Mad Wind

Leon carried the suitcase, Joseph took his precious box, and Angelica ran ahead opening doors, waiting impatiently at every turn. Once in the limousine, Leon took the wheel and headed out past the Dobermans that stood vigil at the drive. He did not turn on the headlights until they were a block from the house; then he also stood on the gas.

“Let’s pray the road is not blocked in the desert. There was a traffic jam last week, though I hear it was cleared with Russian snowplows. There can’t have been time for another to accumulate.”

He watched the last of the estate houses pass; they were replaced by their ramshackle cardboard contemporaries. It was easy to forget how little of the city the estates occupied when one lived cloistered within them.

The open sky painted the windows black, and the stars were like bits of glare from the headlights. Angelica opened her pearl handbag and extracted a leather billfold which she had difficulty keeping closed; it was bulging, he saw, with bills.

“This is about all the help I can give you—a far cry from letters of introduction to the people who could really do you a service. I know I’ll be under suspicion when you’re gone, so I can’t send them messages to look out for you. I suggest you contact your scientists as you planned. Call yourself Dodo; if he’s ever been known outside Bamal, his name should be relatively unstained. Buique gives him good press.”

He glanced at the bills, uncertain of their value. It was American currency, all 100’s. In Bamal it took three 500 notes to buy a loaf of moldy bread.

The limousine blared its horn, a cyclist escaped narrowly by toppling into the dark at the roadside. Just ahead, where there should have been only empty road, he saw yellow and red beacons spinning out a warning.

“Madame,” said Leon before Joseph could point it out.

“My God, a roadblock. Joseph, quickly, let me have your box.”

He handed it to her. She opened it, sorted through the vials, and found the one she wanted; secreted it in her palm as the limousine slowed. Joseph looked out at the soldiers unslinging machine guns as they advanced on the car, both squinting and aiming into the headlights.

Angelica rolled down her window and moved deeper into the car, so that whoever addressed her would have to lean close to the open window.

A stern Ife face presented itself, already drawling in a commanding and derogatory voice, “Fancy cars should stay at home tonight.”

“My good man, why is that?” asked Angelica, the hidden vial now open in her hand; she waved it beneath his nose, a scented glimmer in the shadows. “We’re on the President’s business. You know he wants the airport checked; I’m to see if I recognize anyone there. Now let us pass. You’ve done your duty.”

It was a different Ife, a soft-faced and compliant fellow, who stood back with a grin on his face and waved the other guards away. “Let them through!” he shouted. Oil drums rolled from the road; the soldiers retreated and stood like an honor guard as the limousine cruised past them. The flashing lights gradually shrank in the rear-view mirror and Angelica replaced the vial in the chest.

“Let’s hope things are this easy at the airport,” she said after a sigh.

“There is a flight tonight?”

“A flight was scheduled to leave two days ago, but the pilots were promised a payment which they haven’t received. I think we can convince them to leave, don’t you?”

“I hope so.”

She squeezed his hand. “Ah, Joseph. How strange, this certainty that we will never meet again.”

“Don’t say that. You are free to travel as you like.”

She shook her head. “You know better than that. Let’s make this a farewell and have done with it. We will both go on to other things.”

“Other things, but not necessarily better. I will miss you more than you know.”

He kissed her hand and the last miles passed beneath them in silence. The airport grew out of the dust-hazed night, lights like smoked quartz mounted in the walls of the single terminal building. When Joseph finally released her hand, it was to search for the essence of “Courage.” He tucked it into his breast pocket, smiling awkwardly at her.

“In case I need it,” he said.

“I doubt you will.”

While the box was open, he thought to take out a few more vials which he placed in his pocket. Chief among them was the old Mome distillate, certainly his most successful creation. But the attar he kept out and sniffed as the limousine slowed was called “Tranquillity.”

Through the dingy windows of the concrete building he could see people milling, staring, faces blank with patience. A line of people lay against the terminal, some sleeping, some smoking, few openly watching the car. As Joseph opened the door he saw a sentry come to the door and look out at them; his only response was a sleepy smile. His blood beat calmly in his heart.

“Careful now, Joseph,” Angelica whispered. “I dare not stay with you here. Kiss me, take your things, and go.”


At the edge of the curb they embraced and parted with the same will. It was not a good time to do more than that. He turned away, heard Leon bid him farewell, and then the car door slammed and he began to walk toward the sentry. With no scent in his hand, he felt vulnerable, too peaceful. He could only pray that Buique had not had time to organize much in the way of a manhunt; he could hardly tell the soldiers that they sought a man who had been dead six months.

