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Oscar and Olivia
Richard C. McPherson
Oscar appeared to be an average orangutan—about five feet tall, a halo of orange hair and matching beard, wise eyes, curious face—but I knew his sense of humor was exceptional. On our global goodwill tours promoting children’s health, customs officials jockeyed for the privilege of escorting him. He would remove the large Animal Olympics gold medal around his neck, hand it to an official to hold while he marched through the metal detector, then stand at attention and allow them to replace it ceremonially around his neck. The official received a handsome salute and hairy handshake that drew applause and a cascade of camera clicks. Greece, Japan, Germany, even the famously dour American immigration officials, yielded to Oscar’s affability. Men even forgot to steal glances at me. As the former Miss Great Britain, traveling with Oscar was a rare chance for me to avoid stares.
Madrid changed everything.
Our departure from Spain began with the usual chorus of shouting reporters. “Senorita Davies, what did Oscar think of our Hospital Infantil?”
I turned to Oscar and repeated the question. He clasped his hands over his head and put on a toothy smile. Over the laughter and applause, I replied, “Oscar thinks it’s a champion hospital.” He basked in the applause, threw his arms wide, then hugged himself. “He loved all the children there.”
I fielded questions, but my eyes kept returning to a middle-aged man who watched us intently. He had no camera, took no notes, and was dressed in an elegant pinstripe suit and silk tie that whispered Saville Row. After a few more predictable questions, our local Spanish volunteer stepped to the microphone. “Thank you everyone. Oscar and Olivia must leave us now.” Oscar took a deep bow—what a ham!—and we stepped off the stage to warm applause.
As I feared, we were confronted by the quiet man. “Ms. Davies, may we speak in private?” I was preparing to deflect the man when he added, “Nigel Hendricks, British Embassy. Would you step into the anteroom?”
Oscar held my hand as we entered a small room. Inside, another man was seated at a table with a document and pen laid out. Oscar tapped his lips with bony fingers and blew out a long breath; he was tired and ready for his apple juice, which I produced from my shoulder bag. He sat in a chair, slurping away, but never took his eyes off the quiet man in the dark suit, who said, “Let me introduce you to Mr. Shaw. I’ll step out while you talk.”
Mr. Shaw shook my hand under Oscar’s scrutiny. “Martin Shaw, Ms. Davies.” He paused. “MI6.” He took in my widening eyes. “You know what that is?”
I answered softly. “Yes. British Foreign Intelligence. You’re a spy.” He allowed a wan, weary smile.
“YOU CAN’T be serious!”
“Entirely serious. You and Oscar come and go freely anywhere in the world. Your fame, the beauty-and-the-beast glamour, is the perfect disguise. For heaven’s sake, you two were in People Magazine last month visiting the Prince of Wales. You’re the least likely person the Chinese would ever look for.”
“This is absurd. There must be professional spies who can slip out of China with the…whatever it is.”
“The chip. And DNA sample.” Shaw look beleaguered, rubbed his balding head. “We’ve tried other routes and now have a sudden opportunity through Africa. It is the least risky route, and you are the perfect courier.” He tapped the paper. “Please sign this and I’ll tell you the details. Your signature doesn’t commit you, merely protects this conversation. And any others that may follow.”
I read the document, which described in very few lines the draconian response His Majesty’s government would take if I violated the official secrets act. I signed slowly and looked into Shaw’s grey eyes. He folded the paper and slipped it in his jacket pocket.
“The document you signed signifies our confidence in you. Miss Great Britain, Miss Universe finalist, using your considerable fame to represent our country and its best values to the world. You—and Oscar—would be of inestimable help moving vital information out of China. Information that is too sensitive for electronic transmission and has already cost the lives of two men. Ms. Davies,” he paused and leaned closer to me, prompting heightened scrutiny from Oscar, who narrowed his eyes at Shaw. “The Chinese may be on the verge of a new ship-mounted laser weapon that would reduce Western defenses to tinker toys. If successful, Beijing would have complete hegemony over international sea lanes; they could choose economic blackmail, outright destruction of our naval defenses, virtual blockades. They could starve Britain, choke the US, render NATO irrelevant. Forget all the media nonsense about satellites and space weapons; the battle for survival will be fought on the world’s oceans.”
