Not that Gwen Murphy would tell anyone. She pushed the idea away as soon as it came. But the refugees were starting to creep her out.
Gwen lay on her cot, pretending to sleep. Outside the walls of the trailer she shared with Hailey Barnes, the Hagadera refugee camp was coming to life. Diesel engines rumbled in the distance as the morning’s first supply convoy arrived. Closer, two men shouted to each other in their clicking African language. “Happy Birthday,” Gwen murmured to herself. Her twenty-third. The first she’d spent outside the United States, much less in Africa.
For twelve weeks Gwen had volunteered for WorldCares/ChildrenFirst, an aid agency that offered food and medical care to Somali refugees. The Somalis came to Kenya to escape famine and war. Hundreds of thousands lived in Hagadera and other camps around the town of Dadaab in eastern Kenya. At first the mission had seemed simple to Gwen. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, protect the innocent. But the longer she stayed, the less she understood this place.
She tried not to think about that, either.
Her alarm beeped. She gave up the charade of sleep, opened her eyes. Seven-thirty a.m. Rise and shine. Across the trailer, Hailey’s cot was empty. Hailey always left before Gwen. She claimed she liked to watch the sun rise. Gwen thought she might have something going with Jasper, the ex-Marine who ran security at their compound, but Hailey denied they were anything but friends. I just like the place when it’s quiet, she said.
Gwen wrapped herself in her thin cotton blanket, reached for her laptop. WorldCares housed its workers in a walled compound at the edge of the Hagadera camp. The compound had its own electricity and water and wireless service, not great but enough to download email.
She found twenty-two new messages on her Gmail account, mainly birthday greetings. Her little sister Catelyn had sent a picture of them by the Golden Gate Bridge, one of Gwen’s favorites, from a trip to California the year before.
Only four more weeks of do-gooding! Can’t wait for you to get home so I can buy you a 3 a.m. Egg McMuffin—hinting at an epic night on that trip. Tell Hailey The Heartbreaker I said hi! Owen and Scott too! Happy 23rd! XOXO C
Next up, from her mom:
Daddy and I will call today but if you’re busy or we don’t get through I want you to know how much we love, love, LOVE you! And we’re so proud of you, what you’re doing over there is so great . . .
So great. If they only knew. Gwen signed off, pulled on sweatpants and a long-sleeved shirt for the walk to the bathroom trailer. On her first morning here, she’d made the mistake of stepping out in boyshorts and a thin cotton tee. She hadn’t gotten ten steps before a crusty forty-something woman intercepted her.
“This is a refugee camp, not a gentlemen’s club,” the woman barked in a thick British accent. “We respect local sensitivities. As I don’t doubt you’re aware, you have a very pleasant body”—somehow “pleasant” sounded like an accusation—“but if you want to dress like a Russian whore I suggest Moscow. You’d do well.”
Whore? Moscow? Gwen wanted to argue but instead hustled back to her trailer. She later learned the woman was Moss Laughton, the logistics director for WorldCares. Moss’s moods ranged from bad to worse. Still, Gwen had grown to like her after that initial run-in. Maybe because they couldn’t be more different. The British woman had short spiky hair and was shaped like a potato. She didn’t care how she looked or what people said about her. And she wasn’t afraid to yell. She once described her job to Gwen as trying to keep the stealing to a reasonable level. And failing.
Gwen decided to give herself an extra-long, extra-hot shower this morning. Moss wouldn’t be amused. Moss said any shower more than three minutes long was a waste of time and water. But it wasn’t Moss’s birthday, was it?
The Hagadera camp was one of three giant refugee centers near Dadaab, an overgrown village on the dusty plains of eastern Kenya. The camps opened in 1991, when Somalia’s government first collapsed. For most of their existence they’d held fewer than one hundred thousand refugees. But since 2009, drought and war had caused hundreds of thousands of Somalis to flee their homes. With nowhere else to go, they trekked west across the desert toward Kenya. Along the way, bandits stole from them and raped them. If they were too weak to walk, they got left behind. And not for the Rapture. They died of dehydration or starvation. Hyenas and lions dragged away their corpses. Even when they reached Kenya, they weren’t safe. The Kenyan police demanded bribes and threw the Somalis back over the border if they didn’t pay. But enough refugees got through that half a million now lived in the camps, in endless rows of tents that studded the land like anthills. Some received sturdy white tents that looked like they belonged in an upscale camping expedition. Abercrombie and Kent: Journey to Dadaab. The others built their own shelters out of plastic sheets and scraps of wood. Vast open plains surrounded the camps, but the Kenyan government refused to expand them. So the tents were crammed into ever-smaller plots as new refugees arrived. Each was a miniature city of refugees, with a city’s problems.
Gwen hadn’t known any of this when she’d come to Dadaab three months before, with Hailey and Owen Broder and Scott Thompson. The four of them had just graduated from the University of Montana, in Missoula. Gwen had grown up in western Montana, lived there her whole life. She was ready for a change. An adventure.
Then Scott said he might go to Kenya to work for his uncle James helping refugees. Gwen was surprised. Scott had never struck her as caring. In fact, when it came to women, she knew firsthand he was exactly the opposite. But he told her that James ran a charity called WorldCares. “We can go to Africa for a few months. Beats hanging around here,” he said. “Plus when we’re done, we’ll go on a safari. Watch lions getting it on. You know they have sex for like two days straight.” Scott sounded at least as enthusiastic about the lions as the refugees.
That night she Googled Dadaab. The pictures shocked her. She couldn’t believe people still starved to death. Of course, anorexia, but that was different. Anyway, the point was that the refugees were starving. United Nations says 750,000 Somalis at risk from famine, the headlines said. Worst food shortage since 1991. Babies with bellies swollen from hunger. Women with arms like sticks. Gwen decided right then that she’d go. Do whatever it was that aid workers did.
When she told her family about her plan, she figured her mom—and certainly her dad—would put up a fight. Aside from a few weekends in Canada, she’d only been out of the United States once, on a spring break trip to Cancún. But they didn’t. “It’ll be good for you,” her mom said. “Broaden your horizons.”
Then Hailey decided to come, too. She told Gwen she wanted a better shot at med school. She’d applied her senior year, but her test scores weren’t great and the only place that accepted her was in the Caribbean. “This stuff looks great on your résumé,” Hailey said. “In the interviews, too. ‘When I saw little Dikembe come back to life, I knew I wanted to be a healer.’ I don’t have to tell them that the kind of healing I’m talking about is dermatology. Laser skin peels for five hundred dollars a pop.”
“Isn’t that a little cynical?”
“It’s a lot cynical. But doctors make mucho dinero and, unlike you, I can’t afford the luxury of being an idealist.”
“I’m not rich.”
“Gwennie, rich people always say that.”
Finally, Owen joined up. He didn’t have to explain why. Gwen knew. He’d had a terrible crush on her for two years. Though he wasn’t a stalker. More a hopeless romantic. He gave her longing looks when he thought she wouldn’t notice. She wished she found him attractive. But he was curly-haired, soulful. Gwen didn’t go for soulful. Gwen went for jocks. Jerks. Like Scott. Scott was about six-two, two-fifteen, with sandy blond hair and broad shoulders and a ridiculous six-pack. Scott could dunk. Gwen had seen him. When Scott wrapped an arm around her, she felt held. She was starting to rethink Scott and all the Scotts of the world. One had given her a bad herpes scare a few months back. But for now she was still in the jock-jerk camp.
