an intersection. Two Public Works buses took the criminals southward for another hour until the road became too muddy for the bus to travel. The guards had the criminals unload and kneel in groups of ten so that their collars could be fastened together on chains. The final ten km would be traveled on foot.
Arthur and the others marched down the farm road. They were in the sparsely populated plains near the border of Danubia's two eastern-most provinces; cultivated fields of wheat, oats, and barley went on for kilometers to either side.
An hour later the road crested a small hill and Arthur got his first look at the Ministry of Public Works’ camp. A cramped but orderly grid of canvass tents and trailers covered what had once been a pasture; a kilometer across. A thirty-meter antenna tower set in the middle; on the northern border lines of criminals unloaded several flatbed trucks. Bulldozers, excavators and other heavy equipment set in a clearing on the camp's east side. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people moved about.
A guard, weary and irritable, stepped out of the first tent beside the road. He sighed loud enough for everyone to hear it and then raised a hand to stop the work crew. Arthur thought that he might unlock the chain, but the guard was only interested in getting them classified and assigned before the next group arrived. Without saying a thing, he walked by copying numbers onto his clipboard. When all ten names were recorded, he turned to rummage through a box of supplies.
The guard peeled off a round green sticker with a white #22 on it and stuck it right on the chest of the young man who was first in line. With the criminal work crew cataloged and labeled his job was done; he pointed down a well-trampled road through the center of camp, said: "camp green," and then made a gesture as if shooing off flies.
There were five camps spread out along the work site, each held hundreds of male criminals, a separate smaller camp held the women. Arthur and the other nine were herded toward an encampment of about fifty army tents each with a green sign and number on it.
A female guard stopped them at the camp entrance. “Down on your knees."
Arthur and the others got down on trampled grass.
"I expect to you dishonored animals to answer 'Yes Officer' when you are given an order. Is that clear?"
“Yes Officer." The group repeated with not much enthusiasm.
Satisfied with her dominance over the lowly criminals, the woman set her shotgun on a bench and began unlocking the chain from the collars. Next there was the assignment of living quarters. Arthur had a canvas cot inside a military style canvas tent with nine other criminals; on top of his cot was a box containing a toothbrush, soap, and a few other items as well as a list of rules and regulations. This was home for some undetermined amount of time.
* * *
Work began the next morning. Strangely enough, in this project that was marketed as a way to bring the Eastern Valley into the twenty-first century, most of the labor seemed more first century. Canals were roughed out with an old excavator that smoked and groaned with every scoop, then after the machine moved on criminal labor crews gave the canal its final slope. Piles of soil and rock were moved by hand drawn sledges, wheel barrels, and shovels; then compacted using hand drawn rollers. Private contractors installed metal irrigation gates at the ends of each segment.
This was hard labor; long exhausting days, in the glare of the late spring sun, under the watch of guards who had no sympathy for the 'animals' they supervised. Arthur and the others got used to it though, and tried to make their time off after work as pleasant as possible. There were games played and sports for those who had the energy. A few enterprising Danubians even made rudimentary musical instruments; by the second week there were a few peculiar bands performing after supper.
Arthur socialized some, but he wasn't exactly friends with any of the other criminals. He knew how serious and easily offended Danubians tended to be; so he was cautious, just not cautious enough.
One afternoon during his second week Arthur and a particularly large Danubian criminal were ordered to assist the contractors with the placement of a section of gate. During a lengthy delay while concrete was poured, Arthur thought he would try to make the Danubian criminal laugh.
Arthur told a joke he had translated from English and got no response. Since the joke had to do with an American Major League Baseball team, a sport that Danubians didn’t even play, Arthur tried to explain in terms he might understand: "Alright... it's like if your mother walked in on your sister with... the... Rika Chorna men's soccer team... and there's a jar of money in the floor and..."
The Danubian found this explanation even less satisfying. He grabbed Arthur's right arm in one hand and drew back the other for a punch. Arthur owed the slimy red clay for the miss. Arthur jerked away from the Danubian's grip and his feet went out from under him.
The big man didn't let go. Tumbling backwards and upside-down on the slope, by chance Arthur's feet got underneath the Danubian's mid-section. Arthur kicked, sending him flipping end-over-end and landing in knee-deep muddy water.
