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       Bel Canto, p.4

           Ann Patchett

  “You will put your guns down outside the door,” the voice raged, loud and distorted as if it had bubbled up from the ocean floor. “You will open the door and exit before the hostages, hands on the backs of your heads. Next, the hostages will proceed through the front door. For the purposes of safety, hostages should keep their hands on the top of their heads.”

  When one voice had completed its pitch the bullhorn was handed off to another, who began it all over again with subtle variations of the threats. There were a series of loud clicks and then an artificial blue-white light spilled through the living-room window like cold milk and made everyone squint. At what point had their problems been discovered? Who had called these people in and how was it possible that so many of them had assembled so quickly? Did they wait together in the basement of some police station, wait for a night just like this? Did they practice the things they would say, shouting through bullhorns to no one, making the pitch of their voices go higher and higher. Even the guests knew that no one would put down his guns and walk out the door simply because he was told to do so. Even they understood that every time the demand was issued the chances of it being answered favorably receded. Each of the guests dreamed that he or she was in possession of a secret gun, and if they had such a gun they would certainly never throw it down the front porch steps. After a while they were so tired they forgot to wish that this had never happened, or to wish that they had never come to the party. All they wished was for the men outside to go home, turn off the bullhorns, and let them all have a night’s sleep on the floor. Every now and then there would be a few free moments when no one was speaking, and in that false and temporary quiet a different kind of noise would come forward, tree frogs and locusts and the metallic clicking of guns being loaded and cocked.

  Mr. Hosokawa later claimed he did not close his eyes all night, but Gen heard him snoring sometime after four A.M.. It was a soft, whistling snore like wind coming in beneath a doorjamb, and it gave Gen comfort. There was other snoring in the room as people fell asleep for ten minutes or twenty, but even asleep they remained obedient and stayed flat on their backs. The accompanist had worked his way out of his suit jacket so slowly he never appeared to move at all and he made a little balled-up pillow on which Roxane Coss could lay her head. All night long the muddy boots stepped over them, between them.

  When the guests lay down the night before there had been a great deal of drama, which served as a distraction to what might happen, but by morning fear had coated the inside of every mouth. They had been awake thinking over the alternatives, which did not seem good. The rough brush of beards had sprung up during the night and eye makeup had been smeared from crying. Dinner jackets and dresses were crumpled, shoes were tight. Backs and hips ached from the hard floor and necks were locked straight ahead. Without exception, every last person on the floor needed to use the facilities.

  In addition to suffering what the others suffered, Mr. Hosokawa bore the terrible burden of responsibility. All of these people had come for his birthday. By agreeing to a party under what he knew to be false pretense, he had contributed to the endangerment of every life in the room. Several employees of Nansei had come, including Akira Yamamoto, the director of project development, and Tetsuya Kato, senior vice president. Vice presidents from Sumitomo Bank and the Bank of Japan, Satoshi Ogawa and Yoshiki Aoi, respectively, had also come, despite Mr. Hosokawa’s personal and repeated requests that they not attend. The host country had called them as well, explaining that it was a birthday party for their most valued customer and of course they wouldn’t want to miss a birthday party. The ambassador from Japan had made the call. He was lying on the doormat now in the entry way.

