The Quest - Chapter Two

The Jeep bounced slowly over the rutted track, and its filtered headlights picked out the path between the tight jungle growth. In the distance, artillery boomed and illuminated the black sky, like flashes of distant lightning.

Frank Purcell gripped the wheel and peered hard into the distorted shadows of gnarled trees and twisting vines. He hit the brakes, then shut off the hard-idling engine and killed the headlights. Henry Mercado, in the passenger seat, asked, “What’s the matter?”

Purcell held up his hand for silence.

Mercado peered nervously into the encroaching jungle. Every shadow seemed to move. He cocked his silver-haired head and listened, then looked out of the corners of his eyes into the darkness, but he could see nothing.

From the back of the open-sided vehicle, on the floor among the supplies and photographic equipment, came a soft feminine voice. “Is everything all right?”

Mercado turned around in his seat. “Yes, fine.”

“Then why are we stopped?”

“Good question.” He whispered, “Why are we stopped, Frank?”

Purcell said nothing. He started the engine and threw the Jeep into gear. The four-wheel-drive dug into the track and they lurched forward. He moved the Jeep faster and the bouncing became rougher. Mercado held on to his seat. In the back, Vivian uncurled her slender body and sat up, grabbing on to whatever she could find in the dark.

They drove on for a few minutes. Suddenly, Purcell yanked the wheel to the right, and the Jeep crashed through a thicket of high brush and broke into a clearing.

Vivian said, “What the hell are you doing? Frank?”

In the middle of the clearing, gleaming white in the full-risen moon, were the ruins of an Italian mineral bath spa. A strange, anomalous legacy from the Italian occupation, the spa was built in ancient Roman style and sat crumbling like some Caesar’s bath in another time and place.

Purcell pointed the Jeep toward the largest of the buildings and accelerated. The stuccoed structure grew bigger as the vehicle bounced across the field of high grass.

The Jeep hit the broad front steps of the building, found traction, and climbed. It sailed between two fluted columns, across the smooth stone portico, and through the front opening, coming to rest in the center of the main lobby of what had been the hotel part of the spa. Purcell cut the engine and headlights. Night creatures became quiet, then started their senseless, cacophonous noises again.

The moon shone blue-white through the destroyed vaulted ceiling and lit the pseudo-Roman chamber with an ethereal glow. Huge crumbling frescoes of classical bath scenes adorned every wall. Purcell wiped his face with his sweating palm.

Mercado caught his breath. “What was that all about?”

Purcell shrugged.

Vivian regained her composure and laughed mockingly from the back of the Jeep. “I think the brave man just lost his nerve in the dark jungle.” Her accent was mostly British with a mixture of exotic pronunciations. Mercado had told him that her mother tongue was unknown and her ancestry was equally obscure, though she carried a Swiss passport with the surname of Smith. “A woman of mystery,” Mercado had said to Purcell, who’d replied, “They’re all a mystery.”

Mercado jumped from the Jeep and stretched. “We’re out of the jungle, but not out of the woods.” Mercado’s own voice had that curious mid-Atlantic accent, common to people who have traveled between the British Isles and North America all their lives. His mother was English and his father a Spaniard–thus the surname–though he’d spent most of his youth in boarding schools in Switzerland, and spoke French, German, and Italian like a native.

Frank Purcell cupped a cigarette in his hand and lit it. In the glow of the match he looked older than his thirty-odd years. Lines worked their way around his mouth and his brown-black eyes. Gray was sprinkled through his shaggy black hair and he looked tired. He slumped back in his seat and exhaled a long stream of smoke. “What is this place, exactly?”

Mercado was pacing around over the mosaic floor of the huge lobby. “Roman baths. What do they look like, old man?”

“Roman baths.”

“Well, there you are, then. Bloody Fascists built them as part of their civilizing mission back in ’36. I did a story on them, as I recall. You’ll find them in the most unlikely places. Come on, then. If the mineral springs are still flowing, we’ll have a nice bath.”

Purcell stepped stiffly out of the Jeep. “Keep your voice lower, Henry.”

“Can’t very well keep it low if I’m over here and you’re over there, can I, Frank? Come along. Let’s explore.”