Back in her trailer, post-shower, Gwen tugged on cargo pants and boots and a black T-shirt that she knew flattered her. Though, in truth, she would have looked good in sackcloth. She had the honey-blond hair and long lean legs of a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. She stood out absurdly in the camp’s crowds, an alien from Planet Beautiful.
But her looks hardly mattered here. The refugee kids wanted to touch her hair, sure. Their parents wanted more rations, a chance for an American visa. When they realized she couldn’t help, they moved on. She was just another aid worker here, unworthy of special attention. The realization unsettled her. She wondered if she was seeing what life would be like when she was sixty.
She walked to the WorldCares canteen, a concrete room with a gas-fired stove and two oversized refrigerators. Posters of missions covered the walls, smiling black and brown children surrounding white volunteers. Owen and Scott sat at a wooden table, spooning up oatmeal from chipped bowls.
“Oatmeal?” They hadn’t had any yesterday. Gwen poured a cup of coffee, busied herself brewing a fresh pot. Leaving the coffeemaker empty was a great sin at WorldCares. As Moss had made sure she learned.
“Bunch of Quaker Instant came in yesterday,” Owen said. “All kinds. Apples and cinnamon, brown sugar and whatever—”
“Pepsi’s getting a nice tax deduction on that, I’ll bet,” Scott said.
“Pepsi?” Gwen didn’t get it.
“They own Quaker. Stuff’s about to expire, they can’t sell it, so they give it to us, write it off at full price. Everybody wins.”
“I get it.” Just because she didn’t know that Pepsi owned Quaker didn’t make her stupid. Or did it? Other people always seemed to know things she didn’t. But then, she’d never tried very hard in school. Around sixth grade, she’d realized that boys would do her homework. She didn’t even have to fool around with them unless she wanted to. They were happy to be near her. This band, the Hold Steady, had a song called “You Can Make Him Like You.” And it was true. All the way through college, where she’d barely graduated with a 2.1 in sociology. Even that had required her to flirt with a professor senior year so he would let her retake her final. Not that she’d slept with him. He was old. And married. But she’d gone to his study hours dressed in her cutest gray yoga pants, the ones that cupped her ass perfectly, and made sure to lean over his desk and let him see the black thong poking out where her T-shirt didn’t reach. She knew that her moves were obvious, and she knew he knew too. But she’d learned that men didn’t care. They could be fully aware they were being played and still enjoy the game. No doubt he was filing her image away for later, when he was having boring sex with his wife for the millionth time.
So she’d gotten her C’s, and she was a college graduate, nobody could take that away. But she wondered if she should have studied a little harder. For this trip she’d bought a Kindle, loaded it with a bunch of famous books she hadn’t read, The Great Gatsby and Invisible Man and whatever. She’d forced her way through them, too. But she had to admit she didn’t really enjoy them. Maybe she should have tried Twilight and The Hunger Games; a lot of her friends liked those.
“What’s happening today?” Gwen said. Besides my birthday. She wondered if they’d forgotten.
“I’m meeting with James about that reporter coming next week,” Owen said.
“Yeah, from Houston. He wants a list of talking points for everybody, make sure we’re all on message about the mission. Talk about our local partners, how we do more than just hand out food, all that stuff.”
“Spin, in other words,” Scott said. “Make sure WorldCares gets mentioned along with CARE and MSF and the big boys. Publicity means donations. So if you have any questions about what we’re doing over here, keep them to yourself.”
Gwen had come to Dadaab imagining herself hand-feeding starving kids, handing out bowls of soup to grateful villagers. She saw now that she hadn’t had a clue how refugee camps operated. Only the most recent arrivals were hungry. A massive operation existed precisely to keep the refugees from starving. In that narrow sense, the camps worked. The Somalis who lived here ate better than their countrymen across the border—or the Kenyan villagers who lived nearby. Many refugees sold portions of their food rations in local markets.
At the same time, the refugees were stuck in legal limbo. Kenyans didn’t want Somalis any more than most Americans wanted Mexican immigrants. As far as the Kenyan government was concerned, the camps were too large and had been open too long. So Kenya didn’t allow the refugees to own land or work legally. They weren’t even supposed to leave the camps, although as a practical matter the Kenyan police couldn’t stop them. Most of all, the government didn’t want the refugees organizing for political rights or citizenship.
So the refugees couldn’t work or farm. They were warehoused in relative safety, and they would never starve. But they were basically prisoners. Like prisoners, they spent much of their time chasing freebies. Their requests ranged from the petty—My ration of cooking oil was short last week—to the heartbreaking—My brother disappeared at the border two months ago. Can you help me find him? If you weren’t a doctor, opportunities for genuine heroism were few and far between at Dadaab.
Recently, Gwen had been spending her time with kids. The average Somali woman had six children, and the camps didn’t have nearly enough schools to accommodate them. The girls stayed close by their mothers. The boys played with raggedy soccer balls and pretended to shoot one another. WorldCares had boxes of donated children’s books stored in the back of its warehouse. They’d arrived a few months before, but no one knew what to do with them. The kids couldn’t speak English, much less read it. The boxes sat untouched as the food deliveries came and went. Just thinking about them depressed Gwen, made her think of all the books she hadn’t read.
About a month before, she had gone into the warehouse and grabbed the first book she found, a copy of Where the Wild Things Are. She took the choice as a sign. All the books she could have picked, and she’d come up with one she remembered. She took it to the front gate and stood outside reading until a boy wandered over to listen to her. Since then she’d come out every day, picking a different book each time. Some days only a couple kids showed up. Some days, twenty or so. Only one, a tiny boy named Joseph who had the whitest teeth Gwen had ever seen, understood more than a few words of English. He had taken upon himself the role of translator. Gwen figured he was adding his own commentary, because he often had the kids laughing at stuff that wasn’t supposed to be funny.
“How about you?” Owen said, back in the canteen. “Any big plans today?”
“Joseph gonna be helping you with your reading again?” Scott said. “He told me last week that you got through The Cat in the Hat all on your own.”
Gwen didn’t bother answering. Scott had come by her trailer two nights before for a quick-and-dirty. She hadn’t been in the mood. Since then he’d been snippy. Guys like him hated being told no.
“Such a dick,” Owen said. “By the way, happy birthday.” He reached into the messenger bag he always carried, handed Gwen an oversize envelope.
“Seriously?” Scott said. “Please don’t tell me you’ve been carrying that for three months to give to her. That’s weird, man.”
Bringing a card for her all the way from the United States did verge on weird. But Gwen wasn’t giving Scott the pleasure of hearing her say so. “It’s called being thoughtful,” she said. She wrapped an arm around Owen’s shoulders, kissed his cheek. She was surprised to feel the muscles in his upper back. Three months unloading trucks had toughened him up.
