Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Portal by William Quincy Belle

A coffee-obsessed journalist with a magical teleportation device reports on the growing threat of civil war in a fictional African nation; by William Quincy Belle.

The three men held their Uzis close to their chests as they ran across the darkened square. The lighted offices of the rival political candidate, the newly elected president of the country, shone in the twilight. Several people were taking down posters, gathering up brochures, and packing boxes with various items from the election campaign.

The doors burst open and the trio of men took up positions to cover the entire room. They opened fire with machine guns, spraying bullets in all directions. The volunteer workers were caught unaware and had no time to duck for cover. The noisy ratatat of the Uzis lasted less than five seconds but left seven people dead from multiple bullet wounds.

One of the gunmen walked throughout the room and poked each of the bodies to ensure the people were in fact dead. He nodded to his accomplices. The three of them left the building and ran back across the square.



Harvey walked into the kitchen, half asleep. He didn't pick his feet up so much as slide his slippers over the linoleum. Stopping in the middle of the room, he glanced at the clock over the sink, then he stepped to the coffeemaker and pushed the "on" button. He stood there groggily, not thinking about anything, his brain still in a stupor. Caffeine was in order before he attempted to do anything.

Harvey walked down the hall to the condo door. He opened it and bent over to pick up the morning paper. He meandered back down the hall and glanced at the headlines. Pestilence, war, famine and death, he thought. The four horsemen continue to ride without mercy. How can I be of assistance today?

He filled up a mug and took the first sip of coffee. He still felt sleepy but ah, that tasted great. After putting the pot back in its place, he took another sip, paused, sipped again, then shook his head and blinked. That first cup of java cleared the cobwebs out of the brain.

He spread the paper out on the counter and scanned the front page. A small article in the lower left hand corner caught his eye. It reported on the execution-style murder of seven election workers in a small African country. Harvey had been following the political turmoil and had wondered if it would end in bloodshed. His question had been answered.

Harvey checked the time. He had twenty-five minutes before he was due downtown. Still enough time, he guessed. He headed back to the bedroom and got himself ready. When he returned, he opened a cupboard door and grabbed a small device in the shape of a rectangular black box not much larger than the palm of his hand.

Harvey pressed a button and watched a small display on the device light up. He moved a slider on the side of the device as he held the box out in front of him. A dull beam of light came out of the end of the device and pointed at a spot in front of Harvey. A dot appeared at the same spot and expanded vertically, simultaneously moving down to the floor and up toward the ceiling just a little higher than Harvey. Then it expanded horizontally until it was a little wider than him. Through the door-like portal, Harvey could see another room, a men's room. He stepped up to the portal and glanced around. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, Harvey stepped through and pushed a button on the device. The portal shrank horizontally to a vertical bar, the vertical bar shrank to a dot, and the dot vanished.

Harvey stepped to the door in front of him and turned the lock. An electronic eye detected movement and lights came on. He knew he was alone because if anybody had been in the room, the lights would have been on. This was a good place to drop in and not be seen. He used it often.

His morning coffee had done its stuff, so Harvey stepped up to the urinal. He did his business, then zipped himself up and went to the sink to wash his hands. He glanced in the mirror. Time for his day.

Harvey unlocked the door and stepped out. There was a general level of noise, the sound of busyness. Even though it wasn't yet 9am, a number of people sat at desks typing away at their computers or talking on their phones. Harvey moved down a couple of rows and headed toward his cubicle.

"Harvey!" The voice boomed out over the floor. Harvey turned to see Arthur the news editor standing at his office door. He was motioning Harvey to come over. Harvey changed direction and zigzagged his way in between the partitions.

"Morning, Arthur," said Harvey.

"Yeah." Arthur moved back to his desk and sat down. "I just got word that Kwame Kérékou is going to give a speech at the Waldorf at two this afternoon. As you know, the opposition in Bangalla is more than militant, and word is that Matthieu Boigny may have ordered the assassination of Kérékou. Politically, Bangalla is unstable at the moment. Their democracy is fragile and the opposition is not taking their loss in the recent election well. Accusations of voter fraud are flying around left, right, and centre on both sides, and this Boigny guy, who heads up not only the opposition but a small well-armed underground army, has publicly stated he will not go down without a fight.

"If Boigny carries out his threat on American soil," Arthur continued, "I would wonder if the States might not find itself drawn into the conflict. God only knows the French have done their best to keep a lid on this powder keg of a former colony, but governments in Africa seem to demonstrate a tendency toward the might-is-right style of political process. That's not to say we aren't without our own faults."

Arthur picked up a file folder from his desk and held it out to Harvey. "Look over these background materials, then get yourself down there for the speech. There's a security pass in the folder. From what I understand, the feds are paying close attention to this one, so don't be surprised if they shine a light up your wazoo."

Harvey opened the folder, glanced at the security pass, and turned a few pages. Somebody had assembled materials from various sources, even Wikipedia.

"I'm on it."

"One more thing," said Arthur.

"Yes?"

"Research turned up an expat living in Greenwich Village. This woman is from the town where Matthieu Boigny grew up. We've set up an interview for 10:30am. The address is in the folder." Arthur looked at his watch. "You have enough time for a bagel."

