From Congo to France
“Maybe I could buy a new jacket for myself today,” Sylvere whispered to himself, thinking of the linen suit Serge was wearing inside the train. “No, I don’t need a new suit,” he added, realizing his thoughts were racing again and taking a deep breath through his nose. He stood at the base of a set of wide, concrete stairs leading up to the streets of Paris and into the heart of the city. He already had navigated the walkways of Châtelet–Les Halles and now was making his exit from the train station. He paused, though, looking in the direction of a concrete ramp which led to the massive shopping center and cinema complex attached to the transit hub. For a moment, he watched as shoppers laden with plastic bags depicting the logos and names of popular boutiques and department stores approached at a brisk pace, making their way to the trains and subsequently other parts of Paris. But their hopes and plans were different from his own. He never would be able to escape the burden of the past, a heavy weight of poverty and oppression originating in Congo but always close at hand in France as well.
“If I don’t succeed,” Sylvere said out loud in Kikongo, the language of his ancestral home in the southwestern part of Democratic Republic of Congo, “people will die.”
Sylvere briefly felt the right sleeve of the old, worn-out red windbreaker he was wearing before he started to walk up the concrete stairs, the idea of finding a new jacket for himself blowing away in the gust of warm wind on the stairs as it rushed down from the streets above. The idea was a diversion. In truth, Sylvere wasn’t in the habit of buying clothes for himself. Although he had earned a relatively high salary while working as an electrical engineer for IBM for almost 40 years before his retirement five years earlier, he never seemed to have enough money to support his wife and five children in Combs-la-Ville. He also sent money back home to his extended family in Congo. Indeed, if Sylvere had wanted to re-live old, sometimes painful memories, he could have recalled various occasions on which he accepted donations of clothing for his children, particularly in the early years of their life in Europe.
Ascending the wide, concrete stairs, Sylvere shook his head. He couldn’t believe some of the ideas racing through his mind at the moment.
On the streets outside the transit hub of Châtelet–Les Halles, after Sylvere had emerged into an open area in which both locals and tourists appeared to come and go with a sense of purpose but without an accompanying display of energy, the heat had risen to its apex on that day in late July. It served as a mild sedative, preventing any sudden movement or hasty decision on the part of the people on foot. Sylvere unzipped his windbreaker and looked at the dark clouds massing in the sky to the north. He turned left on a narrow and crowded street, Rue Rambuteau, and passed a sign indicating the route to the Louvre Museum and a large group of people speaking in German.
“It’s going to rain sometime this afternoon,” Sylvere said out loud in Kikongo, proceeding onto an even narrower street, Rue Coquillière, and walking through other groups of tourists moving in the direction of the famous museum.
At the corner of Rue Coquillière and Rue du Louvre, Sylvere stopped and looked around him as he attempted to locate a seafood restaurant he thought was located in the area. The eatery, Le Clam Joyeux, had a good reputation. Sylvere thought he had heard the establishment occupied a small space on the ground level of one of the old buildings somewhere close to the corner on which he stood. But he didn’t see the restaurant nearby. He resumed walking. When Sylvere turned right on Rue du Louvre, a wider street on which cars were parked on both sides, he happened to glance over his right shoulder back down Rue Coquillière.
Serge appeared. Wearing sunglasses and talking loudly on his phone while looking upward into the sky, he emerged from a crowd of tourists and, walking leisurely along Rue Coquillière, was 20 feet behind Sylvere.
Sylvere didn’t stop walking. As on the train one hour previously, he had no desire to talk with Serge. Sylvere never had felt he had much in common with the other man, except for the fact that both came from Congo. More importantly, Sylvere now was aware he was hungry. He decided to stop at a café, Emmanuel Hermé Paris, before proceeding to his meeting with the director of Le Carrefour, a woman by the name of Bénédicte.
Walking up Rue du Louvre for another few minutes, Sylvere couldn’t resist an urge. He glanced over his right shoulder again. Serge was nowhere to be seen.
Sylvere reached the point at which Rue du Louvre flowed into another street, Rue Montmartre. He stopped on the sidewalk on the north side of the street and looked at the watch on his left wrist. It was 11:33. He crossed to the other side of the street and entered Emmanuel Hermé Paris, known for its high-quality fare and quick service. The café, occupying a large space containing a main counter at which customers placed their orders and a dining area with 50 tables at which customers ate their meals, was crowded.
After Sylvere placed his order of a baguette with ham and cheese and an espresso, he accepted a foot-tall wooden stand with a number at its top from the cashier and found a table which had just been vacated by two men wearing suits in the center of the dining area. Then Sylvere, as he sat down at the table, removed his phone from the pocket of his red windbreaker and began to read the news flash about the attempted coup in Kinshasa, the capital of Democratic Republic of Congo. However, the phone vibrated once, and Sylvere saw a notification of an incoming text message from Pinto.
“How is it going in Paris?” Pinto asked.
A server appeared next to Sylvere’s table. The young man, carrying a tray and wearing a white, short-sleeved shirt with black trousers, proceeded to place a straw basket holding a baguette with ham and cheese and a cup of espresso on the table. Sylvere put down the phone on the table, picked up the baguette with ham and cheese and brought it up to his mouth with both hands. As he was about to take a bite, his glance fell on the front door of the café.
Entering the café still wearing dark glasses but now also holding the arm of a young, attractive woman who was African or else African European, Serge swiveled his head in Sylvere’s direction, and although Sylvere couldn’t see Serge’s eyes, Sylvere sensed the other man had made eye contact with him.
Suddenly, Serge laughed, tilting his head backward and projecting his loud laughter into the warm air above his head while moving his arm so that it wrapped around the waist of his companion. He steered her to one side of the large space.
A mixture of suspicion and foreboding settled over Sylvere.
Watching Serge and his companion as they disappeared behind a large group of diners into one corner of the room, Sylvere put his hand on his phone. He grasped the device, bringing it up to his face, and started to reply to the message from Pinto with a message of his own. Abruptly, Sylvere stopped. Noticing the current time displayed in the upper right corner of the screen, he realized he had to hurry. It was 12:05. Sylvere put the phone back down on the table and finished his baguette, glancing into the corner as he took his last bite.
Serge and his companion were nowhere to be seen.
Sylvere stood up from the table and drank the espresso. Then, staring straight ahead, he walked out the front door of the café and, moving quickly up Rue Montmartre, covered the remaining distance, about three hundred feet, to his destination, the offices of Le Carrefour, in less than two minutes.
A set of two tall wooden doors stood at the base of the old building which housed the offices of Le Carrefour. One of the two wooden doors was closed. The other one was ajar. The gap wasn’t large enough to allow a person to pass into the building, though. Sylvere placed the palm of his hand on the slightly open door. However, he didn’t push. Instead, still standing on the sidewalk, he swiveled his head to the right and looked back down Rue Montmartre.
Sylvere was not sure, not from that distance, but he thought he saw Serge standing outside the café, Emmanuel Hermé Paris, looking back at him. Now Sylvere pushed. When the door had opened just wide enough so that he could pass, he stepped inside the building.
New, troubling thoughts began swirling in his mind.