[Second in a series about my 120 days in an African prison — Fractal Bob]
I don’t know who this son of a bitch was, but he certainly was not Charles Forbus, the Most Interesting Man of the Best Council Ever. The guy did look vaguely familiar, though—he was about my age and wearing glasses—but he was too pudgy to have been locked up here for long.
But the Chrome sent me to see him, and if he could help me get out of here, I didn’t care if he was Keith Olson’s younger, smarter brother.
“You don’t remember me?” he said, smiling sheepishly. “We met at the Dust.”
He meant the Stardust Room, a righteous bar on the downtown square in my hometown, which served White Russians if you brought your own cream.
“Indeed,” I said, and hiked up my pants before extending my hand. “ Winglebert Humptyback. Nice to meet you.”
“Welcome,” he said, leading me into the dank innards of Cell #15. “I’d tell you my name, but then I’d have to kill you.”
Oh, ha ha, I said, my eyes adjusting to the light in the shack, which was just wide enough to park two minivans side by side. I was struck by the differences in our cells. My home, Cell #3, was tidy, and the glossy black walls bore the satiric artistry of two or three talented souls. The inmates of Cell #15 had only the skill and reach to write FOK JOU in 10-foot scrawl. And there were bedrolls and dirty clothes strewn from wall to wall, which I stumbled over while following Faux Forbus inside.
“No, seriously. It’s Jerry Dorsey,” he said. “But you’d probably know me better by my nom de guerre,” he said. Sheepish grin.
“Fractal Bob.” Bigger grin.
“Oh, no shit?” I said. “Wow, I never would have guessed. What are the odds, right? I’m honored. I know what a highly guarded secret your identity has been.”
“Well, who are you going to tell? The Rhodesian Light Infantry? I mean, we’re four-thousand miles from anyone who gives a shit.”
Quite true, I agreed. “So why use the name Forbus to get me here?”
“Would you have risked coming here for Jerry Dorsey? Forbus was the only trustworthy name out of Huntsville I could think of.”
True that. “So, the Chrome says you can get me out of here.”
“But should I?” Faux Fractal scratched his chin. “What are you in for? Murder? Smuggling?”
“I was walking alone down the highway we were building and a truck full of police or soldiers or somebody drove by, and the next thing I know, I’m captured. I’ve never even seen a lawyer or a judge. Got no idea what the charge is.”
Faux Fractal poked himself vigorously in the chest, eyes bugging out. “Me, too, brother! Except I wasn’t walking the highway. I was in a Peace Corps van with Charles Effing Forbus. They let him go and kept me.” He leaned closer. “They say I was spying for the U.S. Embassy. So—were you spying, too, Mr. Humptyback?”
“Dude, seriously, I was just walking down the highway. We were building this road a few feet at a time, and I was calculating the angle of a curve. I got arrested for doing algebra in an algebra-free zone.”
Faux Fractal gazed upon me in the dim light. There was a flash of lightning and then the first beat of rain on the tin roof, and soon more than a hundred men would be rushing in, cramming themselves into this small space.
“Can you get me home or what?” I said.
Then the torrent began, thunder clapped, the prisoners ran in, and Faux Fractal and I found ourselves pressed against the window as the cell hummed with voices speaking English, Afrikaans and Chichewa. Faux and I had to stow all conversation of my escape plans.
“I’m curious,” I shouted above the din, and Faux Fractal leaned in and cupped an ear. “Did you write all the blogs yourself, or is Fractal Bob the work of a committee?”
“No,” Faux shouted back. “Just me.”
“Really? I figured those blogs during the 2011 elections were the work of one guy, but the next group seemed to be written by different people. You know, different writing styles, different voices.”
“Well, yeah, it got to be too much, you know. So it ended up being me and two other guys in my office. We’re all pretty glib.”
“Two guys? Not Rich Heiland and George Russell, maybe Jack Wagamon?”
“Those assholes? They write whatever they want all the time and put their names on it. I was out there sticking my neck out. Maybe you don’t know who I am. We’re kind of a big deal over there. One slip and my whole family could be living under a bridge. Just saying.”
Faux Fractal nodded. “And thankless.”
“Hate to say this,” I said as the rain slowed, “but I didn’t care so much for that second set of blogs—you know, Season 2? There were two or three that captured the flavor of the first ones, but a lot of them just fell flat.”
“Yeah, the other two guys,” Faux said, “they’re not as good of writers as me.”
I nodded and he shrugged apologetically.
“So I bet being Fractal got you a lot of girls. Or was that George Russell posing as sexy girls to write in and flirt with you. Oh, shit. I hope he was pretending.”
