This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
" Cholo pulled the girl up. The beam of the flashlight made her blink. She had slept on the cave floor. Dirt stuck to drool on her cheek. The rope binding her ankles left a red rash. He wrote at the rough table. In the night, she had urinated on herself. The smell was oddly sweet. A memory from something he had read long ago led him to wonder: diabetic? "Comrade." He signed the last order and handed it to Osvaldo. "To the secretariat at once." For the first time, he met her eyes: dull as old shell casings. As yet, she had but the beginnings of breasts. The girl had uttered not a single word since her arrest. "You know the charges," he said to her. Something about her was familiar. The defiance? He massaged his eyebrows. His mind played tricks. "It won't change your fate. But a confession would clear your mind. You are confused. Confusion is an enemy as dangerous as a soldier with a loaded gun. Comrade. I am like a father to you. Please take this as a heartfelt piece of advice." Was it last year's offensive when he first saw her? Children were hard to remember. Fighting whittled their bodies and often prompted early puberty. They transformed, like nestlings into birds. Or they died. He put them in the front line, as reliable as dogs. Their shots, often wayward and mistimed, yet served the better fighters as warnings. Soldiers got too confident. They pressed on, too fast and without caution. They assumed this was the best the Tiger could do. That his reputation was inflated. That he had lost his touch. How often he proved them wrong. This one. Had he taken her after Concordia, that disaster? Or La Honda? Perhaps he should tell Osvaldo to photograph new recruits, especially the children, to keep a visual record.
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In the army's hands, photos would be a liability. He didn't need to remember who they were. That was old thinking, bourgeois thinking. Still, these habits haunted him. The past. What use did he have for it? "It is time," he said. In the meadow below, his fighters waited for morning inspection. Up by 4 am, they had already eaten a gruel prepared by the cooks. As the Tiger descended, he saw how mist caught like hair in the bromeliads anchored in the rock face. Flame-rumped tanagers rustled and sang, their triple chirp a counterpoint to the drag of the girl's feet along the path. Dew lay heavy on the huts of the hostages. They were asleep at this hour, clinging to the freedom of their dreams. The Tiger stood before his fighters. "Bring the boy." Over night, the boy had been staked behind the storage tent, with the mules. This was only fair. He was the mastermind. Like the girl, he was slender. A few hairs curled on his chin and upper lip. Was he thirteen? Ten? From his days as a medical student, the Tiger recognized the type: a survivor, resilient. Injured, he would beat the odds. Not this time. Cholo had wound rope around the boy's wrists, then had bound the wrists to the boy's waist. Strips of cloth, stiff and the color of old wine, wrapped around the boy's right foot. As yet, the foot did not stink. "We're losing time." The Tiger drew his reading glasses from the front flap pocket of his shirt. Irritating, but necessary. With his thinning hair and paunch, the wire rims completed what he knew was a look of creeping decrepitude. He compensated with actions, to show that he was not weak. Osvaldo handed him a folded paper.
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"The revolutionary council has reached its verdict," he said. "Comrade Alejandra!" Cholo half-pulled and half-carried the girl forward. Alejandra didn't seem to realize what was happening. This was more than insulin deprivation, the Tiger realized. Was she drugged? Who would have given her a pill? He felt his heart skip with anger. Maybe that sweetness was something else. Morphine tablets had no odor. Was it cough medicine? "You have been found guilty of contributing to the cowardice of a fellow comrade. On the night of the birthday of our glorious founder and the wellspring of revolution, you used a weapon to shoot Comrade Benjamín in the foot. Your dark purpose, as is well known, was to injure him severely enough to send him home and later abandon our national army of liberation. This is treason and conspiracy. The punishment is severe." "Comandante," the boy said. He shivered, but his eyes were steady. This one, the Tiger thought. This one was strong. "My sister had no choice. Comandante, I forced her. I threatened her. She did it for me, for the love of me. Comandante, I beg you..." "Silence!" The Tiger removed his glasses. Emotion is the enemy of reason. Reason is the motor of transformation. The way out of the petty concerns of the self. He sacrificed for the good of the people. The people were more important than any one person. These emotional ties had to be severed for their to be true and lasting change. So! Comrade Benjamín's punishment would be quite a lesson for everyone. "Comrade Alejandra, the verdict is clear." Through half-lidded eyes, Alejandra stared at the ground. He smelled licorice. Of course! Alcohol, the peasant's oblivion. She reeked of it, in fact. Perhaps it was for the best. He heard Osvaldo ready his pistol. Then he unholstered
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his own. "Untie her," he said to Cholo. Military discipline was the responsibility of the revolutionary council, which consisted of the highest-ranking fighters: himself, Comrade Osvaldo and Comrade Blanca. The Tiger never liked to reveal the council's final verdict before it was to be applied. This left his mind clear. Unbound. At the moment the punishment was to be announced, he could be moved by mercy or, depending on the crime, the need for example. When he looked into the eyes of the accused, the correct path sometimes came to him as an image in the corneal tissue. This image often surprised and delighted him. Once, he saw a Venetian gondola, black and shining, rocking on the water of the Grand Canal. He had only seen this in photographs or movies, yet the image spoke to him of vistas to be experienced. The accused was pardoned. Another time, a tree burst into flame. Calamity in the future: the accused paid with his life. Occasionally, the image had something to do with her: her hair, the curve of her shoulder. The first moment he saw her. Or the last. On that fuel, he was capable of anything. The folded paper Osvaldo handed him was blank. The paper was always blank. The revolutionary council trusted him absolutely. "The verdict is left to the discretion of the commander," the Tiger shouted. "Therefore, I pronounce it before you all, to demonstrate the will and the resolve of our glorious revolution. We are not cowards. We do not tolerate them. We despise traitors and deal with them severely. Conspirators. Worse than cockroaches. They merit no mercy. The business of the people is life or death. We cannot delay. We cannot overlook such heinous acts against the people!"
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Benjamín wept openly. The Tiger saw that fury fed his tears, not self-pity. Loosed, the boy would not run. The boy would kill him with his bare hands. So like him! He felt admiration and a little regret. The boy was a worthy fighter. In time, he would be a real asset. But he loved his sister. Perhaps these feelings could be harnessed to something greater, just as his own had been. He had loved once. Then he turned his love to the people and the great cause they were winning, the people's revolution. How noble was this sacrifice! It almost brought tears to his own eyes. He pinched the bridge of his nose, to compose himself. Perhaps he should spare the boy, as a gesture. He, too, had been a boy once. Who had made his mistakes. But how could he? The boy was dangerous. As he had been. The Tiger remembered now. The boy and girl were twins. Three months earlier, they had been struggling with an old bicycle laden with palm fronds when he and Osvaldo and the security detail approached in the Land Cruiser. They needed a guide, so invited the children to come with them and point out the narrowest spot in the road. The army would pass soon, part of an annual spring offensive. He wanted to be prepared. The children were eager. His men loaded the bicycle and palm fronds on the roof of the Land Cruiser. The boy sat in front, between him and the driver, to guide. The girl, bright-eyed and shyly smiling, sat in back. Several times, his eyes met hers in the rear-view mirror. With a little encouragement, he could recruit them both, he knew. The boy boasted, as boys do, of his skill with a rifle. They lived with their mother, a widow. Someday, he said, he would be a soldier. "And you?" the Tiger asked, as his eyes found the girl's. She blushed.
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"Don't listen to her," the boy said dismissively. "She wants to be on television or maybe sing. Her head is full of nonsense." They found their spot, then ate at the next village. As the Tiger sat down to beans and fried plantains, the girl ran to a store to buy beer. Her legs were long and brown. Like a colt's, he remembered thinking. Someday, she would steal hearts. The Tiger offered to send money to their mother if the twins agreed to join the revolution. Their lives would be filled with hardship and danger, he warned. But they would be working for the good of the people. They would be heroes. The boy's reaction was immediate. His sister hesitated. "My mother will miss us," she said. "We'll rot if we stay at home," he answered hotly. "There's nothing for us there. She'll understand. Besides, we would be doing something good. She will be proud." Was she? Of course, he had never sent the money. He never did. But how were they to know? Contact between families was forbidden. As the Tiger examined the boy's eyes, a picture formed: flames and collapsed walls and the dust of pulverized glass. A great victory. But one that had cost him dear. The Tiger handed the girl his pistol. "Shoot him," he said. She looked up. "Shoot him," he repeated, more gently. "That's an order. Or Osvaldo will shoot you." For the first time, the Tiger touched her. He placed the back of his hand against her cheek. Soft as a lamb. Then the Tiger stepped back. Osvaldo pressed the muzzle of his pistol to the girl's temple. "Shoot him," the Tiger repeated.
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Comrade Alejandra closed her eyes. Now, thought the Tiger. She is mine forever.
