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True Patriots



“Target their bridge.”
Claire gave the order. She could feel the gaze of her crew. Would she deliberately kill? She’s been captain for barely two months. Too junior. Not tested. And a woman.
Only minutes earlier, she had watched endless waves pound a small fishing boat, the spray and incessant snow rendering it invisible at times, despite the blazing cone of light from the helicopter above. Off the coast of Nova Scotia, the winter nor’easter that had paralyzed New England with two feet of powder retained enough of its fury to imperil any ocean vessel.
A mile kilometre away, the CH-149 Cormorant, shaking violently a few wave heights above the turbulent ocean, was trying to keep its searchlight fixed on the ship that bucked between mountains of water.
“It’s the MV iAtlantic Mariner. Out of Boston,” the pilot said over the radio.
Claire squeezed the microphone dangling from the ceiling. “Captain O’Brien, do you see anyone on board?”
A moment of white noise and then, “There must be. Will advise.”
The sailor manning the radio on the bridge of the coastal patrol vessel HMCS Kingston, Petty Officer Second Class Sullivan, turned to Claire. “Maritime Command said that the vessel never acknowledged radio contact, ma’am.” “They never asked for any help.” Lieutenant Wiseman, executive officer and second-in-command, brushed past in the tight space, as Claire sat in the captain’s chair.
“Doesn’t matter.” Something’s not right, Claire thought.
“There’s no transponder signal,” Sullivan said.
“We’re not going anywhere.” My first rescue.
“It must have drifted.”
Wiseman nodded. “And it looks like a lobster boat anyway.”
“Isn’t lobster season here in the spring?” Sullivan kept his gaze on the radio’s lights and buttons.
“Agreed.” Claire leaned forward in thought. “There’s something weird about this. We keep trying.”
“They shouldn’t be out in this storm, ma’am,” said Sullivan. “How could they not have seen it coming?”
O’Brien’s voice crackled on the radio: “No one sighted. Do you want us to continue?”
Claire framed the distressed vessel in her binoculars for a moment, lowered them, then pointed to Wiseman. “Distance to target?”
“Weather’s interfering with radar accuracy.”
“Best guess.”
“Three thousand metres and closing, ma’am.” She noticed a new spike of stress in Wiseman’s voice.
Claire raised her binoculars, flicked some loose strands of hair out of the way, and continued looking at the tiny shaft of light blinking between shifting mounds of black water. My first chance to do something good. She’d wait it out. She grabbed the microphone again and squeezed the button. “O’Brien, this is the Kingston. Hold position. Continue the search. Advise when low on fuel.”
“Acknowledged.” A moment later, the pilot’s voice returned with a new edge. “There’s someone down there.”
Claire saw it too. A single dark figure emerged from the bridge of the helpless vessel. The helo narrowed the spotlight until the person stood like an actor alone on a stage. The man — he walked like a man even at this distance — took a few steps and held what appeared to be a short pole.
Wiseman turned to her. “Vessel at two degrees starboard, ma’am. Range half a kilometre.” A change in the familiar background rustle told her that the six-person bridge crew had moved into a higher state of readiness.
She saw the fishing boat suddenly spring to life, with running lights bright. The boat swung toward the Kingston, appearing as a small supernova against the black of the frothing sea.
This was not a normal reaction. “XO, report,” she said.
Wiseman watched the radar display for a moment. “Target approaching. Ten knots and accelerating.”
Don’t they want to be rescued? “Collision course?”
Wiseman turned to face her. “Roger, ma’am.”
Was the boat deliberately trying to collide with the Kingston? They were supposed to be on a rescue mission. None of the threat simulations during her training at CFB Esquimalt had ever foreseen this situation. She remembered what her instructor had said: When in doubt …
“Sound action stations,” she ordered.
There was a perceptible pause that told her they were wondering if she was serious. Then the XO acknowledged her command. “Roger, ma’am. Sounding action stations.” Most of the crew was older than her thirty-one years, and she wasn’t sure how they would react to a new and untested officer in what might become a crisis.
