The Road to Agadez
The cats on the terrace of the Grand Hotel were lean and experienced. Going down, the sun laid the day’s heat like an egg on the African earth. In the darkening haze, Francis could just make out the Kennedy Bridge spanning the sluggish Niger. Here was where you came to make your life interesting.
“You listening to me, Francis, or am I communing with my own arsehole?”
That was Marlowe, English and blonde. There was something piratical about the man. Tattoos and bleary eyes. He was wound so tight he might go off any minute. I am not cut out for fisticuffs, Francis thought. It sounded like the first line of an adventure he would like to read.
“I’m listening,” Francis reassured Marlowe. “You asked me what I’m doing in Niger. I came to meet a woman. It didn’t work out.”
Francis was drawn to the terrace of the shabby hotel even though it was the scene of his humiliation at the hands of a Canadian anti-malaria worker named Mariah. The Grand sat on a squat bluff above the brown river making its ancient indolent way across the scrubby desert. Niamey sprawled everywhere, an overgrown village. Men fished from a narrow wood boat along an inlet, casting their net into a rich past of fabulous fish. Birds in silver-green trees debated in indigenous languages. At the white plastic tables on the terrace sat French engineers, American soldiers in jeans and T-shirts, West African men in robes of many colors, and prostitutes with shining faces.
“Fuckin’ women,” said Marlowe. “They’ll break your heart just to see the blood run.”
He ordered them another beer. Bière pression. The French made it taste better.
“Here’s the kicker,” Marlowe said. He was drunk now, settling back in his chair. “I was in Abuja when I got the word. I was told to come here and wait. Three days, four at the outside. Just wait. The man is cautious. Constantly on the move. Half a dozen governments around the world would love to see Black out of the way.”
“Black is white. He’s South African, an independent contractor. Not the sort of gent you mess about with.”
“An independent contractor,” Francis echoed.
“Get with the program, hombre,” Marlowe said. “Black runs mercenaries. Say you need a couple dozen well-trained men to put down a rebellion at your uranium mine. How ‘bout seventy-five battle-hardened veterans to tip the scale in a nasty internal conflict? Black is the bloke you call. Anyway, whoever he sends will know me. He’ll walk up and say, ‘Une tempête de sable se prépare,’ which, since you don’t know any more French than my old granny in Leeds, means ‘We’re expecting a sandstorm.’”
Because he kept going back to the same story, Francis followed it, even though the order of events kept changing. Marlowe had an item to sell. Black was his buyer. The details of the transaction were murky. Nothing Francis had done—managing a McDonald’s in Flatburg, Ohio, falling in love with the owner’s wife—compared.
He looked at his watch. Seven thirty-four. It always read seven thirty-four. That was when Adrienne, the McDonald’s wife, had told him to get real.
What were you thinking, coming here? That had been Mariah’s question when he tracked her down. Francis had no answer. He was a person who read books. He supervised burger-flippers and fell in love with women who did not want him.
“What is it you’re selling Black?” he asked Marlowe.
“Personal protection. Best in class. A collector’s item.”
Francis knew he was lying. He watched the Englishman drain his beer and call for another, but before it arrived, four men in greenish-brown uniforms came across the terrace. It was obvious to everyone that Marlowe was a person of interest.
In the dark, under the table, Francis felt something shoved against his feet.
“Over to you, mate.”
Marlowe stood. He went forward, speaking what sounded to Francis like tolerable French, and surrendered without resistance, making a joke to a square-bodied man who clamped an iron hand on his forearm. The man did not laugh.
The terrace was quiet for a good ten minutes after they disappeared. People spoke in hushed voices. Picking up the gym bag at his feet was a reflex, not a decision. Cross the terrace, natural as a bowl of beans, that was the idea. People were staring at him because of Marlowe, not the bag in his hand.
Outside the hotel gates, he went slowly down sand streets to the home of his protector. On his first day in Niamey, he got lost looking for the hotel. Turning onto a side street, he was besieged. People came at him in a wave wanting money, attention, and other things he could not understand. Swarmed, he could not move until a thin, erect man in a white robe and brimless cap emerged from a mud house in the middle of the block. The man said something authoritative, and people moved away from Francis.
Boubacar. He beckoned, and Francis followed him into the house. Francis had no idea why the Nigerien gave him food, a pallet to sleep on, and protection from the neighborhood. They had no language in common. From the river of words coursing at him, Francis fished only one—Allah—from which he deduced that Boubacar was offering him the shelter a Muslim gave a man who had none.
Two rooms, mud walls. A veiled wife who stuck to a corner but laughed frequently. Kids swooping like pretty birds. Boubacar spoke sharply, and a shy girl brought Francis a plate of goat meat and rice. After he ate, Boubacar showed him a pallet in the tiny, walled backyard. The pallet was raised off the ground on a platform of sticks. His bed. Francis washed in a bucket. He shat in a hole. He felt safe.
