A narrow shaft of sunlight broke through the thick canopy of leaves above Joseph Komboli’s short frame and pierced through to the layers of vines that crawled along the forest floor. He trudged past a spiny tree trunk — one of hundreds whose flat crowns reached toward the heavens before disappearing into the cloudless African sky — and smiled as the familiar hum of the forest welcomed him home.
A trickle of moisture dripped down the back of his neck, and he reached up to brush it away, then flicked at a mosquito. The musty smell of rotting leaves and sweet flowers encircled him, a sharp con- trast to the stale exhaust fumes of the capital’s countless taxis or the stench of hundreds of humans pressed together on the dilapidated cargo boat he’d left at the edge of the river this morning.
Another flying insect buzzed in his ears, its insistent drone drowned out only by the birds chattering in the treetops. He slapped the insect away and dug into the pocket of his worn trousers for a handful of fire-roasted peanuts, still managing to balance the bag that rested atop his head. His mother’s sister had packed it for him, ensur- ing that the journey — by taxi, boat, and now foot — wouldn’t leave his belly empty. Once, not too long ago, he had believed no one living in the mountain forests surrounding his village, or perhaps even in all of Africa, could cook goza and fish sauce like his mother. But now, hav- ing ventured from the dense and sheltering rainforest, he knew she was only one of thousands of women who tirelessly pounded cassava and prepared the thick stew for their families day after day.
Still, his mouth watered at the thought of his mother’s cooking. The capital of Bogama might offer running water and electricity for those willing to forfeit a percentage of their minimal salaries, but even the new shirt and camera his uncle had given him as parting gifts weren’t enough to lessen his longings for home. He wrapped the string of the camera around his wrist and felt his heart swell with pride. No other boy in his village owned such a stunning piece. Not that the camera was a frivolous gift. Not at all. His uncle called it an investment in the future. In the city lived a never-ending line of men and women willing to pay a few cents for a color photo. When he returned to Bogama for school, he planned to make enough money to send some home to his family — something that guaranteed plenty of meat and cassava for the evening meal.
Anxious to give his little sister, Aina, one of the sweets tucked safely in his pocket and his mother the bag of sugar he carried, Joseph quickened his steps across the red soil, careful to avoid a low limb swaying under the weight of a monkey.
A cry shattered the relative calm of the forest.
Joseph slowed as the familiar noises of the forest faded into the shouts of human voices. More than likely the village children had finished collecting water from the river and now played a game of chase or soccer with a homemade ball.
The wind blew across his face, sending a chill down his spine as he neared the thinning trees at the edge of the forest. Another scream split the afternoon like a sharpened machete.
Joseph stopped. These were not the sounds of laughter.
Dropping behind the dense covering of the large leaves, Joseph approached the outskirts of the small village, straining his eyes in an effort to decipher the commotion before him. At first glance every- thing appeared familiar. Two dozen mud huts with thatched roofs greeted him like an old friend. Tendrils of smoke rose from fires beneath rounded cooking pots that held sauce for evening meals. Brightly colored pieces of fabric fluttered in the breeze as freshly laundered clothes soaked up the warmth of the afternoon sun.
His gaze flickered to a figure emerging from behind one of the grass-thatched huts. Black uniform . . . rifle pressed against his shoul- der . . . Joseph felt his lungs constrict. Another soldier emerged, then another, until there were half a dozen shouting orders at the confused villagers who stumbled onto the open area in front of them. Joseph watched as his best friend Mbona tried to fight back, but his hoe was no match against the rifle butt that struck his head. Mbona fell to the ground.
A wave of panic, strong as the mighty Congo River rushing through its narrow tributaries, ripped through Joseph’s chest. He gasped for breath, his chest heaving as air refused to fill his lungs. The green forest spun. Gripping the sturdy branch of a tree, he man- aged to suck in a shallow breath.
He’d heard his uncle speak of the rumored Ghost Soldiers — mercenaries who appeared from nowhere and kidnapped human la- borers to work as slaves for the mines. Inhabitants of isolated villages could disappear without a trace and no one would ever know.
Except he’d thought such myths weren’t true.
The sight of his little sister told him otherwise. His mind fought to grasp what was happening. Blood trickled down the seven-year- old’s forehead as she faltered in front of the soldiers with her hands tied behind her.
Unable to restrain himself, Joseph lunged forward but tripped over a knotty vine and fell. A twig snapped, startling a bird into flight above him.
The soldier turned from his sister and stared into the dense fo- liage. Joseph lay flat against the ground, his hand clasped over the groan escaping his throat. The soldier hesitated a moment longer, then grabbed his sister’s arm and pulled her to join the others.
Choking back a sob, Joseph rose to his knees and dug his fingers into the hard earth. What could he do? Nothing. He was no match for these men. If he didn’t remain secluded behind the cover of the forest, he too would vanish along with his family.
