Big City, Small World
On the third floor, Sylvere found himself in a wide, unexpected space similar to the one on the second floor. The difference was the collection of small circular tables surrounded by chairs and other office equipment which he now saw. Perhaps 15 people huddled together in small groups, typing on computers.
A young man stepped out of a small room, apparently a lavatory, on the eastern side of the room and told Sylvere where to find Bénédicte. When Sylvere approached the northwestern corner of the building, he saw a large circular table under a tall window. At the table sat a child-like figure hunched over a stack of files.
Inexplicably, Sylvere recognized the woman who, noticing the appearance of someone she expected to be a stranger, put down the piece of paper she held and rose from the table. As she walked toward him, extending one hand, Sylvere recalled a scene almost 40 years previously in a medical clinic atop a muddy hill on the outskirts of Beni, a city of 250,000 people in the northeastern corner of Congo 75 kilometers from Uganda.
On an overcast day in 1982 outside Beni, Sylvere had traveled with his friend, Ronald, to the medical clinic’s primitive facilities where they encountered a diminutive woman wearing the habit of a Dominican nun. She stood next to a group of Mbuti people, commonly known as pygmies. She was no taller than any of the four Mbuti men accompanying three Mbuti women and one of their children who came from the nearby Ituri rainforest so the child could receive treatment for an acute case of dysentery.
Standing in the offices of Le Carrefour and shaking the tiny hand of the woman, who no longer wore a habit but who now wore an austere black dress, Sylvere recalled that Ronald, a young medical doctor returning from Europe to Congo with plans of opening his own clinic, eventually had chosen the city of Rutshuru, 300 kilometers south of Beni, as the site of his new practice. But both Sylvere and Ronald had been impressed by the nun, who although diminutive in stature was commanding in presence.
“Ronald was a good man,” Bénédicte commented, seemingly reading Sylvere’s thoughts. “True, he didn’t fully grasp the severity of his situation caught between a desire to help innocent men, women, and children and a need to co-operate with scrupulous business and political operators seeking power and wealth.” Bénédicte directed her gaze upward into Sylvere’s face with an intensity and coldness which plunged his thoughts into a state of confusion. The gaze had a profound impact on Sylvere, simultaneously surprising and repulsing him.
Meeting her gaze, Sylvere calculated the small woman before him was at least 85 years old. He wondered what sustained her over so many years in her work. He didn’t think her efforts were born of empathy or even love for fellow human beings.
“Of course, Ronald also was a good doctor,” Bénédicte continued, leading Sylvere back to the table. Through the tall window, Sylvere saw a view of the streets in that ancient quarter of Paris he had not seen before. He wondered if the building was owned by the Catholic Church or else one of its wealthy and loyal adherents.
Bénédicte gestured toward one of the chairs at the table, directing the intensity of her gaze at Sylvere again.
“But the Lord had other plans for Ronald in Heaven,” the small woman added. “Who are we to question the designs of our Heavenly father?”
The dark clouds massing in the skies some distance north of Paris during the late morning now extended southward to the skies above the city. Still Sylvere thought he could make it back to Combs-la-Ville before the rain started falling.
Standing on the sidewalk next to the street, Rue Montmartre, on one side and on the other side the set of two tall wooden doors at the base of the building which housed the offices of Le Carrefour, he looked at the watch on his right wrist. It was almost 2:15. He wanted to return home as quickly as possible. He hoped to stop at Pinto’s house, which was just four blocks away from his own house, to report on the meeting with Bénédicte. However, Sylvere didn’t hurry down the street in the direction of the train station, Châtelet–Les Halles. Instead he looked up at the sky again, recalling the words spoken to him by Bénédicte half an hour earlier.
“We will do everything we can to help Claudette,” Bénédicte had stated. “The process likely will be a long one,” she had added before looking across the table at her assistant. “Edwina will contact you on Monday for the rest of the information we need to open an asylum case,” Bénédicte had continued. Although Bénédicte had expressed her sympathies, she had explained that her organization did not have the ability to arrange immediate admission to France for Claudette despite the threats on her life in Congo.
