East Africa’s coast — so close that Campbell smelled the tang of seawater— their desert caravan slowed. Ahead, he recognized the low-slung buildings of the military base amid blue sparks of sunny ocean. Then at watchtowers flanking the entrance to the compound, armed Saburians met them at the gate.
Gesturing, raising voices and then making phone calls, their driver and one sentry began talking heatedly. Another young guard confiscated Elise’s handgun, apologizing and complimenting its rose color in broken English. Finally they pulled in, big wheels crunching down the gravel driveway.
Bland — sand and dirt — a windblown scrap of desert beach, the gray buildings stood between brilliant dashes of blue water blurring in the heat, a color spectrum that struck a strange chord in him, a primal memory from eons ago when humans had migrated north from this land.
There were new signs of irrigation from his last visit, variegated bushes, hibiscus plants and a feral orange cat, a twin to Lucky’s tabby, Livingstone. More grasses and gardens, flowers and fountains, this campus was flourishing like an oasis.
Their military jeep pulled up to the glass doors of the main building. Boys rushed out to carry their luggage. Under the shadow of colonial history that the Saburian king had protested as a student, Campbell hesitated before letting them pick up his bags. But Elise stepped out royally. Having switched into high heels that clacked into the entryway, she strode into the lobby beside him.
An old man stood behind the desk in a hotel uniform. “Please sit down,” he said, pointing to lounging sofas.
“Thanks, Captain,” she said when the Saburian handed them menus. Examining the laminated paper, even turning it upside down, she pointed to one of the items. “I need this please.”
After pulling up a chair opposite her, Campbell just asked for water. After the man left, he wondered, “What was that dead kid about?”
She shook her head. Captain brought her a tumbler of whiskey, brown on blue frozen stones. She sipped and rested the back of her head against the upholstery.
“I like him,” she said. “Especially that he speaks English. But I don’t want him to hear what I’m going to say.”
Elise lowered her voice. “David, Saburia’s public programs are expensive. So its economy depends a lot on mining and tourism, especially the parks, though they’re not as big as Kenya’s or South Africa’s.
“Like other parts of Africa, poaching of rare wildlife is a problem here. Markets abroad pay top money for ivory, rhino horn and exotic wildlife like the Saburian lyuma cat. It’s an endangered species but kittens are sold for tens of thousands of dollars — each. I read that the king publicly hangs offenders who’re not shot first.
“It’s always been true for royalty. King Saburi prizes his wildlife.They say he loves to fly his private plane over the parks — to admire them.”
Dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, she continued, “Gangs kill poachers for the bounty. Maybe they also get paid to kill the whole family and then leave the children’s dead bodies by the roads as a scare tactic.”
Campbell shook his head. “That’s a morbid theory. But everything I read says what a safe country this is, and Saburi is a benign autocrat, the best form of government. But seeing is believing…so now I wonder?”
Captain was back. Campbell ordered a bread and goat meat dish from the photo on the menu. “It looks to be a Saburian version of a burger with a side of …what’s this?
“And is this a diet soda?” Campbell asked the Saburian, pointing to another picture.
Poor skinny kid.
After Captain left, he said, “Back when we passed the corpse, I wondered what our driver was shouting into the car phone.”
Wheeling her suitcase inside the lobby, the young driver now approached them. Looking shy, she smiled at them for the first time and shook her head when they tried to talk to her.
“No English,” she said softly. She bowed her head, “Hello. Goodbye, see you later.”
His Saburian “burger” was delicious, and he had a second one. Then they followed Captain to their rooms.Tap-tapping her impossibly high heels, raising her above his shoulder, Elise led the way.
Campbell had kept his carryon and would have carried his other bags in. But hierarchy was strict here. His American informality sometimes met with suspicion or contempt abroad. So instead, he smiled and tipped a lot.
At StarHall, the French teacher had taken their class on his first international trip. The ten-year-olds struggled through a Paris tourism manual written in French. It advised expressing interest to the natives of any country while traveling, about their cuisine, history and culture. He was still grateful to that author. Surprised locals everywhere usually responded warmly.