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Samuel Moreno woke without prompting. His room faced east, as he had requested, and overlooked the Borghese Gardens. Before retiring, he had opened the heavy curtains closed by the maid, so that the sun would reach him in his bed. Without its warmth, he knew he would wake late and out of sorts, as if a cold were lurking behind his cheekbones. He turned on the BBC news channel and did the exercises Siv had chosen for him, part yoga, part Pilates, part old man puffing and creaking as he got the world's tidings. It was the same dose everywhere. Only details changed. The market goes up and down and down some more. There is violence and speeches and girls on red carpets. Who could comprehend it all? Samuel tried to make his breath deep and easy, just as Siv could. But as he did a bend from the waist, he found himself holding his breath, as if guarding from a bad smell, then letting the breath out in ragged bursts. There was rarely news from home. He did not wish for it. The news could only be bad. Thirty minutes of exertion brought the relief of a shower and shave. By 9 am, Samuel had his tie knotted, sports jacket buttoned, semi-brogues polished and double-knotted, a bag over his shoulder, his cane in hand and a straw fedora cocked on his head. From beneath the brim, his hair feathered out white and thick and slightly too long. He was retired, after all. So often in the company of balding men and a few balding women, he allowed himself a bit of vanity about his abundant,
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glossy white hair. Thus attired, Samuel strolled from the hotel to the café he favored, near the Spanish Steps. On the way, he delighted in the music school he passed. At this early hour, the older students were in choir, and the sweet notes spilled into the street like another harbinger of morning. By now, the second week of his exile, the waiter at the café knew him and seated him next to the electric heater. The waiter served Samuel without asking: a double espresso, a glass of water with no ice, a cup of steamed milk and two pastries. On the white plate, their sugared crusts glistened with oil. Dark beads of jam dangled at the punctures where they had been filled. Normally, the jam was berry, though once Samuel had been surprised to bite in and discover apple. The waiter had apologized. Samuel waved the words off. He was not angry, just set in his ways. Waiters and desk clerks seemed to expect this of old people. They accommodated him. Some parts of Samuel's day were vulnerable to chance, inevitably. His morning routine was not. He had been forced to leave his country. Far from his wife and children, his bones ached with the dampness of Rome. But he would not wake to a shrieking alarm, forsake his daily stretch or eat an apple pastry. Samuel sipped the water, then laid out the implements of his morning tasks. There was his cellular telephone, a gift from his son, Marco. There was his pad of white, lined paper. In his pocket were two packets of Splenda, taken from the box in his suitcase and meant for the espresso. Samuel promised Siv that in Rome he would do his best to drop the few pounds she believed kept his cholesterol high and slowed his walk. As a rule, he gave himself an hour for breakfast. At 10 am, he
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had a phone date, every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, with Marco. But for the espresso, it was the breakfast of a child. Siv – who kept her figure with swimming and yoga and the denial of, in his opinion, most things worth eating – would have exchanged the pastries for something whole grain or consisting entirely of fruit. In Bogotá, where Samuel ate eggs seven days a week, Siv had instructed the cook to prepare for him a papaya or mango and for herself bran, dried fruits and yogurt. Samuel tried Siv's mixture once, to please her. The taste was woody and the texture like shavings. Perhaps an ailing mare might benefit. But to Siv, he remarked only that his stomach could not digest it, the result, he said, of a lifetime of eating his native cuisine. Although Siv was convinced that she knew better than Samuel about most things, she did not meddle with foibles, his or those of their children. As long as the foibles were not life threatening, she opted for gentle advice. For instance, Siv would remark that there was little nutritional value in the sugar, oil and white flour of the pastries and less still if he paired them only with the jolt of caffeine in the espresso and Splenda, with who knew what long term effect on his tissues. It is not the sustenance I crave, Samuel would reply, but the pleasure of that sip of cool water followed by the searing espresso and the sugar-crusted bite of fried dough, still warm from the heat lamps, and then the explosion of berry jam, all of the heat of summer and its sweetness in one bite. I do not live on this, he would say, I live for it. In Rome, Samuel could go from place to place without bodyguards or a bullet-proof car, which tinted the world a tired, Picasso blue. Several times already, he had spent the morning without saying
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a single word to anyone as he observed the behavior of the birds in the city's piazzas and parks. With his Collins guide, he had identified wrens, nuthatches (Sitta europaea, he reminded himself), starlings, blackcaps, Sardinian warblers and, once, as he rested against a boulder on the Appia Antica, a pair of kestrels sat like carnivorous angels on a ruined wall. Yet how could Samuel be happy? Each night, he examined the four photographs he kept in a foldable leather frame next to the hotel bed. One photograph showed Marco and Claudia, his children, when they were small and vacationing at the ranch. The administrator had brought two ponies for them to ride. Claudia, soft-hearted, had named hers Princess (though both were male). A more recent photo showed Marco standing in front of the ranch's essence distillery, his new business venture. A third captured Claudia at her university graduation, in a black mortarboard and gown and looking down and away, to some point that lay beyond the frame. Even in the gown, you could see that she was too thin: bony wrists, a neck appearing too slender for her head. All in the past, he would think. Thank God. The last photograph was of Siv at their wedding. She did not have a perfect face, as Siv herself could readily point out. There was a bump on her nose from a childhood fall from a toboggan. A half-moon scar curled at the outer boundary of her left eye, from a childhood dog bite. Age spots, the color of coffee with milk, stained the opposite temple. Around Siv's eyes and mouth were lines no surgeon could entirely erase. And why should he try? Samuel found Siv as riveting as any painting in Rome's churches and museums. Samuel was not a small man, but Siv was taller, her lips at precisely the height necessary to
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kiss his forehead. When they first met at a reception given to celebrate the visit of President Arturo Blondell to Washington, where Samuel served as Blondell's ambassador, he saw her from across the room. She looked sleek as a heron, his love of birds from that moment intertwined with his admiration for the woman who would become his wife. He asked an aide for her name: Siv Svanquist. The name fit and was agreeably hard to pronounce. Siv Svanquist, Siv Svanquist he said to himself. The sound was like waves on ice. Siv Svanquist was a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, on leave from the United Nations Department of Peace Keeping Operations, "Dipko," the aide added. He knew Samuel liked to learn the vocabulary of diplomacy and speak it like an insider. Ms. Svanquist specialized in conflict resolution, the aide said. A disorderly issue for such an ordered-looking person, Samuel thought. Siv Svanquist, the aide continued in Samuel's ear, was the lover of a freshman senator who had dazzled Washington with his movie star looks. The senator was considering a run for president. But the city's leading hostesses agreed that Siv was not an appropriate choice for future first lady. She was European, principally. She was Swedish, unhelpfully, and divorced from a black man. "Ghanaian," the aide said apologetically, "and now the Finance Minister. But still. You know these Americans." She was not religious, another strike against her. And, the aide finished matter-of-factly, she was old. She looked mid-forties, but was likely past fifty. "Good bone structure. Healthy. But focus groups prefer a political couple with children," the aide said. Decidedly plural. No singletons, too easily dismissed as bred for political advantage. For the average, undecided voter, two or more
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naturals – no bastards, no steps and no late-in-life Third World adoptees -- insured that politicians had a check on their ambitions, some link to the voters' world of obligation and disappointment. The senator could still marry a staffer and get her pregnant before the Iowa caucuses, the aide finished. Samuel found himself disliking the senator intensely. Pilar, Blondell's wife, insisted he be invited. Apparently, the senator dated actresses. The reception, Pilar said to Samuel, needed pizzazz, though her accent made it sound like piss-ass. "It wouldn't hurt for you to bring someone to the state dinner," Pilar said to him, offering the name of an actress from a Mexican soap opera he had never heard of. The dinner was the culmination of Blondell's visit and his final attempt to seal a friendship with the American president, known to respond generously to the world leaders he liked. The actress would fly up, Pilar promised, and maybe even stay awhile. "As tempting as that sounds," Samuel dryly responded, "I think I'll go alone." The day of the state dinner, Samuel accompanied President Blondell to the National Press Club (the room was packed) and meetings at the World Bank and International Development Bank (Colombia paid its debt and was considered a model credit customer). On his way to the reception, Samuel had quarreled with the White House protocol chief, who wanted to coordinate the evening gown Pilar de Blondell planned to wear with the first lady's, to ensure what she described as a "harmonious shot" for the next day's papers. What the woman really wanted was to get Pilar to avoid a dress that displayed too generously the breasts that had been lifted and plumped during the most recent Americas summit in Caracas. Americans liked cleavage in their movie stars, not their
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first ladies. Samuel would gladly negotiate a trade treaty or aid package or joint declaration, sufficiently strapped down with "Whereases" and "Be it resolveds." But Pilar de Blondell was decisively beyond his political skills. Of course, he did not say this to the protocol chief. Instead, he feigned a poor connection. Afterwards, his secretary ordered a placatory bouquet and selection of Colombian coffees to be delivered to her office the day Blondell returned home. "Is there a vote?" Samuel asked his aide, since the senator had not yet appeared at the reception. What he really wanted to know was if the senator and Siv were still together. The aide shrugged. The senator had a talent for grand entrances. Probably, he would arrive just before President Blondell, to extract maximum benefit from his presence at an international event while investing the least amount of time. Samuel calculated that he had perhaps fifteen minutes to make his way to Siv. Once Blondell arrived, Samuel would have to steer the president to key guests, the appropriations committee chairman and the incoming SouthCom general, a jowly Marine considered too slow for a truly important regional command, and the Washington Post editorial page editor, who sipped wine as he scanned the room impatiently for guests worth his attention. Samuel's job was to ensure that the volatile Colombian president and his wife avoided the guests the embassy was obliged to invite, but were problems: the businessman rumored to invest in questionable arms sales, the human rights nags, the professor-bores. Siv's hair was boy-short, gray. Girlish freckles danced across her nose. Samuel shook her hand. It arched like a feather. "I understand you have been working on the standby arrangements system," he
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said. "This has been a topic of discussion in Colombia. Excuse me." He cleared his throat. "Samuel Moreno. My pleasure." Siv later confessed that she was surprised the ambassador knew her. Samuel insisted. Had she felt something immediately? Was it love at first sight? She was too practical to believe in such things. After all, she pointed out, she had seen him at other functions and he had taken no notice of her. "This cannot be," he protested, "perhaps I merely glimpsed your shadow. You were my love from the first moment I really saw you." She relented. As she later told him, the senator's charm had by then revealed itself as a veneer of sociability over a whirling turbine of ambition. Samuel's evident infatuation charmed her. At the reception, she allowed, perhaps there was something unusual. "Sincerity, I suppose. You seemed eager as a boy." Samuel invited Siv to a conference that the embassy was sponsoring, on what he could no longer remember. Unfortunately, she said, she would be in Brussels. "How about lunch Friday?" Samuel blurted, having glimpsed the senator's arrival. President Blondell would not be far behind. "Say yes," he said, too warmly. Siv considered him. In her blue eyes, he saw that he was not handsome or dashing or dangerous. Like no one she had ever been with before. "Yes," she said.
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Everyone moved toward the senator except Siv and Samuel. In the flash of sequins and Champagne flutes and the photographers' lights, his life took an unforeseen and entirely splendid direction.
# After their first lunch, Samuel invited Siv to dinner, then dinner again, then a weekend at the horse farm of a partner in the law firm that represented his country's interests in Washington. They spent the morning riding on a private bridle trail. At an overlook that opened onto a shallow valley daubed with orange and red leaves and strung with the smoke of wood fires, they dismounted. Together, they unpacked the saddlebags prepared for them by their host's chef: baguettes spread with goat cheese and stuffed with roast vegetables, an orzo salad, pickled baby carrots and four finger-length éclairs. Siv spread the green- checked cloth that served as their table while Samuel uncorked the wine, an Italian prosecco he considered a bit summery, but certainly refreshing. He poured into small crystal flutes that came in a velvet box. Samuel told Siv that he had never planned to be a diplomat. His parents had a small coffee farm. As the eldest boy, Samuel had been expected to study for a profession that would earn him enough money to put his nine siblings through high school and set the girls up in a marriage and the boys in a trade. The wisest choice was engineering, so he had become an engineer. But everything changed when his wife, Blanca, died during their ninth year of marriage. She was pregnant with their third child, a boy, who died with her. At the time, Samuel worked for her father's company, G.