Vivian joined Mercado at the entrance of a colonnade that led to an interior courtyard. Purcell walked slowly over the rubble-strewn floor. Five years in Indochina as a war correspondent had expunged any fascination he might have once had for ruins. The last ruins he had gone out of his way to see were the ancient city of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and that side trip had cost him a year in a Khmer Rouge prison camp. That year would remain a very big part of his life. He’d lost there, among other things, any illusions he might have had about his fellow man.

He joined Mercado and Vivian as they walked slowly down the moonlit colonnade. A statue of Neptune with upraised trident stood in the middle of the walkway and they had to go around him. The colonnade made a ninety-degree turn, and as they rounded the corner they could hear the gentle lapping of water.

“We’re in luck,” said Mercado. “I can smell the sulphur. The baths should be up ahead.”

Vivian stepped onto a low marble bench and peered across the courtyard. “Yes, I see the steam. There, behind those trees.”

They walked across the courtyard toward a line of eucalyptus trees. The large expanse, once paved in white stone, was overgrown with lichens and grass. A two-faced Janus rose up out of a thicket of hedges and projected a monstrous moonshadow through which they passed quickly. The courtyard was surrounded by the colonnade, and vines had grown over most of the columns. Broken statuary of Roman gods and goddesses dotted the yard. The impression was of one of those fantasy paintings of Rome as it may have looked in the Dark Ages, with shepherds and flocks passing through great columned imperial buildings overgrown with vegetation.

They walked by a dry fountain in a melancholy garden and passed between two eucalyptus trees. In front of them was a stone balustrade that led to a curved staircase, and they descended the crumbling steps. At the bottom was a pool about forty meters square. Sulphurous fumes made the air almost unbreathable.

They approached the pool. It looked black, but the moon touched its gently moving ripples with highlights. A huge stone fish spit a never-ending supply of mineral water into the ever-demanding pool. The sound of the falling water echoed off the bathhouse on the far side of the pool.

“It stinks,” announced Purcell.

“Oh,” said Mercado. “You Yanks. Everything must smell like underarm deodorant to you. These baths are an ancient European tradition. These and the roads are the only good things Mussolini did for this country.”

“The roads stink, too,” said Purcell, stretching his muscular frame.

Vivian had peeled off her khakis. She stood naked at the edge of the pool, her milk-white skin shining in the moonlight, like fine, rubbed alabaster.

Purcell regarded her for a few seconds. In the three-day cross-country jaunt out of Addis Ababa, he had seen her naked at every bath stop. At first he was taken aback by her lack of modesty, but she had insisted on being treated with no special considerations.

Mercado sat on a mossy marble bench and began to pull off his boots. Purcell sat next to him, his eyes darting toward Vivian from time to time. He reckoned her age at no more than twenty-five, so she had been only about sixteen when he was stepping off the plane into the maelstrom that was Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport in 1965. He felt old in her presence. Who was she? he wondered. Her features were mostly Caucasian and her skin was like milk, but her eyes were definitely almonds and her jet black hair was long, straight, and thick like an East Asian, or maybe a Native American. But those almond eyes–they were dark green. Purcell wondered if such a combination was genetically possible.

Vivian held up her arms and inhaled the fumes. “It does stink, though, Henry.”

“It’s refreshing and salubrious. Breathe it in.”

She breathed. “Graviora quaedam sunt remedia periculis.”

Purcell stared at Vivian. There was no mistaking that that was Latin. This was a new language in Vivian’s repertoire. He asked Mercado, “What did she say?”

Mercado looked up from tugging at his boot. “Huh? Oh. ‘The cure is worse than the disease,’” he answered as he pulled off his boot.

Purcell didn’t respond.

Mercado said, “Don’t go feeling all inadequate, old man. She doesn’t know the language. Just a phrase or two. She’s just showing off.”

“For whom?”

“For me, of course.”

Purcell pulled off his boots and looked at Vivian, who was sitting on her haunches and testing the water with her fingers.

She called out, “It’s warm.”

Mercado slipped off his shorts and padded toward the edge of the pool. His body, Purcell noticed, was showing the signs of age. How old could he be? He was here in Ethiopia during the Italian invasion in 1935, so he had to be at least sixty. Purcell looked at Vivian, then back at Mercado, wondering what their relationship was, if any. He slipped off his shorts and stood near Mercado.

