At the top of the hill, framed by countless stars, the elegant house shimmered in the Haitian moonlight. As the colonel climbed toward it, the ground came alive with night creatures scurrying to avoid the crunch of his boots.
A young maid in a starched pink uniform answered the door. She had the flat nose and prominent cheekbones of the colonel's home district, though her skin was several shades lighter than his. He informed her that he wished to see Mr. Dalwani. In response to the requisite question, he replied that no, he was not expected. His eyes followed the sway of her firm young rump as she went in to announce him. Another foolish child seeking an escape from those scrabbly hills, he thought, removing his cap and wiping his forehead. There were some things about his job the colonel did not enjoy.
The dining room tingled with cool air and the sharp smell of curry. The Dalwanis were all at dinner: father, mother, three daughters. There was a cook somewhere, the colonel knew, but no houseboy.
Mr. Dalwani rose and introduced himself. He was a balding, naturally slender man onto whose narrow frame prosperity had appended a potbelly. "I bid you welcome," he said affably, "Colonel . . . ?"
"Ferray," the colonel replied, nodding his thanks and taking the indicated seat.
The women were skittish, but Mr. Dalwani exuded the easy confidence of a man accustomed to purchasing his way through the world. The colonel accepted his offer of coffee. When the maid went to fetch it, he observed that her legs were slightly bowed, a condition common among the undernourished hill children. She was well fed now.
"A nice child," Mr. Dalwani remarked, noting the colonel's interest.
"Yours seem nice as well," the colonel responded affably. "May I guess their ages?"
"Please," his host encouraged.
Ferray pretended to guess, surprising everyone with his accuracy. The eldest girl was fifteen, the middle one fourteen, the youngest twelve. The twelve-year-old was just beginning to bud. All three girls had their mother's long, straight, lustrous hair, delicate bones, and sorrowful, dark-rimmed eyes. The colonel doubted that his men would appreciate such refinements.
When the maid delivered his coffee, the flowered cup rattled against its matching saucer. Her long fingers were marred by small, whitish scars.
The colonel was startled when the middle daughter thrust a thick, multicolored arm toward him from across the table.
"Would you like to sign my cast?" she asked him.
Her mother admonished her impertinence. Her sisters giggled. Her father smiled indulgently, shrugged, offered the colonel a pen.
He waved it off and leaned toward the girl. "My work is very secret," he confided impishly. "I must not leave even the slightest trace of where I have been."
"Are you like a spy, then?" she asked delightedly.
He scanned the room theatrically before raising an index finger to his lips. The girl's eyes widened and her cast retreated back beneath the table. Everyone smiled politely.
While the Dalwani women sipped their tea and nibbled on sugar cookies, the two men talked. Mr. Dalwani steered the conversation to the long-term outlook for tourism, wondering if the colonel agreed that political stability was a prerequisite for large-scale foreign investment.
Ferray demurred. "We are so far from the capital, and I am but a simple soldier."
"Not so simple, I suspect," his host suggested with a sly smile.
The colonel shrugged and finished his coffee. The maid reached in and removed the crockery. She smelled of sweat: fresh and pleasantly pungent. That was something his men would appreciate.
"Did you wish to speak privately?" Mr. Dalwani inquired.
The colonel stood and took his cap. After nodding to the women, he followed his host into a dimly lit den of dark leathers and polished woods. An overhead fan gently stirred the fragrant air.
After seating his guest in a leather easy chair, Mr. Dalwani slipped in behind a writing desk. Its green-shaded lamp cast exaggerated shadows on the walls. Ferray carefully extracted a small paper bag from his jacket and dropped it into the upturned cap resting on his knee.
"Now," Mr. Dalwani said warmly, clasping his hands on the desk, "as you see, Colonel Ferray, I am at your service."
"Thank you, sir, but regrettably, my mission here is not a happy one." Ferray paused. "Mr. Dalwani," he said formally, "I am instructed to inform you that you have been designated by the government as a profiteer."
Mr. Dalwani remained unruffled. "A profiteer? My, my, Colonel, that does not sound good at all."
"I am afraid it is even worse than that," Ferray told him, absently fingering the sweat band of his cap.
The clasped hands on the desk tightened. "What does it mean, 'worse than that'?"
"It means, Mr. Dalwani," Ferray explained calmly, "that I have received orders to eliminate you."
"Eliminate me? I'm afraid I--"
"A euphemism," the colonel apologized, displaying an upright thumb and then slowly reversing its orientation.
A shadow on the wall jumped. Mr. Dalwani cleared his throat. "And when, may I ask, is this 'elimination' scheduled to take place?"
"You may assume," Ferray replied, the leather creaking as he casually shifted his position, "that my presence here tonight is not entirely social."
Mr. Dalwani's posture stiffened. "Who issued these orders?" he demanded.
"Those with the authority to do so."
"I will make a phone call."
"I regret that it is too late for that."
