The voice pierces my sleep-fog, accompanied by a hand shaking my shoulder. I have no idea how long I’ve been out — three days in transit meant I was comatose the moment she gave me permission to sleep.
And even though the urgent tone she’s using alerts me on some level that I should pay attention, I struggle to bring my brain back online. I’ve never done this kind of trip before, and so far, overcoming jet-lag seems akin to trying to focus in a Monday morning staff meeting after a three-day holiday bender.
Her voice is steady, but as my eyes begin to focus I see her movements are anything but. She’s driving too fast, steering with her knees, bouncing us across the rough terrain. The motion of her hands grabs my attention, as I try to force sense into what she’s doing.
She takes the SIM card out of her phone and cracks it in half, then rolls down the window and tosses both pieces. I watch in groggy fascination as her phone follows the Sim card, then she reaches into the bag between us, pulls out an iPad, and with a mighty heave smashes it onto the dashboard.
This brutal act of technological homicide sends a jolt of adrenaline through me, finally waking me fully. Now my brain begins to categorize her odd behavior and zeroes in on a possible reason — the way she keeps looking in the rear view mirror seems to be the trigger.
I turn to investigate, my view briefly captured by Papis and his wide, wild eyes staring at me. I’d forgotten he was there. Looking further, through the rear window, I see a truck bearing down on us, crammed with men hanging over the cab. They all seem to be yelling, and for a full second or two I try to make out what they’re saying, before something clicks and I realize it’s sort of irrelevant — the guns they wave illustrate enough of the story.
Take a deep breath.
Remember the training.
The voices in my head keep up this mantra, repeating every three seconds like a metronome. And there are at least six other voices in there screaming mindless fill-ins whenever there’s a moment of silence — crying, praying, and huddling in the proverbial corner repeating this can’t be happening.
I glance in the rearview mirror. Five hundred yards.
I can see Papis’ face in the same mirror, clearly panicking as he mumbles to himself. He and I shared a few words before I woke Kate up, confirming we both thought the same thing about the truck in pursuit. Now he looks like he’s about to cry as he fingers the medallion around his neck.
Methodically I destroy my electronics, and in spite of the situation a small part of me cringes as the remains of my much beloved iPad shower onto my lap. Out of the corner of my eye I see Kate turn to look behind her, then I hear her gasp.
Well that got her attention. She spins back around with terror in her eyes and I know our time is quickly evaporating.
You have to help her.
The still voice instantly quiets all the others, and I feel momentary thankfulness to have something else to focus on — her terror is much more manageable than my own.
“Kate, I need you to listen to me.” I glance over and see that her eyes are lasered in on mine, but I’m not sure how much will get through.
“You need to follow my lead. These are probably not terrorists, probably they’re just businessmen. They’re probably not going to kill us, they’ll just wave their guns and yell a lot. Do what they say. It’s probably only about money, so be ready to give them whatever you have.”
That’s a lot of probablies.
I glance in the mirror again. Three hundred yards.
Kate’s eyes are still wild and she’s starting to hyperventilate.
Give her a job.
The scarf flapping in her lap gives me an idea.
“Kate. Put your scarf on. Keep it over your head. Try to keep your head covered at all times.”
I follow my own advice, rip the scarf off my neck and, one-handed, get it quickly adjusted — a move I could do in my sleep after all these years.
After a pause, she starts moving mechanically. I reach for the bottle of water at my side and take a long sip, knowing it could be a good while before I get another chance. When she finishes with the scarf I hand the bottle over to her, even though the drink I took didn’t even begin to touch the dryness in my throat, nearly choking me.
“Now take a drink. Go ahead and finish what’s left.”
I root around under my seat to find the other bottle I brought and throw it to Papis. He starts drinking wordlessly.
One hundred and fifty yards. The part of my chest housing my frantically beating heart actually hurts. I can’t believe my voice sounds so calm to my own ears.
“Okay Kate, they’re almost here. Remember, it’s probably just business. They’ll get in trouble with their bosses for roughing us up without cause, so don’t give them cause. Do what they say. Follow my lead. It’ll be all right. Just try to keep remembering that our main goal is to stay alive.”
Trying to keep her calm has helped me block out a fraction of my own terror, but when I see the truck is only fifty yards away — so close I can see the glimmer of sweat on the driver’s forehead — the fresh surge of adrenaline makes my legs go numb.
Oh God, oh God, OH GOD!
What I’ve told her is true. Usually. But there’s always a chance these guys are religiously motivated. Or out for a joy ride instead of a paycheck. In either of those cases there’s nothing I could have said that would have prepared her.
My hands are sweating.
This isn’t my first time, not even my fifth. But it’s the first time I’ve been in charge, and the weight of Oumar’s expectations feels heavy on my shoulders. I’m only in charge on a trial basis, and the memory of the violent death of our last leader makes my stomach drop.
I wipe my hands one at a time on my pants and keep my gun pointed in the general direction of the car we’re chasing, hoping my driver doesn’t notice. It wouldn’t inspire confidence, and if observing Oumar has taught me anything, it’s that this game is about nothing if not confidence.
Something on the rear window of the car flickers in the sun; the sticker the government mandates foreigners to display. We pay a kid to sit at the gas station by the highway out of town and call us when one of them passes without a convoy. Not many do — few are that foolhardy. But every so often when they think the threat has died down, that phone rings again and we’re in business.
I wonder who it is this time. My first attempt at kidnapping was Korean Christian missionaries. That was a horrible introduction, Oumar killed every last one after questioning them.
“Korean Christians never pay,” he’d said angrily. “They like to suffer; think it gives them a better place in paradise. I am happy to oblige.”
As he walked away from their still-twitching bodies he wiped the blood off his long knife, shaking his head at me in disgust — not at the violent act he’d just perpetrated, but at the waste of a golden opportunity for gain.
It was the first time I’d seen my childhood friend for who he had truly become during our time apart, and it frightened me more than I can say. Since then I’ve wondered if the Oumar I once knew is even still in there, cowering somewhere behind all that violence and anger.
Last year we kidnapped a carload of Spanish engineers. That was a really profitable job, though one died from an infected bullet wound when we shot him trying to escape.
But it wasn’t profitable enough for Diadji — at least that’s what Oumar said when he explained why he’d shot Moussa, a man who’d given Diadji more than ten years of faithful service.
“As everyone in this business knows,” Oumar had spouted, strutting in front of the men as Moussa’s body lay still on the ground in front of them, “Spaniards and Italians always pay. Even one of them dead means millions fewer in payout for Diadji.”
Out of the corner of my eye I see my driver looking at me for direction, and I realize I’ve let my mind wander too long — something Oumar is always chiding me about — so I raise the gun in my hands, shout “Allahu Akbar” as loud as I can over the lump in my throat, and tell him it’s time.
Here we go.
The ringing phone startles me from the nightmare. Dreaming about Caroline again — big surprise. Fifteen years later, you’d think my subconscious would come up with a new scenario with which to torture me. At least I wasn’t yet in the kitchen when the ringing woke me. At least I didn’t wake up crying.
The sweat on my chest is already cooling as I fumble around for my phone. I knock it to the floor with sleep-numbed hands and have to feel around for two more rings before I finally find it.
3:12 a.m. and a blocked number. Not uncommon in my line of work. And unfortunately, whatever the hour, it must be answered and swiftly dealt with.
“Hello?” My voice is gravelly, so I clear my throat.
“Hello, is this Matthew Sullivan?”
“Matt,” I correct automatically. “Who’s this?”
“My name is Amal. I have your sister Rebecca and your colleague Katherine.”