The guard, apparently impressed by the limousine and his attire, did not stop him. Not even Miguel would have expected him to try leaving Bamal in such style. Once more Angelica’s discretion had saved them grief. He could feel the man watching him as he worked his way through the somnolent crowd toward a deserted counter where, presumably, tickets were sold. On the wall behind it was a poster showing a montage of sunsets, swimming pools, elegant dining, children with golden bangles in their hair.


Setting his chest and suitcase on the counter, he looked for a ticket agent and saw no one; he rang a silver bell for service, evoking a muffled sound. Guards at the far door watched him with amusement, but no one volunteered assistance.

“Excuse me,” he called, his voice gentle, polite. It occurred to him that perhaps he should be more forceful, despite the evening’s pleasant mood. He had no time to waste.

The vial he selected was “Obey.” He uncapped it discreetly, strolled over to the guards at the rear door, and nodded in the direction of the counter. “You,” he said to one of the gunmen.

The man gave him a scornful look and swaggered closer; he was a foot taller than Joseph, so Joseph used the gesture of a feisty little man to bring the bottle near his face; he reached up and pressed a medal on the soldier’s chest, as if it were a button.

“Find the ticket agent. I want to leave Bamal.”

The guard blinked, nodded, and turned to the door. As he went out, one of the others remarked, “The plane’s going nowhere. Pilots want money. No one here has it.”

The other guard laughed. “Maybe he does.”

“If that’s what it takes,” said Joseph, “I probably have.”

The door opened between them and the original soldier returned with a harried Kaak, grizzled and stout, his eyes blurred and red behind thick lenses.

“What do you want?” he asked Joseph. “Why bother with tickets? Nobody’s leaving. You can stand in line with the rest. The pilots won’t go, I’m telling you.”

“I can reason with them,” Joseph said.

“Reason?” He laughed madly. “They want money.”

“I’ll give them money then.”

“You haven’t got enough, I—”

As the vial passed near his nose, he began to smile. Noticing Joseph for the first time, it seemed, he drew himself into a proud pose and then bowed at the waist. “Perhaps you have at that.”

“Let me get my belongings,” said Joseph. “I’ll come and meet them.”

“No, no, I’ll be happy to bring them here,” said the Kaak.

He returned to the counter and when he touched his box of essences his skin began to creep with foreboding, tangible as any scent. He glanced around slowly, but nothing had changed. He might have been straining to hear something inaudible, to see something just out of sight. His eyes met those of the sentry by the front door; the other man forced the casual contact into a deadlock. Without looking away from Joseph’s face, he crossed the room. He stopped an arm’s length away, out of reach.

“So, you are a passenger?” he said. He thumped one hand on the counter by the box of attars. “Tourist? You have a passport?”

“Of course, and I’m no tourist. You should know me.”

The man inclined his head. “I think I do. I would like to see your passport now.”

“I’m sure you would, but it’s not for you. I’ll show it to the customs official.”

The man snorted, humorless except for the pleasure he seemed to derive from Joseph’s distress. He was a tall Fombeh, and Joseph suddenly wondered if he might have been among Miguel’s companions, overthrower of the empire. He was certain that this man was the source of his ominous intimations; he must have caught the scent of suspicion coming off him.

“I am the only official here,” the man said slowly. “Now give me your passport, Mr.—”

“Doctor,” Joseph said. To make a sweep of his arm toward the man’s face would have been seen as a hostile gesture; he dared no such thing. He rolled his thumb alongside the cap of the vial, sealing it for the moment.


“Perhaps you have heard of me.”

As he reached for the passport in his inner pocket, his other hand found the vial of Mome-scent and loosened the cap; he pretended to cough, putting both hands to his mouth, and in an instant slipped the vial into the hand that held the passport. Presenting the papers, he fanned them slightly so that the scent would carry. Surely, he thought, the memory of loyalty to the old Emperor was not far beneath the surface of this Fombeh’s mind; to reach down and call upon that allegiance would be to contact a powerful ally.

“Doctor Kmei Dodo,” the man said, and he looked rather stupefied. “You, here?”

Joseph prayed the scent was strong enough to convince the man—but suddenly he had no idea of what he was trying to convince him. Dodo and Mome were antagonists. What had he done?

