By David Gardiner
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any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and
He had never seen anyone trying to hitch a lift on this road before. It was a crazy thing to do, people could get into trouble around here even when they were travelling in groups and doing everything right. This was bandit country. He glanced nervously from side to side, scanning the vast desert as he thought about it.
He could see the lone figure far ahead, miles beyond the last few scattered dwellings of the town. How had she got there, all by herself? Was she completely insane? Then it occurred to him that it could be a trap. Maybe there were gunmen hiding nearby, waiting for him to slow down. But he could see no possible cover for a gunman.
As he drew nearer he saw her giant rucksack on the road by her side, and her totally inappropriate dress, with bare arms and a less than modest neckline. Didn’t she know the way the Jordanians and even the Bedouins regarded Western women who dressed like that? Was she trying to court rape, or murder? He didn’t want to stop but he knew he would have to. She didn’t look any older than his own daughter back in Oregon. Thank the Lord Abbey had a bit more common sense.
As he drew closer she held up her thumb in the traditional gesture even though it must have been obvious that he was stopping. She smiled as he drew to a halt. Blonde hair, pretty face, soft regular features, perfect gleaming white teeth. Didn’t she realise they would eat her for breakfast if they found her here? He rolled down the window.
“Howdy Miss. How’d you get to this place?”
“Good morning. I walked from the town.”
“You walked? What time did you start out?”
“Miss, you must be new around here. You’ve got a lot to learn about this part of Jordan.”
“Oh, I’ve heard the stories. But everybody I’ve met has been really sweet.”
“Believe me, they ain’t all like that. Where you from? Where you heading?”
“I’m Irish. From a little town you wouldn’t have heard of. And I’m heading for the Red Sea.”
“Well, at least you’re headed in the right direction. You know they’ve had a couple of suicide bombings along that coast, don’t you?” She nodded but seemed unconcerned. “You’d best put that thing in the trunk. I can take you as far as Karak. You know where that is?”
“Yes, That’ll be great. I can find a hostel there. Thanks.” She skipped around to the back of the car and with some effort hoisted her rucksack into the trunk. Then she joined him in the front. “My name’s Orla.” She held out her hand. He took it awkwardly and quickly released it.
“Never heard that name before. I’m Dan Pawelski. Howdy.” He waited until she closed her door before he moved off. He tried to watch the desert track, but couldn’t resist glancing at his passenger every now and again. She seemed content to sit and look out without talking.
“Kid,” he said solemnly, “you’re a very pretty lady. You got everything a person can have—looks, youth, health. You gotta look after yourself better. I’m serious. I only do this trip once a week. Most days you could stand there ‘til tomorrow, wouldn’t see a truck or an auto. What would you have done then?”
She shrugged. “Walked back to town, I suppose.”
“Well I’m worried about you, kid. I’m really worried. How old are you? Twenty? Twenty two? You want to see twenty-five, don’t you?” She nodded. “Well all I can say is, you carry on the way you’re goin’ and you ain’t goin’ to.”
“I knew you would come… or somebody would. I have intuitions.”
“You mean hunches. Anybody in the oil business says he’s got hunches I pack my things and get as far away from him as I can, double quick.” He paused briefly. “What ’ya gonna’ do when you get to the Red Sea?”
She shrugged. “A bit of swimming. Maybe learn to dive. They say it’s a good place for that.”
“Yep. Best place in the world to learn. I work for Jordan Oil, we’ve got off-shore people down in Aqaba. They’d teach you for nothing. I can give you a few names.”
“That’s great.” She hesitated. “Are you sure it would be for nothing?”
He smiled. “You’re not as dumb as you make out, are you?”
“I’ve made bargains like that before. So long as it’s all – what do you people say? – up front, then I suppose it’s okay.”
Dan hated to admit it to himself but he was a little shocked. This wasn’t the sweet innocent young girl he had supposed. She seemed to be such an odd mixture of innocence and worldliness.
“Have you got a family, Mr. Pawelski?”
Strange that she should ask that. His family was exactly what he was thinking about. She reminded him so much of Abbey. “Divorced,” he said awkwardly. “One daughter about your age. I don’t see her too often. What about you?”
