Here is the first chapter of ‘The Lost Patrol’. There will almost certainly be four chapters in all – this isn’t going to be a long story. inlovewithnight, who was scheduled to write the DRC for the ficathon, has surrendered her claim to me and so this is the official entry for the Democratic Republic of Congo. This part is 2,750 words and the rating would be PG. It might climb later.
Summary: late January 2006. Xander has returned to Uganda, still hurting from the events of ‘Lonely on the Mountain’, and he hears of an influx of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo who have been driven from their homes by an apparently supernatural peril. On his way to investigate he acquires some supernatural company of his own.
The Lost Patrol
The CDs were probably fakes but I didn’t care. I was feeling kinda dead and empty inside and worrying about guitar players and record company suits being cheated out of the money for their next hit of cocaine was kinda low on my list of priorities.
I flipped through the rack and a word caught my eye. ‘Country’. Yeah, the music of pain, that was what I needed. I picked up the CD and took a closer look. Nope, not Country music at all. ‘Big Country’ was the name of the band. I could just about remember hearing their song on 80s radio shows once in a while. Okay, I guess, but not what I was after. I put it back and went on looking.
There wasn’t a damn thing that could be called Country. There’d been plenty in Malawi, but I hadn’t thought to buy anything there, and here in Uganda the locals didn’t seem to rate Country music at all. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I was heading out next, I’d be lucky to find anything that wasn’t in French. I flipped on. There was that ‘Big Country’ album again. Big diagonal crack running across the jewel case. Just like there had been on the first one.
And like there was on the copy that I hit five CDs further on. And the copy in the next rack. And the next one. How come there were so many, anyway? About the only other CD that I kept seeing multiple copies of was James Blunt’s ‘Back to Bedlam’ and that was number one just about everywhere in the world right now. There was something kinda odd about seeing so many CDs of some album by a one-hit-wonder eighties band out here in Kampala, Uganda.
Not odd enough to wig me out, of course, just enough for me to notice. What did wig the crap out of me was the voice that I heard in my ear.
“Take the sodding hint, you daft git.”
I yelped and spun around. Nobody there. A woman ten feet away stepped back with her eyebrows shooting up in alarm at the antics of the crazy mzungu. That was it. There was a complete and total absence of bleached blond vampires. I covered by shaking my hand and then sticking my finger in my mouth. “Sharp edge,” I said, smiling at the woman. “Cut myself”. Her eyebrows came down and she went back to rummaging through VHS cassette boxes that had black and white photocopied covers.
Okay, I was cracking up. Hearing things. Or the First Evil was back.
“Bloody hell, Harris, just buy the damn record.” It was Spike’s voice. Nobody else could sound so aloof and irritated with me. Except Giles. And Anya sometimes. And Dawn. Well, okay, a lot of people. Only this was definitely Spike.
“Spike?” I said. “Is that you?”
I was getting that ‘crazy mzungu’ look from the woman again. I didn’t blame her. I would have given myself the same look if I’d been where she was looking at me. Or if I’d had a mirror handy. Spike was dead. Really dead. Not just a vampire but dead, dusted, washed down a drain in some Los Angeles alley.
Of course he’d died before. Gone up in flames in the Hellmouth. That hadn’t stopped him from coming back. He was worse than the cat in that song. Maybe he was back. Okay, I couldn’t see him, but I’d heard that he’d been all ghostly when he came back from the Hellmouth and wound up in Los Angeles, so maybe this was the same.
I slipped my brand new cell phone out of my pocket and raised it to my ear on the side away from the woman then I turned so that she could see it. See, not crazy, just talking on my cell phone. “Spike, if you’re there, say something. This is wigging me out.”
The woman bought my act and went back to her search for a pirate copy of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ or ‘King Kong’ or whatever – it wasn’t going to be ‘Brokeback Mountain’ she was looking for, that was for sure, not in Uganda – and I let myself grin a little.
“Spike?” Of course if I’d really gone crazy I shouldn’t be grinning. Talking to dead people was nothing new to me, especially this particular dead guy, but talking to imaginary dead guys might be step one on the road that would end up with me hacking through doors with a fire axe and yelling ‘Here’s Johnny!’
“Six billion people in the world and I have to end up being guardian angel to a tosser with the intelligence of a – oh, bollocks! Time’s up. Just buy the CD, you pillock.”
