Twenty years ago, Ray Campbell was a well-intentioned aid worker dedicated to improving conditions in Lubanda, a newly independent African country. Now a cautious risk-management consultant, he is forced to reconsider that year of living dangerously when an old friend is found murdered in a New York alley. Signs suggest that this recent tragedy is rooted in a more distant one—that of Martine Aubert, the only woman Ray ever loved, whose fate he’d sealed with a grievous mistake: “In Rupala, twenty years before, I had rolled the dice for a woman who was not even present at the table, and how on the outcome of that toss, a braver and more knowing heart than mine had been forfeited.”
Martine Aubert was a white, native Lubandan farmer whose dream for her homeland put her in conflict with fearsome men intent on its so-called development. As Ray returns to Lubanda to investigate the cause of his friend’s murder, he also revisits the passion he’d once felt for Martine and vows, in her memory, to rectify his wrongs.
A Dancer in the Dust is a gripping story of ill-fated love: one man’s love for an extraordinary woman, and one woman’s love for her troubled country.
“Not since John Le Carré’s The Mission Song have I seen such a loving and sorrowful portrait of modern Africa.” —The News & Observer (Raleigh)
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My tone was wary because for a professional risk assessment and management consultant calls are never welcome, since they are usually from people terrified that they have made the wrong choice and now must face the consequences. The simple, contradictory fact of life is this: human beings, victims, as they sometimes are, of sudden misfortune, easily lured into misadventure, and in all things bound by time, nonetheless dream of certainty even as they roll the dice.
"It's Bill Hammond. It's been a long time, Ray."
The tenor of his voice was considerably more somber than I remembered, and coming from so far in the past, it had the alarming effect of a board cracking beneath me.
"It has, indeed," I said.
Bill had never been one to come slowly to his point, so I added, "What's on your mind?" "A murder."
The word itself is unnerving. Like bankruptcy or default, it suggests a hard road ahead for the simple reason that a line that should have been avoided at all cost has instead been crossed. For that reason, I felt that simultaneous sense of tightening and emptying that accompanies any mention of an act whose consequences, though surely serious, remain for the moment unclear.
"It's someone from the old days," Bill added. "When you lived in Tumasi."
Tumasi was the name given to the vast savanna that stretched east to west across central Lubanda, as well as the village that rested near its center and served as its primary market. I'd lived in the village there for almost a year, but I hadn't heard its name spoken in a very long time. Even so, I'd often thought of the place, along with the winding red dirt road that connected it to the capital in Rupala. I had driven down that road in joy and sorrow, and once with a mind animated by a purpose I never should have had, and whose result was far different and more serious than I'd been able to predict.
"Seso Alaya," Bill said.
Seso would have been a middle-aged man now, I calculated, but I recalled him as a youth of eighteen, thin, wiry, his smooth skin so black that in high sun it had given off a blue sheen. He'd had the keen eye of a boy who'd lived by his wits. Early on I'd noticed that everything he looked at, he immediately sized up in the starkly unforgiving way of the wild: Do I eat it or does it eat me? Those supported by family money or social guarantees do not feel the insistent pinch of this particular kind of fear. Come what may, in boom or bust, they will not go hungry or without shelter. But for those who must support themselves or fall to ruin, deep worry is a life companion. Seso was of this latter estate. For him a job was not just a job; it was a lifeboat in a storm-tossed sea, and for that very good reason he had gone about his service to me with determined care, shining shoes that would only track through dust, heating stones to warm my bed on those few chill nights, rising immediately when I approached him, his keen eye to these tasks and gestures not at all slavish, but rather, a manly attempt to survive in a country where survival of any kind was not guaranteed. To think it otherwise, as Martine had once observed, was but one of the many errors into which foreigners like me, people who had come to help Lubanda, inevitably fell not because we did not know the people we wished to aid, but because we could not know the depths of both good or evil in their hearts. We could and did romanticize them, as Martine once pointed out, and we could and did cut them all kinds of slack, which, she said, was just another form of abuse. But we could not know them.
"You went back to Lubanda some years ago, didn't you, Ray?" Bill asked.
"Ten years ago," I told him.
It had taken nearly two days to make it halfway to Tumasi, where in a seizure of spiritual cowardice, I'd turned back toward Rupala. There'd been the expected ruts and washouts that bedeviled Lubandan travel, but to these inconveniences there'd been added thirteen separate roadway stops, all of them manned by khat-chewing thugs, often armed with nail-spiked clubs, or pangas, the country's ubiquitous tool, a wide-bladed, wooden-handled machete, light and easily wielded, but still heavy enough to lop off a man's head or a child's arm.
During my last journey up Tumasi Road, the thugs, usually paramilitary gangs armed by Mafumi's Revolutionary Army of Lubanda, had called their stops "border inspections," but the only border was a chain stretched across the road, motionless as a puff adder, until a vehicle neared. Then, two "customs inspectors" would lift the chain waist high and wait, either grim-faced or with sinister smiles, as the car approached.
"That's dangerous travel, Ray," Bill said. "Why'd you go back?"