Arthur slid to a stop just short of the waterline and then scrambled back up the incline before his big angry friend extracted himself from the mud. A guard had noticed the disturbance.
* * *
Back at the camp Arthur and his large friend were placed into a chain link enclosure just outside the guard's quarters. It was simply a six-meter square pen set on dying trampled grass with a gate on the north end. Arthur hoped the Danubian was no longer in the mood to fight- big and tall beats average and well... average any day. He knew he just got lucky the first time, now that he was locked in a cage with his adversary it was time to use diplomacy.
“You see,” Arthur explained. “This is all a misunderstanding." The large man's fists were clenched, not a good sign.
“I don't want you to take what I said the wrong way." No response.
“I’m sure that you actually come from a very respectable family... and I didn't mean to imply otherwise." The big man looked even angrier, and took a step forward.
“And I'm certain that your mother is a saint... or uh... whatever..." Arthur dashed to the side avoiding the big man's grip.
“Fight me like a man!" The Danubian growled."
“Uh... I'd rather not." Arthur stepped to the side avoiding him again.
“Really if you think about it... er... you and me..." Arthur faked going left and scrambled right. "We aren't all that different."
“Uh... us criminals got to stick together right?" Arthur's next footstep skidded on wet grass and the Danubian landed a hard punch to his ribs. Arthur tumbled off balance from the blow, kicking as the big man lurched over him throwing more punches.
A shotgun blast at close range got both their attentions. The criminal who was about to knock Arthur's head off swore under his breath and backed away. The sounds of multiple pump-action shotguns loading accompanied the shouts of approaching guards.
The first guard through the gate kicked Arthur to the ground and twisted his arms back to apply handcuffs (for the protection of the five guards and the other criminal). When both criminals were subdued a female officer stepped into the cage. She was about thirty, a little shorter than Arthur, and judging from her immaculately pressed gray uniform, unaccustomed to camp life.
“You." She looked disgusted at Arthur, on his knees in front of her, covered in red clay and clumps of grass. "What is your name?"
“Officer, my name is Criminal # 88588."
“That accent... Where are you from Criminal # 88588?"
“The United States."
“Amerikanitsk… Amerikanitsk?" She curiously repeated the term for a male American. "You're the spy, aren't you?"
Fame was clearly over-rated. "Yes officer, I was convicted of espionage two years ago."
“And you are still causing trouble, are you not?"
Arthur borrowed a phrase that American politicians use when they get in trouble, to sound apologetic without admitting anything. "I regret that mistakes were made officer."
“I can tell you that you will definitely regret causing a disturbance at this camp. You have not only violated the regulations of the Ministry of Public Works but also the terms of..."
The listing of rules that they had broken went on and on. Arthur considered his options while the officer veered off into lecture mode, using phrases that must have been pulled directly out of some police manual. By the time the series of warnings, quoted regulations, and platitudes was complete Arthur had decided how to respond. The guards were intimidating but the look that the 250lb gorilla was giving him seemed worse.
“Officer, the disturbance was entirely my fault; my careless words provoked this man into fighting me." Arthur glanced over at his big angry friend, hoping that did the trick.
“Who is at fault is not for a dishonored criminal to decide. You're aware of the camp rules are you not?"
“And you." She spoke to the big criminal to Arthur's right.
“Yes officer." He rumbled.
“Good, then you have no excuses." She gave an order to a subordinate in her most authoritative voice and then turned to leave looking very pleased with herself.
* * *
The wild boar was hit- it bucked straight up in the air and made a horrible squeal. Its last few strides took it into the swampy border of a thick hedge. The boar ceased moving after a minute. Two guards congratulated the shooter and commented on the fine meal it would make.
The shooter was eager to see his prize up close. "You two dishonored criminals; go get that pig."
Arthur started to give a reasonable explanation of why that would not be such a good idea but he could see that the guard was completely unsympathetic. His big friend was already wading toward the boar's body; its hindquarters and one foot poked out of the tangle of grass and brambles. It looked bigger up close. Arthur looked to his partner, wondering if he had done this before.
Arthur grabbed hold of the boar's left hind foot with both hands. It was covered in black bristles, callused and hard, big around as a softball, and twitching. The plan was that they would grab the boar by the hind legs and drag it on its back toward the bank.
