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The Last Twilight
By Marjorie M. Liu Dorchester Publishing Copyright © 2008 Marjorie M. Liu
All right reserved.
Chapter One Rikki Kinn was in Brazzaville, stuck in an arm-wrestling match with a drunk Congolese soldier, when the CDC in Atlanta called her cell phone. She knew who it was without looking at the screen; they had a special ring tone: ABBA's "S.O.S."
"You give up now, you buy us all beers, eh?" said the man across the table. His navy beret sat askew on his head, and sweat dribbled down his ebony face. His eyes were red-rimmed, and he swayed, just slightly.
His grip was strong but not painful. Rikki smiled through gritted teeth. "Maybe you want to give up, Jean-Claude. Before I beat you again." She puckered her lips and kissed the air. The men gathered around the table laughed and slapped Jean-Claude's shoulder. The cell phone kept ringing.
Muscles burned; her arm quivered. Rikki glanced at one of the soldiers and he plucked her cell from its clip and placed it in her left hand. Congo pop music, full of sharp beats, threaded through the open door of the stifling corrugated shack she was sitting in.
She flipped open the cell. "Doctor Kinn speaking."
"Rikki, it's Larry. Get ready to move. We've got a Hot Zone. Level Four."
Jean-Claude slammed her hand into the table. Rikki did not notice. She closed her eyes, dizzy and breathless. "Where?"
"Between Bumba and Lisala. Mack is already there. He'll fill you in when you arrive."
"Fill me in now."
"Not on this line." Larry's voice was cold, hard. Rikki knew that tone. She clamped her mouth shut and glanced at the soldiers. Only Jean-Claude met her gaze, and he no longer appeared quite so drunk. Rikki pushed back her chair, dug into her pocket and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. She tossed it on the table and moved to the door.
"Transport?" she asked, staring out at the gates of the dock, which was crowded with yet more soldiers, all of whom were trying to control the endless bottleneck traffic of bodies: bare backs bent under loads of burlap sacks and bushels of sugar cane; uniformed porters stumbling beneath the immense luggage and wares of Zairean businessmen in loud suits and gold jewelry. Wheelbarrows pushed by gaunt men passed Rikki, along with scooters and creaking carts piled with clothing; castoffs from America, no doubt. Shouts slammed the air, as did fists; everyone wanted to be on that ferry idling on the river's edge, and the only way to get there was to push and shove and fight for every step.
Rikki heard an odd clinking sound on the other end of the phone. Like glass. "Mack said you were in Brazzaville. Can you make it to Kinshasa by the evening?"
"Sooner. I'm already at the ferry."
"Good. Colonel Bakker will meet you on the other side, and he'll put you on one of the UN planes headed for the affected area. Questions?"
Rikki snorted, scuffing her shoes against the dirt floor, kicking debris into a stagnant puddle outside the door. "You just told me I can't ask any."
"Rules of the game," Larry said, and then, softer: "Be careful, kid. This one's trouble."
"Story of my life," she replied, and flipped her cell phone shut. Tried to imagine, for a moment, what she was headed for, but her mind stayed blank, and all she could do was watch as sunlight cut skeins through the dust and blue exhaust, the air thick and damp and hot. Her entire body was slick with sweat; she was glad she had cut her hair before this last trip to Africa. Short, like a pixie.
Tinkerbell, her daddy would say. A slip of a thing: his princess, his little Thumbelina. Small, but with a punch.
The soldiers were watching her. Rikki schooled her expression into something cool and easy; a well-oiled mask. Her second skin. The twenty had disappeared from the table, and in its place was a deck of cards. Jean-Claude stood only a foot away, his reddened eyes thoughtful. "What is wrong?"
Everything, Rikki thought, but she put a smile on her face and said, "Duty calls. You want to help me get on that ferry?"
Jean-Claude knew her too well. His eyes narrowed, so sharp, but he reached behind the door and picked up his rifle. He gestured to the others. "Of course. What are friends for?" And then, bending close, he whispered, "I would have beat you this time."
His breath smelled like beer. Rikki shook her head and grabbed her backpack. "In your dreams."
"Not without my wife's permission," he replied easily, and stopped her, just outside the shed. "You are going to a sick place?"
She hesitated. "Yes."
Jean-Claude nodded, sucking on the inside of his cheek. No words, though. He turned on his heel, grabbed her arm, and pulled her toward the heaving crowd. The other men from the shed pushed ahead, clearing a narrow path that Rikki and Jean-Claude squeezed through. All of them were rough; brutal, even. People fell getting out of their way; packages were dropped and trampled. Rikki was almost knocked down herself, but Jean-Claude's hand clamped tight and he hauled her upright, almost carrying her against his side.
The immigration official stomped out of his post as they passed. He was as tall as Jean-Claude, but twice as wide; he towered over Rikki and tried to grab her other arm.
"Vos papiers!" blustered the man, but Jean-Claude rattled off a long stream of words in their native language, and pushed him away. No stamps in her passport this time around. An illegal departure from the country, but nothing that would land her in too much trouble-for the right amount of money. If she were caught.
