One too many texts
Patricia went down the big staircase and came across her little brother, Mickael. She was eleven and he was six. He was standing in front of the door of his classroom. At 3:30 the hallway was filled with children heading out to the schoolgrounds, buzzing with excited chatter, shouts, and smiles.
The boy and his big sister made their way through the schoolgrounds, to the front gate of the school. It was no good looking for their parents. They were nowhere to be seen. Patricia held the key to their apartment tightly in the pocket of her jeans.
They both followed the sidewalk of the big street, crossed it and went back through the schoolgrounds, and then walked the length of the row of houses that had such beautiful flower gardens out front.
Coming to their building, they took the stairs up to the fourth floor. Children under twelve couldn't take the elevator unless they were with an adult.
Patricia opened the door to their apartment and Mickael rushed over to the kitchen table. Mom or Dad always left them a snack there. Nothing.
Instead, his sister saw an envelope with her name on it. She recognized her dad's writing.
She opened it and read.
"My dear, go out of the building. Go across the street. Go into the bookstore on the corner of the boulevard. Look at the book display. There, you'll find "The Carnival of the Gods" by Robert Ruark. Buy it. Ask them to gift wrap it. Be careful. Inside the book is a message. You must not lose it. Then come back home. Bring Mickael. Dad."
The envelope had a fifty dollar bill in it.
Patricia took her little brother and went back down the stairs. She took him by the hand as they crossed the street and went into the bookstore. There was no one except the clerk. He was sitting by the cash desk.
She found the book, took it, and flipped through it. She saw a sealed envelope. She went to the cash.
"That book isn't for kids," said the clerk.
"It's a gift for my father," said the girl.
The clerk giftwrapped it. Our friend paid, slipped her change in her pocket and left the store. She went back to the apartment with Mickael.
That evening, she gave the book to her dad.
Patricia read in bed before turning out the light. Dad came in and sat on the bed.
"Thanks for doing that before," he said. "You did me a big favour."
"Happy to helf," said the girl, with a smile.
Her father was silent for a moment. He seemed to be hesitating, like he had something else to say.
"Could you help me out with something else?" he asked suddenly.
"You know the kind of work I do, my dear."
"You're a policeman."
"Yes. But a special kind of policeman. I don't take care of traffic, tickets, or shoplifting. I am in charge of a team. Our work is to track down quite dangerous criminels. All over the world. There are organized groups, international ones, that threaten the security of the whole country. A few days ago, I was given a very serious case."
Patricia listened, astonished. It was the first time her father had spoken to her about any of this. He continued.
"I'm after a criminal organization. They have stolen missles with nuclear warheads. Essentially rockets armed with atomic bombs. They are hidden somewhere. No one knows where. They are going to sell them to a dictator, the head of a country. War is the only thing thinks about. He doesn't give a thought to building roads, houses, schools, or hospitals for his people."
Our friend didn't say a word as she took this all in.
"I'm following an interesting lead at the moment. For some reason or another, someone has given me some very exact but incomplete information. The envelope in the book you bought for me just now contains some of this information. I sent you so that no one finds out that I'm leading the inquiry on this case. This source needs to stay anonymous. Doubtlessly for their protection. They will contact me again. So, if you agree to help me, I'll give you this cell phone. Keep it with you in class."
"We aren't allowed, Dad. No cell phones at school. It's the second rule."
"You can hide it at the back of your binder. And it has to stay secret. No calling your friends on it. Don't show it - ever, no matter what - to anyone. When you get out of school at 3:30 each day, then you can turn it on. And check if I've sent you a text message. Are you up for this?"
"Yes," Patricia said with pride. And you can count on me. I won't tell a soul. Promise."
"Don't let Mickael see it."
"Okay. I'll take him to the playground across from the school and turn it on there. While he's playing on the swings."
"Thank you for your help, my dear. I hope to wrap this up in the next week or two."
Two days later, Patricia was leaving school after her classes. She took Mickael by the hand.
