Chapter 16—Song Hau
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A rusty, white pick-up trundled southwest along the Aquacinco out of Mandalay. It performed politely in traffic, never speeding, never crowding, but ate up the road at a steady pace. It turned south, bumping over the bridge that spanned the river between New Hope and Binh Hoa. The sun shone hot and bright in the July sky—a beautiful day for traveling.
“There’s a safe-house in Song Hau,” Francisco held the steering wheel lightly, his dark eyes flicking between the rear and side view mirrors. “Once we get there, we can decide what to do next.”
He glanced at the Queen, then back at the road. “Your face is bleeding, Ma’am.”
“It’s nothing.” She stared out the windshield.
He glanced at her again. “Casualties at the Palace will be light. It was early, and most of the Elders were away.”
“What about the night staff.” Mara’s voice sounded dead in her ears.
He didn’t answer her. He didn’t have to.
They slowed as the truck crossed into Song Hau’s city limits. “Ma’am, I need you to get down again.” He pointed to the foot well on the passenger’s side. “We can’t let anyone see you.”
Obediently, Mara slid off the cracked bench seat and onto the floor. It smelled of grease, hot rubber and dog.
“They want us scared.” Francisco continued the conversation as if the Queen wasn’t crouching at his feet. “If we’re scared, we’ll make mistakes or focus on the wrong thing.”
“Focus on the wrong thing.” Mara clutched at the seat as they bounced over rough road. It made her queasy.
“Sorry,” Francisco muttered. He watched her. “Something?”
“The wrong thing.” Mara stared at her Security First’s scuffed and dirty shoes. “Like the Prime Minister’s arrest.”
“For an murder he’d never do.”
Mara looked up at Francisco. His angry, loyal face pulled her tears closer to the edge. She focused, instead, on the charred holes in his coat.
“Maybe this is another distraction—to keep us looking in the wrong direction.”
Francisco eased them around a corner. “Then, they’ll do anything—kill anyone—to protect whatever it is they’re doing. What could be worth all that, Majesty?”
“I don’t know.” Mara squeezed her eyes shut against the coming tears. Queasiness gathered mass and settled low in her belly. “I don’t know!”
The truck bumped, turned and passed into darkness. Mara wiped her eyes and looked out the window at rakes and a garden hose hanging on a slatted wall.
Francisco threw the column gearshift into park and opened his door. He stripped off his suit coat and holster, tucking his pistol into the back of his belt. “Stay here.”
The old truck idled roughly. Mara climbed back onto the vibrating seat and looked around the old garage. A jumbled workbench in front of her held torn boxes, greasy rags and a clutter of tools. To one side, long-dead plants poked out of cracked pots spilling dirt. A bicycle hung upside down from the rafters.
She turned to look out the back window, rubbing the mound of her abdomen as the ache twinged. Most of the truck’s oily exhaust puttered out the open garage door toward the short drive. It was more of a track through weeds that curved back to a gravel alley. An overgrown lot sat empty beyond the alley, volunteer saplings obscuring the rest of the view.
Francisco jogged into sight. Mara watched him stand in the alley, peering down the way they had come. He turned slowly, studying first the empty lot, and then the other end of the alley. After checking his timepiece, he trundled an old rolling gate across the drive and chained it. Mara hadn’t noticed the fence hidden in the overgrowth. She wondered if Gravis had anything to do with how carefully messy the property appeared. She wondered if Gravis was still alive.
Francisco trotted back to the truck, reached in, and turned it off. “We’re secure, Ma’am. Let’s get inside.”
She reached for the door, but stopped as the pain in her womb bit deep.
“I’m cramping,” she said, “and bleeding a little.”
For the first time, Francisco seemed indecisive. “What do you need?”
Another morning flashed through Mara’s memory—bright sun, chilly air, the smell of horses and early spring all around her. She remembered Jonathan astride Bo, his heavy brow puckered. She remembered the gentleness in his voice when he asked her the same question.
What do you need?
She rubbed the swell of her belly. “We’re all right,” she said, and knew it to be true. She knew it as surely as she knew her baby girl’s name.
“We need information,” she told him, “and a way to contact the Underground. Can we manage that?”
A layer of tension dropped off her young Security First. “Yes, Ma’am.”
He came around to her door and reached to help her out. Mara saw the relief in his eyes. She smiled to herself, sure he was thinking the same thing she was.