“And this chip is the key?”
“A Chinese engineer wants to pass the design to us. He will never be allowed to leave, but a woman—his lover—is a soil scientist and will travel to Kenya soon. Her sister was killed by authorities in a Hong Kong protest march, and she begged the engineer to do this. China is funding and directing construction projects all over Africa, to control the natural resources they need. This woman is part of a delegation to inspect possible sites for new rail lines to key mines.” I could hear Oscar breathing and realized I was holding my breath. “Olivia, you care deeply about children everywhere, about their future. Believe me when I tell you that if we successfully counteract this devastating new Chinese weapon, you will help the future of countless children, far more than your well-meaning campaigns for vaccines and nutrition.”
“Two people are dead.” I don’t know why, but I was whispering. “It sounds extremely dangerous, Mr. Shaw.”
“You’ll be within view of the media the whole time. The handoff will take place in a crowded reception for the Minister of Health where one of the ‘grateful local mothers,’ holding her child, will shake your hand. She will give you a bouquet of flowers in which will be hidden an exact replica of the gold medal Oscar always wears. Except it will contain the chip and DNA sample. You will simply switch the medals in the privacy of your hotel, then depart Nairobi.” My head was swimming. “Ms. Davies, you will be the safest person in Africa, perhaps in the world. Not even the Chinese, who watch everyone and trust no one, will suspect you. Besides …” He shrugged.
I finished his thought. “How dangerous can a beauty queen be?”
“Exactly.” Shaw stood. “We need your decision tomorrow. You may, of course, decline.” He tapped his jacket pocket. “But remember that if you ever breathe a word of this conversation to a single soul, the punishment will be more swift and severe than you can possibly imagine. Neither your fame, nor your beauty, nor the Prince of Wales will protect you. Losing your public image and your very profitable modeling assignments will be the least of your worries.”
OUR BRITISH AIR jet glided to a halt in Nairobi, and our arrival at Jomo Kenyatta Airport was greeted with more than usual fanfare: cheering children, health officials from across East Africa, WHO staff, and a throng of jostling press. There were even Chinese officials, always eager to add packaged smiles to their ravenous, multi-billion-dollar investments in Kenya’s ports, rails, and mining operations. I waved and smiled, marveling how MI6, in a scant three-weeks, had arranged (and funded) television ads and billboards with Oscar’s loveable face. The crowds would be epic. Our return to the airport would be in a limousine complete with ostentatious police escort. It would be the loudest send-off ever given to stolen state secrets.
The crowd erupted when we appeared at a special VIP welcome area constructed for the occasion. My breathing became ragged, despite years of exposure to media and high-pressure occasions. Oscar, of course, was in heaven, waving, saluting, blowing kisses. I made my way to the microphone and accepted flowers from a beautiful ten-year-old Bantu girl. Oscar accepted a banana and held it up like a trophy, prompting another roar from the crowd. My mouth was dry as I made brief comments, praising Kenya’s friendship and the impressive strides made by the several pediatric medical facilities we would visit over two days. Oscar was in no rush to reach our limousine, but the back of my neck was damp, and I felt a nervous tic beginning in my left eye. I couldn’t wait to reach our hotel where I could calm myself with a gin and tonic while Oscar reveled in his favorite travel activities: room service and channel surfing, looking for the dance competitions he loved so much.
WE TOOK Nairobi by storm.
Oscar blew kisses and took selfies with young patients at Kilimani Clinic.
He hugged nurses and distributed toys at Jesse Kay Hospital, where I presented a check to their pediatric oncology unit.
At Lavington Children’s Hospital he zipped around in a motorized wheelchair given by friends in Britain. He made extravagant hand signals for turns and gave young amputees rides. The footage dominated every evening newscast.
On the way from our last stop to our hotel for the reception and handoff, our driver turned toward me. “As you leave the stage, a Mrs. Mwangi will find you and hand you a bouquet. She will say, ‘Oscar is a truly priceless treasure.’ You will thank her, take the bouquet—let no one else touch it—then go straight upstairs to your room and switch the medals. Do not leave the hotel. I’ll pick you up two hours later and we’ll go straight to the airport.”
