The Secret Mathematic is a science-fiction novel told in an indefinite number of chapters, posted serially by me, your full-colour glossy host, Cheeseburger Brown. This is the fifteenth installment.
Multimedia: Listen to the The Secret Mathematic Overture in MP3 format, by Syntax Error.
Related reading: Stubborn Town, Three Face Flip, The Long Man, Plight of the Transformer, The Extra Cars
And now, our tale continues:
The plane banks. Porter's view dips lower, tracking along the terrain: runs of crinkled, leathery rocks separated by flat lakes of sand. Down below, between two faded stripes of highway, the plane's shadow is fuzzy and translucent. It appears to ripple as it slides up and down over the dunes.
An announcement in Arabic: "Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please: we are commencing our final descent into Nuribad at this time. Fasten your seatbelts and return your trays and seatbacks to the upright position."
Porter snaps his seatbelt ends together, then tugs on the restraint. He folds his research notes away and tucks them back into his briefcase. Outside the window the naked desert is giving way to infrastructure -- pipes and electrical cabling, irrigation trenches and radio relay towers. His belly lurches as the plane bleeds away altitude, engines screeching, wing-flaps buzzing as they reorient.
The city of Nuribad scrolls into view: patchwork farms and square-walled villages first, then monstrous refineries and factories, sprawling commercial parks and rows of apartment blocks. Cranes are everywhere, a fleet of metal storks arrayed along the coast sticking up between the half-completed shells of hotels, department stores, amphitheatres, the steel skeletons of skyscrapers. The beaches are being torn apart, reworked into resort paradises, blossoms of disturbed silt clouding the sea almost to the horizon.
Nuribad is a busy place. The oil boom has left no quarter untouched.
The city tilts up to meet the plane, shadow flashing over rooftops. A moment later rubber barks and the cabin bumps as the wheels touch down. The engines scream, then fade. Porter knows his cues. He unhitches his seatbelt and stretches, passing his empty cup to the stewardess automatically. Every flight is the same.
Most airports are the same, too -- but not this one.
It is brand new, gleaming, massive and nearly empty. The architecture is daring, gravity-defying, swooping and modern, decorated by swirling, colourful miasmas of Arabesques detailed in geometric rings, curls and lines. Great sections of the building still undergoing work are shielded behind walls of translucent plastic, muting the pounding and humming of tools. Porter and the half dozen other passengers cross the vast terminal alone aside from a lone artisan assembling an intricately tiled floor by hand. He doesn't look up as the passengers pass.
Only one customs wicket is open, but eleven more are under construction. "Business or pleasure?" asks the swarthy man behind the counter, his English heavily accented. His uniform seems needlessly ceremonial and militaristic to Porter, who likens it to the look of officials in a banana republic. Who would put such ostentatious epaulettes on front-line customs staff?
"I'm a journalist."
"You have documentation of your sponsor?"
Porter pushes an envelope across the desk. The customs officer slips out the enclosed letter and scans it. His brows rise, then he peeks over the top. "You are a guest of the Shah himself?"
"Very good, sir." The envelope is pushed back to Porter's waiting hand. "Welcome to Anwar."
The young photographer arrives on a separate flight from Istanbul. He meets Porter by the luggage carousels, asks him to watch for his equipment cases while he steals outside for a badly craved cigarette fix. Porter nods. He watches the conveyor slide by, looking sharp for the reinforced shipping modules labelled in yellow and black: PROPERTY OF N.G.S. - WASHINGTON, D.C.
He's hauling the last box off the carousel as the photographer returns with a trolley. The photographer has a wild beard and a head of neglect-matted hair. He wears grubby jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt under a rumpled corduroy jacket. "Okay that's the lights, that's the batteries and stands...hey man, where's my 'Blad at?"
It turns out the Hasselblad camera has been routed to a security desk for a thorough test of its mechanisms. "It's just a camera, man," explains the photographer. The security agent gives him a polite but cool smile as he hands over the camera.
"It is my job to verify this," he offers. "It is indeed just a camera."
"What else could it be, man?"
"You will be seeing the Shah, sir. Nothing is left to chance."
"So you've got to be sure it's not like a camera-gun or something?"
"Far out, man," he says, shouldering his bag.
Porter pushes the trolley as they cross the hall to the taxis. "This is our first assignment together," he says, eyes on the windows ahead. "I'd like you to understand, though, that from now on you're to let me do the talking. Understood?"
