Celebrating East African Writing!
There was a heavy thud as the mangled head of the man who had been shot hit the ground. A car started up and sped off in a spray of gravel. Inside, a man clasped a bloody hand to his chest as he tried to maintain control of the car that was now fishtailing wildly down the slippery gravel track. The bullet he’d fired into his accomplice’s head had ricocheted off the wall and back into his own chest. Bubbly spurts of blood leaked through the fingers of the hand clenched on his chest.
On the passenger seat was a small wooden crate containing three million shillings in cash. The driver’s vision was starring and blurring at the edges. The right side wheels suddenly went into the ditch and the car tried to clamber up the verge. The man twisted the wheel in the opposite direction and the car slithered back into the middle of the road.
Keep it steady, the driver thought. He slowed the car down, there was a junction coming up ahead. His chest felt like it was full of churning oil mixed with hot, ground glass. As the junction loomed up, a spasm of pain, so intense his vision went white, ripped through his chest and he collapsed onto the steering wheel, inadvertently pushing down the throttle with his foot. His vision went black. The dark car, in the fading evening light, sped towards the tarmac road, completely out of control.
The man at the bar was clearly agitated. He was viciously chewing the remains of what looked like a toothpick and tapping the fingers of his right hand on the grimy faux marble counter. He jumped every time a waiter came to place an order at the bar. His glass had at least an inch of cheap Scotch whisky left and the empty bottle stood next to the glass, a testament to the endurance of the human liver. JP was sitting three stools down the bar from Whisky Man, dragging on his cigarette and sipping a beer. He was having a bad day, but he pitied the poor sod up the bar.
JP was waiting for a man named Suez. Courtesy of some diligent work by the Kenya Revenue Authority and the Customs Department, he had lost a cache of used tyres he had illegally imported from South Africa. The tyres had been hidden among bales of used clothing in a shipping container that had made it all the way from Mombasa to the Inland Container Depot at Embakasi when JP’s inside contact for the ruse had decided he wanted more money to facilitate delivery. JP had said no, the tyres had been impounded and some KRA officials were looking for him. The tyres were his ticket to getting out of the ominous debt he owed Hiram, a local crook and politician, who was currently in his plush office waiting for JP to deliver his cash.
Seeing as the tyre deal had lost grip, JP had resorted to putting his car up for sale to raise some of the cash he needed to get Hiram off his back. Hence the meeting with Suez, a fence from Tanzania who had promised 400,000 shillings for the car; ten percent of what JP owed Hiram. JP took another sip of his beer. It was warm and he raised his arm for the bartender for another one. As he tried to catch the man’s attention, he noticed her. She was sitting at the farthest end of the long curving bar, engrossed with her mobile phone, tapping furiously at the keypad. JP took a long look; she was pretty, nice hair, nice top, nice boobs, nice …
“Sema boss.” The bartender stood impassively in front of him. JP asked for a cold Tusker and continued staring at the woman at the end of the bar. She had placed a large leather handbag on the counter and was rifling through the contents with her right hand while still typing something on her phone. A waiter placed a bottle of Smirnoff Ice in front of her. JP sipped at his new beer, it was nicely cold. He glanced at his watch, it was 6.30pm. Suez was half an hour late. The jittery man with the toothpick and whisky suddenly stood up, looked around wildly, downed the last of his drink and shouted, “Fuck it! All of it!” Then he stormed out of the pub. A few patrons laughed. JP shook his head and smiled. You think you have problems, I’ll show you problems.
JP’s phone rang. It was Suez saying he would be late by about twenty minutes. JP relaxed a bit; with the down payment to Hiram, he could hustle for another week or so for the rest of the cash, providing the KRA did not catch up with him first. He looked at the girl again. She was still texting and was already on her third Smirnoff Ice. Maybe I could talk to her, he thought. If I just saunter over there and ask her for her… His phone rang again, a melancholy ring tone he had assigned to Hiram, the devil himself. JP’s heart rate soared.
“You have my money, young man?” Hiram was not one for small talk.
“You’ll have it in an hour,” JP said. “I’ll bring it to your office.”
“You’d better. Your father would be very disappointed in you, you know that, right?”
“Leave the man out of this. It’s between me and you, Hiram. You mention him again and I’ll…”
“What? You’ll what? Listen to me you little boy, I owned your father, just as I now own you. He was shit, now you’re shit. Runs in the family; your bloodline is full of shit. So shut the fuck up and listen to what I am saying to you. Ten pm, you hear? Or you will lose what means the most to you.” Hiram hung up.
