Read an Excerpt
The End of The String
I first noticed the man I will call Benjamin in the bar of the Independence Hotel in Ndala. He sat alone, drinking orange soda, no ice. He was tall and burly--knotty biceps, huge hands. His short-sleeved white shirt and khaki pants were as crisp as a uniform. Instead of the usual third-world Omega or Rolex, he wore a cheap plastic Japanese watch on his right wrist. No rings, no gold, no sunglasses. I did not recognize the tribal tattoos on his cheeks. He spoke to no one, looked at no one. He himself might as well have been invisible as far as the rest of the customers were concerned. No one spoke to him or offered to buy him a drink or asked him any questions. He seemed poised to leap off his bar stool and kill something at a moment's notice.
He was the only person in the bar I did not already know by sight. In those days, more than half a century ago, when an American was a rare bird along the Guinea coast, you got to know everyone in your hotel bar pretty quickly. I was standing at the bar, my back to Benjamin, but I could see him in the mirror. He was watching me. I surmised that he was gathering information rather than sizing me up for robbery or some other dark purpose.
I called the barman, put a ten-shilling note on the bar, and asked him to mix a pink gin using actual Beefeater's. He laughed merrily as he pocketed the money and swirled the bitters in the glass. When I looked in the mirror again, Benjamin was gone. How a man his size could get up and leave without being reflected in the mirror I do not know, but somehow he managed it. I did not dismiss him from my thoughts, he was too memorable for that, but I didn't dwell on the episode either. I could not, however, shake the feeling that I had been subjected to a professional appraisal. For an operative under deep cover, that is always an uncomfortable experience, especially if you have the feeling, as I did, that the man who is giving you the once-over is a professional who is doing a job that he has done many times before.
I had come to Ndala to debrief an agent. He missed the first two meetings, but there is nothing unusual about that even if you're not in Africa. On the third try, he showed up close to the appointed hour at the appointed place: two a.m. on an unpaved street in which hundreds of people, all of them sound asleep, lay side by side. It was a moonless night. No electric light, no lantern or candle, even, burned for at least a mile in any direction. I could not see the sleepers, but I could feel their presence and hear them exhale and inhale. The agent, a member of parliament, had nothing to tell me apart from his usual bagful of pointless gossip. I gave him his money anyway, and he signed for it with a thumbprint by the light of my pocket torch. As I walked away I heard him ripping open his envelope and counting banknotes in the dark.
I had not walked far when a car turned into the street with headlights blazing. The sleepers awoke and popped up one after another as if choreographed by Busby Berkeley. The member of parliament had vanished. No doubt he had simply lain down with the others, and two of the wide-open eyes and one of the broad smiles I saw dwindling into the darkness belonged to him.
The car stopped. I kept walking toward it, and when I was beside it, the driver, who was a police constable, leaped out and shone a flashlight in my face. He said, "Please get in, master." The British had been gone from this country for only a short time, and the locals still addressed white men by the title preferred by their former colonial rulers. The old etiquette survived in English, French, and Portuguese in most of the thirty-two African countries that had become independent in a period of two and a half years--less time than it took Stanley to find Livingstone.
I said, "Get in? What for?"
"This is not a good place for you, master."
My rescuer was impeccably turned out in British tropical kit--blue service cap, bush jacket with sergeant's chevrons on the shoulder boards, voluminous khaki shorts, blue woolen knee socks, gleaming oxfords, black Sam Browne belt. A truncheon dangling from the belt seemed to be his only weapon. I climbed into the backseat. The sergeant got behind the wheel, and using the rearview mirror rather than looking behind him, backed out of the street at breathtaking speed. I kept my eyes on the windshield, expecting him to plow into the sleepers at any moment. They themselves seemed unconcerned, and as the headlights swept over them they lay down one after the other with the same precise timing as before.
The sergeant drove at high speed through backstreets, nearly every one of them another open-air dormitory. Our destination, as it turned out, was the Equator Club, Ndala's most popular nightclub. This structure was really just a fenced-in space, open to the sky. Inside, a band played highlife, a kind of hypercalypso, so loudly that you had the illusion that the music was visible as it rose into the pitch-black night.
The music was even louder. The air was the temperature of blood. The odors of sweat and spilled beer were sharp and strong. Guttering candles created a substitute for light. Silhouettes danced on the hard dirt floor, cigarettes glowed. The sensation was something like being digested by a tyrannosaurus rex.
Benjamin, alone again, sat at another small table. He was drinking orange soda again. He, too, wore a uniform. Though made of finer cloth, it was a duplicate of the sergeant's, except that he was equipped with a swagger stick instead of a baton and the badge on his shoulder boards displayed the wreath, crossed batons, and crown of a chief constable. Benjamin, it appeared, was the head of the national police. He made a gesture of welcome. I sat down. A waiter placed a pink gin with ice before me with such efficiency, and was so neatly dressed, that I supposed he was a constable, too, but undercover. I lifted my glass to Benjamin and sipped my drink.
Benjamin said, "Are you a naval person?"
I said, "No. Why do you ask?"
"Pink gin is the traditional drink of the royal navy."
"Rum is for the crew."
I had difficulty suppressing a grin. Our exchange of words sounded so much like a recognition code used by spies that I wondered if that's what it really was. Had Benjamin got the wrong American? He did not seem the type to make such an elementary mistake. He looked down on me--even while seated he was at least a head taller than I was--and said, "Welcome to my country, Mr. Brown. I have been waiting for you to come here again, because I believe that you and I can work together."
Brown was one of the names I had used on previous visits to Ndala, but it was not the name on the passport I was using this time. He paused, studying my face. His own face showed no flicker of expression.
Without further preamble, he said, "I am contemplating a project that requires the support of the United States of America."
