An hour after stepping off the military transport from Java,
Stave Gibson was sitting in a Balinese go-go bar sipping thoughtfully on some
local beer. It tasted like a good Brasilian ale, which was better than he
originally hoped for the first time he came here. He read someplace that in
pre-glacial times, countries north of the Mediterranean were famous for
excellent beers and ales. He fleetingly wished for those old days, wondering
what beer tasted like when it was brewed for billions of people.
He had not
cruised the Bali clubs in a long while and there were lots of new faces. As his
eyes wandered around the dimly lit room, his radar locked-on to a plain,
slender little thing who was standing at the end of a line of five or six
girls. The rest of the row was trying to look beautiful, welcoming and earnest,
by contrast his radar target stood motionless, lost in thought. Still, she was
exactly what he wanted at the moment so he waved down a hostess and pointed at
the frail, short one on the end. They immediately summoned the beautiful
goddess nearby, who strolled in Gibsons direction with runway model
grace. He waved his hand in the negative and locked eyes with the hostess:
Not her... Her! he pointed emphatically, motioning again toward the
end of the line. The hostess looked at him, momentarily confused and with a
querying eye. Her? she pointed. Yes. he nodded. The
hostess waved for the attention of the other girls in line and pointed at the
wallflower, who remained lost in thought.
of the girls closest by tapped her on the shoulder and pointed to the hostess.
Catching sight of the hostesses arm waving, the wallflower pointed
incredulously at herself; Me?
you, come on
motioned the hostess with an impatient, irritating
wave of her hand. With a slight grin and a sudden sense of animation, the
wallflower walked briskly over to the hostess pointing up at Gibson, who
watched the scene with minor incredulity.
reached the foot of the shallow steps, looked up and broke into a giant smile.
Pounding quickly up to his seating level, she immediately sat down next to
Gibson and gave him a powerful hug. The hostess smiled approvingly and walked
away, mentally counting her money pile.
Strange. he thought, but nice. For the most part, he
was not sure what to think, except for a hesitant sort of curiosity. Most of
these girls were there for entertainment they knew it and he knew it. It
was an unspoken understanding, not bad, not good, just the way things were. The
plain young thing wrapped around him was obviously a bit different from the
rest, but he was damned if he knew what that meant. She kissed him on the cheek
and thanked him twice for choosing her, she was almost in tears... well, it was
too late now, he pretty much had to buy her a drink. He usually chatted with
them first, to better sense whether he was talking to a mercenary or just an
everyday person looking for a bit of excitement. He gave in and waved down the
hostess, holding up one finger the lady standing at the foot of the
stairs nodded and scurried off to get a drink.
Whats your name? he asked.
and replied, Nengghi.
at himself My name is Stave. he said.
Steve? she asked, slightly confused.
No. he replied, the loud music of the room nearly drowning out his
voice, she finally grasped the distinction and recited his name. Instincts
began to take over. She still had his waist in a death-grip with her left arm,
so he rested his right hand on her leg. Moving forward with his standard
icebreaker, he started to lay his hand over the top of her right hand, readying
himself to give the canned compliment You have beautiful hands.
pulled away. The smile disappeared and she tucked both hands down between her
tightly clenched legs. Smiling awkwardly, as if in fear that it was already
over, she pulled her left hand out again and gave him a one-armed hug, the
right hand remained tucked away.
didnt quite know what to make of this. Becoming curiously suspicious, he
gently but firmly withdrew her right hand, wrapping his hand around hers, then
he felt it she only had three fingers on that hand, not even that. Her
middle and ring fingers were missing, gone, all the way down to the knuckle.
Shocked and embarrassed, he caved in to what the situation demanded; whoever
she was, she had suffered some horrible accident and was working in the face of
rejection and mockery. He wrapped his hand around hers, smiled, brought her
hand up and kissed the back of it. Relieved to a certain degree, she rested her
head on his shoulder and they just sat there until her drink arrived.
next 20 minutes he discovered that her left hand was also missing fingers, lots
of damage damn. He didnt even ask, they just talked about where he
was from. He said he worked for the Australian Agriculture Commission, which
animated her slightly as she described her familys farm in the northern
highlands of Bali. He made sure to keep a hold on her left hand, or what was
left of it. After a while, she had to leave for the obligatory dance that all
girls there did twice an hour. Getting up, she pecked him on the cheek, very
precisely wrapped a large ponytail holder around her hands and walked down and
around backstage. Ahhh. he thought. Thats how she hides
As he sat
thinking about this odd situation one of the other dancers walked by, caught
his eye, smiled and gave him a thumbs-up. Yes, things just got stranger, now he
was being given the thumbs-up by go-go club mercenaries.
second grinning girl walked by with her thumb up, he could no longer resist and
waved her over. What happened to Nengghi? he asked, holding up a
hand. The girl looked at him with a complicated mix of uncertainty and
friendliness. Factory accident, her friend she motioned over to
one of the other dancers who was now looking over and rhythmically nodding at
them talked her into coming here for something to do.