JP gripped his beer bottle a bit tighter and stared at the row of bottles behind the bar. There was a mirror there, which for a moment showed the reflection of his father; a haggard face, deeply lined by a life that was, JP realised now, a lie. His father’s sallow eyes looked back at him from behind the bottles that had finally killed him, trying to escape from the miserable realities of his existence.
JP’s father had been a businessman. He got his start from Hiram, a childhood friend who was a criminal from youth, and used it to build up a real estate company. Hiram was the silent partner in the business until he was convicted for money laundering, went into bankruptcy and gaol. Without Hiram’s protection from the government and crooked politicians, JP’s father’s real estate business went into steady decline he lost key government tenders and successive properties to aggressive banks and politically correct individuals. By the time he was dying, all he had left was an insane wife, locked up for life in an asylum in South Africa, a shiftless son and thirty acres of prime land in Karen.
JP glanced at his watch; it was half an hour since he had spoken to Suez. He slid off his bar stool and went to the Gents. The toilet had an acrid ammonia stench. He took a leak and as he rinsed his hands under the feeble flow from the bent tap on the cracked sink, the water pooled up from the drain, bringing with it large chunks of what looked like vomit. Back at the bar, Suez had arrived and was ordering a beer. He saw JP emerge from the loos and his mean scarred face creased into a glistening smile. He grabbed his beer and took up the stool next to JP’s.
“These are the joints you are hanging in nowadays, man?” asked Suez. He was a short man, with a powerful set to his shoulders and long hairy arms. On both the previous occasions they had met, Suez was always smartly dressed in short sleeve shirts, chinos and half boots. Today was no different and JP thought he looked like an urbane chimp.
“You have the cash?” JP asked. Hiram was waiting, and he was an impatient man. Suez sipped his beer slowly. He had also noticed the woman at the end of the bar and was leering at her.
“Cash is there. Where’s the car?”
“Let’s go. I’ll take it, and then I’ll come back here and take her.” Suez jerked a thumb at the woman. She was now staring into space, her right elbow on the bar, a cigarette smouldering between her fingers, the smoke spiralling up in two intertwining spirals. JP thought she was adorable.
JP and Suez pushed through the crowded streets on their way to the multi storey car park where JP’s car was. Behind them, the girl from the bar followed, ducking in between the masses, out of sight. At the car park, Suez walked around the Corolla, scratching his chin like an experienced used car salesman, nodding to himself.
“Stop pretending man. You’re gonna take it, you know you are,” JP said. Suez looked up and smiled, but said nothing.
“Get in,” said Suez. “Why don’t we go for a drive?”
“Why? It’s a piece of shit. You know it is. Gimme the cash and we call it even. It’s getting late and I have a curfew.”
“Get in,” Suez said again. “There are cameras in here,” he said, waving those hairy arms around. “If I give you the cash it’ll look like something fishy.” There was a hard, glint that hadn’t been there before in his eyes.
“Look, if you don’t want the car, fine. I’ll find someone else.” JP turned and started walking towards the stairs. What the hell was this idiot trying to pull? Then his shoulder was yanked backwards and a small hard object was pressing firmly in the small of his back. “Get in the car. We’re going for a drive. Now!”
“What? You’re gonna steal my car now man?” JP was pulling the keys from his pocket. He positioned the long Toyota ignition key between his thumb and index finger. “This is some messed up shit, dude. There really is no honour among…” JP spun suddenly and drove the key into the base of Suez’s neck, next to his right collarbone. It stuck. Suez gave a surprised yelp and dropped the gun as he fell to the floor. JP kicked him hard in the ribs and sprinted down the stairs.
JP slowed to a brisk walk once he hit the street. He walked up the street, looking furtively behind him to see if Suez was following. Then he rounded a corner and bumped into the woman from the bar. “What’s the rush, star?” she asked with a smile. JP stared at her. Her right arm was hidden behind her enormous handbag. “I have a very large pistol here so don’t move. Smile like I’m your long lost friend and we’ve just met.” JP froze. She dialled a number with her left hand and spoke in a language JP couldn’t understand. Shortly, JP’s Corolla pulled up next to them with Suez behind the wheel. The woman motioned towards the car with her free arm.
I’ll show you problems.
JP sat in the back with the woman pointing what was indeed a large automatic at his belly. She reached into his jacket pocket and took his phone.
