He may as well have fallen from the sky, and in a sense, he has. Dropped here deep within a country he might not have heard of ten years earlier - no matter its name at the time - and run by a man who sticks obstinately to curious personal queries instead of addressing the issue confronting them. Is it a cultural thing, this lilting drone of pleasantries in the face of unfolding disaster?
I'd rather not talk about myself, the businessman finally says, conscious of the weight of his clothing in the heat; he's been wearing it for twenty-one hours, from New York to Brussels to Abidjan, plus another half-dozen takeoffs and landings. It's not helpful, the businessman adds, given the matter we face.
But I want to know about you, his host responds. It is not every day I have such a guest.
What else would you need to know about me?
His host shrugs. Perhaps you're right. I could always learn after. Later, is what I mean.
Something screams in the jungle - a monkey, a toucan, maybe a prisoner in chains. The businessman has learned to ignore suggestions of threats, but it occurs to him that this new ruler has not renounced the deposed regime's policy of torture.
You've brought a gift, eh? His host leans across the table, mouth eager.
The businessman has a silver-gray duffel at his feet. It's his only luggage, and he reaches into it now. His host likes replica jerseys of American football teams, so he has made sure to arrive with one. He presents it, and the other man holds it up in front of his Italian-made suit.
Patriots, he answers.
Of the NFL?
A couple of times, yes.
His host hands the jersey to an attendant, who folds it carefully against his chest, then retreats one backward step at a time from the wide veranda and disappears into the dark recesses of the governmental mansion.
His host has a broad face etched with the striations of ancient bark. Mirrored aviator sunglasses hide his eyes and throw back the reflection of a single white cloud pinned to the sky. Caviar, lobster tails, sliced pineapple and mango - it's all laid out there, sweating beneath the equatorial sun, on the small table at which they're perched. A champagne bottle, nearly full, lists in the silver bucket at his side, ice long since melted. The lifestyle of a despot in the making: The suit has replaced the fatigues, the mansion a tin-roofed barracks, the servant a cadre of machete-waving brothers-in-arms. Below them, in the driveway, a soldier with the same type of sunglasses - and a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder - kneels to scratch the chest of an emaciated dog they've watched inch its way across the wide lawn.
Hunger, his host says, nodding toward the scene, helps them find hidden reserves of strength. It's unclear whether he means the dog, the soldier, or both. So - he claps his hands. I propose we now get to the issue - how is it said? - before us.
How has he gotten here, from never having had any special skill or interest in business, or deal-making or alliance-building or even traveling?
Seven years earlier, he is twenty-six, peddling mortgages to desperate middle-aged couples of color, most of whom do not qualify. His father, growing impatient, makes a proposal, offering to fund a graduate degree in business at an institution on whose board a family friend sits. As is the case with any proposal his father makes, turning it down is not an option.
In his first year he treats it as much like a vacation as he can without failing out. Word gets back to the family friend, who tells his father. He is on warning. He works harder, detesting it more with every passing minute.
But in his second year, something changes. As part of his coursework, he travels to Moscow. It is, as his father might put it, an eye-opening experience. For six weeks, he and his fellow students are herded and protected and sequestered like dignitaries, or convent girls. One night, he manages to sneak away to prowl the shadowy streets, where after dark he experiences the city in a much different way than during the daylight hours spent on officially sanctioned sessions in the modern offices of fledgling, western-style businesses. After dark he senses the danger that comes with being so close to the essence of things. There is anger in the midnight streets: casual glances spark knife fights; taunts activate whirring sawmills of fists, feet, and elbows. In illegal clubs where bands play a brand of speed metal that pounds rivets into his brain, he drinks cheap vodka, and in the wild eyes and searing breath of the patrons - they're not kids, either - he finds something he thinks he's been looking for, though he is not sure what it is. A lot of them carry guns. Their skin is translucent, eyes yellow and blank. There are more drugs than he ever saw back home.
One night he is robbed and left beaten on the frozen cobblestones. He wakes up in a small café-like place, where two men feed him cold sausage and pour vodka down his throat. In the course of his recovery he tells them who he is and why he's in Russia. They speak more than passable English, and they are interested in his story. They say that they, too, are businessmen. We knew you are American when we find you on the street, one tells him.