"Let's stop for a bit in the playground," the girl said.
Her little brother broke into a big grin and made a beeline to the swings. Our friend turned on her phone and checked her messages. She found one.
"Go to the Proxy Market on the street behind ours. Look at the notice board. You'll see one about kittens for sale. Bring that notice with you. Don't lose the envelope that'll be glued onto the back of it. Thanks, Dad."
She deleted the text and turned off the phone. Then she hid it at the back of her binder.
"Come on, Mickael."
"We're going already?"
Patricia headed to the entrace of the supermarket. She went up to the notice board. An elderly woman was flipping through the magazines, looking for coupons. A young man was twiddling his ballpoint pen between his fingers while he read the notices.
Our friend, a bit wary, kept her eyes on him. A spy?
She turned so she could read the notices. Right away, she spotted the one with the kittens for sale. She took it down and slid it into the big pocket of her jeans.
She took her little brother by the hand and left without looking back.
They got back to the apartment safely. She gave Mickael a snack and worked on her homework while he played in the other room.
That evening, she gave the envelope to her dad. He was very happy to get it.
The next day, a Thursday, the principal of the school called Patricia just when she was filing out into the schoolgrounds with her class.
The principal told her to go back to her classroom. There, just in front of the classroom, she saw two policemen.
"Do you have a cell phone?" the principal asked.
Our friend could feel her heart suddenly start pounding in her chest.
"Don't lie to us. We can search your bag," added one of the policemen.
Patricia was always honest. But she didn't want to betray her father. She'd also promised him to not talk to anyone about the phone.
"No, ma'am," she answered.
"Where is your desk?"
Our friend suddenly had a brilliant idea. She had to try. She decided to take the risk.
"Here, ma'am," she said pointing to her friend Chloé's backpack. Chloé sat next to her in class and their desks were pushed together. Her friend's pack was on top of the two desks, hers underneath.
The policemen emptied the bag and, of course, found nothing. They hadn't thought to check the name tags on Chloé's workbooks.
Everyone left the room and the principal locked it. Patricia caught up with her friends.
That evening, her dad listened to the whole story. He explained that those men hadn't been policemen. They were almost certainly part of the organization that had stolen the nuclear warheads. They had fooled the principal.
"The investigation is moving ahead quickly," he said, "but then so too is the danger."
Our friend's dad suggested that she should hang onto the phone if she were still up for it. She wasn't going to be put off so easily. She was proud to be helping her father and she was very brave. So she told him she'd keep the phone for another couple of days. Her dad was concerned about the danger but, after considering how she'd handled herself in the incident with the two men, he let her keep the phone.
On Friday afternoon, Patricia left school with a "have a good weekend" to all her friends. She took Mickael by the hand and crossed the street. The little boy rushed to a free swing on the playground. His big sister sat down on a bench in the sun. She was a bit warm in her T-shirt and jean overalls. She turned on the phone and saw that there was a new message.
"Go down the boulevard that leads to the port. Pass the docks and find the freighter with the name 'IRZA REKIAN' Go up the gangway with Mickael and make your way towards the front of the ship. A will come and find you there to bring you to my cabin. Dad."
Patricia called Mickael. They went down to the port. Our friend remembered having gone along the same route once before when she'd been threatened by a criminal. That didn't make her feel any better about it.
They walked along the tracks, making their way around long rows of freight cars carrying containers that would be picked up by the cranes and loaded on the big boats. The smell of sludge and oil was strong in the air.
She went up to a ship that was bigger than the others. On the deck of the ship, an immense, five-storey white structure blocked off the foredeck from the rear three quarters of the ship. The bridge was at the top of this structure. It seemed to defy the horizon.
She read "IRZA BEKIAN" written in black on the ship's stern.
Patricia, still holding her little brother's hand, walked up the gangway and made her way to the front of the ocean liner.
At the top, she sat down for a minute on one of the wooden crates. Her little brother watched with facination the great cranes at work.
A man, dressed as a sailor, came up to our friend. He asked her name and then said to follow him.