Part of my brain is still fighting off the nightmare, while another part is expecting someone from work — or maybe a reporter looking for a comment on some new scandal — so I struggle to make sense of the slightly accented words coming through the phone.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“My name is Amal, Mr. Sullivan. I’m calling from North Africa. I have kidnapped your sister Rebecca Parker and your colleague Katherine Wade. I would appreciate if you would get a pen and write down my terms so that we can discuss them the next time I call.”
Chapter 1: Kate
Nouakchott International Airport
I am not in Portland anymore!
The Islamic Republic of Mauritania screams in large block letters across the top of the paper I’m clutching tightly in my sweating hand, giving me seventy-two hours’ permission to be in the country. I’m surprised at how much of an ominous feeling I have just seeing the words “Islamic Republic.”
I’ve been told I’ll have to present myself to the local police station if I stay longer than seventy-two hours, but if all goes well I’ll be crossing into Senegal long before that deadline hits.
I’m not usually prone to anxiety, but neither do I habitually pass the wee hours of the night jockeying for position with a planeload of Muslim men taking turns ogling me.
For the first thirty or so minutes of the flight out of Casablanca, I worried over how many men stood in the aisles, chatting animatedly, with no sign of the usual announcement telling them to sit down. Suddenly I realized Arab men congregating probably wasn’t the stress point for this flight that it would be in my own country.
No sooner had I had that revelation, then I was truly shocked by a man across the aisle from me surreptitiously lighting up and taking a quick puff, before dousing the cigarette in his coffee cup and smashing it into the sick bag. I was so startled by that episode, that when we finally landed and literally half the plane stood up and started getting into the overhead compartments before we’d even stopped taxiing, I felt a little jaded.
After de-planing I found myself on the open tarmac, with ours the only plane in sight. I noticed one rather lackadaisical guard smoking and, ostensibly, making sure no one skipped passing through immigration which I gathered occurred through the doors of the slightly-weathered building everyone was headed toward.
There were two other women on the flight who I thought I might try to follow, but when I started to get close their male companions boxed me out quite purposefully, as if worried my evident Westernism might rub off.
At least, that’s how I interpreted it. It’s amazing how active the imagination can get when you understand nothing going on around you and have no one to talk to. Not to mention the countless unsettling scenarios at airports just like this one that I can easily recall to mind, weaned as I was on a steady diet of Jack Ryan and Jack Bauer.
I’m trying to follow the instructions I was given. I didn’t wear
anything with an obvious American logo. My shoulder-length blonde hair
is tied up. The scarf I bought half-price at the Rack is draped casually
around my head.
That purchase was easy, but I spent the better part of two days trying to find clothes in Portland that matched the long-and-loose, over-the-tush, guidelines I’d been given.
I’m not making eye contact with men lest they think I’m propositioning them. It’s amazing how hard that is — I grew up in the make-eye-contact-so-they-know-you-see-‘em part of the world. Plus, it’s easy to bump into the guy in front of you when you’re looking at your shoes.
I try to keep my eyes down, looking up only when necessary to make sure I’m still moving toward what I hope to be the right booth. I figure I’ve got a fifty-fifty chance since there are only two lines, but the soldiers with big guns glaring at me don’t make me feel extremely confident.
I’ve seen plenty of guns on TV. But, wow, there’s something … I don’t know, louder maybe … about seeing them up close and personal, especially when the men wielding them have stern faces and are garbed in unfamiliar uniforms in a region known for disappearing people.
The heat is oppressive, but worse still is the press of sweating bodies in an enclosed space because of that heat. I’m used to a culture that spends about a zillion dollars a year in deodorant. I’m also used to a bit more in the way of personal space.
Matt told me I shouldn’t need a headscarf right away, but what was the phrase the State Department was always using? Out of an abundance of caution. I’m glad I didn’t listen and pulled the scarf on as the plane descended.
That’s strike two for Matt after the ludicrous routing he sent me on, flying from Portland to Chicago to Washington to Paris, down to Morocco and then over to Mauritania. Hefty layovers in each. The better part of an unendurably long three days. I wonder if he’ll earn strike three tonight, or if there’ll be a grace period until tomorrow.
The two women I was keeping my eye on are fully covered, and I watch them disappear into a tent which I can only assume is for private screening. I hope they don’t think I’ll go willingly into one of those!
I can see beyond the bars and soldiers that there’s a crowd of people waiting. More women out there, thank goodness, but again all of them fully covered. At least they’re not all dressed in black, the fabrics seem to be a wide variety of bright colors and clashing patterns.
Finally I make it to the front of the line. I shift forward and hand over my passport and visa paperwork. The visa briefly sticks to my hand owing to both my stress sweat and the oppressive heat, and I give a small smile to the official as I peel it off.
I’ve done this before, gone through immigration lines, but never with a soldier armed with a machine gun standing close by. The official looks up and gruffly speaks in what I assume to be Arabic.
How in the world do you answer politely without smiling or making eye contact? I fail on all fronts, but manage to say, “I’m sorry, I only speak English.”
He makes what sounds like a derogatory remark to the gun-packing soldier, then turns back to me and says, “Purpose?”
Relieved to have an answer to this question, I boldly say “Tourism,” hoping he doesn’t see through the bald-faced lie. After all, what is there to visit in the middle of this backwoods, god-forsaken desert? Even Senegal is a step up as far as I could tell from the dossier one of the junior reps prepared for me.
The official finishes whatever security screening he deems appropriate, which mainly seems to consist of snooping at the few stamps I’ve earned, and clangs his stamp down on a fresh page. He passes it back but doesn’t look up, leaving me to wonder what I’m supposed to do next. The soldier next to him takes pity on me and points toward the appropriate exit with the business end of his giant weapon.
I was told to bring only a carry-on, and I’m glad I followed that instruction — I’m hanging onto it for dear life as I begin to scan the room. Almost immediately I catch sight of a pale face that easily stands out among the crowd. I’ve never seen it in person, but we’ve said hi a few times over the years on Skype.
I knew I was tense, but I didn’t realize just how freaked that little immigration scenario made me until my body literally unclenches as we make eye contact.
She winds her way over to me and I lose track of her as she passes through a group of women hugging and chatting loudly — with her head down and hair covered she fits right in with them. She pops out of the group right in front of me and, with a big smile, says, “Welcome to Mauritania!”
For a second we do that awkward I-don’t-really-know-you-so-we-probably-shouldn’t-hug dance, but then she leans in and gives me a hug anyway. She reaches down and grabs my carry-on, and says, “Let’s get out of here. We can talk in the car.”
She turns and heads toward what I can only assume is the exit. I follow as closely as I can, wishing for one of those child leashes Matt and I always make fun of as I lose sight of her a few times in the crowd.
I thought it was hot inside, but when we finally are able to burst through the doors, the fresh air is something akin to what I imagine it feels like inside an oven set to broil. A scrum of taxi drivers start yelling the second they lay eyes on us.
She waves at a large black man standing beside a car and the taxi drivers melt away, looking for new opportunities. Arriving at the car, she hands him my bag and heads for the drivers’ seat. I don’t know what the protocol is here, so I start heading for the back seat, but the man heads me off by opening the front passenger seat for me. I give him a small smile and get in.
“Phew,” she exhales loudly, “always nice to be back in the car.” She looks across at me and smiles as she puts the car in gear. “You made it!”
I laugh a little. “Thank you. I’m so relieved to finally be here. I’m ready to kill your brother — I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck!”
She gives a little half chuckle. “Believe me I know the feeling.”
She doesn’t appear at all phased as she dodges taxis and cars and crowds of men to get out of the airport, speaking briefly in a language I don’t recognize to another man with a big gun who laughs and raises the barricade.
