When we were saying goodbye outside the restaurant in the late afternoon light, I just could not help taking Jocelyn Hazen’s hands in mine and looking into those strangely guarded eyes of hers. “I hope Pepper gets better,” I said. “I hope she gets better very soon.”
She nodded, then managed a smile. “I do wish we could have entertained you at home,” she replied. “But right now it’s just not possible.”
“But this was lovely!” I told her. She seemed so uncertain of herself that I gave her a hug. She held me tentatively, her body guarding itself the way her eyes guarded her soul. As if somehow we would criticize her or her husband. As if we would blame them for the condition of their child. When I released her, she turned to Bruce and offered him her hand. “Nice to see you again,” she said. Bruce took the small hand and gave her one of his looks. “Journalist looks,” I call them and I ask him please not to use them when we are being private people. It’s as if his eyes are penetrating the very depths of your soul to see if you’re lying. No wonder Jocelyn was feeling guarded; I hardly blamed her.
I turned to Hazen and said goodbye to him and to the Forestas. I told them – really meaning it when I said it – that if they were ever in Johannesburg, we would like to take them to dinner. “I’m not sure we can manage a place quite as lovely as this,” I said, “but we’ll try.”
We went off to our Land Cruiser – Bruce insists on renting Land Cruisers even though they’re expensive – and the others went to their cars. When I glanced back at them, I was pleased to see that Hazen had his arm around Joss. She was looking at him with an intensity I would have called passionate in the days before Bruce made me conscious of my fondness for cliches. Even at the distance I was from them, the bond between them was palpable and I was glad. A relationship needs strong anchors if it’s to survive the challenges of an emotionally disturbed child.
We were in Malawi, a small, pretty country stretched beside a long, narrow lake, and the Zomba plateau where we had met the Hazens and the Forestas for Sunday lunch was truly a beautiful place. As we descended the plateau to Blantyre, the country’s commercial capital, we passed through a region of tea plantations. The air was clear and fresh. In late afternoon light the bushes of tea, cut chest-high in benches so that workers could easily pluck off the leaves, shone with a splendid greenness. Light from the waning sun backlit the leaves and made them glow.
“I never thought I’d come to Malawi,” I told Bruce. He grunted, staring at the road from behind the steering wheel. “Until I met you, I’m not sure I even knew Malawi existed.” He smiled automatically, hearing my inflection more than my words. He had been preoccupied all afternoon. I wondered if he were working on a story. Or more precisely – I’m learning about precision of expression – I wondered what story he was working on. Stories are always at the back of a journalist’s head.
We were on our way to Kenya. Officially Bruce’s territory includes all of sub-Saharan Africa although most of his stories deal, of course, with South Africa. Still, he likes to do pieces from other parts of the continent if only to remind readers that nations actually exist – like Malawi – that they’ve rarely, if ever, thought about. He enjoys the travel, too. He has a wanderlust. He tries to get to East Africa at least once a year. Readers want a wildlife situationer and he likes to stay on top of things going on in that area.
Now that we are married – we’d been married five months then – he lets me come along. My “new eyes,” as he calls them, see things from a fresh perspective. “Why don’t you do a piece about so-and-so?” I sometimes suggest. Usually he smiles indulgently, but now and then something actually comes of my ideas.
“Was Hazen informative?” I asked.
“A very careful guy,” Bruce said.
While the wives and I had walked around the gardens of the Zomba hotel, Bruce interviewed the two men. Hazen was the American Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission and Foresta headed the Political Section. Since the Ambassador was away, Hazen pointed out that he was actually Chargé d’Affaires.
“How about Jim Foresta?” I asked.
“More forthcoming. He wanted to talk about how the country’s progressing now that it’s finally gotten out from under the long-lasting yoke of old Kamuzu Banda. But readers don’t care. I’m not sure the State Department cares.” Banda was the medical doctor who took Malawi to independence, consolidated his power with the usual excesses, and impeded what Bruce’s reporting would have called “the march toward full nationhood.”
“Did they have theories about the murders?” I asked.