She entered the white structure by a little half-open door. Kitchens on the ground floor, the mess and cabins were on the upper floors. At the very top was the bridge.
The man opened the door to a cabin on the second floor. Patricia went in with Mickael. The sailor grabbed the phone out of her hand, then slammed the door closed. The children could hear the lock slide into position. There was no one in the room where our friend and her brother were trapped. Kidnapped. Prisonners.
The girl thought about the phone. She understood her mistake. But it wasn't her fault. It was one text message too many ... doubtlessly sent by the criminals her father was after.
Our friend looked around her. Mickael had also just realized what had happened and he burst into tears.
"Be brave Mickael. We'll get out of her and go back home."
"You really think so?"
"Yes. And I'll be right here with you. I'll never leave you behind."
She went over to the window, a simple porthole. With some distress, she saw that they were leaving the harbour.
The door opened. A man came in, dressed in a navy uniform. A number of stripes decorated the right sleeve of his jacket. Surely he was the ship's captain, Patricia thought.
"Listen to me carefully, little girl," he said. "We are not going to harm you or your brother in the least. Keep quiet and don't bother us and you will be free to go where and as you like on the ship. Except for when we stop in a port. You will eat with us in the mess. If you try anything at all or you become a nuisance, you will suffer for it, both of you."
He turned on his heels and left. The sailor who was with him closed the door but did not lock it.
The who children got out of the cabin and went out onto the main deck. From a distance, they could make out the shore, the cranes, the harbour, and the city. They observed the landscape that was becoming more distant all the while. It gave them a sinking feeling, thinking about what their parents might be going through.
After the evening meal, Patricia brought Mickael back to their cabin and tucked her brother into the upper bunk. The little boy finally fell asleep, his cheeks covered in tears.
Patricia waited a little, to be sure he was asleep, then she went out to explore the boat. She passed several sailors, who were indifferent to her worries, to her fears.
Then she returned to the cabin, lay down on the lower bunk and also went to sleep.
The next day, accompanied by Mickael, our friend decided to visit every inch of the ship that was her prison. They walked from bow to stern.
She noted, as they walked among the huge containers, two were torn open at the front. Curious, she glanced in and saw the tips of four missiles. The stolen missiles?
She went back towards the kitchen and stopped for a moment in the mess, time enough to have a lemonade with her brother. Then she went up and visited the third and fourth floors. The corridors gave out onto the equipment lockers.
On the fifth floor was the captain's office. Through the open door, she overheard a few words of a conversation. She didn't understand much.
Then the two children continued up to the sixth floor. The ship's bridge. The few men who were there, hardly paid them any mind. They went back down to the main deck.
"Noon," she said to her brother. "The sun is almost exactly above us. It rose on our left. East. That means that we're sailing to the south ... if I could ... if I dared ...
Patricia woke in the night. The big ship was heaving and pitching in the rough waters. Lightning lit the sky. Thunder roared. Rain beat on the portholes. The wind blew furiously.
Midnight. Mickael slept with his hands clenched into fists.
The girl rose, left the cabin, and put her plan into action. "They are all on alert because of storm," she said to herself. "Maybe I can get to the captain's office without being seen. Then I can send an email to my parents."
She went up three floors.
The captain's door was open, the computer on, sitting on his desk.
She entered, sat, and typed her father's address on the keyboard.
"Dad, Mickael and me are prisonners on a freighter ship. The IRZA BEKIAN. We are sailing south. I think I saw a nuclear warhead on board. Don't reply to this message. Patricia."
She sent the message and then erased it. She quickly left the office. She didn't pass anyone as she returned to the cabin.
The ship continued on its way. The heat became oppressive.
At dawn two days later, our friend looked out to the horizon. There, in the distance, she spotted a mountain, encircled by fog at its base and covered in snow at its peak. They were heading straight for it.
Two sailors forced her and Mickael to return to their cabin. Once again, they locked the door.
The boat docked. They loaded and unloaded cases, bags, and a few containers.