“Of course he remembered,” Scott said. “You’ve been talking about it for weeks. I wanted to pretend that we’d forgotten just to see what would happen, but your hero here wouldn’t dream of it. Bet he’s got a poem for you in there. ‘The White Rose of Kenya.’ She walks through the camps like a stripe on a skunk. With every step, she makes refugee hearts leap. Too bad it’s their stomachs that are the problem.”
Despite herself, Gwen laughed.
“Or would it be a limerick? There once was a girl in Dadaab. Whose mouth I want on my—”
“That doesn’t rhyme.”
“‘Knob’ doesn’t rhyme?”
“‘Knob’ is a really gross word in that context.”
“Corncob. Baby, Owen will make it rhyme. He’ll make sweet love to you Dadaab-style. Pour surplus cooking oil all over your body and lick it off.” Scott going on like Owen wasn’t even there. Managing to mock Owen and Gwen and their work all at once.
“Such a dick.” But even she could hear the flirty undertone in her voice. Scott was arrogant and cruel. But he was also hilarious, sometimes even at his own expense. Whereas Owen just stared at her with those deep brown eyes. I love you, the stare said. I’ll be good to you forever if only you’ll love me back. Why didn’t men understand that unrequited love was a bore? She was half afraid to open his card.
Owen walked out, not quite slamming the door.
“Poor baby,” Scott said. “I think I hurt his feelings.”
“Sooner or later, he’s going to kill you in your sleep. And half the girls in Missoula will cheer. What are you doing today?”
“Talking to my uncle, and then I think Suggs and me are going for a drive.”
Suggs was a Kenyan who worked as a fixer for WorldCares, part of the cost of doing business for Western aid agencies and journalists in Kenya. If a food convoy ran into a roadblock, fixers negotiated the “toll” to free it. If the police claimed that WorldCares needed a permit for an electrical generator, fixers found out whether they wanted a bribe, were enforcing a real law that no one knew about, or both. If a refugee showed up at the compound claiming to be a tribal leader, fixers found out how important he was. WorldCares had three fixers. But Suggs was the best. He handled the trickiest jobs. He had a big belly and what seemed like an endless supply of brightly colored polo shirts. Kenya’s version of Tony Soprano.
“To Witu. See what’s happening over there.”
Witu was a satellite camp that had sprung up about fifteen miles from Hagadera. Its growth had taken the Kenyan government and the aid agencies by surprise. Thousands of refugees now lived there. Gwen had never seen it, but from what she had heard, the place was a mess, run by Somali gangs.
“I thought we didn’t deliver there.”
“We don’t. The guys who do, you know how they do it? The drivers don’t even turn off their trucks. They park at the edge of the road and the guards toss food off the back. Like they’re feeding sharks or something.”
The fact that aid workers could be attacked by the people they were trying to help was something else Gwen hadn’t realized back in Montana. “So why go?”
“I wanted to check it out myself. Anyway, we’ll be ready.” Ready being code for armed.
“Any excuse to carry a gun like a real man.” Agencies like WorldCares hired armed guards to protect their trucks, but aid workers weren’t supposed to have weapons.
“Actually I’m hoping they capture me, rough me up. Work me over, you know what I’m saying? It’s not gay if you’re a hostage.”
“All you frat boys are a little bit gay. Why you hate women so much.”
“Use and hate aren’t the same, beautiful. Happy birthday. I don’t have a card for you, but I can give you a present when I get back. You’ll have to unwrap it yourself.”
“Such a charmer.”
Scott gave her his usual toothy pleased-with-himself grin and walked out.
She spent the morning emailing everyone who had sent her birthday greetings. It was noon when she walked out of the WorldCares compound. “Going to read,” she said to Harry, one of the gate guards. The guards hung out in a wooden shed with a screened window and a rough painted sign that said “STOP HERE!!” They looked friendly enough in their white short-sleeved shirts, but Gwen knew they had rifles tucked under a blanket.
“Yes, Miss Murphy.” She couldn’t get him to call her Gwen no matter how often she asked.
She crossed the dirt road separating the compound from the camp. The refugee families had lit fires for their midday meal, and a sour diesel odor lay over the tents. Firewood was hard to find around Dadaab, so most refugees used scraps of trash wood soaked in diesel. During her first weeks at the compound, Gwen’s throat had been scratchy and sore. Now, for better or worse, her body seemed to have accepted the smoke.
Moss had warned her against going alone into the camp. So she read beneath an acacia tree just a few feet from the road, its knobby roots running almost to the edge of the first row of tents.
Only a couple boys were waiting for her. Joseph wasn’t among them. Gwen wished he would show more regularly, but she couldn’t make him. She didn’t even know who his parents were, much less where they lived. He seemed to understand that she had no real authority. Gwen had no way to test him, but he was clearly smart. Besides his command of English, he was a natural ringleader. The other boys looked to him for guidance. In the United States he’d be in a gifted program. Here he had Gwen reading him children’s books.
Growing up, Gwen had never had to share a bedroom. Her parents had given her a Nissan Pathfinder on the day she passed her driving test. Used, but still. She knew she was lucky, that she had a head start over the kids who lived in the trailer parks north of 90 and worked night jobs to help their families pay the rent. But even those kids had winter clothes and three meals a day. Unless they got pregnant and dropped out, they were guaranteed twelve years of school, a chance at college. Everybody back home had at least a chance to live a better life.
Now she saw with her own eyes that millions of people, some crazy number, had no shot at all. She didn’t have a head start over Joseph. They weren’t playing the same game. He would never be anything but a refugee. He’d be lucky to learn to read. Doubly lucky if Somalia ever calmed enough for his parents to take him back to the village where he’d been born. More likely he would remain on the streets of this camp until he joined a gang and disappeared. Gwen wondered if she wasn’t being mean to him and the other boys by showing them books about the United States when they would never have a chance to go.
Today she had brought a thick comic book that she’d pulled at random from the warehouse. It was called Maus and looked like it was about cats and mice. As she reached the tree, more shoeless, stick-legged kids came running over, chattering at her. Her regulars. Even after a month of reading, she couldn’t keep them all straight, though she knew that the littlest one called himself Guster, and the tallest Nene.
“I brought a good one today,” she said. “Lots of animals.” She sat against the tree, folded her long legs underneath her. She loved this moment, the feel of the rough trunk against her back, a book in her hand. The noise of the camp faded and the kids circled up and she read. But by page three, she had a sinking realization that Maus wasn’t about mice at all.
Not that it mattered. The kids weren’t paying attention. Without Joseph to translate, they were losing focus, arguing. Guster got up and ran around the tree, yelling. She snapped the book shut. “I’m leaving unless you behave.” They ignored her, and she knew the language barrier wasn’t the reason. They didn’t care. “You know, this is why you’re never going to amount to anything.”
She was joking, but she wasn’t. Another lesson of the last three months. She felt terrible for these refugees. Especially the kids. Yet she felt something else too, the feeling she tried to keep down. She hated the way they lived, the dirt and smoke. The way they bred kids they couldn’t support. The fact that instead of standing up for themselves, they had run away from their own country to this place, where they depended on handouts from white people to live. Would Americans have done that? Did the refugees even want to go home? Or were they content to live here, helpless as baby birds chirping for their next feeding?
