The warm water sloshed around Arnaud’s thin black sock and into his designer shoe. A minor wave of nausea passed over him as he stepped into the ankle-deep slurry with his other foot. Even breathing through his mouth the foulness was palpable, almost visible. He released his grip on the ladder and started down the barely lit tunnel.
Above him the staccato sounds of gunfire continued unabated. All the masonry between Arnaud and the battle above muffled things; it gave the impression of dueling jackhammers working on a particularly busy construction site. A small part of him was proud that his private security were still putting up a fight. Self preservation was a fine motivator; they could expect no mercy if they surrendered. Still, they were real professionals.
How the attackers had obtained automatic weapons was a mystery. Just one more reason Arnaud was happy he was leaving the country. First the government had allowed the riots to go on for weeks—practically at the front door of his compound—and now this new spasm of violence. No doubt the looters would soon be referring to it as a revolution.
As he walked, the boxy case in his left hand exerted a surprising weight, feeling heavier than its twenty-five pounds. He was glad he had used a rope to lower it down. What he hadn’t taken into account was how sweaty his palm would get. That made it necessary to grip the handle tighter. His fingers were already starting to ache.
After thirty meters the sound of gunfire had faded to nothing. Now all Arnaud heard was his own feet slopping through the sewage. This was a perfect metaphor for his time in this country. He stopped to catch his breath.
That’s when he heard the unmistakable sound of another foot splashing down. Whoever it was had stopped almost as soon as he had, but not quick enough. Arnaud peered down the nearest side branch, wishing there was more than a single light every fifteen meters. He couldn’t see anything.
He patted his ruined suit jacket with his unencumbered hand; the reassuring shape of the revolver in the outer pocket gave him courage to continue.
Arnaud made satisfying progress for another minute before he heard the snatch of laughter from behind. Something about its high pitch brought a wave of familiarity. Down here it was an ominous new development either way. He stumbled to a halt on the uneven stones and listened intently. Trickling water. Endless dripping. His own heavy breaths. Nothing else.
Arnaud gripped the handle of the cumbersome case so tightly his palm began throbbing. He fished for the snub-nosed weapon with his right hand. Missed getting into the pocket a few times because the flap covering it was very stiff—probably not really intended to be used. Finally he pulled the gun out and clutched it awkwardly. Had he always had such sweaty palms?
He started moving as quickly as he dared, but this section was in poor repair. Each step was preceded by a probing shoe to ensure steady footing.
“Se montrer clément, monsieur?”
Arnaud stumbled and almost fell. Now he heard both his own breathing and the pronounced thud of his heart against his ribs.
It couldn’t be one of them.
They had a habit of vanishing whenever he turned the dogs loose through the side gate, but surely not into the sewers! Not even those parasitic dregs would be able to stand the foulness down here.
The laughter came again, echoing off the curved walls like gentle waves.
What if it was just one? More desperate than the rest. Crazy. Arnaud swallowed, and the accumulated filth at the back of his throat seemed to go down like a trapped morsel of food. He gagged even as his mind raced.
How many ladders had he passed? Three—no, four. Two to go and he would be underneath the house. A fresh change of clothes and the perfect escape beckoned him onward. The gun would keep him safe from any starving wretch with an ember of courage.
Arnaud had quietly purchased the home months ago. Just after the beginning of the unrest. The early summer sun had seemed to fuel the protests, just like it excited the stink rising from the garbage-strewn streets. It was a wise move, and he congratulated himself for making it. The building was only a few blocks from his real residence; of course it had seemed closer above ground.
Arnaud pictured it in his mind as he walked: a mid-sized residence filled with generic furniture. The trappings were mere camouflage, but Arnaud prided himself on details. The home’s real purpose was what it concealed. In the attached garage, an SUV with a rebuilt engine and a full tank of gas. The tinted windows spoiled the disguise a bit, but Arnaud supposed his narrow visage and perfectly coifed mop of black hair were well-known around the neighborhood.
He stopped again by the next ladder. There was only one to go, but the fast pace over uneven ground was exhausting and he was struggling to catch his breath.
“Se montrer clément, monsieur?” The thickly accented French seemed to come from no direction.
