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Missing people, murders, mad pursuits: all the ingredients necessary for a storm of epic proportions, a storm that will whirl its insanity across international borders and become one of the most complex - and dangerous - cases that the Secret Service has ever taken on.Talya and Samuel find themselves in the south of France, but if they thought they would find any answers there, they were dead wrong - there are only more questions, more complexities, and more mysteries. Now, to try to make sense of what is happening in the present, Talya must revisit things that she was involved in in the past. Talya recounts a job she had to take on, involving the disappearance of both Savoi and $500 000 of her employer's money. She was sent to Mali to investigate, but every time she thought she could fit a piece of the puzzle into place, it turned out to reveal yet another mystery. And those events in the past now seem to be connected to events in the present, both of which take her deeper, ever deeper, into a dark mystery. And at the center of it all? The ruthless Puppeteer, of course.In The Beginning, the third volume of The Puppeteer of Washington series, Talya's journey takes her to exotic and perilous locations, and has her meeting dangerous and mysterious characters, who may be allies - or who may be enemies who want her dead. As soon as you read the first few lines of The Beginning, you'll know that this is a riveting adventure that you won't be able to put down until the very last page has been turned.Get even better value for money with the new Box-Set at $8.99 instead of $12.00 you'd pay buying the books individually. Just search The Puppets of Washington Box-Set on the Kindle Store Search Bar
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The Puppets of Washington Series Book 3
Blue Shelf Bookstore
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by BlueShelfBookstore
Mali. – The Beginning
© 2015 BlueShelfBookstore
All rights reserved
The localities, including Sabodala, landmarks and government organizations mentioned or described in this book do exist. The characters and events are fictional. Their resemblance to actual events or people, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
MALI: The Beginning (The Puppets of Washington, #3)
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Angouleme is a charming city in the Charente, surrounded by the vineyards of the famous Bordeaux wines and neighboring the Cognac valley. Angouleme’s old houses, lining cobbled street and small orchards or gardens, offer the perfect retreat for the travelers making their way to the coastal cities such as Biarritz on the Atlantic shores.
Talya was getting tired, although they had stopped frequently during their first two-hundred kilometers’ journey from Paris. That night they slept in Reins in a small hotel by the train station and saddled their bike early the next morning.
They had only one reason for heading to the southwest of France and to Angouleme in particular—one of Talya’s childhood friends lived there. She had lost touch with him when she and her parents moved to Africa. Maybe Michael was still living in Angouleme or perhaps had moved on; Talya didn’t know. But she remembered that he had five siblings and that his mother was the kind of woman who would not move from her home easily.
The house was located on the corner of a side-street and passable laneway going down to the edge of the city and other out-of-the way homesteads. The side-street led uptown to the city-center—shops and markets. Directly across from Madame Leroux’s house there was a set of concrete stairs leading to the main road that traversed the city and weaved its way out of it south towards Bordeaux. The house itself was a rambling, old abode, built at the turn of the century—a two story affair with adjunct housing topped of an attic and covered of a Provençal slate roof. Inside of a surrounding brick wall, a courtyard and garden bordered the old mansion.
Unsaddling the bike, Talya smiled. She looked up at the house that seemed to welcome her back with the sadness of her ageing, grey stones. The door at the top of the front stoop had been freshly painted—its coat of dark red gloss seemed somewhat out of place—like a touch of lipstick on the frail-looking lips of an old lady.
Samuel parked the bike on the narrow sidewalk under the disapproving gaze of a couple of passers-by and then went to join Talya in front of the door. She took the heavy brass knocker and tapped it a couple of times. A few seconds passed before they heard hesitant steps coming down the corridor beyond. Madame Leroux opened the door a crack and looked up and down at the visitors before she said, “Yes, what is it that you want?” visibly apprehensive to open the door any wider to these two strange people, both dressed in black leather. It took her a few more seconds to recognize Talya, but when she did, Madame Leroux burst out in a string of apologetic and welcome words. “My Goodness! The devil himself would not have recognized you in that outfit. What happened to you? Come in, my goodness, come in.” She flung the door wide-open and extended an arm to invite the visitors inside the corridor. She looked at Samuel, again apprehension marking the lines of her face. “And who’s this?” she asked Talya.
“This is Samuel Meshullam, Madame Leroux. We are sorry to intrude on your day but we thought we could not pass through Angouleme without seeing you.”
Walking down the hallway, and opening the door to the living room on the right, Madame Leroux said, “I am very glad you did. Michael has been asking after you lately.”
“Is he in town?” Talya asked.
“Yes, he is, Talya.” She hesitated. “Are you married?” Madame Leroux, Talya knew, had always been direct with her questions.
“No, Madame, I am not.” She turned her face to Samuel. “Samuel is my traveling companion.”
“Have a seat.” Madame Leroux enjoined, indicating the chairs around the dining table. “Michael should be here for supper, I expect. But tell me, what? Have you joined a gang of motorcyclists—you’re dressed like those people I hear roar down the street at the weekend.”