The photographer glances over at him, pulling a lock of hair away from his eyes. "Yeah, man," he says. "Sure, man. I'm sorry Mr. Porter. I just didn't know they'd give my 'Blad an anal exam, you know? I'm very protective. This stuff's my bread and butter."
Porter nods. "As long as we're understood, then. I'm the voice; you're the eyes."
"Totally understood, Mr. Porter. Hey, that sounds so stiff: now that we're working together I should probably call you Barry?"
Porter shakes his head. "I'm not of your generation, Mr. Quaker. Mr. Porter will be sufficient."
"Right on. I hear ya, man."
Porter winces slightly but offers no reply. Together they push through the doors out into the sunshine. A white limousine is parked by the curb heralded over by a lean, almost dainty chauffeur with an immaculately trimmed beard. He bears a sign that says NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC in a tight, careful hand. The chauffeur notes the equipment cases on the trolley and looks up to meet Porter's eye. "Sir?"
"Barry Porter," he nods. "This is Sean Quaker, my photographer. Hold on, I have my identification..."
"That won't be necessary, sir. The appropriate assurances have been provided me."
"I see," says Porter slowly, tucking his wallet away again.
The chauffeur pops the trunk and stands aside as Quaker manhandles his metal cubes into the rear. Porter looks along the curb outside the airport, noting immediately three men waiting patiently, apparently with no business, their eyes flashing over to scan Porter and Quaker every few minutes. They politely step out of the way of the actual passengers. Their right hands never stray far from the edge of their jackets...
The limousine crawls along the crowded streets, choked by mini-bazaars and throngs of mostly men in white robes, only occasionally accompanied by women in head-to-toe black burqas following at their heels. The vendors shout, kids at play dashing between the counters and blankets. Some of the men press sleeves together with the vendors, concealing their hands as they dicker with hidden digits.
They pass a glorious blue mosque with soaring minarets decorated by glittering filigree lines of lapus lazuli. The stones wink in the sun, casting azure caustics on the pavement below. Quaker takes a couple of shots through the window with a Nikon 35mm SLR from his shoulder bag. "Mr. Porter," he asks, voice muffled as his face is pressed to the viewfinder, "do you read Arabic?"
"Certainly," says Porter.
"What do those signs say?"
"They say, 'No photography under penalty of death.'"
Quaker lets his Nikon droop. "Seriously?"
Porter sniffs. "No. They say, 'No parking.'"
Quaker chuckles. "And Nancy said you had no sense of humour."
Porter smiles in an unfriendly way. "I don't, Mr. Quaker," he says. "This should be a lesson for you: venturing illiterate into the Arab world is a risky proposition. If you want to go on assignment with me in the future, you'll correct that."
"I have a phrase-book," offers Quaker, fumbling with a pocket.
"Insufficient," says Porter shortly. He turns away.
The limousine draws along a long, high wall of white stone and then slows as it reaches a gate flanked by guardhouses. The chauffeur nods to the guard who reaches into his booth to hit a control that raises the spike-tipped portcullis, after which the heavy metal doors grind open revealing the green gardens and multicoloured flower beds of the sculpture-studded palace grounds.
As the car crosses the vast private park Porter opens his briefcase and slips out a mimeographed page. He frowns, then looks out the windows. Over a low rise the roofs of the main house can now be seen but the chauffeur is conducting the limousine toward a smaller service road, bypassing the principal boulevard altogether. "Are we not to meet the Shah at the main house?" he asks pointedly.
"Yes sir," says the chauffeur. "However a special tour has been arranged to precede your meeting."
"That's not on the itinerary," says Porter. "What sort of special tour? I'm concerned about maintaining our schedule, you understand. Our time with the Shah is short."
"Naturally, sir," says the chauffeur. He does not elaborate, but his slight wrists flex as his small, black-gloved hands tighten on the wheel.
Porter shifts in his seat. "Something's wrong," he says in quiet English to Quaker. "We're being diverted for some kind of tour."
"What's wrong with that?"
Porter's gaze flicks forward again. "Telling us so makes the driver nervous."
"How can you tell?"
"I'm a journalist, Mr. Quaker. I trust my instincts. Something untoward is afoot."
Quaker's face twitches. "What can we do?"
"Nothing," says Porter, sitting back in his seat again. "Absolutely nothing, Mr. Quaker. We're as good as captive."
Quaker swallows loudly and crosses his legs. Porter wrinkles his nose. The photographer's jeans stink.