Though he's been warned to watch out for thieves and con-men and gangsters, he is not afraid of these two. They have good haircuts and carry themselves with what he recognizes as a foreigner's conception of business mores. A pretty woman appears from behind the counter to daub his bloody lip, and because they encourage him to do so, he sleeps with her that night. In the morning his cell phone is gone. Later that day, in one of the interminable, officially sanctioned sessions, he borrows a classmate's phone to dial the number. Someone picks up. He recognizes the voice of one of the men.
A little joke, the man says, and then tells him a time and place where he can retrieve the phone.
Within weeks he has struck the beginnings of a partnership with these two. The trip ends, and soon he is back in the States. While he completes his MBA, he maintains communications with them. Through his father he secures some capital to supplement the cash the Russians have amassed. And just like that, he is part of a team, specializing in the murky logistics of international hazardous waste transport.
Africa, his host says, has long been a dumping ground for all sorts of things the developed world has no use for. Why do you think that is?
The businessman looks out over the airstrip-like expanse of the veranda. It is, he thinks to himself, very hot out here at three o'clock in the afternoon, too hot to be drinking champagne, even if champagne were something he enjoyed. Is it possible, he asks his host, to get a bottle of beer, and some water too? The emaciated dog is on its back now, legs feebly pedaling the air, as the soldier scratches its belly.
A minute later the servant emerges from the darkness of the mansion, silver tray balanced on one upturned hand. A green-glass bottle of Heineken stands next to a plastic one of Evian. He assumes from the shape and closeness of the beads that cling to their surfaces that both have been sitting in ice.
His host persists. You didn't answer my question. Why do you think that is?
The businessman sips first from his beer, then from the water. I try to avoid politics, he says, politely wiping his lip.
But everything, his host says, is politics. Even this - here he uses his hands to indicate the table, a gesture that's probably also meant to include themselves, the mansion, and the surrounding grounds - even this is politics.
He puts down the beer bottle, which is far from emptied. A sip or two is all he wanted anyway. This, he replies, making the same gesture, is business.
There is a sudden commotion below, in the driveway. He turns to see the dog on its feet, forelegs planted in attack stance, teeth bared. Those reserves of hidden strength. It releases a wolf-like snarl and leaps at the soldier, who has somehow fallen with his rifle beneath his body. The dog is in mid-air when a shot rings out. Another soldier, unseen until now, has his own Kalashnikov at his shoulder. The dog twists, crumples, and lands on its side. His host leaps from the table and shouts something in his own language to the men below; the fallen soldier scrambles to his feet and shouts something back. It goes on like this for a minute or more, with the soldier who fired the shot eventually seeming to mediate an agreement. The other meekly smoothes the front of his uniform; he re-slings his rifle and hauls the carcass somewhere beneath the veranda, out of sight. The smoke from the shot hangs, unmoving, in the heat.
My apologies, his host says, sitting down. He takes short, angry breaths through his nostrils. The barest sheen of sweat appears on his hard, dark skin. Ignorance, he says, as if explaining something. Or stupidity. Either way, it is a good lesson. Here he finally takes the sunglasses off. The eyes are normal - beautiful, actually, in their darkness and depth. The businessman feels drawn into them; he can see what has made this man a leader. Even the weakest creature will fight back, his host says, if you put your hands where they don't belong.
With the encouragement of his partners in Russia, he leases space in a nondescript Manhattan building whose innards were gutted, re-architected, and completely rewired during what the landlords refer to as "the Internet explosion." Two well-dressed Israelis with close-cropped hair and chiseled features run the place, in the lobby of which they park their high-end Japanese motorcycles for all to see. He pays little attention to fellow tenants, preferring to work quietly and anonymously behind the sound-proofed glass of his office.
He spends several thousand dollars a month in electronic equipment upgrades - powerful computer hardware; satellite phones; advanced encryption. One of the Russians proves to be a software savant; cobbling together scripts from various unlicensed and open-source programs, he has developed a system for tracking the small fleet of open-ocean vessels that ply various waters around the world.
Precious cargo, the other Russian jokes during a midnight call. We can't afford to lose our sight of it at any time. So tell me: You getting much laid lately?