Samuel smiled and opened his mouth—finally. “No, we’re not part of any gang, Madame. It’s much easier to travel through France with a bike than it is with a car these days.”
Madame Leroux nodded. “I guess it must be. Mind you I don’t drive—never have—but when Michael takes me somewhere, I can see what you mean. The traffic on the road is terrible. People seem to rush everywhere all the time.”
The three of them sat down, only for Madame Leroux to stand up again saying, “I’ll get some coffee going and I’m sure you could use a piece of pie.” She trotted to the kitchen without waiting for an answer from her guests. From there, she shouted, “Do you want milk and sugar?”
Not wanting to refuse her hospitality, Talya replied, “Just black and sugar for me.” She turned to Samuel.
“The same for me, thank you.” he shouted back.
A couple of minutes later, Madame Leroux reappeared with a tray filled with cups, saucers, a coffee pot, that had seen the top of the coal stove once too often—black soot surrounding its bottom—and a scrumptious-looking pie set on a Limoges plate. “There you are then.” she said, depositing the tray in the middle of the old walnut table. “I’ll get some forks and plates.” she added, trotting away again. Coming back, she sat down saying, “I remember you preferred the cherry pies I bake of a summer, Talya, but in the winter you have to settle for plums.”
Talya, remembering the pies that she used to devour with Michael and the climbing of the cherry tree in the garden during their school holidays, didn’t have the heart to tell Madame Leroux that she would never climb another tree, or allow herself to run up and downstairs to play those children’s games. She gave a timid smile and took the plate from Madame Leroux, saying, “Thank you; that looks scrumptious.”
“And how long are you planning to stay in town?” Madame Leroux asked, looking at Talya and Samuel in turn.
Shooting a quick glance at Samuel, Talya answered hesitantly, “We’d like to stay for a few days but we haven’t decided where yet.”
Madame Leroux swallowed a mouthful of pie. “Why don’t you take the rooms upstairs? I haven’t been up there in a while—my knees are giving me trouble—but apart from the dust, I’m sure you’d be comfortable.”
“That’s very nice of you to offer, Madame,” Samuel said, “but we wouldn’t want to impose.”
“No imposition, Monsieur Samuel; I wouldn’t have proposed it if it were inconvenient or if some of the children were taking up the rooms. Besides, in the winter, I don’t have many visitors—the kids don’t come up until the summer.”
“If you’re sure it’s not a bother, we’d love to stay for a few days.” Talya said, looking at Samuel again. He was enjoying his piece of plum pie, it seemed. “Is Michael staying with you?” Talya ventured to ask.
“Well, yes, Talya. He’s taken up the front room for now until he finds himself another job.”
“Oh, I didn’t know.”
“How could you have known? It’s not like you kids have kept in touch, is it?” The reproach in Madame Leroux’s voice was quite evident.
Talya retreated to the back of the chair, coffee cup in hand, sipping on it. “You’re right, but I’ve been away for about three years now—never the same place for more than a month or two.” Madame Leroux’s piercing gaze didn’t leave Talya’s face. “I know it’s not much of an excuse, but that’s all I’ve got.”
Madame Leroux was a petite woman, with a little, round and wrinkled face and very dark eyes. Her black hair, tied at the nape of her neck in a bun, trimmed a visage reflective of sadness and enduring sternness. “That sounds to me like you’re following in your father’s footsteps.” she stated as if no comments to that declaration were going to be accepted.
Talya lowered her eyes to her lap and began to regret accepting to stay at Madame Leroux’s place. If she was going to display this opinionated character of hers at every turn, this wasn’t going to be a pleasant stay by any means.
Getting up, Madame Leroux began clearing the dishes. “While I do this bit of washing up, why don’t you show Monsieur Samuel where you’re going to sleep?”
Samuel and Talya rose from the table; Talya helping with the gathering of plates, cups and tray. “Would you mind if Samuel puts the motorcycle in the courtyard?”
“Sure. I’ll go down and open the door when you get your luggage. And I’ll have to give you fresh sheets for the beds. They have not been used since Suzanne and her husband were here last July.”
“Okay then,” Talya said, “I’ll give you the grand tour.” turning to Samuel.
Beyond the kitchen, they opened a door that accessed the first bedroom and then another door opened onto a makeshift bathroom. There was no bathtub or shower—just a sink and a vanity with a medicine cabinet and mirror above it.
Samuel looked at Talya. “Doesn’t she have a tub or shower?” he asked.
“No. When we were kids, she boiled water and we bathed in a tub in the kitchen, and once a week we would go to the public baths to bathe and sometimes swim.”
“What about the toilet? Is that outside?”
Talya smiled. “No, it’s not. I’ll show you.” She opened another door, this one leading to a staircase on the right and a very narrow corridor on the left. At the end of it, yet another door opened onto a toilet set on top of a step.
“Wow!” Samuel exclaimed, looking amused. “That’s like a throne under the stairs.”