Then she’d remember Joseph, and her anger would turn to shame. She’d had every chance. They’d had none. Now she judged them. She couldn’t square her feelings, this anger and heartbreak jumbled up. The kids circled around her and the tree. She stood. The sun was high now. Her face flushed under her hat. The heat and the smoke dizzied her. “All of you. Enough. Enough.” They kept running, spinning around her. She reached out, clenched her hand around Guster’s skinny arm, pulled him close. “Listen—” She saw at once she’d grabbed him too hard. He yelped and looked up at her with such hatred that she felt an almost electric shock tear through her. She let go and he tore off into the mess of tents and disappeared as the other kids shouted at her.
She spent the afternoon in her trailer. She plowed through Maus start to finish and then tried to distract herself with Cosmo and Elle and Yoga Journal. She had the magazines stuffed in her backpack like a twelve-year-old’s porn stash. She shouldn’t have lost her temper. She should have let the kids run themselves out and then gone back to her stupid reading. She just wanted to help and she didn’t know how. She couldn’t deliver a baby or dig a well. She couldn’t even unload the trucks. A forty-pound bag would knock her over.
Where was Hailey, anyway? Her best friend had deserted her. On her birthday. She lay on her cot, buried her face in her pillow until she heard footsteps enter the trailer.
“Gwennie? Happy birthday.”
“I have a headache.”
“No, you don’t.” Hailey tugged at her legs. She had no choice but to sit up. She fake-swiped at Hailey’s face and Hailey responded with a long hiss. In the bars in Missoula, they made a striking pair. Hailey’s dad was black, her mom white. She was tall and light-skinned, with big brown eyes. Guys liked her. Lots of guys. Hence Hailey the Heartbreaker.
“Where have you been?”
“Taking care of cholera patients. Which basically spells cleaning bedpans. I told you I’d be at the hospital today.” She held a canvas bag.
“You did?” Gwen felt stupider than ever.
“Come on, tell Dr. Hailey.”
“I can’t even.” But she did.
“So you grabbed his arm,” Hailey said when she was finished. “Trust me, that kid’s been through worse.”
“It’s not that. Do you know what this is?” She held up Maus.
Hailey flipped through it. “The Holocaust, right? The mice are the Jews and the cats are the Germans.”
“How do you know that?”
“I don’t know, some world history class I took freshman year, maybe.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
“Gwen. I don’t know how to say this straight out without sounding condescending, but you are not dumb. You just never bothered to study.”
“It’s the same.”
“It’s not. If you were dumb, you wouldn’t be upset about any of this.”
“Look, we’re not the Army or anything, we’re not even getting paid. We’re volunteers, we’re doing our best. If nothing else, we’re witnesses.”
“Witnesses to what? I can’t even get anyone back home to understand what’s going on here. They send these dumb emails like God’s work, keep it up, and that’s all they want to know.”
Hailey unzipped her bag. “Time to put the pity party to bed. Guess what I have in here.”
“Hailey, I’m serious—”
“You want your birthday present or not?” Hailey reached into the bag and pulled out a bottle of Patrón and a jar of margarita mix. “Do not ask what I had to do to get these.”
“Come on. Let’s drink our sorrows away. Just like real aid workers. And if Owen or Scott stop by, I’m telling them to get lost.”
It was a fun night. The next morning, Gwen’s head was screaming, but even so she felt better. She came into the canteen, choked down a glass of water. Owen and Scott sat at the center table spooning down oatmeal, a replay of the day before. Neither looked glad to see her. She liked that.
“So Scott wants us to take a run to Lamu,” Owen said.
Moss had told Gwen about Lamu. She made the place sound like paradise. It was an island a few miles off the Kenyan coast, on the Indian Ocean. Turquoise-blue water and an old port. But the Somali border was only about fifty miles away, and not long before, bandits had attacked a resort close by. They’d killed an English tourist and dragged his wife back to Somalia, where she’d died in captivity. Since then, most Westerners had stayed away. “Isn’t it too dangerous?”
“You said that yesterday when I told you I was going to Witu.”
“Just because you didn’t get killed doesn’t mean it was smart.”
“Suggs says we’ll be fine. We drive to Garissa and then southeast so we don’t get too close to the border. Get to Mokowe in two or three hours, that’s on the coast, and from there it’s about a twenty-minute speedboat ride.”
Gwen wished she didn’t have such a nasty headache. “What do you think, Owen?”
“It’s probably okay as long as we have Suggs. Maybe we go one morning, stay a couple nights, drive back in the afternoon. I was talking to an MSF guy last week and he said it really is great. Plus all the millionaires are staying away, so if we go now we’ll have the place to ourselves.”
Owen’s confidence was reassuring. Aside from his doomed love for her, he was a levelheaded guy.
“Next week,” Scott said. “Before the rainy season starts.”
“What about the reporter? Aren’t we supposed to be here to talk to her?”
“She’ll be around a few days.”
“I’ll talk to Hailey about it.” Gwen just trying to buy time now.
Scott smiled. “She’s in. Said it sounded great.”
Then Gwen knew that she was going, whether she felt like it or not.
The Land Cruiser had the usual supplies that African roads demanded. A full-size spare tire and a spare for the spare. A plastic jerrican of gasoline, two of water. Twenty yards of tow rope and two-by-fours to provide traction if the truck got caught in mud. A jack and a repair kit with every tool a mechanic might want.
“Looks like we’re going across the continent, not on a two-night holiday,” Owen said. The four stood by the Toyota, waiting for Suggs. It was just past dawn. The air for once felt crisp, the stink of diesel gone. Gwen saw why Hailey liked this hour.
“When did you start saying ‘holiday’?” Scott said. “It’s a vacation. Or maybe research.”
“Research for what?” Hailey said.
“The book I’m writing. Still trying to pick a title. Which do you like, ‘I Heart Refugees’ or ‘Kenya on Three Handouts a Day’?”
“Shouldn’t you read a book before you try writing one?”
“I don’t see why.”
“You know what I love about you, Scott?”
Hailey laughed. “You think you know how ridiculous you are, but you have no idea.”
Suggs walked across the compound’s central courtyard toward them. He had a big man’s rolling gait, short wide steps. He held a thermos and wore a bright orange polo shirt and lime-green pants. A pistol on his right hip completed the outfit.
“He planning to play eighteen at the Dadaab country club?” Scott said.
“I can never tell whether he’s riffing ironically off the African-fixer look or embracing it,” Owen said.
“That is a very good question.”
“Ready?” Suggs said.
“As we’ll ever be,” Scott said.
“We’ll be in Mokowe in four, maybe five hours.”
“Then the boats?”
“They will be happy to see you, I promise. Real Americans with real American money. Every Kenyan’s favorite.”
“I feel so loved,” Owen said.
No one argued when Scott took the front passenger seat. The other three sat in back, Owen in the middle, splaying his legs for maximum thigh-to-thigh contact with Gwen. Suggs shoved his gun under the driver’s seat and out the front gate they went. Gwen had a knot in her stomach, a mix of excitement and nervousness. She remembered feeling this way at her junior prom, knowing she’d be losing her virginity before the night was through. More than six years had passed since then. Amazing.
“What are you thinking about?” Hailey said.
“How glad I am to be on this trip with all of you. Even Scott.”
