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MABLE STARTS her school mornings upside-down, and, no, she has never considered herself unusual. She likes the feeling of standing on her hands, legs straight up in the air or bent slightly at the knee, her pyjama shirt flopping down, blood flowing to her head.
This morning, there’s a wind rustling the leaves of the tree just outside her bedroom window. She closes her eyes and listens: it’s like a soft rain. Other sounds catch her attention: a neighbour’srooster crows, a truck roars and rumbles on one of the main roads nearby, an indistinct Zambian RnB beat thumps from a rushing car.
She opens her eyes, flips to plant her feet on the ground and stands up straight. She smiles to herself, enjoying the energy from having stretched. She feels light on her feet. She feels vitality in her body.
She steps to the closet, a shallow alcove in the wall, which has two holes on the doors where there should be a handle. She pulls out a hanger holding her uniform — light-brown shirt, blue plaid skirt — and lays it on the bed. Her bed is small, pushed against the corner where the wall with the window and the wall with the closet meet. Her room is quite small too, and she created space to do her headstands by stashing things she doesn’t immediately use under the bed.
She turns her attention to the table at the end of her bed, containing her neatly-arranged toiletries, a rectangular mirror and Mum’s photo. She picks up the photo. The ever-smiling woman looks like her, only older, with more hair and crow’s feet at the sides of her eyes. The picture is fading, like Mable’s concrete memories of her. Well, there’s a big photo album of her parents’ younger days, the wedding, her baby photos as well as those of her brother Philip, on a shelf in the sitting room, but Mable likes looking at this particular photo. She’s attached to it.
She returns it to its place, leaning against the body lotion she uses; she picks up her toothbrush and the little mirror and leaves the bedroom for the bathroom.
Philip, Mable’s older brother and guardian, takes to the TV in the morning. He thinks it is important to start your day knowing what’s happening in the world. Much of the morning news on ZNBC are repeats of last night’s news and are overshadowed by the cheesy commercials that pop up just when you think the newsreader will go into details. He usually switches to BBC or Al Jazeera at those moments.
Today, though, there a new piece about the police apprehending a criminal with connections to ‘the Detonator’, the most wanted man in the country. Because the public distrusts the police and the government, it is a brag point for the police. Even the Police Commissioner comes to the screen to confirm the incident, justifying that the police had stepped up their game and no crime would go unpunished. Philip sighs. They always say such things, don’t they? And since they have given no more details apart from the fact that they have caught a criminal, Philip even begins to doubt that.
A door behind him creaks open, and he doesn’t need to look up at the clock to know that it is exactly 7:05 Hours. Mable’s timing is impeccable, it always fascinates him. He looks over his shoulder and there she is, in her full uniform, laden with a grey backpack. Grade-eights nowadays look bigger than those of his generation, he reflects. Still, compared to her contemporaries, Mable is lean and of average height. She has short frizzy hair which frustrates her to comb so she often resorts to shaving it to be manageable. But she does look like Mum, dark and smooth, determined. Unlike Mum though, Mable hardly smiles and looks at you as if she can see the darkest secrets of your soul.
He searches his pockets when she is standing next to him, gives her three K10 notes. “This will take you up to Friday, right?”
She nods and puts the money in her breast pocket. Just as she is about to say, as usual, that she is off, his cell phone rings. He reaches over and picks it from the coffee table, and makes a sour face and angry sound when he sees it is ‘The Snake’ calling. He presses the red ‘Cancel’ on the screen, tosses the phone on the sofa next to him.
“It’s her again?” Mable asks.
“Ya. Now she’s bothering me in the morning as well. This woman will give me a heart attack pa last.”
Mable chuckles, a single chuckle, “All she wants is money from you since you got that promotion.”
“I know. Damn that woman. But she’ll never get near us again, I promise you that. I’m done with her.”
Mable goes to the kitchen while Philip’s mind is filled with unwelcome thoughts of the Snake. Irene is her name, his ex-wife. He has never been happier than the moment the local court nullified his marriage on account of her promiscuity. But the judge would never fully appreciate the trouble she caused him and Mable: calling him abusive names, giving him hell at work in the presence of co-workers, wiping out his bank accounts, and getting into fights with any lady he talked to. It had been a slow boil for him until he couldn’t take it when she threatened to go spend a few nights with a taxi-driver boyfriend just to get to him. He still chastises himself for having been too soft on her.
And why does he still have her number? Maybe it’s because he waits for a time he will have his revenge on her. His promotion to Chief Pharmacist was a great step in that direction, and there’s this sweet girl at work, Nambula, he thinks will agree to marry him. And besides, calling Irene “the Snake” amuses him somewhat.