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López, S.A., one of the largest in Colombia. As he talked, Samuel realized that he had never told anyone, even Blondell, so many private details. Of course, Blondell had lived most of them with him. After Blanca's death, Blondell asked Samuel to manage his campaign for the office of mayor. It was Arturo's way, Samuel told Siv, of distracting him from grief. Blondell's backers had protested. They saw in the gesture an admirable, but misguided attempt to help a friend who was a political novice. To everyone's surprise, Samuel had an aptitude for the work. The skills he had honed in construction paired with his natural calm translated well to the back door dealings of a campaign. Once Blondell won the mayor's office, Samuel felt as if he had built a bridge or a dam, something to serve millions and improve their lives. In other words, he believed in Arturo, he told Siv. Blondell was good for Colombia. "Then Blondell ran again, this time for governor. Well, we won. That very evening, Arturo told me of his plans for the presidency. I doubted him! But it was all he ever wanted." "And you?" Siv asked. "Well!" No one had ever asked him that question. So bold! Instead of talking over his stunned silence, she waited for his answer. To serve was a great honor, a prize, the culmination of a life, he thought. But of course, this was no reply. He felt his cheeks redden. He settled the half-empty flute on the grass and it tipped, spilling the wine. "I tell you, it seemed as if I had no choice. Blanca's death, my children. Really, Arturo saved my life. I was grateful. What would have become of me? There have been rewards – you know, the travel, accomplishing something, living abroad. But I have
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wondered what I would have become if things had gone differently. If we had never tried for another child." "Perhaps we would never have met," said Siv. She took his hand. Samuel touched her cheek. "I have not been this happy in a very long time." His reward for helping Blondell win the presidency was the Washington embassy. There, he had a large and capable staff, with schedulers and advisers and bodyguards and drivers and secretaries and protocol specialists. "Perhaps I am too old," he confessed. "But I am tired. All the scheming and the crisis, the hubbub. Sometimes, I will have my driver take me to the river where I walk and think. Not great thoughts, please! Just everyday thoughts about my life, my children. I think about birds, about the seasons. And whether my season has passed. Whether I should make way for the next generation." He stroked Siv's hand as he talked, but could not look her in the eye. Perhaps he had followed too blindly the aspirations of others. "I am talking too much. So how did a person such as yourself come to tackle the world's ills?" Behind them, the horses pulled at grass. Siv told him that her mother was a nurse who worked with the underground during the war. Once, she smuggled a wounded British spy to safety by driving him, beneath the floorboards of a school bus, to a small fishing village near Helsingborg, where he could be rowed to an American submarine. Her father, son of a fisherman, did the rowing. "So romantic!" Samuel said. "They married?" "Briefly. My father became a diplomat. My mother hated convention. I guess she was never
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happier than during the war. The life of a Swedish trade representative didn't suit. While my father was posted in Malaysia, she left him for a French rubber merchant. I was in boarding school by then. My father called us citizens of the air. When he died, I had to ask his new wife where he wanted to be buried. I should have guessed. She scattered his ashes off Gotland, where he had a summer house." The United Nations hired Siv straight out of Oxford as a management specialist. She found her calling organizing relief shipments. Her travels sounded like a modern version of Dante's Inferno: Cambodia, Honduras, Iraq. At Brookings, she was writing a manual for relief specialists. The idea was to try and foresee what kinds of crises would face the international community in twenty years. "By that time, the manual and I will be thoroughly obsolete," Siv said. "You have some of your mother's adventurous spirit. As well as, I imagine, your father's call to serve." "Do you suppose such things are genetic? Sometimes, I wonder if everything can be explained by proteins." Siv passed him an éclair. "But I think of myself more as a creature of circumstance. I met my husband, Matthew, in the peacekeeping office. And so my work gravitated to more than just emergencies. Emergencies in the midst of war. Trying to fix dinner while everyone is throwing plates. That's how I explained it to my son, John, when he was small. John is also a citizen of the air, though he flies from concert to concert. A drummer," Siv said wryly, "not a professional humanitarian like his mum." That evening, their hosts gave a cocktail party and dinner in their honor. By eleven, Samuel was
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paying for the riding with throbbing knees and a sharp twinge in his lower back that threatened to leave him prone for days. Excusing himself, he retired to his room and Vicodin and the heating pad in his roll away. This is age, he thought to himself. Thinking with such eagerness about a pain pill and silence, the feel of the heating pad's flannel cover against his aching disks. After he swallowed his dose and positioned the pad, Samuel waited for the pain to ebb. His thoughts were of Siv. Since Blanca's death, he had been with women. He enjoyed the company of women, more than the company of men. Women held his eyes, they saw things that escaped him, they rarely blustered. In politics, the definition of maleness was bluster, he had come to learn. But no one had moved him like Siv. He could feel her hand in his. And he felt dizzy with longing. Then the door opened: Siv, her lean thighs and waist illuminated by the hall light behind her and visible through her nightgown. She reached the bed and kissed him. She tasted of the cognac from their evening digestif and something else, a late fall flower. He kissed the curve of her breast. With his lips, he found a hollow at her breast bone, and she trembled. Samuel had never felt so alive. When he entered her, he felt the wetness of her pleasure and lost himself. No words, only caresses. After she returned to her room, he wondered if she had been there at all. Of course she had -- her smell clung to his skin. For his birthday, they spent a weekend in New York City. For Christmas, they booked a suite at the Hotel Eden. That was the first time Samuel has awakened to a weak sun over the Borghese Gardens, birds trilling in the top branches of the trees. Over coffee and pastries – and Siv's healthy
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cereal – he proposed. "You've given me new life," he said to her without preamble, "and I cannot go back to the way I was before I knew you. I can't bear another day without you." Siv agreed, on one condition. She would live with him anywhere he liked as long as she could come and go as her duties demanded. Though Samuel often thought about retiring, she had many years to go. Perhaps she would never retire, she said. "There is nothing else I want to do," she told him, "professionally, at least. No guilt, Samuel, no second thoughts. As long as we understand each other, I would be thrilled to be your wife." "I'll agree to that condition, and what's more, I'll say this," said Samuel. "We can live in the desert, if you want. We can live in the shadow of the U.N. in New York or in a refugee camp. Only be my wife. That's all I ask." In the end, the sky was their choice: a penthouse in Bogotá and Siv's Upper East Side condo, on the eighth floor. A family of red-tailed hawks nested in a specially-built nest one floor above, and over breakfast they often watched the parents come and go with food for their young. Siv owned her father's cabin on Gotland, but that was much too isolated for a permanent home. Nevertheless, Samuel made her promise to take him there some day and show him where she had spent her summers as a child. There, he would work on his life list of birds and even learn a little bit of Swedish. With her, he felt in charge of his life, perhaps for the first time. No longer the passenger of obligation, he chose his direction. And it was at her side. For the wedding in Bogotá, Pilar de Blondell filled a Club Country ballroom with cream-colored
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roses. She insisted on a Champagne selected by her sommelier, to be served in flutes with emerald stems and the presidential seal. Siv's wedding dress, a pale pink cashmere jacket over a matching floor-length silk skirt, was considered the fashion high point of the year's social events. Together, they chose their rings. Hers was a band of platinum mounted with a green emerald encircled by diamonds. His was a thicker band, with emeralds and diamonds laid like a miraculous pathway to happiness. The cold north matched to a stone extracted from his native mountains, enhanced by the African diamonds that to him symbolized Siv's work and her northern ancestry and his thrill at having her, at winning her, the treasure that was a second chance at life. There were surprises. Until they prepared the invitation list, he had not known that Siv's mother, the nurse, was also a countess. Siv was allergic to oil of bergamot, contained in citrus fruits, so could not drink the cocktails served at the wedding brunch. She was indifferent to pets. She preferred Chardonnay over Cabernet and cool jazz over classical. She loved grape lollipops. She kept them in the inner zip pocket of her briefcase, for when she was alone. Samuel had his own surprises. He was an accomplished dancer, chef and backgammon player. He loved dogs, but loved her more; there would be no pets in their new life. He disliked sports, but cultivated a knowledge of soccer and bicycling, so that he could converse with his colleagues over cigars or on the golf course, a game he loathed but played, for much the same reason. When alone, he often sang, in a reedy, though tuneful voice. He had a sharp memory for lyrics, but only up to the 1970s. He loved children, but feared them, a little. They were too frail, in his opinion, and had an altogether unreasonable power to cause happiness or great sadness, at times in quick succession. As
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a lover, Samuel was generous and playful, as much committed to her pleasure as his own. Early on, they established an easy compatibility in bed. Gone were the insecurities, the silences and vanities and the resentments that bedevil young lovers. Samuel studied her and learned; she was not perfect, but was perfectly herself. He loved every angle and dip. To her, his body was solid and joyful, and responded readily to her lips and hands and tongue. On all things having to do with the wedding itself, they came to speedy agreement. The wedding itself was performed by the judge who chaired the Constitutional Court. Only their children, the Blondells and Patricia, Blanca's sister, attended. Instead of a wedding dinner at the Museo Nacional, as Pilar had urged, Siv chose an afternoon reception to follow the ceremony, with her son's jazz band playing on the Club Country's broad lawn. That day, not a single cloud threatened the festivities, unusual for that time of year. President Blondell offered the first toast. "You may have imagined," he said, "that the reason for my last state visit to Washington had to do with important and highly secret matters of state and not the love life of my dear friend. But Samuel Moreno is a man who has earned his happiness." The Swedes mixed merrily with the Colombians. The assembled diplomatic corps, in saris and African head dresses and shalmar kameezes, gave the festivities the air of an international summit on some happy theme, like the end of poverty or universal literacy. John, Siv's son, even convinced Samuel's shy daughter to dance. From their table, Samuel and Siv, holding hands, watched his dreadlocks bounce as Claudia blushed and laughed and pushed up the bridge of her glasses to better see him do a twist. The reception was featured in ¡Hola! magazine. A columnist later referred to it as
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a high point of Blondell's term, when a bit of the world's glamour lent a glow to a country too often written off as violent and corrupt. In the photographs, the people looked happy, full of hope. There was life beyond the day's cruel headlines, the spread seemed to suggest. His was a life anyone might be pleased to call their own. # For Blondell, the honeymoon did not last. Within a month, a rebel offensive in the south dominated the headlines. A reporter discovered that an army unit deployed as part of the counteroffensive carried spoiled food and guns that jammed in the heat. Half of the soldiers died of food poisoning and the other half became the rebels' prisoners. The general in charge of procurement had, it turned out, spent Blondell's special war tax on whiskey tastings and strippers. The scandal spread when the general confessed to hiring his mistress's twin brother, a known drug trafficker, to provide the ready-to-eat meals. The meals were expired lots sold on the black market. The brother was found to have invested the war tax in a new fleet of minisubmarines that ran cocaine into the United States. And then September 11 arrived, that secret locomotive that knocked them all flat. Of course, there was no jihad in Colombia. The country faced the same scourges on September 12 as they had on September 10: poverty, drugs, inequality. Colin Powell, scheduled to arrive in Bogotá that day, instead flew home. Many of Blondell's hopes and Samuel's with them evaporated in Powell's jet trail: a more balanced relationship, investment in free trade, some perspective on the drug war. The great eye that was Washington and its coterie of media blinked , then focused elsewhere. Samuel could
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almost feel the ground heave as the great beast of a fresh war hatched beneath the concrete and grass of Dupont Circle. This world was no longer his to shape. The world had bested him. In defeat, what he wanted was Siv. Perhaps he could have peace and someday grandchildren, too. And his birds, They never failed to cheer him. He wrote his resignation in long hand. Personally, he tucked the envelope, addressed to "Arturo, Palacio Nariño," into the diplomatic bag. For his old friend, the worst was yet to come. His son, born the same month as Marco, was arrested aboard a yacht that ran aground on a popular beach near Barranquilla. A hotel waiter reported the cruiser as it lolled just shy of the outdoor dance floor, built on pilings over the surf. Below deck, police found empty vodka bottles rolling around the bodies of men sleeping in each other's arms. And boys, recruited from town. One of the men was Eduardo Blondell. Pale and chubby, at twenty-eight already balding, Eduardo left the local police station in an explosion of television lights. Several frames made the lead story of ¡Hola!: Eduardo hunched and with one shirt tail loose as he walked barefoot from the police station; Eduardo boarding a black sedan, his presidential bodyguards waving the cameras away, yet with smirks on their faces; Eduardo, puffyfaced, being rushed into the VIP area at the airport, before boarding a Miami flight. Perhaps only Samuel noticed the timing. The story about Eduardo was published six months to the day after Samuel's wedding to Siv. As Samuel later learned, Eduardo took a taxi from the Miami airport to the penthouse he shared with his wife and two children, shut the still-packed roll-away in the closet, then leapt twenty stories to his death.
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For three days, Blondell refused to leave his private office. The Venezuelan Defense Minister, in Bogotá for a meeting to calm perennial border tensions, left the presidential palace in a fury after waiting an hour for the president to emerge, as previously arranged, to hold a joint press conference. Though the Defense Minister was a known hot-head who had once punched a palace protocol aide, the incident threatened to tarnish Blondell's legacy and boil into a skirmish between the two armies, with who knew how many casualties. With Eduardo's funeral scheduled, Pilar asked Samuel to come to Bogotá and get her husband moving again. Samuel borrowed a jet from G. López, S.A. He flew from Washington at the suitably secret hour of 3 am. In the palace, he kissed Pilar. She was dry-eyed. Eduardo was her stepson. "This is no time for hysterics." Pilar wore a sequined red dress with a low neckline. Her new breasts preceded her like jellied desserts. She smelled of cigarettes and make up. "He needs to call Caracas. He needs to prepare for the summit, for God's sake. Sam, he needs to get up and be a man or Fernández will be eating his balls for breakfast!" Fernández was a popular governor running for president against Blondell's hand-picked successor. In Arturo's private office, cigar smoke lay in thick coils on the desk. A case displayed the antique wind-up toys that Arturo had started collecting as a teenager. The jewel was a merry-go-round that lit up and played Bavarian waltzes. Samuel had seen Blondell, in the midst of the chaos of his political campaigns, wind the merry-go-round and stare as the fantastical giraffes and elephants and zebras orbiting the central axis, sprockets silent on a skin of machine oil.