Talya had to laugh. “Yeah, that’s what it is. You know, she almost gave birth to Michael on this ‘throne’?”
“Did she really?”
Talya nodded. “She told me the story when I was still just a girl. I don’t know why she told me, but she did.” She retraced her steps down the corridor, Samuel in tow. “Let’s go upstairs and see our rooms.”
They climbed the rickety steps to a landing with what looked like a wardrobe along the wall facing yet another door (no open-concept here). Talya opened it and stopped. The double bed, set against the far wall, seemed to occupy most of the attic. She hadn’t seen this place since she was a child and now everything seemed much smaller than what she remembered. The floorboards were still unpolished and were now covered with dust. The ceiling was covered with plaster-boards and the walls with faded wallpaper. Dreary and sad was Talya’s impression of the room when they both walked through it. Beyond the far wall, and accessible through yet another doorway—no door this time—there was another room with a single bed and a dresser set between two windows, their sills reaching knee high. The light from the small windows in this room and in the front one shone on the furniture, showing yet more dust.
“Let’s get some rags and a bucket of soapy water.” Talya suggested. “We’ll need to clean this place up before we get fresh sheets on these beds.” She shook her head.
When she was just ten years old, Talya had come down to Angouleme a couple of times and had noticed how much Madame Leroux didn’t like cleaning house. Talya hadn’t mind too much at that age that the house had always been in somewhat of a mess, but now, she felt she had to do something about it—at least in the attic. Although, they were not planning to stay that long—two or three days at the most—she couldn’t bear the thought of sleeping in that dusty and smelly attic without giving it a good scrub.
After much grumbling and remonstrance on Madame Leroux’s part, much cleaning and changing linen on the beds, putting the bike in the courtyard and helping their hostess any way they could, Talya and Samuel were setting the table for supper when Michael came in. He closed the door slowly behind him, stopped and stared. “Is that really you?” he asked, “Mom and I were just talking about you.” He took a few steps towards Talya and turned to Samuel. “I guess this is your husband.”
Shaking her head, Talya said, “No, Michael, we’re not married. This is Samuel Meshullam.” The latter extended a hand for Michael to shake.
“Good to meet you, Monsieur.” Michael replied, shaking his hand. “But tell me, what brought you down these parts? And what happened to your hair? God, you’ve changed so much, I wouldn’t have recognized you from across the street.”
“That’s what I told her.” Madame Leroux rejoined, coming into the living room, a bowl of steaming potatoes in her hands. “She’s no longer the sweet little girl we’ve known either.” She put the bowl down on the table. “You sit down, and I’ll get the rest from the stove.”
The three of them did as ordered and Michael poured some wine from the carafe—more like a jug really—into all of the glasses. This was no cheap wine, Talya knew. Madame Leroux’s distant cousins worked in the vineyards and they kept her supplied with the best kegs around, which she stored in the cellar under the house.
During the meal, which was simple but delicious, Michael asked many questions about what happened to Talya from the time she had left Europe and went down to Africa, to what brought her and Samuel back to France.
Talya looked up at Samuel before beginning to recount her story.
He said, “Maybe I should tell the story?” when he saw tears pearling at the rim of Talya’s eyes.
She nodded. “If you don’t mind.”
Looking around him for nods of approval, which he got readily, he began, “It all started when Talya left Australia after her mother passed away...”
He could still see the human shape escarping the beach, bringing to mind an incongruous remnant of a sand castle, the white hand clutched in a fist as if its owner wanton thoughts of vengeance beckoned beyond death.
Talya read the letter again.
James Flaubert, President
Carmine Resources Limited
Dear Mr. Flaubert,
In the latest annual report, you announced the company’s move to acquire several exploration permits in Mali. The report also states that you have appointed Mr. Savoi as Carmine’s agent in that country.
I have a large portfolio of investments in various mining companies, one of which is Carmine. Therefore, and as what I would consider, a major shareholder in your enterprise, I would like to obtain some clear and precise explanations as to why no apparent progress has been made toward the acquisition of these permits. It seems to me that there should have been some tangible results in this regard, if some of the unverified reports, emanating from the stock exchanges, are to be believed.
Awaiting your reply,
She rose from her desk and walked down the hall to James Flaubert’s office. The letter left very little to interpretation—the man was not happy. James had indeed authorized the forwarding of large payments to Mr. Savoi on a regular basis for several months now, without much result. This shareholder wanted and deserved some explanation.
When Talya entered his office, James swivelled his chair to face her. He saw her with the letter in hand and waved to her to sit down. He was on the phone.
A few years ago, Talya Kartz came home to Vancouver. She had left Australia in the middle of summer and had landed in Canada in the middle of winter. The pouring rain, even dripping wet felt good, because she was home. Meanwhile, she was also out of work and frustrated right out of self-confidence. Several years of drudgery Downunder, although some of it self-imposed, had left her with very little credence in her judgment and ability. She had not been fired, or anything that drastic, but she had come home when she had felt she still had time to repair the damage done to her self-esteem.
