RACHELLE J. GRAY
Bridgetown was Bridgetown. Claustrophobic. Grimy. Midday was arguably cooler than the broil meted out by the three o’clock sun, which left panting pedestrians dragging along under the weight of the city’s heat. The humidity was thick, causing sweat to seep from cracks and crevices of passersby whose natural body odors battled previously applied perfumes to form a pungent melange that attacked the nostrils.
Peter clung close to a necklace of storefronts as he made his way toward Tudor Street, just a few long blocks ahead. Hugging overhanging shadows cast by a hedge of two-story commercial spaces, he bopped through the obstacles of any city swarming with pedestrians and vendors.
Crowds made Peter nervous. He tried not to look into any of the approaching faces. Head held low, in his peripheral vision he made note of the approaching bodies and maneuvered to suit as much as he could.
“Yow!” Peter answered the phone in a remarkably uncouth manner. The voice on the other end of the line began filling his ear with urgent sentences.
“Uh-huh, yeah. Uh-huh,” Peter responded to the caller. His head stiffened as he fought the urge to peep behind him. Someone was there.
Peter crossed the intersection at the end of the first block — cutting between the back of a delivery truck and a car that was tailing much too close behind it. On this stretch of sidewalk, it was becoming harder to hug the buildings. People coming to town were pouring in from the T-junction just ahead. It was a major disembarkation point for arrivals by public service buses and private minibuses transporting passengers from the inner reaches of the island. That, and schools being let out created a major commotion in town as parents and students swarmed the capital.
“I hurryin’!” Peter replied to Brixton’s warning. “I see a white car in front of me…at the bottom of Tudor Street. A minibus right behind it. I know! I know! Not that one. I know who I lookin’ fuh…I gine soon reach the corner by de ole Bata store…I want to, but not yet!”
Peter’s stride gobbled up the distance as he traveled, yet he felt like he was lagging. The flow of shoppers seeping out of the stores onto the sidewalks was slowing him down. The heat wrung streams of sweat out of his hairline — causing them to bolt for refuge under his chin — only to be wiped away by a soiled bandana.
As he headed to Tudor Street the crowd thickened. People were spread out all over the road taking advantage of the only vehicle-free shopping zone offered by the congested city. Hoping to navigate much easier through the crowd, he stepped out into the middle of the cobblestone road. All Peter needed to do was to round the corner up ahead and board the Hillaby-bound minibus that would be waiting near the back wall of the old Central Police Main Guard a few blocks away. Most importantly, Peter could not be late.
Timing was everything. Nikki had done her part in catching the money fly. Brixton had carefully bottled it in a light-proof container with enough air supply to keep it alive until its arrival at the intended destination. Peter just had to make it to the pick-up spot. If he were late, the whole exercise would have been for naught.
This wasn’t hero work he was doing. Peter was well aware of that. It was his duty. To reshape destiny by taking a bold step to shift the course of history. While the general public scratched its head, longed out its bottom lip, and prayed that the reckless ride government had placed the country on would miraculously end, Peter had been roped into a grand scheme, by a dreaming man, for whom he had much respect.
There was too much inertia in the populace. Their hard-working mouths were accompanied by little to no action toward bringing about the change they so valiantly promoted. Someone had to make a move and after decades of doing nothing — aged and agitated — Brixton finally decided he would take action.
The more the news headlines turned towards the ridiculous, the more Brixton danced around with the wild imaginings in his mind. All his thoughts seemed to lead him to the same plan. Mute the kingmaker — the puppeteer who for over a quarter of a century had been fortifying local leaders’ visions. It was as if the kingmaker had a secret formula that made failing men succeed or successful men fail in the eyes of others.
Brixton was not a killer. He was certain of this. He was a town man living in Nelson Street, one of the city’s most notorious neighborhoods but this was not his environment. Brixton cared only to disconnect the kingmaker from his source of power, which was something that had cost him dearly to uncover. It was worth it. No price was too high to make sure that whoever came to power next would not be privy to the counsel of the kingmaker. He had reigned for much too long.
As people’s heads got hot debating fodder, impassioned by the trivia of which government had the worst performance grade, Brixton kept his eye on the shadowy figure who had brought successive political parties to power. Brixton wasn’t certain whose interest the kingmaker served, but he was sure it wasn’t that of the people, God, nor the devil.
Following Brixton was easy, even when he was wrong. His whimsical British accent made everything he said sound so right. He had succeeded thus far in his plan but had one move left to play. He needed Peter to board the 3:15 pm minibus to Hillaby. The package Peter was carrying had to arrive on time.
Although the public might not have known what was happening in their midst — smack dab in the middle of town that Friday afternoon — the Manjaks did. The memory of the Manjaks’ place among the people had faded with the last murmur of the folklore that housed their stories. The Manjak of today was a shadow of the mighty being that ruled the hillsides of Barbados in the time when life was analog. One mention of a Manjak sent petrified children scampering home before the sun could set properly. Grown-ups showed their fear differently. Diligently closing up their houses before dark, on cue with the first sound from the brawling crickets who did their best to offer comfort by drowning out the eerie sound that trailed behind the Manjaks making their way through villages at night.