"Okay." Harvey walked out of the office and headed to his desk. He laid the opened file folder in front of his computer, then picked up his souvenir coffee mug from Sedona, Arizona, and walked to the lunchroom. There he washed out his mug, poured in some milk, and filled his cup. Thank goodness the job offered free coffee to employees and, on occasion, treats. Harvey looked through a box from a local delicatessen and selected a poppy seed bagel.

Back at his desk, Harvey settled in and read through the information on the newly elected Kérékou and the political storm that had been brewing for some time in his country. Bangalla was on the verge of a civil war. Despite U.N. monitoring of the last election, which had declared the process accurate and untainted, the opposition leader Boigny refused to accept the results declaring the incumbent Kérékou the winner. Boigny had stated he would take the presidency by force as he was the leader chosen by the people. This did not bode well for the country. Bangalla had many pressing concerns involving the economy, health, and a high rate of poverty due to unemployment. A civil war would do nothing to benefit the average person.

The last page of the report gave a few details on the expatriate, a woman named Céléstine Mamadou. She would now be seventy-five years old, but decades ago she'd been a neighbor to both the Kérékou and Boigny families. Oddly enough, these two political rivals had grown up across the street from one another in a town in Bangalla. Céléstine had babysat for both families and knew both boys. She was upset at what was going on in her country and wanted to offer insights into the two men facing off in the political arena, and soon on the battlefield.

Harvey checked the time and thought to head off to Greenwich Village. He made notes on a small ringed pad he then stuck into his suit pocket. He stood up and took a last gulp of coffee, then glanced over at the editor's office. Arthur hunched over his desk, examining something while talking on the phone.

Harvey turned and walked down the central aisle of the newsroom toward the back, where he entered a separate storage area filled with rows of shelves containing many supplies, from stationery to toilet paper. He walked down each row to see if anybody was around. At the end of the far row, he pulled out the device. Looking at the small display on the face of it, he adjusted a slider on the edge and used his thumb to move a dial. With his other hand he reached into his suit pocket and pulled out the small ringed notepad. He flipped it open and looked again at the Greenwich Village address he had jotted down. He looked back at the device. Things seemed to match, so he put the notepad away and pressed a button on the box. A dull beam of light came out of the end of the device; Harvey watched the dot expand into a door-like portal, then stepped forward and looked inside the opening. Everything seemed okay, so he stepped through.

Harvey found himself in an alleyway behind an apartment building. He looked around as he pushed a button and pocketed the device before walking toward one end of the alley. At the street, he found himself beside a little park and thought to walk across it. It was a nice day, and this was a pleasant moment.

Halfway across the park he noticed a little girl looking up into a tree. Harvey followed her gaze. For a moment, he didn't see anything; then he spied a small cat on a branch.

"Is that your cat?"

"Yes," said the girl. "Mommy told me not to let her off the leash."

"What happened?"

"Kitty got scared by a dog and ran up the tree. Now she won't come down."

Harvey noticed the girl was holding a leash and a collar. "I think it's easier to climb up a tree than to climb down. I imagine your kitty is a little scared."

The little girl looked at Harvey. "What am I going to do?"

Harvey looked back up in the tree. "Maybe I can help." He reached in his pocket and pulled out the device.

"Are you going to climb up there?"

Harvey fiddled with the controls. "Better." He knelt beside the girl as he made a last adjustment. "You're going to get Kitty yourself." Harvey pointed the device toward the tree. A small portal opened in front of them. The cat on the branch was right there. "Now reach over and pick up your kitty."

The girl hesitated. She wasn't sure what was going on, but there, right in front of her, was her cat. She leaned forward and put her hands into the portal. Harvey glanced up in the tree. Beside the cat, two disembodied hands appeared, then wrapped themselves around the cat's body and lifted. The cat's claws dug into the bark, but the girl pulled harder until it came free. She brought the animal through the portal and held her close. Harvey pushed a button and the portal disappeared.

"Gee, thanks," said the girl. "What is that?"

Harvey smiled as he stood up. "It's the latest gadget from Apple."

A woman walked up and looked sternly at the girl. "Betty, I thought I told you not to let Frederica off her leash."

"I'm sorry, Mommy. I wanted her to have a little fun, but then a dog scared her and she ran up this tree."

"Really, now?"

"Yes, but this man helped get her down."

The woman turned to Harvey and smiled. "You are most kind."

"No problem at all. These things happen."

"Let's get that leash back on Frederica." The woman had stooped beside her daughter and was taking the leash and collar out of the little girl's hand. Harvey watched, smiling, then turned and continued across the park.

When Harvey got to the street, he turned and went down a row of brownstones, glancing at the numbers until he came to 9374. He walked up the steps and stood in front of a buzzer panel, examining the tenant names until he found Céléstine's. He pressed the button, stepping back as a buzzer sounded. A voice came through the speaker.

"Hello?"

Harvey leaned closer. "Ms. Mamadou, this is Harvey Macht of the Chronicle."

"Oh, hello," said the voice.

"My paper set up an interview for 10:30 this morning with you?"