Today, he was too tired to smile much. The Chinese driver had politely declined his tip. But Captain cheerfully took his cash. He stayed in the same room as last time, A botanist’s drawings of rare Saburian plants hung on the walls. It opened to a balcony with an ocean view.
He changed and met Elise again in the lobby, a serene setting with a small fountain gurgling softly alongside Chinese flute and violin music.
“I suppose I should have tipped him too,” Elise conceded grudgingly after Captain brought two glass tumblers and a jug on ice water and placed them on carved wooden coasters. Then the same young goddess of the coffee pot from the plane appeared and led them to Kochanski’s office.
Glad that Kochanski had learned that he felt uncomfortable with tight embraces, the two men shouted happy greetings and broke into easy conversation. When Kochanski held his hand out to Elise, she grazed fingertips. They seated themselves around the table with a bottle of Loire white wine in a chiller.
“A little bird told me you like it,” Kochanski told Elise.
The Egyptian uncorked the bottle. She poured the wine for Elise who swirled it in her glass, tasted it and nodded approval. Campbell waved a proffered glass away. Sobriety was part of the American competitive edge.
“Come on, David,” Kochanski said. ” I have something to celebrate and this wonderful French white needs to be drunk. Like our scientists and some girls, but not our Elise of course, it doesn’t age well.
Elise’s face was stony.
Had Kochanski already started drinking? Campbell glanced at the Egyptian woman whose face was expressionless. Following Campbell’s eyes, Kochanski dismissed her with a nod and then grinned like a child.
“Our Manny is free,” he exclaimed. “He’s back at Pandolf.”
“Oh my God, Michael!” Campbell exclaimed. “All right, pass me a glass. Tell me what happened.”
“Me too,” Elise said.
Kochanski did not know much, just that Garcia had been a victim of identity theft and ICE released him after discovering their error.
“For some reason, he’s not sure he still has a job at Pandolf,” Kochanski added. “He’s going to let me know.”
“Keep me updated,”Campbell said. “I’m sending him a message right now.”
“Sorry about the trip,”Kochanski said, “I heard about the dead kid. Why leave it near the main road, everyone’s wondering? Is it a warning to foreigners? But General Shah insists not and says that the body just ‘accidentally’ fell off a bounty hunter’s truck.”
Campbell then showed some of his slides on the wall screen, skipping past the technical ones. “We’ll go through those tomorrow when we’re more alert.”
Instead, he showed pictures of George, Charlie, Garcia, Pandolf Medical Center, the open locker with Garcia’s laptop and drives and finally a photo of his latest recruit, a Libyan with impressive credentials in medical applications of computers.
“With all the recent scares, he could not renew his visa so I grabbed him for Zoser. For that, Michael, I got another recruitment bonus.”
Kochanski clapped mockingly. “The American taxpayer supports his education and then an international company like Zoser — with no loyalty to any country — gets the payoff.”
“He’s also willing to help our cancer project, Michael,” Campbell added, “and work within our budget.”
It wasn’t all good news. Garcia messaged Campbell that he no longer had a job at Pandolf.
“Manny is asking if we can make arrangements for him to come to Saburia,” Campbell said, surprised.
“Just in case, I already bought him tickets to Saburia, through Buenos Aires and Athens,” Kochanski said. “Both Saburia and Soria Clinics are interested in him working here. I’ll send him a message right now.
“David,” Kochanski added, “I bought the tix under your consulting company name, so just add it to my bill.”
“Michael, you can’t just do that, don’t do it again.”
After returning to his room, he pressed a button on the remote to shut heavy black shades on the daylight, feeling homesick. He could smell her lavender soap and feel his hand sliding down her arm as he followed her into the restaurant for dinner that night, gliding over pink cashmere to the silky skin of her wrist, then lightly touching long loosened hair down her back while listening to her funny, throaty way of describing life.
After everyone had finally left, Kochanski pulled out his bottle of Dew vodka from the freezer and his pack of cigarettes. Who was Campbell to scold him? Why were Americans so fussy and judgmental instead of minding-their-own-business?
