The War Warder

16 Jan

Plix Butin walked into the Playhouse Canteen with a sense of apprehension about the unusual mission he had been given to carry out in the place.

He closely followed a group of five uniformed regulars in dark brown. Plix, in a solid black monitor’s outfit, tried to blend in with the soldiers. His intelligent alabastine eyes scanned the interior of the entertainment hall as he separated himself and walked toward a long table holding free snacks and soft drinks. A cadenza band was playing a fast maxixe for dancing troopers and hostesses to stomp to. The contagious rhythm spread everywhere.

As Plix leaned forward to pick up a crumpet, a loud explosion came from outside the building. Another robot bomb, close to the center of Ezera City, the war warder told himself.

He was supposedly off duty, in the Canteen for purely recreational purposes.

All at once, the musicians stopped playing. Their maestro stepped forward and spoke into the amplifier phone.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am happy to have the privilege of introducing one of Ezera’s brightest new stage stars and actresses, a gorgeous young lady who possesses the voice of a throstle bird.

“My friends, I present to you Miss Juma Litig to sing one of the most popular love songs of our time in her incomparable soprano voice.”

Clapping came from many sections of the hall as the actor-vocalist came up from behind the band and stepped close to the amplifier stand.

Plix recognized the tiny woman with flax-colored hair and dark umber eyes from the color photosnaps he had been shown downtown at Warder Headquarters.

Yes, this was the individual assigned to him for surveillance and investigation.

She wore a village gown of dark green that brought out the fine lines of her face and body.

Plix saw for himself the extraordinary stage presence that crowned her with success.

The audience stayed soundless as she sang about waiting for a lover’s return from the battle front facing the enemy, the Vitians.

How am I going to meet her and start my probing? he asked himself, listening to her interpretation of a lyric of loneliness and separation stemming from conditions of war.

As soon as Juma Litig finished the sad song, Plix hurried to the bandstand to introduce himself to the targeted subject.

Applause was continuing as he approached and caught her eye.

“Miss Litig, it is urgent that I speak with you. Can we be alone somewhere for a moment or two?”

She gave him a strong look of self-assurance.

“We can sit down back in the kitchen and talk there,” she softly said, then turned and went back of the stage, disappearing through an alcove recessed there.

The smell of frying crullers, crumpets, and fritters filled the cooking section of the hall. Plix led the actress to an empty table in a far corner where no one could overhear them. He started to lay out why he had to ask for her assistance in the name of the War Warders and their organization.

“We have received reports concerning the private activities of the director of the Rialto Theater, where you work as an actress. This suspicious person, Mr. Glabe Moit, is the subject of a special investigation assigned to me.

“I ask myself: how can I get close enough to observe him in his most private moments? The answer is to find and recruit someone whom Moit will never suspect of acting for the War Warders. The logical candidate is a member of his cast. My attention fell upon you.”

Her umber eyes focused sharply on the stranger who had invited her to talk with him in the kitchen.

“What, then, am I to do for you?” she asked him with growing curiosity.

Plix leaned his head forward and lowered his voice.

“We suspect that he may be a target lookout, a spotter for the enemy, Vitia. There have been some very accurate tragectiles of late. Someone is pinpointing our most important sites with lights that transmit narrow microbeams into the stratosphere. All trails lead to the Rialto Theater.”

“Why is our director, Mr. Moit, the one under suspicion?” she inquired with distress in her voice.

“His schedule is a free one and his movements at night, during the dramatic performances, are unexplained. There is much about him that draws our interest. The man has all the hallmarks of an agent of the enemy.”

“I would like to help, but cannot see how it is to be done, not at all,” she said in a slow, solemn tone.

“We want you to become more familiar with the man. Spend more time in his presence. Keep your eyes on where he goes and what he does when away from the Rialto. Ask him questions that do not arouse any alarm. Do you understand what I am saying?”

“How will I report what I learn?” she asked.

“I will come to you. We know where your flat is, Miss Litig.”

The pair gazed at each other for a short time, both hesitating to talk next.

“We have a performance at eight tonight,” said the actress. “I can start my surveillance of Moit immediately. It will begin right from off the stage.”

“Good luck to you,” nodded Plix with a grin. “I will be seeing you again soon.”

The theater was a relic of the Florid Age, covered with curvilinear shapes and figures, containing delicate imitations of scrolls, foliage, and sea shells. There was a formal elegance to the old building that generations of use had not reduced or marred.

This was now the central hub of Ezeran drama.

Glabe Moit had reached the pinnacle of his ambition when appointed the Rialto’s director only three years before. It was an innovation to have a respected playwriter direct his own plays and the classics of the national stage as well. The only cloud on his horizon appeared to be the reaction of the drama critics to his most recent productions, especially those he himself had penned.

Large and corpulent, with blond hair and powerful beryllium eyes, Moit tended to dominate whatever scene he was in and the others around him. His presence anywhere made him the focus of attention on all sides. No one had ever heard of an instance of another person dominating Glabe Moit in any way, on any subject, under any circumstances.