THE BALLROOM reception was jammed with African mothers and children in colorful robes, who mingled with officials from Kenya and Britain. A few Chinese stood stiffly, and I imagined that each of them knew our secret plan, could read the raw worry hidden behind my smiling eyes. News media swarmed with shoulder-mounted television cameras, thrusting long microphones at me. I shook dozens of hands and introduced Oscar to children who begged to touch his orange beard and his gleaming medal. We ascended a stage adorned with flowers and a huge “Thank You” poster covered in children’s crayon signatures and finger-paint handprints.
I managed brief remarks as sweat trickled down my back. My legs felt weak, and I prayed I didn’t look as suspicious as I felt. Oscar mimed his gratitude and my eyes found Mrs. Mwangi. She was waiting quietly at the bottom of the stage steps wearing a bold yellow-and-green striped dashiki with matching turban. She held her daughter’s hand—their outfits matched—and a bouquet. I met her eyes and she merely smiled noncommittally.
Panic percolated inside me, and I hurried us off the stage. At the bottom of the steps local volunteers kept the crowd back but allowed Mrs. Mwangi to introduce her daughter to Oscar and hand me the bouquet. She pronounced the words that confirmed the handoff. A smile plastered my face and I grasped the bouquet tightly. I could feel the hard round shape of the MI6 replacement Gold Medal among the long green stems.
I was holding the schematics of a new Chinese weapon for which two people had already died.
We hastened to the elevator and went straight to our floor accompanied by a local volunteer named Katherine. I must have been crushing Oscar’s hand in my grip; when we reached our room, he freed himself, rolled his eyes theatrically, and wriggled his fingers in my face.
I was a nervous wreck, but everything had gone perfectly.
“GO AHEAD and enjoy yourself. We’ll be fine.” Katherine smiled at Oscar, who was busy examining the TV remote. “We’ll have a jolly time, right Oscar? We’ll find Dancing with the Stars.” She was authentic; Shaw explained that the Chinese tracked MI6 agents, and if one of them was seen anywhere near me or Oscar, they would instantly know something was up. Katherine was a clueless guide from UNICEF, assigned to keep us company for two hours until we left for the airport. It was part of our “disguise.”
“I’ll just pop down to the lobby lounge. I’m meeting a Miss Kenya contestant for a courtesy drink.” My motivation was not entirely courtesy. I had switched Oscar’s Gold Medal and he now wore the MI6 replacement around his neck. I was desperate to escape our suite, even briefly, before facing the airport send-off and the flight to London and safety. Plus, I needed a strong drink. I bent over Oscar to receive his customary parting hug, after which he returned to the TV remote. “I won’t even be a half-hour.” My blouse was stained with perspiration. “I’ll come back and change before we leave.”
I COULDN’T remember a word of my conversation in the lobby bar or fending off a pick-up attempt from a tall Swissair pilot. My body ached with exhaustion and worry. I got off the elevator, retrieved my room key—and froze. The door to our room was ajar. I ran to the door and flung it open, shouting Oscar’s name.
He was gone.
Katherine was on the floor, unconscious.
“THEY… they knocked and said it was room service.” Katherine winced and rubbed her head. “They pushed in …” Her eyes filled with tears. “One grabbed me by the throat and stuck a needle in my neck. The other one …” She sobbed. “… shot Oscar with a dart.”
“Do you remember anything else?!” I gripped her shoulder and tried to control my voice.
“They said you would hear from them tonight.”
I CARRIED my phone with me everywhere in our hotel suite—to the kitchen area to pour out cold coffee, to the bathroom to cry privately, then back to the living room. Four people waited with me: two Nairobi police detectives, the Director of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, and Nigel Hendricks from the British Embassy. The past hour had been a frenzy: We cancelled our departure motorcade. (I supposedly fell in the shower and injured my shoulder.) I was instructed what to do when the kidnappers called. (Wait two rings while police confirmed surveillance.) I asked Hendricks if MI6 could help. (No, that would surely draw Chinese scrutiny.) Katherine was sent to a separate hotel room where a detective questioned her further about the assault. I was overwhelmed by images of Oscar dead or badly injured, certainly terrified. He must be drugged, surely restrained, probably both; otherwise, he would fight captivity with a fury. He had a gentle soul but was a very powerful animal.
