The iron chain was secured, although the bolts were undone. The door was only slightly cracked open, but McKinley's default friendly smile was trying to push its way into the room nonetheless.
"Mr. Hatimbi! My agents were performing their regular duties and I thought I might stop by-"
"This isn't a courtesy call."
The smile dripped off of McKinley's face. He blew out of his nose in defeat.
"No. It's not."
Mafala said nothing, but unhooked the chain and pulled the door inward to let the Captain in. He gestured towards a wooden bench and McKinley sat down upon it primly, drawing his knees close together. This was a good uniform, after all. Mafala had receded into a backroom, but soon returned bearing a steel tray.
"Would you like something to drink?"
"Why thank you." He took a green ceramic cup and raised it to his lips, then stared down at it quizzically. The cup was empty.
"Excuse me Captain," his voice tinkled with a hint of humor, "We don't have much to ourselves, let alone to share, but I thought a little fake hospitality would make you less nervous. Celestials like rituals."
McKinley laughed. "That we do."
"I am glad you feel more comfortable. So tell me why you are here."
McKinley trailed the rim of his cup with elegant fingers, contemplating how to proceed. The grime soon became too much and he looked imploringly at Mafala, who only handed him a napkin whose fibers were ingrained with even more dirt. He declined it and wiped his hands on his pant leg instead. Might as well start getting used to the stuff.
"Is she out?" he eventually asked.
"Yes," Mafala replied. Then with a more hostile tone, "You weren't very subtle about leaking the time your new boys would be on mission."
"She offered to accompany them, free of charge. Lieutenant Thomas will be the first to tell you we don't pass up anything free. Our funds are not as large as you think."
"But you hire two new agents."
"And the budget the Center gives us will be expanded to accommodate them. They weren't requested to antagonize you, you know. Agent Church was wounded on the last mission. He's not badly hurt, just paralyzed, but I thought it necessary that we operate with more precaution."
"And it's about time. You all needed this wave of reality! You come in with your high ideals and don't expect bad to come crashing down? You don't expect it to be hard? If we can't police our own streets what makes the Sons of Joseph Smith think they can do better? Arrogance. You'll soon learn that it's not that easy."
"I know," McKinley said wearily, "you have no idea how well I understand."
"Tell me, Captain." McKinley flinched as his title was thrown at him with disdain.
"I came here to do exactly that. Church's mission wasn't exactly procedure. I had him in the Catacombs, looking for your wife's books. Not even my Agents knew what I really had them pursuing. Or why. Except for some . . ." Oh lord, let Chris forgive me for what I am about to do. "Mr. Hatimbi, I was looking for the Lost Sons."
Mafala stood abruptly, towering over McKinley.
"You understand I can't give you what I gave him. I don't have sides Captain McKinley and I'll do whatever I have to in order keep my daughter out of this. I have lost enough."
"I need details." he pleaded.
"I can provide those. Old memories, we have plenty to spare."
McKinley looked down at his watch.
"We have a little over two hours until we're both due for Convocation."
Agent Thomas took his time walking from the surveillance room back to his desk. Distracted eyes stared out the passing windows at the clouds, swollen and dark not with welcome rain, but with pollution from the factories below. He sat down heavily at the steel desk. The large common room was empty and dark; the clouds greedily separated him from his usual companion. He really hated clouds. When the sun shone he could close his eyes and pretend everyone was there with him. They would be happy. Agent Michaels would strip off his shirt and lie on the floor to bask in the heat. McKinley would turn red and mutter something about propriety. Agent Zelder would be next to him on the sofa, drawn into his computer, drafting a new gun of his own invention. Agent Schrader would insist on another game of Monopoly after having won three times already, so Dr Neeley would be the only one to agree to play him. Perhaps the doors would be open and outside Agent Church would sit on the wing tip of the Moroni, reciting the newest in his collection of poems dedicated to his girlfriend. Agent Davis would provide criticism, moving his wash cloth around Agent Church, making his ship shine like the wings of its namesake. There were more efficient ways of cleaning her, but sometimes what they did could just be about the joy of doing it rather than efficiency. He would smile at them from behind his computer. On days like that his job didn't seem so tiresome. Not like now. Absence had never felt so tangible, he thought, as he turned wearily to the monitor. Splayed across the computer were the transcriptions of the audio recordings from his last land visit.
. . . not getting any *expletive* better even though I gave him the medicine just like your *expletive* said . . . my goods stolen and you *expletives* only caring about . . . he comes home only once a week and I can see he's been in terrible fights. . . we don't sell those types of guns here, must be getting them from your men on the black market . . .