The haunting sounds of screams mingled with gunshots. His grandfather fell to the ground and Joseph squeezed his eyes shut, blackness enveloping him. It was then, as he pressed his hand against his pounding chest, that he felt the camera swinging against his wrist. He stared at the silver case. Slowly, he pressed the On button.
This time, the world would know.
With a trembling arm Joseph lifted the camera. Careful to stay within the concealing shade of the forest, he snapped a picture with- out bothering to aim as his uncle had taught him. He took another photo, and another, and another . . . until the cries of his people dis- sipated on the north side of the clearing as the soldiers led those strong enough to work toward the mountains. The rest — those like his grandfather, too old or too weak to work in the mines — lay mo- tionless against the now bloodstained African soil.
In the remaining silence, the voices of two men drifted across the breeze. English words were foreign to his own people’s uneducated ears but had become familiar to Joseph. What he heard now brought a second wave of terror . . .
“Only four more days until we are in power . . . There is no need to worry . . . The president will be taken care of . . . I can personally guarantee the support of this district . . .”
Joseph zoomed in and took a picture of the two men.
A monkey jumped to the tree above him and started chattering. One of the beefy soldiers jerked around, his attention drawn to the edge of the clearing. Joseph froze as his gaze locked with the man’s.
If they caught him now, no one would ever know what had hap- pened to his family.
Joseph scrambled to his feet as the soldier ran toward him, but the man was faster. The butt of a rifle struck Joseph’s head. He faltered, but as a trickle of blood dripped into his eye, he pictured Aina being led away . . . his grandfather murdered in cold blood . . .
Ignoring the searing pain, Joseph fought to pull loose from his attacker’s grip, kicked at the man’s shins. The soldier faltered on the uneven terrain. Clambering to his feet, Joseph ran into the cover of the forest. A rifle fired, and the bullet whizzed past his ear, but he kept moving. With the Ghost Soldier in pursuit, Joseph sprinted as fast as he could through the tangled foliage and prayed that the thick jungle would swallow him.
Monday, November 16, 3:11 p.M. Kasili Outdoor Market
Natalie Sinclair fingered the blue-and-yellow fabric that hung neatly folded on a wooden rod among dozens of other brightly colored pieces, barely noticing the plump Mama who stood beside her in hopeful anticipation. Instead she gazed out at the shops that lined the winding, narrow paths of the market, forming an intricate maze the size of a football field. The vendors sold everything from vegeta- bles and live animals to piles of secondhand clothing that had been shipped across the ocean from charities in the States.
Natalie stepped across a puddle and turned to glance beneath the wooden overhang at the stream of people passing by. Even with the weekend over, the outdoor market was crowded with shoppers. Hip- hop-style music played in the background, lending a festive feel to the sultry day. But she couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Someone was following her.
She quickened her steps and searched for anything that looked out of place. A young man weaved his bicycle through the crowded walkway, forcing those on foot to step aside. A little girl wearing a tattered dress clung to the skirt of her mother, who carried a sleeping infant, secured with a length of material, against her back. An old man with thick glasses shuffled past a shop that sold eggs and sugar, then stopped to examine a pile of spark plugs.
Natalie’s sandal stuck in a patch of mud, and she wiggled her foot to pull it out. Perhaps the foreboding sensation was nothing more than the upcoming elections that had her on edge. All American citizens had been warned to stay on high alert due to the volatile political situation. Violence was on the rise. Already a number of joint military-police peacekeeping patrols had been deployed onto the streets, and there were rumors of a curfew.
Not that life in the Republic of Dhambizao was ever considered safe by the embassy, but neither was downtown Portland. It was all a matter of perspective.
And leaving wasn’t an option. Not with the hepatitis E outbreak spreading from the city into the surrounding villages. Already, three health zones north of the town of Kasili where she lived were threat- ened with an outbreak. She’d spent the previous two weeks sharing information about the disease’s symptoms with the staff of the local government clinics, as well as conducting awareness campaigns to inform the public on the importance of proper hygiene to prevent an epidemic.
In search of candles for tonight’s party, Natalie turned sharply to her left and hurried up the muddy path past wooden tables piled high with leafy greens for stew, bright red tomatoes, and fresh fish. Rows of women sat on wooden stools and fanned their wares to discour- age the flies that swarmed around the pungent odor of the morning’s catch.
Someone bumped into her from behind, and she pulled her bag closer. Petty theft might be a constant concern, but she knew her escalated fears were out of line. Being the only pale foreigner in a sea of ebony-skinned Africans always caused heads to turn, if not for the novelty, then for the hope that she’d toss them one or two extra coins for their supper.
Her cell phone jingled in her pocket, and she reached to answer it.
“When are you coming back to the office?” Stephen’s to-the-point greeting was predictable.
“I’m not. I’m throwing a birthday party for you tonight, remem- ber? You let me off early.” A pile of taper candles caught her eye in a shop across the path, and she skirted the edge of a puddle that, thanks to the runoff, was rapidly becoming the size of a small lake.
