The women were sitting on my bed when I checked into the room. They didn’t seem terribly interested in talking to me, which was fine, because I was tired from my trip and just wanted to relax. Maybe they came with the room. I was too fatigued to care.
At first I assumed they were twin sisters, because they were dressed alike, pretty in the same way and about the same age. But then I realized they didn’t even speak the same language. Neither spoke a language I could identify. I decided this was one of those dilemmas that would turn out best if simply left alone. I didn’t cause it, I couldn’t cure it.
I took a shower and came out of the bathroom wearing a the complimentary plush bath robe that came with this VIP room. By then the two women had stopped sitting on the bed and were playing chess on an elegant mahogany table near the window. The view of the city below was astounding. The women seemed so wrapped up in their game they didn’t notice it, or me, for that matter. However, I noticed what seemed like a mob of people running down the street in front of our hotel. You could see tanks and trucks coming at the mob from the other direction. Flames.
When I turned on the TV all the channels showed the same thing: an announcement reading Peace and Unity. Patriotic music. Later, I would find the conference I had come here to attend had been cancelled. The Prime Minister was in hiding. The army was in charge. I should prepare for frequent power outages. Food and water may temporarily be in short supply. Stay tuned for further developments.
Twilight came and I must have fallen asleep. When I woke in the middle of the night, the two women had already left. In the morning, there was man sitting at the same table at which the women had played chess. He was eating breakfast.
“Sleep well?” he asked, as I sat up.
“Fine. Who are you?”
“The name is Joseph Jameson. I’m here to make you an offer you probably won’t want to refuse. Care for breakfast?”
I didn’t feel like asking who was paying for our meals, though I had the sinking suspicion I would ultimately be the one to pay for room service upon checkout. But when would that be, anyway, now that martial law had most likely been declared?
“We need a caucasian expert to talk on television. Do you have a doctorate?”
“I spent a couple of sememsters in a community college in Iowa,” I replied.
“We’ll refer to you as Doctor anyway. We need to assure the populace that everything is under control.”
“Sure. Someone is in charge. That’s all they need to know. Just remember to downwardly inflect your voice at the end of each utterance to imply certainty. These are facts, not opinions. You’re not looking for approval or reinforcement.”
“And after that?”
“We’ll confer with the Ministers of Environment and Interior. They’re hiding in the basement of the Palace of Democracy. We need to give them some talking points. We’ll be traveling with a retinue of beautiful young women. In this country that’s important, it shows that you’re somebody important.”
“And then what?”
“And then we pay you several thousand dollars for your time and ask you to be available again if needed. We don’t know how long this period of uncertainty will last.”
There was a car waiting in front of the hotel, with the two beautiful women who had been sitting on my bed when I arrived and three more, very pretty younger women. Here I found they are called “pretties” and are valued only for their looks and youth. They were demure and shy, but made sure to sit as close to me as possible wherever we were, because that was their job.
The man who had negotiated with me drove, but before he took the wheel he donned a chauffeur’s cap and leather driving gloves. I guess here if you want to be taken seriously you have to look the part.
At the TV station I sat in front of a green screen while the man and woman who interviewed me sat in folding chairs in front of me. I glanced at the monitor and saw that through electronic wizardry it seemed if we were sitting in front of a lush, tropical forest, with a swimming pool off to one side. I repeated the lines that I had been coached to say, “This was nothing out of the ordinary, just the routine growing pains of newly emerged democracies. Of course other nations sympathized but were not overly concerned. If called upon to help, they would gladly do what they could. The United Nations was on our side. Everyone was on our side.”
Apparently my handlers were pleased with my performance, for on our way to visit the Ministers In Hiding the girls snuggled even closer to me. The general mood was optimistic. A few bombs and sirens going off at random intervals failed to spoil the mood. Much.
When we found him, the Minister of Health was in the basement, hiding behind a copy machine. He didn’t seem much like a Minister, and was dressed in dirty coveralls, looking very much like a janitor at the end of a hard day. It soon occurred to me that his appearance was deliberate.
“What do they want from me?” he pleaded, looking at me imploringly. I feigned compassion as best I could.
“It’s not about you. They want democracy,” I assured him.
“We tried that before. It didn’t work. My people are not ready for demoracy. They want a strong leader, someone to believe in.”
“Where is the Prime Minister?”
“I wish I knew. I would punch him in the nose.”
Another voice joined us, coming from a nearby closet. “He’s not at fault. It’s the Army. You know that as well as I do.”
Another man stepped out. My guide introduced him as the Minister of the Interior. I expected him to talk about politics or the state of the nation, but he had only one thing on his mind. “Please, get me out of here. I’ll do anything.”
We offered to let him ride in the trunk of the car, hidden under some blankets. He managed to climb in unnoticed, and even though we stopped for drinks and didn’t invite him along, he wasn’t resentful. We dropped him off at the bus station, and he shook my hand warmly. “Maybe I’ll see you in Chicago someday. Or Omaha. I have a brother in law in Omaha.”
We took the girls to an enormous apartment building that ran along the river. They smiled and said something in their language, and I smiled back and waved. That was it. Then the driver took me to the airport and paid me more money than I’d made for one day’s work in my entire life. I hoped to hear from him again, but he never called.