If her self-confidence was perhaps a worrisome subject, her figure wasn’t. Talya was a petite, slim, yet curvy woman with a head of blond—almost white—curls that had been the envy of many girls. Her allure, her demeanour, in reality, everything about Talya was attractive.
Shortly after landing in Vancouver, she remembered sitting on the bed in her hotel room, the papers spread-open around her, going through the classifieds, and looking at all the jobs that could not possibly be hers; she had found nothing, nothing that would pay the bills next month. New apartment, new furniture, new this, new that..., all of which was going to add to zero money much too soon.
Eventually, a friend of a friend, as it often happens, told her about a gold mining company that was looking for an executive secretary. Without holding much hope of success, she went through the paces of interviews conducted at the employment agency where her friend worked, the ritual of giving references and the usual rigmarole of too numerous skill-tests. Since she had been told that he was out of town, she didn’t have a chance to meet with the man who was to become her boss. This wasn’t a good sign, as far as she was concerned. Two weeks later however, to her great relief, and somewhat to her surprise, Carmine notified her that she was to be at their offices, in downtown Vancouver, the following Monday at 9:00AM sharp. Talya’s bruised ego got a Band-Aid.
In the first year, she climbed the ladder to Assistant Director. This time round, Talya reached the top rung with relative ease, although her mouth did most of the stepping up. Her self-confidence also returned at a gallop when she began receiving some recognition for her efforts.
James’s office was particularly bright. It enjoyed the light from the morning sun and none of the west-side heat. Unfortunately, James was a highly disorganized individual. The leather couch tucked under two of the windowsills, the large desk, the credenza, the round table in the corner, the chairs, in fact, every square inch of every piece of furniture was covered with piles of files, unfolded maps, books and opened briefcases or bags.
The floor was equally encumbered; gadgets, tools, hockey sticks, some more folders everywhere, and sacks of rocks leaning against the walls on either side of the wardrobe. Talya had never seen a wardrobe in an office before working for James, but he liked to hang his jackets and a change of clothes somewhere else than on a hook behind a door. On the wall behind his desk, his diplomas, degrees and certificates fought for space with his children’s drawings and souvenirs or photos from his numerous trips abroad.
Every time she wanted to gain access to a chair, Talya had to find a passage over and around the mess. Once she had found the chair, she had to remove files or books before she could sit down. That morning proved no different. She removed some files and a briefcase from a chair and sat waiting for James to finish his conversation.
James Flaubert was a Frenchman, born and bred in France and schooled in Britain. He had curly grey hair, a thin face with a long nose, gentle blue eyes and an attractive boyish smile. With his shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows, no tie, no fuss, and an almost always-casual attitude, he looked more like a technician than a president of a successful enterprise did.
Talya admired James for his perseverance in founding and keeping this small mining company afloat, while riding the waves of market fluctuations that could otherwise have been its downfall. She often embraced his optimism and felt strongly about his forthright honesty. He was compassionate and sensitive. Yet, he had a liberal trust in his fellow men, which may have been a flawed trait of his distinct, steering character.
At last, James hung up. “So, what do you think?” He closed a desk drawer. “What’s happening with our applications?”
Talya shook her head. “I don’t know what to think. There are a few things I don’t understand. For one thing, Mr. Savoi is being paid, handsomely I might add, every month and for what? To receive a letter from him saying that everything is fine but ‘these things take time’...”
Talya fell silent.
“Yes, I know all that.” He reclined in his seat, crossed his legs, one ankle over one knee. “What really bothers me is that apart from his salary, we’ve made other transfers to his account. Some of these were supposedly to pay for the processing of the applications, and that was expensive...”
“Did we ever get any accounting statements for these expenditures?”
“Sure. And you know Ken; he’s gone through everything.”
“I guess he would.” Talya agreed. As Carmine’s CFO, Ken Davros had very few equals when it came to sifting through complex accounting ledgers. “What if he received reports that were not actually what they appeared to be? Could he check on those?”
James shook a finger at her. “That’s just it! That’s exactly what bothers me. Ken has checked everything, and he’s found huge discrepancies between the receipts Savoi sent and the amounts we’ve been transferring to his account.” He reclined even further in the seat.
“There you are then, if Savoi has been fiddling with the books somehow...” She bent her head, averting her eyes from James’s gaze. “You know, I can’t help feeling that we’ve been taken for a ride.”
Instantly, James brought the chair forward. “What do you mean by that?” He put his elbows to rest on the desk blotter, his long hands stretched flat in front of him, and looked at Talya intently. She had his attention.
She lifted her eyes to him. “Look at it this way, we’ve been told things are going to take time, but you signed an agreement with Savoi in May of last year—that’s ten months ago. I’m sure it shouldn’t take that long to process these applications. And another thing, why do we need to apply for twelve permits when we only need one?”
