The Woman from Angola
Turning toward an open door to a small office at the foot of a wide staircase, the Flemish woman disappeared into the office without warning. Equally quickly, a very young, maybe 19 or 20 years old, Flemish man wearing a blue suit with a yellow shirt and modish green tie took the place of the woman. He appeared before Sylvere and Melba like an apparition, as if by magic.
“Here in our beautifully designed museum,” started the young man, speaking earnestly in French while escorting Sylvere and Mabel to the staircase, “you’ll see a mix of classical and contemporary art unlike any you’ve ever seen before.” The youth smiled at his guests while leading them up the stone steps. “As part of our collection containing more than 50,000 works of art spanning the Middle Ages to the present,” he continued, “you’ll have the opportunity to view masterpieces by Dirk Bouts, Jef Lambeaux, and Constantin Meunier in addition to works by lesser known but also talented artists from the region we call Flanders.”
Once the young man started talking, he didn’t stop, delivering impressive details about the museum’s place in the culture of the region. He moved briskly, leading Sylvere and Mabel through a series of rooms with works of art in all sizes, from enormous paintings on canvas to tiny sculptures of metal. Sylvere, who had allowed Melba to put her arm through his again, could tell the young man was trans-gender and gay. But, most of all, Sylvere was confused. The events of the day made no sense. In none of the rooms did Sylvere see any tourists. It was clear the young man, who had given his name as Lorenzo, was not rushing them but proceeding at a fast pace through the nearly empty museum. Most likely Lorenzo was under strict orders to deliver Sylvere to Carolina and Anna by a designated time.
Melba, silent as she held onto Sylvere’s arm, didn’t mention her bosses or anything else. At one point, while passing under an archway from one room to another, she accepted two bottles of water from the outstretched hand of a museum attendant. She gave one to Sylvere. In an ornate room, two meters away from a wall displaying the works of the Flemish painter Dirk Bouts, Sylvere saw a small group of young men and women, undoubtedly students in Leuven for a summer program, gathered around a man in his mid 50s, a professor. The man, speaking in Flemish, was delivering a talk.
Sylvere, turning away, took a drink from the bottle of water in his hand. He couldn’t understand Flemish, with the exception of those words equivalent to their counterparts in English.
Sylvere already had consumed more water throughout the day than he had drunk during the entire previous day. It occurred to him that Melba was not going to ask him any more questions or press him for more details about Claudette. He was relieved. Still he didn’t understand it. He knew she had many more questions. He also knew he could tell her exactly where Claudette was. His intuition told him, though, he should not. It warned him that his information about Claudette’s whereabouts somehow would wind up in the hands of Serge and, then, Anthony and, next, Anthony’s henchman, Quentin.
Abruptly, Lorenzo stopped, ceasing not only his brisk pace but also his other dramatics. “And now we will step outside to our splendid rooftop terrace,” Lorenzo announced, smiling broadly, opening one of the two glass doors in front of him, and standing to one side. Melba passed through, gently propelling Sylvere forward.
“Lorenzo is right,” Sylvere said softly in Kikongo, emerging onto an expansive, flat area of elaborate stone with a sweeping view of the ancient buildings in the historical center of Leuven. “It is a splendid rooftop terrace.” Immediately before him, Sylvere could see four distinct groups of people on four different parts of the stone terrace. Each group appeared to have no more than five people. Sylvere noticed the face of Carolina in one of the groups, but before he had time to scan the crowd for other familiar faces, he felt a hand on his arm as Lorenzo led him to a tall circular table on one side of the deck.
It was hot outside. Shielding the people on the terrace from the onslaught of the sun, though, was an awning made of a heavy, dark fabric and covering the front half of the open space. A young woman wearing a short black skirt without stockings and a white, button-down shirt appeared holding a round tray in one hand. She was a waitress.
“Passe une bonne journée, monsieur,” Lorenzo said. He walked away. His green tie waved in the warm air behind him.
“Something to drink?” the waitress asked, coming close to Sylvere. She spoke in French.
“Like what?” Sylvere replied. Melba, too, was gone.
“Whatever you feel like,” the waitress replied. She flashed a smile, showing all of her teeth, large and white. “Beer—or a glass of wine?”
Sylvere thought he would like one of the beers for which Belgians were famous. But he decided against it. He didn’t feel he had the luxury to drink alcohol.
“No,” Sylvere replied. “An espresso.” He paused. “A double.”
As the waitress departed, Sylvere turned his head to scan the nearby groups. Instead he saw a familiar figure blocking his view. A woman in her mid 40s and of mixed African and European descent joined him at his table. It was Anna, the heiress. She looked exotic. Sylvere realized he hadn’t been able to see her clearly in the dim light of the restaurant a couple of hours earlier. Now he noticed she carried a laptop computer in one hand. She set the computer on the white table cloth and looked at him for several moments. Her face displayed, as it had displayed at the restaurant, a warm smile.
“We’re making preparations for a permanent collection of contemporary African art at the museum in Tervuren,” Anna said finally, speaking in French, “with regular rotations of the works by artists we like.” She looked in the direction of one of the groups of people standing nearby. “Carolina is over there now providing additional details to the museum administrators and the local civic leaders,” Anna continued, directing her gaze at Carolina. “She’ll finalize the plans later.” Anna brought her gaze back to Sylvere’s face. “I’d like to launch our new initiative with the latest paintings by an artist whose works I greatly admire,” Anna added. “You’ve heard of Kwesi Botchway?”
Sylvere was about to respond negatively, but decided he had no reason to feign ignorance of the famous artist from Accra, Ghana. In fact, he owned several of the man’s early pencil drawings, which he had been told now were worth a considerable sum. He nodded, opening his mouth to speak, then hesitated.
The waitress re-appeared, placing a small white cup with a small white saucer on the table top in front of Sylvere.
Instead of answering Anna, Sylvere picked up the cup, raised it to his lips, and emptied its contents down his throat. The waitress disappeared.
“Sylvere,” Anna began, now wearing a serious expression on her face and looking intently into Sylvere’s face, “I realize you still haven’t decided whether or not to trust us.” She paused. She seemed to be gauging his reaction to her statement. Then she said: “But you must share with us the information you have about Claudette. You can save her life.”
Sylvere looked back at Anna, remembering Chérubin’s parting words in front of L’inizio: “I have things to discuss.” He recalled Justin Kabumba’s last text message: “The woman in Rurimba is Claudette.”
Anna picked up the computer from the table top, but she didn’t move her gaze from Sylvere’s face. “When you see the photos on this computer,” she said, “you will have no doubts about the threat posed by Anthony and his people.” She looked around before returning her gaze to Sylvere again. “The threat is right here, right now,” Anna emphasized. In his mind’s eye, Sylvere pictured Serge outside L’inizio. Anna glanced to her left and appeared to make eye contact with a young woman. “Please go back to your hotel room in Tervuren,” Anna said, turning back to Sylvere, “and stay in your room until the evening.” Suddenly, Sylvere was aware of Melba by his side. “We’ll talk more at the party this evening,” Anna added, allowing the features of her face to form a smile. She turned and walked toward Carolina. Two large men approached the table, the same men who had accompanied Sylvere and Melba from L’inizio to the museum.
Melba led Sylvere toward the set of double-glass doors. Sylvere looked up into Melba’s face. When he glanced over his left shoulder, he saw the two large men following closely behind. The German carried a laptop computer in one hand. The African showed no expression. But his eyes grew dull, as if they had died. Sylvere was a prisoner.