The limousine descends down a steep ramp into an underground parkade, its carriage squeaking as it bounces at the bottom. Most of the other cars in the parkade are service vehicles: groundskeeping and housekeeping, maintenance and game control. There are no other limousines. The long white car stops in the middle of an aisle and a split-second later it is surrounded by black-robed figures with machine guns drawn. They reach forward and yank open the back doors, then yank out Porter and Quaker.
"We are cooperating," says Porter in Arabic, lacing his hands on the top of his head. "We will not resist."
The hooded figures do not reply other than to keep the muzzles of their weapons trained on the two Westerners. Quaker raises his shaking hands and holds them aloft. "Don't shoot, man," he says. "We're totally unarmed. Okay? It's cool. Don't shoot."
He looks over anxiously as the chauffeur emerges from the car, tugging off one driving glove and then the other. The chauffeur cap is then doffed, allowing to spill free a head of long, inky hair. The neat strips of beard are torn away next and then the chauffeur turns to face the pair. "Gentlemen," she says.
Quaker's eyes widen. "Whoa -- she's a chick, man!"
Porter casts him an acidic look. "What did I say about talking?"
Quaker presses his lips together obediently. The chauffeur puts her hands on her suddenly apparent hips. "Mr. Porter, you have been brought here because there are things the world needs to see. You must see them now, before the Shah becomes suspicious of your absence. Confirm it: you have a means of communication?"
He nods slowly. "I have a satellite telephone in my briefcase."
"Good. You'll use it to transmit your findings. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the information you gain will be able to be shared by any other means. Are your personal affairs in order?"
He nods again. "Such is my practice before travelling outside of the first world."
"Good," she repeats. "Now, quickly: put these on."
Porter and Quaker are presented with a full-length black burqa each. They pull them on over their clothes. "What did she say?" whispers Quaker. "What's going on?" Porter simply shakes his head to silence him. He buttons closed his burqa and pulls the hood on, then draws the translucent chadri veil down over his face followed by two swaths of opaque fabric that leave only a narrow strip clear for the eyes. He helps Quaker finish up. The photographer's forehead is shiny with sweat. "This is weird, man," he hisses shakily under his breath. "This is way weird, Barry."
"Mr. Porter," corrects Porter.
"Oh God," squeaks Quaker. "Oh man."
The former chauffeur is also donning a burqa. "My name is Raja al-Mera," she says as she buttons her coverings. "I am a senior handmaiden in the Shah's harem." She looks up at Porter, her brown eyes hard and steady. "We are slaves, Mr. Porter, and you are to be our liberation. You will tell the world how we suffer to live at the Shah's whim." She pauses, then adds, "And how we suffer to die."
"And if we fail to comply?"
She gestures with her chin at the rows of machine-gun muzzles aimed at the two men. "We cut you down where you stand, as a threat to security. You have strayed from the Shah's itinerary -- your lives are already forfeit."
Porter nods, unfazed. "I understand the situation," he says crisply. "Where do we begin?"
"Your reputation for temperance is well deserved," remarks Raja. "Come, you will follow me. Walk this way. Take pains to comport yourself as a lady. Eyes are everywhere."
As they follow her across the parkade the others rapidly stow the weapons beneath their burqas and then disperse in random directions in groups of two or three. One hangs back to move the limousine; another climbs a step-ladder that rests next to a security camera and begins detaching a small device clipped to its side. No words are spoken.
"I am armed," says Raja in a close voice. "My response to any false move will be instantaneous."
Quaker grabs Porter's elbow. "What is she saying?"
"She says we'll be shot if we alarm her in any way."
"Keep quiet, you fool."
Raja leads them up a flight of steps and into an opulent hall of mosaic walls, a golden chandelier hanging from the vaulted ceiling. The hall echoes with a continuous muted babble of hisses, clinks and pops emanating from a wide trench that meanders across the floor, coming through one wall and exiting on the other side. Porter's brow furrows as he follows Raja over the narrow footbridge. The moat is filled with coins, endlessly flipped by puffs of air from registers beneath them. It is a river of loose change.
They pass by other robed figures, everything about them invisible except for their downcast eyes. The trio proceeds to the far end of the coin ford, then navigates a series of richly-appointed corridors lined with an apparently endless succession of onion-shaped mahogany doors. The pass an open-air courtyard where male children play, then another filled with little girls. Given the present circumstances Porter finds the sounds of their careless laughter chilling.
