Issue 173, Spring 2005
Jill arrived at the Royal Sierra every evening around six, took a stool in front of the TV at the open-air bar, and passed the time watching the news and quietly drinking herself stupid while Starkey did deals out on the terrace. The Royal sat on one of the peninsula’s remotest points, a cheap concrete shell with a nice beach: a crumbling veneer of tropical luxury. No one touched the pool for fear of cholera; weeds and debris were overtaking the neglected grounds, and mold billowed over the walls in complex swirls like countries on a sprawling fantasy map. The Royal was, however, possibly the safest place in Freetown, and certainly, to Jill’s mind, the most degenerate, the hotel of choice for the louche community of foreigners who viewed Sierra Leone as an opportunity.
A clutch of coal-black whores sat on a couch near the bar, boldly eyeing every white man who walked through the door, while a few more girls were trolling the tables on the terrace. Last year the front line had been a few miles south, and though the rebels had been driven out months ago, shooting could still be heard at night, the UN skirmishing with the holdouts or freelance gangs. In the mornings bodies occasionally washed up on the Royal’s postcard-perfect beach.
“Another rum cola, miss?” asked the barman.
The news segued from the American presidential campaign into a story on the wealth effect, the triumphant affluence that the U.S. was enjoying thanks to its high-tech genius and the long bull market. Jill felt discouraged, if only briefly; she’d let the greatest money-grab in history pass her by, though even if she’d been living in the States all this time she would have done her best to ignore it. She had a congenital distrust of money and luxury, her militant asceticism further aggravated by a very low tolerance for boredom.
How did you get the money from there to here? First of all you had to care, and caring, as far as Jill could see, was an accident of birth, just as her own predilection was an accident, a random number that came up. Her father cared about money, very much so; she’d grown up more than comfortably on Connecticut’s Gold Coast.
She had a brother at Salomon Brothers who apparently cared, and an entrepreneur sister who was getting rich off the software she cooked up in a Tribeca loft. So much on the one hand, so little on the other; often she wondered what kept the world from going up in flames. Do you think they’d cut my funding if white people were dropping dead? She’d written that to her mother, who’d written back: Come home. We have hungry people in America too.
She turned on her stool and caught Starkey’s eye; he was deep in conversation with a glistening black man, but not so deep that he couldn’t manage a little irony for Jill, a smug shadowing around the corners of his lips. They were talking diamonds, probably, though it could be anything, palm oil, bauxite, shrimp, titanium, rubber—for a country with a ruined economy there were an awful lot of deals around, and Starkey, who’d lived here on and off for years, seemed to have a paying role in most of them. And he made it look so easy, which was a revelation for Jill, who’d always viewed the getting of money in terms of hassle and guilt. “Don’t work hard, work smart,” he told her in his plummy English voice, and that was part of it, the mellow, cheerful voice that made the things he said sound so reasonable. He gave people hope, he made them feel close to something real, this in a place that kept threatening to slide past zero.
Presently he excused himself and came over to the bar.
Physically he wasn’t much, a short, thick-legged man with a blunt, fleshy face and thinning hair dyed an improbable midnight black.
He had an embarrassing taste for gold accessories, and most days dressed for business in shorts, espadrilles, Hugo Boss golf shirts— resort-wear, here in one of the world’s genuine hellholes. Shed of his clothes he was worse than she’d expected, his body pale and soft as a mitt of dough, shot through with a vestigial stringiness.
What had surprised Jill as much as anything was how little all of this mattered to her.
He brushed her hand, a gesture that managed to be both casual and intimate. “So what’s the news at home, love?”
This was a running tease, his insistence on seeing her devotion to the news as a bright girl’s interest in current events. They both understood she watched mainly for the sedative effect.
“Oh, they’re still getting rich,” she said. “And wondering which Third World country they need to bomb next. Being an American these days, that’s sort of like being a walking joke, right?”
“Come now, no one holds you responsible. Have you had anything to eat?”
She shook her head.
“Then join us. Come have dinner and forget the news.”
“I would,” she said in mock distress, “but I never know what to say to your friends.”
“Nonsense, you’re perfectly charming. All of my friends adore you.”
Adored, sure; white women of any description were in short supply. “Who’s that black man you were talking to?”
Starkey accepted a fresh drink from the barman; his hands around the glass were like plump beef filets. “That’s Kamora. The diamond officer at the heliport.”
“I knew I’d seen him somewhere. So he’s a friend too?”
“After a fashion. He dropped by with a bit of news.”
“Good or bad?”
“Well, you’ll probably be pleased. Though it’s not so nice for me.” Starkey cut her a look; in the dim light of the bar his eyes were wine-dark. “They arrested a man in Antwerp today, someone from Ferrin’s outfit. Trying to pass a batch of Salone diamonds, apparently.”
“I am not.” Starkey’s face was grave. “Rather a shock, isn’t it?
Everyone knew the ban was good PR, but nobody thought they’d actually try to enforce the damn thing.”
For months pressure had been building for an industry embargo on unregistered diamonds out of Sierra Leone, the “blood diamonds" that kept the rebels in operation. Years ago the RUF had charged out of Liberia pushing some vague Marxist rhetoric about liberating the country, their rationale for an agenda that mainly involved robbing, raping, and murdering every peasant they could get their hands on. They kept their columns well stocked with ganja and coke, and it was the rebel foot soldiers—most of them teenagers, some no older than ten or twelve—who’d filled the DP camps with amputees. “Chopping,” they called it, their signature practice of hacking off one or both of their victims’ arms. “Short sleeves or long?” they were said to taunt as they raised their machetes.
“Go on, Jill. I give you permission to gloat.”
Jill was staring stone faced at the TV. To feel conflicted at this point was impossible—there was no conflict, not when she thought about the suffering she’d seen.
“I’m not gloating. I just don’t see how they can do it.”
“They can’t,” Starkey agreed, “but they could definitely slow it down. And trade’s been sketchy enough as it is the last few months.”
Jill sipped her rum. “So what are you going to do?”
“Oh,” he said easily, “no sense running off in a panic. I’ll stick around a bit, see if they’re serious.”
“And if they are?”
He consulted his drink. “Suppose I’d have to follow the trade in that case. Mono or Guinea, that’s where you’ll see the stones turning up.”
“Gee, Starkey, you’d actually cut out on us? Think of all the great fun you’d miss around here.”
His laugh was phlegmy, coarse, as raw as the blender at the end of the bar pulverizing ice. “Well yes, I really should think about that. All the fun one might miss in dear old Salone.” He turned fond as his laughter trailed off, his eyes tender, fixed on hers as if he meant to coax out some sort of therapeutic truth. Jill turned back to the TV—she felt, rather than heard, the faint break of his sigh, his feathery chuckle as he leaned in close.
“Do you know how good you look right now? You’re a gift, Jill, that’s what you are to me. You’re just amazing, love.”
She felt warm, slack; her eyes went slightly out of focus. Was this what it felt like to be loved? Before Starkey she’d never let anyone talk to her this way, and lately she had trouble remembering why.