During the couple of days we’d been in Malawi Bruce had investigated a curious series of political murders in Blantyre: someone dispatching enemies and trying to make it look like the work of leopards. The murders bore a witchcraft angle and possessed a resonance locally that we, who do not believe in witchcraft, cannot comprehend. Such things fascinate readers. They’ll follow a story about bizarre murders to the final paragraph. But they’ll hardly scan past the lede of a substantial piece like Malawi’s progress toward nationhood. Bruce didn’t want to talk; that was obvious. He shrugged. Staring meditatively at the road he drove on. We really didn’t talk again until dinner.
By then we were in the dining room of the Mount Soche Hotel in Blantyre, having soup and salad. The Mount Soche is an older hotel, built around the time of Independence. I liked its lack of pretension and its wonderful views over the countryside. “I’m glad the Hazens liked Kenya,” I told Bruce, hoping we might talk. There were few people in the dining room and the waiters watched us, eager to serve. I thought we ought to look as if we liked each other at least enough to converse. “Are we going to Kilaguni and Mzima Springs?” I asked. “I’d love to see hippos under water.”
Bruce grunted, separating tomatoes out of the salad.
“Did you remember Hazen from when you’d met him before?”
“Yeah. He looked familiar.”
Bruce met the Hazens on a trip to West Africa. Hazen was serving as the Embassy’s Political Officer in Bamako, Mali. As Bruce glanced at me across the table, I sensed that he felt some reservation about Hazen. I started to ask another question, but caught myself. Bruce hates me to interview him, as he calls it. It’s best if I wait till he’s ready to tell me things.
I had no idea what Bruce’s reservation might be. As for myself, I quite liked the Hazens. They had style and Jocelyn dressed well, using items picked up in local markets as accessories. They also seemed very much in love. I don’t mean that they acted like newlyweds. In fact, they seemed controlled and unemotional. But now and then you’d catch a glance between them. It gave you a hint of heat in their relationship. Sentimental of me to like them for that, I suppose, but that’s an unusual quality to sense in a marriage that’s gone on for a dozen years. A more customary reaction is that a couple makes a good team, is “in synch,” and that they work together well. This last is a real advantage in the Foreign Service. There a spouse is part of the country team whether she or he – usually she – likes it or not.
I also felt a sympathy for the Hazens because I knew they’d had a rough go. Foreign Service sounds exciting and romantic: traveling and living in exotic places, meeting interesting people, watching history unfold. But the truth is the Foreign Service is full of hot, buggy, and undeveloped posts where you would not want to spend two days, much less two years. And a lot of the posts are dangerous. Time was when diplomats enjoyed immunity from danger, but in these days of terrorists, diplomats and even their families are victimized by politically aggrieved groups happy to harm unprotected people.
In that sense journalism is much preferable. Foreign correspondents live in decent places. Those places have to be sufficiently developed to access a journalist’s equipment. When a correspondent – or even his wife, if she’s lucky like me – lands in some of these wretched places where FSOs are living, he stays only a few days. He picks people’s brains and then moves on. And if there are terrorist groups, they don’t want to kill him; they want to exploit him to publicize their plight.
The Hazens had an additional challenge: an eight-year-old daughter with severe emotional problems. When that happens in the Foreign Service, it’s very tough. The Hazens were thinking of sending Pepper back to the States to live with his parents. That would mean not only terrible financial outlays beyond what insurance would cover, but the real likelihood that they would lose their daughter – at least until they returned for a Washington assignment. Or that they might lose her forever.
As if those weren’t enough troubles, Joss Hazen was in some kind of highway accident in Mali. It caused her memory loss and she mentioned something about restorative surgery to her face, poor woman. She was forced to apologize to Bruce about the memory loss when they met earlier that day. Bruce had apparently gone to the Hazen’s home in Bamako for a meal. Joss had to admit that she had no recollection of the occasion at all.