Just as I would have expected, from all Matt’s stories about his heroic, world-tromping, do-gooder sister. It’s funny how his description changes based on how he’s feeling at the time — sometimes it’s an affectionate reference to Super Beck, other times he rolls his eyes in irritation and refers to the size of the stick up her butt. But he never speaks about her without me realizing she’s the most important person in his life.
He’s sure we’ll get on “smashingly” and can bond over our “do gooder” lifestyles. I’m not so sure about that prediction, but a couple weeks at my old pay scale will be extremely helpful in keeping said new lifestyle in the black.
I try looking out the window as we leave, but can’t really make anything out in the darkness. Even on what looks to be the main road out of the airport, there isn’t much in the way of public lighting; must not be high on the agenda of whoever it is that runs this place.
I feel a slight twinge of concern that I didn’t do more research before arriving. It is an Islamic Republic after all. I was just too busy doing other things to prepare, I try to justify to myself. Luckily Becca breaks into my thoughts before I can let myself get too worked up.
“We can’t head out in the middle of the night, so I’m going to take you to some friends’ house to get a couple hours of sleep. But it’s best if we get going right at dawn. I’m sorry about that, but it’s safer, and you can sleep in the car on the way.”
The offer of sleep makes me weak with relief.
Sisters Coffee Shop
One week earlier
“You know I chose you over Alex, and of course I did! But I had to give up going to my favorite lunch spot because Alex still eats there every day. You owe me this! Besides, it’s right up your new alley, isn’t it?”
We’re at our favorite hangout, where we meet several times a week to catch up. It’s harder than it was when we worked in the same place and met here every day on our walk in. But if it’s harder now, well, that just means you work harder to make time. That’s what best friends do.
Matt has always been persuasive, but that’s not surprising considering what he does for a living. What I used to do. But even bringing to bear all the powers of his extremely experienced and agile silver tongue, he hadn’t been able to talk the IRS into allowing a massive write-off for a school for orphans that didn’t exactly necessarily exist outside of the imagination of Harry, his major celebrity client. Worse than that, he hadn’t been able to talk the IRS agent out of contacting the FBI to investigate further.
Considering Matt works at Stumptown, one of the oldest and most prestigious image management firms in the world, that’s actually saying something. I was with him once when he talked a police officer out of arresting him when he was driving us home, open wine cooler in hand and three people, including myself, in the back seat visibly partaking of a joint.
Of course that doesn’t sound like such a big accomplishment now that weed is legal, but that doesn’t stop him from repeating the story any time he gets a little tipsy.
Knowing the proclivity of IRS agents to supplement their income with an occasional quick tip to TMZ, or one of the countless other gossip sites, Matt knew he was running out of time to get ahead of the story and reframe the little misunderstanding about his client’s cross-cultural mis-recollection.
Everyone knows a scandal goes better if the penitent comes forward first, rather than being outed by the press. Then you have control of the narrative rather than reacting and spinning. Enter his brilliant scheme.
“Couldn’t you just buzz on over to the tiny, little village in northern Senegal where Harry sends money every month? Harry swears this guy’s legit, that he’s seen pictures of the Soccer Academy started in his name to take kids off the street and give them an education. Unfortunately the IRS thinks he’s full of it, and once the FBI sticks their nose into it we’re looking at terrorism implications because of the location and money involved.
“All we need you to do is find the guy and see if there’s anything that looks remotely like a school. Or that could be turned into a school with a little creativity. Or some dirt on the guy so we can say he took advantage of Harry’s good intentions and swindled him.”
He lays it all out at our favorite corner table on the second floor, using the sepulchral tones we always use when discussing clients since he’s not technically supposed to share this information with me anymore. He’s even talked his do-gooder sister into flying in from Egypt to accompany me.
“I think this is the one Kate, if I can resolve Harry’s latest crisis I’ll make partner. You know how hard I’ve been working for that. And I know you could use the money. The truth is, I thought of you immediately. It’s a win-win!”
He whips out his phone and says, “just a sec” as he makes a show of checking his email. And even though I know exactly what he’s doing — he’s the one who taught me use of the “judicious pause” in delicate negotiations — I’m glad he’s giving me a minute to think.
I can see the presser if Matt pulls this off — it doesn’t take too much imagination, since I was working the account during three of Harry’s high-level shenanigans.
He would stand there shamefacedly, explaining how he was duped, how he’d already sent an investigator to find out what in the world could have gone wrong in Africa, what they were going to do to fix it, how embarrassed he was and how deeply regretful. How he’d disappointed his amazing and unendingly supportive fan base and would do anything and everything in his power to re-earn their trust.
Cue tears and swelling exit music, as he receives a supportive hug from his WINO (wife-in-name-only). This particular WINO preferred the company of women, but she’d struck an equitable deal with Harry that made up nicely for the little deception.
Just one of the many heartening facts I’d learned about our famous clients, and one of the many things I didn’t miss since I’d left.
Even though I’d resigned and almost everyone at the Stump thought I was a little crazy, they knew me and that I’d do a good job. And no doubt more importantly, as with every employee and ex-employee, my iron-clad non-disclosure agreement is still in force.
Matt said the partners were so desperate not to lose Harry’s business that they’d agreed to his plan almost instantly. No wonder, his account fairly prints money and Matt manages a cohort solely focused on keeping up with his frequent misdeeds.
I think Matt’s probably right, if he can pull this off, Harry’s stock should actually go up a couple of points. And Matt’s stock, well — his assessment is no doubt also correct about his promotion. The partners have been dangling the brass ring at him for the last several years.
He looks up from the phone when I sigh, giving me a glimpse of the face of my friend, instead of the smooth account exec trying to convince me. I sigh again, knowing that all of this pondering is kind of irrelevant. What can I do, really? He’s my best friend and he needs me.
The few days are a whirlwind. Eight inoculations, including a deeply troubling discussion with the infectious disease specialist about whether the painful and $1,000 rabies series is worth it or not in my case. We decide no.
That discussion is followed by a number of butt-numbingly dull meetings bringing me up to speed on the latest scandal-in-the-making, and then I roll my carry-on through the doors at PDX.
It was hard to get it zipped after fitting in all the items on the “suggested packing list” Becca sent, but I still manage to find a spot for the thick envelope Matt gives me at the airport.
“Reese’s. Her favorite,” he says sheepishly. Then he smiles and pulls a pair of sunglasses out of his jacket pocket. My eyes widen and his smile grows bigger — he knows I’ve been coveting these for over a year but unable to justify them on my new salary. “A little advance on a job well done,” he says quietly.
We hug for a long time, and then I head through security.
Sleeping on a quarter-inch mat reminds me of camping. As does the sand in my sheets. And the flashlight Becca shines in my face to wake me up, whispering “sorry” as she places a cup of what smells like coffee near my head.
I never liked camping.
Her friends seem nice enough, as seen through the eyes of jet-lagged exhaustion. They chat quietly over scrambled eggs and toast that doesn’t taste quite right. Becca seems quite perky considering her middle-of-the-night airport run and pours me another cup of coffee before I have to ask for it. Honestly it tastes like a mix of ash and battery acid to my Portland-trained palate, but there’s no mistaking the moment the caffeine hits my veins.
By the end of the second cup I’m feeling a bit more like I might live, which is good because Becca says it’s time to go.
When we get out to the Land Rover, I’m introduced to Papis, the big black man from last night who is somehow even more intimidating in daylight, until he flashes that huge smile at me again.
Kate tells me he works for her friends, and will be accompanying us across the border. We load up, and I suddenly realize that this is her friends’ car, loaned to us for the duration. Nice friends.
The sun is just starting to anoint the rolling dunes of the desert as we roll out of Nouakchott. Becca points out the bulldozers as we go by, telling me they run up and down the road every day, pushing back the desert so it doesn’t overtake the town.
