[SNEAK PEEK] TATIANA AND ALEXANDER

Tatiana and Alexander by Paullina Simons

 

Morozovo, 1943

THEY CAME FOR HIM a few hours into the night. Alexander, sleeping in the chair, was roughly shaken awake by four men in suits, motioning him to stand.

Slowly he stood.

“You’re going to Volkhov to get promoted. Hurry. There is no time to waste. We’ve got to get across the lake before it gets light. The Germans bomb Ladoga constantly.” The sallow man who was speaking in hushed tones was obviously in charge. The other three never opened their mouths.

Alexander picked up his rucksack.

“Leave that here,” said the man.

“Well, I’m a soldier. I always take my ruck with me if it’s all the same to you.”

“Have you got your sidearm?”

“Of course.”

“Let’s have that.”

Alexander took a step toward them. He was a head taller than the tallest. They looked like thugs in their drab gray winter coats. On top of the coats they had small blue stripes, the symbol of the NKVD—the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs—the way the Red Cross was a symbol of international empathy. “Let me understand what you’re asking me,” he said quietly but not that quietly.

“So it’s easier for you,” the first man stammered. “You’re wounded, no? It must be hard for you to carry all your gear—”

“This isn’t all my gear. These are just my few personal things. Let’s go,” Alexander said loudly, moving out from the side of the bed, pushing them out of his way. “Now, comrades. We’re wasting time.” It was not an even fight. He was an officer, a major. He couldn’t see their rank in their shoulder bars or demeanor. They had no authority until they were out of the building and took his away from him. This police liked to do its work in private, in the dark. They did not like to be overheard by barely sleeping nurses, by barely sleeping soldiers. This police liked it to seem as if everything was just as it should be. A wounded man was being taken in the middle of the night across the lake to get a promotion. What was so out of the ordinary about that? But they had to leave his gun with him to continue with the pretense. As if they could have taken it away.

As they were walking out, Alexander noticed that the two beds next to him were empty. The soldier with the breathing difficulties and another had gone. He shook his head. “Are they going to get promoted, too?” he asked dryly.

“No questions, just go,” said one of the men. “Quickly.”

Alexander had slight trouble walking quickly.

As he made his way through the corridor, he wondered where Tatiana was sleeping. Was it behind one of those doors? Was she there now, somewhere? Still so close. He took a deep breath, almost as if he were smelling for her.

The armored truck was waiting outside behind the building. It was parked next to Dr. Sayers’s Red Cross jeep. Alexander recognized the white and red emblem in the dark. As they got closer to their truck, a silhouette hobbled out from the shadows. It was Dimitri. He was hunched over his casted arm, and his face was a black pulp with a swollen protuberance instead of a nose—earlier courtesy of Alexander.

He stood for a moment and said nothing. Then, “Going somewhere, Major Belov?” His hissing voice placed special emphasis on Belov. It sounded like Beloffffff.

“Don’t come close to me, Dimitri,” Alexander said.

Dimitri, as if heeding the advice, took a step back, then opened his mouth and laughed silently. “You can’t hurt me anymore, Alexander.”

“Nor you me.”

“Oh, believe me,” said Dimitri in a smooth sweet-sour voice, “I can still hurt you.” And right before Alexander was pushed into the NKVD truck by the militia men, Dimitri threw his head back as if in studied delirium and wagged a shaking finger at Alexander, baring the yellow teeth under his bloodied nose and narrowing his slit eyes.

Alexander turned his head, squared his shoulders, and without even looking in Dimitri’s direction as he jumped into the truck, said very loudly and clearly and with as much satisfaction as he could get his voice to muster, “Oh, fuck you.”

“Get in the truck and shut up,” barked one of the NKVD men to Alexander, and to Dimitri: “Go back to your ward, it’s past curfew. What are you doing skulking around here?”

In the back of the truck, Alexander saw his two shivering ward mates. He hadn’t expected two other people, two Red Army soldiers, to be in the truck with him. He had thought it would be just him and the NKVD men. No one to risk or sacrifice except them and himself. Now what?

One of the NKVD men grabbed his ruck. Alexander yanked it away. The man did not let go. “It looks as if it’s hard for you to carry it,” he said, struggling. “I’ll take it and give it back to you on the other side.”

Shaking his head, Alexander said, “No, I’ll keep it.” He wrenched it from the man.

“Belov—”

“Sergeant!” said Alexander loudly. “You’re talking to an officer. Major Belov to you. Leave my belongings alone. Now, let’s start driving. We’ve got a long way ahead of us.” Smiling to himself, he turned away, dismissing the man. His back didn’t hurt as badly as he had imagined: he was able to walk, jump up, talk, bend, sit down on the floor of the truck. But his weakness upset him.

The truck’s idling motor revved up and they began driving away—from the hospital, from Morozovo, from Tatiana. Alexander took a deep breath and turned to the two men sitting in front of him.

“Who the fuck are you?” he said. The words were gruff but the tone was resigned. He looked them over briefly. It was dark, he could barely make out their features. They were huddled against the wall of the truck, the smaller one wore glasses, the larger one sat, body wrapped in his coat, head wrapped in a bandage, and only his eyes, nose, and mouth showed. His eyes were bright and alert, discernible even in the dark, even at night. Bright perhaps wasn’t quite the right word. Mischievous. You couldn’t say the same about the smaller man’s eyes. They were lackluster.

“Who are you?” Alexander repeated.

“Lieutenant Nikolai Ouspensky. This is Corporal Boris Maikov. We were wounded in Operation Spark, on January fifteenth, over on the Volkhov side—we were housed in a field tent until we—”

“Stop,” Alexander said, putting his hand out. Before he continued with them he wanted to shake their hands. He wanted to feel what they were made of. Ouspensky was all right—his handshake was steady and friendly and unafraid. His hand was strong. Not frail Maikov’s.

Alexander sat back against the truck and felt for the grenade in his boots. Damn it. He could hear Ouspensky’s rattling breathing. Ouspensky was the one Tania had moved next to Alexander and put a tent around, the one with only one lung, the one who could not hear or speak. Yet here he was sitting, breathing on his own, hearing, speaking.

“Listen, both of you,” said Alexander. “Summon your strength. You’re going to need it.”

“For getting a medal?” Maikov said suspiciously.

“You’re going to be getting a posthumous medal if you don’t get hold of yourself and stop shaking,” said Alexander.

“How do you know I’m shaking?”

“I can hear your boots knocking together,” Alexander replied. “Quiet, soldier.”

Maikov turned to Ouspensky. “I told you, Lieutenant, this didn’t seem right, to be woken in the middle of the night—”

“And I told you to shut up,” said Alexander.

There was a bit of dull blue light coming in from the narrow window in the front of the truck.

“Lieutenant,” Alexander said to Ouspensky, “can you stand up? I need you to stand up and block the view from the window.”

“Last time I heard that, my quartermate was getting some blow,” said Ouspensky with a smile.

“Well, rest assured, no one is getting blow here,” Alexander said. “Stand up.”

Ouspensky obeyed. “Tell us the truth. Are we getting promoted?”

“How should I know?” Once Nikolai blocked the small window, Alexander took off his boot and pulled out one of the grenades. It was dark enough that neither Maikov nor Ouspensky saw what he was doing.

He crawled to the back of the truck and sat with his back against the doors. There were only two NKVD men in the front cabin. They were young, they had no experience, and no one wanted to cross the lake: the danger of German fire was ever-present and unwelcome. The driver’s lack of experience broadcast itself in his inability to drive the truck faster than twenty kilometers an hour. Alexander knew that if the Germans were monitoring Soviet army activity from their positions in Sinyavino, the truck’s leisurely speed would not escape their reconnaissance agents. He could walk across the ice faster.

“Major, are you getting promoted?” asked Ouspensky.

“That’s what they told me, and they let me keep my gun. Until I hear otherwise, I’m optimistic.”

“They didn’t let you keep your gun. I saw. I heard. They just didn’t have the strength to take it from you.”

“I’m a critically injured man,” Alexander said, taking out a cigarette. “They could have taken it from me if they wanted to.” He lit up.

“Have you got another one?” said Ouspensky. “I haven’t smoked in three months.” He looked Alexander over. “Nor seen anyone but my nurses.” He paused. “I’ve heard your voice, though.”

“You don’t want to smoke,” Alexander said. “From what I understand, you have no lungs.”

“I have one lung, and my nurse has been keeping me artificially sick so I don’t get sent back to the front. That’s what she did for me.”

“Did she?” asked Alexander, trying not to close his eyes at the image of Nikolai’s nurse—the small, clear-eyed bright sunny morning of a girl, the crisp Lazarevo morning of a sweet blonde girl.

“She brought in ice and made me breathe the cold fumes to get my lungs rattling and working. I wish she would have done a little more for me.”

Alexander handed him a cigarette. He wanted Nikolai to stop talking. He did not think Ouspensky would be particularly pleased to discover that Tatiana had saved him only long enough to be now sent into Mekhlis’s clutches.

Taking out his Tokarev pistol, Alexander got up, pointed at the back door and fired, blowing out the padlock. Maikov squealed. The truck slowed down. There was obviously some confusion in the driver’s cabin as to the source of the noise. Now down on the floor, Ouspensky was no longer blocking the window. Alexander had seconds before the truck stopped. Flinging the doors open, he pulled the pin out of the grenade, pulled himself above the roof of the creeping vehicle and threw the grenade forward. It landed a few meters in front of the truck’s path; seconds later there was a shattering explosion. He had just enough time to hear Maikov bleat, “What is that—” when he was thrown from the truck onto the ice. The pain he felt in the unhealed wound in his back was so jolting he thought his scars were tearing apart a millimeter at a time.

The truck jerked and began to rumble to a sliding stop. It skidded, teetered and fell sideways onto the ice, crunching to a halt at the ice hole made by Alexander’s grenade. The hole was smaller than the truck, but the truck was heavier than the broken ice. The ice cracked and the hole became wider.

Alexander got up and ran limping to the back doors, motioning for the two men to crawl to him. “What was that?” Maikov cried. He had bumped his head and his nose was bleeding.

“Jump out of the truck!” Alexander yelled.

Ouspensky and Maikov did as he commanded—just in time, as the front end of the truck slowly sank beneath the surface of the Ladoga. The drivers must have been knocked unconscious by the impact against the glass and ice. They were making no attempts to get out.

“Major, what the hell—”

“Shut up. The Germans will begin shooting at the truck in three or four minutes.” Alexander had no intention of actually dying on the ice. Before he saw Ouspensky and Maikov, he had had a small hope he might be alone, and would, after blowing up the truck with the NKVD men in it, make his way back to the Morozovo shores and into the woods. All of his hopes seemed to have this one common denominator nowadays: short-fucking-lived.

“You want to stay here and observe the efficient German army in action, or you want to come with me?”

“What about the drivers?” asked Ouspensky.

“What about them? They are NKVD men. Where do you think those drivers were taking you at dawn?”

Maikov tried to stand up. Before he could say another word, Alexander pulled him down onto the ice.

They weren’t far from the shore, maybe two kilometers. It was pre-dawn. The cabin of the truck was submerged and cracking a larger hole in the ice, large enough soon for the whole truck to fit through.

“Pardon me, Major,” Ouspensky said, “but you’re talking out of your ass. I’ve never done anything wrong in my entire military career. They haven’t come for me.”

“No,” Alexander said. “They’ve come for me.”

“Who the fuck are you?”

The truck was disappearing into the water.

Ouspensky stared at the ice, at the shivering, dumbfounded and bleeding Maikov, at Alexander, and laughed. “Major, perhaps you could tell us your plans for what the three of us are going to do alone on the open ice once the truck sinks?”

“Don’t worry,” said Alexander with a heavy sigh. “I guarantee you, we won’t be alone for long.” He nodded in the direction of the distant Morozovo shore and took out his two pistols. The headlights of a light army vehicle were getting closer. The jeep stopped fifty meters from them, and out of it jumped five men with five machine guns all pointing at Alexander. “Stand up! Stand up on the ice!”

Ouspensky and Maikov stood instantly, hands in the air, but Alexander didn’t like to take orders from inferior officers. He would not stand up and with good reason. He heard the whistling sound of a shell and put his hands over his head.

When he looked, two of the NKVD men were lying face down, while the other three were crawling to Alexander, rifles aimed at him, hissing, stay down, stay down. Maybe the Germans will kill them before I have a chance to, Alexander thought. He tried to make out the shore. Where was Sayers? The NKVD jeep was stationary, providing a convenient practice target for the Germans. When the NKVD men got very close, Alexander suggested to them that maybe they should get back inside their vehicle and return to Morozovo with all deliberate speed.

“No!” one of them yelled. “We have to get you across to Volkhov!”

Another shell whistled by, this one falling twenty meters from the jeep—the only transport they had to get either to Volkhov or back to Morozovo. Once the Germans hit their jeep, the cluster of men would last several unprotected seconds on the open lake against German artillery.

On his stomach, Alexander stared at the NKVD men on their stomachs. “You want to drive to Volkhov under German fire? Let’s go.”

The men looked at the armored truck that had carried Alexander. It had nearly gone below the surface of the water. Alexander watched with amusement as self-preservation battled it out with orders.

“Let’s go back,” said one of the NKVD. “We will return to Morozovo and await further instructions. We can always get him to Volkhov tomorrow.”

“I think that’s wise,” said Alexander.

Ouspensky was watching Alexander with amazement. Alexander ignored him. “Come on, all of you. On three. Run to your jeep before it’s blown up.” Aside from wanting to keep alive, Alexander wanted to remain dry. His life wasn’t worth much to him wet. He knew that whether he was in Volkhov or Morozovo he would get dry clothes when donkeys flew. The wet clothes would remain on his body until after they’d given him pneumonia and killed him, and still they’d be wet on his corpse in the March damp.

All six men crawled to the jeep. The three NKVD troops ordered the men to get into the back. Both Ouspensky and Maikov glanced at Alexander with considerable anxiety.

“Just get in.”

Two of the NKVD men got into the back with them. Ouspensky and Maikov breathed out in relief.

Alexander took out a cigarette and passed one to Nikolai and to white-faced Maikov who refused.

“Why did you do that?” whispered Ouspensky to Alexander.

“I’ll tell you,” said Alexander. “I did it because I just didn’t feel like getting promoted.”