They cross a cobbled path lined with date trees, tickled by a fragrant breeze, then up and around a spiral staircase of white marble steps. Finally they come to a long dormitory of row upon row of identical bunk-beds, the air filled by the chatter of dozens of women of every age from adolescent to the middle years. None pause to look at the trio as they walk the aisle between the beds. Some are writing letters or mending clothes, others lie back while listening to Sony Walkman units or reading books.
"I grew up here," says Raja. "I lived in this room. That was my bed." She holds Porter's eye significantly. "I haven't been outside the palace grounds since I was a child."
"The appointments seem luxurious," he replies evenly.
"They are," she agrees. "There is no false facade. Any girl who finds a home here can expect the best food, the best drink, fine shoes, European perfumes, Japanese electronics, Chinese silk, South African jewellery. She will have medicine, education, employment, companionship, security, entertainment." She pauses, her pace slowing, face darkening. "And she will also have her duty."
Porter takes a cautious breath. "To gratify the Shah's desires?"
"No," she says coldly. "The Shah cares nothing for physical gratification." She hesitates at the far door, hand on the knob. "We are sorted, filtered and tested. We are examined and tried. Only one in a hundred of us is suitable. The rest keep their lives contingent on the Shah's mercy."
"Suitable?" echoes Porter. "Suitable for what?"
"Come," says Raja, opening the door.
They follow her down another spiral staircase, this one leading to the ground floor and then beyond, winding underground. At the bottom is a velvet drape. Raja stops and turns to face the two men. "This is the Rejects' Serraglio. We are obliged to cross it. The facility may be in use by any number of the Shah's men. Protocol dictates you keep your eyes down. Watch only the hem of my skirts, and follow me closely. Do you understand?"
Porter translates for Quaker. Both men nod. Raja turns on heel and pushes through the drape.
The air is heavy, the scent simultaneously acrid and sweet. Porter sniffs, frowning. "Hashish," whispers Quaker. Porter nods. They follow the trailing edge of Raja's burqa as she moves into the first of a connected series of small, intimate cells lined by tapestries, the mouths of each obscured by a diaphanous curtain. There are bare, wet footprints on the floor. Some are large, and some are small.
Out of the corner of his eye Porter sees shadows moving behind the curtains. The shadows glisten in the feeble light. He hears the occasional soft, sensual groan or stifled whimper following the smack of skin on skin. Someone, somewhere, is breathing hard.
From a change in the quality of the air's sigh he knows they've passed into a larger chamber. He looks up instinctively upon hearing a splash, catching glimpse of a sprawling set of tubs and pools connected by little gurgling brooks running in tiled troughs. Arrayed around the waters and swimming within them is a host of women, each of them as naked as the day they were born. They slide out of the pools shamelessly, squeezing excess water from their long black hair, sauntering langorously to stretch or sit at the mouth of one of the many ornate fireplaces running around the chamber's edge. Others lounge on sofas, sometimes in pairs, sometimes embracing.
"Holy God," breathes Quaker, so Porter kicks him in the shin.
"Keep your eyes down," hisses Raja without looking back.
Raja veers to lead them to one side of the connected pools, skirting a massive multi-user hookah dribbling pungent, yellow-grey fumes to swirl up at the ceiling, tossed by lazily turning fans. A lone, obese concubine sits crosslegged beside it, a pipe in her fleshy hand, its smoke-filled cable spilled carelessly across her thick thighs. She bobs her head down to catch Porter's eye, but he looks away. In his peripheral vision he sees her smirk and then drag on the pipe, eyes closed. "I like the way you walk, maiden," she whispers as he passes. "Meet me later?"
Porter shakes his head and quickens his pace. The fat concubine snickers.
On the far side they come to another set of curtained cells. Someone is making a lot more noise here, grunting and smacking and breathing fast. He tries not to see but as they turn a corner he catches an unwanted image of six swarthy men on their knees surrounding a single woman as she heaves and bucks in a nest of pillows. What they are doing to her and why she cries is something Porter hopes he will never learn.
"What the hell...?" croaks Quaker. "Oh my f --"
Porter clamps his hand over Quaker's mouth and then uses the other hand to force his head down. "Just walk, Mr. Quaker. One foot in front of the other. Understood? We're only walking here."
Quaker's eyes are wild. "But did you see --"
"No," growls Porter right into the other man's ear. "And neither did you."
