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On the rooftop edge, she waited, eyes tracking down the length of the street while she sat with one knee dropped over the side, the other tucked under her chin, ears attuned to the small sounds that marked the climber's progress toward her.
Here, four stories up, the smell of rotting garbage was a little less putrid, the air a little cooler, and if she chose to stand and stretch, she could see beyond the expanse of treetops and dusty low-slung houses, through to the port, a barely visible patch of primary colors against the ocean. This was Djibouti. Dirty. Quiet. Corrupt. A world far removed from the rain forests and humidity and familiarity of equatorial Africa where she'd been born, yet so much the same. Pinprick on the map between Somalia and Ethiopia, a desert nation of less than a million that bottlenecked the mouth of the Red Sea, this, the capital, was where half the population lived.
Chatter rose from below as women, heads wrapped in colorful scarves and dressed in ankle-length sheaths, passed by with their bundles. Scratching from behind told her that the climber had pulled himself over the ledge, that he'd stood and dusted his hands off on his pants, that he strode slowly, deliberately in her direction.
Vanessa Michael Munroe didn't turn to look. Didn't acknowledge him when he stopped beside her to peer down at the street. Ignored him when he sat a few feet away and with a satisfied sigh dropped his legs over the side, leaned back, and surveyed the area.
Most of what surrounded them was single- and double-storied buildings, mainly residential and strung along in both directions, some nestled within dirt-strewn walled compounds and some not.
"It's a good view," Leo said. "Better breeze up top. Not so much smell."
She didn't answer; continued to ignore his presence. He could have spared himself the effort of the climb--spared her the effort of small talk--if he'd simply waited until she'd returned. Instead, he'd come for her, which was his way of marking territory: a reminder that he was familiar with her routines and could invade them if he cared to. She allowed him to believe it, just as she allowed him to believe that he knew who she was, where she'd come from, and why she was here.
They sat in silence, and in spite of the lowering sun and the evening breeze that had begun to cool the air, sweat still trickled down her back and neck, soaking her shirt. The heat didn't bother her the way it would him, so she let him have the discomfort and the lengthening quiet until finally he broke and said, "We board at two this morning."
His English was thickly accented, and that he chose to use her language instead of the French with which they typically conversed was more of his pointless point-making.
She said, "I'm still not interested."
He nodded, as if contemplating her defiance, then stood and, with his toes poking over the edge, studied the ground. Wiped his hands on his pants again and took a step back. "It's for you to decide," he said. "But if you don't board, I want you out by tonight."
Chin still to her knee, focus out over the dirt alleys, rooftops, and laundry flapping on many lines, she said, "Why? If I come, I'll just get in your way."
"That may be," he said. "But still you come. Or you leave."
She glanced up, the first she'd deigned to look at him. "And then who'll be your fixer?"
He took another step away from the ledge. "I managed before you got here," he said, and began to walk away. "I'll manage after you're gone."
She straightened and her gaze followed him. "It's not you who has to manage without me," she said. "You shouldn't be the one to make the decision."
Leo paused but kept his back toward her.
She studied his posture, counted seconds, readied to slide out of the way if in response to her provocation he moved to shove her off the building.
"You'd have been better off making arrangements to board in the afternoon," she said, "when the khat trucks come into town."
His hands, which had tightened into fists, loosened a little. He turned toward her, and she watched him just long enough for him to catch her eye, then she shied away in that guilty manner people caught staring often did.
This was part of her persona here, hesitant and nonconfrontational. Made it easier for the men to dismiss and underestimate her, kept her beneath the radar, though for how much longer was up for debate. Like the rest of the guys, Leo had lived more life than his forty-something years indicated; he wasn't stupid. But he was often gone and when he was around she went out of her way to avoid him to keep from giving him enough access to her that he grew curious.
With her back still to him, and his eyes boring into her, Munroe said, "Who're you trying to avoid by boarding so early? Ship's agent?"
"Even if he's not there, he'll hear about it. If you go when the khat trucks arrive, every man in the port is going to be focused on getting his fix--no one will pay attention to you."
"You'll come, Michael."
Not a request or a question, an order.
"Maybe," she said.
Leo turned again and strode toward the portion of roof they'd both climbed over, the part where there was less of an overhang and it was possible to get from ledge to balcony and down to the dividing wall without as much risk of slipping and breaking a neck. Louder, Munroe said, "If it wasn't for me, you wouldn't even get into the port tonight."
Leo didn't answer, waved her off and kept walking. He lowered himself over the edge and, at some point on the way down, let out a grunt. Munroe stood. A thud marked his drop from the wall to the ground of the compound next door, so she turned and followed the rooftop edge to the opposite corner, where she caught the colors of the port's shipping containers stacked four and five high.
Somewhere near there the freighter Favorita would soon dock, if she hadn't already, and Leo expected Munroe to be on it. He forced her to pick between poisons: board the ship as part of his team of armed transit guards, risking her life on the water to defend his client's ship if attacked by pirates, or leave the team--and it wasn't difficult to guess why. No matter what she chose, he got her out from under his roof and away from his wife.
Munroe crossed the roof to the spot where Leo had gone over. Lowered and dropped from the ledge into the narrow balcony. Through the glass on the door a five-year-old girl peered out and waved, and Munroe waved back. The girl laughed and hid her face and Munroe grinned.
Months of coming up here, of being noticed and smiled at, so many nights of hide-and-seek with sleep, of watching the stars fade under the rising glare of the sun, and not once had any of the apartment occupants spoken to her. She'd learned their routines, sometimes left gifts of nuts and fruits on the balconies when only the children were at home. Occasionally handcrafted presents waited for her in exchange, but not today, which was fitting for a good-bye. The girl peered out again, and Munroe smiled, then slipped over the rail and maneuvered into position to drop to the next balcony, perhaps for the final time.
