"That," Prof said, pausing for a moment to catch his breath, "is my official answer, too."
We'd arrived at the Hôtel Beverly Hills, a dank cinder-block tower. It had painted walls, not because it was the fanciest building in Franceville, but because it had the most to hide. I let Prof lead us in.
Once I'd heaved the valise to the ground, Prof thanked me, placed a twenty-five-franc coin in my palm, and turned his attention to the desk clerk. Omar climbed down and sat on the floor, one hand protectively circling his master's ankle, his little monkey fingers working their way under the pant leg until they were against Prof's skin. I kneeled beside Omar, as if to pat his head. Prof noticed my attention to his monkey, smiled, and returned to haggling with the clerk.
Omar watched as I stroked his forearm. He watched as I stroked his shoulder. He watched as I inched my hand over to the handle of the metal briefcase.
Suddenly suspicious, the monkey bared his teeth and began squawking. Now that I was so close to him, I noticed that the skin on his arms was strange it was almost like corduroy, and his palms were the slightest bit oily.
Though I was worried the monkey would bite me, I wasn't about to stop.
I tightened my grip on the handle.
I took a deep breath.
There was shouting behind me, and motion. But I couldn't afford to look. I couldn't afford to do anything but sprint and dodge.
I knew these streets so well, and it felt like only moments before I had turned a half dozen times and thrown myself down countless alleys. I stopped against a tree on an empty street.
The briefcase was so solid in my arms. If it had money inside, I could escape with it come morning, hitch a ride on the next logging truck, and get away from Monsieur Tatagani and the police, into Angola or over to Libreville. If it was something other than cash, I could sell it at the market right as it opened and then either use the money to pay off Monsieur Tatagani or flee.
All I had to do was survive the night without getting caught. Because boys like me didn't go to jail for theft. Boys like me disappeared.
The night came, and grew long. I clutched the case to my chest. Avoiding the main road, I stuck instead to the edges of the city, creeping along farmland buffalo paths and the hunting trails I'd once prowled for bushmeat. The jungle loomed black off to one side.
It might have all been in my head, but for the first time in years I thought I could hear the mock men off in the trees, shriek-ing about how they had once been just like me.
I was very late, which meant one of two things: Monsieur Tatagani would be awake and would beat me, or he'd have barred the door before going to sleep and I'd have to risk a night out on the street. I could see, as soon as I turned onto the dirt road that led to Monsieur Tatagani's house, that the lights were out. But he was waiting for me on the stoop. Moonlight edged the saucer of bone on the top of his head.
I had no saucer of bone to give me away under the moon, so I had time to figure out what to do. Simplest would be to press the case into Monsieur Tatagani's hands, tell him that whatever was inside could pay off my debt, and leave in the morning. The fact that the case was stolen would not matter; all he'd care about would be whether its contents were valuable enough.
Hiding behind a tree, I propped my head on clasped hands and stared at the glimmering metal briefcase. Its corners were reinforced, the combination lock sturdy as a stone, the dial engraved with numbers. Unable to resist, I tugged at the clasps, but they didn't give at all.
There was no way I was going to be able to get it open not while I was outside in the dark without any tools. I'd been so focused on getting the case that I hadn't given a single thought to how to open it.
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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