It was not uncommon to see San Désirée’s police officers traveling moderate distances on foot; their vehicles were notoriously unreliable, a fault of the climate and not of the mechanics. (There were no mechanics.) It was a good hour’s walk from the police station to the edge of the estates, and by the time Joseph arrived the dust of the road and his fetid perspiration had reduced him to a condition like that of the wretches who were turned away from the gates of the wealthy without exception. He was not the only officer in such a state, however; the sentries at the gates looked no better. There were Fombeh among them, soldiers like his cousin, who had been quick to take Buique’s side and assist the coup in every particular. Turncoats, he thought, but he returned their salutes and dry smiles.
The estates formed a world apart from, and yet contained within, the expanse of Bamal. In the months of his absence they had changed not at all; too many of the residents possessed the resources to shield themselves from change. Joseph strolled along a perfect reproduction of a Parisian avenue, replete with cafes where the fashionable wives and artistes loitered. The morning edition of the Times lay in the window of the first shoppe he passed, an expensive satellite-sent facsimile which had sold out to the penultimate copy. Mulattos—the fifth tribe of Bamal—were everywhere, running errands, polishing cars that would never leave the precinct, sweeping the pavement, nodding to him as he passed. Here he was careful to keep his hat brim pulled low over his face, for many of these were people he knew. He did not fear that any would cry out for his arrest, but whispers carried farther than one might think, and within the day Buique himself might have heard rumors. That would never do. He needed time, probably a great deal, to arrange his departure, and he had not yet settled on an approach.
Would it be best to send a brief letter announcing his impending arrival, detailing his hoped-for escape from persecution in his homeland? Surely that would touch the hearts not only of the scientific community abroad, but also of the common people, lovers of human interest. On the other hand, his reputation might have gone ahead of him. Who would dare import a doctor known chiefly for having brought a tyrant (well, Emperor) to power? The red carpets that news would unroll at his feet were not necessarily ones he wished to tread. No, he needed a subtler plan.
Angelica’s house lay around the corner, but he was slowed by a sudden desire to see his former residence. She had waited six months to see him, after all. He knew it might be unwise to haunt his old home, but the impulse was as irresistible as it was irresponsible. Perhaps if he threw an egg at the place he would remove any suspicion from his presence.
Well, he would have a quick look. He doubted they would have made a monument of it, but it was such an elegant building that he couldn’t imagine them razing it on account of its most recent inhabitant. It must have housed worse men since the year of its completion. Buique had probably handed it to one of his lackeys as a gift.
Joseph had to change his course only slightly to reach the old house; in bygone days he had slipped between his house and Angelica’s in secret, taking the servants’ walk that joined the rears of each place. Thus their relationship had remained a private matter; not even Mome, who mooned for her constantly, had known. She had always insisted on that, and it was fortunate for her that she had; else where would she be now, with the world turned on its head? She had kept herself poised in the worst of the upheaval. And he had always considered it a statement of her high regard that she had not attended his execution.
Now he slowed as his colonial manor came into view. It had been painted recently, he was pleased to see, and the lawn kept in excellent condition. He knew instantly that he dared not draw close, for hunched among the hedges at the side of the house was Kulchong, the gardener who had raked the lawn clippings and fed the flowers for all the various occupants of the last forty years. A pleasant old man, Kulchong, and good company, appreciative of fine liqueurs and candid with his opinions of Joseph’s latest scents; but this was not the time to strike up old acquaintances. Careful, now. Curtains drawn, Kulchong preoccupied, no one else on the street. He glanced at the post-box with its gilded letters, expecting to see the name of some innocuous public servant, and instead he almost betrayed his anonymity.
He turned swiftly on his heel, a brisk military movement in keeping with his outfit. It was necessary to keep his composure. Self control was essential now. The days ahead would surely be full of many such rude little shocks. Little? He was stupefied actually. That was not the house of a public servant: the name of his nemesis was emblazoned the mail-box!
Doctor Dodo had gone too far.
Shame burned him, hotter than the sun over Bamal. Why must fate be so intent on rubbing his nose in misfortune? Let Dodo dwell in his former home, let him commit obscenities on the same mattress where Joseph had slept; why did Joseph have to learn of these things? Couldn’t they simply go on without his knowledge? It was as though his own apprehensions created a vacuum that nature rushed to fill with dreadful oddities. If this were so, he must resolve to be fearless, to give nature no advantage, to follow his course without deviation.
The weight of the morning’s events sat on his shoulders as he ambled toward the last person in San Désirée capable of disappointing him. It seemed inevitable that she would be waiting to spring some trap, however innocent. Very well. He wouldn’t be discouraged; to bow before circumstance would get him nowhere, least of all to freedom.
He straightened his back, tried to look at ease although the sky was like a vast lens focusing the sun’s rays on his head; he led himself by the nose to the house of his last hope.
There was no one in sight, not on the wide lawn nor in any of the French windows. He hoped she was awake. The gate crashed behind him when he went through, and the Dobermans she kept began to howl; they were not let loose until nightfall, but the sound of their baying struck a chill through him. The beasts had never learned to recognize or trust him, though with her they were like puppies. He chuckled. Angelica treated them all like puppies. The more vicious and violent a man threatened to become with her, the more she babied him, the less serious became her attention. That was why Mome had never gotten close to her; his cruelty repelled her, but she’d always convinced him that the distance between them was something he’d created. She made it seem like chivalry, a game.
