The Country/The Country

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44. 'Are you working for him?'

Now there was a scurry. Rapid footsteps, garbled voices, raised voices, volleys of call and answer resounding in the Capital Lodge.

Keel hoped he would be lost in the shuffle. ‘Where’s the boss’s pet?’ ’I thought you had him.′

Or maybe Pig, whom he hasn’t seen since the big man walked smartly away from him upon demolishing -- to his own satisfaction -- the philosophical basis for free elections, was simply through with him.

Was his usefulness over? To Pig’s side, that is.

To Mrs. Nathan’s also?

He would wait until they were busy loading up the vans, then he would leash Survy up, as if for an ordinary dog-poop stroll, and quietly walk away from the rear parking lot, showing no haste; simply continuing unheeded all the way from the downtown Capital district to his own quiet neighborhood. He knew where he’d left the spare key. He expected no one would have shown any special interest in his absence; no one would have broken in. If some neighbor had called the cops and said that nice, quiet man who walks around a lot has disappeared, ‘I wonder if anything’s happened to him?’... the police would have responded, after some routine questions, with a disenchanted sigh and replied, curtly, “OK. We’ll put him on the list.”

The police were disappointed in the Pegasso Campaign.

All Pig had done for them so far was make more work. Used to be, if they got a missing person report, they would make an effort, even if the subject was a teenaged runaway, to look for information; maybe follow up a potential lead.

Now they simply waited for the campaign to leave town. Maybe a few bodies would show up then. Or, with luck, the missing kids would find their way back home.

But someone like Keel was an unlikely returnee. Solitary, late middle-aged man, apparently retired. Just wandered back after an unlikely week away somewhere, walking some little mutt. Found the key, opened the door.

He knew his favorite chair would still be there. His reading chair.

It was not to be. Clotin hammered on the door the afternoon after the rally.

“The boss says get ready in there.” The ordinarily tongue-tied soldier borrowing his commander’s words. “We’re rollin’ tomorrow morning sharp.”

How sharp? Morning, Keel reflected, lasted twelve hours.

He called back, civilly, “I’ll be ready. Thanks for the warning.”

Civilizing Clotin was one of his projects. He has seen the man sneaking table scraps for Survy.

When the clamor of preparation finally died down that night, the footsteps in the corridors ceasing the rhythms of wakefulness, Keel’s senses remained alert. Whatever these ‘senses’ were, he credited to Mrs. Nathan for sharpening them. He could now discern human tread not only on his own floor but on the levels above and below his third-floor corridor, and was beginning to make reasonable guesses as to what class of operative these footsteps belonged to: the heavy-footed lieutenants, the even heavier bottom-ranked bulk of soldiers such as Clotin.

Possibly, though he could not be sure, those of Pig himself.

When, long after midnight, all these settled into a pattern of decreasing frequency such that Keel could not predict a next occurrence, he decided on a reconnaissance.

He opened his door soundlessly. Waited. Heard water running somewhere. Heard, very distantly, the swish of well separated traffic from the ring-road leaving the city. Listened to what must have been light snoring, or simply the labored breathing of a sleeping staffer on the floor above him. Listened for the thoughtful, measured pacing that he sometimes heard and speculated belonged to the boss himself, but could not hear any such ambulation.

Then he stepped into the corridor and pulled his door closed behind him, careful not to lock it.

He had taught himself to walk noiselessly on the stiff, uniform, unbecoming carpet of the lodge’s corridors. The stairs posed more of a challenge. He took off his shoes (wishing he had left them back in the room) and set them down to wait at the top of the stairs like good, quiet children. The boss and a platoon or two of the soldiers were bunked in a wing of rooms on the ground floor at the opposite end from the public areas -- the open dining area, the kitchens, the bar ’n lounge. Perhaps, he speculated, so Pig could go in and out of the building with relatively little notice. Other reasons, maybe. Fire protection? Quick access to transport if he needed to leave in a hurry.

Security may have been the reason for banking the men with bulk and guns around the Boss, but Keel was tempted to see how hard it would be to reach his room. What if a another command face-to-face performance was ordered by the Queen of the League of the Anti-Pigglies? Would he have the opportunity to deliver it before Pig headed off to the Capital?

Chances were the muscle was tired from prepping for the move; he might not get a better opportunity.

On the final turn of the stairs, he bent, and peeked, and found the lower corridor empty. Unguarded. Perhaps, the thought teased him, an opportunity for something more consequential -- conclusive, even -- was presenting himself. Was that what was urging him on?

A psychic prompt to take matters into his own ordinarily pacific hands?

To strike? -- perchance to ‘redress,’ like the self-conflicted Titus in the ancient tragedy -- to redress all the campaign’s wrongs in a single act? To relieve the nation from the looming burden of oppression?

But how? Would the moment furnish him with the means?

The writing tool in his trouser pocket -- would that do? He slid his thumb along its point.