* * * * *Mable packs her lunch box in her backpack, walks out into the sunshine and noise. Emmasdale Site and Service is an upper-class komboni: the houses are small and the yards have only enough space between the walls and houses for cats and mice to move around; most of the roads are gravel and narrow, and even attempts by local residents to mend them with stones only make them worse. Some houses are, however, comparably impressive, so you get a paradoxical neighbourhood.
Mable’s next-door neighbours on the kitchen side are a noisy family. Mable can hear the man and his wife arguing already, with intermittent choruses from some of their five children. Mable doesn’t talk much to them, even though there’s a girl a little older than her who greets her enthusiastically, speaking Nyanja with a foreign accent. Philip claims they originate from Ghana. Mable has wanted to become the girl’s friend but has struggled with what things to talk about. Making friends is difficult for Mable.
When she exits the gate, she finds one of the neighbour sons, whose name she always forgets, standing by his gate, probably waiting for his sisters. From his blue and grey uniform, Mable guesses he goes to Emmasdale Basic School but has never asked.
“Atshani Mable?” he says with an accent. He smirks.
She waves at him curtly and walks on, and he gives a triumphant chuckle as though he’s managed to tease her. “Me, I like you, Mable,” the boy says, laughing. “Don’t run away from me.”
Mable ignores him. She walks down the dusty road, standing to one side when a red car comes wobbling by. She turns left into another dusty road and finally onto a tarred road. She stops and takes out a cloth from her bag to wipe the dust from her shoes. She walks into the Vubu Road, where she waits for her school bus in front of a store.
The bus, a blue coach, pulls up a moment later. Her school logo and name are painted in white across the hull: Rhodespark School PTA. The bus is one of the things she likes about her school. When Philip couldn’t afford fees for a private school in the past, she took overloaded and rowdy minibuses that would sometimes digress from route to hunt for passengers. She would arrive late at the government school and often be punished by wrathful prefects, but again the school itself wouldn’t be any comfort from overcrowding and rowdiness.
Rhodespark is much better, with its relatively small class sizes, a quiet and clean environment with better teachers. And the bus ride to school and back is the pinnacle of comfort any grade eight would desire.
“Where’s that boy?” the bus driver says impatiently as Mable takes her favourite spot by the window in the second front row.
They wait and a few minutes later a boy climbs in, grinning impishly. “I always tell you to hurry,” the bus driver scolds. The boy says, “I’m here, naimwe,” and he takes the seat next to Mable as the bus begins to move. He always sits next to Mable, but doesn’t speak to her. He takes to his phone and plays a game on it. It’s fine with Mable. She has her own thoughts and her Mp3 player for music.
MABLE IS the last person to enter the classroom, Grade 8 Red in Mukwa block. She likes it that way, even though she arrives early at school. She takes her time, walking around the corridors starting near the reception, spending a moment looking through the windows of the library, going through the corridor of Mahogany Block, past the laboratories and finally to her block.
If there’s still time, she goes around again or goes behind her block through the roofed walkways. Being seated early somehow makes her start feeling jittery and under pressure to talk to classmates. It’s all in her head, she tells herself, but she also likes the strolling and observing others preparing for class: teachers rushing for a meeting or trying to control wayward pupils, the higher-grade pupils in their clusters, looking like gangs; and the younger ones dragging and hefting too-heavy school bags, morose about why they have to get an education instead of playing.
Mable’s desk is the second on the leftmost row, by the windows, overlooking the playground. When she takes her seat, she finds herself looking at Desiree Kaputa, who is on the first desk two rows to the right. There’s something about Desiree that attracts Mable. It’s not so much the lighter skin and the pretty face. Maybe it is the grace with which Desiree walks and talks, like a princess. Desiree is always confident and seems to be one of those people who know what they want in life.
Mable has noticed some girls in class talk jealously about Desiree behind her back, and some have tried to be her friends but Desiree keeps only one friend, Bupe. Today, as per her usual morning routine, Desiree is not paying attention to anything but her thick Oxford Dictionary, taking notes on a cute notepad.
Miss Chanda walks in from the teachers meeting, and the pupils begin to settle down. She is their class teacher as well as their Science teacher. She has a beautiful smile and to Mable, she’s the best teacher in the world. She is petite but motherly, and her warm smile makes up for her spot-riddled face. She is always dressed in a simple but fashionable style, never one for ostentation. “Good morning, Class,” she says. She claps her hands three times to draw the attention of a few who are still whispering. “I said, Good morning, Class.”
“Good morning, Miss Chanda,” they reply.