Manjaks served someone and no one. But who remained a mystery that time refused to answer. They were old as moldy rotting tree stumps hidden in tall wet grass. Ancient as forgotten memory. Dark and strange. Only the rare ones, who some call the touched ones, the crazies…from time to time across historical recounts were known to risk venturing out along the border of night and day unperturbed that to sight a Manjak was to see their end. Strangely the rare ones always lived to tell the tale of their encounter, leaving folks to reason that the Manjak, a being like a man yet not human, feared madmen only.
In natural law, he who rules the day cannot rule the night and the reverse holds true as well. But the digital age is an unprincipled time. Brixton got word that a being with the essence of a Manjak had latched onto Peter’s movements as he made his way down to Tudor Street to board the Hillaby van. Now, Brixton was in Peter’s ear like a Gold Cup jockey racing his horse down the straight of the last furlong, urging him to get going.
Almost there, Peter was about to turn onto Tudor Street when it happened. Pax!!! A cutlass chop launched from behind barely missed Peter’s shoulder, catching the nylon handle at the top of his backpack. The tip of the duckbill blade of a vintage sugar cane cutlass hooked the bag Peter was wearing. Its wielder yanked Peter back, mid-stride. The shocked look from the group of secondary school girls approaching was eclipsed by the brief shower of sparks that blanketed all existence when Peter missed his footing. He tumbled, bouncing his head on the pavement.
It was all happening too fast. Peter was on his back like a fallen cockroach trying to generate enough momentum to flip over and scuttle away. One of the girls picked up his phone that had dropped to the ground along with him.
“Peter!” the voice shouted out of the phone but Peter was heading in the opposite direction. Being dragged away.
His mental clock was running though. He hadn’t stopped counting. Determined to get up, he grabbed at the random legs that shuffled past him. But they kept scooting to the side to avoid being nabbed. Luck connected Peter with the base of a nearby signpost. Hooking the pole with his leg, he secured his footing and then pushed against the force that was dragging him managing to stand up eventually.
The perpetrator of the blow was taken by surprise. Still holding onto the wooden handle of the duckbill cutlass, he was now trying to keep Peter hooked while holding him at bay. It was an odd tussle that drew the attention of passersby perplexed by the commotion. He did not want Peter to turn around. He could not let Peter touch him. His presence was out of order. So he swiveled his wrist to reinforce his hold on the backpack aiming to impede Peter’s range of motion.
Onlookers began to assemble, taking time out from their missions to watch the strange confrontation. Two men fighting but not touching. The man with the cutlass had Peter hooked, handling him like a person would something harmful that they weren’t ready to kill. Something that could kill them if it got the upper hand.
Despite the scuffle, Peter had not stopped counting. Eight minutes past three. Time was passing, Peter had to go. He drew in his shoulders, turned his body then retracted his head. His double-jointed frame slid out of his cotton t-shirt, leaving the cutlass-wielding Manjak to stumble back, holding Peter’s belongings.
Around him, the crowd was a blur of confusion, rippling away from Peter’s dizzy flight forward. Finally, he turned to look behind him. The Manjak with the cutlass was gone.
The Police Main Guard was just a few blocks away. A quick dash could get him there in time. Peter’s eyes skimmed over the oncoming traffic, picking through the various public service vehicles eager to leave town — clamoring to draw a load in a hurry. An oversize government passenger bus, manhandled by what could only have been a former rally driver at its helm, whizzed by at a breakneck speed that made Peter jump out of the way even though he was standing on the sidewalk. As it cleared out of view, from the distance Peter picked up on a whistling sound that only he could hear.
Peter was wired that way. Sensitive. His eyes followed the sound across to the dingy gray limestone wall of the Main Guard coming to rest on the man in the bright yellow shirt. Maybe it was the shade of yellow that was the tell or the moment their two eyes made four that assured a jittery Peter that of all the minibus conductors dressed in button-down, yellow short-sleeve uniform shirts, this was the guy he was looking for.
“Do you see them yet?” the man asked. Peter registered Brixton’s voice. He snapped back to where he stood and yanked his phone from the young lady’s hand just as she bent her wrist to rest it in her bag. She relinquished her hold allowing a partial scowl to cross an otherwise pretty face.
“Bless up!” he commanded as his grip overpowered hers.
“You see where da man went?” Peter asked her as an afterthought.
“Wuh man you talking ‘bout?”
Peter had been committed for this before and been to the psychiatric hospital several times, all rationalized by videos of his public fights with invisible characters. The clips were a favorite and entertained the islanders at his expense. The betrayal that weaponized them against Peter, came compliments of his closest family members.
People were too busy laughing at how jokey he looked to realize that Peter was not a madman fighting with himself, acting out random scenes from some martial arts flick — though he had consumed many. Come on now, how could a man be fighting with himself, get hooked up then loosen himself out of his shirt and backpack? From the young woman’s reaction, he predicted what the next upload for public consumption would be.