“Nice move with the keys there,” said Suez. “It would have been too easy otherwise.”
“What the fuck do you want, man? I have no money. And besides, I’ll be dead meat at ten tonight.” JP was riled. What the hell was this asshole up to?
“You have something else I want.”
“Really? What’s that?”
“Same thing Hiram wants. Part of it anyway.”
JP froze. The land in Karen. This freaking idiot wanted his inheritance? Ha-ha! Funny shit. “You will never get that,” he said flatly.
“That’s what you say. I have something for Hiram. I hand you and the stuff over and Hiram gives me fifteen acres of the land. I need to plan my retirement you know. That is a really good area for real estate, I hear.”
“What makes you think he’ll just give it you?” JP asked.
“I’m buying it from him,” Suez said. “Now shut up.”
“What about…” The woman poked JP in the ribs with the gun, silencing him. He looked at her. She smiled at him. “And what does she get?” He was addressing Suez.
“A cut. She’s a businesswoman. In this solely for profit. Now shut up!”
They drove on. The traffic lightened as they left the bustle of the city behind. JP noticed they were headed towards Kiambu. Suez pulled out his phone and dialled a number. He listened for a while then slapped his phone shut.
“Judy, try Ken for me. And that idiot he was with, I forget his name, as well,” said Suez. JP looked at her again as she dialled. Judy, huh? What’s your story? How does a pretty woman like you get mixed up with…
“Both phones just keep ringing. There’s no answer,” she said.
“Looks like your people fucked up,” smirked JP. He had curled up against the window, looking out at the dark countryside flashing past. He couldn’t help the feeling that something had gone terribly wrong here.
“Yeah. Sure. But whatever shit you are planning with Hiram is destined to go south. For you. Take the car, I don’t care. Drop me off at the next petrol station or something and we all go home. What do you say?” JP didn’t want to be part of this mess. He was in enough shit as it was. Suez slowed down and pulled into a small shopping centre and stopped the car.
Suez turned back towards them from the driver’s seat. “Try them again,” he said to the woman. She dialled again and put the phone to her ear with a toss of the head. JP was intrigued. She put the phone down and shook her head at Suez. He grunted and banged the steering wheel with his hand. “I say we go there and check it out,” he said.
“This was not part of the plan,” she replied coolly. “Grab this sucker here, one way or another, meet your friends and get the rest of my cash. That was it.”
“You will be compensated accordingly. Let’s go.”
“What about him?” She motioned at JP with the gun.
“We take him. He has to give Hiram the deed.”
She nodded. Suez started the car and they crept back onto the road. Suez lit a cigarette and turned up the music. They sped up the road towards Kiambu Town. Suez made several turns and they wound up on a deserted tarmac road weaving its solitary way through a plantation. Dark, coffee bush covered hills loomed on one side of the narrow road and plunged into a steep valley on the other. Suez slowed the car to walking pace and dialled a number on his phone. After a few moments, muttering a curse, he hung up. The car crawled forward. Suez doused the headlights and turned from the tarmac into a gravel track leading steeply up into the coffee. He stopped the car in front of a rotting wooden gate hanging precariously on a single hinge.
“Get out,” he said. The woman, Judy, prodded JP with the gun. JP opened his door and stepped stiffly out of the car. The night was freezing cold. A thin mist had begun to creep into the valley, giving the place in an eerie, ethereal feel. JP could not help the feeling that this place was familiar.
JP looked at the road they had just turned off. It was rutted and looked disused, probably because it led nowhere. Just like me, he thought. There was a pair of skid marks cutting across the tarmac right at the junction like someone had braked hard coming out from the gravel track and slid across the road. If they had, they would have gone right off the edge of the drop on the other side. Poor bastards.
Suez pushed the gate open with one hand. The other held a phone to his ear and he was scowling. “Alright,” he said smacking his phone shut. “We go in. Get back in the car. Something went wrong here. The house is empty for another three days so we should have no trouble.”
“House? What house?” asked JP.
“Get in the car! And shut up! In fact, get in the boot. Now!”
“Dude, I’m not going to…,”
Judy fired a round into the soft ground between JP’s feet. The report was outrageously loud in the quiet dark surroundings. Clods of dirt spurted onto JP’s pant legs.
“O-kay,” JP raised his arms. He moved to the rear of the car. Suez got in the driver’s seat and pulled the lever. The boot lid popped and JP stepped in. “This is some bullshit, Suez! Fuck you and the whore you -” Judy kicked him all the way in and slammed the boot shut. The car tore up the hill, its backside slithering in the gravel like a snake.
