The Lazarus Vendetta - By Robert Ludlum

Saturday, September 25

Near the Tuli River Valley, Zimbabwe

The last rays of the sun were gone, and thousands of stars shimmered weakly against a dark sky high above a rugged, arid land. This region of Zimbabwe was dirt-poor, even by that troubled nation's rock-bottom standards. There were almost no electric lights to illuminate the night, and there were few paved roads connecting southern Matabeleland's isolated villages to the larger world beyond.

Twin headlights suddenly appeared in the darkness, briefly illuminating thickets of gnarled scrub trees and scattered patches of thorn bushes and sparse grass. A battered Toyota pickup truck swayed along a worn dirt track, gears grinding as it bounced in and out of a series of deep ruts. Drawn by the flickering beams of light, swarms of insects flitted toward the pickup and spattered against its dust-streaked windshield.

"Merde!" Gilles Ferrand swore softly, wrestling with the steering wheel. Frowning, the tall, bearded Frenchman leaned forward, trying to see past the swirling cloud of dust and flying bugs. His thick glasses slipped down his nose. He took one hand off the wheel to push them back up and then swore again as the pickup nearly veered off the winding track.

"We should have left Bulawayo sooner," he grumbled to the slender gray-haired woman beside him. "This so-called road is bad enough in daylight. It is a nightmare now. I wish the plane had not been so late."

Susan Kendall shrugged. "If wishes were fishes, Gilles, we'd all be dead of mercury poisoning. Our project requires the new seeds and tools we were sent, and when you serve the Mother, you must accept inconveniences."

Ferrand grimaced, wishing for the thousandth time that his prim American colleague would stop lecturing him. Both of them were veteran activists in the worldwide Lazarus Movement, working to save the Earth from the insane greed of unchecked global capitalism. There was no need for her to treat him like a schoolboy.

The truck's high beams silhouetted a familiar rock outcropping next to the track. The Frenchman sighed in relief. They were close to their destination - a tiny settlement adopted three months ago by the Lazarus Movement. He didn't remember the village's original name. The first thing he and Kendall had done was rename it Kusasa, "Tomorrow" in the local Ndebele dialect. It was an apt name, or so they hoped. The people of Kusasa had agreed to the change and to accept the Movement's help in returning to a natural and eco-friendly method of farming. Both activists believed their work here would lead a rebirth of wholly organic African agriculture - a rebirth rooted in absolute opposition to the West's toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and dangerous genetically modified crops. The American woman was certain that her impassioned speeches had won over the village elders. Ferrand, more cynical by nature, suspected that the generous cash grants the Movement offered had carried more weight. No matter, he thought, the ends in this case would amply justify the means.

He turned off the main track and drove slowly toward a little cluster of brightly painted huts, tin-roofed shacks, and ramshackle cattle pens. Surrounded by small fields, Kusasa lay in a shallow valley edged by boulder-strewn hills and tall brush. He brought the truck to a stop and lightly tapped the horn.

No one came out to meet them.

Ferrand killed the engine but left the headlights on. He sat still for a moment, listening. The village dogs were howling. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise.

Susan Kendall frowned. "Where is everyone?"

"I do not know." Ferrand slid cautiously out from behind the wheel. By now dozens of excited men, women, and children should have been thronging around them - grinning and murmuring in glee at the sight of the bulging seed bags and brand-new shovels, rakes, and hoes piled high in the Toyota's cargo bed. But nothing stirred among Kusasa's darkened huts.

"Hello?" the Frenchman called. He tried out his limited Ndebele. "Litshone Njani? Good evening?"

The dogs only howled louder, baying at the night sky.

Ferrand shivered. He leaned back inside the pickup. "Something is very wrong here, Susan. You should make contact with our people. Now. As a precaution."

The gray-haired American woman stared at him for a moment, her eyes suddenly wide. Then she nodded and climbed down out of the Toyota. Working swiftly, she set up the linked satellite phone/laptop computer they carried in the field. It allowed them to communicate with their home office in Paris, though it was mainly used to upload photos