Sequel to the award-winning Dark Places.
Paul Wood was just a tourist in Sarajevo. Then an unexpected encounter made him a desperate woman's only hope of escape. Now, to get her to safety, he must find a way through the minefield of warlords, criminals, and peacekeepers that is postwar Bosnia.
Pursued by brutal gangsters, unable to leave the country legally, Paul agrees to do a job for a shadowy group of human traffickers, in exchange for safe passage. The smugglers seem friendly. The job seems harmless. But when he discovers the secrets seething beneath, the repercussions will propel him on a perilous journey around the world - from a warlord's compound in lawless Albania, through the jungles of Latin America, and towards an explosive confrontation at the extraordinary Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert...
The taxi arrived at exactly the wrong time. Ten seconds earlier and I wouldn't have seen the child at all. Ten seconds later and it would have been too late to help him. I would have moved on, uninvolved, and I cannot even imagine how different the rest of my life might have been.
When I encountered the little boy it was two in the morning and I was somewhere in the back streets of Sarajevo, completely lost, muttering incoherent fury at my absent girlfriend. My soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend. I was just drunk enough to admit that to myself for the first time. We were finished, Talena and I, our two-year relationship had frayed beyond repair. This vacation, our last desperate throw of the dice, had come up snake eyes. She would dump me as soon as we got back to California, and I couldn't blame her. I would have dumped me a long time ago.
We had been at a party, a reunion hosted by friends Talena had not seen in eight years, held in a lushly decorated apartment, elegant furniture and tasteful paintings and acid jazz on the turntables, American cigarettes and French wine, lean and beautiful people, everyone but Talena and I decked out in designer clothes. Only the groaning plumbing and low cracked ceiling hinted that we were in a dazed and shambling nation still trying to recover from the most vicious civil war in all the bloody history of Europe. Talena's friends were very good at keeping up the fa?ade of urbane cosmopolitan high life. For some of them I think it was all they had.
Everyone but me was Bosnian, though many spoke good English, and I knew no one but Talena, who was absorbed with her long-distant friends. I felt excluded. I drank too much slivovitz, Bosnia's lethal plum brandy. I told Talena I was leaving. She accused me of avoiding her friends. It had escalated into a bitter fight, as our disagreements so often did these days, and I had turned and stormed into the night, fuelled by slivovitz and wounded rage.
Losing myself on the steep slopes of southern Sarajevo shouldn't have been possible. All I needed to do was to go downhill until I reached the Miljacka River and then follow it upstream. But in my drunken emotional haze I found myself climbing as often as I descended, somehow the winding streets never went in quite the right direction, and every time I caught a glimpse of the few dim lights of downtown they seemed no nearer than before. I was beginning to wonder if I should try to turn back when I turned yet another a corner, saw the family in the pickup, and stopped dead with surprise.
The street was typical suburban Sarajevo. A pair of street lamps shed barely enough light to navigate by, but bright light from an open doorway illuminated the street. A pitted and crumbling road, no sidewalk, barely wide enough for two cars, its edges slowly eaten away by a thousand ravenous generations of grass. Little houses of five or six rooms were arrayed on either side, their walls, like the street itself, still pockmarked with bullet scars from the eight-years-ended war. The plots of land between houses contained lawns and vegetable gardens, but no trees; the war had swallowed almost all the trees within a mile of Sarajevo, cut down and burnt for warmth. There was a pervasive air of neglect and decay - peeling paint, a plank fallen from a wooden fence, a cracked window, gardens that were mostly weed, little clumps of debris - that the few new or brightly painted houses could not dispel.
A beat-up white Mitsubishi pickup was parked in front of the lit doorway. In the bed of the pickup a dark-skinned family sat atop a ragged collection of bags and bundles. They were so out of place they startled me out of my self-righteous reverie and nearly into sobriety. Other than a few NATO troops they were the only nonwhite people I had seen in Bosnia. Two adults, and four children ranging in age from high single digits to mid-teens. I guessed they were South Asian, probably Tamil, judging by their features and the darkness of their skin.