"Yes, of course. Please come up."

A buzzer sounded at the front door until Harvey pulled it open. He noticed there was an elevator, but the apartment was only on the second floor, so he took the stairs. The building was old but kept in good shape, and at the top of the stairs Harvey found himself in a stylishly carpeted hallway. He walked down several doors until he came to apartment number 204. He pressed the doorbell and heard a ring somewhere inside.

Steps became louder as someone approached the door. After the distinct click of a door being unlocked, the knob turned and the door opened to reveal a spry seventy-five-year-old black woman.

"Ms. Mamadou," said Harvey. He nodded his head as he held out a business card.

Céléstine took the card and examined it. "Mr. Macht." The woman stood back. "Won't you come in?"

Harvey looked at her and smiled. "Harvey."

The woman smiled back. "Céléstine." She pointed toward the living room. "Let's sit in there."

Harvey walked into the neatly appointed room as the woman shut the door.

"May I offer you coffee?"

"That is kind of you, thank you." Harvey stood in the middle of the room and looked around. He took note of the various furnishings but became interested when he saw a series of pictures in frames arranged on the mantel. He was aware of noises coming from the kitchen as he leaned in and looked at each picture.

Céléstine returned carrying a tray she set down on a coffee table in front of a sofa. "I see you noticed my collection of photographs. I was much younger then, and it was a different world from the one my country now knows. Things were a lot more primitive and undeveloped. However, that doesn't mean Bangalla doesn't still have a long way to go to match the standard of living enjoyed elsewhere in the world. I find it unfortunate that the political players jockey for position at the expense of the person in the street. It's always a question of power. Nobody puts the country or the population first."

"You seem to be well acquainted with the current state of affairs."

Céléstine pointed to the sofa and Harvey sat down. "Cream? Sugar? Please help yourself."

"Thank you," said Harvey. He poured a touch of cream in the cup of coffee closest to him, then picked up the cup and saucer.

"I was nanny to both Kwame Kérékou and Matthieu Boigny. I know them both well. I watched them grow up. I recognized with time that Matthieu had personal issues. He was a bully. He always had something to prove. He was mean, and I watched this get worse as he grew older. Even now, with the current situation, Matthieu refuses to think about the good of his country. He is concerned about his own power. He wants to win; he wants to come out on top, and I am afraid he would sacrifice everything to get what he wants.

"Kwame, on the other hand, was a centered child and has grown into a centered adult. He is a man looking to do good for his country and his countryman. If he seeks power, it is to do good. He does not seek it for the sake of power itself. What a difference between the two of them. What a shame. Bangalla is going to suffer if Matthieu takes the reins of power."

"You know about today's speech?"

"Yes. Kwame has invited me to the speech and to a reception afterwards. I was pleased to be remembered."

"You know the rumor?"

"The rumor about an assassination attempt?" Céléstine sighed. "I am saddened by all that is going on right now in my country. I am saddened that Matthieu has put himself before his own countrymen. If there is an assassination and Matthieu tries to take power, there is no doubt in my mind there will be a civil war."

Harvey sipped his coffee. "What to do?"

Céléstine looked at Harvey with a raised eyebrow. "Good question. I can't help thinking that if I had a chance, I could talk sense into that boy Matthieu. I would like to believe there is a shred of decency still left in him."

"Where is he now?"

"In Bangalla, as far as I know. Relatives there told me he has a compound in the capital."

Céléstine and Harvey went on to talk more about politics and the history of her country. She spoke fondly of her younger days and the work she herself had done for Bangalla. She explained each one of the photographs on the mantel, the dates, the people, and the circumstances surrounding the pictures, which she said had been taken in a different but promising time. Céléstine insisted she still held out hope things would work out for her people.

Around noon, Harvey excused himself. He thanked Céléstine for her time. She had been generous to have granted the interview, and he said he had every intention of seeing her later that day at the speech.

Harvey left the brownstone and headed back the way he'd come. He crossed the park and did not see the little girl or any cats in trees. He mulled over all that Céléstine had said about the situation in Bangalla and wondered if the rumors about a possible assassination attempt would turn out to be true. Was this Matthieu Boigny guy crazy enough to try something as stupid as that on American soil? If he was, where and when would an attempt be made? At the hotel? Before or after the speech? At the reception?

Stepping into the alley, Harvey aimed the device and opened a portal. He looked inside at the storage area and saw it was empty. Just as he was about to step forward into the portal, he looked up. On a third-floor balcony a man was leaning over a railing, holding a cigarette, staring right at Harvey. The man took a drag. Harvey hesitated until the man exhaled a cloud of smoke. Harvey stepped through the portal and when the man waved a hand in front of him to disperse the smoke, the alley was empty.

As Harvey left the storage area and headed to the lunchroom, he thought about the interview. What could he do to help? What could anybody do? If Céléstine talked to Matthieu, could she change his mind about moving to the next step, a military confrontation? Could he get her to him?