He went toward safety now, carrying the gym bag. Boubacar and his family were out in the street, where the air was slightly cooler. Salamun Alaikum, Francis had learned to say. It was reassuring to get the same response every time, although his ear would not separate the sound into words. They offered him water and a plate of rice. He wondered if the kids would go without. He put his hand over his heart, hoping they would understand, and went through the house into the yard, where he sat on the pallet and opened the bag. There was a box inside the bag. Inside the box was a pistol. He knew nothing about guns but assumed it was a quality product. Why else would Black want it? Touching it in the dark felt like a sin.
The problem with having the pistol was he could not leave it anywhere, so he carried the gym bag with him the next day on an outing to watch a man with lackluster eyes slaughter a black goat and then a brown goat. A boy with half his head wrapped in a rag collected the blood in a cup, pouring it into a bucket. Francis thought of kids in Flatburg playing with their McNuggets and felt an inrush of new knowledge. So, this is how it is. Going back to the Grand that evening was no more a decision than taking the bag had been.
Sweltering leftover air on the terrace. Bière pression. Tiny hunks of beef on skewers with spicy sauces. Thin waiters and lean cats. Off past the river, a thundercloud shot through with tiny jags of lightning moved at a stately pace. At a table near Francis’s, a man in a billowing purple robe with gold embroidery stood to receive guests. His gigantic crinkling laugh suggested everything happening everywhere was a wonderful surprise. No one representing Mr. Black showed up, and Francis left, knowing he would wait one more night.
His foolishness spread before him broader than the Niger. He was on a budget. There were car payments he wasn’t making, obligations deferred. Whatever he wound up with, selling the pistol to Black would be welcome, but there was something else. Sticking around meant he and Mariah were still in the same country. Turning him down, she had not been cruel, but her solicitude bit deep. I do not intend to get out of this predicament with my heart intact, he thought. Dignity was too big a word for what he needed. If it came, he would go on living.
Boubacar understood that the next day was Francis’s last with the family. He was too young to be a patriarch but behaved as one and bestowed a blessing on the American stranger going away.
That evening, before Francis had sat thirty minutes on the hotel terrace, a brown-skinned man in khakis and a polo shirt came bearing down on him, saying something in French that might or might not have to do with a sandstorm. Before he reached the table, Francis understood that he had made a mistake whose consequences were too big to calculate.
A long ride in a Land Cruiser bouncing on bad streets, Francis in the back with his bag. The man who had summoned him from the terrace rode shotgun, telling a story to the driver, a heavyset man in a dun robe. The driver listened because he had to. Voilà, he said, changing the subject as he turned down a street the length of which ran a high brick wall. A gated compound. Handled roughly on his way to the house, Francis was conscious of stars, inside and out.
His ideas about mercenaries were limited. He knew the movies were not a reliable guide, but the austerity of the place still took him by surprise. The house was imposingly big, with high white walls and black-bladed ceiling fans turning twenty feet above them. A mansion with more space than furniture to fill it.
The only real opulence was the twins. They stood with silent composure on opposite sides of the great room into which Francis was led, where Black sat in a leather chair, not looking at a television screen. The women were buxom and tall and had the impassive faces of goddesses. They were not really twins. One had long, straight hair, dyed brass, and caramel skin. The other wore a high Afro like a helmet. Her skin was blue-black. They were dressed in bright colors.
“You made it,” Black said.
The South African was disappointing to look at. Francis had pictured a warrior with glinting blue eyes and leather skin. But Black reminded him of his middle-school phys-ed teacher, whom everybody called Sweet Roll. He was fifty, with graying curly hair and weak shoulders.
“I made it,” Francis agreed.
Black said, “Bring him something to drink.”
The request did not register with the twins. It was the guy in khakis who went to the kitchen and came back with a glass of ginger juice. Francis drank carefully. The ginger puckered his tongue.
“I had my reservations about this,” said Black, who had not moved from his chair. “Against my better judgment, I was persuaded to hear you out. Now it’s your turn. Persuade me.”
Here it came. Francis was doomed to screw up, but there was no alternative to playing through the charade. He took the pistol box from the gym bag and handed it to Black. He became aware of the music in the background. It sounded Arabic and lonesome. On the soundless television, CNN.
Black opened the box. “A Walther?”
“What you wanted.”
Francis had thought this part through. Keep his answers short. Put out no hooks on which he could be hanged. Assume the price had been established and take whatever Black gave him. Don’t say thank you.
“What I wanted,” Black repeated in a sleepy voice, and for the first time, Francis had a sense of him as the dangerous man he must be.
It was a signal, and the man in khakis materialized behind Francis and hit him with something in the back of the knees. A truncheon, thought Francis, then wondered if that was the right word. When he went down on the tile floor, the man kicked him in the side.