Back on shore, the jeep proceeded to headquarters, passing a medical truck heading for the river. Alexander spotted Dr. Sayers in the passenger seat. Alexander managed a smile as he smoked, though he noticed the tips of his fingers trembling. It was going as well as could be expected. The scene on the lake genuinely looked like the aftermath of a German onslaught. Dead men on the ice, one truck down. Sayers would write out the death certificate, sign it, and it would be as if Alexander had never existed. The NKVD would be grateful—they preferred making their arrested parties invisible anyway—and by the time Stepanov learned of what had really happened, and that Alexander was still alive, Tatiana and Sayers would be long gone. Stepanov would not have to lie to Tatiana. Lacking any actual information, he himself would believe that Alexander, with Ouspensky and Maikov, had perished on the lake.

He ran a hand over his capless head and closed his eyes, quickly opening them again. The bleak Russian landscape was better than what was behind his closed lids.

Everybody won. The NKVD would not have to answer questions from the International Red Cross, the Red Army would pretend to mourn a number of downed and drowned men, while Mekhlis still had his paws on Alexander. Had they wanted to kill him, they would have killed him instantly. Those were not their orders. He knew why. The cat wanted to play with the mouse before he ripped the mouse to pieces.

It was eight in the morning by the time they got back to Morozovo, and since the base was coming to life and since they had to be hidden until they could be safely transported to unsafety, Alexander, Ouspensky and Maikov were thrown into the stockade in the basement of the old school. The stockade was a concrete cell just over a meter wide and less than two meters long. The militia ordered the three soldiers to lie flat on the floor and not move.

The cell was too short for Alexander; there was not enough room to lie down on the floor. As soon as the guards left, the three men crouched on the ground, drawing their knees up to their chests. Alexander’s wound was throbbing. Sitting on the cold cement wasn’t helping.

Ouspensky kept on at him. Alexander said, “What do you want? Stop asking. This way when you’re questioned you won’t have to lie.”

“Why would we be questioned?”

“You’ve been arrested. Isn’t that clear?”

Maikov was looking into his hands. “Oh, no,” he said. “I’ve got a wife, a mother, two small children. What’s going to happen?”

“You?” said Nikolai. “Who are you? I’ve got a wife and two sons. Two small sons. I think my mother is still alive, too.”

Maikov didn’t reply, but both he and Ouspensky turned to stare at Alexander. Maikov lowered his gaze. Ouspensky didn’t.

“All right,” said Ouspensky. “What did you do?”

“Lieutenant!” Alexander pulled rank whenever and wherever necessary. “I’ve heard enough from you.”

Ouspensky remained undaunted. “You don’t look like a religious zealot.”

Alexander was silent.

“Or a Jew. Or a skank.” Ouspensky looked him over. “Are you a kulak? A member of the Political Red Cross? A closet philosopher? A socialist? A historian? Are you an agricultural spoiler? An industrial wrecker? An anti-Soviet agitator?”

“I’m a Tatar drayman,” said Alexander.

“You will get ten years for that. Where is your dray? My wife would find it very useful for hauling onions from nearby fields. Are you telling me we were arrested because we had the fucking bad luck to be bedded next to you?”

Maikov emitted a whimper that bordered on a wail. “But we know nothing! We did nothing!”

“Oh?” said Alexander. “Tell that to the group of musicians and a small audience that used to gather in the early thirties for an evening of piano without clearing it first with the housing council. To help defray the costs of the wine, they would collect a few kopecks from each person. When they were all arrested for anti-Soviet agitation, the money they had collected was deemed to have gone to prop up the nearly extinct bourgeoisie. The musicians and the audience all got from three to ten years.” Alexander paused. “Well, not all. Only those who confessed to their crimes. Those who refused to confess were shot.”

Ouspensky and Maikov stared at him. “And you know this how?”

Alexander shrugged. “Because I, being fourteen, escaped through the window before they had a chance to catch me.”

They heard someone coming and fell quiet. Alexander stood up, and as the door was opened, Alexander said to Maikov, “Corporal, imagine your old life is gone. Imagine they’ve taken from you all they can and there is nothing left—”

“Come, Belov, let’s go!” shouted a stout man with a single-shot Nagant rifle.

“It’s the only way you will make it,” Alexander said, stepping out of the cell and hearing the door slam closed behind him.

He sat in a small room in the abandoned school, in a school chair, in front of a table that was in front of a blackboard. He thought at any minute the schoolmaster was going to come in with a textbook and proceed with the lesson on the evils of imperialism.

Instead two men came in. There were now four people in the room, Alexander in the chair, a guard at the back of the class and two men behind the teacher’s table. One man was bald and very thin with a long, thoughtful nose. He introduced himself kindly as Riduard Morozov. “Not the Morozov of this town?” asked Alexander.

Morozov smiled thinly. “No.”

The other man was extremely heavy, extremely bald and had a round bulbous nose with broken capillaries. He looked like a heavy drinker. He introduced himself—somewhat less kindly—as Mitterand, which Alexander found almost humorous since Mitterand was the leader of the tiny French “Resistance movement in Nazi-occupied France.

Morozov began. “Do you know why you’re here, Major Belov?” he asked, smiling warmly, speaking in polite, friendly tones. They were having a conversation. In a moment Mitterand was going to offer Alexander some tea, maybe a shot of vodka to calm him. Alexander thought of it as a joke, but oddly, the bottle of vodka actually did materialize from behind a desk, along with three shot glasses. Morozov poured.

“Yes,” Alexander said brightly. “I was told yesterday I’m getting promoted. I’m going to be lieutenant colonel. And no, thank you,” he said to the drink being offered to him.

“Are you refusing our hospitality, Comrade Belov?”

“I am Major Belov,” Alexander said, standing up and raising his voice to the man in front of him. “Do you have a rank?” He waited. The man said nothing. “I didn’t think so. You’re not wearing a uniform. If you had a uniform to wear, you would be wearing it. Now, I will not have your drink. I will not sit down until you tell me what you want with me. I will be glad to cooperate in whatever way I can, comrades,” he added, “but don’t sit there and insult me by pretending we’re the best of friends. What’s going on?”

“You’re under arrest.”

“Ah. So no promotion then? It only took you since four this morning. Ten hours. You have not told me what you want with me. I don’t know if you know yourselves. Why don’t you go and find someone who can actually tell me? In the meantime, take me back to my cell and stop wasting my time.”

“Major!” That was Morozov. The voice was less kind. The vodka, however, had been drunk by both men. Alexander smiled. If he kept them in the classroom drinking, they’d be leading him to the Soviet-Finnish border themselves, talking to him in soft English. They called him major. Alexander understood the psychology of rank extremely well. In the army there was only one rule—you never spoke rudely to your superiors. The pecking order was precisely established. “Major,” Morozov repeated. “Stay right here.”

Alexander returned to his chair.

Mitterand spoke to the young guard by the door; Alexander didn’t hear the individual words. He understood the essence. This was not only out of Morozov’s hands, this was out of his league. A bigger fish was needed to deal with Alexander. And soon the fish would be coming. But first they were going to try to break him.

“Put your hands behind your back, Major,” said Morozov.

Alexander threw his cigarette on the floor, twisted his foot over it, and stood up.

They relieved him of his sidearm and his knife and pillaged through his rucksack. Having found bandages and pens and her white dress—nothing worth removing—they decided to take Alexander’s medals off his chest, and they also tipped his shoulder bars and they told him he was not a major anymore and had no right to his title. They still hadn’t told him the charges against him, nor had they asked him any questions.

He asked for his ruck. They laughed. Almost helplessly, he glanced at it once, in their hands, knowing Tatiana’s dress was there. Just one more thing to be trampled on, to be left behind.

Alexander was taken to a solitary concrete cell with no window, no Ouspensky, no Maikov. He had no bench, he had no bed, and he had no blanket. He was alone, and his only sources of oxygen came from the guards opening the door, or from opening the sliding steel reinforced window on the door, or from the peephole they peered at him through, or from the small hole in the ceiling that was probably used for poison gas.

They left him his watch, and because they didn’t search his person they did not find the drugs in his boots. He had a feeling the drugs were not safe. But where to put them? Slipping off the boots, he took the syringe, the morphine vial and the small sulfa pills and stuffed them in the pocket of his BVDs. They would have to search more thoroughly than they usually did to find them there.

Bending reminded him of his sharply throbbing back, which, as the day wore on, felt as if it were swelling and expanding. He debated giving himself a morphine shot, then decided against it. He didn’t want to numb himself to what was about to come. He did chew one of the sulfa tablets, bitter and acidic, without crushing it, without asking for water. He just put it into his mouth and chewed it, shuddering with the swallow. Alexander sat quietly on the floor, realizing they couldn’t see him because it was so dark in the cell, and closed his eyes. Or maybe they had remained open; it was hard to tell. It didn’t matter in the end. He sat and waited. Had the day gone? Had it been one day? He wanted a smoke. He remained motionless. Had Sayers and Tatiana left? Had Tania allowed herself to be convinced, to be goaded, to be comforted? Had she taken her things and got into Sayers’s truck? Had they fled Morozovo? What Alexander wouldn’t give for a word. He was very afraid that Dr. Sayers would break down, not convince her, and she would still be here. He tried to feel for her up close, sensing nothing but the cold. If she were still in Morozovo, he knew that once they started interrogating him for real and once they knew of her, he would be finished. He couldn’t breathe thinking of her still so close. He needed to stall the NKVD for a little while longer until he knew for sure she was out. The sooner she left, the sooner he could give himself over to the state.

She seemed very close. He could almost reach for his ruck and feel for her dress, and see her, white dress with red roses, hair long and flowing, teeth gleaming. She was very close. He didn’t have to touch the dress. He didn’t need comfort. She needed comfort. She needed him so much, how was she going to get through this without him?

How was she going to get through losing him without him?

Alexander needed to think about something else.

Soon he didn’t have to.

“Idiot!” he heard from the outside. “How do you plan to observe the prisoner if he has no light? He could have killed himself in there for all you know. Stupid moron!”

The door opened and a man walked in with a kerosene lamp. “You need to be illuminated at all times,” said the man. It was Mitterand.

“When is someone going to tell me what’s going on around here?” said Alexander.

“You are not to question us!” Mitterand shouted. “You are not a major anymore. You are nothing. You will sit and wait until we are ready for you.”

That seemed to be the sole purpose of Mitterand’s visit—to yell at Alexander. After Mitterand left, the guard brought Alexander some water and three-quarters of a kilo of bread. Alexander ate the bread, drank the water, and then felt around the floor for a drain hole. He did not want to be illuminated. He also did not want to compete for oxygen with a kerosene lamp. Opening the bottom of the lamp, he poured the kerosene down the drain, leaving just a little left at the bottom that burned out in ten minutes. The guard opened the door and shouted, “Why is the lamp out?”

“Ran out of kerosene,” Alexander said pleasantly. “Have you got more?”

The guard did not have more.

“That’s too bad,” Alexander said.

He slept in the darkness, in a sitting position, in the corner, with his head leaning against the wall. When he woke up it was still pitch black. He didn’t know for sure he had woken up. He dreamed he had opened his eyes, and it was black. He dreamed of Tatiana, and when he woke up, he thought of Tatiana. Dreams and reality were mingled. Alexander didn’t know where the nightmare ended and real life began. He dreamed he closed his eyes and slept.

He felt disconnected from himself, from Morozovo—from the hospital, from his life—and he felt strangely comforted in his detachment. He was cold. That attached him back to his cramped and uncomfortable body. He preferred it the other way. The wound in his back was merciless. He grit his teeth and blinked away the darkness.

Harold and Jane Barrington, 1933

Hitler had become the Chancellor of Germany. President Von Hindenburg had “stepped down.” Alexander felt an inexplicable stirring in the air of something ominous he could not quite put his finger on. He had long stopped hoping for more food, for new shoes, for a warmer winter coat. But in the summer he didn’t need a coat. The Barringtons were spending July at their dacha in Krasnaya Polyana and that was good. They rented two rooms from a Lithuanian widow and her drunken son.

One afternoon, after a picnic of hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes and a little bologna, and vodka for his mother (“Mom, since when do you drink vodka?”), Alexander was lying in the hammock reading when he heard someone behind him in the woods. When he languidly turned his head, he saw his mother and father. They were near the clearing by the lake, throwing pebbles into the water, chatting softly. Alexander was not used to his parents talking quietly, so strident had their relationship become with their conflicting needs and anxieties. Normally he would have looked back into his book. But this quiet chatter, this convivial closeness—he didn’t know what to make of it. Harold took the pebbles out of Jane’s hands and brought her to stand close to him. One of his hands was around her waist. He was holding her other hand. And then he kissed her and they began to dance. They waltzed slowly in the clearing, and Alexander heard his father singing—singing!

As they continued to waltz, their bodies spinning in a conjugal embrace, and as Alexander watched his mother and father in a moment they had never had before in front of him and would never have again, he was filled with a happiness and longing he could neither define nor express.

They drew away from one another, looked at him, and smiled.

Uncertainly he smiled back, embarrassed but unable to look away.

They came over to his hammock. His father’s arm was still around his mother.

“It’s our anniversary today, Alexander.”

“Your father is singing the anniversary song to me,” said Jane. “We danced to that song the day we were wed thirty-one years ago. I was nineteen.” She smiled at Harold.

“Are you going to stay in the hammock, son? Read for a while?”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Good,” said Harold, taking Jane by the hand and heading with her toward the house.

Alexander looked into his book, but after an hour of turning the pages, he could not see or remember a single word of what he had just read.

Winter came too soon. And during the winter on Thursday evenings after dinner Harold would take Alexander by the hand and walk with him in the cold to Arbat—the Moscow street vendors’ mall of musicians and writers and poets and troubadours and old ladies selling chachkas from the days of the Tsar. Near Arbat, in a small, smoke-filled two-room apartment, a group of foreigners and Soviet men, all devout communists, would meet for two hours from eight to ten to drink, smoke and discuss how to make communism work better in the Soviet Union, how to make the classless society arrive faster at their doorstep, a society in which there was no need for the state, for police, for an army because all grounds for conflict had been removed.

“Marx said the only conflict is economic conflict between classes. Once it’s gone, the need for police would be gone. Citizens, what are we waiting for? Is it taking longer than we anticipated?” That was Harold.

Even Alexander chipped in, remembering something he had read: “‘While the state exists, there can be no freedom. When there will be freedom, there will be no state.’” Harold smiled approvingly at his son quoting Lenin.