Yet this particular evening, his star actress appeared to have some invisible influence on the man who was the head of the famed Rialto Theater.

“I would like to hear your opinion about a landscape painting I recently bought for myself,” the female dramatic star told him after the last act and the final fall of the curtain. “My taste in no way measures up to yours, Glade. Will you help me out by informing me whether I made a big mistake with the picture? ”

“What does it show? What is it’s subject?”  the director asked his lead player.

“Country fields with bomb craters scattered about. The scene is one without promise or hope.”

“Why, then, did you purchase it?”

“I don’t really know. Maybe the coloring and composition had an effect on me.”

She beamed a smile at him and for some unfathomable reason her boss accepted the proposal she had made.

“Let’s go out the back entrance,” he suggested, without giving any reason to her.

Glabe viewed the small landscape from several different angles, at varied distances.

“It is not bad, not at all,” the director told the owner of the picture. “I myself would not perhaps have paid much for it, but the work is not without value. Not at all.”

The two sat down at the opposite ends of a silken divan. Glabe stared at her with curiosity for a few moments.

“It is a fine flat that you have, Juma. I like it a lot. So quiet, so peaceful, around here. A real place of refuge in this war age of ours.”

“You find the unending conflict hard to live with?” she bluntly inquired.

“The war is not a personal one for me, if you understand what I mean.” He peered deeply into her umber eyes as if searching for something indefinite, not as yet defined.

Juma made a venturesome proposal to him.

“If you like my flat that much, why don’t you stop by whenever you feel like doing so?”

A broad, complete smile broke out around the director’s narrow mouth.

“I believe that you are a good listener, Juma, because of your artistic talent and dramatic training. Your mental tentacles are always up and out, picking up the meanings and fine nuances of others. In other words, you have amazing sensitivity to the peculiarities of people.

“That is the main reason I like being with you so much. There are very few with your profound empathy toward other human beings. You are quite unique, I must say.”

Juma waited a moment, then made a tantalizing statement to him.

“You are always welcome here, and I await your returning again, as soon as you can. I enjoy having conversation with you, Glabe. You are easy to talk to. I am always glad when I’m with you.”

He left in a little while, promising to come back the next evening.

A major ballistic bombardment occurred a little after midnight, at the same time that Plix Butin arrived at the flat of his new undercover operative.

She let him in with surprise on her gleaming face.

“I did not think you would come so soon, this very evening,” she coyly said.

The new visitor took the end of the divan, while she sat down in her favorite lounge chair.

“How did the director act while he was with you?” started Plix, getting right down to their serious business at once.

She looked away from him. “He is interested in me. I can tell, because he is going to come back, probably as soon as tomorrow night.”

The War Warden changed the subject to something entirely different.

“We work closely with the Ministry of Protection. They inform us that the tragectiles of the Vitians have greatly increased their target accuracy. The only possible explanation is that the enemy’s aim is bolstered by signals from the land on our side. There have to be some sort of guide beams from Ezera City to their ballistic bombs. We hope to catch the agent who spots for them, but it is extremely difficult to identify who the culprit is. As soon as our evidence becomes concrete and certain, we plan to make an immediate arrest.”

“You think you know who this traitor is?” asked the actress.

“My suspicions are solidifying, and I hope that soon a trap can capture this spotter. But how can I make an arrest without enough evidence to convince my superiors that I am correct? You can help me to make the case I want to, Miss Litig.” He gave her a meaningful look.

“But what can I accomplish on my own?” she pleaded of him.

Plix answered slowly and carefully. “Try to make him invite you to his own apartment. I know you can convince Moit to do so. Then, when you are in his place, it will become possible to look around and find out where he hides his device.”

“Device?” she said, frowning.

“A narrow beam signaler that aids the enemy to hit primary targets. Look at what the Vitian bombs have destroyed in recent days: factories, government offices, and train line nodes. All this damage has to be done with ground assistance in our territory. There is no other possible way.”

“But what do you expect me to do with Glabe Moit? He is not a stupid man. What if I am confronted by him while carrying out a search of his apartment?”

“I will be near, right outside,” promised Prix. “If I hear any cries from you, I will burst in and save your situation. You will be perfectly safe.”

“What if he finds out what I am up to and fires me from acting at the Rialto?”

“I believe that he would be in a detention prison before he could do you any harm, Juma. Do not be so fearful. I will always be close, ready to intervene.”

After her performance the following evening, the director escorted the actress home once more.

Juma had prepared meringue cake and arrack punch earlier. The two enjoyed a late supper while they talked about their views on current plays and the condition of the Ezera legitimate theater under years of warfare against Vitia.

“It can be clearly observed that the long conflict has shaped the type of production we now do,” said the director. “Our main subject on the stage has been the unending conflict with the enemy. Every new drama has warfare at center stage or in the background. There is no escaping it.”

“Is that a bad thing?” asked Juma. She gave him a quizzical look. “Perhaps you are becoming a pacifist who wants to stop the fighting at any price.”

Glabe Moit grinned at her disarmingly.