From what I can see through the rarified vision of my brand-new sunglasses, they’re not doing the world any favors with that job. It’s just one sand-blasted concrete shack after another on one side of the road, and endless desert on the other. At least the desert boasts the occasional scrub brush and herd of camels, which Becca says they milk. Something about that strikes me as very wrong and I find myself wondering what I cavalierly poured into my coffee this morning.
I’m thinking I should probably get to work, or at least be marginally human and have a conversation with Matt’s favorite and only sister, when she offers me a lifeline.
“I don’t know what Matt was thinking routing you that way — that’s how I would have had to come, mind you, but I’d assumed his pockets were a little deeper.”
I manage a grunt that I hope sounds enough like a laugh to pass. “He said it was to avoid anybody following me, but I think one of the interns must have booked it.”
“Anyway,” she continues, “It’ll be a couple hours to the border if everything goes well, so if you want you can try to get a bit more sleep. We’ll have plenty of time to chat when you’re feeling more human.”
And suddenly I don’t care about civility or social niceties, or even how fascinating the desert sand looks with the low sun turning it several shades of beautiful. Her words are all the encouragement I need to crash.
I surface every now and then when the car takes an especially large jolt, but it seems like it’s been three weeks since I left Portland, not just three days, so it doesn’t take much effort to readjust my aching body and slip back into unconsciousness.
Chapter 2: Becca
The vehicle finally slows and I feel my body come to rest painfully against the floor. After hours jolting and rocking across the metal bottom, and what I’m guessing is a poorly-placed tool my hip slams onto any time we bounce, I know I’ll be sore tomorrow — but depending on where we are, that may or may not be of much concern.
I hear each of the four car doors slam in turn and it feels like my heart rate multiplies with each one. Oddly enough, getting tossed around for a few hours had focused my brain on the pain instead of on my situation. It had also given me time to remind myself of what I believe to be true, allowing for just the tiniest pebble of rock hard calm to settle in somewhere nice and deep. I wonder how long that calm will last.
I brace myself, rubbing my forehead against the spare tire to settle the blindfold in its proper place. I’d managed to work it off a bit during the drive to try to see something, but I never glimpsed more than the panel on the door. I can’t get it quite back in place so a sliver of light still comes through the bottom — hopefully they won’t notice.
Though I still feel her pressed up against my back, Kate hasn’t made a sound since she stopped crying an hour or so ago. The rag around my mouth wouldn’t allow for much more than grunting, and as I didn’t suppose that would be encouraging, I didn’t even try. I’m sure she feels that we’ve stopped and expects the same thing I do.
Well, actually, I imagine her expectations might be a bit worse. This is her first time in the region, so she’s probably pumped up with reactionary media tales and overblown Hollywood hype. No wonder she was crying.
Not that I wasn’t. I just cried less noisily. And in truth, my fear response is more of the vomit variety than tears, but my eyes started leaking again every time the image of Papis ran through my mind. They’d asked where he was from, and when he answered Mauritania, they’d shot him without a second thought. He was worthless to them. The horror of seeing his lifeless body in the dust mixed with an unbearable sadness at knowing how beloved he was of my friends.
I used to love reading spy thrillers, but once I moved to Egypt I found the thrill was gone. Now I’d rather relax with Jane Austen, or something else equidistantly far from my real life. Even still, I’ve probably got a bit more realistic idea of what’s to come than Kate does. Thus another reason for my crying.
The rear door squeals open and I get a glimpse of four skinny black legs and two gun barrels out of my sliver of visibility. At least, I think it’s four and two, my vision seems to be blurring in and out.
“Up, up!” they start yelling. I’m not sure what they expect me to do, tied as I am, but I make a few wriggling motions until someone grabs my arm and yanks me forward. I slam into the ground and the wind knocks right out of me. When I can finally breathe, my first gasping inhale takes in about as much dust as air, and I start coughing loudly.
They must yank Kate out with similar chivalry because something heavy crashes to the ground right beside me that I assume is her. Then they leave us alone for a moment while they yell at each other. The adrenaline roaring through every vein makes it difficult, but I try to concentrate on the words.
They’re not yelling in Arabic, but I’m not sure what it is beyond that. The one who spoke English is nowhere in sight — Amal, he said his name was when he’d oh-so-calmly informed us he was taking us hostage while his men looked on menacingly.
I know I’m supposed to be noticing details — observe, analyze — instead of giving space to my emotional response, but it’s a lot harder than I thought it’d be, way back when I first heard the strategy years ago in a sterile conference room.
From the ground I can’t see much more than the thin layer of dust that hovers over everything in view. I see several pairs of dirty feet, some sandaled, and my eyes are drawn to a scrawny chicken that walks calmly right up and over the top of one of those feet before the foot launches it in the air.
“Up, up!” someone yells again and I brace for the “help” that will surely come. Two arms grab each of mine and yank, and suddenly I’m propelled forward at great speed, trying to churn my legs to keep up. I’m taller than the men helping me, which doesn’t add much in the way of assistance.
They steer me right toward the chicken and I stumble to avoid it, then realize I’ve given away the fact that I can see. Thankfully no one seems to notice my lapse.
I turn my head slightly to the left and see a hut, and suddenly we veer toward it. Someone pushes my head down forcefully while someone else removes the rope from my hands and then shoves me from behind. It’s very quick and my arms are dead noodles, so I go headfirst into the dirt without being able to stop myself.
My head is ringing and I’m wondering if my nose is broken when Kate is tossed in and lands on top of me. We’re both so stunned it takes a while for us to negotiate an untangling of limbs.
More yelling. And then the door, such as it is, slams shut.
The blood roars through my head, and the noise of men congratulating each other, familiar in any language, recedes. There’s even a couple gunshots before an angry voice stops them.
I reach with an unsteady hand to touch my nose, and immediately feel what I assume is warm blood run over my fingers. Slowly, I try to count to thirty, but my mind freezes at eleven. I can’t remember what comes next, and for some reason anger rips through my whole body. I sit and tremble for a bit, until finally I remember — twelve!
It feels like a victory. I continue on to thirty, then reach up to take my blindfold off, then the rag from around my mouth.
Dusty straw hut. Dirt floor. About eight feet across. Roundish. Roommate huddled and crying next to me.
I could stand up between the rafters if I wanted, but my head would graze the roof. One door. One unfortunate looking plastic bucket. Two blankets thrown in the corner.
Home sweet home.
One week ago
My brother’s face peers at me through the Skype window, even more pixelated than normal.
“I recognize that tone you know — it’s the same one you used to use just about ten minutes before we’d get in trouble from one of your schemes.”
He laughs, and the screen freezes in the moment he casts his head back, mouth wide open. It’s one of the least flattering freezes ever, and I take a screenshot to add to our collection. Such are the vagaries of attempting modern-day communication from a slightly-less-than-modern dot on the map.
We complain about it, naturally, but don’t give up our weekly talks for anything. Bedtime for him; bright and early for me. I’m usually sipping from my second cup of coffee while he’s often knocking back his second glass of wine.
But for once there’s no wine and he seems to be naturally buzzed.
“Oh come on,” his disembodied voice continues. “It won’t be that hard — all you have to do is babysit my best friend who’s actually quite nice as she does a little investigating.”
His image unfreezes, and all the pixelation has cleared up for the time being, “six, seven days — two or three weeks tops, and you’ll have six months of funding!”
“Don’t think I didn’t catch that — talking like it’s already a done deal instead of in the hypothetical. You taught me that’s one of your favorite techniques.”