The lunchroom had a vending machine with sandwiches. Even though they were packaged sandwiches, they weren't that bad. Harvey fed in a bill and got himself a ham-and-cheese, which he took back to his desk. He immediately starting researching the compound in Bangalla's capital in an effort to get coordinates. It took more than ten minutes, but not only did he get the geolocation, he got a map of the compound. It was once a government building, and one of the ministries still had a floor plan of it on its website. The things one could find online.

Harvey took out the device and entered the data. The device could accept geolocations using various coordinate systems. It could also record positions whenever Harvey pressed a special button, enabling him to return to places he'd visited. Knowing what he did about the political situation there, Harvey was determined to do something to prevent a crisis in Bangalla and he wanted to be ready in case an opportunity presented itself.

Taking the last bite of the sandwich, Harvey glanced at the time on his computer. He decided to walk over to the Waldorf to get a little air. He'd pick up a paper cup from the lunchroom and take a coffee with him.

The couple of blocks went by in a blur. Harvey's mind was going a mile a minute as he mulled over everything associated with this story: the background materials, what he already knew of the political strife in the African country, and the interview with the expatriate. He couldn't help thinking of the good fortune of being assigned the interview with Céléstine. She seemed to be the connection between the two sides of this potential civil conflict; he wondered if she might also be the key to preventing it.

Harvey went through one of the revolving doors at the hotel. Once in the lobby, he looked around for a listing of the day's events and discovered the Kérékou speech would take place in one of the third floor venues. No doubt there would be security, so he headed up to make sure he had enough time to get settled in.

Stepping off an escalator, Harvey walked toward a small crowd forming outside the room. Bangalla wasn't on the world's radar, but there were enough people interested in what was going on there. Over the years, how many had immigrated from Bangalla to seek their fortunes in the West? Due to its standing as a former French colony, many expats from Bangalla still had family ties back home. These Bangalla natives were all interested in the political firestorm brewing at home and the danger this represented to their relatives.

Harvey stood in line to pass through a metal detector. For his turn, he emptied his pockets in a bin, then stepped through the scanner. Nothing beeped. He passed to stand at the other end of the x-ray machine and wait for the bin containing his things.

A security guard moved the bin forward and picked up the black device. "What's this?"

"It's one of those Nokia models," said Harvey.

The guard turned it around in his hand. "Odd, I've never seen one like this before."

"Who can keep up?" Harvey smiled. "The market is flooded with a zillion of these things."

The guard shrugged and handed Harvey the black device. Harvey reached inside the bin and picked up his wallet and his ringed notepad. He was going to say something, but the guard had already turned away to deal with the next person.

Harvey walked into the conference hall. It was a large room with several round tables, and people were already staking out where best to sit. Harvey noticed that Kwame Kérékou was already there, surrounded by a retinue of security personnel. The current president of Bangalla wasn't taking any chances. Then again, the chance to make his case for investment in his country in front of the richest of America had likely been too good to pass up. Security was tight, but not because of the rumored assassination; there were a lot of important bigwigs slated to be in the audience, eager to hear why their money would be well invested in this African country.

Over the next twenty minutes, dozens of people arrived, and Harvey recognized many notables in the audience. These weren't your movie stars or celebrity athletes. No, these were the people who wielded power in society: bankers, developers, investors, and politicians. Harvey understood why this speech was targeting private money. Kérékou wanted to get private industry into his country. Bangalla was poor, but the president had a reputation for seeking to better the lot of his people and how better to raise a country's standard of living than by improving its economy? The current gathering confirmed what Harvey had already researched and Céléstine Mamadou had suggested: Kérékou was the good guy and his opponent, Boigny, was the bad guy. Boigny wasn't in this for the country; he was in it for the power.

At five minutes to two, a well-dressed gentleman stepped to the podium and tapped on the microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen, if you would be so kind as to take your seats. We will be starting promptly at two." The sound in the room changed as people moved to their tables and took their seats. Harvey glanced around. He noticed that two other reporters were standing at the back of the room. The Chronicle must be up the pecking order, as it had rated a seat. Thank goodness. Harvey didn't relish standing through the entire speech.

At two o'clock, the same gentleman took to the microphone and made a short introduction. There was a sprinkling of applause as Kwame Kérékou rose from his seat and walked to the podium. He adjusted the microphone and was about to speak when a man off to his right stood up and pointed at the president.

"You, sir, are a fraud," he said, speaking loudly enough to interrupt. "Matthieu Boigny is the legitimate president. You have subverted the democratic process through ballot stuffing and other nefarious means. Admit your actions. Step down and let the real president run the country!"

Two security guards had run up, grabbed his arms, and carried him out as he was speaking. A murmur swept across the room as order was restored. Kérékou waited a moment, then said into the microphone, "I apologize for the interruption. Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, the last elections in my country were carried out under the supervision of the United Nations, and the legitimacy of those elections has been verified by independent observers. I assure you, the government in power is the elected government. Unfortunately, not everyone believes the United Nations." Harvey could hear an audible chuckle in the room. These people were fully cognizant of the situation in Bangalla.

The president launched into his "We're open for business" speech. He painted an attractive portrait of his country and described in capitalistic terms the investment opportunities waiting for those seeking new shores for a diversified portfolio. It all sounded good, but Harvey thought it was all dependent on reining in one Matthieu Boigny and preventing a potential civil war.