He stared at her for a few seconds. She was so vulnerable, so defenceless, and yet she didn’t seem to know it, or care. He’d been to most places in the Middle East and quite a lot of the rest of the world but he’d never met a girl like this before. This was an oddball.
“Are you on one of those gap years from college?”
She shook her head. “I’ve never been to college or university. Maybe I’ll go some day.”
“So…” he tried to find the right words, “What is it you do?”
She seemed to find the question quite difficult. “When I need money I get a job. I’ve been a barmaid, and an exotic dancer, and a busker… I’ve looked after people’s children, I’ve tried to teach English… I’ve worked in a casino, and a bread shop… and I’ve paired-up with a few people along the way and stayed with them for a while...” She glanced across at him and frowned. “You don’t want to hear this, do you? You don’t approve of me?”
“None of my business Miss.” He paused. “But you know, you’re right. I guess I never could figure people who live like that. I mean, don’t it get lonely? Don’t you need folks that care about you? Some kind of family?”
“Yes, you’re right,” she said more seriously, “it does get lonely at times, and I do understand why people want families… and roots. People want all kinds of things, don’t they? But how many of them do they actually get? I think the trick is to be happy with the things you can get. Don’t always be chasing after the things you can’t.”
For a while they sat in silence.
“Don’t know what I’ve got to brag about,” Dan said at last, “it ain’t like my family’s so hot. Don’t suppose I’d be here if it was.”
“Why did you split up with your wife? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Nope, I don’t mind.” He hesitated. “One hell of a question though. Why does anybody split up? Why don’t things work out? Hundreds of reasons. Thousands.” He glanced around and she met his eyes. “You know something? My wife used to look at me just like that. Well, shit, okay, I got a big break in the oil business. Something that only comes once in a lifetime. Trouble was, I had to go abroad. This place, for two years minimum. Jenny could have come with me, no problem. But Abbey had just started school and Jenny didn’t want to take her out, take her to a place where people don’t speak American. I had to make a decision. Guess I made the wrong one. I got my big break, but I lost Jenny and for a long time I lost Abbey as well. Anyhow that’s all over and done with now. Long time ago. Water under the bridge.”
There was a pause. “Did you take up with anybody else?”
“Over here? You kidding? No single women over here except Arabs. You try anything on with an Arab woman you’re in big trouble. It’s a different society, a different world.”
“I’m surprised you’ve stayed here so long.”
“It’s not that I haven’t had a woman. I mean, I’ve been to Bangkok, Manila, Amsterdam… Shit, why am I telling you all this?”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry. I was just interested.”
“And I didn’t mean to snap.” He reached across and touched her hand. “Sorry kid. It’s a good question. One I’ve asked myself just about every day for the last fifteen years. Maybe we’re not as different as you think. Neither of us ready to settle down, live an ordinary life. All I can say is, at least I gave it a try. Didn’t work out the first time, why should it the second time? This ain’t such a bad life. I’m saving a lot of money, tax free. I can go anyplace I want, buy anything I need… “
“I’m waiting for the ‘but’. I can tell there is one.”
“I guess… sometimes… it just seems a bit pointless, that’s all. I guess it’s a young man’s life, and I ain’t a young man no more.”
Orla smiled. “What kind of life would you want, if you could choose?”
“Well, yeah, I guess I’d like to leave this place, go back home some day. Find somebody maybe. But I know I’d blow it again. I always blow it.”
“Maybe it’s your lack of faith in yourself that stops it from happening?”
He scowled across at her. “When a guy gets older he stops making choices any more. Starts living by habits. That’s what I do. I’m a guy who’s got habits. It ain’t easy to change no more.”
There was another pause.
“There’s something I do that I didn’t mention. I tell fortunes. But only if people want to hear.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No, it’s the truth. I’ve always had the gift. Second sight is what we call it in Ireland.”
He grunted. “Second sight, eh? What do you do? Look at palms? Crystal balls?”
“No, I just look at people. You, for instance.”
“Oh yeah? And what do you see?”