"To visit the scene of the crime," I answered flatly. "I thought it might be good for my soul."
"I see," Bill said quietly. He was clearly reluctant to venture further into the moral minefield of this subject. "Anyway, it was dangerous in Lubanda when you made that trip."
Indeed it had been dangerous, though I'd had only one tense moment on the road. It had occurred at one of those thirteen criminal customs stops. This time a couple of burning tires had been dragged into the road, and there'd been ten or so "inspectors" whose ages had ranged from early to late teens, years when simmering maleness easily boils into sudden, annihilating violence.
"Where you from, bwana?" the Kalashnikov-wielding leader of this band asked me as he peered about the interior of the Jeep I'd rented in the capital.
The malignant glimmer in his eyes made it clear that the "bwana" was meant as mockery. In Ethiopia it might have been farangi and in Kenya it might have been mukiwa, but universally it meant you were the pale-faced enemy, the destroyer of some idealized precolonial paradise that had never in the least existed. By this reckoning, you and you alone were responsible for the derelict world whose mad contortions were now so extreme they could only be addressed by swinging clubs and hacking pangas.
"New York," I answered.
His grin revealed teeth sharpened to a point. The Wagogo in Tanzania did this, and the Congolese pygmies; others too, perhaps, but I'd never seen it in Lubanda, and so I assumed it to be some new badge of terror, man merged with crocodile.
"You see Lion King, bwana?" he asked.
From a few feet away, a knot of boy-men laughed and the skinniest of them slapped his panga against what had clearly once been a much larger man's boots.
"No," I answered.
"Where you going, bwana?"
"Up Tumasi Road," I answered.
"How far up?"
"To the end."
He looked surprised, and a little suspicious. "There's nothing up Tumasi Road," he said.
"There once was," I told him.
This was true, for Tumasi had once been a thriving village, its market stocked with locally grown produce. I'd seen mounds of sweet potatoes and jars of honey, along with stalls selling various local grains and cured meats and pots fashioned from the local clay. There'd been wooden carvings for sale, and kindling gathered from the savanna, and everywhere, stacks of cassava. Such had been Tumasi from time immemorial, its fundamental needs met by fundamental means.
"It is a long drive to Tumasi, bwana," the man said. "Bad road. Hard on the body." He pronounced bad "bahd," and body was "buddy." He nodded toward a pile of pillows and blankets, some of which were stained with various body fluids. "We sell cheap. Make you more comfortable for the bad road."
I shook my head. "No, thanks."
"You sure, bwana?"
He wore desert-camouflage pants and a bright tie-dyed T-shirt of the kind you might have bought on Venice Beach thirty years before. His cap said "Red Sox," and as he watched me, he took out a long cigarette holder, inserted a hand-wrapped cigarette taken from a crumpled Gauloises box and lit it. "Many bad people on the way to Tumasi." He waved out the match and tossed it to the side. "Maybe you like a paper for safe passage." He grinned. "I give you special price."
"I don't need a paper from you," I told him stiffly, because I knew there would be no end to this extortion once the first advantage had been gained. "I already have safe passage."
The man laughed as if I'd made a bad joke. "Oh, yeah? Who give you that?"
"The Emperor of All Peoples," I said.
To call Mafumi by so exalted a title was, in itself, one of Lubanda's grim jokes. He'd been nothing more than a warlord who'd built a largely tribal army across an artificial border drawn by a British bureaucrat, then invaded on the pretext that President Dasai was in league with "the old colonialists," determined to bind Lubandans once again in those mythic chains. He'd beaten this drum so loudly it had drowned out Dasai's gentlemanly defense, and for that reason it had taken Mafumi little more than two years to march on Rupala, take the capital, then do what he liked with the rest of the country, which had been mostly to terrorize it.
I had never met the Lion of God, of course, and certainly he'd not given me clearance to drive up Tumasi Road. For that reason, using his name was a risk whose consequences I'd considered, and which, for a few seconds, as the guard grinned at me with his crocodile teeth, I'd feared a bad idea. But by then I was in too deep, and so I doubled the bluff.
"Here, I'll show you," I said, then reached for the backpack on the seat beside me, where I'd placed an official-looking paper, complete with a starburst seal. It was only a car warranty, but few people in Lubanda could read, and so the risk was rather slight that it wouldn't buttress my claim of an Imperial safe passage.
"Hmm," the man said as he gazed at the paper. He moved his lips in imitation of reading, but this movement didn't match the words on the page, so I knew he was illiterate. When he finished this charade, he handed the paper back to me.
"So, may I go?" I asked.
He looked at me sternly, but the air was out of him, the midday sun was growing hotter, his mushy chew of khat was losing its kick, and nothing was coming of this customs inspection. So it was time to end it, as I could see — end it and wait for the next car, in anticipation that no paper would be produced that might call into question the little kingdom of this boy-man's fanged blockade.
He flipped a few flakes of ash from his cigarette. "Go."
With that, he banged the stock of his rifle on the bumper of the Jeep, a signal for the burning tires to be dragged out of my path.
