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Excerpt from

The Constant Gardener  


- John Le Carre


Thriller





Justin was standing with his elegant back to him. His neatly groomed head was turned to the wall and he was studying a graph, one of several ranged around the room, each with a caption of initials in black, each marked in steps of different colors, rising or descending. The particular graph that held his attention was titled RELATIVE INFRASTRUCTURES 2005-2010 and purported, so far as Woodrow could make out from where he stood, to predict the future prosperity of African nations. On the windowsill at Justin's left stood a line of potted plants that he was nurturing. Woodrow identified jasmine and balsam, but only because Justin had made gifts of these to Gloria.


"Hi, Sandy," Justin said, drawing out the "Hi."


"Hi."


"I gather we're not assembling this morning. Trouble at mill?"


The famous golden voice, thought Woodrow, noticing every detail as if it were fresh to him. Tarnished by time but guaranteed to enchant, as long as you prefer tone to substance. Why am I despising you when I'm about to change your life? From now until the end of your days there will be before this moment and after it and they will be separate ages for you, just as they are for me. Why don't you take your bloody jacket off? You must be the only fellow left in the Service who goes to his tailor for tropical suits. Then he remembered he was still wearing his own jacket.


"And you're all well, I trust?" Justin asked in that same studied drawl of his. "Gloria not languishing in this awful heat? The boys both flourishing and so forth?"


"We're fine." A delay, of Woodrow's manufacture. "And Tessa is up-country," he suggested. He was giving her one last chance to prove it was all a dreadful mistake.


Justin at once became lavish, which was what he did when Tessa's name was spoken at him. "Yes, indeed. Her relief work is absolutely nonstop these days." He was hugging a United Nations tome to himself, all of three inches thick. Stooping again, he laid it to rest on a side table. "She'll have saved all Africa by the time we leave, at this rate."


"What's she gone up-country for, actually?" -- still clutching at straws -- "I thought she was doing stuff down here in Nairobi. In the slums. Kibera, wasn't it?"


"Indeed she is," said Justin proudly. "Night and day, the poor girl. Everything from wiping babies' bottoms to acquainting paralegals with their civil rights, I'm told. Most of her clients are women, of course, which appeals to her. Even if it doesn't appeal quite so much to their menfolk." His wistful smile, the one that says if only. "Property rights, divorce, physical abuse, marital rape, female circumcision, safe sex. The whole menu, every day. You can see why their husbands get a little touchy, can't you? I would, if I was a marital rapist."


"So what's she doing up-country?" Woodrow persisted.


"Oh, goodness knows. Ask Doc Arnold," Justin threw out, too casually. "Arnold's her guide and philosopher up there."


This is how he plays it, Woodrow remembered. The cover story that covers all three of them. Arnold Bluhm, M.D., her moral tutor, black knight, protector in the aid jungle. Anything but her tolerated lover. "Up where exactly?" he asked.


"Loki. Lokichoggio." Justin had propped himself on the edge of his desk, perhaps in unconscious imitation of Woodrow's careless posture at the door. "The World Food Program people are running a gender awareness workshop up there, can you imagine? They fly unaware village women down from South Sudan, give them the crash course in John Stuart Mill and fly them back aware. Arnold and Tessa went up to watch the fun, lucky dogs."


"Where is she now?"


Justin appeared not to like this question. Perhaps it was the moment when he realized there was purpose to Woodrow's small talk. Or perhaps -- thought Woodrow -- he didn't take kindly to being pinned down on the subject of Tessa, when he couldn't pin her down himself.


"On her way back, one assumes. Why?"


"With Arnold?"


"Presumably. He wouldn't just leave her there."


"Has she been in touch?"


"With me? From Loki? How could she be? They haven't got telephones."


"I thought she might have used one of the aid agencies' radio links. Isn't that what other people do?"


"Tessa's not other people," Justin retorted, as a frown collected on his brow. "She has strong principles. Such as not spending donors' money unnecessarily. What's going on, Sandy?"


Justin scowling now, shoving himself away from the desk and placing himself upright at the center of the room with his hands behind his back. And Woodrow, observing his studiously handsome face and graying black hair in the sunlight, remembered Tessa's hair, the same color exactly, but without the age in it, or the restraint. He remembered the first time he saw them together, Tessa and Justin, our glamorous newly wedded arrivals, honored guests of the High Commissioner's welcome-to-Nairobi party. And how, as he had stepped forward to greet them, he had imagined to himself that they were father and daughter, and he was the suitor for her hand.