Three young white men emerged from the house, all sporting the Menacing Gangsta look, black clothes, shaved heads, tattoos, alpha-male attitude. They approached the pickup, obviously intending to get in and drive away, and the dark-skinned parents, alarmed, started objecting loudly in a strange and sonorous language. The white men hesitated and looked at one another. The driver replied in annoyed Serbo-Croatian. After a brief, confused pause, both groups started speaking at once. It quickly became apparent that neither side understood a word the other was saying.
I didn't know either language, but I understood that the white men insisted on driving off, while the Tamils passionately wanted to stay. The dispute was serious, and exacerbated by the mutual miscommunication, and as I watched the volume and emotion escalated rapidly until both sides were shouting. Everyone was much too engrossed in their argument to notice me.
It took only a minute for matters to come to a boil. One of the white men withdrew keys from his pocket and started towards the driver's seat. The adult Tamils leapt to their feet, howling with anger and dismay, obviously about to step down from the pickup and take their children with them.
Then another white man, short and thickly muscled, drew a gun, a big all-metal handgun that gleamed dully in the light, and the cacophony of angry voices went quiet like somebody had pulled a plug.
The third white man, skinny and tall, followed his companion's lead and drew another, smaller, gun. I thought from his body language that he was only reluctantly following along. The hulking eager gunslinger aimed his weapon at the Tamil father and barked an order, pointing to the bed of the pickup with his free hand. The father looked at his wife and children. A moment passed where I wasn't sure which way things would go. Then, slowly, unwillingly, the father sank back down to a seated position, and his wife did the same.
The two armed men got into the back of the pickup as well, their guns still out, and motioned and shouted at the Tamils until the family was lined up against the front of the pickup, their backs to the cab, while the two white men sat in the back corners. The engine wheezed and groaned and started. The father started shaking uncontrollably. The mother began to speak breathlessly to the white men, pleading with them desperately, waving her hands weakly, tears leaking out of her eyes, her voice so drained of strength that I could not hear it. Their children stared dully at me. I think the eldest, a teenage girl, may have registered my presence.
The woman's pleas met with no response. The light in the house went out. After a moment the door shut, and a fourth figure left the house and entered the passenger side of the cab. In the newly dim light I couldn't tell if this new arrival was a man or a woman, black or white. The side door closed and the pickup started forward. I could hear the father weeping over the engine's growl as they moved away.
Now that the house light was out I saw that the street went straight downhill, towards the Miljacka. I shook my head and slowly started to walk, beginning to actually think about what I had seen. Until then I had reacted like it was entertainment, unscheduled street theatre. I had felt no fear when the guns came out. I suppose too much slivovitz had something to do with that, but even sober I think I would have stayed calm. I was so much and so obviously not a part of whatever happened on and around that Mitsubishi pickup that I couldn't imagine actually being threatened. The setting and the people involved were too foreign, too apart from my life, to impinge on my existence in any way.
I developed a vague idea of what had happened. I knew that Bosnia, still a basically wild and lawless country beneath the rigid order imposed by NATO's peacekeepers, was a nexus for people smuggling. That had to be why that family was here, there was no other conceivable reason. They were trying to get themselves into Europe, make a better life for themselves than what they had had in Sri Lanka or wherever. This house was a transfer station on the way. And for some reason the Tamil family really, really hadn't wanted to leave it yet. As I walked I vaguely wished them the best, hoped they weren't being taken someplace unspeakably awful, and idly wondered why they had so desperately wanted to stay. I was already categorizing the incident as a minor anecdote, something to recount to Talena tomorrow, nothing that had anything to do with me, when I saw the little boy.
He was maybe five years old, wearing ragged blue shorts and little sneakers with holes in them and, oddly, a torn and too-big Tupac Shakur T-shirt. His hair was dirty and unruly, his skin so dark he looked almost African or Aboriginal. He looked around, up and down the street, and then at me, very confused, his mouth open.
I put it all together. The family's other child. He had wandered off or gotten lost or decided to play hide-and-seek just as the Bosnian refugee-smuggling gangsters had come to take them somewhere else. And now the family, unable to make their loss understood, had been dragged off at gunpoint, to who knows where, without their youngest son.
The lights and sound of the pickup dwindled in the distance.
The little boy and I stared at each other.
My instinctive, overpowering, primal reaction was this: don't get involved.