The looping klaxon blared on the bridge and throughout the ship.
“Ship to ship.” She pointed to Sullivan.
“Ready, ma’am.”
She gripped the microphone: “Atlantic Mariner. This is the captain of the HMCS Kingston. We are here to assist you. Acknowledge.”
Only static crackled on the speaker.
“Repeat message every thirty seconds.”
“Aye aye, ma’am.” Sullivan scribbled the message on a small pad.
She didn’t have much discretion as the captain of a coastal patrol vessel. She needed permission from her superiors back in Halifax to use the Bofors 40-mm cannon that could annihilate the boat in one shot. With a long chain of command that went up to the minister of defence, she was unlikely to get it within a day. Until then, she could use the M2 fifty-calibre machine gun mounted to the starboard side of the bridge.
She had a single machine gun to defend the ship.
But was the fishing boat a threat? Its action was strange and unexpected, but she wasn’t sure if it posed a danger or if there was some other, more innocent explanation. Maybe the boat’s crew was merely trying to get closer to aid in their rescue. Any threat situation had to meet three criteria. First, there was intent. The boat hadn’t threatened anyone. It seemed to ignore the helicopter with the blazing light.
“Let’s see if that ship is deliberately trying to ram us. Steer one three five.”
The helmsman repeated her command and swung the wheel.
She grabbed onto the overhead handle as the ship veered dramatically to the right, still pitched by wave after wave. She watched the fishing boat’s reaction.
“Midships,” she said. The light from the Atlantic Mariner dimmed for a moment, then quickly brightened again.
“Target is following our move, ma’am,” said the petty officer on the bridge, scanning the fishing boat from the bow.
So that’s intent, Claire thought. Or did it just want to get rescued? Why didn’t they acknowledge our hail or the helicopter hovering above them?
Her indecision felt familiar: should she pursue graduate studies and satisfy her parents’ ambitions, or join the navy?
Simple. Keep it simple. Stick with the three criteria, she told herself.
The second criterion was proximity. “Distance?” she called.
“Six hundred metres. Closing at thirty knots,” said the navigator. A quick mental calculation and she estimated that the boat would penetrate the ship’s three-hundred-metre safety perimeter in less than twenty seconds. Then she would consider it a mortal threat.
Seconds to decide.
O’Brien returned on the radio. “There’s something else, Kingston …”
She watched the man and saw the pole shift until it pointed directly at the helicopter.
“RPG! RPG!” O’Brien’s voice sounded more angry than scared.
A flash from the ship ahead.
The rocket-propelled grenade ripped past the chopper as it banked sharply to the right, dipped, and accelerated away. “Confirm RPG,” Claire said into the microphone, suddenly oblivious to the klaxon blaring in the bridge.
Captain O’Brien answered in short bursts over the radio, “RPG. Confirmed. Taking evasive action.” She could see the helicopter veer away from the boat at an extreme angle.
“Did they just fire at the helo?” said Claire to no one in particular, standing in disbelief.
Wiseman looked at the tactical screen in front of him. “They missed, ma’am. The help is leaving at high speed. Recommend we do the same.”
She hopped back into the captain’s chair and glowered at the XO. The MV Atlantic Mariner now satisfied the third criterion: capability. They had a weapon that was a threat to the ship and her crew. One RPG could do serious damage to the bridge or the engines, or blast a hole below the waterline, potentially sinking the ship.
“Close up, fifty-cal,” she ordered. It was the only weapon she could command in the time that she had. You couldn’t stop the boat with the gun, but you could stop her crew. “Target their bridge. Now.”
She stared into the XO’s eyes until he repeated the command.
The sailor hesitated for a second before answering “Aye aye, ma’am” over the commlink. She could feel the gaze of the other crew on the bridge. Their unease about her qualifications as captain weighed on her like a physical force. Too young. Too inexperienced. Too female.
She fought her drifting doubts. “Ship-to-ship,” she said to Sullivan.