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"Old friend." Samuel sat heavily. He did not have a single word prepared beyond their usual greeting. Samuel heard, faintly, car horns from beyond the palace gates. "Maricón," said Blondell, as if spitting a seed. The lines in his face looked chiseled from stone. "Faggot." "Arturo. You are not yourself." Blondell peered at Samuel through the smoke. "My son was a filthy faggot." "Eduardo was a good boy." "Don't ever say that name to me again." Blondell crushed his cigar on the desk top. Without another word, he walked out. At the Roman café, Samuel doodled on a napkin as he recalled his wedding day. It had been a wonderful ceremony, a wonderful reception and a wonderful honeymoon. Siv took to Colombia with an openness that left him surprised and relieved. When she pronounced herself charmed, he laughed out loud. Was that his mistake, to display so openly his happiness? Before his marriage to Siv, he had been a public figure, of course, known for his closeness to Blondell. But his private life had never been so on display. As he sipped espresso, Samuel wondered if it would have been wiser to marry in Stockholm or Washington. Then the reception would have merited perhaps a line in the "Diplomatic Dispatches" column in the Washington Post. A mention in the International Herald Tribune, which only his fellow "citizens of the air" read. Not ¡Hola! Not the lead story on the night's news and a special report during a Sunday variety show and full spreads in the newspapers, not just the serious ones,
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but the ones whose every day headline was a naked woman. Not articles read by every bored teenaged girl and scruff-bearded would-be terrorist south of the Panama Canal. In the photos, Siv looked elegant and serene and he looked like a man who had just realized his most cherished dream. The U.S. Ambassador and her husband attended along with the chief executive officer of the country's largest soft drink company (Samuel's cousin by marriage to Blanca), a former Miss Colombia, several soap opera actors (Marco's friends), political leaders and the publisher and editor-in-chief of the country's most influential newspaper. His wedding to Siv, not his role as ambassador, made him a figure of new interest in Colombia, he was sure of it. After Samuel retired, he resumed his duties as CEO of G. López, S.A., the firm founded by Blanca's father. He put Marco in charge of the family ranch. Marco began testmarketing extracts taken from certain trees native to the plains, for beauty products. One he marketed to perfumers as "Siv," a citrus-like extract that did not contain oil of bergamot. Marco switched the cattle to grass feed and imported Canadian semen that produced a variety of lean beef prized by fine restaurants. The plan was, within five years, for Samuel to retire fully and for Marco to assume control of the firm. Then the letter arrived. That day, Evelia, Samuel's secretary, knocked on his office door. Samuel worked on the top floor of the Banco Litoral, the jewel of G. López, S.A. At that moment, a thunderstorm was receding to the west. Lightning bolts flashed against a black curtain of rain. At his feet, the city looked washed and people crowded the streets. A red-tailed hawk flew near enough for Samuel to make out
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something clutched in its talons: a grey pigeon. Evelia handed him an express delivery marked "Personal." The letter read:
SAMUEL ELÍAS MORENO CAMPO: It is our desire that this communication finds you well. We address you on behalf of the 53rd Front of the People's Army. In 2002 the People's Army implemented Law 002, which requires all Colombians with assets over U.S. $1 million to pay a TAX FOR PEACE. The war that the government is waging on the people is the cause of this demand. That war is paid for by multinational corporations and Yankee imperialism. Therefore, we must have money in order to guarantee the objectives of the New Colombia. You will be contacted by our representative who will give instructions on how to deliver this TAX FOR PEACE. Any attempt to contact the authorities will result in a RETENTION and an increase in the TAX FOR PEACE. Do not think of leaving Colombia. We know where your family is. With respect, Comandante Tigre, 53rd front, People's Army "With Bolívar, for peace and national sovereignty" Mountains of Colombia
"Díos mío," said Samuel, sinking to a chair. "Call Franco, my dear." The Tiger was the rebel commander who ruled the heights above the capital. He specialized in kidnapping and extracting fat ransoms from the families of his hostages, used to buy what the rebels needed to wage war. Immediately, Samuel's thoughts leapt to the press coverage of his marriage. He had made a spectacle of himself. He had preened. Siv was as luminous as an angel. Now, they wanted to make him pay.
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Franco arrived. The head of security, he was a retired army colonel with a square, deeply lined face pinned in place by a rectangular mustache. The mustache shape was unfortunate, Hitlerian, but unavoidable. During one fight with the rebels, Franco had been splashed with flaming propane from a homemade bomb. Hair no longer grew on his face except where a broken chin strap from his helmet had shielded his upper lip. After reading the letter, Franco asked for authorization to bring in four new people – a woman, Delia, to accompany Siv, two additional bodyguards for Samuel and Danilo, a new driver for Samuel's car. Danilo was an expert in defensive driving and had once worked for Exxon's Colombia office. "If we must," Samuel said. "That is just for today," Franco replied. "By tomorrow, I will have a more complete plan." "What more can we do?" "Comandante Tigre does not make idle threats. He took Julia Rivera, whose father owns Postobón beverage company. That cost $2 million, I heard. He took Senator Loiaza, may he rest in peace. Prevention is our best strategy." "I'm not paying the son of a whore," said Samuel. "They'll just come back again, to get more." "Correct. Then we must have a plan." As ambassador, Samuel had given dozens of speeches about how Blondell's government was defeating the rebels. Although the pain of the families of hostages grieved him, he would say, there could be no ransoms paid to criminals. Only by working together, as Colombians, could they end
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this scourge, he would conclude (to great applause, generally). What he said was hypocritical, but unavoidable. Once rebels took a hostage, people paid. Everyone knew this. "Cock suckers," Samuel muttered. For once, his life had been his own. No criminal would rob that from him. Marco agreed to curtail his trips to the ranch. Claudia had just started working for the U.N. World Food Program in Sierra Leone and was therefore beyond the Tiger's grasp. Siv agreed to a bodyguard. But Samuel saw that this development frightened her. "This is temporary," he told her, "a precaution." Franco, who had come with Delia, did not correct him. At first, Franco's plan seemed to work. There was no unusual activity around the apartment or at Samuel's office. Marco made a single, well-protected visit to the ranch, to fire an administrator who was stealing calves. Marco already knew who he would bring in as a replacement: Abram, the son of the former ranch administrator and the boy Marco had always played with when Samuel brought his children there in the summers. At the apartment, Siv wrote the relief manual. In the evenings, she and Samuel dined at home and read, mercifully free of the social engagements that once dominated their schedules. The isolation was not a burden; solitude drew them closer. They were happy. Samuel teased that it took a calamity like a kidnapping threat to get her to travel less. This was the closest he ever came to violating the agreement not to pressure her to curtail her trips and spend more time at home.
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"Don't make light," Siv said. She was looking at the police car now permanently parked at the corner of their cul-de-sac. The cul-de-sac had been a safety feature touted by their real estate broker, but Siv had never imagined that it was a serious consideration. Her Chardonnay sat untouched on the drinks cart. "My darling." From behind, Samuel kissed the nape of her neck. "This cannot last." # Once a month, Samuel spoke on the telephone with his daughter. He told her nothing of the threat or Franco's plan. What would be the point? Their conversations were difficult enough, with silences and descriptions of the weather. She arrived during the harmattan, she told him, which blew African dust as far west as Brazil. She was fine, she told him. Work was fine. In her tone, he searched for evidence of illness. Several months after September 11, Claudia suffered a breakdown while studying in New York. The city was in shock, of course. Also, she may have felt abandoned by Marco, who was preoccupied by business affairs. Samuel had his new wife. A week after Claudia stopped answering the telephone, Samuel asked Siv to join him to go see his daughter. At LaGuardia, a blackened rind of snow along the freeway was all that remained of a blizzard. In the taxi, Samuel tried to picture his daughter amid a pile of papers and books in her kitchen, too busy to answer the telephone. Or out of town with a lover. Or house-sitting for a friend. Marco had his mother's looks, and Claudia her passions, which could drive her into black moods. How curious, thus portioning out of traits, like slices of pie! Her lips were her grandfather's, old López himself.
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On him, his lips, full and deeply bowed, became symbols of great appetite, for meat and rum and fruits just at the point of ripeness. But the same shape on Claudia worked differently. Bitten and pale lips meant inner strife. Red meant joy. She knew this, so used lipstick not to accentuate her mouth, but to mask it, concealing her true feelings. A student let them into her building. The halls reeked of old laundry and disinfectant and tortilla chips. Claudia lived on the 15th floor. There was no answer when Samuel knocked. He tried again and again, then did not pause. A boy with uncombed hair peered out of the apartment next door. "She won't come out," he said sleepily. Music thumped from his apartment. "I have the manager's number, if you want. He's a cripple. He's usually home." The building manager limped toward them with a ring of keys jangling on his belt. Samuel recognized the accent: Belfast. The manager's face had been burned so badly that he no longer had a nose or ears. "Normally," he said, "I would need authorization. But the lads have been talking. No one has seen the lady for a week." Inside, the rooms had a stale, stifled smell. Indian-print bed covers were stapled over the windows. The rooms were suffused with light filtered through their dyes: indigo, maroon and a deep, hunter green. In the shadows, Samuel saw two folding chairs, a table and couch. "¿Hija? Soy tu papá. Hija mía, ¿Dónde estás?" My daughter, where are you? On the couch, a heap of what looked like laundry shifted. At least, that was Samuel's impression. Like tendrils of a vine, Claudia's arms rose. Her forearms were scored by angry red lines, some
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scabbed and others still moist with blood. Her eyes were hooded, her hair a dense, dull mat. And her lips? Drained and cracked, like husks. The building manager called 911. The emergency room doctor reported that Claudia weighed ninety pounds. She was severely dehydrated. And the cuts, Samuel asked. What disease could possible produce them? The cuts she had made herself, the doctor answered. "Ritual cutting," he called it, like part of some obscure religion. The ailment was found especially among young women. "Self-mutilation, related to low self-esteem. Not unknown," he added, clicking his pen. The good news was that the cuts were shallow and not infected. He prescribed an I.V. and a sedative. Later, she would see the psychiatrist. An attendant wheeled her gurney into a hallway to await a room upstairs. Samuel encircled Claudia's head with one arm as she slept. He stroked her cheek. She had plucked and shaved her face clean of hair, from her eyebrows and eyelashes to the beautiful bow of her upper lip, almost white and with only the merest suggestion of color. She looked, in fact, like a store mannequin, oddly beautiful and serene. Cold air pushed at the sheet that covered her emaciated legs. They too were hairless, like sticks. Claudia shivered and moaned. Siv laid her overcoat over Claudia's legs. There were purple scars on the insides of her thighs – healed but still visible, like the lashes of a tiny whip. Afterwards, when Claudia was well again, Samuel probed for an explanation. He got only a shake of the head. She would not look him in the eye, but kissed his cheek and squeezed his hand. "It's
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past," she said, "and over. Nothing to worry about, any more." In matters of the heart, his daughter was a foreign country to him. Let her have her secrets, he thought. Of course, he had his own. # Delia, the bodyguard Franco hired to protect Siv, reminded him a bit of Claudia. Like her, she was petite, black-haired, not striking but pleasant to look at, someone you might notice at a party and want to meet. Though Delia was clearly skilled, she also had a way about her, an ease, that disguise her true function. Samuel remarked on this to Franco. A casual observer might mistake Delia, who now escorted Siv to and from the vehicles that had to take them everywhere, for a niece or devoted student. "Delia may seem like a girl," Franco said, "but she is the best on our team. As a police officer, she brought in some of the most dangerous pistoleros in the south. One of her superiors was selling them information. He set her up. She almost died. I met her in the rehabilitation center when I was recovering. She'd been shot in the hip and needed a replacement, among other things. She can never have children." Delia was the first to notice small changes around the apartment building. A new fruit seller seemed less interested in papayas than taking notes when Samuel's car came and went. The same taxi driver cruised the street, never picking up a fare. A couple unknown to the doorman posed for photographs at the apartment entrance, then walked on.
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Franco hired two more guards. Increasingly, Samuel stayed at home, trusting Evelia to run things at the office. Then came the evening when Samuel and Siv were to meet friends for dinner at the Club Country. Three blocks from the apartment, a Ford Explorer cut in front of their Mercedes. Then it stopped, blocking the street. As the Explorer's passenger doors opened, Danilo gunned the Mercedes over a median strip. The vehicle shot into oncoming traffic. Car horns blared and two cars hit each other as they veered, missing the Mercedes by centimeters. Danilo wrenched the steering wheel, and the Mercedes sped into a side street. While this was happening, Franco, in the passenger seat, pulled the shotgun from the mount, cocked it and aimed at the Explorer. But there was no time to fire. When they reached the nearest police station, Franco discovered a flattened bullet lodged in the shattered socket of the passenger side mirror. None of them had even heard the shot. That evening, Samuel, Siv and Franco spoke at the apartment. Siv was grim-faced. "The options are these." Franco ticked them off on his fingers. "Increase the security detail again, this time with outriders for yourself, your wife and Marco. You must also curtail your activities and cancel travel outside the city or to locations other than the bank or the residence or the Club. There can be no fixed schedule. There can be no public appearances. Two, leave the country. Of the two options, only the second is guaranteed." Samuel did not want to leave Colombia. Fleeing felt like cowardice or disloyalty, neither one, he felt, vices of his. "And Marco?" "He should leave, too. And of course, Mrs. Moreno," Franco added, meaning Siv.