She scans them, hands on hips. “It looks like you are ready for another lesson, but first, I want to remind you about the inter-school sports tomorrow. Be early, come prepared. Tell your parents to pack you enough lunch, but if you prefer, the tuck shop people have agreed to prepare snacks and drinks for sale. And OYDC has their own shops, okay? Again, be here by seven thirty or the buses will leave you and we will not return for anyone. You are all to come, whether you are partaking in the sports or not and the school will consider it indiscipline if you fail to attend or abscond.”
She walks through the isles, giving them a smile or a pat on the shoulder or a straightening of a collar. “I am impressed by the talent in my class, and I am sure you will make me proud. Joseph…” — the boy straightens at the mention of his name. “Make us proud in chess.”
Joseph scratches his head as he nods, clearly relieved that he is not in any trouble.
“Simon. Win that high jump.”
“Yes, Madam,” the tall Simon responds.
“And of course the fastest girl in school, Mable Zombe.”
Miss Chanda is by her desk now and Mable flushes, feels the weight of eyes on her. She focuses on the teacher.
“You are ready, right?” Miss Chanda asks. Mable nods, and Miss Chanda pats her shoulder and walks to the front. “Alright. Who can remember where we ended last week?”
Automatically, Desiree’s arm shoots up first. When Miss Chanda points at her, she says, “The human heart.”
“Correct.” She turns to the board and makes a rough outline of a heart, divides it into four dissimilar parts. “Who remembers the names of the parts?”
Hands go up or stay down, and willing and unwilling pupils are pointed at to name the parts: right atrium, left atrium, right ventricle, left ventricle. Miss Chanda adds more features to the sketch and calls for labels: aorta, pulmonary vein, pulmonary artery, vena cava. Mable doesn’t feel comfortable answering questions but she has no option when Miss Chanda points to her: she mentions the valves.
“Good, Mable, good.”
* * * * *After lunch, Mable changes into her basketball attire and joins four of her teammates on the basketball court. She finds them having a confrontation with Brian from Grade 9 Red, a fat boy with the habit of bullying younger and smaller ones.
“Leave us alone, chi Brian,” the girl called Bridget says, as Mable enters the court gate. Brian is at one corner, pushing Bridget away from him, holding the ball from her reach in the other hand.
“Don’t call me chi Brian,” the boy says, prodding Bridget with a finger. “I am not your friend.”
Chilombo, the tallest girl on the team, reaches over and grabs the ball from him. He grabs her hand and threatens to twist it, demanding the ball. She gives it to him and he walks away with it. He pushes Mable from his path with his shoulder. Mable almost goes after him but stops herself.
“Why did he take the ball?” she asks, thinking that maybe it is his and the one they usually use is still in the storeroom.
“That guy is stupid,” says Carol, who is in Mable’s class and speaks with a tiny voice.
“That’s our ball?” Mable says.
Susan, 9 Red, small forward in the team, answers, “Yes, but what can we do? We’ll wait for the coach to come get it for us.”
Mabel sees Brian go to two boys standing under a tree at the tuck shop. They laugh and exchange the ball. Mable puts her bag among the others’ in one corner and rushes out of the court toward the boys.
“Mable!” Bridget, 9 Yellow, calls. She follows Mable. “Let’s wait for Coach.”
Mable doesn’t stop. She reaches the boys and they give her a surprised look. “What do you want, ka gelo?” one of them says, a tall and dark boy with a table cut.
Mable bounds and grabs the ball out of his hand. Brian reaches to catch her, but she ducks and spins away from him. “Eh! Iwe! Bring that ball,” he says.
“Give it back if you know what’s good for you,” the third one says, an equally big boy, wearing spectacles. The two look like they are in Grade Ten; Brian is known to hang out with pupils from higher grades.
They come after her and she dashes up the steps on the tuck shop building. Brian is close behind her and the other two come from the sides, planning to close her in.
She jumps over a rail onto the ground. “If I catch you, things won’t be nice,” the table-cut boy says.
“Tune her, she thinks we are jokers,” the bespectacled one says, jumping over the rail after her. She runs over the edge of the grass and stops just before the roofed walkway. She turns and waits, looking defiant, unmoveable. The bespectacled boy reaches her first, the others are close behind.
She sidles and leaps away from the boy’s grasp, bounds toward the other two. “Mable, give it here,” Bridget calls. She’s behind Brian. Mable tosses the ball, Brian tries to catch it but falls short of its trajectory. Brian goes after Bridget while the table-cut boy still comes after Mable, seething.
She escapes him easily, makes an arc toward Bridget. “Throw it back,” she says. When Bridget does, Mable makes for the court. She runs through the gate, tosses the ball to Chilombo and shuts the gate.