Okay. he thought. Makes sense.
questions were being answered he asked another Does she get many
customers? he inquired bluntly. No. the girl replied.
She has been here two months and no customers. The dancer looked
directly into Gibsons eyes to make sure he understood. He did. A typical
girl at these places could easily round up several customers a week
even when things were slow. Nengghi had been coming for two months with no
results, alone except for one or two girlfriends for support. Damn.
Gibson muttered to himself. Is that determination or something
else? He could not be sure, by the way she acted she was not desperate
for money. Probably boredom, it's common. he thought. He ran
out of time to wonder further when Nengghi returned from her dance and sat back
down next to him.
understood, or at least he could pretend he did.
to go get something to eat? he suddenly blurted out to her, feeling as if
he were watching himself speak from outside his body, he couldnt believe
he was doing this. He had come here only for a drink and some visual
entertainment. She beamed broadly, jumped up into his lap and gave him another
death-grip hug. Gibson felt like he was in free-fall.
It was the
middle of the night. Stave Gibson lay idly pondering the light of a full moon
as it shone through the skylights of his room. The place was nothing special,
just temporary quarters. If it had been peacetime he would have stayed in town
or over by the beach. Not tonight. He turned and looked down at Nengghi; she
was sleeping deeply next to him clear conscience. Her high pitched
breathing gave away her small size even in the dark. He looked for the
hundredth time at her hands and still could not understand. Was it money?
Maybe, but the Balinese government got a lot of funding from Australia. Their
health programs were good and should pay for things like reconstruction; or at
least it should were it not for the corruption.
While he lay
there thinking, her breathing shallowed and her eyes flickered open. Turning to
look up she smiled sleepily, stretched and edged up next to him. She almost
went back to sleep and then opened her eyes again, looking back at Gibson. As
if reading his mind, she reached up, caressed his ear and then openly held up
one of her hands the very act showed how much she had decided to trust
inquisitive look, she asked You want to know?
worked for the umm, factory. she noted, working to manually remember her
English. We were sent to Java to help work on Australian machines.
Another technician, she powered-up something I was working on, my fingers were
in the way and... Nengghis eyes welled up slightly and she
hesitated, looking at her hands as if to remember her lost fingers.
hurt a lot, and there was almost nobody around at the time. The other
technician thought she would get in trouble, so she ran away and left me. She
thought I would die. So I walked several kilometers to the nearest unit, nobody
was there, but the army vehicles called for help someone came out to get
me. The factory owner got in a lot of trouble for leaving us in the field
without communications, but too late ya?
factory didnt pay for reconstruction? Stave asked.
factory people had already spent their government money, they had nothing left.
There is no system here to making people pay for things. Their service closed,
it was small anyway. She frowned and shrugged, then turned to look up at
Stave to see if he understood.
my family to work, it was how do you say not allowed. My father
told me that I got what I deserved for playing around with things I did not
understand. Her face carried a blank thoughtfulness, tinged with anger
So it was a
lot of things. It was money, but it was personal. She was determined not to ask
her family for the favor, reconstruction would be expensive by Balinese
standards. She was going to do it herself or not at all. Unfortunately, in this
small place she was unlikely to get anywhere. But she had too much pride to ask
for help. Stave knew human behavior, even if he offered her the money right
now, she would not accept, to insist would only undermine her opinion of him.
Im sorry. he said, knowing at the moment that he could at
least get away with that. He kissed the palm of her hand.
Thats okay. She said with a tip of her head, Its
not your fault.
lowered But youre not an agriculture person, I dont
training kicked out an immediate answer Yes, I am.
answer he admired her presence of mind, using the vulnerable moment to answer
her own question about him. She looked up at the skylight and then back
at him. You act like a military man. I saw Australian agricultural people
where I worked before, they are soft, they have an easy life. You are not
the uncanny feeling she somehow was reading him, he suddenly wanted to be
inside the security of a full uniform, where external sensors could not track
your brain activity. If this had not been Bali and a known safe location, his
paranoia would have risen to greater heights. Instead, he had to accept that
this was wartime, and that standard cover stories were essentially useless.
work for the Australian government, you understand? he asked, looking
directly into her eyes. She nodded slowly, accepting that this was as much
explanation as she was going to get.
again. I want to work for Australia again. She looked at him rather
directly, with that blank expression again the natural poker face.
Maybe. he responded, with some hesitation. She smiled wanly at him,
unsure of his sincerity.
okay with Gibson, he was even less sure.