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Joinings

The Grand Hotel, Cathedral Plaza, Panama City

Like a specter, he slipped in without a sound. The smoke-filled room, shuttered against the punishing heat and sunlight, held the air of decay—‌not of matter but of high moral causes.

"Hullo, Henri ..."

The bowed head jerked up from the desk then froze like a question."Est-ce possible—?"

"Yes, it is. The Prodigal returns."

 The graying Frenchman sat with a wondering look, that mix of joy and disbelief which accompanies a fond yet half-forgotten wish.

"How long has it been—‌over a decade?"

"C'est incroyable!Are you flesh and blood?"

"Aren't we all, Henri? No, your eyes aren't playing you tricks. I need to speak with you."

Thomas Judah shut the door and stepped further  inside. He grimaced as his eyes adjusted to the darkened chamber, surprised by the chintzy unmatched furniture, the tattered carpet, the peeling wallpaper speckled with mildew. He had expected to find the managing engineer forLa Compagnie Nouvelle du Canal de Panamaensconced in an elegant suite commanding an industrious staff.

As if reading his mind, Henri Duvay jumped to snuff out the cigar burning on his desk and rushed to embrace his long-lost protégé.

"Is that how you greet an old friend?" Duvay's excited look turned petulant when Thomas grasped him by the forearms and restrained him from kissing his cheeks. The little Frenchman pulled back and quietly assessed the tall and dapper thirty-year-old. "I dare say you've seasoned handsomely. Pity the years have not been as charitable to your character. So, what impels you to suddenly think of me after all this time?"

"What if I said I was curious to see if the venerated French phoenix could rise from the ashes?"

A tick of anger twitched Henri Duvay's lavish moustache. "I will not take that as your usual impertinence but as a compliment."

"Take it anyway you please." Thomas cast a slow pitying glance around the room. "No, you're right, I should congratulate you. It is no mean feat that you've kept this white elephant breathing. Be candid with me, Henri, do you honestly believe the company can pawn this bill of goods onto the Americans?"

Duvay stalked back to sit at his desk. "Is that why you have come? To gloat? If so, you may be on your way."

"Don't be so defensive, Henri. It does not fit your nature." Thomas casually picked up one of the room's two flimsy chairs and sat to face him. "You probably won't believe me when I say this, but it does pain me—‌finding you here like this. It might not have ended in such a tragic farce had the old man taken your advice."

"Or if you had not run off when I needed you most."

"Come now, Henri, you know that's rubbish! By the time I left it was already a lost cause."

The Frenchman gritted his teeth as if to stifle his response.

Thomas raised the lapel of his silk-lined jacket and brought out a pair of cigars the color of chocolate. "I've developed your taste for an occasional smoke. Try one—" he urged, passing a gold-labeled cigar across the desk. "They're our finest Jamaican."

"No, thank you—‌and I'd rather you didn't do that in my office," Duvay said curtly when Thomas reached for the cigar-cutter sitting on his desk. "The ventilation in here is poor."

"Then let's open a window," Thomas suggested, leaping to his feet.

"No! The air outside is far too hot and the noise disturbs me."

Thomas eased back into the chair with a tiny grin. He was enjoying the fact that he could still get under his mentor's skin.

"Fine, Henri, you win. We'll pretend you never sit here and smoke just like this company's spineless directors pretended that their grand man's canal plan was not doomed from the outset."

"What is this great satisfaction you seem to derive by maligning our intentions?Oui, mistakes were made—"

"Mistakes were made?" Thomas echoed incredulously. "Does that square accounts for my dead countrymen?"

"They knew the risk."

"They trusted you knew what you were doing—"

Duvay shot up, faintly trembling inside his pearl-gray suit. "Enough! I won't sit here and be berated by an apostate! They dared the risk because they understood we were providing their vilified race a stage on which to prove its worth to the modern world."

"Naturally—‌since they were just poor niggers."

 Sixteen years in the tropical sun had deepened the Frenchman's olive complexion, yet as he confronted his former pupil Duvay's cheeks burned crimson. He stared into the improbably violet eyes searching for the young devil-may-care who had relished the canal's prodigious challenge, then slumped back into his chair, the hopeful glimmer gone. He wore the look of a beaten man. "Why are you here, Thomas—‌for absolution? For the pleasure of seeing an old man's tears? If that's the reason, you've wasted the trip."

"Actually, Henri, I came because I have a proposition."

"A proposition?" Duvay asked suspiciously. "What sort of proposition?"

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