JP had been carjacked twice before and both times he had been bundled in his own boot. He had come up with an ingenious (he thought) solution to this. He had fixed his boot’s release latch such that it could be opened from the inside. He also kept a torch and a cell phone in the niche where the wheel jack went. After rubbing the spot on his hip where Suez’s gun totting bitch had kicked him, he pulled the bit of wire hanger he had jemmied in the latch. The lid popped, ever so slightly. He held it open so it wouldn’t bump and alert Suez. After about ten minutes, the car screeched to a halt and JP held the boot closed as he heard both front doors open and shut. Feet crunched in gravel, approaching the boot. JP hoped to God they wouldn’t open it. They didn’t. Suez tapped the boot lid and said, “Stay, boy.” Then their whispers and footsteps drew further away as they went off into the night. He waited five minutes then pocketed the torch and phone before slowly raising the boot lid. He saw and heard nothing. He raised it higher and rolled out, falling on the ground with a grunt.
Staying low, JP scuttled into the coffee bushes and keeping parallel with the gravel track, ran back towards the tarmac road. After three minutes, he straightened up, hit the gravel track proper and sprinted down the road. He got to the tarmac, his puffing breath fogging the cold night air. The road, with the skid marks across it, was deserted, no surprise there. A light cool breeze blew from the valley on the other side of the road. JP thought he heard a cough. He stepped into the middle of the road. Might be a leopard, he thought. Wouldn’t want it creeping out of the bushes, now would we? He listened intently, nothing. JP was about to move off when the sound came again. He pulled out his torch and shone it into the bushes, dreading the sight of a reflected glint from some vicious, yellow feline eyes.
JP jumped. The voice was strangled, like the person was in pain. Then he looked at the skid marks again. They looked fresh. An accident! JP scrambled down the steep hillside, the beam from his torch waving erratic patterns over the valley. There were no coffee bushes here, only thick trees and tall, rough grass. A car had smashed into one of the trees, probably a good thing, for it would have tumbled all the way down the hill into the river below. JP rushed for the driver’s door. It was crushed shut. The driver was squeezed between the steering column and his seat, his neck at an impossible angle against the spent, blood soaked airbag. There was a large dent in his forehead. JP figured that moving this guy would probably kill him.
“Help…me,” the guy croaked. JP approached him slowly. The man tried to move.
“No, no! Don’t do that! Let me call…er…,” JP realised that anyone he called would not get here in time.
“Passenger seat!” the man in the car said, gritting his teeth. “Get…me…out of this! Please!”
JP went round the car. The other front door opened easily. The door light came on and he saw the man was holding up a gun with his left hand. JP gave a surprised yell, ducked, rolled on the ground and scampered behind the car, losing his torch in the process. This was quite a day; everyone seemed to be pointing guns at him. He looked around and saw a thick stick on the ground. He went round to the driver’s side. The man inside clearly could not raise the gun to point out of the right hand side window. JP crept low until he was just under the window. He jumped up and brandished the stick.
“I’m trying to help your dumb ass! What are you doing?”
“I want…you to kill me,” the man whispered. “I can’t stand the pain. Please.”
“Take…the gun. Put it to my head and pull the trigger.”
“Dude, I can’t… I mean… No! Lemme get some help. Just, er, hang in there for a bit.”
“No! I have done some bad things. Maybe this is my punishment.” The man coughed, a filmy, bubbly substance dribbled from his lips. “Kill…me. Then take the box on the seat there and…be on your way.” He saw JP hesitation. “Do it! I’ve been here for three hours. Please!”
JP went round the car again. The man dropped the gun on the passenger seat. JP took it, holding it gingerly in his hands. He knew how to use one, courtesy of dad, a long time ago, but this! On the seat was a small wooden crate. A mobile phone lay on the dashboard. As he watched, it lit up, rang thrice, and then stopped.
The man started to laugh. Harsh barks, each guffaw followed by a hacking wretch. “Suez would be… so disappointed,” he said.
“What?” JP jumped. “You know Suez? Were you the guy he was supposed to meet?”
“How do… you… know that?”
JP lifted the box’s lid. He saw tight wads of brownish notes. A lot of them. This was it! Suez was meeting these guys who had probably stolen this money. The money he was going to pay Hiram with. In the box on the seat was the price of JP’s head. He aimed, closed his eyes and squeezed the trigger.