Peter mounted the sidewalk, but the crowd would not give way, leaving him to dip back onto the asphalt road. Briskly he headed toward the minibus that the man in the yellow shirt was now standing in front of, leaning up by the driver’s side window. The man busied himself counting some paper money as he waited. He then took two bills from the stack and folded them together to form a ring around his pinky finger to complete a set of four.
Brixton called out from the phone. His British cadence in contrast to the surrounding Bajan accents.
“I see he! I almost there!”
Peter, bareback and severely lanky, tapped the bulge of the side pocket on his cargo pants. It was there. The package with the money fly, reduced from his human form as the kingmaker to an inch-long insect trapped in an opaque cylindrical carrying tube. You can’t get nastier than a fly, Peter thought to himself.
Peter was on the move. Impatient honking vehicles protested his awkward presence tottering through the street but in the long strides of his bop, something abruptly halted his movement, pulling him back. This time it drew blood from his lower torso, slicing into Peter’s dermis as it hooked onto the top of his pants and yanked him once more in its direction.
The cut stung, causing Peter to cry out. The cutlass-wielding man was back. Peter had no time for this. He knew who this being was. It was not a man. He knew what it wanted, and Peter had no plans of relinquishing the container in his side pocket. He could see the Manjak and would live to tell about it. He was a rare one.
Agitated by the ongoing pursuit, Peter loosened his belt and drew the length of it out of the loops of his pants. Whipping his belt into the air, Peter spun around and cracked the cured strip of leather across the face of his aggressor.
The slap was cruel! If had-that-fuh-yuh-ever-since was a hard hit, Peter dealt it. Stunned by the intensity of the blow, the cutlass dropped from the Manjak’s left hand, Peter’s backpack from its right. Without hesitation, Peter snatched up his belongings and darted for the minibus. The one with the dog-whistling yellow shirt conductor who wore rings made from folded money on his oddly formed fingers.
Thirteen minutes after three. Peter raced past the oncoming traffic with his pants clenched in one hand — his backpack strapped across his shoulder. People were howling with laughter. Peter wasn’t sure why — this was no laughing matter. But what did they know?
“Hillaby! Hillaby! Hillaby!” the minibus conductor called as he dangled partway out of the bus’s doorway. The minibus sounded its horn, a cartoonish melody. The conductor repeated himself.
Pulling out from behind the line of public vehicles, the driver revved the manual engine to shoo the reluctant traffic from before him, then shot off down the street in Peter’s direction at a speed that disregarded his surroundings.
Time was scarce. Peter’s assailant, undeterred, hobbled after him. Cutlass in hand. Blue vex.
Peter hurried. At this rate, if he did not board the minibus he would certainly be late. His life depended on this. So did the lives of others.
This was Brixton’s master plan. It was the loudest of silent protests. There was no glory, no fame to be had. It was a brazen hidden-hand tactic carried out plain as day. This — what he was doing — was the work that needed to be done if his people were to be liberated, have a fighting chance and all that rhetoric Brixton would go on about unceasingly except when he was in deep thought. Up until this moment, no one was brave enough to carry through the plan so it was left to a madman.
The yellow minibus with the Hillaby sign came bearing down toward Peter. It flashed its headlights at Peter as it neared. Now, the sly-faced man in the yellow button-down conductor’s shirt was sitting in the front passenger seat leaning out of the window. Bridgetown was haunted in broad daylight. Throwing his voice at Peter above the bass from the onboard sound system he shouted, “Hillaby with seats and moving!”
Peter ran up to the door of the minibus. He jumped in, spring boarding off the bottom step, and landing in the narrow aisle whose flooring trembled from the vibration of the dancehall music pushing out of the subwoofer beneath the seat in front of him. Strangely the minibus, which measured half the size of a normal bus, was empty. All twenty seats were vacant. As for the standing quota of seven people, there was no one.
Looking across at the driver, Peter caught sight of the clock above the rearview mirror. Fourteen after three, it read. The sentence flashed like a warning.
Peter dashed clumsily toward the back of the empty minibus. Awkwardly bouncing off the seats — gripping the top of his pants while he struggled to maintain his balance. The Manjak was right behind him, pelting down the aisle in pursuit of Peter. Almost as close as a shadow.
Approaching the backseat at full tilt, Peter flung himself at the rear window of the minibus.
He crashed through it.
Fully in pursuit, the Manjak bounded after him. Losing Peter was non-negotiable; the package he was carrying was beyond important. It was crucial to this time and place. It was Manjak’s master and Peter had him stashed away in his pocket!
The minibus’s rear window didn’t budge. It did not swallow up the Manjak in the shards that had split just seconds before, refracting Peter’s likeness into a hundred pieces — zapping him into nothingness. Instead, the Manjak’s shoulder collided at the speed of certainty into the pane of toughened glass, which refused to yield as it had for Peter just a sliver of time ahead.
The force of the impact cracked the Manjak’s collarbone. He slumped down onto the backseat in shambles, his body racked with pain.
It was 3:15 pm, and Peter was gone.