Z steers with one hand. The other he uses to eat the chicken. For quite a while now, as far as Healy has been able to discern, the nest of old newspaper balanced on the console between their seats has accommodated bone and gristle, nothing more. Still, Z keeps finding bits to lower into his mouth. He lowers them, thinks Healy, as if he’s both the baby and the mama bird.
“I love chicken,” Z says.
“I see that,” Healy says.
Z shrugs, rolls down his window an inch or two, and then, guiding the wheel with his knee, forces the glass the rest of the way, with both hands, like a climber hauling himself over a wall. When he flings the carcass to the wind, the newspaper bursts open and a long string of juice whips back inside the car. Z frowns at the stain on his tunic. “Look at this,” he says. He nods at the glove box. “In there.”
Among the clutter, Healy finds some loose Kleenex, but when he offers it to Z, Z makes a face. “No, brother. The cigarettes.”
Drab chaparral flows by. Here and there a compound stands, a truck is broken down, a driver squats in a ditch to piss. On more than one occasion, Healy has heard white men and women call this country beautiful. Observing the scenery, he considers how he himself might respond if called upon to describe it. It looks like God took a shit on a rock pile, he decides, and then God kicked down the rock pile. “I thought all soldiers smoked,” Z says.
“I’m not a soldier,” Healy says.
“But you were in the Army,” Z says.
“A long time ago,” Healy says.
Z asks, “Did you know Captain Todd?”
“I don’t think so,” Healy says.
“He was in the Army.”
“It’s a big place.”
“Were you Special Forces?”
“Captain Todd was Special Forces,” Z says.
Soon they are in the city. Healy seeks out the gaze of random citizens, testing the efficacy of his disguise. Earlier, at the airport, after watching the other Westerner who’d been on the plane with him get into an armored SUV escorted by hulking mercenaries with flak jackets and assault rifles, Healy was surprised when Z offered him the prayer cap, the neatly folded robes and the camel-hair shawl. He was surprised when Z led him past the VIP parking lot to the scrum of local taxis, rickshaws and this ridiculous Corolla. And he was surprised, yet again, when Z told him that his weapon would be issued at the base; until then they would be traveling unarmed.
That was three of them, surprises, before they’d even started. Now Z says, “We have to make a stop,” and pulls alongside a long row of blast wall.
“What for?” Healy says.
“It won’t take long.”
A heavy steel bar and two policemen with Kalashnikovs guard the entrance. One of the policemen approaches the driver’s side and Z has to repeat the project of getting the window down. After a brief exchange, none of which Healy understands, the policeman beckons his comrade, who inspects the undercarriage of the Corolla with a convex mirror attached at an angle to a wooden pole: a giant version of the molar-checking tool dentists use.
The first policeman lets up the bar on a rope.
“What is this place?” asks Healy.
“Stay here,” Z says. He parks and disappears into a tall office building with a turquoise glass facade.
While he waits, Healy tells himself once more what he told himself at the airport and on the plane and in the small Mediterranean city where he’d been staying for reasons he cannot adequately recall before he came here: Go home.
Z emerges from the building with a black duffel bag on his shoulder. It looks heavy. He has to twist at the waist to swing it into the trunk. When he gets back in the car, Healy asks him, “What’s in the bag?”
“Two hundred thousand dollars.”
Healy looks at him. “What’s in the bag?”
“I just told you.”
Healy gets out, goes to the rear of the Corolla and opens the trunk. The duffel is stowed underneath the floor panel, wedged into the cavity where the spare tire and the jack should be. Indeed, it contains a large amount of local currency bundled into equal stacks with rubber bands.
Back at the passenger-side door, Healy bends down and says, “Feel like telling me what the fuck is going on here?”
“Salaries,” Z says. “For the guys at the base.”
“That’s not in my contract.”
“It’s part of the job.”
“Not my job.”
Healy quotes from his contract. Then he says, “Transportation of large cash sums through enemy territory in a shit-bucket Toyota without escort or protective equipment or sidearm or, hell, I don’t fucking know, a knife? Not my job.”
“You don’t like my car?” Z says.