Thank the All, the Queen is back.
The smell of frying tortillas filled the safe house. Mara pulled all the leftovers out of the small refrigerator—a few spoonfuls of hash, a bowl of tomato stew, corn and sweet peppers. She scraped the containers into the hot skillet and stirred them together. Considering, she dumped the empty bowls into the sink and rinsed the handful of beans soaking there. The beans went into the skillet along with a few more spices. Mara stirred the mixture, flipped the tortillas on the griddle, and turned up the volume on the small vid unit in the windowsill.
“Government officials today confiscated records linking Javier Juarez, Governor of Azteca, and Prime Minister Collier Cabot to the assassination of former North Callinda President, Kerner Kelly.”
The screen’s image showed a vocal crowd outside the Mandalay Guard Post. Reporters jostled each other to reach the whip-thin man standing at the podium.
“This was the scene last week,” the male commentator continued, “when Home Guard Second, Uri Mendoza, arrested the Prime Minister.”
“Captain Mendoza! Captain Mendoza!” One voice sailed over the rest. “A warrant was issued today to seize General Jones’ telephone records. Was he working with the Prime Minister? Is the General in custody?”
Uri Mendoza straightened, hard eyes glaring. “I cannot comment at this time.”
The scene changed—same podium, different speaker. A curly-haired young man read from a prepared statement. “The allegations against my father are completely unfounded, meant to disgrace and humiliate him.” A wry smile hooked Jed Cabot’s mouth as he looked up at the reporters. “Can you imagine?”
A chuckle lifted from the crowd.
“And yesterday, in Holyoak,” the commentator continued, “Home Guard took President Covenant Reneau into custody… “
The vid showed the handcuffed President being led away through shouting onlookers. The only hint of her distress was a patch of hot color on each cheek.
“… while no formal charges have been filed against Reneau, speculation mounts.”
Jakaya Brown’s sad face filled the screen. “Everyone knew President Reneau disagreed with President Kelly’s plan for Northern independence. She told me on numerous occasions she felt desperate to stop him.”
Brown shook his head. “But, Covenant was an honorable woman, and devoted to President Kelly despite their differences. I can’t believe… I won’t believe she had anything to do with his death.”
The view changed to a scene outside the Congress House in Mandalay.
“When asked to comment on allegations against the Prime Minister, Congress Mother Delilah Mbutu issued this statement.”
A letter appeared against the background of the House while the commentator read.
“Once the so-called evidence is examined fully, the people of Callinda will no doubt uncover a terrible conspiracy. However, it will be clear that Collier Cabot, Covenant Reneau, Javier Juarez, and Horatio Jones are the victims, not the perpetrators, of this criminal plot.”
The scene changed again to one of the Palace, the back half of the East Wing a pile of smoking rubble. Water dripped from blackened windows and splintered beams. Firefighters stomped through the wreckage. Mara watched, waiting, as she had watched this scene before. It seemed to be a favorite of all the news stations. And there, as before, Robby moved into the frame, his arm around Marissa. Briank stood with them, staring at the damage. And just as the scene cut to the commentator, Mara thought she recognized Lydia moving to join them. Her breath caught, then let go with a sigh.
“As South Callinda’s government lies in ruins,” the commentator’s voice said, “the question on everyone’s lips remains the same—where is the Queen?”
Mara glanced up as Francisco came through the back door. She doubted even his mother would recognize him now with his head shaved down to black stubble and three days’ growth of beard. He wore loose, dirty dungarees and a grimy undershirt—a costume far from his normal neat dark suit. But then, she looked just as odd. At least, they hoped so.
“What did you find?” she asked him, spooning her concoction into the tortillas.
“A smaller truck.” He set a grocery sack on the counter. “Faster. More maneuverable. That smells good.”
Mara finished rolling the tortillas. “Eat,” she said, setting a plateful on the kitchen table. She dug through the sack. “Oranges!”
“You said you were craving them.” He shoveled his food, not waiting for it to cool.
“Now that my appetite’s back, I’m hungry for everything.”
She left the bag, ran hot water in the sink and started washing up. “Javier Juarez is in custody now.”
Francisco grunted around a mouthful of hot food. “So, General Jones was onto something.”
“A different ‘something.’ Javier’s no more guilty than the Prime Minister.”
“Any more coverage of the Palace?”
She nodded, scrubbing the skillet. “Still no listing of the dead, but I saw Lydia.”