He laughs again, but this time I get to see it in real time. It makes my heart ache. These weekly dates aren’t enough, not nearly. But if I’m honest with myself, even his long-promised visit won’t fulfill what I’m looking for. What I miss, what I crave, what causes the familiar ache with his name on it to start up somewhere mid-chest, is the closeness we shared in childhood. Us against the world, facing down bullies unafraid because I knew my big brother was standing beside me. I could do anything in those days, meet any challenge and trounce any enemy. Nothing was impossible. Because of him.
But that was a long, long time ago, in a world so distant from the ones either of us live in now that it’s hard sometimes to think of it as anything more than a dream.
I’ll take what I can get, obviously, but I miss the old Matt.
“I miss you, Matt, when are you going to take that vacation you keep promising me and come over for a visit?”
“Beck, we almost lost the client last time — this guy is a scandal-magnet — and if this goes well and I manage to keep him on the line, it’ll be just the push I need to make partner. Once that happens, I assure you, I’ll be on the next plane.”
“And there’s where you dangle the carrot,” I laugh, unable to help myself even as I know I’ll give in. “You’ve taught me all your tricks, you can’t pull one over on me.”
“All right, alright, a’right!” The familiar response of childhood; how he always answered when I called him on his crap. I even miss that.
He tugs at me in these conversations, so much so that I sometimes want to stop calling. I’ve wondered if the pain would be less severe if it was a once-and-for-all break, rather than this slow burn of distance over the years — but I’ve never quite worked up the courage to test the theory.
“Look, honestly, you’d be doing me a favor. We’re in a major bind, and we need this to stay very quiet. I realize Mauritania and Senegal are outside your area of expertise, but you’re a heck of a lot closer to knowing how to maneuver your way through there than anybody I could send from Portland. I want someone I can trust to not sell the story to a tabloid, and I need someone I can trust to take care of Kate. You know how important she is to me.”
And with that — sincere, heartfelt vulnerability — he gets me, like always.
After a horrifically long night of keeping watch, I’m just starting to drift off as dawn breaks. Suddenly I hear a shout and what sounds like quite a lot of commotion going on outside. I peer out the spy hole I managed to carve out last night by pulling at a few weeds near the door and see Amal stomping about energetically, kicking at the men still on the ground. They don’t seem too eager to rise until he points outside the camp and starts yelling louder. When I turn to look where he’s pointing I see a car approaching with a large plume of dust billowing out behind it.
This must be the real boss, I think, and my intuition is quickly proven accurate by the way the men start hopping up and dusting off their clothing.
My eyes veer quickly back to Amal to see he’s also straightening his shirt, and I could swear he looks a little nervous. Great. I’d just gotten sort of calmed down and here we go again.
I turn and gently kick Kate’s foot. I tried to talk to her last night, but she seems to be in textbook shock. She finally fell into an exhausted sleep a couple hours ago, after crying off and on since we arrived.
She wakes slowly, and I hate seeing the moment when she passes from sleep to wakefulness and realizes where she’s at. She looks at me with pure panic in her eyes.
“Someone’s coming,” I say quietly, before returning to my spy hole to see the car has arrived — a black Land Rover quite a bit newer than the beater we’d been driving. The choice of almost everyone with resources in this land — criminal, saint, and everything in between. Amal rushes forward and opens the passenger door, saluting the man who exits.
He’s taller than Amal. His shirt is brilliantly white and freshly pressed which must mean they had the AC cranked on high. It won’t last long, but it’s impressive when everyone around him is considerably more wrinkled.
He smiles and claps Amal on the back. They seem to be exchanging some sort of traditional long string greeting. It looks similar to the one used by my Egyptians, but seems to have more back-and-forths.
I see them look this way and feel a pit open in my stomach. No matter that I invested most of the night in asking the Lord for strength and reminding myself of both His sovereignty and His goodness, my body rebels at the position it’s been put in.
“I am a beloved child of God. No one can take that from me.” I whisper it, hoping that, aloud, it will find more purchase in my fickle brain than all of last night’s silent repetitions.
Amal gestures in our direction, then follows closely behind as the man heads our way.
I look at Kate, “here we go.”
Oh God, oh God, oh God.
Chapter 3: Amal
Oumar heads off confidently toward the hut and I hope I don’t look as meek as I feel following after him. He had commanded that I await his arrival before speaking to the hostages, but for some reason he’d been held up overnight. He does not offer an explanation for the delay, nor do I expect one.
I hold my breath as he nears the hut, unsure whether he will allow me to go forward with my plan once he sees them. I’d heard the excitement in his voice when I called to tell him we had two American women unaccompanied by male protectors.
As I have off and on all night, I wonder what they were thinking, traveling alone. Their easily removable local man counted only in terms of the cost of the bullet to get rid of him.
Western women never seem to doubt their right to do whatever they want, no matter what part of the world they’re striding through, nor how many times their media reports on how badly such striding can go.
Oh no, their motto, it’ll never happen to me. I have rights!
At least these two weren’t out parading half-naked like most of their sisters. I don’t think I could have held the men off otherwise, even with Oumar’s standing orders.
Oumar opens the flimsy door of the hut with such force that it bounces off the outside wall and flips shut again. He looks quickly at me, but I wouldn’t dream of laughing. This Oumar is nothing like the brother of my childhood, and through painful experience, I have learned to tell the difference.
He pulls it open again, this time with less enthusiasm, then leans down and steps through. I take a breath and follow.
It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust before I see them. The brown-haired one who was driving is sitting on the left, looking alert and intelligent and, if possible, unafraid. Her gaze is disturbing somehow, even as she directs it toward my chin.
The blonde on the right is folded in on herself and I can see the tracks of tears down her dusty face. She looks like she’s in shock, which will make her the easier one to control.
I wait for Oumar to begin. I know it gives him great pleasure to flex his power over westerners — that they are Americans is even better. His speech will no doubt be long, and it always surprises me how similar his words are to those we heard over and over in childhood. He repeats much of the same religious mumbo jumbo that was used to justify all the horrors visited upon us. This Oumar I will never understand.
He looks at me meaningfully, then begins in a terrible, low voice.
The blonde reacts visibly to his words, inching backward. But the driver continues to watch me, understanding the reason I am here.
“My name is Oumar. I am a soldier for the Fist of Allah, and you are going to be my guests for the time being.
“We have struggled for many years with the oppressive governments in this region, who do not allow us to worship Allah, the compassionate and merciful, as he commands. We are in a holy jihad against the forces of all who oppose his will, but it is an expensive business to be in.”
I’ve heard this speech more times than I would like to remember, and that familiarity allows a part of my mind to wander as the other part mechanically translates.
Will this work? For the millionth time I question myself. This is the first time we’ve had the chance to try out my ideas, and I’ve staked not just my life, but everything I hope for the future on the success of this strategy.
Oumar continues, voice rising and tempo increasing, while at the same time taking fewer pauses. But I am used to his style and easily keep up.
“You will provide us with telephone numbers for your family, and we will call them and negotiate your release. Hopefully our negotiations will be fruitful and of short duration, and you will enjoy our hospitality until then. If you provide us no resistance and behave humbly as women ought to before Allah and men, you will not be harmed. Of this, I give you my word.”
Here Oumar pauses and looks at me. The next part is crucial and I wait, unsure whether he will stick to the plan.
“I am a man of my word. If you try to escape, or if you do not obey Amal, who is in charge in my absence, I will allow the men to do what they want with you. I tell you with sadness the last woman we kidnapped was not so cooperative and the men unfortunately killed her as they were taking their pleasure with her.”
Normally we give instructions to our male captives and leave them to keep their women under control. I’m jittery with nerves, waiting to see how far he will take this. But even Oumar has to answer to someone higher, and he’s the one who convinced Diadji that my ideas had value in the first place.