It's not long before the Israelis begin to snoop around, under the pretence of interest in the computers he uses. They invite him to a party at a sleek downtown hotel, where cocktails are served in thick black glasses shaped like hand grenades and the dance music rumbles unpleasantly in his spine. Just before eleven, they materialize out of the chaotic din, bringing their chiseled faces close and smiling to show their perfect teeth. But these are the dead smiles of seasoned deal-makers. It didn't take much research, they say, to learn about him or his business; for all of the diversions and disguises and subterfuge, there is nothing much that can be truly hidden, not in this day and age, not for those intent on finding things out. They tell him this as if they're sharing wonderful news.
It turns out, though, they are able to offer just the help he needs. Even with his father's increasingly interested assistance, establishing a fluid system of electronic payments and transfers has not been easy. Triple-masked transactions and fake deposits into legitimate accounts work only so well, he confides.
Fucking Patriot Act, one of the Israelis says, and the other one nods.
So now his landlords are partners as well. Cash flow is tight, one of the Russians says during the next midnight conference call, taking the news in stride. If they can help, so much the better for us.
The other Russian, though, the software guy, seems less convinced. How do you know you can trust these Jews?
I just know, he says. It is the same way he knew that night in Moscow, he tells them, the night they found him lying in the street. If he had never trusted them, where would they all be? It goes back and forth like this for a while.
But we stole your cell phone, the first Russian finally says.
True, he admits. Silence ensues. Then suddenly the Russians are laughing, all the way from Moscow, as if this is the funniest thing they've ever heard.
Listen, his host says from the front seat. One hundred-sixty gigabytes of memory. That's forty-thousand songs! He laughs. Forty-thousand! You like this one? He leans forward and turns up the volume, so the inside of the SUV now vibrates beneath the assault of reggae. Murdered in daylight, his host shouts, naming a musician shot on a Johannesburg street several months earlier. Killed by common thugs! He shakes his head. A primitive crime - yet they refuse to execute the offenders!
There is another SUV ahead of them, and another behind. The businessman sits between two soldiers wearing the same camouflage uniforms as those back at the mansion. He is happy for the air conditioning; the interior of the vehicle is as cold as any fast-food place in the States. The rutted road is lined with shacks made of tin and corrugated plastic, haphazardly patched with vinyl panels bearing the logos of soft drink bottlers, automobile makers, oil companies, and appliance manufacturers. Tendrils of smoke wind among the structures, like creeping vines; blackened rags hang limp from orange extension cords that plug into nothing. A rusted, wheel-less shopping cart filled with newspaper holds two sleeping infants, naked. Cast-off junk serving useful purpose, as he's seen on the fringes of cities throughout the world, in all hemispheres. Oaxaca. Manila. Brasilia. Palermo.
Twenty-five more kilometers, his host shouts back to him. He changed out of his suit before they left the mansion, and he now wears a loose-fitting white shirt over khaki trousers. The sunglasses, though, are firmly back in place. Everyone in the entourage wears the same kind. He points through the windshield. Directly upriver from here, he yells.
The businessman nods to show that he's heard. The taillights of the leading SUV flash as it bounces over a ditch in the road - the bump momentarily reveals the undercarriage - and then it's their own turn for a bone-rattling jar. The soldier to his right is thrown against the door, and the barrel of his upturned rifle smashes against the window. Recovering, the guards look across him at one another, silently debating from behind their mirrored glasses whether to laugh. It seems they find it wiser not to. Up front, the host suddenly turns down the music.
Someday, he says solemnly, I see a paved road. A multi-lane highway, he corrects himself. He makes a grand gesture, waving his arm at all they're passing by. From here he says, to the capital. From the mountains to the coast.
It is not overstating things to say he's grown rich. He tries not to think like this, though, since stopping to contemplate success could immediately put it in danger. So he moves continuously forward, seeking out new opportunities, establishing new contacts - diversifying, as his partners have grown fond of saying. They all agree, himself and the Russians and the Israelis; they are serious about it: It's too good a business to fuck with. His father thinks so too, but he urges caution. I'll continue to invest, he says from his book-lined den in Virginia. Just play it smart. And I know I don't have to tell you to leave my name out of it.