Harvey turned around to survey the room. He noticed Céléstine sitting toward the back. She was attentively listening to the president, the grown-up boy she had babysat many moons ago. Harvey remembered her suggesting that if she could talk to Matthieu Boigny, she might persuade him to accept the election and support Kérékou. What if he made that happen?

The president was speaking of the labor market in his country. Unlike in the United States, labor was much cheaper in Bangalla, but thanks to improvements to the school system over the past decade, that labor was not unskilled. Industrial investors would have a competitive advantage over their American counterparts as costs of hiring labor in Bangalla would in some cases be dramatically lower.

Harvey glanced at a man dressed in a suit standing off to one side. The man turned to view the room, and the front of his suit jacket opened. The handle of a gun in a shoulder holster was visible for a brief second. Off the top of his head, Harvey didn't know what special clearance any foreign delegation would have to get for their own security services. Not just anybody was allowed to carry a gun, but a number of states had passed concealed weapons laws recently, so who knew these days? It seemed as though almost anybody could display lethal firepower. He chuckled while remembering a picture of a man shopping at Wal-Mart with a handgun holstered to his waist. Was the store really that dangerous?

The speech wound up and the audience applauded. People stood, and a few moved to the front to personally shake hands with the president. The Bangalla delegation included various government representatives, so the president was ready to connect investors with opportunities.

Harvey walked to the back where Céléstine was sitting.

"How did you like the speech?"

"Hello, Harvey," Céléstine said as she stood. "Kwame is all grown up now."

"Yes, he is."

"Are you going to the reception?"

"Yes, I am."

Céléstine smiled. "Why don't you be my escort?"

"I would be honored," said Harvey. Though in her seventies, Céléstine was still a charming lady.

"Good. You'll get a chance to talk with the president himself. This will give you a firsthand perspective on everything I told you this morning."

Harvey looked to the front and noticed that Kérékou and the delegation were moving to the exit. "I look forward to meeting the president in person." Harvey smiled. "If you will forgive me, I'm afraid I must make a visit."

Céléstine nodded. "Shall we meet upstairs outside suite 402?"

"Sounds good," said Harvey. "I'll see you in five."

The two of them walked out from the conference area into a hall. Céléstine headed down the hall to the elevators, and Harvey turned to a door with both an exit sign and a men's room sign over it.

Harvey walked through the door and realized he was in a stairwell. A men's room sign on the far wall had an arrow pointing up. Harvey turned and took two steps up when he looked down the opposite stairs. He froze. Below him, on the next landing, a man was screwing a silencer onto the barrel of a handgun. Harvey was taken aback by the incongruity of the scene. He had not been expecting to see this.

The man looked up. His eyes and Harvey's locked. They stared at one another for what seemed like an eternity. Harvey turned and bounded up the stairs. See someone with a gun, and running away is instinctual.

Harvey half ran and half pulled himself up by seizing the railing. He dashed up two steps at a time and, despite the noise of his own shoes, he could hear the steps of the man following him up. The talk of an assassination attempt now seemed less of a rumor and more of a fact. Harvey stumbling upon the assassin now meant he was an eyewitness, and assassins didn't like witnesses. He felt his turn might come up before the president's.

Harvey took the last few steps to the next level and saw doors to his right and his left. Go left? Go right? Harvey wasn't thinking about this at all. He was scared, and his flight instinct had kicked in big time.

Harvey crossed the landing, threw his weight against a door, and ran into a room. He stopped for a split second, realizing he had entered the men's room. He saw sinks and urinals in front of him and scanned the area looking for an exit. To his right was a row of toilet stalls. He ran down the length of them and went into the second-to-last stall.

As Harvey climbed onto the seat, he heard the washroom door burst open and slam against the wall. He held his breath as he tried to hear what the gunman was doing. There was silence. Harvey strained his ears trying to listen for the slightest noise. Nothing. He tried to calm himself and breathe as slowly and as quietly as possible.

Harvey heard a few steps and the squeak of a hinge. He realized that the man had come to the first stall and opened the door. There was a moment of silence before the sound of another hinge but this time a little closer. The gunman was going down the row of toilet stalls one at a time. He must have looked under the partitions and, seeing no feet, figured Harvey was hiding somewhere.

Harvey could feel his heart pounding. While he knew he could escape at any moment through a portal, he was trying to think of a way to get rid of the gunman and remain here at the hotel. He looked down at the floor and estimated the space between the bottom of the partition and the floor. He pulled out the device, adjusted the controls, then stepped off the seat, turned around and pointed it. A portal opened in front of the toilet. Harvey slid under the partition into the next stall.

By now, the gunman was close and expecting to meet his quarry. He was now kicking the toilet stall doors open, and the doors slammed into the partitions with a loud thump.