At the meetings Alexander made friends with sixty-seven-year-old Slavan, a withered, gray man who seemed to have wrinkles even on his scalp, but his eyes were small blue alert stars, and his mouth was always fixed in a sardonic smile. He said little, but Alexander liked the look of his ironic expression and the bit of warmth that came from him whenever he looked Alexander’s way.

After two years of meetings, Harold and fifteen others were called into the Party regional headquarters or Obkom—Oblastnyi Kommitet—and asked if the focus of their future meetings could perhaps be something other than how to make communism work better in Russia since that implied it wasn’t working quite so well. After hearing about it from his father, Alexander asked how the Party knew what a group of fifteen drunk men talked about once a week on Thursdays in a city of five million people. Harold said, himself quoting Lenin, “‘It is true that liberty is precious. So precious that it must be rationed.’ They obviously have ways of finding out what we talk about. Perhaps it’s that Slavan. I’d stop talking to him if I were you.”

“It’s not him, Dad.”

After that the group still met on Thursdays, but now they read aloud from Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? or from Rosa Luxembourg’s pamphlets, or from Marx’s Communist Manifesto.

Harold often brought up the approval of American communist supporters to show that Soviet communism was slowly being embraced internationally and that it was all just a matter of time. “Look what Isadora Duncan said about Lenin before she died,” Harold would say and quote: “‘Others loved themselves, money, theories, power. Lenin loved his fellow men…Lenin was God, as Christ was God, because God is love, and Christ and Lenin were all love.’”

Alexander smiled approvingly at his father.

During one full night, many hours of it, fifteen men, except for a silent and smiling Slavan, tried to explain to a fourteen-year-old Alexander the meaning of “value subtraction.” How an item—say shoes—could cost less after it was made than the sum total value of its labor and material parts. “What don’t you understand?” yelled a frustrated communist who was an engineer by day.

“The part of how you make money selling shoes.”

“Who said anything about making money? Haven’t you read the Communist Manifesto?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you remember what Marx said? The difference between what the factory pays the worker to make the shoes and what the shoes actually cost is capitalist theft and exploitation of the proletariat. That’s what communism is trying to eradicate. Have you not been paying attention?”

“I have, but value subtraction is not just eliminating profit,” Alexander said. “Value subtraction means it’s actually costing more to make the shoes than the shoes can be sold for. Who is going to pay the difference?”

“The state.”

“Where is the state going to find the money?”

“The state will temporarily pay the workers less to make the shoes.”

Alexander was quiet. “So in a period of flagrant worldwide inflation, the Soviet Union is going to pay the workers less? How much less?”

“Less, that’s all.”

“And how are we going to buy the shoes?”

“Temporarily we’re not. We’ll have to wear last year’s shoes. Until the state gets on its feet.” The engineer smiled.

“Good one,” Alexander said calmly. “The state got on its feet enough to cover the cost of Lenin’s Rolls Royce, didn’t it?”

“What does Lenin’s Rolls Royce have to do with what we’re talking about?” screamed the engineer. Slavan laughed. “The Soviet Union will be fine,” the engineer continued. “It is in its infancy stages. It will borrow money from abroad if it has to.”

“With all due respect, citizen, no country in the world will lend money to the Soviet Union again,” said Alexander. “It repudiated all of its foreign debt in 1917 after the Bolshevik Revolution. They will not see any foreign money for a long time to come. The world banks are closed to the Soviet Union.”

“We have to be patient. Changes will not happen overnight. And you need to have a more positive attitude. Harold, what have you been teaching your son?”

Harold didn’t reply, but on the way home he said, “What’s gotten into you, Alexander?”

“Nothing.” Alexander wanted to take his father’s hand, like always, but suddenly thought he was too old. He walked alongside him, and then took it anyway. “For some reason, the economics are not working. This revolutionary state is built foremost on economics, and the state has figured out everything except how to pay the labor force. The workers feel less and less like proletariat than like the state-owned factories and machines. We’ve been here over three years. We just finished the first of the Five-Year Plans. And we have so little food, and nothing in the stores, and—” He wanted to say, and people keep disappearing, but he kept his mouth shut.

“Well, what do you think is going on in America?” Harold asked. “Thirty per cent unemployment, Alexander. You think it’s better there? The whole world is suffering. Look at Germany: such extraordinary inflation. Now this man Adolf Hitler is promising the Germans the end of all their troubles. Maybe he will succeed. The Germans certainly hope so. Well, Comrades Lenin and Stalin promised the same thing to the Soviet Union. What did Stalin call Russia? The second America, right? We have to believe, and we have to follow, and soon it will be better. You’ll see.”

“I know, Dad. You may be right. Still, I know that the state has to pay its people somehow. How much less can they pay you? We already can’t afford meat and milk, not that there is any, even if we could. And will they pay you less until—what? They’ll realize they need more money, not less, to run the government, and your labor is their largest variable cost. What are they going to do? Reduce your salary every year until—until what?”

“What are you afraid of?” Harold said, squeezing Alexander’s reluctant hand. “When you get big, you will have meaningful work. You still want to be an architect? You will. You will have a career.”

“I’m afraid,” said Alexander, extricating himself from his father, “that it’s just a matter of time before I am, before we all become nothing more than fixed capital.”

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[SNEAK PEEK] SAMURAI MELAYU

Samurai Melayu oleh Hilal Asyraf

 

Mereka kini berada di tengah-tengah Kotaraya Angsana. Menara Keimanan megah mencakar langit, jelas kelihatan dari tempat mereka berdiri. Bakri dan Faisal menyelinap di tengah-tengah lautan manusia.

“Pusat.” Bakri melekapkan telefon pintar pada telinga.

“Direktor Amiri bercakap. Sepanjang hari tanpa berita, kamu dan Faisal buat apa, Bakri?”

“Kami berada di dalam terowong MRT yang ditinggalkan. Terdapat pangkalan lama Mitsuhide di situ, dan kini digunakan oleh Ryuken. Capaian isyarat komunikasi tidak berapa bagus di sana.”

Tengku Amiri kedengaran mendengus. Namun, dia tidak terus berbicara. Seakan-akan mahu mendengar lebih lanjut laporan Bakri.

“Berita buruk, Ryuken ada menghantar operatif yang nampaknya bukan calang-calang.”

“Maksud kamu?”

“Dia mempunyai kemampuan persis seorang Pemburu.”

Tengku Amiri tidak memberi sebarang respons kepada berita yang baru diterimanya itu. Bakri hanya dapat menjangka yang Direktor Inteligen Kerajaan Malaysia itu sedang terkejut. Mungkin perlu sejeda masa untuk berfikir.

“Apa status operatif tersebut?”

“Kami berjaya melepaskan diri dan kini sedang berada di tengah-tengah orang ramai, sekitar dua kilometer dari Menara Keimanan.” Bakri memandang ke arah simbol kemegahan Malaysia itu.

“Bermakna kamu tidak mampu menewaskannya?”

“Dalam keadaan mengejut sebentar tadi dan terowong gelap tanpa cahaya? Ya, tidak mampu.”

“Kembali ke pangkalan segera.” Tengku Amiri memberikan arahan. Suaranya tegas.

“Baik. tuan.” Telefon pintar itu dimasukkan ke dalam saku.

Faisal di sisinya mengangguk. Turut mendengar perbualan Bakri dengan penuh perhatian. “Engkau fikir, Ryuken ada kaitan dengan Kesatuan Pemburu?” Faisal melontar soalan sambil mereka menyambung langkahan.

“Daripada apa yang kita nampak malam ini? Pasti.” Bakri menjawab pantas. Daripada kerutan pada dahi, jelas kelihatan Bakri sedang mengerah otaknya berfikir. Dia cuba mengingati sepanjang kehidupannya bersama arwah bapa, apakah pernah bapanya itu memberikan maklumat demikian kepadanya.

Tetapi mustahil dia terlupa maklumat sepenting itu, sekiranya ada.

“Dia kenal Hoshi, penembak tepat daripada kalangan Pemburu Handalan. Hoshi dari Jepun. Tetapi kedua-duanya merupakan ahli kepada organisasi yang penuh kerahsiaan. Kedua-duanya bersaing untuk menguasai dunia.” Bakri cuba menjejak logik.

“Tetapi dia kelihatan seperti mahu menuntut bela atas kematian Hoshi sebaik sahaja dia menyedari engkau yang bertanggungjawab menumbangkan Kesatuan Pemburu.” Faisal menambah.

Sekali-sekala, mereka terpaksa mengelak orang yang lalu-lalang. Kini, mereka berada di sebuah jalan yang penuh dengan pusat membeli belah di kiri dan kanannya.

“Tandanya, mereka berkawan rapat. Mereka tak berahsia sesama mereka. Sekiranya Ryuken dan Kesatuan Pemburu benar-benar bermusuh, mereka takkan sedemikian gayanya.” Bakri meramas-ramas dagunya.

Faisal menanti Bakri mengeluarkan kesimpulannya yang tersendiri. Bagi Faisal, dia sendiri tidak mempunyai maklumat yang lebih. Dia tidak terlibat dengan Kesatuan Pemburu, dan hanya mengenali pemburu bernama Jagat apabila pemburu itu meminta pertolongan organisasinya. Dia juga tidak benar-benar tahu berkenaan Ryuken, kecuali Organisasi Hitam yang menaunginya, merupakan salah satu organisasi yang terpaksa tunduk kepada cengkaman organisasi tersebut.

Dunia gelap penuh kerahsiaan. Sememangnya tidak pernah akan dapat dijangka siapa lawan, siapa kawan. Kerana itu, formula mudah ialah semua orang ialah lawan. Kerana itu juga Organisasi Hitam apabila melihat peluang yang terbuka luas, mengambil keputusan untuk menghapuskan organisasi-organisasi lain, bahkan cuba hendak menundukkan Ryuken. Walaupun usaha itu gagal dengan teruk sekali.

“Aku tak punya apa-apa sekarang. Kaitan yang ada, hanya Hoshi dan perempuan di terowong. Mungkin aku perlu kaji latar belakang Hoshi dengan lebih mendalam. Data-data yang diekstrak daripada Kesatuan Pemburu masih ada di pusat operasi Inteligen Kerajaan Malaysia. Aku perlu…”

Bicara Bakri tidak sempurna. Telinganya menangkap desiran angin yang sangat berlainan dengan suasana. Spontan tubuhnya menunduk sambil dia menarik Faisal bersama.

Beberapa orang awam berhampiran mereka tumbang serta-merta. Darah tersembur ke udara, dan sebahagian besarnya membasahi tubuh Bakri dan Faisal. Mata Bakri terbelalak melihat tragedi itu. Masa seakan bergerak perlahan, memberikannya peluang untuk melihat tubuh-tubuh itu tumbang menyembah bumi.

Segera Bakri berpaling.

“Engkau fikir aku akan biarkan sahaja kalian menghilang? Kalian pandang rendah kepada aku.”

Seorang wanita, berpakaian elegan dengan tema kimono, berdiri dengan tenang dan memandang tepat ke arah Bakri dan Faisal, dalam keadaan jalan yang sesak itu kelam kabut dengan orang ramai yang berlari menyelamatkan diri.

Jeritan kedengaran di sana sini. Kelihatan bapa mendapatkan anak dan isterinya, suami cuba melindungi isteri mereka, ibu-ibu menarik anak masing-masing, masingmasing cuba menyelamatkan diri dan orang yang tersayang.

Di tengah-tengah huru-hara tersebut, perempuan itu melangkah mendekati Bakri.

Faisal terus mengeluarkan senjatanya.

Demikian juga Bakri. “Celaka!”

“Hah, marah?” Perempuan itu tertawa. “Bukankah engkau yang memikirkan diri sendiri dan rakan engkau sahaja, tanpa berfikir lebih panjang akan kesan tindakan engkau kepada orang lain di sekeliling?”

“Engkau memang sengaja, bukan? Siapa gerangan engkau, celaka? Biar aku boleh letakkan namamu pada batu nisan kelak!” Bakri membalas. Wajahnya merah. Sebahagiannya dibasahi darah, sebahagian lain pula dibakar amarah.

Jalan tersebut mula lengang. Orang ramai seakanakan memberikan ruang untuk pertarungan berlaku. Sebahagian pula menanti di dalam bangunan, di balik dinding, untuk melihat apa yang bakal terjadi.

“Aku Tomoe. Hikari Tomoe. Salah seorang daripada Syaitan Bertujuh.”

“Syaitan Bertujuh?” Bakri mengerutkan dahi.

Faisal pula terpinga-pinga kerana tidak memahami perbualan antara Bakri dan perempuan itu, tetapi tangannya bersedia menarik picu senjatanya pada bila-bila masa.

“Kesatuan Pemburu ada Pemburu Handalan, kami ada Syaitan Bertujuh. Operatif terhandal Ryuken.”

Ketika ini telefon pintar Bakri dan Faisal sama-sama berbunyi.

“Angkat.” Bakri memberitahu Faisal, sambil dirinya berjaga-jaga supaya perempuan bernama Tomoe itu tidak mampu melakukan apa-apa kepada mereka.

Faisal segera menyeluk saku dan mengeluarkan telefon pintarnya.

“Apa yang sedang berlaku?” Suara Tengku Amiri kedengaran. “Kami dapat maklumat berlaku kekecohan di tempat kalian berada!”

“Operatif yang kami cakapkan tadi, kini berada di hadapan kami dan telah membunuh …” Faisal menoleh ke belakang, melihat mayat yang bergelimpangan dan darah yang telah membasahi jalan. “… empat orang awam.”

“Bantuan akan tiba dengan segera.”

Telefon pintar itu dimasukkan ke dalam saku. “

Hero akan sampai.” Faisal memberitahu.

Bakri mengangguk. “Tomoe, ada baiknya engkau menyerah. Unit Hero akan sampai dan engkau pasti takkan dapat menewaskan kami semua.” Mendengar amaran Bakri, Tomoe terdiam seketika. Wajahnya seperti terpana. Bakri menjangka Tomoe sedang berfikir-fikir untuk melarikan diri. Tetapi jangkaannya meleset sama sekali.

Perempuan itu ketawa berdekah-dekah.

“Engkau benar-benar memandang rendah kepada aku nampaknya.”

Terlalu berani. Bakri cuba membaca gerak geri Tomoe, tetapi ternyata perempuan itu tidak menunjukkan apa-apa kelemahan. Dia jelas yakin, berani, dan langsung tidak gentar.

