The Woman on the 3rd Floor
“What is happening?” Sylvere said in Kikongo, closing the tall wooden door and discovering he had entered a narrow, high-ceilinged space on the ground floor of a musty building. It reminded him of a church in the process of a conversion or re-purposing. With his eyes staring at the rough wood of the dark oak door, now closed to the outside world, Sylvere realized that Serge had appeared out of nowhere one too many times during the space of two hours. “How can it be a coincidence?” he asked, expressing his thoughts in Kikongo once again. He couldn’t think of a reason that Serge would be following him. Still Sylvere couldn’t dismiss the idea that Serge was deliberately monitoring his movements. Why? To report them to someone else? The face of a woman, inexplicably, took shape on the surface of the door.
Sylvere dismissed the image. He knew Serge would do just about anything for money. A new thought occurred to Sylvere at that moment.
“Is Serge monitoring my actions on behalf of Anthony?” Sylvere asked himself, speaking out loud in Kikongo and referring to the notorious businessman Anthony Lukambo, who had a reputation for silencing anyone who interfered with his schemes both in Africa and Europe. “Does Anthony now want to find and kill Ronald’s daughter, Claudette, to prevent her from giving evidence against him?” he continued, but this time he spoke only to himself.
“Would you care for a glass of water or maybe a cup of coffee?” asked a woman’s voice softly in Kikongo.
Sylvere swiveled to his right, turning away from the wooden door and toward the interior of the building. He found himself face to face with a young woman who was African or African European. She was not more than 25 years of age. Sylvere stared. The young woman stared back.
“A glass of water,” Sylvere replied in French. He wasn’t thirsty. But he was off balance. Also, he became aware of a gnawing sensation in his stomach and realized he was afraid.
The woman herself was not threatening, even if her appearance was unexpected.
“Come this way,” the young woman said, switching to French and extending her hand in the direction of a set of stone steps. They led upward, providing access to a second and a third level of a three-story structure. No elevator was visible. The narrow but high-ceilinged space wasn’t a lobby in a traditional sense and revealed nothing of the identity of the building’s occupants. The room was bare, with the exception of a small tree bearing perhaps half a dozen limes and sitting inside a large circular container made of earthenware.
Sylvere began walking up the stairs. “You are here to meet with staff at Le Carrefour?” the woman asked. But she didn’t wait for an answer. “Our offices are on the third floor,” she continued, following Sylvere on the stairs.
Sylvere didn’t reply. He couldn’t think of anything to say. As he slowly walked up the stone steps, he found it difficult to focus his thoughts. He took one step at a time, listening to the sound his shoes made on the pale brown stones.
“I promised you some water,” the young woman said, speaking close to Sylvere’s ear. She passed Sylvere on the stairs, reaching the landing on the second floor and disappearing around a corner. When Sylvere reached the landing and turned the corner, he saw her on the opposite side of a spacious room lit up by sunlight streaming through tall windows set into a red-brick wall. Under one of the tall windows against the recently scrubbed red-brick wall was a series of objects, including a long wooden table, a water cooler, and another large earthenware pot containing another lime tree the same size as the one on the ground floor.
But no desks, chairs, or cabinets were visible. Only the bright sunlight and dust motes swimming in the rays of light filled a cavernous space. The lustrous wood of the floors, recently sanded and coated with a thick wax, awaited the arrival of new inhabitants with their own collection of office furniture and other business icons.
“But who will use the limes?” Sylvere thought. He liked limes and on occasion had encouraged Josephine to add the sour fruits to her usual dishes or add them to new ones, especially ones with seafood. As he approached the center of the room, he saw the young woman fill a tall, dark-green glass with water from the water cooler.
“We recently moved to the third floor,” the woman said in French, approaching Sylvere and extending her left hand with the dark-green glass. “I hope you will start feeling better,” she said, wearing the same expression of friendliness. Sylvere accepted the glass. “We haven’t finished vacating this floor as you can see,” she continued, looking around the room. Sylvere followed her gaze. He noticed a collection of empty dishes next to a tray displaying various types of fruits on top of the wooden table. “Since a new tenant hasn’t arrived yet,” she added, “we’re taking our time.”
Sylvere drank all of the water in the glass. He looked at the young woman. He knew she spoke Kikongo with a peculiar accent. He also recognized she wasn’t a native French speaker.
“Where are you from?” he asked in French. “When you speak Kikongo, I notice an accent I can’t place. When you speak French, I detect a flat American drawl.”
“Alpharetta, Georgia,” the young woman replied, extending the same hand toward Sylvere. He gave his empty glass back to her. “A suburb of Atlanta, Georgia,” she added, now speaking in English and peering into the face of Sylvere to determine if he understood.
Sylvere nodded. He had a basic knowledge of the geography of the United States. In addition, he had visited the country once twenty years earlier when he had attended a trade show in Chicago. Over the years, he had picked up English by completing training modules created in the United States while working at IBM and by watching nature programs produced in the United Kingdom on television at home.
“You’re American,” Sylvere said, speaking in English also. Then, switching to Kikongo, he added: “But where are your parents from?”
“Kikwit,” the young woman replied, referring to a city 500 kilometers southeast of Kinshasa. Sylvere raised his eyebrows. The city was, by coincidence, where he was born, but he didn’t mention the fact. He wasn’t sure the young woman was telling the truth. He was, perhaps, overly skeptical at times. “Let me bring you some more water,” she added in Kikongo. Then she hesitated for a moment. She glanced at a watch on her wrist before looking at Sylvere. “Go on up to the third floor,” she resumed. “Bénédicte is expecting you.”
He started toward the staircase.
“By the way,” the young woman said. Sylvere stopped and looked at her. “I’m Edwina,” she said, speaking in French. “Until we can bring an end to the impunity which the rich and powerful have enjoyed for so long,” she said, still uttering her words in French, “the violence against the poor and defenseless and those who would help them only will grow.” She turned back to the water cooler. “I’ll join you on the third floor,” she concluded.
Sylvere, watching as Edwina filled the tall glass with cool water one more time, realized he had recovered his strength. He climbed the stairs.