Harvey not only heard the door of the adjacent stall slam open, he saw the partition shake with the force of the kick. He looked down and saw a pair of feet step into the stall. Harvey pulled open the door and came around. The gunman was inside the stall and had his head through the portal inspecting a concrete room with bars at one end. Harvey kicked his backside with all his force while holding onto the sides of the stall. The blow knocked the man off balance and caused him to pitch forward through the portal and land face-down on the concrete floor. The man rolled, brought up his gun, and shot back through the door. Harvey had stepped away and pulled out his device. The silenced gun popped, and a bullet sped out of the toilet stall and slammed into the tile of the far wall as Harvey pressed a button on the device and the portal closed up.

Harvey stood there a moment in the silence. His hands were shaking. Was he scared or was it the adrenaline? Maybe it was both. Whatever the case, that had been a close call. Harvey smiled. The device had numerous presets for various geolocations; who knew a tour of holding cells at the 18th Precinct Midtown North would come in so handy? What would the duty officer say when he discovered that a man, an armed man at that, had magically appeared in one of the cells? That was one assassin who would be tied up for a long time explaining himself.

Harvey did what he'd come to do, use the facilities, then exited the washroom for the hall. He followed the signs in the corridors to suite 402 and found Céléstine waiting for him.

"I thought I'd lost you," she said.

"I apologize. Sometimes when I say five minutes I mean ten. The unexpected always comes up."

"That's the unexpected for you." Céléstine chuckled. "Shall we go in?"

Harvey offered his arm. "Ms. Mamadou."

"Mr. Macht," Céléstine said as she took it.

The two of them nodded to the security men stationed at the door and strode into the large suite. They looked over the gathering of people, including various dignitaries and businesspeople.

"I don't know anybody, but I recognize some of the faces," said Harvey.

"I am sure I don't know anybody other than Kwame."

A steward walked up to them carrying a tray of hors d'oeuvres. "May I offer you something?"

Céléstine looked over the tray. "Hmmm, this looks interesting." She took a napkin offered by the steward and took some items. Harvey followed suit, and they stood nibbling on the snacks.

"Mmm, not bad," said Harvey. "Of course, I didn't have much for lunch, so this is a welcome break."

"I always appreciate a taste," said Céléstine.

Another waiter came up to them with a tray of glasses of champagne.

Céléstine shook her head and said, "Would you have Perrier?"

"By all means, Madam. The bar in the corner is offering just about anything."

Harvey turned to Céléstine. "Let me go over and get us a couple of glasses."

"Thank you."

Harvey wound his way through the crowd to the bar and ordered two Perriers. When he turned back, he noticed Céléstine was talking with none other than Kwame Kérékou himself. He walked up to the two of them and stood to one side.

Céléstine turned. "Harvey, I would like you to meet Kwame."

Kérékou turned to look at Harvey and flashed him a smile. "Harvey, good to meet you."

Harvey offered a glass to Céléstine. "Mr. President, I appreciate the opportunity." The two men shook hands.

Kérékou chuckled. "Let's stick with Kwame. No need to stand on ceremony. A friend of Céléstine is a friend of mine."

Céléstine gestured toward Harvey. "Harvey is a reporter with the Chronicle. He interviewed me this morning as part of their coverage of your speech."

Kwame raised an eyebrow. "Really? I trust I conveyed the right message in my speech. My country needs to transform itself for the twenty-first century. I would like to see more Western nations take an interest in us. With the proper investment, I can see us able to raise our standard of living and make a better world for our countrymen."

"I concur," said Harvey. "However, you seem to have a serious political problem at home."

Kwame sighed. "Yes. There are those who would thwart a legitimate democratic process for their own personal gain. It is a constant problem with third-world nations that do not have well-developed political systems with the checks and balances necessary to prevent abuses of power."

Harvey nodded. "Unfortunately, even in Western nations, there are still a number of abuses of power. No matter what the political system, human greed and the lust for power are problematic."

"Yes, indeed," said Kwame. "You seem to be attuned to the nature of man."

"We can reach great heights and we can fall to great depths. We are a flawed species." Harvey studied Kwame and was beginning to believe Céléstine's assessment of the man. He was a good man who wanted good things for his people.

Somebody from Kérékou's cohort who'd remained close by touched the president's arm, indicating the need for the politician to speak with another waiting dignitary. Kwame addressed himself to both Céléstine and Harvey. "Would you excuse me?" he said before leaving them.

"What do you think, Harvey?" Céléstine said as she watched the young president move across the room.

"I believe you are right," said Harvey. "Kwame seems to be a good man with good intentions."

"I wish there was a way to talk to Matthieu." Céléstine looked thoughtful. "I can't help thinking that if I were to speak with him, I could convince him of the error of his ways. While I'm sure his own personality is mixed up in this political war, I'm also certain others are leading him astray, trying to orchestrate a political coup for their own gain. Any leader has his entourage, and that entourage can be influential."

Harvey stared at Céléstine. "What if I gave you that chance?"

Céléstine gave him a puzzled look. "Gave me the chance? What could you possibly mean? Matthieu is on the other side of the planet. Do you have access to a supersonic jet? And a way to break into a fortified compound?"

"I have a secret, Céléstine, which I am willing to share for the sake of your country. I would hope that in the long run you would keep such a secret to yourself."

"A secret?"

"Yes. Why don't we see if we can find a private place?"

"You have my attention, Harvey."