Healy straightens. He props his elbows on the Toyota’s hot metal roof. All around him, bullet marks crater the blast wall. The concrete partitions were likely moved here from another location, where they had faced the opposite way. The marks on the inside of the barriers give Healy an uneasy feeling. It’s as if someone tried to force his way out of, rather than into, the compound—as if the walls are protecting the world beyond them rather than the space that they enclose.
After a while, Z calls to him. “Should I bring you back to the airport?”
He cannot even say when it was, exactly, that he stopped going home between jobs. His apartment in the small Mediterranean city sits on the top floor of a four-story complex, midway up a steep hill. A strip of brass trim separates the orange carpet of his sleeping area from the warped hardwood of his kitchen area. He spends most of his time in the kitchen area, at a table abutting a window that looks out on what was advertised when he first rented the place as “expensive ocean views”—a translation error that happened to be more accurate than the intended “expansive.” For Healy, anyway, the view was less a selling point than the small, family-run grocery that occupies the ground floor. Previous tenants had established a system. You placed a list and some money in a basket; you lowered the basket by rope to the street; you hoisted the basket up with the items. Of this, perhaps, at times, Healy takes excessive advantage. Days exist when the prospect of human interaction is so odious that he waits for the grocer to show his back, hurries past him up the stairs and lowers down his list.
Transporting large cash sums through enemy territory without escort? Not my job
Weekends, on the streets below, protesters with bandannas tied around their faces erect potted-plant barricades, start fires, smash stuff. Police in riot gear advance in phalanxes, knocking people over with high-pressure water cannons. They send canisters of tear gas somersaulting down the sidewalk. The white, noxious clouds reach Healy’s window, seep through the cracked glazing and the rotted frame, pollute his kitchen and sleeping areas. Even in the bathroom, a towel stuffed beneath the door, Healy’s eyes used to ache and he’d retch into the sink. (The bathroom’s is the only sink in the apartment and therefore not only the repository for spat toothpaste and beard trimmings but also baklava-begrimed plates, coffee grounds and bowls of soggy muesli.) After his first stay, Healy bought a gas mask at the bazaar, with circular eye windows and a hose like an elephant’s trunk. Now, whenever the marchers are attacked, he stands at the open window, in his underwear, invincible.
Last he heard, his wife and two sons were living with Frank Boswell, of Boswell’s Boots.
The evening sun, hued and magnified, is the mouth of a shaft they are hurtling down, into a fire. Every couple of miles, the charred wreckage of an ambushed fuel tanker lies on the roadside like the cabin of a jet plane after a supersonic crash. Otherwise, to the dun-colored sky, it is empty, dun-colored country, unblemished as a dun-colored sea. There are no checkpoints, no bases, no convoys, no war.
Z lights another cigarette and tells Healy that before joining the company he worked as an interpreter for a small Special Forces team led by Captain Todd. His eyes kindle. They dilate as if to admit more oxygen upon the flame.
“You wouldn’t believe the stuff we did,” he says. “If I told you, you wouldn’t believe it.”
“No,” Healy says, “probably not.”
After several minutes, Z says, “Those are his clothes you’re wearing.”
About an hour west of the city, they encounter a grisly scene: what appears to have been a head-on collision between a station wagon and a small passenger bus. How such a catastrophe could possibly have come to pass on this desolate road without bend is a mystery to Healy. Nonetheless, here they are: the long winding skid marks, the bus on its side, the wagon crumpled up, glass and metal everywhere. The smell of scorched tread still hangs in the air.
Z slows to negotiate the debris. Behind the overturned bus, people sit on the hardpan, nursing injuries. An old man holds a bloody hand over his eye; a young girl cradles an arm that looks like it has two elbows. A crowd huddles over something writhing. When they spot the Corolla, the less stunned among them gesture frantically for Z to stop.
Healy starts to say something.
“I know,” Z says.
In the side mirror, Healy watches an elderly woman step into the middle of the road and beseech them to turn around. Arms extended, she looks like a signalman marshaling a helo. She stays there, signaling them, until distance reduces her to a shadow, to a smear, to nothing.
“Did you see that woman?” Healy says.
“Back there?” asks Z.
“With the bone sticking out?”
“Not with the bone sticking out?”