Patricia watched the barbour basin from her porthole. The water was grimy, with patches of oil floating on its surface. When the waves crashed against the hull, she could see how dirty it was even from the height of her porthole, two decks above. The girl turned to her brother.
"Mickael," she said, "I won't abandon you. You have my word. But I may be able to get to a police station. I will get out by the porthole and jump in the water. I'll swim to the docks. From there, I'll find the police and come save you."
Her brother gave a little nod to show he understood.
She took off her shoes and socks and stripped down to her jean overalls. Then she opened the porthole. She slipped out, feet first, belly down, dangling first her feet and then her legs into the void. She was draped over the white hull of the boat. For an instant, she hung on to the sill of the hatch and then, taking a deep breath, she let go.
She plunged into the filty water and then right away bobbed back up to the surface. She swam the length of the boat and saw a metal ladder attached to the cement of the dock. She climbed it.
A train was stopped there. She ran its length and made some distance between her and the IRZA BEKIAN, all the while keeping low so no one could see her. A dockworker was pushing a wheelbarrow. She went up to him, out of breath.
"Help me, please! Where is the police station?"
The man said something in Spanish.
"Drat," the girl said to herself. She hadn't understood a word.
Looking up, she saw what was painted in giant letters on the side of a warehouse: "Santa Cruz de Tenerife." She was on the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa! They spoke Spanish there.
Passing a farmer's market, she found herself in a busy street full of the smells of exotic oils, spices, and fish.
No one paid any attention to this barefoot kid, dressed in dirty overalls. She looked like the other poor children who were there, dressed in tatters and hanging around on the sidewalk, looking for a little work or a few pennies.
She was walking up the hill, away from the port, towards the centre, when an all-terrain vehicle stopped right beside her. Three sailors got out and grabbed her, forcing her into the vehicle. Sitting at the wheel was the captain of the IRZA BEKIAN. They took her back to her cabin.
An hour later, two crewmembers accomanied their captain to our friend's cabin. On his orders, they welded the porthole closed.
"So," said the captain, "you won't be going swimming in any more ports or going on useless little trips. Too bad for the two of you if you suffer a bit from the heat, the lack of airflow. I warned you, litle girl. You should have been smarter."
They left without another word. Patricia's overalls were still damp and now quite dirty. They would stay that way. She didn't have anything else to change into.
On their left, two days later, they could see the shoreline with sandy beaches. Our friend heard the words, "Cap Vert," not knowing that these were islands off the African coast.
The second in command on the ship and another sailor forced the two children to follow them towards the overheated machine room in the ship's hold.
"The police are coming on board and are going to search the ship," one of them explained. "They're looking for you. The captain is wondreing who warned them."
The two men emprisoned our friends in an impossibly small, dark, and windowless compartment. It was suffocating. They locked the steel door.
Patricia and Mickael couldn't hear anything through it. No matter how much they called, shouted, cried, no one came. The police boarded the ship and only visited the cabins, the mess hall, the kitchens, the bridge, and the main deck. One of them walked a few steps leading down to the machine room but turned back. It was too dark and the heat was too much for him.
Our friend, sitting in a corner, sad that she couldn't do anything to make her presence known. Just then, she bumped against something there on the ground. She picked it up and felt all over to figure out what it was.
"A screwdriver," she said.
She hid it in the bottom of the bib pocket of her overalls.
Three hours later, when the sailors came to bring them back to their cabin, she hid it under her mattress.
They were already far from the coast.
Four days went by. It got hotter and hotter. Patricia was worried but she put on a brave face so she didn't upset her little brother. But she wondered where they were being taken and why she hadn't had any sign from her father. What would they do with Mickael and her once they reached wherever they were going?
Suddenly, the ship made a sharp turn and headed into the wide mouth of a powerful river. "What one?" she wondered.
Reeds hid each shore. She saw huts or other low houses making up villages. She guessed that they must be in Africa.