Harvey took Céléstine's arm and led her off to an alcove with a door. The two of them walked into an adjoining suite. Harvey shut the door behind them and led Céléstine across the main room of the suite and into a bedroom, closing the door to that room.

"This will seem magical, but I assure you it's real." Harvey took out the device. He fiddled with the controls and then pointed it in front of him. The dull beam of light shot out and a portal opened. Céléstine's eyes widened.

"What is that?"

"It's hard to explain, but in a nutshell, it's a portal. It will allow us to transport to Bangalla."

"What?"

"Yes, hard to believe, but true."

Céléstine walked up to the opening and stared at it. She walked to one side and looked behind it. She looked back at the portal, then looked at Harvey. "You've got to be kidding me."

Harvey shook his head. "If we go through we will find ourselves in Bangalla, in the suite of Matthieu Boigny at the compound." He walked through the portal and looked back at Céléstine. "Coming?"

Céléstine hesitated. She looked into the portal again and put one foot through the opening. She hesitated, looked down at her extended leg, then shrugged and walked through into a furnished room. "Where are we?"

"This is, for lack of a better word, the living room of the suite. At this hour, I believe Matthieu is in his office."

Harvey closed the portal then walked across the room to a side door and knocked. There was a moment of silence and a muffled voice said, "Yes?"

Harvey motioned for Céléstine to come forward. He opened the door and gestured for her to walk through.

"Hello, Matthieu."

Matthieu Boigny sat at a desk, hunched over some papers. He'd been engrossed in what he was reading and paid little attention to the interruption. He may have thought it to be one of his underlings, Harvey mused. When he heard his name, however, Boigny looked up and stared at Céléstine. His eyes widened. "Céléstine? Céléstine Mamadou?"

"Yes, Matthieu."

"I have no idea how you got in here, and you are certainly the last person I would have expected to see." Matthieu was startled and tried to compose himself.

"Who is this with you?"

"A friend. Are you really going to cause a civil war?"

Matthieu looked displeased. "Kwame had his chance," he said. "He stole the election, and I will not be deprived of what is rightfully mine."

"Matthieu, you know as well as I do that what you say is not true. The United Nations, an impartial third party, oversaw the voting and declared it legitimate."

"I don't care what they said. They are working secretly with Kwame. There is a conspiracy against me and I aim to fight it."

Céléstine gave him a withering look. "Matthieu, do you care so little for other people you would declare war against Kwame and cause undue death and destruction on our people?"

"I didn't start this."

"Always the spoiled child. You have forgotten the civil war of thirty years ago, when the French gave Bangalla its freedom. In the first six months, a rebel group rose up to fight the legitimate government. Instead of going through the normal political process, they took what they wanted. The war lasted almost two years, and over two thousand citizens lost their lives. Many more were displaced after having lost everything they had: their homes, their jobs, their towns, and in some cases their families. Do you want that blood on your hands?"

"I didn't start -"

"Shut up!" Céléstine shook. "You petulant little brat. How dare you speak to me like I'm a complete imbecile?" She marched up to the desk and stood over the man. "If you don't like the government, run for office and get elected. If you don't like the policies, lobby the electorate and get things changed. But war? Civil war? You should be ashamed of yourself. This is no longer a question of fighting in the park over a ball or a turn on the swing. What you do will have far-reaching implications for the entire country. Are you so self-centered you care nothing for the innocent lives at stake here?"

Céléstine was breathing hard and glaring at Matthieu. Harvey wondered if Matthieu would be swayed. He could call for help. He could have her ejected. He could even have bad things done to her, but would this person from his past bring him to his senses?

Céléstine calmed a little. "You're going to have him assassinated, aren't you?"

Matthieu gasped. "How did you know?"

"Don't you realize it's common knowledge? If I know about it, the entire country knows about it. Heck, the world knows about it. If you foolishly go ahead with this plan, I guarantee that someday you will end up in court here in Bangalla to be tried for murder. If you go ahead with war, you will end up in The Hague at the International Court of Justice. You will be tried for crimes against humanity." Céléstine pointed at the man. "How do you want to be remembered, Matthieu? Think carefully. How do you want to be remembered?"

Harvey watched Matthieu fidget in his seat. It occurred to him that Matthieu had surrounded himself with like-minded people and that everyone, Matthieu included, had not taken a good look at the future. All he'd thought about was winning, with no thought of what pain he could cause to others. And he hadn't thought about failure.

Matthieu looked at Céléstine. "And what do you think I should do?"

"Call off this nonsense before it's too late."

Matthieu glanced at Harvey. "You never said how you got here."

Céléstine looked at Harvey. Harvey looked at Céléstine, then looked at Matthieu.

The door behind them flew open, and a guard holding a handgun burst into the room. He looked surprised when he saw the two people. "How did they get in here?" He pointed the gun at them, then said without averting his gaze, "Are you all right, sir?"

Matthieu leaned back in his seat. He now had the smug look of a man who had the upper hand. "I'm fine. There is no problem at all." Matthieu smiled at Harvey and Céléstine.

Harvey moved close to Céléstine while watching the gun. Without looking at Matthieu, Harvey said, "Call button under the desk?"