The scent had some effect. The official blinked, eyes watering, and wiped his nose. He walked around the counter, flattened the passport, and stared at it from a distance, still blinking as though trying to clear away the tears.

“Is something wrong?” Joseph asked. “Can I help? I am a doctor.”

The official straightened quickly, snapped the passport shut, and thrust it back at him. “Nothing is wrong, Dr. Dodo,” he said brusquely, still twitching as though a flea had gotten up his nose. “I have never seen you here before, that is all. I would think the President’s plane suits you better. But I will speak to the pilots. If I can’t give them money, I can promise bullets.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Joseph began as the man wheeled away, shoulders jerking like those of an ill-handled marionette. “Why don’t you stamp my passport?”

The far door banged open, the fat Kaak ran in hauling a man in a shapeless, sleeped-in uniform by the wrist. “He’s over there, you talk to him. He’ll tell you, he has money.”

“Everyone tells me they have money,” the pilot began.

“I have something better than that,” said Joseph’s interrogator, raising his machine gun barrel toward the pilot’s face. The pilot stopped dead, eyes bulging, then started to back away.

“No, no,” cried the Kaak. “None of that!”

“The plane is leaving!” someone shouted. There was a rush of bodies, not away from the confrontation but toward it. “I have a ticket!”  “The plane is leaving!” “Go, go!” Others shoved in from outside, crowding the room further.

The officer came out from behind the counter and pushed back at the crowd, jabbing with his gun. His face was bland.

“No shoving,” he barked, and the gun coughed once.

A boy crumpled, clutching the rags of his belly. The rest turned away in a crushing mob, squeezing into the corners of the room; some limped, wounded by bullets that had passed through the boy. The official turned back to the pilot, who was halfway through the door now that the other guards had moved toward the crowd.

Joseph leaned against the counter—or caught himself as he staggered. His eyes lingered on the still body whose life had deserted it in a rush, a torrent. He reached for the only thing that mattered to him now, the chest full of essences; he started sliding it across the counter, toward the far door. The soldiers were intent on the shrieking mass of bodies that was trying to pour in one piece through the doorway. A window shattered, then another, as the trapped people found other exits and clambered through broken glass to be free. Out of the wailing and clattering, he heard one clear voice that made him stop.

He looked to the front door and saw a figure in the crowd, her arm upraised, a delicate lace handkerchief waving from her fingers to catch his eye.

“Angelica,” he said.

She could not move against the press of the crowd, her eyes were hopeless, shining out between the terrified masks that overwhelmed her. Why had she come back? What was she telling him?

Then, louder than the mob, he heard the roaring of jeeps and the chatter of machine guns from outside the terminal. The crowd reversed, surged back into the room, this time bearing Angelica along with it. He held fast to the counter so that she could find him.

“They’ve come, Joseph,” she cried; her words were isolated from the screaming, she might have been speaking to him in a private silence. “We saw them on the road and I had to warn you. Get on the plane, Joseph. It will go now.”

She shouldn’t have come, he thought, but there was no way she could go back now. He forged toward her while the mob stood paralyzed, packed tight as beans in a jar, trapped between the soldiers in the terminal and those that had just arrived.

“Give me your hand,” he said. Her touch was hot; he could not pull her from the vise of bodies. “You must come with me now, Angelica.”

“All right, Joseph. Yes—”

He tugged but her hand slipped away, carried by a tidal shift in the crowd. His box of attars snagged, holding him back; he lifted it free, held it aloft, and started after her.


He searched for her among the many heads, but it was a different face that he finally recognized, at the same instant he saw her between him and the doorway. Miguel stood at the threshold. His grin was simultaneous with Joseph’s groan.

Angelica did not see Miguel, but he spotted her. “Here!” she cried, looking straight at Joseph.

Miguel shouted a command and soldiers pressed in around him. Joseph fell back, but he could not bring down his arm for a moment; he could feel himself losing his grip on the chest. As he jerked forward to keep it balanced on his palm, the crowd parted miraculously, leaving an empty corridor down which Miguel—or Angelica—could walk to him. It was not a miracle, however: it was the guns.

She rushed toward him.

“Down!” he cried, too late, and threw himself sideways, abandoning the box of essences, reaching for his life.

Everyone fell.

The shooting went on forever.

Mass burial, bodies still writhing, presided over by the deific voices of the guns pronouncing death for all. He crawls through a tunnel of flesh and nails on a floor slick with blood. Broken glass cuts his hands, his blood joins the rest, but in such insignificant quantities that he wishes he could laugh.