He flicked a switch on the radio console. “Ready, ma’am.”
She yanked the microphone: “Atlantic Mariner this is the Canadian warship HMCS Kingston. We are trying to assist you. You have fired on our helicopter without known reason. Do not approach this ship. Stop your engines, cease fire, and acknowledge, or we will fire upon you.”
She stood up again. “Range and speed,” she said with a distinctly more serious tone: one she knew the crew would notice.
“Four hundred metres. Thirty knots.”
She squeezed the mike in her hand. “I say again. Stop your engines and acknowledge or we will fire upon you.”
Only a few seconds before it got too close.
“Three hundred metres.”
The boat had just entered her exclusion zone.
“Any change?”
Wiseman said, “No, ma’am. Collision course. Recommend —”
“Fifty-cal.” She heard her gulp over the noise of the bridge. “Open fire.”
The gun coughed with a low thumping rat-tat-tat-tat as bullets knifed through the bridge of the little boat only a couple of soccer fields away. Claire could see tracers streak to the boat and splinter the bridge. The man holding the RPG was nowhere to be seen. Sparks leapt skyward, and the boat stopped dead in the water, limping lifelessly on the swells.
“Cease fire, fifty-cal.” The gun stopped immediately. “Full stop.” The engines went silent.
The fishing boat was now a fiery, smoky pyre. The Cormorant returned to the scene like a cautious cat. Under the gaze of its spotlight, the boat listed to its port side, sliding into the waves. In less than a minute, it was gone. Leaving only a faint grey cloud, it sank beneath the waves, along with her crew and any evidence that would explain their odd reaction to the rescue.
She glanced at the two sailors who manned the machine gun outside the bridge. They looked stressed. They had killed someone, probably for the first time in their lives. She had to reassure them.
They had defended their ship and crew. They hadn’t hesitated to obey her order, even if she wasn’t yet a captain that everyone trusted and respected. She called to them over the commlink. “Good shooting.”
Her hands trembled holding the microphone. She wiped sweat and salt from her forehead with her sleeve. A chill shivered through her body. She had killed someone. She tried to mask how she really felt with a thin smile. The bridge crew turned toward her. There was shock in their expressions.
She took a deep breath.
She had more than passed her first test as captain. Maybe her parents would now acknowledge her career choice with at least a twinge of pride. But fatigue tugged at her, threatening to drag her down deep like the mysterious boat. The crew was waiting for her to say something more.
She raised the microphone. Her hand was still shaking. She rammed out each word before the shock sucked her voice away. “Well. Done. Everybody.” Another breath. Scowled at the XO. “The vessel we encountered presented a direct and immediate threat to the ship, and you dealt with it with professionalism.”
“Ma’am,” Sullivan pulled off his headphones. “How do we know there isn’t another one out there?”

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It was not gradual. For at least several seconds Lota lingered, drifting among images from dreams she no longer recalled. But then the images vanished, the dream dissolved. She sat up in bed, already fully awake.
   Her clothes had been laid out carefully the night before and now she dressed quickly in a pair of army-green cargo pants and a cobalt football jersey with the Brazilian national team’s logo on the front nearly rubbed out.
   The room was rented. Up three crooked flights of stairs in an old cable company building that used to house the foreign workers. These days, foreigners hardly ever came to the island and, whenever they did, they were flown in and out at the north end. They did their work at the new cable station that had been constructed there, and never actually set foot in town.
   Lota had been in the room six months, but it was still nearly as bare as when she’d first arrived. She’d hardly unpacked, was still living out of a single suitcase. There really was nowhere to unpack, even if she’d wanted to. The room had no closet, or drawers of any kind — only a single bed in the corner and a small table beside it, which supported a cheap porcelain lamp. Also on the table were Lota’s mobile phone and a glass of water, half drunk. Her suitcase, in the middle of the floor, gaped.