“I tell you this so that you know under what terms you are a guest. I have explained that this is a business and you are a very valuable asset for us. It is not so important to me that you are whole when you are returned to your families, but I do not want to risk the chance that you will be killed. So I ask you to listen to Amal, follow his instructions carefully, and wait patiently before Allah until your family recompenses us for the hospitality which we are so generously providing.”
This is one of my tactics — from my research I know that western women are highly susceptible to threats of rape, and even more the sensationalized gang-rape they have been taught to expect every time they see Muslim men gathered together. Threatening that, then offering reasonable care and protection, is part of the cocktail I’m trying to mix to keep them compliant.
The topic has been an interesting intellectual exercise for me over the years, and I have spent much time studying it. For instance, if sexual violation is brought into the picture, the western man is programmed to go blind with rage. He is unable to control his emotional response and thinks he has a chance, brainwashed by a steady diet of action movies where the hero never dies.
I’ve seen the surprise in their eyes, as I’ve seen more than one man jump in front of his wife to be killed instantly. I imagine they think it is manly, but I always wonder what he thinks happens after he’s gone. In my opinion, it is not manly at all, it is short-sighted cowardice.
In a way, the western man is very similar to our fundamental Muslims and what fuels their honor killings. A woman’s virtue is connected to her man’s honor, whatever the culture. Our fundamental Muslims kill their women to recover honor; the western man runs unarmed at a man with a gun to recover his, and leaves his woman to suffer the consequences alone.
Sexual violation takes away a western man’s reason. The more we can keep him reasonable, thinking of this as a business arrangement, an exchange of goods, the better.
The sexual violation of women seems to me to be key — if we can keep our men in check, we can better control both men and women. We can manage the asset line and have better outcomes. We can use fewer men on each operation, which means fewer errors, and at the same time gives us the flexibility to run operations simultaneously when the opportunity arises.
Time and time again women are the issue — they are killed while being raped, their men are killed trying to protect them, our men who rape must be killed as a warning to the others. All of that equals lost profit. All of that profit could be recovered if we managed the assets better.
And if we had more control and weren’t always watching out for escapes, or doubling the guard so half the men were making sure the other half weren’t killing the assets, there would be other benefits.
The desert hotline, for one, which is one of our biggest enemies. We’ve had several operations blown because everyone talks to everyone, news roaring from one town to the next like wildfire, and suddenly the army is upon us.
Less men in the crew means less attention and less gossip, and even a smaller chance of triggering satellite surveillance — all resulting in a more robust bottom line.
I’ve been formulating these thoughts for years as I operated as Oumar’s right-hand man. When he is the Oumar of my childhood, he is receptive to my ideas. When he is Diadji’s Oumar, I keep quiet.
A few months ago, in one of his jovial moods, he convinced me to write up a proposal, and then got me an appointment with Diadji — a ruthless, evil-empire kind of criminal, who wanted nothing more than to think of himself as an upright businessman. Diadji liked my ideas and that was that.
Suddenly, before I realized what it might mean to launch from the comfortably theoretical to the practical, I am in charge of a small crew, and can implement my strategies at will. But I never thought I’d be trying them out on just women. It makes me nervous and my mind can’t stop calculating the odds.
So here I am, in charge in a world I don’t completely understand. I’ve moved from the intellectual challenge of asset, distribution efficiency and profit margins, to guns and betrayal and men always on the verge of anarchy.
I’m jolted back to reality when Oumar abruptly turns and slams through the door. I can see the blonde is crying again, but the driver seems relieved. It is as I suspected, she is familiar with this scenario. That should be helpful.
I turn to follow Oumar out the door. His white shirt has begun to wrinkle, his brow breaking with sweat, so I know he will soon leave us.
He stops in full view of the men and speaks loudly. “Amal, I believe in you. More importantly, Diadji believes in you. You know that is why he has given you leadership. I am not fully convinced of your strategy, but Diadji is and that is enough. You are in charge. But you must control the men. The orders have been given, but you must enforce them.”
He leans in closer and whispers the rest, “Diadji wanted me to tell you that if you fail, I am to make to you the same promise I made to those whores — I will allow the men to do what they want with you.”
His words send tremors through my legs, but I manage to keep my voice steady as I reply, “Thank you Oumar. I will not fail you or Diadji.”
He takes a few steps toward the car, then stops, and I realize he’s waiting for me to open the door. I quickly do and am hit in the face by a blast of AC. His driver kept the car running the whole time! What would it be like to live with such luxury?
He turns toward the men, lifts his arm and yells “Allahu Akbar.” They respond in kind and each fire off a couple rounds from their old weapons.
One of Oumar’s men gets out to drive the women’s Land Rover, and I watch as both cars pull out. I watch until there is only dust in the far distance from where they disappeared. I can feel the stares of the men at my back. All these men with guns.
They follow me now, but they are like wild dogs. They only respect what they fear. Do they sense the fear in me? Or even deadlier, do they sense how much hope I have inside me that this job will be the one that finally sets me free? I haven’t been free in nearly twenty five years.
Sometimes I try to remember my parents. I lie on my mat and look at the stars and think back as far as I can, but all I am able to see is dust. Dust and sand. My parents sold me to a marabout, one of the men responsible for training young boys in religious instruction, and their faces were devoured by the past as I was devoured by my new life.
The marabout brought me from my family’s hut in a small village, to the one-room concrete block home in Dakar he shared with his students. From there he lived in moderate luxury as he sent us out every morning with stomachs growling. We had a quota, and if we didn’t make it, we understood that we shouldn’t bother returning — although all we earned for our efforts was a bowl of sandy rice if we were lucky, and a section of the floor where we all slept around his big bed. Those who weren’t lucky went to sleep hungry, and the exceptionally unlucky slept in that big bed.
It wasn’t much of a home, but neither were my vague memories of my original home. And it was better than trying to make it on the street on your own. At night we’d all huddle together and wait for the marabout to yell a bit and then fall asleep drunk.
As far as I could tell, the religious instruction he promised my parents seemed to consist of nothing more than a few curses in the name of Allah as he swiped at us on his way by, and the weekly fiery lecture, the likes of which Oumar was apt to repeat.
Oumar, who had been there all of two weeks before I arrived, was by then a veteran. He took me in, terrified and hungry and crying for my mother. He shared his mat and his bowl of sandy rice. He explained the rules to me and brought me along on his routes. He was my brother.
We tried all kinds of things to make the quota. We begged, we stole, we tried to do little jobs no one wanted. Finally we found some success washing car windshields in front of the American neighborhood. That is, the neighborhood where all the Americans lived. It wasn’t walled off or anything, they just preferred living together. Who could blame them? Dakar is a nightmare.
We would stand on the main street where most cars exited the neighborhood and converge on any car that gave even the appearance of slowing. If you could get your dirty rag on the front window and smear it up a bit, they couldn’t see to go forward and would usually wait you out while you wiped up. Then they’d roll down the window and a burst of air conditioning would puff out when they threw a few francs at us.
After maybe six years with the marabout, with varying success and an already well-developed and entrenched cynicism, my luck finally changed.
A car rolled up with a white woman in the back seat, and for some reason she looked up. She’d been talking to a boy about my age I assumed was her son, and in that moment we locked eyes. I don’t know what it was about me that grabbed her — Oumar was pasted to my side as usual, and we were joined by at least a dozen others every day. Never before had I seen her give anything to them. But as we continued to stare at each other something shifted.
Of course I didn’t care why, it only mattered that she began to give me a few francs every couple days. I shared them with Oumar for his quota, but no one else.
