Authors: T. Davis Bunn
The action generated the desired response. The little man ground to a halt, faltered, then drew himself up and sniffed, “Is true, you are mechanic for Rolls Royce motor vehicles?”
“Yessir!” In the corner of his eye Jake caught Pierre swiveling and giving him a questioning gaze. He willed his friend to remain silent. “My assistant and I, we have positively years of experience with motor cars of all shapes and sizes, sir!”
The power of Jake's voice drove the official back a step. “I am Hareesh Yohari. Official assistant to great Sultan Musad
al Rasuli, ruler of all Riff.” He had to cock his head back to a ridiculous angle in order to sniff down at Jake. “Sultan orders you to fix motor vehicles. How long it take?”
“Hard to tell until we check them over, Lord Hareesh, sir!”
Being accorded a title consistent with his over-inflated ego helped puff out the official's chest and ease his concern over admitting strangers into the palace keep. Hareesh cocked his head back even farther so as to inspect Pierre, who eyed the scene from the safety of his horse. “You, why you not standing and giving proper greetings to sultan's official assistant?”
“My assistant has been ill, and the trip has tired him out, sir!” Jake answered for him.
“Better not illness to slow down repair of motor vehicles,” Hareesh warned. “Sultan not patient man.”
“Oh no, sir! We'll be starting on repairs this very day, sir!”
The official sniffed and turned away in dismissal. He snapped out orders, and the guards waved the company through. The tribesmen watched Jake snap off a second salute, then heave himself back into the saddle. Once they were through the massive portals, several turned toward Jake, gave him ridiculous parodies of salutes, shouted nonsense in Arabic, then howled their mirth. Jake shared a smile. Officials were the same the whole world over.
He walked his horse alongside Pierre's and tried hard not to gape. The city was as ancient as time and mysterious as the desert mountains that enclosed it. Crowds of people stopped and pointed up at them; clearly few had seen a white man before. Jake smiled and touched his forehead in greeting and received gap-toothed grins in return.
The streets teemed with raucous Arab life. Berbers fresh from the empty reaches strode with confidence down the packed market ways. Their eyes held the far-seeing gaze of those used to desert distances. Princes with eunuchs in cautious attendance stepped casually from stall to stall, the gold and jewels woven into their robes glittering in the harsh sunlight. Snake charmers and water sellers and musicians and
acrobats and storytellers vied for attention in the crowded ways.
Doors to the imposing structures they passed were all tall and domed, meant to be opened fully only for riders mounted upon proud Arabian steeds. Set in their middle were smaller doors for foot traffic. And in the center of these were hand-sized openings with stout iron grillwork, through which guards scowled fiercely at all who sought entry.
The tribesman nearest Jake noted his excited gaze, smiled with pride at the stranger's interest in the man's homeland, and pointed up ahead. Jake heard strange calls and cries, and craned in his saddle. Their way opened into a tightly packed square, and suddenly he was riding through an outdoor aviary. Birds of every size and description stood upon wooden crooks or fluttered inside hand-woven reed cages. Their plumage was a blurred riot of color. Their calls and shrill songs echoed back from the surrounding walls in never-ending symphony. Jake laughed his delight and was rewarded with a clap on the shoulder from the closest tribesman.
They were stopped a second time at the portals to the inner keep, and held until the little official appeared. When Jake slid from the saddle, the tribesmen were ready and kept straight faces only by tugging fiercely on their beards. The official puffed out his chest and motioned for Jake to move up beside him. Jake handed his reins to a tribesman and stepped to the head of the procession. They walked past scowling guards and entered the palace grounds.
The road changed instantly from dusty stone to polished, close-fitting brick. They circled a third wall, over which peeked the heads of tall date palms.
“The sultan will personally wish to ask when Rolls Royce motor vehicles ready,” Hareesh warned. “Best you know when he ask.”
“Tomorrow, sir!” Jake said, keeping to a quick-step march and ignoring the suppressed chuckles behind him. “We'll know by tomorrow, definitely!”