Then, the next afternoon, they came in sight of a city built out of the side of a hill. Before it was a large harbour. She saw an assortment of hangers and cranes.
Two sailors brought her back to her cabin with Mickael. Then the sailors locked them up tight.
Right away, Patricia fetched the screwdriver she'd hidden away under the mattress the other day and set to taking apart the door handle. She managed to open it within a few minutes.
She took her little brother by the hand, left, and closed the door behind her.
The two children followed a corridor then decended a flight of stairs, relieved not to have come across anyone. They must all have been busy loading or unloading the ship.
They came to the gangplank leading to the dock. The two ran down. They found themselves on a grey, grease-stained cement platform. Alongside, ran a freight train.
Patricia turned around. A sailor from the IRZA BEKIAN pointed at her. She grabbed her brother's hand tight and ran without stopping.
"Slide under this train car," she told him. "To keep out of sight."
They crawled between the steel wheels. Another freight train started to get underway on the track right next to them.
"Let's get on board," our friend said.
A boxcar had a little empty space behind an enormous, all-white, tank. A little ladder was attached to it. Patricia helped Mickael climb the four metal rungs. The train started to pick up speed. The girl managed to keep up with the boxcar her brother was now on. She had to run.
"Phew," she said, getting out of breath. "Now they won't catch us."
The train chugged on for several hours. The landscape flitted by. They went through mountains. For a while, a torrent of water ran alongside the tracks. Then it was the plains of the savannah. The odd few hills, little scrubby forests, tall grasses. Sometimes a sandy trail crisscrossed the tracks. They went by a few trainsta-tions that seemed pretty deserted.
The stifling sun was about to make contact with the horizon in a dazzling blaze of red and orange.
"I'm thirsty," Mickael complained. "And hungry."
"Me too. "But we have to wait till the train stops," Patricia replied, kneeling down.
"We were better on board the boat. There we got food and we could sleep in a bed."
"We were prisononers," his sister told him.
The train rolled on through the night.
Dawn drew them out of a restless sleep. They slept on the hard wooden floor of the boxcar, yet were lulled at the same time by the regular rhythm of the wheels beating over the welds of the rails. The train slowed.
The two children looked out to houses, skyscrapers, warehouses. They'd arrived in the station of a city. The train was finally going to stop.
Patricia helped her brother down from the boxcar and then they walked, stretching their stiff legs at last, as they walked around the end of the train. They crossed several abandoned tracks headed towards a high, run-down fence. They weren't the first and wouldn't be the last to sneak out that way.
Our friend approached a woman who held a baby in her arms. What a relief, they both spoke the same language! The woman told her how to find the police station.
As she passed by the front of the station, Patricia read: "Kinshasa." She thought she remembered hearing this name before. If she were right, it was the capital of the Congo, in the centre of Africa. She remembered learning that it once was a colony of European country of Belgium.
At the police station, they were welcomed and made to feel at home. The children received sandwiches and drinks. They told the chief of police everything that had happened since they'd received that text message as they were leaving their school. Right away, he got in contact with his colleague, the father of our friend and her brother.
That night, Patricia and Mickael were finally reunited with their parents.
Their dad explained that, thanks to the email she'd sent from the IRZA BEKIAN, the boat had been secretly followed and monitored.
The search that had been carried out aboard the ship offshore from the Cap Vert Islands hadn't been thorough enough. Our friends had been so well hidden away in that suffocating compartment behind the machine room.
Then yesterday, in Matadi, the police, backed up by the local military, stormed the boat. The sailors and their boss, the captain, were quickly overcome and taken to prison. The missles were unloaded on the docks and dismantled. The warheads were deactivated. But there hadn't been the slightest trace of the two children ... who had escaped by boarding a train.
"Pardon me, my dear," the father of our friend added. "All of your misfortunes came from that cellphone that I put in your care. But I admire your courage and resourcefulness. Mickael is lucky to have such an older sister."
"It was one too many text messages, Dad, but I didn't know. ... What an adventure!"
Translation : Andrew Gordon Middleton