"And you're all well, I trust?" Justin asked in that same studied drawl of his. "Gloria not languishing in this awful heat? The boys both flourishing and so forth?"
"We're fine." A delay, of Woodrow's manufacture. "And Tessa is up-country," he suggested. He was giving her one last chance to prove it was all a dreadful mistake.
Justin at once became lavish, which was what he did when Tessa's name was spoken at him. "Yes, indeed. Her relief work is absolutely nonstop these days." He was hugging a United Nations tome to himself, all of three inches thick. Stooping again, he laid it to rest on a side table. "She'll have saved all Africa by the time we leave, at this rate."
"What's she gone up-country for, actually?" -- still clutching at straws -- "I thought she was doing stuff down here in Nairobi. In the slums. Kibera, wasn't it?"
"Indeed she is," said Justin proudly. "Night and day, the poor girl. Everything from wiping babies' bottoms to acquainting paralegals with their civil rights, I'm told. Most of her clients are women, of course, which appeals to her. Even if it doesn't appeal quite so much to their menfolk." His wistful smile, the one that says if only. "Property rights, divorce, physical abuse, marital rape, female circumcision, safe sex. The whole menu, every day. You can see why their husbands get a little touchy, can't you? I would, if I was a marital rapist."
"So what's she doing up-country?" Woodrow persisted.
"Oh, goodness knows. Ask Doc Arnold," Justin threw out, too casually. "Arnold's her guide and philosopher up there."
This is how he plays it, Woodrow remembered. The cover story that covers all three of them. Arnold Bluhm, M.D., her moral tutor, black knight, protector in the aid jungle. Anything but her tolerated lover. "Up where exactly?" he asked.
"Loki. Lokichoggio." Justin had propped himself on the edge of his desk, perhaps in unconscious imitation of Woodrow's careless posture at the door. "The World Food Program people are running a gender awareness workshop up there, can you imagine? They fly unaware village women down from South Sudan, give them the crash course in John Stuart Mill and fly them back aware. Arnold and Tessa went up to watch the fun, lucky dogs."
"Where is she now?"
Justin appeared not to like this question. Perhaps it was the moment when he realized there was purpose to Woodrow's small talk. Or perhaps -- thought Woodrow -- he didn't take kindly to being pinned down on the subject of Tessa, when he couldn't pin her down himself.
"On her way back, one assumes. Why?"
"Presumably. He wouldn't just leave her there."
"Has she been in touch?"
"With me? From Loki? How could she be? They haven't got telephones."
"I thought she might have used one of the aid agencies' radio links. Isn't that what other people do?"
"Tessa's not other people," Justin retorted, as a frown collected on his brow. "She has strong principles. Such as not spending donors' money unnecessarily. What's going on, Sandy?"
Justin scowling now, shoving himself away from the desk and placing himself upright at the center of the room with his hands behind his back. And Woodrow, observing his studiously handsome face and graying black hair in the sunlight, remembered Tessa's hair, the same color exactly, but without the age in it, or the restraint. He remembered the first time he saw them together, Tessa and Justin, our glamorous newly wedded arrivals, honored guests of the High Commissioner's welcome-to-Nairobi party. And how, as he had stepped forward to greet them, he had imagined to himself that they were father and daughter, and he was the suitor for her hand.
Copyright © 2001 by David Cornwell.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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