As he drove down the logging road toward the camp, Hugh Sanderson thought about the woman he’d just seen up in the blasted-out trough that served as a mountain pass. The vision of an obvious foreigner loping along, covered in mud, had been a strange welcome back to one of his least favorite countries in the whole world.
Nine days earlier, Hugh had been waiting at a taxi stand outside Grand Turk airport in the Caribbean when big brother William called his cell phone to talk about relief trucks and public relations. William wanted Hugh to return to Equateur for a photo shoot with the relief trucks at the beleaguered logging camp. “Get your picture taken with your sleeves rolled up. Act like you’re supervising when they pass out the food and pills.”
William was the chairman of Sanderson Tropical Timber. The company wasn’t really a family business anymore, but William and a few loyal friends still held a controlling share, and the family name remained.
Little brother Hugh had been kept on board as vice president in charge of keeping the logging rights coming in the African theater of operations. He had an office in a colonial-era mansion outside of Prospérité, but lately his work had kept him traveling a lot, mostly in the First World. For the past eighteen months, Hugh’s camera-friendly, cheerful face – vaguely resembling Sting, but with the fleshy cheeks of young Luke Skywalker – had been the company’s principal PR resource while it strove to build an eco-friendly image.
“Drive out to a logging camp? Again?” Hugh had said. “C’mon, Will. It’s hardly been two years since my last trip to one of those places. Gimme some time to recover.”
William had laughed. “How about five days from now? That enough time?”
But a crackle of static had caused Hugh to hear “nine days,” and he’d accordingly marked the date in his planner.
“How come we need PR for that relief business?” Hugh had asked. “I thought we were keeping the whole outbreak thing pretty quiet.”
“World Health Organization already has a couple of people at the camp. Aparently someone gave them a call.”
“No way! I had my man at Interior call over to Public Health and explain that this was not for foreign consumption.”
“Maybe someone at Public Health doesn’t like us very much. But it’s a done deal now. The word’s out.”
Hugh had closed his planner and buried his the phone in his luggage, resolving not to answer any more calls while he was in the islands.
After arriving back in Equateur last night, he’d scarcely glanced at the memos in his inbox, and still had no idea that the date for the PR photo shoot had already passed. The only message he recalled now was about a woman who had apparently forged his signature on a letter, then tried to use it to gain access to one of the camps. If that call had come from the very camp he was headed for now, then it could have been her he’d just seen up there. In spite of the layer of mud that covered most of her body, and the filthy, mud-drenched hat that sagged over her head, he’d seen some light skin in places. Clearly not a local.
If yesterday’s gate crasher was American, as she had claimed, her appearance at the camp was probably eco-driven. Sanderson Tropical Timber was the only U.S.-owned logging company for a thousand-mile radius. A couple of years back, the greenies in the States had ganged up and tried to give Sanderson the same kind of lumps that the French and Italian companies in Africa were getting. They’d nearly succeeded.
To thwart that attempt, the company had thrown major resources into the green-image campaign, and Hugh had been cornered into being its front man. His tall, athletic stature and oddly handsome features had put an attractive face on the company. He had played the role wonderfully, but had also hated every minute. Hated it so much that he’d begun spending hours a day trying to imagine some way to leave his brother’s company without going broke.
The embarrassing fact was that he didn’t have much in the way of assets. He had never been good at holding onto his salary and dividends, and his debts were mounting perilously. He was beginning to worry about that situation for the first time in his life. If he could just round up a few million more – not even ten million – he could leave Sanderson Tropical Timber and never look back. He was forty years old, and it was time to free himself.
In the meantime, if Mud Woman up there on the pass had come up with anything that could stink up the company’s image all over again, William and the rest of the crowd in New York would look to Hugh for damage control. They might even call for a mini repeat of the first phase of the green campaign.
That was a hellish thought. It would mean continuing to pose as the kind of person he’d despised since college, people with a religious devotion to crickets and buzzards and endangered swamp grass. People who dressed up in green makeup and leafy costumes for demonstrations, who held phony pagan ceremonies on campus or in front of downtown office buildings, pretending they were Iroquois Indians, or Druid priests or whatever daffy shit caught their fancy at the moment. It reminded him of a nightmare he’d had the previous year. In the dream, his father had been alive again, forcing him to marry the queen of the tree-worshipers in some kind of New Age ceremony on the steps of a Mayan pyramid.
* * *
It was late afternoon when he arrived in the logging camp. Like the previous day’s visitor, he correctly guessed that the trailer at the edge of the clearing was where he could find someone in charge. Next to the trailer he saw a black Land Rover, identical to his own, and figured it must belong to the photographer.
But there were no tents, nothing that looked like a makeshift clinic or a place where food might be distributed.
The foreman emerged from the trailer and introduced himself, and Hugh asked, “Where is everybody?”
“The relief trucks. The photographer. Why isn’t anyone prepared for the pictures?”
So the foreman explained, and Hugh started to blow up at him, but only got as far as, “Jesus Christ–” before checking himself. He might need this man’s cooperation.
Trying to cool off, he slogged off through the mud, following a row of trucks parked in a line along the edge of the clearing. His face was hot. He felt lousy from the couple of beers he’d knocked off during the drive, and a headache was coming on. He needed another vacation.
Tomorrow it was back to the load of whatever monotonous crap was in his inbox, including a lot of whining from William about how Hugh had screwed up and missed the photo shoot, as though it mattered. The timber-journal people had probably gone ahead and pasted his face onto a logging scene from a file photo, as they should have planned to do in the first place.
There was nothing to do now except turn around and head back. The return trip was a miserable prospect, but he wasn’t staying here, late as it was. No way. This place stank even worse than the one other camp he’d visited.
He wanted to go home, have a couple of drinks and some food, and sleep. More than that, he wanted to close his eyes right now and be home when he opened them. He walked back to the trailer.
“There’s one thing I need from you,” he told the foreman. “A driver. A good one who won’t wreck my jeep. I’ll pay him fifty U.S. dollars, and another fifty goes to you for getting him. I want to sleep on the way back.”
Then he remembered Mud Woman. “Are you the one who called last night?” he asked “About an American woman who came to the camp?”
Hugh felt himself smile. “I think I just saw her on the road about an hour ago.”
“She’s alive?” The foreman actually sounded pleased.
“She was dragging pretty badly.”