Hendricks beckoned me to the privacy of the bedroom. “As you just learned from the Kenyans, primate kidnapping from wildlife preserves is common all across East Africa. Demands for ransom are almost always met, and the animals returned. We can arrange whatever cash they demand in return for Oscar.”
“It can’t be a coincidence. The Chinese must have him!”
“Rubbish. The Chinese would simply disappear with the medal. They certainly wouldn’t want Oscar. And they probably would have waited to snatch you for interrogation. No, these are primate kidnappers. They know they’ll get paid, but if they kill a human, there’ll be a manhunt.”
My phone rang.
I waited two rings then sucked in deep breath. “This is Olivia Davies.”
“Listen close, pretty Miss Great Britain.” There was a brief pause.
I gasped as Oscar’s unmistakable vocalizing came through the phone. It was slurred and plaintive. I could hear his fear and confusion.
“That was your hairy boyfriend. He’s fine, just doped. You’re now receiving a short video.” On my message app Oscar’s face appeared for several seconds. He was chained to a chair in what appeared to be a warehouse. His tongue lolled a bit and his Gold Medal hung askew. He blinked slowly and whined. “Do exactly what I tell you and you can have him back. If you disobey or botch it, the next video will show his decapitation.”
“WEAR THIS.” The Kenyan Wildlife Service man handed me a very small, thin disc made of black metal. “We’ll track you and have a helicopter and an auto team standing by. Once you and Oscar are safely away, we’ll move in quickly.” I studied the tiny device. “Hide it in the back of your bra. Or someplace on your body that’s very private.” My alarm was obvious. “Don’t worry. They aren’t the least interested in you, and they’ll as be eager to leave as you. They will probably search you for a weapon but won’t bother you otherwise. They’ll want their $100,000 in cash and then escape as fast as possible.”
“Will they have guns?”
“Pistols and a long gun, almost certainly, in case Oscar tries to escape. Or you do.”
My heart sank. The deadliest skill I possessed was my 90-mile-per-hour tennis serve. I was useless.
Hendricks put his hand on my shoulder. “Olivia, just do as they say. Act submissive. Avoid eye contact or sudden moves. Keep Oscar calm if you can. They want the money. Give it to them.” He offered a tepid smile. “I’m totally confident it will all be over in minutes.”
I studied the red nylon bag on the sofa. Apparently, I would ride to the rescue for Oscar, Britain, and the free world, driving myself to a remote warehouse at midnight, with a bag full of American dollars. Armed only with Hendrick’s “total confidence” and a homing device in my sports bra.
“DON’T MOVE! Drop the bag. Hands up. Higher!” A blinding white light shone in my face. The voice was guttural. “Step back.” I could hear the man unzip the bag and harrumph.
“This way,” he chuckled, “if you please, Miss Great Britain.” He turned the light so that I could see him give directions with a hand gripping a very large pistol. I could see Oscar in a chair with one leg chained to it.
“Does she have it?” A second voice was whiny and nervous.
“I’m counting it. Cuff her, show her the ape, then frisk her.”
A second light clicked on and the next several seconds were totally unreal. I saw Oscar, who couldn’t see me, but had heard my voice. “I’m here, Oscar. It’s OK.” He whimpered. I tried to soothe him while the whiny man’s hands slid up and down my legs, slipped inside my pants and probed my thighs. He lingered while he fondled my breasts roughly. I whispered hoarsely, “We’re going home soon, Oscar. It’s OK.”
The first man approached me. “Very smart of you to follow the rules. Now we’re going to tie you up next to your hairy sweetheart. Someone will find you in the morning. Sit in the chair next to King Kong there.”
Oscar’s vocalizing grew louder as my hands were handcuffed together in front of me. I was pushed onto a wooden chair beside him. He struggled to free his chained arms and reach toward me. “It’s OK, Oscar, we’re together now.” The whiny man reached toward me with zip ties but stopped when Oscar suddenly let out an ear-shattering howl.
The man counting the money shouted, “Shut that fucking ape up!”