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"How long?" Franco shook his head. "Truthfully, it may be a period without a defined end. That is, return will be a matter of judgment, not certainty. We must lower your profile and lower that of your family. Return is a matter of risk evaluation. When is the risk acceptable?" The next day, Samuel, Siv and Marco met for an early lunch at the Club Country. Samuel and Siv arrived in a new, bullet-proof Suburban lent by the American ambassador, with Franco again in the passenger seat. Two bullet-proof Explorers preceded them and two pick up trucks carrying police in full battle gear followed. Marco drove his red Lexus LX470. He arrived without bodyguards. Samuel was furious. Siv stayed at the table as he led his son to the outdoor patio. Black grills sat shrouded in plastic to ward off the clinging mist. A security guard with a German Shepherd patrolled among the eucalyptus trees that grew on the hillside shielding the club from the shanties beyond. His son's resemblance to Blanca was striking. Her high cheekbones and green eyes rimmed in black. The dark eyebrows and perfect nose, which took his face beyond handsome into stunning. Her ease and confidence. Her arrogance. Marco lit a cigarette. "What do you mean by this?" Samuel said through clenched teeth. "How careless! If not for yourself, then for your family. ¡Por dios! We spend a fortune on security. Must we also spend a fortune giving these criminals money to rescue you?" "Papá," Marco said, "please calm yourself. I gave the guards the day off, that's all. I drove from
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the office to the club. It's the best-guarded road in Colombia. Nothing will happen." "Are you mad? Do you not read the newspaper? Did you not hear what happened to me?" Samuel could recite case by case how people had been snatched from cars, beauty salons, church. They were pulled from their bodyguards – or carried over their dead bodies. They were taken from their beds. As Samuel looked at his only son, so self-assured, he felt a wave of nausea. "We must treat this as a business issue," Samuel said, willing himself to speak calmly. "This is an issue we must resolve as partners. What is the best course? There are serious financial implications that I expect you to recognize from a business point of view." Suddenly, Samuel found himself regretting his wedding to Siv. Not the pledge, but the ceremony. A slap in the face, a challenge. He steadied himself against a grill. Now, he was paying the price. Marco agreed, again, to follow Franco's orders. He would go to Miami, stay in the company apartment. They embraced. Yet Samuel knew that his son could not be trusted on this. He would simply more carefully hide his risky behavior. Samuel realized that what he and Franco could do to protect his son was limited. Ultimately, he had to trust in Marco's judgment. He had raised the boy to be a man. Now, he would see what sort of man Marco had become. "You have been working too hard," Siv said to Samuel when he and Marco joined her at the table. "Why not make a return trip to Italy? Miami is too crowded this time of year. You talk about Rome, but never make the time to go. This is providential. You could spend some time there, perhaps drive to the ocean. You could start your memoirs." Musicians played in the private dining area. The guitars filled Samuel with nostalgia. He did not
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run from danger. Never! But there was his family to consider. Why not Italy? He could manage his affairs long distance. Evelia did much of the day-to-day work, anyway. Marco was ready to move up. As long as his family was safe, perhaps he should see this as an unexpected gift. Siv had already accepted a spring residency at the Carter Center in Atlanta, where she would complete the manual revisions. Then she would join him. Her aunt, the countess, had left her a palazzo in Venice, which she wanted to sell. If they tired of Rome's heat, they could live there for a time. Like so many writers before him, Samuel could find inspiration in the city's twisting passageways, a metaphor for a full and well-spent life. The approach was vintage Siv: to take something awful and examine it carefully, find what was not so bad and then work it until the awful thing had been robbed of its curse. Samuel had a different approach to adversity. He ignored it, until it was too late and had somehow changed his life, for good or for ill. He preferred not to dwell at what was wrong but hope for the best. He relied on fate; she drove it, like a sailboat set to the day's winds. While waiting for Siv in Rome, he had plenty of time to mull their differences. He came to see this as preparation, for the opening chapter of his memoirs. "A Colombian Education," he thought of calling his book, or "A Colombian Abroad." Suitably literary, but not quite right. As he walked the streets with his Collins guide, he tried to order his memories and think back on the decisions that had shaped his life. The birds, with their foraging and clownish antics, created in him a kind of peace. The central event in his life, at least as an adult, was clear: Blanca's death. He was left bereft, with two small children. Like a wind, her death propelled him into politics. Or an earthquake? That
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was more of a Colombian metaphor, since the shaking of the Andes was a frequent motor of events. He would have to think more about metaphors. Patricia, Blanca's eldest sister, took charge of the children, choosing their nannies and boarding schools. Perhaps a better way of describing this period in his life was a storm, since it was large and had contrary, confusing winds. So much of what had happened only came clear to him much later, revealed across a clearing horizon. He made a note of these thoughts on his pad of paper: storm, winds, earthquake, clearing. These were images that would help him connect with readers. After making his scheduled call to Marco, Samuel planned to walk across the gardens to the Villa Giulia and visit its Etruscan art collection. He was fascinated by the Etruscan aesthetic, those stark faces, all planes and squares. They had none of the softness or tonality of the Renaissance. For lunch, he was to meet the Costa Rican ambassador, Garrido, a friend. Samuel finished the espresso, then pressed the key that automatically dialed Marco's apartment. The answering machine picked up. Marco normally answered on the first ring. Samuel tried the cell phone. There was a click, then a recorded voice. The customer was not available. Samuel redialed the apartment. This time, he heard a whistling sound, as if the call had been launched into space. He tried the cell phone again and left a message. Samuel stared at the telephone. Perhaps Marco was sleeping in. He signaled for the check. Samuel took a long and pleasant stroll through the Borghese Gardens. He rested occasionally, taking out the Collins guide and leafing through it, as if trying to identify the birds pecking the
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stones before him. This was a ruse. The birds were common as dirt. But old men with books could observe others without causing offense. Samuel watched courting couples and mothers with their children and anxious tourists and office workers, telefonino pressed to their ears. When had these devices become so necessary, Samuel wondered. Only old people and the smallest children seemed to notice the birds, miracles of energy and persistence. Certainly, in his former life, he would never have paused to examine them. At the Etruscan museum, Samuel became so absorbed that he arrived late at Ferrara's for lunch. Arriving, he saw Garrido's black sedan parked at the entrance. "Morenito!" Despite the March chill, Garrido sat at a table in the back patio. Once handsome and fit as a tennis player, he had softened with age, like a smudged portrait of himself. A lock of black hair – dyed, though Garrido was still a youngish man – curled over his forehead. "I thought I had lost you to the pleasures of this temptress city." "Old bones," Samuel said. He knew Garrido from various summits and conferences,. He considered him a protégé. "They move slowly. Garrido, how is the family?" "Expensive." Garrido ordered a Scotch to replace the one he finished. Samuel ordered mineral water. Garrido had news. He was finishing his tour. Rather than return to San José, he was resigning and planned to accept a job at a Washington lobbying firm. His wife and four girls were already installed in Chevy Chase. "I can't afford public service, my friend. It's got me by the fucking balls. Marlena's father," he said, lowering his voice, "had to lend me money for girls' tuition. He'll take his
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payment in blood." Samuel remembered Garrido's wife, Marlena, a plump woman who bore her husband's infidelities without complaint. Garrido would not leave her; he couldn't afford it. The girls were carbon copies of their mother: soft and plump as meringue cookies. "So Washington! Tell me something. Did the gringos drive you mad?" "There is much to admire there and much to fear," Samuel answered. "The problem is not so much what they do, but when they choose to do nothing. They are a great baby, full of promise and energy, but greedy and unaware of the harm they do. They shit where they shit. Someone else cleans up. Getting them to listen, to pay attention. That will be your challenge." Samuel ordered pasta tossed with squash flowers. Garrido sipped the Scotch. "You are not eating?" Garrido patted his belly. "No lactose, no gluten, no red meat. The cook makes broth." With Johnny Walker? But Garrido was not his child. Samuel asked after mutual friends. They spoke of the things that preoccupied the Latin diplomatic corps – trade talks, shifts at the Organization of American States, a recent upheaval in the Mexican cabinet. Divorces and new liaisons. The waiter delivered Samuel's pasta. "What do you know about Fausto?" Garrido asked. Fausto had been a vice-minister of agriculture before Blondell sent him as ambassador to Italy. The day Fausto presented his credentials, however, the Guardian published an article purportedly
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linking his family to a massacre. The article asserted that Fausto's ranch administrator had hired gunmen to force squatters from a family ranch. Several adults were beheaded, apparently a message to the other squatters to flee before they suffered the same fate. A prosecutor filed charges, accusing Fausto of paying the gunmen in cattle and cocaine. Then the prosecutor was murdered. "Bad business," said Samuel, shaking his head. The squash blossoms were especially pleasing, still firm and bright orange. "Blondell knew nothing." "Of course. But is it true?" "I prefer to let the justice system pronounce." "¡Coño! It's me you're talking to! Is it true what they say? About the drugs?" Garrido's face had a sickly sheen. Was that his third Scotch? During the exhumation at Fausto's ranch, police discovered air strips apparently used to land planes that flew cocaine into the United States. Fausto denied any knowledge, but Samuel knew that the Americans were upset. Bad business! Samuel steered clear of such things. So many people he knew had dipped into this poisoned well, thinking they would be the exceptions, they would elude the consequences. They took precautions, or so they thought. At least, he could say with a clear conscience that he had never been tempted. He kept his nose clean. That was the way to put it to Garrido. "You have to keep your nose clean, Garrido. It's the best advice I can give you." "Coño," Garrido repeated, this time in a whisper. Cunt. His elbow bumped the poached pears Samuel had ordered as dessert. The plate smashed to the red stones of the patio. Samuel glanced up
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to see if others had noticed. But he and Garrido were alone. The waiter cleaned up the mess. Alone again, Samuel grasped Garrido's shoulder. "Panchito, what is the matter?" Garrido's faced was greenish. Sweat beaded between his brows. Samuel handed him a napkin. "Hombre, are you unwell?" "It's just that I have some interests. Some business. If the fucking gringos find out. Fucking gringos!" "Garrido, tell me you haven't made investments." That was the code, a share of a cocaine shipment. Garrido couldn't have been that stupid, Samuel thought. Garrido covered his face with his hands. "It was the money! The fucking private school, the orthodontist, the riding lessons, the house at Mal País. Sidwell fucking Friends, Morenito! And then there was Marlena's fucking by-pass." "Her heart?" Garrido wiggled his empty Scotch glass at the waiter. "The fat operation, where they staple your stomach. She's a fucking cow, my friend. A $24,000 cow, that's the least of it. First, I was the authorized sperm donor for the familia Azuleta, S. A. and now I'm a bloody cash machine." "Garrido, you must take care." Garrido shook his head. "Too late! Her father will have my balls for this." "Her father? This could mean an American prison, my friend." Tears slid down Garrido's cheeks, thick as oil. "Help me. You must make some calls. Find out what they have. Fucking gringos! It will be my balls!"
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"We must get you cleaned up." "Promise, Morenito." Samuel had no intention of making calls. If Garrido was involved, he had to pay the price. Samuel could not risk his own reputation. After all, it was one of the most precious things a man could leave his children. "Listen, I have to go." This was a lie, but he wanted to get away from Garrido. He would have to tell Evelia never to accept another appointment with the man. What if Interpol already had him under surveillance? Samuel again scanned the patio. The winter chill had confined diners to the restaurant's warm interior. But the windows were polarized. He could not see inside. Who watched them? Samuel called for the bill and an espresso for Garrido. "Your best bet is to approach them first," he said, putting on his hat. "Impossible, Morenito. Think of the scandal. My girls." Samuel feared he would weep again, but Garrido was dry-eyed. "The things we do for them! How is Marco, by the way?" "Fine, busy." Samuel snapped his credit card on the bill tray without looking at the amount. A quick exit was worth any overcharge. "Thanks be to God." The waiter returned with the espresso. Garrido sipped it. Then he began to nod, as if coming to some conclusion. "I saw him recently, you know. In Panama. He looked well." "Panama?" Marco hadn't mentioned a trip. Samuel stood. He embraced Garrido with a brisk pat on the back.