Such a plan required that the boar be dead though. The animal shook free of his grip as though he was nothing at all and spun around in a fury of splashing water. Like his partner, Arthur thought it was time to retreat. Twenty meters ahead two guards brought shotguns to their shoulders. Arthur scrambled as fast as four limbs could take him through water, mud, and grass.
Something hit Arthur’s left leg hard below the knee; there were gunshots- he stumbled forward and splashed into a hole of knee-deep water. Gripping handfuls of grassroots with both hands he yanked himself back to his feet. Arthur's left leg buckled under his weight. This time he couldn't gather the strength to pull himself out of the mud- or hold himself up. His weakening arms gave out and Arthur sank gently into the water, muddy brown water that strangely had a significant amount of red mixing in. Someone close by shouted and gripped his right arm. He was being pulled up. Arthur felt like sleeping.
* * *
The smell of rubbing alcohol and the click of footsteps on a hard surface... Arthur opened his eyes, and blinked at bright fluorescent lighting overhead. Slowly he focused; he was in a small bed with a sheet and a white blanket over him- a strange feeling. He raised his sore head to look around the long narrow room, there were several more beds, some like his own had IV bags hanging beside them... a hospital ward, he realized. Five other patients lie on their beds, or sat up chatting with visitors.
His mouth and throat were completely dry. There was a pitcher of water and an empty glass on a small table nearby, Arthur scooted over to the edge of the bed and reached for the pitcher.
“Oh, come on!" He said, barely making a noise. His left wrist was handcuffed to the bed's railing. As he sat up he felt a throbbing pain in his left leg. Arthur threw back the covers to see the leg elevated on a pillow and bandaged from the knee down to his ankle. He wiggled his bruised toes just to make sure they still moved. "That boar..." Arthur remembered. "I got attacked by a fucking boar!"
A nurse walked into the far side of the room with an arm full of towels. Arthur couldn't say anything intelligible so he clapped his hands as loud as the handcuffs on his left wrist and the IV in his right arm would allow.
“Oh, I see you're awake," the nurse made a disapproving noise. "You need to stay in bed for a while and keep that leg elevated."
How exactly a person could leave the bed while handcuffed to it Arthur didn't know but he was more concerned with thirst. Arthur made a gesture as if drinking. The nurse poured a glass of the best water Arthur had ever tasted; he drank it down greedily and then had some more.
“Am I in Rika Chorna?" His voice came out raspy and slurred; his usually nimble tongue uncooperative.
“No, you're in the Provincial Capital of Novo Sokut Tok; Rika Chorna's over a hundred and fifty kilometers away from here by road. The medics brought you in yesterday; this was the closest hospital, I'm not sure you would have made it all the way to Rika Chorna with all the blood you lost."
“Nearly killed by a wild boar? I felt it slash at my leg, never would have seen that coming."
“Wild boar? Young man it was the gunshot wound that nearly killed you, the doctor removed five pellets of shot from your leg last night. One of them hit a major artery, that's why you nearly bled to death."
" Uh... the guards shot me?"
She shrugged. "Well, you shouldn't have messed around with a wounded animal. They said they had no choice but to fire at the beast before it killed you, you're lucky to be alive."
Arthur looked down at the handcuffs and his bandaged leg not feeling very lucky right then. "Nurse... can you unlock these?"
“You’re a criminal and you remain in custody, you can't just move around unsupervised. If you need to go to the restroom one of the staff will escort you there and back." She gave Arthur a stern look. "The guards warned us about you; just because you're a patient don't think that you can do what you want. When a doctor or nurse gives you an order, we expect it to be followed, is that clear?"
“Yes ma'am. I'm not going to cause you any trouble." Arthur said. "But could I have paper and pen to write a letter?" She looked suspiciously at him before removing a notepad and pen from the table. Arthur placed the notepad on top of the railing and rolled to the side enough to write with his free hand.
I hope you received my last letter; I haven't had the opportunity to write in a couple weeks for reasons explained below. I got your letter Wednesday, it sounded like you had a pretty good time at the club, and I always thought you had a good singing voice. You asked how I'm doing so I'll catch you up on what's going on with me.