Stephen groaned. “Patrick’s here at the office, and he’s asking questions.”
She pulled a handful of coins from her pocket to pay for the can- dles. “Then give him some answers.”
Natalie thrust the package the seller had wrapped in newspaper into her bag and frowned. Patrick Seko, the former head of security for the president, now led some sort of specialized task force for the government. Lately, his primary concern seemed to revolve around some demographic research for the Kasili region she’d been com- piling for the minister of health, whose office she worked for. Her expertise might be the prevention and control of communicable dis- eases, but demographics had always interested her. Why her research interested Patrick was a question she’d yet to figure out.
The line crackled. Maybe she’d get out of dealing with Patrick and his insistent questions after all.
“Stephen, you’re breaking up.”
All she heard was a garbled response. She flipped the phone shut and shoved it back into her pocket. They’d have to finish their con- versation at the party.
She spun around at the sound of her name. “Rachel, it’s good to see you.”
Her friend shot her a broad smile. “I’m sorry if I startled you.”
Natalie wanted to kick herself for the uncharacteristic agitation that had her looking behind every shadow. “I’m just a bit jumpy today.”
“I understand completely.” Rachel pushed a handful of thin braids behind her shoulder and smiled. “I think everyone is a bit on edge, even though with the UN’s presence the elections are supposed to pass without any major problems. No one has forgotten President Tau’s bloody takeover.”
Natalie had only heard stories from friends about the current president’s takeover seventeen years ago. Two elections had taken place since then and were assumed by all to have been rigged. But with increasing pressure from the United States, the European Union, and the African Union, President Tau had promised a fair election this time no matter the results. And despite random incidences of pre-election violence, even the United Nations was predicting a fair turnover under their supervision — something that, to her mind, re- mained to be seen.
Natalie took a step back to avoid a group of uniformed students making their way through the market and smiled at her friend. After eighteen months of working together, Rachel had moved back to the capital to take a job with the minister of health, which meant Natalie rarely saw her anymore. Something they both missed. “What are you doing in Kasili?”
“I’m heading back to Bogama tomorrow, but I’m in town because Patrick has been meeting with my parents to work out the labola.”
“Really? That’s wonderful.” Her sentiment was genuine, even though she happened to find Patrick overbearing and control- ling — as no doubt he would be in deciding on a bride price. She hugged her friend. “When’s the wedding ceremony?”
Rachel’s white teeth gleamed against her dark skin, but Natalie didn’t miss the shadow that crossed her expression. “We’re still dis- cussing details with our families, but soon. Very soon.”
“Then I’ll expect an invitation.”
“Of course.” Rachel’s laugh competed with the buzz of the crowd that filed past them. “And by the way, I don’t know if Patrick mentioned it to you, but Stephen invited us to the birthday party you’re throwing for him tonight. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course I don’t mind.” Natalie suppressed a frown. Stephen had invited Patrick to the party? She cleared her throat. “Stephen just called to tell me Patrick was looking for me, but it had some- thing to do with my demographic reports. Apparently he has more questions.”
“Patrick can be a bit . . . persistent.” Rachel flashed another broad smile, but Natalie caught something else in her eyes she couldn’t read. Hesitation? Fear? “I’ll tell him to wait until they are compiled. Then he can look at them.”
Natalie laughed. “Well, you know I’m thrilled you’re coming.”
She would enjoy catching up with Rachel, and she had already prepared enough food to feed a small army. It was Patrick and his an- tagonistic political views she dreaded. She’d probably end up spend- ing the whole evening trying to avoid them both.
“I’m looking forward to it as well.” Rachel shifted the bag on her shoulder. “But I do need to hurry off. I’m meeting Patrick now, but I’ll see you tonight.”
Natalie watched until her friend disappeared into the crowd, won- dering what she’d seen in her friend’s gaze. It was probably nothing. Rachel had been right. Her own frayed nerves were simply a reaction of the tension everyone felt. By next week the election would be over and things would be back to normal.
A rooster brushed her legs, and she skirted to the left to avoid stepping on the squawking bird. The owner managed to catch it and mumbled a string of apologies before shoving it back in its cage.
Natalie laughed at the cackling bird, realizing that this was as normal as life was going to get.
Spotting a woman selling spices and baskets of fruit two shops down, she slipped into the tiny stall, determined to enjoy the rest of the day. She had nothing to worry about. Just like the UN predicted, the week would pass without any major incidents. And in the mean- time, she had enough on her hands.
She picked up a tiny sack of cloves, held it up to her nose, and took in a deep breath. With the holiday season around the corner, she’d buy some extra. Her mother had sent a care package last week filled with canned pumpkin, chocolate chips, French-fried onions, and marshmallows. This year Natalie planned to invite a few friends over for a real Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey, mashed potatoes, green- bean casserole, pumpkin pie —
Fingers grasped her arm from behind. Natalie screamed and struggled to keep her balance as someone pulled her into the shadows.