A beautiful place to die.
After a while, a thatch-roofed shack came into sight at the edge of the fields. That’s where they’ll do it, I thought. That’s where they’ll kill us.
As we got closer, a door opened and a soldier stepped out of the shack. He was dressed differently than the ones around us: instead of a helmet he wore a black-brimmed officer’s hat, and instead of a rifle he carried a holstered revolver.
This one was in charge.
He stood in the lane as we approached, rocking on his heels and flashing a pearly grin. “We meet at last!” he called out. “You’ve given us quite the go-round, but I knew we’d catch you in the end. Only a matter of time!” He had pudgy, boyish features, thin hair that was so blond it was almost white, and he was full of weird, chipper energy, like an overcaffeinated Cub Scout leader. But all I could think when I looked at him was: Animal. Monster. Murderer.
“Come in, come in,” the officer said, pulling open the shack’s door. “Friends of yours are waiting inside.”
As his soldiers shoved us past him, I caught a glimpse of the name stitched on his shirt: WHITE. Like the color.
Mister White. A joke, maybe? Nothing about him seemed genuine; that least of all.
We were pushed inside, shouted into a corner. The shack’s one room was bare of furniture and crowded with people. Bekhir and his men sat on the floor with their backs to the walls. They’d been treated badly; they were bruised, bleeding, and slouched in attitudes of defeat. A few were missing, including Bekhir’s boy. Standing guard were two more soldiers—that made six altogether, including Mr. White and our escorts.
Bekhir caught my eye and nodded gravely. His cheeks were purpled with bruises. I’m sorry, he mouthed to me.
Mr. White saw our exchange and skipped over to Bekhir. “Aha! You recognize these children?”
“No,” Bekhir said, looking down.
“No?” Mr. White feigned shock. “But you apologized to that one. You must know him, unless you make a habit of apologizing to strangers?”
“They aren’t the ones you’re looking for,” Bekhir said.
“I think they are,” said Mr. White. “I think these are the very children we’ve been looking for. And furthermore, I think they spent last night in your camp.”
“I told you, I’ve never seen them before.”
Mr. White clucked his tongue like a disapproving schoolmarm.
“Gypsy, do you remember what I promised to do if I found out you were lying to me?” He unsheathed a knife from his belt and held it against Bekhir’s cheek. “That’s right. I promised to cut your lying tongue out and feed it to my dog. And I always keep my promises.”
Bekhir met Mr. White’s blank stare and stared back, unflinching. The seconds spun out in unbearable silence. My eyes were fixed on the knife. Finally, Mr. White cracked a smile and stood smartly upright again, breaking the spell. “But,” he said cheerily, “first things first!” He turned to face the soldiers who had escorted us. “Which of you has their bird?”
The soldiers looked at one another. One shook his head, then another.
“We didn’t see it,” said the one who’d taken us prisoner at the depot.
Mr. White’s smile faltered. He knelt down next to Bekhir. “You told me they had the bird with them,” he said.
Bekhir shrugged. “Birds have wings. They come and go.”
Mr. White stabbed Bekhir in the thigh. Just like that: quick and emotionless, the blade going in and out. Bekhir howled in surprise and pain and rolled onto his side, gripping his leg as blood began to flow.
Horace fainted and slid to the floor. Olive gasped and covered her eyes.
“That’s twice you’ve lied to me,” Mr. White said, wiping the blade clean on a handkerchief.
The rest of us clenched our teeth and held our tongues, but I could see Emma plotting revenge already, clasping her hands together behind her back, getting them nice and warm.
Mr. White dropped the bloody handkerchief on the floor, slid the knife back into its sheath, and stood up to face us. He was almost but not quite smiling, his eyes wide, unibrow raised in a capital M.
“Where is your bird?” he asked calmly. The nicer he pretended to be, the more it scared the hell out of me.
“She flew away,” Emma said bitterly. “Just like that man told you.”
I wished she hadn’t said anything; now I was afraid he’d single her out for torment.
Mr. White stepped toward Emma and said, “Her wing was injured. You were seen with her just yesterday. She couldn’t be far from here.” He cleared his throat. “I’ll ask you again.”
“She died,” I said. “We threw her in a river.”
Maybe if I were a bigger pain in his butt than Emma, he’d forget she’d ever spoken.
Mr. White sighed. His right hand glided across his holstered gun, lingered over the handle of his knife, then came to rest on his belt’s brass buckle. He lowered his voice, as if what he was about to say were meant for my ears only.
“I see what the trouble is. You believe there’s nothing to be gained by being honest with me. That we will kill you regardless of what you do or say. I need you to know this is not the case. However, in the spirit of total honesty, I will say this: you shouldn’t have made us chase you. That was a mistake. This could’ve been so much easier, but now everyone’s angry, you see, because you’ve wasted so much of our time.”
He flicked a finger toward his soldiers. “These men? They’d like very much to hurt you. I, on the other hand, am able to consider things from your point of view. We do seem frightening, I understand that. Our first meeting, on board my submarine, was regrettably uncivil. What’s more, your ymbrynes have been poisoning you with misinformation about us for generations. So it’s only natural that you’d run. In light of all that, I’m willing to make you what I believe to be a reasonable offer. Show us to the bird right now, and rather than hurting you, we’ll send you off to a nice facility where you’ll be well looked after. Fed every day, each with your own bed … a place no more restrictive than that ridiculous loop you’ve been hiding in all these years.”
Mr. White looked at his men and laughed. “Can you believe they spent the last—what is it, seventy years?—on a tiny island, living the same day over and over? Worse than any prison camp I can think of. It would’ve been so much easier to cooperate!” He shrugged, looked back at us. “But pride, venal pride, got the better of you. And to think, all this time we could’ve been working together toward a common good!”