  But the hostage that pained Mr. Hosokawa the most (and even as he felt this he knew it was wrong, to place a higher value on one life over another) was Roxane Coss. She had been brought to this dismal jungle to sing for him. What vanity on his part to think this was an appropriate gift. It was enough to listen to her recordings. It had been more than enough to see her at Covent Garden, the Metropolitan. Why did he think it would be any better if he could stand close enough to smell her perfume? It was not better. Her voice, if he could be very honest, was not flattered by the acoustics in the living room. It made him uncomfortable to notice the supreme athleticism of her mouth, to see so clearly her damp pink tongue when she opened up wide and wider still. The lower teeth were not straight. It had been an honor but nothing that would be worth the harm that could come to her, to all of them. He tried to raise his head just a half an inch to see her. She was almost near him, since he had been standing in the front of the room when she was singing. Her eyes were closed now, though he imagined she was not sleeping. It was not that she was a very beautiful woman, if one could see her objectively, lying on a living-room floor. Each of her features seemed a bit too large for her face, her nose was too long, her mouth was too wide. Her eyes, certainly, were bigger, rounder, than average eyes, but no one could complain about her eyes. They reminded him of the blue of the rindo flowers that grew near Lake Nagano. He smiled to think of that, and wanted to turn and tell his thought to Gen. He looked instead to Roxane Coss, whose face he had tirelessly studied in program notes and CD inserts. Her shoulders were sloping. Her neck, perhaps, could be longer. A longer neck? He cursed himself. What was he thinking? None of it mattered. No one could see her objectively anyway. Even those who saw her for the first time, before she had opened her mouth to sing, found her radiant, as if her talent could not be contained in her voice and so poured like light through her skin. Then all that could be seen was the weight and the gloss of her hair and the pale pink of her cheeks and her beautiful hands. The accompanist caught sight of Mr. Hosokawa’s raised head and Mr. Hosokawa quickly returned it to the floor. The terrorists were beginning to tap some of the guests and motion them to stand and follow. It was easy for Mr. Hosokawa to pretend he had only raised his head to see about that.

  By ten in the morning a certain amount of whispering had begun. It wasn’t so difficult to sneak in a word or two with all the noise that blasted in through the windows and the constant up and down of the guests being led into the hall. That was what had started the whispering. At first they all believed they were to be taken away and shot a handful at a time, probably in the garden behind the house. Victor Fyodorov fingered the package of cigarettes in his jacket pocket and wondered if they would let him smoke for a minute before gunning him down. He could feel the rivulets of sweat combing back his hair. It would almost be worth getting shot if he could have a cigarette now. The room was painfully still as they waited for the report, but when that first group returned, smiling, nodding, they whispered to the ones next to them, “Toilet, bathroom, WC.” The word spread.

  Everyone was led away with one escort: for every guest, a dirt-smeared young terrorist sporting several weapons. Some of the young men merely walked beside the guests, while others held the upper arm with varying degrees of aggression. The boy who came for Roxane Coss took her hand rather than her arm and held it in the manner of sweethearts looking for a deserted stretch of beach. He wasn’t pretty the way the boy who held her hand earlier had been.

  There were those who believed they would be killed, who over and over again saw the movie of themselves being led out the door at night and shot in the back of the head, but Roxane Coss thought no such thing. Maybe there would be a bad outcome for some of the others, but no one was going to shoot a soprano. She was prepared to be nice, to let her hand be held, but when the time was right she would be the one to get away. She was sure of it. She smiled at the boy when he opened the door to the bathroom for her. She half expected he would follow her inside. When he didn’t she locked the door, sat down on the toilet, and cried, great, gulping sobs. She wrapped her hair around her hands and covered her eyes. Goddamn her agent who said this was worth all the money! Her neck was stiff and she felt like she might be getting a cold, but who wouldn’t catch a cold sleeping on a floor. Wasn’t she Tosca? Hadn’t she
jumped off the back of the Castle Sant’ Angelo night after night? Tosca was harder than this. After this she would only play in Italy, England, and America. Italy, England, and America. She said the three words over and over again until she could regulate her breathing and was able to stop the crying.

  Cesar, the boy with the gun who waited in the hallway, did not rap on the door to hurry her along as was done with other guests. He leaned against the wall outside and imagined her bending down towards the gold faucet to rinse out her mouth. He pictured her washing her face and hands with the little shell-shaped soaps. He could still hear the songs that she sang in his head and very quietly he hummed the parts that he remembered to pass the time, Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore, non feci mai male ad anima viva! Strange how those sounds stayed so clearly in his mind. She was not quick in the bathroom, but what could you ask of such a woman? She was a masterpiece. Nothing about her could be rushed. When she finally came out her hand was slightly damp and thrilling-cool to the touch. Vissi d’arte, he wanted to say to her, but he didn’t know what it meant. When he returned her to her spot near the piano, the accompanist was gone, and then, in a moment, he was returned as well. He looked considerably worse than the other guests. The accompanist was a troubling moon shade of white and his eyes were rimmed in bloody red. He was held tightly on either side by Gilbert and Francisco, two of the bigger boys. They used both of their hands to drag him forward. At first it appeared that the accompanist had tried to make a run for a window or door and had been overpowered, but when they went to return him to his spot, his knees folded beneath him as if they were two sheets of notebook paper asked to support his entire body weight. He slipped to the floor in a crumpling faint. The terrorists gave Roxane a piece of advice or information in Spanish, but she did not speak Spanish.