Healy’s wife and sons stand shoulder to shoulder; Frank Boswell kneels before them. Each of their socked feet is snugly planted in an old-fashioned measuring device, the stainless-steel kind with lines demarcating sizes and half sizes. Frank Boswell scoots from one foot to the next. He adjusts the bars and plates, ensures that their heels are firmly backed against the cup. Now and then, he lifts their arches to administer a playful tickle. Healy observes all of this surreptitiously, from a couple aisles over, while pretending to shop for himself. Eventually, his wife notices him, frowns and whispers something to Boswell. Then all four of them—Boswell, Healy’s wife and Healy’s two sons—turn their attention on Healy, visibly discomfited by the fact that he is watching them.
“Can I help you find something?” Frank Boswell says.
Healy looks away, focusing on the shelf in front of which he happens to be standing. To his surprise, instead of the new and fashionable Western-style footwear attractively displayed throughout the rest of the store, this shelf is crowded with Army-issue combat boots haphazardly heaped together. The rubber soles are worn smooth, laces frayed, seams parted. Mud still cakes the toes; stains splotch the beige nylon and the cowhide. Healy recognizes some of the darker splotches as blood. Realizing that he is barefoot, he begins to try some on. He tries one pair after another, digging through the endless pile. But none of them fit him; none of them are Healy’s boots.
It’s with a queasy start that he understands whose they are.
When he opens his eyes, Z is staring at him.
The many yanks open the door, grabs a fistful of Healy’s robes and drags him out.
“You were doing this,” Z says, and makes a whimpering sound. He laughs. “You see? Like this….” He does the whimpering again.
Healy rubs his face. By the time he checks the side mirror—half expecting to discover the old woman still there, signaling—it’s too late.
The Hilux whips into the other lane, accelerates and pulls alongside them. Healy looks across Z, into the Hilux’s cab, where a man with shoulder-length hair and black kohl around his eyes points a rifle out the window.
Z brakes and the Corolla jerks abruptly to a halt. The Hilux stops just ahead of them, perpendicular to the road. Now Healy sees that half a dozen men crowd the bed. They get up, adjusting robes, turbans, slung rifles and ammo vests bulky with spare magazines. One carries a grenade launcher on his back; another holds a light machine gun and wears the belts across his chest like bandoliers.
Z says, “No.”
As three of the men approach the Corolla, Healy pulls Captain Todd’s shawl tight around his face. One of the men, the one with the machine gun, stands at the front bumper, glaring at them through the windshield. The two others each take a side. They move with purpose, an irresistible momentum. In the Army, they had a term for that. The term was “violence of action.”
The man who takes Healy’s side has a funny sort of beard. It is mustacheless, Amish-style, and it is orange. Also, despite the temperature, the man wears a down ski suit and a wool cap. He yanks open the door, grabs a fistful of Healy’s robes and drags him out. Healy drops to his knees.
The man pokes him with the muzzle of his Kalashnikov. He stabs the metal flash suppressor into Healy’s sternum. Healy knows what the man wants. He wants Healy to look at him. That is what you do, after all, when you have the questions and the gun. You make him look at you.
Healy pitches forward and lands prostrate on the hardpan. He outflings his arms. From here he can see underneath the Corolla to the far side of the road. Z is on his knees with his hands cable-tied behind his back. One of the men stands before him. The man wears loafers, the heels of which are folded flat upon the insoles. Shoe-sandals, thinks Healy. The undercarriage of the Corolla cuts Z at the shoulders and the man at the waist. Healy sees beads of green coolant sweating from a hose. He feels microscopic life moving in the dust beneath him. He tastes his mouth. He smells the sun. He hears Z beg.
Every night, when he is at the apartment in the small Mediterranean city, Healy lowers down a little more money and hoists up a little more drink. The basket is not quite wide enough to accommodate a 750-milliliter bottle, and the grocer has to set it at an angle, its neck protruding. This means that the balance is off; Healy has to hoist with care. The grocer watches from below, in his hat and apron, hands on hips, head thrown back. Sometimes passersby stop. Everyone is waiting for the same thing. Everyone wants the explosion of glass. The feeling that Healy gets when instead the basket arrives safely at the window, when his fingers close around its wicker handle, when the grocer shakes his head and goes back inside and when the disappointed passersby continue on their travels—that feeling is by far the best part of Healy’s day.