The meeting had dashed his hopes. He had failed.
“It’s clear now,” Sylvere said out loud in Kikongo. “I will not be able to rescue Claudette from Congo and bring her to France in time.” Abruptly, Sylvere, a different thought entering his mind, removed his mobile phone from the pocket of his red windbreaker. He made a call. “Tell Jim not to accept the job offer from the company in Switzerland until I’ve had an opportunity to talk with him,” Sylvere said in Lingala when Josephine had answered. “I’ll be home by 4:30,” he added. He hung up. This time, still grasping his phone in one hand, he pushed his body as fast it would go through the streets leading to Châtelet–Les Halles.
When Sylvere arrived at the massive transit hub in the heart of Paris and made his way to the platform designated for the train to Combs-la-Ville, he stopped 20 feet away from a rectangular concrete structure to which a long plastic bench had been attached to each of the four sides of the structure. He could see as many as 30 people sitting on the benches or standing in front of them. As Sylvere brought his small phone up to his face and started to reply to the text message he had received from Pinto during lunch, his attention was caught by someone standing directly up the platform from him. Sylvere looked at the person.
Serge was looking back at him. Sylvere opened his mouth to speak. Then he closed it again. No, it was not Serge who was looking at him. The man, who bore a resemblance to Serge, flashed a smile at Sylvere before averting his gaze to a point somewhere down the tracks. Startled by the resemblance and reminded of the events from earlier in the day, Sylvere directed his attention back to his phone. He found the phone number he wanted. He dialed the number.
“Can you think of any reason Serge would be following me?” Sylvere said in Kikongo when Pinto had answered. Both men belonged to the Kongo ethnic group which originated in southwestern Congo. They had the same mother tongue. Also like Sylvere, Pinto had socialized with Serge at many events, both large and small, in the Congolese community over the years.
“Can you think of any reason Serge would be talking with Quentin?” Pinto replied, referring to the bodyguard of Anthony Lukambo, whose coltan and cassiterite mines in eastern Congo had made him a rich and powerful man at the expense of the lives of many other people. Pinto described how his wife, Bernadette, had overheard Serge and Quentin talking in an alley behind a Congolese market in Combs-la-Ville the previous day. “Meet me at my house tonight after dinner,” Pinto added. “I’ll be in my workshop in the back.”
The first drops of rain began hitting the pavement as Sylvere hurried along Rue Gustave Hervé in the old section, built in the 1970s, of Combs-la-Ville and came in sight of his house. He could feel the raindrops soaking through the thin sleeves of his red windbreaker and spreading across his skin. Then he could feel a different sensation through the worn fabric of his jacket. It was the vibration of his phone.
“Sylvere stopped on the side of the road next to a tall mulberry tree, removed his phone from the pocket of the red windbreaker, and looked at the caller ID information. He saw a number which included three characters, +49, indicating the country code of Germany. He didn’t recognize the number. But he answered.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Sylvere,” a woman said, speaking slowly in French, “we are prepared to help you transport Ms. Claudette from Goma, Congo, to Paris, France.” Sylvere realized he had heard the woman’s voice before. It belonged to the fifth contact and sole woman referred by Pinto. The woman continued: “We would like to invite you and Mr. Pinto to Tervuren, outside Brussels, to discuss our proposition. We understand the urgency of the situation. We will send a car for you tomorrow at noon. Please stand by for further details.”
The connection was cut.
Sylvere didn’t move, standing on the side of the road in the rain next to a mulberry tree while holding his phone to his ear. A car passed. A second car passed. A third car approached, its horn honking. Sylvere felt small streams of water running down his back, his legs, his whole body. He brought the phone down from his ear and started composing a text message.
“You came through,” Sylvere wrote in Kikongo. “We’re going to Brussels tomorrow.” He sent the message. Then he walked home.