“Get up,” said Black.
Francis got up, breathing with difficulty.
“Is this your idea of a joke?”
Francis shook his head.
“No bullshit, no sales pitch. Just tell me the coordinates. Give me a date and time.”
“The airfield in Chad. Where my people pick up the hardware.”
It was easy now to hate Marlowe. He was a poser. It took a while. Francis kept getting knocked down when his answers displeased Black. But the South African said enough, over the course of thirty terrible minutes, that Francis figured it out. Trying to get to Black through an intermediary, Marlowe had promised a planeload of Chinese rifles he did not have. What he had wanted was proximity, to stand in the same room with a man who ran mercenaries. Dark truth must live in such a place, and his fair sister, beauty. The pistol was propitiation. It would not have worked for Marlowe and did not work for Francis.
To maintain his sanity, Francis named the twins. Blondie and Flo. Blondie impassively watched the man in khakis knock Francis down yet again and then he disappeared. She returned with Coca-Cola on a tray and two glasses, and she and Flo played some sort of dice game at the coffee table. They seemed content, sitting side by side on the sofa, and demonstrated no interest in the interrogation.
Eventually, the South African relented, recognizing that Francis’s story must be true. He had met Marlowe at the Grand. They had a beer. The Englishman left him the pistol when the authorities took him away. A series of interlocking fuckups.
Francis would not beg for his life. Since coming to Niger, he had begun to value it.
They locked him in a storeroom that night. One small square window high up near the ceiling. A blanket, a basin, a jug of water.
He lay on the floor, wrapping himself in the blanket, which smelled of kerosene. Every spot on his body that had been kicked or punched insisted on its own separate ache. It was surprisingly easy to sleep. He woke when an ant bit him.
He sat up, thinking about Mariah. Like everything about his trip to Africa, the encounter had turned on a misunderstanding. They met online. She was writing a blog about her experience in a place he had never heard of called Agadez, a remote small city in Niger. She worked for a Canadian organization dedicated to fighting malaria. The experience was intense. Being in Agadez was hard.
He responded to a blog post. She answered. Pretty soon, they were talking any time she could get to a computer. Their correspondence boosted her morale. He was not the first person to fall in love over the internet. When he sent her his picture, she did not flinch.
Then Mrs. McDonald’s shut him down. Mariah happened to mention she was headed to the capital for some meetings. You won’t believe this, Francis wrote back. He was going to be in Niamey himself.
She could not have believed him, but when he showed up on the terrace of the Grand, there she sat with a bière pression, looking like a woman who knew how to get around Africa. She was small, trim, and in control. Her arms and legs and hands were fine. She wore her ash blonde hair short. Her gray eyes asked questions Francis lacked the wit to answer. She was nothing like any woman he had ever fallen for.
Through two beers, things went well. Then his answers began to give him away, and she saw through him. He had no reason to be in West Africa. He was not cut out for life in Niger. He was a fantasist, and she would not be the basket into which he put his eggs. Go home, Francis. Promise me you’ll get on an airplane and go home.
Now, his back against the storeroom wall, he let the vision come. It was not a sexual fantasy so much as an intimation of how his life might be if Mariah were part of it.
He slept again, a tactical retreat.
In the morning, a man he had not seen before came into the storeroom and slapped him around. Although the man had bloodshot eyes, he did not seem cruel by nature. He was doing a job. It’s not my fault, Francis told him in English.
Left alone again, Francis understood he was a problem for Black. Still, if Black were going to kill him, would he not be dead by now?
The hours were cells, each a prison unto itself, opening only onto another just like it. Francis tried memory exercises. He tried push-ups. Songs. He was alive.
At one point, a woman with crab-claw hands brought cold rice, a bottle of warm orange soda pop, a cluster of sticky dates.
That night, a sandstorm blew across the compound, rattling the storeroom door. Sand came in through the high window. He tasted grit. Later, the rain came. Striking the roof, it knew his name. Later still, he thought he heard music.
By the morning of the third day, he was dirty and felt ugly. He dozed a lot.
The next day, his fourth in captivity, a new man showed up in the storeroom to knock him around, but he was even less into the job than the enforcer of the day before. He was young. He could not have been twenty and had a boy’s smile. Francis asked a question in English he hadn’t known was on his mind.
“Which way is Agadez?”
Agadez. The word unlocked the man. From the torrent of words coming at him, Francis realized the man was from Agadez. His mother was there still, and a baby sister. He took off his sandals and used them as keys to a map he traced on the floor. The left sandal was Niamey, the right Agadez. Complicated terrain lay between them, making for hard travel. Was the road good? No, the road was very bad. To get to Agadez, a person had to show strength and patience.