Vivian, a few feet away, rose to her feet, stood on her toes, and stretched her arms in the air. She shouted to the sky, “There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption!” She fell forward and the black, warm mineral waters closed quietly around her.

Mercado hunched down and touched the water. “That was Shakespeare, Frank. King Lear’s description of a vagina, actually.”

“I hope that wasn’t his pickup line.”

Mercado laughed.

Purcell dove in and swam. The warm water smelled like rotten eggs, but it was not unpleasant after a time. He could feel the fatigue run out of his body, but the heat made his mind groggy.

Mercado lowered his big bulk into the water, then began to swim.

Purcell floated on his back and drifted. He felt good for the first time in days. Maybe weeks. He let the pool currents take him, and the rising steam lulled him. In the distance, he could hear Vivian cavorting, and her shrieks of animal joy echoed off the surrounding structures. Purcell wanted to tell her to be more quiet, but it didn’t matter somehow. He noticed that his member was stiff. He rolled over and swam toward a stone platform in the middle of the pool. The platform was awash in a few inches of water, and he climbed onto it and lay on his back, then closed his eyes.

Mercado bobbed up beside him. “Are you alive, Frank?”

Purcell opened his eyes. He could see Mercado’s face through the steam. “Tell her to pipe down,” he said groggily. “She’ll have every Galla in the province here.”

“What? Oh. She’s sleeping by the poolside, Frank. I told her before. Were you dreaming?”

He looked at his watch. A full hour had slipped by.

“Let’s get back to the Jeep, old man. I’m worried about the gear.”

“Right.” Purcell turned and swam with steady even strokes toward the side of the sulphur pool and climbed out. He noticed Vivian sleeping, curled like a fetus by the edge of the pool. She was still naked.

Mercado looked around. “I’m sure there’s a freshwater spring around somewhere. Probably in the bathhouse over there.”

“I’d rather get out of here, Henry. We’ve taken enough chances.”

“You’re right, of course, but we smell.”

Purcell sat on the lichen-covered marble bench and wiped himself with his bush jacket. Mercado sat next to him. The older man’s close nakedness made Purcell uneasy.

Mercado pressed some water out of his thick gray hair, then pointed toward the naked, sleeping Vivian and asked, “Does she make you…uncomfortable?”

Purcell shrugged. Mercado had not offered to define his relationship with the young lady, and Purcell didn’t know if he cared. But he was curious. He had the habitual and professional curiosity of a newsman, not the personal curiosity of a meddler. Back in Addis, he had agreed to drive Henry Mercado and Vivian Smith to the northwest where the civil war was the hottest, and he hadn’t asked for much in return. But now he figured Mercado owed him. “Who is she?”

It was Mercado’s turn to shrug. “Don’t know, really.”

“I thought she was your photographer.”

“She is. But I met her only a few months ago. At the Hilton in Addis. Don’t know if she can photograph or not. We’ve taken scads of pictures, but nothing’s been developed yet. Don’t even know if she uses film, to be honest with you.” He laughed.

Purcell smiled. The moon was below the main building now and a pleasant darkness enveloped the spa. A soft evening breeze carried the scent of tropical flowers, and a feeling very near inner peace filled him. He wondered if he was getting Indochina out of his system. Apropos of that, he asked Mercado, “You were in jail, weren’t you?”

“Not jail, old man. We political prisoners don’t call it jail. If you’re going to talk about it, use the correct term, for Christ’s sake. The camps. Sounds better. More dignified.”

“Still sounds like shit.”

Mercado continued, “That it should have happened to me was more ironic, since I was a little pink in those days myself.”

“What days?”

“After the war. The Russians grabbed me in East Berlin. January of 1946. All I was doing was photographing a damned food line. Never understood it. There were food lines all over Europe in the winter of 1946. But I guess there weren’t supposed to be any in the workers’ paradise. And the damned Russkies had been in charge there for only–what? About nine months? Hard to erect a Socialist paradise in only nine months. That’s what I told them. Don’t take it personally, chaps, I said. You beat the Huns fair and square. So what if they have to stand on bread lines? Good for the little Nazis. You see? But they didn’t quite get my point.”

Purcell nodded absently.