“I guess I have to believe that’s the way they do things down there. Savoi said—”
“Here you go again.” Talya was getting annoyed. “You’re relying on Savoi’s word and where did that get us? Nowhere. No, this isn’t the way things are done, not even down there.” Talya’s mouth was running away with her feelings. “You’ve asked me what I think and what I think is that Savoi has been filling his pockets for months now. If someone doesn’t go down there to take a look at what’s going on, we’ll never see any permits.”
Somehow, she had hit a nerve. Neither of them spoke.
After a moment, James uncoiled his lanky frame out of the chair and came round to sit on the edge of his desk, crossing his arms over his chest, looking down at Talya.
“What would it take for you to go to Mali? You’ve lived down there; you know the people and you seem to know what it takes to file permit applications. You have the—”
“You’ve just got to ask me, that’s all.” she flared.
“Then, I’m asking.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll go then.” As Talya articulated the words, she could not believe she actually did so, as if beaten into acceptance.
James turned away and went back to his seat. He picked up the phone and called Stanley Baron, the company secretary and resident attorney. The other directors needed to sanction a decision such as the one he contemplated making, thus he called a meeting of the Board for the next morning.
Looking down at the letter in her hand, Talya sat silent, fidgeting. Tugging distractedly at one of her blond curls and biting her lower lip, she was trying to focus on what just happened. If not for some unforeseen, opposing votes, she was on her way to Mali to try to resolve a sizeable problem. That mouth of hers had seen her in trouble more than once, and now here she was again...
Richard looked at the call-display in disbelief. He would know that mobile number anywhere. Hjamal! The man must be in Canada again. All of the memories came flooding back to Richard’s mind instantly as he picked up the receiver.
“I’m sure you know who this is.”
“Yes, I do. What do you want?”
“I want you to come back.”
“I’m sorry, did you say; you want me to come back? Back for what?”
“I want you to come back to Africa. I want you to come back to work for me.”
“Don’t be too hasty, Richard. You and I know I can be very generous when it comes to paying for your services.”
“Yeah, I remember. I also remember how much it hurt.”
“You survived, didn’t you?”
“No thanks to you, that’s for sure.”
“Now, now, no need for reproaches between friends. What do you say we meet?”
“Where are you?”
“What are you doing here?”
“That, and other things, will all be made clear to you once we sit down and talk. Shall we say in an hour at the restaurant near the Chapel’s entrance of the Eaton Centre?”
“You got it. I’ll be there.”
The caller hung up and Richard looked at his watch. An hour to get to the Eaton Centre, in this traffic... it’s going to be tight. He didn’t know what the deal was, but he was sure of one thing; he was not going back to Africa unless it would be worth his while. Granted, he needed another job, and fast. Granted, he wanted to get back in the mainstream—but not at the price he paid the last time he was involved with the African.
At nine precisely, on that fateful morning, after taking a last look at her attire—a two-piece blue suit with a white shirt and high-heels that were as uncomfortable as ever—Talya entered the boardroom with some apprehension and teeming butterflies in her stomach. She had spent a rotten night churning all kinds of dreamlike imaginings. She even saw herself on camel back chasing after Mr. Savoi across the desert... until she finally fell asleep.
Carmine’s boardroom wasn’t such. Its casual, informal décor would have led anyone to believe it was a mere meeting room, at best, rather than a ‘boardroom’, but it served all of its purposes very well indeed. There were eight black leather chairs, a little worn around the armrests, each neatly tucked halfway under an oblong mahogany table. The four windows opposite the door offered an encompassing view of the city and of the harbour. A Chinese rice painting hung on the one wall and a framed Old World map on the other, below which a credenza stretched its length from the window to the door. Standing in readiness at the one end of it, there was a computer terminal and keyboard. At the other end, a coffee urn headed a marching band of cups and saucers, a plate of biscuits, and a tray with a small jug of milk and a sugar bowl, all of which, Sabrina, the receptionist, had brought in earlier that morning.
James, as President of the company, sat at the head of the table. Sitting opposite him, Ken Davros was relaxing, cup of coffee in hand. He brushed a glance in Talya’s direction when she came in. His lined forehead and ready frown betrayed the inquiring mind behind his mild behaviour. Ken was an absolute wizard at tax sheltering, and at focusing the company, but in Talya’s opinion, he lacked basic people skills. For Ken, employees amounted to assets. Assets added to figures and figures were an assemblage of numbers—a paycheck to be signed at the end of each month. If anyone in the room would be opposing the expenses associated with the proposed assignment, it would be Ken.
Terry Cortland, Carmine’s Exploration Manager was snuggled into a corner of the boardroom, a notebook in his lap. He was in his fifties and not an ounce overweight. His facial features were steadying and unmarred by the signs of age, revealing the man’s equanimity that many of them in the company had needed in moments of uncertainty or indecision.
Two other Directors were standing by the window, looking somewhat ill at ease. One was in his sixties, tan-faced. He reminded Talya of her grandfather. His white hair probably had something to do with it. The other was a little younger, but of equal presence and commanding stance. They were both retired and only came to the office on occasions such as the one that had brought them in this morning.