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"My friend," said Garrido, "my apologies. I did not intend." "Think no more on it," Samuel interrupted. "My best to Marlena." They walked together to Garrido's car. The driver had the heater on high. A man's reputation was more precious than diamonds, Samuel thought. That was also something he often said to Marco. He softened a bit toward his friend. The man was in trouble, after all. In the morning, Samuel would ask Evelia to set up a call with a friend at the Justice Department. The least he could do was tell Garrido that they might be willing to cut a deal. And that would be the end of it, at least as far as Samuel was concerned. As he waved at the receding tail lights, Samuel decided: I will wash my hands of the man. He hailed a taxi. Marco in Panama, how curious. Had Garrido meant to suggest something, some business? He could not mean that Marco had also made investments. He had no need to. The essence business was booming. Just then, his telephone vibrated. Marco's number. Samuel would ask him about Panama. But the voice was not his son's. "Ambassador, I saw your number on Mr. Moreno's telephone." Franco, from Bogotá. "Yes?" "There has been a development. Marco is alive." "What?" "There was an incident." This was Franco's term for something that was no accident. "He was returning home after a late dinner. He was in the Lexus. Alone. He chose not to use a driver. We
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followed him." "Dios mío." "I saw them cut him off. The operation was well-planned. The street was narrow and he could not turn. They had been waiting. Señor Moreno often took that route." Routine, Franco had repeatedly told them, was lethal as a bomb. "Sir, I was able to intervene. But Marco was hit." "How badly?" "Sir, he is through the worst. A bullet grazed his heart. Another broke his shoulder. He's pretty scraped up. He lost a lot of blood, but we were able to get him to the clinic in time." "Is he conscious?" Samuel heard a muffled sound as Franco lowered the telephone to his chest. He spoke with someone. Then his voice became clear again. "Sir, he is not conscious. They sedated him. The doctor says he is under observation while they plan the next surgery." "I will be on the next flight," said Samuel. "Evelia will let you know. Please meet me at the airport." "Sir, it is not wise." "How many were there?" "Five. Four men and a woman." "A woman?" "She was with him earlier. In the hotel."
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"Dios mío." Samuel's thoughts raced. Claudia would insist on returning to Colombia to be with Marco. Her presence would only whet the Tiger's appetite. The Tiger had made his move. Now Samuel would make his. He had to protect his family. But how? "Ambassador, I must repeat. It is not wise," Franco was saying. "The decision is made. Were any caught?" "We got two." Siv would have to go to Claudia. He was asking a lot, but Siv would understand. Under no circumstances was she to go to her brother. Only in that way could he keep her safe. "And the two?" "A woman and one of the pistoleros. A boy by the looks of it." "And?" "Sir, the situation was resolved on the spot. There won't be any questions. Self-defense, returning fire." "Good," said Samuel savagely. Franco was a man he could trust.
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Freetown, Sierra Leone
Before anyone else arrived at the office, Teresa Turay wiped the night's dust from the desks and chairs and books and bound reports and the fax machine and the plastic-shrouded printer and the computer monitors and their keyboards. Since Advent, the harmattan had come twice. Filled with Sahara sand and street grit, the winds closed the city under a lid the color of an old pan. When her pastor told Teresa that men came from dust and to dust would return, she wanted to shout, "We are dust, we women. Picking up after you, laboring to keep you fed and clean! Arranging for you and doing for you." She didn't, of course. Speaking that way in a house of worship was unseemly, even if she spoke God's truth. Teresa prayed as hard as anyone. When the time came to sing, she did not hold back. She clapped and danced, loving God. At these moments, letting her body and voice loose on the world, she felt closest to Him. How she longed for the rains! Teresa measured out coffee. Claudia liked a cup first thing in the morning. Claudia Moreno was Teresa's fifth office director, sent by New York to administer feeding programs. The directors tended to be young, idealistic, full of energy. At first, at least. It was as if they had never realized before the breadth of the world's misery. Or evil's grasp. Idealism is the locomotive that drags behind it outrage, then frustration (at the powerful, at the immensity, at their
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supervisors and underlings and finally at the very people needing help), then despair and finally detachment, the soothing caboose. Some left international work, others sent fresh recruits to fill their old jobs in the field. Their idealism was ash, the sauce-specked dregs of the fire. How could she explain it? They thought the world should be made for them, for their ease. Eventually, they turned petulant as toddlers and anxious for home. "Titi," she whispered as she filled the carafe with purified water. This was her nickname, thought up by her father when she was small. A scrap of hair and skin and bone, her aunt told her, weak as a chick. Titi, the sound a ground thrush makes tidying its nest. Today, she was bitter as yesterday's brew. The office director before Claudia, Michel, arrived bursting with energy and ideas, a great locomotive of plans and promises. He had a long, angular face and grey hair. When he looked at her, she felt like a secret garden of delights. He had not come to Sierra Leone for lamentations, but to grab up the world's choice offerings. So what if they came sunk in the stink and the muck of Teresa's country? Food tasted better, the water was sweeter, the air perfumed. Or so Michel said as he seduced her. All of what he seemed to want lay within her skin. He called himself a treasure-hunter, a connoisseur of pleasure. When he kissed her, she tingled to her fingertips. She was fascinated by them together, his pale, freckled skin against her sleek blackness. Teresa kept her hair in long, thin braids glossed with spray. She would put one body part next to him as he slept – a knee beside his leg, a finger on his shoulder, one braid coiled on his white belly, roast plums on a butter crust. When they made love, Michel would not release her eyes. She wondered if he believed that with his gaze he
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could grasp the pearl of her soul, then take it for himself. No, her soul had not been so hard then. With him, her soul had been soft as a rose, a fragrant black rose, rarest of the rare. Teresa would urge him deeper, where she felt her own pleasure rising. Against her thighs, his sweat glistened as if the very color of his skin rubbed off. He said that sweat made her look like a marble statue. Venus, he called her. Goddess. "Hmph." As the coffee brewed, Teresa allowed herself a shrug. She was a goddess, perhaps, but one with a low opinion of men. By the time Michel told her he was leaving Freetown for New York, she no longer slept with him. Even during their affair, Teresa had no illusions. She could not leave her home. Michel would not stay. What she had first admired in him, his hunger for pleasure, was in the end poison between them. Now, Michel was a voice and a face she occasionally heard on the telephone or saw on the television or heard on the radio. He was an adventurer, her Aunt Princess said. A pursuer of untasted fruits. The he tossed the rinds. Even as Teresa felt her irritation with Michel rise on its track, like one of the ski lifts she had once glimpsed on holiday, she saw it for what it was, frustration and loneliness and the knowledge that, without her, he would not have received his promotion to New York. He had used her like a donkey to do the heavy lifting. What had she expected of him, anyway? Not a husband, certainly, nor a friend. Perhaps it was only that Michel had gotten the better of her. He won their peculiar contest. Once a month at least, Michel had left her for conferences on subjects like "challenges and strategies," "talking across communities," "contradictory or complementary?" Once, he attended a
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conference on Islamic fundamentalism and its effect on Sierra Leone, a topic that made Teresa sputter with irritation. "Poppycock!" she said after reading the agenda. The conference was in Florence, at a private villa that advertised a heated pool, 24-hour masseuse and three-star restaurant. He rubbed her feet as they lay in bed. The heat seemed to pull the very breath from her lungs. She had not a stitch on. "It's a real issue, Teresita. Everything has changed." "What is outside this window is remarkably like it was the day you arrived," said Teresa testily. "I never knew you to be a man of fashion. The four horsemen ride these streets as hard as they have since the first slave ship docked at Bunce Island." "Things have changed in New York," Michel insisted. "I see. They've changed, in other words. So we must. Thus has it always been written." Teresa tried to rise from the bed, but Michel pulled her back, kissing her hand and then her elbow and then the curve between her shoulder and neck. "This is simply a vacation that is paid for by money that should go to those who suffer." "Terry, it is my job." His job description said nothing about Tuscany. She knew; she had written it. "Palaver. That's what Princess would say." "Princess, palaver, poppycock," replied Michel. "How I miss my pasta, Terry! I would take you with me if I could." "That is not what I want." Was it? No, she said to herself. It had never been what she wanted.
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For a time, she believed she wanted him. She wanted what she was with him, a woman whose pleasure was his particular interest. A woman of the world. A woman with prospects. As she looked at his face, she realized that she had lost her taste for him entirely. He had left her behind, a husk peeled of its sweet, black fruit. "Go to your conference and eat your pasta." When he returned, their affair was over. # Teresa had never wanted to make her life in Sierra Leone. Even as a girl, she read her history books like guides to the most fascinating and beautiful places to live. In high school, she won a scholarship to study nursing in Ireland. While there, she settled on Florida as her eventual home: warm, with beautiful beaches and hotels and a high demand for nursing professionals. She could write her own ticket. A month before graduation, a Miami plastic surgeon offered her a signing bonus of $10,000. She returned the contract via express mail the very same day. That night, Teresa dreamed that she lived in one of those apartments featured in airport magazines, with modern furniture and calla lilies in long glass vases and glass walls looking over a blue sea. Not the muddy mangroves of Freetown. Not surf bubbling with filth, the roots of the mangroves gnarled and coated in slime. The first thing she planned to buy with that $10,000 was a pair of Louboutin high heels. When she closed her eyes, she could see and hear herself walking on the smooth surfaces of America's health care establishments: with a click click click and the bottom of the heels, as anyone who kept up with fashion knew, a bright, blood red. But the day Teresa graduated, her Aunt Princess called. Esther, Teresa's mother, had suffered a
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stroke. Instead of Miami, Teresa flew to Freetown. Her mother needed her; that was that. Her plans were postponed. A week later, she interviewed with the World Food Program. The director hired her on the spot. There were no high heels in her closet today. Teresa wore khaki slacks that hid stains and thicksoled shoes that could be scrubbed of the muck that packed the tread. To think she had once imagined herself in lime green and tangerine, in skirts that had never formally met her knees! Tops that left bare her arms, toned now by lifting sacks of corn-soya blend. Teresa's job was to get food deliveries off the ships (including during the frequent dock worker strikes), released from customs (with bribes to her cousin's husband, who ran the head office) and onto the trucks (paid with sacks of salt and rice and drums of cooking oil skimmed from the shipment and recorded as "lost in transit"). During the day, Princess fed and tended Esther. On the nights that she was home, Teresa pushed her mother's wheelchair to the television set. The rabbit ear antennae, over time adjusted and adorned with aluminum foil and paper clips, worked like charms to draw a signal. Together, Teresa, Princess and Esther watched the news and then 'Atunda Ayenda,' a soap opera. After that, Teresa bathed her mother and massaged her and bent her legs, willing movement back. But her mother's limbs were dry reeds. She would not dance again. She would not walk again. Esther weighed less than eighty pounds. A sack of rice. Two jumbo cans of vegetable oil. The daughter of a permanent chief in Masimera, Esther had met Momodu, Teresa's father, during one of his political campaigns. She served him sweet tea and biscuits. Momodu stared at her
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brown skin and Asian eyes. The chief told him that Esther had been born to his son and a Filipina woman in Dubai. On their flight home with the infant, the plane crashed. Esther was the only survivor. A looter found her swaddled in a blanket on saw grass bordering the Mabole River. For Teresa's grandfather, this was a sign. He canvassed his friends for the right name for the baby, since his son had never told him what she was called. An Iranian businessman suggested Esther, which in Persian is linked with the word for star. She fell from the stars, the man said, and into your arms. With Momodu, Esther had three children: Jonas, Harvey and Teresa. Jonas died of cerebral malaria at five. The week after his high school graduation, Harvey was crushed by a truck with a snapped steering cable. Teresa was her mother's solace, the cup that contained her grief. After tidying the office, Teresa collected the faxes that arrived during the night. A food program delegate from Rome was due to arrive in Freetown the following week to conduct a biannual evaluation. That meant Teresa needed to make arrangements for lodging, transportation and trips to field offices. Bad weather in Antwerp had delayed a food shipment. A professor wanted answers to a survey on the religious customs of the World Food Program staff. Teresa crumpled the fax into a ball and threw into the trash. Teresa went to her desk to place the morning calls to field offices. Sylvester in Kenema told her that the shipping delay was not serious so long as it did not extend more than three days. Peter, in Port Loko, did not pick up. Sally, recently arrived in Kailahun, told Teresa that she had heard rumors of a clash in Fenga, likely Liberian rebels who periodically crossed the border to loot. Sally
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mentioned reports of cholera, but she had not confirmed them. The week before, there had been rumors of cholera in Freetown. After investigating, Teresa learned that the real cause of the diarrhea and vomiting that filled the emergency rooms was the merchants who mixed cheap fillers into the cooking oil they sold. Could Sally's rumors indicate an outbreak of greed? One of Teresa's cousins, Mervine, owned a barber shop in Kailahun. A basketball fan, he called it "the Barber Shaq." Teresa told Sally to talk to Mervine, who would know everything going on in the town. Perhaps, Teresa thought, she could take the visiting delegate to Kailahun? She would need a gift for Mervine. Teresa sent an email to the visiting delegate requesting that he bring a fifth of Johnny Walker Red. Personally, she preferred Absolut. Neat. As Teresa finished a call, Claudia Moreno arrived. Shorter and thinner than Teresa, the new office director wore thick glasses and a page boy haircut pulled back from her forehead with metal clips. She used no face powder or eye makeup, but tinted her lips a dark red. The color made her look pale and a little ill. To Teresa's eye, Claudia was not bad-looking. She had large, grey eyes and hair so black it shone blue in the full light of day. With the proper makeup and clothing, she could turn heads. But the woman seemed to take no pleasure in her appearance. Even in the heat, Claudia wore long-sleeved shirts with the cuffs buttoned. When she spoke, it was always after a pause, as if the words at her disposal had to be hoarded, lest she run out completely. They couldn't be more different, in other words. Teresa loved to flaunt her breasts with halter tops and clinging shirts. Princess had just rebraided her hair with new beads that caught the light and
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could sometimes flash rainbows on the wall, as if she were the source of light itself. Sometimes, Teresa felt so many words boiling up within that she dreamed she was chattering, to the winds or a mountain or a flock of birds, it didn't matter. Neither of her parents had been talkers. Perhaps, the words in her family had been stored in some deep genetic pool, waiting for her so they could gush like a fountain switched on for summer. Or, as her Aunt Princess might say, a child's top willy-nilly on the floor. Aunt Princess had words for everything and then some. Teresa could just as easily explain herself by saying that the gift of gab skipped like a girl in an Easter dress from her father's sister to herself, using the strands of double-helixed DNA as a bridge. Teresa poured Claudia a cup of coffee. "I'm off to the Education Ministry," Teresa told her. "It's the relicensing matter, for the refugee teachers returning from the camps in Guinea. Remember, you have three telephone meetings this morning. Diana is in charge of the calls. Shall I bring you lunch?" Claudia nodded. Diana was Michel's secretary in New York. Claudia was too withdrawn for the directorship, in Teresa's opinion. To date, she had expressed no strong opinions and little interest in the office workings or daily developments in the field. She was not a chatter, in other words. A kibitzer, as Marty, her first supervisor, would put it. To Teresa, she was like a tourist who had overstayed her interest in a place. There seemed nothing left to do or say. So why did she stay? Perhaps she was looking to advance in the UN system or was holding out for a plummier posting. Teresa also wondered if she had been hurt, somehow, perhaps in a fire.