They start with the wash water from ship holds - the marslops. Laced with oil, gas, caustic soda, acetylene, and dozens of other chemicals not always identifiable, it has to go somewhere, and there is always someone willing to take it. The trick is finding the party willing to accept the least amount of money to do so, and that is their business. They do not ordinarily work with governments - at least not publicly. They do not ordinarily work with well-known companies. They do not ordinarily work within established channels of international commerce or shipping.
This has become increasingly important in time as their business has diversified. Sometimes, they find the job, but lately the jobs are finding them. Heavy metals skimmed from tailing ponds, contaminated byproducts of weapons production, the tungsten and cesium in medical equipment. We don't care what is, one of the Russians has taken to saying, as long as you don't ask where it goes.
At first it was a joke, uttered in the middle of the night from Moscow, on the occasion of their first full year in business. The Israelis, drunk on the expensive vodka shipped in wooden crates by their now-collegial partners, hoisted their glasses, revealing their razor-sharp teeth in laughter. A big happy family. He toasted it too. But for all of them now, it has long since stopped being a joke.
The SUVs pull up on a low promontory overlooking a brackish river. Guards spill out from the first vehicle and come to open the doors onto the oven outside. The fall of his shoes on the ground raises small clouds of dust. An advance team has arrived in a separate truck, the panels of which are painted in camouflage.
Our Minister of the Ecology, his host says, introducing him to a short, serious-looking man in an open-necked shirt. It's impossible to tell his age, as it is with so many of them, but his bearing and demeanor suggest maturity.
The minister does not acknowledge him. Instead, he holds out a device that looks like the trackers used by package delivery companies. Can you see the screen? he asks. Without waiting for an answer he shields it with the side of his hand, cutting the glare.
The businessman wouldn't have believed it if he were told - he hasn't believed it - but there it is on the readout of the instrument.
I am not a scientist, his host says, all false humility. But I'm told that twelve milliroentgen per hour is forty times the international standard for safe exposure. Several kilometers upriver, at the bridge, I'm told it's sixteen milliroentgen.
We don't want to travel there, the minister says. He seems legitimately worried.
No, the businessman says, we don't. He goes over in his mind, not for the first time, the specific circumstances leading up to this. A freighter owned by a contact in Athens flying a Panamanian flag and leased by his own company with funds funneled out of Moscow. A Dutch captain and mate, overseeing a Malaysian crew. A thirty-ton cargo of copper ore laced with the residue of naturally occurring uranium, dug up in a distant Baltic nation and destined for disposal deep inside the abandoned mines beneath the northern hills of this, his host's country. It's not any more or less complicated than a dozen other jobs his company specializes in, it's what they do, only their oversight technically does not extend to the local truckers, hired to haul it to its final destination, who decided to dump the load in the river rather than try to get past the rebel checkpoint rumored to lie between them and the mines. The empty truck remains at the bridge, he's been told, though the drivers haven't been seen since.
His host stands before him. Tell me: How old are you?
He's already activated the satellite phone. If it matters to you, he says, I'm thirty-three.
The other man smiles, his striated face spreading in an almost audible stretch. Thirty-three, his host repeats. I killed four thousand people, with my hands or through my orders, by that age. Tell me, he says: How many do you think you've killed?
He moves to the side of the road, waiting for the connection to establish. There is a mound of broken glass at his feet. A toothless man with elbows like jug handles hobbles by, clutching a striped blanket to his shoulders, and falls into the meager shade of a gnarled acacia tree. Up the road from where they're parked is a billboard bearing a message that's obviously political in nature; it stands up like a sail in the sea of filthy, discarded clothing and plastic bottles piled around it. Several young boys who seem to have appointed themselves guardians of this sprawling collection stare down at him from atop the pile.
Hello, my friend, answers the Russian who isn't the software guy. Getting much black pussy?
Not very much, no.
Too bad! You sound worrisome. There is problem?
Potentially, yes. He describes the situation in general terms, without specifying the milliroentgen count.
The Russian sighs. So what does he want?
What they always want.
It's not like it's our fault, the second Russian says, jumping in. The truck drivers-
Are not our responsibility. I know.
Fuck it, the first Russian says. We'll give him fifty k.
I don't know if fifty will do it.
They've already been paid, the other Russian says, so fifty will have to do it. We get the Jews to wire tonight. You tell your man to be on lookout.