“The Wisdom of the Barbie,” Scott said.
Suggs stopped at the guardhouse to register their departure. But he seemed to hear something he didn’t like from Harry. They had a short, heated conversation in Swahili. Then they rolled out to the dirt track that led around the camp to the main Dadaab road. At this hour the camp was mostly quiet. A little boy, maybe four years old, stood naked by the side of the road, peeing, his face creased in concentration on his task. Suggs stopped and yelled something. The boy looked up and grinned and waggled his penis, sending a stream of urine side to side. Suggs honked and rolled on.
“We are the worst aid workers ever,” Owen said.
At the intersection of the camp track and the main road that led to Dadaab, Suggs turned right. Gwen didn’t get it. She had always thought Dadaab was left.
“Aren’t we going north?” Owen said. “Back to Dadaab and then west to Garissa and then make a left and head southeast.”
Suggs pulled over. “The guard, he says the Kenyan police have a big roadblock up there. This way goes south past Bakafi and then west and then picks up the same road to Mokowe. No tarmac”—the Kenyans called pavement tarmac—“but I think it’s safe. The bandits stay closer to the camps, between here and Garissa. To the south there’s no place for them to hide. You’ll be in Lamu by noon.”
“We were going to stay on the main roads,” Scott said. “That was the plan.”
Suggs looked them over. “You think I want to be kidnapped? They kidnap you, they ransom you. You’re Americans, right. They kidnap me, they—” He put a finger to his head and pulled the trigger. “Nobody going to spend so much money feeding me”—he laughed a big man’s laugh, ho-ho-ho—“Suggs is telling you, this way is safe. But you decide for yourself.”
“It’s fine by me, if it’s okay with everyone else,” Scott said. “What do you think?”
“You trust this guy?” Hailey said.
“I trusted him with my life last week when we went to Witu. He’s talked convoys out of roadblocks, all kinds of stuff. He’s worked for WorldCares for years. Yeah, I trust him.”
“Well, I believe what he says about not wanting to get kidnapped. Nobody likes a fat hostage,” Hailey said. “I’m in.”
“Okay.” Though Owen didn’t sound sure to Gwen.
She wanted to say no, take me home. But she knew what would happen. They’d come back in three days and tell her what a great time they’d all had and how lame she was for missing out. Scott would be merciless. “Let’s go.”
“All right.” Suggs put the Land Cruiser in gear and they rolled away from Dadaab down the soft red dirt road.
And the real nightmare began.
James Thompson’s voice rose. Again.
“There are people who say we can’t do anything about this. Americans who say that. That we should let these Africans fend for themselves, starve for themselves. That they did it to themselves by having so many kids. That we can’t afford to help them. You know what I say to that?”
“Tell me,” Paula Hutchens said. They were in Thompson’s office at WorldCares headquarters at Dadaab. Like the rest of the compound, the room was unadorned, the furniture simple and thrifty. A poster behind Thompson showed a black girl running hand in hand with a white boy.
“I say letting kids starve is not in keeping with our principles. And I’m not afraid to tell you it’s racist. If these children had white skin and not black, you think anyone would be saying, Let them die? Let me tell you, we’ve forgotten how lucky we are. Even worse, we’ve forgotten the duties, the obligations, that come with that luck.”
Thompson stopped speaking. He leaned forward in his chair, stared at Hutchens like he could see through her. Hutchens had only met Thompson a few hours before, but already she was getting used to that look. The man had presence.
Thompson was in his late forties, with broad shoulders and thick lips and meaty hands. He wasn’t tall, but his bulk made him formidable. He looked like a bailiff. Or a pit boss. When he got excited, he spread his hands and raised his voice. He sounded like an old-time preacher. In reality, as he’d told Hutchens, he came from a family of railroad workers. He ran WorldCares/ChildrenFirst as a secular organization, no proselytizing allowed. “We’re here to feed the hungry and help the sick. We look after their bodies. Their souls are their own business, as far as I’m concerned.”
Hutchens could already see that James Thompson would star in her feature on the aid groups at Dadaab. Fine by her. She was a reporter for the Houston Chronicle. Normally she covered the mayor, but the paper had reached into its not-so-deep pockets to send her on a ten-day reporting trip to Kenya. Roy Hunter, the Chronicle’s publisher, had taken an interest in Dadaab after his daughter read a book about Somali refugees. Every few months, Hunter called the paper’s editor and demanded a series on something that had caught his attention. Deep-sea fishing in the Gulf. The potential for hypersonic passenger jets. HOUSTON TO HONG KONG IN TWO HOURS? IT’S POSSIBLE!
The editor knew better than to argue with the man whose name graced his paycheck. He looked for a plausible excuse to send a reporter to Kenya, and found it in WorldCares and other Texas-based aid organizations working in Dadaab. Now Hutchens was working on a series tentatively called “Texans with Heart.” It had been “Texans Who Love the World” until Hutchens pointed out that the title sounded like a bad porn movie.
She couldn’t claim to know much about the issues over here, but she’d done some research on WorldCares before she’d come over. The group had grown a lot in the last few years. After meeting Thompson, she saw why.
He leaned forward now, lasered in on her with those blue eyes. “What do you think, Ms. Hutchens?” He had a slight southern accent that took the edge off his ferocity.
She hated when sources tried this tactic. Reporters didn’t have much going for them anymore. Her job security and prestige had evaporated years before. But she still had the privilege of asking the questions, not answering them. “About what?”
“About this. All of it.”
“I’m a reporter. My job is to tell your story. In any case, I just got here.”
“With all due respect, ma’am, that’s a bunch of junk. People look to you for advice. They want the newspaper to tell them what to think.”
“I’ve never noticed that, Mr. Thompson. Though the idea does have a certain appeal.”
“I’m not joking. I’m serious as a heart attack. I’m publishing a book next spring. Called ‘The Children Will Lead.’ I want the world to know. It’s a crime to let these people suffer. And I’m not saying do everything for them, I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying work with them, build something together.”
“I get it.” Her digital tape recorder beeped. She decided to bring the interview to a close. For now, anyway. She had a feeling that Thompson wasn’t done talking, and might never be. “I’d like to see a little bit of the camp itself today, if that’s possible. You know, since I got here this morning, I’ve hardly seen a refugee.”
“Today may not work. We don’t like to send people out late in the afternoon for security reasons. But tomorrow morning, sure.” Thompson settled back in his chair. “And you’ll still be here when my nephew and our other interns get back, right?”
“When will that be?”
“Two days, three at most.”
“I should be here, yes.”
“I think they’d give you a really good perspective. The four of them just graduated college and they’ve been here three months working seven days a week. Finally I told Scott, that’s my nephew, take a couple days off before you burn out. They went to Lamu.”
“Island just off the coast. Amazing place. So I hear. Never been myself.”
“I look forward to talking to them.” She slipped her recorder into her computer case.
“Feel free to talk to anyone you might like on our staff. I’ve told everybody to do their best to answer your questions. Open-door policy.”
“I appreciate that.”
A heavy knock on Thompson’s door, which was in fact closed. Hutchens turned around to see it swing open. The guy who ran security—she couldn’t remember his name, something weird—strode in. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but something important’s come up.” He looked at Hutchens.