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How else to explain the long sleeves? The silences, when Teresa caught her staring at nothing at all, in the darkness of drawn shades? Claudia lived in the apartment assigned to office directors. They called it the Penthouse since the rooms were on the top floor of a three-story building overlooking Tengbeh Town. Penthouse was a fancy name for such an unremarkable space: a table and four chairs in the dining area, a bed, dresser, side table and lamp in the bedroom, a sitting area with a worn couch and two plastic chairs positioned around a low table. Michel never cooked, preferring to take his meals with Princess or at the Cape Sierra Hotel. The bathroom was dank and lightless, but there was a functioning toilet and sink. Beneath the sink was a bucket, to store water for when the power failed and the pump stopped bringing in water from the roof cistern. During one rebel incursion the year before, gunmen shot the cistern. Water poured out, leaving the fan on the pump motor in the sun's direct glare. The fan overheated, then locked with a bang and puff of blue smoke. Clifford repaired the motor and patched the cistern with metal scavenged from cooking oil cans from the United States. Now, the cistern sparkled with silver, red and blue courtesy of the USA. The heat and dust and long hours on the roads seemed to exhaust Claudia. In contrast, Michel liked nothing better than to arrive at some outpost with medicines and food and journalists in tow. An office scrapbook of press clippings included photographs of him at Pendumbu with the rebel commander, at Freetown's famous Cotton Tree with an American movie actress and behind the secretary-general at the National Press Club in Washington. Only one included Teresa. Her leg was in the lower left hand corner as she walked, unaware, into the frame. In the magazine that had
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published the photograph ("U.N. to extend, strengthen food aid program in Sierra Leone"), the leg was cropped out. There were no more great white hunters in Africa. Only great white aid workers. On her worst days, Teresa felt like the trophy left on display; but there would come a time, she told herself, when she would leave Freetown again. And she would never, ever return.
# Teresa caught a poda-poda east along Old Railway Line Road. In the mid-morning bustle, the minivan, packed with passengers, swerved among pedestrians and bicycles and carts and trucks. With high rises on a hill overlooking the sea, Freetown reminded Teresa of a party caught up in a great, hot wind, the decorations in tatters and the chairs and tables upended and coated in grime. Even the newest buildings, with their imported steel and concrete facings, looked worn. And then there were the smells: urine and rotted fruit and sweat and dust and palm wine and hair oil and frying food and the fumes from the poda-poda. Teresa sat so close to one passenger that she could smell the bread and mayo he ate for breakfast, carried on small burps to her nose. Teresa got off in front of the Education Ministry. She had known the vice-minister since elementary school. As a child, TipTop never played with others for fear of soiling her elaborate dresses; thus the name. So of course, TipTop became the target of practical jokes. Once, Teresa herself took a rotted egg from her mother's coop and placed it in TipTop's satchel, where it burst with a nauseating pop. Every student save TipTop was whipped and sent home. Teresa's father,
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working in the shade of the garden on his Olivetti typewriter, saw the guilt on her as clearly as if it were a school medal pinned to her blouse. "My daughter," he said, "the measure of our worth is how we treat the least among us. You must go to this girl and extend to her your heartfelt apology." His eyes were red from lack of sleep. All of her mother's efforts to keep him healthy were foiled by his nervous stomach, which accepted nothing spicier than broth. And so she had gone to TipTop's house, with her father as escort. TipTop listened to her apology. Then, in that way peculiar to children, she forgave Teresa. TipTop handed her a doll. By then, Teresa was past such toys. She preferred kick ball in the street. But she recognized a gesture of peace. In any case, this elaborate toy fascinated her, arrayed in the same white ruffles and lace that TipTop wore to school. TipTop – a woman now, called Madam by everyone by Teresa, and considered a close ally of the president – swept out of the office to greet her. To be visited by a U.N. worker was a sign of prestige and power; she wanted the dozen secretaries and clerks and messenger boys to see. TipTop wore a white linen jacket with a scoop neck over white linen pants, with gold braid along the neckline and shoulders and twisted into epaulets. She looked like the buxom admiral of a child's navy. She was fat and sleek. Diamond studs sparkled in her fleshy ear lobes and a necklace, with a tear-shaped diamond pendant, lay as the crevasse of her broad bosom. "Miss Bencomo, tea please," TipTop ordered. Then she led Teresa by the hand to her inner office.
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TipTop arranged herself on a broad leather couch. She patted the spot next to her. Teresa sat, sinking into the soft cushion. TipTop took her hand and squeezed it. "How lovely to see you, my friend! You are looking too thin, my girl. Much has been happening. Much to tell! Times could not be more dangerous. I have been anxious to speak with you." When the tea arrived, TipTop poured, liberally dosing Teresa's cup with sugar cubes. "Have you heard?" TipTop grasped the pendant and rubbed it like an amulet. "They are saying that crazy man is in Port Loko. That he arrived this morning and has many men and guns. Teresa, for your ears only: concern is high." For the past week, the radio had broadcast reports of a man calling himself "Bombblast," a former boys' school headmaster who had been stirring up trouble in the refugee camps along the Guinean border. A Christian, he said he was leading a holy war on foreigners. His name came from an explosion he survived that revealed to him the true face of God and his angels, he said, black and with fire for wings. He was a mental patient, in TipTop's opinion. A madman, a kook! "This is a serious, dear Titi," TipTop insisted. "Clarence himself has been called to consult at the presidential palace." Col. Clarence Ogomudia was the Nigerian who commanded the West African peacekeepers. There were rumors that TipTop and the colonel were lovers, though Teresa had her doubts. The colonel, she knew for a fact, preferred girls. "He has no authority to pursue a lunatic like Bombblast," Teresa said. "Rebels only, not criminals." Or kooks. Over the telephone, Michel had mentioned something about the Security Council mandate that limited the peacekeepers to certain tasks, but she couldn't remember if he said
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it was Chapter Six or Chapter Seven. Did it matter? Ogomudia was not in Sierra Leone to pursue Bombblast. "Have you spoken to Port Loko?" "The lines are down. Sister, I know, this is an everyday occurrence. But my brother-in-law, who works for the army, as you know, assures me they were cut!" This brother-in-law cooked at the officer's casino. He could get fine meats, but wasn't, in Teresa's opinion, a good source for this type of information. She would have to call Peter again. She would dress him down for failing to answer this morning, then press him for details. TipTop promised to resolve the teacher licenses. Teresa headed for Government Wharf. Wesley, the Doctors Without Borders representative, had asked her to stop by to see the new mobile clinics. Wesley was her age, but looked barely out of high school. Thin as a post, he wore t-shirts and flipflops. His long hair, rarely combed, sat like a doll's messy wig on his head. One of his units was scheduled to go with Teresa's next convoy east. Each one shipped in its own metal container, and included a fully equipped surgical operating theater, two generators and a stock of the drugs most commonly used in Sierra Leone: antibiotics, morphine and two potions used to treat the phantom limb pain suffered by amputees. The stainless steel cabinets and smell of disinfectant reminded Teresa of her Irish training, and she felt suddenly tired. This was the life she had wanted for herself, she thought. Not what lay outside the unit's metal skin, but the cleanliness and order that was within. "These things do no damn good stuck here," Wesley was saying as he sucked a red lollipop. "More delays?" Teresa asked.
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"That fanatic Bombblast!" Wesley said. "They say he's on the Masiaka Road. Those incompetent fucking Nigerians. Sitting on their asses." Masiaka was the only way out of the Freetown peninsula. "John Wesley! He couldn't possibly do more than disrupt. Where are the units scheduled to be installed?" "I've already received offers on this one." Wesley shrugged. "Do you remember the guy with no arms from Kasese?" This was a tribal chief maimed by rebels several years earlier. "He offered me a party and the women of my choice. Women! How's that for the rewards of humanitarianism? But this one's for the Beadles," he added, meaning the Australian missionaries at Mile 91. She and Wesley attended the same Methodist church and lunched at Princess's after Sunday service. Though often bleary-eyed and stinking of cigarettes and last night's beer, Wesley was a regular worshipper. Once, they had kissed. The kiss came after a particularly brutal day, when all Teresa wanted was a bit of human kindness. But there was nothing there. Now, Teresa treated Wesley like the big brothers she had lost. "We'll work out the details of the convoy over Sunday lunch," she told him. "The Beadles will be thrilled. I'll tell Princess to prepare the chicken yassa. But you must shower before showing up, or she will have your hide scrubbed and pinned to the washing line." # Teresa went next to the home of her Aunt Princess. For lunch, Princess served prawns in peanut sauce, a specialty. A chilled mango salad dusted with ground cloves was dessert. After eating, Teresa arranged her mother's meal on a folding table next to the wheelchair. This
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was generally a protein gruel sweetened with banana or papaya, which agreed with Esther's stomach. While she fed her mother, her aunt filled a tiffin carrier with Claudia's portion. "How Michel liked your hottest dishes!" Teresa commented. Princess smacked the wooden spoon on the pot. "Baby, when are you going to get a real man? Let me set you up. I will find you a good Temne man who will warm your cockles." "Auntie, I have no time for a man. I have my books to warm me." "What is there in books for a young woman as beautiful as my Titi? You must have a man. And not one of these pasty whites who up and leave. Up and leave! You must have a Christian man, a man who will make you his queen. Like your father, I mean. A good man, a loving man." "But like my father, there is no other. You yourself say this, Auntie. Why waste time wishing for what I cannot have?" Princess wiped her hands on a towel as she sat on the couch, next to Esther's wheelchair. Her face was skimmed in steam. A photograph of Momodu, Teresa's father, hung in a place of honor behind her. His eyes sparkled behind the thick lenses of his glasses. Teresa was tucked under his arm, her hair in stiff pig tails. Her smile was a copy of his. "Your father would want this for you. That is what he dreamed of in this ragged place. Something better." Her father died when Teresa was eleven. How could she know what he would think of her now? Soldiers took him to prison not long after the photograph was taken. They smashed his Olivetti in the street. A week later, Princess and Esther buried him in Kingtom cemetery, looking out to sea.