I admired the fact that, in spite of these challenges, Joss and Hazen seemed so happy together. They had marshaled their forces, all right. Plastic surgery sometimes extinguishes a man’s love. It was clear that they were still very attracted to one another. During lunch Hazen and Joss touched each other – just casual, stay-connected touches – almost as much as Bruce touches me and we’ve been married less than a year.
After dinner while I started to pack our duffels for Kenya, Bruce made us nightcaps and paced the room. “Sweets,” I finally said, “why are you so preoccupied?”
“Am I getting on your nerves? Sorry.”
“You aren’t working on a story, are you?” I watched him wandering around the room. “This isn’t the working-on-a-story kind of preoccupation. I can tell.”
He went to the window and stared down at the lighted pool behind the hotel. Finally he turned and asked, “Did I ever tell you about that trip to Bamako? When I first met the Hazens?”
I was pleased that at last he was ready to talk. “Is this a trick question?” I asked, flirting a bit.
Bruce smiled. “It was about two years ago,” he said. “I was doing a swing through West Africa. I’d been in Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso. Flying in to Bamako, I thought: ‘Jesus, do I have a visa for this place?’
“I checked my passport. Come to find out I did not have one. I’d requested one, thought I’d gotten it, but it had never come through. The plane was going on to Paris and I didn’t want Mali Immigration to deny me entrance and ship me off to France.
“Fortunately, it’s a small airport. As I walked through to the Immigration Desk, I saw a woman who had that unmistakable American look: sparkling eyes, a ready smile. She also had lovely hands, long, tapering fingers.”
“You gave her a very thorough check-out,” I said.
“Professional habit,” he replied. “I’m a trained observer.”
I tossed him another flirtatious smile just to keep him focused.
“I called to her and said, ‘Do you know any American Embassy people? I’ve arrived here without a visa and I don’t want to be deported.’ She turned out to be Jocelyn Hazen.”
“Really?” I said, a bit surprised. At dinner her eyes had seemed more veiled than sparkling except during those glances at her husband. But then she and Bruce had both been alone at the Bamako airport and Bruce was probably exuding that magnetic readiness for experience so characteristic of him. Here Bruce and Jocelyn, accompanied by their spouses, were being demure.
“An embassy family was leaving for France on the plane I’d come in on,” Bruce continued. “She was sure her husband could straighten out my visa problems. Which he did.”
“You didn’t say anything about that today,” I said.
“I started to–” He shrugged, “I thanked Hazen again for saving my ass from the wrath of editors.” Bruce took a meditative sip of his drink.
“You went to their house?” I asked. I didn’t want him to wander off, pacing again.
“I had lunch with them. Followed Hazen out to the house from the embassy in my car because I was driving on up to Segou to get a look at rural Mali. Pepper, the little girl, was there, brought home from school for lunch by a servant.”
“Was it obvious that she had problems?”
Bruce gazed at me rather strangely. “I’d say it was obvious there were problems in the household.” I could sense him being precise with language. “I felt that Hazen and Joss weren’t getting along–”
“But they seem so close.”
“Yes, don’t they?’
“The change of posts must have been good for the marriage.”
Bruce looked at me with a curious ambivalence, almost on the brink of saying something, but holding back. He started moving around the room again.
“Don’t pace,” I said. “What are you not telling me?”
“At the house,” he finally went on, “I saw that the little girl was very sensitive to the undercurrents of tension between her parents. She and her mother seemed very close. That wasn’t surprising. They hadn’t been in Mali all that long.”
“They probably had to sustain each other through all kinds of adjustments.”
“The girl and I talked a few minutes,” Bruce said. “Hazen had disappeared in the house somewhere and Joss was supervising things in the kitchen.”
“What did you talk about?”
“A photo. I saw a framed picture of Joss and another woman on a shelf. The other woman was Joss’s cousin. Heather? Fern? Valentina maybe?”
“Botanical? Rose, perhaps? Or Petunia? Fleur? Don’t you love Fleur?”
“Ah, oui! Je l’aime,” said Bruce. We laughed. He relaxed. “The name was definitely English. Anyway, the photo made the two women look enough alike to be twins.” He hesitated again. “Pepper said they ‘hated’ each other.” He got a faraway look in his eye, drifting off.