“I was just leaving.”
“No, please. Whatever he has to say, I don’t mind you hearing.”
The security officer hesitated. Then: “It’s the interns. Your nephew and the others. No one’s heard from them.”
“What about Suggs?”
“Not him either.”
“That can’t be. They were going to call when they got to Mokowe.”
Open-door policy or no, Thompson realized she’d just heard something she shouldn’t have. “Ms. Hutchens, can you go back to your trailer for a few minutes, let us sort this out?”
Hutchens sat forgotten for the next two hours, as the sun set and the compound’s lights kicked on. Through her screened window, she heard hushed, urgent voices. Finally, just as she was about to head back to Thompson’s office and demand to know what was happening, a heavy knock rattled her door. Thompson stepped in.
“There’s really no way to keep this from you. My nephew and the others, plus the Kenyan driving them, they’ve disappeared. Their phones are off, they didn’t check into the hotel in Lamu, their Land Cruiser didn’t reach Mokowe.”
“Unlikely. Someone would have called us. It’s possible”—he hesitated—“it’s possible they’ve been kidnapped.”
“I’m so sorry.” She was, too. But the reporter in her had one thought: Great story. And all mine.
“I have to ask you not to write about this. Or tell your editors.”
“I can’t do that, sir.”
“If they’ve been kidnapped, then every aid worker in Dadaab is at risk, every tourist in Kenya. They have a right to know.” The right to know. Every reporter’s most sacred cow.
“At least give us time to make sure. Try to get them back quickly and quietly.”
Hutchens considered. “Look, Houston’s nine hours behind, it’s morning there. Tell you what, I won’t do anything today. But tomorrow morning there, afternoon here, I have to call my editors and tell them.” What she didn’t tell him was that she planned to spend the night and morning putting together a biography of the four volunteers and Suggs. This story would be big.
“That’s the best you can do.”
“It’s more than I should do.”
“I’ve never understood until now why people don’t like reporters.”
“Sorry you feel that way.” Over the years she’d had a lot of practice saying those words. They never worked, and they didn’t this time. Thompson pursed his lips in disgust and turned away, slamming the door to her trailer as he went.
NORTH CONWAY, NEW HAMPSHIRE
John Wells ran.
Over the river and through the woods. Wearing only a T-shirt and shorts despite the cold. His legs burning but his breath level and easy. His heart pumping twice a second and more. Tonka, his boon companion, a stride behind, matching him on four legs.
The trail curved through grizzled trees in the low mountains outside North Conway. Gray wallpaper covered the late-afternoon sky. Wells kept his head down to watch the roots and dips in the trail. He hurdled a puddle left from rain two nights before, landed clean, ignored the twinge in his left leg.
For Wells the woods offered a special sorcery, the magic of leaving himself behind. The missions, the kills, the towns and villages with names he could barely pronounce. He had lived in a world that few Americans outside the military ever saw, the North-West Frontier and the Bekaa Valley and the other red zones. Running here, he worked up an honest sweat, not the stink of tension and sleepless hours. These runs set him free from the question that had plagued him since the Arghandab: Had he acted justly? Francesca didn’t bother him. Alders did.
Though in some ways the question didn’t matter. The word once writ couldn’t be undone, et cetera. No one else could help him answer, not Shafer, not even Anne. So Wells ran.
Back at the farmhouse he found Anne in the kitchen, squatting beside the open cabinet under the sink, which was full of dirty dishwater. Two wrenches and a penlight were laid on a rag on the floor. Wells squatted behind her, smoothed her hair away, kissed her neck.
“What seems to be the problem, Officer?”
She was a cop in the North Conway Police Department, though she was thinking about joining the state police, which investigated many murders and major crimes in New Hampshire. She and Wells had been together almost three years. In the last few months, she’d stopped asking if he thought they should marry. Maybe she thought he risked his life too casually to commit to a marriage, much less a family. Maybe she had her own reasons for taking marriage off the table. He couldn’t bring himself to ask. He was happy to be with her this way for as long as she would let him.
She was past thirty now, and the New Hampshire winters had given her hints of crow’s-feet and wrinkles that city girls didn’t get until their forties. But her jeans and sweaters hid a supple body and strong legs. Wells loved watching her walk. At the moment, though, she wasn’t happy to see him.
“Why don’t you go take a shower and let me fix this.”
“I can help.”
“Like you know anything about plumbing. If I weren’t here, you’d have done what you always do. Tossed in a bottle of Drano, and if that didn’t work, bought the really strong stuff, and if that didn’t work, called the plumber. It’s bad for the pipes.”
“I’m feeling very emasculated.” Though Wells had to admit that aside from chopping wood, he wasn’t particularly handy around the house. His survival skills were more primal.
“Where’d you and Tonka go?”
She turned around, nuzzled against his neck. “You smell good. Like the woods. Tell you what. If I can fix this quick enough, maybe I’ll join you in the shower.”
“Give me a chance to regain my manhood.”
“Something like that.”
She didn’t join him. While he was soaping up, he heard the phone. He showered quickly and then brought up logs for a fire in their bedroom. She found him just as he kindled it. “Trying to prove you’re not completely useless around the house?”
“Yes. As a matter of fact. Evan called.”
“Evan my son?”
“Is there another Evan? Said it was important.”
That’s impossible, Wells almost said. Just before his last mission, he had visited Evan in Montana. He hadn’t seen his son in more than a decade and wanted to reconnect, explain his absence. Evan had smashed that hope in the time they needed to finish a cup of coffee. He’d made clear that he hated the CIA and viewed Wells as a professional vigilante at best, a war criminal at worst. Wells had left Montana figuring that they wouldn’t talk again for many years. If ever.
Wells couldn’t imagine Evan had woken up today and had a change of heart. He had no idea what his son might want. Not money. His stepfather was a doctor and they lived well.
“Maybe somebody’s pregnant and he doesn’t want to tell his parents,” Anne said.
“I don’t see him coming to me for that. I don’t see him coming to me for anything.”
She handed him her phone.
Despite everything, he knew Evan’s number by heart.
“It’s John.” “John” seemed safer than “your dad.”
“Thanks for calling me back so fast.”
“How are you, Dad?”
The falsity of the last word churned Wells’s stomach.
“Let’s talk about why you called.”
But Evan didn’t seem to know what to say next.
“Something wrong with Heather?” Wells finally said. Wells’s ex-wife, Evan’s mom.
“You know on the news, those aid workers, the ones kidnapped in Kenya?”
“Sure.” The story had taken over the media in the last seventy-two hours. Four American volunteers taken hostage. Dragged into the heart of darkness, most likely by Somali bandits. The cable networks couldn’t get enough of it. The fact that the two women were so photogenic didn’t hurt. If you were going to get kidnapped, being pretty was the way to go. Plus they were all friends, recent graduates of the University of Montana—
Wells realized why Evan had called. “You knew them?”
“One of them, mainly. Gwen Murphy. I’m friends with her sister. Catelyn.”
Words that could mean anything. Wells didn’t push.
“Catelyn’s freaking out,” Evan said.