Opposite the bed and next to the door were a small sink and mirror. A bar of soap, a comb, and a toothbrush balanced on the rounded edge of the sink. Lota stood in front of the mir­ror now, gazing at her reflection in the spotted glass. The room was so narrow that if the door beside her opened she would need to step aside.
   But the door never opened, except when Lota herself en­tered and left the room. No one came to visit, or even knew where she lived. Her family in the village believed she lived with her auntie Toni, in the shopping district. No one had in fact spoken with Aunt Toni in many years and she didn’t have a tele­phone. It was safe, therefore, to say, “I am living with Auntie.” Nobody questioned her, but neither would they have known where to look for her if they’d needed to. Lota went back to the village frequently enough that the idea never crossed their minds. She saved just enough of her salary, and she brought it home every two weeks, along with tinned meat, potato chips, toilet paper, and other odds and ends from town.
   She worked at the fish plant, fifty hours a week, and when she wasn’t working she was either at the gym or at headquar­ters. By the time she got back to her room, she just fell into bed —sometimes without taking off her shoes.
   Lota splashed cold water onto her face and examined her reflection. The mirror was chipped in the corner and the glass rusted. In places it was difficult to tell what spots were the spots on the glass and what spots were her own. She was naturally freckled, like her redheaded grandmother.
   It was not white blood that ran in their family, her mother used to say: it was fire. The family could count back one thou­sand generations, knew how they were related to the sea, the sky, and to the hot lava that boiled beneath them. But like prac­tically everyone else on the island, her mother never spoke of the family’s white ancestors: the Irish and German settlers who’d come for the sugar trade, their colonial masters, or those — from all over Europe and America — who’d arrived on the island along with the first telegraph wire.
   In the old days, “white ghosts” had flooded the island and practically every islander was employed by one. The grandparents recalled this time fondly now, but whenever they spoke of it it was always as if the “white ghosts” had just been passing through. As if they belonged — and could only belong — nowhere, to no one.
   Yes, in those days, the old people said, there’d been a sta­tion, long since demolished, nicknamed “the old chateau.” It had had something like fifty rooms, including a billiard room, a dance hall, and a library. There’d been little electric bells in every bathroom that when rung would almost instantly sum­mon a Chinese servant.
   After the war, a new station was constructed with none of these finer points. It was located underground in an old fallout shelter with twenty-four-inch-thick walls; the only luxury in the place was a wall of showers where employees could wash off radioactive material in case of a nuclear attack. But at least there were still jobs. Lota’s father had been em­ployed there, briefly — and her grandfather and great-grandfather before him. But in less than a generation, everything had changed. Ø Com, the Danish outfit that acquired the station in the late seventies, laid off nearly all local workers, then simply stopped hiring.
   They built an even newer station on the island’s north end, so that what had once been the “new station” became the “old” or the “main” station and the even newer one was referred to as the “outer station” — if it was ever referred to at all.
   Mostly, because no one who lived on the island had ever set foot there, they didn’t call it anything, and half the time they even seemed to forget it existed. The work at both stations was done remotely these days, using computers, or else was too specialized for the undertrained local employees. Technicians and engineers were flown in for monthly service trips, and though a handful of islanders had been hired at the main sta­tion as janitors, desk clerks, or guards, no one but foreigners ever visited the outer station. It was as if, even before it was constructed, it had already disappeared: every official depiction of the island after 1982 left the entire northern end —occupied by the Empire, and by Ø — entirely blank.
   The island’s history was another blank spot. Except on very rare occasions, no one spoke of the day that, nearly fifty-five years ago, they’d looked up and — miracle of miracles! — seen snow raining down slowly from the sky. Or about the sixteen years they’d spent after that living as refugees on the Surigao coast. 
   They didn’t talk about the war, either — in which more than half of the island’s young men had fought and died on behalf of the Empire. Or, except in passing, of the telegraph days, or of sugarcane, or of sandalwood, or of coconut oil. It was really no wonder, then, when you thought about it, that, aside from sto­ries of boiling hot lava and fire, no one seemed to recall exactly how light skin and red hair had got into the blood.