Defiantly, Mr. Dalwani lifted the receiver and brought it to his ear.
The colonel watched impassively. "You see," he said after a few seconds, making a snipping motion with two fingers, "too late."
"I am a businessman," Mr. Dalwani declared, replacing the receiver with some difficulty. "I employ many people. I pay large sums in taxes. I love this country."
"Surely, a few minor currency infractions . . ."
"I would not know." Ferray shrugged. "I am merely a soldier."
"Now look here, my friend," Mr. Dalwani said, trying to reason, "this is a mistake. I have powerful friends in the capital. At the highest levels, I assure you. You must allow me to contact them."
"I am afraid not," the colonel sighed, taking his cap from his knee and maneuvering to his feet.
"And what of my family?" Mr. Dalwani cried, jumping up. "My wife? My daughters?"
"Ah, yes." The colonel reached into his cap and held out the paper bag. "I nearly forgot."
"What is this?" Mr. Dalwani asked, refusing to take it.
"Lubricant." The colonel placed it on the desk. "For the women."
It took a moment for his words to sink in.
"I have twenty men outside," the colonel explained, putting on his cap.
"Colonel Ferray," Mr. Dalwani croaked, "please sit down."
"I would like to, Mr. Dalwani. Truly. But I am already behind schedule."
"All right, if you insist." The colonel glanced at his watch and frowned.
Mr. Dalwani hurried around the desk. "Take her," he whispered urgently.
The colonel looked up at him quizzically.
"The girl. The maid. Take her with you, Colonel." Mr. Dalwani came closer. He smelled of old tobacco. "Force her to do things," he whispered, wringing his hands. "Filthy things. Beat her if she disobeys." His lips were quivering. "Spank her very hard, Colonel. Very hard. She likes it. Believe me, she likes it."
Ferray stared at him evenly. Mr. Dalwani retreated a few steps, his balled hands pressed against his chest, his eyes darting about the room.
"If that is all . . . ," the colonel said, making to rise.
"No, no, no," Mr. Dalwani exclaimed, rushing over and anxiously patting the colonel's shoulder to resettle him in the chair. "No indeed, Colonel," he giggled. "That was a joke. A poor joke. Please forgive me." He hurried across the room and pulled away a framed painting, revealing a wall safe. As he turned to the combination dial, he continued, "Marie, her name is, Colonel. The girl. If you want her, you will simply take her, of course." His speech was becoming manic. "She is only a maid, after all." He cursed, spun the dial, and began again. His hand was shaking. "I saw you looking at her and I thought, naturally, well, we are both men. So, I offered my recommendation, that is all. A common girl, yes, but willing, anxious even, so that even you, my dear Colonel Ferray, a man of refined tastes, even you-- Ah, there it is, here we are, open at last. Now you shall see. Remain seated, Colonel, please. Stay exactly where you are. I have gifts for you, many gifts."
"What a lovely surprise," murmured the colonel.
When Mr. Dalwani finished, Ferray's lap was filled with stacks of banknotes, kilo bars of gold, glassine envelopes with loose gemstones: a small fortune.
Mr. Dalwani stood by the safe mopping his face. "Well, Colonel," he asked hopefully, "are we now friends?"
"I know so little about jewelry, but your wife was wearing a ring . . ."
"The colonel has a discerning eye," Mr. Dalwani said, beaming. "Please wait right there. It would be my pleasure . . ."
"Mr. Dalwani," Ferray called, "take the bag. In case you do not return quickly enough."
The man hesitated a moment, then grabbed the paper bag and rushed from the room. The colonel rose carefully, located an attaché case behind the desk, emptied its contents on the floor, and filled it with his new treasure. When Mr. Dalwani returned with the diamond ring, the colonel took it and slipped it into his pocket.
"The house is surrounded," Mr. Dalwani said. "My wife and children are frightened."
"But you are leaving now, Colonel Ferray, my good friend, are you not? We have an understanding. Is that not so?"
"Yes, Mr. Dalwani."
"And you will not return? I have your word as an officer?"
"As an officer," Ferray confirmed solemnly.
Mr. Dalwani grasped the colonel's hand with both of his and pumped it vigorously. His face was drenched with relief. He smelled rancid.
The maid scurried ahead and opened the front door. As Ferray left, he felt her eyes scratching at him like a drowning cat. At the base of the stairs his lieutenant stepped from the shadows, stamped his foot on the gravel, and delivered a crisp salute.
The colonel switched the attaché case to his other hand and returned the salute. "Total of seven," he said softly. "Husband, wife, three daughters, a maid, and a cook. Do nothing until you hear my Jeep pull away."
The colonel flicked a small moth from his sleeve. "Follow standard procedure. Kill the husband immediately. Make certain that all the women are dead before you burn the house."
"Carry on," Ferray said, walking off into the night.
Excerpted from White Darkness by Steven D. Salinger. Copyright © 2001 by Steven D. Salinger. 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.