The fourth member of the Board, and co-founder of the company, Louis Daniel, could not make it. He was somewhere in Guyana.
Talya sat down beside James. Terry got up, went to help himself to some coffee, and offered her a cup. Since she didn’t have time for much of anything when she first arrived at the office, Talya accepted gratefully. The steaming brew hit the spot.
Although the Directors and other members of staff were chatting casually, some nodding and smiling at her once or twice, the tension floated in the air like an ominous cloud. Surveying the scene, Talya kept her own counsel. These men in their wisdom had made a mistake, a five hundred thousand dollars’ mistake.
After what seemed like hours, James rose and called the meeting to order. In one chorus of movement, everybody sat in their usual chairs. School was in.
Stanley, who had the never changing looks of the lawyer ready to step into a courtroom, sat opposite her. He had been doodling on his note pad since she came in. Now pen poised and riveting his attention on his boss and on Talya, he was ready to take down the minutes of the meeting. Ordinarily that would have been Talya’s duty, but since she was the ‘subject’ of this meeting, Stanley offered to do the honours.
James dispensed with the formalities rather quickly. Eyeing everyone in turn, he began summarizing the facts and circumstances that led him to the conclusion that someone, namely Talya, should go to Mali to try to redress the situation. After a brief pause, he opened the floor for discussion.
The questions went from mild ones like “What do you intend to do about getting any of the permits?”
To more inquisitive kinds such as: “Do you really think a woman can go into an Islamic country and start accusing a personality of the community, such as Mr. Savoi, of fraud, and hope to achieve anything?”
To ultimately reaching the somewhat offensive stage of: “We are aware of your experience of Africa, Talya, but you’re only a secretary. What makes you think that you can handle a problem like this one?”
In addition, as she expected, Ken had to add a few questions of his own, mostly related to the expenses she would incur during the trip. He also took the opportunity to remind everyone that they all needed to cut down on expenditures rather than adding to them.
During the proceedings, Talya kept her mouth in check. For her that was a feat in itself. She also tried to answer every question in a calm and collected manner. Trying was not hard; succeeding was. No one had seen those butterflies that had been nearly choking her with each answer she had given. An hour later, the meeting was adjourned and Talya was assigned to leave in two days’ time.
She went home that night feeling odd. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment overlooking the ocean shore and the mountains beyond. It was by no means a spacious place but it was more than enough for her, and it was comfortable. The view, of course, made it even more appealing.
She locked the door behind her, put away her coat and kicked off her shoes. Whew! That felt wonderful. She went to the kitchen, opened a bottle of wine, poured herself a glass, and carried it to the living room. She sat on the sofa and took stock of the day’s events. Odd, was definitely the word to describe the sensation that was slowly invading her mind and body. She turned on the stereo. The music was soothing and the wine started to calm her nerves. The sense of foreboding, which had intruded on her thoughts earlier, seemed to dissipate a little. Distractedly, she went through her mail—there was nothing of interest. If one could call a bill ‘an interesting’ piece of mail, then yes, there was the hydro-bill that retained her attention. It reminded her that she would have to call the answering service, advising it of her upcoming ‘holidays’. That also reminded her to check her messages. There was only a message from Aziz, saying that he would like to have dinner with her this weekend. She would be gone by then. How am I going to tell him that I am leaving? I don’t even know how long I am going to be away... down there. Africa. A daunting thought.
Aziz Hendrix was her boyfriend—she hated the term, but it best described the man with whom she spent most of her leisure time. Did she love him? Talya didn’t think she did. She felt comfortable with him, she trusted him and he was there for her—most of the time anyway.
She went to check what was in the fridge—not much. She was not hungry but out of habit, she gathered, cleaned and cut some vegetables in a bowl. It was to be her dinner. She added a piece of bread and some cheese. She ate without appetite and drank the rest of her glass of wine, lost in thought. Once the dishes were put away, she went to take a shower, put on her favourite bathrobe and sat at her computer in a daze. Talya had to come to terms with it. She was going back to West Africa.
More than apprehension roamed her thoughts that evening. In her diary, she wrote:
For all the days, for all the nights spent in fear, I swore never to go back. The hurt has been too great, the pain too hard and the memory too harsh ever to forget the nightmare of Conakry—how could these men do such a thing to me? I was only fourteen and they ravaged my soul, and tomorrow I shall go back.
Before heading down there, Talya had to contact the local geologist in charge of the area. The next morning, she phoned Jean-Claude Gauthier, a Belgian veteran of the mining world. He had kept an eye on the situation for the past several weeks and had sent reports (to file) regularly and when he said that things were not going well, Talya didn’t wonder.
“Now, Jean-Claude, can you tell me if Savoi’s made any further progress with our applications?”
“No. It seems we’re going nowhere. Monsieur Kane, you know, he’s the Director of Mines down here. He says the applications will be processed as soon as some of the irregularities in the submissions have been corrected.”
