Monday, April 8, 2013

Prequel Part 2

Prequel to Reckless Endangerment: Part 2

         The lobby of the hotel didn’t exactly remind her of a five star resort in the Caribbean. God, what she wouldn't give to be at a swim up bar with a cocktail and some reggae in the background. Instead, here she waited surrounded by worn out sofas and worn out people who looked as if the weight of the world clung to their shoulders. She shifted her weight from foot-to-foot, more uneasy about today's adventure than she let on, and studied the lobby as if she would never see it again. 

Two inches of dust, if not more, tinted the floor-to-ceiling windows. Yellow light of dawn filtered into the room, creating an unnatural glow on every surface it touched. Tattered leather furniture had been rearranged to accommodate the reporters and military personnel that milled about in small groups, voices muted by the cavernous room.  Boot steps echoed on marbled floors. Clips of languages from all over the world could be heard if she listened closely, which she did. Often. Call her crazy, but she'd miss this chaos if she stayed in New York.  
She finished her Diet Coke while she and Sally waited for Peter to return with Nehru, their ride into no man's land.  

          "What's the first thing you're going to do when you get home?" Sally asked. "I'm already made a spa appointment. This Afghan air has been a nightmare for my skin."

         "Spa sounds nice." She looked at her friend and coworker. Short blonde curls, heart shaped face, curves that made men stop in their tracks and a photographic memory that made her hell to argue with. "I haven't thought that far ahead. Today's been on my mind." 


   “Worry is a waste of creative energy, so, no. Of course not.” She smashed her soda can before tossing it into the trash. She looked up in time to see Peter waving from the main entrance, his camera gear in a large backpack. “Our ride’s here. Better go.”

“Did you see Michael last night?” Sally asked as they walked toward the door in unison.

“Yeah, he made me promise to stay in the city today.” She grimaced at the lie she’d told him. “A war zone is no place to start an honest relationship, is it?” 

Sally and Peter, along with two of Michael’s closest friends, had been at the wedding in 
Greece. Maybe they didn’t have a wide circle of confidante’s, but she’d come to rely on quality over quantity. It was nice to be able to talk about him to someone she trusted implicitly.

          “Down here. C’mon. They’re going to be setting up check points outside of the market.  Whatever’s going on today, they want to make sure we stay put.” Peter motioned toward a blue Volkswagon van that waited at the end of the street.  

         Nehru, Marishka’s son, waited inside the van. Yeah, he looked shifty. There was no getting around that. The kid had suspicious behavior down to a science. But she’d never trusted first impressions or overt behavior that could mislead. She trusted her gut, and that told her that Nehru was a scared kid trying to be brave in a terrifying world.  

Aside from the two seats up front, the back of the van had been redesigned for cargo.  Currently, that meant two goats and four crates of chickens.  

“Looks like we’re riding in style today, Sally girl.” She winked at her friend before sliding in between the goats and getting comfy on a rolled up carpet. Her press credentials dangled from her neck, purposely exposed for now in case she needed to talk her way through anything. When it came to getting out of trouble or bullshitting with the best of them, she had a knack. Instead of the green headscarf, today she pulled out her battle worn khaki Bermuda hat that Michael called the ugliest thing on earth. She called it lucky.  

Sally propped herself across from her, wrinkling her nose at the chickens. “It’s always an adventure, isn’t it?”

Hope smiled and ducked down further so that she couldn’t be seen from any of the back windows. Damn, she loved her job. Call it an adrenaline high or having a screw loose, she didn’t care. This was where she was meant to be.

“You never answered me, what do plan on doing first when you get back home?” Sally mirrored her scrunched position, their boot clad feet touching at the center of the van. 

“I have no idea.” She shrugged. Home was a foreign concept to her. She’d been a nomad for years, using her apartment in New York as a pit stop from time to time. Living out of suitcase suited her. “Maybe I’ll call my sister, see if she wants to come up for a weekend visit. I haven’t seen her in years. Or maybe I’ll go there?”

“Denver, right? Are you getting homesick?”

She balked at the idea. Homesick? Had Sally slipped and fallen sometime during the night?  “Why do you say that?”

“Ever since you connected with you know who, you’ve been more nostalgic, talk about Colorado a lot, mention family more than I’ve ever known you to do. Maybe you’ve changed, maybe this isn’t the life for you anymore.” Sally opened a granola bar.  

“You don’t need a spa day, you need an appointment with a shrink.”  

The van stopped and lurched and stopped and lurched as it worked through the city. One thought slipped into her consciousness as she looked at the back of Nehru’s dark head...they were getting through too easily. 

“I thought there were checkpoints,” she said to Peter.

“Me, too.” He twisted in his seat and shrugged. 