The ferry's metal ramp appeared, crowded with bodies, wares, and livestock. Another immigration official lay in wait at the top; Jean-Claude said a few more hard words, leaned in close-his rifle butt poking the man's chest-and escorted Rikki past him. She heard her name shouted, and turned in time to catch a wave from one of the young soldiers who had been in the shed. She held up her hand, nodding, but Jean-Claude pushed her away from the rusted rail toward the other side of the boat, not letting her stop until the crowd thinned and they could see the smoky edge of Kinshasa looming on the opposite bank of the muddy Congo. Dirty steel and stone, cut from the jungle like a scar.
Jean-Claude still gripped her arm. His fingers squeezed hard, and in a low voice he said, "Make an excuse. Do not go."
Rikki glanced down at his hand and raised an eyebrow. "Two years we've known each other, and you've never given me advice."
His gaze flickered to her breasts. It was not a sexual look, but Rikki knew exactly what he was remembering, and it made her want to cover herself. She kept steady, though. Too much time spent building herself up to crack the mask now.
"Jean-Claude," she said. A low sigh escaped him, but he lifted his gaze and looked her in the eye-which was almost worse. She could not stand his pity.
Or his words. His voice was too gentle, as though he was trying to soothe some wounded animal; rabid, wild. "I have never given you advice, because you were in no state to take it. Not then. And by the time you healed-"
"No." Rikki finally had to look away. "No, Jean-Claude. Please."
"Please," he echoed. "Do not go to the sick place. Make an excuse."
"You know I can't do that."
His hand tightened. "Rikki-"
"Let go of me, Jean-Claude."
He did, holding up his hand, and glanced away; first at the slick metal deck, and then the swirling waters. "I hear rumors coming out of Zaire. More and more stories every day. The new government has changed the name of its country, but the people are still the same." He gave her a hard look. "The UN will not be able to protect you."
"I've got bigger worries than the rebels."
Jean-Claude shook his head. "I was not speaking of the rebels."
Around them a shout went up, accompanied by a ringing bell and a rough announcement that the ferry would be leaving at any moment. Goats bleated; a baby squalled; somewhere nearby, a woman crooned. A breeze licked the sweat from Rikki's face, but she could not savor it. Jean-Claude backed away, holding his rifle against his chest.
Rikki swayed after him. "Spit it out. You have something to say."
"No." He stopped, wetting his lips, holding himself stiff. He looked uneasy, and the fleeting smile that appeared on his face was pained, sickly. Not him. Not like the man who had once saved her life. "Next time you come around, we wrestle again, eh?"
"Be careful," he whispered-and turned, practically at a run, driving himself hard through the crowd, slipping around carts and stacked bushels of grain. Rikki pushed away from the rail, calling his name, but he never looked back. She lost him in moments.
The bell kept ringing; a black cloud of smoke coughed from the stern, burning Rikki's nostrils. The ferry heaved, shuddering, and a low groan filled the air, followed by the chugging hack of the engines as the ferry finally pushed from shore. On her way. No turning back. She tried not to think of Jean-Claude's words. Or that look in his eye. No telling what to make of his warning, either, which was ... really crappy.
He was scared for you. Be grateful someone cares enough to be scared.
Hell, she was scared. All the time. She just hid it better than most people. Rikki preferred being a hard-ass to having no ass at all. She thought her father would approve.
But here, now, there was nothing that could be helped, nothing to do but take a little care. Same as always. Rikki focused on her breathing. Watched the river and the people around her. Staying present, in the moment-savoring, while she could, the kind of solitude only a crowd could offer. Peace, among strangers. No demands, no ties. No shoulders but her own to lean on. Which was all she could trust to keep and hold. Lesson learned, hammered home. More times than she wanted to think about.
Friend to everyone. And friend to none.
A nearby man held a full-length mirror in his arms. It had been wrapped in cloth at some point, but pieces of fabric were slipping free. Rikki caught a glimpse of herself. Short brown hair, sharp brown eyes, a small face red with heat and slick with sweat. No make-up, but with lashes black as soot; a full pink mouth and cheekbones high and round. Natural born, her father had always said. Just like her mother.
Rikki felt like she was looking at a stranger. Tore her gaze away fast.
The ferry ride lasted only thirty minutes. No one approached her, though she heard the occasional murmur of "le blanc" behind her back. Made sense. She was the only pale face on the ferry, and they were headed for Ngobila Beach. The Gauntlet. Hell Ground. No one went to the Beach unless they had to, and she would be an easy target for the soldiers. Good thing she liked trouble. Good thing those men knew it, too.
Up close, Kinshasa boomed with twisted shacks and spires, smoke that curled through the haze of humid air. Somewhere out of sight, dogs barked. Behind her, voices got louder; a buzz of excitement, fear. Rikki steadied herself.