Besides getting in a fight, being attacked by a wild boar, and shot in the leg by a guard everything is going pretty well here. I'm now lying in a hospital bed in a city called Novo Sokut Tok, though I haven't been able to see much of it, I hear it's nice. The nurse said I was very lucky to have survived- I don't know if she meant the boar or the guards. I hope I don't get 'lucky' like this again.
I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll start with the fight. It all began with a joke, the one about the mother who catches her daughter with the baseball team- well, the Danubian I was telling the joke to thought I was talking specifically about his family. Long story short: the guy tried to knock my head off; besides some bruises he didn't do much damage. I was eventually able to explain that I didn't mean to insult him, and he got over it.
The guards were not so forgiving. For the past two weeks both of us were forced to work four extra hours per day as partners, doing all sorts of unpleasant tasks. And that gets me to the part about the boar.
I don't know if they're native or not but there are large numbers of wild pigs here, they seem to enjoy the irrigation canals that we're digging. The guards sometimes hunt them and have pig roasts over at their quarters.
Yesterday three of the guards took us on a pig hunt. They had a blind set up already by a section of canal where they left out food. A guard with a rifle shot an especially big boar, and my partner and I were sent out to into the swamp to retrieve it. The boar wasn't dead, just temporarily stunned and real angry.
I'm not sure what happened next, but the nurse said the surgeon removed five pieces of shot from my leg yesterday. Also I have a couple toenails missing, and the lower part of my foot's black and blue, perhaps the thing bit me.
I haven't talked to the doctor yet so I'm not sure how long I have to stay here, but I suppose I'm going to be on crutches for a while. I'm not…
Arthur put down the notepad as a female doctor walked into the room. She spent a few seconds reading his chart. "Criminal # 88588, did the nurse explain what happened to you?"
The doctor spoke while writing instructions on his chart. “There was significant muscle damage but that should heal, my main concern is that the wounds don't start bleeding again or get infected. You need to keep it elevated for a couple days to reduce swelling, and stay off of it for two weeks but I expect you will make a full recovery. If all goes well we will release you in a couple days- I suspect you'll be sent back to Rika Chorna."
Arthur thought he should try again. "That's good to hear doctor, but do you think these," Arthur raised his left wrist, "could be taken off."
“You want to be treated like a normal patient?" The doctor smiled pleasantly as she finished writing something on his chart.
Arthur nodded. "Yes."
Her voice went cold. "Then you shouldn't have come into our country to steal from us, should you?"
The doctor was still looking at him. "No ma'am." Arthur leaned back while the doctor examined his leg.
After she left Arthur looked around, feeling less groggy and more bored, there were ten hospital beds in the long narrow room, five of them occupied, Arthur was in the last bed against the outside wall, and the nearest patient was four empty beds away. Arthur mused how fearful they were of his influence; warning the staff, chaining him to the bed, treating him like some spy-mastermind.
Bored, with no entertainment at all, not even a TV in the room, Arthur looked at the handcuffs. There was no way to get them loose without disassembling the railing, and someone would probably notice that. He did see a small finish nail holding up a calendar above his head.
"Pick the lock maybe," Arthur spoke English in a raspy whisper. "If I could reach it," Arthur glanced at the other patients, "But I'll have to kill some witnesses." Arthur stared absently out the window and formulated an elaborate escape plan with no fewer than three stolen vehicles, multiple ridiculous disguises, and several unnecessary explosions. That done, he checked the clock. Only half an hour had passed but it was at least lunchtime.
Arthur sat up in bed as an elderly woman came to deliver his tray; she hesitated when she saw that the criminal patient was handcuffed.
“Don’t worry, I won't bite."
The old woman looked horrified. Arthur realized that he should stop trying to translate American phrases into Danubian. It came out more like: "Don't think I won't bite you!" She put the tray and drink down on the side table and hurried off.
Arthur stretched as far as the handcuffs would allow and barely grasped the table leg with his fingertips. It made a terrible screech as he dragged it across the tile floor, all the other patients were staring, obviously annoyed. Arthur smiled and waved apologetically while saying vulgar things to them in English.
He set the tray in his lap and removed the cover with his free right hand. "Ugh... What is this? Pea soup and plain toast. Come on!"
End of part 4
Copyright© 2012 by Ed Harley. All rights reserved. I welcome your comments. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org