Sally finished the granola bar, her gaze locked on the rolled carpet. “What are you sitting on?”

Hope rubbed her hand over the material. “It’s carpet, that’s all.”

“What’s in it?”

“I assume more carpet. What do you want me to do?” Damn, they were all more paranoid than they wanted to admit to each other. Squatting, she rearranged the messenger bag around her torso and pulled at the carpet until it unrolled between them. “See? It’s nothing. We need to stop this before we drive each other nuts.”

“Let’s play cards.” Sally held up a deck and winked. “Maybe I’ll beat you out of some money."

The thought that this was too easy echoed through her mind. She should have come straight with Michael, arranged a military escort like usual when going into a potentially dangerous situation. 

They played cards as Nehru sped through the rural roads until they reached a small town. The van slowed to a stop. She and Sally peeked out the side windows of the van. Quiet. No one walked the streets.  

“Where is Marishka’s house?” Peter asked from the front seat. “And where is everyone?”

“There, the one with the blue door.” Nehru parked the van and looked into the back. 
“Something is wrong. It is too quiet. I am going to drive up more.”

Her breath caught in her throat as she stared into Nehru’s dark eyes. The boy looked genuinely afraid.  

“You think the house is being watched?” she asked. 

“Get beneath the rug,” he said before turning back to the steering wheel.  

She and Sally huddled together beneath the rug between the chickens and goats.  

“Something’s going on, but what?” Sally asked in the shared darkness.

Gunfire erupted in the street. Then an explosion.

“Fuck this,” she said as she pushed off the heavy rug.  f she were about to run for her life, she wanted a vantage point to the house with the blue door.  

The quiet streets had erupted into a chaos of gunfire and explosions, none of which were directed at them. The had somehow slipped right into a hot zone.  

“Why weren’t there any checkpoints?” She slapped Nehru on the shoulder. “Those are US Marines out there. How did you get us by them?”

“I did not go on the road. I went my own way to avoid Taliban and soldiers.” Nehru grabbed her hand and squeezed. “You must get under the carpet.”

“I’m not getting under the fucking carpet.” She looked at Peter who was adjusting the straps on his backpack.  

It was then she saw a man covered all in black hold a gun to the window.  She couldn’t say anything, not a word of warning, nothing. 

          Bam! Peter’s head exploded. Bits of his skull and blood coated her face.  

Nehru grabbed a gun from somewhere and shot back, blowing the man in black backward. 

“Peter.” She climbed over the seat and tried to piece his head together. “Peter.”

  “We gotta run, Hope.” Sally had climbed up front, too, and taken over the driver’s seat as Nehru had leapt into the back.  

“More guns.” He had turned over the chicken crates and shoved weapons at the women. “For the rebels. We fight the Taliban.”

“Do I look like a soldier to you?” Sally said in horror. “He’s gone, Hope. We need to leave him and run.”

She stared at the fragmented pieces of her best friend’s head, her fingers useless at trying to put him back together, knowing she had no time to mourn. With bloody fingers, she slipped his wedding ring from his hand, tucked it into her pocket and grabbed his backpack.  

        “I’ll make sure Lisa gets your ring. I’m so sorry.” Her voice shook over the words while her gaze stared at his bloody body. Leaving him here felt like all kinds of wrong. Her entire body shook with terror. 

“We need to run, Hope.” Sally pulled at her arm. “We need to run.”

         She tried once again to piece Peter's skull together, didn't want to leave him like this, in pieces, all alone, a world away from his wife. 

        "What is happening? Jesus, we're in the middle of something big, Shane." Sally yanked her away from Peter's body. Hard. "We either run or die here, do you understand?"

“The blue door,” Nehru said, obviously prepared to fight. “Get to the blue door.”

        Chaos had erupted from silence. She stumbled from the van, pulled by Sally and flanked by Nehru.  Marines.  She saw them entering the town square, a few walking, three humvees rolling on the road. 

        Nehru shoved her into a stack of wood, returning fire to unseen assailants. The jury was out on whether he was good or bad.

        Covering her head, she waited for a lull in the gunfire to raise her head. An explosion rocked the earth beneath her and shook the teeth in her head.  

       "This isn't supposed to be happening," she muttered against a closed fist. "A simple morning, meet up with Marishka, film the end of her story, go back to the hotel, go to New York on Friday...what the hell is going on?"

        She looked up from the stack of wood when the hollering became intolerable. Blue door. She needed to get to the blue door. But what she saw stifled a scream in her throat. The three humvees were engulfed in flame.

       Michael, that's all she could think. Had he followed her here?  Was he in there?  

      "Sally...." she turned. 

      No Sally.  No Nehru. No one safe.

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