When it was his turn to speak, Francis did his best to make the man understand that a woman he knew worked in Agadez. Her job was to get rid of malaria. He pantomimed mosquitoes, a sick person, and an effective anti-malarial spray. The man was touched. Before he left, he hit Francis in the gut one more time, but there was no force behind the blow.
In the moments of consciousness that punctuated his naps that day, he waited for food to be brought and to be beaten. Neither happened. He had learned to gauge the time by the light streaming in the high window. In the afternoon, he was taken to the house where Black was eating a sandwich in the same leather chair, and the twins were doing each other’s nails. They had chosen cheerful colors.
“The girls and I are leaving Niger,” Black told Francis. “We’re tired of this shithole of a country.”
Francis expected more, but Black spoke to one of his henchmen, who took the American to the kitchen and gave him good food on a clean plate. His last meal. He chewed slowly. When he finished eating, the guy led him to a bathroom, where he found a razor and soap. He shaved and showered, lingering in the hot water, enjoying it more than he had ever enjoyed getting clean before. When he stepped out, his filthy clothes were gone. In their place was a white robe, the kind the Nigerien men wore.
He put on the robe. It gave him the courage to say what he needed to say to Black when he returned to the great room. It was Flo’s turn to have her nails done. Blondie held her friend’s hand still as she carefully daubed purple lacquer. They looked at Francis the way people looked at a condemned man.
“I know you’re worried what I will tell people,” Francis told Black, who was contemplating the label on a bottle of Niger beer.
“Who says I’m worried?”
“I won’t be a problem. Let me go, and I won’t say a word. I’d be a fool to open my mouth. I won’t even be tempted. You can see that, can’t you?”
Black nodded. He pried the paper label from the bottle, picked it up, and swigged. Incongruous; such weakling shoulders on a man as dangerous as he. He got up and walked toward Francis, seated across from him. He leaned over, took his chin in his hand, and said softly, “You really are the wrong chap in the wrong place at the wrong time, aren’t you?”
The intimacy encouraged Francis to ask the hard question. “Are you going to kill me?”
“There is no need for killing.”
Francis was surprised he felt as calm as he did. It was not bravery. It had to do with regret. He could not afford any. He asked Black, “What will you do to me?”
“Me? I won’t do a thing. It’s the sun that is dangerous in this country. That and the insects. The Sahel is harsh.”
“Please,” said Francis, although he knew it would do no good.
Black barked, the preoccupied twins looked up, and a henchman escorted Francis back to the storeroom.
He slept again. When he came back to himself, the equanimity he had felt, talking with Black, was gone. He was deeply afraid. When the door opened, it was dark, and he was unable to see the man who came at him. It wasn’t a truncheon he used on Francis, just an ordinary stick.
When he came to, he was trussed in the trunk of a car. The muscles in the small of his back ached. He listened to the gears shifting; down, then up again. He smelled motor oil and the rubber of a spare tire. He tried to be fatalistic. He did not want to piss his pants. He thought about Adrienne, wondering if she had told Jim, her husband and Francis’s boss at McDonald’s, about his pathetic declaration of love. Too late to be embarrassed now.
Impossible to know how long the vehicle had been moving. He worked up a fantasy with Mariah. They were sitting on the sofa in a sun-splashed living room, drinking coffee. He must have been asleep when the car stopped because it terrified him when the trunk suddenly opened. He heard words addressed to him that he did not understand. He was untied. He tried to pull himself up, but his leg muscles cramped. He felt helpless being lifted out.
It was dark as he found his legs, but there was a moon. It cast enough light that he recognized the man whose mother lived in Agadez. They were off the highway. This was the kind of place he had been ordered to take the American to let the sun and the insects do the dirty work. The flat earth was baked hard, with here and there a scrubby bush standing ghostly in the half-light. The man kept talking. Francis kept not understanding. He handed Francis a bag.
He pointed, indicating what must be the road to Agadez on the other side of a rise. There was food in the bag and a bottle of water. The man was nervous and wanted to go somewhere and pretend he had not committed a firing offense. They shook hands. Francis watched him roll slowly away in a fat Mercedes sedan.
Mariah had saved his life in the strangest way.
He hiked toward the rise. He had no illusions that the trip would be easy. With any luck, he might get a bus. If not, he would walk.
He was dazed, moving slowly, so it took a moment before he focused on the camels. There were four of them, outlined in a row along the ridge in the moonlight. A boy was leading them, riding the largest. He was his grandfather’s grandfather. The sight of the camels, sure-footed in their ancient stride, took Francis’s breath away. They were the beasts of deep desire, long on the journey and cunningly laden. He watched them out of sight. Then he made the rise himself. At the top, he stopped to catch his breath. Below him ran the road to Agadez.
About the Author
Mark Jacobs has published more than 175 stories in magazines, including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Hudson Review, and The Iowa Review. A complete list of his publications, including books, can be found at markjacobsauthor.com.