Suez and Judy approached the large dark house cautiously. Suez pulled out his phone and dialled again. “Leave that alone. They’re not here,” Judy hissed. Suez glared at her and then pocketed the phone. They crept across a lawn and pressed themselves up against a wall. They inched along the wall to a window that was hanging open, one of the panes shattered. So they got in, Suez thought. Let’s see whether they got out. He turned to Judy, pointed at the open window and meshed his fingers to form a stirrup. She shook her head furiously. Suez nodded emphatically and scowled at her. She tucked the pistol in her waistband and placed her right foot in his hands. She grabbed the window sill and Suez hoisted. There was a hard thump and a curse as she fell into the dark house and disappeared. After a moment, she stuck her head out of the window. “Ken’s dead. No sign of the other guy.” She hopped out of the window onto the ground.
“Shit! What happened in there?”
“Looks like he was shot in the head. There’s blood all over the kitchen. Double cross?”
“Better not be. I’ll kill that sumbitch! What’s his name again – Chris, something or other.”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t part of this plan, remember? Glad I wasn’t too. How about we get out of here and you give me my cash, huh?”
Bitch! Suez thought. But she was right. He had to find the other guy. He looked at his watch, it was 8.30. From far off in the night, there came a sound like a gunshot.
Suez froze. “What the hell was that?” Judy had the huge pistol ready in her hands. They both dashed back to the car. The open boot told all.
“Find him! Find that piece of shit! Now!” Bits of spittle flew from Suez’s lips as he yelled.
“Do I look like a bloodhound? He could be anywhere by now,” she replied.
“We don’t find him, you don’t get paid,” said Suez flatly. “So shut your ass and let’s go.” He led the way down the gravel track. Judy tucked the gun into her waistband again, shook her head and followed him.
JP ran down the hill. The heavy box made his going awkward. If he tripped and fell here, he would surely break his skull, but he wanted to put as much distance between himself, Suez and Suez’s bitch. He reached the river, actually a small stream that ran from…the dam. JP realised that he’d been here before. A long, long time ago. Hiram owned a coffee estate in Kiambu and JP’s father had brought him here once. He had gone to play by himself at the dam that irrigated Hiram’s coffee. This stream emanated from Hiram’s dam and wound its way down to wherever. If he went upstream, he would be on Hiram’s property. From there he could surely find a main road.
JP set the box on the ground. He flipped it open and stuffed all his pockets with as much of the cash as would fit. He would go pay Hiram what he owed him and then use the rest to disappear for a while. It was more than enough. His watch read 8.56 pm. He had slightly more than an hour. He threw the box and the cash left in it into the bushes and hurried up the valley. A thin drizzle began falling and the mist thickened, blanketing the valley in a soft white nothingness.
“He’s not here! Can we go now? I’m getting soaked.” Judy had been complaining for the last ten minutes as they searched the coffee bushes parallel to the gravel track for JP. They kept moving down the slope and wound up at the tarmac road. Then Suez noticed the skid marks. He looked across the road and realised the grass and small bushes had been forced out of the way recently. A vehicle must have gone over the side. He went over and peered into the valley below. Sure enough, almost hidden by the low mist, a car smashed against a tree was just below him. He dashed down the slope.
Judy was pissed. She hadn’t signed up to search for wayward youth in cold coffee plantations in darkness. She was about to yell to Suez that she was going to get the car when he shouted for her to come down the slope.
“So this is what happened to the other guy,” said Suez in disgust as she stumbled down to him. She took in the bloody, ruined head of the man in the driver’s seat. There was blood and sticky bits of bone on the airbag.
“This must have been the shot we heard,” said Judy. “He was still alive. I think the kid did it.”
Suez hustled round the car to the open front passenger door. He angrily pulled the dead driver out of the car, cursing at the mess the contents of the man’s opened skull made as they splashed all over the front seats. Then, kneeling on the passenger seat and muttering curses in Nyamwezi, he rifled through the door pockets and the glove compartment, the cubby holes and even the ashtray. There was nothing. An ugly scowl spread across his face and his movements got jerky. A small tic began pulsing under his left eye. He reached across the driver’s seat and pulled the boot release lever. He backed out of the car, his chinos covered in thick blood. “Open the boot, see if there is anything there,” he told Judy. She looked at him once and turned to the rear of the car. She opened the boot, which only held a jack and a flat spare wheel.