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Itzel I

A Tlatelolco Awakening
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Itzel was an Auschwitz survivor. That is how I will always start. Whether I am in Oaxaca eating grasshoppers or in Cacaxtla drinking pulque, or just surveying one or the other city or even Puerto Escondido on Google Earth, that is how I will begin: Itzel was an Auschwitz survivor. Over and over. Thinking one day I will do it: write that story. Get it down. Until it will once more make me go to Mexico to try to retrace our route--our many routes--and become a refrain: Itzel was an Auschwitz survivor. And yet not a single word will be written.Even if I have already let the fiction begin in my mind. Already changed her name. Even if I know it would have satisfied her, the real her, when I let her speak it. Laugh at how it seems so strange that an Auschwitz survivor should bear the name of a Maya goddess. But of course such a name would already have to appear strange to me, the me who will be the author, because she was so very blonde. As I suppose the Auschwitz survivor part will too, almost devolving into one of the New York jokes of my Brooklyn childhood, always a punch line for something: Funny, you don't look Jewish. Except that there is nothing funny about it. Which may be the reason, now, in front of my keyboard with Google Earth in another window, I will decide at last to write it this way: that it can be written this way. As this impossible hybrid. Because I want you to know this: everything I say here about the camps was said to me. That part was real.And so was she. This woman so very briefly my best friend. The first person to befriend me in Mexico, or whom I will befriend. And betray so badly. I still think that. Even if most might think from a superficial look at the circumstances that it was the other way around. So that a great deal more of all this is true too, certainly the part of Mexico I will be there for, in the making of its history, even the exact minute of the green flare falling from the army helicopter to begin the massacre at 6:10 in the afternoon of October 2nd, 1968. When I will see Itzel begin to run. True as something of fiction always is. Though you can work out what yourself in the storyline, with its names changed to protect innocent or guilty, the details recombined mostly, only occasionally imagined. The way I will often do, in my head if not on the page: just to let me find the moral centre of my tale. But the specifics, the historical specifics: I will vouch for them.I will start to use that line early on: Itzel was an Auschwitz survivor. Even if I will use her real name then. And change it only when on Cozumel one year I will be reading so much about the Maya goddess whose shrine stands at the island's centre that it will become a way into the story, one that preserves the rhythm of the original as well as its unusual features, not like Vera or Elena or other names I'd thought of that can be easily pronounced in Spanish as well as English, when always I would like her own far too much before finding that one: the Maya goddess of medicine and midwifery, which will finally birth my tale, and be a gift not just to the goddess but to her, what with that sound, that 'ts' sound contained in that 'tz' so common in her own Hungarian and in the indigenous languages of Mexico, still intact. Eetsell: She would love it.As perhaps she did. Which is what will let me see it as the name she'll take when she joins the underground cell with us, I will hear her laughter in it and that will jog my memory because Cozumel's shrine to Ix Chel--another version of Itzel most say, though controversy surrounds that too--will once more bring her and her code name to mind, how in her own way she will be midwife to us all. Because she will join the group with us. That too, is true. So that Itzel, that central voiceless hissing whisper in it, can seem both assertion and subterfuge, and so come to mirror her most salient characteristic. And I will keep it singular, one characteristic: assertion and subterfuge. Because one will never be present without the other. It will be easy to use that line to try to frame her. To put her in the frame. Better said a frame. Like a portrait. The better to see her. That's what I will tell myself at the start. Though I do like that other phrase: put her in the frame. That British police procedural phrase. Even if the American use of frame might work better. That I am trying to set her up. It is easy enough to think that in trying to get a grip on her I might be trying to trap her inside some sort of misdemeanour if not felony which I have come to think her guilty of. Or that Basta might, just to get out of the picture himself. To leave us to it. Because there is a third character here. Of course there is. There has to be. The third point of the triangle. Or the outsider. Or both. The one who arrives late into town or mind. Or perhaps someone else will play at least one of those roles. I'll leave it to you.And besides, we will meet at art school, Itzel and I. And that's part of what we'll be learning to do. Compose the design within its limits: its frame. And we will paint each other.

