KIBERA SLUM, NAIROBI, KENYA
With fluid dexterity, Rebecca Jackson, PhD, flattened the border of her upper lip with the tip of her lipstick. This wasn’t just any lipstick. But then, this wasn’t just anywhere. She was an ocean away from the cutthroat, high-stakes world of pharmaceutical manufacturing, where she competed to create the world’s next wonder drug.
Her location: Kibera, an inner-city Nairobi slum, home to two million sweaty inhabitants, a population of poor yet colorful Kenyans who seemed little distracted by the equatorial heat.
Her lipstick: L’Absolu Rouge by Lancôme Paris. She preferred the Daisy Rose shade and the fact that it offered some protection from the sun, SPF 12.
But she didn’t wear it for protection. She applied it, just as she had a hundred other brands, to cover up a cosmetic flaw, the result of a surgical error.
Twenty years earlier, seventeen-year-old Becca Jackson had wrestled with a surgeon through an intoxicated haze. In a small-town Virginia hospital, the doctor did the best he could under the circum- stances, putting together a puzzle of skin that used to be her finest feature—her full and pouty lips. She didn’t remember vomiting on the surgeon’s shoes—something her mother had told her about the morning after that horrible, horrible night—but she didn’t regret doing it.
There is one cardinal sin in lip repair: a failure to match up the red-white border at the edge. The vermillion border. It was a word she’d learned at age seventeen and one she whispered every day as she learned to apply makeup to cover the one-millimeter offset in the border, the red lip color jutting just that tiny amount into the pale skin beneath her nose. Even a small irregularity at the edge of the lip catches the eye and causes it to fixate on the imperfection. She knew this all too well.
Her cameraman Rich, a twentysomething man who looked at home in an olive-green T-shirt and jeans, appeared in the mirror. “Dr. Jackson, please. This is the fourth time you’ve adjusted your lipstick. You look fine.”
“I haven’t been outside without lipstick in twenty years,” she muttered.
“This is Africa. The spot calls for a natural look anyway.”
“I don’t care for my natural look.” She paused and placed her index finger over a small bottle of perfume and touched the finger to the skin just under her nose. “It smells like a sewer out there.”
“I’d be careful to step over the little stream in front of the door,” he said. “I think that’s where the smell comes from.”
Opium had been her signature fragrance for as long as she could remember. It was an Yves Saint Laurent perfume known for adver- tisements using naked or nearly naked women in front of shadowy backgrounds. She held up the bottle so that Rich could see the label.
“Can you believe I was held up in customs for this?” She laughed. “As if I was really carrying drugs or something.” She put the perfume back into her leather Tano designer handbag. “I had to spray the fragrance just to convince the idiot,” she said. “What a waste.”
“Let’s go,” he urged.
She turned in the mud-walled little school-turned-dressing- room. “I’m right behind you.”
“Watch your step.”
She stepped into the muddy, rutted, and unpaved street. Along both sides, vendors hawked everything from toothpaste and hair prod- ucts to displays of shoes laid out in neat soldier rows on the ground.
Her team had assembled a semicircle of uniformed school chil- dren who were to be playing a game behind her as she slowly walked down the street toward the camera. The concept was simple: talk casually about the work Jackson Pharmaceuticals—JP—was doing to combat the devastation of AIDS.
But after three hours of trying, everything she’d done had come off as mechanical and plastic. The goal was to help salvage JP’s sag- ging public image and boost the sales of her new autobiography, Pusher: Confessions of an American Pharmaceutical Giant.
It wasn’t until the team was about to call it a day that Becca did something she’d thought was off camera. She joined a group of orphans playing a hand-slapping game that involved a rhythmic recita- tion about African women washing clothes. Becca joined the game, slapping the hands of a little Kenyan orphan and stumbling to keep up with the words.
Afterward, as she strolled back toward her team, the director, a stern man by the name of Lane Buckwalter, cracked his first smile of the day. “This is good. I say we trash the walking casual explanations and just show this. We’ll hire a professional to do a voiceover about Jackson’s newest AIDS drug.”
Becca was surprised when she saw the clip. “What—you were filming?”
The cameraman smiled. “Every second.”
The media representative from Becca’s publishing house agreed. In their joint agreement to finance the campaign, JP and Putnam had agreed to tag the ad with the cover image of Pusher.
Mr. Buckwalter wiped his brow and looked at the sky. “Dinnertime. We need to get back to the hotel.”
Becca nodded and looked at Rich. “Can you get my bag?” “Sure.”
She lingered in the street while the team packed the equipment into the back of a tan Land Rover.
She turned to see a dark-skinned African. She was just beginning to recognize the characteristics of the different tribes. He appeared to be Luo, with full lips, a broad nose, and teeth that seemed extra white against his skin.
“Could I get a picture?” he said.
“Sure,” she said, smiling. She appeared to have a fan even in remote Africa.
“Just step over here,” he said, leading her to the edge of an alley. “I want to get you in front of the sign of our little clinic.”
She stepped into the alley and smiled as he held up a silver digital camera.
“Cheese,” he said.
She obeyed just as arms closed around her from behind. She tried to scream, but a strong hand clamped over her mouth. Kicking, she was dragged into the alley and out of view of her team. She feared rape and robbery. She wanted to say that she had money in her handbag, but she’d left that back in her makeshift dressing room and she couldn’t say anything with the hand over her mouth.
Within seconds, she was tossed into the back of a windowless van, where she stared into the barrel of a handgun. “No noise!” the man said. She heard tapping on the side of the van. The vehicle lurched forward and bounced along the rutted alley.
She understood. This wasn’t robbery, at least not the type of street thuggery she’d imagined. This was kidnapping. She was a commod- ity, a research pharmacologist and the niece of the CEO and majority stockholder in a multimillion-dollar pharmaceutical company.
The van picked up speed. She looked at the back door, wondering if she could survive jumping if her captor was distracted.
After escape, which she quickly ruled out, her second thought was vain.
I left my lipstick in my bag.