Beyond the serraglio the corridors take on an abruptly different air. The floor is painted to resemble a cobblestone path and the walls and ceiling of the corridor are decorated as a summertime sky -- birds, butterflies, cumuli. They arrive at a windowed gallery that looks down into a large room partially filled by a miniature castle. A rainbow of coloured glass hangs from the ceiling. Male children swarm everywhere, chasing one another and yelling, jumping from the towers and laughing as they land in piles of bean-bags. Some of the children seem strangely tall or inexplicably muscular. Others seem weak and half-starved, watching their more energetic peers enviously. One or two of the boys have their hands encased in thick mittens secured at the wrist. Many wear bruises.
A clown stands in the middle of the chamber. He's blowing balloon animals, handing them out to a cheering ring of bandaged boys.
"Offspring of the concubines," decides Porter, looking over at Raja expectantly. "What's wrong with them?" he prompts.
"They're dying," she says, breath fogging the glass in a small circle. She wipes the fog away with her sleeve and turns away from the window. "This kindergarten of delights is the Shah's final gift."
"Why the restraints on some of the boys?"
"Hyper-aggression is a common side-effect among the failed stock. Those who cannot be controlled are euthanized. The milder cases are permitted to run out their days here."
"The Shah carries a genetic defect?"
Raja tilts her head. "Something like that."
Porter takes a deep breath. "This is...it's completely inhumane."
Raja straightens, her mouth grim. "Choose your words carefully, Mr. Porter," she says. "These boys are not human."
She leaves the gallery abruptly. Porter and Quaker hurry to stay with her. They chase her through a kitchen busy in preparation of the midday meal and then to a service elevator that smells like old food. She closes the cage behind them and pulls a lever. The elevator descends, its works clanking. It shudders to a stop and the men follow Raja out into a darker corridor. It smells of disinfectant.
Quaker whispers, "I've got a bad feeling about this, man."
Porter ignores him, following Raja without hesitation inside a small janitorial closet. He steps around a mop bucket. Quaker bumps into it. Raja kneels, disengages a lock, and then pushes open a hatch at the mouth of a tight tunnel. "Hands and knees, Mr. Porter," she says, then ducks inside.
The three robes figures emerge after a long, winding crawl. They blink and squint even though the light is low. Raja stands up and presents the massive chamber with an outstretched arm. "Our mausoleum."
It's more like a cave. Thousands upon thousands of drawers line its sides, extending away into a curving darkness. Each drawer is inscribed with a range of dates. While Quaker stands struck beside Raja, Porter walks slowly toward the closest of them. He fumbles under his burqua, then strikes a match to read: the calendar system is unfamiliar to him, but the span of years is short.
He frowns, turning to look over his shoulder. He avoids Quaker's beseeching eyes. "How long has this been going on?"
"My grandmother's grandmother lived in service."
Porter hesitates. "This...practice -- it goes far back in the Shah's line."
Raja takes a shuddering breath and shakes her head. "No, Mr. Porter. This -- all of this -- this is the line." She stifles a sob. "He is panning for gold, Mr. Porter. He's culling for the perfect heir." She gestures blindly at the drawers behind her. "Chaff," she explains.
"Why are all these people dead, Barry?" cries Quaker. "What the hell kind of morgue is this?"
Porter spares the young photographer a look. "I'll continue attempting to establish that if you'll only be good enough to keep your bloody mouth shut," he says, then turns to Raja again. "Did the Shah's father do this to find his heir?"
Raja drops her hands, her expression blank. "I know nothing of the Shah's father," she says flatly. "I doubt he had one."
"How can you say that if your grandmother lived under his rule?"
"She knew him as I know him," she says simply, then checks her watch. "We have to get above ground now. It's time for you to place your call, Mr. Porter. You will be believed. You can bring help."
They crawl out they same way they came in, and this time ride the service elevator up to the very top, exiting onto a gravel terrace on the roof. Birds chirp, flitting between potted baobabs. Raja wordlessly picks up a rebar and jams it into the gap between the elevator and the terrace, lodging the car in place.
She wheels on Porter. "Check your telephone: do you have a signal?"
Porter wrestles his briefcase out from his black robes and withdraws the satellite telephone gear. He unfolds the antenna panel and lays it on the gravel, then activates the bulky handset and watches the little crystal screen, tilting it into shadow in order to read what's there. "Yes," he confirms. "I have a signal."
"Security will already be on the way," she says.
"How can you be sure?"
"I know this palace like the inside of my pocket," she replies. "Every protocol, every sensor, every directive. I assure you, Mr. Porter, we have just over two minutes left to live."