“Kids talk like that,” I said, trying to keep him focused. “So– Did the lunch go all right?”
He nodded, coming back to me. “As we were having coffee – the servant had walked Pepper back to school by then – Max got a call from the embassy. He was needed immediately. We left together. He got me headed toward Segou and then went in the opposite direction toward town. I hadn’t gone very far when I realized I’d left my coat. I could have picked it up later, but my notebook was in the pocket. So I went back.”
We looked at each other across the room. And I suddenly understood why there was such hesitation in his relating the incident.
“And she was alone in the house,” I said. “She’d sent the cook off on some errand.”
“To market,” Bruce said.
“So you slept with her,” I said.
“You dear tomcat,” I said. “What had she done? Put your coat someplace where you wouldn’t find it?”
He shrugged. Maybe. Maybe not.
I felt an irrational jealousy rising in me. Bruce was very attractive. He was single then and he liked new experiences. I knew there had been other women, probably more than I wanted to acknowledge, but as a gentleman he had never before told me about them. The jealousy was my problem, something I had to deal with. I did not want it to put strains in our relationship, especially when we were on a business trip. Still, I asked, “Why are you telling me this?”
After a long moment he said, “The woman I made love to that day is not the woman we had lunch with in Zomba.”
“Did you notice that woman’s hands?” he asked. “Very small. Short, stubby fingers.”
He started pacing again. I watched him, wondering what he was talking about.
Finally he said, “Before I left the house that afternoon, I mentioned to Jocelyn that her daughter and I had talked about the photo of her and her cousin.
“’We’re a year apart,” she said. “People are always mistaking us for twins.’
“I said, ‘Your daughter–‘
“And before I could go on, Joss said, ‘Valerie’s a bitch. Valerie was the name, I think. She manipulates men.’ I laughed at that,” Bruce exclaimed. “In fact, I said: ‘Haven’t you just been manipulating me?'”
“I don’t imagine she liked that,” I remarked. “What did she say?”
“She said, ‘She seduces my husband – to put it politely. He gets himself called back to Washington so he can fuck her.'”
“So she seduced you to get back at him,” I said.
Bruce laughed, one of those hearty, full-throated guffaws that I love. “And I thought it was because I was irresistible,” he said, “Because correspondents are romantic. And well-known boudoir athletes.”
“Of course, they are,” I twitted him. “I’m sure she wanted you as a trophy.”
“I must say, I thought she might have recognized me,” Bruce admitted. “But she didn’t seem to. I can’t say our afternoon flattered me. I asked her why she didn’t divorce Hazen and raise her child at home. She said she liked living overseas. God knows she may have even liked bedding transients like me. She was adamant that there’d be no divorce. She’d told Hazen she’d ruin his Foreign Service career if he sued her for divorce.” Bruce finished off his drink. “Some of these FSOs are obsessed about becoming ambassadors, you know. Hazen struck me as being one of them.”
I thought back over our afternoon together. Jocelyn gave no hint of recognizing Bruce, and Hazen did seem impressed with himself. He mentioned several times that he was the Chargé d’Affaires.
Bruce refreshed our drinks and paced again. Finally he said, “The woman we had lunch with today is the woman in the photo, the almost twin.”
“Valerie,” I said.
“Whenever we drifted close to anything personal,” he said, “the Forestas jumped in to change the subject. You notice that?”
In fact, I had noticed that. Foresta, Hazen’s political officer, did exactly what he knew his superior wanted.
Bruce kept pacing. “I’ve been trying to figure out how they did it,” he said.
“What’s your hunch, trained observer?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Hazen came down here on a direct transfer. Without home leave. They must have flown from Bamako to Paris. Hazen would have needed to get Pepper out of the way. And to establish her as emotionally disturbed. Maybe he insisted that he and Jocelyn put her under psychiatric observation somewhere in Europe. For depression maybe. Then somewhere along the line – Paris, Athens, Nairobi, probably the earlier the easier – he and Valerie killed Jocelyn and dumped her body.”