His computer chimed some Chopin piano music, signaling a message from his daughter in England. Katya made him a better man. Proudly, he remembered the time over twenty years ago when he had helped her mother escape the traffickers. Never tender to Irina in front of the gang, how much he had loved her.
He had heard that Irina was going to market like a pig and pretended to be angry with her and indifferent when they took her away. The public bus had transported her and a handler to the south.
They had taken crazy risks as a young couple. Irina followed their escape plan to the letter. “If I die, it’s alright,” she declared bravely and kissed him. “Never forget me.”
When her bus had slowed to a stop on a remote road in the hills. Kochanski was ready with a silencer on his gun. He had punctured two of its tires in a small town where they had lunch. A crowd of people emerged to get some air while the driver checked things out.
Finally, Irina had emerged from the bus with the man escorting her, his arm possessively around her waist. But she kicked him hard and broke through the small group. Waiting until the two were well away from the other travelers, he shot the trafficker chasing her.
Looking warily in the direction of the running girl, the rest of the passengers saw her pursuer drop to the ground and then took swift cover behind the bus. A scarf wrapped around his face, Kochanski rose from behind the dirt mounds.
She ran to him. His buddy, Jakub, had provided him an alibi for the day. They first dived into a grove of pine trees and then across railroad tracks into an old cemetery.
What a beautiful May afternoon it was! The couple had stopped to eat, drink, kiss and laugh giddily. There was a grizzled Jewish man in the graveyard wearing a yarmulke who was examining a broken headstone in the weeds, taking notes and photos. Kochanski quickly tossed his rifle into some lilac bushes.
They had strolled forward, two young lovers, when the old man looked up. Kochanski wrapped his hand around Irina’s waist, proud of how calm she was, and how much she trusted him as she relaxed against his shoulder. He tightened his arm around her waist, still so slender despite the baby.
It turned out that the man and his wife were Israeli professors, doing research about their ancestry inside the Jewish cemetery. In Russian, so the other couple would not understand her, Irina said that she wasn’t comfortable with Jews, that in Russia, she had heard “bad” things.
Kochanski’s Russian was weak. He told her his family secret: his mother’s mother was Jewish. “In a way, I am too.” Irina’s eyes widened as he explained that during the Nazi days, his Jewish grandmother had been fostered by a Polish Catholic family as one of their own for her protection.
To their surprise, the Israeli couple also understood Russian and were delighted to hear this history. Welcoming them into their home, they fed them: hot pierogi, dumplings filled with meat, and hearty mushroom soup.
Kochanski and Irina told the couple a limited version of their own story: “A hook of truth for them to hang fancies on,” Irina later noted dryly.
The Israeli couple did not ask questions. Now he understood that sometimes it’s best not to know. Young and beautiful, a boy-man and a girl blossoming with a child, they simply made the old pair happy.
At the time, he had needed to leave Irina, and the couple agreed to help her until he returned. When they returned to Israel, she stayed as their house-sitter. Gentle people, he hadn’t appreciated it back then, thinking that their kindness and trust were signs of weakness.
He was able to occasionally visit Irina, swelling with pregnancy, and Jakub had kept up his alibi. Eventually, Kochanski bought Irina and their baby home. Then his mother had only insisted on a small wedding, just them and the small town priest.
At the age of twenty-four, Michael Kochanski became Number One — the new head of his syndicate — no longer White Rat. He had murdered the previous Number One and implicated his own boss, Number Two, for the death. While their real names were lost in the fog of his memory, he remembered Jakub. His friend had become the weak link when he talked to a lover.
In another gang war, that leak of information led to Irina’s revenge murder. Would his gang have spared Irina if she had been Polish rather than Russian? Maybe. They had left his mother hogtied outside, the baby wailing inside. They did not even shoot the dog. Could he have done more to save his wife’s life? Maybe. But he had begun to doubt Irina by then.
He still employed Jakub at the Polish vodka factory; his buddy was just too trusting and didn’t know his role in what had happened. It really wasn’t Jakub’s fault after all.