“I can call some people down at Langley, ask them to watch it. They probably already are.” Wells had resigned from the CIA years before, but he’d stayed entangled with the agency. As a rule, the CIA avoided involvement in overseas kidnappings unless the victims were government employees or the crime had clear political or terrorist overtones. But given the media attention that this case had received, Wells imagined the agency was working its contacts inside the Kenyan security services.
“Dad—John—it’s been five days and Gwen’s family is going crazy. Nobody has a clue. Nobody’s seen them, nobody’s sent any ransom stuff. Brandon, that’s her dad, he’s talking about getting on a plane, going over there. Even though everybody says that wouldn’t help.”
“It wouldn’t.” It would add to the circus. The grieving father, wandering through the camps, passing out pictures as camera crews tagged along. Have you seen this woman? The irony that many people at Dadaab had lost their own children would be lost to the viewers, though not the refugees themselves.
“I told Catelyn about you and she got really excited. She thought—she thought maybe you could look into it yourself.”
The words gave more away than Evan had intended, implying that he’d never mentioned Wells to the girl before now. Wells tried to pretend that didn’t bother him. In a way neither of them could have anticipated, Evan had suddenly seen the value in his father’s skill set. Wells found himself both flattered and angry. “Kidnappings are tricky, Evan. I’m not an expert in them. Or Africa. I’m sure the Murphys are talking to people who are.”
“They can pay. They have money.”
“It’s not about that.”
“Please, Dad. Please.”
With those three words, Wells had no choice. Evan was using him. So? Parents existed to be used by their children. “Look. I’ll talk to the family, the Murphys, and if they want me involved, I’ll do what I can.”
“I promise, they want you. They know who you are. I reminded them about the Times Square thing.”
Several years before, Wells had stopped a terrorist attack on Times Square and briefly become a national hero. But his recent missions had stayed secret, and memories were short. “They remembered that?”
“Wikipedia. Anyway. I’ll tell Mr. Murphy to call you. Thanks, Dad.”
“Glad to be of service.” Wells wasn’t sure whether he was being sarcastic.
“So?” Anne said. Wells explained. She took his right hand between hers, squeezed his palm and traced its lines, half masseuse and half fortune-teller. “Had to have been a hard call for him.”
“It didn’t sound hard.”
“He’s a smart kid. He knows what he did. You’re in his life again, whether he likes it or not.”
“Maybe. Or maybe he’s hoping to get laid. Not that I blame him. If his friend Catelyn looks anything like her sister.”
“Please don’t tell me you’re going to turn into a dirty old man.”
The ringing phone saved him from answering.
“Mr. Wells? This is Brandon Murphy. Thank you, thank you, for agreeing to do this.” Murphy sounded fevered. Wells wondered if he’d slept since he’d found out his daughter had been taken.
“Tell me what you know.”
Murphy explained that James Thompson, the head of WorldCares, had called four days before—late evening in Montana, morning in Kenya. Thompson said the four volunteers, along with a Kenyan employee named Suggs, had gone missing the previous day.
“From what I’ve read, they were headed for Lamu Island, is that right?”
“It was a few days off.” Murphy sounded defensive. The sleazier cable hosts liked mentioning that the volunteers had been on their way to a vacation. An ultra-luxury resort island off the Kenyan coast, Nancy Grace said. Just the four of them, relaxing. She made relaxing sound like code for having an orgy.
“And Gwen told you in advance about the trip.”
“She was nervous because of those kidnappings a while back, but Hailey—”
“Yes. Hailey thought it would be fine. And that’s her best friend. Gwen, she’s a beautiful girl and she’s not dumb, but she’s not a leader, you understand. Basically she operates on instinct, listens to the people around her.”
“Scott, that’s James Thompson’s nephew, he pushed, too. The trip was his idea.”
“And were Scott and Gwen boyfriend and girlfriend?” Nancy Grace had hinted as much.
“You know, kids that age, they don’t necessarily use those words.”
“But they had a relationship.”
“Yes. So back to your initial question, we knew she was going. She emailed on the morning they were leaving. She did that most days to let us know she was okay. Morning for her, the night before for us.”
“Her message that morning was routine.”
“Yes. And we asked her to email us when she got to Lamu, which would have been overnight for us. But when I woke up the next morning and checked my Gmail I didn’t see anything. I figured, okay, she’ll send something soon. Or maybe Lamu doesn’t have good Internet. I checked during the day and I didn’t hear anything. I was getting nervous.” Murphy paused, breathed deep. “Then, afternoon in Missoula, early in the morning over there, Thompson called. He said he didn’t want to worry me but no one at WorldCares had heard from any of them since the previous morning. Including the driver, this man Suggs. He asked if Gwen had checked in with us.”
“Did he say he thought they’d been kidnapped?”
“Not at first. He said his security officer had checked with the hospitals and the police and the Interior Ministry and hadn’t heard anything, but they’d check again in the morning when the offices opened. That maybe the police detained them for some reason. I brought up kidnapping. Me. Not him. Like he didn’t want to mention the word. He said yes, that’s also possible. I got angry, told him he was supposed to be keeping my daughter safe. He said he understood how I felt, that his nephew was with her and that he hoped they’d all be back safely very soon.”
“Then what happened?”
“We couldn’t sleep, of course. I emailed all her friends here, asked anyone if maybe she’d emailed them, but she hadn’t. And we called Hailey, Owen, their parents, and they hadn’t heard anything either. Then, a couple hours later, James Thompson called back, said that they’d double-checked with the police and that we had to assume the worst. His exact words. We must assume the worst, he said. I’ll never forget that. Because the most irrelevant thing went through my mind. Assuming makes an ass out of you and me. That’s what I thought at that moment. I’m a fool.” Brandon Murphy fell silent. Wells waited. There was nothing to say. Finally, Murphy spoke again. “The next news we got was maybe twelve hours later.”
“So this is close to two days after she left the camp for Lamu—”
“Yes. So much time wasted, and I don’t understand. Anyway, Thompson called back, said the Kenyan police found their SUV on a dirt road about a hundred miles south of Dadaab. That they were gone and that the police assumed they’d been taken over the border. To Somalia.”
“Did he say anything about damage to it, the SUV?” Damage, as in bullet holes or bloodstains.
“No, and I didn’t ask. I guess I should have. I did ask whether the police had found evidence that anyone had been hurt. He said no.”
“And then the media got wind, and since then, the last three days have been crazy. The police are helping us, they moved the TV trucks off our block, but if we leave, it’s like sharks.”
“My son said you haven’t received a ransom demand.”
“No.” A single word that carried a world of despair.
“And you’ve been in touch with Thompson since he told you about the SUV.”
“At least twice a day. But he says it might be weeks before anybody makes a demand. Even months. He says that doesn’t mean anything except that they may be moving the hostages to somewhere they consider more secure.”
“More secure” no doubt translated into “deeper in Somalia,” but Wells saw no reason to say so. “You spoken to anyone besides Thompson? Either in the U.S. government or the Kenyan?”
“A woman at the embassy named Kathy Balfour. Not sure of her title, but I could find it for you. She said they were pressing the Kenyan police. She put me in touch with an officer in Nairobi, a colonel. Russell Mesuru’s his name. He told me the case is their highest priority.”
“What about the FBI or the agency?”
