It was not supposed to turn out this way. The last time Pierre Mumba was in the United Sates was almost thirty years ago, when he was a graduate student finishing his Ph.D.’s in both chemistry and physics. Now, decades later, he was returning as a fugitive.
As the large airplane taxied toward its regular gate at the Miami International Airport, he breathed a sigh of relief. He would soon be free and the world would never be the same.
It seemed that this trip had lasted forever. First, he had to be smuggled out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, his native country, across the border to Tanzania. Unlike in his country, however, he did not fear being recognized when he took the second leg of his trip from the Kilimanjaro International Airport. After subsequent stops in both Kenya and Ethiopia without incident, his fear lessened only a little when he reached Frankfurt, Germany. Germany was too close to Africa for Mumba’s comfort. Good thing the stopover had been short.
He did not want to take any chances. He could still see in his mind his assistant Joanne Asongo rushing out of the building and yelling at him, “Pepe, you have a phone call. A representative from the group ‘Physicists International’ wants to talk to you about an award you’re being given.”
Those words saved his life.
Moments before she came out and uttered those words, Mumba was sitting with Jean Marceau, his business partner, in his SUV, which was parked about twenty feet away from his research lab in a deserted section of Goma, in Eastern Congo. The city was located on the edge of the Kivu River, near the Rwandan border. He had built his lab on top of a hill with breathtaking views of the Virunga Mountain range and its chain of volcanoes. Occasionally, he would go on excursions in the mountains just to spot one of his country’s famous but endangered mountain gorillas. It was a perfect place to work until that day.
They were minutes away from driving off to a business meeting, when Joanne told him about the phone call. The sad irony was that he must have taken too long to reach the phone, because by the time that he got out of the SUV and reentered the building to take the call in his office, the representative had already hung up. It was as if providence had intervened and led him away from the two explosions that would take place minutes later.
Now, back in the aircraft, he stiffened in his chair at the thought of his assistant’s demise. Joanne was a very devoted assistant that he had hired merely months before, and who had been an exemplary employee. His mind kept reverting to that day. Who’s responsible for Joanne’s death? What if they find out that I am alive and have fled?
When the plane finally reached the Miami gate, on cue, the passengers quickly got up to begin their competitive race to clear customs.
Mumba grabbed the top of the seat in front of him and quickly raised his tall slender frame until he could stand erect in the aisle. He nervously ran the fingers of his right hand through his silver-flecked hair before reaching for his small backpack from the overhead compartment and taking his first steps toward freedom.
“Have a good day sir,” the young pretty flight attendant wished him as he exited the plane.
Mumba did not respond. Instead, he gave her a hollow smile and walked out of the plane, his heart heavy with the loss of Joanne and his business partner. He was hoping that it was going to be a good day for him as the flight attendant had said.
As he approached the immigration inspector, he held his traveling documents tightly in his hands.
“Passport, please,” the male immigration inspector said without looking up. He was typing on the keyboard in front of him while gazing at the computer screen.
The passport was wet from sweat from Mumba’s hands. Mumba was hoping that the inspector did not notice his nervousness as he handed over the document.
The inspector looked up, grabbed the passport and slid the interior cover into the electronic scanner in front of him. “How long was your stay in Kinshasa, Mr. Roberts?”
“Thirty days,” he replied with a heavy French accent.
The inspector looked at the computer screen, frowned and raised his head to look at him. “I think we have a problem, Mr. Roberts.”
Mumba felt blood rushing to his face as he realized he had been caught. It’s over. It’s all been for nothing, he thought, trying to control his panic as a tall female officer came to ask him to follow her.