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Teresa remembered studying her father as he slept in the back room of their home, with the shades drawn and the fan whirring. He stayed up night after night at political meetings, and would return home unexpectedly, so exhausted that he would sleep in his sweat-stained clothes. Teresa would creep into the room with a book and find a spot where the light shafted through the space between the window and the shade. It was as close as she dared get. Teresa dabbed sauce from her mother's chin. "Would he not value what I do, dear Auntie? This was his dream, to save his country."
"Precious girl. On that I have no doubts. Your father would let his pride show to the world, as he did on the day you won the spelling medal. But what will you have when the last crumbs are eaten? Who will stand with you when you have given all? This is what I know about my people, Teresa. They are takers. They take and take and take. They took my brother. They will take you. That would kill her, you know. Sure as a dagger. Think of yourself, girl, and your mother, not always of these malcontents." When her mother finished, Teresa got the bottle of lotion. She used it to work her mother's muscles and joints. Princess claimed that she could make a lotion three times as good with the herbs in her garden. This was what she called the tangle of plants toward the back of her plot, poking through the car scrap and broken chairs and legless children's toys. Sometimes, Teresa smelled Princess's concoction on her mother, essences and powders and mashed leaves that soured in the heat. Teresa would sponge it off and recoat her mother's skin. The lotion did her mother good. But
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the smell of roses also reminded Teresa of elsewhere. That was her name for it now – elsewhere, somewhere other than where she was, anywhere other than here. When her office mates traveled, they always asked Teresa what she wanted. She wanted the same thing: rose-scented lotion. She had seen her first rose garden near Dublin, the Sunday that she and her class mates visited the sea. Roses, Teresa decided, were the smell of God. On Judgment Day, there would be fire and ash, as the Bible promised. But Jesus himself, in his infinite love, would descend in the perfect bloom of a rose, with angels holding the edges of his robe. Nothing in the Book of Common Prayer said this; this was what Teresa believed in her heart. She also knew that it would not be long before her mother died. Teresa would put her to rest beside her father, looking west. So that they could both see her Elsewhere, after she kissed Princess goodbye and left Freetown forever. Teresa was no saint; she was not her father. Would he forgive her this weakness? She would know when she next saw him clasped in roses and borne on the sweet and forgiving breath of the Lord.
# Teresa returned to the office with the tiffin carrier. She found Claudia reading old SITREPS in the small room they used as a library. "Have there been calls?" By now, Port Loko should have checked in. Claudia shook her head. "Problems?"
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Teresa told her the news about Bombblast. "Clifford is due back from Waterloo soon. We must wait and consult. He will have fresh news." As Claudia ate in her office, Teresa began to work on the situation report. The shorthand was SITREP, a summary of what had happened with the food program and the war. The report was then sent via secure email to the regional headquarters, combined with other reports, then circulated throughout the UN system. Michel had been the first director to delegate its preparation entirely to her. Teresa began to type.
SIERRA LEONE HUMANITARIAN SITUATION REPORT Period covered: 9-13 March This report has been prepared by the office of the United Nations World Food Program in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Amid extraordinary tensions and a highly precarious security environment, humanitarian agencies have continued to reach tens of thousands of war-affected populations with lifesustaining interventions. Activities however continue to be limited to areas under government control.
This was how Teresa had started every SITREP for the past several months. The editor in her wanted to ask why she continued to use the word "extraordinary" for something that was commonplace. "Precarious" presumed that one would do one's best to distance oneself from such danger. Yet here she sat! Teresa continued:
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Fighting and harassment of civilians by armed groups in the Eastern and Northern parts of the country continue to result in both internal and external displacements. According to the OCHA database, the new caseload (since January) now exceeds 300,000 (see attached update), while UNHCR has registered nearly 15,000 newly arrived Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea during the same period.
Teresa had learned to write this abbreviated language quickly. It wasn't that different from how, as a nurse, she had filled out patient charts. So much medication, so many tests, done in such a way. Except countries never died, exactly. The file was never completely closed, "patient deceased." OCHA was the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. IDP meant internally displaced person, a refugee, in essence, who had abandoned home but did not cross an international border. UNHCR was the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, which administered the camps sheltering families that had managed to cross into Guinea. The rebel practice of hacking off limbs had turned these camps into showcases for the depths to which human beings would go to make a point. Or, worse, no point at all, only a will to destruction. Since returning to Sierra Leone, Teresa had seen things that defied imagination--raped babies, women branded on their breasts with gang letters, men with the arms they needed to work and feed their families severed above the elbow. What could keep her nursing school mates from thinking her mad? Except it was her country. They expected her to know what lay beneath the violence like a poisonous root. Teresa felt as ignorant as a flea. Nothing in her bloodline made it any easier. What corpuscles, what fluids, would bring wisdom in these matters?
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If her father had lived, Teresa imagined that he would find himself just as amazed. Or as shocked. Everything he had done and had worked for was for something other than this. But this-what was happening in his country--was the measure of how completely his work had been in vain. She continued:
Given the worsening humanitarian conditions in many parts of the country, agencies are redirecting resources towards meeting emergency needs while continuing to support rehabilitation programmes as best possible. Meanwhile, relief organizations consolidate strategies and mechanisms to improve the response in key sectors of concern. The new initiative involves setting up a standing security assessment team and a cross-sectoral emergency response team to make informed recommendations for action.
What did this mean, really? Teresa pursed her lips. We are doing the best with what we have. There was no budget for the new tires Clifford said the Land Rover needed, no money to give more than palliative care to children deemed too damaged to recover. No money to add bakeries, no money to repair generators. There was no money, no money, no money. Since September 11, their budget had been cut by a third. The war on terror, Michel said to her. In comparison, the war on want seemed old as last season's paisley prints. Faced with a reduced budget, Teresa could not throw up her hands and write literary things like human beings have an unknowable capacity for evil. Therefore, we need money. Or that this behavior lay well beyond anything that anyone, even a born Sierra Leonean, could comprehend. Or
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that people in far-away Berlin or Madrid or Chicago would choose to know. While the world's finest armies beat the bushes for terrorists, the beast of greed and senseless violence still stalked Sierra Leone. Adorned with new weapons, to be sure. Its carapace studded with diamonds. Or oil or drugs or girls or gold. Whatever commodity brought a good price in the bazaars of the global masters. "Do they think we are such animals?" she once asked Michel. "That they, with their hospitals and safety belts and metal railings at every sheer drop, have not reaped the benefit of centuries of slave labor and colonial domination? That our poverty is made just as surely as a car or a kitchen blender?" Michel stroked her arm. "If you could, you would take the world like a rug and shake it clean. Teresa, you should be our delightful queen, looking after us and making sure we behave." She turned on her heel and left his office. Sometimes, Michel could be an ass. Though she walked in sensible shoes, she imagined her steps sounding with the tap of stilettos. Oh, the inappropriate shoes! The livid colors and the impossibly pointed toes! How she coveted them, like a bright light in the darkness. Like hope itself. In the SITREPS, she had to pretend the believed in strategy. A plan for the unplannable. Bollocks, Princess would say, a firm believer in the staying power of chaos. Teresa had inspected the amputee camps that were like an alternate universe where everyone, even the babies and the little girls, were missing body parts. There would be one left unscathed, she would think, until the person turned or sat, and Teresa would see it, the missing ear, the scar carved on the skin to show that the rebels known as the RUF--R under the right shoulder, U over the collar
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bone, F under the left shoulder--had left their mark. The nurse in Teresa wondered if such a thing were curable, if a skin graft or sanding procedure would erase the marks. In Hollywood, actors could excise age like a bothersome mole. Why not cut off suffering and terror, and make, once again, something beautiful? Bollocks again. That was Irish Teresa thinking, of course. Miss Spelling Bee champion, Miss Top-of-her-class. Not Freetown Teresa. Not the Teresa who sent two tons of powdered protein east, knowing that she was two tons short of the bare minimum needed. Such wounds were never removed here. There was not the money or the will, but that was the least of it. To the man or woman or child marked in such a way, there was not the concept, the idea, that such a thing could be reversed. People did not mistake prosthetic arms for the ones that had been taken from them. Marked, they lived as marked. Titi continued:
In Port Loko and Kambia districts, the forced recruitment of children continued. Looting and raiding of villages in many parts of the country by the West Side Boys are occurring on a daily basis. There continue to be reports of killings along the Freetown-Masiaka road. The WFP team witnessed the March execution by West Side Boys of two civilians, an unidentified man and woman.
She sipped her tea, now cold and skimmed with dust. The incident on the Freetown-Masiaka Road had taken place the week before. With Clifford and Wesley, she had been returning from a site
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visit when they got caught in a jam on the Freetown-Masiaka Road. Teresa sat in the passenger seat. Wesley was in back. As usual, Clifford drove. The West Side Boys were robbing vehicles. Dressed in street clothes and an array of baseball caps, vests and scarves, men forced the drivers to unload what they carried onto waiting trucks. Passengers from a poda-poda lined up with their belongings. "Commot! Commot!" the men shouted. Come out. The women passengers wailed at losing their sacks of vegetables, meant for market. The wailing grew keener. Suddenly, a West Side Boy grabbed a girl of about seven by her braids. A woman – her mother? -- groaned. The groan became a scream. She lunged for the girl's hand. The man and the woman began a tug-of-war. The girl began to cry. Teresa opened the car door. Quickly, Clifford reached across her lap, grabbed the handle and shut it. "There is nothing to be done, miss," he said. "Miss Teresa. Please close your eyes and stopper your ears." She could not. "Clifford." "Miss Teresa. I insist. Your safety cannot be guaranteed. These thieves are crazy men. They have no respect. Miss Teresa, this vehicle is white and there are two letters on it, U and N. But you are not. The minute you leave it, you are no more to them than that girl. And they could kill you or carve the letters on you. It would not matter a whit to them."
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The West Side boys began to laugh. The mother screamed. The girl cried. Their comrade, growing angry, hauled her by the hair. One man--the girl's father, perhaps, or a relative--stepped forward, perhaps to plead. An automatic weapon ripped the air. The mother crumpled. She released her daughter. One of the West Side Boys stepped up to the man and lifted his machete. The blow landed on the man's neck with such force that that his head popped up like the cap of a beer bottle. The man who had pulled at the girl fondled her flat chest, grinning. Wesley threw up in his chips bag. Teresa handed him the bottle of water she had been drinking. There was no question of stopping to identify the dead man and woman. The woman's blood stained the dirt a dark maroon. How unfortunate, she remembered thinking, that the rains were weeks away. Then Teresa remembered. After the killings and after the other passengers and the children were taken away, some of the West Side Boys sat under a thorn tree to await their next victims. As a West Side Boy waved Clifford past, a man grinned at Teresa. He pressed his hand to his groin. On his chest was a thick silver cross on a thick chain. At the time, she had not given the cross a second thought. By then, the West Side Boys must have already gone over to Bombblast. Bombblast must have preached to them that their faith in God protected them from their enemies. She had assumed – what had she assumed? That these animals would not know the cross. That to them it was but a bauble. How could these animals truly believe?
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At the office, the phone rang. "Port Loko at last," Teresa said, raising her hands in the air. "Once I know they are well, I will tell tem a thing or two. Calling late. Inconsiderate! They'd better have a fine story." But it was not Port Loko. A faraway voice asked for Claudia. She took the call in her office. When she emerged, her face was even paler than usual. "Bad news?" Teresa turned from her keyboard. "My father's secretary," Claudia said slowly. "She told me his wife is coming to Freetown. To see me." "Here?" Teresa's thoughts raced. With the evaluation team on its way, they had urgent tasks at hand. Escorting a relative was an unexpected burden. Perhaps the wife could stay with Princess during the day. They had to book a room, get a driver. Her mind raced. She would ask Clifford to call his cousin. What a bother! What on earth would bring a wife all the way to Sierra Leone? "What is the purpose of this visit?" she asked "Something has happened. She is coming to tell me something bad. She wouldn't say." "My word," said Teresa. Claudia looked at her watch. "She lands in an hour. Where is Clifford?" At that moment, the office lights dimmed. Then they surged, dimmed again and flicked out. Teresa heard a distant explosion. The colors on the computer screen faded to black, like paint washed down a drain. Her SITREP! She heard soft pops, like rain. But the sun shone brightly. Bombblast, Teresa thought. That kook. It couldn't be. But her gut told her differently. She thought
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of the silver cross and the blood in the road. He was not in Port Loko. He was in Freetown.