Once, he remembers, he told his wife that the war was not a war any longer, it was a racket. Like all rackets, Healy told his wife, it would end.
Feet move, doors slam, an engine starts, roars, fades away. By the time Healy rises, the truck is almost out of sight. Z bends over the front of the car, raking the cable tie against a sharp edge of bumper. He looks up at Healy. There is a nasty cut across his brow, the work of a buttstock.
“They knew about the money,” Z says.
Healy steps to the rear of the Corolla. What he sees makes his insides lurch.
Healy points at the shawl. “You can thank Captain Todd for me.”
Z stands. He has unmanacled his hands but still wears a plastic bracelet on each wrist.
“Captain Todd is dead,” he says.
Healy shrugs and steps to the rear of the Corolla to close the trunk. What he sees when he gets there makes his insides lurch.
“No,” he says.
He rips up the floor panel. There, wedged into the cavity where the spare tire and the jack should be, is the duffel with the cash.
“Z,” Healy says.
When he closes the trunk, he finds Z sitting in the driver’s seat—sideways, with his feet on the road. He stares blankly, Z, at the desert.
“They took the wrong one,” Healy says. “They didn’t take the cash. They took my bag. My bag with my ID. We need to go.”
Z doesn’t move.
“Hey,” Healy says, stepping into Z’s vacant gaze, clapping his hands. “We need to go.”
“Can’t,” Z says.
“They threw it.”
“The key,” says Z.
Healy leans into the car and checks.
“Okay,” he says. “Okay. Threw it where?”
Still absorbed by the vast and darkening expanse, the expense, Z says, “Out there.”
Never before has Healy appreciated the light’s astonishing complexity at this hour. It’s as if the shadows of the bushes are more tangled than the bushes. Still, he knows that what Z is doing—crawling around on his hands and knees, rooting through the sand—is wrong. One does not recognize the thing by looking at it. Resisting the impulse to focus, one lets the thing announce itself.
“What are you doing?” Z screams. Covered with sweat and earth, he stares up at Healy from the chaparral.
“You won’t find it that way,” Healy says.
Z doesn’t hear. “What if they took it with them?”
“You said they threw it.”
“But what if they didn’t?”
“You said that’s what you saw.”
“There was a gun in my mouth.”
“No,” Healy says. “The key is here.”
Z resumes digging through the sand a few moments longer, but then he gets up and joins Healy on the road. He points toward the city, an unreliable hallucination. “I’m going back to the crash,” he says. “Those people might still be there. They’ll help me. I can pretend to be one of them.”
“They’ll help you,” Healy says. “You can pretend.”
“I’ll send someone for you.”
“You’ll send someone for me.” The emotion in Healy’s voice disturbs Healy. His instinct is to cite a line from his contract. He tries to summon a relevant provision, the appropriate clause.
Suddenly Z starts to jog away.
Healy watches him, stunned. He is a strong runner, Z. Soon Healy can barely hear the clap of his sandals on the asphalt. Then he can’t hear anything at all.
Two hundred thousand dollars! Maybe that will be enough. In the incident report, Healy will say that the gunmen made off with both bags, and who in the company will doubt him, after the ordeal he has been through, the litigation he could bring? He will go straight home—straight to Boswell’s Boots. No more Mediterranean. No more hoisting up his liquor in a basket, standing at the window in his underwear and gas mask. To start with, a family vacation. Some remote and wooded place; somewhere by a river or a lake.
The sun has dropped away completely, and the temperature with it. Healy’s eyes are tired. The chimerical hues of dusk will not stay put. In the distance a pale burn precedes the moon. Healy thinks he sees its glow catch something in the chaparral. He scrambles down and falls upon the object.
What he discovers is an old tank shell from many years and wars ago. Inscrutable writing is engraved across the copper. For a long time, Healy stares at it. When next he looks up, he finds a pair of headlights that are far away but getting closer. They approach from the wrong direction. They belong to a Hilux.
Yes, they will return there, to that beautiful country, every summer. Without question, there will have to be a river or a lake. That way, Healy can teach his sons to swim. And then, when they’re older, he will teach them how to fish.
All he needs to do is find the key.
From These Heroic, Happy Dead, published April 26 by Tim Duggan Books.