Hareesh sniffed his acceptance, passed under a tall portico, and entered a cobblestone yard lined by servants' quarters and fronting a long line of stables. A large well dominated the center of the yard. “Rolls Royce motor vehicles in four left stalls. You to make most careful inspections, yes?”
“We inspect, sir!”
The official bristled at the sound of mirth behind him, wheeled about, and was met with stony expressions. He turned back and cocked his head suspiciously, but Jake responded only with the blank stare of one long trained in dealing with officers who led from the rear. Another sniff, then, “You sleep with cars. I order food.”
“Very good, sir!” Jake snapped off his salute, then went back to his steed, untied his satchel, accepted the handshake and salutations of the tribesmen, and motioned for Pierre to join him. Together they crossed the yard, the tribesmen calling farewells behind them.
The stable doors at first refused to give. Jake had to borrow a guard's rifle and bang long and hard on the rusty hinges before they were able to swing the heavy door wide. Clearly no one had entered these stables in years.
They set down their satchels in one corner and together drew back the dust cover from the first vehicle. The sight was enough even to raise Pierre from his stupor.
The great gleaming hood appeared to go on for miles. A pair of burnished headlights as big as soup tureens flanked the massive chrome grillwork, which was crowned by the silver angel with swept-back wings. Huge fenders curved over the front tires swept down and flattened to become chrome-plated running boards. The driver's compartment had a roll-back leather roof that was cracked along the seams, as was the seat. Yet the damage was nowhere near what could have been expected. The dry desert air had held deterioration to a minimum.
Jake opened the carriage-type door to the back compartment. The musty air was redolent of saddle leather and
luxury. Elegant seats faced a bar of crystal and chrome and walnut burl. A swivel writing desk contained a silver-plated inkwell, leather writing postern, and two gold pens in tortoiseshell holders.
Jake looked back to where his friend was unfastening the engine cowling. “All the comforts of home.”
“Come take a look at this.”
The engine was a straight-eight and appeared to be about fifty yards long. It looked as clean as it had when rolling off the assembly line fifteen years earlier. Jake declared, “You could eat your dinner off this thing.”
“Nothing looks wrong with this,” Pierre agreed. “Nothing at all.”
Jake looked at his friend. “You ready to rejoin the land of the living?”
Pierre kept his eyes on the motor. “We need to talk.”
“Anytime,” Jake said quietly. “I've been waitingâ”
“Ah, gentlemens already at work, is most excellent.” Hareesh bounded into the stable. “Is everything you require?”
“We could use some tools, sir!” Jake said, coming to rigid attention. He found extraordinary pleasure in seeing Pierre snap to alongside him.
“Tools are many, on wall in next stable. And equipments. We have much equipments.” He motioned imperiously to a guard, who turned and barked a command. A line of servants began parading in, depositing the tribesmen's cargo on the car's other side. “Is good, yes?”
“We should have enough for the job, yessir,” Jake said, eyeing the heap, wondering if any of the pieces would actually fit a Rolls.
Pierre heaved a silent sigh when one of the porters dumped a pair of batteries at their feet. Hareesh squinted up at him and demanded, “Assistant is fainting now?”
“He'll be fine, sir, just give him a couple of days.”
“No have days. Day. One. Tomorrow sultan will ask how long to repair motor vehicles. You will tell, yes?”
“We'll do our best, sir.”
“No best. You do. Sultan want Rolls Royce motor vehicles for to drive, not keep in stables.” Hareesh spun on his heel and departed, flinging over his shoulder, “Servant bring food. Sick man eat much, feel better, work hard.”
When the livery was again empty, Jake ducked inside the driver's cab, inspected the controls, and announced, “This car has been driven a grand total of three hundred and thirty-seven miles.”
“My guess is that all it needs is an oil change, new tires, and a charged battery,” Pierre said, his head deep inside the cowling.
“Can't make this look too easy,” Jake warned.
“Go see what kind of tools they have,” Pierre said, “and don't try to teach a Marseille boy how to work a scam.”
