N. Indian Ocean, 250 miles east of Sri Lanka
The night was oppressive, the air at body temperature and almost motionless. Earlier in the evening there had been light, cooling rains, but now everything seemed to radiate heat, even the silvery half-moon, its countenance brushed with the occasional wisps of cloud. The jungle itself seemed to exhale the hot, moist breath of a predator lying in wait.
Shyam shifted restlessly in his canvas chair. It was, he knew, a fairly ordinary night on the island of Anura for this time of year: early in the monsoon season, the air was always heavy with a sense of foreboding. Yet only the ever attentive mosquitoes disturbed the quiet. At half past one in the morning, Shyam reckoned he had been on checkpoint duty for four and a half hours. In that time, precisely seven motorists had come their way. The checkpoint consisted of two parallel lines of barbed-wire frames--"knife rests"--set up eighty feet apart on the road, to either side of the search and administration area. Shyam and Arjun were the two sentries on forward duty, and they sat in front of the wooden roadside booth. A pair of backups was supposedly on duty on the other side of the hill, but the hours of silence from them suggested that they were dozing, along with the men in the makeshift barracks a few hundred feet down the road. For all the dire warnings of their superiors, these had been days and nights of unrelieved boredom. The northwestern province of Kenna was sparsely populated in the best of times, and these were not the best of times.
Now, drifting in with the breeze, as faint as a distant insect drone, came the sound of a gunned motor.
Shyam slowly got to his feet. The sound was growing closer.
"Arjun," he called out in a singsong tone. "Ar-jun. Car coming."
Arjun lolled his head in a circle, working out a crick in his neck. "At this hour?" He rubbed his eyes. The humidity made the sweat lie heavily on his skin, like mineral oil.
In the dark of the semi-forested terrain, Shyam could finally see the headlights. Over a revved-up motor, loud whoops of delight could be heard.
"Dirty farm kids," Arjun grumbled.
Shyam, for his part, was grateful for anything that interrupted the tedium. He had spent the past seven days on the night shift at the Kandar vehicle checkpoint, and it felt like a hardship post. Naturally, their stone-faced superior had been at pains to emphasize how important, how crucial, how vital in every way, the assignment was. The Kandar checkpoint was just up the road from the Stone Palace, where the government was holding some sort of hush-hush gathering. So security was tight, and this was the only real road that connected the palace to the rebel-held region just to the north. The guerrillas of the Kagama Liberation Front knew about the checkpoints, however, and kept away. As did most everyone else: between the rebels and the anti-rebel campaigns, more than half the villagers to the north had fled the province. And the farmers who stayed in Kenna had little money, which meant that the guards could not expect much by way of "tips." Nothing ever happened, and his wallet stayed thin. Was it something he had done in a previous life?
The truck came into view; two shirtless young men were in the cab. The roof was down. One of boys was now standing up, pouring a sudsy can of beer over his chest and cheering. The truck--probably loaded with some poor farmer's kurakkan, or root crops--was rounding the bend at upward of eighty miles per hour, as fast as the groaning engine would go. American rock music, from one of the island's powerful AM stations, blared.
The yelps and howls of merriment echoed through the night. They sounded like a pack of drunken hyenas, Shyam thought miserably. Penniless joyriders: they were young, wasted, didn't give a damn about anything. In the morning they would, though. The last time this happened, several days earlier, the truck's owner got a visit later that morning from the youths' shamefaced parents. The truck was returned, along with many, many bushels of kurakkan to make amends for whatever damage had been done. As for the kids, well, they couldn't sit without wincing, not even on a cushioned car seat.
The Janson Directive. Copyright 2002 by Myn Pyn LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews Reproduced by permission of the publisher, St Martin's Press.
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