“So, all the Elders are accounted for. Good.” Francisco slipped his empty plate into the soapy water. “What’s left to do?”
Mara washed it and set it in the drainer with the others. “Dry those and put them away,” she said, wiping down the stove. She cleaned the table and pulled the broom out of the closet.
“The laundry is done.” She ticked the items off her mental list. “The beds are made, the trash ready to go with us.”
She nodded at the pile next to the back door. Along with the bag of trash, which they would dispose of far from the house, she had packed clothes for both of them from the items in the house’s stores. On top of the small suitcase lay blankets and a box of first-aide supplies. Francisco’s big zipper bag took up the rest of the floor.
He had packed the bag carefully the day before, sitting on the floor of the bedroom with the house’s entire arsenal laid out around him. Mara had watched him consider each gun, knife and explosive. The pieces he selected, he disassembled, cleaned, put back together and loaded. He found matching ammunition, shoulder straps, sheaths and utility belts. The rest he returned to the racks and cases in the closet. When he finished packing the black bag, he sat next to her on the bed.
“Are you familiar with this one?”
Mara lifted the small pistol from his outstretched hand. “A Mourning Dove,” she said, looking down the site. She tested the grip, checked the safety. When she looked up at him, Francisco’s mouth pinched in what tried to be a smile.
“Ra would have said, ‘make it your best friend.’”
“What do you say?”
“Never be afraid to use it, Majesty.”
Mara returned the broom to the closet and switched off the vid. Outside the window, light bled from the July day. Mara’s reflection gazed back at her from the darkening pane—a pale, thin face edged with short spikes of brown-dyed hair. A stranger’s face.
Francisco hefted the black bag, tucked the blankets under his arm and picked up the suitcase. Glancing over his shoulder at Mara, he pushed through the back door. Mara wiped her hands on the plain, cotton shift she wore and bent to slip on sturdy sandals. She slung a shoulder bag over her head, the weight of the Mourning Dove making it knock against her thigh. Grabbing up the grocery sack, the trash and the first-aide box, she took one last look, flipped off the light, and left the safe house behind.
Industrial lights trembled over the filling station. Night traffic roared by, sending swirls of grit and trash against the smeared walls of the telephone stall. Francisco and Mara squeezed together in the cramped space, the receiver angled between their heads.
“Remember,” Francisco said, dialing, “say nothing. If Wash doesn’t answer, we hang up.”
“But, this is the emergency line he set up with you.”
“Who knows what’s happened.” He paused, looked at her. “That’s why I waited so long to use it. You needed to rest a few days. And once we make this call, we have to get out of Song Hau.”
“In case someone’s listening,” Mara finished. “In case they track us.”
Francisco finished dialing. They listened to a phone ring somewhere in Mandalay—even Francisco didn’t know where. The long trill stopped, started again, stopped and started. Finally, they heard a clatter and an old man’s voice.
“Talk to me.”
Francisco took a breath. “Mourning doves in flight,” he said, his voice clear and strong.
A long silence answered him. Then, the old man said, “I reckon those birds’ll roost on the Great Wall this time o’year.”
Francisco slammed the received down and stared at it.
“Wha—?” Mara started.
Suddenly, he was in motion, pushing her out of the stall, running with her to their little red pick-up. He started the motor and pulled out before she could shut her door.
“It’s bad there.” Francisco’s voice shook. “Definitely not safe in Mandalay.”
He pulled onto the highway and melded into traffic. “He wants us to go to Tao Ling.”
“Tao Ling? Is that what he meant by ‘The Great Wall’?”
“We talked about Earth’s China, once.” Francisco ran a calming hand over the new stubble on his head. “In ancient times, Wash said, they built a massive wall to keep invaders out. He said it kept China safe for centuries.”
“The Yee and Chan Lines came from Earth’s China,” Mara said, trying to make sense of the cryptic message.
“Wash knew Governor Singh kept an Underground safe house in Empress. ‘If the worst happens, go to Dharma,’ he told me.”
“The worst,” Mara muttered, trying to imagine what that might be, all the things they didn’t know. Then she bolted upright. “Wait! How did Washington Brown know about an Underground safe house?”
Francisco coughed out a helpless laugh. “The Prime Minister recruited him.”
As night deepened, the little red truck turned onto the Aquacinco highway and headed southwest. Not far behind, a dark car followed.
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Click here to read Chapter 17.