“Do we know what he means by ‘irregularities’?”
“No, not really. Kane says he wants to see someone empowered to assume responsibilities for these applications. He says Savoi hasn’t given them all the documentation they needed or... something like that anyway.”
“Okay, I’ll see about that when I get there. Anything else I should know before I go?”
“Yes...” He hesitated. “There are rumors floating around...” Silence. “Talya, are you there?”
“Yes, yes, I’m here. But what do you mean by ‘rumors floating around’?”
“Just what I’ve said. Somebody’s been saying that we’re about to start mining several sites in Northwest Mali. They say we’ve got as many as a dozen concessions up there and that we’ve found gold.”
Talya was stunned, to put it mildly. “That’s ridiculous! You know as well as I do we haven’t got any permits to do anything. And who’s been spreading these rumors anyway?”
“I have no idea. But you know people down here—they’d say anything to show they know more than the next man.” He sounded embarrassed.
She hated gossips, and poor Jean-Claude felt the brunt of her irritation when she assaulted him over the line. “We need to know who’s been spreading these rumors. Damn it, you’re right there. You should know who has been doing all the talking and you should have told James or me. At least you should’ve mentioned something in those reports you’ve been sending...”
“Hold on, Talya. I’ve told you these are only rumors and they shouldn’t amount to anything. That’s why I didn’t mention it before. Anyway, it’s not like people are shouting from rooftops.” They might as well have.
“Do you have any idea what this sort of speculation could do to our stock? You and I, my friend, would not have a job by the weekend. Do you realize that?” If the letter to James was anything to go by, the damaging flood of speculations had possibly begun. “Listen, I’m sorry to jump on you like this, but this isn’t something we could correct easily, and you know it.” Her anger was abating slightly. “I’ll talk to James before I leave and he’ll probably issue a press release to stave off any possible repercussion.”
“But, but... I really didn’t think these gossips would reach the stock exchange from here.” His discomfiture was audible now.
“Okay, let’s hope you’re right. Don’t worry about it for now. We’ll get to the bottom of this one way or the other. Just keep your hat on until I get there, and please, tell Monsieur Kane that I’ll meet with him as soon as he’ll be able to see me. Oh, one more thing, have you seen Savoi?”
“No, I haven’t seen him anywhere, but he’s been around, that’s for sure.”
Talya apologized once more for her outburst and hung up.
In the early seventies, Talya’s father, a physician, decided to go and cure the ills of Africa. Through a tireless dedication to his work, he unwittingly showed his daughter what a young girl should never see. The misery and the pain of fighting for mere survival were staring her in the face, around her, every day. She saw people implore for pity and simple kindness or attention to their never-ending sickness. She saw humans reduced to animal-like forms by diseases and horrible living conditions. The Dark Continent was bleeding from the scars of colonization. It was suffering from a long, incurable disease called ‘Progress’.
The first time she returned to Africa after spending several years in Europe, going to college and hesitantly taking her first steps into the business world, Talya found that modernization had trespassed on the ancient continent. It had helped several countries emerge from the anarchy of independence. Wasn’t it Churchill who once remarked, “Independence was an unwelcome disruption to nations which prior to the First World War had shared a common economy, government and laws”?
As the years marched on, unfortunately, progress and poverty became bedfellows. Today, many people are merely subsisting in slums that emerged from the vestige of dead colonies, while many others are living in luxury homes mushrooming from foreign investments. This atmosphere breeds corruption, which, bar a few exceptions, is now running rampant almost everywhere throughout Africa.
On her way to Mali, since there were no connecting flights to Bamako on the day, Talya decided, with James’s approval, to stop over in Dakar; the capital of Senegal situated at the westernmost point of Africa. This city is a relic of an Old French settlement with busy streets and narrow sidewalks, where people jostled to fray a passage amid the dense horde of cars, buses, donkeys, horse-drawn carts and hobbling beggars. Even the many large tree-lined thoroughfares bearing such names as ‘Avenue George Pompidou’ or ‘Boulevard Charles de Gaulle’ ail from the seldom-interrupted traffic jams.
Throughout the years of abundance and hardship, this old city kept its charm. In Dakar you could find the most luxurious mansions abutting the poorest shacks and the cleanest beaches strewn among the filthiest fishing coves, and not unlike a small version of Marseille, with its very busy port, markets everywhere, selling everything—if you need it, you’ll find it in Dakar.
Yet, Talya had another reason for visiting the Old Marseille. Three months before her departure, a man who, by all accounts, was seeking to find a mining partner, paid a visit to Carmine. He was a handsome, tall African man. He walked down the corridor leading to the boardroom with a graceful, yet purposeful stride. The broad shoulders tapering down to a narrow waistline hinted at the man’s muscular stature. However, the two long scars on his left cheek, deeply etched on his coffee-coloured skin, distracted Talya from noticing the tentative and somewhat timid smile that brightened his face when he came near. His allure and manner exuded charm, but his eyes reflected anxiety and distrust. His name was Ahmed Hjamal. He came to Vancouver in need of professional assistance. Apparently, he had planned and had begun the construction of a gold-processing plant in Senegal and now wanted to engage Carmine and hire their technical knowledge.