He reached the door without mishap or mauling, only to find it already open and Angelica’s valet waiting. Leon could be a startling chap, appearing the moment before you called him, vanishing with your request half-uttered only to return with more than you had asked for—exactly as much as you needed. Leon must have recognized him immediately, but he was implacable. Bowing slightly, he asked Joseph in, then started away into the depths of the house.
“A moment, please,” Joseph called. “Who will you say is calling?”
Leon smiled very faintly. “An officer, sir, of the police. Of course, if you wish to give a name….”
“That won’t be necessary. Thank you.”
“I’m sure Madame will be with you shortly.”
“I’m glad to hear you say it. I’ll wait in the study, shall I?”
“As you wish.” Leon did not offer to show him the way.
Joseph went into the richly furnished library whose tall windows overlooked the lawn and the blazing street. The noonday sun ruled the rest of the city, but here Angelica was queen and she kept a cool house. Nothing had changed here since his last visit. Her gilded lorgnette rested on the corner of her writing desk, beside an unfinished letter written in lavender ink. He knew nothing of antiques, but every piece of furniture was a collector’s piece according to Angelica. She had once offered to redecorate his house, imparting her knowledge of fine objects to the task, as well as her European connections. Hers was an old family with its roots extending far beyond Bamal.
As he stood staring up at the shelves of dark wood, gilded leather volumes standing arow, a voice like polished Florentine marble spoke out of the air behind him.
“Promoted to Sergeant? You’ve come up in the world since I last saw you.”
He turned slowly. “It would have been impossible to sink any lower without going under. Angelica.”
If he had expected her to rush into his arms, to smother him with kisses and the scent of her perfume, he would have been disappointed. But it had never been that way with them, and he was ready for the worst. She stood in the doorway, a jade fan slightly spread in one hand, the other outstretched. Her eyes told him nothing, not even when he straightened from kissing her soft brown fingers and risked clasping her hand firmly for a moment. He was the first to draw away.
“I apologize for my appearance,” he began.
“Not at all, you look rather dashing. It’s a change from your white frock, I’ll admit, but I’ve always loved the soldiers, you know.”
“I remember. Angelica—”
She waved away her name. “Don’t be rushed, Joseph. You’re not being followed, I trust?”
“I wouldn’t have come here if I were.”
“Then you’ll join me for lunch?”
Somehow he had not thought of food until that moment; he had gotten out of the habit. A memory of Angelica’s table, like a sumptuous dream, momentarily weakened him. He managed a smile but his reply was a rude gasp: “Lunch!”
“Come then.” She slipped her arm through his and led him down the hall toward the sound of silverware. He watched her in profile, her coffee and cream complexion blurred and illumined by the sunlight falling through the windows they passed, filtered by white curtains; deep Tibetan carpets muffled their footsteps. Her green-eyed Persian cats watched them pass, inscrutable; he had never trusted the animals, with their serpent eyes, but Angelica had them everywhere, all alike.
“You look well,” he said. “More beautiful than ever.”
“And to a man dying of thirst, hydrochloric acid must look inviting.”
Her tone, and the image, sobered him. He realized that he had been softening toward her, bending in a ridiculous direction, slipping into the role he had played in overturned times; the man she loved had died six months ago at the President’s hand. Stupid, stupid of him! Thank God Angelica did not lend herself readily for his support; he must stand on his own feet,now more than ever. He wanted to thank her, but there were no words to express his
feelings. He seated her at the long white table; her eyes when she thanked him for the courtesy were sharp and unsentimental. She understood his situation better than he himself. In that moment he no longer feared her; she was the last true friend he had on the planet.
He took the chair opposite her, and for several long minutes—while cold soup was served, wine poured—he was unable to meet her eyes. Any contact now would have been highly charged. What was said at this table would determine many things, among them his fate. He had never realized before what a focus of power she had become in San Désirée. He saw how inevitable it had been that he would come to her; it had taken six months, but in all that time he had felt the tugging.
“You expected me,” he said finally, and took a first sip of wine which dried his mouth and set his brain spinning above the conversation. He groped for a soup spoon, hardly remembering that he had just spoken.
“I wouldn’t say that,” she said. “I hoped I would see you again. It’s good to know that you’ve managed to live out there. You have been on the outskirts, haven’t you?”
He nodded, his throat so soothed by the cream soup that he was reluctant to speak.
“I’ve thought of you often, wondered how you managed to survive. I see you’ve managed, barely.”
He felt ashamed, sitting there in the oversized uniform, stinking up her dining room, but there was no hiding the strain of the recent past. He felt his stomach turn over and come to life like an ancient engine. Nausea welled up, along with the taste of soup, and he realized too late the effect of the wine and rich food on his metabolism. She must have known what was happening.
“Excuse me,” he blurted, staggering to his feet.
“Nonsense, stay where you are. Leon!”
He waved at the air by his face. “The wine, I’m not used to this life. . . ”
But there was no need for further explanation, and in fact he would have been unable to elaborate. He collapsed across the table, suddenly shivering and dizzy, and the last thing he felt was a cold smacking kiss that nearly covered his face. He had fainted into his soup.