A couple weeks later I imagine she must have asked around and realized I had to give any money to my marabout, because she started giving me the exact amount I owed each night, along with a sandwich in a little plastic bag. It was helpfully cut in half, and Oumar and I usually had it devoured before her car turned the corner down the street.
She cut the crusts off. I never understood that. Years later I asked her about it and she laughed. She said her mother had done it for her, so she always did it for her son John.
I’m not sure what brought it on, but following about eight months of giving me sandwiches a couple times a week, there was another shift. She decided to do something more. I still don’t know why she picked me, but she did. One day she opened her car door and said get in.
I’d like to think I wouldn’t have left Oumar if he’d been with me, but for the first time in nearly seven years, he’d not been at my side. The night before the marabout had come for me, and as I retreated in fear Oumar stepped forward and took my place in the big bed.
He couldn’t stand the next morning, which was the only reason he wasn’t beside me. But in that moment, when she opened the door to a new life, I chose not to remember. I chose not to remember the nights we’d huddled together, sharing whatever food we could scrape up. I chose not to remember the hours we’d spent dreaming of a different life. I chose not to remember the brother who had kept me alive.
She opened the door, I got in, and I chose never to look back.
Chapter 4: Matt
The partners are standing in the corner to my right, arranging themselves unconsciously around Winston, the managing partner. Kate and I call them the ducklings, and used to laugh at how they waddle after Winston wherever he goes.
“When we make partner,” we’d promised each other, “no quack-quack!”
They occasionally send furtive glances my way, and continue whispering, while trying not to look stressed. Winston is the only one who can really pull it off — as usual, he looks as carefree as if he’s about to walk onto the golf course. But then he’s been managing crisis’ large and small for almost forty years, ever since he founded Stumptown out of his dorm room at Reed College.
The lawyers and the money men are on the other side of the room, seated at one end of the long mahogany table, whispering and not quite as furtive with their glances. I never realized how long this table is, but I pretend not to notice either group as I sit in the exact middle of the room, staring at the empty chairs across from me.
How many times have I been in this room under different circumstances? This is the room where I made my first pitch, where I sold my first client, where I was given my first solo account. This is the room where I have watched in awe as Winston maneuvers his way through whatever minefield presents itself, and where I hoped to be crowned partner after neatly managing Harry’s latest crisis — something that seemed earth-shatteringly important just last night. I’d tossed in bed, thinking through possible outcomes and spins until late into the night. Today the dream I’ve pursued for the past decade tastes like ash.
Today I find out what is going to happen to my sister. My oldest friend. My only real family. Shared trauma in childhood bonded us in a way most of my friends don’t understand, and even though we disagree on some pretty fundamental life issues, I honestly don’t know if I’ll be able to hold it together if something happens to her. If the last hours are any indication, I’m not even sure I can hold it together until the end of this ordeal, no matter the outcome.
Becca has been the only thing that kept me from disintegrating at different times in our lives, or disappearing altogether into the bottle instead of just maintaining a larger than average alcohol budget. She hasn’t been able to stop me from submerging myself in my work, but that’s not for lack of trying.
And Kate! What have I done to my best friend? The other reason I’ve survived the past decade here at the Stump, surrounded by so much that is bizarre and life-sucking. Kate understands this part of my life in a way Becca never will. The complete and utter absorption of it all. The high, the risk, the stakes.
What have I done? I realize my hands have gone numb from how hard I’m clasping them, and slowly release each finger one by one.
We’re waiting on the K&R guys — Kidnap & Ransom. I’d never even heard the term before it’d come in Becca’s email about suggestions for Kate’s visit. I certainly didn’t know it was a thriving, multi-national, multi-million dollar industry. One side of a complex and growing new international business model.
It took about an hour this morning for the partners to get back to me with permission to call the K&R company. The 24-hour number they’d given me was answered on the first ring, a soothingly professional voice taking my name and telling me someone would arrive from Chicago within six hours. That meant private jet and trained, on-call staff — no wonder the policy was so expensive.
Becca had given me a couple names, as well as an explanation for why she thought it’d be a good idea, but I trusted her judgement and just skimmed to the list at the bottom of her email. I picked the first one, called up their website and bought a policy. It was expensive, but Harry only balked at the cost to paper over his fiascos when he was not currently in one.
How he ever thought he could get away with a fake school for African orphans in this day and age — but I’ve learned in my years in image management that there’s no end to the size of the bubble these people can live in.
They think everything can be fixed with a phone call — and I can see where they get that opinion as we’re often at the other end of that call, marshaling a ten-story office complex and thousands of professionals exercising an expertise honed in countless scandals big and small.
Our three-pronged priority in image management — to minimize the damage, mitigate the loss, and make sure the public falls in love with our clients again as quickly as possible. We have specialists in every field of the spectrum, deeply committed and highly compensated for their absolute discretion.
I’m especially good at it. I’ve got some of my father in me — his smooth voice, his facility with persuasion, his almost supernatural ability to weave a tale that spellbinds. It makes me an excellent IM hack, though I’m not sure what kind of a person.
I try not to think about the moral implications of my job very often, but when I do, I find the hatred of both myself and my job usually sends me on a weekend bender requiring the occasional Monday morning sick call. But by Tuesday the paycheck and my superior skill at shoveling BS always woo me back to my desk with few regrets.
Two men in custom suits walk past the full pane windows of the conference room, shaking me out of my reveries. They are escorted by Veronica, who has been crying on and off since she heard about my sister. Obviously it’s not public knowledge in the building, but as Winston’s secretary, she is privy.
I never much cared for Veronica, but I make a mental note to be nicer to her. I always thought she was a bit of a battle-ax, but maybe she’s just tired of all the crap we deal with on a day-to-day basis. When she brought in the coffee a few minutes ago I thanked her mechanically, but didn’t notice she’d just stood there beside me until Winston coughed. I looked up and caught a glimpse of her eyes welling before she slipped out the door.
The men are big. Though well-made, the suits bulge around their stocky figures. And self-assured. I recognize that walk; my father used to walk that way. I try not to hold their obvious self-confidence against them — I’ve been fighting against that for years and have it mostly under control, although it used to initiate my gag reflex.
Veronica opens the door and meets my eyes as they brush past her. She nods slightly and looks like she’s tearing up again, so I turn away and concentrate on the men.
Winston walks forward, followed by the ducklings, and sticks his hand out confidently. “I’m Winston Fieldcroft, managing partner here at Stumptown. Thanks so much for coming.”
They shake hands and the taller man introduces himself, “My name is Ken Foster, I’ll be your liaison on the Wade case. I’m sorry to have to meet you under these circumstances.”
Preliminaries over, Winston points toward me and I slowly stand, “this is Matthew Sullivan, our point man on this.”
“Matt,” I say reflexively, as I extend my hand across the table. It’s wide enough that it’s a bit of a stretch.
“Matt, good to meet you.” He points to the other man and says, “This is Javier Mora, my assistant on this.”
Assistant my hind end. Unless he means assist-me-in-a-gunfight.
I shake Javier’s hand as well, like this is any regular meeting. It’s a little surreal.
“Let’s get started shall we?” Ken takes control immediately, nodding to the lawyers and the money men. He sits down, pulls a slim leather notepad out of his inside jacket pocket, and flips it open.
I sit back down, and register the fact that Winston sits beside me, rather than taking his normal throne at the end of the table. The ducklings arrange themselves in the seats that remain. It’s a fairly large group for such a sensitive matter, but it’s a big table.
Ken makes eye contact with me, and his gaze is straightforward and no nonsense. Though his build scares me just a little, I find that I also trust him instinctively.