“No, all I will admit is to becoming tired of the same story year after year. Even a war becomes burdensome and boring in a generation or so. Everyone, sooner or later, grows eager for something different. That is the condition I am in. Nothing more than that, Juma.”

The actress pressed forward. “In your estimation, has the war with Vitia gone on too long?”

He seemed, at first, reluctant to reply, although she gazed at him with anticipation.

“That is an opinion that many people have, but do not dare to express in public. We all know that the War Wardens are always around somewhere, listening for defeatists of various sorts. We must all appear to be thoroughly patriotic at all times. Everybody is expected to give total support to our side in the conflict that is turning out to be eternal. Isn’t that so?”

She gave a slight nod to the sentiment he was expressing, hoping to draw him out further. “There are other ways that one can serve the interests of Ezera, aren’t there?”

Her umber eyes appeared to darken and brighten at the same time.

“I do what I can for my country as a drama writer and theater director,” murmured Moit, his voice suggestive of other ideas too risky to admit. “And you serve the cause as an actress, Juma.”

She meditated a moment or so, deciding to take a big chance at this juncture.

“I have never seen all of your apartment, Glabe,” she said suggestively, steering him toward an invitation that she desired to receive.

The director complied with her plan. “Why don’t I take you there tomorrow evening? It could be interesting to you to see where it is I live.”

She quickly accepted, setting her course into untested waters for the sake of spying on him.

The rooms of his place were unadorned, unornamented, but severely plain. Nothing that did not fit strictly utilitarian principles was visible there. No paintings or sculptured figures could be found in the digs of the director. Everything appeared basic and practical.

Juma, sitting in a soft mohair chair, decided to take up where she had left off at her own flat the previous night.

“Here is something that I am certain will interest you, Glabe. You asked me last night how one’s loyalty to Ezera could be expressed in case one profoundly believed that peace is in our interest, much more than the war can ever be. Well, I have been approached by a member of the War Wardens who proposed to me that I watch out for and report to him any signs of disloyalty. Yes, you were to be my subject for investigation, and I was told to be on the lookout for signs that you were engaged in target location for the enemy. In fact, I am supposed to search your apartment without you being aware of it. Do you possess any sort of beam signaler that can be used to direct Vitian missiles for destruction of valuable sites, my friend?” she asked with a forced laugh. Her facial expression was halfway between the serious and the comic.

The director found himself unable to conceal his total confusion. “What do you mean?” he said to her. “Are you an undercover informer of some kind? Do you plan on denouncing me?”

“That is what Mr. Plix Butin expects me to do if I discover what he wants me to.”

It now became Juma’s turn to be surprised and astonished, for she could see that the director recognized the name of the War Warden.

Moit hesitated several seconds before making a confession to her.

“He is my operations manager from whom I receive all my orders.”

An idea dawned on the perplexed actress. “You work with that government agent, then,” she told him, praying for a truthful answer.

He suddenly laughed from deep inside.

“In a way, I do. But until now, Plix has been unaware of certain other of my activities. Let me explain. This man asked me, the same as he did to you, to become his agent by keeping my eyes on you and reporting anything suspicious. I was to discover whether you were a secret target spotter for the Vitians. That was the mission he assigned me. Things like that are becoming more and more common as the war goes on endlessly. What I’ m telling you is the truth. But now I find out that you were to watch me, as I was ordered to do to you.”

Juma looked stunned. “Then, you and I have exactly the same assignment, but on each other. Is the Warder crazy? What is he trying to prove? How can either of us be the traitor he supposes?”

All at once, Glabe sprang to his feet. He walked silently to his small kitchen and soon returned with a very tiny black box in one hand.

“This is what the War Warder is after, what you are supposed to find and hand over to him. Will you be making such a report informing on me? My hope is that you refuse to do that, Juma.”

She gave to her face a pleading expression that went beyond trained acting skills. “Yes, I refuse to betray you to this Warder, dear Glabe. You can trust me to keep your secret intact. But how is it that you get away with using that small box? How do you deceive him?”

“I make innocuous reports on all the employees of the Rialto Theater. Plix Butin acts as my handler. But I never have anything significant to give him. I am merely going through the motions for him, that is all.”

“But he may now have some suspicions that impelled him to recruit me in his web of informers,” she mused aloud. “I, of course, will protect you and tell him nothing of what I now see. You can trust me, Glabe. And there is one way, I believe, that we can cement our partnership for the future, if you will agree to it.”

“What do you mean?” inquired the intrigued director. “How can you do that?”

“Train me so that I can assist in the target signaling using this beamer of yours. I want to know how to do it and in that way help put a finish to this awful war. The result, up to now, has been dictatorship and oppression for our people. The War Warders are the enforcers of the surrender of individual freedom for the sake of fighting continuously. The militarization of our lives must come to an end of some sort.”

They both laughed in agreement. Soon they were busy conspiring on how they could both pose as informers while operating as target spotters at the same time.

It had been a War Warder who had unintentionally brought them together to work as undiscovered target spotters with a beam box.

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