Quaker, who has been surreptitiously flipping through his phrase-book, looks up sharply. "What did she just say, Barry?" he demands, desperately pulling the chadri veil away from his perspiration-soaked face. "I'm freaking out here, Barry, because I think she just said we're gonna die, man!"
"Steady yourself, Mr. Quaker."
"I can't, man -- I'm totally freaking out. What the hell is going on? What the hell is she saying? You gotta tell me, man. Just be straight with me, okay? Barry?"
"Mr. Porter," he corrects wearily.
Quaker looks at him as if he might be insane. "We're not getting out of here, are we?"
Porter shakes his head gently. "I'm afraid not, Mr. Quaker."
"Jesus!" he cries, and then after a look over the walled side of the terrace he cries even louder, "Jesus!"
A fleet of Jeeps are rolling over the green fields of the palace grounds. Uniformed men stand at machine guns mounted on tripods in the rear. Guards on foot charge after them, leaping over artfully cut topiary hedges, splashing through mosaic-tiled wading pools with their jackboots. In the distance an alarm siren can be heard warbling up and down, up and down, up and down.
Raja seizes Porter's sleeve. "This what you need to know: to carry the Shah's progeny is to carry a monster. If it comes to term it will almost surely die after a short life of miraculous strength. If it does not die it will fall into succession, to stand in line to be schooled -- it is only the best graduates who have any hope of becoming Anwar's next prince."
Porter face goes slack. "What kind of man would carry out such a monstrous plan?"
Raja almost laughs, but her eyes are starkly serious. "You don't understand," she says forcefully. "The Shah is not a man."
Porter hears a series of pops. He is automatically plunged into dread by long practice. An instant later the edge of the wall nearest them begins to flake and crumble under assault from a hail of bullets. "Get down!" he bellows, grabbing Quaker by the burqa and dragging him to the ground.
"Oh God!" cries Quaker.
Porter starts dialling numbers into the telephone, then pushes it to his ear to hear if the connection is sound. He gets only a series of crackles and bursts of static, so he bangs the receiver against his hand and then dials again.
"I'm gonna freak out," whimpers Quaker, eyes jittering back and forth. "I can't handle this, man. Help me, Barry. Oh God!" He throws his arms over his head against a hail of broken stone fragments.
"Tell them," whispers Raja urgently. "Tell them we come by invitation but are held against our will. Tell them what's happening to those boys. Tell the world we are the slaves of an insane creature --"
A tear-gas canister bounces to a halt beside them, spinning as it spews thick clouds. Raja and Porter roll away, shielding their faces, but Quaker stares wide-eyed into the miasma and then begins to cough, then gasp and sputter. He staggers blindly to his feet. "No!" bellows Porter.
But it's too late, and Quaker has been struck by bullets. He's torn up, thrown backward, a defensive hand raised and then turned to spray. He doesn't cry out. He's dead before he hits the ground.
Porter pulls his shirt over his mouth and nose as he mashes the receiver into his ear. "This is Porter! It's Barry Porter! I'm in the field! This is an emergency! Can you hear me? Are you recording this call? Record this call! I must speak with Gilbert this instant -- this instant -- I'm under fire!"
Raja grabs his sleeve and pulls him, scampering across the gravel, away from the roiling cloud of tear-gas. She sticks her head up to quickly check their position, then lies across his body as a human shield. "Tell them!" she shrieks. Porter concentrates on speaking clearly and succinctly, numbering his points, repeating key words.
Bullets sing as they ricochet. Sharp flakes of chipped stone fly in all directions, hissing through the air. Another fresh volley: pop, pop-pop-pop, pop.
"Gilbert?" Porter yells over the din. "Gilbert, are you there?"
Now Raja is heavy and unresponsive on his back. Two more tear-gas canisters hit the gravel and start hissing as they dispense. His ears are buzzing: he doesn't know whether anyone can hear him or not, the voice on the other end of the telephone a tinny squeak barely audible between bursts of gunfire. "Gilbert I'm dying!" he screeches into the receiver. "Anwar has killed me!"
His eyes and lungs burn. He coughs, then retches. His vision turns grey.
He regrets having unceremoniously broken off relations with a sweet girl named Rachael in the spring of '62. He knew even then he was needlessly callous about it. He'd broken her heart, poor girl. Her hair was like flax, her lips like berries. She had wanted so badly to believe in Washington.
What a heel he was! Poor girl, poor girl...