“Matt, I’ve got a series of questions for you, and I’m sure you have quite a few questions for me. I have a lot of experience with this process, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view. I find it’s best if we start with a little bit of an introduction to what we’re going to be looking at, then I’ll take whatever additional questions you have. Are you okay with that?”
I nod numbly, and pick up my pen out of habit. I should be taping this, I think suddenly, then see one of the lawyers stick a recorder in front of Ken.
“It appears Ms. Wade has been taken by the Fist of Allah, a quasi-religious militia that operates almost without opposition in Mauritania, Senegal and Mali. They move around quite a bit, based on where the action is heating up. This is not our first interaction with them. We’ve had two clients for whom we’ve successfully negotiated release, and since we share information with the other major K&R firms, we have files on fifteen other kidnappings. They seem to be in the business completely for the money, and rarely kill their captives. Several have died from accidents or failed escape attempts, and a team of scientists was killed outright last year when the Mauritanian government attempted a rescue.
“There has been a major increase in incidents in this region over the last twenty years, but especially in the last five. One reason is the explosion of small groups trying to fund their little revolutions, but I think the larger factor is that some European countries have begun paying out a set ransom per transaction.”
His words ebb and flow, and I’m aware enough of my disconnection to be glad that someone is recording this. I’m not sure what I’m capable of taking in at this point.
“Normally this process takes about a year. It’s unnecessary, but it’s a bit of a power and terror play on their part. I want you to know that we will be with you throughout the process — guiding and advising — as long as this takes. Javier will head out when we finish our meeting here to join the others we have operating in that region.
“And we’ve found that the Fist is a bit more flexible as an organization. This is a good thing, the shorter duration usually means the client comes out in better physical condition.”
He has been methodically scanning the room, but always returning to make eye contact with me. He barely looks at his notebook and I wonder idly how many times he’s had to give this speech.
“I’m going to be honest with you, there aren’t a lot of women in the files, and this is the first case we’ve handled of women taken alone. The ones we know of usually come out in worse condition than the men. It’s very common for habitual, repetitive sexual assault to happen in these camps. It’s not a given, but it’s common enough that you need to be aware of the situation, and so you can prepare for Ms. Wade’s release. We have a lot of good resources that we can talk about later.”
He pauses, no doubt because the blood has just run out of my face to pool somewhere near my stomach, making me violently nauseous.
There’s a loud ringing in my ears and I lay my forehead down on the cool surface of the table I’ve always admired as I try to swallow down the bile that threatens to erupt all over it.
Through the ringing I hear Winston tell Ken what he evidently hadn’t been briefed on, that my sister was taken along with the client. Like I’d feel much different if my sister wasn’t along, just my best friend of almost twenty years who’d taken the job as a favor to me. But in Winston’s defense, I’m not sure he knows how close Kate and I are.
There is a silence in the room, but not a long one, and my breathing starts to return to normal.
“Matt,” I hear both anger and what sounds like genuine compassion in his voice, both of which surprise me. “Matt, I apologize. I was not fully briefed on the situation. There is a completely different protocol for family members and I would never have started off this way if I’d known. Do you need another minute?”
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.
I can hear Becca’s voice in my head, calm and steady, talking me down from another attack. So many times in person, and more times in my head, her voice has talked me off the ceiling. I’ve got to be strong for her now. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.
“No, no I’m all right now. I’m sorry about that. You’re right, I want to know the truth so I can be prepared. You can continue.”
The meeting goes on for hours, but the only real measure of the passage of time for me is when Veronica brings in lunch menus for us to choose from. One part of my brain notices she brought the Alpha menus, the ones we break out for the best clients. I don’t select anything, sure I can’t eat, but when she returns a short time later, she sets a grilled cheese sandwich and Dr. Pepper in front of me. She’s Winston’s secretary for a reason, and probably has a file on each of us with our favorite foods.
I try to get some of it down, chewing methodically and taking a sip to wash down each bite. Regardless, I taste nothing.
The hierarchy in our company is set in stone, and it applies in this crisis as in any other. First Winston asks his questions, then the other ducklings get a shot. Then the lawyers, and finally the money men. Junior account reps take notes frantically, the partners only use pens as props.
Winston’s phone vibrates discreetly at least once every five minutes, but to his credit he doesn’t check it until our lunches come and we take a ten-minute break.
I wonder if they will ever finish with their questions.
So many topics are mentioned, so much information is thrown at us, that I feel like I’m drowning. Ken talks about how we shouldn’t involve either the State Department or the media, explaining that secrecy is the best way, bar none, to do business in these cases.
I feel the collective stress level in the room ratchet down at that statement. We at Stumptown consider ourselves masters of our universe, and we certainly know how to keep our own people quiet, but I can tell it was a worry.
He tells us we need to consider this a business arrangement, a professional exchange of goods and services. The more we can be unemotional, the better. I find myself wondering if he has worked so many jobs he’s lost his ability to empathize, when he turns to me again.
“Matt, I understand that this is going to be impossible for you. But the more you can manage your own emotions, the more you can detach, the better. Amal will treat this as a business, and if you can dialogue with him in those terms, it will be better for everyone.”
When we finally wrap up, I feel like I’ve been steamrolled. Winston hugs me on his way out — a first that I normally would have gone straight home to call Kate about, and we would have passed a happy hour analyzing if my chances for advancement had just materially improved.
Ken waits for me at the door as I have to shake the hand and listen to the empty words of each of the ducklings. When I finally get away he pulls me out into the hall and directs us into a corner.
“You’re going to have trouble sleeping tonight, but you should at least try. That’s why we’re meeting later in the morning tomorrow, precisely so you can get some sleep. But I’d like to meet with you before, perhaps for breakfast?”
Veronica walks up and stands at a discreet distance. Ken turns to her and she approaches. “Mr. Foster, I’ve arranged a room for you and your colleague at the RiverPlace. We’ve got a driver downstairs who will take you there whenever you’re ready.”
She withdraws as silently as she came, and Ken turns to me. “How about breakfast at my hotel at 9:00? Would that work for you?”
I nod in agreement, and stumble toward the elevators, wondering if I’ll be able to make it home before I pass out.
I know Becca and our Mom visited him once, about a year after he was released from prison and right before Becca moved to Egypt. I think Becca knew I would refuse to go, so she didn’t put me on the spot. Mom, of course, never cared about that and went ahead and asked. I’m pretty sure I cursed her out.
I don’t know how the visit went — I imagine if he’d fallen to his knees in repentance I would have heard the hallelujah’s from three states away. Not surprisingly, there was nothing but silence. Big shock. Repentance was never his strong suit.
When I call, Mom takes it pretty much how I thought she would — within a few moments of the very briefest of explanations, she completely loses it and passes the phone to Aunt Bertie, whom she’s lived with almost since the beginning of our return from Guatemala.
We’d lived with grandma and grandpa at first, but that didn’t go very well and Bertie had quickly offered an alternative. She had a big house and a bigger heart. Dear Bertie, who held us together those first years, who made our lunches and bought our school clothes and gave us spending money while mom skated around on the third floor like the ghost she was. Is.
Aunt Bertie listens to all the details in her calm and steady way, and we decide together that she won’t bring Mom to Portland. Mom does better in her own environment, even without crisis.
Sometimes I think she never really did return from Guatemala with us. Certainly not the Mom I remember. Confident. Strong. Laughing with the ladies at church and joking in fast-flying Spanish. Firm and steady as she held her old Bible in one hand and grabbed some woman’s shoulder with the other, giving much-sought after advice. I admired her then.
Just as Bertie and I say goodbye Mom grabs the phone and tearfully demands I call him.
I refuse. She argues. I hold fast. She breaks into noisy tears again and I curse when I hear the click. Actually that’s pretty much how our conversations always go.
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