Arnaud had never heard one of them pronounce a single word correctly. They always butchered his language. It made the rote plea for mercy seem almost sarcastic. In other circumstances he would have been enraged. Perhaps asked one of his security team to cane the ever-present knuckles gripping the gates.
Down here his response was to raise the revolver and pull back the hammer with a trembling thumb. The distinct click was a warning to anyone nearby.
“Se montrer clément?”
He fired a shot down the tunnel. A mistake. The noise was like a physical blow, boxing his ears. He gasped in surprise and slumped against an encrusted wall. For the next several seconds, Arnaud’s world was reduced to nothing but ringing. That was his undoing.
He finally heard the splashing behind him and started to turn, but it was too late. His every fiber seemed to explode in agony as the boy—no more than fourteen—swung a rebar rod into his forearm.
Arnaud staggered back and the boy followed. The rebar came down again. Arnaud raised his arm to block it. The blow landed almost exactly on the original contact spot. Even through the excruciating pain a tiny corner of his mind dispassionately noted the slipping revolver. He watched, helpless, as it spun around his index finger once, and then slipped off and tumbled into the muck.
The boy raised his ersatz weapon for a final strike.
With all the energy he had left, Arnaud kicked out. His foot impacted the boy’s emaciated midsection with enough force that he felt the shock at the base of his spine. The beggar child collapsed with a barely audible grunt and rolled into the sewage, motionless.
To his own surprise, it was only a few seconds before Arnaud was up and moving. The flood of adrenalin kept the pain in his arm from incapacitating him, but every heartbeat sent a new wave of torture along the right half of his body. The final ladder was just ahead, it’s placement and unblemished metal testament to its custom creation. He staggered towards it, a part of him noting with satisfaction that his grip on the case had never wavered.
It was difficult climbing with only one free hand. The task seemed to stretch on endlessly. He measured progress one laborious rung at a time until, after an eternity, he left the main tunnel and found himself in a tube of new cement. One more rung, then another, and he was underneath the custom metal plate with it’s tiny security lock consisting of five plain buttons. He leaned back against the cement and keyed in the code.
Arnaud’s gasp of surprise could have been the sound of a man being kicked. His heart briefly attempted to escape through his ribcage. He coughed in the unbearable air and concentrated on breathing.
“It’s dim. I’m hurt,” he muttered, “that’s all. That’s all.” He continued the impromptu mantra under his breath as he slowly retyped the code. “That’s all.”
He pressed the last button. There was a loud click. The panel above him popped up ever so slightly. Even with all that had transpired, the sight brought a smile to Arnaud’s face. He heaved open the square trap door and pulled himself waist high into his fake home’s fake living room.
It was full of children. Boys and girls in rags. Toddlers to adolescents. An orphan host arrayed to meet him.
Here, Arnaud thought, his emotions suddenly drained, here was the place. This is where they vanished to when he let the dogs loose. His own property. His escape. Arnaud’s top-level security measures had been matched against the ingenuity of the desperate and been overwhelmed.
He gazed at the silent faces. Outside he could hear the roaring fires rampaging throughout the neighborhood. Reddish light seeped in from the windows and flickered across their eyes and expressions. It was always the same. A kind of weary fatalism. Whether the wearer was tapping on the windows of his limousine or standing outside the gates with outstretched hands or following him through the sewers or staring at him in his violated property it never changed.
“I have money,” he said. His tongue had trouble forming the syllables in the best of circumstances—he only used the native language when there was no alternative.
“Much money. American money. Million American money. Understand?” Arnaud coughed. The stench wafting up from below seemed to grow worse. “I hire you. You help me.”
His spent muscles protested in agony as he raised the case up out of the hole. He set it down on the wooden floor with a trembling arm.
“Much money. You help me. Now.”
They just kept staring. All with that same expression.
“You useless little bastards!” He reverted back to French in his anger. “I will see every one of you beaten dead.” They were trash. Always taking, never giving. Filth with no respect for decent people.
Then Arnaud felt a hand. It tugged at the thin black sock around his left ankle before clamping down. Despite the heat, its fingers were cold.
“Se montrer clément, Monsieur,” said the beggar boy below. Then he pulled with all his might.
“Se montrer clément, Monsieur,” said the beggar boy below. Then he pulled with all his might.