Then he sees Angelica’s face, cooling eyes and tattered throat, and screaming he drags himself backward, though never far enough. Everywhere he looks, he sees her face. Deeper into the nightmare now, he sees the scattered vials, all shattered, distillations mingling with the vital liquids of the dead and dying. The perfumes blot out the smell of blood, bringing a whiff of heaven, or delirium. A woman with half a skull sits up laughing, ripping at her hair, overcome by the stench of rapture. Someone howls an ecstatic prayer. Miguel stands over his men, regarding his handiwork, while over his face parades a chaos of conflicting emotions: pleasure, anger, innocence, malevolence, flickering and disjointed. Then, as the cloud of scent-molecules becomes thoroughly combined, and as Joseph holds his breath, every emotion in the air comes into Miguel’s face at once. It should be a phenomenon like the joining of a spectrum’s colors into unity, into brilliant white light. But it is not at all like that. No matter how many attars Joseph had captured, he had by no means forced the whole range of humanity into his bottles; critical things are missing, essences he’d never had time or thought to distill.

It was not white light that came pouring from the soldiers’ faces: it was pure madness.

Joseph worked his way backward, head bowed, breathing through his collar. The dying crowd had begun to roar.

A hand fastened on his sleeve and he pried it off, gasping at the sudden bite of nails; the involuntary gulp of scent provoked a kind of fury, gave him the strength to tear himself away, to keep moving.

He sipped the air slowly but it was too much; he wanted to take in huge draughts. Now he exhaled, fighting the tide of atoms streaming in against his olfactory nerves, hoping that he could hold onto himself an instant longer. It might be long enough.

The guns held a brief conversation. He glanced up as the soldiers at the rear door toppled; the customs official stared at him as he crept past, though his eye was not in his cheek.

His heart beat against his ribs, clamoring for oxygen. Only when he had reached the far door did he look back, and all he could see was the dead. Miguel and his men lay staring, heaped around the door they had been so eager to enter; his cousin’s face was fixed in madness, as he would ever remember it.

Then he was outside, inhaling great breaths of the warm dusty air, absorbing the whole of the night.

Ahead of him he heard a metallic whining and saw a row of bright lozenges floating in the air. Long moments passed before he realized that it was an airplane. He shouted. A figure appeared in the doorway, hurrying to pull the door shut, and he screamed again at the silhouette. The person stopped, uncertain.

“Wait for me!” he cried, on his feet and running. “I’m alone, please don’t go, wait for me.”

The short run took an age; the night had made distances deceptive. The stairs were a mile high, or the scents he’d inhaled made them seem that way. Now all he could smell was blood. It soaked his clothes, engloved his hands. The door full of light was before him; he tumbled in and heard it shut. He lay on his face, hearing voices above him, feeling the plane begin to move slowly, jostling. He knew the instant it left the ground because he began to sob with relief and terror, grieving for Angelica even as he gave thanks for his own survival. Most of the emotions passing in the flood were unfamiliar to him. Very few had mixed with the blood on the terminal floor.

“Can you hear me, sir? Can you get up? We have a seat for you, you’ll be more comfortable.”

He rolled over weakly and saw a black face looking down at him. Ife or Nmimi or Fombeh or Kaak, he couldn’t tell and it didn’t matter which. It was simply another face, a human face, a living being. He reached up to take it in his hands.

“Your name, sir? Can you tell me your name?”

“My name?” He choked, almost laughed, remembering in time not to give himself away.

“I’m afraid if you’re injured there’s not much we can do. We have a first aid kit, but no doctor aboard.”

“No doctor?” he said. “Yes there is, yes there is. I’m a doctor, my friend. Doctor Dodo, that’s me.”

* * *

“Mad Wind” copyright 1996 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Century #4 (Jan./Feb. 1996), edited by Robert K.J. Killheffer .



Despite the publication date of 1996, I have a letter from the publisher of Dad’s Nuke, attesting to the fact that in 1986, I pitched this as my second novel. They (and series editor Robert Silverberg) thought it read more like the end of a story than the beginning, but I was planning most of the book to be about Gidukyu/Dodo’s adventures posing as a visiting research scientist at something very like the UCSF Medical Center where I worked at the time. I don’t know how I thought I could pull this off. I had read exactly one book about Africa, which was why I was anxious to get the story out of the country as soon as possible. I’m don’t know whether to be embarrassed or awed by the hubris of a 25 year old.