Bakri memandang Faisal. “Cari peluang.” Pistol di tangannya dikembalikan kepada Faisal.

Faisal mengangguk.

Bakri membuka langkah, bergerak ke arah Tomoe.

“Oh? Engkau fikir engkau mampu menewaskan aku? Tangan kosong?”

Tawa masih bersisa pada bibir Tomoe. Dia memandang Bakri dengan penuh minat. Dua kunai dikeluarkan dan dipegangnya kemas. “Aku tidak akan bermain secara adil.”

“Aku juga tidak.” Bakri menuding ke arah Faisal yang mengacukan kedua-dua pistolnya ke arah Tomoe.

Senyuman Tomoe meleret. Kemudian, tanpa amaran, dia melemparkan kunai pada kedua-dua tangannya. Satu lurus manakala satu lagi melencong dari arah kanan. Kedua-duanya laju menuju ke arah Bakri.

Bakri mengabaikan kedua-duanya, memecut terus ke hadapan. Menunduk untuk mengelak kunai yang lurus menuju ke arahnya, sebelum menolak kakinya untuk mendekatkan diri kepada Tomoe.

Apabila dua kunai itu bertemu, Bakri sudah melepaskan beberapa tumbukan ke arah Tomoe, yang telah disambut dengan begitu baik oleh Tomoe. Kedua-duanya sama pantas. Tomoe sesekali mencuba untuk melepaskan tumbukan pada rusuk Bakri, kiri dan kanan, tetapi Bakri turut tangkas mempertahankan diri.

Faisal cuba memerhatikan dengan penuh teliti, dan mencari peluang untuk melepaskan tembakan.

Langit tiba-tiba berdentum. Bunyi seperti guruh menghiasai suasana.

Hero semakin hampir.

“Heh.” Tomoe memandang tepat ke mata Bakri, yang kekal serius. Tangan mereka berdua masih bertembung antara satu sama lain, entah buat kali yang keberapa puluh. Tanpa disangka-sangka, Tomoe menjelirkan lidah dan meludah sesuatu.

Bakri terkejut. Hampir sahaja matanya menjadi mangsa beberapa jarum halus. Dia sempat mengelak, tetapi jarum-jarum tersebut sempat menikam bawah keningnya.

“Argh!”

Fokus Bakri terganggu. Tubuhnya menerima beberapa tumbukan. Bakri terundur.

Faisal segera melepaskan tembakan berdas-das. Cuba untuk menghalang Tomoe daripada terus mencederakan Bakri.

Namun, Tomoe lebih pantas mengeluarkan kunaikunai daripada pakaiannya, memukul peluru-peluru tersebut jatuh dari udara, sebelum melepaskan kunai-kunai itu ke arah Bakri.

Bakri kelam-kabut menyelamatkan diri. Dia berjaya mengelak kesemua kunai tersebut, kecuali satu, tertusuk pada bahunya.

Faisal mara, mahu menggantikan Bakri sebagai penempur utama. Tetapi Tomoe lebih pantas, telah bergerak mendapatkannya terlebih dahulu.

“Engkau beruntung kunaiku telah habis.”

Tomoe melayangkan tangannya dengan telapak tangan separa terbuka. Faisal mengangkat tangan mempertahankan diri, tetapi tetap terlutut apabila serangan Tomoe itu bertemu dengan pertahanannya. Keras.

Belum sempat Faisal berbuat apa-apa, lutut Tomoe keluar dari kainnya dan menjamah wajah Faisal. Faisal terus terlentang jatuh. Tomoe yang bergerak dengan pantas itu, segera mengejar tubuh Faisal untuk memberikan serangan yang seterusnya.

Ketika inilah, Tomoe tidak menjangka, yang Faisal masih kejap memegang kedua-dua senjatanya. Picu ditarik berkali-kali. Tubuh Tomoe dihujani peluru pelali.

“Tidur, jahanam!”

Tomoe terundur beberapa tapak, sebelum melakukan lompatan balik kuang beberapa kali, menuju ke arah Bakri. Kunai-kunai yang bertaburan di sekitar pemuda itu diambilnya. Bakri yang baru sahaja berjaya mengatur keadaan diri, kini terpaksa mempertahankan dirinya daripada serangan Tomoe yang mahu membenamkan kunaikunai tersebut pada kepalanya.

Bebeza dengan Faisal, Bakri berjaya mempertahankan diri dengan baik. Tangan Tomoe dikilas dan Bakri langsung bangkit sambil melepaskan satu tumbukan deras. Tomoe sempat mengangkat tangan kirinya untuk mempertahankan diri.

Kini, Bakri dan Tomoe tersekat bersama-sama.

Ketika inilah satu unit Hero turun dari udara dan mendarat berdekatan mereka. Dua tangannya diacukan ke arah Tomoe.

“Sila serahkan diri anda. Kekasaran akan dibalas dengan kekasaran.”

Faisal kembali berdiri, tangannya masih memegang pistol. Luka pada bibir tidak disekanya. Dia tertanya-tanya akan mengapa Tomoe masih tidak tertidur selepas ditembak berkali-kali. Pada jarak yang dekat, sepatutnya tembakantembakan peluru pelali tadi memberikan kesakitan yang teramat. Perempuan itu langsung tidak mengerang.

“Bagaimana? Apa yang engkau mahu lakukan sekarang?” Pandangan Bakri tajam menikam Tomoe.

Tomoe sekadar meleret senyum. Tertawa. Perlahanlahan, Tomoe merenggangkan pegangannya pada tangan Bakri. Bakri turut melepaskan kilasannya.

Tomoe mendepangkan tangan. Seakan bersedia untuk menyerah.

Bakri tidak berganjak. Dia masih cuba membaca riak wajah perempuan di hadapannya ini yang langsung tidak mempamerkan rasa takut, bahkan sekelumit warna kekalahan pun tidak muncul. Hati Bakri tidak senang.

Hero mula bergerak menghampiri Tomoe.

“Hero-X035 melakukan tangkapan.”

Hero itu memberikan laporan. Kini, dia sudah terlalu hampir dengan Tomoe. Tangan Tomoe dicapainya untuk digari.

“Suspek seorang wanita, berbahasa Jepun, wajahnya menunjukkan keturunan dari negara yang sama. Latar belakangnya tidak ditemui dalam pangkalan data.” Tomoe meleretkan senyuman penuh makna. Bakri pula mengerutkan dahi.

“Berhenti!”

***

Langit dibaluti baldu kelam malam. Bulan tidak memunculkan diri. Hanya bintang-bintang yang bertamu. Angin sepoi-sepoi bahasa memukul apa sahaja di laluan mereka. Rumput-rumput beralun mengikut arus.

Mus’ab sudah bersedia. Kekuda sudah dibukanya. Tangan kanan siap untuk menghunus Muramasa, manakala tangan kiri sudah kejap pada sarung katana.

Di hadapannya, Goro, sedang memutarkan nagitana ke kiri dan ke kanan, sebelum senjata itu direhatkan pada tangan kanannya dan dipacakkan ke tanah. Ukiran naga pada pangkal bilah senjata itu bertujuan bukan sekadar hiasan, tetapi untuk menggerunkan musuh, kerana naga merupakan haiwan mitos yang gagah dan megah, bahkan ada yang menjadikannya sebagai Tuhan.

Tetapi tidak untuk Mus’ab.

Mereka kini berada di sebuah tanah lapang, tidak berapa jauh dari taman perumahannya. Tanah lapang yang terdapat di kaki bukit berdekatan. Jika hadir ke sini pada waktu siang, kehijauannya akan terserlah. Pada waktu petang, kadangkala ibu bapa akan membawa anak mereka untuk bermain layang-layang. Dan pada hujung minggu, tidak sedikit orang yang datang untuk mendaki bukit, melihat panorama Kotaraya Angsana.

Waktu sebegini, tempat ini tidak dilawati sesiapa. Senyap dan sunyi. Hanya tiang-tiang lampu sahaja memberikan cahaya.

“Ryujin, engkau sudah bersediakah?”

Mata Mus’ab tajam memandang rakan lamanya itu. Ujisato Goro. Seorang samurai yang sangat minat menggunakan senjata-senjata panjang. Kegemarannya, nagitana. Walaupun badan besar sering dipadankan dengan otak yang kecil, Goro bukan orang bodoh. Walaupun tidak segenius Nobu, Goro agak teliti dalam melakukan kerjanya.

Apabila Ryuken menghantar Goro, ia ibarat menghantar kereta kebal. Goro akan memecahkan barisan lawan, mengkucar-kacirkan mereka. Dengan nagitananya, Goro akan meragut banyak nyawa sekaligus, menusuk rasa gerun dan gentar pada jiwa lawan yang masih hidup.

“Persoalannya, Goro, apakah engkau telah bersedia?”

Matanya tajam memaku wajah Goro. Mus’ab seperti sedang berada di dalam elemennya. Memori sebagai algojo seakan meresap ke dalam tubuhnya. Mindanya pantas berfikir bagaimana dia akan menumbangkan lawan. Jarijemari kanannya mula bergerak-gerak, bersedia untuk menghunus Muramasa.

Goro mendengus, nagitana diangkatnya. Diputarkan, sebelum langkahannya dibuka, memecut ke hadapan. Dalam jarak sedepa dari Mus’ab, Goro melepaskan satu tusukan pantas. Deruan angin yang cukup kuat hadir bersama, menandakan daya yang diberikannya tidak kecil.

Mus’ab bergerak ke kanan, menjauhkan diri dari pusat serangan Goro dengan pergerakan yang amat pantas, seakan-akan telah menjangka yang tusukan itu akan diikuti libasan. Nagitana itu tinggal seinci lagi mahu merobek dadanya.

Goro tidak berhenti di situ. Apabila libasannya sempurna, Goro terus berputar dan dia terangkat ke udara, sebelum nagitana itu diangkatnya tinggi, dan dilibas kembali ke bumi.

Ketika ini Mus’ab berguling dan menjauhkan diri. Rumput-rumput menjadi mangsa, tanah merekah. Goro tidak membazirkan masa, berguling untuk merapatkan jaraknya dengan Mus’ab. Sekali lagi nagitana dilepaskan untuk menusuk Mus’ab. Mus’ab yang sudah menjangka ukuran senjata tersebut, berundur untuk mengelak diri daripada menjadi mangsa.

Goro tersengih. Mata Mus’ab terbeliak apabila senjata itu seakan memanjang. Hujung bilah nagitana menyentuh dadanya. Mujur Mus’ab sempat menolak tanah dengan kakinya untuk berundur dengan lebih jauh.

Goro berhenti. Begitu juga Mus’ab. Mata mereka bertembung. Mus’ab dapat melihat Goro sedang memegang nagitana itu hanya dengan jari telunjuk dan ibu jarinya, betulbetul di buntut senjata tersebut.

Goro menarik kembali nagitana-nya, merapatkan bilah senjata itu pada wajah. Senyuman sinis melebar. “Engkau cuai, Ryujin.” Darah Mus’ab yang terdapat pada hujung bilah itu dijilat.

Mus’ab tidak memberikan respons balas. Matanya mengerling pada dada. Luka, tetapi sedikit sahaja.

“Engkau cukup berani hadir ke mari tanpa pakaian tempur kita. Atau engkau telah membuangnya semasa engkau membuat keputusan mengkhianati kami?” Mata Goro menjegil. Suaranya meninggi. Buntut nagitana dihentak ke tanah.

Mus’ab masih kekal dalam kekudanya. Tangannya masih seperti awal-awal tadi. Bersiaga untuk menghunus Muramasa.

“Kehidupan kita ialah kehidupan yang sia-sia. Kuasa, duit, perempuan, arak, darah. Kemudian kita akan mati dan selepas itu apa?”

“Nama kita akan diingati!” Goro menepuk dada.

Mus’ab menggeleng. “Negara ini telah mengubah aku. Aku percaya dengan perjuangan negara ini. Negara ini memperkenalkan kepada aku erti Islam yang sebenar, yang kemudian membuatkan aku lebih faham erti menjadi seroang manusia. Aku sekarang tahu makna sebenar kehidupan. Aku hidup ada tujuan, dikelilingi orang-orang yang aku cintai.”

“Engkau telah ditipu. Minda engkau telah dibasuh. Orang-orang politik hanya mementingkan diri mereka sendiri. Agama hanya menimbulkan perbezaan dan menyemarak kematian. Tiada apa yang baik datang daripada kedua-duanya!”

“Jadi Ryuken merupakan alternatif yang lebih baik?” Mus’ab menengking.

“Bersama Ryuken, nasib kita terbela. Tidakkah engkau bersyukur dirimu dijumpai Ryuken, diberikan segalagalanya. Diajar mempertahankan diri, diajar menguasai. Semua orang di Jepun tunduk kepada organisasi kita. Kita memegang segala-galanya!”

“Itu namanya mementingkan diri!”

“Engkau itu yang tidak reti menghargai!” Goro meludah.

“Ryuken hanya mahu menguasai dunia. Malaysia menjadi seteru kerana negara ini sering mematahkan usahausaha Ryuken, bukan? Malaysia telah berjaya membebaskan diri daripada korupsi, dan mula membina ketamadunan. Ryuken tidak lagi boleh mengambil peluang daripada itu semua, bukan? Itu sebabnya Ryuken mengaktifkan aku. Untuk melakukan kerja-kerja kotor semula! Engkau patut membuka mata, Goro!”

Goro mendengus. “Engkau sudah jauh dirosakkan, Ryujin. Benar arahan daripada Koro untuk engkau dihapuskan. Engkau akan menjadi ancaman kepada kami!”

Mus’ab menggeleng. “Aku sebenarnya mahu negara ini sahaja berurusan dengan kalian. Aku yakin mereka mampu melakukannya. Aku tidak mahu masuk campur dengan ini semua, aku tidak mahu lagi menumpahkan darah. Tetapi apabila Shiryu menggugut mahu memperapa-apakan keluargaku sekiranya aku tidak menyahut seruan pengaktifan, ketika itu kalian telah menjadikan aku ancaman.”

“Maka engkau akan menjadi algojo semula untuk kepentingan diri sendiri? Hah, hipokrit!” Goro mengangkat nagitana-nya.

Mus’ab tidak terus membalas. “Aku menjadi alogojo semula untuk diriku, keluargaku, negaraku dan agamaku. Aku tidak akan membiarkan Ryuken menjayakan agendanya.”