“You shouldn’t ask me lightly. Only if you really want to know. It isn’t a game.”
He paused. “I think I already know what my future is.”
“Yep. Getting older. More bad tempered. Richer, for all the good it’s going to do me. Heading back to Oregon when I’m too old to work. Living in a rooming-house somewhere, spending a lot of time in the pool hall, drinking too much, feeling sore at the world. Making passes at women young enough to be my granddaughters. Pretending to be wise, when really I’m just old. Have I left anything out?”
She fixed him with her eyes. “Yes.”
“Go on then. Spill the beans.”
She hesitated for an usually long time. “This is… No, I’m sorry, I can’t.”
“Can’t tell you. Forget it. It’s just a silly game. It’s not real.”
“Let me decide that. You said a minute ago it wasn;t a game. You tell me what you think you’ve seen and let me judge if it’s nonsense. Okay?”
“I don’t want to.”
“Shit, I’m giving you a ride through two hundred and fifty miles of bandit country. Least you can do is tell me what you think you see.”
“Okay. Are you a religious man?”
“Nope. Not really.”
“Well, maybe you should be.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I think this is the last day of your life, Mr. Pawelski. I think you should pray.”
He brought the car to a noisy halt in a spray of sand.
“What the hell do you mean by saying a dumb thing like that?”
“I’m sorry. When somebody asks me, I have to tell them what I see. I have to tell the truth.”
“And exactly what way am I going to die?”
“I don’t know. I can’t see that. Just that it’s going to be sudden. That’s all I can see.”
“You’re crazy. I ought to throw you out right here and let you find another ride.”
“Yes, maybe you should. I’m sorry, you shouldn’t have made me tell you.”
He sat motionless for a few moments.
“Crazy or not, if I leave you here I won’t be the one who’ll die. Why did you say a fool thing like that? What way did you expect me to react?”
“I didn’t want to tell you. I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry.”
“Look kid, I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing but I don’t like it. I’ll take you as far as Karak ‘cause I said I would but I don’t want you riding with me no more after that.”
“Of course. I really am sorry for what I said. If it’s okay I’ll wind this seat back and get a bit of sleep and not bother you any more.”
“Sure. Just reach down and turn that wheel down there.”
He watched her wind the seat back and pull her knees up into a foetal position. She looked at him once more before closing her eyes. She might be crazy but she was one hell of a pretty girl. With an effort he turned his attention back to the track. He noticed that his lower lip was trembling. “Goddamn crazy kid,” he muttered beneath his breath.
“Hey! Kid! Orla! Are you awake?”
She stirred and pulled herself up. “Yes. What is it?” She reached down to the knob that controlled the reclining seat and started to wind it back up.
“That’s the check point up ahead. The guards are Jordanian Arabs. You don’t want your arms uncovered like that. It’s an insult to those guys. Reach into the back and get my raincoat. Put it over your shoulders.” She complied awkwardly, letting it hang open at the front. “Button up the front, kid. When in Rome… know what I mean?” She nodded self-consciously and tried to force the big buttons into place. Pawelski slowed the car and peered curiously ahead. He slowed even more until they were travelling at a walking pace.
“Something wrong, Mr. Pawelski?”
“Yeah. Where are the guards?”
The isolated check point they were approaching was nothing more than a wooden hut by the side of the road with a crude wooden barrier that could be pulled up to allow vehicles to pass. There was an antiquated military jeep with a shattered windscreen parked behind it. The entire post seemed to be unmanned. “There’s always somebody here,” he explained, “they can see you coming for miles. They got nothing to do but look out for cars. It’s never unmanned. Especially now, with all the guns and bombs they’re smuggling into Gaza. There’s something wrong here.” He drew to a complete halt a few yards from the barrier. There were dried-up pools of a dark liquid on the ground. At first he thought the marks were where oil had been spilled, now he could see the flies hovering around them and knew that they weren’t. He wound down the window and a foul butcher’s shop smell drifted into the cab. He seemed to freeze in the driving seat and his face went pale. “Something’s happened here,” he whispered, “something really bad.” The girl looked totally calm. He wondered if she had the least idea how serious this was.