Keel quieted his breathing. Felt his heart slow. The senses Mrs. Nathan had attuned, orchestrated, in his nervous system honed in on the target. He turned the dial of his inward attention slowly, like the pre-teener he had once been looking to find an out-of-town broadcast of the Summer Game on his grandparents’ wireless. Twisting the band a little nudge up, a little twisty down.

A murmur. Pig’s? A wisp of muttery rasp along the auditory nerve. The sound of the stentorian Pegasso manner subdued in sleep?

And? Some other sound; another register.

Ahhh.... came the answer.

A light breeze on a wildweed hillside field. He had gone there as a child. Once or twice. Places and occasions mingled to form an impression. Tawny grasses of late summer Wildflowers. Flimsy, fluent, flushed. Pink-balled clover, the last of the Queen’s White Silk blooming at a path’s edge. Yellowed flower heads blackening in the margins.

So, his thoughts interpreted, does Pig have company?

He feels a tug to descend the final steps, slip along the corridor, listen at the door to which the impression draws him.

It would be dangerous. Unexplainable, if he were found there.

They will realize someday, it struck him for the first time, that he is working for the other side. They must. It’s inevitable. What if he were found wandering the midnight corridor? (Sleepwalking? Would that work?) Yet if company were there, someone else in Pig’s room just nodding into winken-and-blinken, that someone else could take the rap. If the deed were to be done, ’twas best it were quickly.

Some bodiless force playing pizzicato on his teeming brain, Keel lifts himself from his observation seat on the stairs into a crouch and takes a silent step downward.

Peers, like a child watching his parents cavort at a drunken party. It rendered him more exposed if someone turned a head in his direction.

Someone, anyone, could step out of that room, or any of the others, at any moment.

He waited.

If the elevator sighed into life and brought a guard down to patrol the corridor. If a groggy soldier popped in from a scan of the back parking spot, rounding off the hour’s routine, the scheduled check.

Keel attuned his senses for a sound from the door he was now certain was Pig’s. Could he open it? Slip his own piece of plastic into the device; manipulate it. And then? Could he force himself to slip inside the room, from which emerged at intervals -- in his imagination, if not with his mind-expanded senses -- the dim murmurs of a second party.

Asleep? Or not?

He hesitated. Still.

A new sound. Quick repetitions.

Steps?

A door opened, noiselessly, and a person -- a female person -- stepped into the corridor.

Her back toward him. Walking with deliberate pace to the stairwell at the opposite end of the corridor.

Ascended the stairs, without a backward glance toward Keel’s end of the corridor.

He rose to standing, still slightly crouched, and retreated upwards as soundlessly as possible. Just like the woman on the corridor’s opposite stairwell.

He has observed, merely, the back of her. But he knew that back.

“Are you working for him?”

She looked startled. Then guilty. Or perhaps simply embarrassed; caught out.

A flush on her cheek, her face held in profile.

He’d waited in ambush the next morning, pretending to take the dog out. Walking out the door to the courtyard when someone else appeared; slipping back indoors when they were gone. Confusing and irritating the hell out of Survi, who aimed him unhappy looks, but allowing him to lurk in the foyer, where he could observe who came in or out of the dining area. Hoping no one would notice.

Then, finally, the tread of her flat, canvas shoes, a lighter choice than the work shoes she wore to pass among the dog cages.

The below-the knee cotton dress, an indoor choice for the season. Inklings of spring outdoors, though no truly warm afternoons yet. Just the pleasure of the sun on your face.

No pleasure evident in hers now.

“No!”

A single word. Then her head turns to sweep both ends of the corridor, before coming back to glare at him. “Are you crazy?”

A chosen reply, he thought, after a hesitation. What thoughts had run through her mind?

“Just visiting?” he asked, flatly. “In the middle of the night? Personal matters?”

He registered the shocked flush, though her expression did not change.

“Not personal,” she hissed. “If you must know. Part of the job.” Her glance flashed about the corridor again.

“Somebody has to keep watch over him.”

The sounds of the room where the staffers were at breakfast came to him. Plates and tines; scrapings and aerated pourings from automated machines. Unintelligible voices. The early morning browsing behaviors of the human animal.

“I thought that was my job,” he said.

She gave him a slightly pitying look. “There are some things, Keel, you can’t do.”

More volume from the breakfast room, chairs scraping the floor. Footsteps. Her eyes darted to the door.

“You’re crazy,” she scolded, “talking to me like this. Anyone can come by.”

“Maybe I am.”

Hearing voices in the night, he thought. Mulling violent deeds. Can good ever come from evil deeds?

“Don’t talk to me,” she hissed conclusively. Added, ”Here." Then added, ”Ever!”

But apparently that prohibition worked only one way. She turned her back and took a step, then looked back at Keel and spoke in something like a normal volume.

“There are some things he won’t forgive.”

He watched her push the door open and disappear into the breakfast dispensary room. Having worked up an appetite?

Survy whined. Keel turned the dog away from the door. He had no appetite.

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