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Night of Power

Mansoor Visram wakes to a fluting sound, a distant melody like a muezzin’s call. He half-opens his eyes. Dark fields extend to the horizon and merge seamlessly with the night sky. A perfect circle. The prairie hills are massive fro­zen waves. He feels something pecking at his feet. He lifts his head. A small domed shape bobs up and down at his feet, hammering at his icy body. The bird flies up and hovers over his chest. Her body is brilliant blue; her crown golden. Her breast is plump and glazed with rhinestone tassels instead of feathers. Mansoor is amazed that she can fly. He swipes the air and tries to catch her, but she flies up and out of reach. He plants his hands on the snow and struggles to stand, his veins a map of frozen rivers. The bird flies ahead of him and waits, like a siren willing him forward. A few steps and he falls to his knees. His clothes are an armour of ice. In the distance, the city lights are a pale smudge in the sky. He tries to stand again but his body jars, like a ship caught in icy waters. “Get up, Visram!” he orders himself. “Move!” Instead he falls, curls in the soft snow, and drifts off again. The bird lands on his shoulder. She nudges her way up to his ear and begins to sing.

Chapter 1

Mansoor tries to clear the frost from the glass door of his store with a handkerchief. Instead, he creates a pattern of semicircles over the front sign, M.G. Visram & Son Dry Cleaners, Inc., Suiting Canada Since 1987. Outside, a thin, sharp snow is falling, the flurries visible only under the street lamps. It’s past seven in the morning and still pitch dark. The winter sun will not rise for at least another hour. Most of the stores in the shopping plaza, located in an upscale neigh­bourhood in southwest Calgary, are closed: the travel agency, the hairdresser, the dentist’s office, the video store. Only the dry cleaners and the twenty-four-hour convenience store are open, like fluorescent snow globes in the dark.
   Mansoor turns around and inspects his store, just as he does each morning. It’s a small space, only five hundred and fifty-three square feet, but it’s well organized and this gives him a great deal of satisfaction. Gold frames pock the wall above the cash register, like a collage of family photographs. In one, a dollar bill, the first one he earned in Canada, from August 1973. In another, his business licence, and yet another, his pledge to his customers. “I may not have the answer, but I will find it. I may not have the time, but I will make it.” Against another wall, a short bookshelf holds his books with titles like In Search of Excellence and Men’s Strength & Power Training, as well as biographies of men like Henry Ford, Bill Gates, and Neil Armstrong. The front of the store is separated from the back by a glass wall, allowing his customers to see what a well-organized operation he runs. Rows of suits and shirts, swathed in plastic, hang on a conveyor belt like headless men.
   In the backroom, he flips open a calendar to an image of a lone Arctic wolf. A note under today’s date, January 21, has been circled in red and starred. Banker, 3:30 p.m. Mansoor is ready. Fully prepared. He has been for months now. He needs the funds for a dry-cleaning plant, which is central to his new business plan. He has been waiting even longer to share his plan with his son, Ashif. He is the only one who will truly understand its enormity and significance in the marketplace. He is, after all, a brilliant businessman. Just like his father. Tomorrow, Mansoor will finally get his chance. Ashif is com­ing home for lunch when he is here from Toronto to attend important work meetings.
   Above Mansoor’s desk hangs a massive portrait of his father, a copy of the original photo that hung in all of their stores in Uganda, next to the image of Idi Amin, decreed by law, and one of the Imam, expected by the community. A trinity of men. In the photograph, his father stands proudly in front of his flagship store in Kampala. He is tall and rotund, his body weight proof of his wealth. He is in an ivory three-piece suit; a gold pocket watch, purchased in London, hangs from the vest pocket. His hands rest regally on top of a cane with a silver lion’s head. High above him, the sign reads, Visram P. Govindji & Son, Established 1929.

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