“Spike?” I waited. The voice didn’t speak again. I gave up and put the cell phone away. I’d taken the hint. Even if it was the First Evil I couldn’t see how buying the record would do any harm. Well, unless it was full of those secret satanic messages that would persuade me to kill myself. That was a chance that I was just going to have to take.
What the hell. I picked up the CD. ‘Big Country: The Crossing’. There was another one by the same band behind it. ‘Driving to Damascus’. Well, I was going to be doing one whole lot of driving over the next couple of days, maybe it would be good accompaniment, and maybe the hint was supposed to include this one as well. I picked that CD up too.
And now that I’d taken the hint I could see CDs that hadn’t been there before. Johnny Cash’s ‘American IV: The Man Comes Around’. I snatched it up right away. Willie Nelson. Tammy Wynette. Loretta Lynn. Waylon Jennings. More Johnny Cash. Pretty much a treasure trove.
A reward for taking the hint? Hell if I knew. I just bought them all and left the shop. I had nearly three hundred miles of driving ahead of me today, more tomorrow, and a destination that I wasn’t looking forward to reaching. Not one bit.
Not if all the rumors about ghosts were true; and they’d been scary enough to send twenty thousand people fleeing from their homes and all the way across the border. I didn’t think that this was going to be any mildly scary thing like a voice from the past trying to influence my music-buying choices.
These ghosts, so the story went, had guns. And they used them.
I put off listening to the Big Country CD for a while. No bleached blond vampire, dead or not, was going to come between me and Johnny Cash and that was what I played first. Until ‘Hurt’ ripped my heart out so badly that I couldn’t take it any more.
I decided that it was time to call it a day with the music of pain. I put on one of the Big Country CDs. Not the one that had been kinda forced on me, I was still feeling kinda stubborn on that point, but the other one. The first track was okay, I guess. Just kinda standard rock, nothing special. The next one was a little better. The one after that was better still. And the next. By track five I was thinking ‘hey, this is pretty damn good’. Track six was called ‘Fragile Thing’ and it was Country. Real, genuine, music-of-pain Country, and about as good as anything that I’d ever heard in my life. And it touched me right on the raw edges that the whole Meryl fiasco had left behind.
For a couple of miles, as that song was playing, I had a feeling like there was someone else with me in the Land Rover. The passenger seat was on my blind side and I kept thinking that if I turned my head he’d be there. Probably wearing that same damn leather coat with the buttons on the wrong side, fiddling with a cigarette, and with that damn smirk on his face. I held out as long as I could and then I just had to sneak a look. There was nothing there. Maybe I was going nuts.
Or maybe it was just that the words of the song were getting to me. They were kinda relevant to Spike and to me too. Words about wanting to be the hero who saved the world and got the girl but really ending up being alone. It wasn’t all that big with the whole feel-good factor but, damn, it was a good song.
The CD kinda tailed off after that. There was one more really good song and the rest were not much more than okay. The feeling I had that Spike was in the cab with me kinda faded away after a while. When that CD came to an end I changed over to Loretta Lynn and then I switched on the radio in case there was anything important on the news. Like anything more on the refugee situation, for instance, but it didn’t rate a mention. Nothing new.
I drove on for hours as the road climbed into the highlands and the temperature dropped. I grabbed something to eat at a gas station and I put on a jacket while I was there. Kampala had been baking hot but Kisoro District was more than five thousand feet above sea level with a lot of hills rising up higher. It wasn’t cold, but it wasn’t all that hot either, and it started to rain. Giles would probably have felt right at home. Spike, too, I guess, at least as far as the weather went. The guinea fowl running across the road and the monkeys in the trees kinda made it different from London.
Spike didn’t put in any more appearances. If he’d even been there in the first place. Maybe I’d imagined the whole thing. Only why would I imagine Spike? I didn’t hate him any more, I maybe even had a few regrets about things, and if he’d turned up solid and visible I’d have shared a beer with him instead of staking him; but he wasn’t anywhere near top of my list of people that I missed. If it was just me cracking up surely I’d have heard Anya? I decided that I probably wasn’t going nuts and drove on until at last I got to the refugee camp.
