The early morning drizzle was still falling, softening the distant line of palm trees along the beach, when the supplicants, applicants and admirers began arriving at the commanding general's headquarters.
They milled about uncertainly with a few of the soldiers, themselves waiting and watching, alert for the imminent coming of the man, a former staff sergeant and now a general, who keeps a two-foot-long miniature tank on his desk and is one of the heroes of the new Liberia.
They waited, as they do almost every morning nowadays, for Brig. Gen. Thomas Quiwonkpa, the leader of 4,000-man Army, because they have been told around town, and sometimes by the newspapers, that he is the man to see.
After any revolution there is always a new man to see, and three months after the coup that ended the life and the government of president William R. Tolbert, the word is out that Quiwonkpa can provide a job, correct injustice, get a prisoner out of jail.
The coup was carried out by noncommissioned officers. They crept into the executive compound here on April 12, shot Tolbert and then executed 13 government ministers in the ensuing days. The leader was Master Sgt. Samuel Kanyon Doe, who is the new head of state. But Doe is surrounded by guards and motorcycle escorts and thus is not directly approachable by the great majority of the people.
The military government shares some power with civilian advisers, under the authority of a body called the People's Redemption Council, which is composed in large part of the soldiers who brought off the coup. There are some Liberian citizens who believe that Doe is a hairbreadth first among 26 equals in the council, and that if there is a shakeup in the future, Thomas Quiwonkpa is likely to figure significantly in it.
So it was that Arthur Pewee, 27, had come on this morning to appeal to the general for a job. He had brought with him -- protected under his shirt from the sodden weather -- a letter from a former employer stating that he was a qualified heavy equipment mechanic and "has a very nice disposition and good character and is always very obliging."
With this document he carried a letter of his own painstaking composition, saying that he had passed a test for a job at the port of Monrovia but had not been given a job (even though others who had taken the test with him were now working there), "being that I don't know nobody."
Sitting watchfully on a concrete step, Arthur Pewee, married and the father of two children, said that he had heard stories of Quiwonkpa's generosity and that he believed the general could help him get a job.
"He is a small man, like me," he said referring to the general's humble and now well-known origins as a member of the Gio tribe from the east Liberian bush. "He is a good man."
But when the general arrived, in the late afternoon, Pewee seemed to recede like a shadow when a cloud passes over the sun.
As Quiwonkpa's car pulled to a stop, three aides got out, each carrying an American M16 rifle and a walkie-talkie of the sort that has become the scepter of the People's Council. The general followed. He wore brightly polished boots and jungle-camouflage fatigues. A revolver and a bone-handled sheath knife were strapped side-by-side on his belt. Silver stars glinted on the points of his collar and the crown of his cap.
When he climbed the stairs, two small boys, barefoot and wearing shorts, jumped to their feet. "Hello, boss," they said. Orderlines and aides crowded around the general and followed him into his office.
The office occupied by Quiwonkpa used to be the headquarters of Gen. Sam Ware. Ware is now in the post stockade, along with 200 others -- all majors or above -- who commanded the Army before the coup.
The general sat down, leaning back so far in his chair that he almost disappeared behind the miniature tank on the desk. The tank is a detailed model of an American M60, with a turret that turns and a turret gun that moves up and down.
"I want 100 empty beds by tonight," the general said. The order was not explained, but one of the aides seemed to understand it. He replied that it would be impossible to carry out the order.
"Get it ready for my signature," the general said, turning to another aide. The general then looked at his visitor.
"Brig. Gen Thomas Quiwonkpa at your service," he said. Quiwonkpa has high, wide cheekbones that give his face a sculptured look. The lid of his left eye is "lazy," and does not blink quite in unison with the other.
"What can I do for you?" he asked, and then immediately turned to other business.
Documents were being presented for him to sign. Taking his pen he made a carefully rounded "Q," followed by a wavy line.
About 20 people were in the office. Sitting on couches and chairs around the edge of the room were several women and three four men in civilian clothes. tThey looked as if they had influence with someone in the room. One of the women was a police officer, dressed in the dowdy blue uniform, white anklets and black shoes, commonly worn by policewomen in Africa.
But the center of attention was the desk -- or, rather, the man at the desk -- sitting behind the tank and three walkie-talkies lined up in front of him. As the minutes passed, a parade of officers came in -- mainly, it seemed, to present themselves.
Sometimes Quiwonkpa reached out to shake hands. This was a special note of recognition, one with its own stylized manners and etiquette. Then hands would grip, then loosen slowly down to the fingertips and then, just as the hands parted, both men would snap their fingers. It has become the handshake of the new Liberia.
More business, documents and information were presented to the general.
"We are not here to conduct investigations of business problems," the general said, responding to one insistent officer.
The officer continued to present his problem, or argument, but at the moment someone came forward and handed the general a copy of Time magazine, which he leafed through apparently ignoring a fresh barrage of demands for his attention. From time to time he spoke, each answer following a lengthy and sometimes heated presentation.
"That man is a banker," the general said. "Release him."
"It is not proper for men in uniform to be driving commercial vehicles."
He picked up the magazine once more, flipped its pages and then carefully wrote his name on its cover and slipped the magazine into the top drawer of the desk.
A young man, stylishly and expensively dressed, came in and gave the general a camouflage-pattern waterproof envelope with fastener that made a ripping noise when it opened. Quiwonkpa opened and closed the envelope several times. nThe man also brought the general a new pair of combat boots with nylon tops and heavy, cleated soles.
"They are size 9 1/2," the man said, "but they say they run large. Please try them on."
The general looked at the boots appreciatively, turning them over in his hands. Then he picked up the envelope again and opened and closed it.
"Do try them on," the visitor said. "I am going back to the States on Friday. I can get another pair if they are not right."
"Thank you," Quiwonkpa said.
He did not try the boots on, and the visitor began to back away.
The two men shook hands and gave the little snap of the fingers.
Not long afterward, as the general stood up to leave, another young and well-dressed man pushed up close to him.
"I just wanted the say," he stared, "just to say . . . to thank you. I've never been a part of the government, but what you did . . . I just want to thank you. I think you remember what you did."
The man seemed to be coaching the general, but the general did not register any reaction.
"You remember," the man went on. "The matter about the house?"
"Oh, yes" the general said.
"I just wanted to thank you and to see if I could set up an appointment with you sometime."
"Yes, any time."
"How about lunch tomorrow?"
"No, not tommorow."
But the general had turned away. The policewoman came up. She whispered in the general's ear.
"I cannot say," the general said.
Another woman pushed her way close to him. She spoke in a slow, pleading voice and as she began, her face became animated with sincerity and the promise of tear. The general listened with what appeared to be sympathy.
"I am not the last authority," he said. "Go to the president, I cannot intervene. I am a military man. It is in the courts."
He did not pause until he had reached the outdoor stairway that leads down to the parade ground from his second-floor office.
At this point, Arthur Pewee, who had managed to slip his letter to an intermediary, averted his eyes upon seeing that the general had the letter in his hands and was reading it. The general looked at it for a moment, then handed it wordlessly to the aide behind him.
The general stepped down and took a short stroll to the corner of the parade ground, flanked by the aides with the walkie-talkie and M16s and followed by a small crowd.
After a moment, a car came, a large sedan with cushioned seats and air conditioning. The general got in the car with two of his aides and the car moved off.