Alongside his chair, where the monkey had been hiding, I'd spotted luggage. There was a huge leather valise, probably as old as Prof himself. But what had caught my attention was beside it: a metal briefcase with a sturdy combination lock.
I'd never seen anything like it in the real world. But I'd seen metal cases in the spy movies the vendor in front of the station sold from his wicker mat. He always had one of them playing on his tiny screen, and each day while I listened for the train whistle I would stand as near as he allowed and watch. In those movies, it seemed like every time a man carried a metal briefcase, it would wind up broken open. Money would flurry about, everyone desperate to catch it.
Of course, in those movies the cases were carried by handsome men in expensive suits, not scrawny professors. But that case still told me that Prof was something special. There was probably a lot of money inside. Or maybe fancy equipment. Whatever it was, it was valuable enough to lock away.
I maneuvered so I could watch him while I wiped glasses. He looked my way once in a while, offering an unknowable smile.
Eventually he pulled out a book, leaned it against the edge of the table, and began to read. I'd never seen anyone read at a bar.
I didn't want to steal. But I couldn't stay in Franceville forever. By the time my mother had died in the hospital, leaving me stand-ing out front with a plastic basin full of her possessions and a baby sister on my back, she'd owed thousands of francs we didn't have. The hospital released me to Monsieur Tatagani, the bill collector, who let us live in a room crowded with other street boys working to pay off their debts. Of the six boys who'd been there when I'd moved in, three had gotten sick and died. Two had disappeared. The last had stolen a hundred francs from Monsieur Tatagani and fled. Monsieur Tatagani had gone all the way to Lastoursville to retrieve him, and after he'd brought him back he'd chopped off the boy's hands, right in the middle of Independence Square. The police had watched in case the boy tried to run. He'd died of infection not a month later.
If there was money or valuables in the metal case, I could pay my debt, get out of Franceville, and buy land somewhere. I could take the first steps to having a home, with breath still in my chest and hands still on my wrists.
Once Prof had finished his drink, he dropped some coins on the table and got to his feet, Omar scampering to his shoulder. I hadn't expected him to leave so soon, and hadn't yet come up with a scheme for getting the case. In an instant my heart went from quiet to thudding.
I decided I would put the glass I was wiping back in the slop bucket and get to the front of the bar as fast as I could manage. Skirting the wall, I eased around the corner. I didn't have to look far the Professor was right there, facing me.
"M'bolo," I said, shocked. "Ma wok ki Fang," he said slowly in my language, shaking his head.
"That's not a problem," I said in French. "I speak French, too."
"Oh, you must have gone to school," he replied, also in French.
I didn't know how to answer. I had gone to school until my mother had died. I had loved it. But you didn't have to go to school to learn French. It was the language of the radio.
Prof gave up on getting further explanation from me. "I'm looking for the Hôtel Beverly Hills," he said. "Do you know where it is?"
I pointed down the road. "It's the large building at the other side of town," I whispered. "Franceville's only painted hotel. You can't miss it. But someone important like you should be staying here at the Hôtel Léconi."
Prof had hunched close to hear me, hand cupped at his ear, and now shook his head. "The only thing African about this hotel are the flies. Does the Beverly Hills have beds?"
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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