The bespectacled one is the first to get there. Mabel leans against the gate. He pushes it, and she turns around to keep it shut with all her might.
“Open this gate, you kama girl,” he demands, throwing himself against it. Table-cut is now there too, and the two make to ram into the gate. But Mable moves away, and the two boys fall in and toppling over each other.
The girls laugh. The boys stand and dust themselves. They don’t look amused as they rush toward Mable. She stands her ground, calculating how to escape them.
“Allo! What is this?” a man’s voice shouts. It’s coach Kumwenda. As he comes around the fence, the boys make off. Brian, who has been trying to catch Bridget, joins them in running away. “I will come and report to your class teachers!” Coach yells. He enters the court. “Were those boys harassing you?”
“Yes, Coach,” Chilombo says. “But Mable saved us.” She walks to Mable and gives her a high-five. “You’re now my favourite person.”
THE HOUSE is dull and lonely when she unlocks the door, the only sound there — after the squeak of the door — is the humming of the fridge. She turns on the lights and notices the note on the table, with some money on it: Will be home late, work issues. Buy yourself something, no need to cook.
It looks like Philip came home earlier and had to go back. She feels relieved she doesn’t have to cook as it is her turn tonight. She figures she can buy chapati and a soft drink; and make gravy with potatoes. There was still some beans left from last night. With that and TV, her evening would be made.
She throws her bag onto the bed when she reaches her room, and undresses out of her uniform, throws it in the closet. She doesn’t need to wash the school shirt today since tomorrow is sports day.
She picks out a purple top with a pattern of lightning bolts and a pair of blue jeans. When she is dressed, she reaches under the bed for her canvas shoes. One of the laces comes loose, but she decides she will tie it later as she leaves.
She gets her MP3 player from her bag and plugs in the earphones, selects one of her favourite songs by Katy Perry. It’s amazing how music recasts the present experience. It drains out the tiredness from her, seems to lift her spirit. The pop beat, the icy voice singing, the urgent stringed instruments — they shut out the world and there’s only Mable and music.
She pockets the money, locks the house and steps into the cool twilight. She walks to Vubu Road, using the same route she uses to the school bus, bobbing her head to the music. Vubu Road is quite busy this time of the day, but she feels she has all the time to let the vehicles pass before she crosses.
This is where things go crazy, and it takes time for her to understand what is happening. She hears someone scream, it’s loud enough over the music. To her right, people scamper in her direction. She doesn’t move though, and Katy Perry is singing in her ears.
Vehicles are flying by, and some swerve out of control to the sides. Brakes scream all along the road. Mable sees a woman hit by a blue Spacio, sprawling to a streetlight pole. More screams, and then to her left, three Police Land Cruisers come to a halt, blocking the road. About six heavily armed men in the back of each jump out.
Behind her, an Altezza suddenly starts reversing, the driver oblivious to her presence. She leaps across the road to avoid it, but halfway, she steps onto her loose shoelace. Why didn’t I tie it? shescreams in her mind when she falls. She hits her elbow onto the road and an electric sensation spasms through her left arm.
Blinding lights flood her vision from her right, and she shields her eyes as she hears the screeching of a car. When she opens her eyes, there is a black car — a BMW — that has stopped askew hardly a meter in front of her. The front passenger door opens, and man in a black leather jacket steps out, wielding a large gun. He points it over her, and the song playing in her ears, like an ominous cue, stops. The blasts from the machine gun are deafening and she thinks she’ll never hear again. The police on the opposite side retaliate with their fire, every gunshot trembling the ground.
Rolling herself, Mable sees three of the approaching police officer fall backwards. She huddles as if to shield herself from the bullets. As though coming from a distance, the music in her Mp3 player resumes; a soothing, churchy male voice sings, “Oh, oh oh oh it all comes down to love.” Mable begins to worm her way across.
A strong hand grabs her by the arm and she is jerked off the ground. She screams and flounders as her captor puts his arm around her waist and backs away. In the struggle, her MP3 device slips from her pocket and her earphones are plucked from her ears.
There’s a large boom at the police side. A dust cloud fogs the road, pieces of rubble rain down. One of the police Cruisers catches fire.
The firing stops. Eight police officers, one of them bleeding over one eye, are pointing their guns at her. At her captor really, but since she’s his shield, the first bullets would hit her. She’s afraid and confused that it feels like she’s the one in the spotlight. Like somehow this is all her fault.
The captor holds her in an iron grip by the waist. “Mufake pansi! Put her down!” one of the police officers shouts but her captor is backing away, his breath hot on her neck, a menacing gun pointed at the police from her right.