At dusk the city sang its throbbing beat. The air cooled, the dust settled, the sun descended. During their meal Jake tried to urge Pierre into talking, but his friend would say no more than that he was not yet ready to find the words. Afterward Pierre curled himself into blankets on the backseat of one Rolls, and Jake set off alone to enjoy the dying day's cooler hours.
The guards by the inner keep's portals eyed him with stony silence as he walked by, but did not attempt to stop him. Jake could feel their eyes remain on him up to the next corner. Beyond the turning, however, he was able to give himself to the sheer joy of exploration.
The city's narrow ways and cobblestone squares were a distillation of the entire desert nation. Members of virtually every tribe wandered its dusty courses. Porters streamed by under the watchful eyes of guards armed with great long rifles and viciously curved scimitars. Traders hawked everything from beads to camels. Painted ladies wore veils which fell away in indiscreet folds. A bearded giant, carrying a full-grown sheep across his shoulders, passed him. A native child drove a herd of goats down the lane, then paused to gaze up in astonishment at Jake's blue eyes.
Desert folk shielded themselves against the growing evening chill with hooded djellabah of soft goat's wool. No man's head was uncovered. Turbans of white or checkered cloth, peaked hats, knitted capsâall denoted tribe and region as clearly as did robes and speech.
Women of the orthodox tribes were dressed in either all white or all black, their faces covered by embroidered shawls with rectangular slits for vision. No part of their bodies was permitted to be exposed, not even their hands, which were kept hidden within the flowing folds. Other women
walked with no head covering at all save for sheer silk kerchiefs. Cascading gold bracelets on their ankles and wrists marked a cheerful tune with each step.
Jake climbed the outer ramparts of the city walls just in time to see the sun's final rays transform distant snow-capped peaks to bastions of molten gold. Guards standing duty along the wall glowered in his direction, but made no move. Clearly word had spread of the strangers who were there as guests of the sultan.
A cannon boomed from somewhere down the ramparts. As the echo rumbled like thunder through the valley, Jake watched the city's great outer doors draw shut. They rolled on ancient stone wheels, each pushed by six men, while another six heaved on a rope as thick as a man's thigh. As the doors rumbled closed, the muezzin's call rose from the mosque's minaret.
Jake looked out over a desert landscape gradually disappearing into a sea of blackness. Tiny orange fires shone from tribal campsites like mirrors of the stars appearing overhead. He watched the night gather strength, wished that Sally were there to share it all, and wondered at the strange new vistas opening up inside him.
He had long since learned to live with the responsibility of leadership. Before, he had always known that the answers had come from
âfrom his experience, his intelligence, his ability to see a situation and know the correct answer.
Now was different. Now the answers were not his own. They were from beyond. He
this, knew he was being used as a conduit. It was not a comforting knowledge.
Jake found himself forced to accept his own weaknesses and lack of wisdom. And alongside this were the questions of who was using him, and how he could be sure he was hearing correctly.
The answer was there waiting for him, carried upon a wind which gathered force as the evening's chill took hold. Just as he stood strong and stable upon two legs, so his spiritual
foundation needed to be based upon the dual pillars of prayer and daily study of the Scriptures.
In a sudden sweep of understanding, Jake saw beyond his own dilemma to the
By accepting the challenge, he was also being invited to grow. By seeing to the needs of others as well as to his own needs he was given great opportunities to deepen, to have more in order to give more.
A confirming grace of silence descended upon him, as powerful and far-reaching as the star-flecked heavens. Jake climbed back down from the ramparts, carrying the silence with him. This he understood as well. There would often be a need to rest in stillness, to listen without responding, to
To be sure that the answer was not his own. To give the questions over in prayer and study of the holy pages. To have the strength to remain quiet until the answer was given.
He returned to the stables and found Pierre seated beside a battered gas cooker, his eyes dark and downcast. Pierre raised his cup. “They brought the makings for tea. Apparently it is our only heat. Would you like a cup?”
“Sure.” Jake squatted down beside the stove. “Beautiful night.”
Pierre poured the steaming brew into a mug, added sugar from a small leather sack, and handed it over without meeting Jake's eyes. “You have been a good friend.”