I pressed down on the accelerator and moved ahead slowly, resolutely, with my head up, but not arrogantly, only a man on his way. The skinny soldier in the big boots stepped out from among the others and sighted me down the chipped blade of his panga, laughing as he faked repeated chops and then, even more pointedly, drew it slowly across his neck.
"As I recall, you told me that you didn't make it all the way down the road to Tumasi."
Now it was Bill who was asking me questions, his voice thin and metallic over the phone line, but strong enough to pull me out of Lubanda and return me to the present.
"That's right," I answered. "I found it too disturbing."
Instead, I'd stopped the car and stared ahead, my gaze fixed on the red road that lay before me. As my soul emptied, I'd turned back toward Rupala.
"What a sad country," Bill said starkly.
"Not always," I said.
Bill seemed hardly to hear me. "Jesus, it was just horrible what happened to Dasai," he said. "And Gessee, too."
I recalled photographs I'd seen of their bodies, Dasai's hung like a side of beef, Gessee's slumped against a post, clip after clip having been emptied into it, the tire around his neck still burning.
"Mafumi watched it all," Bill added softly.
In these same photographs, the Emperor of All Peoples could be seen peering down at these murderous orgies from a balcony overlooking Independence Square, a rogue who had not yet achieved his near-legendary status as Lubanda's malevolently farcical dictator. Soon after, he'd become the chief instrument of terror throughout the country. He'd also been quite ingenious in his methods. An Amnesty International report had made a good deal of the fact that he'd had vents dug from the Security Police's basement torture chambers to street level so that the cries of those belowground could clearly be heard by anyone passing by. One scream, he was reported to have said, can shut a thousand mouths.
"But now Mafumi, too, is gone," Bill said.
With that reference to recent changes in Lubanda, I returned to the actual content of his call. "So, tell me, what do you know about Seso's murder?"
"At the moment, it's pretty much a blank," Bill said. "He just turned up dead, you might say."
"Turned up where?"
"Here in New York," Bill answered.
"I presume you don't know what he was doing here? How he was making his living, for example."
"Correct," Bill said.
"So it's possible his murder was purely random," I said.
"Oh, come on, Ray," Bill said. "I mean, what would be the chances of that?" "Around one in two hundred and fifty thousand," I answered in the matter-of-fact voice of a seasoned risk assessor. "That's admittedly a very low risk, but random killings do occur."
"Seso's murder wasn't random," Bill told me firmly. "That's the one thing I'm sure of."
"Why are you sure of it?"
"Because he was tortured," Bill answered. "On his feet. With bars. What's the word?"
"Bastiado," I said.
"Right. So can you meet me tomorrow, Ray?" Bill asked. "I need a ... risk assessment."
His request suddenly sounded more urgent, something important clearly at stake.
"All right," I said.
"The Harvard Club, nine a.m.?"
"Thanks, Ray. See you then."
The click of Bill's phone as he hung up was loud and oddly jarring, like a pistol shot.
A murder, I thought, and suddenly felt somewhat like Fowler, the jaded British journalist, when he learns that Alden Pyle's body has been found floating in the Saigon River. The Quiet American had been one of the books I'd read on that first plane ride to Lubanda, and I'd so reveled in its exotic atmosphere that its warning about the risks of inexperience, of entering, even with the best of intentions, a country one knows nothing about, had drowned in the waters of my youth and naïveté.
Those risks had long ago made themselves clear, however, and so for a moment, I went back over the conversation I'd just had with Bill. It was a habit of mine, going over things again and again, putting one piece of data with another. Risk assessment is mostly connecting the proverbial dots.
Someone from the old days, I heard Bill say again. When you lived in Tumasi.
The old days, when I'd been young and fiercely determined to do good, and nothing, least of all my soul, had seemed at risk.
I thought of my first meeting with Seso, how I'd found him standing alone in a small, airless room not far from the capital, the way he'd introduced himself very formally as "Mr. Seso Alaya." He'd stood extremely straight, and though the collar of his shirt had been frayed and his pants too short, he'd had the dignity the great explorer Richard Burton had found in those who'd served him in India, made yet nobler, as he'd said, by their raggedness.
Seso informed me that he'd been assigned to be my translator and general assistant, and with that he'd reached for my bag, which I'd refused to give him because to do so would suggest that I was his master; and I'd come to help the Lubandan people, not to rule them. Seso had read this gesture for what it was, and smiled. "It is my job to be of service," he told me. "I am not ashamed to work."
Thus had ended the first exchange I'd had with Seso. After it, he'd taken my bag and followed me to the white Land Cruiser that was to be at my disposal for as long as I remained in Lubanda. We'd driven to Tumasi that same day, out of Rupala and up a road that took us past those storied scenes of Africa, small townships, then the villages of the bush, and from there across that broad savanna the Lutusi had immemorially roamed, and to which I believed myself to be bringing my earnest gift of hope.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Dancer in the Dust"
Copyright © 2014 Thomas H. Cook.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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