This is chapter 1 of a serialized novel appearing on Ars Gratia Libertatis weekly. Â Read from the beginning here.
Sindamo consciously willed his hands not to shake as he set the pan down on the counter. Â The man with the dress shirt asked, “Business good today, Mr. Sindamo?” Â After trying with limited success to wet his suddenly parched throat by swallowing, Sindamo croaked, “Yes, sir. Â May I help you?”
“Good to hear you’re doing well. Â Not everyone is doing so well. Â You may have heard about the unpleasantness at the Kwange Marketplace. Â It’s really a shame. Â All we wanted was a bit of their profits to help the less fortunate. Â After all, where would those merchants be without the protection afforded by their government? Â They owed us. Â We only wanted what was ours.”
Sindamo did not have the courage to point out that the man had contradicted himself. Â All Sindamo wanted was these men out of the store that he had worked so many years to build up. Â He was willing to lose much in order to make that happen. Â He thought,Â just leave me enough that I can rebuild. He said, “Yes, they didn’t have to be so unreasonable.” Â Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his bodyguard George wince at that.
The man in the dress shirt smiled. Â “My sentiments exactly. Â We’re hoping that you can be more sensitive to the needs of your fellow citizens. Â Now, we had in mind a donation of two thousand dollars and whatever bread you’ve got on hand. Â After all, the people are going hungry and you look like you’ve got more than enough.”
Sindamo felt as if a vile of acid had spilled in his stomach and was slowly eating its way down. Â In addition to twenty-seven U.S. dollars in the cash register, He had $1939.91 hidden in the building. Â It represented the entire profit of his life to date. Â He had gone into debt to buy his bakery and get it up and running. Â If he didn’t convince this man to take less of his money, he would have to start over. Â It had been an incredible, breathtaking gamble to accept a loan on the Lomboko black market, the only source of capital available to the citizens of Oraanu, when he had wanted to buy the bakery. Â He would have to run the risk again just to buy supplies for the next day until he could make enough profits to get back on his feet.
All of that flashed through his mind in a split second. Â He was about to say that he appreciated the plight of his fellow citizens, but just didn’t have that much money when something totally unexpected happened.
There are certain moments, often totally unrecognizable when they are occurring, when the course of an entire nation, continent, or world is altered. Â In these moments, the rudder controlling the ship of fate is turned, and though it often takes a long time to see the ship begin to turn, the movement becomes inevitable once the moment of decision has occurred. Â George Hela, an unknown, quiet, not particularly bright bodyguard from a nondescript slum in Lomboko, was lucky enough not only to witness his moment, but to cause it.
No one had paid enough attention to George to see his brows furrowing in fury as he listened to the man in the dress shirt. Â George shouted, “No! Â Who are you to steal money from Mr. Sindamo? Â Without him there would be no money!” Â For a second, the man in the dress shirt stood in stunned silence. Â Then, he erupted.
“Shut up, you damn idiot! Â What do I care about your crappy little nobody bakery? Â We need that money, and we’re going to get it.” Â The man turned around and pointed at one of the soldiers standing in front of the doorway. Â “Sergeant, remind this punk who runs things around here!”
“Yes, sir,” the sergeant intoned. Â He unslung his rifle, took two steps toward George, and raised the rifle as if to hit George with the butt. Â George, acting perhaps on instincts long since instilled by life in the slums of Lomboko, lashed out with his fist, punching the sergeant hard square on the nose. Â The sergeant staggered back, blood gushing from his broken nose.
The other two soldiers promptly unslung their rifles and fired. Â They were about fifteen feet away and could hardly miss. Â The bullets slammed into George’s chest and he was dead before he hit the ground. Â He uttered no brave last words, and the only consolation he might have had was that he had died where he worked.
By now the man in the dress shirt was screaming. Â “Just as I thought, a nest of traitors here! Â Kill Sindamo and take the money!” Â Sindamo wanted to object to this order and put up his hands placatingly. Â He had time to yell, “No! I don’t –” before one of the soldiers fired a three shot burst at him. Â The first bullet struck his extended hand, ripping off his left ring finger. Â The bullet kept going, embedding itself in his chest and breaking a rib, but not penetrating further. Â The sacrifice of the ring finger saved his life. Â Sindamo fell to the floor, shocked by the impact of the bullet. Â The other two bullets in the burst smacked into the wall behind him.
Sindamo played dead to the best of his ability while the soldiers were in the building. Â The soldiers were in a frenzy for the next two minutes, smashing open cupboards and display cases, looking for money. Â They took what was in the register and found about half of the money Sindamo had spirited away in various locations throughout the building. Â Sindamo concentrated on not moving or breathing loudly.
Meanwhile, the man in the dress shirt was beginning to settle down and think about what had happened. Â Things had spiraled out of control. Â His superiors wouldn’t care about the shooting, but he knew that Sindamo was a well-known member of the tiny Lomboko middle class. Â Everyone knew him, and everyone would be upset to hear about his death and angry at the government. Â The Hamilton regime would not look kindly on a mid-level official who had stirred up popular outrage that would have to be bought off with more handouts of precious food supplies.
The man in the dress shirt snapped his fingers. Â Of course. Â Burn the bakery down. Â The papers would report a terrible accident — a cooking fire that had claimed the life of Thomas Sindamo and his bodyguard. Â The man in the dress shirt gathered all the rags and paper he could find in the building and stuffed them into one of the ovens, leaving a rolled up edition of theÂ Locketon Gazette stuck in the oven door. Â He told the soldiers to take whatever they had found and wait for him outside. Â As they left, he lit the newspaper and turned on the oven. Â He ran out the door and took the soldiers with him just as the first onlookers were gathering to find out about the gunshots at the bakery. Â The men from the government hurried away, secure in the knowledge that they had done their duty.
* Â * Â *
The building began to burn in earnest, and Sindamo still lay on the ground. Â Why get up? Â The bakery was destroyed and with it all of the money and equipment he had spent his life accumulating. Â He had no family or job and no prospect of acquiring either. Â No one hired new workers in Oraanu. Â If he crawled out the door before the flames claimed his life, he would be just as dead as he would be if he remained.
Suddenly, from the deep recesses of his mind, he heard that song his ears had not registered in decades. Â He was back in the office with Sister Schiller, hearing the song on the radio. Â He heard the melody again and the voice declaring the word.
That was all he needed. Â He had a purpose again. Â He crawled to the front door, away from the bakery that was already in his past. Â Every plank of wood on the floor, bought with his ingenuity and work, was now just an indicator to show that he was moving toward his goal.
And then he breathed fresh air and knew he had escaped from the shop on the corner.