Matthieu chuckled. "You never know when you might need help." He stood up and walked to a window, then motioned the guard to come over. The two of them talked to one another in hushed tones.

Harvey leaned over to Céléstine. "I think we need to get out of here right away."

"I think you're right."

"I am going to open a portal behind us to go back to where we came from. All we have to do is turn around and take two steps."

Harvey kept his eye on Matthieu and the guard while taking the device out of his pocket. He glanced at the controls, then pointed the device behind the two of them. He looked back at the two men by the window. They were still caught up in their conversation and had not yet noticed anything.

Harvey glanced behind him to verify the portal was open. It was. He tugged at Céléstine's arm, and the two of them turned around. Céléstine walked through the portal first. Harvey followed and was about to push the button on the device to close the portal when a voice from the room they'd entered called out, "Don't move!"

Harvey and Céléstine faced a man pointing a handgun at them. They had escaped a man with a gun through the portal only to find themselves facing a man with a gun on the other side. Harvey was more than a little surprised.

The man motioned to the two of them to step forward and sit on a couch. He glared at them without saying anything. Harvey and Céléstine sat down and Harvey looked through the still-open portal. He could see Matthieu and the guard walking up to it on the other side. Harvey looked back at the man standing in front of him. The man was putting a silencer on the muzzle of his handgun. The would-be assassin he'd sent to prison must have been one of a two-man team. That was the only explanation.

The man finished affixing the silencer to his gun, then raised it toward Harvey. A voice from the portal spoke sharply. "You!"

The man flinched. He turned toward the voice, pointed the gun, and squeezed the trigger. There was a pop.

Harvey looked through the portal in time to see Matthieu twist and fall to the floor.

The man with the gun blanched and stared in disbelief. Ignoring Harvey and Céléstine, he called into the portal, "Is that Matthieu Boigny?"

The guard crouched over the body. He looked up and exclaimed, "You shot him!"

"Is he...?"

"He's not breathing. I think he's dead."

The shooter stepped through the portal. Harvey quickly pushed a button on the device, and the portal closed.

Céléstine and Harvey sat there looking at where the portal had been. They remained silent for the longest time, trying to grasp what had taken place.

Harvey cleared his throat. "Well, that was an abrupt turn of events."

"Yes."

"I guess you don't have to worry about Kwame being assassinated."

"Yes."

"I guess you don't have to worry about a civil war."

Céléstine looked at Harvey. "The leader of the opposition may be gone, but that doesn't mean there isn't an opposition. Whoever was backing Matthieu and his plans may still try to proceed without him. They must be stopped, but admittedly, without a leader, this has probably gotten easier."

"Yes," said Harvey. "It seems ironic. Boigny sends an assassin to kill Kérékou and ends up being killed by his own assassin." Harvey paused. "Are you going to tell Kwame?"

Céléstine looked thoughtful. "I'll tell him about the demise of Matthieu, but I am not going to tell him how I know. I'm sure he wouldn't believe anything about a portal. I don't believe anything about that portal." She looked back at where the portal had been. "I think I'll tell him I heard this from somebody back home. I'll leave it up to him to confirm the news."

"I was hoping you would keep this secret to yourself."

Céléstine looked back at Harvey and half smiled at him. "Who's going to believe such a thing? The ramblings of an old woman?"

"Old?" Harvey smiled. "You have a certain vivacity. There's nothing old about you."

Céléstine patted Harvey's hand. "You are being kind." She stood up. "I'm going to go talk with Kwame."

Harvey stood. "You should tell him to check in with the 18th Precinct Midtown North. He will find a second member of an assassin squad in one of the cells."

"How?" Céléstine turned to Harvey. "Should I ask?"

"Probably not."

She held out her hand. "Mr. Macht, you have done a wonderful thing for my country today. I'm still not sure how you did it, but you did it."

Harvey shook her hand. "I am happy I was of assistance."

"I would do anything to avoid another civil war. I lived through the last one and I saw our country at its worst. I saw our people at their worst. I would do anything to stop that and here, I would say that one life over hundreds, if not thousands, is a good trade."

Céléstine turned and walked to the door, then stopped and turned around. "Thank you, Harvey."

She turned back, opened the door, and walked out into the main room.

Harvey could hear the sound of many voices emanating from the next room. He pursed his lips as he thought about what to do next, then fiddled with controls on the device, pointed it, and opened a portal. When he stepped through it, the opening collapsed horizontally to a line, shrunk vertically to a dot, and disappeared.

3 comments:

  1. Civil wars in Africa seems topical. I find the uses of the teleportation device odd. Is there only one? How long has it been in existence? Could its secrecy be maintained long?

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  2. A strange and complex tale - well worth a read. Celestine is an intrguing woman, will we hear more of her in future work?
    Ceinwen

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  3. A well-paced story. You have a realistic understanding of African politics, which is all about power and corruption. There is also a general lack of ability to think beyond today. I enjoyed your "device" - what a useful thing to possess - wish I had one! I think the second part of your story would be more effective with a bit of pruning, but all in all it was an interesting read and well presented.
    Beryl.

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