James and Talya met with him. During the meeting, Ahmed Hjamal showed his pretentious side as well as his grandiloquent egotism. James told him at once that his company was not for hire but he also made it clear that the Directors could look into a form of association that would eventually benefit all parties concerned. Monsieur Hjamal wanted nothing to do with that offer. He wanted control. He had money, he said. He wanted to buy the knowledge he did not have. The meeting ended quickly, and their guest showed his displeasure by marching out of the office without awarding another glance to his hosts or to the bewildered receptionist; perhaps understandably so, since he had travelled to Vancouver intending to buy help and was now going home empty-handed. Whatever this man wanted or coveted in life, this man got. He would not easily take ‘no’ for an answer.
Richard went through the double doors of the Eaton Centre quickly. The temperature had dropped drastically the night before, and the walk from the parking lot nearby chilled him to the bones. He could have parked underground but it was quicker this way.
As he entered the restaurant, he spotted Hjamal immediately. He was impeccably dressed as usual. His investments must have paid dividends, Richard thought. That was the thing about Africa, you made it big, or you died a pauper—or both.
Richard sat down and looked at the African inquisitively—he waited.
Peering into the eyes of the man sitting opposite him, Hjamal said, “Here is your ticket.” handing Richard an envelope.
“Not so fast.” Richard retorted, pushing away the envelope from under his nose. “I haven’t said that I’ll go back. I want some explanation first.”
“What sort of explanation?” Hjamal asked, leaning to the back of his chair. “There’s nothing to explain.”
“You said on the phone that ‘all will be made clear’. I need some sort of assurance from you. I don’t want the same problems as I had the last time I was working for you.”
“Correction—last time you were at the site I was not your employer, this time I am. You work for me now.”
“Again, I should remind you that I haven’t said I’d go back.”
“The envelope contains your contract, the advance, and your return fare—what other assurance do you want?”
“What I consider a fair salary.”
“Look for yourself—”
Richard grabbed the envelope. He opened it and gasped.
“I thought that it would sway your decision somewhat.” said the African with a faint smile crossing his lips.
“Yeah, it sways it all right, but let me hear what I have to do for that much money.”
Hjamal told him.
Following her meeting with Hjamal, two weeks later, Talya received a phone call from “a friend.” the man said. His name was Abdul Rasheed. He asked her if she could assist Hjamal in his venture.
“Again!” she uttered with annoyance. “I thought we made it quite clear during our meeting. Carmine is not for hire.”
“Yes, yes, so you said... but, if you could, we would appreciate your assistance in helping matters along. We would like to find a company that we could engage to do the job and complete the building of the plant.”
“Mr. Rasheed, let me say this: I’ll look into it for you. And if I find a company ready to take a look at your proposal I’ll let you know.”
“Thank you. Your assistance will be much appreciated.”
After a few parting words, Talya slammed the receiver down in sheer exasperation. At the time, she remembered thinking that she, definitely, did not like the man’s voice or his smooth appeal. They sent shivers down her spine.
Why doesn’t he take a hike? Why indeed? Abdul Rasheed’s persistence was peculiar. On the other hand, she felt Ahmed Hjamal failed to divulge vital information when he came to Vancouver. In the end, during one last conversation with this Monsieur Rasheed—he had called a couple more times in between—she had arranged to meet with Monsieur Hjamal in Dakar.
The aircraft landed at Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport in the middle of the night. Talya had not been there in many years. What she remembered of Dakar’s airport—formerly known as Yoff’s Airport—had nothing to do with what she saw when she alighted from the plane. The terminal building was modern, well organized and very well lit. A bus came to fetch the passengers from the aircraft and carried them two hundred yards to the entrance marked ‘arrivals’.
She walked in with the herd toward the immigration desks. She filled out the forms and after fifteen minutes of waiting in line, she presented her passport to a man in khaki uniform. He stamped the first blank page available, asked her where she was staying and waved her to move on. Abdul Rasheed had told her that he (or someone) would meet her in the arrivals’ lounge. She doubted she could rely on that promise. She was right. There was a handful of people waiting for passengers and holding pieces of cardboard with the name of their party on it. None remotely resembled hers.
Coming out of the immigration enclosure, Talya was assailed by porters; they wanted to take everything she carried and help her through the baggage check and customs’ formalities. She did not want any help. She knew that accepting any assistance would lead these boys to ask for tips—not merely asking—but demanding more than a hand-out. She took her time, making tracks out of the sweat-smelling crowd, pushing, shoving, and grabbing her suitcase from the carrousel without too many hassles. She even got a trolley, which wasn’t leashed onto a porter, and in a few moments, she had her luggage examined, tagged by a burly customs’ officer, and was out of the airport.
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