Hearing the words made my stomach turn. At the same time my curiosity was aroused. “Dumped it how?” I asked.
“Tossed it along a roadside. Naked. Maybe there was semen in it. On it. Maybe they mutilated–”
“Oh, please! Don’t go on.”
“Another sex crime for local police to unravel.”
“Do Africans do sex crimes?”
Bruce paced for a while, mulling it in his mind. I got the duffels ready for the flight the next morning. Finally he said, “Valerie starts traveling on Jocelyn’s passport. The resemblance is close enough for that. When they arrive here in Malawi, Hazen introduces Valerie to everyone as his wife. Valerie becomes Jocelyn. Eventually he has her issued a new passport.
“The Foreign Service is a small community,” Bruce went on, “but officers specializing in Francophone West Africa are not likely to be sent to English-speaking East Africa. And staff people without area expertise will probably be sent to other regions. People the Hazens do run into, people like me, are told about the highway accident, the restorative surgery and the memory loss. And the rules of etiquette, which still apply in the Foreign Service, prevent much probing.”
I tried to remember Jocelyn’s expression. Had there ever been a suspicious glance at Bruce?
“As long as officers are competent,” Bruce went on, “FSOs are very protective of the group. I’m sure Hazen is competent. His ambassador is a political appointee so basically Hazen runs things. He’s Cardinal Wolsey and nobody in the embassy challenges him. Why would they? I’m sure there’s a sense here – the Forestas showed you what it is – that the Hazens have made significant sacrifices for their country.”
“Yes. A nice little kid.”
We were quiet for a while. Eventually Bruce checked that all the documents we needed were in order. I watched him, trying not to think of the Hazens. Finally he said, “Bedtime, lovely one. We’ve got an early flight.”
After we turned out the lights and kissed goodnight, I stared for a long time at the darkness. I felt Bruce doing the same.
I could not help thinking of eight-year-old Pepper. When she came to Malawi, to the new house, the new school, the only people she would have known were her father and the cousin who kept insisting that she was her mother. What did Pepper make of that? Did she begin to doubt herself? Did she come to believe, as everyone said, that things were wrong with her? Or was she strong enough to trust her knowledge that Valerie was not her mother? If she was, in whom could she confide? And if she told someone what she must have suspected – that her father and the cousin had killed her mother – would anyone believe her? Wouldn’t Hazen or Valerie take the person aside and explain that Pepper was so disturbed – because of her mother’s highway accident and surgery – that she had everything mixed up in her head?
At last I whispered, “You still awake?”
Bruce murmured that he was.
“I wish you hadn’t told me that story,” I said.
“I thought maybe I shouldn’t,” he admitted. He took my hand under the covers. “But you don’t like it when I get ‘closed off,’ as you say.”
I moved beside him and he put his arms about me. I needed him to hold me.
“I’m going to convince myself that you’ve slept with so I many women you can’t keep them straight,” I whispered. “I mean: you are irresistible and it is romantic to sleep with a foreign correspondent and you are a world-class boudoir athlete.”
“Of course, I am,” Bruce said. He put his hand against my cheek and discovered that I was crying. “But I’m also a trained observer. And a reporter of unpleasant truths. And that woman is not the Jocelyn who was Hazen’s wife in Mali.” He kissed me, but that didn’t make it better.
The next morning we flew to Nairobi. We spent a week visiting game parks and observing animals. When we got back to town, Bruce interviewed wildlife people. I went to the library of the University of Nairobi. I checked back copies of the East African Standard and the Daily Nation during the period when Hazen would have passed through Kenya. I found a report of a Land Cruiser full of tourists who had discovered hyenas and vultures on a kill about half a mile off the main Nairobi-Mombasa highway near the turn-off to Mzima Springs. Only it turned out not to be a kill. It was human body almost completely devoured, the body of a white woman.
I did not tell Bruce about the report, but I did make inquiries with the police.
They mentioned a curiosity of the case: no women’s garments had ever been found. The body had proved impossible to identify. They had buried the little of it that remained.