Her captor stumbles against something but he holds his balance. When he’s passed the obstacle, Mable sees it’s a man on the ground, blood spurting out of his thigh. He is puffing out breaths, crying out unintelligible sounds of pain. He looks up at her captor and begs, “Boss, bandasa, boss, please help me.”
Mable’s captor bends down, and Mable is lowered into a car. Her captor sets her on the passenger seat as he squeezes his way to the driver’s seat. He reaches out and closes the door on her side and — the car is still running — he yanks the gear into reverse and the car jerks backwards and swerves, throwing Mable against the window. There’s a staccato of gunfire and the back windscreen shatters.
The man in the leather jacket bends down and whips the car into drive, and drives away from the gunfire.
* * * * *Conrad Bafana is pissed. He has been in the Anti-Robbery Squad for many years now, and they have never been humiliated like this.
“This is bad,” his colleague John Miti says, as they look at the carnage. One of their vans is burning; three bodies lie on the road, one without a leg, blood and pieces of flesh strewn about. There is a large crater in the road where one of the suspects, the one Bafana himself shot in the leg, tossed a grenade. Miti saw it and yelled for everyone to move away. Three reacted too late.
Bafana shouts at the men: “Fast! Fast!” Civilians are starting to gather, and he wants to be out of here before the press comes. He is in no mood for cameras and microphones and irritating questions he is not supposed to answer.
“This is bad,” Miti says again. “Very bad.”
“You!” Bafana points at one police officer. “You guys can’t even shoot properly!”
“Mmmh, Bwana, hostage situation,” he replies, not denying anything.
The President would be on their necks if they killed the hostage. Anti-Robbery have been reputed to fire at anyone and before them as long as they take down their criminal target. Bafana knows that when it comes to armed and dangerous men, it’s better to shoot now and ask questions later. But a few months ago, the President’s own cousin was killed by one of the Anti-Robbery by mistake. The President ordered no more indiscriminate shooting until any hostage or innocent civilian was safely out of the way.
John Miti once commented that it would make them look soft and criminals would take advantage of that. Looking at this situation, Bafana thinks he had a point. But orders are orders, and they didn’t shoot when the Detonator took the girl as human shield.
It’s not that Bafana would want the girl to die, but they have just let the most dangerous criminal in the country escape. Three of their own lie dead and there’s a crater on the road because of a grenade. He doesn’t see how this will make the President be on their necks any less.
“Bwana, was that really the Detonator?” the one Bafana scolded asks.
Bafana sighs. “It’s possible. From the intel we got, it should be him.”
It’s funny how nobody has seen the Detonator, until today. If he’s the one, they have either just taken a step closer to apprehending him or let the only opportunity slip. It doesn’t feel like a triumph to Bafana. All they have done is uncover the fact that the Detonator is not a myth or a ghost, as he’s been known for years.
Two other police officers are arguing after placing the last body in the back of a Land Cruiser. “Why didn’t you shoot him, okay?” one says.
“I shot at him,” the other replies. “In fact, you were hiding behind me. You were afraid.”
“Hiding vichani? Haven’t you ever heard of strategy?”
The other laughs. “Strategy? I was looking at you…”
“Alo!” Bafana shouts at them. They are getting on his nerves. This is nothing to joke about. “Stop talking. Finish up here. And also put that criminal in the car and take him to the station.” He is pointing at the suspect lying down, wincing over his bleeding leg. “Miti, we must see…”
Miti is no longer by his side. He is a few steps away from him, to the right, stooping to pick up something. He comes back and hands it to Bafana.
“What is it?”
But Miti doesn’t need to answer, and doesn’t. It is an MP3 player, about five centimetres wide and seven long, a few millimetres thick. The screen, cracked and scratched, shows that there’s music still playing. The earphones dangling from the player are crunched beyond hope. He presses the pause button, turns it around, and sees that the back is etched clumsily with a name: MABLE.
“What should I do with this?” Bafana asks.
“It belongs to the girl, I think. It might be useless, though.” Miti shrugs. “We must go to the IG.”
“Exactly what I wanted to tell you. He’s not going to be happy.” Bafana promised they would deliver the Detonator, and the IG insisted on being part of the operation but had to stay back because of his position. Bafana saw that the IG didn’t like that, but it wouldn’t be prudent for the top person in the Service to be involved in such hunts. “Get him, Bafana,” the IG said, with the look a child gives to an uncle who promises sweets. “Please get him.”
Bafana puts the MP3 player into his pocket. He will need it in locating the kidnapped girl’s family, perhaps, but as for retrieving her… Well, she has been taken by the Detonator. She’s dead by now, no doubt, and they will probably never find her body.