Now Kochanski opened the voice message from his daughter. She had sent him dates that she might travel to see him in Chicago and the schedule for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The phone in his room buzzed. “Your dinner order is ready, sir. Can we bring it up?”
Yes, he was hungry. The waiter brought him his sizzling steak dinner on the terrace. There the evening was rapidly cooling, and the East African stars glittered in the ancient sky. His thoughts returned to dead Oscar. The number of his employees who were not “on the books” had just dropped by one.
He had told his therapist in Chicago, “I’m not aging well. Maybe it’s all those things that Katya sends me — links, apps, videos, music, news, poetry, stories…too much. Then she wants to know what I think about it. Feeling proud of her, an advanced student, of course I’ve to let her know.
“But thinking that hard is bad for my head, my business — I shouldn’t ponder too deeply.”
“What happened to JoAnn?” The psychologist changed the subject.
“I broke it off. JoAnn’s only a little older than Katya, who didn’t like her.”
Katya had reminded him to keep his promise to her mother to not remarry. “As soon as your young girlfriend has a ring on her finger, or maybe she won’t even wait for that, then your daughter will be tossed out of your life…there.” Katya waved vaguely into the night toward Lake Michigan.
What? Would Katya kill herself?
JoAnn went ballistic upon hearing what Katya said — “one of the most stupid, selfish, backward and cruel things” and hurled some terrible names at his daughter. JoAnn lost that battle. Some conflicts are wisely avoided by the most fearless of men.
It had been one of his daughter’s worst rants: “Then JoAnn will want babies. They always do, you know. She’s lying if she says otherwise. After that, she’ll tell you Katya should learn to take care of herself and not be your problem anymore.”
Katya had clapped her hands and pointed to the door. “Then boom, exit right, your daughter!
She continued, her face pink and teary. “I don’t want to lose my dad. I’ve seen that happen to other girls when their fathers remarry — they become messes, no self-esteem, drugs, booze and lovers dumping them.
“That’s a nice chapel you built for my grandmother. But I don’t believe in your God. He doesn’t care. If you remarry, I want your lawyer to be very cynical in drafting your prenup …”
He had been relieved — Katya would only care about a prenup if she planned to stay alive.
“At least your lawyer will take care of me. I’ll never get my dad back after already losing my mom, whom I can’t even remember, and my grandmother.”
Katya had then looked up at the stars, ever-present, delivering no judgment. “Oh look, there’s Orion’s belt? Like the stars, we’re stuck with each other. So tell me about the latest in Chicago? How’s your business?”
Before she had died, he and Irina had been in a hospital room, stainless steel, starched white linen, and the only color he remembered was the blood transfusing into her thin arm. She coolly asked that their young daughter never have a stepmother and he promised that to her. But Irina was only around twenty years old at the time. An older wife would have told him to be happy after she died? Shouldn’t Katya want that for him now?”
He didn’t want to be alone for the rest of his life. Just this evening, he had looked hard at Elise’s face and liked it.
Then there had been his girlfriend before JoAnn, closer to his own age. “Evil Stepmother Witch, and I won’t allow it!” Katya had shouted. Theatrically on her way out, before slamming the door, she added, “Dad, I can’t think of a single friend who has a stepmother she likes.”
“You’re exaggerating,” he had said softly to the closed door. “That’s not true, What about Abraham Lincoln? You sent me his biography. He loved his stepmother.”
When Katya was just a year old, he had married Irina, who then moved in with Kochanski’s mother, While he was often far away, both women took turns working and caring for the baby. In the worldview of a butcher boy, their wedding in the local church had seemed superfluous. But now, a man, he was grateful to his mother for insisting on it.
Orion’s belt: pointing the constellation to Katya as a child, he had described his marriage. The ceremony had made his brief time with Irina feel more fated than mated, eternal in a way he had not known before or since, elevating them above other unions of human flesh and their litters, people born for the meat trade of this corrupt world. That hour in the chapel still twinkled its star, a memory brightest when Katya sent him something to read, see, or hear, in English, French, Polish, and Russian, her earnest explanations reflecting her mother’s fanciful nature.
Who could he talk to about Oscar, his guilt about the young migrant’s death? His Chicago therapist may have to report him to the law.