  She sat up a bit, unsure whether or not she was allowed to sit up, and pulled his legs out straight. He was a large man, not heavy, but tall, and she struggled against the unnatural arrangement of his limbs. At first she had thought he was playing possum. She had heard of hostages pretending to be blind to facilitate their release, but no one could pretend their skin into that color. His head wagged dully from side to side when she shook him. One of the waiters who was near her leaned over and tugged the accompanist’s arms down to his sides from where they had been pinned beneath him.

  “What’s happened to you?” she whispered. A set of muddy boots walked past. She stretched out beside the accompanist and took his wrist between her fingers.

  Finally, the accompanist stirred and sighed and turned to face her, blinking rapidly as if he were trying to rouse himself from a deep and wonderful sleep. “Nothing will happen to you,” he told Roxane Coss, but even with his bluish lips pressed against the side of her head, his voice was distant, exhausted.

  “There will be a request for ransom,” Mr. Hosokawa told Gen. They were both watching Roxane and her accompanist now, thinking at several points that the accompanist was dead, but then he would shift or sigh. “It is Nansei’s policy to pay ransom, any ransom. They’ll pay it for both of us.” He could speak in his smallest voice, a sound too minimal to ever be called a whisper, and still Gen understood him perfectly. “They will pay it for her as well. It would only be fitting. She is here on my account.” And the accompanist, especially if he were sick, he should not be forced to stay. Mr. Hosokawa sighed. Actually, in some sense, everyone in the room was here on his account and he wondered what such a ransom could add up to. “I feel that I have brought this on us.”

  “You are not holding a gun,” Gen said. The sound of their own Japanese spoken so softly it could not have been heard twelve centimeters away, comforted them. “It was the President they meant to take last night.”

  “I wish they had him,” Mr. Hosokawa said.

  On the other side of the room near the bottom edge of a gold brocade sofa, Simon and Edith Thibault held each other’s hand. They didn’t settle in with the rest of the French but kept to themselves. They looked very much a pair, nearly brother and sister, with their dark straight hair and blue eyes. They lay on the floor of the dinner party with so much dignity and ease they looked not like two people forced to the floor at gunpoint, but like two people who had simply grown tired of standing. While everyone else lay rigid and trembling, the Thibaults leaned in, her head on his shoulder, his cheek pressed to the crown of her head. He was thinking less of the terrorists and more of the remarkable fact that his wife’s hair smelled of lilacs.

  In Paris, Simon Thibault had loved his wife, though not always faithfully or with a great deal of attention. They had been married for twenty-five years. There had been two children, a summer month spent every year at the sea with friends, various jobs, various family dogs, large family Christmases that included many elderly relatives. Edith Thibault was an elegant woman in a city of so many thousands of elegant women that often over the course of years he forgot about her. Entire days would pass when she never once crossed his mind. He did not stop to think what she might be doing or wonder if she was happy, at least not Edith by herself, Edith as his wife.