“I’ve been talking to an FBI agent, Martina Forbes—she’s in Washington. She said they work with the CIA and their first step is they try to trace cell phones and computers, that kind of thing. They’re already working that angle but they’ve gotten nothing so far. The next step is probably a ransom demand, she said, but they prefer to let the host country take the lead unless they have no choice.”
An answer more forthcoming than Wells expected. And the FBI had been surprisingly aggressive considering that the aid workers had disappeared only five days before. The publicity was having an effect.
“But I have a strong impression that the Kenyan police don’t have much chance of finding her even if she’s still in Kenya. And no chance if she’s in Somalia. Do you think I should go over there?”
Murphy was probably right about the skills of the Kenyan police, though Wells didn’t want to upset him further. “Not right now. It might attract even more attention, make matters worse. Have you talked to anybody who specializes in these situations?”
“A place called Kroll. In New York. They told us they manage negotiations and payments, not rescues, that until we got a ransom demand it didn’t make sense to involve them. I’ll spend everything we have to get Gwen back, but since they said they cost like ten thousand dollars a day, I figured I’d hold off for now. More money for ransom, if it comes to that.”
“But WorldCares must have kidnapping insurance.”
“The way Thompson explained it to me, it covers volunteers as long as they’re in the camps or working on assignments. Like an aid convoy. Not on vacation. And since everyone in the world knows they were headed to Lamu—”
Murphy broke off. Someone must have told him that Somali kidnappers often asked for ransom payments of millions of dollars. Without insurance, the family might lose everything.
“So you think I can be helpful,” Wells said.
“Your son says you’re the best at this.”
“East Africa is not my area of expertise.”
“Mr. Wells, my wife hasn’t slept in four days. I mean, not one minute. She blames herself, she blames me, she blames everybody. All night last night she paced around the bedroom counting her steps. She got to twelve thousand and then told me she wanted to jump out the window. I would have called an ambulance but I know it just would have made the reporters even crazier. You want me to beg you, I will. You want me to pay, name your price.”
“You don’t have to beg. Or pay. Just email me a note saying that I’m your representative over there and you authorize me to find your daughter.”
“Of course. And I’ll tell Jim Thompson you’re coming.”
“No.” Wells wanted to meet the head of WorldCares on his own terms.
“All right.” Though Murphy sounded uncertain. “When do you think you might go?”
“Tonight, if I can find the flights.”
“Mr. Wells. Thank you, thank you.”
“I’ll do my best. I can’t promise a miracle. She might be dead already, you understand?”
Murphy wasn’t listening. “God bless you.”
As if Wells had already saved his daughter.
Wells hung up, called Ellis Shafer, his old boss at the CIA.
“John. Word travels fast.”
“That’s not why you’re calling?”
Wells waited. He knew from experience that silence was the only way out of these conversational cul-de-sacs with Shafer.
“The big man is out. At the end of the year. I speak of the capo di tutti capi. The one we call Vincenzo.”
Shafer was being cute because this was an open line and because he liked being cute. Vincenzo was Vinny Duto, the CIA’s director. Wells didn’t like Duto, but part of him would be sorry to see the man go. The informal arrangement between Wells and the agency might not survive a new regime.
“What’s he doing?”
“Eight ball says running for the Senate. You were right, John. He’s looking at the big one and he needs some real-life political experience.”
“Does he even have a party? Or a state?”
“Democrat of Pennsylvania. I know he appears to have arrived on this planet a full-grown sociopath, but he was in fact born in Philly.”
“Democrats aren’t going to vote for him. He was neck-deep in rendition and all the rest.” As Wells and Shafer knew personally.
“He can’t run as a Republican. Too liberal on the social stuff. Guess he figures aside from the ACLU types Democrats don’t care about rendition any more than Republicans. He’s right, too. He’s got a shot.”
“Let’s see how he does the first time somebody asks him a question he doesn’t like.” Duto was not exactly warm and fuzzy. Over the years, he had learned to check his temper. Still, he was a man used to giving orders and having them obeyed, and that attitude was hard to hide.
“Don’t be surprised if he calls to say bye. I think he’s getting sentimental. He’s got me on the calendar for a valedictory lunch. I’m not sure if I’m the main course or just an appetizer. So what’s up?”
Wells explained, not mentioning Evan.
“I’ve only been following it on TV, but I’ll see what we have and call back.”
Wells spent the next half hour arranging travel. Nairobi was more than seven thousand miles away, and no nonstops ran between the United States and Kenya, not even from New York. It was already past six p.m. He would have to catch an overnight from Logan to Heathrow. Then he’d be stuck in London several hours until he connected on a night flight to Nairobi. With the time difference, he’d arrive the morning after next. A lot of lost time, but he couldn’t do better without a private jet, and even that would save only a few hours.
Wells booked the tickets under his own name. No reason to be tricky.
With the flights arranged, Wells grabbed his backpack, sending Tonka into hiding. The dog knew what the pack meant. Wells kept his pistol and cash and other unmentionables in a locked trunk in the bedroom closet. He took fifty thousand dollars, the Makarov, two passports, and a satellite phone. He hesitated for a moment and then grabbed a handful of other goodies that might be tough to come by in Kenya. Finally, the vintage Ray-Bans that Anne had given him before his last mission. He kept them locked up so he wouldn’t lose them. They were lucky.
Anne had disappeared into the spare bedroom while he packed. She came back with copies of the email from Brandon Murphy designating Wells as his representative, plus a pile of stories and blog posts about the kidnapping and the world of the camps at Dadaab. “Background.”
Wells kissed her.
His cell trilled. Shafer. “Tell me.”
“None other. So I have to tell you this one is tough. On a bunch of levels. As far as we can tell, no single group over there runs these kidnappings. The goal is to grab people, get them onto Somali soil, so the Kenyans can’t get them very easily. After that, as long as you can keep paying your guards, you can hold them basically forever. Somalia has no real central government, no police, no legal authority to step in. Sometimes, these boats that get taken in the Gulf of Aden, the shipowners pay to get their vessels back but not the sailors themselves. So the sailors are held for years, until either the kidnappers take pity on them and let them go, or else they cut their throats.”
“We don’t interfere.”
“You know that since 1993, Black Hawk Down, we prefer to pretend Somalia doesn’t exist. We’ll hit anyone linked to AQ with drones when we get a chance, and we know some groups involved in piracy, because we can identify vessels and the ports they operate from. But the west side of the country, the Kenyan side, it’s just gangs, mostly. We don’t have much. The Kenyan police have given us a few names, but no photos or locations or anything real. Frankly, we don’t pay much attention, because mainly it’s Somali-on-Somali violence. No ships, so no shipping companies complaining.”
“No white people.”
“You said it, not me.”
“You have any good news, Ellis?”
“I have one piece of advice. Think about playing up the Arab thing. Kenya and Somalia are close to the Arabian Peninsula. There are businessmen there from Dubai and Lebanon. Stick to Arabic when you can, wear the right clothes, you’ll stand out less.”
“And I’ll put in a word for you with the COS”—chief of station—“in Nairobi. Name’s Tania Roddrick. For all the good it’ll do.”
“Know much about her?”
Excerpted from The Night Ranger by Alex Berenson
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