MABLE THINKS her heart will finally give up. It has been thumping painfully for a long time now. And her head hurts from the bump on the window. The bad man driving the car hardly looks at her, as if he’s forgotten she’s there. He’s in deep thought, cursing out loud numerous times as he thumps the steering wheel with his fist.
He is a handsome man, well-trimmed hair and beard, he would be perfect in the role of a smooth player in an African-American drama. He must be obsessed with cleanliness. No one would tell he was recently involved in a gunfight. Probably in his early thirties, he possesses no potbelly or the torpidity that are ubiquitous on men around his age. He is well-built and energetic, and his eyes — when he gives her a glance and she doesn’t avert her gaze — reflect a deep self-absorption and arrogance.
She is going to die and here she is thinking about her killer’s looks. She tells herself she is studying him, finding vulnerable points. But with her head and heart pounding like that, she cannot think straight. She is very afraid, and if you ever asked Philip what was strange about Mable, he would say, “She never gets scared.” Well, not of dogs or walking alone at night or heights. But a man who has just killed three police officers and ditched his injured colleague — of that she is terrified.
Just like that, she was a normal girl going about a normal life, and now she will be a victim in a murder. They will read her in a small section in the newspapers, and everyone would soon forget, go back to their businesses. No more school with the nice bus ride and the wonderful teachers. No more basketball, and she will never win tomorrow’s race. No more chapati and gravy to make a nice evening meal. No more music.
Philip will be devastated for the rest of his life. First it was their parents, now it will be Mable. She remembers — and the dread of it returns — the night thieves came into their home: Mum’s piercing screams, the gunshots, and her young self in the shadows outside the kitchen window, in the cold, her vision blurred by the tears, afraid to cry out.
The BMW jerks over a pothole and she is lurched forward. She touches the dashboard with both hands to keep from being thrown forward. When she steadies herself, she pulls the seat belt and fastens it. The man looks at her, an amused smirk on his lips. He remembers he is driving and focuses back on the road.
For how long he’s been driving, Mable can’t tell, but she has her wits back enough to figure he is driving out of the city toward Chilanga. And the thought that passes through her mind is: they will never find my body.
The man gets something from an inner pocket in his leather jacket and plugs it into his ear. It is a Bluetooth earpiece, a cyan LED blinks intermittently when he presses on the screen of a phone which he takes out from another pocket.
“Steve…,” he says and listens to whoever is on the other side. “Muzo, where’s Steve?” His voice is deep and commanding. “Give him the earpiece. Aren’t these things waterproof?”
A moment passes, and he continues talking. “Steve, you’ll swim later. I had police trouble…” He listens. “Anti-Robbery yes, a lot of them… They came at the bank just as I was leaving. They cornered me in Emmasdale… How the hell did they know, Steve? That’s what I want to find out… What, the new guy? He was slow, he led us right to them. I don’t know why you insisted he was the right man for the job… no, Steve, don’t talk to me like that, it was at your approval… I don’t care, I left him. He was useful with the grenade, but no more…” He’s sounding increasingly angry. “No, they are not following. I found a way to escape.” Here he looks at Mable as he listens to Steve. “Yes, I still have the stash… Is he the snitch? … No, I guess he wouldn’t, but he was amateur and I have insisted you guys don’t need a fifth member… Kumar’s men then? … Right, they didn’t know about the plan… George?”
Apprehension grips his face, he almost loses control of the car, and the vehicle coming on the other lane gives a continuous loud hoot. “Surely not George,” he says. “You know I trust him more than I do Cosmas… I am just being honest, Steve. I want the head of whoever did this.” He sighs. “Yes, I will still meet with Kumar’s men and find out if they were involved… Yes, I will come home immediately. I know what I am doing.”
The light on the earpiece stops blinking, and a few minutes later, the man takes out a small black-covered notebook from the back pocket of his jeans. He alternates glances from the road to the notebook which he opens over the steering wheel, flipping pages. He doesn’t seem to find what he is looking for and slams at the steering wheel. He puts the notebook in his jacket pocket.
* * * * *The man known as Detonator slams his fist onto the steering wheel a number of times. Whoever betrayed him will pay with his life. The only way the police could have known of today’s plan was someone telling them about it. It’s the only logical explanation, the more he thinks about it. Only six people knew of the full plan. His four closest men: Steve, Musonda, Kelvin and Cosmas. The other two are George, his stooge in the Police, and the new guy he had to leave behind at the shootout.
Steve is suggesting that George is the snitch, but George has served him as long as the Faithful Four have. That’s more than a decade of trust you can’t throw away like that. He suspects the new guy, the now-obviously-dead guy, the guy who was named after an actor or something. Chiwetel. They all called him Chewe instead. And to think he almost brought Chewe to the mansion, even though Steve pronounced the guy worthy. Not even George got to know where the mansion is.