The whiny man turned toward Oscar with a big syringe. The second he turned, I shoved him from behind, forcing him into Oscar’s lap. It was the man’s turn to howl as Oscar bit his ear off, spit it on the floor, and screeched in triumph.
“Bloody fucking hell!” The man shouted and clasped his head as the syringe fell to the floor. I bent, seized it, thrust it into the man’s leg, and pushed the plunger with all my might.
I felt a crushing blow as the guttural man’s foot slammed into my ribcage. I collapsed with such pain that it triggered a rage I’d never known. His foot flew toward me again, but I grabbed it and twisted with all my strength. I heard and felt the loud crack of breaking bone. A gunshot exploded near my head and pain ripped my shoulder. The man screamed curses as he hit the floor. He dropped his gun, and his lantern, which illuminated the area. I felt my own blood running down my back and the man grabbed me. We grappled, both struggled toward the gun, about two feet away. Oscar vocalized for me to look at him; he had spotted a large wrench lying on the floor and nudged it toward me. I grasped the cold, heavy steel in my handcuffed fists, filled with determination. The man had just reached the gun and turned toward me as I brought the wrench down on his head with all the might of my 90-mile-per-hour tennis serve. The crack of his skull made me nauseous. He instantly fell in a heap, silent. The other man was out cold, filled with an ape-sized dose of tranquilizer.
I stumbled to my feet, shaking from adrenaline and the pain of a bullet wound, and fell into Oscar’s lap where I cried. He stroked my head and made soothing sounds. I hugged him briefly, then located the keys to his chains and my handcuffs on the man’s belt. When I set him free, we hugged some more, each said “I love you” in our respective languages. He touched my bullet wound, kissed it tenderly, and rocked me in his arms. I looked into his grateful eyes and assured him, “Help will be here soon.” Then I noticed.
He wasn’t wearing the Gold Medal.
I TRIED to purge my emotions and be rational. What were the pros and cons of my situation?
I was alive.
Oscar was safe, and with me.
The kidnappers were out of action.
Help had arrived. The police were interrogating the groggy criminal I’d tranquilized.
I flinched as a police medic patched the bullet wound in my shoulder. My list of cons swept away any fleeting comfort.
I had killed a man.
The Gold Medal was missing.
I watched medics load the dead man onto a gurney and cover him, though I caught a glimpse of his skull, caved in from my blow. I swayed as I sat up, now dizzy with the implications: Would I face prison? What would become of Oscar?
“Ms. Davies?” The medic’s voice broke through the fog of painkiller and worry. “The bullet sliced your shoulder muscle but missed any bone. You’re very lucky.” I struggled to accept that idea. “With rest and a good physical therapist, your shoulder will be fine.” Oscar held my hand and stroked my good arm.
“If you’re through, can you please give us privacy?” Mr. Hendricks’ face was lined and his Saville Row finery severely rumpled. His glare sent the medic scurrying. He whispered in an urgent voice, “Where’s Oscar’s medal?!”
I turned to Oscar, mimicked placing the medal around his neck, and pointed to his chest. “Oscar, where’s your medal?”
He pointed to the dead man on the gurney and shrugged.
THE SEARCH commenced immediately despite the darkness. Fifteen officers were marshalled, twelve embassy staff were awakened and summoned. One team probed every corner of the warehouse and scoured every inch of the grounds. Another team established a perimeter of ten blocks and circled buildings with massive lights. They searched bushes and storm drains, parked cars were broken into, trunks pried open.
THE CHIEF DETECTIVE sat so near me I could smell the mingling of perspiration and aftershave. He sighed. “The medal would have had DNA evidence on it. They probably buried it or tossed it in the river.” He held his hands up in surrender. “We’ll never find it. The important thing is that you are both safe.”
Hendricks looked stricken. “We’ll put a picture on television, in the papers. The whole city knows Oscar now. People will turn Nairobi upside down.” He fumbled a cigarette out of a posh gold case and lit it with a slight tremble. “We’ll post a reward, a big one. Ten thousand US dollars, or pounds, whatever it takes.” He took a deep drag and blew the smoke above our heads.