The dramaturgy of the situation suggested that my next line should be, "Really?" or "How so?" However, I said nothing, hoping that Benjamin would fill the silence.
Frankly, I was puzzled. Was he volunteering for something? Most agents recruited by any intelligence service are volunteers, and the average intelligence officer is a sort of latter-day Marcel Proust. He lies abed in a cork-lined room, hoping to profit by secrets that other people slip under the door. People simply walk in and for whatever motive, usually petty resentment over having been passed over for promotion or the like, offer to betray their country. It was also possible, unusual though that might be, that Benjamin hoped to recruit me.
His eyes bored into mine. His back was to the wall, mine to the dance floor. Behind me I could feel but not see the dancers, moving as a single organism. Through the soles of my shoes I felt vibration set up by scores of feet stamping in unison on the dirt floor. In the yellow candlelight I could see a little more expression on Benjamin's face.
Many seconds passed before he broke the silence. "What is your opinion of the president of this country?"
Once again I took my time answering. The problem with this conversation was that I never knew what to say next.
Finally I said, "President Ga and I have never met."
"Nevertheless you must have an opinion."
And of course I did. So did everyone who read the newspapers. Akokwu Ga, president for life of Ndala, was a man of strong appetites. He enjoyed his position and its many opportunities for pleasure with an enthusiasm that was remarkable even by the usual standards for dictators. He possessed a solid gold bathtub and bedstead. He had a private zoo. It was said that he was sometimes seized by the impulse to feed his enemies to the lions. He had deposited tens of millions of dollars from his country's treasury into personal numbered accounts in Swiss banks.
Dinner for him and his guests was flown in every day from one of the restaurants in Paris that had a three-star rating in the Guide Michelin. A French chef heated the food and arranged it on plates, an English butler served it. Both were assumed to be secret agents employed by their respective governments. Ga maintained love nests in every quarter of the capital city. Women from all over the world occupied these cribs. The ones he liked best were given luxurious houses formerly occupied by Europeans and provided with German cars, French champagne, and "houseboys" (actually undercover policemen) who kept an eye on them.
"Speak," Benjamin said.
I said, "Frankly, chief constable, this conversation is making me nervous."
"Why? No one can bug us. Listen to the noise."
How right he was. We were shouting at each other in order to be heard above the din. The music made my ears ring, and no microphone then known could penetrate it. I said, "Nevertheless, I would prefer to discuss this in private. Just the two of us."
"And how then will you know that I am not bugging you? Or that someone else is not bugging both of us?"
"I wouldn't. But would it matter?"
Benjamin examined me for a long moment. Then he said, "No, it wouldn't. Because I am the one who will be saying dangerous things."
He got to his feet, uncoiled would be the better word. Instantly the sergeant who had brought me here and three other constables in plain clothes materialized from the shadows. Everyone else was dancing, eyes closed, seemingly in another world and time. Benjamin put on his cap and picked up his swagger stick.
He said, "Tomorrow I will come for you."
With that, he disappeared, leaving me without a ride. Eventually I found a taxi back to the hotel. The driver was so wide awake, his taxi so tidy, that I assumed that he, too, must be one of Benjamin's men.
The porter who brought me my mug of tea at six a.m. also brought me a note from Benjamin. The penmanship was beautiful. The note was short and to the point: "Nine o'clock, by the front entrance."
Through the glass in the hotel's front door, the street outside was a scene from Goya, lepers and amputees and victims of polio or smallpox or psoriasis, and among the child beggars a few examples of hamstringing by parents who needed the income that a crippled child could bring home. A tourist arrived in a taxi and scattered a handful of change in order to disperse the beggars while he made his dash for the entrance. Clearly he was a greenhorn. The seasoned traveler in Africa distributed money only after checkout. To do so on arrival guaranteed your being fondled by lepers every time you came in or went out. One particularly handsome, smiling young fellow who had lost his fingers and toes to leprosy caught coins in his mouth.
At the appointed time exactly Was I still in Africa? Benjamin's sergeant pulled up in his gleaming black Austin. He barked a command in one of the local languages, and once again the crowd parted. He took me by the hand in the friendly African way and led me to the car.
We headed north, out of town, horn sounding tinnily at every turn of the wheels. Otherwise, the sergeant explained, pedestrians would assume that the driver was trying to kill them. In daylight when everyone was awake and walking around instead of sleeping by the wayside, Ndala sounded like the overture of An American in Paris. After a hair-raising drive past the brand-new government buildings and banks of downtown, through raucous streets lined with shops and filled with the smoke of street vendors' grills, through labyrinthine neighborhoods of low shacks made from scraps of lumber and tin and cardboard, we arrived at last in Africa itself, a sun-scorched plain of rusty soil, dotted with stunted bush, stretching from horizon to horizon. After a mile or so of emptiness, we came upon a policeman seated on a parked motorcycle. The sergeant stopped the car, leaped out, and leaving the motor running and the front door open, opened the back door to let me out. He gave me a map, drew himself up to attention, and after stamping his right foot into the dust, gave me a quivering British hand salute. He then jumped onto the motorcycle behind its rider, who revved the engine, made a slithering U-turn, and headed back toward the city trailed by a corkscrew of red dust.
I got into the Austin and started driving. The road soon became a dirt trail whose billowing ocher dust stuck to the car like snow and made it necessary to run the windshield wipers. It was impossible to drive with the windows open. The temperature inside the closed vehicle (air-conditioning was a thing of the future) could not have been less than one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Slippery with sweat, I followed the map, and after making a right turn into what seemed to be an impenetrable thicket of rubbery bushes, straddled a footpath which in time opened onto a clearing containing a small village. Another car, a dusty black Rover, was parked in front of one of the conical mud huts. This place was deserted. Grass had grown on the footpaths. There was no sign of life.
From the Trade Paperback edition.