Goro ketawa. Semakin lama, semakin kuat.

“Mengapa? Terlalu lawakkah?” Dahi Mus’ab berkerut.

“Engkau tidak tahu agenda kami yang terkini, Ryujin. Bagaimana engkau mahu menghalang kami?” Goro memandang tepat ke arah Mus’ab. “Hah?” Suaranya ditinggikan, mengherdik.

Mus’ab diam. Daripada bicara Goro, dia menghidu Ryuken kini mempunyai agenda rahsia. Apa-apa sahaja agenda Ryuken pula biasanya berbahaya. Kegagalan berkalikali untuk menundukkan Malaysia melalui organisasiorganisasi dunia gelap, ternyata memberikan pukulan hebat kepada Ryuken. Negara ini negara strategik yang mereka mahukan berada dalam genggaman dan kawalan mereka. Ryuken sedang terdesak.

Orang yang terdesak biasanya berani pergi lebih jauh untuk mendapatkan apa yang diperlukan olehnya.

“Engkau pasti tertanya-tanya, apa agenda kami bukan? Hah.” Goro mengacukan nagitana-nya ke arah Mus’ab. Lelaki itu sudah bersiap untuk melancarkan serangan.

“Aku akan mengetahuinya.” Mus’ab menjawab dengan tenang. Dia tidak mahu menunjukkan apa-apa bibit kelemahan kepada musuhnya. “Dengan menumbangkan engkau.”

“Hah, aku beritahu satu rahsia.”

Mus’ab diam, memberikan peluang Goro menghabiskan bicaranya.

“Aku tidak tahu apa-apa.” Goro ketawa berdekahdekah. “Apa yang aku tahu, engkau akan mati pada malam ini.”

Goro kemudiannya terus memecut ke hadapan.

Mus’ab menanti. Bersedia untuk mengelak. Tetapi Goro mengejutkannya dengan melemparkan nagitana seperti lembing. Daya yang dikenakan pula kuat, menyebabkan senjata itu meluncur terlalu pantas.

Mus’ab hanya berjaya mengelak dengan jarak seinci cuma. Bajunya rabak, namun mujur tubuhnya tidak tercedera. Ketika ini, Mus’ab menangkap desiran angin yang kuat. Tidak sempat dia memandang semula ke arah Goro, tubuhnya sudah dirangkul erat dan dibawa menghentam tanah.

Dia dan Goro berguling, sambil Goro melepaskan tumbukan-tumbukan kepada tubuhnya.

“Engkau terlalu angkuh, Ryujin. Engkau tidak menghunuskan Muramasa walaupun aku telah menunjukkan sikap sebagai seorang Samurai kepada engkau. Mengajak engkau untuk menyelesaikan ini dengan pertarungan adil daripada menamatkan nyawa engkau dengan serangan hendap!”

Mus’ab kemudiannya menggerakkan tangan kanannya, menyiku wajah Goro. Darah tersembur dari mulut dan hidung Goro. Tangan kirinya yang merangkul leher Mus’ab, terpaksa dilepaskan.

Mus’ab segera bangkit dan kembali membuka kekuda. Tangan kanannya kembali ke posisi asal, bersiap untuk menghunus Muramasa. Darah yang terkeluar dari mulut, akibat ditumbuk berkali-kali, tidak disekanya.

Goro bangkit. Menyeka darah yang mengalir dari hidung dan mulutnya. Dia memandang sebentar pada cecair merah itu. Kemudian mengoyak sengihan lebar apabila melihat Mus’ab masih kekal dengan postur asal. Menggeleng.

“Engkau menghina aku, Ryujin.”

Goro bergerak mendapatkan nagitana-nya. Senjata itu diputarkan sebelum berhenti pada tangan kanannya.

“Engkau mahu aku membuat kesalahan, kemudian engkau akan menebas kepalaku hanya dengan satu libasan? Teknik menghunus pedang?”

“Aku sebenarnya memberikan engkau peluang, Goro.”

Mata Goro membesar. “Apa dia?”

“Aku sebenarnya mahu memberikan engkau peluang. Untuk hidup. Untuk berubah.”

“Macam engkau?”

“Masih belum terlambat.”

Goro ketawa dengan galak. “Aku tidak sangka engkau seteruk ini, Ryujin. Tidak sepatutnya aku melayan engkau seperti seorang samurai. Engkau sekarang hanyalah ronin. Memalukan!” Goro bersiap untuk serangan yang seterusnya.

Mus’ab menghela nafas. “Ryuken tidak pernah punya agenda yang baik. Ryuken tidak pernah kisah sebenarnya akan orang politik atau agama. Ryuken hanya mahu semua tunduk pada telunjuk mereka. Bergerak di sebalik bayang, mengutip laba.”

“Membela anak-anak yatim seperti kita, Ryujin. Jangan engkau lupa! Anak-anak yang ditinggalkan di jalanan, anak-anak yang terbiar. Masyarakat hanya akan membiarkan kita mati, tanpa pendidikan, tanpa makanan, tanpa pembelaan. Tetapi Ryuken memberikan kita kuasa, harta! Ryujin, tanpa Ryuken, engkau telah lama mati di Okinawa!”

“Kawakami menyelamatkan aku. Tetapi, Goro, siapa yang menggerakkan Kawakami?”

“Hah?” Goro mengerutkan dahi.

“Siapa yang menggerakkan laut untuk menolak aku ke pantai tempat Kawakami sering berlatih?”

Goro terdiam.

“Siapa yang membuka hati Kawakami, yang kita kenal sebagai orang tua yang garang, tegas, tidak berbelas kasihan, untuk mengutip budak yang sudah nyawa-nyawa ikan pada hari itu?”

Mata Goro menjegil. Seperti dapat menjangka apa yang mahu diperkatakan oleh Mus’ab.

“Allah. Tuhan Semesta Alam.” Mus’ab menjawab yakin.

“Celaka. Engkau benar-benar telah dibasuh oleh negara ini!” Goro meludah.

“Aku berterima kasih dengan Ryuken kerana membesarkan aku. Mengajar aku banyak perkara. Tetapi aku telah meninggalkan kehidupan itu.”

Mus’ab menajamkan pandangan. Seolah-olah dengan pandangannya sahaja, dia mahu menamatkan nyawa Goro. Itu membuatkan Goro tambah berang.

“Jangan paksa aku untuk kembali!”

“Kurang ajar!” Goro menengking. Nagitana dihunusnya. Kakinya memecut ke hadapan. “Engkau tidak lagi perlu kembali. Engkau hanya perlu mati!”

Kali ini Mus’ab tidak berganjak. Dia menanti untuk menyambut serangan Goro.

Goro melepaskan nagitana-nya untuk menusuk tubuh Mus’ab. Mus’ab menghunus Muramasa, menebas nagitana itu ke tanah. Senjata itu tidak terbelah, tetapi kini bilah dan sebahagian batangnya sudah jatuh menyembah bumi. Goro mahu mengambil peluang itu dengan melepaskan senjatanya, mara untuk menjamu wajah Mus’ab dengan kedua-dua penumbuknya.

Tetapi Mus’ab segera melepaskan serangan kedua, yakni tangan kirinya menghayun sarung katana, tepat melandas ke pipi Goro. Keras dan deras. Belum sempat Goro tumbang ke bumi, Muramasa sudah diangkat semula dan merodok dada musuhnya itu.

Mata Goro terbelalak. Semuanya berlaku dalam keadaan yang tersangat pantas. Tidak lama kemudian, mulutnya memuntahkan darah. Tusukan itu tepat mengenai jantungnya.

“Maafkan aku, kawan.” Mata Mus’ab bertaut dengan pandangan terakhir Goro.

Goro yang mengenakan pakaian tempur khas, ditenun oleh fabrik yang sepatutnya dapat menghalang cantasan dan tembakan. Tetapi di hadapan Muramasa, pakaian tersebut ibarat pakaian biasa.

Mus’ab tidak lupa menajamkan senjatanya ketika bersiap menerima ‘tetamu’.

“Engkau akan mendapat balasan atas pengkhianatan ini.” Goro bersuara, buat kali terakhir, sebelum anak matanya terangkat, bola matanya menjadi putih, dan Mus’ab menarik kembali Muramasa, kemudian menyahkan darah dengan satu libasan, sebelum dimasukkan kembali ke dalam sarung, hampir serentak dengan tika tubuh Goro menyembah tanah.

Mus’ab memandang pemandu yang setia menanti di hujung padang. Pemandu itu tidak menunjukkan apa-apa reaksi. Mus’ab tahu pemandu tersebut bukan operatif tempur. Hanya pekerja kolar putih.

Mus’ab memandang tubuh Goro yang sudah tidak bernyawa. Menghela nafas panjang.

Ryuken ada agenda, dan nampaknya tidak kecil.

“Lambat lagi baru segalanya dapat kembali seperti biasa, sayang …” Mus’ab bersuara, seakan sedang berbicara dengan isterinya. “… atau dapatkah segalanya kembali seperti biasa?”

Mus’ab tidak pasti, pandangan jatuh pada senjatanya.

Tanpa disangka-sangka, langit kelam menjadi terang-benderang. Satu letupan yang maha kuat berlaku. Terlalu kuat sehingga suasana seperti menjadi siang seketika. Cukup untuk membuatkan telinga Mus’ab berdesing walaupun dia berada jauh dari tempat kejadian.

Mata Mus’ab terbelalak. Apabila suasana kembali gelap, Mus’ab dapat melihat asap seperti asap roket, menjadi seperti menara. Daripada posisi asap tersebut, Mus’ab menjangka ada sesuatu yang terbang ke langit sebelum letupan berlaku.

Posisi asap itu juga membuatkan Mus’ab tahu ia berlaku di tengah-tengah Kotaraya Angsana.

Segera dia memandang pemandu di hujung tanah lapang. Mus’ab mengacukan Muramasa yang bersarung itu ke arahnya.

“Kamu! Aku perlukan kenderaan itu!”

 

eBook penuh boleh didapati di E-Sentral.com
https://www.e-sentral.com/book/info/207125/novel-samurai-melayu

[SNEAK PEEK] TUNGGU AIRA DI KOTA BANDUNG

Tunggu Aira di Kota Bandung oleh Nirrosette

 

EH ABANG! Kak Ilah!” Aira yang sedang duduk di atas kerusi di sisi Encik Zainudin spontan bangun dari duduk. Terkejut apabila tiba-tiba sahaja abang dan kakak iparnya terpacak di depan mata. “Bila sampai Singapore?”

“Malam tadi. Phone Aira minta kena buang dalam gaung eh? Abang telefon banyak kali tak dapat, abangWhatsApp tak reply,” rungut Yusuf rendah. Ketika sampai di Lapangan Terbang Changi semalam, orang pertama yang Yusuf cari ialah Aira. Tapi, hampeh! Panggilannya tak berjawab pun. Mulanya Yusuf nak pulang ke rumah letak bagasinya dahulu sebelum ke hospital. Tapi apabila sampai di rumah, mama ada di rumah. Kata mama waktu melawat dah habis. Cuma seorang aje yang boleh duduk teman pesakit dalam wad. Jadi Yusuf dan Nabilah batalkan sahaja hasrat mereka untuk melawat abah.

Memandangkan malam sebelumnya Puan Suhaida yang tidur di sini, jadi malam tadi Aira menawarkan diri untuk menemani abah. Lagipun, memang seluruh tubuh Puan Suhaida sakit-sakit sebab tidur di atas kerusi.

Alamak! “Phone Aira dah mati la. Aira lupa nak bawa charger. Mama mana? Aira pesan pada mama suruh bawakan charger phone Aira.”

“Mama ada dekat rumah. Mama nak masak dulu, nanti dia datang.” Memandangkan Yusuf dengan Nabilah dah pulang, takkan nak makan nasi bungkus aje kan. Kesian pula Puan Suhaida pada anak dan menantunya tu. Sebab itu pagi-pagi lagi dia sudah ke pasar dahulu, beli apa-apa yang patut untuk memasak. Boleh juga bawakan untuk Aira, jadi Aira tak payahlah beli makanan di medan selera. Makanan di medan selera tu punyalah mahal. Kalau sedap tak apa juga.

“Doktor kata apa fasal abah, Aira?” soal Nabilah perlahan sambil melirik ke arah bapa mertuanya yang sedang tidur. Dah berselimut macam tu, mana Nabilah nampak apa-apa.

“Lengan abah cuma luka-luka sikit je sebab terkena serpihan kaca. Kaki kanan abah yang tercedera. Tapi doktor cakap tak serius. Dalam sehari dua dah boleh keluar dah.”

“Macam mana abah boleh accident ni sebenarnya?” soal Yusuf pula, ingin tahu. Memang Puan Suhaida tak beritahu sangat tentang kecelakaan yang menimpa abahnya. Yang Yusuf tahu, abah kemalangan, tapi tak serius, masuk wad biasa. Tu aje.

“Entah,” Aira angkat bahu. Tak terlintas pula nak tanya Encik Zainudin butir-butir kejadian tersebut. Yang penting, Aira tahu abah selamat. Itu sudah cukup.

Honeymoon macam mana Kak Ilah? Seronok tak? Banyak shopping?” Aira mengalih pandang pada Nabilah yang sedang tercegat di sebelah Yusuf. “Duduk sinilah kak. Biar abang seorang je berdiri.” Sempat Aira menepuk kerusi yang kosong di sebelahnya, mempelawa Nabilah duduk.

Wad kelas A1 tu memang cuma ada dua buah kerusi aje. Kalau ada ramai-ramai orang, terpaksalah berdiri.

“Hong Kong memang best! Kita ada belikan Aira sesuatu, nanti balik rumah akak bagi okey.”

“Beli apa? Beli apa? Beli apa?” Dah bersinar-sinar mata Aira memandang Nabilah. Memang haruslah dia orang belikan Aira oleh-oleh. Mana boleh tak belikan! Aira merajuk setahun karang.

“Adalah,” Yusuf pula bersuara, menyampuk. “Balik nanti kita bagi. Kita pun belum unpack lagi ni. Semalam balik terus knock out tidur, penat sangat. Pagi ni pulak terus ke sini.”

“Okey, tak apa.” Aira sedia maklum abang dan kakak iparnya pasti keletihan. Takkan nak buat perangai budak-budak kan desak suruh beri sekarang.

“Ni Aira cuti sampai bila?”