Mercado continued, “I had Reuters send all the press clippings I had written since the Spanish Civil War in 1936. All my best anti-Fascist stuff. I even had a lot of nice things to say about the brave Red Army in some of those pieces. I don’t know if the bloody beggars even saw my articles. All I know is that I was bundled off to Siberia. Didn’t get out until 1950 because of some prisoner exchange. And not so much as an apology, mind you. One day I was 168AM382. Next day I was Henry Mercado again, Reuters correspondent, back in London, with a nice bit of back pay coming. Four years, Frank. And was it cold. Oh my, was it cold. Four years for snapping a picture. And me a nice pink Cambridge boy. Fabian Society and all that. Workers of the world, unite.”

Again, Purcell did not respond.

Mercado asked, “How many years did you do, Frank? A year in Cambo? Well, we can’t compare it in years alone, can we? Hell is hell, and when you’re there, it’s an eternity, isn’t it? Especially with an open-ended sentence. You can’t even count off the days you have left.”

Purcell nodded.

Mercado asked rhetorically, “What are you to them? Nothing. Do they let you know that your wife has died? Certainly not. They don’t even know themselves, probably, that you have a wife. They don’t know anything about you, except that you are 168AM382, and that you must work. So what if your wife is dying of pneumonia and penicillin is like gold and a woman by herself can’t–”

Mercado stopped abruptly, and a look of weariness came into his watery blue eyes. He said in a low, hoarse voice, “Bloody Reds. Bloody Nazis. Bloody politicians. Don’t believe in any of them, Frank. That’s good advice from an older man. They all want your body and your soul. The body’s not important, but the soul is. And that belongs to God when He calls for it.”

“Henry, no religion, please.”

“Sorry. I’m a believer, you know. Those priests in the camps. The Russian Orthodox priests. Had a few Baptist ministers, too. Some Catholic priests, some rabbis. I was in a camp with a lot of religious people. Some of them had been there since the 1920s. They kept me alive, Frank. They had something.”

“Lizards and centipedes kept me alive in Cambodia.” Purcell pulled on his pants and stood. “Let’s get moving.” He walked away from Henry Mercado.

Vivian had been awakened by their conversation, and she moved past Purcell in the darkness. He could hear the soft sounds of whispering as she spoke to Mercado. The words were lost, but the tone was soothing. Poor Henry, Purcell thought, the grizzled old newsman having a teary moment in front of a woman half his age.

They dressed and headed back toward the hotel lobby in the darkness. Mercado, who seemed to be feeling better, said, “I’ll give this place three stars.”

Suddenly the northern sky was illuminated so brightly that all three stopped in their tracks and crouched.

They looked up and could see star shells bursting in the night sky. An infantry attack had begun somewhere in the hills to the north and one side or the other had sent up these artificial suns to light the way. Automatic weapons fire could be heard now and green and red tracer rounds crisscrossed the hills. The deep, throaty sounds of muffled artillery rolled down into the spa complex, and explosions lit up the low mountain range like a thousand campfires.

Purcell stared at the close-by hills. He could see illumination flares pop and float to earth on their parachutes. Even after all the years in Indochina, the sights and sounds of battle awed him. He stood mesmerized as the hills lit up and sent a crescendo of sound through the night air. It was as though it were a light and sound show, a mixed-media symphony played only for him.

Mercado asked, “Who is killing whom tonight?”

“Does it matter?”

“No, I suppose not. As long as it isn’t us.” Mercado suggested, “We should stay here tonight.”

Vivian agreed, and Purcell said, “All right. We’ve found the armies. In the morning we’ll go see who won the battle.”

They continued on and entered the main building. The Jeep stood in the middle of the lobby looking very exposed. Purcell glanced around for a place to move the vehicle and spend the night. He noticed that one corner of the roofless lobby remained dark when the illumination flares burst. Between the Jeep and the dark corner was some rubble from the ceiling, but it was not an impossible task to get the Jeep through it. He stepped up to the vehicle and began pushing, not wanting to start the engine and create noise. Vivian jumped behind the wheel and Mercado helped Purcell push.

As their Jeep approached the patch of blackness in the far corner, an illumination flare lit up the lobby, and they saw standing in front of them a man holding a skull.

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