On the Edge
Dylan walked along the Kampala road, his feet aching, his camera bag slapping against his hip, and the only thing he could think of was how badly he wanted out of the counter-intelligence business. The last two intelligence gathering missions–or to be more politically correct, threat assessment directives--had been just like this, with one thing going wrong after another and he was tired of it. Of all the times for his jeep to have engine trouble! With each step his feet ground into the road, his frustration evident.
He absently rubbed the scar just underneath his collarbone and above his heart. Getting shot had changed his perspective on his career with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. He knew it wasn’t what he wanted to do in life anymore and he needed to get out and find something else. He planned to tell his boss, Andrew Blythe, as soon as he got home from Uganda. Dylan couldn’t remember the feel of his own bed beneath him and he wanted to go home, to regroup emotionally, something that every good agent needed to do once in a while–to get in touch with their emotions.
He sighed and adjusted the camera bag over his hip again. His cover for this mission had been that he was a photojournalist capturing the medical failures and successes of private hospitals in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. The only drawback was carrying around the blasted camera bag. It was awkward against his hip and making it sore, but walking was his only option at this point. The road was empty and would probably remain so at this time of night. In the daytime it was teeming with people, vehicles, and animals. When Dylan had first arrived he was amazed at the number of people driving small herds of goats and Ankole cattle on such a busy road. Especially among the chaotic driving–on the wrong side of the road for a Canadian driver—that included not only buses, slow-moving trucks with men lounging on top of the loads, taxis and the like, but also had carts, bicycles, mopeds, and bodabodas, a type of motorbike. Near midnight, however, it was dark and silent.
The nighttime darkness in Africa never ceased to amaze him, the inky blackness consuming everything but the millions of stars twinkling across the sky. The only light on the earth was the occasional candle or kerosene lamp in a hut, but even they were usually extinguished when he came near. The Ugandans outside of Kampala were a cautious people and he couldn’t blame them. The country was in turmoil and had been for many years. It just paid to be cautious. He pushed the luminescent light on his watch and saw that it was 10:30 p.m. As he crested a small hill, he could see the lights of Kampala in the distance and knew that if he were to reach the Mulago hospital before midnight, he had better pick up the pace.
As the long grass near the side of the road brushed his ankles, he could hear the rustling of the nocturnal wildlife as they began their hunt for food. The lush greenery that abounded in the hills surrounding Kampala provided well for the wildlife it supported. Plants and animals were found in plenty in this part of Uganda. On the Kampala road however, they didn’t seem to stray too close, but they did let their presence be known. Dylan was careful to stay on the road, watching for any animals that may mistake him for a snack. He patted his shoulder holster under his light jacket, reassuring himself that his gun was still there if he needed it. The shoulder holster and the camera bag would make it awkward to run, but he started jogging at an easy pace. He didn’t want to miss this appointment.
Elizabeth glanced at the clock for the millionth time, knowing she had nursing duties to attend to in the hospital, but not able to help herself. What could be keeping Dylan? She’d told him he needed to be at the hospital promptly at midnight so he could take pictures of the truck unloading the new medical supplies. It was nearly midnight and he wasn’t here yet. Each time the door to the stairwell opened she turned, hoping it was him, his green eyes and confident smile coming toward her. Her heart fluttered a little thinking of him. She had been hoping he would come a little early so she could take a break from her duties and they could talk.
Being with him the last six weeks had lifted her spirits. He had been so easy to talk to from their very first meeting, his easygoing manner and quick smile attracting her immediately. He had a light about him, she couldn’t pinpoint what it was exactly, but it drew her to him. Her usual walls of suspicion had come down as she intuitively felt she could trust him, something that rarely happened in her line of work, since she dealt with so many criminals.
She had been given a difficult assignment in Africa, trying to win the confidence of the hospital administrators and become a member of the inner circle. As a CIA agent her job was dangerous, but she was good at it and prided herself on that. She’d worked hard over the years to prove that she could do the job and usually she could blend in and feel in control of her surroundings quickly. Uganda had been different, though. It had taken several months before the owners of the private hospital would even speak to her, much less trust her, and the conditions she faced every day in the hospital ward were heart-breaking, especially watching the suffering of the children.
Dylan had come at a time when she’d needed a friend, but she had to be careful that he didn’t interfere with her job. The first few times he asked her out she’d refused, citing her duties as her excuse. He’d taken on the challenge and offered to help her around the hospital. It was a gallant gesture and she had taken him up on it, immediately leading him to the triage area. A child with a cut on his head was bleeding profusely, waiting for stitches, and Dylan was asked to hold a compress over it. He’d been all right until the child threw up and then he’d almost lost it too. Elizabeth had taken over for him, instructing him to sit down. After the child was taken care of she’d gone back to find him. He looked so forlorn that she had agreed to go out with him.
She smiled at the thought of the time they’d spent together. Smoothing her shirt and trying to straighten her ponytail, she remembered how he’d playfully pulled on it last night right before he kissed her for the first time. It had been so long since she’d let a man into her circle of trust it had been disconcerting for her, but exciting at the same time. She couldn’t wait to see him again. When he was around all thoughts of her dangerous assignment were thrust aside. She was playing with fire, but told herself that since nothing was happening right now anyway it would be okay to spend time with someone. She knew she was rationalizing, but it helped to ease her conscience.
She walked back to the nurse’s station and watched the seconds tick by on the large clock behind the table. She hoped he’d hurry so they could have a few moments alone.
