Tim Roman punches a button atop the glass coffee-table-cum-fish-tank in his living room. An electronic chime echoes through the house, and out shuffles his cook. "Ribs tonight, Crispin," Roman says.
"Yes, boss," Crispin says with a bow.
"And two Cokes," Roman adds, sucking on a Marlboro. "They got the best Cokes in this country. All local sugar. None of that corn syrup." He takes another puff and laughs. "It's great. I push a button and they bring me a Coke!"
"This country" is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire. Roman's spacious house sits behind high walls topped with coils of razor wire in Kinshasa, a teeming city of eight million on the verge of chaos. It's November 2006, and three months ago the country held its first democratic elections since 1960, a $500 million project overseen by the United Nations. Joseph Kabila and his main rival, Jean-Pierre Bemba—a former personal assistant to the long-deposed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko—were forced into a runoff just a week ago, and the votes are still being counted.
Kabila is expected to win, and Roman is part of Kabila's circle of contacts. No one knows how Bemba will react if he loses, but in a place like Congo, he who loses—and we're talking about not just one man but his whole posse, including armed militias and their access to diamonds and gold—loses everything. Out on Kinshasa's streets there are thousands of UN troops in sandbagged machine-gun nests, set amid chickens and burned cars and spiraling columns of smoke. Kinshasa is so crumbling and crowded that it looks like the set for some post-apocalyptic Hollywood extravaganza. This house has been attacked twice, and twice Roman has returned fire.
"I got the razor wire on the inside," he says, swigging his Coke. "That way, they'll get tangled up when they hit the ground." Right now all is relatively calm inside the boss's place: CNN is cranking loudly, the A/C is humming, a white toy poodle, Boxy, is jumping on the sofa, and Roman, a hyperactive American expat, is juggling two cell phones that never stop ringing. No leaving the house today; he's down with a touch of malaria. He's 43 and big, really big. Fat. There's just no other word for it. But despite his massive bulk, there's something attractive about his large brown eyes and expressive face, something grizzly-bear cute. His voice is deep, gravelly, and his small hands are lively when he talks.
The phone rings, Roman sighs, and—no hello, no pleasantries—just starts talking. "So he's got malaria? So big fucking deal! If he's sick, tell him to go to the fucking hospital. Here. If he goes home, he's not coming back."
Roman hangs up, exasperated. One of his American engineers says he's sick, but Roman isn't buying it. "He's in love!" he croons in a baby voice. "Can you believe it? He buys a menyapa in the village—not a queen who lives in Kinshasa but a woman who lives in a mud hut—and he's in love and wants to bring her home!"