Message from Kinshasa, Part III — The Park
The rising sun, which burned brightly from its position just above the horizon in the eastern sky, already had lit up the landscape of forest, water, and grass and, further to the west, the town of Tervuren itself. Sylvere sat on one end of a long, wooden bench set into the grass alongside the pathway lining the north side of the lake which lay at the center of the area known as Park van Tervuren or, sometimes, Warande. A tall cup of cappuccino and a white paper bag containing two croissants with chocolate waited next to him on the bench. He didn’t make an attempt to drink any of the coffee or take a bite out of either croissant. He was still.
His gaze, though, drifted across the surface of the lake and over to the forest on the far side of the lake. Both on shore and on the water, the quiet was absolute. Nobody else was present. At that early hour of the day, the park was almost completely deserted.
Sylvere inhaled deeply through his nose and exhaled through his mouth, attempting to calm his nerves. He had given up trying to understand white people’s attitudes and the words and actions which resulted from them many years earlier, but he knew he would never stop feeling their impact. The old, Flemish man from the bakery undoubtedly hadn’t given his feelings or actions a second thought. However, Sylvere, who hadn’t understood all of the man’s words, spoken in Flemish, realized he still felt his life was being threatened.
A gaggle of geese appeared on the shore ten meters away from Sylvere, diverting his attention from the old man’s violent outburst. Leading the group of large, white birds was a particularly large specimen, which was turning its head purposely in different directions while half raising its wings and appearing to take note of Sylvere. Following the lead goose were several smaller geese and, straggling along behind, half a dozen chicks, their downy plumage turned golden in the early morning light of the park.
Sylvere wanted to focus on the geese, but he realized he could not. Anxiously, he shifted his gaze away from the geese and back toward the lake and the forest on the other side. In the distance, a figure became visible. It moved at a steady pace down a dirt path through the forest. It was a jogger, Sylvere assumed. He felt more anxious, as if he was being watched or followed.
Suddenly, Sylvere recalled the text message he had received from Pépé in Goma the previous day. He knew he needed to talk with Pépé as soon as possible, but he wondered how soon he would be able to reach his friend in eastern Congo. He understood how difficult it was to communicate with anyone in the region. He typically relied on a mobile-phone app, WhatsApp, to exchange text messages with both Pépé and Dikembe, but he knew his friends often could not respond promptly since they lacked a reliable network connection.
If Claudette had vanished and Dikembe also had disappeared, as Pépé had indicated, where were they now? Was Dikembe alive? Or was he killed attempting to protect Claudette? Was Claudette alive, as the mystery man, Justin Kabumba, suggested? This man, Justin Kabumba, indeed might know the whereabouts of Claudette, if his information were confirmed.
Sylvere knew he had to contact Justin as soon as he could. However, Sylvere was confused. How was he being connected to Ronald and Claudette by Justin? And, perhaps even more important, how was he supposed to contact Justin? Sylvere knew that because he didn’t have a Facebook account, he couldn’t be easily reached by some people. It obviously was the reason Justin had contacted Kandgela. But, incidentally, how did Justin know Kandgela?
Sylvere removed his mobile phone from the inside pocket of his suit jacket and was about to compose a text message to Kandgela when, out of the corner of his eye, he detected a figure approaching his bench steadily but somehow irregularly.
As the figure drew close to the end of the bench opposite the end on which Sylvere sat, Sylvere looked up. He saw a man who was dressed elegantly but who walked in the manner of a person crippled since childhood. The man stopped, removed his backpack, and sat on the opposite end of the bench, placing the backpack in the grass at his feet.
“Usually I am the only one on this bench at this hour,” the man said, pronouncing his words carefully in French.
Sylvere, noticing the man’s blue eyes and white, sun-burned skin, recognized the man’s accent at the same time. It was American.
“It’s a beautiful spot,” Sylvere commented also in French, looking back across the surface of the lake reflecting the early morning sunlight.
The man removed a laptop computer from his backpack, placed it on the bench next to him, and opened it. He typed a password and skillfully manipulated a cursor. Sylvere easily could see the other man’s handling of his computer because the computer screen was turned toward Sylvere for several moments.
“Edwina told me you were coming to town,” the man said, still speaking in French.
Sylvere looked at the man, recalling the young African American woman, Edwina, whom he had met two days earlier in Paris at the offices of the humanitarian agency, Le Carrefour. In his mind’s eye, Sylvere automatically placed Edwina and the man before him side by side, as if to identify an obvious connection between the two people. He could not identify one. However, the man’s face was, Sylvere noticed, open and relaxed. It was also, he thought, earnest.
“Sylvere,” the man said, “my name is Leon Johns.” The man, who appeared to be in his mid 40s, peered intently into Sylvere’s face. “I work with Edwina on occasion,” the man added.
Sylvere glanced at Leon’s computer before shifting his gaze back to the lake. The man’s eyes, Sylvere thought, were clear.
Sylvere felt his anxiety subside slightly.
“I saw you talking with one of Anthony Lukambo’s associates outside the restaurant yesterday afternoon,” Leon said. “A tall Congolese woman wearing a green track suit.”
Sylvere turned back to Leon and stared at him for a few seconds before shifting his gaze in the direction of the lake again. The whole park was lighting up as the sun continued its ascent in the eastern sky. Sylvere’s eyes, then, caught sight of the geese, which now were making their way slowly along the sandy path of the park. His thoughts, though, were consumed by the man next to him—a man who knew more than he should.