Ngobila Beach held no surprises. Crazy, business as usual. It took a while for the ferry to dock, and she used the time waiting to study the crowd below, the forefront of which consisted mainly of screaming soldiers in green uniforms, and beggars missing limbs. Rikki watched one young woman utterly without legs drag her torso across the rocks, her hands wrapped in colorful rags. She had a bag slung over her shoulders, the canvas bulging with sharp-edged objects. The maimed woman glanced up at the ferry and zeroed in on Rikki. Stared into her eyes with a hollow intensity that was hard to shake off. But not impossible. Rikki had seen worse. She would be swimming in it by the end of the day.
People began pushing each other down the ferry ramp to shore. Rikki let herself be carried by the surge, pressed tight on all sides by tall strong men carrying grain sacks on their heads-men who flashed her friendly smiles when they saw her looking. They tried to make room; Rikki was almost half the size of everyone around her, and being short in such a crowd felt like moving in a furnace, a stifling pocket of trapped air that smelled like sweat and excitement and fear. Close to being trampled; closer still to suffocation.
Congolese soldiers waited at the bottom of the ramp. Black berets and green fatigues; handguns and rifles and AK-47s brandished like charms. One of the security officers stepped forward and grabbed Rikki's arm. His breath smelled like beer and his teeth were white. Sweat rolled down his face. Rikki slid her hand into the top pocket of her cargo pants.
"Bonjour, Simon." Rikki smiled and slipped a fifty-dollar bill into his hand. The officer's eyes crinkled and he palmed the cash to his chest, slipping it inside his shirt where no one could see it. He slung his other arm around her shoulders and gestured to the men with him, who began clearing a path through the crowd, much as the other soldiers had done for her at the Brazzaville dock.
He led her past the immigration office-a place that Rikki had learned, some years back, could be avoided in its entirety with one phone call and a well-placed bribe. Corrupt, yes; immoral, maybe. Rikki had taught herself not to care. Passports had a way of getting lost in that place; same with people. And she was always on a deadline.
"You have a guest waiting for you," Simon said, as they passed through open iron gates into a quiet area free of the crowd. "He is a very frustrated man."
"Most men are," Rikki replied, and Simon laughed out loud. He was still laughing when they turned a corner in the dusty yard and Colonel Bakker came into view. His pale blue beret stuck out like a piece of sky.
Simon stopped and said, "Au revoir, Docteur."
"Until next time?"
He patted his chest, winking. "It would be my pleasure."
Rikki smiled, fairly certain it reached her eyes, and turned to walk away fast, fingers mentally crossed. There was always a risk to the games she played at the borders. Simon could change his mind. Arrest her.
Rikki's neck prickled; she fought the urge to check and see if the officer still watched, and instead focused on Colonel Bakker, whose hard gaze was not on her, but a spot over her shoulder. He looked unhappy.
"Bastards wouldn't let me meet you at the ferry," he muttered, when she was close enough to hear him. "Got worried."
She glanced over her shoulder. Simon was gone. Bakker said, "You need to be more careful."
"I'm always careful," Rikki said, thinking of Jean-Claude's warning. "But I have different ways of protecting myself. You know that."
Bakker grunted, and she wondered if he, too, was remembering. Probably. Seemed to be a lot of that going around today. Two years was obviously not enough time for some memories to fade.
But the colonel did not look at her breasts, and his eyes were clear and without pity as he said, "Don't know how you do it. Those soldiers won't give me the time of day, but to you ..." He stopped, frowning. "Must be a girl thing."
"Must be," she said dryly.
Bakker was a big man, broad through the chest, his fatigues drenched in sweat. Well into his fifties, his skin was too fair for the sun; his face and neck were red, peeling, his blue eyes bloodshot. He was rubbing them even as she held out her hand in official greeting, and he muttered, "Damn dust."
She retracted her hand, just slightly. "Not pinkeye, is it?"
He gave her a dirty look, made rather less menacing by the fact that he was still knuckling his eye socket like some ten-year-old on the verge of tears. "Smart-ass punk."
"Grumpy bear." Rikki grinned, and this time it was all her-no mask, no illusion. "You need a hug?"
Bakker glanced askance at the man waiting for them inside the jeep. "Try and I'll shoot you."
"Bet your wife loves that line."
"Why do you think we're getting a divorce?"
Rikki placed a finger over her heart and made a hissing sound. "Very nice, Colonel."
He grunted, pointed at the Jeep, and she obliged with a smile. Relaxed, for the first time in a week. Jean-Claude knew her better than Bakker, but Bakker reminded Rikki of her father, and there was something warm and gruff about his face and voice that she couldn't resist. Like having a shot of home.
The ride to the airfield took less than thirty minutes. They drove past twisted metal slums and palm trees. Bakker sat in the front passenger seat while one of his men drove. He mopped his sweaty face with the back of his hand and said, "Larry fill you in?"
Rikki closed her eyes and leaned back against the seat. The air-conditioning felt good. "He said the lines weren't safe. That Mack would do the talking when I got there."
Bakker made a small noncommittal sound. "What were you doing in Brazzaville?"
Excerpted from The Last Twilight by Marjorie M. Liu Copyright © 2008 by Marjorie M. Liu. Excerpted by permission.
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