The Chief Detective raised his eyebrows. “I understand the medal has sentimental value, and some cultural importance, but that seems a bit extreme …”
“No effort must be spared!” Hendricks voice rose. “Detective, can you leave us for a moment?” The man departed, clearly perplexed by the fuss over a ceremonial medal. “Olivia, I spoke to Shaw. He wants to get the public involved, maybe get an accomplice to turn on the kidnappers. The reward was his idea: a big chunk of money, no questions asked. If it’s found, the medal’s sealed tight. No one would suspect there’s anything inside.”
A PHOTO of Oscar’s gold medal appeared on newspapers’ front pages along with accounts of his abduction and rescue. Social media was ablaze. Absenteeism at shops and factories soared, movie theaters stood vacant, and schoolrooms emptied as thousands scoured Nairobi. A police tip line was clogged with false leads and attempts to pass off medals of every description as Oscar’s gold medal. On the third day, officials began to beg people to return to work and school.
The throbbing in my shoulder was fading and Oscar lounged in our hotel suite, napping and channel surfing. When he got antsy, we ventured out for a walk in the nearby park, escorted by police who kept well-wishers at bay. Supporters appeared outside our hotel, sending oranges and bananas to us. Two children held a sign: “We’ll find it, Oscar!”
On the fourth day, Hendricks called, ebullient. “Olivia, we think the medal has been found! A police motorcycle courier is on his way to your hotel now. I’ll be right there.”
OSCAR’S EYES lit up, he vocalized happy sounds, hugged me, and clutched the medal to his chest. Hendricks and a “specialist” from the embassy examined the medal, scanned it with some sort of wand, and pronounced it genuine. The contents were intact.
I asked to return to London immediately on a charter, but Shaw said no: A massively expensive charter jet would endanger our innocent cover. His instructions were clear: stick to the public plan. Shaw wanted a big, public show of gratitude for the man who unearthed the medal and would receive the £10,000.
CHEERING CROWDS lined our motorcade route and Oscar was thrilled by the chorus of police escort sirens. We reached the VIP departure area at Jomo Kenyatta Airport, where Kenyan, British, and Chinese flags flew above a brass band, sent by Kenya’s president. Oscar and I made our way to the podium. His medal rested in an elegant hardwood box on a crimson velvet cushion, awaiting the ceremonial return. I held a check for the reward, which I would present after brief remarks.
I thanked the local officials and citizens of all ages who helped search for Oscar’s medal. I reserved my most lavish comments for the man who made the search a success. “Very special thanks go to Mr. Chan and the Chinese Railway Corporation. Their work on the new rail line to Nairobi’s port will make travel and shipping faster and safer. Countless Kenyans will benefit for years to come.” I led the applause, and Oscar clasped his hands over his head. The Chinese officials basked in the rare praise for their cynical investment in Kenya’s infrastructure.
“Thanks to the Chinese Railway Corporation and its respect for Kenyan land, excavation for the new rail line was done with great care, supervised by Mr. Chan.” With my biggest, most dazzling smile, I added, “His very keen eyesight and prompt actions saved an item that is very precious to Oscar, and the people of Great Britain.” Mr. Chan’s smile was minimal; he had been informed by his employer, the Chinese Railway Corporation, that he would donate his reward to the Nairobi children’s hospital in Oscar’s honor.
I handed the check to Mr. Chan, who glumly handed it to his employer. “Now the moment we’ve been waiting for—I know Oscar has!” Oscar stood at attention while a distinguished Chinese man formally placed the gold medal around Oscar’s neck. Applause drowned out the sound of hundreds of cameras clicking as Oscar saluted the man and grasped his hand, pumping it until the man finally smiled. I nodded to him. “Let me add special thanks to the Chinese Ambassador to Kenya and his government for this generous gesture of international good will. Mr. Ambassador, you will never know how much this means to our country.” I leaned over and kissed the Chinese Ambassador’s cheek.
Oscar held the medal for all to see and then took my hand. Awash in a wave of applause, we turned to climb the steps to our flight home.
▪ ▪ ▪
Richard C. McPherson’s work has appeared in Living Springs Anthology Stories Through the Ages, the Black Fox Literary Journal, Unleash Press 2022 Anthology, Conversations, The Write Launch, and Bright Flash Literary Review. His first novel, Man Wanted in Cheyenne, will be released in March 2023. Visit at richardcmcpherson.com.
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