Chewe showed potential, that’s why Detonator took him for this mission. To watch him, to initiate him. Detonator was impressed when Chewe did everything according to plan, parking the car in a strategic position, taking down the guards with a single shot each, holding the door open and keeping the people behaved as Detonator filled the bag.
But when things went haywire and the blue Land Cruisers and armed men appeared in front of the bank, Chewe panicked, made a lot of mistakes. It was Detonator’s thinking that got them out through the back door and round, into the car. Chewe’s panicky driving attracted the police’s attention and he kept saying “I’m sorry boss, I’m sorry boss” as he tried to dodge the police.
Detonator thinks he should have done this alone, after all. He slams again onto the steering wheel. The captive girl shoots a fearful glance at him. He almost forgot about her. He will think of a way to get rid of her, later. And somehow, he feels grateful she isn’t screaming or pleading. And she even put on her seat belt. How weird is that?
He chuckles when a thought runs through his mind that she would make a better wingman than Chewe. The guy’s mistakes have cost Detonator his ghostly reputation. Now the police know his face.
It was a silly idea, yes, for Detonator to go out into the “field” just to prove he still has the raw criminal guts that elevated him to his kingpin status. The faithful Four tried to talk him out of it. He said he wanted to celebrate the anniversary of the first bank job that had set him on his journey fifteen years ago, by repeating the job at the same bank.
That’s what he told them, but deep down it’s because he is getting bored. He has everything he wants and he needn’t even get out of bed. There isn’t an illegal business in the country he isn’t boss over: drugs, smuggling, trafficking, fraud, gemstones, weapons, and even high-level pimping. But he is getting bored to death because all the work is done by others and he sits all day taking stock. The final straw hit him when he realised he was anxiously following a telenovella on Telemundo.
He just had to go out, and when this anniversary came up, he thought it a good opportunity. He wanted to go for it alone, but Steve convinced him to take Chewe.
But that must have been his mistake. He determines he will soon find out the truth about this betrayal. He slows and parks to the side of the road, and finds a pen in the glove compartment. In his notebook, he writes: Snitch — George? Chewe? Kumar? Rhoda? Then he studies the details of the men he is to meet, goes through the info a second time.
He puts the notebook in his jacket. Screw it, let them know my face, he thinks as he speeds again down the highway. What is the point of being the most dangerous person in the country and nobody knows what you look like? He had even read newspaper articles trying to prove that he didn’t exist. The country needs to know the face of the man they fear. They need a renewal of fearful respect for the Detonator, he who causes explosions everywhere he goes, literally and figuratively. They need to know he is real and untouchable.
Today the Anti-Robbery almost touched him, and someone will pay heavily for that. A lot of people will pay, he promises himself. That’s why he is driving to the rendezvous point. To see Kumar’s men as promised, but this time to establish whether Kumar is a backstabbing idiot.
* * * * *The white Toyota Camry is at the side of the highway, facing the city, at the exact agreed location near the Lilayi turn-off, its parking lights on as agreed. Detonator drives his BMW 318i off the road and faces the Camry. He switches off the headlights, leaving the parking lights on. He then flashes his headlights twice, and the Camry’s driver does the same.
Feeling rather warm, he takes off his leather jacket and places it on the dashboard. He taps the pistol on his right hip to assure himself it is there. Two men alight from the Camry. They are as Kumar described them. The big and nasty looking one is called Jobful Banda, decked out in a charcoal grey suit and black shirt. The other has a bread-shaped head, looks like an unstable character and is in a purple shirt tucked into black trousers, a striped tie loose on his neck. Detonator recalls his name as Shinn Kalopo.
“Gentlemen,” Detonator says when he alights from his car and meets with them. They bump fists.
“Are you whom we are expecting?” Shinn says. It’s the required first statement to the agreed passcode.
“The one and only,” Detonator replies. “What have you to say?”
“My Heart Beats for Lola. 0903”
The first is the title of a telenovella series. How quickly it jumped to his head when he was discussing the passcodes with Kumar was proof that he has been watching too much TV. The number 0903 was the day and month of today’s date.
“And you?” he says to Jobful.
“Raspberry Pi,” the big man replies. Steve came up with that part, some computer nerdy stuff he doesn’t care to know about.
“And I say videshi,” Detonator says, not knowing what it means. It was Kumar’s input. The final piece of the passcode. Everyone is whom they claim. “I was delayed. Had some police trouble.”