  Then, in a wave of government promises made and retracted, they were sent to this country, which, between the two of them was always referred to as ce pays maudit, “this godforsaken country.” Both of them faced the appointment with dread and stoic practicality, but within a matter of days after their arrival a most remarkable thing happened: he found her again, like something he never knew was missing, like a song he had memorized in his youth and had then forgotten. Suddenly, clearly, he could see her, the way he had been able to see her at twenty, not her physical self at twenty, because in every sense she was more beautiful to him now, but he felt that old sensation, the leaping of his heart, the reckless flush of desire. He would find her in the house, cutting fresh paper to line the shelves or lying across their bed on her stomach writing letters to their daughters who were attending university in Paris, and he was breathless. Had she always been like this, had he never known? Had he known and then somehow, carelessly, forgotten? In this country with its dirt roads and yellow rice he discovered he loved her, he was her. Perhaps this would not have been true if he had been the ambassador to Spain. Without these particular circumstances, this specific and horrible place, he might never have realized that the only true love of his life was his wife.

  “They don’t seem to be in any hurry to kill anyone,” Edith Thibault whispered to her husband, her lips touching his ear.

  For as far as the eye can see there is nothing but white sand and bright blue water. Edith walking into the ocean for a swim turns back to him, the water lapping at her thighs. “Shall I bring you a fish?” she calls, and then she is gone, diving under a wave.

  “They’ll separate us later,” Simon said.

  She wrapped her arm tightly around his and took his hand again. “Let them try.”

  There had been a mandatory seminar last year in Switzerland, protocol for the capture of an embassy. He assumed that the rules would apply for overthrown dinner parties as well. They would take the women away. They would— He stopped. He honestly didn’t remember what came after that. He wondered if when they took Edith, if she might have something with her, something of hers he could keep, an earring? How quickly we settle for less! thought Simon Thibault.

  What had been a few pockets of careful whispering at first was now a steady hum as people returned from the bathrooms. Having stood up and stretched their legs, they didn’t feel as obedient on the floor. Quietly, people began to have tentative conversations, a murmur and then a dialogue rose up from the floor, until the room became a cocktail party in which everyone was lying prone. Finally, General Alfredo was driven to shoot another hole in the ceiling, which put an end to that. A few high-pitched yelps and then silence. Not a minute after the gun went off, there was a knock on the door.

  Everyone turned to look at the door. With all of the demands, the shuffle of crowds, barking of dogs, chop of helicopters dipping overhead, no one had knocked, and ev
eryone in the house tensed, as one tenses when one does not wish to be disturbed at home. The young terrorists looked nervously at one another, taking deep breaths and slipping their fingers into the empty loop of the trigger guards as if to say that they were ready to kill someone now. The three Generals conferred with one another, did a bit of pointing until there was a line of young men on either side of the door. Then General Benjamin drew his own gun and, nudging the Vice President’s shoulder with the rounded edge of his boot, made him get up and answer the door.

  It only stood to reason that whoever was on the other side of the door had every intention of coming in firing and better they serve up Ruben Iglesias to this mistake. He got up from the nest he had made by the empty fireplace with his wife and three children, two bright-eyed girls and one small boy, whose face was sweaty and red from the work of such deep sleep. The governess, Esmeralda, stayed with them. She was from the north and did not hesitate to glare openly at the terrorists. The Vice President kept looking at the ceiling, afraid that last bullet might have nicked a pipe. That would be a hell of a thing to deal with now. The right side of his face, which changed and grew hourly, was now swollen into a meaty yellow red and his right eye was shut tight. Still the wound bled and bled. Twice he had had to get a new dinner napkin. As a boy, Ruben Iglesias prayed long hours on his knees in the Catholic church that God would grant him the gift of height, a gift He had not seen fit to grant a single member of his extended family. “God will know what to give you,” the priests had told him without a hint of interest, and they were right. Being short had made him the second-most-important man in his government, and now it had very probably saved him from serious injury as the blow had landed more on the strong plane of his skull than the comparatively delicate hinge of his jaw. His face served as a reminder that everything had not gone smoothly the night before, another good message to those outside. When the Vice President stood, stiff and aching, General Benjamin put the slender broomstick of the rifle’s barrel between his shoulder blades and steered him forward. His own condition, always exacerbated by stress, had begun to bloom one tiny pustule at the end of every nerve and he longed for a hot compress almost as much as he longed for revolution. The knock repeated itself.

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