"So you haven't heard from her since when?" he asked.


"Tuesday when I drove them to the airport. What is this, Sandy? If Arnold's with her she'll be all right. She'll do what she's told."


"Do you think they could have gone on to Lake Turkana, she and Bluhm -- Arnold?"


"If they had transport and felt like it, why not? Tessa loves the wild places, she has a great regard for Richard Leakey, both as an archaeologist and as a decent white African. Surely Leakey's got a clinic up there? Arnold probably had work to do and took her along. Sandy, what is this?" he repeated indignantly.


Delivering the death blow, Woodrow had no option but to observe the effect of his words on Justin's features. And he saw how the last remnants of Justin's departed youth drained out of him as, like some kind of sea creature, his pretty face closed and hardened, leaving only seeming coral.


"We're getting reports of a white woman and an African driver found on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana. Killed," Woodrow began deliberately, avoiding the word "murdered." "The car and driver were hired from the Oasis Lodge. The lodge's owner claims to have identified the woman as Tessa. He says she and Bluhm spent the night at the Oasis before setting out for the Richard Leakey site. Bluhm's still missing. They've found her necklace. The one she always wore."


How do I know that? Why, in God's name, do I choose this moment to parade my intimate knowledge of her necklace?


Woodrow was still watching Justin. The coward in him wanted to look away, but to the soldier's son it would have been like sentencing a man to be executed and not showing up for his hanging. He watched Justin's eyes widen in injured disappointment, as if he had been hit from behind by a friend, then dwindle to almost nothing, as if the same friend had knocked him unconscious. He watched his nicely carved lips part in a spasm of physical pain, then gather themselves into a muscular line of exclusion turned pale by pressure.


"Good of you to tell me, Sandy. Can't have been pleasant. Does Porter know?" Porter was the High Commissioner's improbable first name.


"Mildren's chasing him up. They found a Mephisto boot. Size seven. Does that figure?"


Justin was having difficulty coordinating. First he had to wait for the sound of Woodrow's words to catch up with him. Then he hastened to respond in brisk, hard-won sentences. "There's this shop off Piccadilly. She bought three pairs last home leave. Never seen her splash out like that. Not a spender as a rule. Never had to think about money. So she didn't. Dress at the Salvation Army shop. Given half a chance."


"And some kind of safari tunic. Blue."


"Oh she absolutely hated the beastly things," Justin retorted, as the power of speech came back to him in a flood. "She said if I ever caught her wearing one of those khaki contraptions with pockets on the thighs I should burn it or give it to Mustafa."


Mustafa, her houseboy, Woodrow remembered. "The police say blue."


"She detested blue" -- now apparently on the verge of losing his temper -- "she absolutely loathed anything paramilitary." The past tense already, Woodrow noticed. "She once owned a green bush jacket, I grant you. She bought it at Farbelow's in Stanley Street. I took her, don't know why. Probably made me. Hated shopping. She put it on and promptly had a fit. 'Look at me,' she said. 'I'm General Patton in drag.' No, sport, I told her, you're not General Patton. You're a very pretty girl wearing a bloody awful green jacket."


He began packing up his desk. Precisely. Packing to leave. Opening and shutting drawers. Putting his file trays into his steel cupboard and locking it. Absently smoothing back his hair between moves, a tic that Woodrow had always found particularly irritating in him. Gingerly switching off his hated computer terminal -- stabbing at it with his forefinger as if he was afraid it would bite him. Rumor had it that he got Ghita Pearson to switch it on for him every morning. Woodrow watched him give the room a last sightless look round. End of term. End of life. Please leave this space tidy for the next occupant. At the door Justin turned and glanced back at the plants on the window sill, perhaps wondering whether he should bring them with him, or at least give instructions for their maintenance, but he did neither.






About the book:


The novel opens in northern Kenya with the gruesome murder of Tessa Quayle--young, beautiful, and dearly beloved to husband Justin. When Justin sets out on a personal odyssey to uncover the mystery of her death, what he finds could make him not only a suspect among his own colleagues, but a target for Tessa's killers as well.


One of the most compelling and elegant storytellers of our time, John le Carre portrays the dark side of unbridled capitalism with astonishing clarity, as only he can.





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