Each one had been spat at him like he was to blame for the horrors of ghetto life. Still, his heart ached for he knew there was some truth in their accusing stares. He was supposed to be taking notes of anything unusual for future investigations and cataloguing anything that held relevance to their current missions. Anything else would be deleted. The Sons of Joseph Smith did not help the people. They were there to help the community. Don't dwell on it, he told himself. He would have to swallow his discomfort. He had spilled his own insecurities about their work to one person before and McKinley had listened gravely and shared his own fears. They had made a plan and McKinley had taken it upon himself to pursue it, despite the danger. The perpetual state of guilt and anxiety Agent Thomas lived in grew more severe every day. He pressed a fist to his forehead.
"They could be dead right now and I'd never know it. You were good practice, Harper. Now there're two more to worry about." He sighed and looked up at the clouds again, "How's heaven, little sis? Is this dark place where Telestials go when they die? Is heaven separated as well? Perhaps Celestial life is Telestial heaven. If it is, it isn't much of a Heaven. You could still die. You could still be unhappy."
The silence seemed to be agreeing with him.
"I can't just sit here! He went down this time. To see Mafala, he said, but he wouldn't say about what. I have a right to know now. In case . . ." his voice faltered, "in case, he doesn't comes back."
A tentative finger hovered above an inconspicuous icon in the top corner of the screen. The symbol was comprised of two vertical swords, one larger than the other. His sister never voiced her opinion, but his dialogue had served its purpose, to solidify his own resolve. He tapped it. A window grew on the screen. It asked for a password. He knew what it was, McKinley had forbidden him to open the program, but knew that there would be a time when Agent Thomas would have to. His fingers flew across the keys. McKinley would be impressed at how he had committed to memory that string of letters and numbers, but also concerned that he was so prepared. Let no one say Christopher Thomas was never prepared for the worst. PASSWORD ACCEPTED flashed across the screen, then a table of contents.
Collected Letters between James McKinley and Stephen Blade
Official Sons of Joseph Smith Statements Re the "Deaths" of John Blade (2085) and Stephen Blade (2090)
Other Lost Sons
Joseph Amity (2054)
Jacob Ewing (2061)
Gary Wilson (2074)
Robert Pitt (2079)
Thomas Holland (2081)
David Bishop (2083)
Andrew Cook (2088)
Rumor and Mythos Re the Lost Sons
Official and Enhanced Maps of Telestial Land Comparison
Nabukenya's Records LOST
Mafala? COLLECTION IN PROGRESS
He chose the last one.
"We're not supposed to go off schedule."
"But Agent Price, it's okay, because we totally have a bunch of time before Convocation!"
"Then why are we here?"
"I want you to meet someone," Nabulungi explained.
The agents looked at each other, disappointment mirrored on their faces. They both had had a secret small hope that the pretty girl had guided them into the secluded alleyway for more fun reasons. They both knew it had been a stupid expectation, especially when their partner has been asked along as well. Gotswana had hurried home with his samples as soon as they had surfaced and Kevin was glad they had not been asked to accompany him. Instead, the agents had been lead through the Kitguli camp and now stood in front of a wooden door in an unusually well swept and paved back alley.
"Go on," Nabulungi said, giving Arnold an encouraging push against his back, "she's expecting you."
Arnold stared at the door. If anyone else had made him first in line to meet a stranger he would have protested, but she had asked so nicely . . . and here he would embarrass himself by blabbering or doing the wrong thing. What was he supposed to do anyway, knock? Perhaps there was a . . . his hand reached behind him and grasped Kevin's wrist.
"What is it?" Kevin hissed, trying to jerk his wrist free, but Arnold's iron grasp kept him pinned as Arnold spun around and clutched at the other shoulder, pulling him down to look into his companion's distressed face
"There's no doorbell!" he wailed, "what're we gonna do?"
"Agent Cunningham, get a hold of yourself! Just open the door!" he shouted as he wrestled with his hyperventilating companion.
"Nabulungi, what're you doing bringing this to my doorstep?"
The two froze, looking up in awe and then embarrassment at the woman in the doorway. She was tall and broad. Her handsome features looked put out. The flowered dress she wore did not suit her matronly air. Her eyes demanded answers and Nabulungi at least had the good sense to look sheepish.
"Is Sadako home, Ms. Kalimba?"
"Girl, I'm only the landlord, you think I keep track of where all my residents go? That there's their own business! But I can tell you she left for the market a couple of hours ago."
"Nabulungi! Wait, I'm here!" A female voice bounced off the buildings and its source could be calculated as coming from a bicycle currently bumping dangerously towards them. A baby in a crude basket wailed from underneath the handle bars. She skidded to a halt and the woman dismounted, leaning her vehicle against the wall and scooping her baby into her arms.
"They don't look like much," she said sizing up the two agents with her eyes. She was taller and lighter than Nabulungi and wore an iron red dress, made from a continuous sheet of cloth. It hung to her ankles and wrapped around her breasts, leaving her shoulders bare. Her long curly hair was pulled back, but a few wisps fell about her face.
