The man was a foreigner, but not too much so. He spoke good French like a normal person, and was darker than the Chinese bosses who ignored us and the American missionaries who didn't ignore us enough. He definitely wasn't Christian: He wore a tight woven cap, a taqiyah.
Unlike the other bar customers, this foreigner wasn't taking the fastest path to drunkenness he'd ordered a mint tea. He was here for the company, I guessed, since he let his drink cool while he leaned far over the back of his chair to talk to a man at a nearby table.
"There have been other researchers who have come to these forests," the Arab was saying, "but none so famous as me. This conversation we are having might not seem like much now, my friend, but one day you will brag about it."
Maybe if the Arab had said he was a rich businessman, the man would have been impressed. But a researcher? What did that even mean?
"You have heard of janegoodall?" the Arab continued. "No? Well. Many important people came together to make a vote. And do you know what they concluded? They have decided that Africa should have its own native janegoodall. And that person is to be me!"
It was clear that the man did not know what the Arab was talking about any more than I did. I figured, though, that if a janegoodall was something all of Africa could have only one of, it had to be important. I edged closer, deciding this was the time to give the nearby chairs a good rubdown, shining them like lamps. It brought me even nearer to this strange man who had said my mother's word. I smiled for real as I worked, without knowing why I did.
The neighbor asked the Arab his name. "I'm Professor Abdul Mohammad of the University of Leipzig," he replied. "But most people call me Prof. It's less formal that way, you understand. I don't need to be flattered by formalities."
There was a flurry of motion below the table. A monkey emerged from the Arab's belongings, nearly knocking them over as it scampered up his back and onto the tabletop. "And this is Omar the vervet. Also of Egypt," Prof said.
Startled, the other man sprang to his feet.
A monkey was nothing unusual they were frequently chained up at the side of the road to offer as pets, or gutted and hung for sale in the bushmeat markets, their dead mouths sucking on sky. But this one was fearless and tiny and silver with a soft black face. We didn't have monkeys like that in Gabon. Omar flicked his gaze to his master and then paced the table, lurching from one leg to the other as he stagger-walked. After testing the tea with his finger and hissing, he sat down, scratched at a sore on his backside, and scrutinized me, as if figuring out how I might be of use. I returned my focus to the chair I was cleaning.
Prof didn't have the monkey on a leash, but Omar sat close, worrying his hands together and peering into his master's eyes. Prof plucked a salty nut from a bowl and offered it up. Omar looked at the single nut, then picked up the dish and wolfed down handfuls. "Omar, no!" Prof scolded. But his eyes were smiling.
Omar met all of our eyes in turn as he gobbled, suspicious of this good turn in his luck. The other man took advantage of the commotion to shift his seat so it faced away from the Professor and his monkey. Left without an audience, Prof caught my eye. "That chair looks very, very clean," he said. "You've done good work. Perhaps you can stop wiping it for a minute and talk to me instead. What's your name, boy?"
I was flattered he had barely asked the other man a single question, but he was curious about who I was. I pretended not to understand him and headed away. I'd learned that all the worst things that could happen to you in the city came after being noticed.
Besides, I didn't want this man to remember my face. Not with what I was already planning to do to him.
Excerpted from Threatened by Eliot Schrefer. Copyright © 2014 by Eliot Schrefer. Excerpted by permission of Scholastic. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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