“No problem, Sir,” says Jobful. “I must say, Sir, it is great to meet you in person. No one can boast of meeting the actual Detonator himself. This is exciting.”
“A deep honour,” Shinn echoes. “Others only get to hear of you.”
Detonator gives a proud smile. “Well, consider yourselves lucky.” His initial plan was to put on a mask and do the exchange without a word. Just for the fun of it. But now that the plan was mangled, he might as well let these scumbags have a good look at his face.
Shinn nods toward his car. “Your daughter?”
Detonator looks back. It’s getting gloomy, so the captive girl is a darkish shape. Shinn must have seen her when he opened his door and the interior light came on. Detonator laughs. Imagine me being a father, he thinks.
He has loved only one woman, and maybe by now he would have married her and had kids, who knows. When Grace got tired of this life and left him, he didn’t get involved with anyone else.
“Forget the girl,” he says to the two men. “I will dispose of her later.” The shock on their faces is the effect he wants. They need to keep being in awe of him. “Onto business now, gentlemen.”
Jobful reaches into his jacket and produces a small leather pouch. He tosses it to Detonator, who weighs it in his palm and nods approvingly.
“You won’t check it?” Jobful asks.
“I trust you.” He’s looking into their eyes, reading their body language. He will open them up soon, if they are hiding something. “Besides, I have handled diamonds for years now and all I need is to feel the weight.” He walks to the BMW, opens the boot and picks out the bag containing the money, walks back to the men and throws it at their feet. “You won’t open it?”
Jobful grabs Shinn when he bends down to the bag. He says, his voice quivering, “No need. We trust you, Boss.” The Detonator can tell Jobful Banda suspects the Detonator is up to something.
“You know who I am, don’t you?”
“Yes, Sir. You are the Detonator.”
“You care about your family?”
“What? I mean yes, I do.”
“I have no family, you see,” Detonator says. “I wish I had a lovely wife like yours, a nurse at UTH. And your two beautiful girls at your home in Kanyama. And you, Shinn, your son, who looks like you.”
The two men stand stiffly, only looking at the Detonator.
“I’m supposed to know everything about the people I do business with, just to be sure, you know what I am saying?”
“You know what I am saying?” His voice is louder, angrier.
“Ye-yes, Sir,” Jobful says. He scratches at his thigh. Nervousness. Fear. Good.
Detonator looks straight at Shinn. “You can tell someone is lying by looking into their eyes.” Shinn looks down and Detonator smiles at that score. “Look at me, Shinn.” The man looks up. “I can tell you have a gun in your sock, alright? And I have mine, here. Before you can even move your hand to get it, I can put three bullets into your heart. So, will you tell me the truth, with your lips and with your eyes?”
“Look at me. Yes, relax. Now tell me, this money in the bag — where did I get it from?”
Shinn looks confused. “I don’t know Boss.”
Truth, Detonator sees. He turns to Jobful. “You know you are lucky, not even your boss has seen me before. What’s today’s date?”
“The ninth of March, Sir.”
Always start people on simple truths they can answer and move to the real questions to see how their expressions will differ. “Did Kumar snitch on me?”
“Yes or no?”
The Detonator is thinking, These guys seem to be truthful, when Shinn suddenly moves. “Boss!” He points behind him. Detonator turns to see his captive running from the car, leaving the passenger door open. Shinn takes out his pistol and aims. Detonator grabs his arm. “Leave her alone. She is no threat.”
“But she… I thought you wanted her… dead. I just wanted to make sure she doesn’t run away.”
“Let her go. She’s clever like that. Maybe she can live for now.”
“I can bring her back.”
“I am saying she’s no threat.” He longs to hit this guy on the head. It’s like nothing he’s saying is getting into his stupid skull. “You know what, just go. We are done here.”
“Tell Kumar I will call him. There’s more money in there than he asked for. You can keep it to yourselves.”
The two men look very pleased. “Thank you, Boss”, “Thank you, Sir.” They get into their car, and Detonator can hear them howling in delight like they have just won the jackpot. He gets into his own car and sees them counting the money. He reaches for his jacket on the dashboard and into the right-side pocket. It is empty.
He checks the other pockets. The phone, the earpiece, an old receipt are there. He inspects the dashboard, the glove compartment, the car floor, his jean pockets.
When the realisation hits him, he fists the dashboard. “Ah! Dammit! The girl!” He comes out of the car, bangs on the window of the other car. “Come with me. I must catch the girl.”
“The one who was in your car?” Shinn says.
“Yes, idiot, the one!” He bounds to his car. He screams angry sounds as he thrashes his car around and onto the road. He will kill her. What she has done is worse than what whoever betrayed him to the police did.
Courtesy of Medium