“Sampai hujung tahunlah, Januari depan Aira ada practicum.”

“Lepas tu graduate?”

Yeap!”

“Yusuf?” Teguran Encik Zainudin mematikan terus perbualan mereka. Suara lelaki itu serak sedikit, pastinya dia tersedar daripada lena apabila mendengar suara orang berbual. Dia cuba mengesot bangun namun lekas-lekas Yusuf membantu membetulkan letak bantal untuk Encik Zainudin bersandar.

“Abah….” Tangan Encik Zainudin diraih untuk disalami. “Abah okey?”

“Abah okeylah.” Bosan pula Encik Zainudin apabila ditanya soalan yang sama tak tahu untuk kali ke berapa ratus.

Semalam aje apabila ada saudara-mara dan teman-teman yang datang menziarahi, penat rasanya mengulang jawapan yang sama. Rasa macam nak ambil pita perakam aje jadi, apabila orang tanya boleh tekan ‘play’. Memanglah niat dia orang baik datang untuk berziarah, tapi kalau dah datang beramai-ramai macam nak buat parti, pening kepala Encik Zainudin nak melayan. “Suf dengan Ilah baru sampai ke ni?”

“Baru jugak bah, dalam sepuluh minit kut.”

“Kenapa tak kejut abah?”

“Abah kan tengah tidur, tak naklah ganggu.”

“Hmm…” Encik Zainudin tak mengulas lanjut.

“Ilah, ambilkan abah air.” Pintanya pada Nabilah.

Nabilah menoleh ke sisi, terpandang satu jag air jarang dan gelas yang terletak di atas meja di sebelahnya. Lincah sahaja tangan Nabilah mencapai gelas tersebut lalu dituangkan air ke dalamnya.

“Sekarang pukul berapa?” soal Encik Zainudin selepas mengambil beberapa teguk air.

“Pukul sepuluh,” jawab Aira pantas. Kebetulan waktu itu dia memang tengah tengok jam di pergelangan tangan.

“Mama tak datang saing Suf dengan Ilah ke?”

“Tak,” Yusuf menggelengkan kepalanya.

“Mama cakap lepas zuhur nanti dia datang.”

“Oh.” Encik Zainudin mengangguk sedikit. “Reza?”

“Hah?” Aira dah ternganga mendengarkan soalan Encik Zainudin.

“Reza?” Yusuf pula dah pandang Encik Zainudin dengan dahi yang berlapis. “Reza siapa?” Seingat Yusuf, dia tak ada pun saudara-mara bernama Reza. Rizal ada, Reza tak ada. Ke Yusuf yang salah dengar tadi?

“Reza, kawan Aira,” jelas Encik Zainudin. Dia meneguk lagi air yang berbaki daripada gelasnya. “Dia tak datang hari ni?”

Aira dah terkebil-kebil tak tahu nak jawab apa. Lebih-lebih lagi dengan renungan tajam abangnya yang menuntut penjelasan. Aira kehilangan kata-kata. Sejak bila Reza tu ada kepentingan pada abah sampai nak kena datang hari-hari, eh?

SO, siapa Reza ni?”

Aira mengangkat mata ke atas mendengarkan soalan Yusuf. Dia memang dah agak dah ini tujuan sebenar kenapa Yusuf ajak dia turun menemaninya ke 7-Eleven. Bukannya Yusuf nak beli apa-apa tapi sengaja nak mengorek cerita.

“Budak Perbayu.”

“Kawan?”

“Sort of.”

Sort of?” Yusuf menyoal kembali, pelik. Apa punya jawapan tu? “Oh… maksud Aira, bukan kawan je eh? Lebih daripada kawan eh?”

No.” Langkah Aira terhenti. Dia berpusing, menghadap abangnya sambil memeluk tubuh. “I don’t think we’re even friends to begin with.”

“Hah?” Makinlah Yusuf tak faham. “Apa kata kita duduk kat situ kejap? Susahlah nak berbual macam ni.” Tanpa menunggu balasan Aira, terus sahaja Yusuf menarik tangan Aira untuk menurut langkah ke sebuah bangku berdekatan.

“Okey, sekarang cerita pada abang A sampai Z.”

“Tak ada ceritalah,” Aira menuturkan datar. Dia tunduk meramas jemari di riba. Dia teruja sebenarnya apabila Yusuf balik. Aira nak tanya macam-macam tentang percutian abangnya. Tapi kalau inilah topik yang Yusuf nak bincangkan, baik tak payah.

“Aira.” Panggil Yusuf lagi, memaksa anak gadis itu untuk memandang ke arahnya. “Pandang abang.”

“Tak nak.”

“Kenapa tak nak? Takut? Aira memang ada sembunyikan sesuatu daripada abang, kan?”

Aira menggelengkan kepalanya laju, menidakkan.

“Tipu.”

“Fine!” Aira dah angkat kedua-dua belah tangan, menyerah kalah. Malas lagi hendak berdolak-dalik. Yusuf memang macam tu, kalau dia nak tahu sesuatu, dia akan korek habis-habisan sampai dia puas hati. Dan Aira tak pandai berahsia dengan Yusuf. Kalau dengan orang lain, Aira boleh tipu. Tapi kalau dengan Abang Yusuf, Aira tak boleh nak lari.

“Dia duduk dekat hall sama dengan Aira. Aira tak suka dia. Tapi mana-mana Aira pergi, Aira nampak dia. Kebetulan masa Aira dapat panggilan daripada mama fasal abah kemalangan tu, dia tercongok depan muka Aira. Jadi dia hantar Aira pergi hospital and the rest is history. Puas?” Senafas Aira menuturkan. Punya laju! Mujur juga Yusuf bangsa yang cepat tangkap. Memang dah biasa dah dengan adiknya yang berbual laju apabila sedang beremosi.

“Kenapa Aira tak suka dia?”

“Kenapa Aira tak suka dia?” Aira tidak segera menjawab. Kenapa Aira tak suka Reza? Sebab Reza mengingatkan Aira tentang Faisal! Sebab tulah. Tapi kalau Aira jawab macam tu, agak-agak, Abang Yusuf pancung tak kepala Aira?

“Aira…” Yusuf memanggil lagi. “Kenapa Aira tak suka dia?”

“Dia orang Indonesia.”

“And?” Kening Yusuf terangkat sebelah. Dia orang Indonesia. Okey, jadi?

“Dia ingatkan Aira pada seseorang.”

“Seseorang…?” Yusuf masih lagi samar-samar. Tak tahu ke mana arah dan hala tuju perbualan ini. Sorry la Aira, kalau nak bagi abang teka-teki macam ni, memang abang tak pandai huraikan. “Siapa?”

“Faisal Syahindra.” Aneh, lancar sahaja bibir Aira menyebutkan nama itu. Seolah-olah nama itu sudah terbiasa meniti di bibir Aira sedangkan dah bertahun kut Aira tak sebut nama tu.

Oh! Untuk seketika Yusuf senyap. Mana mungkin Yusuf lupakan nama lelaki yang pernah menghancurkan hati adiknya suatu masa dahulu.

“Dia macam Faisal ke? In what way?”

“Entah.” Aira angkat bahu. “Bila Aira tengok dia, Aira nampak Faisal. Aira tak suka.”

“You’re not over…”

Belum sempat Yusuf menghabiskan ayat, Aira terlebih dahulu memotong. “Yes, mungkin Aira belum boleh lupakan Faisal. Tapi bukannya Aira masih sayang kat dia. Tolonglah. Aira cuma tak boleh maafkan apa dia buat. Yang tinggal dalam hati Aira untuk Faisal cuma rasa benci dan marah. Apabila Aira nampak Reza, automatically I felt the same way towards him. I can’t help it.” Aira terhenti sejenak untuk menarik nafas. “I’ve learnt to accept fate, yes. But I’ve yet to master the art of forgiving. All it took me was eight days to fall in love. But it’s taking a lifetime to forget the pain, abang.

“Tapi Reza tak bersalah. You’re not being fair to him.”

“Aira tahu!” kasar Aira membalas. Dia meraup wajahnya berkali-kali. Aira sedia maklum, Reza tak patut menerima layanan sebegitu daripada Aira. Tapi Aira tak tahu nak buat macam mana lagi. Sangka Aira, mengelakkan diri daripada Reza ialah cara yang terbaik. Tapi Aira tersilap. Semakin Aira cuba mengelak, Reza semakin datang mendekat.

Saat itu Aira teringat pada kata-kata semangat pemberian Humairah yang ditampal di meja studinya.

But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not.

Potongan ayat yang ditafsirkan daripada surah al-Baqarah ayat 216 itu seakan-akan sesuai dengan situasi Aira sekarang. Sesungguhnya dalam apa jua yang berlaku, Dia lebih tahu kan? Pertemuan ini tidak akan berlaku tanpa keizinan-Nya. Pasti ada sesuatu yang cuba Dia sampaikan kepada Aira. Cuma Aira sahaja yang tidak tahu apa.

“Why don’t you make your life easier?” 

“How do I do that?”

“Maafkan dia lepas tu move on.”

“Senang je kan abang cakap? Aira dah cuba okey, sumpah Aira cuba. Aira dah tak ingat pun fasal dia. Tapi apabila Reza muncul dalam hidup Aira, semua jadi huru-hara.”

“Keadaan jadi huru-hara sebab Aira kaitkan dia dengan Faisal. Cuba Aira berkawan dengan Reza sebab siapa dia. Don’t think of where he came from or his race or anything.”

“Susah la abang. Reza selalu dibayangi Faisal.”

“Mungkin susah tapi tak mustahil, kan? Cuba ubah persepsi Aira tentang Reza. Reza dan Faisal ialah dua orang yang berlainan. Abang yakin mesti personaliti dia pun berbeza. Maybe now you think Reza and Faisal are similar a little bit here and there. But do you even know Reza in the first place? Aira tak kenal Reza kan? Kalau Aira dah kenal Reza dengan lebih dalam, abang yakin mesti Aira akan sedar Reza jauh berbeza daripada Faisal. Masalahnya, abang tak rasa Aira beri Reza peluang pun untuk mengenali Aira. Kan?”

Aira tertunduk mendengar nasihat Yusuf yang panjang berjela. Ada betulnya juga kata-kata Abang Yusuf. Aira terlalu cepat menghakimi Reza pada tanggapan pertama. Memanglah tak adil untuk Reza.

“Why don’t the next time you see him, try to be a little friendly. Boleh?”

“Erk?”

“Bukan la abang suruh Aira gedik ke apa! Just be nice. Jangan pandang dia macam nak bunuh orang.” Lekas-lekas Yusuf menjelaskan. Bukan Yusuf tak tahu, pandangan membunuh Aira memang mengerikan. Macam manalah orang nak dekat kalau muka masam mencuka, langsung tak senyum. Kalau pergi temu duga pun mesti tak lepas tau.

“Tengoklah macam mana,” acuh tak acuh Aira menjawab. Lagipun, Aira sendiri tak pasti bila dia akan bertemu Reza lagi. Mungkin dah tak jumpa kut. Jadi tak pentinglah kan pesanan Yusuf ni.

“Tak ada tengok-tengok. Abang nak Aira janji Aira akan cuba.”

Yelah yelah. Aira janji,” Aira menuturkan malas. Tangan kanannya diangkat konon-konon macam tengah angkat sumpah.

“You know… the stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget.”

The wise forgive but do not forget,” Aira pantas sahaja memotong, melengkapkan ayat Yusuf yang dipetik daripada buku karya Thomas Szasz. Kalau temannya, Farah, rasa pelik bagaimana Aira boleh hafal-hafal quote bagai ni semua, Farah patut jumpa dengan abang Aira. The master of quotes. Daripada Yusuf jugalah Aira mula minat untuk membaca buku- buku motivasi dan ilmiah, taklah asyik melayan novel cinta sahaja.

Yusuf sudah tersengih memandang adiknya itu. Kepala adiknya diusap perlahan. “Tau pun!”

“Tudung Aira jangan buat mainlah!” Cepat sahaja Aira menepis tangan abangnya yang sudah mendarat di atas kepala.

Yusuf terkekeh ketawa melihat Aira dah kelam-kabut betulkan letak tudungnya. Sebijik macam isterinya Nabilah. Tudung tu sensitif okey. Boleh merajuk dua minit kalau Yusuf usik. “Jomlah, kita naik atas. Lama pulaknanti dia orang tunggu.”

Beriringan mereka melangkah menuju ke lif, ingin ke atas. Ketika hendak melangkah masuk ke dalam bilik, langkah Aira mati apabila terdengar suara seseorang yang sedang bergelak tawa bersama abah, mama dan Kak Ilah. Yusuf dah tertoleh-toleh ke belakang apabila Aira tidak menurut langkahnya masuk ke dalam.

“Kenapa?” Yusuf menyoal tanpa suara.

Aira sudah melopong. Matanya bulat. Tubuhnya terkaku di hadapan pintu. “Kat dalam tu Reza!”

 

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https://www.e-sentral.com/book/info/257335/tunggu-aira-di-kota-bandung

[REVIEW] ONE FINE DAY

One Fine Day by RodieR

 

Just when Zahra thinks her world crumbles, she meets Aryan. Fascinated with each other, he brings her out of misery into his own understanding of love… and happiness. And so with him, she finds happiness again. It doesn’t last long, though because again she is tested with difficulty. Love isn’t always patient. Sometimes we get short, brusque, or frustrated with the people we love the most. Love is, however, doing our best to see the people we care about with compassion and understanding. This is the story of Zahra and Aryan, one about love, pain and happiness regained. For there will be a relief with every difficulty, will they be able to withstand the test of time?


Zahra was devastated after the incident that took her parents’ lives, Aryan came into her life, showing her the beautiful side of life when they met in a country that has different culture than Malaysia. Every beautiful love story, there must be a hardship that will appear as a test in their lives. This novel teaches us about life and the setting is very calm but will make you shed a tear. If you need a calm reading on a rainy or beautiful day, then this will be the perfect novel for you. You have to find out about their fate because the storyline is very different from the usual. 

eBook penuh boleh didapati di E-Sentral.com
https://www.e-sentral.com/book/info/257332/One-Fine-Day

[SNEAK PEEK] LAST SEEN ALIVE

Last Seen Alive by Claire Douglas

 

There is a ringing in my ear. It’s deafening, grating and monotone like a pneumatic drill, familiar—a fire alarm. Panic consumes me, pinning me down, crushing my chest. Fire! I need to escape. A cold sweat breaks out all over my body. I’m in the hostel. It’s too hot. The darkness closing in, trapping me. I can hear the sound of running feet, shouts in a language I can’t understand. Screaming. Smoke filling my nostrils and my lungs so that I can’t breathe. I can feel arms around me, I try to shake them away. ‘Get off! Get off!’