“Real girls,” Faux said. “I went out with a couple. But they didn’t—they never knew.”
“That you were the guy in the fedora?”
“That’s good. I always figured that one girl was dangerous. The sex kitten. What was her name?”
“Echo, that’s right.”
Then Faux Fractal hung his head, and I felt moved to comfort him. “Maybe you can start up the blog again when you get back to Huntsville.”
Faux shrugged, raising his eyebrows plaintively. “If I get ever back.” The rain had stopped, and the men tiptoed back into the wet yard. “You’re really not a smuggler?” Faux said when we were alone again.
“Really not,” I said.
“Then someone will be by in a few days. Hang tough,” he said.
A day or two later, my little friend Legson came running up with a note, and I put down the 50-pound sack of cornmeal I had slung over my shoulder to read it.
Winglebert Humptyback: East fence. 1400 hours. 23 February 2013. Come alone. Signed, F. Bob
“He said to tell you to eat the note,” Legson said. I tore it in half and Legson and I ate it. It was slightly salty from the sweat of Faux Fractal’s paw.
“Mmmm, delicious,” Legson said.
Two days later, I made my way perilously to the east fence where Faux Fractal toiled in the dirt with a small-handled implement. I dropped to my haunches beside him, and when he looked up, I saw that he was terrified.
“Quickly,” he said. “A group of RLI under the command of Col. Reginald E. Lighthouse will be here at dawn. Get here at first light any way you can.”
“Dawn? Like tomorrow? But I have something to do for Chrome Yellow before I can go.”
“Then you’d better do it tonight,” Faux Fractal said. “I don’t know who you’re related to, Humptyback, but you got some major suction with somebody.”
After the evening meal, I moseyed over to Cell #4 and found the Chromium teaching spades to some Namibian prisoners. I called him away from the game.
“Listen, your guy is ready to roll, and I still owe you a favor,” I said, hoping against hope Chrome Yellow would let me off the hook.
“You like to tell stories, don’t you?” Chrome said. “I want a story about me, something so horrible that no one will ever cross me again, no prisoner, no guard, no magistrate, no hoard of incursion forces. I want to walk this continent from shore to shore and know that all civilization is scattering in my wake. Can you do that?”
“You like to tell stories, too. Doesn’t everyone think I’m a diamond smuggler?”
“I spent ten years on Madison Avenue, so let me tell you the first rule of public relations,” the Chrome said. “You can’t tell your own story. Your supporters can’t tell your story. It has to come from a credible third party.”
“OK, boss. It’ll be the gospel according to St. Bastard.”
Chrome Yellow made the sign of the cross over my sunken chest. “Now go in pieces and sin often.”
With time running out, I gathered the best wags of Cell #3, and, in the light of a fire in an oil drum, I planted the seed. It worked. Cell #3 prayed the rest of the evening, and then we went to bed. I promised to keep watch in case Chrome Yellow tried to sneak into our cell and suck our brains out through our noses with the long reed he carried in his back pocket.
I had just fallen asleep when the Reverend Akpu-nku was hit with an attack of restless legs, and 163 of us had to roll over in unison. We had gotten really good at it, we prisoners lying stacked like firewood on the cell floor. We rolled, and soon everyone but me was snoring again. I drifted off thinking about Huntsville. I had once described my hometown to Legson as a wooded wonderland of tall pines that smelled fresh and fecund after a hard spring rain.
“But how do you know when the sun comes up or goes down if you can’t see the seam between earth and sky?,” Legson had said. “I’m sorry for you, Father Bob.”
When I awoke, the day had all but dawned and I was late! I scrambled out of the cell and hurried in the drizzle to the east fence. Faux Bob was waiting, scanning with binos the rain-blurred horizon for Col. Lighthouse’s Rhodesian Light Infantry brigade.
“They’re late?” I said.
Faux Fractal counted pulses of light from a hundred clicks away, a signal from the savannah.
“They’re not coming.”
I grabbed his arm. “What?!”
“They’re not coming. Col. Lighthouse says the weather’s too risky.”
Before I could utter even one expletive, an armed phalanx of prison guards ran toward us, splashing through yellow puddles in the yard.
“Run!” Faux Fractal screamed, and I took off with him behind me. Then there was the crack of rifle fire, and I heard Faux Fractal fall with a soggy thud. I ran back to him.
“Go, Humptyback! Run,” he said, but I held his hand as he bled out through the sucking wound in his chest. The guards gathered round us, their rifles pointed at the miserable tableau we made. Faux Fractal’s bloody lips moved, and I leaned close so I could hear his dying words: “Tell Echo I love her.”