The refugees had put together a kind of instant shanty town. Some tents, a lot of lean-tos with all sorts of crap propped up against trees or rocks to give shelter, and a lot of people without anything to keep off the rain except for holding clothes over their heads. I had three tents in the back of the Land Rover, plus another one for me, and they weren’t going to make a blind bit of difference to things here. There were supposed to be eight thousand of the refugees here in Kisoro District and I wasn’t going to argue with that figure. I couldn’t see the two hundredweight bags of high-protein biscuits and the big sack of powdered milk that I’d brought going all that far either but it was all that I’d been able to bring. That and a few boxes of medical supplies and water purification tablets.
I tracked down the UNHCR station and pulled up outside. I had a whole spiel that I could have gone through, papers I could have produced, but I didn’t need any of it. I was wearing the right clothes and I had brought a mess of supplies so that made me an aid worker. They were in the shit too deep to bother asking any questions. They took what I gave them, got me to pitch in with the distribution, and showed me somewhere that I could sleep. And they let me interview some of the people who’d fled from the Kivu region of the DRC and who were telling tales that were obviously too crazy to be true.
Okay, ‘interview’ was maybe not the right word. I can just about get by in French these days but it’s more the ‘order a beer and ask the way to the bathroom’ kind of getting by than the ‘ask intelligent questions about ghosts and understand the answers’ kind. I had to stumble through the questions in a mix of Kiswahili and bad French. I understood a lot of what they said in reply, like for instance I knew that ‘fantômes Blancs’ were white ghosts, but there was no way that I could be sure that I had got the whole thing straight. Well, that was why I had a little digital recorder. I taped everything that they told me so that I could send it back over the phone to Giles.
All the time that I’d been in Malawi I’d been sitting practically underneath a cellnet mast and I’d had a busted cell phone. Now I had a brand new cell phone and I was way out in the bush. Gorillas in the mist kind of country. There was not a trace of signal. It was time to get out the satellite phone.
At least here I wasn’t trying to pass as a tourist and the sat-phone rig didn’t raise any eyebrows. It wouldn’t work from inside the Land Rover, worse luck, but I used the car as a shelter from that cold drizzle of rain and set the phone up. I was three hours ahead of London time so I didn’t have to worry about waking Giles up or anything like that. Calling in the morning was what I had to remember not to do except in an emergency.
He was pleased to hear from me. He started off by giving me all kinds of praise for how I’d handled things in Malawi. Hey, I’d just kind of bumbled my way through, just doing what I had to, and I’d probably have been dead if it hadn’t been for Faith. I mumbled something back, I don’t remember what, and then I moved on to the business at hand.
“The way I understand it is that there have been white ghosts in the area for more than forty years,” I told him. “Soldiers, I think. Maybe mercenaries from one of those wars they had around those parts way back, something like that. They don’t show up often, and they never used to do any harm when they did, and the locals had kinda gotten used to them. Only lately things have changed. They’ve started to kill. Shooting people, stabbing people, and – this is the part that’s gonna make you twitch, Giles – biting them and drinking their blood. They’ve done enough killing to get twenty thousand people spooked enough to run. This camp is one whole lot of not fun, Giles. Things where they came from must be pretty bad if this is better.”
“Oh,” Giles said. There was a moment’s silence, and I could picture Giles taking off his glasses and cleaning them, except that these days he wore contact lenses so he must have been doing something else. “That sounds rather, ah, ominous.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” I agreed. “Ghost vampires, only not in the sky. With guns. That’s if I’ve gotten the story straight. I’m kinda hoping that I just didn’t understand what they were saying right. Vampires with guns are very, very, not of the good.”
“I have experts standing by to translate the eyewitness accounts,” Giles said. “Perhaps it will turn out that you have misunderstood things. I don’t think that it’s likely. You do seem to have something of a gift for extracting the pertinent data from a garbled account. I strongly suspect that you will prove to be absolutely correct in your interpretation.” A sigh came over the phone. “It is rather unfortunate that I recalled Faith to England. I’ll do my best to organize some back-up for you as soon as possible.”
“Already in hand,” I assured him. “Banuela’s coming over from Tanzania. She’s one tough cookie, Giles, and she speaks Kiswahili, which is what they speak in that part of the DRC when they’re not speaking French.” I paused and took a deep breath before I went on. “And I think maybe I might have some kinda ghostly back-up too. A ghost vampire of my own. Either that or I’m going nuts. I’ve been getting messages from Spike.”
The characters in this story do not belong to me, but are being used for amusement only and all rights remain with Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, the writers of the original episodes, and the TV and production companies responsible for the original television shows. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (c) 2002 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer trademark is used without express permission from Fox.