‘Libby. It’s OK . . . shh, wake up.’

My eyes snap open to see Jamie staring down at me, his face crumpled with concern, his hands on my shoulders. I’m on the sofa. In the Hideaway. I’m safe . . . I’m safe. I must have fallen asleep . . . but the noise, I can still hear it.

‘It’s just the smoke alarm,’ says Jamie as if reading my mind. ‘It’s gone off in the kitchen. I was making some toast.’ He smiles apologetically. ‘I wanted some of their fancy pâté. But the alarm’s too bloody sensitive. It will stop in a minute. I’ve pressed the button . . .’ I pull away from his grasp and he steps back as though I’ve bitten him. ‘You were having a nightmare. I was trying to wake you up.’

I shift my weight so that I’m sitting upright. ‘I thought . . .’ The noise stops and immediately my heart rate slows even though I can still hear a faint ringing in my ears.

Jamie comes to sit next to me but doesn’t touch me. I can see two overdone pieces of toast on a plate on the coffee table, the edges black.

‘Libs, you’re trembling . . .’

I have a nasty taste in my mouth and my top is clinging to me underneath my dressing gown, damp with sweat. ‘I thought I was at the hostel,’ I say, disorientated. I scan the room just to make sure I really am at the Hideaway and not in Thailand. Tara smiles down at me from the black-and-white canvas on the opposite wall, above the TV. Seeing her photo roots me in the present.

My chin quivers. I don’t want to cry.

Jamie notices and pulls me into his arms. ‘Oh, babe.’ Babe. He hasn’t called me that in years.

‘It felt so real,’ I whisper into his shoulder, my throat sore as if smoke really has been suffocating me. I pull away from him and get up, fumbling at my neckline. I can’t breathe properly.

I walk shakily over to the French doors, turning the key to open one side and stand under the starless sky, cradling my broken arm. I’ve taken the sling off but the cast feels heavy. I flex my fingers. I can’t wait to get the bloody thing off.

It’s so dark outside, the kind of night sky you only really see in the countryside, deep and thick and never-ending, untainted by pollution and street lamps. I take deep gasps of fresh air. I can taste the salt on my tongue, hear the roar of the waves from the sea below. Standing here like this, in almost total darkness, makes me realise afresh how remote we are. How far from civilisation. I suddenly yearn for our busy Bath street with all the people noisily going about their daily lives. It’s too silent out here. Too still.

‘You never talk about it. What happened in Thailand.’ Jamie’s voice makes me jump. I turn to see him standing in the doorway, backlit from the muted living-room lights. Jamie had spent ages messing with the remote to get the ambience just right.

‘It’s not something I want to relive,’ I say.

He doesn’t step into the garden. ‘But you do. Relive it, I mean. You relived it just now. And you probably did when the school caught fire.’

‘I just want to forget about it. To bury it. It’s my way of coping.’

I’ve never really told him about what happened. To me. To Karen. He knows my friend died. He knows I was lucky to escape. It makes me worry, sometimes, the things I haven’t told him. Because we shouldn’t keep secrets from each other. Yet we do. I know that he’s keeping things from me too. The way he felt about Hannah, for example. The loan he got from his mother that he assumes I don’t know about. And that’s fine. I understand. Because we love each other and we have to trust one another. I don’t go in for all this therapy malarkey. I will never sit on a couch in a psychiatrist’s office unloading myself when they ask, ‘And how does that make you feel?’ That just isn’t me. As far as I’m concerned the past is the past. And it should stay there.

*  *  *

When I awake the next morning after a restless sleep, Jamie announces we should go out for the day. He doesn’t have to say it but I know he wants to get me out of the house. Me freaking out over the smoke alarm last night was probably the last straw.

‘We could go to St Mawes and see the castle? It was built by Henry VIII. Meant to be worth seeing,’ he says over breakfast. ‘Or do you fancy the lighthouse at Lizard Point?’ He has a map spread out on the kitchen island and he’s perusing it intently as he spoons Shreddies into his mouth. It always makes me smile how much he loves what I call kids’ cereal. Frosties are a firm favourite of his too. He never goes anywhere without bringing his own.

‘How far away is the lighthouse?’

‘Should be an hour, max.’

I don’t relish the thought of being cooped up in the car for that long. I can’t shake the nausea I’ve been experiencing since last night, but I’d hate to burst his bubble. I’d rather visit the lighthouse instead of traipsing around a damp, crumbling castle. And it would be good for me to get out of the house, however much I love it.

We debate whether to take Ziggy but decide against it, although I feel a pang of guilt as he observes us with his big brown eyes as we’re leaving. ‘We won’t be long, Zigs,’ says Jamie. I blow the dog a kiss before Jamie closes the door. His expression is unsure as he faces me. ‘Do you think he’ll be OK? What if he shits on the furniture or something?’

‘He is house-trained,’ I laugh.

Jamie hovers by the door. ‘I don’t feel comfortable leaving him, Libs.’ He returns the key to the lock and the door swings open again. Ziggy bounds towards us.

I roll my eyes in mock exasperation. ‘Fine, but he’ll have to stay in the car while we visit the lighthouse. Then we can take him for a long walk after.’ Jamie darts back into the house to get the dog lead. ‘And don’t forget his water bowl,’ I call after him as I bend down to stop Ziggy bolting.

It’s colder than it was the day we arrived, with a slate-grey sky and an icy wind coming off the sea. I wrap my scarf further around my neck as Jamie lets Ziggy into the back seat. ‘Don’t put the roof down,’ I say in a warning tone as I get into the passenger side. ‘I’m freezing and I can’t even put my coat on properly with this sling.’

‘I wasn’t going to put the roof down,’ he says mildly, but darts a sideways look at me, as though assessing my mood. I want to scream at him: Stop walking on fucking eggshells around me! But I can’t because I know it’s coming from a place of love. I just hate being treated like some damsel in distress. I know I’m not helping myself with my fears that something terrible is about to happen, and I vow, as the car lumbers along the narrow lanes, to make an effort to pull myself together. To get a hold on these paranoid thoughts. I want Jamie to see me as the strong, independent woman he fell in love with. The woman who didn’t take any shit. The woman who his mother once described, disparagingly, as ‘quite feisty’ after a heated discussion with Katie about the education system.

We don’t speak. I stare out of the window as the country lanes rush by in flashes of green and grey. Over in the distant fields I spot sheep, their cotton-wool coats against the lush grass reminding me of a child’s drawing. Jamie turns the radio up but he doesn’t sing along.

Eventually he takes a right turn and I spot the lighthouse adjoined to an array of squat white buildings, their windowsills painted a fresh green. The car lurches over the bumpy tarmac, making me feel even more nauseous, and Jamie reverses into a space. ‘Right,’ he says, turning off the engine. ‘Lighthouse first?’

‘I’m dying for a Starbucks,’ I admit.

He grins. ‘No Starbucks here, I don’t think. But we can try the café afterwards.’

‘Yes, but will they do a caramel macchiato? I can’t drink coffee unless it’s syruped up, you know that.’

He squeezes my thigh. ‘I’ll do my best,’ he promises, the tension between us forgotten. He swivels in his seat to address Ziggy. ‘And when we come back we’ll take you for a long walk, I promise.’

We amble around the lighthouse with the tour guide, a young, pretty girl with red corkscrew curls called Ruth. I feel claustrophobic in the small, circular room with nineteen other people. The car sickness still hasn’t left me, and the man standing next to me smells unclean. Jamie is fascinated as Ruth explains the history of the lighthouse, showing us to the top via a rickety staircase to see the panoramic sea views. I try to appear enthusiastic but I feel like I’m at work and this is one of our many school trips.

Eventually we are released back outside and I take deep lungfuls of the fresh sea air, trying to cleanse my system of the smell of unwashed bodies and old dusty memorabilia. My sense of smell is more acute than normal: the damp grass, the sea air, the coffee from the nearby café, the fruity shampoo of a passing woman. The only other time my sense of smell was this good was when I was pregnant. Could I be again? I rub my stomach instinctively, deep down knowing it would be unlikely. Before Cornwall, Jamie and I had had sex just once. I know it only takes once for it to happen but I can’t be that lucky.

I wander onto the grass, deep in thought, before realising that Jamie isn’t with me. I turn to see him hanging about in the arched doorway of the lighthouse, in deep conversation with Ruth. He’s listening closely as she talks, his eyebrows knitted together and a look of intense concentration on his face. He must say something funny because she throws back her head in laughter and touches his arm, running her fingers down his wool coat for longer than is strictly necessary. She has to be nearly ten years his junior but it’s obvious she fancies him—the studious types always do. He’s got that foppish, geeky look about him that some women—including me—find sexy, like a blonder, younger Jarvis Cocker. He’s wearing a long coat over his scruffy jeans and a red scarf. He looks like a professor. Or a mature student.

I tear my eyes from them and begin to walk slowly towards the café, knowing that Jamie will eventually catch up with me. When he does he’s breathless and his cheeks are flushed.

‘Do you know,’ he says, talking quickly in his excitement, taking my good arm and linking it through his, ‘before they switched over to the computer system the lighthouse had to be manned by three men.’

‘No, I didn’t know that.’ Jamie is always spouting random, often useless, facts.

‘Years ago it was only two. But that changed. And why?’

I shrug.

‘Come on, Libs. Humour me.’

I sigh. ‘OK, why?’

I can see him mentally rubbing his hands with glee. ‘Well, according to Ruth, a long time ago on a remote island off Wales, one of the two men on duty died of a heart attack or something. Anyway the other was left with the dead body, on his own. For months.’

By now we’ve bypassed the café, much to my dismay, reaching the cliff’s edge, and I stop to ferret in my bag for my phone so that I can take a photograph of the bay below. The sky is overcast and the wind ruffles our hair and tugs the hems of our coats as though trying to take our attention away from the breathtaking views. The water is an angry-looking navy blue and the white frothy spray leaps off the rocks and smashes against the ragged shoreline. The noise of the wind mixed with the roar of the sea is deafening and we almost have to shout to make ourselves heard.

‘He was worried the police would think he killed the man, so he kept his body as evidence and hung it out the window,’ Jamie continues.

‘Urgh, Jamie! Why would he have to hang his friend’s dead body out of the window?’

‘Because there was no room in the lighthouse. It was too small. And the bloke was dead, Libs. He’d started to decay, to smell. Here, let me do that,’ he says, taking the phone from my hand when he sees I’m having trouble.

I shudder. ‘Thanks.’ I wrinkle up my nose. The smell in the air is pungent: sea salt and fish. ‘How did he hang him outside?’ I ask. I can’t help but feel curious even though I should know better than to encourage Jamie.

He beams, clearly enjoying himself as he imparts this piece of historical gossip. ‘Well, he made a makeshift coffin, put his dead friend inside and hung it from the lighthouse.’ He’s always had a morbid fascination with the weird and wonderful. He’s a regular subscriber to the Fortean Times. ‘But the weather conditions broke the coffin apart, so eventually the man was left hanging there, decaying, banging against the window as though beckoning to his friend. Can you imagine that? Seeing your friend slowly rotting away . . .’

My stomach turns. ‘All right, Jay. I get the picture. Why didn’t the man get help?’

He rolls his eyes as if it’s obvious. ‘Because he couldn’t leave the lighthouse unmanned, could he? He sent distress signals but nobody could come for months. The sight of his dead friend hanging there sent him quite mad, apparently.’

‘Not surprised. Can we change the subject now?’ I ask.

He grins at me, his eyes twinkling. ‘Sure.’

‘Is that what Ruth was talking to you about? While she was laughing at your jokes and generally being a flirt?’ It slips out and I notice the ripple of surprise on Jamie’s face.

He shrugs, good-naturedly. ‘I’ve still got it,’ he winks at me. ‘What can I say?’

I push his arm playfully. ‘Oh, you love it,’ I laugh. ‘As long as you remember you’re mine.’

‘How could I forget?’

We walk to the top of the grassy incline to get a better view of the sea and the jagged rocks below. The land juts out beneath us in a zigzag shape. ‘Is that a seal?’ I say, nudging Jamie and pointing to a dark patch of sea where something sticks up from the water.

‘Nah, just a rock,’ says Jamie, squinting. He holds up my phone to take a few more shots. I’m aware of a surge of tourists chatting in French behind me. Over Jamie’s shoulder I notice a man, perhaps in his late thirties, wearing an oversized grey fleece with a high collar that obscures his chin and a black beanie pushed down over his head. It reminds me of the tea cosy Mum used when I was a child. He has a camera with a zoom lens swinging from his neck, and a face as stormy as the sea below. There is something familiar about him. Now he has his camera angled in Jamie’s direction, and keeps lifting it to his eyes, as if he’s paparazzi. Every time Jamie moves, so does the man—and his camera. Jamie’s oblivious, filling me in on a documentary on seals that he’d seen last night after I went to bed. Something about the man is bothering me. Is he trying to take a photo of me? Of Jamie? I have a fleeting, paranoid thought that he’s police, or a private detective, and my palms sweat. I gently steer Jamie further up the hill in an effort to make us inconspicuous among the throng of tourists.

I glance back at the café longingly. I’m desperate for caffeine but we can’t stop now. I scan the faces behind me for the man and his camera. I can just about see his beanie hat over the shoulder of a tall woman. Is his focus no longer on us? Maybe he wasn’t aiming his camera at us after all. I turn back to Jamie, relieved. Of course he’s not some private detective. Who would even think about hiring one? And why?

I’m just about to ask Jamie if we can go back and grab a coffee when I hear him cry out and he stumbles into my side, knocking me forwards. It happens so quickly, I lose my footing on the uneven ground and trip. I’m so intent on trying to protect my broken arm that I find myself careering down the hill towards the cliff’s edge. Blood pounds in my ears as I imagine plummeting onto the rocks below but I can’t stop myself; it’s like I’m on a treadmill and I can’t get off. I hear somebody scream and I’m not sure if it’s me. Then the next thing I know I’m being pulled backwards by the scarf around my neck and I feel familiar hands grabbing my waist.