She had once suggested switching to a Polish-American psychologist.
“But I need a home-grown like you to interpret America to a transplant like me,” he had told her.
A Catholic priest was better. Memories were now the world he entered: his small town priest who had performed his wedding, black and white wiry brows, forehead furrows fading into smooth and bald like rippled sand drifts into sea. In Polish, where each word, syllable, and pause echoed within the deepest wells of his being, it was time again for an imaginary conversation with this father.
As a man of business, he could be flexible.Being now alone after losing his mother and Irina, well, life’s journey starts and ends alone. This was between him and a world long ago dead. He would seek wise counsel in the past.
Kochanski turned off the light and locked the door to the terrace. They could clear his dishes tomorrow.
Within his imaginary world, shutting out the present, the two men now sat across from each other on the terrace, bright in the rising moon, scented with potted jasmine. Only faint strains of exotic music, not Chopin, sounded far from home, distant tunes carried on ocean breezes above the roar of endless water
“On a different subject, yes, I want to discuss Chicago,” Kochanski said to the dead priest.
“Now, Michael, don’t make it too complicated.”
“I recruited an illegal from South America, Oscar Sanchez, a smart boy like me at his age. I had him running a valuable painting to a forger named Alex Marion.
“I found Marion in the Deep Web,” Kochanski continued, “They said he was talented, Paris-trained, ‘a photographic eye and a master’s hand in his brushstrokes.’ So I hired him to do a fake of my Vermeer for an insurance fraud scheme. Sanchez was taking the painting to him that night he was murdered.”
Silence. The old man had a habit of closing his eyes and only half-listening, forgetting much of what he heard and sleeping through the rest, a convenient way to forgive.
Kochanski waited. The silent night and cold stars offered no inspiration. So he drank his first shot of Dew. Now talking was easier. “I offend my base colleagues by calling them ‘techies’ and then that judgmental American, Campbell, thinks I’m a drunk.”
Shot number two and Kochanski added, “Marion is married with a wife, two kids in private school but no one is buying his paintings. Where does his family’s income come from? Hmm? I look into it with the techies’ help.
“So the wife’s relatives send them a small monthly check. Marion is also getting payments into his bank account from a rich lawyer in Chicago named Jim Sichet for doing a family portrait. That’s the same cutthroat that keeps trying to take over my Pierre Building. But even counting public aid, it still doesn’t add up to the money Marion’s family is spending.”
Kochanski paused. Now the pots of flowers on the terrace and all the matter in the black universe breathlessly waited. “In pictures of the Chicago art world, I find a painting of Callie, Marion’s wife. The painter is Max Herman, Manny Garcia’s brother-in-law and little George’s uncle, ugly blocks of color for the portrait of an angel. Small world huh because guess who buys it?
“Uh-huh, you got it, Sichet. Maybe an affair between that fixer and Callie would explain all that money coming into her family. Now let’s say that Sichet found out from Callie that Oscar is sneaking in my painting to be copied by her husband? Now Sichet knows what I’m up to and he has a hook for me, just another little fish for him to catch.
“So then the techies here check the server for a health system in Chicago using a mole. Sichet’s electronic health record showed he’s getting a prescription medication that he stopped after getting a heart condition — Father looked befuddled — meaning like the great King David, who liked young women even when he was sick and old.”
Kochanski grunted into the intercom and unlocked the door to the terrace. The servant was prompt, brought in one of his computers and picked up his dishes. He suspected that the Saburian had been listening to the crazy foreigner murmuring into the night. Kochanski sifted through picture files. Examining it again, Herman’s portrait of Callie wasn’t as ugly as it had seemed the first time.
Like the Dew that now seared his throat, he felt the burning injustice of Oscar’s murder, a young man’s untimely death with no family to mourn him. His fists clenched. Drunk punches landed in the empty night.
“When I return to Chicago, I’ll be a frog next to that honey girl, Callie, moving fast with my tongue to catch some flies.”
“Son, you’re a man, not a beast. Seek absolution for your guilt in Christian action starting with less drink.”