“Do you want me to go and see if they’re inside?” She asked.
“For Christ sake, kid. There’s nobody in there. Nobody alive. Whoever killed them may be watching us right now. That’s the only people you’re likely to find in there.”
At last she seemed to appreciate their predicament. “What are you going to do?” she asked quietly.
“Okay, let’s be sensible. If they were in there and they wanted to kill us we’d be dead by now. More likely they’ve gone. If they drove off into the desert there’d be tracks, but there aren’t none. If they went north along this road we would have seen them, but we haven’t seen anybody. That means they’ve gone south. The same way we’re headed. If we carry on we may catch up with them. There’s still a good forty miles of empty road between us and Karak. We could drive into an ambush. I think we should turn around and go back.”
“Do we have enough fuel?”
He looked at the gauge. “No. You’re right. It’s over a hundred miles to the next gas station north of here. If we go north we’ll run out of gas in the desert. Shit, why didn’t I think of that? I’m not thinking straight.”
“We don’t have much choice then, do we?”
He looked at her with a new respect. The kid was right. It was south to Karak or nothing. He put the car into gear and eased forward, driving in an arc around the barrier. When he was clear of the checkpoint he accelerated to a comfortable cruising speed and breathed a little more easily. The kid still didn’t seem fazed. He wondered if she was stoned or something, then dismissed the idea as she had been sleeping by his side for the last couple of hours. She just didn’t get it did she? Maybe that was a good thing.
On the horizon, a shimmering dot slowly grew into the shape of a parked truck. Pawelski slowed right down. “That’s got to be them up ahead. And we’re witnesses.”
“Maybe we can bluff it out. Tell them we came through the checkpoint and it wasn’t manned.”
He drew to a complete halt and stared at the distant vehicle. “They’ve seen us now anyway,” he said very quietly, “that’s all we can do.” He started forward again.
The truck was a typical military three-tonner, painted in light and dark green camouflage that made it visible for miles in the desert. There was a uniformed man carrying a rifle leaning against the rear mudguard. At the back of the truck a canvas tarpaulin flapped in the breeze, concealing whatever or whoever was inside. Pawelski drew alongside the man and wound down his window. “As-Salaamu`Alaykum,” he said in the most casual tone he could muster. “I see the checkpoint up the road is closed.”
The soldier stooped to look into the car but did not reply. He stared at Orla. “What is your business?” he asked coldly.
“I work for Jordan Oil. I’m headed for the Karak depot. The girl is a tourist. A backpacker.” Pawelski could feel his heart pounding and the sweat beginning to trickle down his temples, but the girl, despite the huge raincoat that enclosed most of her body, still seemed cool and almost detached.
The soldier nodded towards the girl. “Come with me,” he ordered.
“No, wait a minute. She’s just a tourist. A college girl from Ireland. You’ve got no quarrel with Ireland. She’s just a kid. I’m an American. You want a hostage, you take me.” He heard her open her door and get out. “Ain’t you got no kids of your own? She’s only a kid! Somebody’s daughter. Have a bit of common decency…”
His tirade was brought to an end by a single deafening gunshot.
Under the force of the high-powered rifle, Pawelski’s head had almost exploded. His blood coated the inside of the car in shining, dripping masses. Orla took off Powelski’s raincoat and draped it over the body to cover what was left of his face. “Was that really necessary?” she asked the soldier.
“You know it was. He’s seen our courier, he’s seen me, he’s seen the route we’re using to get stuff in.”
Orla went around to the trunk, opened it, and with the help of the soldier removed her heavy rucksack.
“Is it all here?” the soldier asked.
“Yes. Everything. The volunteers back in Belfast send you their best wishes. General Jim Sullivan said he’ll break bread with you soon in a free Palestine.”
“Allah hear those words. The council would like to talk to you about the next shipment.” He flung the rucksack over one shoulder and led her towards the front of the truck.
“Guard that well,” she entreated. “Good men died to get it to you. Including that poor dim American. Too naïve for this world. More suited to the next. I hope he took a moment to say his prayers.”