"Ms. Sadako I presume?" Kevin pushed a now limp Arnold from him, straightened his collar and extended his hand. "Nice to meet you."
She did not answer, but stuffed the still wailing baby into a startled Kevin Price's arms and swept past Kalimba into the house.
"You're going to have to earn her respect," Nabulungi said apologetically, "you'll learn it is not easily given here."
"Jesus Christ, they get softer every year," Kalimba lamented.
Kevin was appalled. "Please don't take our savior's name in vain!"
"I've been saying what I like my whole life Mr. Agent, I'm not going to stop now because it hurts your young ears."
Kevin did not respond, but gritted his teeth. He glared at Arnold, who did not seem perturbed at what had just occurred, but was instead lost in a general state of confusion. He clutched the baby to him and followed everyone else as they filed into the house.
Nabulungi's original plan had been to have the new agents meet Sadako on her own, but Kalimba was a formidable woman whose wishes could not be easily denied. So it was that she sensed an importance to this meeting and it was tacitly relocated to her kitchen. She leaned against the cracked counter, arms folded, while the four sat at a table. Sadako had retrieved her baby and it was currently suckling, a move that Kevin suspected was done more to discomfort him and Arnold than for practical purposes. Arnold was gazing at Nabulungi, a tremor in his arm a signal to his uneasiness with what went on next to him. Kevin searched Sadako's face, pointedly not letting his gaze wander down. Yes, that smirk suggested it was definitely intentional. With one hand she was scratching a message on a piece of paper then slid it across the table for the to read: TURN OFF YOUR COMMUNICATIONS. They obliged, hesitantly, but Kevin left one audio feed on.
"We brought you here, because you are the ones out in the field. You could help us, but you needed to hear our story with your own ears," Nabulungi said.
Kalimba humphed. "We suspect that blond pixie boy doesn't exactly listen when we give him leads. If I weren't a more generous woman I'd say you just throw out pretty much everything we say. Only pretend to listen to look like you care."
"We do care. That's why we're here. To help you."
Sadako's face grew serious. "A month ago my brother Ghali went missing."
"That's terrible!" Kevin could sense that Arnold's input would be nothing more than distracting interjections, and made to put a stopper in his talkative companion.
"Agent Cunningham, why don't you let me do the talking?" he turned back to Sadako, "I'm sorry ma'am, but we get missing reports all the time. We can't follow all of them-"
"Well I'm sure you'll want to follow this one. It might involves your general."
Both agents leaned in earnestly.
"Then you should have reported it to Agent Thomas," Kevin said.
Sadako waved his words away. "You're gonna pay more attention if you get it from my mouth than those computers. Besides here I can be sure you'll hear my story."
"It's important Agent Price, listen to her," Nabulungi said.
"Do people really go missing all the time? Like you could just go home and your Dad would be gone and you'd never know?" Arnold asked her.
"Yes," she said sadly. He couldn't help himself; he grabbed her hand in his pudgy one, trying his hardest to let his sympathy flow into her. It was so warm and beautiful and he felt he should let go, but he didn't want to. She did not pull away.
"There were warning signs," Sadako went on, "He would be out later and later. Then he gave me, a pouch full of money, more than my husband makes in a year. I knew he didn't have a job. I rightly asked him if he stole it, because no brother of mine will be a thief and he said no he earned it. Well doing what? He wouldn't say. Must have been illegal. I yelled at him and he got mad right back. Said we had no right picking where we got our money from. That he was a good man, but knew where he had to stand to make sure his family lived. He left and never came back."
"I see. You definitely have reason to worry, Ms. Sadako."
"If you thought she didn't, Agent Price, well I'd throw the both of you out," Kalimba menaced.
Kevin tried not to appear unnerved. "How does this have to do with the general?"
"He's working for him. Nabulungi saw him at the last market raid. And we found this in a package on our doorstep yesterday. With a note that said if I ever got in trouble to show them it"
She pulled a polished silver gun from underneath her dress, from where the folds had expertly hidden it. Kevin cursed himself for not being more wary. She placed it upon the table.
"This is Celestial made!" he exclaimed, "but how does this prove-"
"There was this too." She handed over a circled pendant. On one side was a black dot, the other a scribbled message: keep safe, sister, always wear this.
"A single eye, the General's mark," she explained, "The General's mark will keep me safe? From what? Ghali knew I would recognize it immediately, perhaps it is also a call."
The clock on the wall chimed. Sadako and Kevin stood simultaneously.
"I'll see what I can do," he said, "It's time to go. I'm sorry our talk was so short."
"Yes," she agreed, "Get up love birds. We have a meeting to go to."