Chatter rose from below as women, heads wrapped in colorful scarves and dressed in ankle-length sheaths, passed by with their bundles, and scratching from behind told her that the climber had pulled himself over the ledge, that he’d stood and dusted hands off on his pants, that he made a slow, deliberate stride in her direction.
Vanessa Michael Munroe didn’t turn to look.
Didn’t acknowledge him when he stopped beside her to peer down at the street, ignored him when he sat a few feet away and with a satisfied sigh dropped his legs over the side, leaned back and surveyed the area.
Most of what surrounded them was single- and double-storied buildings, mostly residential and strung along in both directions, some nestled within dirt-strewn walled compounds, and some not.
“It’s a good view,” Leo said. “Better breeze up top. Not so much smell.”
She didn’t answer; continued to ignore his presence. He could have spared himself the effort of the climb—spared her the effort of small talk—if he’d simply waited until she’d returned. Instead, he’d come for her, which was his way of marking territory: a reminder that he was familiar with her routines and could invade them if he cared to. She allowed him to believe it, just as she allowed him to believe that he knew who she was, where she’d come from, and why she was here.
They sat in silence and, in spite of the lowering sun and the evening breeze that had begun to cool the air, sweat still trickled down her back and neck, soaking her shirt. The heat didn’t bother her the way it would him, so she let him have the discomfort and the lengthening quiet until finally he broke and said, “We board at two this morning.”
His English was thickly accented and that he chose to use her language instead of the French with which they typically conversed, was more of his pointless point-making.
She said, “I’m still not interested.”
He nodded again, as if contemplating her defiance, and then stood, and with his toes poking over the edge, studied the ground. Wiped his hands on his pants again and took a step back. “It’s for you to decide,” he said. “But if you don’t board, I want you out by tonight.”
Chin still to her knee, focus out over the dirt alleys, rooftops, and laundry flapping on many lines, she said, “Why? If I come, I’ll just get in your way.”
“That may be,” he said. “But still you come. Or you leave.”
She glanced up, the first she’d deigned to look at him. “And then who’ll be your fixer?”
He took another step away from the ledge. “I managed before you got here,” he said, and began to walk away. “I’ll manage after you’re gone.”
She straightened and her gaze followed him. “It’s not you who has to manage without me,” she said. “You shouldn’t be the one to make the decision.”
Leo paused but kept his back toward her.
She studied his posture, counted seconds, readied to slide out of the way if in response to her provocation he moved to shove her off the building.
“You’d have been better off making arrangements to board in the afternoon,” she said, “when the khat trucks come into town.”
His hands, which had tightened into fists, loosed a little. He turned toward her, and she watched him just long enough for him to catch her eye, then she shied away in that guilty manner people caught staring often did.
This was part of her persona here, hesitant and non-confrontational. Made it easier for the men to dismiss and underestimate her, kept her beneath the radar, though for how much longer was up for debate. Like the rest of the guys, Leo had lived more life than his forty-something years indicated; he wasn’t stupid. But he was often gone and when around she went out of her way to avoid him to keep from giving him enough access to her that he grew curious.
With her back still to him, and his eyes boring into her, Munroe said, “Who’re you trying to avoid by boarding so early? Ship’s agent?”
“Even if he’s not there, he’ll hear about it. If you go when the khat trucks arrive, every man in the port is going to be focused on getting his fix—no one will pay attention to you.”
“You’ll come, Michael.”
Not a request or a question, an order.
“Maybe,” she said.
Leo turned again and strode toward the portion of roof they’d both climbed over, the part where there was less of an overhang and it was possible to get from ledge to balcony and down to the dividing wall without as much risk of slipping and breaking a neck. Louder, Munroe said, “If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t even get into the port tonight.”
Leo didn’t answer, waved her off and kept walking. He lowered himself over the edge and, at some point on the way down, let out a grunt. Munroe stood. A thud marked his drop from the wall to the ground of the compound next door and so she turned and followed the rooftop edge to the opposite corner where she caught the colors of the port’s shipping containers stacked four and five high.
Somewhere near there the freighter Favorita would soon dock, if she hadn’t already, and Leo expected Munroe to be on it. He forced her to pick between poisons: board the ship as part of his team of armed transit guards, risking her life on the water to defend his client’s ship if attacked by pirates, or leave the crew—and it wasn’t difficult to take a guess as to why. No matter what she chose, he got her out from under his roof and away from his wife.
Munroe crossed the roof to the spot where Leo had gone over. Lowered and dropped from the ledge into the narrow balcony. Through the glass on the door the five-year-old girl peered out and waved, and Munroe waved back. The girl laughed and hid her face and Munroe grinned.
Months of coming up here, of being noticed and smiled at, so many nights of hide-and-seek with sleep, of watching the stars fade under the rising glare of the sun, and not once had any of the apartment occupants spoken to her. She’d learned their routines, sometimes left gifts of nuts and fruits on the balconies when only the children were home. Occasionally handcrafted presents waited for her in exchange, but not today, which was fitting for a good-bye. The girl peered out again, and Munroe smiled, then slipped over the rail and maneuvered into position to drop to the next balcony, perhaps for the final time.
Excerpted from The Catch by Taylor Stevens. Copyright © 2014 by Taylor Stevens. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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