An hour and a half later Dylan entered Kampala. It was a big city, but the buildings were somewhat dilapidated with a run-down, inner-city feel, the once colorful signs and facades on the shops worn and faded. Some “shops” were made of corrugated metal, most had living quarters in back and a small yard with corn or bananas growing in the front. Dylan had to walk carefully and squint in the dark to make his way through since there were no streetlights in this part of town. During the day there were always large amounts of people around, some ready to sell you something or other, trinkets, piles of fruit, or paintings. But at night, people mostly stood together talking or were trying to get home.
He zigzagged around several buildings and clubs, finally arriving at the hospital, tired and out of breath. He immediately climbed the long flight of stairs to the ward where Elizabeth worked. He smiled at the thought of her. She had been the one bright spot on this trip. His job took him away so much he’d never really had time for a relationship, and he definitely didn’t want to date anyone in his line of work. Elizabeth was a breath of fresh air, and had been from the moment he’d met her six weeks ago. She was warm and friendly, always ready to lend a helping hand. That’s what made her a great hospital worker because she was knowledgeable, people were drawn to her and she seemed to instinctively know how to make those around her feel at ease. Everyone that he’d talked to in the hospital praised her and she was looked up to for her innate leadership abilities, which was evidenced by the fact that the hospital administration had recently asked her to be their public relations coordinator.
Her new job had made it an easy decision to use her as his inside contact at the hospital. But as he befriended her and spent time in her company, she became more than a contact. He truly wanted to be around her. Dylan had invited her out several times before she finally said yes, as if she was giving in to something she knew she shouldn’t do. He reached the top of the stairs, out of breath, but excited to see Elizabeth again.
Opening the door that led to the ward, he immediately saw Elizabeth standing in the middle of the large room, surrounded by several African women. Her bronze skin still contrasted with their darker skin, making her appear pale though at home she would have a healthy tan. They were all trying to look at the paper in Elizabeth’s hand and she was pointing to several different rooms on the floor, apparently dividing out some nursing responsibilities for the night. Her long brown hair was tied back in a ponytail, her glasses slightly slipping down her nose each time she looked up from the paper. He smiled nostalgically, remembering the night before when he’d gently pulled on that ponytail, tipping her face upward so he could kiss her. The memory warmed him.
During their conversations, Elizabeth had told him how she’d come to Africa as an aid worker. She said she felt out of her element here, but it didn’t seem that way. Most people were drawn to her and Dylan thought it was probably her happy spirit that made everyone want to be with her, including him. She looked up from the women, pushed her glasses back onto her nose, and turned to smile at Dylan. “You made it,” she said. “I was beginning to wonder.”
He stepped toward her, the other women scattering as he did. “The Jeep broke down again so I had to walk. Sorry I’m late.”
She shrugged. “Don’t worry, it seems everyone is running late tonight. The trucks aren’t here yet either.”
He put his bag on the floor, happy to get rid of its bulk. “Can you take a break then?”
Elizabeth leaned over a large table to a woman sitting behind it and told her she’d be taking a break in the lounge and to let her know when the shipment arrived. She turned back to Dylan. “I’d like that. Let’s go down to the lounge.”
Dylan took her hand. “Why do you call it that when it’s a room with three metal chairs and a tilted table? The word lounge implies to me that there would be a couch and a television.”
“Well, we lounge there, so we call it a lounge. It’s not what’s in a room that counts, it’s the spirit of it, right?”
He squeezed her hand. “It’s sort of like saying, it’s the thought that counts, eh?”
Elizabeth smiled, squeezed his hand back and led him down the hall, her ponytail swinging, walking past what looked to Dylan like several delivery rooms where women were in various stages of labor. Elizabeth seemed unperturbed by the moans and screams, but it was upsetting to Dylan.
“Shouldn’t someone be in there with them?” he asked, his tone worried.
Elizabeth shrugged. “There are only two doctors here tonight. They do the best they can.”
Dylan walked behind her, meeting the eyes of several men sitting in the hall. They looked hollow and lifeless, the whites of their eyes magnified by their skin. Dylan smiled as he walked by, but it was not returned, until his eyes lit upon a young boy about ten. The boy returned Dylan’s smile and gave him a little wave as he watched Dylan and Elizabeth move through the crowd in the hallway. Standing on his tiptoes so the boy could still see him, Dylan waved back.
Elizabeth had stopped walking and Dylan noticed her eyeing a small well-dressed man coming down the hall toward them through the wave of people. She nodded her head toward the older man, then led Dylan to a doorway. “Wait in here,” she said. “That’s the man in charge of the shipment. Looks like we’ll have to take a rain check on our lounge date,” she said, laughing and touching his arm briefly, then turning to shut the door.
Dylan rubbed his arm slightly where the warmth of her hand had been and stepped further into the sparsely furnished room, sitting down in an old metal chair. He opened the bag and picked up the camera, adjusting its weight and moving the lens different ways as if to put it into focus. He put it on the table and sagged in his chair. Dylan pinched the bridge of his nose, his body tired. All I have to do for this mission is verify the information and make the threat assessment. Maybe take a few pictures for proof and I can get out of here, he thought to himself. I’m going to tell Andrew it’s time. The only sadness to that was the thought of leaving Elizabeth.
He closed his eyes briefly, his legs still having small muscle spasms from the last ten miles of having to jog here. Telling Andrew would be hard. Andrew Blythe had been his mentor at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Dylan knew the CSIS had been Andrew’s home for most of his adult life, especially after his wife had died, but Dylan realized he didn’t want an all-consuming career for himself. He felt like he was ready for a new direction in his life, one that included a wife and a family. He wanted to settle down, find the new direction he was looking for and he didn’t know if Andrew would understand that. He looked at the camera lens on the table and wished his life could be that easy to focus. Stretching his neck, he hoped Elizabeth would hurry.