I'll tell him, he replies. But the connection is already dead. The old man under the tree regards him from beneath a brow like a ledge. The businessman packs the phone, hoists the silver-gray duffel, and heads back across the dusty road to where the SUVs are parked, three huge black insects in the sun. Down in the river, knee-deep in the brown water, a pregnant woman rinses and re-rinses a white enamel pot that seems as big as a car tire.
A family's most important possession, his host says, nodding toward her. As they watch, she runs her hand inside the pot and, seemingly satisfied, lifts it to her shoulder. Just as my own mother, only this one here has the good fortune not to be living in a refugee camp. He smiles when he says this. You think she, too, could give birth to a revolutionary? A patriot?
But then I'd have a rival, wouldn't I? Someone intent on killing me.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
His host nods at this. The woman is already up on the opposite bank, at the edge of the barren plain. So, he says. You have contacted your colleagues?
I'm authorized to promise fifty-thousand dollars for cleanup and mediation. It will be wired within twenty-four hours.
His host contemplates this with a curled half-smile. Do you think it's sufficient? As compensation?
The businessman is ready for this question. He is always prepared. Once more he unzips the duffel. From behind a thick false lining within, he extracts a bulging manila envelope sealed with a brass clasp. The other man's hand is already out, pale palm facing the sky. This, he tells his host, is a supplement. Another fifteen, for your patience and understanding.
No - dollars. He swallows, caught off-guard for the first time. Are you serious?
His host grins. Next time I might be. He takes the envelope and heads toward the passenger door of the middle SUV; a guard arrives to open it for him, then stands aside, straight-backed and respectful.
The old man under the tree has disappeared; the woman with the pot is a speck on the shimmering horizon. Only the boys standing sentinel at the trash heap remain, scowling down from their positions. The guard closes the front door, opens the rear one, and beckons.
Please, sir; we'll want to return now.
Pulling away, the caravan is pelted with stones. The driver mutters something into the radio, and the lead SUV immediately swerves out of line and heads back up the road. It trails a billowing cloud of dust as it races toward the pile where the boys were gathered.
It's a harrowing ride through darkness to the regional airport. The driver and the armed companion assigned to the businessman are silent, the redolence of their terror as strong as the reek of garbage outside. They stare through the windshield at the swirling mass of shadows. The businessman senses what somehow escaped him earlier: His host's grasp on power is not quite as strong as the man himself believes.
Flares light up in the blackness alongside the road - cooking fires or magnesium pots, he can't tell, and he'd be just as happy not to learn. He leans forward. I'd like to make this flight, he tells the driver; there's nothing more until tomorrow morning.
Tuesday, the soldier in the passenger seat says. He's by far the younger of the two, and he speaks around the knuckle of his thumb, which he's been chewing nervously since the start of the ride.
Excuse me? It's not that he hasn't heard; he just doesn't understand.
The young soldier takes his thumb from his mouth. Tuesday morning is the next flight, he explains. Not tomorrow. Tuesday. Day after tomorrow.
You'll get there in time, says the driver, wrenching the wheel to avoid a burning barrel that has been rolled into the road. I promise.
The man is good to his word, and they arrive at the low-slung terminal with more than twenty minutes to spare. He gives the driver a wad of the wrinkled and worthless local currency. Several more soldiers stand guard by the entrance; they exchange elaborate hand signals with the two who just dropped him off. It occurs to him that he might be the subject of their communication; there is something ominous in the movement of their fingers, the blankness of their eyes. Have they received orders of some kind?
The businessman hurries through the automatic door and proceeds to the only gate. A solitary vendor, a teenage boy, sells bags of dried apricots and warm orange juice in pint-sized cartons from an olive-green footlocker. The businessman takes one of each, looks over his shoulder, then offers the remaining bills and tells the boy to keep it all.
A minute later he is stepping across the tarmac to the small waiting plane. At first he thinks that the moisture on his skin could be blood, that he hasn't heard or felt the shots. Then he realizes it's water, that it's coming down from the nighttime sky. Maybe it's the arrival of the rainy season; maybe it's just a passing shower. He hoists the silver-gray duffel and boards, knowing he'll never need to learn.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Dominic Preziosi. All rights reserved.