‘It’s OK, Libs, I’ve got you,’ says Jamie, his voice breathless with fear. ‘I’ve got you.’

We’re on the lip of ground before the land falls away; if I’d gone any further it would have been too late. My legs are weak and my throat hurts where Jamie has pulled the scarf. I let him lead me back up the hill so that we are safely on the pavement, then we sink to the ground together like we are conjoined. I’m trembling all over. Horrified tourists gather around us, asking if I’m OK. An older man returns from the nearby café and thrusts a cup of tea wordlessly into my hands. I take it gratefully, my teeth chattering as I stammer out a thank-you. His kindness, along with the shock, makes my eyes fill up.

‘My God, Libs, you nearly went over the edge,’ Jamie says, a tremor in his voice. ‘I’m so sorry. I felt a shove in my back, pushing me into you.’ He looks distraught.

‘Don’t worry, I don’t think you were trying to kill me.’ I try to smile as I sip my tea, warming my hands against the cup.

‘Not funny,’ he says, but he gives me a watered-down grin. ‘Shit, that was scary.’

The tourists begin to disperse now they can see we’re unharmed.

‘Did you see who pushed you?’ I say, feeling sick.

He frowns. ‘Not really. A guy was standing by me. Big fella, broad, tall. But not sure if it was him.’

‘Was he wearing a beanie?’

Jamie frowns. ‘I’m not sure. Why?’

‘Before you fell into me I noticed a guy. He had a camera around his neck and he was taking photos.’

‘So?’

‘Of you. He had his camera trained on you, Jay.’

He shuffles and looks uncomfortable, his eyes sliding away from mine. ‘Why would he be doing that?’ he mumbles.

I let a beat or two pass before saying, ‘I don’t know.’ I sigh and hand him my cup. He stands up and helps me to my feet.

‘Look, Libs, it was an accident. There were too many of us standing together. You’re not telling me you think this bloke did it on purpose, are you?’

I stare at the ground, my mind racing. ‘I’m not sure. No, I don’t think so. It’s just . . . this guy was interested in you.’

Jamie smirks. ‘Maybe he fancied me. Like Ruth, huh?’

I can’t help but laugh. ‘Don’t be an idiot.’

He wraps his arms around me. ‘You feel freezing. Come on, let’s go and get something to eat to warm you up. Then we better get back to Ziggy.’

I nod and allow him to guide me towards the café. But I feel uneasy as I scan the crowds and the stragglers who are making their way towards the lighthouse and the car park. It doesn’t matter what Jamie says. I know I’m not being paranoid. There was something strange about that man and the interest he’d taken in my husband.

 

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https://www.e-sentral.com/book/info/222555/last-seen-alive

[REVIEW] WARNA HATI NURUL

Warna Hati Nurul oleh Shahzy Hana

 

Nurul Hasyifa (Syifa) kehilangan suami, Razeef beberapa jam setelah mereka bernikah akibat kemalangan jalan raya. Pemergian Razeef benar-benar merentap seluruh jiwa Syifa. Tapi, siapa dia untuk menolak takdir. Demi menyelamatkan satu nyawa, dia menerima Fasil dalam keadaan terpaksa. Biarpun Fasil telah berterus terang ingin mengahwini Syifa kerana ‘cinta pandang pertama’, hatinya tetap tidak mampu menerima kehadiran lelaki itu. Tapi, dia sukar untuk menolak kerana dia tersepit antara perasaannya dan nyawa ibu Fasil.


Sebuah novel yang banyak berunsurkan dakwah agama Islam. Admin suka baca kehidupan Syifa yang rapat bersama keluarganya tetapi ada detik-detik Syifa bersedihan selepas kehilangan suaminya, Razeef dan dia terpaksa akur untuk menerima lelaki lain dalam kehidupannya. Realitinya, di antara kita memang ada yang telah lalui pengalaman seperti ini. Terpaksa akur dengan ketentuan hidup walaupun hati susah untuk menerima takdir tersebut. Tetapi apakan daya, seorang perempuan muslimah seperti Syifa tidak sampai hati untuk menolak Dr. Fasil yang sememangnya baik akhlak, hati dan budi pekertinya. Siapa sahaja yang tidak mahu kahwin dengan seorang doktor? Biasa kita lihat di klinik atau hospital seseorang doktor itu pasti berkomunikasi dalam cara yang berhemah dan prihatin sekali terhadap pesakitnya. Sememangnya sesiapa pun pasti akan terjatuh hati dengan cara doktor berkomunikasi dengan pesakitnya ketika di hospital. Novel seperti ini sudah tentunya akan membuatkan watak doktor itu sangat prihatin terhadap isterinya di hospital, di rumah mahupun di mana jua supaya pembaca dapat berasa secebis kebahagiaan dari novel itu. Jadi, untuk pembaca yang ingin membaca dengan lebih lanjut lagi kisah Syifa dan Dr. Fasil ini boleh lah dapatkan eBook ini di link di bawah.

eBook penuh boleh didapati di E-Sentral.com
https://www.e-sentral.com/book/info/257337/Warna-Hati-Nurul

[SNEAK PEEK] PIRATA

Pirata by Patrick Hasburgh

 

It was about an hour before sunup, and I had already made it down through the switchbacks. The “prevent” defense seemed to have worked—my pre-seizure sense of lunacy had been degaussed. I was feeling good. My epileptic curse had been pushed back to the future.

And I was proud of myself for going out of my way—by two hundred miles—to give Sarah a ride. Despite her claims to fame, there was still a sad mystery to her, and I could relate. Very few foreigners move to Mexico to escape success.

I tapped my fingers on the nose of my Red Fin and made an instant decision to drive due west and surf Bichos for an hour or two. I had to take the highway a little farther north to get there, which meant that the drive wasn’t going to be as safe. But if Bichos was still getting the scraps of that southwest swell we had snagged at Gagger’s, it could be a great morning.

I looked out at the palm trees. Not a frond was stirring. It was going to be a windless morning at a mysto break. I felt blessed, and still a little buzzed.

Until a small group of men stopped me at a roadblock—they were wearing black ski masks and carrying machine guns. But their camouflage pants gave me hope, and I could see that some of these guys were wearing combat boots. There was a chance they were military and not with the cartels.

Or they could be the Mexican seguridad policía secreta, the Grupo Marte—a very badass undercover outfit that was originally organized to target left-wing Americans and Mexican socialists. But the locals will tell you that today, the SPS is just in charge of disappearing people.

I wasn’t sure enough to make the call about who these guys were, so my immediate strategy was to play dumb.

I rolled down my window.

Bono days,” I said, intentionally overmangling my typically mangled Spanish. “Me, surfino. El gordo olas at Bitchens. Yes?

I smiled, proud as hell of my ability to play Doofus Kook from SoCal on his first surf trip to Mexico. If there were such a thing as a Mexican Academy Award, I would have just won one.

The man closest to me pulled off his ski mask and shouldered his machine gun. He looked at me with a little disgust. He was about thirty years old, with black eyes and a shaved head. There was a tiny hangman’s noose tattooed under his left eye. I couldn’t tell if he had any rank, but it was clear that he was el jefe.

“Don’t bullshit me. I speak English,” he said with an accent so crisp it sounded nearly British.

“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to insult you.”

“You just figured I’d go easy on an idiot tourist.”

Okay. So the boss had me dead cold. I decided to let him lead. I nodded.

“I’m going to ask you a couple of questions.”

I nodded again.

“But first I need to tell you that it is very important that you tell me the truth.”

“I will,” I said.

“Don’t answer so fast. I want you to think about that. I want you to understand how important they are.”

“The questions?”

“The answers.”

I didn’t nod this time. I just stared back at him.

“What’s your name?”

“Nick Lutz,” I said, but then I couldn’t hold this guy’s gaze. “Nicholas. Sometimes they call me Pirata.”

“Who does?”

“My amigos,” I said.

“Because of the patch?”

“I hope that’s why.”

I looked down at my hands. They were gripping the steering wheel as if it were a trapeze.

“What happened?” he asked, pointing to the patch.

“I got hurt at work,” I said.

He turned my head so he could see the round scar on the back of it. If he knew what an exit wound looked like, he didn’t show it.

“Do you have a passport?”

“Not on me.”

“Are you a US citizen?”

“I have an FM3,” I said, and nodded. “Yes.”

I could see that about half the guys wearing camo were also barefoot. I’d never heard of barefoot soldiers. And the secret police probably all wear shoes. So maybe this was a cartel kidnapping, after all.

“Do you have it with you?”

I nodded and reached for the glove compartment. When I opened it, Winsor’s bag of dope fell out. I grabbed at it.

“Don’t touch that,” he said. “Just get me the FM3.”

I got the FM3 and handed it to him.

“It’s expired,” he said.

“No way,” I said, faking surprise. “Really?”

But the performance wasn’t very believable. I might have to return my Oscar.

“Yes, really,” he said.

“Is there anything I can do to fix this?” And I immediately regretted giving all my cash to Sarah.

“Are you offering me a bribe, Pirata?” El Jefe asked, and then smiled. “Remember—the answer is the important part.”

“I’m not,” I said.

“Correct answer.”

He handed me back my FM3.

“Just two more questions,” he said.

“No problema, señor,” I said, and then grimaced an apology. “No problem, sir.”

“Who is the president of México?”

“You’re kidding?”

“I’m not,” he said, as if he had been trained in interrogation by my ex-wife. “If you are a Mexican resident, you should know who our president is.”

“I do,” I said.

“So?”

And somehow I remembered.

“Peña Nieto.”

God bless this cocaine. It must have been cut with Adderall.

¡Profe!” El Jefe called out to one of his soldiers, and laughed. I could see that he might even have been a little impressed. Then he turned back to me.

“Are you ready for your Final Jeopardy question?” he asked.

“It’s called the Final Jeopardy answer,” I corrected, and then instantly regretted it. “At least up in the States, I mean.”

“But we are not in the States,” he deadpanned.

“I know.”

He squinted slightly.

“Do you have any drugs, Mr. Lutz?” he asked.

I glanced over at Winsor’s bud-filled baggy, which had landed on the passenger seat. I picked it up and handed it to him.

“Just this,” I said. “It belongs to a guy I surf with.”

He sniffed Winsor’s pot and put it in his pocket. “So, no drugs?”

“No.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure,” I said. “Positive.” And for the first time, I was able to hold his gaze.

“Okay.”

I started up the Suburban, but El Jefe reached through the window and shut it off.

“Not yet,” he said as he removed the keys.

Then he clapped his hands, and a very large and very white German shepherd appeared from the back of a canvas-topped truck that I hadn’t seen parked in the shadows. As I squinted, I could see that it was a 1979 Dodge Power Wagon, jerry-rigged into a troop transport.

“Who’s that?” I asked him, faking a grin at the dog.

“He’s our drug-sniffing dog,” he said. “We got him from our friends at the border. But every time he sniffed somebody out up there, a customs agent got beheaded, so they said we could have him.”

He opened the door, and I stepped out. The dog sniffed over every inch of the Suburban. El Jefe even had the dog sniff through it twice. But the Suburban was clean.

“It’s not the drugs, you know,” he said. “The drugs don’t matter. The problem is the lying.”

“It is?” I asked.

“Countries whose people no longer know that the truth matters can’t survive. It’s very simple.”

They must not watch much cable news down here, I thought.

“Lies are the bricks of corruption,” he said. “We have to teach la paisa that truth is power.”

La who?”

Los mexicanos.”

“But I’m an American,” I said, bobbing to take myself out of a fight that wasn’t mine.

“So you should understand this more than anyone.”

“It does makes sense,” I said as I crossed the finish line.

And then, like one of the biggest idiots in the history of mankind, I reached down to pet the dog.

“I love dogs,” I said.

The German shepherd began wagging its tail like crazy.

“And he must love you, too,” El Jefe said.

I tried to snuggle this beauty, but the dog started barking at me.

El Jefe smiled. Then he reached to the side pocket of my surf shorts, unzipped its zipper, and removed the bindle.

“You lied.”

I could barely nod. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“Lying matters,” he said.

He snapped open the bindle of coke and deftly tapped a small pile onto a knuckle. He snorted it.

“Is this stuff any good?” he asked.

“I thought so.”

“But all good things come to an end, don’t they?”

El Jefe tapped out another tiny dune of cocaine and held his knuckle under my nose. He smiled—and I snorted.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Don’t confuse generosity with weakness,” he said.

If it weren’t for the coke, I probably would have fainted.

“I don’t have any money left.” I was begging. “I gave it to a friend who was having a medical emergency.”

“You’re a saint. Every gringo is.”

“I’m not—but it was a good deed.”

“And one that won’t go unpunished.”

This guy must have memorized the Big Book of American Clichés.

“What happens now?” I asked.

“We’re going to send a message to your friends,” he said.

I imagined my body hanging from a bridge. I gulped for air. There is a big debate going on in Mexico over which side is committing more atrocities in the drug wars—the military or the cartels. But it didn’t matter, because it appeared that I had both covered. Unless this guy was policia secreta and then it mattered even less because I would probably be disappeared.

“Then don’t shoot the messenger,” I said, flashing my cliché-club membership. I forced a smile.

“Good one,” he said.

El Jefe nodded to two of his soldiers, and they instantly pinned me over the hood of the Suburban and ripped the back of my shirt wide open.

“In Singapore, this is known as a caning,” he said. “But down here in México, we just call it el vapuleo.”

“I don’t speak much Spanish,” I said.

“You won’t need to.”

Another soldier handed El Jefe a four-foot switch of bamboo about half an inch in diameter.

“Are you kidding?” I said.

“You’ll see,” he said.

El Jefe flicked his wrist, and the bamboo whistled. He spread his feet and whipped the thin reed behind him as if it were a fly rod, slowly winding up—and finally releasing its vicious hollowness expertly between my shoulder blades. I screamed.

¡Primero de veinte!” El Jefe counted out.

He wound up again, and then deliberately crisscrossed his first wicked slash. I saw a flash of light. My ears rang, and I could feel a warm stream of blood begin to trickle down my spine. Seven casts later, I blacked out—until a bucket of stagnant water choked me awake for the back nine.

I looked back at El Jefe. He was smiling, and pressed the bamboo reed against his lips.

At that moment, I was certain I would never lie to him again—and El Jefe was certain, too.

eBook penuh boleh didapati di E-Sentral.com
https://www.e-sentral.com/book/info/222547/pirata