For six months Djibouti had provided the comforting chaos that only the Third World could offer, and for these six months, navigating the nepotistic politics, the culture of graft and paranoia, the stench and the sounds and the maze of a society steeped in khat drug addiction, had played snake charmer to the serpents inside her head.
She'd come full circle, back to the African continent: had maneuvered herself into the arms of a mercenary team as she'd done a decade ago, and as it had also been then, she wasn't here as one of Leo's ship-jumping little army for hire, but as a linguist and a fixer. She'd wanted nothing to do with the weapons and the machismo. Though she had the skill to be one of the boys, she'd come to him as an errand runner. This was her past, comforting in a way that home might be comforting, if anything could ever be home. English-teaching parents had been her cover story--one that didn't invite questions--and really, Leo and Amber Marie had no reason to doubt. She got things done, soothed the abrasions that came with working in the grit: Familiar and rote--what clocking in for a data entry job might be to anyone else--Djibouti had kept the inner voices quiet, gave her a way to keep busy without the responsibility or the burden of life-altering decisions or people depending on her for survival. She didn't need Leo's job for the money but for the sanity, and though she could eventually find something else, she didn't want to. She was dead here, liked it that way, and wasn't ready to come back to life.
Munroe went hand over hand, from second balcony to wall, and dropped into the compound that housed the two single-story buildings that were Leo's base of operations. She crossed caked dirt and passed beneath the one large tree to the rearward house, which was three small bedrooms and a few common areas that she shared with two other team members.
Natan lay lengthwise on the living room couch, his bare foot wrapped in an ankle bandage propped up on the wooden armrest. In place of ignoring her as he typically did, he watched her, and when she'd crossed half the room he said, "Leo is looking for you."
"He found me," she said, and stopped. Doubled back and stood in front of his foot. "How bad is it really?"
"That's what I figured," she said, and his expression gave away what his words didn't: He knew just as well as she did why Leo had made this switch, and whatever resentment Natan may have felt at staying behind over a minor injury was probably compensated for by watching Leo's jealousy reach boiling point.
Munroe continued down the tiled hallway toward her room.
She'd never claimed to be male, not to Leo, not to Amber Marie, not to any of the rest of the men. Unlike so many other misrepresentations in her line of work, this one hadn't been calculated or deliberate, was just a continuation of the way she preferred to dress and operate in countries where being a single woman had the potential to cause endless complications. She was long and lean, with an androgynous body; it wasn't a difficult transformation and over the years the pretense of behaving and working as a boy had become more natural than assuming her own identity.
She'd shown up in Leo's office unannounced and asked for a job. He'd given her two weeks to prove her value, and with her skill set and experience it had been easy to ingratiate herself and create dependence, to become part of an operation that, for all of its excellence in weapons and security, lacked the finesse needed to inoffensively grease the daily bureaucratic gears. The side effects of coming onto the team as a male had been a bonus: She didn't have to endure sexist quips, no one hit on her, and Leo's men all respected the boundaries of man-to-man personal space.
Except she'd done her job too well, her name had been uttered once too often on the lips of the boss man's wife, and because Munroe had never bothered to clarify her gender at the outset and it was too late to clarify it now, appearances had turned her into the only guy the wife hung out with and repeatedly talked about during the long stretches the others were away. Call her oblivious, but a husband's jealousy was a complication Munroe hadn't planned on.
Munroe paused in front of her room to listen down the hall for Victor.
If the Spaniard was in, he wasn't moving about. She opened her door to a bare room: a bed she rarely slept in, an empty desk shoved up beside the bed, and a narrow armoire with a few changes of clothes. None of the furniture was from the same set much less the same decade. Her room had no pictures. No personal items. Nothing that said she belonged here.
Munroe sat on the bed and pulled from beneath it a backpack that had been with her for nearly ten years and twice as many countries. Held it in her hands and stared at it without seeing while Leo's options chased each other around her brain: Board the ship, or leave the team.
To keep his marriage calm, Leo needed to make her departure look like her own doing. She had no attachments that would make walking away difficult, but his clumsy, indelicate, ham-handed attempt to back her into a corner irritated her just enough to prod her into proving points of her own. A little manipulation, a little backstabbing, and the fight in her had breached the surface again.
Munroe sighed. Perhaps she wasn't as dead to the world as she'd thought. She stood. Unzipped the pack and then dumped the few clothes from the armoire into it. Against her better judgment, she'd board that ship tonight, Somali pirates be damned, and when she got back, when she was ready, she'd leave Leo's company and Djibouti on her own terms.
Movement and a knock at the door interrupted her thoughts. Amber Marie, the other half of the company, the real brains behind the operation, stood in the door frame, blond hair tied back in a severe bun, baggy clothes hiding both her shapely figure and her age, which was a good ten or more years younger than her husband's. It was Amber who Munroe truly worked for, solving problems in a world that created new ones daily.
"Leo says you're going with him," Amber said.
"You don't have much time left to decide," Amber said, and paused. "I guess either way you're leaving tonight?"
Munroe nodded. "Seems that way."
Amber smiled, making it difficult to tell if she understood that Natan's injury was really just a conveniently timed excuse that allowed Leo to force Munroe's hand. Amber said, "I figure once you get a taste for the ships, Leo will steal you away and you'll never want to be my go-to guy again." Gave a halfhearted attempt at another smile. "Either way I came to say good-bye and to thank you for everything."