“You’re American,” Sylvere said softly in English, watching the geese as they drew closer. The sudden appearance of the stranger had knocked Sylvere off balance; he needed time to re-gain in his composure.
“Correct,” Leon replied, also switching to English, “I’m originally from Southern California, but I’ve lived in Europe for most of my life.” He paused. “Now I’m based in Brussels,” he added, “well, here in this charming village of Tervuren more specifically.”
Sylvere picked up one of the croissants, broke off a piece, and tossed it on the sandy ground in front of the geese. He repeated the process several times, watching the geese as they hungrily swallowed the pieces of bread. The adult birds emitted increasingly loud noises as they, in turn, watched Sylvere closely in anticipation of more food.
However, the baby birds were having difficulties securing any of the remnants of the croissant for themselves.
“You’re also following me,” Sylvere said finally, now speaking very softly in English. He tossed the last piece of bread in his hand on the sand in front of the chicks.
“Not exactly,” Leon said. He knew Sylvere needed time to compose himself.
Sylvere glanced at Leon. Then Sylvere stood up. He removed the second croissant from the white paper bag and tore it in half. He bent over and placed one half in the sand before the chicks before tossing the other half in front of the adults. His movements had become mechanical; they no longer required separate acts of will.
“Edwina not only is my contact,” Leon said, following Sylvere’s actions, “she also is the fiancée of a man named Martel.” Leon peered intently into Sylvere’s face again. “Martel is the younger brother of Chérubin,” Leon added. Sylvere was silent. “Chérubin has been sharing information with Edwina and her boss, Bénédicte, for some time,” Leon resumed, shifting his gaze to the lake. He shifted his gaze back to Sylvere’s face. Sylvere still didn’t speak. He couldn’t speak. He found himself sinking deeper into a state of disbelief. “When you entered the picture,” Leon continued, “looking for help in rescuing the daughter of your friend, you attracted the attention of a lot of people.”
Sylvere picked up the paper cup containing the coffee and milk, removed the lid, and peered inside. His thoughts started racing. Abruptly, they stopped.
Sylvere began talking to himself silently in an attempt to drown out the words spoken by the other man and the suspicions he engendered.
“What does he want from me?” Sylvere asked himself in Kikongo. He could sense the other man watching him with keen interest.
“I’m a journalist,” Leon said then. “These days I primarily investigate the men—and women—who are profiting from the bloodshed in eastern Congo.”
Sylvere still didn’t speak. A silence ensued. The adult geese had almost finished eating their portion of the second croissant. The babies, apparently no longer interested in their portion, had started wandering across the grass.
Sylvere looked at the geese. He forced himself to think about them.
“Why do you care?” Sylvere asked finally. He poured out the cold coffee and milk in the grass under the bench. He felt better, simply by emptying the coffee in the grass.
“My wife is from eastern Congo,” Leon said. “Her entire family was wiped out in an attack on her village when she was ten years old.”
The information didn’t shock Sylvere, but it nonetheless saddened him. At the same time, it made him realize the other man had a deep understanding of the stark reality of life in many parts of Africa and the pain he himself would never be able to relinquish.
Sylvere shook his head. Then he put the lid back on the empty cup and looked across the lake into the forest. Two figures on bicycles were moving at a high speed down a dirt trail through the trees. A man, Sylvere noticed, was pedaling one of the bicycles; a woman was riding the other. The man and woman disappeared.
Sylvere became aware his heart was beating fast. Scanning the forest for the two figures on bicycles, he realized he feared the man and woman were Serge and Penelope following him again. The man and woman did not re-appear. Sylvere realized, then, he was being paranoid.
“I’m investigating someone now,” Leon said.
“Anthony,” Sylvere said, automatically.
“No,” Leon said. “Anna.”
Abruptly, Leon bent over and removed a small plastic bottle of water and, subsequently, a pill box from his backpack in the grass at his feet. Glancing in Sylvere’s direction, Leon extracted a second small plastic bottle of water from his backpack and extended it toward the older man, who stood a couple of meters away on the grass which appeared recently cut.
After Sylvere accepted the bottle, Leon emptied several pills into the palm of his hand from the small container, popped the pills into his mouth, and unscrewed the cap on his bottle. Leon brought the bottle up to his lips, poured some of the water into his mouth, and swallowed both the water and the pills.
As Sylvere watched, he started wondering about the health of the younger man. What were the pills for? Was he sick as well as crippled?
Sylvere didn’t know what to say or what to think. Standing motionless, he continued watching the other man, who now seemed to have forgotten about Sylvere.
“I have to go,” Leon stated, lifting the backpack from the grass at his feet and standing up from the bench. “I was going to show you some photos,” he continued, arranging the straps of the backpack over his shoulders. “But it will have to wait until the next time we see each other,” he added, smoothing the front of the navy-blue, cashmere sweater he wore.
As Leon started to turn toward the path, he hesitated, turned back toward Sylvere, and peered earnestly into the older man’s face.
“I will help you however I can,” Leon said before turning toward the path again and proceeding to maneuver his crippled leg as quickly as he could down the path. The offer of assistance was, Sylvere felt, not only sincere but also meaningful, making him wonder about all of the previous offers he had received since embarking on his quest to rescue the daughter of his old school friend from Africa.